Spotlight on the Independent Arts: Krisha

krisha-movie-poster-banner-courtesy-a24-films

From its cold, brooding Bergmanesque opening…to the discordant chords of its Johnny Greenwood style score…to the cyclorama of its spinning DePalma inspired camera…writer/director/star Trey Edward Shults borrows from the best to put on display one woman’s spiraling miasma of bad life choices, addiction and emotional abuse that can’t help but tar the lungs of everyone around her like lingering cigarette smoke.

Krisha looks like a student film but hums like a the seasoned work of a master. When Krisha (played with eerie frantic madness by Krisha Fairchild, the director’s own aunt) pops in for Thanksgiving dinner, the tension slowly builds amongst the family. Shults brilliantly shows Krisha’s various levels of disconnect and desperation as she both distances herself and awkwardly tries to connect…her dependency on a variety of mind-altering substances coupled with her hysteric self-doubt and self-loathing building a psychic wall that haunts the house and her loved ones like a screaming banshee.

While I expected to see a dysfunctional family and the holiday from hell, I did not expect the level of studied cinematic touches Shults employs. Continue reading

Crazy Mothers, Scrappy Kids, Idiot Fathers and Humorless Dictatorships in The Babadook, St. Vincent, Wish I Was Here and Rosewater

It’s that time again for The Spin to whip up a seemingly random hodgepodge of recent films viewed in theaters, on VOD and on Netflix and draw tenuous lines connecting their themes while passing judgment on the merits of their attempts to be profound or entertain.

All of the films feature main characters dealing with serious father issues, three are from first time feature film directors, three of the films feature troubled and/or precocious kids, two feature single mothers raising sons, and two were funded by Kickstarter.  Here’s the rundown:

Babadook Poster 1

First up is the Kickstarter-funded first feature from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent currently playing in select theaters and available on VOD.  In The Babadook (a title, that like the film, can take on multiple meanings), a single-mom/nurse (Essie Davis, absolutely outstanding at becoming unhinged) is struggling to raise her out of control, starving for affection and monster-obsessed six-year old son (Noah Wiseman, effectively obnoxious and cute and seriously troubled) whose father died in a car crash on the day he was born.  Their toiling roiling relationship reaches a fever pitch when a creepy would-be charcoal-etched kid’s book, Mr. Babadook, finds its way into their house and refuses to be ignored.   The film, an expressionistic psychological thriller neatly wrapped in a horror gift box, is derivative as hell but also smartly crafted to show the damaging effects of not dealing with grief, unmanaged stress, sleep deprivation and paranoia.  The creepy music, sound effects, cinematography, and art design are all well woven by Kent, who hints at a very promising future.  The ending will be a let down to some, but like the best psychological thrillers, is open for multiple interpretations depending on whose POV (the mother’s or the son’s) one takes.  The Babadook represents the best of what films can and should get funded through Kickstarter and is a creepy fun ride for anyone with any passing interest in psychology and the horrors of a human mind unwound. Continue reading

The Last Cut is the Deepest for The Skeleton Twins

Skeleton Twins

There’s a truly fantastic scene about half-way through Craig Johnson’s dramedy, The Skeleton Twins, where Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig lip-synch to Starship’s hilariously 80’s anthem, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”  It’s been highlighted ad nauseam in the TV spots for the film, but it’s even more dynamic and infectious on the big screen.  Its almost painfully prolonged unfolding is built upon the rising tension of Wiig’s character being supremely pissed off right now and refusing to play along with her brother’s antics until that moment comes where she just can’t take it anymore and has to join the insanity.  The look on Wiig’s face as she reluctantly (yet deep down so happily) mouths the lyrics, “Let them say we’re crazy…” is a perfect moment for this gifted actress inside a wildly imperfect film.  Hader, likewise, is borderline idiot genius with his mannerisms and body language.  It’s a shame then that writer-director Craig Johnson saddles them with such obvious clichés.

