Tag Archives: indie

Review: ‘Crown Heights’

dfn-crown-heights-300A unique sound effect buried within the score of Matt Ruskin’s new film Crown Heights is an electronic feedback loop or sort of white noise that permeates the soundtrack, echoing the wall of obfuscation and deafness that befalls Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) as he’s sent away for a murder he didn’t commit. It’s a small detail, but one that provides the film with a strong sense of purpose on just about every level as it weaves a compelling story about justice gone horribly wrong.

Based on a true story, Crown Heights begins in 1980 in a section of Brooklyn reeling from a previous year’s worth of homicides and crime that would literally send parts of the city into crumbling ruins. After a young man is shot, Warner, a local Trinidadian resident, is arrested and ultimately charged for the murder along with another man. Railroaded by the cops and district attorney’s office with a feeble and largely concocted case, Stanfield portrays Warner with a complex performance as a man initially fighting his incarceration, but ultimately giving into his confinement, both mentally and physically.

Most stories end there. However, in Warner’s case, his guardian angel resides in his childhood friend, KC King (Nnamdi Asomugha) and Crown Heights slowly shifts its focus onto King’s resilient fight outside the prison walls. While we do stay somewhat involved with Warner — including his marriage to childhood friend Antoinette (Natalie Paul) and his pursuit of a GED — Crown Heights becomes a dogged pursuit of reclaimed justice, even when the whole world has forgotten and moved on.

King, to the detriment of his own family, spends the next 20 years (yes, 20 years) pounding the pavement, collecting money and falling short with more inept lawyers before he eventually finds a willing partner in William Robedee (played by brilliant character actor Bill Camp). With this determined pair, the wheels of justice move slowly, but at least they’re moving.

If Crown Heights feels cliched in its execution, it’s only because the example of judicial breakdown has repeated itself so many times in American history, and the idea of wrongful imprisonment is continually ripe for cinematic magnification. Filmmakers love to spotlight social injustices, and Colin Warner’s case situates itself perfectly for the big screen.

Ruskin’s film (which he also wrote) succeeds against this cliche because of its magnificent performances and compact visual style that gives clarity to the confusing paper trail of old witnesses and half-remembered revisionist history. I can’t imagine a more damning piece of human frailty then when, confronted by King and another witness, a young man who made up part of his testimony slumps in his chair and mutters, “…. that man is still in there?”

Contrast that with Warner’s repeated mantra of “don’t make this a cell” and Crown Heights becomes more of an interior psychological film about mind over constricting matter than anything else. That Warner (through an Oscar worthy performance by Stanfield) refuses to believe in his box only makes his story that much more heartbreaking once the sunlight of freedom hits his face.

Crown Heights opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, September 1 at several locations, including the Dallas Angelika, AMC Grapevine Mills 30, AMC Parks at Arlington 18 and AMC Mesquite 30.

Review: ‘Goat’

dfn-goat-300College life is hard. The combination between the awkwardness of age and the newly independent and virginal exposure to so many new perceptions, ideas and experiences (plus the vacuum of parental supervision) create a swath of poor choices and follow-the-herd-mentality. And Andrew Neel’s film, Goat based on a memoir by Brad Land, makes one believe college is utter hell. If only the film had more on its mind than rehashing the boring concept that frat houses are petri dishes for unchecked masculinity and torturous hazing.

The virginal character here about to descend in Dante’s collegiate inferno is Brad (Ben Schnetzer), the good looking but soft-spoken younger brother to more handsome and confident Brett (Nick Jonas). The dynamic between the two is quickly established as Brad quietly excuses himself from a roaring party while Brett continues to watch and cheer on two girls making out in an upstairs bedroom. Brad is even too embarrassed to pursue his muffled affection for Leah (Virginia Gardner) whose also at the party.

While walking to his car, Brad is talked into giving a ride for a shadowy figure outside the party, and the single passenger soon turns into two and Brad experiences a not-so-good-goodbye on the summer eve of his college experience.

