As SXSW 2015 wraps up its film slate, CraveOnline would like to look back at some of the many films from this year’s festival that we weren’t able to review in full. As with all film festivals, SXSW 2015 presented a wide range of motion pictures in different genres, from different filmmakers with wildly different perspectives and styles, all of whom deserve their moment of recognition and their fare share of analysis.
While our film critic William Bibbiani was able to review many of these films in full – in particular, he recommends the innovative horror-romance Nina Forever, Ryan Gosling’s ambitious directorial debut Lost River and the gimmicky but enjoyable Unfriended – he didn’t want to neglect any of the others. Here are his short reviews of the SXSW 2015 films The Automatic Hate, The Frontier, Hello, My Name is Doris, Ktown Cowboys, Peace Officer and The Salt of the Earth.
The Automatic Hate
Incest is so “in” right now… er, dramatically speaking. Shows like Game of Thrones and dramatic features like Maps to the Stars are now dealing directly with one of the oldest taboos in the book, and even pornography is inchy-squinching back to familial love thanks to intrepid filmmakers like Jacky St. James. But few of these stories have anything significant to say about incest, other than that it could theoretically be hot, or that the shame of it can tear a family apart.
The Automatic Hate is no different, sadly. Justin Lerner’s film is about a young man (Joseph Cross) who meets his cousin (Adelaide Clemens) for the first time in their 20s, without any of the family programming that would prevent them from instinctively responding to each other sexually. As they investigate the reasons why they’ve never met before – family secrets that run deep – they give in to a mutual attraction. But then tragedy strikes and their fathers, played by Richard Schiff and Ricky Jay, return to open old wounds and carve out some brand new ones.
There’s some excellent work being done here. Clemens, Schiff and Jay give particularly fine performances, but there is also an inescapable sense that The Automatic Hate is dealing with serious topics without ever quite exploring them. Too much is kept secret until too late in the film, leaving filmmaker Justin Lerner with very little time left to say something meaningful.
In the end, The Automatic Hate plays like a well-acted parlor room drama that never quite delivers the goods. There’s nothing to hate about it, but that could in itself be part of the problem: there’s very little to even be passionate about in this film that was, ostensibly, all about passion.
Oren Shai’s stylish ‘70s crime saga has all the right pieces, but they don’t seem to be in the right order. Jocelin Donahue (The House of the Devil) stars as a woman on the run, but when she winds up at an isolated motel just before a major criminal deal is about to go down, she decides to turn all the players against each other and steal the money for herself. A slick, fun premise that offers Donahue yet another chance to shine: as usual, she gives a remarkable performance.
And Shai’s attention to detail does her work justice, with a perfect palette and a truly impressive score by Ali Helnwein that sounds like Ennio Morricone at his best. Unfortunately the story itself doesn’t play out as well as the production, forcing the supporting cast of characters into broad archetypes while the plot plays out too slowly to grab the attention, and then suddenly moves so quickly that it almost fails to register. The opposite might have worked more to The Frontier’s advantage, exciting the audience first before letting the characters breathe, because as it stands the balance just feels off throughout the entire running time.
Still, Donahue’s performance and Shai’s period piece aesthetics are nothing to sneeze at. But there aren’t too many audiences who will be willing to sit through the whole floundering story just to appreciate them.
Hello, My Name is Doris
Michael Showalter is best known for his hilarious work on The State and Wet Hot American Summer, but his latest comedy tones down the wackiness in favor of a sweet, endearing and wholly human coming of age story. That the heroine coming of age is in her late 60’s is neither here nor there.
Sally Field stars as Doris, a shut-in who is primed for release after falling in love with her new co-worker, John, played by the twenty-something Max Greenfield. Fortunately for all of us, Showalter eschews the obvious jokes about their age disparity and lets Field and Greenfield really connect. He’s a decent guy, she’s actually a very cool woman (not that anyone has ever told her that), and they form a believable bond over things like electronica concerts and hipster parties.
Hello, My Name is Doris offers Sally Field one of her best roles in decades, and she rises to the occasion. Doris is a wonderful cinematic creation, vulnerable because she has no idea how powerful she really is, and Greenfield’s innocent would-be love interest is wholly believable in his affections, as a friend and possibly – just possibly – a little more.
It’s a bit of a trifle, but Hello, My Name is Doris is wholly satisfying. And the ending is absolutely perfect.
Ktown Cowboys is as much about the unique culture of Koreatown in Los Angeles as it is about its protagonists. That’s a good thing, because although its cast of characters is mostly amiable, Daniel Park’s film only really shines when it reveals and revels in that rarely filmed, utterly fascinating alcove of Southern California.
Based on a popular web series, Ktown Cowboys tells the story of several young Korean-American men struggling with love, employment and a teensy bit of existentialism. The plot never really kicks in – it’s too breezy a film for that – but it’s not a chore watching these dudes get drunk and wander the streets, wondering just when exactly their lives will finally get started.
And that’s the problem, really: like its characters, Ktown Cowboys hasn’t really defined itself. There’s an undeniable affection for its characters but no urgency to telling their stories. The comedy hasn’t been honed enough to bust any guts, and yet there’s an honesty behind the jokes that genuinely illuminate this intriguing part of the world. It’s likable but not entirely successful, and that’s probably enough for some audiences, but there was obvious potential for Ktown Cowboys to be so much more.
As a sheriff, William “Dub” Lawrence helped found a SWAT team. As a civilian, that same SWAT team murdered his son-in-law in a controversial standoff. Now, Lawrence spends his time investigating police actions that result in the death of civilians, helping their families determine who was at fault and raising awareness of the dangers of police militarization.
That is one hell of a story, and the new documentary Peace Officer tells it well. Directed by Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson, Peace Officer follows Lawrence as he conducts his investigations and uncovers shocking amounts of evidence that the police themselves either neglected or covered up. But it’s not a smear piece: the filmmakers talk to as many of the law enforcement officials involved as they can, who reveal that the issue is more complicated than it at first appears.
But what, exactly, can be done? That’s the question that Peace Officer never quite answers. Increased public oversight over police actions is a start, but to watch Peace Officer is to become brutally aware that the fundamental issue involves the fragility of the police department itself, which cannot afford to lose face in the public eye for fear of endangering their public servants. It’s a vicious cycle, guaranteed to frustrate, but either way Peace Officer tackles an increasingly relevant issue in a fashion that is both dramatic and thoughtful.
The Salt of the Earth
They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but adding a few words doesn’t hurt the work of adventuring photographer Sebastião Salgado one bit. The new documentary by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, gives Sebastião the opportunity to share how some of his most incredible photographs came into being. Fortunately he’s a remarkable storyteller in any medium, sharing the history of the world’s most devastating tragedies through remarkable imagery and gripping oral narration.
There’s not much more one can say about The Salt of the Earth, because The Salt of the Earth does its own telling. Instead of expressing in detail just how illuminating Salgado’s stories are, and how sad and inspiring the film they have inspired turned out, let me instead invite you to discover it for yourself. Come inside, dear friends, and let The Salt of the Earth take you away to distant and war-torn lands, and let a man who witnessed true apocalyptic horrors show you how, exactly, he found a way to keep living with hope in his heart.