The 2015 South by Southwest Festival took some early lumps for seemingly giving in to a studio takeover of the film portion of their festival. It was a bit of a trumped-up charge aimed at some heavyweight sneak previews courtesy of Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, whom nobody would have accused of mainstreaming when they debuted “Freaks and Geeks” back in 1999. Times have certainly changed for them, and this year's programmers did not so much roll with the big wigs as they did work to produce an exemplary lineup of studio and independent fare—if you knew where to look. Therein lies the trick in a festival with over a hundred films: your fest experience is only as good as the choices you make.
In my festival preview, I praised Noah Pritzker's "Quitters" and Charles Hood's "Night Owls," and I heard those sentiments echoed on the ground in terms of films getting festival buzz. Adam Pally and Rosa Salazar were singled out for their terrific chemistry in Hood's verbal, almost theatrical, back-and-forth. Though my favorite documentary of the fest was Mark Craig's "The Last Man on the Moon," which tells the story of astronaut Gene Cernan, SXSW preferred my second favorite: "Peace Officer" by Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Award in Documentary Competition. As the debate grows over departmental accountability of the police force, their film evenhandedly looks at two uneasy truths: 1.) Cops are being forced to arm themselves to combat increased aggression; 2.) Dated tactics and laws may unnecessarily put them on the razor's edge with itchy trigger fingers. If Gene Cernan was a symbol of a time in history where our dreams of reaching for the stars faded, then former lawman Dub Lawrence is one for today—a model for truth and not hysteria in the wake of smoky gunfire.
Four more documentaries focused on nostalgia that ran the gamut from the sweet to the sour. Jeffrey Schwartz, whose last film was "I Am Divine", takes on the story of another of John Waters' stable of contributors in "Tab Hunter Confidential." Tab's tale is the stuff of American dreams as well as nightmares. The matinee idol who seemingly could do it all, rising from B-pictures to "Damn Yankees!," as well as a singing career and his own TV show, also held a secret that was waiting to be exposed by the gossip rags of his era. Hunter had a much more prosperous career than most regardless of their orientation, so his story feels more like a traditional rise-to-fall narrative. Nevertheless, it is still an interesting Hollywood story for the rich history that preceded his days in mere cult films.
Though the film opens with the declaration of NFL-wannabe Michael Sam, Malcolm Ingram's documentary "Out to Win" reminds people that gay athletes, both open and closeted, go back decades, and not just in the U.S. To its credit, the film does not sidestep the issue of whether or not Sam (the Defensive Player of the Year) is truly worthy of an NFL roster or if would have just been another name in a draft pile without the publicity he created by his admission, particularly after his biggest misstep in nearly being part of an Oprah-sponsored reality show that went completely against his assertion that he wanted to be thought of as a football player first. Success breeds acceptance as luminaries such as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova could tell you, even after experiencing their own controversies. Bookending the film with Queen's satirical anthem to sports fandom "We Will Rock You"/"We Are the Champions" feels a bit ironic for a film that is more about celebration than criticism, but fits when you consider Michael Sam's words: "Great things can happen when you have the courage to be yourself."
While hardly closeted, Gore Vidal was considered one of the great liberal intellectuals of the 1960s. Which makes it all the more disturbing how over the course of his televised debates featured in Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville's "Best of Enemies" with conservative William F. Buckley Jr. he would be not-so-subtly reminded of what a heathen he is underneath the rhetoric. (Count how many times Buckley prefaces a comment by mentioning Vidal wrote "Myra Breckinridge.") The film only uses the bastardization of point/counterpoint as a footnote to this story, but it is a sad reminder of how such mores, politically and socially, have really not changed that much.
One of the most anticipated films from my initial preview lived up to expectations, but not in the manner I actually expected. Jeremy Coon & Tim Skousen's "Raiders!" documents the period from 1982-89 when three young boys inspired by Steven Spielberg's masterpiece set out to remake “Raiders of the Lost Ark” shot-for-shot. This section of the film is not unlike behind-the-scenes stories we have seen before from the wonder of the project's inceptions to the production problems that force the executives to get involved. Or, in this case, their parents. But as the film moves on we discover that the boy's growing pains were not unlike those of a great band torn apart by ego and jealousy. The final 20 minutes are equal parts shocking and triumphant (you will want to stay through the end credits).
