Compared to prestige-oriented film festivals like Cannes, Toronto or Sundance, the SXSW Film Conference and Festival has always been a freewheeling affair. This year the Austin, Texas-based event has ratcheted up that approach even further by premiering an eclectic slate of movies including the action extravaganza "Furious 7," the espionage spoof "Spy" and a new documentary casting a critical eye at the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
Here's a look at five of the fest's buzzed-about films so far.
Fast start for 'Furious 7'
Universal Pictures' biggest franchise made a splash with a surprise screening just after midnight Sunday. The sneak peek at "Furious 7," which opens April 3, provided an emotional sendoff for series star Paul Walker, who died in a car crash partway through filming. Fans at the screening cheered, wept and applauded.
Early reviews indicate that the new sequel will offer more of the high-octane, logic-defying action for which the series is known. Collider's Perri Nemiroff wrote, "'Furious 7' is everything you'd want in a new 'Fast and Furious' film. The car chases are absolutely insane and take the action in the franchise to a new level. There's endless sass, humor and unforgettable absurd one-liners. … 'Furious 7' is certainly a popcorn movie geared towards delivering big thrills, but it's also oozing with heart and passion. The characters in the movie care deeply for one another and that devotion is infectious."
Schumer, Apatow on the right track in 'Trainwreck'
Comedian Amy Schumer screened a work-in-progress version of "Trainwreck," which marks her screenwriting debut and first major film role. A sort of role-reversed rom-com, the movie finds Schumer playing a magazine writer repulsed by the idea of monogamy and utterly baffled when she actually meets a nice guy (Bill Hader). Directed by comedy veteran Judd Apatow, "Trainwreck" received an enthusiastic reception, with audience laughter often drowning out the film's dialogue.
Reviews so far have commended Schumer and Apatow. The Hollywood Reporter's John DeFore wrote, "Cutting through many of the easy signifiers found in bad-behavior comedies to get at what it actually feels like to be an intimacy-phobic mess, 'Trainwreck' finds Judd Apatow putting his directing chops in service of Amy Schumer's deeply felt but crackingly funny screenplay."
'Man in the Machine' thinks different about Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs' life has already been the subject of a couple of narrative films and an extensive biography by Walter Isaacson, not to mention Danny Boyle's high-profile biopic due in October. Documentarian Alex Gibney has also gotten in on the act with his new nonfiction film "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine," which focuses on some of the more unsavory aspects of the tech innovator's personal history and his temperament.
Some early reviewers appreciated the film's critical approach: The Guardian's Alex Needham wrote that Gibney's "unsparing portrait of Steve Jobs will prove extremely displeasing to devotees, but it's a riveting and important corrective to the myths Jobs helped to propagate, and which in the four years since his death have proved as seductive as his machines — and a lot more durable."
'Ex Machina' an A.I. tale with real smarts
From "The Man in the Machine" to the ghost in the machine. Veteran sci-fi screenwriter Alex Garland ("28 Days Later," "Sunshine") screened his directorial debut, "Ex Machina," starring Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander in a story of obsession, desire and artificial intelligence.
Ahead of the film's debut, senior programmer Jarod Neece said it "might be one of the best films we've ever played at South by Southwest," and for many in attendance it lived up to the hype.
The Times' Mark Olsen called "Ex Machina" a "sci-fi chamber drama that manages to be tactile, cerebral and gripping, crammed with big ideas while also feeling like an engagingly twisting thriller. It is smart cinema, smartly done." He added that "The film played very well to the room Saturday night …. Perhaps because of the concurrent interactive conference occurring at SXSW and the general emphasis on technology at the festival, the film seemed to hit home with this audience in particular."
Mission accomplished for 'Spy'
Following the recent misfires of "Tammy" and "Identity Thief," comic actress Melissa McCarthy has reunited with "Bridesmaids" and "The Heat" director Paul Feig for "Spy," a send-up in which McCarthy plays a deferential CIA desk jockey tapped for some field work.
Judging by early reactions, McCarthy — who's also working with Feig on a female-led "Ghostbusters" reboot — has her mojo back.
Variety's Justin Chang wrote that it's "gratifying to see what [McCarthy] can do with a vehicle that's firing on all cylinders for a change." The result is "an uproarious blast of globe-trotting action-comedy delirium that doesn't spoof the espionage-thriller genre so much as drop a series of banana peels in its path."
Chang also gave writer-director Feig kudos for his "beautifully structured, zinger-stuffed screenplay."
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