Tag Archives: indie

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (Psiconautas, los niños olvidados)

[3 stars]

A surreal romp about finding hope in hopelessness. At least that’s what I took away from it this viewing. Pedro Rivero and
Alberto Vázquez (with additional help from Stephanie Sheh [Your Name.] and Joe Deasy) give us a landscape that borders on Bakshi’s Wizards: post-apocalyptic, mutated, venal, self-absorbed, and still focused on the value of the past rather than providing life for the future.

The main characters are children; children who are trying to survive and find purpose in a broken world. Somehow that part of the story feels very contemporary in terms of the feelings and challenges if not the specific events and issues. The overall plot echos the global trend toward migration, economic disparity, and the ecological disaster that is picking up steam with every year. But this is less warning than it is the (merest) suggestion that there is a solution if we can just hold on to what makes life worthwhile and control the darkest parts of our own selves. It makes for a pretty packed 76 minutes.

For the animation alone, this film is worth it. It isn’t grand, highly CGI’d animation, rather it is a reflection of its graphic novel roots. It is simple, but effective. The result is fascinating, inventive, and gripping at times. It refuses to blink from horror, but also often twists it to something of beauty or potential beauty. If you like the craft and enjoy challenging animation, this is worth your time.

Furlough

[2.5 stars]

There are many things that can draw you to a movie. On rare occasions, such as this one, it is the cast alone. With billing for Melissa Leo (The Equalizer) , Anna Paquin (Bellevue), Whoopi Goldberg, and Tessa Thompson (Annihilation) I wanted to see how that bucket of talent came together. The answer is that it sort of doesn’t. Leo and Thompson drive the story and do play well off each other. However, though Leo makes a credible inmate, Thompson doesn’t really strike the figure of a credible prison guard. And while you can suspend disbelief for chunks of time, it crumbles again and again due to her decisions and actions.

To be fair, the choices are more on Surgatz’s script, which is a bit forced and not particularly believable. But a larger, more imposing woman may have worked better. Even had Thompson brought her angst-ridden Valkyrie persona to bear from Thor, I don’t think she could have dominated Leo’s personality nor made us believe the plot.

Another missed opportunity was Whoopi. She is lost in this tale, there more for cheap comic relief than real impact. Of the cast, Paquin probably has the best role. It is small, but rich in unspoken emotion. A lot of groundwork from Leo and Thompson goes into that moment to pay it off, but it still Paquin that gets to take it away.

The faults in this movie are really more with the material than the actors. Collyer’s (SherryBaby) direction helps them to some good moments, but overall it never really sustains itself nor finds a rhythm. It wants to be a road movie with kooky side-stories that mound up into a tale of redemption and moving forward for Leo and Thompson. Instead, what we get is vignettes with some funny moments and some some touching moments, but no feeling of fulfillment at the end. I can’t really recommend the movie, but if you like the actors enough, you may find it fills an evening.

Furlough

Thelma

[3 stars]

Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs) brought his award-winning ability directing and co-writing (with constant collaborator Eskil Vogt) this intense and suspenseful tale. It isn’t an easily defined story, but Eili Harboe (The Wave) owns the title role with wonderful subtlety and angst.

The result, as close as I can come, is a coming-of-age horror(ish) tale. You know from the opening scene that something isn’t quite right but it is a paced story that builds the situation from Thelma’s point of view. Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen support Harboe as Thelma’s parents in echos of many other similar stories, but without becoming histrionic.

In fact, that is one of the biggest differences in this riff on a plot you’ll recognize quickly, it is told simply and naturalistically rather than with big moments and effects. It is, above all, a story about Thelma and her becoming an independent adult. It is also doesn’t explain everything or provide simple answers to some of the actions, though it certainly raises questions. The story is as much metaphor as truth.

This isn’t a fast film, but it is gripping and interesting,  performed and constructed with real ability. It was nominated for and won many awards deservedly, but it is more on the art-house end of the spectrum than, say, A Quiet Place, that subverts the genre in a different way. When you want something familiar, but that feels new, check this out.

