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Eight years in, Boston’s Independent Film Festival remains this city’s most vital movie event

'Cyrus,' a comedy with Marisa Tomei and John C. Reilly, aims to fall somewhere between a romance and a thriller. "Cyrus," a comedy with Marisa Tomei and John C. Reilly, aims to fall somewhere between a romance and a thriller.
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / April 18, 2010

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Is young American independent filmmaking in trouble? There might be too many moving parts to get a clear answer. How do you define “young’’ or “independent’’ or even “filmmaking’’? Does young mean someone under a certain age made the movie? Does independent mean no one will see it? And does filmmaking require a vision?

After eight years, the Independent Film Festival Boston, which starts Wednesday, remains this city’s most vital movie event. It’s not entirely responsible for the fact the American work it gathers continues to seem interchangeable and indistinctive. There’s only so much curating its programmers can do. It’d be refreshing to see more movies made by or featuring people other than diffident straight white dudes under 45. They are out there. But in this landscape, the Ramin Bahranis (“Goodbye, Solo’’), Kelly Reichardts (“Wendy and Lucy’’) and Debra Graniks (her “Winter’s Bone’’ is on this year’s schedule) seem scarce. They’re talented filmmakers who don’t direct for an art-house marketplace. You could make similar arguments about Sundance and South by Southwest, two festivals from which many of the IFFB films have been plucked.

When it comes to certain film movements, the ground this year appears to be shifting. As so-called mumblecore strains to become more articulate and commercial, the filmmaking stagnates. They’re a prolific bunch, but only Andrew Bujalski (“Funny Ha Ha,’’ “Beeswax’’) seems to be making tonal, thematic, and visual advances. Amazingly, Noah Baumbach appropriated both mumblecore’s ethos (aimlessness and depression) and its best comedian (Greta Gerwig) to make “Greenberg,’’ a fitfully excellent movie that feels more like a generational statement than the genre it stole from.

On the other hand, American nonfiction moviemaking has rarely been as eclectic or strong. The Bush administra tion preoccupied a lot of directors, limiting the scope of the kind of movies that were made. With someone else in the White House, there’s a wicked-witch-is-dead-giddiness, if not in the actual subject matter (9/11, corruption, and war have no expiration date), then in the range of the movies being made. The IFFB has always been a superb showcase for documentaries.

Herewith is a look at some of this year’s films listed in chronological order of screening.

“HARMONY AND ME’’ If “The Freebie’’ (see below) represents everything wrong with lo-fi indie drama, Robert Byington’s deadpan break-up comedy represents everything mostly right. Justin Rice, lead singer for Bishop Allen and mumblecore poster-boy (“Mutual Appreciation’’), plays a slacker dumpee who slowly rouses himself from self-pity over 75 minutes of random, exquisitely observed character slapstick. The supporting cast, including the incorrigible Kevin Corrigan as a friend in even worse straits, gives “Harmony’’ a fluky communal air, as if we were all in this mess together and exhausted irony were our only recourse. Which I guess it is. (Thursday, 7 p.m., Somerville Theatre) TY BURR

“CYRUS’’ A comedy with John C. Reilly as a divorced man whose new girlfriend (Marisa Tomei) has a weird, possessive son (Jonah Hill). Mark and Jay Duplass (“Baghead’) wrote and directed this movie, which fails to make the line between romance and thriller as fine as it needs to be. This is a premise that works better, if no less absurdly, in French. Hill is fine, in his limited, gnomish way. You get the sense, though, that if the Duplasses could have gotten away with casting Will Ferrell as Tomei’s son, they would have tried. Her emotional sincerity is the best thing in the movie. It’s also the most baffling. How is she putting up with this? Due out this summer. (Thursday, 9:30 p.m., Somerville Theatre) WESLEY MORRIS

“CRACKS’’ In which we learn that Ridley Scott’s daughter and Tony Scott’s niece, Jordan, likes flashy movies about nothing as much as her father and uncle do. Her first film is a moist, pseudo-erotic affair set at an all-lass English boarding school in 1934 and casts the French sex bomb Eva Green as a lusty schoolmarm. Juno Temple plays the one girl bold enough to return Green’s gaze. Green lowers her brow and hisses her way into a British accent. Scott thinks she’s making “Heavenly Creatures.’’ Really, it’s the vampire-centerfold edition of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.’’ Adapted from a Sheila Kohler novel, the movie is never happier than when it’s ogling the cast, from, say, the bottom of a pond. (Thursday, 9:45 p.m., Somerville Theatre) W.M.

