Supporting Characters (2012)
★ / ★★★★
Nick (Alex Karpovsky) and Darryl (Tarik Lowe) are hired to edit and make sense of an otherwise terrible light romantic comedy film involving a dog. As they get deeper into the editing process, troubles start to sprout, beginning with Nick being very enamored with the movie’s lead actress, Jamie (Arielle Kebbel), even though he is supposedly in a committed relationship. Darryl’s romantic relationship also sails toward the rocks.
“Supporting Characters,” written by Daniel Schechter and Tarik Lowe, is a movie with plot and events but without raw emotions, deep insights, and intrigue so watching it is a most hollow experience; I could not wait for it to be over. One gets the impression that the writers forget to ask why the two friends’ stories are worth telling. What makes them special other than the fact that they have a pretty cool job?
The supporting characters are not that interesting either. Melonie Diaz plays Darry’s girlfriend and the character is moody and unlikable. The problem is that the screenplay fails to ask why she has these traits or the events that lead up to her being this way. We get the impression that she is unhappy with the relationship but the material does not work at it so that we know the specific details of why it just isn’t working for her.
Sophia Takal plays Nick’s girlfriend and although she is probably the most interesting character of the bunch, Amy does not get enough screen time to warrant the revelations during the final act. Just about everything about the romantic relationship involving the two editors comes off contrived, false, very movie-like despite a small budget.
The movie is about neuroses—which is not interesting when there is no relatable personality behind them. We watch Nick, Darryl, Amy, and Liana try to navigate what it is they want—rather, what we think they think they want because the screenplay has a lot of gaps in terms of characterization—but to what end? Halfway through, we realize that there is no point in telling this story. It is ninety-minutes of deadly dull people who whine a lot but their problems have no heft or substance. I hated spending time with these people.
In terms of Darryl and Nick’s friendship, I did not believe them. There are more than half a dozen scenes between the two of them ending up in a room after an argument or misunderstanding with their girlfriends and every single one of them is empty. The actors share no brotherly chemistry, an element that forces us to believe that despite what happens in their lives, they share the same spirit and thus they will always be drawn to one another. In fact, just about halfway through, I wondered why they were even friends.
Directed by Daniel Schechter, “Supporting Characters” is as cheap emotionally as hard as it tries to look like a cheap television sitcom doomed for cancellation because everyone can see through its glaring pretensions. It is exactly the kind of independent movie I detest—a lot of thought put into how things ought to look but the filmmakers forget that they must have a worthy story to tell.
On the Ice (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
When I think of Alaska, I default in imagining a picture-perfect tundra with a wind chill ferocious enough to force our muscles to work at a maximum capacity in order to generate as much heat as possible to prevent our bodies from turning into meat-flavored popsicles, with moderately-sized igloos and portly eskimos swathed in fur on the foreground. “On the Ice,” written and directed by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, dispelled my romantic perception of Alaska by drenching its story in Alaska as is, specifically, in a small town that could pass as any other town taken from the heart of America, the only difference being that the land was covered in snow for the most of the year and the sun would not sleep for months at a time. Qalli (Josiah Patkotak) noticed his best friend, Aivaaq (Frank Qutuq Irelan), being involved in a physical altercation with James (John Miller) from several feet away. When Qalli tried to stop them, he ended up with Aivaaq’s knife in his hand and accidentally stabbed James in the neck as they fell on the ice. When Aivaaq regained consciousness, who, apparently, had been smoking meth prior to the fight, he became convinced that he was responsible for killing James. Qalli said nothing to correct his friend’s assumption. After panicked deliberation, the duo chose to hide the corpse and the blood-soaked snow. MacLean constructed an increasingly tense thriller by continuing to observe and not judge as the aftermath of the murder, masked as an accident, began arousing suspicions of foul play. I enjoyed watching the inexperience of Qalli and Aivaaq, from the way they cleaned up the crime scene in a hurried and messy manner to the way made up nervous stories that did not quite match whatever evidence was found on the field during the town’s search of the corpse. Still, even though what they did was wrong, I found it strange that I did not want them to get caught. It probably had something to do with the fact that they were so young and had so much potential to be defined simply as a killer or an accessory. Aivaaq recently learned that his girlfriend was with child. Meanwhile, Qalli was leaving for college in four months. Both had something big to lose. But someone had to take responsibility. If James was a member of my family, I would want an answer, even if it was painful, as to what really happened during that seal hunting trip. In the very least, the family of the murdered young man deserved closure. Patkotak impressed me in his believable portrayal of the very conflicted Qalli. He was consistently solid in juggling sadness, guilt, and fear hidden underneath stoicism. The easier path would have been to overact in order to ensure that each of these emotions were being communicated in some way. And yet he downplayed them all–very smart because it was almost like he dared us to look closer into his character. I wanted to know if he felt genuinely sorry for what had happened and understand the mechanisms of how he intended of getting away with accidentally killing somebody. It was a breakthrough performance for a young actor in a feature film and I would love to see his next foray. Under MacLean’s careful writing and direction, we could feel his love for his Alaskan environment and subjects in every square-inch of “On the Ice.” It offered no easy solution which made the experience all the more gripping.
