dir. Joseph Winter & Vanessa Winter
Horror movies never scare me, not really. I was spilling my drink all over myself in fear and laughter watching this one. Deadstream may have been the most fun premiere experience, as well as the most shell-shocking.
Horror as a genre has notoriously fallen victim to trope and cliché. Deadstream pokes at tropes in a fresh and inviting way while still being frightening and hilarious. Its standouts include a deep understanding of internet culture, a spectacular performance by Joseph Winter, a creepy soundtrack, and an innovative camera set-up to create what feels like a totally new horror experience.
Shawn Ruddy (Winter) is a problematic YouTube influencer, famous for his controversial stunts where he attempts to face his many fears. The start of the film recaps his fall from grace and subsequent comeback plan: surviving a night in the most haunted house in America (that he is allowed to film in). Shawn destroys any and all avenues of escape as part of the stunt before locking himself in the building.
From there, Shawn, a deeply selfish and foolish person, fights for his life against the elements, streamed through a series of remote cameras that he himself has set up. The camera arrangement serves to create a sense of temporal continuity – every moment is captured by the cameras like a multi-angle one-take. Once the “stream is live,” the film goes from start to finish in real-time.
The film benefits not only from this innovative camera work, but also from astounding practical effects. The ghoulish monsters are tactile and gross as hell, contributing to a genuinely scary atmosphere. Shawn is encouraged to engage in riskier behavior by his followers, from throwing away his car keys to investigating a ghost by chat. His followers (and the audience) see things he cannot due to camera angles, and Shawn just keeps pushing on, cracking jokes. Sure, there are jump scares, but the tone of the film solidifies the scares as purposeful and unique.
And, I have to say, once again – the film is hilarious. It is easily the best horror comedy I’ve seen in a long time. I’m far from the first person to associate the piece with Sam Raimi, but boy is that a great comparison. The sense of humor, and the use of that humor to bolster a sense of fear, is very effective.
The other aspect of the film worth noting is its great understanding of online culture. The jokes don’t feel like they were written by some boomer desperate to spite the growing virtual space. Like the rest of the film, the ties to social media feel fresh and realistic – if you told me Shawn Ruddy was a real “creator,” I would probably believe you.
Deadstream is an all-around great time at the cinema. I should admit my bias toward horror comedies, but this is a standout one. Just make sure your drink has a lid.
2. The Pez Outlaw
dir. Amy Bandlien Storkel & Bryan Storkel
The last thing I expected from a story about a mentally ill man smuggling illegal Pez dispensers from post-Soviet Europe to the US was a heartwarming love story about family and kindness. The Pez Outlaw absolutely deserves to be recognized as the best documentary from the festival, and that’s saying something.
The reenactment is often seen as a lesser form of documentary. Seeing a bunch of local theater actors pretend to be historical figures doesn’t always ring as genuine. Pez asks the question, “What if we took the old guy our story is about, dyed his beard brown, and let him perform exactly what he did?” The result, it turns out, is an incredible documentary.
The film tells the story of Steve Glew as he enters the complex world of toy collecting and trading. As one can imagine, he falls in love with Pez, specifically the rare and valuable dispensers. He discovers that the best way to rake in cash with rare Pez is to travel to eastern Europe and go straight to the manufacturers.
From there, Steve and his son created a system where they bounce around in Post-Soviet Europe, buying and selling “product,” with Glew himself engaging in a Cold War espionage scenario with the “Pezident” (President of Pez America). The whole thing sounds absolutely ridiculous. And it is. But for all the humor inherent in the subject matter, toys are some people’s livelihoods and the film treats the subject matter with respect and compassion.
Particularly resonant is the relationship between Steve and his wife of many years. Their love is beautiful and kind, acting as a moral core to an otherwise wholly ludicrous idea. Her understanding of his endeavors is uplifting, and such sentiments in combination with Glew’s undeniable charisma make for a very entertaining watch.
The various recreations are funny and stylized in a way that is evocative at times of spy thrillers, but also Charlie and the Chocolate factory. It effortlessly pairs Steve Glew’s comical recitation of events with clever editing.
It might seem strange that a film about Pez dispensers ranks so highly for me. Put simply, this feature had the most complete and entertaining package. At no point was I confused, or missed a joke, or put off by a bad shot. It’s a really tight piece of filmmaking about a story you probably haven’t heard about before.
1.No Looking Back
dir. Kirill Sokolov
Politics and film have always gone hand in hand. Dating back to the origins of modern filmmaking with Birth of a Nation, to the Hollywood Blacklist, to the reactionary films of the post-9/11 era, politics play a role in how films are made and received. With this film, I hope people are able to look past its country of origins and enjoy it for what it is: an expertly crafted film that for me was the best piece of fiction I saw at SXSW.
No Looking Back is a Russian film (there were Ukrainian protesters outside the theater) following the story of a woman, freshly released from prison, as she attempts to take her daughter back from her own overbearing mother and her ex-boyfriend.
The film is a visual masterpiece. There’s no other way to say it. It uses lighting, color and shot composition to create an absorbing atmosphere that does not once fumble. The color choices in particular are so powerful, they are almost absurd.
Without giving too much away, whenever the mother and daughter are together, they are backed by green lights or scenery, as well as wide-open spaces that contribute to a feeling of wild liberation. Whenever the mother and ex-boyfriend are together, they are backed by a violent red in the lighting or the scenery. They drive a red car that is expertly positioned to give them a dark red backing at times. Even at the final climax, the scenery is maneuvered in such a way as to maintain the verdant and scarlet themes.
The film's break-neck pace kept me on my toes. The mother, who is called Olya (Viktoriya Korotkova), spends the first half of the story as the main character. She has a ton of personality, and even though she’s far more likable than her grandmother, she does come across as an unreliable narrator in her pursuit to mother her child. In the second half of the narrative, the daughter Masha (Sofya Krugova) takes over as lead with just as much energy and emotive competency. She has all the skills of an adult actress, but really sells the “kid who had to grow up too fast” bit in particular. By the end, she is the only one in the cast behaving like an adult, tying the coming-of-age genre morsels together with ease.
The writing is punchy and funny without ever betraying the earnestness at the heart of the film, which is the relationship between the women. Between the violence and vile language, there are poignant moments and genuine thematic nuance.
As soon as I walked out of this theater, I knew this would earn my top billing. Like Pez Outlaw, it’s a film that never really misses a beat, but it was slightly more emotionally impactful. If there is a way for you to see this movie, I cannot recommend it enough.