By Steve Greene | Criticwire March 14, 2013 at 11:53AM
The Review Report rounds up some of the biggest festivals notable premieres, along with a sampling of reviews and tweets. Today, we bring you our first collection of SXSW feedback out of Austin.
And just like that, SXSW 2013 is two-thirds finished. While returning favorites like "Before Midnight," "Upstream Color" and "The Spectacular Now" have extended their Sundance goodwill to a different time zone, SXSW has given a number of films the opportunity to make their first big splash on the festival circuit.
As is always the case, not all the films listed below are unanimous hits. In fact, aside from a select few jury prize winners, universal acclaim has been the exception. Nevertheless, to give you an idea of what movies might be worth either a mental or literal bookmark, we've collected both the positive and tepid analyses for your consideration. (Since some of these titles might be unfamiliar to the larger cinephile audience, we've added some basic information and a synopsis for each film.)
Agree or disagree with the budding critical consensus gathered here? Then head to each of these film's individual pages to join in the conversation.
Directors: E.L. Katz
Cast: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, David Koechner, Amanda Fuller
Synopsis: "Recently fired and facing eviction, a new dad has his life turned upside down when he meets a wealthy couple who offer a path to financial security... but at a price."
"Even when it's fairly obvious where things are headed, the sick ride continues to speed forward, arriving at a gloriously absurd final shot that perfectly encapsulates both the ideas and visceral experience of the movie in their entirety."
"There’s no big twist here, but the film’s sustained thoughtfulness is as surprising as any plot development."
"Cheap Thrills is not afraid to get its hands bloody, though what makes it work is a visceral understanding of the survival instinct, and of what it is that separates men from animals."
"In a film this contained, the concern is that the proceedings might come to feel more theatrical than cinematic, but Katz's eye for edits and ear for whispers make it clear that's not a problem here."
"It's not often you come across an indie film that's both joyously mean-spirited and also kind of moral at the same time, but Cheap Thrills breezes by on a twisted idea, a fantastic cast, and a bunch of ethical quandaries that are both eerily uncomfortable and slyly fascinating at the same time."
"CHEAP THRILLS: Provocative, brutal, superbly acted. Pat Healy takes it all the way. One hell of a directorial debut for EL Katz."
"... uh, wow. "Cheap Thrills" is the goods. Angry, ugly, unapologetic. And so goddamn great it makes me mad."
"CHEAP THRILLS: gross, entertaining dark comedy about what people will do for money. Indictment of capitalism? Pat Healy is a trouper."
"CHEAP THRILLS: the great Pat Healy becomes a sort of Dorian Gray-ish face of America's economic struggle and obsession with reality TV."
"CHEAP THRILLS just ruined my life. Knocked me on my ass and took my money. See this movie."
Category: Narrative Spotlight
Directors: Joe Swanberg
Writers: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Ti West
Synopsis: "Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) work together at a craft brewery. They have one of those friendships that feels like it could be something more. But Kate is with Chris (Ron Livingston), and Luke is with Jill (Anna Kendrick). And Jill wants to know if Luke is ready to talk about marriage. The answer to that question becomes crystal clear when Luke and Kate unexpectedly find themselves alone for a weekend."
"Inherently a performance piece, Swanberg’s direction actually elevates the material into cinematic form, proving him to be far more than just a micro-budget auteur."
"Very little of what happens between the characters is spoken aloud in any concrete sense. Instead, it's all about those things that they can't say, those lines that they're all aware of, and the tiny transgressions that blur that line in all of these relationships."
"Keeping with Swanberg’s uber-naturalistic vibe, the humor in Drinking Buddies is subtle and realistic."
"Drinking Buddies plays as a kind of comic tap dance at the edge of an adulterous abyss, with human feeling hitting the wall of cultural expectations."
"The film does take its sweet time forming and coalescing into a visible and powerful narrative, but once it does the effect is near overwhelming for anyone who’s ever faced similar circumstances."
"Really liked Swanberg's "Drinking Buddies" at #SXSW. Thoughtful, nuanced tale of in-between relationships, emotional fidelity/infidelity."
"DRINKING BUDDIES: Takes a long time to develop a small idea, but also explores it well. Jake Johnson & Olivia Wilde are quite good."
"Drinking Buddies is the first movie to fully take advantage of Olivia Wilde's charm."
"Really dug Drinking Buddies. Honest & heartfelt, this is the movie that shows you that Olivia Wilde is legit in every way."
"Really dug DRINKING BUDDIES. Well written, well played, absolutely perfect ending."
"Big Ass Spider!"
Directors: Mike Mendez
Cast: Greg Grunberg, Lombardo Boyar, Clare Kramer, Ray Wise, Lin Shaye, Patrick Bauchau
Synopsis: "When a giant alien spider escapes from a military lab and rampages across the city of Los Angeles, it is up to one clever exterminator and his security guard sidekick to kill the creature before the entire city is destroyed. "Big Ass Spider", (aka "Mega Spider")."
