SXSW 2014: Five movie stories, including ‘Chef’ and ‘Veronica Mars’

Kristen Bell in "Veronica Mars."
(Robert Voets / Warner Bros.)

With its multidisciplinary mix of movies, music and technology, the South by Southwest festival has a reputation as a hip, forward-looking affair. But one of the unofficial themes to emerge at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, which kicked off Friday, is revisiting roots. Here are four movies — and one famous actor — making the old-school new again.

“Chef” undercooked? Jon Favreau’s new culinary comedy “Chef” marks a return to indie filmmaking for the writer, director and actor, who first made a name for himself with “Swingers” in 1996 but in recent years has turned out large, effects-driven Hollywood movies such as “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2" and “Cowboys & Aliens.”

“Chef” screened Friday, and many reviewers have noted the seemingly autobiographical elements of the story, about a dissatisfied chef (Favreau) who chafes at turning out safe, predictable food at a trendy Los Angeles restaurant and is panned by a prominent online critic, prompting him to get back to basics with a new food truck.

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Early reviews have been mixed. The Guardian’s Henry Barnes writes, “‘Chef’ is made with affection, plated up with real care and presented with pride. ... By taking a step back from the catch-all requirements of blockbuster cinema he’s serving us a home-cooked meal rather than a Big Mac. You appreciate the effort.”

On the other hand, Indiewire’s Drew Taylor panned the film as “an overlong, unfunny, largely insufferable bore” and added, “If you want to see a self indulgent, hubris-driven car crash where the filmmaker uses his latest narrative as a thinly-veiled defense of his past career transgression, this is the movie for you.”

Back on the case with “Veronica Mars.” Seven years after the cancellation of the cult-favorite teen TV series “Veronica Mars,” creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell are back with a Kickstarter-funded feature film, which screened Saturday. According to early reviews, it should satisfy fans of the original series.

Variety’s Justin Chang says the filmmakers “have effectively given us a very special reunion episode, so crammed with familiar faces that it plays less like a meaty mystery than an extended thank-you to the fans who breathed it into existence. Still, it’s smooth and engaging enough on its own compromised terms, clearly informed by Thomas’ genre-savvy storytelling and unpretentious craftsmanship, and not without a certain self-deprecating sense of humor about its own immodest origins.”


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Alan Sepinwall of HitFix agrees that writer-director Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero “have found a way to make a movie that the fans will love without straight-up pandering to them.”

Lionsgate catches Bigfoot. Marking the first acquisition out of SXSW, Lionsgate purchased the North American distribution rights to “Exists,” a new found-footage horror movie about five friends on a camping trip in Texas who run afoul of the legendary Sasquatch.

The film is directed by Eduardo Sanchez, who scored a massive hit with “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999 and inspired a wave of found-footage followers and imitators, including the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, the sci-fi movie “Chronicle” and the party pic “Project X.” “Exists” could prove a bellwether for audiences’ appetite, or lack thereof, for more found-footage films.


Good “Neighbors.” Director Nicholas Stoller’s new comedy “Neighbors,” starring Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne and Zac Efron, pits a pair of young parents — the kind you might find in a movie like Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up,” which also starred Rogen and had an auspicious start at SXSW — against an “Animal House"-style fraternity.

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“Knocked Up” would seem the ideal template for “Neighbors”: When it premiered at SXSW in 2007, it drew hugely positive reviews and word of mouth, and went on to make $148 million at the domestic box office. So far, critics are similarly praising “Neighbors.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s John DeFore writes, “Very funny at the outset and escalating steadily for most of its brisk running time, the film represents a big win for neophyte screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, and should return Stoller to the commercial peak of his debut ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall.’”


Variety’s Andrew Barker says, “Lewder, weirder, louder, leaner, meaner and more winningly stupid than anything its director Nicholas Stoller and star Seth Rogen have ever been involved with before, frat comedy ‘Neighbors’ boasts an almost oppressive volume of outrageous gags, and provided that audiences don’t mind the lack of anything resembling a coherent story arc, its commercial potential ought to be enormous.”

20 years of Kevin Bacon. Two decades ago, before the rise of social networking, the parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon became a cultural phenomenon by highlighting a seemingly random actor’s web of interpersonal connections. At a panel at SXSW on Saturday, Bacon revealed that he was not initially a fan of the game, which involves linking celebrities to the actor through movies they’ve worked on together.

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“I was horrified by it. I thought it was a giant joke at my expense,” Bacon said. “I appreciate it now. But I was very resistant to it (at first).”


As he learned more about the game and got used to it, Bacon eventually warmed to it, and even started a charitable organization called, which connects celebrities to fundraising causes.

“I don’t think it’s a great testament to my ability (as an actor),” Bacon said of the game. “My movies just happen to be on a lot.”


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