Edson Oda’s Nine Days

I’m just a kid from Canada who blathers on about movies on Facebook, I have no formal literary training or real clout in the journalism foray, and as such every once in a moon there comes a film that’s so good, so powerful, profound and so potentially life changing (what is cinema for, if not that?) that I feel it’s a bit above my pay grade to review it, but in the case of Edson Oda’s Nine Days I feel like I need to or you might miss this unbelievable, perspective shattering indie that seems to have come from nowhere but is here to rock our collective worlds and the lands beyond. The film presents to us a stoic, lone man called Will (Winston Duke, Us). Will lives in a rustic bungalow on a desolation of endless salt flats, and he sits in his house observing a wall of tube TV’s all displaying various human lives unfold in hazy POV. He takes periodic notes, records some of these moments onto VHS tapes and catalogues them in droves of filing cabinets. He’s visited by a colleague and advisor called Kyo (Benedict Wong, Annihilation, The Martian), and the two seem to be the only ones out there. It soon becomes clear that the people on the TV’s are humans living their lives in this world, and that Will and Kyo are in some other plane of existence, their task being to observe those who are alive and when an opening appears, to interview/audition potential new souls for a chance to be born in our world. When, through a heartbreaking tragedy, an opening does show up Will invites several souls into his house for the interview process including a quiet, observant introvert (Bill Skarsgard, It), a gregarious good timer (Tony Hale) and a startlingly observant, intuitive soul called Emma (Zazie Beetz, Deadpool 2, Joker). Now, usually a premise like this in films would be played for satire or just… not taken completely seriously but somehow this very wild concept couldn’t feel more down to earth in the hands of this creative team and, in hushed reverence, I believed every beat of it was happening for real. As Will interviews souls it becomes apparent that he is wounded from his time on earth in a way that is so deep and so painful that even these half formed human souls who aren’t even full beings yet, can somehow intuitively sense it. This goes especially for Emma, who is like an unbelievably precocious child that just picks up on intangible things as a sort of gift. As the selection process unfolds and more souls are eliminated it becomes clear that Will has to fix something broken deep within his own psyche, and this is where the film becomes downright transcendent and also where I just don’t feel qualified to properly convey the messages or themes, which are deep, dense and essential. It’s a film about not taking your time alive as a human being for granted, because there are so many unborn souls who may never get a chance. Not only are the themes compelling and thought provoking, they are multilayered, meditatively introspective and just ambiguous enough to feel like a real and flawed system of beings interacting in a world beyond our own. Wong’s wonderful character comments on the mysterious nature of both our existence and theirs and the aching existential wonder that any sort of being finds themselves in, the forces governing them always just out of reach. Duke and Beetz are unreasonably good here and if the Oscars ever took the time to recognize independent films they would both be front and centre, as would first time writer director Edson Oda (I simply CANNOT comprehending the fact that this is a feature debut, it’s TOO assured) and composer Antonio Pinto who weaves an original score too beautiful for words, full of melancholic, celestial string passages and hypnotic, dreamlike beats in between. One reviewer I saw on IMDb said about this film, and I quote, “After 60 years of watching movies, I’ve finally found the best one.” Well it’s obviously all subjective and personally I could never pick a singular, definitive “best movie ever,” the notion itself is redundant. However, I would consider Nine Days to be just about as close to perfection as one can get in the medium of film, that rare piece that just soars on every level and has the power to change lives. It’s getting a limited theatrical run at the moment and if you notice it playing in your city please go, it’s that one in a million film that lingers in your thoughts and dreams for a long time after, that elusive piece of art that doesn’t just exist onscreen for two hours before fading, but rather lives on in the hearts and minds of those who see it and takes on a soul of its own. Masterpiece and the best film of the year so far.

