Despite being a strictly in-person festival for the first time in years, Allison and I managed to catch quite a few movies from the 2023 SXSW Film Festival slate! There were many highs and lows throughout the week of the fest, and as per usual, we are here to share our full coverage. After the jump, we delve into quick reviews, and list off our favorites!
SXSW Midnighters are often host to some of my favorite movies at the festival; last year, Hypochondriac, Sissy, Watcher, and X all emerged from this category. Thus, my expectations for Mongolian import Aberrance were rather high indeed. A middle-aged couple settling down in a cabin deep out in the wilderness almost instantly meet their friendly neighbor. Strange behavior begins occurring, particularly at the behest of the nurturing husband Erkhme (Erkhembayar Ganbat), helpless to what may be happening to his artistic wife, Selenge (Selenge Chadraabal). Selenge’s health seems to be waning as she slams her head against walls and has jarring breakdowns. An axe is always tantalizingly close to the action. At only seventy-five minutes in length, one would expect the film to be rather fast-paced in nature. This could not be further from the truth, as Aberrance saves its only nasty bits for the final ten minutes, attempting to pack on multiple twists to make up for its obvious narrative shortcomings. An erratic filmmaking style and inconsistent performances add to a relatively underwhelming whole.
(Written by Allison Brown) Between Tetris, Air, and Flamin’ Hot, it seems like South by Southwest really loves stories where hungry, underdog businessmen rise to prominence and notoriety with big ideas. Air is ironically not the first of these to have a distinctly ‘80s aura. Admittedly, I am not a huge sports follower or sneaker head. Yet, Michael Jordan is probably the most recognizable living athlete, and his line of Air Jordans is one of very few collections of which I am familiar. The story of how the partnership between Jordan and Nike began is not the most intriguing, and pales in comparison to the wild antics in Tetris. A struggling company down on their luck and tight on money taking a big swing is nothing new. The A-list roster of talent involved is what makes Air a must-see. While Matt Damon as Nike’s basketball department talent scout, Sonny Vaccaro, deservedly gets the most screen time, Viola Davis as Jordan’s feisty mother and Chris Messina as brash talent agent David Falk are the real standouts. Chris Tucker enjoys a great comeback in his first feature role in seven years! Proverbs visually peppered in as breaks throughout come to a humble culmination in the denouement; the script is most successful in these fantastic one-liners, both written and spoken. The powerful universal statement, “a shoe is always just a shoe until someone steps into it,” will stay with me for some time. I think the funniest quote of all is weaved into Vaccaro’s pitch to Jordan. He claims, “everyone at this table will be forgotten,” except for Michael. This quote could not be more meta, given that the film zeroes in on the Nike team in particular, and avoids coming across as a Michael Jordan biopic. The casted actor’s face is never shown, and he is provided no lines, barring one word uttered over a phone in the final moments of the film. There is a distinct decision made here to have Jordan as an entity, rather than an actual character. Avid sports fans will find many tidbits uniquely educational, like the rule that 51% of a basketball shoe had to be white or the player would be fined. Air may not be the most singular tale, but it is an enjoyable theatrical experience.
(Written by Allison Brown) With a concentrated interest in deepfakes, Another Body was my most anticipated documentary of this year’s SXSW. Although moderately fascinating, Sophie Compton and Reuben Hamlyn’s piece fails to live up to the quality I envisioned. Taylor Klein’s story is horrific, and the internet sleuthing she performs in place of her useless local police force is compelling to follow. Yet, the two narrators we shadow, Taylor and Julia, speak so casually that the stakes are simply lost. The girls delve too much into their personal drama, which I doubt many will care about. It is shocking once revealed that there is in fact no real “Taylor Klein,” and an actor’s face is deepfaked onto the afflicted woman who chose to stay anonymous. This element is creative, and designs a meta-approach to the story at hand. I would have loved to see a behind the scenes of how deepfakes are made with voiceover explanation. This would have been simple for the team to do, given the nature of the artificial production. Screenlife elements utilized in reenactments are a smart way to tell an otherwise basic account. On the other hand, animated gaming-style storytelling is creepy, and distracts from the serious nature of the subject matter. Another Body needed more vast development and study on the topic of deepfakes on a grander scale. Klein’s story edited down to just one example of the deepfake pornography problem would have made for a stronger documentary. The shoddiness of the legal system surrounding deepfake offenders is a serious issue that comes off as an aside here. By the end of the film, I felt as if I had watched an intriguing YouTube investigation. Another Body leaves so much potential on the table.
