Family drama heats up with two indies

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Hollywood is keeping moviegoers busy with new releases, but so are indie producers and foreign-film importers, eager for a share of the market.

Laurel Canyon could almost pass as a Hollywood production, with its impressive cast - Frances McDormand, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale - and its title, borrowed from a Los Angeles roadway. Less mainstreamish is its plot, a reverse twist on generation-gap conflicts that countless movies have tapped into in more conventional ways.

Ms. McDormand plays Jane, an aging flower child who's never gotten the '60s out of her system. Her house on Laurel Canyon doubles as a recording studio for the rock band fronted by her young lover (Alessandro Nivola).

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This is satisfactory for all concerned until Jane's son (Mr. Bale) arrives from the medical school he's just finished. He moves into the parental home with his fiancée (Ms. Beckinsale), also a conscientious doctor. The young couple is straitlaced and conservative in every department where Jane and her friends are free-thinking swingers. Jane's influence is hard to escape, though, and soon the two intellectuals find unaccustomed tensions straining their relationship.

"Laurel Canyon" was written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, whose debut film "High Art" (with Ally Sheedy) was a critical success five years ago. Again she shows herself a gifted screen artist who has a keen eye for telling images.

The story of "Laurel Canyon" doesn't ultimately live up to the technical polish she brings to it, but it's worth a visit if you want to check out the latest emotional vibes emanating from the Hollywood Hills.

Turning to a still warmer climate, Nowhere in Africa comes to American theaters with Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations in its pocket. It's also won five Golden Lola Awards in its native Germany, where it was last year's highest-grossing film.

The story begins in 1938, when a Jewish refugee from Germany's increasing Nazi brutality flees to a lonely farm in Kenya and sends for his wife and 5-year-old daughter to join him there.

The movie focuses primarily on the little girl as she copes with challenges of growing from childhood to adolescence. It also portrays the difficulties her parents face in their new environment.

Although the plot stretches thin at an overlong 141 minutes, writer-director Caroline Link never lets the picture's African setting distract attention from the human values she wants to explore.

If lush landscapes and exotic wildlife are what you're after, this isn't the safari for you. But many moviegoers will respond to its mixture of family drama and Holocaust-era history, and its status as an Oscar contender gives it an added boost as it competes with more commercial fare this weekend.

• 'Laurel Canyon,' rated R, contains sex and drug use. 'Nowhere in Africa,' not rated, contains mild violence.

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