Saturday, August 23, 2014

norman reedus film festival: the notorious bettie page

(2005. dir: Mary Harron) My usual problem with biopics is that they almost inevitably squeeze a whole life into a given formula (black musician fights poverty and racism to find success, only to risk it all for drugs; woman singer fights poverty and sexism to find success, has to choose between work and family) without giving much credit to the individuality of the specific human. HBO biopics, on the other hand, have a different slant. There's always a ton of money involved: you can see it in the artful glamor of them, and in the stellar casts of actors they score even for lesser roles. This is my third, after one about Orson Welles and the making of Kane and one about the silent film era when someone had the brilliant notion to bring Pancho Villa to Hollywood. They all do one thing extraordinarily well: bring to life a specific (glamorous) time and place, in slick, lovely detail. What they don't care to do are tell good stories or give their stellar casts of actors much of any interest to do, and this one is no exception.

New York in the '40s is beautifully evoked in suave b&w, and Miami in the '50s in over-saturated, faux-postcard extremo-color. It looks great. The actors are very good. Jared Harris probably comes off best, partly because he has the most flamboyant character to wield, a drunken English roue and bondage photographer, and partly because he generally comes off best in anything he's in. The tone of the film is smooth and superficial, showing us glimpses of Bettie's life without delving into (or allowing her to delve into) any emotion at all. She's just a nice gal from Nashville who lived a nice life back in the days when shooting bondage porn was a wholesome family activity, then found her way back to the church and lived a nice, older life there. It glosses glibly over the top of a gang rape with the same ease it does a church service. Her relationships with men are not over-emphasized, which is a good change, but one comes away with a sense that she never had a particularly interesting conversation with any of her men, either. You also never see her at rest: cooking food, or taking out the trash, or slouching around in dungarees. She's always done up to the nines, never seems to have problems like bills to pay or depression or bad hair days, and she never has to worry about her weight, or, indeed, any negative issues at all concerning her body, which may be the secret to her great ease before the camera, but how likely is it? that someone who makes their living being gorgeous and semi-nude should never suffer anxiety about the instrument of her success?

The other thing that's never addressed is the issue of children and birth control, which would have been a HUGE concern for a sexually-active, good Christian woman in that pre-pill era. Did she have children? How did she not? Why did she not? Again, I applaud the refreshing change that the maternal issue is NOT the main focus of the woman's life, but it would have had a lot of bearing on her choices, and on her self-perception, and it seems like crucial insight, again, glibbed over for the sake of the smooth and the sexy.

But these digressions are just that: alternate roads not taken. The aim of this HBO biopic was not to give us insight into the great Bettie Page, but to allow a pretty and non-challenging journey into that seedier, underground sub-branch of The Greatest Generation, without making it look unseemly at all, or dark, or dangerous, just vaguely titillating, as viewed through a scrim of good-natured fun.

Reedus plays her first husband, a jock/soldier with a single scene and little of interest to say. He's fine, but wasted, like most of the cast. The nice thing about seeing him in movies like this (and Beat and the Conspirator) is to know that he's not culturally bound to modern America. He can travel with some ease into the past and feel like he's integrally part of it. Many actors (see, for instance, Alexis Bledel in the Conspirator as well) do not.

Rating: two stars
Reedus Factor: one star

Thursday, August 21, 2014

norman reedus white trash double feature

Sunlight Jr. (2010. dir: Laurie Collyer) It's the polar opposite of the Hollywood Movie. It's about a poverty-stricken, unmarried couple, mostly unemployed and without prospects, but with some unfortunate family ties and exes, and evanescent dreams of parenthood quashed under the weight of reality.

Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon are Melissa and Richie, so they're pleasant enough to be around. The couple share a genuine love, but little else. She's got a tenuous hold on a godawful job at a convenience store and he's in a wheelchair, collecting a meagre monthly check and siphoning gasoline at midnight off nearby parked cars. Her mother (Tess Harper) has a house filled with foster kids but no food in the cupboards, an ongoing whiskey habit, and a landlord who is Melissa's ex-boyfriend, who has taken to stalking her again, since the restraining order expired. Then she realizes she's pregnant...

