SXSW Film Review: Wild Life [Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, 2023]

Posted on by Gary in Movies, South By Southwest | Leave a comment


Doug Tompkins, his wife Kris, and their close circles of nature-loving extreme athletes (climbers, surfers, skiers, kayakers… you name it, they’ve got it) rode the wave of entrepreneurship and popularized their ’70s free-spirit lifestyle into products that are still going strong today. This exulted C-level cast may bring people to this documentary to romanticize about dinner-con-night-walk along the Seine and all the other million things that seemed so easy to go right when the stakes are low. Yet, in reality, were the stakes all that low?

From Doug and Kris Tompkins’ point of view, they certainly were not. An extractive philosophy from both industry and governments held captive many other, more harmonious ways to give value to natural resource wealth. In developing and developed countries alike, the adjectives merely distinguished whether resources have been sufficiently depleted. Our society was happily re-opening the industrial wounds on the natural world, which had never fully healed since the 18th century. While the Tompkins cannot hope to sway the forces that be in the United States, they may yet do so for less entrenched nations and save them from dire straits.

Their plan was to simply buy land, to preserve and conserve through direct ownership. Unfortunately, their push for land acquisition in Chile and Argentina ran into bad timing of a significant proportion. Barely two decades after the tumult of the Pinochet dictatorship and that of the military junta, respectively, suspicions abound as to the true intent of these foreigners. After long hardships, Chileans and Argentines also had few reasons to give up their immediate prosperity for long-term ecosystem stability.

And so, as the stage opened and home videos of Doug Tompkin’s funeral rolled, this seemed destined to remain just another impossible American Dream. Instead of being just a touching memorial, however, the main thrust of Wild Life is to document the journey of Kris Tompkins as she completes the dream for her late husband. She would consolidate their land into practices and policies, and eventually establish functioning national parks there. Being mostly a documentary about nature conservancy, there are obligatory wide and stunning landscapes from both the ’90s and more recent times. It is also filled with interviews from the Tompkins’ close friends and allies in both government and civilian roles, but obviously only the positive influences. On the other hand, to fulfill the vicarious thirst to see people push themselves in needlessly harsh circumstances, it is also stuffed with tales enshrining how “hardcore” these early pioneers were.

A cynical take on the motivation here could be that of a brand-building exercise for North Face and Patagonia et al. But I’d like to think that is far from the truth. I believe the film was more about legacy building – by way of introducing one such, albeit giant, legacy, send a call-to-arms for all of us to build the same, multi-millionaires or not. Logical long-term thinking from any number of angles will inevitably favor “not destroying ourselves for the sake of some arbitrary definition of progress” as the all-time best practice. Sadly, while one can convince people to mime their love for nature via puffy jackets and carabiners, it is not easy to entice the uninitiated to live that nature-loving lifestyle. Yes, even with lots of money.

SXSW Film Review: 299 Queen Street West (Sean Menard, 2023)

Posted on by Ricky in Movies, South By Southwest | Leave a comment


If you were to ask me for the perfect documentary that captures what it was like to listen to music while growing up in Canada, 299 Queen Street West would be it. I’m very happy that this film exists because I can now watch it every five or ten years and remember what it was like when I was young.

For the uninitiated, 299 Queen Street West chronicles the story of MuchMusic, a DIY startup 24 hour music channel that was an extremely large part of the lives of everyone who grew up in Canada in the ’80s and ’90s. If you are not Canadian, however, this documentary is still for you as the film also chronicles the changing landscape of music on several fronts, from the medium through which it was delivered (music videos to streaming) to the genres that took turns dominating the landscape over the course of 30 years.

The story is told purely through archival clips, featuring the voices of many of the players that defined the MuchMusic era including Erica Ehm, Steve Anthony, Master T, Rick the Temp, and Strombo among others. I really appreciated this approach (vs visual talking head) as it really let the film focus in on clips of the past. I was not in Canada when MuchMusic first started, but it was interesting to see how the channel grew from its initial conception to it taking over the building at 299 Queen Street west. For me, the nostalgia kicked in with clips from Electric Circus, The Wedge, Intimate and Interactive and footage of all the VJ’s.

