Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Short Stuff: The Boston Action Film Festival

Another day, another package of short films of varying quality but unquestionable enthusiasm. The Boston Action Film Festival is the brainchild of Jeff De Biase, a local martial-arts instructor and filmmaker looking to encourage independent production of this sort of action movie and drum up interest in martial arts generally. It's actually a niche worth filling; these sorts of shorts have some occasionally impressive craft but don't necessarily fit into programs at the Boston Underground Film Festival or Independent Film Festival Boston.

The first BAFF was three or four years ago, and in the meantime, De Biase seems to have acquired a lot of submissions; I expected to be out of the 2pm show sometime around four-ish; it was actually around six. There was a bit of a delay getting started, a stand-up (who seemed like he was having a little trouble adapting his material for a daytime audience), a demonstration, and a raffle, but there were definitely moments when things could have stood to be broken up more or even split into two programs. Heck, you could make a "real" film festival out of this like they do in Ashville, NC, although that would require a lot more resources and be sort of drifting from the mandate.

What the best of these short films showed, though, is that there is a fair amount of talent available in America and elsewhere that can do good cinematic action, so it's kind of a shame that Hollywood so often does things relatively badly, with visual effects substituting for displays of skill and athleticism, fight scenes badly choreographed, and the results cut to incomprehensibility. Doing the basic stuff right isn't easy, but there are clearly folks around who can do it on a shoestring, so imagine what they could do with some real money and a story to surround their work.

One bit of horrible photography and then to start looking at the sixteen short films screened:

David Lavallee Jr. & Jeff De Biase, Local Boston filmmakers & martial artists David Lavallee Jr. & Jeff De Biase

That's Jeff De Biase on the right, demonstrating escrima, the Filipino fighting system he and Dave Lavallee Jr. adapted for "Dalibor 2: Rivals". Unlike a lot of martial-arts demonstrations I've seen at festivals which focused on showing what folks could do, this was fairly instructional and interesting for that, focusing on what the principles behind escrima as a combat system are, how a fight between two people trained in the system would proceed, and how to adapt it into something visually interesting for a movie.

Anyway, I hope it's not another three years before the next one, and if there is a next time, it perhaps evolves into something a little bit punchier and less likely to wear the audience out. The results were pretty good for a show run by a small crew taking submissions up to the Friday before, after all.

Boston Action Film Festival

Seen 16 September 2012 in the Regent Theatre (Boston Action Film Festival, mostly DVD)

Sixteen shorts in this program, broken up 10/6 by the demonstration. That's a long sit, but there were some gems to be found.

"The Paper Pushers" (Eric Jacobus) - This first short, for instance, might have been the best all-around short in the festival. It's got a simple, amusing premise - a man applying for a job as a hitman is asked to give a demonstration - that the main performers have enough acting talent and charisma to pull off with genuine wit, plus martial-arts action that is quite well-choreographed and shot. As demo reels go, it's an impressive bit of work, showing off a complete package.

"We Are Blood" (Darren Holmquist) - A very strong effort. The opening titles have a warning about the bullying depicted in the short, and while those scenes aren't quite so wince-inducing as one may fear, the montage is effective at getting its point across. It shows what can be done by a good editor, because the acting in the movie isn't that great, although it's acceptable enough when what the cast members can do physically is taken into account. Holmquist and company choreograph and shoot their action with strong intent - two people sparring feels different than one trying to hold off a pummeling. The end, well, it's kind of iffy, but still not a bad little movie.

"Pobudové (8 Idiots in a Gas Station)" (Jon Truei) - One of the relatively few shorts on the program that weren't really going with martial arts, this one is more a bloody farce about a robbery and hostage situation that neither the cops, crooks, or hostages handle very well. It's energetic although obviously cheap in spots, and could maybe use a little more room to give its characters more individual personalities.

"Five Minutes Flat" (Nathan Quattrini) - Quattrini does a nice enough job here of building a Cormanesque sci-fi bit quickly, although it's one where you can really tell that getting two or three fights squeezed in was the priority (and pretty clearly the cast's strength). It also relies pretty heavily on the villain setting minions against each other or killing them for minor offenses, which strikes me as something whose value as motivation doesn't balance its costs.

"Ground and Pound" (Paul Dreschler-Martell) - Mr. Dreschler-Martell could maybe use a bit of a primer on creating sympathetic characters, or at least giving the audience what they want. Personally, when I see a white suburban kid dropping the n-word into every sentence to sound street (as the director's character does), I want him punched in the face repeatedly, but the movie is set up like this is something to be avoided, which makes it hard to get a real emotional release at the end of the big tournament. Give the short credit - despite not really having the extras or location to sell it, the tournament is an impressively-edited sequence, getting seven fights in without making any feel rushed. They're mostly pretty good, too, even if his promoter character is given too much focus compared to the fighters.

"Bullet with Butterfly Wings" (Fernando Jay Huerto) - Sometimes, you've really got to appreciate a movie that just goes for broke. The filmmakers here really don't have a lot of resources, but they play this short like a compressed version of a feature, with a team of mystery women in masks trading bullets and blows with a gang while shadowy machinations go on in the background. It's built around the warehouse they've got access to for an action scene and cribs shamelessly from John Woo, but does so with the kind of enthusiasm that makes it pretty easy to overlook the lack of resources and shaky acting. I don't know if I'd want to see a feature version without some upgrades, but the clear fun the participants are having and willingness to go big makes up for a lot.

"Pit of Despair" (John William Noble) - Sad to say, this entry from Scotland is just not very good. It's only got one or two action scenes that don't really stand out compared to the other entries, and those are smothered in a story that is utterly unmemorable and which the actors really don't have the chops to pull off.

"Labor Day" (Hyun Supul) - This one was made for the Brattle's Trailer Smackdown a year or two ago, and I'm guessing it did not win the contest. It's not that the animation is weak (which it is, although I'll bet a lot of effort was put into it; animation is hard and time-consuming), it's just bad parody. There's one pretty good joke, when a character notes that several of the adjectives in the description of the villains aren't really compatible, but a awful lot of explaining that this is an anime spoof and heavy-handed political swipes. Just weak all around.

(Although the professional comedian behind me loved it to a guffawing, seat-kicking extent. Make what judgments you will from this.)

"The System" (Ian Grant) - Interestingly, this shares a writer with "Labor Day", and while it's not so bad, it's still kind of weak. It's got the sort of compressed storytelling and cutting that is typical of the fake-trailer style, but tells a more-or-less complete story. Unfortunately, it leans on a lot of voice-over to do it, and a twist that is telegraphed a bit too well

"Dalibor 2: Rivals" (Jeff De Biase) - Actually, I don't think there was a "2" in what was shown, but it ultimately turns out not to matter that much; it's a pretty straightforward and self-contained film. It's a mash-up meant to be both futuristic and influenced by classic Hong Kong stylings, and is pretty fun. The action is well-done, although you can see the seams in other spots.

(much-needed break)

"A Study in Change and the Perception of Performance" (Matt Loughe) - Not a whole lot to this one; Loughe is a photographer and basically does a bit with composition before a quick action bit within a static 2-shot. Neat to look at, but quick.

"Yo Soy un Hombre Loco" (Vladislav Rimburg) - As you might expect for a movie produced by the stunt team, the action here is pretty good. As much as what's going on is stylish and theatrical, the story is more or less left out.

"The Frontiersman" (Joel Loukas)- This one's a nifty sci-fi picture. Director Joel Loukas and company do a nice job of adding just enough effects to build a world without breaking the bank, and there's a nicely gruff personality to the title character that really works when the shooting starts. It might have been nice if the filmmakers could have found a different sort of location; the wide-open field doesn't give a whole lot of cover to make the shootout a little more interesting and force some tighter camerawork; this is what seems like a rare time when filmmakers could do well by zooming in more rather than showing so much at once.

"The Breakout" (Tyler Williams) - The first of two in a row by Williams and his Toronto-based Eye of the Storm Pictures, and while it took a little time to grow on me, I was actually really fond of it by the end. Pretty simple set-up - three escaped convicts, two chained together, one bag of money - but it's executed very well indeed. Williams extends the fight scene for almost the entire 10-minute run-time of the movie, and the result gets chuckles for how it's still going on but is still exciting. That's really impressive, and it's technically very nice, too, with stylized cinematography and well-chosen music.

"All-In" (Tyler Williams) - Good on you, Mr. Williams, for shooting your new one on 16mm film. The picture looks good in a way that "The Breakout" sort of had to fake. Williams also stars this time, as well as writing dialogue, and while he does okay - the final moments have a bit of charm after the nastiness from earlier - he's not playing quite so directly to his strengths as the all-action "Breakout" did. Still, a very polished picture; I'd actually be interested to see how Williams would do with a feature.

"American Chop Suey" (Nathan Quattrini) - Quattrini directs David Lavallee Jr. again, and sad to say, this isn't exactly ending on a high note. The short's sort of got one gag (kung-fu-movie-obsessed David imagines himself much cooler and a good fighter), and while it works okay once or twice, it's played much too broadly at others, falling flat on its face. It's a disappointing end to the festival, and a reminder that just being nice and personable as Lavallee seems to be doesn't necessarily translate to being funny on screen.

... and with that, there was a whole bunch of stuff given away in the raffle. For once, my number was drawn, but as it was something I couldn't use, I kept quiet. Hopefully whoever got the lessons makes good use of them.

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