Tag Archives: indie

The Tomorrow Man

[3.5 stars]

Quirky love stories are catnip to me. Watching two unlikely humans find one another and navigate the terror and joy that is a true connection is affirming, funny, frustrating, and ultimately joyous. John Lithgow (Pet Sematary) and Blythe Danner (What They Had) definitely run through all those emotions, creating two very differently broken people stumbling through life until they careen into one another.

The odd pair are surrounded by a few, solid supporting characters as well. Derek Cecil (House of Cards) and Eve Harlow (Heroes Reborn), in particular, provide sounding boards and act as proxy for the real world outside Lithgow and Danner’s orbit.

Nobel Jones directed and wrote his first feature with a steady and sure hand. The absurdity of his character’s lives never vaulted into the ridiculous. Their quirks and issues, when exposed, simply brought out their humanity and a deep empathy from the audience. It’s a solid story about people and love, with a wonderful and entertaining arc that leaves you with an unexpected smile.

Anna and the Apocalypse

[3.5 stars]

Subtle this movie isn’t, but it is clever and fun. It is also a nice alternative holiday movie, though less on point than, say, Rare Exports. The main focus is really the evolving Apocalypse and the relationships between the high schoolers involved rather than Christmas. And, yes, it is also a musical (as the original creator suggested of its genesis: think High School Musical meets zombies)!

While clearly tongue-in-cheek, it is executed with complete sincerity and effort. It could have used a couple more songs to make it feel more like a musical and less like a movie with a few song and dance numbers in it, but that’s a quibble as the music that is in it is really pretty good.

Ella Hunt (Robot Overlords) leads the cast with some solid talent and chops. She has a long career ahead of her if she wants it. Hunt is supported by a cast of other mostly unknowns, but all of whom bring moments of emotional complexity to what could have been cookie-cutter performances in lesser hands. Malcom Cumming, Christopher Leveaux, Marli Siu, Ben Wiggins, and Sarah Swire (who also choreographed) are generally all in new projects you’ll be seeing in the coming year.

And then there were the known faces, like Tom Benton (Shakespeare & Hathaway) who brought all his vulnerable best to bear as Hunt’s father. Only the prolific Paul Kaye really disappointed me in the cast. His choices and antics were notched up just a bit too high from the start…I never believed him nor had any sympathy for him. It’s probably the one truly bad choice I felt director John McPhail made with the otherwise very tight and clever delivery.

When you’re in the mood from something in the Cockneys vs. Zombies range, but with a beat, you should definitely check this one out.

 

Mary Shelley

[3 stars]

Mary Shelley wraps the well-known, apocryphal tale of the genesis of Frankenstein. But where the earlier movie, Gothic, focused solely on the infamous and inspirational evening, this movie focuses primarily on the romance and disappointment of Shelley’s life that fed that inspiration. The two depictions of Mary herself are also significantly different, but they make an interesting pairing.

Alone, this movie is much more of a period romance than it is an historical retelling. It plays with feminism, as it should given the characters involved, but ultimately focuses more on character than polemic. Elle Fanning (Teen Spirit) is a perfect choice for the soft-spoken, galvanized young woman who wrote one of the most enduring pieces of literature in the last two centuries.

Douglas Booth (Loving Vincent) provides the story with a charismatic rake that we eventually recognize for what he is. Tom Sturridge (Velvet Buzzsaw) as Byron helps goad him along and serve as catalyst for the main event. The men in Mary’s adult life are complexly narcissistic, even while often being supportive. Her family, given life by Stephen Dillane (The Tunnel: Vengeance) as Mary’s father, and Bel Powley (Carrie Pilby) as her sister, are also constantly at odds with their own support of her.

Director and co-writer (with Emma Jensen) Haifaa Al Mansour (Wadjda) delivers a tale of women, their place in society, and their strength to ignore those boundaries. Al Mansour’s Mary isn’t a woman to be trifled with or ignored. Though she is failable, she is also aware and learns from her choices. While the result gets tied up in the realities of period drama, there is also a clear message to women to be who they want to be, even when it may not be easy or pleasant.

This isn’t as clean a film as I’d have liked in its message and intent. Given its purpose, it needed to take more lessons from Coppala’s Marie Antoinette than, say, Downton Abbey. It is still well executed and entertaining, at least at times, but it feels more weighed down by its period setting than transcending it. That said, it is one of the more complete views of Mary Shelley’s life I’ve seen.

