Since Friday, all eyes have been focused on Austin as SXSW has not only launched new films by Jordan Peele, Harmony Korine, Lynn Shelton, Jonathan Levine, and Olivia Wilde but also hosted a galaxy of Democrats. Along with shooting star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, half a dozen declared presidential candidates have been featured speakers, and two potential contenders are in town as well. Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost last year’s gubernatorial election in Georgia, spoke on Monday morning, and Beto O’Rourke, who came closer to unseating Texas Senator Ted Cruz than most could have imagined possible, attended the premiere of David Modigliani’s documentary Running with Beto.
For twelve months, Modigliani was given unfettered access to O’Rourke’s campaign, and IndieWire’s Eric Kohn finds that “the movie succeeds at contextualizing his cool-kid brand.” Variety’s Peter Debruge notes that the film is “also the portrait of a state many of us thought we had pinned down.” In the Hollywood Reporter, John DeFore suggests that Running with Beto “may not sway viewers who think the rising star has a long way to go before deserving a position higher than the Senate, but it’s sure to leave lefties eager for the next chapter in his career.”
Few second chapters have been more eagerly anticipated than Us, Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his feature debut, the award-winning and, as Mekado Murphy puts it in the New York Times, “culture-galvanizing” Get Out (2017). Us opens with a prologue set in 1986 that depicts a young girl’s eerie encounter in a funhouse attraction on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Adelaide, now grown up and played by Lupita Nyong’o, is understandably reluctant to return to that beachside resort with her husband (Winston Duke), their teenaged daughter (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and young son (Evan Alex) for some down time with old friends (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker). One night, a family of doppelgängers appears in their driveway, each member dressed in red and armed with a pair of golden scissors. For an hour or so, before an evidently off-the-wall third act, Us becomes a home invasion thriller that has reminded some of a cross between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Funny Games.
So far, reviews of Us have been strong, even though most critics agree that it isn’t quite the slam-dunk that Get Out was. Peele “gives this mind-bending scenario the moment-to-moment intensity and jolting humor of a George Romero-inspired nightmare,” writes the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang. “If Get Out consisted of a few well-timed shocks en route to a Grand Guignol climax, then Us feels pure and relentless in its grisly B-movie mayhem.” For the Austin Chronicle’s Richard Whittaker, it’s John Carpenter who comes to mind. Given Peele’s “sly grasp of the intersection of popcorn thrills and political allegory, it's a reasonable comparison,” he argues. Us, though, “lacks the seamless elegance of his debut. ‘Not quite matching a masterpiece’ is still high praise, but Us is a step forward for Peele the filmmaker, and a step back for Peele the storyteller.”
But Vulture’s Emily Yoshida argues that “its messiness allows the film to spend more time working up inventive scares than conveying an all-caps complete-sentence message.” Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey suggests that, “if anything, Peele pivots between horror and comedy even more gracefully than in Get Out.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw adds that Us has the benefit, too, of “a magnificent lead performance from Lupita Nyong’o, who brings to it a basilisk stare of horror.” And Michael Abels’s score “has the same disturbing ‘Satan spiritual’ feel of his compositions for Get Out.”
For Rolling Stone’s David Fear, Us is simply “terrifying. It is extraordinarily made, impeccably composed and paced, completely in control of how out of control it gets and genuinely seat-soiling scary. It’s not the second coming of Hitchcock or Carpenter or Craven or Polanski. It is the new Jordan Peele movie, a concept that should now make you just as giddy as works from any of those aforementioned auteurs. He’s in this for the long haul.”
The other attention-grabbers during SXSW’s first few days have been straight-up comedies. The Beach Bum is Harmony Korine’s first feature since 2012’s Spring Breakers, and it’s another chromatically dazzling Floridian fantasia shot on 35 mm by Benoît Debie. This one stars Matthew McConaughey as Moondog, once a relatively well-known and respected poet and now a drifter who, thanks to the wealth he’s married into, can afford to spend every waking hour blissed out of his mind. “As a kid I grew up on Cheech and Chong,” Korine tells Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan in a Film Comment interview. “I miss that. I wanted the film to feel a little bit like it was guided by weed smoke. And it has a slightly hallucinatory vibe to it. But it has totally different characters and storyline—it’s almost completely the flip side of Spring Breakers. There is no real menace in The Beach Bum.”
