SXSW Days One and Two

(Welcome to The SXSW Diaries, where we will be chronicling every single movie we see at the Austin-based film festival.)

Welcome to SXSW 2019 days one and two. In this edition: Jordan Peele delivers another instant classic with Us, FX’s What We Do in the Shadows TV series offers a promising start, Body at Brighton Rock is a solid slice of survival horror, Tread offers a mind-shattering true story, and Little Monsters pays tribute to teachers and zombie movies.

us twilight zone

Us

If you thought Get Out was some kind of fluke, that it was writer/director Jordan Peele exhausting all of his capabilities as a filmmaker and being left with nothing to stretch and nothing to say…well, let’s just say Us is going to prove you wrong and then some. Us feels like an instant classic, a cocktail of French new extremity, Rod Serling, George Romero, and David Cronenberg that proves that while Peele is certainly not above wearing his influences on his sleeve, his actual voice is as original and refreshing as anything the horror genre has seen in a long, long time.

In the minutes and hours and days after attending the world premiere of Us at SXSW, I haven’t been able to shake the film. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it and I haven’t been able to stop unpacking what it has to say. Like Get Out before it, this is a frightening movie, a thrill ride designed for gasps and screams and laughs. But also like that film, it embeds its razor-sharp social commentary into the fabric of its storytelling. Once you realize what Us is about, once you realize it’s not just another high-concept home invasion movie, your jaw may drop as you attempt to take it all in and grapple with it.

In retrospect, the trailers do a tremendous job of selling this movie without giving up the goods. The initial set-up establishes a clever, albeit familiar situation: a family is besieged in their home by murderous intruders, but these four men and women look just like them. Scratch that: they are them, down to every last physical detail. But how? Why? Peele takes his time answering those questions – the revelations are as mind-bending as The Twilight Zone and as tragic as the greatest Universal Monsters – but first he just wants to scare the daylights out of you as the characters battle for their lives against enemies who share their faces.

This very concept means that the cast is pulling double duty, playing the ordinary family and their creepy, red-wearing, scissor-wielding counterparts and it can’t be understated how well these actors pull it off. As the father, Black Panther star Winston Duke is spectacular: a corny goofball with a dad-joke ready at a moment’s notice who must step up to protect his flock. In a film that often runs the risk of being overwhelmingly grim, the script also asks him to be a source of comic relief and his frequent laughs relieve the tension in all the right ways. His silent, hulking doppelgänger couldn’t be more different – a pained, inhuman force of rage. As the family’s teenage daughter and young son, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex impress in their dual roles, avoiding every pitfall that we normally associate with younger performers.

However, Us is a film built around Lupita Nyong’o and we can already give her the “Toni Collette In Hereditary Award For Best Performance That Will Never Be Recognized By An Awards Body Strictly Because It Is In A Horror Movie.” What Us demands of Nyong’o, and what she delivers, is nothing short of remarkable. Her two characters – a terrified, determined mother fighting trauma to protect her family and the menacing, vicious leader of the home invaders – are so distinct, so different, that they feel like the work of two separate performers. Nyong’o’s scenes opposite herself are a sight to behold and only reveal unseen layers as we learn more about what it is going on and, more importantly, why this is going on. Us is the kind of movie that is going to demand repeat viewings and there are layers to these characters, to these performances, that don’t begin to reveal themselves until after the credits have rolled and you’re able to properly contextualize details that seemed innocuous at first. These performances are as meticulous as Peele’s screenplay and as thoughtful as his direction – they’re the magic trick that make this upsetting and (especially after the fact) deeply tragic horror movie work.

Us is fresh and funny, tense and frightening, smart and clever. It’s horror with a distinct voice and something to say about the world. That it does so while also being a extraordinary crowdpleaser that will leave folks screaming and cheering and laughing is some kind of miracle. A miracle like Get Out. A miracle like only Jordan Peele can make. Because clearly, he’s confirmed himself as the best horror director working today after two movies. I can’t wait for Us to open in theaters, not only so you can see it and we can talk about it, but because I can’t wait to see it again.

