Wednesday, September 25, 2019

IFFBoston 2019.04: We Are Not Princesses, Ms. Purple, When Lambs Become Lions, and In Fabric

Sometimes, when planning a festival, you look at a day and maybe think that you're not sure anything in it really grabs you until you see that Ms. Purple is by the guy who did a movie you loved a couple years back, and then that slot's sorted. Then you see In Fabric and think that while it may get a release, it may just be midnight shows at the Coolidge, so better lock that down. Then it's seeing what fits in between, and the two docs seem like the best bet.

It was a schedule that left me without a whole lot of guests on this particular day, just We Are Not Princesses director Bridgette Auger (note: the one picture I got where she's not half-hidden behind some guy's head) and producer Hal Scardino. One thing that they mentioned was that the events that we saw happened back in 2014; editing, animation, and just getting into festivals takes time, after all.

We Are not Princesses

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2019 in Somerville Theatre #2 (IFFBoston, DCP)

In many cases, one might find oneself not quite dismissing this sort of documentary by saying it works because the filmmakers found good subjects, like a movie just happens when you point a camera at an unusual and charismatic person. It's probably more true that interesting subjects are all around, and the real challenges are getting them comfortable enough to open up, then pulling out the best parts. That, as they say, is the tricky part, especially when those people already have as much reason to try and blend into the scenery as the Syrian refugees in We Are Not Princesses do.

The filmmakers do a fair job of that, aided a bit by finding women in these refugee camps a little more willing to be extroverted than others might - they arguably wouldn't be joining a theater program otherwise - and figuratively looking over their shoulders as they discuss their current situation and how it relates to the production of Antigone they're rehearsing at a center in Beirut. For some, venturing outside the house for any reason but to do the shopping is almost terrifying, while others are more at ease than people might expect.

Though the film has the basic shape of a "let's put on a show!" story, the filmmakers are wise to recognize that the actual rehearsal and performance is not nearly so interesting as the discussions it brings about, so while there is a director and a stage and eventually an audience, that whole side of the process is only glimpsed briefly. Instead, directors Bridgette Auger and Itab Azzam focus on the everyday lives that these women lead, or more often let their conversations steer the film. It lets these women fully emerge as themselves, with only as much of Antigone and the play's other characters as they choose to acknowledge, and gives the filmmakers room to focus on things that have little to do with the play - a mother perhaps adapting better to freedoms she remembers from her you than her supposedly more modern daughter, for example.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Ms. Purple

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2019 in Somerville Theatre #5 (IFFBoston, DCP)

Justin Chon made a pretty terrific movie a couple years back whose confrontational title ("Gook") and black-and-white photography may have helped make people reluctant to buy a ticket. This time out, the color is right in the more welcoming title, but in a lot of ways the heart of the film is the same - sibling issues, Korean-American family obligation, assimilation - and the story he crafts from those ideas is still compelling.

It opens with a flashback, a father getting his two children ready for a special occasion, fussing rather a bit more over his daughter than his son. Fifteen years later, daughter Kasie (Tiffany Chu) is 23 and has forgone musical training to spend the last few years looking after their dying father, working for tips as a karaoke hostess with the money stretched thin enough that she can no longer pay the undocumented woman who looks after him while she's away. Calling her brother Carey (Teddy Lee) to help share the load doesn't feel like a great idea, but it's all she's got. Fortunately, his current couch-surfing options are limited, although he's not entirely inclined to let having to watch a bedridden man cramp his style.

Carey wheeling their father around Los Angeles's Koreatown, hospital bed and all, is an undeniably funny image but Chon is careful not to frame it as a clever solution initially - Carey is making a nuisance of himself and inconveniencing everyone around him - although one shouldn't necessarily feel bad about enjoying it: For all that Carey is mostly finding a way to do what he wants, it's worth noting that Kasie is spending all of her time tending to men on separate fronts: Her father, the handsy creeps at the karaoke bar, the brother who eats all the food, a rich kid she dates hoping he'll be around when she needs someone. It's not entirely a movie about how men just expect women to take care of things (and not just because Octavio Pizano's smitten parking valet is there as an exception), but the dynamic is there and worth noting. There's a great moment in flashback that ties it all together, young Kasie instinctively picking up where her departed mother left off.

Full review on EFilmCritic

When Lambs Become Lions

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2019 in Somerville Theatre #2 (IFFBoston, DCP)

More than once during When Lambs Become Lions, I wondered how Jon Kasbe even make this movie. It feels like it shouldn't be possible, requiring the filmmakers to not just embed themselves with criminals and law enforcement simultaneously but for there to be connections and the story to actually connect . How can it be a documentary even if it does have a fair chunk of reenactment footage (which, for all I know, it doesn't)?

It tells the parallel stories of two cousins: Asan, a wilderness ranger in North Kenya, and "X", a poacher working intersecting territory. X is mostly a businessman, with a partner named Lukas who does the actual hunting; by his count, he has felled 16 elephants on his own and more with a team. There are customers waiting for tusks, making X put pressure on Lukas, while Asan is and his colleagues have not been paid for a while, and with a pregnant wife at home, this is the sort of situation where a man might take a little money to let his cousin know where the elephants are.

That's the part of the story that feels most like a fiction film's plot, and it contains the moment when events seem a little bit staged, like Asan and X have lines to get out as they talk to each other. More likely, it's an example of how awkward it can be to add someone new to a relationship - both men have built up a specific rapport with Kasbe and his crew, and now there's this other person added to the mix. In moments like that, you're also not just doing your job and demonstrating things, but potentially changing the direction of the movie - and, let's not forget, potentially committing a crime on-camera. It's likely a weird moment for everyone, so it probably should be strange for the audience as well.

Full review on EFilmCritic

In Fabric

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston, DCP)

I had not realized that the new Peter Strickland movie was produced by Ben Wheatley's Rook Films, but, wow, is In Fabric ever that movie. It's as eccentric and fetishistic as the rest of Strickland's work, but also as bizarrely funny as the best of the producers' material, and probably more accessible for all that than many of its predecessors. The movie may still be something of an acquired taste, but it's weird more than outright baffling.

It is, after all, a movie about a demonic/possessed/otherwise more than peculiar dress, one initially purchased by middle-aged divorcée Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), looking to dip her toe back into the dating pool. She bought it from a sinister saleswoman (Fatma Mohamed) during Bentley & Soper's Boxing Day sale, and while there is initially little out of the ordinary, strange things start happening soon enough, particularly when Sheila's snotty model girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie) tries it on, let alone others.

More happens later; In Fabric is a bit of a relay-race horror movie, where the cursed object will be on the move rather than tormenting the same people past the bounds of credulity. I suspect that many will find the good stuff to be in that first leg, and in no small part because Marianne Jean-Baptiste is so terrific to watch in what certainly seems like her biggest role since Secrets & Lies (with a lot of time playing New York-accented detectives in between). When you ask yourself who would be the logical protagonist for a movie about a killer dress, a vain beauty like Gwendoline Christie's model might come to mind, but Jean-Baptiste's Sheila is a lot more interesting to watch; she's got a sensible vibe but could maybe use a confidence boost, just the sort of person who would be most vulnerable but also potentially be able to figure out what's going on. She's a stabilizing influence that keeps the strange at bay and also makes it seem more sinister for intruding upon this working-class mother.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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