Tag Archives: independent film

Exposing Artistic Weakness … And Boobs

24 Exposures

by Hope Madden

There’s a tight collection of newcomer filmmakers who weave into and out of each other’s work, work that tends toward low budget horror, but flies in other directions as well. Writer/director/actor Joe Swanberg is a member, and 24 Exposures is his latest collaboration.

It’s easiest to see the group as a unit on both V/H/S films, each a compilation of horror shorts. Directors Ti West (The House of the Devil), Adam Wingard (You’re Next), Jason Eisner (Hobo with a Shotgun), Matt Bettinelli-Olpin (Devil’s Due) and Swanberg, among others, work as an artistic collective. One directs what another writes while the others act, then in the next effort, everyone swaps jobs. The results are sometimes surprisingly unique, vivid and worthwhile.

More often, though, they’re inexpensive riffs with little artistic payoff.

Much – though not all – of the group’s lesser-funded output suffers from a number of ailments: weak writing, amateurish cinematography and art direction, and, most frequently and obviously, feeble acting. This is perhaps because very, very few people are true talents at writing, directing and acting simultaneously, so this hodgepodge approach invariably uncovers shortcomings depending on which person is manning which responsibility.

Wisely, when Swanberg directed Drinking Buddies, he hired a cast of actual actors, worked with real producers (including the film’s star, Olivia Wilde), and hired a professional cinematographer (Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Ben Richardson – good thinking!).

24 Exposures is a return to Swanberg’s mumblecore roots. Unfortunately, the thin frame on which his actors improvise is too contrived for the naturalistic approach.

Swanberg’s thriller meanders through a budding friendship between a depressed homicide detective (Simon Barrett – who wrote You’re Next) and fetish photographer Billy (Wingard), whose work resembles crime scenes. That is, he photographs topless women posed to look like they’re dead.

The two come together when one of the fetish models winds up dead in a pose that could easily have been one of Billy’s.

The result feels more like an excuse for morbid fetishizing than a movie. The actors show no particular gift for improvising. Or acting. The film looks awful, fails to generate any tension, and basically showcases none of the skill Swanberg displayed with his last effort.

Real mumblecore films are often quite worth seeing (The Comedy, Computer Chess). 24 Exposures is just not one of them.





For Your Queue: First Time Filmmakers Demanding to be Seen


Available today is new filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s impressive debut Fruitvale Station, telling the tragic story of Oscar Grant with the help of an award-worthy lead turn from Michael B. Jordan. Coogler’s evenhanded telling and his cast’s spontaneity and authenticity give the tale a fitting naturalism, but the film will be remembered as a look at two phenomenal young talents.


Likewise, Dee Rees’s 2011 drama Pariah introduced an incisive and compelling new filmmaker with the story of an urban youth just trying to find a way to thrive. Also like Fruitvale, the film owes its power to a revelatory central performance. Adepero Oduye rings not a single false note as a 17-year-old coming out and finding her stride.


Is the Viewer who is Watching Confused?

Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?

by Hope Madden

There are some who would take an interview with Noam Chomsky – philosopher, cognitive scientist, linguist, all around smartypants – and try to simplify it, make it easier for the audience to understand.

Not Michel Gondry. The French filmmaker best known for the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind pairs Chomsky interviews with his own wildly abstract, hand-drawn animation with a purpose that is certainly not clarity.

In his documentary Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, Gondry invites the audience to puzzle through the words of the genius who believes the world is a mystery and that we are all the better for it. The director, therefore, goes out of his way to ensure that we are befuddled, because, according to Chomsky, that’s the only way to go through life. If we believe we understand, then we don’t probe, question, challenge.

So, Gondry creates a challenge. Indeed, the obstacles to comprehensibility are either alarming or hilarious. Abstract animation can be tough to understand. So can Gondry’s thick French accent. So can Chomsky. Gondry piles on with intentionally distracting camera noise and, on occasion, the obscuring volume of background music.

If all this seems frustrating, strangely enough, that’s not the effect Gondry achieves. Eventually, the filmmaker’s wonder and the subject’s challenges to puzzle out what’s happening wash over you, and you let go of your own instinct to predict what comes next in order to comprehend what is happening. You achieve your own sense of wonder at the befuddlement of it all.

