How to Die in Oregon isn’t an easy film to watch. Peter D. Richardson’s documentary focuses not on the legal or philosophical issues and ramifications of Oregon’s Death with Dignity act, but on the personal stories of people who have chosen to use the option the act gives them. Or, to be more specific, they’ve chosen the possibility, the measure of control afforded by having in hand a prescription for life-ending medication. The result isn’t a balanced, political film, but it isn’t trying to be. It’s an incredibly affecting look at the realities of fatal illness, failing bodies and the question of how much power we have over our own fates.
Much of Richardson’s film follows Cody Curtis, a Portland woman with liver cancer. Curtis is an attractive, energetic 54-year-old; she hardly seems sick as she cracks jokes and works to put everyone around her at ease. Curtis wants to live, but she wants to live on her own terms, and her struggle with her illness weaves around the film’s other stories, including that of Nancy Niedzielski, who fought to get a similar law passed in Washington after watching her husband suffer from brain cancer.
How to Die in Oregon doesn’t flinch. It opens with home video footage of Roger Sagner as he ends his life — a video Richardson later explained was shot by Sagner’s granddaughter. It was a conscious choice, the director said, to put this scene at the beginning of the film, so that Oregon wouldn’t build to a will-she-or-won’t-she dramatic peak or force you to wonder whether you’ll see anyone take the lethal prescription dose. It’s right there at the front, but gently. Richardson’s approach to the film’s close is as gentle. He doesn’t back away from the realities of Curtis’ illness, whether it’s filming as fluid is drained from her abdomen or keeping the camera running when she finally breaks down in tears. But Oregon never feels manipulative or pushy; instead, it’s respectful and cautious, painstakingly careful to avoid an exploitative or sensationalized tone. Even the sentimental score, which at first feels slightly intrusive and insistent, begins to feel comforting by the end. You need an iota of comfort in a film like this.
Richardson has little time for those who are opposed to the Death with Dignity act, though he does interview Randy Stroup, a man angered by the Oregon Health Plan’s decision to cover a prescription for a drug that would end his life, but deny him coverage for cancer treatment. (The decision was later reversed.) This isn’t a measured consideration of what the law allows and why people are opposed to or in favor of that, but an exploration of what "Death with Dignity" really means to those who choose it. It’s clear that many people are still working out exactly what it means to allow people to take their own lives. The lines aren’t clear, the emotions unpracticed: What is sad, tragic, relieving, freeing, kind, honest, horrible, difficult, understandable in these situations? How does anyone come to terms with the reality of an illness that would make a person rather exit their life?
Richardson's film, which airs on HBO later this spring, won the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Documentary Competition at Sundance. At SXSW, it provoked more audience questions than any other film I’ve seen at the festival, and inspired SXSW Film producer Janet Pierson to speak about how strongly she felt about showing the film. It leaves an audience a little shell-shocked and is likely to anger those who are opposed to the act, but Oregon doesn’t present its subjects’ stories in a manner meant to convince. The stories are true, and the honesty is an argument in itself. It's also an inspiration. For a film about death, How to Die in Oregon is awfully life-affirming.
Greetings from Austin, earthlings. I have been here for four days (five? four? five) and have lost all sense of time and perspective. It’s what happens at South By Southwest — enjoyably (for the most part). You get lost in a sea of free drinks, companies trying to convince you that their apps are going to save the world, inspiring speakers, swooning geeklets bringing Felicia Day cupcakes because she said she likes them, drunk guys on Sixth Street trying not to barf in the gutter, amusing movie screenings filled with nerds who chortle at every reference to their beloved nerd culture (guilty as charged), presentations that might actually help with your personal productivity issues, insight on everything from adapting comics for the big screen to the consistent need for authenticity from creators — and the discovery that Fireball Whiskey makes a whiskey and ginger ale taste like liquid Red Hots (with apologies to my elegant-cocktail-mixing bartender friends: this shit is kind of delicious).
If you see a theme there involving drinks, well, SXSW does this thing where we all pack into the convention center by day, learning and listening and, say, developing elaborate arguments about why the gamification (gameification? It’s a made-up word either way) of the world is just another way to keep the people down — and then 6 pm rolls around and the panels wind down and the parties start. And by 10 pm you wonder how anyone is functional the next day. Foursquare calls you a panel nerd for going to three panels and suggests you go to bars to avoid being thrown in a locker. You can get a Guinness milkshake at your arty movie screening. (You can also fall asleep at your arty movie screening. Perhaps the couches at the Ritz are not the best idea for a tired festivalgoer.)
