Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Independent Film Festival Boston 2017.06: Gook and "Shorts Juliett"

Best two-screening day of the film festival, although perhaps the worst photography.

I was kind of undecided what I was going to watch Monday night, and I joked on Twitter that I opted for Gook because I would be able to just go into the theater when someone else called the film's name and just let them direct me to the proper theater without actually having to walk up to a box office and say "hey, give me a ticket to the movie named for a racial slur", even if the movie itself explains how "guk" in Korean is just "me" or "person". In actuality, it didn't work that way - I got off the train just as people were being let in - but it's a story good enough to tell regardless.

Regulars at the festival likely already know Nancy Campbell; joining her in Theater #5 are producers James Yi and Alex Chi. For a personal film on a serious subject, where a lot of people in the audience were eager to show just how much doing seeing something like this meant, it was a pretty loose, often-funny Q&A. It probably says something that at one point, Yi's phone rang and it was writer/director Justin Chon, who cursed Yi out when he tried to put him on speaker to talk to the audience. It fits with the story Yi told about what got Chon off his butt to actually make this movie: Chon was getting a bunch of calls from his agent about auditions for the parts of Korean-Americans in little side-stories of various other Rodney King anniversary projects, so he might as well make his own story.

They also talked about how lucky they were to get Simone Baker, because they were getting a lot of girls who had decent-sized parts on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon things, and they just didn't bring quite the same realism that Baker did. Looking at IMDB, her credits are scant, but she does pretty good work here.

The short filmmakers in attendance for this screening of the "Shorts Juliet" package (I think the festival labels like that so there's no confusion when they call out "shorts Bravo" or "shorts Delta" to the folks in line, but they still wind up just yelling "shorts B" and "shorts D") - "When Jeff Tried to Save the World" producer Shane Simmons and writer/director Kendall Goldberg, "So It Goes" writer/director Justin Carlton and co-star Ryan Kattner, and "The Privates" writer/director Dylan Allen.

I try to get to at least one shorts program every year, and I wound up opting for the one that had a short with an actress I liked. There's a group of folks in line every year that are all about the shorts, and I should probably try to do more of that next year - really focus on not bothering with features that have distribution, even if I do keep a list to watch when they hit Amazon or some other on-demand service. You just aren't going to see the shorts elsewhere without a fair chunk of luck or digging.

It was a lucky choice - this was a bunch of generally entertaining shorts that led to an entertaining Q&A. Goldberg & Simmons said straight-up that their movie was a feature script cut down to short length which they had hopes of using to fund a feature version, and also had a lot of good words for the bowling alley they shot in. Kattner talked about how he wasn't usually an actor or a particular fan of Van Morrison, so of course his friend had him laying around in bushes on an unseasonably cold day, getting lots of weird looks. Allen actually didn't talk much about The Privates as a band - from what I can tell poking around the Internet, the guys they cast aren't much like the old band, but raved about his miniature-makers.

Made for a very fun evening, even if it wasn't the one I originally planned (I think I had originally mapped out a night at the Brattle for Menashe and The Force). Shows how the full-festival pass is the way to go, so you can make these last-minute decisions as circumstance and opportunity allow.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2017 in Somerville Theatre #5 (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

You may feel uncomfortable asking for a ticket for this one by name, and knowing there's a scene that explains the title's etymology may not be much help. It's absolutely worth doing if you get the chance to do so, and if saying the title aloud stops you, then that's what the touchscreen kiosks at the front of the theater are for. It's a pretty terrific little film that does an excellent job of zooming in on what felt like a sidebar to a bigger news story and making it the focus.

It mainly takes place over the course of one day in Paramount, California, but that day is 29 April 1992, the day the verdict came down on the police officers charged with assaulting Rodney King and the community erupted in response. For Eli (Justin Chon), it starts out a little out of the ordinary, as he buys a few pairs of in-demand sneakers off the back of a truck in the hopes that it will give a boost to the struggling shoe store he and brother Daniel (David So) inherited from their father. Just down the street, Regina (Omono Okojie) is telling her baby sister Kamilla (Simone Baker) not to cut class and spend all day hanging around at the shoe store, although that what winds up happening after Daniel intervenes after she tries to shoplift from Mr. Kim (Sang Chon) at the convenience store again. It's not an entirely uneventful day - Eli and Daniel are at odds, and Eli winds up having to explain the word "gook" to Kamilla after some of her brother's associates tag Eli's car with it - but it's set up to be a powder keg.

