Tag Archives: indie

Kiss & Spell (Yeu Di, Dung So!)

[3 stars]

This Vietnamese rom-com cum horror is an amusing and touching escape for an evening. A remake, or seriously inspired by, the Korean movie Spellbound, it follows a magician and his muse as they both struggle with finding out what actually makes them happy…with a bit of the supernatural thrown in along the lines of My Left Eye Sees Ghosts.

The comedy is broad at times, but it is well-contained and not nearly as over-the-top as you might fear. Even the romantic bits remain very sweet, but never melodramatic. Thanks to the late writer/director Stephane Gauger, it balances rather well and never wanes in energy despite its two hour length. He managed to walk the line of Far East and American comedy nicely, keeping it accessible to both audiences. Even the horror bits, which lean more toward Japanese horror influence, aren’t so much scary as pointed for the tale.

Gauger had a short but impactful career. He came out of the gate strong when he shifted to the director’s chair and gathered a number of awards quickly. He clearly had a career ahead him and it is a damn shame we’ll never see what it could have been. In the meantime, he left us with a range of films worth spending some time with…this one included.

 

Hereditary

[3.5 stars]

Ari Aster’s first major script and directing gig betrays a love of intelligent, suspenseful horror from the 70s. There is an air of Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, and even a bit of The Omen and the (much older) Cat People and the more recent Get Out. It is in the tension he creates and the way he drives the story by raising questions around what’s really happening that echoes these earlier classics. He certainly did himself no harm with the cast he gathered either.

Toni Collette (Please Stand By) delivers a shattering performance as the matriarch of a broken family. Gabriel Byrne (Carrie Pilby) supports her as her husband with immense restraint and love, but with diminishing capacity as the story unfolds. And, as the children, Alex Wolff (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and first-timer Milly Shapiro turn in wonderfully creepy and sad performances that will break your heart before tearing it from your chest. As an added bonus, Ann Dowd (American Animals) gets to play a pivotal role and appear on multiple screens in different releases this season.

Hereditary is not an easy movie, either to watch or to define. Half the film I was wondering what I was watching, but was utterly riveted by the performances and the filmmaking. The end felt a bit forced and obvious, but the ride getting there was so solid I’ll give Aster a pass on his ultimate choices. The film gave everyone in its ensemble moments to shine, and made its audience gasp many more times than once. If you are looking for dark, creepy, and something just a bit different, you will want to see this on the big screen, in the dark, with others.

Hereditary

American Animals

[3 stars]

It’s easy to dismiss this as a story that depicts the basic truism “criminals are stupid” because, well, they certainly were in this case. However, that would be selling this quasi-documentary short. Bart Layton wrote and directed something that wasn’t so much unique as it is impressively seamless as it bounces between the real subjects of this story and the actors and situations depicting their tale from 13 years previous. It is a wonderful melding, raising re-enactment to an impressive level that maintains truth and also becomes a movie on its own.

Part of that success is how well Layton cast the younger criminals. Evan Peters (Elvis & Nixon), Blake Jenner (The Edge of Seventeen), and Jared Abrahamson (Travelers) each manage to embody their real-life counterparts and deliver nicely layered characters. Most importantly, you can see them growing into these men. But while Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) delivers a performance that, under other circumstances, would have been great, I had great difficulty seeing him grow up to be the real Spencer Reinhard. This isn’t just a matter of knowing the story and people involved, Reinhard and his cohorts deliver interviews and color commentary throughout the film…we see them and get to know them, which makes the younger portrayals all that more important. Around them are a solid ensemble making it all work. There are also some specific supporting bits from Udo Kier (Downsizing)  and Ann Dowd (Collateral Beauty) that stood out.

But ultimately, as engaging and suspenseful as the story is, the real question is what is this movie about? Certainly it chronicles the events and, to a degree, the lives of those involved. It raises some interesting questions about motive and growing up as a Millennial. It encourages us to wonder what we would do in these situations. But what it doesn’t do is provide satisfactory answers or a sense of conclusion. There is no indication that those involved even had answers to those questions or ideas. And that, perhaps, is part of Layton’s point in making American Animals, but I’m not sure that’s enough to justify having made the film, however well crafted it is.

