Emile Hirsch

“The Bounceback” posits itself as a romantic comedy about Stan’s (Michael Stahl-David) quest to win back ex-girlfriend Cathy (Ashley Bell) over one weekend in Austin, Texas, but the film is really a love letter to our fair city. Photo courtesy of Austin Film Society

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics | Daily Texan Staff

Alex Williams, in a feat of movie-going stamina, saw six movies on Saturday at the South By Southwest Film Festival. Here are his six short recaps: 

A Teacher

The story of a teacher (Lindsay Burdge) carrying on an affair with one of her students could be brainless titillation, but “A Teacher” director Hannah Fidell brings astounding focus to what proves to be a fascinating but ultimately unrewarding film. Burge gives a powerhouse performance as the titular rulebreaker, and watching her dig her own grave and love every minute of it is a riveting train wreck in slow motion. Fiddell directs with remarkable economy, and the film’s percussive score is jarring but magnetic, but “A Teacher” continues an unfortunate trend in independent cinema of ending just as its central conflict kicks into high gear, resulting in a film that’s gripping when it wants to be but narratively unfulfilling.

“A Teacher” screens again Sunday 3/10 at 9:30 and Thursday 3/14 at 11:15.

The Bounceback

“The Bounceback” posits itself as a romantic comedy about Stan’s (Michael Stahl-David) quest to win back ex-girlfriend Cathy (Ashley Bell) over one weekend in Austin, Texas, but the film is really a love letter to our fair city. Austin locales feature in almost every scene, with major sequences of the film taking place in the Alamo Drafthouse and various 6th Street bars, all of them lovingly brought to the screen. Writer/director Bryan Poyser has made “The Bounceback” slippery by design, and the film dances around paying off its premise for much of its runtime, ultimately becoming something very different than you might expect from the tagline. It’s an surprisingly mature film, boasting a hilariously committed performance from Sara Paxton, and a low-stakes greatest hits tour of Austin TX.

“The Bounceback” screens again Sunday 3/10 at 9:45, Friday 3/15 at 9:15, and Saturday 3/16 at 4:00.

Prince Avalanche

When he’s not making irreverent studio comedies, David Gordon Green brings a certain poetry to his work, and his tale of two road crew workers, Alvin (Paul Rudd) and his girlfriend’s brother Lance (Emile Hirsch), is Green at his most elegant and relaxed. “Prince Avalanche” is a gentle, contented comedy, full of observant writing, and Hirsch and Rudd give a lovely duet of performances. Rudd is uncharacteristically restrained here, but as unabashedly likable as ever, and Hirsch is hilariously dense as the city boy itching to get out of the Bastrop backroads. The intimacy that builds between the pair by the end of the film feels earned, and David Gordon Green’s emphatic, languid film explores isolation and loneliness touchingly.

“Prince Avalanche” screens again Thursday 3/14 at 9:00.

Some Girl(s)

Neil LaBute, adapting from his own play, writes “Some Girl(s)” with his wit at its sharpest and his radar for exposing the ugliest of human behaviors at its most alert. Adam Brody stars as a nameless man who jets around the country during the planning of his wedding, reconnecting and clearing the air with a variety pack of ex-girlfriends. Each conversation pulls back another layer of Brody’s psyche, and these women hold a mirror up to him with their own picture of what he is, each of them slowly filling in a blank until we fully understand his character. It’s subtle, intelligent writing, starkly directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer, and greatly realized by the film’s ensemble. From Kristen Bell’s sharp wit to Zoe Kazan’s adorable fragility to Emily Watson’s weathered bitterness to Adam Brody’s unshakable charm, “Some Girl(s)” is a spectacularly acted exploration of fidelity, memory, and forgiveness.

“Some Girl(s)” screens again Monday 3/11 at 9:15, Tuesday 3/12 at 9:30, and Friday 3/15 at 1:30.

I Give it a Year

The rare anti-romantic comedy, “I Give it a Year” is an interesting, subversive film that depicts the standard courtship in reverse. As the film begins, Nat (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Rafe Spall) get married, and over the course of their first year together, the soft edges of their relationship begin to harden and chafe, making them both increasingly unhappy. While the idea of a marriage dissolution comedy is a strong one, “I Give it a Year” suffers from some debilitating problems. Namely, it’s near impossible to root for two characters that are slowly but surely poisoning a life they’ve attempted to build together, and since the film never gives us a look into their courtship, there’s nothing to invest in here. “I Give it a Year” has a very British sensibility, and the film’s sharp, witty script is full of hilarious payoffs and clever moments, but the work as a whole is caustic, without a human moment to be found. It’s easy to laugh at these characters, but very rarely are we laughing with them, or for them.

“I Give it a Year” screens again Sunday 3/10 at 4:30, Tuesday 3/12 at 4:30, and Wednesday 3/13 at 4:15.

