Saturday, May 09, 2015

IFFBoston 2015 Day #04: Stray Dog, H., Lost Conquest, Call Me Lucky, and Day Release

This is taking forever to get finished, so let's just get straight to the horrible photography.

Left to right, that's Stray Dog producer/editor Victoria Steward, director Debra Granik, and The DocYard's Sara Archambault (along with her plus one). Nice folks, and they led an entertaining and interesting Q&A - as you might expect, making a film with a Vietnam veteran biker with a somewhat colorful entourage left them with some curious stories. They mentioned being very grateful to not just subject Ronnie Hill but his therapist for permission to show a session, and how editing can sometimes be surprising: Apparently, one of the things that drew them to Hall as a subject was him being this big leather-clad guy who tends toward little dogs rather than the larger breeds you might expect from a biker, and caring for dogs like that has been good for vets with PTSD. They figured that would come out more explicitly in the movie, but no opportunity came to mention it.

The usual question of "have the subjects seen the movie" came up, and Granik mentioned that it's something you always plan for, although they were kind of terrified. Hall, it turned out, was "hugely amused", and apparently the therapy scenes mentioned were a part of why he wound up giving it the thumbs-up, hoping that other vets might see it and see how useful therapy can be. There were also questions about how everybody is doing now (mostly good, though the Mexican stepsons were still struggling with Missouri). I didn't have the guts to ask whether doing this after Winter's Bone was entirely her decision or an example of how women who direct a successful independent feature don't get the same opportunities their male counterparts do - not mine to ask - but I have to admit to wondering.

Nobody came for H. (and I probably should have gone for GTFO, as I often amused myself during this Troy-set movie by writing down restaurant names with the intention of asking friends who went to RPI if they were any good), but there were filmmakers on hand for Lost Conquest: Director Mike Scholtz and producers Valerie Coit & Michael Pickering. Scholtz was (I think) the only filmmaker to send me an email this year, apparently remembering that I reviewed one he produced (Wicker Kittens) in a previous year. I don't know that it necessarily decided what I would be seeing in this slot - but even if I don't reply to the email you send, it doesn't hurt.

Glad I did, because this was a fun movie and a just-as-enjoyable Q&A. Scholtz joked that, seeing as this movie could be seen as making fun of Minnesotans, they decided to have their world premiere as far from that state as possible, which meant Boston. I didn't really see it this way - Scholtz could have been really mean if he wanted to, but generally seemed more affectionate than taunting to me. There was one moment when the audience (myself included) did sort of gasp at what was being said, but that also solidified what the movie was really about. As Scholtz said, "I made a movie about faith, but I lured you in with funny Viking costumes".

That Q&A ran long enough that I didn't even leave the theater for the line-up, just making a left turn into theater #1 for Call Me Lucky, where both subject Barry Crimmins and director Bobcat Goldthwait were on hand.

Goldthwait is one of my very favorite festival guests, and not just because he genuinely seems to love coming back to Boston, or greets us by saying "for some reason, I'm dressed as Doctor Who". He's a recognizable name who doesn't just show up for his movie and then fly back home, but attends screenings (both here and in Montreal); he's also genuinely independent. I think it's mostly because he gets ideas that nobody else will touch, and he's pretty unique as a guy that people will recognize that dives into this sort of material.

Which includes the life of Barry Crimmins, whose story is compelling but probably won't be something where a studio finances a biopic. Though the movie makes a pretty hard shift away from his comedy career midway through (for good reason), with even the recent performance footage more monologue than stand-up, he's still got great timing, so having him and Bobcat up there made for a Q&A that was both earnest and very funny.

One fun thing learned from the film: Goldthwait's nickname came from him and then-partner Tom Kenney goofing on Crimmins (nicknamed "Bearcat") while working at one of his comedy clubs by calling themselves "Bobcat" and "Tomcat". Less fun, but interesting, was learning that Robin Williams was the one who suggested Goldthwait shoot it as a documentary, even kicking in some funding, and leading to a story about how when World's Greatest Dad closed IFFBoston, Goldthwait was in the back of the auditorium, talking to Williams on the phone, holding it up so that he could hear that the audience was laughing. In case you handn't heard, losing Williams is a damn shame.

