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Indie/Cult Films

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The more underground films which gained popularity over time or simply flew in the face of the blockbusters for a while.
What's new?: Shopgirl, Somersault, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reviews

Pulp Fiction (1994)


With: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Rosanna Arquette, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Quentin Tarantino


After the success of Reservoir Dogs, there was a lot of pressure on Mr Tarantino to make his follow-up film just as good. Fortunately, he did not disappoint. Even though Pulp Fiction lost at the Oscars against the more Oscar-friendly but nevertheless inferior Forrest Gump, it still was a major hit and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Festival, and rightly so. Tarantino’s unforgettable ensemble masterpiece about L.A.’s crime underworld has everything: black humour, career-best performances, stylish, impressive and ambitious directing and a razor-sharp script. Travolta is perfect as Vincent Vega, who works for crime boss Marcellus Wallace and has to take out his wife (Uma Thurman) and entertain her while he’s away. The ‘date’ in question contains the classic twist contest where both of them dance away in a room filled with James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Buddy Holly look-alikes. Samuel L. Jackson gives an amazing (and Oscar-worthy) performance as his friend and colleague who likes to recite 1 passage from the Bible to terrorise his ‘preys’ and talk about quarter pounders with cheese. Bruce Willis is impressive as boxer Butch who, after failing to go down in the 5th round like he promised Marcellus Wallace, has to find his father’s watch (which his girlfriend forgot) and get the hell out of here. But, when he and Marcellus stumble upon a certain store, all goes pear-shaped. The all-star cast delivers flawless and unforgettable performances (well, apart from good old Tarantino himself of course). The film’s narrative is divided into 3 interweaving stories and altogether it makes one hell of a gripping and clever crime/ drama/ comedy ensemble. The film is at times hilariously funny and at times disturbing but it is always, always cool. Pulp Fiction is definitely Tarantino’s finest film to date and is a real landmark in modern film making, not to mention a cult classic. A real masterpiece.


Overall: *****/5


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)


With: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold”. And so begins Terry Gilliam’s hilarious and completely brilliant adaptation of the late Hunter S. Thompson’s book. If you’ve never heard of the book or the film, then I should probably explain what the deal is. Journalist Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego) and his attorney Gonzo take a trip to Las Vegas in their red convertible, armed with just about every kind of drug you can think of. But why? Are they going there to cover a nonsensical motorbike race? To search the American Dream? Or are they simply engulfed in an out-of-control drug frenzy with no point whatsoever? If you expect a clear answer to any of these questions, then you can forget it. Nothing is clear in Fear and Loathing, especially since the 2 main characters are tripping on acid, ether, marijuana etc…for the whole duration of the movie. Expect lots of surreal hallucinations, constant drug use, random and absurd conversations and Stars and Stripes everywhere. Raoul Duke’s voice-over is terrific as it keeps all the best bits from the book intact. Many people will tell you ex-Monty Python Terry Gilliam’s best film is Brazil but my advice to you is: smile and nod. Granted, Brazil is an amazing film. So is Twelve Monkeys and Baron Munchausen for that matter. But, for me, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the ultimate Gilliam film, it’s also his funniest by far. Johnny Depp is almost unrecognisable as Raoul Duke and gives what is definitely one of his very best performances. It’s certainly his craziest (although his Willy Wonka is a very close second). Benicio Del Toro is also exceptional (and exceptionally fat) as Gonzo. There are also a few cool cameos from the likes of Cameron Diaz, Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Flea, Gary Busey and many others. Fear and Loathing is not only a superb adaptation from Thompson’s insane book, but it is also a visually ingenious, impressive, outrageous and hilarious film. I don’t know what Del Toro and Gilliam were on during the making of the film and, frankly, I don’t want to know. The result is a real cult comedy masterpiece which should be watched preferably under the influence of alcohol or other substances. This film is, in a word: genius.


Overall: *****/5


Donnie Darko (2001)


With:  Jake Gyllenhaal, Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore, Maggie Gyllenhaal


Donnie Darko came out only 2 years ago in England and it’s already a cult classic. Many of you had probably not heard of it before Gary Jules’ melancholic Mad World went straight to number 1 last Christmas. It tells the weird story of Donnie Darko, a troubled sleepwalking teenager who lives in the suburbs of a small American Town. It’s approachjing Halloween and Donnie starts having visions: a 6 foot bunny rabbit called Frank tells him one night that the world will come to an end in 28 days 6 hours 42 minutes and 12 seconds. As if that wasn’t strange enough, the reactor of an unidentified plane crashes in his room while he was conveniently sleepwalking on a golf course. Donnie then has to try and understand if the world is really ending and how he can stop it. But he has many other things to worry about in his life: his new girlfriend Gretchen, his psychiatrist, an old weirdo nicknamed Grandma Death, his annoying teacher and his parents who don’t seem to understand him.

