Capsule Review: A White Horse

Written by Anna Harrison

75/100

A White Horse takes its time as it unfurls, taking the old adage “show, don’t tell” to heart. Director Shaun O’Connor and writer Paul Cahill tread lightly, giving the audience flashes of insight that eventually add up to a heartbreaking conclusion, one handled with deftness and empathy; they never spell out exactly what is going on in The White Horse, and its impact is stronger for it.

The film largely follows one conversation between Bridget (Amber Deasy) and her mother (Cora Fenton). Bridget has escaped from a psychiatric hospital and found her way to a phone booth, where she calls home to talk to her parents. The close-up shots create a feeling of claustrophobia and confusion, never letting us fully orient to the world around us—especially for Bridget, cramped in that small phone booth. The actors give excellent performances, conveying the complicated family bonds with the subtlest of gestures, and adding a sense of desperation to the short.

A White Horse serves as a harsh reminder about certain aspects of mental healthcare we would rather sweep under the rug; though A White Horse is set in the 1970s, its message—very, very unfortunately—still rings true today, and the gut punch of an ending refuses to let us forget that.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

SXSW 2021 Review: Inbetween Girl

Written by Anna Harrison

80/100

Coming of age stories are a dime a dozen. Good coming of age stories are far rarer, but Inbetween Girl adds a very solid addition to their ranks, standing out among its peers by deftly handling conversations of sex and race as seen through the lens of a mixed race teenage girl. Teenagedom is such a tricky time both to navigate in real life and to portray on screen—too often filmmakers go overboard, making the teenagers into walking bags of hormones and relying on overused tropes to create eye roll worthy caricatures. Inbetween Girl writer and director Mei Makino successfully avoids these pitfalls, crafting instead an immensely relatable film with a lot of heart that feels like an authentic portrait of high school drama.

The film follows Angie Chen (Emma Galbraith), an art-minded teen who, amidst her parents’ messy divorce, finds herself drawn more and more to Liam (William Magnuson), who drives her home every day from soccer practice, despite the fact that Liam has a girlfriend, Sheryl (Emily Garrett). Well, as it turns out, Liam is also becoming more and more drawn towards Angie, and their attraction grows until Liam shows up outside Angie’s window one night, and, well, you can guess. (The way Liam uses a single finger to shut Angie’s computer during this scene is such a classic cocky high school/college boy move. My God. Does no man have any creativity these days?)

Angie, despite feeling guilt for her continual hookups with Liam, cannot bring herself to end things because she does truly have feelings for him, but most importantly, because Liam is the one thing in her life not spinning out of her control. Post-divorce, her white mother (Liz Waters, who looks suspiciously young to have birthed a teenager) has become more of a workaholic than usual, leaving Angie to fend for herself most nights. Angie’s Chinese father (KaiChow Lau) immediately begins dating Min (ShanShan Jin), and happily converses in Mandarin with both Min and her daughter, Fang (Thanh Phuong Bui), leaving Angie—who never learned the language—feeling usurped and uncertain of her racial identity. So, she sticks with Liam. Of course, this can’t last, and when Angie and Sheryl bond over an English project, things come to a head. 

I have very few quarrels with Inbetween Girl. Most of the resolutions to Angie’s story feel appropriately messy, though some seem a little too neat; however, through the whole way, we are anchored by Emma Galbraith’s wonderful performance. She smoothly navigates all of Angie’s conflicting emotions, giving us a grounded, natural performance that never falls prey to any of the teen movie trope traps (say that five times fast). The rest of the cast give almost uniformly solid performances—in particular Magnuson, Garrett, and Lau—and Makino’s script gives them all a chance to shine.

Makino manages to make a very specific storyline about a biracial teenage girl discovering her sexuality in Galveston, Texas have resonance across all walks of life while still maintaining Angie’s unique identity on its own, pulling off a tricky balancing act with ease and charm. For a feature debut, this is no small feat, and if this is only the beginning for both Galbraith and Makino, I can’t wait to see where they go next.

Inbetween Girl played at the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

SXSW 2021 Interview: Charles Wahl and Daniel Maslany Discuss ‘The Mohel’

Directed by Charles Wahl and starring Daniel Maslany, The Mohel tells the story of a man caught between the worlds of religion and money as he prepares for his son’s Brit Milah ceremony. The film received its world premiere at the 2021 SXSW Festival.

