Molly Templeton is the arts and music editor for Eugene Weekly.
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.
The first day of SXSW's music track was also St. Patrick's Day. Whether this made a difference in anything but the amount of green seen on Sixth Street, the festival's main drag, I'm not quite sure; the street overflows with drunken revelers every night of SXSW. Before long, however, the main topic of discussion was a bit more somber: By that night, the news was out that Big Star's Alex Chilton had passed away. The Big Star show scheduled for Saturday night would go on as a tribute and memorial. But there were plenty of other things to do before then.
Miles Kurosky @ Red Eyed Fly [unofficial day show] If the name Miles Kurosky means nothing to you, I’m sorry. I’m sorry because that means you missed out on the bittersweetly joyous jangle of Beulah, the late-‘90s/early-‘00s band for which Kurosky was the singer. Despite it being the middle of the afternoon and there being more people onstage than seemed comfortable, a slightly nervous-looking Kurosky made new fans and charmed the old with a mix of songs from his new solo record — and a few much-missed Beulah favorites. I’ve never been more happy to see a trumpet player as when Kurosky, muttering something about how they had a trumpet player, they might as well use him, broke into “Emma Blowgun’s Last Stand.”
Goodness knows, it’s been a wonderful run...
I’ve not had a chance to listen to the new record but what I heard in Austin was just what I wanted to hear: Kurosky’s perfectly ordinary voice still blends with bright guitars and, yes, trumpets — among other things — as timelessly as it ever has. This guy makes songs that could fit on a mix-tape from any era in my life. There’s a magic that happens when the usual rock lineup transforms through superb songwriting into something so expansive. Go back and listen to When Your Heartstrings Break. You won’t be disappointed.
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.
Portland's Animal Farm played an afternoon show — one of several performances they had over the week — at the Texas Rockfest, a free event set up in a parking lot just off the main drag. It was a well run — two stages meant there was very little downtime between bands — if slightly odd space, home also to a handful of seemingly miscellaneous booths (one of which boasted a giant banner reading I [HEART] VAGINA).
One in the afternoon can be a rough time to go on under any circumstances, but perhaps even more so here, where shows run until 2 am and then start back up again with day parties (often with free beer) at 11 am. But despite a lackluster audience, Animal Farm put on a determined and energetic show. I've got a lot of respect for performers who play to a small crowd with the same level of commitment you'd expect them to bring to a larger, fuller venue, and these guys — with their smart beats, clever wordplay and abundance of enthusiasm — definitely pulled that off.
(Note: I'm labeling the unofficial, non-booked-by-SXSW day shows SXSW just like the official evening shows; they may not be part of the festival, but to the music fan in Austin for the weekend, it's pretty much all just part of the South By experience.)
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...)
Matt McCormick’s first feature-length film is a pensive character piece with a perfectly Portland heart — something that’s easy to say and harder to explain. Some Days Are Better Than Others is a three-pronged, subtle narrative about disconnection, loneliness and slow, quiet change; the SXSW film booklet says it “asks why the good times slip by so fast while the hard times always seem so sticky.”
In unremarkable corners of Portland, three characters drift: a soft-hearted animal-shelter employee (Carrie Brownstein) spends more time making Real World audition tapes than she does talking to people; a woman (Renee Roman Nose) sorts donations at a thrift store, where ordinary and unusual cast-offs from strangers’ lives pass through her hands; a scruffy slacker (The Shins' James Mercer) makes a living working odd and short-lived temp jobs, breaking up his days with visits to his step-grandfather (David Wodehouse), who makes art films consisting entirely of close-ups of soap bubbles.
These lives overlap, but in a compact, small-world way. McCormick’s eye for the small things that change a day, or a life, is sharp and compassionate; he finds the moments that initially seem unremarkable and follows them until they gradually transform into something greater. Amid the narrative strands of his melancholy film are transitional shots that are sometimes very familiar — abandoned buildings, soaring birds, the damp grays of the Oregon coast — but here they're appropriate and effective (and beautifully photographed). The best of these, a lovely shot of the Fremont Bridge, distills the film’s ideas about disconnection into one affecting image: it's just a piece of the bridge, neither end visible. Caught in the frame, the bridge and the cars and people on it are cut off from the whole, from the very purpose of the bridge — but only for the time being.
