Screen by screenwest

This year’s South By Southwest film festival features winning movies in ‘Chef’, with Jon Favreau, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Downey jnr, ‘Frank’, with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson; Mike Myers’s ‘Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon’; and ‘The Legend of Shorty’, about the cartel boss Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman


The South By Southwest festival gets most attention for its musical and interactive components, but SXSW Film has been running in Austin since 1994, during which time it has established itself as a relaxed, down-home affair with a warm welcome for both film-makers and film fans.

This stands to reason when you consider the Texas capital’s rich legacy of independent film – and the fact that festival favourites such as Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater and Mike Judge call the city home. The festival may not have quite the industry buzz of Sundance or Toronto, but you’ll find a much better class of breakfast taco here.

Austin also has the Paramount. Although the city has about a dozen screens for the film festival, this 1,400-seat grand old theatre on Congress Avenue is its shabby-chic heart and soul. It’s where you’ll find the biggest draws, such as the opening-night film, Chef . It’s a good-natured charmer with Jon Favreau as Carl Caspar, a chef working a high-stress gig in a Los Angeles kitchen under the micromanaging eye of the owner, played by Dustin Hoffman.

After a blow-out with a restaurant reviewer, Caspar quits LA for Miami, where he launches a food truck and sells Cuban sandwiches. There’s a triumphant road trip from Miami back to LA via New Orleans and Austin – the hooting and hollering in the auditorium as familiar sights and people appear on screen nearly bring the house down – alongside a side dish of father-son bonding, a rejuvenated marriage and some great Twitter barbs.

Favreau, Hoffman and Robert Downey jnr all have great roles in Chef , but the real star is the food. It may well be the first film since Big Night that makes you leave the cinema with your stomach growling.

Austin and father-son bonding also feature in Thank You a Lot , Matt Muir’s film about a music manager who needs to land a new client, namely an old-school country singer and his estranged father, played by James Hand, in order to hold on to his job.

The film captures the endless drudgery of band management and promotion – a great scene involves an indie band doing a painful radio interview – and has poignant scenes between Hand, as himself, and Blake DeLong as his son and would-be manager.

Some of the scenes in Frank are also set in Austin, and at SXSW to boot. Lenny Abrahamson’s film may look at first blush as if it’s based on the late British musician Frank Sidebottom – the musician at the heart of the film is also called Frank and wears a gigantic fake head, à la Sidebottom – but this is more of a jumping-off point than a biopic.

Inspired by Jon Ronson’s article about his time as a musician in Sidebottom’s band, Frank is a tale about life inside a bubble inhabited by wild, unpredictable mavericks. Domhnall Gleeson is excellent as Jon Burroughs, a suburban dreamer who joins Frank’s band of outsiders and tries to bring his version of convention to bear on a very unconventional set of circumstances.

Ping Pong Summer
Michael Tully’s likeable coming-of-age flick Ping Pong Summer takes us back to 1985 as Radford Miracle arrives in Ocean City, Maryland, with his family for summer holidays. At the Fun Hub games arcade, Rad befriends a fellow hip-hop fan, Teddy Fryy, falls for Stacy Summers and clashes with a rich kid and bully, Lyle Ace, and his sidekick, Dale Lyons.

Table tennis becomes the way to settle the dispute between Rad and Lyle, and it all leads to a tense climax as they duke it out with bats, topspin and, in Rad’s case, some body-popping dance moves.

There are strong performances here from Marcello Conte, Susan Sarandon, Amy Sedaris and Lea Thompson.

As always, SXSW Film is showing many fascinating documentaries. The most entertaining – and enthralling – is Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon , Mike Myers’s rollicking study of the lovable-rogue entertainment-business manager.

Since bumping into Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix at the Landmark in Los Angeles in the 1960s, Gordon has lived the “been there, done that, got the T-shirt” lifestyle. He has managed Alice Cooper for more than 40 years, lasted just nine days as Pink Floyd’s rep, worked with Anne Murray, invented the celebrity chef, accumulated a vast contacts list of the rich and famous and, by all accounts, had a whale of a time.

It’s told through a superbly edited series of re-enactments and interviews with Michael Douglas, Willie Nelson, Tom Arnold, Myers and many more. The fondness of Myers and the others for the man is evident, but Gordon, who has a permanent twinkle in his eye, is rightly the real star of this big-hearted, zinger-filled, hugely entertaining profile.

The Legend o f Shorty sees the British film-maker Angus MacQueen and the reporter Guillermo Galdos go in search of the Mexican drug-cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. They get incredible access to the people around Guzman, including lawyers, harvesters and even the pilot who flew the cartel’s planes into the US. But Guzman himself proves more elusive, and the Mexican police get to him before the film-makers do.

Other documentaries of note at SXSW include Harmontown , in which the Community star Dan Harmon takes his Harmontown podcast on tour; No No , the story of the maverick Pittsburgh Pirates baseball player Dock Lewis, set to a thumping soul soundtrack scored by the Beastie Boy Adam “Ad-Roc” Horovitz; and The Possibilities Are Endless , James Hall and Edward Lovelace’s portrait of the Scottish musician Edwyn Collins as he relearns to walk, talk and play music after having a stroke, in 2005.

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