-Nate Hill

Overlooked, ahead of its time and incredibly important: Ash Baron Cohen’s Bang

What if an ordinary everyday citizen, in this case a woman of colour, found themselves in the role of a police officer for one day, through an extraordinary set of circumstances? Bang is a staggeringly good guerrilla indie film from the mid 90’s that is not only criminally under seen, it feels a hundred times more relevant and important than it already was back then. Filmed off the cuff on about the lowest budget one can have for a feature and without permits or proper sanctions with locations all over LA, it’s a scrappy passion project that contains the sort of class/race and gender commentary, character work, quirky humour and subversive social introspection of a cult classic that has yet to find the audience it deserves, even almost twenty years after its release. Japanese American actress Darling Narita plays an aspiring actress who has fallen on some very hard times. The morning we meet her she’s evicted from her apartment, sexually assaulted by a nasty film producer who tries to take advantage of her at an audition and arrested by a motorcycle cop for something she didn’t do. After the cop tries to assault her as well she grabs his gun, turns it on him, steals his uniform and his bike and wanders around LA in the guise of the law, not as some kind of vindictive crusade but more because she really didn’t know what else to do in that situation, and one thing leads to another after she is simply pushed too far. Her perspective behind the badge reflects how many different factions of society view the police ranging from reverence to fear to abject hatred, and as the day gets longer, stranger, funnier and sadder we somehow cultivate steadfast belief that this station could really be playing out somewhere, helped by the candid, immersive and often heavily improvised nature of the script and a beautifully compiled soundtrack of reggae and ska music. Narita is wonderful in the role and I’m sad she didn’t go on to do much more. She makes this girl angry, scared, vulnerable, empowered, complex and somehow so self assured yet so utterly lost in the space of one day’s time. The great character actor Peter Greene stars alongside her as a hopelessly loopy homeless man who is her friend, companion and sidekick. Greene usually plays villains as a rule and is way against type here as a manic oddball who also has a tragic history with the police and an affecting backstory, the two make a mismatched but perfect pair to share these wild misadventures and together they encounter all sorts of people including other cops, drug dealers, vatos and a prostitute played by a very young Lucy Liu. This is an important film in many regards, it’s not only an exciting, brilliantly acted piece of gonzo filmmaking with a beating heart and something to say, it’s an arresting and incendiary indictment of power dynamics including and up to the relationship between cops and civilians but extends further into the exploitative and abusive nature of Hollywood and inherent sexism within that industry and society itself, the marginalization and neglect of lower class communities overall, the way mentally ill people (Greene’s brain damaged character ducks stereotype and becomes something *real*) are tossed to the wayside and dehumanized and how one woman uses what she’s confronted to fight back for herself and others who need help and attention, even if it’s just for one day. These are heavy, difficult and multitudinous themes for one zero budget guerrilla indie film to tackle but it has been proved time and time again that you don’t need millions of dollars and shiny effects to tell and important and lasting story, all you need is the story itself, and those willing to tell it well. Director Ash, stars Narita, Greene and the whole cast and anyone who crewed this no doubt challenging, at times illegal production should be very proud because the result is something emotionally and philosophically galvanizing, strikingly ahead of its time and altogether remarkable. Available here and there on DVD, and hopefully streaming at some point soon, I’d love to spread as much awareness and exposure to this wonderful film as I can with the resources and network I have.

-Nate Hill

Indie Gems: Paul Fox’s The Dark Hours

There’s home invasion films and then there’s whatever pseudo-psychological cosmic fuckery that transpires in Paul Fox‘s The Dark Hours, and I mean that in the best way possible way, this is a superior Canadian indie shocker that will knock your teeth out with its cunning verbosity, ruthless edge, terrifying villains and spooky atmospherics. Kate Greenhouse is Dr. Samantha Goodman, a veteran psychiatrist with a lot of inmates turned enemies who is spending some time away from her practice at a remote rural cabin with her hubbie (Gordon Currie) and little sis (Iris Graham). Unfortunately a former patient she once used shady malpractice on has followed her out there though, menacing serial rapist/murderer Harlan Pyne (Aiden Devine) with his twitchy, violent teen protege (Dov Tiefenbach) in tow. Harlan is extremely unstable, narcoleptic, sociopathic and out for mind-games, murder and revenge most sweet. Cue a very violent, anxiety inducing close quarters battle as we see the (not so?) good doctor match will, wit and physicality with this deadly psychopath and his monkeying lackey. Or do we? The third act of the film throws some metaphysical, supremely psychologically dense curveballs our way and there’s a reason for this: Samantha suffers from an inoperable brain tumour that causes unreliable rifts in perception, waking visions and all manner of cognitive disruptions. Additionally and for fascinating reasons that I won’t spoil.. Pyne suffers from the same type of ailments. So, we have an unreliable protagonist *and* an unreliable antagonist in an eerie setting with other characters orbiting them as cannon fodder for this brain damaged showdown and the result is nothing short of electrifying. The script is terse, intelligent, full of dark humour and vivid character eccentricity, the horror is shocking, genuinely unpredictable and very disturbing, the performances are raw, lithe and full of life and the overall aesthetic feels like a delicious concoction of Panic Room with splashes of Memento by way of the cabin in the woods motif. The very definition of a hidden gem, and a terrific film. This is streaming nowhere and dvds are apparently hard to find but there’s a decent version on YouTube, anyone can DM/email if they would like the link.

