Tag Archives: independent film

Wilson

Wilson (Woody Harrelson) is a grump and a misanthrope. He has no social filter or skills or clue. He’s just out in the world, spitting old man vitriol. His neuroses aren’t great company and his acidic “honesty” doesn’t do much to help with the loneliness.

But then he gets a chance to reconnect with is ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), and he finds out that they share a daughter, given up for adoption 16 years ago. This ready-made MV5BMDU0ODI3ODAtMmYxYi00Yzk3LThlNDAtNGRiZjI1MDRiMzgwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SX667_CR0,0,667,999_AL_family appeals to him greatly, though his fantasy diverges quite archly from the reality. And because life isn’t fair, this grown-ass man gets to wreak havoc on the lives of not one but two women in order to finally grow up himself.

Woody Harrelson is an utter delight. Wilson should by all rights be detestable, and yet Harrelson makes our time with him enjoyable. Unfortunately, his great performance is just about the only thing this movie has going for it. It’s not that interesting or concerned with plot or momentum. Is Woody enough? For me, yes. I don’t regret watching Wilson. Harrelson finds humanity and humour in the awkwardness. And Dern’s not a bad counterpoint as a former party girl trying to turn her life straight. They’re a complete fucking train-wreck as far as couples go and completely unprepared to host a houseplant for the weekend let alone a teenage daughter, but by all means, let’s eavesdrop on their bold but bewilderingly inept stab at playing adults.

I suspect director Craig Johnson didn’t quite know what to do with what he had. The film feels a bit episodic and the shtick gets stale after a while. Full credit to Harrelson for making Wilson just charismatic enough to keep us watching. Otherwise, Johnson would have easily lost us with his generous seasoning of sentimentality and a lackluster finale.

 

 

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The Honor Farm

Honor farm

I hadn’t seen my friend Josh in months and was eager to tell him all about the exciting new movie I saw at the Fantasia Film Festival. “I just saw The Honor Farm and I’m still trying to figure it out,” I told him while seated at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

I hadn’t seen the baby boomer somehow standing right over me until he chose this moment to cut me off. “I just saw that,” he complained. “It was terrible“.

I didn’t really want to get into it with this guy nor was I even confident that I had understood the film well enough to defend it so I just smiled politely as he told me that it wasn’t even scary. I bashfully admitted that I was the guy who jumped and cried out during the final act.

honor farm 2

The Honor Farm is exactly that kind of movie. It’s the kind of movie that you need to let sink in while you ignore those who will immediately and loudly dismiss it. Lucy (Olivia Grace Applegate) seems to feels like she’s just going through the motions as she prepares for her prom. After her drunk date embarasses her and tries to force himself on her, she reluctantly agrees to accompany her best friend Anne (Katie Folger) and a classmate she barely knows into the woods to take shrooms in an abandoned prison farm.

Other than that, the less you know about The Honor Farm the better. Although you should probably be warned that horror fans like the one described above may be disappointed. Because the set up seems bloody perfect. Eight teenagers, most of them seeming to fit a typical scary movie stereotype, entering a creepy prison on prom night might make you start placing bets on who will be first to die but this isn’t your typical scary movie. What follows is truly surreal and genre-bending and few of these character arcs play out like you’d expect.

I may have been a little lost during the closing credits but The Honor Farm keeps getting better the more i think about it. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

A Ghost Story

ghost-storyFilm as a medium is almost infinitely flexible, universal and personal at the same time. Film is capable of so much emotion and yet it’s also capable of conveying the complete absence of it. Beauty or lack of it.  Terror or peace. And, as A Ghost Story proves beyond any doubt, film can make you feel so fucking uncomfortable and voyeuristic that you would give anything for the director to just yell “cut” already!

Put another way: how long do you think you could bear watching someone eat pie? Think carefully before you answer. For the full A Ghost Story experience, write your response down on a little scrap of paper and hide it in your house (or underneath a rock if your house is just a couple of pegs in the ground).

Whatever you think you can bear now, the inescapable truth is that no amount of tolerance for pie voyeurism will be enough to survive A Ghost Story unscathed. In one strange, haunting scene, A Ghost Story makes its mark, and there are lifetimes of other achingly lonely scenes for you to digest (but only if you can stomach it).

A Ghost Story plods, skips, stops, philosophizes, winks, and does whatever it wants, conventions be damned. It is a wonderfully strange, unique and brilliant experience that I cannot recommend enough.