It’s debauchery and inspiration in nearly equal parts, with a side order of aggravation. And I love it. In the next week or so, I’ll be posting film reviews, music round-ups and more. Possibly a rant or two (I’ve got a few issues with the notion that, to quote Christopher Poole, “Anonymity is authenticity”). So far, the theme of this year’s SXSW (as I’ve experienced it) is twofold:
According to the nerds in the know, we’re moving from the decade of communication to the decade of games, the game layer, gamification, game mechanics, etc. More on this later. Short version: I’m wary of the notion of shifting from a culture of communication (as evidenced by Facebook and other social networks) to a culture of competition and think we need a good old Jaron Lanier-style hard look at what exactly this means. Maybe that’ll happen next year.
Meanwhile, is there something you’d do if you were in Austin? A show or a film you wouldn’t miss? I’m happily taking suggestions for how to spend the rest of my time here. Leave ‘em in the comments, or email molly at eugeneweekly dot com.
(Lest you think it's all fun and games and booze while the world ends, there's also SXSW4Japan.org.)
The ’80s couldn’t possibly have been this cozy. Skateland, Anthony Burns’ 1983-set coming of age story, is warm, welcoming and seen through a high gloss of nostalgia. The gorgeous light and loving cinematography say more about how Burns and company feel about the decade than any number of goofy, throwaway lines about how hot the cars (and the high-waisted jeans) were.
Skateland wears its John-Hughes-loving heart firmly on its sleeve even before the words “in memory of John Hughes” pop up at the beginning of the credits. Burns uses the sentimental value of pop songs like a true Hughes devotee; his female characters are perceptive and loyal in a way that suggests the influence of Watts and Amanda Jones from the Hughes-penned Some Kind of Wonderful.
But Skateland is no John Hughes movie. (Keep reading...)
I would be wary of too highly praising the low-key and charming Cold Weather were it not for one thing: I went into the movie with what might've been, in another film, an unfairly high level of anticipation. A critic whose opinion I generally hold in high regard, L.A. Weekly’s Karina Longworth, called it the first unqualified hit of SXSW.
So I had expectations. And I’m glad I had time to sit with my thoughts about the film, to lets its damp windows and dingy motel drift through my mind as I walked around Austin, or sat on a plane on the way home, or stared out the window, dotted with rain just like the one in the film’s opening scene. Aaron Katz’s third film is confident — so much so that its ending feels like a shock. At first.
Cold Weather is a perfect depiction of a certain kind of aimlessness, the kind that comes not from lack of talent, or lack of skill, but lack of impetus. Its main character, Doug (Cris Lankenau), carries his lack of direction in his posture, slump-shouldered and stiff-armed. He’s ditched a degree in forensic science to move in with his sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), in a Portland apartment full of unopened boxes and half-built Ikea coffee tables. She works in an office; he gets a job in an ice factory, where he makes friends with Carlos (Raúl Castillo), who doesn’t believe that Doug loves Sherlock Holmes novels. Doug, in turn, doesn’t really believe Carlos is a DJ. Everyone’s expectations of everyone else are as fogged as rain-streaked glass.
When Doug’s ex, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), turns up, the film shifts, but it’s not a love triangle. It becomes, swiftly and delightfully, a mystery like the ones Doug so loves to read. And he becomes a detective, poring over books on cryptography and lifting penciled codes from a notepad. The library is his biggest toolbox, Gail his best assistant; she’s as reluctantly game for Doug’s detective efforts as she is, earlier in the film, to play hooky for a day and go to the overcast Oregon coast (I’m not sure it’s ever actually sunny in this film. Not raining, sure. But sunny? I can’t recall a bright scene). Their efforts are goofy, sweet, absurd and effective, and have the added effect of making TV detectives, with their fitted suits and terse dialogue, seem patently ridiculous.
