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.

Does that make the movie a bit of a lecture? At times, but it's not like this filmmaker has ever been about making points with subtlety. Still, he's probably a bit cannier about the subjects he chooses and how he presents them than his reputation might suggest. There are two segments on crime and punishment, but he never brings up gun control, and he treads very lightly around access to abortion in Tunisia, and it can't be an accident that those are two subjects that can most easily flip a switch to get certain viewers to dismiss everything. He ends the film reminiscing about being in Germany for the fall of the Berlin Wall, and while the point is to defuse talk that implementation of these ideas in America would be all but impossible ("Hammer, Chisel, Down!" becomes the rallying cry), it's also a connection to an major change that Republicans feel some ownership of. He's also not shy about appealing to American pride and patriotism when things sound difficult or too foreign.

There's also something very likable about how he frequently seems genuinely surprised at some of what he discovers - he's almost in awe of the Finnish teenagers who speak half a dozen languages and taken aback by how passionately some of the people he interviews use the camera to plead with their American counterparts, like he was expecting to have his country called stupid and mocked only to come across people who want to help. He sometimes struggles with connecting messages - it's a bumpy road from how Germany empowers workers to have a say in their company's direction to how they drill the sins of World War II into the heads of their young to make sure it never happens again, for instance - but he seems inspired by the general good nature of the people he talks to, using the jokes as lubrication more than as pointed stingers.

That the people who could most benefit from seeing something are often the most dead-set against doing so is a kind of patronizing thing to say, but there's a kernel of truth in it. This likely won't hurt Where to Invade Next at the box office too much, but here's hoping that it at least inspires enough curiosity to get a broader audience than just those already on Moore's wavelength. There's ideas worth considering in it,and it's not like they haven't shown practical results. (Likely-dead link to the) 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.

Turkington (who is a co-writer along with Tim Heidecker and director Rick Alverson) certainly does a fine job of embodying this character, and not just in terms of showing him on stage, understanding the mechanics of comedy but not how to connect with the audience he has. No, he also does fine work in creating the nervous, barely-social man who creates such a character as a release valve, the guy who separates himself from the tour group to wander places that are already abandoned himself and seems paralyzed when he has to share a space with someone. The only real exception to that is when he calls his daughter and leaves a voice mail; those are uncomfortable scenes until you imagine how it would have gone had she answered.

His encounters with other people tend to highlight just how well he doesn't handle the rest of the world. The starkest example involves Michael Cera as a young man he encounters on a rainy night; Cera plays the guy as equally nervous (and perhaps a bit off himself) but wanting to engage compared to Neil's outright panic; it's a memorable couple of minutes. The most time is spent with John C. Reilly as Neil's cousin,and I suspect how one looks at his character is a litmus test for one's opinion of the film. Sure, at first he comes across as not too bright, calling Neil's sets weird and yammering on about his orange groves that don't interest his cousin at all, but after a while, he may start to grow on the viewer. Reilly does play John as sort of a rube who doesn't understand his cousin or what's important to him, and is thus funny for being confidently wrong, but the guy is putting what's important to him out there and trying to be helpful; he's probably healthier than Neil not because he's less intelligent and ignorance is bliss, but because he engages with the world around him. The tragedy of Entertainment is not that Neil is a tortured artist surrounded by doofuses like John who aren't on his level; it's that for all the effort that Neil puts into presenting himself to an audience, he can't interact.

Mulling the movie over a bit more with that in mind as I write, I'm a bit more impressed with it, if this is indeed what Alverson and company were going for (it certainly fits with the empty surroundings beautifully shot by cinematographer Lorenzo Hangrman and the occasional implication that an audience on his level scares him). I still kind of hate the guy behind me who either found the jokes funny or was ready to laugh at the character as pathetic three minutes into the movie. There's a difference between tragedy and black comedy, and I suspect I'd like "Entertainment" more if it didn't seem so willing to laugh at its protagonist rather than cry for him.

(Likely-dead link to the) 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.

That relatively slow pace and formality charges the cast to do a lot without always seeming to accomplish very much, and they're up to it. Shu Qi has maybe half a dozen lines in the film, but she intrigues nonetheless, clearly both capable and reluctant in her role; she makes big decisions in a subdued but definitive way. Chang Chen gets the flashier role as the lord who has the air of power but chafes at the limits to what he can do. They don't interact directly very often, but those moments are perfectly understated and full of history. There is a similarly well-acted supportive cast, though a large-enough one doing fine enough work that it may take a couple of passes through the film to see how they all fit together, although it's impressively seamless work.

