Tag Archives: indie

Side by Side

[4 stars]

It is the rare documentary that manages to keep me utterly intrigued. And Side by Side, while not the most perfect docu, pulls together such a wealth of top voices in the industry to discuss the advent of digital film vs. celluloid emulsion that it held my attention throughout. OK, it did drag a bit on the wrap up, but it was still fascinating.

Christopher Kenneally put this film together over a couple years, releasing it in 2012 and then extended versions of it a couple years later. He chose as his narrator Keanu Reeves (Replicas). One amusing effect of the time span is watching Reeves’s hair and beard change from scene to scene. Where most docus these days avoid having the interviewer present or visible on screen to help focus purely on the subject, Reeves is very much a part of the conversation.

While digital film has improved in the intervening years, the arguments haven’t really changed. However, the trends they interviewees have spun out are all coming to roost in pretty much the way they all agreed it would happen, with one unforseen notable exception: COVID-19. In a world currently locked down by a pandemic, cinemas closed everywhere, and 8K TVs already available on shelves, timing has changed. Not only will this event help accelerate digital filming, but it is changing the intended and predominant delivery venue from large screen to small. Dozens of major releases shifted to stream early or stream-only in the last few weeks and that genie isn’t going back in the bottle. The greatest governor to the advent of digital film has been quality on the big screen… and while that gap has narrowed, the issue is much less noticeable on the small screen.

In many ways, this movie is like a Nova episode on steroids. There is some very basic science and history surrounded by luminaries discussing their views and the implications. But it is the very quality of those views, put forth by those who have set the bar for decades, as well as the floor for the next generation of filmmakers, that makes it so interesting. Even if you’re not a fanatic about cinema, this is an engaging and intriguing conversation to listen in on for 90 or so minutes. Make the time for it.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

[4 stars]

A quiet but intense love story that is (dare I say it?) a slow burn. I was worried that, despite all its awards, director/writer Céline Sciamma’s (Tomboy) two hour story of a portraitist and her subject would drag. It doesn’t.

The silences between Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are tense with unspoken thoughts. Their verbal sparring is equally charged, though spare with words. And Merlant’s relationship with her supplies and canvas is just as intriguing. Watching these women discover each other and themselves never let’s you relax.

Around the main story are smaller tales supported by Luàna Bajrami and Valeria Golino. Both women bring a lot of story with very little explained.

One of Sciamma’s achievements with this film is that it is, essentially, all women. And all strong women, in their way. Men are not only incidental, they are a hindrance to their worlds. It is also visually a stunning piece of cinematography; as painterly as the story it tells. And the final moments of the story are a collection of joyously heartbreaking scenes. It reminded me of the end of Gloria in its ability to deliver a resolution.

Portrait is an unexpectedly moving story and one worth seeing. On big screen it must have been breathtaking, but even on a smaller screen it is a feast for all your movie senses.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

[3 stars]

In case it wasn’t obvious, this has a really targeted audience…if you weren’t/aren’t a fan of the original Alien or its sequels on a deep level it won’t likely resonate. Unlike Alexandre O. Philippe’s previous 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, there isn’t as much context setting and obvious industry shift caused by the movie’s subject. That said, after a slightly overwrought opening and set up, it’s an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the creative process that led to the iconic movie. In addition, you can see where many of the choices that appear in the later movies grew from.

This isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is solid and, for the intrigued, interesting. Despite knowing a lot about the production, it certainly ferreted out a lot that I didn’t. I don’t know if it increased my appreciation of the movie any more (still one of the best horror films ever), but it provided a framework and some interesting background on writer Dan O’Bannon, who is the primary subject. If you appreciated the original that made Ridley Scott (Alien: Covenant) a household name and set a whole new bar for such films, give it the 90 minutes it deserves.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

Frankie

[3 stars]

A rumination on the nature of love, life, and family against the beautiful backdrop of Sintra, Portugal. In many ways, Frankie is After the Wedding’s less overwrought cousin. There are several common themes and dynamics, though the stories are driven by different stakes and pressures.

Isabelle Huppert (Greta) is the lynchpin at the center of a blended family that spans multiple marriages. Her sense of entitlement as well as her own sense of self keeps bumping up against her recognition of the realities of that complexity, but all in very quiet and introspective ways. There are few histrionics despite the tensions between people and the situation in which they are mired. It is all about the reactions and silences, which director and co-writer Ira Sachs (Love is Strange) orchestrates with great confidence.

Along with Huppert, Brendan Gleeson (Assassin’s Creed), Marisa Tomei (Only You), Jérémie Renier (Double Lover), Vinette Robinson (A Christmas Carol), Sennia Nanua (The Girl With All the Gifts), and Greg Kinnear (Same Kind of Different as Me) fill out the other main roles. Their paths are all separate, but also all reflect and intersect on Huppert’s journey and life.

