SXSW Film Review: Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break (2021, Nick Gillespie)

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Paul Dood is weird.

Paul Dood is likeable enough, but also prone to making you a bit uncomfortable.

Paul Dood starts out with relatively good intentions but eventually goes off the rails.

All of the above statements describe the character of Paul Dood, the protagonist of Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break, but in many ways, they also work as descriptions of the film itself.

Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break tells the story of a man on the edge, a hapless loser who just wants to be famous, but who, through a series of misfortunes, ends up bumbling his way through a lunch break full of bloodshed and general mayhem. It’s a strong premise and one that holds a lot of potential for dark comedy even if the end product does come out a bit uneven.

When his dreams of becoming famous through a reality TV singing competition are dashed, sad sack Paul Dood comes up with a plan for vengeance that ends up sort of working even though nothing quite goes as planned. The film tries to keep things fairly sweet and lighthearted while also dealing with some rather gruesome subject matter, resulting in a film that comes off as a combination of Falling Down and Eurovision. And yes, that blend is as odd and incongruous as you might think.

Tom Meeten is great in the lead role and is surrounded by a talented cast of players who all seem to be having a lot of fun with the material, but the story does fall a little short at times, culminating in a resolution that doesn’t feel entirely earned in the end. Also, why cast Katherine Parkinson in your film and then give her so little to do?

Still, there are enough likeable moments in the film (the tea ceremony scene and Kris Marshall’s role as an absolutely terrible priest are good for a couple laughs) and thanks to a pivotal scene, I had “Together In Electric Dreams” stuck in my head for a good while after viewing it (definitely not a bad thing in my books) so I guess Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break ultimately gets a tentative thumbs up from me.

SXSW Animated Shorts Shortlist Review

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Having an extremely limited time to manipulate an audience, short films have a unique challenge in competing for attention and impact. However, those that do grab you tend to stay with you long past the length of their airtime. This year I found a few shorts that did just that.

My Fat Arse and I [Yelyzaveta Pysmak]
This is a hilarious take on the stereotypical ‘thin = best’ body-shaming culture. Watch for the surprise twist at the end as the protagonist teams up with a special friend in her fight against the dreaded Evil Eye.

Love is Just a Death Away [Bára Anna Stejskalová]
The title does not really encompass this clever stop animation, which introduces us to the plight of a sentient caterpillar. While the story is light, detailed work in expressions allowed it to shine with a gleeful character.

Le Musicien [Reza Riahi] This short features beautifully animated, albeit digital, shadow puppetry with solid writing and great pace. It will literally tug at your heartstrings from start to finish.

KKUM [KIM Kang-min] A brilliant black and white stop motion animation with amazingly sleek production that portrays a protective and overbearing mother and her grateful, sometimes snarky offspring. Uniquely, its use of styrofoam reveals a few new tricks that are typically inaccessible to clay.

SXSW Film Review: Dear Mr. Brody [Keith Maitland, 2021]

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Philanthropy has changed a lot since the 19th century, the days of the industrial and financial barons. Unlike the security of real estate and esteem among their fellow human beings, their monetary wealth means little when the foundational goodwill of a currency cannot be sustained by people lacking access to it. In essence, especially in the case of targeted and structured variety where patronage dictates tastes, philanthropy may be nothing more than a selfish exercise that happen to coincide with the axiom that “a rising tide lifts (all) boats”.

So why not just give out money? Far less work involved, it seems.

Like everything else under the sun, it’s been tried before, and recently, too (if 50 years is a blink of an eye). One week in January 1970, a borderline schizophreniac named Michael Brody offered to open his inherited largess to anyone in the world with a story to tell. His promise grew from 25 million, 100 million, to a world-shattering 10 billion. In exchange, for a week, it seems the world froze and did nothing else but pour a bit (or sometimes more than a bit) of their minds into letters. The USPS went into over-drive and there are still to this day, approximately a hundred thousand letters written to Brody. It is by far one of the best real-life premises for a Tennant era Dr. Who episode: imagine the Doctor absorbing all that encapsulated time energy and then regenerating into a Victorian philanthropist. How (self-servingly) exciting!

