Daily Film Thoughts: The Indie Movement

There’s so much to do. Originally, I wanted to give The Messenger, Tetro and Brothers their own individual reviews, but I’m feeling really flustered with Oscar season and didn’t utilize my reviewing time wisely, so here are three quick reviews on three films.

THE MESSENGER (Oren Moverman, 2009)

We, as a society in North America, have become accustomed to stories about war. Be it on the news or in film, war has become as commodity of sorts and a prime topic for discussion. With Oren Moverman’s directorial debut, he pulls us away from the field of duty and into an agrarian scenario about soldiers doing the most unnerving job in war: delivering the grim news to the next of kin.

Recently released from his obligations in Iraq, Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is given the option to relieve himself of all US military related duties altogether or become Captain Tony Stone’s (Woody Harrelson) pupil in the art of delivering death. After an intense briefing that sums up as “this is much more harrowing than you’d expect”, Will becomes Tony’s partner.

The theme that is foremost presented is the social difficulties soldiers encounter when they return to their home country after a tour overseas. They become inept in conversations with their unmitigated and somewhat lost approach to everything from a “welcome back” to a “your son is dead” – it all really hits home, not feeling too exacerbated with what it attempts to preach or overly long as similar sentiments do with exaggerated scenes. Here, the most perturbing scenes are cut short and are the cinematic equivalent to the punch in the gut, whereas a different filmmaker would string the scene along and attempt to make you teary eyed. Here, the clout is so forceful that you may find your manliness crumble in pain and you may shed tears over the overwhelming power in these short scenes alone.

There’s a romantic subplot between Will and Olivia (Samantha Morton), a woman who Will announced the death of her husband to. It’s done in a competent way, but the two characters have experienced such losses and feel such guilt that their interaction causes the film to feel maladroit. Not that it’s detrimental to the overall package as these scenes are sporadic and not at all lengthy, but deep down I can’t help but feel Olivia’s character was only created to bring the film to a resolute point. That, if without her, we wouldn’t understand Will nearly as well as we do and that the film wouldn’t know where to go without this chance interaction. It’s feline, but so much depending on so little seems a tad too turgid.

Emotionally affecting, expertly cast — seriously; from Woody Harrelson’s pragmatic performance that reaches its dejected end in his final scene on screen to Samantha Morton’s entropic existence to Ben Foster as the protagonist who is losing touch with his homeland it’s all wonderful work — and realistically contrived, The Messenger delivers the hurt more than any locker this year and it’s your loss if you don’t stop and check this one out.

note: Apparently I have to highlight the fact that my final line here was written jokingly and I knew it didn’t make much sense when I wrote it. It’s incompetent (see: cheesy) wordplay, deal with it.

BROTHERS (Jim Sheridan, 2009)

I caught this in the cinema well roughly a month ago and despite how much I appreciated the film, I couldn’t find myself able to write a full review on it as I saw other films that were more a priority to review and that became cumbersome and so on and so forth. Anyways, here are my brief thoughts on the film. Note: I’d just like to say I’m not the type of guy that watches a film and immediately has to compare it to another. Though there is a part of me that just wants to do that, I find that an unsatisfactory way to come to a conclusion about anything in life and opt to doing things in order to refrain from even these inklings. So I have not seen Brodre, the Danish film on which this is based and why this film will be spoken of as a singular entity as nothing in life should have find their situation more advantageous or detrimental due of happenstance. Enjoy.

Jim Sheridan hasn’t been on a good role as of late. After directing 50 Cent’s biopic and not being able to get this film out on time in the summer of 2008, this project and Sheridan’s prospects were looking grim. Fortunately, this film is one of the best of the year and it’s almost tragic to see the berating it’s receiving because it “isn’t Brodre”.

Set in 2007, Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is set off to do another tour of Afghanistan. He’s an adorning father and husband, his children love him with every fiber in their being and his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) does as well. She knows that him going overseas is another game of Russian Roulette for her family, but holds back much of her complaints because she understands this is what her husband is best at and that without this job their family may be in the skids.

Around the same time, Sam’s brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is introduced into the film – he’s a “bad boy” who is that way simply because he couldn’t live up to Sam’s reputation which caused him anxiety and to do stupid things (see? don’t compare things to one and other or something bad will happen). His characterization – like everyone’s in the film – is quite simplistic, but the character is fleshed out thanks to deft work put in by Gyllenhaal (and co). The inevitable happens and Tommy “dies” which knocks the Cahill family off of their happy axis and into a realm of turmoil and doubt. Love sparks linger, children feel displeased, family breaks down and tries to start a new. Tommy winds up being alive though which knocks this story even more out of the cohesion Grace so wants it to have.

