SXSW 2020 Review: The Shock of the Future (dir by Marc Collin)

The Shock of the Future follows one day in the life of a composer named Ana (Alma Jodorowsky).

The year is 1978 and Ana is living in a studio in Paris.  It’s not her studio.  The owner is currently in India and no one knows when he’ll be returning.  He’s lent it to Ana and she’s moved in.  She shares the space with a truly impressive collection of synthesizer equipment.  She swears, to everyone who stops by over the course of the day, that she can use the equipment to make wonderful music that will replace all of the dinosaur rockers who have outlived their usefulness.  Some believe her.  Some are skeptical.

Ana has been paid a good deal of money to write a commercial jingle but she has no interest in jingles, no matter how many times the sleazy ad guy (Phillippe Rebbot) drops by the studio and tries to intimidate her with his tough guy act.  She doesn’t care about “50s rock” nor does she care about the “soft voices” of acoustic folk.  Drummers, she says, are not necessary when she has a machine that can do the job.  In fact, she doesn’t need a band at all!  Rebbot is not particularly impressed and orders her to either write him a jingle or pay him back the money.

Throughout the day, more people drop by the apartment.  Geoffrey Carey plays a friend who brings her the latest records from the UK.  Teddy Melis shows up to deliver a piece of equipment and to smoke a joint.  A singer (played by Clara Luciani) unexpectedly shows up and she and Ana bond over their mutual dislike of the sleazy men in the business and then proceed to work on a song together.  It all leads to a party, in which Ana plays her new song for a dismissive producer who tells her that that “there’s something there” but it will never catch on.  The producer is especially dismissive because the song’s lyrics are in English.  “We are French!” he all but announces.

However, not all hope is lost.  By the end of the film, we’ve been reminded that there actually is a world outside of Ana’s studio and that the future cannot be stopped….

The Shock of the Future is a deceptively simple film.  Nearly the entire film takes place in one location and the majority of the action consists of people entering the studio, talking to Ana, and then eventually leaving.  This is one of those films that I’m sure some people will watch and claim that there wasn’t enough of a story for the film to hold their interest.  Of course, those people are wrong.  The Shock of the Future is a film about the act of creation and anyone who creates for a living — whether they’re a composer like Ana or a writer like me or a photographer like my sister — will automatically be able to understand and relate to Ana’s story.  If you’ve ever had someone dismiss your work by saying that it’s “too strange” or that it didn’t conform to whatever society’s current standards may be, you’ll relate to Ana.  You will understand what she is going through and why she refuses to surrender to the condescending naysayers around her.  All visionaries are initially dismissed by a world that’s not ready for them, by a world that’s not ready for the shock of the future.  Alma Jodorowsky does a wonderful job in the role of Ana.  There’s not a moment when she’s not onscreen and she’s compelling even when she’s just staring at her machines and waiting for inspiration to come.

The Shock of the Future is a tribute to the female pioneers of electronic music, the women who changed the direction of music and saved us from the tyranny of acoustic folk bullshit and who were often overlooked by future historians.  The film ends with a dedication to the “women who pioneered in electronic music: Clara Rockmore, Wendy Carlos, Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire, Elaine Rodrigues, Laurie Spiegel, Susan Ciani, Johanna Beyer, Bebe Baran, Pauline Oliveiras, Else Marie Pade, Beatriz Ferrerya, et al.”  Ana serves as a stand-in for all of them and also as a stand-in for every artist who had the courage to follow their own vision.  In the end, Ana is one of us and we are all Ana.

SXSW 2020 Review: Gunpowder Heart (dir by Camila Urrutia)

Also known as Pólvora en el corazón, Gunpowder Heart is a raw and angry film from Guatemala.

Set (and filmed in) Guatemala City, Gunpowder Heart tells the story of two girlfriends.  Claudia (Andrea Henry) is the calmer of the two and works at a call center, where she says that she spends almost all of her time talking to “gringos.”  Maria (Vanessa Hernandez) is the more emotional of the two.  Whereas Claudia always seems to be holding back, Maria is in constant motion.  She lives in a dilapidated house with her mother.