The last film and Q&A of the day was kind of an impromptu choice, apparently on both sides. I was hemming and hawing about staying at Somerville for Day Release or heading to the Brattle for Deathgasm, but I gambled that with the latter being a decent-looking horror-comedy featuring metalheads, the only thing that would prevent Mitch Davis and company from booking it at Fantasia would be it receiving Canadian distribution, and I was right there - it's on the initial list of films booked for Fantasia this July. Meanwhile, director Geoffrey Cowper and star Jesus Lloveras (above) said that they made a last-minute decision to road-trip to Boston after appearing at the Chicago Latino Film Festival two days earlier. Maybe that's exaggerated, but I don't care, because it's a fun story, as is the film getting made because Cowper's grandfather put up the money and now enjoys calling himself a film producer.

Cowper also mentioned that the opening titles say that this was based upon a true story because they are fans of Fargo and, like the Coens, enjoy seeing if they can get an audience to take a movie more seriously by saying that. Basically, it was inspired by an armored car robbery that took place near a mall where either he or Lloveras (who co-wrote the film) was working, although everything else is fabrication. He also described that the sort of weekend release the film's main character was on isn't terribly unusual in Europe compared to America. Nobody in the audience mentioned that such a furlough was a big part of torpedoing the presidential campaign one of our state's former governors.

Well, that's a lot of movies. Hopefully, getting caught up on this festival is all downhill from here.

Stray Dog

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2015 in Somerville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015, digital)

You may have heard of director Debra Granik's previous film, a great backwoods number called "Winter's Bone" that got a bunch of praise and is arguably the foundation for Jennifer Lawrence being as big a star as she is, so it's a bit surprising to see her next feature be this very small-scale documentary; in a lot of cases, one would think, she'd get a chance at something bigger. On the other hand, since she met the subject(s) of this movie on the set of that one, maybe making this her next project felt like a more natural next step than trying to grab some studio job.

This movie is focused on Ronnie "Stray Dog" Hall, a Vietnam veteran and biker who operates a trailer park in Branson, Missouri. He's a pretty good dude, letting tenants who are down on their luck slide, learning Spanish to better communicate with his wife Alicia and her sons (19-year-old twins still residing in Mexico City), and taking part in a lot of commemorative programs and rides. He's a big-hearted guy, whether he's around family, friends, strangers, or the for small dogs who live in his house.

Being generous of spirit does not make him uncomplicated; an early session with his therapist drops a bit of information that will certainly stick in the audience's head through the rest of the movie, even if Granik never really returns to it. It's one of several things we observe about Hall that intrigues, even if it is in large part built out of how Granik emphasizes things: That scene is isolated, while a relatively uninterrupted string of scenes that focus on him attending events memorializing the Vietnam War are almost fatiguing. A viewer may get restless, finding it almost sad that Hall's life has never moved beyond that point. That's not necessarily what one thinks of as good editing, but bogging down here is useful, driving home just how large that experience looms in a veteran's life.

It also works as a nice springboard for other scenes, whether visiting a Gulf War casualty's mother or Hall's daughter and granddaughter from his first marriage. The actual events in these scenes are often small, and they don't necessarily reveal surprising things, but there's something fresh about seeing them on-screen. Folks scraping by in the heartland, trying to live with things that never really leave them, are not represented as these sort of imperfect-but-trying figures often enough. Hall and his friends are not the most desperate and aren't particularly wise, but Granik does a fine job of showing them as decent, obsessing folks workout having to make a point about them.

The not-quite-downside to a documentarian using the editing process to reinforce what she sees rather than build a narrative is that sometimes it leaves her with a fair amount of footage that doesn't quite seem to belong in the movie she's making, even if it is a part of her subject's life. That happens here, with what seems to be the last quarter to third of the movie spending a lot of time on Alicia's sons joining her and Ronnie in Missouri. That in itself would be an interesting movie - a scene where a guy just assumes that living in a trailer outside Branson is all that two fashionable young men from a big city who don't speak much English could possibly want shows just how - but it doesn't really fit in this one. It doesn't feel like Ronnie is responding to a new challenge or like the audience is getting a new perspective on him, and as a result the last act dilutes the film instead of helping it finish strong.

