Friday, May 04, 2018

Boston Underground Film Festival 2018.04: Top Knot Detective, "Comedy? Maybe!", The Ranger, Revenge, and Ghost Stories

I've been pretty fortunate that, as BUFF has expanded enough to have a few weekend matinees at the Harvard Film Archive over the last couple of years, it hasn't presented me with a lot of really difficult choices. I'm generally cool with skipping the music videos and sleeping in long enough to miss the Saturday morning cartoons, so it was pretty easy to choose Top Knot Detective for the first show of the day, with a little room to eat and poke around Harvard Square before catching the comedy shorts block for the second. I could do that because I saw Spoor at Fantasia last summer, and it was fantastic.



That gave me a chance to see shorts by all these lovely people: J.B. Sapienza & Jim McDonough, nearly the entire cast and crew of of "Tiny Clones"; "Mailman"'s Eric Levy; Brian Petillo of "I Remember My First Beer, Man"; Devi Snively, who directed "Bride of Frankie"; Nicholas Santos, director of "Mother Fucker"; and Neil Cicierega & Kevin James, of "Year of the Snake", with Ryan Murphy sadly cut off because my phone doesn't take quite as wide a shot as I'd thought. It was a 14-film program and Kevin pointed out with some surprise that there were folks who left in disgust during #4, and if they couldn't make it that far, it's probably for the best. There's no way that they were up for all the menstrual blood coming later.

It was a fairly entertaining QA, although sometimes short by the nature of the comedy shorts block, because there's a point where the answer to pretty much any question is going to be "we did what we thought would be funny and I guess the programmers thought it was". One of the most memorable bits was Devi Snively saying it was a bit of an odd experience because it was the first time that her short had been part of a comedy program. She also mentioned that "Bride of Frankie" actually served as a sort of prequel for an upcoming feature, and I don't know about that; it sounded like more of a steampunk adventure than the relatively contained thing the short was.



The Ranger director Jenn Wexler was there for her movie, which was a pretty good time. She opened her Q&A with a bit of a rant against cell phones making horror movies hard, which I generally don't have a lot of sympathy for; if your horror story can't work in the face of modern technology, then there's a good chance that it's not about what really frightens a contemporary audience. It worked for hers, though - setting it in the 1980s fits for a lot of other reasons.

Amusingly, she also mentioned that the movie wasn't really her idea; it came from a horror script that a friend had written back in their film school days, a hook that she kept thinking about until the opportunity to make a feature came along. Then she ran with it, putting together a pretty strong film, one of my favorites of the festival.

Finally, we wrapped up with a secret screening, which is something I tend not to like at film festivals unless it's an open "we technically can't advertise it but we're not going to create a situation where you pass up something that interests you for something you may hate" situation. Both this year and last, BUFF avoided that by having it play unopposed, although the not-fun some friends had at last year's Buster's Mal Heart had them deciding to skip a mystery midnight. Unfortunately for them, Ghost Stories was really good, though the good news is it soon came out on both VOD and a week in local theaters. The bummer is that my guess for the movie, The Endless, didn't play, which is a shame, because it hasn't made it to Boston yet won't play Boston until late June (the Brattle just announced a "late show" booking).

"Viola Vs. The Vampire King"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2018 in the Harvard Film Archive (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

The BUFF guys are good enough at matching shorts to features that I briefly thought that "Viola vs the Vampire King" was a clip of the fake TV show in Top Knot Detective, which had me worried, because while it's kind of cute and funny, 80-odd minutes of it might have been a little much. It's kind of right on the border of where making do with relatively little goes from being impressive to ostentatious, with the crayon-drawn map and spider-web forest that seems pretty open and title character who seems like she should be a kid but clearly isn't. Like, you could have made it fit what you had, but chose incongruity.

