Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Indie Lameness & Disappointment (the first of a potentially infinite series)

The National Film Board of Ivanlandia screened some movies on DVD recently.
They were “indie” movies—often highly recommended—and boy, were they disappointing!

Sunshine Cleaning (2008)
Directed by Christine Jeffs
Written by Megan Holley
Starring Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Clifton Collins, Jr., Mary Lynn Rajskub, Steve Zahn and Alan Arkin

This is a massive case of false advertising:
If you’re going to make an indie movie about people who have the job of cleaning up crime scenes,
then either make a really sick comedy, something truly dark and bleak—but funny—
or go gonzo-gore quasi-documentary style.

Although Sunshine Cleaning started off well, it quickly devolved into a sappy rough-draft script mash-up of possibly every indie movie trope and cliché that’s come down the pike.
Parent’s suicide? Check.
Excessively quirky characters?
Laboriously sensitive music score?
Details that are cool but don’t necessarily add anything?
Check, and double check!
Even the choice of occupation (crime scene clean-up) is a symptom of Indie-itis: it’s just a cosmetic accessory to the sisters’ journey of… whatever.

The worst of all the indie movie clichés Sunshine Cleaning abuses?
The late reveal of information: the audience doesn’t find out until the movie is almost half over, long after the sisters have started their crime scene clean-up biz,
that their mother was a SUICIDE
and that the sisters were the ones who discovered her body!
This has got to be the most egregious case of back-story rationing ever: Oy!

Sunshine Cleaning’s adherence to the Indie Checklist is laid on so thick, it’s almost a parody of the genre—
but it’s neither funny or entertaining or heartwarming.
If anything the flick is meandering and formulaic.

The only thing that impressed me about Sunshine Cleaning was that it was the first movie with a one-armed character where I actually thought the actor playing that part was one-armed himself. There were none of the telltale signs, like the arm under the shirt, oddly shaped clothes, awkward way of standing, etc. And honestly, Clifton Collins Jr.’s one-armed character was, by the end of the movie, the only one I cared about.

Netflix reviewer J-Cadillac said it best:
“If you've watched more than three indie American films from the mid-90s, you've already seen this twice.”

Another disappointing Indie flick:

Sugar (2009)
Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Starring: Algenis Pérez Soto

A good baseball movie with an excellent quasi-documentary style gets sidetracked/derailed by a couple factors: a pointless “let’s mock Middle American Christian Baseball Fans” segment, and Sugar’s giving up.

The movie Sugar didn’t have to have a happy ending, but what immigrant kid who’s gone through all of this would just chuck it away?
This flick is too self-pitying to be recommended.


  1. You couldn't be more wrong about SUGAR mocking "Middle American Christian Baseball Fans." One of the things I like best @ Fleck/Boden is their respect for their characters & their audiences - no 1-dimensional stereotypes either in SUGAR or HALF NELSON. Almost every review I read on Rotten Tomatoes from both sides of the Atlantic referred to this specifically, especially people from the Midwest, e.g. the Washington Post's Ann Hornaday.

  2. Anon:
    I saw what I saw no matter what both sides of the Atlantic say: To me, the religious baseball family were caricatures, bordering on the absurd. I found them to be the first signs that "Sugar" was going off the rails.

    The second problem I had with "Sugar"? French toast. The filmmakers are saying that Sugar (the character) is too dumb to learn enough about the menu to order something different. It might be "funny," but it's not real, and I think it's condescending.

    Thirdly, I cannot believe that the kid would walk away from baseball. It seems like such a spoiled brat thing to do.

    And while I think Ryan Gosling's acting in Half Nelson is fantastic, I don't think that's a perfect movie either.

    But thanks for reading, Anonymous!

  3. Ivan, your positive mentions of Half Nelson spurred me to watch it, and it was worth watching, so thanks.

    Ugh, indie films. I've been burned so many times by quirky, unfunny comedies and hack dramas and mixtures of both all wrapped in layers of precious, faux-intellectual dialogue. I was going to rattle off a list of stinkers here but your man in the netflix pullquote above said it best. Those things are interchangable.

    Thank you for letting me spew more bile. It's fun in Ivanlandia!

  4. Toestubs,
    As long as you pay the Mandatory Ivanlandia Bile Tax (the proceeds of which will be used for, uh, education, yeah, education--and not the refurbishing of the Imperial Palace's sauna), spew as much bile as you want.

  5. Fuckin' Indie-schmindie. Yes, we all want the little guy to make good, but too many shitty 'indie' movies have melted my eyes and ears with inanity.

    Before there were 'indie' movies, there were plain old low-budget movies that were more entertaining than the big spectacles, and everybody secretly knew it.

    A cultural revolution is long overdue. Time to topple the current wisdom in the arts.

  6. Funny, you just slammed two recent movies that I love dearly! Oh well... we agree to disagree. I really loved Emily Blunt's character in "Sunshine Cleaning" and as loopy as it seems, the train track scene is kinda moving for some reason.

    As for "Sugar", I'm a firm believer in the talents of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. I love how their camera lingers just a bit on the faces of their characters, often giving us some pretty damn impressive insights without a spoken word. The way the guy on the corner hangs his head when its mentioned he used to play baseball is an image that speaks a thousand words. Fleck and Boden (as in the excellent "Half Nelson") just have a penchant for capturing this. Two of my fav movies of the year, actually.

  7. Joseph B.:
    Thanks for your comments--and for agreeing to disagree--sorry it's taken me so long to respond.
    I don't mean to be contrarian; I set out fully expecting to enjoy both of these films, but instead they and I anti-clicked. These things happen. It could be worse.

    But I do think Michael Winner's The Sentinel is an underappreciated bundle of pure crazy, right up there with some of Coffin Joe's movies!

    Thanks for reading!