Still, for the ride and to experience the beautiful craft that Layton employs, this movie was worth my time. I wanted more, but I can also acknowledge the filmmaker’s vision.

American Animals

Thoroughbreds

[3.5 stars]

In his first script and major directing gig, Cory Finley really delivers. Thoroughbreds is controlled, paced, and loaded with clever sound cues and framing choices. It is magnetic and darkly funny in very unexpected ways. And, also in the most unlikely of ways, it gets you to invest in two sociopaths. There are some echoes with The End of the F***ing World, but Thoroughbreds is more quiet and focused.

A large part of the success of this film is down to the casting; it is  perfect for the purpose. In fact, this is the role that Olivia Cooke deserved to play after having to suffer through Ready Player One. Likewise Anya Taylor-Joy (Split) gets to stretch her acting chops and have some fun in this dark suspense/comedy.

And I know I’ve said this before, but I think this is the last of Anton Yelchin’s film appearances we will be graced with. It isn’t his most groundbreaking role, but it is layered in a way that most actors wouldn’t be able to accomplish with such a character. And, in an odd way, having him appear is a bit ghoulish, but in a good way that reflects on the story.

I was surprised by this film; not just for its solid directing, excellent acting, and brave subject matter, but also for how it kept its energy up to the last frame. Admittedly, you need to be in the mood for this kind of story, but it is surprisingly engaging from the moment it begins right through till the end. Finley’s last frame nails home the story he wants to tell, and those sound cues continue through the final credit roll as well. I’m looking forward to more work from him and the two young actors.

Thoroughbreds

Ingrid Goes West

[3 stars]

Despite my reservations about the experience of this film, I will grant you that Ingrid is an effective commentary on the social media age.

As a first-time feature director, Matt Spicer took his and co-writer’s David Branson Smith script through to its painful and natural ends well. The duo captured the insidious and dark nature of the social world and how it affects some people. But while a movie about mostly unlikable, imperfect people can work, it isn’t an entirely pleasant experience. When the ultimate result is no better than where it all started, it becomes an even bigger challenge to enjoy or recommend. Part of the issue is that it is generally too naturalistic and caustic to be dark comedy, at least for me. There are funny moments, but I found it often more painful than amusing.

That is as much a compliment as it is a slight to the cast; they did their jobs well. But, let’s be honest, Aubrey Plaza (The Little Hours) as a slightly psycho social stalker isn’t a huge stretch in terms of new characters for her to play, even if she does play them so well. However, getting to see Elizabeth Olsen (Wind River) in a light and happy role was certainly a change, even if the mien eventually shatters. Billy Magnussen (Game Night), as her out-of-control brother, gets to cut loose in a foul character, but his and Olsen’s relationship doesn’t quite gel. Only Wyatt Russell (Everybody Wants Some) and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Den of Thieves) come across as good people, though each are flawed in their own ways. One neat surprise was Pom Klementieff (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) in a bit role.

This one I have to leave to you on whether to watch it or not. If you don’t want to go to dark places or can’t enjoy trainwrecks as entertainment, steer clear. If you must see it for the actors or are feeling deeply sarcastic about the world, it might fly for you.

Ingrid Goes West

Upgrade

[3 stars]

There is more to Upgrade than you expect. Not a lot more, but it has a better story and script than a good portion of the films that have come out so far this year. On the artistic and intellectual side there are clearly intentional nods to Da Vinci, Frankenstein, Robocop, even a bit of Hitler in the visuals. This isn’t so much a dystopic future as it is an apathetic one with economic divisions just a bit more obvious than the present.

