CINEMA: The Little Movies That Could

Some low-budget independent films will give you more for your money than True Lies does

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Raymond (Jeremy Davies) is the ideal student, the ideal son. So when his bullying, philandering dad tells the boy to give up a prestigious summer job to care for his mother (Alberta Watson), he does so. Mom, who has broken her leg, is a dish, and David O. Russell's Spanking the Monkey soon reveals itself as The Graduate with one more taboo dropped. Instead of being seduced by his girlfriend's mother, Raymond eliminates the middle-woman and emulates Oedipus. . The tone here is so dry that many viewers refuse to see this smart-looking film as a comedy. It is -- a comedy of desperation, about a kid who really doesn't want to have sex with anyone but himself. The movie is finally predictable, but it has connected with a generation that believes it has been saddled with the thankless job of raising its own parents.

Hispanic females, late teens and already older than Eve, seek communal sisterhood. Motherhood we had forced upon us years ago.

In the Echo Park section of Los Angeles, it's hard for a man to survive. And it's almost harder for a woman to survive when her man is gunned down, sent to jail or on the lam from his responsibilities. From this sorority of the damned, writer-director Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging) highlights four young women in the episodic Mi Vida Loca/My Crazy Life. For them, romantic yearning is like an image of lovers on a drive-in movie screen: huge and fleeting. The film has too many slow spots, and its message is laid on with a trowel, but it has a kind of perverse Hollywood glamour. When the camera holds on the gorgeous, thoughtful faces of Marlo Marron and Salma Hayek, beauty becomes truth -- the repository of hope and despair.

Black male, 12, wishes to play chess and, somehow, stop the ghetto madness.

We've seen it all before -- if not in movies, then on the local news. A boy still in grade school peddles cocaine for drug lords; he seems set for a short, brutal sentence in the prison of the inner city. But we have not seen that story Fresh, from the perspective of young Michael (Sean Nelson), who has a lively brain and a vengeful spirit to ensure his success on the streets. Nor have we seen the tale through the acute camera eye of writer-director Boaz Yakin.

With its forays into Manhattan's Washington Square Park for lessons in chess from a sympathetic father figure (here it's the always authoritative Samuel L. Jackson), the movie might aim to be a Searching for Bobby Fischer in the Hood. But Fresh is so much more: a really good film, for a start, made with a subtle precision that suggests a Vermeer landscape of the ninth circle of hell. Fresh alchemizes the terrifying cliches of urban melodrama into annihilating poetry. A guarantee: the film's last shot -- just a boy's face, in ruins -- will break your heart.

White male, late 20s, wants to visit Paris, pull off a bank heist with a psychotic old friend, and just maybe survive.

All right, just because a film is small, that doesn't guarantee it's good. Like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avary is a graduate of clerking in video stores -- the new film school. But Avary, who worked with Tarantino on True Romance and Pulp Fiction, has not yet found his voice, at least to judge from Killing Zoe, a noisy heist film with Eric Stoltz as the blase American in Paris.

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