This isn’t a fast movie, but it is gripping in a very quiet way. And, ultimately, it brings together its point and moments in a wonderful bit of visual metaphor that is simply presented for us to absorb and enjoy. Frankie is about life and legacy and the meaning and complications of love. It is certainly bittersweet, but manages to avoid being maudlin or at all self-righteous. It’s simply a view and point of view of a collection of lives bound by blood and circumstance. And, like Sachs other works, emotionally hypnotic through to the end.

 

Frankie

Standing Up, Falling Down

[3 stars]

Honestly, the elements of this film worried me to no end as it opened and laid them out for inspection. Boomerang kids trying to find their way, bad comics finding their path, old widower trying to make amends, and romantically desperate people aching for “the one that got away.” It just shouldn’t have worked. But Peter Hoare’s (Kevin Can Wait, Killing Hasselhoff) script is simple, honest, and clever, which Matt Ratner directs with great care. In fact, for a first feature, Ratner really shows some chops containing the potential disaster of elements and emotions, not to mention the cast he managed to land.

Without question, Billy Crystal (Monsters University) holds this story together. Without him, it would have simply fallen apart even though Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation) is the main character driving the movie. Around these two, there are a host of solid performances and interactions. Grace Gummer (Learning to Drive) and Schwartz have some wonderful brother/sister interactions (again a credit to Ratner), and Debra Monk (Mozart in the Jungle) is the perfect Long Island mom. There are a lot of other fun, smaller roles worth spotting as well, but why give them all away?

This isn’t a revelatory movie, but it is well done and entertaining. It’s delightfully contained and rides the line between reality and absurdity with skill. Keep an eye out for it or pick it up on stream as it exits the festival circuit and becomes more generally and more affordably available.

Standing Up, Falling Down

The Peanut Butter Falcon

[3 stars]

This is one of those quiet films that gets under your skin in unexpected ways. It isn’t a fun story, though it is funny in its way. But it’s a reminder of what makes up a family and that the only limitations on our lives are those that we set for ourselves (and that, very often, we only achieve those goals with help from others).

Much of the success of the story is due to Shia LaBeouf’s (Nymphomaniac) surprising level of vulnerability and accessibility. This isn’t his story (directly) but through his actions and decisions we learn about him and watch him heal. Dakota Johnson (Suspiria) is less leveled, but ends up on a collision path with the two men that forces her to rethink her life.

There are also some wonderful smaller roles that fill in the gaps and push forward the action. Thomas Hayden Church (Hellboy), Bruce Dern (The Mustang), Jon Bernthal (Widows), and John Hawkes (The Driftless Area) are among these.

Of course, the real star of this film is Zack Gottsagen. He delivers a fearless performance that is both brash and subtle. Some of that is thanks to first-time feature directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who also co-wrote the script. They bring you into these character’s world and help you shift into their sense of life and understand their goals.

This film, for all its detail, isn’t reality. It’s more a down-to-earth fable; especially given the final moments. That’s OK given the purpose, but it may put off some viewers. But, generally, this is a quiet road-trip story with a bit more depth  than you might expect.

The Peanut Butter Falcon

Last Night

[3 stars]

There are untold numbers of end of the world stories and movies. It’s such fertile ground for human stories that writers, readers, and viewers just can’t resist the temptation to create or experience the situations. It’s the ultimate stakes.

Often this takes the form of action and mayhem. It makes sense as the tensions run high at such moments and people are, well, people. But more and more movies are tackling it on the micro and personal level, giving us classics like Melancholia, Aniara, or series like Hard Sun. Last Night is definitely more like Melancholia than, say, Deep Impact, or Armageddon.

Through several interconnected small stories, we get a view of Toronto during the final hours of the planet. The stories are affecting, though nothing particularly revelatory. But the cast manages to make you care. With Sandra Oh (Killing Eve) and Callum Keith Rennie (The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet) helping to drive the overall story, there is a wide range of approaches and emotions.

Geneviève Bujold delivers an understated, but nice turn and even David Cronenberg (Maps to the Stars) makes an appearance, which is a nice and appropriate gift for such a subject.

Behind this odd little film is Don McKellar, who wrote, directed, and takes one of the starring roles in the final cut…which explains some of the weaknesses in the result. McKellar is only mildly believable as compared to his fellow cast… which given his distraction managing all his responsibilities isn’t unusual. It was also his first feature as director, so the pile of awards and notice the film achieved is notable. But as the core character, it put the entire house of cards at significant risk.

Last Night isn’t a fast film, but it is one that will make you think. It sparks thoughts and questions that are as applicable to everyday life as they are to a world-ending event.

