Tag Archives: independent films

You Know, Billy, We Blew It


by Hope Madden

Anchorage invites you on road trip through a depleted America, ghost town upon ghost town, as two drug-riddled brothers follow their destiny from Miami to Anchorage, Alaska. What’s left of Miami amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of opioids in the trunk of Jacob’s (Scott Monahan, who also directs) car. What awaits Jacob and John (Dakota Loesch, writer)? Fortune and glory, kid.

Anchorage has been likened to Easy Rider, and the comparison is valid. A wild cross-country ride through the American Dream inevitably exposes it as a nightmare.

Monahan’s structure is deceptively sound, though his film plays like an improvisational string of sights and blights to see. But themes introduced early only strengthen as the duo spiral toward destiny. Hyper aware of their own mortality yet playing at being immortal, the brothers’ drug-fueled mania that fuels the journey turns more and more desperate with each rest stop.

The actors wade into that bleary real estate between playfulness and danger. Each mile they make toward northern glory wears on them, changing their dynamic and tainting the spirit of their journey. The 4954-mile drive from Miami to Anchorage analogizes addiction in much the way Burt Lancaster’s back yard swims did in Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack’s 1968 classic The Swimmer. It’s all a party at the start, but reality can’t be kept at bay long enough to make it home.

Aside from a handful of extras and one additional speaking role (Christopher Corey Smith), the entire film belongs to Monahan and Loesch. The slow, inevitable arc the characters take is authentically delivered, tense and heartbreaking. Monahan dwells in Jacob’s waning innocence, while Loesch’s performance is a celebration of innocence lost.

The two make a fascinating cinematic pairing and their film slips easily into your memory to stay.

We Fought a Zoo


by Matt Weiner

Harder even than finding a cryptid these days might be getting to see a new animated feature meant for adults. Cryptozoo, the latest from comic book artist Dash Shaw and animator Jane Samborski, is compelling proof of how vital it is that we still do—rare as these sightings get.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the many excellent animated options we do get, all with the requisite PG+ jokes to keep parents occupied and weepy climaxes that make you realize a matinee out with the family has turned into at least three future therapy sessions for a child 20 years into the future. But it’s refreshing to get a chance to see lushly textured, hand-drawn animal work go toward interrogating society just a little more than something like “stereotypes are bad.”

Cryptozoo kicks off as an Indiana Jones-style adventure with a mythical twist. Lauren Grey (Lake Bell), trained veterinarian and globetrotting cryptid hunter, tracks down these strange creatures and offers them a place in a protected zoo where they can safely interact with the public as well as their own kind.

Not all cryptids are humanoid, though—you try explaining “Jurassic Park but with sasquatch” to a kraken—and so the zoo’s population is a mix of humanely captured exhibits and fully sentient magical creatures who just want to live and love and go about their daily lives without fear of persecution or worse from their human neighbors.

The “worse” comes in the form of Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), a mercenary ex-military tracker who hunts down cryptids to sell to governments as living weapons. When Nicholas and Lauren go after the same beast (a dream-eating baku), Lauren must partner up with Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), whose point of view on coexistence as a gorgon leads Lauren to slowly question her lifelong pursuit and recoil from the stinging indictment of liberalism and capitalism.

If that sounds like a drag, Shaw’s script—and especially the meticulous drawings and whimsical details on each cryptid—keep it buoyant. The result is an ambitious animated feature where the medium fits the message. This is a bestiary with real bite, mapping out a world where good intentions can still come to a bad end, and that can be the most important moral to learn.

Special Delivery

Born Again

by Hope Madden

What opens as a slyly comic take on a familiar horror scene turns – with a blinding light and the sound of a garage door – into something more silly and broadly funny. Born Again, Hands Off Productions’ 6 ½ minute visit with the “worst Satanists ever,” wastes no time and packs a comedic wallop.

Written by director Jason Tostevin and co-star Randall Greenland, the film’s success relies on a clever turn. Most of the pair’s collaborations, including 2015’s impressive (and award-bedecked) gangster short A Way Out, benefit from a similar subversion of expectations. But Born Again takes the team back to horror, and the sensibility here is much more enjoyably goofy.

Regular Tostevin collaborator, cinematographer Mike McNeese, lenses an impressive effort. The two handle the shift in tone beautifully, opening with sumptuous colors and tight close ups, then pivoting to a visual style that feels in on the joke.

Production values throughout impress, while performances – though brief – are strong. Tiffany Arnold, whose work relies almost entirely on facial expressions, is a riot, but the scene stealer is Greenland.

With sharp timing and a panda mask, Greenland perfectly represents Born Again: it’s so wrong, yet endearingly hilarious.

Secret Garden

The Garden Left Behind

by Hope Madden

Newcomer Charlie Guevara charms in Flavio Alves’s drama The Garden Left Behind with a bittersweet performance as Tina, an undocumented Mexican trans woman getting by in NYC. Her performance is simultaneously optimistic, wearied, frightened and strong.

Wisely, filmmaker Alves focuses his tale unblinkingly on Tina—her day to day, her loving if prickly relationship with her grandmother (Miriam Cruz), her warm and supportive community of friends, her struggle with an insecure boyfriend, her tentative steps toward transition. In a real way, every movement in the film is about transition, about claiming something that belongs to Tina, whether it’s her voice or her financial independence, her emotional health or her political power.

The rawness of Guevara’s turn sometimes makes way for self-consciousness that brings certain scenes to an awkward halt. Still, Guevara and Cruz share a lovely, lived-in chemistry. It’s their relationship that both buoys the film and makes the it ache all the more.

The story around the periphery crystallizes the ways in which the lives of trans people—especially trans women of color—differ from your garden variety New Yorkers’. Alves’s hand is not heavy; the fact that so many of Tina’s interactions could be taken as potentially menacing speaks volumes without an overt narrative. It’s actually in this B-story that the filmmaker may make the most salient and heartbreaking points.

If the film feels authentic, that’s unsurprising. Alves not only cast trans actors for each trans role, but he also employed a staff of transgender filmmakers in creative and crew roles. This after several years of research within the NYC transgender community to develop the insightful and poignant storyline.

It’s no surprise The Garden Left Behind became the 2019 SXSW audience award winner. The film breaks through as not only an admirable artistic vision produced with integrity, but a beautiful human tale of perseverance and love.  

Owing Largely to Sod’s Law


by Rachel Willis

With a tense opening scene, Villain starts off strong. Unfortunately, it’s downhill from there.

When Eddie Frank (Craig Fairbrass) is released from prison after a long stay, he is determined to live life on the straight and narrow. It’s too bad “life won’t let” him. When Eddie discovers his brother, Sean, has run afoul of some of London’s most dangerous men, the brothers are left with few options.

There isn’t anything new in Villain, and “generic” is the word it brings to mind often. These are characters that you’ve seen before in situations you’ve seen before in a movie you’ve seen before. Writers Greg Hall and George Russo (who also portrays Sean) expect your preconceived notions about films like this to carry you through the movie. It doesn’t work.

That’s not to say there aren’t things to like about director Philip Barantini first feature length film. Barantini certainly knows how to create tension, and there are a few scenes that are difficult to watch.

The relationship between Eddie and Sean is winning because the chemistry between Fairbrass and Russo is evident. They play off each other like real brothers. Their bond, their fights, and their love for each other rings true.  

Other characters don’t fare as well. When Franks tries to reunite with his daughter, Chloe (Izuka Hoyle), there are many head-scratching moments over her reactions. Her initial resentment of him too quickly gives way to feelings he hasn’t earned. Sean’s girlfriend, Rickie, could just as easily be a table from which he snorts coke. That’s not to say the actors aren’t doing their best, they’re just not blessed with particularly good material.

The tone of the film is all over the place, creating an overall messy feel. The family drama between the Franks and Chloe borders on the melodramatic, and the montage of the brothers remodeling their pub is odd and out-of-place. There’s a lot going on in the film, but there isn’t enough time devoted to each piece of the puzzle.

If you dig British thug dramas, there’s enough that works to make this enjoyable. But if you’re looking for a fresh take on the genre, you won’t find it here.


Dovidl the Conservatory Boy

Song of Names

by Matt Weiner

A Holocaust movie where the central tragedy haunts the characters just offscreen like a specter, anchored by two forceful leads and a mystery that spans decades. What could go wrong? A lot, it turns out.

Dovidl (Clive Owen/Jonah Hauer-King) is a Jewish violin prodigy from Poland. Martin (Tim Roth/Gerran Howell) is an accomplished musician in his own right, but once Dovidl joins the household as a wartime refugee, Martin seems to lack both the talent and the affection to win over his father’s attention.

When Dovidl disappears on the night of a big coming-out concert, it tears families apart and leaves Martin with a lifelong quest for answers about what happened that fateful evening. Directed by François Girard and written by Jeffrey Caine (based on the novel by Norman Lebrecht), The Song of Names jumps back and forth in time between Martin’s contemporary search for the missing genius Dovidl and the wartime London childhood that originally brought them together.

The second biggest problem the film is up against is that while Roth does yeoman’s work keeping the present-day mystery engaging, it’s the slow drips of revelations from the past that hold the movie back.

But the biggest weakness is how flat and inoffensive those revelations end up being, which points to a sad milestone for the genre. It’s not that The Song of Names is aggressively bad with its background treatment of the Holocaust. In fact, it goes out of its way not to take offense. (Although Clive Owen’s spirit gum Haredi beard comes dangerously close.)

That inoffensiveness holds the movie back from being memorable, or at least different enough to merit the solemn subject. If we’re so far removed now from the Holocaust that not every movie needs to be a Prestige Event (remember that time we collectively lost our minds pretending Life Is Beautiful was deeply observed and worthy of awards, rather than a peerless grotesquerie of the era?), we should also be far enough removed for those involved to add something new to the conversation.

And for a brief moment, The Song of Names comes close. The World War II-era storyline trembles with pregnant pauses around themes like there might be nothing inherently heroic about survival, or that losing hope might be a recognizably sane response to unfathomable enormities.

But the schmaltzy resolution is a hard comedown. And given what it’s all about in the end, The Song of Names would’ve been better off playing up the mystery—at least Tim Roth is great. And who doesn’t like a mystery that wraps up with tidy answers?

Don’t Judge It By the Cover

The Bookshop

by Rachel Willis

The Bookshop is not what you might imagine. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald, one might expect a sentimental, feel-good film about the power of books to open up closed minds. That’s not what we get in writer/director Isabel Coixet’s latest film.

At the heart of the story is Florence Green (Emily Mortimer). Having recently purchased a building known colloquially as “the Old House”, she decides to open a bookshop in the space. It’s a way for her to find a level of independence, as well as rekindle a connection with her late, much beloved, husband. However, she is unprepared for the level of opposition she faces in the small seaside town of Hardborough.

The opposition is spearheaded by Mrs. Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), a woman who is used to getting what she wants, and what she wants is to turn the Old House into an arts center. On her side are several Hardborough residents who seem to oppose the bookshop only because she does.

The film starts strong. We watch as Florence overcomes the stall tactics of her solicitor, squashes rumors that she plans to buy another property for her bookshop, and successfully launches the shop of her dreams. However, before the first act concludes, the film begins to meander.

As Florence contends with obstacles she didn’t foresee, she becomes friendly with her first customer, the local eccentric, Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), and their relationship blossoms with an exchange of letters. In a scene reminiscent of The Age of Innocence, Brundish reads his first letter into the camera. It’s an unusual technique, but it helps to humanize the reclusive man. Unfortunately, not enough time or importance is given to this correspondence.

Florence’s only other ally in this world is her young assistant, Christine (Honor Kneafsey). It’s touching to watch Florence try to instill a love of books into Christine, but the connection between the two is never earned. There is little chemistry between the actors; their interactions are awkward when they should be affectionate.

For a movie with only a few characters, it still ends up feeling like too many. Minor characters are given more importance than they deserve. Major characters aren’t given time to develop meaningful relationships. Most of the characters are one-dimensional.

The lovely cinematography captures the theme of the film better than any other aspect. Hardborough appears both enchanting and foreboding. If this had been better explored through character dynamics, The Bookshop may have made a lasting impression. As it is, it’s a beautiful, but empty film.

Cowboy Up

The Rider

by Hope Madden

The classic western, the cowboy story, sings a song of bruised manliness. Chasing destiny, sacrificing family and love for a solitary life, building a relationship with land and beast—there may be no cinematic genre more full of romance.

This is the hardscrabble poetry that fills writer/director Chloe Zhao’s latest, The Rider.

Set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the film shadows talented rodeo rider and horse trainer Brady (Brady Jandreau), who’s suffered a near-fatal head injury with lingering seizures and must now grapple with his future and his identity.

It’s a classic cowboy tale, really: will he give up cowboying because it will surely kill him, or will he get back up on that horse?

But what Zhao’s film avoids is sentimentality and sheen. With a hyper-realistic style showcasing performances by non-actors who lived a very similar story, she simultaneously celebrates and inverts the romance that traditionally fuels this kind of film.

Elegant and cinematic, but at the same time a spontaneous work of verite, The Rider breaks its own cinematic ground.

Images of real poverty butt up against lonesome vistas, a sole horse breaking up the line of the sunset. There’s no glossing over the realities Brady is facing when picking through what kind of future is left for him if he’s not a cowboy. The story is even clearer about what’s ahead of him if he is.

The Rider’s subject matter authenticity gives it the feel of a documentary. But because of the way Zhao plays with light, uses music, and fills the screen with the desolate beauty of the American plains, the film qualifies as a sleepy epic.

Zhao’s work is unmistakably indie, not a born crowd-pleaser, but beautifully lifelike. She has given new life to a genre, creating a film about the loss of purpose and, in that manly world of the cowboy, masculinity.

Three’s Company

In Between

by Rachel Willis

For women stuck between tradition and modernity, the choices presented to them can mean happiness or alienation from friends, family, and society. In Between explores these choices through the eyes of three women living as roommates in Tel Aviv.

The women are wildly different. There’s attractive, social Laila, who parties with her friends at night while working as a lawyer during the day. Salma is a tattooed, pierced chef whose parents are determined to find her a suitable husband. Nour, a conservative Muslim, is already engaged, but living in Tel Aviv to complete her degree in computer science.

Writer/director Maysaloun Hamoud, in her debut as a feature filmmaker, builds her narrative first from the perspective of each woman on her own, before drawing the stories together into a larger commentary on the world they inhabit.

The roommates connect over shared desires, as well as shared heartache. A particularly touching scene links Laila and Nour, as they prepare a dinner for Laila’s boyfriend. Laila is nervous, as she’s not cooked for anyone in some time, but Nour, who’s doing most of the cooking, reassures her that she does it for her betrothed all the time. It’s an intimate moment and details the different lives the two women lead.

There are additional intimate scenes between the women, and each is touching in uniquely different ways. A particular moment in which the roommates rally around Nour is both heartbreaking and poignant. It further reiterates the connection between women in a world that can be difficult to navigate, especially as it changes.

As Laila, Mouna Hawa is especially dynamic. She is the embodiment of a woman who knows who she is and what she wants, even if the world around her isn’t ready to accept that. However, Nour, magnificently portrayed by Shaden Kanboura, is perhaps the most interesting character as she is the one who changes most over the course of the film.

Salma’s (Sana Jammelieh) story feels the least explored. Though it carries its own emotional weight, when compared to the others it sometimes feels more like an afterthought.

Hamoud doesn’t shy away from forcing her characters into difficult, sometimes scary situations. Nor does she pull any punches in showing how those situations can leave a lasting impact. It’s often a rather bleak examination of the world women are forced to occupy.

These women have choices ahead of them, but the question is what they’ll have to give up to make them.

There Will Be Stickpins

Phantom Thread

by Hope Madden

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) sews little treasures into the gowns he makes for the most upper of crusts in 1950s London: little notes, wishes, secrets. It is a connection between the creator and the creation, existing regardless of the audience.

In many ways, Woodcock could be a stand-in for writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker whose work is genius (few would argue) even if there are things about each creation we may not entirely grasp.

Phantom Thread may be his most exquisite and least accessible film. Every frame, every elegant sweep of the camera, every jaunty note from Johnny Greenwood’s score says classic glamour. And at the center of this controlled, rhythmic beauty is Daniel Day-Lewis.

Hard to go wrong there.

Day-Lewis entirely inhabits this character, as you, of course, expect. His Woodcock oscillates between childlike charm and parental dismissiveness, and it’s a beguiling creation: narcissistic but tender, spoiled and selfish but dignified, the epicenter of his universe and yet frighteningly dependent.

The conflict here is subtle. While your eyes will not leave Woodcock and his glorious gowns, the remarkable Lesley Manville refuses to escape your notice. Manville plays Woodcock’s sister Cyril, the business brains to balance Reynolds’s creative genius, yin to his yang, Alpha to his Omega.

Manville is chilly perfection, her every gesture and expression a conundrum of thoughts and emotions. She keeps this man, this art, this world working. There is one scene in particular—Reynolds loses his temper when his breakfast solitude is broken and Cyril reminds him with clarity and authority exactly who is in charge here.

Which brings us, slowly and quietly, to the film’s actual conflict. Woodcock tires of the muse/model/girlfriend living with him, leaves Cyril to remove the problem and heads into the country for a rest. There he meets his next muse, the lovely German waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps).

What follows is an interesting, deeply human, beautifully acted and quite surprising battle for Alpha. And of course, it’s a great deal more than that. Namely, it is a meditation on creation and recreation, on the tricky nature of inspiration, on an artist’s obsession, on the surprising intimacy between creator and creation.