Trying to put all that behind him, Brad enters the same university as Brett who coolly persuades him to try out his fraternity. There is genuine comradeship between the brothers, and as the hazing ritual continues over a week long period, Goat unflinchingly documents the series of abuse- both verbal and physical- that the group of pledges endures. Like a mafia family, the fraternity is especially insidious about how they recruit the pledges, exposing them to glorious parties and tight kinship before flipping the switch and becoming abusive, uncompromising gunny sergeants.

While the characters on both sides (both pledge and veteran frat boy) are mostly drawn in cliched outlines, the real tension that I think Goat hints at is the relationship between Brad and Brett. Knowing the recent trauma inflicted upon Brad, how long will older brother allow the abuse to go on? How long will Brad continue to simmer before he strikes back?

I say I think to all this because Goat straddles so many ideas, yet it never fully commits or comments on any of them. Recent documentaries such as Kirby Dick’s incendiary The Hunting Ground and countless ESPN “Outside the Lines” features have done a tremendous job of peeling back the carnivorous layers of abuse and entitlement that seem to pervade college campuses. Goat seems content enough to draw the line between frat house meatheads and pledges without giving either side real heart, emotions or drive, which is uniquely surprising since its written by indie auteur writer/director David Gordon Green (All the Pretty Girls, Pineapple Express) who normally imbues his projects with a sense of Southern trash poetry and striking teen angst. There’s neither of that here.

The most interesting aspect of the film lies in the cameo of James Franco. Rest assured, despite whatever the film’s marketing and trailer want one to believe, he’s in it for about 2 minutes, yet his role as Mitch is a fascinating anecdote. As a graduated thirty-something ex-member of the frat, he shows up to one of its parties in the hopes of talking the pledges into joining. Fresh off work in his mechanic hemmed shirt, he’s persuaded to stay and drink longer than he wants, alluding that he must get home to his wife and new baby. He ends up staying all night and passing out on the couch.

Cut from the same cloth as all the other aggressive, liquor-swilling guys in the frat, he’s the embodiment of 95% of their futures. Yet, for that one night, he’s willing to fall back into the faded and beer-stained glory of yesteryear because they empower him. I’d rather see a full length drama about this guy any day over the cadre of good-looking and empty physical specimens the film chooses instead. For a two minute cameo, that certainly doesn’t bode well for the other 94 minutes of film time.

Goat opens on Friday, September 23 at the Dallas Angelika.


Review: ‘Krisha’

dfn-krisha_poster-300From the opening scene of Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha, things are locked on ‘slight haywire’ from the get-go. In one unbroken steadicam shot following her dutifully from behind, the title character Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) finally frees her half caught skirt from under the door of her truck and wanders the neighborhood trying to locate the right address to her destination, trudging through the neighbor’s yard and stepping in a mud puddle before staggering to the right door where she receives her warm welcome inside.

From that skittish prologue, the film’s title card sprays across the screen in bright red with ominous shrieks from the film’s equally unsettling soundtrack. It’s a subtle nudge that we’re about to witness something more akin to a psychological horror rather than a routine family drama. And that’s exactly what we get with Shults’s Krisha, an invigorating and assured debut feature that’s been gaining traction since bowing at South By Southwest last year.

Once (un)comfortably inside the proper home, the film slowly allows tidbits of information to spill out about Krisha and her estranged family over the course of a long Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Her early twenties-aged son, Trey (played by the director himself), noticeably goes out of his way to avoid his mother, spending time arm wrestling with his cousins, playing video games or tackle football in the backyard. Krisha’s own feeble attempts at communication with him consistently fail.

Krisha’s sister, Robyn (Robyn Fairchild), does her best to deflect the growing instability in her home by assigning Krisha a host of cooking duties, which she does, happily, while also slipping away to partake in a slapdash of pills and red wine stored in her luggage. Hinting at ancient indiscretions of drug abuse and mental trouble, Krisha tries to balance her past and present in this maelstrom of holiday cheer where everyone is putting on a good face.

On the periphery of the family drama is a variety of people, old and young, including Robyn’s husband Doyle (played to rollicking perfection by Bill Wise), new mother Olivia (Olivia Applegate) and grandmother Billie Fairchild. As a sort of silent Greek chorus on the weekend’s events, they (along with the audience) watch as the tension, resentment and emotional violence leads to a slow crescendo.

