Friday, June 09, 2017

Independent Film Festival Boston 2017.04: Edgar Allen Poe: Buried Alive, City of Ghosts, Dealt, and Lemon

Not included: Love Off the Cuff, where I caught the early show at Boston Common because, beloved local film festival or no beloved local film festival, I'm not missing the new Pang Ho-cheung movie. Sure, it wound up playing for another two or three weeks after the festival, but I've been burned on Hong Kong movies not hanging around before. I was at 10am or so, and the MBTA was dinking around with buses replacing the Red Line between Alewife and Harvard this weekend so I had to be out and about early, which may be kind of important later.

At any rate, that made the choice of which film to start with easier, going for Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive at the Brattle. It was okay, the sort of documentary you know is going to PBS eventually, but that's a useful-enough thing.

Left to right, editor Peter Rhodes, writer/director Eric Stange, and producer Jen Pearce. Nice folks who stuck around to answer a bunch of questions. It had the feel of a bit of a friends-and-family crowd, many very impressed that they were able to land Denis O'Hare, who is sort of recognizable but by no means a big star. Plenty of genuine curiosity about what they learned about 19th-Century America in general.

It lasted long enough that by the time I could get out and onto the bus, not only was my plan A for the rest of the afternoon sunk (I really do hope to see Spettacolo, by the folks who made Marwencol, sometime later this year), but I wound up breezing into City of Ghosts just as it started. It's a pretty strong documentary.

DEALT cast & crew at IFFBoston 2017

The evening film was Dealt, probably my favorite documentary of the fest. Maybe not the best, but my favorite. Director Luke Korem, Jack Laquerez (or so my terrible notes say), and subject Richard Turner attended, and I'm sorry about the truly egregious necessity of the "horrible photography" tag, but Turner just doesn't keep still. He is, however, pretty much exactly the guy you would expect from the film, charismatic and funny, and, yes, he was practicing his card-deck manipulation throughout the entire Q&A session, probably throughout the movie. He was much more willing to talk about his blindness than he would have been at various points during the film, although that's not terribly surprising; once he's made a decision, he runs with it, and though he'd rather talk about his achievements on their own, being open about this and being a role model to other unsighted people is something to which he has committed.

We did get some card tricks, and, yeah, even from the third row, knowing that his thing is dealing the second card in the deck rather than the top card, good luck catching him. There was also a fair amount of jargon - he'd now a consultant to the biggest manufacturer of playing cards in the U.S., in part on the basis of contacting them repeatedly one year about how sheets of cards were going through the cutting device upside down, because he could feel they were wrong. He's got a fairly narrow specification of how he likes his cards in terms of thickness and slickness, although he's not completely dependent upon that; he once won a good-sized piece of furniture by betting the guy at the store that he could cut a stack of business cards to a specified number.

After that, back on the bus to the Brattle Theatre for the last in a string of three disappointing 9:30-9:45pm screenings. Maybe Lemon plays a bit better for me if I'm not on movie five of the day with everything since 1:30pm documentaries that were enjoyable straightforward, but I did feel trapped in the middle of a row by the time it was halfway through. Not quite zonked for this one, but not exactly digging it, either.

And then, back to Davis and to bed to do the same thing the next day, only more so!

Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

It's somewhat ironic, but inevitable, that despite Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive leading with the idea that much of the conventional wisdom about Poe is greatly influenced by an obituary written by a rival as character assassination, writer/director Eric Stange winds up going back to the familiar. There is more to Poe than everyone knows, but it turns out that what makes him flawed also made him interesting.

In positioning his film in opposition to the history as set out by Reverend Rufus W. Griswold from the start, Stange sometimes finds himself backed into a tricky position where Poe still has a fair amount of weird stuff in his history and it comes off as kind of odd when the thesis of the movie is that Poe wasn't the fiend that Griswold portrayed. It particularly comes off as strange when talking about his relationship with Sarah Helen Whitman - the film opens by talking about how Poe was about to return home to his childhood sweetheart at the time of his death, and the down-the-middle telling of what sounds like a man looking to marry into money to finance his ambitions seems a bit in opposition to this.

Whether they reflect well or poorly on Poe, things like that are interesting stories, and Stange does a decent job of stringing them together, pointing out a lot of the other parts of the writer's career that sometimes gets lost in the shadow of his justifiably more famous horror stories - the literary criticism, the comedic and romantic material, the less-overshadowed-but-still-possibly-not-given-its-due invention of the detective story - as well as his early life. Not every chapter is thrilling, and the tracking of his vagabond progress up and down the East coast doesn't make for the sort of clear landmarks one might hope. Often, Poe's specific history is less interesting than the looks at 19th-Century America needed to put it into context, from the precarious financial positions of writers in that environment to the kidnappings which might explain his mysterious, erratic last days.

Full review on EFC.

