SXSW ~ Capsule Reviews, Vol. 5

SXSW Review ~ Hypochondriac

Synopsis: A young potter’s life devolves into chaos as he loses the function of his body while being haunted by the physical manifestation of his childhood trauma.
Director: Addison Heimann
Running Length: 96 minutes
Review: Though they’ve been getting more screen time within the last decade, most of the queer characters in horror films have been more coded than center stage throughout the genre’s history. They haven’t had much of an opportunity for prominence. I’m not sure if writer/director Addison Heimann had that consciously on his mind when making Hypochondriac, based in part on his journey through a nervous breakdown. Still, that real-life experience gives his onscreen proxy an opening to pave the way for future LGBTQ+ representation. Zach Villa takes us through a significant emotional arc as a man forced to confront his mentally unstable mother who returns to his life just as he has settled into a competitive job and comfortable relationship. Memories of the past shatter the calm waters of the present, plunging him into a psychological spiral he cannot escape. Is it his mother exerting some power over him, his mental illness emerging, or something darker still out to destroy everything he loves? Some aspects of Hypochondriac are easily comparable to 2001’s Donnie Darko, but writing it off as a gay version of that cult classic is giving short shrift to this well-done and emotionally vulnerable piece. Working with a smaller budget means the film sometimes looks a little dingy, but otherwise, it impressively manages its metaphors.

SXSW Review ~ Pretty Problems

Synopsis: Jack and Lindsay are invited on a getaway trip with affluent strangers: down the rabbit hole and into the most unhinged weekend of their lives. Can their relationship survive?
Director: Kestrin Pantera
Running Length: 103 minutes
Review: This far into the SXSW experience, it’s easy for the movies to begin to blend together at times. In a way, they can be indistinguishable from one another because all have similar aesthetics and an overall vibe, clearly a focus by the festival curators. Those that stick out from the fray are such welcome surprises, and in a year of enjoyably strong offerings, Pretty Problems was a leader of the pack in laughs and consistency. A new friend invites a middle-class California couple to a posh weekend gathering in wine country that stirs up buttoned-down emotions in their stagnant marriage as they attempt to enjoy the life of luxury. The wife wants more of life and thinks marriage holds her back; the husband feels the opposite. Their hosts provide an attractive mirror to their relationship, not to mention a second couple, a himbo and his ditzy girlfriend so dim they think the ice in Antarctica is made out of penguin urine. 

Reading up on the film after, I learned that two couples are married in real life, but not to each other, and one of them wrote the movie. With all that involvement, you might expect the material to be slanted in one direction, but there’s a spreading of the wealth that gives everyone more than a few spotlight moments. I laughed out loud multiple times and rewound a few scenes to watch them again. I especially liked J.J. Nolan’s eccentric hostess because you never quite know whether she invited this random couple along for the friendship potential or merely her entertainment. Thankfully, there’s little of the mean-spiritedness that often creeps into these types of films. Any of the problems in Pretty Problems aren’t solved by taking others down a peg. Keep your eyes out for this one.

SXSW Review ~ It Is in Us All

Synopsis: A formidable man who cares for nothing is forced to confront his self-destructive core when a violent car crash challenges him to face his truth.
Director: Antonia Campbell-Hughes
Running Length: 92 minutes
Review: Ooo… doesn’t the logline for this film sound dark and mysterious? That’s all I had to go off of, and with my choice of titles dwindling at SXSW, I’ll admit this was a selection born out of a need to watch whatever wasn’t a documentary (I had watched several in a row at that point) so, this Irish thriller got the green light. Knowing little about the film was the way to go because writer/director Antonia Campbell-Hughes (who also has a small but pivotal role) is good about doling out tiny bits of info, never letting us get too far ahead or revealing more than necessary. Opening with the arrival of Hamish (a stunning Cosmo Jarvis, The Shadow of Violence) in Ireland, he’s headed back to his mother’s hometown when he’s involved in a horrible car crash that leaves him badly injured and a young boy dead. Recuperating in the home of his recently deceased aunt and refusing much care from anyone trying to help, he does find a local teenager’s (Rhys Mannion) acute interest in him strangely intriguing. Campbell-Hughes does well in bringing everyone (including the viewer) right to the edge but struggles during the latter half of It Is in Us All with committing to decision and definition. That frustrated me at times, especially when it feels like there are only two options available in any given situation for these haunted people. One thing is for sure, Jarvis is a star on the rise. 

SXSW Review ~ B**ch A*s

Synopsis: A gang initiation goes wrong when a group of four recruits break into a house of horror, as they’re all forced to play deadly games for their lives.
Director: Bill Posley
Running Length: 83 minutes
Review: There’s always one. The one film you see and wonder how it managed to make it past the adjudicators of a festival selection staff. Of all the movies I saw at SXSW, Bitch Ass sounded the most interesting, not just because it was a headliner in the horror-themed Midnighters series, but because Bill Posley’s urban Saw-ish set-up presented itself as if it might offer a bit of fun with the frights. That illusion went out the door when this cheap-o, sloppy endeavor began. Attempting to emulate the analog experience by having Candyman himself, Tony Todd introducing the film as an old VHS discovery, the foolish choice of having the movie framed in a way that cuts off key parts of the screen (and therefore much of the credits) just made me think there was something wrong with my TV. The ramshackle, public access look continues for the next 80 punishing minutes. Whatever fraction of decent acting there is gets undone by poorly conceived dialogue and pacing that will try even the most forgiving horror fans. Undoubtedly the worst film to be shown at SXSW.

SXSW Review ~ Spaz

Synopsis: Steve ‘Spaz’ Williams is a pioneer in computer animation, but an appetite for anarchy and reckless disregard for authority may have cost him the recognition he deserved.
Director: Scott Leberecht
Running Length: 86 minutes
Review: I passed up this documentary a few times because of the title. Rookie error! Once I had time to read about it, I realized that Spaz (an outdated term the movie acknowledges at the top) should have sat at the top of my list from the beginning. Scott Lebrecht’s look at the life of legendary computer animator Steve Williams is an honest examination of the artist’s landmark achievements and the fall from grace and alcohol issues that were his ultimate downfall. Interviewing Williams now, while there’s still a sparkle in his eye, the image we get is a far cry from the maverick pioneer that was behind the first of their kind effects in The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and Jurassic Park. Through interviews with family, friends, and former co-workers, the viewer is taken through each step of the journey, and it’s clear how much respect Williams has from his peers. The personal demons won out, though, and he begins the film as a loud, beer-swilling storyteller that looks back with some regret…but it’s not where things wind up. Movie fans will love the behind-the-scenes info Lebrecht digs up and the slick way the 86 minute film is assembled. Very entertaining.

SXSW Review ~ The Thief Collector

Synopsis: In 1985, Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre,” one of the most valuable paintings of the 20th century, was cut from its frame at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. 32 years later, the painting was found hanging in a New Mexico home.
Director: Allison Otto
Running Length: 93 minutes
Review: This was one of the stretch assignments I tasked myself with to expand my horizons. I’m all for a good heist documentary, but at first, I thought The Thief Collector, about a New Mexico couple found to have stolen a priceless painting by Willem de Kooning, was speaking a different language to me. Not being from the art world (hence why I also watched The Art of Making It), I’m not acutely familiar with de Kooning’s work and certainly never heard of “Woman-Ochre” before watching Allison Otto’s colorful detective piece. After reading some good notices about Otto’s film, I gave this one a go, and the results were mixed. While I appreciated hearing about this strange, uncovered mystery and how the case developed into more than just an investigation of a stolen painting, an overreliance on dramatic recreations always tips me off that there was a lack of material necessary for a complete film. I think these filmed segments with actors held the movie back and brought in a faux reality that took me out of the film too much. Much more successful were the quirky characters Otto located to chat with and a few of the crazy theories tossed out along the way regarding motive. I can easily see this one turning up on Netflix.

