This past week, I had the pleasure of visiting OneOfUs’ home base of Austin, Texas to attend South By Southwest (SXSW for abbreviation’s sake), the film/music/interactive festival that brings people all over the world together to watch, listen and learn… but mostly drink. I’ve already been a part of the site’s Infestation coverage via the Highly Suspect Review of Furious 7 and the second part of our SXSW coverage, but I’d like to spotlight and elaborate on some of the major screenings I went to, from the biggest of blockbusters to the tightest budgeted of indies. So, without further adieu…
5. Furious 7
Dir: James Wan
Cast: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson
“Deckard Shaw seeks revenge against Dominic Toretto and his family for the death of his brother.”
I know, I know. Of all the interesting and obscure titles I could have named here from SXSW, I decided to start this countdown with the 7th entry in the multi-million dollar The Fast and The Furious franchise. Well, I pride myself on utmost honesty and, honestly, I had a blast with Furious 7 for the earnest example of cartoonish blockbuster action that it is. This series, initially starting with a Point Break rip off about underground street racing, transformed into pure nonsensical action with Justin Lin’s second entry and fourth installment overall in the franchise Fast & Furious*. From there, Lin topped himself in terms of crazy action with Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6. The latter two films really saw the series come into it’s own as a go for broke action film series, given that they contain action set pieces like a giant bank safe being dragged behind a car down the streets of Brazil and Vin Diesel leaping from his car to rescue Michelle Rodriguez as she’s been thrown from tank. With all that in mind, James Wan (The Conjuring, Insidious) manages to take the reigns with grace and ease, keeping up the manic chaos Lin established while one-upping it with a series of set pieces that laugh in the face of logic and physics with child-like glee.
It helps to have a lively and diverse cast that’s as game to play all of this ridiculousness seriously, whether they be old favorites that know the ropes of the series like Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson or new faces that slide into their roles perfectly like Jason Statham and Kurt Russell. Of course, one can’t talk about this film without mentioning the unfortunate cloud of sadness hovering over it; the tragic passing of Paul Walker in the middle of production. Franchise producer Neal H. Mortiz prefaced the SXSW screening by emphasizing that people not spoil Walker’s exit from the franchise and I won’t say it here. However, I will emphasize that after two hours and twenty minutes of non-stop crazy action, it was refreshing to be genuinely touched by how gracefully this series sends off one of their most frequent recurring cast members. The chemistry between that cast always feels so palpable because they all really did feel like the family unit Vin Diesel constantly says they are and Walker’s absence is treated with the reverence of a beloved family member missing from the dinner table. It shows that even something this machismo and over the top isn’t afraid to be emotion.
4. The Overnight
Dir: Patrick Brice
Cast: Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling, Jason Schwartzman, Judith Godrèche
“Alex, Emily, and their son, RJ, are new to Los Angeles. A chance meeting at the park introduces them to the mysterious Kurt, Charlotte, and Max. A family “playdate” becomes increasingly interesting as the night goes on.”
Part of the joy with a festival like SXSW is having little to no expectations for any number of films before sitting down to watch them. Probably the shining example of this for me this year was The Overnight, which in case one couldn’t tell from the limited description, is very much a low budget affair. Most of it takes place in Schwartzman & Godrèche’s rather extravagant mansion, allowing the interactions between the two couples as the mystery of what their intentions are with Scott & Schilling unfolds. The whole film relies on the strengths of it’s four core performers and how perfectly they contrast. The more traditional and less adventurous Scott and Schilling are thrusted into a new environment while trying to be as polite as possible, so the increasingly ridiculous actions that follow are all the more hilarious when lines are crossed and taboos are broken in a mixture of a battle of the sexes and the growth of desires following marriage. It’s a comedy that’s not afraid to get as uncomfortable and awkward as it can get, in ways that many a cringe focused comedy from today doesn’t normally do. This is all obviously quite vague, but the charm of the film really is in the gradual unraveling of events during that night and how daring the performers can be, even at their most vulnerable. And boy… do they get vulnerable.
3. The Final Girls
Dir: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Cast: Taissa Farmiga, Alia Shawkat, Adam DeVine, Malin Akerman
“A young woman grieving the loss of her mother, a famous scream queen from the 1980s, finds herself pulled into the world of her mom’s most famous movie. Reunited, the women must fight off the film’s maniacal killer.”
The horror comedy is a hard thing to pull off. That right balance between horror and comedy is always teetering, especially when the conventions of the both genres can have little room for solid character development when they mainly focus on scares and/or laughs. Yet, despite the potential hardships, The Final Girls manages to pull all of that off in a very funny and surprisingly sweet fashion. There’s a great deal of mileage taken from letting the cast interact and play to their profound comedic strengths, particularly Adam DeVine as the typical 80s jock stud of the camp counselor group with the usual effortless comedic delivery he’s exhibited in Workaholics. Strauss-Schulson’s direction is also impeccable, displaying the same eye for inventively clever ways of having the complex camera moves interact with and support the comedy, something he displayed quite brilliantly with the very underrated vulgar stoner comedy A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.
