Saturday, May 16, 2015

IFFBoston 2015 Day #05: The Chinese Mayor, A Brilliant Young Mind, The Look of Silence, and The Keeping Room

No horrible photography for this day, where the day was built around equal parts "I want to see The Look of Silence" and "I'm not terribly fond of music-oriented documentaries", which led to spending the afternoon at the Brattle and then heading up the Red Line to see The Keeping Room. The funny thing is, this plan actually resulted in me attending movies that I might have had a little more interest in than most, as I've had family in municipal government and competed in the math team.

It actually made for a relaxing day; without Q&As and with the single screen of the Brattle making it relatively to keep things from slipping - though, to be fair, it's not like things were egregiously late at the Somerville at any point, more like a relatively constant fifteen minutes after the start time, which is pretty reasonable for trying to get folks in the rush line seated.

Funny thing I heard about scheduling: The Somerville Theatre put new seats in last year (or was it the year before), which means that screens three and five are now smaller than the Brattle, which means that they get slightly higher-profile movies. I hadn't realized that the seating upgrades had quite so great an effect, and I don't ever recall them getting less interesting movies, but I don't recall often spending the better part of a whole day there, either.

The Chinese Mayor

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2015 in The Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015, digital)

Here in Boston, we've recently been threatened with hosting the Olympics, and though the recent experience of the Big Dig should really have the whole city threatening to string up whoever first thought this was a good idea, there's something about the very idea of the transformative public works project that can get one excited regardless. And not only is the one in The Chinese Mayor a doozy, but it gives an interesting look at how municipal government works in China.

Specifically, the town of Datong, where mayor Geng Yanbo has an audacious plan to revitalize the most polluted city in China: He intends to rebuild the city wall from when it was the capital 1600 years ago, but doing so will require razing large sections of the city and relocating their residents to a public housing development that is ambitious in its own right. As one might expect, those displaced have a great many issues with this, although Geng is still one of most popular mayors in the city's history.

It's not hard to see why; filmmaker Zhou Hao shadows the longtime public official closely enough that the audience gets a good chance to see him working long hours and generally being a lot more immediately responsive to his constituents' requests than one might expect from a guy who, for security reasons, resides at a military facility. There's a genuine pleasure in watching him light into some contractor who is not delivering the speed or quality expected, and not necessarily behind closed doors.

Full review on EFC.

A Brilliant Young Mind (aka X + Y)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2015 in The Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015, digital)

This winter, when someone made a comment on there being two biographies of mathematical geniuses up for awards, I responded that after an eternity of movies about poets and musicians whose genius apparently made up for their being substance-abusing jerks to those who cared about them, folks in the sciences were due. I do worry that if enough show up to fall into their own pattern, they'll look something like this; after all, A Brilliant Young Mind (aka X + Y) already kind of feels kind of formulaic.

The genius in this case is Nathan Ellis, diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum when he was younger, and always more with his father Michael (Martin McCann) than his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) - a situation only exacerbated when his father dies. As a young teenager (Asa Butterfield), he's tutored by an unconventional teacher (Rafe Spall), who motivates Nathan with a chance at the International Mathematics Olympiad, and when he makes that team, there's a trip to Taiwan where he makes friends with Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), one of the Chinese team members

Man, there were no trips to freaking Taiwan (without any binding competition, even) when I was on the math team in high school! This doesn't exactly make me doubt its based-on-a-true-story bona fides, but there are certainly moments that feel like embellishment and wish-fulfillment. I'm not sure that I really ever bought into the sole girls on both the English and Choose teams each being drawn to Nathan, for instance, and the number of complicated things he picks up easily is awfully high. The last act especially seems to be full of contrivances designed to make the film more obviously dramatic.

Full review on EFC.

The Look of Silence

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2015 in The Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015, DCP)

Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing is one of the most stunning documentaries to see wide release (by the less extravagant standards of non-fiction films) in recent years, presenting the sort of true-life horror we are naturally inclined to look away from in a manner so unorthodox and daring as to make averting one's gaze difficult. Though few who saw it will say that the medium overpowered the message, it is still nice to see Oppenheimer make that film's complement, a laser-focused examination of the same people and events from the other perspective that feels no less original for disposing of the previous film's unusual methodology.

This one focuses on Adi, an optometrist in his forties whom we initially see watching The Act of Killing on television. He does so quietly, occasionally turning his attention to his children. Elsewhere, an old woman washes her ancient husband. They are his parents and they had another child, Ramli, who was killed during the purges of "communists" (in reality, anybody who spoke up about the Indonesian government) in the 1960s. Inspired, Adi visits some of the people who remain from that time, fitting them for eyeglasses and trying to learn just what happened to this brother murdered before he was born.

If The Look of Silence is one's first encounter with stories of the Indonesian death squads, it is certainly informative and interesting. As much as the film is about Adi's search for answers and learning more about the unsavory parts of his country's history, it is perhaps most interesting for observing how decades of the silence that gives the film its title has manifested itself, burying this part of history even while the people involved remain prominent. There's weird self-censorship and some terribly tortured doublespeak in Adi's son's history class.

Full review on EFC.

The Keeping Room

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2015 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston 2015, DCP)

The Keeping Room is a nicely-built little thriller that takes place during the American Civil War and which uses the details of that period so well in moving the action forward that some might miss what makes it genuinely clever: From the start, writer Julia Hart and director Daniel Barber do an impressive job of blurring the moral line between good people and the causes they are aligned with, creating a tension that can stick with the audience until well after the film finishes.

After a brief prologue that demonstrates what the film's heroines will be up against, the audience is introduced to the three women living on a small farm in the south: Augusta (Brit Marling), who is the head of the household with all the men off fighting; Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), her somewhat spoiled younger sister; and Mad (Muna Otaru), the family's only slave. They are just scraping by, but are probably better off remaining isolated - though the Union Army is not particularly nearby, the two soldiers sent to scout ahead (Sam Worthington & Kyle Soller) have either gone rogue or are simply using the situation to exercise their worst impulses.

Start with the surface: This is a nifty little thriller in part because Barber & Hart do an exceptional job of establishing just what a knife's edge the women are on from the very start, giving the film an air of desperation that means they actually could have skipped the prologue. From there, every thing that happens makes what Augusta and the others face more daunting, though never in a way that feels contrived or has the various pieces working against each other. Despite the smallish cast, the filmmakers still manage to find ways to pull off surprising (and lethal) escalations and reversals as the film goes on.

Full review on EFC.

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