The Tracking Board may not have had any boots on the ground at SXSW, but we have eyes and ears everywhere. Plus we’re on Twitter, so it kind of felt like we were in Austin anyway. So what had tongues wagging this year, besides the smell of BBQ? Let’s start with the opening night movie, A Quiet Place.
As I’ve been saying for several weeks on Twitter, it sounds like John Krasinski has something special in store for us with this dialogue-light monster movie. Early word-of-mouth out of SXSW has been excellent, and I won’t be surprised when studios start courting Krasinski for major directing jobs, if they haven’t already. Paramount would be wise to keep him in the fold. Meanwhile, with Avengers: Infinity War moving up to late April, the month’s entire release calendar has shifted, so I’m hoping A Quiet Place doesn’t fall victim to this cruel bit of release date gamesmanship. The stellar reviews out of SXSW, coupled with the fact that there isn’t anything like it in the marketplace, should help it stand out among its bigger-budget competition.
Can we also talk about the casting on this movie? It’ll sound crazy, but John Krasinski took a bit of a risk casting his wife, Emily Blunt. Now Blunt is a legit movie star, obviously, and who knows, she might’ve even won the film its greenlight. So in that sense, Krasinski lucked out with an incredibly talented actress who just so happens to live one pillow away. But as everyone in Hollywood knows, it can always be a little dicey when couples work together. If this film didn’t work, it would join a long list of husband-wife vanity projects that went down in flames, so kudos to both of them for reportedly pulling off a true rarity. Maybe they should work together more often.
Additionally, kudos to Krasinski for casting Millicent Simmonds, the wonderful young deaf actress from Wonderstruck, as his and Blunt’s onscreen daughter. Sound clearly plays a key role in A Quiet Place, wherein the difference between noise and silence is survival, and judging from reviews, Simmonds lends the film a certain authenticity. As a genre buff, I can’t wait to check this movie out for myself.
Speaking of genre, it sounds like Steven Spielberg has delivered a solid adaptation of Ernest Cline’s beloved book Ready Player One, which unlocked audiences’ imaginations at SXSW. This cinematic ode to pop culture sounds faithful to the book, and yet, at the same time, it also takes some liberties with the structure of the story and its characters. Which is… fine. Movies and books are different things, each with a unique set of objectives and challenges. I’m just relieved that the reaction out of SXSW has been largely positive, considering the pre-release hate I’ve seen metastasizing on Twitter over the last few weeks, much of it based on a few silly posters. Judging by reviews, it seems that Mark Rylance has delivered once again for Spielberg, who has created a fun if sprawling movie that asks viewers to weigh the pros and cons of virtual reality. I absolutely adored the book, and I’m dying to see it brought to life.
Elsewhere at SXSW, it seems like each year, there’s one studio comedy that steals the show, and this year it was Blockers, courtesy of Universal and Good Universe. Leslie Mann, John Cena and Ike Barinholtz star as three parents who set out to disrupt their daughters’ sex pact on prom night. I saw the film last night and I had a blast with it, since it played like a female Superbad. Despite its crass title, Blockers offered both humor and heart, which is no surprise, since it was produced by Harold & Kumar writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg as well as Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s Point Grey. Keep an eye on director Kay Cannon and her film’s teenage stars Kathryn Newton, Geraldine Viswanathan and Gideon Adlon, all of whom really go for it here.
You know who else just went for it at SXSW this year? Julia Hart, the director of the winning indie comedy Miss Stevens, who came back strong with Fast Color, a unique superhero story about a woman with special abilities who is forced to go on the run. Led by rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Fast Color is said to be a moving mother-daughter tale that plays like an origin story for Storm, the X-Men character played by Halle Berry, except completely original. Hart co-wrote the script with her husband, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz, and the film is one of the hotter acquisition titles at the festival. The story is getting high marks for its originality, and Hart has already been tapped to direct Stargirl for Disney’s forthcoming streaming service. The sky’s the limit for this rising filmmaker, who will no doubt be in even greater demand after this movie.
Hart wasn’t the only rising filmmaker at SXSW, which also made stars of Prospect filmmakers Zeek Earl and Christopher Caldwell. The last line of Variety‘s review read “If anything, this is what the standalone Star Wars movies should feel like.” I mean, that’s pretty high praise for this film, which follows a teenage girl (Sophie Thatcher) and her father (Pedro Pascal) as they travel to a remote moon on the hunt for elusive riches. It goes without saying that there are others roving the moon’s toxic forest, and the job quickly devolves into a desperate fight to escape. Prospect hails from a group of veteran producers including Chris Weitz and Andrew Miano of Depth of Field, Scott Glassgold of Ground Control, and Garrick Dion from Bron Studios, and should fetch a strong sale out of SXSW.
On that sales note, the festival’s first sale turned out to be Neon’s acquisition of This One’s For the Ladies, a true crowdpleaser according to audiences. SXSW docs are typically a little bit lighter and more fun than many of those that premiere at Sundance, so I wasn’t surprised that This One was the first one off the board. The Director and the Jedi also got high marks, as you would expect for a film that follows Rian Johnson, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher during the filming of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The documentary Science Fair also earned high praise from those who had the good fortune to catch it amid the many distractions that Austin has to offer.
And last but certainly not least, like Sundance and Toronto, SXSW is becoming a hotbed for TV premieres, and I’m not talking about network shows. I’m talking about cable series with actual breakout potential — shows like HBO’s dark comedy Barry (review coming soon) starring Bill Hader as an assassin-turned-actor, and Starz’s half-hour drama Vida, which explores the Latinx community of East Los Angeles. The Hollywood Reporter called it off-brand for Starz… [but]the factors that make Vida unique are exactly the sort of things that simultaneously terrify most networks and yet should be much, much more frequent,” ultimately credited the network for having the cojones to make it.
As for the prize winners, Jim Cummings’ drama Thunder Road was named Best Narrative Feature, while Best Documentary Feature went to Hao Wu’s People’s Republic of Desire. The former concerns a cop from Middle America trying to raise his young daughter as he copes with his disintegrating marriage and imploding career, while the latter follows “live-streaming” social media stars in China. It doesn’t get much more different than that, folks! And I suppose that’s the beauty of a festival like SXSW.
We hope to have those boots on the ground in Austin next year, but for now, we’ll have to trust our sources… including social media, which never lies. Ha! #TucciGang
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief