Tag Archives: independent film

SXSW: This Is Your Death

Before being cast in Breaking Bad, Giancarlo Esposito was bankrupt and depressed. He started wondering if maybe his family was better off without him. That’s when this script dropped into his lap. It was the right thing at the right time.

This Is Your Death follows Adam Rogers (Josh Duhamel), host of a Bachelor-style reality TV show where he witnesses a contestant go off the rails and commit some serious violence. Shaken, he vows to use his platform for good, so he partners with network exec Ilana (Famke Janssen) and director Sylvia (Caitlin Fitzgerald) to develop a new show where people will commit suicide on air. This sounds like a terrible idea, doesn’t it? Exploitative? this-is-your-deathThe exact opposite of what Adam seemed to intend? He hopes the show will give a voice to the disempowered, raise awareness for their plights, maybe even raise money for their widows and orphans. But you can probably guess that this idea is a monster, and once fed by ratings, it will take on its own gruesome agenda.

Adam is not as shallow as he seems; he cares for a troubled younger sister (Sarah Wayne Callies) and is crushed by her disapproval. Ilana is mostly just trying to cement her position at the top – it’s precarious up there, and she’s become a little ruthless. Sylvia is there against her will, bound by a contract and a little sickened by what she’s doing, even if she is rather good at it. The thing is, predictably, Americans respond the only way they know how: by tuning in. By baying for blood. By demanding more, more, MORE. So the show becomes a death machine, gladiator-style, with blood-lusting spectators egging on deeply depressed individuals. Adam, swept up in fame and success, begins to lose his humanity. Will a budding relationship with his director be enough to bring him back?

This movie has elements of dark comedy, and of satire – you’ll especially love the bit with James Franco. But it’s also a mirror being held up to a disturbing trend in reality TV. Is This Is Your Death that far off the mark?

Giancarlo Esposito stars in as well as directs this film. It’s clear that the themes of the film resonate with him personally. This is not easy to watch, and to be honest, I was surprised to be moved as I was, and quite early on. There’s a callousness to the reality-TV world, but This Is Your Death manages to peek around the curtains a bit to glimpse the softer underbelly. The film ended a bit abruptly for my taste, but it’s resonant and noble in its pursuit.

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SXSW: Porto

porto-F70243.jpgThe loss of Anton Yelchin somehow seems larger as time passes.  As you probably know, he died tragically about a year ago, crushed by his own (faulty) car as he checked his mail.  The outpouring of grief from his peers was massive at the time, and the more I learn about him, the more I get it.  He was a glue guy, an artist, a student of film, a true professional.  He made everything easier for those around him.  Those sentiments were echoed by Gabe Klinger during the Q&A for Porto at SXSW.  Porto is Klinger’s first narrative feature and he freely admitted how much Yelchin helped everyone involved and made the project better, because of Yelchin’s vast knowledge of and experience in making movies.

Technically, Porto is an interesting movie because it was shot on three different types of film: 8mm, 16mm and 35mm.  And it IS film, none of this was shot using a digital camera, and the movie feels better for it.  There is something about film that digital can’t match yet – a depth, a richness, and a darkness.  All those elements are appropriate for Porto, which is a story of intense love and loss, and the film types neatly indicate which time period we’re currently watching.

Porto’s lack of continuity makes a conventional story feel a bit more unconventional, but it also leads to repetition.  I wondered during the film whether that repetition was a consequence of Yelchin’s death but it appears to have been an intentional narrative choice, since a little post-movie research shows that filming was complete before he died.  The fact that a few details were added, or the scene extended, helped explain the repetition but I still found it to be a distracting choice.

That distraction was a minor one, especially considering the great chemistry between Yelchin and Lucie Lucas that’s on display here.  The leads’ performances make Porto worth watching.  Yelchin and Lucas have a spark that makes the audience feel the allure and power of this very brief relationship, and that in turn makes us understand why they still reminisce about their short time together.  I am sure Lucas deserves as much credit for that as Yelchin, as she’s his equal on screen.  Still, it’s hard not to focus on Yelchin since this might be the last time we see him, and I am struck by how much I took his effortless performances for granted until he was gone.

 

 

SXSW: Sylvio

Sylvio works for a collection agency call centre and makes films with puppets and miniature props in his spare time. He’s a pretty lonely guy, at least partially because he’s a gorilla who doesn’t speak human. He hides his pain behind cool sunglasses.

But then Sylvio finds his niche: he’s always been unintentionally great at breaking things, and now he’s found a platform that appreciates this special talent of his – local television.

This film may be about an ape but there’s a lot of humanity to it. Sylvio is the most literal of outsiders, and he just wants to belong, to be himself, to be accepted, to do what he’s best at. It’s tinged with sadness because Sylvio soon finds that success and commercialization aren’t the same as acceptance.