Cast with a majority of his own real family and filmed in the actual Texas home of his parents, it’s hard not to simply be wrapped up in the giddy ‘homeslice’ appeal of Krisha. Listening to actor Bill Wise – as uncle Doyle – wax rhapsodic on the patio will ring true to many native Texans’ fond memories of a distant relative with too much booze on his breath and too many ideas on his mind. Yet, outside of that, Krisha could have been filmed anywhere because its blunt force trauma of eroding passivity over the course of a joyous holiday weekend is so familiar.

As the title character, the word “blunt force” can also be applied to Krisha Fairchild’s performance. Intense eyes, wrinkles of age covering her face and wiry white hair that seems to get more and more uncontrollable as the film goes along, she reminded me of Gena Rowland’s brilliantly unhinged performance in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Fitting, perhaps, since Krisha won the John Cassavetes award at this year’s Independent Spirit Awards, which is given to the chosen best film made for under $500,000. Both films reveal a woman deteriorating in front of their families despite their best intentions. It’s an award that often signifies a startling new talent, and Trey Edward Shults and Krisha certainly excite me for his future endeavors.

Krisha opens on Friday, March 25 at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano.

Review: ‘Jimmy’s Hall’

'Jimmy's Hall'
‘Jimmy’s Hall’
Not including television work and documentaries, Ken Loach’s new film, titled Jimmy’s Hall, is his twenty-first.

Screenwriter Paul Laverty has worked with Loach and written twelve of them. Saying this, one could easily decry the collaborative team as being placid or unadventurous in their choices. It’s just not so. Their 2006 film, The Wind That Shakes The Barley (Loach’s sixteenth film by the way) not only won the coveted Palme d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, but it’s his unapproachable masterpiece. In a career spent depicting the kitchen-sink realism of its working class individuals or the tumultuous forces that have given birth to so many of the United Kingdom’s ideals and formative struggles, Loach hasn’t given up yet. And Jimmy’s Hall proves that.

Beginning in 1932 and a mere ten years after the end of a violent civil war between Pro-British treaty supporters and nationalist forces, exiled Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) returns home to a divided Ireland. Initially running from his homeland to America after members of the community leveled accusations of communism at him, his only sin seemed to be the organization of a community hall where more progressive minds gathered to teach dance, art and discuss local ownership of the farms and houses.

Simpy wanting to resume his life with aging mother (a wonderfully realized performance from amateur actress Eileen Henry) and friends such as Oona (Simone Kirby), Mossie (Francis Magee) and Finn (Shane O’Brien), Jimmy soon becomes embroiled in a conflict with the old regime, first led by local priest Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) and then followed by British loyalist Dennis (Brian O’Byrne), who won’t allow Jimmy those subtle pleasures due to his past associations.

Things get even more heated when the youth of the town (including Dennis’ own daughter, played fiercely by Aisling Franciosi) persuade Jimmy to re-open the hall where they can freely dance and express themselves beyond the stagnant, bored oppression of their parents. Like the bloodshed that would slowly mount in many other Loach films, Jimmy’s Hall builds to an undeniable collision between the two staunch sides of idealism. It’s to Loach’s mastery of the material that the most damning and explosive scene in the entire film doesn’t involve guns, but the words of father Sheridan publicly shaming those who attended one of the sessions at Jimmy’s hall during a Sunday sermon. It’s only fitting that one character remarks “all this over a four walled tin shack.”

Based on the true story of Jimmy Gralton, Jimmy’s Hall is as delicate in its characterizations as its craftsmanship, built around warm, natural lighting and slowly roving camera that manages to capture so many voices and reactions throughout the boisterous scenes. This is a film built around faces and the ideas that slowly erode innocence. The confrontations between Jimmy and his supporters versus the town officials exude so much energy and force of will that they dare the viewer not to become enraptured in the film’s quiet anger. Even if the overriding theme is “the man” against Jimmy Gralton, Loach quickly swerves and creates an atmosphere of youthful revolt where it not only becomes the modern world versus the old one, but the children against their parents.

In a career full of hits and misses (and more hits than misses), Loach has yet to abandon this universal theme. After all, everyone harbors a four-walled tin shack somewhere in our memories and would fight vigorously to protect it.

Jimmy’s Hall opens on Friday, July 24 at the Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano.

