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.

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