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Indie Snapshot: Hyde Park on Hudson

by Ethan Alter December 7, 2012 6:00 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>Hyde Park on Hudson</i>

Bill Murray goes from Caddyshack to the White House in Hyde Park on Hudson. Also, our reviews of In Our Nature, Yelling to the Sky and more indie titles.

Hyde Park on Hudson
As a piece of stunt casting, Hyde Park on Hudson is a rousing success. After all, if you're thinking of actors who seem best suited to playing a U.S. president -- particularly one as iconic as Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- former Saturday Night Live player Bill Murray wouldn't necessarily be the first name to spring to mind, even in his post-Lost in Translation career as a respected character actor. (Don't get me wrong, SNL has been a breeding ground for some pretty great political impersonations over the decades. Still, you wouldn't want to build an entire movie around Dana Carvey's George Bush or Darrell Hammond's Bill Clinton. Now Jason Sudeikis's Joe Biden on the other hand...) But Murray cuts a fine figure as FDR, delivering a performance that -- while not as transporting as Daniel Day-Lewis's Abraham Lincoln -- does feel believably presidential. The actor finds the right mixture of affability and authority for the role; you understand why everyone in his immediate family and extended entourage is devoted to him (for reasons that extend beyond his office) and willing to maintain his various secrets, from his polio-induced paralysis to his bevy of mistresses, who share his bed while his wife Eleanor (played by an equally well-cast Olivia Williams) carries on her own affairs in separate accommodations.

As a movie, however, Hyde Park on Hudson is a big fat zero, a blander-than-bland prestige picture with little reason for existing beyond the novelty of seeing the former Peter Venkman as America's "Great Communicator." Part of the problem is that Roosevelt isn't the central figure here; instead, the movie is told largely from the perspective of one of those mistresses, his distant cousin Daisy (Laura Linney), who lives in upstate New York close by the president's titular estate. A bit of a sheltered naïf, Daisy jumps at the invitation to have some one-on-one time with the President and doesn't even balk when that face time eventually comes to involve sexual favors. Over the course of one long summer in 1939, she becomes embedded in the household and is an eyewitness to a state visit from England's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who you may recall from the unofficial "prequel" to this film, The King's Speech. (It's a shame the filmmakers weren't able to afford Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter for a second go-around, although Samuel West and Olivia Colman ably fill in for them here.) Bertie and Lizzie are in town to solidify Britain's friendship with America as Europe teeters on the brink of war. (In fact, the King would deliver his famous speech -- the one that closes out the 2010 film -- three months after the events depicted here.)

Considering the stakes involved, one would think that a meeting between a president and a king on the eve of a world-consuming war would result in a naturally compelling film. But director Roger Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson almost go out of their way to puncture any sense of urgency or dramatic weight, instead aiming for a gently comic tone that mostly falls flat. It's possible to approach this kind of historical material with a lighter touch; The King's Speech managed it just fine and Hyde Park has clearly been conceived in that film's image. But Speech had a better grasp on its characters and invested the viewer fully in the king's emotional journey. This one keeps the audience at a remove from Roosevelt and instead asks us to take an interest in Linney's Daisy, who possesses little in the way of an inner life. The gradual peeling away of her naïveté in regards to her lover's peccadillos (which the film seems to believe we'll find shocking, even though those details have since become part of the official historical record) is simply a less interesting story than the one unfolding in Roosevelt's study. Kudos to Murray on continuing to demonstrate his range, but Hyde Park on Hudson is sadly little more than one good performance in search of a movie.

In Our Nature
Speaking of great casting ideas, the smartest decision writer/director Brian Savelson made when putting together his debut feature, In Our Nature, was tapping John Slattery and Zach Gilford to play father and son. Not only are they both good actors who actually look as though they could be related, but the sight of them sharing the same frame at last gives fans of Mad Men and Friday Night Lights the crossover they didn't know they'd been dreaming of until now. (Expect some enterprising fanfic writer out there to come up with a storyline that finds Roger Sterling ditching the New York ad game and moving to Texas, where he changes his name to Saracen, knocks up Lorraine and witnesses the birth of Matt's father before dying in an LSD trip gone wrong.) If only the film actually made worthwhile use of its leading men, instead of forcing them to play out the tired scenario of distant dad and resentful kid who are forced to spend time together when they each turn up at the family cabin with their girlfriends in tow. Seth (Gilford) is accompanied by his longtime galpal Andie (Jena Malone), while Gil (Slattery) brings along his much younger companion Vicky (Gabrielle Union) and though the two women are eager to make nice, the guys circle each other warily, bickering and backbiting to try and prove their alpha male status. Angry words are exchanged, feelings are hurt, but inevitably, peace is made... although you may not be awake to see it thanks to the glacial pacing and snooze-inducing dialogue. But let's not completely abandon the idea of Slattery and Gilford as father and son; how about having them reprise the same relationship in a remake of the body-switching semi-classic Vice Versa? That may sound less respectable than an indie drama, but it'll also be a heck of a lot more fun.

