Saturday, May 27, 2017

BUFF 2017.05: Trinity, Get the Balance Right, Hidden Reserves, Dave Made a Maze, and Bitch

Busy, guest-filled day to close out this particular festival, and no place to take much of a breather, either.

TRINITY filmmakers

First-up with the Sunday-noon movie, with Izzy Lee, Skip Shea, David Graziano, Sean Carmichael, Aurora Grabill, and Diana Porter repping Izzy Lee's "Rites of Vengeance" and Skip Shea's Trinity (with one of the festival staff on the far left), with all of the expected comments about this being how the Underground weirdoes do Sunday mass. It's the expected thing, but, hey, sometimes you do the expected thing.

As you might expect, both found a very friendly audience, because even if Trinity is not exactly a good movie, it's clearly important to Shea, and getting those feelings out there is a big thing. It was good to see that he appears to be an affable, non-destroyed guy, which is the most important thing to take away.

"Opolis" filmmakers

I'm guessing that the folks who made "Opolis" (musician Alec Jackson and director John F. Quirk) are local, because they're the ones who showed up to support their three-minute short for the animation block. Cool that they got to come up and talk after their movie was the last one to play. Unsurprisingly, the music was pretty integral to the short, dictating its energy, if not its content.

(Sorry about not reviewing all of the shorts in that block; by the time I got around to starting, let alone completing, this post, it was easy for things that were just a few minutes long to not retain enough brainspace for a useful review.)

Oh, and about the bottom of that picture? There were donuts. Lots and lots of fancy donuts, which probably lasted through the third or fourth show of the day. Some of them were insane. This is a good thing for a film festival that often schedules things way too tight to even get in and out of the burrito place across the street.

The highlight of the day - and possibly the festival - was Dave Made a Maze, with director Bill Watterson and star Meera Rohit Kumbhani also delivering one of the more entertaining Q&A (introduced by Nicole McControversy on the left), which actually started with them running down the aisle and somersaulting onto the Brattle stage, which is not an entrance I've seen before.

So far as I can tell, most people who have seen this movie on the festival circuit have loved it, so I'm expecting some very good word of mouth when Gravitas gets it in theaters later this year (even if that will likely mean 1pm and 7pm shows at Fresh Pond in the Boston area). It's an enthusiasm that we share with the filmmakers, which is pretty unusual - usually, when something plays a festival, the active, exciting parts of making the film were completed months ago, the cast has done two or three other jobs since, and only the first festival gives them jitters. BUFF was still early in the festival cycle, but Watterson and Kumbhani were either still psyched or very good at appearing that way.

It made for a really fun interaction, though, as questions about how crazy some of what appeared on-screen would be greeted with "I know!" followed by something that made the production seem even crazier. It was apparently shot on a ridiculously tight schedule of two or three set-ups a day, with the set-builders firing up their hot glue guns as soon as Watterson said "cut" to get a little bit ahead, so they wouldn't have to work straight through the night. On the other hand, the fact that they did do that meant that working on the set was an amazing experience, because, as Kumbhani pointed out, it's not that often an actor really gets to come onto the set every morning to something surprising/new/amazing, and it certainly helped them deliver those emotions as their characters explored the maze. It was apparently an absurd number of set-ups to get through in 20-odd days, and that wasn't all - there's a scene with a zoetrope that wasn't shot until December (crazy close to when it would play SXSW and BUFF in March), and another scene also got shot after everyone had gone home, although they get around that in a clever way I won't spoil.

Final fun fact: The cardboard budget for the movie was actually zero, with everything used to build these sets scavenged from nearby businesses and, presumably, the cast and crew's Amazon orders.

Nobody on-hand for the final show, since, really, who wants to be doing a Q&A when the closing-night party is waiting? I was kind of surprised to see that some friends outside the festival didn't show up or at least give a heads-up for the short before Bitch, as not only did it star one of their favorite character actresses, but one had a bit part in it. You've got to tell your friends about that, Vicki!

