Tag Archives: indie

Untitled Horror Movie

[2 stars]

The pandemic has gifted us with a slew of found footage/phone footage movies. It was a trend already in motion with movies like Searching, but it had taken a new sort of energy because what else do creators do when not allowed to create in groups? They create in groups virtually. Staged and Language Lessons are probably the best examples of what has come out of that approach so far.

This film, however, is not in their ranks. It is, to be fair, intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but that can’t forgive all its flaws. The issues are really mostly with the script. Or, to be fair, perhaps it is having me as an audience. It just wasn’t funny. It was all very inside-baseball for the entertainment industry, but with a millennial and GenX attitude that I found more annoying than entertaining.

Luke Baines (Shadowhunters) co-wrote with Nick Simon (Truth or Dare?). For a first feature script by Baines it isn’t horrible. Derivative to a large degree, but not horrible. Simon’s hand is visible in the shaping of the material into a genre film. But Baines also had a major role in the movie, playing a pretty, but not very talented, actor. Draw your own conclusions.

The rest of the main cast are similarly aged talent, all with recognizable faces. Darren Barnet (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Timothy Granaderos (13 Reasons Why), Claire Holt (47 Meters Down), Katherine McNamara (The Stand, Shadowhunters), and Emmy Raver-Lampman (Umbrella Academy). While none of the individual performances really rise to the top, the ensemble creates a believable cadre of a sitcom cast stressing their series renewal, and managing to get along only with the utmost effort on all their parts.

The story picks up pace as it goes along, but it doesn’t find the proper end, nor does it really manage to thrill, satisfy, or scare you. It simply is. Honestly, I can see why the crew got together to make the piece. It was clearly fun for them and it was an outlet during a period of isolation and little-to-no work. That journey is somewhat memorialized in the script itself. But that is also part of the issue, at least for me. I could see all the gears, both in the story and surrounding it. It was a project that was best left on the shelf and dragged out at private parties they could enjoy together. It was a game attempt, and no performer irked me such that I wouldn’t watch them again in something else, but this wasn’t really worth my 90 minutes. YMMV.

Untitled Horror Movie Poster

Wendy

[3.5 stars]

Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) is not only a gifted storyteller and filmmaker, he is incredibly astute at finding young talent. And while this second feature didn’t get the same kind of attention his first movie did, his abilities are on raw display.

The story, by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, is a clever retelling of Peter Pan evoking, yet again, their Louisiana roots. The story takes the fantasy and and the desire to never grow up and makes it even more magical that the original Barry tale in some ways.

Part of that success is down to new-comers Devin France and Yashua Mack, in the roles of Wendy and Peter. They are near spooky in their ability to be both children and to seem to carry the wisdom of years behind their eyes. Some of that is, no doubt, Zeitlin’s ability to direct them, but much is their own innate talents.

The film is fluid and unexpected in the way it deals with reality. It provides a framework, but not many answers. And, ultimately, it lands on a joyous metaphor that is both positive and bitter-sweet. The largest failing of the story is it’s climax, mirroring “clap if you believe in fairies.” It is a moment that will work for most audiences, but which I found distancing and demanding in a way that was not embracing. It threw me out of the flick entirely in a very bad way. I understand the choice and assumptions, but it was a shame, after so much else before and after that moment worked, that he and his sister couldn’t see the issue they had tripped on with their choice.

That aside, the movie and its ideas are really special. Zeitlin continues to be a filmmaker to watch, with a unique and powerful vision of the world and an ability to nurture talent that might otherwise go missed.

Wendy Poster

The Future

[2.5 stars]

Miranda July (Madeline’s Madeline) wrote, directed, and starred in this, her Sophomore feature outing a decade ago. She and Hamish Linklater (The Angriest Man in Brooklyn) are a pair of aimless adults not quite in the swing of life. They’re lost and broken rather than open to the world around them and enjoying their “freedom.” And therein lies the spark that leads them down separate and twisting paths that include, amongst others, a creepy and sort of sweet turn by David Warfshofsky and an early appearance by Isabella Acres (Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated) who has an equally odd little character.

This isn’t a fast or intense tale. It unfolds inexorably. But every time the story was starting to lag or get uninteresting, July would throw in something new or surprising to help keep it going. In fact, the last third was a completely brave crapshoot that saved the flick for me.

I can’t honestly say I actually enjoyed the full result, nor that I entirely understood her full intent, but I did stick it out to see where she’d end up. As with many indie’s, this one gets rather metaphorical. I think it’s intended to be positive, but I didn’t really feel that way at the end. It isn’t that I haven’t used the same dark mirror to carry an uplifting intent or message, but the order of things at the end didn’t add up that way for me.

If you’re looking for something a little different, a little quiet, but handled with some care, this may do you. It has romantic themes, but it is far from Romance. This is more a story of finding yourself and being open to what’s around you in a real way, not a reactive one. How you respond to it will depend a great deal on your own experiences and where you are in life now.