Cold Weather is Katz’s third feature to premiere at SXSW. His earlier films — which I’ve yet to see — stir people to reference mumblecore, and I can see the connection in the natural, meandering conversations of his characters, in their ordinary jobs and perfectly individual, perfectly ordinary apartments, jackets, heavy wool sweaters. But Cold Weather is more formally lovely than any mumblecore film I’ve yet seen (and I do have a modest taste for the genre, if you can really call it that). Its cool Oregon light is perfect; its framing is precise; its dialogue is crisply convincing, dryly funny (Doug, fixated on his quest, decides he must have a pipe; his shopping experience does not go as expected) and perfectly balanced, revealing without ever leaving the characters to explain too much. So much is caught in the physical, in the stolen sip of coffee Longworth mentions in her review, or in the body language of Gail and Doug as they hunch over a bar or lean over the ledge of their apartment building’s roof, dropping grapes and watching them splatter. Theirs is a slightly contentious, ever impatient sibling revelry, smartly observed and elegantly depicted in Katz’s compact, playfully moody film. I hope you get to see it.
I’m not the world’s biggest Motörhead fan, but even I can’t even see the name “Lemmy” without seeing that creased brow and hearing “The ace of spades! The ace of spades!” in my head. Motörhead is universal; Motörhead is monumental. Motörhead’s Lemmy is as deserving of a documentary as any musician who’s been doing his thing for more than 30 loud years.
The list of musicians who appear in Lemmy to praise — and tell incredible stories about — the man born Ian Fraser Kilmister is in itself the story of the influence of Motörhead: The members of Metallica. Scott Ian from Anthrax. Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx, whose band clearly didn’t think up umlaut abuse on their own. Joan Jett. Dave Grohl, who records a track with Lemmy and relates a highly amusing anecdote involving Lemmy’s supposed feud with the singer from The Darkness. Billy Bob Thornton. Ozzy Osbourne (Lemmy wrote the lyrics to “Mama I’m Comin’ Home”). Henry Rollins. Alice Cooper. Slash. Jarvis Cocker.
Lemmy is a fascinating, slightly overlong, almost-warts-and-all documentary about Motörhead’s bassist/lead singer and easily best-known member, he of the long hair, intense facial hair, Johnny-Cash-gone-punk all-black uniform and unforgettable, tattered voice. Lemmy is in his 60s and still plays with Motörhead. He sits at the Rainbow Room, on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, playing trivia on the Megatouch and drinking Jack & Cokes. Fans, unsuspecting, are in awe when they see him at the end of the bar. There is no mistaking Lemmy for anyone else. When Lemmy can’t find what he wants in L.A.’s Amoeba Music — the Beatles mono box set — the owner gives him her personal copy. People love this man, as Lemmy demonstrates, warmly and entertainingly, again and again.
Have you read any Magnus Mills? No, there won’t be a test. But if you’ve read the Scottish author's wonderful The Restraint of Beasts or peculiar All Quiet on the Orient Express, and if you can think of the peculiar sort of existence the men in his novels have — their work repetitive and disconcerting work, their goals as arbitrary as anything, their situations just a little off — you may find it easier to sink into the out-of-time, mildly surreal, darkly funny world of Skeletons.
Nick Whitfield’s movie has a horror-film name but is nothing of the sort. In it, two men, one tall and red-haired, one short and slumped, walk across the English countryside. They carry briefcases. They argue, amusingly, about esoteric minutiae (one long-running discussion is about Rasputin’s morality). Their working relationship — long-running, familiar, antagonistic — is as clear as their job is initially perplexing. Why suits? Why do they travel only on foot? Where are they exactly?
Whitfield takes his time with the details, but the spare atmosphere and lonesome framing set the tone: offbeat, anachronistic, intimate. The men visit strangers, ask them to sign elaborate forms, and then perform a procedure. How it works is irrelevant, though a fire extinguisher and a pair of shiny rocks are involved; what it uncovers gives the film its name.
People, mostly couples, request the procedure as a sign of commitment or, in one case, as one more step in a long line of attempts to get closer — attempts that come off like a kind of work all their own. People make themselves busy; people push themselves apart. They use a search for answers as a way to ignore the questions: How did we get here? Why are we like this?
Davis (Ed Gaughan) and Bennett (Andrew Buckley) can only give evidence, not answer questions. “It’s simple, this job,” Davis says. “Stick to the rules, tell them everything, leave and never come back.” But in his free time, Davis, the shorter, sterner of the two, has a secret and lives in a boat in the middle of nowhere. Bennett, taller, bespectacled, is a softie, always pushing at the rules that keep him distant from those who hire him.