From here on out, the story is exactly what it should be. Is the film an anti-war sentiment? I don’t believe so, but many perceive it as such and the longing shots of the acres upon acres of dead soldier’s graves put this impression on the film. As a drama that is divisive solely because it doesn’t conform to habitual love-triangle scenarios of Hollywood, it is a brilliant little feature. Each character plays a significant role in understanding the way a war family works. From Grace, to Tommy and Sam’s father to Sam’s children, everyone is tense unless ignorant. The breakdown scenes are phenomenally executed (despite what a hackjob of a trailer was made viral) and Maguire has never been better. There are worrisome events and a lot of the film’s tension derives from coincidence or irony which may feel plagiarized to some, but personally in a feature with so much pending on ‘fate’ in the first place, the angle Sheridan takes for the film to come into full fruition is remarkable, if a tad slight.

Perhaps the only truly negative aspect of the feature is how Isabelle (Sam and Grace’s first daughter, played by Bailee Madison) is illustrated. Sheridan attempts to give some insight into the mind of a distressed children, but only accomplishes in creating one of the most annoying kids ever to spring from celluloid. She is key reason why so much drama finds itself into this story and the way Sheridan tries to justify her neediness is sloppy at best. She’s a crucial character in the story all things considered, so perhaps a more delicate approach was necessary to have a child one could relate with and not one you’d wish would be grounded for the entirety. A contemplative feature that is as expertly performed as it is intelligently plotted.

TETRO (Francis Ford Coppola, 2009)

As one of the few people that have appreciated Francis Ford Coppola’s new attempts at making art – juxtaposed to his 70s crime sagas and such – with 2007’s Youth Without Youth and now Tetro, perhaps my position on his work here isn’t won’t be the most appreciated, but I’ll be damned if I can’t evoke how much I adore Coppola’s latest film. To me, this is the best story he’s processed about the struggles of family… ever.

Set in Buenos Aires, Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich, an actor who could pass for an 18 year old Leonardo DiCaprio both in looks and skill), in a twist on convention travels to see family in South America from his comfy disposition in New York. He’s a sordid past to convey to his brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo) who divorced his family roughly a decade prior after a dispute with his father, a classical pianist. Said to be a prodilogical writer, Tetro expels the traits of a gifted man on the verge of mental collapse.

With erratic mood swings and projecting a discomfort with having his younger brother pop in on him, the tension between the brothers rise, all the while Tetro’s love Miranda (Maribel Verdu) tries to be interpreter for their jagged emotions. Bennie feeling betrayed by Tetro because he had written to him that he would take him away from that scurrilous environment; Tetro feeling trepidation that the only member of his family that he truly cared for has come back to remind him of the life he let go. Whether he’s annoyed over the fact that he’s being reminded or feels guilty grows as the plot does, but when it reaches its head, boy will you ever remember.

It’s the diminutive scale drama that plays a large scale thematically that causes Coppola’s latest to be his best effort to date. Unremittingly engaged in the brotherly love/indifference/hate that its projecting, the feature never strays away from the purpose at hand which makes it such a treat to watch the story imbue the two hours of running time with supplementary moments that crawl under your skin for the sake of it… until they find their meaning at the end of the film, which is where the film ties all of the once thought loose strings together.

When not stirring a pot full of your emotions around, the 71 year old filmmaker finds his joy in creating the sensation that there is something peculiar about the sky the Tetrochini live under — be it with the odd dialogue projected or the malignant mood brought on by ingenious lighting. From a technical vantage point, there is nothing that Francis Ford Coppola could have eclipsed himself in.

Containing a fantastic cast — Gallo doing bipolar genius like nobody’s business, Ehrenreich prompting the thought that he may just be the next big thing, Verdu doing what she does best as a complacent, ruminative woman in a pickle and Brandauer working his magic to give you insight into a small, colorful character (literally) that contains both the warmth of a father and the chills of a villain, much like his monumental turn in ’81s Mephisto — the best lighting the year has provided and a few twists at the end that, while seeming a tad rushed, work brilliantly in context to how the film was fleshed out prior. In Tetro, Coppola siphons the exaggeration out of dramatic scenes to understate rather than exploit. This goes hand in hand with the theme he conveys to his audience and while some may feel slighted at this attempt to be subtle, it has stuck with me all week and is showing no signs of weakening — like Coppola and his ongoing pursuit to reclaim the number one position he held three decades ago.

BIG FAN (Robert D. Siegel, 2009)

In his directorial debut, Mr. Siegel has shocked the underground cinematic community. Riding high off the success of his first major screenplay with The Wrestler, he scrambled together a few bucks and put together this – one of the prime examples of high functioning art, even if the tale is about a low functioning man.

Big Fan is a story about the most maladroit hedonist in the unhealthy Paul (Patton Oswalt). Be it that he’s unhealthy with his New York Giants obsession — tailgating his local team only to watch the game from the parking lot — or other habits — eating, for example — Paul is in a visible rut and his family knows it. However, he persists that he loves the life he leads; working an inglorious job as parking attendant at a garage, living alone in his parents home, associating with a singular cohort named Sal (Kevin Corrigan) and having his five minutes of nightly fame when he slams down his talkshow rival, Philadelphia Pete (Michael Rapaport). And as far as comedies come, this is about as humorous as the bums rush at your local bar. It’s difficult to watch a hapless, squalid man living his banal existence and boy, doesn’t Siegel know it.

