Film Preview: Independently Ours — IFFBoston Celebrates Another Year of Community

By Brett Michel

As always, IFFBoston’s Executive Director Brian Tamm and Program Director Nancy Campbell have curated a stellar lineup of films that promises to represent the very best of current American and international cinema

Independent Film Festival Boston: April 24 – May 1, at The Somerville Theatre, The Brattle Theatre and The Coolidge Corner Theatre. For a complete schedule and information on tickets, badges, visiting filmmakers and festival parties, visit here.

Aisling Franciosi appears in The Nightingale. Photo: Kasia Ladczuk.

Nearly a decade ago, the Boston Society of Film Critics (of which I’m a member) presented an award to Haden Guest, David Pendleton, and the staff of the Harvard Film Archive, recognizing the university’s cinephile haven for its imaginative and compelling programming comprised of film series and events that have greatly enriched film culture in the Boston area. Speaking onstage at Harvard Square’s storied Brattle Theatre while accepting the award alongside HFA director Guest, Pendleton — the Archive’s late, great programmer — observed that “audiences in Boston are among the most intelligent, sophisticated, adventurous, and enthusiastic that I’ve encountered.” The California transplant went on to note that “there’s a very symbiotic relationship between the critics, the audience, the programmers, and the venues that all work together,” creating a community that is “a very viable and strong one, and I’m happy to be programming here.”

While the hole that Pendleton left behind in the local film landscape when he succumbed to cancer in the fall of 2017 at the age of 53 can’t be overstated, the beloved programmer was absolutely correct about greater Boston’s community of movie lovers, a flourishing and passionate group that’s set to converge on the area’s treasure trove of independently owned and operated movie halls for the 17th annual edition of the Independent Film Festival Boston, the crown jewel of New England’s numerous film fests.

IFFBoston will once again be presenting more than 100 films over 8 days, beginning on tonight, April 24th with Julius Onah’s Luce, a button-pusher based on a play by J.C. Lee. Tim Roth, and Naomi Watts play the adoptive parents of the title character, a high school all-star (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. of 2017’s It Comes at Night) whose future is threatened when one of his teachers (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) makes an alarming discovery about her model student, a refugee from war-torn Eritrea. Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the recent Sundance Film Festival, the movie’s been adapted for the screen by Lee and Onah (director of last year’s Netflix stealth release, The Cloverfield Paradox), the latter of whom will be answering audiences’ questions after the opening night screening, which unspools at 7:30 in Davis Square’s Somerville Theatre. The Art Deco palace will host the lion’s share of the narrative and documentary features and shorts, while the Brattle will handle the overflow through the weekend, before the festival heads across the river to the Coolidge Corner Theatre for its final two nights of features.

As always, IFFBoston’s Executive Director Brian Tamm and Program Director Nancy Campbell have curated a stellar lineup of films that promises to represent the very best of current American and international cinema. No doubt Pendleton would  be proud of the strong sense of community that Tamm and Campbell — along with their dedicated army of volunteers — have fostered over the years, connecting audiences with visiting filmmakers and participants of many of the movies being screened. But, beyond engaging with behind-the-scenes talent, the festival also encourages audience members to interact with each other, coming together in a room to share an experience together.

A scene frm Zhang Yimou’s “Shadow.”

Yes, a number of those experiences will be provided by the latest works from world-renowned filmmakers Zhang Yimou’s historical epic Shadow plays at 7:30 on Thursday the 25th at the Somerville, while Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro, a speculative look at four-time Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi starring Toni Servillo of Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, screens at 12:15 on Sunday the 28th, also at the Somerville). But Campbell has also made a mission of engaging people with new work from unknowns, such as Justin Chon, whose Gook (a drama centered on two Korean American brothers forced to defend their store during the L.A. riots spawned by the Rodney King verdict) played the festival two years ago. His latest, Ms. Purple (Saturday the 27th, 4pm at the Somerville), is a contemporary family drama, and a rewarding character study set in L.A.’s Koreatown. A couple of other notable sophomore efforts to make their way into this year’s lineup include The Nightingale (Friday the 26th, 7pm at the Brattle), Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s anticipated follow-up to 2014’s The Babadook, and The Death of Dick Long (Thursday the 25, 9:30pm at the Brattle), a comic crime drama starring and directed by Emerson grad Daniel Scheinert, the co-writer and co-director (with fellow Emerson alum Daniel Kwan) of 2016’s off-kilter curio, Swiss Army Man. Scheinert and screenwriter Billy Chew will be appearing for a post-screening Q&A.

