Tag Archives: independent film

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.

Phantom of Felonies

The World We Knew

by Christie Robb

The World We Knew is haunted by the ghost of a better script.

Directors Matthew Benjamin Jones and Luke Skinner have an interesting concept here: six robbers running from a job gone sideways hide out in a haunted house.

The setting is good: creepy, decaying, isolated farmhouse. Arts and Crafts-style wallpaper peels away from rotten plaster. Lights flicker from a generator in need of refueling.

Laurens Scott’s cinematography is effectively eerie. Low camera angles and jump cuts keep us in an ominous holding pattern, gazing into the darkened edges of the frame waiting for things to get creepy.

The acting is good—nothing excessively melodramatic or hammy. All the characters feel lived-in and relate to each other extremely realistically. As Barker, the patriarch of armed robbery, Struan Rodger (the Three-Eyed Raven from Game of Thrones) is especially good when he captivates the others with a story.

But, in the end, the script doesn’t captivate. There’s a missed opportunity to peel back the onion layers of each character’s backstory by way of their conversation. They are all one-note. The kid who can’t shake his first kill. The boxer who killed a dude in a fight. The rat. The dying guy. The old jail-bird. The big bad.

Failing interesting character development, there’s also no suspense with the haunting or the violence. And with the exception of some blood gurgling from an open mouth, not all that much gore either.

It’s a slow slog to a predictable end. But I’d like to see this concept resurrected with better writing.

The Truth Is Not Out There

The Scary of Sixty-First

by Hope Madden

At some point during The Scary of Sixty-First you may ask yourself, “What in the hell am I watching?” Don’t feel alone. In fact, if you don’t ask that question, you may be the only one.

Director/co-writer/co-star Dasha Nekrasova mines the weak logic of many Satanic horror films to marvel at the subjective reality that’s so prevalent these days.

Noelle (co-writer Madeline Quinn) and Addie (Betsey Brown) move into an uptown NYC apartment. It’s furnished, simultaneously high end and sketchy, and they’re getting it for a song because the previous tenants had to leave so quickly.

Ripe horror context there. Who were they? Why did they have to leave so quickly? Why did they leave behind all this stuff? Why is there a mirror on the ceiling in one bedroom?

The cinematic style, stilted performances and uptown apartments blur together to form a kind of Seventies-style horror like The Sentinel or The Mephisto Waltz. The most important element: wild leaps in logic—anagrams, prime numbers, cryptic messages.

Conspiracies.

Did the girls’ apartment previously belong to Jeffrey Epstein? Some people say so, specifically the young woman who poses as a realtor’s agent and then as an investigative reporter before finally fessing up that she’s piecing together her own theories about Epstein.

Noelle is in! The sleuthing is on!

Addie, on the other hand, is having some kind of breakdown. Is something in the apartment haunting her? Possessing her?

Nekrasova and Quinn weave together real conspiracy theories about Epstein and other topics to create a fever dream of horror that points out how preposterous and salacious all these theories really are. How these theories speak more to the mind of the believer than to any kind of reality.

Nekrasova is actually pretty empathetic toward conspiracy theorists, even if she clearly thinks they are 1) wrong and 2) probably insane. The film offers bold, wet, pungent lunacy, vivid fantasies pulled from the collective unconscious of folks ready to believe—or imagine—the most effed up scenarios.

Chances are strong that, between the intentionally flat performances and the supremely WTF plotline, The Scary of Sixty-First will not land with most audiences. But it’s a wild vision and I’m not sorry I caught it.

Why So Serious?

Are You Happy Now

by Rachel Willis

A self-proclaimed anti-romantic comedy, Are You Happy Now brings us a character who epitomizes a disinterest in life.

Well, Adam (Josh Ruben) does have one minor request: he wants to marry his girlfriend, Gina (Ismenia Mendes). But to Gina, marriage is a sham. What is the couple to do?

Despite this setup, writer/director David Beinstein’s movie isn’t really bothered by the conundrum of two people who want different things from a relationship. The main interest is Adam, and we spent most of the running time following him as he meanders through a film that isn’t about much of anything.

