(Welcome to The SXSW Diaries, where we will be chronicling every single movie we see at the Austin-based film festival.)
Welcome to SXSW 2019 days six and seven. In this edition: Sword of Trust is more of the same from Lynn Shelton (f0r better or worse), Stuber gets amazing mileage out of Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista, and Mr. Jimmy approaches a weird story from the wrong angle.
Sword of Trust
Attend enough film festivals or explore the American independent film scene long enough, and you’ll eventually become familiar with the work of filmmaker Lynn Shelton. Although she had been working before then, 2009’s Humpday put her on the map and established her very specific voice, one that she has honed over the following decade to win a loving following. Sword of Trust follows suit: a few characters played by likable actors, a handful of locations, dryer-than-dry comedy, and brisk running times that typically concludes with the characters having learned a little but not too much.
And with apologies to Shelton, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that we’re just not compatible. I can see her crystal clear voice, her undeniable skill, her ability to craft a tone that is unique to her. All power to her. Rock on. I hope she makes movies forever. But I think it’s time I stopped trying to like them, because I’m clearly not artistically compatible with her movies. It’s not her – it’s me.
Sword of Trust does have an immediately amusing and intriguing premise, with a woman and her girlfriend discovering that her recently departed grandfather from Alabama owned a Civil War-era sword that apparently “proves” that the Confederacy won the war and that that the “deep state” has been covering it up over the years. Naturally, she teams up with a pawn shop owner to sell this item to conspiracy theorists with too much money and not enough sense. Despite that ambitious set-up, not much plot happens, but that’s the Lynn Shelton way. Either you enjoy spending time with these characters or you don’t. Simple as that.
And that cast is wonderful, with Michaela Watkins, Jon Bass, Jillian Bell, and Marc Maron (the latter an increasingly interesting actor capable of pushing his persona in fascinating directions), perfectly slipping into Shelton’s perfectly identifiable style. So maybe it’s unfair that I expected more payoff from this premise and deeper takedown of modern, YouTube-driven conspiracy theories and a more thoughtful examination of how someone can love the South while hating the countless atrocious acts that have occurred there. However, Sword of Trust is more interested in its slow-moving, amiable comedy and hangout vibe – it’s rarely too critical, too sharp, or too insightful. It doesn’t want to be. And that’s clearly a choice, one made by a filmmaker whose every decision feels considered. But hey, those choices just aren’t for me.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
Director Michael Dowse clearly set out to make a genuinely old-fashioned buddy action comedy with Stuber, and he plays by some familiar rules and follows a familiar template. A mismatched duo. One long night. A 50/50 mix of silly banter and violent action. An unlikely friendship that emerges as two men learn they have something to teach one another. And while Stuber does stay within the lines, it chooses some unlikely colors. This is a welcome refresh of a tried and true genre, one powered by the strength of its two leads and some genuinely inspired comedic beats.
While the SXSW screening of Stuber was a “work-in-progress” cut with no credits, some unfinished sound and color, and just enough flab in the editing to be noticeable, one thing was immediately clear: Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista have the kind of chemistry you can’t fake. This is one mismatched duo that you’ll treasure instantly.
Nanjiani plays Stu, a smart, progressive, sweet guy with a lousy day-job and a crush on his best friend. He drives an Uber to pay the bills. Bautista is an old-fashioned, brutish, aging detective tracking down a ruthless drug dealer. He gets his big break on the same day he has laser eye surgery. Unable to drive and unwilling to stop, he commandeers Stu’s Uber and drags them both through a day of car chases, gun battles, fistfights, etc. The works. And while these two couldn’t be more different, can you believe they find common ground? That Bautista’s gruff cop will learn it’s okay to be a sensitive man in 2019 and that Nanjiani’s dork will learn it’s okay to be tough when duty calls?
You bet your ass they do. And they do it while being very, very funny. Stuber is often hilarious, with Bautista’s squinty-eyed action brute bouncing off Nanjiani’s hilarious one-liners and increasingly exasperated reactions to the violence occurring around him. While the action isn’t quite as clean as something in Lethal Weapon (or even a Rush Hour), it’s incredibly violent and watching Bautista Rambo his way through rooms full of bad guys while Nanjiani finds new ways to express his horror at all of the blood and bodies around him never gets old.
Perhaps it’s unfair to rate a movie that isn’t finished, even if it played before a 1,100 person crowd at a major film festival. Perhaps Dowse will clean up the sometimes overly-chaotic action before the film arrives. But right now, what does work works. This is what we in the film blogging business like to call a good old-fashioned romp, a crowdpleaser that’s silly and exciting and nerdy (there’s one killer The Neverending Story gag), while injecting a dose of 2019 into the genre’s DNA. I’ll be paying to see Stuber when it’s finished and in theaters, even if it’s just so I can see these two leading men together again.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
When does a filmmaker’s affection for a subject stop being the inspiration for a documentary’s existence and start being a liability to its success? Mr. Jimmy is directed handsomely by Peter Michael Dowd, who has a fine eye for filming concert sequences. There’s a technical precision to the whole film, a polish you don’t often see on film festival documentaries. Those on board with Dowd’s clear love for his title subject will have blast. But those who find him borderline insufferable? Well, good luck.
“Mr. Jimmy” is actually Akio Sakurai, a Japanese man who learned to play the guitar after becoming obsessed with Led Zeppelin and has spent the past 35 years performing covers of guitarist Jimmy Page’s work. And not just any ordinary covers – exact recreations of famous concerts and bootlegs, where Page was known to improvise for up to a half hour at a time. His encyclopedic knowledge of Page goes beyond the notes – he knows what the rock star was wearing in a specific month of a given year and knows how one live performance differs from another. He has custom amps built to recreate specific distortion so he can recreate an individual concert. Sakirai is a fascinating man, clearly one who deserves the documentary treatment.
But as Sakurai takes his act to the United States and meets resistance from those who think his obsessive mission is a bit much, the film digs in its heels in support of Sakurai. It never questions that maybe someone else is right. It never digs into how his clearly incredible talent is maybe being wasted by his refusal to even attempt playing anything that is not an exact recreation of a Led Zeppelin performance. It never asks his wife, who he abandoned in Japan, how she feels to be left alone for years while he burns through bands who, rightfully, find him unbearable to work with. Dowd is more interested in filming Mr. Jimmy’s very impressive musical numbers than he is in exploring why this kind of fan devotion is unhealthy. If there was a skilled filmmaker who spent 35 years only remaking Star Wars, we’d never stop dunking on him. But Mr. Jimmy puts its subject on a pedestal.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10