BAMcinemaFest 2015 Preview
Now in its seventh year, BAMcinemaFest is once again kicking off the summer season with a wide variety of independent cinema from this year. While film fests happen throughout the year, there seems to be a flood of festivals in the winter/spring (Sundance, Berlin, SXSW, Cannes) and the fall (TIFF, Telluride, Venice, NYFF), leaving the summer season wide open for the most part. That’s what’s so nice about BAM; it acts as a nice bridge between the two major festival seasons, providing a nice selection of this year’s biggest highlights in independent cinema so far.
This year, the festival has gotten a hold of some big titles that we’ve all been eagerly anticipating since their premieres earlier this year. Opening the fest is James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, with Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth getting a Centerpiece slot and Sean Baker’s Tangerine closing the fest (keep reading to see our thoughts on two of these titles). But that’s only a small portion of the 35 films playing at BAM from this week until the end of June, and some of these films might be your only shot at catching them in theaters (but let’s hope they all get distribution of some sort!). The same goes for some of their excellent retrospective programming, which includes an outdoor screening of Richard Linklater’s Slacker and a 20th anniversary screening of Larry Clark’s Kids.
While we weren’t able to catch everything playing at BAMfest this year (we’ll see you soon enough, Queen of Earth and Krisha), we did get a chance to check out more than a few films that’ll be playing over the next two weeks. Read on to see our thoughts on what’s playing, and be sure to check out the full line-up and buy tickets over at the BAMcinemaFest website.
Call Me Lucky
For the first half of Call Me Lucky, Bobcat Goldthwait’s tribute to Boston comedy legend Barry Crimmins, it feels like a boilerplate documentary portrait. Complimented by talking head interviews with David Cross, Marc Maron, Steven Wright and Goldthwait himself, the documentary’s beginning details Crimmins’ roots as a rare liberal in his conservative upstate New York town to his status among the elite Boston comics and founder of the Stitches comedy club. Catalogued clips from Crimmins’ past shows a man whose timelessly hysterical satirical stand-up was far ahead of its time. Gradually, Call Me Lucky reveals its intentions to be significantly more altruistic, as it delves into a darker aspect to Barry Crimmins’ story. By the end, the film becomes a stunning look at a survivor’s story, and how a man changed his life to settle the demons of his past. This surprisingly emotional doc is not one to overlook. [Zach]
The End of the Tour
When iconic American author David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, writer David Lipsky returned to the tape recorded interviews he conducted with Wallace for a planned 1996 Rolling Stone profile. Over the course of a few days at the end of Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest, the writers spent many long hours together in the snowy Midwest having a conversation that Lipsky would later describe as “the best one I ever had.” Indeed, their talks, as portrayed in The End of the Tour by Jesse Eisenberg (Lipsky) and Jason Segel (Wallace) are funny, poignant, and considered. Adapted from Lipsky’s 2010 book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, The End of the Tour continues writer/director James Ponsoldt’s (Smashed, The Spectacular Now) streak of empathetic, humanist stories that explore people struggling to cope with internal pains. This new film is like the best, most analytical late night sleepover talk. The rich, dialog-heavy The End of the Tour is completely engrossing, occasionally profound, and deeply moving. [Zach]
As far as horror films go, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is one of the best slow burns I’ve seen in years. Will (Logan Marshall-Green), still grieving after a tragic accident that destroyed his marriage 2 years ago, gets an invite out of nowhere from his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) to join her and their old friends for a dinner party. Will hasn’t seen Eden or his friends since his marriage fell apart, but he goes with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), hoping to reconnect and move on from the past.
From the moment Will arrives, things seem off to him, and as the night goes on he suspects that Eden and her new boyfriend David (Michiel Huisman) have something sinister in mind for him and the other guests. Kusama thankfully doesn’t make the central mystery about whether or not Will’s suspicions are valid (this is, after all, a horror movie). This is more about how and when things will go terribly wrong, and Kusama (along with cinematographer Bobby Shore) masterfully dangles the other shoe over viewers’ heads as they wait for it to drop. Every scene leading up to the exhilarating final act—which had me so involved I started yelling at the screen any time I disagreed with a character’s actions—is meticulously composed to increase the paranoia and dread exponentially with each passing moment. And once things finally take a turn for the worse, Kusama and Shore brilliantly betray their own form from the first hour, relying on frantic, handheld camera work and jagged cuts to amplify the tension. Their method works extremely well, and turns The Invitation into one of those rare delights where the payoff works just as well as the buildup. [C.J.]
Jason and Shirley
This low-budget biographical drama focuses on the day in 1966 when Oscar-winning filmmaker Shirley Clarke invited black gay hustler and drug addict Jason Holiday into her room at the Chelsea Hotel. She filmed Holiday for several consecutive hours as he told the story of his life, and the result was Clarke’s daring documentary Portrait of Jason, which was both hailed for its uncompromising look at many of the period’s most controversial social issues, and criticized for its exploitative nature. Jason and Shirley is a recreation of this day, and it consists primarily of intensely personal interview segments between actors Sarah Schulman and Jack Waters, who play the documentary filmmaker and her subject. The film’s brief 77 minute runtime is also intercut with short skit-like portions alternating between surreal depictions of Holiday’s fragile, drug-induced mental state and interactions with his friends of the time, including a heroin dealer and a fellow male prostitute. The intimate exchanges between Schulman and Waters come across as surprisingly genuine, which can be a difficult feat for biographical films. This one manages to transport its viewers into the past, and into the minds of its characters, rather smoothly, even though the more experimental aspects of the film, such as the insert skits, don’t work quite as well. In the end, Jason and Shirley is certainly worth spending just over an hour with; it’s the graphic nature of the content, rather than the quality of the filmmaking, that may frighten off some viewers. [Eli]
Nasty Baby is a bait-and-switch kind of movie, one that offers up a perfectly adequate story, only to pull the rug out from underneath audiences at some point in the third act with a dark tonal shift. Starring writer/director Sebastián Silva as a gay Brooklyn-based multimedia artist working on an exhibit of adults as babies, Silva’s Freddy gets extremely excited about the idea of becoming a father by artificially inseminating his friend Polly (Kristen Wiig); however, when Freddy’s sperm won’t take, he and Polly attempt to convince Freddy’s boyfriend Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) to become the donor. Freddy finds himself caught between Polly’s anxieties about her ticking internal clock, and Mo’s hesitation to launch himself into fatherhood. As it develops and introduces outside unsettling elements, Nasty Baby subtly builds the tension in its subplot until a climactic moment. Silva’s film serves as an intimate portrait of a group of characters that grow into family unit just in time to face an unthinkable challenge. [Zach]
“Because of its subject matter, Pervert Park is a challenging watch, but one very much worth the effort. Over the course of the film’s lean 77-minute run time, the filmmakers find success in presenting their subjects as honestly as possible. They don’t ask for sympathy, but they do ask for consideration, and they earn it.” Read our full-length review of Pervert Park from Hot Docs earlier this year.
The Russian Woodpecker
If The Russian Woodpecker doesn’t turn out to be one of the most talked about documentaries of 2015, it will be a shame. Fortunately, the fact that it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema at this year’s Sundance Film Festival will likely help spread the word about this courageous and well-meaning work of nonfiction. The focus of the film is a man by the name of Fedor Alexandrovich who uncovers a terrifying theory regarding the potential true cause of Ukraine’s 1986 Chernobyl disaster. However, this is less a film about conspiracies, and more about how the notion of “conspiracies” can impact a person’s relationship with their friends, their family, their country and even themselves. Throughout the duration of its concise runtime, The Russian Woodpecker shifts from being a detailed history lesson to a political mystery to a character study of a man, his paranoia and his national pride. Crisp cinematography and sharp editing aside, this film is essential viewing for anyone interested in international politics or, as Alexandrovich himself would describe it, the ever-present ghost of the Soviet Union. [Eli]
Taking place in 1990 and shot on Betacam video, Nathan Silver’s experimental Stinking Heaven feels like an ideal guide for showing off how improvisation can help and hurt a film. Silver’s film takes place at a New Jersey home, where married couple Jim (Keith Poulson) and Lucy (Deragh Campbell) host a group of people who, like them, are trying to overcome their battle with addiction. From the outset, the living situation is a fragile one, and with the arrival of a new member named Ann (Hannah Gross), the group dynamic turns into a toxic one.
Silver actually had his cast live together on set during the entire length of shooting, and let everything play out through improvisation. When this method works, Silver and his ensemble produce some remarkable results, giving the film a visceral energy that couldn’t be created through more conventional means. But for every sublime moment, there’s another that feels like watching an awkward actor’s workshop. It’s hard to shake the feeling that a lot of Stinking Heaven is a work in progress, as if we’re getting a glimpse into the cast beginning to explore their own characters. It’s an interesting combination of intensity (some scenes here can give Heaven Knows What a run for its money) and uncomfortable histrionics, one that works in fleeting glimpses, but it’s enough to see that Silver is working towards something special. [C.J.]