Interview by Anna Harrison

Charles Wahl

What was the inspiration for this movie? How much did you draw on your own experiences for the film? 

The Inspiration for the film came from a conversation I had with another Jewish filmmaker when I was telling him about what it’s like to live in a smaller city that doesn’t have a big Jewish community. I had mentioned that there aren’t any Mohel’s anywhere near where I was living at the time and how stressful a process it was to have to fly one in for The Brit Milah ceremony. That conversation led to other stories I had heard from friends and family throughout the years about conversion, and interesting incidents around ceremonies. By the end of the conversation the other filmmaker said “you have to make a film about this!” Taking a step back I thought…he’s right! After sleeping on it for a little while I started to find a way to frame a story that dealt with all the themes I wanted to explore, the often transactional nature of religion, and the challenges of living with old-world traditions in the modern world. A Brit Milah seemed like a perfect setting to tackle those themes, and I drew from an amalgam of experiences from my family, friends, and my own life. I was really attracted to the dynamic of focusing on a character who is basically trying to do what he thinks is right by pleasing everyone around him. He doesn’t want to let his mother down, his wife down, his baby boy, or the rabbi!  

Were there any major script changes from conception to end? 

The screenplay remained pretty consistent from the start all the way to the end actually. As we moved closer to production I mainly reduced dialogue as we went, and made some subtle adjustments to Lola’s character. I wanted to make sure her presence was felt throughout, and how she felt about her husband and child was clear. In the initial drafts it was a little more ambiguous than the finished film.

How long did the development and filming process take in total? 

From the time I committed to start writing the script, until we had a final master was about a year and a half. A good chunk of that time was spent waiting to find out if I received grant funding from Arts Nova Scotia, which I did and am incredibly grateful for. And also trying to find a production schedule that worked for everyone. All of the main players involved in the film are very busy, and it took a lot of time to find the right window of availability for everyone.

You wore several different hats for this film—writer, director, producer. Were there any times those roles clashed, i.e., the writer side wanted to do something, but the producer side knew it wasn’t feasible? 

Haha all the time! I definitely wanted to write some larger scale sequences, and as I was writing the producer side would constantly slap the writer side’s wrist and say I don’t think we’ll be able to pull that off. For example I wanted to expand the child’s birth to kick off the film. I wanted to show how long intense, and vigorous the birth was, and then show how after all of that he had to instantly start organizing the Bris. I knew pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be able to pull the resources to do that. 

Were there any unexpected production hurdles or challenges? 

The biggest challenge was to make sure everything was authentic. For the film to work I knew that all of the religious aspects had to be right, otherwise it wouldn’t resonate with viewers. To achieve the authenticity Sam Rosenthal, the actor who plays The Mohel, and I went and met with a Rabbi at a local synagogue. We walked him through the story and he agreed to help us. He provided all the prayers used in the film, recorded himself saying them properly for Sam to use to rehearse with, and ultimately was the person we would reach out to throughout the process with any questions about propping, wardrobe, etc.

How did you get the babies to cooperate (or, rather, how did you handle when they were uncooperative)? 

The baby was all of our biggest fear going into production haha. As a father of two children myself I know how unpredictable young babies can be. So to be ready for the shoot we put contingencies in place if the baby was acting up, like using one of the lifelike dolls in wide shots, and things like that. But in the end, the baby was amazing. He never fussed at all throughout the entire shoot…it was pretty incredible. 

I love the film’s cool color palette; it was really striking and aesthetically pleasing. How do you decide on a film’s visual look? What’s the collaboration process like with wardrobe, set, etc. to arrive at said look? 

Cinematographer Guy Godfree and I talked about different looks and styles quite a bit as we led up to the shoot, but we were both on the same page that it should all feel very natural, raw, and atmospheric at the same time. To do that we opted to film on an Alexa Mini with Vintage Anamorphic glass.That way we could get the production value and cinema quality from the anamorphic, while being able to stay lightweight and keep the lighting natural. In terms of colour we knew we wanted things to feel very earthy and muted. We didn’t want any really bright colours on people, and instead for it to be formal and restrained. We worked with the production designer, and wardrobe stylist to make sure all the colours stayed in the palette. And then we were really lucky to work with Colourist Wade Odlum to help refine the look and get it to the next level. 

