MOVIE REVIEW Hope For American Cinema?

A Sampling From 2007’s Independent Film Festival of Boston

2007 Independent Film Festival of Boston

Apr. 25-30, 2007

I don’t know about you, but it is easy to get depressed about the current state of American cinema. Disturbia is number one for the third week in a row and somebody actually finances the likes of Kicking it Old Skool and the Nick Cage atrocity, Next. Before you decide to send a pipe bomb to Universal studios, keep in mind all the great smaller filmmakers pursuing innovative and interesting cinema! Last week, some of these brave filmmakers descended on Boston for the fifth annual Independent Film Festival of Boston. With over 70 shorts, documentaries, and narrative features including some premieres, the event has become a great destination for anyone who likes movies and is sick of the crap in wide release. Beyond the films, there were also panel discussions, Q&A’s with the filmmakers after most screenings, parties every night, and lots of free Utz potato chips.

Let’s not forget that this is not just a film festival but an independent film festival — therefore, you won’t get a chance to see many of these films at Loews, Blockbuster, or even small artsy cinemas. Also, the “independent” factor means that the current climate of independent cinema was on everybody’s mind. Independent filmmaking has become an insane strategy game with the goal to get funding, make money, and just getting your movie seen.

In the end, it is the other festival-goers that make your attendance worthwhile. YouTube and downloading may be the future, but there is something a little bit magical about seeing a movie on a huge screen with a whole bunch of other people. These people also tend to be pretty impressive — I had random conversations with filmmakers, festival staff and volunteers, other movie fans and press, and celebrities. Accidentally sit in the VIP section, and you too can meet a former New Kid, that chick from Buffy, or possibly the funniest person alive, Will Arnett.

In five days, I was able to see 13 shorts, seven feature length films, and attend one panel discussion. Sadly, only a few of these films will probably be distributed in a manner where they will reach your eyes, but here are my thoughts. I encourage you to seek out some of these films.

Fay Grim

This is Hal Hartley’s latest, and it is the sequel to his 1997 film, Henry Fool. Thanks to Hartley’s following, this film will be making the rounds at select cinemas (including Kendall Square) starting May 18, giving you a chance to check it out! This time around, the whole cast of Henry Fool returns and the always charming and hilarious Parker Posey takes center stage as the title character, Fay Grim. The film features creative cinematography, and fabulous dialogue from fabulous actors — overall creating a fun cinema experience. Many argued, however, that the film could have been much better with a different ending more consistent with the first two-thirds of the film. The problem is that when Parker Posey leaves the screen and politics enter the picture, the movie loses much of its charm.

Eagle vs. Shark

Miramax is probably banking on this film to have the same sort of effect that the equally awkward Napoleon Dynamite had a couple years back. I don’t know that this will become a cult favorite, but many MIT students will certainly relate to the dork-infused and socially challenged love story between Lily and Jarrod. Audiences will appreciate the goofy wardrobes and quirky dialogue, which is instantly rendered more charming by the New Zealand accents.

Monkey Warfare

This won’t be coming to a theatre near us any time soon, a fact which Canadian director Reginald Harkema attributes in part to his own stupidity, as he admits to making some mistakes when trying to cut a deal with distributors. Harkema draws much of his inspiration from iconic new wave filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, and this presence is unabashedly present in Monkey Warfare. Harkema explained to the large crowd at Brattle during a Q&A that he tries to make Godard-ian films that are infused with narrative, making them more accessible to audiences. The result is easily described by the following mathematical model: Godard + marijuana + bicycles + kick-ass soundtrack + Molotov cocktail how-to = authentic, witty, and fun film that rocks.

The Paper

A documentary on the state of journalism in America, The Paper attempts to get to the bottom of things by shadowing students who staff Penn State’s The Daily Collegian. Filmmaker Aaron Matthews managed to cut hundreds of hours of footage into a mostly cohesive story which features an honesty that is sometimes missing from documentaries which wear their agendas on their sleeves or seem as scripted as reality TV.

The Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell

Sadly, The Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell doesn’t quite live up to its delicious name. This movie is best summed up as what your little brother and his friends (who have been playing way too much Mortal Kombat) might make. You know you are in for a unique experience when five minutes into the movie a girl has her spine ripped out. Set in the future after a nuclear apocalypse, America has returned to wilderness and anarchy, and several humans along with robots are in a race to gain control and unify what’s left of the nation. There is something to be said for cartoon violence and a completely absurd plot, but it might be overkill when you get so numb by the end of the film that you are laughing while someone is crucified.

Year of the Fish

Year of the Fish is not for those of us who hate rotoscoping. The effect when they take live film and draw over it to make it look like a cartoon/computer animated seems unnecessary here, as there is no moment where it becomes particularly useful or creative. Thankfully, the animation is much looser than the style of Richard Linklater’s famous and obnoxiously-rotoscoped exhibitions, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. The film is a retelling of the Cinderella story set in a “massage” parlor in Chinatown and the director cited this fantastical element as the reason he chose to rotoscope the film. He also admitted that the decision was a partly practical one. He shot the film quickly with one miniDV camera and no lighting so all the post-filming editing and rotoscoping allowed him to make a film that doesn’t look so cheap.

On Broadway

On Broadway is a local feature which premiered Friday at the festival to a sold-out crowd. As it was made in Boston — a “love letter to Boston,” — it will probably be making another appearance at theatres in town. However, this doesn’t mean you should go see it. The film stars Joey McIntyre, who made a decent New Kid on the Block, but a crappy actor. The writing is a little rigid and gives poor Joey and the rest of the cast little to work with. It is just sad when the best acting in a film is coming from the fat guy from TV’s “Yes, Dear.” The film is a sentimental, uplifting piece in which a working class Irish man (McIntyre) writes and stages a play to honor his dead uncle. It is a genre that is nearly impossible to get right, and On Broadway defaults to using clichés, a flashback, and voice-over narration to tell the story. You also won’t be impressed with the look of the film — it is digital and looked fairly crappy from my seat in Somerville’s big theatre.

The Short Films

Seeing excellent shorts was a big highlight of the festival — a filmmaker can explore a lot of concepts that are really interesting, creative, or strange but wouldn’t work as a feature. The festival screened several shorts before films of similar attitude. For example, the aptly named horror short Death Trike premiered before the like-minded Black Sheep. Likewise, unexpected and unnecessary violence were featured both in the full length The Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell and Songbird, which won the Special Jury prize for best short. There were also three shorts packages, each a little over an hour in length. One highlight was a trilogy of shorts from Canadian writer/director Jamie Travis entitled Patterns 1, Patterns 2, and Patterns 3. This endlessly stylish series really grows on you and by the end it comes together and becomes a piece with a life of its own. A grouping of documentary shorts ended with the heart-wrenching Freeheld about the case of an ex-police detective dying of lung cancer and the New Jersey county government’s unwillingness to extend her pension to her female domestic partner. The piece was powerfully intimate and touching. I am a little embarrassed to admit that I cried … a lot.

So … you missed the festival this year. Don’t fret — start preparing for next year! Here are some tips on how to do it right. The sheer size of the festival can be a little overwhelming and it is impossible to see even half of the material being shown. Just pick the things that really catch your eye, but also take a chance and try something you normally wouldn’t. Don’t just stick to narrative features either; there is a huge sampling of documentaries and shorts that merit your consideration. Another thing to keep in mind is to be careful when navigating venues. This year the festival was headquartered at the Somerville theatre in Davis Square, but many movies were also screened at the Brattle and Coolidge Corner. You need to keep in mind how far you want to go and how big the screen is going to be. I love the Brattle, but their single screen kind of blows, the seating is certainly not “stadium”, and the projection can be less than ideal. As tickets go, a “chrome pass” which grants access to all festival hootenanny is pricey at 180 dollars, while tickets to a single film are nine bucks each. You can get around this potential problem by volunteering and seeing the films for free with the added bonus of a T-shirt and good conversation with other volunteers. Another benefit is getting into the parties, which are a strange mélange of people that make a great festival even better.