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Indie Snapshot: <i>The Paperboy</i>, <i>Butter</i>, <i>The Oranges</i>, <I>Wuthering Heights</i>

Nicole Kidman gets an extreme makeover in the ridiculous potboiler The Paperboy. Also, our takes on Butter, The Oranges and Wuthering Heights.

The Paperboy
Even though she's consistently ranked amongst the world's loveliest women, Nicole Kidman doesn't often play characters who would first and foremost be described as "sexy." Glamorous, yes. Icy, occasionally. Beauteous, perhaps, if one were feeling flowery about it. But you'd probably have to go all the way back to Batman Forever and/or Dead Calm to find a role that really showcases Kidman's sex appeal. (Even in Moulin Rouge -- a movie I adore and think she's quite good in -- her doomed courtesan is an object of desire who isn't all that desirable in the carnal sense.) Obviously, if sexiness was the chief determinant of an actor's skill, Megan Fox and Channing Tatum would be multiple Oscar winners by now. But it is strange to think that, for some performers (especially one as beautiful as Kidman), it's easier to portray a full-on emotional breakdown than it is to simply be sexy onscreen.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Kidman is very sexy -- I'd go so far as to say scorching -- in The Paperboy, Lee Daniels's first post-Precious feature. Based on a novel by Pete Dexter, the '60s-era film casts her as Charlotte, a blonde temptress with a taste for both low-cut outfits and carrying on torrid affairs (through lusty letters and brief visitations where no physical contact is allowed) with incarcerated men. Charlotte's latest paramour is Hillary (John Cusack), a violent man facing execution for allegedly murdering a notoriously bad-tempered sheriff in their small, steamy Florida town. The high-profile nature of the crime as well as the convicted perpetrator's insistence about his innocence captures the attention of journalist Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), who originally hailed from this neck of the woods before landing a big city job at the Miami Times. Turning up in town with his writing partner Yardley (David Oyelowo) -- whose black skin brings them the wrong kind of attention in this deeply racist backwoods setting -- Ward also recruits the help of his kid brother Jack (Zac Efron) and, of course, Charlotte, in clearing Hillary's name. From the moment Jack sets eyes on Charlotte's supple body, which is barely poured into her skin-tight blue dress, the guy is a goner. And it's not hard to understand his single-minded obsession with her. Maybe it's the ratty blonde hair and raccoon eye make-up, maybe it's the thick-as-honey Southern drawl, or maybe it's her closetful of trashy outfits, but it's impossible to take your eyes off Kidman anytime she's anywhere in the frame. She's delivered a number of terrific performances over the course of her career, but she's never been this purely magnetic onscreen before, creating a character that ranks up there with the great cinema sexpots, including Jane Fonda in Barbarella and Kathleen Turner in Body Heat (although Elizabeth Taylor's iconic Maggie from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof remains out of reach). It's almost as radical a transformation as the one Daniels worked on Mo'Nique in Precious, turning her from a comedienne into the mother from hell.

It's a good thing that viewers have Kidman to focus their attention on, because the rest of The Paperboy is an overbaked mess. Precious had its problems, too, but the sheer emotional drive of the story coupled with the power of the individual performances kept the audience locked in. With The Paperboy, it's unclear from the start just what kind of a movie Daniels thinks he's making. It's not a murder mystery, because Ward's investigation doesn't uncover anything all that mysterious and the identity of the murderer is barely a factor in the plot. It's not a coming-of-age story, because Jack doesn't seem to grow up all that much after living through the incidents that happen to him. And it's not a thriller because it's not thrilling in the least. What it does offer, I suppose, is a strong sense of place; in the same way that Precious captured a specific, now-vanished vision of New York's Harlem, The Paperboy radiates the swampy heat of South Florida. That's not enough though, because there's nothing to this movie besides heat (both sexual and climate-wise); the narrative is jumbled, scenes are rife with unintentional comedy and the characters -- apart from Kidman -- are poorly acted stick figures (charges that, it must be said, some leveled at Precious as well and not entirely without cause). In the end, The Paperboy is a triumph for its lead actress and a failure for almost everyone else involved.