Yelling to the Sky
Filmed two years ago and finally getting a theatrical release after a lengthy stint on the festival circuit, the directorial debut of actress Victoria Mahoney belongs to another all-too-familiar indie movie subgenre -- the turbulent life of a troubled teenager -- but unlike In Our Nature, it actually imbues its well-worn premise with a convincing amount of dramatic heft. Zoë Kravitz (yes... daughter of Lenny) stars as Sweetness O'Hara, a 17-year-old growing up in a rough and tumble New York neighborhood, who regularly returns home from a long day of being tormented by the mean girls (led by Gabourey Sidibe) and boys at her school to the home she shares with her violence-prone father (Jason Clarke) and her increasingly unstable mother (Yolonda Ross). Trapped in what seems to be a dead end existence, it's so surprise that Sweetness responds by rebelling against any and all authority, embarking on a career as a drug dealer's assistant and bringing her inner riot grrrl to the surface. While she's not the most expressive actress, Kravitz provides the film with a solid center; her performance earns your sympathy without begging for it. The movie also benefits from Mahoney's raw, stripped-down camerawork, which feels heavily influenced by the work of British filmmaker Andrea Arnold (director of the brilliant angry teen girl picture Fish Tank as well as the most recent Wuthering Heights adaptation). You've seen movies like Yelling to the Sky before, but it still works quite well on its own terms.
(Yelling to the Sky opens on December 14 in limited theatrical release and via various video on demand services.)

Only The Young
Tchoupitoulas
Yelling to the Sky may employ documentary techniques in its depiction of contemporary adolescent ennui, but its specific narrative is largely fiction. For a more real-world account of what's going on with kids today, you can check out these two striking non-fiction features, out today from Oscilloscope Laboratories. Directed by Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims, Only The Young follows a group of SoCal teens living in a small town that's going through its death throes, with foreclosure signs and empty homes dotting the landscape. As their parents are mostly absent, the young adults have the run of the place, although that sense of unlimited freedom is often tempered by all the usual high school dramas, from first romances to bad break-ups. The antithesis of the slick, glossy teensploitation "reality" popularized by MTV's Laguna Beach, Only The Young treats its subjects with respect without shying away from capturing their less admirable qualities on camera. It's a small, almost slight film, but it captures that moment that occurs in the life of any teen, when the universe seems to be expanding and contracting at the same time. From SoCal, you can travel to New Orleans courtesy of Bill and Turner Ross's Tchoupitoulas (named after one of the city's most famous streets), a nighttime odyssey through the Big Easy with three brothers as your guide. Now, it's worth pointing out that, even though the film is structured as if it's taking place over the course of one night, the Ross brothers patrolled New Orleans with their camera for nine months and didn't even find the central subjects until well into shooting. Still, while the construct might be artificial, all of the terrific footage that the directors capture is authentic and immerses you in rollicking party town New Orleans becomes when the sun goes down. It's both a spirited travelogue for -- and an unabashed celebration of -- a city that's surviving and thriving despite a turbulent decade.

Allegiance
If you think casting Bill Murray as FDR sounds like a stretch, that's nothing compared to enlisting Bow Wow (the actor/musician formerly known as Lil' Bow Wow) to play an Iraq-bound soldier who goes AWOL after his request to stay close to home -- so that he can visit with his cancer-stricken son -- is denied. But Bow Wow turns out to be entirely decent in a role that, admittedly, doesn't require him to do much more than stare somberly into the camera. Instead, the actor tasked with doing most of the heavy lifting is Seth Gabel a.k.a. Mr. Bryce Dallas Howard as an officer from a more privileged background who, after a crisis of conscience, decides to put his reputation on the line to help his comrade-in-arms escape. Naturally, the plan goes FUBAR and the fall-out has serious implications for Gabel and his entire squadron. Writer/director Michael Connors's real-life military background is evident in the movie's script, which displays an attention to detail with regards to protocol and the chain of command that is sometimes glossed over in other army-centric pictures. Unfortunately, his direction isn't quite as sharp; after a strong first act, the movie's momentum stalls and even while the jittery camerawork attempts to increase the narrative intensity, it only highlights how little seems to be going on. (It doesn't help that Gabel isn't entirely up to the role he's been handed; the part cries out for a young actor better equipped for this kind of internalized acting, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt or, considering the movie's budget restrictions, the aforementioned Zach Gilford.) Allegiance's intentions are admirable, but its execution is lacking.
(Allegiance is currently available on VOD and will open in limited release on December 28)

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