"Rites of Vengeance"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

I’m pretty thankful that I have never, the the best of my recollection, seen Izzy Lee angry in person. Disgusted and/or disappointed, sure, and maybe she’s not actually demonstrative much beyond that, at least until she sits down in front of a computer and starts writing a script wherein whoever has earned her ire gets exactly what he deserves.

Which is what she does here, and does fairly well. A Catholic priest (Michael Thurber) has abused some kids only to have the church leadership sweep in under the rug, but the parish’s nuns (Silvia Graziano, Stee McMorris, and Heather Buckley) have access to sharp objects. This being a five-minute short, things take their course rather directly, and the credits roll. But it’s done well; she’s able to get the story across without dialogue, and it’s well paced given that Izzy lets the environment and the associated music set a sedate pace, and she’s got a few events to get through.

It’s a good opener for Trinity, or probably whatever program it gets attached to. It might get swallowed up in another setting, but it certainly does what its maker wanted from it, quite nicely.

Trinity (2016)

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

I’ve mentioned the Sunday-noon programming at BUFF in previous years, and I suppose I should actually go back over various festival programs to see how often the pattern I’ve observed - that it’s something by a local filmmaker but of questionable quality, the sort of movie that you wouldn’t want representing the fest in a prime slot, but will put friends’ butts in seats when much of the rest of the festival audience is hungover - actually holds. It makes a certain sort of sense, but it’s also a little cynical.

Unfortunately, that seemed to be the case here, because Trinity was painful to watch, and not just because of the subject matter (an artist unexpectedly runs into the priest who abused him as a child). It circles around the secret that everybody coming into the theater is aware of, it goes off on tangents about art and the tarot that undoubtedly have meaning for the filmmaker but which are so specific that they are either meaningless to some in the audience or explained in painful detail on-screen. The acting isn’t great, and there’s a tremendous amount of breaking the fourth wall that doesn’t really communicate anything.

And it’s a shame, because this is one you want to be really good; it’s made by a survivor of abuse that everybody at the festival seems to like; he certainly strikes one as a genuinely good dude. So I hope this was cathartic for him, and I hope it speaks to other people who have been through something similar. If that’s the case, then the film has value, whether I got much out of it or not.

"The Past Inside the Present"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Get the Balance Right, digital)

Second shorts package I've seen this short in,and it was a different experience; not just for being on the other side of the planet, but the way that the science fiction elements are actually far more central than the nostalgic imagery of 1980s technology. It's a sign, perhaps,of how imagery can sometimes overwhelm narrative when watching films, especially after a bit of time and when your brain isn't necessarily recording properly.

Original review from MonsterFest


* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Get the Balance Right, digital)

Nifty little animated short apparently built out of a video game engine, and I wonder a bit if it would resonate a bit more with me if I knew the game. It's still kind of cool, with director Veselin Efremov getting intriguing humanity out of the robot characters, starting by showing the main bot "breathing heavy" as it activates, which implies a human consciousness in there somehow, adding a small layer of horror to what is already something of a horror-of-war short. It winds up a little bit of everything in a good way, and all the more impressive given that even those who haven't played the game can enjoy the end result.

"Panic Attack!"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Get the Balance Right, digital)

Eileen O'Meara's short may not have the cleanest art style or smoothest animation of the group, but it has a stream-of-consciousness sense of absurdity that leads to a steady stream of laughs. O'Meara's gags work well enough that, even if neither the initial anxieties nor the escalation feel particularly identifiable to a given viewer, there isn't a particularly wasted or off-putting second.

"Roger Ballen's Theatre of Apparitions"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Get the Balance Right, digital)

I wonder how this plays to folks who have previously heard of photographer Roger Ballen; I had not, and not being particularly drawn to that sort of art, the images of Ballen sitting in an audience of ghostly faces, perplexedly watching surreal images come to life and chase each other, made a bit more of an impression on me than the actual Ballen works. I relate more to the deadpan reaction to strangeness to the actual oddity.

Giving it another watch, I'm still not sure that there's a lot more than peculiar impulse there, but I love the energy that animators Emma Calder and Ged Haney bring to it, as well as how John Webb's circus music gives it even more life. It's a weird five minutes, but the decision to embrace a rambunctious attitude rather than be somber is a great one.

