Thursday, March 29, 2018

Boston Underground Film Festival 2018.01: My Name is Myeisha & Liquid Sky

I'm not sure quite how many years running BUFF has been beset by the sort of weather than makes the Brattle Theatre's insistence that you leave the auditorium and get a new ticket so you can wait in line to get into the cramped lobby all the more miserable, as the last week of March is just a perfect chance to get snowed on if you're lucky (not lucky means cold, unceasing rain). It looked like that was going to be the case again this year, as every weather report was forecasting a six-inch Nor'easter for Tuesday before revising it to Wednesday, so I lugged the laptop back from the office on Tuesday night in order to work from home on Wednesday, and then… nothing. Clear skies all day. Felt kind of ashamed for getting worked up over nothing, but at least it allowed time for visiting the comic shop and getting food before heading to the Brattle to pick up by Kickstarter backer's packet and settle in for My Name Is Myeisha.

After which there was a Q&A, with star Rhaechyl Walker (left), screenwriter/director Gus Krieger (center), and programmer Nicole McControversy (right). It was a fairly enjoyable one, too, as they talked a lot about how the film was the adaptation of a stage play that Walker had starred in five or six years ago, and as such Krieger wanted to be very careful in how he adapted it, not changing much of the dialogue and trying to retain the dreamlike feeling of a bare stage as much as possible while still making it a movie. They did a pretty good job on that account, although Walker talked about having to regularly have people remind her that she didn't have to play all the female parts. More importantly, she spent a lot of time talking about how the role on stage was a big deal for her at a time when she was still trying to figure out her own identity and feel accepted in a lot of ways; there was a lot of confidence to Myeisha that she could use to push back when someone said she didn't belong.

After a quick circuit of the building, it was back to my seat for Liquid Sky, where it turned out that there was an effect to the weather after all - director Slava Tsukerman was meant to be there, but his train from New York was canceled; apparently the storm actually showed up at the other end of the line. I must admit, I'd never really given the idea of Amtrak canceling trains much thought, but I guess it would happen more often than the bus. Kind of a shame for the folks who came and were really into the movie and were looking into some insight or at least insane stories about making it. I turned out to not really be up for it, fatigue-wise, although I was kind of enjoyably gobsmacked by what I did see.


* * (out of four)
Seen 21 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

"Chickens" is the sort of short film (or, really, film of any length) where I understand and admire what the people involved are trying to do but don't find that the execution works well enough to really find sitting through the thing time well spent. The filmmakers have the bones of a good thriller - two cops have just shot an unarmed black man in a pizza shop, and are now trying to cover things up, holding the two remaining diners and the deaf teenager behind the counter hostage - but a lot of things don't seem to be calibrated right, so to speak. The shooter seems like he's supposed to be horrific in his racism and sociopathy, but it comes off as overacting; there's little impact to his nervous partner ultimately acquiescing. The two black diners are barely characters, and the filmmakers seem to play the counter girl's deafness kind of fast and loose.

It leads to the finale not quite hitting with the kind of irony and righteousness that it should have. The last scene or two is actually fairly well-done, but might work better if the film hadn't been wallowing quite so much in its nastiness so much as stating the problem in a way that doesn't completely overwhelm the response.

My Name Is Myeisha

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

It's a challenge to build a feature-length film around a specific, brief incident; the options generally seem to be providing enough background to lead up to it (and risk swallowing the important moment) and pointedly attacking it from different perspectives in a way that risks making the audience numb to the moment. My Name Is Myeisha tries to do a little of both, and there's no doubt that, by the end, the audience can feel the filmmakers stretching, although many will find themselves not exactly begrudging it that extension.

The incident in question (or at least, the fictionalized version presented here) takes place on 28 December 1998, the third day of Kwanzaa, which 19-year-old Myeisha Jackson (Rhaechyl Walker) figures is kind of a fake holiday. After dinner, she, her cousin Roni (Dominique Toney), and their friend Kai (Dee Dee Stephens) decide to head into Los Angeles to hit a club, but about halfway there from their home in the Inland Empire, their car gets a flat tire. Kai and Roni step away to find help, while Myeisha stays with the car, keeping her aunt's gun on her lap to discourage anyone trying to make trouble. She passes out, and when "help" comes, there's a chance for one heck of a misunderstanding on the part of responding officer Garland (John Merchant).

What Gus Krieger's film (and the Rickerby Hinds play upon which it is based) posits is that, while Myeisha may not be conscious, she is at least partly aware of her surroundings, breaking the fourth wall to describe it as "one of those dreams" where the waking world seems within reach but she is unable to move or break free. It's a choice that allows her to free-associate, make observations about her life and those of African-Americans in general, recounting memories that may or may not have any sort of direct bearing on the present situation, and speculating on what this looks like from others' points of view. That sort of loose structure can sometimes be too much freedom for a filmmaker to have, and there are moments when Krieger seems a bit too ready to range fairly far afield - it's not always an easy transition from a scene of Myeisha frozen behind the wheel of the car, describing her terror, and her standing on a bare stage, mentally debating whether she prefers Denzel Washington or Wesley Snipes, or telling the audience about her cousin who just can't do anything without injuring himself.

Full review on EFC

Liquid Sky

N/A, tending toward * * ¾-ish (out of four)
Seen 21 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, 35mm)

Well, crap, I wound up sleeping through a ton of this. Given that this 35mm screening came 35 years after it initially played Boston, it's probably going to be a while before it shows up in a theater and piques my interest again

But, then, I kind of suspect that this is the best way to experience a movie like Liquid Sky - not so much because it's such a movie about and arguably designed for altered states that exhaustion is probably the best way to simulate that for those that don't indulge, but because it's sort of sloppy and amateurish and I imagine that 112 minutes of it could become pure torture, but watching five or ten minutes of bright colors, inventive if often unconvincing special effects, silly plotting, bad acting, and psychedelic distortion at a time can be kind of fun. I mean, I didn't give one single damn about Anne Carlisle's bland model Margaret, but watching Margaret feud with snobbish male model Jimmy (also played by Carlisle with an absurd attempt at sounding like a guy) is kind of fun when my brain has no reason to care about the context. It's almost meta in ho wit leans into its ridiculous effects, but never winks.

It's a bad movie, I think, but one that may make you regret that you're not the type to be invited to the absurd bacchanalian parties is presents, much less go.

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