Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Boston Underground Film Festival 2009: Hausu and Deadgirl

Combine a trip south by southwest, the finals of the World Baseball Classic, and not being that hyped for what was playing when during the "encore session", and I only wound up getting to one night of BUFF this year. That's a shame, because that one night was pretty terrific, the crew runs a fun show, and it offers a chance to see things you really might not have any other chance to see.

Next year, I'll attend more (my goal will be to flood EFC with more reviews from BUFF than whoever puts boots on the ground in Austin manages).


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2009 at the Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival)

There are four-star films, and there are four-star film experiences. The former tend to generate the latter so long as something like bad projection, talkers, or digestive trouble don't screw it up. Lesser films need a little something to work their way up to being a total blast at the theater. Now, I don't know just how much Hausu, a screamingly insane Japanese horror film from 1977, requires above and beyond what's there. I suspect it's just a non-stodgy crowd, and when you've got that, look out.

If your knowledge of Japanese horror begins with The Ring or The Grudge, be prepared for a visual smack upside the head. Writer, director, producer, and director of visual effects Nobuhiko Obayashi has given his characters a colorful world in which to play, one which is brightly lit so that there are no shadows for things to jump out of. The world is gloriously artificial, with beautiful matte paintings and over-decorated sets as well as obvious-looking painted landscapes that the camera pulls away from to reveal that those backdrops are free-standing in the midst of fine location scenery. There are animated bits and musical numbers, occasionally in English.

The character names are just as artificial, perfect indicators of who they are. We first meet Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) and Fantasy (Kumiko Ohba), two schoolgirls who are best friends but about to spend the summer vacation apart - Gorgeous with her father, Fantasy with their other friends and Togo (Kiyohiko Ozaki), the teacher she has a crush on, at a boarding house where they'll be practicing... well, something. But wait! Gorgeous's father wants to bring a new stepmother along, and Togo's sister won't let them use the house. What shall they do? Why, take a trip to the country home of Gorgeous's invalid Grandmother (Yoko Minamida), and Fantasy, Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo - she's athletic!), Sweet (Masayo Miyako - she's shy!), Melody (Eriko Tanaka - she plays music!), Prof (Ai Matsubara - she wears glasses!), and [Big] Mac (Mieko Satoh - she's always eating!) are invited. Oddly, Grandmother seems a lot more energetic once one of the schoolgirls disappears.

There's no blueprint for making a cult film, or a "good-bad" movie. What works for this one is that one moment will be shoddy filmmaking, but the next will actually be fairly well-done but completely deranged. And then, every once in a while, there are fleeting moments where you get the sense that maybe Obayashi is up to something clever and you just don't get it. This is a movie where one instant you'll be laughing at how a cat was obviously thrown into a character's lap from off-screen, and then not much later, there's a scene at the piano where you're not quite sure whether to laugh at the absurdity of the scene or get grossed out by it.

It's fun stuff. Obayashi's world is crazy, but it's also pretty well-structured enough to be a straight horror movie if that's the way he'd wanted to go with it. Instead, he opts for the crazy. He's got the right kind of cast to make it work - they're young and pretty, not really great actors, but charming; I particularly dug Miki Jinbo's Kung Fu. Yoko Minamida is a hoot as the grandmother as well. And he actually designs some pretty darn good visual effects; they look pretty darn good for a low-budget movie made in 1977.

But, really, this is the sort of movie you can't break down to its component pieces. It is absolutely batshit crazy from start to finish, but there's also enough raw talent involved that, believe it or not, the cast and crew actually continued working afterward, many until the present day.

The craziest part? There was a "Janus Films" logo in at the start of the screening, and that's the library that the Criterion Collection often draws from. They need to get on this pronto, just to see if they can make some sort of sense out of it.

Full review at EFC.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2009 at the Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival)

The zombie film, when you get right down to it, is really not that malleable a form. The plots are more or less the same, just differing in setting, detail, and tone. So it's not exactly surprising that when someone comes up with a new take on the genre, two variations on it appear at once. Fortunately, Deadgirl and Make-Out With Violence couldn't be much more different in tone. Where Make-Out is sad and wistful, Deadgirl is sexual and nasty.

Things hidden at shuttered mental hospitals should probably stay that way. Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Segan) are hanging around one while cutting class when a dog chases them through the service corridors into a basement storeroom. There, they find a girl strapped to a table, naked. She's got a nice body but isn't communicating. J.T. gets a look in his eyes that Rickie doesn't like; Rickie runs. The next day, J.T. brings him back to show him something amazing: The girl is living dead; it's safe with her strapped down. And it's not like Rickie is ever going to get anywhere mooning over JoAnn (Candice Accola), what with her meathead boyfriend Johnny (Andrew DiPalma) and all.

It probably doesn't take a whole lot of rationalization to convince oneself that it's okay to have one's way with a zombie; it's not like they're capable about caring about anything other than feeding. Even if you can make the case that the act itself isn't so bad, it can easily be the first step along a bad path. That's where Deadgirl gets its tension: There is not potentially a zombie around every corner, but a couple teenage boys - or three, once their friend Wheeler (Eric Podnar) is clued in - in this situation are going to make some questionable decisions even if they do see eye to eye. The dead girl is a moral test and catalyst to potentially pit the friends against each other and the outside world.

There is gore and violence, too, but the filmmakers make us wait for it; they'll set up an uncomfortable situation and then build the tension a little. Finally, they'll let loose and generally leave the characters worse off than they began. Interestingly, the dead girl is often the least of the characters' worries: Bound to the table, she's relatively safe, and while there's an element of lulling the audience into a false sense of security there, not breaking out the full-on zombie action also means that nothing is done to diminish the prosaic dangers, like feral dogs. Or bullies. Or what people will do once they've had a taste of consequence-free sex.

The two leads sell the conflict pretty well. Noah Segan gets the fun, flashy part, shucking J.T.'s morals with relish. The bad boy gets all the fun sarcastic lines, but Segan gives some nuance to his amorality: We believe he needs a little validation from his friends, and though we don't see much of the characters' home life, we get the sense that J.T.'s decisions are influence by having a little less than Rickie. Shiloh Fernandez doesn't get to be quite so gaudy in his performance; a guy wrestling with his conscience isn't as demonstrative as a guy not doing so. I think many people can connect with the guy, though; he's trying to do the right thing and can't help but see that those with no regard for other people (or zombies) are walking all over him. The moments where he's at least tempted to give in to temptation are great, because you can see all he's holding back bubbling to the surface.

The supporting characters are more types: Eric Podnar's playing a pothead; Andrew DiPalma's Johnny and Nolan Gerard Funk's Dwyer are nasty jocks. I wish Candice Accola had a little more to do; the filmmakers do a nice job of presenting her as the pristine visual counterpart to the dead girl, and she does her best in selling JoAnn as full enough of contradictions and personality to make her the alternative to the unquestioning vagina locked up in the hospital but she doesn't have much to work with. Neither does Jenny Spain as the title character, but that's the point; she's bestial, and even when the dead girl is being raped, she's responding, but not capable of either truly enjoying it or feeling violated.

I'm impressed with the job writer Trent Haaga and directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel do. My one issue is that the characters are aware of zombie-movie rules, and the movie follows them, which shouldn't necessarily go together. Otherwise, they do a nice job of working suspense against uncomfortable thoughts. There's some nail-bitingly tense scenes in there, and things that will linger in the mind afterward.

That's the best kind of horror movie. Jumps and gore can be laughed off later, but uncomfortable thoughts tend to stick with you, and Deadgirl has some nasty ideas.

Also at EFC.

Monday, March 30, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 16 March 2009 to 29 March 2009

No TWIT last week, as I was doing more-or-less daily updates, and, besides, the purple tickets that SXSW handed out to give you a primo spot in line (you could have up to two daily) didn't quite fit in my appointment book. So, the alternative was posting this:

This Week In Tickets!

... and, let's face it, I take a lousy picture, especially when I've been flying all day. Here's a quick index to my SXSW posts. The date brings you to the blog post for the day, the title (where applicable) to the review of the movie itself on eFilmCritic (they get me my media pass badge, they get exclusives).

Quick aside - I was terribly thrown the first couple of days, since I thought I had a pass, but apparently it was a badge. A pass is like a badge, only much less expensive, and you have to wait until all badge-holders have been admitted before you see if you can get a seat. After all the pass-holders are seated, then they'll sell tickets. But, if you've got an advance ticket, you actually go in first - of course, you need a badge to get an advance ticket, and you can only get two a day, and they only give out an amount equal to 10% of the theater's capacity. What's remarkable is this makes some sense by the end of the first weekend, although you still get the odd badgeholder in the ticket line afterward.