Cold Weather (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Doug (Cris Lankenau) recently moved in with his sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), after his passion for forensic science ran out of steam while attending university. While trying to figure out what he should do next, Doug took a job in an ice factory and met Carlos (Raúl Castillo), a nice guy who DJed on the side. When Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), Doug’s ex-girlfriend, didn’t show up to a date she set up with Carlos, the part-time DJ suspected foul play. When he knocked on her motel room to check if she was okay, the lights were on but nobody answered. Aware of Doug’s background in forensic science, Carlos asked for his friend’s skills as a detective. Based on the screenplay and directed by Aaron Katz, “Cold Weather” plastered a smile on my face from beginning to end because I felt its creative freedom pulsating through the screen. While the dialogue wasn’t particularly groundbreaking, I was caught by its rhythm because the characters talked like people I would encounter in the streets. I wanted to get to know them better because they exhibited a certain warmth and positive energy. I loved that the writer-director added scenes that didn’t have anything to do with the mystery. For instance, it showed Doug, Gail, Carlos, and Rachel playing board games. For them, it was a fun Friday night party. I understood because my friends and I were the same way. In a way, the writer-director managed to communicate how personal this movie was to him by placing importance on small, random scenes related to the type of company that one kept. The first forty minutes observed the relationship between Doug and his sister. We found out that although they were very close, like most siblings, they kept secrets from each other. For example, when Gail confessed to her brother that she thought his job in the ice factory was “strange,” there was disappointment in her voice. However, it was easy to tell that the disappointment she expressed came from a loving place. What she really meant was she expected her brother to find a job in a lab, something better than grunt work, because she knew that her brother was capable of something more. As for the mystery involving Rachel’s disappearance, the tension was sometimes unbearable. I was impressed with the way Katz was able to do so much with so little. I held my breath when Doug and Carlos entered Rachel’s hotel room. I expected to see a typical crime scene. Perhaps even blood and other signs of struggle. But the room was relatively clean. Real detective work was required in which the duo had to dig through trash and lie in order to extract information from the motel attendant without coming off as suspicious. But most of the time they did and there was humor to be found in possibly grim situations. I got the impression that “Cold Weather” was proud of what it was. It certainly ought to be for it successfully balanced multiple genres that felt effortless and without compromise.