By the way, see A Ghost Story in a theatre if you can, because there is a magical dichotomy in the mixture of loneliness and comradery that should result from experiencing this film with others. That contrast is yet another example of film’s versatility, and doubles as a valuable touchstone if you ever happen to become a ghost. It will all make sense in the end, and that is a comforting thought, isn’t it?

 

 

Five Nights in Maine

Sherwin is reeling with the sudden loss of his beloved wife, Fiona. Out of sorts and in excruciating pain, he somehow consents to visit his estranged mother-in-law in Maine. Lucinda is also grieving her daughter, but their estrangement layers loss with guilt – and suspicion.

MV5BMTA0NjI1NzI1MDFeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDc1NjY1NzYx._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,756_AL_Sherwin (David Oyelowo) and Lucinda (Dianne Wiest) knock about in her rural home with only her nurse Ann (Rosie Perez) between them. Lucinda is sick and in a lot of physical pain but she’s not too sick to still be kind of a bitch. The last time she saw her daughter they fought, as usual, and parted badly, both assuming for the last time, and of course it was, only it was daughter who died, and not the ailing mother.

Oyelowo and Wiest give great performances. Wiest is icily fantastic, full of venom and sharp edges. You kind of want to slap her across the face, even if she is a cancer-ridden old lady. But hiring a talented cast is about all this film gets right. I don’t mind some negative space but here the script is thin, the story plotless. It might have made an interesting character study if the dialogue wasn’t so sparse. We start out knowing very little but don’t attain a whole lot of clarity over the course of our Five Nights In Maine. I wish I had kinder words for a film that dares to tackle a dark subject, but this felt slow and sluggish and ultimately empty.

Kickstart My Heart

We like to think of ourselves of champions of indie films and filmmakers. We seek out lesser-known titles at our local arthouse cinema, and on the dustiest virtual shelves of Netflix, and discover new voices at film festivals around the world. But sometimes supporting independent film makers happens without leaving the house at all.

We already know her and love her: Morgana McKenzie, an 18 year old director and cinematographer, first crossed our paths a couple of years ago when we were able to contribute to a short film she was making. It has since screened at youth festivals all over the place, universally lauded and awarded. That seems like a pretty good return on investment but the truth is, it’s also just kind of nice to help a young person hone their craft and realize their dreams. Morgana is organized and visionary. Her work is stunning. But don’t take my word for it, check it out.

Should you feel so inclined, you can kick a couple of dollars her way to help with her upcoming project, a short called Wild (Indomptable), a supernatural period piece inspired by Neon Demon and Suspiria. It’s so weird you can’t help but want to see it. She’s raising her modest budget on Kickstarter and here’s the thing: if everyone who stops here today sponsored her at just $5 a pop, we could raise more than a third of her funds. And wouldn’t that be nifty? All great directors get their start somewhere – but how often do you get to be a part of it? Today, somewhere is right here.

1 Night

Two couples, both alike in dignity. One is young, one is old. Or we’re supposed to think they’re old even though they’re only in their mid 30s.

The young woman (Isabelle Fuhrman, literally the orphan in Orphan) has just been broken up with at prom. The young man (Kyle Allen, looking a little like a young Heath Ledger) is there too, lusting after her, the girl next door who won’t give him the time of One Night, feature film set stillsday. But then a mysterious older guy gives him some advice, and a mysterious older woman gives her advice, and they spend the night together, pushing each other in pools and falling in love.

Meanwhile, the older couple appear to be falling out of love. Their current relationship is unclear though they’ve certainly been lovers at one point. But witnessing young love is messing with them, causing them to reminisce down a certain romantic path which can only be littered with truth bombs. He (Justin Chatwin, of Shameless) seems to be pushing for a reconciliation while she (Pitch Perfect’s Anna Camp) seems resistant.

First time writer/director Minhal Baig has a good idea here but it fails to develop. I think it’s supposed to be a treatise on what it takes to make love last but doesn’t have enough to say about it. It’s character-driven (a kind way of saying plotless) but doesn’t very clearly define said characters. It ends up feeling a little ‘millennials vs hipsters’ and I just couldn’t love it, even if it blossoms from a promising seed. Thank goodness for mercifully short runtimes.

SXSW: M.F.A.