(Available to watch on Ballen's webiste)

"The Golden Chain"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Get the Balance Right, digital)

The "people alone at the edge of the universe" genre can seem easily tapped out - once you've seen one artist use it as a way to throw a bunch of weird images at the screen, you get the gist for the rest - and in some ways, "The Golden Chain" is just that sort of thing except more specific. But that specificity counts; by going for an Afrofuturistic set of imagery, filmmakers Adebukola Bodunrin and Ezra Claytan Daniels constrain themselves a bit, forcing themselves along a path. There's also more of a feel of a real world worthy of exploration in its story of Nigerian astronaut/scientist Yetunde going a bit peculiar as she studies something impossible, and that discovery resonates with how much more an audience might like to learn themselves, despite being restrained by the limits of a short film.

"The Itching"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Get the Balance Right, digital)

Truth be told, the actual itching is the part of Dianne Bellino's film that I kind of like the least; it quickly becomes body-horror imagery that is not for the squeamish even if it is presented as different-colored clay on a stop-motion wolf. The material around it, though, is gold - that nervous wolf girl going out of her comfort zone to meet her bunny-rabbit friend (boyfriend? girlfriend?) at an otherwise all-bunny nightclub; the rippling way the itching criss-crosses her body; the only thing close to speech being the whines of a scared dog; the way that we see the bunny comforting the wolf and getting her not to scratch at the end.

The question, then, is if all of that would work quite so well if the middle wasn't so horrifying to watch; it's a visceral evocation of the urge to engage in self-destructive behavior even though the thing that seems to promise relief is only making it worse. It's something most of us understand but seldom see presented so forcefully, perhaps precisely because of how off-putting it can be. In that way, "The Itching" is likely a success, even if one does wonder a bit if it could say what it was saying without seeming repellent rather than just unnerving.

(Available to watch on Vimeo)


* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Get the Balance Right, digital)

Not quite just a music video for a Blues Dreambox song, but pretty close; the rhythm & blues riff is a good part of what will wedge in the viewer's head after watching it; the various pop-culture references and transformations can seem arbitrary and fleeting, aside from Ultraman (or some similar sentai hero) who jumps from a child's TV to a billboard to fight off an invading space triangle. The images don't flip by faster than the laid-back pace of the music, but don't quite have a chance to grab onto anything in the viewer's head.

It's a pretty good song, though, and there is a basic story there that can be followed even if the details don't quite build into something. It's fun to watch even when it's not exactly something that extends passt those three minutes.

(Available to watch on Vimeo).

"The Quantified Self"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

A lot of short films get made as pilots for a feature, and while I don’t know that this is the case with "The Quantified Self", it feels like one, with more world-building than it (or its budget) can really hold and not quite enough story to make it run smoothly.

Which is not to say that the story and world it has is bad; it’s a quick, clever introduction to a family whose entire life is measured minutely, with cut-aways to screens full of metrics projected over the characters as they explain their ambitions or anxieties. The emerging story of one of their twin daughters, Daniela 2 (Madeleine Ruley), being far less enthused about this than sister Daniela 1 (Charlotte Ruley), despite the complete buy-in of their parents (Nando Del Castillo & Maggie Fine). It builds, things seem fairly snappy, and then there’s a fairly abrupt ending that is cynical enough to work as satire but doesn’t quite have a ring of truth.

And then there’s the whole thing with "the tower" that undercuts a great deal of what the filmmakers do because the rickety wooden thing shown (presumably in the filmmakers' backyard) just doesn't fit with the otherwise high-tech, reasonably detailed world the rest of the short posits. There's a near-connection there, that modern worship of that sort of technologically-measured wellness is not far from the idolatry of previous eras, but the production falls just short of making it work.

Stille Reserven (Hidden Reserves)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

There's a chill to Hidden Reserves that doesn't show up in a lot of science fiction film these days; creators have the resources to have fun, so it's not quite so easy or natural to follow one's darker thoughts as it was when dystopias were much easier to create than their opposites. Filmmaker Valentin Hitz has come up with an idea that lends itself to such a resolutely morose environment, and that's what makes it kind of intriguing; the darkness does not seem like an affectation and the moments of light feel more precious as they struggle to escape.