A lot of Americans like to describe their country as a melting pot, but it's been aptly described as more like a stew than a fondue on occasion; rather than everything winding up together and evenly distributed, you get something chunky, and some of those metaphorical chunks don't always mix well. In this case, it often proves fascinating to observe how the Korean-American community that Eli, Daniel, and Mr. Kim belong to rubs up against the neighborhood's predominantly African-American population; it's hinted the borders have shifted a bit since Mr. Kim and the boys' father arrived, and it's an often-painful truth that, while Eli and Daniel are second-generation and fully-assimilated, the line between assimilation and appropriation changes based upon one's perspective.

Full review on EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2017 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston: Shorts J, DCP)

I wound up liking "Cycles" more when it was finished than when it started, and that's a pretty decent turn-around to make in less than five minutes. That's what this type of short has to do, as it can't help but be clear from the beginning that it's working on visual style, with two doppelgangers doing something halfway between mime and dance as filmmaker Joe Cobden cuts from one location to another, with the pair (Cobden & Marc Bendavid) always in the same position but sometimes missing a seat as the scenery changes. It's a neat trick, but seems abstract in a way that doesn't really click until Romina D'Ugo shows up. The implication is that one of them having a new girlfriend sends things out of whack for the other.

At least, that's the story I got out of it; there's no dialogue or exposition or the like. That Cobden can communicate an idea and a story here is a genuine accomplishment; it gives the short a little bit more soul than it might have had, even if it would have been an impressive display of choreography and physical acting.

"A Favor for Jerry"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2017 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston: Shorts J, DCP)

Though every piece of art is in some way influenced by the events of the world around them, there is something kind of fascinating in how director D.W. Young opted to potentially put the tone of "A Favor for Jerry" so far out of his control. At least, that is, if he shot the film sequentially on Election Day 2016 as we are meant to think, as opposed to getting a shot or three on the day (say, when its protagonist is walking through Times Square) and then playing back recorded news coverage when shooting the rest.

In some ways, it's more interesting to think about that than anything which actually happens on-screen, as Khan Baykal (playing, like most everyone on-screen, a similarly-named character) sets out to deliver weed to hippies, high-strung rehearsing actors, a guy solving a Rubik's Cube in a nightclub, and others. These encounters themselves aren't particularly interesting, small jokes or attempted exercises in tension that never quite aggregate into a particularly insightful look at New York City. There's something kind of intriguing about it as an exercise, though - this group of actors and characters is probably not pleased about the surprising Trump victory that is playing out on TVs in the background, and it's something they've got to improvise with. How does this change if Hillary Clinton is winning?

I don't really think that would make a better short film - there's something about people getting marijuana when something is going wrong from their perspective that seems like it fits better than if that thing was going right - but as improvisational exercises go, and letting fate determine a film's story the way it does real life, it's an intriguing effort.

"When Jeff Tried to Save the World"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2017 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston: Shorts J, DCP)

This is one of at least a couple of films in this block that was made as a sort of pilot for a feature, and while it's the one that would probably be easier to expand, it's also the one where I'm not really interested in seeing 80 more minutes. It tells its story well enough while leaving room for more detail, but even at 22 minutes, it just feels like another indie-ish tale of an underachiever who is putting off joining the adult world, right down to 40-ish Jon Heder playing a guy the story suggests just dropped out of college a year or so ago.

As those things go, it's not bad - writer/director/producer/editor Kendall Goldberg and her co-writer Rachel Borgo give it a fun bowling-alley setting with a group of colorful characters, and a cast that isn't afraid to go kind of big with them. There's even something enjoyable about the way that the story is clearly rushed, like they're skipping over the boring parts and the padding to give you a beginning, middle, and end as well as a nice moment for everyone in the cast. It works in large part because Goldberg has an excellent handle on the idealistic desperation that motivates Heder's Jeff, like he and everybody else are just self-aware enough to know that their attempts to save the bowling alley are quixotic, but it's worth pushing certainty back by another few hours.

