The future is now in the terrific ‘People’s Republic of Desire’

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About five minutes into Hao Wu’s “People’s Republic of Desire,” after you see live-streaming performers file into tiny offices to entertain hundreds of millions of people after being told that if they do their jobs well, they will “live like goddesses,” it hits you: This is a completely bonkers William Gibson sci-fi story come to life.

And yet, it is happening right now. Indeed, much of this material is a few years old.

“People’s Republic of Desire”

In China, in online live-streaming showrooms (meaning someone’s bedroom or home office with laptop webcam and decent microphone), thousands of folks — some talented, some pretty, some charismatic, and some none of the above — log on and live-stream, well, whatever it is they feel like, in an attempt to get the time and money of hundreds of millions of potential fans. These programs are a bit like real-time talk shows, complete with interaction with an online audience.

Some fans are members of China’s ever-emerging super-rich class, who lavish gifts on their favorite performers and act like sponsors. Stars can make millions of dollars a year through the purchase of “gifts” that translate into real money for the performers. The performers aren’t “camgirls” — there isn’t a visual pornographic element (or if there is, Wu doesn’t talk about it — though it is strongly implied that one performer has had real-life relationships with several financial supporters). A two-week competition, in which votes are literally bought, determines who is the most popular performer.

Far, far more fans (as in, millions more) are extremely poor, often migrant workers looking for fandom, community and connection. These are the diaosi, sort of a combination of “loser” and “nerd,” young folks working dead end jobs who can’t afford to support their favorite performers financially but still want to contribute here and there. Many of them make less than $500 a month.

Mercifully, Wu spends a fair amount of time explaining how all of this works, often using clever animation. “Desire” focuses on performers on the seemingly all-powerful YY.Com social media network and streaming platform. If performers get enough fans and attention, an agency will want to sponsor them in the hopes of making even more money (and taking a piece in the process.)

Singer Shen Man, 21, who lives in the city of Chengdu, is young and cute and has an OK voice and has absolutely no problem asking for gifts. Her bankrupt father has moved in with her — it’s a little hard to tell if she wants him there or if he is simply taking advantage of her.

Big Li, 24, from Guangzhou, has the bluster and voice of a classic American shock jock  and a strong diaosi-made-good vibe. His wife, who seems older and is definitely more mature than her husband, is a talent manager for YY and must balance concern for her clients and traditional wife-and-mother stuff.

RELATED: 10 docs to watch out for at SXSW

Wu follows the ins and outs of both careers, including interviews with both a megarich sponsor and a few diaosi, and man alive, we are in serious cyberpunk-as-everyday-life territory here.

Indeed, the deeply weird world of “Desire” make a perfect companion piece to another South by Southwest film: “Ready Player One.”

“People’s Republic of Desire” had its world premiere March 10 and won the Documentary Feature Grand Jury Award at SXSW 2018.

 

 

 

 

Ethan Hawke takes a spiritual journey in ‘First Reformed’

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The new Paul Schrader movie, “First Reformed,” plays like a summation of a career – a distillation of the themes that have dominated the work of the screenwriter/director since the 1970s.

“First Reformed.”

It’s deeply spiritual, but in a Schrader kind of way, just like his earlier movies, “Taxi Driver,” “American Gigolo” and “Affliction.”

Ethan Hawke stars as the lonely Rev. Ernst Toller, who presides over a historic but small Dutch Reform church in upstate New York. He and his wife are divorced, in part because he encouraged their son to join the military during the Iraq War – and their son was killed.

He’s grieving, and he spends a lot of his evening drinking and being self-destructive, even though he is supposed to be preparing for a celebration of the church’s 250th anniversary.

PHOTOS: ‘First Reformed’ red carpet at SXSW 2018

Then a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) asks for the reverend to counsel her husband. The husband is a radical environmentalist and despairs over the planet’s future – so much so that he wants his wife to have an abortion, thinking that the world will be unlivable in 50 years.

Toller is strangely invigorated by the husband’s arguments, but this renewed vigor leads to a troubling flirtation with extreme violence.

