Saturday, July 06, 2019

Boston Underground Film Festival 2019.05: Assassinaut, A Lot Like Life, Canary, Happy Face, and The Unthinkable

Will not go crazy with the shorts like I did in the last BUFF post. Will not!

(Did)



First up, the crew from Assassinaut, who made what was often a very impressive little movie although they occasionally confessed to winging it or putting a bit in that maybe didn't make complete sense but which was cool. I kind of think the prologue and revisit at the end were like that - I apparently got a completely different impression than what they were going for, and didn't feel entirely set straight when it was done.

I also kind of got the impression that the filmmakers at times had a little more trouble with the on-again, off-again schedule that independent films can have, or at least more than they usually let you see - that raising money, shooting, raising money, shooting at a different location, raising money, doing effects, raising money, doing other post-production, raising money, submitting to festivals… there can be gaps in there where it's hard to get rolling again with the same enthusiasm one had before. Not many admit it, especially at a festival where one's excitement is at such a high level, but I suspect it happens with a lot more of these movies than people will admit.



Next up was the animation program, with (l-r) the festival host and filmmakers Ashley Gerst of "The Spirit Seam", Yasmin Mistry of "For a Better Life", Simon Allen of "Mother's Peak", Elena LaCourt of "Maintain Yourself", Santiago Castaño of "Morphosis", and Diedre Beck of "Night Train". As is often the case with this block, the introductions took place before the films, so there really wasn't much chance to talk about them.



Last guest of the festival was Alexandre Franchi of Happy Face. It's always a bit odd for me to see Montreal films at BUFF (though there's often one there), like I'm supposed to see them at that city's festival even if they fit this one better. A big topic for this conversation was casting, which was tricky - people who look like those in this movie often don't go into acting, so you get a mix of amateurs and professionals, and it's hard to ensure that there's no exploitation.

… so that's a wrap on BUFF, which means I've got a whole other festival to write up before heading to Montreal in, yikes, five days.

"The Obliteration of the Chickens"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

Izzy Lee's short goofing on/paying tribute to the inimitable Werner Herzog has at least one line that was good enough to write down, and a number of others that are pretty all right, and given that it is basically a few minutes of author Bracken McLeod doing stentorian oration over images of seemingly pointless minor chaos, that's a win. Not everyone's going to land, but she got me to laugh, and it was good.

I do wonder, a bit, if celebrating this aspect of Herzog in isolation does him a bit of a disservice. You take the seemingly-nihilistic quotations made in a manner that is too dry to be arch, and you lose the fact that this part of his personality is the complement to a powerful curiosity which otherwise animates his films. Izzy has some fun here with the things that get Herzog noticed, though perhaps not what makes people fans.

Assassinaut

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

On a scale of Turbo Kid to Prospect, Drew Bolduc's Assassinaut probably lands closer to the latter; in terms of the amount of youthful exuberance on display (or relative lack thereof). It's a bit of sci-fi horror that is not messing around any more just because most of its characters are kids, but that also helps it feel a bit more thrilling and enjoyably homemade than the same movie with gorwn-ups might have been.

The first of the kids the audience meets is Sarah (Shannon Hutchinson), about 15, selected for a trip to space to meet the President of Earth, though her former-astronaut father (Jeffrey Alan Solomon) has his eyes much closer to the ground these days. There are three others - Tom (Johnathan Newport), a pre-teen who is already a cynical-enough know-it-all to see this as a publicity stunt but one that will look good on his transcripts; Brooke (Yael Haskal) the most openly enthusiastic; and pretty but shy Charlie (Jasmina Parent). The initial meeting goes well, but soon the station is under attack, and the kids are sent down to an unknown planet in an escape pod, with a gruff, wounded officer (Vito Trigo) needing their help as much as they need his. Plus, it seems that the terrorists from the station are not their only concern.

Parts of the film display extremely impressive genre fundamentals, and not just in terms of quality gore. The attack on the station, for instance, is a nifty little piece of work, giving the kids plenty to do while also not putting them immediately and improbably at the center of the action. The folks around them are doing what they should be doing, and even if they're not long for the film, they're fleshed out enough to be interesting. Bolduc spends a little time setting the stage in interesting ways, giving the audience the feel if not the full layout of the space and including touches that make this sort of violence seem inevitable. When the people in power are trying to go for JFK's "we will go to the Moon" speech and it comes out unnerving, there are going to be uprisings.