One night, when Claudia and Maria go to a local carnival, Maria reveals to Claudia that she’s carrying a gun for their protection.  From what we’ve seen of Guatemala City, it seems like Maria has a point.  The streets — or at least, the streets in the neighborhoods in which this film takes place — are filthy.  The walls are covered in graffiti.  The police who patrol those streets often appear to be more dangerous and menacing than the criminals from which they’re supposed to be providing protection.  From the minute that we see Claudia riding her motorcycle through the streets of the city, there’s an ominous atmosphere of unease that just grows heavier and heavier as the film progresses.

However, Claudia does not want Maria to carry a gun and, when Maria isn’t looking, Claudia takes the gun and hides it from her.  Later that night, as they leave the carnival, Maria and Claudia are attacked by three men who force the girls to strip and then sexually taunt and abuse them.  It’s only the arrival of a clueless security guard that gives Claudia and Maria the chance to escape.

Angry that she didn’t have a weapon to protect herself, Maria manages to find the gun.  Maria is determined to use that gun to get revenge.  However, it turns out that getting revenge is not as easy as it may appear to be in the movies.  Maria’s plan is a messy and disorganized one and Claudia finds herself torn between her desire for vengeance and her knowledge that there’s no way things are going to end well.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it all leads to disaster and tragedy.

As I said at the start of this review, Gunpowder Heart is a raw and angry film, one that seems to be conflicted about whether or not to embrace Maria’s fury or to tolerate Claudia’s caution.  (That’s a conflict that many in the audience will share as well.)  Using the techniques of cinéma vérité, Gunpowder Heart put you right in the middle of Maria and Claudia’s shared existence.  The camera never stops moving, perfectly mirroring not only the anxiety of their lives but also the anxiety of those of us watching the two of them.  Throughout the film, Maria talks about leaving Guatemala.  She says that she wants to go to Europe and then later to America.  But, ultimately, there is no easy escape from the reality of what it means to be a woman (especially a woman who identifies as being queer) in a society controlled by violent and entitled men.

It’s a rough film and probably one that won’t appeal to everyone.  By refusing to come down firmly on the side of either Maria or Claudia, the film will probably alienate those who like their films to have a clear cut point of view.  As some reviewers have pointed out, we don’t learn much about who Maria and Claudia were before that night but I would argue that who they were before doesn’t matter.  From the moment that they’re assaulted outside of the carnival, Maria and Claudia’s old life ends and their new one begins.

Blessed with two brave and outstanding lead performances from Andrea Henry and Vanessa Hernandez, Gunpowder Heart is a powerful and anxiety-filled film.  It’s currently available to be viewed, for a limited time, on Prime.

2020 SXSW Reviews: Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business, Hiplet: Because We Can, Quilt Fever

Tonight, as I continued my viewing of all the SXSW films that are currently available on Prime, I watched three short documentaries.  Each one of them dealt with real people seeking their own artistic truth.

Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business (dir by Christine Turner)

Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business is essentially an interview with the legendary artist Betye Saar, with some archival footage worked in and, of course, some footage of her artwork.  It’s a simple format but that’s okay.  It’s a fascinating documentary because Betye Saar is a fascinating artist.  Saar has been creating art for over 70 years and, at the age of 93, she’s still working in her Los Angeles studio, creating works that can make people angry and that can make them think.

The film delves into Saar’s civil right activism and how, through her artwork, she has taken the stereotypical images that were once used to demean African-Americans and has weaponized them in the fight for equal rights.  As we see in the documentary, one of Saar’s most acclaimed pieces features Aunt Jemima with a rifle and a grenade.

It’s a short documentary.  Betye Saar is such a lively and outspoken subject that you find yourself wishing that the documentary was a bit longer.  You also wish that the documentary had spent more time on the briefly mentioned “occult” influences on Saar’s work. Still, by the end of the film, you’re happy for the time that the filmmaker did have with Saar.  She’s a fascinating artist.

