Saturday, November 03, 2018

Independent Film Festival Boston 2018.179: Cold War, Rafiki, Shoplifters, and Vox Lux

Today in unintentional themes, the power of pop music. Cold War lights up when "Rock Around the Clock" plays on a jukebox, Rafiki opens with a sort of poppy score that probably had me liking the movie as a whole a lot more for the good mood it put me in. Shoplifters, too, for that matter - the heist-movie music at the start was the soundtrack to a playful movie, which isn't what it wound up becoming, but that moment was still fairly fun. And, of course, it's Vox Lux's whole deal.

It was good Rafiki was such a buoying force in the middle, because I kind of didn't love Shoplifters and kind of didn't really like Vox Lux, which could have made for a long day. It didn't, though, because even though those movies didn't really click with me, I can't exactly say they were bad, or that the filmmakers didn't put a lot of interesting material into them (see also Wildlife), just that there was some part of them that kept them from fully connecting to me in the way that the filmmakers likely hoped.

It's the sort of thing that has me wondering whether I should have star ratings on my reviews or not, at least here and on Letterboxd, in part because, on the one hand, what I'm writing doesn't match the rating. On the other hand, It's probably worth noting that sometimes the merits and demerits of a film that you can break down with precise words don't match your in-the-moment reaction.

So, anyway, read the reviews, hopefully pull out more than just "he liked it/didn't like it" from them. Movies like these sometimes have reactions that take more than four characters.

Zimna wojna (Cold War '18)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 October 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, DCP)

Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War is not quite so good as his previous film Ida, perhaps because it often seems so ambivalent rather than focused, even as a grand love story. Everyone goes back and forth, alternately toward and away from their goals, creating their own obstacles despite positioning the conflict as what's between them. There's tragedy in that, the sort that even those who don't have as complicated a relationship with a nation and its repressive government as the person they love can attest to, though not always the most cinematic drama.

The film opens in 1947, with a team from the new government in Poland traveling the countryside to record traditional folk music. Wicktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are the experts, while Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) reports back to their masters. The end result is "Mazurek", an academy and performing company dedicated to promoting Polish music and communist values, and while Zula (Joanna Kulig) is not the most talented student in the initial class, she's clever and ambitious, probably what initially drives her to get close to Wicktor. It seems to develop into something more, but as Kaczmarek shifts the company's focus to propaganda from preservation, Wicktor and Irena become disillusioned. Wicktor sees an opportunity to flee during a concert in Berlin, but Zula isn't quite so certain this is a good idea for her.

Pawlikowski based this film on his own family history, and this maybe explains him being somewhat protective of it, as he and co-writers Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski let it meander and sometimes focus on interesting anecdotes rather than streamlining it and clarifying motives to keep it more pointed in a specific direction. It's a decision that can make the film feel loose and shaggy at times, but also explains why some elements get a little extra time - Wicktor working on a film score is meaningful to Pawlikowski, for example. The opening stretch of Wicktor and Irena traveling through Poland to collect its traditional music feels like it could be a film itself, or at least something that serves as the backdrop all the way through one, but serves its purpose well here.

Full review at EFC.

Rafiki (aka Friend)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 October 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, DCP)

We need more films from Africa hitting American screens in general, and not just because it's the corner of the world that often seems least represented. The poppy colors, general attitude, and rhythms of the language on display in this movie are like nowhere else, and even those of us without much personal connection to Kenya richer for experiencing them, and it being a fairly charming little story about two Nairobi girls in love doesn't hurt at all.

The first is Kena Mwaura (Samantha Mugatsia), a wiry and athletic teenager who trades barbs with guys like motorcycle cabbie Blacksta (Neville Misati), lives with very religious mother Mercy (Nini Wacera), and works in her father's convenience store. That father John (Jimmy Gathu) has another baby on the way with another woman has him the subject of gossip but hasn't really slowed his election campaign against wealthy incumbent Peter Okemi (Dennis Musyoka), which is how Kena meets Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), as Okemi's outgoing daughter with the pink and purple hair feels the need to apologize when her friends rip down some of John's campaign posters. Something sparks, but this isn't necessarily a place where two girls necessarily want to advertise that they're more than friends.

"Friends" is how the film's Swahili title is translated, and the film is a chaste enough romance that it probably wouldn't take all that much effort to reconfigure it into a story about unlikely friends supporting each other's independence and ambitions, and how that sort of solidarity cam frighten people, if the fights with various censor boards began to seem unwinnable. That Kenya is apparently at a point where the reception is so uncertain is baked into the film itself - a bill to legalize gay marriage is an issue in the campaign, and neither Kena or Ziki ever expresses much doubt about their attraction, but there's also a lot of overt homophobia that can be whipped into a frenzy without much effort. Co-writer and director Wanuri Kahiu makes it clear that this is not entirely split on age and class lines, but does do a nice job of making it clear that Ziki has perhaps been sheltered from everyday prejudice in a way that Kena has not, without spelling it out in words.

