Tag: independent


Columbus (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Kogonada has the patience of master Japanese filmmakers. In between moments of action or importance are seemingly throwaway moments: pedestrians crossing the street, the sky’s blinding blue-brightness, plants being watered, children at play. This storytelling technique is most appropriate in the impressive debut feature “Columbus,” a portrait of two individuals—one a local in Columbus, Indiana, and the other a visitor—who must or feel the need to put their lives on pause because of family. These asides, moments of randomness and freedom, are almost acts of exhalation when the film’s protagonists are tired of holding their breaths.

The local is Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and the visitor is Jin (John Cho), the former caring for her mother who is a recovering drug addict and the latter the son of a professor who has fallen into a coma prior to his lecture. The picture, for the most part, is a collection of Casey and Jin’s interactions—how strangers become friends and then later perhaps something more special.

Fresh is the fact that the relationship is not of a romantic nature despite’s the leads’ wonderful chemistry. It is an exploration of two spirits so different but finding commonalities anyway. There is something beguiling in its simplicity. What they share is beautiful, thoughtful, and often poignant. Surprising moments of honesty—sometimes painful honesty—are in store for those willing to look deep into the characters.

Its pacing is controlled, slow, and mesmerizing. During the aforementioned “throwaway moments,” more than a handful of times I found myself thinking back to a scene that had just unfolded. I pondered over the incredibly realistic dialogue; questioned why or how words are expressed a certain way and what these reveal about the subjects; wondered about body language and how reading it accurately may help to extricate big truths from small lies. Facial expressions do not tell all or may deceive. Casey and Jin are the farthest from archetypes so it is most refreshing when they reveal their thoughts about architecture, responsibilities, their pasts, where they hope to be or become one day.

Stunning shots are peppered throughout, whether it be of local buildings or an interior of a humble home. With the former, notice how angles are more dominant, impersonal, we observe structures from a distance. On the other hand, inside houses, colors and patterns are in command. Posh dwellings are bright, filled with hard, shiny surfaces and collectible decorations. Working class homes, by comparison, are quite somber but these are filled by familiar elements like a soft couch, photographs with cheap frames, a cramped kitchen/dining room where family members actually eat and laugh together. Although images may be worlds apart, Kogonada shifts between them with ease. He has a knack for making the images speak for themselves.

Notice the film’s willingness to be silent. There is no score. We hear cars swooshing by. Birds chirping. Footsteps and shuffling during house tours. Whispers in the library. The trickling of the water fountain nearby. By having no score, there is one less barrier between the subjects and the audience. And so when they reveal themselves, it feels like a friend is exposing his or her soul.


Sleight (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is an independent sci-fi drama that oozes ambition with imagination to back it up. Written by J.D. Dillard and Alex Theurer, “Sleight” is the kind of picture that sneaks up on the viewer, knowingly employing a familiar plot as template and then subverting expectations in small but noticeable ways—without coming across as though it is pushing too hard to make a statement about something. It is entertaining in all the right ways, mesmerizing and optimistic, like a flickering candle in the darkness.

Jacob Latimore plays Bo, a street magician who has decided to decline a scholarship after the death of his mother. Choosing to take care of Tina (Storm Reid), his younger sister and only family left, Bo moonlights as a drug dealer in order to have another source of income. This is a plot we have seen many times before. The unexpected treat is the fact that Bo is not a typical character living in Los Angeles who has money problems. The writing does a great job in making us forget how smart Bo really is by constantly pointing to his resilience.

Because of this, the screenplay likens that of a neat magic trick: finding a way so that we pay attention to other elements other than the most important piece. Notice how the material spends ample of time with dramatic elements. By doing so, it grounds the story in such a way that nearly every event is believable, convincing, and engaging. When the more fantastic pieces are thrown on our laps, it is surprising and exciting—we get the feeling that the story could go in any direction and we would buy it because its core is tethered to something real and relatable.

