Archive for the ‘Indie movies’ Category

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I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore

We typically have to wait almost a year — or more — for the public at large to see the big winner from the Sundance Film Festival. But not only is “I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore” out less than two months after snagging the Grand Jury prize in Park City, its also viewable from the comfort of your home due to Netflix scoring the distribution rights.

Starring Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood, IDFAHITWA sees a woman shaken out of a rut after a break-in at her home triggers a compulsion to pursue justice. It’s also the directorial debut of Macon Blair, best known for his acting collaborations with director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room). Blair borrows from Saulnier’s style of minimalist, organic and unflinching violence, but also injects his feature with a heavy doze of sardonic humor. The result is something like a marriage of hipster comedy and Coenesque drama and shows a lot of promise for an emerging multi-hyphenate storyteller.

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Mascots

If you’re a fan of Christopher Guest…well, you’ve probably seen Mascots already. But otherwise you should know that the team behind the mockumentaries Best in Show, A Mighty Win and Waiting For Guffman have a Netflix Original film about the cutthroat world of competitive Mascot-ery.

To  be sure, Mascots is a lesser-Guest. But it is still hilarious in its survey of bizarre, pseudo-surrealist characters, like Chris O’Dowd’s Tommy ‘Zook’ Zucarello, who performs as “The Fist” for a hockey team, and whose every action in the musculatured foam hand suit is a master class is sight gags.

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Burn After Reading

Speaking of Coenesque, and lesser-entries, “Burn After Reading” may not be the strongest entry in the Joel and Ethan Coen canon, but don’t let that stop you from its unique pleasures, number one on that list being that fully-committed and unbelievably ludicrous performance of Brad Pitt as a pompadoured buffoon of a personal trainer.

Combining gym rats, DIY sex toys and international espionage in a way that only the Coens can, “Burn after Reading” wrings gallons of humor out of a few ounces of its characters poor decision-making.

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It Follows

The horror genre is experiencing something like a creative renaissance, and just in the nick of time. After 2004’s “Saw,” there was a decade in which horror producers were arms-racing each other to up the ante on torture porn. Thankfully, the trends are showing sign of shifting back toward risk-taking and storytelling, and there’s perhaps no better example of that New-School thank the incredible “It Follows” (which, as you may recall, was among my picks for the 10 best films of 2014).

As both an homage and a satire of classic scarers, It Follows takes the trope that in horror, sex = death, and stretches it to its logical extreme. Its antagonist is a loosly-defined specter that relentlessly pursues its victims as they pass its curse from one to another through sexual intercourse. You can survive by passing “it” on to someone else, but if “it” gets them, then you’re back at the top of the list, being followed again.

The device is incredibly effective as “it” shapeshifts through various forms, visible only to the infected. It causes the viewer to dart their eyes around the screen, looking for anyone who seems out of place, or a little *too* determined in their gait. Layer on top a gorgeous, pulpy style full of neon lighting and synth-pop atmosphere and you have a cinematic experience that leaps above the rest.

 

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The Incredible Jessica James

Jessica Williams stars as the titular Jessica James, an aspiring New York City playwright on the bad end of a breakup. It’s a showcase for the comedian, consisting largely of her character’s whimsical take on life, love and ambition with little by way of plot besides wanting to make it big and maybe meet a nice guy while she’s at it.

It provides enough laughs for the price of admission, and is an encouraging argument in favor of Williams as protagonist. But there’s not a lot of there, there, and not much to say beyond what a million other young-in-New-York films have said before.

Grade: B-

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The Big Sick

Written by and based on the life of Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick functions like an inter-nationality take on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” for the millennial generation.

Before he was an anchor player on TV Comedies like Silicon Valley, Nanjiani was a stand-up comedian slumming it on his way up the food chain and a closeted agnostic in a family of strict adherents to Islam and Pakistani culture, which includes arranged marriages. In the dramatized version, he meets the decided *not* Pakistani Emily (Zoe Kazan) after a gig, kicking off a courtship that is tested first by his reluctance to reveal all to his disapproving parents and second by a mystery ailment that places Emily in a medically-induced coma.

