Friday, April 28, 2017

BUFF 2017.04: Fraud, Neighborhood Food Drive, Most Beautiful Island, and The Void

It figures - the times when BUFF has two screens running, there are tricky choices, but when there’s just the one, it’s something I’ve seen elsewhere and don’t need to do again. On the other hand, that does leave one a nice window for the grocery shopping and other errands that I had no time for what with no just normal being at home after a week on vacation.

Most of what I missed out on by spending Saturday afternoon at the Harvard Film Archive was shorts of one sort or another. Someday, at some festival, I’ll actually make it to Keir-La Janisse’s Saturday Morning Cartoon show with the cereal bar, even though I doubt the cartoons I watched as a kid have aged well. I’m probably never going to prioritize something else over the “Sound & Vision” music video program. I was disappointed to skip out of the dark comedy block (called “Don’t Look Back into the Sun” this year), but it was up against what wound up being one of my two favorite films of the festival, so I wasn’t too disappointed.

And they were apparently lucky to get that favorite film. According to the introduction, after Most Beautiful Island was an upset winner of the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW (if you can call festival prize winners “upsets”), the producers apparently stopped booking it at other festivals, probably thinking this could net them a better distribution deal but a niche film showing at the festival might prevent regular theaters in the area from booking it. No idea if that’s how it works, but it seems like the only explanation for some of the odd behavior around booking this year.

Anyway, my first three shows of the day were at the Harvard Film Archive, and the middle one, Neighborhood Food Drive, had these folks in attendance:

I didn’t get the name of the host on the left, but that director Jerzy Rose and co-writer/producer Halle Butler on the right. They delivered a lively Q&A, the sort that often feels like it comes from people making a far less planned-out, specific movie than they have, either an indication that they’re exceptionally laid-back in some ways, or that a great deal is instinctive.

After that, I bailed on She’s Allergic to Cats, although looking at my Fantasia review from last year indicates that I liked it more at the time than I remembered. Still, with a festival scheduled as tight as this one - it’s not uncommon to leave the theater, go back around to the box office for the ticket to the next movie, and not really have time to get snacks before heading back to one’s seat, the ability to get something done and then actually sit down to eat was a big deal. And it gave me plenty of time to make it back for The Void.

For that, we were once again visited by Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, with Chris Hallock leading the Q&A. It’s kind of funny that last time I saw them, they talked about not making your film both horror and comedy, because it was awfully difficult to get distributors to pick something like that up, and this time they had a few words about how it’s a little harder to make a straight horror movie when you don’t have jokes to lean on. Not much, but I did get the sense that this was something where they were a little more concerned about the reaction. So much of the Astron-6 stuff was movies for their own amusement, while this was something more for an audience that didn’t necessarily share their view of the genre.

It did have one of my favorite Q&A questions ever, though, when someone asked about references and they flatly said “we are not referencing any movie”. Fair for people to ask, but the answer underscored what I liked about The Void and the potential that’s always been in the filmmakers’ previous work in terms of creativity, and hopefully it doing well will inspire them to do more movies about more than their own influences.

”Troll: A Southern Tale”

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2017 in the Harvard Film Archive(Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

I’m curious as to whether Marinah Janello started “Troll: A Southern Tale” with the intent of doing a short documentary about an internet troll only to find the interview wandering, or if that’s what she picked out of her interviews . The idea is most likely to take a guy who spends time causing grief on the internet and figure out what makes a guy who maintains 75 Facebook profiles for the purpose of making people think that they’ve kicked a bigger hornet’s nest than they have tick, but the film wanders enough that it’s not obvious what the starting point is.

Not that it necessarily matters; though “Troll” doesn’t necessarily pose and explore a question quite so explicitly as it could, it’s unusually good at presenting a concept in the nebulous form in which it exists in reality despite film generally being a specific medium. Her subject is a bearded guy in his twenties, a pleasant enough interview that he doesn’t come across as particularly hostile to either Janello or, through her, the viewer. He is, one thinks, the product of an environment that has let him down; he’s filmed in a number of buildings that have burned, collapsed, or otherwise decayed, and he talks enough about The South with a certainty born of both first-hand experience and detached consideration that one is inclined to connect dots, maybe figure out what can be done.

And yet, I can’t help but think that the dots don’t really connect, and that’s a part of what Janello is getting at. There’s not actually much passion coming from the subject, whether toward the people he trolls or when talking about his own music, which he describes as sucking but he’s made a lot, and that’s something, right? The portrait that emerges is a sort of nihilism, which is a reasonable-enough response to the situation at hand, but the presentation of it is a little less than it could be. Voids need to be brought into sharper relief than excesses, and Janello only hints at the emptiness here.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2017 in the Harvard Film Archive (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

I am reasonably certain that “Fraud” is not a documentary, despite several film festivals labeling it as such and the lack of credits identifying the cast and crew at the end; it simply commits to its found-footage conceit more completely than is typical. It’s convincing even for those who know otherwise, and that may be an issue for some; it’s convincingly amateurish enough to not be a smooth watch and for the “subjects’” bad acts to come off as repellent rather than generic. Get past that, though, and it’s on point.

