Film Review: A Dispatch from the 23rd Annual Boston Underground Film Festival (Part 1 of 2)
By Nicole Veneto
Local film festivals like the 23rd annual Boston Underground Film Festival feel like such a balm for the tide of poisonous mediocrity that’s now the standard in our current movie landscape.
I frequently find myself in a vague sort of despair over the state of contemporary cinema. Between having to watch algorithmically generated IP franchise slop for my Marvel movie podcast and a deluge of critically acclaimed yet incredibly uninspired cinema (ex. M3GAN, 80 for Brady, the new Dungeons & Dragons), it’s hard not to be a bit cynical about how low audiences’ and critics’ standards have become. It’s in this especially bromidic environment that local film festivals like the 23rd annual Boston Underground Film Festival feel like such a balm against the tide of poisonous mediocrity that’s now the standard in our current movie landscape. Last year I attended a couple of the shorts programs (read Arts Fuse critic Ezra Haber Glenn on this year’s The Dunwich Horror shorts program) and I had to come back for more, this time to see a few of the features artistic director Kevin Monohan and programming director Nicole McControversy curated for the festival at Harvard Square’s Brattle Theater.
This year’s lineup included a diverse offering of film festival favorites (Daniel Goldhaber’s critically acclaimed How to Blow Up a Pipeline and Mark Jenkin’s folk horror Enys Men being the most high-profile) and under-the-radar curios (Divinity, Moon Garden, and Piaffe), mostly supplied by Utopia, Neon, and Oscilloscope Laboratories. I couldn’t bring myself to attend every single screening in person — nor see every feature, for that matter — but I was able to watch several films via screeners at home. First up was Kirby McClure’s admirable but wanting debut Spaghetti Junction, a soft sci-fi family drama about August, a newly disabled teenager (Cate Hughes) in the deep South, who helps a stranded interstellar traveler (Tyler Rainey borrowing Lil Nas X’s contact lenses) return to his home galaxy. Though scored by my favorite band HEALTH and carried by a solid supporting performance from Cam McHarg as August’s struggling single father, Junction is ultimately weighed down by its sci-fi slant. It’s simply too meandering in pace and lacks sufficient production value to elevate its premise beyond a better than average student film. Even HEALTH’s score is a half-hearted effort, seemingly composed of outtakes from their last studio album Vol. 4: Slaves of Fear. Overall this was the weakest of the features I watched. Still, all things considered, it was praiseworthy for its humanistic depiction of disability and working-class poverty.
I immediately chased Junction down with French director Quentin Dupieux’s (Rubber, aka the killer car tire movie) Smoking Causes Coughing, which gets my vote for the funniest entry in BUFF’s robust feature lineup. A Magnolia release, Smoking is a farcical take on Japanese tokusatsu media that revolves around Tobacco Force, a team of cigarette-themed heroes (Gilles Lellouche, Vincent Lacoste, Anaïs Demoustier, Jean-Pascal Zadi, and Oulaya Amamra) commanded by Chief Didier, a disheveled, horny, and perpetually drooling rat puppet voiced by French actor Alain Chabat. (And if you must know, yes, the puppet fucks.)
When the team’s group cohesion starts to break down in the face of their archnemesis Lézardin’s (Benoît Poelvoorde) plan to destroy the planet, Chief Didier sends Tobacco Force on a retreat together; the film breaks out into several silly vignettes as each team member (and a fish) recall tangential stories about stuff like guys going into wood chippers and buckets full of talking guts. Admittedly I wasn’t what you’d call sober by the time I watched this one. But, like most of the films featured at BUFF, being under the influence is something of a prerequisite for the experience (e.g., Enys Men). Hardly surprising that John Waters named Smoking as one of his favorite movies of last year, praising it as “a superhero movie for idiots that surpasses all the tedium of Hollywood blockbusters.” It’s a great antidote for someone like me whose side hustle is subjecting herself to tepid capeshit for the amusement of other cynical cinephiles. If you’re equally exhausted with Marvel and DC’s sanitized offerings and just want to see people in tights beat down a guy in a rubber turtle suit, then look no further.
