Austin 101 Magazine

SXSW 2018 Film Festival Review

by Michael Mullenix & Jerri Starbuck

The 2018 SXSW Film Festival is officially in the can and has probably seen one of the largest showings in the festival’s 25-year run. “This year marks the 25th edition of the SXSW Film Festival and my tenth year at the helm. As we look back on the body of work of talent discovered, careers launched and wonderful films we’ve enjoyed, we couldn’t be more excited about the future,” said Janet Pierson, Director of SXSW Film. “This year’s slate, while peppered with works from many of our alumni, remains focused on new voices, new directors and a range of films that entertain and enlighten.” As always, there were many venues and over 400 films with a focus on AI, VR, documentaries, and short films. Lots of films had world premiere’s at SXSW.

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Screenings highlights- At this year’s film festival all eyes were set upon The Paramount Theater and The Stateside Theater for major premiere’s such as A Quiet Place, Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson), American Animals, and A Vigilante. One of the biggest was Warner Bro’s/Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One with its World Premiere on March 11th. Ready Player One is the film-adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel about a dystopian future of year 2045 and protagonist, Wade Watt’s journey to unlock the secrets of the virtual world of the Oasis. It’s a big-budget ($175 million) blockbuster that headlined this year’s festival and stars Tyler Sheridan. The film is currently in wide release and earned over 15 million dollars on it’s first Friday release and is #1 at the box office. It’s estimated to earn over 50 million over the Easter holiday weekend. It’s Spielberg’s first film with Warner Brother’s since A.I. Artificial Intelligence in 2001. Despite a technical glitch stopping the film during its SXSW premiere at The Paramount Theater, the crowd gave a roaring approval for RPO.

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Starting off on the first night of the Festival, Jason Blum unveiled the latest project from the Blumhouse Production company, Unfriended: Dark Web. Existing separately from the characters or premise of the first Unfriended, the new film still takes place entirely on a laptop during a group chat session our protagonist Matias has with his friends. Soon however, it becomes apparent that the used laptop he is now broadcasting from holds a dark secret and is drawing attention from a sinister cabal. Though the sequel to a gut-wrenching horror film might seem like a bizarre pick for SXSW’s schedule, this was a true turn of a genre, opting to be more of a dark thriller over the supernatural of the first. The significance of the Blumhouse group can’t be easily dismissed being the same production house that delivered Split and the Oscar-nominated Get Out just last year. Featured later in the weekend was Bloodfest, from Rooster Teeth Productions, an epically cheesy horror film shot in Austin, produced in Austin, and directed by Austin’s own Owen Egerton. Essentially this is a movie crafted out of the dark and mischievous imaginations of our quite little capital. The movie centers around the titular, fictional horror theme-park Bloodfest, crafted around the in-universe filmography of Anthony Walsh (played by Egerton himself). After filling the park with unsuspecting fans, Walsh announces that the frights in the park are real and that the cameras are picking up the massacre for his next upcoming film. From there we follow protagonists Dax, Sam, and Krill as they try to fight their way to freedom. There is no two-ways about it, the movie is incredibly silly, but ultimately endearing. Owen Egerton’s glorification of films about masked slashers, zombies, seductive vampires, and killer clowns is presented with such irreverent glee and tongue-n-cheek winks it is a perfect fit for it’s late-night contemporaries. Though many critics have seemingly waived it off, it feels right at home with like-minded punk cinema such as High Moon or Troma Film (take that as the compliment it was intended to be).

Vida Premiere SXSW 2018 1.jpgThe big premiere set from the beginning was Blockers, a raunchy, coming-of-age teen comedy directed by Kay Canon and staring John Cena, Ike Barinholtz, and Leslie Mann. The movie centers around three teenage girls who enter into a pact to lose their virginity on Prom night, and their parents who band together to try and stop them (the aforementioned “Blockers”). Leslie Mann plays a single mom who is a little too protective about her daughter leaving the nest, John Cena is an old school dad worried about his daughter falling prey to a d-bag with a man-bun, and Ike Barinholtz is an estranged father who reluctantly follows along because he recognizes his daughter is trying to sleep with a guy to hide the fact she’s a lesbian. The situations the parents and daughters find themselves in are raunchy but never absurd, and the movie finds a great pace in establishing the next hilarious set-ups. Much has been talked about Kay Canon’s directorial debut and how the feminine point of view has shaped the raunchy teen comedy. In a way the movie can be seen a spiritual inverse to American Pie (nearly 18 years ago… wow doesn’t that seem old), swapping out the perspectives of young men banding together to lose their virginity for young women’s take on the matter. The film also has found an incredible way to utilize John Cena, not just in a starring role, but a comedy no less. One-part straight-man, one-part impossibly chiseled brute, scenes where he is paired with a comedic veteran like Barinholtz, Cena manages to hold his own and deliver some incredible moments.In addition to the big premiers, several of the midnight screenings also managed to make a splash during the week.