It's indie comedy-drama type #4, and if you've seen enough of them to recognize it as a distinct subgenre but not enough to just groan at the sight of another one, it may be kind of refreshing to plow through it in a half hour rather than three or four times that much. Doesn't mean I'll be looking forward to the feature-length version if and when it gets made in a few years, though.

"So It Goes"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2017 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston: Shorts J, DCP)

That Mary Elizabeth Winstead has not yet become a big star, rather than someone whose name generally implies good things for whatever movie or TV show she's signed on for this year, is still a bit of a surprise to me, but it means she can occasionally pop up in something like this, a musical little lark from Justin Carlton that combines a bright, lovely sincerity with enjoyably silly slapstick to good effect.

The slapstick is, admittedly, kind of a trade-off. The center of the movie has Winstead's frustrated vocalist Sam taking a walk to clear her head, stumbling upon a guy (Ryan Kattner) with a bicycle somehow chained to his leg, and doing a song-and-dance number to Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said". It's a case where you worry that the comedic conceit takes a little more from the basic concept than it gives - the number takes place in the sort of park full of footbridges, whimsical shapes, and bright green grass that it could be a golden-age-of-Hollywood film set imagining that kind of park, and Winstead, it turns out, can sing and dance a little, so it's quite easy to feel that while there's a bit of fun to be had spoofing the sort of idealized musical number most recently flogged by La La Land, it's not necessarily as much fun as there is in doing that sort of thing really well. It mostly works by splitting the difference; it's a nice number, with some nice bits of choreography and performance, and that sometimes a guy gets tripped up because he's got an unweildy object chained to him generally contributes more in the way of laughs than it takes in the way of grace.

But it's the nice heart that impresses the most. The struggling-artist narrative is a hard sell with me - it often combines characters who seem to see the sort of life most in the audience lead as beneath them with actors who can't quite convince that this person is a brilliant exception. But I like Sam; Carlton and Winstead present her with far more doubt than entitlement, and her musical number scans much more as her regaining her confidence through an encounter with a random guy than some angel in disguise telling her that good things are coming. And, though it's kind of cheesy, I like the way that this re-found self-esteem seems to get shared with the viewer. It's a bit of a fourth-wall break to have Sam look directly out the screen and use "we" when telling her engineer that she's going to try again, but you get at least that much leeway in a musical, I think, and it seems to fit the form to end on that sort of generous note.

"The Privates"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 May 2017 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston: Shorts J, DCP)

I mentioned above that I could easily see "When Jeff Tried to Save the World" expanded to feature length even if I had little interest in watching such a movie; the converse is that while I strongly suspect that "The Privates" would flame out if you made it eight times longer and gave it any sort of coherent backstory or plot, I would watch the heck out of that thing if it promised even half of the outright nuttiness that Dylan Allen's short offers.

It just dumps you into things, quickly introducing the band - guitars and vocals by Ben Farkus (Omar Maskati) and Max Wakefield (Alex Herrald), bass and mad science by Sasha "Kep" Kepler (Lilli Stein), with drums and lab assistance provided by her sister Roka (Rachel Trachtenburg) and quickly showing how their music seems to be literally radioactive. Equipment melts, they've got to jerry-rig special equipment to keep their amps from melting, and they can't figure out why because, for all her geek chic and enthusiasm, Kep isn't really a scientist. And Allen never really bothers to explain. He just pushes on to the next bit of absurdity, doing a really fine job of escalation as crazy things happen while the Privates really can't see giving up rock and roll.

It's small pushes until an obvious but fantastic cut that you probably couldn't get away with in a feature gets a huge laugh. It's a funny cast that can either play or can mime their instruments well enough to make it work, with Lilli Stein especially great as Kep. Allen and his crew do some nifty miniature work as well, which gives their world a funky personality that fits right in with the story.

I've got no idea whether Allen intends to expand this into a feature - it feels like it could collapse under its own weight. But it's a ton of fun at this length and will hopefully get seen.

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