That's a risk when going from fiction to documentary - you can only do so much in terms of keeping the film pointed in a given direction. When the filmmakers manage that, "Stray Dog" is impressive, but that's not all the way to the end.

(Formerly at EFC)


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015, digital)

Movies like H., with its deliberately un-evocative title, unexplained strange events, and ostentatiously non-standard structure, can bring out my least favorite reaction to a movie - the urge to shoot that the emperor has no clothes and the audience is being played for suckers who don't want to admit that they can't see what's going on. Most of the time, I can see that there's some idea at play, even if I can't get at it because it's poorly thought out or expressed. That's where I stand with H.; it's too well-executed to dismiss but far too messy to praise.

The film is broken up into chapters, with the first focusing on Roy Brajisky (Julian Gamble) and his wife Helen (Robin Bartlett), longtime residents of Troy, New York. They have been growing distant of late, especially with Helen becoming obsessed with her extremely realistic "reborn baby doll", which a number of older women in the area have purchased; they're meeting for a party at the Brajiskys' later. The second brings the focus to Alex Kovacs (Will Janowitz) and Helen Castro (Rebecca Dayan), artists expecting their first child, though Helen frets about Alex leaving her. Also located in Troy, they are on the front lines when strange things start happening in the city, perhaps related to the meteor that's been seen in the sky.

There's clearly something going on here - filmmakers Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia don't just give their female leads the same first name and motherhood-related stories that are even more parallel than they first appear randomly, after all. When Attieh & Garcia focus on those ideas, they really seem to be on to something; Helen Brajisky and her doll go from kind of funny to genuinely unnerving very quickly, and while the other couple's story relies more on the paranormal incidents to put the audience on edge, the dynamic between these controversy-courting artists facing a potentially more conventional life is potentially fascinating.

That material is good enough that the rest - eyes turning red, people staring at walls, gravity getting out of whack, and a large stone head that we see somehow floating down the river between segments - therefore seems like it must be significant, and maybe it is. The filmmakers neither opt to explain what's going on nor provide a strong resonance between the fantastic elements and the larger story, though, so the film can feel like it loses track of what it's about, with events seeming random even if the scenes are often nicely done individually. There's plenty of good material, but it's unfocused and therefore often frustrating.

The cast does a fair job with the material, though - Robin Bartlett is excellent as Helen Brajisky, giving her a sadness that doesn't need explanation even as it goes to darker, stranger places. Julian Gamble is a little more low-key as her husband Roy, but connects with the audience fairly well. Rebecca Dayan and Will Janowitz are closer to the same page as the artists, but they draw a good picture.

That can make H. more frustrating than something that is obviously bad or emptily pretentious - there's clearly something there. That may not be a big problem for those who don't particularly care about a fantasy's particulars, but for some others, the random, unexplained nature of what's going on can sap the interest out of some otherwise intriguing material.

(Formerly at EFC)

Lost Conquest

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015, digital)

The comedic documentary is not exactly rare, but it is generally reserved for people famous for being funny - after all, if something is funny, it is seldom considered important enough for a film that gets any sort of wide notice. That's unfortunate, because it means that Lost Conquest is a rarity - a film that is actually able to sneak an important idea into a group that might not otherwise consider it, while still being tremendously entertaining.

The film begins with an a bit of text stating that Minnesota was the "Vinland" that Leif Ericsson discovered a thousand years ago, according to some, although with a bit more of a wink than that. The evidence is a stone tablet covered in runes discovered by farmer Olof Ohman around the turn off the twentieth century, and though its provenance is questionable at best, this has not stopped a number of museums housing or and other supposed Norse artifacts from popping up, with the idea becoming as much a part of the region's identity as it is a cottage industry. Despite it generally being accepted in academic circles that the Vikings only made it as far as Canada's maritime provinces, could they have reached the Land of a Thousand Lakes?