Some Days had its world premiere at South by Southwest. No further screening dates are available yet.
I was on my way somewhere else when I stopped short in front of a bar on Red River.
There was something awfully familiar about the sound issuing from the doors, though it seemed unnatural to hear such a song in daylight. It was music for midnights, at the very earliest. But I had to know.
So I stepped inside, and lo and behold, it was indeed Eugene's own macabre psychobilly punks The Sawyer Family.
(It's a hastily snapped iPhone shot; be kind.)
There should have been more people in the bar, but those that were there seemed to be enjoying themselves. (It's hard to tell how much enjoyment is present in a room full of people who almost certainly haven't gotten enough sleep and equally almost certainly are already nursing hangovers with hair of the dog.) Seth Sawyer signed off, "We'll see you fuckers next time." Hopefully there are more of said fuckers when the band next lands in Austin.
The word Micmacs, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) explained before the screening of his new film, is slang for “shenanigans,” a word which sounded impossibly playful in Jeunet’s thick French accent. “Impossibly playful” is also one way to describe the film, which is as sweet and joyful and imperfect a revenge fantasy you might hope to see.
Micmacs begins unexpectedly, for a Jeunet film: A soldier steps on a landmine. The strongest response to this is displayed by a donkey, which runs off, honking loudly. Back in France, the father’s death has a greater effect on his young son Bazil, who finds clues to the cause of his father’s death in a box of the man’s possessions.
Years later, Bazil (Dany Boon) is working in a video store when a stray bullet lodges itself in his head. Bazil survives, but not without losing his job and his apartment. Before long, he’s taken in by a gaggle of oddballs — among them a contortionist, an inventor, a human calculator and Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon as a would-be world-record setter — who live as a patchwork family outside normal society. Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau), who lost her own children in a hall of mirrors, feeds and scolds them all in turn.
I honestly thought I'd be blogging every day from SXSW.
That's the most laughable idea I've had in ages.
Since Friday, I've been in Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest, which is hard to sum up in just one sentence: It's a long-running music, film and nerd festival (the nerd track is loosely called "Interactive") at which many of the things I write about overlap and converge (what a goddamn buzz word that is). I'm here to see bands, learn about Austin's music scene, watch movies, go to panels and, well, write about them all.
So this is your fair warning. Coming soon: reviews of Some Days Are Better Than Others, a Portland-set movie about loneliness and the little things; Mr. Nice, about a Welsh drug dealer; and many other films, and an overview of what little of the interactive portion of the festival I saw (not little as in I didn't care, but little as in the inability to see everything you want to see is a big part of SXSW).
The music portion starts on Wednesday, and while I'm going to miss the nerd crowd, I'm excited to see what happens when Sixth Street gets even more batshit crazy than it is already.
If you're interested in the little details, you can follow me on Twitter at @theothermolly, which is presently half posts from panels and presentations, and half random commentary from the entire Austin Experience, which has, in the last few days, involved short Stormtroopers, cheap beer and a serious lack of breakfast tacos. Currently, it's Shiner Bock and Jaron Lanier's presentation. Lanier just asked us all to experiment by putting the gadgets away, and I'm going to play along.
If you have any requests or suggestions — things you think I should do in Austin or things you want to know about from SXSW — by all means, leave a comment!
Someday, I may even get to eat some queso.
Yes, you could go see Alice in Wonderland this weekend. (I certainly plan to.) But you could also do something a little different and hop over to DIVA for one of the screenings of this year's Oscar-nominated short films. Pick animated only, live-action only or go all-out and watch both — though if you have to pick, for my money, the animated set is the way to go. My personal favorite (but an unlikely winner; I'd look to "Logorama" to take the day if voters are feeling at all subversive, or "A Matter of Loaf and Death" if they think Nick Park needs another shiny for his mantel), "Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty," is embedded below (be sure to watch it in HD).
The Oscar-nominated shorts show at DIVA this weekend (animated shorts, 10 pm Friday, March 5, and 3:15 pm Sunday, March 7; live-action shorts, 9 pm Friday, March 5, and 1 pm Sunday, March 7) and again over the next two weekends. Each screening is $6.
The Oscars air at 5 pm Sunday, March 7 on ABC — or you can go to the Bijou and watch them in high-definition on the big screen. Tickets are $10, and proceeds benefit The Haitian Sustainable Development Foundation.