Tag Archives: indie

Io

[2.5 stars]

The best science fiction takes an aspect of science and uses it to illuminate human nature or present dangers. The trick is that the science has to be real, or at least believable… and you can get away with one really big lie (like faster-than-light travel or communication). Io has some truly human moments and struggles and it is nicely driven by Margaret Qualley (Death Note) and Anthony Mackie (Love the Coopers, Avengers) with a small assist from Danny Houston (Game Night).

The science, however, is truly, horribly wrong from the very opening moments of the film. I had hoped that by ignoring the opening monologue I could enjoy the rest of the movie more, but the writers doubled and even tripled down on their awful understanding of space travel and evolution making it difficult not to grimace. I will admit that director Jonathan Helpert managed to build the tension and keep the story going despite these issues. With only three characters that took some effort, even with the talent he had to work with.

This one is really your choice. Qualley continues to show her talent and Mackie gets to work with a new type of character. If you like these actors or want to see more of their work, you can make it through this flick. But as a story, it is the kind of science fiction I’d like to stamp out.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

[3 stars]

A new Coen brothers (Hail, Caesar!) movie is always reason to celebrate, or at least to take notice. They are responsible for some of the weirdest and most wonderful cinema of the last 30 years. And they have garnered nearly 300 award nominations, winning nearly half of them. Their work is idiosyncratic and uneven, but always inventive and intense. Buster Scruggs is no exception.

So what is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs? It is a collection of six shorts held together only by the Western theme that binds the framing book that opens the film. If you are a lover of subversive westerns (think The Dressmaker or Pale Rider, though thoughts of Blazing Saddles probably aren’t out of order), this is probably for you. The stories are organized to become increasingly dark and reserved, but, honestly, the first half of the anthology is much more interesting and effective than the latter half. And it never really came together as a whole for me.

It opens with the eponymous segment, which is a hilarious send up led with real talent by Tim Blake Nelson (Colossal). From there, things begin to shift and take a very dark turn by the wonderful third segment, Meal Ticket, in which Harry Melling (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) steals the screen from Liam Neeson (Widows). The remaining segments aren’t bad, but become more about what the West really was than how we picture it. And the latter three stories drag a little for my taste. In many ways, thanks to the dose of reality, they are closer to real Westerns despite their moments of satire and commentary. I’m not particularly a Western fan, so it isn’t surprising that they left me a little nonplussed. Certainly, like all Coen brothers films, the are all loaded with recognizable and talented faces.

All that said, I’m not entirely sure how this particular offering garnered three Oscar nominations, even if they were for song, costume, and screenplay. I don’t think it really has a chance at any of them given the competition. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing, it is. And, nicely, you can exit it at the end of any one of the sequences and probably feel satisfied though I’m sure the Coen’s would argue you aren’t going to get their point. But I didn’t really get their point and I did watch the whole thing. Or perhaps I did, but got it early and didn’t need to be hammered. Regardless, there are moments through to the end that are worth seeing, if you’ve the patience, and performances are all very entertaining.

Now to the bigger question, is Netflix really a player in cinema now? Between Roma and this movie, they’ve got more than two fist fulls of Oscar nominations, not to mention all the other noms and wins this season. But what is more important to the art of the industry is that Netflix offered both movies the chance to be what their creators envisioned, without the obligation to create something to be a “hit.” In an odd way, Netflix, and other services, are reinvigorating the idea of artistic vision in a way that the studios have crushed in their search for tentpoles and only tentpoles. The success of Roma in particular is challenging the idea that streaming and theatrical releases can’t co-exist. They Shall Not Grow Old has also had a huge theater run, though initially through TV, then Fathom Events, and now broader release. The rules are definitely changing and maybe it’s time for Hollywood and the theater chains to catch up.

Velvet Buzzsaw

[3 stars]

If you’re a fan of films like Theater of Blood, Vincent Price and Diana Rigg’s 1973 horror delight, you’ll likely enjoy this latest, admittedly imperfect, Netflix release. It is a wry look at the art world but also quite dark. Not a huge surprise given it is writer/director Dan Gilroy (Roman J. Israeal, Esq), though the tenor of this movie is quite a bit more tongue-in-cheek despite the horror elements.

Gilroy pulled together a talented and committed cast that pivots primarily around his reunited Nightcrawler leads Jake Gyllenhaal (Okja) and Renee Russo (Just Getting Started). The other substantial role is delivered with mixed results by Zawe Ashton (Oasis). She isn’t so much bad as without plumbable depths. Perhaps it was part of the point, but the result diminishes her impact and the impact of the story. Adding to the mix in a series of supporting character roles are Toni Collette (Hearts Beat Loud), John Malkovich (The ABC Murders), Billy Magnussen (Ingrid Goes West), Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting), and Tom Sturridge (Song to Song). Each is a forced extreme, but all are entertaining in their ways.

