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A Weekend of Excellent Indie Movies

Hope Madden Hope Madden A Weekend of Excellent Indie MoviesThe Card Counter - Photo via IMDb
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The Oscar race may have begun this weekend with, appropriately enough, Oscar. Paul Schrader’s latest puts the great Oscar Isaac into one of the filmmaker’s iconic characters and excellent things happen. 

Intense drama not your thing? What if they’re centered right here in CBUS? We have an alarming doc, as well as a refreshing comedy, some horror, some thrillers…a lot of stuff. Here’s the low down.

The Card Counter

In theaters

by Hope Madden

The damaged man seeking redemption — it may be the most cinematic concept, or certainly among the most frequently conjured by filmmakers. When Paul Schrader is on his game, no one tells this story better.

Schrader’s game in The Card Counter is poker, mainly. But if he tells the redemption story differently than others, you should see what he does with a gambling picture.

Oscar Isaac and his enviable hair play William Tell, gambler. Where this film differs from others treading this territory is that, rather than being a man of a somewhat self-destructive bent drawn to the adrenaline, anxiety and thrill of the lifestyle, William is comforted by its mundane routine. When you play the way William plays, gambling is tidy. It is clean. It is predictable.

William learned to count cards — and to appreciate routine — in prison.

His routine is shaken up, as routines must be, by two people. La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) wants to find William a financial backer, put him on a circuit, see him win big. Cirk “with a C” (Tye Sheridan) wants more from him.

The precision and power in Schrader’s writing come as no surprise, but as a director, he wields images with more unique impact here. There are three different worlds in The Card Counter: prison, casinos, haunted past. Each has its own color scheme, style and mood. The haunted past takes on a nightmarish look via fisheye lens, creating a landscape that’s part first-person shooter, part hell.

Schrader’s on point with visual storytelling throughout, even though he relies on voiceover narration from the opening shot. Voiceover narration is rarely done well. It’s often, perhaps usually, a narrative cheat, a lazy device used to tell us something a stronger writer could convey visually. Not when Schrader does it. We learned that in 1976 when he wrote Taxi Driver, and he proves it again here.

It helps that Isaac is a profound talent and essentially flawless in this role. He is the essential Schrader protagonist, a man desperate for relief from an inner torment through repression, redemption or obliteration.

It’s at least the fourth performance of Isaac’s career worthy of Oscar’s attention, which means the Academy will probably deny that recognition again. But you shouldn’t. You should go see The Card Counter.

Grade: A

Language Lessons

At Gateway Film Center

by George Wolf

Yes, Language Lessons is a “Zoom call” movie. But don’t let that keep you from dialing in, or you’ll miss a completely charming two-hander that has plenty to say, with and without subtitles.

Natalie Morales directs from a script she co-wrote with Mark Duplass, one that finds Adam (Duplass) waking up to an unexpected gift: Spanish lessons with an online tutor named Cariño (Morales).

Adam, who’s living a privileged life in Oakland with husband Will (Desean Terry), is already pretty good at Spanish, but revisiting the language reminds him of his days before wealth, which helps to ease his liberal guilt.

Cuban native Cariño came to the U.S. as a child, but now lives a less than privileged life teaching Spanish from her home in Costa Rica.

The duo’s script upends us by dropping a major bomb in the first act, and then settles in to a sweetly touching rumination on the need for cultivating human connections – regardless of the obstacles.

Morales, a veteran actress who only expands on the directing promise she showed with the wonderfully smart teen sex romp Plan B earlier this year, divides the film via classroom appropriate headers ranging from “Immersion” to “Context,” and “Extra Credit” to “Fluency.”

And, of course, these titles also apply to the budding friendship of Adam and Cariño. They laugh, and cry, make assumptions and then push each other away, and the improvisational nature of the two terrific performances is consistently anchored with personality and authenticity. As these two grow to care deeply about each other, it becomes nearly effortless to care about them.

Adam’s sexual identity takes the rom out of this com early, and the film is better for it. The fact that he’s extremely wealthy is all the flirting we need with narrative convenience, leaving Morales and Duplass more room to expand on what the film is really getting at.

Because while we’ve come to associate Zoom meetings with lockdown, the film itself steers clear of it.

And though Language Lessons may have all the markings of a pandemic production, it’s not a “pandemic” film. These two souls are worlds apart due to circumstance rather than quarantine. But they crave to enrich their own lives through sharing them with someone else, and end up giving us a poignant reminder to make more friends and fewer excuses.

Just be sure to take yourself off mute.

Grade: A-

The Conservation Game

At Gateway Film Center

by George Wolf

The runaway train wreck that was The Tiger King made Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin into instant celebrities, and overnight, it seemed everyone in America was taking sides.

Retired Ohio cop Tim Harrison kept his focus on the cats, and The Conservation Game takes us inside his relentless but cool-headed mission to expose the shadowy dealings of the animal exploitation trade.

