by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

SXSW Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5: The Spine of Night, Sound of Violence, Violet

Credit: Philip Gelatt / Morgan Galen King

The Spine of Night

The Spine of Night is a whole lot of movie. Despite the film’s relatively straightforward fantasy logline — sorcerer goes mad with power, attempts to take over and/or destroy the world, unassuming hero saves the day — both its narrative and animation feature a mountain of genre detail. The former is the less successful component, saturating its story with a Dungeons & Dragons-level of broad fantasy components: there’s a swamp witch, a power-mad inquisitor who briefly turns into a hooded, cloudy-eyed Senator Palpatine type, a power-mad scholar-cum-oracle who reads runes and sources antiquitous, elemental power, and some final-act warriors who play-act as birds, wear a plague-style beak mask, a cape thing that allows them to glide through the air, and, least explicably, thongs (presumably for their aerodynamic properties?). The plot is also built around a series of nested stories, its framing device concerning the aforementioned witch who early on journeys to a mountain top (natch) to meet The Guardian of the aforementioned elemental power — the Bloom — and proceeds to tell him a series of tales (which is really just one, broken up with connective bits left absent) that led them both to their meeting. She would (or perhaps already has) save the Bloom, and thus the world, from the aforementioned scholar-cum-oracle, who would use (or has used) the power for slaughter and domination: men who would make gods of themselves, as such fantasy narratives go. On top of such perfunctory beats, The Spine of Night also liberally cribs from existing, recognizable properties: The Guardian looks remarkably like the noseless Voldemort, there’s a slow-down for a cosmological interlude wherein a creation story is conveyed in Galadriel-like voiceover, and, even if too general a metaphor to be considered borrowed, the film’s dedicated, if ill-defined, night-themed symbolism nonetheless reminds of Lord of the Rings’ general endeavoring-in-darkness language. That’s not to say there isn’t some fun to be found in The Spine of Night’s particular fantasy fodder, but its operating procedure is more about cramming as much in as possible rather than differentiating itself from the fold.

It’s a relief, then, that the film’s animation proves more singular and eccentric. The work belongs more to horror than fantasy, reveling in brutalism and viscera: in one scene, a staff is jammed through a baddie’s face, an eyeball emerging on the wrong side of his head, staring straight into the “camera,” while in more than one other sequence, innocents are split down their center and rent in two, a la Bone Tomahawk. There are also more delicate touches to appreciate, such as backgrounded vistas of melded hues, navies and violets and oranges all hazily bleeding into one another. Surroundings are also captured with similar nuance, several times creating a goopy, painterly affect with textures and splotches of severe color. All of this is in contrast with the human renderings, who take on an Adult Swim, 2D-DIY character, a decision which makes a certain amount of sense for a film so heavy on world-building, but which also creates a strange dissonance at times. Likewise, for a film fixated on acts of violence, there’s a languidness to the action pieces, and the would-be kinetic sequences yawn more than they thrill. And in a few late-film moments, some of the celestial skyscapes look like they could be transpositions of dollar-bin posters from some Phish fan’s bedroom wall. Still, it’s all part and parcel with the film’s fast-and-loose imagery, and the same instincts that conjure these stylistic cock-ups also result in a series of mustachioed townsmen who look straight out of the ‘70s golden era of porn, and so remains mostly a weirdo boon for the film. (Even more hilarious: in what seems to be an accident of animation, when the primary villain, who is naked, is in the midst of murdering the secondary villain, his penis clearly grows on screen.) 

A few early missteps give viewers reason to be skeptical — the voicework is unusually distracting out of the gate, with the immensely likable Patton Oswalt, as a face-melted regional lord, imbuing a goober gloss that doesn’t quite follow elsewhere, for instance — but these bumps mostly work themselves out, as the film largely abandons its concern with such plot specificities and settles on a more homiletic approach. But even if things never quite entirely smooth out, it’s all distinguished by its nerdcore unorthodoxy. As a pair of fleeting characters intone concerning their own existence: “Remember, our embers fade … Wonder what our firelight looks like to them.” Directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King may be reasonably concerned with what their firelight looks like to others, but what’s praiseworthy and unique in The Spine of Night is that they’re very clearly most concerned with is what it looks like to them.

