The 2021 Independent Film Festival Boston came to a close last night, having presented a virtual slate that included great films like Summer of Soul and The Sparks Brothers. The online format only left a lingering feeling of imperfection during those more raucous, larger-than-life entries, which Soul and Sparks certainly are, as the communal theatrical experience must bring out even more of the Big Joy in those films. I’m not sure that’s the case for How It Ends, the Closing Night film from Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, a movie so slight and lonely that screening it at home sort of fit the bill perfectly.
How It Ends follows Liza (Lister-Jones) as she tries to get to her last party before the world ends. A conspicuous meteor hangs over her citywide jaunt, scheduled for impact around 2am, and so Liza engages in much the same behavior as everyone else: she says “fuck it,” eats a stack of pancakes with a glass of maple syrup, and sets out to right a few wrongs with the people in her life before the apocalypse arrives. She’s accompanied by her Younger Self (Cailee Spaeny), who by turns keeps Liza in check and also spurs her onward into situations she might otherwise avoid.
“Deaf culture is too big to represent,” says Sound of Metal writer/director Darius Marder. He obviously refers to being represented in its entirety, something no culture can hope to be endowed with over the course of a short two-hour film. That comment comes from the Q&A tied to the Independent Film Festival Boston‘s presentation of Sound of Metal as the Centerpiece of their Fall Focus series, though the film first premiered at TIFF last year (the IFFBoston Q&A is archived on YouTube here and is recommended after you see the movie). Marder, a first-time director, has very consciously depicted a specific subcommunity within deaf society, focusing on one of many, many such citizenries. And yet he’s done so with such artistry that Sound of Metal may teach the hearing community more about deaf culture on the whole than a narrative film ever has.
Though you wouldn’t have seen his name under the Directed By credit before (apart from his 2008 documentary Loot), Marder’s collaboration with his writing partner Derek Cianfrance resulted in The Place Beyond the Pines in 2012. The Ryan Gosling/Bradley Cooper crime thriller boasts one of the most original approaches to a traditional three-act structure you’re likely to find, and in a way that approach can be viewed as precursor to the structure of Marder’s directing debut. And that debut has been a long time coming: when Marder and Cianfrance first met more than a decade ago, one of the stories they discussed was Sound of Metal. Cianfrance, who has also directed Blue Valentine, The Light Between Oceans and the stunning HBO miniseries I Know This Much Is True, serves as producer on Sound of Metal.
Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari follows the Yi Family, a Korean quartet immigrated to the United States in the 1980s. They settle in California at first, but Jacob (Steven Yuen) grows impatient with city life. He’s desirous of an expanse of land to call his own, of a family farm, of that elusive thing people sometimes call the American Dream. So he uproots the family and moves to rural Arkansas, where fifty acres of the best dirt in America await. His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is far more pragmatic, and she has trouble envisioning the farm of the future behind the dilapidated mobile home of the present. Meanwhile, their children David and Anne (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho) are at first simply along for the ride, fascinated by the fact that they now live in a house that has wheels.
Chung’s semi-autobiographical film — presented last night by Independent Film Festival Boston — may have the trappings of films you’ve seen before, but none of those are likely as heartfelt as Minari. By focusing less on the cultural adjustment of the Yi Family into their Arkansas community and more on the dynamics of the family itself, the story avoids the clichéd Big Ideas that mire so many indie films. Themes of racism and class struggle are certainly in play, but they’re secondary to the family drama. It could almost be called a chamber piece if it didn’t take place on such a wide expanse of land.
It ain’t always fun, the movies. Amongst this year’s least-fun pictures we probably have the likes of Alita: Battle Angel, Glass, Dark Phoenix and Gemini Man, all of which share in common a clear prioritization of special effects over storytelling. They’re also united in the fact that production was rocky in every instance, be it years of limbo or last-minute hackjobs in the editing bay, though that’s not necessarily synonymous with a bad film. Production on one of this year’s best, The Lighthouse, was described by its own director as “tense” and “cold”. No fun to be had in making that movie. Only in watching it.
