SXSW Film Review: Oxy Kingpins (Brendan FitzGerald)

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

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?

SXSW Film Review: The Hunt for Planet B [Nathaniel Kahn, 2021]

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


While it is generally accepted that the answer to all questions in the Universe is 42, it is not clear how it applies to the question of advanced civilizations out there. Can there only be 42 planets that sustain life at any one time? Are there 42 different recipes to build self-sustaining lifeforms? Perhaps there are 42 planets, organic molecules be damned, that form themselves a long-range intergalactic “civilization” on a time-scale unfathomable to our feeble instruments of thought?

The exo-planet issue has of course been resolved recently. You will recall that in February 2017, NASA announced their findings in the TRAPPIST-1 system, where not only could planets be found, but every single one is Earth-sized and at least three of them are in the habitable Goldilocks zone. Naturally, the only thing on most people’s mind was: can we ever move there? Travel posters were soon designed about these exotic paradises, where 6 “moons” pirouette across the horizon like cheap targets in some fun-fair. Never mind that these environs would probably kill even short-term visitors in fascinatingly unanticipated ways: “For several trillion dollars, experience radiantly purple sky as a 300 millisecond short-term memory just before your skull is blasted open by the steam from your own eyeballs!”

The Hunt for Planet B is a compositionally straight-forward documentary. Interviews with leading scientists and engineers working in telescope construction and exoplanet research are stitched together to introduce their origins, passions, and concerns on the question of finding a second home. It’s like surveying the consensus among cartographical wizards from the 15th century about the possibility and morality of moving to Terra Incognita, except it contains exclusive footage during the construction of the James Webb telescope. The many personal vignettes from the scientists add to the human element, and are happily not included just to bond the pieces of footage together. That job falls to the occasional radio broadcast background from the ’80s, reminding us just how close a Planet B might be: TRAPPIST-1 is just 40 light years away, still basking in “Just the Two of Us” from Bill Withers, #18 on the charts in 1981, for the first time.

It is clearly a universal curiosity to seek out or refute the possibility of another Earth out there, making the topics of this film a perennial interest. While it focuses on the search, which is the least we can do at the moment, a huge issue as we become more equipped to explore distant worlds is the philosophy with which we approach such travel: are we just looking for a way to leave our present abode like an irresponsible interstellar renter? As highlighted in the film, there are already “ethical” calls to curb exo-planetary hunts because it distracts from our current ecological plights. But we could also look forward to contrast our planet with a truly feasible alternative, in hopes to re-affirm the bond with our home world. There are even more convoluted and existential discussions to be had, of course, but here the film leaves it simply at the pragmatic question: “Would you go”? Personally, interplanetary travel is little different from intra-planetary travel, and shit gets left behind. (Literally.) I would hope that we think deep and hard about the ramifications before breaking wind on another planet only to leave an irreversible stink.

SXSW Film Review: Under The Volcano (2021, Gracie Otto)

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

download (4)

Can a specific place affect the sound of a record? I’m not talking about regional scenes, or Sufjan’s Illinoise album, or how every single Chili Peppers song is about California in some way, or even how the equipment at a certain studio can elicit a different sound than another. What I’m talking about is whether just the simple act of recording in a certain geographical space can effect one’s state of mind. According to Under The Volcano, Gracie Otto’s documentary on the history of AIR Studios, it would seem the answer is yes.

Opened in 1979 by famed producer George Martin and located on the island of Montserrat, AIR studios was responsible for some of the top records of the 1980s from the likes of Elton John, Dire Straits, The Police, and several other notable names. So what was it that drew all of these top tier artists to this little island? For one thing, George Martin and general word of mouth, but for another, it seems that just the atmosphere of the studio environment and its surroundings had a lot of appeal. As Midge Ure notes in the film, “This little island had a heart you can feel.”

The film features lots of great footage and interviews with the many stars who recorded at AIR as well as the studio staff and others. The tales of how classic albums like Synchronicity and Brothers In Arms were made will be of definite interest to fans while stories of Elton John and Stevie Wonder playing shows at tiny local bars definitely give you that “wish I could have seen that” feeling. Other notable moments come in the form of stories like that of Jimmy Buffett wanting to buy up an entire bar just so that he and his band wouldn’t have to wait so long to get their next round of drinks. And the archival interview clip of Lou Reed talking about how he didn’t really care for the peaceful environs because “I need to hear traffic” is extremely on brand for Reed.

And of course, just like Chekov’s gun, the titular volcano, which for most of the film is pushed aside as just another passive inhabitant of the island, eventually does go off. By that point, Hurricane Hugo and the general drop in recording budgets over the course of the ’80s had already effectively put an end to AIR Studios Montserrat, but the volcano put the proverbial final nail on the coffin.

Still, while AIR Studios is no more, its legacy lives on, and Under The Volcano does a fine job of exploring that legacy.