Tag Archives: independent film

Some Pig


by Hope Madden

The pandemic was tough on everybody. Eula (Chantelle Han) lost her grandpa, made a bad decision with her bartender friend (Charles Boyland), and may lose her restaurant if things don’t turn around.

So, at the height of lockdown, these two restauranteurs takeoff into the night with a mysterious letter sent just after Grandpa died by a recluse he saved during the war. They decide to drive that letter 20 hours to the recluse’s acreage where they hope to find him and some truffles.

Really, really valuable truffles.

In the hands of co-directors Han and Steven Garbas, Peppergrass is, on the surface, a kind of backwoods culinary heist movie – which is more than intriguing enough. But the film, which Garbas co-wrote with Philip Irwin, delivers more than that.

The film is beautifully shot, from the somber color and framing of the urban opening act to the purposeful camera and sound work throughout the balance of the forest-heavy second and third acts.

Han’s Eula – in charge, no nonsense, desperate – anchors the film beautifully. The perfect counterbalance, Boyland plays at being the harmless dumbass. Thanks to a lived-in chemistry between the two actors and Boyland’s committed performance, you never root against his Morris no matter how much you want to smack him.

The script is clever, sometimes roughly funny, often surprising. Tonal shifts can be a problem, but generally Garbas and Han move smoothly, their framing and pace matching the swiftly shifting genre. Peppergrass swings from heist to horror to survival tale and back again, losing its footing only rarely.

Fear of contagion timestamps the film, but it also generates a kind of paranoia that heightens tension – the kind of tensions suited to backwoods survival tales. But Peppergrass’s greatest strength is how deftly it tells its real story – the one motivating the heist, which is never discussed outright, though it haunts the film.

Tense, surprising and delightfully unusual, Peppergrass is a gem of a thriller worth seeking out.

Can’t Go Home Again

Esme, My Love

by Hope Madden

We don’t know much about Esme (Audrey Grace Marshall) or Hannah (Stacey Weckstein), really.

Director/co-writer Cory Choy’s feature debut Esme, My Love keeps us in the dark about a lot of things. Choy leaves us to piece together what we can of the duo’s mysterious trip into the woods, just as Hannah leaves Esme to do.

More brooding mystery thriller than outright horror, Choy’s film plays on your imagination with gorgeous sound design and cinematography. An eerie mismatch of voiceover and image in the early going suggests that not everything with Hannah is A-OK.

Ostensibly, she’s taking her daughter to visit the old, abandoned family stomping grounds so the two can spend some time together. Esme, Hannah suggests, is sick. She doesn’t seem sick. She seems fine. Hannah, on the other hand…

The atmosphere Choy develops creates a hypnotic world perfectly suited to Hannah’s psychological unbending. Thanks to two malleable performances, that meticulously crafted atmosphere pays off.

Choy and co-writer Laura Allen refuse to spoon-feed you information. Their structure is loose, their explanations all but nonexistent. You’re left to parse through the images and sensations, determine what’s real and what isn’t, and decide things for yourself.

The ambiguity often works in the film’s favor. Esme, My Love possesses a brooding, nightmarish quality that, along with the two performances, keeps you guessing and interested. But to be honest, a touch more structure would have strengthened the film, which begins to feel lovely but unmoored before it’s over.

At a full 1:45, the film’s fluid storytelling and disjointed imagery flirt with self-indulgence.

Esme, My Love never offers any solid catharsis, any true clarity. Yes, you can guess the meaning of the climax, but with so much guesswork throughout, it feels less like ambiguity and more like a cheat. Or worse still, indecisiveness.

While frustrating, it’s not enough to sink a film that submerges you in a dark family tragedy and leaves you stranded.

This Property Is Condemning You to Death

The Tank

by Daniel Baldwin

Picture this: a loved one has passed away and you inherit a piece of property from them that they’ve never mentioned. You’ve been handed a house along the coast that comes with its own private beach. We’re talking beautiful, untouched land. An absolute dream come true, with no catch in sight.

