Independent and international pictures keep arriving on American screens as major studios save their most-promising new productions for the Memorial Day blitz. Not all are worth a visit, but most have something to commend them, and all are relatively free of Hollywood hype.
Two of the current crop view romantic conventions from perspectives unusual enough to make them seem reasonably fresh, if not excitingly original.
A Walk on the Moon takes its title from a famous event of 1969, the first lunar landing, and bases its most colorful scene on an infamous event of 1969, the Woodstock music festival. This doesn't mean the movie's main setting is as modernistic as Cape Canaveral or as hippy-dippy as Woodstock's muddy pastures. Most of the tale unfolds at a Jewish bungalow colony in upstate New York, where lonely wife Pearl Kantrowitz passes the summer with her children and mother-in-law while her hard-working husband tends his business back home. Pearl suspects she's missed the fun of life by marrying too young, and now the sight of her daughter's budding womanhood is making her more restless than ever. Throwing aside years of restraint, she has a passionate affair with a traveling salesman, bringing complicated results.
At times "A Walk on the Moon" is as overwrought as you'd expect from a movie straining to keep its balance while swinging between such different kinds of symbolism - astronaut heroics on one hand, the tie-dyed vibes of Woodstock Nation on the other. Diane Lane gives a finely tuned performance as Pearl, though, and Liev Schreiber is gently convincing as her well-meaning spouse. Best of all is Anna Paquin as their daughter, continuing to develop the talent she's shown in "The Piano" and "Hurlyburly."
Among Giants has the most unexpected premise of the season, focusing on the lives of men who paint electric-wire pylons high above the English countryside. It also has an unexpected romantic hero: a foreman played by Pete Postlethwaite, who's never tried a romantic leading role before, despite the versatility he's displayed in "The Usual Suspects" and "In the Name of the Father."
Directed by newcomer Sam Miller from a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, who earned an Oscar nomination for writing "The Full Monty," the picture spends much of its time atop the Yorkshire Moors, where foreman Ray and his merry band of painters labor all day. Their situation grows more interesting and hazardous when Ray takes the unprecedented step of bringing a woman into the crew. Risks and rivalries result, but the outcome is blossoming love between Ray and his new employee, which doesn't please all their co-workers.
"Among Giants" gets part of its power from solid acting by Postlethwaite and Rachel Griffiths, an Oscar nominee this year for "Hilary and Jackie." But the picture's most impressive assets are the electrical towers that dominate the landscape, turning an inherently small picture into towering entertainment, at least where the scenery is concerned.
*Both movies have R ratings and contain sex, nudity, and vulgar language.