Tag Archives: indie

Fighting With My Family

[3 stars]

Who would have thought a sweet film about family and personal dreams would come out of a true story about a family of wrestlers…and that it has little to do with wrestling?

To be up front, I am not, and never have been, a fan of professional wrestling. For whatever reason, neither the stories nor the staged athleticism ever caught my interest. And yet, Dwayne Johnson (Skyscraper) is becoming a solid favorite for pure entertainment films and, frankly, as a person. But he is just a side character here. It is Florence Pugh (Little Drummer Girl) who adds the real heart to this story. Not much reality or sense of believability, but there is heart. And heart can be enough.

The issues with the story are down to writer/director (and even actor in this jaunt) Stephen Merchant (The Girl in the Spider’s Web). While he elicits honest emotions from his cast, and keeps the story flowing nicely in his sophomore outing, he didn’t quite get me to sense Pugh’s achievements, nor Jack Lowden’s (Mary Queen of Scots) losses and resurrection.  I wasn’t there to cheer with them as I should have been.

Nick Frost (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) and Lena Headey (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Game of Thrones), however, did add some great comedy and energy…and even their own sense of romance. You can barely believe them as characters…until you see the real family in the credits and realize they likely toned it all down for the film.

This movie is a perfect example of the truth sometimes being less interesting than fiction. I suspect the script cleaves closely to the reality of the Knight family. But it needed a bit more fiction and a bit more structure to let the human side of the story really soar. Sure it would have been manipulated, but it would have been in service to the story rather than pushing against it. Regardless, it is a surprisingly effective and inspiring tale of growing up and following your dreams, whether you’re a fan of the sport or not.

Always Be My Maybe

[3.5 stars]

It may not have the polish and flow of Crazy Rich Asians, but it has the sentiment and a wonderful sense of reality amid the hijinx. Randall Park (Ant-Man and the Wasp) and Ali Wong (Ralph Breaks the Internet) paired up on the script and on the screen with a slightly outlandish, but sweet tale of destined love.

At the helm, director Nahnatchka Khan makes the jump to the large-ish screen well. But, despite the range of years and geography, it still feels more like a TV movie than big-screen fare. That doesn’t make it bad, it’s just a reaction to the sense of it. For that reason, Netflix was a perfect release vehicle. It is entertaining and flows well, but would have probably had a very limited release in theaters, and likely a small audience. Netflix gave it a wider audience who may never have found it otherwise, and it did so out of the gate.

This is definitely worth your time, especially for an evening to cuddle up with someone you care about. Everyone will find something in there they’ll recognize in their relationships and actions.

Farinelli

[3 stars]

Stardom has been with humanity since its earliest days. What excites the masses shifts, but there is always something that captures imagination. In the 18th century, for a time, it was castrati; singers sans balls who’s life altering choices were made for them as young boys. Farinelli was one of the biggest. Singers, that is.

Though made in 1994, the movie resonates with current tastes and reflections. From the camp to the glitz, you can’t watch this without thinking of Freddie Mercury’s story as told in Bohemian Rhapsody, the docu Studio 54, or even reflect on the careers of Bowie and Elton John. This is Glam Rock in its infancy.

The story, however, is more of an opera: overblown and extreme. But the film struggles a little on bringing us into it all. In large part that is because it is more than halfway through before you start to understand the character’s motivations. In fact, it wasn’t until after the final moments and thinking about it more that it came into full clarity. That either makes director and co-writer Gérard Corbiau’s result very clever art or a poorly constructed film. It isn’t an easy call to make on that point.

Stefano Dionisi’s Farinelli is everything you’d expect. His brother, taken on by Enrico Lo Verso is more cryptic. The two play off each other well…but it is a curious and fraught relationship that is as much confusing and it is sibling battles. Arrayed against them is the better known actor (stateside), Jeroen Krabbé, who tackles a much-conflicted Handel. Some of the film smacks of Amadeus because of this conflict, but the stories, while philosophically often sharing ideas, are very different.

This would be a really fascinating movie to remake today. Given the sexual politics that have dominated so much of the news, not to mention the tensions mounting around the world, there is fertile ground for both spectacle and commentary. For now, however, we’ll have to settle for this incarnation of it, which hits on many historical accuracies, even if that isn’t its real intent or focus.

The Mustang

[3 stars]

There are few surprises in this movie, but it is done with such emotional care and intensity that it works. And I say that despite the fact that it is essentially one long, rather abused metaphor. But director and co-writer Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre tackles that head-on and without apology, making it all palatable. She even plays with it in some clever ways.