As much as it is a difficult viewing (the comedy is sparse, so don’t expect loads of fat jokes to chuckle amidst), it’s also a rewarding one. It feels a lot like Taxi Driver (the second time in 2009 a story about a fat guy was compared to it, what a year for the ’76 classic’s reputation) with its brooding atmosphere and miserable protagonist on the verge of mental collapse. There’s an event that occurs about 30 minutes into the film that I don’t want to reveal because it’s the turning point of the film, but the way it and the hospital scenes following it play out… poignant.

An ingenious concoction with Siegel’s vision guiding Oswalt’s idyllic sense of performing. On top of getting the best out of his performers, Siegel also demonstrates not only how to follow his lead character through the stages of toil, but create a mood that makes the viewer feel omnipresent within the realm of this man’s life. You know his mindset with the silent, almost sexual pedestal the man disposes his sports heroes upon; you know that there is little difference between the man within and the man he presents himself as; you know the streets of Manhattan as a grime, but wistful area; you know everything about the world that he encounters. It’s Siegel’s minimalistic, but creative scope that creates such an ideal visual realm to correspond with the semi-tragic script he’d written. I dearly hope there’s more where this has come from within the mind of Siegel, because yeah, I’m a big fan.

TRUCKER (James Mottern, 2009)

A few years ago, James Mottern won the Nicholl Screenwriting Prize for his script entitled Trucker. It’s a contest I plan on entering in the future (near, if not 2011 perhaps) and it’s films like these that give me hope that I may actually win such a prestigious jump start to a career. Not because it’s good to see independent films making their landmark in cinema, but because this is so mediocre that it gives me confidence in my own work. Thanks Mr. Mottern, now on with the review.

This film is about a woman named Diane (Michelle Monaghan) who ‘drove’ away from her responsibilities as an 18 year old woman when she gave birth to a now 10 year old boy named Tommy (Brandon Hanson) with then romantic fling Leonard (Benjamin Bratt). Now she’s destitute — though her not-so-frenzied get up would make it hard to believe — and with Leonard in the hospital and Leonard’s wife looking after her sick father, it has come to lonesome Diane to take care of her child for the first time since he was born. To be honest, nothing about this story rings true personally so it had that hurdle to hop over from the get go. This might have been a simple task, but for incompetent Mr. Mottern it wasn’t.

Basically what you get in the 90 minutes of running time from Trucker is an adult slinging teen utterances to a 10 year old kid who also does the same: one is in regression of age and one is in progression of youth. Neither want each others company, but are bound together by circumstance. Of course as it is typical in every other film with a similar synopsis, they grow to appreciate each other, have falling outs and so on and so forth. If the feature couldn’t get anymore obvious, at a truck stop Diane says to Tommy “Don’t get out of the truck” and of course, a frantic montage of “HAVE YOU SEEN A BOY ABOUT *THIS* TALL?!” ensues. Give me a break.

Making the film bearable are intermittent appearances by the always reliable Nathan Fillion as the married, but conflicted Runner who chases after an impossible life with Diane. He’s almost fatherly to Tommy in the scenes they share and this passionate acting and warmth is only surpassed when Tommy’s legitimate father shares a scene with his son. It only happens once, but boy was that ever a potent scene. A flawless moment planted in a film scattered with forced dialogue (“I don’t make trouble, people make trouble for me”) and easily compromised symbolism that is as neglected with its essential element in subtlety as Tommy is upon first arriving to Diane’s home.

Apart from a few great performances with Bratt being the most impressive and delightful cinematography that captures the west coast landscapes effortlessly, Trucker is a film that runs out of gas almost as immediately as it turns its engine on; that rolls along a road of mediocrity on half-full tires until it reaches its uncharismatic stop; that neglects the “objects are closer than they appear mirror” when trying to evoke a theme with intelligent mood; that had its tires slashed by a rustic scribe so its actors had to push the battered pablum vehicle to its finish; et cetera.

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2 thoughts on “Daily Film Thoughts: The Indie Movement

  1. Haha says:

    Ahhhh!!! I’m so glad you loved Tetro. Is it out on DVD yet?

    Btw, I had some problems with the film. In particular, the entire theater scene relatively early on felt unnecessary and dumb, the theatre critic, and Maribel Verdu’s acting was a bit forced. Otherwise, a deepy fascinating film that shows Coppola definitely still has it. I saw him at my screening. Such a nice guy. Answered a few questions. It was awesome!

    • forizzer69 says:

      Nope. I had to download it and wait two months for subtitles to pop up online.

      Yeah, there are issues. The film critic bits became cumbersome with vanity, but I liked the theater scene early on. It works as a precursor to see how controlling Tetro is over someone elses work, let alone what happens to his later on.

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