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SXSW: The Unknown Country

“Everybody has a different story.”

Written and directed by Morrisa Maltz, The Unknown Country stars Lily Gladstone as Tana, a young native woman who, upon learning of her grandmother’s death, sets out in her car to travel from Minnesota to Texas. She’s been estranged from her Oglala Lakota family and this journey is a way to reconnect with her roots and herself. Set against the backdrop of the 2016 election, Tana navigates vast open space of the midwest and southwest. Along the way she reconnects with her community, interacts with strangers, attends a friends wedding, develops a romantic connection and even has a couple of scares. 

There is a poetic beauty to this film. The cinematography is absolutely stunning with some fantastic shots of the open highway, wintry landscapes and the Gladstone traversing the natural space of her final destination. The Unknown  Country takes a hybrid approach melding elements of a feature film and a documentary. Tana’s story is fictional but the events happening around her are real. Interspersed throughout the film are documentary vignettes that tell the story of real people Tana meets during her travels. 

Made over three years, the project began with a concept of a beginning and ending and everything in the middle came to be organically. In Morrisa Maltz’s director’s statement she writes:

“We feel very proud that the film shows people and aspects of humanity in the American Midwest that are often overlooked. In such a continuously divided America, we did our best to create a film that shows a patchwork of people and places that can bring us together as humans, rather than to further divide us.”

Unknown Country had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

SXSW: Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story

Directed by Frank Marshall and Ryan Suffern, Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story is a joyous celebration of the famed music festival and its home base. Started in 1970 by George Wein, who also founded the Newport Jazz Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has celebrated music of all types, exposing its attendees to a rich and diverse array of performers. New Orleans has always been a cultural center for music and art and the festival pays homage to that. The documentary tells the history of the festival and shares performances from the 50th anniversary in 2019. There is also archival footage of festivals past and interviews with notable artists. Performers include Earth, Wind and Fire, Al Green, Irma Thomas, Ellis Marsalis and family, and more. I could have done without the performances by Katy Perry, Pitbull and other more popular entertainers as I felt that was an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. I wanted to see more of the indie artists and legacy performers instead.

This is not a historical biography and there is just a smattering of background and context offered. Instead, the documentary takes the viewer into the world of the festival as though they were stopping at the different stages and tents to take in the various offerings. There is also a lot of appreciation for New Orleans , its history, its music and its people.

Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. It’s distributed by Sony Picture Classics.

SXSW: Raquel 1:1

After Raquel’s mother died at the hands of an abusive ex, Raquel (Valentina Herszage) and her father move back to his hometown. There he starts a small community grocery store and Raquel develops a friendship with teens at the local evangelical church. Raquel is deeply religious and receives a calling to explore her spirituality through her own church and study of the bible. This upsets the local religious leader and her daughter who encourage the community to retaliate against Raquel and her father.

Directed by Mariana Bastos, Raquel 1:1 is a bold exploration of female agency and spirituality. Raquel is not portrayed as a victim of religious repression rather a victim of righteous entitlement. The thematic elements are subtle but still hold power.

Raquel’s past trauma is presented through sound as the particulars of her mother’s death are detailed through her thought process. The story is part coming-of-age story and part religious horror.

Given the political and social climate of Brazil the filmmakers are waiting for a good opportunity to screen Raquel 1:1 in their home country.  I hope this film gets wide distribution because it’s a unique and compelling film about religion, trauma and the fight to be true to oneself.

Raquel 1:1 had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

SXSW: The Cow (Gone in the Night)

Note to add: Gone in the Night premiered at SXSW as The Cow.

 

Directed by Eli Horowitz, The Cow stars Winona Ryder as Kath, a 40-something plant enthusiast, who travels deep into the Redwoods with her boyfriend Max (John Gallagher Jr.) for a quiet getaway. When Kath and Max arrive at the cabin they discover that another couple, Al (Owen Teague) and Greta (Brianne Tju) are already staying there. Reluctantly they all stay the night and in the morning both Max and Greta are gone. Kath, who is ambivalent at best about her relationship, becomes increasingly bothered with Max’s disappearance. She reaches out to the cabin owner Barlow (Dermot Mulroney) who helps her search for both Max and Greta. However, not everything as it seems as she discovers that the parties involved have some nefarious intentions.

The Cow is a bit of a mess. It can’t overcome its flimsy premise despite its stellar leads (Ryder and Mulroney) and the intriguing twists and turns. There is a giant plot hole (that I can’t reveal because it’s a major spoiler) that, for me, really ruins the movie. I wanted to like this more than I did. It’s an interesting concept but just poorly executed.

The Cow had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

The now titled Gone in the Night hits theatres July 15th.

SXSW: Pretty Problems

Money doesn’t solve your problems, it just makes them prettier.”

Lindsay (Britt Rentschler) and Jack (Michael Tennant) are in a rut. Lindsay’s dreams of becoming a fashion designer have been put hold while she works a menial boutique job to pay back her student loan debt. Jack’s on probation and disbarred from being a working attorney putting him in a career limbo. As life continues to drag them down, Lindsay and Jack go through the  motions of their everyday lives, losing their romantic spark and any desire for intimacy.

Everything changes when one day Cat (J.J. Nolan) waltzes into Lindsay’s work. Cat is instantly taken with Lindsay and wants to boost her self-esteem and help her manifest her dreams. But Cat and Lindsay are from completely different worlds. Cat has more money than she knows what to do with and Lindsay can’t afford to do anything other than what she’s doing. Cat invites Lindsay and Jack for a weekend away in Sonoma County and the couple are thrust into a world of outrageous privilege. $300 bottles of wine, privately distributed tequila, a 1920s murder mystery game and a drug fueled disco party has the couple torn between their plebeian existence and the lifestyles of the rich and jaded. Fun is there to be had but not everything is as it seems.

Directed by Kestrin Pantera, Pretty Problems is a gratifying comedy with a decidedly poignant message. Its endlessly fascinating to watch how different social classes come together and ultimately clash because of their vastly different lifestyles and personal priorities. The rich people here are bored and emotionally numb. Lindsay and Jack are there for their own amusement and manipulation. Rentschler and Nolan play beautifully off each other and the surrounding cast of characters spotlight just how ridiculous the ultra-privileged lifestyle can be. 

Pretty Problems had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

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