Monday, April 21, 2014

Boston Underground Film Festival 2014.5: Ten, Emotional Incontinence, Love Eternal, The Congress, Blue Ruin

Ugh, three weeks to get BUFF finished up. It's too long, and now I've got bits of it falling out the back of my brain and IFFBoston starts Wednesday and it's pretty screwy to feel "behind" on a hobby.

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On the other hand, taking this long means that Michael Epstein (on the left, with Sophia Cacciola in the center and BUFF's Kevin Monahan on the right), who followed me on Twitter a day or two after the festival, might not be looking for BUFF-related tweets about his movie, which I really didn't like much at all. On the one hand, I don't want to judge it too harshly; early afternoon on Sunday is often a good place to put movies by folks that the programmers know and want to encourage (and who can maybe bring a crowd with them). It's almost not fair to review it alongside the closer-to-professional stuff.

Still, there were things in the Q&A that kind of rubbed me the wrong way, where it seemed like the cart was leading the horse: They talked about how they liked movies that switched genres midway through, and there was one moment where they seemed really proud of a joke that really wasn't funny at all. It really pointed up how they pieced this movie together out of a lot of vague ideas, but didn't have a great story. They did at least have some interesting stories of shooting in a cool-looking mansion.

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Next up: the "Emotional Incontinence" block. Left to right, that's Gabriel Laks of "Goosey's Big Movie", Parker Winans of "Sunshine for Breakfast", and James Feeney of "Killer Kart". Nice folks.

I pondered hitting Tasty Burger or someplace else for something to eat during Love Eternal, but I was curious and glad of it; it's probably one of my favorite films of the festival. It was, however, the only chance I was going to have to get something other than popcorn, ice cream, or candy to eat before eleven or so: The festival had been scheduled tight all week, to the point where films starting fifteen minutes late was about the best you could expect even without a Q&A, but when the 122-minute The Congress is on the schedule for 6:15 and the next film is at 8:30... Yeah, that's not going to happen.

BLUE RUIN's Jeremy Saulnier

That led to Blue Ruin and a Q&A with director Jeremy Saulnier, who talked some about how easy it is to get pigeonholed, since his previous film Murder Party was a certain type of horror comedy, and while that can get you a fair amount of cult fandom, it's just as hard to get funding for another movie like that if it doesn't break huge or a different sort of movie, which is why Blue Ruin was shot quickly in the cast and crew's own homes.

Anyway, when Kevin introduced the movie, he said that they were lucky Saulnier was able to push the studio to let them show it so far in advance of the opening... Which is Friday. So, this post has been a while in coming, but I'm glad it ends with a pretty great movie.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

I gave Izzy Lee's "Legitimate" a look when she first had it going out to festivals back on September, and it's grown on me somewhat on this second viewing, at least in part because it is much more fun to watch a movie that is going for a visceral reaction in a crowded theater than on a laptop screen in your living room.

Like Izzy's other film in the festival, "Picket", this is a compact, angry reaction to something that justifiably ticked her off in the news, and sometimes the storytelling isn't quite on my wavelength (even in a six-minute short, I kind of want that demon embryo explained), but I'm glad that a Republican idiot got Izzy angry enough to dive into making stuff, as she'll probably get to interesting places as she evolves.

Ten (2014)

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

By the time Ten is over, it has maybe managed to beat its story into making some kind of sense, or at least into the kind of nonsense that the audience can sort of work with. That's probably not the sort of reaction filmmakers Sophia Cacciola & Michael J. Epstein had in mind - it's unusual enough to be the result of some ambition - but the rookie filmmakers seem to have set themselves a task that's more they can handle just yet.

After an opening scene that establishes that there's something not right about the place, ten women arrive at a mansion on an island off he coast of New England in the 1970s. They all seem to be strangers with nothing in common, which means that after the last ferry leaves, a storm will naturally kick up, trapping them together in the house while some butcher-themed slasher goes after these "ten little piggies".