Butter
Speaking of beautiful actresses whose big-screen roles have often proven to be strangely sexless, Jennifer Garner has largely been stuck playing bland moms and girlfriends ever since Alias ended its run. This small-town comedy doesn't exactly up her heat index, but at least it gives her distinguishable personality -- but too bad that it's a personality that was previously embodied to such memorable effect by Reese Witherspoon, specifically in her great 1999 political satire, Election. In fact, Garner's Laura Picker -- the ruthlessly ambitious wife of Iowa's top butter sculptor Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell) -- is basically a grown-up version of Witherspoon's Tracy Flick, right down to her hyper-efficient attitude and complete lack of social graces. She's even planning her own political future, plotting a course that will take her hubby from butter sculpting champion to the governor's mansion. Her plot is temporarily derailed, though, when Bob is forcibly retired from competing and a new champ emerges in the form of diminutive orphan, Destiny (Yara Shahidi), who has been adopted by loving, supportive couple Ethan and Julie Emmet (Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone). Eager to hold onto the family legacy, Laura decides to enter the competition herself and the stage is set for a butter battle that would impress even Dr. Seuss.

Butter is the first produced script from Jason Micallef and it feels like he tried to cram at least three movies worth of material into this one. The film ping-pongs jarringly between Laura and Destiny's stories, both of which are strikingly different in terms of their tone. In the Pickler material, Micallef and director Jim Field Smith aim for a more satiric bent, with scenes that strain to skewer small-town social politics and petty personal ambitions with only intermittent success. The Destiny storyline, on the other hand, is earnest and sentimental, sometimes charmingly so (the scenes between Corddry -- who is surprisingly great here in a restrained comic role -- and Shahidi are actually quite sweet), but more often cloying and forced. (Micallef also makes the mistake of suddenly trying to humanize Laura in the movie's climax, in a supremely false and unconvincing bid for the viewer's sympathy.) The filmmakers also are unable to fully exploit the skills of their sizeable ensemble cast. While Garner gamely throws herself into her Tracy Flick-lite persona, Burrell isn't allowed to display the offbeat comic timing that have made him one of Modern Family's secret weapons and Hugh Jackman, Kristen Schaal and Olivia Wilde are wasted in one-note supporting roles. Election is a great film to try and imitate, but this particular imitation isn't all that flattering.
(Butter is currently playing in limited release and is also available on most VOD platforms.)

The Oranges
If Butter takes its cue from Election, the makers of The Oranges have clearly set their sights on 1999's biggest success story, American Beauty. Like that much-lauded collaboration between Alan Ball and Sam Mendes, this team-up between screenwriters Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss and director Julian Farino is a tale of suburban dysfunction and the collapse of a seemingly ordinary nuclear family. Hugh Laurie, Catherine Keener and Alia Shawkat take on roles previously played by Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening and Thora Birch as distracted dad David, shrill mom Paige and mopey daughter Vanessa respectively. Also as in American Beauty, the plot's instigating event is the romantic pull that David feels towards a much-younger woman, Nina (Leighton Meester), the college-aged daughter of his family's best friends and next door neighbors, Terry and Carol Ostroff (Oliver Platt and Allison Janney). Unlike Spacey's Lester Bunham though, David actually enters into a genuine romance with Nina, who is on the rebound after she caught her fiancée getting busy with another gal in their bathroom. Because David and Nina are spectacularly bad at sneaking around, their affair is discovered almost immediately and the bombshell blows up both families. Paige moves out and Nina moves in, Terry physically attacks David (well, he tries to anyway) and then ignores him and Vanessa -- who used to be tight with Nina until her friend moved too far up the high school social ladder to still be seen with her -- stays confined to her room to avoid seeing or hearing the age-inappropriate PDA happening all around her. (Although she needn't have bothered, to be honest, as Laurie and Meester engage in one of the most chaste May-December romances ever committed to screen. Hugging and the occasional peck on the lips seem to be the extent of their lust for each other.)

