Tag Archives: independent film

Columbus

Jin is summoned from Korea to Columbus, Ohio by Eleanor when his estranged father collapses. Jin impatiently waits out his father’s coma, and seems to prefer death over recovery, for selfish reasons. He can’t bear to to sit by his father’s hospital bed, and he’s not going to speak to him now since the two haven’t spoken in a year. So he wanders about, trying to appreciate what his father loved about Columbus’s unique architecture.

This is how Jin (John Cho) meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman stayed in Columbus to take care of her addict mother rather than pursuing her own dreams in college and beyond.

The cool thing about Columbus is its cinematography, which is surprisingly beautiful in such a small, independent film. It frames the architecture well – except scratch that, I’m embarrassed by this underwhelming sentiment. Because the truth is, the way the buildings are framed and posed and shown and hidden – it made me feel MV5BZjNjY2Q2NjAtOWI0My00ZDg3LTljNzEtNzhiYzkzNzUwMTI0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzI3NjY2ODc@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_things about architecture. The photography is just as kind to its human characters, but the way it treats the artistry of the buildings turns them into characters as well, characters that reflect and mirror or juxtapose and contrast. It’s clear that writer-director Kogonada has put a lot of thought and time and research into his baby.

Columbus isn’t an ambition story, it’s just two people, fairly dissimilar, who cross paths as they kill time in different ways. They’re both waiting on parents, and probably shouldn’t be. They’re both learning what that means and who it makes them as people and what effect they’ll allow the past to have on their futures. It’s mostly quiet and introspective, but the composition and structure and the precision of the visuals come together – not to overcome the silence, but to act in synchronicity. Kogonada finds serenity in stasis but that doesn’t mean his film doesn’t pack an emotional punch. It’s just a minimalist canvas upon which you can project a lot of your own feelings, and come away feeling just a bit refreshed, and just a tiny bit hopeful.

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Duck Butter

Naima is having a bad day: she’s not fitting in on the set on an indie Duplass Brothers movie and her roommate is a bit of a wet blanket. So she’s in the right kind of mood to fall in love with the beautiful and exotic lead singer at the club that night, and she does. Naima and Sergio go home together and have an amazing time but when Sergio proposes that they should spend the next 24 hours together in an intense, sex-forward, date-skipping, get to really REALLY know you kind of thing.

Naima (Alia Shawkat) cuts and runs of course, as any sane person should. But when the Duplasses fire her she kind of has a change of heart and begs Sergio (Laia Costa) to forgive her reluctance and cowardice and soon enough, their little love experiment is in full swing. And how. These two ladies are not afraid to let shit get REAL. And it’s shot in nullsuch a way that things feel authentic and raw, and the intimacy translates so that we too are made uncomfortable by the too much, too fast. I totally get the wanting to fast forward past the awkward part of dating, the artifice of it,the hiding of one’s true self, but if there’s a way past it, all this movie does is prove that this isn’t it.

But it pretty compelling to watch. I mean: Alia Shawkat. She is a gift to the indie movie scene. She’s versatile and has a pure and brave energy. Her chemistry with Costa is terrific, as it absolutely must be to make this movie work. Shawkat and Costa are impressively willing to go there. It must have been emotionally draining to be so present and in the moment, but they give the movie a bold and brazen but fleeting vibe that’s unique to this 90 minute capsule.

The film is imperfect just like the characters, just like their romance. And if you can imagine spending 24 hours with a stranger who is also your lover and new best friend, it flags a bit in the middle, just like you’d do in real life. But there’s something just so refreshing and weird about this film, about the collision between two people in a certain time and place, that I couldn’t look away.

Now, if you need any more convincing that representation matters, here’s an interesting tidbit. On Rotten Tomatoes, Duck Butter is rated Fresh by nearly every single female critic, and it is rated Rotten by all the men save one. Movies mean different things to different people, and that’s okay. Just don’t let half of those people convince you theirs is the only opinion that matters.

TJFF: Another Planet

Over 70 years later, we’re still trying to make sense of the horrors of Auschwitz. Architects, historians, game designers, and prosecutors have started using 21st century virtual reality technology to help see history in new ways but, to paraphrase the great prophet Jeff Goldblum, just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.

I’m not necessarily saying that you shouldn’t. I am saying that it’s unnerving to see VR Auschwitz. We begin with a tasteful black and white recreation designed by an architect and a historian for a VR museum exhibit. They mention that the museum wanted it to be in black and white so that it doesn’t look like a comic book.

Cut to an unsettling full-colour model designed to aid in the prosecution of a Nazi war criminal. The defendant claims, as many apparently do, that he didn’t actually know what was going on at the camp and that he worked as a cook. Using this fancy new technology, forensic experts can estimate what he was likely to be able to witness from his position in the kitchen. They say that they are sure to make sure that their model doesn’t fall into the wrong  hands. What if, for example, someone were to want to make a game using their replica? Wouldn’t that be in bad taste.

