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Toe to Toe (2009)
Two girls, a net, and a pouty face.
Toe to Toe depicts the struggles of two girls who go to school, and occasionally play full matches of lacrosse together (when not in the midst of jealous fights). The film as a whole often covers the two teens separately, or hones in on one individual from separate sides of a room. In one particular moment where the girls are at the same 'Go Go Party' (basically a DJ on stage performing), and are jealously glaring at one another, the movie takes an eye-roll worthy turn, as the focus is placed on an impromptu dance-off in the middle of the crowd. Why are these a requirement for every filmed concert scene? Has anyone ever actually witnessed a dance battle that wasn't an elaborate, ironic joke? Also a source of frustration are the racial remarks from all parties involved. These remarks feel so manufactured and like a bad Nineties film crutch, which is completely opposite the strong family interactions that happen to feel both genuine, and realistic. The unflinching focus on reckless, underage sex (which is not played for laughs as you've come to expect from a teen film) is a main focus for the entire film... a quick way to take a serious turn. But while it comes dangerously close to being disgustingly depicted (keyword: underage), it becomes almost heart-wrenching to see the effects it has on choice characters. Sonequa Martin (as Tosha) contributes a great deal to this film. She never once looks like she's acting - a rare commodity for someone of her presumed age. You get so familiar with her as a person, while watching Toe to Toe, that you start to question where else you've seen her before this! Sonequa simply nails the role, and brings weight to the picture that it was desperately lacking. Toe to Toe ultimately improves in time for the end, in part due to the characters universal revelations that they are truly messed up (in more ways than one), as well as their subsequent responsibility taking, in atonement for their mistakes. The conclusion itself makes sense, and isn't forced... not something I've come to expect from an contemporary independent drama.
American Shopper (2007)
Normal people pulling together for something different.
The best documentaries about common people are those that pick the kindhearted to focus on. Fifteen minutes into this film, you're completely drawn in to Jonathan Sawyer's plan. He wants to start a sport all about performing in a supermarket with shopping carts - called Aisling. And sure enough, people get behind it, including his town's mayor, and the local grocery chain. The stories of the contestants envelop you one by one, and even the few aislers with "dark sides" are only mildly dark. Though this sport didn't catch on and become professional, or even annual, for this brief moment in time, excited people from all walks of life pulled together to make it special.
Mechanical Love (2007)
The future of humanoid robotics.
There's a lot to like about Mechanical Love. For the most part however, the best parts are those NOT featuring the main subject, an engineer named Hiroshi Ishiguro. Ishiguro has made an exact replica of himself, but is still working out the kinks to make it a perfect robot. The lips don't move, but he blinks. He can talk, but only via a computer and microphone. Otherwise, his skin, eyes and hair are creepily realistic. And this seems to be the part that worries everyone around Ishiguro, including his poor daughter (whom he also made a clone robot for), who is scared to touch the geminoid. The problem with Ishiguro, you quickly find, is that he's somehow more lifeless than the robot he's created. The expressive robot hilariously slumps back in the chair and rolls his eyes back when unplugged - just like you'd expect to happen. A poor main subject was chosen for this documentary, because the secondary focus is on needy people who have already been given experimental dolls to keep as pets. These dolls are furry white baby seals. These have been seemingly passed out to certain testers, including nursing home patients. One elderly woman loves the doll dearly, and pets it like a cat. She talks to it so much that her voice is hoarse when it's time for the day's choir rehearsal, leaving her unable to sing with the residents. This particular woman is massively misunderstood. People forget how lonely a nursing home can be for a resident (having a grandmother with Alzheimer's disease will change you very quickly). This woman explains to the camera that she does not care what anyone thinks about her. The doll makes her feel young again, almost as if she were caring for a child. So it's disgusting to see other residents talking about her affection for her only friend. This film is all about these extremes... people who embrace the arrival of lifelike robots, and those who refuse to even acknowledge them.
Barstool Cowboy (2009)
Bad camera-work holds them back.
Barstool Cowboy stars Darrel Hammond and Avril Lavigne look-a-likes Tim Woodward and Rachel Lien (As Mick and Arcy, respectively) as two more characters out to find themselves, or their former selves, in the case of Mick.