13 March 2009 (Friday): Monsters from the Id, Ong Bak 2
14 March 2009 (Saturday): Sorry, Thanks, Bomber, Objectified, Moon, Black
15 March 2009 (Sunday): Letters to the President, Garbage Dreams, Sin Nombre, Women In Trouble, Drag Me to Hell (Work in Progress)
16 March 2009 (Monday): Blood Trail, MINE, Best Worst Movie, The 2 Bobs, Observe and Report
17 March 2009 (Tuesday): Splinterheads, Four Boxes, The Promised Land, Make-Out with Violence
18 March 2009 (Wednesday): Still Bill, Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love, The Eyes of Me, The Slammin' Salmon
19 March 2009 (Thursday): Humpday, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, The Way We Get By, ExTerminators
20 March 2009 (Friday): The Least of These, Three Blind Mice, Number One With a Bullet, TRIMPIN: the sound of invention, A Film With Me In It
21 march 2009 (Saturday): RiP: A Remix Manifesto, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, True Adolescents, Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie, Intangible Asset Number 82

... Tuesday, I believe, also was Joe Dante's "Trailers from Hell", but the less said about that the better. I think a really fun presentation could have been made from that, maybe running the trailer, stopping, and having Joe talk for a bit, but instead it was just a selection of trailers from the website, with commentary on, for 90 minutes. I slept. Many others slept or walked out. It drained a lot of the joy out of something potentially fun.

Then I got back home, and did this:

This Week In Tickets!

... A page for Hausu and Deadgirl will be up tomorrow; after that there's just a couple things to say about the others, which have in common that I didn't like them quite so much as I wanted to (and I really wanted to like both)

Monsters vs. Aliens

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 March 2009 at Jordan's Furniture Reading (IMAX 3-D)

Don't get me wrong, Monsters vs. Aliens is a lot of fun, and I may decide to revise my opinion upward to that third star if I get a chance to see it again, say at a digital theater where I don't wind up off-center in the front row, which is no way to see an IMAX movie.

This is a movie that is so close to making the leap to, if not greatness, at least very-goodness. It stays within its relatively modest ambitions, has fun characters with well-used celebrity voices, and has a couple really stupendous action sequences. It looks spectacular. Unlike a lot of Dreamworks pictures, it doesn't feel like it's trying to recreate Shrek. I'll recommend it to anyone who likes sci-fi and good comedy. It just never has the moment where it outright floors me.


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2009 at Regal Fenway #4 (first-run)

This, though... This just made me kind of upset. It didn't help that I spent Saturday night watching the last four hours of Battlestar Galactica, which covered a fair chunk of similar themes (many of which rub me the wrong way). It was a little too much.

The thing is, I love Alex Proyas. He's made one masterpiece (Dark City), one fun comedy (Garage Days), one movie that is damn good despite being utterly fused with tragedy (The Crow)... and one movie where he wasn't able to prevent Fox from raping the source material (I, Robot). There are moments in Knowing where you see how awesome Proyas is, and someone at Summit is to be thanked for not putting all the really great visuals in the trailers. There is some high-quality eye candy awaiting at the end of the movie, and he does what he can in other places. It's just, good lord, the script sucked.

SPOILERS FOLLOW; they go right to the end of the movie

Now, I personally have no trouble when a movie is putting out an "angels are assholes" message. I liked Signs, which this movie has a fair amount in common with. But don't do it so stupidly. If these alien/angel types are going to be whispering in some poor autistic girl's ear about future events, why give her a bunch of information about disasters rather than, say, schematics for an FTL drive so that we can evacuate, or schematics for a planetary radiation field? Something useful? Because I don't think rescuing a couple dozen kids (and one bunny each) is doing humanity a lot of good.

And even when you put aside the utter stupidity of this stuff, a lot of what leads up to it is in real "who would do that?" territory. Everything is either implausible or random or too custom-fitted to make sure the audience feels exactly this.

No More Spoilers

... and now it looks like Proyas has been outbid for the rights to Asimov's Foundation novels by Roland Emmerich. I'm not absolving him of blame for this debacle, but it really seems like he can't catch a break.
HausuDeadgirlMonsters Vs AliensKnowing

Sunday, March 29, 2009

SXSW Day Nine: RiP, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, True Adolescents, Saint Misbehavin', Intangible Asset Number 82

Random notes from SXSW:

* The warm cookies at the Alamo Drafthouse are delicious. I would eat those every time I went to a movie if I could, although you really need the table service of the Alamo to make the whole idea of fresh-baked cookies made to order work.

* A large part of why I didn't tack a sixth movie onto this last day was that as midnight approached, my stomach was upset. I blame the Italian Soda with Hazelnut syrup that I had with Beetle Queen. Admittedly, that sounds nasty in retrospect, but I had no idea just how terrible it would be.

* Sixth Street gets loud once the music festival starts, starting at roughly noon daily. For someone like me who really doesn't love loudness, waiting to be let into the Ritz isn't all that much fun. Fortunately, it is pretty amazing how quickly the noise level drops off as one walks toward the Paramount.

* The printed program drove me absolutely nuts until I figured out that the films were indexed in the back. Eleven different categories of screenings meant 11 colors on the program, some of which are hard to tell apart if you're even a little color-blind.

* I wrote most of the reviews posted during the festival in a Mead Five Star Fat Li'l Notebook. It fits in the pocket, takes no time to turn on or off, can be used while standing, never loses a charge, and I'm only out four bucks if I lose it. For all my love of its low-tech beauty, I still feel a Pavlovian urge to press "control-S" after finishing a paragraph.

* There really are no drug stores in downtown Austin - and the one CVS I found was not open late. This boggles my mind; I have a hard time imagining not being able to walk to a place like that should the need arise. Besides, with all the bars in the area, you'd think it would make sense to balance it with places to get aspirin.

* This will probably be a one-and-done festival for me; I'm not giving up Fantasia and I don't want to use all my vacation time for the same two film festivals every year (especially when there's a certain amount of overlap with IFFB). It's a fun festival, though, and being in Texas for a week when it was still chilly in Boston certainly did not stink.

RiP: A Remix Manifesto

* * (out of four)
Seen 21 March 2009 at the Alamo Ritz #1 (SXSW 24 Beats Per Second)

I take no joy in disliking RiP: A Remix Manifesto. I agree with many of its principles; I've done plenty of highly-derivative works for fun in my time and think U.S. copyright law is out of control. But, wow, does it ever find the most obnoxious and borderline-dishonest ways of articulating those views. It's so bad in that regard that I could almost feel my mind changing as the film went on just so that I wouldn't be stuck agreeing with the filmmakers.

There's a good chance that how an audience member will feel about the movie will be determined in the opening minutes, when director Brett Gaylor's narration over a Gregg Gillis (aka "Girl Talk") appearance asks us who the author of a song is, quickly followed up by "if you said the Jackson 5, you're wrong". If you're already on the same page, it's a relatively uncontroversial statement that establishes the filmmaker's perspective. If you're not, then this is something Gaylor needs to establish, and though he'll make an argument later on, I was not wholly convinced: That opening segment shows Gillis using a large, recognizable portion of a song, while the later demonstration involves copying a single note. The principle may be the same, but believing that everyone watching the movie will find the two activities equivalent is making certain potentially unwarranted assumptions about the audience.

It goes on from there. Toward the beginning of the movie, Gaylor describes how giving a Girl Talk album a legitimate release would be impossible by throwing some simple math at the audience: x tracks multiplied by y samples per track multiplied by z companies per sample = xyz companies with their hands out. Later on, when railing about how consolidation of the entertainment industry has led to the perversion of copyright law, there's only four companies. There is truth to both arguments, but this is not a movie willing to explore subtleties, thus leaving it looking like Gaylor is talking out both sides of his mouth.

Full review at EFC.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 March 2009 at the Alamo Ritz #2 (SXSW Emerging Visions)

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo would be a fine name for a tacky kaiju sci-fi movie (heck, I wouldn't be surprised if it's been used). It's not that, not even a little. Instead of being another bizarre and fantastic piece of Japanese pop culture, it's a low-key documentary that does a nice job explaining an aspect or two of Japanese life and philosophy.

It starts with a boy pestering his father to buy him a pet beetle. The first one he sets his eyes on would cost his father fifty-seven dollars. The father convinces him to set his sights on one that's less expensive. That's still an eyebrow-raising purchase and amount to most westerners, but insects have an important place within Japanese culture. We are told of the kokugakushu, scholars of centuries ago who attempted to define what it meant to be Japanese, and the theory of mono no aware, finding beauty in that which does not last. Art forms like the haiku are prized for being precise and minuscule.

We are told this by Haruku Shizuku's soft-spoken, subtitled Japanese narration. That's an interesting choice, considering that director Jessica Oreck is American and the film is presumably being made for a non-Japanese audience. It works, though; we are being given quite a few facts, but her voice is friendly, closer to a parent explaining things to a child than a lecturing professor; her speaking in her native tongue makes her somewhat more trustworthy. People curious enough to seek this movie out are likely not going to be overly concerned about subtitles.