Spoiler alert: Almost certainly not. It's a claim that writer/director Mike Scholtz could probably have demolished in quick, decisive, straight-faced fashion, but where would the fun be in that? Instead, he spends a great deal of time not just visiting the people who are only too happy to talk about it, but also looking at "Viking culture" in his home state, which includes a thriving group of enthusiasts and re-enactors, who are by and large a jovial group for whom he shows a great deal of fondness. Indeed, though there are moments when Scholtz's subjects seem to run the relatively short gamut from nerds to crackpots, it's almost unheard of for the tone to approach mockery; he may find them funny, but he doesn't want to point and laugh.

Of course, that does not mean that he and the rest of the filmmakers take things seriously; they have great fun with captioning the various talking heads and historical photographs or splashing chapter headings that function equally well as parody and an approximation of the earnest enthusiasm involved. Some bits are animated, but other scenes from this "history" are presented as re-enactments, only Scholtz and company shoot themselves shooting these scenes, and it's both an amusing bit of self-deprecating comedy and a genuine look at this thing as a hobby, and by having it be both, it feels a lot more friendly. This stuff may seem silly, but if it's useful this way, then it's not stupid.

That's the right attitude to have, because Scholtz and company are not really talking about whether or not Vikings really made it to the Midwest in the Eleventh Century. No, they're looking at how and why people believe things - that it is not always based upon evidence versus how good a story it makes, how well it fits other narratives, and the like. This becomes clear in the film's later segments, when the goofy-seeming conceit of interviewing the director's mother actually produces some of the most obvious friction of the film; confronted with evidence that runs contrary to their beliefs, people will ask the filmmakers why this matters and why they have to make waves. Dropping the word "stupid" into this sort of conversation seldom does anything but make people dig in, but sneaking up on the idea of why people believe things even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary may at least get them thinking about it.

Some might even argue that this is what comedy is for, although I tend to think that laughing and learning something new are valuable enough on their own. Lost Conquest does an impressive job at all three, which is quite the hat trick. Just try not to be too disappointed when you find out that having horns on that hat is not strictly accurate.

(Formerly on EFC)

Call Me Lucky

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015, DCP)

It's common to ask whether someone other than the person that wound up making a movie could have done so, but I think it's a fair question with Call Me Lucky. Subject Barry Crimmins and director Bobcat Goldthwait go way back, so there is trust there, which is important. Perhaps just as important, though, is that Goldthwait is a guy willing and able to make the movie that the material demands, whether that means going from funny to uncomfortable or making a documentary rather than the narrative he'd originally envisioned.

Crimmins, who has returned to upstate New York after spending much of his adult life elsewhere, was a stand-up comic of unusual sharpness and political outrage during the Reagan years when that was not necessarily in fashion; he would also become a driving force in the Boston comedy scene, discovering and encouraging people from Goldthwait to Kevin Meaney to Lenny Clarke. And then, during a set at Stitches in 1992, he dropped a bombshell during his monologue that stunned everybody.

Goldthwait has often been one to build his movies by stretching comedy over some pretty dark material, though it's easy to miss at least the extreme of it here. Crimmins is a curmudgeon both now and then, but Goldthwait tends to paint the biting comedy of the younger Crimmins as focused and perceptive rather than that of a man lashing out because of the injustice done to him. Goldthwait approaches the first half of the film in much the way he might handle a more conventional look at a comedian's life and career, talking with his peers, showing some footage, and spotlighting the times Crimmins staged something larger-scale than standing on a stage and telling jokes with a beer in his hand. Any hints at what's to come are planted quietly.

That makes what comes out around the midpoint a heck of a gut-punch, but a very precise one. A viewer might hear it and say "well, that's why he's so angry", and Goldthwait certainly allows that this will intensify any disgust one has at the powerful exploiting the weak, he makes very sure that he doesn't paint it as a silver-lining situation, which could be considered kind of disgusting. Instead, the audience sees an almost ideally-focused rage, unerringly targeted where it will do the most good and, fascinatingly, not bitter in a scattershot manner much less forgiving, but wise in an impressive way.