Kahiu has a nice eye for small details, like Ziki taking her shoes off before getting into an abandoned van because she immediately recognizes it as someplace that can feel like home, or how pervasive gossip and homophobia is in the community, making it properly overwhelming not by doing a conventional montage but by having the picture quickly jump between different people, suggesting how this juicy info will move around without really breaking from Kena. She thankfully doesn't over-commit to the Romeo & Juliet story, letting it hang there as a starting point without having it blot out the rest of what's going on.

Full review at EFC.

Manbiki kazoku (Shoplifters)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 October 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, DCP)

After last year's experiment in telling a more conventional, plot-oriented story, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda hs returned to the sort of decentralized look at an unusual or makeshift family that has long been his forte, and once again he's clearly at home telling a story this way. It's a specific sort of boutique-house dish that he makes better than most, and maybe not quite so abstract as it looks.

It opens with Osamu (Lily Franky), a day-worker of late-middle-age, and ten-year-old Shota (Kairi Jyo) doing a bit of evening petty theft, getting the supplies their family needs but can't afford. That family includes Osamu's wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), peep-show girl Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and grandmother Hatsue (Kirin Kiki). There's not really room for another, but Osamu and Shota come upon five-year-old Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) left alone on a porch on a cold night, looking hungrier than they are… The next morning, it's almost lucky for them that she's got bruises and apparently nobody looking for her, because the shoplifting isn't the only thing about this group that's not on the up-and-up.

That there's a little more going on here than just a poor but tight-knit family is fairly clear from the beginning, and the way Kore-eda drops scraps of information leading to the rest is alternately masterful and maddening. On the one hand, the scraps of information are just tantalizing enough to keep a viewer who likes having some sort of puzzle to play with from checking out without ever pushing the more observational material to the background, and when bits of foreshadowing do finally pay off, it fits together in very satisfying manner. On the other, it often seems as if his moments of misdirection are a bit too precise, especially in a movie where characters are not often trying to fool anybody but the audience. The conflict between the film playing as observational and deliberately holding back can be frustrating as one watches it, even if, ultimately, it is ultimately about the conflict between these people's openness and secrecy.

Full review at EFC.

Vox Lux

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 October 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, DCP)

Huh. I have apparently aged to the point where I am incapable of distinguishing pop music from a parody of such. That makes this one difficult to figure; writer/director Brady Corbet gives his story of a pop star's rise and potential stumble a heightened presentation and occasionally absurd details but otherwise plays things almost completely straight, cutting off the easy routes to mockery or earnest appreciation. It's an interesting set-up, but one which often leaves its characters and audience in an in-between spot.

Something that really does the movie no favors is the split into two very distinct halves. In the first part, a teenager (Raffey Cassidy) is the sole survivor of a shooting on the first day back from school in January of 2000, and the song she sings at the memorial service, written by her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), captures the heart of the country, with a canny manager (Jude Law) offering to guide her through her introduction to show business. It turns out she's a natural, and in fact, it's kind of unnerving how easily Celeste takes to show business after surviving a horrific act of violence.

The satire is sharp in this first act, although sometimes in obvious ways - it's got a perfect narrator in Willem Dafoe, and Corbet gives him dry lines to say about Scandinavian producers and teenaged girls flying around the world chaperoned only by an older sister who is, perhaps, not quite the responsible young woman everybody thinks her to be. The grainy photography that looks like home movie footage of a much earlier vintage doesn't just make it feel like it's slightly anachronistic, though, but makes the whole segment an extension of the opening which comes from the perspective of the shooter and plays like a recreation, and not shifting the style up almost makes Celeste trying to become a star into continuing trauma or rehab.

Not that Raffey Cassidy necessarily plays it that way; as much as we see her as sweet and kind during the shooting that, when she thinks she's about to die and there's no point in putting on an act, there's a set of fierce and frightening instincts underneath. Cassidy puts an occasional quaver into her voice that could be innocence or simply inexperience, and doesn't try to make it sound deeper or fuller even when she's highlighting how assured Celeste is, although she never sounds tentative or weak. It's a performance that encapsulates the paradoxical nature of this sort of teen idol - their appeal comes from being pristine and separate from adult concerns, but they don't even make their first step into the spotlight without incredibly driven and often unsentimental - and that tug-of-war skewers the industry as well as anything could.

Full review at EFC.

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