SXSW 2018: Keep up with all the latest news and reviews

Schrader tightly controls the austere tone and mood of “First Reformed,” almost as if he’s making a movie about obsessive gloom. But that’s not going to sell tickets at the box office, so the distributor is calling the film a spiritual thriller.

It’s more about the arc of a spiritual human being and whether he can find salvation. In Schrader’s world, any salvation is usually accompanied by Old Testament-style violence.

As Toller, Hawke delivers a nuanced performance of a grieving, lonely man who’s searching for answers. Seyfried, meanwhile, offers a glimmer of hope as the pregnant Mary. And, yes, Schrader means for that name to have biblical implications.

For literary fans, Schrader also crafts a scene that’s an homage to Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes of “Wise Blood.” And for fans of transcendentalism, there’s a levitation scene that’s mesmerizing.

“First Reformed” is an art movie, pure and simple. It won’t attract the teenage action-loving crowd. It won’t break any box-office records. But it’s beautiful, thoughtful and full of grace.

“First Reformed” screened Tuesday at South by Southwest. No other screenings are planned during the festival. A24 will release the film later this year. Grade: B+

‘Family’ ties and Juggalos combine for funny film starring Taylor Schilling and Kate McKinnon

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Laura Steinel’s charming directorial debut, “Family,” is a riotously funny look at what happens when a woman is forced to step away from her insanely busy life in order to connect with her young niece.

“Family.”

Kate (Taylor Schilling) doesn’t know anything about children aside from the fact that they’re something that other people have. She is laser-focused on her career and moving up the food chain at her office. Nothing else really matters to her and, as a result, she’s made her fair share of enemies at work.

When her brother and sister-in-law (Eric Edelstein and Allison Tolman) call her in a panic to watch their teenage daughter while they go out of town for a family emergency, it’s not something that Kate wants to do. At all. She somewhat begrudgingly agrees to one night and is soon face-to-face with 13-year-old Maddie (Bryn Vale), an awkward tomboy who shows up each week to ballet class at the urging of her mother but sneaks next door for karate lessons from Sensei Pete (Bryan Tyree Henry from “Atlanta,” who steals every scene he’s in).

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Because she is so self-absorbed and unfiltered in every moment of her life, Kate doesn’t have the first idea of how to connect with her niece. When she does start to listen to stories of being bullied at school, Kate can certainly relate, and the walls she has built around herself slowly begin to chip away. What was supposed to be one night watching Maddie becomes a full week, and it takes Kate completely out of her comfort zone at work, causing her to start missing details in a project to land a big new client.

Kate’s history of vicious tactics in the office starts to backfire on her when a younger and very motivated young woman named Erin (Jessie Ennis) starts to beat her at her own game to get ahead. At a certain point, that hard-shelled exterior slowly begins to melt away as Kate becomes just as passionate about helping Maddie as she’s ever been about being successful in her career.

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Did I neglect to mention that the movie includes lots and lots of Juggalos? Yes, the true highlight of the entire film is watching Schilling, in full face paint, on stage with the Insane Clown Posse at the Gathering of the Juggalos. It’s one of the most unexpected and amusing plot points I’ve seen at the festival this year.

And even though they don’t have as much screen time, it’s worth noting a few other cast members who have some shining moments: Schilling’s “Orange Is The New Black” co-star Natasha Lyonne turns up as a full-blown Juggalo, SNL star Kate McKinnon is predictably hysterical as an uptight neighbor, and Matt Walsh from “Veep” has a few great scenes as a mistreated co-worker of Kate’s.

“Family” screens again at 11:30 a.m. March 15 at the Alamo South Lamar. Grade B

Trying to hold onto the glory days of high school? It’s both funny and scary in ‘Most Likely to Murder’

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Sometimes the funniest comedies make us laugh because we can see ourselves in them. The majority of people who watch “Most Likely to Murder” will probably not see themselves in Billy (Adam Pally), the lead in the film, but we all know that *one* guy still stuck in a high school frame of mind — and in this case, that’s even funnier.

“Most Likely to Murder.”