Right away, James and Lola’s relationship feels sweet and lived-in—specifically, I’m thinking of when James says, “We can’t afford either of them.” It’s such a small moment but the way the line is delivered so naturally and comfortably sold me on their relationship. How do you approach conveying strong relationships and three-dimensional characters when you have a shorter running time and script? 

A lot of that energy came from Daniel and Kaelen’s energy together. They are both really incredible actors who do the work and come in prepared. I had spoken with them both at length ahead of the shoot about the characters, and by the time we got to the set we were all on the same page. Also it helps that they had worked with each other before so the ice had already been broken, and once they were together on set they could get to work on figuring things out. The way Daniel performed “We can’t afford either of them.” was all his choice. I had imagined it delivered a different way when I wrote the script, but when I saw Daniel’s choice I thought it worked so much better.

If you got a tattoo, what would it be and why?

I am actually planning on getting another couple tattoos soon. I have two young boys and I got them to write their names for me, and I am going to get them tattoo’d on different parts of my arm as if they had doodled them on. Parenthood has truly shown me how fast life moves, and I want to have something on me that will symbolize this time in their lives forever.

Daniel Maslany

How did you get brought on board The Mohel? 

I had worked with Kaelen Ohm (who plays Lola), before and I remember we had a great chat on set about the kind of work we were interested in. She had been in Charles Wahl’s SXSW 2019 Short Little Grey Bubbles and so she passed my name along to Charles when they were discussing casting for The Mohel. Charles sent me the script to read and Little Grey Bubbles to watch, and I loved his approach and ability to capture intimate and authentic moments on film – both in his writing and directing. 

What drew you to the script and how did you relate to James? 

I was drawn to the way Charles chose to present this story, and his use of comedic touches within a really tense situation. I liked the idea of playing a father too, as it’s not a role I’ve had the chance to play before. I completely related to James. He’s stuck trying to do what’s best based on expectations and tradition, and yet the film doesn’t end with a huge argument where everything is aired out, but instead all of the tension is simmering just underneath – which is way more interesting to play. Charles presents some interesting questions for audiences to discuss when the credits roll. I think the best short films pose those kinds of questions for an audience, without giving us all the answers.

Was there a rehearsal process, and if so, how long did it take? 

Charles and I took a lot of time to chat about the character history and dynamics before, but we didn’t spend a lot of our time rehearsing in advance. Charles is really clear with what he wants, and yet he creates a space where it feels easy to play and explore and find things naturally. Charles wanted to minimize the time I spent with Sam Rosenthal (who plays the Mohel) off camera, which helped feed into our dynamic as strangers that are suddenly involved in a really personal and pivotal ceremony together. I had more time with Kaelen, and I think the two of us found a really fun chemistry with implied history that developed naturally when we did our first scene together. I love rehearsals but it’s also so fun to save things to be discovered on camera, and there’s an immediacy that’s difficult to recreate when you’ve gone over a scene many times before. Charles even asked me not to memorize the Hebrew blessing that James’ recites during the ceremony. I was only able to brush up on the first few lines, as they are more common phrases that James would have grown up hearing, but on the day I had to recite the blessing by just repeating after Sam – who was really motoring through it! We also shot that scene from only one angle without being able to edit around things. I was so nervous to mess it up, which is exactly what James would be feeling in that moment. 

Did your understanding of James change over the course of filming? 

Yeah, I think the more I play any character the deeper my understanding grows. I learnt the most about James from the other characters -my wife, my mom, the rabbi. You can prep your own lines as much as you want, but there’s so much information to be gained by just taking in how characters respond to you and treat you. It was such a great cast to work with.  

I was really impressed by how real and fleshed out James felt despite the film only being 14 minutes long, which is a testament to your performance and the script; when you have a short runtime, how do you “maximize” your screen time to convey a complete character?

Thanks for saying that! I think the key moments Charles chose to show within those 14 minutes are really all you need. There’s a real freedom with a short film, knowing that the character isn’t going to be someone you live with and play for future episodes or seasons. You can imagine a history and obviously discuss that with your scene partners, but all that matters are the little moments that you might find within the scenes. I also felt I was mostly just playing myself, which I don’t get to do very often. And Charles is so delicate in what he even chooses to show on camera. He’s very restrained, and worked with our cinematographer Guy Godfree to give it a very spontaneous feel as if the camera is just catching moments rather than things feeling overly composed or set up.

What was working with Charles Wahl like? How much of a collaborative process was making The Mohel?

