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.

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