The writing is sharp and funny, with a nice blend of comedy and drama as Kumail deals with the titular “Big Sick” Emily is going through. It also includes knock-out supporting roles by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. That the movie ends on a positive note isn’t spoiling much, and the film easily earns its sentimental finish.

Grade: A

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An Inconvenient Sequel

In a way its frightening that we’ve had 10 years since Al Gore first delivered his power point presentation on climate change in “An Inconvenient Truth” only to still be debating the science of carbon emission.  But at least the ensuing decade has given the once-and-future president plenty of material for a round two.

Yes, the ice has melted, the waters have risen, the storms have worsened and myriad other Gore predictions have manifested, but “Sequel” also goes beyond the doom and gloom to track the real and significant political efforts made, notably the Paris Agreement of last year. Naturally, President Trump’s pledge to tear up that agreement and double down on fossil fuels is a bummer for Gore, and a bit of a thorn in the third act of “Sequel,” the documentary still manages a message of optimism among its impressively researched call to arms.

Grade: B+

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Rememory

The best way to describe “Rememory” is that it is relentlessly serious. Peter Dinklage stars as one of several broken souls in a pseudo-science fiction world in which a machine has been created that can record and display the mind’s memories. When the machine’s inventor dies under suspicious circumstances, Dinklage’s Sam steals the memory machine in order to both probe his own dark past and solve the inventor’s murder. But the final reveal on both points is underwhelming and bogged down by the slog of dull greys and moody glances.

It’s a notable film, largely due being one of the final performances of the late Anton Yelchin, and there are a lot of lofty ideas about how life’s experiences shape us into who we are. But its ambitions our ground into powder by its crushing atmosphere.

Grade: C+

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Landline

In this 90’s-set ensemble dramedy, a woman (Jenny Slate) learns of her father’s affair while having one of her own. There’s a lot of talent on screen, with Jay Duplass, John Turturro and Edie Falco rounding out the top billing, but the movie never seems to alchemize its components into something more.

It’s a pleasant and charming enough film, doing interesting work with its web of familial and romantic relationships. Turturro and Falco, in particular, shine as two halves of a strained marriage.

It never quite pops though, resulting in a film that seems to simply exist and then  promptly evaporate when the credits roll.

Grade: C+

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Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press

It’s a tough time to be in the news business. Budgets are tight, left bare by the departure of traditional revenue sources, and the national readership is increasingly lacking in media literacy. According to Nobody Speak, those factors create an opening for the rich and powerful to bury the Constitutionally-protected voices that challenge them.

It’s a growing and disturbing trend expertly documented by director Brian Knappenberger, who focuses on the Hulk Hogan sex tape lawsuit that shuttered Gawker before spiraling outward to include the Silicon Valley billionaire that bankrolled that lawsuit as a personal vendetta, the Las Vegas casino titan that secretly purchased Nevada’s major newspaper to tailor coverage to his worldview, and finally to newly-inaugurated President Trump, who was pledged to “open up” libel laws to make it even easier to torpedo news outlets with crippling lawsuits if they step out of line.

For media junkies, the documentary is catnip. But to even the casual observer of politics and the free press it’s a chilling warning that the worst days for transparency are ahead of us.

Grade: A-

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In Loco Parentis

There’s a long tradition of the quirky school documentary at Sundance, but even within the limits of that at-times tired formula, In Loco Parentis woos with its charm and subtlety.

Set at a boarding school in Ireland, In Loco Parentis takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, soaking in the daily life of the school, with a particular focus on a married teaching couple in the twilight years of their careers. The decidedly European education style is half the fun, as the magicless Hogwarts nature of the boarding school differs from the traditional American school system. But the directors are also able to capture the special something that makes schooling special as kids open their eyes to a world of music, art, literature and discovery.

Grade: B

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Tell them We Are Rising: The Story Of Historically Black Colleges And Universities

Stanley Nelson is an extremely accomplished documentarian who is unafraid to capture difficult subjects. That said, his latest film, Tell Them We Are Rising, is boringly dull in its telling of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs.

