Tag: independent movies

Supporting Characters

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.

Sound of My Voice

Sound of My Voice (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) decide to make a documentary about cults. Blindfolded and put into a van toward an undisclosed location, we can tell almost immediately that it isn’t their first time. They are much too calm for a pair being stripped down of their defenses. In the basement of an unknown location, Peter and Lorna, along with two new recruits, meet Maggie (Brit Marling), the leader of the group. Surprising in that she is young and beautiful, equally surprising is her claim that she is a time traveler from year 2054.

Written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, “Sound of My Voice” is like sitting across a ticking clock in a room of absolute silence, each click feeling like a portentous communiqué, a countdown to an interaction with a mysterious, possibly sinister, force. The film flourishes in small but calculated scenes that take place in a basement, claustrophobic but bathed in yellow glow served to alleviate suspicion.

Rituals that the cult members go through are bizarre both in terms of concept as well as placidity of those wishing to belong. The brainwashing process is uncomfortable, creepy, and intense. The scene involving an apple forced me to hold my breath in anticipation while my mouth dropped open in disbelief and disgust.

If I were Lorna or Peter, after having witnessed and experienced the physical, emotional and psychological manipulations, I would have relinquished all connection to the group and never looked back. And just when I asked myself what Peter and Lorna hope to get from the experience, the writers are quick to acknowledge why the duo feels, as a team, that they must continue the research.

Marling is quite menacing in portraying the cult leader. When Maggie’s claim of having come from the future is threatened, she lashes out in a subdued manner, a technique much more effective than screaming and yelling. We almost get the feeling that if she lost control of herself, therefore the situation, the chinks in her bewitching facade would become all too visible. That is, if she is, in fact, lying about hopping across time.

Its most engaging aspect is the possibility that Maggie is telling the truth. An array of evidence that support and undermine her claim is presented to us. The fact that there is no answer considered as absolute is its ultimate spell. The way we interpret the events that unfold may say a lot about us and our capacity to think critically, not only in taking into consideration the secrets and implications underneath the topsoil but how conflicting information mirror one another.

What the picture lacks, however, is a strong emotional connection between Peter and Lorna. I never really believed that they are a couple that can face the world together. So when their relationship is threatened by the ramifications of being neck-deep into the cult, it feels too much like a ploy rather than a natural hurdle that they have to overcome. Nevertheless, it is obvious that Zal Batmanglij, the director, has a specific vision and the talent to pull off a feat: to get his audience to question and consider multiple perspectives.

Now let’s return to the ticking clock I mentioned earlier. Imagine if someone had told you, while sitting in a bare room with nothing but four walls, a chair, a table and light, that the clock would set off its alarm in exactly thirty minutes. The problem is, you are never allowed to see the face of the clock nor are you allowed to touch it in any way. And this clock does not produce ticking sounds. So you decide to wait. And wait. How do you know you’re being duped?

On the Ice

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.


Absentia (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Seven years after the disappearance of her husband, the very pregnant Tricia (Courtney Bell) had yet to fill out and turn in the requisite paperwork that would officially declare Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown) dead in absentia. When Callie (Katie Parker), Tricia’s younger sister, arrived at Tricia’s doorstep, strange things began to occur in the house and around the neighborhood. At night, Tricia was terrorized by what could be Daniel’s angry ghost but she was convinced there had to be a logical explanation. Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, “Absentia” was an independent horror film done exactly right, from its increasingly unsettling rising action to an ending that was a perfect fit to its storyline. Before the nicely timed scares were thrown on our laps, we were first given a chance to get to know Tricia as a both a woman in a state of extended grief and someone who deserved to move on with her life. When Callie asked her big sister how she knew it was time for Daniel to be declared legally dead, it was a special and sensitive scene. I was touched by the possibilities that ran in Tricia’s mind, one of which involved Daniel being a NSA agent who had no choice but to drop his life because his identity had somehow been compromised. I appreciated that the writer-director showed love for his characters prior to thrusting them in situations that led to dead-ends with more questions and no easy answers. By doing so, we grew to care for the fates of the sisters. They weren’t just bodies that we anticipated to get sliced and diced when they entered a pitch-black room. We actually wanted to see them unearth the mystery, perhaps struggle a little bit, and walk away once the malevolence had been dispelled. I so relished the build-up of bizarre details, like the sudden appearance of reported missing items and residents from the neighborhood who’d been gone for years, that I found myself shoving food down my throat in order to alleviate the tension. Though the film relied on more than a handful jump scares, none of them felt cheap because there was a variation in the scares. For instance, a certain positioning of a camera led us to believe that once a character turned around after looking around suspiciously, something shocking would be right in front of them. The director was aware of the conventions and it was fun waiting to see if he would fall to the trappings of the genre early on in the picture. If he ever did somewhere down the line, I wouldn’t know. I found myself so enthralled with what was happening, the technical details became less noticeable–as they should be unless done in such a way as to drive a point across. Furthermore, the film utilized flashbacks rather well. When we plunged into them, the scene unfolded quickly, but never manically edited, like looking inside a vivid nightmare that we desperately try to wake up from. “Absentia” was astutely written and directed with a keen eye: actively choosing atmosphere over splatter-fest, imagination over absolute.

Cold Weather

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.

