Two features and five shorts to keep an eye out for. [SXSW Film Festival]

SXSW 2021 has come and gone, offering accredited press a dizzying array of opportunities in which to indulge. While the Elements of Madness coverage team wrote a hearty portion of reviews, there were far more films worth seeing than we could cover in full. While feature-length films often get most of the glory, watching the narrative shorts can offer a treasure trove of content and help reviewers discover up-and-coming talent. Here you will find capsule reviews for five shorts that made an impression, plus one feature-length documentary and one docuseries I was able to sample.

Wider release information provided where available.

Some of the shorts are available for viewing on the SXSW Online Platform until April 18th, 2021.

Confronting A Serial Killer

Directed by Joe Berlinger, starring Jillian Lauren.

Samuel Little, also known as Sam McDoweel, is allegedly the most prolific serial killer in United State History. Author Jillian Lauren received the opportunity to interview him after she connected with the homicide detective who tracked down Little’s culpability. Lauren took time to view Little’s rap sheet and saw it was 100 pages long, yet he had spent little time in prison. Confronting a Serial Killer, a five-part docuseries, records the relationship she nurtures with Little in the hopes of bringing to light the many victims of Little’s violence before it’s too late.

Caption: Jillian Lauren, CONFRONTING A SERIAL KILLER. Credit: Starz Entertainment, LLC.

Far from being just another true crime serial killer narrative, Confronting a Serial Killer is a story with a message. Herself a survivor of sexual assault and trauma, Lauren makes the case that Little was able to flourish so long because his victims were from marginalized and undervalued populations: women of color, sex workers, drug addicts, and the mentally disabled. Through the materials shared, Lauren proves Little’s guilt, along with that of the whole system which allowed him to go unpunished for so long. Told through a variety of perspectives fom victims and their families, police officers, Lauren, and chillingly, Little himself, Confronting a Serial Killer hooked me into the story during the two episodes I was able to watch.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 16th, 2021.

Premieres on STARZ April 18th, 2021.

Under The Volcano

Directed by Gracie Otto.

In this wistful feature-length documentary, sure to cause pangs of nostalgia from lovers of ‘80s music everywhere, we get a behind-the-scenes look at the place that inspired some of the best-known studio-produced albums of rock music history between 1979 and 1989. Looking for simplicity and a place where creatives could thrive, celebrated music producer George Martin, best known for his work with the Beatles, bought property on the Caribbean island of Montserrat and set up Air Studios Montserrat. His goal: to create a place where musicians could leave behind their normal space, get in touch with nature, and work on their artistry. A variety of artists like Jimmy Buffett, Duran, Duran, The Police, Dire Straits, and Elton John, recorded some of their greatest albums there, and the history of all that is captured with photos, music clips, and interviews. The artists, the local islanders, the staff at the studio, and Martin’s friends all chime and share their candid memories of living, working, and playing on the island. While George Martin is already a beloved music icon in his own right, this hidden piece of music history is sure to provoke even more admiration for the way he championed and mentored up-and-coming artists. And the memories shared in this documentary add extra insight into the music we get to enjoy today.

Sir George Martin at AIR Studios Montserrat in UNDER THE VOLCANO. Credit: Martyn Goddard.

Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 20th, 2021.

Coming soon from Universal Pictures

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Short Films

The Mohel

Directed and written by Charles Wahl, starring Daniel Maslany, Kaelen Ohm, and Sam Rosenthal.

This intriguing premise ends on a kicker. After the birth of their son, a Jewish man and his supportive wife hire a Mohel to perform Brit Milah Holy ceremony and circumcise their son. Hiring a doctor would be too expensive, so they agree to split the Mohel’s fees with another couple who has just given birth. Upon the rabbi’s arrival, the ceremony takes place with a hearty dose of joy and chaos one might assume accompanies any ritual involving a baby. Some of the characters in attendance express impostor syndrome about their roles, all adding to the realism. Just as we think everything has gone according to plan, the Mohel has one more surprise.

Caption: Sam Rosenthal as Rabbi Fishel in THE MOHEL.