Cut to an actual escape from Auschwitz virtual reality game. And this is where things get really weird.

To be fair, everyone interviewed in the film, including the video game designer, has an explanation for how their work is respectful to victims of the Holocaust and none of them are unconvincing. It’s just a little jarring. And it’s fascinating to think of technological advances can change the way we look at the past. It’s a great subject for a documentary that is sure to start some lively conversations.

Indian Horse

imagesThe residential school system is not the only black mark on our country but it has to be the darkest stain. We and our government could not have done worse by our indigenous people if we tried. We should have known from the start that this imperialistic plan would go horribly wrong. After all, we chose to put the Catholic Church in charge of many of these awful residential schools (and not just the Catholic Church, but a bunch of others share the blame, including the Anglican, Presbyterian, and United Churches of Canada), because it wasn’t enough to tear children from their families and literally beat their culture out of them, it seemed appropriate for some reason to facilitate child molestation too, feeding 150,000 potential altar boys and girls to more than a few insatiable priests over the lifetime of the program. 150,000!

Not surprisingly, the end result of this utter disaster was the destruction of generations upon generations of indigenous people, something we cannot ever be ashamed of enough. And this is not something we can blame on our long-dead racist ancestors, since the last residential school did not close until 1996.  1996!

Indian Horse tells the story of one of those unfortunate kids who was sent to residential school, a boy named Saul Indian Horse. Saul happens to be a natural at hockey, quickly becoming the star of the school’s team. But for some reason, despite his hockey-playing prowess, Saul is clearly struggling to find his place. Could the reason for his struggles be that he and everyone he knew were subjected to horrific abuse every single day?

You don’t have to watch Indian Horse to learn that yes, all those years of abuse hurt Saul really, really badly. And you don’t have to watch Indian Horse to grasp that his story is just one of 150,000 about those who were directly and irreparably harmed by residential schools, not to mention the thousands more who were harmed just as badly by the loss of their family members to the schools, and not to mention the subsequent damage caused by attendees of the schools when, surprise, surprise, after being removed from their families and their culture as kids and abused by those who were supposed to take care of them, they were unable to even care for themselves, let alone their children, a cycle that we still haven’t been able to break. But you should watch Indian Horse anyway.

You should watch Indian Horse to remember that to the extent that Saul or any other survivor of residential schools fell short, it’s not for lack of will or effort on their part. It’s because the Canadian government, and by extension the white Canadian majority, failed them monumentally.  Indian Horse demonstrates our country’s massive failure clearly and effectively despite its shoestring budget, while at the same time paying tribute to the inner strength of one survivor who, but for his race, would have been a hockey-loving Canadian kid on his way to stardom.

So here’s to Saul and to each of his friends. I’m so sorry for what you had to suffer through, and I promise not to ever forget it or let anything like this ever happen again.  I know that’s not enough to right these wrongs and nothing ever will be.  But hopefully it is a step in the right direction after hundreds of years of horror. It is truly a shame that the Pope doesn’t feel that way, but hardly surprising the Catholic Church won’t acknowledge any of its wrongdoings – we’ve seen that movie already.

 

SXSW: Most Likely To Murder

Billy was the king of his high school but high school was a long time ago. He puts up a pretty glamourous facade which is easy(ish) to maintain as long as he’s a long way from home but if people could see the reality of his Vegas life, they might see him as a figure more to be pitied than celebrated. So of course he’s uneasy about returning to his hometown in New York state, especially as it’s likely to be his last visit (his folks are selling up and moving away).

You can never go home again. Home isn’t home. Even if your parents are freaks who have let your childhood bedroom be preserved for the ages, you’ll never be the same person occupying it. The town has changed. Your friends have changed.

Billy (Adam Pally) comes home to find his parents have sold his prized shitbox car to the weirdo next door and worse still, Billy’s ex girlfriend (Rachel Bloom) is dating him! Lowell (Vincent Kartheiser) from next door was a loser in high school, and the guy still lives with his mom. What can Kara possibly see in him? And just when MV5BNjkxM2Y1OGEtMjQzOC00OWI5LWE3NDgtNzBkOGY0YWNlYjU3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1497,1000_AL_Billy’s head is about to explode with all the backwardness, he sees something out his bedroom window that leads him to believe that Lowell is a murderer. But everyone in town has had a lobotomy, ie, they all think Lowell is this stand up guy. What the heck? Even Billy’s own best bud thinks Lowell is a nice guy, so Billy’s got an uphill battle – against popular opinion, and his own less than stellar reputation.

