Indie Gems: Humboldt County

There’s a ton weed comedies out there, stoner slapstick silliness at every turn, but it’s not often that someone takes a serious stab at cannabis culture and uses the phenomenon to tell a moving, character driven story. Humboldt County is a painfully unknown gem about a community of rural pot growers in a tucked away nook somewhere in California, and the fish out of water med student (Jeremy Strong) who stumbles into their midst. After meeting restless free spirit Bogart (the great Fairuza Balk), they meander back into her isolated hometown where the locals grow marijuana solely for their consumption, a place where it’s a way of life. He comes from an academic background, has a Doctor father (Peter Bogdanovich) who’s trying project his legacy onto him by supervising his path through school. This rigid curriculum is upended by the people he meets and the customs he adopts here, and is the very definitional finding oneself. Legendary Brad Dourif shows up in one of his best non horror roles as Bogart’s father Jack, a scatterbrained pothead whose airy nature is contrasted by a deep compassion and fierce love for his family, especially when tragedy strikes. It’s not all idyllic either, especially when coldhearted Feds target their land and threaten what they’ve built. It’s a wonderful little film that not only sheds light on a now thriving industry and lifestyle that was just beginning to bloom back in the mid 2000’s, but a cathartic character study, a life lesson in loosening up, master class in acting from Strong, Balk and particularly Dourif, and a story worth telling. Smoke up.

-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

Indie Gems: Brian Jun’s Steel City

Brian Jun’s Steel City is a fantastic, little heard of indie rust belt drama that deals in choices, consequences, regrets and what it takes to heal, if possible. In the heartlands, a young working class man (Tom Guiry) struggles with pretty much every aspect of his life. His father (an understated John Heard) has been recently incarcerated, and it’s tearing him apart, as well as his family. His older brother (Clayne Crawford) is a hotheaded mess. He finds solace when his uncle Vic (Raymond J. Barry, superb) offers him work and sobering life advice in equal doses. He meets a wonderful girl played by America Ferrera, and gradually, bit by bit, his story hits an upswing. This is a small story, revolving around a minuscule faction of the big picture, but that’s all it is anyways, thousands of lives unfolding on personal scale, adding up to this mosaic we call humanity. Life goes on for him, and the film is but a small window into one transitionary chapter of his life. Guiry is great, but Ferrera is magic as the kind of girl anyone could only hope to end up with. Barry gives one of the most soulful turns of his storied career as the kind of no nonsense mentor who cares a lot more than is visible behind all that gruff. The kind of life affirming story that finds hope in the oddest of places.

-Nate Hill

Indie Gems: 13 Moons


It’s anybody’s guess how ones like 13 Moons slip through the cracks, but in this case it was probably a case of nonexistent marketing and no effort put into a proper release. Despite having a cast that’s speckled with all kinds of big names, character actors and cameos, it has the appearance of barest of bones indie digs, and looks suspiciously like it was filmed bootleg/guerrilla style. I’ve not a clue what the story behind it’s conception is, but it’s a brilliant little flick that you won’t find anywhere these days, but deserves a look. It’s one of those moody, nocturnal L.A. set ensemble pieces in which a group of eclectic characters wander about, intersecting in various subplots until it finally comes together in the third act. This motif is overdone these days, and I just have to throw a jab at Paul Haggis’s Crash, which has aged like Kraft Dinner left for a week in the Florida sun, but my point is that they either work or topple over like a jenga tower buckling under the weight of each character and scenario. This one is so low budget it looks like it was shot on an etch a sketch, but thankfully the story is powerful, emotional, hilarious and strange enough to make a lasting impression. Steve Buscemi and Peter Dinklage are two sad-sack clowns who wander the nightscape, and in fact the image of absurdly out of place clowns roaming the lonely streets of NYC, getting caught up in a raucous night out involving a man (David Proval, an underused talent in the industry) and his young son who is dying of cancer and desperately seeks an organ doner, while his mom (Jennifer Beals) looks for them. Meanwhile there’s an insane clown played by Peter Stormare who’s running about, and when I say insane I do mean it. Stormare is always a little zany and flamboyant, but his work here takes the cake and whips it at the wall. It’s easy for actors to be uninhibited in indie fare like this, free from the prudence of studio chaperones, and he knows this, his character eventually playing a key role but most of the time careening around like a bat out of hell set loose in New York. The cameos are fleeting and fascinating, and one wonders who was buddies with who and pulled what favours to swing their appearances, but it’s nice to see them irregardless. Sam Rockwell and Michael Parks are fun as two bartenders, real life ex-hoodlums Danny Trejo and Edward Bunker show up briefly as.. hoodlums, and watch for quick turns from Pruitt Taylor Vince, Michael Badalucco and others. The film is thoroughly indie that no one has, or probably will ever see it, and my review probably adds to the scant half dozen or so write ups that are out there. Sadly many little treasures like this exist, unbeknownst to most. 13 Moons is a sweet, scrappy, somewhat star studded little piece that is well worth anyone’s time, if they love a good story in an oddball of a package. 

