Tag Archives: independent film

Granada and the Quarter-Life Crisis

Granada Nights

by Isaiah Merritt

Summer in Europe – a classic setting for romantic rendezvous, self-discovery, the natural habit of the hopeless romantic – and the perfect backdrop for a quarter-life crisis?

Abid Khan, writer/editor/director, chooses Grenada, Spain as the romantic backdrop to his debut work Grenada Nights. It’s a film exploring the journey that is self-discovery and what it means to belong to something in the trenches of existentialism – better known as a person’s early twenties. 

The first act of Grenada Nights is very emotionally engaging, due in large part to the sympathetic turn of the film’s lead, Antonio Aakeel. Aakeel portrays Ben, an aimless, hopeless romantic, with such sincerity you can’t help but root for him.

The film takes a tonal shift to a brighter side when Ben meets a group of students at the local university (Oscar Casas, Julius Fleischanderl, Laura Frederico) who challenge his perspective and encourage him to learn how to stand on his own two feet. 

However, it is at this turning point in the film when the narrative becomes somewhat choppy with jumps in time that are not well connected. Which left me asking myself, “Did I miss a scene?”

This disjointed nature coupled with the conventional method in which the film is crafted, especially in the second act, made it difficult for me to fully connect.

Thankfully, with the help of a much-needed montage, endearing performances by everyone in the cast, and universal themes, the film recovers and finishes with much more fluidity. Thus, allowing for an emotionally and thematically impactful ending. 

Grenada Nights was overall successful in illustrating the journey of a young man finding himself and a community in a complex world with unpredictable human beings.

Delicious and Nutritious

Dinner in America

by Hope Madden

It’s not often you watch a film about a fire starting, drug dealing, lying man on the run from police and his romance with a woman with special needs and think, this is delightful.

But it is. Dinner in America is a delight.

Writer/director Adam Rehmeier delivers an unexpected comedy, sometimes dark, sometimes broad, but never aimless. Simon (Kyle Gallner, remarkable) is a punk rocker hiding from the cops. Patty (Emily Skeggs) is a 20-year-old punk rock fan who lives at home and isn’t allowed to run appliances when she’s alone.

Their stories collide, but by that time Rehmeier and his cast have crafted memorable, believable characters with their own fascinating worlds. Where they go together becomes a little unnerving at times, but Dinner in America surprises with warmth as often as it does with profanity-laced edginess.

Rehmeier’s film calls to mind other misfit romances — Buffalo 66, Eagle v Shark — but sidesteps cliché at every turn. More importantly, or at least delightfully, it embraces the punk rock ethos rather than seeing a coming-of-age opportunity to grow out of it.

Gallner’s magnetic. Whether stalking through suburbia or surrendering to love, he delivers buzzing vitality and surprising depth. Skeggs offers a brilliantly unselfconscious counterpoint. Her awkward, endearing performance is an absolute blessing.

A top-to-bottom impressive ensemble including Pat Healy, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Lea Thompson buoy the central performances. Rehmeier’s sharp yet somehow tender script doesn’t hurt, offering startling opportunities for castmates to shine.

By the time the film digs into its musical numbers, you’re already hooked. In a nice turn of events, the songs are absolutely worth the wait.

Rarely does a film feel as genuinely subversive and darling as Dinner in America, the punk rock rom-com you never knew you needed.

Days of Future Past

Memoria

by Hope Madden

If you are in the mood for something decidedly different, let Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s meditative wonder Memoria beguile you. Or bewilder you. Or both.

You won’t be alone. Indeed, you’ll be much like Jessica (Tilda Swinton, perfect, of course). She’s awakened one dawn by a sound, a kind of “bong” that’s impossible to ignore. She assumes construction in a nearby building is to blame, but eventually, this sound follows her wherever she goes.

A desperate yet somewhat resigned curiosity drives Jessica to try to place the noise, or to identify its cause, whether natural or supernatural.

Her journey unfolds in gorgeously unconventional and profoundly cinematic fashion. Weerasethakul’s approach is simultaneously deliberate and dreamlike, and his tale rejects simplification or, indeed, proper summarization. It certainly avoids that comforting Hollywood structure, but Memoria offers a meticulous structure of its own, one that feels vague but supports the spell being cast.

The film becomes a mystery of sorts, but one that dredges up more questions than answers. On the filmmaker’s mind seems to be concepts of collective memory and isolation, sensory experience and existence.

Jessica’s travels through Colombia in search of answers becomes an entrancing odyssey. Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr’s sound design heightens the experience, almost becoming a second character in the way that the sound supports Swinton’s performance.

And what a performance. Quiet and precise as if always listening and careful not to disturb, Swinton once again disappears wholly into a role.

No fan of simple solutions to life’s puzzles, Weerasethakul still leaves the story with an enigmatic but astonishing resolution. The spell he and his lead cast while bringing you to those final moments offers an experience more surprising and unique than anything else you’ll find onscreen this year.

Is This Thing On?

Heckle

by Brandon Thomas

You’ve only had to pay half attention to the entertainment world during the past few years to know that a lot of high-profile comedians have been outed as scumbags. It’s probably the worst kept secret in the industry. From Louis C.K. to Bill Cosby, a lot of comedy titans came under fire for their bad – or even criminal – behavior. 

This landscape seems ripe for a darkly comedic horror flick. Unfortunately, Heckle lacks the laughs or the scares to do this topic justice. 

Stand-up comedian Joe Johnson (Guy Combes) is riding a wave of success. His tours are popular and he’s about to star in a major film playing tragically murdered comedy icon, Ray Kelly (a supremely foul-mouthed Steve Guttenberg of Police Academy and Cocoon fame). All of that starts to crash as a particularly nasty heckler worms his way into Joe’s psyche. As his mental state begins deteriorating, Joe starts to believe that his physical well-being is also in danger from the obsessive heckler. 

Heckle spends a lot of time easing the audience into Joe’s world and his inner circle. Joe’s supposed to be this “big deal” comedian, yet the character is never really shown to be funny. The same process is used for Guttenberg’s character. The abrasiveness of the characters becomes the focal point to the detriment of everything else. It’s hard to buy this grand world of comedy legends if none of them are actually that funny.

The horror aspect suffers in the same regard. Nothing much happens for the first two-thirds of the film. There are some weak attempts to show Joe’s psychological decline, but none of it is particularly scary or thrilling. Mostly, these scenes come across as wheel-spinning to pad out an already short running time. By the time the actual carnage begins in the last act, it’s too little, too late. 

Heckle is full of starts and stops. The movie never quite knows if it wants to be a full-on horror film, a biting satire of the stand-up world or a comedy. Unfortunately for the audience, Heckle never truly succeeds at doing any of the three. 

Jacking and Jilling

Adventures in Success

by Rachel Willis

Fair warning – this film may be the most unpleasant experience you’ll ever have with the female orgasm.

Writer/director Jay Buim, along with co-writers Susan Juvet and Rachel Webster, has crafted one of the most uncomfortable, meandering and sometimes funny mockumentaries with the film Adventures in Success.

Focusing on the group Jilling Off, we follow “energy transformationist” Peggy (Pegasus) Appleyard (Lexi Mountain) as she leads a group of men and women to the Catskills to harness the energy of the female orgasm in “the womb room.”

Joining this group is newbie Erica (Yaz Perea-Beltran). At first, Erica’s seeming skepticism makes her feel like our straight woman among these guys and gals who use terms like “economic ejaculate.” A hilariously uncomfortable scene involving the extreme invasion of Erica’s personal space by another member is one of the film’s highlights.

There are several scenes that are so uncomfortable you can’t help but laugh. Otherwise, you might spend most of the film squirming in your seat.

As Peggy, Mountain embraces the role of sex goddess guru, and the film is better for it. A personal highlight was Peggy’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s I’m On Fire, but it’s mostly a moment that doesn’t fit well into the overarching story. The movie is full of these, as if the writers didn’t know how to fill 90 minutes about a group whose sole purpose is ‘jilling off.’

Another downfall is the fairly large cast of characters – not just the Jilling Off members, but townspeople who pop up from time to time (many more than once), usually to give their two cents on the group who’s descended on their town. It’s hard to keep track of everyone.

The film tries to make you care about the members of the cult, but so much time is spent making fun of them it’s hard to feel sympathy for their struggles. Some films can strike a good balance, but Success never manages to do so.

The film sometimes offers a strangely empowering message about women’s sexuality and female pleasure. It’s too bad the filmmakers’ mocking tone buries it beneath a lot of silliness.

Post Traumatic

Take Back the Night

by Hope Madden

It’s a story we all know too well, some of us better than others.

With their monster movie/social justice thriller Take Back the Night, co-writer/director Gia Elliot and co-writer/star Emma Fitzpatrick spin a pointed tale about a specific character. But the universality of this monstrous situation is never in question. There is only one character with a name, and that name is Jane Doe.

This could be anybody.

Jane has a lot to drink because she is celebrating. This is a big day. But something horrific is about to squeeze out any memory of the joy of this day as she finds herself alone in an alley with a malignant force.

What sets Take Back the Night apart from other similar films is that the attack itself is not the point. Neither is the attacker. Rather, Elliot and Fitzpatrick smack you with the trauma of surviving what comes next.

Jane submits to tests and procedures, swabs and scrapes, photos and questions — all of it tough to witness — with the resigned belief that this humiliation and pain will be followed by justice. Or at least a little sympathy.

Instead, of course, she finds judgment, harassment, disbelief and the threat of prosecution.

Interesting as well that men are mainly a non-presence in the film. There’s a brief interlude in the first act, although we barely glimpse the man’s face. Jane is later interviewed by a male police officer, although he’s never seen at all, only heard in voice-over. And then there is the attacker.

What we do see are the women involved: Jane’s sister, the detective on the case, the news reporter. There are friends and fans, a woman at the party. Not one of these women does the right thing.

That’s the focus of Take Back the Night. The actions of men are irrelevant in this world of overcoming the trauma of an attack, the filmmakers seem to say. What will kill you is being abandoned by the people who should know better, who should be able to empathize.

Fitzpatrick’s fiery performance gives the metaphor its heartbeat. Flawed and hostile, her Jane challenges status-quo thinking about how victims should behave, or what makes a woman a victim in the first place. Fitzpatrick delivers something raw and believable, anchoring the fable with realism.

Not every performance is as strong and the film’s microbudget rears its head on more than one occasion. But Take Back the Night and its filmmakers deliver thrills and realizations in equal measure in a memorable feature debut.

Real Family Ties

The Fabulous Filipino Brothers

by Tori Hanes

The Fabulous Filipino Brothers— by writer, director, and star Dante Basco—follows the separate journeys and (sometimes misguided) decisions of four first-generation Filipino American siblings leading up to a major family wedding.

Through the use of dedicated vignettes, each brother (played by Basco’s real siblings Dionysio, Derek and Darion) showcases deep-rooted differences while shedding light on the uniformity of the first-generation immigrant experience. 

Where the film succeeds, it flourishes. It finds power in sincerity, primarily thanks to Basco’s decision to use his family as actors to mirror their real-life identities. The lack of professional acting stamina is easily forgiven when the realism contributes so heavily to the overall charm of the film.

Basco’s themes of generational identity and cultural disconnect are best explored where he least forces it. The time dedicated to the warmth and humor in the family’s interpersonal relationships is where the film finds its footing. The best example is oldest brother Dayo’s (Derek Basco) vignette. In it, Dayo dabbles in illegal activities to help finance the wedding—with his geriatric grandmother riding shotgun. The comedy from the setup is enjoyable, but pairing familial responsibilities with Dayo’s individual journey hits the tonal stride that makes this piece unique. 

Allowing vignettes to anchor the script leads to unbalance. Two of the four vignettes get lost in clunky sincerity—caused, in part, by the disproportionate amount of time they’re given. Second oldest brother Duke (Dante Basco) returns to the Philippines to explore his roots and connect to a disjunct part of his cultural identity. Here Basco concentrates too hard on overarching themes without investing in the narrative to fully connect the audience.

During brother David’s (Dionysio Basco) time, an uninteresting love story unfolds. This segment also feels overlong and again attempts too literally to represent the figurative. The concentration on ideas without narrative execution ultimately knocks the plot off track.

The film’s valleys don’t entirely diminish its peaks. When Basco is able to let the story breathe organically, the overall piece is heightened. Where The Fabulous Filipino Brothers missteps, it counterbalances with charm and warmth only family can provide.

With or Without You

Alone with You

by Hope Madden

A surreal meditation on emotionally abusive relationships, Emily Bennett and Justin Brooks’s Alone with You brings eerie new meaning to lockdown.

Co-writer/co-director Bennett also stars as Charlie, a woman eagerly waiting for her lover Simone (Emma Myles) to return from a trip. It’s their first anniversary and Charlie would like it to be special.

What transpires never has two people in the same room, is set almost exclusively in one apartment, utilizes multiple device screens, and somehow pulls it off as not a Covid necessity but an effective way to create tension.

As Simone is later and later, Charlie finds herself stuck in the apartment. Literally stuck – the door is jammed. And though she’s able to raise her mother (Barbara Crampton) and her best friend (Dora Madison), neither will really follow the conversation and help her out.