/Film Rating: 9.5 out of 10

what we do in the shadows trailer

What We Do in the Shadows

How do you follow in the footsteps of one of the funniest movies of the past decade? Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s 2014 vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows is just about perfect, a film powered by dry, wry wit and punctuated by sequences of goofy horror that don’t skimp on the gore and sequences that deal with the mundane aftermath of said horror. After five years, I’m prepared to call it one of my favorite movies of all time. So the FX television spin-off, set in the same vampire universe but following a new collection of bloodsuckers living in Staten Island rather than Wellington, has massive shoes to fill.

And the first episode, which played at SXSW, is…perfectly fine. You can feel the strain that accompanies most television pilots. A rush to establish the characters and the rules of their world, a need to hit the ground running and get the jokes rolling as quickly as possible. The basic demands of a first episode often throws the tone off-track – the episode can’t quite land the rhythms that make the movie such a delight simply because it has to do so much in so little time.

What is here is a mixed bag, but one whose positives outweigh the negatives. When What We Do in the Shadows breaks out the greatest hits from the movie, re-staging familiar jokes and sequences, it’s a minor disappointment. When it breaks out and tries something completely new, it soars. If future episodes can shake that debt to the film and lean into what makes this cast and setting unique, this is going to be a must-see comedy (particularly since FX has no qualms about it being as gnarly as its film counterpart when necessary).

I chuckled more than I laughed while watching the first episode of What We Do in the Shadows, but I want to see more and I want to see how the series is able to stretch and improve. There are nuggets of brilliance scattered throughout here (Harvey Guillén as the under-appreciated vampire’s familiar Guillermo is particularly wonderful) and when it comes to a television pilot, those nuggets are vital. First episodes are about promise, not necessarily execution. And there is a lot of promise here.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

Body at Brighton Rock

Longtime horror producer and anthology filmmaker Roxanne Benjamin makes her feature directorial debut with Body at Brighton Rock and it’s the kind of debut that demands the most backhanded compliment in all of film criticism. I am, of course, talking about the dreaded “I can’t wait to see her second film.” Because while just enough works here, it’s clearly the work of a filmmaker still finding her feet, even as her voice is clearly one that demands our attention.

After a rough opening 15 minutes (should you find yourself streaming this in the future, power through the opening scenes before you click away), the film slides into a groove. A young and inexperienced park ranger (Karina Fontes) gets lost in the park where she works, stumbles across a dead body, and is instructed over the radio to stay with it until help arrives…which could be the next morning. Once the plot gets rolling, the film becomes a one-woman show, with Fontes’ performance getting better as the story inches forward and her paranoia festers within her like a poison.

Body at Brighton Rock is often a victim of its own small budget and its screenplay can’t quite deliver the payoff the set-up demands. And yet, Benjamin does a fine job of placing us in her protagonist’s hiking boots, imbuing the film with the proper sense of isolation and panic. The film is never scary (and arguably, that’s never its intention), but it is often unnerving, with the best reveals arriving at the right moment to pull the film out of its lulls. I walk away from the film satisfied just enough to recommend it, but with the nagging feeling that Benjamin has more to offer and we just haven’t seen it yet.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

Tread

In June of 2004, Marvin Heemeyer emerged from the warehouse where he had spent the past months transforming a bulldozer into an unstoppable, bullet-proof tank and rampaged through his small Colorado town. No one was killed, but large swaths of the city were destroyed as the police helplessly followed, unable to do anything to stop the destruction. If you don’t remember this, you’re not alone – Tread ultimately explains why this bizarre story has been largely forgotten, but only after exploring, in fascinating detail, how it all came to happen in the first place.