It’s presented as a collection of home movies from a North Carolina family with two young kids, a young mother, and a father who likes to film them. He mostly seems to do it on Sundays when the tapes start in May of 2012 with a number of jittery segments that often focus on trips to the mall or other prosaic matters. It’s not long before the viewer starts to notice overdue bills piling up. By late July, mother Paige is learning about filing an insurance claim, and soon after that, you’ve really got to question the wisdom of the father filming this stuff as they give themselves reason to do so.

That, of course, is an obvious plot issue with a lot of found-footage films, and there’s a certain non-intuitive realism to the way that director Dean Fleischer-Camp doesn’t bother to explain it. Sure, folks might shoot themselves committing a crime - it’s probably the most exciting, thrilling thing they’ve ever done - but monologuing about why is a step too far. Besides, the compulsive way the father shoots, right down to the way shots will linger on his wife’s well-maintained body, can be all the explanation needed: Pulling out the camcorder is something he does on his day off, to the point where the rest of the family has likely learned to ignore it, and that’s before you even get to the question of whether they think they’re doing anything wrong.

Full review on EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2017 in the Harvard Film Archive (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

Lori Felker’s “Discontinuity” is the very epitome of an underground-festival comedy short - it’s got a sense of humor that zips past “offbeat” to “random”, characters who often act in ways that just don’t seem recognizable as the actions of human beings. It’s got an abrupt ending that may seem something of a relief after its frequently cringe-worthy moments.

And yet, it works, a whole heck of a lot better than many, probably because the very title suggests that Felker sees how there’s something potentially powerful in the randomness. It opens with Tabitha (Sam Howard) returning “home” after working and caring for her ailing father for the better part of two years, only to find that her boyfriend Stephen (Ben Johnson) has become quite peculiar in that time, accumulating cats, getting particular about what they watch on DVD, and being beyond awkward when talking about the funeral. The cats multiply, a kid appears, and things just don’t seem right moment-to-moment.

It’s weird, sure, but you get what it means, that Tabitha’s finding a situation that should be familiar, normal, and what she’s been wanting to get back to utterly alien. It’s just odd enough to not be entirely creepy, with things absurd enough that it gets a laugh. Sam Howard makes Tabitha thoroughly likable, with a nice balance of enthusiasm and stress at the situation; she plays into the metaphor enough that the audience can see her wonder if it’s just weird from her point of view and sympathize. Ben Johnson goes deadpan as Stephen, and it’s generally a good enough joke to mostly cancel out what a head-scratcher it is that Tabitha went for him in the first place. Which, in some ways, is the short in a nutshell: The weirdness and symbolism mostly works, even if the set-up is something you just have to run with.

Neighborhood Food Drive

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2017 in the Harvard Film Archive (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

Neighborhood Food Drive spends a lot of time taking aim at fairly easy targets, but they’re deserving targets and director Jerzy Rose scores some direct hits. It makes for a comedy that is not quite so delightfully vicious as Roses’s previous film (Crimes Against Humanity), but which is certainly able to score some points with those who enjoy watching clueless people get themselves into trouble.

There are two pairs of such people here. Madeline Bruhnhauer (Lyra Hill) and Naomi Florida (Bruce Bundy) have recently opened a new restaurant, “Ciao”, in Chicago’s Humboldt Park area, and even if business were great, they’d still be getting reviews that point out that their fancified and expensive “comfort food” offerings don’t exactly match the character of the neighborhood. How to give back? A food drive! They bring on college undergraduate Bianca Pentecost (Ruby McCollister) as an unpaid intern to coordinate it, possibly unaware that she’s the girlfriend of their waiter Steven Hughes (Marcos Barnes), and that the pair is doing a weird sort of counseling thing with one of their professors (Ted Tremper).

A funny bit early on has somebody with experience in running food drives laying out exactly why this sort of event is a bad idea in practical terms, a fine deadpan gag in and of itself but one that becomes the setup for something surreal as this has the potential to haunt the characters. Presuming, of course, that they can feel haunted - the characters are almost all fairly self-centered and a little too self-aware, from the way Bianca and Steven are analyzing their relationship minutely when they should be winging it to how Maddie’s attempts to calm the high-strung Naomi are fairly practiced and clinical. Those two will even repeat the film’s title like a mantra at times, something that comes off as half what these guys would do and half Rose and co-writers Halle Butler & Mike Lopez being quite aware of their film’s artificiality.

Full review on EFC.

Most Beautiful Island

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2017 in the Harvard Film Archive (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

We are fortunate to have multiple great film festivals in the Boston area - in fact, this very review is part of a (failed) frantic attempt to talk up all the movies from the Underground before the Independent starts. With so many, and films generally making only one festival stop per city, where a given film ends up can sometimes be surprising. That is the case with Most Beautiful Island, which initially seems more art-house than midnight-movie, but that it navigates between those two very different styles is what makes it kind of brilliant.

