This year’s Boston Underground Film Festival took place from March 23rd to the 27th in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the historic Brattle Theater. In addition to numerous shorts, the 2016 festival had a fantastic slate of feature films. Daily Grindhouse takes a look at 10 features that screened at the festival that will likely be making waves throughout the year.
THE LURE (Poland, dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska)
The opening film of the festival was Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s debut feature CORKI DANCINGU (aka THE LURE). The film made a splash — pun intended? — when it screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it’s not hard to see why. To say that the film is “unique” is a severe understatement: It’s a musical about man-eating mermaids who look like teenage girls getting a gig singing backup with a low-rent bar band in the early 1980s. It’s actually even weirder than it sounds, but eventually that works against it. The first hour or so is breathtakingly off-kilter, packed with both low-key songs and one huge dance number that could have been pulled from a big-budget Bollywood movie. It’s somewhat disappointing when the plot meanders off into a number of directions without any real payoff in its final act. Still, despite its unsatisfying finale, THE LURE is unlike anything else out there and well worth a look and proves that Smoczynska is definitely a talent to watch.
BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (Japan, dir. Eiichi Yamamoto)
Jeanne is a pure, young newly wed bride who is forced to pay with her body when her new groom Jean can’t afford the marriage tax demanded by the Lord of their village. This assault awakens something in Jeanne, what at first seems to be a mischievous sprite but soon is revealed to be Satan himself. They engage in a battle of wills in which Jeanne tries to persevere in the face of intense misery inflicted by the men in power over the land and people where she lives, while Satan offers her revenge in exchange for her soul. Released in Japan in 1973, BELLADONNA OF SADNESS has never been officially released in the States before and this astonishing 4K restoration is the best possible way it could have made its debut. Much of the film is presented as long horizontal or vertical tableaus across which the camera pans, and this new restoration allows the viewer to see every pencil line, brush stroke, and burst of color. I covered CineliciousPics’s gorgeous new restoration of this Japanese psychedelic animated feature from 1973 when it played at Fantastic Fest 2015. The Fantastic Fest program called this a “seminal psychedelic masterpiece,” and that’s not an overstatement. Anyone who gets a chance to see this on the big screen should definitely take it.
CASH ONLY (USA, dir. Malik Bader)
Elvis (Nickola Shreli), a Detroit landlord, is up against the wall. He has a number of debts to parties both legal and otherwise and a shrinking window in which to pay them. A previous scheme involving arson not only didn’t pay off, but ended with tragic results that have caused Elvis to spiral into depression. He’s barely keeping it together for his daughter, but when one of his tenants who is months behind on her rent leaves a bag of cash in her apartment, he sees a chance to turn it around. Unfortunately for Elvis, nothing is ever that easy. CASH ONLY is a solid crime drama with an unusual setting, taking place among Detroit’s Albanian community. Shreli, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, leads a compelling cast that give the film a strong emotional center. It falters a little in its final moments, but overall director Malik Bader keeps the pace brisk and the tension high, making this a memorable thriller.
CASH ONLY is now available on VOD and iTunes!
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: THE TRUE STORY OF THE PROCESS CHURCH OF THE FINAL JUDGMENT (USA, dir. Neil Edwards)
The Process, later known as The Process Church of the Final Judgment, was a fascinating entity that could only have arisen from 1960s culture. It’s been something of an enigma (and occasional bogeyman) for decades, but member Timothy Wyllie and Feral House’s Adam Parfrey co-edited a book on The Process entitled LOVE, SEX, FEAR, DEATH published in 2009. This film is something of a documentary adaptation of the book, speaking to Wyllie and a number of other Process members as well as including interviews with others who had contact with the church or were fascinated by it. John Waters provides a number of highly entertaining appearances, and there are plenty of strange stories to go around, but more than anything the film underlines how life inside the Process was hardly as demonically glamorous as its reputation would suggest. For anyone who already has an interested in the history of the Process, this will likely be an entertaining watch. But for anyone not already familiar with the Church’s teachings, it may be a bit confusing since it barely touches on those at all, focusing instead on the impact the Process had on its members and the culture at large.
