Thursday, April 30, 2015

IFFBoston 2015 Day #03: Angkor's Children and Shorts Delta (including "World of Tomorrow")

Theory: Film festivals in one's hometown are more exhausting because of the stupid urge to multi-task. I can write and make sure the DVR doesn't get too full at the same time! There's time to pick up some groceries after the movie! Etc., etc. Somehow the time I'm making plans and schedules for the festival blends in with the same thing at work, and absorbs the "I don't want to worry about that right now" traits.

That's why this is grinding to such a slow pace, writing-wise. On a more upbeat note, I meet someone in the line who had apparently heard of this blog, and that doesn't happen every day.

Angkor's Children filmmakers at IFFBoston

Producer Paul Feinberg, editor Bernice Schneider, writer/producer Mimi Edmunds, and director Lauren Shaw, who made Angkor's Children. A nice little movie even if it does sort of make one think "66 minutes means they had room to do done more, but c'mon, Seaver, you're the first to complain about movies which grind to the finish line because they just have to be ninety minutes!"

Biased sample, given that the room was full of people interested enough in the place to either make a documentary about the country or pick it from six movies playing the festival at the same time, but the seasoned travelers present really seem captured by it. That was true of most of the filmmakers, who had been there making a documentary on water before, or been part of a 60 Minutes crew in the mid-eighties, when you would seemingly find five-year-olds and fifty-year-olds, but few in between. It is hard to process the full insanity of the Khmer Rouge, at least for us presumably sane people.

It was also nice to get updates on the people we had just been watching; Phunam is still performing but also going to college, but the filmmakers were worried about Sreyov; she has a actually become a fairly successful entrepreneur, not just in terms of offering her services to smot at local funerals, but teaching others and having a sort of smot shop in Phnom Penh, supporting her family, but since she's something like twenty-three and single, her mother is applying hard pressure for her to marry.

I went with narrative shorts package "Delta" for the second show off the evening. Amusingly (to me), some attendees were trying to figure out what the names given to the shorts packages this year meant, and I figured it was basically so they could shoot "Shorts Charlie!" and "Shorts Golf!" to the folks waiting in line and have it be more clear than C and G. However, once it was clear that these were the sci-fi shorts and delta is the symbol for change, I did sort of start wondering if any of the other groups were tied into their alphabetical aliases. "Bravo" includes a film about an actor, but other than that, I've got nothing.

I don't usually hit a lot of short packages - when attending on a media pass for an outlet that doesn't have a lot of short-film coverage, it can feel a little selfish - but I will often find a way to do some for the new Don Hertzfeldt picture. Fortunately, I saw The Tribe at Fantastic Fest last year, leading to several conversations in the line about how folks should see that, because it's f***ed-up, including one where I half-suspected Brian wouldn't have let me see anything else if I hadn't seen it, which I hope persuaded more people than they dissuaded. It meant punting They Look Like People and hoping it either gets distribution or plays Fantasia in Montreal this July. I think that's a good bet, considering it wound up being one of those surprising times when an "After Dark" selection gets a jury award.

Folks from three selections came - "Safe"director Sean Temple and writer Sarah Wisner; Jonathan Case from "Phaneron"; and "Artemis Falls" writer/director Eliza McNitt, cinematographer Oliver Anderson, and producer Carlos Valdivia. It was a pretty enjoyable session, with plenty of fun being had about how "Safe" was primarily lit with the flashlight purchased on the way to the shoot, which sure sounds like a seat-of-your-pants process. This sort of Q&A is one of my favorites - enough people there to get some variety and interaction in the answers, but not so many that answering any question becomes a matter of passing the microphone down the line and getting a similar one-sentence answer from everyone. You can't predict that, but it's pretty great when it happens.

The Q&A ran just long enough to keep me from doing something really stupid and seeing the midnight screening of Roar at the Coolidge. I'm guessing that would not have been good for me while watching five movies the next day.

Angkor's Children

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015, digital)

It's a weird thing to admit, but having seen a documentary or two about the Khmer Rouge a couple months back, and not regularly hearing much about Cambodia as it is now compared to those horror stories, it's easy to think of the country still being on that state, or just coming out of it. That was part of the draw of Angkor's Children - to see Cambodia in the present tense - and it's an enjoyable way to do so.

Of course, even thirty-odd years on, one can't talk about Cambodia without discussing the Khmer Rouge; they were so successful, on a practical level, at clearing the slate of their country that practically an entire generation was lost, in particular teachers and artists. It's something just starting to rebound now, with the film introducing the young women at the vanguard of this resurrection: Phunam, a circus artist; Sreyov, one of the few young people singing smot, a Buddhist funerary chant; and Saem, a garment worker who sings in Messenger Band, whose overt emphasis on women's and political issues is highly unusual for the culture.

Though all three get a segment that introduces them, Saem and her band fall by the wayside once director Lauren Shaw and her team circle around for a second pass. Their story is worthy enough, but perhaps doesn't fit the same narrative as the rest, where director Lauren Shaw can focus not just on the young women, but give some time to the Cambodian people and institutions that are trying to preserve - and practically resurrect - their culture. It is, on the other hand, kind of amusing to see interview subjects like a local legislator who had been happy answering questions about removing traditional culture start hemming and hawing when the subject turned to things that might cast business in a bad light.

Full review on EFC.

"Safe" (2015)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015: Shorts D, digital)

In the Q&A after the film, director Sean Temple and writer Sarah Wisner described "Safe" as a sort of prequel to another short film that won't necessarily explain a lot about what is kept vague here, although, really, do you really need to explain a post-collapse environment any more? It's something you can just take as a given now.

