Monday, April 10, 2017

BUFF 2017.03: Buster’s Mal Heart & 68 Kill

Friday at BUFF was a bit more defined by what I didn’t wind up seeing than I’d necessarily like: There was no getting back to Cambridge from work in Burlington in time to see the Homegrown Horror shorts at 5:45pm, which is a bummer; Chris generally does a pretty good job of programming that block, and it’s always fun to see these movies that are unabashedly New England. On the other end, I skipped out on the “Midnight Transgressions” block because I’m old and need sleep on the one hand and because I just don’t love the nastier material. It’s a little harder given the current location of my apartment, too - I’d rather not be walking at 2:30am.

So, I was just at two of three slots, and the first was on the schedule as a secret screening. It was promoted in the program as one of the best/most anticipated genre movies of the year, so my first guess was Free Fire, which fits that bill and is made by Ben Wheatley - a guy who may not have actually had any movies play BUFF but is certainly their type of filmmaker. A couple days before the festival started, I got a publicity email for Netflix’s Death Note movie, and figured that might make more sense as a secret, since it wouldn’t be hitting the service until July, although director Adam Wingard is someone who has played the festival before.

Instead, we got Buster’s Mal Heart, which is okay, and makes sense as a secret screening because a known playdate might cannibalize a chunk of the audience that might be interested in it when/if it opens in late April. Which doesn’t say much about it being anticipated. And, it’s only kind of so-so as a movie. It’s got some interesting bits to it, but it’s kind of an acquired taste.

The second feature of the night was pretty darn good, though, the newest from festival veteran Trent Haaga, and although he couldn’t be there, he sent a fun video introduction from Japan.

”Three Point Dynamics”

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

Because I spent my education studying science and math instead of storytelling, I suspect that I would have liked Keaton Smith’s “Three Point Dynamics” much more if the quantum physics its main character was going on about were comprehensible, or at least were fake in a way that gave him a chance to explain it so that their details could be reflected thematically. I can’t know the mind of the filmmaker, but I’m more inclined to be interested when the story seems to be inspired by possibilities rather than just using them as a prop. And just in terms of storytelling, it might be useful to have a handle on whether this guy is a crank or what he intends to do.

Still, deal the movie you’ve got rather than the one you wish you had, right? By those standards, “Three Point Dynamics” is still kind of scattered, although it’s got an impressive core, as we’re introduced to an older guy who comes across as an eccentric but harmless crackpot, annoying the other people at the bus stop and getting himself involved in awkward situations around younger people, only to get shifts in perspective to show that this behavior isn’t really cute, but probably indicative of more troubling issues. That’s fairly well-done, as are some of the flourishes: The dreams of being trapped in roofless towers that extend a long way upwards but seem to have no doors or ways to reach the top, or how the scientist’s shirt and bolo tie have triangle motifs. Is there something important about the triangles in the necklace of the girl he meets, or is it just coincidence? Maybe, maybe not, and that’s the trouble with “Three Point Dynamics” - it falters not necessarily because it’s not entirely clear, but because its symbols don’t seem to matter one way or the other.

Buster’s Mal Heart

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

I like where writer/director Sarah Adina Smith’s head is at with Buster’s Mal Heart, and I think I’d like the actual movie more if she’d played it something closer to straight, rather than getting cute with narrative gimmicks, black comedy, and other diversions. The central driver of what’s going on with its main character is something that merits a lot of thought and consideration, and making a puzzle out of it tends to deny it that.

“Buster” is what the locals call Jonah (Rami Malek), because they don’t know his name; he’s just a crazy guy who lives in the woods, calling rants in to talk radio, breaking into unoccupied houses when it gets cold in the winter. He wasn’t always like this; a few years back, he was the amiable night manager at a nearby hotel. It wasn’t necessarily comfortable living with his in-laws, but he and wife Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) figured that this is what would allow them to save up and buy a small bit of property to settle with daughter Roxy (Sukha Belle Potter), living off the land as much as they could. That quest for independence is shared with a guy who starts hanging around the hotel lobby (DJ Qualls); who lives off the grid, not even wanting to give out his name, doing Y2K-compliance work for cash, with talk about an semi-mystical “Inversion” about to come.

It’s interesting that Smith drops that Y2K reference in there; nothing else about the film seems to be pointedly set in that time period, and what plot there is does not hinge much on this guy’s work, nor does it seem like it would be particularly ruined by tech like smartphones. And yet, it’s an important and apropos moment to consider - for all that nothing actually happened, it was a moment when it seemed like “the system” could collapse, something which could feel like a clean start to several of the characters. It’s a freedom Jonah and his new friend crave for various reasons. What initially seems like a laudable desire for self-reliance on Jonah’s part grows stronger even as Marty starts looking at apartments, an arrangement anathema to Jonah’s desire for independence - and, perhaps, too much like the hotel that takes him for granted - with the idea of this “Inversion” taking on mystical qualities, another step on the road to being a talk-radio crank.

Full review on EFC.

”Walden Pink”

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

There’s a certain style-slash-genre of short films that you see at festivals like this, built around a cranky straight-man who confronts a series of low-key peculiarities and indignities, either with an extra-bizarre twist as the climax or just petering out. Trying to write this up two weeks later, but not really having any details come back, I’m guessing it is the petering-out sort; I remember the opening image of a sad sack sitting at a park bench in black and white, leading to a couple of hostile confrontations with folks seem kind of especially clueless. There’s a Chekhov’s Gun that never fires.

I do remember it as being pretty okay, though; the film never becomes as misanthropic as its title character and the jokes don’t overextend. Filmmaker Peter Bolte (credited with just about everything) makes a clean-looking movie, which is not always the case with this sort of thing. It’s not exactly a sticky one, but it’s a decent bit of work that bodes well for the next thing he does.

68 Kill

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

68 Kill is an impressively tacky bit of trailer-trash pulp, which is in no way meant as an insult - Trent Haaga's latest is fast-paced, funny, and impressively violent, but also never boring and frequently inventive. It’s a bloody, high-spirited caper whose filmmakers sometimes don’t know the line between enjoyable anarchy and unpleasant excess, but it’s at least made with an energy level that keeps the fun stuff from being retroactively spoiled.

Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler) and LIza (AnnaLynne McCord) seem like a bit of a mismatch, with Liza far too good-looking for a gangly guy who pumps septic tanks for a living, but since she’s a call girl and the living embodiment of the idea that all the hot ones are crazy, she’s probably burned more bridges than just the strip club. One of her johns (David Maldonado) has made the mistake of letting slip that he’s got sixty-eight grand in his safe, and she sells Chip on stealing it, saying no-one will get hurt. Of course, not only do people get hurt, but a girl winds up in Chip’s trunk, though Liza says she can solve that problem by selling Violet to LIza’s creepy brother Dwayne (Sam Eidson). It is, on every level, more than the generally-well-meaning Chip signed up for.

Chip being dumb but generally decent is the fuel that drives the movie, and it’s the sort of thing that isn’t as easy as it looks. He’s got to be dumb and prone to bringing trouble upon himself, capable enough to get out of some of it, goofy enough for a laugh, and just barely serious enough to believe that a couple of women who seem like they’d have better options would generally choose him. The last is the one that tends to raise the most eyebrows; Gubler gives an energetic and funny performance - he knows his physical comedy and how get a laugh out of sincere horror - but the amount Chip gets laid what is basically a day and a half seems to land things a little more squarely in the male fantasy area than even a film this happily excessive can sell.

Full review on EFC.

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