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Saturday, March 15, 2014

SXSW Film Roundup - Day Eight - Sad to Say Goodbye

By David Massey


 I'm so sorry to say that my cinema-fueled vacation from the real world is drawing to a close; actually having signal on my phone is always the tell-tale sign that SXSW is wrapping up. The filmmakers have vacated the city in mass and the wrist-band holders are getting their just deserts. The industry has left, the cinemas are full of the geeks that remain, and all is well in the world. Today, I managed to fit in a documentary that put 'Captain Phillips' to shame ('Last Hijack'), the SXSW Grand Jury Prize winner, 'Fort Tilden', the feature-length expansion of an Oscar-winning short film ('Before I Disappear'), the first feature from a budding legend ('Space Station 76'), and my final midnighter of the year, '13 Sins'.


'Last Hijack' (directed by Tommy Pallotta & Femke Wolting)


This documentary follows Mohamed, one of Somalia's most renowned pirates, as he struggles to give up the lucrative (but dangerous) profession, using the last of his stolen money as a dowry so he can marry and settle down. We're given a candid and unobtrusive view of this individual and his family with a play on chronology that unravels his story with true elegance. Most unique is the decision to retell Mohamed's memories in the form of animated re-enactments that often depict him as a giant bird of prey, plucking ships from the sea. The film isn't apologist but it does help us emphasize with a Somali circumstance in which chewing khat (a leafy plant containing a natural amphetamine) is a common alternative to actual food and the ability to earn a living is almost nonexistent.




 'Fort Tilden' (directed by Sarah-Violet Bliss & Charles Rogers) 


If ever you wondered what happened to the 'valley girl' ethic, rest assured that it is alive and well in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Harper (Bridey Elliott) & Allie (Clare McNulty) are 20-something best friends whose parental affluence hasn't really required them to mature in the years since college. This comedy follows their ill-conceived attempt at being thrifty as they choose to bike (rather than taxi) across Brooklyn to a Rockaway Beach party. These are two of the most vapid and shallow characters ever portrayed as protagonists - they don't learn a thing as they spend hundreds of dollars during their 10 mile odyssey - and that's what's so funny. As for winning the SXSW Grand Jury Prize, I can totally see the comparisons with, festival darling, Lena Dunham's 'Girls' - which is a guilty pleasure of mine - but, where Dunham's wit and goofy characters coax empathy, the 'Fort Tilden' characters have no apparent redeeming qualities. I laughed a bit but this is no Patsy & Edina or Romy & Michele; I got more than my fill of Harper, Allie, and their equally self-centered world.


'Before I Disappear' (directed by Shawn Christensen)


Where 'Fort Tilden' showed a bright and optimistic Brooklyn day without consequences, Shawn Christensen's (writer/director/lead) 'Before I Disappear (based on his Oscar-winning short film, 'Curfew') depicts its seedy, hopeless night life. Richie hit a low-point in teenage and has managed to just maintain and get by until now. The night that he finally decides to end it all, he receives an unexpected call from his estranged sister who asks him to look after his young niece, Sophia (Fatma Ptacek). Richie is forced to take to the streets with Sophia and she is given a first-hand view of his fringe lifestyle. Don't get me wrong, this isn't all doom & gloom - there's even a choreographed dance number in a bowling alley – and, with a supporting cast including Ron Pearlman ('Pacific Rim'), Emmy Ross ('Shameless'), and Richard Schiff ('The West Wing'), there is a lot to enjoy in this junkie-with-a-heart-of-gold tale.



'Space Station 76' (directed by Jack Plotnick)


What can I say about, first time director, Jack Plotnick's ('Girls will be Girls' / 'Wrong') 'Space Station 76'… picture ‘Star Trek - Deep Space Nine’ set in an alternate universe that parallels 1970's America, in which God is a transvestite; that about sums it up. This is a day-in-the-life melodrama set on a spaceship where Patrick Wilson's ('The Conjuring' / 'Hard Candy') captain struggles with his secret love for transferred lieutenant Daniel (Matthew Morrison of ‘Glee’) with replacement lieutenant, Liv Tyler (‘The Fellowship of the Rings’), coming to terms with woman's ‘lib’ in a world where a glass of wine and a cigarette are the perfect preparation for breast feeding. Plot-heavy this is not but Plotnick lays his childhood pain out on the line in this genre parody and it's hard not to love him for it.




’13 Sins’ (directed by Daniel Stamm)


For those that haven't seen 'Cheap Thrills', I apologize because, for those that have, it's the best reference I can give for Daniel Stramm's ('The Last Exorcism') '13 Sins'. That, along with the added consequence hinted at with, "in the most positive, empowering way, try to think of this as a gun pointed at your head." It's a good introduction to this game of 'dare' that becomes more and more elaborate and unethical. Just before he hits his lowest point, a father-to-be played Mark Webber ('Scott Pilgrim Vs The world' / 'Bomb the System') is provided with the opportunity to participate in a mysterious competition that could either jeopardize what life he has left or provide a solution to all his woes. I'm bias because this was my second helping of Ron Perlman today and, when it's reveled that this contest is taking place on a grand scale that has intertwined one contestant against another, I was all in.




…and, for the record, I regret nothing!


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