January 23, 2003

Indie Film Reviews

By Tenzin McGrupp © 2003

Over the past month or so, I’ve been spending my late insomnia ridden nights watching a collection of indie flicks that I found on Netflix. I rarely have time to “waste” nearly two hours watching mindless garbage that Hollywood ejaculates on a weekly basis, but unable to sleep, I found myself engaging in late night, early morning screening sessions of several films: Piñero, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harvard Man, The Salton Sea, Widespread Panic: The Earth Will Swallow You, and The Good Girl.


My first encounter with Miguel Piñero was as an actor. I saw him on Miami Vice (playing a drug dealer) as well as acting bit parts in Fort Apache the Bronx, and the Jericho Mile. At the time little did I know he was a writer, a poet, a playwright, a junkie, a convicted criminal, and he lived in my city, just a subway ride away.

The film opens with legendary Broadway producer Joseph Papp (Mandy Patinkin) introducing playwright Miguel Piñero (Benjamin Bratt) to the audience during opening night of one of his plays.

“He is hell bent on telling the truth,” says Papp.

And it’s true. Piñero’s play Short Eyes was nominated for a Tony award in 1974, which chronicled his life in Sing Sing prison where he did time for drug dealing and robbery.

Benjamin Bratt took on the epic role of playing the most of the time homeless genius Miguel Piñero. Unfortunately, the fame and instant notoriety troubled Piñero, who was never able to escape the gloomy street life on the Lower East Side, as he lived day to day on the streets as a junkie-genius-poet-thief. Bratt was able to capture the rambling poet, who would steal anything from you, but somehow charm the pants out of you while you were bitching him out for being a no good junkie thief.

The film was written and directed by Leon Ichaso, which he shot on digital video and hand held black and white 8MM film. Ichaso switched back and forth between the present and past, between the color and black and white in scenes, and in an attempt to combine the harsh, dirty, gritty, dark reality of life and death and morbid addiction with the softer, gentile side of the beauty within the raw power of his honesty in his writing and poetry. The constant switching also represented how at any moment our past flashes into our present. Piñero’s past is a direct link to his self-destructive lifestyle which assisted in molding his artistic genius. Icasho took actual poems and monologues and weaved them into many of Piñero’s lines and dialogue. Rita Moreno appears in a few scenes as Piñero’s mother.

Before the Latin explosion of the late 1990s, and before J. Lo and Ricky Martin (and pre Menudo), the first recognized artistic voice from Latinos and Puerto Ricans in New York (and America) were penned and performed out by Piñero. Short Eyes, a play you should all read, is perhaps one of the most genuine pieces of urban literature in the last 30 years.

Y Tu Mama Tambien

Written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, Y Tu Mama Tambien received a fair amount of press and advertising last year for a foreign film. It’s a classic road film combined with a coming of age story about two friends Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal), who get ditched by their girlfriends for the summer. They decide to go on a roadtrip to a secret paradise, a beach called Boco del Cielo. After they meet an older woman, Luisa, at a wedding, the two invite her along for the ride. Luisa herself is going through a personal crisis, after finding out her husband has been having an affair. She joins them on the trip, desperate to escape Mexico City, and seek out salvation on the road. Of course, sexual misconduct, hijinks, lust, and seduction overtake all the characters involved.

Cuaron’s camera work is appealing to me. He chose for medium range and distant shots, which gave me a distant feeling of watching these characters. The distance was enough to keep me at arms length, in a vague attempt to not to reveal too much of the characters, which kept me guessing the entire time.

Gael García Bernal, whom I recognized from Amores Perros, did an excellent job as the poor kid, and best friend to the well to do Tenoch. Their relationship evolves and expands (and eventually contracts) throughout the film, and in the end, you get a sense that their friendship had truly been tested and maxed out.

Harvard Man

Someone told me this movie was about drugs and gambling… more specifically, about LSD and gambling on college basketball. Written and directed by James Toback, his film follows the descent of Alan, a basketball player and philosophy student at Harvard (Adrian Grenier) into the seedy underworld of organized crime, and his journey down a dark road of LSD abuse, point shaving, and sexual misconduct. His girlfriend Cindy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is the daughter of a reputed mobster and gets him involved in a point shaving ring. He needs the money to help save his parents house from a hurricane. His teammate (Ray Allen) suspects something is wrong, while undercover FBI agents (Eric Stoltz and Rebecca Gayheart) are penetrating Cindy’s father’s mob operations. Joey Lauren Adams plays Alan's philosophy professor that is having an affair with him.

The concepts of sin, desire and punishment are briefly discussed in the philosophy class lectures. The script was flawed, and the story was thin at best. The added sections of Alan’s bad trip, after he took three hits of high-grade liquid LSD, gave me mixed reactions. The graphics were right on, Toback’s vision of visuals were very good. The scene with Al Franken and his daughter bumping into the tripping Alan was hilarious. Some of the scenes were funny, but his bad trip seemed like a cliché, ending in a horrible, and annoying sequence of someone’s worst trip.

I don’t know if he’s pro LSD or not. I was too irked with the faulty plot and lack of authenticity with regard to gambling and college basketball, to figure out the overall message.

The Salton Sea

Written by Tony Gayton and directed by D.J. Caruso, this is a story about a man (Val Kilmer) trying to solve his wife’s murder. Although the plot is slightly recycled, with a tweaked setting, it’s weak. The best aspects of the Salton Sea were its photography and cinematography, Val Kilmer’s performance, and the quirky, yet specific minor characters that peppered this film

I watched this a second time without the sound on. The compositions of many of the shots were spectacular, and set the mood for several of the scenes. This flick is of a film noir quality, and sometimes it’s tough to be dark in sun shiny L.A., but the dark side of the non stop party life of Meth users played out well on the screen.

