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SXSW 2021--The Rest Of The Fest
by Peter Sobczynski

My look at many of the films that played during the last two days of this year's South By Southwest Film Festival.

Having published my thoughts on the films that I saw that played during the first day of this year's virtual edition of the South By Southwest Film Festival, here are my observations on the stuff that played during the other two days. Needless to say, I saw a lot of movies during that time and happily, most of them were pretty good and even the ones that didnít quite make it were at least ambitious in conception, if not always in execution.


ALIEN ON STAGE: This documentary follows a group of British bus drivers whose amateur stage adaptation of "Alien," which they performed one year in lieu of their typical holiday pantomime show, is unexpectedly brought back to life when they are invited to restage the show as part of a prominent London comedy festival. There are times while watching this film when you might get the sense that you are watching a Christopher Guest-style spoof as you observe the often-shaky performances and the occasionally ingenious but decidedly low-fi effects. The end result is genial enough, especially for members of the "Alien" cult. but as it went on, I found myself wishing that someone had done a documentary on that New Jersey high school theater group that also staged it to worldwide acclaim instead.

AYAR: This wildly ambitious film from Floyd Russ starts off like a typical Covid-era drama as it observes struggling Vegas performer Ayar (Ariana Ron Pedrique) as she returns home after five years to see the daughter that she left in the care of her parents when she was an infant to pursue he dream. After her mother (Vilma Vega) turns her away due to pandemic fears, it sends Ayar into a frenzy and turns the film into an increasingly complex house of mirrors that blends fiction and documentary as a way observing the idea of the roles that we play in our lives. I am not entirely convinced that the end result completely works but the combination of audaciousness and ambition that it demonstrates throughout certainly held my interest and I have the feeling that this might be one of those that actually plays better on a second viewing.



CLERK: The life and work of filmmaker Kevin Smith is chronicled in nearly exhausting detail in this documentary by Malcolm Ingram. Smith's loyal fan base will no doubt eat it up but even they will have to admit that there is precious little here that they haven't heard Smith discuss before at length, either during his marathon live appearances, his podcasts or on commentary tracks. Others might find it a bit questionable that the name "Harvey Weinstein"--who played a key role in Smith's career by distributing several of his films--doesn't crop up once until the 75-minute mark and only then to say a.) that all he knew was that Weinstein cheated on his wife and b.) reiterate his pledge that any future profits of his from those movies will be donated to female filmmakers.



THE DROVER'S WIFE THE LEGEND OF MOLLY JOHNSON: Having previously reworked Henry Lawson's 1892 short story "The Drover's Wife," which told the story of a woman forced to fend for herself in the harsh Australian Outback, into both a play and a novel that transformed the narrative into a more overtly feminist work that also showed more sensitivity towards its Indigenous characters, Australian-Aboriginal actress-filmmaker Leah Purcell has now brought the story to the screen. She plays the title character, a fiercely independent woman living on an isolated farm with her children while her husband is away. As it turns out, she is harboring a couple of secrets that come to be revealed thanks to the arrival of a couple of wildly different people--a transplant from London (Sam Reid) who has been appointed to oversee the law in the nearby town and an aboriginal man ((Rob Collins) on the run for murder. Even though this is Purcell's third take with this material, the film has a curiously unformed feeling to it--it comes across like a collection of scenes rather than a complete and satisfying narrative--and it cannot help but look inferior to "The Nightingale," which has many of the same elements that are found here but which spun them into a tale far more compelling, moving and haunting than what is offered up here.

THE FALLOUT: The winner of the festival's top prize in the Narrative Feature competition was Megan Park's drama about a teenaged girl, Vada (Jenna Ortega) as she struggles to navigate her shifting relationships with family, friends and herself in the aftermath of surviving a shooting spree at her high school. The film starts brilliantly--the opening sequence in which Vada and two classmates (Maddie Ziegler and Niles Fitch) as they hide together in a bathroom stall and listen to the sounds of gunfire outside is especially memorable--but after a while, as Vada tries to bury her emotional wounds with sex, drugs, booze and denial, it essentially turns into an extended episode of "Euphoria" with a higher body count. That said, it still deserves to be seen, both for being a serious attempt to deal with a national tragedy in human terms and for the breakthrough performance from Ortega, who definitely leaves her Disney Channel past far behind with her work here.