“WINTER’S BONE’’ Director Debra Granik made a splash with 2004’s “Down to the Bone’’ (what’s with the ossified titles?), which introduced Vera Farmiga to the mainstream. With luck, the same could happen to Jennifer Lawrence, completely believable as a backwoods Ozark teenager desperate to find her daddy before the bail bondsman takes her house away and leaves her family homeless. Told with a minimum of Hollywood touches, the movie is gripping and occasionally horrifying, as Lawrence’s Ree works her way through an invisible society of drugged-out men and hard-faced women. The obvious comparison, if you’re looking for one, is to “Frozen River,’’ but halfway through it may strike you that you’re watching a Sam Spade detective film set in hillbilly country, with a resourceful 17-year-old sleuth willing to keep asking questions and maybe take a beating in order to burrow down to the truth. Winner of the jury prize for US drama at this year’s Sundance. (Friday, 7 p.m., Somerville Theatre) T.B.

“JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK’’ Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern’s documentary presents a year of the entertainer’s life at a low ebb. Luckily for the movie’s feel-good potential, that changes. This is standard as biography. But as a comedy showcase, little else is funnier. On more than one riotous occasion, old television footage reminds us that Rivers was a pioneering feminist comedian before she was a cosmetic punch line. The filmmakers use their wide access to argue that this relic might be a national treasure. (Friday, 7:30 p.m., Somerville Theatre) W.M.

“THE PARKING LOT MOVIE’’ Focused on a little lot in the college town of Charlottesville, Va., Meghan Eckman’s documentary stretches four good minutes into an exasperating hour and a half. Hipster-slacker attendants, present and past, explain their lives and how what they do (sit in a tiny booth and collect dollar bills) is harder than what goes on at more corporate lots. They do artisanal parking. (Friday, 9:45 p.m., Brattle Theatre) W.M.

“BANANAS!’’ When that title pops up at the start of this documentary, it’s fair to expect an upbeat look at Dole’s biggest product. The discovery that this logy downer is about an ongoing class-action suit filed in 2004 against the company on behalf of Nicaraguan banana growers recasts the exclamatory title in an appalling light. Footage from the trial is legitimately upsetting. But the director, Fredrik Gertten, devotes a great deal of the movie to Juan Dominguez, the Cuban-born lawyer whose Los Angeles firm represented the workers. He seems as genuine as an attorney who advertises on buses and billboards can. But Gertten, a Swede, seems taken with the frippery and finery of Dominguez’s life — we take a spin in his Ferrari. The contrast with his plaintiffs is crass and tone deaf. It feels like they chose the wrong line of work. (Saturday, 12:15 p.m., Somerville Theatre) W.M.

“COLONY’’ Directors Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell take the Errol Morris documentary approach to the subject of honeybee colony collapse, and at first their strategy — aren’t beekeepers wacky? — seems misguided. As the scope of possible ecological disaster becomes apparent, though, “Colony’’ musters a fraught sympathy with these hard-working men and their swarms, caught between deep-pocketed pesticide corporations and Big Agro. Particularly affecting is a family of evangelical Christians whose apiary dreams literally disappear with their bees. By the end, the matriarch resembles nothing so much as a stressed-out Queen Bee, one of many subtle concordances “Colony’’ makes between Them and Us. A documentary with a sting. (Saturday, 1 p.m., Brattle Theatre) T.B.

“WAR DON DON’’ It means “war is over’’ in Sierra Leone’s Krio language. But the shock waves continue in this extremely well-made documentary. After a coup sparked a decade of catastrophic violence in this desolate West African country, the United Nations Security Council tried the rebel leaders, beginning in 2004, for war crimes. The movie’s main target, a commander named Issa Sesay, is a lightning rod of clashing opinions. Too many nonfiction filmmakers approach political subject matter with their hearts. But the director, Rebecca Richman Cohen, listens to each side — the international tribunal of prosecutors, the Englishman in charge of Sesay’s defense team, and, crucially, Sierra Leone’s citizens — but lets us draw our own conclusions. When a prosecutor says he sees pure evil in Sesay’s face and Sesay’s lawyer says he sees a good man, you want to look into the commander’s eyes and see for yourself. (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., Somerville Theatre)

W.M.

“THE OATH’’ Laura Poitras continues her series of documentaries about 9/11. “My Country, My Country’’ was the first. This detailed second installment, full of chilling interviews and exchanges, focuses on the military trial of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver, and Hamdan’s brother-in-law, Abu Jindal, bin Laden’s bodyguard for four years. While Hamdan languishes in Gitmo, Jindal drives a taxi around Yemen and counsels young men about what kind of Muslims to become. In addition to being a deft filmmaker, Poitras is an exceptional listener. She can hear how Jindal’s misguided jihad philosophy makes subtle but surprising shifts. Her amazing access to this man’s life and his candor presents Islamic resentment of the West on practical, non-rhetorical terms. Insurgency is complicated. He’s unable to sleep not because he hates America, per se, but because he’s worried, for starters, about the lack of infrastructure in Muslim society. (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Brattle Theatre) W.M.

