Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Screen scene: It's cold for indies

More than a dozen movies opened in New York last week, and the deluge of celluloid is set to continue. The current is running so fast I can barely blog them all--and there's evidently not much time for anyone to see them, either, as to judge from the boxoffice results many of them will be off to DVD prep by month's end. They'll be as dead and gone as the unfortunate soul in the picture.

In the case of Mike Cahill's King of California, there's probably not much inclination to attend, either. No longer an A-list star of the testosterone-fueled white male rage pictures of his heyday, but not really a supporting player, either, Michael Douglas tries a character lead in a very low-key comedy drama as a bipolar musician searching for conquistador gold under a Costco in California, much to the dismay of more sensible teenage daughter Evan Rachel Wood. Douglas has some fun in the part, which has trace elements of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (which he produced) and the Romancing the Stone pictures, but the shaggy dog film is so relaxed and unassuming it practically begs for you to watch it on pay-per-view.

The absorbing documentary The Rape of Europa, co-directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham, is more intense. Yet it, too, feels more like TV, and will likely turn up on PBS or The History Channel before long. The story of the Nazi theft of art treasures during World War II, and the subsequent reclamation of the valuables by the Allied "monument men" (including future Lincoln Center founder Lincoln Kirstein) and the controversies that continue to simmer over their repatriation and true providence, is a story worth hearing, and the two hours passed quickly. The standard talking heads treatment, however, is more tube- than cinema-friendly. A more artful approach might have helped it stand out from the pack. Still, there are priceless moments, like the woman who recalls sleeping near the hidden Mona Lisa when it was moved from the Louvre for safekeeping.

Needing no assistance from me is The Jane Austen Book Club, which Sony Pictures Classics opens on Sept. 21. This chick-lit adaptation has a goof-proof premise--a group of female friends, dismayed by their relationships, find solace and solidarity reading Austen's works, as parallels to Emma and Pride and Prejudice are drawn to their own stressed-out lives. It helps for purposes of syllabus familiarity that film versions of all but Northanger Abbey are in easy viewing range (all are currently being readapted by the BBC, though you could of course take the hint and read the books, which are ably synopsized by writer and first-time director Robin Swicord) and that the cast of familiar to sort-of familiar faces gets into the proper harangues-and-hugs spirit of things. Maria Bello, girlier than usual, and a more insecure than usual Jimmy Smits as an errant husband, are highlight players, with Devil Wears Prada scene-stealer Emily Blunt, Lynn Redgrave, and Billy...er, Hugh Dancy, Crudup's British twin, in there, too. If this one doesn't find an audience and/or spawn The Arthur Conan Doyle Book Club, The Bronte Sisters Book Club, and so-on spinoffs for different demographics, I'll eat my hat and read Mansfield Park again.

On the critical list (it's losing one Manhattan theater this Friday after just a week in release) is Craig Zobel's Great World of Sound, a doleful comedy about would-be record producers drawn into a shady outfit somewhere in mid-South flyover country, where Indianapolis is the "big city." The strength of the film, which is like a more subtly edged and less brassy Glengarry Glen Ross, is that it is not at all condescending, as my quote marks might imply. Everyone in the film, including the many actual musicians from both ends of the talent spectrum who audition for the two salesmen in amusing, poignant scenes, clings to an American Dream that is slipping farther and farther out of reach. The salesmen themselves, meek Martin (Pat Healy) and smoother operator Clarence (Kene Holliday), make an affecting, Mutt and Jeff team, and that race is never an issue is one of the stronger points in Zobel's keen-eyed, flavorful script. Highly recommended, but you may have to look.

Larry Fessenden's latest horror film, The Last Winter (pictured at top), is in release today via IFC First Take, which means you may be able to watch it on PPV. Look for it, however, in a theater. Fessenden, whose previous films like Habit and No Telling are scrappy New York-made enterprises, has graduated to widescreen shooting and a more expansive budget this time around, without losing the close-to-the-bone quality of his work. Set in Alaska (and shot in Iceland), the film sets up the title early on; the problem facing a corporate crew doing advance work on an oil-drilling project is that it is warm, and not cold, in the environmentally challenged North, the first of many reversals that come to plague the enterprise.

Fessenden is canny about how to handle what could be stock figures--we're set up to think that Ron Perlman's team leader will be the "bad guy" and James Le Gros' environmentalist the hero, but the script shakes things up unpredictably. (It helps that the brutish-looking Perlman is a more facile actor than he seems.) There is a monster element, recalling Fessenden's Wendigo (with better CGI effects work), yet, that, too, has enough of a credible explanation if you're in need of one. Like The Thing, an inspiration, it's chilling, and movies like this do more to highlight the global warming crisis by inference and characterization than lecture films such as The 11th Hour. It's colder than Alaska these days for indie films, but I hope Great World of Sound and The Last Winter survive the deep freeze.

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