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Review: Indies at the Gaslamp

Four New Independent Films Open Today

Harmain. Ana, and Kelyda are the

Credit: Shadow Distribution

Above: Harmain. Ana, and Kelyda are the "Whiz Kids."

Audio

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando looks to Reading Cinemas' policy of showcasing indie as well as mainstream movies at their downtown Gaslamp Theaters.

Transcript

Today the Reading Gaslamp Theaters are opening a quartet of movies that represent the full spectrum of indie filmmaking. Listen to my radio feature or read the review.

The Reading Gaslamp in downtown San Diego isn't your typical mainstream theater. It's serving up a diverse sampling of independent films including an ultra-low budget American horror film, a documentary, a foreign art house release, and a moderately budgeted indie film. But according to Reading Cinema's Ellen Cotter that's just part of their screening agenda since they took over the theaters in 2008. In addition to exhibiting movies from the major studios, she says, "Reading Cinemas is committed to increasing the variety of quality independent and foreign films in San Diego."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: IFC

Stephen Weigand in "Victim."

Without Reading, we would not have gotten "Four Lions," "The Milk of Sorrow," or "No One Knows About Persian Cats." The theater seeks out some of these films, is solicited by distributors for others, and will rent out one of its 15 screens to independent producers looking to self distribute. The American indie film "Victim" is one that IFC Midnight pitched to Reading about showing. IFC Midnight is a label specializing in genre filmmaking. "Victim" is a mash up of films like "Saw," "The Human Centipede," and "Last House on the Left." It begins like many of the recent spate of torture porn with someone being held captive. As part of the IFC Midnight series, "Victim" only plays Friday and Saturday late night (not quite at midnight but rather ending at midnight.)

But what begins as a standard B-horror flick develops some unexpected and occasionally clever twists as it transforms into an odd tale of revenge. The film does suffer from some extremely amateurish acting that distracts from the narrative. But those are the dangers of no-budget filmmaking; you don't get to choose the actor you want.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Shadow Distribution

Harmain Khan in the documentary "Whiz Kids."

Also working with a low budget but hiding its economic shortcomings better is the uplifting documentary "Whiz Kids." This film celebrates smart teens who push themselves to achieve in math and science.

Harmain: I always place all the pressure on myself, I don't think my mother has looked at my report card since kindergarten.

Harmain is one of three students that filmmaker Tom Shepherd focuses on. Their youthful enthusiasm, and impressive enterprise and intelligence are downright inspiring. Plus it's refreshing to see a film focus on the positive things kids are doing.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Indiepix

Marissa Gibson in "Samson and Delilah."

Young people with fewer options ahead of them can be found in Thorton Warwicks's "Samson and Delilah." Don't be fooled by the Biblical sounding title, this film is very much set in a contemporary and rather godless world. The film follows two teenagers from a remote Aboriginal settlement in Central Australia. Samson walks around in a haze after sniffing paint and gasoline all day. He hesitantly finds a girlfriend in Delilah who spends most of her time tending to her elderly grandmother. But it's a harsh environment. When her grandmother passes away, the local women come to beat Delilah up and reprimand her for not taking better care of the old woman.

Thorton's feature debut calls to mind such films as "Walkabout" and the recent Latin film "Alamar." All these films share a graceful naturalism as they document their characters' lives. These films feel unscripted even though the directors of all three are carefully crafting their stories. There's little dialogue in "Samson and Delilah" and the film has a gritty, sun-baked poeticism to it.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Roadside Attractions

Jack Huston and Mena Suvari in "Hemingway's Garden of Eden/"

The final indie film opening at Gaslamp today is "Hemingway's Garden of Eden." Ironically, the film with the biggest budget and a veteran director at the helm delivers the weakest production. John Irvin directed his first film "The Dogs of War" back in 1980 and has more than a dozen features under his belt. Yet his direction here feels stilted. Just listen to the stiff narration by the film's main character.

David: It was only six weeks since we first met in Paris and had a whirlwind romance but I wasn't overly concerned with my writing or anything else.

You'd never guess that this film was based on a Hemingway novel. The acting rings false and the clothes, rooms, and locations never feel lived in. You always feel aware that you are on a movie set watching actors perform.

Although "Hemingway's Garden of Eden" comes up short, the other three titles opening today offer a fine array of contemporary independent filmmaking and we have Reading Cinemas to thank for bringing them to our attention.

Note that for the opening night of "Whiz Kids," there will be a Q&A with Larae Bakerink, president of San Diego Mensa.

If you are a KPBS Film Club member, you can login to get discount coupons for the opening weekend of these films.

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