American Animals Red Carpet 2.jpgBeyond the major blockbuster releases, the film-festival saw a number of Documentaries premier, including Fox’s PhenomsIf I leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Director and The Jedi (about the making of Star Wars Episode 8), and Warriors Of Liberty City. Also the season finale of This Is Us premiered at The Paramount Theater, as well as the series Premier of The Last OG, a TBS show created by Jordan Peele and starring Tracy Morgan. The comeback of ABC’s Roseanne this season was the perfect timing for the cast who had a Roseanne activation set complete with a Lanford Lunch Box, a hang out on the Conners’ couch, trivia with cast members and exclusive swag.

Blaze Premiere - SXSW 2018 1Local fave Ethan Hawke (raised in Austin) was all over SXSW this year. He screened Paul Shrader’s thriller First Reformed plus his own film Blaze- the Austin story Blaze Foley the unsung songwriting legend of the Texas-outlaw music movement that spawned the likes of Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson (more here) plus he did a film session during the conference portion at Austin Convention Center, “A Conversation with Ethan Hawke” where he chatted with Eric Kohn from Indiewire Magazine. It was cool hearing him talk about the writing process, working with Julie Delpy, Richard Linklater and others.

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First Reformed- The description of the movie doesn’t hint at the dark and twisted turns that happen later in the film. It’s not your typical Hawke film that’s sweet and interesting (“Before Sunrise”). It’s deep, dark, and gory (we had to look away). The pastor of a small New England church (Ethan Hawke) spirals out of control after meeting a disturbed parishioner and his pregnant wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) in this chilling thriller. Read our entire review here

Fox Sports brought the documentary Phenoms which is about finding key soccer players around the world and tracking them as they try to make this year’s World Cup 2018 in Russia. The mini series will debut on Fox in May. We got to chat with the directors and creators, David Worthen Brooks and soccer legend Mario Melchiot. See the article and interview we did at the Fox Sports House here.

FOX Sports sneak peek of World Cup soccer documentary series, "Phenoms" 2018
AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 11: David Worthen; Gordon Ramsay; Mario Melchiot, photo Getty Images

Weed the People– Since we’re in Austin, we can’t leave this one out. As pot is becoming  legal across many states in our country, it’s a timely subject. It’s one that definitely warrants deeper discussions into how cannabis and CBD oil can help alleviate symptoms of many debilitating, painful, and deadly illnesses. The film follows families armed with  laboratory studies, desperate parents obtain cannabis oil from underground sources to save their children from childhood cancers. This is definitely one we plan to see. More info here.


A Quiet Place- This modern horror film was written and directed by John Krasinski and starring wife Emily Blunt. The film’s tag line of ‘If they can’t hear you, they can’t hunt you’ is the best description. In recent interviews Blunt talked about having few lines but her scenes highlight her intense fear as the creatures hunt them by sound so they have to be silent. We can’t wait to see this one and bummed we missed it during the fest. First reviews seem to be amazing for this surprising thriller from the comedy of Krasinki’s’ The Office days’. The score on Rotten Tomatoes is 100% (read here) and many magazines have given it high praise. The movie releases broadly April 6, 2018.

Another film that grabbed a lot of underground attention was A Prayer Before Dawn. Directed by Jean-Stéphanie Sauvaire, starring Joe Cole and brought by way of the A24group, the movie is an adaptation of Billy Moore’s autobiography of the same name. Moore was a Boxer and criminal from Liverpool who was incarcerated in a prison in Thailand and the film recounts his experiences in lockup, overcoming addiction, and ultimately learning Muay Thai (Thai Kickboxing) as a method of obtaining his freedom. The movie is brutal, go figure for a film about life in a foreign jail, but seldom does it ever pull any punches (pun intended) from showing the desperation of the living situations or the barbarity of the gangs keeping order inside the jail. Special note should be paid to Joe Coel who had to carry not just the physicality of the movie, but a lot of the silent weight of scenes where he is clearly unable to speak the same language as everyone around him. Also Coel’s performance blends seamlessly into the fold of the authentic feel of the rest of the cast, who in some cases were actual ex-convicts in the very same Thai Prison (one of whom had his screening there since being locked up… again).final-6829