When Billy comes back to his hometown for Thanksgiving after being away, things are not as they once were. He used to be the cool kid, the top dog, the one everyone wanted to hang out with. Now, coming back, he finds that no one really wants to be around him. They tolerate him, but his friends have moved on while he has remained unchanged.

Much to his dismay, however, not only are all his friends a little different and more mature, but they also like the former town outcast. Lowell (Vincent Kartheiser) was the geek everyone made fun of and never wanted to be around. Now *he’s* like the top dog. And worse yet, he’s dating the love of Billy’s life, Kara (Rachel Bloom). So, after getting some strange vibes off Lowell, and aiming to hold onto his high school lifestyle, Billy begins a quest to prove Lowell is a murderer.

SXSW 2018: Find all the latest on film, comedy, music and more at the festival

Glancing at the title, you might expect this to be a horror movie. It’s not frightening in the traditional sense, and primarily the film is, of course, a comedy. But it gives off some horror movie vibes, and the different scores played in the background give it an eerie tone at moments. It elevates horror tropes for comedic purposes, and it works well, with many of the jokes landing perfectly.

Members of the cast and crew of “Most Likely to Murder” at the Highball in Austin on March 13. From left are producer Petra Ahman, co-writer and actor Doug Mand, actor Adam Pally, actor John Reynolds, co-writer and director Dan Gregor, and actor Rachel Bloom. JAMES GREGG/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The only true element of scare in the story is the fact that Billy’s character is so far removed from reality. He still thinks bullying is cool, and he hasn’t grown out of his teenage self. Feeling sorry for him is possible, eventually, but the film doesn’t exactly ask for that. He does have an arc but has few redeeming qualities, which makes it easier to laugh at some of the situations he gets into.

The comedic play on the words in the title with high school yearbook superlatives is not lost, and it gives the film a theme that shines a light on the other characters as well. If Billy’s the dude who never left high school, then who is everyone else? They all scoff at him, but it’s clear a few have some of their own issues and triumphs as well. The film shows the sort of realizations you come to when you’re faced with individuals from the past, who you may or may not have liked, and how you see them now as adults, without looking through a teenage lens.

One of the great strengths of the film is its leads. For years, Pally and Bloom have graced the small screen successfully on shows like “The Mindy Project” and Bloom’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” but it’s clear that they could do more on the big screen and thrive if they so wish.

“Most Likely to Murder” is an enjoyable watch, blending qualities from both the comedy and thriller genres in a way that takes you on a fun ride, and possibly makes you even consider your own high school superlatives.

“Most Likely to Murder” had its world premiere at South By Southwest on March 12. It screens again at 6 p.m. March 13 and 9:45 p.m. March 14 at the Alamo South Lamar. Grade: B+

When the world seems cold, the spirit of Mister Rogers still shines through

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Popular TV shows come and go, especially within the genre of children’s television. That being said, perhaps one of the most influential TV programs of all time, no matter the generation, is “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a documentary that explores the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, creator of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” On screen, he appeared to be a relatively simple man, with a simple show and a simple theme. But his message was far from rudimentary.

There was no secret side to Rogers. He was who appeared to be — genuinely loving, caring and desirous of a better world. From the film, it is clear his favorite people in life were children, but in a way, he saw everyone as a child, including himself. Friends and relatives featured in the documentary make note of the fact that in the early days of the show especially, his alter ego was Daniel Tiger, the puppet he used to talk about more personal matters.

Since the beginning of TV, parents have grappled with the idea of how much is too much for children to watch. The late 1960s brought on children’s educational programs like “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and, a year later, “Sesame Street.” These programs let parents and guardians leave their toddlers in front of the TV with less guilt. And as the documentary highlights in a brief but touching scene, the shows often served as a preschool of sorts for many children who didn’t have access to that educational experience.

Overall, Rogers’ show reshaped the way people viewed TV as a medium and the ways in which TV began to serve a greater good.

RELATED: 10 documentaries to watch for at SXSW 2018

More than just a kid’s program, though, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” tackled social issues and hardships in a way that was almost bolder than some adult programs because he was so straightforward. He understood kids in a way that no one else did and trusted their intelligence and astuteness more than the typical adult. One segment of the film exemplifies this by showing clips from a week when Mr. Rogers talked about difficult subjects, including death and divorce. He took care in explaining things parents were either unaware of or didn’t want to talk about themselves.