Full review at the link.
The Artifice Girl
(Written by Allison Brown) Deceivingly profound work of cinema, The Artifice Girl, forces the viewer to evaluate what constitutes humanity. What I perceived as a shallow sci-fi thriller since its inclusion in the 2022 Fantasia lineup materialized as something deeper than I could ever imagine. Initiating with an interrogation between special agents Deena (Sinda Nichols), Amos (David Girard), and shifty programmer Gareth (played by writer/director Franklin Ritch), there is pervasive pressure to find missing minor Cherry (Tatum Matthews). Deena and Amos, who investigate and prosecute online sex crimes against children, are heated and want answers to explain the illicit photos of the girl on Gareth’s leaked hard drive. As we move further, it becomes clear that Cherry is not real at all; rather, she is a CGI-rendered artificial intelligence with the sole aim of entrapping sexual predators. Gareth and Cherry have been feeding the prosecuting department evidence for years to put nearly two hundred criminals behind bars. After a lengthy investigation into his history, as well as a consultation with Cherry herself, Gareth decides to partner with Deena and Amos to push the limits of what Cherry can do. Tatum Matthews gives one of the best performances from a child actor in recent years. She plays a believable program and an evolving entity with such dimension and realism. One could feel the gravity of her pain with stunning solemnity. Although broken up into three parts, this is essentially only set in three locations, aside from a small flashback towards the end. Emotional, existential discussions fill each scene, surprisingly making the mundane visuals astoundingly compelling in a similar fashion as 2021’s Mass. The trio debate the ethics of Cherry’s consciousness solely performing grueling and disgusting work, day in and day out. In this way, the direction focuses more on the implications of artificial intelligence and consent over exposing sex offenders. Sometimes the technical language of Cherry’s origination and duties will go above one’s head unless they happen to be completely fluid in the language of software development. The Artifice Girl is a heavy watch that will force the audience to pause and evaluate the gravity of the topics at hand as the credits roll.
Black Barbie: A Documentary
(Written by Allison Brown) The captivating Black Barbie: A Documentary comes from the best possible filmmaker at the helm to direct a stunningly personal and universally effective piece, Lagueria Davis. Beulah Mae Mitchell, one of Mattel’s first Black employees from 1955 to 1999, just so happens to be Davis’ aunt! Learning Mitchell’s story and seeing how much the world has evolved in her lifetime is mind-boggling. The first half progresses at a fast pace; we move through a visual timeline learning the history of Mattel, the start of Barbie, the introduction of Black Barbie, all the way through the company’s modern stance on racism. Powerful women, like designer Kitty Black Perkins, are inspiring, and it is fascinating to see how their ideas came together on different notable projects. Stop motion interludes showing Black Barbie in different relevant scenarios of discussion are creative, and keep the documentary’s larger concepts accessible for a general audience. These are skillfully executed and powerful. If this were the whole piece, it could easily find success among the ranks of Netflix originals. However, at the halfway point, the pace and tone drastically change. When I realized that this had been in production for twelve years, it made more sense why the first part is so much better supported and detailed than the last. At the transition, Davis explores a post-2020 world, and where we are as a society today. It appears that Davis put nine or ten years into crafting the historical portion, and spent less time planning the modern part, given how recent the references are. Unfortunately, this section seems too drawn out, and is reminiscent of the REACT YouTube channel or Linda Ellerbee’s Nick News kids group discussion show from the 90s. This direction feels a lot more like a lackluster PBS broadcast. There is some thought-provoking content, but it is far and few between a lot of extra fluff that could have easily been edited out. Including influential actresses like Gabourey Sidibe makes the discussion more interesting than it would have been otherwise, but it unfortunately feels like it is a different and less successful film. Overall, Black Barbie: A Documentary is worth the watch for the terrific first half; I just hope there is some editing before an official release.
