Indie Snapshot: Thanksgiving Round-Up

by Ethan Alter November 23, 2011 12:59 pm
Indie Snapshot: Thanksgiving Round-Up

Avoid the crowds at the multiplex by seeking out some of these independent films over the long holiday weekend:

The Artist
Here's a novel idea for a movie: a silent film about the birth of talking pictures. That's the clever conceit that French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius employs in The Artist, an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser that places a strong emphasis on the words "old-fashioned." In addition to the lack of dialogue or, indeed, almost any sound at all (save the score, of course), the movie is also projected in black-and-white and takes place in the distant past of the 1920s.

The plot is equal parts Singin' in the Rain and A Star is Born. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of Hollywood's premiere movie stars, possessing the innate ability to make women swoon and men shake his hand. But George's silent adventures become old news with the dawn of talkies. Now audiences want to hear their favorite screen idols talk as well as perform feats of derring-do. Valentin is unwilling to open his mouth on camera and his career suffers as a result. Canned by his studio, he pours all his money into one last big silent production. But on opening night, the audience is lined up around the block for dialogue-driven film instead, one that stars the new face of Hollywood stardom, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a young ingénue whom George originally helped break into Hollywood by awarding her a small role in one of his pictures. She's been eternally grateful to him ever since and longs to help him out with his current predicament, but he's too proud and stubborn to accept aid of any kind. Inevitably, George hits rock bottom and The Artist becomes a full-scale melodrama, complete with a suicide attempt and a rescue that arrives almost too late.

Much like Martin Scorsese's Hugo, The Artist is a love letter to the silent movies of yesteryear, as Hazanavicius cheerfully works references to all sorts of specific films, genres and stars into the frame. George Valentin himself is an amalgam of Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin, and the matinee idol-handsome Dujardin does a terrific job capturing the role's humor and heart. (As of now, he's a leading contender to nab this year's Best Actor trophy at the Oscars, the same prize he deservedly won at the Cannes Film Festival back in May.) Bejo is equally appealing as the Clara Bow-esque Peppy and several recognizable contemporary stars -- including John Goodman, James Cromwell and Missi Pyle -- turn up in smaller roles. The Artist is at its most purely enjoyable in the first half-hour, when it's more of a light-hearted comedy set against the backdrop of a changing Hollywood. As George's career sinks and the drama ratchets up, you might find yourself missing the charm of the earlier scenes. At the same time though, it makes his final moment of triumph that much sweeter. If nothing else, The Artist proves that a film doesn't need words to keep audiences hooked.

A Dangerous Method
On first glance, A Dangerous Method doesn't particularly seem like a David Cronenberg film, givens its general lack of gross-out gory moments (like those exploding heads from Scanners) or disturbing sexual imagery (the entirey of Crash). Instead, this is a relatively contained chamber piece involving the real-life relationship between psychiatrists Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen, reuniting with Cronenberg for the third time), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and the female patient that inadvertently initiates their friendship -- and later becomes the accidental catalyst for their painful professional break-up -- Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). When Sabina first turns up at Jung's hospital in 1904, she's beset by severe fits of hysteria and the doctor decides to treat her with Freud's then-revolutionary approach, the "talking cure," or, as it is known today, psychoanalysis. The treatment works and soon Spielrein is attending university, studying to enter the field of psychiatry herself. She and Jung also strike up an affair that rests uneasily on the doctor's conscience. Meanwhile, his previously strong bond with Freud shows signs of fraying as both men head down very different, very divisive paths. When they finally reach their breaking point, it impacts not only their own lives but the very field of psychiatry itself.

With its in-depth and frank discussions of male and female psychology, with a particular emphasis on sexual hang-ups and other aberrant behavior, A Dangerous Method eventually reveals itself to be very much a David Cronenberg joint, even if doesn't have all of his usual visual enhancements. While Mortensen's performance here isn't as on point as his turns in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, Fassbender's transformation from a young idealist to a haunted, cynical veteran is sharply observed. Handed the movie's most demanding role, Knightley does some of her strongest work; while her male co-stars are allowed to underplay their emotions throughout (they are psychoanalysts after all) Sabina's fits of hysteria require the actress to contort her body and face in ways that may seem comical to contemporary audiences, but accurately reflect the condition Jung described in his journals. A Dangerous Method may be less immediately gratifying that Cronenberg's best films, but its methodical approach to its challenging subject matter make it an accomplished film that's worth -- pardon the pun -- further analysis.

My Week With Marilyn
Some biopics make viewers wait a little bit before seeing the famous person playing the famous person within the film (think a movie like Ray, which began with flashbacks to Ray Charles' childhood before bringing on Jamie Foxx). That's decidedly not the case in My Week with Marilyn, which opens with a lavish musical number starring Michelle Williams' Marilyn Monroe. Poured into a tight dress and wiggling her hips in classic Monroe fashion, Williams (and the film) seems to be saying, "Here I am world! Take me or leave me."

For the most part, we'll take her. Although Williams isn't a dead ringer for Marilyn -- she lacks Monroe's lushly curvaceous figure and effortless wide-eyed innocence -- she does successfully capture the essence of this '50s screen icon. As anyone who saw last year's Blue Valentine will recall, Williams excels at portraying women going through extreme emotional turbulence and she consistently imbues the role with a vulnerability that makes the audience -- like the other characters onscreen -- eager to protect Marilyn from the harsh realities of the world. Indeed, in the early scenes the actress is almost too vulnerable, lacking some of the vital sexuality that drove moviegoers at the time wild. But she eases into that aspect of Monroe as the film goes along. The key moment of her performance comes when Marilyn pays a visit to a boarding school and is immediately set upon by a panting pack of male students. Turning to her companion, she asks, "Shall I be her?" and, in an instant, Williams becomes the breathy, beautiful Marilyn Monroe that undoubtedly appears nightly in the boys' dreams.

Unfortunately, the movie surrounding Williams doesn't perform on her level. Based on a memoir by filmmaker Colin Clark (played here by Eddie Redmayne), the film takes place during the shooting of the 1956 comedy The Prince and the Showgirl, which paired Monroe with Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). Clark worked on the production as Olivier's assistant and claimed to have struck up a friendship with the troubled starlet that may or may not have flickered into a brief romance. Structured as a coming-of-age story, My Week with Marilyn positions Clark's relationship with Monroe as a transformative moment in his life, more or less implying that they did sleep together before she was whisked back to America. Redmayne's a likeable enough screen presence, but he's playing a walking cliché, the boy that learns to be a man with the help of a good (if slightly unstable) older woman. The only reason to see My Week with Marilyn -- and indeed, the only reason for the movie's existence -- is to observe Williams' convincing (and almost certainly Oscar-nominated) portrayal of one of Hollywood's biggest stars.

Click here to read our interview with My Week With Marilyn director Simon Curtis.

In The Family
A small-scale lesson in the importance of tolerance, Patrick Wang's debut feature takes place in Tennessee, where boyfriends Joey (Wang) and Cody (One Life to Live star Trevor St. John) are raising Cody's son, Chip (Sebastian Banes), from a previous marriage. But when his lover dies suddenly in a car accident, Joey unexpectedly finds himself on the outs with his family. It doesn't help that Cody never got around to updating his will to award his boyfriend custody of Chip. Instead, his sister is designated as the boy's guardian and no lawyer in the state is willing to argue Joey's paternity claim, due both to that pre-existing will and not-so-subtle prejudice. A reserved, unfailingly polite man by nature, Joey is at a loss for how to proceed, desperate to get his son back, but seemingly reluctant to go on the offensive.

In The Family unfolds at a leisurely pace with lots of lengthy, stationary shots that recall the work of Taiwanese filmmaker, Edward Yang (whose best known film in this country is probably the excellent Yi Yi from 2000). Wang's approach does capture the feel of everyday life in this small Southern town and also avoids the heightened emotional histrionics that might normally accompany this material (you can bet there would be a lot more yelling and screaming in the Lifetime Original Movie version). At almost three hours though, the film's pace is perhaps too leisurely for such a straightforward story. The fact that the film paints Joey as such a resolutely good guy throughout also robs it of a certain dramatic complexity. It's perfectly obvious to us from the first scene that Joey is a great father -- too bad it takes the other characters three hours to figure that out.

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