Monday, June 13, 2011


In its second year, Sound Unseen International Duluth held cultural court this past weekend in the Northland and I took a road trip for one day of screenings.

Littlerock (2010)
dir. Mike Ott

Slowly but surly, I'm dusting up all the films I didn't get to in Vancouver last year. Littlerock, not to be confused with Little Rock, is a small town in California just north of LA. Two young tourists, brother and sister Rintaro and Atsuko from Japan, find themselves stranded in Littlerock when their rental car breaks down on the way to San Francisco via Manzanar. Wandering the roads, vacant lots and less than inspiring business, Rintaro and Atsuko feign interest in this slice of American pie that they didn't expect. When Rintaro goes to break up a party that is keeping him awake, they make friends with a group of disaffected locals who might just take the edge off the boredom of Rintaro and Atsuko's two day layover. They are adopted by Cory, an effeminate eccentric (by the town's standards) who denies he is anything but straight. (And who wouldn't. Welcome to the land of homophobia that voted for Proposition 8.) Cory shows them around town, such as it is, and takes them to another party where Jordan takes an interest in Atsuko. When their car is ready, Rintaro is ready to leave, but Atsuko has found some charm or curiosity in these hang-abouts and decides to stay on for a few days, despite her lack of English.

Director Mike Ott has mentioned that he was interested in making a Lost in Translation from the opposite perspective. As a result, and no doubt by intention, the romance of place that oozes over the loneliness in Lost in Translation is superseded by the pall of economic depression and tension of small town violence in Littlerock. But Ott asks you to try and see Littlerock through Atsuko's eyes and find what she sees in this US version of "No Exit." It seems appropriate that I would see Littlerock at SUID, where, one year ago, I saw Putty Hill, October Country, and Cold Weather—poster children in the rise of new American filmmaking who are redefining the term 'independent.' Littlerock does very similar things: modest intentions, simple means and deft filmmaking. Litllerock failed me a bit when it decided to play out the Manzanar storyline and connect it to a more contemporary form of isolation and oppression. Some subtlety was lost in this otherwise beautiful and unassuming film.

Abraxas (2011)
dir. Naoki Kato

Fresh off the Sundance presses, Abraxas is a film about a man headed into a mid-life crisis. The man, however, is a Zen Buddhist monk and his age-defying craving is the punk rock of his youth. Abraxas is one of those films that goes for the cliché of wanting to make you laugh and cry, and does so in a jumble of tones that never really gel as a whole. Jonen is a good natured monk but is struggling with life's bigger questions much to the detriment of his profession and his family. His solution is to return to his musical passions and play a live show in his local community. His wife and the elder at the monastery don't think this is such a good idea, but Jonen nonetheless trots off like a giddy teenager hanging posters and inviting all the locals. Although not much of it is very funny. As Jonen makes a fool of himself in public, his wife is bullied at her job as a convenient store clerk. And there is nothing very cute or cheeky about a husband who neglects his wife and son both physically and emotionally with selfish distractions. As a matter of fact, he's such a hopeless cause that it is hard to imagine he was ever a good monk, husband or father.

When tragedy strikes, Jonen gets a reality check and is forced once again to reassess his values. Here is where the film gets stone-cold serious, and actually starts to work for me. The struggles and emotions are played out with a certain amount of sincerity that the first half just didn't have. Jonen's confusion seems to have a little more relevance and the notion of responsibility starts to enter the picture. I couldn't help think of Sogo Ishii's Electric Dragon 80000v when Jonen pulls out his guitar to duel the ocean. Jonen is played by indie rocker Suneohair (best known in these parts for his contributions to the animation series Honey & Clover) and his grand finale rock-out is just as cathartic as it should be. Eventually, Abraxas won me over, but that first half hour was tough going.

Last Days Here (2011)
dir. Don Argott and Damian Fenton

Last Days Here is the unbelievable story of Bobby Liebling, the lead singer of the heavy metal band Pentagram. If a good documentary is about having the cameras rolling at the right time and in the right place, Last Days Here is a masterpiece. The band Pentagram has been around since the early 70s and is often sited as one of the first doom metal bands with a heavy, sludgy, dark sound. Through a series of near misses, the band never found the fame that (maybe) they deserved and (probably) could have had. If one member sealed the fate of Pentagram, it was Bobby Liebling, the creative genius who dug a hole so deep with drugs, he was barely alive and the band dissolved. The filmmakers catch up with Liebling, living in his parents basement smoking crack and waiting to die. The state of Liebling is utterly frightening—skin and bones, bandaged and puffy from the effects of drugs. If you saw this man on the street, you would avert your eyes. I literally though I was going to see him die while the cameras were running. Although I guess it is a bit of a spoiler to tell you he doesn't die, Last Days Here is a story of recovery against all odds. Fan Sean Pellet is committed to helping Liebling pull himself together and to make one more album with the original members of Pentagram. Spoiler or no spoiler, what directors Don Argott and Damian Fenton catch on camera has to be seen to be believed.

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