Tag Archives: indie

The Discovery & 13 Reasons Why

Both The Discovery and 13 Reasons Why ask the same two questions: What is life? Why stick around for it? They come to roughly the same answers, though by very different routes.

The Discovery does this through the lens of science fiction. It asks: What if we knew there was something after death? And then it goes on to explore the impact, but tries to remained focused on the smaller stories. It is a rumination on “what if,” bordering on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in feel.

13 Reasons Why does this from the 7th circle of Hell, otherwise known to most people as: High School. 13 Reasons tries to expose the realities of teenage perspective by offering up multiple stories and, potentially, the different variations of truth to them as we learn more. Ultimately, this is more a tale in the vein of Veronica Mars than it is a deep psychological expose, more structured as entertainment than open discourse, but it manages to make its points.

Their overlapping discussions of suicide make them a natural and topical pairing.

In The Discovery, suicide becomes a real, and less scary option for many people. Frankly, I think probably on a much bigger scale than the show posits. The script doesn’t try to simplify the risks or answer questions unequivocally, but it does nicely, if narrowly, follow enough characters to explore the idea.

Robert Redford (Pete’s Dragon), Jason Segel (The Muppets), and Rooney Mara (Lion) topline this intellectual thought experiment. With such a great cast, and a neat premise, it could have been so much more. But it is still engaging and thought provoking. And the ending is anything but passive for the viewer.

13 Reasons Why has a number of strong performances, but the primary standouts are Kate Walsh, Katherine Langford, and Dylan Minnette (Goosebumps). Walsh delivers a solidly heart-breaking performance of a mother dealing with loss and guilt. Langford lays out a progression of decisions and emotional fractures that help you follow her path, if not totally agree with the results–all the more impressive as it is her lead acting debut. And Minnette is a perfect “every kid” lost in the political tides of adolescence and inside his own head.

It is the confluence of these presentations that makes them so interesting to me. Either alone would have been something to notice. But two major releases, and even other shows like Transparent jumping onto the suicide depiction train (and there are many, many more, like Collateral Beauty), speaks to a subject in the air that needs dealing with in some way. Perhaps the documented rise of clinical depression over the last six months, particularly in women, is part of the explanation.

Regardless of the deeper zeitgeist, both of these streams deserve your time for their performances and their ideas. As to the bigger picture…time will tell.

The Discovery 13 Reasons Why

Wiener-Dog

Seriously, WTF? I watched this entire film in the hope that it would eventually come together as something…anything. I was to be disappointed and annoyed.

Director/writer Todd Solondz had no sense of when to stop a joke (and I use that term loosely) nor much humanity. Because he is also the writer/director of the brilliant Welcome to the Dollhouse and equally brilliant, but horrific, Happiness, perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised with the darkness of it all. But in this case, I have no idea what he was hoping to get across, whereas his earlier work was challenging (to say the least), but ultimately with substance.

I think the intent was dark humor with the dog as the forced thread for the vignettes. However, the first half of the film is about the same dog going from owner to owner (a lot like a cruel A Dog’s Purpose). Then we get an amusing and jarring “intermission” followed by stand-alone tales that have similar dogs in them, but with almost no purpose. It is even somewhat weirdly self-referential regarding film. Add to this the flat delivery of the dialogue, clearly consistent and a choice, and I’m left bereft of a clue. Perhaps it was intended as a post-modernist take on Brecht? Still, it just didn’t work.

Honestly, this is a waste of your time and of any film or hard disc it was filmed to. I honestly don’t forgive Solondz for wasting my time on this one.

Wiener-Dog

ARQ

I do love me a good time travel tale, and really hate bad ones. ARQ falls into the good camp. Every time (no pun intended) you think it is going to get boring or obvious, it shifts just enough to keep you interested. The world keeps expanding and the stakes keep rising.

Robbie Amell (Nine Lives) and Rachel Taylor (Jessica Jones) are suitably earnest if not entirely perfectly matched as a couple. They are both believable, though some of the driving motivations take time to reveal.

Though an established writer, Elliott (Orphan Black), this was Elliott’s first time directing a feature-length film. He kept it all taut and focused, managing to get the complex aspects of the story across well. He definitely should get more directorial work based on this result.