THE FEAST: This horror movie finds a well-to-do and politically connected Welsh family--each one awful in their own particular way--as they prepare a lavish dinner party for a couple of guests whose approval they need for a big upcoming project. With the help of an odd local girl hired to help serve, the meal does go off but not exactly as planned--suffice it to say, the matter of whether there is enough food for seconds does not become an issue. This is another one of those films that might have been reasonably effective as a half-hour episode of "Tales from the Crypt" or "The Twilight Zone" but at three times that length, it drags considerably. Director Lee Haven Jones brings an occasionally arresting visual style to the proceedings but it isn't enough to make up for a tepid and overly familiar story with an allegedly shocking conclusion that most viewers will seem coming from far away.

HERE BEFORE: Still reeling from the death of her younger daughter years before, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) meets the new family that has moved in next door to her and her husband and son and strikes up an immediate friendship with their young daughter, Megan (Niamh Dornan) that takes a strange turn when odd things that the girl says lead her to conclude that she may be the reincarnation of her own dead child. As usual, Riseborough knocks it out of the park with her performance as Laura, a woman whose struggles to put the past behind her crumble in the face of the possibility that her child has somehow come back to her. Unfortunately, she is let down by a screenplay that is so hackneyed and familiar that most genre fans will be more consumed with trying to predict how the story will resolve itself (Hint--it is pretty lame) than in getting truly involved with it as it unfolds.


THE HUNT FOR PLANET B: If the first wave of space exploration was symbolized by men who had the combination of grit, guts ambition and other stuff, the current emphasis appears to favor intelligence over machismo and is even allowing women a place of prominence that would have been unheard of back in the day. Although ostensibly a look at the development and construction of the James Webb Space Telescope, which will hopefully greatly expand our knowledge of what is out there in the universe, this fascinating documentary from Nathaniel Kahn ("My Architect") real focus is on the female scientists involved with the project and how they are paving the way for both space exploration and women who wish to pursue careers in science. If you enjoyed such past looks at the US space program as "For All Mankind" and "Apollo 11," you will want to seek this one out to get a look at its future.

JAKOB'S WIFE: Anne (Barbara Crampton), long taken for granted by her inattentive pastor husband (Larry Fessenden), flirts with the idea of taking up with an old flame who has returned to town when she is attacked by a mysterious creature. She not only survives but finds herself growing bolder and more assertive in ways that she likes, though this all comes with a heavy and increasingly gruesome price. This effort from Travis Stevens will put genre buffs in the mind of several of the non-zombie films of George Romero, especially "Season of the Witch" and "Martin," but he never quite finds the right tone to put across the combination of black comedy and blood red horror he is offering up. That said, the film is still sort of worth seeing simply for Crampton, the genre icon who delivers one of the very best performances of her entire career, one that allows you to fully sympathize with Anne despite the things she finds herself increasingly compelled to do and increasingly unwilling to do without.

NOT GOING QUIETLY: Ady Barkan is an activist dedicated to social justice and healthcare reform who did not let his diagnosis of ALS interfere with his work. After undergoing to horrors of the current healthcare system first hand, he, backed by his Be A Hero PAC, set off of a grueling cross-country tour that saw him once again demanding healthcare reform and confronting elected officials who voted against it to get them to explain why. This documentary from Nicholas Bruckman follows Barkan on his tour and while the film is not exactly subtle or nuanced, that is hardly the point that it is trying to make. This is pure advocacy filmmaking that is designed to spur viewers into pursuing their own forms of activism and in that regard, it is a success.


OFFSEASON: Marie (Jocelin Donahue), accompanied by her friend George (you can't have a real film festival without Joe Swanberg turning up somewhere), heads off to an isolated island community off the Florida coast--one that is closed off to non-residents during the offseason--when she hears that the grave of her estranged mother (Melora Walters) has been vandalized and then finds her every effort to leave thwarted by some mysterious force. Not even the working-overtime fog machines that appear to be cranking away during virtually every scene to add atmosphere to writer-director Mickey Keating's joint can quite disguise the utter predictability of the story, which borrows plenty of ideas from other films (especially the works of Jacques Tourneur and John Carpenter) but doesn't seem to have much of an idea of what made them work in the first place.



