Monday, April 04, 2011

Underrated Movie #114: Apartment Zero

Title: Apartment Zero
Year: 1988
Director: Martin Donovan
Writers: Donovan and David Koepp
Stars: Colin Firth, Hart Bochner

The Story: An uptight Anglo-Argentine runs a failing revival cinema in Buenos Aires. In search of a roommate, he meets a cocky and charming American who transforms his life. Little does he suspect that his new best friend is a CIA death squad veteran who is spiraling out of control.

How it Came to be Underrated: 1988 was a great time for American independent movies and should have been a breakthrough year, but most of those movies still flew under the radar of mainstream America. It wasn’t until the next year that indie movies really started to break big with Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Do the Right Thing. Somewhere along the line, this movie totally fell through the cracks. It eventually gained a small cult following on VHS.

Why It’s Great:

  1. The first time I saw this movie, I just took it to be a fun little black-comedy thriller and I ignored the political content. When I re-watched it twenty years later, I knew a lot more about the horrible history of Argentina and I was shocked at how much I had glossed over the first time. The movie’s film noir trappings show how evil can insinuate and seduce its way into the lives of people and nations. This is a country and a time in which everyone had chosen to ignore the fact that the guy next door might have a death squad past.
  2. There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a star-making performance that somehow failed to breakout. I’m glad that Colin Firth has gradually built a fine career for himself, but I feel like the real star-in-the-making here is Hart Bochner as his dangerously magnetic roommate. Bochner showed up for years in minor roles, such as the bully in Breaking Away, but never got another showcase this good, despite the enormous raw star power he displays here.
  3. That said, Firth is great, too. It’s strange to see him and Bochner in the same frame and realizes that they’re the same height, since Firth shrinks himself so far down into the role. He’s made a career out of being a neurotic in a leading man’s body.
  4. Watching Bochner, you realize that the art of seduction is so simple: every time someone asks you a personal question, you ask them an even more personal question instead of answering theirs. Soon you’ve created the illusion of intimacy without ever revealing anything of yourself. Then once you get your hooks in, you start to pull them in any direction you want, or simply pull them apart…

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: There’s no better way to break into the business than crafting a creepy little indie film set mostly in one apartment: This one somehow failed to make Donovan a major director, but the directors of Bound and Shallow Grave had better luck. This movie is a little weightier than those two, but they’re all great fun.

How Available Is It?: It’s now got a great DVD with one commentary by Donovan and another featuring Koepp being interviewed by Steven Soderbergh, who’s a big fan of the movie. I only listened to the latter, which is excellent.

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5 comments:

Elsa said...

The first time I saw Apartment Zero, I had an appallingly hazy understanding of Argentina's history of los desaparecidos...

... but I think your experience and mine only testify to the strength of the film: that on a first viewing, we could largely miss the political metaphor and still find the story compelling and well-told. It really does work marvelously as an emotionally complex and taut domestic thriller, even for an audience with little sense of the larger history.

Julie said...

The heart of the film lies in the increasingly bizarre relationship that develops between the two opposites, breeding the seeds of mistrust. It is an original and offbeat noir-type drama. I saw this movie when I was in Argentina. I travelled because I have some friends living there that I had not seen in a long time. I had the good idea of renting apartments in Buenos Aires and that gave me the possibility to invite them all over to watch movie and stuff. This movie was very interesting to watch with friends, we spent to hours afterwards discussing it.
Jules

thefatman said...

When Firth started winning awards I kept bleating about this amazing film and also about 'Wings of Fame' which also seems to have been lost in the annals of time...

Gatu Bela said...

Thank you for recognizing this incredible piece of work. After all these years it remains unpaged, and still ranks amongst my all-time favorite films, and clearly had a lasting impact on me in more ways than I realized when I first experienced it.

Gatu Bela said...

Thank you for recognizing this incredible piece of work. After all these years it remains unpaged, and still ranks amongst my all-time favorite films, and clearly had a lasting impact on me in more ways than I realized when I first experienced it.