But if you were hoping for a break-out horror, like Get Out, based on Gilroy’s previous powerful main releases, you’re going to be disappointed. It isn’t horrific enough for the horror fans nor intellectual enough for lovers of satire. This is simply some evil fun with a social eye and a mean desire to slam the more obvious absurdities of the art world. Where it fails is in its lack of clear explanation or point and, ultimately, by not providing anything positive about an industry that Gilroy knows has value…and is even using to send his message. In other words, it is somewhat rudderless with some fun moments and serious talent, but that’s about it. That doesn’t make this flick something to skip, but go in knowing it isn’t what you think it is and probably won’t reach what you hope it is.

Madeline’s Madeline

[2 stars]

About the only thing I can say good about this film is that the main leads have talent. The story never really comes together and the message, if any, is somewhat empty with nothing new to say.

Helena Howard, in her first role, really manages to own the screen and show range. And Molly Parker (Lost in Space) is a model of a mess along with Miranda July, both of whom serve as mother figures to Howard.

I will grant that Josephine Decker direction manages to pull you along an impossibly obtuse plot that seems to keep verging on meaning, but just as quickly falls apart. It is most certainly not meant to be taken as reality or at face value, but there are nuggets of “truth” in there that help build a world and the characters. Sadly, in the end, it is allowed to simply fall apart. I am all for non-traditional story-telling, but it has to get to a satisfying point to have made it worthwhile. In this case, it just didn’t get there.

Stan & Ollie

[4 stars]

How much of a comedy genius team was Laurel & Hardy? Watching their 90 year old routines elicit belly laughs in audiences, even when performed by stand-ins, is a clear indication. Steve Coogan (Ideal Home) and John C. Reilly (Ralph Breaks the Internet) resurrect the seminal comedy team of Laurel and Hardy so believably and effortlessly it is breathtaking. They inhabit the men and their material, playing them with love and subtlety. Reilly, in particular, disappears into Hardy’s bulk. And both men reassert that they’re capable of real acting and not just the broad, silly comedy they are more often associated with. In some ways, that background makes them perfect for these roles, adding meta layers to it all.

Despite the scope of years and geography, the cast isn’t much bigger than the titular characters. Nina Arianda (Florence Foster Jenkins) and Shirley Henderson (Lady Bird), as their respective wives add to the reality and humanity of the duo while also bringing their own characters into the light. And Rufus Jones (Holy Flying Circus) has a nice driving role as their tour manager in England. Combined, the five create a huge world out of a small ensemble.

My one frustration with the film is that the opening scene in 1937 doesn’t really give you a solid sense of the duo at the top of their game because it almost immediately dives into a conflict. It makes it hard to fully understand the change in 1953, where it leaps to in short order to the end of their career. It isn’t a fatal flaw in the movie, but one I wish director Jon S. Baird and writer Jeff Pope had polished away. I will grant, however, that the script does a delightful job of reflecting the comedy routines into their off-stage lives…sometimes in irony and sometimes not.

It’s wonderful to see an adult film that doesn’t rely on explosions, car chases, or action, but rather purely on the characters involved in a very quiet and real way. This is a story about two men that happen to be legends and are very much human and very much bound to one another. It is also a wonderful peek behind the performance curtain.

Spaceship

[2.5 stars]

Imagine, if you will, a mash-up of Skins and How to Talk to Girls at Parties. If you’re picturing a painful look at adolescence, loss, and love with some truly odd ideas bolted on, you’re not going to be far off.

There is something wonderfully lyrical about Spaceship, Alex Taylor’s first feature as writer/director. It clearly expands on themes in his previous shorts and feels very personal. He also manages to make it all feel very unscripted, but controlled. And, while the story leaps from perspective to perspective in a sort of epic piece of spoken word theatre, it all inter-relates and builds as as the short movie goes on.

Despite the literary aspects, it is also a very bald look at teenage life and thoughts. Some of which is likely to be, well, alien to a portion of the audience. But that is part of the point. Taylor found a solid younger cast to pull off the challenge. Alexa Davies (Mama Mia: Here We Go Again) drives a good part of the story, with assistance from Tallulah Haddon (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch), Lara Peake (How to Talk to Girls at Parties), and a very important cameo by Steven Elder as well as a quiet thread kept in tact by Antti Reini.