Wild Rose

[3 stars]

It’s hard to cheer for a horribly flawed character who can’t get out of their own way, but Jessie Buckley (Chernobyl) manages to (eventually) get you behind her. It’s a strong and exposed performance. But, be warned, it is a long and frustrating journey getting to that ending.

For her first feature script, Nicole Taylor created a raw and uncompromising look at the life of Rose-Lynne. While that approach often makes it hard to watch, there is also a warmth and sense of hope buried in there to keep you engaged. A lot of that comes from from Julie Walters (Mary Poppins Returns) and Sophie Okonedo (Hellboy), who each support Rose-Lynne’s efforts in different ways.

Director Tom Harper (Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death) also helps by keeping the tale rolling along. His hands are mostly invisible as he pulls the strings, allowing the story to tell itself. But when he wants to make a point, he’s more than willing to manipulate the frame or moment to drive it home. Time and space throughout the film are a little fungible; I never had a sense of distance, geography, or time throughout the film. That gap didn’t always matter, but there were moments when it would have enhanced the story and the lack was distracting. In addition, the ending and the message of Rose-Lynn’s journey, is less than clear. I know what both Harper and Taylor want you to think (there are plenty of interviews available to suss it out if it wasn’t intuitable), but I can’t say either I or my viewing partner felt the intended message.

The end result is something like a more hopeful cross between Broken Circle Breakdown and the more recent Vox Lux. Wild Rose is entertaining and angering and satisfying. Given the lack of clarity of vision, how it resonates with your own life and sensibilities isn’t something I think I can predict. But the performances are fantastic and even the music, whether or not you like Country (I don’t, typically), is well selected to engage all listeners.

Poms

[3 stars]

Insanely predictable, infectiously entertaining.  If movies like Finding Your Feet, Calendar Girls, or Last Vegas make you smile, this is another for your list. It’s a silly, but effective, romp with a group of older retirees, complete with old and young nasty girls arrayed against them.

Diane Keaton (Book Club) leads the motley gang of ladies with a curmudgeonly style. But it is Jacki Weaver (Bird Box) that dominates the screen with her brash energy. The group also has a number of recognizable and surprising faces like Pam Grier, Rhea Perlman  (I’ll See You in My Dreams), Phyllis Somerville, as well as relative newcomer (in this group), Alisha Bo  (Thirteen Reasons Why).

In addition to the women, there are a couple male characters that stand out. In particular, Charlie Tahan (Love is Strange) as the rescued grandchild and Bruce McGill as the comical chief of security.

As a first fiction feature by documentarian Zara Hayes, it is well-paced and cleverly avoids some challenges. And the imperfect script by first-timer Shane Atkinson makes its point; but aspects of the story are a little surfacy or rushed at times. However, if you don’t finish this one with a bittersweet smile ready to take on the world, this movie wasn’t for you.

Family

[3 stars]

The original descriptions of this first directorial outing by Laura Steinel (Red Oaks) left me utterly uninterested in exploring its twisted view of suburbia and work life. After chancing across a trailer, however, I gave it a shot and was surprised.

It is far from a great film, but when it stops trying to be funny, it actually is. And it comes together into a sweet tale of growing up…no matter your age. The story is told through Taylor Schilling’s (The Titan) point of view…a woman made of the cliche character fodder that made Tina Fey a star. But Bryn Vale (Red Band Society) works well with her and, almost steals the film with her lost, disaffected youth. There are also a few surprise supporting roles peppered throughout the story that were fun to pick out.

I can’t say Insane Clown Posse was ever high on my musical like lists, but this movie certainly shifted my perspective of their Juggalo followers (some history on the term here if you’re interested). And while this isn’t the greatest film you’ll see, it is unexpected. It isn’t a bad way to spend an evening if you’re looking for a bit of heart-warming humor.

I Am Not a Witch

[3 stars]

Disturbing is an understatement for this film. Using harsh simplicity, writer/director Rungano Nyoni examines what it is to be a woman, an immigrant, and a society through a fable-like tale of a young girl accused of witchcraft in Zambia.

The mostly untried cast is likewise raw in their presentations. In fact the entire story rests on the slim shoulders of Maggie Mulubwa. She is an intense and vulnerable young girl who has learned the lesson that less is more on screen.

Nyoni’s film certainly received a lot of notice on the festival circuit, winning about half of its nominations.  It isn’t a fast film, but it is well designed, bleakly funny, and able to drive home its points with a stiletto.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

[3.5 stars]

The number of emotions and ideas that this film sparks are too many and too complicated to try and explain here in less than a tome. Suffice to say that this grounded fable/tragi-comedy by Joe Talbot, Jimmie Fails, and Rob Richert (a first feature for all of them) is inventive, powerful, and effective.

