‘Mickey Hardaway’ a solid hard-luck story; Ramshackle charm in ‘Everything Will Be Fine in the End’; ‘Inspector Sun’, a beautifully animated mystery lark with an old-style look, a busy plot and loads of gags

Hard-luck story: Samuel Cofield, Jr and Rashad Hunter in ‘Mickey Hardaway’.

These are reviews of some good independent American films not (yet) available in Australia.

MICKEY HARDAWAY *** (105 minutes)
A magnetic central performance anchors Mickey Hardaway, the heartfelt yet hard-nosed tale from writer/director Marcellus Cox about a young man’s struggle to better himself in a hostile world that seems determined to beat him down at every turn.

In a rather brave move the film hits flashback mode after an arresting opening sequence in which the titular black teenager (Rashad Hunter) commits a lethal crime.

Working hard against the clichés that would otherwise riddle such a hard-luck character story, Cox colours in the narrative with a series of highly polished scenes charting Hardaway’s noble attempt to rise above his circumstances.

And those circumstances are a test to his fortitude.

On the one hand Mickey is blessed with a supportive art teacher (Dennis L.A. White) who recognizes his drawing talent and encourages him to attend extra-curricular classes.

On the homefront, however, his abusive father Randall (David Chattam) has already decided Mickey’s station in life and repels the teacher when he pleas to him on Mickey’s behalf. Admirably, this harsh man is portrayed not as a two-dimensional monster, but as a man suffering from the weight of a lifetime’s worth of deprivation and disappointment.

With the support of girlfriend Grace (Ashley Parchment), Mickey’s noble struggle is both external and internal, landing him in the office of a psychotherapist, Dr Harden (Samuel Cofield, Jr.). His attempts to help are sincere, but prove questionable.

Filmed mostly in black-and-white with strong supporting performances behind Hunter’s moving, understated portrayal, Cox builds tension methodically as Mickey’s modest dreams clash with a set of harsh realities.

The film’s rather obvious messaging highlights the importance of education and of encouraging the passions of young people to realize their potential.

Thankfully, Cox doesn’t over-cook these issues, allowing them to breathe through the escalating drama, keeping focus on the character narrative.

Ironically, Cox does such a good job in oxygenating the themes through drama that he stumbles at the finish line with an unnecessary scene where characters verbalize ideas that have already been made clear.

It’s the one major misstep in an otherwise solid drama that pits youthful aspirations against the indifference of a cruel world, and how the clash can rouse the demons of self doubt and – far worse – self-destruction.

Made on a tiny budget with an obviously committed cast, Mickey Hardaway is a damn fine film about how life can make hope a hard thing to hang on to.

Mickey Hardaway is available on Amazon Prime Video (not Australia)

Three aimless lives are given direction in ‘Everything Will Be Fine in the End’.

There is a certain ramshackle charm to the low-budget street crime drama of Joe Bartone’s Everything Will Be Fine in the End, not the least being the manner in which a plot virtually forces itself onto an otherwise meandering narrative.

The largely aimless lives of three idiosyncratic samples of urban driftwood – George (Elsa Kennedy), Kai (Steven Michael Martin) and Renka (Cheska Zaide) – find sudden focus when their poorly planned low-grade robbery of a wealthy home goes off-piste as the owner arrives home and is summarily dispatched.

The calamity forces street friends to confront the unscheduled disruption to their otherwise unstructured lives, a challenge for which they are uniquely ill-equipped.

The well-drawn and engaging trio are not so much part of Gen Z as they are of Gen Z-, ambling through the unattractive mean streets of Los Angeles without much drive or purpose until their adventure in petty crime goes seriously south.

That’s when a real sense of dramatic tension kicks in and things begin to move. It’s a welcome upshift that does, frankly, take too long.

That lag is but one of several signs that Everything Will Be Fine in the End, fine as it is, could have benefited from some refinement.

As is often the case with scratch-built low-budget independent films, extraneous elements tend to stick out and disturb the overall flow and cogency of what could have been a sharper, shorter film.

A prime example is how, following the inciting incident, there’s discussion about forming a band, including a music video. It totally gets in the way.

As George and Kai talk through their predicament an apparition of their victim appears throughout, just to remind us about what they’re actually discussing.

It’s a ghost too far. Such a touch might have worked better lurking in the distant background. As it is, its prominence is jarring and makes a point that simply doesn’t need to be forced.

Another unnecessary element in the film is the street prophet Isaiah (Turen Robinson), whose cryptic commentary throughout adds little to the drama and takes away from the film’s grungy tone of realism.

There’s also somebody in the mix we don’t see enough of.

Easily the most interesting and disturbing character in the film is Buzz (Kent Harper), a low-life private detective whose true depravity emerges when he is brought in by Renka to help the situation.

Early on Buzz reveals himself as being rabidly anti-woke and pro-Trump, brimming with twisted values and a decidedly warped world view. He subsequently behaves in a manner that echoes Frank (Dennis Hopper) from Blue Velvet. He’s a bizarre presence and more time with him might have served the film better.

The film’s above-par cinematography has a distinct visual style and the performances from the cast of unknowns are good, if somewhat erratic.

Written, directed and produced by Joe Bartone – who also did the music and worked on the film’s editing, animation and sound design – the film has attracted a lot of laudatory attention on the US film festival circuit.

The film is available on: Amazon Prime (not in Australia); Anoki ;PlayNowMedia; Future Today; Apple TV; Popsy On Plex; TUBI; Cineverse; Reveel; UDU Digital; EmBlazeTV; and VIMEO

The titular hero of ‘Inspector Sun’ finds himself in a tight spot.

INSPECTOR SUN *** (88 minutes) PG
Think Agatha Christie meets A Bug’s Life and you’ve got the gist of Inspector Sun, a brightly animated comedy-mystery lark wherein the titular detective, a seven-legged spider with Poirot-styled pencil moustache, tries solving a rather complex murder case on board an art deco flying boat as it wings its way from Shanghai to San Francisco in 1934.

Fizzing with one liners and a cast of insect and insect-adjacent characters (remember, spiders are not insects!), Inspector Sun is a lovingly rendered throwback to old-style film noir mysteries and the clichés they rode upon. It’s replete with retro references adults will likely appreciate more than kids.

Voiced by comedian Ronny Chieng, Inspector Sun is a freshly retired detective whose enthusiasm for solving crime is hampered only by his thick skull.

Fortunately, he has Janey (Emily Kleimo), a more-than-capable jumping spider assistant to help him work through the blizzard of clues surrounding the untimely demise of crime boss Dr Bugsy Spindlethorp (Scott Geer).

As the genre conventions dictate, chief among the suspects is, of course, his ex-wife Arabella Killtop (Jennifer Childs Greer), a sexy black widow spider who steps comfortably into the role of femme fatale.

The dialogue is crammed with quick jokes, many of which might fly over the heads of young kids who, to be honest, might also struggle to comprehend a plot that, while well-thought through, is perhaps a few degrees more complex than it needs to be. You have to listen fast to catch all the lightning-fast exposition.

Still, it all comes together in the end with a terrific action finale in San Francisco Bay beneath the yet-to-be-completed Golden Gate Bridge. Director Julio Soto Gurpide, working from a screenplay by Rocco Pucillo, ties everything together with panache.

Visually, the film is a delight to behold, especially with the stylish universe the insect critters inhabit.

They don’t scutter about in the crawlspaces of the plane but instead occupy a beautifully designed parallel world to the humans, complete with its own corridors, cabins and dining rooms.

It gives the film’s lavishly designed high-end animation a nice touch of old-world class.

One learns with regret, however, that the film’s original title was Inspector Sun and the Curse of the Black Widow. Why oh why truncate something so wonderfully retro, especially when it fits the tone of the piece so neatly?