Review: ‘Land Ho!’ Engages, Modestly

'Land Ho!"
‘Land Ho!”

A rambling, shambling, yet modest road movie, Land Ho! plucks two unlikely suspects from their usual surroundings and strands them at random in the gorgeous landscapes of Iceland.

It’s a shaggy dog story that is often amusing and rarely illuminating, following two senior citizens, loquacious Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and reticent Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), as they amble around the country and occasionally make new friends. Former brothers-in-law who still keep in touch after divorcing from their wives, they appear to have little in common beyond the similarity of their lonely circumstances.

As befits any commonplace Hollywood fantasy, Mitch is a wealthy former physician who is paying for the trip. He is a rambunctious, lusty man who is friendly to all, and especially open toward strangers. Often veering into vulgarity, he obviously gets on Colin’s nerves quite frequently, but the Australian Colin, a formerly symphony musician who became a banker, is much too polite to do more than wrinkle his face whenever he’s offended by Mitch.

The film, written and directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, gives the appearance of being largely improvised, as though the filmmakers arrived in Iceland with their two actors and declared, “Let’s make a movie!” Land Ho! is much more than a home movie — the visual compositions and consistently engaging atmospheres are markers of experienced filmmakers — yet it drives around the country as as a very loosely constructed vehicle, bumping over slopes and valleys in the roadways, taking departures and arrivals into account as part of an endless cycle.

Thus, when Mitch’s young relative and her friend (Karrie Crouse and Elizabeth McKee) arrive “by chance,” it’s a welcome diversion; when a comely photographer (Alice Olivia Clarke) shows up at a remote location, it’s a lovely distraction. These people are temporary, as are all things in the latter stages of life for Mitch and Colin. The end is closer than the beginning for them, but no sense worrying about that; it’s far better to enjoy the side trips and sidelong glances and the beauty of their surroundings than to be concerned about things you can’t control.

As Mitch, Nelson’s larger-than-life characterization is either endearing or irritating. (OK, I’m in the “irritating” camp, I’m afraid.) His aggressively garrulous personality is enjoyable in small chunks, and the filmmakers push this about as far as it can go — or perhaps a bit further. As Colin, the fussy and persnickety one, Eenhoorn’s patience and long-suffering are put to the test, though he displays his own shortcomings.

In the end, Land Ho! stops rather than concludes. This is an episode in the lives of Mitch and Colin; it’s far from the first, and if all goes well, they’ll have a few more, charming and fussing and fighting and walking carefully and confidently in the soft, burnished final days that we can only hope will last for a very long time.

The film opens on Friday, August 15, at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano.

Indie Weekend: ‘Pariah,’ ‘House of Pleasures,’ ‘The Devil Inside’

Adepero Oduye in 'Pariah' (Focus Features)
Adepero Oduye in 'Pariah' (Focus Features)

My pick of the week:

  • ‘Pariah.’ A coming-of-age story that manages to feel fresh and authentic. The extraordinary Adepero Oduye inhabits the lead role of a high school girl named Alike. She lives with her family in a comfortable home in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, but she could be anyone struggling with identity issues. Alike sneaks out to a gay club at night before changing her outfit to sneak back home; at school she is yet another personality. Her parents are having marital difficulties, and each exerts different pressure upon her. Slowly she comes to an understanding of what she needs to do to become her own person. Dee Rees wrote and directed, with precision and compassion. (Landmark Magnolia.) My interview with Rees at Twitch. Recommended.

Also opening in Dallas today, Friday, January 6, 2012 (listed in order of preference):

  • ‘House of Pleasures.’ A French-language film about women trapped by circumstances at a brothel in early 20th Century Paris. (Texas Theatre.) Not previewed.
  • ‘Beneath the Darkness.’ Dennis Quaid stars as a respected mortician in Smithville, Texas who murders a teenager. When the kid’s friends report it to the police, no one believes them, and it’s up to them to prove that it wasn’t an accident. (Cinemark 17.) Not previewed.
  • ‘The Devil Inside.’ A faux-documentary about possible demon possession and multiple exorcisms. Clumsily made — intentionally so — and dreadfully boring. (Wide.) My review at TwitchNot recommended.