Film: Day Three, or, Chinese Toys, American Goats, and Egyptian Trash
Sunday was a getaway day for me at the South By Southwest Film Festival. I had to rush back home to finish up some freelance projects and get in a viewing for the TV Club tonight, so I was able to squeeze in a mere three screenings this sleepy Sunday. However, I’ll have further brief updated throughout the week for you SxSW-watchers. Before I get to today’s reviews, however, a couple of people have asked how the swag here in Austin compares to the fancy bags of free giveaways they dispense at places like Sundance and Telluride. The answer is, much in the way that a mermaid compares to an actual human. Unless you’re craving tiny energy bars or cheap sunglasses (the item, not the ZZ Top song), you’re better off just taking your swag bag, putting a few cheap groceries in it, and handing it to a homeless person, who can use the 200-page brochure about filming opportunities in Miami as kindling during the unforgiving Texas winters.
First out of the box this morning was Made in China, the debut feature from director Judi De La Cruz Krant. The story in this fast-paced comedy is focused on Mr. Johnson, a quirky, naïve “novelty inventor” from a small Texas town who believes his big invention (a “humorous domestic hygiene product”, or gag sneezing powder) will make him a millionaire if he’s able to get it mass-produced. This leads him, obviously enough, to China, where he soon discovers that the power of a good idea can quickly get smashed against the realities of economics, politics, and international intrigue.
Filmed partially in Texas and partially in Shanghai, Made in China is certainly an odd duck. There’s a lot of things that have the potential to sink it, from its obvious micro-budget to its spotty performances to its sense of humor, which more than once veers into hollow, smirky hipster gags. But overall, it has a relentless energy and sense of excitement which overcomes any initial resistance; it believes so much in itself that its pure momentum carries it forward over most of its rough spots. There are moments when it transcends the kind of self-conscious, winking humor a lot of indie comedies settle for and becomes almost a post-modern screwball epic, and it’s those moments, along with a pervasive charm and confidence, that make it worth seeing. (It's also got a terrific score.)
Given the track record of festivals like this, the odds of two small, quirky comedies in a row being actually funny were pretty long, but damned if Artois the Goat didn’t make it two for two. The story of Virgil Gurdies, a laboratory technician in a rocky relationship with his girlfriend, it takes up the romance just as Virgil is contemplating a move to Detroit, where he’ll be locked into a job he hates with an artificial food flavoring factory. Instead, he hatches, rather circuitously, a plan to devise the world’s best artisanal goat cheese, which he believes (because, why not?) will save his relationship and his career. Holing up with the titular goat and a pair of eccentric collaborators, Virgil (charmingly played by newcomer Mark Scheibmeir) sets out to save the world through the medium of cheese. Or at least his little corner of it.
Artois the Goat – the first feature from Cliff and Kyle Bogart, a pair of recent grads from the UT film school – isn’t perfect. It’s much better when dwelling on the more obvious comedic elements, especially Scheibmeir’s interactions with the Teutonic criminal and the deranged gravedigger who are assisting his quixotic project, and how he goes about it with essentially no expertise or even basic knowledge. The romantic plot is much more flat, almost to the degree of being a non-starter. But when it works, it works on all guns, and it rarely slows down until a pretty pat ending. As a first project, it’s not liable to set the world on fire, but it’s been quite well-received so far, and if nothing else, it provides a few genuine laughs and makrs the Bogarts as directors to keep a watch for.
After all that high-larious comedy, I needed something to depress the utter shit out of me, and Garbage Dreams delivered in spades. A documentary by first-time director Kai Iskander, the movie – filmed over a period of nearly five years in a Cairo suburb – follows the lives of teenagers Osama, Nabil, and Adham as they make a living in a “garbage village”, a huge maze of discarded refuse that serves as a home and a way of life for over 50,000 human beings. One can scarcely begin to fathom the full reality of such a massive number of people whose lives depend on what is essentially a huge ball of garbage when it becomes clear that not only aren’t they the only ones, but that their trade – fifth-hand trading of castaway junk – is actually being threatened by globalization as similar garbage villages across the world provide the same ‘products’ for less money.
Iskander skillfully, if mournfully, depicts an aspect of life that most people would prefer to not even think about. I first heard about “garbage villages” in an NPR report a few years back, in which they discussed a similar, though somewhat smaller, set-up that exists in the Philippines – exactly the kind of place that threatens to destroy the lifestyle, however tenuous, the boys and their families have managed to craft for themselves. She also manages to pull off the most important trick in this sort of politicized documentary, which is to humanize the victims of what must be the most dreary end-product of global capitalism; she lucks out by having subjects as charming as the intelligent Osama and the utterly charming Nabil to work with. Few punches are pulled in this exposé of a dismal trade in what is hardly a third-world nation, and it therefore makes for a bummer of a viewing experience, but I’m glad someone’s making movies like Garbage Dreams, to distract us from what passes for problems in a lot of indie film.
See you tomorrow with more from the ATX; I’ve got a few viewings before next weekend’s big push to the close, and a ton of screeners back at the lab, so if you have any particular requests for movies I haven’t covered yet, feel free to make them in comments. No celebrity sightings on Sunday, unless you count Harry Knowles as a celebrity. I don’t, because I don’t particularly think of big fat nerds who ruin everything as deserving of celebrity status; if they were, I would get invited to better parties. However, there was an actual goat at the Artois the Goat screening. He was quite personable, smelled farmland fresh, and, I must admit, made a hell of a cheese.