But, directing aside, it is Matthias Schoenaerts’s (Red Sparrow) performance that sells the story. He is stretched so tightly through most of the movie that you expect him to literally burst. He maps a compelling journey that is far from a simple happy ending, but yet still manages to provide some closure for the audience. Bruce Dern (Nostalgia), Connie Britton (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women) and Jason Mitchell (Mudbound) along with Gideon Adlon provide the walls for Schoenaerts to bounce off of and reveal himself.

Filmed beautifully, and kept taut as a story, it is easy to make it through this movie even when you are sure of its direction. It is a glimpse into the criminal justice system and the Mustang program as well as a personal journey that reflects, at least in facets, aspects in most of us.

Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor)

[4 stars]

Few movies can sustain 3+ hours of narrative. Fewer still can do so absent some amount of action. Avengers: Endgame had story, but also a fair amount of pure adrenaline moments to keep it all going. Never Look Away has only story and still manages to remain riveting through to the end. It does employ, like other longer films, a somewhat episodic approach to revive the story every so often. In this case, it has three distinct chapters that cover the childhood and young adult life of Tom Schilling’s (Woman in Gold) Kurt.

Schilling, along with Sebastian Koch (Bel Canto), dominate the story that starts in 1937 Germany (outside Dresden, no less) and tracks through the early 1960s. I had no idea how writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s (The Tourist) was going to keep me interested for so long and through so many frustrating situations, but the script is nicely segmented and filled with enough genuine emotion and moments to keep you going.

Supporting roles by Oliver Masucc (Dark), Saskia Rosendahl, and Paula Beer were also a help. It is easy to see why this was an Oscar contender, not to mention other awards. It packs a punch without, usually, using a hammer to do so. It is an honest story of the war, but it is mostly about the meaning and communication of art. Where springs the impetus? What is an artist trying to communicate? Should they be trying to communicate? Is it just a craft or something more? All highly philosophical stuff, but they are discussions that are happening around the romance and dangers of Schilling’s life, which remains the focus.

This is also just a simple story of deep, abiding love of all kinds: familial, romantic, erotic, ideological, political. The world created by von Donnersmarck is seductively drawn and subtly appointed. And its central message in the title is not so much a challenge as an invitation and reminder that life is happening. Even with its somewhat ironic penultimate scene, its point is made. Though I will say that while I had anticipated and awaited the final moments of the film, it didn’t quite reach the pinnacle my emotions wanted, even if it did logically. That small gap was more my desire for complete closure on one of the threads, which was left to the imagination rather than on-screen resolution. Missing that, however, my anticipation made me trip over the last moment and caused cracks in the nearly perfectly constructed journey for me. And yet, I’d still highly recommend the film; it will surprise you.

One slight warning…some of the subtitles seemed to just blink on for a split second before vanishing. Honestly, I was able to fill in the gaps very easily, but it was frustrating. This is the second film I’ve run into this and I’m not sure why (it doesn’t appear to be a setting I can control, like the positioning on the screen). This seems an easy thing to avoid and quality control should be picking this kind of gaff up. It certainly knocked me out of the story more than once. Had this been a lesser movie, it probably would have lost my faith completely.

Replicas

[1.5 stars]

How do you ruin an interesting idea? Well, first you throw a weak director at it, Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who’s entire sense of credited science fiction is The Day After Tomorrow. Then you pass him a script by Chad St. John, who’s most recent flicks, Peppermint and London Has Fallen, were painful at times. And to top it off, put Keanu Reeves (John Wick 3: Parabellum) in the lead.

Reeves works in some roles, especially those where stoic is the anchor word for the character. But he requires a strong director to help him navigate a script with real emotion. He had no such help here and it shows. Even Alice Eve (Iron Fist) and John Ortiz (Peppermint), who have some proven range, can’t get past the bad stewardship of this story. Only Thomas Middleditch (The Final Girls) manages to come off as somewhat credible, but only because he’s playing himself…and he is more natural than credible in the role.

The movie is full of bad choices and contradictions, stupid decisions and ridiculous science. I mean REALLY ridiculous science that had me yelling at the screen. And it doesn’t just hit that science once as a Macguffin and run away. Oh no, it harps and harps on it, building upon shaky foundations with even more outrageous claims. And yet, with all that, the script doesn’t even attempt to get to the interesting aspects of the issues it raises, though it manages one clever choice in its 100ish minutes. This isn’t a horror tale masquerading as science fiction, nor is it philosophical conversation of the possibilities, like Ex Machina, it is simply a badly written, weakly executed waste of your time.

Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur)

[2.5 stars]

Juliette Binoche (Summer Hours) is always worth seeing, but it helps if she has a good story to work with. The problems with this movie begin with the miss-translation of the title (which is closer to: The Beautiful Light Within). That more-direct translation makes slightly more sense than the published choice, though in an ironic way. The movie is really a dark (French) comedy rather than a hopeful journey of a middle-aged woman looking for love and connection; a sort of anti-Gloria.

