South by Southwest Film Wrap Up
Another South By Southwest Film Festival has come and gone and with it a score of small, interesting and fun independent films, plus previews for a handful of wide releases. This year’s SXSW may as well have been subtitled ‘the music video festival’ as the fest’s music roots clearly seemed to be coming through the programmer’s choices. From the Austin music scene-set Song to Song to Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver and David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, which came off as much like the director’s playlists set to action as anything else.
The other major film shown at SXSW this year is not even finished yet, but an early screening of the unfinished The Disaster Artist has generated Oscar buzz for James Franco’s adaptation of the book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s dissecting the creation of Tommy Wiseau’s infamous The Room. Much like Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, The Disaster Artist takes the creation of something terrible and uses it to dissect the strangeness of the creative process (and the people involved in it). Written, directed by and starring James Franco (and many regular Franco collaborators), it may end up being the film he is remembered for.
There were a host of smaller, very interesting films floating around, some of which will make it to theaters and some of which — unfortunately — won’t but all of which you should keep an eye out for.
The one most likely to make it to a big screen, or at least the one that should, is the Nelm’s brothers Small Town Crime. A showcase for the skills of John Hawkes (and there should always be more of those), it’s also the producing debut of Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer, who has been shepherding the film for some time. Featuring an all-star cast (and that’s used a lot, but it really does fit in this case) including a scene-stealing Clifton Collins Jr. as a pimp with principles and Robert Forster as grumpy, heavily armed grandpa, it follows the redemption of an alcoholic former cop (Hawkes), who discovers a dead body in a field and decides to find out who she was and how she got there. It was the most fun to be had at the festival and I include Baby Driver in that equation. Collins also starred (in a very different role) in Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. as a rape survivor discovers artistic inspiration from the death of her rapist and seeks to fuel that creativity by seeking out other accused rapists and giving them what she’s decided they deserve. Bravely tackling the dark side of empowerment, it has a very sure sense of what it wants to say, refuses to reduce its topic to easy tropes and a strong lead performance by Final Girl’s Francesca Eastwood (yes, one of those Eastwood’s).
Spencer wasn’t the only popular actor stretching their producing muscle at the fest. Craig Robinson brought comedic slasher film Tragedy Girls, starring X-Men: Apocalypse’s Alexandra Shipp and Deadpool’s Brianna Hildebrand, both of whom have a flare for comedy and irony (which is not easy). Very much in the Scream vein but with a sharper sense of humor, slasher fans will enjoy.
On the other end of the mayhem spectrum was Mayhem. The newest piece of… mayhem from Everly director Joe Lynch, Mayhem follows The Walking Dead’s Steven Yuen and Ash vs Evil Dead’s Samara Weaving bashing their way through an office building where everyone has lost control of their id and is no longer responsible for their actions. One of SXSW’s midnight showings, it lacks the sharpness of fair like Tragedy Girls, but for fans of Yuen or business-focused semi-satire like Horrible Bosses, it’s got enough adrenaline to carry an audience along. A much better version of the same idea was Joe Martin’s Us and Them as down and out Jack Roth takes a bunch of rich people hostage in their own home and proceeds to torture them. Not as sharp as it thinks it is but funnier and better handled than it sounds from its description, Us and Them benefits from a solid sense of humor and a sure hand keeping the tone steady even as it changes direction regularly. In a similar vein, Nacho Vigalondo’s monster movie takedown Colossal was well received (if unfortunately little seen).
On the smaller, easier to miss side (but which you shouldn’t) was Aaron Katz’s Gemini and Anthony Onah’s Dara Ju. Gemini is a slow — and I mean ssslllooowww — murder mystery surrounding a personal assistant (Mozart in the Jungle’s Lola Kirke) who is the prime suspect in the murder of her movie star boss (Zoe Kravitz). As a dive into the narcissism of Hollywood and the personalities who work there, it is but one among many, but as an exploration into co-dependency and how hard it can be to break out of it is surprisingly effective, particularly for Kirke’s grounded performance as she begins investigating the murder she’s accused of in order to clear her name. By far the best surprise of the small indie films was Onah’s Dara Ju. The feature film version of one of Onah’s shorts, it follows a Nigerian-American research analyst on Wall Street (Sense8’s Aml Ameen in his best ever performance) as he tries to balance the dual and dueling needs of his immigrant family and his desire to integrate into the high-flying financier life he has entered into. Pointed without ever falling into stereotypes, it’s a bold statement about modern immigrant life in America and not to be missed.
Television also returned to SXSW with FX reminding everyone that Better Call Saul season 3 starts soon with the help of Giancarlo Esposito in character as returned-from-the-dead (sort of) Gus Fring serving his signature Los Pollos Hermanos chicken to hungry attendees. [For the curious, Los Pollos Hermanos is delicious, why bother with the meth, I say]. STARZ also got in on the act, showing off the pilot to the long-in-the-works adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
And for the first time ever, the prospect of seeing Alien on the big screen was seen as a disappointment as it turned out to not be code for a super-secret Alien: Covenant screening but was in fact just the normal, awesome original. Many got up and left after Sir Ridley Scott screened 20 minutes of the new film, but for those of us who stayed, the experience was, like SXSW itself, still awesome.