But while it starts off with a sense of Ex Machina, it loses that higher ground to drift closer to the sensibility of Automata. Both good recommendations, but very different movies. Upgrade is certainly willing to dive into ideas, like the potential amorality (or different-morality) of AI and what evolution means. And it is equally unafraid of emotions or taking its time to set up and execute on story. But they say “write what you know,” and writer/director Leigh Whannell just couldn’t quite shake his roots in Saw and Insidious. The ultimate result here isn’t very surprising–a good action and horror piece done with some talent. As a sophomore delivery from behind the camera, Whannell delivered a fairly solid bit of splatter punk. If there is any weakness, it is that despite some truly nice vistas and sets, the piece feels claustrophobic on a world level.

That smallness to the world may be due to its small cast, but Blade Runner 2049 had a similarly small cast without that sense, so I think it has more to do with Whannell’s framing choices. The cast are fairly solid and led by Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus), who gives us an Everyman we can definitely sympathize and empathize with. He is a Luddite in a world of tech, but a person with deep passions and a sense of self and love of his wife and muscle cars (in that order). Betty Gabriel (Get Out) delivers to us a committed, if exhausted cop. Her role is challenging because we only see her decisions from the outside, which makes her seem disinterested or lazy, but I found myself enjoying the removed perspective and trying to piece together her off-screen and unspoken efforts. Harrison Gilbertson (Picnic at Hanging Rock) has an interesting challenge as well. Playing the distracted genius can be tiresome, but Gilbertson manages, by the end, to give us a shade of something new.

As purely a voice, Simon Maiden (The Dressmaker) imbues our nascent AI with a subtle personality. Stem is neither human nor too removed to keep it from becoming a character. There is a sense of HAL, but Maiden makes Stem very much his own. And, finally, there is Benedict Hardie’s (Hacksaw Ridge) neo-Nazi-ish villain. Here is where Whannell could have done a bit more. Hardie’s performance is well directed, keeping him from going to extreme, though his first scene is somewhat misleading on that point. But the character’s motivations and drive, though stated, never feel quite true. Some of that is on the script and some on the direction, but a better set of choices could have elevated this unexpected low-budget flick a couple more notches.

You do have to like violent, splatter-filled moments (not many, but enough of them) to enjoy this ride. It has the feeling of a video-game at times, but not so much that it breaks the story or the sense of the film. The story is actually engaging and the pace swift, even humorous at times, without short-changing the experience of the plot. Yes, there are some shortcuts, but most are given reasons not just shrugged off, and very little is too easy for our main character. And, yes, this one is dark, so keep that in mind as well.

Stem is not for everyone, but I have to admit I’m glad I got to see it and I’m glad it got a wider release than a non-traditional film like this normally would; definitely alternative popcorn fare for the right audience. And, perhaps most importantly, it is something new, not a sequel or prequel or reboot…and how many of those are we getting this year?

Upgrade

RBG

[4 stars]

Legal icon. Trailblazer. Intellectual champion. Übermensch. Octogenarian superstar. Notorious RBG has earned her moniker and the respect of multiple generations. Quietly and steadily, this unassuming 5′ 4″, soft-spoken woman reset the course of law in this country in support of equal rights for all. It is story that will give you hope in these divisive and regressive times…and really make you wonder how we went from people of her caliber to nominations like the decidedly unqualified and poorly spoken Gorsuch,  or 45 (not that I have an opinion there).

As a documentary, this is a fairly straight-forward recounting of Ginsburg’s life and career and the steps that have led her to be such a loud voice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Some you probably know, a lot you probably don’t. There is little subtlety to the film, but there is great respect and a surprising range of voices in her corner. The film-makers go out of their way to avoid too much controversy, which is a bit of a shame. Given that the Red Scare is the reason Ginsburg is a judge, and particularly a judge focused on civil liberties, they had an opportunity to create something a bit more pointed for the present day. As it is, there are hints and nods, but it is generally very matter-of-fact with some delightful peeks at her family life and out-of-court persona.

