IFF Boston 2015 Wrap-up

In Transit

In Transit

 

Now in its 13th year, the Independent Film Festival of Boston is the city’s only film festival that matters—not to discount all the various niche festivals that pop up throughout the year in venues ranging from the Museum of Fine Arts to Belmont Studio Cinema, but IFF Boston is the only one I adjust my schedule around. You always sense that it is conceived and programmed by people who clearly love independent film and want to cultivate a community of fellow cineastes to spread the word about upcoming independent releases and other titles that may never even receive theatrical distribution.

If 2014 was a relatively weak year for documentaries, 2015 is shaping up to be an exemplary one if IFF Boston’s slate is any indication. In addition to playing two titles I saw at TIFF, one great (The Look of Silence), the other very good (Do I Sound Gay?), IFF Boston’s highlights were mostly non-fiction. Stray Dog, Debra Granik’s follow-up to her unlikely hit Winter’s Bone is companion piece about Ron Hall, who had a small role in the earlier film. A grizzled biker who runs a tiny RV community outside Branson, Missouri, Hall earned the nickname that gives the film its title for his tendency to adopt and raise small mutts. As with the characters in Granik’s earlier film, one is tempted to initially view him as a stereotype, a figure likely far removed from a majority of the film’s potential audience. However, Granik soon reveals more about him: it’s not exactly surprising to find out he’s a Vietnam War veteran struggling with PTSD, but it is unexpected seeing him learning to speak Spanish on the computer in order to communicate more with his Mexican wife of less than two years.

Granik’s foresight to center on Hall proves keenly perceptive, as he’s a natural and compelling subject, candid about the demons he overcame and those he continues to confront. Employing a strict cinéma vérité approach, she excels at building a rich and ultimately moving portrait of Hall and his community, masterfully observing them without judgment. Another vérité filmmaker, the late Albert Maysles, appeared at the festival with his final two projects: Iris (which I’ll try to catch when it plays theatrically this month) and In Transit, which he co-directed with four other filmmakers. Originally conceived as a doc about passenger train travel on multiple lines all over the world, in its final cut, In Transit is solely about Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the busiest long-distance train route in the U.S. (stretching from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest). As we pass through a variety of settings and meet a diverse number of passengers, it’s increasingly apparent how this means of travel can be a transformative journey with a sense of community not found in, say, flying or even taking a Greyhound bus. As always with Maysles, one detects a humaneness that is neither exploitative nor idealized; this is a beautiful career capper for the man (with his brother David) behind  Grey GardensSalesman and all the rest.

Bobcat Goldthwait (of all people) also creates an affecting portrait in Call Me Lucky, his first feature-length documentary (he’s been a longtime fixture at IFF Boston, although I haven’t seen any of his narrative films). You may not know who Barry Crimmins is, but you should and for the film’s first half, Goldthwait forges a sound argument for his subject’s greatness. As an articulate, incensed, politically charged stand-up comedian in the 1980s, Crimmins was ahead of his time (and to be fair, also of it with his bushy mustache and propensity to have both a beer and a cigar in hand on stage). He never became a household name for multiple reasons, chief among them for devoting much of his time to running Ding Ho and Stitches, two comedy clubs that cultivated a superlative stand-up scene in Boston (many from it are interviewed, including David Cross, Marc Maron and Goldthwait himelf); his uncompromisingly angry demeanor might’ve also been a deterrent, but something else contributing to that anger also held Crimmins back. Goldthwait structures the film’s second half around revealing this early-life trauma, which not only alters how we perceive Crimmins but also unavoidably changes the film’s overall tone. To his credit, Goldthwait pulls off this shift well enough to the point where Call Me Lucky still resembles one unified narrative. The worst you can say about the second half is that it’s a little flabby as a surplus of interviews distracts from the main arc. Fortunately, ongoing footage of Crimmins today, both in life and work (his stand-up retains nearly as much bite as in his heyday) plays a crucial part in the film’s triumph, illustrating the man’s accomplishment and resilience while never obscuring his impossible-to-fully-shake torment.

City of Gold

City of Gold

 

On a lighter note, City of Gold at first seems like little more than a puff piece in which Jonathan Gold, Pulitzer Prize winning Los Angeles Times food critic conducts a tour of his favorite restaurants in the sprawling metropolis he has always called home. However, he was one of the first major market critics to take a less exclusive approach to his profession, making room (and often going out of the way) for food from practically every culture and neighborhood in L.A., from mom-and-pop establishments in Little Ethiopia to a Korean joint in a grungy San Gabriel Valley strip mall (he was also an early devotee of food trucks). Resembling a Jewish David Crosby, Gold’s understated exterior is a deceptive mask for his enthusiasm and openness for seeking out the unlikely and unexpected, while his writing translates his findings into relatable prose without dumbing things down for his mass readership. An affable slice of comfort food, City of Gold would make a nice chaser to Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen’s epic, personal doc about the city as it appears on film—this, on the other hand is the city as it appears via its food, expertly showing how the best intro to a culture or a community is to sample its cuisine.

