SXSW Capsule Reviews: Western, The Ceremony, The Last Man on the Moon, Deep Web

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WesternThis is turning out to be a very different year for SXSW, as though last year's tragedy marked a turning point where the city and the SXSW staff realized that things had gotten out of hand with too much going on at once with too little control. The result has been in my own observation that downtown seemed practically dead when I arrived Friday to pick up my badge. Strictly limited permitting for outside events and venues in addition to much of the interactive events being relocated away from the convention center have thinned the crowd to manageable levels, though we will see if that persists as the music portion of the fest kicks into gear.

Movies I've seen:

Western 

This documentary by brothers Bill and Turner Ross (who premiered Tchoupitoulas at SXSW 2012) covers 13 months in the border city of Eagle Pass during Chad Foster's last term as mayor. Foster gained recognition as an outspoken opponent of the border fence idea.

Much of the film focuses on the lives of ranchers and cattle traders who purchase cattle on the Mexican side of the border and transport them for sale in the US. Eagle Pass is presented as an idyllic locale where the Mexican and American cultures are so intermingled as to be indistinct. Foster, for instance, in his speeches switches between perfectly-accented Spanish and a completely authentic Texan drawl English mid-sentence. As outside political forces close the border and begin to erect walls that threaten their livelihood, the citizens of Eagle Pass struggle to understand the paranoia over drug cartel violence until it reaches their doorstep.

The job of editing hundreds of hours of footage down to 90 minutes can mean tough choices about what to include, and some of the editing choices here make the story feel a little disjointed with events that are never completely resolved within the film. The slow pacing of much of Western also seemed to stretch time making it seem like a much longer movie. It's saving grace is strength of its characters: Foster, rancher Martin Wall, and his adorable young daughter Brylyn. We experience daily life in Eagle Pass through their eyes, and Western is an accurate snapshot of that place in that time for the historical record.

Western screens again Thursday 3/19 at 11:30 am at the Paramount.

The Ceremony

This documentary is a candid and respectful look at the inner sanctum of France's most famous dominatrix, Catherine Robbe-Grillet. She and her followers provide insight into the complex mix of emotions and the spiritual experience derived from the dominant/submissive relationship. An intriguing look at a veritably alien world, The Ceremony is beautiful and revealing of the formerly taboo.

The Ceremony screens again Thursday 3/19 at 2 pm at Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter.

The Last Man on the Moon

Mark Craig takes us on a stunning journey through the life of Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17 and the last person to walk on the surface of the moon. Part historical record, part intimate character portrait, and part recruiting tool, his film is one of the most emotionally charged documentaries I have ever seen. While the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, was known to be extremely private, Cernan is on a one-man mission to raise awareness and promote the space program. I cannot recommend it enough.

The Last Man on the Moon screens again Wednesday 3/18 at 7 pm at the Vimeo Theater in the Austin Convention Center.

Deep Web

Perhaps no film this year can claim a stronger Austin tie than Alex Winter's new documentary Deep Web. The film covers the life and trial of Ross Ulbrich,t who grew up and went to school here before gaining international notoriety as the suspected mastermind behind Silk Road, the internet's most successful website for anonymous online sales of illegal drugs.

Though I took exception to Winter's 2013 documentary, Downloaded, which I felt fell too heavily into biased territory, Deep Web presents a much more balanced look at its subject, leaving the informed viewer to formulate his own opinion. Narration by Keanu Reeves brings the viewer up to speed on the background terminology and history of topics including the dark web, crypto currency and Silk Road before the film dives into interviews with Ulbricht's family and friends along with figures like Andy Greenberg, the Wired author who was in contact with Ulbricht's anonymous persona before his capture and incarceration.

Another Austinite -- Cody Wilson, inventor of the 3D printable gun -- makes an appearance in Deep Web as well. As someone who has followed the case (primarily in the form of Greenberg's articles) closely, I didn't feel I learned many new details from the film beyond an intimate portrait of Ulbricht's personality. For those unfamiliar with the case, however, Deep Web is a most complete and thorough account of Ulbricht's life and the trial which will have enormous repercussions on the legal system. This is an important documentary, and hopefully Winter will continue to document important subjects in the tech world, making them relatable to the technically disinclined.

Deep Web has one more screening Wednesday 3/18 at 11 am at the Stateside theater.