Indie Snapshot: Take This Waltz

by Ethan Alter July 13, 2012 6:00 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>Take This Waltz</i>

A slow weekend at the multiplex gives you time to catch up with some of the indie features -- like Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz -- currently playing at an art house or video on demand service near you.

Take This Waltz
Sarah Polley's feature filmmaking debut was a moving portrait of a marriage in its twilight years, when an elderly husband and wife (Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie) were separated by institutionalization and Alzheimer's disease. For her sophomore effort, Polley depicts the dissolution of another, much-younger union, although this one is brought about by personal failings rather than illness. On the surface, Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen) appear to be the ideal couple. They reside in a lovely home in a trendy Toronto neighborhood, work jobs that bring them a great sense of fulfillment (he's a cook, she's a freelance writer) and, most importantly, still enjoy being in each other's company. But lately, something has changed between them, particularly for Margot. The practical jokes and wisecracks they're constantly surprising each other have started to feel cruel rather than funny and the intimacy has steadily drained out of their relationship. They're friends -- oftentimes good friends -- but not lovers and that unspoken arrangement weighs heavily on Margot's mind, to the point where she has to build up her confidence to even give Lou a hug.

The combination of Williams and Rogen in a romantic drama about a failing marriage may sound like a recipe for disaster, but, in fact, the two actors work wonderfully together, each teasing out something from the other that we haven't seen onscreen before. Rogen still possesses his familiar bluster, but not the comic swagger we've grown accustomed to. He's a guy that's grown so secure in his everyday routine, he can't see and isn't prepared for the fault lines that are about to shake up his comfortable existence. By now experienced at playing women living through deep emotional trauma, Williams gets to show off a more playful side as Margot, whose sneaky, slightly dark sense of humor is undoubtedly what captivated Lou in the first place. Another interesting relationship in the film is the one shared by Margot and Lou's sister-in-law Geraldine (Sarah Silverman, yes the Sarah Silverman, quite good in a small, but significant supporting role), a recovering alcoholic who views her in-law as a kind of role model, at least in regards to being a good life partner. These relationships are written with such nuance by Polley and brought to life so vividly by the performers, there's a compelling authenticity to Take This Waltz that many similarly-themed dramas often lack.

Unfortunately, there's also an entire additional story thread to the film that often comes dangerously close to cancelling out its sense of realism. That would be the romance that develops between Margot and the hunky rickshaw-driving artist Daniel (Luke Kirby), who she first encounters while on a writing assignment and then becomes obsessed with when she discovers he lives down the street. Like her husband, Daniel is funny and charming -- they quickly develop their own versions of the running jokes she shares with Lou -- but he's also sensual and passionate and attentive to her feelings. In short, he's her dream guy and I think I would have believed in this relationship a lot more if Daniel was, indeed, a figment of Margot's imagination. Polley does toy with this notion at various points during the film (most notably in its final act), but ultimately can't completely commit to it and the indecisiveness perhaps explains why Daniel never feels fleshed-out as a character. His mood, personality and even basic desires shift on a dime; he's whoever Polley needs him to be in a given scene rather than a consistent, believable presence. It doesn't help that scenes between Daniel and Margot are further weighed down by the director's occasional heavy hand, which manifests itself in on-the-nose dialogue and belabored visual metaphors. (Daniel first meets Margot at a historical reenactment where she's been forcibly volunteered to faux-whip a man wearing a sign labeled "Adulterer" for crying out loud.) As long as Williams and Rogen are onscreen, Take This Waltz is painfully honest. When the stage is ceded to Williams and Kirby it just gets painful.
(Take This Waltz is playing in limited release and is also available On Demand)

Union Square
A veteran of the New York indie movie world, writer/director Nancy Savoca returns with her first feature in almost a decade, a sibling drama about two sisters at crisis points in their lives. In Manhattan to see her married businessman boyfriend, Bronx-born and bred Lucy (Mira Sorvino) instead gets the brush-off over the phone and -- upset and with nowhere else to turn -- she shows up on the doorstep of the well-appointed Union Square apartment owned by her sister Jenny (Tammy Blanchard), who shares it with her handsome, health-addicted fiancé Bill (Mike Doyle). The siblings haven't seen each other in years and it's not hard to see why: where Jenny seems to have her life together, Lucy is a walking raw nerve, prone to hysterical outbursts and crying fits. These wild mood swings stem in large part from the recent passing of their mother (Patti LuPone), who Lucy cared for up until her death while Jenny switched boroughs in an effort to put her overbearing family and Bronx past behind her. But with her sister's sudden appearance, she's thrown back into the world she fled and starts to re-evaluate her future in light of what she rediscovers about her past.

