Tag Archives: independent film

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.

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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!

 

 

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.

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.