The secret is Gondry himself, who is trying and failing to keep up. It’s endearing, but it’s also a relief. You’re not the only one.

People looking for an informative document of Chomsky’s life will be wildly disappointed. This film is not about what you want to see. It’s about what Gondry always wanted to ask Noam Chomsky if he ever got the chance. Plus cartoons!




Of Faith and Forgiveness


by Hope Madden

Not so very long ago in Ireland, unwed mothers were deemed unfit to raise their children. The “sinners” and their offspring were relinquished to the charge of the nuns, confined to convents around the country to work off their debt to the church and watch as their babies were given to more “deserving” Catholics. Philomena Lee was one of these beleaguered young mums, and Steve Coogan (of all people!) decided her tale would make a great buddy picture.

I’m sorry, what?

Well, weirdly enough, his instincts were not too far off the mark. Coogan and Jeff Pope adapted the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, written by Martin Sixsmith.  With Stephen Frears at the helm and the great Dame Judi Dench in the lead, Coogan’s cooked up a surprisingly buoyant depiction of what, by all accounts, should be a devastating tale.

Coogan plays Sixsmith, the world-wearied political journalist who stoops to writing Philomena’s human interest story out of desperation. As he and Philomena attempt to track down the child she was forced to give up nearly 50 years before, an odd couple road picture develops.

It’s a strange structure for an enlightening bit of nonfiction about a systemic abuse of power and of faith – one that, through the pair’s sleuthing, uncovers a fascinating parallel with a more modern crisis of shame and secrecy.

Coogan’s script is sharp, funny and layered, and Frears’s direction settles into a decidedly understated presentation of content that would so easily become maudlin or melodramatic. But let’s be honest, Dench is the reason to see Philomena.

As always, she carves out such a unique and real character that the term acting feels too cumbersome to describe her work. Her natural presence and effervescent depiction are a perfect offset for Coogan’s cynical detachment, and the warm chemistry the two share is infectious.

In fact, there are times that the cheery tone feels almost dismissive of the deep injustice uncovered in the story.

In 2002, writer/director Peter Mullan produced the film The Magdalene Sisters, an emotional wallop of a movie that told of Ireland’s shameful not-so-distant treatment of unwed mothers and other girls deemed disreputable by their church and families. It’s a powerful film, but compared to Philomena, it’s a bit like being beaten about the head and neck.

Instead, Philomena uses one woman’s resilience to set the tone of a film not about tragedy, but about forgiveness and redemption. It doesn’t always work, but it’s an honorable attempt.





Ain’t That Film Impressive

by Hope Madden


The screen fills with the sepia image of a bygone Texas. Sinewy lovers quarrel and forgive, then wait in a pick-up, planning a future with their unborn baby, until the third robber arrives. There’s a chase, a lonesome shack, a shoot out, and a compromise that sends the boy away to prison and the girl home to pine.

There’s good reason writer/director David Lowery’s romantic tragedy Ain’t Them Bodies Saints feels so confident. The breathtaking cinematography, the fittingly artistic framing, the poetry of the language and image, the heartbreaking authority of the performances – each element fits together beautifully and benefits from the artistic coordination of a maestro. It’s because the relatively unknown Lowery has honed his craft, spending time as a casting director, crewman, writer, director, sound editor, actor, producer, and cinematographer before tackling this, the culminating effort of a lifetime spent in film.

He’s blessed with a cast that embraces his understated drama. Casey Affleck animates a career full of characters with vulnerability and confused nobility, and he impresses again here as the outlaw who breaks out of prison, just like he promised, to reunite with his girl and the daughter he’s never met.

Rooney Mara’s quiet ferocity offsets Affleck’s tenderness, and the love story they create offers a poignant center to the film. Orbiting the couple is Ben Foster’s humble police officer, torn by his affection for one and duty to the other. Each actor embodies an image of lonesomeness that makes the film ache. What’s beautiful about this triangle is that neither the characters nor the filmmaker judges anyone. Lowery and his characters accept, however sadly, the motivations and actions of all involved.

The young mother also attracts the protective nature of a retired gangster/father figure played by Keith Carradine, whose presence reinforces the film’s bluesy connection to the other great, doomed Western romance, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

The film’s one shortcoming is that it does not tell a larger tale. This beautifully told story of loneliness, devotion, love and tragedy never manages to transcend its own intimacy to speak to something universal.

But it’s a hell of an effort, and one that establishes Lowery as one of the most exciting new filmmakers to come along in decades.





They’re On a Road to Nowhere

Prince Avalanche

by Hope Madden

David Gordon Green is a curious filmmaker. Beginning his career with poignant, Southern independent films, he is perhaps best known for the breakout hit Pineapple Express and subsequent bombs Your Highness and The Sitter. He returns to the world of offbeat indies with Prince Avalanche – a film about as offbeat and indie as any you will ever find.

Alvin and Lance (Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch) spend the summer of ‘88 doing roadwork in an isolated, wooded area recovering from the years-old and miles-wide devastation of a wildfire. They’re just two goofy dorks in blue overalls arguing over their “equal time boombox agreement” and painting yellow stripes, mile after mile, week after week.

Avalanche is as sweetly odd as it is casually gorgeous, the wild beauty of the duo’s surroundings an absurd backdrop to their own screwball behavior. It’s a buddy comedy of the most eccentric sort.

Green’s unconventional approach allows Hirsch and Rudd ample room to breathe, and to develop unique and fascinating characters. Rudd’s peculiar Alvin nicely counters Hirsch’s silly Lance, and their placement in this vast wilderness feels so entirely counter intuitive that their adventure takes on an almost surreal humor. Both actors are a joy in a film that commits to taking you places you’ve simply never been.

Green based the screenplay on Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurossen’s much lauded but little seen Icelandic picture Either Way. The meandering pace he gives the work serves its overall themes, but will aggravate a lot of viewers – particularly those seeking a plot. What we get is a generously documented, lovingly observed character study of two outsiders with little in common beyond their own troubles with human contact.

When Green remains focused on the absurdity of the situation, Prince Avalanche charms the impatient viewer into submission. It’s only when he falls back on his own roots in indie cinema – poetically capturing the languid beauty and rustic living – that the slight production feels tedious.

Still, I cannot imagine a more potent antidote to Summer Blockbuster Fever and its symptoms of FX bloat star dazzle than this spare, offbeat film.



Michael Cera Says No to Dirty Hippies, Yes to Drugs

Crystal Fairy & The Magic Cactus

by Hope Madden

One of this summer’s brightest surprises comes by way of Michael Cera’s drug-fueled road trip picture Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus.  Loosely scripted and casually filmed, the flick follows the journey of a group of youngsters in search of some mind expansion in Chile. What evolves is a quietly, subversively brilliant character study.

Cera plays Jamie, a displaced American anxious for the experiences available in drug use. He’s insecure, adopts a handful of pseudo-hippie-isms, and looks to really experience life through mind alteration. He meets his match in Crystal Fairy – a modern day freak Jamie invites on the trip.

Crystal Fairy is played by a positively fearless Gaby Hoffman. “Fearless” being the film critic vernacular for “willing to do full frontal.” There is a true fearlessness in that act, particularly if the shocking display of vulnerability it is used properly, as it so definitely is in this work.

Road trips offer such undiluted community experiences that we all want to mock, smack, maybe even abandon one or two co-travelers every now and then. At least that’s the memory I have of Madden family trips.

A little mescaline might have helped, actually.

Regardless, writer/director Sebastian Silva plumbs the situation for touching, comic, and strangely familiar moments. Those who saw his magnificently naturalistic The Maid will recognize the filmmaker’s contagious fascination with common moments. Silva’s screenplay – handled with grace and humanity by the ensemble – never stoops to easy jokes, although the entire picture beams with humor. Characters develop multiple dimensions, and the mostly improvised conversations take charmingly human paths.

The portrayal is deceptively well structured, though. It may feel for all the world like one profoundly uncomfortable journey meandering for a couple of hours, showcasing two pushy Americans who embarrass themselves in front of three lovely Chilean brothers. But Silva has a more satisfying and definite aim than that.

You should give it a try.

I mean the movie, not the mescaline.


Gateway’s Indie Film Showcase Cures the Blockbuster Blahs

By Hope Madden

Already tired of blockbuster season? The Gateway Film Center has just the remedy. Their Independent Film Showcase launches this week, running May 9 to May 16. This edition of the semiannual event screens seventeen flicks you’d be hard pressed to find onscreen anywhere else.

