About halfway through the psychodrama “Clara’s Ghost,” the emotionally fragile Clara Reynolds — played by Paula Niedert Elliott — is squirming through dinner with her needy, competitive daughters and husband, when she slowly scrapes a long fingernail against the table, until it breaks. This scene is the essence of “Clara’s Ghost,” a film that keeps raising the discomfort-level, scene by scene, daring to risk losing the audience if something snaps.
Granted, the movie won’t be everyone’s idea of a good time. But given how many American independent films prioritize being adorably quirky, there’s something refreshing about one that would rather be bruising … especially given the project’s pedigree.
“Clara’s Ghost” was written and directed by Paula Niedert Elliott’s daughter Bridey Elliott, who plays Riley, a struggling actress who had a hit TV show as a pre-teen alongside her more successful sister Julie — played by her real-life sister Abby Elliott. The Reynolds sisters’ father is played by the Elliot sisters’ father, Chris Elliott, who’s doing an exaggerated version of himself: a well-known comic actor whose outsized personality is making it harder and harder for him to find work.
In other words: This is practically an Elliott family snapshot, taken at their own Connecticut home (and photo-bombed by Haley Joel Osment, as Riley and Julie’s old high school pal and pot-dealer). It’s an un-airbrushed picture, showing a family that’s basically loving but also obnoxiously egomaniacal — and which takes their long-suffering matriarch for granted.
From Stella Mozgawa’s dissonant, percussive score, to cinematographer Markus Mentzer’s boxy 4:3 framing, to a story that sees Paula slowly being driven mad by a heavily symbolic paranormal visitor, every element of “Clara’s Ghost” is meant to be memorably offbeat. The movie’s grating a lot of the time, but often very funny, and perversely fascinating. Most importantly, it's always as honest as it is painful.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
Playing: Starts Dec. 6, Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood; available Dec. 7 on VOD
Veteran character actor Ron Perlman looks very much at home in “Asher,” playing a grizzled hitman who’s begun second-guessing his career-choices, perhaps too late. Journeyman director Michael Caton-Jones and screenwriter Jay Zaretsky — in close collaboration with Perlman — have created a character here who’s very reminiscent of literary pulp antiheroes like Donald Westlake’s Parker, except more weathered and sympathetic.
Much of the movie follows the budding relationship between Asher and his Brooklyn neighbor, Sophie (Famke Janssen), who’s been caring for a mother with dementia. They’re both up at odd hours, so they talk a lot — sometimes in coded language — about what they’re each going through. He can’t say much about his job, but like any other aging contract-worker, he worries about his younger competition (played here by Peter Facinelli) and his demanding employer (Richard Dreyfuss).
The milieu in “Asher” might be over-familiar to anyone who’s read or seen a lot of stories about the pathetic lives of moody assassins. But Perlman has a physical presence that makes him look like he stepped off the cover of a paperback. He brings soul to this old hired gun, who’s become a creature of habit, mired in a daily routine of killing other people and waiting to die.
Rated: R, for violence and language.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Playing: Starts Dec. 7, Vintage Los Feliz 3; also on VOD
The writer-director team of Nick Chakwin and David Guglielmo go impressively old-school for their neo-noir “Hospitality,” calling back to one of the genre’s canonical texts: James M. Cain’s novel “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” With its rural setting and deeply damaged characters, the movie functions more as a study of loneliness and desperation than a story of betrayal and murder.
Emmanuelle Chriqui aces one of the most substantial roles of her long career, playing Donna, a small-town ex-prostitute who lives with her brain-damaged teenage son at the bed-and-breakfast she runs. Her latest guest, Cam (Sam Trammell), is an ex-con looking for money he stashed on her property, while dodging a sleazy local lawman (JR Bourne) and a slick-talking crook who calls himself “The Boss” (Jim Beaver).
Chakwin and Guglielmo keep the story simple — to the point of being a bit predictable. But shocking plot twists aren’t really the point. “Hospitality” is both an exercise in atmosphere and an actors’ showcase, letting its cast settle deep into the skins of these people who just need something in their lives to break their way … even if they’ve done nothing to deserve it.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 7, AMC Universal CityWalk 19; also on VOD
Writer-director Kurt Knight deserves a small nod of appreciation for setting his supernatural thriller “The Appearance” somewhere other than a cookie-cutter suburban home or a spooky old mansion. His hero Mateho (Jake Stormoen) is an inquisitor from many centuries ago, who travels to a small village monastery to investigate a series of murders blamed on a witch (played by Baylee Self).
Aside from the costumes and locations though, “The Appearance” is as forgettable as its title. Kristian Nairn (best-known for playing Hodor on “Game of Thrones”) is terrific in a supporting role as the obsessively logical Mateho’s more spiritually open colleague; and in the opening half hour, Knight does a good job of establishing the political complexities of a more theocratic age. But then “The Appearance” pivots straight to the usual assortment of things going bump in the night, which — as it turns out — aren’t suddenly less clichéd when everyone’s wearing robes.
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.
Playing: Starts Dec. 7, Laemmle Glendale; also on VOD
‘All the Devil’s Men’
It’s not Milo Gibson’s fault that he lacks the screen presence of his father, Mel. That would be a high bar for any young actor to clear. But he could use some of his dad’s savvy at picking parts. Gibson is just fine as a surly soldier of fortune in writer-director Matthew Hope’s “All the Devil’s Men,” but this cut-rate action picture is no “Mad Max.”
At the start of the film, Gibson’s character — just called “Collins” by everyone — reluctantly joins with some associates to take down an emerging terror cell in London. What follows are a series of generic shootouts and chases, interrupted occasionally by scenes of above-it-all bruisers sitting in darkened rooms, commiserating about their jobs while awaiting their next fight. The characters, the plot, and — unfortunately — the star are all interchangeable with the elements of hundreds of other international thrillers.
‘All the Devil’s Men’
Rated: R, for strong violence, and for language throughout including some sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
Playing: Starts Dec. 7, AMC Universal CityWalk 19; also on DirecTV and VOD