It’s a day in the life of Luciana (Ana Asensio), who has made her way to New York from Spain after a tragedy that has made staying where she was too painful, but she’s starting to bottom out there: Well behind in rent on the dingy apartment she shares with a roommate who has taken to labeling everything in the refrigerator “not yours”, having to beg for a doctor to see her off the books, and taking odd jobs like handing out flyers in Times Square to even afford that much. After a morning of that, she and her friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) are relaxing when Olga gets a call and asks if Luciana can cover another job she has that night - $2,000 to help pretty up a cocktail party. Sure, it will be a tight squeeze getting the black dress and heels needed around her afternoon job as a babysitter, but that’s good money for a night’s work, even if it probably does involve a little more than what Olga is selling it as being.

It will eventually require a lot more, but before it gets there, writer/director/star Ana Asensio essays an illuminating narrative about being a (likely undocumented) immigrant in New York - the scraping, the conning, the casual and constant disrespect. There are three or four scenarios strung together that could each work as the basis of an individual short or even feature if Asensio stretched them out a little more or fleshed out the other people moving through Luciana’s day a little more, but there’s an interesting flow to the way she sets it up: Though there is a point or two when it seems like a certain amount of trouble could be avoided if Luciana just popped back into her apartment for a moment, Asensio instead silently emphasizes that there’s an unsteadiness to Luciana’s life, that she’s got to keep moving forward or be ready to survive with just what she has with her. It’s not constant immediate danger, but it’s not stability, either.

Full review on EFC.

”An Eldritch Place”

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

Someone with a lot more free time and obsession to detail than me should make a list of every feature or short film over the last five or ten years where the credits are done using John Carpenter’s favorite typeface and see how many of them use similar music or how many truly creative ideas they have. “An Eldritch Place”, for instance, is a pretty basic riff on Lovecraft done in Carpenter style, right down to Sarah Boom’s synth-based soundtrack. Like many Carpenter-inspired movies, it announces what director Julien Jauniaux is a fan of as much as what he’s got to say. That’s not a criticism, so much as an observation.

It is, after all, a pretty good horror short. It offers up Abdel (Habib Ben Tanfous) who, trying to simply get by - in this case by taking a job guarding the workspace of Dr. Francis Wayland (Ludovic Philips) - finds himself thrown into a world of otherworldly danger and malevolence. Director Julien Jauniaux and Ben Tanfous do a fairly impressive job of making Abdel just the right sort of protagonist for this sort of thing, imperfect enough to get himself into trouble, but not really deserve what’s about to happen, without the film needing to stress his likability. There’s a rough, working-class feel to the situation that is upended that both contrasts with and flows into the strange realm of the elder gods that Abdel finds himself in. There’s a genuine feeling that, despite the fleeting glimpses we see and the vague nature of this sort of Lovercraftian threat beyond human comprehension, what Abdel encounters could legitimately end the world.

So, sure, in a lot of ways “An Eldritch Place” is a riff on the work of a couple of genre icons more than a new vision, but Carpenter and Lovecraft are pretty good guys for someone directing their first film to find inspiration; it will be interesting to see what evolves from this.

The Void

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski haven’t made a whole lot of movies as part of the Astron-6 collective, and I haven’t reviewed all of them, but it still feels like I’ve written something about how wasteful it is that they didn’t seem to trust their very real talent, using parody as a crutch. While The Void does not have an A-6 title card on it, it was done by many of the same people, but it’s a straight horror movie, and it’s a terrific one, distilling what made the 1980s horror they clearly love great and presenting it as something that doesn’t feel dated or silly at all.

It’s got a nifty little twist at the start, though, as it opens with a couple of folks fleeing a cabin in the woods and not looking back. Unfortunately, James (Evan Stern) isn’t in good shape when local cop Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) finds him by the side of the road. He brings the unconscious man to the nearby hospital, where his ex-wife Allison (Kathleen Munroe) and her mentor Richard Powell (Kenneth Welsh) are the only doctors on duty, but there aren’t many patients, as much of the staff is packing up to close the place and consolidate with another hospital. Of course, people start getting homicidal, with the heavily-armed Vincent (Daniel Fathers) and his mute sidekick Simon (Mik Byskov) arriving just as the parking lot fills with a bunch of robed cultists, setting up a supernatural siege.

Those robes and hoods are a simple costume, but the perfection of their execution is impressive; the triangle where the face should be is the sort of material that should allow the man inside to see out, except that it’s inverted so that the point is between the eyes. It looks wrong, but doesn’t broadcast how impractical it is, and the simple shape can be reused in a lot of ways, tying a number of supernatural elements together without it seeming forced. Not everything in the movie is low-key and geometrical like that, but it’s a good start and a good link to the weirder, gorier stuff, with the blood and the tendrils and the other abominations before nature. That stuff is especially excellent, top-notch practical work, with the obsessive visual detail that this team is best known for (paired with a great sound mix and thoroughly-appropriate score) in full force.

Full review on EFC.

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