Like Crimmins himself, the film moves back and forth between sarcasm and emotion so earnest as to be shocking, but the potential tonal whiplash never arises. For as much as Goldthwait likes to live at the edge of the envelope, he's actually a very precise filmmaker; it's an impressively balanced movie. You can see this reflected quietly all over the film, right down to word choices - for instance, when Crimmins discovers pedophiles meeting in AOL chat rooms in the early days of the internet, he and Goldthwait will very pointedly say "rape" rather than "molest", because even though the latter isn't a mild word, it doesn't get across the full force of what they want to communicate.

Goldthwait also assembles a great line-up of comedians to join Crimmins's family and friends, giving them equal weight. One doesn't make it on-screen, unfortunately, and when the "For Robin" dedication appears at the end, it's another mixed volley of emotion - a reminder of recent tragedy, but also evidence that a man can endure, and that endurance is something that should be celebrated.

(Formerly at EFC)

Tercer Grado (Day Release)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2015 in Somerville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015, digital)

There's a casual feel to certain crime flicks that makes them seem simultaneously streams and natural, like they take place in a more impulsive parallel universe where what makes a good story more easily trumps good sense and is much easier to just drop into a situation and be part of it than it may be in reality. Day Release tries for that and mostly manages it, although sorting up the foundations just a bit wouldn't hurt.

Mark Rodriguez (Jesus Lloveras) has screwed up a lot in his life, although the way his brother Toni (Javier Beltran) describes him - a "drug-trafficking murderer" - is probably more harsh than necessary; that sort of reprobate doesn't tend to get parole after just five years. Pushed away by Toni, he decides to check in on Mia (Sara Casasnovas), the girl he rather rudely kicked out of his cast when they woke up in the back seat in the morning. That may be his best decision of the day, although when he walks out of the cafe where she works, there's an armored car being violently robbed in the parking lot, and he decides that his best course of action is to follow the perpetrators afterward.

Stories built around guys like Mark must be tough nuts to crack - the odds are against him whether it comes to out-fighting or out-thinking his opponents, and there's not really any sort of hidden quality likely to give him any special chance to succeed. It winds up making Day Release a caper movie where the protagonist is very much in over his head, and that's kind of a wobbly thing; watching Mark come up with a plan and execute it isn't quite the same sort fun as when things really slide into place. At the same time, it never exactly feels like Mark is suffering from terrible hubris.

Jesus Lloveras is fairly strong as the guy in this situation, though. There's probably a temptation, both as actor and co-writer, to portray a man like Mark as something more extreme - desperate, ingratiating, clueless, cunning - but Lloveras does a nice job of letting the audience get to know Mark as a guy whose better side can peek out from how he's a screw-up and a jerk. Lloveras really sells him as a guy just clever enough to get halfway there, and just charming enough that one can see what Mia sees in him.

Sara Casasnovas winds up being his main foil, and she has enough prickly chemistry with Lloveras that it would be nice if Mia were around for more of the movie. One of the ways that it feels like director/co-writer Geoffrey Cowper could get a little more into specifics is making how well Mark and Mia know each other clearer; at times it seems like they just met, while at others they seem to have a history. Similarly, Mark's decision to follow the robbers feels like it could use his thought process explained a little more clearly.

Despite those bumps, Cowper puts together a decent thriller - there are only a few big action scenes were things look stretched, but he makes up for it on the other end, when he can get into the details of just what Mark is trying to do. As small as the stakes may sometimes seem, the ruthlessness of the antagonists helps boost the tension a bit, and there are some clever bits that may be more appreciated by the local Spanish audience: A sequence where Mark gets stopped by the police neatly plays into the classic trope of the cops seeming like a threat to the guy trying to make a not-quite-honest living, while the news reports assuming that the French gangsters are some sort of Eastern European likely plays into local prejudices.

It's pretty good for people making their first feature on a limited budget, and not bad overall if you're looking for a quick bit of crime.

(Formerly at EFC)

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