What's Happening @ SXSW, Part One: 'Us,' 'Beach Bum' & More

by Derek Deskins

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 12, 2019

We have arrived at the time of the year when Austin is taken over by a sea of outsiders. The metropolis is coated with mobs of individuals wearing their personal information on a branded lanyard in hopes of getting at a bevy of free events, food, drink, entertainment, and the odd chance to be drunk near a celebrity. That's right, the 2019 SXSW Conference & Festivals is upon us!

While every year at SXSW is a bit different (still unclear what free item will replace last year's "Westworld" ubiquitous cowboy hats as the ultimate freebie), I braved the crowds, lines, and streets full of intoxicated scooter riders to spend my days and nights in a movie theater.


This year boasted one of the most hotly anticipated opening night films in recent memory. After taking to Sundance to debut "Get Out," Jordan Peele brings his latest harrowing tale to SXSW with "Us." Starring Lupita Nyong'o and Winston Duke, "Us" tells the story of a family on a beach vacation whose plans get spoiled when an aggressive group of doppelgangers arrive. While Peele definitely set the bar high with his first feature, he deftly avoids any talk of a sophomore slump with his next flick. "Us" blasts out of the gate and then refuses to let up for its two-hour runtime. Peele ratchets up the scares, as if daring Film Twitter to call it anything but "horror," and makes inevitable conversation over whether this movie is better than "Get Out" immediately difficult.

Running With Beto

The bright blue dot of Texas welcomed former senatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke with open arms at the premiere of "Running with Beto." The HBO documentary takes an intimate look at O'Rourke's attempt to unseat junior senator, and conservative poster boy, Ted Cruz in the 2018 election. While director David Modigliani introduced the movie, the crowd's eyes darted about like excited meerkats, hopefully pondering whether or not the ever-charming Beto would make an appearance. As the lights went down, a tall lanky figure crouched to a nearby row of seats, accompanied by the exceedingly odd sight of flashes going off in a darkened theater. Knowing that he was there provided a settling calm to the audience. The film does an admirable job of painting an image of Beto the person, rather than just the politician. It recalls other political documentaries, like "Street Fight" and "War Room," especially as it ventures away from the central candidate and examines the passionate employees and volunteers surrounding him. The film played well to an emotional theater, but the Q&A felt heavy with the possibility of a presidential run by O'Rourke (something he almost giddily refused to resolve).

Go Back to China

Emily Ting's "Go Back to China" tells the story of spoiled rich girl Sasha Li as she is confronted with the choice: give up her half a million dollar trust fund or move back to China to work in her father's toy factory. The story is a personal one for writer-director Emily Ting, as her family truly does own a Chinese toy company, previously explored in her documentary "Family Inc." Anchored by Anna Akana's effervescent lead performance, "Go Back to China" is enjoyably consumable, if ultimately a little generic and predictable. This feels like the type of movie that you find on Netflix on a Sunday afternoon and throw on to have some noise in the background.

The Beach Bum

Six years after his "Spring Breakers" played like gangbusters at the festival, Harmony Korine returns to SXSW to premiere his latest tale of debauchery and Florida. "The Beach Bum" chronicles the life of Moondog, an iconic figurehead of the Florida Keys, as he attempts to finish his latest novel. While Korine's cinematic output is known for knocking audiences off-kilter and delving into the darker corners of your mind, "The Beach Bum" may be the closest the auteur can get to "happy go-lucky." Ignited by a lead performance from Matthew McConaughey at his most "naked and stoned playing the bongos," it treats its own plot as an afterthought in its relentless pursuit of fun. But even in a movie with a be-thonged McConaughey, a perpetually high Snoop Dogg, and the occasional Jimmy Buffett appearance, it is strangely Martin Lawrence in his first cinematic outing in nearly a decade that steals the show. The comedian plays Captain Wack, the world's worst dolphin tour provider, and he easily received the loudest reception as he graced the SXSW stage.

Long Shot

Saturday night came to an end with something that SXSW does very well: crowd-pleasing comedy. Two years ago, Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron attended the festival separately (Rogen with "The Disaster Artist" and Theron with "Atomic Blonde"), but this year they came together. "Long Shot" is the story of an unlikely romance between a gonzo journalist and a career-driven Secretary of State. Directed by Jonathan Levine, it is the director's third collaboration with Seth Rogen and further proof that Levine is at his best when with Rogen (the lone exception being the gem that is "The Wackness"). While it is loaded with Rogen's typical raunch, this time it is used as a cover for what is essentially a gender-swapped 90s-era romantic comedy. Despite the generic nature of its structure, the cast is packed with exceptional comedians, and Theron and Rogen have definite chemistry. "Long Shot" is the type of movie that demands to be seen with a crowd, which is something that SXSW happily abides. The screening was positively electric, bathed in excitement and booze, and was punctuated by a surprise performance from none other than Boyz II Men. Do you want to know what can send a crowd of thirty-somethings into middle-school hysterics? Apparently, smooth harmony-rich R&B.

Good Omens' 'Garden of Earthly Delights'

After a day full of movie screenings, I ventured into the dangerous land of promotion-rich immersive experiences. In advance of the May premiere of the new series "Good Omens," Amazon Prime took over a parking lot in the popular Rainey Street area to create the Garden of Earthly Delights. After you brave the line (a few minutes if you have a badge, about an hour if you don't) you are treated to an impressive display of swag and performance art. While the mix is something of a staple of the SXSW, it's always impressive when you see it first hand. The grounds were littered with Satanist nuns, angels, demons, and the occasional witch hunter. A trio of silver clad aliens also wandered about, but I'm not convinced they were actually part of the "Good Omens" crew. While chances to Snapchat or Instagram abounded (with an insistence on using a specific hashtag that is usually reserved for weddings), there was also plenty of free food and drink. When you weren't grabbing a beer at the tree of knowledge, there were other freebies to be had including an opportunity to get your hair and/or nails done, and a tent that seemed dedicated to the adorable where you could cuddle up with a slew of "hellhounds-in-training." I left with a healthy buzz and a reminder that when you get through the lines and drunk out-of-towners, SXSW can be kind of delightful.

Except for the scooters. God save us from this scourge of scooters.

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