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IFFBoston's Fall Focus Gives Us A 5-Night Taste Of Its Expanding Ambitions At The Brattle

Qi Shu stars in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's 2015 film, "The Assassin." (Courtesy IFFBoston)
Qi Shu stars in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's 2015 film, "The Assassin." (Courtesy IFFBoston)

Good news for those of us who can’t wait until April for the next Independent Film Festival Boston: We’re having another one next week. Sort of.

IFFBoston has teamed up with The Brattle Theatre to bring five of this upcoming season’s most idiosyncratic and anticipated titles to town for early screenings.

A huge step in expanding the festival’s ambitions toward providing year-round programming, the Fall Focus runs from Sunday, Oct. 25 through Thursday, Oct. 29. Executive director Brian Tamm explains: “We’ve been doing one-off screenings for years, but we liked the idea of doing something a little bigger. It’s a good opportunity to get people together and remind them what’s great about the festival.”

In the space of just five evenings, IFFBoston’s Fall Focus selection highlights the diversity for which this local treasure of a festival is renowned: documentary, indie thriller, foreign language, Oscar winners, underground comedy, martial arts, even puppet animation. This place has everything. “We are really proud of the scope of this mini-fest,” enthuses program director Nancy Campbell. “We hope it can serve to excite our loyal audience and introduce more folks to what IFFBoston is all about.”

Sunday’s opening night film is Michael Moore’s “Where To Invade Next.” It’s been six years since the portly polemicist whiffed with “Capitalism: A Love Story,” and the filmmaker claims to have mellowed with age. He shot this one in secret and sprung it on Toronto Film Festival audiences with a surprise premiere.

Critics who were there called “Where To Invade Next” Moore’s most optimistic work, a travelogue in which the gadfly visits various, mostly European countries — invading, as it were -- to steal ideas and plunder social programs that he’d like to bring back to America, borrowing their workplace regulations, along with educational and prison reform. Instead of pointing fingers this time, Moore is pointing out that a lot of our current problems have solutions that are already working elsewhere.

In the 15 years since winning Best Director at Sundance for her dazzling debut, “Girlfight,” director Karyn Kusama hasn’t had an easy time with Hollywood studios. (Her fascinating “Aeon Flux,” starring a pre-Furiosa Charlize Theron as a post-apocalyptic action heroine was butchered and buried by Paramount, and the less said about “Jennifer’s Body” the better.) So we’re happy to report that Kusama’s returned to her indie roots for Monday night’s selection, “The Invitation,” a slow-burn thriller about a grief-stricken dude (Logan Marshall-Green) attending a dinner party thrown by his ex-wife and her new husband at the house they once shared before tragedy struck. Hugely enthusiastic reviews out of the South by Southwest Film Festival tend to tap dance around the plot elements, suggesting that nothing at this party is what it seems. With creepy John Carroll Lynch from “Zodiac” on the guest list, we can only imagine where this is all headed.

The standup comedy of Neil Hamburger is that of aggression and failure, jaw-droppingly unpleasant and often unfunny jokes that fall flat as the tuxedoed failure bombs to half-empty rooms. If you’re baffled as to how this guy has been kicking around the circuit for over 20 years, it’s probably because Hamburger isn’t a real person. He’s the sicko creation of comedian Gregg Turkington, an ugly showbiz alter-ego in the tradition of Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clifton. “Entertainment,” which screens on Tuesday night, is a surreal, downbeat road movie starring Turkington as Hamburger and based (however loosely) on Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar” — except with a repugnant comedian instead of a sainted donkey. Co-starring John C. Reilly and Michael Cera, the picture polarized Sundance audiences to thrillingly vocal effect, and I can’t wait to hear how it plays at The Brattle.

Legendary Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien won Best Director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his rapturously received “The Assassin,” which screens on Wednesday. Hou’s first movie in eight years is also his first stab at a “wuxia” martial arts picture, bringing his sumptuous, painterly frames — along with his usual leading lady Qi Shu (of “Three Times” and “Millennium Mambo”)  to this sprawling ninth-century saga of an heiress kidnapped in childhood and trained as a killer. Eventually she’s sent home to assassinate her betrothed, while the filmmaker subverts and adapts the demands of this age-old genre to his personal, distinctive yen for stillness and poetry. This one is screaming to be seen on the big screen.

Last but not least, Thursday’s closing night promises to be unlike anything you’ve never seen before, and I suppose it was only a matter of time before the writer of “Being John Malkovich” got around to making a movie with a cast made up entirely of puppets.

Still, Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa” was a decade-long labor of love for co-director Duke Johnson, a young animator who helmed the stop-motion episode of NBC’s “Community.” Originally written under the pseudonym Francis Fregoli as a radio play for a live performance at UCLA in 2005, Kaufman’s script follows a morose motivational speaker (voiced by David Thewlis) who falls madly in love with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lisa. As every other character -- male or female — in this cast is voiced by Tom Noonan, Lisa’s an anomaly. Hence the title.

It says a lot about the sad state of cinema these days that Kaufman, who pretty much defined early-millennium arthouse cool with his screenplays for “Malkovich” and “Adaptation” — not to mention winning a damn Oscar for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — hasn’t been able to get a single project off the ground in the seven years since “Synecdoche, New York.” Johnson had to launch “Anomalisa’s” production with a crowd-funded Kickstarter campaign, and it wasn’t until the finished film received ecstatic responses at Telluride and other fall festivals that franchise factory Paramount Pictures swooped in to buy it for $5 million.

The mega-studio swears they’ll be rolling it out around here sometime early next year, but meanwhile I’d take advantage of this opportunity presented by IFFBoston. As the Brattle’s creative director Ned Hinkle noted during a pre-movie plug at the “Mad Max” marathon last Sunday: “There’s puppet sex!”

Independent Film Festival Boston’s Fall Focus runs from Sunday, Oct. 25 through Thursday, Oct. 29 at The Brattle Theatre. Tickets and showtimes are available on IFFBoston and The Brattle's websites.


Over the past 16 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at splicedpersonality.com.

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