Haunted mirrors, Mark Duplass, and "No No" make strong debuts at SXSW

AddThis

While SXSW always has an extensive program of narrative features, they’ve got an equally impressive roster of documentaries. Documentaries aren’t normally my priority, but there are a few each year that are absolutely worth seeing. “No No: A Dockumentary,” a moving, often hilarious sports documentary, is high on the top of the pile.

The film chronicles the life of Dock Ellis, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who famously threw a no-hitter while high on LSD. Though it starts a little slow, “No No” is at its best when it’s indulging in small anecdotes about Dick. Stories about him impulsively picking a sparring session with Muhammed Ali or reading a letter of support that Jackie Robinson wrote him are highlights of the film. These moments also have a vice grip on a slippery tone, breaking up heavy emotional moments with a perfectly timed joke, or vice versa. “No No” also makes smart use of archival footage, letting damage or distortions to the picture reflect Dock’s oft-elevated mental state.

“No No” ends with an unexpected redemptive arc sneaked into its final half hour, and the tearful interviews with the people Ellis helped in his twilight years are genuinely powerful. “No No: A Dockumentary” is a snapshot of a sports icon’s life, painting an even-handed picture of the pitcher while telling the story of his legacy in emotional fashion.

Saturday night also saw a double feature of films produced by Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions: “Creep” and “Oculus.” Blum is notorious for his high-speed, high-intensity horror productions, and the haunted mirror story “Oculus” is no exception. “Creep,” on the other hand, is an entirely different beast, mixing Blum’s sensibilities with those of lo-fi indie king Mark Duplass.

Duplass, an Austin native, has made a name for himself with the mumblecore films he and his brother Jay have co-written and directed. Duplass often stars in his work, along with a starring role on FX’s “The League, and he’s an incredibly likable presence on screen – easygoing, affable and hugely charming. Duplass brilliantly subverts his image with “Creep,” playing Josef, an ostensibly friendly loner who hires Aaron (Patrick Brice) to document him for a day. Josef is dying of cancer, and wants to leave a video diary for his unborn son to view someday.

At first, Josef is your typical Duplass character, full of incredible enthusiasm and effortlessly sympathetic, but there’s a persistent uneasiness to him that Aaron slowly starts to pick up on. As “Creep” starts to earn its title, Duplass’ performance remains uneasily charming, never losing sight on his earnest demeanor even as his character’s actions are increasingly nefarious. Duplass plays very well off of director/co-writer/co-star Brice, who spends most of the film behind the camera – the film is a found footage exercise, like many of Blum’s productions. Brice shines in his rare moments on-screen, and does a great job selling every unsettled reaction to Josef’s actions.

Before Josef’s façade starts to crack, “Creep” is often very hilarious, and its indulgence in horror staples later in the film is basically a game of tonal Russian roulette. Thankfully, “Creep” makes a major break in format about an hour into the film, and it handles its shift into creepier territory with wit and grace. The film really only has one method of scares: Josef popping out from behind stationary objects. While the jump scare is one of the cheapest in the genre, “Creep” is slyly self-aware, and attempts to comment on the horror genre through its one-note execution. While the film doesn’t fully succeed on that front, it’s funny enough to keep viewers engaged through its brisk 80-minute runtime, and is ultimately an entertaining, worthwhile experiment.

“Oculus,” meanwhile, is a more traditional ghost story, told with thrilling momentum. Karen Gillan stars as Kaylie, an antiques dealer who’s spent her entire life trying to track down the Lasser Glass, a haunted mirror that caused her father (Rory Cochrane) to kill her mother (Katee Sackhoff, effectively terrified and feral as the film’s principal punching bag). Just as she finally finds the object, her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is released from the mental institution he was sent to after killing their father in self-defense, and she brings her reluctant sibling in on her plan to avenge their parents.

One of my favorite things about “Oculus” is that 15 minutes in, it’s already at what seems like the climax of the film: Kaylie and War going to war with the Lasser Glass. After a grimly determined, powerful introduction from Gillan, the film hits the ground running. It’s set almost entirely in the house where Kaylie and Tim’s parents were killed years earlier, and while the concept of having a standoff with a haunted object may seem silly, the execution is anything but. “Oculus” is relentlessly spooky, and while it only has a few moments of pure visceral terror, there’s a lot to be said for the sensation of overwhelming dread it constantly evokes.

In telling the story of the siblings’ battle with the mirror and their parents’ demise simultaneously, “Oculus” pulls a great trick, switching back and forth between the present day and the past, where Kaylie and Tim are played by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, respectively. As the film picks up speed, the lines become blurred both for the viewers and the characters, and director Mike Flanagan (who also edited the film) does a great job with the disorienting shifts between time periods. Every transition is incredibly smooth, and though the narrative trick does become a bit overbearing in the finale, it’s a clever way to establish the mirror’s terrifying capabilities while fulfilling lofty narrative goals.

If there’s one bone to pick with “Oculus,” it’s the ending, which underserves Gillan, who gives a fierce, likable performance and gets one sublime moment of terror, in favor of her admittedly effective younger counterpart. The film’s resolution is ultimately unsatisfying, derailing promising character arcs in what feels like a ploy to leave the door open for a sequel down the line. Nonetheless, “Oculus” is a fun ghost story with enough originality, memorable scares, and narrative backflips to keep its lackluster finale from sinking the ship.