OUR FATHER: Still reeling from the recent suicide of their estranged father, two sisters (Baize Buzan and Allison Torem) are shocked to discover that he had a heretofore unknown brother and set off on a quest to find him and perhaps get some much needed answers and closure in their own lives. This Chicago-set indie comedy-drama from Bradley Grant is a little aimless at times and is never quite as funny or poignant as it would like to be. However, the interplay between the two leads is often entertaining and veteran character actor Austin Pendleton turns up late in the proceedings for the film's single best and most touching sequence. If it ultimately did not quite work for me in the end, it is just interesting enough to make me curious about Grant's next project.

PAUL DOOD'S DEADLY LUNCH BREAK: A man's dreams of reality show stardom are cruelly dashed when his journey to the audition are thwarted by the machinations of five incredibly selfish people that he has the misfortune to encounter along the way. Determined to get satisfaction, he plans out an elaborate revenge scheme in which he will kill all five over the course of his lunch break, only to find those plans going weirdly and bloodily awry as well. The film tries to mix together whimsy and dark comedy but the blend just does not come off here--the occasionally gruesome bits clash uneasily with the wackiness and it all just becomes tiresome after a while. That said, the film does deserve some points for resurrecting the beloved Giorgio Moroder-Philip Oakley 80s classic "Together in Electric Dreams" but in the end, you would be better served by skipping this one and trying to track down a copy of "Electric Dreams" instead.

SOUND OF VIOLENCE: At the age of 10, deaf girl Alexis mysteriously regained her hearing as the result of the visceral sensations brought about by witnessing the brutal murder of her entire family. Years later, Alexis (Jasmin Savoy Brown), now a teacher and an experimenter of sounds, is once again threatened with the loss of her hearing, she goes about a series of "experiments" designed to create a soundscape that might replicate those sensations and help her regain her hearing--one that involves her recording the death throes of people as she murders them in ways so elaborate that Jigsaw might have advised her to simplify. The premise is certainly intriguing but the execution does not work as Alex Noyer struggles to find the right tone--it never quite figures out if it wants to be jokey or serious (Brown's attempts to bring sensitivity to her character are undermined by the insanely overblown contraptions she uses to dispatch her victims--and makes the tactical error of sending Alexis on her brutal kill spree so quickly that it is hard to work up any sense of genuine sympathy towards her.

SOY CUBANA: The Vocal Vidas are an all-female a cappella quartet based in Cuba who have entertained audiences for years with their blend of jazz, blues and Afro-Cuban musical styles. This documentary from Jeremy Ungar and Ivaylo Getov introduces us to the four members and observes both their relationship as a group and their personal lives and follows them on their path to fulfill the dream of performing in the United States. The film itself is not especially great--some of the filmmaking is a bit clunky and there are way too many audience reaction shots during the performance footage--but the four women are so engaging and the music is so infectious that the end result is still pretty entertaining despite the flaws

THE SPINE OF NIGHT: If you ever wondered what the old video game "Dragon's Lair" might have been like if the characters were frequently undressed and slaughtered each other in spectacularly gory fashion throughout, then this super-violent animated fantasy in which a warrior (Lucy Lawless) recounts a number of stories about the battles inspired by those who want to possess a magical blue flowers with incredible powers. As someone who finds it difficult to abide by most elaborate fantasy narratives as a rule, I must confess that I found this film from Phillip Gellat and Morgan Galen King to be fairly tedious going throughout that utilized spurting blood and rampant nudity (the Lawless character is literally naked throughout) to try to make up for a weak narrative. On the other hand, I did like the cheerfully retro rotoscope animation style that was presumably employed as a sort of tribute to the works of the great Ralph Bakshi--the end result is a film that doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense at any point but at least looks good while not doing it.

SPRING VALLEY: Most people were shocked, though maybe not surprised, a few years ago when a viral video hit showing School Resource Officer Ben Fields roughing up a Black female student in a South Carolina high school when she quietly refused to leave class. This engrossing documentary from Garrett Zeygetis examines the entire case in granular detail utilizing interviews with all the key players (during which Fields manages to come off nearly as bad as he did in the original video) as well as commentary from observers such as activist Vivian Anderson, geographer Janae Davis and cultural critic Robin Di Angelo that highlights the fact that this was not an isolated incident involving a bad apple but just one more example of a racial inequity that is so deeply embedded that specialized approaches are necessary if there is to be any hope of eliminating it.