 

The Future Poster

Nightbooks

[3 stars]

In the best R.L. Stein tradition, Nightbooks delivers a kid-friendly, but not too saccharine, horror tale. The writer/director mix has a lot to do with the success of the story, but it would have fallen flat if it weren’t for the impressive, young cast they found to drive it.

Winslow Fegley and Lidya Jewett both have cred, but watching these two hold up a whole film was impressive. Even when put up against Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones), they hold their own nicely.

The story is somewhat episodic in structure, but co-writers and collaborators Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (who brought to screen Five Feet Apart and The Curse of La Lorona) were a solid choice to play on the line between YA and horror. And director David Yarovesky (Brightburn) had a suitably tongue-in-cheek approach to the tale.

Add to the flavoring that the production was stewarded by Rami and Tappert (the creators of the Evil Dead trilogy, not to mention Hercules and Xena) and you can understand why there is also a dark comic edge to it all. The not-so-subtle Lost Boys pokes are a riot as well.

This is pure escapism in a wonderfully digestible way. You may get ahead of things, you may not, but you’ll laugh a little and certainly be surprised at how dangerous things can get. The production is also visually rich with lots of wonderful detail…Ritter probably did the role just for the outrageous costumes she got to wear. And, should you like it, know they followed tradition by leaving it open for a sequel.

Nightbooks Poster

Level 16

[3 stars]

Danishka Esterhazy (SurrealEstate) imparts a nicely dark sensibility into this suspense/horror with her directing and writing. It isn’t a story that really pays off believably by the end, but the trip to the end is taut and suitably creepy.

What really sells the story, such as it is, is a couple of the performances. Katie Douglas (Defiance) is the undisputed center of the story, along with Celina Martin helping to move it along. The two young women have great presence and nicely leveled deliveries. Peter Outerbridge (Code 8) also helps ground the pervading weight of the situation, even if his placement is predictable and self-conscious.

But some of the production is also over-the-top. For instance Sara Canning’s (Nancy Drew) Jackboot fetish styling is a bit much. And the mixed culture of the real bosses feels unlikely.

Ultimately, this is a silly sort of fun…if one can look at a story like this and the abuse of young women in that light; it is a horror film after all. Unlike many others of the genre, it doesn’t really deliver a message, only a creepy disgust of the situation. Part of that is that the science and logic are a little ridiculous. But part of it is also the intentional distancing of the characters and locality from its primary audience geographically. It makes it hard to connect with the situation.

Suffice to say this is a rainy afternoon flick, not one that fills a night in a satisfying way. And that’s OK. It was certainly interesting to see Douglas’ and Martin’s turns; I’d like to see what more than can do. Even Esterhazy impressed me with her ability to set a mood both in this and her television work. So not a total loss. Your call on whether you spend time with it.

Reservation Dogs

[4 stars]

As a Kiwi, co-creator and writer Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit) is both the most unlikely match for this new series about Oklahoma reservation life, and the perfect choice. If you’ve ever seen his first film, Boy, or even his more recent Hunt for the Wilderpeople, you can see how the same experiences and sensibilities inform this new series. (And if you haven’t seen these earlier films, you should.) Along with Sterlin Harjo the two have created a devastatingly funny and honest look at reservation life. That there should be that much commonality across the globe for indigenous populations is a sad matter for a much longer discussion. Though, to be fair, Waititi’s name is how this show probably got done and most of this show is from Harjo’s experience. But Waititi’s influence is hard to miss.

The story of Native American/First Nations/Indigenous peoples is starting to get more screen time in varying forms. Where Rutherford Falls tries to provide a somewhat split view of life both on and off a reservation, Reservation Dogs dives deep on the reservation side. So deep it barely comes up for air. And unlike Mohawk Girls it’s all a bit more serious, though neither show shies away from some of the deeper truths. And Reservation Dogs tackles growing up on the res rather than the result of that as an adult, giving it a very different viewpoint.

At the core of the series is a collection of young actors, all of whom manage to grab you and make you care. Devery Jacobs(Rutherford Falls), D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, and Paulina Alexis are an unlikely group thrown together by circumstance, but devoted to one another until an event starts to fracture their friendship. Entry into their world is difficult to watch at times, but as the series continues it becomes less bleak. And there are plenty of more seasoned faces throughout the series as well helping buoy it along.

Another wonderful aspect of the series is how it incorporates the culture both in storyline and on screen. It isn’t all strictly mundane, but the magical/mythical aspects aren’t seen as anything but part of the world. Part of the series’ real success is how deeply it drops you into this culture and dark realities (and inferred causes). This is a series really worth investing in and it’s already been renewed, so it won’t be a lost investment either.

