Category Archives: Indie film directors

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

Boyhood is one of the most impressive films in the career of Richard Linklater, a director known for making innovative and captivating independent films -e.g. the Before Sunrise trilogy, Waking Life and Dazed and Confused, to name just a few.

Most of the publicity around Boyhood comes from its gimmick -the fact that it was filmed over a 12 year period, in which we get to see the characters, especially star Ellar Coltrane, grow older. This certainly adds something to the movie and makes it truly unique. The only films it has been compared to in this regard are the Up series, which follow the lives of characters every 7 years. Those, however, are documentaries, which are a different breed altogether. It is indeed fascinating to watch the protagonist Mason (Coltrane) grow from a 6 year-old to an 18 year-old college student by the end.

Boyhood, however, should ultimately be judged by its merits as a film, not by the method used by the director. And in this regard, it succeeds triumphantly. What I admire most about Linklater’s films is the way he blatantly violates the cliches of formula filmmaking and nevertheless manages to end up with movies that are so much more compelling than the paint-by-the-numbers efforts of his more conventional contemporaries. At the same time, his style is down-to-earth and doesn’t make you feel like you’re watching a performance piece that’s being clever and artistic just for the sake of it.

For this reason, a film like Boyhood ends up being far more interesting that it sounds like from the description -which is the exact opposite of most movies. A kid grows up; his parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) split up; his mother makes some questionable choices for replacement fathers; Mason dates a girl who ends up disappointing him…none of this is very noteworthy on the surface. Yet, with Linklater’s script and direction, there is scarcely a moment that’s not fascinating.

Boyhood has some of the philosophical, somewhat trippy dialogue found in other Linklater films, especially Slacker and Waking Life. Characters manage to convey intelligent and existentialist mindsets without coming off like people in a 1960s French New Wave film (not that there’s anything wrong with that -just that it could come across as pretentious and unlikely when the setting is 21st century America).

Creating dialogue-centered movies without having them sound like stage plays is a skill Linkater has perfected. In the Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight series, he avoids this (mostly; the final entry does get a little melodramatic towards the end) by the diverse settings. In Boyhood, there are similarly a multitude of settings, from backyards to wooded areas to the colorful streets of Austin.

Boyhood is a major cinematic achievement, both for the way it was created and, more importantly, the final result.

Blue Jasmine Review

In Blue Jasmine (2013), Woody Allen recovers a little of the brilliance his films from the 70s and 80s displayed, while at the same time reminding us that his outlook is dated. Cate Blanchett, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2014 for her role as Jasmine, is what really turns an interesting idea into a truly compelling movie.

Many reviewers have focused on how heavily Blue Jasmine borrows from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Indeed, the film follows the basic trajectory of that play quite closely, though changing the setting and dates. This is especially apparent when you consider that Cate Blanchett actually starred in a version of A Streetcar Named Desire only several years ago.

As the film opens, Jasmine is a formerly wealthy New Yorker who is forced to move in with her far less affluent half sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. As we meet Jasmine, she is the picture of decayed elegance as she mutters her life story to a stranger on the plane. Jasmine is alternately condescending and pathetic as she is forced to accept charity from someone she clearly feels is beneath her.

Much of the film consists of flashbacks that reveal Jasmine’s life with her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), a wealthy but corrupt financier who is eventually arrested. Not only has Hal ruined Jasmine’s life, he has also wreaked havoc on Ginger and her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) by getting them to invest in a crooked real estate scheme that bankrupts them.

While Blanchett’s performance, along with all of the other characters is brilliant, it’s hard to overlook some of the ways that Woody Allen is out touch. At the time Jasmine and Ginger meet up, Ginger is living in what is apparently the last non-gentrified block in the city of San Francisco. She is raising two boys and working as a stock clerk in a grocery store.

These details illustrate how Woody Allen does not understand how the other half lives. At a time when even white collar workers must share housing in cities like San Francisco, Allen’s notion of poverty is having Ginger inhabit a spacious, bohemian chic apartment that she and her boys have all to themselves (at least until Jasmine shows up).