The whole thing is far less depressing than it sounds, because Dillon and Watts keep a semblance of humor through the hard times, and because it's set in Florida and so there are stray pelicans and herons in random shots, and because we get the story in short enough scenes that none of them are allowed to become oppressive, as, say, Cassavetes might gleefully have done. Also, there's an oddly uplifting J. Mascis drone-score propping up the backside, and, of course, there's Norman Reedus.

Yeah, he's the stalker-ex, and this role was written for him. He knows it backwards, takes it to town, does everything just right, but still makes it all unexpected and true. Someone online described this as Daryl Dixon if the zombie apocalypse never happened, but that's disturbingly unfair to Daryl (unless I'm romanticizing him, which is certainly possible). The early scene in which he hangs out at her store to annoy her, going out of his way to be vulgar but then allowing a terrible moment of vulnerability, is genius. Later, his reaction when she attacks his car with a crowbar is perfect, and when she at last comes to him for help, the subtlety of the triumph on his face is a work of art.

On top of its other attractions, this movie is important because it discusses a woman's right to a safe and affordable abortion in an intelligent way, and without any discussion.

Rating: three stars
Reedus Factor: four stars

Meskada: (2010. dir: Josh Sternfeld) Resigned to watching yet another by-the-numbers cop thing in which every tenth human is a serial killer and the cops use terms like "unsub" and "forthwith" and say things like "Boss, I've got footsteps with directionality," (OK, dipshit. ALL footprints have directionality. Whichever way the toe is pointing, do you get me?) I was pleasantly surprised by Meskada. From the outset adopting a tone of nostalgic melancholy, it becomes, long before the end, heartbreaking.

There's none of that self-righteous, White Hats v Black Hats stuff you see all over network television. In Meskada County, everyone is cast in several shades of grey, and if they're not, it's because we don't get to know them well enough. One of the main flaws of the movie, in fact, is that we only get to know two of the women at all, a bartender and the mother of the victim. Even the main cop's partner remains largely an enigma, other than that she's "foxy" and can, despite weighing 90 pounds soaking wet, beat the crap out of strong men or intimidate them into a corner with her wielding of a shotgun in a bar; in short, just the same as most woman TV cops, except brunette instead of redhead or blond. She's given an awkward minute early on in which to introduce herself, and does so in a terse, emotionless monologue in which the writer/director was obviously not invested.

In any case, let's look instead at Norman Reedus. After watching a couple of weak entries in his CV, I was starting to think that maybe I was giving him too much credit, but this one restored my faith. He plays a soi-disant white-trash guy who's a suspect because he's got a record, is an asshole to cops, and is too proud to admit he was cheating on his wife at the time of the murder. The role plays to all his strengths, and he doesn't make a wrong move, whether he's interacting with his sick kid, throwing down against his couch-surfing brother-in-law, or interrupting his police interrogation to make a tentative move on the foxy girl from the sheriff's department.

There's a clumsy truth to the way things lead, one to another, in this story. Small mistakes are made and lead to dire consequences, which lead to heightened emotions and graver mistakes. Among a host of good performances, Nick Stahl as our disintegrating cop-hero and Jonathan Tucker as a good man driven to larceny by lack of work in his dying town both deserve mention. And although it may seem like I was disparaging the foxy-partner, in truth, Rachel Nichols is particularly impressive in the role, digging into the stoicism of her barely-written character with both hands, and coming up with three believable dimensions.

