My up-to-the-minute(ish) thoughts on all things SXSW
By Sean Blanford
Friday, March 19th
8:15 am: This is the first morning in three days that I actually slept in! Today is SXSW catch-up day, as the film festival “technically” ended yesterday, but access to films runs through Saturday. That means anything that you wanted to see and was double booked (or in some cases in the midnight set quadruple booked), you have the next two days to freely roam amongst the film library. So I kinda slacked yesterday with writing, however, I will share my quick thoughts on the final two films I watched yesterday, bringing my SXSW total so far to twenty-three.
Alone Together is the documentary on Charli XCX and the process she went through during the pandemic to release How I’m Feeling Now. Made in five weeks and relying on fan support and suggestions to create the music those closest to her wanted to hear, the film will be enjoyed most by her biggest fans. It was an interesting dynamic seeing how Charli always kept close to them, holding zoom meetings and live recording the process, but at less than 70 minutes there isn’t a lot of meat on the bones. Grade: 3.25/5 (B-)
The Spine of Night pays homage to the animation style of 80s animated films like Heavy Metal while being potentially the most violent film I have seen all festival (and I am not saying that as a bad thing). A huge fantasy epic spanning several different interlocking stories, this cohesion of the film overall just didn’t work for me personally. The visuals were beautiful and the film had a great voice cast including Patton Oswalt and Richard E. Grant, but by the end, it just didn’t land. Grade: 2.5/5 (C)
Thursday, March 18th
5:30 pm: I had a fear in the pit of my stomach within the first five minutes of Violet that it was going to be nothing more than sensory overload and I was going to hate it. I am so glad that I have never been so wrong. Olivia Munn absolutely crushes it as the titular Violet, a film executive who has dealt with the nagging sense of self-doubt and the voice in her head all of her life. As the film goes on and you realize what you’re watching, your thought process will change and what you’re left with is a film that is a piece of art. In her feature directorial debut, Justine Bateman asks a lot of the audience and gives way more than what you may expect. Remember this film now, because this is the must-watch film from SXSW. Grade: 4.5/5 (A)
3:30 pm: Three more films to discuss. First is the fantastic Lee haven Jones film The Feast, which I loved just as much as Jakob’s Wife but for different reasons. While the latter was an homage to goofy 80’s horror/comedies, The Feast is visceral and cerebral, lulling you in the false sense of security for the first hour while you sit and question what your watching and how it will culminate. The final act rips away that security blanket and burns it in front of you, ramping up the violence and gore to another level. There will be things I saw in this film that will be etched in my mind for days and weeks to come. Grade: 4.25/5 (A-)
Second is the part documentary, part filmed production of Alien on Stage, following a group of bus drivers in England with little to no experience on the stage. When the initial stage show is a flop, they are given a new lease on life when they have the opportunity to do a one-night-only performance of their show at the West End Leicester Theater in London. While this is another cut-and-dry documentary in terms of style, the hook of how they were going to pull off this show in one of the most acclaimed theaters in the UK kept me captivated. This was hilarious and I wish I had the opportunity to see the show live. Grade: 3.5/5 (B)
The last film was a second watch of the Zoe Lister-Jones pandemic era comedy How It Ends. I caught this at Sundance and loved the chemistry between Lister-Jones and Cailee Spaeny as the younger version of Jones’ character Liza. They are a dynamic duo, and seeing all of the different cameos in the film was a lot of fun as they all navigate the last day on Earth. Here’s hoping this will get picked up soon, as this should be seen by a wider audience. Grade: 3.75/5 (B+)
10:30 am: So I don’t have a 10 am film on my day three slate, so I will be using this opportunity to get caught up on the fourth and final midnight film from day two, Lee Haven Jone’s The Feast. Looking back on the two films I watched this morning, I am going to lump them together because I found them to be equally disappointing for different reasons. Offseason, a film about a couple traveling to a secluded island with a spooky history, suffers from a dull narrative and not at all thrilling, relying on jump scares and booms in the score to drum up even the slightest feeling of fright. Grade: 2.5/5 (C). The second film, Witch Hunt, has a few really solid performances and had a few good scares, but the story was all over the place and the ending was brutally predictable. Grade: 2.75/5 (C+)
6:00 am: Good morning, and happy day three! This morning I am getting caught up on two films from yesterday’s midnight slate, Offseason and Witch Hunt. However, I have two films from last night that I haven’t brought up yet, so away we go!
