SXSW 2021 Review: Language Lessons

Written by Taylor Baker

80/100

Natalie Morales’ Language Lessons exhibits remarkable effort. Her directorial debut is creative, kind, well written, takes measured risks, and is above all charming. It doesn’t only have a strong authentic voice, but there’s a certain solidity, a cut to the narrative that makes it stick the landing rather than just not fumble it. Natalie plays Cariño who’s accepted advance payment to teach Mark Duplass’s Adam 100 Spanish lessons as his online tutor. Adam’s husband Will, who gifted him the lessons, passes away from an accident very early in the film. Portending a closer relationship between this teacher and student than is orthodox, and laying the first pavestone for the coming narrative built on relationship and communication.

Duplass and Morales take turns answering each other’s video calls frazzled, exhausted, or just plain tired. Cariño does her best to help Adam continue after his loss. Adam begins to put himself back in order. At one point leaving her a sarcastic video message from his in-home gym about how she’s to blame for his suffering. They take turns exchanging banter, until one day Cariño doesn’t turn on her camera during their lesson. This a strong formal hint at a change of pace and rising action. Adam visibly behaves differently during this sequence, and as their lesson is coming to a close her camera comes to life. Exposing her bruised and cut face. She insists it was a bike accident and has to leave but Adam, like the reader doesn’t believe her story.

Rather than giving more of the narrative away I’ll focus on the craft of Language Lessons and why it’s such a breath of fresh air. We’ve seen more than a few webcam film entries during COVID. Language Lessons shirks building it’s narrative in the COVID world and instead frames it’s story so it makes sense outside the pandemic. With Adam in Oakland and Cariño in Costa Rica. This feels like a story being told exactly as it might’ve occurred, rather than a screenplay being slapped together to acclimate to the conditions as so many entries from this period seem to be doing. There feels to be an external world even though we only see from the vantage point of webcams and in device cameras. Morales has long been a magnetic performer, I can’t wait to see her continue to mature both behind and in front of the screen.

Language Lessons was part of the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.

SXSW 2021 Capsule Review: Nuevo Rico

Written by Alexander Reams

78/100

 Nuevo Rico is the first project I’ve seen from Kristian Mercado and what a way to be introduced to a filmmaker, with animation that is some of the best I’ve seen since Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. The film itself is the age old tale of stardom coming at a price, and in under 16 minutes Mercado is able to tell this tale with a new perspective and all the while providing amazing visuals that not only look great, but propel the story. In the end, Nuevo Rico, is a fantastic short film by Kristian Mercado that I hope gets wider attention throughout the year. 

Nuevo Rico Trailer

Nuevo Rico is currently playing at the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter.

SXSW 2021 Review: Not Going Quietly

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

85/100

The weaker I get the louder I become.

Utterly broken! This documentary resonated with me deeply. I was reminded of my own mother and her struggle within the health care system. Ady’ Barkan’s resilience and activism as he battles ASL is nothing short of remarkable. His story transverses both the personal and political.

We get an inside journey of his tour across swing districts of the United States. During the 2018 midterm elections, his goal is to try and fix the broken American health care system. Throughout this journey we are introduced to Ady’s remarkable wife, Rachel, and their son, Carl, as well as a plethora of remarkable activists. The most notable of which are Liz Jaff and Ana Maria Archila. Who help organize and participate in a series of actions with Ady and his supporters.  

It is very hard to put into words all the emotions I felt watching this documentary. I was just so moved that Ady was able to give it his all despite the numerous difficulties he’s faced. The moments of levity and the jokes Ady cracks make an otherwise difficult journey easier to watch. I cannot do this documentary justice with my review. I highly recommend that anyone who watches this documentary does so with a box of tissues in hand. 

If you want to learn more about Ady and Liz’s political action committee and guaranteeing access to universal healthcare you can click here.     

Recommended

Not Going Quietly is currently playing at the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

SXSW 2021 Review: Here Before

Written by Taylor Baker

55/100

Stacey Gregg’s Directorial Debut Here Before revolves around two neighboring families in a multifamily house in Northern Ireland. Andrea Riseborough’s Laura plays a grieving mother who begins to feel reality slip as she becomes acquainted with Megan, her next door neighbor’s daughter. It starts with an ethereal tone that is purposefully foggy about what the outcome of the film may entail. Is there just an uncanny similarity between their new neighbor Megan and their lost daughter Sophie or is something more sinister occurring?

