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

Freeland

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

Demigod

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?

Knocking

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.

Manhattan Math

Adventures of a Mathematician

by Rachel Willis

Adventures of a Mathematician, based on the memoir of the same name by Stanislav Ulam (Philippe Tłokiński), offers a fascinating look at one of the main players behind the Manhattan Project and the building of the hydrogen bomb.

Writer/director Thor Klein lacks interest in Ulam’s entire life, instead narrowing his film’s focus to the years the scientist spent in Los Alamos, Nevada, working for the U.S. Department of War. The moral and ethical dilemma of building the atomic bomb – the use of science to wield total destruction – is the heart of Klein’s film.

Aspects of Ulam’s world outside of his work are woven into the film – primarily his relationships with wife Françoise (Esther Garrel), brother Adam (Mateusz Więcławek), and best friend/fellow scientist John van Neumann (Fabian Kociecki).

The movie’s weakest component is the flatness of some of these characters, but because Klein seeks not to simply tell Ulam’s life story, the shallow characters don’t sink the effort. They still serve a purpose as they give voice to the ethical arguments inside Ulam.

In that role, Tłokińksi is flawless, bringing depth to every scene. He infuses every word, every movement with the emotion necessary to tackle such large moral quandaries.

The desolate, dusty landscape of Los Alamos plays its own role in the film – a stark reminder of what’s at stake. The film’s minimal score highlights the scientist’s inner conflict and heightens tensions as the movie draws closer to the devastating moment when the bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Adventures of a Mathematician offers no easy answers, nor is it likely to change anyone’s mind. However, it offers insight into why some of the world’s most brilliant scientists lent their skills to the creation of the deadliest weapons in world history.

Bitter Kiwi

Coming Home in the Dark

by Hope Madden

I have always counted myself among the major fans of Kiwi horror filmmaking. Peter Jackson may mean Middle Earth to others, but to us he is king of splatter-gore comedy, and a generation of New Zealand horror filmmakers has embraced that same sense of viscous fun.

Not James Ashcroft. Nope, making his feature debut with the road trip horror Coming Home in the Dark, the filmmaker is carving out a very different style.

Not long into Hoaggie (Erik Thomson) and Jill’s (Miriama McDowell) weekend outing with their teenage sons, two armed drifters approach. The family is miles from anywhere, and it isn’t until they all stand by and let a car pass without incident that Ashcroft lets us in on two things.

“Looking back on today’s events, I think this will be the moment you realized you should have done something.”

The moment Mandrake (Daniel Gillies, chilling) utters this sentence, Ashcroft lets you know that this story will not go well for the family. He also introduces the general theme of this film: do something while you have the chance.

Mandrake is the more talkative of the two villains, though friend Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) cuts an impressive figure. And in a style closer to that characteristic of Australian horror, Coming Home in the Dark offers a spare but unblinking span of gritty, punishing thrills.

Ashcroft, who adapted Owen Marshall’s short story for the screen along with writer Eli Kent, crafts a deceptively layered drama. The trickiest bit comes near the end, but it would be unfair to give that away.

Unfortunately, the audience has to be patient enough to wade through what feels like preachiness to get to the sucker punch. Performances are exceptional, loose ends are welcome, but with little in the way of visual panache and lots in the way of discomfort, not everyone will stick it out.

I should confess that I firmly believe terror awaits anybody who wanders out into the wilderness. I am the audience for this movie.

Maybe you are, too?

Low-Stakes Road Games

Hudson

by Hope Madden

I never thought I would miss mumblecore, but here you have it. Co-writer/director Sean Daniel Cunningham transports us back to that time of slight, meandering plots, awkward vulnerability, and low-stakes white people problems.

The thing is, Hudson is pretty great.

As low-key as they come, Hudson follows two estranged cousins on a brief but somewhat eventful road trip one autumn day through Upstate New York. I mean, they don’t really leave the area – they go maybe a couple of hours from home, tops. A game of putt-putt becomes one of the most major events in the adventure. It’s not an edge-of-your-seat thriller is what I’m saying, but it is laid back, sweet and lovely.

Much of that is due to a spot-on performance in the title role by David Neal Levin. Hudson is lovable, sweet and tender due to the recent death of his mother. A middle-aged man still living at home, he mostly writes haiku now, feeds his bird, maybe gets out a remote-control car. Levin’s performance never mocks or belittles the character, never makes him the butt of a joke.

Then Hudson’s cool cousin Ryan (co-writer Gregory Lay) shows up. He’s waiting to do some reshoots for his latest movie, has some time to kill, missed the funeral but wants to hang out now.

The movie sinks or swims on the lived-in relationships. It’s like we’ve dropped into these lives mid-relationship until the cousins pick up a new friend who knows how to get them where they’re going.

Sunrise (played by producer Mary Catherine Greenawalt) gives the film, if not a jolt of energy, then maybe a quiver of it. Her presence allows the writers to explore the cousins’ personas and relationships more deeply, and offers more opportunities for good-natured if not gut-busting humor.

It’s a lovely film. It looks great, performances are solid in a very mellow way, and the resolution feels like a long-coming hug from a buddy. It’s nice.