Tag Archives: independent film reviews

Home for the Holidays

My Apocalyptic Thanksgiving

by Rachel Willis

With My Apocalyptic Thanksgiving, writer Richard Soriano and director Charles B. Unger have crafted a touching and unique holiday film.

When Doris, the matriarch of a group home serving adults with special needs, unexpectedly dies, it leaves Marcus (Joshua Warren Bush) awash in loneliness and obsessed with a TV show called Apocalyptic Zombies. Come Thanksgiving, Marcus decides he wants to spend time with his long-absent mother.

A colorful cast of characters populates this film. There is Frank (Walker Haynes), who’s trying to fill the void Doris left behind in the group home, and the Park family. It is friction between young Kim Park (Chris Wu) and his parents that leaves a hole Marcus seems to fill.

Luis (Paul Tully) and Paco (David Jenson Perez) are local thugs who see Marcus’s size as a benefit to their operation. Social worker Nicole (Ciera Foster) does her best to help Marcus find his mother, despite Frank’s protestations.

One of the themes of the film is the constant conflict that affects the lives of many adults with special needs. It is clear Marcus cannot consistently take care of himself, but he is independent enough to resent the intrusion of those in charge of his care. He is allowed some freedoms: a job at the local laundromat, the ability to visit with friends. But he is still subjected to a curfew, to the demands to take his medication, even when he expresses his right to refuse.

Bush does a stunning job of encompassing the very real struggles that affect many adults with special needs. Marcus understands that he is frequently at the mercy of someone else’s wishes, but his desperation for family makes him easy to manipulate. Those with good hearts sometimes use this naivety to their advantage. Others with more devious intentions know exactly how to twist the knife in Marcus’s aching heart.

The film’s most disappointing element is the constant return to the fictional zombie show. Though it is an important part of Marcus’s life, the show and its actors never feel truly integrated into the film. This is especially true as we get to know our “real-world” characters. The forced humor of the show draws our attention away from the more interesting elements.

However, this is the only thorn in an otherwise lovely film. The writing is sensitive, and the actor portrayals are poignant. This is a delightful, sometimes devastating, portrait of what it means to be a family.

Lost, Not Found

The Lost Girls

by Cat McAlpine

After a whirlwind summer, Wendy Darling is too old to return to the lost boys again. So, what does poor Peter do? Simply waits for her daughter. And then waits for her daughter. And the one after that.

It’s easy to see how a classic, magical story is a nightmare in disguise. The Lost Girls explores four generations of Darling women and how a summer with Peter Pan impacts them for the rest of their lives. Based on the novel by Laurie Fox, the film has promise but drastically fumbles.

Adapting, directing, and starring in the film, Livia De Paolis has taken on more than she can chew. Weaving back and forth in time, while also capturing the stories of four generations of women, The Lost Girls fails to solidify any one character. Wendy is meant to be depicted as a dreamer, struggling between her imagination and real life. Unfortunately, she’s wholly irredeemable. None of Wendy’s experiences or actions endear viewers to her.

While the Peter Pan story is familiar, De Paolis would have benefitted from spending more time with Peter to show what has so enraptured four women across time. The fantastical characters are somehow the most believable. Both Louis Partridge as Peter Pan and Iain Glen as Hook are captivating on-screen. Unfortunately, they alone cannot carry the film.

There is a lot to be unearthed here. An immortal fae boy consistently grooms young women to adore him, only to abandon them as they age. Though each girl falls in love with Peter, he insists that their relationship remain chaste. His pirate counterpart, just as immortal and devious but in an older man’s body, pursues the girls and assaults them. That summer of whirlwind trauma haunts the Darling women for the rest of their lives. The results are muddy and inconsistent.

While The Lost Girls has opportunity to explore inherited mental illness here, it’s unclear if it is the source material or the adaptation that skirts the issue. Every Darling woman seems to present her illness differently, from flights of fancy to narcissism to suicide attempts. There is no clear source for their shared hallucination, or shared fantastical reality. There is no pattern to their illnesses or the consequences of a lifetime of disappointment after coming of age.

