Oh thank God, I can (almost) put SXSW 2014 behind me. Beyond getting trapped in a torrential downpour for two hours with neither a coat nor umbrella to be found, I simply wasn’t able to see nearly enough movies this year. My job was to conduct video interviews and that’s just what I did, often at the cost of seeing many of the motion pictures that everyone was buzzing about. What follows is a capsule-sized review of every movie I saw at SXSW 2014, except for Jon Favreau’s Chef, which I reviewed in its entirety on opening night, just before the madness set in.
And yes, these are the things I get to complain about. You can bitch about your job as much as you like.
Before I Disappear
Writer/director/producer/star Shawn Christensen adapted his own Academy Award-winning short film Curfew into a feature length motion picture, which clearly made sense for him but it sure gave me night terrors. Curfew starred Christensen as a suicidal absentee uncle forced to babysit his precocious niece (Fatima Ptacek) only minutes after he’s slit his wrists. The bleak setup aside, the story was in many ways a conventional tale of a miserable adult who rediscovers their love of life after spending time with someone less jaded, but Christensen wisely compacted the formula into an energetic and exciting short film, free of overt phoniness.
I repeatedly opined that Curfew was an ideal example of what the short film format was capable of specifically because at feature length the story would probably be insufferable. Fortunately I was wrong. Although Before I Disappear bears the undeniable stamp of padding, Christensen wisely expands on the kaleidoscopic energy of the short, not its formulaic underpinnings.
Before I Disappear expands on the simple storyline with a few meandering subplots about murder and infidelity but it keeps the focus firmly on the addled mindset of an imaginative sad sack strung out on hormone medication and suicide fantasies, more inclined to hallucinate his own persecution to the tune of David Bowie’s “Five Years” than to redeem himself by transforming into a conventional father figure. Fatima Ptacek steals the movie as a too-young cynic with an unspoken desire for a meaningful emotional connection. Christensen keeps her in check by keeping Before I Disappear on her wavelength: every scene seems to be searching for catharsis, although its hero can’t quite bring himself to embrace the release. His melancholy attitude translates as pent up imagination, a barely bridled enthusiasm held back only by his dedication to the idea that life is miserable, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Although it lacks the focus of the source material, Before I Disappear brings the most important aspects of Curfew with it into feature length, and emerges as a celebration of positivity: indeed, it takes that much misery to deny this much joy.
Director and co-writer Leigh Janiak makes an eerie debut with Honeymoon, an understated tale of marital paranoia that builds layer upon layer of dread before kicking it all down with an unnecessarily blunt finale.
Rose Leslie (“Game of Thrones”) and Harry Treadaway (“Penny Dreadful”) star as newlyweds on their honeymoon at an isolated cabin in the woods with no cell phone reception. Because of course they would. But familiar setting aside, Honeymoon emphasizes an impressively sympathetic form of paranoia: Treadaway wakes up one morning to find his wife missing, then finds her naked in the woods, and afterwards… she’s not quite the same. She’s distracted in the kitchen, she uses unusual expressions for some reason, she doesn’t want to have sex anymore. The marriage was bound to hit a plateau eventually, but right in the middle of the honeymoon?
Janiak lets the anxiety build naturally to a grotesque crescendo, culminating in a sequence straight out of classic Cronenberg, but the universal theme of a loved one changing without you falls apart when the shoe finally drops and the “real” horror presents itself. Of course the real horror was wrapped up in Honeymoon’s plausibility, the unease of a relationship going mysteriously wrong. The ultimate reveal adds little, if anything, to the film’s central theme, and finally comes across more disappointing than if the solution had never been reached.
But although Honeymoon doesn’t quite seal the deal, the build up is so entrenched in exquisite paranoia that it almost – almost – doesn’t matter.
Perhaps only Seth Rogen could grow up on camera with his most immature comedy to date. Neighbors stars Rogen and Rose Byrne as new parents who have yet to accept their responsibilities, but who find themselves forced to defend their only recently mature lifestyles when a fraternity moves next door. Their initial urge to be accepted by the hot young studs – led by Zac Efron, Dave Franco and Christopher Mintz-Plasse – eventually succumbs to their need to get a good night’s sleep, leading to a neighborhood feud that escalates rapidly.