Of course Billy’s got a serious case of wanting to tear someone else down in order to make himself look better (which doesn’t mean his wrong). Dan Gregor’s film is about dealing with who you were, who you thought you’d become, and who you actually turned out to be. Seeing old friends who ‘knew us back when’ really forces us to reassess, and to see ourselves, our progress and success, or lack thereof, through their eyes, and it’s not always easy to see what’s reflected back. We experience insecurity through Billy, who isn’t used to feeling that way. He sees himself as a laid-back, fun guy, so neuroses aren’t his comfort zone. His paranoia acts out on a pretty grand scale, where he’s scaling fences and cowering among dead possums and calling the police, but there’s still a sense of relatability there. And of course, being a fan of Pally’s and basically this mumblecore, indie stuff that he’s so well-known for, I like the improvisational style of the film. I thought it was funny and interesting in a way where you do actually care how it turns out. Who is this creepy Lowell, and does his identity change Billy’s? Do any of us turn out how we think?

SXSW: Prospect

prospect-126347Hard science fiction is a tough sell, especially cinematically. Soft sci-fi is far more exciting and eye-pleasing. It lets us hop around the galaxy at faster-than-light speed, meet aliens at every space station, and have luxury accommodations in the starships on which we’re travelling. Conversely, hard sci-fi travel is slow and cramped and space is largely empty. Prospect is a hard sci-fi movie that remains resolute in the face of the obstacles posed by its chosen genre, and by and large overcomes them.

Prospect’s aesthetic is reminicent of Alien and I’m sure that was intentional. Like in Alien, Prospect’s version of space travel is analogue, with lots of switches and dials and flashing lights. It’s also utilitarian with a wild-west feel, as space travelling prospectors hitch their “wagons” to a large transport on its last run to a forest moon, the site of a gold rush that seems to be coming to an end. We follow a father-daughter duo in search of one last score, with only a short window of time to get in and out before the transport leaves, as if they miss that ride they will be left to die on the poisonous moon.

Prospect does a great job at dropping clues about the way this world works, showing us the desperation and pressure felt by this working class family from nowhere, hinting at the boom and bust that has hit this moon and those who work it, and suggesting that the colonization of the universe has made humanity revert to a savage, lawless existence on the frontiers. If set in another era, this story would work perfectly as a western, and that seems fitting when our protagonists are travelling to the edge of the known universe to stake resource claims, hoping to strike it rich.

Despite its indie-movie budget constraints, Prospect manages to convincingly portray space travel and an alien world on the big screen. The special effects are not spectacular but they are effective. Prospect succeeds due to its excellence in world-building, both visually and narratively. While Prospect is definitely a niche film, it is one that science fiction fans will enjoy.

Brigsby Bear

One day the cops show up at James’ house and take away from his parents and his home. He’s surprised he can breathe the air outside their bunker, but that’s the first of many surprises. Turns out he’d been kidnapped as a baby and raised by his captors (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams!) to believe that Brigsby Bear, a TV show that unbeknownst to him was being made by his “father” and seen only by himself, was the culmination of human existence. You haven’t heard obsessed fan theory until you’ve met a man who has never done or seen anything else, ever.

Now that he’s “free” it’s hard to let go of his favourite, most important show ever, and brigsby-bear-images-kate-lyn-sheil-kyle-mooneywhen he learns that it was Mark Hamill making the 700+ episodes all along, his main takeaway is: anyone can make a movie! So why not him? Unfortunately, the cop (Greg Kinnear) isn’t keen to turn over the confiscated equipment, and his therapist (Claire Danes) isn’t keen on the idea, period. But this is the only thing giving a grown man comfort now that he’s out in a world he never knew existed, let alone how to exist in it.

Kyle Mooney plays James, a man who still identifies more with his captors and their cult-like lifestyle than with his biological parents who have spent 25 years looking for him but only a couple of weeks knowing him. This is man’s search for meaning, but no one is comfortable when he finds it in an animatronic bear head. But teaching him history, or how to drive, or what slang to use, isn’t going to be enough. He just doesn’t belong to this world, or to his new family, and that’s a sort of sadness that’s translatable even as it’s played for laughs on screen. It’s kind of neat to be able to see the impact of pop culture on someone who hasn’t been part of it. Brigsby Bear is a true indie film, not just marching to a different beat but spasmodically interpretive-dancing to the synthesized stylings of a keytar. It’s on a slightly different frequency than most movies, but if you feel like joining it there, you’ll find yourself having a surprisingly earnest, often charming, feel good time.

Band Aid

Once in a blue moon, Netflix offers up a rare gem. Band Aid is a Netflix diamond.

