Uninterested in more sequels about supernatural teen romance and dancing penguins? Join the club. Luckily the weekend also brings a 3-pack of fresh cinematic ideas, something always in short supply and usually worth driving farther to partake. They're playing at a limited number of locations, and likely not for long. Delay at your own risk. And you're certain to hear these works — yes, even the arty, dull one — mentioned more during awards season than a Twilight flick and Happy Feet Two.
Take Shelter (R) (120 min.) — This is the movie M. Night Shyamalan wishes he could make, a thriller set in the twilight zone of a disturbed mind. Quite simply, it is one of 2011's best.
Michael Shannon stars as Curtis, a blue collar worker fearing he's either insane or a prophet. Curtis sees things others don't: approaching storms of biblical proportions, birds flocking in scary formations. Sleep brings nightmares of the family dog attacking and strangers stealing his deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) patiently suffers him, until the erratic behavior becomes too grave.
Curtis is obsessed with renovating a backyard storm shelter, stocking it with canned goods and gas masks. Doing this ruins the household finances, including money set aside for Hannah's cochlear implant. Curtis loses his job, reputation and best friend (Shea Whigham), all to protect his family from an imaginary apocalypse.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols constantly presses the dread, entirely from Curtis' stoically disturbed perspective. Seldom does a movie so vividly get inside a character's head, or portray psychosis with so little hysteria. Shannon is perfectly cast, a creepily magnetic actor with an otherworldly calm, tight jaw and piercing, set-apart eyes. The performance and movie stick with you, with masterful construction and muted psychological horror. A (BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (R) (120 min.) — The title of Sean Durkin's feature debut is three names for the same young woman, one bestowed at birth, the others by a Manson-like cult leader. Playing the woman in each phase of her disturbed life is Elizabeth Olsen, previously known only as the younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley. Not after this performance.
Olsen plays Marcy May when the film begins, living in a communal farm where women cook then patiently wait for men to eat before filling their plates. Subservience is next to godliness according to the cult's leader Patrick, played backwoods sinister by John Hawkes (Winter's Bone). Martha/Marcy May is escaping, terrified she'll be followed, when the movie begins.
She contacts her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), living with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) in a luxurious lake house. Lucy expects to reunite with Martha, and is confounded by Marcy May, who hasn't shaken Patrick's brainwashing. Clothing is supposed to be optional, and climbing into bed with a couple engaged in sex is natural. Lucy and Ted are shocked and losing patience fast.
The duality of settings flips back and forth, in a dreamlike pattern of no pattern at all. Something always happens in Martha's present to reveal more of Marcy May/Marlene's past. Durkin's screenplay gets smug with its nonlinear progression; a more straightforward approach would help. Lucy and Ted are eventually exposed as merely devices for flashbacks and an abrupt ending. More interesting is the farm, and Patrick's escalating megalomania. Yet the movie always fascinates thanks to Olsen, who'll never be just a semifamous sister again. B+ (Tampa Theatre)
Like Crazy (PG-13) (86 min.) — Hard to say which is more doomed: the romance between two terribly self-absorbed Gen Y's, or the movie Drake Doremus made about them. Like Crazy is so intent on being untypical that it forsakes everything that a movie work, like a plot, meaningful dialogue and characters we care about. The only thing I got out of Doremus' movie is a solid argument for tighter immigration laws.
Anna (Felicity Jones) knows the rules about student visas, that they expire and must be renewed in the home country. But when she falls in love with drippy Jacob (Anton Yelchin) she can't bear to spend 10 weeks apart in order to return to England and do things legally. They could save themselves a lot of heartache and airfares. Perhaps even realize they're lousy together.
These airheads don't believe rules apply to them. They're in love, so the world should get out of the way. Then again, they apparently aren't, since each takes another lover while apart. They never making up their minds about who they want, even at the fadeout.
Love is transitory, forged by immediate gratification and broken by text messaging. If this is 21st century romance, then I'm glad to be old-fashioned.
Doremus captures each insipid moment with hand-held camera urgency and clumsy jump cuts. The most romantic thing Jacob does is build Anna a chair. Anna returns the favor with a lovey-dovey scrapbook. Love is blind, these two are dumb and for 86 minutes I wished I were deaf, to shut out such excruciating cuddlespeak as "I saved a cat from a tree once" that's followed by a rapturous kiss.
Doremus makes a big deal in interviews about Like Crazy being almost entirely improvised (and it shows). So, why are two screenwriters credited? For an outline that could fit on a cocktail napkin? Jones is a fetching ingenue, and Yelchin, with his high forehead and poker face, may have a future in movies as "FBI agent No. 2." Neither has the instincts or synapses yet to fly without a real script.
The only enjoyable thing about Like Crazy is the way it unintentionally sets up better improv ideas in a viewer's mind. Like when Jacob totes a bouquet to the airport and learns Anna can't re-enter the U.S. I imagined him screaming: "BUT I BROUGHT FLOWERS!" to customs authorities, who would then wave Anna through. Such spoiled entitlement permeates Like Crazy, a movie that inexplicably won two prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. F (Woodlands 20 in Oldsmar)
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.