Tag Archives: Indie

Wendy and Lucy (2008)

This movie is not for everyone. Curious art-indie buffs, you know who you are. Others, look elsewhere. “Wendy and Lucy” is ‘real’ in such a way that it will delight a certain audience and bore the pants off everyone else.

Drifter Wendy (Michelle Williams,) camping out in Oregon on her way to find work in Alaska, travels alone except for her beloved dog, Lucy. So when Lucy goes missing in a small podunk Oregon town, Wendy vows not to leave until she finds her best friend and traveling companion.

Invested in her plight is a kind, otherwise unnamed Security Guard (Wally Dalton) who doesn’t seem to do much work but instead gives her advice and comfort while she tries to find her dog. Wendy comes into contact with other people, some helpful, some detrimental, and in the end must make a painful and difficult choice.

Although the grainy imagery can be a little frustrating, “Wendy and Lucy” is a touching, and above all, real little tale. It’s the kind of film that doesn’t have a hook, but wins us over with it’s true-to-life characters and situations, and makes us wonder what’s going to happen.

Michelle Williams is extremely convincing as flawed protagonist Wendy, and Lucy is a very cute and charming canine. This is the kind of movie people will argue has no ‘point.’ Since when does a film have to have a lesson, a glossy twist ending, or an revelation at before the end credits?

Isn’t a depiction of real, believable people and honest plot developments enough to to keep the audience watching? Since when did we become a legion of people who need a robot, a superhero, farting animated animals, or a masked killer to keep us invested in a story? Maybe I sound pretentious. But I can’t help but wonder if peoples’ interest in the movies is regressing.

I’ve seen Michelle Williams in two movies recently. “Take This Waltz” had its moments, but was also often glib and sitcom-ish, despite a painfully effective ending. “Wendy and Lucy,” the more effective of the two films, was never unbelievable and never simplistic, a testament to the power of kitchen sink realism in film.

“Wendy and Lucy” also excels in the way that it portrays poverty without the morbid vision of filth and decay many movies strive for. Overall, it’s more “Winter’s Bone” than “Requiem for a Dream,” and delivers pathos and sympathy rather than cheap shocks.

Not that it doesn’t have tense moments, such as when Wendy sleeps in the woods and comes face to face with an unexpected intruder. It just doesn’t overplay its hand trying to be disgusting and gratuitous, and portraying Williams as a wretched drifting waif. I hope you see it.

Rating-
8.0/10

Elephant (2003)

“Elephant” is an interesting experiment, which could benefit from some editing and stronger acting. The ambiguity that surrounds the motivations of the killers is a frustrating, but perhaps relevant, critique of the shroud of confusion that surrounded the Columbine killings. 

   Parents, teachers, bullies, and the media were all held under scrutiny, and many school shootings later, we’re still holding candles in the dark as to what motivates these kids to kill their peers- and themselves- in a time that seems rich with possibility.

    The film is presented in a series of vignettes of students habitating a generic high school on the day of a Columbine-like massacre. Using nonprofessional actors and a handheld camera, the film recounts the a day in the kid’s lives- for many, their last- slowly following them around the school as they interact with their teachers and each other.

   The stand-out actors here are Alex Frost, as Alex, the apparent leader in the duo of shooters, and  Matt Malloy as Mr. Luce, the apathetic principal. Most of the acting (unsurprisingly, considering the inexperience of the cast) is rather stiff and listless, while attempting to be ‘real’ and ‘natural.’ The stillness of the performances are rather confusing considering the extreme nature of the subject matter.

   The characters are relatively interesting, not worth falling in love with but worth observing and studying. The most compelling character for me was Michelle (Kristen Hicks) a geeky student who deals with the bullying of her peers and the apathy of her teachers. Self-conscious of her legs, Michelle is told to tough it out and forced to wear shorts by an uncaring gym teacher.

   The kids’ individual dramas are made obsolete, a least for a little while, by the bigger drama of the shooting. This film is SLOW. 20% of the film is spent following the students, watching the back of their heads with intent interest. I would not recommend this movie to people who like fast-paced cinema. To people who are tolerant of slowness and stillness, I would not necessarily recommend it either. 

