Monday, April 27, 2009

IFFB 2009 Day Two: Children of Invention and The Missing Person

The IFFB looks to be a little less hectic in some ways this year - in '08, there were films running on seven screens stretching from Davis Square to Coolidge Corner for five of the seven days; this year, the Coolidge doesn't come into play until closing night and Monday is given over to the ICA. On the one hand, that's a lot less overwhelming - I have had some crazy days going from Somerville to Brookline and back to Cambridge.

For better or worse, though, the reduction in the total number of screenings seems to have mostly by eliminating repeat showings, which means tough decisions. I'd already had to choose Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison over Kimjongilia with my second movie, and Saturday's line-up was absolutely brutal.

Children of Invention

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #3 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

I am certain that there is no shortage of bad independent films which focus on kids; after all, there are plenty in the mainstream. Having to contend with boutique cinema and festival programmers looking to please grown-up audiences without a studio marketing division to shove them down our throats, they tend to be the victims of savage attrition, leaving only the very good or the material with local or topical interest. Children of Invention was shot here, but it's also pretty darn good.

The film opens with Elaine Cheng (Cindy Cheung) being evicted from her Quincy house along with children Raymond (Michael Chen) and Tina (Crystal Chiu). They've got a place to stay for a few months - the realtor Elaine works for is letting them squat in an unrented apartment - but even though Elaine is studying for her real estate license (and her ex-husband isn't sending his child support from Hong Kong), she wants to get out form under faster, and signs up for a multi-level marketing scheme. One day, she goes out to talk to the person who recruited her and doesn't come back, leaving Raymond and Tina alone in an apartment with no food, no money, no phone, and no idea what to do next.

Though director Tze Chun doesn't reference it in obvious ways, it's based upon his own life in the early 90s, explaining why characters get tripped up by things like pagers and pay phones. Locals may also peg it as not being set in the present by how the characters refer to Somerville as a somewhat disdained suburb. They may also get a laugh from how Raymond solemnly calls Information to ask for directions to Chinatown from Downtown Crossing; I think you can see buildings with Chinese signage from that spot. That's not a blooper, but an illustration of how unprepared Raymond is for this sort of situation, although you've got to know the city a bit to fully get the gag - more than you need to know about being Chinese-American at any point.

Full review at EFC.

The Missing Person

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2009 at the Somerville Theater #2 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

The Missing Person suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, which is only fitting, as it parallels that of the main character. Its jumps between mystery and parody don't do it many favors, even if it has some very good moments of each.

John Rosow (Michael Shannon) is an ex-cop from New York now working as a private detective in Chicago. Well, it's what would be on his business cards if he were the business-card type; he's not doing much of anything, really. He gets a call about a job, with details delivered by one Miss Charley (Amy Ryan). It turns out to be following one Harold Fullmer (Frank Wood) on a train to Los Angeles, but things are more than they seem: There's a couple of federal agents (Liza Weil and Daniel Franzese) following Harold as well, and Harold's got a kid with him.

John is a throwback to the private eyes of the old pulp and film noirs, sometimes to the point where the audience might wonder if there's a deleted subplot about him being trapped in some sort of cryonic freeze for forty or fifty years. Would an ex-cop in 2008 really be so astounded that you can take pictures with mobile phones and then send them to other people? There are fun bits as well, mostly based on his coming off like a blunt object but either thinking he's smarter than that or maybe actually being so. Michael Shannon doesn't take the character completely over the top into caricature, so the feeling is a little more along the lines of this sort of guy never dying out most of the time.

Full review at EFC.

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