Still, it's a fun and energetic short film that goes all in on its action, fast and frantic but, though over-the-top, not ever bad-looking the way other bits of the movie are. It's big, often-bloody action - vampires being nearly-indestructible and blood-based gives the filmmakers room for a lot of gore and mayhem to back up both combatants' trash-talk. And while it's got one of those endings that is expected less because the story leads there than because some twists are de rigueur by now, the filmmakers milk it for all it's worth, playing it out long enough to be more than just a cheap gotcha moment.

Top Knot Detective

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2018 in the Harvard Film Archive (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

Top Knot Detective is a whole heck of a lot better than the typical "fake pop-culture spoof", for a lot of little reasons. That is generally the way these things work: It's not necessarily easy to come up with a fun idea for a mock-documentary, but it's also not exactly hard, and the gap between the obviously dumb and obviously brilliant ones is thin; enthusiastic improv can spin that into enough material that the filmmakers will need to cut down rather than pad out most of the time. It's the folks who consistently make the silly bits engaging or show that there is an actual plan without seeming to rein themselves in that create something worth a look.

The fun idea here is "Ronin Suri Tantai", a short-lived Japanese television series in the 1990s that developed a cult following in Australia despite running just once under the name "Top Knot Detective", with VHS tapes passed around since. It was created by and starred Takashi Takamoto (Toshi Okuzaki) as Sheimasu Tantai, a masterless samurai looking to avenge his master and defeat his former best friend Kurosaki Itto. Ostensibly a mystery show, it soon had Tantai having ever-more bizarre adventures, as the self-destructive Takamoto feuded with his employers at Sutaffu Corporation - with Chairman Moritaro Koike's son Haruto (Masa Yamaguchi) playing Itto. The early recasting of the show's female lead turns out to be just the start of the chaos involved.

It's not a real show, of course, but filmmakers Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce put some care into making it feel just genuine enough, and not just by getting Des Mangan and folks at an anime convention to play along. They create just enough in the way of Top Knot Detective artifacts to sprinkle in the background of interview sequences to make it seem like part of the culture but not overwhelming enough to give the game away. There's the usual loving attention to cheap/tacky detail in how they stage the fake clips, but also the sort of restraint that isn't always there; there's little (if anything) here that crosses the border between "stuff that looks authentically 1990s" and "goofy things they might have done in the 1990s with modern CGI". The behind the scenes details feel right; it's kind of generally insightful about the entertainment industry without seeming to hit anything too specific.

Full review on EFC

"I Remember My First Beer, Man"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Comedy, Maybe; digital)

Ah, the escalating-unfortunate-voicemail gag, the very similar-looking brother to the escalating-bad-message-on-the-answering-machine gag, and apparently not quite so endangered despite people hating voicemail. It just doesn't work as well with texts, though, so it's quite possible that Brian Petillo's take on it could be something close to the format's last hurrah.

If it is, it works in large part because it's even more off-kilter than usual, with a weird sort of desperation from caller Richard (Richard Chiu), drinking to excess to try and find some common ground with the guy he dropped off a few nights earlier. It's not just the usual bad decisions which will be soon regretted, but more basic uncertainty; Richard isn't really sure he wants to drink, and there's a certain question of whether his new friend is into other guys. It's a fun play on how weird it is that society has built this whole system on behavior that impairs good judgment, but played loose enough that it's the awkward jokes that show up, not any looking down on it.

"The Break-Up"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Comedy, Maybe; digital)

It's kind of easy to overdo talking about why goofy shorts like this work, because it almost seems like a paradox: It hits something square on the head amid a lot of good lines, and while those good lines are what make it work as comedy, the idea is what holds it together, and gives you something to talk about rather than just rattling off jokes.

