Credit: Shane Brown
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

SXSW Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 1: Bitch Ass, Pirates, Getting It Back

March 14, 2022

Bitch Ass

Slasher flick Bitch Ass opens with the one and only Tony Todd — yes, Candyman himself — as host of a seemingly low-rent cable access show entitled Hood Horror Movie Nights. As Todd lists the surprisingly sparse number of urban horror features, one begins to ponder not only the state of a genre that is so woefully lacking in representation that the urban subgenre sprung out of it at all, but also the long-term viability of such a content-starved television program. We are then immediately thrust into the film proper, featuring, as Todd describes it, “The first Black serial killer ever to don a mask.” (It’s all about semantics.) As the camera slowly pushes in on an ‘80’s-era tube television, we are presented with a static-y, VHS-era FBI warning that ultimately dissolves into the slick digital photography of the feature itself (a transition so jarring as to be nearly whiplash-inducing). Bitch Ass is a film decidedly beholden to the slasher flicks of yesteryear, yet looks like any number of modern-day interchangeable horror titles popping up weekly on Netflix. It’s certainly a little peculiar that director/co-writer Bill Posley has made no attempt to capture the look of the classic slashers he so clearly loves, a decision that creates a disconnect that almost instantly alienates the viewer. It’s symbolic of film as a whole, a mishmash of various tones, styles, and techniques that is ultimately a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, least of all a clear artistic point of view. 

Bitch Ass is puzzlingly set in the year 2000, as an earnest young man named Q (Teon Kelley) tries to survive the gang-ridden neighborhood he calls home. Desperate for a college education but unable to afford it, he joins forces with a motley crew of comically inept thug-wannabes to rob the house of a wealthy and recently deceased woman, where her purportedly insane grandson (Tunde Laleye) still resides. What follows is roughly Don’t Breathe meets Escape Room meets Saw, as the grandson in question reveals himself to be the titular Bitch Ass, a hulking brute of a man and an amateur game designer whose tenuous grip on reality is soon revealed as he forces his unwanted guests to participate in a series of challenges where defeat will cost them their lives. Accordingly, Bitch Ass is nothing if not an exercise in style, an excuse for Posely, in his feature directorial debut, to trot out every technique in his bag of tricks. Each room is denoted by digitally imposed, blocky three-dimensional text. Intertitles that pop up before each “game” depict its characters on trading cards, their resulting demise highlighted with a giant “X.” The aspect ratio can best be described as Cinemascope on steroids, with accompanying wide-angle lenses proving most disorienting. And split screens play an oddly central role, oftentimes the imagery divided into individual pieces that take on the shape of the game in question, whether it be grisly variations on the likes of Operation or Connect Four. 

Indeed, the sheer amount of visual business on display is completely at odds with the simplicity of the story in question, which is nothing more than a variation on such low-budget slashers as The Burning and Slaughter High, in which a formerly bullied individual gets revenge on his aggressors. In isolated moments, Posley does manage to tonally capture the feel of some of those touchstones, but even those instances remain distinctly at odds with the otherwise 21st-century stylizing and aesthetics. That all of this is contained by wrap-around segments that seem to specifically pay homage to HBO’s serialized take on Tales from the Crypt from the ‘90s only underlines the entire production’s lack of focus. It doesn’t help that the games themselves lack little in the way of creativity, or that the death scenes fail to deliver in the gore department, resembling more than anything one of those middle chapters in the Friday the 13th saga that got hacked to death by the MPAA. There’s no denying that Posley has filmmaking chops, but they would be better served by a cogent project that gives him the opportunity to flex technique. Viewed as a test reel, Bitch Ass articulates directorial bona fides; as a feature film, it unfortunately fails to engage, leaving the viewer feeling like the real bitch ass.

Writer: Steven Warner


Credit: Charlotte Croft

Pirates

It’s not an overstatement to say that first-time director Reggie Yates has been quietly but surely becoming a mainstay of British media. From hosting children’s television to working as a prominent radio DJ to directing controversial documentary films for the BBC, Yates has been accumulating cultural capital for nearly two decades. With his feature directorial debut, Pirates, he is finally cashing in. Set in north London, 1999, Pirates follows three teenage boys, Cappo (Elliot Edusah), Two Tonne (Jordan Peters), and Kidda (Reda Elazouar), as they careen around London in their faded yellow, “Custard Cream” car on an odyssey to get into the best New Year’s Eve party in town and win over Two Tonne’s crush, Sophie, before she returns to university. Of course, the trio also fall headfirst into comedic muck-ups along the way. 

