SXSW ~ Capsule Reviews, Vol. 2

SXSW Review ~ I Get Knocked Down

Synopsis: Dunstan Bruce is 59 and he’s struggling with the fact that the world seems to be going to hell in a handcart. He is angry and frustrated. How does a middle-aged, retired radical, who feels invisible get back up again?
Director: Dunstan Bruce & Sophie Robinson
Running Length: 88 minutes
Review:  Admittedly, I went into this documentary made by Dunstan Bruce and Sophie Robinson with scant knowledge of Chumbawamba, the band Bruce famously fronted in the ’80s and ’90s that skyrocketed to success with their 1997 hit “Tubthumping.” Outside of that one-hit, which I, of course, owned on CD single (OK, CD maxi-single), I wasn’t aware of the band’s anarchist philosophies or how they sought to use their influence to enact change in their UK homeland. Bruce’s reflection on these early days and his reunion with his former bandmates isn’t a strained experience, as many of these rock docs often are. If there’s bad blood that exists, we don’t see it, outside of Bruce’s sometimes disbelief at how far several have drifted from their adamant stance against formalized radicalism. This development leaves Bruce feeling like the lone man still fighting the good fight while realizing that there may not be a fight to be had. It’s not quite a pity party, and Bruce is an attractive focal point with a good sense of humor, willing to be self-effacing when called on to do so. I Get Knocked Down might not be for the entry-level Chumbawumba fan, but if you’ve found yourself at a bar-raising a pint in the air to their biggest commercial hit at some point, give this one a look.

SXSW Review ~ Fire of Love

Synopsis: Intrepid scientists and lovers Katia and Maurice Krafft died in a volcanic explosion doing the very thing that brought them together: unraveling the mysteries of volcanoes by capturing the most explosive imagery ever recorded.
Director: Sara Dosa
Running Length: 92 minutes
Review:  I did a little bit of research on some of the most impressive photos and film footage of volcanoes over the past few decades and was surprised at how many were credited to French volcanologists, Katia and Maurice Krafft. Until Sara Dosa’s documentary Fire of Love, I had never heard of the two before, but the array of material the Kraffts contributed to the study of volcanos was truly staggering. When they perished in a 1991 volcanic explosion, the world lost a wealth of valuable knowledge that has now been unearthed, at least visually, by Dosa in a fascinating documentary that beautifully reconstructs their life and work. Dosa edited down an incredible amount of footage to 92 minutes, and that’s no small feat, especially when you consider how that has to tell a story (with help from narrator Miranda July) that flows informatively between the personal and professional lives of the Kraffts.  Maurice Krafft claimed not to be a filmmaker, but, as July points out in Dosa’s scripted narration, you can’t tell based on the size and scope of the footage he’s captured. It all came together to form a fascinating examination of researchers curious about one of the earth’s most mysterious secrets and died in the discovery.

SXSW Review ~ Still Working 9 to 5

Synopsis: When #1 comedy, 9 to 5, starring Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, Dabney Coleman, and Lily Tomlin, exploded on the screens in 1980, the laughs hid a serious message about women in the office.
Director: Camille Hardman & Gary Lane
Running Length: 96 minutes
Review: As a long-time fan of the 1980 blockbuster 9 to 5 (it was the second highest-grossing film of the year), there is not a lot about the movie that I didn’t know. Or so I thought. Watching Still Working 9 to 5, I was honestly amazed at how much information Camille Hardman and Gary Lane were able to unearth about not just the movie but the subsequent television series and stage adaptations that followed. For a movie fan, this is a pot of gold kind of documentary which gives you interviews with every person you want to see, plus so much more. The absolute joy of what Hardman and Lane focus on, and what most behind-the-scenes documentaries can’t get into, is the temperature of culture and climate before the film went into production, after it came out and in the years since. This approach helps viewers get a proper understanding of why the movie was such a significant accomplishment, how far society has come in the 40 years since its release, and how much further we still need to go. Wonderful in its entirety.

