A Bang For Your Buck

The Shooting Gallery Aims To Put American Cinema Back On Target.

IN THE MIDDLE 1990s, while Hollywood film fare muddled through with its usual focus-grouped mediocrities, a great deal of independent cinema started to find its way into local movie theaters. Inspired by the success of Sex, Lies and Videotape, young filmmakers working outside the Hollywood financial complex begun producing more and more product. One of the first to break out was Spanking The Monkey, which, in being a minor commercial and major critical success, showed that independent films could have legs.

This led to a spate of signings, with companies like Miramax, October and Gramercy picking up a goodly number of smaller films for mass distribution. Because the market was now accepting independent films, a great many more were produced, and the late '90s become a boom period in low-budget, non-studio productions.

Unfortunately, Miramax has begun to move away from truly independent films, and is focusing more on higher-budget movies. October and Gramercy, instead of taking over the areas where Miramax pulled out, merged into USA Films, and with their increased capital were also able to move away from the fringes and into more mainstream material.

With the suddenly increased numbers of independent films now facing reduced distribution, Paul Speaker, Larry Meister and Eamonn Bowles stepped in and formed the Shooting Gallery.

The Shooting Gallery has been picking up some of the slack in independent film distribution through its Shooting Gallery Film Series. Now in its second series (the first, last February, gave exposure to the breakout hit Croupier), the Shooting Gallery presents six films, for two weeks each, at theaters in such major metropolises as Cherry Hill, N.J.; Owings Mills, Md.; Mount Clemens, Mich.; and our own Tucson (as well as 13 other cities like the little-known New York and the tiny hamlet of Los Angeles).

The lineup for the latest series starts September 1 with Titanic Town, a difficult and emotionally wrenching film about "the troubles" in Northern Ireland in the early '70s. Set in Belfast in 1972, Titanic Town is the fictionalized story of Irish author Mary Costello's childhood. The film focuses on the conflicts that set in when a mother, Bernie McPhelimy (Julie Walters), starts a campaign for peace that brings on the ire of her IRA-supporting neighbors. Her daughter, Annie (a character based on Costello herself), is played by Nuala O'Neill, whose performance is extremely nuanced, lending an almost uncomfortable realism to the film. When Bernie's political activities start to affect her daughter's romantic, social and academic life, the two are set at each other, and Bernie's efforts to save her family from violence wind up nearly destroying it.

Titanic Town's director, Roger Michell, scored a hit last season with Notting Hill, but here he's working outside the studio and star system, allowing him to cast more carefully and with less of an eye toward box office. This pays off in some devastating performances from O'Neill and Ciaran Hinds as her father.

Titanic Town is followed on September 15 by Human Resources, one of the most realistic portrayals of human behavior in any film of recent memory. Starring Jalil Lespert, who somehow manages to be both strikingly handsome and also an excellent actor, Human Resources is the story of Franck (Lespert), a management student returning to his home town in Southern France for an internship at the factory where his father has worked for 30 years. Whereas the standard Hollywood approach to this sort of story would involve having the main character be rife with attitude, Franck is much more sympathetic and human by virtue of being polite and reserved, traits one doesn't often see in movie heroes. Human Resources, while following an extremely mundane story, is intensely gripping, thanks in large part to the restrained tension of the script and acting.

Next, on September 29, comes Barenaked in America, a documentary about Canadian band Barenaked Ladies, directed by former 90210 star Jason Priestley. Then, on October 13 comes One, a story about two childhood friends who reunite as one of them is fading in his career as a pro-baseball player and the other is rising in a more traditional environment. Following that, on October 27,will be A Time For Drunken Horses, the story of an Iranian Kurdish family that goes to desperate measures when a son is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Although not yet screened by this reviewer (reviews of all the films will be forthcoming as they are released), this is one of the most eagerly awaited of the series, as the Iranian film industry has maintained a level of quality not seen since the Swedish film industry's glory days in the 1960s.

The last of the series will be Non Stop, a Japanese comedy/chase film from first-time director Sabu.

However, the series will return again in late winter with six new movies, and in several new cities. Shooting Gallery president Eamon Bowles says that their goal is to simply expose more Americans to some of the excellent films that are not being handled by the big studios. With so much being produced now, there's a great deal of quality filmmaking languishing on the shelves, and even the few independent films that are shown in art theaters tend not to make it into smaller markets.

Perhaps Shooting Gallery's greatest accomplishment is in bringing this kind of film to areas far from New York and L.A. So far, people have responded well, thanks in large part to the high quality of films that have been chosen. While it's worthwhile to support this effort for its own sake, going to see films in this series is hardly a baleful duty; it's a chance to see unusual and well-crafted cinema, finally at a theater near you.

The Shooting Gallery Film Series opens Friday with Titanic Town at Catalina (881-0616). Visit the Shooting Gallery online at www.shootinggallery.com.