Pirates keeps things simple, with a plot reminiscent of teen slacker comedies of the Superbad mold and boasting comedic sensibilities borrowed from British TV (particularly People Just Do Nothing), but located in the hyper-specific late-’90s of North London. The gang’s last night before going their separate ways might be an old plot, but Yates breathes new life into the trope with both surprising stylistic confidence and a refreshing counter to the conventions of British teen media. His direction is just as energetic and flat-out fun as his characters, speeding Pirates through its 80-minute runtime with a gauntlet of comedic set pieces that leave little room for anything else. While this comes at the expense of any deep character work, the absence isn’t felt too strongly, as the central character isn’t any individual but rather the dynamic the trio shares. Even though each of the three principal actors only really excels individually on occasion due to a thin script, the ensemble chemistry is so organic and entertaining that the film works despite its deficiencies. 

Yates also rarely indulges wholeheartedly in the potential for melancholy that his premise presents, making for a wholly buoyant film that genuinely believes in its own characters and the strength of their friendship. The director’s optimism isn’t just limited to his plot, however, but is also seen in the things he chooses not to include. From Kidulthood to Blue Story, British indie filmmaking, particularly that concerning British teenagers of color, too rarely ventures outside of stories about gang violence, the effects of poverty, and the plight of the working class. Even when there are occasional steps outside of these narrative conventions, the domain of hope is frustratingly too often reserved for white teenagers. Yates finds not just originality, but real joy in grafing a lively coming-of-age narrative onto characters who aren’t often the focus of such films, and his commitment to the story comes through at every level. Certain dialogue, jokes, and references in Pirates will go unacknowledged by some viewers, and the soundtrack is bound to be unrecognizable to many, which offers two possible outcomes: either audiences will consider it too niche or of an undesirable flavor (look no further than Pixar’s recent release Turning Red for this type of stark divisiveness), or, if they’re lucky, they will see it for what it is — a singular, joyous, and riotous time capsule of male friendship in ‘90s London.

Writer: Molly Adams


Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande

Nearly the entire 90-minute runtime of Tim MacKenzie-Smith’s Getting It Back: The Story Of Cymande is filled with the titular band’s music. This never feels like a bad move, as the UK group’s brand of soul and funk is some of the liveliest to ever be recorded. Even for first-time listeners, it’ll be obvious how smooth their music is; as band members share about their lives, their songs prove both non-disruptive and immediately irresistible, every groove suffused with an effortless cool that’ll ensnare you if you let it. This decision also gives the documentary a constant laid-back feel, letting its talking heads-heavy nature feel significantly more bearable — one can only hear other musicians gush about the music for so long, so at least these songs are always there to drift into when the film threatens to stagnate. This approach does, however, present a glaring question: Why spend time watching this doc when you could just listen to the albums instead? What is being done with the chosen medium?

At first, MacKenzie-Smith manages to make watching his film compelling: We hear about the band’s origins, how they were all self-taught musicians, and the early stages of them forming and practicing together. Their live performances were fiery, and any studio recording would need to capture that same energy. This sets the stage for a palpable drama when we learn that the music’s potency could be met with coldness. “We weren’t allowed an [era of Black British music],” we learn. This is why Cymande would end up finding more success in the States, playing at the Apollo and opening for Al Green. It hints at a political dimension that’s interesting, especially as the film teases how their music was always aiming for something more radical, but this thread is abandoned shortly after being mentioned.

It’s roughly 30 minutes into Getting It Back that the film starts making the meaning of its title abundantly clear; MacKenzie-Smith only really wants to show how surprising it is that the band’s music could be popular today, decades after the band originally called it quits. The film switches its focus to how songs from their self-titled debut, especially “Bra,” became a staple of various genres, but especially hip-hop — Cymande were sampled by De La Soul and the Fugees, but UK acts too. At first, this structural gambit intrigues: to trace the lifespan of the music itself attests to its timelessness and endless exploratory terrain. But the film eventually becomes so far removed from the band as to be habitually uninsightful — there’s little to be gained here that one couldn’t glean from the band’s Wikipedia page. Where are the privileged, in-depth stories of the band during their second and third albums? What were they up to afterwards? What was the process like for getting the band back together?