SXSW Review ~ Bad Axe

Synopsis: A real-time portrait of 2020 unfolds as an Asian-American family in Trump’s rural America fights to keep their restaurant and American dream alive in the face of a pandemic, Neo-Nazis, and generational scars from the Killing Fields.
Director: David Siev
Running Length: 100 minutes
Review: One of the last movies I saw at SXSW was unquestionably the best. I’d been trying to actively stay away from anything that has to deal directly with the pandemic that has been gripping the world for the last two years, so I was ready to grit my teeth for the good of David Siev’s film. Involving one family living in the same house through much of the 2020 pandemic, Siev has used his family and family business as the subjects of Bad Axe, his look into what it was like to be a minority business owner trying to stay afloat during uncertain times. Along with his siblings, Siev worked at his family’s restaurant and visited there often to observe how things changed over time, from navigating take-out orders to dealing with annoyed customers that refused to wear masks indoors. It’s not just the arguing at restaurants; the siblings themselves all have individual reckonings of their own that we watch unfold. At the head of all this are Siev’s strong-willed parents, a Cambodian immigrant father and a Mexican mother, who have different approaches to adjusting to life with new protocols. When the Black Lives Matter movement comes to town, new troubles arise when the mostly Republican community gets wind of Siev’s potential documentary and participation from particular Siev family and their employees in the cause. While I often watched the movie riveted into silence, Siev captures many humorous moments as well, all aching with a sincerity we can relate to. As much as we want to forget the last two years, consider Bad Axe a fulfilling catch-all that reflects an experience many either witnessed firsthand or should be more aware of.

SXSW Review ~ Cha Cha Real Smooth

Synopsis: A young man who works as a Bar Mitzvah party host strikes up a friendship with a mother and her autistic daughter.
Director: Cooper Raiff
Running Length: 107 minutes
Review: Ask anyone that attended SXSW to name the one film on the programming schedule that will likely wind up making the most money, and everyone will point to writer/director/star Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth. And with good reason. The film is extremely entertaining; honest, and moving on a level we don’t get that often in movies. Raiff plays Andrew, an aimless recent college grad living at home who finds some small wins when he becomes an in-demand party host on the Bar Mitzvah circuit in his hometown. At one such event, he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Bonding quickly with mother and daughter, Andrew’s plans for the future get thrown into turmoil when his feelings for Domino get complicated after the arrival of her fiancée. Raiff’s insightful screenplay affords a fantastic arc for Johnson to deliver her best performance to date, not to mention introducing Burghardt as a delightful talent and the engaging Raiff. From beginning to end, the movie is an absolute joy. After being bought by Apple out of its premiere at Sundance, expect this one to get the royal treatment as it premiers in a prime spot and gets positioned as a major awards contender. 

SXSW Review ~ Jethica

Synopsis: When Jessica’s stalker surprises her in New Mexico, she must seek help from beyond the grave to get rid of him for good.
Director: Pete Ohs
Running Length: 70 minutes
Review: At the outset, I see the 70-minute length for Jethica, and I get excited because, after a long week of movies, I’m up for a film that is all meat, no fat. While it winds up having some gristle around the edges, some interesting things are going on in this odd duck effort from Pete Ohs that I grew to like even more after it was over and I had time to sit with it. Not for those looking for a polished product but perfect for patrons of ultra-indie shoestring and popsicle stick-made treasures, it takes a while for Jethica to reveal its intentions, but once it gets started, you can’t quite get it to slow down. Framed as a post-coital ghost story, Elena sees her old friend Jessica at a gas station and asks her out for coffee. Over a cup, Jessica lets Elena know why she’s back in town and eventually all about a man stalking her. When the man (Will Madden) shows up in town, Jessica realizes just how deep his devotion is; at the same time, she understands the trouble she’s brought home. Ohs packs Jethica with several large twists, some obvious, one not so much, that come in quick order, so stay with it and pay attention to some of the hysterical dialogue given to Jessica’s stalker. Yes, there are horror elements to this, but horror doesn’t always have to involve blood and gore; sometimes, relationships and annoying partners are hell.

SXSW Review ~ We Feed People

Synopsis: A chronicle of how José Andrés and his nonprofit rebuilds nations in the wake of a disaster, providing healthy food to those affected.
Director: Ron Howard
Running Length: 89 minutes
Review: Oscar-winning director Ron Howard has put aside the Hollywood game for a bit and turned his lens on stories impacting the real world. Over the past six years, he’s directed more documentaries than feature films, many of which have spoken to various crises facing parts of our country and abroad. His latest, We Feed People, looks at one man’s mission to form a coalition that ensures food is available to all in need during disasters. Like his previous documentary, 2020’s Rebuilding Paradise, about the California wildfires and the devastation they caused to one community, the footage Howard and his crew can get is extraordinary. The interviews with those involved/affected are great advertisements to fundraise, and eventually, that’s precisely what We Feed People starts to feel like: an 89-minute fundraising advertisement. I appreciated learning about Chef José Andrés (he prefers cook) and his work. Still, by the end, it started to feel like it was leaning toward a pitch for our business rather than a presentation to be informative. 

Movie Review ~ X

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1979, a group of young filmmakers set out to make an adult film in rural Texas, but when their reclusive, elderly hosts catch them in the act, the cast finds themselves fighting for their lives.
Stars: Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Scott Mescudi, Martin Henderson, Owen Campbell, Stephen Ure
Director: Ti West
Rated: R
Running Length: 115 minutes
SXSW Review: Here
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: We’re all about honesty here at The MN Movie Man, so I can share with you that as excited as everyone was when A24 and Ti West dropped the trailer for X a few months back to announce its impending arrival, I wasn’t drooling like most.  Don’t get me wrong, the release of any modestly budgeted horror film is a cause for celebration because it continues to give clout to a genre often overlooked or dismissed entirely.  There was something about how the preview presented itself, as this extreme answer to our humble prayers for blood, guts, boobs, and gore that rubbed me the wrong way.  Even going as old-school as you want, that’s not what defined the best movies in the genre – intelligent construction and creative ideas pushed the film into the history books.

I had to search through my closet to find a hat I didn’t mind chewing on because after seeing the completed film, I’m finding that I need to eat my words a little.  As crazy f***ed up as the previews for West’s movie have been so far, A24 has saved the best stuff for audiences waiting to see stars Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Martin Henderson, & more in this gore-gy of old-school bloody scares.  Set in 1979 and enjoying every second of it, it’s raunchy and randy more than anything, with the actual violence erupting in spurts.  Spending his time directing television for the last six years, West is back on the big screen with what is sure to be a high-water mark for his career.