Hailed as a masterpiece in some quarters when it was initially released, American Beauty hasn't aged all that well over the years, but at least it ventures to some dark places that The Oranges never even attempts to tread. Instead the filmmakers take this emotionally-charged material and play it as a bland sitcom, where nobody's feelings are all that hurt by what's going on and everything works out okay in the end. In fact, the movie's ultimate message seems to be that infidelity is the ultimate self-improvement exercise, one that changes your life and the lives of your friends and family for the better. That actually sounds like the premise for a great satire, but The Oranges doesn't have a satiric bone in its body. It's strangely concerned with not offending or upsetting anyone either onscreen or in the audience, to the point where the whole enterprise seems like a waste of time for everyone involved. Certainly few of the actors are given an opportunity to do much beyond repeating their established screen personas in a suburban setting, with the possible exception of Laurie, whose David is a much nicer guy than Gregory House, even if his main character arc involves chasing after young tail. Dramatically flat and laugh-free The Oranges is barely a comedy or a drama -- come to think of it, it's barely a movie.

Wuthering Heights
Finally arriving on U.S. screens a full year after its international debut, Andrea Arnold's new version of Emily Brontë's oft-filmed 19th-century tale of romantic obsession is a stunner -- one of the most vividly realized and boldly original adaptations of an established literary classic to come along in recent memory. Throwing out the lavish production design and restrained formality that's typically associated with period pieces based on Important Novels, this Wuthering Heights is stripped-down and primal, connecting the characters' emotional turmoil to the wild countryside that surrounds them. Arnold filmed the movie amidst the rocky, wind-swept hills and moors of Northern England and immerses viewers in that rugged setting with the same restless camerawork and attention to the environment around her that defined her previous features, the great Red Road and the even better Fish Tank. In its way, Arnold's Wuthering Heights rhapsodizes nature as much as any Terrence Malick movie; but where Malick tends to only see the beauty and majesty of the natural world, Arnold zeroes in on its ferocity and harshness, which complements the stormy tale that unfolds in Brontë's book.

In terms of the basic narrative, Arnold hasn't radically altered what appeared on the page. Once again, a young boy is adopted by a farmer who owns and operates the titular patch of land. Given the name Heathcliff, he forms a fast friendship with the farmer's daughter Catherine, a relationship that blossoms into love. But then Catherine gets a taste of society when she spends a period of time in the country manor of the wealthy Linton family and the wild Heathcliff is replaced in her affections by that clan's more posh son, Edgar. So her childhood friend runs away, returning years later having remade himself into a man of means eager to reclaim the woman he abandoned. Naturally, they can't simply pick up where they left off and tragedy inevitably ensues.

The two key alterations that Arnold has made to the novel are to abandon Brontë's framing device, thus throwing viewers immediately into the story of young Heathcliff and Catherine, and casting a black actor (Solomon Glave plays him as a boy, James Howson as a man) as the orphan. (The book describes Heathcliff as "dark-skinned" but doesn't specify a race.) It's a choice that immediately raises the stakes of their relationship and further marks him as an outsider in the eyes of this community. Arnold's other striking decision is to tell so much of the story non-verbally, trusting the faces of the actors and the rush of her images to communicate the plot and emotion of the piece. (Refreshingly, there's also no extraneous voiceover narration ladled over the movie's soundtrack. In fact, the film doesn't even have a score at all, instead using the natural sounds of the moors its music.) At a time when so many page-to-screen adaptations are content to be overly literal books on film, Arnold has made a full-blooded cinematic experience out of her source material, one that makes you feel like you're discovering the novel for the first time.

V/H/S
I already reviewed this new found footage horror anthology, which is opening in limited theatrical release today, at length when it premiered on VOD back in August. But if you haven't seen the year's best horror film yet -- or even if you have -- it plays even better in the theater, where you'll be surrounded by like-minded souls looking for a few good scares. The standout sequences are Amateur Night, Second Honeymoon and 10/31/98, but really the whole movie is a blast, recalling the glory days of such genre anthologies as Creepshow and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie while also blazing its own trail. If only all found footage horror yarns could be this inventive, smart and genuinely terrifying.

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