Why are these ten women here? An answer is presented in the last act, and while it technically explains some things, it is the very definition of an explanation that exists entirely to brace the structure after the fact as opposed to being things that reasonably intelligent people would actually do when starting from zero. Even taking all the behind-the-scenes machinations into effect, the first two-thirds of the movie are tremendously frustrating; even when people die, it doesn't feel like anything is happening. Plus, not only does the viewer feel like he or she is missing some very basic information, but none of the characters ever seem to react to various nasty murders the way actual human beings would. Heck, they don't even react like thin stereotypes would.

Full review at EFC

Emotional Incontinence

Seen 30 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

Described as the "comedy block" at the start, which was not exactly what I got from the description. I did laugh, of course, and not just because I find puppets in an unusual context pretty funny.

"Welcome to Dignity Pastures" - A neat little one-joke short, and I half-wonder if it could be stretched a little further than the three minutes it has here. Without giving too much away, I think doing so would take away from the basics of the joke (unforseen result of a horror premise) and make it a sitcom thing, which isn't bad itself, but not the same kind of funny.

"Sad Monster" - Man, it hits under-bed monsters hard when little girls stop being scared of them. Kurt Dettbarn's short is another one whose premise is easy to state, but he does a good job of telling a story and hitting a lot of funny beats within it. Nice song, too.

"Liebe" - Cameron Macgowan's is a quick one as well, but suffers a bit because its gotcha isn't really as funny as Brian Lonano's or Kurt Dettbarn's. I do kind of wonder where this sort of joke will evolve, though; is the joke of the monster being attracted to the guy homophobic, funny for being unexpected, or basically the same joke as it would be if a girl were involved?

"Killer Kart" - James Feeney's short is the first in the block that really had room to stretch, and he has fun with it. It is a horror movie with an absurd monster played straight, but that's part of the fun: The audience gets to laugh at just how ridiculous the idea of a killer shopping cart is, but also at how cleverly he makes it work. Stretch it much longer than this fifteen minutes, and in might not be as funny, but it works pretty well at this length.

"Mémorable Moi" - Heh. Jean-François Asselin throws a gag into his short about a man who will fade away if people don't think about him constantly about trolling people by pretending to be a Bruins fan (it's made/set in Montreal), which is maybe a little funnier to folks involved in the rivalry. It's a fun scenario, and most of the time the jokes are funny rather than just gross, which is what it needs.

"Goosey's Big Movie" - So, you say Pee-wee's Playhouse was just not weird enough for you? Gabriel Laks takes that as a starting point and builds an increasingly surreal story about a former children's entertainer trying to find regular work and the psychotic puppets who share his apartment. Like the previous one, it gets into twisted territory at times, but it wouldn't be BUFF otherwise, and most of the jokes are pretty funny.

"Sunshine for Breakfast" - Well, you've got to have one or two that are just kind of unpleasantly weird, and that'd be this thing by Parker Winans.

"Mr. Lamb" - One or two. This one is a little more amusing, but it kind of left me cold. It's one of a couple things at the festival that had clear Twin Peaks inspiration, and, man, that show just doesn't do anything for me. It's tough to spoof and tough to capture, and its own story isn't really entertaining enough to hang on its own.

"Foam Drive Renegades" - I liked Adam DeViller's short when I saw it at Fantasia last summer, and still like it now. It would probably be pretty funny if the screw-up who messes up a group of small-time crooks' plans was not a puppet, but since puppets make everything funnier... Laughs happened.

"Shinju-Kitan" ("The Tale of Love Suicide")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

Ken Hirata's short starts out with a fair amount of explanation of its title, which is not necessarily the best sign, but it fits here as Hirata merge a highly declarative Japanese theatrical style with nice, lush visuals to tell its simple, poignant story.

Even with the setup, the short is still kind of tough to figure, going for ambiguity despite working so hard to make sure the audience knows where it starts from. There's an impressive sadness in both the ending and all of the deliberate moments leading to it, though, and it certainly makes for a good thing to pair with Love Eternal.

Love Eternal

* * * 3/4 (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

I didn't quite avoid Love Eternal when it played at another festival last year, but I certainly didn't have much trouble choosing what was on the other screen whenever the Irish death-fetish film was playing. I'm not saying that was a mistake - I liked the other movies I saw at Fantasia - but I was quite pleasantly surprised at how much I wound up enjoying this one.