Charles gives so much space and respect to all of his collaborators. He creates a calm and positive atmosphere on set that really encourages play. And he is also incredibly detailed, and will have considered all of the answers and possibilities to any question you might have. He’s such a great director. I would work with him again in a heartbeat.

You have done extensive work in theater; how has your theater background informed your work in film? What are some of the biggest differences in how you approach your performance in the different mediums?

It’s funny you ask that, because I actually really feel a connection between the process of making a short film and working on a play. My experience in theater has often been that you can see the very origin of inspiration for what we’re making in the room – especially when developing new plays. Feeling close to each department, and involved in a real collaboration with other artists is so rewarding. I have that same feeling working on a short – and particularly The Mohel. The intimacy of the kinds of stories you can tell in a short film really reminds me of working on a play in a small black box theatre. The process might be different, but the creative spark feels very similar. In terms of performance style, the night before we started shooting The Mohel, Charles said to me, “Don’t worry about showing the camera what you’re thinking or feeling. Just feel it and experience it and we’ll take care of the rest.” That felt like the perfect key in to the tone and style he wanted for the film, and it’s such a liberating note to hear from a director. 

Favorite movie of 2020?

I really loved the documentary Dick Johnson is Dead directed by Kirsten Johnson. It was so unbelievably moving and personal and funny, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it before.

The Mohel Trailer

You can also read Anna’s review of The Mohel, or you can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

SXSW 2021 Review: The Mohel

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

The Mohel is about a circumcision. James (Daniel Maslany) and his wife, Lola (Kaelen Ohm), have just had a baby, and James wants his son circumcised in a brit milah, a traditional Jewish ceremony that occurs eight days after a baby’s birth. But more than that, The Mohel is about a man caught between tradition he never fully understood and his current life, and through the performances the film conveys universal emotions regardless of religious background, though it remains firmly grounded in the Judaic tradition.

James, it becomes clear, is not a “good Jew,” as evidenced by his constantly-falling-off yarmulke he dons for the brit milah. Rabbi Fishel (played wonderfully by Sam Rosenthal), whom James hired, quickly notices this, and catches on to the fact that wife Lola was not born Jewish but rather converted; she reaches out to shake the rabbi’s hand before remembering that he wouldn’t be allowed to touch it, and forgets to cover up her decidedly unOrthodox tattoos. Still, Rabbi Fishel charms everyone with his geniality, and James and Lola begin to relax.

Yet after the ceremony itself goes smoothly, Rabbi Fishel reminds James of his religious shortcomings and the ways in which he falls short. In short, James isn’t Jewish enough. But what, exactly, does Jewish enough mean? Does it mean James has to become like Rabbi Fishel, who follows the law to a T but passes severe judgments and punishments on those he deems unworthy?

The film doesn’t dig quite deep enough into its premise of someone caught between worlds, but remains a competently made film with a beautiful blue color palette and strong performances that elevate it. It’s surprisingly funny (a rabbi walks into a circumcision and says, “I don’t just work for the tips!”) and never drifts into melodrama; while it fails to completely connect on a deeper level, The Mohel is an easily watchable film, even if some of it is also easily forgettable.

The Mohel Trailer

You can read Anna’s interview with Charles Wahl and Daniel Maslany, or you can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

SXSW 2021 Review: R#J

Written by Anna Harrison

35/100

Romeo and Juliet has been adapted and adapted and adapted, from Frank Zeffirelli to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet to West Side Story and, now, to R#J. Each adaptation attempts to make its mark and stand alone in the annals of Shakespearean adaptation history, some with more success than others. (Who among us can forget 21-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio half-shirtless and screaming, “I defy you, stars”?) Director Carey Williams makes his mark on the Bard’s tale by showing it completely through social media and phones, and though this means R#J will be outdated in a decade, he gets points for creativity. That, unfortunately, is almost all he gets points for.

R#J follows the beats of its source material: boy meets girl. They are horny teenagers, so they create a lot of drama. There’s family feuding and death, now told via Instagram lives and Twitter feeds. The concept, while initially neat, quickly begins to feel gimmicky and hamstrings the adaptation. Some moments can believably be told over FaceTime, but many other times the characters had no in-universe reason to have their cameras on, but it just so happens that the audience needs this information. Visually, this makes the film interesting; logically, it strains belief.