There is, though, a turn in the story that cuts off Moondog’s cashflow. “In the blink of an eye, he goes from eccentric millionaire to homeless weirdo,” writes Kristy Puchko. Reviewing this “joyous, outrageous, and slyly mournful” movie for the Guardian, Puchko notes that “there are moments that puncture its revelry: an unexpected death, the mention of a crippling war wound, the fear of being forgotten or alone.” Other critics are less taken, among them, Screen’s Tim Grierson, who argues that “neither Korine nor McConaughey have considered the character beyond his shambling, party-hearty exterior, envisioning him as a proud iconoclast but not a particularly entertaining one.”
In the Hollywood Reporter, Jon Frosch finds that this “meandering” film “relies on riffs, vignettes, visual repetition, elliptical editing and dreamy, music-video-style sequences rather than any kind of forward momentum. The Beach Bum is nothing if not true to the spirit of its main character. Watching it is a little like being sober around your high-as-a-kite friend—by turns amusing and alienating.” David Fear suggests that The Beach Bum is actually “about reacting to a moment of national/social/spiritual crisis by treating hedonism as a holy sacrament . . . ‘Fun is the gun,’ Moondog says, and Korine wants to match the spirit of American malaise with his own brand of anarchy in the USA.”
With cowriter Michael Patrick O’Brien, Lynn Shelton, an in-demand television director whose last feature, Outside In, was a critical favorite at SXSW in 2017, has come up with an odd comic premise for Sword of Trust. A couple (Jillian Bell and Michaela Watkins) enter a pawnshop with an heirloom, a sword whose late owner believed was surrendered by a Union general to the Confederacy, thereby proving that the South actually won the Civil War. The shop’s owner (Marc Maron) and his not very bright assistant (Jon Bass) do some online snooping and discover that there’s a market for such a thing, and the four of them find themselves in the windowless back of van on their way to a white supremacist stomping ground, where they hope to strike a lucrative deal. “Racism, antisemitism, addiction, codependency, and the disorienting effects of a post-truth world are all tossed into Shelton’s low-speed blender,” writes Emily Yoshida, “but the film ends before any of it starts to feel like it’s emulsifying.” Variety’s Dennis Harvey, on the other hand, admires the improvisational chops of the four leads, noting that “everyone onscreen is so good at this kind of work that one wishes more tightly scripted comedy screenplays had such savory dialogue, or inspired character conceptions.”
Jonathan Levine has reunited with Seth Rogen, who costarred with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50 (2011), and paired him with Charlize Theron in Long Shot, and it’s “the romantic element of the film that may catch audiences off-guard, as Rogen and Theron do indeed have strong on-screen chemistry,” writes Mark Olsen in the Los Angeles Times. Theron’s overachieving Secretary of State with presidential ambitions hires Rogen’s schlubby, out-of-work writer to humanize her speeches, and sure enough, one thing leads to another. “The point at which one says ‘this is ridiculous,’ and what one does about that observation, will vary from person to person,” suggests John DeFore, adding that Long Shot will appeal most to “viewers happy to see the sensibilities of the Apatow era paired with the vintage high-concept, low-plausibility rom-com.” Peter Debruge, though, predicts that the film is “bound to embarrass everyone a year or so down the road, once the think pieces have picked it apart. More creepy than romantic, more chauvinist than empowered—and in all fairness, funnier and more entertaining than any comedy in months—Long Shot serves up the far-fetched wish-fulfillment fantasy of how, for one lucky underdog, pursuing your first love could wind up making you first man.”
Debruge’s had a lot more fun with Olivia Wilde’s feature debut as a director, Booksmart, a teen party movie in which two best friends (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever), both of them top-notch, all-work-and-no-play students, decide to squeeze a year’s worth of partying into a single night. “Not since Superbad has a high school comedy so perfectly nailed how exhilarating it feels to act out at that age, capturing the thrill of making a series of potentially irreversible mistakes with the person who’s always been there for you,” writes Debruge. For Eric Kohn, this “riotous, candy-colored celebration of sisterhood is so dense with anarchic developments it often threatens to collapse into itself, but avoids lingering on any gag long enough to let that happen.” Dever and Feldstein “make a charismatic comic team,” notes John DeFore, adding that Booksmart “allows each character some time for solo exploration,” and these quieter moments “give us a chance to notice how well Wilde is handling the material.”
While all of these films have seen their world premieres in Austin, none of them are competing for the awards to be presented tonight. That’s when we’ll be introduced to the juries’ discoveries and the fresh names of filmmakers we’ll be seeing in the headlines of dispatches from future editions of SXSW.
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