Latimore excels in exuding a certain level of magnetism. His character does not speak very often and yet his silence communicates plenty. Latimore shows the tender side of his character by way of interacting with his sister as a guardian and a brother, how he hugs her before she heads off to school, the way he looks at her when she makes clever jokes. On top of this, there is even humanity in the way Bo socializes with his customers—both as a magician and a drug dealer. Although the two worlds are vastly different, notice how the people he encounters genuinely like him. It would be interesting to see the kind of roles Latimore would decide to take on in the future. I sense there is versatility to his talent.

To reveal more about “Sleight” is to do it a disservice. Director J.D. Dillard should be proud of his first feature film because it offers intelligence, empathy, and wonder nearly every step of the way. But what I admired most is its restraint. In less capable hands, it probably would have turned out to be yet another action-fantasy extravaganza. But because it commands such control, our experience aligns exactly with the writer-director’s vision. And like Latimore, the picture’s charismatic lead, Dillard’s future is full of potential.

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.


Creep (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Aaron (Patrick Brice) answers an online ad that promises one thousand dollars for a day’s work. The job offers a vague description involving filming services where discretion is very much appreciated. Needing a bit of cash, Aaron drives up to a cabin in the mountains to meet with the client. His name is Josef (Mark Duplass) and he hopes to record his daily life for his unborn child. Josef claims to have been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and he has about two to three months to live.

Written by co-stars Brice and Duplass, “Creep” commands a familiar but nonetheless interesting premise that—at least for a while—is all at once highly curious, amusing, creepy, and entertaining. It is in the final third that the picture falters which involves a jump forward in time that singlehandedly eradicates the varying levels of tension and suspense that accumulated during the previous hour. It is a thriller that belongs under the faux-documentary sub-genre that almost hits the target perfectly.

For a story that consists of only two characters, it is immensely watchable. Credit goes to Duplass and Brice’s natural chemistry—one can easily believe that these two are good friends in real life. Because their rapport is seemingly effortless, the characters—even though they are strangers—have an instant rhythm about them that is so engaging that the dialogue sounds and feels real. Although it is not very smart to meet a total stranger in the wilderness, we are very curious how the meet is going to unfold.

Josef lives up to the picture’s title. Duplass plays the character with a sense of humor but it is almost always partnered with charm. This is key because even though it is possible that Josef is a pathological liar, it is left wide open that maybe there are truths in some of the things he says. He crafts so many detailed stories that we wonder if maybe—for once—he is telling the truth. In this way, we are in Aaron’s shoes—he feels uneasy about the stranger but he cannot help but wonder that perhaps there is a goodness about the man in front of him.

The screenplay plays with our expectations. It shows ominous images—like an axe or black plastic bags—that trigger a sense of alarm based on what we have seen or learned from other horror movies. However, unlike great films in the genre, this picture does not offer enough chills that go all the way. There is only tease; it is proficient in setting up and building momentum but it lacks powerful delivery—especially when it counts. One cannot help but suspect if Brice, who directed the film, truly knew how to helm a complete horror film. Still, perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the story is its plausibility—that what Aaron goes through can probably happen to just about anybody.

“Creep” has more than a handful of good ideas but it shortchanges the audience for not going all the way when it is time show us what we have come to see. Furthermore, I argue that the picture does not have a third act—problematic because it leaves us wanting more answers. The story may be complete but it is not fulfilling. But if it were meant to be incomplete, one could argue that each installment should be able to stand on its own.

Something, Anything

Something, Anything (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Peggy (Ashley Shelton) and Mark (Bryce Johnson), recently married, seemed set to having a lifetime of contentment together until Peggy miscarried. Although it is no one’s fault, Peggy remains angry with her husband because the night she lost their baby, Mark insisted that she came along to a bar for a work meeting even though she had not been feeling well. A few months pass and although they remain married, Peggy has moved out and is beginning to consider leaving her job as a realtor.

“Something, Anything” is a thoughtful, engaging drama that is equally about expressed emotions, words, and glances as well as its unexpressed counterparts. It demands the viewer to pay attention to the circumstances surrounding the woman who is in dire need of change and consideration about what she might get out of the experience regardless of it working out. At its core, it is a humanistic film. It is one of those rare movies that asks us to evaluate whether we really are content with where we are in life currently.