Writer: Luke Gorham


Credit: You Know Films/No Office Films

Sound of Violence

Writer/director Alex Noyer intends the title of his debut feature Sound of Violence extremely literally. As Alexis Reeves (Jasmin Savoy Brown) explains in her introductory narration, she has a unique ailment — rendered deaf as a child after an accident, certain sounds still resonate with her not as noise, but as an amorphous mass of swirling, psychedelic colors. After she catches her PTSD-stricken father murdering her mother and older brother, Alexis smashes his head in and experiences an overwhelmingly vibrant cascade of light dancing around her. The act also, somehow, restores her hearing. It’s a fantastical premise, rendered in largely realistic fashion. In other words, this isn’t a superhero movie, but as the film progresses, it becomes very clear that it is indeed a horror movie, albeit one where the killer is the main character (and a largely sympathetic one at that). 

Alexis has parlayed her gift, or whatever it is, into a fascination with experimental music and aggressively outré compositions. She has a supportive roommate-cum-best friend, Marie (Lili Simmons), and impresses her professors with her music theory lectures. But Alexis unexpectedly begins having hearing problems again, and when an aggressive drunk guy on the street catcalls her and then gets pancaked by a passing car, Alexis experiences again the full flush of the “sound of violence.” Her hearing is yet again restored, and the development compels her to begin seeking out new forms of grievous bodily harm, not only to maintain her hearing, but to recapture the rush of these visions, which she is convinced will help her compose her grandest musical achievement. 

Noyer and cinematographer Daphne Qin Wu render Alexis’ synesthesia as vaguely Brakhage-esque abstractions, somewhere between sexual ecstasy and a user fiending for a fix. Once Alexis starts murdering strangers in earnest and recording their death rattles, Sound of Violence awkwardly lurches into a distaff Saw remake, as Alexis creates increasingly outlandish contraptions that inflict a wide array of agonies on her victims. It’s a strange mix of styles and attitudes, a naturalistic indie that transforms suddenly into campy Grand Guignol, with Alexis pulling off ludicrous feats of Rube Goldberg-inspired traps. It shouldn’t work, and parts of it don’t, particularly a haphazard subplot about a determined detective who’s convinced that these random murders are all linked. But there’s a lot of creative viscera on display here, and Sound of Violence rallies for a truly unbelievable ending, one which strikes just the right balance of authentic, heart-rending emotion and can-you-believe-it insanity. Maybe we’ve been watching the birth of a supervillain after all.

Writer: Daniel Gorman


Inbetween Girl

The problem with so many teen movies is that they shape themselves according to shallow extremes of adolescent feeling, and specifically of young romance. There’s perhaps no greater period of emotional potency than adolescence, a time of life typically ill-understood by those living it, and one which frequently filters experiences through the melodramatic poles of misery and ecstasy. In translating this tricky phase of life to film, however, this vast spectrum of feelings often seems flattened on screen, few shades of grey presented in angsty stories of love, loss, and betrayal. The best films of the (rom-)com coming-of-age sub-genre seek to add dimension to this histrionic transitional time, building gradients of nuance into a period of life commonly experienced as an apocalypse of emotional stimuli. There are, of course, ways to overcome a lack of meaningful character-building in such films — through aesthetic or structural inventiveness, comedic bona fides, etc. —  but few work so well. 

Mei Makino’s Inbetween Girl splits the difference. The film breaks from studio properties in its sheen-free delivery: there’s no pat romantic resolution, no duckling-to-swan transformation for the sort-of tomboy lead (at least not in a makeup-makeover sense), but there is a fairly clear-eyed approach to creating characters that don’t entirely conform to “types,” and blunt confrontation of culturally-bred forms of young male manipulation. This all lends an unpolished, non-Hollywood vibe to the work, even sidestepping the indie dramedy shimmer common to festival films. It also features some legitimately great edits, an unsexy bit of technical craft far too rare in this kind of typically paint-by-numbers filmmaking. There’s an authenticity to the work, a distinct, throwback personality — to the point of seemingly even trying to reassert the word “bang” as sex verb of choice — and it’s all anchored by a remarkably assured and charismatic debut from Emma Galbraith as Angie, a sort-of wallflower who both imparts and sustains pain from her high school peers. 

