28 Reviews From the SXSW Film Festival

28 Reviews From the SXSW Film Festival
28 Reviews From the SXSW Film Festival

The 20th edition of the SXSW Film Festival came to a close on Sunday, but the movies from this year’s program aren’t going away anytime soon. Indiewire reviewed 28 films in the lineup, roughly half of which we already covered at earlier festivals. In case you’re still catching up on SXSW coverage, we’ve rounded up links to all 28 reviews here.

Before Midnight
With “Before Midnight,”
Richard Linklater has completed one of the finest movie trilogies of
all time. Nearly 20 years have passed since Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and
Céline (Julie Delpy) met on a train in Vienna and spent a passionate
night together in “Before Sunrise,” then abruptly parted ways, only to
tentatively pick up where they left off nine years later with “Before
Sunset.” That movie ended without resolving a tantalizing possibility:
Would Jesse, now a successful writer stuck in a dead-end marriage, truly
miss his flight back home and spend more quality time with Céline?
“Before Midnight” answers that question while asking many more as it
consolidates the full power of the earlier movies into a masterful
treatise on the evolution of romance. Read more here.

Computer Chess
There is an immediate sense of change afoot in “Computer Chess,” Andrew
Bujalski’s fourth feature as writer-director, visible to anyone familiar
with his previous work. While Bujalski’s influential “Funny Ha Ha” —
along with follow-ups “Mutual Appreciation” and “Beeswax” — were almost
defiantly shot on 16mm film and focused on the interpersonal
relationships of chic young adults, “Computer Chess” is a period piece
set 30 years in the past and shot on low-grade analog video.
Experientially, however, “Computer Chess” falls in line with its
precedents while achieving much funnier, offbeat results. Read more here.

Upstream Color
Shane Carruth’s 2004
time travel drama “Primer” provoked endless scrutiny for its heavy
reliance on tech speak that the director refused to dumb down. His
long-awaited followup, “Upstream Color,” also maintains a seriously
cryptic progression that’s nearly impossible to comprehend in precise
terms, but its confounding ingredients take on more abstract dimensions.
An advanced cinematic collage of ideas involving the slipperiness of
human experience, Carruth’s polished, highly expressionistic work bears
little comparison to his previous feature aside from the constant mental
stimulation it provides for its audience. This stunningly labyrinthine
assortment of murky events amount to a riddle with no firm solution.
Read more here.

The Act of Killing

In Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing,” a pair of gangsters —
responsible for murdering an untold number of suspected communists in
the years following the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government —
get the chance to recount their experiences. At first showing no visible
remorse, the men boast of their achievements, and Oppenheimer
capitalizes on their enthusiasm with a twisted gimmick: The men are
given numerous opportunities to reenact the murders for Oppenheimer’s
camera, sometimes emphasizing their brutality and occasionally
delivering surreal, flamboyant takes that offer a grotesque spin on
classic Hollywood musicals. Playing make believe with murderers,
Oppenheimer risks the possibility of empowering them. However, by
humanizing psychopathic behavior, “The Act of Killing” is unparalleled
in its unsettling perspective on the dementias associated with
dictatorial extremes. Read more here.

First Cousin Once Removed

Documentarian Alan Berliner is
frequently the star of his movies, but
his focus extends beyond his neuroses. Rather than the star of the show,
he’s a vessel for bigger ideas and evades the perils of self-indulgence
that could result from putting himself in front of the camera. That
tricky balance is on display better than ever in the stirring
“First Cousin Once Removed,” which deepens an oeuvre that has already
dealt with the tender issues of father-son relationships (“Nobody’s
Business”) and insomnia (“Wide Awake”) by exploring his fears of
senility to devastating effect. Using a powerful focal point to manifest
the movie’s central concerns, Berliner makes his interest in the topic
relevant to everyone. Read more here.

