Daily | SXSW 2014 Diary #1

Other Months

‘Other Months’

A panel here, a meeting there, coffee with an old friend, and pretty soon, you’re scrambling for time to actually watch a movie. Having been shut out of just one so far—even the rain won’t keep the crowds from thronging SXSW screenings—I’ve caught three. Winner of the Award of the Conféderation Internationale des Cinémas D’Art et Essai in Berlin, Anja Marquardt’s She’s Lost Control (SXSW) screens later this month at New Directors/New Films in New York, and I’ll humbly toss my own recommendation onto the pile.

In a dispatch to Sight & Sound, Carmen Gray brushes the film off far too easily, arguing that She’s Lost Control “condemns a sexual surrogate—a prostitute who works with a psychotherapist to help men overcome intimacy issues—through the same old cause-and-effect formula.” On the one hand, yes, as the title alerts us right from the top, at least one life will unravel, but on the other, there’s nothing “same” or “old” about the respect Marquardt shows for sexual surrogacy as a potentially effective form of therapy.

As Ronah, Brooke Bloom is immediately arresting but her grip is firm and enduring as she conducts her lessons in intimacy with surprising confidence and invention. For a while, she’s winning. Then comes the new client, Johnny (Marc Menchaca), the inevitable hard nut to crack. For the Hollywood Reporter‘s David Rooney, “though it generates few surprises, the movie’s sobriety gives way to an eruption of violence that’s more chilling for being played largely off-camera. It also scores points for stopping short of tragedy.”

Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn: “With Brooke Bloom’s central performance giving the movie its dramatic anchor, She’s Lost Control strikes a fascinating mood between slow-building angst and cold remove not unlike the Joy Division song that provides its title.”

Cinematographer Justin Zweifach is the true breakout star of Other Months (SXSW), the debut feature by Nick Singer featuring Christopher Bonewitz as Nash, whiling away his time (and earning respectable bucks) as a plumber now that he’s turned in his thesis, a collection of short stories. One of these stories describes an epiphany Nash experienced some months back when confronted with the essential chaotic nature of life, the universe and everything.

The structure of Other Months isn’t exactly chaotic but it does reflect the episodic sequencing of the film’s making. Singer would gather his cast and crew to shoot the scenes they had the resources to realize, and then head off to gather more resources. Which, of course, takes months. Naturally, a few of these passages are stronger than others; one in particular stands out, referred to by the film’s composer, noted Singer during the post-screening Q&A, as “a symphony of urban isolation.” Bonewitz’s bravery here recalls the meltdown Martin Sheen underwent for the opening of Apocalypse Now.

Nash doesn’t get terribly far in his quest for a sense of belonging, but the possibilities are practically endless for the exhilaratingly talented Zweifach.

“There’s something about her presence—a low-lidded ingenue dreaminess that masks a volcanic, self-destructive temperament—that’s so unmistakably authentic, so true in its youthful vulnerability and raging confusion, you wonder how there was a time the movies didn’t have it before.” That’s Kevin B. Lee, introducing his video last September, “The Soundless Fury of Kate Lyn Sheil.” And once again, in Zach Wigon’s The Heart Machine (SXSW), those eyes, mighty magnets for yours, exude all and nothing at all. As Virginia Wagner, first seen via Skype, she’s there and yet not there for Cody (John Gallagher, Jr.), who believes he’s fallen for his one true soulmate—who’s just begun a six-month residency in Berlin.

But is she actually in Berlin? The probability is whittled away fairly quickly in the first few sequences, so it’s hardly a spoiler for me to note that Cody suspects Virginia is living just a few NYC subway stops away. There’s a healthy dash of comedy in his detective work, but tone darkens, shade by shade, as his mission turns from discovering, or rather, confirming her whereabouts to… what, exactly? Just what it is he’ll do when he gets his IRL face in front of hers is the mystery that drives us across the narrative arc. Fortunately, the detours into the perfunctory commentary on the hollowness of Blendr’d encounters fail to distract.

“A thoughtful, emotionally tricky debut benefitting from two strong lead performances,” finds the Hollywood Reporter‘s John DeFore. At the Playlist, Rodrigo Perez gives The Heart Machine a B.

Updates, 3/29: For Beth Hanna, writing at Thompson on Hollywood, “Sheil stands out not because she ‘kills’ the performance—it’s not a big, showy turn—but rather because she underplays it. It’s a difficult, somewhat inscrutable role—and, alas, female characters who make murky choices typically throw viewers for a loop—but as I watched her I felt like I knew that person she was playing. This isn’t easy to do.”

Wigon “is largely successful in crafting a Conversation-like thriller of irrational obsession out of the knotted intricacies of online dating and hookup apps,” writes Variety‘s Andrew Barker. “A former film critic, Wigon has clearly spent some serious time studying the tricks of the masters, and he shows precocious instincts for shot composition and one-take suspense sequences.”

The Heart Machine explores an interesting case study about tech-dating,” grants Neha Aziz in the Austin Chronicle, “but it doesn’t quite get where you want it to. When Virginia’s story begins to unfold, this reviewer couldn’t help but find the results a little lackluster. That being said, the film still has a deeply compelling storyline and solid performances from Gallagher and Sheil.”

Interviews with Wigon, Gallagher and Sheil: Scott Macaulay (Filmmaker) and Kristin McCracken (Indiewire).

Update, 4/10: Susanna Locascio has a good long talk with Wigon for Hammer to Nail.

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