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Review: Indie Film Round Up

Catching Up With Some Independent Film Releases

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is

Credit: Newmarket Films

Above: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is "Hesher."

I have fallen behind on some smaller indie titles and want to make sure people have one last chance to catch a screening before these films leave town. None of these films is perfect, but each has an element of perfection worth checking out.

"Hesher" (playing through May 26 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) provides a showcase for the talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt. In "Hesher," Gordon-Levitt plays the title character, a metal fan who idolizes the late Metallica guitarist Cliff Burton. In addition to Metallica music, Hesher likes homemade tattoos, porn, weed, and burning stuff to the ground. When the troubled and bullied TJ (an outstanding Devin Brochu) accidentally disrupts Hesher's makeshift home in an abandoned building, Hesher simply takes up residence at TJ's place. But no one really notices. Grandma (Piper Laurie) is off in her own world of dementia or Alzheimer's, and TJ's dad Paul (Rainn Wilson) is popping pills to deaden the pain of losing his wife in a car crash. TJ is also devastated by his mom's death and he can't decide if Hesher is a help or a hindrance in coping with both bullies and his grief. The film is really a two-person showcase as Hesher and TJ engage in an odd relationship. Hesher is by no means a role model but his sense of anarchy eventually shakes TJ and his family out of their depression and back into the world of the living.

Spencer Susser makes his feature writing-directing debut with "Hesher." The film is as wildly erratic as its title character but it bristles with a refreshing sense of chaos and destruction. In some ways, though, both the film and Hesher reveal a little too much softness at their core for the film to be truly groundbreaking but they display just enough irreverence to feel like a breath of fresh air.

Gordon-Levitt has a grand time as Hesher, bashing things for no reason and teaching TJ some harsh lessons. He manages to be likable despite all the irresponsible things he does -- like running his van directly into TJ and sending him flying. But underneath all the bravado and anti-establishment posturing, Hesher places a genuine sense of value on family.

The surprise of the film is how well young Brochu stands up to the more experienced cast. Brochu's TJ reveals little in an overt sense but as an actor Brochu tells us volumes about TJ's pent up grief, anger, and frustration. It's stellar work from such a young performer.

"Hesher" (rated R for disturbing violent behavior, sexual content including graphic dialogue, pervasive language, and drug content - some in the presence of a child) is worth seeing for the two lead performances and for its invigorating sense of anarchy. Gordon-Levitt supposedly convinced Metallica to license their music (and in a manner give their seal of approval) to the film after showing them some clips.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Lubna Azabal is riveting in "Incendies."

"Incendies" (currently playing at Landmark's La Jolla Village Cinemas) serves up a complex tale of politics, torture, love, and forgiveness. When Nawal Marwan (the superb Lubna Azabal) dies her will instructs her children, the twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), to go out on a journey to Middle East in search of their father and sibling. Adapted from Wajdi Mouawad's play, "Incendies" tries to explore the cycle of violence that comes from deep-rooted hatred, and seemingly unending war and violence.

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve takes on an ambitious project and that's part of the problem. The film tries to cover so much of the debate about violence, ethnic conflict, torture, and forgiveness that it ends up being overly didactic. It wants to cover so many possible scenarios and include so much anecdotal information that it becomes more convoluted than complex. But Villeneuve and his actors reveal such a passion for their themes that the film is hard to resist or ignore. The story's contrivances are designed to make a compelling pitch for peace and forgiveness, and for finding a way to break the cycle of violence. Plus the performances of Azabal and Désormeaux-Poulin as mother and daughter are absolutely riveting and wracked with such pain that you cannot help but be moved.

"Incendies" (rated R for some strong violence and language, and in French and Arabic with English subtitles) is a powerful and provocative film. It suffers from too much contrivance in its plot and a not altogether convincing timeline (the ages of characters or how old/young they look doesn't really work if you start to do the math) but it tackles important themes in an emotionally compelling manner.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Moving Pictures Films

Keanu Reeves and James Caan as partners in crime in ":Henry's Crime."

The weakest of these indie titles is "Henry's Crime" (opened May 20 at Reading's Gaslamp Theaters), a kind of caper comedy-drama starring Keanu Reeves, Vera Farmiga, and James Caan.

The premise is amusing. Henry (Keanu Reeves) is a seemingly dim man who tends to let things happen to him. For instance, he's tricked into driving the getaway car for a bank robbery and ends up doing time for a crime he didn't commit because he won't give up the names of the real robbers. In jail he meets an old timer named Max (James Caan) who acts crazy at his parole board reviews because he finds it easier to live on the inside than the outside. But Henry has an epiphany. Maybe he shouldn't just retreat from life. So when he gets out of jail he decides to target the bank that he was falsely imprisoned for robbing and he wants Max to help. He also enlists the help of Julie (Vera Farmiga) a struggling actress who ran into him with her car. Julie is performing Chekov at a small theater that just happen to be adjacent to the bank Henry wants to rob. So Henry ends up taking on a part in the play in order to get access the the dressing room with a secret tunnel to the bank.

Caan and Farmiga create enjoyable characters that tweak your expectations. But poor Keanu is even more lost at sea than his character. The true crime in this film is having Keanu do Chekov. Director Malcolm Venville (who did the magnificent "44 Inch Chest") can't make Henry's transition from a wannabe bank robber to a subtle actor credible because Reeves simply doesn't have the chops to perform the sublime work of Chekov. This is problematic because then Farmiga has to convince us that Julie falls in love with Henry in part because he helps to make her play better. The scenes of Reeves at the theater are awkward at best and painful at worst.

But "Henry's Crime" (rated R for language) has a certain charm to its goofy caper and to Caan's capable and amusing performance.

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