(Written by Intern, Wyatt Frantz) Even in a world where plastic surgery and body modifications are potent, the eye color alterations that Caterpillar spotlights sound like something of science fiction. This documentary follows David, a middle-aged man who travels from Miami to India to pursue this supposedly life-altering surgery in hopes of starting anew. Along the way, we meet a variety of others who undergo the same process, for reasons ranging from the aesthetic to the inner-transformative, and everything in between. Using trial by fire, they all discover that the surgery is quite sketchy and unreliable. All the while, David makes a tireless effort to rekindle his rocky relationship with his mother. Joining David on his journey as he treks this exotic road-less-traveled is nothing short of enthralling. An intuitive use of camerawork makes for an unexpectedly psychedelic experience that one does not usually find in documentaries. Slow dutch angles parallel with the intimidation David fights against, as he comes face-to-face with the unfamiliar in an effort to change his life. Slow-motion shots and astounding color-focused visuals pair with commentary that brings us emotionally closer to patients of the surgery. Such intelligent filmmaking allows one to feel very in touch with David throughout the runtime, as the narrative focuses less on face-to-face interviews, and more on David’s candid experience. Documenting the unexpected weight that the surgery bears brings us to the true core of where David’s internal transformation lies, and it all circles back to something as simple as eye color. With such a fascinating subject matter shot from a very personal perspective, Caterpillar is nothing short of a festival essential.
Full review at the link.
Flamin’ Hot—a Searchlight biopic about (what else?) the creation of one of the best-selling junk snacks of all time—has finally arrived, representing the directorial debut of Eva Longoria. The positives are that a Latino team was behind this production from top to bottom, a facet that clearly shows in the portrayal of the story. There are simple charms to watching Frito Lay janitor Richard Montanez (Jesse Garcia) and his attempts to rise to the top with a fervent determination. Shades of police brutality, casual racism, and the hardships of raising a family with minimal funds paint interesting shades of complexity that are sadly left without being fully realized. Darker elements feel half-baked, whilst the meat of how the Flamin’ Hot brand became a cultural phenomenon is left for a swift exploration in the final act. A deep dive into this material had such potential. The elements that work embrace the culture and veritable “spice in their DNA” that led the Montanez family into creating an all-new flavor. Unfortunately, Flamin’ Hot is a mixed bag whose flavors never successfully combine into a tasty package.
(Written by Intern, Wyatt Frantz) While this Roma-esque immigrant story was beautiful from a visual standpoint, the pretentious core of Fremont fails to capture the artistic edge it aims for. Donya (Anaita Wali Zada), an Afghan immigrant, works at a fortune cookie factory with her friend, Joanna (Hilda Schmelling), but suffers from insomnia. After expressing trouble in finding a psychiatrist, one of her neighbors gives her an appointment slot with Dr. Anthony (Gregg Turkington), who agrees to see her regularly despite some push back. It turns out that not even sleeping pills help her get the sleep she needs. Donya continues to trek through her daily routine of working, watching soap operas by force, and socializing late at night with her neighbors. Suddenly, one of her coworkers dies, leaving her to write the fortunes encapsulated in the cookies. The heavy thematic focus becomes evident in the first few minutes, and continues on with its overly artsy storytelling that tries too hard to provoke its audience. Setting a philosophical bar out of reach, its symbolism feels too on-the-nose and inorganically shoehorned into the film in hopes of creating meaning where it might otherwise not be needed. The plot suffers from character inaction until a more engaging act three ensues featuring Jeremy Allen White. For a story grounded in the truthfulness of the immigrant experience, greater realism would have made for a more digestible experience. The performances and line delivery as a whole feel feigned, and could have benefited from less straight-laced performances while still capturing the melancholic mood it aimed for. On the other hand, the flowery writing accompanies astonishing cinematography, which captures urban spaces in intimate ways that feel in touch with Donya’s search for belonging. A creative use of lighting reminiscent of Bergman manages to create very compelling frames of our characters. Akin to amateur poetry, Fremont is mostly blue skies in its heavy use of theme and symbolism, but not grounded in enough realism to sell its viewer. While it is a visual pleasure with a relevant story, it struggles with its execution.