Dear Mr. Brody is a project born from an accidental rediscovery of these letters, most of which were never opened. Brody himself never did individually respond to the letters. In allusion early on and later in literal diagnosis, it became a psychologically untenable proposition. Also, to be honest, what single human would wish to take on the problems of so many others? Instead, an “army” of scholars and volunteers from the Columbia University set about honoring these memories, living or dead, by finally opening and reading them upon the chance discovery.

I do find it a somewhat callous exercise to sift through the “best letters” and have them read by the writers themselves or their relations. I would surmise that even an innocuous “I hope you buy me candy” from a 2 year-old would age into a spectacular read through the magical help of 18,262.5 days. But I would not argue if the alternative was a faceless, generic narration.

What the project also reminds us of, however, is the raw power of physical writing. Even if assembled through a typewriter, the mechanical history of producing words and sentences transcends the medium. Just the sight of some letters was often emotional. It is sadly and obviously being lost with every tweet and gram. An ageless, digital, nearly sterile “I hope you buy me candy”, unless pulled from a hard drive sunk in the bottom of Lake Superior, will not rouse the same fuzzy feeling as the same in faded ink and a kindergartener’s naïve hand. In this perspective, there is always “more room at the bottom” and the film has no shortage of tear-jerkers. While it is not how Richard Feynman intended that phrase, digging for powerful/tragic stories might be the only enterprise that can never fail to succeed. As the letters expose the poignant comparative anatomy of the THEN and NOW, you may find that everything, or nothing, has changed. Whichever way you walk into these stories, I am fairly confident you will not be disappointed by reliving that one week in 1970.

SXSW Film Review: Clerk [2021, Malcolm Ingram]

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What is meant to be the functional difference between biography and autobiography?

Methinks the entry exams for all Kevin Smith fan clubs have already been failed by the posing of that question. It will surprise no one (myself included, especially if I was ever to write an autobiography) that I have never seen Clerk(s), nor Jay and Silent Bob(s). While a culture touchstone, there is just an intentional lack of obscurity that I could not abide. The elitist in me felt like shouting, “I’m not even supposed to be here”!

However, that point is also intentionally missed. It is objectively and precisely what makes Kevin Smith such an enduringly popular tide within the phenomenal tsunami of nerd culture. Clerk is a victory lap whose purpose was never in doubt from the first millisecond. What self-respecting, self-deprecating humorist shows off a VHS recording of a grandiose teenage proclamation if it was never realized? In chronological order, Clerk pinballs around the milestones of Kevin Smith’s journey through life, betwixt the movie and comic book industry, supported largely by the same entourage. It charts his constantly rising star and occasionally twinkling luminosity, all the way to the marijuana, heart attack and his “gone soft” moments.

From the outside perspective, it is a defining culture slideshow from the ’90s to the present. Of course Bill and Ted preceded Jay and Silent Bob. Of course 3 decades of longevity can be bestowed upon anything that manages to still receive periodic filling of the feeding trough from its creators, given said creators are still around. Just as the Sundance illuminati figured out that Clerks was not a clever elitist swipe but a genuine blue collar outing, Kevin Smith and Co. also worked out that they didn’t have to bow to any gatekeepers. The joke’s on the Illuminati who funded such a slacker Coming-of-Age – but who’s counting intellectual grudges if one’s hands are riddled by papercuts from Benjamins? The clear differentiation between Hollywood and Nerd subcultures, in their telling, is accessibility. Whereas it is the major currency in Hollywood and perhaps the crossover Influencer universe, it is democratized in the Nerd culture. As they imply from the inside perspective, no less, anyone nerd enough can print accessibility in the View Askewniverse.

In its warmest interpretation, Clerk is indeed a tear-jerking saga where millions awoke with Kevin Smith to find that they resonate with, and more importantly, have the economic might to dictate, a multitude of harmlessly parallel niche worldviews full of wiener-nazis and man-walruses. In the far darker corner, though, sits the he-who-shall-not-be-named president. As Red State foretold, worldview fandom and worldview fundamentalism is not as far separated as they seem. And in the tally, maybe there wasn’t much separating elitism and populism, either.