Their next job is different. In a thin, fey forest near a lovely old home, a woman (Paprika Steen) digs, looking for her lost husband. Her small son latches on to Bennet as a paternal stand-in. Her daughter, Rebecca, a beautiful, elfin twentysomething (the improbably named Tuppence Middleton), doesn’t speak, though she makes her fierce disinterest in her mother's quest quite clear.
Whitfield’s debut feature (adapted from an earlier short) wobbles a little when it finds its main narrative thread. It’s not that the beats aren’t honest, or that the reveals are necessarily too predictable, but that the film’s beguilingly immediate beginning — no lead-in, no warmup, no introductions, just this, here, now — is at the heart of its winning, odd effectiveness. The fields and forests (the film is rich in greens) through which Davis and Bennett walk are lovely, pastoral and nondescript; their clients could be anyone; their lives could contain nothing but this. The lack of anchors, the way Whitfield never bounds his characters’ existences with biography, gives Skeletons the resonance of a short story that contains an entire life, painted on a tiny canvas but composed of vital details that tell all the important truths.
It’s about time Rhys Ifans — probably still best known as Hugh Grant’s peculiar roommate in Notting Hill — got himself a big, juicy whopper of a leading role. Unfortunately, this isn’t it. Mr. Nice, based on the true story of Welsh drug dealer and jack of many trades Howard Marks, starts out relatively strong, even carrying the absurdity of Ifans playing a high schooler. An ordinary kid who’s ecstatic to get into Oxford, Howard quickly discovers drugs (the film lights up with color as he takes his first toke) and, over the decades, becomes — somewhat accidentally — a wealthy drug runner with ties to both MI-6 and the IRA.
The latter is represented by David Thewlis, wild-haired and crazy-eyed as Jim McCann, who helps Marks get drugs into the U.K. after driving them in from continental Europe gets too dangerous. In L.A., Marks works with a bewigged, twitchy Crispin Glover; elsewhere, he deals with the manically unstable McCann; occasionally, as the years pass, he even spends some time with his wife, Judy (Chloe Sevigny), and children. Marks gets busted, gets out of trouble, lives a comfortable life and finds it boring, and eventually finds himself in even deeper shit than ever.
Part of the problem with Mr. Nice — which takes its name from one of Marks' many pseudonyms — is that the endless sequences of Marks and company moving, packing, hiding or hiding drugs lead to a muddled, disconnected narrative that lacks emotional impact. There’s a more streamlined story in there somewhere, but writer-director-cinematographer-editor Bernard Rose (Immortal Beloved) hasn’t quite found it.
Alan Tudyk and Taylor Labine in Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
Winner, SXSW Midnighters Audience Award
Eli Craig's feature debut, which showed in perfectly appropriate midnight screenings at SXSW, is a fairly low-budget hillbilly slasher comedy packed with almost gentle send-ups of horror clichés. I loved it a little bit. Maybe more than a little bit.
Perhaps you want to know a little more than that.
Tucker and Dale stars Alan Tudyk — Joss Whedon regular, funny guy, the reason the movie caught my eye — and Tyler Labine (Reaper) as a pair of down-home, PBR-swilling, dirty-coverall-wearing good buddies who are totally stoked to spend the weekend at Tucker’s new vacation home, a fixer-upper in the woods. Naturally, some nubile college students are headed ... to the same part of the woods!
Craig (who co-wrote the screenplay with Morgan Jurgenson) starts doling out the clichés even before the two camps cross paths. The college kids are cocky, privileged, fresh-faced and mostly dumb if not borderline vicious; the country fellows are good-hearted and well-intentioned and misunderstood. Dale (Labine), desperate to talk to one of the cute blondes, tries to give it a shot, only to wind up looking like a logger angel of death. The sheriff is creepy. The fixer-upper looks like a set left over from a horror movie, but Tucker and Dale love it; it’s their vacation home! Time to get to work!
Meanwhile, the dicktastic leader of the college pack, Chad (Jesse Moss), spins a classic campfire tale: Twenty years ago on this very day, a group of campers at the same spot met a terrible fate. Murder! Mayhem! Only his mother escaped.
A likely story. (Keep reading...)