-Nate Hill

Indie Gems: Traveller


Films about con men can go a lot of ways. They can be intelligent with a worthwhile and earned payoff (2004’s Criminal), they can be hollow, nonsensical, all flourish and no gravity (2003’s Confidence) or deviate any which way from these examples. Traveller takes the quaint indie route, meaning I’m probably the sole person on the planet who has even heard of it, despite Marky Mark Whalberg appearing on one of the starring roles. It’s a shame because this is a bona fide gem, a low key little charmer with a roguish lead performance from Bill Paxton, a plot that gets cleverer the more you ruminate on it afterwards, and an easygoing style to it. Marky Mark plays Pat, a young man descended from Irish ‘travellers’, who are essentially gypsy hustlers and live as such in a sleepy North Carolina community. Pat wants to reconnect with his roots, but his kinfolk are a tribal bunch who don’t really fancy outsiders, however distantly related they may be. Cousin Bokky (Paxton) is the only one to take him under his wing, showing the ropes of a very specific, time honoured idiosyncratic lifestyle. Pat is young, cocky and sticks out like a sore thumb in Bokky’s world, who himself is weathered and moves about with ease and experience, slowed down by the dynamic which his young prodigy presents, and also looking for a way out of this life, and even romance with gorgeous Julianna Margulies. As light as these proceedings are, the film doesn’t fail to show the give dangers that being a con man puts them face to face with. It’s all fun and games until… well until it isn’t, and we get to see some of that ugliness rear it’s head, for without it there would be no stakes. Joining them is grizzled and now deceased character actor James Gammon, playing a salty veteran grifter who crosses their paths more than a few times, causing as much trouble in the process. I’ve not a clue how close to real life fact and tradition this film gets, but I imagine fairly on the nose, as it just has that notion that it knows what it’s doing, it’s researched, capable, and does it all with ease and enjoyment. 
-Nate Hill

THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK (2016) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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The forest has always been an essential breeding ground for cinematic insanity, and it’s not hard to imagine why; after all, the things closest to us but which we have really have only begun to understand are among the most terrifying. Writer/Director Joel Potrykus uses the woodlands to summon a consistent air of dread in his latest genre-defying curio, THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK, though it’s hardly the sole location herein whose deep-seeded hallucinatory horrors are so cleverly uprooted throughout the film’s tight, disconcerting narrative.

Ty Hickson, a relative newcomer with only a few credits to his name, stars as Sean, a mentally unstable young man who lives in a trailer somewhere in the woods where he can be alone with only himself and his cat Kaspar to practice alchemy as a means of acquiring a fortune. It’s clear that Sean’s pill-popping may be the source of his wild ambition, but at the very least he’s committed, and his friend Cortez (a hilarious Amari Cheatom) visits often to ensure that he’s got plenty of food, tools, and has his prescription refilled to boot. As good of a friend as Cortez is, he is far from perfect, and one day he forgets to bring the meds.

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Before we can even begin to settle down within the pitch-perfect representation of Sean’s unbalanced psyche, he’s dabbling in black magic as a means of speeding up his process; which of course could potentially be the final nail in the coffin for our tragically delusional friend. It’s at this point that the mood shifts from that of a breezy and often hilarious hang-out pic (in which one of the two people involved only sometimes shows up) with subtle macabre flourishes to a genuinely disturbing body horror film, and it’s the seemingly effortless way in which the narrative alternates between the two – and others as well – that makes it so unforgettable.

The Michigan-based Potrykus prefers to work with restrained budgets and unhinged characters, challenges and limitations which seem to have worked in his favor thus far (this is his third feature, after 2012’s APE and 2014’s BUZZARD). The simplicity of the build-up benefits the lasting ambience of the truly haunting payoff; it’s ultimately more effectively horrifying than the majority of straight genre efforts. In Sean’s phantasmagorical fantasy world, the forest is very much alive with beastly bellowing, low growls, and big splashes (in the wetland areas). No animal, not even a seemingly innocent possum, can be trusted other than the faithful feline, who should be commended for the magnitude of the madness he puts up with here. Everything with any semblance of purity is reduced to savage animalism in the end, and perhaps that is what the film is really about – going backwards through forced progress. Sometimes, we must let nature take its course, for it works in mysterious ways.