-Nate Hill

Indie Gems: Paolo Barzman’s Emotional Arithmetic

Paolo Barzman’s Emotional Arithmetic is a stunning independent drama that, despite a ridiculously prolific cast, ultimately slipped through the cracks into obscurity. It’s well worth hunting down to see four seasoned professionals as the top of their game in telling the story of various characters dealing with the lingering horrors of the Holocaust, both directly and indirectly. Susan Sarandon plays a Canadian woman sometime in the 80’s who survived a concentration camp at a very young age, and has invited two fellow survivors (Max Von Sydow & Gabriel Byrne) to a reunion at her house in the Quebec countryside where they will reconnect after decades of separation following a tragically abrupt parting from each other and will have the chance to meet her much older husband (Christopher Plummer) and their son (Roy Dupuis). It’s a pleasant, cathartic enough reunion but the collective scars they share from enduring such a horrific phase of their lives are apparent in each of them, in different ways. Byrne’s quiet, introspective character has buried his trauma under a cloak of calm, Von Sydow deliberately tried to forget using electroshock therapy, while Sarandon herself has obsessively documented, scrapbooked and reflected on their past very openly over the years to employ her own process. Plummer’s character is the outsider, having never gone through what they did and starts the film off in a sort of cavalier, borderline insensitive way until the grave reality of what his wife and her friends have suffered through hits home and he becomes more compassionate. All of the performances are absolutely magnificent and I really wish more people were able to see this moving film because each of these actors provide showcase work and should be very proud. If you are lucky enough to find a DVD, please ignore the misleading, stupid Hallmark style artwork and silly alternate title (Autumn Hearts, are you kidding me? Lol) because it’s as if the distribution company didn’t even watch the film and just did whatever the hell they wanted. This is not a sappy, syrupy film at all, it’s a deep, thoughtful, challenging interpersonal drama that stirs the soul in a realistic fashion without cheap manipulation. Highly recommended, wonderful hidden gem of a film.

-Nate Hill

Indie Gems: Dennis Brooks’ Goodnight Joseph Parker

Some independent films are just so amazing, heartfelt and original it pains me they’ve never found a larger audience or made a bigger splash. Dennis Brooks’ Goodnight Joseph Parker has the kind of script, acting and execution that would probably have attracted Oscar attention had it been done on a bigger budget or had more marketing, but this thing is a barebones indie despite having a fairly well known cast and remains to this day a long buried treasure. Somewhere in New Jersey is a run down, behind the times bar run by Charlie (Paul Sorvino), staffed by waitress Rita (Debi Mazar) and frequented by drunkard Frankie (Richard Edson). This is a humdrum, low income barfly existence in a part of town that never changes save to continue to its own beat, until estranged regular Joey Parker (Nick Chinlund) returns to town in a “900 dolla’ suit” with tales of making it big and going on Jay Leno soon. His return sparks many feelings and long repressed things from the past, in paternal Charlie, in Rita who has always loved him and local junkie Muriel (Kim Dickens) who he loves and foolishly plans to propose to with all his new flash and swagger to back him up. But flash and swagger is what barely masks the pain, sadness and regret in all these characters, that and the booze they constantly swill. This isn’t so much a story as it is a quick snapshot of collective lifestyles in the Jersey area, but even though it’s a ‘small’ story, the emotions and character dynamics couldn’t feel more immediate or affecting. Chinlund is one of the most underrated actors of his generation, mostly saddled with supporting villain roles in his career, but when he’s given a lead like this he really and truly shines. Joey is a man who lives in his ego and when he’s forced to shed it, to confront himself and where he stands in his old community, well Nick’s performance is something to see. Sorvino has always been one of the greats and he’s heartbreaking here as a man who constantly tried to do the right thing and is haunted by the consequences, it’s a manic, playful, compassionate and comedic bit of acting genius. Mazar is another one who constantly gets stuck the ‘snarky bitch’ character and for sure she’s great at that, but give her some breathing room, let her play a more sensitive type girl and just watch what she can do, her work is spellbinding here. As if all that talent isn’t enough we also get a recurring cameo from Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler as a sleazy, hyperactive ladies man who runs in and out of the plot like a tornado. In the credits it says this film is ‘inspired by the music of Tom Waits’ and indeed he can be heard rasping away on the soundtrack faintly from time to time. The film really captures the day in, day out nature of this part of town, and the human beings whose drink, laugh, fight and live within it. It takes place over the course of one night and the following day only, but in that window of time I felt all the joys, sorrows, triumphs, downfalls, regrets, passions and hopes in this group of scrappy individuals and cared for each one deeply. Brilliant piece of filmmaking.

