Each month, the Indie Prof reviews a current film in the theater and a second film or series available on DVD or an instant-streaming service. Follow “Indie Prof” on Facebook for updates about film events and movie reviews.
Always Shine (2016)
This stylish and atmospheric thriller is the second feature film directed by indie star Sophia Takal. Known mostly for intense parts in small, independent films, Takal seems to have absorbed everything she has seen in the indie world and added a dash of Brian De Palma and David Lynch. The result is an engaging and aesthetically pleasing mix of style and substance about the trials of actresses, their competitive juices, and the incessant objectification of women in Hollywood. The film is strongly directed, expertly acted, and so intricately structured that we are sometimes lost and sometimes grounded in this bizarre world. It all adds up to an interesting and worthwhile experience.
The story concerns two young actresses and friends, Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald), who are constantly competing for the same parts. They decide to take a weekend trip to Big Sur to re-establish their friendship while relaxing and rejuvenating. But relaxing and rejuvenating turns into jealousy and competition at every turn and in every situation, no matter how little, and we get the feeling that things will not turn out well. Add a dash of Hitchcock here, and this entertaining film takes us directly where it wants us to go. Where does it go? Well, far be it from me to spoil the fun.
This is certainly an actor’s film, as Davis and FitzGerald give excellent performances guided by Takal. The women inhabit their parts perfectly, with Anna as the over-the-top emotional to the more measured Beth. Both have their moments, and they shine. Many times in independent films we get solid writing and very good performances, but the formal apparatus—cinematography, editing, sets, sound—can be inconsistent. That is not the case here: all of these aspects heighten the mood and add to the tension, especially the excellent cinematography from Mark Schwartzbard (another indie staple). The music from Michael Montes is particularly good, recalling the great thrillers from the aforementioned De Palma and Lynch. All of the production elements are highly professional. Add to that the thematic aspect of women in Hollywood and the film gives us the total package: smart, entertaining, and layered.
Starts at the Sie Film Center on Dec. 2.
You will like this film if you enjoyed Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, or The Black Dahlia.
Ray Donovan (Showtime)
“Tip the country on its side, and everything that falls loose lands in L.A.”
So says one of the main characters in Showtime’s can’t-take-your-eyes-away from gritty series, Ray Donovan. With four seasons in the can, the series has a devoted following and has been renewed for a fifth season. It has won several Golden Globe Awards and has been nominated for everything from Best Television Series to Best Actor in a Television Series. That best actor nominee, Liev Schreiber in the title role, is outstanding as the Irish-American, Boston-born, now L.A. resident who is a “fixer” for the rich and famous. He arranges bribes, he makes payoffs, he makes threats, and he does whatever it takes to clear his clients. Schreiber is cool, tough, street-smart, clever, sexy, and downright devious as the bruising and brooding lead character. He is the Michael Corleone of his world, and he alone makes the series worth watching.
But there is much more to it than that. The entire ensemble cast is excellent: Jon Voight as the mercurial Mickey Donovan, Ray’s father; Paula Malcomson as Ray’s fiery wife Abby; Eddie Marsan and Dash Mihok as his brothers Bunchy and Terry; Stephen Bauer and Katherine Moennig as his loyal associates Avi and Lena; Pooch Hall as his half-brother Darryl; and Kerris Dorsey and Devon Bagby as his son and daughter Bridget and Conor. There is not a weak link in the group and all the actors work off each other naturally and viscerally. If you’ve followed this column over the years, you know that I always say good acting and good writing go hand-in-hand, and that couldn’t be more true here—the writing is spectacular.
Beyond the writing and acting, the production values are also top-notch. The cinematography is particularly good, and the editing is sharp and fast—many times the film will cross-cut between multiple storylines and then find common ground between them in the final scene. Such sequences remind of the brilliant baptism from The Godfather, marrying theme to form.
Season 1 starts out fast and the series really never slows down. As we race through the L.A. streets, we move as fast as the main character rushing to his next fix. Ray fixes for movie stars, sports stars, executives, rap stars, and even one self-help guru. The cast of characters with whom he comes in contact is never-ending and endlessly fascinating. You will race through the first four seasons as well, just happy that Ray never knocks on your door.
There is quite a bit of harsh language, nudity, sex, and violence.
You will like this show if you enjoyed Sons of Anarchy, Homeland, and/or Game of Thrones.
Available on-demand at Showtime or on Amazon.
Vincent Piturro, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Cinema Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.