Monday, May 05, 2014

Independent Film Festival Boston 2014.04: Jon Imber's Left Hand, We are the Best!, The Search for General Tso, Wild Canaries, A Is for Alex

So, the plan was to basically live in theater #5 for most of the day, but the schedule got rearranged for the pretty good reason of a metric ton of people wanting tickets to Jon Imber's Left Hand. Imber, as it happens, was a Somerville resident, who passed away a mere nine days before the screening. It was probably not a bad way to say goodbye.

JON IMBER'S LEFT HAND w/ Jill Hoy and Richard Kane

So, there's Imber's wife Jill Hoy and the director of the film, Richard Kane. Sort of amusing thing: The film identifies Hoy as Imber's "partner" and muse, so when it caught up to their wedding, I kind of wondered what was up with that - is it so unusual for artists to actually be monogamous and married that it doesn't even occur to biographers to use those terms?

At any rate, I was very glad to see this one; I had sort of written it off when it was scheduled for screen #5 and had sold out, but I bought a ticket when it moved to the larger screen. It wound up being one of my favorites of the festival.

Because Jon Imber's Left Hand overlapped with The Case Against 8 which overlapped with We Are the Best!, that one got moved to screen #1 as well. It was one that Chlotrudis was co-presenting, I think, although not in any way that was particularly visible. Fun little movie.

I may, perhaps, have had time to get to the Brattle for Point and Shoot, but the MBTA wasn't running red line trains north of Harvard that weekend (that they did the previous weekend just because it was Easter and not for the festival is, in my opinion, a sign of misplaced priorities). So I waited until the "TBA" slot at 4:45 on screen #5 was filled in and went for that; it turned out to be The Search for General Tso, itself pretty nifty. There were, as you might expect, people there handing flyers out for 9-Man. I hadn't realized it was by the same guy who did The City Dark, one of the docs I really liked from a couple years ago.

I'd like to say I had Chinese after that, but, no, I went to Deli-cious and had a burger. It was a good burger.

WILD CANARIES producer Andrew Corkin

Hey, it's Andrew Corkin again! He was at the screening of Big Significant Things the night before and mentioned that he had produced two films at the festival, which led to a little bit of talk about how, during much of this movie's production, he was down south getting the other one ready. He apologized that director Lawrence Michael Levine and members of the cast couldn't be there; Levine and his wife Sofia Takal are apparently in California prepping their next project, which will apparently be somewhat bigger. Truth is, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the scale of this one. After a few days at the festival, you sort of just start looking at the tickets you've purchased and showing up to the theater marked without much remembering why, which sometimes means that as a very cool set of credits runs, you're like "hey, Sophia Takal... Kevin Corrigan... Alia Shawkat... I like all those people!"

So, yes, kind of tired at that point, but the next one was short.

A IS FOR ALEX with Alex & Katie Orr

Got to admit, I didn't remember Alex & Katie Orr had done Blood Car until they mentioned it. Looking back at my review, I'm kind of surprised to see that I apparently described it as the same sort of DIY movie as this one. Granted, I barely remember it at all, but it was a bit more semi-pro in my head. They are, as you might expect, a fun pair.

Then it was home and sleeping fast for the next day.

Jon Imber's Left Hand

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

I can't claim to have much of a grasp on Join Imber's place in the world of art even after seeing this movie; there's a lot of background and the film has other things to attack in its fifty-seven minutes. I can say this, though: If I am ever handed a death sentence that is especially cruel in its irony, I hope that I can respond to it with a fraction of a percent of the quiet spirit Imber did, whether I've got a camera crew documenting it or not.

Jon Imber, you see, was an American painter who started on portraiture, moved to landscapes, and then eventually abstract landscapes, and still has a lot of painting in him when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of ALS. To make matters worse, the first thing that the neuromuscular condition attacked was his dominant right hand. His reaction? To start painting with his left hand and cram as much work as he can into the time he has remaining.

That's a noble goal, but it's the way he reacts to it that makes the film a joy to watch: He's fascinated by the way that forty years of learning the craft of painting interacts with an arm that is physically starting from scratch. He's an admirably upbeat person in general, speaking about how the disease will eventually kill him and how he hopes to make it through the summer before severe deterioration starts with the expected paralyzing emotions held in check and describing several painters as the greatest ever when discussing his influences and art in general. He manages to be as jovial as he can while still being serious about his condition and his art, making this an easy film to watch even though the very first scene shows us something near the end.

Full review at EFC

Vi är bäst! (We Are the Best)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

The opening scene of We Are the Best! briefly reminded me of another recent Scandinavian film, Sons of Norway, which followed a punk-loving teenager whose need to rebel was frustrated by his exceptionally open-minded and accommodating father. This one pretty quickly goes in a different, lighter direction, and even if it may seem kind of lightweight at times, it's the sort of airiness that comes from kids going full speed ahead.

The punk-loving kid in that first scene is Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), a 13-year-old living in a Stockholm apartment with her mother in 1982; she's on the phone to her best friend Klara (Mira Grosin) while her mother has a big birthday party. They're kind of outsiders at school, and impulsively decide to start a band at the rec center one night. The center only has a bass and drums for them to practice their song about how they hate their gym teacher, but they quickly hit upon a solution: Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), who plays classical guitar to other students' jeers; she can join the band even if she is a good Christian girl.