   “Elephant” is more an experiment than a full-fledged feature, and people out for entertainment should just forget it. But what do you expect with a Gus Van Sant indie movie about a school shooting? Sicko (cough.) Anyway, I feel pretty neutral about the feature as a whole. Some people might find it to be a film-student’s dream, others will be bored silly. Though I may dismiss it, I will not forget it either.

 
         
                                                              

Buddy Boy (1999)

Buddy Boy, Mark Hanlon’s debut, is a haunting and potent film about dead end lives that provokes more questions than answers but remains bizarrely interesting throughout.

The film provides a look into the surrealistic existence of emotionally stunted, stuttering misfit Francis (Aidan Gillen), who lives with his trollish invalid stepmother (actual amputee Susan Tyrrell), in a squalid apartment.

Suffering from overwhelming guilt concerning his sexuality, his religion, and himself, he goes to confession monthly, admitting every impure thought and indiscretion. The contrast between faith and the id is revealed in the opening, which presents the viewer with a montage of religious imagery followed by Francis, uh… pleasuring himself to a pair of voluptuous breasts in a magazine.

Like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, this is the high point of his day, which soon descends into woeful monotony. He finds a new pasttime in spying on his attractive neighbor Gloria (Emmanuelle Seigner, controversial Polish director Roman Polanski’s wife) through a hole in his apartment.

Then they meet. Gloria is strangely attracted to Francis, which would be unfeasible if she weren’t clearly lonely and desperate too. She tells him she is a vegan, a word he doesn’t understand, but he catches on. According to her, she doesn’t care what he eats, but then she buys him a “Meat Is Murder” t-shirt, which is a mixed message if I ever saw one. This further accentuates the character’s conflicting beliefs and desires.

Gloria is pretty and nice, too nice, and Francis begins believing irrational things about her pastimes, focusing on her eating habits. Meanwhile he becomes increasingly psychotic (?) and has a falling out with God. Is Francis going insane? Or is meat back on the menu? Buddy Boy is an enigma — although declared a religious allegory by IMDB users it at times seems to be making a statement against Christianity.

In fact Francis spends so much time obsessing about his masturbating, sinning ways that the viewer wishes the poor guy would just snap out of it. The movie is a triumph of atmosphere — the bleakness and decay of Francis and Sal’s apartment is palpable, while Gloria’s big-windowed, pleasingly green abode seems to spell change for the troubled young man.

The problem, it seems, is the vast contrast in acting styles between Aidan Gillen (Francis) and Susan Tyrrell (his stepmom, Sal). Gillen, from the GLBTQ show Queer as Folk (which I haven’t seen), plays his character sensitively and gently, as a fundamentally benevolent albeit strange outcast damaged by trauma and psychosis. Susan Tyrrell plays his abusive stepmom more like a SNL skit. Maybe her broad performance is the fault of the material.

When an actress’ character is scripted to beat a plumber over the head with her artificial leg (one of the stranger scenes in this story), maybe there isn’t much room for subtlety. Buddy Boy, nevertheless, is an intriguing first feature and a fascinating story.

It walks a fine line between being campy and profound, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I like the humanization of Francis, a character who might be written off as a scummy voyeur, or worse, as white trash. It raises interesting questions, contains twists, and transports you, which is something films should accomplish, but rarely do.

Julien Donkey-Boy (1999)

“Julien Donkey-Boy” is an occasionally emotional, mainly tedious foray into the art of Dogme 95, laden with grainy visuals and non-existent plotting. It recalls the much better film “Buddy Boy,” which came out the same year. “Buddy Boy” director Mark Hanlon knew how to engage your interest and make you care about his main character, despite his shortcomings.

Julien is a 20-something paranoid schizophrenic played by Ewen Bremner, one of the most underutilized character actors of today. Julien lives with his equally disturbed father, younger brother, and sister, who he has impregnated before the film’s beginning.

Uncomfortable yet? The whole movie works to make the viewer feel discomfort while also invoking sadness and emotion. At this it is only moderately successful. The dialogue is often random and directionless. The experience of the film is akin to having hundreds of puzzle pieces of differing shapes and sizes, none of them fitting together in the least.


While watching, you come to a crossroads- should you spend a indefinite amount of time trying to put together the pieces, or should you leave the goddamned thing for somebody else to solve? The visuals of “Julien Donkey-Boy” are willfully awful, presumably shot on a home video camera bought from the bargain bin of Best Buy for a total of five dollars.