On a similar note, Jasmine laments how she was forced to move out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn after her husband’s empire collapsed. Allen, as usual, is still living in the 80s, when Brooklyn was still considered a remote “bridge and tunnel” borough that only housed the less fortunate (at least from the insular Upper East Side-centric view of Allen).

Still another example of cultural myopia occurs when Jasmine takes computer classes so she’ll be able to study for an online interior decorating degree. This is, admittedly, a rather minor plot point, but we are supposed to believe that a sophisticated forty-something woman from New York City doesn’t know how to use the internet in the 21st century. This is more a symptom of someone from Allen’s generation rather than Jasmine/Blanchett’s.

The blue collar characters who revolve around Ginger are all borderline anachronistic stereotypes. Fortunately, the actors who play them succeed in making them actual human beings. Andrew Dice Clay, never especially funny as a self-consciously un-PC standup comic in the 80s, has just the right blend of menace and pathos to play Augie, a contractor who allowed himself to be swindled by Hal in a weak moment.

By the time Jasmine arrives, Ginger has begun dating another unstable blue collar type, played by Bobby Cannavale, a possessive, hard-drinking type prone to fits of weeping. As if this wasn’t enough, Ginger has yet a third suitor, played by another (more popular and successful) standup comic, Louis C.K., who infuses his character with just the right amount of nuance.

Jasmine, for her part, is also not lacking in admirers. First, an overly amorous dentist who she works for and then, more promisingly, a suave diplomat who she promptly lies to about her past, which everyone but she can see can only lead to disaster.

Blue Jasmine is certainly not an uplifting film, which is not surprising coming from Allen, who has been more influenced by European cinema than the feel-good Hollywood rom-com tradition. This film, however, doesn’t provide the kind of comic relief that, in many of his earlier works, balanced out the dark existentialism and nihilism. Jasmine is presented as a tragic and irredeemable character who is doomed to live in a world of self-delusion. The film, as much as any other Allen has directed, reveals the director’s cynical view of human nature, one that recalls the ancient Greek truism that “character is destiny.”


Rubberneck: Workplace Stalker

Rubberneck (2012)

Director: Alex Karpovsky

In Rubberneck, director Alex Karpovsky also stars as Paul, in the familiar movie role of an obsessed stalker. Yet the film is sufficiently subdued and character driven that it manages to be more engaging than the typical entry in this genre.

Paul has a brief fling with co-worker Danielle (Jaime Ray Newman). After a weekend together, however, Danielle is clearly tired of Paul, who remains willfully ignorant of her disinterest. Rather than having Paul immediately transform into the psychotic stalker, however, Rubberneck gives us a series of painful and awkward moments as Paul loses control.

Rubberneck is one of those rare films that is actually better than the description makes it sound. Aside from the stalker cliche, we learn that Paul has abandonment issues regarding his mother. This type of Freudian back story has been used so many times in the last 50 years or so of cinematic history that it has the potential to be painfully familiar. Yet here it actually seems fresh and believable. Karpovsky comes across like a real person rather than a foaming-at-the-mouth psycho. Although his nerdy, repressed character is never quite sympathetic, he is at least believable and human.

Part of Rubberneck’s authenticity comes from the focus of the workplace environment. Paul, Danielle and a dozen or so other people work in a claustrophobic lab that conducts tests on guinea pigs. Karpovsky (as director) does an admirable job at capturing the low key, everyday interactions that seem trivial but carry potent emotional undercurrents. For example, we see Paul trying to appear casual as he watches Danielle flirt with another co-worker. We can sense his inner turmoil, but Karpovsky (the actor) doesn’t overplay this. He never quite loses control -until he does.

Rubberneck is a small, indie film and is not exactly momentous or groundbreaking. Yet it’s a fascinating and fresh look at a subject that most movies reduce to near parody.

Alex Karpovsky has been busy with interesting, low key indie films in the last few years, in the role of actor and/or director. I also enjoyed his performance in Supporting Characters, an inside look at the making of a film.

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    Frances Ha: Woody Allen For the New Generation?

    Frances Ha (2012)
    Director: Noah Baumbach

    Frances Ha, the latest film from director Noah Baumbach, whose earlier films include Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg, can be seen as a revisiting of territory made familiar by Woody Allen decades ago.

