Sunday, April 21, 2019

Boston Underground Film Festival 2019.01: Hail Satan? and Clickbait

Ah, the first day of BUFF - you stand in line to get your pass, you stand in line to get your ticket, you stand in line for your movie. If you're very lucky, as with this year, it is not raining or snowing. So that's a win.

So first up…

Hail Satan? was a lot of fun, if sometimes maybe a little too chummy with its subjects and in-line with their activities to really give a thorough look at certain angles of the story, although on the other hand, it's not as objectivity is something one can truly expect. Filmmaker Penny Lane, subject Lucien Greaves, and the Festival's Kevin Monahan led an enjoyable discussion, although it was also the sort of Q&A where there's maybe not a lot of questions coming from the audience that wasn't mostly already in the movie.

(Though maybe a different audience when Greaves visits the Coolidge for their 2pm show on April 28th)

Afterward, a marching band led those who were going to the opening night party to the Hong Kong at the other end of the Square.

I didn't follow, instead stopping in Felipe's and back for the next movie, so I missed the restaurant realizing that they had a bunch of Satanists upstairs, maybe performing another black mass like the incident shown in the movie from a few years back, and kicking them out, which is probably the most appropriately underground way for the opening night of an underground film festival to end.

The underground nature was kind of in effect at the theater for the second movie, where festival regulars Sophia Cacciola & Michael J. Epstein were there with their new film, Clickbait, and I didn't take any pictures because I was honestly anticipating a more negative account of it, since I've pretty strongly disliked their two previous films that I saw at the festival and happily sleeping in for one because that seat might as well go to someone looking forward to it.

In a lot of ways, though, it's a me problem, although I suspect that a lot of us don't really know what to do with very-low-budget, homemade movies in an era where there is so much polished work at the theater and most of cinema history is readily available in one form or another. We kind of don't know what to do with movies that aren't designed to make money, even if there are more places for them now, whether on YouTube or Amazon or various other platforms. Maybe this team didn't make their movie entirely for their circle, but you have to look at some of these movies as like fanfic or local music - often kind of rough, easily exposed to ridicule when compared to people who have had more resources and ways to refine their craft, but satisfying for their audience and context.

It's tough for me to warm up to those unless they're a lot more squarely targeted at my interests (and, sure, I've got some YouTube channels I follow that are kind of objectively terrible but satisfying), but I'll at least try not to get so frustrated about them taking up my time.

Hail Satan?

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre #17 (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

The question mark in the title of Hail Satan? does not truly indicate any sort of uncertainty; it is never unclear what sort of conclusions director Penny Lane wants the audience to draw where the Satanic Temple is concerned. Instead, it serves as the same sort of rhetorical device as the Temple itself - a quick, visible way to at least attempt reorienting one's perspective on something that can easily be taken for granted because it's so entrenched. It's a successful gambit, a good initial indication of how good both the film and its subject are at getting attention and making a point.

That may not be the entire point of the Satanic Temple, but watching them poke at attempts to give Christianity a place in secular American society (or to maintain and expand that place) is certainly the part of the film that is the most immediately entertaining. Director Penny Lane opens with footage of one of the Temple's earliest bits of activism, in which an actor stood upon the steps of the Florida State House and praised the governor for his work to return prayer to school, because it would, necessarily, include all prayer. Though that demonstration is a bit of a rough draft - founder Lucien Greaves would soon decide to represent the organization personally, rather than hiring an actor in a costume,for instance - they set the tone for later confrontations involving prayers at city council meetings, and an ongoing project of hauling out a majestic statue of Baphomet whenever someone considers placing a Ten Commandments monument on public land.

These segments amuse - director Penny Lane could spin them off into entertaining short films or magazine segments - although they could become repetitive and hollow if the film were nothing but smart-asses snarkily trying to punch back at presumptive Christians (though that does tend to be a lot of fun). The trick, both for Greaves and Lane, is to make Satanism compelling as more than just an extreme satirical counter-example, and that is arguably where the pair, in their individual ways, do their strongest work: Casting Lucifer as the embodiment of rebellion against entrenched authority and listing the Temple's Seven Tenets creates just enough of the basis for a workable belief system that even skeptical viewers may find themselves nodding along, acknowledging that it makes a sort of sense.

(Or at least, it did at this particular festival; it will be interesting to see how a broader audience reacts if the film gets on their radar.)

Full review on EFilmCritic

"Hashtag Perfect Life"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre #17 (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

"Hashtag Perfect Life" pairs with Clickbait as a sort of complement, another movie about a woman trying to control her internet fame, in this case from having a video of her, shall we say, not at her best go viral. Maddie (Erin Lovelace) goes on some sort of low-rent cable talk show or newsmagazine to clear the air, although the rictus-like smile on the face of interviewer Todd Gacc (Todd Behrend) probably doesn't bode well.

It's an odd little short, the sort that takes about 10 minutes to build to a reversal gag, not so much in terms of the situation reversing as much as suddenly going blunt after dragging things out. Filmmaker Michael Paulucci and his team do a nice job of making the internet and social media specifically a sort of low-level buzz that permeates one's life, getting louder and more insistent when it starts focusing on us specifically. Erin Lovelace does some nice work as Maddie, capturing the way people can find themselves straddling the line between being rightly stressed or aggrieved and kind of awful. Todd Behrend maybe overdoes the creepy/predatory bit as Gacc, but he delivers the best line.

This movie kind of shrugs at times, like there's no definitive thing to say about situations like this, and while "what can you do" is not the most satisfying note to end on, but it's where the world is in some ways.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre #17 (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

I haven't exactly warmed on Clickbait in the days between seeing it and sitting down to write about it - I certainly don't want to watch it again - but I've perhaps grown to begrudgingly accept that what came across as weaknesses may not entirely be so, especially for those whose ages and experiences are closer to those of its characters. It's got the same energy as the YouTube videos it comments on, and maybe that just can't translate to a feature-length film.

Not that YouTube is ever mentioned; college student Bailey (Amanda Colby Stewart) makes "flashes" for "Str33ker", her shy roommate Emma (Brandi Aguilar) often the one behind the camera. Pretty and irreverent, Bailey is popular online, but it can be hard to maintain that position especially after having broken up with fellow Str33ker star Brayden (Cedric Jonathan). To make matters worse, she's got a stalker, and the detective assigned to the case, Frank Dobson (Seth Chatfied), is lazy at best and a more or less complete moron, leaving Emma to figure out who's coming after her often-ungrateful friend.

There's a thing going on in the background where a product called "Toot Strudel" (radioactive Pop-Tarts in wacky, unappealing flavors) is sponsoring some sort of contest where Str33ker users compete to make the most popular testimonial, and it's as good an example as any of how Clickbait can often be authentic and satiric but not exactly good: Yes, it does a capable job of highlighting and exaggerating how willing internet celebrities are to monetize their work and how businesses are willing to offer them a pittance to do so, but these gags stop the movie dead and aren't very funny; they require the audience to stop and sort of performatively laugh at how they recognize the broad, knowing absurdity of it. It's dead-on in portraying a certain type of YouTube video, but whether mere replication is enough in this case is a fair question.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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