30 June 2012

Morvern Callar

The first shot is Morvern Callar's face (Samantha Morton),
lit by a pulsing light.

The lights are on a tree. It's Christmastime. Her boyfriend has committed suicide.
Morvern doesn't bother to turn the Christmas lights off. Their behavior sets a visual tone for the movie, which will cast Morvern in and out of darkness.
We learn about Morvern through light and by Morven's face. The visuals like thematic glue.
Light touching Morvern Callar's face, an echoing visual:
And intuitively one feels as Morvern does, that the Christmas lights are inescapable. The repetitive sensation links one's memories to the Christmas lights, and the dead boyfriend beside it, to the present; tethered to Morvern's sensations I can relate to her, lost in the search for a light bright and warm.
We're both bugs seeking light.
And too, a bit goose.
There's a lot of drinking and smoking in the movie. She's a Scottish supermarket cashier, counting down to pension, and the movie follows her through Christmas celebrations and a Spanish vacation.

The dialogue feels loose and naturalistic but is laser-precise, if infrequent. The writing is good movie writing because it doesn't make her story a writer's mission; it's Morvern's movie, and I never felt like a writerly voice was imposed on her (it takes no narrative 'shape'). One of the longest stretches of dialogue is between Morvern and two people from a publishing house who want to purchase the book:

Male Publisher: Is there anyone on the business side, re the book, that we should be talking to specifically? Someone back in the UK?
Female Publisher: Yeah, do you have an agent, or -- someone, you know, to deal with.
Morvern: Me -- t,talk to me.
MP: Directly, great.
FP: Great.
MP: Fine.
FP: That's great.
MP: Well, um so
FP: Fantastic.
MP: So we like it, no agent. Since we're talking to you, directly, what did you have in mind, dealwise?
Morvern: (silent)
MP: Well, should I just put something out there. We were thinking of...something in the region of...one-hundred.
FP: I know it's always a bit awkward talking about money --
MP: Well, more than that, I'll be direct, I mean -- we love the novel, that's why we're here, we don't just jump the plane to Spain at a day's notice on, um, every unsolicited manuscript that comes through the door. But. You are a first time writer, and as such we're taking a risk taking you on, and you have to  appreciate that --
FP: I can assure you that for a first time writer a hundred thousand pounds is-is a really good deal.
Morvern: (beat) (picks up glass, sets glass down, half-smiles) Can I go to the toilet?
FP: Of course.

Morvern agrees to sell them the book, and the three celebrate by chatting and drinking until sunrise.

The solution to her financial problem. She asks her friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott), whom she traveled with to Spain (the trip: a minor disaster), to vacation with her again.

Lanna: I'm happy here.
Morvern: Are yuh?
Lanna: Yeah. Everyone I know is here, there's nothing wrong with here Morvern, it's just the same crap as everywhere so stop dreaming.

This is the tragedy of the inescapable lights, of the burdens and ravages of time and memory, and one's hopeless flight from oneself.

The movie ends in a club scene. The Mama and The Papas song Dedicated to the One I Love plays; the title refers to her boyfriend's book being written for her, and the mixtape he left her, and brings us back to the beginning.

The movie ends as it begins, pulsing lights against the face of Morvern Callar. You can't escape the lights.

22 June 2012

River's Edge ('86)

John: I figure once you start fighting, you're always defending yourself. Me, I get in a fight, I go fucking crazy, you know, everything goes black, and then I fucking explode, you know, like it's the end of the world, and who cares if this guy wastes me, 'cause I'm gonna waste him first. And the whole world is gonna blow up anyway. I might as well keep my pride. I got this philosophy: do shit, and then it's done, and then you die. (finishes beer with a chug, belches). You got any more beer?

A movie like this a guy like me should have seen a long time ago. River's Edge blow-jobbed my heart: it's a poker-faced thriller that ticks all the b-movie boxes. Small-town white-trash airhead teenagers in denim jackets (wacked-out Layne, Crispin Glover, and brooding-cool Matt, Keunu Reeves, most of all) grip with matters of death and kinship, to the backdrop of broken homes and "sixers."

It begins with a black-and-white image of a river. Color fades in over opening credits -- but the contrast feels minor, a grey feeling lingers. The camera pans to a boy:
And what one already sensed feels confirmed by his dour face: this movies has a troubled and dreary pebble in its shoe.
The aesthetics convey the movie's interior reality and add a touch of poetry, a splash of melancholy.
Everything's a little muted. There's a buzzing, in-air sensation that the movie's central death is a single point in a long series of miseries and failures. It's the aesthetic equivalent to a person hanging onto a ledge by their slipping fingers.

Clarissa: You didn't have to call me a stupid bitch.
Layne: You would've driven right past us, we had to yell something.
Matt: You yelled it Layne.
Clarissa: I've got a name you know. You're lucky I didn't just drive right home.
Layne: Okay okay okay, I'm sorry. Clarissa. But you've got to understand that in a time like this, where every fucking second counts, a man can't waste his time choosing words.