In this case, that means hopefully not minimizing what is actually a fun set-up well-executed, as a nervous guy tries to break up with his lady-friend who has clearly instigated every bit of trouble he's ever been in in his life. They play it as a fun role-reversal and banter about the escalating insanity well, well enough for that to be the entire joke. The short is simple visually - two people on a park bench - but filmmaker Tim Butcher knows when to get both characters in the same shot and when to jump between. But ultimately it's the punchline, which is kind of funny but not a great joke in and of itself, that winds up working in large part because it does provoke something in the audience like, yeah, this might be tougher than what's typically associated with the title. Which is pretty nifty, but it's pretty easy to get carried away and give it more importance than how this short movie has a lot of funny jokes.

"Mother Fucker"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Comedy, Maybe; digital)

I'm not saying that reviewing this is pointless - it's a funny little short that does a nice slow burn, turning the awkwardness up before springing the end on the audience quickly - but the title is pretty much the punchline, and talking about it even this much has probably ruined it.

It makes for a kind of weird existence for this movie - it works perfectly well as something kind of anonymously buried in the middle of a shorts block, but go looking for it on its own, or stick it on the front of a feature where everyone has seen what short is attached from the program, and it's maybe 50% as effective. I wonder if the filmmakers were thinking of that when they were making it.

"Year of the Snake", "Third Wheel", "Gene Lover"

* * ¾-ish (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Comedy, Maybe; digital)

It's been a month and I've pretty much got just the vaguest memories of these three shorts from the middle of the festival. They weren't bad at all, though they all kind of played like YouTube shorts with a couple good absurdist images and trouble with sticking the landing.

"Tiny Clones"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Comedy, Maybe; digital)

This one is kind of in that bucket in terms of being a wacky idea without a whole lot to brace it, but it at least sticks out because near-one-man-band Jim McDonough makes it striking, playing multiple roles, setting it in a weird, memorable location, and hitting the proper deadpan attitude toward its fantastical premise head-on in a way a lot of shorts don't.

It's mean, though, in a casual way that doesn't make me laugh the way a lot of other dark comedy does. Combine it with the look that seems as much intentionally cheap as scrappy, and I have a hard time digging the dark whimsy that went into it.

"Robo Greaser"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Comedy, Maybe; digital)

"Robo Greaser" appears to be the official title of this short, but I'm pretty sure it appeared on-screen as "Robo Greaser Fag" - which is what the title character is called through much of the movie - and that kind of puts a different spin on it, highlighting the cruelty visited upon the guy as much as the goofy mash-up nature of the title character. And I kind of don't get it - sure, I know that there are a ton of people out there that indicate their disdain for anyone around them with that particular three-letter-word, and I guess there's something to making a short about people treating the weirdo like crap even when he's kind of a miracle of engineering, but it seems like a carefully considered way to do this in the least funny way possible. It's blunt and cruel but not twisted into something clever.

Which is a bummer, because Eli Gottfried plays the earnest but occasionally inappropriate android in broad, entertaining fashion, and co-writer/director Dakota Arsenault is good at creating a vibe of eccentric innocence about him, even if she is frequently going to puncture it. There's not a lot of story, but there's just enough to sew the plentiful physical comedy together.

"Flow"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Comedy, Maybe; digital)

It's not sophisticated humor, but "people arguing over bathroom stuff when there is arguably much more serious stuff going down" is one of the most solidly reliably comedy tropes there is. It can be messed up by getting too scatalogical too fast, or getting too cutesy, but there is something undeniably delightful about the embarrassingly mundane making its way into the melodramatic.

So, yeah, I laughed pretty hard at this short about two guerrilla fighters grumbling about how impossible it is to remain supplied with tampons in the middle of a revolution. It's got a neat bantering/bickering pair in Jamie Birkett and Lucy Clements, and writer/director Shelagh Rowan-Legg has it paced nicely, making the comedy dark without bringing the audience down and finishing up before the joke stops being funny.