(Written by Allison Brown) Furies is a solid Korean action movie with striking neon cinematography weakened by an overabundance of insensitive rape scenes. Given female director Veronica Ngo, it is surprising how carelessly sexual assault against women is treated. Badass female fighters are powerful, but the film loses any feminism stamp of approval with the direction of the first third. Furies opens with a child crying for attention, while her mother performs work as a prostitute. The same child is then raped by one of her mother’s clients a few minutes later. Within the first half hour, more women sixteen and under are showed nearing a rape as well in a sex trafficking ring. The word “whore” is thrown around too often and frivolously. One particularly offensive line of dialogue states, “they’re all gonna be whores eventually, let’s break them in early.” There must have been a way to build Bi’s difficult backstory without so much gratuitous assault. I doubt content of this nature would be greenlit in an American film, and it is shocking that Netflix chose to include this portion in its release. Once we move past the streets, and the chosen family of Bi (Dong Anh Quynh), Thanh (Toc Tien), and Hong (Rima Thanh Vy) takes root, Furies finally finds its footing. Transitions are well-executed; in one notable visual, a lit cigarette point flips to a circle in red dice. Kills are sharp, especially one where Hong stabs a man with the heel of her shoe. Ngo pays homage to iconic films in history as lead Bi settles on a red jumpsuit as her outfit, alluding to the notable wardrobe of Kill Bill. Deaths, however, are very cheesy; the way murdered villains fall to the ground is reminiscent of the silly fatalities in Mortal Kombat games. The script ends equally as awful as it opens. When a movie is trying so hard to be feminist, closing with an unflattering twist ruins the whole chosen family aspect. Perhaps some will enjoy watching Furies, but much of it is distasteful and offensive.
I USED TO BE FUNNY
Full review at the link.
Join or Die
(Written by Intern, Wyatt Frantz) Join or Die places a magnifying glass on a simple, yet surprisingly crucial topic: clubs. Director Pete Davis unravels Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which chronicles America’s declining social interaction. In the novel, Putnam elaborates on the consequences of his findings, and how our democracy is negatively affected. With a title like Join or Die, the work solidifies itself as a call to action, arguing that we need club participation now more than ever as we put less and less faith into our country. The trust that this film places in future generations of America makes it essential viewing for any young political scientist or sociologist. There is a lot to be learned about what being active in a community does for one on a personal level, further invigorating its audience. The two hours of collage-style visuals felt uninspired at first, but synergized with copious amounts of historical photos and diagrams. Although there is a staggering amount of data that reinforces Robert’s qualms about the direction of society, the overall message feels somewhat resistant to change. I would have loved to learn more about how modern technology influences organizations and communities, which may have a different meaning behind them in a more digital, interconnected world. Still, Robert’s research and life’s work prevails, making a strong case that a happy, successful country starts with smaller human connections.
Last Stop Larrimah
(Written by Allison Brown) The HBO festival documentaries I have previously watched have been reliably good. Last Stop Larrimah is sadly a diversion from the norm; it is an overlong, bloated analysis of a town of wholly despicable people with absolutely no one to care about or root for, including the victim. Said victim, Paddy Moriarty, was especially atrocious; he apparently once cut a penis off the carcass of a donkey to leave in his enemy’s driveway. He started fires consistently, and was never arrested for them. Why is anyone supposed to care about his murder? I assume the Duplass Brothers decided to pick up this story from director Thomas Tancred due to the oddities, quirky personalities, and pure mutual hatred surrounding everyone in the town. Larrimah is a version of the American south in Australia, but to an extreme. There are a mere eleven people living there, and it is truly unclear why they choose to remain. Larrimah has no cell phone reception, no police station, and all social activities circle around a local bar that stays open 24 hours a day. The pub as a community hub includes a hotel, caravan park, grocer, post office, greyhound bus depot, and zoo; it is bizarre to say the least. Those living there are just as strange, subsisting of a great majority of alcoholics. One collects beer cans, and another is rumored to have murdered puppies; they mostly appear to be mentally ill. Tancred spends far too much time elaborating on the background and motive for nearly every single resident when it needed to be refined to a more formidable two or three. If anything, Last Stop Larrimah would have been better served as a mini-series. The final reveal is wild, but it takes far too long to reach it. The synopsis overexaggerates the tale by stating Moriarty vanished. In reality, there were no witnesses to his murder due to the extremely light population density in Larrimah. Last Stop Larrimah is nowhere near as compelling as implied.