Haunter

In its early going, “Haunter” seems like “Groundhog Day” filtered through teen angst, but once Lisa (Abigail Breslin) realizes that she’s trapped on the eve of her 16th birthday because she and her family are dead, the film starts to pick up. Vincenzo Natali brought a magnetically twisted perspective to “Splice,” his last film, and “Haunter” is magnificently creepy, tackling chilling material with enthusiasm. Abigail Breslin has the entire film on her shoulders, anchoring every scene, and she displays an emotional rawness and force of will that I haven’t seen from her before. It’s a strong performance from a young actress still coming into her own, and promises more great things from Breslin in the future. While “Haunter’s” logic can sometimes get a bit muddled, the film never loses sight of its emotional core, the story of a girl forever trapped as a 15-year-old, which may be a fate worse than death.

“Haunter” screens again Wednesday 3/13 at 11:45 PM.

Review

(Photo courtesy of Voltage Pictures)

It’s rare that a film slapped with an NC-17 rating doesn’t opt to defang a bit, since the cultural stigma that comes with the rating can be a death sentence. But thankfully, William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” wears the rating like a badge of honor. It’s debatable whether the film’s content earns the notorious NC-17. It’s more likely that the film’s nasty, sweaty Southern noir aesthetic earned its rating, but that same aesthetic is responsible for its entertainment value.

Based on the play by Tracy Letts, “Killer Joe” is propulsive and stylish from the first scene, which finds Chris (Emile Hirsch) roping his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) in on a scheme to kill his mother so he can use the insurance money to pay off a drug debt. Enter Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas cop who moonlights as an assassin and demands cash in advance. Unable to pay, Chris agrees to offer up his virginal sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as collateral, not betting his scheme will go awry, which it inevitably does.

McConaughey is on an astounding hot streak right now, and “Killer Joe” is the crown jewel of his year so far. He has built his entire career charming his way through romantic comedies, and “Killer Joe” brilliantly reappropriates that same demeanor, turning that silky charisma into something much darker and more predatory. McConaughey is utterly magnetic in every scene, and as his Joe becomes more and more manic and his cool blue eyes take on a terrifying iciness, the film intensifies along with him.

The film focuses on one of the most violently dysfunctional families this side of Rob Zombie, and all of its central figures are wonderfully acted. Hirsch brings an angry desperation to his role, and watching his slow descent into Joe’s clutches is fascinating. Gina Gershon plays Ansel’s second wife, and her take on the femme fatale is absolutely fearless. Church is a hilarious buffoon, and while that’s the only real note he gets to play, he wrings every laugh possible out of it. Temple has perhaps the most challenging role to play as the object of Joe’s affections. Her Dottie is a girl in a woman’s body, and Temple shows an undeniable knack for delivering Letts’ monologues with a soulful Southern twang. As her character shifts into the center of the film’s conflict, Temple navigates truly troubling material with grace and skill, developing into the film’s sole sympathetic figure.

Letts adapted his 1998 play for the screen and his dialogue crackles throughout the film, veering from vulgar tension-building to eloquent Southern poetry. The script weaves a tangled web of despicable characters in inescapable situations, and the way the film slowly lets each character rack up a stable of frustrations with one another before letting all hell break loose in an explosive final sequence as equally merciless as it is gratifying.

“Killer Joe” is Friedkin’s second collaboration with Letts after 2006’s “Bug,” and it has been a bountiful partnership so far. “Killer Joe” finds Friedkin in top form, and the film is a stylish pastiche of Southern pulp from its very first scene. Friedkin approaches his characters with broad strokes and a heavy hand, and the way he’s unafraid to let a scene wear its stage roots proudly while still filling it with his own flourishes makes for several riveting moments.

Much of the attention “Killer Joe” gets is going to focus on its final scene, particularly a harsh bit of cruelty one character exacts on another, and it’s a perfect finale, an ending that’s an ellipsis on the page but an exclamation point on the screen, thanks to the momentum that Friedkin and his cast build throughout the film. Even without the epic finale, the film is one that deserves to be seen and discussed, a compelling deep-fried bit of entertainment, and one of the blackest comedies ever made.

Jake Johnson walks the red carpet outside of the Paramount Theater where his movie, "Safety Not Guaranteed," was showing Saturday, March 10, 2012.

Photo Credit: Rebeca Rodriguez | Daily Texan Staff

Girls Against Boys
Directed by Austin Chick

When “Girls Against Boys” opens with a stylish, tantalizing, and intense scene of Lulu (Nicole LaLiberte) seducing and killing a police officer, the film promises to be an interesting examination of gender politics. The film rewinds in time a bit to introduce us to Danielle Panabaker’s Shae, a co-worker of Lulu’s. After a particularly rough weekend, Shae and Lulu decide to get revenge on the boys who have wronged them.

“Girls Against Boys” has plenty of style, and director Austin Chick slips some fascinating gender imagery into the film amidst the blood spatter. The female leads are pretty solid as well, and LaLiberte in particular stands out as an edgy, terrifying succubus. Panabaker brings unexpected heart and nuance to her role, and the tenuous mix of fear and bloodlust in her eyes throughout is fascinating to watch.