“FAMILY AFFAIR’’ On its surface, Chico Colvard’s haunting, nearly perfect documentary is about the years of incest that his three sisters endured living with their father. But the movie, without the least bit of sensation, is also a melodrama and a psychological thriller about how sexual awakening and daughterly devotion get mixed up, in this particular case, with racial identity. (Colvard’s father was a black GI who married a German Jew.) The movie is provocative and shocking in the way a piece of nonfiction ought to be. It’s a stunning story that’s stunningly told. (Saturday, 5 p.m., Somerville Theatre) W.M.

“THE FREEBIE’’ The good ship mumblecore hits an iceberg in this slack, self-absorbed comedy-drama about an LA boho couple (Dax Shepard and writer-director Katie Aselton) who agree to one night of infidelity, no questions asked. Not only is the subject well past its freshness date (Cecil B. DeMille was making silent movies about this), but the improvised, self-conscious dialogue reeks of a Left Coast acting class exercise. The worst part of this earnest navel-gazer is that we’re way ahead of the characters every step of the way. No surprises, and no insights, either. (Saturday, 5:15 p.m., Somerville Theatre)

T.B.

“DIRTY PICTURES’’ A documentary more or less about Sasha Shulgin, the clinical pharmacologist who popularized MDMA, the drug better known as Ecstasy. The director, Etienne Sauret, takes an impressionist approach. His movie is actually about Shulgin’s ethos. We hear from other scientists. We see him mobbed by acolytes. We watch him at Burning Man. We listen to him and his therapist wife, Ann, rhapsodize about their favorite hallucinogens. The movie’s shapelessness suggests that Sauret might be under the influence, too. If so, at least its high is sincere. (Saturday, 6:30 p.m., Brattle Theatre)

W.M.

“LOVERS OF HATE’’ Beware of movies with children’s authors. The characters and the movies are always willfully immature. Bryan Poyser’s obnoxious debut is no exception. It gives us Paul (Alex Karpovsky), a fantasy writer who invites the soon-to-be-ex-wife (Heather Kafka) of his antisocial brother, Rudy, for a getaway in a giant generic Park City cabin. While they canoodle, Rudy hides in rooms and furniture, hoping not to be noticed. Sus pense, comedy, and emotional breakthrough refuse to follow. We do get a white, bourgeois variation on R. Kelly’s opus: “Trapped in the Armoire’’? Poyser doesn’t appear to have ever met an actual adult couple, and his plot, aptly, hinges on the contents of a toilet. (Saturday, 7 p.m., Somerville Theatre; on-demand)

W.M.

“I AM LOVE’’ Rapturous, romantic, ridiculous. Which is to say: Run. Tilda Swinton plays the matriarch of a noble Milanese family who starts an affair with her son’s best friend (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a chef who also cooks in bed. The writer and director Luca Guadagnino has a terrific eye and operatic taste. The finale is a riot of visual, dramatic, and emotional too-muchness — it also makes no sense. Irrelevant. When it’s over, your heart is racing faster than your eyes can roll. (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Somerville Theatre) W.M.

“DO IT AGAIN’’ A documentary in which Boston Globe arts reporter Geoff Edgers deals with his raging midlife crisis by trying to get the Kinks back together, a quest of Quixotic proportions. OK, Geoff, you do sit just a few desks over from me, and I’m admittedly as much of a kultist as you. (Vinyl copy of “The Great Lost Kinks Album’’? Have it.) But, really, I can be unbiased. You made a damn good movie, if not the one you set out to make — which is part of the enjoyment. I’m just jealous you found time between deadlines, let alone got Sting to play “Set Me Free’’ backstage with you. (By the way, have I told you about my own movie idea? Banana Splits reunion. You heard it here first.) (Saturday, 8 p.m., Somerville Theatre) T.B.

“SOUL KITCHEN’’ Sometimes a director needs a break from greatness and has to settle for being merely very good. Fatih Akin (“Head-on,’’ “The Edge of Heaven’’) puts his feet up with this shaggy comedy about two dysfunctional brothers — Adam Bousdoukos and Moritz Bleibtreu — who open a Hamburg restaurant. This is the first of Akin’s hot-blooded ethnic opuses to come down with a case of contrivance, but it’s very funny and irreverently alive. Now we know how one of those Sidney Poitier-Bill Cosby team-ups would be in German. (Saturday, 10 p.m. Somerville Theatre) W.M.