Instead, like Adam, Are You Happy Now is disappointingly aimless. Character motivations are unclear. Though it’s reiterated that Adam is driven by fear, it seems apathy is a better descriptor. Life pushes him along, and he rolls with the ups and downs, never mustering much energy to tackle the challenges he faces – not with work, his relationship, or much of anything.

As a metaphor for the pressures of adulthood, it kind of works. Societal expectations can overwhelm anyone, particularly those who live life in a constant state of anxiety. Adam is the perfect representation of anyone struggling to anticipate what comes next.

The film’s at its best when it’s not focused on Adam or Gina, but instead Adam’s co-workers, the brothers Walt (David Ebert) and Drew (Gregory Jones), whose vitriolic banter is hilarious.

Infrequent narration from Gina interrupts at odd moments, and though it does fill in a few narrative gaps, the film would have been better off without her occasional commentary.

Adam is not without his endearing qualities, so he evokes a certain amount of sympathy. His lost puppy expression certainly helps. It’s hard not to want to give him a pat on the head and a kind word or two, as it seems that’s really all he needs to be happy. The rest of life’s details are inconsequential.

That appears to be the message the film wants to get across, but the clunky delivery weakens the message. Like Adam, it’s not without its charms. But it takes more than charm to make a movie work.

Death Cab to Smoochy

The Rumperbutts

by Matt Weiner

It’s life imitating art for Rumperbutts, a musical comedy about a husband-wife indie band who have grown to hate their lucrative but creatively unfulfilling second act as a children’s entertainment group. Magical intervention grants the duo another chance at the music career and life they always wanted together.

Rumperbutts, written and directed by Marc Brener, is getting a second chance of its own on digital after a brief release in 2015. Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, real-life married couple behind Mates of State, star as the fictional Rumperbutts, Bonnie and Jack. The band also wrote the songs and music for the movie.

After a delirious opening performance reflecting to an audience of children where their career and marriage went off the rails, Bonnie and Jack receive a visit from Richie (Josh Brener). Part muse and part fairy godfather, Richie helps free the couple from their Rumperbutts job and sets them on the path to making music again.

Why they couldn’t do both—or why it even matters when the Rumperbutts songs sound the same as their non-corporate songs—is the sort of logical leap we’re just supposed to accept, but it’s tough to ignore as the central premise.

There’s a sweet core to the film, propped up by the band’s infectious pop and chemistry together. The flashbacks that slowly reveal Bonnie and Jack falling in and out of love stand well enough on their own without the magical framing to muddy the plot. But those flashbacks also bring up their own tantalizing regrets. Mainly, what could the movie have been without trying to force together Once and A Christmas Carol into the same concept?

Rumperbutts is the ideal vehicle for its pop songs. The winsome earworms don’t go very deep, but just try and get through the movie without nodding along.

Scary Christmas

Double Walker

by Hope Madden

You know that lyric from It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year — “there’ll be scary ghost stories”? I was an adult before I realized Andy Williams was talking about Scrooge.

Filmmaker Colin West reminds us that that story, and Christmas ghosts in general, can be pretty scary and awfully damaging in his latest, Double Walker.

We open on a blood stain, then a funeral, then a despondent mother (Maika Carter), but her grief is more complicated than it looks.

From there, West’s film follows one young woman (co-writer Sylvie Mix, Poser) who looks very cold and vulnerable on the wintery streets of Columbus, Ohio. As one nice guy after another offers aid, West toys with your preconceived notions. Is she a dangerous psychopath? A victim in the making? Is Double Walker possibly a riff on Emerald Fennell’s glorious Promising Young Woman?

Not exactly. And maybe. But not really.

What the filmmakers have done is to fracture a storyline in favor of a mood, one that takes on the surreal qualities of a haunting.

A meditation on trauma, Double Walker sidesteps easy summarization but never feels unmoored. Like the old Dickens story, this tale wonders at the ripple effects of behaviors, how a change here or there might yet alter the course of events.

Mix is hollow, chilly melancholy as the central figure, wandering into and out of an interconnected group of lives. The almost expressionless performance through the bulk of her screentime allows the mystery to unravel around her without giveaways. It also adds weight to the rare smile and horror to her sudden movements.

Not every performance is as strong, but West evokes such a poignant and dreamlike atmosphere that minor acting hiccups can be overlooked. He casts a spell with his feature debut and it’s hard not to wonder what both he and Mix might do next.

Growing Strong

Beans

by Christie Robb

Adolescence is hard. It’s beset with conflicts and struggles that come from all directions—society, parents, peers, your own body… In Tracey Deer’s Beans, we see Tekahentakwa’s (nicknamed Beans) coming-of-age narrative, well, a slice of it anyway. She’s coming up on her seventh-grade year and contemplating a move from her neighborhood school to Montreal’s posh Queen Heights Academy.

The posh and majority-white Queen Heights Academy.

Which is more than usually fraught because Beans is a Mohawk and the Mohawks are fighting to keep White Quebecois developers from expanding a golf course onto a Mohawk cemetery.

Inspired by the true events of the Oka Crisis aka Kanesatake Resistance of 1990, Beans is a mix of archival news footage and fictional drama.

What begins as a peaceful protest at the cemetery turns violent once a riot squad shows up and starts lobbing tear gas at the protestors. A police officer is killed, which leads to a stand-off. Mohawks and white police face each other behind barricades. Beans’s town is cut off from supplies, leaving it more or less under siege.

The details of the stand-off are a little unclear, the way world events can seem when you are in middle school. What Beans experiences is a betrayal of white adults. They fail to live up to their roles in the social system she thought she was living under. Shop keepers won’t sell groceries to “her kind.” Police won’t protect a car full of women and children from folks throwing rocks. People scream obscenities and spit at her adorable kid sister.

In the midst of this, Beans is trying on possible versions of her adult self. She meets an older, more contemptuous, teenage mentor and seeks advice on how to toughen up. She abandons her baggy 90s overalls and braids and experiments with side ponytails, crop tops, and lipstick. She practices swearing in front of the mirror. She learns more about administering violence and suffering it.

As tensions with the developers and government mount, Beans’s life grows increasingly complicated, forcing her to make choices and figure out the type of person she wants to be.

The cast delivers authentic performances. As Beans, Kiawentiio nails the vulnerability covered with a brittle armor of cynicism that I remember from middle school. Paulina Alexis does a great job as the tough older girl who has been through some shit. And Rainbow Dickerson shines as the ultimate adult role model—strong and nurturing, and able to let loose with the lecture to kids and adults alike.

As a monolingual person from the States, I would have appreciated subtitles for the French language news footage and a little bit more context on how the Mohawks and the Canadian Government came to a resolution. But, overall, Beans is a moving coming-of-age story that depicts many strong First Nations women. This is Tracey Deer’s first feature film and I look forward to seeing what’s next.

Friend Request

The Beta Test

by Hope Madden

If Eyes Wide Shut had been a brutal commentary on the film industry and Tom Cruise had been an unsympathetic, insecure, entitled white man…the point is, The Beta Test is a wild, insanely tense satire.

Co-writers/co-directors/co-stars Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe invite you into a world populated by people who miss the days before Harvey Weinstein’s ousting. The two play Jordan and PJ, respectively—Hollywood agents with no real purpose, no real value, a lot of spin, a lot of anxiety, and a chip on their collective shoulders about the stuff they can no longer get away with.

Then Jordan finds a purple invitation in his mailbox and the mystery begins.

Whether or not Jim Cummings has range as an actor is yet to be seen, but as the awkward, barely recovering alcoholic on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he is perfect. His performance here never broaches the level of vulnerable beauty he showcased in Thunder Road, and even the self-centered ineptitude of his werewolf hunting sheriff in The Wolf of Snow Hollow feels wholesome when compared to Jordan.

But somehow Cummings creates moments where you almost root for this guy. It’s a deceptively layered performance at the center of a biting piece of social commentary.

Cummings is not alone. McCabe works well as Jordan’s far more likable (thought probably no more genuine) bestie/worstie. Jacqueline Doke, playing an office assistant who most closely resembles a normal human, injects scenes with a grounding perspective that only makes Cummings’s anxious antics funnier.

