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SXSW 2021--Day One
by Peter Sobczynski

A look at several of the films that played during the opening day of this year's virtual edition of the South By Southwest Film Festival

As a result of the continued pandemic, this year's South By Southwest Film Festival, which was cancelled entirely at the last minute last year, has, like so many others, gone virtual. While this may come across as a bummer for those who enjoy the social interaction that a live festival can provide (not to mention the barbecue), going virtual means that more people can actually attend the screenings and, since dashing from one venue to the next and waiting in line is no longer a thing, they can even squeeze in a few more films to boot. Over the next few days, I will be offering a look at the various films that I was able to catch, many of which will presumably be coming soon to a screening mechanism of some sort near you.


BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSION: Set in the late 90s and vaguely inspired by a real-life incident, this low-fi thriller deals with a couple of super-creepy interruptions of television broadcast signals and a video archivist (Harry Shum Jr.) whose deeply personal fascination with getting to the bottom of them sends him into an increasingly strange rabbit hole. Those of you who enjoyed "The Vast of Night" may get a similar vibe from Jacob Gentry's film and while it is not quite as impressive as that one--it sort of peters out towards the end as it tries to start explaining things--but it is a well-crafted conspiracy thriller that does manage to get under the skin from time to time.

DEAR MR. BRODY : In 1970, so-called "hippie millionaire" Michael Brody Jr. the heir to a margarine fortune, announced his plans to give away all of his money to anyone who asked in the name of peace and love. As the expected avalanche of requests, running the gamut from the greedy to the heartbreaking, questions began to arise about who he was and exactly how much he had to give away in the first place. It all ended sadly, of course, and this documentary from Keith Maitland recounts the entire weird and wooly saga that combines news footage from back in the day with current-day interviews with a number of people involved with the story ranging from Brody's former wife to some of those who wrote letters to him back in the day. For most of its running time, Maitland recounts the odd story in a relatively conventional manner but the last half-hour, when the focus shifts from Brody to those seeking his help, proves to be surprisingly emotional and satisfying.

THE END OF US:After being together for four years, Nick (Ben Coleman) and Leah (Ali Vingiano) finally break up but since they had the poor timing to do it at the precise moment that California institute its Covid-19 stay-at-home order and before Nick could move out, the two are forced to quarantine together even as they are trying to move on from each other. The next couple of years will most likely spawn an avalanche of terrible films revolving around the pandemic but they will have to work hard to outdo this tiresome exercise that is never funny or observant and features two characters so spectacularly annoying that if you were stuck in quarantine with even one of them, you would not hesitate to break it as soon as possible and take your chances with the disease instead.

GAIA: As this horror entry from South African filmmaker Jaco Bouwer opens, a park ranger (Monique Rockman) going downriver through an ancient forest breaks two of the oldest rules in the book--"Never Get Out Of The Boat" and "Don't Go Into The Woods"--and pays for it when she runs across a father-and-son duo (Carel Nel and Alex von Dyk) who are living in the wld and harboring a terrifying secret that has world-changing implications. This film does begin to run out of steam towards the end as it begins to repeat itself but even so, it is still an intriguing example of the nature-gone-wild subgenre that has been presented with an abundance of visual style and a few genuinely creepy moments here and there.

INTRODUCING SELMA BLAIR: In 2018, actress Selma Blair announced to the world that she was suffering from multiple sclerosis and this documentary from director Rachel Fleit follows her as she deals with her diagnosis while preparing to undergo a stem cell procedure that, although risky, holds out the possibility of returning to a more normal existence. The resulting film is fairly brutal and unsparing in its depiction of her disease and her attempts to combat it and even Blair's most dedicated fans may find it to be difficult going to watch as she struggles with her current situation. However, as a testament to both her indomitable spirit in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds and to the necessity for stem cell research, the film, as difficult as it is to watch at times, a compelling and ultimately moving success.

ISLANDS: Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas) is a shy and retiring Filipino immigrant who is pushing 50 and has spent his entire life living with his parents and never even attempting to form any outside relationships. When his mother dies and his father's health takes a turn, he finds himself increasingly terrified about the possibility of one day being alone in the world until he finally finds someone new that he is comfortable being around. Alas, this person turns out to be his cousin (Sheila Lotuaco), who has moved in to help him care for his father. Yes, the "Marty" vibes are strong in this effort from writer-director Martin Edrain and the story will not win any points for originality. However, Balagtas delivers a winningly low-key and entirely sympathetic performance--especially in his scenes with Lotuaco--that helps to keep the film from completely descending into mawkish melodrama.

KID CANDIDATE: In 2019, 24-year-old experimental musician Hayden Pedigo posted a fake political campaign ad, one aping the visual style of the films of Harmony Korine, that went viral and inspired him to make an actual run for a seat on the city council of Amarillo, Texas against the well-monied opposition. Jasmine Stodel's documentary chronicles his attempts to upset the status quo and does an interesting job of providing a frontline view of just how difficult it is for outsiders to get a place at the table for themselves and the less-prosperous groups that they represent.

LILY TOPPLES THE WORLD: If you have ever seen one of those videos featuring the toppling of an impossibly complex assortment of dominoes and wondered about what kind of person does such a things, this documentary on Lily Hevesh, the world's most celebrated domino artist and the only woman in that rarefied field, is the film for you. Although we get to see any number of her astonishing creations, the real feat of Jeremy Workman's enormously engaging documentary is to watch Hevesh as she develops a sense of self-confidence regarding herself and her craft that allows her to go off and do things that she might never of even dreamed of accomplishing only a short time before.

