Tuesday, November 14, 2023

IFFBoston 2023½.03-04: Robot Dreams, All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, and Tótem

As I said the other day, I missed the first night of IFFBoston 2023½, reading a tweet that it was sold out as I was on the subway. The closing night film was sold out well ahead of time, and I discovered the next film after Robot Dreams, Evil Does Not Exist was sold out when I got out of the first and went to get another ticket. I killed some time in the square, saw Monster was sold out, and then took the train to the Common for Under the Light.

Sunday, I tried to get tickets for everything at the start, and was told only the first two films had seats left. End result was only four films seen out of twelve, but it's not that huge a bummer, even if I was interested in most. You can't necessarily assume these things will all have Boston-area releases, true - the Kendall is basically a regular multiplex that has a couple limited releases on screens 8 & 9 these days, while the Seaport and Causeway Street reopenings being stalled means things need to be release-date-lucky to get a screen at Boston Common because it's bearing the whole load for Boston proper - but the odds are pretty good for most of them, especially if they get Oscar nominations That lets me basically treat this as a fundraiser for IFFBoston - a worthy cause! - and basically shrug it off in the case that I didn't get in Someone did, and that means they've maxed out, right?

In the meantime, this has taken long enough to post that All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is already opening at the Kendall this weekend. The release date for Robot Dreams is fast approaching, too, although I don't know if it gets screens on the 22nd with both Disney and DreamWorks have big animated movies. It feels like it could have benefitted from staking out a date right between big releases and hanging around for matinees for the better part of a month, although maybe not; it's not family-unfriendly, but not necessarily made specifically for kids, either, although who knows - it looks like the sort of thing showing up on the Alamo Seaport schedule for one show a day, although I don't know how linked they are with Neon.

Anyway - good movies! Glad IFFBoston could preview them, and enjoying their rollout!

Robot Dreams

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 October 2023 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus 2023, DCP)

Robot Dreams is thoroughly my sort of thing, from its Atari-playing canine protagonist to its somewhat surprising ending. It's cute as can be without being saccharine and revels in its authentic small details without ever seeming to try to score points for 1980s nostalgia.

That protagonist is Dog Varon, alone and lonely in Manhattan's East Village, what he sees in neighboring buildings appearing to remind him of what he doesn't have. An advertisement for the "Amico 2000" companion robot plays on late night TV, and soon he's assembling a new best friend, who activates with a childlike wonder at the world that gets Dog seeing it with new eyes. They go to a public beach, but Robot's body does not react well to the sand and salt water, leaving him immobile as it's time to leave. Dog reluctantly returns home without Robot, intending to return the next day, but…

Well, that's the end of the first leg of a movie that splits pretty naturally into three parts, although without ever having a hard break or discontinuity. The first segment, in particular is close to pure fun, filled with blink-and-miss-it visual gags, the robot's sheer joy at every new discovery New York City has to offer, and the chance to identify with Dog's new sense of contentment, before that day at the beach sends the middle part of the movie into surreal territory. That allows screenwriter/director Pablo Berger to use the same style for different ends without creating a crazy tonal shift as the movie becomes sort of dark but allows the comedy and character evolution to continue without it actually becoming a dark comedy.

It works, in a way, because Robot is a robot, even if the temptation is to read them as a pet, roommate, or mail-order bride. It would be a cruel film otherwise - and likely still reads that way for many - but this does let it read as sad rather than mean. And that sadness is a part of life that the film acknowledges, and which is massive the point: That you can be surrounded by people in the city and struggle to make a connection, and sometimes they will be broken in ways you choose, have forced upon you, or stumble into. Dog has a perfect friend in Robot, but things change, and the why is less important than how everyone keeps going. That knowing Robot has Dog more willing to put himself out there in different ways could be played as betrayal, but instead it's growth.

That could be maudlin, but it's never the case, really. The film has a lot of 1980s Saturday morning cartoon DNA, from the character designs that seem more or less unchanged from Sara Varon's graphic novel to the pacing of it, with a ton of little comedic gags and offset but not overwhelmed by more serious moments. The film's anthropomorphic-animal-populated city is just grounded enough to allow for an occasion gag around Dog wagging his tail or the like (the clearances team must have worked overtime so that everything in the background could feel like the right detail rather than a pun on a real brand name). The lack of dialogue, with just a little reading needed, does something similar from a different direction, letting audiences of all ages wrestle with the emotions and how real they feel without forcing a viewer to get bogged down in details.

Yes, it's a bit heavier than the typical Saturday morning show, but its makers aren't intent on upending or subverting that too much. It's more inclined to be fun than sad, or at least find something hopeful in that sadness, and manages that quite well.

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 October 2023 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus 2023, DCP)

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt does the thing where the filmmakers weave wisps of story into large amounts of imagery until there's something feature-length, which isn't always to everyone's taste. It does so very well, at least, resulting in something very solid when the same technique can often result in something that tries one's patience.