City of Ghosts

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2017 in Somerville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

A solid documentary centered on the founders of the blog "Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently", City of Ghosts gives a brief introduction to the city in question, allows the citizen journalists to tell their own story, and, while allowing the subjects to be even-tempered, friendly people, never lets up is disdain for Daesh. It will not fully educate one on the causes and effects of what is happening in Syria, but it presents a human face to a crisis that can often seem abstract from the other side of the world.

Raqqa, the subjects point out, is not a large city, which is why, when the group known in the West as ISIS declared a caliphate with Raqqa as the capital in June of 2014, it didn't get a lot of the sort of on-site news coverage that helps shape the sense of an urgent crisis (note that "ISIS" is often called "Daesh" by Arabic speakers in opposition to the organization, as this Arabic acronym meaning "one who tramples"). To bridge the gap, a number of locals started a blog anonymously documenting what was happening, which expanded as more people began contributing video. The film introduces the viewers to several, most notably three of the founders: Aziz, a college student who was not initially of an activist bent; Mohammed, a high school teacher who becomes a reporter; and Hamoud, an introvert whose work as a cameraman gives him a taste for danger. As they become wanted men, they eventually flee across the border to Turkey, and will have to go farther to escape their foes' reach.

Filmmaker Matthew Heineman, who produces, shoots, and edits on top of serving as director, understands the perils of perspective that his sort of movie can face, a kind of survivorship bias that comes of talking to those who escaped a bad situation to be honored. He attempt to head it off early, revealing the blog's name after a photographer at an award ceremony asks the correspondents to smile for a photograph, a contrast which both pointedly indicates that, even if these guys are okay, their home is still being "slaughtered", and maybe gets audiences thinking about how much impact these stories make on them. It's one of the few times where the way he presents information is as much the point as simply putting things in front of the audience, but it's effective.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2017 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

Dealt is a frequently-delightful documentary on Richard Turner, an intriguing and entertaining man at the top of his corner of the magic business despite a major handicap to work around. It's a nifty little story that, in addition to featuring some really astounding close-up magic, manages to take a few nifty narrative turns. Indeed, it arguably wouldn't have been half the movie it is if Turner didn't change between the beginning and the end.

Turner doesn't think of himself as a magician, but a "card mechanic"; the phrase literally means he knows how to manipulate cards, but as he puts in, you get an auto mechanic to fix a car, and you get him to fix a card game. In the opening bit, he performs some amazing bits of trickery - he is the best in the world at dealing the second card from the top of a deck rather than the first, and can un-shuffle a deck - but what both the audience at the show and the one watching the movie soon realizes is that he's not really looking at them, but just a little above. It slowly dawns on them that Turner is visually-impaired. In fact, he is completely blind, having lost his vision as a result of macular dystrophy when he was a child.

Turner, to put it mildly, does not have the healthiest relationship with his disability. Early on, the main impression is that he is practical and surprisingly not bitter; there's an easy rapport to how his son Asa doesn't just warn his father about obstructions, but describes things to Richard's rapt, genuine interest. Director Luke Korem lets the audience coast on the general "that's amazing" good feeling of the premise for a while before starting to play up that Turner's desire to not be defined by his disability can border on denial, as he gets incensed when news stories about him as a card shark even mention that he is blind and he refuses on principle to use the tools that many other visually impaired folks do. This includes his sister Lori Dragt, whose own vision practically disappeared overnight at roughly the same time. By about midway through the film, the audience is starting to wonder just when their discomfort started making a dent in their admiration.

Full review on EFC.


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2017 in the Brattle Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

Whatever the heck that was, I can't say I liked it. It feels like a couple dozen ideas for jokes that were not attached to a character recognizable as an actual human being, so even when the gags themselves were executed fairly well, they still only felt like ideas: Co-writer/director Janicza Bravo and the cast worked out all the blocking, delivery, and visual presentation, but without attaching them to interesting characters, that winds up being technical exercises.

Heck of a cast wasted, too. Maybe someone other than co-writer and star Brett Gelman makes his fringe actor appealing or at least interesting enough to serve as the center of the movie, but his Isaac is a drag and in every scene. There are some good bits with Michael Cera and Gillian Jacobs as two younger students in his acting workshop whose individual talent is inversely proportional to the amount of attention and praise he gives each of them, Nia Long is appealing as a potential new girlfriend after Judy Greer's Ramona dumps him - and Marla Gibbs does excellent silent misery as the wheelchair-bound, stroke-victim grandmother at her family's cookout. The best performance probably comes from David Paymer as a heartbroken family friend trying to grab onto some sort of replacement connection as the guest at a seder.

Somewhere in that mess of characters and situations, there's potential in finding something universal in African-American and Jewish family traditions, unrequited love and loneliness, but Bravo and Gelman always go for the gag, and most of the time that joke seems too inside and never quite able to root out the funny part of weird things and situations.

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