Writer/director Lukas Moodysson's wife Coco has been credited pitching in in various capacities on several of his movies, and this one is based on a comic she created, probably based upon her own life - the character name "Bobo" isn't exactly a perplexing alias! It does not, thankfully, seem to be a way to exorcise some particularly traumatic childhood experience; in fact, every time the threat of overheated drama rears its head, the Moodyssons tend to defuse it with a wink and recognition that giving yourself a potentially-regrettable haircut, arguing over a boy, or getting booed on stage is not the end of the world. There's a story, sure, but it's a bunch of little things that happen that builds to something whose importance Bobo probably won't fully recognize until she's grown.

Full review at EFC

The Search for General Tso

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2014 in Somerville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

General Tso's Chicken is one of the most popular take-out dishes in America, a staple at nearly every Chinese restaurant in the country - and almost entirely unknown in China itself. I'm not certain that figuring out where this ubiquitous dish came from was Ian Cheney's true motivation for making this documentary, but it serves as an interesting and frequently amusing way to tell the story of Chinese immigration to the United States.

Cheney starts his search in Shanghai, showing people photographs of General Tso's Chicken and getting no response. It does lead them to Hunan Province, where he learns that Tso Tsung-t'ang was a local hero, never lost a battle, and was especially well-known for putting down the Taiping rebellion - and probably did not invent any chicken dishes. That means the origin of the dish is most likely to be found in the United States, where Cheney finds a history that involves much more than the sudden popularity of an item on a restaurant menu.

Though the dish first appeared in the 1970s, the story goes back to the 1880s and crisscrosses the United States from San Francisco to New York and back to Los Angeles, with a particularly noteworthy stop in Springfield, Missouri. Cheney finds interesting people to interview about most subjects all over the place, whether people who were present at the events in question or who had the knowledge of them handed down. The stories add up to a history of institutionalized racism and xenophobia, determined assimilation, and culinary plagiarism. Each time Cheney talks with someone, it seems, the conversation never strays from the matter at hand but always winds up pointing in a new direction, so that he and editor Frederick Shanahan can tell the story that encompasses a broad range of subjects without feeling as though they've gotten sidetracked.

Full review at EFC

Wild Canaries

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2014 in Somerville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

Wild Canaries is not quite The Thin Man, but it's better at that sort of thing than any other recent movie that leaps to mind. The combination of murder mystery and screwball comedy is a tough enough not to crack that not many people seem to be trying, but this one uses an impressive cast to breathe a lot of life into a matter of life and death.

Our amateur sleuth is Barri (Sophia Takal), a young woman who hasn't quite seemed to grow up completely. Money being tight, she and her fiance Noah (Lawrence Michael Levine) have a roommate in Barri's friend Jean (Alia Shawkat), even as landlord - and Noah's poker buddy - Damien (Jason Ritter) is showing it to potential buyers, while the film distribution business Noah works at with ex-girlfriend Eleanor (Annie Parisse) is on shaky ground. When their eighty-year old neighbor does, Barri suspects her son Anthony (Kevin Corrigan) of foul play, and while Noah is quick to poo-poo that idea, Barri has time on her hands to snoop.

Murder can be a grim business, but it's also a great way to give a story some structure: Something kicks the story off, the characters are always doing something to get to the resolution, and there is a definitive end point. While all that's going on, you can throw in a bunch of stuff about how Jean may have a crush on Barri, Eleanor might have an "and Noah" clause to her attraction to girls, and Noah might be having doubts about sticking with Barri, and if you do it right, it's not only more fun because this being a thing people talk about as a secondary thing while handling other business makes them seem much less egocentric than when it seems to be their only concern. Plus, even when if the plot doesn't completely dictate how the romance shakes out by who's left standing, there is still going to be a sense of resolution, even if a lot of the same variables from the start are still in play.

Full review at EFC

A Is For Alex

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2014 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

Someday, Alex & Katie Orr's first-born child is going to see this movie, and in my head it's running fifty-fifty on whether they'll have some explaining to do our whether they'll just be the sort of weird parents where this sort of thing makes perfect sense. Probably the latter; it's not like the people who would make this sort of peculiar, homemade movie will be able or inclined to hold their eccentricity in.

In the movie, Alex is an inventor in the Atlanta area, with his latest creation a pollinating done meant to take the place of all those bees vanishing due to colony collapse disorder. He also find himself facing frequent anxiety attacks over the baby he and Katie are expecting, and as the due date approaches, things are only going to get more stressful as giant robot bees prove to be just as good an idea as you'd expect and the home movies from his childhood that Alex's mother (Judith Beasly) keeps uploading to the internet actually prove to be far more than embarrassing.

Even though the Orrs are seasoned film & television production professionals, with director and co-writer Alex even having a feature under his belt (albeit one named "Blood Car"), this can often have the look and feel of a great big YouTube video, with everyone playing an off-kilter version of themselves and the production oftentimes quite literally happening their backyard or garage. It was, apparently, often shoot that way, as each new thing that freaked them out or struck them funny about impending parenthood inspired a scene that would get shot that weekend. I suspect much of the movie came about that way too, as subplots will often vanish for what seems like a long time only to have three or four bits on a row as Alex, Katie, and co- writer Adam Pinney figure out what to do with them. It makes for a chaotic, uneven movie, even with its short 74-minute running time.

Full review at EFC

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