Bizarre noises, missing objects, and creepy goings on all build a potent sense of foreboding. The allure of the film is this tension and the way Brooks and Bennett weave in surreal flourishes to give the piece a macabre quality.

But the reason it works as well as it does is because Alone with You becomes a cagey allegory. The film taps the horror of unhealthy relationships, but it also works that nerve of being trapped in the damn house—as we all have been.

In much the same way Sean King O’Grady’s We Need to Do Something picked that Covid scab with a family stuck in a bathroom together, Alone with You recalls the almost desperate desire to get out.

Each actor on screen does a credible job of interacting with tech. This can be a tough sell, but Bennett and the small cast all make it work. Crampton is a particular joy as Charlie’s judgy mom. She veers from nitpicky to loving to critical to nightmarish in the span of a single, beautifully crafted scene.

Even at a slight 83 minutes, though, Alone with You feels a little bloated. But the mystery at work binds with a horrifying sense of familiarity to manufacture enough scares to keep you guessing.

Made in the Shade

Sundown

by Hope Madden

Usually, when you try to avoid giving any plot synopsis it’s because so much happens in a film that you don’t want to spoil any surprises.

That’s sort of why it’s nearly impossible to describe Michel Franco’s latest drama Sundown. And yet, it’s also kind of the opposite.

The film in its entirety is a sleight of hand. In a way, it’s as if you’re watching a dysfunctional family drama, then an international thriller, but always from the perspective of someone barely involved in what’s going on. The result is simultaneously frustrating and mesmerizing.

Tim Roth provides a slyly empathetic turn as Neil. He and Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) plus two young adult kids are on a pricy vacation. Franco lingers for about 25 minutes on pools and vistas, private beaches and ridiculous accommodations. The dialog—what there is of it—amounts to background noise. The point is there’s love here, a bit of distance, and an absolutely insane amount of money.

Then a tragedy calls the family home, cutting short their holiday. From here the show belongs to Roth. Franco trusts the actor to carry the full weight of this character and this film with no exposition at all, next to no emotion and bursts of action withheld until the last half hour of the film.

Roth delivers. A blend of tenderness and resignation, he fascinates and the less he explains the more confoundingly intriguing he becomes. Neil is the mystery, his every action a surprise delivered in the lowest of keys.

Gainsbourg’s tumult of emotion offers a brash counterpoint, while Iazua Larios balances that drama with something raw and sometimes sweet.  

It’s almost amazing how much happens in a film that feels so meandering and lethargic. Sundown defies expectations, but it’s all the better for it.

A Life Divided

Passing

by Hope Madden

Making her feature debut behind the camera, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about women unable to find a place to truly belong. The film is Passing, and Hall mines Larsen’s insight and longing to produce a visually stunning, melancholy period piece.

Filmed appropriately and gorgeously in black and white, Passing transports us to the Harlem Renaissance. Irene (Tessa Thompson), wealthy wife of a doctor, pulls her fashionable hat down a little over her eyes and shops in upscale, very white boutiques looking for the book her son must have for his birthday.

She then cautiously risks an afternoon tea in a high-rent bistro, intrigued but terrified of being discovered as she passes for white. A familiar laugh rings through the room and Irene is recognized, not by angry white faces, but by an almost unfamiliar blonde — high school friend Clare (Ruth Negga), whose entire life is built on the falsehood Irene only flirts with for an afternoon.

What follows is a relationship fraught with anxiety, envy and yearning as two people consider what might have been and what might still be, depending on how they position themselves in the divided racial culture of 1920s NYC.

The languid beauty and comment on class play like a more delicate take on Gatsby, Hall subtly drawing attention not only to the racial divide but to the socioeconomic divide within Irene’s own home and life. Never showy, never heavy-handed, the film’s themes prick at the audience just as they slowly, cumulatively wound Irene.

Thompson delivers an introspective performance unlike anything thus far in her impressive career. A great deal of Irene’s arc plays across Thompson’s face, but an early, cynical burst of laughter and other small gestures speak volumes as Irene’s satisfaction with life drains away.

Negga is superb, just incandescent and haunting as a damaged, elegant survivor. For all her glitter and glamour, Clare haunts the screen. The tenderness between the two characters haunts, as well, delivering a sorrowful tone at odds and yet in keeping with the glorious, snow-globe-esque set design.

Hall might seem an unusual talent to deliver such a richly textured examination of the Black experience in America, but she took inspiration from her own grandfather, a Black man who passed for white. Whatever the background, the result is a meticulously crafted, deeply felt gem of a film.