★ / ★★★★
John (Christopher Soren Kelly) was ordered to have no contact with his daughter, Emma (Quinn Hunchar), after an ugly custody battle with his wife’s parents. Come nightfall, Emma’s consciousness was abducted by a deformed creature named Ink. Ink’s plan was to use Emma as a sacrifice and earn his status as an Incubus, a powerful being who had the ability to give people nightmares. Several Storytellers (Jessica Duffy, Jennifer Batter, Eme Ikwuakor, Shelby Malone), whose jobs involved giving humans positive dreams, and a blind Pathfinder (Jeremy Make) tried to locate Ink and return the girl’s consciousness to the land of the living. Written and directed by Jamin Winans, “Ink” snagged my attention with ease because it had ambition. Its first half-hour was effective because of the way it introduced key players such as the Incubi and Storytellers. The contrast between good and bad dreams was simple but I appreciated that it paid close attention to details. The content of dreams tend to vary with age. For instance, an elderly lady dreamed of winning Bingo multiple times while a young boy saw himself as being a rock star playing his guitar in front of rabid fans. But the film became less compelling as it focused on John’s failure of being a father. When he learned that his daughter fell into a coma, his initial reaction was not to see her immediately. He claimed to love his daughter, but he couldn’t get past the fact that he lost the custody battle which happened years prior. The grandfather actually begged him to see Emma but John was more worried about his next big meeting. The writing lacked complexity so John’s reaction didn’t feel emotionally honest. His character arc seemed infantile at best. I place particular emphasis on the human aspect of the film because the father-daughter relationship, or lack thereof, was the emotional core of the picture. It should have been well-defined because it was supposed to be the element that held together subplots like the war between Incubi and Storytellers. As for the scenes involving martial arts, there were far too many of them. There was no variation in the location of physical confrontations. The actors moved but they seemed stuck in one place. I understand that there were budget constraints, but there are certain ways to make it look like battle scenes naturally progressed from Point A to Point B. Instead of another martial arts scene, I yearned for a quiet moment that explained a Pathfinder’s purpose. He just looked foolish with, literally, tape over his eyes. He was supposed to be a key figure in rescuing the little girl, but I couldn’t take him all that seriously. If he didn’t have tape over his eyes, I imagined he would’ve winked at the camera for some kind of approval. “Ink” did not work as a movie, but it could have worked as a short-lived television show. Its screenplay did not match the level of its ambition.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) had three boyfriends: mild-mannered Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), funny-man Mars (Spike Lee), and narcissistic Greer (John Canada Terrell). What was refreshing about “She’s Gotta Have It,” written, edited, and directed by Spike Lee, was its attitude toward real relationships and how real people would react given a set of real circumstances. The picture didn’t pretend about knowing all the answers either. Sometimes its characters made decisions that wouldn’t necessarily make sense to us, thereby highlighting its themes of individuality and independence. Most of us are familiar with situations like a friend going back to her ex-boyfriend even though, from our perspective, the transgression seems unforgivable. Since each of the men knew that Nola kept her options open, there was no syrupy drama regarding the rules of dating, usually noxious to the comedy genre involving finding and losing romance. Nola wasn’t perfect but she wasn’t stupid either. Upon first glance, one would wonder why she would be attracted to someone like Mars. Apart from his scrawny physical appearance, he wasn’t financially successful like Greer nor was he as sensitive to a woman’s physical and emotional needs like Jamie. But upon closer examination, when the camera focused on Nola and Mars spending time together, having a good time in bed, and talking about silly things, it was easy to see that Mars had something to offer. Unlike Greer or Jamie, Mars was a natural pill of happiness. We’ve all been around someone, whether that someone is a friend or something more, who seems to just lift up our spirits so effortlessly. The unexplainable click is the magic that allows a relationship to go beyond looks and measures of success. I admired the film because it took the time in carefully getting to know each of the main player yet it kept enough surprises along the way that reminded us that although a person’s flaws might irritate us to the bone, flaws also keep us interested. Spice is interesting; perfection is boring. But what made me love the film was its honest attitude about sex. Here was a movie about adults dealing with adult problems. Instead traversing a puerile avenue in terms of being physically intimate with another person–a fart joke here, a penis joke there–the images utilized made a case that sex was an expression of, not necessarily love, but ownership of a moment in time when a man and woman were in charge of what made them feel good. Yes, the sex scenes were shot in slow motion and there was nudity, but they were never gratuitous. If anything, the techniques employed were loyal to the film’s encompassing themes about self-empowerment. One character that did not get enough screen time, however, was Opal (Raye Dowell), a lesbian who was attracted to Nola. Nola asked Opal what it felt like to be with another woman. Opal confided just enough in order to keep the mystery, hoping that she would successfully bed her curious friend. “She’s Gotta Have It” was smart and fiercely eloquent. Don’t be fooled by its black-and-white cinematography. Its scope, concepts, and execution were as pavonine as a sixty-four pack of Crayola crayons.
★ / ★★★★
Sam (Michael Angarano) was a twenty-three-year-old children’s book writer who decided to drag Marshall (Reece Thompson), his best friend, to the seaside so that they could spend some time together since they hadn’t seen each other in about a year. But Sam had ulterior motives: the real reason why he dragged Marshall along was to sneak into Zoe’s (Uma Thurman) wedding, his pen pal, and confess his love for her. When Sam met the husband-to-be, Whit (Lee Pace), a conceited documentary filmmaker, Whit invited Sam and his friend to stay and celebrate over the weekend. I appreciated “Ceremony,” written and directed by Max Winkler, for trying to be different but I’m afraid it was just unfunny and dull. Most of the characters were unlikable, which was fine, but they had to be interesting if we were asked to invest our precious time to dig beyond the surface. I didn’t understand why Sam and Marshall were friends. Sam was controlling, cruel, and acted like he was better than his friend just because he was published. Marshall was weak, unnecessarily fixated on the fact that he was pistol-whipped months prior, and so quirky that it was distracting. Perhaps the only time I thought they were remotely interesting and amusing was when they acknowledged the growing homoeroticism between them. But my main problem was I found no reason for the story to be told. The plot element that drove the story forward was Sam’s infatuation with an older woman. If Zoe had taken Sam aside and seriously talked to him about overstepping his boundaries, the picture would have been over at its thirty-minute mark. Eventually, we reached the key conversation but the scenes prior felt contrived. Sam and Marshall’s attempt to hook up with random women at the party was cliché and, in my opinion, the approach was disrespectful and mean-spirited. They thought that it would be easy to lure an older woman to bed because older women are desperate for attention especially from younger men. I’m sure the mindset is not at all atypical especially with words like “MILF” being tossed around with utter disregard in our culture, but it could have been more sensitive. Just because Sam and Marshall looked young, they didn’t have to behave like they had low IQs. Sometimes a bit of insight could go a long way. There was one scene I thought was honest. That is, when Zoe finally told Sam the reason why Whit invited the author and his friend to stay. It was the kind of honesty that was difficult to swallow but at the same time it was exactly what Sam needed so that, potentially, he would realize that unreciprocated love wasn’t the end of the world. “Ceremony” brashly tackled big emotions but the small details involving human behavior to make drama work were absent. With slight alterations in the screenplay, it would have worked as a comedy of manners.
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) broke up on a park bench. A week earlier, we learned that the reason for their break-up was because Guy had relations with Elena (Sandha Khin), a free-spirited girl who enjoyed every small thing life offered, like a street performance or sharing knowing glances with strangers on the subway. But Elena lacked one quality that Guy saw in Madeline. Elena wasn’t as interested in music which was important to Guy because he was a professional trumpet player. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” contained some catchy musical numbers that brought a smile on my face. When Madeline and her co-workers began to sing and tap-dance in the restaurant, I almost wanted to join them because it looked like they were having so much fun. It didn’t matter that the choreography wasn’t perfectly executed or that the voices weren’t especially great. It was really more about being in a moment and absorbing and appreciating each other’s joy. But there was sadness in it, too. The picture followed Madeline attempting to date other men in order to get over Guy. There was a scene in which she made a boy wait for her outside while she got a haircut only to tell him after (and after he bought her a cookie) that she had made a commitment, a complete fib, and had forgotten about it. So they had to cancel their date. She was lucky the boy didn’t take it personally because most would have. I didn’t agree with her actions but I was glad that Chazelle wasn’t afraid to put his characters under a negative light. The film also managed to capture tension in the awkward moments. Take the scene in which Guy and Elena showered together. In a span of about two or three minutes, the mood changed from friendly chatter to unbearable silence. It was awkward enough to have the camera next to them as they showered but the awkwardness was amplified when nobody said a word. One did not have to have had a boyfriend or girlfriend to recognize that one poorly chosen word or sentence could destroy an otherwise good vibe. However, I wish some scenes made more sense. When Elena met an older man in the streets and he took her to his home, I didn’t understand why that was relevant. I felt like there was a missing scene or two that would help to explain why it made it through the editing room. “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” was surprisingly modern, with moments of effortless introspection from its emotionally troubled characters, despite the black and white cinematography that hearken back to its French New Wave influences. Its confidence could be felt as the characters broke out into song and dance. It implied that falling in and out of love was a celebration.
Like Crazy (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones) met at the end of senior year in the university. He was an aspiring furniture designer, she had a passion for writing. After Anna confessed her feelings for Jacob on a note she left on his car, the two decided to hang out and, over time, their relationship naturally blossomed to the next level. Summer arrived and Anna was scheduled to go back to England for two months because her student visa was about to expire. While she was in the U.K., the plan was for her to acquire a working visa and return after two months. However, Anna decided to stay last-minute because she feared the prospect of being apart from her boyfriend for so long. Written by Drake Doremus and Ben York James, “Like Crazy” rubbed me the wrong way not because Anna foolishly decided that rules did not apply to her. After all, everyone is entitled to make a mistake once in a while. The picture was supposed to be a romantic drama but I didn’t find anything romantic nor dramatic about it. While Jacob was bearable, I found Anna to be completely detestable for her selfishness and neediness. Their symbiotic relationship was parasitic rather than mutualistic which was toxic because the basis of the film was for us to root for the protagonists to be together when they were apart and discover small details about themselves when they were together. Since I could only relate to Jacob, it sounds rotten but I actually wanted him to find another girl when Anna wasn’t looking. Sam (Jennifer Lawrence), Jacob’s assistant at work, seemed to be a very good choice. Not only did Sam look gorgeous, it seemed like she knew what she wanted and how she was going to get it. That’s more than I can say about Anna, consistently looking uncouth at work and whose idea of relaxing was drinking. Moreover, the way in which the film presented the difficulties of sustaining long distance relationships felt superficial. There were scenes involving missed calls, voice messages about how late it was and how the couple was exhausted from work, and platitudes about maybe trying again the next day, but what did people in Jacob and Anna’s lives have to say about it? For instance, in my experience, friends get really frustrated when one of their friend’s relationship takes over his or her life. I didn’t like that the social angle was treated like it wasn’t important. Reality is, sometimes, friendships can make or break romantic relationships for whatever reason. However, the film was most exciting when Anna’s parents (Alex Kingston, Oliver Muirhead) interacted with Jacob and Anna. It was a refreshing change because even though we didn’t know much about them, their chemistry seemed effortless. The manner in which they spoke with one another sounded genuine, like a real married couple who had been together for many years. Still, there was one masterstroke I spotted in the film. That is, when the mother looked at her daughter and told her that she’d changed ever since Anna got together with Simon (Charlie Bewley). The line was delivered so succinctly, I wasn’t sure if the mother considered the change as good or bad. “Like Crazy,” directed by Drake Doremus, is an example of how improvised dialogue can lead nowhere. While the actors sounded like a real couple, I was never convinced that the people they were portraying were worthy of each other’s feelings.
Nights and Weekends (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mattie (Greta Gerwig) and James (Joe Swanberg) were in a long-distance relationship. Mattie resided in New York while James lived in Chicago. They tried to visit each other once in a while but there was a limit to how much effort they could put into their relationship when distance was clearly an issue. Written and directed by the two leads, “Nights and Weekends” had an excellent first half but fairly weak second half. The first half focused on the romance between James and Mattie. We learned things about them which ranged from the impersonal, like their jobs and the careers they would like to have, to more important details such as whether they would be happy if they turned out like their parents. We got a feel of their personalities. James was patient, a bit of a hopeless romantic, and he didn’t see himself as physically attractive but that didn’t stop him from projecting confidence to the world because he had a mental picture of a more attractive version of himself. Meanwhile, Mattie was adorable but a bit needy. Unlike James, she was more than willing to voice out what she thought was disgusting like when her boyfriend ate the dark brown area of a banana. When she was annoyed, she expressed it. For instance, she didn’t like the fact that she was left in the hall for ten measly minutes because James had to drop something off at work. Yet she was the one who didn’t want to meet his co-workers because she thought it might be awkward. Strangely enough, which is uncommon when it comes to romantic dramas, I related more with the male. Nevertheless, I wanted to see their relationship succeed because, despite the occasional tension between them, they were a very good fit for each other. But then there was a jump forward in time. Everything felt awkward. The tone it established prior was thrown out the window. It was unclear whether Mattie and James were even in a relationship. There was even a heavy-handed metaphor that involved Mattie trying to water plants, a symbol of her attempt to sustain their so-called relationship, but the plants wouldn’t absorb the water. I wondered what happened to the film’s naturalistic approach, something I found very charming and interesting, like the directors’ brazen decision to not reshoot when the actors stumbled over their lines. I liked the picture most when it captured real life. Sometimes our tongues just can’t keep up with our thoughts and we’re embarrassed in the fact that we’re not as eloquent as we would like especially when we’re trying to get a point across. But we continue and pretend that we didn’t make a blunder. I craved the realism it effortlessly seemed to have. Ultimately, the positive outweighed the negative. I admired that the film allowed its characters, in their twenties, to be immature, sometimes shallow, and consumed by their neuroses. The relationship didn’t have to be particularly meaningful or special because Mattie and James were still searching for who they were.
Tiny Furniture (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Aura (Lena Dunham) had recently graduated from college. And like most college grads, she found herself moving back home due to financial limitations. However, her mom, Nadine (Grace Dunham), and sister, Siri (Laurie Simmons), didn’t seem at all zealous of Aura’s recent decision. Nadine was busy with her work as a successful photographer and high school student Siri was on the process of choosing which university to attend in the fall. Aura was stuck. Everyone knew it including herself. “Tiny Furniture,” written and directed by Lena Dunham, was a vibrant and realistic portrait of post-college life. Aura may have come from a rich family, given that a massive studio was essentially their home, but it found a way to be relatable by highlighting our protagonist’s frustration whenever someone tried to reach out and implied the question of what was next for her. The fact is, she didn’t know. Her degree in Film Theory seemed rather worthless. And that scared her. Though she responded with superficial calm and ease with friendliness to spare, sentiments of being a failure brewed inside her. The film astutely used comedy as a distraction for Aura. By attending a friend’s party, she met Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a semi-YouTube sensation whose videos were supposed to be witty but ultimately inaccessible because the subjects he tackled were too Nietzsche-ian, esoteric. Our main character was desperate to reconnect with someone romantically because she had recently gone through a break-up. By sleeping with him and hopefully snagging a new boyfriend, perhaps she thought it was proof that she wasn’t defective, that she was good enough. Aura also reconnected with a British “best friend,” Charlotte (Jemima Kirke), a party-loving girl whom Aura hadn’t spoken to in years. I loved watching Charlotte because she was the total opposite of Aura. She led an uncontrolled, candid, hedonistic existence–qualities that Aura was both cautious of and attracted to at the same time. And then there was Aura’s unrewarding day job as a hostess in a restaurant. It was boring given that all she had to do was answer calls and transcribe reservations on a notebook, so she had plenty of time to awkwardly flirt with a chef, Keith (David Call), who happened to have a girlfriend. Unlike Jed the artist, Keith the cook seemed to reciprocate her feelings. Was it a good idea to mix business with pleasure? “No” is almost always the answer, but maybe it was exactly what Aura needed. Like all successful comedies, the film had a solid footing on its more dramatic strands. For instance, the jealousy between the sisters was apparent. Siri had recently received a prestigious award for one of her angst-ridden poems. There were a handful of scenes when they held screaming matches and rolled eyes at each other. Still, what resonated with me most was the bathroom scene in which Aura, while shaving her legs, asked her sibling personal questions about her sex life. Maybe the reason why it did was it made me jealous of what they had. I certainly can’t talk about stuff like that with my brother. Even though there was jealousy between them, it was apparent that there was love, too. “Tiny Furniture” was appropriately titled because Aura was exactly that at this point in her life. Furnitures are normally used for practicality like sitting on or putting books in. But the tiny furnitures that Aura’s mother photographed could handle very little pressure, if any, only to be admired by their aesthetics.
Great World of Sound (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Martin (Pat Healy) answered an ad for a small record company, known as Great World of Sound, and was hired to become a record producer. He loved his job because he was passionate about music and he believed in giving talented artists a chance to make it big in the music industry. He was paired up with Clarence (Kene Holliday) who was as equally enthusiastic to sign new artists. But the more time they spent in their new position, they began to feel a gnawing suspicion toward their superiors’ (John Baker and Michael Harding) true intentions. Astutely written by Craig Zobel and George Smith, “Great World of Sound” was a fiercely honest look at the relationship between people who wanted to turn their talent for music into fame and fortune and the so-called businesses designed to help get their names out in the world. The auditions that Martin and Clarence sat through in their motel rooms was like watching the audition week of “American Idol” only thrice the realism. It was funny because most of the artists were convinced they were really good when they actually weren’t; it was touching because a handful of them came from extraordinarily difficult backgrounds; and it was sad because the prospective musicians were being tricked into paying money (for a “producing fee”) for a dream that could never be attained through this specific path. Despite the fact that we spent only a minute, sometimes less, with the artists, we couldn’t help but care for them in some way. I loved the fact that the artists looked like people one could see walking down the street in any small town or city. With Zobel’s confident direction, we could feel the artists’ desperation for wanting to get discovered and finally making it big. Martin and Clarence were complex characters, not necessarily worth rooting for because, initially and unbeknownst to them, it was their job to steal from people, but because we wanted them to do the right thing. We weren’t always sure if they were going to. Martin was a dreamer. He loved the idea of his job but actually doing it was an entirely alien sphere. With each “like” between words and awkward random pauses, we could feel that he was uncomfortable with his job. But he felt that he needed to stick with it because he and his girlfriend (Rebecca Mader), also an artist, had bills to pay. Financial issues also plagued Clarence because had children to support. His speech about fairness and doing what was right was inspired, true, and heartbreaking. In a span of a minute, he revealed who he was and how he became such a fighter. “Great World of Sound” was a splendid independent film. It was successful in establishing an argument about the American Dream simply being a carrot dangled in front of us, forever out of reach.
Zoom In: Stories Behind the Best Independent Films of 2007 (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
2007 was one of my favorite years for movies released in the year 2000s because independent movies demanded to be noticed. My top ten favorite movies from that year largely consisted of indie films. Mario Diaz’ documentary discussed the hard work in getting independent movies financed, the long and arduous process of making such films, and hopefully getting them picked up by studios for wider distribution. It also highlighted the role of the renowned Gotham Awards in putting the spotlight on indie pictures so they could have a chance to be seen by audiences all over the world. Some successful passion projects included (but not limited to) Sean Penn’s free-spirited “Into the Wild,” the Coen Brothers’ ruthless “No Country for Old Men,” Tamara Jenkins’ vitriolic and wildly amusing “The Savages,” Todd Haynes’ philosophical “I’m Not There,” and Jason Reitman’s verbal exercise that was “Juno.” On the other side of the spectrum, although it did win key Gotham Awards, movies like Craig Zobel’s “Great World of Sound” didn’t quite captivate audiences in a worldwide scale. It was great to hear from the aforementioned filmmakers about what their movie meant to them. It was a nice reminder, especially for people like myself who watch hundreds of movies each year, that every film should be approached with an open mind. And if it somehow underwhelms us, it’s important to treat it with respect and explain why, in our opinion, it just didn’t work for us. Because all movies, whether they be good or bad in our eyes, have a story to them. The directors, the crew, the actors, and the producers take the time and the money to create something that would hopefully pass as a work of art. I think my love for independent feature films stemmed from the similar themes they so often tackled: identity, one’s place in the world, one’s relationship with others, and the way an individual received, processed, evaluated information, and how one’s thought differed from one’s actions. Independent movies appeal to me because I was going through those very same themes back in the tenth grade when I was just beginning to see movies as more than a source of entertainment. I was drawn to their daring subject matter, complex characterizations, and shocking honesty. I think that parallel will always be a part of the way I see motion pictures. That’s why I always lend a critical eye to the characters and the way they attempt to deal with and adapt to their specific circumstances. The documentary also shed light to the fact that women filmmakers weren’t as high profile and prolific as their male counterparts. It’s unfortunate because I strongly believe that women, in some ways, view things differently than men and it will benefit the world if women’s visions are shared just as equally as men’s. “Zoom In: Stories Behind the Best Independent Films of 2007” needed an extra thirty to forty minutes for more in-depth exploration, but it managed to tackle many interesting ideas with the time that it had.
We Are What We Are (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
When the family patriarch (Humberto Yáñez) passed away while admiring mannequins, the matriarch (Carmen Beato) and her three children (Miriam Balderas, Francisco Barreiro, Adrián Aguirre) were left to fend for themselves. Behind closed doors, as part of some tradition, they kidnapped vulnerable people in the streets, like homeless children and prostitutes, and ate them. “We Are What We Are,” written and directed by Jorge Michel Grau, was an interesting hybrid of chamber drama and horror. The first half focused on the volatile relationship between the two brothers. Alfredo and Adriana wanted to prove that they were man enough to lead the family. The eldest, Alfredo, had the most complexity. It seemed as though he was almost pressured into eating people but couldn’t set himself free because he felt responsible. Alfredo was torn between expectations at home and the experimentation required to find his sexual identity. Since he couldn’t come up with a way to deal with the two spheres, he felt a lot of self-loathing. There was an intense scene in which he decided to follow a gay man around his age. I was engaged because it was difficult to discern whether the hunt was for business or pleasure. I enjoyed the film’s tone exactly because it lacked gloss. Grau made his project’s lack of big budget work for itself. For instance, when one of the victims escaped the house, there was no booming music to suggest that the victim was being followed. In fact, the sound was muffled. Since there was barely any sound to guide my expectations, I turned my attention to the images and the shadows that surrounded the escapee. I was that much more aware and transfixed on the screen. Unfortunately, the script introduced characters that took away focus from the topic of cannibalism. There was a detective (Jorge Zárate) whose sole motivation in capturing the cannibals was to earn the so-called respect of his colleagues. We saw him look disgruntled and angry, but we never really learned what made him special enough to break the case. He wasn’t especially creative, patient, nor brave. He just seemed like another cop who tried to find an easy solution to a complicated question. He lacked depth so I found it difficult to take him seriously. During a key confrontation, I found it strange that I actually rooted for the family to get away with what they did. If the writer-director had focused more on the details of the strange tradition and less on the detective, though above average in parts, “Somos lo sue hay” would have been a more a visceral experience. It left my stomach grumbling for more.
★★★ / ★★★★
Four people (R. Brandon Johnson, Heather Magee, Richard Glover, Keith Chambers) decided to rob a bank and were relatively successful except that one of them had been shot. They divided into two groups. A mother (Samantha Dark) and daughter (Courtney Bertolone), on their way home from a softball game, were taken hostage by one of the robbers because he was caught stealing their van. The man took his hostages to a remote house and waited for his three accomplices. Meanwhile, there was a serial killer next door patiently waiting for his next victim. Written and directed by Stevan Mena, “Malevolence” was quite effective in delivering violence and scares. There was nothing particularly original about it but it didn’t need to because I was consistently fascinated with what was happening on screen. It was obviously influenced by John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” When characters were on the foreground, the masked killer would sneakily appear on the background and just… observe. The creepiness was elevated by the film’s score. I liked the way the picture took place at night and, since the abandoned houses were in the middle of nowhere, electricity was rarely used. Darkness hid certain corners, perfectly designed for something to jump out from them and I always expected that something would. There were times when I was actually caught off guard. When fluorescent lights were used, they flickered. Surprisingly, I found it scarier when lights were on because every flicker could potentially reveal something that wasn’t there just a second before. As much as it was violent, I loved that the environment was very detailed: House A had no decoration other than thick dust that invaded the air when there was sudden movement, while House B had all sorts of strange things like blood in a tub, a month’s worth of unwashed dishes, and possible signs of satanic ritual. The scenes outdoors were quite impressive, too. When the daughter attempted to escape from one of the bank robbers, she had to run and scream across a field. There was something quite unsettling with the way it was shot. However, I wish we knew more about the killer prior and during his killing sprees. What made this film’s inspirations so effective was the fact that we knew something disturbing about Michael Myers and Leatherface, something scary beyond the stabbings and chopped up bodies. Furthermore, the acting could have been stronger. Some scenes needed to be reshot, especially toward the beginning, because the lines uttered did not complement the actors’ facial expressions. It was somewhat amusing to watch. However, once it got to the meat of the conflict, when acting became less important, the material held my attention like a vise-grip. Most importantly, the writer-director did not allow his project’s low budget to get in the way of his vision. Instead of succumbing to limitation, he saw inspiration.