Full review at EFC.

True Adolescents

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 March 2009 at the Alamo Ritz #1 (SXSW Narrative Competition)

True Adolescents is a small-budgeted independent film that's just a swift kick or two from the mainstream. Yes, the execution is mostly what one would expect from the recent wave of chatty, self-examining indie filmmakers, but the basic theme of "immature adult forced to man up when placed in charge of kids" is pretty standard. That's no knock on it; this is an entertaining movie, and if this wave of filmmakers want to be something other than indie darlings, doing stuff like this won't hurt.

The immature adult is Sam (Mark Duplass), a guy in his early to mid thirties fronting a local Seattle rock band that's not really going anywhere. A fight with his girlfriend leads to her kicking him out of the apartment, and since none of his friends have much interest in letting him crash on their couches, he winds up in the spare room of his aunt Sharon (Melissa Leo). When Sharon's ex-husband backs out of a camping trip he'd planned on taking with their teenage son Oliver (Bret Loehr) and his best friend Jake (Carr Thompson) - and Sam's gig that weekend gets canceled - it's time for him to start earning his keep by chaperoning the teenagers.

Yes, you've heard this story before. Writer/director Craig Johnson isn't trying to re-invent the wheel here, but he does find a relatively unique way to present it. A mainstream film would probably try to stuff it with more wacky one-off characters for Sam and company to meet on the road and trail, or structure the last act so as to present them with more obvious challenges, or ones which require their specific skills. (If Jack Black were starring in this movie, there would be a bear somewhere.) Instead, Johnson keeps the cast fairly tight and lets situations play out to their full awkwardness.

Full review at EFC.

Saint Misbehavin: The Wavy Gravy Movie

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 March 2009 at the Austin Convention Center (SXSW Special Screenings)

Can I be honest about something? I can't warm up to hippies, or counterculture. In the abstract, I am all for a philosophy of living your life any way you want so long as you don't hurt anyone else, but in practice, I get suspicious. So, as you might imagine, I wound up at a screening of a documentary on Wavy Gravy that was packed with his fans not because of any particular interest on my part, but because I cut it too close on another screening and it was the only thing that fit my schedule. I can't say it particularly changed my view; when it ended, I had gained some respect for the man, though not much affection.

Because of that, the film perhaps might consider itself a failure with me - I often got the vibe that it wasn't enough for the audience to know about the man and his accomplishments. Filmmaker Michelle Esrick wants us to love him, and short of that, at least admire him. I'm hesitant to call what she presents a slanted take on the man, because there's a good chance that he is just what he appears to be, no more and no less, a pure soul who has never done anything worse than give his son an embarrassing name. If that's the case, though, she doesn't have to make such a point of it. We don't need people addressing the camera telling us how great he is.

There's also something a little off about the film at times. Take an early scene, where Wavy enters a room filled with various religious and spiritual symbols, and prays to be "the best Wavy Gravy I can be." I don't doubt that this is a regular ritual for him, or that he's less than sincere (although it's the sort of deliberately pantheistic activity that can seem more calculated than heartfelt). It just feels semi-staged, like Esrick knew her subject well enough to get exactly what she wanted from any scene. It's not quite like she was shooting from a screenplay, but there's not a single moment in the film that feels like it surprised the filmmaker. The end result is that although I learned things from watching the movie, I rarely had the excitement of discovery.

Full review at EFC.

Intangible Asset Number 82

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 March 2009 at the Austin Convention Center (SXSW 24 Beats per Second)

Intangible Asset Number 82 seems to have become a fascinating movie almost by accident. Certainly director Emma Franz would have covered much of the same material if things had gone according to plan, but when life hands you a road movie, you roll with it.

Simon Barker is a jazz drummer, and a great one; likely Australia's best, and one of the best in the world. Part of the reason for that is that he takes interest in and draws inspiration from music from all around the world, and lately he's become fascinated by a drummer from South Korea, Kim Seok-chul. The friend who gave him the recording hated it, but Barker was entranced by the work of this shaman. He made several trips to Korea to try and meet the man, but Kim is old and somewhat reclusive. One day Barker gets a note from a teacher, Kim Dong-won, who says a meeting may be possible. Barker comes to meet Dong-won, who is impressed not only with Barker's skill, but with his respect for the culture. He initiates contact with Seok-chul, but it will take some time; in the meantime, he takes Barker on a tour of South Korea to show him traditional Korean music and culture first-hand.

It's a fascinating trip from the very first stop, where we learn about pansori, a traditional form of Korean music, from practitioner Bae Il-dong. It is jarring, to say the least, perhaps seeming more like atonal shouting than music to western ears. Il-dong lives in a shed near a waterfall, where he trained himself for seven years. Practicing by the waterfall strengthens his voice, so that he can get through the marathon eight-hour singing sessions that a pansori singer needs to tell a story. Film-wise, it's a great place to start, as it really drives home just how different traditional Korean music is from traditional Western music, while getting us into the countryside and establishing what a strong tradition music has in the culture.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

SXSW Day Eight: The Least of These, Three Blind Mice, Number One With a Bullet, TRIMPIN, and A Film With Me In It

Despite seeing five movies, I actually had a good-sized chunk of time between The Least of These (which is very short) at 11am and Three Blind Mice at 3pm to go out and have a meal at somewhere other than the Alamo Drafthouse. I didn't go terribly far, just to the Iron Works near the convention center, but that was a pretty good baked potato with with shredded beef.

It does bring up what sort of a mixed blessing visiting a film festival with a press pass can be. I've probably mentioned it before, but I feel like the deal is, you give me the pass, and I will see as many movies as possible and get the word out about them, good or bad. SXSW is so packed, with screenings starting at 11am and midnight screenings every day, that I really couldn't tell you much about the city beyond a square bounded by the Paramount Theater in one corner and the Convention Center in another, with extensions in the direction of the Rodeway Inn University in one direction and the Alamo Lamar in the other (and another in the direction of Hut's Hamburgers, where I ate on Gil & Amanda's advice on Thursday). Montreal, I get to see during the week at Fantasia, with movies not starting until 3pm or so. Aside from the fact that it was 80 degrees in March (for which I am truly grateful), and a good chunk of the 13th and 22nd got muched by air travel, I really don't know that I feel like I've been to Texas.

The Least of These

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount (SXSW Lone Star States)

The Least of These is maybe not a rarity as far as documentaries go, but it does seem unusually focused. The way things were being run at the T. Don Hutto detention facility offers the filmmakers plenty of opportunities to go off on various policy-related tangents, winding up with a film that might be almost too tight.

The T. Don Hutto detention facility in Taylor, TX is, as of this writing, a former prison used by the Department of Homeland Security's Immigrations and Customs Enforcement division to house unapproved immigrants from countries other than Mexico, specifically those arriving with families. It is operated by Correctional Corporation of America, a government contractor whose primary business is managing prisons. The facility went into operation because in May of 2006, the US government ended the "catch and release" policy where most immigrants were given a court date and monitored intermittently.

As obviously imperfect as the old system was, The Least of These argues that Hutto is far worse. We are introduced to several families of detainees - notably the Yourdkhani family, Iranians seeking to return to Canada, where they had previously been granted political asylum, with their Canadian-born son Kevin; Denia, who fled domestic abuse in Honduras while pregnant; and Ana Mabel, who came from El Salvador with her daughter. We also are introduced to several activists that advocate for them: Michelle Brané of the Women's Refuge Commission, Barbara Harris of the University of Texas at Austin Law School's Immigration Clinic, and Vanita Gupta of the ACLU.

Full review at EFC.

Three Blind Mice

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2009 at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz #2 (SXSW Spotlight Premieres)

One night is just enough time. It's enough time to fall in love (or out of it), enough time to get into trouble, and enough time to come to a decision. A lot can change in one night, and this goes double when the next morning will find you heading for a war zone.

That's how far it is for three junior officers in the Royal Australian Navy, checking into a hotel room for a night of shore leave before they sail for the Gulf. As soon as the youngest, Sam (Ewen Leslie) heads for the shower, Harry (Matthew Newton) and Dean (Toby Schmitz) start talking about what happened to Sam on the ship. Dean asks the others along to dinner with his fiancee Sally (Pia Miranda) and her folks, although Sam ditches tehm after meeting Emma (Gracie Otto), a pretty waitress. This is a bit of a concern, since even before meeting Emma, Sam has called his mother to say he wouldn't be getting back on the ship.

There's another secret or two to be revealed before the night is over and maybe a spot of trouble; poker games and family dinners can be equally dangerous in that regard. Writer/director Matthew Newton doesn't so much keep us guessing about what the night and morning will bring as he gives us chance to see the stakes. Going AWOL doesn't ge one locked up for life, but it's obviously deeply shameful from the way Sam bursts into tears when confessing his intended desertion to the way Harry won't let people use the word, lest it get attached to Sam before absolutely necessary - even though it's pretty clear that Harry and Dean were looking to keep an eye on Sam, just in case.

