Wednesday, May 4, 2011

IFF Boston 2011 Round-Up Pt. 2

I saw four movies on Sunday.This is where I get a little sleepy and complete sentences are challenging. It's pretty tough to gauge the quality of the movie you're about to walk into, so preemptive stimulants are are necessity. Starbucks or Diet Coke are commonplace, but having copped a Five-Hour energy (compliments of the MayFair), I was about to enter uncharted territory. I hoped it could carry me through the last two movies that evening, and it did; mostly because I thought I might die at any moment or maybe melt through my chair.  How did Four-Loko get the axe but menopause in a nip is at every gas station? I will spare you further details, but anyone who takes Five-Hour energy to study probably cuts their fingernails with garden shears or makes toast with a blowtorch. The good news was that the films were solid, and I am excited to tell you about them.

Make Believe - J. Clay Tweel
Kids are cute. Magicians are weird. At what point do magicians go from precocious to insufferable? In Make Believe, there are kids on both sides of this fence, and how you will feel about the film depends on whether you consider Penn and Teller creative geniuses or ponytailed creeps. Each of kids here got into magic for some semblance of control and attention, which is refreshing when the kid is 13 and would otherwise be a bully magnet, but tends to get grating when a kid nears twenty and has the hyperactive intensity of an used car salesman, and a bravado to boot. Confidence is a crucial element to magic, but more integral is the humility that gets them hooked from the beginning and inspires them record a grainy magic special on VHS and replay it until the tape breaks. For some of the kids, the swagger they are forced to adopt for their act, becomes fused with their person and is tough to swallow. The young and international talents are naive enough to have no idea how hard magic is, yet confident enough to believe they can figure it out with perseverance. Tweel does well to focus on their enthusiasm and keep the intensity building until the final scene, but I wish he had a few more tricks up his sleeve in the editing room.

Buck - Cindy Meehl
Buck is a profile of Buck Brannaman, a man who could not look more cowboy if he had a team of costume designers. He has the thick, slow voice of a country sheriff, but is a more empathetic man than you are ever likely to meet. At a young age, Buck and his brother traveled the country performing rope tricks under the stern tutelage of their father. Never a "horse" person, he stumbled into his calling nearly 30 years ago, and now performs small miracles 9 months out of the year through his horse training workshops. Buck's philosophy is based on sensitivity and respect, treating the horse like an equal, and anticipating their movements and allowing them to anticipate yours. For centuries, horses had to be 'broken' before they could be of any use, but Buck intends to change that, one timid creature at a time. He can do things on a wild horse in 5 minutes that take Hollywood trainers months to mimic. It isn't hypnosis or ESP, he is simply sensitive to the horses fears, and gains their trust. It is miraculous to watch, and leagues beyond a trite Animal Planet special. As we learn more about Buck's troubled past, his character gains depth and as his training philosophy broadens into life lessons, the horses aren't the only ones captivated.

Project Nim - James Marsh
Nim was the center of a landmark 1973 science experiment by Columbia behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace that investigated whether chimpanzees could understand and use American Sign Language to communicate with humans. Plucked from his mother at 2-weeks old, Nim was raised as a human in every capacity by the research team, but not in the sterile scientific confines you might expect. Terrace employs a revolving door of students who raise Nim affectionately and spend hours teaching him signs and tracking his progress. Many of these female students engage in romantic relationships with Terrace before being shown the door or excusing themselves after Nim's increasingly vicious attacks. After the experiment is abandoned that Project Nim takes on a dramatic new direction, and science becomes secondary. Director James Marsh (MAN ON WIRE) does a fantastic job of reconstructing an engaging story from very little archival video footage, instead relying on gorgeous photographs, interviews, and innovative art direction. As Nim's story gains complexity and the cast of characters thickens, Marsh charges ahead, and risks losing control of his central premise. By allowing his subjects to speak candidly, even about one another, he navigates these dangerous waters nimbly, trusting us to make up our own minds and wait to hear the whole story.

Another Earth - Mike Cahill
Another Earth takes a well-trodden redemption story and filters it through a unique science fiction premise to makes a film that is more than the sum of these two parts. Part Contact, part Donnie Darko, it's hard to believe that Another Earth is Mike Cahill's first narrative feature, but that's what it says in my program, so I will take him at his word. In any case, his film impressively strikes a delicate balance between dramatic tension and eerie sci-fi chills. Leaning on story and strong performances over CGI, Cahill uses the science as a means rather than an end, keeping the story insular and avoiding sci-fi tropes one might expect. It is surprisingly how well the whole thing works, and if you can suspend disbelief until the end you'll find yourself rewarded for your patience.

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