Tag Archives: indie

And Then We Danced

[4 stars]

All you need to know to understand this wonderful, poignant tale of life in Georgia (as in former Soviet Union) is in the credits; a special thanks to the choreographer, who couldn’t be named, but without whom the movie couldn’t have been made. That statement, which comes after the story, crystallizes it all.

Writer/director Levan Akin and newcomers Levan Gelbakhiani and Bachi Valishvili picked up a pile of well-deserved awards for their efforts. The two leads not only deliver sweetly nuanced performances, they can also dance…like, seriously dance.

This is a paced film that slowly unfolds and ultimately builds to its climax in the final few minutes of film. Sustaining that, and building the tension as it moves along is all very subtle, but effective. And without that effort, the final scene would have been cheap theatrics rather than an unequivocal statement. Forgetting the character relationships that need to be established, the audience needs that time and day-in-the-life moments to learn some history and culture to put it all in context.

This was a perfect film for Pride month, absolutely. But it’s also a great view into a world few will have experienced, even while presenting universal emotions and struggles.

And Then We Danced Poster

He Died With a Falafel in His Hand

[3 stars]

I know, I know. This has been on my list for years, but I hadn’t gotten to it until now. And it was entertaining, if a little out of time (especially one or two very un-woke scenes that couldn’t be done now).

I have to admit, I’ve no idea what attracted director/writer Richard Lowenstein to adapt this odd travelogue of life through the eyes of a slacker. Especially as his main focus has been music videos for years. But something about the story spoke to him. I can’t say the characters or story spoke much to me, but the presentation and path of the story kept me mostly entertained.

Noah Taylor (Free Fire) plays it all with a flat, who cares sort of attitude, even while clearly wishing there was something more. And in his wake drift several people who keep washing up on his shores, for better or worse. Emily HamiltonRomane Bohringer, and Brett Stewart continually bounce off Taylor’s character, changing with each encounter, even as he remains primarily unaffected and unchanged. But Taylor watches and clearly considers each evolution even when he’s unsure in what way to react to it all.

It has a resolution of sorts. It isn’t overly satisfying, or wasn’t for me, but the journey was amusing, if both dark and a little gratuitously violent at times. And I didn’t feel like it ever got to any substantial point (even if I did see the visual joke and commentary). This is definitely a movie that many will enjoy and just as many will find inscrutable. You’re just going to have to make up your own mind.

He Died with a Felafel in His Hand Poster

Birds of America

[3 stars]

Like loving family, watching this film is a bit of an act of faith. Elyse Friedman’s script feels like it is going nowhere fun or interesting for the first 3/4 of the story…and then it all comes together in both expected and unexpected ways.

Matthew Perry serves as the reluctant patriarch for his younger, orphaned sibs: Ben Foster (Leave No Trace) and Ginnifer Goodwin (Zootopia). The three form a very broken triangle of humanity and reaction to grief. And, along the way, they find a way forward.

There are also some nice side performances by the three wives of the piece: Lauren Graham (Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist) as Perry’s wife, Zoë Kravitz (High Fidelity) as Foster’s, and Hilary Swank (I Am Mother) as the neighbor.’s For Kravitz, it was also one of her earliest roles.

Director Craig Lucas, really much better known for his writing (Prelude to a Kiss, Longtime Companion), handles the oddities and extremes of the story fairly well. Some of the comedy is a little pushed, but mostly it is kept to just this side of uncomfortably real. And he manages to overcome some of the incomplete aspects of the script; the dangling threads of ideas. But, despite getting the relationships and characters nailed down nicely, Friedman’s script has issues. The title and opening explanation, in particular, lay out some very specific plot points that never get taken up. It is a complete mis-lead who’s resolution was either left on the cutting room floor or simply lost in revision and never fully corrected in the final cut for some reason.

Even with the weaknesses, if you trust it, the movie pays off. But, like family, unconditional trust can be tough at times. I’m sure neither Lucas or Friedman intended a physical metaphor for their tale, but they got one anyway.

Birds of America Poster

Admission

[3 stars]

Director Paul Weitz (Bel Canto) loves the unexpected, whether in plot or in character. Admission is no exception. Despite being pretty much a standard trope, it manages to make its own path with some nice, unexpected curves.

The success of the story is also very much down to the cast; if not their particular talents all the time, certainly for their individual charisma and personalities. Primarily this is with Tina Fey (This is Where I Leave You), both her direct story and the interactions with Paul Rudd (Ideal Home). Nat Wolff (Leap!), pulled along in their wake, manages to make himself known as well.

Outside the main three are some great supporting characters too. Lily Tomlin (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), Wallace Shawn (Vanya on 42nd Street), and Michael Sheen (Staged) sprinkle in a little magic in particular.

