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SXSW So Far: Criticwire Highlights from Austin

Photo of Steve Greene By Steve Greene | Criticwire March 16, 2012 at 8:37AM

See how some of the biggest films at SXSW fared with critics.
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A selection of some of the notable SXSW films.
A selection of some of the notable SXSW films.

[We’ve been posting a series of review capsules at the Criticwire blog, detailing some of the initial feedback on many of the SXSW premieres. Below is a recap of how the members of our Criticwire network have responded to these new festival releases.]

Some reviews are the product of their environments. For no place is that more true than at an A-list festival like South by Southwest (SXSW), and it’s a phenomenon that critics are not oblivious to. With an ever-expanding tech component at this year’s festival, the overall audience skews a bit farther towards Comic-Con than Cannes at times, and a different audience means a different vibe at opening nights and Q&As, the birthplace of many of these festival reviews.

This is not meant as a disclaimer, but an explanation that, like our Sundance dispatches, this is intended to provide a snapshot of critical feedback from a particular place and time, not a blanket endorsement or indictment of a particular set of films. For your reading pleasure, we've separated out some of the films into some easy-to-digest categories.

THE HIT THAT NO ONE WANTS YOU TO TALK ABOUT

Unless you’re talking to someone who’s seen it, that is. “The Cabin in the Woods,” the latest from director Drew Goddard and co-writer/producer/fanboy demigod Joss Whedon, is living up to its self-sustaining hype. Much of the conversation about what makes the film special, though, is restricted to what happens before the five central characters arrive at the titular abode. Although most critics have taken care not to reveal the juicy secrets about what unfolds, it’s fair to say that others have not been so careful. Spoiler-averse temperature takers, beware. Nevertheless, if you’d like to see some relatively safe excerpts from the raves coming out of the opening night screening, you can check out our Criticwire Review Capsule here.

"The Cabin in the Woods": A-

THE SECRET SCREENING SURPRISE

In a festival full of narratives surrounding video from mysterious or unexpected sources (see: "King Kelly," "[REC] 3," etc.), one of the first films screened at this year’s SXSW set the tone. Even though Todd Gilchrist started his review for The Playlist by describing Scott Derrickson’s new film as “a horror movie that’s incredibly effective and yet evaporates pretty quickly once it’s over,” he is quick to point out that “it’s a balance of a lot of things – ghost story versus murder mystery, found-footage “realism” versus pure fiction, theatricality versus raw emotion.”

Some critics are singling out Ethan Hawke's work as an author whose efforts to investigate a series of grisly murders leads him to stumble across some haunting video footage. “It’s all scary enough already, but Hawke’s performance pumps it up to something consistently compelling," Kate Erbland writes at FilmSchoolRejects, adding that "when those lingering creepy feelings start to deliver with real action in the film’s second half, they really deliver."

"Sinister": B+

THE MIXED BAG COMING SOON TO A THEATER NEAR YOU

Several SXSW premieres hit theaters over the next two weeks, but not all of them come bearing the same degree of critical acclaim. “21 Jump Street” came out of South By looking like it just might be an instant classic. The smaller, somewhat nichier "Casa De Mi Padre" seems to be less of a sure thing.  Still, at this point, neither has garnered enough vitriol to preclude a recommendation.  Let's revisit them both when they get their theatrical releases, shall we?

"21 Jump Street": B+

"Casa Me Mi Padre": C+

THE “THINK OF THE POTENTIAL”

Despite their high-profile casts, quite a few star-powered SXSW selections failed to live up to their pedigrees, at least in the minds of some of our critics.  “Small Apartments” (featuring Matt Lucas, Billy Crystal, James Caan, Johnny Knoxville, Juno Temple) and “Nature Calls” (Patton Oswalt, Johnny Knoxville, Rob Riggle, Maura Tierney, Patrice O’Neal, Darrell Hammond) sport loads of talent, and loads of negative reviews. “Nature Calls” has its defenders, some of which can be found in our Review Capsule. But considering the sub-passing-grade averages of both films, it will take some effort to reverse the early pendulum swing.

"Small Apartments": D+

"Nature Calls": C

THE AFTERSHOCK

Although SXSW has 65 world premieres in this year’s lineup, many critics use the festival as a place to visit films that have already played elsewhere. After vetting at Sundance and Berlin (and even last year's Toronto Film Festival, in a few cases), the groundswell in Austin has brought in a second or third batch of reviews for some of the 2012 festival circuit's most notable films.

One documentary that’s playing strongly at SXSW is Bart Layton’s “The Imposter,” a chilling look at a man who pretended to be a family’s long-lost missing child. Told via first-person interviews and dramatic recreations that interweave throughout, the result is said to be a captivating piece of storytelling that’s yet to get anything lower than a “B.”

Comedian Mike Birbiglia’s semi-autobiographical tale about somnabulating, “Sleepwalk with Me” is doing well in its Sundance follow-up, maintaining one of the highest aggregate scores of any 2012 film to date. Although “V/H/S” received its lowest grade from out of SXSW (John Gholson's D) , the other marks coming out of the festival have been favorable, helping it maintain its solid average.

The Imposter: B+

Sleepwalk with Me: B+

V/H/S: B

(And it wouldn’t be a 2012 festival recap without mentioning at least once that, yes, people still really do love “The Raid.”)


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