Today marks the debut of what I hope to become a semi-regular feature, spotlighting noteworthy independent films that might have slipped past your radar. While it seems as if more people than ever are making movies these days, few filmmakers have the chops to assemble a talented cast, pull off a captivating narrative, or display unique visuals. Here are a couple examples of independent movies that are more than worthy of your time and attention:
A Measure of the Sin (2013) Directed by: Jeff Wedding; Written by: Kristy Nielsen and Jeff Wedding; Based on an original story by: Kristy Nielsen; Starring: Katie Groshong, Starina Johnson and Stephen Jackson; Available on DVD or VOD (Amazon Instant)
Rating: *** ½
This meditation on mental and physical slavery tells the story of Meredith (Katie Groshong), a woman raised by her mother in an isolated farmhouse, under the watchful eye of a domineering man (Stephen Jackson) who shrouds himself in religious zealotry. She shares her repressive abode with two other women who seem resigned to their fate as virtual property. A Measure of the Sin features excellent cinematography, shot in Tennessee on 16 mm film by director/co-writer Wedding, and the wonderful haunting score by J. Alan Morant sets a somber mood throughout. The film, based on a story by Kristy Nielsen (who also co-wrote the screenplay) paints a portrait of hopelessness and desperation, ultimately leading to a heartbreaking finale.
Meredith’s voiceover narration is the film’s strength and weakness. There are some lovely poetic passages that reveal Meredith’s inner thoughts, but in this case less could have been more. In some instances, I was hoping for more than the occasional snippets of dialogue between Meredith and her captor. We never learn very much about him, or his motivations, making him appear more like a caricature than a three-dimensional individual. Compared to the rest of the film, the bear is a bit overwrought as a metaphor for Meredith’s adversity. These are only minor quibbles, however, about an otherwise impressive film. Groshong deserves special notice for her courageous performance, and Wedding does a terrific job maintaining a pervasive sense of melancholy and despair. A Measure of the Sin proves that Wedding is a filmmaker to watch.
Standards of Living (2012) Written and directed by Aaron Mento; Starring: Scott Yarborough, Bill Ferris, Derek Houck, Emily Marsh and Randy Raphael
Available online through http://www.standardsoflivingmovie.com/
The fact that writer/director Aaron Mento shot Standards of Living on an iPad 2 didn’t exactly engender confidence that the finished result would be watchable. The fact that he pulled off a cracking good yarn demands our respect. With a story consisting of equal parts absurd, creepy and funny, Mento proves you don’t need a Hollywood-sized bankroll or elaborate equipment to create a compelling movie-watching experience.
Peter (Scott Yarborough) runs a not-too-successful comic/soothsayer act. With the assistance of his lucky charm (a circus peanut spray-painted silver) he makes half-assed prophecies and tells unfunny jokes to a less-than-appreciative audience (he’s attacked by a pregnant woman). To his surprise, he gets a call from one of the audience members, asking him to make a private appearance for 100 dollars. Eager to meet one of his admirers and earn some quick bucks, Peter arrives at the caller’s house to find a sickly man and his assistant (played by Bill Ferris and Derek Houck, respectively). Peter soon learns about the true nature of his visit, which has little to do with any talent. The man possesses the ability to make objects disappear for 10 minutes and re-appear, and wants Peter to be a part of his latest experiment – to find out what lies beyond.
I don’t want to spoil the odd chain of events that follows, but you can probably guess it doesn’t go very well for our hapless protagonist. Not all of the random elements thrown in (including a visit from a sadistic hired thug) work, but Standards of Living hits much more frequently than it misses. With a plot that keeps us guessing and a twist ending that would make Rod Serling proud, Mento reminds us to be careful what we wish for and there are tradeoffs with everything. Standards of Living has more interesting characters and situations than you find in half a dozen typical productions – and you can watch it for free through the official website. So what are you waiting for?