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Outside the restricted area to the east of Congress Street there are several theaters that are part of the film festival; unfortunately, only one is within walking distance. There was supposed to have been a shuttle bus between the Convention Center and the Alamo Lamar multiplex, but whenever I took a look, it wasn’t there.
A couple of others were miles and miles away, and didn’t have the promise of a shuttle bus, so I ignored them. That left the Violet Crown Cinema (434 W. 2nd St) -- a tiny venue with four microscopic screening rooms and a concession stand six blocks west of the Convention Center.
I had an express ticket for a documentary on the history of Sunset Strip in LA, which is going to celebrate its centennial this year, so getting there a half an hour early was clearly an option. However, when I got there, I was told that the theater was full. But it wasn’t.
They had decided that the line was long enough, and even though I was supposed to be able to cut in the front of the line, they decided it wouldn’t be very nice to the people who had gotten there earlier. However, they did put me first on the waiting list. After stewing a while (I waited a hell of a long time early in the morning to get the damn thing) I was told there were a few free seats, and on getting in, I was shocked to discover the place slightly more than half full.
I hate when that happens.
Hans Fjellestad’s Sunset Strip is a straightforward history of what for the most part is Los Angeles’ main drag, from it’s beginnings as a glorified cowpath a century ago, through it’s glory days in the 1930s through the ‘50s, and it’s brief decline and revival in the mid ‘60s and various declines and revivals since. The interviews get more and more diverse as the filmmaker manages to find more people who aren’t dead. Still we learn lots about places like the Garden of Allah (who was an actress, not the Muslim God) and the "House of Francis," the classiest brothel in all California, before going on to places like Ciro’s and it’s successor, the Comedy Cellar.
With a cast that encompasses all Hollywood in all its eras, this film cannot help but fascinate. The closing credits recapitulate the entire film in animation, which is almost as good as the rest of the film.
The South by Southwest Film Festival and Interactive and Music Conferences (SxSW), is now in its final phase. The interactive section is over, and that means the film section has been kicked out of most of its non-theatrical venues, hanging on like a ghost for the better part of a week. The awards have been given (I didn’t see any of them) already thus disqualifying a few dozen films from getting one.
That’s why I’m not there anymore. I was there for a week in Austin mostly in a small area between I-35 and Congress Avenue east and west and Second and Seventh north and south, where 80% of the screenings were.
The DVD library, which was supposed to be open the entire time, was closed, dammit!!! I couldn’t even see a few shorts the last day.
It was a sad ending to what, in fact, was a pretty good festival. I saw about 15 films during my stay there, ate lots of free food, and got into one pane (more on that later). Generally par for the course…
One of the big problems was one of my own making, I booked my hotel a bit late, and there was nothing in my price range anywhere nearby, so I had to stay at a Motel 6 about eight miles from downtown, fortunately, there was a bus stop a few blocks away, so if I got out of bed at the right time, I could actually get right there without waiting for the better part of an hour something that happened once. I was luckier most of the other days.
Most of action is supposed to be at the Convention Center, on 4th and Natches, where you get tickets for pretty much everything, they have a two day trade show, and a whole bunch of …hell it’s a con, and that means there’s plenty of panels and such on techie stuff.
It was here a few years back that they announced the invention of Twitter, and there was all sorts of people giving out advertising swag for apps of every kind. But I wasn’t all that interested in that, I was there for the movies, and to some extent the music.
The film section had about a hundred and thirty movies, most of which were features. For some reason my schedule forced me to concentrate on documentaries, and of which there were all kinds. From the history of the Sunset Strip, to tributes to dead ventriloquists to whatever happened to the legendary Paul Williams.
On the scripted side, there were the usual Indies plus a few studio films that somehow missed a proper release or were sidetracked and spent years on shelves before being finished. There was also 21 Jump Street. We’ll get to all that later.
I didn’t manage to see any of the shorts this time out. There just wasn’t time.
My schedule was simple: Get up. Spend 40 minutes to get downtown, Free food, check emails, more free food, a screening, more free food, another screening. More free food, yet another screening, and maybe a screening after that before getting back on the bus for the 40 minute ride home. It works.
Film festivals are all about documentaries. This is where most docs are shown theatrically before winding up on television or a shelf somewhere.
At this year's Tribeca Film Festival, there was a panel about how activist groups can use documentaries as visual aids to promote their causes, and I was surprised as to how bitter they were at those who they were supporting as the charities involved thought that said films were a free donation and all that money spent on production was a gift to THEM!!
The question of how these things make money is an interesting one, and someone will have to discuss it in greater detail, but we’re not going to do it here, mainly because those aren’t the only genre of docs playing in Tribeca, and the others are the ones that dominate the festival.
