Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Indies Out There

While Hollywood slings out fare like The Three Musketeers - 3D, major films like Eastwood's J. Edgar vie for the Oscars. In J. Edgar, Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover invests himself in his role, especially in the earlier past that explores the formation of his F.B.I., but when the film focuses on the 60s and 70s and features cardboard portrayals of Robert F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, DiCaprio and Armie Hammer, as Clyde Tolson, J. Edgar's "boyfriend," totter around in puffy, pasty-white old-age makeup that constricts their speaking and turns some of their scenes into ready-made parody. Meanwhile, smaller movies have delivered notable performances and provocative stories.

In Melancholia director Lars van Trier juxtaposes stunning imagery with Kirsten Dunst's visceral portrayal of Justine, a woman suffering from deep depression while a newly discovered planet, named Melancholia, advances meaningfully on a collision course toward Earth. I have already reviewed this film here, so I won’t add more than to say that so far this year Melancholia ranks second place to The Tree of Life on my list of the best films of 2011.

In Take Shelter, is Curtis seeing signs of an impending apocalyptic storm or is he succumbing to the schizophrenia that put his mother in an institution? The direction of Jeff Nichols and the fine performance of Michael Shannon, as the taciturn, haunted Curtis, leave the answer a mystery as Curtis's paranoia builds, he tears up the back yard to enlarge his storm shelter, and his nightmares of storms and zombies and plagues of birds right out of Hitchcock's The Birds become more horrific.

Throughout all this, Jessica Chastain as Samantha, Curtis's wife, is understanding and compassionate but firmly assertive when Curtis's weird behavior gets Curtis fired and threatens the family's security. While Curtis refuses to believe that his premonitions are not real, Samantha plans how the family can survive financially. Once again Chastain plays the ideal wife and mother, as she did in The Tree of Life, and once again her performance is perfect.

Shannon nicely plays the line between his acknowledgement of the possibility that he is manifesting schizophrenia and his firm conviction that a big storm is coming. Though the stunning ending is up for interpretation, the story delivers satisfying drama and a genuinely creepy atmosphere that strengthens a number of very gripping scenes.

Starved for the panoramic exteriors of the classic Western? I am. But this hunger for expansive Western landscapes was satisfied by director Mateo Gil’s Blackthorn, with Bolivian locations providing an awesomely rugged backdrop for the story of an aging Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepard), who survived the shootout with Bolivian soldiers and has been living quietly in the hinterland with a Bolivian lover.

When Butch gets a hankering to see home one last time before he dies, he sets out on a journey that gets sidetracked when he runs into Eduardo, a Spaniard on the lam for robbing from a rich mine owner. Pursued by an angry posse, as well as by an ex-Pinkerton (Stephen Rea), who recognizes Butch from his good old outlaw days, Butch feels his plans crumbling, and all that is left for him to do is survive. And survive he does in scenes of rousing Western action.

Shepard is well suited to the role of the crusty, cagey Butch Cassidy, but the real stars of this outdoor action film are the cinematography and the jungle, salt desert, and mountains of Bolivia.

In Sleeping Beauty Emily Browning plays Lucy, a nihilistic college student in need of money who hires out as a medical test patient, resorts to prostitution, and ends up working for a high-end kink ring that services older men, allowing them privacy and whatever they wish to do, short of penetration, with the inert body of a "sleeping beauty."

Is this film voyeuristic crap, or does it explore fascinating questions? Curiously, it's directed by a woman, Julia Leigh. Emily's Lucy is certainly an enigma, willing to sell herself to perversion while at the same time seeming to get satisfaction from providing others with what they need. The white-haired gent in the image above delivers one of the most curious monologues in any film this year. What's the old man's point? What does he want, and how does cuddling with a slumbering nude girl fill in for his life's losses? What does the human soul need that is satisfied by fondling, or abusing, a sleeping nude, and why is Lucy willing to fill that need? The film raises these questions and offers Emily Browning's thoughtful performance, but its blunt ending supplies no definite answer.

In Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, young Elizabeth Olsen is outstanding as a young woman haunted by her two-year experience with a cult commune in Upstate New York. Martha escapes from the commune, but she can’t escape the brainwashing and the sexual abuse of the cult’s creepy leader, Patrick (John Hawkes). Taken in by her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who is staying at a cozy lakeside rental with her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), Martha quickly demonstrates that she has undergone a disturbing ordeal.

The camera lingers patiently on shots of the commune and on Martha’s troubled eyes, often enclosing her face in a constricted framework. Match cuts transition smoothly between two starkly contrasted worlds: the cult’s shabby farm and Lucy and Ted’s upper-class lakeside rental.

Although the film is clear about how Patrick’s cult ensnares its female members and subjugates them sexually, the story reaches no climax or resolution. The film is driven by Olsen’s touching performance as well as the looming, sinister presence of Patrick and the commune.

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