May 18, 2024 4:03 am

SXSW 2024: Whatever It Takes, Resynator, The Hobby
SXSW 2024: Whatever It Takes, Resynator, The Hobby

SXSW 2024: Whatever It Takes, Resynator, The Hobby

The documentary sections at SXSW were very strong this year with standouts like “Roleplay,” “Grand Theft Hamlet,” and “Gasoline Rainbow,” which I expect will all find loyal fans when they leave the fest circuit. However, the documentary that could make the most waves is the most “Holy Shit” doc I’ve seen in years, the kind of thing that builds buzz on a streaming service simply because of the insane story that it unpacks that everyone needs to share. It helps, of course, that Whatever It Takesis also just a very well-made true crime documentary with a twist, a story of innocent people tormented by an absolute lunatic who, in my opinion, was operating under the orders of power players in the business community that should be in jail. This one has exactly what people love in this kind of true story: real people thrust into unreal situations crafted by the kind of sociopath who rarely considers the cost of his actions.

The tag for Jenny Carchman’s film is “The Most Shocking Scandal in Silicon Valley History” and it actually lives up to that high bar. Produced by Allyson Luchak (who worked on the game-changing “The Staircase”), “Whatever It Takes” is the story of Ina and David Steiner, an ordinary, likable couple who had a deep interest in online commerce and wrote about shifts in the industry at their blog EcommerceBytes, which had existed in some form since 1999. The site presents news, but that naturally leads to the rampant criticism that comes through comment sections, and life at eBay was a little tense in the 2010s. When someone aggressively tweeted at the Steiners about the damage they were doing to the company, it seemed relatively harmless at first. It became something much darker quickly.

The Steiners faced non-stop and terrifying harassment for the next few months, including an attempted delivery of a pig fetus, an actual delivery of a “Saw” mask, live bugs, and even a shipment that included a book about living without your spouse—a not-so-vague threat on at least one of their lives. It was insane, escalating to break-ins and someone literally following the Steiners in a van. Everyone involved is lucky that no one got physically hurt—a scene in which David has just been followed and then the harassers order a pizza to their house got me thinking how easily Steiner could have shot the man who pulled a black leather case from the back of his car in the middle of the night.

Without spoiling too much, it’s not hard to figure out who was behind the harassment, but the ridiculousness of this story only grows as it’s revealed. Inter-office affairs, training through clips from “Training Day” & “Full Metal Jacket,” general macho bullshit toxicity—“Whatever It Takes” is the kind of story that would seem unbelievable if it was a Hollywood script. In other words, it’s a documentary filmmaker’s dream come true.

A very different story unfolds in Alison Tavel’s deeply personal and moving “Resynator,” a story of a woman trying to learn something about the work of a father she never really knew and discovering so much more than she could have imagined. “Resynator” kind of runs out of chords to strike before it’s over, repeating a lot of its best ideas and revelations, but Tavel is remarkably likable, and it’s easy to root for her journey to succeed, to find closure in a way that most of us who have lost loved ones could never imagine. “Resynator” is about a device that turns organic sound into something technical; the film with the same attempts the reverse journey, finding strength through human emotion like grief more than the specifics of how this technology works.

Alison grew up thinking that her dad Don Tavel invented the synthesizer. Not quite. She learns that he developed a technology called a Resynator, a unique synthesizer that was interesting enough in its early days to pique the interest of Peter Gabriel. Finding a prototype, Tavel sets out to get the machine physically working again, learning more about the father who died in a car crash when she was only 10 weeks old. Without spoiling anything, there are revelations about Don that are heartbreaking, and Tavel deserves a lot of credit for taking what is clearly a very personal trip in front of a camera. She is front and center through most of “Resynator,” and there’s a vulnerability to the filmmaking here that’s very admirable (even if some of the techniques employed, including animation, feel a bit unnecessary).

In an era when nothing feels like it’s the right length as Netflix stretches out stories to multiple episodes, “Resynator” suffers a bit from running out of story to tell at around the hour mark. At a time when it feels like it could be wrapping up, it shifts into something else, including a roster of famous musicians who rediscover or play with the Resynator for the first time. The idea is likely that Tavel’s work can still have an impact, but the truth is that his artistic passion has clearly been handed down to his daughter. Even if the device he invented never worked again, he would have a legacy. It’s all there on camera.

Finally, there’s the frustrating “The Hobby,” a film that feels like it should be a slam-dunk to a guy who grew up playing board games and tries to get his tech-loving kids to sit down and roll an actual physical die now and then. Simon Ennis’ film is about game-loving people who gather at something called the World Series of Board Games in Las Vegas, a sort of “Spellbound” for people who love the Catan and Ticket to Ride games. The personalities captured here are interesting, but “The Hobby” feels flat and repetitive, banking too much on quirky characters instead of having anything to say about why they love what they love or this unusual subculture.

Too much of “The Hobby” feels like a promo reel for The World Series of Board Games, an event that looks a lot more fun to attend than watch in a feature film. Frustratingly, every time that “The Hobby” gets into broader culture issues that are interesting, such as the Black couple who work to further POC representation in the fan base, it skips away to someone being quirky. I don’t blame any of the people profiled, but Ennis needed to place them in a more interesting context about the importance of board games and maybe more of their historical impact. 

The film opens with a great scene in which a historian comments on how people have been playing games for literally thousands of years, and I wanted more of that broad history that led from Mesopotamian soldiers playing homemade games to what happens in Vegas. “The Hobby” certainly isn’t the worst doc at SXSW, but it feels like a missed opportunity, too focused on specific people instead of the larger picture. Although it did make me want to go buy another Ticket to Ride expansion. So, mission accomplished, I guess.

