Saturday, May 10, 2014

Independent Film Festival Boston 2014.05: 9-Man, Ayiti Toma, Fort Tilden, God Help the Girl

Sunday at the festival spreads the movies out a bit; apparently movies that start much after 9pm are a pretty tough sell, so what mostly happens is that you start at the same time you would on Saturday and push each "slot" a bit later, putting a little more free time in the schedule. In theory; it works better toward the end of the day than at the beginning, especially when the first show starts a bit late.

9-MAN at IFFBoston 2014

That first movie was 9-Man, a documentary on the Chinatown volleyball variant, and with a bunch of the film covering Boston-area teams and at least some of the filmmakers being local - and it appealing to a fairly underserved demographic (Chinese-Americans) - screen #1 got pretty packed, and only a fraction of the people who could have gotten up on stage did. Left to right, that's Ty Hua, a member of the Boston Freemasons, a coach whose name did not, unfortunately, make it into my notes in a legible manner; old-timer Henry Oi, who played in the 1950s; editor Michelle Chang; and filmmaker Ursula Liang.

It was a long Q&A, the sort I'm kind of surprised never broke into Cantonese or Mandarin - I'm not sure which language they speak in the Hoisin region - as I've seen happen at other sessions. Ms. Liang mentioned that she is an avid volleyball player herself without ever seeming bitter or frustrated that 9-man is not particularly open to women. If it looks like her editor is shooting her a dirty look, that might be explained by how apparently Liang kept shooting until she got much more footage than she could possibly use - most of the material they got was from the 2010 season, but there always seemed to be something she could get afterward.

There was also a lot of talk about the tournament moving to Las Vegas for 2014 and other things about the game or even volleyball in general, like when the mayor of Medford stands up and proudly announces how they'll have more funding for volleyball programs this year. Which is nice, but it's not illuminating the movie for me, and by that time I was already hoping that my next movie would start late. I probably could have left before the Q&A was over and run downstairs, but they had cameras set up all over the place to shoot the whole premiere event, and there was no way I was going to be the white guy in the front row bailing on this before it was over!

AYITI TOMA's Joseph Hillel at IFFBoston 2014

That meant I got into Ayiti Toma a little bit after it had actually started - ten minutes, I think - winding up in the first row because otherwise I'd be climbing over people, which would be really disruptive in the tight-packed even-numbered theaters at the Somerville. Ordinarily, that would be an automatic skip in terms of writing a review, but it's worth seeing and I certainly had something to say about that which I saw. Of course, the day I posted the review to EFC was the day Jeffrey Wells did his little blog about being ticked Disney wouldn't let him into a press screening for Million Dollar Arm a half hour late and he rightly got excoriated for being a jerk about it... Certainly seemed the wrong moment to post a review of 80% of a movie.

Hillel had a little more trouble with his English than many of the people I've seen from Quebec (small biased sample), but talked some about how his family had escaped from Haiti during Papa Doc Duvalier's regime, so this was a bit of a homecoming, and how Haiti, while certainly poor and dangerous, was not quite as hard-hit by the earthquake as initial estimates (still lots of property damage, but the estimated death tolls seemed to be high by a factor of four). He also mentioned that the folks from Fort National were great to shoot, because the group of five would act like a chorus, each one picking up exactly from where the last sopped to pause for breath. There is also, somewhat reasonably, a lot of distrust of outsiders in the countryside, so he had to just spend a fair amount of time being around in order to gain the locals' trust.

After that, the opened-up schedule finally happened, and I had time to hit Boston Burger Company before the next movie. This is always a good idea.

FORT TILDEN filmmakers

I wound up going screen 1, screen 2, screen 3 at Somerville, which was kind of amusing. #3 was Fort Tilden, which wound up winning one of the jury prizes and had writer/directors Sarah-Violet Bliss & Charles Rogersand co-star Clare McNulty on-hand, and... I didn't really like their movie, which is always awkward, especially when the filmmakers are funny, open, gracious people. It wasn't even tempting to ask "so, when did you realize you were making a bad movie?"

