Thursday, May 10, 2018

Boston Underground Film Festival 2018.05: "The Ghost in You", MexMan, Tigers Are Not Afraid, and Good Manners

BUFF can fill a weekend up, and staying up for the midnight secret screening, so I was just not making it to the noon presentation of "Something Wicked This Way Comes", which in the couple years since Wicked Bird Media showed a promo reel at the 2015 Etheria Film Night has apparently transformed from a documentary feature to a web series, probably a better format for it. I woke up early enough to make a decision between the animated shorts and the feature Daha, and went with the shorts.

The four filmmakers there this year were Kristin Pearson ("Sugar"), Eric Ko ("Divided by Blue"), Cameron Stetz ("4th House"), and Natalie Vinciguerra ("The Shepherd"). I'd like to talk about their films more, but it's been a month, and to tell the truth, it was not necessarily the group I expected, more the experimental and meditative side of underground than the over-the-top and wacky one. Interesting direction to go, but I only wound up having strong feelings about one, "The Burden".

Next up was Josh Polon (left) to talk about his film MexMan, a neat documentary about a filmmaker who got some interest in making a feature from his student film but… Well, he wasn't ready, and I wonder a bit if not being ready then has hurt his chances on other projects since then. It's a nice, well-balanced film, with Polon talking about how there was a lot of consideration of presenting certain people as antagonists versus villains.

Last guest of the festival is Issa Lopez (left), here carrying Estrella's stuffed animal, saying that she never figured to be the lady who brought something like that to festivals and appearances, but people soon started asking about it, so…

She also had one of the more amusing stories of how circumstances can change independent or low-budget films, because the script initially specified that the drug lord in the movie had a zebra, but the producers could not find one near where they were shooting. They could find a hippopotamus, but that was not going to be something she could easily work into the movie - hippos are huge and their jaw can absolutely destroy you, but they're not exactly mobile and cinematic outside the water. That's when they found out they could get a tiger, at which point Lopez goes oooooh, of course…

Nifty Q&A all around; she seemed much more interested in talking about the movie and what it was saying rather than just relating funny on-set stories than is typical. Not to the point of dictating what she thought and therefore you should think to, but not pretending that everything came out of her head fully-formed but completely open to interpretation the way so many filmmakers do.

Nobody came to Boston from Brazil for Good Manners, and I was ready to drop rather than go to any sort of awards party (keeping a 50-odd-festival streak of not doing so alive!). So my friends and I headed home, went to work the next day, and told everybody who asked what we were up to that this remains one of the best film events to hit the Boston area on a yearly basis.

"Min börda" ("The Burden")

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: The Ghost in You; digital)

A month's worth of distance before actually writing these reviews makes "The Burden" stand out from the rest of the package even more, not so much because it differs from the rest of the shorts in tone (it was a surprisingly melancholy, detached-feeling program), but because stills from it would soon be used to advertise a kid-friendly shorts program that played a couple spots in the area over the next couple weeks. It seems like it would be unconventional in both spots.

It's kind of a fascinating kind of weird, though, a stop-motion picture set in the various parts of a suburban sprawl, with gigantic supermarkets, cafeterias, call-centers, and residential hotels, populated by anthropomorphic animals who sing Swedish songs of longing. It's beautiful, though, reveling in how some things don't fit - the fish in the hotel, the rats cleaning the tables - and sneaking bits of hope and dreams in where you might not expect it. The songs are simple and create a mood that holds up for the length of the short but still has room for variation.

Are the kids who see it in that other program really going to pick up on the sense of isolation and lack of identity that those spaces create, separated from the rest of the world? Probably not. But they can enjoy the singing fish, dancing rats, and frustrated orangutans while maybe grasping that animation can be used for something more than slapstick and adventure.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival; DCP)

There's an obvious comment to be made about how you see the producers in MexMan as antagonists or villains based on your own age and experience, but it's probably an important part of how people are going to approach this documentary about a man trying to make a feature version of his student film. It's equal parts being changed by his enthusiasm and alarmed by the mania, to an even greater degree than is usual with scrappy young artists. Documentary director Josh Polon finds a nice balance, fortunately, and even if you can easily see where it's going to wind up, it's at least an entertaining trip.

The young man in question is one Germán Alonso, a young Mexican man who has been doing stop-motion animation since he was a kid before attending film school at the University of California, where he made an eye-catching comedic superhero short, "MexMan", as his graduation thesis project. It caught the eye of producer Moctezuma Esparza, who was interested in developing it as a feature, but who wanted Alonso to pass some smaller tests before handing him the reins to a feature: Film an action-oriented sequence within three months, have a completed script in six. In the meantime, he's got an ambitious side project - a graphic novel made from his stop-motion marionettes meant to declare his love for the girl he's had a crush on since they were teenagers.

The audience doesn't see this woman during the film despite the fact that a number of folks with whom Germán has likely burned bridges with but good were willing to sign a release, and a savvy documentary watcher is likely to pick up on that early. Polon recognizes this and makes interesting use of that absence - as much as watching Germán work on this project almost certainly makes for a more visually interesting movie than the less dynamic processes of screenwriting and pre-production, it gets to the heart of both Germán's best and worst properties: You see the passion and the creativity, but also the extent to which he'll completely discount other voices or have severe issues with prioritization.