The documentary sections at SXSW were very strong this year with standouts like “Roleplay,” “Grand Theft Hamlet,” and “Gasoline Rainbow,” which I expect will all find loyal fans when they leave the fest circuit. However, the documentary that could make the most waves is the most “Holy Shit” doc I’ve seen in years, the kind of thing that builds buzz on a streaming service simply because of the insane story that it unpacks that everyone needs to share. It helps, of course, that “Whatever It Takes” is also just a very well-made true crime documentary with a twist, a story of innocent people tormented by an absolute lunatic who, in my opinion, was operating under the orders of power players in the business community that should be in jail. This one has exactly what people love in this kind of true story: real people thrust into unreal situations crafted by the kind of sociopath who rarely considers the cost of his actions. The tag for Jenny Carchman’s film is “The Most Shocking Scandal in Silicon Valley History” and it actually lives up to that high bar. Produced by Allyson Luchak (who worked on the game-changing “The Staircase”), “Whatever It Takes” is the story of Ina and David Steiner, an ordinary, likable couple who had a deep interest in online commerce and wrote about shifts in the industry at their blog EcommerceBytes, which had existed in some form since 1999. The site presents news, but that naturally leads to the rampant criticism that comes through comment sections, and life at eBay was a little tense in the 2010s. When someone aggressively tweeted at the Steiners about the damage they were doing to the company, it seemed relatively harmless at first. It became something much darker quickly. The Steiners faced non-stop and terrifying harassment for the next few months, including an attempted delivery of a pig fetus, an actual delivery of a “Saw” mask, live bugs, and even a shipment that included a book about living without your spouse—a not-so-vague threat on at least one of their lives. It was insane, escalating to break-ins and someone literally following the Steiners in a van. Everyone involved is lucky that no one got physically hurt—a scene in which David has just been followed and then the harassers order a pizza to their house got me thinking how easily Steiner could have shot the man who pulled a black leather case from the back of his car in the middle of the night. Without spoiling too much, it’s not hard to figure out who was behind the harassment, but the ridiculousness of this story only grows as it’s revealed. Inter-office affairs, training through clips from “Training Day” & “Full Metal Jacket,” general macho bullshit toxicity—“Whatever It Takes” is the kind of story that would seem unbelievable if it was a Hollywood script. In other words, it’s a documentary filmmaker’s dream come true. A very different story unfolds in Alison Tavel’s deeply personal and moving “Resynator,” a story of a woman trying to learn something about the work of a father she never really knew and discovering so much more than she could have imagined. “Resynator” kind of runs out of chords to strike before it’s over, repeating a lot of its best ideas and revelations, but Tavel is remarkably likable, and it’s easy to root for her journey to succeed, to find closure in a way that most of us who have lost loved ones could never imagine. “Resynator” is about a device that turns organic sound into something technical; the film with the same attempts the reverse journey, finding strength through human emotion like grief more than the specifics of how this technology works. Alison grew up thinking that her dad Don Tavel invented the synthesizer. Not quite. She learns that he developed a technology called a Resynator, a unique synthesizer that was interesting enough in its early days to pique the interest of Peter Gabriel. Finding a prototype, Tavel sets out to get the machine physically working again, learning more about the father who died in a car crash when she was only 10 weeks old. Without spoiling anything, there are revelations about Don that are heartbreaking, and Tavel deserves a lot of credit for taking what is clearly a very personal trip in front of a camera. She is front and center through most of “Resynator,” and there’s a vulnerability to the filmmaking here that’s very admirable (even if some of the techniques employed, including animation, feel a bit unnecessary). In an era when nothing feels like it’s the right length as Netflix stretches out stories to multiple episodes, “Resynator” suffers a bit from running out of story to tell at around the hour mark. At a time when it feels like it could be wrapping up, it shifts into something else, including a roster of famous musicians who rediscover or play with the Resynator for the first time. The idea is likely that Tavel’s work can still have an impact, but the truth is that his artistic passion has clearly been handed down to his daughter. Even if the device he invented never worked again, he would have a legacy. It’s all there on camera. Finally, there’s the frustrating “The Hobby,” a film that feels like it should be a slam-dunk to a guy who grew up playing board games and tries to get his tech-loving kids to sit down and roll an actual physical die now and then. Simon Ennis’ film is about game-loving people who gather at something called the World Series of Board Games in Las Vegas, a sort of “Spellbound” for people who love the Catan and Ticket to Ride games. The personalities captured here are interesting, but “The Hobby” feels flat and repetitive, banking too much on quirky characters instead of having anything to say about why they love what they love or this unusual subculture. Too much of “The Hobby” feels like a promo reel for The World Series of Board Games, an event that looks a lot more fun to attend than watch in a feature film. Frustratingly, every time that “The Hobby” gets into broader culture issues that are interesting, such as the Black couple who work to further POC representation in the fan base, it skips away to someone being quirky. I don’t blame any of the people profiled, but Ennis needed to place them in a more interesting context about the importance of board games and maybe more of their historical impact. The film opens with a great scene in which a historian comments on how people have been playing games for literally thousands of years, and I wanted more of that broad history that led from Mesopotamian soldiers playing homemade games to what happens in Vegas. “The Hobby” certainly isn’t the worst doc at SXSW, but it feels like a missed opportunity, too focused on specific people instead of the larger picture. Although it did make me want to go buy another Ticket to Ride expansion. So, mission accomplished, I guess. Read More