Relentlessly hip? You'd better be. Enjoy pretentious talk about the great god Art and the hidden meanings in old gangster movies? Couldn't hurt. Like to sit up till dawn smoking cigarettes and exchanging ironic barbs about the tragedy of life? Bingo.
Amos Poe, an East Village-based avant-gardian since the Talking Heads were in diapers, gives us, in Frogs For Snakes, an art-house feature ready-made for downtown navel-gazers and students of postmodern aesthetics. If you believe, say, that appearing as the rutabaga in a vegetable play back in the first grade qualifies an adult to hold forth on the philosophy of acting and the role of theater in contemporary culture, this is the movie for you. If you think that characters with names such as Klench, Crunch, Zip, Myrna, Huck, and Flav are colorful simply because of their names, step right up.
And if you once wrote a master's thesis on American Buffalo, kindly remain in the lobby after the show, won't you? Some members of the audience less conversant with the works of David Mamet may have a couple of questions about the 254 or so references to that play in Poe's film.
Don't be surprised if the bullshit alarm in your head goes off during the course of this movie.
I'm as supportive as the next guy of independent filmmaking, creative ferment, and poking Hollywood in its overfed snout. And The Shooting Gallery, a forward-looking little company that has produced indie standouts such as Sling Blade and Henry Fool, deserves all the encouragement it can get--even when it comes up with something like this. But once you get a load of Poe's tormented comic thesis in Frogs For Snakes--struggling actors double as enforcers for a loan shark, and they will literally kill for the lead in a play--you wonder if the plot police aren't snoozing at their posts. Meanwhile, these frustrated thespians are delivering endless monologues--a riff on Brando, a snatch of The Apartment or Raw Deal, Paul Newman's heartbroken rant to George C. Scott from The Hustler, and a few dozen other excerpts you may or may not recognize depending on just how hip a consumer of pop culture you are.
It's rarely a good idea to let actors portray actors. Of all the professions, acting is clearly the most self-absorbed, and while those ancient "Who am I?" and "What is my true role?" questions may endlessly fascinate the askers, they usually leave the baffled public wondering what all the fuss is about--even when the questions are asked satirically, as they are here. Despite its minuscule budget, Frogs For Snakes attracted a cast that includes Barbara Hershey, Robbie Coltrane, Harry Hamlin, and John Leguizamo, among others, and you can't help surmising that part of the appeal lay in yet another opportunity for narcissistic self-examination. On the other hand, maybe the actors liked the fact that Poe lifted his title from an old Sonny Boy Williamson tune.
Hershey's the lead here, a waitress-actress named Eva who used to be married to Al Santana (Coltrane), the loan shark, and who now says she wants nothing more than a "real" life removed from violence and fictional posturing. Almost everyone else in the cast-within-a-cast is busy shooting people for murky reasons and vying for the part of Teach in a new production of the aforementioned American Buffalo. Al, you see, is not only a gangster but a theater impresario. Blinded strivers all, Hamlin's Klench, Clarence Williams III's Huck, Ian Hart's Zip, and some others are dying (and killing) to get the part. Not so Debi Mazar's Simone: Her fantasy is that she's Harry Lime, the mysterious Orson Welles character from The Third Man, and she'll kill for that vision.
Had enough of tortured black humor, obscure irony, and artsy insider jokes? If you have, pass on this thing. As an avatar of hip, Amos Poe has been around since New York's so-called No Wave Cinema movement of the early '80s (Jim Jarmusch is the most notable member), which combined an affection for B-movies, punk rock, and avant-garde posturing. Poe has made rock videos (1975's The Blank Generation) and cult films (Unmade Beds, Subway Riders, and Alphabet City) and clearly still enjoys the roles of bomb-thrower, hipster, and professional artiste. If his thing is also yours, light up that black cigarette and take a seat.
Frogs For Snakes.
Written and directed by Amos Poe. Starring Barbara Hershey, Robbie Coltrane, Harry Hamlin, Ian Hart, and Lisa Marie. Opens Friday.
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