I.F.F.B. 2011: Recapping the Independent Film Festival of Boston

Posted in FESTIVAL NOTES: Dispatches from the front lines. on May 31st, 2011 by Jim Delaney

I saw half as many films at the 2011 Independent Film Festival of Boston as I did during the 2010 festival. This was not for lack of promising options. I like to handicap a film festival schedule like a horsetrack better, circling, underlining, and crossing out until I come up with my roster. This year’s sure bets and ringers totaled nearly half the schedule, but I had a conflict of interest, in that the 2011 festival occurred over the same weekend as Boston Comic Con. My brother Ed visited from St. Louis for the convention. Happily the festival and the convention provided us with a few glorious moments of nerd synergy. More happily every film I caught at this year’s IFFBoston is worth recommending. I hope they are all as fortunate finding wider distribution as most of the films I saw at the 2010 festival have been.

BEING ELMO, Directed by Constance Marks, featuring Kevin Clash

The Somerville Theatre, Somerville, MA on Wednesday, April 27.

BEING ELMO was this year’s Opening Night Feature. Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for the Muppets, so maybe I would have liked this documentary even if it was not overly impressive. The film follows Kevin Clash, who grew up in a Baltimore neighborhood with an interstate overpass nearly running through his backyard, to become the puppeteer behind Elmo from SESAME STREET. We learn from Kevin and his family that though he grew up without a lot of money, he grew up powerfully loved, by a family we could all envy. The strength of this family, channeled through Kevin, turned Elmo into the little red monster who teaches children about positivity and love. We are treated to meticulously researched home movies and still photos illustrating Kevin’s career as a puppeteer virtually from the very beginning: puppet shows performed in his yard for his neighbors, his first paid puppeteer work with a Baltimore affiliate TV station while he was still in high school, and even his first meetings with his childhood heroes from The Jim Henson Company in New York.

I expect BEING ELMO would be an intriguing film even for non-Muppet fans, not only because it is a documentary about a fascinating and inspiring man, but also due to some first rate film making. Recent interviews with Kevin and his previous and current employers are enlightening, but seeing footage of career and life defining moments as they happened for him lends a special resonance to his story, and even a few moments of suspense. Documentary filmmakers are occasionally present for happy accidents when they capture an unforeseeable image that encapsulates their entire story. Early in the film we see Kevin walking totally unrecognized through Times Square past a man in an Elmo suit posing for photos with tourists. That exquisite shot reminds us that any anonymous stranger standing next to us could be someone with as rich a story to tell as Kevin Clash.

ON THE ICE, Written & Directed by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, starring Josiah Patkotak and Frank Qutuq Irelan.

The Somerville Theatre, Somerville, MA on Thursday, April 28.

Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s debut feature began as a 2008 Sundance short called SIKUMI. The short concerns an Inuit hunter driving a team of sled dogs across the Alaskan tundra. He happens upon two acquaintances fighting in the snow, but before he can reach them, one combatant has drunkenly murdered the other with a hunting knife. The feature uses this same incident, though these three men are now teenage boys on snowmobiles, and the alcoholism that fueled the fight is expanded to a plague upon Inuit society.

ON THE ICE is a thematically loaded and culturally resonant crime story. It uses its Barrow, Alaska location as organically as WINTER’S BONE used the Ozarks. As must happen in the best film noir, the complicity of each participant cuts to them to the core, such that even those unpunished by the law will carry a burden as constant as the white night sun. As rarely happens in family dramas every major character will become tainted by the end. ON THE ICE is distinguished by is its avoidance of becoming preachy even as it tackles issues like alcoholism, unemployment and unplanned pregnancy. Like the chaos that followed a shot of cocaine in the Johnny Cash song, these events are not rationalized or justified, they are purely laid bare to challenge audience whether to empathize and/or condemn.

Okpeaha MacLean quietly juxtaposes the agoraphobic nature of northern Alaskan landscapes with the claustrophobia of a town where everyone knows everyone’s business. The stark visuals are accompanied most often by a soundscape of wind or pindrop silence. His cast of mostly non-professional actors deftly invoke the paranoia of hiding in plain sight. The cumulative effect is a story that will haunt me the next time I hear dry snow crunch beneath my feet.

TROLLHUNTER, Written & Directed by André Øvredal, starring Otto Jespersen, Johanna Mørck, and Hans Morten Hansen.

The Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA on Friday, April 29.

TROLLHUNTER was the first bit of nerdy fun I got to have this weekend with my brother. If I simply tell you the pitch you may roll your eyes but don’t judge the cassette by the case. It is a mock documentary about a camera crew stalking a grizzly bear poacher, discovering that he is in fact a bounty hunter, sanctioned by some cabal within the Norwegian government. The hunter’s mission is to control a growing population of giant trolls. As my friend Chris described, after seeing it at the Tribeca festival, “it’s Jurassic Park meets The Blair Witch Project.”

Otto Jespersen’s performance as the title character helps elevate TROLLHUNTER from an amusement to a thrill. The hunter has the stoic world weariness of Roland Tembo (Pete Postlethwaite) in THE LOST WORLD. Jespersen gives the character an extra edge that I can only attribute to a revelation Øvredal made during the Q&A: Jespersen is a major stand-up comic of the George Carlin/Lewis Black mold in Norway. In the most straightforwardly funny scene, the hunter sits across from the camera crew in a diner, describing the different types of trolls he’s encountered. Øvredal said Jespersen took a single page idea, and rambled into a twenty minute monologue of outrageous troll trivia, all made up on the fly and delivered stone faced. He never plays the character as campy, with a wink and a nudge, but rather as a man who is oblivious to the absurdity of his situation. Jespersen’s deadly sincerity skews TROLLHUNTER beyond dark comedy into a realm bordering on satire.

Satire with giant monsters … which provided yet another Øvredal revelation: he made this film, CGI effects included, for under $4 million. Take a look at that trailer, pause it, frame-by-frame it if you can. TROLLHUNTER looks every bit as convincing as a Hollywood movie costing over $50 million. Øvredal succeeds by embracing Article One of genre films: KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid! There is no fat on this movie, just an imaginative and fun core idea, a crew of doubters and one true believer. This is a smart, and smartly made movie, disguised as big dumb fun.

SUPERHEROES, Directed by Michael Barnett, featuring Life, Mr. Xtreme, and The New York Initiative.

The Somerville Theatre, Somerville, MA on Sunday, May 1.

What a perfect ending for a weekend spent at a comic show?! This was the second movie Ed and I saw during his weekend visit. We went directly to it from Boston Comic Con, hence our still being in costume, which went over pretty well with the audience. SUPERHEROES is not about people like Ed and me, who are most often referred to as “cosplayers,” because we dress up in costumes (generally from science fiction, comic books, or video games) and play around at comic shows. Michael Barnett’s documentary follows several Real Life Super Heroes who are part of a growing national RLSH community.

The men and women Barnett followed do frequently use costumes, but this is not playtime for them; they actively provide community outreach and in some cases actually fight crime in their neighborhoods. Cosplayers are more akin to performance artists while the RLSH community ranges from activists to (some would say) vigilantes. They walk the walk while I play hopscotch. The film explores the lives of real life superheroes in San Diego, New York, Texas and Florida and alludes to stories of others across the country. To Barnett’s credit, while some funny and dangerous incidents appear in the movie, he is neither making fun of this community nor placing it on a pedestal.

One of the heroes from New York, who patrols his neighborhood under the name Life, accompanied Barnett during the Q&A. The outreach work we see Life perform during the film, and the entire film itself, received applause and even a standing ovation from a few. I stood. So did Bat Ed. Barnett and Life patiently answered questions from some who still could not see the difference between the RLSH community and nerds like me. Such questions were unnecessary; the documentary illuminates a variety of reasons that move different people take to the streets in their city, and will work for anyone in the audience who is more interested in understanding this community than judging it. SUPERHEROES plays like pure old fashioned journalism, with Barnett’s camera quietly following these folks as they do what they do, occasionally interrupting to sincerely ask “Why?” The end result is an intelligent and compassionate movie about people who go out of their way to leave the world a better place than they found it.

THE WHISTLEBLOWER, Directed & Co-Written by Larysa Kondracki, starring Rachel Weisz, Monica Bellucci, David Strathairn, and Vanessa Redgrave.

The Stuart Street Playhouse, Boston, MA on Tuesday, May 3.

THE WHISTLEBLOWER is based on the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac. Officer Bolkovac was a Nebraska police officer who took a job with Democra Security, an American military contractor, as a U.N. Peace Keeper in Bosnia during the late 1990’s. Before long Bolkovac realizes that some of her fellow Democra police were paying for sex with under-aged girls from Bosnian bordellos. She tried to report her suspicions but met indifference and resistance from superiors. She discovered that her coworkers are not only patronizing the bordellos but were in fact part of the trafficking across borders of these girls. Rachel Weisz compellingly portrays Kathryn Bolkovac, both as a divorced mother struggling to maintain ties to her family, and as an officer trying to protect children torn from their families by war.

This may be the most ambitious thesis film ever made by a film student. Larysa Kondracki began researching human trafficking while completing her M.F.A. at Columbia University. She recognized and opportunity to expand the dialog on human trafficking and sex slavery when she read Bolkovac’s story. During the Q&A I asked Kondracki if Democra was a real company or an amalgamation of real companies. She answered that it was an amalgamation and she would be sued if she actually told us the name of the real company. (Note to litigious fools: Ms. Kondracki in no way pointed me toward the real company; it wasn’t difficult to find on my own) I was frequently reminded of SILKWOOD while watching THE WHISTLEBLOWER. Kondracki confirmed that SILKWOOD and NORMA RAE and 70’s movies by Sidney Lumet were her inspiration.

Do you remember when “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” movies used to mean light fun happy inoffensive romantic musical comedies, something unchallenging, something with Fred Astaire? In the past few decades of the culture war, a perspective has taken hold that movies are only to be “entertaining;” that if an audience is not cheerfully diverted from their own lives for 2 hours then they didn’t get their money’s worth. This is not a feel good movie but, at least in my estimation, it is one of those “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” movies. Officer Bolkovac’s story is told with the pace of a mystery focused on drawing you in rather than rushing to morally outrage you. A generation ago we had these sort of films on a regular basis; Karen Silkwood and Frank Serpico reminded us “You think your life sucks? Look at how this poor slob lives!” THE WHISTLEBLOWER is one of those “they don’t make ’em like they used to movies” that grab you and shake you and ask “Are you not entertained?!”

…and one that got away from me:
13 ASSASSINS, Directed by Takashi Miike, starring Kôji Yakusho and Gorô Inagaki, which played at The Brattle while I was watching SUPERHEROES in the Somerville Theater, but was able to catch later in the week at Kendall Square.

This is a remake of a 1963 film, concerning vicious Lord Naritsugu, and a band of samurai who plot to prevent him from becoming second in line to the Shogun. Takashi Miike is notorious for some insanely chaotic films. Anyone who has seen his DEAD OR ALIVE trilogy or ICHI THE KILLER has witnessed sites that they will never scour from their minds. He is however at his most unforgettable when he shows restraint, as he did with AUDITION and GOZU, films that work their way under your skin. This quest of a few samurai who need to recruit a band for a suicide mission lends itself perfectly to the sort of story that allows Miike to build slowly. The increasing severity of Lord Naritsugu’s atrocities are balanced against the enlisting of a team willing to lay down their lives to stop him. Right about the time you’ll find yourself crunching the numbers in your head, asking how many samurai it takes to kill one villain, the team is assembled and the game is afoot. That’s when you may realize as I did, your calculations were off a tad, as evinced in the trailer by the horde of guards between the samurai and their target.

The final third of 13 ASSASSINS is a battle sequence so explosive and exciting that one may miss how much skill is at hand. Never mind comparison to other samurai or martial arts films. There is a savage beauty here akin to the finale of THE WILD BUNCH. Both feature exquisite production design in a location tailored to be burned down, torn up, and blown apart. Both feature long takes and spare editing that allow the viewer what has become a rare privilege: we can tell who is who, where they are striking from, and how they eluded or succumbed to a sword. These elements work in the service of that most vanishing of artists: the bad@$$ stuntman. The few CGI moments in this film are fairly obvious (watch for the burning bovine). In an era where entire armies are created digitally, it is damn refreshing to see a few dozen guys who still know how to put on armor, and chop the hell out of each other.

A film like this is only as good as its villain. Lord Naritsugu is is filled with hate, spite, and envy but these are not what make him a rarely seen type of antagonist: he is nearly all powerful, and bored. He has done nearly everything he can imagine to express his disdain for his secondary status. The challenge presented by the assassins does not make him tremble in fear. It gives him the idea to wage all out war as a means to expand his accomplishments in destruction and degradation. He is a villain we will want to see stopped at all costs. 13 ASSASSINS is a film that pulls no punches in exploring the human sum of “all costs.” It is no surprise that a film that succeeds at being both this ponderous and thunderous would win the I.F.F.Boston Audience Award for Narrative Feature.


B.U.F.F. 2011: Recapping the Boston Underground Film Festival

Posted in FESTIVAL NOTES: Dispatches from the front lines. on April 8th, 2011 by Jim Delaney

Thursday, March 24 through Thursday March 31, 20011 at the Landmark Kendall Sq. Cinema, Cambridge, MA.

A week has passed since the conclusion of the 2011 Boston Underground Film Festival. That may be enough time to digest the weird wonders of their programming. During the 2010 BUFF the theory struck me that, if a filmmaker was uncertain about their work being accepted into this festival, they could stack the odds in their favor by including at least one scene wherein someone vomits. After the 2011 BUFF I am prepared to say that my theory has been confirmed. Bleeding is the most popular method by which BUFF characters emit fluid from their bodies but vomiting is a close second. MARTIAN PRECURSOR, a short film that preceded one of the features I saw, managed to fit vomiting into a one minute running time. There should be no mistaking the offensive, unnerving, titillating, ban-baiting nature of the films from a festival that bills itself as “The 13th Annual Bizarre and Insane Boston Underground Film Festival, An Adult Happening In Psychedelic Color.” The trailers alone are enough to require Disney-Pixar therapy lest one lose all hope of common decency. To some this is called Fun; to others … you have been Warned.

, Directed by Jason Eisner, starring Rutger Hauer, Molly Dunsworth, and Brian Downey.

This year’s Opening Night feature began with a 2007 Grindhouse trailer contest sponsored by the SXSW Festival and Robert Rodriguez. A crew from Nova Scotia spent $150 on their entry, which not only won the contest but earned its own online following, culminating in the inclusion of the trailer in 186 prints of GRINDHOUSE in Canada. The feature version, following Rutger Hauer as an unnamed hobo who gets off the wrong freight train in the wrong town, is a strong reminder of something of which myself and every other nerd should be aware. I walked into HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN hoping for the same gonzo social satire that made MACHETE one of my favorite movies of last year. HOBO is not devoid of commentary, but it comes in small and sparse doses, and that is more my problem than the filmmakers. During the post-screening Q&A director Eisener explained that the ultimate aspiration of he and his crew was to create a lost 80’s action movie that one might find in a dust covered VHS. Then I understood. Then I let go of my own expectations. They were not trying to connect with the 42nd Street theaters of the 1960’s and 70’s that inspired GRINDHOUSE and MACHETE. I grew up on the same films these guys did: goofiness released by The Cannon Group and New World Pictures, starring Richard Lynch or Wings Hauser, and featuring songs by hair-metal bands no one outside of the Sunset Strip has ever heard of. HOBO may have lacked a specific type of humor I was hoping for, but it’s still damn funny, and exciting and gross. More importantly, it is a dead solid perfect match for the films its creators emulated, for the film they were aiming to make. Sometimes I need to surrender my nerdiness, and embrace the nerdiness of others, for my own nerd universe to expand. Well done HOBOs and congratulations on your Audience Award at BUFF’s 2011 Bacchus Awards! I’m looking forward to the DVD, hopefully loaded with Bonus Extras, since the story behind this film is as fun as the film itself.

MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED, Directed by Mark Hartley, featuring Roger Corman, Eddie Romero, R. Lee Ermey, Jayne Kennedy, Colleen Camp, and John Landis.

I hope that MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED coupled with 2010’s AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE spells the beginning of a BUFF tradition of offering at least one documentary with John Landis among the interviewees. This documentary focuses on exploitation horror and action films made in the Philippines between the late 1960’s and early ’80’s. I expected it to cover films being made by American crews looking to squeeze the most out of their budget, and it does that job thoroughly, but it also examines a good number of films made by Filipino filmmakers. Eddie Romero’s BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA is one of my all-time favorite sleaze-o-ramas. MACHETE MAIDENS not only covers Romero’s career, but other directors including Cirio Santiago and Bobby Suarez, as well as some cast and crew members. Sadly many of the Filipino crew have passed away. MACHETE MAIDENS makes excellent use of archival interviews and news footage to the explore the careers of these filmmakers as well as the political and social climates in which they were working. In terms of discussing both the position of these movies in the exploitation pantheon as well as in the overall zeitgiest, the interviewees offer contemporary analysis surpassing AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE, and approaching INSIDE DEEP THROAT. There is no one more fun than John Landis for that sort of perspective.

MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED was preceded by a short called THY KILL BE DONE. Nuns wielding power tools avenge the murder of their priest by drug dealers. As a fallen Catholic I’m a sucker for good nunsploitation. The highlight of this one is an absurd Vietnam flashback that hits like a cut-away moment from THE FAMILY GUY. Who knows? In a few years maybe this could grow into a feature like HOBO did?

THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE, Directed by Eddie Romero, starring John Ashley, Pat Woodell, and Pam Grier.

THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE played as a companion feature to MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED. It’s the kind of movie that would have been a blast in a Times Square theater with pot smoke hanging in the air and beer bottles clanging on the floor. It’s essentially a knock off of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. The downside is that it takes a while to get going, and you’ll sit through a fair amount of walking down long hallways and peeking around corners, but we can say that about many horror movies trying to pad the running time. When it finally does take off, we have Pam Grier stalking and snarling as Ayesa the Panther Woman, and another poor sap who’s been turned into a Bat Man but can’t figure out how to use his wings without falling. So yeah it’s ridiculous, but it’s also pretty damn funny especially when it’s trying not to be, and most of it is in focus!

An unsavory short called AMY’S IN THE ATTIC rolled before TWILIGHT PEOPLE. You know a director is trying to get under your skin when the end credits include an invitation for the audience to email him or contact him on Facebook if they want to complain about his film being racist or sexist. Since the film plays like a torture porn parody of Whit Stillman’s METROPOLITAN maybe he’ll get angry letters from the debutant set.

THE CORRIDOR, Directed by Evan Kelly, written by Josh MacDonald, starring Matthew Amyotte, Nigel Bennett, and Stephen Chambers.
THE CORRIDOR, as I told writer Josh MacDonald during the Q&A, is the kind of movie that makes me love this festival. I hope all of these movies will be entertaining, or at the very least bad enough to provide a few good laughs, but every now and then one emerges that is better written, shot and acted than many Hollywood studio films. (Happily, that just kept happening at this year’s BUFF!) MacDonald acknowledged that he and the rest of the filmmakers would prefer to hone the special effects a little more which reminds us that this entire film was probably made for the price of a few seconds of effects in a TRANSFORMERS movie. THE CORRIDOR follows five friends, all carrying their own weight of emotional and psychological baggage, as they attempt a weekend vacation at a cabin in the woods. Sounds like a movie we’ve seen before, but if we’ve learned anything from the better movies that have followed this blueprint, what separates a derivative wasted effort from a fun time being scared is how carefully the surprises are revealed and how believable the characters’ reactions are. THE CORRIDOR is not flawless but I’ll chalk it up beside EVIL DEAD and CABIN FEVER as being considerably more imaginative than the vast majority of cabin-in-the-woods thrillers.

The aforementioned MARTIAN PRECURSOR played before THE CORRIDOR. I have to admit, vomiting bum aside, I dug the aluminum foil Mars set. It reminded me of the cardboard cities my brother & I used to build and smash with my Shogun Warriors and Godzilla toys.

A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE, Directed by Adam Wingard, starring Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, and A.J. Bowen.
A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE is as refreshing a take on a potentially tired format as THE CORRIDOR is within its genre. It’s another story we’ve seen, the serial killer who escapes from prison to track down a woman from his past, but time spent with Michael Meyers will not begin to prepare you for this film. It is not without violence, and the violence is visceral when it comes, but for the most part it plays like a straight forward family drama. With throat slashings. Once again strong writing and performances and a unique director’s eye make all the difference. A.J. Bowen as the murderous Garrett Turrell is probably the most chillingly realistic movie murderer I’ve seen since Michael Rooker in HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. Turrell is not a misunderstood brilliant man toying with the cops, nor a tortured pervert with mommy-issues, he’s simply a guy who is better at eliminating problems than solving them. Films about serial killers are rarely believable enough to make me think of real serial killers. A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE reminded me of Christopher Wilder‘s three month killing spree in 1984, particularly my wonder at the time how Wilder was able to approach so many victims, even as news coverage of his nationwide manhunt increased dramatically with each murder. Bowen plays Turrell with borderline normalcy that answers my question. A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE quietly and unnervingly forges a new path over well-worn ground.

A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE was the runner-up for the Best of Fest Bacchus Award. It was accompanied by BEATING HEARTS which won the Bacchus Award for Director’s Choice Short. BEATING HEARTS contained in its 11 minutes as much sorrow, rage, pathos and go for broke acting and writing as Todd Solondz’s HAPPINESS. I mean that as a compliment, but like HAPPINESS, there is a small number of people to whom I could recommend BEATING HEARTS.

COLD FISH, Directed & Co-Written by Sion Sono, starring Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Denden, Megumi Kagurazaka, and Asuka Kurosawa.
I’d like to resist the obviousness of a pun but COLD FISH truly is an acquired taste. Japanese director Sion Sono’s film LOVE EXPOSURE opened last year’s BUFF. Listen to the audience gathered in the lobby and you learn that this is a man who is adored and who’s work is respected around here. COLD FISH starts off mildly enough with a middle aged couple running a small pet store dedicated mostly to tropical fish. When their teenage daughter is rescued from a juvenile delinquency rap by the owner of a much larger pet store, who then hires the daughter, you can see the threads of family dysfunctionality begin to fray. It would be difficult to reveal spoilers, as so many varieties of physical and psychological manipulation and abuse follow, it’s damn near impossible to pick which moment to say “Wait ’til you see this!” This is an intricately plotted well made movie about very unlikeable people. I doubt there is a large audience eager to spend 145 minutes of screen time around vicious characters and subversive humor akin to THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER. There I said it, and if you know that title, then you know if you’re the type of person who can stomach COLD FISH. You also know if you should curl up in a ball and hug your knees and hope it passes by without noticing you.

PROFANE, Written & Directed by Usama Alshaibi, starring Manal Kara, Molly Plunk, and Dejan Mircea.
PROFANE beat A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE for the Best of Fest Bacchus Award. Here’s one you won’t find in your shopping mall mutliplex anytime soon: an existential demonic possession story, created by a Muslim American documentary director, who was inspired by THE EXORCIST to explore the Muslim concept of the Jinn. Wait it gets more colorful: the character through whom we encounter the possibility of the Jinn is not an innocent child like Regan MacNeil, but a Chicago dominatrix named Muna, who hears voices whispering to her during her taxi rides home from her B&D sessions. I have a short list of films that I respect more than I enjoy which I imagine is exactly what Alshaibi was hoping for with PROFANE. If anything differentiates a Jinn from a Christian demon it escapes me, but Alshaibi’s camera work and the frequently stunning juxtapositions of his editing are intriguing as hell, suggesting that he answers some of my questions with images rather than dialog. Muna’s spiritual crisis was kinky and unsettling, but like the best documentaries, it left me wanting to research multiple topics to better understand the spiritual world illuminated by PROFANE.

Usama Alshaibi’s short GASH played before PROFANE. It’s a good film for anyone who thought Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo van Gogh’s SUBMISSION was too subtle. There was also a video introduction prepared by Usama Alshaibi. He is the victim of a recent hate crime, the bruises and scars from which were still evident, which prevented him from attending the festival. Since the crime is still under investigation he offered little by way of explanation, other than to say he had gone to a party that he shouldn’t have, and someone there heard his name. My immediate thought was to wonder if Adolphe Menjou ever encountered similar treatment in the 1930’s or ’40’s. It angers me (and many others at the festival) that some can be as ignorant as to blame a man for the name his parents gave him. It saddens me that Mr. Alshaibi would describe the party as somewhere he “shouldn’t have gone,” as if he should change his name or adopt a nickname, as a preemptive measure against the stupidity of others. His is the work of a brave and focused artist, and I hope he continues to explore his faith and identity through film, because his voice is unusual even by independent film standards. …And yes I would feel this way about his work even if the assault had not happened.

FAZE 7, Written & Directed by Nicolas Goldbart, starring Daniel Hendler, Jazmin Stuart, Federico Lupi, and Jose “Yayo” Guridi.

HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN provided an opportunity to discuss my need to let go of my own expectations in order to realize a filmmaker’s aspiration. The Argentinian viral outbreak thriller FAZE 7 offers a similar opportunity. As the end credits rolled I heard some exiting the theater denounce FAZE 7 it as a rip-off of QUARANTINE. Nerds love to do that: act like they alone spotted a precedent, and therefor they alone are better informed that the rest of the room. The trouble is that there is always a precedent for the precedent. If we are going to dismiss Bruce Springsteen as Bob Dylan-lite we also have to take into account that Dylan might never have been without Woody Guthrie. What matters is how well each new expression engages its audience. Sure THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT borrowed a framing device from CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST but everything else about both films is incongruous.

The first act of FAZE 7 bears some similarities to QUARANTINE, as well as [REC], the Spanish film from which QUARANTINE was remade. Precedent, baby! Beyond that, FAZE 7 is an intense thriller with believable character dynamics, and a mystery that is engrossing to watch unfold. The central conceit is *** semi-Spoiler alert: what might happen if the most paranoid and obsessively prepared person in a crisis is actually correct about the cause of said crisis? *** I almost did not come to this show. It started late on a Thursday night, it was the final film on the schedule, and the day’s rain had turned to slush falling from the sky after the sun went down. I’m so glad that FAZE 7 was my final screening for the 2011 BUFF. I found myself laughing with the film rather than at it, and genuinely intrigued and scared, precisely the way a new twist on an old theme should work.

For anyone curious about the BUFF’s Bacchus Award here he is. He’s a pink bunny. He’s flipping you off. And he vibrates. You know you want one!

AFTER THOUGHT from 4.9.11
If you look closely enough at the blue Sharpie schedule I wrote out for myself at the top of this article, you might notice one title that I missed, a Japanese zombie film called HELLDRIVER. This film lost a coin-toss to PROFANE. I was unable to see it when it screened again later in the week. If Japanese zombies weren’t enough to make me want to see HELLDRIVER then the presence of Eihi Shiina, from AUDITION and TOKYO GORE POLICE, would be enough to seal the deal. But don’t take my word for it — you tell me if this doesn’t look fun:


Independent Film Festival Boston: MARWENCOL

Posted in FESTIVAL NOTES: Dispatches from the front lines. on November 12th, 2010 by Jim Delaney

Tuesday April 27, 2010 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA.

MARWENCOL, Directed and Edited by Jeff Malmberg, featuring Mark Hogancamp.

Frank Capra worked under the motto “One man, one movie.” Supporting characters and secondary plot lines aside, Capra believed that the best movies followed the odyssey of one person’s life. Director Jeff Malmberg spent roughly three years and a lot of his own money following Mark Hogancamp around the town of Marwencol. Marwencol is a Belgian town, but you will not find on any map of Belgium, because Marwencol exists entirely in the mind and backyard of Mark Hogancamp.

Mark Hogancamp was a married Navy veteran living in upstate New York whose hobbies once included hanging out in his favorite bar and drawing comicbook-style illustration that would do SGT. ROCK proud. Everything Hogancamp remembered was erased in one night when he was beaten into a coma by five drunks as he left the local bar. After awakening from his coma, Hogancamp was unable to steady his hands well enough to draw to his prior level of detail. Rather than drawing war stories, he found that he could build elaborately detailed set pieces, and photograph a private war fought by G.I. Joes and other dolls and action figures. When Hogancamp submitted one of his photos to a contest, he won more than first prize and a little pocket money, he won the attention of Jeff Malmberg and the New York art scene.

Though Hogancamp was reluctant to share his inadvertent art therapy in a film, Malmberg’s persistence has paid off. MARWENCOL is one of the most moving stories about fate I have seen — tempting fate, resigning oneself to fate, and challenging fate. Hogancamp’s journey takes twists and turns that would be absurd if this was fiction. This is a true puzzle of one man sifting through the extraordinary fragments of his broken life, and piecing together both a workable existence and an artistic point of view few would ever imagine. Malmberg exhibits unusual patience and restraint in the film’s discovery of each of Hogancamp’s epiphanies.

Malmberg allows us to sit beside Hogancamp while he pours through his “drunk journal” notebooks trying to figure out who he had been before the assault. We meet Hogancamp’s neighbors and coworkers, who to varying degrees of pride or concern, have inspired their own characters within Marwencol. As we learn who Hogancamp had been, we witness him deciding who he wants to be, using his controlled town to experiment with his identity. None of this is forced or polished; we are included in each step and set back in both Hogancamp’s personal and creative lives. Malmberg could have teased certain elements to build false suspense, but by allowing the story to unfold at Hogancamp’s pace, he shows great respect both for Mark Hogancamp and for the artistic process. Malmberg affords the characters in Marwencol the same dimensions as the flesh and blood people who surround Hogancamp. He does not photograph them from above like an adult briefly admiring a child’s toys before moving on. He joins Hogancamp in the dirt, both of them showing us that each character in Marwencol represents an idea as vivid and honest as any artist could express.


Independent Film Festival Boston: SOUL KITCHEN (2009)

Posted in FESTIVAL NOTES: Dispatches from the front lines. on July 24th, 2010 by Jim Delaney

Saturday April 24, 2010 at the Somerville Theater, Somerville, MA.

SOUL KITCHEN Directed & Co-Written by Fatih Akin, starring Adam Bousdoukos, Mortiz Bleibtreu, Anna Bederke, Pheline Roggan & Birol Unel.

Within the past year or so, I don’t recall if he was on a talk show or a stand-up special, Robin Williams recounted a conversation with a German interviewer. When asked his thoughts on why Germany does not have the comedic culture of some other nations, Williams answered “Maybe it’s because you killed all the funny people.” After I stopped laughing it occurred to me that I have not seen many German comedies. I hope this is due more to their thin distribution in the U.S. than a lack of any good German comedies. Fatih Akin, the writer/director of SOUL KITCHEN, was born in Hamburg to parents who had emigrated from Turkey in the 1960’s. If this film is any evidence, Germany has a joyful mine of multigenerational and multiethnic culture waiting to be explored.

SOUL KITCHEN follows the comical daily grind endured by a young Greek immigrant named Zinos. Soul Kitchen is a broken down cafe Zinos runs out of a freight warehouse on the wrong side of the train tracks from Hamburg. If it weren’t for a small group of regulars (including one friendly drunk living as a squatter in the warehouse’s loading dock) Zinos would barely be able to keep his doors open. Zinos’ girlfriend suddenly decides to move to China, his recently paroled brother shows up on his doorstep looking for a zero-responsibility job to satisfy a parole work requirement, and a chance encounter with an old friend has him pondering selling his property to satisfy his debts. A lesser man might give up his dream of running a great restaurant, but Zinos makes a last ditch effort at that dream when he hires an enigmatic knife-throwing chef with a questionable past.

If it sounds scattered, it isn’t really. This is the same motley-crew-banding-together-to-save-a-place-they-love story that has been the subject of good movies (THE BLUES BROTHERS) and not so good movies (HARLEY DAVIDSON & THE MARLOBORO MAN). Put this one in the same column with Jake & Elwood. Avoiding stereotypes of Germans, Greeks or any other nationality, Fatih Akin and co-writer Adam Bousdoukos (who also plays Zinos) populate their movie with an eccentric crowd of thugs and foodies, clubbers and rockers, land schemers and unqualified providers of holistic medicine. A movie with such character diversity often becomes about the forces that divide them. Bousdoukos heads a pitch perfect cast from across eastern Europe, playing characters united by the same thing everybody in our current global economic crisis wants: the ability to earn a living by your own work and ingenuity.

I’ve read some IMDB comments written by Europeans who suspect that some jokes may get lost in translation. If that is true, then I would probably have a heart attack from laughing if I got every single joke. I laughed more in SOUL KITCHEN than I did in any movie in recent memory, and even when I wasn’t laughing, I had a big dopey smile on my face. This is a film made by people who love their city, their countries, food, rock-n-roll, and the intrinsic joy of surviving another day against a sea of troubles. It seems ripe for an American remake, but I hope this does not happen; rather than straining and pouring it into a weaker concoction, this sort of lightning in a bottle is best passed around and shared at full strength.


Independent Film Festival Boston: WINTER’S BONE and THE KILLER INSIDE ME (2010)

Posted in FESTIVAL NOTES: Dispatches from the front lines. on May 14th, 2010 by Jim Delaney

Friday, April 23 and Sunday, April 25, 2010 at the Somerville Theater, Somerville, MA.

WINTER’S BONE Directed & Co-Written by Debra Granik, starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey & William White.

When last we met, I noted that Film Noir was alive and kicking in Australia. After having a great time at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, I can happily report that it also looks pretty lively in the U.S. Whether as a period piece on a modest budget as THE KILLER INSIDE ME, or a low budget contemporary thriller like WINTER’S BONE, the desperate and dirty heart of Film Noir was beating in Somerville, Mass.

Based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel, WINTER’S BONE follows a young woman named Ree Dolly through the Ozark Mountains searching for her father, after learning he had put up the family home as collateral on a bail bond. With the county days away from forcing Ree, her younger brother and infant sister and their shut-in mother off their land, Ree is less concerned with whether her father is alive or dead than with simply locating him. We follow her through backroads and woodsheds once used for distilling moonshine but now given over to cooking methamphetamine. As the product has grown more dangerous, so have the producers, with not even blood-ties enough to keep Ree safe in her father’s world. Film noir has taken its fair share of decent hard-working characters across the tracks. This film replaces asphalt and shadows on the wrong side of town with agoraphobic wilderness.

I was unfamiliar with most of the cast of WINTER’S BONE. I wondered if some were not professional actors, so natural was this ensemble that you rarely catch them acting, only being. John Hawkes as Ree’s uncle Teardrop was my first hint that these are in fact seasoned professionals. Hawkes brings to Teardrop the same meticulously observed worn soul that he and another powerhouse ensemble offered on HBO’s DEADWOOD. He and Jennifer Lawrence (Ree Dolly) are both so strong that they could have shown each other up with award-baiting grandiosity. Instead they embrace how unusual their characters’ relationship is, and explore it for all the threats, concerns and defiance that it offers.

Deborah Granik’s script asks an awful lot of her cast. As a director she was impressively able to wrangle all those emotions and themes while making the most out of every location available to her. During the Q&A after the screening, she mentioned that Ree’s home is only seen from the front and left side, so that the back and right sides could double for another character’s home. Even more economical, that house is where one of the cast members actually lives! This sort of resourcefulness not only helps keep the budget down, it also lends a reality that could never have existed if a movie with ten times the budget had cleared away some trees and built the town they needed. When a movie looks, feels, smells and sounds as real as WINTER’S BONE, it is very easy to get lost in its web.

THE KILLER INSIDE ME Directed by Michael Winterbottom, starring Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba and Ned Beatty.

Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel THE KILLER INSIDE ME was previously filmed in 1976 with Stacey Keach as the murderous sheriff Lou Ford. Casey Affleck plays Ford in this year’s model, with Kate Hudson as his fiance Amy. Jessica Alba plays a hooker named Joyce with whom Ford falls in love after he is sent to run her out of town. The problem with Lou Ford, and a bigger problem for the women in his life, is that the has a head full of loose screws that will not allow him to accept the comforts of love for very long before he needs to destroy it.

Judging from the reactions I heard after the Somerville screening, and from what I’ve read about the audience response at Sundance earlier this year, THE KILLER INSIDE ME is on track to become the type of movie that people either love or hate. Semi-spoiler — Here is what most people hate about it: two scenes wherein Lou Ford punches, kicks and stomps a woman character, genuinely amusing himself with her suffering. These scenes prompted one of the organizers of IFFBoston to issue a warning before the film, noting that this is the first time in the Festival’s eight year history that they have made such a warning.

Here is what I loved about this movie: two scenes wherein Lou Ford commits unspeakable violence upon women are portrayed with absolutely blunt honesty. There is nothing cool about this, no cute quip delivered at the end of the scene, nothing glamorous or stylized to hint that you should be entertained by this. Let me be clear — I did not enjoy THE KILLER INSIDE ME, but in the same vein as HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and IRREVERSIBLE, I respect it as well-made film. There is nothing cartoonish or over-the-top about this story. As such the violence, and the rage that precipitates it, are delivered unsparingly. This sort of violence in real life should prompt outrage. The violence of a character like Lou Ford being committed by an actor as generally likable as Casey Affleck could prompt always needed discussion of an uncomfortable issue.

Sadly, the knee-jerk reaction to scream for a bans and boycotts “to protect our children” (whose have no business seeing this movie to begin with!) will probably sidetrack any thoughtful examination. Sociopathic antiheroes have often reared their ugly heads in pulp novels by Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, James M. Cain and most recently James Ellroy. Film adaptations have tended to soften the rage of these characters, or even allow it to happen off screen. THE KILLER INSIDE ME is far from perfect, but it dares to go where most films won’t in allowing the story to be told from the point of view of a man the audience will truly dread.


Boston Underground Film Festival: IT CAME FROM KUCHAR (2009) and AMER (2009)

Posted in FESTIVAL NOTES: Dispatches from the front lines. on April 4th, 2010 by Jim Delaney

Thursday, April 1, 2010 at the Landmark Kendall Sq. Cinema, Cambridge, MA.

IT CAME FROM KUCHAR Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot, featuring George & Mike Kuchar, Atom Egoyan, Buck Henry and John Waters.

Before I saw this film, my only awareness of George and Mike Kuchar came from John Waters’ performance film THIS FILTHY WORLD, wherein he recalls his admiration for their films and their fast-n-loose shooting style. Jennifer M. Kroot’s documentary works both as a study of several different schools of film-making in the past 50 years and as a biography of two relentlessly creative twin brothers. If you are interested in intimate films about family relationships and/or unusual and engaging (read: kooky) personalities, you will be fascinated by these two Bronx-born lads. If you are interested in:
– Madison Ave advertising/industrial filmmaking and illustration
– Beatnik-era experimental short films
– Sirkian melodrama
– countercultural/psychedelic films and comicbooks
– drive-in horror and sci-fi movies
– gay films that made the rest of the U.S. aware of The Castro
– student films from “the film-school generation” to the present —
the Kuchars have tried their hand at all of them and more!

The requisite interviews are informative and enlightening, though the highlight is Buck Henry, whom we see hanging out with George rather than talking about him. The most fun and involving sequences follow George as he teaches film students at the San Francisco Art Institute. Kroot enables you to be a fly on the wall in the sort of chaotic go-for-broke class setting that will either make you yearn to go to film school, or be very glad that you chose to be an accountant.

AMER Written & Directed by Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani, starring Marie Bos, Charlotte Eugene-Guibbaud, Delphine Brual, Bianca Maria D’Amato and Cassandra Foret.

Allow me to offer you a variation on the *Spoiler Alert* regarding AMER. I will not ruin the end, or any other surprises, but it is best that I warn you what state of mind you will need to enjoy this film. Had I seen it in the wrong mood, I expect I could have been bored or annoyed with it, or even found it pretentious. However, as this was a film festival, I came to it with as open a mind as I could manage. I made a conscious effort to connect with what these two directors were trying to share with me. In return I asked for something unexpected and unique. I was happily rewarded.

The paper-thin story focuses on three stages in the sexual awakening of a woman named Ana. We meet Ana first as a child of about 12 in a gothic mansion, then an adolescent on the Mediterranean coast, and finally as an adult returning to a dilapidated husk that had been her childhood home. Rather than expository dialogue, AMER focuses on Ana’s sensual memories, like the sound of a pocket watch chain and the stifling heat in a car with the windows up. The saturated sound design often threatens to become tedious; it is thankfully interrupted by a score of Ennio Morricone and other Italian exploitation maestros (lifted mostly from 1970’s films), in case you missed from the color and shadow drenched imagery that AMER is a valentine to Giallo.

AMER plays out as sort of an anthology film directed by a team whose previous films have all been shorts. The story might be more compelling if it were 15-20 minutes shorter, but as an overall experience, AMER is a sumptuously haunting 90 minutes.


Boston Underground Film Festival: STUCK! (2009) and SOMEONE’S KNOCKING AT THE DOOR (2009)

Posted in FESTIVAL NOTES: Dispatches from the front lines. on March 29th, 2010 by Jim Delaney

Saturday March 27, 2010 at the Landmark Kendall Sq. Cinema, Cambridge, MA.

Directed and Co-Written by Steve Balderson, starring Starina Johnson, Karen Black, Mink Stole and Jane Wiedlin.

Assemble all the cliches that spring to mind when you read these four words: Women-In-Prison Flick. What do you think of? Cute girls in torn prison uniforms? Butch cell-mates? Shower scenes? Perverted wardens and billyclub wielding guards casting inmates into solitary after molesting them? That’s all good lecherous fun for tons of drive-in movies from the 1970’s and 80’s. Balderson however was taking his inspiration from earlier noir-tinged movies from the 40’s and 50’s, such as I WANT TO LIVE from 1958, hence the black & white photography and Rob Kleiner’s cool jazzy score. During the post-screening Q&A Balderson admitted to not having seen many of the best and worst films in the women-in-prison genre. His honesty drew breathless gasps from an audience of nerds who fully expected him to have a Tarantino-esque command of every movie ever made in any country that featured incarcerated ladies.