Bookended by bad CGI and a consistent lack of chemistry, The Lost Girls itself seems pretty lost.

Dark Night

Surviving Theater 9

by Rachel Willis

Tim McGrath survived the shooting at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. He shares his story in the docudrama, Surviving Theater 9.

McGrath not only wrote and directed but also plays himself in a film that focuses on what transpired before and after the event. Keeping his runtime to a brisk 49 minutes, McGrath narrows his focus to three survivors: himself, a teenager who went to the screening with his brother, and a woman whose brother was killed in the shooting.

The most affecting moments are the scenes that focus on what happens after. Some of it is appalling to consider: a neighbor who accuses a woman of exploiting her brother’s death; a law school committee that listens heartlessly as a student tries to appeal their decision to suspend him; a teacher who doesn’t understand her student just needs a moment alone.

Though the Before moments want to give the audience a chance to get to know these three, perhaps the shortness of the film’s runtime is to blame for the lack of depth. Surviving Theater 9 might have been more poignant if the survivors had been allowed to speak for themselves in a documentary, but you can see that this story might be easier to tell through another person’s point of view.

McGrath might have been wiser to restrict the timeline to a chronological retelling. Instead, he skips from After to Before and back again, creating gaps in the timeline. You’re left wondering about the fate of a cousin who accompanied McGrath to the theater, because it’s hard to recall if he appears in the After sections or only the Before sections.

McGrath’s goals are understandable, but flaws in the filmmaking detract from the experience.

Wisely, McGrath does not focus on the shooting itself. We’re given only minor moments of the chaos and terror that happened inside theater 9 because this isn’t the shooter’s story. Nor is it the story of the event. It’s about the survivors and the story they need to tell.

Tick, Tick, Boo!

Autumn Road

by Cat McAlpine

Riley Cusick does it all. He is the writer, director, and plays two leads in Halloween-themed horror Autumn Road. The film focuses on twin brothers Charlie and Vincent (Cusick), running a haunted house in their small hometown, and struggling actress Laura (Lorelei Linklater, Boyhood), who returns home for the anniversary of her sister’s disappearance.

Cusick establishes a wonderfully quiet but chaotic tone for his film. As a director, he has a great eye for establishing his shots, wonderfully capturing a small town filled with lonely people. A long shot of a spinning cup of cocoa. A lingering look at a dark parking lot. A masked man sprinting down a sunny highway. Cusick leaves a strong visual mark painted in warm tones.

It’s a good feature film debut done on the indie scale. But there’s room for growth. The script is weak, resulting in unrealistic dialogue that performs poorly paired with a handful of mostly wooden performances. Meanwhile, Cusick’s owl theme is haunting but heavy-handed.

Autumn Road still shines though, mostly when Cusick allows himself to become a little unhinged or when his monologues have time to ramp up into the insane. One such moment is when Vincent holds auditions for the haunted house. The scene is just the right mix of silly, campy, and genuinely disturbing.

Linklater does best with the more realistic dialogue, which allows her to be vulnerable and broken. She glows in a flashback scene with her sister. But she’s often saddled with difficult moments like suddenly mentioning her roommate’s recent death while making it about herself. “I’ve got bad luck in my bones. It follows me around like a dark cloud.” She says, conflating the disappearance of her sister with her roommate’s violent end.

Despite the genre, the violence of Cusick’s film is always shocking. Much of that violence never meets a resolution. In fact, most of the tension in the film remains unresolved, both painting a bleak picture and leaving the watcher unsatisfied. There seem to be no real-world consequences for the actions in Autumn Road.

Ultimately, Cusick’s feature-length debut is a fine effort. But his future endeavors may be best served if he dedicates his focus to a single role.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Small Time

by Christie Robb

Writer/director Naiv Conty certainly does not look back on childhood with a rose colored tint. Her film Small Time follows elementary school student Emma as she pinballs around from unfit home to unfit home.

It’s an emotionally honest portrait of neglect that keeps us uncomfortably aware of the tightrope Emma is unaware that she is walking. She’s constantly suspended above disaster—one overlooked gas stove, one loaded handgun, one move from a leering perv away from lasting trauma.