Hitz's idea is "Death Insurance", which Vincent Baumann (Clemens Schick) sells to people afraid that their debts might be collected post-mortem not just by having their bodies used for transplant organs, but as pregnancy surrogates, or having their memories mined and what is left of their brains used for data storage. His latest assignment is Wladimir Sokulov (Daniel Olbrychski), a Ukrainian industrialist who believes that his fortune should be enough to buy him an eternal rest. When Vincent cannot make the sale, his boss and lover Diana (Marion MItterhammer) gives him a demotion - though this also serves as cover to get close to Lisa (Lena Lauzemis), a cabaret singer believed to have connections to an underground plot to free the enslaved dead, though the last undercover operative they sent (Stipe Erceg) made little progress.

Many films have scenarios described as morbid, though few take it quite so literally as this one. The unnerving thing, of course, is that the idea is not nearly as far-fetched as it may seem; CGI effects have put the likenesses of dead actors to work for a generation and it's not hard to foresee a time when enough people are more likely to inherit debt than assets that actually having the person who racked up that debt work it off might behind to sound reasonable. It also works as a metaphor for just how dehumanizing a lot of the work available for those without much in the way of means can be, and the idea of having to continue doing things that are just mindless toil even after one is dead is as unnerving a science-fictional take on Hell as can be imagined.

Full review on EFC.

"From the Dizziness of Freedom: The Philosophy Vessel"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

As mentioned up top, the choices of shorts to play with features at this year's BUFF have been impressively on point, often reflecting the themes of the films they accompanied in ways that don't fully sink in until after one has finished both. And then there's this, which gets stuck in front of Dave Made a Maze because both have labyrinths and minotaurs, but often seems more like a catalog than a short with something to say.

When viewed as a survey of this sort of mythology, it's okay - it's got Icarus, fairies in hedge mazes, a female minotaur, and other related imagery, often given an even darker twist and put presented with the sort of hesitating stop-motion that seems even creepier because it really seems to want the audience aware of the wire armature underneath its characters' rubbery skin. Filmmaker Melissa Ferrari shows some impressive skills editing it, as well, shaping the dialog-free images into something with a through-line as it flows from one piece to the other, even if it doesn't exactly become a story.

Maybe, if it had a stronger narrative, it would have stuck in my head better, although I suspect that the pointed joy of the feature it played was going to overwhelming its dour sensibilities anyway. It's got some nice images, but didn't stick with me like one would hope.

Dave Made a Maze

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

I'm a tiny bit worried that Dave Made a Maze will come across as saying that some people just shouldn't try to make art when I inevitably revisit it, as that theme is certainly there to an extent even if the experience of watching the movie tends to focus on just the opposite: It's joyously creative in the moment, with hilariously low-fi wonders around every corner, so it certainly should be received as a wonderfully absurd adventure.

It's off-kilter from the start, when Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) gets home from a trip to see that her boyfriend Dave (Nick Thune) has built a labyrinth out of cardboard boxes in their living room, and seems to have gotten himself lost inside - but don't make a new entrance with box-cutters, because he worked so hard, and do not come in after him. She calls their friend Gordon (Adam Busch) for help, and he calls everyone else they know, because, come on, this is hilarious. So soon it's like a party, and Annie decides to go in after him, followed by Gordon, super-close couple Greg (Timothy Norwind) & Brynn (Stephanie Allynne), highly-enthusiastic Jane (Kirsten Vangsness), older burnout Leonard (Scott Krinsky), documentary filmmaker Harry (James Urbaniak), his crew, a couple of Flemish tourists… They all fit, without even stooping over, because it's much bigger on the inside than the outside.

They may not all get out, because it is filled with deadly traps.

And a minotaur.