The Long Game
(Written by Allison Brown) The Long Game teaches us a forgotten part of history I was personally unaware of: Mexican-American segregation in Texas. Director Julio Quintana repurposes the true story of Humberto G. Garcia’s book Mustang Miracle into an empathetic and heartwarming film. After being rejected from the premier local country club due to his race, segregated school superintendent JB Peña (Jay Hernandez) decides to take revenge on the community when he hears student teams can use golf facilities where Mexican-Americans are otherwise not permitted. He convinces a delinquent group of teen caddies employed at the club to repay their dues for smashing his car window by participating in his experiment. These Hispanic teens will go on to become The Mustangs, a misfit team who eventually won the 1957 Texas State High School Golf Championship, and would hold their record for another 36 years. Professional golfer Frank (Dennis Quaid) plays assistant coach to Peña, acting as a white intermediary between the team and the judgmental rich elite, while Cheech Marin of Cheech & Chong is a humble voice of support for the boys as club groundskeeper. Touching upon self-imposed racism as well as outside judgment, Quintana provides a well-balanced look into the period. The story is told from a perspective that is hard to fully grasp as an outsider, but one can only imagine how difficult it was for these people in the 1950s. The story progression could have been strengthened by placing more attention on the first tournament win of the team, rather than glossing over it in a montage of victories. Sometimes the behavior of the student athletes comes off as frustrating and reckless, but it is an honest underdog story of factual experiences, and with that, there is no arguement.
Molli and Max in the Future
(Written by Allison Brown) Out of all the films I had access to watch so far, Molli and Max in the Future was the one I was most anticipating. Alternate universes are my jam, so I cannot fully express my level of disappointment with what I watched. What a letdown! Imagine a boring and pretentious talky HBO movie from the 90s set in a sci fi backdrop with the worst visual effects one has ever seen. The story is barely science fiction; it feels like a filter washing over a generic, unfunny rom-com. Some of the VFX in the version I watched were unfinished, but the majority appeared to be final. Green screen could not be more obvious every time it is utilized. One portion of the film has fake magazine covers flash by—coming from the point of view of an experienced working graphic designer, the designs are atrocious. Sci-fi elements are dropped in randomly rather than pairing well with the story on screen, which is long winded and overstuffed. Director Michael Lukk Litwak manages to throw in metaphorical commentary on the most random assortment of timely topics which range from global warming to mental health, racism and passing, the pandemic, sex cults, dating, the uneducated public and shoddy elections, and even to political social media. I am sure Litwak means well, but these asides feel thrown in without any real substantial analysis or proactive advice. The comedy is more obnoxious than funny. Zosia Mamet, who has moved on to great roles in her career like Annie in The Flight Attendant, reverts to a space character almost exactly mimicking the personality of the ever-annoying Shosh in Girls. Molli and Max in the Future is the messy result of having too many big ideas smushed into one 90-minute film.
(Written by Allison Brown) I didn’t quite know what to expect with Matt Vesely’s sci-fi/horror/thriller, Monolith, but I have to say I am impressed. For some reason that is not explained, the lead never leaves her apartment, even before the adventure transpires, making the pandemic production glaringly obvious. It is rare for a single location film to be so compelling, let alone with only one actor, Lily Sullivan, on screen. After a public fall from grace as a reporter at The Evening Journal due to lack of fact-checking, the unnamed lead (Sullivan) goes down a rabbit hole of phone calls following an anonymous email addressed to her new podcast, Beyond Believable. Vesely manages to craft the setting to his advantage with a powerful script and a strong array of voice performances. When the afflicted share their stories, eerie empty rooms are presented in a manner like the sexual harassment experiences disclosed in She Said. Monolith is best compared to the investigative portion of The Ring, with the entity instead spreading through audio rather than VHS tape. What better way to tackle this contagion than through a podcast reaching millions! The messages behind the film tackle how selfish decisions can cause a ripple effect in others’ lives, how a traumatic experience can permanently change someone, and is also a foreboding behind the circulation of conspiracy theories. The one caveat that must be pointed out is that the script would work just as well as a podcast. The visual meat is not really served up until the final third, and once we reach this point, it is exhilarating to watch. Perhaps more could have been added to justify Monolith’s existence as a film early on. Nevertheless, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the black brick’s true reveal; the twist at the end caught me by surprise and did not disappoint. Do not miss this one!
