Thursday, May 24, 2018

Independent Film Festival Boston 2018.02: Crime + Punishment & "Arlington" Shorts

The unpredictability of festivals: Showing up well ahead of time for your first movie of the day, finding out that the documentary work-in-progress event from earlier was still going on so it's probably going to be dicey trying to make your second show two stops up the Red Line. Fortunately, that first show was the one I was most interested in for the night, and it had a nice guest presence too:

Left to right, film critic/host Jason Gorber, director Stephen Maing, private detective Manny Gomez, NYPD Sergeant Edwin Raymond, wrongfully-accused Pedro Hernandez (with little girl), and Pedro's mother Jessica Perez.

Maing and his team made a slick but not over-produced film, and it was interesting to hear him and some of the subjects talk about how they had to pick and choose what went in and where in order to construct a story and make it flow. Pedro's story, for instance, didn't last the entire length of officers' thread, so there was some care taken to not create discontinuities when cutting between them, and had more going on beyond what was shown, with Gomez eager to tell us that the DA was corrupt.

Most impressive, though, was how many of the subjects were, if not optimistic, also not pessimistic. Raymond pointed out that he was still going through a lot of the problems highlighted toward the end of the film, but didn't seem close to beaten, while Ms. Perez pointed out that several others in her family were studying criminal justice and related subjects, not necessarily as a reaction to what happened to Pedro but in part for knowing that the system won't improve until it's got different people in it.

Really hope this one gets a release of some sort beyond Frontline/PBS (which I think it's already ticketed for), the way that Abacus: Small Enough to Jail did.

By the time the Q&A was over, it was pretty likely that I wasn't going to make it to Davis in time for the 9:30pm show of White Tide, which looked like an enjoyably out-there true-crime story. So it was between Madeline's Madeline and a shorts program, and, well, after that Josephine Decker double feature at Fantasia four years ago, it's going to take multiple movies with good reviews to get me to try her stuff again.

Fortunately, the shorts program was basically the genre block and a good one, which I might have gone for anyway.

Only "Dog Out Window" director Bryan Chang (right) made it out for the Q&A, and he got the "please explain the thing that you deliberately left ambiguous" question. Someone in the audience was very certain that the girlfriend threw the dog out the window.

Crime + Punishment

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston, DCP)

At times Crime + Punishment feels like two related documentaries superglued together, as director Stephen Maing tells the stories of a dozen NYPD officers suing the department over an illegal quota system alongside that of a teenager held for a year before trial as a result of such a system. It makes for a somewhat crowded movie, but a compelling one, especially as one half of the story, at least, can have some resolution.

It opens by introducing the audience to Sandy Gonzalez, a uniformed officer in the South Bronx (40th Precinct) who writes relatively few citations and makes fewer arrests than many of his colleagues, though not necessarily because he is any less vigilant or committed. The issue is that even though such quotas have technically been forbidden in New York City for some time, officers are still very much judged on making numbers - tickets are a revenue source for the city, and it is often better to be seen as proactive (even if charges are later dismissed) than ineffective. Gonzalez, on top of contacting Maing, joins a class-action lawsuit filed by other officers who feel that their careers have stalled despite being good cops, with their lawyer employing private investigator Manny Gomez, who is also working the case of Pedro Hernandez, a teenager arrested for a violent crime on in part because the police were intent on making a quick collar.

It's no coincidence that those names are all Latin - nearly all of the plaintiffs in the suit are either Latinx or African-American, with much of the work being done within fraternities for minority officers. Ethnicity is an important factor in this story, although it's the sort where white viewers especially might bristle, seeing the relative lack of overt, slur-using racism and concluding that what these officers are seeing is a matter of class rather than race, if that. Maing seems aware of that impulse and works with it, both allowing his subjects to explain how the outcomes of this policy are effectively targeted and showing enough of the general way people interact with the police to let the audience feel the atmosphere created.

Full review on EFC

"Between the Trees"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2018 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston: Shorts Arlington, digital)

"Between the Trees" has a better set-up and feel than it has actual plot, opening with forest ranger Nat finding Harris camped out almost in Maine's "100 Mile Wilderness", in that he's familiar enough with the area and the rules to know that if he chooses to isolate himself just a few yards in that direction, he'd have to report his campsite and maybe have people looking for him. It's a clever hook that sets up the idea that a lot of trouble could be afoot.

As it turns out, those things don't really matter too much; the film jumps back as expected but doesn't have much time to push forward, or even give itself much of an opportunity to do so. On the one hand, that seems like a missed opportunity; on the other, there's no doubt that director Mandy Giampaolo makes what she's got creepy as heck. Harris initially comes off as a sort of familiar worn-down character, youthful but gaunt with stringy hair and an angry but hollow voice, so it's kind of no surprise what direction he goes, but Giampaolo and her star dive into it with delicious abandon, serving up woodland gods and nasty flashbacks in a chaotic but effective manner. It's the sort of frantic horror that often leaves a viewer not sure quite what he or she has just seen , but pretty sure how he or she felt about seeing it.