“The Pirate Bay: Away From Keyboard”
A funny thing
happened in the moments leading up to the Berlin
International Film Festival world premiere of “The Pirate Bay: Away From
Keyboard,” a documentary about the prosecution of the titular Swedish
file sharing site’s founders. Minutes before the screening, director
Simon Klose called a friend up in front of the audience and asked him to
unlock a version of the movie uploaded to YouTube, appropriately
setting the stage for a tale focused on internet freedoms. The lights
went down; the screen lit up. But before “TPB AFK” started, the same
warning sign preceding all movies at the festival appeared. “Film piracy
is illegal,” it read, an inadvertent irony not lost on the
majority of the room. Chuckles circulated. In a way, the story had
begun before a single frame. At the root of “TPB AFK” is a fundamental
tension between conventional views on copyright law and the emerging
standards of digitally savvy users. Klose’s entertaining, passionate
documentary wholeheartedly endorses the latter group, and its
sympathetic stance is infectious — but only if you’re already amendable
to the general cause. Read more here.

Last year’s anthology horror production “V/H/S” was a revelation mainly
because it took the overly familiar found-footage genre and exploited it
to the fullest extent. The sequel achieves a similar goal
with more frightening extremes. Containing only four spectacularly gory
shorts directed by emerging genre filmmakers, along with an equally
unsettling wraparound tale, “V/H/S/2” lacks some of the original’s
subtleties but delivers a nearly unbroken series of visceral shocks. The
last movie was a wild ride with several stops along the way; “V/H/S/2,”
once again produced by the Bloody Disgusting production team known as
The Collective, pushes full throttle ahead the whole way through. Read more here.

“Much Ado About Nothing”
There’s a certain irony to Joss Whedon’s adaptation of “Much Ado About
Nothing”: While the script culls a beloved literary achievement more
than 400 years old, it has relatively uncomplicated aims. Made in the
immediate aftermath of Whedon’s massive production of “The Avengers” and
shot over the course of a two-week period at the cult director’s Santa
Monica home, “Much Ado About Nothing” has the scrappy feel of a high
school play populated by professionals looking to take the pressure off.
Call it a Shakespearean catharsis or just call it a lark — either way,
the movie represents Whedon’s least essential work, regardless of the
material’s inherent comedic inspiration. Read more here.  

You’re Next
“You’re Next” doesn’t break new ground in the horror genre, but it
sticks to rules that work. Director Adam Wingard (“A Horrible Way to
Die”) and screenwriter Simon Barrett (“Dead Birds”) demonstrate a firm
grasp on their material, delivering a tightly-wound survival story
replete with disarming humor that holds the whole bloody mess together. Read more here.

Nick Cassavetes has yet to hit on a filmmaking style to rival his
father’s legacy, but with “Yellow,” the director of “The Notebook”
presents an unhinged portrait of emotional turmoil with bold stabs at
expressionistic representation at every turn. It’s not only Cassavetes’
best movie, but also a fascinating alternative to conventional melodrama
that burrows inside its troubled protagonist’s head and unleashes her
emotions in vivid terms. No matter how messy it gets, “Yellow” renders a
troubled subjectivity with striking creativity. Read more here.

Spring Breakers
“Spring Breakers” wouldn’t be a Harmony Korine movie if it wasn’t
polarizing in some way. Sure enough, the latest by the director of
“Gummo” and “Trash Humpers” seems calculated to outrage, titillate
and/or exhaust viewers with its gleefully nihilistic portrayal of spring
break in St. Petersburg, Florida, seen here as a slickly stylized,
slo-mo bacchanal of keg stands, bong hits and topless coeds. Read more here.

Museum Hours
To date, Jem Cohen has made intimate non-fiction diary films rooted in
an attentiveness to atmosphere and riddled with small observations
rendered in profound terms. While his new feature “Museum Hours” is
technically his first narrative effort, with a pair of amateur
performances and the backbone of a fictional story, its constant
introspection and remarkable sense of place provide a fluid connection
to the earlier work. With a keen eye for the capacity of fine art to
address a complex range of attitudes and experiences, “Museum Hours”
effectively applies Cohen’s existing strengths to a familiar scenario
and rejuvenates it by delivering a powerfully contemplative look at the
transformative ability of all art. Read more here.

“Lords of Salem
Metal rocker Rob Zombie’s second career as a filmmaker proved he was
just as capable of unsettling showmanship behind the camera as he was
onstage. His frightening “House of a 1,000 Corpses” hinted at the
spectacular portrait of depravity that came next in 2005’s “The Devil’s
Rejects,” which got so intimate with serial killers even some dedicated
genre fans felt it crossed a line. Zombie’s two “Halloween” remakes,
however, found less favor, which means it’s time for a comeback. With
the effectively creepy “The Lords of Salem,” Zombie reaffirms his
capacity to tap into the genre’s strongest qualities. Read more here.

