SXSW ~ Capsule Reviews, Vol. 1

Here we go! SXSW is off and running, and so am I! Here’s the first batch of reviews I can release now that the films have made their premiere down in Austin, TX. Stay tuned for more…things are just getting started and are about to get even more enjoyable.

SXSW Review ~ Emergency

Synopsis: Ready for a night of legendary partying, three college students must weigh the pros and cons of calling the police when faced with an unexpected situation.
Director: Carey Williams
Running Length: 105 minutes
Review: The screenplay award winner at January’s Sundance Film Festival is a feature-length version of writer KD Dávila and director Carey Williams 12-minute short of the same name. I haven’t seen that but based on the strength of this full-length seriocomedy, it’s one of those short films that had the potential for more. Starting with a dynamic trio of leads (RJ Cyler, Donald Elise Watkins, Sebastian Chacon), Williams and Dávila get down to business quickly, putting the three college seniors in the hot seat the night before Spring Break as they attempt to unload a drunk white girl that mistakenly found her way into their apartment. Awkward social commentary starts to get in the way of the more prevalent message around the pros and cons of long-term bonds of friendship (which has its own societal thorns), but Cyler (so great recently in The Harder They Fall) and Watkins signal true stars on the rise.

SXSW Review ~ Your Friend, Memphis

Synopsis: Memphis, a young man with cerebral palsy, is caught between the world’s expectations and his own ambitions. His story is an odyssey of dogged determination: a search for work, love, and freedom – no matter what.
Director: David P. Zucker
Running Length: 97 minutes
Review: A documentary that plays out like a coming-of-age YA drama, circa 2014, Your Friend, Memphis features a man that can be heartbreaking to watch one moment and infuriating to be around the next. Demand for individuality is not a new nook to explore for a filmmaker exploring the life of a disabled subject. Still, the way director David Zucker can push in close on the highs and lows of Texan Memphis DiAngelis, is often staggering. His divorced parents watch him from the arm’s length distance he keeps them, only seeming to accept their presence when forced or needing financial assistance. Pining for a girl he met when filming a role in an indie film years before, he can’t see how their age difference and her clear ambition for a life bigger than he could offer will prevent them from ever being more than friends. I wish this one had a few more triumphs to celebrate over the five years we follow Memphis and his small circle of support. However, as Memphis himself says when asked to reflect on his experience, “Story is conflict” — and it’s never more accurate than in the uphill battle he climbs (gamely, willingly) daily.

SXSW Review ~ Sheryl

Synopsis: Follows the intimate story of musical icon Sheryl Crow as she navigates an iconic but difficult musical career fighting sexism, ageism, depression, cancer, and the price of fame.
Director: Amy Scott
Running Length: 94 minutes
Review: Easy-going biopics felt like they were going out of fashion to make way for reflections on a life that had to reveal some big secret we didn’t already know. I’m happy to say that director Amy Scott’s look at the life of multi-award-winning musician Sheryl Crow is an entertaining example of how to engage your audience by simply letting the artist guide the telling. With the assistance of family, celebrity friends, and her long-time management team, Crow does most of the talking in her documentary. While it may paint the type of rosy picture that sidesteps anything she may not want to discuss, it doesn’t take all the harder talking points off the table. The suicide of an author who felt Crow didn’t credit him correctly for one of her early hits still affects the singer-songwriter today, and her reputation for being strident with crew gets touched on, if briefly. I wish we heard something about Crow’s involvement in writing the theme song to the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, and more information on her health advocacy would have been a benefit. (Her breast cancer victory is, of course, a significant milestone, but her brain tumor isn’t mentioned at all.) Still, her fans will love this look back at her life, and even casual music enthusiasts will appreciate finding out how she started (as a 4th-grade teacher before moving on to being a vocalist for Michael Jackson on his Tokyo tour!) before making it to the big time.