As one can tell from the general premise, the mother/daughter relationship really is the core emotional arc for the film, allowing Malin Akerman and Taissa Farmiga to further explore the nature of a slasher film character without ever feeling out of place in this very silly and cartoonish exploration of the genre. It’s honestly kind of refreshing to have something this irreverent have moments of contemplation, as this could have simply divulged into the usual schtick of a self aware horror comedy. Instead, it allows for a vibrant but inherently flawed friendship to develop between Akerman & Farmiga in a manner that gives off Back to the Future-like nostalgic vibes. Schulson and the screenwriters also manage to give all of the characters (whether from the real world or otherwise) real time to contemplate their place in this situation: young men and women on the brink of death by a mysterious force they seemingly can’t stop. It’s something few horror comedies accomplish and it’s what dips the parody of The Final Girls into genuine satire on the implications of what Roger Ebert originally coined as the “Dead Teenager Movie.” It’s a skillful balancing act that manages to stay true to the genre despite having no true nudity and very little gore, which I didn’t even notice until the last few deaths of the film. That’s a true accomplishment.
2. The Road Warrior (with Fury Road Clip)
Dir: George Miller
Cast: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spencee
“In the post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland, a cynical drifter agrees to help a small, gasoline rich, community escape a band of bandits.”
While SXSW affords many the opportunity to discover films for the first time, it can also give audiences the chance to rediscover classics and display them large for people to see. This year, one such screening was of The Road Warrior, from a brand new 35 mm print and with writer/director George Miller in attendance. With the film itself, there’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said; it’s The Road Warrior. The car chase scenes are still as kinetic and vibrant as ever, Mel Gibson epitomizes the stoic badass long before he ruined his reputation and the endless stretches of desert look even more harsh and unforgiving in 35 mm. It’s still one of the most influential post apocalyptic film of all time and many have tried to top it & failed, even Miller himself with Beyond Thunderdome. Of course, he will soon be attempting to do so again with his upcoming film Mad Max: Fury Road, which Miller showed an exclusive clip and trailer for following The Road Warrior screening. According to Miller, the scene takes place at the beginning of the second act and features the first lines of dialogue Max speaks in the film. I won’t go into huge specifics about the scene to avoid spoilers, though it does involve Max running into Charlize Theron and a group of women while being uncomfortably attached to Nicholas Hoult’s character. Regardless, what really matters about this clip is how much of the spirit of Road Warrior still lingers despite Miller having been away from this world for thirty years, to the point where Miller commented that the point in the clip where Max has a shotgun that backfires wasn’t intended as a throwback to a similar gag in The Road Warrior. That’s how in sync he feels with this franchise; it just naturally came back to him.
1. Trainwreck (Work In Progress Screening)
Dir: Judd Apatow
Cast: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Colin Quinn
“Having thought that monogamy was never possible, a commitment-phobic career woman may have to face her fears when she meets a good guy.”
The phrases “Judd Apatow” and “work in progress” can often raise eyebrows. Apatow, a man known for making comedies that near or exceed the two hour mark, would likely have an endless and unapologetically lengthy work print to screen at the festival or at least that’s what I feared going in. Yet, despite those fears of unforgivable length, the work in progress version of Trainwreck didn’t manage to feel that long despite roughly clocking in at two and a half hours, even with more than a couple standard Apatow improved scenes that stretch for a while. Much of that is really due to Amy Schumer’s work on screen as the lead and off screen as screenwriter, who crafts this gender flipped romantic comedy story of a promiscuous and uninhibited woman finding a genuine connection with a straight laced and grounded male sports doctor she’s interviewing for an article in her scathing fashion magazine job perfectly.
The charm of Trainwreck is how much it does play with the conventions of the romantic comedy without merely plugging and playing the different genders, as both Schumer and her love interest Bill Hader manage to have a genuine chemistry and authentically play to their own gender identities without feeling forced into roles traditionally written for their opposing genders. They feel like the type of grounded, if clearly more comedically savvy than the average joe characters that made audiences fall for Apatow’s previous films The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up. Of course, it helps to have the effective supporting cast that take their shots at other conventions of the genre, from John Cena as the most recent lover of Schumer’s that just wants to settle down & have a family of “two boys and… three more boys” with her to LeBron James as Hader’s extremely supportive best friend that only wants the best for his life… and to watch Downton Abbey with him. Schumer, despite having a comedic persona that’s traditionally quite cutting and mean, managed to collaborate with Apatow to make very sweet and investing romance that builds the backbone of this fresh and hysterical comedy that shows range for the both of them.
* Wanted to correct the comment I made in the previously linked Furious 7 Highly Suspect review that excluded Lin’s initial work in the series with The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift… though if you’ve seen that one, you know why I so easily forgot about it.