Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Independent Film Festival Boston 2014.06: Dear White People, Wicker Kittens

This night is the sort that really makes having a pass worth it: There's a TBA entry that makes me want to hold out buying tickets in that slot until it's announced, and holding off on those means other things are selling out. Wild Canaries being selected to fill the empty slot probably didn't affect me that much, although basic dilly-dallying meant that my first two choices for the 7pm hour, Dear White People and Locke, were sold out until screens 1 and 5 were swapped. So, Dear White People it was, and while I bet Locke had a great Q&A, it was playing a bunch of theaters a week and a half later. Not complaining at all; I was a little wary of Dear White People, but wound up liking it a lot.

And once the TBA screening was announced as a second screening of Wild Canaries, my choices were two documentary shorts programs, Wicker Kittens, or The Sacrament at the Brattle. I'm not going to lie: I was kind of beat and Wicker Kittens won for starting early and being about an hour long.

WICKER KITTENS director Amy C. Elliott at IFFBoston 2014

There's my last guest of the festival, Wicker Kittens director Amy C. Elliott. I'm not sure if she was around for her movie's first screening - it sounded like she was - but it seemed a little unusual that the two times her movie played were on the opposite end of the weekend (Thursday and Monday evenings). Most of the other multiple-screening movies were on back-to-back days, and even in some of those cases, filmmakers had to bail on the second day. So good on her for hanging around, and I hope she saw a bunch of movies. It's always cool to see filmmakers taking advantage of their badge and liking movies as opposed to just making them.

One of the competitive jigsaw puzzle people was at the screening, actually in the line as a paying customer, and if she flew out from Minnesota, well, good for her. I would travel like crazy for any film I had something to do with.

Dear White People

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

As one of the folks being addressed by this movie's title, I'm not exactly in the best position to comment on how true-to-life or incisive it may be (and let's just leave how out-of-date my memories of college may be right out of the discussion, OK?), so I can only judge it on how much it made me laugh. Thankfully, that's a lot; it's very funny even if it never let's the audience forget that it's heading somewhere serious.

The college in question is Armstrong University, where proposed policy change to sign housing more randomly has Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) up in arms enough to campaign against her popular ex-boyfriend Troy (Brandon P Bell) for leadership of their traditionally African-American house as well as beat the drum on her "Dear White People" campus radio show/webcast. Their issues and rivalry aren't enough to cause the campus to boil over, but there's more: Sam has rubbed Kurt Hutchinson (Kyle Gallner), the head of the prestigious campus comedy magazine, the wrong way, and earned the envy of transfer student Colandrea "Coco" Connors (Teyonah Parris). And then there's Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), tormented by Kurt but reluctant to transfer to Sam's house because, based on his high school experience, gay black men get it worse from other African Americans than anyone else.

There are even more characters and subplots; if Dear White People were a TV show rather than a movie, Dennis Haysbert would have an "and" credit as the Dean (and Troy's father) and there would be several boyfriends, girlfriends, and sidekicks who recurred. There are frequent moments when it seems the setup might work better as a serial as characters and subplots get pushed aside and reshuffled pairings don't get all the attention they might because writer/director Justin Simien has his eye on the big Halloween party incident that he teased in the opening scenes before jumping back to the beginning of the school year. And make no mistake, that focus is to be praised: Even though it often seems like Simien and company are just inching forward, the sense is that he's been thorough without including anything extraneous.

Full review at EFC

Wicker Kittens

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2014 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston, digital)

On my coffee table, underneath the piles of other stuff that has been dropped there over the course of the last couple of years, is a half-completed jigsaw puzzle - the penguins are done but the plain white ice and blue sky are mostly still in pieces. The competitive puzzlers of Wicker Kittens almost certainly would not approve, but I'm not terribly ashamed: The interesting details are a lot more immediately rewarding than the repetitive background, even if you need the later for the piece to be complete.

Amy C. Elliot's brief documentary isn't exactly slacking on anything the way that I am, but it's not just the short 52-minute ruining time that might make the audience like it hasn't been constructed all the way to the edge - it's the expectations that come with the offbeat-competition genre. The event she has chosen (the jigsaw contest at the St. Paul Winter Carnival) does not have a long enough history to give it even a peculiar weight of tradition; it's not an activity that necessarily lends itself to striking visuals or editing that can boost suspense; and the usual storylines that could serve as a narrative plot just don't emerge. Nobody is exactly overcoming adversity, the various entrants don't interact much, and there aren't really any rivalries. It is pretty drama-free.

That's not necessarily a problem; it's actually kind of a nice change of pace to watch something like this and be meet with a wall of Midwestern good cheer, both from the four teams of four that Elliott follows but from Monika Kopet, the chipper young woman organizing the event. Almost everybody involved seems to be pleasant, aware of their eccentricity but without a whole lot in the way of snobbery, and even when they're at their most competitive or even contentious, they don't often start coming off as "Minnesota nice". With a bit of an assist from a puzzle historian, there's enough talk about various specific types and qualities of puzzles and what history there is of events like this to give curious viewers a little more detail on something they likely take for granted, and the actual scenes of the teams practicing and competing gives an amusing look at how serious puzzlers go about it, from choosing a smooth table to sorting pieces to lifting a completed section to put it in place.

Full review at EFC

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