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by Bill Gibron

22 Mar 2009

The sailor on shore leave - is there another war-time tenet as stereotypical and suspect as that. We all understand the basics of those enlisted in the Naval Corps.: long months at sea, limited sexual stimulation, a girl in every port, a tattoo to commemorate said conquests, and a mouth as dirty as a grease covered galley floor. Much has changed about the mariner returning home after a taste of battle. No longer are we witness to antiquated On The Town hijinx or, in reverse post modern journeys into perfunctory private Hells ala The Last Detail. No, in the hands of Australian novice Matthew Newton, our macho midshipmen have more on their plate then sewing a few wild oats. Over the course of one fateful night, our Three Blind Mice will end up making decisions that will redefine their lives forever.

When we first meet Sam, Dean, and Harry, they are checking into an Ozzie hotel for the night. Their plans are simple - freshen up, hit the town, pull some birds, and be back in time to ship out in the morning. Yes, after an already overlong tour of duty in the Middle East, the boys are returning in relatively short order. This makes Sam very nervous. Horrifically abused as part of a shipboard standoff gone horrible wrong, he’s actually thinking about going AWOL. Yet by doing so, he realizes he will disappoint his mom and his aging grandfather. As the trio take in a poker game at a local pizzeria, Sam befriends a flirtatious waitress named Emma. She doesn’t understand all the duties and dilemmas facing the young cadet. She just thinks a man in a uniform is sexy. Later on, during a dinner with his girlfriend’s parents, Dean will deliver some stunning news.

Like a younger, hipper Ricky Gervais, Matthew Newton comes across as an odd choice to make a subtle, character driven drama. His entire personality, wrapped up effortlessly in his performance as the dashing and devious Harry, seems better suited for something hilarious, not heartfelt, and occasionally, horrifying. Yet that’s the kind of creative deception the 32 year old uses to keep Three Blind Mice from becoming just another worn out ‘War is Hell’ epistle. True, the tale he chooses to tell as writer, director, and star has been done dozens of times before, the same simmering secrets coming forward at the usual inopportune times, but thanks to the cultural backdrop (Australia) and the interesting choices made by his cast, we gladly relish in the recognizability. This is indeed a talky trip through a group of individual’s inner demons, but Newton makes the journey engaging and quite effective.

Of the three male leads, Harry is clearly the center. He is the good time guy who will instantly sell you down the river once his shtick has been uncovered. We learn this during a fascinating card game where our sailors act like simps to milk locals out of hundreds of hard-earned dollars. Looking lax and nonchalant, Harry keeps the table off center by offering unusual tales of military ethos and battle weariness. When one of his marks demands to know his technique, the fool’s façade drops, and suddenly we see the manipulation behind the military man. Something similar happens to Dean when he decides to reveal what really happened to Sam during a critical night onboard ship. It’s the concept of menace behind the mask that fuels Three Blind Mice‘s fascination.

The trouble for some will come from Sam, the newly minted officer with a back full of scars to indicate his troubled professional past. As essayed with calm cowardice by Ewen Leslie, we’re not sure whether we should feel sorry for this victim or cringe at the reasons for his obvious outcast state. During a definitive moment where he calls his mother to explain his plans, the actor literally falls apart before our eyes. His interactions with Emma aren’t much better. He’s never comfortable in his skin, incapable of taking the numerous lustful hints from his red-headed pick-up. As the movie meanders toward its decisions and denouements, we wonder if Newton has more up his sleeve. The answer, oddly enough, is as unusual as the film itself.

Still, there remains an arm’s length quality that comes with such a slow, layered reveal. While our mainstream addled brain might scream for a quicker uncovering of the truth, Newton is not out to please the faithful. Instead, he wants viewers to think, to sit back within the confines of this complex situation and struggle to decipher which side you stand on. Are you part of Sam and his painful process of denial? Or do you side with Harry and Dean, willing to follow demented directives in order to maintain station? Of course, such questions have also plagued the military movie since cinematic soldiers first took up arms. But Three Blind Mice reminds us that men are typically at the center of such quandaries, and their very humanity make the resolution tricky - and sometimes, terrifying.