At almost two hours the film provides just the right amount of time to relive all those memories and as the film draws to a conclusion, we start to see the demise of MuchMusic and it’s eventual transformation into what it is today, which is garbage. Still, the story of MuchMusic as captured in this film will bring up a lot of fond memories and joy for those who lived through it while also capturing a very important moment in time for the world of music as a whole.

I believe this film will be streaming on Crave at some point, which is quite ironic in itself.

SXSW Film Review: Northern Comfort [Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, 2023]

Posted on by Gary in Reviews, South By Southwest | Leave a comment


If this was the story of five strangers coming together to help each other overcome their fear of flying, it would have been a sorry premise for a feature movie. So director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson transported this flight of misfits, warts-and-all, to Iceland, and let them loose. And of course mayhem ensued: where’s the fun in not satisfying the viewers’ m-ice-maze schadenfreude?

Northern Comfort is a simple and lovable film. There isn’t a groundbreakingly complex truth that would only be revealed when the five protagonists’ tales are interwoven together. And only one of them has “a particular set of skills that was acquired over a very long career” – the veteran character actor Tim Spall plays the ex-commando-turned-famous-writer Edward. At the opposite spectrum sits Lydia Leonard’s Sarah and Simon Manyoda’s Charles, whose lives are fraying and cocooned, respectively. In between sits the superficially dysfunctional couple Coco (Gina Bramhill) and Alfons (Sverrir Gudnason), who teeter on the verge of splitting in opposite directions.

The trick in the writing is that every next turn is almost believable by itself, so it becomes all the more absurd that in the end, they all grow from the brief Icelandic experience and fly off in their separate ways for the better. Granted, some of these twists can seem odd, and the supporting cast are literally flattened characters that might as well have been props. But the film never strays from this recipe to indulge in a freefall of the Cabin-In-The-Woods trope. After all, how many protagonists would we want to see surreally disfigured in a world already too close to home?

And isn’t that just the way it is? Brief turning points, even if one degree at a time, will still forever alter life’s trajectories. Even a civil engineer working in fog-laden London may find herself upside-down in a volcanic snowbank with the “right” dice-throws – you just never know.

SxSW Film Review: Evil Dead Rise [Lee Cronin, 2023]

Posted on by Gary in Reviews, South By Southwest | Leave a comment


To write a synopsis of the plot of an Evil Dead movie would be a disservice. A plot is not why one goes into a theater swimming in the exhaust of a couple of hundred other human beings. One wants entertainment. And the crowd response for the premiere of Evil Dead Rise at SxSW certainly confirms that.

Production budgets have steadily risen along with inflation and other lamentable things since I last saw a horror b-movie. Of course, set designs and computer generated graphics have also risen to replace on-location shoots and stop-motion animation. So, this is certainly not your fathers’ Evil Dead. Character motions are now more subconsciously unsettling than ever thanks to the resolution afforded to this new outing.

Artistically, Ash’s cabin was a crumbling pile of sick ominously waiting for disgusting things to dress it up. But the setting for Lee Cronin’s Evil Dead Rise is a stylish gothic high-rise apartment, oddly clean for the many filthy demonic creatures it gestates and gave birth to over the film’s 1.5 hr run time. The apartment door around which much of the tension revolves has art deco detail and moulding, and even the bank vault shutting The Book in for safety was saturated in deco designs. It lends an insidious vibe to the film that even the minimalist places can be readily tainted.

And covered they were. Gore has never been more abundant since the days of Super-Soaker blood canons under the armpits. But as with the setting, Rise is measured in its treatment of gore. There is no lack of it, just not a gratuitous flood of the red stuff every time someone’s knee was nicked by an ant mandible. What Rise has in spades is a twisted (spoiler: motherly) malice to back up the gore. One of the quirks of the Evil Dead franchise has always been the absurd comedic moments – previously we had animated but temperamental disembodied parts. Here, lighter elements come in the form of dispatching of the supporting cast. It is also incredibly light-footed with a swift story progression, and before we knew it, The Book had moved on to the next victim.

The Q&A heckler aside, by the end of credits this was a rapturous and gore-fed crowd. Time will tell if the pace and presentation change is to the benefit of the franchise, but I dare say the trusty chainsaw now has a worthy nemesis in the innocuous and mundane cheese grater. Let’s see whether it makes it into the next film that picks up the torch, ahem, I mean chainsaw.

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