Hiplet: Because We Can (dir by Addison Wright)

This likable 8 minute film is about the Hiplet Ballerinas.  (Hiplet is a mix of classical ballet and hip hop.  It’s pronounced Hip-lay.)  Though there is a black-and-white sequence where the dancers talk about themselves and what hiplet means to them, the majority of the film is just made up of footage of the Hiplet Ballerinas performing.  They are amazing dancers and exciting to watch.  If you love dance, as I do, you’ll not only enjoy this documentary but you’ll also be excited about it.  This is a documentary that reminds us that dance is for every one.  As many of the dancers point out, they may not be stereotypical ballerinas but it doesn’t matter because stereotypes were made to be destroyed.  As this documentary shows, dancing is beautiful and dancing is for all.

Quilt Fever (dir by Oliva Merrion)

Quilt Fever was a real surprise.  This documentary deals with a subject (quilting) that I don’t know much about and it’s almost exclusively populated by people with whom I don’t have much in common but I still found it be enthralling and ultimately, rather touching.

Quilt Fever follows an annual quilting competition that takes place in the town of Paducah, Kentcuky.  It’s known as the Academy Awards of Quilting and it attracts quilters from all over the country.  The film not only shows us the competition but it also features profiles of a few of the people who are competing.  As you might guess, they’re all a bit eccentric.  For the most part, they’re all older women, the type of people who living in “fly over country” and who are usually looked down upon by the coastal elitists.  They may not be celebrities but they’ve found fame in the quilting world and they’ve also found a welcoming (if competitive) community.  Quilt Fever is an even-handed and nonjudgmental look at that community, one that never indulges in the type of condescension that we far too often see in documentaries about people in the middle of the country.  It’s a sweet-natured documentary and definitely a treat to watch.

SXSW 2020 Review: Broken Orchestra (dir by Charlie Tyrell)

In the 13-minute documentary, Broken Orchestra, a camera glides through a deserted high school in Philadelphia, moving down hallways and up stairwells and occasionally entering into classrooms that are full of broken-down instruments.  Throughout the high school, there are television sets and, on each television, a different persons talks about being a part of the Broken Orchestra.

At a time when the schools of Philadelphia (which, we’re told, is the poorest big city in America) were struggling, budget cuts were leading to the cancellation of music programs.  Those programs that managed to survive often had to make due with damaged instruments.  Because students were having to use damaged tools, they often couldn’t play the type of music that they wanted create.

When a huge amount of damaged instruments were found in an abandoned high school, the Broken Orchestra was born.  The all-volunteer orchestra played on those instruments and proved that even a damaged instrument could be used to make unique music and, in much the same way, greatness can even come out of a damaged school or a damaged city.  Even a damaged instrument still has something to say.  Even a damaged instrument is still worth listening to.

It’s certainly in inspiring story and one that also makes a good argument for funding music and other artistic programs.  Everyone who discusses their part in the Broken Orchestra was obviously touched by the experience and it’s impossible not to get swept up in their emotions.  If I do have a complaint, it’s that I wish we had heard a bit more of the orchestra but still, it’s an inspiring story.

SXSW 2020 Review: Blocks (dir by Bridget Moloney)

I have to admit that, when it comes to people spitting things up, I’m kind of a wimp.  It’s something that I typically have a hard time watching.  It’s one reason why, in college, I usually left the room if someone had too much to drink.  I seriously didn’t want to be there when that person started throwing up a combination of beer and nacho cheese.  I mean, bleh!

So, Blocks was not always easy for me to watch.  Blocks is a 12-minute comedy about Ashleigh (Claire Coffee), the mother of two young children who, one day, starts to vomit up toy blocks.  Now, fortunately, the film doesn’t get particularly graphic when it comes to the vomiting.  Usually, we only see the aftermath, which is often Claire lying on the floor, exhausted and surrounded by toy blocks while her children (and sometimes, her husband) knock on the bathroom door and demand to know why she’s not spending time with them.  Ashleigh can’t tell anyone about the toy blocks, of course.  She just pretends like the family has always owned the toy blocks that are mysteriously appearing around the house.  Her children refuse to play with them.  Eventually, Ashleigh finds a use for them.

As I said, I’m a wimp when it comes to people vomiting but still, Blocks was a well-done and frequently funny film.  In her introduction to the film, director Bridget Moloney says that the film was based on her own feelings and experiences as a mother and I think anyone who has ever been stuck in a house with two hyperactive, inquisitive kids will be able to relate to Ashleigh’s feeling of being overwhelmed.  Before I watched Blocks, I was going through one of my “I really want to start a family now!” phases.  Having watched it, I now think that maybe I should wait a year or two because, seriously — if I can’t handle someone vomiting legos, I don’t know how I’ll be able to handle all of the disgusting stuff that toddlers do.