There were a couple interesting bits in the Q&A - apparently finding Fort Tilden is an adventure every New Yorker has at least once, and the kittens that played a part in the last act were all OK. They also talked about how shooting that last part with pretty much the whole cast topless on a public beach was, well, roughly as awkward as you might think. It's unmonitored (and New York courts have actually struck down any laws saying women have to cover up if men don't), so it's not like it's unusual, but there were still a few folks around being creeps.

They also mentioned that Harper & Allie started out as an idea for a TV show, and they're actually still working to get something like that off the ground. The funny thing is, even though I didn't much like the movie, I think I might enjoy a TV show about their misadventures - McNulty and Bridey Elliott are likable and play off each other well, and I think that to sustain a regular series, they'd have to actually do more and not default to awful.

After that, it was on a bus (still no trains above Harvard) to the Brattle for God Help the Girl, which was actually announced too late to make the program - if you bought one at the Brattle, at least, there was a photocopied page with it stuck in there. It was another packed house, and for some reason it didn't really register with me that a lot of fans of the director's band would show up. I expect that from the documentaries, but not necessarily the fiction projects. It's always a bit weird for me, since I know basically squat about music and therefore don't really understand the applause at what seem like random faces showing up on screen or lines in the script. It was also a reminder that music fans, especially those of a specific band, are intense and focused in a way that film fans generally aren't.

Whew. Only two days and three or four movies left to cover. I might get this done within two weeks of the festival ending!


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

9-Man was the second film at the festival built around Chinese-American themes and it turns out to be an excellent pairing with The Search for General Tso: Where Tso mainly concerned itself with history and adaptation, this movie spends most of its time in the present day, with the residents of the country's various Chinatowns using sports to help maintain a distinct cultural identity. That may sound dry, but it's also a pretty entertaining sports movie on its own.

The game of 9-man is basically volleyball with a few important changes, the most obvious being that there are nine to a side rather than two or six, necessitating an oversized court. Those players also stay in the same positions rather than rotating, allowing for specialization, get an extra touch when the ball hits the net, and can reach over the net to spoke. The annual tournament rotates between cities every Labor Day weekend, and a team's roster must include at least six players of entirely Chinese descent, with each of the rest at least half-Asian.

That last stipulation will raise some eyebrows, especially when combined with an almost offhand mention that the game is men-only. I can joke about how scenes involving that restriction elicited a strange feeling that I as a white male was just not familiar with, gosh darn it, but director Ursula Liang does a very nice job of making it a nifty subtext throughout the film. The audience can kind of laugh at a group of pro beach volleyballers getting told they can't play but also feel a bit uncomfortable about teams demanding other players show their birth certificates. Interview segments, especially with some of the guys who played a generation or two (out three) ago, make it an interesting gray area; they talk about seldom having any athletic heroes or masculine role models of their own and how the local 9-man team filled a void and still provides a sense of community that could get washed away if it were open to everyone, but they never seem to look comfortable with being exclusionary, especially when it's their mixed-race friends getting the short end of the stick. It's an unusually nuanced take on a subject that can often get heated.

Full review at EFC

Ayiti Toma

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2014 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

Full disclosure: I missed the first few minutes of Ayiti Toma, so I admittedly cannot give a full accounting of the film. That happens when you try to squeeze as many movies that you will have limited opportunities to see later into one's personal schedule as possible. And while principle often keeps me from writing up something I haven't seen in full, this is a movie worth recommending, and Haiti gets ignored and poorly-served enough without me contributing.

"Ayiti Toma" means "country that is ours" in Haitian Creole, and director Joseph Hillel spends much of his time speaking to the residents, perhaps most memorably a group of residents of Fort National, an area of Port-au-Prince still devastated two years after the earthquake that hit the island in 2010. The island is more than Port-au-Prince and the disaster, though, and he spend time exploring his parents' homeland outside the city and going through the island's history, trying to examine what put it in such a bad situation even before the quake.