According to IMDB, Sylvio is played by Sylvio himself. Apparently Sylvio’s had a very popular act on Vine for years, and this film is due to people’s demand for more. Written by Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney, and Meghan Doherty (and directed by the former two), Sylvio is surprisingly soulful for an ape who doesn’t speak. I know it sounds a little wonky and I wasn’t sure myself if this was worth the time, but Audley and Birney have found a way to take 6-second meditations and actually make something of them. Sylvio turns out to be a thoughtful, well-realized film. It feels strange even saying that because Sylvio’s silence makes him pretty inscrutable. Am I projecting? Anthropomorphizing? Or is Sylvio truly a critique of the internet culture, the same one that gave birth to its origins?

The one thing it isn’t is pointless. This is what independent cinema is for, and SXSW is the perfect venue for it. It’s playing today, March 15th, at Alamo Lamar.

SXSW: The Ballad of Lefty Brown

the-ballad-of-lefty-brown-F71455The Ballad of Lefty Brown starts from an interesting place. Writer/director Jared Moshe was curious about the bumbling sidekick in John Wayne movies, the guy who functioned as comic relief. That archetypal character could not do anything right, so why did someone like John Wayne choose to have a bumbling guy like that as the one watching his back?

Lefty Brown is one such bumbler. Played by Bill Pullman, we join Lefty late in life, near the end of a lifetime of sidekicking for a Montana rancher who has just been elected to the U.S. Senate.  Lefty would be at a loss anyway due to his mainkick, but things are made much, much worse when the rancher is ambushed and murdered by a cattle rustler that he and Lefty were tracking.

Pullman is very believable as Lefty, a sad-sack who believes he contributed to, or at least could have done something to prevent, the death of his idol and only friend. Other characters, including many familiar faces, come and go but serve mainly to advance the story. Unfortunately, we don’t get to know them as much as I would have liked, but this is Lefty’s story for once so it would be cruel to complain that he got too much screen time!

The landscape is beautifully shot, and the cinematography really emphasizes Lefty’s isolation. He’s literally in the middle of nowhere for most of this movie, and even when he’s accompanied by others that feeling of isolation remains.

Because of the rancher’s death, Lefty has to assume the leadership role, and as we spend time with Lefty we get to learn why the rancher was willing to place so much trust in Lefty. It’s an enjoyable journey even though, paradoxically, the movie plays out like a typical western because the rancher’s death makes Lefty the lead with a sidekick of his own. But I like to think that the rancher knew all along what our stand-in hero Lefty was truly made of.

If, like me, you’re intrigued by the concept and are in Austin TX this week then you have one more chance to see The Ballad of Lefty Brown at SXSW, on March 15 at 2 p.m.

 

 

 

SXSW: Ramblin’ Freak

Although ostensibly about a specific bodybuilder’s incredible true story, Ramblin’ Freak is also about the randomness of life. Parker Smith wants to make a film but he’s not sure of what. He buys a used camera off Ebay thinking maybe he’ll set it up on his dashboard as he drives cross country, but the camera has a different idea. Lightly used, it comes pre-loaded with an old tape of some bodybuilder, and it turns out that body builder is “the man whose arms exploded” so Smith naturally feels that the universe has told him to document this man’s story, and off he goes.

Ramblin’ Freak captures the aimlessness of youth. Smith, 24 years old, seems untethered, his plan for the documentary really no plan at all, and the finished film turns ramblin-freak-F71268out to be largely unstructured: 50 minutes into the film we still haven’t seen any exploding arms, but we’ve seen plenty of Smith’s unironic mini van, his cat, and his Hipster facial hair. The film is dotted with seemingly random Youtube videos that slowly reveal the personal tragedy behind some of Smith’s listlessness.

Smith’s camera work leaves a lot to be desired. Don’t set your heart on perfectly composed shots. Don’t be surprised when the camera accidentally tilts up and you experience a scene via a shot of the ceiling, that may or may not have sound. And the story telling isn’t much better; unraveling Smith’s intentions feels like an opaque job that we’re not fairly equipped for. But as we made our way through hapless encounters, I began to feel that this disjointed film making was an accurate, authentic reflection on the film maker’s state of mind. If Smith lacks the vocabulary to express his pain, he’s letting his documentary do the talking for him, and it’s a mess.

All told, this is not the story of a body builder with exploding arms, or even about the journey towards that end. It’s really about a young man’s pain, his tentative exploration of it, his bravery and willingness to show it for what it is. Grief is never any one thing, and perhaps coping looks and feels different to this new Millennial generation. Parker Smith engages in this extended, 90-minute selfie and shows us a new kind of navel-gazing as he picks the scabs of his wounds and tries to heal himself.