The movie contains an excellent ‘80s soundtrack, great acting, cool special effects, stylish camera work, an enigmatic story and many funny scenes, in other words, it has everything. This is a mini-masterpiece that stays with you long after seeing it, an unforgettable movie.


Overall: *****/5  


Coffee and Cigarettes (2004)

With: Steve Coogan, Alfred Molina, Iggy Pop, Tom Waites, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Jack and Meg White, Steve Buscemi

Coffee and Cigarettes is presented as a selection of 11 short films (all shot in black and white) centered around, you've guessed it: coffee and cigarettes. Jim Jarmusch, who wrote and directed the film, delights by throwing rock stars and famous actors in unexpected combinations. Of course, all of these "vignettes" aren't great, which makes the film slightly uneven. Having said that, the majority have enough good jokes, style and cool moments to keep you entertained. It's a movie that's not for everyone but if you like rock and roll, coffee or cigarettes than you'll enjoy it thoroughly.

Overall: ***/5

Garden State (2004)

With: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Ian Holm

 Directed and written by Zach Braff (who also stars), of Scrubs fame, this film tells the story of an actor who learns of his mother's death and has to return to his old neighborhood for the funeral. There, he meets a cute free-spirited compulsive liar called Sam (Portman) and his once numb, empty and depressing life starts to change for the better. This film is an excellent debut for Braff whose direction is impressively slick and whose writing is both funny and touching. Of course, this being a debut, it does have the odd cliche here and there and a couple of unnecessary scenes towards the end but overall this is a very enjoyable, stylish, and comfortable little indie film with a cool soundtrack.

Overall: ****/5 

Somersault (2004)


With: Abbie Cornish, Sam Worthington, Lynette Curran, Erik Thomson, Nathaniel Dean, Hollie Andrew, Leah Purcell


Heidi is a cute 16-year old girl who lives with her young single mother. One day, curious Heidi makes the fatal mistake of kissing her mother’s boyfriend and is soon forced to leave home. She flees to a snowy ski resort where she has a one night stand with an old boyfriend who, in the morning, reveals he’s already got a girlfriend. Heidi then hooks up with a rather despondent guy called Joe and they start a strange relationship that never seems to really take off but which instead grows in little occasional flashes. Heidi befriends Irene, a motel owner whose son is in jail for murder, she lets Heidi stay in her son’s old flat. The young, confused oddity manages to find a job relatively quickly and she is soon working in a petrol station with a girl called Bianca, who doesn’t like her straight away but gradually gets used to her. That’s basically it for the story. Australian film Somersault doesn’t seem concerned with story at all: it’s more concerned with style and the frankly hard-to-love character of Heidi. I’ll be honest, how this film managed to receive 13, yes 13, Australian Academy Awards is beyond me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that Somersault is essentially a bad film, it’s just that it’s not very good. I understand Heidi is supposed to be confused and off-beat but her character never feels convincing for one second. Not only that but I found it literally impossible to feel any sympathy towards her, with the exception perhaps of those little scenes where she walks in the snow and acts like a child. Abbie Cornish is admittedly very sweet and attractive but her performance as Heidi is ultimately an overrated and unconvincing one. As for Sam Worthington, in the role of Joe, his acting is bearable but slightly wooden. The problem with Somersault is that it tries much much too hard to be an arty farty award greedy indie film and consequently nothing in it feels real and believable (especially not that unintentionally funny random kiss between Joe and his gay friend). Somersault does look terrific though, visually it is a very appealing film and is beautifully shot. A more interesting story, a decent script and some better acting might have helped create the Australian Lost in Translation. Instead, we’re left with an uneven, odd little indie film that looks and sounds the part but never feels it.


Overall: **/5 


The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2005)


With: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum


Wes Anderson, who brought us Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, has always had a fascination with Jacques Cousteau and has often used Bill Murray in his films. The Life Aquatic mixes both Cousteau and Murray to create character Steve Zissou: an oceanographer who needs to make a documentary but during the filming, his best friend died and he swears revenge on the “Jaguar Shark” that killed him. He puts together a crew that will help him find the mythical shark whilst filming the second part of his documentary. But things are not so simple. A young man called Ned, who thinks he may be Zissou's son, appears and becomes part of the crew. What’s more, there are suspicions arousing that Zissou is nothing abut a phoney who faked his friend’s death and made up a new species of shark in order to make his documentary more interesting. The whole film looks like it’s taking place in a parallel universe: the quirky characters all have deep personal problems but everything around them seems artificial. There are weird sea creatures created thanks to stop-motion animation and the crew of the “Belafonte” all wear red hats which make them look like a bunch of Papa Smurfs (especially Bill, with the beard and everything)! The film is very funny but the humour is very subtle and surely won’t appeal to everyone. There are some excellent and visually brilliant scenes such as the visit of the boat and the search for the Jaguar Shark. Bill Murray’s performance is one of his best and he’s as deadpan and as good as ever. Actually, it must be said that the whole cast (especially Goldblum and Dafoe) rule. This is an underrated little film which contains great music and cool sets. The serious moments slow the film’s rhythm down a bit but when a film looks and feels this good, who cares? I didn’t get bored 1 second and enjoyed it thoroughly. Love it.