    The fact that Frances Ha was shot in black and white and explores the lives of young and artsy New Yorkers makes the Woody Allen comparison inevitable. Yet this and other Baumbach films also show other influences, such as Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan and even perhaps Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. The latter might seem a stretch, but in that iconic indie film from 1983, Jarmusch portrays aimless pre-hipsters in Brooklyn who, among other things, engage in cryptic conversations and have the tendency to take pointless journeys. Stranger Than Paradise was also a black and white film, and even has a character who wears the kind of hat common in today’s hipsters (who no doubt all saw that film).

    None of this is meant to imply that Frances Ha is merely a derivative work or one that simply retreads familiar territory. Like Quentin Tarrantino (a very different sort of filmmaker overall), Baumbach has the gift of being able to present familiar themes in a manner that is completely refreshing and entertaining. Frances Ha is no exception. This film was co-written by Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig, who plays Frances.

    It’s a little difficult to describe the plot of Frances Ha, as it’s mainly a series of scenes and montages. Some have identified it as a look at close female friendships, and how they can almost border on romance. At one point, Frances says to her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), “We’re like an old lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex.” While the relationship between the two twenty-something women takes up a lot of screen time, the film is really broader in scope. It’s an exploration of a contemporary bohemian lifestyle that must come to terms with economic hardships.

    Frances, unlike some of her friends and roommates, is struggling to support herself as a dancer. At one point she moves in with a pair of well-off kids who say things like, “We’re thinking of hiring a maid; it only costs $400 a month.” Yet, even though she has trouble paying her rent, she stubbornly refuses to take a receptionist job at the dance studio where she teaches part time because it’s not in line with her creative aspirations.

    Frances Ha will annoy some people, because there is no effort to make the protagonist or her friends universally likable or accessible. In fact, if you are not young, hip, educated and/or urban, you may find these characters as alien as members of a tribe on a continent you’ve only seen on the Discovery Channel. In this manner, Baumbach follows in the footsteps of Woody Allen, whose Upper East Side elitist professionals were never meant to be representative of America at large.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed all of Baumbach’s films, and Frances Ha is no exception. They are driven by characters who, while not always rational or likable, are complex enough to be believable. While some of the dialogue seems slightly over-the-top in its self-consciousness (you might catch a whiff of Portlandia here as well), some people actually do talk this way. Frances herself, however, does not come across as pretentious or overly hip; she is more the product of a certain milieu that compels certain ways of talking and thinking.

    Unlike many other indie films that wallow in quirkiness, Frances Ha does not go overboard trying to convince you that its characters are adorable. If you end up liking Frances, its because you accept her as a person who somehow transcends stereotypes.

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      Jeff, Who Lives at Home

      Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011) is another in what has become a popular genre in both mainstream and independent movies -grown men who literally live in their mother’s basement. In fact, the directors of this film, Jay and Mark Duplass have already covered this territory in one of their prior films, Cyrus. Fortunately, they manage to create original and compelling characters in both films and go beyond the mere slapstick and vulgar humor of Hollywood versions of man-boys, such as Stepbrothers.

      Jeff, Who Lives at Home may not even be the ideal title for this movie, as it’s more about coincidences and synchronicities (another popular topic in movies) than about an adult still living at home. This is made explicit right from the first scene as Jeff (Jason Segel) raves about how much he loves the movie Signs.

      Jeff, of course, lives his entire, apparently aimless life following signs. The entire film takes place in a single day as Jeff follows one “sign” after another. It all starts with a wrong number where someone asks for “Kevin.” This leads to Jeff getting mugged, intervening in his brother Pat’s (Ed Helms) marital problems and eventually playing a crucial role in a life-and-death situation.

      Susan Sarandon also has a role as Jeff and Pat’s mother who is dealing with an existential crisis of her own that parallels her sons’ situations.

      I have some fascination with signs (though I’m not a big Shyamalan fan, at least post Sixth Sense), so I mostly enjoyed this offbeat and often funny look at someone who follows them with a passion. On the other hand, Jeff, Who Lives at Home definitely tests our credibility as it wraps everything up in an unbelievable, almost TV movie type manner.