Enough about what STUCK! is not — what is it? It’s an enthusiastic ode to the earlier days of the genre, and while it is far from perfect, it has enough happy surprises to keep it interesting. Daisy (Starina Johnson) is an innocent girl sent to death row after being implicated in her mother’s suicide by a mistaken neighbor (Karen Black). As Daisy’s cellmates help her embrace and challenge her fate, the solitary Neighbor Lady spirals into doubt and regret. An imaginative depiction of the warden is one of many strengths that STUCK! exhibits. Even when cliches appear, ’cause what’s a women-in-prison movie without a blossoming sapphic affair, Balderson and his committed cast handle them in fresh and unusual ways. While STUCK! is no classic, there are rewards to be gleaned from watching a cast and crew sincerely give it their best shot, especially on a reported $300K budget in a climate where a movie can cost $10M and still be regarded as “independent.”

SOMEONE’S KNOCKING AT THE DOOR Directed & Co-Written by Chad Ferrin, starring Noah Segan, Andrea Rueda and Elina Madison.

SPOILER ALERT! — It is very difficult to discuss what is good about SOMEONE’S KNOCKING AT THE DOOR without giving away the ending — stop reading before the 2nd paragraph if you don’t want the end ruined. The story focuses on a group of medical students who spend far more time on pharmaceutical experimentation than attending class. After a group trip to their school’s drug closet, one of the students is murdered, leaving rest of the peanut gallery to figure if their paranoia is a side-effect of their trip or if they are really next. This being a horror movie, of course someone is next, but it is in the depiction of the murders that SOMEONE’S KNOCKING slips off the rails.

The murders involve the victim being raped to death by a gruesome couple: a woman who looks like a groupie from a Norwegian Black Metal band, and a guy who looks like a coked-up Lance Henriksen. These are not only vile sequences, they actually distract from what could have made this a really good movie. The big trick is that none of these kids ever left the drug closet; the murders are a shared hallucination as each succumbs to an over-dose. That big trick was almost a very cool reveal, but after sitting through 75 minutes of wannabe torture-porn mayhem, I didn’t really care about sorting through who’s nightmare I was in or what the exact effects of the drug were. The sad part is that SOMEONE’S KNOCKING could have been a breakout sleeper on the order of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY if they’d focused on the cool unique idea rather than slumming in a neighborhood that had made so many other films worth forgetting.


Boston Underground Film Festival: AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE (2010) and PIECES (1982)

Posted in FESTIVAL NOTES: Dispatches from the front lines. on March 28th, 2010 by Jim Delaney

Friday March 26, 2010 at the Landmark Kendall Sq. Cinema, Cambridge, MA.

AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE Written & Directed by Elijah Drenner, narrated by Robert Forster, and featuring John Landis, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Larry Cohen, Allison Anders, Joe Dante, Eric Schaefer and the late Don Edmonds.

The two clearest signs of a well made documentary are that they show you something you have never seen before, or place something familiar in a new light, and they make you want to know more. They seem complete but you wish they could be longer. AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE is a well made documentary.

In covering the history of American exploitation films, Elijah Drenner’s documentary covers areas that have been meticulously explored recently: socially conscious horror films of the 1960’s and 70’s (THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE from 2000), the dawn of cult movies in the 1970’s (MIDNIGHT MOVIES: FROM THE MARGIN TO THEM MAINSTREAM from 2005) and the emergence of porn from stag parties to marquees (INSIDE DEEP THROAT also 2005). Drenner succeeds in plumbing the early days of exploitation movies. He traces as far back as single-reel silents made by Thomas Edison’s film company, and progresses through the Hayes Code of the 1930’s and film noir of the 40’s and 50’s, all in an exhaustive search for the offensive and outrageous roots of American independent films. As with most such documentaries AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE relies on expert talking-head interviews — always a good sign when John Landis shows up! Drenner’s relentless supply of clips and promotional artwork from over 100 movies is what sets his study a notch above others covering similar ground. If only PBS would give him a Ken Burns budget to make a 6 or 8 hour film!

PIECES Directed by Juan Piquer Simon, starring Christopher George, Linda Day, Ian Sera and Edmund Purdom.

PIECES is a piece of junk and I loved it. It was Rated X during its 1982 theatrical release, both for male and female full-frontal nudity, and for gore that was considered excessive at the time. That same summer John Milius had to trim a 3-shot decapitation to a single shot so that CONAN THE BARBARIAN could be Rated R. The following year Brian DePalma lost a protracted battle with the MPAA to get an R-rating for SCARFACE until he agreed to tone down his infamous chainsaw scene. PIECES accepted the X, and was thus enabled to show you a chainsaw bisecting a woman’s torso, plus other nasties that are not that much more splatterrific than todays average C.S.I. episode.

The story begins in 1942 with a young Boston boy who chops up with mother with an ax and a saw after she berates him for playing with a puzzle of a nude woman. This is where the hilarity begins: the puzzle looks more like a 1976 Penthouse Pet, and one of the police officers who responds sports a Ron Jeremy mustache. Jump forward 40 years to follow a series of dismember-murderers of cute young women at an unnamed university in Boston. From there the 80’s cheesiness is boundless. Murder of a girl after we get to watch her in Jazzercise class? Check. Slow motion murder of a woman on a waterbed? Check, and well shot, by the way! Bad actors delivering bad Boston accents? Che– hold the phone — yes, the actors are bad, but not even one makes any attempt at a Cliff Claven accent. PIECES is particularly hard on the Boston Police, who come off like Keystone Cops in polyester, ever ready to Protect & Stand Around.

In fact, for a movie that was actually shot partly in Boston, the only indication of New England are the bare trees in the fall. I’ve seen movies set in Boston but shot in New York, Chicago and even downtown Los Angeles. No Boston movie has less Beantown-credibility than PIECES. I know I’m splitting hairs but this is after all the BOSTON Underground Film Festival! Moments that would have been moderately amusing with any other audience became hilarious with the crowd in Kendall Square. Yup, this was one of those perfect moments for which film festivals exist: to turn scary movies into the funniest comedy you’ll se all year.