Tag Archives: independent film reviews

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.

Manor Manners

Lady of the Manor

by Hope Madden

Flatulence, Judy Greer and historical reenactments? I don’t think we see enough of these in independent film.

Neither do brothers Justin and Christian Long, presumably, because they have written and directed Lady of the Manor to encourage us to spend some time with all three. And since the flatulence is cinematic rather than aromatic, what’s the harm?

There is none. The film is, in a word, harmless.

Greer plays Civil War-era Lady Wadsworth. As the film opens, we see her behaving properly, sporting proper posture and manners, quarreling politely with her husband, and tumbling fatally down a flight of stairs.

The Longs intercut this scene with the audio from a true-crime program being viewed by modern-day ne’er-do-well Hannah (Melanie Lynskey). After a series of drug and alcohol-related shenanigans, the down-on-her-luck Hannah accepts a position as tour guide of Wadsworth Manor.

Hannah’s clear, almost criminal weaknesses in the areas of ladylikeness bring the ghost of Lady Wadsworth back to the manor to teach Hannah some etiquette. Or is there another reason for her spectral return?

The Longs plump up their very slight script with plenty of silliness. Justin portrays Hannah’s bashful history professor suitor Max, while Ryan Phillippe lampoons his early career roles with a funny entitled douchebag performance as Wadsworth heir, Tanner.

There’s also a fun Luis Guzmán cameo and a rare Patrick Duffy sighting.

But the film is at its best when Lynskey and Greer turn My Fair Lady into The Odd Couple. These veteran character actors riff off each other like old vaudeville partners, bringing joy to even the most superficial scenes.

There are plenty of those. Lady of the Manor often plays like an extended episode of Drunk History, only maybe not quite as funny. Everybody seems to be enjoying themselves, no one is challenged by the material, and an entirely pleasant if fairly predictable and only modestly funny time is had by all, viewers included.

Basic Witch

Witches of Blackwood

by Christie Robb

It’s never a good sign when you head back to your hometown and all your old school friends sidle up to you and want to get you alone to give you an elevator pitch about this new thing they’ve gotten into.

Nine times out of ten it’s an MLM selling makeup or essential oils or nutritional supplements. 

Sometimes it’s a cult.

In Kate Whitbread’s new film, the townful of anemic-looking women sporting clothing made of natural fibers in a neutral color palette and the dark undereye circles of recent motherhood are selling witchcraft. 

Claire Nash (Cassandra Magrath from Wolf Creek) is back in town to uncover the circumstances of her dad’s recent sudden death and that of her mother years before. Were their deaths a consequence of mental illness and substance abuse? Or was it really the demon that haunts the forest? And are they really even dead? Why are all these townswomen carrying around bleached bones and acting like they are infants? And why are they all interested in Claire?

Magrath works hard to bring her character to life, but the script isn’t doing her any favors. The movie is full of evocative settings and creepy imagery, but there’s not much time spent in character development and no real sense of the stakes. Plot elements are introduced and then dropped. Characters that appear to be important basically wander off and an antagonist…doesn’t seem to actually do anything. 

So, when the climax comes, it feels hollow and meaningless–very much an “is that it?” kind of moment. 

The Witches of Blackwood is not a good movie and it’s not quite bad enough to be fun. 

Into the Wild

Wild Indian

by Hope Madden

As angry a movie as you’re likely to see, Wild Indian pushes you to hope compassion and tenderness come to the most unlikable man onscreen.

When Makwa (an exceptional Michael Greyeyes) was a boy on the reservation, he and his best friend Ted-O (played in adulthood by Chaske Spencer) participated in something terrible. Ted-O never really got over it.

Neither did Makwa, but now living in a high rise in Seattle and going by Michel Peterson, you might mistakenly believe he’s moved on. This man is possibly the most complicated character I’ve seen onscreen this year, and Greyeyes’s blistering performance delivers honesty that’s tough to look away from.

Makwa/Michael is equal parts sociopath and lost soul. He is the result of his own upbringing, but also of suffering that goes back generations and reverberates outward to the sea outside his gorgeous upscale apartment and beyond.

Writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. refuses to lean on stereotypes that would make the performance more comfortable viewing. Makwa is neither victim nor noble wiseman. Not entirely a villain, he’s nonetheless ill-suited as antihero or, god forbid, hero. He’s a survivor bound up in his own guilt and shame, taking advantage of whatever he can and hating himself and everyone around him because of it.

Balancing that and breaking your heart as he does, Spencer’s Ted-O is a result of the same history of trauma, oppression, poverty. But the tenderness Spencer conveys in every scene, the humility and pain, give this film its humanity.

Corbine Jr. contrasts Ted-O’s touching relationship with his sister and nephew against Michael Spencer’s robotic, even frightening reactions to the women in his world. The two men’s relationships in the workplace differ similarly.

As the action builds toward an inevitable and bewildering climax, Ted-O is more sympathetic with every step he takes toward violence while Michael’s icy psychotic side emerges the more he tries to keep violence at bay.

It’s a desolate world Corbine Jr. creates, but no less remarkable for its bleakness. A character study unlike anything else on screen this year, Wild Indian gives longtime character actors Greyeyes and Spencer the opportunity to command the screen with leading roles and they more than rise to the occasion.

In his feature debut as a filmmaker, Corbine Jr. has also announced his own presence with authority.

Profiler and the Mad Man

No Man of God

by Hope Madden

True crime is quite a phenomenon, isn’t it? It’s been a staple of watch-at-your-own-risk entertainment for generations, but podcasts have set a genre fire that seems unquenchable. Filmmakers have taken notice.

Still, do we need more Ted Bundy? Joe Berlinger made a miniseries (2019’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes) and a feature (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, also 2019). Then there was 2020’s miniseries Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer, which, like Extremely Wicked, told the Bundy tale with the voice of a former girlfriend. And in a few weeks, Daniel Farrands kicks off his American Boogeyman serial killer film series with a feature on Bundy.

Is it even possible for filmmaker Amber Sealy to tell us anything fresh? And even if she could, is there any legitimate reason to continue to rehash the behavior of such human garbage?

Working from a script by Kit Lesser, Sealy attempts to demystify Bundy, focusing not on his crime spree at all, but on his final years on death row. No Man of God spends most of its time in a confined, colorless chamber where Bundy (Luke Kirby) and FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) converse.

Both actors deliver nuanced, unnerving performances. Their interplay and the evolving relationship help Sealy overcome the limited action, institutional color palette, and dialog-heavy run time.

Hagmaier is essentially the vehicle for the audience. Why is he spending his time with this heinous being? He just wants to understand.

That’s our excuse too, right? And that’s also the danger — at least it is in every movie ever made concerning an FBI profiler trying to get into the head of a serial killer, and No Man of God is no different. Is good guy Bill really Bundy’s opposite, or is he capable of the same acts of violence against women?

There are flashes in Sealy’s film where she nearly punctures her rote though well-acted tale with genuine insight about misogyny. But the film is never as interested in the women harmed by Bundy’s narcissism, insecurity and psychosis as it is in those traits he bore.  

O Brave New World

The Colony

by Christie Robb

Director/co-writer Tim Fehlbaum’s The Colony (originally titled Tides) is a new entry into science fiction’s grand tradition of working out issues of the past and present in imagined future contexts.

In this one, Earth’s elites packed into spacecrafts and blasted away from a planet wrecked by climate change, pandemics and war. (Imagine!)

They settled on a planet called Kepler 209, which provided a temporary refuge. While they could survive there, radiation had an impact on fertility and, two generations in, no children were being conceived by a now-aging population.

So, once the Keplerians got some data from beacons they’d left back on Earth that their home planet may have healed somewhat, they sent a reconnaissance party called Ulysses 1 to scout out the situation and see if Earth was safe to return to and, hopefully, procreate on.

They never heard from U1.

Some years later, they scraped together the resources and sent U2 with a small crew including Louise Blake (Nora Arnezeder), the now-grown daughter of a missing astronaut from U1. Blake’s crash to Earth is where the Colony begins.

From the moment she impacts the surface, things are grim. Crewmembers are inured. Some die.

There’s a perpetual and inhospitable fog that obscures the landscape rendering Blake unable to get a clear picture of her surroundings. And this thematically fits, as this initial slow-burn of a movie is all about Blake charting the lay of the land on this new Earth.

She’s not alone.

But exactly who she is sharing space with and whether their interests are aligned is something that Blake has to explore and uncover. As the movie progresses, the pace increases incrementally and the stakes get higher as Blake needs to decide what she stands for and whose side she is on.

It’s interesting how it works with the themes of colonization in a tweaked context.

The Colony is a good offering. It’s not perfect. Communication between different groups is managed with way too much ease. The plot is somewhat predictable. One character is so much without agency that he may as well be a Force ghost urging Blake to heroic action. And, for a movie that mentions pandemics in the intro, it really missed an opportunity to add a novel disease transmission subplot.

But the cinematography, particularly the play between extreme wide shots emphasizing the characters’ vulnerability in the forbidding landscape and the close-up point of view shots giving us Blake’s limited access to snippets of the action, is wonderful. As is Arnezeder’s portrayal of Blake’s full emotional range.

Of special note is Iain Glen (as Jorah Mormont), who manages to effortlessly show the violence lurking just beneath the veneer of civilization.

Bad Decisions

Echoes of Violence

by Rachel Willis

Alex (Heston Horwin) is having a terrible day. While trying to sell a leasing office in the middle of the Sedona desert, he hears a gunshot. When he hears a second shot, rather than calling the police, he runs off to investigate.

This is the first of several bad calls that Alex makes.

However, we might be able to get on board with this terrible decision because the lead-up to this moment is intriguing. From a funny opening, we’re then placed in this jarringly violent moment. Alex, endearing in his suit, waiting for his clients, is the right kind of naïve to help the film get underway.