A second pass will be a delight, though, because this film is beautiful. Hou and Lee use an unusually tall/narrow frame and fill every quadrant with exquisite imagery, elegant but not excessively ornate. And not necessarily still (although many moments are); the brief sequences of martial-arts action are well-choreographed, sometimes quick, sometimes extended, strong without coming off as brutal and cruel. Most striking, I think, are some of the things they and the effects crew did with mist and fog - one shot reminded me of ghosts dancing, foreshadowing an intriguing turn of events whose use of such imagery surprises. And then, at the finale, there is a masterful use of fog to change a gorgeous wide-open vista into a shadowy private meeting - a breathtaking visual that sneaks up on the viewer.

Also sneaking up is the music by Lim Giong - it initially seems quite minimalistic, but soon one notices a drumbeat emphasizing the inevitability of the plans set in action before a shift to something more thrilling for the martial arts and something spritely for a dance scene. Lim does an exceptional job of staying out of the way and setting the scene when need be. It's one of dozens of little things that tie the movie together in a way that even the classiest movies of its genre seldom manage.

The film is Taiwan's submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and though it's early to handicap that race, it's not too early to get ahead of it. Or, heck, just watch beautiful movies that are more exciting than the director's art-house reputation and more artistic than its surface genre would suggest.

(Likely-dead link to the) 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.

(People who have not yet seen the film may wish to skip the next paragraph)

It's in the the voicing of the rest of the characters by Tom Noonan (amusingly credited as "Everyone Else") where the film gets a bit uneven. Noonan's voice is not distinctive enough to make this immediately obvious, but he varies accents and cadences enough early on in such a way that the impression is more comedic types than uniformity. Heck, when he voiced the ex-girlfriend, my initial impression was that Michael had a thing for trans women. It's a vocal performance (or set thereof) that makes the film seem indecisive for a while, like Kaufman and Johnson are trying to do this thing which actually does an excellent job of getting across how other people are a demanding blur to Michael very well, but either doesn't want the audience to realize what's up right away or wants to include nuance so that Michael doesn't seem like a complete egotistical monster, and these two impulses are in direct opposition until such time as the filmmakers decide to make the issue clear and run with it.

(And now, back to trying not to give major elements of the film away)

Though this isn't Kaufman's most direct dive into troubled minds - he did write Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, after all - it's still right in his wheelhouse and one of his most successfully-executed takes on the idea. There's a level at which Michael Stone is profoundly unsympathetic - his issues are those of a thorough egotist who finds dealing with people lacking that which makes him special unbearable at times, and many films would probably spend their time scolding him for this or creating an arbitrary breakthrough. Instead, when Kaufman puts him in situations where the audience can empathize with his irritation, he seldom over-reacts, and there turns out to be something really clever going on during his seminar: The joke is that it lurches between what sound like platitudes and darkly comic outbursts of "truth", but what makes the scene brilliant is that it's the platitudes that are important - that they're probably what Michael uses to be a functional human being and, as other characters bring up at various times, they work, even in a business as dehumanizing as providing customer service over the phone.

This is all conveyed via stop-motion animation. I suspect the decision to animate the film was done as a way to make the unusual vocal choices less obvious, and as a result, the style is unusually realistic compared to many films using similar techniques. The one-sixth-scale sets, by and large, look like things that could have been built or found for a live-action film without an issue, with some exceptionally fine fabric work, which is where many stop-motion films literally show seams. The motion is painstakingly smooth. The design of the characters does a few very obvious things to remind viewers that these characters are felt over an armature but also gives said viewer a way to overlook this, with a horizontal line on a puppet's head also scanning as eyeglasses, for example.

It's an impressive precision that straddles the line between bitter comedy and desperate hope as well as any of Kaufman's films as writer or director, and indeed better than most. Folks quicker on the uptake than I am will probably find it brilliant, and I certainly won't argue with them. If nothing else, it's a daring and adult animated film that also happens to be very entertaining, and those don't come around all that often.

Full review on EFC.

No comments: