Sunday, June 25, 2017

Independent Film Festival Boston 2017.05: Street Fighting Men, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Dolores and The Little Hours

Another long day, this one kicking off with Sleight before getting to the festival itself, but thankfully the Sunday schedule at IFFBoston tends to give a little more time for getting back and forth between venues if you need it, even if the MBTA has inconsiderately replaced the Red Line between Harvard and Alewife with shuttle buses for the weekend. That was an okay movie; I kind of wish I'd been able to fit The Mayor into its slot instead, but weekends that are a crush of movies can sometimes mean you don't see the Korean thing.

So, starting in Somerville:

Left to right, you have director Andrew James, producer Sara Archambault, produce Katie Tibaldi, and producer Jolyn Schleiffarth. Nice folks, who talked a bit about how making a documentary like this, without a real plan but needing to stick close to the subjects, was a tricky thing to manage; there were other potential subjects who weren't used, they occasionally had to bail people out because that's how close they've grown, on top of making a film. You shoot for months to years and it winds up being a bit odd to split time between Detroit and home, especially when something important happens there.

The rest of the day was spent going back and forth, with Abacus at the Brattle and then Dolores back at the Somerville, and I'm sorry about not doing a more detailed review of that one, but for some reason I lost my notes for this day's movies and it's getting to be long enough that I really need my notes.

At least I had time to eat some before hitting the Brattle for the last film of the day, and, hey, it was a late-ish film that didn't disappoint!


This isn't really the sort of film where it would fittingly bizarre to have the Q&A be with a tiny Max Headroom that Ned wheels out on stage, although I think I'd almost want to insist on that if I were ever to see a movie where Terry Gilliam does a skype Q&A afterward. No, writer/director Jeff Baena got the full Brattle screen, but this is more fun as a picture.

It was a fun Q&A, though kind of the expected one - you apparently have fun on a set where lots of funny people get to wear costumes in the Italian countryside and say/do funny things. There was a little surprise from the audience that this was adapted from The Decameron, but Baena said that a movie like this had been kicking around in his head since he first read it, because it's one of those cases where there's a lot of funny, sexy stuff in the material that is somewhat hidden by its age and prose style.

Street Fighting Men

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 April 2017 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

You could make a heck of an intersecting-plotlines drama with the subjects of Andrew James's Street Fighting Men, and someone probably would if he'd written a magazine article about the people he met trying to get by in Detroit rather than filmed them. But he did pick up a camera, so the folks he follows all have their own stories that maybe don't play out as neatly and connectedly as a dramatist would have it, but that works for his film. A community with troubles has people with troubles.

James's cameras primarily follow three people. James "Jack Rabbit" Jackson is a retired cop, running a small plumbing and septic system business, at least during the day; at night he stakes out the drug dealers in his neighborhood, calling his old friends on the force when he thinks he can make a dent. Deris Solomon is the unmarried father of a girl who is six months old when the film starts, trying to go to school despite being an ex-con. Luke Williams works salvage and demolition in the city's abandoned houses, trying to save up enough to start his own business, but he'll soon be trying to figure out some more basic things when his own house burns down.

Their stories are frustratingly familiar, to the point where if this was a fictional film, one might ask what the angle was; Luke's house burning down down might almost seem a little too on-the-nose for a Detroit story. That ability to fit a template has its uses, of course - when a viewer thinks they know the story, then the bits that don't conform can surprise. They also don't intersect in particularly memorable ways, making the film often feel like three similar projects cut together. But that, in fact, is useful, and perhaps at the heart of the film: For all that these things are all taking place in physical proximity, and for all that the three subjects are African-American, each person is one man against a system much larger than him and mostly indifferent to his struggle. They can't do it alone, and there's not that many people who have their backs.

Full review on EFC.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 April 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

The story of the one bank to get charged with crimes as a result of the 2008 mortgage crisis may seem like potentially dry material, but it turns out to be involving and entertaining, in no small part because the Sung family who founded the bank are sympathetic and winning. They and their trial are the sort of subjects where a documentarian must feel like they're hit a jackpot early on, knowing the audience will have a personal stake even when the broader issues of what motivated out influenced the prosecution are a bit abstract. Watching it, one might almost think that the hardest part for director Steve James was worrying about which ending he was going to have to lead up to.

That bank was Abacus Federal Savings Bank, founded in the 1990s by Thomas Sung, an attorney who had been a pillar of New York's Chinatown community. It was, for the most part, a fairly well-performing lender, in large part because Sung knew his community and had a good eye for seeing which loans might be better risks than they appeared to be on paper. Of course, even if founded the business for noble reasons, by the mid-aughts Abacus had grown to be a big enough concern that the amount of money coming through was a temptation. Bad loans from one particular officer triggers a larger investigation against the backdrop of larger crimes, and soon District Attorney Cyrus Vance has decided to follow charges. Abacus is not the easy target he might have expected, though - not only is Thomas Sung a lawyer, but so are three of his daughters (two of them bank executives), and they are not the types to back down from a fight.