Forgiving the film for starting at the end, with a Texan sheriff arriving at the scene of a bloody massacre and then jumping back 24 hours to where it all began, you’re instantly back in that transitional time between the carefree pre-AIDS period of the late ‘70s before the ‘80s welcomed in a new reality.  Young Maxine (Goth, Suspiria) stares at herself in the mirror, delivering the kind of “You’re going to be a star” pep talk many young women likely did before entering a world from which there is no looking back.  Here it’s the universe of adult entertainment, a business her boyfriend Wayne (Henderson, Everest) is hoping to break into by making a cheap XXX-rated film with a few friends over the weekend.

Loaded into a van with co-stars Jackson (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, Don’t Look Up) and bottle-blonde Bobby-Lynn (Brittany Snow, Pitch Perfect), along with crew members Lorraine (Jenna Ortega, Scream) and RJ (Owen Campbell, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), the group is headed for a secluded farm Wayne rented cheaply for the weekend.  Arriving at their location shoot, they find old-timer Howard (Stephen Ure, Mortal Engines) and his wife Pearl (both under layers of well-designed latex to age them) not exactly offering a warm greeting.  Paying little attention to several red flags, including a nearby lake that’s got an alligator problem, the gang commences their shoot…and stirs up the murderous instincts of their hosts in the process.

The beauty of the horror in West’s film is how what we’ve come to associate as traditional horror almost takes a significant backseat to the horrific realities of the time and place the movie is set.  Through signage and television programming, we’re constantly being shown images of religious revivals that feel oppressive.  There’s a feeling from all that they might be able to do something different with other talents (Bobby-Lynn sings, accompanied by Jackson in one well-orchestrated sequence), but it’s their place in the pecking order that has left them choosing porn as a ticket out of town.  That most pay with their lives for that ambition is the real tragedy of the story.

Please make no mistake; it’s terrifically gruesome as well.  Always creative in the way he offs characters, West (The Innkeepers) spares no one an easy death.  Like Tarantino so expertly does, your mind fills in many of the blanks, so he only has to suggest what is happening, and the grisliest violence happens off the frame, but it’s so visceral you’ll swear you actually saw it.  It’s all well designed by a crack team of visual artists, with the effects in that department and the overall prosthetic make-up being a star attraction.  One character is so utterly dependent on that make-up design, and I won’t say who, that a large part of the success of the performance is due to our not being able to see the rubbery creases when they move their head.

Speaking of performances, while horror traditionally isn’t known for its strength in this area, West has a full cast of dependable talent, and no one disappoints.  Snow takes on a decidedly adult role for, I think, the first time in her long career.  Campbell and Ortega (having a whopper of a 2022 already) make for an intriguing couple as we watch their romance crack under the production of the adult film. Henderson is a hoot as the producer with stars in his eyes; watching the 48-year-old run around in a thong for an extended period shows he is game for fun.  It’s all about Goth though, playing a tricky role that I have to be careful revealing too much.  Most reviewers will go the distance and tell you, but I’m going to hold back and let you discover it as I did.   Anchoring the movie with a confidence that is more than just Final Girl bravura, Goth has created a one-of-a-kind leading lady, and it will be her calling card role for quite some time.

I tell you often to wait for the credits to roll to see what happens at the end, but with X, I can’t stress enough how important it is to wait until the end.  There is something at the tail end of the movie that you absolutely, positively, must not miss.  It’s worth those extra minutes, and you won’t be sorry you stayed.  By that point, you’ll be riding such positive adrenaline waves courtesy of West and his crew that you won’t mind. 

Movie Review ~ Master

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two African American women begin to share disturbing experiences at a predominantly white college in New England.
Stars: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam, Amber Gray
Director: Mariama Diallo
Rated: NR
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Working in the business for the last twenty-two years, I’d say it’s high time that a star like Regina Hall began to get her due. With a little over a week to go before she joins Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes as the host of the 94th Academy Awards, Hall is staying busy with the release of her new movie for Amazon Studios on Prime Video, Master. It’s the kind of role that several actresses could have played and done quite well with, but there’s something about how Hall approaches the character that helps her stand out from the crowd. It helps the movie too.

Full disclosure time. I had heard about Master after it premiered at Sundance to some enthusiasm and from naysayers that found problems with writer/director Mariama Diallo’s resolution to an otherwise entertaining blend of real-life horror based on the currently charged racial climate and standard genre tropes. I shrug off these festival notices as foul-moods from the un-showered and those waiting in endless lines only to watch one movie and then race to another. I watched Master at home and, without any pressure, absorbed the film, its timely observances on culture, privilege, and the way we masquerade our societal prejudice.

Hall plays Gail Bishop, recently promoted to new housemaster at the upstate NYC college where she teaches. With its primarily white student population, the college is attempting to be progressive but hides a dark past of systemic racism that’s never been appropriately dealt with. As Gail dives into her new role and feels its limitations, Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) begins her first year alongside a white roommate (Talia Ryder, West Side Story) and peer group. Informed on the first day she’s staying in the same room that one of the college’s first black students hung herself in years earlier, it isn’t long before Jasmine is having visions of something coming for her. First when she sleeps, then when she begins an old habit of sleepwalking, then while she’s awake.

As if dealing with ghostly business isn’t enough, Jasmine crosses paths with Gail when she files a complaint against a black teacher (Broadway star Amber Gray) she feels has graded her unfairly. This complaint coincides with the teacher’s evaluation for tenure, putting Gail in a difficult position having to choose between securing her friend’s future or siding with her colleagues who feel she’s not qualified. The college and its hallowed halls are full of many secrets, though. Eventually, Jasmine’s investigation into her nightmarish visitor and Gail’s escalating oddities around her own house will intensify into a series of reveals that will open their eyes to a more insidious evil they hadn’t prepared for.

I recently watched one of Diallo’s short films and can already tell she’s a director with a voice we will be hearing from for a long time. She possesses a way not only with composing beautifully shot scenes but in capturing a more profound emotion out of her actors. Hall, Renee, and Gray have such razor-sharp snap to their scenes, and while some can be attributed to the talent all three possess, much of that credit has to go to Diallo’s observant script. Any supernatural element introduced is accounted for somehow, driving home the message that sometimes the fear we manifest and spread is often very much of our creation.

A lot is going on in Master, and you almost wish the old days of AOL chat rooms were available or the Twitter feeds weren’t such a cesspool of dreck. Otherwise, you could get on these resources and engage with others who have a similar experience with the movie and have trouble articulating it to those who haven’t seen it. Yes, the ending might be too on the nose for some and could bite off more than its prepared to swallow. I found that it ended right about when it needed to, answering the right questions and asking even better ones.

Movie Review ~ Windfall

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man breaks into a tech billionaire’s empty vacation home, but things go sideways when the arrogant mogul and his wife arrive for a last-minute getaway.
Stars: Jason Segal, Lily Collins, Jesse Plemons
Director: Charlie McDowell
Rated: R
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: I’m honestly surprised we haven’t had many more movies like Windfall by this point. Get a script, gather a crew, and find some actors that are friends and have a few weeks between projects. The smaller, the better. Streaming services and studios indie to major would likely bite at the right type of completed project if the price tag were right because these are often easy to produce and promote, earning back the investment quickly. Best of all, if it’s a hit, then everyone’s a winner, and coffers will get full. Should it nosedive out of the gate, it would be easy to brush it under the table as a blip of an experiment that didn’t exactly work out as planned.