Harrison grew up enthralled by Marlon Perkins on Wild Kingdom, and then by Jack Hanna’s animal exploits on TV. For a time, Harrison even wanted to follow in Hanna’s footsteps. But he was already growing disenchanted with “reality TV mindset” of the talk show animal segments when a visit to an exotic animals auction changed the course of his life.

Wisely, director Michael Webber takes an approach that is the polar opposite of The Tiger King. Though the Baskins make an appearance and Joe Exotic’s threats to Carole’s life are referenced, Webber makes all that mess a logical and organic part of a bigger picture that is well-reasoned and far from sensationalized.

Harrison and his passionate team set out to expose the dirty secrets of the animal expert personalities, and the hidden network of breeders keeping them supplied with cute baby “ambassador cats.”

But what happens when the babies grow up? Where are these “sanctuaries” the hosts talk about on TV?

Harrison puts those questions to wildlife personalities including Jerod Miller, Dave Salmoni, Boone Smith and Grant Kemmerer, and their answers are peppered with evasion, condescension and and even veiled threats.

“Just because you haven’t found them doesn’t mean they disappeared,” one of them argues. “It means you need to learn how to find them better.”

Webber makes a quick cut to the online sleuth of Harrison’s team who deadpans, “Challenge accepted.”

Outside of a few re-enactments of Harrison’s youth, the film trades style for a more guerrilla approach. But the hidden-camera footage rivals both Blackfish and The Cove for sheer bullseye effectiveness. It’s gut-wrenching, heartbreaking and downright infuriating, with Webber employing well-placed edits that call out apparent lies with speed and precision.

I’ve lived in Columbus, Ohio for almost 40 years, and much like Harrison, I’ve always regarded our zoo as a national treasure and Hanna as a local hero. Full disclosure: I’ve been to events that enabled me to take photos with these types of ambassador cats.

And because Hanna is the biggest name involved here, the charges against him and the Columbus Zoo land with the most shocking and disappointing force.

Webber is able to include the news of Hanna’s retirement and dementia diagnosis, as well as the Columbus Zoo’s recent decision to reverse course and formally endorse passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act championed by Harrison, Baskin, and scores of other zoos and animal rights activists.

What prompted that specific change is left up to us to decide, but Harrison is much more direct about the changes needed to end the exploitation of ambassador animals.

Webber uses the journey of one committed man to make the message relatable, relying on the power of what he finds to become universal. Will this film fuel the outrage that arose after the revelations in Blackfish and The Cove?

That’s up to us as well. The Conversation Game may be a little more rough around the edges, but its case is nearly as closed.

Grade: B+

Death Drop Gorgeous

On VOD

by Rachel Willis

Don’t let the low-budget look of Death Drop Gorgeous deter you from watching this film because if you do, you’ll miss out on a hilarious, campy slasher film.

Recently dumped, Dwayne (Wayne Gonsalves) has returned to Providence and begged back his old job as a bartender at The Aut Haus. Rooming with best friend, Brian (Christopher Dalpe), Dwayne comes back to work just as a serial killer begins hunting the queens and patrons of The Aut Haus. Using the dating app, Poundr, the killer lures his victims to their doom.

Populated by drag queens and serious shade, this movie sends up some of the best of ’80s camp horror. Writers, directors and stars Dalpe, Michael J. Ahern and Brandon Perras manage a lot with a low budget. By doing double and triple duty with their cast and crew, they mine every bit of talent they can from what they have available.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its distractions. The camerawork and lighting are occasionally poor. However, there are also times when it perfectly sets the tone. Some of the actors, most of whom have no previous acting experience, are better than others. Michael McAdam is perfectly cast as gloriously named Gloria Hole, a queen who no longer commands the respect she used to. McAdam plays perfectly against younger, hotter queen Janet Fitness (Matthew Pidge). Their nasty back and forth offers some of the film’s stand-out moments.

A few scenes toward the beginning of the film are a bit longer than necessary. But the pace picks up in the second act as more and more people are dispatched in gruesome ways. You’ll probably never look at a meat grinder the same again.

Social commentary is delivered via catty banter and barroom brawls. The culture surrounding Dwayne and Brian is quick to deride certain qualities. One man goes so far as to say Brian is “too fem” and that he doesn’t date “Blacks” in reference to Dwayne. Gloria Hole is shamed simply for aging. This is deeper content than one might expect from a campy slasher flick, but it works.

The writers and the actors camp it up for all its worth, and it makes Death Drop Gorgeous a cut above many films benefiting from a bigger budget.

Grade: B+

Martyrs Lane

On Shudder

by Hope Madden

Six years ago, filmmaker Ruth Platt released the thriller The Lesson. While essentially no one else saw the film, I was impressed enough by it to look forward to whatever else Platt wanted to make.

So here’s her follow up, the grief-driven horror Martyrs Lane.

