Fresh feature films from SxSW
As the film industry continues to undergo seismic shifts on the distribution end, festivals like SXSW are increasingly important for those who prefer to see independent and unconventional work on the big screen. In the past, festival favorites might start hitting art houses months or even years after their initial screenings, but now we’re seeing titles being snapped up by streaming services and piped into our homes at a rapid clip. There’s no telling whether any of the following will ever reach a theater near you, so keep an eye on Netflix, Hulu, and the rest of the usual streaming suspects.
Wobble Palace – There may have been better movies than writer-director Eugene Kotlyarenko’s off-kilter romantic comedy at this year’s SXSW, but if so, I missed them. Taking place on the eve of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Wobble Palace centers on a youngish couple (played by Kotlyarenko and co-writer Dasha Nekrasova) experimenting with an open relationship by splitting custody of their house over the course of a weekend. The perils of Mllennial dating are explored through onscreen representations of Facebook chats, texts, and Tinder matches occasionally running alongside the action as a very funny series of unsuccessful hookups unfolds. Although frequently absurd, Kotlyarenko’s film ultimately feels more truthful and insightful about relationships than the vast majority of ostensibly more realistic depictions.
Support the Girls – The mumblecore movement of a decade ago was initially embraced before being widely derided as a listless, unambitious micro-genre unduly concerned with the problems of sad white people. That backlash may have been partially deserved, but the movement produced its share of minor gems, some of them courtesy of writer/director Andrew Bujalski. I could only speculate as to whether Bujalski took the criticism to heart, but his latest feature Support the Girls plays like a response with its focus on a woman of color and a largely female supporting cast. That the movie is set in and around a Texas “breastaurant” would normally portend a dude-friendly piece of sexploitation, but Support the Girls is firmly on the side of the Double Whammies staff, particularly manager Lisa (a terrific Regina King). With its mild humor and low-key hangout vibe, Bujalski’s film doesn’t feel like a full meal, but it’s a tasty enough appetizer.
Damsel – The Zellner Brothers have been fixtures on the Austin film scene for two decades now, quietly turning out such decidedly niche curiosities as the snail-paced lost cat tale Goliath and their woefully underseen 1997 bizarro debut Plastic Utopia. Their breakthrough came with 2014’s Fargo riff Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, and now they’re working with A-listers for the first time in this offbeat Western (“or possibly anti-Western,” as co-writer, co-director and co-star David Zellner put it during his SXSW introduction to the film). Robert Pattinson stars as a fish-out-of-water businessman who heads west to marry his fiancée (Mia Wasikowska) and meets with a hostile reception. For its first third or so, Damsel rivals Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man as a twisted reinvention of the classic Western—it’s visually striking and plugged into the weirdness of the Old West—but the pace lags as it goes along. Trimmed by 20 minutes or so, this could be the Zellners’ masterpiece.
Ghost Stories – Horror anthology movies are a staple of the midnight programming at SXSW, and like most of them, Ghost Stories is hit and miss. Based on a stage play by co-directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, the film stars Alex Lawther as a parapsychology professor and debunker of the supernatural who is challenged by one of his heroes to prove that three encounters with the spirit realm were faked. The incidents are fairly mundane and over-reliant on jump scares, but the filmmakers do achieve some creepy effects and by the end manage to weave the stories together in twisty fashion.
Midnight Shorts – Speaking of horror anthologies, this annual program of short subjects suited for after-dark viewing delivered many flavors of weird and disturbing, at least one of which is already available for you viewing enjoyment—the trippy and hilarious video for Lil Dicky’s “Pillow Talking,” featuring an animated brain that has to poop. The showcase offered plenty of reasons for the squeamish to flee, from the comic body horror of “The Mangina Exit” to the sexually graphic “House of Air” (featuring unsimulated fisting), but Get Out fans should keep an eye out for the satirical gentrification horror short “Hair Wolf.”