Full review at EFC.

Number One With a Bullet

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount Theater (SXSW 24 Beats Per Second)

Number One With a Bullet begins provocatively, with a black man walking into a custom framing store looking to have the clothes he was wearing when he was shot framed. The man at the counter doesn't seem to consider this much more than a somewhat unusual request, promising that the framing will preserve the blood.

One slick-looking set of opening titles later, we're in Colorado, where an energetic white gun shop owner, "Dragon Man", demonstrates that it's not jut inner-city hip-hop fans with a taste for handguns and assault weapons. After that, the movie settles into something of a groove, interviewing hip-hop artists who have either been targets of or participants in shootings and exploring the relationship between hip-hop and gun violence. The short answer: Music doesn't make people shoot each other; the rappers are just applying the old adage of "write what you know", and what people in poor neighborhoods know is violence.

That's not a particularly unreasonable conclusion, and it thus doesn't take the movie very long to get around to it. It's more of an assertion than a truly convincing argument, though: For all the evidence that hip-hop is not nearly the bad influence that poverty is, the film shies away from addressing the possibility of a more complex relationship. Artists are more dismissive than defensive at any suggestion that they're part of the problem, but Cypress Hill's B-Real does admit that it troubles him a bit when he gets mail saying people played his music to psych themselves up to go out and shoot some people.

Full review at EFC.

TRIMPIN: the sound of invention

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount Theater (SXSW Documentary Feature Competition)

As much as I enjoyed South by Southwest, I must admit that I wish I had seen more of Austin. I bought a guidebook but never cracked it open, and thus my experience with the city is more or less limited to a square of about eight blocks, with the Paramount Theater at one corner, the Austin Convention Center at the other, and the Alamo Ritz in between. To give some idea of how heads-down and focused on seeing movies I was, there was a gallery showing some of Trimpin's works right next door to the theater where I saw it, and I never found a moment to go in and take a look. I wish I had, and hope that some Boston institution (the ICA, perhaps), finds a way to do something similar when the film shows as part of the IFFB next month. I hope so; I'd like a second chance.

Trimpin's works, you see, are equal parts music, sculpture, and engineering. He builds sometimes-gigantic works that make sounds, often incorporating found objects into the work. Though born in Germany's Black Forest (which several people in the film point out is the land of the cuckoo clock, a wonderfully intricate mechanical noisemaker) he states that he moved to the United States for the quality of junk to be found here. Family members describe him as a lazy student, although gifted mechanically from a young age and displaying an uncanny ear.

I could go on like this for a while, repeating little gems about Trimpin (he opts to use only his last name, though his sister refers to him as Gerhard) that I scribbled in my notebook because I found them kind of delightful. One could be led to believe from subtitle on the poster ("featuring the Kronos Quintet") that the film is about one specific collaboration, and indeed director Peter Esmonde makes motions in the direction of structuring it that way - there's a scene in the beginning where they meet, one in the middle where they experiment, and a performance toward the end - but mostly it's a collection of facts and demonstrations of his various projects and installations.

Full review at EFC.

A Film With Me In It

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2009 at the Alamo Ritz #1 (SXSW Midnighters)

As much as I (and most critics, I imagine) am happy to shred a movie that relies too heavily on coincidence and seemingly random events. After all, at some point, the characters should succeed based on their own actions rather than arbitrary decisions by the writer. Sometimes, though, it can be fun for a film to embrace the unlikely and run with it the way A Film With Me In It does.

The Me of the title is Pierce (Dylan Moran), an actor whose resume is mostly bit parts. He lives in a ramshackle Dublin flat with his girlfriend Sally (Amy Huberman) and disabled brother David (David O'Doherty); he spends most of his time hanging out with his neighbor Mark (Mark Doherty), a writer who drinks and gambles too much. Then one day, after Sally has moved out, there's an accident - and before Pierce can report it, there's another. Now, you can call the police with one dead body, and they'll nose around a bit but ultimately probably believe the truth. A second, unrelated corpse? That's suspicious.

A Film With Me In It builds from that first bizarre coincidence; once it has acknowledged that Pierce is in trouble because no reasonable person would believe his story, it's free to make things worse in increasingly unlikely fashion. That's not to say the movie is entirely Pierce and his eventual accomplice being tormented by some sadistic deity; they spend some time digging their own graves and working at extricating themselves. The events aren't directly meant to stymie them, either; it's just the worst "one of those days" ever.

Full review at EFC.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

SXSW Day Seven: Humpday, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, The Way We Get By, and Exterminators

Once more, I'm finishing this up just before hitting the street to see my first movie of the day. Just one anecdote to mention; I only wound up seeing The Way We Get By because I cut something else too close; I wanted to see Made In China, but it started too soon after The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle. So add another one to the list of movies I missed at SXSW that I hope plays the IFFB (see also For the Love of Movies, The Last Beekeeper, Modern Love is Automatic, and, of course, Lesbian Vampire Killers).


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount (SXSW Spotlight Premieres)

I haven't seen Lynn Shelton's first feature, but My Effortless Brilliance and Humpday form an interesting pattern, and not just in how both are kicked off by an old friend visiting unannounced. Unlike many female independent filmmakers who focus on making movies about women, Shelton opts to explore male relationships.

Here, the unexpected visitor is Andrew (Joshua Leonard), a globetrotting artist. It's two in the morning when he arrives at the Seattle home of Ben (Mark Duplass) and Anna (Alycia Delmore), who are married and ready to start a family. Andrew soon meets up with a local artsy crowd, and Ben's intention to just stop by for an hour becomes a long drink-and-weed-fueled evening. One of the guests mentions and upcoming art-porn fest, and Andrew and Ben hatch the idea of shooting themselves having sex as an expression of their friendship. After they sober up... Well, offering each other the chance to back down triggers a thoroughly incongruous macho response.

There's a scene in the middle of the film that is so sitcom-like that the audience might almost expect to hear a laugh track. From the plot description, you can probably guess what it is. Answering audience questions after, the cast member and crew talked like good indie filmmakers about how they tried to avoid that impression, but in all honesty, I think the sitcom feel of that scene makes it, and maybe even the movie as a whole, work. Shelton has already set up a kind of out-there situation and then pushed it further when it might have been a whole lot more logical for the characters to back down. Inserting a moment that conventional makes it easier for the audience to buy into the story. Besides, things do become conventions because they work on some level, and that scene is darn funny.

Full review at EFC.

The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2009 at the Alamo Ritz #1 (SXSW Emerging Visions)

David Russo had a bunch of nifty ideas that he threw into The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, and they're the kind of ideas that work as part of this sort of strange stew movie - not big enough to serve as a story's foundation, but good for depicting a film's surreal world. The trick is to arrange and connect them into a movie rather than a movie-sized blob of wacky concepts, and I don't know that Russo does it.

Take the film's zippy opening credits, following a message in a bottle with a bunch of cool photography, editing, and effects work to a kind of funny punchline. It's nifty, and referred back to later, but the link feels obligatory, not strong. It could link to the way Dory (Marshall Allman) is looking for any kind of belief system for guidance, but it's in the wrong place for that. The film has a few clever fantastical bits, but what they build up to isn't as keen as the lead-up. Individual characters' stories fork off and reconnect later, but don't affect each other in the meantime.

The bits are nifty, though. We follow Dory, who joins a custodial service after screaming his way out of a data management company. There, he joins a staff run by transvestite Desert Storm vet Bergsman (Russell Hodgkinson) which also includes junkie lovers Methyl & Ethyl (Tygh Runyan and Tania Raymonde) and would-be artist O.C. (Vince Vieluf). O.C. has a crush on research company exec Tracy (Natasha Lyonne), who upon discovering that the janitors will eat any samples left lying around, uses them as guinea pigs for a cookie that warms itself upon contact with saliva - which also proves to be highly addictive and have certain bizarre side effects.

Full review at EFC.

The Way We Get By

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2009 at the Austin Convention Center (SXSW Documentary Feature Competition)

Film festivals overflow with movies like The Way We Get By, which are little documentaries about reasonably interesting people that have just enough of a spark of something unexpected or unusual that they grow to feature length when their natural size is that of a short. This one feels especially long, because there's only so many ways the Maine Troop Greeters can say they appreciate our soldiers' sacrifice.


* * (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2009 at the Alamo Lamar #1 (SXSW Lone Star States)

Geez, all the effort I went through to see this one - I actually took the shuttle out to Lamar on Sunday, only to be told that it was sold out before I got off the bus - and it's pretty dull. The reason why is quickly apparent: As much as I like Heather Graham, she's a spectator despite being the main character here. Since we follow her, we don't get to enjoy the black comedy of her friends killing rotten guys, nor do we get to solve a mystery with her police detective boyfriend. If you're going to give us a movie about people doing bad things, you've got to really commit to the dark comedy, and ExTerminators keeps it at arms' length.

