SXSW 2014

Review: ‘Ping Pong Summer’ [SXSW 2014]

By Will Oliver, April 1st 2014

Ping Pong Summer Still

Ping Pong Summer | Michael Tully | SXSW 2014

I didn’t have the privilege of growing up in the 80’s, but after a viewing of Ping Pong Summer, it looks like I missed out. It’s the latest feature from the mind of director (and writer) Michael Tully, and its an absolute blast of a good time. It’s a look at the childhood summers that we all had in some shape or form.

In the glorious summer of 1985 Rad Miracle (Marcello Conte) goes to Ocean City with his parents (John Hannah & Lea Thompson) and sister Michelle (Helena May Seabrook). He doesn’t look forward to it, fearful of what lame adventures his rents have instore. During his stay he stumbles across a new friend named Teddy Fryy (Myles Massey) who introduces him to a fun spot known as the Fun Hub where one can hang out, play some arcade games. He has some flirtatious meetings with a cute girl named Stacy Summers (Emmi Shockley) but the constant presence of her ex-boyfriend Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry) and his buddy Dale Lyons (Andy Riddle) makes it impossible for him to do anything about it.

In the world of Fun Hub ones worth is fought for on the courtyard known as the ping pong table. Unfortunately for our bud Rad, Lyle is indeed an ace at the sport of table tennis. Of course, this doesn’t help Rad’s status with Stacy. Soon Rad’s summer revolves around spending his time with Teddy and improving on his ping pong game. It’s not until local weirdo Randi Jammer (Susan Sarandon) comes around that Rad finally finds what he needs to succeed.

What you have with Ping Pong Summer is a film bathing in the glorious waters of the 80s. It isn’t worried about being corny or cheesy, in fact, it has no shame in being so. Giant boomboxes are carried, wild clothing and hairstyles are present, and the 80s slang is wild and free. Tully’s direction caters to the time period, giving it the glamorous 80’s look and feel that is requires. His script is loose and fun, not short of humor at all. The film delivers plenty of laughs, as any coming of age film should.

The young cast is filled mostly of newcomers, who fit the mold of the film just fine. For the most part they hold their own against the presence of veterans such as Sarandon, John Hannah, and Lea Thompson. It’s a colorful world, and the cast has just as much to do with that as does Tully’s leadership. You can tell that he was once one of these kids, and the nostalgia was something that he just had to share with us.

I’m glad that he did, because while watching Ping Pong Summer all I could think about was wanting to revisit my youth and just kick it with the same  carefree mindset and spirit that these kids have. That’s the point of it all: to indulge in those youthful wonders that made life worth living. Just kick back, let your guard down, and enjoy. Ping Pong Summer is a delightful winner that is the definition of a crowd-pleaser.


Review: ‘The Heart Machine’ [SXSW 2014]

By Will Oliver, March 29th 2014

The Heart Machine

The Heart Machine | Zachary Wigon | SXSW 2014

The internet has made anything possible. Two people can be hundreds of thousands of miles away from one another, but they can connect as if they’re right next to each other, simply by using the internet. These two people can even meet online and start a relationship based on a chance encounter. But what happens when the other person isn’t actually hundreds of thousands of miles away, and has actually been in the same city as you, continuing a lie just as long as they’ve been continuing your “relationship.”

This is the premise of The Heart Machine, the feature film debut of director (and former film critic) Zachary Wigon. Cody (John Gallagher Jr.) and Virginia (Kate Lynn Sheil) met online and have been dating even though they have never met in real life. Cody lives in Brooklyn, while Virginia tells him she is studying abroad in Berlin. Their relationship solely exists online, through intimate Skype sessions.

During one of their sessions Cody hears police sirens passing by, but something about it doesn’t sit right with him. He looks up what a German police siren sounds like, and it doesn’t sound anything like the one he just heard. Instead, it sounds familiar. That same day he saw a girl that looked just like her on the subway. He brings up seeing her doppelganger and she reacts coldly to it, almost too weird. Their session soon ends and he goes to his closest where he has posted a bunch of other clues that he has collected proving that his online girlfriend is lying about her whereabouts. In fact, he’s sure that she’s right across the river from him in Manhattan.

Cody is absorbed and obsessed with proving his theory correct, down to the exact borough. He goes bouncing around from surrounding coffee shop and bars asking if anyone recognizes her name or photo. Soon he’s resorting to the sort of creepy investigating on social networking sites which is borderline stalking. It gets to the point of being creepy, but at the same time, her lying to him about her whereabouts when she’s in the same city as him isn’t much better. She’s out on dates and hooking up with guys, even when she’s supposed to be in an online relationship.

The film has some faults, but the performances of its two leads isn’t one of them. John Gallagher Jr., (best known for his role on HBO’s The Newsroom or last year’s Short Term 12) and Kate Lyn Sheil offer strong performances. Their chemistry is believable enough when they’re online together, but it’s when they’re at their lonesome that their true talent shines through.

The build-up to the final moments was certainly intriguing and an interesting commentary on online relationships and technology. When we final get to the conclusion, I didn’t feel quite as satisfied as I hoped. Still, watching how it all unfolds is a rather emotional journey, one that I never hope to take myself.