But while Inbetween Girl welcomingly centers on a no-bullshit, willfully confrontational young woman, its peripheral character affectations accumulate to its detriment. These are teens that listen to old-timey jazz records, Gen-Zers who record diaristic entries on what appear to be VHS tapes (based on the quality anyway), and who fire off such jargony quips as, “Must you always shove your dick in an orifice?” It’s one thing to avoid the tepid dramatics of any number of new teen flicks available on any number of streaming platforms each week, but it’s another to still succumb to bouts of preciousness and such bland laments as the “nobody wants to know the real me” nature of social media. Plenty is implied in the film’s title — Angie is in between parents who just separated, in between a couple who is dating, in between childhood and adulthood. Unfortunately, the modifier readily applies to the film’s quality as well, and despite some welcome deviations from the teen sheen formula, the film lands somewhere in between commendable and disappointing.

Writer: Luke Gorham


Credit: Torsten Lapp

United States vs. Reality Winner

In 2017, former NSA contractor Reality Winner was arrested by the FBI and charged under the Espionage Act for leaking documents pertaining to Russia’s attempts to hack into American voting machines during the 2016 election. The resulting court battle, waged during President Donald Trump’s obsession with “leakers,” was widely publicized but often buried beneath news of the President’s seemingly daily controversies. As a result, one of the biggest single injustices enacted against a United States citizen by the justice department in recent memory passed without much outcry or fanfare.

Prejudice against political whistleblowers is certainly not new in American politics. Names like Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden are well known, and their bravery for speaking out against injustices being committed by the government has turned them into something like folk heroes. Reality Winner is likely lesser known, despite being only the eighth person to be convicted under the Espionage Act since it was passed in 1917, and Sonia Kennebeck‘s new documentary seeks to shift that reality, even going so far as to interview Snowden extensively about the FBI’s tactics and the particular offense the Justice Department seems to take toward whistleblowers. The result is United States vs. Reality Winner, a remarkably efficient and clear-eyed documentary that examines Winner’s case from her initial arrest and interrogation (releasing the FBI’s interrogation tapes publicly for the very first time) through her year-long imprisonment and leading up to her trial. Unable to interview Winner herself, Kennebeck focuses instead on her parents’ tireless crusade to get justice for their daughter, whose actions never harmed national security and whose only “crime” was the revelation of another.

Structurally, United States vs. Reality Winner is fairly standard documentary fare, but in taking such a personal look at a figure who has only previously been known to the public according to what political pundits have said about her, the film puts the injustices perpetrated by the United States government into even sharper focus. In one of the most infuriating aspects of Winner’s story, her document was published in full by The Intercept without taking the proper precautions to protect their source, allowing the FBI to identify her as the leaker, a fact the outlet’s editor-in-chief brushes off in the film by saying, essentially, that she’d have been caught anyway, before offering a weak focus-group approved apology. It’s an element the film certainly should have interrogated more, but with the original reporters refusing to comment on the record, it’s admittedly difficult to really explore the egregious journalistic malpractice on display there.

Nevertheless, it’s almost impossible to walk away from the film without feeling some sense of outrage — at the FBI, certainly, for their underhanded “we’re just talking, no big deal” interrogation tactics, at the Justice Department for treating the revelation of a crime as worse than the crime itself, and at the country as a whole for its culture of secrecy that punishes those who dare to speak inconvenient truths. When the state is more interested in prosecuting people who reveal crimes than those who perpetrate them, it’s not hard to see that the system is corrupt beyond all salvation. United States vs. Reality Winner is a damning, damaging documentary that takes no prisoners, presenting its case with a journalistic authority that stands in stark contrast to how its content was covered by the news media.

Writer: Matthew Lucas


Violet

Violet, written and directed by actress Justine Bateman in her feature film debut, is a tale of female empowerment told with a full measure of bluntness. Its opening moments are a flurry of shock cuts depicting decay and destruction. Its protagonist, the titular Violet (Olivia Munn), is a respected film producer who lives her life according to the voice in her head — a man’s voice, mind you (Justin Theroux). He belittles her, tells her that she is a joke and that the world is laughing at her. When she follows the advice of said voice, it inevitably leads to regrettable choices, with her anger and resentment visualized courtesy of a red filter that slowly glows brighter until it blots out the entire image, and accompanied by a droning siren that fills the soundtrack, completely overtaking the dialogue. Her innermost thoughts are depicted on screen in handwritten text, oftentimes contradicting the sonorous voice that consumes her. And to top things off, a memory of the one time she felt freedom in her life — while biking as a child — is often projected on surfaces around her as she desperately tries to regain control of her life. 