The dysfunctional sister-brother relationship dramedy has long been the bastion of many an indie filmmaker.  Most of these films star Laura Linney (think You Can Count on Me, or probably the ultimate example of this sub-genre, The Savages).  Wiig is an interesting substitute for Linney, as the comedic actress has never been allowed to go dramatic before, but with such a great built-in chemistry with Hader (who is most beloved as SNL’s Stefon, the worst NYC tour guide EVER) the two click whether they’re lip-synching to bad music or revealing devastating secrets to each other. Continue reading

Short Term 12 Long Term Promise

Brie Larson takes a major leap forward with charm and Grace.

Brie Larson takes a major leap forward with determination and Grace in SHORT TERM 12.

The best independent films take their cue from the best literary short stories.  They cut through the fat so often found in more commercial fare and focus on the moment, on character.  Minimalist in style.  Maximum in feeling.  Writer/director Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 is one such film.

Grace (Brie Larson) is happily toiling away with her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) working together as counselors at a group home for troubled youth, but when an unexpected pregnancy pops up and a deeply disturbed new ward (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives, Grace finds herself at a crossroads still trying to cope with her own dark past.

Brie Larson plays Grace with a breezy charm.  She instantly relates to the kids (for reasons we later learn go beyond the standard love of job), and she’s both care-free and deadly serious.  There’s so much stuff bubbling up underneath her surface, and Larson is shockingly adept at traversing the slippery slope of her character’s arc.  As her boyfriend, Mason, who so desperately wants to dive beneath that surface with her, John Gallagher Jr. (so insufferable on the insufferable Newsroom) comes across as a likeable hipster duffus with a huge heart.  He loves telling stories and he connects with the kids because he’s a kid himself, and again we learn later on why he is the way he is.  Cretton, as he does with all of the characters circling in Grace’s orbit, reveals backstories bit by bit, not with a self-aware sense of revelation, but with the same casual charm as Grace.  He allows us to connect with them through small moments, character revealing details, just as Grace does when working with the kids at the home in her sincere attempts to get through to them. Continue reading

Spotlight on the Independent Arts: In the Family

In the Family

With the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down DOMA, it seemed fitting for The Spin’s Spotlight to turn to In the Family – a scrappy but subtle independent film that struggled to find a distributor, was rejected at many festivals, was ultimately released by the filmmaker himself into a smattering of art houses in New York last year where it quietly received some raves (from the late Ebert and the Times) and is now currently available through Netflix.

*SPOILERS AHEAD – this is as much a review of the film as it is a study of the film’s techniques and storytelling style*

Joey Williams (Patrick Wang) is a mild-mannered contractor from a small town in Tennessee.  He lives with Cody (Trevor St John), a fine upstanding middle-school math teacher, and together they raise Cody’s six-year old biological son, Chip (Sebastian Banes), as their son.  Their life couldn’t be more ordinary, more peaceful:  Chip is obsessed with dragons and talks too much, Joey works long hours and always drinks a beer before bed and Cody passionately runs his classroom like clockwork.  They hang out with friends and family, who range from wholeheartedly to awkwardly accepting of this happy little family unit.  They talk.  They laugh.  All is well.  But then Cody dies in a car crash, and Joey is suddenly thrust into a situation where he has no legal standing to keep his son and the only testament left behind is from just after Chip was born and before Cody got together with Joey where Cody left everything (the house, Chip) to his sister Eileen (Kelly McAndrew).  Suddenly, in a fit of confusion and poor communication, the sister takes Chip, there’s a restraining order, and Joey’s world comes crashing in on him.

Sounds melodramatic, right?  Sounds like the perfect story for a filmmaker to get on a soapbox, right?  Sounds like someone’s going to take a stand…draw a clear line in the sand, right?  WRONG.  Great care is taken, and great restraint is shown.  Continue reading

Red State

I do not come in peace.

“People do strange things when they believe they’re entitled, but they do the strangest things when they just plain believe.”

As a man best know for his blue comedies and ear for hipster geek dialogue, nobody would’ve ever accused writer/director Kevin Smith of profundity.  Over the years Smith has been at his best when he’s fiercely independent (Clerks, Clerks II, Chasing Amy) or when he’s courting controversy (Dogma).  The rest of his cannon has been fairly forgettable.  Yet here with Red State, an independent and doggedly controversial film that has escaped mainstream release and instead premiered on-demand (after a few key one-off preview screening events), Smith has performed one of the strangest about-faces in modern film.  It’s a mish-mash of genres – part psychological thriller, part horror film, part satire – and though unnervingly uneven, by many measures its Smith’s most accomplished film.  And best of all – love it or hate it – it’s a film worth talking about. Continue reading

Spotlight on the Independent Arts: Night Catches Us

It’s time again for The Schleicher Spin to put a Spotlight on the Independent Arts.  

