Studio: Magnolia Pict Hm Ent Release Date: 11/25/2008 Run time: 120 minutes
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Independent Spirit celebrates the independent director. Featuring select short films by up and coming directors, Independent Spirit Short Film Collections take short films out of the film festival circuit and put them right into your living room. See where your favorite director started, or see where one is headed, Independent Spirit Short Film Collections give you a front row seat on these talented men and women. Volume One features the works of Daniel L. White: The Soldier – …
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This disappointment from Jim Jarmusch stars Johnny Depp in a mystery-Western about a 19th-century accountant named William Blake, who spends nearly all his money getting to a hellish mud town in the old West and ends up penniless and doomstruck in the wilderness. A benevolent if goofy Native American (Gary Farmer) takes an interest in guiding Blake on a quest for identity in his earthly journey, but the film is really just a string of endless shtick about inbred woodsmen, dumb lawm…
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Written by two of the leading scholars in film studies, Film History: An Introduction is a comprehensive, global survey of the medium that covers the development of every genre in film, from drama and comedy to documentary and experimental. As with the authors’ bestselling Film Art: An Introduction (now in its eighth edition), concepts and events are illustrated with frame enlargements taken from the original sources, giving students more realistic points of reference than competin…
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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.