Director Paul Solet (who first came to SXSW with his creepy 2009 horror film Grace) brings a polished cinematic edge to this documentary, which makes use of the typical talking heads as well as cinematic re-enactments that recreate key moments from throughout Heemeyer’s story. At times, Tread plays like an audition for a Hollywood adaptation, with the undeniably well-made recreations suggesting that Solet could do the job as well as anyone. And yet, Tread feels like it must be a documentary – if this was a regular feature film, no one would believe it actually happened this way. It’s too weird, too wild, and too strange.

Perhaps the most troubling (and honestly, thrilling) aspect of Tread is that Solet is juggling subjects whose perspectives clash. Heemeyer makes his case for his rampage in a series of audio recordings that go into extreme detail about what drove him to go down this path and for a little while, he can’t help but sound convincing, or at least sympathetic. But when Solet turns his camera on the other citizens of the town, a completely different narrative emerges, one in which Heemeyer’s every motivation is untrue. Someone is mistaken. Or someone is lying. Or someone’s memory has failed them. Tread isn’t sure what is truth and what is obfuscation and that’s the point. Memory and perspective are clay – they mold easily, especially when warmed by rage.

Tread’s fascinating and frustrating narrative of small town politics ultimately leads to that final rampage, where Heemeyer’s Frankenstein of a vehicle begins its terrifying journey. And while that destination may be the key selling point, its lead-up proves equally powerful and and relevant. This is a classic “one man pushed too far narrative” while acting as a rejection of that very concept. One key scene suggests that Heemeyer was inspired by Hollywood revenge movies to enact his plan, but Tread, tragic and strange and human in ways that action movies rarely are, refuses to paint in black and white. It lives in a world of murky grey, a frustrating landscape of half-remembered truths. The unanswered questions, the ones that are lost to time, prove as compelling as the facts.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Little Monsters Review

Little Monsters

It’s hard to imagine a more well-intentioned movie than Little Monsters. Writer/director Abe Forsythe’s zombie movie relishes in characters splattering the undead, but it also wants to be a tribute to educators, specifically kindergarten teachers, and the super-heroic ways in which they mold young lives. It’s a strange combination of ideas the never quite gel as well as they should, but it’s difficult to dislike a film that wears its heart on its blood-soaked sleeve in such a big way.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. Overgrown man-child has crush on nephew’s attractive kindergarten teacher. Overgrown man-child volunteers as a chaperone for a class field trip to a petting zoo. That petting zoo is right next to a secret military base where an experiment gone wrong leads to a zombie uprising. Overgrown man-child and kindergarten teach must fight to protect the class of children from the flesh-eating undead.

It’s certainly a fun concept, albeit one that can prove a little indulgent. Little Monsters wants that Evil Dead-esque gory slapstick and it wants crude comedy (Josh Gad plays a children’s TV personality who, surprise surprise, is a total jerk who likes to call kids four letter words) and it wants to be a sweet indie rom-com where two mismatched people fall in love and it wants to rightfully place teachers on a pedestal and highlight their impossible work. Individual scenes in the movie play brilliantly, but they tend to hang together rather than flow. Take any five minute chunk of Little Monsters and you’ll have a great time, but the overall film is shaggy at best.

Yet, a great deal can be forgiven for intention and Forsythe’s heart is in the right place every step of the way. This is a sweet movie! A nice movie! A genuine crowdpleaser! It’s the kind of movie that I wish I could love, especially since Lupita Nyong’o is incredible as Miss Caroline the kindergarten teacher, who maintains her unflappable calm and sense of benevolent authority in front of her kids before transforming into a terrified but effective zombie-killing machine when they’re not looking. This is also where Forsythe’s storytelling shines the most – Miss Caroline’s surprising effectiveness in a zombie attack is the result of the discipline that is required of an effective educator. Her attempts to not only protect her kids’ physical safety but to shelter their minds from what is actually happening stem from the filmmaker’s awe for what teachers do on a daily basis. And Nyong’o (champion of SXSW 2019 between this and Us) is as funny and as endearing as she has ever been.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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