Friday, March 20, 2009

SXSW Day Six: Still Bill, Youssou N'dour: I Bring What I Love, The Eyes of Me, and The Slammin' Salmon

Not much time to write or anything particular to say, so Wednesday's movies:

Still Bill

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount (SXSW Special Screenings)

The recording studio that occupies a fair-sized chunk of Bill Withers's Los Angeles home in Still Bill is a tremendous tease. It's new-looking, with plenty of digital tools, which certainly suggests that the man behind "Lean on Me" and "Just the Two of Us" has written and recorded new music relatively recently, even though his last album came out in 1985.

Still Bill doesn't get into the specifics of the conflicts between Withers and Columbia Records back then; that information is out there for those who want to look. Instead, it gives us a look at Withers' life and personality to perhaps explain why he was able to just walk away from show business when many other men would fight the labels or do whatever was necessary to stay in the public eye. It's not so much that he's a man at peace with himself - indeed, he's wise enough to say, in a roundabout sort of way, that his calm demeanor owes as much to shyness as it does to contentment. He is fairly content; one of the aphorisms he offers to the camera and to his children is "on the way to wonderful, you'll pass through all right. Stop and take a look around, because you may be staying," and he does seem to be all right with all right.

Indeed, he seems to have come to that realization before he made it in show business. We learn about his childhood in Slab Fork, West Virginia, a played-out coal town, followed by stints in the Navy and working for various aerospace companies. not only is Bill a fine storyteller, but we go on trips with him, back to Slab Fork to visit a childhood friend and to reunions with Navy buddies and high-school classmates. A scene where Bill walks through a white graveyard to visit the overgrown patch where his father and other relations are buried says more about the segregation of his youth than words could; it's close to being randomly placed stones in the middle of the woods.

Full review at EFC.

Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount (SXSW 24 Beats per Second)

Youssou Ndour is the biggest pop star in Africa; he is also a devout Sufi Muslim. Which, apparently, is fine as long as those two qualities don't intermingle as they did on his album Egypt, a disc full of devotional songs that was tremendously well-received internationally but led to criticism in his native Senegal. I Bring What I Love follows him as he tours Europe to packed audiences but fights censorship and derision at home.

It's a nice enough movie, although I found myself wanting a little more from the end: Senegal has no time for Egypt at all, and then, after Ndour wins the Grammy, everything is hunky-dory? There's something to be said about how it took outside validation for Senegal to accept the album, but this movie skips right past that potentially interesting idea.

The Eyes of Me

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 March 2009 at the Alamo Lamar #1 (SXSW Lone Star States)

A good-intentioned documentary that will probably find its natural home on local public television sooner rather than later. This story about Austin's high school for the blind does do some neat things with animation to demonstrate how the visually impaired kids perceive the world (all four were sighted at one point).

The Slammin' Salmon

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 March 2009 at the Alamo Lamar #1 (SXSW Speical Screenings)

Hmm... Maybe I'm going to have to revisit Broken Lizard in the future. Most of the previews for their movies have done nothing for me, so I've skipped their releases, and to be perfectly honest, I wasn't terribly interested in this one.

The Slammin' Salmon takes a while for me to get into - aside from Michael Clarke Duncan, who is a blast from his first minute on the screen - but it's a little engine that could of comedy, plugging away constantly to make you laugh, and after a bit, the film's pace and sense of humor clicked with me, to the point where I was laughing pretty darn hard by the end.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

SXSW Day Four: Blood Trail, MINE, Best Worst Movie, The Two Bobs, and Observe and Report

So, I'm watching Best Worst Movie, remembering how the good folks at the Brattle have programmed Troll 2 once or twice but I have never been able to get to it, and Caitlin Crowley shows up on screen. She's one of the dozens of people in the Boston movie scene I have a thoroughly one-way fondness for, and anyone who is willing to profess their love of an apparently terrible movie in something that, like, hundreds of people may see is even cooler in my book.

Soon after that, the movie includes a montage of places where Troll 2 has played during its recent series of screenings. The Alamo Drafthouse shows up, of course, and the crowd in the Paramount goes nuts. The Brattle is a couple after that, and I raise my hands to applaud, realizing just after the last possible second that one guy applauding sounds just a bit more pathetic than zero guys applauding. Fortunately, I don't make much sound when clapping; not sure why.

Anyway, put that on a list of movies from SXSW I'd like to see playing IFFB - just so I can watch it again and see indifference to the Alamo and applause for the Brattle.

(Why yes, the "and I'm so glad to be showing this in Austin!" is getting on this tourist's nerves. Lack of sleep, I guess.)

Blood Trail

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2009 at the Alamo Ritz #2 (SXSW Special Screenings)

Robert King does not give the impression of a great war photographer when we first see him in Blood Trail. In 1990s Sarajevo, he's walking around a war zone like a naive kid; in 2007 Tennessee, we watch him stumble trying to set up a hunting blind. If the film ended there, one's mind would easily extrapolate the story of a man who had his sanity wrecked from witnessing horrors he wasn't ready to handle.

That's not this film's story, though King is changed by what he sees, as he must be. Instead, we watch him mature as both a journalist and as a man as he moves to Moscow, covers the wars in Chechnya, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Iraq. Colleagues who treated him with derision when he started become close friends; a lifetime of binging between assignments settles down; and the means by which war photographers access the battlefield changes radically.

According to director Richard Parry, this film started out as a comedic short about a callow young American in way over his head, accumulating more depth as Parry (a fellow war journalist) crossed paths with King anew. Those roots occasionally show through, especially during the opening act in Bosnia. It's black comedy; there is, after all, a bit more of an edge to "ha ha ha, that fool's going to get himself killed!" when it's a real war zone with real bullets - but we soon see that a large part of success is surviving one's initial inexperience (true in all fields, if not always so literally so).

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2009 at the Austin Convention Center (SXSW Documentary Feature Competition)

There are a lot of fiction films that don't set their main plot up as artfully as MINE does. After all, the title speaks pretty directly to what the movie is about, and yet director Geralyn Pezanoski is able to lull us into looking in a different direction, telling one interesting story that we forget is merely prelude to the main tale.

The opening tells us about how the evacuation of New Orleans, Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina frequently involved people leaving their four-legged family members behind for one reason or another. Fortunately, there are dedicated animal-rescue activists like Karen O'Toole and Jane Garrison, who mobilize almost immediately to rescue stranded pets (O'Toole comments that it's amazing that just by having "animal rescue" painted on the side of their vans, the army would let them into the flooded city when people trying to return to their homes were turned away). It's a gigantic logistical undertaking, not always happy - they come across people who treated their animals terribly, and one rescuer grimly notes that "cats don't bark". In order to make it work, the rescuers must often ship the animals they rescue to other shelters to make room for more incoming.

The trouble with that is, just as people weren't always able to take their pets with them as they escaped, they may not have known how to find them after returning home, or the various humane societies might have put them out for fostering/adoption relatively soon. Victor's bulldog Max is sent to Florida, where a woman adopts him and calls him Joey; Jesse's beloved JJ is sent to California; retired nurse Gloria's black lab Murphy becomes "Shadow" in California; 85-year-old Creole Malvin's poodle Bandit is sent to a shelter in Pittsburgh whose operator won't return any animals; Linda's German Shepherd Precious becomes Katia in Texas and she tries to sue for her return.

Full review at EFC.

Best Worst Movie

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount (SXSW Spotlight Premieres)

A pretty darn entertaining feature on Troll 2 fandom and its cast. It's hard not to love George Hardy, the Alabama dentist who played the lead in Troll 2 twenty years ago and retains a sense of humor about it to this day; he's among the most outgoing and genuinely nice guys you'll ever see. The movie itself is frequently hilarious without being mean-spiritd about what is, apparently, a really bad movie.

(No, I haven't seen it yet. I'm hoping the Brattle pairs it with this sometime in the next few months)

The 2 Bobs

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount (SXSW Spotlight Premieres)

Writer/Director Tim McCaniles described The 2 Bobs as his attempt to do a Kevin Smith movie, which is funny since Smith most recently released his attempt at a Judd Apatow movie. McCaniles makes a pretty entertaining one, though, a zany low-budget story packed full of nerd humor.

I think it will have legs even if you aren't a nerd, though - there are many different genuses of nerds, after all, with this movie's main source of gags being games and gamers, a group of which I am not a member. It's not quite so good/universal as Fanboys, but I liked how agreeably madcap it is.

Observe and Report

* * (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount (SXSW Spotlight Premieres)

This one, not so much. It does have some huge, huge laughs, don't get me wrong, and is a nice demonstration that Seth Rogen has more than fat stoner roles in him, but those moments of explosive hilarity come in the middle of long patches of uncomfortable, and not necessarily the sort of uncomfortable that makes one more likely to laugh.

