Sunday, August 01, 2021

IFFBoston 2021.09-11: First Date, Luzzo, Last Night in Rozzie, Weed & Wine, The Gig Is Up, and How It Ends

One of the useful things about the way IFFBoston ran this festival online is that, when either my second vaccine shot on Friday (14 May 2021) or just being out and about all had me pretty wiped out at the end of the day, I could basically just push the rest of the festival off a day, since they were giving every movie a 48-hour window as opposed to having a hard wall at the end.

I'm guessing Nancy, Brian, and all won't let me do that when I have trouble getting to Brookline from Burlington next year, though.

Anyway, as you can tell by looking at the sidebar, I've kind of fallen off updating this, in part because of that bump and in part because of other stuff, so I'm going to just quickly catch up before diving head-first into another festival. Some of these deserve a little more than I can give them here, but it's been a few months, and I have stuff falling out the back of my brain. The good news, I guess, is that some are now actually easy enough to see on demand, if they catch your interest.

First Date

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston, AgileTicketing via Roku)

I'm trying to remember if there were many movies like First Date when I was the age of the protagonists; teen movies seemed to range from John Hughes to Savage Steve Holland without really branching out much further into other genres than The Karate Kid or The Last Starfighter (although, I suppose, it's worth considering why that is thought of as a teen movie but Back to the Future isn't so much). This one's an odd duck, veering hard into crime and not really giving the kids time to be kids.

Which is a bit of a bummer, because it's very easy to like Tyson Brown's nerdy Mike and Shelby Duclos's athletic Kelsey, both of whom it turns out like retro tech, with the actors sincere enough to make it feel like their eccentricity rather than the directors trying to write today's teenagers with their own experience, even if a lot of the film feels like a script they've had a while but which the filmmakers never really updated to take cell phones into account. The stars capture different sorts of appealing goodness, with Mike pained by how doing the right thing always seems to hurt and Kelsey frustrated but clear about who should get cut slack.

They often get overwhelmed by the small-time crooks that they run into because Mike was convinced to buy a shady car from shady folks; bad people elevating recognizable foibles to the level of violence is just louder and more varied than awkward people stumbling into crime and violence. Still, it will be interesting to see what happens when some studio decides to give filmmakers Manuel Crosby & Darren Knapp a little money. Their movie's got some flaws, but they don't let anything become generic, and they know how to get things done when there's shooting and chases. Maybe they won't jump straight to Spider-Man like Jon Watts did after Cop Car, but it should be fun to see what they do with a bit more in the way of resources.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston, AgileTicketing via Roku)

(Adds "Malta" visa to cinematic passport)

Luzzu is a great example of a category of movie seemingly designed to make me squirm and maybe stop the stream - the Guy Who Refuses To Make Things Easier For Himself - in large part because it's so close to things I really like: There's a chance to get into fascinating, almost-documentary detail about both a vanishing way of life and the mechanics by which it's vanishing, and then this abrasive, prideful jerk is one's path into it.

But, then, a person has got to be kind of prideful to still be trying to fish in a traditional small boat off the shores of Malta, where there's now giant corporations on one side and EU regulations on the other, and even the enterprising have a hard time finding the right way to support themselves via less legitimate means. The fisherman in question, Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna), isn't that complex, but he gains a bit of sympathy as he feels the walls closing in, and writer/director Alex Camilleri doesn't go the easy route of making him sympathetic by putting him up against more noxious folks. The film winds up turning on a scene with Uday McLean, whose own eponymous character is a migrant originally from Syria or someplace like that, where it becomes clear that what it means to be a seaman and fisherman has fundamentally changed, and Jesmark just may not be able to change with it.

Camelleri doesn't over-romanticize the dying of a way of life, and the conclusion isn't defiant in the way many similar movies are; Jesmark's got to be practical because he's in a world that's got to be practical on a larger scale. It's not cathartic, but the world's not really designed for that.

Last Night in Rozzie

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston, AgileTicketing via Roku)

Ah, another one of my less-than-favorite movie plots, the one built entirely out of people making unreasonable requests and just not telling people the truth. It is at least suitably short, so the filmmakers don't have to keep making flimsier excuses for two hours. Still, it's not hard to feel that this capable cast and set of characters with an interesting history could have had another story built around them, one not so built around deception. After all, this isn't really a movie about people who don't understand each other; they know each other all too well and just don't have a lot of time.