I will be in the camp that files Windfall in that “close but no cigar” folder that is chock full of well-intentioned projects (most bearing names like Soderbergh, Marshall, and Howard) that don’t pan out by the time the credits roll. Based on a story idea from star Jason Segal and written as a screenplay by Justin Lader and Andrew Kevin Walker, it’s a four-character thriller from director Charlie McDowell set in Ojai, California. Thriller may be the wrong word because it’s more terse than anything, rarely moving at an escalated pace and often struggling to justify its minimal run time. 

Shot at a pleasant modern home that juts up against an orange grove, if you had told me Windfall started as a play, I would have believed it wholly. As the film begins over an effective Bernard Hermann-ish score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans that is meant to evoke memories of classic Hitchcock, a Nobody (Segal, Our Friend) has made himself comfortable at this home on a sunny day. He’s just about to head out when the owners, a CEO (Jesse Plemons, Game Night), and his Wife (Lily Collins, Inheritance) arrive back unexpectedly. Unable to sneak away before they find him, he holds them hostage while the CEO ransoms himself to pay for the man to go away.

With Plemons and Segal particularly intense, the three actors are excellent at handling Lader and Walker’s mouthfuls of expositional dialogue that steers the characters in the same direction you expect. Never even giving the trio individual names, Lader and Walker blessedly find ways to move them around now and then for a change of scenery, but this is essential a three-hander stage show played out on a larger scale. Though they’re only one year apart in age, Collins and Plemons feel like an oddly matched pair, but then again, no one exactly gels with one another, and perhaps that is the point.

Developments start to pick up when we begin to close in on the final thirty minutes and more of the Nobody’s original reasons for being there emerge. However, by that time, we’re so used to the staleness in the air that these tiny explosions of action come off as corrections instead of natural action. It’s easy to see how strong of a filmmaker McDowell is (he’s also the real-life husband of Collins), but for it to keep the attention it wants from the audience, there needed to be more air let out of the overly talking Windfall.

Movie Review ~ The Outfit


The Facts:

Synopsis: An expert tailor must outwit a dangerous group of mobsters to survive a fateful night.
Stars: Mark Rylance, Zoey Deutch, Johnny Flynn, Dylan O’Brien, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Simon Russell Beale
Director: Graham Moore
Rated: R
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Though movie theaters have been open for many months now, live theater is still an unsure thing for some people. Being in an enclosed space with a few hundred people for a 90-minute movie is one thing, but what about a 2,500 seat theater with a capacity crowd? Or how about a concert venue seeing a pop star and finding yourself shoulder to shoulder with someone sneezing their way through the opening act? It definitely gives you pause. I do miss live theater, and while my season tickets to the Broadway touring shows have been getting used regularly now that more protocols are in place, the smaller venues that house plays are struggling. I find myself craving these intimate shows with unamplified actors speaking so that you have to lean forward in your seat and tilt your head a bit to hear each word. That’s theater, to me.

I thought of that kind of theater I’d been missing while watching director Graham Moore’s The Outfit, which he co-wrote with Johnathan McClain. Taking place on a snowy winter night in 1956 within several rooms of a shop in Chicago owned and operated by Leonard Burling, this is one of those tight and taut mystery/thrillers that could easily have been adapted from (or, later, into) a stage play. The dialogue is so specific and focused that you must always pay attention to catch what’s being said. It all makes a difference in what happens as the night continues. Requiring the audience to be an active participant in The Outfit leads to the skilled movie being the first sign that spring moviegoing is revving its engines, breaking the silence of this strange period in movies released as awards season wraps up. 

Moore and McClain’s script involves Burling, a cutter (“I’m not a tailor.”) who worked on the famed Saville Row in London before he lost his family due to circumstances that will come to light soon enough. Now quietly making his sharp suits and wares alongside his secretary/would-be apprentice Mable (Zoey Deutch, Vampire Academy), Burling is a man that observes more than he speaks. Turning a blind eye to the organized crime dealings secretly exchanged via a mailbox at the back of his shop, he holds his head down, which keeps him in the good graces of the important families and surely secures his safety for his silence.

On this night, the son of the most powerful gangster in Chicago has arrived for his late-night pick-up with news that a mole has been discovered, and he has possession of a recording that will reveal information about the rat. Together with right-hand man Francis (Johnny Flynn, Clouds of Sils Maria), Richie (Dylan O’Brien, Bumblebee) plans to expose the snitch and allow his business to flourish with the assistance of The Outfit. A syndicate of crime families from all over the country, The Outfit has operatives everywhere and is the one that reported the mole. Who is the mole? What (or who?) is The Outfit? And is the mild-mannered cutter more involved than he claims to be? 

Having seen Rylance onstage playing Shakespeare, I’m aware of the kind of rapt attention he can command from an audience, and in all sincerity, that hasn’t been fully achieved yet on film. If anything, his roles tend toward the absurd, culminating with a nearly unwatchable turn in 2021’s Don’t Look Up. I was worried we’d be getting the same Rylance runaround here, but The Outfit represents maybe his best work on film so far, even better than his Oscar-winning role in 2015’s Bridge of Spies. The layers Rylance brings to the part, peeling them back at varied paces throughout so that you can’t get too comfortable, are brilliantly done. Once you’ve figured out the solution, Rylance sheds another veneer to reveal a sheen we never considered. 

The rest of the cast works hard to get to the same level of Rylance and uniformly succeeds, starting with Deutch as a woman Burling acts with some fatherly care toward but has more to offer than simply sitting behind a desk. O’Brien and Flynn are swell as the glorified henchman for the Big Boss, Roy (Simon Russell Beale, Into the Woods), who shares some wonderfully understated scenes with Rylance. Even those that make a minor pass through the film, like Nikki Amuka-Bird (Old), leave a pleasant waft of mystery in their wake. 

The Outfit is the kind of Sunday movie you’d have liked to see when it was a tad colder out, one with which you can hunker down. There’s not anything extra that doesn’t need to be there, with Moore making great use of the expertise of cinematographer Dick Pope (Supernova) and production designer Gemma Jackson (Aladdin). They’re both Oscar-nominated and well regarded in the industry for a reason. From head to toe, tie to laces, it’s just about a perfect corker of a film that keeps you surprised on the edge of your seat right up until the end.   

Movie Review ~ Deep Water

The Facts:

Synopsis: A well-to-do husband who allows his wife to have affairs to avoid a divorce becomes a prime suspect in the disappearance of her lovers.
Stars: Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas, Tracy Letts, Dash Mihok, Lil Rel Howery, Jacob Elordi, Finn Wittrock, Kristen Connolly, Rachel Blanchard
Director: Adrian Lyne
Rated: R
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: The gossip-grabbing headlines that have followed Deep Water from its filming during the later months of 2019 through its numerous release delays have been the stuff that set the tongues wagging of both viewers and critics alike.  Audiences with their home screens set to Page Six are keen to know if the relationship between the stars of the film, Ben Affleck (The Last Duel) and Ana de Armas (Knives Out), equated to erotic chemistry in this adaptation of a 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel.  On the flip side, critics were increasingly desperate to watch the return of director Adrian Lyne after what would turn out to be a twenty-year gap between films.  When the film was announced to debut on Hulu in March of 2022, Affleck was back with Jennifer Lopez, and de Armas is doing just fine on the cusp of A-list stardom.  On the other hand, Deep Water should have been submerged at the bottom of a shallow creek.