Ewen Bremner does an excellent job as Julien, but although Julien isn’t innately evil or unlikable, it’s hard to emotionally invest in his plight. In fact, the movie has its meaningful moments, but most of what is has to say isn’t particularly innovative or profound, and it’s hard to feel many emotions other than bewilderment and disgust.

Meanwhile, “Julien Donkey-Boy” functions more as a curiosity item than a movie, with famous filmmaker Werner Herzog playing Julien’s gas-mask wearing, cough syrup- guzzling father, who offers to pay Julien’s younger brother (Evan Neumann) ten dollars to dance with him in his dead mother’s dress. Meanwhile, Julien’s sister Pearl (Chloe Sevigny) prepares to have her brother’s baby.

The film is dedicated to director Harmony Korine’s schizophrenic Uncle Eddy, and although I hate to criticize a personal film-making project (unlike the soulless Hollywood money grabbers I love to have a go at), I must. “Julien Donkey-Boy” is hard to sit through and willfully incoherent, like a cross between a David Lynch throwaway project and a bad acid trip. It is one of the few movies I can honestly say had very little point, and isn’t that a shame? Not for the majority of sober filmgoers.

Tony (2009)

“Tony” is the rare exception where the term ‘indie horror’ means smarter rather than just cheaper. On one level, it’s a pretty simple premise (man commits crimes, man goes unnoticed until…), but on another, it a phenomenal character study of a man to whom desperation is a constant companion, to whose hobbies others would find sickness and perversion. All that and a highly effective performance by unnoticed actor Peter Ferdinando, as the titular killer.

Tony is a lonely fellow who idles away his days watching low-grade 80’s action films. We see him desperately trying to make a connection with the uncaring world around him, but socialization is hard, especially if your second hobby is, well… killing people.

The murders are sporadic and not overly graphic. Tony just gets fed up with humanity. Don’t we all? Tony is unwashed, dirty, and unemployed. He lives off the U.K. welfare system without having done a real day’s work in his life. He’s haunted by memories of his abusive father. It’s hard not to feel bad for him as he navigates an apathetic London, and hard not to be repulsed as he cohabitants in his filthy apartment with the corpses of his victims.

First you might consider the place of Tony’s action films. Are the driving him to kill? Probably not, the movie suggests. People drive people to kill, the media is scapegoated. I am reminded of an eight-year-old boy who took a break from “Grand Theft Auto” long enough to shoot his elderly caretaker in the head.

All the things you can find obviously wrong with that family (guns unlocked, eight-year-old’s playing restricted games,) and the video game becomes the scapegoat. It’s easy. It’s too easy. Sorry for that tangent. Anyway, “Tony” is grim, and sometimes very gross, but don’t expect a “Human Centipede”-style torturefest.

An interesting fact Tom Six made “The Human Centipede II”‘s lead Laurence R. Harvey watch this movie for inspiration on his character, ‘Martin.’ A great performance inspiring another. “Tony” reminds me of what THC2 could have been if Six had concentrated on character development rather than cutting ligaments and pulling out teeth with pliers.

At the center of “Tony” is Peter Ferdinando’s fearless performance, playing a sick, sick character with a glimmer of empathy. The other actors back him up nicely, although in the end it’s solitary Tony, friendless, unchanging, and scrutinizing a world he can’t quite understand. And indulging in his second favorite hobby, of course.
Rating-
8.5/10

A Room For Romeo Brass (1999)

Shane Meadows knows how to do a slow-burner. One of Britain’s most powerful filmmakers, Meadows is a master of racketing up the tension in a seemingly ordinary situation. Never stupid, never sensational, he casts his unblinking eye on modern life in the UK and the fragilities of human relationships. If I had to choose between Meadows and Mike Leigh, I would pick Meadows, every time.

“A Room For Romeo Brass” is about how an ordinary friendship can undergo extraordinary duress when a dangerous third party is added to the mix. Two preteen friends, white Gavin and mixed-race Romeo share a brotherly bond that is equal parts camaraderie and constant teasing. Gavin (Ben Marshall,) called ‘Knocks,’ has a bad back and a limp, and is in transition to another surgery.