I do have to warn you that it doesn’t provide a great ending, unfortunately. Ultimately, it feels more like a pilot, or perhaps the plot became intractable, and so the story was wrapped up in an obvious way. But up to that last moment, it really is pretty clever and worth the time. And even with the flawed ending, it is a good ride.

ARQ

3 Generations

This is best thought of as a film about family rather than a story about a young trans man played by Elle Fanning (20th Century Women). It is primarily a tale about how this unique family inter-relates. And, in the end, this movie is really more Naomi Watts (Sea of Trees) story than it is Fanning’s.

But, truth be told, it is Susan Sarandon (The Meddler) and Linda Emond (The Family Fang) who steal this movie. Their characters and interactions are beautifully understated and comfortable. They throw away their lines like the old, partnered couple they are supposed to be but also manage to stay in the background. They take focus because of their quality, not because they are scene stealing.

There was so much controversy over this film as it came to screens. The MPAA tried to saddle it with an R rating due to its subject matter (learn more about the MPAA) and because Fanning was playing the role rather than a trans actor. Fanning (20th Century Women) does try to do her best, but I honestly never really bought her in the role both because the on-screen and script choices didn’t really fully jibe with my own experiences with people in transition.

The movie is simply, fundamentally flawed. Director and co-writer Gaby Dellal worked with Nikole Beckwith, but didn’t quite nail the story either in balance or action. Added to that, there is a forced layer of auteur visuals in the videos created by Fanning’s character that don’t feel at all on point or by him. And there is also a more metaphorical aspect of resampling and recreating music into something by that character. In neither case does the film pursue the threads, leaving them dangling, unfulfilled, and even distracting in some ways. And the men in this film, Tate Donovan (Argo) and Sam Trammell (The Fault in Our Stars), are somewhat pointless, but that is by design, though an odd message given the core focus.

Ultimately, there is entertainment and warm fuzzies to be had here, and a couple of the performances really are worth seeing. But as a movie it is middling in its success.

3 Generations

This Film is Not Yet Rated

Even I’m appalled that it has taken me 11  years to finally see this documentary about an industry that I’ve been part of most of my life. Especially so as I’ve always felt the ratings system was bogus (at best). Despite its early, stated intentions to end the censorship era, the advent of the MPAA and the rating system simply shifted and made shadier the efforts to control content by a minority band of self-appointed moralists. If that statement left you in the dust, then you definitely need to see this movie.

The sad truth, however, is that even after 11 years nothing has really changed since this Kirby Dick (The Hunting Ground) documentary hit screens. The MPAA hasn’t changed tactics or efforts at all. They are still beholden to the same masters (studios) and are secretive and capricious (and even bigoted) in their decisions. (See 3 Generations for a recent example. )

On the up side, the lay of the land around the industry, in particular with the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime, has provided distribution avenues that didn’t exist at the time this docu was made. Also, the rise of “Director’s” and Unrated editions of films, only just coming to prominence when this docu was made, allows for the intended vision of films to find their audience. All of this doesn’t nullify the very real concerns or issues raised, but it points to potential ways around the gatekeepers from an artistic point of view. It would be a great follow-up to see how the financial landscape and decisions may be changing (though even Netflix is starting to scale back after years of risk).

Not Yet Rated exhibits Dick’s devotion to the truth as well as his sense of humor and commitment to his subject. It is a set of qualities that has garnered him several awards and nominations. This particular documentary struggles with its narrative, but not its entertainment nor its ability to inform. Which is to say that while it all comes together and there is a lot of information and revelation, the focus is a little soft. However, if you’ve ever wondered where the heck those letters come from on your entertainment, how they are selected, and how we compare to the rest of the world, you need to see this film.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

The Last Word

Shirley MacLaine (Bernie) dominates this film with a quiet surety and great craft. Much like Tomlin’s turn in Grandma, MacLaine slowly peels back layers of Harriet such that we eventually understand and embrace all of her. Amanda Seyfried (The Big Wedding) keeps up with MacLaine nicely, though it takes some time for her character to settle in on screen. It should also be noted that in her first film, AnnJewel Lee Dixon delivers a firecracker of a performance that bodes well for her career.

As a movie, Word is entertaining, if a bit manipulated. Given that this was also a first feature movie for both director Pellington and writer Fink, it is actually rather impressive. The weaknesses likely stem from Pellington’s TV background, where he stole overused tropes as shorthand to get to moments. But that is a small disparagement for the amusement and emotional tale that is Last Word.