I actually went into Lyne’s first film since 2002’s Unfaithful with hope all the early lousy buzz was wrong, the result of too many eager beavers ready to tear the movie to shreds.  We’ve certainly had those films before.  Unfortunately, this is not one of those cases.  Highsmith’s novel is about a husband and wife in a loveless marriage stained with adultery who use the men the wife sleeps with as pawns in their psychological torment of one another.  When one of these games goes too far, it creates a fissure in their routine that changes the rules they’ve seemingly agreed to and ups the ante for unpredictable danger.  While Highsmith’s novel isn’t as overt as the screenplay from Zach Helm and Sam Levinson (Malcolm & Marie), its framework would have made for a sophisticated (and, sure, sexy) adult drama that Lyne could have molded to his style.  It’s absolutely in line with the films he has overseen before, like 9 ½ Weeks, Indecent Proposal, and Fatal Attraction

So why is Deep Water so shallow and dull?  Perhaps it’s because there’s no chemistry between the leads, a strange occurrence for the actors who found romance offscreen.  You don’t once buy for a second that de Armas would choose the lean and lanky boys she flounces around with over Affleck’s more mature and handsome frame.  Even if she’s trying to provoke him into what eventually happens, the character de Armas is playing is supposedly repulsed by the thought of being with her husband. It just doesn’t come across as believable.  In that same vein, Affleck is tasked with having to act like he’s above all of the flirting de Armas does in front of him and his friends (more on that later), but the most addled he gets is contorting his face as if he has a piece of rice stuck in a back molar. 

More than anything, Deep Water has no erotic edge to it.  Lush lust might have saved the film from its rather bland exchanges between husband and wife, and let’s face it, some of Lyne’s previous films were significantly assisted by the suggestive content.  Instead, we get several large dinner parties where the most exciting thing that occurs is de Armas playing the piano badly at one and de Armas asking her newest boy toy (Jacob Elordi) to tinkle the ivories at another.  At that particular party, when he starts playing, you would have thought Amadeus himself was playing Elvis Presley the way the guests begin to jive to the melody.  Also, Lyne films each of these gatherings so gauzy and dimly lit that I swear it felt like it would erupt into a key party at any moment. All of their friends seemed a little…too friendly.

If I told you there was a murder mystery at the core of Deep Water, would it excite you any more to see it?  It shouldn’t because it’s barely part of the plot, though previews might make you think otherwise.  No, most of the movie is focused on Affleck looking jealous of de Armas and de Armas apparently hating her life with Affleck and their young daughter.  It’s hard to feel much sympathy with anyone involved; even the people that are intended to be helpful are pretty abysmal.  Lyne also includes one of the most bizarre scenes to show over a closing credit in some time.  It’s almost entirely a miss, recommended only for the curious that don’t mind giving away two hours of their time to have nothing to show for it.

Movie Review ~ The Last Mountain (2021)

The Facts:

Synopsis: The unforgettable story of the 30-year-old climber Tom Ballard who disappeared on the so-called killer mountain, Nanga Parbat, in 2019.
Stars: Tom Ballard, Kate Ballard, Karim Hayat, Alex Txikon, Stefania Pedreriva
Director: Chris Terrill
Rated: R
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: Through Oscar season and now during writing for the SXSW Film Festival, I go through many documentaries. The subjects can be anywhere from the immigrants of the war in Sudan to the costume design of a Polish opera, all the way to meeting a man who makes specialty guitars. They tend to be my favorite films to discover each year, and I’m constantly amazed at how filmmakers can stitch together narratives using footage they discover as well as film they shoot. For me, the best kind of documentaries have found that balance while also knowing what story they are most focused on, remaining unwavering in their goal. 

There’s a sense early on in Chris Terrill’s The Last Mountain that he’s heading in the right direction by concentrating on the life and legacy of Tom Ballard as well as his sister’s journey to visit not only where he perished, but where their mother died nearly twenty-four years earlier. The history of tragedy in this family of mountain climbers is fascinating, as are the dynamics existing between the father and daughter that remain. Terrill has been with this family for years, first gaining access through the initial success of Alison Hargreaves then witnessing the impact of her loss while coming down from a mountain in Pakistan.

When her son, Tom, became a well-regarded climber himself, home movies show that he felt the shadow of his mother’s legacy and her death hang over him early on. Perhaps that’s why he was drawn in 2019 to the same mountain range where she died, eventually succumbing to the same fate. Facing the need for resolution and closure she never got for her mother or brother, sister Kate decides to return to the mountain and say goodbye to the family she lost. Retracing a journey she made as a child, also documented by Terrill, Kate reconnects with a local man that served as a nanny of sorts to her and began the pilgrimage to begin true healing.

Had Terrill stopped with this story, he’d have had an Oscar-worthy (maybe winning) short documentary that radiates emotion and tells a rich narrative of one family deeply impacted by a specific drive to achieve. The trouble is that this is only half of The Last Mountain and the other half of the movie that Terrill cuts back and forth from tells more about the events that lead to Tom’s death and the man he was with when he died. Suggesting his climbing partner was perhaps more inspired by fame and notoriety than Tom feels like punching low and not in the same spirit as the rest of the movie, giving an awkward tone to the proceedings. Nearly every time Terrill returns to Kate, I felt my emotions rise in response to the sadness of a sister and daughter trekking across the globe to the final resting place of her brother and mother. Anytime we switched back, all the air went out of my sails.

Using the Ballard/Hargreaves home movies and incredible video captured of the mountains Tom and his mother both ascended, The Last Mountain would be best viewed in a theater or on the largest screen in your house. It’s worth it mainly for the scenes documenting the family that was and never will be again, frozen in time on video while two bodies rest forever on a mountain range in Pakistan. 

SXSW ~ Capsule Reviews, Vol. 4

SXSW Review ~ A Lot of Nothing

Synopsis: A successful and smart married couple find their lives spiraling out of control when they decide to seek justice against a neighbor they saw commit a crime on the evening news.
Director: Mo McRae
Running Length: 107 minutes
Review: On the one hand, A Lot of Nothing is everything you’d want in a film that represents a meaningful social dialogue brought to the screen. Fantastic performances, especially from leads Y’lan Noel (a brilliant powder keg in his acting) and Cleopatra Coleman (charming in The Right One and commanding here), along with several well-choreographed sequences with cinematographer John Rosario that give this indie a polished sheen. These scenes, including the twenty-minute opening prologue filmed in one take, are impressive enough to signal co-writer and director Mo McRae as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. Yet McRae and his co-screenwriter Sarah Kelly Kaplan try to stuff their commentary with too much, and by the end, the film loses its narrow focus in favor of the broader loose end tangents it can’t pin down. A timely drama bristling with racial tension when a black couple holds their white police officer neighbor hostage, I think audiences will have committed to the film by the time it goes south-ish, but it’s too bad it doesn’t end as strong as it starts. Speaking of strong, here’s another SXSW film with a score that often overpowers the dialogue to the point of farce. Is no one paying attention to sound mixing?