He’s always up to a bit of mischief, and Romeo (Andrew Shim) is his softer-hearted other half. When a man named Morell (a very young Paddy Considine) rescues Gavin and Romeo from some bigger boys, he seems like a harmless, if eccentric, addition to the group. With his ‘Simple Jack’ haircut and halting speech, he doesn’t readiate ‘cool,’but he is friendly and can tell a sensational story like anyone.

The thing about these kinds of stories is, if they sound too good to be true they probably are, but this matters nada to the boys and one of them, Romeo, is sucked in by his dynamic personality. Gavin thinks that Morell is a sucker and good for a mean practical joke. He’s deadly wrong. As Morell reveals a dark, violent side, Romeo and Gavin’s friendship is tested to it’s outer limits.

Shane Meadows found two good little actors in Shim and Marshall, but Considine is the main draw here. Considine, who would later astonish audiences, including myself, in Shane Meadows’ grungy revenge indie “Dead Man’s Shoes”, puts a unique spin on a character who is probably suffering from an undiagnosed mental disorder.

Like “Sling Blade”‘s Karl or “Buddy Boy”s Francis, Morell’s uniqueness is electrifying to watch. At times I was wowed by this apparently simple man’s ability to coerce and manipulate, and wondered if his limitations were a ruse and he was, in fact, a very clever psychopath. The truth is much more complicated.

Wait for the precise moment when the up-til-then likably dotty Morrel becomes suddenly sinister. It’s mind-blowing. “A Room for Romeo Brass” glues your eyes to the screen, and tells a intense story about friendship and betrayal, about a wolf in sheep’s clothing who fleetingly wins- if not earns- our sympathy nonetheless. With it’s three-dimensional characters and incisive writing, it’s nothing less than riviting. Bravo, Shane Meadows. Keep them coming.

Girlfriend (2010)

I can’t believe it! A film with a disabled character who isn’t a maudlin stereotype? Will wonders never cease? “Girlfriend,” in the spirit of “Sling Blade” or “Treacle Jr.,” creates a unique and engaging protagonist with a intellectual impairment. But this time, the actor who plays the lead (Evan Sneider) is also disabled.

Afflicted with Down Syndrome, Evan (Sneider) lives with his mother (Amanda Plummer) in a small town that offers few options. Meanwhile Evan is enamored with old high school crush and single mother Candy (Shannon Woodward), whose feelings toward Evan and his challenges are ambiguous.

Into this scenario swaggers Candy’s white trash ex-boyfriend Russ (Jackson Rathbone, venomously unlikable and liberated from the “Twilight” franchise). When Evan’s mother dies, his attraction to Candy only intensifies, and all three are caught in triangle that will leave none untouched.

One of the reasons I watched this movie was that I heard Amanda Plummer was in it, so it was disappointing to have her die in the first ten minutes. Nevertheless, Evan’s mother Celeste is one of the best portrayals and most real characters in this story.

Far from being a typical movie hero mom, Celeste has her good days and her bad, like any other mom. There is one scene where Celeste represses her rage at her and Evan’s oppressive employer with a subtle facial twitch which I felt really displayed Amanda Plummer’s acting talent.

In fact, the only performance I felt was a little weak is Sneider’s. I know, I feel like I’m picking on the disabled kid in the lunchroom, but Sneider was not prepared to take some of the dramatic turns the story took. Nevertheless, his occasional faltering didn’t distract me from the story too much.

Evan is a very interesting character in that I got to see him exercise his dark side a little, which is rare in a movie like this. It’s always aggravated me the way people desexualize people with disabilities, so seeing Evan experience libido and exhibit desire for a relationship — and yes, sex — was refreshing.

I found the ending a little convoluted. You know that moment when things are resolved only as they are in the movies? Yeah, like that. The final twist was similarly unsatisfying, as I think sex shouldn’t be something you give out to compensate for past mistakes. At the same time, though, I was kind of impressed they were daring enough to end it that way.

Overall, “Girlfriend” is a very underrated and intriguing movie about small town relationships and the limitations we all have. This is writer/director Justin Lerner’s first feature-length movie, and I hope to see more of him very soon. I recommend this film to anybody who loves independent movies.