RBG is worth seeing just to get a sense of history and change that has occurred over the last 50 years; a lot of it very good. It is important to remember there has been movement…and just as important to remember you must always defend the gains lest people take them away. With stalwarts like RBG still on the bench, at least we have her voice when things go in the wrong direction. Sometimes that voice alone is enough to move mountains…just ask Lilly Ledbetter. And that is comforting.

RBG

Nostalgia

[3 stars]

Nostalgia is not a subtle movie, but it is poetic, handing off the narrative from one character to another like Le Ronde. Through a series of deliberately paced vignettes it explores our attachments to the past and the objects that trigger or hold those memories. It would make an interesting double feature with A Ghost Story, though you might need some extra caffeine to make it through both given their mutual paces. Nostalgia also tackles, to an extent, what that means in a highly digital world. In some ways this movie reminded me strongly of Marjorie Prime, though that may have been in part because Jon Hamm (Baby Driver) is also in this film .

Hamm isn’t the only recognizable face. The cast is full of solid performers. John Ortiz (Going in Style), Ellen Burstyn (The Calling), Catherine Keener (We Don’t Belong Here), Patton Oswalt (Freaks of Nature), Bruce Dern (The Hateful Eight), Nick Offerman (A Walk in the Woods), Amber Tamblyn (127 Hours), and Arye Gross, just cover some of it. Each has a moment or two they would be happy to add to their reels, though no one character owns the story.

Director and co-writer Mark Pellington (The Mothman Prophecies) isn’t a likely choice for this project, though perhaps his deep background in documentaries of bands plays into the semi-ethereal structure. To be fair, the movie is probably about 20 minutes too long, but none of it is bad. Even when the script is a bit forced by its lyrical bent, the sentiment remains very real and the questions will resonate for you.

Nostalgia

Saturday Church

[3 stars]

Like many, when I first saw Paris is Burning back in 1990 I was floored by the stories and the window into a world I only knew from the fringes. It is easy to think the world has moved on since then, but Saturday Church makes it clear the progress has been minimal in many ways, even though it is fiction rather than documentary.

In the lead is Luka Kain who, despite being intensely quiet, manages to hold the story and film together. He is surrounded by capable actors and singers, though most are unknown. Of that collective, it is Kate Bornstein who stands out as the matron of the titular refuge. She is understanding but strong, and incredibly charismatic.

This is a positive leaning, if open-eyed, look at the challenges and all-too-common tales of what it is to grow up gay or trans in a repressive household. As a movie it is passable, but its heart is solid and the original music surprisingly good. It is also a good bet for you if you find documentaries like Paris is Burning or Pageant intriguing.

Should the story move you at all, you can learn more about its real life inspiration (St. Luke’s in the Fields) and support it.

Saturday Church

Tragedy Girls

[ 3 stars]

A bit like Heathers gone even a little bit madder, with a touch of Final Girls and any CW show thrown in. Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool 2) and Alexandra Shipp (Love, Simon) really take the screen and shake it by the neck with confidence in this very dark comedy; this is their film. I can’t say you are cheering them on through their story, but you do watch with a certain amount of dark glee as they exercise and improve their skills.

The duo are helped along by a few familiar faces and many new ones. Chief among the known supporting cast are Kevin Durand (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) and Jack Quaid (Rampage). Durand gets to have a bit of fun, though it isn’t much of a stretch for him. And Quaid gives us a perfect boy-next-door against Hildebrand’s brand of psychosis. There are a host of other familiar faces if you’re looking, and they all help the story succeed, but the movie is really focused around them.

Director and co-writer Tyler MacIntyre (Patchwork) slaughters the slasher genre with glee and verve. It isn’t that we haven’t seen similar approaches before, but this one is solid from beginning to end, and probably a bit too raw for a lot of audiences. However, if you like your nearly believable gooey endings with humor, you’ll enjoy the ride of this blood fest. What it has to say about society and current culture, well, that’s a discussion for another day, but certainly one worth having. But for an evening of evil popcorn munching, this is a fun and well-done choice.

Tragedy Girls