The first two-thirds of the film play like a discount Ken Burns, full of black and white still photos backed by dramatic voice-over reading of journal entires and other texts. It’s an extremely important subject and an often ignored piece of U.S. history, but by the time the film hits the modern era, injecting the screen with living images and color, the feeling of drag has already set in.

Grade: B-

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Chasing Coral

There’s any number of great documentaries out there that make the case that mankind is making devastating and potentially irreversible changes to the global ecosystem. Chasing Coral makes for a worthy addition that list, narrowing its focus to the damage that climate change inflicts on our oceans, in particular the life-giving coral that sustains marine activity.

It begins with the underwater photography of Richard Vevers before touching on the widespread bleaching that is occurring around the world. That leads to an Ocean’s 11-style assembly of a team to capture underwater time lapse of the bleaching in order to proof, in vivid detail the catastrophe occurring underwater.

It’s increasingly depressing stuff, as the vibrant and breathtaking coral scenes make way for images of death and decay. But the film allows for some optimism at the end, highlight the efforts underway to reverse climate trends, and a call to arms to push back against the dying of the light.

Grade: B+

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Wilson

Woody Harrelson’s “Wilson” is the type of movie that people will either love or loathe. The laughter in the screening venue proved that there are plenty of the former, while my own experience and the groans of patrons exiting afterward confirm a significant shareof the latter.

Harrelson stars as the titular Wilson, a loud-mouthed buffoon with no regard to personal boundaries or polite norms. After his father dies and his friend moves out of state, Wilson realizes he’s alone, prompting him to seek out his ex wife (the fantastic Laura Dern), which leads to the discovery that his presumed-aborted daughter is alive and living with an adoptive family.

The comedic punches lie solely on the shoulders of Harrelson, who plays his character in an uncomfortable grey area between clueless and mental illness. Dern elevates every film she’s in, but too much weight is carried by Harrelson, who prattles of an unending stream of listless dialogue. It has its moments, but they are very few and too far in between.

Grade: D

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The top 10 is finished. I have the films selected, ranked and ready to go. In fact, I was about to skip the Number 11 post entirely and go straight to the business when I was struck by the sentimentality of tradition and the memory that my finacêe made me insist that I acknowledge *her* favorite movie of the 2016 at some point during my year-end posting.

Luckilly for her (and me, let’s be honest) is that her favorite movie also happened to be the 11th best movie of 2016. And that movie is…

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Arrival

Director Denis Villeneuve is on a pretty impressive streak, with this year’s “Arrival” coming after last year’s “Sicario,” and both “Enemy” and “Prisoners” in 2013. I haven’t seen his earlier work, but if what I hear about “Incendies” is true, then the streak continues.

His film are difficult to categorize, and none more so than Arrival, which is ostensibly a science-fiction film about aliens visiting Earth but doubles as an examination of hope and the binding power of communication.

It’s also a showcase for actress Amy Adams, whose linguist and interpreter Louise Banks is the heart and soul of the plot. After a number of disk-shaped, hovering craft appear, Banks is scooped up by the U.S. government — along with Jeremy Renner’s mathematician Ian Donnelly — and given the task with communicating with the beings inside, a pair of tentacled forms that employ a written language of circular ink blots.

Beautifully shot and scored, Arrival is heavy on atmosphere, which hums in harmony with the largely abstract themes on screen. And in a year as divisive and rhetorically toxic as this one has been, it’s poetic — maybe fated? — and cathartic to watch a film that champions a rejection of competition and isolation in service of a greater good.

Optimistic and movingly heart-breaking, with an arthouse-quality production and craftsmanship, “Arrival” is the 11th-best movie of the year.

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2016 was bad. Just ugly, toxic, divisive, terrible, horrible, no good, very bad.

Except for film. In that one category, 2016 was *awesome*! It was a year when filmmakers took risks, writers bucked convention, directors toyed with genre and even the stiffest franchise fare from the major studios flexed their creative muscles — for good or ill.

The annual Top 10 is coming soon. But as always, and in particular this year, there was an abundance of quality film that demands recognition.