Wild Tigers I Have Known (2006)

“Wild Tigers I Have Known,” Cam Archer’s visually striking but somewhat self-indulgent debut, is an abstract and meandering portrayal of teen angst and burgeoning sexuality. Its youthful protagonist, Logan (Malcolm Stumpf), seems perpetually caught between a daydream and and the harsh, uncaring real world.

Sounds kind of like Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Except that movie actually had substance. Oh well. This movie at least looks pretty, and art-chic-happy film students might find more to love in the film than I did.

13-year-old Logan is lonesome soul, given to walks on the beach and recording himself going on a abstract tangents. He also is in the midst of discovering his sexuality (gay as a maypole) while harboring a crush on Rodeo Walker (Patrick White), the most popular boy in school.

Does Rodeo feel likewise? Maybe so (“girls make me want to go to sleep,” he tells his youthful admirer), but whatever the case, Rodeo isn’t telling. Seeking Rodeo’s affection, Logan creates a female persona named ‘Leah.’ ‘Leah’ calls Rodeo up promising a wild night, but Logan’s naivete is apparent.

I “get” Logan’s inability to connect to, or even maybe occupy the same universe as, his junior high classmates. I go to a school of hundreds of students, and 99% of the time I feel like I’m off on my own planet.

But although Logan is intriguing, the film collapses under its own pretension, with scenes that have no clear dramatic purpose and dialogues that are laughable in their bloated sense of self-importance. And isn’t Logan’s mother’s response to the fallen groceries a little… psychotic? Nobody who’s still on the sanity wagon would react that way.

“Wild Tigers…” sports beautiful cinematography and a couple of well-known actors (Fairuza Balk as the mom, Kim Dickens as the school counselor,) but in the end, it hardly matters. Seeming long at 88 minutes, “Tigers…” ultimately seems like a bit of a chore, never a good  impression for a film to make. Logan entices us but the film keeps us at an arm’s length.

The Living & the Dead (2006)

Not your first pick for Mother’s Day, The Living and the Dead is morbid and horrifying, and I mean that, strangely, as a compliment. It is a family drama, a psychological thriller, a tragedy, an art film, all these things at once, and and despite it’s flaws, it doesn’t overextend.

The film opens with Lord Donald Brocklebank (Roger Lloyd-Pack), a worn-down, silent shell of an old man, pushing an empty wheelchair through a quiet room. The image delivers the same feeling as a dark grey painting, lonely and despondent. He watches, lip quivering, as an ambulance pulls into his massive estate. Cut back an undetermined amount of time. Donald stands straighter. He maintains a kind of pride that must come with being one of the British elite, but he is grieving. He has a lot to grieve about.

His wife, Lady Nancy Brocklebank, is terribly sick and probably won’t be with him much longer. The bills are piling up, and they will soon lose their mansion. His son James (Leo Bill, in an over-the-top performance that works), dashes around the house with little clear purpose.

James is in his mid-to-late twenties. He is stuck in a kind of permanent childhood, the kind of childhood that is made up of nightmares, not whimsy. Although Simon Rumley, the director, describes him as “mentally challenged,” I suspect paranoid schizophrenia.

James is by far my favorite character in the film. He is a complicated movie creation, and his emotional limitations do not hold back his complexity or ambiguity as a person. Donald treats James with the casual cruelty that is most likely inflicted on the mentally ill more often than we think, condescending to him, forbidding him to use the phone or answer the door. James is desperate to prove to his father that he is an independent adult and plans to do so by taking care of his mother.

His father understandably rejects the idea. In an matter of days, James will have locked the door, shut out the nurse, skipped his pills, and may have destroyed the lives of those closest to him. Soon, as his lucidity deteriorates, the viewer begins to wonder if the past events were only in James’ head. This is a film for a patient audience — it’s a while before anything happens and the reality of the events is questionable.

The atmosphere is palpable, and the characters are well developed. There are many plot holes and unanswered questions throughout the film, as the story itself seems on the edge of reality, with its Gothic features and abstract images.

People have had different opinions on whether James is “good” or “bad.” He is a disturbing character, to be sure. He is not a sex maniac, mad slasher, or stony-faced killer, but an exceptionally childlike and deeply disturbed man. This movie might make you feel differently about a crime, in the paper, in which mental illness was a factor. Despite naysayers, The Living and the Dead is an emotional bombshell and thought-provoking film.