Mick has just been dumped by his girlfriend in a "cruel way" (as he describes it), and has confined himself - and his briar patch beard - to a stool at the local bar. As he discusses his problem with whomever listens, he confides that he's willing to stay in the stool for three months... seemingly hoping his old girlfriend will come looking for him in that time, so that he may beg for forgiveness.
Shortly into his tenure at the bar, a woman is spotted outside, drawing sketches of the building. The men inside complain about women like her, and how they can be spotted from a mile away simply by spotting their Chuck Taylor's. After Mick blows off the drunk suggestions of the patrons, he goes outside to see what she's up to.
Soon enough, Mick finds himself enamored with Arcy, the fittingly artsy student. They spend several days together, going from place to place, while Arcy unknowingly starts to release Mick from his lull - to his amazement. Unfortunately, around the same time, Arcy begins telling Mick - "Don't fall in love with me".
As we follow this love story, we quickly get wrapped up in the characters of Mick and Arcy - you want to know how their story will end, despite some nagging issues with the film. The actors that portray Mick and Arcy are the two best on screen - this is very evident from as early as the second and third scenes of the movie. When you can clearly see that certain people were picked to star in a movie because they were better than the other eight people that showed up on casting day, you get a sinking feeling.
The camera-work and lighting do not match this story at all. The lighting is often so harsh, and the camera is so consumer grade, that you can't help but think you're watching an extended online video. The best indie movies are those that you don't realize are independent until you read the back of the box. I feel bad for the writer and director, because had it not been for the areas I mentioned that lacked, this movie would've exceeded my expectations.
But as it stands, I cannot overlook the acting of the background actors, the camera-work of a supposed "professional", and the poor planning of the producers, amongst this otherwise great movie.
Official Rejection (2009)
Changes your opinions about everything!
Official Rejection is the true story of a group of filmmakers from all parts who are trying to accomplish a single goal: To get their film in a festival. The focused stars of this documentary find themselves quickly rejected by certain big-name fests, despite the effort required to even be considered for them. Disheartened, but not easily broken, the filmmakers keep sending out their films, to smaller screenings across the U.S.
The journey of this film achieves something big that is a rarity in the documentary genre. It's smirk-out-loud funny from beginning to end. With hilarious animated cut-scenes, to the visible struggles of average Joe directors, to astute observations from the front lines and the flashbacks of everyone involved; every piece of this film makes you grin from ear to ear.
So, it's strange that this same film is also one that tells the horrifying story of self-publicizing, penniless movie creators. O.R. is eye-opening, and easily bests all other attempts at revealing an inside view of the movie industry (notably This Film Is Not Yet Rated). It's one of the only films I know of that even mentions the independent film industry in a truthful light.
Painful it may be, but if your head stops shaking at the absurdity of the festival industry long enough to hear the story being presented, it will completely change your opinions on how you absorb and critique films.
Cookies & Cream (2008)
An adult webcam star becomes a woman.
From the outside, Cookies & Cream may seem similar to another indie film named "One Hour Fantasy Girl". One Hour Fantasy Girl even follows a similar path - that of a girl on a struggle to find herself, while working an odd-job to pay the rent.
However, now I have a better frame of reference, having watched Cookies & Cream; and I can clearly see what is lacking in 1HFG that C&C has in abundance... heart.
Carmen (Jace Nicole) has an 8 year old daughter that she gets to see only three days a week. She has a high-rise apartment, but a lack of a substantial and steady relationship. The only men she sees are those she meets through work on her website. A decidedly adult web page featuring only herself, called Cookiesandcream.com. Every man she works with tries to take it further, but she won't allow it. They often spew pick-up lines out of a book, and Carmen wants a truthful person who will just be himself.
By chance, not too long into her story, Carmen meets a man who seems to fit all of her criteria... and she starts to fall for him. But the guilt hangs over her, as she tries to figure out how to tell her new boyfriend about how she makes a living (only going so far as to say she works with computers).
