Tag Archives: Independent films

Chronic-2015

Chronic-2015

Director-Michel Franco

Starring-Tim Roth, Robin Bartlett

Reviewed September 18, 2017

Grade: A-

Chronic is a brave film, a character study, that offers an in depth look at the life of a male nurse and his rich relationships with his patients. What the film also does quite soundly is reflect on not just the obvious physical needs of the patients, but the deep effects that the main characters dying patients have on himself as well. The film is quite bleak with a quiet element and very long scenes containing little dialogue, but is a treasure in bold storytelling and brazen reflection.

The film is a subdued work requiring attention and focus. Yes, some would deem Chronic to be slow and certainly most would describe it as “a downer”, but to dismiss the film is a mistake as it offers rich writing and an in depth look at a vocation and lifestyle misunderstood or confusing to most people.

Tim Roth, famous for his bad boy roles, especially in Quentin Tarantino films, does an about face, delivering a superb, subdued performance as David Wilson, a lonely and depressed nurse living in the Los Angeles area. He is a quiet, kindly man whose internal pain registers on his face as he dutifully treats his mostly close to death patients, sometimes attending their funerals after they have expired.

Initially, we meet David as he tends to a sickly young woman. Clearly once beautiful, she is gaunt and haggard and I cringed when the woman’s nude, skeleton-like body, is on display as David washes her with a wash cloth. The film makers do not gloss over his tender attention to her private areas, which is shot gracefully and certainly not done garishly. Still, the long scene is unnerving and frightening in its realism.

When the woman succumbs to AIDS, David reluctantly becomes involved in a celebratory drink with a newly engaged young couple after he goes to a bar to unwind. When he pretends the deceased woman was his wife, he receives sympathy, but the couple quickly become aloof when he reveals what she died of. Does he do this purposely to push the couple away? Throughout the film we realize that David thrives on being with his patients, and can do no other type of work. In contrast, he has difficulty with relations with “normal” people.

Perplexities abound in this film, which make the viewer think and ponder throughout, and certainly after the story ends. For example, David searches through a young girls Facebook account looking at her photos- he later finds the girl, revealed to be studying medicine, and they happily reunite. Is she his daughter or the daughter of a deceased patient? Later, David is sued by an affluent family, and subsequently fired, after he watches porn with an elderly man to lift his spirits. There is a glimmer of uncertainty where we are not sure what David’s sexual orientation is.

In the most heartbreaking sequence of all, David begins caring for a middle-aged woman with progressive cancer. Martha (Robin Bartlett) is strong-willed and no nonsense and makes the painful decision not to continue with chemotherapy after suffering chronic nausea and later soiling herself. It is apparent that her family only visits her out of obligation as she lies to them that her cancer is gone and she is in the clear. She then pleads with David to end her life with dignity using a heavy does of morphine- the sequence is heartbreaking.

The final scene of the film will blow one away and I did not see this conclusion coming. The event left me questioning the entire sequence of the film, wondering how all the pieces fit together. Surely, being overlooked for an Oscar nomination, Tim Roth proves he is a layered, complex, full-fledged actor, in a painful, yet necessary story.

Clown-2016

Clown-2016

Director-Jon Watts

Starring-Laura Allen, Christian Distefano

Reviewed September 16, 2017

Grade: B-

As a fan of all things horror, and with a robust appreciation for the horror film genre, the inclusion of clowns in said genre films is always a stroke of genius, and the 2016 film aptly titled, Clown, establishes a creepy premise right off the bat. After seeing the film, it was not until a few days later that the story began to marinate more with me and I gained a bit more appreciation than I had once the film originally ended.

Clown reminds me quite a bit of the mid-2000’s Showtime horror anthology series, Masters of Horror, though, in fact, the film is a full running length of one hour and forty minutes. The film has a unique, creepy vibe that was also a highlight of the cherished series of yesteryear and this film oddly also plays out like a vignette.

The premise is laden in the creep factor as the action kicks off. When Kent McCoy, a likable young father, who works far too much maintaining his real estate business, is notified by his wife, Meg, that the clown they had hired to entertain at their son Jack’s birthday party, has canceled. Determined to save the day, Kent discovers a very old clown suit in the attic of one of his abandoned houses and dons the costume. The next day, Kent and Meg are startled when Kent is unable to remove the costume even when pliers, a hacksaw, and other horrid machinery is used on him.

The story then introduces a strange character named Herbert Karlsson, who informs Kent that the clown costume is not a costume at all, but rather the hair and skin of an ancient demon from Northern Europe. The demon needs to feast on and devour children in order to survive, Kent realizes, as he begins to become ravenous with hunger. Karlsson attempts to kill Kent, revealing that the only way to destroy the beast is via beheading.

The clever and compelling part of the story is the mixture of clowns and children in peril- a recipe for success in most horror films- and at the risk of being daring. The fact that Kent and Meg slowly begin the temptation to harm children is both shocking and effective. The McCoys are average, everyday folks, Meg even working as a nurse, so the likelihood of the pair harming kids on any other day is remote, but tested by a vicious demon and their own son Jack in peril makes Clown work well.

My favorite sequence of the film occurs during a birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese. While the kids play in a lavish and dark tunnel, the demon (Kent) is on the loose, causing havoc and eating two children. When Meg drives an unwitting young girl home, she is conflicted and tempted to offer the girl to the demon as a sacrifice in order to hopefully save Kent. The girls pleading is palpable.

The film is gruesome from a violence perspective and hesitates not in going where many horror films dare not to go- with the death and slaughter of young children. One kid in particular is basically shown disemboweled, granted the kid is written as a bully and therefore gets his comeuppance in grisly form. Sad is the death of a lonely trailer park type kid, only looking for just a friend in Kent- little does he know his short days are numbered.

As strong and measured as the story idea is, Clown does have some negatives. The film has an overall amateurish quality to it, and certainly not because it is an independent film. Rather, the style almost comes across as a student film project. Some of the acting is not great, specifically actress Laura Allen as Meg. In fact, the filmmakers might have been wiser to make this project more of an episodic venture instead of a full length release.

Clowns, kids, and demons make a fun combination for horror and the aptly named Clown is a solid B-movie effort in the glorious chambers of the cinematic horror genre. With a few tweaks and zip-ups, Clown might have been an even more memorable film. It will not go down in history as a masterpiece, but does have the necessary elements for a good watch.

Other People-2016

Other People-2016

Director-Chris Kelly

Starring-Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon

Reviewed August 24, 2017

Grade: B+

2016’s recipient of numerous Independent Film award nominations is equal parts a touching drama and equal parts witty comedy, providing a film experience that successfully transcends more than one genre- is it a heavy drama or is it a comedic achievement? Without being sappy or overindulgent, Other People is a film that will elicit both laughs and tears from viewers fortunate enough to see this film focused on a tough to tackle subject- a woman dying of cancer. The title of the film, which one character states he always thought cancer was something that only happened to “other people” is poignant.

Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon play son and mother in the brave film both written and directed by Chris Kelly. The very first scene is a confusing one and caught me off guard- we see the entire Mulcahey clan- father Norman (Bradley Whitford), three kids, David (Plemons), Alex, and Rebeccah, along with their dead mother Joanne (Shannon), all lying in the same bed, sobbing and clutching hands. Clearly Joanne has just succumbed to her battle with cancer. This powerful opening scene, which ironically is also the final scene, sets the tone for the entire film as Kelly, works his way back, beginning a year prior to the important “death scene”.

Cancer is a very tough subject to cover in film, especially going the comedy/drama route. The sensitive film maker must be careful not to trivialize the subject matter with too many comedic elements nor go for the heavy drama. Kelly successfully mixes the humor and drama well so that the film works as a cross-genre film. He achieves this by putting capable talents like Plemons and Shannon to good use- they share tremendous chemistry in every scene they appear in together. Scenes that show David and Joanne cry in each others arms work as well as others, such as when David takes a giddy Joanne to meet his comedy friends.