These questions come so easily to mind precisely because what’s presented on screen is regularly tedious: producers and artists, including ones who helped bring Cymande to wider public consciousness, are tasked with talking about the music. There’s a fairly low ceiling on how engrossing it can be to hear people speak in superlatives, especially when the images being presented are so banal. At one point, the camera focuses on someone scrolling through YouTube; elsewhere, and even worse, there’s a screenshot of the most-played Cymande songs on Spotify, followed by someone sharing a song from the app to a friend via text. The idea is to get a sense of how wide-reaching and enduring their music is, but the series of climaxes that MacKenzie-Smith uses is pathetic: There’s a montage of covers from people around the world that’s edited with zero panache, and then shots of the band at a reunion concert. That we don’t get to see the show play out for a satisfying length of time is damning evidence that MacKenzie-Smith has the wrong priorities here. More than anything, his good intentions are thwarted by cowardice — he doesn’t trust in Cymande’s music to be enough. Mackenzie-Smith is far more interested in blandly explaining obvious revelations than actually revealing them through the strength of images and song.

Writer: Joshua Minsoo Kim


Credit: SXSW

The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic

Cinephiles of a certain breed are going to find a lot to like about Jakko (Petri Poikolainen), the smart-ass protagonist of the Finnish import The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic. A movie lover suffering from Multiple Sclerosis — the devastating effects of which have rendered him both blind and paralyzed from the waist down — Jakko is the kind of guy who wears t-shirts brandishing imagery from the likes of The Evil Dead and Escape from New York, and who spent his remaining sighted days watching John Carpenter’s pre-‘90s output. Although he no longer views any of the films from his massive DVD collection, he keeps them displayed on his shelves, “So that people know what kind of guy I am.” His hatred for James Cameron’s Titanic — which he refuses to watch — stems from the filmmaker’s insistence on transitioning from the greatest action films of all-time to “the most expensive and calculated turd ever,” which is as sound a defense as any heard in ages. 

It’s a playful introduction to Jakko’s character, but beyond such superficialities, his struggles with MS render each day a litany of personal indignities and agonies, his only respite being the daily conversations he has with online girlfriend Sirpa (Marjaana Maijala), she herself suffering from some unnamed cancer. The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic follows Jakko as he decides to finally meet Sirpa in person, a two-hour journey that is a train ride and two taxis away, but may as well be light years in terms of the struggle it presents. Writer-director Teemu Nikki renders the proceedings entirely in close-ups and shallow focus, the backgrounds a blur of vague shapes and colors, with Jakko being the only clear focal point in any given shot. It’s a simple but rather ingenious way of placing us within Jakko’s perspective, the surrounding world as much a mystery to us as it is to him. Where Nikki stumbles, however, is in the portrayal of the journey itself, where the callousness of an ableist world is on full display. One could argue the merits of such a seemingly realistic approach — as well as Nikki’s obvious intent to offset the potential sappiness of the central storyline — but the filmmaker’s deliberate attempts at contrast too often err on side of cynical, leaving us with cartoon villains and too-pat platitudes on the inhumanity of humans. Poikolainen — who is both blind and afflicted with MS in real life — gives a live-wire performance, one that refuses to soften the jagged edges of his character or the debasing struggles he has endured. His portrayal, unlike much of what is sketched into the narrative, is genuinely humane, equal parts sweet and sour, and it allows the inevitable ending to feel truly earned. So while The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic may not be as successful as its titular namesake and is beset with some unevenness, Nikki and Poikolainen do manage to rock the boat a time or two and deliver a truly memorable character. What’s James Cameron done lately?

Writer: Steven Warner


The Art of Making It

The Art of Making It is the kind of sincere documentary that often populates film festival slates, one that seems to possess the germ of a strong idea but has absolutely no clue what to do with it. Examining the insular and elitist nature of the art world through interviews with struggling young artists, bourgie collectors, museum curators, and art critics, the film casts a wide net and paints an often grim picture of the power structures that dictate art culture and gatekeep its institutions by commodifying art, but with little cogency.