Rating: three stars
Reedus Factor: four stars

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

norman reedus film festival: beat and deuces wild

Beat: (2000. dir: Gary Walkow) Back in my beatnik-fascination years, I always thought a movie about either Joan Vollmer or Lucien Carr would be way more interesting than another tired trek down the Kerouac/Cassady path. And there it was, right in front of me: this one is about how Vollmer (Courtney Love) committed suicide-by-husband over Carr (Norman Reedus), set forward here as the possible great love of her life but too cowardly to pick up the gauntlet. Yeah, I don't buy it either, but it's great to see these two intriguing characters reclaim their well-deserved places in the foreground after all these years of padding out the indices of Burroughs/Kerouac/Ginsberg tomes.

It's not a good movie. There's something oppressive about it, and it never pulls together as a narrative. Everything is too pretty, there's too much sentimental music gluing it together, and it moves at an extreme reefer-amble rather than the benzedrine-gallop at which their hearts would have been pounding. It's been a long time since I read about Joan, but my sense is that they're playing fast and loose with the history here. She would have long been a junkie herself by this time, and certainly she was no glamour-puss with perfect maquillage, long-limbed and blowzy like Courtney Love. I have nothing against Love (OK, in the interest of full disclosure, I do: once when she was bartending at Blue Gallery she spent the whole night having a temper tantrum on the phone and I had to nurse a single beer through the entire second set. But I have nothing against her as an actress); still, she's not Vollmer. Yes, she brings intelligence to it, and there's a good, easy rapport between her and her husband (Keifer Sutherland). Regardless, this is the kind of dialogue they're having to wrassle with:

Ginsberg: Joanie, what are you doing?
Vollmer: What does it look like? I'm staring into the abyss.
Ginsberg: Don't you know that if you gaze too long into the abyss, it'll gaze back at you?
Vollmer: It already has.

See what I mean? These freaky poet-types bond on quoting Whitman, etc, and the whole plot, such as it is, tries to construct a conflict we'll care about out of post-adolescent drama-queen sex hysteria, which doesn't play well. It's almost impossible to make scintillating dialogue if all anyone's thinking about is why so-and-so-won't-sleep-with-me. I'm not saying people don't spend much of their lives in that kind of quiet desperation, and I'm not saying the beatniks didn't; I'm saying it's hard to make it into a coruscating piece of cinema.

Ron Livingston (Office Space, Drinking Buddies) is fantastic as Allen Ginsberg, and Keifer Sutherland finds a few master-strokes within his (admittedly over-emoting) Burroughs, no easy task. There's a sense of doomed venture about all beatnik movies, since we all harbor such exacting ideas about who they were, how they moved and spoke and acted. Reedus is well cast as the superficial but brightly-burning superstar Lucien Carr, the kid who gathered the disparate members into one room then committed the murder that sent them forth onto their various paths. He communicates Carr's weakness particularly well, and, yes, I admit, he indulges his Boyish Charm here, but, in his defense, Carr certainly would have used his own, constantly and to good effect.

The ending, although historically dubious, is a beautiful moment for Reedus, and should not be missed by the true fan.

Rating: two stars
Reedus Factor: four stars

Deuces Wild: (2002. dir: Scott Calvert) It's not a good movie. It's a nostalgia trip yearning for a place and time that never existed, and, even in fantasy, is not in the least appealing. Pompadour-haired, wife-beater-wearing gangs battle it out in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Their mothers are all crazy, some with grief and loss, others just crazy; their girls have that and nothing else to look forward to once the ring goes on the finger. The good guys hang out at the soda shop, do charity work at the Catholic Church for penance, are nice to little kids and dress up to go to weddings with their girls; the bad guys hang out at a pool-hall, sell dope to the weak and use little kids in their evil machinations. Then they all beat the crap out of each other, all but destroying their neighborhood in the process.

There's (surprise!) a Romeo & Juliet subplot, and Reedus is the baddest of the bad, the dealer who supplied the hot-shot that killed the younger, dreamier brother of our hero (Stephen Dorff). He's getting out of jail, Reedus, and bent on having his revenge on the guy he's sure snitched him out (again, Dorff). (It wasn't.) Gang-members are played by the likes of James Franco, Johnny Knoxville and Balthasar Getty, but only Reedus is really interesting, although not as much as he would be if he'd played it five years later. He's too young; his malevolence is merely two-dimensional. There is already, however, that fascination in the way he moves, that disquiet interplay of looseness and tension, the complicity between stillness and violence. In the end, because it's that kind of predictable story, he gets the crap beat out of him by Stephen Dorff, which doesn't really seem likely, does it?