Anchored by Brit filmmaker Ken Loach’s charming The Angels’ Share – the only film in the series to boast a full slate of showings – the program offers dramas, comedies, documentaries and thrillers, each one rotating through a handful of screenings across the week.

According to Gateway president Chris Hamel, programming a series like this takes quite a while.

“The May program contains 17 films, and I watched around 50 to decide on those,” he says. “We originally planned this as a quarterly series, but to be honest, I can’t program IFS at that speed. Too many films to consider. It’s fair to say about 100 – 150 hours of watching and planning went into this festival before the marketing team started working on it.”

Why make the effort? Gateway’s goal, according to an official press release, is to “bring a diverse, compelling selection of indie films to central Ohio while also giving patrons an opportunity to see tomorrow’s Hollywood stars and A-list directors.”

Hamel believes Gateway is an ideal fit for such a showcase. According to him, “Our audience is so diverse that IFS makes great sense here. While all of these films are very good, they have a hard time finding an audience. I believe that our central location, downtown sensibilities, technology and product mix make use a great place to see a film, and IFS is just one more opportunity for our patrons to be part of the independent film world.”

Highlights include film festival favorites such as Rebecca Thomas’s fanciful religious conundrum Electrick Children, Keith Miller’s gritty redemption drama Welcome to Pine Hill, and the dark drama Rubberneck – one of two featured films (alongside Red Flag) by prolific newcomer Alex Karpovsky.

Hamel has a couple of other favorites, though.

“I absolutely loved Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film about Levon Helm, The Silence, and Welcome to the Punch,” he says.

You’ll get the chance to see these and more beginning at 7pm Thursday with the screening of Michael Gondry’s The We and the I. From there, films rotate throughout the day until it all winds up with newcomer Marialy Rivas’s controversial Young and Wild at 11:45 pm on the 16th.

Says Hamel, “I hope audiences give these films the chance the deserve.”


The full schedule of events:


Thursday May 9

The We and the I                                              7:00 PM

Electrick Children                                             9:15 PM

Welcome to the Punch                                      11:15 PM


Friday May 10

Welcome to Pine Hill                                         12:00 PM

Rubberneck                                                      2:00 PM

Red Flag                                                          4:00 PM

Somebody Up There Likes Me                           6:00 PM

Aint In It for My Health:                                     7:45 PM

A Film about Levon Helm

Welcome to the Punch                                     9:45 PM

Young and Wild                                                12:00 AM


Saturday May 11

Patang                                                             12:00 PM

Bert Stern: Original Madman                             2:15 PM

Supporting Characters                                     4:15 PM

The Silence                                                      6:15 PM

The Happy House                                             8:45 PM

Tied                                                                 10:30 PM


Sunday May 12

Bert Stern: Original Madman                             11:00 AM

You Don’t Need Feet to Dance                           1:00 PM

Somebody Up There Likes Me                           3:00 PM

The We and the I                                              4:45 PM

He’s Way More Famous than You                      7:00 PM

Ain’t In It for My Health:                                    9:15 PM

A Film about Levon Helm


Monday May 13

The Happy House                                             1:00 PM

The We and the I                                              2:45 PM

The Silence                                                      5:00 PM

Electrick Children                                             7:30 PM

Welcome to the Punch                                      9:45 PM


Tuesday May 14

He’s Way More Famous than You                      1:00 PM

You Don’t Need Feet to Dance                           3:10 PM

Patang                                                             5:20 PM

Bert Stern: Original Madman                             7:30 PM

Rubberneck                                                      9:40 PM


Wednesday May 15

Rubberneck                                                      1:00 PM

Red Flag                                                          3:10 PM

Supporting Characters                                      5:20 PM

Welcome to Pine Hill                                         7:30 PM

Tied                                                                 9:40 PM


Thursday May 16

The We and the I                                              12:45 PM

Electrick Children                                             2:45 PM

The Silence                                                      5:00 PM

Welcome to the Punch                                      7:30 PM

Ain’t In It for My Health:                                                9:45 PM

A Film about Levon Helm

Young and Wild                                                11:45 PM


Regular ticket prices apply. For tickets and information, visit www.gatewayfilmcenter.com


This piece ran originally on Columbus Underground.