When it focuses on these young artists, The Art of Making It really sings, examining the barriers set in place by tastemakers that often exclude marginalized voices and novel points of view in favor of what they think will sell. But when the film deviates from this angle, it often falters, dwelling in petty grievances between collectors and curators that may enhance the elitism of the art world, often distracting from the most interesting voices present. Put more broadly, the problem here is that the film never quite makes up its mind as to what exactly it is, lacking focus and a strong central thesis to generate any real thrust or throughline, a fact that blunts its impact and leaves the viewer with precious little to latch onto. It doesn’t help matters that one of its proposed solutions to democratizing the art world is through NFTs. There’s certainly something worthwhile to the idea — the role of universities and MFA programs in gatekeeping the hallowed halls of the art world is a fascinating aspect that probably isn’t examined as closely as it should, and therein lies the biggest shortcoming of The Art of Making It; every time director Kelcey Edwards begins to circle or articulate an interesting idea, the film pulls back and begins following another one down a seemingly endless series of rabbit holes. With a little more focus and a little more artistic vision of its own, there’s plenty on display that could have made The Art of Making It an easy recommendation, but as it stands in its current form, it’s just a bit too scattershot and unsure of itself to form any convincing argument.

Writer: Mattie Lucas


Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Watcher

Horror inspired by the unique voyeurism of apartment-living and being a stranger in a strange land is nothing new, and with Watcher, director Chloe Okuno attempts to pull these well-worn tropes into the 21st century. The story follows Julia (It Follows star Maika Monroe), an idle middle-class wife transplanted into Romania, a country where she has nothing to occupy her time and does not speak the language. In the face of all this boredom and loneliness, Julia develops an obsession with a man in the neighboring apartment building (Burn Gorman), who she believes is watching and stalking her. Becoming increasingly concerned for her own life and convinced that the man is a serial killer, Julia begins stalking him across the streets of Bucharest in return. Instead of relying on any digital gimmicks or commentary on surveillance culture, Okuno keeps things simple, constructing a relatively simple cat-and-mouse dynamic between Monroe and Gorman.

Drawing on aesthetic and thematic predecessors like Rear Window and Rosemary’s Baby for some of its character dynamics — specifically the voyeurism of the former and the character types of the latter — Watcher is certainly a film that is aware of its own ancestry. However, for all that understanding, and Okuno’s confidence in incorporating successful elements of recognizable films, Watcher ends up a pale imitation, unable to bring any necessary originality to a film niche with such big shoes to fill. While Watcher largely succeeds according to its technical craft, with evocative cinematography and remarkable performances from both Monroe and Gorman, the script simply doesn’t drive the film in any particular direction, its lack of anchor leaving it to feel entirely shallow. Still, that’s not to say it’s devoid of potential — Okuno does hit on some particularly interesting subtext. There’s the implication of the film’s title, which suggests Julia’s role as watcher and the ways in which this might empower the object of voyeurism by flipping the power dynamic on its head. And then there’s the (all-too-brief) study of Julia’s own power in the situation, hitting on both contemporary considerations — an affluent white woman whose tears could lead to lasting consequences for those she accuses — and more classical ones — a working-class man who feigns innocence by leaning into interpretations of Julia as a hysterical woman. Throughout, such appealing discursive tendrils creep at the edge of the script, but they are never explored enough to fully elevate the film from retread status.

But in fairness to the genre, we understand that thematic weaknesses can sometimes be forgiven if the work accomplishes the simple job of all horror films: is it scary? Despite a few choice moments that draw on the everyday, specifically gendered fears of being alone with a threatening man with no resource or help — such as in a climactic scene where Monroe and Gorman are alone together on a stalled underground train — Watcher is disappointingly void of much tension. Part of this is again thanks to deficiencies in the script, which feels too rooted in familiar, formulaic territory to unsettle much, but it’s perhaps in greater part due to the double-edged sword of Gorman’s casting. The actor is no doubt chilling as the watcher, at once sinister and disarming, a figure who evokes fear even in silhouette. But the role comes at but the latest in a long run of nasty roles for Gorman, from a Nazi bomber in Imperium to a rapist-murderer in Game of Thrones and a homophobic dirty cop in And Then There Were None, to name just a few. Sticking to such typecasting means even the more deceptive, cunning elements of Gorman’s performance, intended to put the audience at odds with Julia’s perspective, are nullified. From his first moments on screen, it’s hard to envision Gorman as anything other than what Julia perceives him to be — a vile, violent figure — and without any aid from the script, Watcher is left to anticlimactically stumble into becoming the worst thing a horror-thriller can be: predictable.

Writer: Molly Adams