This is a story of life lessons and mottoes with a bit of humor and and a few truly winning moments. It is also a great reminder of where women have come from in the last 70 years and what they had to do in order to pave the way; timely given current society and the recent release of Wonder Woman.

The Last Word

Road, Movie

The trailer for this film made it look like Cinema Paradiso on wheels… a rather irresistible idea. Instead, it is more like Field of Dreams made by Fellini in India. Not so irresistible (and I like Fellini).

In fact, this movie was ultimately rather unsatisfying, particularly since the main character is such a dick. He starts off a petulant boy in a man-suit and ends up, metaphorically at least, becoming a real, full man. But it wasn’t really sold well enough and we never care about the guy as he is, as I said, such a dick.

The supporting characters don’t add much either, though they aren’t unlikable or unentertaining. But they only exist as guides and bumpers for the main character whose motivations and goals are obtuse, at best, and non-existent at worse.

I will fully admit that perhaps I missed the point or was the wrong audience on this one, so I’m not saying run away unequivocally. There are aspects to this that show ability and intriguing possibility, but for me this never came together and I’d like my time back.

Road, Movie

Taste of Cherry (Ta’m e guilass)

You may recall that  I recently got to see another Iranian film, A Dragon Arrives!, and had mixed reactions. During the introduction to that film, this Palme d’Or co-winner was mentioned, so I decided to continue my understanding and education.

Up front, after watching it, I did look up the critical response to this movie. To say it was divisive is kind. Taste of Cherry is definitely a love it or hate it film. There is a particularly wonderful response by Roger Ebert. I also watched an interview with the director, Kiarostami, who is credited with altering the path and possibility of Iranian cinema with this offering (particularly its subject matter).

So, here’s the thing. Where this film falls apart for me is at the very end. Much like Dragon, it takes a wild left turn to either provide distance or make a point that was utterly lost on me. While I never expected an explicit ending, Kiarostami’s choice was frustrating at best. The lead up to the resolution is either a physical metaphor for the struggle of the main character or a long, drawn out and boring road trip movie on a circular track. Neither is a ringing endorsement, though the first option has a bit more resonance as a manifestation of the rumination involved in the man’s decision (which may be an unintended apologist’s remark).

After listening to the director and seeing the film, I can honestly say I don’t need to see another Kiarostami bit of cinema. From a purely cultural voyeuristic viewpoint, it certainly provides a window on a particular lawn to consider.

Taste of Cherry

The Swimsuit Issue (Allt flyter)

With the English title I was expecting something more along the lines of Calendar Girls or The Full Monty. The original title of this film is actually a bit more on target for the story. Loosely translated it means “everything is flowing well” or “going in the right direction.” That’s a very loose interpretation, but you get the idea.  Really, it is more a family drama with comedy than a comedy with family drama.

Of course, while this is a comedy, it is a Swedish comedy, so I didn’t expect a lot of belly laughs. It is more subtle than A Man Called Ove, and even a bit darker, in its way, about the characters. Though both are character driven, Swimsuit is more wry. The script is also more forced, but it still manages to entertain with some fun moments as well as an overall story.

The Swimsuit Issue

My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette)

Animation is so often seen as a children’s medium. Zucchini turns this on its head by making the kids the subject of the film. And not just any kids, this bit of stop-motion (an oddly poetic medium for this tale) focuses on the broken, abused, and ignored children of society. It isn’t a maudlin tale, it is, in fact, hopeful and sweet, but it doesn’t ignore the harder truths in life.

The voice work (French and English) is interesting and subtly effective. By design, it feels almost documentary-like in its delivery. The approach and sound quality, however, also leaves it oddly distancing. Perhaps that is a good thing given some of the emotions. We get to hover above it all and enjoy the successes rather than struggle with the realities.

As his first feature, director and co-writer Claude Barras adaptation of this challenging tale is impressive and even snagged an Oscar nomination as well as other nods. There is even a delightfully weird short animation on the disc to enjoy (The Genie in the Ravioli) that exposes his odd sense of wonder and design even more. I imagine we’ll be seeing more of Barras and his crew in years to come.

Even if it isn’t overly brilliant animation (which isn’t to say it isn’t good), make time for this if you haven’t already. It is pretty unique in its tale and is definitely worth the 70 mins you’d need to invest.

My Life as a Zucchini