The East
Suspenseful, ludicrous, fascinating, and utterly unsubtle, Zal
Batmanglij’s “The East” plays like an unholy mash-up of “Martha Marcy
May Marlene” and “Alias.” The film builds on the themes of cult and
identity that Batmanglij and his star Brit Marling explored artfully in
their breakout debut “The Sound of My Voice.” But here, that psychology
is in service of a fast-paced espionage potboiler. Read more here.

In the grand tradition of “The Conversation” and “Blow Out” — but produced with far more modest means — “euphonia” uses sound to heighten the sense of its characters and audience alike. Danny Madden’s microbudget tale of a curious teenager (Will Madden) who grows obsessed with a recording device runs a trim 53 minutes, barely contains any dialogue, and hardly qualifies as a feature-length movie. But the filmmaker’s commitment to his cryptic technique makes “euphonia” into an enthralling experience so impressively realized that it may deserve its own category of cinema. Read more here.

Go For Sisters
For decades now, John Sayles has written and directed movies rooted first and foremost in sharply conceived characters. More recently, even as his scrappy, self-financed productions have varied in quality, this central aspect has remained in place. “GO FOR SISTERS,” like the filmmaker’s previous features “Amigo” and “Honeydripper,” sustains a feeble premise with richly defined characters and strong performances, yielding an underwhelming but nonetheless sustainable viewing experience. Read more here.

The Punk Singer
For some 15 years, feminist punk rocker Kathleen Hanna carried the torch of a movement seemingly defined by her furious investment in the cause and the artistry that brought it to national attention. As the energetic frontwoman for Bikini Kill throughout the nineties, followed by the hugely popular dance group Le Tigre, Hanna was an unstoppable presence both onstage and off. Her impact is effectively explored in Sini Anderson’s documentary portrait “The Punk Singer,” which relies on interviews and robust footage from over the years to create an involving look at Hanna’s determination — as well as the forces that nearly toppled it. Read more here.

White Reindeer
Filmmaker Zach Clark’s first two features, the scrappy nurse-turned-dominatrix comedy “Modern Love Is Automatic” and the wicked beach party noir “Vacation!,” paired restless formalism with Clark’s penchant for deadpan humor. By contrast, his touching Christmas tale “White Reindeer” funnels Clark’s darker sensibilities and erotic themes into a decidedly more complicated vision of suburban unrest. With a mixture of pathos and dry wit, Clark delivers a solemn twist on the holiday movie formula that simultaneously inhabits the genre and turns it inside out. Read more here.

Swim Little Fish Swim
“Swim Little Fish Swim,” the confident debut feature from writing-directing duo Lola Bessis and Ruben Amar, provides a gentler alternative to a familiar mold. Though less of a crowdpleaser than it may first appear, that’s the key strength that makes this admittedly uneven first feature stand out. The filmmakers juxtapose their character’s struggles against an older couple facing the practical issues of their livelihood, establishing a thoughtful examination of the harsher challenges styming the blind idealism of youth. Read more here.

Awful Nice
Director Todd Sklar’s short film, brazenly titled “’92 Skybox Alonso Mourning Rookie Card,” followed a pair of estranged brothers drawn together by the untimely passing of their father. At less than 13 minutes, it managed to economically set up two aimless characters and let them run wild to comic effect, culminating with a kitchen food fight for the ages. Before either their crude personalities or the relentless virile jokes grew tiresome, it was over. No such luck with “Awful Nice,” Sklar’s feature-length treatment of the material, which resembles the short in spirit but takes its puerile energy to a tedious extreme. Read more here.

William and the Windmill
The story of Malawian teenager William Kamkwamba is candy for the Western imagination: In 2001, the 14-year-old Kamkwamba dropped out of school and picked up a library book about harnessing electricity, then built a windmill from scratch, effectively powering his subsistence farmer family and saving them from the debilitating effects of a famine. Kamkwamba’s scientific achievement speaks for itself, but the attention he received in its wake is a thornier issue that Ben Nabors turns into a fascinating look at the tricky balancing act of third world activism. Transformed into a media darling and public cause, Kamkwamba was either rescued, exploited or — as Nabors implies — something in between. Read more here.