But Emma’s still sustaining damage all the time, just in tinier, more banal, ways. Hard-core drug and alcohol abuse by the adults around her is a normal part of her life. She’s loaded up with religious baggage. She’s expected to parent the grown-ups in her life. In the whole movie, no one is there to give her a cuddle or reassurance that looks like it is going to truly have a positive effect. But most of the adults do seem to be doing their best. It’s just that their best isn’t that great.

You know you are in for a heavy film when, only 13 minutes in, your pint-sized heroine has attended her primary caregiver’s funeral and tried repeatedly to “wake up” her mom from an OD.

Still, Emma is a scrappy, upbeat, smart little thing, her interior light dimmed surprisingly little by the shit she has to deal with. Audrey Grace Marshall plays her very straightforwardly. There’s nothing saccharine about her, nothing overwrought. She takes things as they come.

The movie plays a little bit with the timeline and shows events somewhat out of order. This didn’t become clear to me until relatively far into the film. It was filmed over a three-and-a-half-year period to give Marshall time to grow and mature between the three major periods depicted.

These chronological jumps are not clearly signaled by musical or obvious visual cues so it can be a bit disorienting. But the lack of exposition does center us in Emma’s experience as she flashes back to previous experiences and tries to make the best of the terrible hand she’s been dealt.

Small Time isn’t an easy film to watch, but it’s a good one.

Their Own American Dream

Hard Luck Love Song

by Rachel Willis

Working from the Todd Snider song, “Just Like Old Times,” writer/director Justin Corsbie (with co-writer Craig Ugoretz) brings the lyrics to life with his debut feature film, Hard Luck Love Song.

Basing a film on a song isn’t unheard of, but it isn’t very common either – probably for a lot of reasons. The biggest one being most story songs rely on character tropes to allow their listeners to connect to the characters. In this case, the antihero and the hooker with a heart of gold.

And even then, a film can succeed in adapting a song to the big screen if the background story and characters are fleshed out in believable ways. Unfortunately, Corsbie and Ugoretz don’t pull this off.

I find it hard to believe that in this day and age anyone could be hustled playing pool – didn’t everyone see Color of Money? But apparently, the scam still flies –because when we meet Jesse (Michael Dorman), it’s the way he makes his living. New to town, living in the Tumble Inn, Jesse is seeking to work over the locals.

There’s some slow action in the first half of the film. A pool tournament that starts as a montage begins to drag as the final three games play out between Jesse and Rollo (Dermot Mulroney). After a particularly ill-advised hustle, Jesse’s celebratory scene is indulgent and tacks on to an already slow opening act.

The story starts to pick up when an old flame (Sophia Bush) enters the picture, nearly halfway through the film. However, this is also when the movie begins to take on a different life, setting a new tone and coming closer to the meat of the song on which it’s based. If the film had continued to set a new stage in each act – treating each piece as a vignette in Jesse’s life – this may have worked. However, when elements of the first act are reintroduced into the final act, it’s jolting.

The third act is the least satisfying segment – relying heavily on stereotypes and songs to carry it along. It’s also when the film goes completely off the rails. Had the tone of the story not been so serious throughout, perhaps the conclusion could have landed more skillfully. As it is, the tonal shift is so abrupt that it feels as if we’re watching another movie altogether.

If you’re unfamiliar with Snider’s song, a live recording plays over the end credits. You’ll wonder why the filmmakers set such a serious tone when you hear Snider’s playful rendition. Perhaps if more of the song’s humor had made it into the film, the result would have been more satisfying.

Once Upon a Time in the Northwest


by Matt Weiner

While the trendy seasonal debate is about what makes for a Christmas movie, Freeland—a taut, character-driven thriller written and directed by Mario Furloni and Kate McLean—offers a fresh spin on neo-westerns. (Pacific Northwesterns, in this case.)

Humboldt County pot farmer Devi “Dev” Adler (Krisha Fairchild) finds her longstanding operation (and serene way of life) thrown into an existential crisis, not by any shock-and-awe DEA raid but rather the slow bureaucratic death of refusing to comply with the new proper legal channels.