(Written by Allison Brown) Coming-of-age films tend to be some of my personal favorites, and Mustache does not disappoint as a unique perspective and representation of the genre. Thirteen-year-old Ilyas navigates the world through a “complex lattice of rules that govern [his] entire life” set by both his religion and his parents. Upon being bullied for his baby mustache, Ilyas (Atharva Verma) attacks a visiting teen from the local public school while enrolled at Islamic school Cordoba. To no one’s surprise, his scholarship is revoked, and his family is no longer able to afford his tuition. Ilyas has always chosen obedience over happiness, while comparing himself to golden child Aasam (Armaan Jawandha), but living life from a new perspective at Miller High School will soon change everything. As he physically goes through puberty by growing facial hair, Ilyas’ personality and emotional intelligence experience a kind of “puberty” as well. Director Imran J. Khan has to be a nineties kid, as this is adorned with pop culture references aplenty; Ilyas is pictured watching Boy Meets World, Saved by the Bell, and owns a jelly roll pen. The fact that Khan was able to cast Clueless icon Alicia Silverstone as Ilyas’ drama teacher, Ms. Martin, is just the cherry on top. I wish she had more screentime, but she shines in a limited role. The comedy is plentiful, as well as the 90s nostalgic references. Acting out presents as a pretend non-halal McDonalds burger that Ilyas states he is loving, in reference to the iconic ‘I’m Lovin’ It’ campaign. Romantic interest Liz (Melody Cao) dresses in the most perfect representation of timely style with thinly plucked eyebrows, a butterfly clip hairdo with mini rubber bands that I definitely donned as a kid, and barrettes. A large portion of the dramatic flair is a visual representation of an AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) conversation with his female Islamic friend, Yasmeen (Ayana Manji). Viewers will root for Ilyas and Yasmeen to become a couple, but alas, this is not that kind of coming-of-age movie. Khan depicts a misunderstood culture in a more accessible manner, giving the viewer a unique window inside Islamic life. Mustache is a heartfelt load of fun for sentimental millennials to enjoy.
My Drywall Cocoon
(Written by Allison Brown) Fans of Gossip Girl will love Caroline Fioratti’s My Drywall Cocoon. The very dark drama depicts a slice of life for upper class teens in São Paulo, Brazil. Every character treats each other poorly, and it is hard to sympathize with any of them, even the deceased Virginia (Bella Piero). We spend the runtime trying to solve the mystery of how and why the troubled seventeen-year-old was killed, and how her inner sphere of friends may have been involved. “Poor little rich girl” is all that will cross a viewer’s mind each time her downfall is further established. The film can be a bit too melodramatic and unrealistic, evoking the ludicrous and tragic nature of a Degrassi episode, or even of a Lifetime movie. The problems these people are navigating are unlikely to all exist within the same social circle. Plot points may be triggering for some, as self-harm feels crammed into the story and physical familial abuse is thrown in at the last second. These issues need to be explored with more sensitivity from the filmmakers. There is even a Bin Laden and suicide bomber joke thread repeated throughout the story; it comes off as tactless towards those affected by such tragedies. Despite the lack of originality and discretion, My Drywall Cocoon is still highly entertaining as a guilty pleasure from this year’s lineup.
The New Americans: Gaming A New Revolution
(Written by Allison Brown) The New Americans: Gaming A New Revolution doesn’t add anything to the conversation from better films which came before it, such as Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets of last year’s SXSW. The content is wholly all over the place, covering any topic under the sun in the financial and political sphere. More focus was necessary to come up with a thesis to drive the documentary. There is an overload of terminology that is hard to retain for a financial outsider. Definitions of industry jargon quickly appear on screen written and read by a robotic voice in an unnatural manner that is hard to internalize as the topic is expanded. Some are not defined for the audience at all. Short snippets of notable media, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Matrix, and Squid Game, briefly appear too often throughout that they feel overused, and do not transition well. Low-res clips from YouTube are thrown in as well with logos left behind, making it appear that there may not have been sign off from relevant content creators. Jordan Belfort, the criminal behind The Wolf of Wall Street biopic, is also randomly given a significant portion of screen time. The direction overall is driven by memes, making this targeted towards Gen Z viewers with a solid grasp on the stock exchange world. However, this audience doesn’t make sense when there isn’t much new information. The one interesting takeaway offered is that those under the age of twenty-one are unable to legally gamble, but they can invest in much more risky stocks using accessible apps like Robinhood. Ethics are clearly lacking from all who stand to profit from their investments.