It would be incorrect to say that Rogers was misunderstood because he had millions of fans everywhere, children and adults. But as the documentary shows, people definitely misunderstood why he did what he did and why he was the way he was. The film in its entirety doesn’t dig too deeply into his time growing up, or the experiences he had with his parents and childhood friends. It does, however, provide some insight into his character and his motivation, including how he challenged toxic masculinity and his comfort in being a sensitive man.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” works well on an informational and emotional level. Near the end, even though it’s impossible to stop the waterworks from coming on, there’s not really a sad note to it. The only somberness comes from comparing Rogers’ genuine kindness to today’s culture, and then feeling like there are no Mister Rogers left in the world. There is hope, though, and with the legacy and memory of Mister Rogers comes his message of loving others for who they are. The documentary makes sure we never forget those beautiful days in the neighborhood.

Grade: A

Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson and Armie Hammer combine for satire and silliness in ‘Sorry to Bother You’

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Boots Riley co-founded Oakland, Calif., hip-hop group the Coup back in 1991 and has spent the majority of his career making music with a message. It’s no surprise that his first film, “Sorry to Bother You,” which shares a name with a 2012 album from the Coup, would be a razor-sharp satire dealing with capitalism, racism, class, police militarization and even our cultural addiction to social media.

“Sorry to Bother You.”

I had initially presumed that the film was set in the not-so-distant future, but the official film synopsis describes the location as an alternate present-day version of Oakland. That’s where we meet Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield, “Atlanta”), a down-on-his-luck man living in his uncle’s garage and on the hunt for a new job. He’s so broke that when he goes to the gas station and asks for “40 on number 2,” he’s actually throwing down 40 cents to the cashier, not $40.

Cassius gets hired for an entry-level gig as a telemarketer at a company called RegalView. After a few very unsuccessful first calls, a co-worker named Langston (Danny Glover) explains to him that if he’s looking to be successful, he would have to learn how to use a “white voice” on the phone. At first, he’s taken aback and perhaps almost thinks it’s a joke. But then, voila, he adapts his own “white voice” (dubbed in by David Cross) and sales start going through the roof.

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His activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) also starts working at the call center to supplement spotty sales of her original artwork, but nobody else comes close to having the same kind of success as Cassius. It doesn’t take long for him to be named a “power caller,” moving up the corporate ladder (or in this case, elevator) to an entirely different world of sales. That doesn’t sit well with his partner or his former co-workers, who decide to go on strike until their pay is increased.

There are violent clashes at the picket line, and Cassius gets caught up between fighting for what he knows is right and the frustrating feeling that he’s finally getting paid for something he’s good at, but to do it he has to be a scab. Before long, he earns the attention of the immoral, cocaine snorting CEO of RegalView’s biggest client (Armie Hammer), who makes an offer Cassius literally can’t refuse.

SXSW 2018: We stayed in bed all night, on stage, for 8-hour concert

For having a relatively low budget, the film’s style and overall art direction are immensely impressive. Backed by an energetic score from indie rock duo Tune-Yards, this is an audacious filmmaking debut that is packed with laughs but also has some genuinely jaw-dropping moments that may find you asking, “What in the hell did I just see?”

“Sorry to Bother You” screens again at 7 p.m. March 14 at the Stateside. The film has been acquired by Annapurna Pictures, who are expected to open the film in select cities beginning July 6. Grade: A-

WATCH: We could talk for hours about ‘This Is Us’

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Before the screening of the season two finale of “This Is Us” at South by Southwest on Monday at the Paramount Theatre, three of the NBC hit’s TV family walked the red carpet. It’s no spoiler to reveal: They love the show as much as fans.

Milo Ventimiglia, who plays Jack Pearson on NBC’s “This Is Us,” on the red carpet at the Paramount Theatre during SXSW March 12. Kristin Finan/American-Statesman

Milo Ventimiglia, who plays beloved TV dad Jack Pearson, was up first. He talked about portraying such a special father and whether fans would need a lot of tissues as they watched the already teased “flash forward” of Jack as an older man (no spoilers! The finale airs Tuesday night on NBC).

