SXSW Dispatch: Stuntmen and Babies and Nuns, Oh My!

Pamela Adlon opens Babes with twinkly piano jazz accompanying several images of New York City scene-setting — skylines, Central Park, elevated subway trains, the works — in what feels like a deliberate lampooning of the Woody Allen aesthetic. But this isn’t a They Came Together-style spoof, or even aping the look and feel of those cornerstones to make a satirical point, as Adlon’s former collaborator Louis C.K. did in his ill-fated I Love You, Daddy. She’s simply making a movie about the kind of women that Allen (and, frankly, Ephron) typically didn’t see fit for his New York movies — women whose lives are messy and unmanageable, who call each other “bitch” (affectionate) frequently, and who spend a lot of time talking about bodily functions.

Babes isn’t reinventing the wheel, and it won’t linger in your memory long after the credits roll. But there’s a lot to like about it: a straight-up movie-star turn for co-write Ilana Glazer (she holds the big screen as capably as the small), equal footing for the deeply empathetic Michelle Buteau, ace supporting turns by character-actor champs Oliver Platt and John Carroll Lynch, and deep steeping in the specificity of Astoria, a neighborhood not quite like any other in the city. But most importantly, it’s a film with quite a lot of very big laughs, rooted in both character and candor. Grade: B+

There may not be language in existence that can fully summarize the low expectations I brought into David Leitch’s The Fall Guy. Here we have a film adaptation of a TV show no one remembers with any particular fondness; it was basically the cheapo TV rip-off of Hooper for Dukes of Hazzard run-off audiences, and though I was around seven years old when it was on and thus the target audience, all I remember about it is the theme song. Director Leitch redefined the modern action movie with his work on the first John Wick and Atomic Blonde, before setting it back with the likes of Hobbs & Shaw, Deadpool 2, and the loathsome Bullet Train. And sure, it’s Ryan Gosling in the title role — but are we getting Barbie Gosling, or Gray Man Gosling? 

That resistance lasted roughly through the end credits; by their conclusion, I was leaning forward in my seat, with a big goofy grin plastered across my face. The Fall Guy may be head-scratching IP exploitation, but the pronounced lack of enthusiasm around the Fall Guy brand (if such a thing even exists) means that Leitch was able to just use the title and protagonist as cover to make a fun, throwback action/comedy/romance. It’s entertaining from the first frame to the last — a great big stupid beautiful valentine to great big stupid beautiful movies. Grade: B

I Saw the TV Glow is writer/director Jane Schoenbrun’s follow-up to We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, and already, they exhibit a confidence of tone, texture, and composition that recalls Sofia Coppola’s early work. And not just her; “Lynichian” is overused, and rarely accurate, but it feels like the only reference point for waking-dream storytelling like this. It doesn’t all work — some of it’s a little heavy-handed, and the acting can get mannered. But the ambition is undeniable, and when Schoenbrun is really cooking, it feels like they’re doing nothing less than rewriting the cinematic language, using unexpected camera movement and on-screen text like a Millennial Godard. Grade: A

Bill and Turner Ross are similarly inspiring young filmmakers, out here rewriting the rule book (or chucking it altogether), and their new film Gasoline Rainbow is a worthy follow-up to their stunning Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets a couple of years back. Their primary formal interest is blurring the line between documentary and narrative filmmaking; this one is improvised, we are told, but it feels more like an overheard documentary than the desperate grasping and overacting of too much improvised cinema. 

Their focus is on a quintet of graduating seniors in Wiley, Oregon who embark on a post-graduation trip to Portland, of uncertain ends; “Do you guys know what you’re gonna do when you get into the city?” one asks the others. “Or are you just winging it?” They’re just winging it, and so are the Rosses, but their gift for gorgeous found imagery and observed human behavior (both in plentiful supply in a road movie) give the picture its undergirding. Gasoline Rainbow beautifully captures the freedom specific to this moment in their lives, and makes one long to feel it again. Grade: A-

Michael Felker’s Things Will Be Different credits Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead among its executive producers, and it’s very much a case of filmmakers endorsing exactly the kind of movie they like to make themselves: a brainy, lo-fi, low-budget sci-fi indie with a healthy portion of character drama. Adam David Thompson and Riley Dandy are both excellent as siblings who look to repair their strained relationship by collaborating on a big-payday crime. It goes off without a hitch; things get complicated when they attempt to lay low afterwards at an isolated farm that turns out to be, as one of them puts it, a “magical safe house.” 

