Inside underground cinema

As the 4th of July rolls by, the initial summer-movie hype is beginning to fizzle out. So, it may be true. The Fast and the Furious is an OK movie, and Crazy/Beautiful did have its high points.

But where are the movies with depth, the unsung heroes of the summer season? They’re out there, just below the surface.

In the past, June and July have seen the release of a number of films that are just the ticket for those searching for a bit of alternative culture that is not bogged down with the Hollywood blockbuster formula.

The Anniversary Party
Fine Line Features
4 Hatchets

Alan Cummings and Jennifer Jason Leigh do double duty on this low-budget, star-studded drama. The duo co-directs and stars as lead characters Joe Therrian and Sally Nash. Leigh and Cummings play a Hollywood couple that try to reinforce their shaky marital reunion by celebrating their sixth wedding anniversary with some of their closest friends.

Stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow (Bounce) and Kevin Kline (Wild Wild West) portray characters specifically tailored to meet their own abilities, and the actors fit so comfortably into these onscreen personas that one is left wondering just how differently they act off screen.

Shot on DV, the popular new digital video used for Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and portions of Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, The Anniversary Party flickers through a sharply mapped-out plot that allows the actors to improvise. Grainy video quality and shaky editing give it a home-movie tone that seems appropriate for a film in which all the action takes place in the course of a single 24-hour party.

With a flourishing number of subplots underlying a strained marriage, The Anniversary Party carries along at a quick, engaging pace. The final half hour feels strained, as the actors struggle to resolve the myriad of conflicts they laid out for themselves in the film’s first half. A tension-building session of ecstasy use, bereft of stereotype or inane exaggeration, helps push the film to its catharsis. But in the end, we are as relieved as the characters to find daylight breaking and the party over.

The Princess and the Warrior

Sony Pictures Classics

2 Hatchets

Director Tom Tyker’s last film, Run Lola Run, became such a foreign hit that it was inevitable he would meet high expectations with his latest release. Those expectations are backed by the reappearance of Franka Potente, who portrays fiery-haired Lola, as blond Sissi, taking on Tyker’s starring role once again.

In The Princess and the Warrior, psychiatric ward nurse Sissi gets hit by a truck and finds a slightly off-balance thief, Bodo (Benno Furmann), hiding underneath the truck alongside her. His creative use of a pocketknife and plastic straw to give Sissi a life-saving tracheotomy leads her to seek him out after her recovery, convinced that their meeting was more than coincidental.

But for Tyker, everything is more than just coincidence. One too many surprise twists and accidental run-ins ruins the element of surprise, and the audience reaches the ending with an unimpressed shrug. While the fast-paced alternate endings of Run Lola Run displayed the power of the accident, the lucky – or unlucky – coincidence, The Princess and the Warrior proves just how unbelievable it is to rely solely on coincidences to explain a truly misguided plot.

With a Friend Like Harry
Miramax Zoe
4 Hatchets

This wry, clever French film has been floating around theaters for nearly two months, but still deserves more attention than it has received. If nothing else, With a Friend Like Harry provides the most positive portrayal of murder in the interest of getting an SUV.

A disturbingly friendly former schoolmate recognizes Michel (Laurent Lucas) in a highway rest stop, then slowly insinuates himself into Michel’s life. Rich and extravagant, Harry (Sergi Lopez) will stop at nothing to make his old school chum Michel – who cannot remember Harry – more comfortable, recognizing Michel’s whirlwind children and demanding wife (Mathilde Seigner) as “clutter” in his life that interferes with Harry’s effort to let Michel relax.

This goal eventually entails driving Michel’s overbearing parents over the edge – literally, of course – and then moving on to other “clutter” in Michel’s life, all for Michel’s own sake.

Perfectly cast, the characters move about Michel’s ramshackle summer home with perfect ease, carrying on relaxed, everyday conversations while allowing only traces of madness to surface. Although promoted as a thriller, With a Friend Like Harry presents itself more as a ludicrous black comedy, on a level with the likes of American Psycho, but holding up a much more positive family image, sort of like the darker side of an Abercrombie & Fitch advertisement.

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