To be fair, though, it's probably the one nice character that messes the balance up. Collette Wolfe's Nell is really too likeable to be attracted to Rogen's goonish character; seeing the movie headed that way makes me cringe much more than a bunch of jerks being jerks to each other.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

SXSW Day Five: Splinterheads, Four Boxes, The Promised Land, and Make Out With Violence

Hey, I'm on vacation. If I think it makes sense for me to post days out of order, I'll go right on and post them out of order!

Basically, Sunday wiped me out but good, leaving me with no time to post its stuff on Monday morning, but I had two reviews in my little notebook. I'll eventually get around to Tuesday, but for now, I'll just skip over it.

Today was an object lesson in both why it pays to get to the theater early, even if you have a badge, but also in how a good program can soften the blow. I was just after the cutoff for The Last Beekeeper, so I moved myself into the line for The Promised Land, since the other option at the Lamar, Eggshells, had this for a description in the program:
Eggshells, an American Freak Illumination Time & Space Fantasy of the exploding Austin inevitable. A crypto embryonic hyper-electric presence duels with itself as Vince Sobrosek goes to the bathroom yelling "listen to yellow dog, goddamn yellow dog!" while the uninvited dinner guests make love to the ghosts of Don Levy and Nic Roeg in a threesome with Carlos Casteneda in a bedroom that paints itself on its way to a wedding and your girlfriend and her lover dance out of the hemoglobin balloon forest as the writer-man takes an axe to the windshield and runs home naked to make love to the girl he loves for her breasts and they all grab seats under the transmogrifying hair dryers as Vince proclaims, "Ye shall know the truth and the truth will make you free." BYO

As much as Tobe Hooper has built (and squandered) a name in horror history... No. Just no.

I did like The Promised Land quite a bit, though, and Make Out with Violence even more so. Then I got shut out of The Horseman, and opted against The Haunting in Connecticut because, even though it's directed by the man who did the brilliant animated short "Ward 13", I looked at the line and felt like I'd be taking the place of people who really wanted to see it early. Plus, the idea of getting a decent night's sleep was starting to appeal.

(And then I wound up staying up because I have to give my roommate the new hotel key after he gets back from his midnight and party and whatever. Joke's on me!)


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount Theater (SXSW Emerging Visions)

Apparently "splinterheads" are a subset of what I've always thought of as "carnies", but that's apparently like calling a sailor, Marine, or airman a "soldier" - outsiders may think it's close enough, but in actuality it's not. Carnies work the rides, splinterheads the midway, and neither does much mixing with the townies.

Justin (Thomas Middleditch) is just about the towniest townie who ever towned. He lives with his mom Susan (Lea Thompson) and works mowing lawns with his best friend Wayne (Jason Rogel). Local cop Bruce (Christopher McDonald) is making Justin's life tough after Susan dumped him because of something Justin said, and he's got a perfect excuse when Justin drives away from a gas station after paying the girl running a game rather than the cashier. Just seens the girl, Galaxy (Rachael Taylor), working the dunk tank at the carnival which just came to town, which figures, doesn't it? So despite her attractiveness, he is somewhat less than pleased when their paths cross again the next morning.

Splinterheads could very easily have poured on the syrup with talk of destiny, fate, and stuff like that. Thankfully, it knows better than to act as if a comedy that goes for the rare triple meet-cute has any real mystery about how it's going to end. It's also not breaking any particular ground in having Galaxy not just be beautiful and outgoing, but have hobbies that are quirky but also show off just how cool she is, while Justin is a perpetually tongue-tied goofball. You can see the thuggish splinterhead boyfriend coming a mile away.

Full review at EFC.

Four Boxes

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount Theater (SXSW Emerging Visions)

If you hang on through the end of Four Boxes, everything will make sense. Yes, even the "nobody on earth actually talks like that" dialogue. That doesn't mean that you should hang on to the end, unfortunately, because not only doesn't explaining everything make it good, but there's a whole new bunch of dumb at the end.

Trevor (Justin Kirk) and Rob (Sam Rosen) have a small business where they purchase and resell the property of people who die without heirs. Their latest find is a bizarre mess, with boxes of junk, crime scene tape from where the deceased's wife hanged herself six months earlier. They find a sticky note near the computer for fourboxes.tv, which Rob says started out as a camgirl site, but the original girl moved out while leaving the cameras live. The new resident is creepy and sinister, and Trevor soon becomes obsessed with the site. As if that wasn't enough, Rob's fiancee Amber (Terryn Westbrook) soon joins them, and the fact that she used to be Trevor's girlfriend makes things uncomfortable.

Watching TV is not the most exciting thing to have your characters doing in a movie. Especially when the program in question is grainy webcam video, and the picture, when blown up to movie-screen size, becomes vague compression-artifcated blobs. Maybe seeing the movie on video rather than the big screen will help with that, but that still leaves the characters not doing much of anything for a good deal of the running time.

Full review at EFC.

The Promised Land

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 March 2009 at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #1 (SXSW 24 Beats per Second)

The Promised Land may not be a great documentary if you already know something about the swamp pop of Southern Louisiana - it's a broad overview, although if there's any better way to introduce the living legends of a type of music than having them get together and form a supergroup, I can't think of one. The picture is sometimes hard to see, low-resolution and not well-lit.

The music is pretty darn great, though, a Cajun mix of old-school rock & roll, country, and dixie blues, a throwback to fifty years ago before all those influences went their separate ways. The Li'l Band of Gold performs throughout, and there's bits of a couple dozen songs packed into the film's 77 minutes, most of it as yet unreleased. That part is no disappointment at all.

Make-Out with Violence

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 March 2009 at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #1 (SXSW Emerging Visions)

Make-Out with Violence isn't quite so good as Let the Right One In, but that's the film it brings to my mind. Both take horror-movie tropes and twist them into service of a strange story of young love, and have a young boy at the center. Make-Out goes with zombies instead of vampires, and rather than a Swedish winter focuses on the summer after high school graduation in the American suburbs. The critical similarity is that both movies take a genre that is extremely played-out, tie it to a story where I believe in every one of the characters, and still leave me wondering what is going to happen next because it seems fresh and new.

That's fantastic, and the nifty soundtrack doesn't hurt a bit, either.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

SXSW Day Three: Letters to the President, Garbage Dreams, Sin Nombre, Women In Trouble, and Drag Me to Hell

This day started with me not being able to get to the Almo South Lamar in time to see ExTerminators at noon, and continued to nearly three in the morning before walking back to the hotel, so you'll forgive me if I fell a little behind. The time waiting for Letters to the President did give me a chance to write up a review of Objectified in my little festival notebook, so you can go read that.

I must confess, I'm not totally proud of my behavior vis-a-vis Drag Me to Hell. I sort of cut in line in front of a few hundred people when Jason Whyte stopped me while I was following it to the end, and then, when Sam Raimi came out to introduce it, I sent a text message to my brother who won't be able to see this for a couple of months so that he knew just where I was and what I was doing. Of course, since it was about 2am EDT for him, he probably just slept through it.

Letters to the President

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount Theater (SXSW Special Screenings)

Letters to the President is somewhat difficult to review as a film because it does its job so well. It is trying to give the audience a snapshot of the relationship Iran has with its populist president, and it does so with so little pretense that I'm initially more interested in the facts than the filmmaking.

Iran's current president is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he's the highest ranking elected official in the country, after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He was born in a village of 2,000, though his father moved to Tehran where Ahmadinejad was a child. He would later become a university professor and the mayor of Tehran before being elected President in 2005. He is extremely popular with the people, both for his religious faith, his commitment to nuclear power, and his unusual accessibility. His proximity to people in public appearances would give the USA's Secret Service nightmares, and he encourages the people to write him with their problems.

The latter is the film's stated topic, and it's not hard to be impressed by the scale of the undertaking. Nine to ten million Iranians have written since his election, and an official tells us that 76% have received a response. Ahmadinejad can't do all that personally, of course, so we get looks at the bureaucracy put into place to handle it. The response is also not always positive, as a thoroughly frustrating interview between petitioner and official demonstrates.

Full review at EFC.

Garbage Dreams

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount Theater (SXSW Documentary Competition)

Mai Iskander has made a fine documentary in Garbage Dreams, the type that is about people first, and does a fine job of being issue-oriented without hammering away at buzzwords like "globalization". For all that, I must admit that one of the most memorable things from the movie is a simple number: Eighty percent.

That is the amount of residential waste that the Zaballeens of Cairo are able to recycle. That's a fantastic number - most developed nations manage something in the twenties - and as might be expected, it comes through unconventional means: Though Cairo is a city of eighteen million, the largest in the Arab world or Africa, it had no official city-wide garbage collection program, instead relying on sixty thousand independent garbage collectors (the Zaballeens) who are paid a pittance for their services. Entire communities are built around garbage collection and recycling.