SXSW Review ~ Deadstream

Synopsis: A disgraced internet personality attempts to win back his followers by live-streaming one night alone in a haunted house. But when he accidentally pisses off a vengeful spirit, his big comeback event becomes a real-time fight for his life.
Director: Joseph Winter & Vanessa Winter
Running Length: 89 minutes
Review: The critical difference between the average quickie horror cash-in and movies like Deadstream is something that no budget, however big or small, can ever compensate for: creativity. Directors Joseph & Vanessa Winter cover all of their bases in this clever tale of a formerly famous YouTuber (played by Joseph Winter) that did something to get himself ‘canceled’ (it takes us a while to find out what) who has devised a way to get back into the good graces of his one-time followers. He’ll spend the night and live-stream his experiences in a supposedly haunted house and take all the necessary steps to ensure he can’t chicken out and run away. Spark plugs are removed from his vehicle and thrown into the woods, he locks himself into the house, cameras are placed around the home and on his person to capture every angle. He’s thought of everything. Everything except that the house may actually be haunted. Which it very much is. Taking place almost in real-time, this one could have gone off the rails fast, and while it takes a tad too long to get going, relying on Winter’s self-talk banter to get us through the pre-ghost tour of the house, it delivers in a major way in the last act. Using practical effects and utilizing the various cameras well, this feels less like a low-budget up by the bootstraps type of horror, and more of a ‘sit back, we’ve got you covered’ kind of scare-fest.

SXSW Review ~ Clean

Synopsis: A fly-on-the-wall insight into the world of trauma cleaning through the journey of larger-than-life business owner Sandra Pankhurst and the workers at Melbourne’s Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services.
Director: Lachlan McLeod
Running Length: 92 minutes
Review:  For a documentary that deals with so much pain and troubling subjects, Clean puts a strong emphasis on the positive affirmation of self and embracing life. As they say, it all starts at the top, and director Lachlan McLeod has an ace in the hole with someone like Sandra Pankhurst as his chief interviewee. The owner of a specialty cleaning service that deals with various clients requiring workers who can handle emotionally taxing jobs, Pankhurst is a force to be reckoned with. Tracing her story from a difficult childhood to a whole other turbulent existence before establishing her well-regarded business, McLeod follows Pankhurst, her clients, and her employees over several years through July of 2021, when the pandemic was at its peak. Through these interviews, we get to know more about why the work has meaning for both sides and how Pankhurst uses this life experience to set the stage for her third and final act. It may start as a documentary about a cleaning service and how a business runs, but it ends up telling a bigger story that deals with trauma and forgiveness. Even at only 92 minutes, McLeod gets you a complete picture of a woman in control and brings it to a satisfying, emotional conclusion. 

SXSW Review ~ Sissy

Synopsis: Cecilia is invited on Emma’s bachelorette weekend where she gets stuck in a remote cabin with her high school bully with a taste for revenge
Director: Hannah Barlow & Kane Senes
Running Length: 104 minutes
Review: Conceding that the “influencer’ is indeed an established trope character and not just a trivial subtype to roll your eyes at will help you get on board with this Australian psycho horror flick that much faster. The particular enthusiasm to which Cecilia devotes her time to a social media presence isn’t anything new to audiences exposed to sharp commentary but the instant respect it gets her on long-lost friend Emma’s “hen’s weekend” indicates the times in which we are living. Directors Hannah Barlow & Kane Senes deliver familiar, awkward sameness for the first 45 minutes, albeit with the quirky style that defines Australian cinema. (Though, what’s up with the overwhelmingly loud music score? It’s instrumental elevator music from a Sears that stopped getting updated playlists in 1983.)  Things pick up once Emily De Margheriti’s witchy character appears, aggravating bad memories for all that leads to mayhem. Barlow (who also stars and handles both tasks nicely) and Kanes have a good team assembled, down to surprisingly gory prosthetic work in the latter half. Sissy belongs to Aisha Dee (The Nowhere Inn) as the title character. Her breakdown arc occupies much of the movie; you could argue it’s already in progress when the film begins. I think it could get one more pass by a crack editor to tighten things up (and turn down that score!), and then Sissy might be a star.

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