SXSW Review ~ Slash/Back

Synopsis: When Maika and her ragtag friends discover an alien invasion in their tiny arctic hamlet, it’s up to them to save the day.
Director: Nyla Innuksuk
Running Length: 86 minutes
Review: Anytime a film employs nonprofessional actors, there is always the risk of the end product coming off like an amateur effort that can discredit even the most well-intentioned of projects. Then there are the movies, like director Nyla Innuksuk’s Slash/Back, which strike gold uncovering the actors that enhance the experience. The cast of young women Innuksuk has put together for her small-town alien invasion film will brighten the mood of even the most hardened of genre fans that have seen similar plotlines in countless B-pictures over the years. An alien entity lands in a remote location and begins to hunt for hosts to feed on and off of. This body-invading, blood-sucking monster has chosen the wrong Northern Canadian village of Inuk people to attack. The town of Pang has a legion of kids, mostly pre-teen girls, that have identified the threat and join forces to battle back the skin-thieving beasts. Not only does Innuksuk coax authentically intelligent performances from her young cast, but there are legitimately thrilling creature effects, scares, and action sequences to please fans of films like The Blob and The Thing. One of the very best highlights of SXSW and, I’m guessing, one of the movies that will emerge from the fest with the highest chances of commercial success. 

SXSW Review ~ The Cow

Synopsis: When Kath and her boyfriend arrive at a remote cabin in the redwoods, they find a mysterious younger couple already there. Her boyfriend disappears with the young woman, and Kath becomes obsessed with finding an explanation.
Director: Eli Horowitz
Running Length: 93 minutes
Review: Pleased to report that The Cow, one of the films I was most interested in seeing at SXSW, wasn’t a disappointment. It was an altogether different movie than I expected to find going in, making the watch much more interesting to sit through. First and foremost, let’s acknowledge that The Cow welcomes back Oscar-nominated actress Winona Ryder to the kind of acting work we’ve wanted to see her in for a while. Taking on the occasional supporting film role while finding success in television, her performance in Eli Horowitz’s mystery will go down as one of her most enjoyable. Ryder plays a woman dating a younger man (John Gallagher, Jr.) with whom she shares little interest but is still surprised when he vanishes on their weekend away with the woman they met on their first night at a double-booked Airbnb. The more she thinks about the slight, the more upset she gets and thinks she is owed an answer. She should be careful what she asks for. Horowitz has fun with timelines and our perception of the situations we are seeing, allowing Ryder and the other cast (Brianne Tju is another stellar standout) to squirm in a series of uncomfortable scenes. Don’t let anyone spoil this one for you but trust me when I say that if you’re a Ryder ride or die…this will give you big-time happiness.

SXSW Review ~ Raquel 1,1

Synopsis: A teenager who moves with her father to a small, religious Brazilian town and believes she is given an important and controversial mission related to the Bible.
Director: Mariana Bastos
Running Length: 90 minutes
Review: The one behavior at a film fest that I’m still getting acquainted with is keeping my ear to the ground for the buzz of what titles weren’t on my list going into the week but have popped up frequently as worth-your-time choices. The movie that everyone seemed to speak highly of was Raquel 1,1, a Brazilian drama with horror on its fringe. Director Mariana Bastos has a skilled way of using visual and aural elements to mesmerize the viewer, often without our even being aware it’s happening. The young woman arriving with her father in his tiny hometown after her mother was violently murdered by her lover is still harboring a deep emotional trauma. She is looking for peace through the spiritual healing of the church and quickly joins a youth group of girls. After being reacquainted with the scripture, Raquel finds the role of women too submissive and questions its teachings, running afoul of the pastor’s daughter, who convinces the town she is a false prophet of evil. Never questioning God’s existence, just seeking a more substantial role for women, Raquel (marvelous Valentina Herszage) is cast out, but the shunning isn’t enough for some. And simple revenge isn’t good enough for Raquel. Beautifully filmed on location and rarely relying on the familiar to scare the viewer, the slow burn may be too much of a simmer for the typical viewer but for those interested in a character study that builds to a fiery climax, open your movie textbooks to Raquel 1,1.

SXSW Review ~ X

Synopsis: In 1979, a group of young filmmakers set out to make an adult film in rural Texas, but when their reclusive, elderly hosts catch them in the act, the cast find themselves fighting for their lives.
Director: Ti West
Running Length: 105 minutes
Review: Spending his time directing television for the last six years, director Ti West is back on the big screen and debuting his new film, X, at SXSW. My full review of the film is coming in several days, but for now, this bite-sized review is here to let you know that as crazy f***ed up as the previews for West’s film have been so far (and I thought the trailers were a bit on the extreme side of things), studio A24 has saved the best stuff for audiences waiting to see Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Martin Henderson, & more in this gore-gy of old-school bloody scares. Set in 1979 and enjoying every second of it, it’s raunchy and randy more than anything, with the actual violence erupting in spurts. Don’t leave your seat until the last credit is done. I’m not kidding.

SXSW Review ~ Spin Me Round

Synopsis: A woman wins an all-expenses trip to a company’s gorgeous “institute” outside of Florence and also the chance to meet the restaurant chain’s wealthy and charismatic owner. She finds a different adventure than the one she imagined.
Director: Jeff Baena
Running Length: 104 minutes
Review: On paper, Spin Me Round has it all. Great cast, a beautiful location, a broad set-up that could go in many different directions, and a score by the legendary Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Blow Out, etc.). So how does it wind up being a frustratingly uneven non-starter that persistently leads the viewer toward a joke that never pays off? After 2020’s Horse Girl, star Alison Brie and director Jeff Baena team up again on a quirky script that sends Brie off to Italy for a manager’s training at a posh villa. She fantasizes about finding love but instead winds up in a rundown hotel on the property with a handful of other regional representatives, including Molly Shannon, dependably using her schtick to deliver energy to some very dry sections. When Brie’s character is romanced by both the head of the company and his mysterious alluring assistant (a, well, mysteriously alluring Aubrey Plaza), it lights a fuse for an explosive conclusion to an otherwise humdrum week. Baena stacks the film with the kind of names that usually carry full supporting comedic roles on their shoulders, but when asked to spread that wealth around, no one seems to know how to be specific with their minor screen time. The film works best when Brie and Zach Woods team up to figure out the true motive behind the company gathering of the managers, but it’s so far into this strange voyage that I already had my bags packed ready to depart. Spin Me Round needed another trip around the rewrite bay before it went into production, and now it needs a solid edit to pare it down and focus the tone.

SXSW Review ~ To Leslie

Synopsis: A West Texas single mother wins the lottery and squanders it just as fast, leaving behind a world of heartbreak.
Director: Michael Morris
Running Length: 119 minutes
Review: Ooooo, that was close. It was really close. I almost missed this excellent drama, inspired by actual events because, at first glance, it seemed like your run-of-the-mill tale of success despite the scourge of addiction. True, To Leslie from director Michael Morris does follow the pattern of many feature films and television specials that have come before it, but it’s the performances that give it that special extra to take it to a higher level. Playing a Texan woman that has ruined relationships with everyone she’s ever loved, the British Andrea Riseborough completely immerses herself in the role so deeply there are moments throughout the film where you forget it’s an actress delivering Ryan Binaco dialogue. This is full-bodied acting that isn’t for show or the viewer at home but in service of the work, and that honesty seeps into every crevice of screentime she has. I was equally impressed with Marc Maron, who, up until this point, has played comedic supporting characters or brief dramatic cameos. He’s given a chance to create a whole person to complement Riseborough and does so quite believably. You know anytime Allison Janney shows up it’s going to be a party, and her gray-haired, leather-skinned seen-it-all mother-in-law is just as good as you think it’s going to be. This is one of the best SXSW films from start to finish, especially as it arrives at an ending that feels just about perfect.