I’d bet someone could make just as enlightening a documentary about Minnesota (practically L.A.’s opposite in terms of weather and disposition), but Lost Conquest ain’t it.  An exploration of the state’s Viking-related culture, the film hinges on the notion that Leif Erickson and his cohorts may have somehow made their way there from the Atlantic Ocean, settling in 1000 A.D. There’s no proof (or much likelihood) that this happened, but obviously that doesn’t prevent a plethora of eccentrics from wanting to believe the myth. A gestalt of crackpot theories, dueling (and probably fake) historic runes, artisanal sword-makers and general Scandinavian tenacity, Lost Conquest is too silly by half, but at least it doesn’t take itself too seriously (the Viking reenactments are more entertaining for their meta-ness). Although not a great film by any means, Made In Japan fares much better thanks to its remarkable subject, Tomi Fujiyama. The first lady of country-western music in Japan, she performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1964 to a standing ovation. Catching up with her nearly a half-century later, the plucky, amiable Fujiyama sounds and plays as robust as she ever did, her surprisingly husky voice still otherworldly, her fireball personality absolutely undiminished. Following her and her husband as they return to America in hopes of playing the Grand Old Opry one more time, the film leans a little too heavily on this premise, almost to the point of exhaustion. Still, Fujiyama is such a delight to watch, whether performing with musicians less than half her age or once again taking in the sights and sounds of the culture that deeply inspired her.

As for narrative features at IFF Boston, I was slightly less enamored of Special Jury Prize and Audience Award winner WildLike than most. It’s about a fourteen-year-old girl (Ella Purnell) sent to live with her uncle in Alaska. After he crosses a line with her, she escapes and sets off on her way back home to Seattle, alone, with very little cash. The clumsy first act appears very much like the work of a first-time filmmaker (Frank Hall Green) and Purnell is adequate at best. Still, I can see why WildLike (what a clunky title!) was so well-loved—it improves dramatically once Purnell hits the road, partially thanks to the stunning summertime Alaskan prairies and vistas, but also to the film’s ace-in-the-hole, Bruce Greenwood, excellent as a fellow traveler who becomes Purnell’s reluctant ally. The camaraderie they develop over time feels real and earned, and the final act is genuinely suspenseful and clever.

The End Of The Tour

The End Of The Tour

 

Although the festival missed out on some Sundance narrative titles I had hoped to see (most notably Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room), the opening and closing night films were both solid. The End of The Tour marks director James Ponsoldt’s second time opening the festival, the first being 2013’s The Spectacular Now. While the earlier film updated (and, to an extent, subverted) teen romantic comedies, this forgoes the biopic’s structural trappings to focus less on lives and careers and more on a specific incident between two real people. In 1996, shortly after the publication of his magnum opus Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace was interviewed for Rolling Stone magazine by reporter David Lipsky, who flew out to Wallace’s then-home of Bloomington, Indiana and spent five days with him, accompanying him on a book tour stop in Minneapolis. The interview was never published, although Lipsky wrote his own book about it (which this film is adapted from) after Wallace’s 2008 suicide.

The result is like an epic, ongoing conversation between Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and Wallace (Jason Segel). While Eisenberg plays Lipsky as another variation on the wiry, guarded onscreen persona he has been perfecting since The Squid and The Whale, it’s not an overstatement to say Segel is a revelation—barely recognizable with his long stringy hair and omnipresent bandana, he all but disappears into the role. Instead of a calculated attempt at departing from his usual nice-guy comedic presence, his Wallace is seemingly unstudied and graceful—a thing of beauty, really, when you consider the perils of playing a famous figure. Although it loses momentum as the second half becomes somewhat monotonous, it’s the rare film focused on ideas rather than actions, on personal dynamics instead of life-altering decisions. For those very reasons, I’m not sure how large an audience it will attract when it comes out later this summer—it’s more a future cult classic than an event film.

I’ll be surprised if IFF Boston’s closer, Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is anything less than an indie smash. Winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance (like Whiplash last year), this young adult novel adaptation combines Wes Anderson-style whimsy with the melodrama of The Fault In Our Stars; it also contains heavy dollops of French New Wave, Harold and Maude and nearly everything else in The Criterion Collection, all set to a omniscient soundtrack of lovely mid-70s Brian Eno songs and filmed in a grungy section of Pittsburgh with loads more character than the suburban enclaves of The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Thomas Mann (as Greg, the “Me” of the title) gives a refreshing, natural lead performance, with Olivia Cooke (as cancer-stricken Rachel) a good match/foil for his insecurities without ever drifting into manic pixie dream girl territory; Nick Offerman (disarmingly spacey as Greg’s father) and an affable Molly Shannon round out the mostly unknown supporting cast.

An emphatic crowd pleaser like Little Miss Sunshine or Juno, it’s so far receiving the same mixed critical reaction as those films, and I understand why—it wants to be funny yet also a tearjerker, left-of-center but familiar, capturing the trials of an average high school student but within a blatantly exaggerated high school environment. It’s manipulative and arch and yet, for all its acknowledged influences, really, truly its own thing. I suspect it will find a wider audience than anything else I saw at IFF Boston, but it exudes the same spirit this film festival and countless others like it were founded upon. It doesn’t feel like it came from a studio, a focus group or a campaign to infiltrate the market as much as possible—as corny as this sounds, it feels completely heartfelt and how often do you see anything so devoid of cynicism these days?

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