MFA-movieShortly after we are introduced to Master of Fine Arts candidate Noelle (Francesca Eastwood), she is raped by a classmate.  When she confronts him the next day, he denies doing anything wrong and winds up dead in a mostly-accidental way.  Somewhere during the events that caused Noelle to be a victim of sexual assault and a murder suspect, she snaps.  Formerly introverted and a loner, Noelle starts going to frat parties in order to seduce and murder other rapists who, due to a faulty system, got away with their crimes.

It will not be surprising to anyone who has seen the excellent documentary The Hunting Ground (or really, anyone who has attended a post-secondary institution) that despite her school having reported no sexual assaults at all, it is all to easy for Noelle to find rapists to kill on her college’s campus as she goes full vigilante.   In carrying out a series of increasingly violent kills, Noelle has no real fear of being caught even though she knows the police are closing in.

Eastwood is INTENSE in M.F.A.  Like, maybe more intense than her father has ever been, and that’s saying something because that guy’s face is frozen in a permanent, angry, “Ima kill you” sneer.  She is the best part of this movie and while she can’t make Noelle relatable, she keeps the audience on her side throughout the film, and that is no small feat in the face of her bloody killing spree.

M.F.A. offers an interesting twist on the typical slasher flick, and Noelle’s numerous kills are well-executed and, as is traditional in the genre, get more gory as she goes.  If nothing else, M.F.A. calls attention to the conversation we all should be having, namely why so many women are being sexually assaulted on college campuses and why the colleges are in many cases turning a blind eye to the rapes, or even discouraging victims from reporting these assaults!

The scary part about M.F.A. is not Noelle, it’s that the rapists and the evil administrator who blames the victim and covers up assaults are all too real, and are on your campus, or your friend’s, or your daughter’s.  We need to find an alternative solution, other than murder, so that a campus rape stops being a standard part of a Saturday night frat party, and so that when a college claims to have had zero rapes it’s not because the administration successfully intimidated and discouraged all potential complainants.  No more sexual assaults should be swept under the rug.  M.F.A. helps to shine a light on the problem.

 

SXSW: A Critically Endangered Species

a-critically-endangered-species-F64922.jpgOnce in a while I wish I had a more literary mind.  When I write, it’s pretty direct and while I used to attempt subtext I’ve pretty much given up on it at this point – too much effort for too little payoff.  But that’s for my writing, where no marks are given for artistry.  All that matters is the end result.

Whereas for Maya (Lena Olin), the protagonist in A Critically Endangered Species, artistry is all that matters.  She’s a very successful writer, possibly too successful in that she has decided her best work is behind her and she will kill herself rather than crank out any more mediocre books.  Her last project is to select a young male writer to inherit everything and safeguard her work after her death.

She holds tryouts that inevitably include detailed examinations of the applicants’ work, and with one notable exception end in sex.  The field is quickly narrowed to two finalists, a showdown between intellectual and sexual appeal.  For Maya’s part, she takes pleasure in sex but she obviously does not get pleasure or happiness from anything else, and sees no value in her life aside from her work.  The beautiful but muted shots of northern California are a good match for Maya’s melancholy state of being.

Which candidate wins is incidental.  The process is what matters.  Just as incidental is the fact of Maya’s imminent suicide.  Refreshingly, this is not a moral examination of Maya’s choice.  The focus of the movie is the competition between two very different suitors and the discussions between them about some very interesting writing.  The movie is extremely well-written and writers Zachary Cotler and Magdelena Zyzak deserve particular praise for producing so many stylistically different pieces of poetry for the applicants to read and defend against Maya’s criticism.  The acting is spot-on as well, giving us main characters that are both well-written and well-executed.

A Critically Endangered Species is heavily intellectual and took less than five minutes to go over my head as far as literary analysis goes.  Even so, it was extremely interesting to take in the poetry and the discussions that followed each piece.  This is a different sort of movie than I’m used to, and while I would have found the difference refreshing on its own, the quiet excellence of this film is what really made a lasting impression.   Added to that, if you have more than a passing interest in literature (which for me basically starts and ends with comic books), then A Critically Endangered Species is not only a good movie, it’s an intricate discussion piece that should rub you in a few different ways at once.  Which may be what Maya was searching for all along.