River's Edge feels like it exists in life, and the narrative reality is a thing the characters deal with and process on their own terms. The different ways the characters respond to the tragedy and the way their responses reflect back on their unique personalities gifts the movie with the traction of unpredictability. Characters don't behave as if they're motivated by a screenplay's sense of urgency -- their responses feel detached, undetermined. There's a sense they can't always sort their feelings.

Feck: I killed a girl once, it was no accident. Put the gun right to the back of her head, blew her brains right out the front. I was in love.
John: I strangled mine.
Feck: Did you love her?
John: She was okay.

Tim: My fucking brother. Go get your nunchuks and your dad's car. I know where we can get a gun.

The perspectives fragment the ideas into a spectrum: Feck (Dennis Hopper), a paranoid older man who sells pot and has a blow-up doll gf named Elle, is cracked, John (Daniel Roebuck) is headed there; Matt and Layne search for ways to not end there, in their conflicting ways; Tony and Maggie live in a special oblivion, their feelings only vaguely connected to the event; Clarissa is somewhere near the middle of everything; younger brother Tim sits right outside the whole affair, but watches it and absorbs it with a child's eyes.

Layne: Why you two such delinquents.
Tim: 'Cause of our fucked-up childhood.

Really gorgeous, effervescent cinematography by Frederick Elmes, who'd shot Eraserhead and Valley Girl, and would shoot Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Night on Earth, The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil, Storytelling, Broken Flowers, Synecdoche New York, and Bride Wars. But the fact that River's Edge and Blue Velvet appear to have been shot within a year's span feels amazing.

Mom: Where's Tim?
Layne: Outside being worthless. Why do you let him hang around with that hoodlum?
Mom: Why do I let him? What am I gonna do? Why do I let you smoke dope in the house? Where did you get that anyway?
Layne: Don't worry it's not yours.

Director Tim Hunter wrote the screenplay for the earlier disgruntled-youth movie Over the Edge, which movie introduced the talents of Matt Dillon. In River's Edge there are some of the finest actors of that period, and they all give great performances. Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves, and Dennis Hopper especially. The script by Neal Jimenez pops with the verve and wit of cinema, somehow without intruding on the characters' realities. It's a fine script and I'd like to see other movies written by him.

The movie doesn't have a weak spot. And it's tough not to see it as a prophet of so many Gen-X movies that followed.

18 June 2012

Roadie (2011)

The Blue Öyster Cult fires Jimmy (Ron Eldard), mid-40s, as their roadie. He returns to his mother's house in Queens, where he grew up. People from his teen years linger on: Randy Stevens (Bobby Cannavale), who used to bully Jimmy and call him "Testicles," inherited a car dealership and married Jimmy's ex-flame Nikki (Jill Hennessy), who took up songwriting ten years prior and performs in the local bar for a crowd of 30-40 people each Sunday.

Co-writer and director Michael Cuesta spends the movie's long beginning establishing and framing these particulars. To me it feels less like a person named Jimmy re-enters ordinary reality and deals with the agony of incomplete dreams, and more like a character named Jimmy written by some person and acted by some different person travels through a narrative that depicts these ideas. Like, I don't believe the movie for a second. Cuesta attempts to depict harsh realities (time lost, regret, squandered opportunity, irresponsibility, fading glory, etc) but makes such an effort to cram these within the narrative, and in such clear and shaped ways, that the script feels superimposed.

It's a style of moviemaking that Cuesta isn't alone in creating -- this feels philosophically related to the work of Thomas McCarthy (Win Win) and Miguel Arteta (Cedar Rapids). Basically these movies detail the highs and lows of middle-brow characters, whose lives are neither wacked-out disasters nor remarkable successes, and who struggle to carve out pieces of happiness for themselves each day. But these movies also not-so-secretly celebrate our resilient spirits and determination.

I don't mind a movie with a message, but I prefer movies that don't warp reality to make their messages, because when this happens the message loses its value when converted back to real life. Plus these characters feel so passive I almost blamed them and it's frustrating.

Cuesta's '01 movie L.I.E.,  a graceful and brave portrait of dark hearts, is one of my favorite American independent movies from the gritty era. The center of the movie was a cold truth that was larger than the movie.

Cuesta is still capable of going there, as demonstrated by the best moment in '05's Twelve and Holding, and the best sequence in Roadie. Jimmy, Randy, and Nikki party in a hotel room that's the same hotel they used for parties when they were teenagers. They come to let loose, drink a bunch of liquor, and snort a bunch of coke. They go off the rails, and Cuesta follows.
The sequence is not less dramatic than others in the movie. It culminates in raw-truth admissions and hurt feelings:
Randy acknowledges the sexual tension between Jimmy and Nikki. He makes a big show about putting Jimmy down. He tells Jimmy that Nikki gave him the nickname Testicles and she always thought Jimmy and his dreams were a joke. He tells Jimmy he doesn't believe things Jimmy has said about being the band's manager and writing songs. He thinks Jimmy is a "schlepper" and accuses Jimmy of seeing himself as superior for unwarranted reasons. Most of these things are truthbombs.
Jimmy tells Randy he's toured the world and lived for real the rock and roll lifestyle they sometimes pretend to have.
During this sequence there's a wild and untamed tension. I felt like I didn't know what was going to happen next, and I felt bad for everyone.

