Thursday, June 01, 2017

Independent Film Festival Boston 2017.03: Whose Streets? and Tormenting the Hen

I had some pretty rough 9pm shows at IFFBoston this year. It wasn't all bad, but out of the eight days, there were two without late shows, two I liked, two I actively disliked, and two shoulder-shruggers where I suppose I could have gotten a couple extra hours of sleep or drilled down into my DVR or not missed The Mayor, but, hey, might as well get value for that pass I purchased. It's a bit of a bummer of a way to end the evening, especially when you see a pattern emerging.

Anyway, much as I'd like to spend more of this post championing Whose Streets?, I'm a bit more nervous about being the white guy diving into what made the Ferguson documentary work, because I know I'll be missing a lot. Besides, Tormenting the Hen was the one that had guests and a Q&A that was at times interesting and at times tremendously frustrating.

Left to right, that's writer/director/many-other-things Theodore Collatos, producer Ben Umstead, star Carolina Monnerat, co-star Matthew Shaw, and supporting guy Brian Harlan Brooks. Theodore and Carolina are married, by the way.

To be completely honest, I was more wary about this movie early than it perhaps deserved, with an alarm light going off when I saw Josephine Decker as part of the cast in the opening titles. A screening of two of her short features, Butter on the Latch and Thou Art Mild and Lovely, made for a pretty dreary two and a half hours at Fantasia a couple years ago, so I spent a few precious formative seconds thinking about how all the mumblecore folks appeared in each other's movies a decade ago, and now maybe a new generation of pointless ramblers who can't even be bothered to get the picture in focus may be doing the same.

The film, fortunately, wasn't quite so dreary as all that, but I can't say I really liked it, and the Q&A illustrated a few reasons why: Though I don't remember any talk of it being improvised, it was constructed out of anecdotes and, basically, what can we do with these folks and this location in a few weeks? That's not often a winning formula unless someone does something downright brilliant, and nothing had that spark here. He also talked about how the tendency toward extreme close-ups was a matter of "when the shot is bad, pull the camera in", and that can't be a good reflection on the film.

On the other hand, several people in the audience told Shaw that he did a very good job capturing a person with Asperger's Syndrome, which is good to hear; that's a thing that can easily be done poorly. Shaw was one of the liveliest parts of the Q&A, talking not just about how he had a relative to base the performance on, but how he was originally going to just be running sound, and wound up playing Mutty when someone else dropped out.

Whose Streets?

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2017 in Somerville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

Starting as it does in the immediate aftermath of the Mike Brown shooting, Whose Streets? cannot help but be chaotic as it chronicles the immediate aftermath and the emergence of a local civil rights movement (or the rekindling of such) over the ensuing months. As such, many will find it unsatisfying; it answers few questions definitively and provides little resolution. But, perhaps, that's also what makes the movie successful; the chaos and confusion is honest.

Though it took a long time to sort out the Brown shooting (to the extent that it has been done), the aftermath played out on nearly every screen in America, but, for many, it was just the broad strokes, large anonymous masses clashing, with some anonymous member of the groups standing out when they did something particularly noteworthy in one direction or another. For their film, Sabaah Folayan and co-director Damon Davis embed themselves at the local level, looking at the activism of Ferguson, Missouri natives such as single mother Brittany Ferrell and one-man "CopWatch" David Whitt.

Folayan, Davis, and cinematographer Lucas Alvarado-Farrar were either on the scene quickly or local, because they seem to embed themselves into the nascent Black Lives Matter movement and the protesters fast enough to get the story from the start. By doing so, they get a particularly focused, close-up view that not only spends much of its time focusing on the way Ferrell and Whitt integrate their activism into their everyday lives, but often makes a point of showing how sometimes the broader movement can be seen as a nuisance by the locals, with Whitt in particular bristling at how it seems people from outside of Ferguson move to the center of the line when he's been the one documenting law enforcement's excesses for some time. At times, this winds up being a film about how, despite having a clear end goal, civil rights movements can have a lot of what is, ironically, called Brownian Motion in the sciences, with more chaotic activity in the middle of what should be a simple stream. Many locals worried about what lots of outsiders will stir up in their neighborhood or - especially in the case of the younger people - bristling at older figures expecting them to act as cogs in their long-term plan.

Full review on EFC.

Tormenting the Hen

* * (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2017 in Somerville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

I did not enjoy Tormenting the Hen when it initially seemed to just be an attempted work of discomfort, and I found myself liking it less when it seemed to end by delegitimizing that discomfort, even if I did grudgingly respect the way it did so. The film's unusual rhythms and often-confrontational nature may score points with those who count being non-mainstream as a virtue in and of itself, but something can be both peculiar and tedious, something that is too often the case here.

It starts in New York City but soon moves to Long Island, where would-be patron of the arts Sarah (Josephine Decker) has invited Claire (Dameka Hayes) to be the playwright-in-residence at the local theater. While she attempts to get actors Joel (Brian Harlan Brooks) and Adam (Dave Malinsky) on the same page as her, her fiancee Monica (Carolina Monnerat) is back at the rented guest house, unable to fully enjoy studying the trees in the nearby woods because Mutty (Matthew Shaw), the groundskeeper for the property that his family owns, quickly goes from being a bit odd to being downright intrusive, and Claire doesn't quite see how it's actually starting to scare Monica.

Filmmaker Theodore Collatos has some potentially interesting places to go here, especially when his imagination is leading him to genuinely odd places. Mutty tells Monica early on that the guest house used to be a chicken coop, and that results in her and the audience occasionally jumping to thinking opening doors and strange noises may be ghost chickens, a delightfully original and absurd cause of unease. The theater stuff may be a little inside-baseball at times, but the way it presents everybody involved as kind of puffed-up and self-important though still not egomaniacal monsters. There is a nice balance of obviously imposing and absurd about the way Mutty intrudes upon the guests' desire for a little peace and quiet.

Full review on EFC.

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