Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Boston Underground Film Festival Day 04: Pieta, White Reindeer, Cheap Thrills, and Samurai Cop

Time flies - not even done writing about BUFF, and I'm already starting to obsess about my IFFBoston schedule. Saturday, at least, was a pretty good day, even though it did start out on a high note and have trouble equalling that as it went on.

The high note was Pieta, one of the movies with names I recognized that had me excited for the festival, all of which more or less delivered. I'm kind of surprised in some ways that I've warmed up to Kim Ki-duk as much as I have; he's a guy who does a lot of the pretentious art-house stuff with characters who don't speak and the like. For some reason, though, I kept going to his movies - maybe because at the time, they were some of the only Korean movies that were playing local theaters; maybe because if a guy's movies show up often enough, he feels like someone you should know about. It didn't hurt that some of his movies started playing genre festivals as well as hoity-toity ones.

The "only Korean films playing" thing has something to do with it, and it's kind of funny the way it colors the way I write about it. Once the full plot really reveals itself, my brain went immediately to Park Chan-wook, and while I think that's justifiable - the guy has made his name on a trio of movies called "The Vengeance Trilogy", after all - there's a joke (half-serious) about how baseball players are generally only compared to folks within their ethnicity, to the extent that a decent all-around outfielder coming over from Japan was once described as a "cross between Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki", two complete opposites as ballplayers. Can't compare him to a player of European or African descent, though!

Could have been worse. I was this close to comparing it to Bong Joon-ho's Mother.

White Reindeer Q&A photo IMAG0328_zps60393f26.jpg

I've really got to remember to take notes during Q&As, if only so I don't wind up wondering just which producer the guy on the left who isn't listed in the festival program is the next day (that's producer Melodie Sisk and director Zach Clark in the center). Nice folks, Sisk also worked on See You Next Tuesday (spot her in the horrible photography!) and appears on-screen here in a mostly-silent part that I kind of felt must have seemed clever at the time but struck me as a bit of a mis-step (and likely would have been if she hadn't been stepping in for a model who got another job at the last minute).

One thing that they mentioned was that Clark, in particular, wasn't a big fan of Christmas when he started working on raising money for this movie, so having to live in that holiday more or less non-stop for the next two years was not always the greatest experience. At least they said they grew to appreciate it more by the time it was done, because otherwise - yikes. They did a nice job of avoiding clich├ęs with it, though, limiting themselves to one "true meaning of Christmas - not the presents and decorations et cetera" bit. Someday, I'm going to write a screenplay that has characters sincerely and (hopefully) convincingly declaring why they strongly believe in the presents and decorations that tracks why I love Christmas. The monologue has been in a half-formed state in my head for years, and I'd like to have it down if only to use once or twice in real life.

Cheap Thrills Q&A photo IMAG0330_zps1f40f5d7.jpg

Once again, missing the name of a filmmaker. I'm pretty sure the shorter guy is director E.L. Katz, one of the two folks on the left is producer Travis Stevens (after a weekend of horrible photography, I presume the readers all know Kevin Monahan by now), but the fourth person. No clue.

I mention in the review that I was kind of disappointed in this one; it seemed to get a tidal wave of positive reviews during SXSW, so great movie, right? Well, no. I think I've written before about how the internet can become a sort of echo chamber as various websites pass around the same news, especially since we'll often find ourselves focusing on those that align closely to our interests, creating a sense of unanimity that doesn't really exist. SXSW seems to amplify it, as the folks who have already gravitated toward Austin's film scene show up in force, see the movies together, talk about it, and sort of homogenize their general feeling before writing about it.

I think their strong love for the Alamo Drafthouse plays into it, too - folks trust Tim League and his business, and Drafthouse Films. What played BUFF is a pretty strong statement on how much of a force Drafthouse has become in the niche-film world - just for this day, both Cheap Thrills and Pieta had managed to be picked up for distribution by that label by the time they played BUFF (as did I Declare War and maybe another one or two).

It does still make me wonder just how influential the Austin/Drafthouse group is going to be on genre films over the next few years, and whether it's necessarily good for that one group to have so much influence that is properly reserved for east-coast cities with many storied academic institutions.

(Kidding, mostly)

Speaking of distribution, I saw that Samurai Cop was distributed by Cinema Epoch, a company operated by Blue Dream director Gregory Hatanaka. I half-wonder if having Blue Dream play the festival was a quid quo pro for having a midnight show of Samurai Cop.

Also, it's worth mentioning that I attended Samurai Cop in no small part because "Bio-Cop", the latest short film/fake trailer by Steven Kostanski and the Astron-6 gang, was playing before it. It's a parody that is arguably better than the real thing, and as much as Kostanski seems to be getting a lot of make-up work from big studio productions, folks should hire these guys just to do awesome 1980s-throwback title sequences.

Pieta

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

Kim Ki-duk has a reputation - well-deserved, honestly - for movies with strange premises, minimal dialogue, and execution that's maybe a bit pretentious. It's not all he does, though; he'll occasionally serve as a writer and producer for something a little less iconoclastic. Pieta plays like he decided to direct one of those more commercial scripts himself, making for a movie that's undeniably his but also a much more mainstream Korean movie.

Much of the action takes place in an industrial area that's not doing well; things are rough enough that Kang-do (Lee Jeong-jin) can practically go door to door collecting and enforcing for a loan shark. A pitiless sort, Kang-do's method for collecting from those who cannot repay is to take out an insurance policy and injure them with their own equipment. Then one day Mi-seon (Jo Min-soo) shows up at his door, explaining that she's his long-lost mother and wants to make up for lost time. Perhaps this can restore some amount of his missing humanity.

If it does, it's not going to be through long, revealing conversations; this is, after all, a Kim Ki-duk movie, and that is really not his thing. Kim likes his stubborn silences, and there's plenty of those here, with Mi-seon abjectly refusing to explain the reasons for her absence and return, or what she has been doing in between. Kang-do isn't nearly so laconic as Kim's usual male lead, although he certainly does know that relatively few words are a nice way of demonstrating control and domination - watch how much more he runs his mouth when revisiting people in a panic compared to his cool initial visits. It's a well-known trick by now - keeping a character silent often makes another spill more than he or she might otherwise, and it forces the audience to examine what they see on-screen much more closely than usual.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

White Reindeer

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

It would be kind of amusing if, in the future, White Reindeer winds up dropped into the Christmas rotation of independent-minded theaters, television stations, and online-streaming-lists as an apparent poison pill. Not that there aren't already plenty of those, but this one's a bit different: It's neither gleeful in mocking the holiday nor secretly trying to convince the audience of its true meaning.

Suzanne Barrington (Anna Margaret Hollyman) loves Christmas; just as soon as Thanksgiving has passed, the realtor is trying to create that sort of homey environment. She sells one house to Patti & George (Lydia Hyslop, Joe Swanberg) , assuring them that she lives in the neighborhood and the worries about recent break-ins are overblown. But on the first of December, her own husband Jeff (Nathan Williams) is killed during a home invasion, and to make things worse, she soon learns that he had an affair with Fantasia (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough), a twenty-two year-old stripper. It's going to be a rough holiday season.

White Reindeer isn't a yelling movie, nor is it one where the poor widow spends every moment visibly brittle and on the edge of breaking down. Indeed, the angle often played here is that sometimes losing a person you love is not constant outward torture, which can make a person feel even more horrible. So, instead, there's a great deal of quiet loneliness, online binge-shopping to try and bring oneself a little happiness, and befriending her husband's mistress because she'd understand, right? Even when this sort of thing leads to weird misadventures, it's fairly low-key.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Cheap Thrills

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

Given the fairly impressive cast, decent behind-the-scenes talent, and loudly proclaimed praise for Cheap Thrills coming out of its festival appearances, I expected more from the movie. What I got was an acceptable gross-out movie with a nugget or two of commentary somewhere in its body, but overall it feels kind of hollow and familiar. It's got its moments, but it's not much more than passably entertaining.

Craig (Pat Healy) is still a writer in that he has a blog he posts to regularly, but these days he works as a mechanic - at least, until he gets laid off on the day he was going to ask for a much-needed raise. Drowning his sorrows in a bar afterward, he runs into old high-school buddy Vince (Ethan Embry), who runs in some shady circles these days. They wind up sharing a very expensive bottle of tequila with Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), a wealthy couple slumming it for Violet's birthday. At some point, the "$20 if you..." dares start, naturally escalating in both price and outlandishness.

That's not quite all there is to the story, but it's pretty close. The plot takes a turn when the group wind up at Colin's & Violet's house, but it winds up being less of an interesting twist than an acknowledgment that the characters will almost certainly have a certain idea, so the script therefore must detour through it before returning to the main path. Before and after that, the movie basically comes down to details, with stunts that go from tacky to gross to mean in a pretty straight line as the film goes on. Maybe, somewhere, writers Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo have something to say about the rich exploiting the poor for their own amusement and the poor going along with it because they think they can get rich too, but that's not exactly cutting, original insight presented in a new way.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Samurai Cop

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

I'll readily admit, I don't have enough memory of this a week and a half later to give it a full review. That may argue that it's just mediocre rather than actually terrible, or just that it was pretty late and I occasionally napped.

At any rate, Samurai Cop is pretty awful, with terrible actors speaking terrible lines in a terrible story and production values that are really rather sub-par. It's the sort of all-around ineptitude that makes Robert Z'Dar, in the role of the film's villain, somehow look worse because even though he's not nearly as bad as the rest of the cast, his moderation seems out of place. Though director Amir Shervan is credited with the screenplay, that's probably because the WGA will not allow the Scriptotron Mark III to be credited.

But, hey, you've seen worse. Shervan and company know that they're making a terrible movie, so they do the only thing they can: Turn up the volume. The action isn't exactly great, but it's bloody as hell. There's plenty of nudity and sex as well, and the filmmakers are equal opportunity where the pandering is concerned, letting buff star Matt Hannon play a chunk of the movie in little but a tight speedo and somewhat awe-inspiring mullet. I kind of love Dale Cummings as the screaming captain, especially when he just goes "screw it, kill all the yakuza you can!" toward the end. Mark Frazer is the kind of trying-too-hard-to-be-cool that is hilarious a quarter-century later.

That may be the way to go with this sort of mess - don't even try to make it a commercial success when you first make it, but rather stick it in a vault and allow it to accumulate camp value for a couple decades.

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