Thelma

The Death of Stalin

[3 stars]

So what do you get when you have an unchecked leader running a country with only sycophants at his side? No, not that, I’m speaking of Russia in 1953. Though the parallels are utterly intended and the implications somewhat overwhelm the humor at times. But when Armando Iannucci, the co-writer and director of In the Loop and Veep, decided to tackle the Russian oligarchy for his second film, you rightly expect dry, wry. and bleakest black humor. If you didn’t, you probably have gone to the wrong movie.

Here’s the thing, this is not my favorite kind of humor. I enjoyed this movie to a degree, but I found it painful at times, and quite silly at others. It has a Monty Python-esque meets Chekov quality, and not just because Michael Palin (Remember Me, Absolutely Anything) is in it as Molokov (yes, that Molokov). That it also manages to cleave close to historical fact at the same time is a credit to Iannucci and his gang. But the movie doesn’t flow in a way that feels entirely right for my tastes. He does, however, know how to cast for his needs.

The actors are all top-notch comediens, from Steve Buscemi (Electric Dreams), to Jeffrey Tambor (The Accountant), to Simon Russell Beale (The Hollow Crown), even to the stoic and surprising Olga Kurylenko (The Water Diviner). Andrea Riseborough (Battle of the Sexes) and Rupert Friend (Hitman: Agent 47) have their own little storyline to run out and Jason Isaacs (A Cure for Wellness) comes in hard and fast to steal a good part of the last of the film. But it is Paddy Considine (The Girl With All the Gifts) and Tom Brooke (Preacher) who launch us into the world and set the tone perfectly and who manage to bring it all back together, in its way.

Iannucci has given us a cautionary comedy; a well-done satire. For the right audience it will entertain completely. For others it will cause an uncomfortable frisson. And for yet others, it will simply stoke the frustration and anger they are currently feeling with the world. So go in knowing what kind of film you might be seeing and decide if it is for you.

The Death of Stalin

The Leisure Seeker

[4.5 stars]

Forgive me, I’m going to kvell a little. It just isn’t all that often that a movie grabs me so completely. Director and co-writer Paolo Virzì (Like Crazy) delivers a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of love and life that will suck you in and wring you dry;  a wonderful, emotional canon which I highly recommend for any movie lover or romantic. It is both obvious and subtle, tackling aspects of age and marriage in wonderfully real ways. But it is relationship that takes the fore, with the ailments that ultimately drive the story very much in the background rather than the front and center focus of other films, like Still Alice or, for that matter, Marjorie Prime or The Memory of a Killer.

Virzì gifts us with a set of performances and story that quietly grips you from the moment it begins and refuses to let you go until the last, triumphant moment. It is both a tragedy and a comedy, a love story and a tale of glory (in its way). It is inevitable and unavoidable, but the path and the revelations are constantly surprising. The resulting film and performances are already up for awards this year, but will likely be forgotten for the majors since it released so early though I hope it won’t be.

Though Helen Mirren (Winchester) dominates the screen throughout, it is Donald Sutherland’s (The Calling) quiet performance and moments of shift that make this a devastating and emotional film. In a wonderful bit of direction, Janel Moloney (American Crime), as their daughter, delivers a performance that mirrors Sutherland’s in many ways.

I will admit, it isn’t quite a perfect movie, though it is close. It chooses to nail itself down in time to the summer of 2016 irrevocably for reasons I never quite puzzled out. And Christian McKay’s (Florence Foster Jenkins) turn as Mirren and Sutherland’s son is just slightly off, never quite fitting into the movie as a whole. Neither choice ruins the movie, but it knocks it down just a notch in my rating and recommendation.

But this is a must-see film for film lovers and anyone with either elderly family members or those in or above middle-age. It is a reminder of why we struggle and why we love. It is, above all, an homage to marriage and relationships, with all their warts and shine. You will laugh a lot, cry a lot, and ultimately smile as you leave the theater.

The Leisure Seeker

A Quiet Place

[3.5 stars]

A tight, post-apocalyptic family drama, told with real skill. From the beginning, you are made aware that while the story is familiar, the rules you know may not apply. It is also a beautifully appointed tale of deaf child coming into her own in a world of imposed silence, which makes for some great, if never spoken, contrasts.