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Infinitium: Subject Unknown

[3 stars]

Infinitum is an impressively delivered indie on the verge of greatness. I don’t even have to handicap it for how it was filmed nor the cameos by Ian McKellen (Animal Crackers, Good Liar) and Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones, Herself). The delivered result is a surprisingly polished, one-woman bravura performance by the relatively unknown Tori Butler-Hart. And that was an unexpected gift as, I will fully admit, I rented this movie because of McKellen and Hill, not realizing they were such a small part of it.

Butler-Hart and her husband, Matthew Butler-Hart, wrote and directed this 90 minute, trippy tale of parallel worlds. Taking advantage of the empty streets of the pandemic and the improved technology of iPhones, they and their family delivered a tense story of woman lost in a world and circumstances she doesn’t understand. McKellen and Hill provide a small amount of framework explaining it to us, but we have to discover it along with her…well, until near the very end when we’re spoon-fed an answer.

I imagine that those that care about the science, if not the specifics, underpinning the plot could debate the ending for quite some time. But this story provides a view not often shown in this sub-genre. And it works, or did for me, because it is delivered with complete conviction. And, more importantly, the two main talents of the Butler-Hart clan have intrigued me enough to seek out their previous and forthcoming projects.

Infinitum: Subject Unknown Poster

Lady of the Manor

[2 stars]

The ideas in this movie are fine and even intriguing. And with Melanie Lynskey (Hello I Must Be Going) and Judy Greer (Uncle Frank) driving the center of it, I had hope. Hope that was dashed by 30 min in when the movie had yet to get going.

Written and directed by the brothers Long (Justin [Masters of the Universe: Revelation] and Christian), the flick kept creeping up to the edge of being something but refusing to tip over it. It didn’t help that we were bouncing between the grounded moments of Long and the brotastic and unrelenting bravado of Ryan Phillippe (Big Sky) as they catalyzed the tale. The movie never quite finds its groove on screen nor style in script.

Ultimately I jumped to the end to see if there were any surprises or aspects that might make me go back and watch the whole thing. There wasn’t. Even the outtakes (absent the final one) that run during the credits weren’t funny or intriguing. Basically, this is a complete miss for me. I wanted it to work, and it even has a sort of topical dénouement, but that isn’t worth the 90 minutes you’d have to spend to watch it.

Lady of the Manor Poster

Dating & New York

[3.5 stars]

Like Broken Hearts Gallery, this first feature by Jonah Feingold delivers on almost all levels. They both aim at Millennial love connections and struggles. And both made me realize how much things have changed about dating… and how much they’ve really stayed the same. Dating & New York is a bit less polished than Broken Hearts, and it’s more unapologetically aimed at a younger audience, but there is plenty there for all ages to sympathize and recognize and laugh with (and at).

From the moment it starts we know we’re about to enter a sort of satirical view of old romance films, but done with both love and affection. It isn’t making fun of those fantasies so much as updating them. And the main couple in this modern romcom comes to wonderful life with Jaboukie Young-White and Francesca Reale (Stranger Things). The energy and easy nature of both are completely engaging. And their friends, Catherine Cohen (The Lovebirds) and Brian Muller, bring some framework and balance to what we know just has to get messy eventually, no matter how civilized and above-board it all starts.

Feingold keeps the pacing unrelenting…exhausting even, at times. The story is entertaining. The ending is honest and romantic. The gender flips he does are nicely turned. And, OK, absent one character, I never had any idea how any of these people supported themselves, but that wasn’t the focus of the story. Having found out he filmed it all in 15 days, this movie is sort of amazing.

This is a romantic comedy for both those that like romantic comedies and those who scoff at them. It’s an honest romantic comedy. Well, mostly honest. Mainly, it’s believable where it needs to be and wry where it threatens to get too syrupy. Above all, it’s fun and funny.

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Lapsis

[3 stars]

Science fiction, at its best, reflects on the world to deliver both entertainment and a message (usually a warning about where we’re are now or are headed). Noah Hutton, using an absurdist, near-term sci-fi world, has delivered on both aspects of that declaration. More disturbing still is how possible it feels, despite the unlikely way the world itself works.

Through the desperate efforts of Dean Imperial to provide for himself and his brother, we learn about the new economy and how it abuses the growing underclass it’s leaving behind. Along with Madeline Wise, the two navigate the situation trying to find solutions to problems both very personal and very large. And a surprise cameo by Arliss Howard (Mank) added a nice dimension.

Lapsis isn’t perfect, but it overcomes its humble underpinnings to make you listen. It isn’t as complex as Primer, nor as slow, but in some ways it reminded me of that wonderfully surprising indie. The ending of Lapsis may well leave you scratching your head; it certainly did me. The message, however, is probably as simple as it seems to be. I wish Hutton had been a little more explicit, but he certainly made me care enough to ponder and discuss it, so he did something right.

Lapsis Poster