During this sequence Cuesta penetrates to sub-surface realities and offers doses of perspective in an organic and challenging fashion. It feels like people dealing with being themselves, while at so many other points in the movie it feels like characters dealing with a script. If the point of the movie is that life is ugly and messy and difficult and painful, then I think the movie should feel ugly and messy and difficult and painful, like it does in this hotel sequence.

10 June 2012

The Faculty ('98)


The Faculty, I'd never seen the The Faculty. 

It rests at a funny crossroads in my cinephilic journey. In 1998 I hadn't yet transitioned from late-night HBO and genre movies to 'serious' movies. Around this time I ate up horror movies, and around this time teenager horror movies were the rage -- Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Disturbing Behavior, Urban Legend, um, Scream 2, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, um, The Blair Witch Project, Scream 3, um, Final Destination, um, Jeepers Creepers, things like that. But somehow I missed The Faculty.

Robert Rodriguez is a moviemaker I understood to be some kind of notable moviemaker and I watched his movies when I became fanatic about movies. I watched El Mariachi and Desperado and From Dusk 'Til Dawn. I thought he was fun but I didn't get it. I really didn't get it. I thought because he was fun he wasn't serious. I bought his movies and subsequently sold them because I thought they didn't belong in a serious movie collection. I don't own any of his movies currently, and only recently have I returned to him.

And now I understand the intelligence and dedication it takes to make a fun movie. I get it now. The dude is a badass. I get it.

The Faculty peels off the starting line with atmosphere and verve. Some pre-title mayhem.

Post-title Rodriguez introduces each high school character with a little moment that says a thing about them, so we know Zeke Tyler (Josh Hartnett) is the badass rebel, Casey Connor (Elijah Wood) is the weakling dweeb, etc. Their names appear on the screen:
Strange how the character credit creates a distance between the actor and his character. It's a slick trick, I think. For the viewer in that moment there's only Casey Connor; maybe outside the movie there's an Elijah Wood, maybe.

Rodriguez doesn't sweat the space between reality and cinema. His movies, at their best, are completely unshackled and pregnant with limitless possibility. He's the master of a movie world and introduces characters like this because he knows they're in a movie and doesn't pretend otherwise -- think of how obvious this is and think too about how many directors want to disguise the artificial aspects of moviemaking. So you believe in the movie or whatever.

Rodriguez doesn't care if you believe it, he has another plan. He makes his movies too large to forget. It's a whole other way of looking at movies, and Rodriguez's commitment to the angle is total and unwavering.

Why are fireworks going off during a high school football game and why do they sync with dramatic beats? The answer is fuck you.
Rodriguez knows how to make an image stick. He knows how to captivate and arrest.

It's a bummer that, after introductions, brakes are applied for character development, plot exposition, and other transitional elements. I'd say the movie comes to a flat-out stop when the cops are called in and Casey attempts to convince them he found a dead teacher in the staff closet but they don't believe him and his parents ask if he's on drugs and things like that. These moments appease the laws of reality, viz., they're unnecessary. And boring. Reality? AHAHAHA.

I'd about written off the movie up until the moment Zeke breaks off the knife part of a paper cutter
uses it to slice off the fingers of Prof. Edward Furlong (Jon Stewart)
stabs him in the eye with a homemade-drugs-filled ballpoint pen
and Prof. Furlong's fingers crawl over the floor.

This is the moment when the beast of cinema breaks free, and it pretty much reigns through the remainder of the movie. Seriously, a bunch of cool things happen. I'm restraining myself from posting screencaps of all of them because a) there are so many b) it would give all the cool things away, and maybe you haven't seen this movie before.

The scene a little after the Prof. Furlong scene echoes a famous scene from John Carpenter's The Thing and gives it a splash of social commentary -- the teenagers must take Zeke's homemade drug to prove they're normal.
The outrageousness is played straight-facedly.
 It kind of feels like what it's like to take drugs among teenage friends.
Maybe there are too many giggles, maybe giggles are a cheap way of expressing a character is high. Maybe not. Giggles happen.
 It is a funny situation, after all.

The way Rodriguez inserts the dramatic beats into this scene, and raises the tension, and treats it seriously... I don't know, this scene says so much about him as a moviemaker.

The movie's ending cashes in on the earlier character development. There's a nice and tidy message that's sort of like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which the movie references multiple times, but with a maraschino cherry topping. It's simple: be a badass, and like fuck everyone else.

It's cool. The movie and Rodriguez are of one mind. The movie asks you to think a little more about the characters: Casey Connor is the weakling dweeb, sure. But what else could he be.

A cover of David Bowie's Changes plays over the closing credits.