Ramblin’ Freak screens at SXSW:

March 13: Alamo Ritz

March 16 & 18: Alamo Lamar

 

 

 

 

 

SXSW: Small Town Crime

small-town-crime-F68309No matter how hard you try, you can’t see everything at a festival like SXSW. To prepare for these big festivals, we study the schedule like our lives depend on it, read the synopses repeatedly, and try to see as many of our favourite artists as possible.  All that prep work helps a lot, but sometimes a tight schedule makes a choice for us. That happened today with Small Town Crime and we were better off for it. Put simply, Small Town Crime is an indie gem that is one of the best films I’ve seen in 2017.

Featuring too many compelling, well-written characters to count, and matched by great performances from pros like John Hawkes, Octavia Spencer, and Robert Forster, Small Town Crime sparkles.  We are introduced right away to Hawkes’ suitably pathetic, yet undeniably charming, alcoholic ex-cop. He’s got a few skeletons too many in his closet, so he needs some breakfast beers in order to get underway each afternoon. But he is determined not to let that disease keep him from solving a mystery that falls right into his lap.

ian-nelms-F68309Functioning both as a whodunnit and an offbeat action-comedy, Small Town Crime is consistently good, especially when Hawkes’ character shares the screen with Forster’s concerned grandfather and Clifton Collins Jr.’s refreshingly self-aware pimp.  Writer-directors Eshom and Ian Nelms clearly recognized what they had and give those three characters a hefty share of screen time. That must have been particularly difficult here since the cast is extremely deep. Even with the focus on that trio, I was left wanting to see more of them. I’d be first in line for a sequel (or a television series) showcasing more of their adventures.

In addition to its fantastic characters, Small Town Crime also delivers great action scenes and showcases a wide array of memorable vehicles (the Nelms brothers are self-professed car nuts). Small Town Crime is a fantastic film that shoots right to the top of the list of must-see indie movies. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

If you’re at SXSW, you still have two more chances to see Small Town Crime on March 12 and 17, and otherwise, you should cross your fingers for this film to get a well-deserved wide release.

Other People

Cancer is what happens to other people. It just so happens that right now, the Mulcahey family are those other people. It’s happening to them. Technically, it’s happening to matriarch Joanne (Molly Shannon) but her last year is having quite an effect on the whole family – on her husband, Norman (Bradley Whitford), on her son David (Jesse Plemmons), on her two daughters, her colleagues, her friends, her extended family, on a whole bushel 960of people who are grieving even as she still lives, dealing with a loss that is still happening before their very eyes.

David has moved home to care for and spend time with his mother. He lives in New York City, and is trying to be a writer, but the pilot he was working on didn’t get picked up and he hasn’t had much other luck. His return is complicated by his religious family’s refusal to accept his sexuality. Ten years after he came out to them, his mother is trying to make amends but his father is still unable to come to terms with it.

The movie avoids most of the cancer cliches and rewards us with a more subtle look at loss. Plemmons is really great, and I like Zach Woods in a small role as his boyfriend. But I’ve been holding onto a dirty secret for two whole paragraphs now and it’s time to air it: I really dislike  Molly Shannon. I disliked her on SNL and I’ve disliked her in every thing since. She just bothers me, but for some reason I feel like a bad feminist admitting it. In this century, all of the greatest SNL talent has been female, but in the 90s, that wasn’t true. With the exception of the truly great – Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Jan Hooks – female cast members were tokenish, ill-used, mistreated up until Tina Fey and Amy Poehler landscape-1473341376-other-people-leadstarted turning things around. But Molly Shannon was a break-out, and some of her characters even got movie deals. I just didn’t like them. I thought she was brash, over the top, and obnoxious. I still do. But in this movie, as they dying mother, she’s none of those things. I still don’t like her, but she was easier to stomach when he’s mostly occupied evacuating hers. Is that a terrible thing to say? Yes it is. But it’s the truth.

This movie blends comedy and drama successfully, with a touch of cynicism and just enough compassion. Cancer isn’t exactly new ground to break in an indie film, but you’ll find that writer-director Chris Kelly finds truth in small things, and those add up to a pretty satisfactory whole.

Manchester by the Sea

I knew going into Manchester by the Sea that it was one of the most critically acclaimed American movies of the century so far but I was still somehow surprised by how blown away I was.

Kenneth Lonergan has made a fantastic film about family, grief, and how easy it is to push people away when we’re hurting. It’s one of 2016’s best films not because it has any particularly new ideas or innovative style but simply because it’s refreshingly honest.

