March 14, 2003

Indie Film Review: March Edition

Indie Film Review: March Edition

By Tenzin McGrupp © 2003

Here's the March Review of several indie flicks I watched the last month.

American Movie

American Movie: The Making of Northwestern (1999) is a documentary film by Chris Smith about a filmmaker named Mark Borchardt from Milwaukee. He is trying to live his dream of making a film, and slowly finishes his film “Covan”. Taking more than three years to complete, and working a day job in a cemetery, Borchardt, the writer and director struggled through his own personal problems, including trying to support three kids, gambling, alcohol abuse, and a dysfunctional family. He sacrificed time, credit cards and money to make his vision become a film. We follow him through the tedious, painstaking process and discover colorful characters along the way, from the local theatre group, to his family members, including his Uncle Bill, a shut in who forked over $3,000 to help produce the film, and lastly Borchardt’s best friend, a burnt out, drugged out, near comatose, tag along, slacker guitar player. I identified with Borchardt’s agony and perseverance, and some of the more touching moments involved his personal reflection on his pursuits and his failures along the way. Parts of this documentary were hysterically funny, while other bits were disturbingly honest and bleak. But in the end, you can’t help but pull for Borchardt.


Interiors (1978) is the only film that I fell asleep in that I will recommend. (I do not count films I passed out in, that’s a whole other story). I watch most of these films late at night, trying to fall asleep, and this one worked. But it was so good, I started it from the beginning and watched it again. This is Woody Allen’s most serious film and got him an Oscar nomination for Best Director. I did not catch one sincere joke, or any comedic trademarks of Allen’s sarcastic wit and neurotic brilliance, yet the writing was still outstanding, and his characters are layered and intricate, but not overbearing. Although this film lacks all comedic elements, it stands out as a haunting, yet pristine drama. It reminded me of Igmar Bergman films and some of the odd Scandinavian flicks I have seen. The sets are not overwhelming but mature, and the photography and cinematography is precise. Very few scenes take place outdoors or in public, rather concentrating on internal elements and characters acting one on one, which gave certain parts of it a strong theatrical flavor. The bland clothes the characters wear also set the somber, yet serious mood. The film is about three sisters (Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt, and Kristen Griffith) and them dealing with their parents break up, specifically their mother, Eve’s mental breakdown. Eve is an interior designer and decorator whom desperately tries to have her family and external life match the one she has created in her own mind. At closer look, we realize that the break up between the sister’s parents (E.G. Marshall and Geraldine Page) is just the backdrop to some serious problems in each of their lives. Renata (Keaton), a writer an intellectual is overtly jealous of the attention her sisters got from their father, and from the lack of love she got from her mother, and is consistently clashing with her husband, a washed up alcoholic writer. Joey (Hurt) is the middle child, and bears the burden of caring for her mother’s serious emotional needs. The strain affects her relationship with her boyfriend (Sam Waterson), whom she acts often belligerent and cold towards, and as a result, she finds herself consistently indecisive in the remainder of her life. Flyn (Griffith) is a B-film actress in L.A. and harbors a hefty cocaine problem, which she hides from her family. Maureen Stapleton excitably plays their father’s second wife, but Geraldine Page stole the show with her stunning performance, and her breakdown in the church has got to be one of the more dramatic scenes in cinematic history. Did I just sound like James Lipton?

Gray’s Anatomy

Gray’s Anatomy (1996) was directed by Steven Soderberg, and centers around the life of monologist, actor, performance artist, and writer Spalding Gray’s bout with losing the vision in one of his eyes. While writing one of his novels, Spalding Gray freaks out and wanders into the alternative medicine field in an attempt to correct his eye problem. Gray, one of the best story tellers I have ever come across, humorously recants his neurotic stories about a wacky New Jersey doctor, then sitting through Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony in frigid Minnesota, and eventually traveling to the Philippines to be performed on by the Elvis of all Surgeons. It was funny for sure, but not as good, nor dramatic as his other filmed monologues: Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box, which you should probably see first.

Chelsea Walls

Chelsea Walls (2001) was directed by Ethan Hawke and written by Nicole Burdette, which weaves five separate stories set in a single day at the infamous Chelsea Hotel in NYC, built by a Frenchman from New Orleans with the sole intention of having it’s inhabitants artists and artisans of some sorts. Featuring an ensemble cast of over thirty actors, Chelsea Walls was made on a minimal budget, rumored to be under $180,000, and shot on location, digitally, over 18 days, by Ethan Hawke in his directorial debut. Hawke delves deep into the mysterious eclectic energy of the Chelsea Hotel, which once housed famous residents the likes of: Dylan Thomas, O. Henry, William S. Burroughs, Sandra Bernhardt, Bob Dylan, Willem De Kooning, Arthur Miller, Mark Twain, Janis Joplin, and Sid Vicious. Nicole Burdette wrote the screenplay, based on her stage play “Chelsea Walls”, which was inspired by the Dylan Thomas play “Under Milk Wood”. Thomas is commemorated on one of the many plaques surrounding the hotel entrance: "Dylan Thomas lived and laboured here...and from here sailed out to die." The film tells five unrelated stories, all taking place within the Chelsea hotel, about an intense painter (Vincent D’Onofrio), a shy waitress/writer (Uma Thurman), a hopeful poet (Rosario Dawson) and her boyfriend (Mark Weber), a couple of struggling young musicians from Minnesota (Robert Sean Leonard & Steve Zahn), an aging novelist (Kris Kristofferson) and a wacked out jazz singer all trying to sort out their artistic and personal lives. The most outstanding story was magnificently acted by Kris Kristofferson, as the once famous writer, riding off into to the twilight of his career, trying to sort through his writing, his lover (Natasha Richardson) and his wife (Tuesday Weld). The scene with Tuesday Weld is the highlight of the film. The dialogue is spacious and poetic, and the rest of the acting throughout the film is better than average. But the dynamic script keeps the story and ideas flowing. Director Richard Linklater makes an uncredited cameo.


Storytelling (2001) was written and directed by Todd Solodonz. He split this film up into two different unrelated films about angst, frustration, and celebrity: Fiction and Non-Fiction. Fiction starred Selma Blair as Vi, a troubled writer that has an affair with her professor. She’s a confused young woman with very little self-esteem who degrades herself morally and sexually just to find inspiration to write her stories. This was the better of the two parts of the film. Non-Fiction starred Paul Giamatti and although he did a great job, it really bored me. Giamatti plays Toby Oxman, a deadbeat shoe salesman longing to become a documentary filmmaker. He selects a dysfunctional suburban family as his subject matter, and the main focus of his project shifts to the oldest son Scooby, the stereotypical outsider: an alienated loner, soon-to-be-a-ticking-time-bomb, a shy, bisexual, high school student with his own twisted dreams of being famous. I would not recommend this film. But there was a nasty sex scene in the first part of Fiction that was worth me mentioning.

Tenzin McGrupp is a writer from NYC.

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