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Davids and Goliaths 

If you avoid the current state of mainstream cinema, you might notice that we are actually living in heady times. There is a young generation of filmmakers, emboldened by everything from MTV to the classics to philosophy, who are starting to show their fearlessness as they grow older. Why else would we see Gus Van Sant offer such experimental fare as Gerry and Elephant after 1997's Good Will Hunting instead of before? Alexander Payne, a hot ticket on the heels of Election and directing Jack Nicholson to another Oscar nod in About Schmidt, is set to follow up with Sideways starring ... Paul Giamatti? And then there's Wes Anderson, who's growing up before our very eyes (The Royal Tenenbaums, upon repeated viewings, looks like a classic); who knows what the upcoming The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou will bring?

While Hollywood does its dirty little dance of commerce, somehow, someway, independent filmmakers are doing some very daring, very interesting, and sometimes very high-quality work. And it is in the daring that we get originality, even if sometimes it feels forced, or novel, or (gulp) self-indulgent.

Which brings us to the doubleheader of the Davids: David O. Russell, who offers up I Huckabees, and David Gordon Green, now on his third film, Undertow. (Green, a Terrence Malick fan -- Malick originated this story and serves as a producer on the film -- is almost ready to lap his idol with his burst of output.) These two films offer a compelling contrast in the ups and downs, the dos and don'ts of indie filmmaking, or perhaps more accurately the points in between. Huckabees flirts more with brilliance than disaster, but Undertow isn't necessarily a "bad" film (whatever that means). The latter is a little different from the former in that it completely succumbs to the whim of the filmmaker. It may not be my personal cup of tea, but there's no denying there are some intriguing leaves floating around.

In Huckabees, that rare beast (an existential slapstick comedy), Russell has stuck to his liberal and artistic guns and made perhaps the most audacious film of 2004 -- and maybe its best. He pulls off the difficult trick of having his cake and eating it, too, ignoring any possible accusations of pretentiousness, as reflexive a critical tag as self-indulgence); Huckabees explores, dare we say it, the life of the mind and makes us laugh along the way.

Throughout the film, we see characters wrestling with conflicting emotions: existentialism, with its belief in the magic and mystery and interconnectedness of life, and nihilism, that gloomy (but quite liberating) notion that shit happens, so why bother. And we have conflicting conflicted characters: environmentalist Albert (Jason Schwartzman) and corporate drone Brad (Jude Law). If Russell does nothing else, he refuses to let either character drown in its type. Whether they're succumbing to the magic of existentialist detectives Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian (Lily Tomlin) or the darkness of nihilist Caterine (Isabelle Huppert), Albert and Brad are very human, flawed and sympathetic.

Green works on the more minor chords of family, memory and superstition in Undertow, his attempt at a Southern gothic thriller that he said in a recent interview pays homage to everything from Poe and Faulkner to Hansel and Gretel and '70s low-budget redneck action films like Walking Tall. And, indeed, it feels at times like Green is throwing a lot of ideas against a wall and hoping that they stick. Jamie Bell steps on a nail and is sidelined for a while during the shoot? Work it into the story. (He took similar approaches to George Washington and All the Real Girls.)

In this story, brothers Tim and Chris Munn (Devon Alan, Jamie Bell) are forced to flee when their recently released uncle Deel (Josh Lucas, at his most devlish) forces to the surface a Cain-and-Abel rivalry with their father (Dermot Mulroney) upon his appearance in their rural home.

Green is nothing if not all about ambience and atmosphere, and he lays it on thick with cinematographer Tim Orr's '70s film stock (where the greens can look brilliant and soupy all at once) and a musical soundscape that forced New Orleans' sound guru Larry Blake to juggle film scores by both Philip Glass and Green collaborators Michael Linnen and David Wingo. The results are eerie, yes, but sometimes as mixed as the narrative. As much as critics gushed over George Washington, Green has his best work ahead of him, not so much because he lacks coherence, but because you can see he's experimenting, improvising as he goes. Regardless, like Russell (who is actually almost a generation older), Green is fun to watch, especially when he's taking the chances today's directors are shamelessly taking.

click to enlarge Brotherly love: Tim and Chris Munn (Devon Alan, Jamie - Bell) hope to avoid the Cain-and-Abel predicament of - their father and uncle in David Gordon Green's latest, - Undertow.
  • Brotherly love: Tim and Chris Munn (Devon Alan, Jamie Bell) hope to avoid the Cain-and-Abel predicament of their father and uncle in David Gordon Green's latest, Undertow.
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