With the state cracking down on illicit growing operations, Dev is increasingly cut off from potential buyers both in and out of state. The changing business landscape also lays bare how emotionally removed she has become. Both her seasonal staff and her ex-lover Ray (John Craven) see the inevitable, even if Dev cannot: a way of life in the Northwest is coming to an end and a new one has already started to replace it.

Dev’s desperate slow burn fuels much of the tension, with Fairchild turning in yet another career-defining performance half a decade after 2015’s Krisha. Whether it’s reflecting with Ray on what they’ve lost since their commune days in the 1970s or shooting withering stares at the new generation of harvesters and corporate players, Fairchild brings an aching vulnerability to the no-nonsense Dev.

While much of the action is from Dev’s emotional breakdown, the directors also slow down long enough to take in the northwest vistas. It’s easy to see why Dev refuses to change her way of life, even as every piece of what that used to be gets stripped from her one by one.

It would be monstrous to argue that legalization isn’t a net good for incarceration and the drug war (and congrats to drugs on the recent wins).  But Freeland throws into intimate focus another side of the legalization vs. decriminalization debate, in which the biggest winners look suspiciously like the same forces that are always ahead in every aspect of American life.

Freeland swaps 19th-century railroads for 21st-century agribusiness, but you don’t need a player piano to hear the familiar requiem.

Dangerous Deutschland


by Brandon Thomas

We know we’re in for a good time when a couple of hapless Americans venture into rural Europe. I’ve lost count of how many of these movies have been released over the years, but they’re almost always worth a casual look. I consider myself a well-traveled fella, but there’s always been something about the backwoods of Europe that sends a shiver down my spine.

I’m sure Europeans feel the same way about Kentucky.

Robin (Rachel Nichols, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and TV’s Alias) and her boyfriend, Leo (Yohance Myles), travel from the U.S. to a rural part of Germany after Robin’s grandfather, Karl (Jeremy London, Mallrats), dies. Robin and her father left Germany when she was young, and she hasn’t been back since. As she and Leo explore the cabin and its grounds, they are soon confronted by a strange cult, and find themselves scrambling through the region’s famed Black Forest, fighting for their lives. 

For a film that has folklore at the forefront, Demigod never gets bogged down by too much world-building exposition. Director (and co-star) Miles Doleac keeps the film moving at a snappy pace. The action sequences are well shot and edited, with a delightful level of energy.

The majority of the production value is found in the cinematography and how it captures the vast, isolated forest. But when the Demigod himself makes his eventual appearance, the result is borderline disappointing. Having your titular character look like a distant cousin of the laughing deer head in Evil Dead II isn’t going to set the word of mouth on fire. Thankfully, the sheer brutality of the character helps keep the chuckles away.

The film’s cast is pretty solid from top to bottom. Nichols makes for a strong heroine, selling the vulnerability of the character better than she does physicality. Director Doleac himself makes the biggest impression as German woodsman, Arthur. It’s a well-written character that allows Doleac to dance back and forth from a good guy to a bad guy to every gray area in between.

Demigod doesn’t have a lot of narrative surprises up its sleeve. However, what it lacks in story twists and turns, it more than makes up for with exciting, bloody carnage.

Who Can It Be Now?


by Rachel Willis

It’s easy for horror films to pigeonhole the mentally ill into stereotypical terrors that disturb those who’ve never experienced mental illness (or known someone to suffer from it). You often find the “split personality” films where one of the personalities is a murderer, or with a paranoid schizophrenic who can’t tell reality from hallucination terrorizing friends and family.

But once in a while, a horror film reminds you there is a real person suffering – someone who is more than their label. And that’s when things get truly unsettling.

Working from a script by Emma Broström, director Frida Kempff captures the uncertainty and fear of a woman struggling to be believed in the Swedish film, Knocking.

Molly (Cecilia Milocco) suffered a mental breakdown following a traumatic event. After spending time in a mental health facility, she’s deemed capable of being on her own. Moving into a new apartment and advised to turn it into a home, Molly attempts just that.