Platt’s story of a haunting walks in familiar circles, as confused and lonesome 10-year-old Leah (a heart-bruisingly melancholy Kiera Thompson) makes a spooky new friend (Sienna Sayer, wonderful). By day Leah rattles about the vicarage where her father (Steven Cree) is minister, her older sister (Hannah Rae) kills time before fleeing for university, and her mom (Denise Gough) mourns something secretly.

At night, the creaks and whistles combine with Leah’s fears, imagination and loneliness to conjure a visitor who leaves Leah with clues to follow.

There is a lot about Martyrs Lane that feels familiar, but Platt grounds her spectral tale in messy, lived-in family drama. Set design, costuming, framing, moments of silence, pointed cruelties followed by protective love—all of it combines to create an atmosphere both familial and haunted. No austere staircases, empty nurseries, or any of the other chilly and spare environs where you might expect to set a mournful ghost story. Instead, Leah’s home bears the weary chaos and forced cheer of family and absence.

Thompson’s performance is driven by the recognizable, shapeless guilt that looms in a child’s imagination, making every perceived transgression somehow unforgivable and therefore impossible to share, even with a caring adult. Cree’s bright presence offsets the gloom nicely, while Sayer’s ghostly cherubic image is wonderfully, tenderly haunting.

Gough’s understated frailty is the unease that haunts the film from its opening, a feeling that blossoms into dread as the tale wears on.

Platt and her talented group do not fail to deliver on the promise of their ghost story. The issue is only that, while the execution is impeccable, the story itself is a bit tired. Wisely, Platt capitalizes on character over story, leaving you so invested in this little girl and her family that you’ll likely forgive the sense of having been here before.

And, like me, you’ll probably keep an eye out for wherever it is Platt wants to take you next.

Grade: B

Dark Blood

On VOD

by Brandon Thomas

Famous actors often don’t get to choose how the public views them and their careers. A lucky few can bounce between genres – keeping audiences on their toes. More often than not, actors become associated with one kind of film and rarely escape that shadow. 

In director Harold Trompetero’s new crime drama Dark Blood, John Leguizamo gets to shake free of his comedic and action past, and deliver one of the best performances of his storied career. 

After killing the man he believes molested and killed his son, Misael (Leguizamo of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar and John Wick) has just arrived to prison. The blood is still fresh on his hands and clothes when the guards assault him for the first time and throw him into solitary confinement. Misael begins to acclimate to the dangerous life behind bars. Continued assaults from the guards become an almost daily routine, and even other inmates put Misael in their crosshairs.

Prison movies are almost uniformly bleak. These films offer glimpses into humanity at its absolute worst. Dark Blood is no different in its depiction of how morality breaks down behind bars. There’s a code inmates and guards live by, but it’s all wrapped up in bloodshed and despair. Even at a scant 82 minutes, the film paints a vivid picture of the world within these dangerous walls. 

Dark Blood takes the subject matter and its characters seriously, but there’s no desire here to be something as deep as Midnight Express. No, Dark Blood expertly walks the line between drama and exploitation cinema. There’s a griminess to the violence that wouldn’t feel out of place in grindhouse movies of the 1970s. 

Leguizamo has made a good career playing second or third banana in many of the films he’s appeared in. These were not especially complex films with deep characters, but Leguizamo was good in them. In Dark Blood, Leguizamo gives a near career-best performance. Leguizamo wisely leans into his inherent likability to help craft Misael as a mild-mannered but passionate man. There’s a simmering rage to Misael that bubbles right below the surface for the entire film.

Dark Blood isn’t the next Shawshank Redemption, but what it is is an expertly made film that walks the fine line between drama and exploitation. 

Grade: B+

Witches of Blackwood

On VOD

by Christie Robb

It’s never a good sign when you head back to your hometown and all your old school friends sidle up to you and want to get you alone to give you an elevator pitch about this new thing they’ve gotten into.

Nine times out of ten it’s an MLM selling makeup or essential oils or nutritional supplements. 

Sometimes it’s a cult.

In Kate Whitbread’s new film, the townful of anemic-looking women sporting clothing made of natural fibers in a neutral color palette and the dark undereye circles of recent motherhood are selling witchcraft. 

Claire Nash (Cassandra Magrath from Wolf Creek) is back in town to uncover the circumstances of her dad’s recent sudden death and that of her mother years before. Were their deaths a consequence of mental illness and substance abuse? Or was it really the demon that haunts the forest? And are they really even dead? Why are all these townswomen carrying around bleached bones and acting like they are infants? And why are they all interested in Claire?

Magrath works hard to bring her character to life, but the script isn’t doing her any favors. The movie is full of evocative settings and creepy imagery, but there’s not much time spent in character development and no real sense of the stakes. Plot elements are introduced and then dropped. Characters that appear to be important basically wander off and an antagonist…doesn’t seem to actually do anything. 

So, when the climax comes, it feels hollow and meaningless–very much an “is that it?” kind of moment. 

The Witches of Blackwood is not a good movie and it’s not quite bad enough to be fun. 

Grade: C-

Follow George and Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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