August 2018 Indie Movie Digest

Well, here we are again, Volume 2, as it were, giving you a rundown on all the least relevant movies on your radar. Yet Volume 2 might also be the last volume, now that MoviePass has finally wised up – somewhat – and limited me to just three movies a month before the $2 discount comes into effect. Meaning, I’m going to have to be much more selective about what I see if I want to feed my cat. So, in any case, here’s some of the lower-budgeted fare from last month.

Eighth Grade – I’ve never really been big on Bo Burnham. At least from what stand-up of his I’ve seen and the few film appearances he’s made over the years. That said, he straight up knocks it out of the park here. Say what you will about the megalomania of directing the film that you wrote – total poppycock, by the way – Burnham nevertheless follows his profound yet simple vision through to the end as it taps into a seemingly forgotten coming-of-age zeitgeist that is the middle school environment, and just how much it plain sucks. In Eighth Grade, Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is a loner who spends most of her time in her room filming self-help YouTube videos preaching the importance of confidence and being yourself in the effort of making friends. If only she could take her own advice, as she finds herself day in and day out floundering about and making a fool of herself, her social anxiety prohibiting her to act natural. While others revel in the end of eighth grade being just a week away, Kayla dreads the fact that the even scarier high school looms around the corner. Constantly being shoved out of her shell by her well-meaning but clueless dad Mark (Josh Hamilton), Kayla will have no choice but to bite her lip and make an effort to become the person she wishes she could be before she undergoes the most drastic transition period in her life thus far. That may not be the most cinematic description of this film, but there’s something so inherently relatable about Kayla’s plight that registers a deep sense of empathy in the viewer. And while a film skewing closer to real life than fiction may not be wholly enticing to some, there’s something about such stark realism in films like this and Boyhood for instance that makes all these story beats seem so seamless. A lot of comedies will use the “awkward” scenario perfunctorily and often clunkily to cover up a lack of creativity, but Eight Grade uses it to fantastic effect here, it being ten times more organic. And though a lot of these merits can be attributed to Burnham, it’s really Fisher who shines here in the central role, giving an endearing performance and likely the best you’ll see this year from someone her age.

Final Score: 9/10

BlacKkKlansman – Just for the record: uppercase K, lowercase, and then an uppercase. Three K’s total, obviously. Okay? Cool, moving on. Now, to my chagrin, I haven’t actually seen a whole lot of Spike Lee movies. At least not the ones that count, like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. My area of expertise is limited to his more recent outings in the form of Chi-Raq and his Oldboy remake, the former timely but unrestrained and the latter just flat-out unnecessary. Yet I know enough of his career trajectory to echo others’ sentiment in that BlacKkKlansman is his most focused and effective film in years. It tells the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American officer and detective in the Colorado Springs police department, who in the 1970s takes it upon himself to infiltrate that city’s branch of the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to quell their tension with a local, collegiate black student union. Of course, Stallworth’s contact with them can only extend so far as phone calls, so he enlists the help of fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to portray him in the face-to-face meetings. As the two “Stallworth brothers” uncover a plot to attack the union, particularly the president and Ron’s girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier), they must avoid detection from the Klan’s more suspicious members if they want to bring down their bigoted brand of tyranny. Now, the film has the advantage of actually being based on true events, giving it the credibility to intrigue based on premise alone more than any other crime film you’ll see this year. But kudos go to Lee by being able to give it the cinematic heft and tension that’ll serve to please a wide range of audiences. That said, Spike Lee never really made a movie that didn’t simultaneously serve as some kind of statement, and viewers won’t be apt to miss that provided they stick around to the end. I won’t go into how Lee goes about doing that, as it’s pretty unabashedly shocking, but regardless of the ending the film as a whole does more than enough to serve as a commentary of present day race relations, giving people plenty to think about as they walk out of the theatre. Though it is Lee’s film through and through, commendations are in order for former football player and son of Denzel, John David Washington, who though sticking mainly to a caricature is so endearing here as an actor and sure to have plenty of high profile roles to come.

Final Score: 9/10

Skate Kitchen – As far as sports movies are concerned – and I wouldn’t necessarily say this is a sports movie – there’s usually at least one or two definitive takes per sport. Skateboarding, on the other hand, not so much. Yeah, there have been some, like Grind, but the only one that really goes above and beyond is the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. Well, here comes Skate Kitchen, which, even though it’s more of a coming-of-age teen drama than a sports film, is nevertheless able to capture the ethos and culture of its subject with a kind of adolescent profundity. Here, teenaged Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) is forbidden from skateboarding by her mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) after suffering a nasty accident that could have been much worse. Yet Camille does so anyway, escaping her Long Island existence to the big city, where she meets a clique of similarly aged female skateboarders who take her in as one of their own. However, as she simultaneously strikes up a friendship with one of the rival boy skaters and ex-boyfriend of one of her friends Devon (Jaden Smith), Camille suddenly finds herself treading some teenage tension as she’s left to question who her friends really are. This is a character-driven story, one without a whole lot of manufactured plot that really finds its stride through the natural performances given by its young cast. They’re so grounded and everyday that never once did it feel like any of it was scripted. At the end of the day, Skate Kitchen is merely a really good slice-of-life film that really demonstrates how epic-scale you can make your low-budget project feel with just a handful of talented actors and some well rehearsed teenage drama.