      All in all, however, I appreciated the questions posed by Jeff, Who Lives at Home and enjoyed the performances and the quirkiness it displayed for most of the journey. It’s a short film, less than 90 minutes but the length feels about right.

      I think a more ambiguous ending would have been more appropriate, as in real life signs (at least metaphorical ones) seldom point things out in a manner as concrete as this movie suggests.

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        Entrance

        Entrance (2012), directed by Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath is an interesting and extremely minimalistic indie film. In fact, the movie is only 84 minutes long, and hardly anything happens the first hour.

        Entrance is about the quietly unfulfilling life of a single young woman (Suziey Block) in Los Angeles. She lives in the trendy Silverlake neighborhood, has a roommate and must walk to her job at a coffee house when her car breaks down.

        It’s difficult to say too much about the plot without giving away crucial details. Suffice it to say that the film is effective about building a very gradual sense of foreboding. This builds to a climax that turns it into a more traditional type of genre film and in this sense it was a bit of a disappointment.

        I have a higher than average tolerance for very slow moving films that focus on mood, character and atmosphere. Yet Entrance still tested my patience as it crept along at a snail’s pace for the first hour. I think the payoff could have been handled with a little more originality, as what emerged was a rather cliched villain whose type can be found in thousands of low budget films and TV shows.

        Still, I admire the way the directors were willing to take their time and emphasize the everyday life of the characters. I wouldn’t be surprised if their next film is more impressive overall.

        Entrance on IMDB

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          The Future -Written and Directed by Miranda July

          The Future is the second feature film directed by Miranda July, best known for Me and You and Everybody We Know (2005). While the latter was a popular and well received indie film, The Future is even more offbeat and challenging to mainstream viewers. Nevertheless, it’s well worth watching if you can appreciate movies that are non-linear and that cross boundaries when it comes to genre.

          The Future is kind of hybrid drama, comedy and fantasy. You know it’s going to be something offbeat when it starts off being narrated by a cat. This cat, who is ill and may not live much longer, is scheduled to be adopted by Jason and Sophie, a couple in their thirties who are somewhere in between hipsters and slackers.

          There’s not too much of a plot here. Fans of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984) may appreciate the scenes of apparently pointless dialog and inaction -though the style of this film is quite different overall. I actually admire movies like this one and Stranger Than Paradise, though, where the characters are allowed to exist in a state of existentialist aimlessness.

          Both Jason and Sophie quit their jobs. Sophie drifts into an affair with an older man for no apparent reason. Jason meanwhile, begins volunteering for an environmentalist group that makes him go door to door selling trees. There’s a kind of randomness to it all. At the same time, like Me and You and Everyone We Know, there’s an underlying theme  of how important and yet tenuous connections between people are in today’s world.

          To make things more complicated and bizarre, Jason apparently has the ability to stop time. This is where the fantasy or paranormal enters into the mix, and where some viewers might lose patience. For there’s no real attempt to weave this into the story in a logical manner.

          If you watch this film on Netflix, as I did, I suggest you don’t even bother to read the customer reviews. Netflix viewers are notoriously mainstream and conservative, and have little patience for oddball indie movies. They will mercilessly savage any script that dares thumb its nose at cinematic conventions (not all the reviewers, to be fair, but a sizable percentage).

          Overall, The Future succeeds at doing something that the better quirky offbeat films manage to do -get you to take a step back from ordinary life and society and realize that the normal and everyday aren’t necessarily all there is and that there may be other, more interesting alternatives.

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            Martha Marcy May Marlene

            The title of this film refers to the identity crisis suffered by a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who has recently escaped from a cult. The film switches back and forth between the past and present, as Martha (her real name) comes to live with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Lucy and Martha have been somewhat estranged, for reasons never spelled out (much in this enigmatic film is left unstated), making their reunion especially awkward.

            Through flashbacks that intrude in an unsettling way into the present, we see that the rural “community” led by a bearded, guitar playing hippie-survivialist-philosopher named Patrick (John Hawkes) is a lot more sinister than it first appears. Martha is having trouble adjusting to the almost painfully normal bourgeois lifestyle of Lucy and Ted. She strips naked to go swimming, and even jumps into the couple’s bed in the middle of the night as they are having sex.