The danger of this film was really with writer, director, and one of the three main actors, John Krasinski (The Hollars). That is a lot of hats to wear and not screw something up. As you might have guessed, he didn’t. He builds a level of tension through scenes that few other directors have pulled off without cheap tricks. This is very important as some of the key moments you’ll see coming, but the editing and performances will keep you gripping your armrest. And, sure, you’ll recognize some of the moments and where he learned them from, but this world is very much his own. I was so involved with the story on screen that it was only afterwards that the echos came to the surface for me.

The story is entirely about Krasinski’s small family trying to survive together in a near-impossible situation. With Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train) as his wife, she again proves her mettle on screen. It may not be her kick-ass warrior from Edge of Tomorrow, but she brings the energy and determination. Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck), on the other hand, brings the tragedy and strength that you would have normally expected one of the adult actors to take on. It is a complicated role that succeeds enough for its purpose. It will be interesting to see how her career progresses. The last main cast member I expected a bit more subtlety from given his turn in Wonder, but Noah Jupe’s tackling of the family’s son was a bit ham-handed for me at times. Honestly, that was Krasinski’s mistake more than Jupe’s, but it stood out for me amidst the other more contained performances.

All that said, this taut, 90 minute science-fictionesque/family/horror/drama is really fun and worth your time to see with an audience. When the whole room gets tense and groans and jumps with you, the experience is heightened even more. And while there are certainly brief moments of contained gore, it is really more all about the tension and release.

The Divine Order (Die göttliche Ordnung)

[3 stars]

Picture it: 1971 Switzerland. Rolling farmland. Mountains. And women still without the right to vote. Yes, seriously. This film chronicles the weeks leading up to the 1971 referendum that reversed that absurdity (though it would be another 10 years before it was added to the constitution).

What is weirder is watching the story and seeing the world that so many in power today pine for.  It is a village locked in the 40s and 50s in look and 1800s in mentality. For all that, it is full of humor and entertainment. It isn’t a belly laugh kind of film, well not often, but it balances the darker side of the reality with the lighter side. There is a particularly wonderful scene with Sofia Helin (The Bridge) on that front.

Unlike other “rights” movies, like the wonderful Pride, there is never a huge moment of triumph, despite the wins. Writer/director Petra Volpe instead gives us a series of small victories and a sense that the efforts have to always be going on to maintain and protect those rights. Sound familiar?

Definitely a timely and interesting film to see against the backdrop of today. It is well acted and emotionally satisfying, capturing the culture and the history in unexpected ways. Oh, and it was well recognized on the festival circuit as well.  Make time for this movie for both inspiration and entertainment.

The Divine Order

We Don’t Belong Here

[3 stars]

This is definitely an unconventional narrative that plays out in intriguing, and unexpected ways. As a first script and directing delivery by Peer Pedersen, it is both what you expect and not what you anticipate. So, basically, a well-executed indie with a solid cast.

Catherine Keener (November Criminals) is the relatively patient matriarch of one heck of a messed up family. She provides a shifting center to the story as all threads come back to pass through her, though she isn’t the primary point of view.

Her four children are all damaged in different ways, and all dealing with their issues in worlds of their own devising. Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12), Riley Keough (Logan Lucky), Annie Starke (Albert Nobbs), and Anton Yelchin (Jack) work well together as sibs without losing their individual aspects. And it is Dever’s point of view that walks us through the story, though the approach is inconsistent and less than edifying, particularly near the end.

Maya Rudolph (Maggie’s Plan) and Cary Elwes (Shadow of the Vampire) bring another set of layers to the tale. Each is nicely compartmentalized and human despite their own particular struggles. It is only Molly Shannon (The Little Hours) in the cast who comes off completely wrong, though there may be reasons for that…just none I felt supported her and her choices.

You can’t watch this movie without considering the loss of Yelchin. Bizarrely, I watched this the same day Yelchin’s family settled the suit for his tragic death. Since his passing, his last films have been trickling out into the wild. With this film dropping direct-to-disc and Thoroughbreds finally out in theaters, we’ve actually (and sadly) reached the end of his recorded efforts. This movie contains a powerful performance, but all the more bittersweet given the plot and knowing it is one of his very last.

We Don’t Belong Here is a quiet film, but Pedersen kept it full of tension and intellectual challenge. He did a great job laying out his plots and editing to the final moments. It isn’t for a wide audience, but if you enjoy a true indie spirit and approach, you’ll find this one worth your time.

