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.