True Adolescents

True Adolescents (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

When Amy (Laura Kai Chen) broke up with Sam (Mark Duplass), none of his friends would allow him to temporarily stay at their place. Not having much of a choice, the thirty-four-year-old musician, whose band was on a verge of booking a record deal, called Aunt Sharon (Melissa Leo) for free lodging. Coincidentally, it was the weekend that Oliver (Bret Loehr), Sam’s cousin, was supposed to go camping with his father. However, a last-minute cancellation forced Sam, out of guilt, to accompany Oliver and his best friend, Jake (Carr Thompson), during the trip. “True Adolescents,” written and directed by Craig Johnson, may not have the most creative plot but it nonetheless piqued my curiosity because it was so proud and so open in allowing its characters to behave like any teenager or teenager-at-heart we could randomly pluck off the streets. And because the characters were not given a typical arc in which they were required to learn something from their experiences, I enjoyed watching and listening to them without the need to be on my toes as to when they had reached a turning point. Its naturalistic performances made me feel warm. Particularly impressive was Leo as the caring aunt because although she wasn’t in front of the camera for very long, I felt like I already knew her. This was probably because the spirit that Leo embodied reminded me of my favorite aunt. Whenever I need something, all I’m required to do is ask and problem solved. Leo’s radiant smile, especially when it was directed to Sam, was infectious. During the pauses in their conversations, I wondered what she really thought about her nephew’s unstable life and career choice. Duplass, too, was very easy on the eyes in his own way. Approachable more than typically handsome, his sometimes scathing sarcasm paved the way on how he essentially viewed himself. Like the hormonal teens he had to take care of, he wrestled with a lot of conflicting thoughts about his place in the world and how people valued (or not value) him. Sam, Oliver, and Jake were full of insecurities and the script had a way of letting us feel their anger, frustration, and disappointment when things didn’t go their way. Out of the three, I was able to relate with Jake most. He reminded me of how I was during the first year or two of high school: when confronted with conflict, I chose to walk away, turned inwards, and asked what was about it about me that other people felt like they could get away with treating me like their own emotional punching bag. It was not a good feeling and each time Jake walked off, I knew exactly how he felt: the rage he bottled up inside his scraggy frame and the thirst to unleash it somehow. Jake became my emotional compass. Although there were a lot of uncertainties and vague resolutions, I knew that he would turn out okay just like I did. If there was one thing that “True Adolescents” needed more of, it would be scenes similar to Sam giving Oliver a lecture on what constituted good music. I may not always be on the same wavelength as Sam but we can agree that Sonic Youth is a damn good American alternative rock band.

Jesus Henry Christ

Jesus Henry Christ (2012)
★ / ★★★★

By the time Patricia reached the age of ten, she had to take care of what remained in her family of seven: herself and her father. Her mother died in an fiery accident, her twin brothers died out of stupidity, one brother died from a disease, and another brother left for Canada because he did not want to be drafted to Vietnam. It was the late 90s when toughened Patricia (Toni Collette) had her first child named Henry (Jason Spevack), conceived via a cell culture dish but gifted with a photographic memory so clear, the best universities would be lucky to nurture his capabilities. Out of all the questions in the universe, his efforts focused on finding the identity of his father. Based on the screenplay and directed by Dennis Lee, “Jesus Henry Christ” was an especially exasperating experience to sit through because its potential was wasted so systemically through one cute, precious, and quirky scene after another. Instead of focusing on the human factor while improbable coincidences occurred for the sake of plot convenience, a way of giving it a semblance of realism, it was more focused on style than substance. What I wanted was simple: to feel the bond between a mother and son, one symbolized experience and the other raw potential, respectively. As more characters were introduced by the script, naturally, more conflict ensued. Dr. O’Hara (Michael Sheen) was a renowned author who published a book, more or less, about her daughter, Audrey (Samantha Weinstein), called “Born Gay or Made That Way?”. Because of his work, Audrey had to endure tremendous amount of bullying at school, her peers calling her “lesbo,” especially from an obnoxious classmate in Physics class. Dr. O’Hara was a person of interest because he could very well be Henry’s biological father. It also meant that Henry could have a half-sister. While the two families eventually met, it was strange that the material never became all that interesting. More people spoke but their words held little weight. More people took up space in each scene but there was no comedy or drama. Everything was just passive as if each character was simply sleepwalking through this amazing thing that was unfolding right before their eyes. My biggest frustration, character-wise, was that Patricia and Dr. O’Hara were supposed to be smart adults. Why not just sit down and ask each other the difficult but necessary questions in order them–and us–to be able to move on? How did they really feel, as parents and as single adults, about being thrusted into such an awkward situation? These questions, among others, needed to be addressed because although its narrative was so twee to the point of distraction, their world was rooted in reality. Since those questions were essentially overlooked, why make the movie in the first place? If its point was to be cute, I could very much have just gone to the park and played with cute dogs. At least I would’ve gotten fresh air. As for Henry, because the character was established so poorly, whenever he stood next to Audrey with her bright red hair, big dark eyes, and undisturbed solemnity, he disappeared. His genius meant nothing because he had no presence. “Jesus Henry Christ” made me want to shout profanities at it because about halfway through I began to feel like my time was being stolen and trampled on.