Jace Nicole is the biggest revelation amongst this cast. She shines in every scene, and just when you expect her to crack under the pressure of an emotional moment, she somehow keeps the conversation real - and believable. The director does a good job of getting into the head of most of the characters in the short span of the movie - rather than glossing over half of them in favor of quickly telling a story.
Perhaps my only real complaints are debatably minor, but I couldn't shake the thoughts of them even after the film ended. Several of the characters smoke cigarettes in plain view, without hesitation - something I thought we were getting away from in films. It really sullies the reputation of the actors to see them take something that's so important (their lives) so lightly.
And one other bother is the way some of the earlier conversations in the film are presented. Characters are filmed in the city streets of New York, and surrounding areas - but the problem is how they are recorded. They are shown from 100 feet away or more - with their voices sounding dubbed in, whether they are or not. When you're watching conversations in a film, you want to pay attention to the faces, the gestures - all things that need to be experienced up close and personal (not from the bushes across the way). When these cannot be seen, ranging from 30 seconds to a minutes worth of staring at their backs, the viewer becomes frustrated.
These moments do make you appreciate how important it is to see your actors when they deliver their lines. If there were many more moments that could not be seen, it could've ruined the film.
However, as it stands, I can easily say that this film presents a modern drama in a new way. If this had turned out to follow the methods of every romantic "comedy", while trying to pass as a drama, I certainly would've considered it horrible. But with the mantra of our main character Carmen being "The show must go on", It definitely does, and without the flaws of a big-budget production. This is the kind of film that can only ever exist in the independent realm, because no major studio would have enough guts to film the story of an adult film star in any way but a comedy.
iMurders is a film about a small group of cyber-friends that meet-up once a week for an online chat. In their voice/video/text chats, the host (a special effects artist) chooses a game to play that lasts all month long. The winner of the final round gets a prize from the host's memorabilia collection.
But being iMurders, things obviously go a lot further than that premise. The month's game is supposed to be a Survivor style game, in which chat members are "knocked off" one by one for saying the pre-determined code word. However, the host of this game is very quickly incapacitated, and the self-ordained replacement host decides the new rules of staying alive in this game.
This film struck me with the number of character actors present... it runs the gamut from Tony Todd and Frank Grillo to the wonderful Gabrielle Anwar. However, even though those names get first billing, the spotlight here is placed on the less recognizable actors, such as Terri Colombino (the lead in iMurders).
Ironically, Colombino bears a striking resemblance to Diane Lane, star of the similarly-themed (if much worse film) Untraceable.
So, with all of these familiar actors finally getting their due, does the film do them justice? For the most part, it actually does! The plot is very interesting, and more interweaving than it seems to be in the first hour of the movie. There haven't been many good movies made about the dangers of "cyber-friends" that you've never met in person. And while the line-writing struggles to express any character's knowledge of the internet (multiple characters stiffly insert the word "computer" in front of other technology-based words, just in case you don't know what a chat room or keyboard is), ultimately the plot matters more than the believability.
By the end, you only have so many options for who the chat room killer may be, and the reveal came way out of left field. It doesn't explain everything in the end though, which leaves you hanging with some plot gaps (such as the FBI's immediate knowledge of the chat room... the FBI didn't even know how to stop 9/11 from happening, so you can't tell me they caught on to the chat room the second its visitors started becoming victims), but I can forgive some things ultimately because the rest of the movie makes up for it easily.
One Hour Fantasy Girl (2009)
Life needn't be so depressing.
One Hour Fantasy Girl, directed by Edgar Michael Bravo, is a film about a young woman named Becky (Kelly-Ann Tursi), a girl with an unusual day job.
Becky earns money as a "clothed escort" via a Fantasy Girl branded website. Her business partner routinely drops her off at a meeting place, and she then proceeds to fulfill men's fantasies... as long as they stay within her guidelines: "no kissing or sex allowed".
Becky was abused as a child, and makes a scapegoat out of that situation, claiming that she had no choice but to take such an unusual career path. As she continues working, the jobs being to get increasingly perverted, until her situation finally boils over. The camera follows Becky like a fly on the wall, and everything is so naturally shot, with realistic lighting, that you could easily confuse this with reality. It's only fitting that this is based on the true stories of real-life call girls.