"Though it's tongue-in-cheek from the start, the pic gets some legit scares in while the superbug is still small enough to skitter through air ducts and lurk in dark corners."
"The best monster movies are made by filmmakers with obvious affection for the sub-genre, and it certainly seems that director Mendez and screenwriter Greg Gieras have that section covered."
"Although its not heading into any new territory for the genre, Big Ass Spider is self-conscious enough to appeal to its audience."
"BIG ASS SPIDER! is a blast from beginning to end. Fun cast, giddy efx work and short but sweet premise make it fun."
"BIG ASS SPIDER! = Truth in advertising! Mirth and mayhem make a good midnight mix."
"I was worried BIG ASS SPIDER! would be this year's IRON SKY. I was wrong. IRON SKY is way better."
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Starring: Abigail Breslin, Stephen McHattie, David Hewlett, David Knoller
Synopsis: "Lisa Johnson is one day shy of her sixteenth birthday. And she will be forever. She and her family are dead and doomed to repeat that fateful last day before they were all killed in 1985. Only Lisa has “woken up” and realizes what is going on. She starts to feel as if she is being haunted, but the “ghost” turns out to be Olivia, a very much alive girl who lives in the house in the present day with her own family. With her help, Lisa discovers that the house once belonged to a serial killer who kidnapped teenage girls and burned their remains in a hidden furnace room. When he died, he became a Haunter - a powerful, evil spirit able to possess the living."
"Breslin gives a remarkably well-measured performance as she convincingly proceeds from clockwork angst to fearful curiosity and eventual empowerment, and Natali isn’t shy about letting her wide-eyed fright anchor the premise."
"Brian King's script may not answer every question it raises, but the connection it draws between this teen and other girls is emotionally and narratively satisfying, reminding us that every spirit inhabiting a haunted house started off as a mortal with problems -- usually heartbreaking ones -- of her own."
"The pieces all come together, but you may have to be a patient horror fan to enjoy the final payloads."
"You want rules, you got rules — lots of them, set up in a complicated and impressively-engineered framework by screenwriter Brian King."
"The film crucially fails to maintain that anxious atmosphere, which makes it easy to start questioning what would otherwise be excusable enough plot issues for a horror film."
"Wasn't a fan of Natali's Haunter. It's ambitious, I'll give it that, but was really held back by its budget."
"HAUNTER is sort of airless and convoluted. Really more of a mystery, than straight horror, & seems designed for slightly younger audiences."
"HAUNTER: A decent ghost story to sit alongside del Toro's better work, until it explains everything and the tension and mystery dissolves."
"HAUNTER (2013, Natali): a ghostly vision of suburban hell. Premise holds your interest for an hour, never quite catches fire after."
"HAUNTER - what if GROUNDHOG DAY met THE OTHERS. Admirably ambitious in concept, but didn't do it for me."
"Short Term 12"
Category: Narrative Competition
Directors: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield, Kevin Hernandez, Melora Walters
Synopsis: ""Short Term 12" is told through the eyes of Grace (Brie Larson), a twenty-something supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers. Passionate and tough, Grace is a formidable caretaker of the kids in her charge – and in love with her long-term boyfriend and co-worker, Mason (John Gallagher Jr). But Grace’s own difficult past – and the surprising future that suddenly presents itself – throw her into unforeseen confusion, made all the sharper with the arrival of a new intake at the facility: a gifted but troubled teenage girl with whom Grace has a charged connection. While the subject matter is complex, this lovingly realized film finds truth – and humor – in unexpected places."
"A far cry from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" caricatures, "Short Term 12" is imbued with enthralling naturalism, right down to a cast that includes real patients."
"In the end, “Short Term 12” is a roller coaster of every emotion, managing to be both heartwarming and heartrending at once. But what a great ride."
"Above all, [Cretton's] made a great showcase for his actors, and they are uniformly outstanding."
"Any time the story has a chance to fall back on cliche, it breaks off in a different direction, allowing audiences to be emotionally blindsided by sincere, well-earned moments."
"Cretton's film sheds light on taboo topics like suicide and self-harm like cutting, putting them in terms those mercifully out of the spectrum can understand."
""Short Term 12" = solid, predictable. Brie Larson is good, John Gallagher Jr plays hirsute version of his Newsroom nice-guy character."
"Brie Larson is incredible in the emotionally resonant and well-made SHORT TERM 12. Jury prizes await, I'm sure."
"I wanna take Brie Larsen's SHORT TERM 12 behind the bleachers and give it a hug and process some feelings together."
"SHORT TERM 12 handles its subject with grace, sensitivity and maturity. Terrific work by director and cast especially Brie Larson."
"Short Term 12 just won SXSW. I'm not waiting for the awards to tell me so."
For more of the first-week roundup, including the two-man desert survival film "Scenic Route," the after-the-happy-ending romantic comedy "I Give It a Year," and the instant nerd classic "Zero Charisma," check out the next page.