Writer Karen Croner (One True Thing) adapted the story. The result is a multi-layered comedy and look at life. It is still a broad comedy, but not over-the-top in ways that would normally turn me off. It has touchstones and core level of truth that makes the silly laughter a bit poignant while Weitz’s inventive presentation keeps it alive and engaging. And, of course, it has a wonderful sort of frisson with the current ways of the world where standardized test scores, like the SAT, are not being used for admissions for the foreseeable thanks to the dual pressures of the pandemic and recognition of endemic social inequality.

Admission

Some COVID Fun – No, Really

There has been a wave of lock-down art recently. Well, what do you expect with a bunch of artists stuck at home with no outlet? Even the some finales (like All Rise) embraced the situation and wrote it into their tales.

Most of it has come in the form of at-home/garage concerts up till now. But, recently, a number of short video stories have begun to surface.

While there are many, these two really stood out. One for its sheer amusement and the other for its scope. Both are BBC, but I would expect them to be more generally available at some point.

Staged

What happens when David Tennant (Doctor Who, Good Omens) and Michael Sheen (Slaughterhouse Rulez) try to mount a play during the lock-down? Well, with the help of relatively unknown Simon Evans as writer/director/actor and their families, hilarity ensues. This series, comprised of 6 short episodes is self-aware, self-deprecating, and utterly irreverent. Find it…and remember to pay attention to and watch through the credits. The fun just keeps on giving while touching on the realities of the world as it is being reshaped.

Staged Poster

Unprecedented 

There are too many people involved here to list. In several half-hour episodes, each comprised of 3 10-minute plays, you see a huge scope of pandemic life. Some of it is is funny, some uncomfortable, and some just poignant, but all are worth seeing and none are so long as to get boring.

Unprecedented: Real Time Theatre from a State of Isolation Poster

American Adobo

[3 stars]

This isn’t a great film. The script, by first-timer Vincent R. Nebrida, is painful at times. And the effort to overcome those lacks by director Laurice Guillen doesn’t help her break into the States, despite being widely celebrated in the Philippines and abroad. Even the fairly experienced cast had trouble finding an even rhythm and delivery.

But, there is a sweetness to the story and the performances that made it engaging. Certainly the peek into Philippine culture was interesting (even if aspects were overblown at times). In between cringing at the dialogue and some of the acting, it will reach you and make you smile as you grow to understand this group of friends who bond over the past and food while negotiating their way into their futures.

American Adobo Poster

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

[3.5 stars]

Yes, here I am trying to take my mind off of the goings on in the world and with the current state of politics by watching a docu on climate change. More the fool me. In truth, it wasn’t so much a choice as what showed up, but that’s another story for another day.

As it turns out, this follow-on to Al Gore’s 2006 An Inconvenient Truth, while full of depressing realities, is also bolstered by some sense of hope. And, yes, that includes taking the current administration into account. In fact, the movie more or less revolves around the 2015 Paris COP21 meeting that delivered the biggest step toward controlling and reversing climate change to date…despite 45’s pulling the US out of it as one of the first acts of his presidency.

This documentary continues Gore’s journey from his first movie as an advocate, showing us the mechanisms behind the rousing, and terrifying, speeches. It takes us through how he has been amplifying that message and the path forward. And it shows us a man of near-limitless optimism that we can solve the problem together if we can overcome the hypocrisy and corrupt influences that have death-grips on the fossil fuel economy. Honestly, he’ll make you believe, but not without many grindings of your teeth.

This movie is already two years old. And, let’s face it, much has happened. Not only have policies changed, but the EPA and other watchdog agencies and laws have been actively dismantled. But this is also an election year, and with a solid win, none of it has to be permanent, though sure as hell a lot of damage has been done. I want to remain with Gore and be optimistic. What’s the alternative? We can, as they say, “vote the bums out.” We can insist on logic and science to be drivers of policy and law. As the docu shows, this isn’t really a partisan divide…we just have to stop allowing certain industries from behaving like robber barons and hold accountable any who support them.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power Poster

See You Yesterday

[4 stars]

If you just avoid thinking about the hand-wavy science and focus instead on the logic, story, and message this is one powerhouse of a flick. First-time feature director Stefon Bristol co-wrote this topical and clever tale with another first-timer, Fredrica Bailey.  The two shared the Independent Spirit Award for their efforts for good reason.

Not only is the tale entertaining and a nice variation on well-known theme, it’s also topical and honest about the world in unexpected ways. And, to top it all off, it is aimed at a younger audience while satisfying adults. While different in tenor and intent, this film would live comfortably with Attack the Block or Chronicle.

The film is driven by Eden Duncan-Smith (Annie). She brings a flawed, real person struggling with the realities of her life and the fact that she’s smarter than almost everyone around her. Her friends figure heavily, given life, if not quite as much depth, by new-comer Dante Crichlow and up-and-comer Johnathan Nieves (City of Angels). But as her older brother, Astro  (Luce) adds a number of  important and challenging levels.

