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SXSW Recap – Film Reviews

By Todd Sokolove

I survived my first SXSW Film, and I’m still basking in the afterglow of it all.

In addition to outstanding World Premiere of Evil Dead, which I reviewed on Forces of Geek here, this year’s SXSW Film had an amazing array of movies to geek out over.
Here are seven of the highlights…

Zero Charisma
This low budget comedy was my favorite film seen at SXSW.   You don’t have to be a geek to appreciate this story of a “Game Master” who exerts too much control over his nerdy friends during their weekly fantasy role playing game.  When a hipster douche moves into an empty slot, all hell breaks lose. Actor/comedian Sam Eldson, in his first major role here, is outstanding as the GM, bringing humanity into what would have otherwise been a stereotypical character.  It’s also one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a long time, and one of the most engaging comedies I’ve seen an audience react to since Napoleon Dynamite.

Canadian auteur Vincenzo Natali (Splice, Cube) returns to the horror genre with what I can only describe as Bettlejuice meets Insidious.  It’s not overly terrifying, and the lighter scares and teenage protagonist (played with really heart by Abigail Breslin) make it a great, rare haunted house thriller on par with Poltergeist that is suitable for younger audiences.  At its heart, the film is a mystery to be solved from an afterlife POV.  Very visual for the low budget.

This Napster documentary from Alex Winter was one of the bigger films at SXSW, and had it a great reception.  You get a wonderful overview of the history of the big N itself, but what you walk away with is the realization that Napster was, in a sense, the first social network.  It’s impact on peer-to-peer file sharing had an undeniable influence on the tech boom that put the internet swiftly on the map. Watch for it this year, and probably later on VH1 (they co-produced it).

The Lords of Salem 
Rob Zombie introducing a midnight premiere of his newest creepshow?  Hell yeah!  Hundreds of folks came out to support the shock-meister’s celebration of old New England witch-lore, Satanic rituals and of course putting his wife to new extremes of scream queen status.  It’s not a great film, but it has more supernatural elements to it than The Devil’s Rejects did, so for me, it was way entertaining.  See it at midnight though and go a little tipsy. Best viewed in those conditions.

Rewind This!

This documentary sets out to be a “cultural and historical impact of the VHS tape” (according to the press notes), but it’s really a lose tribute, or I should say love letter, to the not-quite-dead format.  Created by an Austin, Texas group of filmmakers, with many connections via the Alamo Drafthouse camp, what Rewind This lacks in overall structure, it more than makes up for in full-out fun.  Interviews range from current owners of “mom and pop” video stores to industry pioneers from the late 70s.  But the memorable moments of this stylish doc come from passionate fans of the VHS tape, who show off their collections (one organized by themes, one organized by color coordination) with geeky delight. For children of the ’80s, there’s a tad of hope in a younger generation embracing the videotape with such reverence and respect.  Just don’t start selling them at Urban Outfitters or American Apparel or I will destroy you. 

The Blue Umbrella
This new Pixar short played the SXSW fest’s animated shorts program, and it should make its theatrical debut this June with Pixar’s Monsters University.  The animation is very, very photorealistic.  Almost to the extent that it sometimes feels live-action (with the exception of the smily faces on the umbrellas).  Like the incredible Oscar winner Paperman from Walt Disney Animation Studios last year, it is a love story.  I felt the whole thing has been done before, so I was a tad disappointed by the overall story, but from a technical point, it is spectacular.

Harry Dean Stanton Partly Fiction
This is a free-form exploration of the life of legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton, shot in a stunning combination of high contrast black and white and color.  Interviews with Sam Shepard, Debbie Harry, Wim Wenders, David Lynch and Kris Kristofferson are definite highlights, but the musical performances by acoustic guitar from Stanton are the stand-outs.

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