Movies

SXSW Film Review: 32 SOUNDS (Sam Green, 2022)

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32 SOUNDS is seemingly custom-designed to be one of those tiles that lives forever in the scroll of your local library’s free online streaming service: An intriguing, brain-teasing but ultimately meagre documentary built to bestow a greater appreciation for the world around you, but may just end up being better suited to helping you fall asleep on the couch on a lazy spring afternoon. Award-winning documentarian Sam Green invites the viewer (or, more earnestly, the listener) on a journey through 32 individual sounds. You may wonder why that particular number. Do they correlate to octaves or other fundamental laws of sound? Are we cataloguing important moments in the history of sound innovation? Or, perhaps, is this a personal journey through 32 important moments from the filmmakers’ own life? Unfortunately for the audience, the answer is all those things and seemingly not enough of any one of them, either.

There is no grand thesis to 32 SOUNDS beyond tickling the viewer’s auditory ossicle and the film, for however genuinely noble its intentions, buckles under that assiduous weight. We’re treated to sounds from the womb, detours through the avant-garde scene of the 60s and 70s as seen through the eyes of pioneering sound artists like Annea Lockwood, peeks behind the curtain of Hollywood sound foley production and extended looks at Green’s own life and personal recordings with subjects of past documentary efforts. Any number of these angles would make for a solid focus to build a clean 90 minutes around, but Green opts for a poetic collage of all these ideas in addition to applying some aural glue to hold the vignettes together, like trees solemnly falling or church bells chiming in the distance.

What is meant to come across as an awakening experience to the beauty of nature and the miracle of hearing frequently comes across likely a shapeless This American Life episode, with Green whispering platitudes like, “Listening to a mixtape is like travelling through space and time,” or, “[We were] making films, which kind of means ‘marvelling at people and the world’,” at the audience. Such banal insights could be gateways in deeper discussions about our relationship to sound, but 32 SOUNDS frequently opts to skim from one surface to the next, barely clearing a bar for brain-tingling sensation set by any given Bose in-store demo room one could wander into at a mid-tier mall in the 2000s.

There are fleeting moments of inspired filmmaking that make 32 SOUNDS work better as an actual movie rather than a Calm meditation podcast, particularly in cuts that make the distant past feel much closer than it really is. For example, when we suddenly jump from watching Lockwood demonstrating one of her art installations in the 60s to witnessing her looking at footage of that event on an iPhone in the present day, 32 SOUNDS compellingly bridges an enormous gap of nearly 60 years in the blink of an eye. Elsewhere, however, 32 SOUNDS frequently declines to the offer to be a movie, even inviting the viewer to close their eyes and ignore what’s on-screen no less than five separate times.

While not unexpected given the subject matter, this approach puts cracks in the foundation that 32 SOUNDS never reconciles, often inhibiting its ability to take full advantage of film as an art form. In the homestretch, Green even admits to the viewer that he was having trouble understanding how to wrap all of these ideas up into a resounding cinematic ending, remarking, “No, I don’t really know where this is heading,” to the viewer. He eventually lands on making the film temporarily about himself, which is an approach that honestly would have been welcome as a throughline throughout the whole experience. Sarah Polley’s STORIES WE TELL is no less effective for exploring the impact of memory and identity through images and film taken from her own life, but Green often shies away from making his story the spine here even if when that vulnerability naturally invites itself as the most organic approach to take to get the audience genuinely invested in what’s happening.

