Monday, April 28, 2014

Independent Film Festival Boston 2014.02: Trap Street, The Skeleton Twins

Even though the Red Line wouldn't stop running between Brattle and Davis until Saturday, it's almost always a good plan to camp out at a given screen as much as you can. Things happen, and when you're buying tickets instead of a badge because you're stupidly absent-minded, it's the best way to insure a projection issue or an audience delaying the next show by hanging out in the auditorium and chatting after their finishes doesn't scree up your plans.

So, once I decided that Trap Street would be my choice for the 7pm slot because there just aren't going to be many other chances to see a small Chinese film - which had one of the more interesting descriptions in the festival guide anyway - that made The Skeleton Twins it's logical partner. Fortunately, it looked like the movie I would have opted for anyway.

TRAP STREET producer Sean Chen

Director Vivian Qu could not come to Boston for this screening - she's actually a busy producer managing a hit back home in China right now - but producer Sean Chen could, mentioning that he came to movies at the Brattle when he went to school in Cambridge. He obviously couldn't talk about the movie in the same detail that Qu would be able to manage, bit he did have good stories about how when they submitted the script to China's censorship bureau, they omitted a few critical scenes so that the movie could be presented as a love story rather than satirical or critical of the government. I kind of wonder how much omission was necessary, since one could sort of argue that SPOILERS! justice was eventually served and the boy got the girl, and if you don't find the idea of this sort of secrecy odious, you just have to show it being competently enforced. !SRELIOPS

One other thing he mentioned was that when they take this movies to festivals in Europe, they talk about style and influences, while in North America, we talk about surveillance. And if you read my review... Yeah, I talk about surveillance and privacy. I'm actually pretty much OK with that; I've long accepted that I am not going to win any game of spot-the-reference that other enthusiasts play, and I'm much more interested in how something the filmmaker does works and affects the audience, rather than who did it first. Trap Street has an interesting perspective on the rise in both available information and secrecy, and that's much more interesting to me than how it's like something Antonioni did.

THE SKELETON TWINS director Craig Johnson

The discussion for The Skeleton Twins with director Craig Johnson kind of went in more standard directions after the amusingly rambling introduction about how he once shoot a short film "Aquarium" in Boston, was in fact a huge aquarium nerd, and would consider the New England Aquarium the gold standard, even without a weird goofy-at-3am night or two watching the octopus in the big central tank.

The main topic of discussion was the stars, with Bill Hader chosen first by a casting agent who thought he'd be good for the role even if he hasn't had many dramatic parts, with Kristen Wiig being cast separately later. There were the usual questions about improvisation, which I believe this time was answered with "mostly stuck with the script, but there was some latitude". The interesting thing about that was Johnson talking about how they would occasionally have to cut stuff out because it sounded too much like professional comedians as opposed to just naturally funny people.

Shuiyin jie (Trap Street)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2014 in The Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

A trap street is a non-existent road placed on a map so that cartographers will be able to tell when competitors have copied their work rather than surveying the area independently. It's not a common term in film noir, but it certainly could be - how many of these movies have been named for some location that ensnares good people in a web of deceit and danger? While this movie ("Shuiyun jie" in Mandarin) doesn't look much like a traditional entry in that genre, it's what those movies become when transplanted to twenty-first century China.

Nanjing, specifically, where Li Qiuming (Lu Yulai) is a trainee at a surveying firm, working with Zhang Sheng (You Yong) to gather GPS data for a digital map. At the corner of Forest Lane, he meets Guan Lifen (He Wenchao), and is smitten right away. It seems like just a simple meet-cute, except that the system won't accept the coordinates for Forest Lane, Lifen works for something called "Lab 203", and Qiuming earns extra money working with his roommates doing freelance work detecting and installing surveillance equipment.

When director Vivian Qu submitted the script to China's censorship bureau, it was as a love story, and it actually works well along those lines during the first half - Qiuming is an upbeat young guy going after a girl out of his league, and Lifen quickly comes across as friendly even if she does sort of look past Qiuming in their initial encounters. And while the story requires Lifen to be somewhat mysterious as just sophisticated enough to be difficult for Qiuming to connect with, he at least is given a broad cast of supporting characters - parents, roommates, co-workers - for supplying encouragement and advice which he won't necessarily heed. It's cute, charming, and often very funny.

Full review at EFC

The Skeleton Twins

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2014 in The Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

"The Skeleton Twins" refers to something which appears within the movie almost entirely so that the title will mean something, much like these indie family dramas with established actors themselves often seem to be in the same sort of self-justification loop. As long as you get good movies out of it, though, there's certainly nothing to complain about, and the folks making this one did all right by it.

The twins in question are Milo (Bill Harder) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig), who haven't seen each other in a decade and reconnect when the hospital calls Maggie about Milo's attempted suicide - a call that reaches her just as she's about to down her own handful of pills. She invites him back to the town where they few up so that he won't be alone, although that let's him reconnect with a lover from when he was young (Ty Burrell), and also meet Maggie's husband Lance (Luke Wilson) for the first time - a marriage Maggie is sabotaging despite Lance being pretty great.

A quick appearance by the twins' mother (Joanna Gleason) helps explain why many of their issues are tied up with their farther, whom we never see clearly. There are other issues in their past that reveal themselves, at least partially, as the film goes on, although there are times when things don't quite seem to line up: There's seldom a sense of the sort of genuine rift between the pair that would have Milo skip Maggie's wedding until the filmmakers need to drop a bomb toward the end, but then the dates don't work. It's not a "hey, wait, that can't work" stretch, especially since it is certainly possible director Craig Johnson and his co-writer Mark Heyman were looking to leave some things unsaid and the general feel works.

Full review at EFC

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