April 10, 2003

April Indie Film Review

By Tenzin McGrupp © 2003

Sunshine State (2002)

John Sayles wrote, directed and edited this comedy drama that is set in modern day Florida. Filmed on location on Amelia Island and on American Island, he carefully weaves his layered story about two different women struggling for identity and independence on the politically corrupt Plantation Island. Marly Temple (Edie Falco) is the daughter of a hotel owner. Her bitter father has gone blind, leaving her with the responsibilities of running the business and living out his dream. She struggled trying to make a name for herself in an aquatic show, which led to nowhere special and she ended up in a dead marriage and back home running the family hotel. Developers (one played by Timothy Hutton) have invaded her small town enticing her to sell her beachfront property. Desiree Perry (Angela Basset) returns home for the first time in twenty years after her overly proud parents sent her away after she got pregnant at 15. She returned with a new husband and a less than successful acting career (she does infomercials). Both women have to overcome deep family history, unreasonable parental expectations, failed attempts at fame, jagged love affairs and all the while stuck in the middle of their sunny and quaint hometown, that is slowly being gobbled up by big business wealthy land and golf course developers. Classism, racism, sexism, and the quest for fame are all intertwined in one of Sayles best performances to date. His well crafted images evoke desperation and suffocation, as well as serenity and elegance. The rest of the stellar ensemble cast includes James McDaniel, Jane Alexander, Bill Cobbs (who did a kick ass job as Dr. Elton Lloyd), Ralph Waite, Miguel Ferrer, Gordon Clapp and Mary Steenburgen.

One Hour Photo (2002)

One Hour Photo is one of the darkest films I have ever seen. Robin Williams loses himself in his character Sy Parrish, from his mannerism to his physical appearance. Sy is a lonely photo developer in the corner of a large discount store in the suburbs. He becomes obsessed with the Yorkins (Michael Vartan & Connie Nielsen), a picture perfect family whose film he had been developing for over a decade. The Yorkins represent everything Sy wants in life but does not have. Through their pictures he pieces together a model of happiness and perfection that he desperately seeks. But as Sy notes, "We usually take pictures of happy moments, good moments, and moments that we want to relive over and over in a picture." He witnesses every great moment in the Yorkin’s life and he wants to be a part of that. He begins spying on the Yorkins and slowly discovers that their life is not perfect and he decides to make things right. Written and directed (in his debut) by Mark Romanek, the script is just a small part of what is going on in the film. The language is simple, but there is a sense of serious subtext that flourishes in every scene. The art production, costumes, and lighting are all major players in this film. From the ways the actors relate to one another and the tension in their scenes, to the pristine and generic color schemes of the Sav-Mart, to the warm homey feeling in the Yorkin’s home, to the dry and bland eerie set up of Sy’s apartment… all aspects of the film are essential in telling the story. Robin Williams should have been nominated for an Oscar with his dark portrayal as Sy the Photo Guy. You see him unravel throughout the film as he slips deep into an insane psychotic breakdown, which eventually leads to the final scene in the film, which was a doozy!

Hi-Life (1998)

Written and directed by Robert Heddon and filmed on location in New York City, we follow the quest of several New Yorkers trying to scrape $900 together before the night is over. It's Christmas Eve and Jimmy (Eric Stoltz) is a self-absorbed actor who has a $900 gambling debt that he has not paid to bar owner Fatty (Charles Durning) who is promising him a vicious beating for being late with his money. Jimmy lies to his girlfriend Susan (Moira Kelly) and tells her that his sister Maggie (Darryl Hannah) needs an emergency abortion. Susan asks her brother Ray (Campbell Scott) a bartender at the Hi-Life bar, to borrow $900 for an abortion. Ray hates Jimmy for being a scum bag and hates Jimmy’s sister Maggie even more, who happens to be Ray’s ex-girlfriend. The film follows Ray as he goes from bar to bar trying to raise the $900 for what he thinks is for his sister’s abortion, meanwhile, he’s looking for Jimmy, along with Susan and a couple of thugs from Fatty's bar. April (Katrin Cartlidge), a regular drinker at the Hi-Life tags along with the shy Ray and helps him collect outstanding debts that everyone in New York seems to owe him. This is a hilarious film, with wacky subplots and eccentric minor characters. Someone wrote me that they loved this film all because of the drunken, bitter Jewish Santa Claus that appears towards the end. That was funny, and this might be the best Christmas-abortion film ever made.

World Traveler (2001)

Written and directed by Bart Freundlich, World Traveler is a very serious drama. On the day of his son’s third birthday, Cal (Billy Crudup), a successful Manhattan architect walks out on his life, his wife, child, and job without leaving a note giving an explanation for his actions. He takes his Volvo and starts driving to nowhere in particular. His road trip takes him on an aimless adventure of heavy drinking binges, odd jobs doing construction, picking up skanky women, and desperately thinking about his wife and child amid horrible day dreams, nightmares, and flashbacks, yet never once picking up the phone to call them to let him know where he is and what he is doing. Willie Nelson’s songs appear throughout the film’s music soundtrack, which give it a specific melancholy. At some point you realize a certain method to his aimless trip, as Cal strives to answer questions from his own childhood, before he can continue on with his life and either return home to his family or continue his restless journey of self discovery. The ensemble cast includes excellent performances from Julianne Moore as the fluffy drunk as well as good jobs from Cleavant Derricks, Mary McCormack, David Keith, Karen Allen and James LeGros. The airport lounge scene with Cal and on old college friend (James LeGros) is probably the best scripted and acted scene in World Traveler.

Big Shot: Confessions of a Campus Bookie (2002)

Directed by Ernest Dickerson, I think this was originally a "Made for TV" movie. The budget, or lack of a budget is evident. But the film is based on a true story about an Arizona State student named Benny Silman (David Krumholtz), a local bookie, originally from Brooklyn, who got a couple of Arizona State basketball players to shave points and throw games in 1994. The film begins with Benny’s arrival at college and meeting his roommate T-Bone (Carmine Giovinazzo). A quick roadtrip to Las Vegas ensues where Benny catches the gambling bug. He soon found himself working for a local bookie (James LeGros), eventually making the bold move and becoming a bookie himself. Benny gets caught up in the decadent aspects of having a lot of cash at a young age with no responsibilities. He seemed to have it all: money, respect, a hot girlfriend and friendships with all the famous athletes at Arizona State. One day he meets Joe Jr. (Nick Turturo) a high roller from Chicago and they decide to fix a basketball game by convincing star hoops player Hedake Smith (Tory Kittles) to shave points in a meaningless game against Oregon. This leads to more trouble with Benny after the local drug dealer and mafia wanna be Big Red (Keith Loneker) finds out Benny is fixing games and wants in on the action, all before the FBI and the NCAA figures out something is wrong with Arizona State. Some scenes were shot on location in Las Vegas (at the sports book in the Mirage… where I just visited), but some of the basketball action scenes are cheap, with obvious cardboard cutouts as spectators in the background crowd shots. But the story is more interesting than the basketball scenes.

Tenzin McGrupp is a writer from New York City.

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