Several of the scenes started with slow wide establishing shots, moving into the medium ground where the action took place. Caruso captured the simple, yet solemn loneliness that the painter Edward Hopper horrifyingly mastered in his works on Americana. Those sad and still images resonated in Gayton's camerawork.

Val Kilmer took on the role of a man in between identities. He’s Danny Parker a trumpet player, whose wife was murdered, and he’s also a junkie Crystal Meth user, hoping to find out what really happened. His neighbor Colette (Debra Kara Unger) is a mysterious woman, constantly beaten by her boyfriend (Luis Guzman). His best friend is Jimmy the Fin (Peter Sarsgaard) who will do just about anything to be Danny’s best friend. In one of the strangest scenes of this film, they attempt to buy a few bags from this the crazy dealer named Hobby Bobby, who answered the door nearly naked, sprayed insect killer on himself to kill bugs on his skin, then he claimed he "is the ocean". The entire time he kept his girlfriend under the mattress and shot harpoons at Danny and Jimmy after asking them if they brought “the plastic men”.

I almost forgot about the sadistic big time Meth dealer Pooh Bear (Vincent D'Onfronio) who lost his nose to excessive Meth snorting and now sports a plastic prosthetic. When we first meet him, he's at his lab, he's enjoying his set up of an elaborate reenactment of the JFK assassination using live pigeons in a remote controlled car, with almost all the details, including Jackie O’s pink pillbox hat, Oswald shooting from a tower, the grassy knoll sniper and the elusive third gunman.

Widespread Panic: The Earth Will Swallow You

The instrumental "The Earth Will Swallow You" was performed by Widespread Panic approximately 24 times in 1990 and then quickly retired. John Wilkins took me to my first Panic show in 1990 in Atlanta, one of the rare nights they played "The Earth Will Swallow You" and I have evolved into a fan since then. Director Geoff Hanson saw this song as ideal music to build the movie around, which he and his crew did as they followed the band Widespread Panic on their 2000 Summer Tour. I caught a few shows on that run, and it was cool to see footage from some of the shows I attended.

The film mixes live performances and a studio recording session with bits and clips of interviews with fans, crew, family, and band members. We find out the band was named after Mikey Houser’s nickname, Panic. Some of the best stuff was from what other musicians said about Panic.

"If the girls come in and sing the lyrics, then you know the band is gonna last," Col. Bruce Hampton said. He wasn’t the only one with praises from the Athens, Georgia band.

There are clips of them playing with legendary musicians the likes of Taj Mahal, Merl Saunders, Jorma Kaukonen, Vic Chesnutt, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The North jam in Central Park near the Alice and Wonderland statue with Jerry Joseph was nice to see.

The highlights were Taj Mahal making dinner for the boys in Phoenix, Jorma Kaukonen jamming with them at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, seeing bass player Dave Schools sporting a Phish shirt during a gig at the Cotton Club in Atlanta in 1990, their jam with Vic Chestnutt, who according to John bell, “Nobody expresses himself better than that man… We’ll besides Jerry.” The scenes at Red Rocks were kick ass, and the DVD includes a couple of bonus tracks from Red Rocks: Pigeons, Holden Oversoul, Give, and Thought Sausage.

The saddest scene was with Mikey Houser, who died this past summer. He was sitting on a porch in Athens with JB, and they performed an acoustic version of Driving Song. I almost cried at the thought that those two friends will never be able to make music again.

I think Widespread Panic is an amazing band, one of the best things I took away from my time living in Atlanta in the early 1990s, was Widespread Panic’s music. As Jerry Joseph summed up, “Not many bands have both the light and dark side. And Panic knows about that dark side.”

Even if you never heard of Widespread Panic or don't really listen to them, but have always been interested, this film is a good place to start.

The Good Girl

The Good Girl stars Jennifer Aniston as Justine, a clerk at a retail store somewhere in a small town in West Texas. She begins a passionate affair with her co-worker, Holden, a young depressed writer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who re-named himself after Holden Caulfield, the protagonist in the J.D. Salinger novel Catcher in the Rye. Justine’s mundane life is suffocating her, and she wants to have a baby, but she thinks her husband (John C. Reilly), a pothead house painter, does not have any fertile sperm because of all the “doobie joints” he’s been smoking with his friend Bubba (excellently portrayed by Tim Blake Nelson).

Mike White wrote the script, and also acted in the film as the store’s security guard, and leader of a bible study group at their local church. He also wrote and acted in Orange County, where he played the English teacher. Both are films have funny dialogue with odd and likeable characters. The script was good, some interesting plot twists. I didn’t know how the Rachel from Friends factor would affect Aniston’s performance, but I think she did a good job with a not so good accent. I think a lesser-known actress could have done as good, if not a better job, as the confused and overwhelmed cheating wife. Zooey Deschanel gives a funny performance as the Cheryl, one of Justine’s other co-workers, as did all the actors in a well casted ensemble.

Let's recap.

Piñero, Y Tu Mama Tambien and the Good Girl you should rent.

If you like music and enjoy documentaries about bands, then you should take a look at Widespread Panic: The Earth Will Swallow You.

I liked the Salton Sea, for it's artistic content, but I don't think too many of you would enjoy it, it's a cable movie. And the Harvard Man was just bad. Wait for it to come on cable, and watch it when there's absolutely nothing else on.

More reviews to come next month.

Tenzin McGrupp is a writer from New York City.

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