Tom Petty: Somewhere You Feel Free is a really interesting documentary using never-before-seen 16mm footage from the recording of Petty’s Wildflowers album. This had a different feel from the other documentaries I have seen so far this festival, with the grainy feel of the old footage giving it a look of something that existed decades before the footage was shot, and you could tell by the interviews and from Petty himself that this was truly a passion project for him. The overall structure of the film, however, lacked anything to really grab ahold of aside from the aesthetics. Grade: 3.25/5 (B-)
Jakob’s Wife was the midnight movie I have been waiting for. This was an old-school horror-comedy that had bloodshed and cool kills to spare. I don’t want to dive in too deep because I want to save most of my thoughts for a full review, but Barbara Crampton was fantastic, really going all-out for this role. Grade: 4.25/5 (A-)
Wednesday, March 17th
5:34 pm: The Documentary United States vs. Reality Winner is a timely and much-needed documentary about a former NSA agent who leaked a document pertaining to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. While, yes, what she did was a violation of her job and she should have been punished for it, the fact that she is still sitting in a jail cell serving the largest sentence ever handed out to someone who violated the Espionage Act while the document she leaked is now a public record is truly infuriating. I said timely in the intro to this because there’s evidence that Russia tried to interfere in the 2020 election, too. If you’re not one for politics or are just sick of dealing with anything that has to do with #45, this may not be something you want to watch. However, this is an example of how our broken system prioritizes punishing those who want to get the truth out there rather than doing something about the bigger issues at play. #justice4reality. Grade: 3.5/5 (B)
3:34 pm: Actress/Director/Co-Writer Natalie Morales and Actor/Co-Writer Mark Duplass create about as good a COVID era movie you can with Language Lessons. A story of two people brought together VIA online Spanish lessons that turn into a kinship for one another after a tragic event in Adam’s (Duplass) life. Cariño (Morales) has issues of her own that are brought up throughout the film, and this drives the story forward and builds an arc for the movie. With the restrictions being what they were and not being able to physically interact, it is tough to build real stakes through the entire course of the film, some of which felt more like moments in time rather than driving the story forward. However, many of the real emotional moments to feel like they’re coming out of nowhere but hitting especially hard at the same time. Natalie Morales is an absolute star, and once life gets back to normal, I would love to see what she has up her sleeves as a follow-up feature. Grade: 3.5/5 (B)
1:54 pm: The Kevin Smith documentary Clerk is a deep look into the man that made a huge mark in the independent film industry, his over 25 years in the industry, and all that encompasses his life. It doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the difficulties he had after films he thought were going to be successes ended up being box office misses, his life after his 2018 heart attack, and how he has handled the fact that his work, for better or for worse, is attached to a man who is now a pariah in the industry. Whether you like his films or not, there is no denying that Kevin Smith has influenced film and podcasting and the comic book industry and nerd culture as a whole. Many people my age look to people like Smith as an influence, and as someone who has been a fan of his work since probably younger than I should have been, this was a fascinating look at the man behind the View Askew universe. Grade: 4.0/5 (A-)
10:19 am: I’m taking a break from movies for the first block so I can watch a Q&A with the editors and creator of Ted Lasso because, c’mon, Ted Lasso is awesome.