Next, Mandy Moore revealed a little of what she’d like to see happen in season three and shared her thoughts on the arc that her character, Rebecca Pearson, went through with son Kevin (played as an adult by Justin Hartley). Check it out:

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And finally, Hartley got a little more serious, as he recounted some of the thinking behind the “rock bottom” path his character took and how important it was to handle with sensitivity. Much like the show, he mixed in a lighter note with a special message to Austin fans. Watch:

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In ‘Sadie,’ teen goes to dark places to try and keep her family intact

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Seattle-based director Megan Griffiths is no stranger to South by Southwest. Her film “Eden” picked up an Audience Award at the festival in 2012, and she has triumphantly returned this year with “Sadie,” a disturbing new drama about a troubled teenager.

“Sadie.”

13-year-old Sadie (Sophia Mitri Schloss) lives in a trailer park with her mother, Rae (Melanie Lynskey, “Togetherness”). Her father has been away serving in the military for the past several years. He sends Sadie letters often but has virtually abandoned his wife, cutting off all contact with her. As a result, Rae is tired of being lonely, and her daughter is just old enough to recognize any efforts she might make to cure that loneliness.

The only adult friend that Rae has to confide in is her neighbor Carla (“Orange Is The New Black” star Danielle Brooks). Bradley (Tony Hale, “Veep”) has been circling around Rae but is unable to seal the deal. It takes a mysterious new resident of the trailer park named Cyrus (John Gallagher Jr., “The Newsroom”) to really catch Rae’s interest.

RELATED: Find all the latest SXSW Film reviews and news on the movie blog

Sadie protects her neighbor and best friend, Carla’s son Francis (Keith L. Williams), from being bullied at school, and while they are fairly inseparable, they’re also both at the age where budding sexuality can start to make things confusing between close friends.

Sadie’s hormones are heightening all her emotions, and we really feel the pain and sense of betrayal she feels from the notion that her mother is tearing apart the family. She can only see her father through the distorted eyes of daddy’s little girl. She can’t begin to fathom the hurt and sadness that Rae has experienced after essentially being forced to be a single mother. Griffiths, who also wrote the screenplay, nails the dynamics of her young characters, and both of the young leads give boldly natural performances.

As the film progresses, we feel the intensity of Sadie’s character growing stronger. She becomes determined to get Cyrus out of her way and clear a path for her dad to come home to be a big happy family once more.

It’s best to go into the movie without knowing much more about what happens next, but it’s safe to say that Sadie has quite a dark side.

The film’s score perfectly accompanies the increased tension of the story’s progression. As the credits rolled, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the music was composed by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready.

“Sadie” plays again at 4:30 p.m. March 14 at the Alamo South Lamar. Grade: B

Stars of NBC’s ‘This Is Us’ hit red carpet for SXSW screening of season finale

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We promise: WE WILL NOT SPOIL THE SEASON FINALE OF “THIS IS US.”

The finale, which screened Monday afternoon during the South by Southwest Film Festival, offered plenty of tears and plenty of laughs, too, to a packed audience at the Paramount Theatre. It airs Tuesday night on NBC.

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Mandy Moore, who plays Rebecca Pearson on NBC’s “This Is Us,” on the red carpet at the Paramount Theatre during SXSW on March 12. Kristin Finan/American-Statesman

Before the screening, the audience heeded a call from actor Milo Ventimiglia, who plays Jack Pearson on the NBC drama, to put their phones down. When one of America’s favorite TV dads speaks, the audience listens.

RELATED: Keep up with all SXSW happenings at Austin360.com. 

Ventimiglia joined costars Mandy Moore, who plays his TV wife, Rebecca Pearson, and Justin Hartley, who plays his adult son, Kevin Pearson, on the red carpet prior to the screening.