This isn’t a great movie, but it is mesmerizing and, blessedly, only 80-ish minutes, so it really doesn’t overstay its intent or welcome. You have to be in a weird mood for this one, but it is an interesting experience if you’re ready for it.

Kusama: Infinity

[3.5 stars]

Like Cutie and the Boxer, this is a documentary about art, but it is much more about the politics of art and the artist’s life. Kusama has had a fascinating and challenging life. All of which has led to her impetus for creation, but not necessarily a penchant for happiness. She is also probably one of the more important artists of the modern movement that you may not have heard of, or at the least, understood her place in art history. (I know I didn’t before seeing this portrait of her life.)

Kusama’s art is challenging and, often as not, may leave you scratching your head. But the results of her efforts and ideas had profound impact on art you do know. I imagine that is a large part of why Heather Lenz was drawn to this story as her first directing feature. It is epic in scope and also a disturbing example sexism and racism, and it is has demonstrable historical importance. Though, it should be noted that that Kusama is still alive and producing and having sell-out shows around the globe.

As a movie, it is oddly constructed, but it also didn’t have an obvious path for the telling. Lenz jumps back and forth in Kusama’s life to provide context and a sense of her influences. It makes for some jarring moments, but told purely chronologically it would have been less interesting. Given Kusama’s art, the more gestalt approach to her story is probably appropriate. And, at less than 90 minutes, it isn’t a large investment for a glimpse inside an fascinating mind and a clearer understanding of many aspects of the modern art movement.

Strawberry and Chocolate

[3 stars]

This is a decidedly low-budget affair with moments of brilliance amidst a lot of mediocre and painful presentation. But those moments really do make the time worthwhile, as numerous festivals and the Oscars agreed.

Jorge Perugorría and Vladimir Cruz make an unlikely pairing of friends from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Cruz is a true believer in the Communist party in Cuba, while Perugorría is a bit more aware of the realities of life and politics…not to mention a gay man in a macho society.  With a bit of help from the neighbor, Mirta Ibarra, the three become friends and help one another heal.

The story that plays out is more than a little forced, but the commentary and emotions that are surfaced are as applicable today as they were over 20 years ago when this film was made. The relationships that form are genuine, even if the ages of the actors and backstories for the characters are a little off. As a peek inside Cuban culture, and loving look at people generally, it is a funny and heartwarming journey as director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s penultimate contribution to film.

 

What They Had

[3 stars]

Why do we watch movies? To escape? To be entertained? To learn? To see something that is able to speak for us what we are unable to voice? I imagine all of those things at different times. Sometimes, it is just to see that we’re not alone in our struggles.

What They Had is a quiet and true ensemble piece that strips back the challenge of aging parents while layering in the risks of not living your own life. I can’t say it is entertaining so much as well done and that it manages to resonate.

The cast is solid all around. Hilary Swank (Logan Lucky), Michael Shannon (Little Drummer Girl), Robert Forster (Survivor), Blythe Danner (Hearts Beat Loud), and Taissa Farmiga (The Nun) each get there time and story. Each sells what they’ve got. Danner, in particular, pulls together a full person from the shards of a life, though it takes the entire movie to get there.

For her first film, writer/director Elizabeth Chomko tackled a highly personal subject, capturing the love and pathos it brings to many families. If you’re in the mood or simply need to know that others out there struggle with these issues as well, go for it. If you want laughs or even tears, you’re not likely going to be satisfied. This is more life than drama, not that things don’t happen, nor that there aren’t emotional moments, they just are more real than heightened. That is a compliment, but it returns us to the question: what are you watching for?

Cutie and the Boxer

[4 stars]

Certainly you can approach this purely as a documentary about Ushio Shinohara and/or Noriko  Shinohara, but that is just the surface of this odd window into the lives of the couple.

Zachary Heinzerling’s first film captured, as well as forced, a story to creation simply by being present in lives of these two people. We learn of their art and their impetus, but we also watch them change and say things that have clearly long been gestating…and you get the strong sense that they never would have been said without the cameras being present. That aspect brings an odd and wonderful layer to this documentary. It creates as well as captures art, simply by existing.

While this may all sound rather breezy, the story that unfolds is actually rather complex and, at times, dark. But it is also full of powerful attachment and love. Love we come to understand and, ultimately, see played out during the final role of the credits in a very direct way.

The result of Heinzerling’s efforts was the well deserved receipt of multiple awards, including an Oscar nomination. How you view the final product, as art, story, performance, or simply couple’s therapy is part of the charm and fascination of the piece.