Rating: one and a half stars
Reedus factor: three stars

norman reedus film festival: a second look at the conspirator

(2010. dir: Robert Redford) In this massive waste of a colossal amount of talent, the fatally ambivalent clusterfuck that was Robert Redford's the Conspirator, Reedus trumps everyone in his uncompromisingly hard portrayal -- really, just a glorified cameo, with only a few minutes' screen-time, -- of Lewis Payne. Payne, or Powell, as was his given name, stands out in the annals of the assassins as the hardest and strongest of them, a sort of embodiment of Confederate malevolence. His attack on the aging, already wounded and prone Secretary of State William Seward was of such brutality that it's difficult to read its description without flinching. To see it onscreen is to understand it better: once committed to the act and within the house, Powell's pistol misfires, so he must resort to blunt force and the knife's edge, his ferocity fueled by adrenaline. And still it's impossible to watch without cringing.

Lewis Powell (he was tried under the name Payne, which he chose as an alias when forced to sign an Oath of Allegiance to the Union. I used to hope it was a sort of punk-rock choice, but really it was the surname of a family he'd befriended during his time riding with Mosby's Rangers) is perhaps, in retrospect, the most interesting of the conspirators. While Boothe's motivations, although his politics were genuinely heartfelt, were puffed out of proportion with vanity and dreams of self-aggrandizement, Powell was a soldier of no small courage and excellence, a gentleman known for his gallantry to women (except for the time he was pulled up before the Law for battering a black housemaid), and the son of a Baptist preacher with some intention, before he found his true calling with the Troubles, of taking up the cloth himself. Enlisted as a spy for the Confederacy late in the War, he met Boothe and the others through Mary Surratt's son John, and the rest is history. Up to the end, even from the gallows itself, he swore with some passion that Mary Surratt was not guilty, possibly because it was his own bad timing, arriving in disguise at her doorstep just as Union officers were swarming about the place, which probably sealed her doom.

If you watch no other part of the movie, and there's a good argument to be made that you should just check out a few books from the local library on the subject instead, watch the hanging scene. Inaccurate in detail as it is (think that crowd was silent and somber like that? not a chance. Think all four died instantly like that? the thick-necked Powell struggled for above five minutes before death finally came), the way Reedus' version of Powell faces his doom feels shockingly real and completely original, with no hint of cliche or play-acting.

Rating: two stars, for bits of accidental greatness amongst the shambles
Reedus Factor: four stars. With this performance, he officially becomes a national treasure

Sunday, August 17, 2014

glimpses from the walking dead: charm, violence, and some other thing

*SPOILER ALERT (if you're not yet through the second season)*

The thing about Norman Reedus, the real clincher, is the boyish charm. Not just that he has it, -- most successful actors do to some extent,-- but that he never employs it. It's there; we can see it; he just never wields it as a tactic. That's bold, since wielding your boyish charm is one of the easiest ways to win our hearts. The sex appeals of Dean and Brando were founded on it. Today, someone like Franco is good enough to pretend he doesn't need it, but he still uses it when he's backed into a corner. There are actors who style their whole careers around it (see Michael "observe my boyish charm" Madsen). Even John Wayne had to be pulled aside by Howard Hawks during the filming of Red River (when the Duke was 41!) and told that he had to stop doing that thing, the thing where he crumples his forehead and lifts his eyebrows and widens his eyes. It was the Duke's stock gesture indicating Boyish Charm, he used it in pretty much every film before then, and Hawks must have convinced him, because, as far as I can tell, he rarely used it after that.