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Milo Ventimiglia, who plays Jack Pearson on NBC’s “This Is Us,” on the red carpet at the Paramount Theatre during SXSW March 12. Kristin Finan/American-Statesman

“The show is emotional, but it’s ‘hopefully emotional,’” Ventimiglia told Austin360. “I think that’s something that kind of makes up for how many tears you cry, you know, because it’s one of those feel-good cries.”

The show has struck a chord with viewers in part because it touches on a variety of important themes including adoption, foster care, obesity and addiction.

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Justin Hartley, who plays Kevin Pearson on NBC’s “This Is Us,” on the red carpet at the Paramount Theatre March 12. Kristin Finan/American-Statesman

“For me if we can get one person to make a phone call that maybe they would not have made, if it helps them, then we’ve done our job,” said Hartley, whose character battled alcohol and prescription drug addiction this season. “I was proud of the way that we told that story.”

Ventimiglia, Moore and Hartley will also speak as part of the ‘This Is Us’ SXSW cast panel on Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. at the Austin Convention Center, Ballroom D.

‘The most sexed-up cheerleaders anywhere’: Documentary looks at early days of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders

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In his new documentary “Daughters Of The Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story Of The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders,” Oscar-nominated “Murderball” director Dana Adam Shapiro tackles our country’s evolving morality in the 1970s through the lens of one of the most overtly sexual icons in American popular culture at that time.

“Daughters of the Sexual Revolution.”

In the 1960s, the cheerleaders at Dallas Cowboy games were mostly area high school and college boys and girls who never earned much notice on the sidelines. As legend has it, a local stripper named Bubbles Cash stirred up the Cotton Bowl in 1967 when she walked down the bleachers towards the 50-yard line in a very short skirt carrying two spindles of cotton candy that resembled pom-poms. It was like a bolt of lightning striking Cowboys General Manager Tex Schramm, and the infamous Cowgirls were born shortly after.

By 1972, the squad featured, as one subject in the film puts it, “the most sexed-up cheerleaders anywhere.” And it wasn’t just done for the stadium crowds. The team’s executives knew they’d earn more screentime in on-air broadcasts, changing the future of the NFL for television. The sacred and profane often mingled side-by-side in Dallas, but the skimpy uniforms the cheerleaders wore caused quite a stir. Coach Tom Landry’s own wife did not appreciate them at all and insisted on adding “modesty shields” to the outfits which, we’re told, lasted one half of one game.

By 1976 and Super Bowl X, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders were a national phenomenon. Their impact went far beyond games; they turned up on “Family Feud,” “The Love Boat,” on calendars and posters, and at frequent charitable events and even on USO tours. But it wasn’t all fun and games, as many of the women interviewed on screen say; they only earned $15 per game and were not compensated for their practices and travel.

PHOTOS: “Daughters of the Sexual Revolution” red carpet at SXSW 2018

What the young women on the squad did have was a mentor and all-around den mother in Suzanne Mitchell, who was the subject of three sit-down interviews for this film before her death in September 2016. She often worked seven days a week, 18 hours a day, and was the only female executive within the organization. She worked tirelessly to protect the interests of the women on the squad and to try and keep their activities wholesome.

This slickly edited documentary features stunning archival footage and new interviews with many key cheerleaders from 1972-1990, but the core revelations here come from Mitchell’s interview footage, which offers a unique perspective directly from the person responsible for running the show for 140years. By all accounts, she was a formidable champion who worked tirelessly to be an advocate for her employees. One of the most tortured moments of her job was when the infamous X-rated feature “Debbie Does Dallas” was released and she spent months in a legal battle with the film’s producers for tarnishing her carefully curated image of the team. Any notion of innocence was shattered at that point, as the porn stars even wore replicated team uniforms on screen.

Shapiro wraps up his film with the end of Mitchell’s tenure with the team, which ended four short months after Jerry Jones purchased the Cowboys in early 1989. When Mitchell left, 14 veteran cheerleaders left with her. It was truly the end of an era.

“Daughters Of The Sexual Revolution: The Untold Story Of The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders” screens again at 9:45 p.m. March 12 at the Rollins Theatre and at noon March 17 at the Alamo South Lamar. Grade: B