THE LOST SONS: Any film festival worth its salt requires at least one documentary that recounts a story so wild and improbable that it almost sounds too good to be true and this jaw-dropper of a tale from Ursula Macfarlane certainly fits the bill here. It starts off in Chicago in the mid-60s as a newborn baby is kidnapped from the hospital and seemingly vanishes into thin air. Fifteen months later, an abandoned toddler is discovered in New Jersey and the FBI determines that it is that missing child and returns him to his grateful parents. That would almost be enough story for one film but that only covers about the first 15-20 minutes here as the story takes a number of twists and turns as the initial mystery leads to the discovery of a number of dark secrets. (Try to avoid any and all spoilers before seeing it.) Macfarlane tells the convoluted story in a clean and efficient manner and the result will have your mind reeling long after it has concluded.

THE OXY KINGPINS: Featuring Adam McKay and Chis Smith as two of its producers, this documentary from Brendan FitzGerald and Nck August-Perna takes a tough and unflinching look at America's opioid crisis by focusing not on the people taking and abusing the pills but the conglomeration of pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors and retailers who essentially came together to create an industry that made them countless billions of dollars even as it destroyed thousands of lives in the process. Some of the framing elements for this film--mostly involving a lawyer preparing to sue the pharmaceutical companies for their negligence--are a bit distracting but once the film shifts to the meat of the story that FitzGerald and August-Perna are conveying, the results will leave most viewers both horrified at the damage that those little pills have caused and anger at those who allowed it to happen in the name of boosting the bottom line.

POLY STYRENE: I AM A CLCHE: After attending a Sex Pistols concert in 1976, Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, a young mixed-race working-class woman, renamed herself Poly Styrene, formed her own band, X-Ray Spex, and while the group did not last long, she would prove to be a huge influence on both the then-current scene as well as subsequent generations of young women who were inspired by her example to make music of their own. Her daughter, Celeste Ball, serves as co-director (along with Paul Sng) and narrator for this incisive documentary that charts, via choice archival footage and excerpts from her diaries (read by Ruth Negga), her journey from ordinary girl to musical icon and beyond. A must for fans of punk music (though the film does not shy away from the often-sexist nature of the punk scene), the film is also a compelling and sensitive look at an artist who was genuinely ahead of her time and will send most viewers off to acquire as much of her music as they can as soon as it is over.

SEE YOU THEN: After abruptly breaking off their relationship ten years earlier, Kris (Pooya Mohseni)--who has transitioned into a woman during that time--reunites with her former college girlfriend Naomi (Lynn Chen) for dinner and to catch up on each others lives. Suffice it to say, over the course of one long night, both of them are forced to confront their past relationship and how they have changed and evolved over the years as things build to the revelation of a particularly shocking secret. Most of this film from director Mari Walker, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Kristen Uno, is thoughtful and intelligent in the ways that it deals with potentially tricky subject matter and is buoyed by strong performances from the two leads. The problem with the film is that the aforementioned big secret is finally deployed, it comes so late in the game that it doesn’t really have enough time to properly deal with it before the whole thing is over. This may be the rare instance of late where a film might be improved by the addition of another ten minutes or so to properly flesh things out. That said, the film is still interesting and the performances from Mohseni and Chen are enough to make it worth a look.

THROUGH THE PLEXI-GLASS: THE LAST DAYS OF THE SAN JOSE: Actually, this documentary from Liz Lambert could also use a few extra minutes of running time as well to more fully chronicle her story of what happened when she decided to purchase a run-down motel in the middle of a seedy area of Austin, Texas in the hopes of fixing up the place and turning it around. After much waiting, she is able to make her plans into reality but while her actions help to spark a revitalization of the neighborhood, it also causes the inevitable displacement of the people who were already there--several of whom we have gotten to know over the course of the film--who have now been priced out of the area in the name of gentrification. The film raises a number of interesting questions about the hidden price of progress regarding neighborhood development--ones that Lambert, to her credit, does not shy away from--but at a mere 83 minutes, it doesn't really give them the kind of deep-dive treatment that they deserve.

WOMEN IS LOSERS: After an ill-advised decision leaves Celina (Lorena Izzo), a Catholic schoolgirl growing up in San Francisco in the late 1960s, with a baby and her promising future in tatters, she nevertheless does whatever she possibly can in order to make a better life for herself and her child in the face of the startling obstacles against women that still existed at that time. Lisette Feliciano's film starts off strong with plenty of energy, humor and drama on display but it is unable to maintain them and as it goes on, the cleverness from the early going disappears and it quickly devolves into an increasingly monotonous work that gives up trying to be a slice of life in order to become pure soap opera.

WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED: A HISTORY OF FOLK HORROR: One of the more incisive film writers out there today (her 2012 book "House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films" is a must-read work or cultural analysis), Kier-La Janisse moves to the director's chair with a sprawling look at cinematic depictions of folk horror--a subgenre that utilizes folklore as the driving element of terror--that begins in England with the usual suspects like "The Witchfinder General" and "The Wicker Man" and then expands to cover a wide variety of films from throughout the world ranging from the familiar to the obscure along with analysis from a wide variety of scholars, writers, filmmakers and fans. Yes, the 195-minute running time may seem a little daunting at first but the film fully justifies its length as it explores a fascinating and often misunderstood branch of the horror genre in a way that will fully satisfy hardcore buffs while being accessible enough fo newcomers as well.

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originally posted: 03/18/21 01:27:11
last updated: 03/19/21 04:06:15
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