Mostly, though, it's wall-to-wall cardboard wonders which one could see as a spectacular rebuke to movies that spend millions upon millions of dollars on incredibly elaborate worlds that elicit no wonder or excitement. Filmmaker Bill Watterson and his art department (led by Trisha Gum, John Sumner, and Jeff White) are having none of that; while they may be making their sets and props out of the most basic material they can find, there's a sense of delight and discovery with each new room, with each shot a model of clarity while the detail work speaks to Dave's obsession in creating it without being visually overwhelming - it will look good on big and small screens. And, just when one might feel that they've gotten used to the madness, Watterson and the crew will pull out something new and delightfully absurd, getting a big laugh even if it is sort of violent.

Full review on EFC.

"The Bridge Partner"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

I ought to dig out the original Peter S. Beagle short story to see if "The Bridge Partner" was originally built around older characters, or if it's more of an accommodation to the fact that not many people pick up bridge these days. It had to be mainstream at some point - newspapers weren't wasting valuable real estate on the comics/puzzles page for something that didn't appeal to a good chunk of its readers - but now it doesn't have that same position, and that might change the story, from one where a character's extreme competitiveness is scary to one where it's absurd.

That's the crux of the matter, as Mattie (Beth Grant), who is not very good at bridge and kind of dowdy in general, winds up teamed with recently-arrived European sophisticate Olivia (Sharon Lawrence) in a local tournament, and while Olivia seems all charm and graciousness, she whispers a threat to Mattie. It's something that could be a lot of fun, either as a simple thriller or an example of how a genteel exterior often masks a monstrous heart - or even, should one try to go this way, how a person can imagine themselves threatened as a result of her own insecurity - but writer/director Gabriel Olson doesn't really do a lot with it. Olson and composer Miles Hankins will goose the soundtrack in the right places, but Olson seldom actually has anything happen, even to the extent of setting up the potential for misinterpretation. Things just don't go anywhere.

He still manages to make a lot of things work for a moment or two, setting up a few fine beats and moving things along nicely. And it's nice to see some good work from the main cast - Beth Grant works a ton but often in exaggerated roles or on lower-tier projects whose filmmakers don't really have a grip on handling her distinctive accent and delivery, and Sharon Lawrence doesn't seem to get a part that's this much fun very often. It's always nice to see Robert Forster. It would be nicer if they had a bit more to do.

Bitch (2017)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

The biggest issue with Bitch is not that it's a relatively-straight take on an idea that is generally played as a silly fantasy; that's something that filmmaker Marianna Palka and her cast do fairly well. It's unnerving at times, but in the way it's supposed to be, and even the fact that Palka paints her way into a corner story-wise isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you wind up in corners. But there comes a point where she seems to wind up stuck doing the things that are beneath the ambition otherwise on display, and I don't know if anyone watching this film would want that conventionality.

The set-up is kind of conventional: Jill (Palka) is the stay-at-home wife to Bill Hart (Jason Ritter), looking after their three kids while he works long hours and has a thing on the side with Annabelle (Sol Rodriguez), always with a reason why Jill can't take some sort of break. One day, as she's at a breaking point, a dog catches her eye and she almost seems to fall into a trance. The next morning, that dog bursts out of her bedroom, and the woman left behind is on all fours, barking, and snapping at anyone who comes near. Although Jill's sister Beth (Jaime King) is willing to help, they can't keep Jill locked in the basement long-term, despite the way Bill's pride won't acknowledge this as a problem he can't handle, even if he is risking his career and making a fool of himself trying to learn how to be an actual parent on the fly.

That dog running out of the house gives a brief impression that maybe Bitch is going for an uncomfortably realistic body-swap, and although it might be interesting to see someone try that angle, Palka dispenses with that fairly quickly; reversing some sort of supernatural event would probably not show the sort of growth in Bill that Palka is looking for. Instead, she takes the tropes of that sort of movie as a starting point and plays it as disturbing rather than funny, as Jill takes on the persona of a feral dog rather than a family pet, complete with biting and just crapping on the floor and making a mess. If this break was brought on by a yearning for a dog's easy life or freedom, then being locked in the basement is an especially cruel irony, although it's a sharp commentary on how poorly most people handle mental illness, which gives a little more edge to the inevitable scene where Bill and Beth have to run through the neighborhood calling Jill's name, which does not play like a funny dog-thing-but-with-a-person bit.

Full review on EFC.

No comments: