The latest Hollywood abominations I've seen reviewed star Steve Martin and Harrison Ford, but it doesn't really matter who the star of the moment is. Actors we've all come to enjoy and rely up (for their judgment in the work they choose, as well as their performances) are lining up to star in "celebrity welfare" projects. Need some examples? Look at Richard Gere or John Travolta's career choices in the last decade. I nearly wept when I saw Robert DeNiro star in Analyze That, sequel to the landmark comedy (ha!) Analyze This. DeNiro spent the first half of his career defining what brilliant acting was all about, and has spent the second half of his career destroying that reputation.
All the while there are some enormously talented, ingenius independent filmmakers who go completely unnoticed. These ignored filmmakers are not creating remote, high-brow art films involving sad clows in black and white. These original voices possess original visions and are creating fascinating, compelling work in virtual obscurity.
There is Brad Anderson director of the 2001 surreal, psychological thriller Session 9 and his 2004 dark, dream-like pscyhological drama The Machinist, which is actually titled Maquinista, El because he had to go to Spain in order to make the film. Neither film is perfect. Both rely on "trick" endings that work to varying degrees. However, each film is rich in story and character, mood and atmosphere. These films were not shot by a Hollywood myopic whose idea of cinematography is ensuring the lense cap is off the camera. Both films occur in raw, unsettling landscapes -- the first in an abandoned asylum in which a team of professional hazardous materials handlers are hired to clean out the asbestos; the second occurring in the grim, dreary confines of a machine shop, and the equally bleak life of a mentally deteriorating machinst. Neither film cops out, neither film treads familiar, easy territory. Neither film is without its problems, but both strive for emotional, psychological heights (or depths) and the effort in both cases are admirable at least and mesmerizing at most.
Update 02/17/2006:I've enjoyed no greater discovery than that of contemporary Canadian cinema. For so long, we were saddled and harassed with "classics" like Goin' Down the Road and The Million Dollar Hockey Puck that we all watched more out of guilt and obligation than actual enjoyment. Well, there are some incredibly talented Canadian filmmakers plying their craft, and producing work that every serious film buff must seek out:
- Finding Electra by Chris Pickle, a hilarious film about a loser-guy who enjoys being a stripper's boyfriend, but is soon dropped by her. The film documents his attempts to win her back.
- How it All Went Down by Sylvio Pollio, a riveting drama based on a true story. Apparently Pollio had gone to film school with a guy who was a former drug dealer, who went back to dealing drugs in order to raise funds for a movie project. He thinks he can keep "the life" from swallowing him and his art whole, but his actions set his karma into a full tailspin.
- Waydowntown by Gary Burns is a slick, smart, surreal comedy about a group of friends who work in a large office/mall complex who make a bet to see who can last a month without setting foot outside. I usually hate "bet" movies, but this film has so many genius, quirky moments and insights that it won me over immediately. Actress Marya Delver is mesmerizingly gorgeous in this film.
- Treed Murray is a fantastic "one room" thriller in which "Murray", a business man, is cornered in a public park by a gang of thugs one afternoon. He escapes them by climbing a tree. After thwarting their initial attempts to get him down from his perch, Murray and the gang have an extended opportunity to engage one another in dialogue, analyzing, insulting, and gaining insight into the other.
- Bar None by Mark Tuit, this is a hilarious, though rough-around-the-edges, indie film about a night in a Vancouver bar from the perspective of the bar staff. Mark Cunningham's script is excellent, and most of the performances are fabulous. Shot in black and white, the film has a great look, as well.
- American Beer about four young Canadians on a roadtrip in the western U.S.A. is saved by its script, which is very funny and thoroughly unpredictable. The great setback with this film is that it's rife with horrible acting. However, the story and comedy are more than sufficient to make up for that.
- The Cube trilogy should not be missed by any fans of futuristic/realistic science fiction. The story of these three films centers around a futuristic prison in the form of a seemingly endless maze of rooms, some of which are booby-trapped. The occupants of the cube have no idea whey they are there, and in most cases, don't even know their own identities. All three films in this series are highly recommended. Each has its flaws, but the scripts and performances more than outweigh any limitations posed by bland, anonymous setting.
- Vinyl is an engrossing documentary by Alan Zweig about album collectors. By turns hilarious, poignant and informative, Zweig talks about his own obsession with collecting and interviews more than a few fascinating characters who have their own unique philosophies guiding their acquisitions.
- Jesus Christ Vampire Killer by Lee Demarbre is a "rough-around-the-edges" gem that is as funny as its title leads the perspective viewer to believe. The writing is solid and innovative, the performances are -- for the most part -- very competent,a nd the story is surprisingly involved and well wrought. Superficial as it might sound, the actresses in this film are startingly pretty.
There is John Maybury's 2005 psychological thriller The Jacket. The film stars Adrien Brody, Keira Knightley, Kris Kristofferson, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kelly Lynch. Until very recently, I had not heard word-one about this film -- and I'm plugged into these things. Like the work of Brad Anderson, The Jacket strives for some pretty lofty objectives and does not achieve them all. But the effort is a brilliantly conceived, wonderfully executed dark film that takes on subjects like war, regret, and time-travel -- all to fantastic effect. The film is not perfect, but it was made with passion, and the aspects that it gets right far outweigh any elements that come off as underdone.
There is Shane Carruth's Primer; an independent film masterpiece that tackles the subject of time-travel in the most credible fashion I have ever seen. The performances and dialogue are bang-on. Although the explanations of how the time-travel works are somewhat difficult to follow, the visuals are excellent, and the storyline is more than enough to carry the audience along. It's a great ride, but who has heard of this film? Who has seen it?
As Hollywood continues to cough out the "remake of the month" every few weeks, I've turned to the Orient for my horror film fix. Hollywood has attempted to remake Japanese horror films, two of the notable efforts being The Ring and The Grudge. The Japanese originals are superior on all counts, though The Ring was a worthy try. I have recently watched Gin gwai otherwise known as The Eye, Yogen (The Premonition) and Pon (Phone), all of which are visually stunning, driven by excellent stories, excellent performances, and all which scared the royal hell out of me.
The Thai action film Ong-bak is first rate entertainment. Nothing like Tony Jaa has been seen in cinema since Bruce Lee.
For more lighthearted fair, which does not insult one's intelligence, there is the compilation DVD that comes with Issue 19 of Paste Magazine, which features the following independent short films:
- Hilarious short comedy titled Moved directed by Jim Issa and Scott Ippolitu
- Animated short comedy titled Dear, Sweet Emma directed by John Cernak
- Very moving short film called Wow & Flutter directed by Gary Lundgren
- Funny short titled Ten directed by Scott Smith
- Short, smart comedy titled Love Math directed by Kent Carpenter Zambrana
- Excellent, hilarious documentary short titled Found in America directed by Scott Patterson
- Heady animation titled A Plan directed by Tom Schroeder
- Fascinating short music documentary titled Matisyahu directed by David Baugnon
- Harrowing short film titled Silent Years directed by James Sereno
- Dramatic short Giving Her Away directed by Andrew Stanfield
- Surreal short titled Facechasers directed by Gabriel Judet Weinshel
Paste Magazine does an outstanding job of this, and even has a very short spot on CNN Headline News. Clips of Paste's Headline News recommendations are included on its most recent sampler CD. It's interesting watching the intros made by the Headline News talking-stiffs, warning the enfeebled, quivering audience that what they are about to see and hear falls "just below the mainstream," followed by quick assurance that the whitebread suits In Control have vetted and pronounced "safe" this otherwise radical material. Read "radical" as anything smacking of intelligence or originality.
Let Hollywood continue to wander its lightless, uncharted way. Let it continue its celebrity welfare programs. But devote some real time and attention to the art that's being created by talented, innovative independent filmmakers. Reviewers, when you feel compelled to start a reveiw by wondering aloud why a particular film was made at all (Slate's tagline today "Why, Why, Why Remake the Pink Panther?" comes to mind), maybe you should question why you are reviewing that film in the first place.