Full review at the link.
(Written by Allison Brown) SXSW audiences are in for a pleasant surprise with Sophie Linnenbaum’s dystopian allegory, The Ordinaries. A creative cross between 1998’s Pleasantville and recent Amazon Prime show Upload, Linnenbaum tackles segregation in a meta world of film. For our lead, Paula Feinmann (Fine Sendel), life is a movie… literally. Social castes of main characters, supporting characters, and outtakes dominate society; any imperfections such as out of sync dialogue, jump cuts, and offkey heart reader music scores may be cause for one to be cut by The Institute. The worldbuilding is incredible; one of the best is a machine used to censor people. Those afflicted are left unable to speak at all with pixelated blocks covering their mouth. The language barrier may prevent American audiences from fully grasping some of the jokes, but the majority will hit well. Every chance is taken to throw a pun in from the process of production or a filmic style. The Ordinaries is one of the most imaginative festival films I have seen in some time.
PAY OR DIE
Full review at the link.
Full review at the link.
Full review at the link.
If one has seen a single “strangers change each other’s lives for the better” drama, they have seen them all, eh? SXSW selection Story Ave is here to spray a fresh coat of graffiti onto yet another iteration of this tired formula. Co-written and directed by Aristotle Torres, this generic festival flick is at least centered around one exceptionally good performance: This Is Us star Asante Blackk, who plays troubled youth Kadir. As Kadir runs away from home, haunted by endless nightmares surrounding the death of his mother, he appears to be heading down a dangerous path. Change is in the air when Kadir holds up unphased MTA-worker Luis (Luis Guzman) at gunpoint in an attempt ta rob him. Somehow, Kadir and Luis end up going to dinner together, and eventually bond over cooking and graffiti art. The film plays out pretty much exactly how one would expect, with minimal surprises along the way.
Full review at the link.
(Written by Allison Brown) Cringe drama This Closeness is mildly comedic due to the level of unease depicted, but the film is more concerned with the balance and study of relationships than anything else. Tessa (Kit Zauhar) returns with partner Ben (Zane Pais) to his hometown in Philly for a high school reunion. Although their Airbnb booking was with a guy named Lance, they are greeted with the unnerving Adam (Ian Edlund) at the door, who declares Lance has moved out. Adam is a loser through and through; he has no friends, works from home isolated in a room, and is socially awkward. The interactions that transpire between the trio are nothing less than uncomfortable, and Tessa is more approachable due to her pity towards Adam. He masturbates in the shower after friendly interactions, touches her underwear and puts it back, listens in on her private conversations, and appears at the least opportune moments. This leaves Adam pining for Tessa, and eventually causes a prickly rift between Tessa and Ben in their already shaky relationship. A flirtatious old friend, Lizzy (Jessie Pinnick), from Ben’s past doesn’t help the situation either. Writer, director, and lead actress Zauhar is extremely effective in her development of realistic characters. This is the first movie I can recall where an ASMR artist is placed at the forefront. One can tell the makers are avid watchers, as the ASMR tingles are plentiful each time Tessa works her magic onscreen. I loved seeing the behind the scenes of how ASMR content is generated. The fact that this aspect of the film seems to be absent from all available synopses is a disservice to its creators.
(Written by Allison Brown) If one is looking for a terrifying first-hand experience of Latinx people flying into the United States legitimately while under the leadership of immigration-opposed Trump, Upon Entry fits the bill. Enter Diego (Alberto Ammann), an urban planner, and Elena (Bruna Cusí), a dancer, traveling to New York City on a lottery visa with the goal of reaching Miami. Things take a horrifying turn once the couple is escorted to a private area for questioning without reason. Authorities know an uncomfortable amount of information about the couple, and have no filter in probing the two. The investigators ask them how often they have intercourse, and make a comment about Elena’s parents having ten or twenty years left before they die. It is simply outlandish how much power those in control have without the couple even committing a crime. They are legally authorized to take temporary ownership of Diego and Elena’s private property, including devices and the data itself, with no questions asked. Cusí, in particular, gives an outstanding emotional performance while navigating these rocky waters. Directors Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastián Vasquez magnificently shine a light on this problematic government overstep. Upon Entry manages to make a primarily one-location story filled with the suspense, confusion, and anxiety of a larger budget movie.
