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Indie Gems to Brighten the Holiday Weekend


March 30, 2015

This week, I want to shed light on some indie gems that everyone should be on the lookout for, be it in the smaller art house-type theatres or on VOD. Each bodes strong female voices and performances, the latter two - MAN FROM RENO and APARTMENT TROUBLES - find directors pushing the envelope and developing their own skill sets and storytelling techniques, while, EFFIE GRAY, takes us back in time to 19th century London and the story of a scandalous female historical figure.


Leave it to screenwriter Emma Thompson to deliver yet another period piece showcasing a strong female lead with an equally strong female drive voice throughout the film. Then put this solid script in the hands of director Richard Laxton, steep the film in beautiful and immersive production design and high production values, and we are transported into 19th century London and the world of EFFIE GRAY.

A well known true story of sexual repression, not to mention societal scandal, Euphemia "Effie" Gray was a young Scottish lass who, in 1848, married the leading art critic of the day, John Ruskin. Ruskin, 29-years old to the 19-year old virginal Effie, was anything but a loving husband and there has been much debate and discussion over the centuries as to why he never seemed to "rise to the occasion" as a suitable husband for Effie. Moving his bride into the Ruskin family home proved problematic from the start for both Effie and what would become a doomed marriage thanks in large part to a perceived "mama's boy" relationship between Margaret Ruskin and son John.

Although Thompson's script never addresses much of the documented public scrutiny and innuendo over the couple, she delves deeply enough into John and the Ruskin family to provide a strong foundation for the emotional arc of Effie, so much so, that one is touched, moved and cheering for Effie when she falls in love with rising new-artist John Everett Millais while on a doctor prescribed therapeutic stay in Scotland (to get Effie away from her mother-in-law). While the trip is supposed to be for the benefit of Effie and hopefully as a means to save her marriage, it is anything but, as Ruskin brings Millais along and, given he has no interest in his own wife, requests Millais spend time with Effie. Those flirtatious moments lead to a deep love which serves as the impetus for Effie to have her marriage annulled on grounds of Ruskin's impotency. (Omitted from the film is Effie's post-annulment story as she went on to marry Millais and have a very long, very happy and very loving marriage.)

Although somewhat toned down from actual historical documentation of the Effie's life and the "scandalous" nature of her existence, not to mention the complete and utter dysfunction of the Ruskin family, and steers clear of being a psycho-sexual playground, thanks to Thompson's script, Laxton's direction and a stellar performance by Dakota Fanning as EFFIE GRAY, the film soars with pro-feminism thematics. Questionable, however, is Thompson's decision to construct the story through the prudish lens of the 19th century as opposed to that of 21st century sensibility and the forward thinking nature of Effie Gray herself.

Production designer James Merifield, who wowed us with period perfect work in "Austenland", does so to an even greater degree here. Production design is rich and, in the case of the Ruskin manse, bodes an old world heaviness of the burdens of money and cloaked secrets. Complementing Merifield's work is that of cinematographer Andrew Dunn. Dunn, a veteran of period beauty in films like "Miss Potter", "Mrs. Henderson Presents" and "Gosford Park", beautifully sets the visual tonal bandwidth with not only framing, but lighting, most notably with the Ruskin home wherein he creates a sensory experience as if being wrapped in a heavy cotton velvet. Stunning contrast are the exteriors of the Scottish lochs and the third act of the film which takes place in a rustic yet intimate "Quiet Man-esque" cottage. Making extensive use of candlelight and shadow in the cottage scenes, compounded with exquisite rain-soaked jaunts among Mother Nature, Dunn's visuals speak volumes while becoming quietly hypnotic.

Lensing in the Scottish lochs with the cold and rain is a perfect emotional metaphor for Effie's cold and empty life with John. Perfectly contrasting that, however, is the sun and vibrant golden hues and green meadows as Effie and Millais grow closer and Ruskin is in Edinburgh. The cinematographic storytelling is stunning. Similarly, Merifield's design of the cottage with intimate side-by-side corners for Effie and Millais with arrogant cold fish Ruskin across the room tells a chapter all its own.