As for this year’s newcomers, South Shore native Kevin J. James makes his feature-length debut as director of the engaging documentary Not for Resale (Friday the 26th, 9:45pm at the Somerville), which finds the 32-year-old chronicling the fast-moving death of physical media in the face of digital distribution. But, rather than look at home video obsessives, James focuses his lens on the fringier side of video game retail, driven by his love of GameZone, a retro game shop situated in Salem, MA.

“I’m fascinated by mom-and-pop video game stores,” he tells me, as he describes the shops he traveled to throughout Massachusetts, California, Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Illinois and North Carolina as “one part blue-collar working-class, and another part neon-color extravagance. It’s a great combination.”

Making its world premiere at the fest, with both the director and cinematographer Thomas Chalifour-Drahman in attendance, Not for Resale examines the things that will need to change if consumers will have the chance to experience the same tangibility that James’ generation took for granted. “We gain a lot from digital stores,” he says, while lamenting that “we could also end up leaving a substantial amount behind, too.”

Another nonfiction film that mourns all that we’ve lost begins a bit further back, March 15th, 1968, the day that a beloved countercultural radio station first hit local airwaves. This screening of the IFFBoston’s Centerpiece Documentary Spotlight feature marks the east coast premiere of director Bill Lichtenstein’s WBCN and The American Revolution (Saturday the 27th, 7:30pm at the Somerville). Lichtenstein, who was a junior high student when he began at ‘BCN, becoming its youngest-ever DJ, will likely have lots to discuss after the screening, when he engages in a live conversation with Robin Young, co-host of WBUR’s Here & Now.

Immediately preceding Lichtenstein’s film is the New England premiere of Garret Price’s Love, Antosha (Saturday the 27th, 4pm at the Brattle), a personal portrait of a talented performer who died far too young: Anton Yelchin. Mainstream audiences will best identify the actor as Ensign Pavel Chekov, the Russian navigator in J.J Abrams’ rebooted series of Star Trek movies, but IFFBoston veterans will remember him for his roles in 2015’s Green Room and 2017’s Thoroughbreds, which featured one of his last great performances before a freak accident claimed him at the age of 27.

Speaking of great performances, Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss promises to stun playing self-destructive punk rocker Courtney Lov…err, Becky Something in Her Smell, the third of the actress’ increasingly cringeworthy collaborations with Alex Ross Perry, a filmmaker who never shies away from off-putting subjects.

Keira Knightley in “Official Secrets.”

Even though she’s playing a real-life whistleblower, Keira Knightley will likely be a lot less abrasive in IFFBoston’s Centerpiece Narrative Spotlight, Official Secrets (Monday the 29th, 7:30pm at the Brattle), the latest from politically-minded South African filmmaker Gavin Hood (director of 2005’s Tsotsi, 2007’s Rendition, and 2015’s Eye in the Sky). The director is expected to be in attendance, along with subject Martin Bright, who’s played, in this look at an illegal NSA spy operation, by Dr. Who fan favorite Matt Smith.

A few more big names (at least to those of us skipping the latest Avengers installment to enjoy the countless pleasures to be found at this festival) include Peter Sarsgaard and Rashida Jones in Michael Tyburski’s The Sound of Silence (Tuesday the 30th, 7pm at the Coolidge), a drama centered on a successful “house tuner” (only in New York, folks) whose worldview is shaken by a new client. A conversation between Tyburski and Erin Trahan of WBUR’s The ARTery follows.

Rounding out the penultimate night of the festival is the New England premiere of Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense (Tuesday the 30th, 9:30pm at the Coolidge), a dark comedy set within the world of karate that stars Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots and Boston-bred Alessandro Nivola.

Fittingly, the 17th edition of IFFBoston draws to a close with Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (Wednesday, May 1st, 7:30pm at the Coolidge), a Sundance sensation starring Crazy Rich Asians’ scene-stealer Awkwafina in a family-driven comedy centered on the “good lie” of a wedding that isn’t. Festival veteran Wang (the writer/director’s comedy Posthumous played here in 2015) is expected to appear for a Q&A. Pendleton would approve.

Boston native Brett Michel has been penning love (and hate) letters to cinema in a professional capacity for the past 16 years, first finding his voice as a critic for the late, lamented Boston Phoenix during its final decade, before rising from the newspaper’s ashes as a frequent contributor to a wealth of local publications. In addition to his work for the storied alt-weekly, he has written for The Boston Herald, The Patriot Ledger, The Tab, The Metrowest Daily News and, most recently, The Improper Bostonian, where he served as the magazine’s Film Editor for the last 5 years.

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