With Love and a Major Organ
(Written by Allison Brown) A sensitive satire about the repression of emotions, With Love and a Major Organ is an offbeat fantasy treat from director Kim Albright. World building here is wonderful, materializing hearts as glowing random objects like a flowerpot or hermit crab. The entire community has essentially turned off their emotions in the nature of the humanity switch in The Vampire Diaries. Therapy is deemed extinct. Virtual insurance exists to compensate emotional loss from damaged data ranging from sentimental Facebook posts to playlists. People take direction for their lives and responsibilities, as well as find love, in a neat little phone app called Life Zap. In a sense, this is hyperbole for what one’s phone already does for the user. With Love and a Major Organ is the epitome of a strange arthouse movie. Lead character Anabel (Anna Maguire) professes her love in bizarre poetry recorded on cassettes that are left behind for her source of affection, George (Hamza Haq). However, he lacks the emotional range to engage in romantic relationships. Anabel struggles to suppress feelings that are so overwhelming that she decides to rip out her heart to stop her pain. Blood is plentiful, especially in the credits alone. I assumed the film would be more of a metaphorical love story, but it is a journey to finding oneself, and discovering what is important in life.
Full review at the link.
Multiple Emmy-nominee for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for every season of Better Call Saul, Bob Odenkirk powers through to his next iconic role in dark dramedy, Lucky Hank. This time, Odenkirk stuns as Professor Hank Devereaux, an English department chairman whose patience has officially depleted for his cocky students and underqualified associates. After making the bold claim that Railton College is “mediocrity’s capitol” during a total outburst, Hank becomes the talk of the town—and scourge of the school’s divisive town board. They try to ice him out as Hank devolves into a total meltdown in the midst of a clear midlife crisis. Judging by the pilot alone, AMC+ may have a big hit on their hands. Director Peter Farrelly of the Farrelly brothers delivers his best work since 2018’s best-picture-winning Green Book. I officially cannot wait to binge the series once more episodes become available.
(Written by Allison Brown) James Ward Byrkit, writer/director of 2013’s Coherence, is back with a new project, Shatter Belt. The episodic series has humble beginnings, originating from a 141-person backed Kickstarter campaign. Unfortunately, each low-budget episode presents more as separate indie shorts, rather than a cohesive television series exploring consciousness. The director himself describes the project as “an anthology not unlike the Twilight Zone.” Twilight Zone riffs are a dime a dozen, with the quality ranging from mediocre to fantastic works like Black Mirror. Unfortunately, Shatter Belt falls on the lower end of the spectrum; it is missing the lofty parables set in each finale that allowed the cult show to shine. According to social media, The Specimen was one of the first shorts available for backers. It seems to have had positive reception, and most likely help to fund the rest of the project. The other episodes provided to critics, Immotus and Pearls, are nowhere near as good as this initial piece. Patton Oswalt is a significantly more proficient actor than the rest of the talent involved in this project, and he carried his segment. The reveal in this episode is perhaps the most intriguing as well. Personally, Pearls was the most irksome of the trio. It is akin to a film where one will struggles to understand what is going on the entire time. I am sure the second episode, Immotus, was selected as the initial hook for the festival, as it is most like Coherence. The concept is thought-provoking, but the execution lacks stakes or thrill. It is also unnecessary to separate a short up into chapters, as in Immotus. This style choice is absent from the rest of the shorts, making their lack of interconnection even more apparent. I think James Ward Byrkit would have more success releasing this project as standalone shorts instead of trying to force them into a coherent venture.
This year, my favorite projects I watched were Beef and Tetris, whilst Allison was enamored with Tetris and Artifice Girl. Next year, attending in person is our top priority. Until then, don’t miss out on some major SXSW gems!