Utne Reader Film Reviews: September-October 2008

TheRiot Act
Battle in Seattle
(Redwood Palms Pictures; in theaters)

If activism, like globalism, sometimes becomes unruly, activism about globalism must have real dramatic potential. Hence actor Stuart Townsend’s screenwriting and directing debut, Battle in Seattle, a docudrama about the five days of riots that disrupted the 1999 World Trade Organization conference in Seattle.

The filmmaker’s sympathies lie with the activists, portrayed by Martin Henderson, Michelle Rodriguez, and OutKast’s André Benjamin, whose warmth and dignified charisma make him a scene stealer. Townsend is not skeptical enough to admit that social protest has become a glamour profession, but before you can accuse him of being a part of that problem by stocking his movie with shimmering stars, consider his clever casting against type: Charlize Theron plays a pregnant bourgeois woman who remains aloof from the melee until it literally hits her in the gut; Woody Harrelson is her husband, a riot-busting cop whose rage pushes him over a line and then leaves him wracked with guilt; and Ray Liotta is fictional mayor Jim Tobin (Paul Schell was mayor in 1999), whose faith in free assembly erodes as he sees his city descend into a state of emergency.

Braiding brief snippets of these automatically suspenseful story lines with archival video footage of the actual event, Townsend makes a good point that the thing just got away from all involved. His narrative might seem contrived, but his compassionate stance is not: Battle in Seattle calls for benevolence amid hysteria, which seems like the right way forward into the ongoing morass of globalization. –Jonathan Kiefer

Garbage Warrior
(Open Eye Media; on DVD)
A documentary about architect Michael Reynolds could easily frame his career as a pitched battle between shortsighted regulators and a visionary eco-warrior. Instead, Garbage Warrior unspools at a leisurely pace, weaving together periods in Reynolds’ career as he refines his off-the-grid, sustainable New Mexico dwellings. When the inevitable battle with regulators breaks out, Reynolds is no intransigent iconoclast. He tames his hair, dons a suit, and heads to the state capitol to fight for a law allowing experimental design. “The legal process is OK,” Reynolds concedes, “if you’ve got forever. The problem is, on the planet today, we need fast change.” Invited to tsunami-ravaged South Asia, Reynolds finds that local engineers and homeless villagers welcome his self-sufficient, dignity-restoring dwellings, no zoning questions asked. –Lisa Gulya

You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story
(Plexifilm; on DVD)
In 1977, Gary Wilson, a freakishly gifted lounge lizard with a penchant for horror flicks and John Cage, recorded You Think You Really Know Me in his parents’ basement. The New Yorker pressed 600 copies, disappeared to L.A., and became a fixation among record collectors and a faceless muse for genre-busters like Beck. Two indie-label idealists stumbled on the platter in 2001 and set out to find Wilson, which involved a private dick, a San Diego porn shop, and the weirdest home movies since Capturing the Friedmans. Director Michael Wolk revels in the freak show and then heads east with his subject for a whacked-out homecoming. Like the original recording (packaged with the DVD), it’s a trip that’s both hard to wrap your head around and impossible to shake. –David Schimke

The Exiles
(Milestone; in theaters)
Originally released in 1961, The Exiles follows a group of American Indians from dusk till dawn as they drink, drive, gamble, and fight their way through Los Angeles. Using interviews with people who play themselves in the film, director and producer Kent Mackenzie set out to depict the true stories of Indians in L.A., restless and unsatisfied, living in the decrepit Bunker Hill neighborhood. Mixing documentary and narrative, the low-budget production and its amateur actors–including some who were recruited on-scene during filming–lend the story a rough yet authentic quality. Rereleased with the help of author Sherman Alexie and filmmaker Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, 1977), the film provides a rare glimpse into the lives of 1950s urban Indians, exiled in their own country. –Bennett Gordon

XXY
(Film Movement; in theaters)
“You just jacked off,” 16-year-old Alex chides her friend, a slight smile flickering across her face. “I can tell.” XXY‘s heroine, played by Inés Efron, is prone to such pronouncements, followed by an impish grin or a silent, searing look. And while her volatility would seem typical in other adolescents, from the moment she appears on the screen–wiry body hinting at the intersex condition her parents refused to “correct” at birth–you can’t look away. As Alex matures and struggles with desire, that always messy tangle of sex, gender, and sexuality becomes a minefield. There are no easy answers or Hollywood endings here, save for the quiet heroism exhibited by Alex’s father, who embodies the unconditional love and loyalty that every child deserves. –Lisa Gulya

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