In a pre-recorded clip before the New England premiere of Knives Out, writer/director Rian Johnson — whilst thanking us for seeing the film and imploring us not to spoil it — said flat out that making it was “a blast.” It’s not hard to believe, and evident from the film’s very first scenes: everyone in front of the camera (Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Christopher Plummer, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis and a million others) breezes through having the time of their lives. And Johnson, too, exudes a confidence here as both a writer and a director that can only be borne of exciting material in the hands of a craftsman coming into his prime.
The ambition of Robert Eggers was apparent after his debut The Witch, a one-of-a-kind horror film steeped in deeply-felt folklore. The dialect, the costumes and settings, the sound design and the themes were all clearly the result of hard research and dedication to period accuracy rarely realized in modern film. Eggers himself, who presented a special IFFBoston screening of his follow-up The Lighthouse at Boston’s Brattle Theatre last night, acknowledged the explicit attempt to “commune with the folk culture of the region” in crafting his debut. But while that hard behind-the-scenes work was definitely still required by The Lighthouse, less of it shows in the final product, resulting in a more mature effort that still values the power of myth and lore.
Atmosphere is everything. In the lead-up to the film’s premiere at Cannes in May, much was made of the film’s unique aesthetic choices. Despite the popularity of Roma and Cold War last year, the mere concept of a black-and-white format remains alienating to many audiences (and financiers). Shooting on 35mm gives that black-and-white an extra characteristic, with the blacks bottoming out into nothingness. Additionally, A24 posted this snippet from the Lighthouse script in reference to the boxy, unpopular aspect ratio that’s been largely defunct since the early sound era:
Seemingly the most off-putting of these choices by Eggers is the one it shares with The Witch: dialogue comprised of archaic vernacular and dialect, delivered in an accent that also aims to fit the time and place. Eggers and his co-writer brother Max wrote “in-dialect,” rather than writing in plain English and then translating, and the effect — as was the case with Witch — takes a minute to groove once the dialogue begins. And there’s a lot of dialogue in The Lighthouse.
Parasite is consistently surprising at every turn. Even if you don’t go in cold, knowing nothing about the plot or themes of Bong Joon-ho’s latest, the sprightly storytelling still does its job in keeping you on your toes. If you’ve seen Bong’s English-language efforts Snowpiercer and Okja, you might assume Parasite to be structured over themes of class disparity and the dangers of technology. While you’d technically be correct, those themes are far less obnoxious than they were in Snowpiercer, more cohesive than they were in Okja, and overall the plot- and character-based twists make Parasite into a far superior film.
We won’t dive into those twists, because coming in blind is likely the best way to experience this (any?) film. The plot, in its barest summary, follows the impoverished Kim Family as they grow increasingly resourceful in trying to make ends meet. Their collective path crosses with that of the Park Family, one of Korea’s wealthiest, and from there… Continue reading Parasite (2019)→
Julius Onah has a lot to say. He stepped onstage just before Luce, his third feature as director, screened as the Opening Night film at this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston. Typically a pre-movie appearance from an auteur amounts to a wave, a bow, a “thanks for coming out!” or, at worst, a visible hostage situation at the hands of a ruthless moderator. Onah, in the span of what seemed like less than a minute, reflected on Luce‘s premiere at Sundance and his hopes for the conversations the film will continue to spur; he referred to the movie theater as “his church”; he drew parallels from the film to his own life experience, having emigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria when he was ten; and he even snuck in a playful dig at IFFBoston, noting that he’d submitted several short films for consideration years ago, all of which were rejected.