So, it shouldn’t surprise to hear that Violet isn’t a film the least bit interested in subtlety, but frankly, it’s all the better for it. Violet’s pain is raw, and Munn, in a truly revelatory performance, effectively reveals how Violet’s anger has manifested itself in ways she barely recognizes, rendering her an unwilling spectator to her own life. It’s at the film’s half-way point that Violet finally chooses to wrestle back control, ignoring that Justin Theroux voice in favor of making choices that will truly bring her happiness. And while this conceit is nothing new — hell, even an episode of Seinfeld covers the same territory — the way that it’s presented here is legitimately bracing, as it feels like Bateman is holding nothing back. In that sense, and more than anything, Violet is a rallying cry, a call to arms to women who have been told that they should unquestioningly adhere to what society — read: men — dictates. That is not to say there isn’t a bit of wish fulfillment going on here, as Violet is instantly treated to a fabulous new job and a ridiculously good-looking and supportive boyfriend (Luke Bracey) as a result of her autonomous actions, but Bateman is obviously well aware of this, as it falls consistently in line with the hyper-directness of her messaging. In other words, this is the type of film that you’re either on board with from the word go, or one at which you find yourself standing on the sidelines, marveling at the apparent smugness of it all. But for viewers who find they vibe the material, it will be hard to find fault with its end product, clearly coming as it does from such a genuine place, and anchored by Munn as its humanizing center. Violet is a distinctly 21st-century woman-celebrating flick, perhaps a bit saddled by its too trite messaging, but still something of a feminist force of nature.

Writer: Steven Warner


Credit: Tom Petty Legacy, LLC / Warner Music Group

Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free

Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free is one of those documentaries that is arguably most suitable for a festival like SXSW. That’s not simply because the platform is one where music and cinema merge, but, more notably, because it feels like a match for the distinctly festive quality of Petty’s personality and his artistic output, which many believe is best reflected in his sophomore solo album (and his first with Warner Bros.), Wildflowers. Clearly forgoing the opportunity for bombast or any larger-than-life experience film, director Mary Wharton instead relies on a collection of never-before-seen black-and-white 16mm footage of Petty and his album recording sessions and subsequent tour (shot between 1993 and 1995 by filmographer Martyn Atkins), combined with recent interviews with some of Petty’s collaborators. It’s all presented in easy, rhythmic montage, and the director remains entirely faithful to the relaxed and lighthearted vibe of the rock legend’s seminal output. It all gives the impression that what’s of most importance to Wharton here is to authentically capture and articulate the seemingly effortless but nonetheless relentless task of the artist and his cadre of friends who were celebrating the joys and sorrows of life at a very specific moment in time.

This being the case, it’s no wonder that Wharton oscillates between archival images and contemporary conversations with those involved in the project — particularly producer Rick Rubin and two original Heartbreakers bandmates, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench — since it’s a work of art that remains deeply relevant today. But this approach also gives space for Petty’s friends and bandmates to casually contemplate the past, specifically in the aftermath of Petty’s tragic 2017 death of an accidental overdose at the too-young age of 66 years old. Somewhere You Feel Free readily welcomes the audience into an experience of the amiable stories surrounding the creation of Wildflowers, and, perhaps more essentially, successfully extends a sense of belonging to its broader cultural and artistic history. For Tom Petty die-hards, Wharton’s soulful effort will undoubtedly deliver cravable documentation of a moment in time worth cherishing, a fanatic’s holy grail of sorts, and for those who remain ill-versed in or ambivalent toward Petty’s work, the film affords an exceptional opportunity to understand the aura that surrounds the rock star and this classic album. If the quality of the film is any indication, viewers should be hustling to go listen to the album before the credits even roll.

Writer: Ayeen Forootan

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