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Entertaining, But Not Without Faults

Boston’s First Independent Film Festival is a Success

By Julie J. Hong

Staff Writer

The Independent Film Festival of Boston

Somerville, Brattle, and Coolidge Corner Theatres

May 1-4

A socially awkward aspiring ventriloquist, whose only friend is an aspiring punk rocker, falls for his employment counselor. It sounds dubious at best, but Dummy, Greg Pritikin’s sophomoric effort which opened Boston’s first annual independent film festival, somehow worked.

I found myself rooting for Steven (Adrien Brody, who also performed all the ventriloquism), though a more uncool protagonist couldn’t possibly exist. Dummy, set against some suburban town, is cute, entertaining, and at times very funny but not without its faults. This seemed to be the theme among this year’s narrative features, many of which are directorial debuts.

The Narratives

13 Moons, directed by Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup, Four Rooms), is amusing enough, as an assortment of singers, priests, strippers, and clowns put aside their own problems and try to save a young boy’s life. But, despite its largely familiar cast -- Steve Buscemi (Ghost World, Reservoir Dogs, many Coen brothers films), Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent), Karyn Parsons (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), David Proval (The Sopranos), Daryl Mitchell (Galaxy Quest, Ed), Rose Rollins, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Austin Wolff -- the film in the end turns out only to be an assorted mess.

Meanwhile, Mike Bencivenga’s Happy Hour, starring Anthony LaPaglia (Lantana), Caroleen Feeney, and Eric Stoltz (The House of Mirth), sounds like any lonely single guy’s dream: go to a bar, meet a beautiful woman, take her home, and fall in love. However, it undercuts all romance by depicting all too accurately the effects of alcoholism.

Ivan’s XTC, another downer directed by Bernard Rose, opens with the death of Ivan Beckman (Danny Huston), a charismatic Hollywood agent. Though all he sought were “drugs and ... pussy,” surprisingly neither caused his sudden death.

In Bob Odenkirk’s Melvin Goes To Dinner, Melvin (Michael Blieden) goes to dinner with an old friend, Joey (Matt Price), and two unknown females, Sarah (Annabelle Gurwitch) and Alex (Stephanie Courtney). Though they have more serious than usual dinner conversations -- religion and loneliness -- comedy is never far from the picture.

JT Petty’s Soft for Digging was his NYU thesis, filmed when he was 20 years old. Soft for Digging tells the story of an old man, who, when looking for his cat, finds instead a girl and a murder -- and uses only three lines of dialogue. Kind of reminds one of that Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, “Hush.”

The Documentaries

While some of the narrative features may have been less than stellar, the documentaries more than compensate. Particularly impressive are Jesse Moss’ Con Man and Speedo. In Con Man, Moss presents a fascinating account of the life of James Hogue, an intelligent man and extraordinarily talented runner, who apparently also enjoyed “starting over” by creating false identities, first at Palo Alto High School, then at Princeton University. Moss’ second documentary in the film festival, Speedo, follows legendary demolition derby driver Ed “Speedo” Jaguar’s life and career, as his marriage fails and he finds love again with a race track official. It sounds boring but it is actually not.

Other notable documentaries include 7th Street and The King of Sixth Street. 7th Street focuses on a New York City neighborhood, as director Josh Pais recounts his 35-year experience living there. Filmed from 1992-2002, 7th Street shows how this neighborhood, once drug central of the East Coast, grows trendy and at what cost. The King of Sixth Street tells the story of Gerry Van King, a street musician in Austin, Texas, whose dreams seem to come true when a record company offers him a deal. King is actually director Charles Burmeister’s former bandmate and housemate.

The Shorts

Shorts, though cursed with being considered insignificant when compared to features, are often the most entertaining. Boston native Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck examine consumerism in New York, as artist Geoff Lupo -- who occasionally walks the streets of New York wearing an enormous papier-machÉ replica of his head -- sells individual crackers, thumbtacks, and pen caps in Have You Seen This Man?

Thoth -- hardly “short,” running at 40 minutes -- follows Stephen Kaufman through his identity crises and eventual decision to heal the world. Director Sarah Kernochan, one of the festival’s few veterans, won an Academy Award last year for Thoth. She also won an Academy Award in 1973 for her documentary Marjoe and has written, among other films, Nine and 1Ž2 Weeks and What Lies Beneath.

The Experimentals

This year’s festival included two experimental entries, Decasia and Met State. Decasia, directed by Bill Morrison, is a non-narrative and experimental feature made with degraded film stock. The film acts more as an accompaniment to its score, Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon’s symphony of the same name, rather than the reverse. Decasia, though hypnotic, grows tedious, as clips of deteriorated film never seem to end.

Met State, like Decasia, is non-narrative and experimental. Over two years, director Bryan Papciak collected images of Met State, an abandoned insane asylum, and assembled them to produce this haunting and, at times, creepy representation.

The Young ’uns

One cannot fail to mention Joshua RofÉ and Chaille Stovall, the festival’s two youngest filmmakers. RofÉ’s The Gray In Between, a narrative feature, follows five teenage boys as they are introduced to drugs, sex, and their consequences. RofÉ wrote The Gray In Between when he was 19 and, five months afterwards, completed the film.

Stovall, at 14, is the world’s youngest feature documentary filmmaker. In his entry, Little Monk, he examines social tolerance via a six-year-old Tibetan boy, Little Potato, who enters a Buddhist monastery.

All in all, these films offer a lot more to think about than 20 films you’d more likely see at Loews.

The Winners