The performers, too, get hurt by this concept. Romeo and Juliet lives and dies by its lead characters’ chemistry: if the audience isn’t aching for them to just make out already by the time Juliet says, “And palms to palms is holy palmers’ kiss,” something has gone awry. This chemistry comes by much easier on stage or in a traditional filmic adaptation; here, with Camaron Engels’ Romeo and Francesca Noel’s Juliet rarely sharing the same space in the film and largely communicating through (annoying) Instagram flirting, their romance falls flat. 

Williams’ bizarre decision to move the aforementioned palm line to Romeo and Juliet’s wedding neuters their initial interaction: instead of functioning as foreplay, the line becomes part of a wedding vow, and instead of rooting for Romeo and Juliet because of their great wordplay and teasing of each other, we are supposed to like them because Romeo sent generic Instagram DMs and for some reason Juliet didn’t immediately block him. Similarly, the iconic balcony scene is reduced to a few lines over FaceTime, and Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, while performed gamely by Siddiq Saunderson, has been gutted. The characters are then formed out of the leftovers, and their personalities are largely conveyed through the icons on their phones: Romeo has Letterboxd and the Criterion Channel, and Juliet has art apps. Thus their personalities get boiled down to sad film bro and sensitive art girl, two of my least favorite kinds of people. (Sorry.)

Let it be known I am not a Shakespeare purist. However, other than novelty, there seems to be no reason to tell R#J in this way, and that just isn’t enough. If Williams simply wanted to update it, he could have shown the characters using phones and communicating through them, but telling the entire story via Apple products grows wearisome. So does the mixing of language and the jarring transition from text slang to “A plague on both your houses.” Drifting from the text always presents problems for Shakespeare adaptations: it worked in My Own Private Idaho, but failed in The King (coincidentally both Henriad adaptations, and no, I am not still mad that David Michôd killed off Hotspur—Hal’s narrative foil—half an hour into his overlong movie, why do you ask?). Generally, it’s easier to stick faithfully to the text or go in the opposite direction and make a 10 Things I Hate About You. Williams had a hard job, and unfortunately didn’t stick the landing.

This becomes more and more apparent as the film goes on and the plot becomes more muddled and difficult to tell over social media, and the pretenses for phone use get thinner and thinner. The novelty wears off quickly, and once it does, we are left with precious little to care about. The ending deviates from old Billy’s, serving as Carey Williams’ own star-defying moment, a way to signal hope for these crazy kids and to avoid showing another dead Black boy on screen. Unfortunately, this seems to be the only social critique that Williams undertakes somewhat seriously, and it still remains shallow. Oh R#J, oh R#J, wherefore art thou so empty?

R#J was part of the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Shiva Baby

Written by Anna Harrison

75/100

“One word: plastics.” 

Except, in writer/director Emma Seligman’s feature debut Shiva Baby, what was one word to Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate has become several to college senior Danielle (Rachel Sennott): law school, grad school, media, actress, entrepreneur, clerk. A whole host of options, many of them infused with that infuriatingly vague business lingo—what does a clerk even do, anyways—present themselves to Danielle, offered up by well-meaning friends and family members who cannot understand her indecision and paralysis. She’s created her own major at Columbia University focusing on women’s and gender studies, a fancy and erudite degree that lacks the assembly line nature of say, a business degree. That’s all well and good until faced with the issue of becoming financially independent when you have practically nothing in the “real world” to put on your resume. (No, in case you were asking, I, a senior in film studies at a prestigious university known for its business and pre-med students, did not relate to this.)

Faced with these choices and the looming prospect of actual adulthood, Dani has seized on something she can control: her sexuality. Dani has become a sugar baby, faking orgasms to Max (Danny Deferrari) in exchange for money and nice jewelry. Things seem to be going well enough until Dani’s parents, Debbie and Joel (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed, both great), drag her along to a shiva gathering, a Jewish mourning event. Dani’s ex, Maya (Maya Gordon), appears there, to Dani’s shock and dismay (aside from a few jokes about experimenting, barely anything is made out of Dani’s bisexuality; it simply exists), and then the real kicker comes: Max arrives, accompanied by his flawless wife Kim (Dianna Agron) and their baby. 