We Don

The Square

[2 stars]

Some movies are inscrutable, but at least this one is long and subtitled to boot. And I do mean long for this kind of movie; it clocks in at 150 minutes.

At best, The Square is a series of vignettes about man’s inhumanity and the definition and business of art, held together loosely by a single event. But that’s being somewhat generous. I think Ruben Östlund had aspirations of updating The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; assailing the limits of our willingness to intervene and help one another, and the taboos that sit at those boundaries. Frankly, he failed, giving us some nuggets of thought, but never grabbing us or pulling it all into a single, clarifying instant. The movie simply peters out, unresolved and unsatisfying. I guess Östlund would ask, did that make it art? His previous Force Majeure much more successfully ranged across humanity while focusing very specifically on individuals.

It isn’t that there aren’t some interesting questions in the film. And the peek behind the scenes of museum purchasing and marketing is interesting and disturbing, to be sure. But that isn’t enough to to make a movie. And if he wanted to turn the movie into a virtual square itself (which I do think he intended), Östlund should have begun and ended the film in 4:3 aspect rather than 16:9 to make the point.

The story is dominated by Claes Bang (The Bridge) whose awakening to the world around him is full of unrealized potential. He is clearly a well-to-do man in a position of power, and full of self-importance. Watching that surface erode, first with humor and, eventually with some humility, is intriguing. But we never connect with him in a way that makes us care. It is halfway through the tale before we even know he has kids; which is part of the point, I’m sure, but it just doesn’t work.

At the periphery of the story are Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake: China Girl) and Dominic West (Money Monster) who each bring a little of the outside world to Bang. They aren’t brilliant performances, but they’re probably the only faces you’ll recognize in the film.

One interesting, recurring bit part is played by Terry Notary. What makes it interesting is that he has stepped to our side of the motion capture suit to appear as human rather than as creature, as he has in Kong, Planet of the Apes, The Hobbit, etc. His casting is surely meant as another intended commentary on art, but you’d have to know who he is to even trip over the point.

Ultimately, this is a heck of a lot of time to spend in a world that is neither compelling nor fully realized. I can only think that the awards it won was due to people being duped into it being art, much like some of the odder installations in the movie itself (which isn’t to say those examples couldn’t be art, but even the story chips away at the core of that idea).

Personally, my though is that you could take the time you’d spend on this movie and see two other films that are much better…and you should.

The Square

Wonder Wheel

[3.5 stars]

Wonder Wheel starts off like many Woody Allen (Cafe Society) films: A hapless narrator explaining the romance/farce/tragedy that is about to unfold. In this case, it is a bit of all of that, but it also quickly shifts into a new mode for Allen. With the immense help of Jim Belushi (Twin Peaks) and Kate Winslet (Collateral Beauty), we are suddenly transported into a Eugene O’Neill play with moments of Tennessee Williams, complete with claustrophobic set, heavy use of alcohol, violence, and disastrous romantic longings. Not to detract from Winslet’s more subtle performance, but Belushi is the real powerhouse behind these scenes; he is an unexpected gut punch in what you expect to be a light, period romance.

Those truly phenomenal scenes are broken up with more typical Allen moments, but without the forced, halting aspects that tend to distract in his movies. All of the scenes flow nicely, though the tenor of the dialog becomes lighter and a tad stilted. Justin Timberlake (Trolls) tends to herald these moments. To a degree, I understand the choice and it is explained at the very top of the film, but the scenes cut into a more powerful story and I think it could have been smoothed through a bit better.

Running between the two worlds along with Winslet is Juno Temple (Black Mass). She brings most of the Tennessee Williams sensibility: fragile, naive, tough, intelligent, lost, and desperate to be loved. She is a breath of Southern Gothic dropped into the Northeast Tragedy.

In many ways, while not necessarily the best Woody Allen film, it is one of his most impressive. The use of language and setting is powerful. The story is relateable and yet utterly designed. The tragedy inevitable and yet totally avoidable. If not for the recent events in the industry, Wonder Wheel would have garnered a lot more attention and nominations. That it didn’t is a complicated conversation every person will have to answer for themselves. But, from a purely artistic point of view, I can recommend the film for the performances, writing, and direction and it may suggest an entirely new direction for Allen’s oeuvre.

Wonder Wheel