As a presence both behind and in front of the camera, it’s clear that Matthew Newton has a bright and brilliant future ahead in film. His demeanor may seem like he takes nothing very serious, but his sense of story, character, narrative drive, and plot dynamics indicate otherwise. Three Blind Mice is a very cautious, often serious clash between the truth and a lie, the cover-up and the conspiracy that required the cabal in the first place. By the end, nothing has really changed. Each man has simply certified his place in the precarious pecking order that is existence - especially in the Navy. Gone are the dates with golden hearted hooker. Missing are the well-meaning bar fights were steam is let off before the real killing occurs. In their place are mental challenges and undeniable moral predicaments. Oddly enough, in Newton’s world, the resolution is more harmful than any tour of duty.

by Jennifer Kelly

22 Mar 2009

East again, much further east, a long walk along railroad tracks through some very iffy neighborhoods, and I finally find Friend Island, which is hosting a party for Hometapes, Absolutely Kosher, and Misra labels. Megafaun, the North Carolina band whose members used to be in DeYarmond Edison with Justin Vernon (now Bon Iver), are just about to play. Megafun was one of my very favorites from last year’s SXSW, and they have a new album coming out on Hometapes this summer. 

I’ve been trying to avoid seeing the same bands again this year, but in this case, it’s a whole different experience. Last year, they played on a conventional stage in a larger audience, with a much larger, louder, more electrified sound. This time, they’re set up in a gallery room a bit larger than a squash court. The audience is sitting on the floor, mostly, and it is very, very hot inside the windowless room. 

Megafaun, though, seems excited about the possibility of playing a more intimate, acoustic show, highlighting the soft, folky side of its music. The title track from their upcoming album is particularly beautiful and hushed, little flickers of banjo and guitar igniting then subsiding, the percussion made of small sounds, a tiny cymbal clapped to a larger one, jingling chains, brushes on snares. The sound is so quiet, its fragile jangle dipping in and out of range, that the drummer has to hold the bottom of the snare to clamp the buzz down. If he let it go, it would be the loudest element in the music. There are no vocals until the very end, then the softest possible harmonies around lyrics about night coming.

 

by Jennifer Kelly

22 Mar 2009

Another sunny afternoon, another stroll down South Congress, a wander into the Yard Dog for a beer and to see what’s up and, unexpectedly, it’s Freedy Johnston. Johnston, you might remember, dropped one beautifully wry, understated guitar pop album, one of the best of its kind ever, in This Perfect World in 1994. He’s been making records ever since, seven of them since then and one more on the way, but operates much lower on the radar screen now. His bass player is wearing a shirt that reads “Nobody gives a damn about your band,” and that, unfortunately, about sums it up.

All of which is a shame, because Johnston plays a lovely little set, first goofing during the sound check on the Who’s “Tattoo”, then the rocking “Don’t Fall In Love with a Lonely Girl”, and the e-bowed and eerie “Neon Repairman”.  Those two seem to be new ones, but Johnston dipped back into the catalogue for “This Perfect World”, and, from his recent covers album My Favorite Waste of Time , a lounge-swinging, hard-rhythmed take on “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” 

“I’ve got one more. What song do you want to hear?” asks Johnston at the end, but he already knows the answer. He and his band break out the ruefully perfect, worn, and wonderful “Bad Reputation”. A perfect world, indeed.

 

 

by Jennifer Kelly

22 Mar 2009

Across the highway again, heading east, I’m not really going to Mrs. Bea’s, but I stop in anyway. Mrs. Bea’s has a pretty amazing line-up on Saturday, maybe 20 bands, underground as hell, and half of them names I’ve circled on other showcases and missed. When I get there, the Mexican punk band Los Llamarada is playing its primitive, noise-skronked dissonance, songs that pound over and over on the same keys, same strings, same short (English) phrases. They make the Stooges sound like Mozart in comparison, unadulterated, un-modulated aggression. The guitarist is sitting on the concrete, holding his own ear against the blast of sound, howling into the mic, slamming on the strings. The girl playing keyboards, splays her fingers straight out, banging on one, maybe two, three at most notes, in the most untutored of patterns. Later, she comes to the mic, making snakey, body-bending dance moves and keening short, anguished phrases like “So sorry” and “We’re guilty” over and over again. 

 

by Jennifer Kelly

22 Mar 2009

I caught Freedy Johnston while looking for a beer. Now I’m hungry and I get another chance to see the Uglysuit (who had just finished when I got to the Touch & Go showcase on Friday). They’re playing at Homeslice Pizza, on the back patio, and while there is a disconnect between some bands and brilliant sunshine, no such dissonance intrudes here. That’s because the Uglysuit’s three guitar pop is tailor made for outdoor venues, as expansive and dreamy as, well, a blue-sky Saturday afternoon in Texas. Heck, they even have a song called “And We Became Sunshine”, full of layered, luminous guitar lines and breezy pop choruses that build like high cumulous clouds. There is, admittedly a slight whiff of pot-and-patchouli jamminess in the band’s extended instrumental breaks. You can see how the band’s communal hippie vibe would maybe be too laidback in certain settings… but not here, not today.

 

 

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