Written, directed, and starring Zoe Lister-Jones (who you may already love from Life In Pieces!), Band Aid is a little piece of indie cinema genius. It’s about a married couple, Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (king of indies Adam Pally, who you may already love from The Mindy Project), who on their last legs, relationship-wise. Even their therapist claims she’s moved to Canada just to avoid them. The fights are vicious, and cyclical. But while high as a couple of kites at a child’s birthday party, they discover the one thing that can still bring them joy: music. And so they start a band where they sing their fights back and forth in front of their sex addict neighbour (Fred Armisen), who conveniently is a drummer.

band-aid-2017-adam-pally-zoe-lister-jonesIn fact, music alone is not enough to save them. Turns out they’ve suffered a tragedy that neither has fully grieved, and singing about it is going to be very difficult since talking about it has been impossible for years. They’re still a broken couple, now they’re just putting all their dirty laundry on the stage for the consumption of others. A particularly ambitious dream of them getting a record deal never seems all that impossible because actually, their music is good, and fun (so long as you are currently in a good space with your loved one). Sean and I found ourselves communicating in that subtle hand squeezy way that some couples have when they are relating a little too well to the awkwardness on screen.

Now brace yourselves for a cool fact: for her first movie, Zoe Lister-Jones insisted on an all-female crew. Like, Adam Pally was the only man for miles and miles. Truly all female. And the thing is, the movie is so good that I buried the lead. It doesn’t need any gimmicks. Because when a normal film would just throw out the old male-female sick couple cliches, Lister-Jones keep asking why. Why do couples drive each other crazy over time? Band Aid might not have all the answers but it confronts the questions honestly, while still being an entirely entertaining movie.

 

Darling Companion

Beth is feeling a bit like a neglected wife; her husband Joseph is a workaholic surgeon and her kids are grown. So it’s kind of perfect timing when she finds an injured dog by the side of the road. Nursed back to health, the aptly named ‘Freeway’ becomes her loyal and constant companion. When Freeway’s vet marries Beth’s daughter, the whole family comes together for the happy occasion – until Joseph manages to lose the dog and suddenly the family is down one very important member.

Beth (Diane Keaton) refuses to leave until she’s searched every corner of the back woods where Freeway was last seen. Her sister-in-law (Dianne Wiest) chooses to stay by her side, as does her new beau (Richard Jenkins), and her son (Mark Duplass). Finally feeling the guilt of his inadequacy, Joseph (Kevin Kline) stays back too, and the search party is more like search couples therapy.

It’s co-written and directed by the fabulous Lawrence Kasdan so I wonder how on earth that name paired with this cast could have sailed past me. What was I doing in 2012 that I couldn’t make room for a little Diane Keaton in my life? And the thing is, who better to relate to her character than myself, a woman who would most assuredly go full Billy Madison should any of my dogs ever go missing.

Alas, this is the least successful of Kasdan’s films and it’s not just for the lack of light sabers. I get what he’s trying to do: there’s a fraying marriage, a freshly minted marriage, and new romances for both the young and not so young. It all revolves around this missing dog, but it’s a lot to handle for a film with such a sweet and simple premise and the tone is sometimes a little too “family movie” for my taste or perhaps anyone’s. But dogs have such an uncomplicated relationship with us, in comparison. They like to cuddle and to be fed. They are never not 110% bowled over to see you come, whether you’ve been away 5 minutes or 5 days. Kasdan was inspired to write the script after he adopted a dog himself, and promptly lost him.

This is Kasdan’s first indie film and the cast, featuring three Oscar winners and two more nominees, were so moved by the story they agreed to work for scale. Even if it wasn’t his most successful, Kasdan lists it as his most gratifying, and I suppose in a long and lustrous career, that’s worth something too.

Monster Pool: Seven Deadly Sins

Was it really two years ago that Jay and I furiously drove back from New Hampshire to Ottawa to see the first Monster Pool Horror Anthology?  Apparently so.  As this site evidences, we have seen a truckload of movies since then, but very few of those have been as gory as the latest Monster Pool entry, titled Seven Deadly Sins (and even fewer have been as Ottawa-centric, considering this effort comes from a team of local filmmakers).

Monster Pool: Seven Deadly Sins wastes no time in getting to the gore.  Like, insides falling out kind of gore, and skinless body in a bathtub kind of gore, and cannibal eating dinner kind of gore.  And while these effects don’t have the gloss on them that a $200 million budget can provide, the fact they are still convincingly disgusting is a great credit to these talented filmmakers.  This is a well-polished effort that fits together well, and builds on the previous two Monster Pool entries (all three of which are available online through http://monsterpool.ca/ – and the first two films can be viewed for free!).

All these filmmakers put their talent on display and the result is a polished and cohesive product.  The quality of the effects was a highlight for me, as they were consistently good throughout each of the seven short films plus the “wrapper” story that linked them loosely together.  The acting was less consistent than the effects, though I’m not even sure that is necessarily a criticism (overacting is arguably a staple of the horror genre).

All in all, Monster Pool: Seven Deadly Sins ended up being an excellent and, um, festive way to spend my Halloween after handing out candy to 191 kids (Jay had to work so I manned the door by myself!).  My only regret is not saving more candy for myself.