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TRIBECA ’07 | Critics Notebook 3: The Evolution and Whither American Indies

TRIBECA '07 | Critics Notebook 3: The Evolution and Whither American Indies

1. Whither American indie films?
2. Do they evolve?
3. Or wither?

1. Can’t answer. Most of the U.S. indie features at Tribeca raise the question rather than provide an answer. Formally, the majority are conventional and mainstream, offering little alternative to the Hollywood model they replicate on a much more modest budget. In fact, one wonders why they are included in a festival instead of a market. Or is that the point, that this IS a market to find distributors for these accessible movies? Or that their directors might be potential grist for Tribeca Productions’ mill? As Grandma used to say, “Wer weiss?” Who knows? On the plus side, some do provoke at content level, addressing themes the studios trivialize.

2. Yes, on the evidence of Alex Holdridge‘s masterwork, “In Search of a Midnight Kiss.” The story of a sad slacker and a troubled gal wandering through downtown L.A., it is an affectionate paean to the “City of Angels.”

3. Yes, based on the ineptitude of “Gardener of Eden,” another film about a slacker, a twentysomething who becomes a vigilante in his New Jersey town and in New York City. It even shamelessly reproduces scenes from the obvious source, Scorsese‘s “Taxi Driver.” Surprisingly, “Gardener of Eden” is one of two American films selected for competition. One smells connections. The high profile of the crew (Leonardo Di Caprio, producer; “Entourage‘”s Kevin Connolly, director) and–like many Tribeca indies–moderate profile of the cast (Lukas Haas, Giovanni Ribisi) do not translate into film art.

In Search of a Midnight Kiss,” on the other hand, has a cast (Scoot McNairy, Sara Simmonds) and crew (Holdridge, executive producer Anne Walker-McBay of Richard Linklater films, producers Seth Caplan and McNairy) unknown outside some production circles. Ex-Austin resident Holdridge does not imitate the walking-and-talking-couple genre popularized by Austinite Linklater: He appropriates its outline but makes it his own. McNairy’s Wilson is a depressed wannabe comedy screenwriter who suffers from inertia and the phantoms of a failed relationship. Prodded by his roommate, he finds a young woman on Craig’s List to spend New Year’s Eve with. Simmond’s Vivian is manic, unpredictable. During their lengthy stroll, they strike the highs and lows of bonding. The film is dynamic: Holdridge directs them to move vertically and horizontally, providing a parallel context. Ultimately, Wilson becomes animated, Vivian subdued. Robert Murphy’s pristine black-and-white cinematography, with its sharp contrasts and oblique angles, casts downtown L.A. not as the seedy setting of ’40s Hollywood noir but as a showcase of alluring abandoned movie palaces and other architectural gems. The splendid soundtrack contains jazzy riffs and fabulous songs such as Brian McGuire‘s “Uncle Science” and Okkervil River‘s “Lines.” And there is humor. In the first scene, Wilson gets caught jerking off to a computer image of his roomie’s girlfriend.

“Gardener of Eden” has none of “Midnight Kiss”‘s flow or form-to-content congruity. Connolly uses pans and tilts gratuitously, the whole set-up is schematic, his characters are overdetermined, and the music is saccharine, often signaling an action in the most obvious way. Thrown out of college, Haas’s Adam lives with his folks, works in a deli, and hangs out with his underachieving childhood friends. Feeling unaccomplished, his inner demons surface: He arbitrarily beats a young man badly, but when the cops recognize the latter as a notorious serial rapist, Adam becomes a local hero. He channels his destructive tendencies and heroic persona into self-appointed vigilantism. Haas plays Adam like a caveman, though it does counterbalance Ribisi’s scenery-chomping performance as the town’s drug dealer.

Two other movies with recognizable actors in featured roles may be same ol’-same ol’ in construction but at least they are issue-oriented, undiluted in Hollywood seven-screenwriter fashion. In Marshall Lewy‘s “Blue State,” John (Breckin Meyer) and Chloe (Anna Paquin, also an executive producer) are strangers who share a ride from San Francisco to Winnipeg. (Both actors are splendid.) An energetic Democrat and antiwar activist, whose dedication Lewy links to neuroses and personality tics, John keeps the promise he made to move to Canada should Bush be reelected; subdued Chloe is deserting the army after a tour in Iraq. During a short stopover at John’s childhood home, his narrow-minded father berates him and other liberals for whining and complaining. Once they reach Canada, events verge on the badly satiric, but John and Chloe do fall in love. The film becomes moving once they are forced to decide their future. What is disheartening is John’s political reinvention: It’s as if he has taken Dad’s rant to heart and become part of the system in such a small way that he could never effect the changes he believes in.

