Tag Archives: independent dramas

Dangerous Waters


by Hope Madden

Pioneer braids claustrophobia, conspiracy and political intrigue to create a compelling, often uncomfortable thriller. Set in 1980 Norway, the film follows a Norwegian/American collaboration to create an oil pipeline at then-unattempted depths.

Norway is eager to own the project and, by extension, the oil itself, but they need American “know how” to train divers to work at depths of up to 500 meters. Tragedy strikes, and one diver puzzles through layers of deception, cover up, greed and corporate shenanigans to uncover its cause.

Director Erik Skjoldbjaerg crafts a tight but rich thriller, thanks in part to the savvy work of cinematographer Jallo Faber. His camera heightens every sensation: the paranoia of being followed, the thrill of the chase, the lead character’s panic. More effective than anything is the way Skjoldbjaerg and Faber develop tension by exploiting the sinking, oppressive claustrophobic nightmare of the depths.

The look of the film is also spot-on for its time period, but without a compelling story, all the set decoration and camera tricks in the world couldn’t keep you interested. Co-scriptor Skjoldbjaerg – working with a team of writers – keeps you in the head of diver Petter (a wonderful Aksel Hennie). You feel his confusion, empathize with his desperation, and work out the details as he does.

It’s a cagey approach, one that works as well as it does because of Hennie’s keen performance. The solution to the mystery is always just out of reach, which can’t help but compel attention.

The supporting cast is very large, though it boasts a few standout performances. Wes Bentley is fun in a change of pace role as an American thug diver and Ane Dal Torp’s enigmatic performance is weirdly fascinating.

Ensemble mystery/thrillers can be hard to stay on top of, especially if they’re primarily foreign language efforts. While Pioneer is never impossible to follow, it can get slippery here and there. On the whole, though, it’s a suspenseful surprise.


Not Too Sweet


by Hope Madden

Jennifer Aniston has spent the last couple years shedding her golden-girl-next-door image with bawdy comedy roles in the Horrible Bosses franchise and We Are the Millers, as well as a handful of indie flicks. Through the journey she’s successfully mined new area in comedy, but her latest, Cake, shows she has unplumbed depths of talent in drama as well.

Aniston plays Claire. Suffering with chronic pain as well as deep emotional scars, Claire is a self-described raging bitch. Acid tongued and brutally frank, she’s not a favorite with her support group. Or with her physical therapist. Or with much of anybody, really, until she develops an unlikely (and highly contrived) relationship with the widower of another support group member (Sam Worthington).

The film, directed by Daniel Barnz (Beastly), wants to meander through Claire’s unconventional journey, allowing events and details to evolve sloppily, as they do in life. But it doesn’t succeed. Instead, it creates a highly unlikely series of coincidences and relies on Aniston’s formidable performance to make the linkages feel both natural and surprising.

He’s treading similar ground as John Cameron Mitchell’s poignant 2010 effort Rabbit Hole, but Cake suffers a great deal by comparison. Barnz and screenwriter Patrick Tobin are trying too hard. Their scenes feel forced, the relationships inauthentic.

Aniston, on the other hand, is as real as she can be. Her performance is unapologetic, as it should be. Grief isn’t flexible. It doesn’t change shape or appearance just to make the people around it more comfortable. Aniston understands this character, what she’s going through and why she’s behaving as she is, and she doesn’t judge her. More importantly, she doesn’t give a shit if you do.

Her supporting cast is stocked with talent, but only the great Adriana Barraza gets the opportunity to build a real character with a real relationship to Claire. And while even Aniston relies heavily on the words on the page, Barraza can convey everything she needs with a wearied look or a reluctant gesture.

We know Aniston’s cute, but the truth is, she has been proving herself a genuine talent for years. Unfortunately, she made far too many far too safe choices as the adorable romantic lead, and they did not pay off.

Now she’s taking real chances, and though Cake is not an exceptional film, Aniston’s performance is a revelation.


Moving Films, Impeccable Performances For Your Queue

The wonderful, must-see Chilean import Gloria drops on home audiences today, boasting a beautiful performance by Paulina Garcia in the lead role. A sort of coming-of-middle-age tale, it’s a film of surprising honesty and candor, with every emotional moment heightened by Garcia’s generous performance.


Treading somewhat similar territory and yet telling a tale entirely its own is Starting Out in the Evening. Here’s another film boasting an absolutely magnificent central performance, this time from the ever-reliable Frank Langella, who plays a long-retired writer coaxed back into the profession and into life. It’s bittersweet and deeply touching, with Langella hitting every emotional note perfectly.