It’s too bad this great opening is followed by such a weak story. But what writer/director Nicholas Woods delivers in Echoes of Violence is a juvenile take on the humanitarian crisis of human trafficking.

Upon meeting Marakya (Michaella Russell), Alex makes one more dumb decision after another as he’s caught up in her violent existence. A sex slave on the run from her immigration lawyer/human trafficker (another good idea that fails in the execution), Marakya enlists Alex’s help on a mission of revenge.

We never quite understand why Alex is so taken with Marakya, which is a problem. There’s no reason or explanation why he doesn’t call the police – or even just walk away – as it’s clear he’s in over his head.

Another poor choice on the film’s part is an attempt to create a sympathetic character out of a man who is part of the sex trafficking ring. Though we’re given reasons why this guy is ‘okay,’ it feels like a gut punch to root for someone who previously ignored the horrors around him. That his redemption arc is given the same weight as Marakya’s story is as unsurprising as it is disappointing.

But the film’s weakest element is the dialogue. Some of it is so bad it’s funny, but mostly it’s just bad. There’s too much needless exposition, too many lines that try to offer profound wisdom (when no one talks like that), and not enough time to let the characters come to life.

The actors are good, particularly Russell, but even the best actors will stumble around clumsy dialogue. And Sten Olson’s cinematography is spectacular, but there isn’t much else holding up this movie.

A weak script will nearly always tank a film, and this one is no exception.

Sister Christian

Habit

by Hope Madden

Bella Thorne is the best thing about writer/director Janell Shirtcliff’s zany thriller Habit. When is that ever a good sign?

Thorne plays Mads, a Jesus-loving Texan transplanted to Hollywood’s underbelly to be with her two hometown besties Evie (co-writer Libby Mintz) and Addy (Andreja Pejic). Mads really loves Jesus. Like in an entirely unwholesome way.

But that’s the least of her problems after Evie’s one night stand makes off with all the drugs and money the girls are holding for Eric (Gavin Rossdale).

This movie tries so hard to be Tarantino by way of John Waters and it fails so absolutely that it gets credit for commitment. What it lacks is inspiration—Shirtcliff’s odyssey requires that we be shocked by Mads’s behavior, surprised by the stilted lunacy of her pursuers, and weirdly drawn into her unseemly world.

The fact that none of it feels especially wild, or that the pursuers lack originality and panache, takes a backseat to the film’s lacking cinematic quality. Individual scenes have no structure – they drag, most of them missing purpose, punchline or punch.

Nothing feels especially taboo, and that’s a problem because without any real “wild” in these antics, you find yourself paying attention to the writing or, worse still, the acting. Rossdale has a tough time developing a character, partly because there’s no telling whether to like or dislike Eric.

Shirtcliff and Mintz have no idea what to do with the real villains, Queenie (Josie Ho) and Tuff (Jamie Hince). The filmmakers dress them up like something out of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but their villainy is sloppy and suspect.

Habit plays like a film made by people who really liked David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, Tony Scott’s True Romance, and everything John Waters ever made, but had no real idea what they liked about it. The result is a mishmash of borrowed ideas, none of them interesting enough to merit the label subversive.

Unchained Melody

Caveat

by Hope Madden

The room is dark, decrepit. A wild-eyed woman with a bloody nose holds a toy out in front of her like a demon slayer holds a crucifix. The toy – what is it, a rabbit? A jackalope? – beats a creepy little drum. Faster. Slower. Hotter. Colder.

This is how writer/director Damian Mc Carthy opens Caveat and I am in.

The woman is Olga (Leila Sykes), and we’ll get back to her in a bit, but first, we’re part of a conversation between the hush-voiced Barrett (Ben Caplan) and the foggy Isaac (Jonathan French). What can we tell from the conversation? They seem to know each other, Isaac’s had some kind of an accident, Barrett needs a favor.

The favor involves Olga, that house, and a long stretch of tightly fastened, heavyweight chain.

Dude, how good is Mc Carthy at this?

An expertly woven tapestry of ambiguity, lies and misunderstanding sink the story into a fog of mystery that never lets up. Isaac’s memory can’t be trusted, but he seems like a good guy. He looks like a good guy. Surely, he is a good guy! He’s just not making good decisions right now.

French shoulders the tale, and you hate to compare anything to Guy Pearce in Memento because who can stand up to that? No one, but still, Mc Carthy and French draw on that same type of damaged innocence and unreliable narration to stretch out the mystery.

Meanwhile, the filmmaker unveils a real knack for nightmarish visuals, images that effortlessly conjure primal fears and subconscious revulsion.

Caveat is not without flaws. Once or twice (when possibly channeling Mario Bava) Mc Carthy dips into camp unintentionally. OK, twice. These moments feel out of place in the unnerving atmosphere he’s created, which makes them stand out all the more. But it’s hardly enough to sink the film.

Mc Carthy does a lot with very little, as there are very few locations and a total of three cast members—all stellar. You won’t miss the budget. Mc Carthy casts a spook house spell, rattling chains and all, and tells a pithy little survival story while he’s at it.