Performances are extremely strong starting with Dakota Fanning. Fanning nails Effie to a tee. Wearing her heart on her sleeve and her emotions in her eyes , Fanning executes a tacitly methodical eggshell walk that is compelling.

Doing double duty as both screenwriter and actress, Emma Thompson clearly wrote the role of Lady Eastlake for herself as the patter and performance is perfectly Emma. Her Ladyship serves as the one supporting female with a mature feminist take who provides counsel and guidance to the young Effie. As Eastlake, Thompson brings a lightness of heart in attitude and costume. On the flip side of Lady Eastlake is Margaret Ruskin who is horridly delicious thanks to Julie Walters' performance. Take the heart and fun out of Walters' most famous role as Molly Weasley in the "Harry Potter" franchise and toss in a mean-streaked overbearing possessiveness and you get Margaret Ruskin.

Enhancing Walters' performance even further is that of Greg Wise as the wimpy simpy mama's boy, stick-up-the-butt John Ruskin. While Wise is effectively hateful as Ruskin (who in real life is married to Emma Thompson), unsettling is that he is some 20 years older than Ruskin was at the time of his marriage to Effie. While a lack of chemistry between the character of Effie and Ruskin is necessary, the effect of casting an actor so much older than need be in the role is unsettling and disconcerting, especially when viewed in light of the mores of the 19th century. These are real people and events which are being portrayed and Wise's casting discredits the truth.

Where Wise falls short by his age inappropriate miscasting, Tom Sturridge sizzles and charms as Everett Millais. With a boyish shy uncertainty that grows into a deep love, Sturridge reveals emotion through his eyes and tentative nuanced movements, bringing an emotional delicacy to the relationship between Millais and Effie.

Sadly, thanks to legal wranglings over "originality" of the screenplay, EFFIE GRAY has been shelved for the past few years. A beautifully crafted film filled with a haunting stillness and melancholy touched with moments of humor and a final frame that is the epitome of hopeful joy and longing, EFFIE GRAY speaks to the heart and pays soft homage to the woman whose life we see unfold.


A pleasant surprise at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival was the winner of the Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature, the riveting neo-noir thriller, MAN FROM RENO, courtesy of filmmaker Dave Boyle. Self-described as Boyle as a "neo-noir Nancy Drew mystery", MAN FROM RENO boasts high production values, intricate storytelling and dynamic performances.

Filled with MacGuffins, shadowy characters and shrouded in mood and mystery, we meet crime novelist Aki who has "disappeared" from her recent American book tour in San Francisco. In a rural suburb, we meet Sheriff Del Moral investigating first, a man's disappearance, and then a murder. Alone in San Francisco, Aki meets an extremely handsome man in her hotel lobby, spends the night and then he disappears. Sheriff Del Moral has his own problems with disappearing bodies. Through carefully crafted and often deliberately ambiguous twists and turns, events and characters intersect, leading to a tension-filled story by Boyle and writing partners Joel Clark and Michael Lerman that is suspenseful and riveting.

Ayako Fujitani is a delight as the Nancy Drewish Aki and never moreso than when engaging with veteran actor Pepe Serna's Sheriff Del Moral. A familiar face to Boyle films, Hiroshi Watanabe does his usual solid work as Hitoshi while Kazuki Kitamura is delicious as Aki's mysterious one-night stand, Akira.

Lighting and lensing is fluid, calculated, mysterious yet vibrant, telling its own story thanks to the gorgeous cinematography of Richard Wong. Those familiar with Wong may know him best for the breathtaking beauty and texture he brought to "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan". Wong proves he is equally at home with the moodiness of polished noir. Wasting no time in setting the tone, Wong and Boyle dazzle us with the opening sequence filled with fog, haze, not to mention a body falling from the sky, just setting the tone for mystery, intrigue and tension. Divine.