A scene from Bryan Gunnar Cole’s “Day Zero.” Image courtesy Tribeca Film Festival

More accomplished technically but creepier politically is Bryan Gunnar Cole‘s “Day Zero,” written by Rob Malkani, which observes the reactions of three childhood pals in New York City after they are drafted the same day and most likely bound for Iraq. Feller (Elijah Wood) is a writer, Rifkin (Chris Klein) a wealthy lawyer, and Dixon (Jon Bernthal) a cab driver. Malkani and Cole stack the deck. Though occasionally prone to violence, Bernthal’s handsome Dixon is a grounded, no-nonsense man of the people, the one the audience identifies with. Unfortunately, he believes that America should be at war to preserve democracy. Wood’s Feller is an emotionally unstable man-child whose opposition to, and fear of, the war lead to a psychotic breakdown. The most vociferous antiwar character is Klein’s Rifkin, but he is an arrogant bourgeois whom most viewers would not cotton to. He ends up eating his words.

MTV and radio’s Adam Carolla is the reason to see Charles Herman-Wurmfeld‘s otherwise cookie-cutter “The Hammer,” provided you can tune out the overlaid soundtrack of loud noise and schmaltz. The actor’s combination of deadpan, political incorrectness, and biting one-liners tickles the funny bone, and Herman-Wurmfeld does create good sight gags. Carolla’s Jerry is a 40-year-old ex-Golden Glover who gets fired from his construction job and, past his prime, resumes a boxing career. His nemesis, black sparring partner Malice (Jeff Lacy), and his friend and supporter Ozzie (Oswaldo Castillo), a Nicaraguan immigrant, afford Jerry the opportunity to make hilarious but nasty racist comments. Carolla, who has story credit, wants it both ways: to ridicule other races but to make a statement about tolerance and understanding. He proves it’s do-able. A disconnect between ideological foundation and narrative undermine the horror film Mulberry Street. In the first shots, news articles and billboards inform us that developers are altering Manhattan’s real estate market to serve people with money at the expense of renters without it. Once rats commence biting humans, who become rat-like themselves and feast on their own, the commercial exploitation angle disappears. The film’s action follows the generic rules well enough, but the metaphor is lost in the shuffle.

Possibly a symptom of the zeitgeist, four films feature preying bullies. The best of these, and the other U.S. indie film in competition, is Michael Kang‘s West 32nd , set in the Korean sections of Manhattan and Queens. Though Kang is Korean-American, his movie appears inspired by recent Korean cinema: slick interiors and exteriors, casual violence. John Cho plays John, a lawyer representing an immigrant family whose teen son is accused of being an accomplice to the murder of a nightclub manager/underworld figure. John becomes intrigued, then later threatened and beaten, by schizoid gang member Mike (Jun Kim). Both are Korean-American, and in this decent if schematic film, they are clearly doubles of each other. Amexicano, a pedestrian endeavor directed by Matthew Bonifacio and written by lead actor Carmine Famiglietti, is another movie about minorities. Famiglietti’s Italian-American Bruno befriends Ignacio (Raul Castillo), an illegal Mexican day laborer he hires for home renovation work. Ignacio is knifed by the enraged tough guy who has been hounding him for a while. From then on, Ignacio’s life spins out of control, with assistance from a coyote and the U.S. Border Patrol.

Jeff Nichols‘s “Shotgun Stories” is an overly languorous tale about two sets of rival half-brothers in rural Arkansas. The bully in the “bad” group gets killed, but so do some of the less testosterone-driven siblings on both sides. Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst‘s “The Education of Charlie Banks” is the facile story of an aggressive Neanderthal (Jason Ritter) as frightening as Robert Mitchum in “The Night of the Hunter” and the diminutive nerd (Jesse Eisenberg) who believes in the possibility of his redemption–until he and his friends become his victims. Education has the look of a TV movie and, more surprisingly from a top musician, a cliched score.

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