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Best Box Office Flop: The Nice Guys

It is a crime, an honest-to-God, should-be-prosecuted crime that The Nice Guys failed to find an audience. It’s a neo-noir action comedy, pairing Ryan Gosling and Russel Crowe as wise-cracking private detectives in late-70s Los Angeles, and is writer-director Shane Black’s follow-up to Iron Man 3. (Black, by the way, also wrote and directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which if you haven’t seen yet WHY ARE YOU STILL READING THIS PARAGRAPH AND NOT RECTIFYING YOUR WASTED LIFE?)

Black has a talent for structured chaos, in which everyman characters save the day through a combination of ingenuity and dumb luck as dominoes fall around them. His action scenes are like Rube Goldberg contraptions, which burst outward in unexpected ways without every sacrificing credibility. And his scripts, meanwhile, are filled to the brim with smart, winking dialogue that  sizzles with energy. It’s a delightful recipe that in Nice Guys puts a modern spin on the old gum-shoe tale with jazzy, retro setting.

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Best Superhero: Doctor Strange

In a year of strong competition (Deadpool, Civil War) and weak competition (Batman v Superman) it’s Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sorcerer Supreme that turns in the most memorable comic-book tale of the year. As satisfying as the other entries are (or aren’t), they still amount to “Who Punches Hardest?” while Dr. Strange culminates around a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria and the manipulation of time and space. And while the Marvel movies are routinely lacking by way of compelling antagonists, Strange scores by revealing its big bad to be an amorphous mass while setting up more personal threats down the road. The line for DS-2 starts here.

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Best Documentary: Tickled

Welcome to the wonderful of competitive endurance tickling, where teams of young, male athletes take turns tying each other down and tickling the stuffing out of each other. If that sounds like some weird kinky fetish, well…it kind of is.

What starts as a passing curiosity for journalist David Farrier quickly turns increasingly bizarre and sinister as Farrier falls further down the rabbit whole of internet tickling videos. There’s not much more to say without spoiling the films myriad twists, suffice to say that Tickled tells the kind of true story that gives meaning to the phrase “stranger than fiction.”

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Best Indie (tie): The Witch, Love & Friendship

Two Sundance Festival breakouts share the distinction of 2016’s best indie. Both period pieces, albeit on opposite ends of the genre spectrum, one is a minimalist thriller about a frontier family battling a malicious entity and the other is a Regency-era comedy about a master of manipulation. They’re also among the eeriest and funniest, respectively, cinema produced this year. In either case the filmmakers show an impeccable attention to detail and atmosphere, giving the scenes a lived-in quality in which the actors can disappear, serving spine tingles and belly-laughs in spades.

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Best Western: The Magnificent Seven

In today’s landscape of sequels, prequels, sidequels and all other -quels, its refreshing to see a movie with a healthy budget and recognizable actors commit to telling a single story rather than twisting itself into a narrative pretzel for future installments. And movies are meant to entertain, and sometimes an old fashioned shoot-em-up is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Such are the strengths of The Magnificent Seven, a saddles and spurs yarn about a motley crew of assorted scoundrels teaming up to take out a mustache-twirling villain, with no larger ambitions then to tell its tale of camaraderie and derring-do. It’s a pleasure watching the pieces come together, and it builds to a bombastic climax this is remarkably satisfying for its ability to avoid the pratfalls of lesser efforts while honoring expectations.

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Best Head Trip: The Invitation

When Will arrives at his former home, to attend a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife, something is just a little…off. Thus begins one of the most effective thrillers in years, that takes “slow burn” to a new level, incrementally dialing up Will’s paranoia and building up to a climax that is both inevitable and shocking when it arrives. Director Karyn Kusama is almost too effective at making the audience sense the unease, aided by stellar work by Game of Throne’s Michiel Huisman and jack-of-all-trades John Carroll Lynch, and the final moments of the film’s kicker ending are expertly composed to haunting results.