My final screener was the Czech-Slovakian film Nightsiren, directed by Tereza Nvotová, the first of BUFF’s folk horror selections in the feature lineup. Following a young woman named Charlotte (Natalia Germani) who returns to the deeply superstitious mountain village she ran away from as a little girl, Nightsiren expands into an interpersonal drama about reckoning with ghosts of the past and generational legacies of misogyny. Reunited with the little sister she long believed dead (Eva Mores), Charlotte’s attempt to navigate the traumas of her past lead her to being accused of witchcraft herself, a fate that befell the local Roma woman (Iva Bittová) who helped Charlotte escape her physically abusive mother long ago. It’s a beautifully shot film that pulls no punches when it comes to depicting misogynistic violence. However, it’s also not particularly new when it comes to dealing with this subject matter. It’s more or less a mishmash of other witchy folk horrors like The Witch, November, and Hagazussa, without the cerebral edge those three films offer. If you’ve seen any of those films then you’ve pretty much seen most of Nightsiren already. Nevertheless, Nvotová’s feature offers some potent imagery (a blacklight witches’ sabbath of writhing bodies in the forest) and a tender look at the unwavering bonds of sisterhood.
My first in-person screening was for David Farrier’s newest documentary Mister Organ, provided courtesy of Mubi. If you’re familiar with Farrier’s previous film Tickled, then you know you’re not in for a documentary so much as a massive can of worms being opened and dumped in your face. What begins as an investigation into a New Zealand antique store owner’s controversial car-clamping scam spirals into a cat and mouse game between Ferrier and the store owner’s hired car-clamping muscle, a self-proclaimed descendant of royals by the name of Michael Organ (or Micheal Organ, because deliberately misspelling your name can get you out of legal snags). In short, Organ is a litigious master manipulator who first needles his way into people’s lives and, for lack of a better phrase, destroys them. Part investigative exposé and part pitch-black comedy, Ferrier’s latest effort twists and turns in directions you could never in a million years anticipate. The incredibly psychotic lengths Organ goes to manipulate, intimidate, and grift his victims are more reminiscent of a conniving comic book villain than a petty criminal with a silver tongue. Equally gut-bustingly hysterical and insane to behold, this is a documentary that will make you howl laughing one minute and give you heart palpitations the next.
Moon Garden, the second feature film directed by Ryan Stevens Harris (editor of Roland Emmerich’s mega-turd Moonfall, of all things!), might be the festival’s most precious hidden gem. Like most of the entries in the feature lineup, Moon Garden was shot on film — expired 35 mm stock with upcycled camera lenses to be specific, giving the visuals a deeply textured and ethereal look that had me swooning. Combining the beating heart of Pan’s Labyrinth with Mad God’s stop-motion phantasmagoria and Jan Švankmajer’s uncanny-valley Alice, Moon Garden is an emotionally devastating and beautiful descent into a young girl’s imagination.
After witnessing her troubled parents Sara (a riveting Augie Duke) and Alex (Brionne Davis, Embrace of the Serpent) in the midst of a heated argument, five-year-old Emma (little cherub-faced newcomer Haven Lee Harris, who’ll have your heart in a vise with a single smile) falls down a flight of stairs and into a coma, where her playtime scenarios reconstitute themselves into a dark industrial dreamworld. Chased by a malevolent entity with chattering teeth who feasts on her tears, Emma must make her way back to consciousness with only an old transistor radio broadcasting her parents’ distant voices to guide her home.
If there’s one film in the festival’s lineup I must highlight for its creative ingenuity and emotional depth, it’s undoubtedly Moon Garden. In recalling macabre “children’s” films like The Neverending Story and Mirror Mask, Harris has crafted something truly heartfelt and uncompromising on a relatively minuscule budget that puts bloated-to-the-max franchise films to shame. Comparisons to Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Tarsem Singh’s underappreciated The Fall spring to mind, which should clue you into the sense and scale of wonder the entire production achieves. Moon Garden gutted me from beginning to end, and for that alone it’s a film worth championing. To anyone who was sitting near me in the Brattle mezzanine, I’m so sorry if my constant snot crying and sniffling ruined your theatrical experience — I simply wasn’t prepared for how Moon Garden would break my heart into a million pieces and then sew it back together again. Though not many people were in attendance for the screening because of its Saturday matinee time slot, the film struck enough of a chord with the BUFF community that it received a very much deserved Audience Choice Award. Whenever Oscilloscope chooses to release Moon Garden (preferably with a theatrical run), I can only hope it’ll find an even bigger audience of bleeding heart surrealists like myself to welcome it with open arms.
Stay tuned for my next dispatch, where I’ll be covering the remainder of my BUFF experience, including Enys Men, Piaffe, Sick of Myself, Divinity, and the highly anticipated How to Blow Up a Pipeline.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi as well as on Substack.