Maybe "pleasantly" is not quite the right adverb, given the subject matter. This is a movie about a young man who refused to leave his house after finding a classmate hanging from a tree, and responds to his mother's death by trying to commit suicide himself. That attempt is interrupted, but he winds up uncomfortably close to three more suicidal women. Well, maybe three isn't quite an accurate count - one has already died when he "meets" her.

You can see why a person may be put off. The placement of that part of the story is important, though; it's part of Ian's evolution and director Brendan Muldooney recognizes it as such, not particularly mining dark humor from it or building a suspense story out of whether his peculiar houseguest will be missed or discovered. It may not necessarily even be the segment of the film that will make a viewer the most queasy; the cheerful character played by Amanda Ryan whom Ian connects with on a message board that helps connect those who do not wish to leave the world alone, and how their encounter plays out, may be harder for some to wrap their heads around.

Full review at EFC

The Congress

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, digital)

The Congress divides fairly naturally into three or four parts, and the Futurological Congress which gives the film is name (and was presumably much more central to Stanislas Lem's original novel) is probably the least interesting despite having the most going on. One almost wonders why filmmaker Ari Folman didn't just make a movie with everything else and cite Lem as an inspiration, because that still leaves a heck of a smart, unusual science fiction film.

Actress Robin Wright was certainly not the protagonist of Lem's book, after all, though she fills that role here, not getting many parts twenty-five years after The Princess Bride but still kind of horrified when her agent (Harvey Keitel) delivers Hollywood's latest (and last) offer: They want to digitize her, making everything from her physical features to acting style their intellectual property, leaving any future performance she ever gives copyright infringement. Well, at least for twenty years, when she returns to Miramount Studios to negotiate a new deal and speak at the Futurological Congress.

Things go down at the Congress that are meant to be confusing - where the first and last parts of the movie are about Robin negotiating a strange new world, the middle has her spending much of her time as a witness to events that make the world even stranger. I'm not sure how chaotic Folman actually wanted it to be, because in a way it doesn't fit (it's the only time that Robin is far enough ahead of the audience that she doesn't need to discover things with us). Or perhaps this is the point, as Folman is covering humanity's anxieties toward the rapidly digitizing world: That computers might replace the job of even creative people and that electronic interaction will replace direct "real" human contact are easy to list and depict, but the Singularity where the rate of discovery and societal evolution excesses the human ability to process it is difficult to present by definition.

Full review at EFC

Blue Ruin

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 16, DCP)

Say this for Blue Ruin: It starts from a different place than many movies of its type, and that starting point means that even when it doesn't necessarily go in a unique direction, it still winds up in a new place. Going unexpected places in and of itself is certainly a good thing for a thriller like this, but it still needs some navigation, and writer/director Jeremy Saulnier is an impressively sure hand on the wheel.

That starting place is a beach in Maryland where Dwight (Macon Blair) lives out of his car, unless he can break into a house whose owners are on vacation. The police are familiar with him, but when one approaches him, it's not to arrest him for vagrancy, but to inform him that Carl Cleland (Brent Werzner), the man who killed his father, has been released from prison. This, apparently, is what Dwight needs to be shaken out of his slumber, but quests for vengeance seldom go unanswered, and the Clelands are a big, mean, redneck family while Dwight just has a sister (Amy Hargreaves) living a quiet middle class life.

Most people overlook homeless guys like the Dwight we meet at the beginning of the movie, maybe treating them with a little bit of wariness in case they suddenly turn violent and lash out randomly. Saulnier and actor Macon Blair do a fine job of simultaneously embracing and subverting that expectation, and in large part they do it without much more than Blair's eyes to work with, at least on the surface: With the bulk of Dwight's face hidden behind an unkempt beard, it's very easy to see the wild animal who has wandered into the human world in his eyes, afraid of everything around him but ready to activate the first part of the fight-or-flight reflex at a moment's notice. At other times, though, he projects the image of a boy who still hasn't been able to get over losing his father, and that helps to make him our homeless guy with just a loose connection to civilization. He's never going to be a true hero, but Blair makes it very easy for us to put ourselves in his shoes.

Full review at EFC

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