Reedus is the toughest bad-ass on the modern screen. He can give us a sociopath of such unmitigated ice and deadpan ferocity that he makes the young Lawrence Tierneys and Richard Widmarks of the world look like Archie and Jughead. He's so good at it that you have to be careful how you cast him. Awesome as he is in Messengers 2, he's best in ensemble, where you don't have to worry about his civilized veneer slipping long enough for him to chop off the wrong person's head with any handily-placed machete. This guy belongs in Resevoir Dogs, which may be why the Walking Dead is the perfect vehicle for him, and it's why the decision not to emphasize the boyish charm takes guts and discipline.

Here are three of my favorite, most telling Reedus moments in season two.

MOMENT #1: It's towards the end of the first real Daryl-Dixon-dominated episode, "Chupacabra". He's been through hell. Thrown from his horse, he's twice tumbled down the same cliff-face and had to climb back up with an arrow stuck clean through his side. Barely alive, he has to waste two Walkers with scant weaponry, and then he takes a bullet on his way back to the farm. This moment is later, when he's in bed, recuperating. The woman whose daughter he nearly died trying to find gives him a brilliant compliment. After she leaves, the camera lingers on him huddled under the covers, his face an enigma. He's not doing anything, and yet, there he is, exuding boyish charm, without moving a muscle, without playing it at all.

MOMENT #2: This one is not about boyish charm, but something else. It's a few eps later, and Shane picks a fight with him when tempers flare in front of the Walker-barn. They start to fight, and just as they're separated by the others we see Daryl's face go slack and quiet, with just a hint of pleasure in it. It is so convincingly the mask of a dangerous man switching into psycho-mode that we wonder if Shane realizes how lucky he is for the intervention. The only face I can think of as scary is Clint Eastwood in the Unforgiven, when he's storming the bar with the shotgun, fueled by drink, his eyes insanely ablaze with fury born of anguish.

MOMENT #3: This one is harder to quantify. It's in "Pretty Much Dead Already", when Glenn tells everyone at breakfast about the barn full of Walkers. We see all their faces, and most of them give the reactions you'd expect. But look at Reedus, in the back. Tell me what he's thinking. Tell me that's not a brilliant, enigmatic moment.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

norman reedus film festival: messengers 2: the scarecrow

(2009. dir: Martin Barnewitz) Alright, I'm tempted to call it the Citizen Kane of creepy scarecrow movies. Two things stop me: first, I haven't seen them all, although I'm working on that, and second, the actors who play the farm family are wrong. They're not bad, the wife and daughter and little boy; they're just city-slickers. You can't picture any of these people involved in the kind of constant chores a farm demands, anything beyond hauling the occasional picturesque bucket of apples across the length of the porch. The wife's role needed a Patricia Clarkson type: someone sexy and strong, but hard-working enough to exist in a place far beyond mere glamour. Even Reedus in the lead, although you absolutely buy that he grew up on a farm, is obviously new to this particular farm, or relatively new. It's as if they left out the part of the story where John Rollins and his family moved to the city for ten years before returning to buy a ramshackle farmhouse and a downtrodden (haunted) cornfield. I guess they left it out for reasons that would be apparent if I watched the original Pang Brothers movie, which I may, but there's little chance it will be as good as this.

First of all, it won't have Norman Reedus, who is equally convincing as good guy, trying desperately to save his family while all they can see is him stalking through the house with a sickle in his hand, and bad guy, raping his wife, then wanly apologizing. Reedus is the fascinating, enigmatic core from which the movie emanates, and the camera loves him. We start with a view of the farmhouse from the cornfield. There's a man in his Sunday clothes standing still on the porch, looking out as his corn. The camera moves in and we see he's holding a Bible behind his back. Meaningfully, he sets the Bible down, strips off his coat, and ventures forward to ruin his fancy duds by working in the soil; it doesn't matter, as he won't be going to church anymore. In this first moment, he steps away from the conventional God who has abandoned his farm and family to ruin, and opens the door to a different, darker, telluric god, the one who will raise his fortunes, but at a terrible price.