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Best Setup: 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane, the second film in the barely-defined anthology universe of Cloverfield, has third act problems. Your mileage may vary on the ending, but whether you like or loath the climax, there is no denying that what comes before it is Grade-A mystery box storytelling. For two-thirds of the movie, the audience is kept at arms length about what is or is not going on in an underground bunker and the world above it. At the center is John Goodman, who makes poetry of his doomsday prepper who is either a reluctant savior or an unhinged predator, or both, or neither.

Things go a little sideways, to say the least, when the Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s heroine makes it outside. But even if you turned off the film at that point it would be time well spent.

And finally, the 2016 Wood’s Stock Balls-To-The-Wall Award goes to:

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Green Room

Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier made a splash in the indie scene with his film Blue Ruin, a revenge tale that took a nuts-and-bolts approach to on-camera violence. In his follow-up, Green Room, Saulnier flexes those same muscles but with a greater degree of confidence as a storyteller.

The film, which features one of the final performances by the extremely talented and tragically gone-too-soon Anton Yelchin, revolves around a punk rock band fighting for survival after a gig at a skinhead bar goes south. It’s a story of colliding motivations, and told in a way that feels raw and human, within the realm of possibility and prone to the errors of casual mistakes.

Oh, and did I mention that Patrick Stewart plays a neo-Nazi?

Not for the faint of heart, the walls of Green Room are painted red with blood. But Saulnier’s style is not one of torture-porn exploitation. It focuses instead on the lengths people can and do go when backed into a corner, and it makes for a wild ride.

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*Note: portions of this review were originally published during coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival

The quirky family dramedy is a perennial staple, and the genre’s demands are thoroughly satisfied by “The Hollars,” directed by The Office’s John Krasinski. This is a film where an aloof son (Krasinski) is summoned home due to the ill health of a parent (in this case, character actress Margo Martindale) and the ensuing reconnection to his past thrusts him out of a rut a changed, matured and awakened man, ready to face his future.

It’s a familiar formula, but one that is successfully executed by the incredible ensemble cast, which includes perfect human Anna Kendrick as Krasinski’s pregnant, no-nonsense wife, Richard Jenkins as his endearingly buffoonish father, Sharlto Copley as a mildly-unhinged brother and small but memorable parts for Josh Groban, Charlie Day and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

But it’s not all sunshine. The potential loss of a parent hangs over the proceedings, and the b-plot hinges on Copley’s character struggling to cope with the recent separation from his wife and children. But the drama side of things floats above despair, avoiding the sharper edges of hipster negativity that populate similar work by Zach Braff or the Duplass Brothers — not a knock on either style, simply a comment a tone.

The tidy, group-hug ending may be a little too breezy for some, but ‘The Hollars’ is funny, it’s heartfelt, and it goes down smooth.

Grade: B+

*The Hollars opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, September 23.

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*Note: Portions of this review were originally published during coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

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During the course of an extremely long first date, future president Barack Obama won over a disinterested Michelle Robinson, despite several biting arguments, by demonstrating his oratorical prowess and sneaking a kiss over some dessert. At least, that’s the version shown in “Southside With You,” the Before Sunrise-esque film about the First Couple’s early relationship.

Unfortunately, writer-director Richard Tanne’s script lacks the depth and subtlety of Richard Linklater’s classic. “Southside With You” is bogged down by the weight of its characters’ futures and so concerned with what is to be that it forgets that its actually telling a story set in the present tense. What should be a love story between two young and promising adults in Chicago is instead a pseudo-mythic “Obama: Origins” story, as if at any moment a radioactive spider will jump out and transform them into their full potential.

For his part, Parker Sawyers is an effortlessly convincing young-B.O., slipping skillfully into 44’s mannerisms without resorting to gross caricature. The same can’t be said for Tika Sumpter (also one of the film’s producers) who is stilted as Michelle Obama and who relies on sullenness as a substitute for the future first lady’s principled strength.

“Southside With You” bets every chip it has on the allure of young POTUS and FLOTUS. But imagine for a moment not knowing who Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson grow up to be, and what’s left is an overly presumptive film about an otherwise generic meet cute, in which the budding romance between its protagonists is too short on chemistry to be convincing.

Grade: B-

*Southside With You opens in Salt Lake City and select theaters nationwide on Friday, August 26.

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