The Anatomy of Monsters (Tabitha Bastien, Jesse Lee Keeter, Conner Marx, dir. Byron C. Miller)
This ultra-low-budget thriller starts out following Keeter's creepy loner Drew as he appears to select a murder victim at a bar, only to turn the tables on him when his pretty female target Sarah (Bastien) turns out to be even more dangerous. The two bond over their shared homicidal impulses in a sort of Before Sunrise
for serial killers, although the bulk of the movie is devoted to flashbacks chronicling Sarah's development as a murderer. Bastien is strong as Sarah, making a cold-blooded killer into a likable and even occasionally sympathetic character, and her journey to becoming a confident, methodical killer is well-paced and convincing. Slightly less convincing is her gooey romance with her hipster boyfriend, meant to represent her inner conflict about her desire to kill. She's clearly a monster (as the title indicates), so it's only a matter of time before she gives in to her dark side. Keeter ends up with a much smaller role, and his character's murderous compulsions are less fully realized. I was eager to see the two of them team up, but the story eventually goes in a more downbeat direction, and the ending is a bit anticlimactic. The production values are low, and while director and co-writer Miller makes decent use of limited resources, the visual style is crude and some of the effects are shaky. Still, this is a promising second feature from a filmmaker who could certainly do more with a bigger budget. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.
Free of Thought (John Russell, Mella Gardner, dir. Nathan Barillaro)
This Australian indie drama stars Russell and Gardner as a couple experiencing tension in their relationship while they collaborate on their own indie film, and it works best when it focuses on the couple's increasingly strained dynamic. Writer-director (and editor and producer) Barillaro starts things off slowly, establishing the couple's casual chemistry and genuine rapport, before picking at little threads that blow up into big conflicts. A lot of the scenes feel sort of inconsequential, but they add up to a portrait of a relationship, in which the meaningless moments are actually just as meaningful as the more clearly important ones. Although the movie fits with the mumblecore aesthetic in a lot of ways (the characters are often inarticulate mumblers, living aimless lives, and the movie fixates on the mundane), Barillaro's visual style is more polished, and there are a number of very well-composed shots that say as much about the central relationship as the dialogue does. Disappointingly, the entire last half hour switches gears, ditching Gardner's Mel (and the saga of the movie the couple is making) entirely, as Russell's John moves to Montreal and doesn't do much of anything. The lack of closure is probably intentional, but John on his own isn't particularly interesting, and nothing he does in Montreal connects back to the first two-thirds of the movie in any illuminating way. It ends up doing a disservice to the more interesting, ambitious female character in favor of the entitled male stoner, and ends the movie on a sour note. Available on No Budge.
Mercy (James Wolk, Tom Lipinski, Caitlin FitzGerald, dir. Chris Sparling)
Two sets of half brothers fight over the legacy of their dying mother in this odd, disjointed thriller. The movie starts out as a family drama about the four brothers coming together to pay final respects to their mother at the house she shares with her second husband (father of two of the brothers). But the family conflict soon becomes secondary to a nighttime home invasion by masked criminals, who may or may not be the more aggressive set of brothers. Writer-director Sparling keeps things deliberately vague for much of the movie (characters say things like "We gotta do what we gotta do"), and around the halfway point he circles back in time to show the same events from a slightly different perspective, which is not particularly illuminating and mainly leads to a lot of repetition and filler (now we get even more specific detail about how that guy got to that door!). The action is often murky, making it hard to tell who's attacking whom, and the characters' motivations are just as murky, so it's also hard to care about what happens to any of them. The twist ending throws the movie into supernatural/sci-fi territory without following through on it, making the entire preceding 90 minutes feel like a crude waste of time. Available on Netflix.
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