Other than Reedus having to spend too much time spinning around disoriented amongst the corn-rows (but he and his editor both have the chops to carry it off), this movie looks great. The camera pulls in on him alone, with few exceptions giving us only his perspective, and it works like gangbusters. It sounds great, too, with good music well-used and a great drone of insect noises, not to mention the unsettling sound of a scythe-blade being dragged across the ground. The symbolism stays uncomplicated and unpretentious ("daddy, the scarecrow is you!"; "you planted your seeds, now reap your reward") and Richard Riehle is just avuncular enough as the troubling neighbor to convince us to trust him although, let's face it, we all know we shouldn't. Just the look of the scarecrow is creepy as hell, and when the little boy whispers in dread, "It knows that I know," a chill goes up your damn spine.

Rating: four stars
Reedus Factor: five stars

welcome to my norman reedus film festival

Since you're reading this, I'm going to assume a few things: that you know the Walking Dead is more than just a show about zombies, for a start. That it is, in fact, not even primarily a show about zombies, but rather about societal collapse, and how do you refigure the rules of civilized human behavior once civilization is gone? At least, that's what it's about in the end of the second season, which is where I stand right now. It's an ensemble piece, no question, with few or no weak links, but would it still carry the magic it does if Norman Reedus' Daryl Dixon wasn't there? I'm not sure it would.

Daryl is a bow-hunting redneck with a genius for survival; probably an outcast and loser back when the shirts and ties were still running the world, but it all belongs to Daryl now. He's politically incorrect as they come, surpassed in this only by his no-good, one-handed, Harley-riding, possibly dead older brother Merle (played by Michael Rooker, which tells me he has to be coming back). (Merle last showed up in Daryl's hallucination, warning him that he's become a "bitch" to the "pansies, nigras and democrats.") When his compassion is roused, as when a little girl goes missing, Daryl becomes the strong beating heart of the group, the only one who believes she can survive because he did, himself, when he was abandoned in the wilderness at her age. On the other hand, once he loses faith and begins to distance himself, he shows tendencies towards Colonel Kurtz-dom, with grisly trophies (a necklace of zombie ears, animal bones strung outside his tent) and an extreme lack of social grace.

The first I saw Reedus, I was flipping through channels and stumbled across the middle of Messengers 2: the Scarecrow. I was on my way to a soccer match, and so didn't want to linger, but I'm sucker as the next guy for a spooky scarecrow movie, so I paused for a minute, and then I couldn't look away. Not because it was so great (although it is, in retrospect, possibly the Citizen Kane of creepy scarecrow movies; see separate review), but because I could not for the life of me figure out if the Norman Reedus character was a good guy or a bad guy. I assumed I knew the story: decent but flawed family man moves his family to the wrong farmhouse for a new start, and the Resident Malediction begins to chip away at him via his various Achilles heels until he loses control and has to summon all his strength to overcome it and save his family. Right? But this guy is usually played by Dylan McDermott or Jeff Fahey or James le Gros, a role probably soon to be taken over by the James Marsdens of the world. One look and you see what's up: a good guy deep down, just got some weaknesses, but basically well-meaning.

But Reedus? You can watch him forever, at least in a well-written role, and never make up your mind about whether he's a good guy or a bad guy. Every time you think you've got him pegged one way or the other, he does something to plant a new doubt. Nurturing a crush on him is problematic. He invites the darkest kind of animus projection, and triggers anxieties more often than romantic fantasy. I've seen him described as "gorgeous", but he's not that, not at all. He's scary looking, with a face like a Halloween mask. There's something just slightly wrong about the sunken eyes, the puffy flesh, the dank helmet of lifeless hair, but it doesn't matter. His sex appeal, troubling as it is, is undeniable, as is his talent, and the boldness with which he uses it.

The thing is, there's nobody else like him. And how many actors can you say that about?