Good Indy, Bad Indy

Two new independent films opening yesterday (Friday, Dec. 1, that is), sort of point up the pros and cons of indy film.

Brad Silberling has been responsible for some of the most egregious studio films of the last 20 years (City of Angels and Moonlight Mile simply reek of faux sincerity and unearned tears), so when I was asked to speak at the Key Sunday Cinema Club for a showing of 10 Items or Less, I was reluctant. I'm glad my wallet whispered in my ear, because otherwise I would have missed a very pleasant surprise, a sweet, unpretentious little film that showcases nice performances by Morgan Freeman and Paz Vega. Freeman plays an actor who is fighting burnout and a tendency towards reclusiveness by making a timid first step towards doing a low-budget independent film. He meets cashier Vega at a supermarket in the very unfashionable town of Carson, an LA neighbor, and the two spend a day together.

Silberling, like the Morgan Freeman character in this film, has been working in mainstream Hollywood for a long time; he began his directing career in television in the mid-‘80s before moving into feature films in 1995 with Casper. But after two years of a highly controlled soundstage environment shooting the effects-driven Lemony Snicket film, he desperately wanted to recharge his batteries, so he set out to make a low-budget independent film in real settings, no special effects, no control over the environment.

Like the Freeman character, he felt he had reached a turning point in his career, and was ready to make a radical break. And this film is the result.

What I think is really lovely about 10 Items or Less is that the film works entirely on the behavioral charms of its two leads, it is filled with little grace notes the reveal things about the characters, rather than the kind of plot-driven contrivances that have marred Silberling’s previous work for “adult” audiences. The movie doesn’t end with Scarlet (Vega) and the actor leaving their families and driving off into the sunset. It doesn’t end with her getting a new job, with him reviving his career. The ending is open, although guardedly optimistic, and that, I think is the best you can hope for from real life.

10 Items or Less works because its writer-director has his mind on what really matters when you tell a story of human interaction: how do these people interact, with one another, with their environment and, finally, with themselves. And it’s the last element that makes the film such a perfect collaboration between director and star. Silberling spends a lot of screen time just showing us Morgan Freeman watching other people. We sense that the character Freeman is playing – not to far from the real man himself, I suspect – is a great observer of human behavior himself, someone who can sit quietly and learn the most important aspects of a personality merely by watching how that person sits, walks, punches a cash register’s buttons or drives a car.

(Incidentally, 10 Items or Less may become a historical landmark in the film history. The film is the first to be offered for download on the 'Net shortly after its theatrical release, through a system called Clickstar. For some interesting commentary on this development, I recommend a look at Friday's posting from CinemaTech.)

John Stockwell, who is probably most familiar from his brief stint as boy-hunk of the week in films like John Carpenter's Christine, also chose to work in the low-budget indy mode for his new film, Turistas. Unfortunately, the result is not appreciably different from his recent studio work on films like Blue Crush and Into the Sunset. Turistas starts out as a vaguely amiable, aimless teen flick, with Josh Duhamel (of NBC's vapid Vegas) chaperoning his sister and her beast friend on a beach-bum trip through Brazil. When their bus crashes, they are seemingly stranded in the backwoods, along with a fetching Australian tourist (Melinda George, the only person to emerge from this dreck with her dignity intact) and two oversexed Brits. They take a detour to an apparent paradise, only to find themselves the prey of a mad doctor who snatches tourists for their organs, which he donates to a charity hospital in Rio.

A director and writer with a sense of humor or irony could have made a George Romero-type political horror film out of this material. Stockwell and first-time screenwriter Michael Ross have neither. Stockwell and cinematographer Enrique Chediak have given the film a murky, muddy look that combines with Stockwell's total lack of understanding of screen space to make the film's action sequences utterly incomprehensible. The result is a film that is too dull to offend, too ugly to titillate and to stupid to sit through. Turistas is the kind of movie that makes me think I don't get paid enough to do this job.

And it's a useful reminder that independent and good are not synonyms.