Gregg demonstrates proficient use of depth of field, as she leans on Chloe Thomson, cinematographer. The lens often draws the length of an interior doorway through multiple rooms, or looks into the treeline or burning fire, and presents unorthodox outdoor angles along sidewalks and roadsides to build tension. Adam Janota Bzowski who notably scored Saint Maud returns with a score that for my taste was not only too abrasive but too forceful. A film like this would be at it’s best with a score that one scarcely notices. Roiling just out of reach rather than slugging us over the head.

Riseborough continues her ascension with another performance of complexity, commitment, and conviction. I don’t have the greatest ear, but her North Irish accent convinced me entirely. It in conjunction with the sincerity of her interactions within the world of the film went a long way toward convincing me of our presence in the location and their shared history there. It’s eyerolling denouement underscores and under delivers on the tension that’s been built up. Gregg’s debut may indicate the seeds of a coming talent, but for now the only thing I’m convinced of is Riseborough’s quiet ascension as a top tier performer.

Here Before is currently playing at the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.

SXSW 2021 Review: The Hunt for Planet B

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

65/100

The Hunt for Planet B, directed by Nathaniel Khan, explores big questions about the early universe, cosmos, and exoplanets. This documentary takes on a journey of discovery and reflects on the big questions, and makes us question the worlds that may be out there. Lead by a team of remarkable female scientists including Dr. Seager (MIT) and Dr. Batalha (USC) this doc was the perfect viewing for women’s history month and to explore the contributions of women in science. 

On the surface, this documentary tells us the story of the James Webb telescope which is 100 times more powerful than the Hubble telescope and will allow us to explore outer space unlike ever before. The James Webb telescope as depicted here seems to indicate the rediscovery of the American Frontier that started in the 1980’s with the space shuttle program. But this documentary is so much more than just another documentary about science. 

Instead, what we witness is a story about the power of human connection and the loneliness a lack of connection brings. This need to explore what’s in outer space is fueled by our need to fulfill our need for connection. Undoubtedly the James Webb telescope is an act of collective genius. But the throughline that really stuck with me is the human need for connection and the longing to discover what else is out there while trying to stay grounded in our collective humanity.  

The Hunt for Planet B Clip

The Hunt for Planet B is currently playing at the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

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.

SXSW 2021 Review: WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn

Written by Taylor Baker

75/100

With a lengthy title like WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn I was worried that the film may be unfocused and absent of vision, rather than a complete work. However Jed Rothstein did much to assuage my concerns in the first thirty minutes. He lets people that experienced WeWork do the talking for his film, that is when Adam Neumann isn’t. Though Jed is far from a household name at this point you may have heard about or seen one of his previous excellent works, The China Hustle. In which he provides a deep dive look at the manipulation of value in different markets orchestrated by the CCP. A clear building experience for this later work. 

WeWork opens with footage of Adam Neumann attempting to record a pitch video. This footage in essence allows Adam to speak for himself and the film to speak at a deep level quickly. This is a narcissist lost in his own vision, with no one to hold him in check. The timing of the footage is not made clear to the viewer until the end of the film, a brilliant choice by Jed. The documentary relies heavily and exclusively on talking heads and interviews when it’s not showing previously shot footage. As someone who had no interest in the fiasco of WeWork as it was happening this documentary served as a great and comprehensive educational piece. That doesn’t lean heavily on a message it wants to impart to you. 

The cleverness of Jed is in allowing the footage to speak for itself in conjunction with interviews, with voice blending from before the interview begins and switching to a new scene before the audio cuts. Though the pace dips around two thirds of the way in, I think for material is dry as a real estate fraud scheme he did an admirable job with editor Samuel Nalband. They portray multiple voices to provide a cohesive takeaway with an under two hour runtime. Something rare nowadays. The anecdotes of a janitor at an event asking if WeWork was a cult, hearing that one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s cousins is at the center of a scheme to sell people bullshit, hearing about how words change meanings around Alex because he can’t handle being wrong, all this put together and passively presented is a delight. It also pokes at bigger questions philosophically about the marketplace and communism, something Jed’s film The China Hustle also did. Rather than express my takeaways, I’ll let you decide for yourself.

Recommended.

WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn will release on Hulu on April 2nd and is currently playing at the SXSW 2021 Film Festival.