Blocks, like many other films that were going to be shown at this year’s SXSW festival, is currently available on Amazon for a limited time.

SXSW 2020 Review: Vert (dir by Kate Cox)

Happy 20th anniversary, Emelia (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and Jeff (Nick Frost)!

Emelia and Jeff are the couple who are at the center of the 12 minute short film, Vert.  They are the one of those couples who you just like from the minute that you see them together.  They have that sort of easy rapport that one would expect a couple to have after managing to stay together for 20 years.  They both live in a nice house.  They both appear to be very happy with their lives.  In fact, everything about them seems to be almost perfect.

What anniversary present do you get for the perfect couple?  How about a virtual reality system?  Through the use of “Vert,” Emelia and Jeff can not only go to a virtual world but they can also get a glimpse of their “ideal selves.”  I know, that sounds like kind of a crazy idea, doesn’t it?  I mean, how does anyone truly know who their ideal self would be?  Well, Vert knows!

And soon, Emelia and Jeff know as well….

Vert is one of those films that I watch and I wonder if maybe people in movies just don’t watch Black Mirror.  If they did, they would surely know better than to enter any sort of virtual reality.  But, what makes Vert such a thought-provoking film is how Emelia and Jeff react to what they discover in that virtual world.  Just a few years ago, the plot of Vert probably would have been played for easy laughs but today, it’s played for poignant and emotional drama.  In its way, Vert is a film that shows how far society and culture have come and also how far it has yet to go.

Vert is a nicely shot film, full of atmospheric images.  The cast all give sincere and believable performances and Nikki Amuka-Bird, in particular, does a good job with her role.  Vert is currently available, for a limited time, on Prime.

SXSW 2020 Review: Summer Hit (dir by Berthold Wahjudi)

Summer Hit is a sweet-natured, 20-minute film from Germany.

Laia (Martina Roura) is from Spain.  She’s adventurous and free-spirited and also somewhat irresponsible.  For instance, when she accidentally leaves her wallet at someone else’s apartment, she reacts by running out on a cab fare and then stealing a salad.  And, really — can you blame her?  I mean, if you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money.

Emil (Atli Benedikt) is from Iceland, which he describes as being cold and miserable.  He is somewhat quiet and seems to be a bit shy.  Overall, he seems like a nice guy.  He’s the type who, when you see him staggering about after taking a hit from a bong, you want to help him out.


Well, no, actually, they don’t.  In fact, as we already discussed, Laia commits a few crimes after losing her wallet.  Instead, they’re both students who meet in Munich one summer and decide to have a commitment-free summer fling.  Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to say that you’re going to be commitment-free than it is to actually do it.  After they have sex five or six times (Laia says five while Emil insists that it was six), Emil tells Laia that he thinks he might be in love with her.  Laia flees his apartment, leaving behind her wallet….

It’s a good film, one that briskly tells a story to which everyone can relate.  We’ve all been there.  Martina Roura and Atli Benedikt are both such likable performers that you can forgive the fact that both Laia and Emil can occasionally be a bit self-absorbed.  Neither one is perfect but then again, who is?  You hope for the best of them, even if you never quite believe that they’ll really stay together.

Summer Hit is available, for a limited time, on Prime.

SXSW 2020 Review: Run/On (dir by Daniel Newell Kaufman)

Run/On is a 13-minute short film that opens with a shot of a young boy balancing a fidget spinner on his forehead.

It’s haunting shot, one that is beautifully composed and which also tells you almost everything that you need to know about the film.  Fidget spinners are very useful to those of us who have ADD and who sometimes find it difficult to focus in a chaotic world.  I carry a fidget spinner everywhere that I go and, as strange as it apparently seems to some people, spinning it really does provide me with some focus and comfort.  Whenever I start to feel the world overwhelming me, I concentrate on watching it spin and, by the time that it stops, I’ve usually managed to calm down a bit.