This is a nicely implemented version of that, though, as a pair of women finding shelled in the same abandoned building have to decide whether or not they can trust each other, or even if they can deal with the world in general. The two lead performances are strong, despite often happening in shadow since Temple and his crew work with the available light in their dark basement (a flashlight and a lantern). It's a nicely moody little piece, and I'm glad there will be more.

"Wire Cutters"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015: Shorts D, digital)

This is a great little animated short, because while its quality as a fable is strong, it is also consistently entertaining throughout. It tells the story of a mining robot alone on a distant planet until it comes across one from a different company. They find they have complementary skills and are happy to work together at first, but...

At least if humanity passes some of its worst traits to its creations, we also pass on the gift for excellent cartoon slapstick, enhanced by some fantastic character designs. The robots have traits that suggest both humans and animal characters, which is a pretty ingenious way to play it, and the hard-science details are both well-chosen and the source of a pretty great joke at the end.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015: Shorts D, digital)

The underlying idea of "Phaneron" is very silly - that contact lenses which flash like LCD shutters will not just improve vision by strengthening one's eyes rather than cause seizures, but will somehow lead to precognition by getting images out of order. And, of course, the lady who gets these visions is named Cassandra, build up to a personal revelation that is maybe just a little too conventional in terms of how it waxes philosophical.

Despite that, it's an entertaining little short. Ashley Fountain is very appealing as the Cassandra in question, with a stumbling but genuine charm, and jack-of-all-trades Jonathan Case enhances his film with a propulsive soundtrack. There's a genuinely fun sense of play to parts of the short, and the parts where that comes forward rather than the heavier impulses are among its best.

"Artemis Falls"

* * 1/4 (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015: Shorts D, digital)

I think "Artemis Falls" fails, which is different from being a poor movie, and it seems me a bit. The filmmakers are trying to make something that conveys an experience as much as it tells a story, but the way it was constructed had me unconvinced - I was certain that the sort would end with the camera pulling back and revealing someone in a small apartment role-playing at being an astronaut on the first solo mission to the moon. The camera is too tight to see anything but actress Adepero Oduye's face behind the glass of her helmet, and her running commentary sounds less like status updates for mission control than trying to create this world for herself.

As a result of all that, I did not find the film particularly convincing, but that doesn't make it bad. Oduye gives a very nice performance, and though the seeming lack of visual effects shots in the film hurts it in the way I describe, the ones they do have are nifty in part because of their indirect nature. And I kind of hope that I get a chance to catch up with it again, whether online or at another festival, because I suspect the story will be a bit more tense if I'm not expecting it to be something else.

"Een Ander Maanlandschap" ("Another Moonscape")

* * (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015: Shorts D, digital)

Every once in a while I feel the need to pop off about how being vague and mysterious does not generally make a movie interesting, but frustrating, and "Another Moonscape" I us a particularly annoying example of that. Maxim Hectors's short film, in its way, is a fairly decent abstraction of being in an in-between spot and not ready to move on, and maybe coming to terms with being in that situation even if it means being left behind. But why not make it a metaphor instead of just an abstraction, and give the limbo these characters are in some personality rather than just a generic nothingness.

That doesn't just apply to the setting, but to the main character; Oscar Van Rompay doesn't bring a lot to Jan to make us really fret about what happens to him. It's a believable performance in a short full of them, but not a terribly dynamic one. To be fair, that doesn't seem to be what Hectors is going for, but for a twenty-five minute short film, there is not a while lot of people doing things, and that can make even a movie a third the size of a feature crawl.

"World of Tomorrow"

* * * 3/4 (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015: Shorts D, digital)

It is downright exciting to see Don Hertzfeldt getting the sort of praise he is receiving for "World of Tomorrow", especially since it is not nearly as dry as some of the more obviously weighty films he had done in recent years - it is very funny, and not in the "if I don't laugh I'll cry" way of his trilogy about a man with a terminal illness ("Everything Will Be OK", "I Am So Proud of You", and "It's Such a Beautiful Day"). Or at least, not obviously in that way. I think what makes "World of Tomorrow" kind of amazing is that it combines everything Hertzfeldt has done - the anarchic comedy of his early shorts, the grand scale of "The Meaning of Life", and the heartbreak of the recent trilogy - in a way that cheats none of it. It's a view from high up that allows things to be both hilariously absurd and genuinely tragic.

The idea is impressively simple - a girl of about three is visited by a woman hailing from 227 years in the future who is either herself or her great-great-granddaughter, depending how you reckon giving birth to a clone body that will have one's own memories transferred into it, and takes a trip to the elder Emily's time. The details, though, are fantastic, the sort of weird science fiction extrapolations that won't make it into a live action or CGI film that costs tens of thousands of dollars for each second rendered, but which Hertzfeldt's trademark sketches and stick figures give him the latitude to pull off. Things are funny and amazing and sometimes horrifying, but never, ever, conventional.

And the contrast between the two Emilys is all of those things in spades. Little Emily is adorable and funny; we laugh and coo at how she isn't particularly impressed by what future-Emily considers important because she's a preschooler, while future-Emily blows right past "Twenty-third Century people sure are different" to having real psychological problems. It's innocently and edgily funny at the same time, and we can barely conceive that this carefree kid will grow up to be that mess of neuroses. And yet, Hertzfeldt carefully streets is away from "this must be changed"; as sad as she may be, and how her world is a horror-show off impending catastrophe and unfairness, the solution is not self-erasure or putting a terrible weight on a child, but instead trying to rediscover what it is like to be happy.

That's brilliant, folks, and it comes as part of a fifteen-minute bit of weird science fiction that is played out by sick figures. It's already up on Vimeo On Demand, and well worth your four bucks.

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