A little too rapidly, methinks, or at least a little too far. Conventional sabotage like plumbing fiascos and lewd topiary designs eventually give way to the sort of insidious manipulations you would expect from a Neil Labute play, and finally to an outburst of violence that director Nicholas Stoller plays for laughs, but which errs too far on the side of mean-spiritedness. Factor in Rogen and Byrne’s repeated, disturbing tendency to leave their baby unattended for hours while they eat bowls of magic mushrooms and you have a film that claims to be about growing up but more actively celebrates selfishness and irresponsibility.
Fortunately, Neighbors is funny enough to make up for its lapses in judgment. Rogen and Byrne make a fine comedy duo, with Rogen doing his usual schtick and Byrne impressively holding her own as a comic dynamo barely held in check by matriarchal necessity, and Zac Efron and Dave Franco form an impressively sympathetic pair of bros who struggle to balance their urge to party with an increasing need to face the realities of life outside of college. The agreeable cast and a series of memorable comic set pieces – particularly a Robert De Niro-themed party that features one impressive impersonation after another – makes Neighbors likable enough to overlook the fact that in real life you might very well hate everyone in it.
It’s hard to pull off a two-act structure, and Oculus doesn’t quite succeed. The film tells the story of a young brother and sister whose family falls prey to the influence of a haunted mirror that eventually kills their parents and sends one of them to a mental institution. Years later, the brother and sister – Brenton Thwaites and Karen Gillan – reunite to exact their revenge on the evil looking glass. The irony is that the supposedly “crazy” brother doesn’t believe their childhood nightmare really happened, and the supposedly sane sister has concocted an obsessive plan to prove that they were right all along.
Both halves of Oculus play simultaneously, intercut, which may sound clever on paper but sadly comes across like an unfortunate miscalculation. Rather than playing chronologically in two parts, each with a creepy build up and a satisfyingly horrific climax, the film intercuts between two slow burns for so very long that the lack of incident creates the unmistakable air of dullness. By the time the horror finally kicks in the domestic nightmare of the past and the old-fashioned haunted house scares in the present coalesce into a gruesome conclusion, and it’s almost worth it. Almost, but not quite. There’s so much build up that any climax was destined to be disappointing. These balls, they be blue.
Director Mike Flanagan makes the most of the actual frights in store in Oculus, and indeed some of the “gotcha” moments and the more creative violence will stick in my memory, but his dedication to clever parallel storytelling undermines the shocks and leaves Oculus feeling too much like a reflection of something truly cinematic and worthy.
The Spierig Bros. are finally back with their follow-up to the underrated political vampire allegory Daybreakers, this one an adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s paradoxical time travel story All You Zombies. Don’t get excited. There are no zombies. Actually, do get excited: there is a truly daring story to be found in Predestination.
Ethan Hawke stars as a time cop whose mission to prevent a terrorist bombing sends him to a bar in the 1970s, where an intersex magazine columnist (Sarah Snook) tells him his/her life story. Born as a woman, raised to be an astronaut (of sorts), and eventually forced against her will to have a life-saving sex change operation, the protagonist of Predestination has lived a life of constant, mysterious persecution at the hands of total strangers. Hawke eventually tips his hand and enlists the hero/heroine as a vital component of his lifelong manhunt, but the as the title suggests, the future and the past may be set in stone, even though they are subject to the whims of timeline alterations.
Sci-fi aficionados will see many of Predestination’s twists coming a mile off, but Predestination does not rely on the unexpected. The inevitability of the tale leads instead to dramatic involvement and continuous suspense, aided by a structure that breaks free of conventional contraptions. Predestination is unusually free to explore bizarre corners of its own universe, unrelated to the time travel conceit and yet indelibly connected to the saga of missed opportunities that are really on The Spierig Bros.’ minds. Sarah Snook gives a remarkable performance as a woman (and a man) who alternates between admirable rebellion and wallowing in self-pity.
There are big ideas at play, and fun sci-fi rigmarole to be debated ad nauseum, but Predestination truly excels as an inventive journey into both oppression and determination, a memorable character study bolstered by scientific theory that elevates the individual whilst simultaneously reducing them to a cog in the universal machine. There’s a meaningful examination here about every individual’s place – and places – in the grand scheme of all things, only occasionally let down by a plot that thinks we care about a mad bomber instead.