 

SXSW: Mayhem

mayhem-F71173.jpgI’m not sure if it was because Mayhem stars Steven Yeun (Glenn from the Walking Dead), or because of the bass-heavy soundtrack and quick cuts that almost have a sound to them, or because the theatre showed a George Romero anti-texting ad just before the movie started.  One way or another, Mayhem almost immediately reminded me of the Resident Evil franchise.  That’s probably NOT the franchise that director Joe Lynch was hoping to emulate, and may be taken as an insult, but I don’t mean it as one.  It’s a great match for the movie’s frenetic, claustrophobic, satirical look at an office building full of potential murderers and murder victims.

Let me explain.  In Mayhem’s universe, there is an airborne disease that removes people’s inhibitions, and if you’re infected then your eye turns red.  From that short synopsis I hope it’s clear that if you are at all eye-phobic (like Jay is) then you should stay far, far away from this one.  There is a lot of eye-rubbing going on in this office building and surprisingly, people are not freaked out with it, given that everyone in the building clearly knows all about this disease.  But they are not troubled enough to leave the building before it gets quarantined and some actually have plans to use the disease for their benefit, as a “legal loophole” of sorts.  FOR MURDER!

[lawyer rant] As a lawyer, I have to point out the precedent the schemers intend to rely on isn’t actually a loophole but rather an obviously wrong decision that would be overturned on appeal and/or disregarded in future cases.   And since the office building in which the movie takes place is a law firm, they really should know better because this lawyer knows that those relying on the “loophole” are all going to prison for a long, long time.  [/lawyer rant]

There’s plenty of blood and gore galore in Mayhem but the slick, tongue-in-cheek presentation makes the gore palatable and entertaining, to the point you will wonder whether you’ve finally been 100% desensitized to violence.  I mean, it’s almost certain I was desensitized long ago but I’m telling myself my tolerance for Mayhem’s gore was a result of not being invested in the characters.  Even Yeun’s character wasn’t compelling to me because he was kind of a sleazeball.  But then again he was a movie lawyer, so that’s to be expected.

I’m a little miffed that all movie lawyers are sleazeballs.  Mainly because you never see movie doctors being dishonest.  At worst they are addicts but they get to be honest addicts so they’re still one up on movie lawyers.  Maybe it’s finally time for me to write that screenplay about the dishonest doctor who was tricking his patients but then gets caught by the handsome honest lawyer and just when you think the doctor is going to use a loophole to get away with it, the lawyer totally shuts him down, he really makes the doctor look like an idiot for even trying, and in winning the case he also wins the love of his beautiful co-counsel and everyone lives happily ever after (other than the evil doctor who gets exactly what he deserves).  It’s going to have something for everyone, except for doctors who don’t deserve anything as I think we’ve already established.

By the way, Mayhem is a generic but entertaining thriller that looks far more polished than it has any right to on an indie budget.  If you can relate to an office revenge tale, or just hate lawyers, then keep an eye out for this one.

 

 

 

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore

Poor Ruth. Life is rough. A mean old client just died on her while she was in the room. Her house was broken into, her grandmother’s silver stolen. And her neighbour’s dog keeps shitting on her lawn! Somewhere in there was her breaking point.

MV5BMTQ4NjIyNzY2OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjY4NDE5MDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1571,1000_AL_So she can be forgiven for recruiting a weirdo neighbour who has “ninja sticks” to “ride with her” on a mission to retrieve some of her stolen stuff. How empowering! Now Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) is unleashed and creepy neighbour guy (Elijah Wood), well, he was always a little unhinged.

But wait: this movie is written and directed by Macon Blair, the actor who so unsettled me in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin and Green Room. I can’t help but suspect something a little more sinister from a man of that pedigree. And true to his spirit there will be some interesting elder abuse, some more out-of-toilet pooping, a really great church singalong, projectile vomiting, and some very unnecessary rat tails.

Now, it’s nearly always entertaining when lay people decide to take justice into their own hands. And it’s nearly always a bad idea. Perhaps they wouldn’t be so tempted if movie cops weren’t always so inept, so unwilling or unable to do their jobs. As you may have guessed, Ruth is not having ANY OF THAT.

Melanie Lynskey is a pretty underrated actress. Watching her go from meek to badass in this role is a whole lot of fun. Recently she was at SXSW and sat in conversation with her Sadie director, Megan Griffiths. She talked about sustaining her stellar indie career with a profitable recurring role on Two And A Half Men, and relying on her gut when choosing roles: “I learned that I operate very much from instinct. It has to come from somewhere that’s very truthful inside of me…” If this role comes from a truthful place inside her, well by god, this necessitates a whole other conversation!