Casey Affleck (believe the hype, he kills it in this) plays Lee Chandler, a reclusive janitor who returns to his hometown after the sudden death of his brother (played by Kyle Chandler). Lee is surprised to learn that he will need to be staying home a lot longer than he had planned when he discovers that his brother’s will has named him as the guardian of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). Losing a brother and raising a grieving teenager is further complicated by the memories of unspeakable pain and tragedy that his hometown holds.

Manchester by the Sea isn’t always pleasant but, with its sense of dark humour, never feels like a chore. Lonergan is an expert at finding humour in the unlikeliest of situations without it ever feeling forced. Actually, nothing really feels forced. It’ll make you feel powerful emotions without resorting to sentimentality. Even its non-linear structure doesn’t feel like a gimmick.

And there’s not a bad performance to speak of. Affleck has never been better and his scenes with Hedges are priceless. 2016 Golden Globe nominee Michelle Williams makes great use of her limited screen time as Lee’s ex-wife in her emotionally rawest performances in years.

Go see it!

NHFF: Hunter Gatherer

Hunter Gatherer is a little film that demonstrates the value of fully-realized characters.  It is not a flashy film or a high concept one, but it is powerful in its own way.  Through the misadventures of a man just released from prison, Hunter Gatherer illustrates the constant struggle we all face as we try to find our way in this crazy world.  The characters are a little exaggerated but not to the point of farce, and the film succeeds in large part because there is something real at their core.hunter-gatherer

The two protagonists are particularly memorable.  Andre Royo and George Sample III play off each other well and their actions, while often nonsensical to the viewer, have a certain logic that makes their antics believable.  Given the bizarre schemes these characters are involved in, writer/director Joshua Locy deserves a lot of credit for making the characters convincing.

Locy’s efforts pay off because as things turn for the worse, we feel these characters’ pain and understand their responses even if we would have done things very differently.  And we would have done things differently, because if either of these characters made even slightly rational decisions then the movie’s whole course, including its starting point, would have been completely different.  That it could have been avoided with a little common sense makes Hunter Gatherer’s ending all the more heartbreaking.

Like so many small indie films, Hunter Gatherer is unlikely to get a wide release, but it is making the rounds on the festival circuit.  If you have the chance to see it at one of those festivals, I would recommend that you take advantage of the opportunity.   As an aside, we do our best to post release information on our Twitter feed (@AssholeMovies) for all the films we review.  So if you’re not already following us there, now is a good time to start!

Weiner

“Good to see a bunch of political junkies like me,” quipped a beaming NHFF programmer as he introduced last week’s screening of Weiner. “You’d think most people have had enough of political scandals at this point. But not you”. The packed Music Hall Loft cheered in agreement.

I’ve been so busy feverishly reading everything I can find about the American election lately that I couldn’t help seeking out anything the festival had to offer on elections and the issues facing voters this year.

There’s nothing quite like a public meltdown. I’ve caught myself snickering out loud all morning just thinking about some of Trump’s most quotable sulking from last night’s debate. I didn’t know nearly as much about Anthony Weiner’s crash and burn so was looking forward to learning more with Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary Weiner.

Directors Kriegman and Steinberg were given seemingly unlimited behind the scenes access to Weiner’s 2013 campaign for Mayor of New York City, just two years after his resignation from Congress after his first sexting scandal. Amazingly, everything seems to be going just fine with the campaign until another embarrassing photo resurfaces. Kriegman and Steinberg’s cameras are there from day one to capture his staff’s attempts at damage control and some seriously uncomfortable moments between Weiner and wife Huma Abedin.

“So, yes, I did the thing,” Weiner admits at the very start of the film. “But I did a lot of other things too”. His self-destructive habits, of which his fits of public anger are as damaging as his possible sex addiction, make it hard to find anyone but himself to blame for his downfall. But as tempting as it is to laugh at him (the festival audience laughed, cheered, and jeered at he screen so much you’d think you were at a midnight genre screening), a nagging feeling  of weird sympathy for him may give you pause. There’s something almost unjust about seeing a charismatic politician fighting so passionately for his constituents brought down by such an embarrassing scandal. Sure, the story plays well on late night comedy shows and his last name- hilariously appropriate to the fourteen year-old boy in all of us- makes his mistakes impossible to forget. But he did other things too. And this documentary makes a strong case that his wiener isn’t the only thing he should be remembered for.

Holy crap. Never mind. I literally just read an article about him carrying on texting a 15 year-old girl. Fuck that guy.

So…. still. It’s worth watching for the voyeuristic pleasure of watching an ambitious and prideful man dig a hole for himself. And it might just make you ask some important questions about what really matters when deciding who to vote for and about the media’s obsession with scandal.