Filmmaker Sean Baker’s third feature Tangerine is a hilarious, raw glimpse into the lives of characters rarely depicted with a comparable level of complexity. This chaotic, colorful, vulgar adventure through the grimy streets of Hollywood follows two transgender prostitutes, Alexandra and Sin-dee (Mya Taylor and Kiki Rodriguez, respectively), as they spend their Christmas Eve tracking down Sin-dee’s cheating boyfriend and pimp, Chester (James Ransone). It’s the day after Sin-dee’s been released from jail, and as soon as Alexandra lets Chester’s infidelity slip while the two eat donuts, Sin-dee is out the door pounding the pavement in search of answers. Baker swiftly cuts from scene to scene keeping the pace of his film at a dizzying high. It’s a ridiculous amount of trashy, lurid fun to spend time in the company of these precisely drawn characters. Their sharp quips and flair for melodrama make Tangerine consistently entertaining. [Zach]
Uncle Kent 2
Remember Uncle Kent? No? That’s understandable, considering it was one of six films Joe Swanberg made back in 2011. The film was a funny, melancholy look at its title character (writer/animator Kent Osborne, playing himself) as he spends an awkward weekend with a woman he met on Chatroulette. Now, over 4 years later, Osborne wants to make a sequel, and in a meta opening sequence—directed by Swanberg, with directing duties for the rest of the film handled by Todd Rohal—Swanberg rejects Osborne’s pitch because he hates sequels. Swanberg does allow him to find someone else to make the sequel though, and in a matter of minutes the aspect ratio changes (from full-screen to widescreen) and Osborne starts jiggling his man boobs over the credits.
If you’re like me and find the idea of making a sequel to a barely seen micro-budget indie funny (a decision made even funnier by its recklessness, considering it guarantees almost no one will want to release it), Uncle Kent 2 is the film for you. The fact that this sequel owes little to the original means that Rohal and Osborne (who wrote the film) have carte blanche, and they make the most of it. Uncle Kent 2 continually makes one surreal and hilarious turn after another, starting with a weird visit to the doctor (Steve Little, who seems incapable of being unfunny) before involving Ray Kurzweil, Comic-Con, simulation theory and an apocalyptic scenario where people get datamoshed to death. It all amounts to a bunch of zany, frequently funny nonsense that will probably end up being the best sequel of this year (a specific honour befitting a film that’s all about specificity). Uncle Kent 2 is the sequel none of us knew we needed, and even though I can’t believe I’m saying this, I can’t wait for Uncle Kent 3. [C.J.]
After seeing the absolutely embarrassing treatment of Earl in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl—a stereotypical African-American character whose only purpose is to help the white, male protagonist become a better person—Kris Swanberg’s Unexpected feels like a breath of fresh air. The film opens with Samantha (Cobie Smulders), a Chicago high school teacher whose workplace is about to shut down, discovering she’s pregnant. It’s unplanned, but she decides to keep it, and soon finds out that Jasmine (Gail Bean), one of the best students in her class, is also expecting. Samantha decides to help Jasmine try to continue pursuing college applications, and the two strike up a bond.
It sounds like yet another mushy white saviour story that Sundance audiences eat up, but Swanberg and co-writer Megan Mercier have enough awareness to call out and avoid the pitfalls their story could fall into. Jasmine doesn’t turn out to be the poor, helpless student Samantha thinks she is, and Swanberg goes a long way to developing Jasmine into a fully-rounded character who really doesn’t need Samantha’s help. Smulders gives a fine performance (although it doesn’t match her excellent turn in Results from earlier this year), but the film’s MVP is Bean, who has an electric presence any time she’s on screen. Unexpected’s low-key nature might make it come across as slight, but it’s a surprisingly accomplished and slightly subversive take on a story that could have easily turned into something far worse. [C.J.]
A Woman Like Me
“Describing A Woman Like Me to an outsider gets a little complicated. When put as simply as possible its a documentary made by director Alex Sichel, who upon receiving the news that she has metastatic breast cancer decides to process this information by directing a film about a woman facing the same diagnosis with as much positivity as she can…while simultaneously documenting this process and her own treatment for what would become this documentary. It’s not quite a movie within a movie so much as it is two movies playing out side by side with behind-the-scenes footage playing at the same time as well. Confusing? Yes. Meta? Maybe. Moving? Absolutely.” Read our full-length review of A Woman Like Me from SXSW earlier this year.