Well folks, the scooters have been cleared, the venues have been hosed, and SXSW has come to a close. On Friday, your humble correspondent shared a few thoughts on the festival’s non-fiction offerings; here are my impressions on the best and worst of the rest.
SXSW was one of the first major film festivals to make television shows — usually premieres — part of their line-up (my first trip there included the debut of a little something called “Girls”). I mostly stuck to movies this year, but I couldn’t resist this bow:
What We Do in the Shadows
Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement debuted the pilot episode of their FX adaptation of their 2014 cult fave (which itself played SXSW back in 2014). And though they’re certainly missed as performers, WWDITS TV adroitly harnesses the subversive inclinations and dry wit of the film, and finds further comic possibilities in the incongruence between the underworld and day-to-day roommate living; there are plenty of big laughs in the first half-hour, but the biggest is probably “And I deeply apologize for the Stairmaster.” (You’ll see.) And the show’s team seems to know they can’t merely coast in the invention of the source material — the first new addition to the mythos, an “energy vampire” who walks among us and sucks our life force via boring us to death (think the chattiest, dullest guy you work with) is a stroke of genius.
THE BIG ONES
Studios love to bring a potential crowd-pleaser to SXSW, unveiling it to the notoriously rowdy crowd at the Paramount Theater and coasting on the post-screening Twitter buzz for weeks. This year’s offerings were a little more complicated.
There’s a lot to like in the latest collaboration between director Jonathan Levine and star Seth Rogen (Levine also helmed 50/50 and The Night Before), and an outsized percentage of that is Charlize Theron’s performance; it really seems like there’s nothing she can’t do (it’s kind of ridiculous, frankly). And Rogen is plenty charming, and gets his laughs. But he doesn’t really bother to create a character the way she does, and like so many of his movies, Long Shot is too damn long, too prone to sappiness, and too convinced that every sophisticated beauty is hot for stoner man-children. I get that he’s a personality comic, and he’s creating vehicles that center on that persona and bounce it off to the world at large. But if he should be careful, because if he doesn’t start trying a little harder, he could end up with movies that are less like late W.C. Fields and more like late Adam Sandler.
One of this year’s wink-wink “work in progress” screenings (this sure looked done, except for the missing end credits), Stuber is a buddy cop action/comedy that very occasionally subverts the moldy clichés therein, but more often than not just embraces them. It checks a lot of boxes, from the incongruent soft pop accompaniment to a big action beat (they trot that out twice) to the big warehouse climax, and stumbles about as often as it soars. That said, it’s got a solid cast, and leads Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista generate the right antagonistic dynamic; Nanjiani is especially welcome — his delivery and persona are so funny, he manages to turn even his weakest lines into big laughs.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out only had one serious flaw, but it’s shared by his follow-up: he’s so skilled at crafting everyday, unsettling tension, and creating situations that are frightening for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on, that any explanation he offers is going to feel like a comedown. It’s a more pressing issue this time around, though certainly not enough to derail this sharp, frightening, strange mixture of home invasion thriller and doppelganger horror. Performances are smashing across the board, but Lupita Nyong’o is particularly bracing; her primary character is a convincing portrait of normalcy after trauma, but her scary half is the stuff of nightmares.
There are elements to admire in these titles — a good performance here, a stylistic flourish there — but they just don’t quite come together.
Run This Town
Writer/director Ricky Tollman plunges us right in to his dramatization of the fall of Toronto mayor Rob Ford with lots of split screens and fast talk, and his film has a great, twitchy energy — maybe you need it when you’re telling the story of a crackhead mayor. It’s a two-pronged script, told from the perspective of the staff that kept propping Ford up and the journalists who tried to bring him down, and it’s technically impressive and well performed (though Damian Lewis’ “look how transformed I am” turn as Ford is a bit much). But Tollman is so busy dazzling us with his flashy editing and his stick-and-move chronology that he ends up muddying up the narrative; you can tell he’s watched a lot of Sidney Lumet, without noticing that Lumet knew the value of just telling his story straight.