Filmmaker Raven Jackson initially introduces the audience to MacKenzie (Kaylee Nicole Johnson) as her father Isaiah (Chris Chalk) takes her and sister Josie (Jayah Henry) fishing, with mother Evelyn (Sheila Atim) showing how to clean and gut it. She's got a crush on a local boy, Wood (Preston McDowell), but when we see them as adults (Charleen McClure & Reginald Helms Jr.), they didn't wind up together, though that brief reunion may be what leads to Mack's pregnancy, even though she may not see herself as prepared for the responsibility.

The film starts by teaching patience, letting the audience patiently watch Isaiah show Mack how to cast, wait for a bite, and then reel her catch in without losing it, which in addition to setting the pace also allows the film to initially present itself as a set of images that ask for little aside from the audience giving things a close look. Closer than one might expect, at times, as Jackson and cinematographer Jomo Fray often crop faces out to focus on other details. That it is intriguingly composed and beautifully photographed is enough, at least for a while.

For some time, Jackson seems to be primarily concerned with capturing a specific place and time - rural Black life a few decades back - until something happens to shake young Mack's life, and she never really stops shaking. At that point, the film sort of becomes unmoored in time, jumping backwards and forward, sometimes in a purposefully jarring way, like Jackson doesn't want lines to be drawn that are too straight. Charleen McClure shines as the adult Mack in part because she almost never lets the woman's fragility appear front and center; she plays Mack as incomplete and just uncertain enough that her father and sister accepting it seems natural enough, but isn't showy about it. She entirely settles from her trauma until late, when she's not only become wise enough to recognize her lack of wisdom, but to recognize that she may be more capable than she thought.

That's sort of all there is to the film, but it's enough. The images are beautiful, and while some may be familiar, some are odd or fragmented in an interesting way. A particularly notable one is a a wedding, where the camera doesn't linger on the ceremony but initially concentrates on the elder women in the pews, marking the important event, but winds up shooting the bride and groom in the distance, out a window. Mack is part of this community, but cannot entirely engage with it directly, no matter how but young Kaylee Nicole Johnson's performance initially implies she'll grow up different than she does.

Mack doesn't have a journey so much as she grows and ultimately understands the world we live in a little better, and the audience comes to understand that. It's just personal enough to not feel anthropological, but also stands back enough that a viewer feels like they're giving Mack the space she needs.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 October 2023 in the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus 2023, DCP)

It seems like you seldom see the child performers in movies like this listed in the credits in a way that highlights their actual importance; they're usually tucked away after the notable adults, or given an "Introducing... where a grown-up might have an "and..." This one puts newcomer Naíma Sentíes right up first, though, which is impressive, because the movie is designed to feel like an ensemble piece.

She plays Sol, seven or eight years old, whose mother Lucia (Iazua Larios) is dropping her off at her grandfather's house, where much of the rest of the family is gathering to celebrate the birthday of Sol's father Tonatiuh (Mateo Garcia), notably his sisters Alejandra (Marisol Gasé) and Nuria (Montserrat Marañon), whose daughter Ester (Saori Gurza) is a couple years younger and a bit of a troublemaker. As the adults prepare, Sol wanders a bit, looking at snails, insects, birds, and other creatures. "Tona", on the other hand, seems determined to stay in his room, as he is very sick and needs the assistance of his caregiver Cruz (Teresita Sánchez) for almost everything.

If filmmaker Lila Avilés (who, in addition to writing, directing, and producing, also appears to have a casting credit) hadn't found such a good Sol, she probably could have put together quite a fine movie about the adults hanging on by a thread: The sisters, for example, are a kind of fascinating pair, Montserrat Marañon playing Nuria as sensible and organized, even when things are going wrong, while Marisol Gasé's Alejandra seems like pure comic relief, but the way Nuria has worn down by the end while Alejandra hasn't, and there's tension as a result. There's grandfather Roberto (Alberto Amador) who seems annoyed by all this, even hostile, and Mateo Garcia not only looking like he is always on the verge of physical collapse but further burdened by shame. It's a family that is not broken or dysfunctional, but also clearly one that is not hanging out in each other's kitchens every day.

That would have been a pretty good movie, but Avilés always comes back to how, ultimately, this little girl wants to see her dying father, but he feels too ashamed of his illness and the extended family's noise is hard to cut through, and every time she does, the movie feels sharper, like her main priority is making sure that the audience understands that this is the important part and so it gets just enough more attention to really pop. Senties gives Avilés what she needs every time, from how she studies various animals with tremendous concentration to how she pours out her knowledge of them when given a chance. For all the chaos around her, there's a potentially comic scene that feels like genuine horror when Sol breaks something and worries a bit about getting into trouble but also seems to sense that something worse than "trouble" is in the air.

And, man, that last scene, where she suddenly looks terrifyingly grown up, as if the reason why this has become such a big party hits her. Just a really tremendous gut punch, and absolutely the culmination of everything Avilés and her crew have done so well - a combination of perfect lighting, framing, and wordless performance - which also both seems to connect every thread that has been running through the film and letting the less important ones fall away. Avilés puts Sol at the center in this last moment, and she and Senties do not disappoint.

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