So onto the two films that I watched this morning as a catch-up from yesterday. The first was Women is Losers, inspired by the Janis Joplin song of the same name and stars Lorenzo Izzo as Celina, a girl in late-60s San Francisco dealing with the struggles facing many women in that era. She is impregnated in high school and decides to raise her young son alone while working two jobs, all while trying to save money to get a home of her own. This is a very on-the-nose dramatic-comedy that isn’t shy at winking at the camera to let the audience know that this is all still the type of crap women have to put up with in today’s society, which is extremely depressing. Sometimes these moments work, and sometimes they don’t. However, the emotional beats resonate, even if the overall film doesn’t. Grade: 3.25/5 (B-)
The second film was one of the other midnight screenings from yesterday, Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia. I was really looking forward to this as I heard good word-of-mouth from people I trust. For the first half, I was really digging into the weirdness and where it could go with this story of a park ranger (Monique Rockman) who discovers a father and son living in the woods. The two men treat nature like it’s a religion, and while watching, you’re not quite sure if what you’re seeing is real or not. Then it just went completely off the rails, and I really wasn’t feeling it. It had many really cool elements, speaking of nature and how one treats it while also muddling the story with potential romance and an ending that has me asking so many questions. Grade: 2.5/5 (C)
The next film I will be watching this afternoon is Clerk, which is a Kevin Smith documentary. I am really looking forward to this one!
7:01 am: Slept in a little late this morning, but boy, did I need it. I’ll still have time to squeeze in two films before the start of the day, so film number one on the list is a catch-up from yesterday, Lissette Feliciano’s Women is Losers.
Tuesday, March 16th
9:55 pm: Finally back in the narrative realm! My first “midnight” feature was Broadcast Signal Intrusion, a film-noir-style thriller starring Harry Shum, Jr. as James, a man obsessed with figuring out the mystery behind a conspiracy involving pirated archived footage and a missing girl. This was an entertaining movie, and kudos to director Jacob Gentry for showing some restraint with the level of violence shown in the film. I am no prude, but Broadcast is the type of film where “less is more” isn’t at all a bad thing, and the overall story was just on the right side of the line of being odd enough without becoming a bad parody. It does suffer from going a bit too all over the place to follow along with, but I had fun with it nevertheless. Grade: 3.5/5 (B)
I think I am going to call it good for today. Eight films are plenty, and with a good night’s sleep, I can get in a couple of films in the morning before starting the official day two slate. See you tomorrow morning!
8:01 pm: My last of four straight documentaries tonight, so I am excited to get back into narrative films for the first of the Midnighters block. The four-part docuseries Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil was treated as a full documentary for its SXSW premiere before hitting YouTube on March 23rd, chronicles her life after her 2018 drug overdose, her background with eating disorders, chemical dependency, and the horrific things that happened to her that caused it, as well as her rise back from everything with her stunning performances at The Grammy’s and the national anthem at the Super Bowl. If I were someone who was a bigger Demi fan and was more invested in her story, I would have potentially gotten more out of it. That being said, I thought it was a very well-produced series, interweaving multiple interviews from the present and footage from the original 2018 documentary that halted after her overdose. Even if you’re someone like me, you will still get something out of it, and at 25 minutes per episode, it is worth the look. Grade: 3.5/5 (B)
Also, I can talk about the second film I watched this morning from my screeners, and you guessed it, it’s another documentary! Kid Candidate follows the story of 24-year-old Hayden Pedigo, a viral sensation whose campaign ad spoofs morphed into an actual campaign for Amarillo City Council. There really isn’t much to say about this film other than it is inspiring that Hayden seems like someone who truly cares about the city he lives in and how to improve it. We get a glimpse into his life, including his strained relationship with his family, but I wish for something more to sink my teeth into. Grade: 3.25/5 (B-)
5:32 pm: Another amazing documentary under my belt, this one being Lily Topples the World, about YouTube sensation and domino artist Lily Hevesh (aka Hevesh5). Currently sitting at over three million YouTube subscribers, Lily Hevesh has made a name for herself as the preeminent domino artist at just 22 years of age, with some of her videos garnering tens if not hundreds of millions of views. Lily Topples the World gives a glimpse of the girl behind the cool toppling art, covering her story of being adopted from China at just the age of one, deciding to make her YouTube channel at a much younger age than she should have been allowed to, and making the decision to quit college to achieve her goals and dreams. We see her as she and her fellow domino artists collaborate on taking corporate jobs for the Washington State Lottery or Lego or making guest appearances on The Tonight Show or Today. She has a bigger vision, though, looking at ways to expand her footprint on the domino community, first and foremost achieving her goal of releasing her own line of toppling dominos. This could have been just the greatest hits of all her most famous work, but credit to director Jemery Workman for making this more of a deep dive into how Lily has had such an impact on the community. Lily Topples the World was just a joy to watch. Grade: 4.0/5 (A-).