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Potrykus dares to find beauty in Sean’s plight, and the fact that he does so in spades is no easy feat. The character’s misery is entirely of his own making, though the implication seems to be that there’s still time for Sean to redeem himself. There’s also a great deal of humor to be wrought from Sean and Cortez’s interactions, with one scene in particular involving the consumption of cat food being a prime example of pure, thoroughly awkward observational comedy. Absurdism runs through this whole strange exercise, though there’s an honest sadness in Sean’s eventual transformation. We’ve been so up close and personal with the unlikely protagonist leading up to this point that there’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be made to witness his ultimate decline on a similarly intimate scale. We grow to like the guy – a lot – in spite of his flaws, though luckily this feels more like fate than outright punishment.

Empathy is the key and love is the spirit. THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK is certainly a strange one by any conventional standards, but it’s just not that simple. There is real humanity here, both in its passionate ode to the benefits of solitude itself and its singular tale of a man running out of nature and losing himself to what’s left of it. Its commitment to staying well within the boundaries of its protagonist’s headspace brings to mind the similar triumphs of John Hancock’s LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, the effects of which are genuinely devastating. Potrykus is more than just one of the most singular minds in contemporary American independent cinema; here, he’s solidified himself even further as one of the most important voices for the outcasts of the silver screen and the damned spaces they occupy. His latest is akin to a waking nightmare – of a similar essence to the abandoned dinghy in the middle of the pond that just begs to be investigated further – and yet it brings such profound joy.

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Indie Gems with Nate: Darkness On The Edge Of Town 

Every once in a blue moon I take a look in the independent section of netflix, scan the message boards on imdb or do a little bit of research I order to find something I have no idea about, to blind watch something obscure and little heard of. Often I get saddled with head scratching bilge water, but sometimes there’s that perfect film out there, just waiting to be taken in and appreciated by more people.  Darkness On The Edge Of Town (is that not a wicked title?) seemed like what I was in the mood for, so I gave it a shot. Blew me away. Like an intoxicating mix of Straw Dogs, Thirteen, Mystic River and others, all set in atmospheric Ireland, and absolutely brilliant. It opens with one of the most beautiful wordless prologues, in which we witness a murder being carried out, and are privy to the perpetrator right off the bat. The victim is young woman Sophie (Maura Foley), leaving her estranged sister Cleo (Emma Eliza Regan) and her best friend Robin (Emma Willis) to put the pieces together, while both navigating broken foster homes, dangerous Travellers and a suspicious police detective. Cleo & Emma are problematic, near feral waifs who grew up as best friends, but with not much other companionship from anyone else. Even Sophie was an absentee sibling with her own problems, as revealed in flashbacks that fill in gray areas. The two have spent a shared childhood and adolescence running wild, and as such see fit to take on their own investigation into the crime, leading to places of darkness, confusion and revelations which will threaten to tear them apart. The film carefully examines the relationship between the two leads, as well as each one’s connection to Sophie and how it affects their choices and outlooks. There’s an ethereal magic to it all, a fairy tale timbre to the soundtrack and photography, hinting towards a shred of innocence still left in these two, despite how bitter life has made them both. Music plays a big part too, especially in the muted opening, a stark, striking way to usher us into the story and an evocative blend of otherworldly suggestion and blunt frankness. The three girls are superb in their roles, and I look forward to seeing more work from them in the future. My only gripe is with story structure, as some of the finer plot turns could have been more precisely pronounced. However, it’s evident these people are fledgling filmmakers still getting a feel for their technique, so all is forgiven.  The misty locale of Northern Ireland takes on it’s own portentous sentience here, as you can guess by the title, which nearly brings the horror genre to mind. The only horror to be found here is in sickness of the mind, and the actions it can lead to amongst people, even those who love each other. Darkness is key here, with but a few rays of light and beauty amidst a thicket of trauma and violence. Check this one out while it’s on netflix, because I doubt it can be found anywhere else at this stage. A gem. 

Indie Gems with Nate: A Broken Life 

A Broken Life stars Tom Sizemore as a hopelessly depressed dude who has the notion of killing himself, after he spends a whole day going around to visit the various people in his life, tie off loose ends, make amends and right some wrongs. It’s a concept that could get silly, theatrical and self indulgent, but it’s handled swimmingly enough here, mostly thanks to Sizemore’s honest work that doesn’t really mug for emotional payoff or squeeze pathos where there’s nothing to mine. This is probably because he’s usually the hoped up maniac who is putting other people in the morgue, and like I always say, casting actors against type brings out the best intuitive nature. He’s also the lead, which means he gets to bring more than just a supporting dose of his power here, assisting the film greatly. He’s joined by his assistant  (Corey Sevier), who records the whole thing on a video camera, adding to the already indie flavor. His adventures include a visit to his old boss (Saul Rubinek) who mistreated him years earlier. Sizemore and Rubinek have faced off before in Tony Scott’s True Romance, in kinetic fashion. Here they’re just as electric, but reign it in a bit as the material requires, crafting one of the film’s most effective scenes. Other ventures include a reunion with his estranged ex wife (Cynthia Dale), and frequent run ins with a sagely homeless man (Ving Rhames) who spouts a lot of benevolent wisdom that seems to be profound and nonsensical all at once. These type of films either work or they don’t, plain and simple. They’re either giant mopey ego balloons or terrific little eleventh hour character studies that come from a place of honesty. This one has a few off key notes of the former, but fpr the most part glides smoothly along the tracks of the latter category, thanks to Sizemore’s committed performance.  