Shot quickly and cheaply on location in the titular neighborhood, Union Square isn't particularly distinguished in its form or content, but it does function as a solid performance piece for two actresses that don't often get meaty material to tear into. Between the flashy outfits and the Bronx bray, Sorvino definitely has the showier role, but Blanchard is ultimately the pivotal character as Jenny, for all her apparent sense and sensibility, proves less secure in her own skin than her more overtly crazy sister. Given the challenging emotional terrain Savoca seems interested in exploring, the movie's rushed finale feels somewhat pat and simplistic. But at least the build-up to that unsatisfying denouement is enlivened by good performances and the always-enjoyable backdrop that is New York.

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon
Originally filmed in 2008, before sibling filmmaking team Mark and Jay Duplass were given the opportunity to make their mumblecore-influenced features on a mini-major studio's dime (specifically Fox Searchlight's), this super low-budget comedy feels like a trial run for a big-budget Will Ferrell remake. It's certainly easy to imagine Ferrell playing either one of the two brothers at the movie's center, who create their own 25-event competition in an effort to settle once and for all which of them is the better man. The duo competed in their first Pentathlon when they were teenagers, but were interrupted before a winner could be determined. Fast-forward almost twenty years and Mark (Steve Zissis) is an overweight married father with emotional problems stemming from his hyper-competitive nature, while Jeremy (Mark Kelly) is a poker player with few personal attachments. Both have returned to their mother's house to celebrate Mark's birthday and, to the chagrin of Mom (Julie Vorus) and Mark's long-suffering wife Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur), they organize another homemade Olympics consisting of such events as ping pong, laser tag and underwater breath holding and push-ups. Inevitably, their competition grows so intense that Mark finds himself neglecting everything else in his life, including his family.

The natural rivalry that exists between guys -- not to mention the hilarity (and ugliness) of male vanity -- is frequently at the center of the Duplass's work, from The Puffy Chair to Jeff, Who Lives at Home (one can't help but wonder what their own relationship was like growing up) and The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is one of their most amusing and satisfying exploration of these themes. Despite their bratty behavior, Jeremy and Mark are funnier, more relatable characters than say, Cyrus's John and Cyrus, whose competition took on a sour note that stifled much of the humor. (Zissis and Kelly certainly seem more comfortable in the mumblecore milieu than either John C. Reilly or Jonah Hill as well.) The Pentathlon, meanwhile, function as both the movie's comic high point -- and again, one can easily imagine how they would be escalated for the Ferrell version -- and a believable impetus for the dramatic turn it takes in the final act, when Mark is confronted with the consequences of his behavior. The one area where the slender 80-minute film suffers (and this is true of a lot of the Duplass's work as well) is in its portrayal of the female characters, who are given few other emotions to play beyond concerned disapproval. Writing better roles for women should be the next task these filmmakers challenge themselves with.
(The Do-Deca-Penathlon is playing in limited theatrical release and is also available On Demand)

Red Lights
One would think that a movie that managed to recruit such gifted actors as Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro and Elizabeth Olsen couldn't be all bad. One would be wrong. Following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January -- a place that it had no business being at least based on quality -- Rodrigo Cortés' ludicrous thriller slinks into theaters hoping that the ensemble will be enough to lure in a few unsuspecting moviegoers. So I'm warning you now: stay far, far away from this muddled, borderline incoherent feature. Weaver and Murphy play experienced paranormal debunkers who take on their biggest challenge when they attempt to prove that a world-renowned blind psychic (De Niro) is a big ol' faker. But in the process of their investigation, they start to wonder whether they've at last run up against the real thing. It sure sounds like a good hook for a movie, but Cortés botches the proceedings early on, failing to adequately establish the rules of this world or at the very least, a convincing atmosphere of intrigue and tension. The cast often seems as adrift as the movie's formless narrative and cope with the lack of direction by either overacting (De Niro), going through the motions (Weaver) or just playing it straight and hoping it'll all be over soon (Murphy). By the time the movie finally ends there won't be a dry eye in the house... largely because everyone will likely have already walked out.

One of those small, quirky indie films that's made with more heart than sense, veteran Chicago actor and playwright Bob Meyer's feature film debut recruits such prestigious names as John Goodman, Dana Delaney and fellow Windy City theater icon John Malkovich for a small-scale family drama about a recovering alcoholic (Malkovich) who attempts to reconnect with his sister (Delaney) and her two children. Meyer attempts to approach this dramatic subject matter with a light comic touch -- as in an early scene featuring Malkovich wearing a mop on top of his head -- a balancing act that he often struggles to pull off convincingly. On the other hand, his acting background does clearly aid him in coaxing focused performances out of the cast, even Malkovich, who is famous for diving off the deep end if given enough latitude by the director. But both the veterans and young actors do solid, if not exceptional work here, managing to create a believable family unit out of these odd, underwritten collection of characters. That's not reason enough to seek out Drunkboat, but the film would make me interested to see Meyer direct this same cast in more familiar territory: the stage.

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