As her parents shuffle her around and try to pawn Dani off on someone for an internship or job she doesn’t want, Dani’s eyes keep getting drawn to Maya and to Kim, whom she didn’t know existed until today. Everyone keeps bombarding her with questions, commenting that she seems too thin—“You look like Gwyneth Paltrow on food stamps”—and Dani, feeling more and more overwhelmed, quickly spirals. Stuck in the same location, confronted by overbearing relatives, crying babies, and hounded by Ariel Marx’s horror-like score, the claustrophobia sets in.

Even with the mounting sense of dread, Shiva Baby remains sharply funny and relatable, and Rachel Sennott’s bitter and witty performance, accompanied by the accomplished supporting cast, helps elevate the film. However, though the film is only just over an hour long, it feels stretched in some places—understandably, since it began its life as a short film. Still, Shiva Baby is an alternatingly funny, awkward, and heartwarming film, and promises excellence from Emma Seligman.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

SXSW 2021 Review: Alien On Stage

Written by Anna Harrison

100/100

Of late, my faith in humanity has worn rather thin—for obvious reasons, I should think. Then, something like Alien On Stage comes along and renews my hope in the human race. No, I’m not exaggerating. It was the biggest boost of serotonin I have ever received.

Alien On Stage follows the adventures of several bus drivers in Dorset, England, as they mount an amateur theatrical production of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Yes, you read that correctly. The iconic horror movie Alien, with its cramped set, tense sense of dread, and strong sexual imagery transported to a community theater. The transition goes about as well as one might think—which is to say, poorly.

Through some twists of fate, Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey, the producers and directors of Alien On Stage, saw this bizarre flop of a production. Luckily for us viewers, they were so charmed by the endeavor that they managed to book the show in the Leicester Square Theatre for one day, whisking the employees of the Wilts and Dorset Bus Company from a glorified town hall to the West End. Alien On Stage chronicles this journey, and within the first five minutes cemented itself as one of the most contagiously joyful films I have ever seen, even though some of its growing pains (it is Kummer and Harvey’s first film) were obvious.

The whole situation sounds absurd, like something out of a fairy tale, but to call it one would be a disservice to the hours and hours of work the bus employees put into this production. With a shoestring budget, they managed to craft a wearable Xenomorph suit whose tail and jaw could be moved and a chest-burster operated by fishing lines. I found myself squealing with delight over the ingenious solutions the cast and crew came up with despite spending most of their time driving buses and by and large having little or no theater experience. Of course the production couldn’t match the movie, but it was so painstakingly crafted and made with such love and care that it didn’t matter we could tell that Ash’s disembodied head was papier-mâché, or that the vents through which Captain Dallas crawls were just tables laid on their sides.

The man, the myth, the legend Pete Lawford with his amazing props and creatures

Importantly, Alien On Stage features no tension or infighting between the cast and crew of the show, focusing on the support and love given to everyone involved rather than mining the situation for drama to heighten the stakes. Even the director, David, a self-described military man, remains nothing but positive—though he drinks copiously on opening night to calm his nerves. It is hard to overstate just how damn happy I felt watching this, and how invested I became in this show’s cast, crew, and success. They had the Xenomorph prowl through the audience! Absolute geniuses!

Alien On Stage serves as a jubilant testament to the power of art, showing that even the unlikeliest of people, when given the chance, can display brilliant creativity and talent. At its best, art unites people, and Alien On Stage represents the beating heart of the artistic endeavor. I rooted for these people across the Atlantic Ocean; I understood when Jacqui, who played Ash, talked about the relief she feels playing someone else on stage because I saw myself in that feeling; I rooted for writer Luc and his screenwriting dreams even in the face of his naysayers. When the crowd of Leicester Square Theater stood up to give Alien a standing ovation as David held back tears, I was sorely tempted to stand up and join them. 

Alien On Stage Trailer

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

SXSW 2021 Review: Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break

Written by Anna Harrison

65/100

Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break wins the award for best movie title I’ve encountered this year. Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t quite live up to the expectations set by its bizarre name, despite solid efforts from its cast and a promisingly bonkers plotline.

The film follows the titular Paul Dood (Tom Meeten), a charity shop worker who still lives with his mom (June Watson) and is a bit of a loser. However, he has a big dream: he wants to make it big on the Trend Ladder Talent Show, an America’s Got Talent-type show—or Britain’s Got Talent, in this case. Paul constantly livestreams on Trend Ladder, a clear Instagram ripoff but one with a ladder you can climb up in real time until you become the number one trending video. Paul, suffice to say, does not attract that many Trend Ladder hits.