"BFF Girls"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Comedy, Maybe; digital)

Coming right after "Flow", "BFF Girls" feels like a lot of menstruation humor, but we're probably kind of due until they catch up with the number of random erection jokes that have been a staple of raunchy comedy for the past forty years. It stretches a bit further to make them, a bit more into the range of "hey, we're sticking something gross into something cute, isn't that edgy?" territory, but there's broad wackiness to it for that to work. Director Brian Lonano and co-writer Victoria Cook go from the goofy starting points of magical girl anime/manga and the foreign fandom thereof and do a nice job of escalating the gags in both big and little steps, and the cast and crew hit the target with just the right blend of wide-eyed innocence up front and self-awareness behind the camera.

This does kind of leave the satire in the movie feeling about a mile wide and an inch deep: Every bit of the way they put it together seems to be saying that when you look at this stuff, even the most charming gets kind of pervy, from the obviously adult actresses playing pre-teens, to how these North Americans actually become Japanese when they transform, to the creepy older dudes paying a lot of attention to them coming of age. It's actually good material, but it does kind of play like the filmmakers are saying "hey, we noticed this!" and then stopping there.

Which is fine, they've got the jokes and the energy to make it work. I've still got to wonder what "BFF Girls" would have been like if the claws were out.

"Bride of Frankie"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Comedy, Maybe; digital)

Somebody is going to watch "Bride of Frankie" and describe it like "what if Frankenstein had been written by a woman, and that's an invitation to a well-deserved roasting, but it's also a fair way to describe the film's feel if not its intent, as it tweaks Bride of Frankenstein by positing that Baroness von Frankenstein is just as sharp a scientific mind as the Baron, and there will be no simply creating the Bride just to please the Monster, spending a lot of time on how both the Monster and his creator take their brides for granted, mulling relationships rather than spreading carnage.

But that's by no means a bad thing, and writer/director Devi Snively gets a lot of solid laughs out of the premise despite, as she points out, never really looking at the movie as a comedy when she was making it. She winds up investing the short with an impressive melancholy without allowing that sort of material to make a movie where most of the main characters are sewn-together corpses and the most reliable comic relief is a ⅙-scale homonculus ballerina (a loving reference to the most off-handedly bizarre part of James Whale's Bride) mundane. It's a nifty take on the material that works better as it becomes clearer that Snively isn't going to steer it hard in either the spoofy or horrific directions.

"Freelancer", "Postman", "End Times"

Seen 24 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Comedy, Maybe; digital)

Another set of three short films that didn't make enough of an impression on me that I can honestly give them a true review a month later. "Freelancer", at least, had a memorable concept, in which a videographer believes he is being hired for some sort of boring rich-person event and winds up in the middle of the summoning of an elder demon, with all hell literally breaking loose. It's probably the one that I'd most enjoy seeing expanded to a full feature, as it feels like it could hit a real sweet spot between high-concept adventure and nasty farce.

The Ranger

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival; DCP)

The Ranger is a damn fine 1980s throwback slasher that does every facet of the genre just a little better than you might expect. That's not necessarily enough to earn a recommendation - enough movies are made about folks getting cut up with an axe every year that even with a 95% failure rate, that's a fair amount of "pretty decent" - but Jenn Wexler hits the sweet spot here, making a movie that's got something on its mind aside from the genre itself but still manages to be bloody and entertaining before everything else.

It's sometime in the 1980s, Chelsea (Chloe Levine) is in her early twenties and into punk rock, in one of those situations where the line between a band and its hangers-on is kind of fluid. That's how she ends up in a van with boyfriend Garth (Granit Lahu), "Jerk" (Jeremy Pope), Abe (Bubba Weiler), and Amber (Amanda Grace Benitez), running from the cops after a whole drug-gun-car situation gets messy. She's told them that she inherited a cabin upstate, and they immediately figure that would be a great place to hide out. It soon seem like a less-than-great idea - her friends don't know the first thing about the outdoors, even without a ranger (Jeremy Holm) warning them that the area around the national park isn't same. Kind of unnervingly, he's the same ranger that was there the last time she was up, finding her after her Uncle Pete (Larry Fessenden) died suddenly.