Docs can be shelved into different genre, as are scripted films. There’s advocacy (propaganda), which highlights a particular political point of view, or is a plea for “justice”, then there’s pure entertainment, which is a concert film or following a diva around while using clips from his/her previous showbiz appearances.
Then there’s real journalism, which can be advocacy or it can be just documenting an event because it’s interesting. This year’s Tribeca has a fair complement of all of them, most of which I didn’t see…
Concerts and Entertainment:
Carol Channing: Larger Than Life: Director Dori Berinstein -- who has done some other docs on show business -- follows the 90-year-old diva as she goes around her daily grind with her second husband (and high school sweetheart) and intersperses this with clips from her extremely long career. She never hit the top of the top, and her two signature Broadway roles were given to others when the movie versions were made, but , even though her first husband was a royal shit, Bernstein shows that Channing has had a pretty much wonderful life, and the subject knows it.
This is fun for fun’s sake and fans are going to love it.
The Union: Rock star singer/songwriter Elton John decided to make an album with semi-retired rock hero Leon Russell. and asked director Cameron Crowe to document it. Since the recording process is mostly boring, there are lots of clips from both John and Russell in their glory days, and while almost no songs are seen done to completion, the music is pretty good.
Semper Fi: Always Faithful: Directors Tony Hardmon and Rachel Libert discovered a major scandal involving toxic waste, the Marine Corps, and Camp LeJune, so they decided to do something about it. So they found the leader of the movement to do so, retired Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger, and got him and his associate to let them document their work. It’s quite compelling.
Give Up Tomorrow: Back in 1997, Paco Larrañaga was arrested for a double murder he didn’t commit, could prove he was nowhere near the crime scene, and was convicted anyway in an obvious travesty of a trial that was heavily publicized. Since this was the Philippines’ version of the OJ trial, there’s plenty of video footage lying around. An attack on the Filipino justice system and a call for this guy to be let out of jail, it doesn’t have a happy ending. But this cry for help should embarrass the right people -- at least I hope so.
Koran By Heart: Documentarian Greg Barker covers the World Koranic recitation competition in Cairo, Egypt. This is sort of like an Islamic spelling bee except far more rigorous. The kids highlighted are cute and they try not to keep it totally boring.
Gnarr: Face it, elections are sports, and Icelandic comedian Jon Gnarr decided to satirize local politics by forming his own party and running for Mayor of Reykjavík, But the joke was on him. He had to give up his job and actually become Mayor of Reykjavík. How this happened is an interesting story, and if it hadn’t actually happened, it would have seemed totally bogus. So it’s a fun flick.
There wasn’t a wealth of horror flicks at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, but several of the ones they did have was choice. There were four memorable ones, two which were really good; one which was really mediocre; and one of which was really bad. Here they are in their order of quality:
Trollhunter: This film seems to have been based on an offhand remark by Norway’s Prime Minister (shown at the end of the film) a few years back. Though traditionally a mythical beast, the Troll is treated here as real and this fact is covered up by the government (why is never properly explained) for the safety of the people. For some reason this is the way it always works -- but I don’t know why.
For years people have been looking for a perfect sequel to the Blair Witch Project and, finally, this is it. A trio of wanna-be documentarians manage to get one of Norway’s wildlife management specialists to allow them to film him on his rounds around the Arctic parts of the country, which for the most part consists of culling the troll population that isn’t inside the conservation area. This requires some excellent special effects in an otherwise cheaply made film, and writer/director André Øvredal manages to make everything seamless. It’s riveting!
Saint: Directed and written by Dick Maas, this is a cultural treat for the Dutch, who have a different set of holidays and a different version of Santa Claus. This is the original version, where St. Nick is dressed in his bishop garb instead of the American red & white suit. Within the set-up of the film, he’s more understandably evil, and the faux myth works really well. The characters are your typical hero/victims for this genre of flick, and the fact that they’re Dutch and not Californian is a breath of fresh air. It’s about time they did a decent movie set in Amsterdam, and best of all, all the jokes work!
Rabies: Directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s send up of American slasher films would be considered racist if Israeli jews hadn’t done it. The conceit here is that there is a serial killer, but he’s not responsible for 90% of the mayhem. It tries to be funny and ironic, but the characters are all too unlikeable for anyone to really care one way or the other what happens to them. The jokes, and there are lots of them, for the most part work, but not all that well. Which means that it’s not horrible.
Beyond the Black Rainbow: This piece of garbage has one interesting thing that makes it watchable: The conceit that the future is over. The film takes place in the 1980s, but not our 1980s. There’s this bizarre woman being held captive by a group of futuristic scientists studying extreme hedonism’s effect on the human psyche. The set looks like it’s the ‘80s imagined in the ‘60s (except some rubes in the woods). The thing makes little sense. There’s a flashback that takes place in the 1960s that is even more futuristic looking and makes even less sense. This one was awful. FEH!
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