There is no good guy or bad guy or an expected conflict where the girl must choose the man she wants to be with in the end. There are two men in the movie—one is Mark and the other is Tim (Linds Edwards), the brother of Peggy’s friend from high school who sends her a letter of condolence after her miscarriage. Word has it that Tim has joined a monastery. The two men’s priorities in life are vastly different but both are good-natured. Peggy considers each man as a reflection of where her own life might be heading.

There are segments in the picture where no words are used. We are asked to be observant of the kind of activities Peggy chooses to partake in, what books she chooses to check out from the library, the objects she puts away, how she puts them away, her posture as she engages in solitary activity. Here, grief is almost always expressed in silence. There is no wise counseling session. There are no supportive friends. In fact, her friends are shallow, their so-called advice more telling of who they really are underneath rather than one that is supposed to help out a friend who needs genuine love and support.

The material touches upon the idea of many of us blindly following along what the society expects of us to do once we reach a certain age. For example, pay close attention to the scenes where money is directly or indirectly talked about. In a way, it is brave because the film is willing to hold up a mirror, to ask us to take a good look, and to evaluate. Are you the kind of person who live for the money or are you the kind of person who regards money as only money and uses it to really live? The picture makes a noble case that in modern society, too many of us fall within the former group—which is most unhealthy.

Divided into four seasons, the story, although straightforward, is bigger than a span of ninety minutes. Some movies last for about twice that running time yet still struggle to communicate a quarter of what is tackled here. This makes “Something, Anything,” written and directed by Paul Harrill, quite an accomplishment. It is a small film surely but its ideas reach deep into the souls of those willing to look within.

The Craving

The Craving (2008)
★ / ★★★★

Five friends (Grayson Berry, Jesse C. Boyd, Anselm Clinard, Wallis Herst, Lesley Paterson) were on their way to an art event, but they got lost after the driver decided to take a shortcut. Desperate for directions, they headed to a remote house but the owner fired his shotgun and caused the car to turn over. With one of them wounded and the shooter dead, a hungry creature in the desert saw the unsuspecting twenty-somethings as food. “The Craving,” written by Curtis Krick and directed by Sean Dillon, started off in a typical manner but I was fairly entertained. Even I have to admit that there’s something comfortable and exciting when it comes to the tried-and-true formula of people on a road trip needing gas. Naturally, the characters seemed like they hadn’t seen a single slasher film. We relish that we’re smarter than them. For instance, we knew that not all of them were going to make it in the end. My main problem with the film was its inefficient use of its time. There were far too many sex scenes and only one was effective. Since the shooter’s body was in the shack, the protagonists decided to sleep outside. There were three tents and two of which contained a couple having sex. When one of the girls heard a howl, which somewhat resembled a coyote, there was a certain cheekiness about the manner in which the scene unfolded. Something as animalistic as sex evolved into something bloody and grizzly–a good way for the first character to be killed off. But once the remaining four found refuge inside the shack, the picture became less exciting. There was one interesting detail involving the scent that the creature emitted which caused the characters to throw logic out the window and became easier targets. However, the creature’s way of luring its targets were not explored. Like George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” although with considerably less tension, the protagonists were stuck in one place. Most of the horror happened at night. Unfortunately, the cameras weren’t powerful enough to deliver sharp images. It was very difficult to see what was happening even if the camera was still. When it moved, images were barely recognizable. I was aware of the budget constraints, but a limited budget does not free the filmmakers from their responsibilities. The director should have communicated with the writer that the images were difficult to see if shot at night. Hence, perhaps the writer should have altered the script to take place in daylight. When the elements align perfectly and form a synergy, it’s a possible to create a solid horror film set in the day. Maybe if we could have seen more of the creature, the film would have been scarier. “The Craving” wasn’t egregious but the filmmakers certainly could have done more to make the movie more bearable. Instead of seeing the technical aspects that didn’t quite work as a challenge and rising above it, it seemed like the filmmakers were out of their depths.


Ink (2009)
★ / ★★★★

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.