Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Independent Film Festival Boston 2015½: Where to Invade Next, Entertainment, The Asssassin, Anomalisa

I said it in last week's "preview" post and it bears repeating here: This sort of mini-fest midway between two of a film festival's annual editions is a brilliant idea that more should pick up on. While I suspect that most of the films presented will play Boston (The Assassin opened two days after its screening), I'm not so sure about Entertainment or The Invitation (which I bailed on because, while everyone else seemed to really like it at Fantasia, I really wasn't fond enough to pay money to give it a second chance). There's just a lot that don't fit the schedule properly between a city's events and when things are on the festival circuit and release plans.

Thus, the "Fall Focus", which sounds much more serious than "2015 and a half", although I like the sound of the latter far too much to call it anything else.

Skipping Monday meant I missed a Skype'd-in Q&A, but there were guests on Sunday:

Carl Deal & Woody Richman

That's producer Carl Deal and editor Woody Richman of Where to Invade Next, who have worked with Michael Moore on several other projects. They talked about how Moore likes to see where the story takes him in making his docs, and likes to edit as close to release as possible, which is probably a privilege that not many documentary filmmakers get.

One thing I touch upon in the review that they mentioned was how to do more than preach to the converted. They talked about running advertising like a political campaign, with a number of the issues addressed in the movie crossing partisan lines. And, if worst comes to worst, they've found that in the past, young people bring their parents to Moore's films.

At the end, they also handed out some clever swag:


That is a pamphlet detailing how to go to college in Slovenia for free and a pencil made at the Faber-Castell factory they visit in the fillm. I have not used either yet - and probably won't feel the need to go back to university any time soon, although I'm sure that my brothers with daughters might hear the phrase "free college" and either start teaching their girls Slovenian or see what can be done about getting something like this happening here. The pencil feels great in my hand, though.

And, finally, this:

I love the Brattle and Boston's other independent theaters, but there are reasons I tend to sit up front. Part of it is that the independent places both run film whenever they can and often have a stage that puts the screen back a ways, part of it is having good peripheral vision, but sometimes it's just a matter of the places being built before stadium seating was the standard and being stuck behind a tall guy with exceptional posture. Leaning the appropriate way wasn't a big deal, but if I missed the nuances of some beautiful shot in Anomalisa, well, that's why.

Where to Invade Next

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 October 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston Fall Focus, DCP)

Michael Moore is likely the world's best-known documentary filmmaker, and that is an obvious double-edged sword; while his first new film in years will certainly bring in one group of fans, the very fact that it's from him will have other people threatening boycotts and dismissing anything in it out of hand. Hopefully not too many; because this particular picture should be thought-provoking (and funny) to nearly anybody who buys a ticket, and fairly funny to boot.

His premise here is presented in a fashion that maybe blows past whimsy and into heavy-handedness - that the Pentagon, frustrated with sixty years of wars that have ended in stalemates at best and brought little back to the US, has charged Moore to find a new place for them to invade, with something useful as a return. Thus, the film follows him to nine countries, mostly European, with each segment ending on him planting an American flag in front of the bemused people he has been interviewing, claiming the idea for the United States. It's a goofy way to present the story that leads to a few funny moments but also occasionally requires Moore to be "in character", which is not exactly his forte, although he is not so committed to it that it ever gets in the way of the information he's trying to relate.

And what would he offer to the world as being worth emulating? Italian vacation time; French school lunches; Finnish & Slovenian education; German accountability; Portuguese drug decriminalization; the Norwegian prison system; the requirements for equal female representation in Tunisian and Icelandic politics. Each of these countries gets about ten or fifteen minutes, and that proves to be just enough time for Moore to introduce a concept, make some often corny but ice-breaking jokes, talk to a few people who seem reasonably sincere about why these ideas are good for a country beyond the obvious reasons, and move on. There are probably practical rebuttals to be made to some, but the presentation of the ideas is strong and clear. Clear enough to start a conversation, at least, and to a certain extent, frame that conversation in terms of what Moore has found in other countries being the path to a moral good end.

Full review on EFC.


* * (out of four)
Seen 27 October 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston Fall Focus, DCP)

When people describe independent films as pretentious crap and those who like them as pretentious jerks, they're often referring to things like Entertainment, and I can't exactly blame them. Even when I don't enjoy a movie, I try not to begrudge the people who do, but this is the sort of movie that had me hating the guy behind me who was laughing hard at aggressively unfunny material because enjoying it seemed to be linked to feeling superior, which isn't quite so satisfying as actual, well, entertainment.