Full review on EFilmCritic

"Maintain Yourself"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: A Lot Like Life, digital)

Lots of respect to this bit of stop-motion, which packs a lot of grooming-related discomfort into four minutes. It's an impressive example of what this particular medium can allow director Elena LaCourt to do, as there's a sort of inherent distortion to the doll-sized figures and faces that can't venture too far from one expression. It makes what many do to conform to societal standards of beauty seem like a twisted misery, and if nothing else, that certainly makes this an effective short film.

"The Spirit Seam"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: A Lot Like Life, digital)

There's a nifty sort of folk-art look to Ashley Gerst's "The Spirit Seam", all her characters featuring beads for eyes and clothing that sometimes seems made from scraps, toys meant to be played with and worn out. It's a look that matches the setting, as Polliwog and her Pap-Paw live in an Appalachian company mining town, which itself can be a rough, eroding existence. That rears its head as Pap-Paw's health quickly fails, trigger both an end to innocence for Polliwog and the practical questions of how she'll get on now that the place where she lives has chewed up everyone she loves.

Even with that as the focus, there's still a great deal of the bucolic about "The Spirit Seam"; a hand-drawn map that connects reminds the viewer how such towns are both close and open, and there's sheer joy as Polliwog and Pap-Paw play together, the sort that's different for seniors and kids but complementary. It's deliberately a bit scrappy to keep one from romanticizing it too much, but serves to remind the audience that what happiness was found in these situations was real.

"Phototaxis"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: A Lot Like Life, digital)

To what extent is The Mothman a thing people know about? I ask because, as someone who can say he's heard the name but has no idea what its deal is, I suspect that Melissa Ferrari's sometimes difficult to classify film might play better with a little knowledge. It's perhaps not vital, but just knowing where all of this is in the cultural context, and the general details of it, might be useful in stitching together how she sees the urban legend and the narcotics addiction in the places it is best known intersecting. I don't have that.

Even without it, though, I liked her film; it balances the otherworldly and the sadly down to earth well and finds a common link in their sense of doom. It uses the sort of limited model-making that sets an atmosphere well and is all the spookier because the camera sometimes seems to be doing most of the moving. I don't necessarily know more about the Mothman or addiction because of it, but I've got a sense of how they can seem connectedly apocalyptic.

"For a Better Life"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: A Lot Like Life, digital)

Yasmin Mistry's "For a Better Life" is a great example of how well the sometimes-strange combination of animation and documentary can be strikingly informative. Without the animation, it's a guy talking, maybe with his face hidden for anonymity, and the filmmaker trying to figure out a visual that matches. Realized like this, Mistry can fill in the blanks that her subject normally just assumes, and can sometimes tamp down the intrusiveness of the camera, letting him tell his story without invading his space as he tenses up or recoils.

His story is harrowing, a tale of human trafficking and abuse that is presented almost casually at times, not so as to be cynical but to keep focus on this person's survival and recovery rather than the natural anger toward those responsible. The animation is simple but effective, and doesn't make a show of transitions in the way that some animated films built around a piece of narration will. Mistry also does a nice job of being specific without positioning the characters and institutions involved as uniquely good or evil, and that's important. This is stuff that is best understood through experience but which needs to be seen as problems general enough to be tackled and solved.

"Night Train"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: A Lot Like Life, digital)

A nifty-looking film built around silhouettes and driving out to the railway crossing to watch the train go by. Not a whole lot of story there - Deirdre Beck's film is two minutes long, after all - but the atmosphere is terrific and the sense of adventure and seeing the train as a massive, powerful thing that cuts through everyday life but is taken for granted comes through.

"Mother's Peak"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: A Lot Like Life, digital)

An atmospheric enough haunted-house tale, although in the middle of a group of much shorter films its fifteen-minute runtime can seem like a slow, noodly build. Not that filmmaker Simon Allen has any control over that; of course, and on its own the film isn't bad at all, capturing the right sort of small-town atmosphere around the spooky center with some pretty fair stop-motion animation to boot.

"Harls"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: A Lot Like Life, digital)

Kenzie Sutton goes for the slapstick in this two minutes, with his anthropomorphic duck on his 356th reincarnation and kind of burnt out on the whole thing. Of course, going to a support group for this is just asking to get killed and revived in rapid succession. The fun of it is that he'll keep coming back as different species, and the fun is in how Sutton manages to make the same personality come through despite the rapidly changing models.