Claire Denis directs Binoche through a constantly shifting emotional landscape very naturally. But her co-written script just never comes together. In fact, as untethered as it is through its episodic view of Binoche’s life, it manages to go completely into the woods during the final credits.

I can’t honestly recommend the film. I didn’t find it all that funny or even all that dark. It is just sort of sad and frustrating. And, ultimately, I felt I was cheated of my time. So either I really missed the point, or this movie did. Given the talent involved, I’m open to either reality. You, however, will have to decide for yourself.

Life Partners

[3.5 stars]

What kind of difference can the right casting make? This is a movie that is emblematic of the answer. There is nothing much new in Life Partners, but Leighton Meester (Like Sunday, Like Rain) and Gillian Jacobs (Life of the Party) make the film work. Both women are entertaining comediennes on their own, but here they are perfectly paired as best friends in this very sweet indie. Their humor and delivery makes it feel like they grew up together which, in turn, makes the script disappear into the performances.

To be fair, they don’t do it alone. Adam Brody (The Oranges) adds a nice tension to the friendship and, dutifully, hangs in the background of it all. Mark Feuerstein (In Your Eyes) and Gabourey Sidibe (Tower Heist) also provide a few nice moments in smaller roles. But this is Meester and Jacobs’ film.

Honestly, it’s a surprisingly effective film…it is done with such honesty and warmth that you can’t help but enjoy it. In her feature debut as director and co-writer, Susan Fogel shows she has both heart and talent. She was able to breathe life into the story and control the energy and flow of the performances to bring it all together in delightful ways. For a light and sweet evening that can give you hope without making your teeth ache, this one is worth your time.

Prospect

[3 stars]

I couldn’t help but think of Dark Star while watching this film, even though Prospect has much more action and story. The reason, I think, is that Prospect, like Dark Star, tries to show real life for the grunts out in the universe. In other words, it isn’t particularly quick-paced. However, it’s not a comedy, dark or otherwise. Prospect is a character-focused drama that takes place within an interesting world and set of challenges.

It is also, basically, a Western in space. Pedro Pascal  (Equalizer 2) doesn’t even try to hide that…in fact, he leans into it massively. Pascal uses Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl’s first feature (as writers and directors) to deliver overblown homilies and colorful language that seem at once self-conscious and, somehow, wholly believable thanks to Pascal’s consistency and talent.

But it is really Sophie Thatcher, in her feature debut, that holds everything together as we get to know her and her abilities, not to mention rooting for her survival. She is a strong female character who has layers we discover over time. At first, with her father, Jay Duplass (Beatriz at Dinner), Thatcher is the supportive, if frustrated, daughter. But it becomes apparent rapidly that she has much more going on.

As I said, this isn’t a fast film, despite its action. And it isn’t a great film, despite its ambitions and delivery. However, it is a good film if you trust it. Enjoy the characters and the complicated world that is presented. Caldwell and Earl don’t insult you by explaining too much and they allow the actors to shade in their stories around the edges of it all. You do have to be a science fiction geek to want to spend the time, but if you are, it is worth it. I’d love to see what they come up with next; it is so rare to see a story like this that isn’t ham-handed in its world-building.

The Quake (Skjelvet)

[3 stars]

You’d think that writers John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg would have scratched their collective disaster-itch with The Wave. But, like their first, much lies hidden in plain sight beneath the feet of humanity, and they wanted to bring it into the light.

However, this isn’t just a repeat of the first film’s formula, even though it picks up the story and the family from after their survival. There is the mystery and the suspense of the titular event, but the film isn’t about tilting at windmills, it’s about getting out alive, and family. Think of it as a San Andreas in the north, but with an actual script and story that that is way more than the special f/x (which are certainly impressive for an indie).

Director John Andreas Andersen takes over the helm of this tale, acquitting himself nicely. He keeps the reactions and interplay very natural, while not losing track of the stakes. Certainly there is some lack of communication between characters I’d like to have seen done differently, but some of that was cultural more than weakness. And it was all within the scope of the characters we’d met before.

Ultimately, The Quake is a tale about family and redemption. Survivor’s guilt and PTSD play into it as well. We care about Kristoffer Joner (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) and his continuing journey, while still wanting to slap him on occasion. And the facts of the story, much like The Wave, make it clear that the fictional risk is very close to the truth. This sequel is also less preachy than the first film, which hammers both the science and the resistance to facts a little too hard.

I can’t imagine watching the two films back-to-back. However, watching them in close proximity would be interesting to see just how well it all comes together over the several year span of the tale. I’d like to see what the writers come up with next…but I am hoping it is a new tale with a new focus. They’ve shown themselves capable, but I’d like to see it applied to something less specifically pointed.