Under the Radar: Ryan Prows’ “Lowlife,” Benson/Moorhead’s “The Endless,” and Warwick Thornton’s “Sweet Country”

UnderTheRadarGenreFilmsBannerIFC Midnight / Well GO USA / Samuel Goldwyn

It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I’ve done one of these, but that might be due to the fact there hasn’t been many movies worth writing about that fall under the esthetic with which I started this semi-regular column.

This weekend, three genre films that have run the festival gauntlet are finally being released, mostly in New York City, but never fear, Los Angelenos, because all three will open there soon as well. Two of these movies I saw at Montreal’s Fantasia Festival, an excellent genre fest which I’ve been lucky to attend the last couple years, and one of the films actually world-premiered there.

(IFC Midnight)

LowLifeUTR1IFC Midnight

We’ll start with that last one, which is director Ryan Prows’ feature debut , a deliciously twisted crime-thriller of sorts. It’s very rare when a movie comes along that’s hard to pin down or label in terms of  genre, but Lowlife effectively mixes diverse genres to create a surprisingly funny real world crime-thriller.

I saw Prows’ movie early in the morning at a special press screening set up by Fantasia, so I haven’t had the benefits of seeing it with a real audience to see how they might react, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope people will check it out.

It’s the work of an AFI-originated writing collective known as Tomm Fondle, which includes Prows and his writing partners Tim Cairo, Jake Gibson, Maxwell Michael Towson and Shaye Ogbonna, the latter being the only one with a significant role in Lowlife.

The plot is surprisingly simple considering the number of characters and the ways they connect and interact, but much of it centers around a corrupt restaurant owner named Teddy “Bear” Haynes (the amazing Mark Burnham), who is involved with an illegal organ harvesting and sex trafficking business in the restaurant’s basement.

As the film opens, we see Teddy working with an ICE Agent to bring in a group of illegal Mexicans, who he proceeds to slaughter and disassemble over the opening credits. The next main character we meet is a Mexican wrestler named El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate), legendary protector of his people who has fallen on hard times and is now working as an enforcer for Teddy.  Nicki Micheaux plays Crystal, the owner of a seedy motel whose husband Dan needs a new kidney and the perfect match is their estranged daughter Kaylee who they gave up at birth and is now in Teddy’s charge while pregnant with Monstruo’s baby. Got all that?

Basically, these characters end up interacting with each other in unexpected ways as each is introduced in their own chapter before it all comes together in the explosive finale. What makes Lowlife such an interesting entry into the world of genre is the fact that it’s funny at times but also, there’s stuff being said and done by some of the characters, particularly Teddy, that you’re unsure whether you should be laughing at. There’s also the buddies Randy (Jon Oswald) and Keith (Ogbonna), the latter picking up his friend on his release from jail, after having had a swastika tattooed on his face, which is such a weird idea that’s used more laughs than anything else. The two of them get involved with Teddy’s attempt tto get a kidney for Dan, which as with most things in this film, goes horribly and humorously wrong.

What Prows and Tomm Fondle have done is create a dark comic thriller in the vein of the early work of Quentin Tarantino with a similar level of expletives and gore that’s often taken to entertaining heights. I was mostly impressed with the cast that Prows assembled, because there really isn’t anyone I immediately knew or recognized, but there’s a lot of refreshing new talent on display, particularly Burnham as a fantastic movie villain in the vein of Christoph Walts, and Micheaux as the film’s unlikely protagonist. If you like being shocked and surprised then Lowlife offers lots of unexpected turns in the way the story unfolds.

 (Well Go USA)

TheEndlessFeature4Well Go USA

Next is , the new film from Spring directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who I also interviewed earlier this week. This one premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, though I saw it at Fantasia in a similar press screening as Lowlife.

It’s another mind-twisting thriller, this one starring Benson and Moorhead as brothers who escaped from an “alien death cult” when they were younger who return to the fold after receiving a mysterious video tape. Once they get back to Camp Arcadia, Justin and Aaron discover that things have changed quite a bit since they escaped, and the cult are worshipping an enigmatic creature that lives in a nearby lake.

There’s a lot more to the story and what happens to and between Aaron and Justin once they arrive at Camp Arcadia, but part of me feels that the less known about The Endless going in, the better. While I don’t think the filmmakers are the best actors per se, they do some amazing things for presumably little money, especially in terms of the visual effects that are quite impressive. I’ve already compared the film to the ABC show Lost, because there’s a similar aspect of “what the F is going on?” which permeated that series, but it also has a strange and enigmatic tone that it sometimes reminded me about what I enjoyed about David Lynch’s work, particularly the recent Twin Peaks series.

I’m sure The Endless will be even more of an acquired taste than Lowlife, because there’s plenty of things that aren’t explained, so it requires the viewer to put a lot of the pieces together themselves. There’s also connections to their earlier film Resolution that the viewer will get more out of if they’ve already seen that movie, which frankly, isn’t nearly as refined as The Endless.

RELATED: Interview with The Endless Filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead

 (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

SweetCountryUTR1Samuel Goldwyn Films

Last but not least is Warwick Thornton’s , an Australian Western about the mistreatment of the Aboriginal people. Set in the country’s Northern Territory outback in 1929, the film looks at the treatment of the Aboriginal people that sometimes comes across lie an Australian 12 Years a Slave.
It involves a group of Aboriginal workers borrowed by a war vet named Harry Macsh (Ewen Leslie) who proceeds to mistreat them, and when the youngest one, a boy named Philomac (Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) escapes, March goes after him and ends up in a confrontation with Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), the Aboriginal head stockman who ends up shooting Haryr in self-defense. The film then turns into a journey across the Outback as Sam and Philomac are chased by men who want to bring him to justice, while Sweet Country’s last act is essentially Sam’s trial. The film also stars the ubiquitous Sam Neill as a kindly preacher who tries to help Sam and his family.

Warwick Thornton previously wrote and directed the Australian drama Samson & Delilah, which also dealt with the Aboriginal experience, and he handles their treatment in a similarly harsh and honest way, which makes Sweet Country hard to watch at times. But the screenplay by David Tranter and  Steven McGregor, as is the way Thornton, also the film’s DP,  captures the Australian outback and its inhabitants during this period.

(Note: I have an interview with Thornton that will hopefully run next week that gets more into how Sweet Country ties into the historic trial of Wilaberta Jack, an Aboriginal who was similarly tried for shooting a white man.)

All three of the above films are very good, though I can’t guarantee that all three will appeal to everyone reading this. Sweet Country is a pretty good bet if you’re a fan of Westerns, particularly the Australian kind, but Lowlife is just so entertaining and amusing despite its DIY production values, and I guess the same can be said for The Endless, but in a different way.

All three films are playing in New York right now — all at the IFC Center, in fact — and while Sweet Country is already playing in L.A. and will expand to other cities next Friday, Lowlife and The Endless will be playing there as soon as next Friday.

  | East Coast Editor


Under the Radar is a semi-weekly column focusing on one or two movies that you might have missed or wouldn’t have heard much about since they have limited marketing budgets. These aren’t reviews per se and they won’t always be about movies I necessarily like — just movies you should know about and any social implications they might have that would make them worthwhile viewing.

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Still quiet here.sas

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