Depending on personal background, The Mohel offers a window or mirror into an important part of the Jewish experience. Regardless of personal faith, James’s sometimes uncomfortable and awkward journey of trying to follow the tenets of his culture and family is bound to engender nods of sympathy from all kinds of viewers.

Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 16th, 2021.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.


Directed by Theo Rhys, written by Joss Holden-Rea and Theo Rhys, starring Alison Fitzjohn and Anthony Young.

The bittersweet, darkly humorous musical short earned a special jury prize for Bold Vision in the Midnight Shorts category and remains the biggest surprise of my SXSW experience. Araminta the taxidermist wants to take her artistry to the next level by finding a human to stuff. Bernie, afraid of getting old and leaving nothing behind wants to be frozen in time. These two lost souls come together to fulfill both of their deepest desires, but as they discover the connection between them, they question whether or not they should choose another path. Stuffed plays as if Norman Bates in Psycho found his soulmate before Marion Crane inquired about a vacancy. The well-crafted songs and spare but effective screenplay take viewers on an emotional journey, and the chemistry between leads Alison Fitzjohn and Anthony Young is undeniable. Theo Rhys and Joss Holden-Rea are a filmmaking team to watch.

Caption: Alison Fitzjohn as Araminta in STUFFED.

Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 16th, 2021.

Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.

Play It Safe

Directed by Mitch Kalisa, starring Jonathan Ajayi.

Mitch Kalisa’s Play it Safe landed the grand jury prize for narrative short at SXSW 2021 and for good reason. Jonathan is the lone Black man in an otherwise all-white acting class. Although everyone seems friendly, he’s regularly placed in stereotypical roles and pressured to “play along” for the sake of the group. During an improv exercise, Jonathan is faced with another pivotal choice: play it safe or risk their discomfort to show them how he really feels about their treatment. In a brilliant switch, the camera shifts from watching Jonathan to his perspective, focusing on the faces of his colleagues and their abashed expressions. It’s a mere 12 minutes but this story makes a powerful impact with few words. The story is based on situations both Kalisa and lead actor Joanathan Ajayi experienced in real life. I could see this segment being part of a larger story in the future.

Caption: Photo still from PLAY IT SAFE.

Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 16th, 2021.

Final Score: 5 out of 5.

The Things That Ate the Birds

Directed and written by Dan Gitsham and Sophie Mair, starring Eoin Slattery, Rebecca Palmer, and Lewis Mackinnon.

With a lot of style and not much substance, this horror short spins an atmospheric cautionary tale with a message open to interpretation. Abel, a head gamekeeper living on the North Yorkshire Moors, has been searching for the predator regularly eating his grouse. When he discovers the culprit and takes action, his choice has unintended consequences on his household. Directors Gitsham and Mair successfully build suspense through the creepy score and clever cuts between events happening in nature vs. at home. Disappointing special effects and clumsy story writing dampen the overall effect. Most of the effort went towards the sound design and score. This filmmaking team has potential if they can build in some character and plot development to equal their excellent mood-building and invest in a talented makeup artist to design any horrific creatures needed in the future.

Caption: Eoin Slattery as Gamekeeper Abel and Lewis Mackinnon as his assistant Jake in THE THING THAT ATE THE BIRDS. Credit: Still photo by Michael Goldrei.

Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 16th, 2021.

Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.

Marvin’s Never Had Coffee Before

Directed by Andrew Carter, written by Kahlil Maskati, starring Charles Rogers, Nirav Bhakta.

In this sweet and highly relatable comedy set during the time of COVID-19, Marvin desperately wants to fit in with his colleagues, but he seems to be the only one who doesn’t love coffee. The story combines Zoom meetings, video calls, and text messages to tell the story. Everyone either knows a Marvin or feels like the Marvin in their work group. The loneliness that comes with pandemic living and the desire to find community hit home during this time. While I’ve been leery of sitting through too many films set time during the time of social distancing, Marvin’s Never Had Coffee breaks the mold and ends on a note of hope worth sharing.

Charles Rogers as Marvin Wexler in MARVIN’S NEVER HAD COFFEE BEFORE. Credit: Patrick Ouziel.

Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 16th, 2021.

Final Score: 3 out of 5.

Categories: Films To Watch, Recommendation

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