Most impressive is that the story in Other People is largely autobiographical- Kelly, a gay man like the character of David, moved from New York City to Sacramento, California, to tend to his ailing mother, who had also died from cancer. Actress Shannon reminded him so much of her that he had the fortune of casting the talented lady in his film- the part originally slated to go to Sissy Spacek instead.

Mixed in with the Joanne’s battle with cancer is also a nice story about David. A gay man, David has broken up with his boyfriend Paul, previously living together on the east coast (though still pretending to in order to spare Joanne worry), to return to the west coast. Over the course of the next year we see Joanne and Norman slowly come to terms with David’s sexuality- more so Norman than Joanne. In fact, the turbulent father/son relationship is explored during the course of the film as Norman, initially hesitant to even meet David’s boyfriend, Paul, in the end, pays for his airline ticket to attend Joanne’s funeral.

A slight miss with the film is the Norman/David dynamic-besides a few hints of Norman encouraging David’s struggling writing career and his obsession with David joining the gym and boxing, it is not really clear what issue he takes with his son being gay or why he is uncomfortable with it- other than the implication that the family is rather conservative no other reason is given. David’s sister’s and grandparents do not seem to take issue with David’s sexuality, though it is not made certain if the grandparents are even aware of it. Is it a machismo thing with Norman? This part of the story is unclear.

Still, in the end, Other People is a good, small, indie film, rich with crisp, sharp writing and a tragic “year in the life of a cancer patient” along with good family drama and the relationships that abound when a family comes together and unites based on a health threat. The film is certainly nothing that has not been done before, but thanks to good direction and a thoughtful, nuanced, approach, along with one character’s sexuality mixed in, the film feels quite fresh.

In the Flesh-1998

In the Flesh-1998

Director-Ben Taylor

Starring-Dane Ritter, Ed Corbin

Reviewed July 10, 2017

Grade: B

In the Flesh is a steamy, pre-Brokeback Mountain, LGBT film from 1998. The budget for this film is very small and the acting quite wooden. My initial reaction was that In the Flesh is a terrible film, yet something sucked me in as a fan, whether the crime theme or the romance (or both). The atmosphere is quite dreamlike and moody, which I find appealing and the addition of a whodunit murder mystery amid the romantic drama is highly appealing- therefore I hesitantly recommend this film for perhaps a late night adult viewing. But be prepared for endless plot holes and unnecessary sub-plots.

Oliver Beck (Dane Ritter) is a handsome college student who works as a hustler in a dive bar named The Blue Boy in Atlanta, Georgia. He has his share of loyal, older men who use his services and adore him, especially a lonely man named Mac- a barfly at the watering hole. When closeted Detective Philip Kursch (Ed Corbin) begins an undercover assignment to bust a drug ring at The Blue Boy, their lives intersect, as Philip falls in love with Oliver and investigates his past.

As the drug investigation seems to be quickly forgotten, a murder mystery develops when Mac is murdered at the ATM machine- Oliver looks on, panics,  and speeds away. When Philip covers for Oliver as an alibi, the plot really thickens. Other side stories like a flashback sequence involving Oliver’s past- while driving drunk he killed his best childhood friend, the introduction of his sometime boss and girlfriend, Chloe, and his caring of Lisa, his sister, addicted to heroin- are brought to the table, but really have little to do with the main story and only confuse the plot.

The most compelling element is the relationship between Oliver and Philip and their dysfunctional love story, but many questions abound. Is Philip secretly married or dating a female? We know nothing about his personal life. Oliver, hustling and hating every minute of it, merely as a way to support Lisa’s habit is ridiculous- why not get her help?

Neither actor Ed Corbin nor Dane Ritter will ever be accused of being the world’s greatest actor, and can hardly act their way out of a paper bag. Both actors performances are wooden and unemotional, even when emotion is required in the scene. Still, oddly this somewhat works in the film.

Regardless of In the Flesh being riddled with plot holes and sub-par acting, the film has some charm. The moody Atlanta nights, rife with sex and secrets , is quite appealing. A murderer on the loose and disguised save for a green watch is intriguing. The film also has a mysterious, almost haunting nature, and the muted camera work, whether intentional or the result of a poor DVD copy, works very well.

Since the time is 1998, a time period where more and more LGBT films were beginning to be made, but not overly so, In the Flesh and director, Ben Taylor, deserve credit for even being able to get this film produced and made. The mainstream success of LGBT juggernaut, Brokeback Mountain, undoubtedly was helped, albeit in a small way, by this film. Though, strangely, I never noticed the two main characters ever kiss- too soon for 1998?

Not the finest acting nor the best written screenplay, In the Flesh is a bare bones film that will be enjoyed largely by an LGBT audience seeking a peek into a time when these types films were not running aplenty and typically made in the independent film venue.

I Smile Back-2015

I Smile Back-2015

Director-Adam Salky

Starring-Sarah Silverman

Reviewed June 13, 2017

Grade: B+

As a fan of Sarah Silverman, the comedienne, I was anxious to see the 2015 film, I Smile Back, which garnered her a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination. Silverman tackles a heavily dramatic role in a film which teeters on being a pure “downer”. In fact, many fans expecting the actresses comic wit to be featured need not see the film. Rather, I embraced the performance and found the film to be an independent film treat, in large part thanks to Silverman’s powerful performance. She nails the part and carries the film to success. I Smile Back is a very small film that I wished had garnered more viewers.

Laney Brooks (Silverman) appears to have it all. She lives an affluent existence in Westchester County, NY with handsome husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), and their two young children. With a gorgeous house, dinner parties, and friends, who could ask for anything more?  Bored and troubled by a tough childhood and “daddy issues”, Laney has a tendency to drink too much, abuse drugs and prescription pills, carry on an affair with her best friends husband, all while managing to successfully run a household. As she gradually begins to spiral down a darker path, Laney sees her perfect world slowly begin to crumble around her.

My question throughout the entire film was, “Are we supposed to root for Laney or dislike her?” Certainly director Adam Salky does not make it easy to like her. In addition to her substance abuse use (or over-use), Laney is rather selfish. From the small scenes when Laney drops off her kids from school and is annoyed when the crossing guard and a teacher refuse to give her special treatment, she mutters insults under her breathe as she grabs a cigarette and heads for her scandalous rendezvous.  But when she is put in great peril later in the film, following one of her benders, I could not help but feel deep sympathy for her. In this way, the film is a bit unclear of what the audience should feel.

This leads me to conclude without a doubt that the film belongs to Silverman. In fact, what impressed me most is how believable she is in most scenes. She packs creative lunches for her kids and plays fun birthday cake decorating games with them, but in the next breathe snorts cocaine and rails at a neighbor lady for not celebrating Thanksgiving. Thanks to Silverman, she plays these scenes with gusto.

Some critics have complained about the script, but I find no real fault in it. Clearly not the strongest element, it is fine, nonetheless. I Smile Back is a low-budget indie drama that serves its purpose- it does not delve too deeply into the how’s and why’s of her addiction, and a nice scene with Laney’s father (Chris Sarandon) offers no concrete evidence of why this man drove her to drugs by his abandonment, but the film seems to be more about proving a good performance by Silverman than anything else.

Sarah Silverman commands great respect with her dark portrayal in I Smile Back. This role, combined with her recent turn in Showtime’s Masters of Sex television series, portraying a pregnant lesbian in the 1960’s, proves that she has what it takes to compete with the great dramatic actresses of today. She is certainly much more than a stand-up comic. Here’s to hoping for more drama from this talented lady in the years ahead.

Spa Night-2016

Spa Night-2016

Director-Andrew Ahn

Starring-Joe Seo

Reviewed May 19, 2017

Grade: B+

On the surface, Spa Night may seem like a straight-ahead independent LGBT themed film (of which in recent years there is no shortage of), but the plot of the film is really twofold. Sure, it tells the coming of age story of a young man’s sexuality, but Spa Night is also a story of the boy’s Korean parents financial struggles and their desire to raise a son into a successful young man, sacrificing their own happiness in the process. The films tone is very subtle and the action moves slowly, but it is a sweet story and a relevant one.

David Cho is a shy Korean-American high school student on the cusp of going to college. His parents (who only speak Korean) have sadly recently lost their take-out restaurant in Los Angeles. The parents struggle to make ends meet (she by waitressing, he by doing odd moving jobs), while David takes SAT classes to ensure he get into a great college. David is also struggling with his sexuality and one night visits a local male spa with drunken friends. He gets a job there and begins to experience male on male shenanigans taking place on the sly in the spa, all the while developing his own blossoming sexual feelings.

David’s development in the story is key- he is resistant to coming out as gay because his parents are traditional Korean, constantly mentioning David finding a girlfriend and succeeding in school, becoming what they have failed to achieve. When, at one point, he fools around with another male in the spa, David insists on a no kissing policy. This reveals to the audience that he has issues with the intimacy with another male and in one compelling scene some self-loathing occurs. When he stares too long at a buddy in the bathroom, while both are inebriated, this clues in the friend, who is then distant towards David.

The film is enjoyable because there are two stories being told rather than one, which helps the film succeed. We also care a great deal about David’s parents, compassionately portrayed rather than the stereotypical “tiger mom” and a rigid father. Wanting only the best for him, and having no clue about his sexuality struggles, they trudge along with their own issues. The father drinks too much and the parents frequently squabble. This is a clue to the film because it explains why David is hesitant to mention anything to them, despite the fact that he is close to his parents.

I also enjoyed the slice of life and coming of age appeal that the film possesses. Several shots of day to day life in Los Angeles are shown, mainly as characters go about their daily routines. The budget allotted Spa Night must have certainly been minimal, but the lesson learned is that some really fantastic films are made for miniscule money, but as long as the characters are rich and the story humanistic, the film succeeds- this is the case in Spa Night.

Almost every single character is of Asian descent- I am guessing all Korean actors. This is another positive I give to Spa Night. In the cinematic world, where other cultures and races are woefully underutilized or still stereo-typically portrayed, how refreshing that Spa Night breaks some new ground with an LGBT centered film with Korean characters.

Spa Night was deservedly crowned the coveted John Cassavetes award at the 2016 Independent Spirit awards (for films made for under $500,000) and director Andrew Ahn is certainly a talented novice director to be on the watch for. He seems destined to tell good, interesting stories about people.

99 Homes-2015

99 Homes-2015

Director-Ramin Bahrani

Starring-Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon

Reviewed April 13, 2017

Grade: B+

99 Homes is a 2015 independent film that contains an underlying theme of morality as its central message, bubbling to the surface throughout the run of the film as our main hero is faced with a major dilemma. Set in 2010 in the midst of the dark economic housing crisis where thousands of families lost their homes to foreclosure, the film is depressing at times, but turns uplifting towards the end. Reminiscent of The Big Short and Inside Job in subject matter, we witness a wonderful performance by Andrew Garfield in the lead role, with a worthy supporting turn by Michael Shannon as a venomous opportunist.

Director Ramin Bahrani immediately creates tension with a taut musical score that bombards the screen. We see a poor victim of foreclosure, having shot himself to avoid the humiliation of being evicted from his home, followed by the introduction of powerful real-estate mogul, Rick Carver. Carver has wisely capitalized on the slew of Florida working class families, living well beyond their means and novice homeowners, booted from their homes thanks to adjustable mortgages that they cannot afford to pay.

Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a struggling construction worker, raising his young son and presumably supporting his mother (Laura Dern). They are fated to be evicted even though they have tried to win an extension with the court- months behind in their mortgage payments. They feel victimized and are forced to move to a seedy motel that houses many others in the same circumstances. Desperate for work, Dennis ironically ends up working for Rick and becomes encased in the dishonest world of real estate scheming- manipulating banking and government rules at the expense of homeowners who are down on their luck.

The main point of the film is the exploitation of the “working man” at the expense of “the man” and Rick is an example of this beast. Dennis represents the goodness of humanity as he wrestles with the moral repercussions of evicting families since he himself has met with similar circumstances. Is the money worth the pain and the hardship he causes people? How is it Rick has no morals, but Dennis does? Will Dennis choose money and lose himself in the process? What would the viewer do?

Despite the morality questions, the film does play like a slick thriller, with a few slight contrivances and the “wrapped up in a neat bow” style ending. This slightly makes the film lose its luster at times. It is implied that the film ends happily for Dennis and that Rick gets his “just desserts”, but what about the characters kicked out of their homes? Sadly, as in real-life, they are largely forgotten by the end of the film and play as footnotes in a larger story. Some follow-up as to what happens to them might have been nice.

99 Homes is a thinking man’s film and will undoubtedly leave the viewer asking what he or she would do in many situations that Dennis is faced with. The emotions ooze from the face of Andrew Garfield as Bahrani uses many close-ups and enough cannot be said for Garfield’s bravura performance. In one heart-wrenching scene, he is forced to evict a man and his wife and children from their home, the man reduced to tears, comforted by his wife-Dennis is pained. In another, an elderly man with nowhere to go is evicted, left defeated by the side of the road. These scenes may have played as overwrought, but Garfield convincingly brings honesty and raw emotion to the work.

Laura Dern is very good in her role as young mother, Lynn,  to Garfield’s Dennis and I am perplexed why she was cast- she barely seems old enough to play convincingly as his Mom, but she does pull it off. However, I could not help but desire more meat from this Oscar nominated Actress- sure there is one great scene when Lynn realizes the extent of Dennis’s involvement with Rick, but I wanted more. Still, the acting all around in this film is superb.

What left me so bothered by 99 Homes is that situations just like the ones that played out in the film are examples of countless real-life occurrences people experienced due to greed, dishonesty, and uncaring fellow human beings and that is a sad realization. Director, Bharani, surrounded by a stellar cast, brings this realism to the big screen in raw, honest, storytelling.

Chained-2012

Chained-2012

Director-Jennifer Lynch

Starring-Vincent D’Onofrio

Reviewed March 24, 2017

Grade: B-

Chained is a 2012 independent horror film directed by Jennifer Lynch, who just happens to be the daughter of the brilliant film and television director, David Lynch, and his influence is readily felt throughout. The film is an exercise in cerebral, psychological horror, and is quite mesmerizing for most of the experience. The ending, however, is the pits, and takes away from the enjoyment of the rest of the film in its asinine, quickly wrapped-up, conclusion.

The film is set in an unknown area- all the audience really knows is a  decrepit, isolated, cabin in the middle of nowhere and that the shack exists in somewhat close proximity to a college town. Since the film is shot in Canada that is a good enough locale for me to accept. One day a seemingly happy husband drops off his wife and nine year old son at the movies, but implores them to take a taxi home as the bus is too dangerous. When they heed his advice, they are accosted by a deranged serial killer, Bob (D’Onofrio), who drives a cab and whisks them away to his remote home. After he kills the mother, he makes the son, whom he re-names Rabbit, his slave, reducing him to household chores and a somewhat accomplice to the subsequent victims he brings home. As the years pass and Bob continues to kill, he is determined to have, a now mature,  Rabbit follow in his footsteps.

A large chunk of Chained (and the film is aptly named because Bob commonly keeps Rabbit chained) takes place in Bob’s lonely home and Bob and Rabbit are all each other really have for support. Bob presumably earns a living by stealing the cash his victims carry. Many scenes of a bonding nature, albeit perverse, are featured as the two dole away the time between Bob’s kills, almost like a father and son. Jennifer Lynch wisely moves the film at a slow pace for appropriate build up.

Bob’s psychologically troubled childhood is told through flashbacks as he is victimized by his abusive father and forced to have sex with his own mother, who blames him rather than her husband. As a result, Bob hates women, and lures victim after victim into his cab and then slices and dices them back at his home. In a way, Bob is sympathetic, like a wounded bird, and whether he rapes the victims before killing them is unclear, as much happens off screen.

The cabin is purposely suffocating and when Bob teaches Rabbit intellectual facts and encourages him to read and study to become smart, it is a bonding experience. Slowly, Bob trusts Rabbit more and more. When Bob makes Rabbit pick out a young girl in a school yearbook to kill, the film kicks into high gear. Suddenly, it becomes vague whether Rabbit is loyal to Bob or still determined to escape. Will he help his intended victim instead of killing her?

David Lynch’s imprint is blatant in both the pacing of the film and more specifically in the low hum musical score, common in his own films. Daughter Jennifer clearly knows her father’s techniques as they continually come into play. A nice homage to Mulholland Dr. appears when a sweet older couple rides in the back of Bob’s cab, reminiscent of the older couple featured in Mulholland Dr. The gloomy ambiance is highly effective in Chained and the relationship between Bob and Rabbit, not sexual or overly violent, becomes actually rather sweet in some moments-almost like a typical father and son.

The rushed conclusion of the film is disastrous and Lynch’s attempt at a twist goes haywire in the “makes sense” department. After a compelling fight scene with Bob, Rabbit finally kills him, escapes his clutches, and returns to his fathers open arms (now newly re-married with another son) only to reveal to his father that he knows he orchestrated Rabbit and his mom’s abduction years ago and that Bob is really Rabbit’s uncle! To matters even more confusing, after a dramatic event, Rabbit is sent away yet again and returns to the cabin as his only safe place. This final act is a real dog, makes little sense, and is tough to digest.

I will give some liberties to 2012’s Chained since the director is spawned from the great David Lynch and the mood and several characteristics mirror his own work, but still with her own unique vision an obvious characteristic. Most of the film is a solid effort, but due to the ending of the film being such a let down, the body of work seems incomplete.

BearCity-2010

BearCity-2010

Director-Douglas Langway

Starring-Joe Conti, Stephen Guarino

Reviewed March 19, 2017

Grade: B

BearCity is a small, independent, LGBT, coming of age film that tells of a young man living in New York City, and his exploration of a sub-culture within the LGBT community and a subsequent romance that follows. The film is a comedy and has a “Sex in the City” or “Queer as Folk” approach to its storytelling- a group of close knit friends and  raunchy and gratuitous to be sure. The budget is very small and some aspects rather amateurish, but the film is enjoyable, especially for those exposed to the LGBT lifestyle. The film is not a heavy nor are any of the characters dealing with “coming out” issues, but rather it is a fun sex comedy romp.

Our central character, Tyler (Joe Conti), is a young man in his twenties, an aspiring actor, who moves to New York City to pursue his career, with a mind for casual dating. His roommates encourage him to date Abercrombie and Fitch types, but Tyler comes to realize he prefers “bear” types- mature, hairy men. On the sly he begins to pursue this sub-culture and makes many friends. The apple of his eye, handsome Roger (Gerald McCullough) is a popular mature man, distinguished in the bear circle, and risks his reputation with “the bears” by falling in love with Tyler. The two men spend the greater part of the film conquering their respective fears and finding their way into each others arms in a predictable ending.

BearCity is a fun farce and nothing very heavy and the featuring of a strong circle of friends is a nice, positive portrayal- all of the friends connect well and stick by each other through thick and thin. Comical sub-plots abound such as one couples (Brent and Fred) awkward parlay into the world of threesomes with unsuccessful results. Another bear who is unemployed, and grossly obese, decides to undergo weight loss surgery much to the chagrin of his hunky boyfriend.

The main story though, belongs to Tyler and Roger and their inevitable reunion can be seen miles away. The film throws various hurdles in their way, such as a third person briefly dating Roger, or Roger’s commitment issues, but the climax of the film will be no surprise to anyone. Tyler and Roger make a nice couple as a whole, but perplexing is how the film makes Roger the undisputed leader of the bear group, when he is actually a lean, muscular man- not a “bear” at all! This is odd to me, but BearCity is so light hearted that I suppose I can let this detail slide in favor of a good romance.

Critically, the film is nice, but quite amateurish, and super low-budget. The acting, especially by some of the supporting characters (the pre-surgery guys boyfriend is the most glaring example), is not great. I half-expected him to accidentally look at the camera. Additionally, the film has a low-budget look and feel, which on one level is fine, but combined with the not so stellar acting, enhances the inexperience of the cast and crew. The film is tough to take too seriously- if this is even the intention of the filmmakers.

The film is a logistical treat for anyone privy to popular gay hangouts in New York City- specifically The Eagle and The Ramrod, both locales are featured prominently, and the use of many real-life people who hang out at those establishments are used throughout the production.

BearCity is not a bad experience and certainly a film that is light and comical within the LGBT community seems rather fresh compared to the myriad of dramatic and heavy films that exist. At the same time the film teeters towards goofy too much with more than one bafoonish, sex-crazed, stereotypical gay man, that it almost gives a bad impression, so the film has mixed results for me.

American Honey-2016

American Honey-2016

Director-Andrea Arnold

Starring-Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf

Reviewed March 6, 2017

Grade: A-

American Honey is an unconventional coming of age drama that deserves kudos for not only being shot on a shoe-string budget, but also of having something of substance to tell. The film is mostly shot outdoors throughout the scouring summer months in heat drenched Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Kansas, as the film follows a group of rebellious, lonely teenagers as they attempt to sell magazines as part of a shady con organization. Their female leader uses cult-like rallying techniques to achieve loyalty. The film is shot mainly by hand-held cameras and only uses natural light, which are admirable feats in film.

The film’s central character is an eighteen-year old girl named Star, played by novice actress, Sasha Lane. Saddled with a deadbeat boyfriend with two young kids that she is forced to care for, she takes food from dumpsters in order to survive. One day, she is approached by a charismatic, handsome bad boy, Jake (Shia LaBeouf). Jake, along with a group of teenagers, offers her a job in Kansas. Hesitant, but realizing her dead-end existence, she accepts the mysterious job and travels with other unsavory characters across the bible-states, where they prey on wealthy, religious types willing to lend a hand, under the guise of selling them magazines.

The main story envelopes Star, her romantic feelings for Jake, and her quandaries that she faces on the road. She drinks, smokes, curses, and is sexually active, yet also savvy and wise beyond her years. The audience wonders if she will continue this lifestyle and worries when she comes into contact with older men- all rather well mannered and some affluent. Will they pay her for her magazines or some other forms of entertainment? How will Star handle propositions and scrapes in and out of precarious situations. Star grows up throughout the film. Star is also a kind and confident character.

At two hours and forty three minutes long, American Honey is extremely lengthy, especially given the fact that the film is an independent feature and also seems not to contain many concrete plot points nor much of a conclusion. It seems to just go on and on and on. Despite, the film never bored me and I was quite enraptured with the antics of the stories characters, finding myself quite fond of the surprising love story shrouded amongst the hip hop and rap soundtrack. Star and Jake (thanks in large part to the talents of Lane and LaBeouf) have true chemistry and likability as a couple.

The mystery surrounding Star is we know nothing about her parents or family or how she came to this existence at such a young age. At one point, she does mention her mother dying of a meth overdose, but it is unclear whether she makes this story up for the benefit of a magazine sale or if it is the truth. Star is rebellious, but very intelligent and capable, all the while exhibiting a kindness to strange children and her “colleagues”.

Interesting to note about American Honey are two key aspects: the film uses almost all non-actors- most of the kids were scouted and offered roles at local malls or various hangouts by director Andrea Arnold, so the film has a rawness and energy that is powerful given that the film is largely improvised. Also, the film is almost entirely shot using a basic hand-held camera or cellphone eliciting a shaky, documentary style feel. Instead of these characteristics giving American Honey an amateurish feel, it gave the film an authentic quality.

The left of center approach of featuring male frontal nudity and same sex relations gives the film much credo as an alternative film- the teens also swear and use drugs quite a bit, which could turn some off.

Receiving a heap of 2016 Independent Film award nominations (but winning none), my reason for watching the film, American Honey breathes some fresh air into the world of independent cinema, where sometimes too many big name stars appear in the indies to garner some credibility. Watching a film of novices or individuals with no acting aspirations simply create a good story is worth something in itself. And kudos to Arnold for spinning such a fresh tale.

Captain Fantastic-2016

Captain Fantastic-2016

Director-Matt Ross

Starring-Viggo Mortensen

Reviewed February 10, 2017

Grade: B+

A thought provoking story that raises a question of home-schooled, non- traditional book intelligence versus the lack of social norms and interactions, and debates which upbringings are more relevant, Captain Fantastic is a terrific film with a moral center. Starring Viggo Mortensen, who is not afraid to tackle complex and thoughtful roles, the film is a family drama with a unique spin and an edgy subject matter. Perhaps not as gritty as it could have been and feeling a bit safe, it still entertains and elicits thought, which is an important aspect to film and is oftentimes lacking in modern films.

Director Matt Ross immediately treats us to aerial views of green and mountainous Pacific Northwest where a family of seven- 1 father and 6 children ranging in age from five to seventeen- silently prey on and kill a deer grazing in the forest- this is their dinner. The family is unorthodox to say the least. Led by Ben Cash, he teaches the children how to fight, how to survive, and how to be ready for any situation. They are highly intelligent kids- able to recite the Bill of Rights and the most complex of literature.

Soon, it is revealed that their mother, Leslie, has committed suicide and a battle ensues between her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) who are determined to bury her “properly” with a Christian funeral, and Ben and his children, who are determined to honor her last wishes for cremation. Ben and the gang travel via their run down school bus to New Mexico, meeting local townspeople along the way as a battle of cultures takes place.

I commend Ross for creating a story that challenges the viewer to think- depending on the viewers religious or political views, there is a risk of people either loving or hating the film. The film is skewed toward the left, certainly, as a dinner and sleepover with Ben’s sister and her very “Americanized” family is awkward- the families having completely different styles. Ross makes it clear that Ben and family are the intelligent ones and his sisters kids quite dumb- not even knowing what the Bill of Rights is and mindlessly playing violent video games. The fact that they are a “typical American family” is sad and quite telling of what Ross’s view might be.

Captain Fantastic wisely shows that either side is not perfect. His oldest son, Bodevan, blooming sexually, has an awkward encounter with a pretty girl, proposing marriage to her with her mother present, because he knows no social norms. A younger son is attracted to a “normal” life with his grandparents, who are a wealthy couple. The grandparents are not presented as bad people, but rather, wanting the best for their grandchildren, and fearing how their lives will turn out without better structure or what they perceive as a better upbringing. Some of the kids blame Ben for their lack of social skills and being what they perceive as “freaks”.

The film does end in a safe fashion as a happy medium is ultimately reached, but I never felt cheapened by this result. I found Captain Fantastic to be rich in intelligent writing and a challenging tale. Many moments of “what would you do?” were brought to the forefront. Mortensen portrays Ben Cash flawlessly mixing just the right vulnerability with stubbornness to the character, and it is a great film for anyone fearing being intelligent is not cool, because it is.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl-2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl-2015

Director-Marielle Heller

Starring-Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Kristen Wiig

Reviewed February 2, 2017

Grade: A-

I was not entirely sure of what I expected from the Independent Spirit award winning film, Diary of a Teenage Girl. I surmised that I would be treated to a light hearted, yet well-written coming of age story, but the film is much darker than I would have thought- and this is a plus- the film is edgy. There is so much depth to the central characters and an incredibly complex performance by newcomer, Bel Powley as the title role. Stars Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard also give tremendous performances. The film is based on the graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner.

Set in 1976 San Francisco, a time filled with hippies, drugs, music, and life, fifteen year old Minnie, an aspiring comic book writer, is insecure as any typical fifteen year old is. With wide-eyes and stringy hair, she is cute, but rather quirky looking, not the prettiest girl in her class, and records all of her deepest thoughts into a cassette recorder. Minnie is intelligent and worldly, accepting of alternative lifestyles and drugs, despite her young age. She is wise well beyond her years.

Minnie’s mother Charlotte (Wiig), lives a bohemian lifestyle, constantly partying and losing jobs, and is divorced from Minnie’s and sister Gretel’s affluent, but mostly absent father, Pascal (Christopher Meloni). In a comic way, the girls refer to him as “Pascal” instead of “Dad”, which he abhors. Determined to lose her virginity, Minnie is man crazy and develops a sweet relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Skarsgard). Things begin slowly, but develop into a full-blown sexual relationship. A controversial piece to the story is that Monroe is thirty five years old- Minnie only fifteen. Both Monroe’s and Minnie’s feelings are challenged due to circumstances and Minnie’s emotions spiral out of control.

The subject matter of The Diary of a Teenage Girl will undoubtedly be off-putting for many folks as the actions are technically statutory rape, but the film never goes in that direction. Rather, director Marielle Heller crafts a tender story of young love and when there is too much drama, there is comic relief thrown in. Monroe is never the aggressor and, in fact, Minnie is. She is a young girl who knows what she wants. Since the director is female there is absolutely no hint of Minnie being taken advantage of or regretting her affair- the film is not about this. Rather, it is about a young girl with blooming sexuality and blooming emotions finding herself in the world. I admire this left of center approach to story immensely.

Other aspects of the film may be too much for some- Minnie and her best friend pretend to be prostitutes and orally service two young men in the men’s room on a lark. Later, Charlotte uses filthy language to describe Monroe’s and Minnie’s relationship. The film is not safe, but brazen and honest- I admire its courage.

Enough cannot be said for the three principle actors in Diary of a Teenage Girl. Bel Powley is a find! Nominated for an Independent Spirit award, this amazing young actress should have been recognized by the Academy awards, but she no doubt has many years and films ahead of her. She is a “regular girl” type and reminds me a bit of actress Lena Dunham in her looks and her rich delivery.

Kristen Wiig is fantastic and is evolving into a great dramatic actress. As Charlotte, Wiig is wonderfully insecure and an offbeat mother. She does not discipline, but rather befriends her daughters, showering them with hugs and kisses and gives a vulnerable neediness to the character. Wiig, dynamite in the comedy/drama The Skeleton Twins, has embraced small, but important indie films and kudos to her for this.

Lastly, Skarsgard, mainly known as HBO’s villainous Eric on True Blood, is inspiring as Monroe. Providing his character with sympathy and humanity (tough when having an affair with a teenage girl who also happens to be your girlfriends daughter), Skarsgard evokes so much emotion into the role that you almost root for Monroe and Minnie before remembering that she is too emotionally fragile. Skarsgard is brilliant in Monroe’s breakdown scene. I hope audiences see him in more of these complex roles as he is far more than a hunky actor.

Diary of a Teenage Girl intersperses graphic novel/animated elements into the story told from the perspective of Minnie and the character narratives parts of the film. An authentic, interesting story not only for teenagers, but for smart thinkers and anyone who has ever been over their heads in the emotions of love.

20th Century Women-2016

20th Century Women-2016

Director-Mike Mills

Starring-Annette Benning, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning

Reviewed January 22, 2017

Grade: A-

Annette Benning gets to shine in her leading role in 20th Century Women, a film directed by formidable independent director, Mike Mills, whose credits include 2010’s Beginners, and 2005’s Thumbsucker. In 20th Century Women, Mills serves as both director and writer, so the film truly is his vision. All of the five principal characters are quirky and well-written, though Benning’s is the most nuanced and fascinating to me.

The time is 1979 Santa Barbara. Despite the image of Santa Barbara being  a wealthy, grand town, dripping with the wealthy and powerful (perhaps due to the sweeping 1980’s daytime soap opera of the same name), Mills does not present this film as such. He presents Santa Barbara as a more artsy town as least where his characters are concerned.

Benning plays Dorothea Fields, a fifty-five year old divorced mother of a fifteen year old boy, Jaimie. She is a free-spirit and allows two boarders to live with her-Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a twenty-five year old aspiring photographer with fuchsia-colored hair, recovering from cervical cancer, and William (Billy Crudup), a handyman. They are joined by Jaimie’s good friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), a depressed neighbor.

The film nicely dives into the trials and tribulations of each character as well as their interactions with each other, in a highly quirky manner, and we fall in love with each of them. Dorothea enlists the help of Abbie and Julie to assist in having a positive influence over Jaimie after he nearly dies after a foolish teenage prank.

Mills successfully gives a slice of life feel to the time period as punk rock and the political climate of the times are heavily used in the film. Bands such as Talking Heads and Black Flag are focused as Dorothea strives to learn what young people like, herself striving to remain youthful and in touch with her charges. Dorothea is a chain-smoker and many scenes of her pondering a situation while taking long drags, are featured. I love this aspect of the film as it showcases Benning’s cerebral performance. She is a thoughtful woman, only wanting her son to grow up sane and productive since his father is absent.

Sex and feminism are big parts of the film. Abbie loans Jaimie two books by female feminist authors to allow him a better understanding of women. When he begins to discuss orgasms and a strange conversation about sex and virginity ensues during a dinner party Dorothea is hosting, the graphic detail is a bit too much for Dorothea. She is a conflicted character- open minded and caring, when it comes to her son, she has a more conservative edge, while trying to remain open to his new experiences as a teen.

20th Century Women is strictly a character driven film, which is an enormous strength. Each character is in a different place in their lives and I adore how the film gives a conclusion to each of the character’s lives in the years to come. Certainly, the film does go the “happily ever after” route, but this does not bother me. Rather, the film is so well composed that I was enraptured by the characters lives. Admittedly, the film is slow moving at times, but this is due to the richness of the dialogue- nothing is rushed along.

Kudos to the cast- specifically Gerwig and Fanning are wonderful. Fanning’s Julie is a unique character- her mother is a psychiatrist who forces her to attend group sessions that she holds. Julie has a step-sister with cerebral palsy, so Julie frequently sleeps at Dorothea’s house as a way to escape her life. Sexual active, Julie has a pregnancy scare during the story.

A coming of age type film set in an interesting period of time, 20th Century Women showcases the talents of a stellar cast, led by Benning, and takes its audience into a wonderful, character themed world and discusses the lives of its intriguing characters with a clear portrayal of life in the late 1970’s.

Hell or High Water-2016

Hell or High Water-2016

Director-David Mackenzie

Starring-Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster

Reviewed January 16, 2017

Grade: B+

Reminiscent of the Coen Brothers No Country for Old Men or a classic Sam Peckinpah film from the 1970’s, Hell or High Water is a splendid tale of bank robbers being chased by lawmen in rural, western Texas. The film provides good story with a tale of morality so the viewer is unsure who to root for- the good guys or the bad guys. This gives the film substance compared to the typical action, guy film, done to death. Odd, quirky, small characters are interspersed throughout the film which adds comedy and a unique feel. The film is directed by David Mackenzie- up until now an unknown to me.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner, two brothers who embark on a series of small town bank robberies in order to save their recently deceased mother’s ranch. Tanner (Foster) is the more seasoned criminal of the two, having spent time in jail and being more volatile than his brother. Toby (Pine) is a family man with two kids, and is more intelligent and sensible than his brother. They are pursued by two Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton (Bridges), a grizzled man weeks away from retirement, and his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

What I enjoyed most about this film is the authenticity of the setting. The film was actually shot in New Mexico, but, meant to be west Texas, this is believable and the cinematography is gorgeous. The vastness of the land, the sticky desert heat are filmed very well. Small town Texas is portrayed as tiny characters are introduced as townspeople, given much credo to the film. My favorites are the diner waitress-smitten with the handsome Toby (and her $200 tip), and t-bone waitress- grizzled and rude after forty-four years in the same place- their sassy and abrasive behavior works and adds much to the film. Dale Dickey is a treat in any film and her turn as a bank employee is a joy.

How nice to see Chris Pine in a challenging role. His character is conflicted morally- not wanting to hurt anyone, he struggles with the robberies, and wants to do right by his kids and his mother. He is a decent man caught in uncertain circumstances and Pine does an excellent job at portraying him, proving the actor is becoming more than just a pretty face.

Bridges plays surly quite well and how nice to see the actor succeeding career-wise in his golden years. His Texas Ranger character is determined to uphold the law, but below the surface is more than a bit worried about his upcoming retirement, closing a chapter in his life that undoubtedly is important to him. His relationship with his partner is jovial, and buddy-like, but is there an underlying physical attraction between the men? The film does not go there, but perhaps on a subconscious level it is hinted at.

A fantastic scene laced with tension occurs near the end of the film, when two of the main characters are killed. It is a stand-off of sorts, atop a desert mountain ridge. One of the characters loses it, which results in a shoot-out and a shocking loss of life. The scene is great in that it is good, old-fashioned shoot ’em up done well.

Hell or High Water is a gritty action film that contains great elements, nice characterization, and good, clean fun. A throwback to a crime-western of long ago, without the standard stock characters. This film is more layered than the traditional sort of film and is intelligently written, thereby achieving something unique in its own right.

A Serious Man-2009

A Serious Man-2009

Director-Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Starring-Michael Stuhlbarg

Reviewed November 20, 2009

Grade: B

A Serious Man is a quirky, odd film that is definitely a character study. Directed by the Coen brothers who typically have an offbeat style to their films (No Country For Old Men and Fargo spring to mind), A Serious Man is no different, offering wonderful, richly written supporting characters.

The film, however, lacks the violence of other Coen Brothers films, instead, adding more humorous situations and an overall comical premise. It tells the story of a Jewish Professor, Larry Gopnik, living in the 1960’s, who has a string of bad luck. People close to Larry begin to drop dead all around him and he seems cursed with a string of bad luck. The film centers around how he deals with crisis after crisis.

The first half of the film admittedly drags a bit, but the second part really picks up nicely. The plot suddenly comes to a head rather quickly. To stress, A Serious Man is a witty, dark comedy, so many of the dialogue is either tongue in cheek or dry in nature.

The rabbis that Larry meets, combined with his son Danny and wife Judith are very funny and well carved out characters, many certain “types”. The character of Larry also contained elements of the Larry David character on TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Also, for those cinema lovers who pay close attention to or have an appreciation for good set design, the film captures 1960’s style (dress, furniture, cars), perfectly.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire-2009

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire-2009

Director-Lee Daniels

Starring-Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’nique

Reviewed November 23, 2009

Grade: A

Precious is an amazing film and certainly one of the best to come out of the year 2009. Due to the hype, I had high expectations entering the theater and I was not disappointed. The film is an in your face slug-fest with some of the most raw acting performed in recent years.

The marvelous aspect is that the film takes the viewer into a world that is probably not one’s own experience and makes them empathize with the characters. The film is very disturbing at times, raw, gritty, and violent, but also has some light, humorous moments and an oh so important film to see. There is a heartwarming charm that offsets the violence perfectly.

The story itself, and the direction are basic, but the wonderful acting is what sets this film on a high pedestal. Gabourey Sidibe, a relative unknown and novice actress, gives an astounding turn as an unloved, overweight, pregnant teen mom. She is abused by both of her parents in separate ways and seems to have a life of pain ahead of her.

Paula Patton, who has been in several fluff films, shines as a teacher who takes a shine to Precious. Mariah Carey is simply unrecognizable as a plain looking social worker, who is also a sympathetic character. However, actress and comedienne, Mo’nique plays an unfeeling, brutal, violent mother to the hilt and holds nothing back. Her Best Supporting Actress Oscar win was deserving.

Everyone should see this fantastic slice of life film.

3 Women-1977

3 Women-1977

Director-Robert Altman

Starring-Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek

Reviewed January 1, 2017

Grade: A

Robert Altman is one of my all-time favorite directors and what a pleasure it is to uncover additional gems that he has directed over the years. I have seen 3 Women before, certainly, but some films (the true greats) are like fine wines and get better and better over time, in addition to being appreciated more and more with each passing viewing. 3 Women is a prime example of this. The level of psychology and the changing personalities of the character’s make it a unique and brilliant experience.

3 Women is a psychological feast and the study of three complex characters, hence the title. How fantastic how Altman claimed to have dreamed the entire film, complete with Duvall and Spacek in the roles, and then attempted to recreate the dream on film- he has done a masterful job. The film is certainly dream-like with an interpretive element that will leave the viewer pondering not only the relationships between the three women, but who exactly each woman is- consciously and sub-consciously. Lots of questions will abound as the film concludes. The main relationship is between the characters portrayed by Duvall and Spacek.

Duvall plays Millie Lammoreaux, a chatty and confident woman, who works at a California health spa for elderly clientele. She is statuesque and gorgeous, but surprisingly not well-liked by her colleagues, two of whom are mysterious identical twins. New employee Pinky Rose is a shy and vulnerable mousy type, who takes an immediate liking to Millie, becoming somewhat obsessed with her. The pair eventually move in together and begin to engage  in a mysterious and sometimes volatile friendship dripping in jealousy and lust. Eventually, they switch personalities, only adding to the mystique of the film. They reside in the Purple Sage Apartments, run by Edgar and Willie Hart. Willie is the third woman referenced in the title and is a pregnant painter, creating unsettling murals marveled at by Pinky.

It has been argued that 3 Women was an influence on the David Lynch masterpiece, Mullholland Drive (1992), and the more I ponder this the more that I agree with it. The dream-like, surrealistic qualities are prevalent in both films. Peculiar, strong written women are the central characters in both films and psychology and amnesia are main themes. The southern California setting is identical as are the interpretive elements, and the fantastically odd characters- both lead and supporting. When Pinky’s elderly parents are introduced, this is uncanny to a pair of grandparents featured in Mullholland Drive. Both are superior films so the comparisons are a joy to think about and ponder the complexities.

Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 psychological film Persona is most certainly a large influence on 3 Women. That film dared to explore merging personalities among women.

The final scene of 3 Women is intense and thought provoking. The lives of the women carry on following a tragic event, but each take on a certain persona and role within the family unit that they have forged.

Among other qualities, I view 3 Women as a feminist film, despite being directed by a male. Altman was famous for allowing his actors free reign in dialogue and development and this most certainly had to be the case with 3 Women. One of Altman’s masterpieces.

Altman is certainly a genius in nearly every film that he creates, but 3 Women is probably his most cerebral, and the film that can be talked about and analyzed more than the others. What a pure treat for a complex film lover to explore. 3 Women is not for mainstream audiences nor is is meant to be.

A Single Man-2009

A Single Man-2009

Director-Tom Ford

Starring-Colin Firth, Julianne Moore

Reviewed December 27, 2009

Grade: B+

A Single Man is a dark film fraught with meaning and honesty-it is a very good movie. It is certainly a melancholy film and a bit surreal, but absolutely worth seeing. The acting, especially from star Colin Firth, is first rate. The subject matter involves being gay in the 1950’s and 1960’s and ramifications of living a forbidden and secretive life.The intelligent film is based on the novel of the same name, written by Christopher Isherwood.

The film is written as a sad tale of a day in the life of a gay man living in the 1960’s. Firth portrays George Falconer, a British college professor living in liberal minded Los Angeles. When his much younger lover (presumably a student) dies, George plans to commit suicide. Moore plays his best friend and confidante, Charley, who is dealing with her own demons.

Through flashbacks we learn about George and lover Jim’s secret life together and challenges that ensued. George also had a strange relationship with a male prostitute. We learn the path of life George leads following Jim’s tragic death- we also see them happy at one time.

A Single Man is a bit of a downer and contains a definite dream-like feel and is heavy on the flashbacks, but this is intriguing to the picture and not a complaint. A very good, but not an uplifting, film.

Crazy Heart-2009

Crazy Heart-2009

Director-Scott Cooper

Starring-Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Reviewed February 3, 2010

Grade: A-

Crazy Heart is a film that is perfectly crafted for Jeff Bridge’s talents as an actor and the role seems written specifically for him. To that end, it is a showcase for the actor, and as proof, he was awarded the Best Actor Oscar. He plays surly, grizzled, and rode-hard to the hilt. His chemistry with co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal is fantastic- despite her character being much younger than his. First directorial effort by Scott Cooper, who does an outstanding job.

Gyllenhaal plays a reporter, Jean Craddock, who becomes attached and fascinated by Bad Blake (Bridges), a former country-western star turned alcoholic and now washed up old man. He has mentored an upstart played by Colin Farrell, who has since usurped Bad Blake in popularity, leading Blake to depression and alcohol to relieve his pain. he still performs, but in dirty hotels or bowling alleys, for peanuts.

Bridge’s character reminds me so much of Mickey Rourke’s character “Randy the Ram” in The Wrestler, from 2008, so anyone who enjoyed the latter will enjoy the former. In fact, one might watch the two exceptional films in tandem- and in both there appears a younger female character who meshes well in the stories.

The story portrayed in Crazy Heart is gritty and depressing, yet also heartwarming and sentimental. We root for Blake and Jean  to succeed, battling Blake’s many demons. Crazy Heart is very well acted and genuine. The film is nice as it is a character driven film instead of a story dictated one.

The Kids Are All Right-2010

The Kids Are All Right-2010

Director-Lisa Cholodenko

Starring-Julianne Moore, Annette Bening

Reviewed July 29, 2010

Grade: A

The Kids Are All Right is a fantastic film! In my opinion the film is one of the best of the year 2010 and was rewarded with a deserving Best Picture nomination. Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo were also honored with acting nominations. Bening gives the best performance in the film.

Continuing the trend of more exposure to LGBT issues, The Kids Are All Right tells of a same sex centered family dealing with real issues. Though not dark, the film is not light or played strictly for laughs. It is a family drama that shows how same sex family units face problems like everyone else, and how they deal with them, never forgetting how much they love each other.

The writing is intelligent, deeply layered, and rich. The acting superb, and the characters complex.  The best scene is one where the entire family is eating dinner- suddenly the camera focuses on one person, goes in slow motion, the other voices become muffled and distance, and a painful emotion is portrayed on one of the character’s faces as a revelation comes to the surface. Brilliant.

Even the seemingly unimportant dialogue throughout the film is smart as it shows the bond of the family that cannot ultimately be broken. The Kids Are All Right is a worthwhile and compelling film.

Get Low-2009

Get Low-2009

Director-Aaron Schneider

Starring-Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray

Reviewed August 25, 2010

Grade: B+

Get Low is an understated, gentle, sweet story set in Tennessee in the late 1930’s. The film is greatly enhanced by the stellar cast consisting of Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Murray.  I dislike the title of the film as, to me, it feels dull and boring. Despite the very slow pace, and the understated feel, the film is successful as one will become engaged with the characters lives.

It tells the story of an elderly man named Felix Bush (DuVall), who decides to plan his own living funeral for the small town to attend. Felix is a hermit who lives deep in the woods of Tennessee. He is despised, yet largely unknown by the townspeople, who only have past stories they have heard about him to formulate their opinions. He hides a long ago, dark secret, which predictably is eventually revealed.

DuVall is the standout in this movie, but Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray are also very good- unsurprising based on their string of acting credits.

Enjoyable are the exterior scenes of rural Tennessee, giving an authentic look into the lives of small town folks of that time period.

I could have gone for a quicker pace, despite the fact that I love slow moving stories, as long as a pay-off is to be received. The reveal served satisfactory, but I could have gone for some juicer scandals and revalations. Get Low is a simple, yet moving story about life, regret, secrets, and religion.

Lovely, Still-2008

Lovely, Still-2008

Director-Nicholas Fackler

Starring-Ellen Burstyn, Martin Landau

Reviewed December 30, 2010

Grade: B+

Oh, how I wish this movie had gotten more attention! Lovely, Still is a small, independent venture, that is Christmas themed, and set in Omaha, Nebraska. It stars Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn as an older couple who fall in love. Landau is Robert, a lonely older man interested in dating again. He meets and falls in love with Mary, the mother of his next door neighbor.

Before you start thinking Lifetime television movie, the last thirty minutes of the film will shock and fascinate you. A guttural reveal really takes this film to a completely different place during the climax, making it a heart-wrenching, and powerful experience. Landau and Burstyn are wonderful actors who mesmerize in scenes together. They have a sweet, innocence, and are in glee, like teenagers, experiencing first love.

My only criticism is the first half of the movie is a bit slow, but this can be forgotten as the film kicks into high gear. Also, some wonderful camera shots from novice director Nicholas Fackler.

A Wedding-1978

A Wedding-1978

Director-Robert Altman

Starring-Carol Burnett, Mia Farrow, Paul Dooley

Reviewed January 6, 2011

Grade: A

A Wedding is an obscure, brilliant gem penned and directed by Robert Altman- a film genius in my opinion and one of my most adored directors. I love most of his movies and A Wedding is no exception. The creative way that Altman weaves intersecting story-lines and dialogue, thereby creating a real-life tone, gives immense realism to his films.

In A Wedding, he takes a basic life event, and turns it into a well nuanced, fascinating, comical, yet dramatic story. He is known for having enormous casts (in A Wedding it is forty eight principles), but every character serves a purpose. The viewer will feel that they are a fly on the wall of a real wedding.  Altman’s actors primarily improvise the dialogue, speaking at the same time, bringing a reaistic edge. I adore this quality.

The film is a satire- people either love or loath attending weddings and Altman’s film caters to the latter. He creates a setting, from the ceremony, to the reception, riddled with awkward moments, and social guffaws.

In pure satirical, soap opera fashion, two wealthy families gather at a lavish estate for the ceremony to commence. Hilarity ensues when the dead corpse of the matriarch of one family lies in her bed, nobody realizing she is actually dead. Other hi-jinks, such as the revelation of a nude, life-size portrait of the bride, the caterer falling ill, and a tornado wreaking havoc.

Slowly, secrets are revealed by the families, as the alcohol flows and the characters become involved in the perilous situations. Altman does it again as he creates a masterpiece based on a real-life situations that most can relate to.

Desperate Living-1977

Desperate Living-1977

Director-John Waters

Starring-Mink Stole, Liz Renay

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Reviewed December 4, 2016

Grade: B

Desperate Living will certainly not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is a raunchy, late-night comedy, in similar fashion to other John Waters directed cult-classics. This one however, suffers from the absence of Waters staple, Divine, who did not appear due to scheduling conflicts. For this glaring omission, Desperate Living is not the greatest of the Waters films, but it is a fun experience all the same. The film has choruses of political satire, specifically fascism, and overthrowing the government.

Mink Stole (Peggy Gravel) takes on the lead role as a crazed, mentally unhinged, neurotic woman on the lam with her maid, Grizelda, after they accidentally cause the death of Peggy’s husband. Peggy has been in and out of mental hospitals and is clearly off her rocker as she yells at neighbors about communism. After an encounter with a lewd police officer, the duo are banished to Mortville, a town filled with outcasts and social deviants. They align with others in the town to overthrown the tyrannical Queen Carlotta, played by Waters fixture Edith Massey. Carlotta plots to spread rabies throughout the community and is at war with her daughter, Princess Coo Coo.

The issue with Desperate Living really is the absence of Divine, originally set to play Mole McHenry, a self-loathing female wrestler, determined to receive a sex change operation. One imagines Divine in this important role, which was played by Susan Lowe, a capable star, but no Divine. With Divine in the part, the hilarious possibilities are endless. Mink Stole carries the movie well, but traditionally being a supporting player in Waters films, is not quite the star the film needs to be a true success.

This is not to say that the film is a dud- it is entertaining and will please most Waters fans. It contains gross-out moments and vulgarity from the very first scene- as the opening credits role, we see a roasted rat, daintily displayed on good china, on an eloquent dinner table, presumably to be served.

Later, Carlotta meets her fate by being roasted, pig style, on a spit with an apple in her mouth. Another character is executed by being shot in the anus. The offensive moments never end!

There also exists a quite controversial scene that I am surprised made the final cut. Peggy, already in a frazzled state due to a neighbor-boy accidentally shooting out her bedroom window, she is shocked to find another boy playing “doctor” with a little girl in her downstairs basement. Both children are completely naked, leaving not much to the imagination. This scene is tough to watch as one wonders what the child actors thought of all of this. I have never viewed another scene quite like this in film.

Otherwise, Desperate Living is filled with cartoon-like characters, lots of sexually deviant leather men, grizzled men with facial hair, and other odd looking characters, making up the community of Mortville. Water’s set creations for the exterior scenes of the town are great- using mainly cardboard and rubbish he found throughout Baltimore where the film was shot, the sets show a bleak yet colorful underworld.

Desperate Living is a raunchy good time with over-the-top acting, trash filled moments, and laugh out loud fun. The lack of any Divine makes it not the first offering to watch from the Waters collection. Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble would take that honor.

The Last Exorcism-2010

The Last Exorcism-2010

Director-Daniel Stamm

Starring-Ashley Bell, Patrick Fabian

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Reviewed January 24, 2011

Grade: B+

The Last Exorcism is a really enjoyable independent horror film. I found it unique and creative, and is shot documentary style, so there is a level of watching something new and different in the horror world, that I appreciated. Certainly the usage of either hand-held or documentary footage has been done before, this film feels fresh and not cliche driven. Horror master Eli Roth produced the film.

A doubtful preacher (Reverend Cotton Marcus) who lives in Louisiana, sets out to perform his final exorcism with a documentary crew in tow, only to find a girl who really is possessed by the devil. Cotton is assumed a con-artist, so we doubt he actually can help the girl, which is what makes the film so interesting and unpredictable. What will happen next? Could the girl or her family be frauds?

The film is really scary and contains dark, creepy, ambiance. It reminds me a bit of The Blair Witch Project with the shaky camera and dark, raw tones, and independent nature. Recommended for fans of horror.