SXSW Review ~ I Love My Dad

Synopsis: A hopelessly estranged father catfishes his son in an attempt to reconnect.
Director: James Morosini
Running Length: 98 minutes
Review: I thought we’d seen the last of the dependably entertaining road trip comedies, but it turns out we just needed to add a bit of father-son drama to the mix to resurrect the genre. Writer/director/star James Morosini uses his own life as the basis for this whale of a tale that could have abused its absurdity with out-of-place humor but instead embraces it with winning compassion. A suicidal adult son alienated from his absentee father is coaxed out of his shell by an attractive girl he meets online, opening up to her and finding that he may have found his soulmate. The trouble is, it’s his father (the spectacular Patton Oswalt) under a fake profile in a last-ditch attempt to connect with his son that has blocked all contact after a lifetime of disappointment. The film handles the switcheroo nicely, with Claudia Sulewski as the imaginary girl blessedly standing in for conversations with Morosini, so we don’t have to read endless text back and forth. The catfish set-up is as awkward as it sounds, making the well of uncomfortable situations only grow as the film progresses. Still, Oswalt, Morosini, and Sulewski keep you watching and wanting to know more. I can see audiences responding well to I Love My Dad and not just at SXSW.

SXSW Review ~ Shadow

Synopsis: A group of activists hold a public meeting, desperate to save the world. As the meeting unravels, they discover the greatest threat to their future is already in the room.
Director: Bruce Gladwin
Running Length: 61 minutes
Review: If you’re fortunate, you’ll run across a selection at one of these film fests that knocks your socks off in unexpected ways. We’re only on day two of 2022 SXSW, and I’m guessing Shadow might be an early contender for that claim to fame. A screen adaptation of a play created by the Back to Back Theatre based in Australia, it is comprised almost entirely of neurodivergent and/or disabled actors from the company and surrounding area. Running a trim 61 minutes, I’d classify it more of a dialogue than a traditional three-act structure, and wow, would I have loved to see this one on stage. The cast engages the viewer and themselves in a lively discussion on the future of human rights for those seen as other, along with the tendency to mislabel and misunderstand that same population, even when we think we’re being of assistance. It’s riveting stuff, and though it begins to drift when director Bruce Gladwin moves the action outside of a confined space, the trio of leads (Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price) deliver some of the most unflinchingly honest performances you’ll see at SXSW or in any film this year. Make time to see Shadow.

SXSW ~ Really Good Rejects

Synopsis: Follows Reuben Cox as he channels his inner instinct and artistic intuition in creating unique, custom guitars sought after by some of rock’s biggest and most respected artists.
Director: Alice Gu
Running Length: 95 minutes
Review:  For someone that doesn’t know a good guitar from a brick of cheese, I honestly was surprised at how taken I was with this documentary on skilled luthier Reuben Cox and the artists that have come to him for one of his specialized instruments. More than a simple look at Cox and his creations, Really Good Rejects is an insightful piece from director Alice Gu that takes us further down into the lives of these talented musicians. Gu has a way of asking the kind of follow-up questions that open up the performers (and the modest Cox himself) to reveal more personal stories, reflecting on how they came to the industry and who they looked up to along the way. Some obvious stars you’d associate with the type of relaxed musical stylings turn up as well as legendary names that must have a great affinity for Cox to take the time for a chat.   If it’s a bit formless in construction (there doesn’t seem to be an actual starting and ending point), it makes no difference because everything between the opening and closing credits should be, well, music to the ears of fans that seek this one out. Often allowing artists to pluck away at songs during interviews and letting them play on, Gu doesn’t rush anyone along. That gives Really Good Rejects a warm and breezy feeling, especially appreciated now as we look toward the renewal of Spring and outdoor music.

SXSW Review ~ Soft & Quiet

Synopsis: Playing out in real time an altercation breaks out between two sisters and an organization of women that spirals into a volatile chain of events.
Director: Beth de Araújo
Running Length: 94 minutes
Review: With schedules as hectic as they are, I admit that it’s sometimes hard to remain as distraction-free as possible when viewing films from the comfort of your couch. Viewers won’t have much trouble finding a reason to stay engaged with writer/director Beth de Araújo’s blistering thriller Soft & Quiet, which strikes an ominous tone the moment an elementary school teacher takes a slow walk through the woods. She’s meeting a group of women for an inaugural meeting of a sisterhood she feels is long overdue, a gathering which eventually relocates, which is when the trouble begins. Making a stop en route, the teacher (a simmering Stephanie Estes) crosses paths with a girl from her past and sets them all off on a downward spiral from which there is no escape. Shooting the film in one take is impressively handled and adds to the tension as the film progresses, de Araújo, cinematographer Greta Zozula, and editor Lindsay Armstrong make a few clever cuts – never underestimate how hard these types of films are to make and look so effortless. The cast is top-notch, especially in a script that gets to the cruel center of the sad underbelly of more Americans than we think. It’s a conversation starter and the type of film that will arrive in theaters riding waves of solid buzz. It has the goods to support those good notices, too.

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