SWAN SONG: Under normal circumstances, when you see Udo Kier turn up in the cast of a festival film, you can usually expect it to be a weird and decidedly outre endeavor putting his equally offbeat screen persona to good use. Therefore, it may come as a shock to his fans to find him taking the lead role in this sunny and sentimental comedy-drama in which he plays a now-retired hairdresser--dubbed by one former client as "the Liberace of Sandusky,"--who escapes from his nursing home and journeys across town to do the hair of a former client for her funeral and encounters numerous ghosts from his past along the way.





UNITED STATES VS. REALITY WINNER: In 2017, NSA contractor Reality Winner came across a classified report hinting at reports of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election and leaked it to an online news organization. That group, in turn, revealed her name to the government and she was arrested under a provision of the Espionage Act, repeatedly denied bail and eventually sentenced to more than five years in prison, the longest sentence ever given to a whistleblower. Using interviews with family, friends and observers as well as a dramatic reenactment of her interrogation by FBI agents at her home, filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck recounts Winner's story in a way that will leave viewers feeling sympathetic towards her and outraged by her plight. At the same time, however, there are a lot of questions surrounding the case that Kennebeck was either unwilling or unable to delve into and it leaves you hoping that another filmmaker will one day present a more detailed accounting of this very important story.

VIOLET: Justine Bateman makes her directorial debut with this psychodrama about a seemingly successful film development executive (Olivia Munn) who nevertheless finds herself being constantly criticized and second-guessed by her cruelly malevolent inner voice (Justin Theroux). When she discovers that the voice may have been lying to her all along inspires her to reconsider all of her life choices even as the voice goes to great lengths to try to reestablish control. The film is not without its pleasures--Bateman has certainly made an ambitious choice for her first film and Munn delivers her best performance to date--but after a certain point, it just starts to get a little repetitive and by the end, it feels like a brilliant short film that has been awkwardly expanded to feature length.

WE ARE AS GODS: Essentially a real-life Zelig who has managed to find himself at the forefront of any number of important movements, ranging from LSD and environmentalism (he helped to create "The Whole Earth Catalogue") to cyberspace and beyond, Stewart Brand has certainly had an interesting life and this documentary from directors Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado tries to cram it all into 94 minutes that cover everything from psychedelic experiments with the Grateful Dead to his insistence that mankindís only hope for survival is to use advanced DNA technology to bring extinct species like the wooly mammoth back to life, a concept that frankly horrifies many of his former colleagues. Brand has had a jam-packed life but by trying to get all of it into the film's relatively brief run time, most of it ends up becoming a blur with only the stuff involving the creatures he hopes to de-extinct getting a chance to breathe.

WEWORK: OR THE MAKING AND BREAKING OF A $47 BILLION UNICORN: The rise and fall of WeWork, a joint venture from entrepreneurs Adam Neumann and Adam McKelvey that hoped to invest the entire notion of workspace environments and, thanks to canny marketing and Neumannís slick manner, grew to a business valued at nearly $47 billion before a failed IPO triggered a catastrophic fall that left the business nearly bankrupt in just six weeks, was so spectacular that it was only a matter of time before filmmakers came along to investigate the story in minute detail to try to understand how such a thing could have happened. In this documentary, Jed Rothstein takes us through the whole strange story to examine how a combination of ambition, hubris and outright greed both wildly inflated the companyís worth and then brought it back down to Earth just as suddenly. The result is a fairly comprehensive look at the story, though it does come up a little short when it comes to the question of why so many people fell for WeWork and Neumann even though such recent economic catastrophes as the collapse of the housing and dot-com industries should have served as warnings that the only thing adding up was Neumannís bank account.

WHEN CLAUDE GOT SHOT: Having moved his family from Milwaukee to suburban Charlotte in the hopes of escaping violence, Claude Motley returned to Milwaukee for a class reunion a few years ago and was shot in the face during a carjacking attempt. Two days later, his assailant--a 15-year-old-boy whose parents had done everything they could to remove him from the violence of the streets--was shot by a nurse during another carjacking attempt. This documentary from Brad Lichtenstein follows these three people and their families as the attempt to negotiate the fallout from the events, ranging from the nurseís guilt over the shooting to Motley's guilt over playing a part in sending yet another young Black teenager into the prison system despite his pleas for leniency to the judge. The end result is a powerful piece of cinematic journalism that examines the story fully and fairly from all sides and leads to an extraordinary in which Motley and the boy, both still bearing the scars of their previous encounter, meet to talk about what happened and where they are going from there.



link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4300
originally posted: 03/22/21 06:25:35
last updated: 03/22/21 08:03:46
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