-Nate Hill

Indie Gems: William Fichtner’s Cold Brook

Oh hey another top ten of the year film for me. I love a good passion project, especially when the two artistic forces behind it are a couple beloved character actors who have spent much of their career in Hollywood playing villains, criminals, weirdos, bikers, aliens and all kinds of heavy stuff. William Fichtner’s Cold Brook sees the consistently brilliant actor team up with equally fantastic buddy Kim Coates for a charming, wonderfully simplistic tale of two small town dudes who make an incredible discovery.

Fichtner and Coates are Ted and Hilde, two lifelong pals who work as maintenance men for the college museum in their sleepy upstate NY town of Cold Brook. They each have a loving wife (played by Robin ‘Calamity Jane’ Weigart and Mary Lynn ‘Chloe O Brien’ Rajskub), kids and pretty much as cozy a life as anyone can hope for, complete with the kind of bromance that makes it obvious these two actors are tight in real life. Then one day a mysterious and deeply confused stranger (Harold Perrineau) shows up in the museum exhibit after hours and seems to follow them around after that like he has some purpose that even he doesn’t understand, and only our two boys can see him. It’s up to them to find out why this restless spirit has chosen them, what he wants and how to put him to rest while juggling the curious eyes of their wives, bosses and one campus security guard (Brad Henke) who takes his job just a bit too seriously.

This is low key, whimsical indie fare through and through and I downright fell in love. I’ve been following William and Kim’s career since I was a kid, they are two endlessly talented scene stealers and I can’t tell you how lovely and cathartic it was to see them just play a couple bros living and loving the small town life. They both shine brightly in their work here and Fichtner shows a steady hand in writing and direction here too, telling a story that clearly means a lot to him in broad, loving strokes. Perrineau is really effective as Gil the wandering spirit, seeming somehow perpetually lost but also pointedly soulful in each appearance. If you’re at all a fan of these two artists then I’d very strongly recommend this as you get to see them do the kind of work that Big Hollywood just doesn’t usually ever hire them for, something very personal to each and something that allows them the kind of freedom in expression that we as artists always dream of. Even if you’re not a huge fan it’s a beautiful little indie to watch on a cold rainy morning to warm the heart. Brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

Indie Gems: Kevin Philip’s Super Dark Times

The title ‘Super Dark Times’ serves as a warning of sorts for the film to follow. It should be wisely taken into consideration, as this is probably the most disturbing film I’ve seen all year. In contrast, it’s also one of the most beautifully made. Bring a comfort blanket or cuddle buddy though, because these aren’t only Dark Times, they’re bleak, grim and tough to absorb without feeling grossly affected after. I like it when films explore themes of both violence and adolescence bourgeoning side by side in small town youth, everyone from Stephen King to David Lynch have been fascinated by these ideas. Violence is an unavoidable step in the learning curve for youngsters and a key element in any individual’s coming of age, no matter what we tell ourselves. First time director Kevin Philips pads those themes well by telling his story in the most realistic, blunt fashion he can, casting kids that genuinely look to be high school age, using sound design and cinematography to create a frighteningly immersive atmosphere and not neutering the stark violence in off-screen gimmicks to soften the blow of a blood-chilling story. Two normal enough high school boys (Charlie Tahan and Owen Campbell, both superbly good) are set on different yet equally dark paths following a brutal accident that scars them both, awakens a dark passenger in one and lays a blanket of dread over their small upstate New York town. That’s all I’ll say in terms of plot, it’s a scary guessing game of dangerous encounters, adolescent discoveries and tragic violence that unfurls like a jet black velvet carpet of doom. Metaphors as colourful as that are just me trying to abstractly impart to you how affecting the visual and auditory mood-scape are, but you’d be better off just watching the thing for yourself. Philips leaves certain areas of the narrative *just* vague enough until one gets the gnawing notion that what is presented to us might not be the full story, a tactic which instills the aftertaste of unease beyond the film’s bloody conclusion. Speaking of conclusions, this has to have the most suspenseful climaxes I’ve seen in a while, a breathless, literally razor sharp confrontation that feels earned and urgent because of how invested I was in the characters up until then. The film opens with violence, proceeds through a violent tale and ends with it as well, but as is often the case with films that care to do so, there’s contrast, a certain vitality to the characters and a hope that lives in lingering shots of a dying sunrise or a girlfriend (Elizabeth Cappuccino) gently comforting one of the protagonists. I read another review that called this ‘a simple story, well told’, which I partly agree with. It goes without saying it’s well told, but there’s a complexity to it, an intuitive force guiding the proceedings that one can feel like an undercurrent, and the moods it stirs are anything but simple. One of the best films this year.

-Nate Hill