Indie Gems with Nate: Dreamland

   
 

Dreamland is an introspective little indie drama concerning the life of Audrey (Agnes Brucker). She lives in a sleepy trailer park way out in the desert somewhere, far and away from anyone else. She longs for a life somewhere else, but is torn between that and caring for her agoraphobic father (John Corbett), who is severely broken following the death of his wife and her mother. Fresh life is breathed into their environment with the arrival of kindly Herb (Chris Mulkey), and his musician wife Mary (Gina Gershon). Along with them is Herb’s son Mookie (Justin Long is a tad miscast), who immediately has eyes for Audrey. The two strike up an easygoing romance that is tested by her rebellious nature, and the commitment she feels for her ailing father. Corbett is sensational, giving the best performance of the film as a damaged soul that needs caring for, and to find the strength to move on. Mulkey and Gershon are real life guitars strummers, giving their characters an authentic, earthy feel. The title matches the tone nicely; everything is non rushed, relaxed, laid back and dreamy, as one would imagine life out there might be. I was lulled into the hazy routines and moving relationships that bloom for these individuals out on the far side of nowhere. Great stuff. 

The Big Empty: A Review by Nate Hill

  

The Big Empty is a quirky, off kilter little flick that packs a backpack full of borrowed elements from the Coen brothers and David Lynch, before embarking on a perplexing outing into the Twilight Zone. That’s not to say it rips any of these artists off, and indeed it’s got a style and cadence all its own. It just loves other oddballs before it and wants to wear it’s influences proudly. Everyone’s favourite lovable schlub Jon Favreau plays John Person, a flailing, out of work actor. He’s presented with a dodgy proposition by his whacko neighbour Neely (eternally bug eyed Bud Cort). Transport a mysterious blue briefcase to a remote town in the Mojave Desert called Baker. There he will meet a much talked about, little seen individual called The Cowboy (Sean Bean), who will take the case off his hands. He agrees, as he must in order for us to have a film to watch, and heads out to the back end of nowhere. In any respectable piece like this, the town our hero visits must be populated by weirdos, eccentrics, dead ends, missed encounters and an abiding, ever present atmosphere of anomalous peculiarity. Right on time, he meets a host of charming characters, including Grace (Joey Lauren Adams), her sensual daughter Ruthie (Rachel Leigh Cook), Indian Bob (Gary Farmer), grouchy FBI Agent Banks (Kelsey Grammar), and a bunch of others including Daryl Hannah, Melora Walters, Jon Gries, Brent Briscoe, Adam Beach and Danny Trejo. He’s led from one head scratching interaction to the other, each step of the way proving to be a step behind the elusive Cowboy, with no form of coherence appearing to ease poor John’s bafflement. I was reminded of Jim Jarmusch, particularly his masterpiece Dead Man, perhaps because Gary Farmer appears in both, but most likely mainly due to the fact that both films follow a hapless Joe on a journey that doesn’t seem to be going much of anyplace, but holds interest simply by being bizarre enough. Favreau is the only one that doesn’t fit, the outsider whose laid back suburban affability creates friction with almost every individual he meets, all who seem to have wandered in from the outer limits of some other dimension. Sean Bean is relaxed, mercurial with just a dash of danger as The Cowboy, quite possibly the strangest person John meets. The film has unexpected jabs of humour too, which occasionally breach the surface of its tongue in cheek veneer of inaccessibility. Upon meeting Indian Bob, John inquires: “Are you Bob The Indian?”. Bob jovially retorts “No, I’m Lawrence the fuckin Arabian.” Gary Farmer brings the same cloudy, sardonic cheek he brought to the role of Nobody the Indian in Jarmusch’s Dead Man, which had much the same type humour as this one: little moments of hilarity buried like treasures amongst the abnormal. Sometimes I muse that films like these which seem to really go nowhere in high style are there simply to give your brain a workout in odd areas that it wouldn’t normally play in. Set up a voyage like this, lead the audience down a yellow brick road and arrive at.. well basically nowhere in particular, just to chuckle at your efforts to figure it all out, jab you in the ribs and say “Don’t take this shit too seriously, man!”. Or maybe not. Maybe there’s deeper meaning behind the meandering, that will reveal some holy significance. This one, though, I doubt it. It’s pure playtime.