Virginia Newcomb —so spot-on as the disbelieving spouse in 2019’s underseen treasure The Death of Dick Long — is once again excellent in the role of a partner who just cannot believe the behavior of the man she loves. Her role is a bit underwritten, unfortunately, but she and Cummings play off each other well.

Outrage roils beneath the surface of this film so loudly that it almost drowns out the actual plot, which is fine. The mystery itself, convoluted as it is, mainly allows Cummings and McCabe opportunities for inspired, seethingly comical hijinks.

Invasive Species

Snakehead

by Rachel Willis

In New York’s Chinatown, those who smuggle humans into the country are known as Snakeheads. One woman, smuggled into New York herself and in debt to Dai Mah (Jade Wu), finds herself trafficking humans in writer/director Evan Jackson Leong’s film, Snakehead.

Sister Tse (Shuya Chang) is willing to do anything to survive, even if it means working for Dai Mah and her family of black market criminals. Like any criminal family, Dai Mah’s crew runs a few legitimate operations, but out of the eye of the law, they smuggle men and women into the country.

Writer/director Evan Jackson Leong’s film has an eye on the many pieces of operating a human smuggling operation. It’s dangerous work, but most of those involved are true villains. Dai Mah’s son, Rambo (Sung Kang), has no regard for the people he brings into the country. They’re cargo. His legitimate business is an aquarium, and he treats the fish he sells better than the people who are forced to rely on him for safe passage into America.

Sister Tse watches most of this with an observant eye. She’s tough, but she hasn’t lost her empathy for those in situations similar to hers. Though Sister Tse is higher up in the slave chain under Dai Mah, she is still a slave.

Chang crackles with unspoken rage as she watches the operations around her. She sells the role as a fierce woman who ingratiates herself into Dai Mah’s inner circle, but never forgets what she truly is. Wu can’t match Chang’s ferocity on screen. Though we watch her commit a violent act, she never sells herself as someone truly dangerous — a necessity for a woman who runs a crime organization. Slightly more convincing as a villain is Sung Kang, but even his character has a soft spot that stretches believability. 

There are too many moments that require a hard suspension of disbelief. Though the immigrants’ predicament rings with truth, it’s the overarching operation that never lands as a believable enterprise.

Loosely based on real people and events, Snakehead is the kind of true-crime drama that tells a compelling story. The fictionalized element, though, tends to forget the victims who suffer as they seek a better life. Sister Tse is an attempt to remember, but as the more brutal elements of the film play out, it’s easy to be swept up in the action rather than rooted in the true horror of human trafficking.

Performing Without a Safety Net

Runt

by Christie Robb

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that high school students are dumb.

It’s not their fault. The part of the brain that supports decision-making isn’t fully developed until the mid-twenties. And that’s ideally why society surrounds the impulsive little beasties with grownups who can model positive behavior and counsel them about their choices.

Director William Coakley’s Runt shows a good kid, Cal, trying to navigate the tightrope of high school and arrive safely at art school. But he’s working entirely without a safety net.

His single-parent mom is either at work or asleep. His teachers are the kind of folks who will yell at him for being obvious when he breaks and lets the jocks cheat off him. His best friend is an increasingly self-destructive embarrassment. His manager at the supermarket is always on his butt. The only living being that has his back at all is his dog, Runt.

Right from the jump, you know this isn’t going to end well.

Over the course of the film, Cal’s relationship with the jock bullies becomes increasingly violent. The tea of toxic masculinity that they are all steeping in leaves no room for apologies. The cycle of violence feeds on the overall negative energy until, toward the end, it feels like you are watching the birth of a supervillain.

Cameron Boyce as Cal is fantastic. You can see all the nuances of the different emotions that play over his features. The mixture of pride, shock, and guilt that flash across his face after he impulsively does something that Cal never thought he would do is awe-inspiring. The entertainment industry truly lost a promising talent when Boyce died in 2019.

The film’s ending somewhat undercuts what seems to be the intended message. There’s a tinge of romanticism in the very final moments that gives Cal’s violence a more heroic feel than what the rest of the movie seems to be going for.

But as a portrait of what’ll make an art kid snap, it’s pretty good.