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.