The Beach Bum
Harmony Korine’s latest begins promisingly, using stream of consciousness cutting and sun-soaked photography to illustrate the day-to-day of Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a zonked-out former author who spends his days and nights moving through Key West in a pot and beer haze. It’s a portrait of decadence that’s playful and evocative; the problem is, that’s all Korine’s got. Things happen to Moondog, but the picture’s style and storytelling remain maddeningly constant, so The Beach Bum is exhausting in the way so much of Korine’s work is — he’s riding out the same groove, the same tiresome tone of gleeful bad behavior, for so long that it becomes monotonous. By the second hour, this viewer was overcome by the oddest sensation: the realization that, taken in too large a dose, even hedonism can get dull.
BEST OF THE FEST (RUNNERS-UP)
The Art of Self-Defense
Riley Stearns (Faults) writes and directs this horrifyingly funny story of a painfully mild-mannered accountant (Jesse Eisenberg, presumably doing pittance for Batman v Superman) who gets absolutely wailed on by muggers and decides to learn karate, because “I want to be what intimidates me.” Alessandro Nivola is his instructor, a quiet yet firm voice of male affirmation (it’s a sublime performance) who turns him into a toxic tough guy — and then keeps pushing. Art is both wildly funny and deeply disturbing, and though Sterns has some trouble navigating the turns into bleaker territory, his closing passages are jaw-dropping.
La Mala Noche (The Longest Night)
A tough, hard movie from Ecuador and Mexico, in which an aging sex worker finally loses control of her spiraling existence. She’s got problems, with drugs and debt and family, but writer/director Gabriela Calvache approaches her with humanity rather than judgment, as well as a keen understanding of the various forces that keep her exactly where she is. In other words, it’s a vivid character drama for an hour or so, and then it really kicks into high gear with a tense, scary climax that snaps all the seemingly disparate pieces together. Probably too grim for a general audience, to be certain, but those who can lock in with this one will be richly rewarded.
Sword of Trust
If Mel, the cranky pawnshop owner played by Marc Maron in Lynn Shelton’s latest, wasn’t created specifically for the comic/actor/podcaster, it was certainly reconfigured for him: his backstory includes moving from New Mexico to New York City, flirting with music, and going from chaotic and addicted to mellow and sober. He wears this guy as comfortably as the cowboy boots he acquires in its opening scene, and his lived-in performance is the main draw of this light but affable comedy/drama — though Jillian Bell, Jon Bass, and Michaela Watkins all have their moments, and Shelton’s direction is (as ever) detailed and economical.
BEST OF THE FEST
Writer/director Tom Cullen (who co-starred in Weekend) helms this intensely intimate and at times uncomfortable character study, which hopscotches through six years of a complicated relationship. Tatiana Maslany and Jay Duplass forcefully capture the specific rhythms of both an old and new couple — the giddiness with which they open themselves up initially, and then how they’ll go for those soft spots later, and push on them until they bruise. There are scenes here that are so personal, it feels like we shouldn’t even be in the room. But we are, and the authenticity of these moments, of both great joy and great pain, is astonishing.
Stella Meghie’s latest falls into the grand tradition of Obvious Child and The Incredible Jessica James: films that seem designed to turn a quirky supporting player into a straight-up movie star. The beneficiary this time around is Saturday Night Live’s Sasheer Zamata, who boasts killer charisma, sly comic timing, and a toolbox of pettiness and shade that is downright aspirational. She plays a struggling stand-up who spends a weekend at her mom’s country bed-and-breakfast with her ex-boyfriend — they’ve remained “friends,” you see — and his new girlfriend. I could frankly watch an entire movie of Zamata humiliating said girlfriend, and The Weekend is nearly that. But Meghie’s razor-sharp script isn’t afraid of the emotions its characters are hiding, and she knows exactly how real to get, for how long. It’s a wise, sexy treat.