Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Catching up on the Indie scene

I caught a showing of Red Road a few days ago and walked in with high expectations after seeing it on Rotten Tomatoes’ best-reviewed mid-year list. In case you are not familiar, Red Road is about a woman named Jackie who works for the government of Scotland monitoring the video cameras that have been placed on every street. If there’s no problem, she just watches people. A man walking his decrepit old bulldog. A cleaning lady dancing around to her iPod while mopping. Then one day she sees a familiar face. We don’t know who it is, but Jackie certainly does. The rest of the movie details her search for answers and justice.

Red Road (2006, ***) is paced very well and is even entertaining. I can most definitely see why it won the critic’s award at Cannes last year. When the end comes, the film is insightful and, according to some critics, bears shades of Michael Haneke’s best work (I can’t say this myself because I’ve only seen Cache … Red Road did have resemblance to Cache, though).

Red Road has a tragic flaw, though (minor spoilers await). About ¾ of the way through the film, there is an awful unsimulated sex scene that totally disrupts the (until then) brilliant pacing of the movie. It is a terrible fate of bad direction in a film that could have easily been a work of quiet restraint and moral fortitude. Until that point, the movie is quite well-directed. The movie reverts back to it’s regular pacing after said scene, but the scene in question takes up almost 10 minutes! It’s very distracting and, according to IMDB posters and myself, has a very alienating effect on the audience.

Too bad, because Red Road contains some beautiful visual poetry and excellent performances by two gifted actors.

I saw Sean Ellis’ original short film Cashback (2005, ***1/2) about a year ago through iTunes and was very impressed by it, even though I recognized it as flawed. The original short is the story of Ben Willis, an art student and recent insomniac, who works the late shift at a grocery store in London. Ben has a strange ability. He can stop time. But he doesn’t stop time just for fun … he stops time in order to revel in the beauty of the moment.

Ben talks about how he has always found the female form to be the most beautiful thing on the planet. So, when Ben can stop time, he undresses the women in the grocery store and does nothing but draw them. Ben is not creating pornography, but simply appreciating the beauty around him. When he wants to start time again, he puts everything back to normal and cracks his fingers.

(The main flaw of Cashback is that it revels in superficial beauty. The women in the grocery store all looks like models. A few are slightly overweight, but nothing more that you’d see in a JC Penny flier. I would have liked to see Ben revel in the beauty of a down-syndrome child just as much as these women. I like the concept, though.)

The new feature version of Cashback (2006, **1/2) contains all of the original short film and much more. The story of why Ben is an insomniac is told, along with many other diversions along the way including a really nice romance between Ben and Sharon, another grocery store employee. Some of these diversions are good, but most are unimportant, pointless, and at times exploitative and bordering on pornographic.

It’s weird, because there is a scene recognizing pornographic magazines as “fake” and not beautiful. Sean Ellis seems to know the difference between art and pornography, but, while I have a great problem with the latter, he certainly doesn’t seem to.

In the feature film, Ben is always ruminating through his narration about art, life, beauty, etc. If only there were lots of people that age having such deep and important thoughts as Ben Sadly, I only know two or three. Ben is the only person his age in the film who does, so I guess I can’t expect much more. I think our culture would be a much better place with more people like Ben Willis.

I’m guessing Sean Ellis, the writer/director, has the thoughts of Ben (after all, he wrote the film). But if he truly believes what Ben is narrating about, I don’t know why he has polluted his film with pointless diversions that sometimes are the completely opposite ideologically of what Ben is thinking. It confuses me. I encountered the same problem in The Last Kiss (USA version) and a few other films I can’t remember at the moment.

Thought it’s flaws are abundant, Cashback does have some intensely beautiful moments. The photography is just breathtaking at points and the last scene of the film is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in recent memory. Not just beautiful in a visual sense, but in every sense.

All in all, I wanted to like Cashback, but, even though it’s main story arc (which includes the original short and the romance) is wonderful, I found the film as a whole to be ideologically hypocritical and distracting. It’s a 102 minute film that should be half-an-hour shorter.

The photography leaves something to be desired.

There’s nothing special about the look of film.

The two lead roles could be much better actors.

But there’s just something about Once (2006, ***1/2) that makes you happy. It makes you walk out of the theater with a smile, hope for humanity, and hope for independent film. There’s really not that much I can say that hasn’t been said in other reviews … just look on RT. The movie is a critical darling, as it should be, and is something I think everyone I can appreciate. See it sometime, because it’s something really special.

And by the way, how often do we see a film with such wonderful morals? I was shocked by the film’s non-Hollywood ending that upholds honesty and marital reconciliation. Great film that could (and should) be a mainstream hit.

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