This isn’t an easy film to watch, especially right now, but it is probably exactly what you should be watching. It is clever, entertaining, and even funny at times, but it also exposes aspects of reality that is rarely tackled with such honesty and sympathy. It also has a near-perfect ending for its purpose. You can think of it as a science-fantasy tackling of Waves or Do the Right Thing, but that would lead you a bit astray as well. Maybe it’s closer to being Run, Lola, Run in Flatbush if you still need a touchstone.  But, really, it is its own story, and you should see it. And I know I’m looking foward to seeing what Bristol and Bailey come up with next.

See You Yesterday

Paradise Hills

[3 stars]

There is a lot to unpack in this movie. It is, above all else, sumptuously designed, rich in visuals, and minute in its detail. That alone makes it worth seeing. The story, an interesting twist on the old Stepford Wives trope (either version: 1975 or 2004…, though, better yet, just read the book), isn’t nearly as strong. The plot just doesn’t come together, even if it is a gorgeous trip getting there.

In short, director Alice Waddington Waddington produced a wonderful style over substance response to #metoo. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a message, just that the message is obvious and the path getting there is a bit weak. However, it is almost an entirely female cast, which is always a nice surprise.

Emma Roberts (American Horror Story) is the focus of the steam-punkish tale. She’s a fighter and has a brain. She’s joined by Awkwafina (Jumanji: The Next Chapter), doing Awkwafina, but it is entertaining. Completing the female fighting faction are Danielle Macdonald (Bird Box) and Eiza González (Baby Driver), who add some interesting moments, if not some depth.

Lording over all of them is a somewhat stilted Milla Jovovich (Hellboy). Some of her attitude becomes clarified during the tale, but it isn’t what you call a compelling performance.

And then there is one bit of boy toy in Jeremy Irvine (Stonewall) whose role is about what you’d expect.

As I said, this is less about the story and more about the visuals. If you can turn off your brain and just go with the story, it’s kinda fun and angering. If you look at it too hard it falls apart. Take from it what you can. I’d love to see what Waddington could do with a better script, she certainly has an eye. Though, to be fair, this was her story idea… but Nacho Vigalondo (Colossal) and Brian DeLeeuw either couldn’t turn it into a cohesive story or Waddington didn’t recognize the gaps.

Paradise Hills

The Vast of Night

[3.5 stars]

On the surface this new streamer is a fairly standard, if cleverly told, story of 50s middle-America dealing with paranoia and possible invasion (by who and what are unknown). We’ve seen this many times before, and new director Andrew Patterson and his writers, James Montague and Craig W. Sanger don’t shy away from that fact. Indeed part of what sets this film apart is that they lean into it, framing the entire story in a Twilight Zone-like box.

I’ll come back to the story and presentation, but it’s first worth noting the cast, led by Sierra McCormick as a believable 16 year old in over her head, but afraid of nothing. She is backed up by a less heeled, but solid, Jake Horowitz as the two unravel and pursue the mystery that drops in their laps. Horowitz channels James Dean while McCormick is something like a super-charged Nancy Drew as they scramble with equipment and  have frequent dashes across town at an unrelenting pace. In a small but focused role, Gail Cronauer (Te Ata) is the only character to steal back the camera for a while from the two leads, delivering and extended and haunted tale full of emotion.

Now let’s get back to the presentation. Because, despite all these praises, the story is really fairly obvious and nothing new. What keeps you intrigued, even during the slower or overloaded segments (like the opening 20 minutes of setup and dialogue) is the direction and cinematography. Patterson squeezed the story to remove all moments of breath, but not so much that it feels rushed so much as normal. Even with Horowitz’s mumbling around his cigarette, which could get frustrating as a listener, it feels right and real and nothing of any import is missed.

But the real question, and nod, I have goes back to that framing. I don’t know if it was in the original script or, if during development or in the editing room, they realized they were doing pure homage and needed to find a way to set it apart to do their work justice. I lean heavily toward this latter suspicion since it was all done in post and changed none of the movie. They knew what they were doing with the story, but needed a way to tip that to the audience and reframe it so it wouldn’t feel stale and tired. And, in fact, the opening, closing, and few reminders, make it more fun and let you go with the flow.

However, it has an ancillary effect of leaving you wondering if it was part of the plot or only part of the presentation. And this is where I was a little more frustrated with the choice. The story doesn’t rise to the level of needing any meta-layers or messages. And 50s-style horror doesn’t particularly have a lot to say about the human condition that isn’t on the screen in big flashing neon. So the framing is a nice artistic choice, but a forced one for the story itself since it is merely a comment and never used. Add to this the ending, which can be read more than one way, and you’re left with one too many unanswered aspects…or at least I was.

To see these performances and a new set of voices entering the cinematic fray, this really is a movie worth seeing. It isn’t perfect, but it is crammed with promise and definitely put together with deft hands. And it is entertaining, enough so that I wanted to examine these other aspects rather than just taking it just for what it is. Watch for these people in the future, they’re sure to be coming up with something new and interesting.

The Vast of Night Poster