"Lilly Goes Fishing"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: A Lot Like Life, digital)

A larger "The Bum Family" series is implied, and it's the sort of thing that I kind of think my younger nieces would go for until the points where its brightly-colored monster characters start kind of acting like monsters. It's not the sort of cartoon where cheery innocence crashes hard into black comedy, but you can see it from here.

It's fun, though, colorful and mostly friendly with Lilly and her friends cut out of paper and given hand-drawn expressions, stumbling through this thing they're not entirely suited for on the way to more than a few enjoyable gags. Big orange beast Lilly has got charm to spare and her simply-conceived friends add chuckles as amusing sidekicks.

"MORPHOSIS"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: A Lot Like Life, digital)

It is not at all difficult to be impressed with something like "MORPHOSIS", which combines some fairly impressive animation with revolutionary zeal. It's not hiding anything, as it features frog slaves grinding food to paste for their corpulent leader who is apparently too lazy and weak to chew until someone rises up to fight the system. Filmmaker Santiago Castaño knows where he's going with this, presenting his villains as having little but numbers (which, obviously, is not insignificant) and always being pointed with what every single thing in the short is meant to represent.

The film is also impressively gorgeous work, from its mirror planet to the detailed setting which combine grandeur and a bunch of moving parts without bringing the two into visual conflict. The action is nicely done, just generally fun to watch and almost always hitting the right notes. A properly heroic score helps set the mood, and Castaño is focused enough not to make the action gross for gross-ness's sake.

"Wunderkammer"

N/A (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: A Lot Like Life, digital)

And here, my memory fails me. Sorry, Jennifer Linton, because I love cabinets of curiosity and as such would love to talk about your film.

"The Switch"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival: A Lot Like Life, digital)

"The Switch" is the sort of music video that makes me wonder, a bit, how these things get put together - I didn't hear anything particularly specific to the story that the video tells in the lyrics, so it makes me wonder if someone like director John Paul Grigsby is one of several people pitching for the video and then files away or discards the idea if the band doesn't like it. Has he had this idea for a story about a lighthouse-keeper having to choose whether or not to light the way for a refugee craft or not for a while and was lucky to find the opportunity to use it, or was it inspired by this song and would have vanished into the air if not used for it?

It doesn't matter, I suppose; the work itself is impressive. It sketches its story well in four minutes, looking at its main character with interest: The stop-motion figure looks charming, a friendly-seeming old man who nevertheless is trying to block out his view of the people on their way that are suffering. It's an uncomfortably frank admission that others suffer because of the weakness and discomfort of people who seem kind on first impression, and works well with the lyrics to convey the disappointing nature of this reality.

Kanarie (Canary)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

There's a line in Canary that doesn't so much save the movie as affirm that the filmmakers know exactly what they are doing, and while it may be a little bit on-the-nose, it's not necessarily a bad thing for characters in a coming-of-age film to have what they've earned spelled out, especially when the film seems ready to go in the opposite direction. This one's smarter than that, enough to impress and be worth one's attention no matter how far it may seem from one's own experience.

It takes place in South Africa, the middle of the 1980s, with Johan Niemand (Schalk Bezuidenhout) graduating high school and about to begin his compulsory military service. Johan is nobody's idea of a soldier - music is his thing, with Culture Club his current obsession - so it seems best for all involved that he gets chosen for the South African Defense Force's Church Choir and Concert Group, also known as The Canaries. He quickly makes two friends in Ludolf Otterman (Germandt Geldenhuys), a big, affable classical music buff who seems to have less business being in the military than Johan, and Wolfgang Müller (Hannes Otto), a handsome fellow whose tastes match Johan's. Of course, they can't act on their attraction too obviously; though the Canaries are where a place where gay men in the SADF can find sanctuary, Reverend Koch (Gérard Rudolf), one of the two chaplains in charge of the group, is very keen that they observe military discipline and project traditional moral rectitude, even if colleague Reverend Engelbrecht (Jacques Bessenger) seems a bit more understanding.

