Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Current Indie Films Offer Big Stars Without The Blockbuster Bombast

You don’t have to wait for the summer super hero sequel season (kicking off this Friday with IRON MAN 3) to see big name stars for a bunch of them are currently starring in indie films at your local art house. 

For instance, Derek Cianfrance’s (BLUE VALENTINE) highly touted crime drama THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, now in its 3rd week in the Triangle area, boasts star turns by Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper. 

The film tells a story set in the town of Schenectady, New York, that spans 3 character threads. Gosling’s scenario involves the bleach blonde pretty boy turning to a life of crime (robbing banks with the help of his circus-honed motorcycling skills) in order to support the year old baby that former flame Eva Mendes just told him he is the father of.

One of Gosling’s robberies is foiled by Cooper as a young law student turned cop and then his scenario begins. Cooper takes advantage of his hero status to further his career, realizing the system’s just too damn corrupt (mostly in the form of a slimy, us usual, Ray Liotta - could Liotta ever play a cop that’s not corrupt?).

The third act has Cooper’s kid (Emory Cohen) growing up to be a troubled teenager who befriends a fellow student, Dane Dehan, who turns out to be Gosling’s kid. Gosling’s and Cooper’s acts crackle with energy, but the final act lost me. It felt like it could have been incorporated into the second story-line or at least not be so drawn out. Perhaps it simply lacked the star power of the first two thirds. Whatever the case, the film has just enough storytelling drive to make it worthwhile.

Nobody could accuse Robert Redford’s new political drama THE COMPANY YOU KEEP, which opened last Friday in Raleigh, of lacking star power. Apart from Redford’s lead role, there’s Shia Labeouf, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Stephen Root, and indie darling Brit Marling. Sadly though, all this talent can’t save the film from Redford’s tired soapboxing as you can read in my review “Redford’s Vanity Project THE COMPANY YOU KEEP Is A Star-Studded Dud” (4/26/13).

Much better is Jeff Nichols’ MUD, with Matthew McConaughey in the title role, also in its first week in the Triangle. 

McConaughey, a little less confident than usual yet still somewhat slick,  plays an outlaw on the lam, living on an island in the middle of Arkansas' Lower White River, who is discovered by a couple of kids (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland). The kids help the fugitive get a boat down out of a tree (“that’s a hell of thing” McConaughey keeps saying about the boat’s predicament) and back in commission so he can escape with the love of his life, a redneck floozy played by Reese Witherspoon (the role couldn’t be more timely with her recent brush with the law and all). 

There a few glaring narrative conveniences - the kids seem to happen upon Witherspoon too easily, and later come to her hotel room at just the right time when she’s being roughed by a thug played by Stuart Greer for a few examples - but they could reasonably be chalked up to small town coincidences I reckon.

MUD is a mostly engrossing Southern drama driven by its superb cast, including Sam Shepherd, Nichols’ TAKE SHELTER star Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, Sarah Paulson, and Ray McKinnon, and its thoughtful screenplay by Nichols. 

But in a cast of recognizable faces, the 15 year old newcomer Sheridan, who could be considered the film’s true protagonist, stands out. Nichols’ has given the kid thematic weight in the form of a belief in love - a belief in danger of being squashed by a crush on an older girl (Bonnie Sturdivant) and the fact that his mother (Paulson) is divorcing his father (McKinnon) - but Sheridan carries it with poise.

So, if you’re looking for alternatives to the coming tidal wave of CGI-saturated blockbuster-wannabes on the big screen, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES and MUD will provide the stars without the bombast. 

More later...

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