Unfortunately, “Girls Against Boys” suffers on the scripting front. Chick, who also wrote the screenplay, has a good ear for dialogue, but the film’s story is thrown together, lacking a compelling story arc. The film’s message is also muddled, and whether it’s satire, feminist critique, or man-hating retribution, “Girls Against Boys” gets lost in itself too often. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting film and certainly worth checking out if only to put the terrifying Nicole LaLiberte on your map.

“Girls Against Boys” screens again on Mar. 13 at 11:30 p.m. (Alamo Ritz) and Mar. 14 at 7:30 p.m. (Violet Crown).

Killer Joe
Directed by William Friedkin

Killer Joe” is one of the blackest comedies ever made, and it wears that distinction proudly. William Friedkin, along with screenwriter Tracy Letts (adapting his own play), has crafted a film that’s seedy, sleazy, and above all else, Southern, and it’s a hell of an experience. Emile Hirsch leads a great ensemble cast as Chris, a deadbeat looking to kill his own mother so he can get at her life insurance settlement. He and his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) hire Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas cop who moonlights as a contract killer, but when they can’t pay his fee in advance, Joe demands that Chris’s sister Dottie (Juno Temple) serve as his retainer instead.

From its first scene, “Killer Joe” is dipping the audience into pulpy, near-exploitative settings and situations, and the film’s script is fantastic, weaving a tangled web of despicable characters in inescapable situations, with dialogue that ranges from vulgar tension to eloquent Southern poetry. The film slowly builds, letting each character rack up a stable of frustrations with one another, and then lets all hell break loose in a lengthy, climactic scene set in Ansel’s trailer, an explosive sequence that wears the film’s stage roots proudly and eventually devolves into disturbing grotesquerie.

The cast chosen to bring “Killer Joe” to life is perfect across the board. Thomas Haden Church plays Ansel as a complete idiot, Emile Hirsch is appropriately slimy, and Gina Gershon is wonderfully fearless as Ansel’s second wife. Matthew McConaughey steals the show as Killer Joe, transforming his easy, magnetic charm into something far more sinister, his cool blue eyes taking on an icy, dangerous tint, and Juno Temple shines as the victim of Joe’s attentions. Temple’s Dottie is a little girl in a woman’s body, and as the film develops, Temple becomes the sole sympathetic figure with her daffy, innocent performance.

“Killer Joe” recently got slapped with an NC-17 by the MPAA, and while the film’s content may not quite warrant such a harsh rating, the disturbing sleaziness of the whole thing just about earns it. “Killer Joe” should wear the rating like a badge of honor, a signal of just how dark this movie gets, and judging from the woman passed out in the Paramount lobby just after the credits rolled, “Killer Joe” is a film that will be leaving people very shaken up for a very long time.

The film does not screen again at SXSW, but do not miss it when it hits theaters sometime this year.

The Last Fall
Directed by Matthew Cherry

There’s no denying that “The Last Fall” has an effective hook: the film, written and directed by former NFL players, deals with what happens when a football star’s career abruptly ends, leaving him with no job and no options. Unfortunately, Matthew Cherry mostly abandons the film’s premise in order to tell a story about Kyle Bishop (Lance Gross) returning home to reconnect with his family and win back an old girlfriend (Nichole Beharie).

“The Last Fall” is a story we’ve all seen before with a slightly original framing device, and Cherry fumbles every opportunity for dramatic tension or stakes. There’s no denying the film is heartfelt and it feels authentic at every turn, but it’s never interesting, the dialogue is flat and uninspired, and it’s full of clichéd characters in predictable situations.

“The Last Fall” screens again Mar. 13 at 6:30 p.m. (Alamo Lamar) and Mar.14 at 11:30 a.m. (Stateside Theater).

Safety Not Guaranteed
Directed by Colin Treverrow

Ever since she landed a small role in “Funny People,” Aubrey Plaza has been carving out a deliberate comedic persona for herself, and “Safety Not Guaranteed” is both the ultimate manifestation and a challenge to the niche Plaza has been playing to for most of her career. Plaza plays Darius Britt, a magazine intern who’s assigned to investigate a classified ad seeking a partner for time travel. Her boss Jeff (Jake Johnson) and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni) come along, but Darius is the one that ends up undercover with the possibly insane Kenneth (Mark Duplass).

“Safety Not Guaranteed” is a film that manages to consistently surprise you. It’s quite funny throughout, and every character gets a chance to shine, never disappointing. Plaza emerges as the best performance here, and her scenes with Duplass are unexpectedly sweet, letting us get a look at a softer side of Plaza that’s just as convincing as her bitter exterior. The script’s strongest point is its character development, and every one of the main characters is multi-faceted and believable.

It’s best not to know too much going into “Safety Not Guaranteed,” and the film has lots of great surprises under its hood, all of them building up to a cathartic, fantastic payoff that leaves the film on a triumphant note. The film has a smart, nuanced script, a fantastic cast with likeability to spare, and is sweet and poignant in all the right ways.

“Safety Not Guaranteed” screens again on Mar. 13 at 7:30 p.m. (Alamo Slaughter Lane).