He takes an interesting tack in doing so, actually. Most documentaries, our histories in any medium, will generally start from the beginning and work forward, even if those chapters are intercut with present-day scenes to demonstrate their relevance; Hillel basically starts at the present and works his way back. So while the first half-hour is heavy on the topics that might inspire present-day activism and certainly can be most easily advertised, Hillel eventually places that on the back burner to dig up the roots of the country's current issues, all the way back to a revolution whose success left the newborn republic in economic thrall to France and then to how the colony was built on slavery, which is still reflected in the culture. He's then able to close the circle, in a way, by having anthropologist Ira Lowenthal imagine an alternate history where Haiti did not start out economically crippled and its revolution spread to it's neighbors. It's a fascinating way to look at history, one that emphasizes how self-serving decisions can cast long shadows.

Full review at EFC

Fort Tilden

* * (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2014 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

Comedy's a delicate thing. The intent of Fort Tilden is probably that the audience kind of likes its main characters despite them being sort of ridiculous, and yet, the same traits that elicit that reaction can also lead to the opposition reaction: That these characters are frustratingly stupid, but also unsportingly easy targets. Sadly, even though the movie has moments that lean toward the first, I found it was more often mired in the second.

The two girls in question are Harper (Bridey Elliott) and Allie (Clare McNulty), two roommates in their mid-twenties living in a trendy section of Brooklyn. Allie has signed up for the Peace Corps and is about to have a tour in Liberia. Last night, though, they meet a couple of cute guys (Jeffrey Scaperotta & Griffin Newman) and arranged to meet them at the beach. Getting there just turns out to be way harder than they thought.

There are many funny ways for a person to be stymied trying to get from point A to point B in a city and its outlying environs; I've found dozens just trying to get to work every morning. And while it's certainly fitting for these characters in particular for some to be self-sabotage, the sheer number of times Harper & Allie are diverted or delayed because they saw something shiny or just decided to make half an effort somewhere does not necessarily add up to laughs because a pair of selfish brats are reaping what they sowed. Instead, it often just says that getting to Fort Tilden is unimportant, even for the characters, and if they don't care about making it to the beach, why should we? It's not like filmmakers Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers give a whole lot of heft to any other themes, such as how Allie & Harper are such close friends about to separate or that they have stretched an extended adolescence to the breaking point. There is a certain amount of effort made at the latter, both via nominal voices of authority on the other ends of their phone calls and where the last act goes, but it's weak and not particularly earned.

Full review at EFC

God Help the Girl

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

God Help the Girl is hardly the first time someone has taken a set of songs with an existing strong narrative and made a movie out of them, and as such not the first to demonstrate that slavish reproduction isn't always the best way to go. There are far worse ways to make a film than throwing a good cast at good material, though, and Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian actually makes a pretty nice movie around the times when the songs are dictating the story rather than the other way around.

Like most good musicals, it opens with a girl sneaking out of a mental institution to see a band, only getting caught when she tries to sneak back in. A while later, when Eve (Emily Browning) has gotten enough of a handle on her anorexia to be given a little more freedom, she walks out again. She connects with James (Olly Alexander), the guitarist who helped her out that other night, filling the spare room in his crowded apartment and tagging along when he gives well-to-do teen Cassie (Hannah Murray) piano lessons. Soon Eve is writing songs for the three to play and completely missing just how smitten James is with her.

It also starts with a song, and the film isn't much more than a minute old before Eve is acting out the exact words she's singing, and that's frequently kind of cute during the opening number - the initial impression is that she's a teenager sneaking out of boarding school and going on an exciting adventure, so there's something very fitting about everything being exactly at face value. Soon, though, it becomes clear that all the songs are going to be represented just that literally, to the point where one number had me honestly wondering whether one of the characters existed entirely because there was a song with her name in the title. Sure, Murdoch originally wrote that song to tell this particular story, but showing exactly what the lyrics are describing feels a bit redundant, and there's a bit of strain getting them connected in a way that makes a great movie.

Full review at EFC

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