Apartheid as an official government policy has likely started to fade from memory a bit by now; there's a generation that has grown up after its fall, and there are times when Canary seems to fall victim to how the details can be forgotten. The long stretches where the audience doesn't see anyone with dark skin can sometimes feel like filmmaker Christiaan Olwagen is wearing blinders to make a movie that looks back at this period of South African history without showing the circumstances that largely defined it, although that may be the result of an outsider perspective. What he is doing is to show how the nation's culture of white supremacy even twists the culture of those who passively benefit from it: Talk of the Olympics has soldiers venting their indignation at their country being a pariah, while attempts to justify this order almost inevitably lead to religion (because this belief needs to seem to come from a higher authority) and homophobia (definitions of ideal people brook no deviation). Johan and his friends are in the crosshairs of the latter, and sometimes Olwagen has trouble when shifting focus between "it was bad for the gay community too" to "bigotry poisons society as a whole", though it's not really his fault that the story he's telling exists in the shadow of a much larger one.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Happy Face

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

Happy Face is the odd movie where nothing that anybody does ever actually seems like a good idea, to a degree that goes beyond basic human fallibility, but the result still mostly works. It's the sort of movie where the makers' hearts are generally in the right place and which at least has the benefit of being something you don't see every day, and that can count for a lot.

It centers on a Montreal support group for people who, whether by birth or happenstance, have some sort of disfigurement - former police officer Jocko (E.R. Ruiz) was burned, but 75-year-old Otis (David Roche), otherwise-fashionable Maggie (Alison Midstokke), and shy Beckie (Cyndy Nicholsen) have lived with this most of their lives - led by Vanessa (Debbie Lynch-White), who feels she can relate because she's carrying some extra pounds. The latest member is "Augustin" who has a secret - his actual name is Stanislas and the 19-year-old is actually quite handsome, using tape and bandages to distort his appearance. This deception doesn't last long, but Stanislas (Robin L'Houmeau) says he is not mocking them, but is instead trying to build the skills to deal with his mother, whose cancer treatments have left her a shell of herself. Let him stay, and he'll be their link to a world they have difficulty approaching.

Does this really make sense? Kind of, but it takes a certain amount of self-awareness for it to work. The group chooses to welcome Stanislas in part because Vanessa doesn't want them to; she means well but can't help but be mildly patronizing in how she assumes she has the same sort of problem or that you can make a breakthrough by following directions. Actress Debbie Lynch-White and filmmaker Alexandre Franchi do well to resist validating any desire Vanessa has to be the hero of the story, letting her be testy at times or, while not phony, not quite as deeply invested as she thinks. She's never insincere, but there's a certain deliberate clarity to how she represents the way that well-intentioned people can approach those who are different.

Full review on EFilmCritic

"Diddie Wa Diddie"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

The title tune is catchy as heck, which never hurts a short film, especially one like this which is in large part goofy nonsense.

Den blomstertid nu kommer (The Unthinkable)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2019 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, DCP)

The Unthinkable is better than a lot of movies that try to link massive calamity to personal melodrama, mostly because it lets them be separate things despite the significant overlap, but "better" in this context can be kind of a tricky thing: It's never as empty as the other genre movies it shares a basic shape with, but that also makes the moments when it uses the same sort of storytelling devices a little less forgivable. The filmmakers will occasionally do something that makes a viewer say they're supposed to be better than this, though the fact that they are most of the time makes up some.

The priorities are somewhat clear with an opening that focuses on young Alex and Anna, a pair of teens who are obviously fond of each other but going through some tumult: Alex's parents are breaking up in a loud, rancorous manner; Anna's are moving, having only settled in this small town with other family temporarily. Ten years later Alex (Christoffer Nordenrot) is a successful musician who has not returned home for years but will for his mother's funeral, while Anna (Lisa Henni) has resettled there. There's a mysterious explosion on the news as Alex hits the road, and soon enough Sweden is in a state of near-chaos, with more attacks focused on infrastructure. Anna's main concern is for her daughter while Alex's is for Anna, while his father Björn (Jesper Barkselius) - the sort of crank who always warned everyone that this could happen - may be the last line of defense as the only person on duty at the electric station while most of the town is at Midsommar festivities.

Anna also has a family member or two who would be conveniently important if this movie was just about the attack, which creates a bit of a small-world issue once things start coming together. It's not as problematic as it could be in terms of sheer overwhelming coincidence, but there is a bit of danger of becoming one of those movies where the massive calamity with all loss of life comes across as primarily a catalyst to show this small group of people what's really important rather than incidentally such. The filmmakers manage to walk that line fairly well - for instance, the threat is human rather than natural, so they're hard to see as some sort of higher power, but their motivation is disconnected enough to keep the focus on Alex, Anna, and the like. There are still some moments when the self-reflection gets a little heavy, but seldom to the point where the rest is diminished.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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