Director Jenn Wexler and her co-writer Giaco Furino give the audience and the punks some getting-to-know-you time before the carnage starts, but when it does, the filmmakers have an enjoyably traditional take on it: They're (mostly) in the woods, the weapons are basic rather than supernatural, and they leave ugly, bloody wounds that give the kids obstacles and let the killer hit people twice. It's not winkingly self-referential, and it's not terribly subversive; it's a maniac hunting young people down, executed by folks who know their gore, working better because Wexler and her crew edit in a way that continuously tightens the noose after giving the audience just enough lay of the land to figure out just how dangerous a situation can be. It's sharp filmmaking that knows how these movies work.

Full review on EFC

Revenge (2017)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival; DCP)

Revenge does what it says on the package - it's a gory, effective rape-revenge picture with moments that are not for the squeamish. It's a lot of violence, maybe more than some are going to be up for, but it's well-staged and good-looking as well as blood-soaked.

It opens with Richard (Kevin Janssens) and his mistress Jen (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) arriving at a fancy vacation house isolated enough that they have to arrive by helicopter. It's fun for a day or two, at least until the other guests - Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouch├Ęde) arrive a bt early. Richard, it seems, was planning two vacations, a romp with his girlfriend and then a hunting trip with the guys, and while they seem to get on well enough, Jen is attacked almost as soon as Richard steps out for a bit - and he does not respond as his girlfriend would hope at all. Lucky for them, she seems to have been pretty definitively dealt with.

Or not; the film is not a ten-minute short named "Rich Men Get Away with Everything". Taking that as a given, writer/director Coralie Fargeat creates an impressive amount of uncertainty as things kick off with a jaw-dropper of a big moment that puts the audience on its back foot and then leads to a bunch of sympathetic groans through much of the film. It's a gruesomely symbolic way of showing the audience how Jen has been violated, one that she carries around for as long as the movie can justify it. It lets Fargeat work her way back up, and she doesn't back off handing the audience another few strong visual cues - not only does Jen soon emerge from a cave as if reborn, but the camera goes up and down her body in the same way it did when she sashayed off the helicopter, this time highlighting tense muscle instead of soft curves.

Full review on EFC

Ghost Stories

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: Secret Screening; DCP)

Ghost Stories is an effective anthology of sorts, the cinematic equivalent of variations on a theme that certainly has room to play. It perhaps puts a little too much effort into giving itself a clever twist in the last stretch so that it can be a feature rather than a set of short stories, but the three episodes that make up the bulk of the film are impressive on their own, combining classic supernatural situations with humans' willingness to scare themselves.

That's the explanation offered by Professor Philip Goodman (Andy Nyman), introduced shooting a documentary meant to debunk "psychic star" Mark van Rhys (Nicholas Burns). Goodman was inspired by another paranormal investigator, Charles Cameron, who faded from public view decades ago. A mysterious message summons Goodman to meet his mentor, and he's handed three cases that the old man wasn't able to completely debunk: Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse), a former security guard who saw something at a shuttered mental hospital; Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), a teenager who hasn't been the same since his parents' car broke down on the way back from a party; and Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman), whose unused nursery has allegedly been haunted by a poltergeist since the loss of his wife (Emily Carding).

These are all elemental, well-worn tales of the supernatural; there's nothing in the main three or the initial framing sequence of skeptics wrestling with their own expectations that horror fans haven't seen before, and even those that don't consume large amounts of spooky stuff can recall a tale or two around those general themes. Filmmakers Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman don't necessarily break new ground with the specific stories, but they've built themselves situations where they don't need to: With each getting twenty-five minutes or so, they've got just enough room to stick to the basics, add in a few memorable details, and then get out before things start to collapse. It's the right amount of detail to keep things ambiguous, too, with nothing that would necessarily convince a skeptic but plenty to freak a person out.

Full review on EFC

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