The acting matches the over-the-shoulder cinematography, and is top notch. The characters rarely smile, and never raise their voices loud enough to wake the neighbors. Fitting for their bizarre circumstances. But there is a point when you have to have to start wondering when the depressive scenarios will come to an end, or at least one character will find what they're looking for. When that does happen, it's too little too late. There's no way around it... you leave it depressed, and even a cherry ending would've felt wrong, given the rest of what you've seen. I can understand a character experiencing tough times, but you can make a better story of that than One Hour Fantasy Girl accomplishes.
The Open Door (2008)
But I don't WANNA be a pirate!
In The Open Door, a teenage girl named Anjelica (played by Cathrine Georges) is stuck at home after being grounded... forcing her to miss a party she'd been planning to go to.
As her parents leave to have fun away from home, Anjelica sulks, and decides to listen to the radio. As the night progresses, she finds herself listening to a pirate radio show that runs only once a month - the night of a full moon. Fed up with her putrid, steroid-chugging friends, she decides to call into the station, and speak with the prophet/DJ.
The Oracle, as she calls herself, answers at the station, and asks Anjelica to make a wish for anything she wants. Anjelica is hysterical at the actions of her assumed boyfriend, and hastily wishes for him and everyone around him to leave her alone, among other things. Soon enough she starts hearing and seeing horrible things as a result of her wish. And her friends aren't exactly happy with her wishes.
While watching this, I could certainly tell that the cast was having a ton of fun when they made The Open Door. When the cast is enjoying themselves, the viewer can relax knowing that they're going to be entertained. I wasn't entirely clear on what was happening to Anjelica's friends... at times they looked like zombies, not to mention acting like them. But when I realized what they were really up to, I was pleased with the story turn.
Most horror movies in this vein would take the familiar path of having one guy carrying an over-sized knife, on a path of bloody destruction. I appreciate that The Open Door takes none of the familiar clichéd paths that everyone's grown extremely tired of. The effects are solid... people are flying everywhere, bodies are set on fire, eyes are glossed over. All of this is well done for an independent film.
Perhaps the one fault of the movie is the ending. I know that it's very hard to craft a good ending to go with a great movie - especially hard for a horror/thriller. There's only a handful of ways to end a movie where so many die. The ending is a *flash-crang* scene, if you'll allow me a new term for a scene you'd find in most every scare film out there. Ending a fully original movie with something I've seen before is a slightly disappointing last impression to leave.
The Rock-afire Explosion (2008)
Can animatronic musicians give you chills?
The Rock-afire Explosion was an 80's hair band that played most often in Showbiz Pizza Place establishments. The band was fronted completely by animatronic musicians, including bears, a wolf and drunken bird.
Aaron Fechter was the creator of The Rock-afire band, but his first idea to change the world was a gas-saving car! He literally built a car from the ground up... and while it worked, money was an issue holding back production of the vehicle. Fechter toiled with inventions and ideas, before being commissioned to create something new - robotic animals.
Soon enough, Showbiz Pizza and The Rock-afire Explosion were a match made in heaven. Pizza and robots?! What else could one ask for out of a restaurant? Showbiz built a great reputation among families, and kids were drawn by not only "tokens for good grades", but most importantly, the multi-instrumental band that played for patrons, while still having time to crack jokes with one another. Inevitably, all good things come to an end, and this documentary is the story of what happens to the people that loved the franchise and band the most.
At the beginning of this film, I knew only of the wonderful modern online videos of the band, created by dedicated fans. These same people are featured here - namely Chris Thrash. Thrash has spent his life trying to get the band back together, and with the help of Fechter, he just might.
I didn't expect to be moved watching this, but when it comes to the story of this beloved family business, you cannot help but to be. Thrash is such a kind-hearted person, and the only thing he has ever wanted is to see the animal band back in action. Fechter, the creator and sole owner of the remaining sculpted band members, has spent his life focused on the product (even through the decline), but he's proud to have created something people still enjoy today. These characters are real people, and their stories are just as lovingly depicted as the robots that give the film its name. Hopefully thanks to this documentary we will see them for many more years to come.