After a series of misfortunes, Paul arrives late to his audition, and even after appealing to Trend Ladder Talent Show host and mega celebrity Jack Tapp (Kevin Bishop) to get a chance, he bombs the audition. Paul’s day only gets worse from there, and so he begins plotting his revenge on those who made him miss his audition.

It’s a fun, kooky premise, but the film can never quite figure out what it wants to be. Sometimes, it’s a ridiculous parody of slasher films; other times, it tries to be a serious meditation on grief, or a critique of social media. However, director Nick Gillespie, try as he might, never succeeds in getting these elements to gel together, and the result is a film that ping pongs wildly between tones, never staying with one idea long enough to have much of an impact. 

Paul, though played well by Meeten, suffers the most from the film’s indecision: one moment he seems to be ready to accept his losses, but the next he returns to his attempted killing spree, spurred on by his rising Trend Ladder fame that he seemed to have forgotten about in the previous scene. The inability of the film to commit to its absurd premise also leaves certain moments, like a hostage crisis towards the end of the film, caught in between two opposite urges: on the one hand, the scenario is deliberately unbelievable, but on the other, Gillespie tries to play it too straight, and these incompatible impulses render the scene impotent.

Still, Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break manages to be juuuust engaging enough to keep you watching. There were moments where I saw the glimmers of a much stronger movie lurking beneath the surface, but the movie shied away before it could change from duckling to swan. It’s a frustrating experience more than anything: the elements are all there for this movie to succeed, but Paul Dood simply lacks the bite he needs to make this movie worthy of climbing the Trend Ladder.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Capsule Review: 3feet

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

Midway through 3feet, its young, soccer-obsessed protagonist, Gonzalo (Maykol Santiago Capacho Perales), faces an obstacle: he must navigate both himself and his soccer ball through a crowded marketplace in Pamplona, Colombia, to get to school. To do this, he envisions a great soccer field full of opposing team members to sneak around and a goalie to get past. Director Giselle Geney Celis brings Gonzalo’s imagination to life by animating this entire sequence, perfectly capturing our immersive childhood daydreams. 

This sequence makes 3 Feet stand out far more than it would have otherwise, for its plot and style are relatively straightforward with the exception of Gonzalo’s imagined heroics. The film chronicles Gonzalo’s efforts to keep his shoes clean on the way to school after a teacher, Ramón (Luis Enrique Yañez), keeps him from recess one day because his shoes have been scuffed. It’s sweet without being overly saccharine; a charming reminder of the highs and lows of childhood that seem like life or death at the time, but which we laugh about later. The music, composed by Fran Villalba, lends a sense of whimsy to the proceedings, or else playfully represents the dire stakes—at least in Gonzalo’s mind—that accompany Ramón’s inspection of Gonzalo’s shoes.

You can feel Celis’ own affection for Pamplona even before the credits roll and you see that the film is “dedicated to my family, Pamplona and its people, for giving me the happiest childhood.” While 3feet doesn’t reinvent the wheel, with the exception of the animated sequence, it remains a charming monument to our childhood dreams.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Capsule Review: A Piece of Cake

Written by Anna Harrison

65/100

A Piece of Cake explores a common theme: fathers who neglect their family in favor of work. Now, “common” does not necessarily mean “bad,” and A Piece of Cake certainly adds its own unique spin to this conundrum by sprinkling in a dash of absurdity as Rich Sommer’s Jim embarks on an epic adventure to acquire illegal cake decorations for his daughter, Cora (Riona O’Donnell).

If it sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is—though on purpose. Cora, for her upcoming birthday, wants silver balls on her cake. Jim agrees to get them, but Cora doubts his follow-through as he’s let her down many times before. Jim, rightly feeling bad about this, makes it his mission to get some balls (haha) and soon discovers the seedy underground world of illegal cake decorations, populated by harried fathers in business suits who speak in hushed voices as they discuss the ways in which to best acquire balls, which seem to be illegal in California.

The short, directed by brothers Austin and Meredith Bragg, is at its best when fully leaning into the more humorous aspects of the script, or employing editing techniques most often seen in action movies to great comedic effect. It’s a sweet, somewhat familiar movie, though can never quite decide if it wants to completely lean into the absurdism or maintain some level of realism, so ends up feeling a little indecisive and stuck in places. Still, a decently tasty piece of cake.

You can read Anna’s interview with Austin and Meredith Bragg or you can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.