32 SOUNDS amounts to a novel experiment that doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts. The approach is even treated flippantly on occasion, with title cards announcing what number we’re at, appearing unceremoniously at random (to paraphrase one moment: “We’re at sound #8, but who’s counting, really?” Green remarks ever so uncannily). 32 SOUNDS wants to be simultaneously carefree and profound, deeply reverent yet also playful. One moment stuck out to me that exemplifies these tones rubbing up against each other unsuccessfully, where Green presents an early-20th century film reel about the structure of the human ear. While the old-timey black and white footage plays, he dismisses their approach as clearly corny and outdated compared to what his film can teach us about the human ear. All I could think about at that moment was how 32 SOUNDS might be received over 75 years from now: would documentary filmmakers of the 22nd century be similarly dismissive of Green’s labouriously abstract, incohesive approach? There are a lot of carefully considered details to be seen and heard in 32 SOUNDS, but false notes such as these rang the loudest in my ears by the time the credits rolled.

- Joe Hackett

Film Review: Artificial Gamer (Chad Herschberger, 2021)

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Michael_Filip_reflection
by Nash Bussieres

In Artificial Gamer, Dota is described as Basketball meets Chess – and there’s merit in that. But it’s more like if in your basketball/chess game, you and everyone on the court also got a gun. Dota is a mechanically intensive, heavily strategic team game of mutually assured destruction. Every character in play has abilities and powers that can have devastating consequences and completely shift the tide of battle if used perfectly. So the question posed by Artificial Gamer is an inevitable one: would a computer be able to play Dota more perfectly than a human?

The answer – if you were to ask your average Dota player – would be “obviously no.” Dota is a 5-on-5 team game where players take turns drafting characters, all with unique abilities and attributes, to form a cohesive squad. Your goal is to take down your enemy’s base called “the ancient” (Dota stands for Defense of the Ancients) by coordinating attacks on your opponents’ team and marching forward. You collect gold for killing your opponents and small computer-controlled swarms of enemies that are spawned in waves. Gold allows you to power up your character through buying items with the goal of becoming so powerful that your opponent can’t defend any longer as you waltz into their base and claim victory. It’s very much a war of attrition – even the fastest games can take over 20 minutes to complete.

So that’s the real rub here, a game this complex with this many variables in a real-time setting doesn’t immediately seem like it’s ripe for the taking from our eventual robot overlords. In fact, AI that plays Dota has existed since its inception as an in-game tutorial. And the AI teams, called “bots”, are incredibly bad; even on the hardest setting new players can easily overcome computer controlled opponents.

This concept of not only competent AI, but powerful AI in Dota being a laughable idea in the eyes of the wider community serves as the main narrative of Artificial Gamer. It follows the journey of OpenAI, a company who sets out to make a bot strong enough to beat any Dota team – even the world champs. We first see it take on Dendi – the best player in the world at the time – one-on-one and demolish him. But one-on-one Dota isn’t really the draw; it’s a team game and the complex decisions, coordination and human intuition needed to perform at a top level is completely incongruent with what is needed in a single player game. So can OpenAI do it?

The majority of the film focuses on the trials and tribulations of OpenAI as they try to get their bot ready to fight in time for The International 2018: the Dota world championships. There they will play exhibitions versus real human teams and attempt to prove that their bot can hang with the best. It’s a visually engaging story with lots of fascinating illustrations and fun graphics and is edited in a way that (mostly) nails really difficult segues and topic shifts without feeling too jarring or compartmentalized. The lack of a main narrator and an occasional inability to truly describe the concepts being talked about in laymen’s terms can make it a bit dry if you don’t already have at least a casual understanding of Dota, machine learning or both. The film is built up to The International as if it were to be the climax of the story, but this grand battle happens an hour in and turns out to only be a stepping stone in a much longer journey, which in turn hurts the pacing of the last third of the film.

Compelling and endearing interviews from the team at OpenAI do a lot to emphasize how much the current field of artificial intelligence and machine learning is a wild west; no one knows if anything is actually going to work or how it will work or when it will work. Spending this amount of time and energy on a project that has an unknown chance of success is unforgiving work and you can easily see the toll it takes on the team despite their determination.

Ultimately, Artificial Gamer is a deeply human story about a team of passionate and desperate pioneers trying to accomplish something they’ve been told is impossible. If you’re a fan of Dota or of machine learning in general you’ll get a lot out of it, but your eyes might glaze over a bit from time to time if you’re completely uninitiated.