The largest is Mokattam, and Garbage Dreams focuses on three teenage boys and one young woman from the area: 17-year-old Adham collects garbage to support his family as the man of the house with his father in jail; 18-year-old Nabil has been working since the age of seven and has twin dreams of marrying and opening a can-recycling shop; and 16-year-old Osama is kind of a screw-up, unable to hold a job even though his father is pushing him to do something with his life other than root through other people's trash. Then there's Laila, a local social worker who tries to keep the people in her neighborhood healthy. She also finds herself fighting for the neighborhood's very survival when the city hires several European companies to handle trash collection.

Full review at EFC.

Sin Nombre

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount Theater (SXSW Spotlight Premieres)

An impressive first feature, this is. Cary Fukunaga has made something that feels larger than its relatively short running time, depicting the difficult crossing across Mexico from Guatemala to the U.S., made more difficult by a gang member marked for death. Tense as can be, with moments of really shocking violence.

Women in Trouble

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount Theater (SXSW Spotlight Premieres)

A thoroughly entertaining comedy, with ten women given a chance to do broad, crude comedy that somehow comes around to something vaguely heartfelt without it seeming too terribly ridiculous. Carla Gugino and Connie Britton get the meatiest roles and play well off each other, but the standout is probably Adrianne Palicki, who does great things with the dumb blonde role.

Director Sebastian Guiterrez said during the Q&A that the film was shot with a skeleton crew in something like twelve days, with the sequel (which focuses more squarely on Gugino's character) already finished with photography. I'll be looking forward to it next year; hopefully if it's nearly as much fun as this one.

Drag Me To Hell

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount Theater (SXSW Special Screenings)

Can you believe it's been over twenty years since Evil Dead 2? Considering how much of Sam Raimi's fame and career is built on that movie and its particular style, one would think he'd done more like it, but in fact he's ranged pretty far afield. Even Army of Darkness was something rather different, more PG-13-ish Ray Harryhausen tribute than combination of horror and slapstick comedy.

Drag Me to Hell, thankfully, is the Evil Dead 2-iest thing he's done in a long while, and a real blast to watch. He tosses Alison Lohman around like a ragdoll, heaping all the abuse that used to be handed out to Bruce Campbell. It's a fun combination of slapstick comedy and no-kidding-around horror, and it's a real treat to see Raimi back in this sandbox.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

SXSW Day Two: Sorry, Thanks, Bomber, Objectified, Moon, and Black

Yesterday didn't quite go as planned; I didn't make it to the Paramount in time for Sweethearts of the Rodeo and by the time Moon's Q&A was finished, I would have needed to move at light speed to make it to The Last Beekeeper. The day just got better as it went on, though, and I'm pretty sure I'll be recommending Moon to everybody until Sony Pictures Classics gives it a release.

Today's plan is in flux from the beginning: Ex-Terminators if I make the bus to the Lamar theater, St. Nick otherwise; Letters to the President, then probably The Overbrook Brothers (or maybe something else), Humpday (or Sin Nombre), Women in Trouble, and the work-in-progress print of Drag Me to Hell. But a whole bunch of that could change, I'm not really committed to much more than Drag Me to Hell, and that could easily fill up before I get there.

Sorry, Thanks

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 March 2009 at The Almao Drafthouse Ritz #1 (SXSW Emerging Visions)

The "mumblecore" generation is, perhaps, starting to get interesting. Digital video is both good and cheap enough that these movies no longer default to looking like a muddy mess. More importantly, the characters are starting to feel much more like interesting individuals, rather than generic artsy twentysomethings.

Take Max (Wiley Wiggins) and Kira (Kenya Miles). We meet them as they wake up after a one night stand. Max is kind of close to the stereotype, an artist frustrated by his job in a senator's San Francisco office. Kim is more outgoing and social, but she's just broken up with her boyfriend of seven years. They think it's a one-time thing, but it turns out that they move in the same circles - and it also turns out that Max has a girlfriend, Sara (Ia Hernandez).

Max gets most of the good lines, but it's Kira that turns out to be the interesting one. There's a surface-friendly sequence of her moving things out of her ex's apartment (we don't know what precipitated the break-up), and it's made clear that her new job as a copy editor is a step down from what she has been doing. We're watching someone scale back and otherwise rearrange her life, very deliberately, but without the usual rancor or grim determination that usually goes with such an activity. Miles navigates this nicely; she shows Kira's generally glass-half-full philosophy in a straightforward, unexaggerated manner. The cracks are also visible, whether they appear unbidden or in an oddly friendly act of romantic sabotage.

Continued at EFC.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 March 2009 at The Almao Drafthouse Ritz #1 (SXSW Narrative Feature Competition)

Bomber, when you get right down to it, is the sort of movie where one can see very clearly that if the characters just did what any normal, sane person would do, things would go pretty smoothly. That they don't is okay for the first half or so, because the results are fast-paced and funny, but when the movie comes straight out and tells you what it's about, well, that's not so great, even if it is, ironically, perhaps more realistic.

Ross (Shane Taylor) gets up early, telling girlfriend Leslie (Sara Kessel) that he will be back later to help her with an event she's planning. He's promised he would see his parents Alistar (Benjamin Whitrow) and Valerie (Eileen Nicholas) off on a long-planned trip to Germany. His octogenarian father wrecks his car before even getting out of the garage (despite his meticulous preparation), though, and after the next cut we see Ross driving them through the Netherlands in his work van. Stuffy Alistar complains about Leslie's constant calls on the cell phone (and everything else), but the situation doesn't exactly improve when those calls come to an end.

The story hangs on a decision that doesn't necessarily make a lot of sense - would (a) Ross actually decide to drive them right then, or would they (b) wait a couple weeks until the car is repaired, or (c) take a train? Once they've decided on (a), would they perhaps be a little more accommodating of Ross, rather than insisting on taking B roads or stopping at several things Valerie wants to see? Naturally, if they did, there might not be a movie to be had, but that's okay - even as adults, we can find ourselves subject to our parents' whims, and parents will often have a hard time accepting that their kids know what they're doing. And the action of it is pretty amusing - Whitrow and Taylor are a well-drawn pair of opposites, the stiff-upper-lip member of the Greatest Generation and the touchy-feely modern man, and Ms. Nicholas is just well-meaning enough to annoy both of them in turn.

Continued at EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount Theater (SXSW Spotlight Premieres)

Gary Hustwit is carving out a specific documentary niche for himself, talking about design and how it affects our lives. Objectified casts a much broader net than his first feature, Helvetica, and he mentioned during the Q&A that he's working on a third documentary on the subject.

Objectified is a fascinating one to watch; not to take anything away from Hustwit's various interview subjects, who all impart some new and intriguing bit of information, but through the beginning of the movie especially he'll hold his camera on common objects, finding a slightly different angle than the one we usually associate with them and inviting us to study them, making up our minds about what makes them good objects or bad objects, and why, before the various experts break it down. Which they do in clear, easily-understood ways, which is maybe to be expected from people dedicated to making things easy to use. A lot of people can't do this, though, which is why Objectified is an excellent example of an informative, intriguing documentary.

Full review at EFC.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 March 2009 at the Austin Paramount Theater (SXSW Spotlight Premieres)

This is the movie at SXSW that was made just (or mostly) for me. I'm kind of amused that the host introduced it by saying it was a great science fiction movie because it relies more on great acting than special effects, since this movie is full of effects work, although not the kind that announces itself to you. It does have a pretty fantastic performance by Sam Rockwell at its center, and the story is one my hard-sf-loving self adores, even if they didn't have the budget to simulate lunar gravity very well.

I'm loath to say too much about the plot because most of the movie is dependent on a twist that happens fairly early on, but it's a pretty great acting showcase for Rockwell, who seldom shares the screen with other actors, but gets to do something a lot more exciting than just slowly go insane.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 March 2009 at the Alamo Drafthouse Lamar #6 (SXSW Presents Fantastic Fest at Midnight)

I wasn't quite so worn out during Black as I was for Ong Bak 2, although I will admit to being a little fuzzy at times. Not fuzzy enough to forget that Black is a whole ton of fun, a French action movie that starts as blaxploitation and then gets crazier from there, dumping a Parisian bank robber back in his native Senegal, and having him run afoul of mercenaries, rivals, arms dealers, undercover cops, wrestlers, witches, and then some really nutty stuff. It's not quite the tight, no moment wasted brand of action we've lately associated with France via Luc Besson's factory, but it is very well-done, especially once the Dakar heist goes down and the action basically doesn't stop until the movie ends. I look forward to seeing it again at Fantasia, just in case there's something I missed.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

SXSW Day One: Monsters from the Id and Ong Bak 2

Saw two movies yesterday; will see more today. The plan is Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Bomber, Objectified, Moon, The Last Beekeeper, and Black.