Final Score: 8/10

Papillon – Some people say Charlie Hunnam gets a bad rap, getting projects that had zero chance of getting off the ground like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Well, I say he gets a perfectly fine rap, for even when he’s in a kick-ass movie, like Pacific Rim, Mr. Charisma himself is always the worst thing about it. Granted, no, I haven’t seen Sons of Anarchy, but it just seems that no matter what accent he’s doing, the spoken word just isn’t meant for him. Well, at least he’s doing something different here with Papillon, the remake of the 1973 film of the same name, in which he stars as Henri “Papillon” Charriére, a French safecracker who, after skimping some of the score for himself, is framed for murder by his boss and subsequently imprisoned. He is shipped off to a penal colony known as Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana in South America. On the way he meets millionaire Louis Dega (Rami Malek), who has been convicted of counterfeiting. Once on the island, the two strike up a deal whereby the muscle-bound Papillon protects Dega, in exchange for Dega financing Papillon’s escape plan. However, as the threats of other inmates and corrupt guards looms larger than expected, Dega finds himself begrudgingly itching to escape as well. Though none have done so before, the two felons are determined not to spend their lives here, as their unlikely friendship looks to attain freedom by any means. Based on a true story, Papillon is a pretty spectacular and technically brilliant tale of human survival. Hats off especially to cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, who is deftly able to capture the natural beauty of the landscape that surrounds them. As far as Hunnam’s performance goes here, it’s easily one of his most passable, but unfortunately that can be attributed to where the film goes wrong. Though much of the proceedings rest upon Papillon and Dega’s relationship proving stronger than any physical fortitudes the prison can impose on them, never really do we get a good sense of who each individual is as a person, or how they grow through conflict. The film shows you the destination, of course, but aside from them just surviving, nothing is really done in the way of character development, and so when the film wants to cash in with an emotional beat, it feels wholly unearned and void. Regardless, it’s a well made movie that’s thoroughly engaging despite its runtime, and I would’ve walked away glad having seen it anyway, until a clunky and unnecessary epilogue left a bad taste in my mouth. Though certainly not Hunnam’s worst turn, don’t go in expecting it to be The Shawshank Redemption.

Final Score: 5/10

The Little Stranger – In 2015, Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson gained prominence for a little film called Room, which would go on to garner an Oscar nomination for himself for Best Director among other awards.  It was a pretty visceral experience, despite it only taking place in the titular “Room.” While many credit eventual Oscar winner Brie Larson for that, equal praise was heaped upon Abrahamson as well, particularly his ability to make a small story feel big. Well, looks like he’s back to his old tricks here with The Little Stranger, as so often does the camera deliberately linger just barely out of focus. Similarly, this project is adapted from a preexisting novel, though the film is unfortunately anything but novel. It’s all well and good, Abrahamson still a talented capturer of mood, but modern audiences may feel that this exercise in gothic horror is a bit too antiquated to really deliver. Set in 1947, The Little Stranger follows Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) as he goes on a house call for young, disfigured war veteran Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter), the owner of the estate known as Hundreds Hall. Having visited there as a boy, Faraday immediately links the Hall with his childhood, as it evokes a hidden admiration he’d then manifested for it. This sees him returning more and more often, as he also strikes up an acquaintanceship with Roderick’s sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson). Purporting the Hall to be haunted, Roderick persists that Faraday stay away, but that same something that allured Faraday so much so many years ago is still drawing him in. Technically speaking, this is a horror movie, just going by the plot, but the way it churns and gestates is something much more akin to a period drama. I got about the same experience I’d get if I were reading the novelization of the story should it have been written around when it’s set, or perhaps even a hundred years earlier. That’s not to say it’s bad, but just that its antiquated approach is hardly interested in catering to modern horror audiences’ predilections. The story is all there, and it’s backed up by an esteemed cast ready to put in the work, so it’s a little disheartening to learn that The Little Stranger is content with telling a ghost story that hasn’t really adapted to a filmic medium. Still, it’s well made and doesn’t make too many mistakes on the whole, so I give it a passing grade.

Final Score: 6/10

The Wife – It’s the tale as old as time. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy marries girl. Boy takes credit for girl’s artistry because she’s a girl. Girl is mad. Yes, that’s an oversimplification, but it does harken me back to 2014 when Tim Burton released one of his more under-the-radar films called Big Eyes. As opposed to the film in question here, that one was based on a true story rather than a book and centered around painting as an art form rather than literature. Still, aside from the plot similarities they’re wholly different movies, as Björn Runge takes a more hand-off approach with The Wife and allows its leading duo do most of the heavy lifting. Which is both a strength and a weakness, as though it could have used a more stylish approach to keep the frames from looking slightly flat, Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce are so good together that the art form featured may as well have been pole dancing and it still would have been just as compelling. In The Wife, esteemed novelist Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) has just been chosen to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Only thing is, he didn’t write any of his books. That honor goes to his wife Joan Castleman (Glenn Close), who has been ghostwriting his work for the past several decades as they began at a time when women were hardly taken seriously in the field. Nevertheless, Joan has been supportive of his false triumphs, and plans to do so again as she travels with him to Stockholm, Sweden to accept the award. However, repressed tensions boil as their upstart literary son David (Max Irons) fallaciously wants nothing more than his father’s approval, and pesky biographer Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) begins to suspect the Castlemans’ arrangement. As Joe’s pomposity and infidelity crescendoes, Joan must reconcile her love for her husband and her own innate self-esteem. On the whole, this isn’t a movie that will challenge many viewers, making it evident whom they should root for and whom they should disdain, but despite that, Close and Pryce are able to breathe nuance into their respective characters to give credence to their resentments and inadequacies. Actually, crescendo is a good word to use when describing this film, because it builds and builds over the course of it just as you feel the strain of their marriage similarly build to this watershed moment in it. It could’ve used a bit more style here, but even minus that The Wife is a thoroughly compelling stage drama put to screen. Expect Glenn Close’s name to pop up come awards season later this year.

Final Score: 8/10

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