Sunday night at SXSW certainly stoked the flames of the dissenters who were disappointed in the fest's seemingly wrong-headed direction from the days when films like "Knocked Up" and "Bridesmaids" were shown as "work-in-progress" sneak previews months ahead of their theatrical release. So it began with Apatow's latest film, "Trainwreck", which is actually his best work since his 2007 smash with Seth Rogen and the actress who laid the groundwork for claims of his films being a misogynist boy's club. Whether or not you believe in those petty and somewhat ill-founded claims, giving stand-up comedian Amy Schumer both writing and starring duty could seem like either a reaction from Apatow or just having another inspired eye for comic talent. Schumer stars as a woman instilled with the horrors of monogamy from her divorced father only to find herself breaking her own rules when the right guy comes along in the form of Bill Hader’s sports surgeon (allowing for a great LeBron James cameo). Schumer is the true star here, and, coupled with winning chemistry with Hader and Apatow's knowing touch to blend almost non-stop comedy with actual human feeling, she is going to find new fans everywhere when the film opens on July 17.
Paul Feig's "Spy" which followed his "Freaks & Geeks" compatriot, is more of a goofy lark than a truly memorable comedy, but it is certainly funny enough thanks to a cast who seem to be practically making up scenes as they go along. Melissa McCarthy runs the gamut of her career arc from a sweet wallflower of a CIA analyst (shades of her work on TV's "Gilmore Girls") to foul-mouthed, ready-for-action agent. Paired with a great cast, including her "Bridesmaids" co-star Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney and Jude Law, the film actually could have used even more Jason Statham in what may be his best work to date, knowingly sending up and dismantling the image of the 007 persona as well as his own career.
Speaking of which, Sunday's "night of independent cinema" (that some of us dubbed it) was capped off with the worst-kept secret of the day when Universal doubled down on their festival gifts by putting together a midnight screening of their forthcoming blockbuster, "Furious 7." The franchise that has pretty much worn film critics down over the years with their popularity and increased lunacy finally gets the director it needed all along in James Wan. He knows how to craft and edit an action sequence (even one that defies all logic and rules of physics) in such a way that all you can do is throw your hands up and submit to its energy and nuttiness. The film also nicely handles Paul Walker's passing during production and gives his fans and his family an exit they will applaud.
The horror genre is getting a lot of great press in theaters right now with the arrival of last year's Toronto fest discoveries, "It Follows" and "Spring," but the Midnight selections at Sundance and even this year's SXSW have been mostly uninspired. But there still were some standouts. The Audience Award for this year's Midnighters lineup was "Turbo Kid", a kind of Cannon Films-like post-apocalyptic actioner from filmmakers François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell. Despite its goofy amount of extreme bloodshed, it manages to maintain real heart and appeal to fans of this cultish period of cinema. Karyn Kusama's "The Invitation" is more of a slow burn drama that wants to hide its secrets under the veil of a growing paranoia at a dinner party that may be a front for a cult. Or is it just another self-help group hoping to create an intervention for the estranged couple that suffered a personal tragedy? Putting a film like this in the Midnighters section may be its own spoiler alert, but the film does a nice enough job in building tension and mystery that even without its dynamite climax and chilling final shot, it would have worked as a drama about grief and forgiveness.
That is a word not in the cards for the bullied girl at the center of "Unfriended", which utilizes the newest variation of the found footage milieu (telling a story entirely through online communication) to tell a sinister story of revenge. Better than practically all of the cheaply-made "just put down the camera" horror tales, Levan Gabriadze's tightly constructed creeper maintains a relentless pace through 70-some minutes that most films of its type save until their final five. For something a little less tense, Todd Strauss-Schulson's "The Final Girls" takes a "Pleasantville"-like approach to putting a group of friends inside the loop of an '80s slasher film. The strong cast includes Alia Shawkat ("Arrested Development"), Nina Dobrev ("The Vampire Diaries"), Thomas Middleditch ("Silicon Valley"), Adam Devine ("Workaholics") and Taissa Farmiga as the odds-on favorite to be the eponymous "final girl" (i.e. the virginal heroine who dispatches the bad guy). As a whole, the film has a tendency to sometimes be too clever (and other times just short of clever), but Devine is really funny as the horned-up jock character, the mother-daughter relationship works, and any spoof that manages to work in one of the funniest and one of the most heartfelt stripteases ever captured in a non-exploitive manner earns many points in my book.
SXSW's big winner though was Trey Edward Shults' family drama, "Krisha." Like "Peace Officer," the film won both the Grand Jury Prize as well as the Audience Award and those are well-deserved honors. Taking place over a Thanksgiving gathering, the titular Krisha returns to join her family after what seems to be a period of estrangement. While she is welcomed in, there is underlying tension from her relatives, some who ignore; others who confront the past head on. Her son (played by Shults) does not seem to know how to act, but clearly harbors some deep resentment. What unfolds turns Shults' film into identifiable family horror, and the results are unnerving and soaked in sadness. The extension of his own short film (which premiered at last year's SXSW) is a beautifully-shot ensemble piece that exemplifies the kind of balance between storytelling and experimentation that independent cinema could use more of. South by Southwest for years has been a festival that has celebrated the balance between small and large budgets, and the films that find their way out of Austin each year make it out for a reason.