It's fairly clear from the start where James's sympathies lie - you don't have Thomas and his wife Hwei Lin watching It's a Wonderful Life in a film's opening minutes without drawing the line between him and George Bailey. It's a comparison that he has opportunity to return to later, when telling the story of a run on Abacus, and while it's a simple comparison, it gives the audience a fair amount of easy reference without seeming to sensationalize the story too much. This is not the same David-and-Goliath story, but it's similar, and by framing it that way, it keeps the audience from worrying too much about whatever minutiae the Sungs may have overlooked and focused on the main story of them fighting off what seems like an opportunistic prosecution of a vulnerable population.

Full review on EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 April 2017 in Somerville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

If nothing else, Dolores is an informative documentary about someone who has had her accomplishments and importance understated that also focuses on just how much various injustices are related without diminishing it as a story of an individual. After all, while Dolores Huerta was in many ways just as vital to the labor movement as Cesar Chavez, her name isn't quite so familiar.

Director Peter Bratt does what he can to change that here, and generally does fairly well by her. Though Ms. Huerta was able to participate in the production (and still seemed pretty sharp), Bratt mostly tells her story from the vantage point of those who came after her, whether her actual children or those who were inspired by her to become labor activists or other Latinx leaders. It's often an interesting division of labor, as her successors will praise and describe her clarity of vision and focused action, while her children will provide context for what the rest of her life was like as a result It's often done with a sort of resigned admiration, pointing out how they were often drafted into the movement or left with family friends for months on end. Sometimes, the viewer might raise an eyebrow at how her personal life is being downplayed at times - even while being generally sympathetic to how critics wouldn't have made as much of an issue of her primary dedication being to the cause or the multiple children she had with several different partners had they applied to a man, it certainly speaks to a tumultuous life that could not but help influence her activism.

Putting it together, Bratt manages a nice balance of mostly telling the story via archival footage while still keeping a foot in the present for context. He also seems to have a decent handle on making the material accessible to both those who recognize her name but not the full scope of her work and those of us who could perhaps use a primer on labor activism in the Twentieth Century: There's enough basic information given that one can start from close to zero before getting to uncovering the less well-known information, but it never feels remedial.

Will many people who need to be caught up on how hard people fought for some things that they take for granted? Seems unlikely; this film will likely appeal mostly to those who know a certain amount but would like to learn a little more, or who are keen to learn more about a Latina who had an impact. It does a good job of getting its information out, at least, so it's worth a watch for those who are curious.

The Little Hours

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 April 2017 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

I might not have known I needed a movie about foul-mouthed nuns and the hunk hiding in their convent as a deaf-mute before seeing The Little Hours, but I did, especially at the end of a day of serious documentaries about societal inequity. This movie is tremendously funny, but also has a weirdly sweet core under the sarcastic exterior.

Based (perhaps loosely) on a tale from The Decameron, it opens with three young women living in a convent near Lamporecchio - caustic Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) tends to shirk her chores and is the one most likely to snap at the handyman if she even thinks he is looking at her; Genevra (Kate Micucci) is eager to please, whether it be by following Fernanda like a puppy or tattling to the more senior Sisters; and Alessandra (Alison Brie) figures she's only there temporarily because her merchant father (Paul Reiser) has not yet matched her with a proper suitor. Meanwhile, in town, Lady Francesca (Lauren Weedman) has gotten flagrant enough in her dalliance with guard Massetto (Dave Franco) that Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) orders the young man put to death. Massetto escapes and encounters Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) on the road, and after Massetto does him a good turn, offers him the handyman's job, having him pose as a deaf-mute so that the nuns will not see him as a temptation. This, obviously, overestimates just how pious and dedicated to celibacy a group of women pushed out of sight by men who don't know what do with them are.

There's a certain delight in how writer/director Jeff Baena has his film set up expectations and defy them without ever actually seeming like a spoof - as much as the really beautiful shots of parts of Italy that may not be particularly changed since the film's medieval setting and simple, humble costumes may get put the audience in the mind of a certain sort of art-house picture until Fernanda starts violently berating the help on just who he thinks he is ogling the f---ing brides of Jesus Christ, that's on the viewer - he's primarily just making a raunchy comedy with a specific setting, even if he is willing to get a bit of an extra jolt by doing things contrary to the usual. So, without being anachronistic, he has the cast speak in colloquial-but-not-anachronistic American English as comes natural to them, with the one character speaking with a British accent (as Americans often do in period pieces) attacked as a foreigner despite her claims to the contrary. Baena is translating what is going on to its modern equivalents and letting the cast communicate, not trying to approximate something else that obscures how the characters would understand each other.

Full review on EFC.

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