SXSW ~ Capsule Reviews, Vol. 3


SXSW Review ~ The Art of Making It

Synopsis: Against the backdrop of a culture in crisis, young artists at defining moments in their careers explore whether the art world ecosystem meant to nurture them is actually failing them.
Director: Kelcey Edwards
Running Length: 94 minutes
Review: In my recent review of Really Good Rejects, I mentioned that its world of specialized musicians is one I wasn’t familiar with, and the same could be said about the world of art collectors.  In The Art of Making It, viewers get taken into this tricky scene by director Kelcey Edwards and come out the other side with a better understanding of its pitfalls.  What makes a work of art, and therefore the artist, worth more than another?  Edwards interviews several upper echelon art insiders and artists starting their careers to get their perspectives on where the business side of the medium was and is going in a post-pandemic climate.  Far more accessible than you might imagine, The Art of Making It is a finely etched portrait of the haves and want-to-get-there’s that lets the subjects take the brush most of the time.

SXSW Review ~ The Locust

Synopsis: During the rehearsal of a semi-autobiographical film script, a 40-year-old woman cannot tolerate any indifferent and ignorant reactions as the cast begins to judge her character.
Director: Faezeh Azizkhani
Running Length: 81 minutes
Review: Into every film fest, a little rain must fall, and The Locust is the first movie I saw that left me a little crushed.  I had higher than average hopes for this Iranian entry featuring a woman wanting to get her semi-autobiographical script made but forced to sell it to her friend to pay her rent.  Now, indebted to a friend wanting changes, she must sit idly by while numerous opinions on her work (and her life) get thrown around in front of her.  Director Faezeh Azizkhani’s 81-minute film has several inspired moments that show you what the movie could have been, such as having Hanieh (a captivating Hanie Tavassoli) leave a room and wind up outdoors talking to her deceased father or stepping outside the action to break the fourth wall.  These bits and pieces serve as breathers from the rapid-fire talk that’s often hard to settle into.  Even if it’s intentional, it becomes alienating and eventually suffocating to witness.  The Locust is a movie with growing ideas that I appreciated but an overall execution with which I couldn’t find a balance.

SXSW Review ~ The Cellar

Synopsis: A mother discovers there is an ancient and powerful entity controlling her home that she will have to face or risk losing her family’s souls forever.
Director: Brendan Muldowney
Running Length: 95 minutes
Review: There’s a bit of the rainy-day Saturday fun to The Cellar that makes this SXSW Midnighters entry more enjoyable than your average haunted house offering.  Writer/director Brendan Muldowney’s Irish horror film might not win points with genre fans in the original scares department or for creating especially compelling characters, but give it credit for establishing a spooky mood that allows the viewer a free ride to Frightville.  Using, of all things, mathematics as the scheme by which the supernatural element infiltrates a young family, Muldowney aims higher than his peers where the plot is concerned yet doesn’t spend quite as much time on the characters that are figuring out these equations.  Thankfully, the performances (including Elisha Cuthbert & Eoin Macken) are competent enough to smooth out any gaps. The production values are strong, resulting in a fear flick in which you can have some confidence.   

SXSW Review ~ Linoleum

Synopsis: When the host of a failing children’s science show tries to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut by building a rocket ship in his garage, a series of bizarre events occur that cause him to question his own reality.
Director: Colin West
Running Length: 101 minutes
Review: You’re going to have to be careful if you are interested in seeing this sci-fi family drama because it’s got a few tricks up its sleeve that could be spoiled by the wrong reviewer.  I could tell you what movies Linoleum reminded me of, but even that would run the risk of giving away some of writer/director Colin West’s best moments for stars Jim Gaffigan and Rhea Seehorn.  The two play a husband and wife in small-town suburbia facing divorce because of an aimless marriage.  She wants a more established career, and he’s stuck as the lead of a dying cable-access science show.  A car falling from the sky with a man that looks a lot like Gaffigan is the first strange occurrence that upsets this idyllic, if stale, climate.  When that same guy oddly turns out to be his replacement as host of his job, it sets the frustrated dad off on a quest to reclaim a dream from his youth.  It’s clear early on that West is presenting viewers with a puzzle to solve, and while experienced players may figure out how the pieces are meant to line up, it’s hard to predict the final shape Linoleum takes.  While it can wander a bit throughout its running time, stick with this one and pay attention to the details, you’ll be rewarded at the end with an emotional payoff that is the result of wonderful performances and a thoughtful screenplay.

SXSW Review ~ The Prank

Synopsis: An imperious, demanding instructor gets taught a lesson by being falsely accused of murder by two of her students.
Director: Maureen Bharoocha
Running Length: 91 minutes
Review: Yes, there are a lot of similarities between The Prank and that deservedly underseen 1999 teen thriller Teaching Mrs. Tingle.  Both feature an Oscar-winning actress playing a cruel schoolmarm that’s mean for the fun of it and gets her comeuppance in the form of a smear campaign started by her students.  What The Prank has that Tingle doesn’t is the sense of humor it so desperately needed.  While Tingle wanted to have its cake and slice it too, The Prank is first and foremost a black comedy that sprinkles its horror bits as a tasty extra on top.  Director Maureen Bharoocha (at SXSW after her excellent Golden Arm couldn’t premiere at the canceled 2020 event) has helmed a slick production with lively performances.  As the students that plot and plant the rumor that gets their teacher in hot water, Connor Kalopsis & Ramona Young are a good match for one another, and the supporting players each find small moments of joyful contribution along the way.  The Prank belongs to Rita Moreno as the leather glove-wearing most feared physics teacher on the block.  With her severe bob, the tiny Moreno gives a big performance – and what a delicious performance it is! It’s so fun that it alone makes the movie worth a watch.  After narrowly missing a second Oscar nomination for 2021’s West Side Story, Moreno is on a roll already in 2022 as the willing target at the center of The Prank.

SXSW ~ Capsule Reviews, Vol. 2

SXSW Review ~ I Get Knocked Down

Synopsis: Dunstan Bruce is 59 and he’s struggling with the fact that the world seems to be going to hell in a handcart. He is angry and frustrated. How does a middle-aged, retired radical, who feels invisible get back up again?
Director: Dunstan Bruce & Sophie Robinson
Running Length: 88 minutes
Review:  Admittedly, I went into this documentary made by Dunstan Bruce and Sophie Robinson with scant knowledge of Chumbawamba, the band Bruce famously fronted in the ’80s and ’90s that skyrocketed to success with their 1997 hit “Tubthumping.” Outside of that one-hit, which I, of course, owned on CD single (OK, CD maxi-single), I wasn’t aware of the band’s anarchist philosophies or how they sought to use their influence to enact change in their UK homeland. Bruce’s reflection on these early days and his reunion with his former bandmates isn’t a strained experience, as many of these rock docs often are. If there’s bad blood that exists, we don’t see it, outside of Bruce’s sometimes disbelief at how far several have drifted from their adamant stance against formalized radicalism. This development leaves Bruce feeling like the lone man still fighting the good fight while realizing that there may not be a fight to be had. It’s not quite a pity party, and Bruce is an attractive focal point with a good sense of humor, willing to be self-effacing when called on to do so. I Get Knocked Down might not be for the entry-level Chumbawumba fan, but if you’ve found yourself at a bar-raising a pint in the air to their biggest commercial hit at some point, give this one a look.

SXSW Review ~ Fire of Love

Synopsis: Intrepid scientists and lovers Katia and Maurice Krafft died in a volcanic explosion doing the very thing that brought them together: unraveling the mysteries of volcanoes by capturing the most explosive imagery ever recorded.
Director: Sara Dosa
Running Length: 92 minutes
Review:  I did a little bit of research on some of the most impressive photos and film footage of volcanoes over the past few decades and was surprised at how many were credited to French volcanologists, Katia and Maurice Krafft. Until Sara Dosa’s documentary Fire of Love, I had never heard of the two before, but the array of material the Kraffts contributed to the study of volcanos was truly staggering. When they perished in a 1991 volcanic explosion, the world lost a wealth of valuable knowledge that has now been unearthed, at least visually, by Dosa in a fascinating documentary that beautifully reconstructs their life and work. Dosa edited down an incredible amount of footage to 92 minutes, and that’s no small feat, especially when you consider how that has to tell a story (with help from narrator Miranda July) that flows informatively between the personal and professional lives of the Kraffts.  Maurice Krafft claimed not to be a filmmaker, but, as July points out in Dosa’s scripted narration, you can’t tell based on the size and scope of the footage he’s captured. It all came together to form a fascinating examination of researchers curious about one of the earth’s most mysterious secrets and died in the discovery.

SXSW Review ~ Still Working 9 to 5

Synopsis: When #1 comedy, 9 to 5, starring Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, Dabney Coleman, and Lily Tomlin, exploded on the screens in 1980, the laughs hid a serious message about women in the office.
Director: Camille Hardman & Gary Lane
Running Length: 96 minutes
Review: As a long-time fan of the 1980 blockbuster 9 to 5 (it was the second highest-grossing film of the year), there is not a lot about the movie that I didn’t know. Or so I thought. Watching Still Working 9 to 5, I was honestly amazed at how much information Camille Hardman and Gary Lane were able to unearth about not just the movie but the subsequent television series and stage adaptations that followed. For a movie fan, this is a pot of gold kind of documentary which gives you interviews with every person you want to see, plus so much more. The absolute joy of what Hardman and Lane focus on, and what most behind-the-scenes documentaries can’t get into, is the temperature of culture and climate before the film went into production, after it came out and in the years since. This approach helps viewers get a proper understanding of why the movie was such a significant accomplishment, how far society has come in the 40 years since its release, and how much further we still need to go. Wonderful in its entirety.

SXSW Review ~ I Love My Dad

Synopsis: A hopelessly estranged father catfishes his son in an attempt to reconnect.
Director: James Morosini
Running Length: 98 minutes
Review: I thought we’d seen the last of the dependably entertaining road trip comedies, but it turns out we just needed to add a bit of father-son drama to the mix to resurrect the genre. Writer/director/star James Morosini uses his own life as the basis for this whale of a tale that could have abused its absurdity with out-of-place humor but instead embraces it with winning compassion. A suicidal adult son alienated from his absentee father is coaxed out of his shell by an attractive girl he meets online, opening up to her and finding that he may have found his soulmate. The trouble is, it’s his father (the spectacular Patton Oswalt) under a fake profile in a last-ditch attempt to connect with his son that has blocked all contact after a lifetime of disappointment. The film handles the switcheroo nicely, with Claudia Sulewski as the imaginary girl blessedly standing in for conversations with Morosini, so we don’t have to read endless text back and forth. The catfish set-up is as awkward as it sounds, making the well of uncomfortable situations only grow as the film progresses. Still, Oswalt, Morosini, and Sulewski keep you watching and wanting to know more. I can see audiences responding well to I Love My Dad and not just at SXSW.

SXSW Review ~ Shadow

Synopsis: A group of activists hold a public meeting, desperate to save the world. As the meeting unravels, they discover the greatest threat to their future is already in the room.
Director: Bruce Gladwin
Running Length: 61 minutes
Review: If you’re fortunate, you’ll run across a selection at one of these film fests that knocks your socks off in unexpected ways. We’re only on day two of 2022 SXSW, and I’m guessing Shadow might be an early contender for that claim to fame. A screen adaptation of a play created by the Back to Back Theatre based in Australia, it is comprised almost entirely of neurodivergent and/or disabled actors from the company and surrounding area. Running a trim 61 minutes, I’d classify it more of a dialogue than a traditional three-act structure, and wow, would I have loved to see this one on stage. The cast engages the viewer and themselves in a lively discussion on the future of human rights for those seen as other, along with the tendency to mislabel and misunderstand that same population, even when we think we’re being of assistance. It’s riveting stuff, and though it begins to drift when director Bruce Gladwin moves the action outside of a confined space, the trio of leads (Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price) deliver some of the most unflinchingly honest performances you’ll see at SXSW or in any film this year. Make time to see Shadow.

SXSW ~ Really Good Rejects

Synopsis: Follows Reuben Cox as he channels his inner instinct and artistic intuition in creating unique, custom guitars sought after by some of rock’s biggest and most respected artists.
Director: Alice Gu
Running Length: 95 minutes
Review:  For someone that doesn’t know a good guitar from a brick of cheese, I honestly was surprised at how taken I was with this documentary on skilled luthier Reuben Cox and the artists that have come to him for one of his specialized instruments. More than a simple look at Cox and his creations, Really Good Rejects is an insightful piece from director Alice Gu that takes us further down into the lives of these talented musicians. Gu has a way of asking the kind of follow-up questions that open up the performers (and the modest Cox himself) to reveal more personal stories, reflecting on how they came to the industry and who they looked up to along the way. Some obvious stars you’d associate with the type of relaxed musical stylings turn up as well as legendary names that must have a great affinity for Cox to take the time for a chat.   If it’s a bit formless in construction (there doesn’t seem to be an actual starting and ending point), it makes no difference because everything between the opening and closing credits should be, well, music to the ears of fans that seek this one out. Often allowing artists to pluck away at songs during interviews and letting them play on, Gu doesn’t rush anyone along. That gives Really Good Rejects a warm and breezy feeling, especially appreciated now as we look toward the renewal of Spring and outdoor music.

SXSW Review ~ Soft & Quiet

Synopsis: Playing out in real time an altercation breaks out between two sisters and an organization of women that spirals into a volatile chain of events.
Director: Beth de Araújo
Running Length: 94 minutes
Review: With schedules as hectic as they are, I admit that it’s sometimes hard to remain as distraction-free as possible when viewing films from the comfort of your couch. Viewers won’t have much trouble finding a reason to stay engaged with writer/director Beth de Araújo’s blistering thriller Soft & Quiet, which strikes an ominous tone the moment an elementary school teacher takes a slow walk through the woods. She’s meeting a group of women for an inaugural meeting of a sisterhood she feels is long overdue, a gathering which eventually relocates, which is when the trouble begins. Making a stop en route, the teacher (a simmering Stephanie Estes) crosses paths with a girl from her past and sets them all off on a downward spiral from which there is no escape. Shooting the film in one take is impressively handled and adds to the tension as the film progresses, de Araújo, cinematographer Greta Zozula, and editor Lindsay Armstrong make a few clever cuts – never underestimate how hard these types of films are to make and look so effortless. The cast is top-notch, especially in a script that gets to the cruel center of the sad underbelly of more Americans than we think. It’s a conversation starter and the type of film that will arrive in theaters riding waves of solid buzz. It has the goods to support those good notices, too.