Wrapping up my time at the 2023 SXSW film festival, I figured it would be best to split up my reviews into a few Volumes.
The first looks at a few of the full-length features I’ve seen.
Director/Screenwriter: Anna Zlokovic
Cast: Hadley Robinson, Emily Hampshire, Brandon Mychal Smith, Kausar Mohammed
Synopsis: After hitting a breaking point, Hannah’s inner thoughts physically change into a monstrous creature threatening to upend her life.
Thoughts: Last October, Hulu brought two of its previous Huluween shorts to feature film life, and while the results of those efforts (Grimcutty and Matriarch) were uneven, to put it mildly, they’ll be giving it another shot this year with Appendage. Writer/director Anna Zlokovic expands her brief shocker that saw budding fashion designer Hannah hampered by self-doubt, manifesting her fears as a vile little creature who grew out of her. The premise was crazy enough to work in a blink and you missed it creep out, but how would it fare with 85 more minutes to fill? Zlokovic hasn’t gone back and reinvented her story but instead, um, fleshed it out, delving into the origins of Hannah’s issues and how it has followed her around like a curse. Hadley Robinson replaces Rachel Sennott as the lead and drafts a believably live wire bundle of nerves, pushed further to the breaking point when her hang-ups express themselves as a gooey monster that feeds on her sadness. I was sad to see Eric Roberts not stay with the film as her tyrannical boss, especially because his replacement plays the role as a sort of cross between the less successful aspects of King Herod and Miranda Priestly. Zlokovic does good work with a limited budget and brings the whole looney-tunes story to a fine wrap-up that eschews fantasy for honesty.
The Long Game
Director: Julio Quintana
Cast: Jay Hernandez, Dennis Quaid, Cheech Marin, Julian Works, Jaina Lee Ortiz, Brett Cullen, Oscar Nuñez, Richard Robichaux, Paulina Chávez
Synopsis: Banned from playing at the club where they caddied, a group of Mexican-American high schoolers form their own golf team, build a one-hole course in the fields, and win the 1957 Texas State Championship against all odds. Based on a true story.
Thoughts: It didn’t surprise me to learn after the fact that director Julio Quintana had Oscar-winning director Terrence Malick as a mentor as he began in the film industry. To look at The Long Game is to take in a serene postcard of a movie that’s a visual feast to the eyes, and it’s almost a bonus that Quintana has a compelling story to tell on top of it all. Not that he hasn’t already had some practice with an inspiring tale of underdogs mentored by Dennis Quaid defying the odds and proving their worth to a sea of doubters. He’s done that movie already, and it was called Blue Miracle, a Netflix film from 2021 that turns out to be precisely the type of movie you think it is. The same could be said about The Long Game too. It follows a time-honored formula of movie tropes that sets the audience up to dab their eyes by the end when they aren’t cheering on the <insert sports team here> to victory. Co-starring Jay Hernandez (Bad Moms) as a new superintendent and veteran in a Texas town that sees links potential in the Mexican-American boys who have only been allowed to caddy at the same country club he wants to join; what fascinated me about this one is how well it works the formula in its favor. The cast is uniformly charming, the pacing is deliberate but not slow, and the message is delivered not in a sugary deluge but in slow drops that make it easy to digest. This is one of those Sunday afternoon crowd-pleasers that come along rarely.
Director: Lina Lyte Plioplyte
Synopsis: This an eye-opening documentary that examines science, politics, and the mystery of the menstrual cycle, through the experiences of doctors, athletes, movie stars, journalists, activists, and everyday people.
Thoughts: This striking documentary about the mystery of women’s “time of the month” (ugh, I know, it pained me to write it too) is, in my estimation, something every male (or male-identifying) person should have to see. Indeed, viewing for any politician serving in any capacity should be required. OK…I’ll fully admit that as a white male watching this film, I was embarrassed by the amount of information I didn’t know going in, not about the base facts on what is going on ‘inside’ but on the radical injustice that has been dealt toward women as it relates to laws, taxes, discrimination, and so on. Interviewing everyone from a young woman going from state to state to appeal the tax applied to tampons (classified as “luxury items” in many states) to women going through menopause (including Oscar-nominee Naomi Watts), Lina Lyte Plioplyte’s carefully organized deep dive is easy to follow and rich with informative points for those needing different levels of insight. It’s the kind of radical documentary that could, with enough push, take off significantly.
I Used To Be Funny
Director/Screenwriter: Ally Pankiw
Cast: Rachel Sennott, Olga Petsa, Jason Jones, Sabrina Jalees, Caleb Hearon, Ennis Esmer, Dani Kind
Synopsis: Sam, a stand-up comedian struggling with PTSD, weighs whether or not to join the search for Brooke, a missing teenage girl she used to nanny.
Thoughts: Bursting onto the scene with 2021’s Shiva Baby, I first caught up with Rachel Sennott in 2022 when the horror-comedy Bodies Bodies Bodies landed. Nearly walking away with the film thanks to her expert deadpan line delivery, Sennott instantly went on my list of actors to keep an eye out for, and I didn’t have to wait too long for her next project to arrive. Here at SXSW, we’re treated to a strong Sennott performance in I Used To Be Funny, a dramedy boasting a unique format built upon sequences in the present and flashbacks to the past that fill in the gaps to a mystery we reconstruct along the way. Usually, this kind of storytelling can get a bit frustrating. Still, writer/director Ally Pankiw has gifted us with Sennott’s ace leading performance and surrounded her with a solid supporting cadre of interesting Canadian actors. If it drifts off center ever so slightly near the end and doesn’t fully right itself before arriving at its destination, I can forgive it for the first 90 minutes delivered with such an effortless air of confidence. Sennott is clearly on track toward the role that will truly launch her into the next level, and we’ll be able to point to films such as I Used To Be Funny as solid examples of full-package entertainment.