The rest of Run/On deals with a boy named Luke and his mother and the time they spend waiting in a believably filthy Greyhound bus station.  Luke doesn’t speak throughout the entire film, but he sees and hears all of the chaos around him.  His mother, on the other hand, can’t stop talking.  She’s got two trash bags full of clothes and two tickets for a Greyhound.  She also has a gun in her purse, something Luke obviously finds to be concerning.

It’s a scary bus station.  Speaking as someone who once spent the night at the Greyhound bus station in Dallas (long story, don’t ask), I can say that this film did a great job of capturing just how scary, menacing, and exciting a big city bus station can be.  When Luke goes to a vending machine, we’re aware of the two men sitting in a corner of the bus station and watching.  When he later walks around the station, he passes a seedy-looking man on a phone.  All around him are people living their own lives of desperation and it’s somewhat frightening to witness it all.  It’s enough to make you want to run and keep running.

Run/On, with all of its mysteries, is currently available on Prime for a limited time.

SXSW 2020 Review: Dieorama (dir by Kevin Staake)

“Lisa, I think you misspelled the title of the film….”

No, I didn’t!  For once, I have not misspelled anything.  This film is about dieoramas, which are dioramas that put an extra amount of emphasis on “die.”  Dieorama is also a ten minute profile of Abigail Goldman, who is an investigator for a public defender’s office in Washington and who spends her spare time making miniature crime scenes.

It may be a macabre habit but it’s hard not to admire the amount of effort and detail that Abigail puts into each grotesque little scene.  The dark humor of those involved in law enforcement is often commented upon and while it can sometimes seem insensitive to outsiders, it makes total sense when you consider that these are people who, on a daily basis, are regularly confronted with the worst that humanity has to offer.  Often times, that streak of morbid humor is a defense against giving into the darkness that’s all around them.

I mean, let’s face it.  We all have our ways of dealing with the bad things in the world.  Myself, I watch horror movies and I read true crime books.  When I was much younger, I used to regularly play dead and while everyone thought that was a strange habit, it was actually my way of laughing at my own mortality.  If you can mock death, then there’s no reason to fear it, right?  (That said, I grew out of the habit as I got older.)  My point is that we all deal with the grotesque in different ways.  Some people pretend not to see the darkness.  Some embrace the darkness.  And then others deal with the darkness by acknowledging, personalizing, and then conquering it.

Dieorama also features some interviews with the people who have collected Abigail’s work.  Some of them seem to be a bit apologetic for hanging a miniature crime scene on their wall but you know what?  Never apologize for your decorating tastes!  There’s no need to feel shame for appreciating the macabre.  In fact, in a crazy time, it may be the most sane thing that you can do.

Dieorama can currently be viewed on Prime.


SXSW 2020 Short Film Review: Basic (dir by Chelsea Devantez)

In the introduction that plays before the start of Basic, director and actress Chelsea Devantez describes her film as being a “very, very, very short film” and indeed it is.  It’s only 4 minutes long, which means that this is about to a very, very, very short review.

Anyway, Basic is a film about “the insecure lil’ ho in all of us.”  It open with Gloria (Chelsea Devantez) looking at Kailynn’s (Georgia Mischak) Instagram and talking about how much she hates her.  Why does Gloria hate Kailynn?  Could it be because Kailynn appears to have a perfect and glamorous life?  Or could it be because of the fact that Nick (Nelson Franklin) is in several of the pictures with her.  “Oh, look,” Gloria says, “we go shopping together.”

I’m probably not doing justice to the film but it’s a laugh-out loud hilarious comedy and it’s got a clever little twist at the end and dammit, what else can you really ask from a four-minute comedy?  Many of the laughs comes from Gloria’s snarky comments about Kailynn’s life but even more of the laughs come from the fact that it’s obvious that Gloria would love to be Kailynn.  Finally, this film gives us a lot of Nelson Franklin, who was hilarious on Veep and who deserves to be in many more films and shows.  Nelson Franklin is one of those actors who can make just about any line laugh out loud hilarious.

It’s a short film.  It’s 4 minutes.  Who doesn’t have 4 minutes to spare?  Seriously, you’re going to tell me you don’t have 4 minutes?  Shut up, you’ve got 4 minutes.  Watch it on Prime while you can.