Full review on EFC


* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival; DCP)

I feel a bit like I'm missing the point every time I watch something at BUFF or a similar event and think that it could probably use, say, 30% less violence, but that's where I wind up finding myself with "Petul": It's got style, quality visual effects work/animation, excellent combination of fantasy and reality so that one enhances the other, and, yes, the sort of shocking violence that leaves an impact on the viewer. It just kind of keeps going with the last bit, getting some serious diminishing returns.

It's still a heck of a nifty little short, though, with a T-rex-legged rodent standing out from among the box of mice that a cruel family is going to us for bizarre drug testing or the like the same way that a sad, kind-hearted girl (Lola Alvarez) stands out from her family. Filmmaker Charles Cheval does something a little unusual with this arrangement, not necessarily giving the animals human intelligence or personality so much as simplifying his human characters to bring them closer to the animals from the other direction, with François Marin-Ricci's head of the family a roaring monster and Quentin Herlemont's brother-figure engaging in some behavior that may be nonsensical but is pretty clearly not good. The mice, at least, seem like they may have a desperate chance of escape, and Cheval stages their attempts impressively, even if many are gruesomely thwarted. There's just enough going on with the humans to keep it from being abstract.

Cheval and his team do neat things here, and the point where nasty violence being effective and it being something that makes one turn away (or, worse, get bored) is different for everyone. Writing about it later, I'm inclined to praise how well "Petul" was put together even if I felt some relief at it being over at the time.

Vuelven (Tigers Are Not Afraid)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival; DCP)

Movies like Tigers Are Not Afraid have a tendency to start deconstructing themselves before the very first scene, and this one is no different, with narration about fairy tales and magic, hints that Estrella (Paola Lara) may be embellishing the tale as she tells it and tries to understand it. This is maybe not literal, filmmaker Issa López seems to be saying, but it's certainly how things feel to someone like Estrella, so let's try to both avoid picking nits while also thinking about why she'll approach it this this way. It can be a transparent gambit, though López's film rises well above that.

Estrella is writing a fairy tale when a gunfight between narco gangs spills over into her school, and it seems like she's been somewhat sheltered from her city's violence until then. This day, though, she goes home to find her mother not there, and soon goes out looking. She falls in with a group of orphaned boys with "El Shine" (Juan Ramón López) as their de facto leader. The group has a target on their back, in part because Estrella doesn't really know how to survive on the street, and in part because Shine has picked the pocket of gangster Savando "El Chino" (Tenoch Huerta), leaving with not just a gun, but Savando's phone.

A surprising amount of these circumstances tie together, even though there's not necessarily any reason for them to, and storytellers will often use the climax of a film like this to drive home the point that there's not a greater connection, and that a lot of the world's cruelty goes hand-in-hand with its randomness. López finds something of a sweet spot where there's just enough plot to hold things together but not enough that solving a puzzle ever becomes more important than just observing these kids and worrying about how they handle the present moment. López will occasionally take a detour to the gangsters and push things forward a little, solidifying that while much of what's going on seems arbitrary, it makes a sort of sense and isn't all just magic.

Full review on EFC

As Boas Maneiras (Good Manners)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival; DCP)

Good Manners is one of those movies that is split close to right down the middle and thus sets itself up for a fall, because the odds that it's going to do two unusual things really well are slim. It's also possible that one just works better, making the other look bad. That's the case here; the first half works in a way that the second doesn't, even though it's not hard to imagine that part working well on its own or even if handled differently here.

It opens with Clara Marcedo (Isabél Zuaa), an unemployed woman behind on her rent to the point where her landlady (Cida Moreira) is starting to just walk into her apartment to take things to sell, arriving at a Sao Paolo high-rise for a job interview. Ana (Marjorie Estiano) is pregnant and needs some help around the apartment - she comes from a well-off family and has never really done much for herself - and a nanny after her baby is born. As the pair grow closer, it soon becomes clear that Ana is having an unusual pregnancy, with sleepwalking and alarming cravings reaching their peak during the full moon, and if what Ana reveals about the father is true… Well, it certainly explains what is going on with son Joel (Miguel Lobo) ten years later.

Both halves of the movie come at their material from different angles, using the idea of lycanthropy to tell stories of isolation and shame. It's less supernatural and more human in the first half, where Isabél Zuaa and Marjorie Estiano don't have to spend a lot of time playing horror tropes with a straight face. Instead, they just play lonely people feeling each other out, with Estiano's Ana especially interesting as she becomes more fully aware of how she's been exiled and shunned as the film goes on. She doesn't outwardly change that much, but it's enough for Zuaa's Clara and the audience to start seeing her as more than just a semi-clueless wealthy employer, but someone with the same sort of loneliness as her. As the fantastical elements become more important, it's easy to see the truth in how Clara's alarm quickly transmutes to protection.

Full review on EFC

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