"Fish Tank"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2018 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston: Shorts Arlington, digital)

I suspect that even as stories with gay leads and horror movies both gain a certain amount of mainstream acceptance, queer horror will probably remain a bit of a niche within a niche, with the specific fears on display just a little far outside of most viewers' experience to really resonate. I suspect that there's still something universal on display in this movie about a guy (Tristan McIntyre) arriving for an online hookup already nervous - it's almost certainly going to be his first time with a man - and having every little thing that seems off freak him out a little more. It feeds into his paranoia and the difficulty of separating how his sexuality may not be wrong but maybe this other dude (Marcus DeAnda) is.

There is, as a result, a certain low-budget rawness to the movie that works in its favor: As writer/director Neal Mulani and the cast work on combining bravado and nervousness, cinematographer/editor Emily Hadley keeps the viewer furtively looking into various corners without things getting too twitchy. They create a creeping horror built in large part from what Noah takes in with him, but never able to be dismissed as simply that.

"Dog Out Window"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2018 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston: Shorts Arlington, digital)

Often, a good comedy short, even a pitch-black one, is made up of a set-up, a punchline, and just enough between to keep the latter's emergence a surprise, and I'm not sure that "Dog Out Window" really has more than the set-up, where a guy (Alec Silberblatt) dog-sitting for his ex Emma (Emily Daly) has to scramble when the dog bolts while his possibly-sociopathic current girlfriend Fran (Lauren Annunziata) visits. It gets the strong panicked moment at the start, but then really doesn't have anywhere to go before Emma returns, or even, really, after.

Maybe calling it a black comedy isn't quite fair - Fran is the only one who seems to be in that sort of movie, and Annunziata is kind of great at it, slinging dry one-liners with just enough bite to be funny but also the sort of relative lack of affect to get the audience genuinely concerned about her utter amorality. Silberblatt (who also wrote the short) is too panicked a straight man to make the right sort of contrast, but the whole deal where Jonah i's still sort of in love with Emma (despite her since realizing she likes girls) is a bit too sincere and messy to really work as a short.

"Hay algo en la oscuridad" ("Something in the Darkness")

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2018 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston: Shorts Arlington, digital)

Fran Casanova is playing with a lot of the basics in "Something in the Darkness", right down to the name that doesn't hint at anything specific but still tells the audience what they're in for. So you get a little girl (Luna Fulgencio) about to go to bed as her mother (Mariam Torres) and father/stepfather (Jonai Rodriguez) head out for the evening, but there's noises, a creepy doll that casts frightening shadows, the whole lot of it. The thing is, he's good at it; he and his crew know just how this sort of thing should be lit and colored, while the editing and the music work hand-in-hand. Everyone in the cast, especially young Luna Fulgencio are able to give a moment just the right hint of emotion and easily-grasped interconnection that the audience can feel "Darkness" as Veronica's story rather than a bunch of spooky standards stitched together.

And, maybe just as important, he's good at misdirecting the audience from it. There's a line at the start that implies that things should be a bit more in control, but Casanova is able to put it out of a viewer's mind as soon as it has served its purpose in not making them say "hey, wait…" at the beginning, calling back at the end. This is the sort of nightmare where something familiar suddenly seems unknown that seems perfectly reasonable as a kid alone in one's own dark house, but a film has to both make the audience at home and keep that familiarity from getting too lodged in their heads. Casanova manages that, so that while it's easy to look at this short days later and think it's nothing that hasn't done before, odds are that there is some genuine tension at the time.

"Hair Wolf"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 April 2018 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Independent Film Festival Boston: Shorts Arlington, digital)

White guys like me can wind up feeling weirdly cautious expressing our love of something like "Hair Wolf"; it's not exactly for us, at least primarily, and talking about how we love its sheer exuberance relative to everything else we see should definitely earn us a stern talking to about how neither we nor our outlet reviewed Girls Trip and we only saw this because it was in a package with four other movies that we only saw because we arrived too late at the theater for Plan A. I laughed hard at stuff I usually don't, but it should be clear that I'm behind and shouldn't be patronizing.

I did laugh pretty hard because of this one, though. It plays its gag of the folks at a neighborhood beauty salon changing when a white girl (Madeline Weinstein) comes in to get an "ethnic" hairstyle with jokes that are so broad that the brain starts to reject them as satire until one realizes that there's a sharp point under the broad brush. Writer/director Mariama Diallo isn't mincing words with how white people trying to appropriate black culture has some backfire, but she's also making it a lot of fun, with bold colors, rapid-fire dialogue, and style that happily puts at least one foot well over the line into being a live-action cartoon.

The fun cast is a big help, too, especially Kara Young as Cami, the who initially thinks something weird is going on and sees her friends transforming before her eyes. Diallo and Young do a pretty terrific job of playing this as both wacky comedy and horror movie simultaneously, but not a spoof so much as absurdity that has tension underneath it.

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