The essence of SxSW this year was rattled of course in the texture of the coronavirus but films are films and their perspectives are their own. In selecting films in the same way as approaching for interviews albeit remotely, an interesting cross section comes forth.
Cargo The texture of life and science in an interesting progression. Using this predilection, “Cargo” uses a style of metaphorical perception to show the essence of its characters. In reference to a certain mythology, the movie takes place on a space station that is a weigh station for souls on their way to reincarnation. While it moves in a sort of dance with existentialism, the film also speaks to the rigors or freedoms one feels within identity. The lead character is characterized as a demon by sorts but not in the way the Western world believes it to be. He is just trying to make sure balance is maintained as the masses are transferred at their time. The reflection on Earth of what his superiors per se would like him to do is both focused but undone. When an assistant finally arrives, their interaction is both stilted and oddly kinetic simply because she might be taking his lifeforce. In an odd way, the subway stop of the people is an interesting transgression on life but also what constituted the essence of worries, regrets and needs. The eventual transcendence of the lead character is understood but (like “Moon” starring Sam Rockwell) most of the film takes place in two rooms creating a claustrophobia that works for the loneliness at times it tries to cultivate.
Scales The essence of mythology is always an interesting texture. Shooting on a peninsula in Oman in black and white is a distinctly interesting progression and adds a degree of perspective to the proceedings of this film. The story follow a girl who as a part of the ritual of her village on the sea is fated as a baby to be given to the ocean for sea maidens to reclaim. While this is a test on an old wives’ tale, its structure within a Middle East setting is both universal and timeless. The film works well because it is both modern in a way and traditional. While the dialogue is sparse, the actions of the actors speak volumes specifically between the girl, afflicted from her youth with “scales” on her feet and the captain she eventually works with to learn a fishing trade. She is both part of a community and ousted from it, especially in regards to her parents (most specifically her father). Yet she is the salvation in many ways. The stark landscape of the desert rocks against the water are undeniably beautiful and one wonders of their starkness in color. But the black and white, especially on many of the night shoots, adds a sense of both foreboding and mystery (without the need for extensive special effects). However when meaning is needed, their explanation speaks volumes.
Make Up The notion of identity filters through this story of a girl who is existing in a natural but basic relationship and, by extension, world. What the film does through its use of claustrophobia in her domain is create a sense of both want and abandonment. She wants to be something darker or outside herself possibly. There are imprints of those ideas which are bathed in fingernails, perhaps a kind of succubus ode that she only needs to give herself into. When she decodes her ideas into what they truly need to be then the film understands itself. The psychology is simply one basked in dark streets but red velvet lit warmth. The texture of the colors alone plays to the reality of what Molly, the lead character, is. She feels safe in the breathe of her co-worker while her boyfriend leaves her cold (seemingly on his end as well since he becomes less and less interested physically in her). The performance of the lead actress keys into that sense of isolation without resolving to say exactly what is happening with her. As a result it feels like a coming of age reflected in a certain Lynchian ode to womanhood.
Rare Beasts The texture of happiness or what makes someone happy with themselves is not a straight line to traverse. Within this comedy of sorts, Billie Piper, who gained notoriety as a companion on “Doctor Who” (and was honestly one of the most fun sidekicks that character had in recent years) brings in both a nuanced and yet vivacious performance without losing track of her voice. There is a similarity to an earlier more independent piece in “Wild Rose” (which played SxSW in 2020) about a young girl finding her voice. While that was an interesting film (and another redhead) this is a much more mature film that has its best moments when it lets the characters sit. One specific scene between David Thewlis and the actress that plays Billie’s mom is undeniably tragic but truthful and told by simply looks. Piper’s timing is uncanny. Her romantic male foil played in specificity because of his foibles earns stripes but Piper is the bright light. The ending tends to play more metaphorical but doesn’t bow down to expectations. Like Olivia Wilde to a lesser degree (“Booksmart” played SxSW last year as well), there is a dynamic ear for music and certain flourishes. That said, parts of the film also seem inherently TV visually based in terms of set up, not to its detriment but to the possibilities. Piper’s voice also is integral as she wrote the script so the musings, especially those when she is walking down the street, speak candidly to the hiccups of life, which this film is not afraid of showing.
Red Heaven This documentary follows a group of people who undergo an experiment to isolate themselves for a year in Mars-like conditions to study how the isolation and approach of an actual mission would affect them. This means no internet and the responses from ground control to move back and forth across space at intervals of 20 minutes as it would on the Red Planet. The quarters are tight, no alcohol and outside time is limited and attained as it would if they were on Mars with space type HAZ-MAT gear. It is an interesting psychological exercise as the participants were chosen with the same criteria as the astronauts would be. The aspect of certain psychological traits including aversion and closeness is an interesting structure but not together unexpected. It would have been interesting to hear a little more of the German scientist’s thoughts in her own language since that is something even in a confined space that could be kept private. It is introduced in the beginning but not completely implemented. Also the delayed impact of the information of the terror attack in Paris to a French citizen involved in the experiment also integrates to a sense of detachment. All of the footage was taken inside the dome by the people inside so it has the texture of being what it is but also a specific fly on the wall concept (since it used some rigged cameras but also the people doing the interviews). It is a structure of a petri dish but one that will open eyes and reflect long expected perspectives in others.
Making a follow up to “The Big Lebowski” in any way, shape or form is an interesting quandary. Jesus Quintana, who just had a small ode in that seminal film, was seemingly a pervert who just lived to bowl and start trouble with his bowling alley competitors. While that ode 20 years ago happened in LA, this new tome, which John Turturro writes, directs and acts in, picks up Jesus getting again out of the joint 20 years later (how long he has been incarcerated we don’t know). He is picked up by his friend, played by Bobby Cannavale. From the get go, be assured that this is not “The Big Lebowski 2”. This is it’s own animal with less visual flourish, slightly darker humor to be sure and more subtle writing. Much of what Jesus and his cohorts do makes little sense but that, in short order, is part of the fun. Jesus as a character just seems to go on whatever path life takes him, despite the absurd, stealing cars, trying to have sex with women but also coming on to his best friend in Cannavale, not out of spite but just saying “you should try it!”. Whether stealing cars or staying in random people’s houses, Turturro plays the older Jesus as just a free spirit but with wrong values. Once in a while, it does elevate. What lets this work in many ways, even though her English accent is still very heavy, blossom is Audrey Tautou, the star of “Amelie” and “The DaVinci Code” who seems undeniable free as a happy, openly sexual haircutter who has never had an orgasm and doesn’t mind. She is just a free spirit in platform pink heels. Tatou is just a bright light despite Cannavale and Turturro’s characters in different ways being not the best role models. Cannavale, who has played his share of bad guys and unsavories, plays his character in many ways as an innocent which is charming in its own way and makes one think of his earlier work in films like “The Station Agent”.
The one thing that Turturro can also pull off is some good cameos though most of them are brief and just push the story along. Ones like Tim Blake Nelson and Christopher Walken as just one scene but bring a smile to your face. The most intrinsic overall is a multi-scene stint with Susan Sarandon which shows a depth and a Bull Durham angle that we haven’t seen from her in years though the resolution of the character is unusual and changes the story somewhat. Pete Davidson from SNL also shows up in a key role but again it is a fleeting character. But again that is the world that Jesus Quintana lives in. Even his mother, who has a great reveal and played by a cool actress completely fits into the story correctly. In essence though the heart still revolves back to Tatou’s character and her brightness which balances out the texture of Jesus’ smarminess which Turturro doesn’t tame down but also makes it as dimensional as he can. And yes he does bowl and he can roll.
By Tim Wassberg