“HIS & HERS’’ After a decade of soulful and brilliantly off-center short films, the Irish filmmaker Ken Wardrop comes through with a documentary feature that confirms his promise. A close-up study of women from infancy to old age, “His & Hers’’ dispenses with voice-over narration and lets 70 Irish girls, women, wives, and mothers talk about their lives — and primarily the unseen men in those lives — with disarming candor. Wardrop’s knack for extracting moments of pure, serendipitous humanity has never been more apparent than in this charmer that steps off into the deep end of the pool when you least expect it to. (April 25, noon, Somerville Theatre) T.B.

“LOOKING FOR ERIC’’ The Eric in question is the French soccer legend Eric Cantona, who ended his career bringing glory to Manchester United. In this Ken Loach comedy, he inspired a depressed English postal worker (Steve Evets) to get on with his life. Loach remains devoted to working-class heroes but occasionally the righteousness is rousingly mixed with the comedy. The climax, for instance, features a busload of mailmen descending on the home of a rich bully. By Loach’s polemical standards, this is a trifle, but a crowd-pleasing one. (April 25, 2:30 p.m., Somerville Theatre) W.M.

“HOW TO FOLD A FLAG’’ Released in 2004, “Gunner Palace’’ was one of the best, least hysterical early documentaries about US troops stationed in Iraq. In this worthy semi-sequel, filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker revisit four veterans of the 2/3 Field Artillery as they adjust to life back home. The subjects range from a congressional candidate in upstate New York to a Texas cage fighter battling post-traumatic stress disorder as he tries to keep his kids under one roof. The unspoken throughlines are the disconnect veterans can feel with the country for which they fought and the shocking lack of services available to help them. (April 25, 5:15 p.m., Somerville Theatre) T.B.

“THE KILLER INSIDE ME’’ Michael Winterbottom shifts shapes again. This time the director of “24 Hour Party People’’ and “A Mighty Heart’’ applies his cold touch to the pulp fiction of Jim Thompson. The results are grim, intentionally and otherwise. Casey Affleck plays a sheriff trying to figure out what to do with the two women in his life, a girlfriend (Kate Hudson) and a hooker (Jessica Alba). His decision produces quite a bit of blood. Everybody is miscast, no one more so than Winterbottom, who has neither the sense of humor nor capacity for heat to keep the grisliness from curdling into chic sadism. (April 25, 7 p.m., Somerville Theatre) W.M.

“STRANGE POWERS: STEPHIN MERRITT AND THE MAGNETIC FIELDS’’ Those of us who appreciate Merritt’s gravelly neo-Cole Porter musical stylings — displayed on the 1999 three-CD cult hit “69 Love Songs’’ and on intermittent albums since — should warm to Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara’s portrait of the artist as an adorable Chelsea curmudgeon. The film’s actually a study of a successful creative marriage, with Claudia Gonson serving as Merritt’s collaborator, mother hen, and best-friend-forever since high school. Looking at their ’80s teen memorabilia, you get the sense that Andie and Duckie from “Pretty in Pink’’ made it into the new millennium, and all Duckie had to do was come out of the closet. (April 25, 7:30 p.m., Brattle Theatre) T.B.

“8: THE MORMON PROPOSITION’’ This documentary details how the Mormon Church campaigned in 2008 for passage of California’s Proposition 8, which upheld the sanctity of marriage as between only a man and a woman. But directed by Reed Cowan and Steven Greenstreet and narrated (extensively) by Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for writing “Milk,’’ it’s cheapened by bad reenactments and corroded with contempt. It also doesn’t help that the movie’s emotional centerpiece — a pair of thwarted San Francisco newlyweds — is problematic. They’re justly angry about the church’s meddling, but there’s something actorly about their anger. (April 26, 12:15 p.m., Somerville Theatre) W.M.

“MARWENCOL’’ My single favorite movie in this festival. Jeff Malmberg’s documentary focuses on Mark Hogancamp, an upstate New Yorker who was beaten into a coma outside a bar one night and since waking up has obsessively been building a miniature World War II village in his backyard, photographing action-figure mini-dramas that mirror his own struggles. Hogancamp seems an engaging lost boy until you see his pictures, which are stark and moving — the real artistic deal. Then the fans and art galleries come calling, threatening to upend his private psychodrama. An astounding movie — one of those tales of all-American oddness that just keeps flowering into weirder, richer territory. (April 27, 7 p.m., Institute of Contemporary Art) T.B.

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