            Martha Marcy May Marlene is a difficult film to summarize, as it’s a combination psychological thriller, character study and social commentary. Actually, it only hints at the latter, and this is where it fails to deliver the intellectual punch that the early scenes promise.

            At first, the juxtapositioning of scenes involving the cult with those taking place in Lucy and Ted’s serene lake house seem to invite a comparison of the two diametrically opposing lifestyles. Martha criticizes the couple’s materialistic ways -the size of their home, their focus on money and career, etc. Yet the film never really goes anywhere with this comparison. Ted and Lucy never really show themselves as anything beyond a archetypically bland middle class couple.

            The cult, meanwhile, quickly degenerates into another kind of stereotype. It’s hardly shocking that Patrick, with his charming yet intimidating personality, brainwashes his recruits into an ascetic, conforming way of life and “initiates” all of the young women sexually -this is, after all, what cult leaders do. Yet, he turns out to be even worse than your run-of-the-mill cult leader, as he leads his flock into grotesque actions reminiscent of the Manson cult.

            From a sociological perspective, the film could even be seen as a critique of anything countercultural. Indeed, some conspiracy theorists imagine that Charles Manson was “created” to discredit the hippie movement. Not likely, but nevertheless, the way this film depicts a group of people who are attempting to live an alternative lifestyle, it makes even the most mundane middle class existence seem the epitome of sanity by comparison. Yet, I don’t think writer-director Sean Durkin was actually aiming for a Message with this film -which is, in a way, unfortunate, considering all of the interesting variables it introduces.

            If I was slightly disappointed by Martha Marcy May Marlene, it’s only because it promises to cover some truly original and profound territory, and then turns out to be little more than a thriller, albeit a subtle and very well acted one. Elizabeth Olsen is utterly convincing as a cult victim, with her affectless stare that’s occasionally interrupted by outbursts of rage. The other noteworthy performance is that of John Hawkes, who can’t be faulted if his role was written a little over-the-top. He was also outstanding in another impressive indie film, Winter’s Bone.

            Martha Marcy May Marlene has been described as an investigation into the slippery nature of identity. In that way, it’s more of an existentialist than sociological tale. The vagueness that’s sometimes annoying (so many details about the past -such as anything that happened to Martha pre-cult- are left out) can be seen as part of the film’s overall theme. It’s not giving anything away to say that the ending is frustratingly ambiguous.

            Overall, Martha Marcy May Marlene is an extremely impressive debut for both writer-director Sean Durkin and for Elizabeth Olsen.

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              Indie Film Director Profile -John Sayles

              A recent interview with veteran indie film director John Sayles prompted us to take a closer look at his fascinating career. The interview, by the way, is about his forthcoming film Amigo, about the little known Philippine-American war.

              His film debut was Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), about a group of friends reminiscing about getting arrest at a 1960s protest years ago. This film was a precursor to The Big Chill and a few other movies about characters who might be labeled yuppies waxing nostalgic about their fading youth. While this description may sound uncharitable, it’s actually a quite compelling film. It’s a good example of a character/dialogue driven story done on a low budget.

              Sayles has directed a total of 16 films -Amigo will be #17, and we won’t describe each one. However, one of his quirkier ones (for a director who specializes in a type of quirkiness) is Brother From Another Planet (1984). Joe Morton plays the “Brother,” a black man from another planet who wanders around the earth, unable to communicate verbally with people, but still able to interact meaningfully with those whose paths he crosses.

              In The Secret of Roan Innish (1994), Sayles explores the rich world of Celtic mythology. The setting is the seaside Irish county of Donegal and the film explores the legend of the Selkie -a creature who is half human and half seal. This theme, incidentally, was explored more recently in a lesser known film called Ondine (2009), although in this case it’s not clear until the end whether the woman who’s suspected of being a selkie really is one, or if she’s a human with another type of secret.

              These are just a few highlights in the career of esteemed indie film director John Sayles.

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