The goal of this recurring feature is to give exposure to, encourage collaboration with, and provide honest critiques for independent artists.  The plan is to feature filmmakers, writers, photographers, painters and musicians.  As an independent author, I feel it’s important to support and celebrate those working independently to forge their careers in the arts.   

If you are an independent artist interested in having your film, book, music or art considered by The Schleicher Spin for a Spotlight feature, please submit a comment. 

Our current entry will focus on the independent Philly-based film, Night Catches Us, currently available on DVD. 

Night Catches Us

Independent FilmNight Catches Us

The Lowdown:  A former Black Panther (Anthony Mackie) returns to his Philadelphia neighborhood in 1976 to reconnect with the widow (Kerry Washington) of his friend who was gunned down by police four years earlier.

The Direction:  Tanya Hamilton has a good photographer’s eye.  Her shots are nicely framed, and her camera movement either slow or static, allowing us to take in all that is in frame…her nicely appointed Philly neighborhoods, well dressed cast and period details.  There are a few flourishes (including an animated sequence) and one great scene shot from the eye view of a crouching man trying to evade police where every detail (including fresh lawn clippings and overhanging tree limbs) lingers in the shot. Continue reading

The Disappearance of Alice Creed

Gemma Arterton is Alice Creed.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed opens with a point-by-point look at two men (a menacing Eddie Marsan and a bewildered Martin Compston) preparing for the kidnapping of our titular anti-heroine (former Bond girl Gemma Arterton).  Writer/director J. Blakeson builds the tension confidently with well shot, well scored scenes that lull the audience into believing these men are so meticulous and organized, whatever it is they are about to do, they’re going to pull it off brilliantly.  They just have to.  Oh, but when you mix in human emotions, things couldn’t go more astray.

We’ve seen these kidnap flicks before, and we know something always goes horribly awry.  Blakeson knows he’s going to have to keep us on our toes, and he does so with some gravely intimate moments while falling back on old-fashioned melodrama.  Continue reading

Killing Kin in the Ozarks

Writer/director Debra Granik opens her quietly stunning Winter’s Bone with a shot of a ramshackle little house nestled in the Ozarks that immediately sets the place and the mood.  A strum of a banjo and a woman’s heartbroken and warbling voice accompany the shot, which is followed by scenes of seemingly happy children playing in their yard.  This is their home.  And they don’t want to leave it — no way, no how.

Seventeen year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, in an assured and definitive performance that will likely haunt what should rightfully be a long and flourishing career) is the accidental matriarch of this clan of kids.  Momma is hopped-up on pills to the point of being mute and helpless.  Meanwhile, the law is about to take this home out from under them if Ree’s deadbeat, crank-cookin’ poppa don’t show up at court for his hearing.  Thus begins Ree’s quest to find daddy come hell or high water.  Continue reading

Spotlight on the Independent Arts: Uptown

***This is the third post in a new feature I plan to showcase here at The Schleicher Spin called Spotlight on the Independent Arts.  

The goal is to give exposure to, encourage collaboration with, and provide honest critiques for independent artists.  I hope to feature filmmakers, writers, photographers, painters and musicians.  As an independent author, I feel it’s important to support and celebrate those working independently to forge their careers in the arts.   

If you are an independent artist interested in having your film, book, music or art considered by The Schleicher Spin for a Spotlight feature, please submit a comment. 

The third entry will focus on the true indie flick, Uptown

Chris Riqhuina and Meissa Hampton star in UPTOWN.

Independent Film:  Uptown

The Lowdown:  An aspiring filmmaker (Chris Riquinha) goes on a date with a young woman (Meissa Hampton) he hopes to cast in his new film only to find out that she is married, a startling fact he doesn’t let get in the way of making an emotional connection. Continue reading