Jimmie Fails also leads in the film alongside Jonathan Majors (Captive State, When We Rise). The friendship of these two men and their journey through the city is both funny and surprising. The duo are supported by host of smaller characters including Danny Glover (Sorry to Bother You), Micheal Epps, and Rob Morgan (Mudbound). Only two small roles by Tichina Arnold (The Neighborhood) and Maximilienne Ewalt (Sense8) add any female influence to this story. Given the tight focus on Fails’s journey and the lack of women in his life, it is almost excusable. However, it is noticeable.

But that criticism aside, this was an unexpected film. If Spike Lee had been born 30 years later and on the West coast, this is the kind of story he’d have been telling. It is politically charged, but without losing track of the personal. It is funny, but without dropping the serious message and intent. It is raw and honest, but not without recognizing the inherent sadness and absurdity in the situation. This is a film worthy of the term and an interesting new set of voices for the industry.

Time for Two and Two For Time

Without planning, there were two time travel/paradox stories that hit my plate this week. One was quite good. The other was interesting, but more as a logic experiment than as a quality entertainment.

Let’s face it, a good time travel story is hard to find. So often it is simply a trope to tell another story. But stories that really think it all through…or as much as possible as paradoxes inevitably create challenges…are rare and fun to find. Predestination, Timecrimes, or even Terminator: Genisys were the last movie attempts to do this well that I’ve seen. And no one has managed to top Looper yet on screen (or Blink on the small screen). Still, at least both of these new offerings make time travel integral to the plot.

I’ll Follow You Down [3 stars]

This movie has its issues, but it definitely has some solid thinking in it that allows me to recommend it.

In addition to the good story, it also has a good cast. Rufus Sewell (Dangerous Beauty, The Man in the High Castle) and Gillian Anderson (Crooked House) catch attention as the parents to Haley Joel Osment (Tusk). Osment is the real lead in this tale, with some nice support by Victor Garber (Sicario) and Susanna Fournier (Being Human (US)). Osment has some great moments, but his performance is uneven and, at times, forced or false. There are plot moments that just clunk like a tin can rolling down stairs. But they are just moments in the midst of some solid acting and well considered issues.

Absent that roller-coaster of belief, I’ll Follow You Down would have been great instead of just good. Director/writer Richie Mehta (Delhli Crime) has certainly peaked my curiosity to see what may come next in his opus. And if you like movies with a bit of intellect behind them, this one pays off nicely.

Excursion [2.5 stars]

Martin Grof’s first feature as writer and director is loaded with ideas. Unfortunately these ideas are often discussed at length by the characters rather than showing us or just trusting the audience. It is primarily a political diatribe blended with a bit of black humor and clever historical revisionism.

To make this kind of script and story work, though, you need a very talented cast. This cast isn’t really up to the task. Other than Johnny Mindlin and Jeryl Burgess, they are often stiff and completely without credibility. And even these two bright spots for naturalism are a little forced at times.

As a curio, this is interesting. Not brilliant, but interesting. However, save it for a time when you’ve nothing else and about 80 minutes to spare. You may find the approach more engaging than I did.

Devil’s Gate

[2.5 stars]

I fully admit, I came to this based almost entirely on the cast…just pure curiosity. And, if I’m completely honest, my curiosity led me a bit astray here.

But the top-line cast of Shawn Ashmore (Conviction) and Milo Ventimiglia (Second Act) in a horror film was just too intriguing to skip. They’re joined by Amanda Schull (Suits) and Bridget Regan (Legend of the Seeker, White Collar). And, as an additional surprise, Jonathan Frakes  even steps out in front of the camera  briefly.

Clay Staub’s first feature production as director (as well as a first feature script, co-written with Peter Aperlo) demonstrates some solid potential. The team’s willingness to seek something new in a tired genre is admirable. Their ability to examine their own logic and make the tale cohesive is a little less so. In some ways it reminds me of a less capable, and  slightly reversed (genre-wise), Brightburn…though that may just be all the farmhouse footage.

This is, at best, a B-grade movie. It is mainly kept at that level by its cast, which isn’t too surprising given their chops. It makes a game run at bringing a fresh voice to screen, but Staub and Aperlo both need some more practice. I’d be willing to give them that seeing what they could do here. This is one of those rainy Saturday afternoon movies, and there is a place for such things in our lives if we enjoy that “genre.”