By Raj Ranade
12:50 PM EDT, October 1, 2013
The appeal of independent film has always been about more than the quality of the movies themselves. The term "independent" carries a mystique of its own — a suggestion of home-grown, organic creativity unleashed to the world against the odds. Think of Robert Rodriguez making revenge thriller El Mariachi with $7000 and a wheelchair substituting for a camera dolly, or Kevin Smith finding the makings of cult hit Clerks in the New Jersey Quick Stop where he worked.
But "independent" doesn't mean quite what it used to — the breakout box-office success of independent films in the '90s led to the major movie studios establishing their own independent film divisions. And now the "Sundance film" has become a studio staple of its own, with corporate money and talent pouring into their production even as lip-service is paid to their independence. (Consider this year's Independent Spirit Awards Best Picture winner Silver Linings Playbook, which, while a fine film, cost over $20 million to make and featured the kind of cast only the Weinstein brothers could assemble.)
Phil Hall, director of the New England Underground Film Festival, has a term for this new form of independent cinema: "Hollywood-lite." And his festival (taking place on October 5 at the University of Hartford's Wilde Auditorium/Gray Conference Center) is an attempt to highlight the kinds of outside-the-industry independent films that have become less of an emphasis at major festivals like Sundance or South by Southwest. "I don't want to see A-listers slumming in lower-budget, cookie-cutter works," says Hall. "I want to see creative artists daring to do something different and exciting."
Hall's festival packs in three feature films and eight short films into one six-hour stretch — the films range from crime thrillers and amateur horror to documentary shorts and a rare silent film from 1922 ("Silent Doll"). And in addition to films from Great Britain and the Marshall Islands, the festival also includes works by Connecticut filmmakers Stephen Dest, Kelly DiMauro, Jared Marmitt, and Kieran Valla.
Dest's film My Brother Jack tells the story of a found-object sculptor artist and his troubled young brother, haunted by the memory of their parents' murder, who come under police suspicion when their parents' murderer is found dead soon after his release. Complicating matters are a young woman who serves as muse to the one brother while falling in love with the other, and an art professor with an unhealthy style of mentorship for his protégé. Dest, a New Haven native, makes a visually dazzling noir-scape out of his hometown here (complete with a few Rosemary's Baby-style sequences of hallucinatory terror), and his script explores some interesting ideas about the tricky relationship between an artist's personal traumas and the work that results out of them. But despite some excellent performances, pacing issues and some plot eye-rollers prevent this thriller from really building up steam.
Valla's short film Hangdog is one of the highlights of the festival, telling the story of James (Lee Burns), a dad behind on his child support who teams up with garrulous, amoral cousin Kelly (Drew Osborne) for what should be (and, of course, isn't) an easy robbery from Kelly's boss. Hangdog belongs to the same school of filmmaking as Andrew Dominik's recent crime thriller Killing Them Softly, marrying a gritty crime story with a blunt political subtext that's only just subtle enough to not actually qualify as text.
The standard details of the crime plot here are surrounded by an environment of dilapidated houses and soundtracked by radio broadcasts about unemployment and crushing student loans — and yet the high-school dropouts trapped at the bottom of this rigged economic game cling to longshot get-rich quick hopes. (Kelly is particularly inspired by Wendy's founder Dave Thomas — "He decided to make his burgers squares instead of circles!"). The message thwacks you in the forehead but the righteous anger resonates, and the performances are particularly compelling. Osborne in particular is very good — a Southern cousin to "The Wire"'s Ziggy Sobotka both physically and temperamentally, he's oddly charming and terrifying in equal measure. Made as a thesis production for the American Film Institute conservatory, the film is an impressive showcase of new talent — and the kind of thing that underground and independent festivals should be championing.
New England Underground Film Festival
Oct. 5 at the University of Hartford's Wilde Auditorium/Gray Conference Center
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