Monday, May 30, 2011

IFFBoston 2011 Day #5: The City Dark, Circumstances, Littlerock, and Another Earth

You know, you'd like to think film festival crowds would be better than average. They've often paid a premium price (although IFFBoston is quite reasonable; generally less than what the mulitplexes charge and only a couple bucks more than what the host theaters charge, if that) and they're seeking out smaller movies, heck, smaller documentaries. This is the sort of crowd that would be great to share a theater with, right?

And, truth be told, it generally is. But just like you have to watch out for seniors just as much as the more-frequently-maligned teenagers in the multiplex, there are a few bad apples in the festival crowd. For example, before The City Dark, the festival staffer who introduced the film pointed out that it would be a terrible, absurd irony if people were checking their flashlight-like smartphones during the movie about light pollution. That kept the things sheathed throughout most of the movie, but about two-thirds the way through, yep, someone gets out their iPhone and starts checking their email.

Now, it's been roughly a month since that date, so I don't remember whether the person who did this was male or female. But if you did this, and you're reading this, you have my disdain. Seriously, not only is this basic theater etiquette, but the festival's title reel specifically says "no talking / no texting / no tweeting", and the audience was told in no specific terms not to take out their phones. What the heck were you doing that was so important that you had to ignore all those warnings, but apparently not urgent enough for you to get out of your seat?

Arrgh. Not the way I want to think of IFFBoston, but... really?

Anyway, before getting to the requisite awful photography and then the reviews, I'm a little disappointed that we only got the director of Another Earth, as opposed to co-writer/lead actress Brit Marling. I would have loved to hear them talk about how they collaborated.

Plus, upon seeing that there's also a sci-fi bent to the other movie that Ms. Marling co-wrote and co-starred in which played Sundance this year and also got picked up by Fox Searchlight (Sound of My Voice), I'm curious to see if this is a particular area of interest to her or whether these are just the stories she was working with that happened to get picked up. Because if it's the former, well, I don't want to encourage the "ohmygod, pretty girl who likes geek stuff" crowd, but she could probably make it work for her, especially if she gets herself involved with a more high-profile genre project.

Anyway... Horrible photography!

"The City Dark" director Ian Cheney
Ian Cheney, director of The City Dark. I'm not going to say I felt any special kinship with him, but I too grew up in a small town in Maine, loved astronomy when I was little, and miss the stars living in the city.

"Another Earth" director Mike Cahill
Mike Cahill, writer/director/cinematographer/editor/producer of Another Earth, ready, willing, and obviously able to answer any sort of question the audience might have about the making of this movie, but extremely enthusiastic to do so; he seemed over the moon about getting distribution from a major studio, although quite worried about his moving coming out the same day as Captain America.

The City Dark

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2011 in Somerville Theatre #3 (IFFBoston 2011)

Every few weeks, will mention a meteor shower or comet, and I'll stay up late and eagerly make my way out to my back porch before remembering that I live right across the river from Boston, and the city lights more or less blot out the sky. I accept this as part of the trade-off for all the great things that the city brings close to me, and know I will get the stars back the next time I spend the night with my family up in Maine. Maybe I shouldn't take that for granted, though - as The City Dark informatively and entertainingly points out, there are bigger issues involved than just my frustrated interest in astronomy.

Why do the stars disappear when you enter the city? Basically, the illumination from streetlights and windows reflects off particulate matter in the atmosphere, creating a diffuse glow from which the stars (whose apparent brightness is in large part a result of contrast with perfectly black surroundings) can't stand out. We all know this in general, but director/host Ian Cheney makes sure to explain it in clear language. That's a particular strength of his and the film's; though the concepts being communicated are not exceptionally complicated, they could be made so. Cheney avoids context-free numbers - at times, specifically, as when he tells the audience that there is a technical way to quantify light pollution but he is just going to use letter grades.

In addition to speaking in layman's terms, The City Dark is broken up into sensible chapters which are each interesting in their own right. After showing how artificial lighting makes the stars harder to see, "Islands of Dark" introduces us to a community of enthusiastic stargazers who have banded together to create a community in Portal, Arizona, with strict controls on light pollution. There are segments on how artificial lighting and urbanization is throwing the natural world off, and not just with animals; straying too far from the day/night cycle seems to be harmful to human beings as well. The effect is not like an anthology film - the segments flow into each other naturally and build upon what we've previously learned - but it keeps the various topics from competing with each other for the audience's attention.

Full review at EFC.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2011 in Somerville Theatre #3 (IFFBoston 2011)

Circumstance is sneaky. It starts out as a simple tale of teenage idealism and perhaps forbidden love, and that thread certainly continues throughout the entire film. The clever thing that writer/director Maryam Keshavarz does is to show a repressive society not just as an exterior threat, but a cage its prisoners have a part in constructing.

Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) have been best friends their entire life, and as teenagers, they're becoming lovers as well. Of course, they've got to be careful; modern-day Iran is not a place where such relationships are smiled upon, especially with Shireen living with her uncle because her dissident parents died in prison. Still, Atafeh knows all the places where they can dance, smoke, and listen to rock & roll; her wealthy parents (Soheil Parsa & Nasrin Pakkho) tend to look the other way. Still, they're well-aware that this can go too far; Atafeh's brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) has just returned from rehab. Like many recovering addicts, he has turned to God, and his God is strict.

Keshavarz develops the two halves of the story in parallel, and it's interesting to see how they compare. "Ati" and Shireen act with the enthusiastic abandon of youth; they're often careless and Atafeh, especially, has more confidence than is perhaps warrented. Their idea of freedom and rebellion is mild, occasionally funny in its naivete. It's an attitude that perhaps father Firouz and mother Azar are not doing enough to temper; though basically liberal, they've been isolated enough to not have to worry. Meanwhile, Mehran is spending more time at the mosque and feeling like he doesn't fit in among his family. We meet him as he is humbled in both senses of the word, and those two emotions feed on each other. It's interesting that the main characters don't really do a lot for the first half of the movie or so, but there's still something engrossing about it as the bulk of the characters stand still while Mehran moves inexorably toward the lure of fundamentalism. The two threads occasionally tie together, creating moments of tension that increase every time.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2011 in Somerville Theatre #3 (IFFBoston 2011)

I wonder and worry a bit about how Littlerock will play outside the festival circuit. It's a wonderful little film, but it would be easy for a well-meaning distributor to drastically change the experience. Of course, I'm also kind of curious as to what it might be like to see it after that Japanese language class I've been meaning to take - or hear how it plays in Japan, with the subtitling situation reversed.

Littlerock, California, is basically a wide spot in the road; Rintaro Sakamoto (Rintaro Sawamoto) and his sister Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) wind up there after their rental car breaks down, with the next bus to San Francisco a couple days away. There's a party going on in the next room, and that's where they meet Cory Lawler (Cory Zacharia), a local with dreams of being a model. He's quickly infatuated with Atsuko, despite the fact that they need her brother to translate for them. When the bus comes, Atusko tells Rintaro that she wants to stay, crashing inn Cory's father's spare bedroom and helping out at the family business - and being rather more interested in Jordan (Brett Tinnes) than Cory - until Rintaro returns so that they can make the last leg of their trip before going home together.

Subtitles are generally a part of the movie-watching experience that most don't give a lot of thought to, other than their blanket presence or absence, but co-writer/director Mike Ott deploys them very carefully here; with few exceptions, they only appear when Atsuko and Rintaro are talking to each other or Atsuko is writing a letter to her father - that is, when her words are going to be understood. When Atsuko is with Cory or Jordan, what she says is left untranslated. The height of this is during a scene behind the Lawler burrito shop, when Atsuko, Cory, and cook Francisco (Roberto Sanchez) are each speaking a different language. And yet, the scene isn't confusing at all - though we may not understand two-thirds of the words used, we get the gist of what Atsuko and Francisco are saying through tone and body language, and more importantly, we get that they can follow each other, even though Cory seems almost willfully obtuse.

Full review at EFC.

Another Earth

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2011 in Somerville Theatre #1 (IFFBoston 2011)

I'm not sure which part of Another Earth annoys me more - the terrible science or the weird relationship that develops over the course of the film. Though stranger things than the latter have happened in real life, it still seems to fly in the face of common sense almost as much as an Earth-sized planet suddenly appearing in the night sky without severe tidal effects. And yet, large chunks of the movie work anyway; as unlikely as the main story is, the two leads sell it amazingly well.

Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) was a young woman with a lot going for her - including a full ride scholarship to study physics - until she gets in an accident while driving drunk one night. She serves out her sentence for vehicular manslaughter without a fuss, taking a job cleaning her old high school upon release despite being qualified for much more. Soon, though, she's going to the house of John Burroughs (William Mapother), the man whose wife and child she killed, representing herself as a cleaner whose firm is offering one free appointment. She returns for many more, helping draw Burroughs out of the pit he's dug himself into and growing much closer while also considering another possibility - an eccentric billionaire is mounting an expedition to the carbon copy of Earth that has just appeared from behind the sun, and wants at least one of the members to be an ordinary person.

That last bit seems like a heck of a big thing to drop in there, doesn't it? In the Q&A after the film, director and co-writer (with Marling) Mike Cahill said that the second Earth was one of the first elements they came up with, but up until the final scene, it feels extraneous: Rhoda's previous interest in science doesn't come into play (either in terms of being re-awakened or being crucial to understanding the planet's odd orbit), and few if any hints are dropped to suggest that it may be a fantasy or coping mechanism on her part. Even if one doesn't necessarily feel that it's wasteful to use a big science-fictional idea to tell a small story - and even if one isn't inclined to call shenanigans at the absurd physics of the thing - it's a distracting subplot for the bulk of the film.

Full review at EFC.

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