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.

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