Last Night

Battle Beyond the Stars

[3 stars]

To be a little oxymoronic, this decidedly low-budget Roger Corman (Extraordinary Tales) space opera is more interesting for its camp and historical aspects than it is for the movie itself, which is just as often unintentionally funny as it is intentionally so in John Sayles’ script. Part of that is, admittedly, the execution of story. While Jimmy T. Murakami is officially credited for directing, Corman was in there stirring the pot too. It shows in the choice to deliver much of the arch/stock dialogue in absolute earnest, keeping the movie on keel but making some moments delightfully absurd.

For context, this flick was released just two years after the original Star Wars. Everyone wanted to replicate that success and we were getting inundated with bad space opera. But it was even earlier that films began poking fun at Flash Gordon and its ilk with the groundbreaking Barbarella. There is more than a little of that kind of humor in Battle, even as it attempts to wrap it all in a serious struggle for the survival of a planetfull of people under siege by a galactic bully, in the guise of John Saxon.

Leading the charge against Saxon’s Sador is Richard Thomas (The Americans) fresh off The Waltons. He and his smart-mouthed ship spearhead the search for warriors to protect his pacifist planet. The motley crew he assembles includes George Peppard (Damnation Alley ), Robert Vaughn, and Earl Boen.

Importantly, working behind the camera was a young James Cameron who was earning his bones and seeing how it was all done. Boen would meet Cameron and, a few short years later, find himself in The Terminator and Cameron at the forefront of his long career.

Battle is, at best, diverting and, at worse, painful to watch. It is sexist, absurd, culturally white bread, poorly plotted, and ridiculously executed. Which is all part of what makes it popcorn fun. But a good movie this isn’t. You watch it for how bad it is at times, and at how impressive the effects are for the time and budget they were working with. It is really more a classic because of who was involved than anything else. Either you’re a fan of “so bad its good/fun” or you’re not. If you’re not, just run away now.

Battle Beyond the Stars

Red Joan

[3.5 stars]

Movies of political intrigue are often entertaining but, because they tend to concentrate on the action and suspense and lose the humanity, they are not typically great movies. Red Joan is all about the humanity, with enough suspense and intrigue (though no real action) to keep it riveting. Based on a true story, and a timely one in many ways, it’s a wonderful depiction of living with a moral ambiguity in a world that wants all things to be simple.

Judy Dench (All is True), who is far from a frail old woman, manages to crumble before us as Joan. She is clearly tired and, in her way, happy to finally have the truth come out rather than keeping all the secrets that have influenced the direction of her life. While Dench’s moments are powerful and essential, it is Sophie Cookson (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) as her younger self that carries the movie in the main. She does so as a woman in search of acceptance in a man’s world, though never giving into that aspect; she remains both strong and human throughout.

Tom Hughes (About Time), Ben Miles (Collateral), and Stephen Campbell Moore (The Child in Time) fill out the critical roles around Joan. Each brings a particular element and challenge. And each has their own contribution to the resolution.

Trevor Nunn (Lear) directed Lindsay Shapero’s first feature script with an honest eye. There are few, if any, histrionics despite the tension and stakes; but they aren’t needed. The story carries itself in quiet moments that are stretched to breaking. But this isn’t a Le Carre tale like Little Drummer Girl, the tension is in the characters more than the risks. The personal story itself is enough, especially when delivered by such a solid cast.

Red Joan

Wild Nights with Emily

[3 stars]

Emily Dickinson has remained a surprisingly controversal character in the field of poetry.  This somewhat comic biography/exposé of her life isn’t likely to reduce that. In fact, for some, it may shatter their sense of her.

The movie is at its best when writer/director Madeleine Olnek (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) is using the story to skewer the literary world and literary criticism. Primarily this is through the voice and actions of Amy Seimetz (Pet Sematary), who’s smarmy, self-important Mabel Loomis Todd provides the narrative thread to explain what we thought we knew about Dickinson’s life and art. Olnek counterpoints it throughout with the re-enactments/fictional conceptions based on the recent revelations of Dickinson’s letters and poetry.

Molly Shannon’s (We Don’t Belong Here) is often restrained as Dickinson, but occasionlly a little unleashed. She and Susan Ziegler (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) present the challenge of a life-long relationship in an era where it should have been impossible. And yet, it appears to have been one of the worst kept secrets of its village and family. It was the rewriting of that history that hid that truth for over 100 years.

Where Olnek’s film is at its weakest is when she allowed the comedy to get too broad (no pun intended). Some of this is with Shannon, but it extends to side characters too, such as maid Lisa Haas (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) or Emily’s brother played by Kevin Seal (Laggies). Also, the overall structure is somewhat fractured, slipping between a sort of forced period movie approach and contemporary speech and editing. The combination isn’t always comfortable or effective.

The odd sensibility and choices aside, the film works. The angering absurdity of the time and situation, not to mention the impact of the decisions, hits home well. For something a little different that will entertain and even educate a little, this is a good choice.

Wild Nights with Emily