Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962). The film begins with a car crash, the vehicle careening off a cliff into the murky drink. Though the authorities are unable to find the vehicle’s female occupant (Candace Hilligoss), she eventually emerges, carrying no memory of how she survived. She proceeds with her plan, traveling to Utah for a job as a church organist. From there, writer-director Harvey, along with co-screenwriter John Clifford, comes up with downright ingenious ways to build scenes with unsettling layers with an obviously meager budget. The movie is ticklishly amusing given some of its more dated elements and amateurish acting, but it’s also almost moving in its pure conviction, standing as a sterling example of unabashed independent filmmaking.
Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974). Originally conceived as a sequel to the hit film Coffy, this scruffy revenge saga settles Pam Grier into yet another no-nonsense character with a spot-on name. Like a lot of films that hinge their stories on acts of retribution, there’s a certain amount of laziness to it, relying so heavily on the primal appeal of the instinct that any attempts at nuanced motivation are set aside. Grier is blessed with charisma and hampered by a dearth of acting craft, compounding the sense of the film as a grinding, empty exercise. The film’s primary merit is as a useful artifact of a certain sliver of American cinema, when the sudden swell of content freedom was applied with equal vigor to the aspirational art and the sputtering trash.
Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, 2014). This documentary works incredibly well as a act of specific advocacy, but falters as nonfiction cinema. The likely culprit for the flawed execution is the direct involvement of Maloof in the creation of the film. He was the person who unearthed the treasure trove of the title figure’s photographs, largely snapped while she was serving as the in-house help for a series of well-off Chicago families. Where the film could have used a touch of journalistic distance, Maloof keeps nudging it toward his own righteous passions about the established art world’s reluctance to belatedly embrace Maier’s work. It starts to play less like genuine concern about the artist getting a fair shake and more Maloof pitching a tantrum that the discovery hasn’t played out to his full benefit. I’d wager Maloof’s status as co-director is also instrumental in the film largely side-stepping the introduced notion that Maier would have despised her art being shared so freely after her death. It’s an especially rich conflict to set aside, because Maier’s photography, as selectively curated for the film, practically demands to be seen, earning favorable comparisons to masters of the art form such as Walker Evans and Rebecca Lepkoff.
Dom Hemingway (Richard Shepard, 2013). Maybe it’s the specificity of the genre. Dom Hemingway proves there’s a clear limit to how many films about comically colorful British gangsters the cinematic firmament can bear. The screenplay and direction, both by Richard Shepard, are soundly constructed, and Jude Law delivers admirable in precisely the sort of shift from sexy centerpiece to ragged character role that should be the prevailing course of his career from here on in. And yet it all feels drab and familiar, banging artistic pots that have made more notable noises in the hands of Martin McDonagh or even Guy Ritchie. The film does provide the blessed sight and sound of Khaleesi covering the Waterboys, and for that I will be eternally grateful.
The To Do List (Maggie Carey, 2013). Maybe there will eventually be an inclination to round up, just as is the current norm with loads of nineteen-eighties films aiming for laughs, but I suspect instead that retrospective surveys of comedies from the current era will take note of how many could have achieved greatness were there a little more discipline. The feature film debut of Carey cannily hit a slender mark, appropriating the tropes and rhythms of the dopey sex comedies of the eighties and nineties while simultaneously deconstructing and slyly mocking them. Aubrey Plaza stars as Brandy Klark, uptight valedictorian of her graduating high school class who decides she needs to catch up on her sexual experiences before diving into the deep pool of higher education. She approaches it with the same meticulous organization that earned her top grades. When the character is locked down, Plaza is quite good, showing how confusion and curiosity go hand in hand. But there’s inconsistency across the board, including the outlook of her character, defined by awkward innocence one moment and barbed self-assurance worthy of April Ludgate the next. It’s consistently amusing and just insightful enough to be disarming, but it also lets sloppiness undercut its smarts to a unfortunate degree.