Movie Review: A Tale of Two Indies

Nearly all my reviews are raves and I sometimes wonder if people think I just love everything. The truth is that I’m pretty selective — my reviews are overwhelmingly positive because I only bother taking the time to write about books and movies I really like. But today I’m going to break that rule because yesterday I saw two movies in one day (at the Seattle International Film Festival) and it provided an interesting study in contrasts.

The first was an indie drama/comedy called “A Little Help”, featuring one of my favorite actresses, Jenna Fischer. I’m a huge and long-time fan of Jenna and her work on “The Office” but, unfortunately, this film is a mess. The dialog is trite and forced, much like a TV sitcom. The characters are under-developed and unbelievable. The plot is full of cliches. Several of the performances are over-acted to the extreme. Even Jenna Fischer does not seem comfortable in her role. There are a few bright spots: Daniel Yeltsky is very good as a tortured tween adapting to life without a father and the original music by Jacob Dylan is lovely, but, sadly, that was not enough to make me care about this muddled movie.

After that disappointment, I saw “Cyrus”, which was a very different story, literally and figuratively. The characters are compelling and believable. The dialog is real and engaging. The story is intriguing.  The acting is sublime. Even at a technical level, this movie is interesting: there is extensive use of hand held cameras and extreme close-ups, which has the effect of drawing the viewer into the action. The filmmakers, Jay & Mark Duplass, are known for their minimally scripted, highly improvisational approach to filmmaking, and the result is a very raw and very honest film about real people in a complicated situation.

I find most mainstream Hollywood fare to be “formulaic”, as if constructed by a kind of cinematic Mad Libs, which is why I love and support independent films. But to be successful, a good movie, like any work of art, needs to be original. “Cyrus” is funny, sad, poignant, powerful and entertaining – but more than that, it’s one of the most original movies I’ve seen in a long, long time.

2 thoughts on “Movie Review: A Tale of Two Indies”

  1. Mark:
    Right on with your review of Cyrus. I absolutely LOVED how I wish more people felt like you did about mainstream:

    “I find most mainstream Hollywood fare to be “formulaic”, as if constructed by a kind of cinematic Mad Libs, which is why I love and support independent films. But to be successful, a good movie, like any work of art, needs to be original.”

    I’d add to that – a good movie requires a good story, a great story. Here are three that come immediately to mind, that are going to sound familiar but started out very, very tiny: Juno ( the brilliant and my ever favorite Alan Arkin, See the Classic, “The In laws” with Arkin and Peter Falk), La Vita è Bella, (Life Is Beautiful) stunning in Italian with subtitles, and the third will surprise you., Slumdog Millionaire. Yes, this WAS a tiny film. It is a visual masterpiece and the adaptation from the book was masterful. It is even better in Hindi with subtitles.
    In the city I like the really small East Village theatres, recent gems: “Whiz Kids” and “City Island”. Thankfully, there are a few art theaters left in my area and today, as it approaches 100 degrees I’m thinking of hitting 2 in a row this afternoon: “I am Love” and “Mademoiselle Chambon”.

  2. I liked all three of those movies. Have you seen “Harold and Maude”? I just saw it again and it’s another one of those “small” movies with a big impact. Three other movies I loved from the “anti-Hollywood” genre:

    - “Down by Law”
    - “Sideways” (great book too, BTW)
    - “The Thin Blue Line”

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