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

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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.

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.