Still, the movie gets some good mileage from its working-class neighborhoods and mostly-unaffected acting. It's the sort of movie that feels like it's found the right locations rather than having to decorate them, with the cast picking up the right vibes right away. The exception, maybe, is the Jeremy Sisto as the dying friend who sets everything in motion; he seems to be playing more to the balconies and his sweary lines are boring and trite in a way that feels like screenwriters trying to write working-class people even though it's probably no less authentic than the rest. Sisto also seems notably older than Neil Brown Jr. and Nicky Whelan, the other actors whose characters are supposed to be the same age, even figuring for a hard life, but he's apparently not that far off.

Weed & Wine

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston, AgileTicketing via Roku)

I wonder if director Rebecca Richman Cohen ever considered making Weed & Wine into two separate docs, because as much as there are thematic parallels to the Thibon family growing wine in france and the Jodreys navigating the transition to marijuana being a legal crop in California, they don't intersect, and there's probably enough material for each to be their own movie. And yet, the parallels are fascinating, as the friction between generations and the changing world make for intriguing drama.

There's mystery to both businesses, with weed previously being underground that the former-outlaw growers don't quite know how to react to legitimate regulation (especially since the state still kind of wants to treat them as criminals), while the vintners sell intangibles and romance but are highly precise and procedural in their methods. And that's on top of how climate change is making their long-held assumptions obsolete.

Cohen's found a couple of good groups here, and although she doesn't necessarily have boots on the ground at the moments when fireworks go off, she and editor Eric Phillips-Horst still piece together clear, dramatic storylines and deliver a lot of information in natural fashion. There's the sense that there could have been much more sprawling stories, but she's zeroed in on the figures who will get the audience the most interested and also bring out the movie's themes. It's solid storytelling and exposition that these sorts of docs don't always feature.

The Gig Is Up

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston, AgileTicketing via Roku)

Compared to Weed & Wine, The Gig Is Up often seems to be preaching to the converted, offering up multiple threads that don't so much reinforce each other as repeat. The main idea, that mobile-app based services like Uber and DoorDash and the like are based on circumventing labor law, is something that's fairly simple to grasp once it's been explained, and while a dozen examples gives an idea of how widespread the practice is, relatively few of the new tales added are truly new perspectives.

Which is perhaps why the thread featuring Jason Edwards in Miami sticks out: Not only is he rural and more visibly close to the brink of disaster than the rest, his "turk work" (named af the Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing machine with a hidden man inside) is the seeming opposite of the physical last-mile work the rest are doing - and on top of that, it's clear that much of what success he's having comes from gaming the system, finding easy but high-paying bits of work.

It's a piece that could easily be overlooked, but shows how the whole system is a house of cards. I just suspect that most of the folks watching this already know that, even if that particular detail isn't so familiar.

How It Ends

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston, AgileTicketing via Roku)

How It Ends isn't really a good movie, but that's kind of not the point; it's a bunch of people making a movie during the pandemic because making movies is what they do, and they'd be climbing the walls otherwise. You can see these folks kind of having fun even when they're playing sad characters, just enjoying their work to the point where they'd probably be okay if they couldn't find a way to release it, because the process was important.

Which is good, because as talented as everyone involved is, it's more than a bit arch, enough that it feels a need to come out and reference "a hat on a hat" early on, since Liza (co-writer/director Zoe Lister-Jones) is not only dodging invitations to end of the world parties but hanging around with an incarnation of her younger self (Cailee Spaeny); such folks have apparently been appearing more frequently with the impending cataclysm. She wanders around, meeting up with various neighbors, friends, and family who keep a respectful social distance throughout even though they are, by and large, outdoors. These bits aren't quite outstanding in either individual or cumulative effect, but there's also none which really stop the movie dead, which counts for something. That would be the line between this movie being a fun time-filler that is worth sharing and something obnoxiously self-indulgent, and while it comes close, it never quite crosses over.

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