Monsters From The Id

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 March 2009 at The Almao Drafthouse Lamar #3 (SXSW Spotlight Premieres)

1950s science fiction is known for being paranoid and downbeat, tinged with fear of atomic doom and the potential for infiltrators to be anywhere. Filmmaker Dave Gargani argues that this should not, necessarily, be the case, or at least not the whole story. As much as those themes are present, he argues, there is great optimism to be found in them.

He sets out to prove his point in Monsters From the Id, which takes is name from Forbidden Planet, one of the films offered up as evidence. Also featured are Invaders from Mars, War of the Worlds, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them!, and the "Tomorrowland" segments of the Disneyland television series. These films are discussed by five experts, Professors Leroy Dubeck and Patrick Luciano, Luciano's co-author Gary Coville, film critic Richard Scheib, and retired NASA engineer Homer Hickam. The film ends by pondering what changed between then and now and what that means for the future.

In general, the films roughly match with a theme - 20,000 Fathoms is used for atomic fears, Invaders from Mars and The Day the Earth Stood Still to show how children had a large role in these stories, War of the Worlds to demonstrate the level of trust accorded to scientists and the military at the time. It is, thankfully, not a rigid correspondence; movies will pop up in multiple segments to demonstrate that this is, in fact, a pattern, rather than Gargani trying to build a case via widely separated data points. The ideas involved aren't especially complicated, but the voiced articulate them fairly well, although they do have a habit of making the same points, rather than attacking the question from different directions.

Continued at EFC, with one other review.

Ong Bak 2

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 March 2009 at The Almao Drafthouse Lamar #1 (SXSW Presents Fantastic Fest)

I can't give this a full review, because it was roughly 12:30 by the time this movie started, which is 1:30am Eastern time, and I was already kind of worn out by a day of air travel followed by walking around Austin. So it's quite possible that the film is more than a complete mess broken up by some incredible fight scenes. The ones that serve as the film's finale are amazing, with Tony Jaa's Tien fighting off wave after wave of warriors, incorporating an elephant into the incredible stuntwork.

One thing the film is not, however, is a sequel to Ong Bak; it takes place in the 1400s, with the only connections I can see being Jaa starring and (perhaps) the same Buddha statue appearing in both films. I honestly can't say the plot for sure; something about Tien being captured as a kid and raised to be an invincible warrior by the man who murdered his family? Sure, it leads to some inventive beatdowns, but I found myself not really who was supposed to be Tien's enemies and allies.

Friday, March 13, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 9 March 2009 to 15 March 2009

This Week In Tickets: 9 March 2009 to 15 March 2009

I'm writing this at 30-odd thousand feet, on the first leg of my Boston-to-Austin trip to the South By Southwest Film Festival. I'm excited about it, though there are some things I would dearly love to see on the big screen in Boston while I'm away:

  • Sita Sings The Blues is playing at the Museum of Fine Arts from the 12th to 22nd. I was lucky enough to see it at the Brattle Eye-opener last week and absolutely loved it; I recommend it highly for everyone else.

  • Chocolate at the Brattle, late-night shows fro the 13th to 15th. It's actually already available on DVD and Blu-ray, but come on - we all know that wire-free ass-kicking is much more fun with a crowd.

  • The Last Command with the Alloy Orchestra at the Somerville Theater on the 15th. This one hurts; the annual Alloy show has been one of my favorite things to do and I liked The Last Command a lot when I saw it at the Brattle; a new print and score would have been a real treat.
  • The Boston Underground Film Festival, from the 19th to 26th at the Brattle and Kendall Square. Fortunately, I'll probably be able to catch most of what I want to, as the Festival proper is Thursday-Sunday, with the Kendall re-showing highlights from Monday-Thursday.
  • The Chlotrudis Awards at the Brattle on the 22nd. There's an outside chance I'll catch that, as it starts at 5pm and my plane gets in at 4:30pm (if the Brattle folks don't mind my suitcase full of dirty laundry sitting in their lobby)

  • So, if you're still in Boston, you've got plenty of options. Please, do some of them!

    This Week In Tickets!

    Yep, just one film so far this week, although I'll probably see another 8-10 by the time it's time to move on to the next page.

    The Secret of the Grain

    The Secret of the Grain

    There's a difference between "art-house" and "boutique" films. One of the people in the group I went with on Tuesday made a comment about knowing I would likely not be into this because of how little I liked A Christmas Tale, and this was another long French film. The thing is, I'm good with "boutique". I've got no problem with "long" or "French", individually or paired. I've got a problem with boring. I like to see people doing things, or at least saying interesting things. "Art-house", I guess, is beyond the need for such conventional narrative. And it drives me bonkers.

    La Graine et le Mulet (The Secret of the Grain)

    * ½ (out of four)
    Seen 10 March 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

    The Secret of the Grain is filled with things that make for great movies and great drama - opening a new restaurant, conflict between new and old families after divorce, being an ethnic minority, adultery, and cooking delicious food. Writer/director Abdel Kechiche, however, chooses approach these things obliquely, and to draw out what he does show in the most patience-trying way possible.

    We follow Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares), a long-time dockworker in a port city in the south of France, and fidgety moviegoers should take it as an omen that we're introduced to him by way of his boss upbraiding him for taking three days to do a two-day job. His hours are cut and he leaves the yard, making stops to visit and deliver fresh fish to his ex-wife Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk) and his daughter Karima (Farida Benkhetache), before coming home to girlfriend Latifa (Hatika Karaoui) and her daughter Rym (Hafsia Herzi). Laid off, he decides to open a floating seafood restaurant featuring Souad's fish couscous, though the help of Rym and his family only takes him so far when trying to navigate the bureaucracy and woo investors.

    Kechiche makes what are, if we choose to be kind, unconventional choices as to what to show and what not to show during the first hour-plus. For instance, we see Slimane and his boss discussing the severance package that he had been resisting, but the scene ends with him being told his hours are reduced; his actual losing of his job happens off-screen. We don't get a scene of him purchasing the boat, or deciding to open a restaurant. We don't get Slimane broaching the idea of the restaurant with Souad, or any confrontation between Slimane and Latifa over this idea. Much of this is supplied to us after the fact, by a chorus of Arab magicians sitting outside Latifa's restaurant. That's typical of what is shown through much of the movie, circular conversations that practically wear a rut in the ground by coming back to the same point over and over again. There's an extended Sunday dinner at Souad's which almost does this well, but like nearly every other scene in the movie, it goes on too long and repeats itself too often.

    Someone less story-oriented than I might think that Kechiche keeps most of the obvious plot-advancing events off-screen for aesthetic reasons, that they can be inferred and watching the characters react to them is a purer experience. It's possible. After a while, though, another theory started to come to mind: what if Kechiche discovered and built the movie around Habib Boufares only to find he couldn't act? That he has no other credits on IMDB isn't strong evidence for this theory (the further you get from Hollywood, the less complete it gets, and the ethnically North African/Arabic cast of an independent French film is a fair distance away), but it would explain the fact that, while Slimane is the film's central character, we never see him have a pivitol role in a scene. Boufares looks perfect for the role - every individual line on his face and hitch in his gait is as it should be - but the film certainly seems to be working around him.

    As theories go, it's probably crazy and almost certainly unkind, but it's where my mind went during two and a half hours of doing things off-screen and numbing repetition within scenes. It is, quite frankly, astonishing what a talent Kechiche has for wearing out a scene's welcome, especially in the last act. For just the second time, something has happened on-screen which holds out the possibility of causing other things to happen, but, of course, what the characters wind up doing is stalling in one location, and going through a series of incredibly drawn-out scenes in others. One is particularly painful, because it's a woman crying her heart out, but it goes on for so damn long that I went from feeling bad for her to feeling bad about wanting her to shut up. And it's just one of three prolonged time-killers Kechiche cuts between!

    The worst part is that for all the time burned, there are moments where The Secret of the Grain is cutting and potentially fascinating. Hafsia Herzi, for instance, never strikes a dull note when she's on-screen; she plays Rym as intelligent, passionate, and fiercely loyal to the man who is like a father to her. There's the flagrant way that the other local business owners make plans to sabotage Slimane while guests at his grand opening, and the way family differences explode into anger, especially among the women (Rym, her mother, and Slimane's daughters practically arch their backs like angry cats when confronted with each other). Even the scene with the crying woman starts out wonderfully raw before it pounds the audience into numbness.

    Indeed, it's tempting to give the film higher marks based upon the good moments, or even recommend it to those who prize unfiltered realism, right down to the monotony. I can't do it though, at least not now - the memory of banging the back of my head against the seat, desperate for the movie to end, or just get to the next scene, and seriously considering whether or not I would have walked out had I not been with a group is still too fresh.

    Also at EFC.