His film is similarly assertive of numerous ideas without ever being overly verbose. Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a star high school student in Arlington, Virginia who spent the first seven years of his life surrounded by the violence of war-torn Eritrea. His adoption by a white upper-class American couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) meant a new start, though it also meant a long period of adjustment and self-reconciliation. When his stern (some would say “bitchy”) teacher Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) reads an unsettling essay by Luce and finds illegal fireworks in his locker, the question arises as to whether that period of self-reconciliation is actually still underway. Is Luce the model young American everyone makes him out to be? Or is there a darker side within him, manifesting itself as a sociopathic danger to others?
I never much expected Yorgos Lanthimos to become a great filmmaker. He was always a very good filmmaker, and it must be noted that we’re reserving the term great here for someone truly deserving of the moniker, as in one of the all-time greats. Nowadays great gets bandied about a lot. Is Ridley Scott great? From time to time, sure. Maybe we weigh the greatness of Blade Runner against the decidedly-not-so-greatness of Alien: Covenant? Is Francis Ford Coppola great? He definitely was. Does he get a lifetime pass for Godfather and Apocalypse Now? Is Wes Anderson great? No, he’s not. Stylish, yes. Symmetrical, very. But a mere few living filmmakers are transcendently, naturally, consistently great. Surely it’s a malleable and transient label, fit to be removed, re-earned, reconsidered. And surely — as The Dude would say in that movie by the great Coen Brothers — it’s just, like, your opinion, man.
Lanthimos isn’t yet one of the all-time greats, but watching The Favourite I did think, for the first time, that he might just have it in him someday. Such a consideration might have been questionable after his previous film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an overly melancholy tale featuring a creepy turn from Barry Keoghan, one cool shot of a descending escalator, a Funny Games-esque climax and a whole bunch of monotone dialogue. It wasn’t a bad movie, and it might even be a pretty good movie. But the cold design of Sacred Deer made it impactful but never resonant. Maybe it was just so different than The Lobster, the previous effort from Lanthimos, which was a darkly funny and much more inventive film.
It would have been a bummer if a woman with a large hat had been seated in front of me at the IFFBoston screening of Disorder. I regrettably do not speak French (working on it!) and so Disorder‘s English subtitles are pretty vital to the enjoyment of the film. If a lady with a large hat, perhaps inspired to wear such a thing by The Great Train Robbery or that episode of Sesame Street, were to get comfy in the seat in front of me, there’s a chance that those subtitles might have been obscured. I’ve yet to develop social courage or an extendable giraffelike neck (working on it!) and so, yeah, that would have been a bummer.
But, actually, no: Disorder would have been every bit as powerful without the words. Plot-wise there’s nothing too out-of-the-ordinary, and in fact the synopsis runs the risk of sounding heavily clichéd when it’s written down on paper. Vincent, a French soldier fresh back from Afghanistan, has taken a job at a private security company and been tasked with protecting the beautiful wife of the shady rich magnate. His PTSD interferes with this, but when the beautiful wife becomes a target it’s up to Vincent to save her. This admittedly sounds uninspired, but thankfully Disorder is crafted with care and creativity such that synopsis takes a backseat to style.
Having just finished and thoroughly enjoyed The Night Manager, I thought I’d know more or less what to expect from High-Rise. This is due largely in part to the sexy sexualization of Tom “Sexy” Hiddleston, who stars in both and is also sexy. I assumed his character in High-Rise to be the sterling yuppie with the isn’t-it-perfect life structured in service of the concealment of darker, truer impulses. In Night Manager Hiddleston’s attractiveness is essentially made into a plot point; so too, probably, would High-Rise note the perfection of the specimen before delving into a personality far less desirable. A six-pack and a violent extreme, per American Psycho, per marketing stills like this:
But High-Rise isn’t sexy for very long. The prologue is a glimpse of the messy future, wherein Hiddleston’s Doctor Laing seemingly resorts to making food out of the dog, making paper airplanes out of the electricity bill, and making a ramshackle life in the husklike ruins of the tower block. It is suspiciously unsexy. Then again, though, resorts isn’t the right word: Laing has very definitely chosen this. He’s in a sort of hell and is more or less enjoying it.