STAND BY FOR TAPE BACK-UP (UK, dir. Ross Sutherland)
UK artist Ross Sutherland’s STAND BY FOR TAPE BACK-UP is a hybrid film and live performance piece in which Sutherland plays segments of an old video tape that belonged to his late grandfather while discussing dealing with grief and depression as well as performing poems composed to complement the video. The film component is entirely built out of video taken from other contexts, in this case the contents of that video tape that he and his grandparents used to tape various things off of television. While there are occasional moments of humor, most of this film deals with serious emotional territory and makes interesting observations about how people connect through sharing media like films and television. The constant repetition of some of the video clips becomes hypnotizing and lends itself well to Sutherland’s rhythmic poetry performance, which is precisely and impressively timed to accompany the video. STAND BY FOR TAPE BACK-UP is eerie and poignant, an intriguing experiment in putting familiar images in a completely different context to reveal aspects of themselves the viewer may have never before imagined.
Note: STAND BY FOR TAPE BACK-UP won the festival Director’s Choice Award for Best Feature.
CHASING BANKSY (USA, dir. Frank Henenlotter)
Entitled white guy Michael (Anthony Sneed), a struggling artist working at a record store and living rent-free in his buddy’s art studio, is sick of the nine to five and wants to focus on his art full-time. He discovers that UK street artist Banksy traveled to post-Katrina New Orleans and tagged some buildings in parts of the city hit hardest by the storm, and comes to the only logical conclusion: He should go steal it by cutting it off the abandoned building on which it was painted and sell it to make a million dollars. He enlists two other loathsome art bros, maxes out his credit cards, and heads to New Orleans. In case it’s not clear already, CHASING BANKSY is mind-bogglingly wrongheaded. None of the lead characters are interesting in the least, a fact that is helpfully conveyed in the first scene of dialogue when they’re introduced talking about “pussy.” Unsurprisingly, there is exactly one named female character in the whole movie. It could probably be argued that the movie is poking fun at its clueless, privileged white protagonists, but it’s tough to imagine caring enough about these guys to make the effort. This is a huge disappointment from veteran genre filmmaker Frank Henenlotter, and if this and BAD BIOLOGY (in which Sneed also starred) are any indication he needs to find some new collaborators post-haste.
CURTAIN (USA, dir. Jaron Henrie-McCrea)
Following a period of depression during which she lived with her uncle, former nurse Danni (Danni Smith) moves into her own apartment. It’s suspiciously affordable, probably because its previous tenants all died under mysterious circumstances—the last one even did it in the bathroom. Soon Danni finds that whenever she hangs a shower curtain and closes the bathroom door, the curtain disappears. Baffled, she reluctantly enlists the help of coworker Tim (Tim Lueke) to figure out what’s happening. CURTAIN has a goofy setup and plenty of bizarre humor, but it’s more than just an absurd horror/comedy. Director Jaron Henrie-McCrea and co-writer Carys Edwards trust the viewer to piece together what is going on, basically giving them as much information as Danni has in a seriously strange situation. It’s a smart approach to such wild material, and it makes CURTAIN linger a lot longer in the mind than other similar independent horror films.
BLOOD OF THE TRIBADES (USA, dir. Sophia Cacciola& Michael J. Epstein)
It has been two thousand years since the vampire god Bathor left the world, and society is down to its last dregs. Grando (Seth Chatfield) leads a fanatical group of men, afflicted with blood poison, who hunt and kill the female vampires of the land in accordance with what they believe is Bathor’s will. A small clan of rogue women return from centuries of exile in an attempt to convince the persecuted to strike back, but is it already too late? BLOOD OF THE TRIBADES is a very low-budget tribute to 70s Euro-horror vampire movies, with garish colors reminiscent of that era’s Hammer productions and more than a little of Jean Rollin’s lesbian eroticism. It does have a distinctly modern sense of equality when it comes to skin, though: there are as many fully nude men here as there are women. Co-writer/directors Cacciola and Epstein cram a lot of mythology into a brief running time and they make good use of their limited resources—comparing this film to the others playing the festival, it really looks like this cost a tiny fraction of what any of those films did. The costumes look great, the acting is wildly overheated (as befits the material), and the soundtrack is excellent.