The next film on the docket is tonight’s major release, the Demi Lovato documentary Dancing with the Devil.
3:34 pm: The documentary train continues through the afternoon, and my lord, what a film I just watched. Introducing, Selma Blair follows the actress as she lives her life as someone newly diagnosed with Multiple sclerosis. Beginning in 2018, but mainly taking place in 2019 and into the first part of 2020, Selma’s struggles are put on full display, like the simple things we take for granted like walking up a set of stairs or having a conversation with someone is made extremely difficult for someone with MS. You feel for Selma during every step of her journey as she tries to raise her son while also going through an extremely rigorous bout of stem cell therapy. Before the festival began, the global distribution rights to Introducing, Selma Blair were acquired by Discovery+, which is great because this is a must-watch for anyone who is a fan of the actress. Kudos to both director Rachel Fleit and to Selma herself for bringing this story to the screen. I had a tear in my eye within the first ten minutes and was hooked for the remainder of the film. Grade: 4.25/5 (A-).
Guess what? Next is another documentary!!!
1:43 pm: I just finished the first of many documentaries that I will be viewing at this festival, Dear Mr. Brody. I love a documentary that can shine a light on a subject that is new to me, and I had no idea about the story of Michael Brody, Jr., a man who at a very young age inherited a fortune and wanted to give it all away. Brody’s story is a tragic one and is worth looking into if you are like me and want to know more about him. As a film, the use of footage and interweaving it with interviews and the opening of actual letters was fun and insightful, but it felt like it dragged on a bit until we finally arrived at the ending. Grade: 2.75/5 (C+). Next up is another documentary, Introducing, Selma Blair.
11:30 am: Welcome to my first SXSW experience. Much like with Sundance a couple of months ago, I will be doing this live blog format and full-length reviews on some of the films I see throughout the festival. I hope that next year, once things (hopefully) get back to normal, I will be doing this in Austin rather than from the luxury of my own media room, in my sweats, the day after it snowed several inches in beautiful Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Anyway, my day actually started at 6 am this morning, knocking out two films from my screener section, Luchadoras and Kid Candidate. I am currently under an embargo to give my opinion on these films, so all I can say is that these are films that I watched. However, my first official screening of the festival was Mari Walker’s feature-length directorial debut, See You Then. Following a former couple who are seeing each other for the first time in ten years, Naomi (Lynn Chen) and Kris (Pooya Mohseni) start the evening off with dinner, reminiscing about their time together, Kris’ transgender status, and undergoing gender confirmation surgery. Naomi now being married with two children. Things didn’t end on the best terms between Kris and Naomi, and this tension boils beneath the surface, exploding at the end where we are given revelation after revelation about their relationship, what it did to the two of them, and what it means for their future if they have one together even as friends.
The film’s tight setting focuses on just Kris and Naomi as the two central characters were to the film’s benefit, but adding additional side characters such as an old classmate and a potential romantic interest for Kris only derailed the overall story of the film. Even at a brisk seventy-four minutes, these bits just seemed like filler where more focus could have been on our two leads. Lynn Chen and Pooya Mohseni’s performances were stellar, with the final ten minutes being the most powerful of the entire movie. With a bit more cohesion in the story and more focus on their past together, I would have enjoyed this more. Grade: 3.25/5 (B-).