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Two Lovers (2008) is a surprisingly good, low-key indie type romantic drama directed by James Gray. Set in contemporary Brooklyn, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Leonard, the sensitive and somewhat unstable young man who finds himself in the seemingly enviable position of having to choose between two very attractive women, Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Two Lovers does a good job of portraying a particular ethnic milieu, that of traditional Jewish business owners -immigrants or children of immigrants- in Brooklyn. The way his parents treat the thirty-ish Leonard might seem a bit of a stereotype -the overprotective Jewish parents. It is a little amusing to see him trying to sneak out of the house before his mother (played by Isabella Rosellini) can interrogate him about his plans. But it is made clear early on that Leonard is disturbed -the opening scene shows him in a half-hearted suicide attempt- which makes his parents’ smothering behavior a little more understandable.
The two women represent opposing directions Leonard can take. Sandra is the daughter of his father’s business partner, and a marriage between the two is practically being arranged, Old World style. Michelle, meanwhile, is a Manhattan girl, albeit one with problems of her own, including a tendency to pop pills. Michelle is also manipulative, stringing Leonard along while she maintains an affair with her married boss.
Everything about Two Lovers is nearly perfect, in a way that it’s easy to overlook because of the ordinariness of the circumstances. All of the characters, as well as the setting feel real, and the story, while simple, has a real poignancy. I can’t say I really liked the ending, but I can’t elaborate on that without giving too much away. Besides, even if I would have preferred a different outcome (not so much in Leonard ending up with one woman over the other, but his apparent overall life direction at the end), it was probably realistic and in that sense in keeping with the film’s authentic spirit.
LOOK takes a not very well known cast and a gimmicky plot and turns it into a surprisingly effective and original drama. The gimmick is the now ubiquitous presence of video cameras that film so much of our existence. Look combines this with the by-now familiar device of interconnected lives in a big city (Los Angeles, where so many of these films are set).
Look maintains a compelling pace and the acting is good, even when the characters seem a little exaggerated for the sake of intensifying the story. A sleazy retail store manager, for example, seems to do nothing all day but seduce the female employees. An equally amoral female high school student plots to entrap one of her married teachers. A pair of crazed gunmen, meanwhile, are committing seemingly random acts of violence.
The somewhat over-hyped nature of the characters is matched by their apparent ignorance of the modern age of video cameras. No one seems to have any idea that they are being filmed. Another strange thing about this film is the lack of any real message. At the beginning, we are told the rather sinister fact that the average American is videotaped 200 times in a day. I have no idea if this is accurate, but either way this intro suggests that the film is going to be a critique of this invasion of privacy. Not so. In fact, by the end, the video cameras are, if anything, made to appear more benevolent than creepy. Yet I don’t think that was the intent. This was, rather, an attempt to simply view the chaos of modern life through the eyes of these cameras. Any moral judgments are left to the audience.
The lack of any blatant moralizing about the video phenomenon is perhaps what gives Look its sly quality of being something deeper and more memorable than the sum of its parts. Like the surveillance cameras themselves, the film itself remains coldly detached and simply lets its often absurd characters make fools (or worse) out of themselves. This is one of those films that makes you think about the very nature of them medium you are watching.
Look is the sort of imperfect independent film that I enjoyed more than many superficially superior -but more predictable- Hollywood movies. At the lower end, most mainstream films are little more than sequences of by-the-numbers action; at the higher end, they tend to be filmed versions of stage plays with actors giving resounding performances as they re-enact the familiar themes that hark back to Shakespeare and Greek tragedies.
Look, by contrast, is a truly contemporary film that could only be a film. Despite its imperfections, it makes us look at the world, and its many hidden cameras, a little differently.
Note: I have recently published a slightly edited version of this article on Devtome.
Comedies have always been popular, but most fall into a sadly limited number of categories –romantic comedy, teen comedy, sophisticated type comedy, and so forth. That isn’t to say that some of these films cannot be entertaining and quite funny. But as as this site is mainly about independent films, I thought I’d take a closer look at some truly offbeat comedies, some you may not even be familiar with.
Schizopolis (1997) is one of Steven Soderbergh’s earlier films, before he became more successful and mainstream (and arguably less interesting). This is a movie that lives up to it’s name. Soderbergh himself plays two roles in this meandering, bizarre story –if it can even be called that– of suburban life, corporate idiocy and a strange cult that looms in the background. There is little coherent structure to Schizopolis. It’s the kind of movie you either get in some way, and find funny, or not. If you like offbeat films, you might want to try it.
The House of Yes (1997), directed by Mark Waters and stars Parker Posey and Josh Hamilton. This is a film that’s almost too bizarre, and occasionally violent, to be considered a pure comedy. On the other hand, it’s also too bizarre to be anything but a comedy, albeit a dark one. It’s the story of a rather normal young man who thinks he is being taken to the normal home of a new girlfriend (Tori Spelling). Unfortunately, the house in question is inhabited by a psychotic brother and sister team who are living out a JFK fantasy. Parker Posey gives a great performance as the nearly foaming-at-the-mouth Jackie O.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) -based on Hunter S. Thompson’s book of the same name. Starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, who are both superb as, respectively (but definitely not respectably), Thompson and his almost equally drug-crazed lawyer. This is a film that I think many mainstream critics felt obliged to put down, simply for the unapologetic and constant drug use. It’s also a good indication of how little these critics can be depended on for good information when it comes to anything vaguely unconventional, for this is a brilliant and hilarious movie. It hardly glamorizes drug use, as it depicts a veritable nightmare existence, but it does this in a way that also illustrates the equal absurdity of “straight” life as well.
Citizen Ruth (1996) -directed by Alexander Payne, starring Laura Dern. The abortion debate may seem like an unlikely subject for a comedy, but this one succeeds brilliantly. Laura Dern plays a glue-sniffing pregnant woman named Ruth who must choose whether or not to have her child. Both sides of the issue are hilariously skewered in this dark comedy that might make you think differently about this emotionally charged issue.
Strangers With Candy (2005)- directed by Paul Dinelly, staring Amy Sedaris. This is based on the Comedy Central show of the same name. Amy Sedaris returns to her role as Jerri Blank, the absurdly out of place 47 year-old high school student.
Stephen Colbert and Greg Holliman co-star as teacher and principal at the high school. This is another movie where the plot is almost irrelevant. To appreciate the humor here you must have a taste for the bizarre and ridiculous, which is provided in ample quantities.
Jesus Is Magic (2006) -starring Sarah Silverman. This is mostly a concert film, highlighting the ultra-unPC comedian, but also has some added sketches. If you are offended by…well, almost anything, you probably should not see this film. What I admire about Sarah Silverman is her willingness to completely disregard sacred cows –who else would make fun of Martin Luther King? She also has a knack for disguising her most offensive remarks with a pseudo-naivete that is almost believable.
Doug Stanhope -No Refunds (2007). This is a pure concert film. If Sarah Silverman has competition as the most politically insensitive comedian working today, it would be Doug Stanhope, who seems to hold nothing whatsoever as the least bit sacred. His routines, which are full of drug references, are a challenge to all conventional standards in a way somewhat similar to the late George Carlin, though, to be honest, Carlin’s routines were getting a little stale during the last decade of his life. You don’t have to share Stanhope’s rather nihilistic spirit to appreciate his humor and the way he blasts through the hypocrisy of mainstream society.
Four Rooms (1995) – this film is divided into four loosely connected stories, directed by Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Allison Anders and Alexander Rockwell. They take place in a hotel during one very strange evening. The connecting link is a bellboy, played with slapstick perfection by Tim Roth. This was not very well received critically. The episodes range from just o.k. to outright hilarious (the segment starring Antonio Banderas, which makes it worth seeing all by itself).
Kabluey (2007) – directed by Scott Pendergrast, starring Lisa Kudrow and Scott Pendergrast. A recent addition to my list. This film may not have the best title, as it’s hard to remember, but it’s truly funny and offbeat in a low-key way. Scott Pendergrast directed and stars as a rather hapless loser who arrives at the doorstep of sister-in-law Lisa Kudrow and takes a job at a local company that involves dressing up in a bizarre blue suit and handing out leaflets in middle of a deserted road. If that doesn’t sound like it makes much sense, I don’t think it’s supposed to.
The above is a rather small sampling of some offbeat comedy of the last ten or so years. I’ve left out some well known cult classics, such as The Big Lebowski and Office Space, not because I deem them unworthy of inclusion, but because they barely need mentioning.
Parker Posey is an actress who, perhaps like no one else, embodies the spirit of contemporary independent films. This, of course, may be debated, depending on your definition of independent films, what kind of films you like and how you feel about Parker Posey and the movie’s she has been in.
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another female star who has been in so many cutting edge and orginal films. For males, I can think of Steve Buscemi, who is another actor whose mere presence in a film practically defines it as “indie.” This brief look at some of my favorite Parker Posey films is by no means comprehensive. Do a search for her name, and you’ll find a surprising number of movies, some not very well known. For someone in her thirties, she already has quite a resume.
Dazed and Confused is one of the more original and indie type teen comedies. Parker Posey does not have a very large role in it, but it’s one of her earlier appearances (her first? I’m not good at movie trivia and am lazy about looking stuff up, sorry). This was directed by one of my favorite indie directors, Richard Linkletter, who I will soon put up a page about. It’s an episodic, comedy-drama about high school students as they party, hang out, attempt to hook up with the opposite sex, get into trouble and so forth. It has some of the same themes as many standard Hollywood teen movies, but it’s way better than that mostly mindless genre.
I have not seen Waiting For Gufmann or the follow-up, Best In Show, both “mockumentaries,” but I am mentioning them in passing because Posey is in them and they have a cult following.
Party Girl is a fun, light movie that does not pretend to be anything beyond what it’s title suggests. I enjoyed it, but this is one that is mainly for her fans.
House of Yes is a weirdly original, very dark comedy that really showcases Posey’s edgy personality. Here she plays a complete nut case, a woman who spends her life playing at being Jacqueline Kennedy. She brings a hapless boyfriend home to her house, which she shares with her equally deranged brother. This is bizarre, funny and completely original.
Clockwatchers may be my favorite movie Posey has ever been in, though its a little obscure. It’s another comedy-drama, this one about the grim lives of temp workers. Clockwatchers, however, has an unexpected depth that you would not guess at by looking at the posters for it or hearing a brief summary of the plot. It is really a modern piece of existentialism, that looks at the basic alienation of the modern workplace and how it makes people feel worthless and anonymous. It accomplishes all this with a superficially slight plot, and really hones in on the meaning (or lack thereof) of everyday life. Another of my favorite indie directors, Jill Sprecher.
Personal Velocity is another very original indie effort, this one telling separate stories about women in a state of transition. Posey only stars in one of them, but all are well done and thought-provoking, especially compared with standard movie fare.
I will mention You’ve Got Mail even though it’s my *least* favorite Parker Posey film. This is almost an anti-indie film, with values that celebrate 1980s yuppie culture. Then, how indie can a movie starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan be? Even a typically edgy Parker Posey cannot save this from being a basically insipid Hollywood romantic comedy. The title, of course, comes from the annoying (and ungrammatical!) message that is endlessly repeated on America Online to remind subscribers that they have e-mail.
Oh In Ohio is more of a vintage Posey film, one that takes a theme familiar to Hollywood romantic comedies, but treats them in a far more adult and less cliched manner. Posey here is a wife whose frigidity is threatening her marriage to a rather insecure man, a high school biology teacher. Both end up on a quest for fulfillment, sexual and otherwise, that is funny, moving and unapologetically amoral. This is the type of indie film I like for the reason that, at the risk of repeating myself, it doesn’t go off the deep end trying to be arty and original for its own sake, but takes familiar material and puts a new spin on it. I can imagine this very premise being made in a more mainstream way, with a cliched ending that Oh in Ohio has the integrity to avoid.
These are some notable films Parker Posey has been in, with at least a few omissions I’m sure. I look forward to adding to this list as I dig up some more older ones and, hopefully, some new ones as well in the near future.
What the Bleep Do We Know was a surprise cult favorite in 2004. Last year, an expanded edition, called Down the Rabbit Hole was released, containing new footage and a special feature that allows viewers to play the film in different sequences.
What the Bleep is a fascinating quasi-documentary about recent discoveries in quantum physics and some of the philosophical and metaphysical implications of this new science. This makes the movie controversial, and it has attracted almost as much hostility as praise. To hardcore rationalists, What the Bleep is full of pseudo-science and unproven mystical theories. They especially dislike the presence of J.Z. Knight in the film, who is a channel for Ramtha, allegedly a spirit from ancient Atlantis.
Yes, from a traditional scientific or rationalist point of view, What the Bleep is easy to criticize or make fun of. Yet it could also be argued that this “traditional scientific” point of view is quite obsolete, relying as it does mainly on Newtonian physics. I am not even remotely qualified to discuss the validity of the physics experiments or commentary in What the Bleep. However, I can say that the film is a truly interesting and thought provoking exploration of a certain point of view, one that bridges science and mysticism. What the Bleep is really exploring the metaphysical ideas such as “you create your own reality” and attempting to show how modern physics supports this.
I call it a “quasi” documentary not because of the controversial nature of the science (after all, most documentaries contain debatable opinions or points of view), but because there is also a dramatic element to the film interspersed with the interviews. Marlee Matlin stars as a rather unhappy person who is searching for a more meaningful existence. Her travels through an unamed city (Toronto?) lead her to encounter people and ideas that gradually change her perspective. This adds a dramatic and human quality to the purely theoretical content, though some viewers have complained that it’s distracting to go back and forth between drama and documentary styles. I did not have a problem with it.
I would recommend What the Bleep, or Down the Rabbit Hole to anyone interested in scientific or metaphysical topics, no matter what your point of view. It may change your mind about some things, or it may convince you further of your present point of view. Either way, it can be a worthwhile piece of modern (or postmodern) thought to consider.
Do you work in an office? If you do, or if you have ever worked in one for any length of time, the environment probably reminds you of the Dilbert comic strip. Absurd rules, meaningless corporate mission statements, dimwitted, self-important managers, and so forth.
Several movies have used the sillier and more depressing aspects of modern work life as a theme. I am dubbing this genre of film Office Noir. I’m sure there are more examples than I am listing here. As I think of them or discover them, I’ll add to the list.
Office Space , directed by Mike Judge, is the best known, and has achieved something of cult status. Starring Ron Livingston and Jennifer Anniston, it is a black comedy that, sadly, rings true in its portrayal of office life. I found the best part of it the early scenes that illustrate the overall mindlessness of corporate culture . Several cubicle serfs rebel by concocting a farfetched plot to steal money from the company. Office Space is an often hilarious, sometimes depressing look at a way of life too many people are stuck in.
My favorite of the “office noir” genre, however, is a lesser known film called Clockwatchers . Directed by Jill Sprecher, who also did the brilliant 13 Conversations About One Thing, this movie is more subtle and slow moving than most, which probably accounts for its obscurity. The cast includes Toni Collette, Lisa Kudrow and Indie film favorite Parker Posey. Clockwatchers is about the grim lives of temp workers in a company setting that seems intent on reducing their lives and personalities to that of non-entities. By focusing on small things that make life miserable, and an increasing sense of anomie and paranoia, Clockwatchers captures a kind of existentialist mood that, sadly, is appropriate in many ways in regard to the modern work place.
A more recent addition to the genre is He Was a Quiet Man, directed by Frank Capello and starring Christian Slater (who is almost unrecognizable as a balding, middle-aged nerdy type). This film is the most uneven and ambiguous of the three. It hovers between drama and very dark comedy. Slater plays Bob, the stereotypical repressed, inwardly seething “quiet man” who fantasizes about killing his coworkers. In a bit of movie contrivance that stretches credibility to the limits, on the day he plans to carry out his mission, another killer emerges and Bob ends up shooting him.
Bob ends up being not only a hero, but winning the love of a young woman whom he saved. This film is less about the day-to-day absurdity of office life (though it uses this effectively as a backdrop) and more about the psychological complexity and inner struggles of potentially violent people like Bob.
Richard Linklater has directed at least as many innovative, cutting edge films that are also highly entertaining as any other director out there. The only other director I can think of who may be his equal in this regard is Jim Jarmusch (who has an equally original but very different style).
Slacker was his first film, an underground tour of Austin, Texas and its quirky inhabitants. I’m not sure if this is a pure documentary or mockumentary, but it is funny and enjoyable all the same. Look for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has appeared in later Linklater efforts as well.
Dazed and Confused is a teen comedy without the mindless quality of most Hollywood versions of this genre. It takes place in the 70s on the last day of high school. It’s an episodic tale of the various kinds of kids who populate any school and their goals, desires, fears and, as the title suggests, confusion.
Before Sunrise is one of the best dialogue-centered movies ever made (among the others I’d include the sequel, Before Sunset, My Dinner With Andre and Coffee and Cigarettes). It’s very difficult to pull of a film with little conventional action, almost all talk, that is not only interesting to watch but doesn’t feel like a play. The fact that it takes place in scenic European cities, and on board trains, doesn’t hurt, nor do the performances by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. The conversations seem real and spontaneous rather than scripted, yet they are intelligent and interesting as well.
Before Sunset is one of those rare sequels that is just as good as the original, no small feat in this case. Delpy and Hawke continue where they left off, rekindling their tentative steps towards romance.
Waking Life is another of my favorite Linklater films. This is an animated exploration of dreams, and it raises some timeless philosophical questions, such as how can we ever be sure what is “real” and what is a dream? Waking Life features the voices of many Linkater favorites such as Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and radical libertarian activist Alex Jones. A fascinating film, worth seeing several times.
Fast Food Nation is based on the book by the same name, though this is a fictionalized version while the book is nonfiction. While this film has a definite and somewhat heavyhanded political message, Linklater’s good sense of dialogue and character save it from being tedious. Still, I would not call this his best film.
A Scanner Darkly is based on Philip K. Dick’s paranoid dystopian world of the near future where the Drug War is the dominant fact of life. This is a strange film, full of ambiguity and not always easy to follow. We are never sure exactly what is going on, but then neither are the characters themselves. Perhaps being familiar with Dick’s work (which I’m not, unfortunately) would make it clearer, but the movie is still interesting and illustrates some of the contradictions and hypocrisy inherent in the war on drugs.
Jim Jarmusch is a director who has helped to define the modern independent film. His films are always interesting, often brilliant and possess a unique combination of minimalism, deadpan humor and keen observation about the human condition.
What follows are brief descriptions of some of Jarmusch’s better-known films. While I have seen all of these, some I’ve only seen once and quite a while ago, which will explain the extreme brevity of some of them. More information is available on the links.
Stranger Than Paradise is often cited as a breakthrough film, even the first indie film. However you define it, Stranger Than Paradise is a brilliant and hilarious look at the aimless lives of two drifters. This movie is practically a crash course in existentialism. Well, at least as I see it; I’m sure some scholars of Sartre or Heidegger would disagree, but it’s still a movie worth seeing, or seeing again.
Down By Law is almost a sequel to Stranger Than Paradise, coming a couple of years later and having a similar style. This one is about three convicts who escape from prison, but like its predecessor, it’s really about the absurdity of life and relationships. I enjoyed this one, but not quite as much as Stranger, because it seemed to be coasting a little on that film’s style and energy.
Mystery Train is a film where Jarmusch takes off in a new direction, using some of the techniques that became popular quite a bit later with directors like Quentin Tarantino, such as combining storylines of different characters and jumping around in time. Mystery Train looks at several people in a Memphis hotel, many of them obsessed with Elvis.
Night On Earth again contains several sets of characters, this time in different cities around the world. The common denominator is that all of the action takes place during taxi rides. Some great scenes of nighttime city life.
Ghost Dog is one of my favorite Jarmusch films. Here he once again breaks new ground and explores the intersecting (at least in this film) underworlds of the mafia and samurai warriors. Forest Whitaker is great as a modern-day samurai who wanders city streets enforcing an ancient code of honor. This is another film with unique idiosyncrasies that add to the enjoyment, such as the Whitaker character’s fondness and skill with carrier pigeons. One of the themes of Ghost Dog is the question of whether it is possible to hold on to a meaningful set of values in the wasteland of modern culture.
Dead Man stars Johnny Depp in Jarmusch’s foray into the Western genre.
Broken Flowers stars Bill Murray, who might seem an unusual actor to appear in a Jim Jarmusch film, but he is a versatile actor who does well in everything from mainstream comedies to offbeat indies like this. Here he is on a road trip where he meets various women he’s been involved with over the years.
Coffee and Cigarettes is yet another very different kind of film. It is almost entirely dialogue centered, and yet it remains fascinating and, to its credit, never feels like you are watching a stage play. There are a series of encounters between people, who literally do smoke and drink coffee, all in black and white.
There is a wide diversity of talent here, including Jarmusch favorites Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni, as well as Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, comedian Steven Wright, and Alfred Molina. What I love about this film is similar to what I admired so much in his earlier Stranger Than Paradise -the ability to convey so much with so little. The conversations in Coffee and Cigarettes all hinge on mostly subtle points, differences of opinion, concealed resentments and the like.
Whereas the average mainstream movie hits the viewer over the head with huge concepts and then usually disappoints when it comes to delivering anything meaningful, Jarmusch takes acorn-sized ideas and allows the viewer to watch them grow.
Of course, not everyone has the patience for this. People weaned on special effects, comic book characters, car chases and explosions will find a film like Coffee and Cigarettes boring and difficult to sit through. For Jarmusch fans, however, this is one of his trademark efforts.