Short Term 12
There is undoubtedly a potential bad version of “Short Term 12” that writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton (“I Am Not a Hipster”), fortunately, didn’t make. The movie, which follows the experiences of staff and patients at the eponymous foster care home for at-risk teens, contains a series of sentimental hooks without overplaying any of them. Cretton’s screenplay pulls off a tricky balance of imbuing its story with emotional weight while not coming across as cloying in the process. The situation is inherently dramatic, but the filmmaker complicates it with characters worth rooting for. Read more here.

Cheap Thrills
Savagely assaulting the desperation of a blue collar family man, the comedic thriller “Cheap Thrills” establishes a ridiculous premise early on and takes it to various extremes, again and again, until you just have to accept the crazy venture on its own terms or simply give up. That’s also the situation for its dazed leading man, Craig (Pat Healy), a broke father newly unemployed when he comes across the affluent Colin (David Koechner) in a bar and plays along with a series of increasingly deranged bets in exchange for monetary rewards. The metaphoric weight to the scenario is immediately evident, but “Cheap Thrills” basically uses that starting point to mess around. Read more here.

Evil Dead
The first two entries in Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” trilogy — released in 1981 and 1987, respectively — delivered such delightfully inventive takes on the horror genre, uniting the disparate traditions of suspense and slapstick, that no remake could possibly match their originality. Respectably enough, with his snazzy redressing of the first movie, director Fede Alvarez doesn’t even try. Instead, “Evil Dead,” a studio-produced take on the demon possession mayhem at a now-iconic cabin in the woods, delivers a slick and undeniably wild ride by repurposing the original premise in body horror terms. With simpler aims and oodles of blood, the new movie is a watered down scare-fest that works in spite of its formula by constantly frightening audiences into submission. Read more here.

“12 O’Clock Boys”
The first time we see the group of mostly young adult dirt bikers cruising down the streets of lower class Baltimore neighborhoods in “12 O’Clock Boys,” the speed and intensity of their risky, unauthorized stunt work has been translated into poetry: Pitching backwards in slo-mo as they point to the sky, the riders take on the elegance of Olympic champions. Yet Lotfy Nathan’s contemplative portrait pits this lyrical dimension against the life-threatening dangers of the act and the root causes for such extreme antics, delivering an astute look at how social conditions can lead to an audacious form of rebellion that, in spite of its elegance, makes matters worse. Read more here.

Drinking Buddies
In eight years of features, Joe Swanberg has developed a substantial body of minor works, but “Drinking Buddies” proves it had a direction. Swanberg’s unabashedly scrappy profiles tend to focus on perpetually inelegant people in search of meaning in their lives as they often struggle to find romantic satisfaction. “Drinking Buddies” is no exception, but with its steadier production values and uniformly strong performances, it continues the director’s observational approach while improving on the most promising ingredients found throughout his filmography. Read more here.

“Good Ol’ Freda”
There are two main ingredients that make “Good Ol’ Freda,” a documentary about The Beatles secretary Freda Kelly, stand out from countless other takes on the rise of the world’s most iconic band: First of all, having worked for the group during its initial decade of existence but remained largely in the shadows, Kelly held a unique ringside seat to their rise without directly being a part of it. Additionally, perhaps because of her ongoing fidelity to the band, Kelly has remained secretive about her experiences prior to this project, directed by Ryan White and mostly told from Kelly’s point of view. It’s less exposé than curiosity, adding little new information to The Beatles’ expansive mythology, but rather one more perspective on their initial days of fame that does the legacy proud. Read more here.

“The Bounceback”
Austin-based filmmaker Bryan Poyser’s first two features, “Dear Pillow” and “Lovers of Hate,” explored relationship problems by dealing in unconventionally frank ways with sex. Working on a microbudget scale, the movies had little in common with larger and considerably tamer comedy-dramas about similar issues. “The Bounceback,” a step up in scale for the director, bears a closer resemblance to a studio-produced romcom, and suffers to some degree by comparison to his rowdier, unpredictable earlier works. However, compared to the current mainstream standards for the genre, the movie is a smart, refreshing cut above that channels the intelligence found in Poyser’s other movies into a more common mold. Read more here.

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