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Friday, March 19, 1999

Gems in New York's indie rough

The '90s have shaped up to be a renaissance of sorts for American independent cinema, with far more films being made and actually opening in the theaters. But -- just as with indie rock -- this success contains the seeds ofthe movement's own defeat: As more indie films manage to strike it big at the box office, the pressure increases on indie filmmakers to turn in more commercial product. Truth be told, it's sometimes hard to see what's "independent" about the slickly packaged and cleverly hyped products coming from Miramax.

So these days it's always nice to encounter some independent filmmakers who aren't afraid to get their hands dirty and work on a shoestring budget. With lower budgets comes a lower break-even point, and the ability to ignore the lowest common denominator and get a little more wild, free and personal.

This weekend finds a fistful of such films screening at Aoyama's Spiral Hall, as the New York Independent Feature Film Market celebrates its 20th anniversary with a Tokyo showcase. The NYIFFM has launched some notable films in the past -- Jim Jarmusch's "Down By Law," the Coen Brothers' "Blood Simple" and Bruce Weber's "Let's Get Lost," to name but a few -- and this three-day fest has a couple of gems with serious cult potential.

The best of the fest is definitely "Flushed," the debut feature of 26-year-old director/writer Carrie Ansell, a brilliant little comedy that takes the piss out of "high concept" filmmaking. Set in almost real-time in the restroom of a New York city bar, the film follows the -- ahem -- comings and goings of over 100 inebriated twentysomethings. Ansell seems to have collected just about every bit of toilet lore there is, ranging from the shag in the stall, classic bits of obnoxious graffiti, furtive penis peeping, why women take so long and, of course, the guy who can't pee when someone's standing at the next urinal (which culminates in the film's best joke).

While this may sound like the indie version of the Farrelly Brothers ("Dumb and Dumber"), the toilet humor -- though frank -- is not so much gross-out as based on keen observation. Who hasn't had to deal with navigating a less-than-sanitary toilet seat? This is one of those films that just cries out to be viewed with a large group of friends, ideally after copious liquid refreshment. The Sunday 8 p.m. showing is recommended -- just don't forget to empty your bladder before the film.

With a title worthy of Russ Meyer, "Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane" makes up for what it lacks in budget with sheer verve and audacity. Director (as well as actor, writer and editor) Joe Carnahan wears his Tarantino/Rodriguez influences on his sleeve, but fans of this school of filmmaking will not be disappointed in the least. The film is deliriously edited, intercutting between amusing vignettes involving two of the world's sleaziest used-car salesmen, and short violent shards in which a bunch of hit men are killing each other to get their hands on a Pontiac LeMans.

The salesmen decide to store this very suspicious Pontiac on their lot for 24 hours in exchange for $250,000 to rescue their failing business. They don't particularly want to know what's in the car, but decide to hijack it to extort even more money from its owner. It's a bit heavy on the Tarantinoesque monologues, but great fun, and features some memorable performances.

Also recommended is the short movie selection, which consists of four very different but intriguing flicks. "A Bedtime Story" is a comical piece on a married couple, tired from a hard day of caring for their kids, trying to work up the energy for a roll in the hay. Director Ron Brown uses the comic device of cutting in and out of the couple's mental fantasies and memories to great effect.

"The Vanishing Point," shot in black-and-white, is a story of a woman being stalked by a mysterious photographer. It's artfully constructed, but fails to resolve satisfactorily.

"17 Years to Earth" is an interesting tale of an Asian-American girl who lies to her diary. The effect between her idealized diary entries (read in voice-over) and her messy personal life (shown onscreen) is both amusing and poignant.

Finally, there's Carmen Elly's 30-minute short "A Guy Walks Into a Bar," which is a very silly and highly entertaining parody of spaghetti Western showdowns. Pampered suburban teen Josh is off to California with dreams of becoming a tough-guy actor a la Clint Eastwood. He can talk the talk, but he's also forced to walk the walk when a beautiful cowgirl hitcher steals his car, and he has to face a bar full of nasty bikers to get it back. Laugh-out-loud funny, and quite clever in its appropriation of the genre's tropes, this is one not to miss.

Also showing are "Me and Will" and "Boy Meets Girl," which have yet to be screened as of this writing. Directed by and starring Melissa Behr and Sherrie Rose, "Me and Will" features the intriguing premise of two women who break out of rehab and go on a motorcycle road trip across America. Their goal? To find the chopper used by Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider." "Boy Meets Girl" is set in a "fictitious Little Italy," and features a romance between a cynical writer and a waitress who mistakes him for the author of a passionate love poem.

The NYIFFM will take place at Aoyama's Spiral Hall March 21-23. Five films will be screened once each daily, at alternating times from 11:45 a.m., 1:45, 4, 6, and 8 p.m. Call Spiral at (03) 3498-1171. Tickets are available in advance from Ticket Pia: One-day passes are 1,500 yen. Same-day tickets are 1,800 yen per screening.

The films will also be running as late shows at Shinjuku's Cinema Square Tokyu, from 9:30 p.m. "Flushed" runs March 24-30, "Me and Will" March 31-April 6, and "Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane" April 7-13.

There will also be all-day screenings at Osaka's Shinsaibashi Cinema Deux April 14-30.

Call Cinema Deux for details and times: (06) 6251-3789.

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