Well, except for that weird water tank that’s hidden underground on the property. A tank that may or may not contain an ancient beast that loves to run amok when unleashed. That right, you didn’t just inherit your dream home. You inherited a horror movie as well. Congratulations!

Scott Walker’s New Zealand creature feature The Tank knows its tropes and revels in them constantly. If you’re rolling up to this coastal oasis of terror looking for heaps of originality, you’re going to swim away disappointed. However, if you’re the type that loves a good meat & potatoes monster movie, then you will find quite a bit to enjoy here.

There are two true stars of this bestial B-movie endeavor, with the first being the practical monster effects work on display from WETA Workshop. Their efforts here are just as good as you’d expect coming from the imaginative minds that brought forth the cinematic beasties on display in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, 30 Days of NightDistrict 9, and the cult classic Black Sheep. Richard Taylor and his team are in fine form, serving up a cool monster and delivering delicious creature carnage.

The other star is actress Lucianne Buchanan. While the other performances in the film are fine, Buchanan stands tall above the rest, gifting us with a new horror heroine to root for in family matriarch, Jules. Between her turn in this and her leading role on the recent hit Netflix action series The Night Agent, Buchanan is one to keep your eye on.

The Tank does have its issues. The pacing in the first two acts can be sluggish at times, the color palette can get a bit monotonous, and the family drama subplots don’t really amount to much. Of course, that’s not what we’re here for. The Tank promises you some lean, mean, and low budget monster escapism. For the most part, it delivers on that promise, so if this type of movie is up your alley, give it a look.

Glorious Madness

I’m an Electric Lampshade

by Christie Robb

Oh man, what can I say about this one? That it’s a celebration of the confidence of mediocre White men? That it’s an inspiring hero’s journey toward self-love and acceptance? It’s kinda both. And a bunch of other stuff.

It’s like a mix of The Office, Spinal TapAlice in Wonderland, and RuPaul’s Drag Race.

And the music videos. My God, the music videos.

I’m an Electric Lampshade follows Doug (Doug McCorkle), a 60-year-old corporate accountant, as he retires from office life to pursue his dream of becoming a concert performer. Director/writer John Clayton Doyle mines this material for all that it is worth—finding the humor, the heart, the beauty, and the weirdness in his cast and locations (the States, Mexico, and the Philippines).

The movie is based on the true story of Doug and is, at least in part, a documentary. But it also incorporates many fictional elements that give it a dreamy, hallucinogenic quality that at times verges on the cartoonish. This isn’t a “conventionally” good movie. It has the makings of a cult classic and is definitely a weird and wonderful little gem.

The Hills Are Alive

The Devil to Pay

by Hope Madden

I’ve long felt that pre-film text-on-screen quotes are a cinematic crutch, often pretentious musings that rarely capture the essence of the film about to unspool.

Then, over a colorful vista of misty Appalachian mountaintops and plaintive banjo strings I read about the hardy folk populating those peaks, the descendants of criminals and oppressed alike who sought refuge in this inhospitable place.

As shadow creeps across the landscape, the quote:

“They want nothing from you and God help you if you try to interfere.” – 2010 census worker

Welcome to The Devil to Pay, Lane and Ruckus Skye’s lyrical backwoods epic, grounded in a lived-in world most of us never knew existed.

The tale is anchored with a quietly ferocious turn by Danielle Deadwyler (who also produces) as Lemon, a hardscrabble farmer trying to keep things up and wondering where her husband has been these past days.

Deadwyler’s clear-eyed efficiency is matched with the hillbilly condescension of one Tommy Runion (Catherine Dyer, flawless), whose homespun advice and cheer mask a dead-eyed, sadistic sense of right, wrong and entitlement.

One of the most tightly written thrillers in recent memory, The Devil to Pay peoples those hills with true characters, not a forgettable villain or cliched rube among them. The sense of danger is palpable and Deadwyler’s commitment to communicating Lemon’s low-key tenacity is a thing of beauty.

Hell, the whole film is beautiful, Sherman Johnson’s camera catching not just the forbidding nature of Appalachia, but also its lush glory.

Yes, the cult that lives just outside the county line does feel a tad convenient, but again, the Skyes and their outstanding cast carve out memorable, realistic and terrifying characters.

The Devil to Pay remains true to these fascinating souls, reveling in the well-worn but idiosyncratic nature of their individual relationships—a tone matched by sly performances across the board. And just when you think you’ve settled into a scene or a relationship, The Devil to Pay shocks you with a turn of events that is equal parts surprising and inevitable.

It’s a stunning film and a rare gem that treats Appalachians, not as clichés, but certainly not as people to be messed with.

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.

Altered Images


by Hope Madden

When you were 11, what did you think you would be doing now?

For a lot of parents encountering this query from their own 11-year-old, a joke might ward off any painful introspection. For Aftersun’s Calum (a riveting and tender Paul Mescal), the long silence seems to echo with more than just unreached potential.

Calum and his preteen daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio, remarkable) spend a holiday together in Turkey sometime in the mid-1990s, judging from the tech, which includes Sophie’s digital8 camcorder.

While the blurry, fragmented, buzzing presence of camcorder images is a long-tired filmmaking crutch, writer/director Charlotte Wells gives it deeper purpose. The fractured, off-center but intimate footage mirrors Sophie’s fuzzy memory. The gaps in reality, and the distance between what something looks like and what’s really going express adult Sophie’s (Celia Rowlson-Hall) struggle as she looks back on the fraught relationship between her younger self and her distant father.

The film moves at a languid pace, but Wells repays your patience with a rich and melancholy experience. Like Sophia Coppola with her similar Somewhere, Wells and cinematographer Gregory Oke capture palpable longing, nostalgia and heartbreak.

Neither film structures a tidy narrative, instead trusting viewers to pay attention and piece together fragments to form a whole image. Wells also benefits from two bruised but buoyant central performances that help you see what’s not being told and feel what characters are trying to keep hidden.

Mescal’s charming, innocent, awkward father is as much the memory of a lost daughter as he is a flesh and blood man. His performance aches with authenticity, and Mescal’s chemistry with young Corio only furthers that poignant realism.

Though the loose narrative may frustrate some, as a work of remembrance, Wells’ first feature film delivers something powerful and powerfully impressive.

Heart and Soul

Ragged Heart

by Hope Madden

An aching poem to a culture that once was, Evan McNary’s indie Ragged Heart takes root in Athens, Georgia and blossoms with nostalgia, longing, grief and regret.

One-time musician Wyatt Galloway (Eddie Craddock) now rambles the county with Better Day Salvage, taking the old and disused and finding ways to turn them to art. It’s an apt metaphor – though not overwrought, thanks to McNary’s light touch.

Wyatt’s daughter Miranda (Willow Avalon) is the real talent. After a European tour, she’s back in Athens for her birthday and Wyatt’s hoping to reconnect. She leaves him a song, then leaves this earth.

Avalon’s voice and presence echo the melancholy nature of her character, helping the film straddle the space between natural and supernatural. Craddock offers a rugged, world-weary and deeply human presence, although he’s not always charismatic enough to carry the film.

A supporting cast populated by professionals and nonprofessionals, many of them musicians, contribute to the film’s authentic vibe. Joshua Mikel (The Walking Dead) is particularly strong, embodying the conflict between music and money – the battle for a soul.

Ragged Heart has the organic feel of an unscripted, evolving feature, and on the whole that works. It’s not without its rough patches, but the loose narrative structure suits a tale that values art over commerce, messy as that can be.

It loses momentum more than once, mainly because of its fragmented structure, but it also consistently surprises and never loses its way. McNary’s script, co-written with sister Debrah McNary, offers no easy answers for the grief and regret Wyatt faces. Neither do they pretend that remaining true to your art will bring your joy or peace.

But they definitely develop an atmosphere rich with symbolism, heady with art and music, and haunted with regret.

Unchained Melody, Unpaid Rent

Phantom Project

by Daniel Baldwin

Pablo (Juan Cano) is a struggling actor who makes his money working as a training actor for a medical program where personnel get to practice their bedside manner in a classroom setting. He had been making ends meet, but now that his roommate has bounced – still owing him a couple of months’ rent – Pablo needs to find a replacement roommate fast. In addition to this, he’s still dealing with his feelings for his ex-boyfriend, contending with a ghost(!) in his apartment, and worrying about his downstairs neighbor’s abusive relationship with her partner.

If you haven’t guessed it already, Phantom Project is a quirky slice-of-life dramedy about a 20-something living in the city who is just trying to get by while chasing his dreams of becoming a movie star. Ghost aside (we’ll get to that in a moment), this is very much your typical “walk in a young person’s troubled shoes” indie comedic drama. Even with it being a Chilean spin on the subgenre, this is pretty standard stuff. Thankfully the core performances are all charming enough to help smooth over the samey-ness of the plot.

Samey except for the ghost, that is.

There are two big bright spots in this film: Susan and the ghost. Who is Susan? She’s Pablo’s adorable dog, who knows what’s up with the haunting and seems perpetually annoyed not only by said spirit, but also by how long it takes Pablo to catch on to what is happening. The ghost itself is delivered in an intriguing way. Instead of modern FX work, we have what is an ever-morphing (even in terms of gender) hand-drawn apparition that is often up to hijinks, but occasionally wants to get frisky as well. Alas, said spirit is but one of many subplots. It would have made a better focal point, instead of an intriguing, but also jarring side story.

Phantom Project is a well-crafted slice of indie dramedy cinema that has a good cast, a great animal performer (you deserve better, Susan!), and a really cool-looking ghost in it, after all! What ultimately holds it back is an over-reliance on slice-of-life tropes and too broad a focus, along with an uneven tone. There’s an imaginative spark at its core, however. One that points toward writer/director Roberto Doveris as someone to keep your eye on going forward.

Coming of Age

A Love Song

by Hope Madden

Filmmaker Max Walker-Silverman’s feature debut A Love song blesses us with 81 minutes of Dale Dickey, a gorgeous western landscape, and not much else. It is enough.

Dickey is Faye, a solitary figure with a face full of longing at Campsite 7. She sets her crawdad traps, makes her coffee, studies birds and their calls by day, stars and their positions by night, and waits.  

Dickey’s performance is a master class in authenticity, as always. She’s been the grizzled Appalachian or the kindly townsfolk in countless films and shows. Rather than hide the years that stretch across her face, she looks out from behind them, eyes bright and observing. She wears a lifetime of experience, and that, along with her instinctive natural performances, creates depth and richness.

All that and more is called for in Walker-Silverman’s film because for about 80% of its running time, we’re alone with Faye and witness to Dickey’s achingly real performance.

Faye’s solitude is broken up here and there. A friendly couple a few campsites over invite her for dinner. An odd group of siblings arrives with a peculiar request. A kindly and encouraging mailman stops by.

Eventually, Faye’s patience pays off in the form of her childhood friend, Lito (Wes Studi). Decades of absence and years of meaning stand between Lito’s charming smile and Faye’s searching eyes.

There’s magic and nostalgia for old-fashioned love stories in Walker-Silverman’s script, but these veteran actors don’t bend to sentiment. Both know how to blend innocence with renewal, reimagining coming-of-age as they do.

Walker-Silverman’s camera lights on visual metaphors: hearty wildflowers bursting through dried earth, a transistor radio that always seems to know what to play. His film brims with the kind of beauty and type of characters reminiscent of Chloé Zhao’s work, but A Love Song is more meditative. It’s beautiful, touching and real.