MAN FROM RENO is unlike anything Dave Boyle has done before. Fresh and invigorating, Boyle delves into new territory head-on with a firm grasp on story and development. Tension builds brilliantly. The intrigue established firmly in each of two main plot points and their ultimate intersection and dovetailing into one is the mark of a good storyteller. And, of course, any film that features adorable little turtles in it has got to be a winner!

Characters are extremely well-crafted with performances to match. The whole concept of a female mystery writer writing about a male police detective protagonist is an all too infrequent gender bender. The character of Aki herself is fully realized thanks to Ayako Fujitani who is positively luminous with a wonderful Americanized affability and casualness to her. The camera loves her. The character design is followed through into the visuals with costume designer Irene Chan paying attention to defining wardrobe accessories like a cloche hat and coat; metaphorically in tune with being in the shadows, hiding. But, there is downfall. For a mystery writer writing police stories, Boyle dumbs Aki down, e.g., she opens her hotel room door to someone she doesn't know, she lets someone she doesn't know into her room to use the phone rather than send him to the lobby. Small details in the overall construct, but when Boyle has clearly brought his A-game to the table, I hate to see these little things be overlooked.

Where Boyle still has difficulty, however, is with editing himself. He is sometimes too precious with his story and imagery and at times is his own worst enemy. MAN FROM RENO would follow through more succinctly had he ended the film with one powerful image and done a quick hard cut to black. Instead, we are given multiple false stops and starts which, although in keeping with the narrative, serve to irritate and alienate the audience.

While the music and score on the whole is well-suited to the film, Boyle doesn't use it to its best advantage. As with his ending, he sometimes gives contra-indicators between music and story within a scene that can make for a frustrating experience as the story goes one way and the music another. The conflicting emotion at moments lead to confusion rather than intrigue.

But at the end of the day, Dave Boyle more than proves his mettle. With MAN FROM RENO, he has found his storytelling footing, showing a maturity and depth, expanding his horizons with a polished neo-noir that fascinates and intrigues, and has the audience begging for more.


Few are more excited than I am to see the 2014 LAFF darling, then titled "Trouble Dolls" now retitled as APARTMENT TROUBLES, with a distribution deal and hitting theatres and VOD around the country. Marking the directorial debut of Jess Weixler, an actress whom I have had the pleasure of knowing since her first leading film role in "Teeth" over seven years ago, and am privileged to call "friend", along with her co-writer/director and partner in "trouble", Jennifer Prediger, APARTMENT TROUBLES is beyond fun!

Co-writing and directing, Weixler and Prediger also star in the film as Nicole and Olivia, respectively. Co-dependent best friends and roommates, Olivia is a wannabe actress while Nicole is a wannabe artist. On the verge of eviction from their NY apartment by their landlord and Nicole's much older ex-boyfriend, and with no income to pay the rent in sight, the girls decide they need a vacation and head to Los Angeles to visit Nicole's Aunt Kimberley.

Aunt Kimberly lives a lush life in Beverly Hills thanks to her successful reality talent show a change of scenery and time with her may be just what the girls need to jump start their lives. Laugh out loud comedy abounds as the lusty, libidinous and inebriated Kimberley takes a shine to Olivia, Nicole's illusions about her family are crushed and vulnerabilities test the bounds of friendship.

Well written characters give APARTMENT TROUBLES a strong foundation on which Weixler and Prediger build style and technique, complimenting sharp dialogue and performances with superb production values. With a good eye for framing, the two work with cinematographer Daniel Sharnoff to create a tonal bandwidth that melds visuals and emotion while capturing some true money shots. Color and lighting prove effective storytelling tools, as well, and are never overlooked by Weixler and Prediger as layers to the overall story. Supporting casting is impeccable thanks to fun turns by Jeffrey Tambor and Will Forte and an unforgettable "shades of Karen Walker" showstopper by Megan Mullally.

A new addition to this distribution version of APARTMENT TROUBLES is a charming and eclectic score that engages, delights and mirrors the personalities of Nicole and Olivia.

Put Weixler and Prediger on your radar folks. There's more to these "trouble dolls" and their APARTMENT TROUBLES than meets the eye.


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