We have a special affinity for music-genre films at the festival. 24 Beats Per Second
is the film category showcasing the sounds, culture and influence of music & musicians, with an emphasis on documentary. Rapture, Ruben Blades is Not My Name,  Blaze (Ethan Hawke), Heavy Trip, Making the Grade, Paradox, (a music film by Neil Young & Daryl Hannah) and more. We especially love the documentaries and most had session panels with key speakers that we attended. Elvis Presley the Searcher and If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd. See all our conference photo highlights HERE

Other spotlight films at the fest (some are award winners from other global fests) included Condor, Chi-Town, 1985, Vigilante (Olivia Wilde), 6 Balloons, Brewmaster, The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From A Mythical Man, Support the Girls (big cast including local Brooklyn Decker), You Can Choose Your Family (comedy film with Jim Gaffigan and others), Bill Hader’s Barry, Lean on Pete, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (about Mr. Rogers), Awake:Episode One (a VR film), and Lyn Shelton’s Inside Out. There were too many shorts and great foreign films to mentionSee the entire film festival schedule here.

Film Award Winners- Isle of Dogs won the Audience winner for headliners. TransMilitary, First Match, Dawn Wall, Ruben Blades is Not My Name and others won key awards. The 256 films were selected from 8,183 overall submissions, consisting of approximately 2,476 features and 4,433 shorts. See the full scoop on the Film Awards held during the fest here.

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Red Carpet Film Premieres- May of these take place for the biggest casts and films and World Premiere’s at the Paramount, Stateside, Zach, Vimeo theaters and many others. Our favorite red carpet sessions include: Rapture (T.I., Nas), 1985, American Animals, The last OG (Tracy Morgan), If I Leave Here Tomorrow (Lynyrd Skynyrd), Vigilante’s Olivia Wilde, Blocker’s John Cena, Paradox’s Daryl Hannah and Neil Young. See our best red carpet film screening photos here.

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Film Keynote - Darren Aronofsky 1.jpgThe Film Conference – Highlights included major sessions from indie film casts to HBO’s major show Westworld, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Ready Player One’s Ernest Cline, Mark Hamil’s appearance with director Rian Johnson for the Director and the Jedi session, and Ethan Hawke’s discussion with Eric Kohn. Keynote speaker’s –Darren Aronofsky and Barry Jenkins, two of the most incredible and influential filmmakers of the past decade, delivered this year’s keynote addresses. Aronofsky gave the first speech and delivered what he called the Ten Commandments of Independent Film Making, a handy set of life-hacks for young aspiring creators. Barry Jenkins’ speech recounted his journey from being a young man from Miami obsessed with Diehard to entering film-school and pursuing the unimaginable dream of directing a film that would win Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards. Later in the week a discussion was held with Ethan Hawke, moderated by Eric Kohn of Indiewire. Ethan Hawke recounted his journey as an actor from the critical flop of Explorers and break-out success of Dead Poet’s Society, through his relationship with Richard Linklater working on Before Sunrise and Boyhood, to ultimately coming to SXSW for his new directorial feature, Blaze. Also director Rian Johnson appeared at the main hall for a panel with Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson to discuss his Ascension from Brick, to Looper, to Breaking Bad and finally the chance of a lifetime to direct Star Wars: The Last Jedi. At the Film Festival, Disney and Lucasfilm debuted a feature-length Documentary called the Director and the Jedi, which offered Johnson a chance to reflect on the incredible opportunity to make his mark on this historic franchise. Ultimately before the final moments of the panel, the two were joined by Mark Hamill himself, who took the stage to offer his take on the collaborative journey to revive his iconic character and continue the saga. Of course, there was also deep sadness at the loss of Carrie Fisher and they reminisced about her and her incredible contributions.

Key Tv PanelsWestworld (HBO Season 2 Premiere), Roseanne (Season 10 Revival), This is Us, The Chi, Lena Dunham were key sessions with the casts (Common was on more than one).

We thought maybe the Will and Grace cast would be there since they are also a popular tv reboot but were disappointed. Last year’s Veep, Silicon Valley, and Game of Thrones were big highlights and popular sessions.

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Rounding out SXSW 2018 Film Festival were many film parties, happy hours, mentor sessions, Texas Film Meet up, cast interviews and the Film Awards. The annual SXSW Film Awards held at The Paramount Theater halfway through the 9-day Fest are always a highlight hosting a red carpet and awarding the best and brightest in filmmaking.

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