Note: BLOOD OF THE TRIBADES won the festival’s Audience Award for Best New England Film.
AKOUNAK TEDALAT TAHA TAZOUGHAI (Niger, dir. Christopher Kirkley)
[Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It]
Speaking of excellent soundtracks: writer/director Christopher Kirkley may be best known for his work with the music label Sahel Sounds, which released a compilation titled MUSIC FROM SAHARAN CELLPHONES in 2011. One of the artists on that compilation, MdouMoctar, plays a fictionalized version of himself in this film, which is something of a remake of PURPLE RAIN with a dash of THE HARDER THEY COME. Mdou arrives in the city of Agadez, where he wants to make a living as a musician. He meets some like-minded collaborators and begins a tentative romance with a young woman, but finds that the competition in Agadez is tougher than he could have guessed. The music throughout the film is fantastic, including a number of performances by Moctar and other real Nigerien musicians. None of them are career actors, but they have an easy charm in front of the camera. This is an engaging film from a part of the world rarely seen on the big screen, and an entertaining musical drama besides.
MAD (USA, dir. Robert G. Putka)
Recently divorced Mel (Maryann Plunkett) lands in the hospital following a “nervous breakdown.” While Mel spends time in the hospital psych ward, her daughters Connie (Jennifer Lafleur) and Casey (Ellis Cahill) try to figure out what to do. Connie, a successful businesswoman and mother, keeps up a strong façade but is dealing with some potentially serious legal problems from her work. Younger sister Casey is still trying to get her shit together, and in the meantime works from home doing sex cam shows. MAD is a brilliant dramatic showcase for its three leads that also happens to be wickedly funny. All three women are amazing in their roles, and their characters are sharply written by feature director Robert G. Putka. He and his cast clearly understand that those who we love the most are capable of cutting us down most effectively, and play that out in spectacular fashion. It’s hilarious but it’s also deeply poignant, and deals with aspects of life and characters that are rarely seen in American movies of any type. It’s almost unbelievable that this is Putka’s first feature; MAD isn’t just the best film to come out of this festival, it’s one of the best films of the year anywhere.
Note: MAD was runner-up for the festival Director’s Choice Award for Best Feature.
In addition to these features, the following films also played the festival: KILL YOUR FRIENDS (UK, dir. Owen Harris), LITTLE SISTER (USA, dir. Zach Clark), ANTIBIRTH (USA, dir. Danny Perez), KARAOKE CRAZIES (South Korea, dir. Sang-chan Kim), and TRASH FIRE (USA, dir. Richard D. Bates Jr.). Over 70 short films and music videos from all over the world played in the festival’s short programs, and Kier-La Janisse (author of HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN) curated the 3-hour “Saturday Morning All-You-Can-Eat Cereal Cartoon Party” which featured an actual cereal buffet and a secrete lineup of cartoons and PSAs from the 1940s to the 1980s.
— JASON COFFMAN.
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Tags: Abdoulaye Souleymane, Agnieszka Smoczynska, Anthony Sneed, Boston, Brian Faas, cartoons, Carys Edwards, Chloé Cunha, Christopher Kirkley, Danni Smith, Drew Freed, Eiichi Yamamoto, Eilis Cahill, Film Festivals, Frank Henenlotter, japan, Jaron Henrie-McCrea, Jennifer Lafleur, Kier-La Janisse, Kinga Preis, Malik Bader, Marta Mazurek, Martin Monahan, Mary Widow, Maryann Plunkett, Mdou Moctar, Michalina Olszanska, music, Nickola Shreli, Poland, Rhaicha Ibrahim, Robert G. Putka, Seth Chatfield, Sophia Cacciola & Michael J. Epstein, Stivi Paskoski, Tim Lueke, vampires, video, Will Cooper