SXSW Film Review: Oxy Kingpins (Brendan FitzGerald)

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

The-Oxy-Kingpins
Why were cameras allowed in a Nevada court where logistic companies were fighting a losing battle in their war to shield the American public from their corporate agenda during the opioid crisis of the 2000s? I don’t know; probably the same reason why drug dealers allowed the camera to capture their stories on the same subject as well.

More than half a million Americans have already succumbed to the opioid epidemic – and that’s just from the opioid itself. In a country made numb and inert by racial inequity, gun violence, and wealth disparity, this is what touched the nerves of many groups of powerful lawyers. Oxy Kingpins is a film that presents the ongoing saga of trying to right this particular wrong through the legal avenue in just one state.

There have been quite a few documentaries on this topic. Frontline’s Chasing Heroin was an early eye-opener, for example. In comparison, Kingpins, while highly polished, does not strike at your sense of disbelief by revealing much privileged information. The stories, the emotions, even the legal actions seemed an inevitable rehash with a foregone conclusion at this point in time. No matter the outcome of these trials, executives at the logistics and pharmacy companies have already walked away scot-free. What will you do about it – make a documentary? While the filmmakers shared in such anguished sentiments, there was not a clear message when the credits rolled. Perhaps that was intentional. The crispness of this production about tragic addictions and destitution does seem to stylistically mirror the attitude of the film’s namesake: suave, oleaginous, somehow unhealthily and eternally evasive.

SXSW Film Review: Ninjababy [Yngvild Sve Flikke]

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

Since we hit peak accidental-pregnancy-drama back in 2007, I don’t think I have set eyes on another fictional account of adventitious gamete excursion. A decade of taboo breaking has also lessened the novelty and impact of these stories on the typical audience. I, for one, no longer remember what Juno or Knocked Up was precisely about. Which mean it is the perfect time for a revival. And since stoic Norwegians are the perfect embodiment of the “no-fuss”, pragmatic Scandinavian stereotype, why not marry the two and watch the ensuing hilarity?

I’d like to think Ninjababy is borne of such a light-hearted meeting of ideas. But in truth it does not matter if it’s meant to be comedic or a moral statement. Aspiring cartoonist Rakel suddenly finds herself 6 months pregnant, which, among other inconveniences, quickly becomes the most inconveniently all-consuming event, as pregnancies are wont to do. She needs to deal with it quickly, before it gets out (of hand) and destroys her future. However, as she is dealing with a living, breathing, energy-sucking human being, that’s not so easy. Personifying (because anthropomorphasization does not work on humans-to-be) it as NINJABABY due to its uncanny ability to stay undetected until well-after the abortion window, Rakel must negotiate with herself, boyfriends, sisters, as well as the snarky baby and come up with a pragmatically workable solution.

While Ninjababy is a great animated character with quick one-liners. Rakel’s attitude carries the entire film. Of course, she is not without feelings of remorse for the welfare of her child, but there are other calculations that must be balanced. Half-way through, most would think that she will eventually give in, have the baby, and live as a sedentary housewife. But that’s not how she rolls. Whether looking at people and doing computational > eval() like Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, directing her love-interest and the one-night-stand dad-to-be about, or acting the middle-class-ist who punches up, her character only strengthens as the film develops. The most riotous moment is when Rakel sneaks into a prep class to “test” people, only to get drawn into an argument with potential adoptive parents on how their target pool, and by extension their moral benevolence, is not racially diverse enough. That scene alone makes this film a worthwhile watch. But ultimately what I like about the film is in fact its pragmatism. Sure, one may think it’s a great feminist statement to reject the cliché expectation – but being a rebel for rebellion’s sake requires confirmation, from onside or outside. And when others are evaluating your “worth” with their own formula, where does that leave you? Life will go on regardless … why not dictate it the way you want?