A couple of notable indie films opening this week demonstrate that you don’t need a large cast of characters to tackle big issues. I mean, not Waiting for Godot big, but big enough.
The unfortunately named Biosphere (not to be, although it surely will be, confused with the 1996 Pauly Shore opus Bio-Dome) goes the Godot route of being a true two-hander. Mark Duplass and Sterling K. Brown play Billy and Ray, the last two people on Earth. They’re alive only because they stay within a hermetically sealed dome, which provides nutrition from hydroponic plants and a supply of fish. Only the fish have started dying, which presents an existential dilemma. (Also, Ray designed the biosphere and Billy apparently used to be President, but that’s not really important.)
The film’s trailer and marketing materials don’t give away what happens next, so consider this a spoiler alert. When only two fish remain, both male, Billy and Ray understandably fear that they (and humanity in general) are doomed. But then one of the male fish spontaneously changes its sex, a phenomenon that does occur in some fish and invertebrates. Surely inspired by that biological factoid, Duplass and co-writer/director Mel Eslyn dare to ask: what if such a transformation were to occur in a person?
With the survival of the species on the line, Billy starts to develop female sex organs, which leads to the inevitable awkwardness of knowing you and your best bro are responsible for repopulating the planet. In the hands of an Adam Sandler (or, for that matter, a Pauly Shore) this would be a recipe for juvenile gay-panic jokes, but Duplass and Eslyn avoid homophobia without diminishing the weirdness of the situation.
Ultimately, Biosphere is a kernel of an idea that never quite pops. It’s refreshing to see ideas about masculinity and sexual fluidity handled with humor, but there’s not enough flesh on the bones of Billy and Ray’s relationship to give those ideas much texture. This is Eslyn’s feature directing debut, having served as a producer on several Duplass projects (and the recent Jason Isbell documentary on HBO.) She keeps things visually interesting despite the limited resources, and Duplass (who appeared in the similarly themed Humpday back in 2007) and Brown have camaraderie, but this one might have benefitted from a few more runs through the rewrite machine. (Opens Friday, July 7, at Cinemagic.)
After Biosphere, the five-person cast of The Lesson feels positively decadent, especially when two members of that cast are Richard E. Grant and Julie Delpy. This tangled melodrama’s big issues are creativity, grief, and, maybe, murder. Daryl McCormack, who acquitted himself so admirably in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande opposite Emma Thompson, here holds his own against the imposing Grant. He plays Liam, a budding novelist who gets a gig tutoring the spoiled teenaged son (Stephen McMillan) of acclaimed author J.M. Sinclair (Grant) for his Oxford entrance exams.
Sinclair has been struggling to finish his latest book, haunted by the drowning death of his elder (and favored) son Felix. Grant brings his A-game: imperious, haughty, cold-blooded. (It’s always surprising somehow to be reminded that he is, in fact, by all accounts a splendid, down-to-earth fellow.) Delpy’s role as wife and grieving mother seems thankless at first but she brings nuance and even cunning to a role that, like the pond on the Sinclair estate, is deeper than it looks.
There’s an opening framing scene which shows Liam being interviewed following the publication of his novel, before we flash back to the events that led there. And when Sinclair’s catch phrase (“Great writers steal.”) keeps getting bandied about, it’s obvious that some authorial skullduggery will be afoot. I’ll admit that I did not see the movie’s main twist coming, but in retrospect I probably should have. In any event, this is a pleasing opportunity to watch two finely aged talents and a promising new one do their things. Nothing wrong with that.
PS: The fifth character is the Sinclairs’ butler, Ellis. (I didn’t count the interviewer in the framing scene.) (Opens Friday, July 7, at Living Room Theaters, Regal Fox Tower, Salem Cinema, and Broadway Metro in Eugene)
ALSO THIS WEEK:
FRIDAY: A big shark attacks New Orleans in Tommy Wiseau’s (The Room) aptly titled Big Shark; Frank Henelotter’s splatter comedy Brain Damage (Cinemagic, on VHS); Michelle Pfeiffer in Grease 2 (Hollywood); The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hollywood); Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly roller-skate in Xanadu, preceded by drag performance from Violet Hex. (Clinton St.)
SATURDAY: The Big Lebowski (Hollywood); Kyle MacLachlan chases aliens in 1987’s The Hidden (Clinton St.); David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (Cinema 21); Poltergeist (Rooster Rock State Park); To Kill a Mockingbird (Cinema 21)
SUNDAY: Mark Duplass co-wrote and stars in the 2014 indie thriller Creep (Cinemagic); Salma Hayek in Frida (Hollywood); Tenacious D rocks your world in The Pick of Destiny (Cinemagic); Waiting for Guffman (Hollywood); D.A. Pennebaker’s David Bowie concert film, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (Cinema 21, Salem Cinema, also Monday)
MONDAY: Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi masterpiece Solaris (Clinton St.); To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (Hollywood)
TUESDAY: The Portland German Film Festival presents director Cem Kaya’s documentary on the Turkish music scene in Germany, Love, Deutschmark, and Death (Clinton St.); Kung Fu Theater presents 1981’s Masked Avengers (Hollywood, 35mm)
WEDNESDAY: Hyper-violent martial arts cult classic from 1991 The Story of Ricky: Riki-Oh (Cinemagic); Church of Film presents Tarkovsky disciple Konstantin Lopushansky’s 1989 post-apocalyptic parable Visitor to a Museum (Clinton St.); Wet Hot American Summer (Hollywood)
THURSDAY: Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards (Hollywood)