Overall: ****/5


Mean Creek (2005)


With: Rory Culkin, Josh Peck, Trevor Morgan



 When fat bully George beats up young boy Sam for no good reason one day at school. Sam’s big brother and his friends decide to make George pay by inviting him to a fake birthday boat trip then throwing him in the creek, stripping him and letting him walk home naked. It’s clear from the offset that all will not go quite as according to plan when we see a troubled friend of Sam’s brother drinking early on in the day whilst driving. George, who keeps recording everything on his video camera, is brought up to the creek where a little boat is waiting. But it seems that George is not all bad after all: it’s obvious that he has many problems (psychological, physical and personal), and these make him often extremely rude, irritating and weird. But even though he is most certainly all those things, there is a part of him that’s likeable and good fun. That’s why Sam, his cute little girlfriend and his brother decide to drop the plan and give George a break. Unfortunately, the brother’s now drunk friend has other plans. This indie film is an ensemble piece, and a good one at that: all the characters are very well defined and the young actors are quite impressive. Rory Culkin, Macaulay (Home Alone) and Kieran’s (Igby Goes Down) brother, gives a subtle performance and Trevor Morgan is terrifically disturbing. But it’s Josh Peck who steals the show as the troubled, obnoxious, hilarious and tragic George. The film is beautifully shot and directed with care: we can feel the sun’s heat and the tension growing every minute. Unfortunately, towards the end, the film slows down and the script stagnates a little but that isn’t too bothering when you’ve witnessed such an emotionally fascinating film acted to perfection. Overall, Mean Creek is another fine example of the recent “Indie-Boom” in American cinema and comes after the hugely successful Sideways and Garden State. And it tackles the underused subject of bullying perfectly and isn’t afraid to go deeper than that to look at the emotional challenges of American teenagers. Parents, in this film, are almost invisible and their mention only brings considerable hurt.


Overall: ***1/2 /5  


Shopgirl (2005)


With: Claire Danes, Steve Martin, Jason Schwartzman


Based on Steve Martin’s best selling novella, Shopgirl is very likely to become the Lost in Translation of 2005. This modern melodrama tells the little story of Mirabelle, a pretty, lonely glove saleswoman who gets involved with Ray Porter (Martin), a wealthy and charming older man. Before meeting Ray though, she makes the acquaintance of an off-beat, rather odd guy called Jeremy (Schwartzman) whose clumsiness in love is absolutely hilarious but quite off-putting for Mirabelle who, even though she notices the potential of Jeremy quite quickly, is not really up to having a chaotic, meaningless relationship. So when Martin’s suave yet emotionally limited Ray comes into her life and asks her out to dinner, she’s obviously interested. Ray tells Mirabelle early on that he travels a lot and cannot have more than a physical relationship with her. He’s a character that’s very succesful in his work but lacking maturity in the way he handles his relationships, he loves Mirabelle and yet keeps her at arms length. Meanwhile, Jeremy is doing surprisingly well, one second he has a good idea for an effective way to sell more amplifiers and the next he is on a tour bus with a band listenning to yoga tapes and tapes about bettering one’s life and “being in the moment”. All 3 main characters are evolving during the movie, we see them all maturing in different ways. It’s hard to imagine a better adaptation of Martin’s novella. Anand Tucker proves to be the perfect man for the job, his directing is slick, inventive, arty, even Wong Kar Wai-esque, if you will. There are some truly magical and beautiful moments, the opening scene for example is very impressive as we see the camera snaking its way through lipsticks, perfumes and the crowds of the shop to finally find Mirabelle in the middle of all this brouhaha. As for the cast, Steve Martin is great in a more serious, complex performance (expect the Novocaine Steve, not the Jerk). Claire Danes is excellent as Mirabelle, she inhabits the character perfectly and is, it must be said, the cutest little thing I’ve seen since Scarlet Johansson in Lost in Translation. But surprisingly it’s Jason Schwartzman who steals the show, his performance is simply hilarious and every time he appears on screen it’s hard not to smile. The novella was so focused on the Mirabelle/Ray relationship it didn’t really explore the Jeremy character so much but Schwartzman’s portrayal really does add a lot to his character. If you’ve seen I Heart Huckabees then you know what to expect from him. Overall, Shopgirl is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, it’s certainly the best romantic comedy of 2005 so far. I was not disappointed one second and Shopgirl, like Lost in Translation, is a film that will stay with you long after you see it. A modern melodrama told like a fairy tale that’s funny, clever, original and beautiful. Go see it!




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