More than that I won’t divulge, but suffice it to say that writer/director Felker summons up no small amount of dread, much of it by simply withholding information. The central conceit, once it’s finally revealed, is thoughtfully and meticulously worked-through (don’t go tinkerin’ around with metaphysics!), but the juice is the central relationship, so grounded and believable that there are genuine stakes connected to the sci-fi mumbo-jumbo. Grade: B+

Samara Weaving is really making a specialty of the “take no shit, caked in blood” look. She plays the title character in Azreael, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi/horror creature feature in which survivors of the Rapture have forsaken “the sin of speech,” and true to the premise, save for a scant bit of (non-English) speaking in the middle, there’s no dialogue in it. Weaving has the right kind of open, expressive face for what amounts to silent movie acting, while director E.L. Katz (Cheap Thrills) manages a skillful simplicity in the visual storytelling, and the brute force of his montage.

It doesn’t all work; without the benefit of dialogue, Katz and screenwriter Simon Barrett have some trouble putting across key connections late in the narrative. But all is forgiven by the bonkers climax, which includes slow-motion, explosions, copious fires, beheadings, meat cleavers, and gore galore. What else do you need? Grade: B

We’re all friends here, and we can be honest: the draw of Immaculate is the idea of the very attractive Sydney Sweeney in what they used to call a “nunsploiation” picture, and director Michael Mohan frequently apes the look and sound of Italian exploitation cinema (and even trots out a pair of giallo gloves for a key sequence), which is both sly fun and an ill-advised reminder of the picture’s timidity. For this isn’t anything so subversive as nunsploitation (though it’s worth mentioning, to those for whom that’s an appealing idea, that Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta is on Hulu); this is something much more bland and conventional, a creaky doors and candelight thriller, jolting the audience primarily with tired, boring jump scares.

Too much of Immaculate is just cosplaying other, better, weirder movies, and much of this one’s target audience will spend its running time wishing it were made (and Sweeney were around) in a period when a picture like this could really go for broke. Grade: B-

Monkey Man is actor Dev Patel’s feature directorial debut; he not only directs but stars, co-wrote, and co-produced. There’s a restless energy to the entire production, a sense of a first-time filmmaker throwing in everything he wants to do, since he’s not sure he’ll get the chance again. This is not an uncommon quality of debut features, and sometimes it’s part of the appeal — their enthusiasm is infectious, their ambition admirable. That happens for much of Monkey Man, but at a certain point, it’s just too much, the picture going on and on, and growing progressively bleaker and more brutal. It’s a discombobulating experience. I was with it, until I just wasn’t. 

It screened in the last slot at the Paramount, SXSW’s largest venue, an ideal showcase for a movie like this. But by its conclusion, even that audience seemed exhausted by it. The brutality of the action and borderline nihilism of the storytelling co-exist uneasily with the warmly nostalgic childhood flashbacks and the earnest professions of faith, and it just doesn’t quite mix, a stew where you taste too many of the too-tart ingredients. With Monkey Man, Patel shows himself a filmmaker of genuine skill. Once he learns some restraint, he could really be something else. Grade: B-

Kyle Mooney’s Y2K starts as a fairly standard one-crazy-night teen comedy, riffing on Superbad, Can’t Hardly Wait, and the like, with generous doses of millennium pop-culture artifacts thrown in less as actual jokes than winking reference points. Luckily for the picture, 12:00 on January 1, 2000 arrives, and takes things into darker, surreal territory; we’re treated to a dramatization of a worst-case scenario, and then beyond, as the machines of the world join forces and fight back, with unexpectedly grisly results. 

The concept is a promising one; the issue is the execution. Its main problem is that protagonist Eli (Jaeden Martell) is a dud, a whiny and unappealing sort, and there’s no real reason to root for him beyond the fact that he’s the main character, which isn’t reason enough. Y2K does confirm, if we needed further confirmation (we didn’t) that Rachel Zegler has got the movie-star goods. She’s selling even the hackiest beats, but the downside of her exuberant work is that it makes Martell’s wet rag of a performance all the more banal. He’s an absolute charisma void, resulting in one of the most unbalanced central relationships of the movie year. Grade: C

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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