But the nightly knocking on her ceiling keeps her from settling into her new life.

What follows is a fairly predictable conundrum – is Molly hallucinating or is the knocking—perhaps attempts at Morse Code and a cry for help—real?

This isn’t the sole focus of the film. Kempff isn’t just interested in letting us guess at Molly’s situation, she also digs into the quickness with which people dismiss her. Because of Molly’s often erratic behavior and her past, police, neighbors, and health care workers tend to disregard her fear.

Milocco nails her role. She convincingly sells the character’s firm belief yet utter confusion surrounding the knocking. She portrays a woman trying to cope yet infused with obsession. As Molly tries to solve the mystery behind the knocking, everyone in her building becomes suspect.

In a particularly captivating scene, we watch Molly confront a group of men who live on the floor above her – the floor from which the knocking persists. The men recognize and respond to Molly’s distress, but they’re not listening to her. Though raising an alarm that someone needs help, the men make their own conclusions based solely on Molly’s behavior. The scene would be flawless if not for some cliché and distracting camerawork.

When you’re mentally ill, everyone is quick to disbelieve you (extra skepticism if you’re a woman). In the film, this creates disturbing tension as the knocking reaches a pitch of intensity. It doesn’t really matter if the knocking is real; what matters is that Molly believes it – but nobody believes her. A truly terrifying concept.

The Glam Fam

The Weasel’s Tale

by Brandon Thomas

Filmmakers love to poke fun at themselves almost as much as they love to celebrate each other. From The Player and Barton Fink to Tropic Thunder and Hail, Caesar!, Hollywood hasn’t had much of a problem cashing in on making fun of the vain, pompous artists who make movies. These are all distinctly American examples, though.

How much differently would this kind of movie play if moved to South America?

Not much as it turns out.

Mara (Graciela Borges), her husband Pedro (Luis Brandoni), and their friends Martin (Marcos Mundstock) and Norberto (Oscar Martinez) all live in a grand house in the Argentinian countryside. At one point in the past, all of them were involved in Argentina’s luscious film industry. Mara, in particular, was an actress acclaimed not only for her prowess in front of the camera but also for her beauty. Martin, a writer, and Norberto, a director, both worked with Mara on countless films. Pedro sought to be an actor of Mara’s caliber but often had to settle for bit parts at her side.

The aging artists spend their days discussing exploits of decades past, putting on mock awards ceremonies and using a shotgun to rid the grounds of weasels. The monotony is broken up when two charming, young real estate agents show up with an attractive offer to buy the house from Mara. The men instantly smell trouble, but the agents play to Mara’s vain, fame embracing nature, and use that to their advantage.

The Weasel’s Tale plays like Sunset Boulevard meets the work of Wes Anderson, then it does Tropic Thunder. The comedy never goes as broad as it is in Stiller’s film, yet it’s never as dark as Sunset. There’s a twinkle in the eyes of the characters even when they’re cutting each other down, or plotting to murder the people trying to force them out of their home. It’s a quaint bloodlust.

The plot never becomes too unwieldy but does manage to offer some surprising twists along the way. The “mystery” of the film almost seems like an afterthought, but an afterthought that was well thought out and by design.

Director Juan Jose Campanella does a remarkable job threading the needle through such distinct tone management. There’s a sadness that hangs over the film, but not the kind that threatens to depress the audience. No, this sadness helps us find empathy for protagonists who might not necessarily deserve it.

The cast of The Weasel’s Tale is the ultimate draw. The majority of the film is spent in the company of Mara, Pedro, Martin and Norberto. And all four of them are rotten sons of bitches to varying degrees. (Well, maybe not Pedro, but guilt by association, okay?) Borges especially shines. For most of the movie, Mara never lets the veneer of her vanity crack – not even to her dear Pedro. Yet, we see instances here and there. There’s a vulnerability beneath the surface that Mara can barely contain, and Borges does a wonderful job showing that.

The Weasel’s Tale is a fantastic melding of dark comedy, noir, and satire – but one never lets either genre fully take over.