It starts with a pair of entertainers performing in a prison, the first a mime (Tye Sheridan) and the second a comedian (Gregg Turkington) with a slobby, abrasive on-stage persona. The pair are touring tiny, minor venues in the southwest, with the comedian visiting peculiar tourist attractions during the day making sad post-show telephone calls to his daughter, occasionally seeing his cousin John (John C. Reilly), meeting new people, and balancing on-stage meltdowns with potential career opportunities.

Not being familiar with Gregg Turkington's own stand-up work under the name Neil Hamburger, I can't say how much the character in the film matches his stage persona (though named "The Comedian" in the credits, he is referred to as "Neil" by other characters). He's an abrasive character on-stage, with his jokes based almost entirely on anger and disdain from a guy who has been constructed to not have a lot of room to mock others. It's a conceptual parody of a certain flavor of stand-up being played out in front of audiences that would probably rather see the actual thing without irony, and when people don't get it, he feels free to lash out on stage, because that's not actually him being a jerk, but improvising how this character would react.

Full review on EFC.

Nie Yin Niang (The Assassin)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 October 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston Fall Focus, DCP)

Confession: Going into this movie, I thought it was going to be a bit different than it was, not because I expected an all-out action extravaganza, but because I had director Hou Hsiao-hsien mixed up with an even more deliberate art-house filmmaker. That doesn't make it seem like fast-paced Jackie Chan material; it's still a dense, boutique film. It just makes the prospect of multiple viewings to unpack all that's going on much more exciting than it might be.

It is a tale of 9th Century China, where Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) has been training as an assassin under the eye of Princess-Nun Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi), who has decided that the time is right to return her to her home province of Weibo, which has started to show more independence from the central authority, and kill Lord Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen). Given that the pair's history is why Yinniang was sent away in the first place, it is probably very fortunate that Tian and his wife (Zhou Yun) have already produced an heir or two.

This is not a complicated set of circumstances, even when one gives it a closer look, and there are many moments when the action seems to move like cinematographer Lee Ping-bin's camera - steadily, but slowly enough that it seems like someone must be holding it back, as it never quite seems to pick up the speed that it logically would given that there is clearly force behind it. Perhaps it's a stifling formality, or Yiniang's choosiness about when and when she'll kill, or maybe it's that, ultimately, their story is clearly just one of many things going on - there is regular mention, for instance, of a concubine who may be faking a period, and background on the characters fleshes out their situations more than it redirects their actions.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 October 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston Fall Focus, DCP)

When I spent more time around various types of animation fandom, the use of actors for whom voice work was just a sideline was a big issue (and that was before DreamWorks had arrived on the scene!). I recalled those newsgroup rants because I'm not sure from watching Anomalisa whether it's an issue that filmmaker Charlie Kaufman overlooked or one he counted on in designing the film's central trick. Whichever the case may be, Kaufman and his co-director Duke Johnson have made an impressive film, possibly a great one if its technique hits one right.

Before what's going on is clear, things start simply enough - Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis) is arriving in Cincinnati to present a seminar for telephone customer-support staff based on his book. He deals with chatty people on the plane, in the cab, and at the hotel, and has his first drinks of the night when meeting up with an old girlfriend. That goes poorly, but he winds up meeting two women in town for the seminar, Emily and Lisa, later on. They are surprised when he asks Lisa back to his room, as Emily is more conventionally attractive even without the scar Lisa styles her hair to hide - but there's something about Lisa's voice (provided by Jenifer Jason Leigh) that Michael finds so enticing that he may be willing to leave his family.

It's hard to describe why that might be the case - or much about the movie at all - without giving away something that the filmmakers intend for the audience to catch themselves, and that's where the voice work comes in. It's not so much a problem with David Thewlis and Jenifer Jason Leigh - they both fit their characters like gloves. Thewlis's stern, impatient British accent becomes desperate and plaintive as he becomes more intoxicated, perfect depiction of authority concealing a shambles. Leigh is well-cast as the humble, sweet, probably excessively accommodating Lisa, perfectly nice but unworldly and below Michael's capabilities in enough areas that it's clear she's being taken advantage of.

Full review on EFC.

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