Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Date with Tom Noonan

Who would not want to spend an evening with this man?

At 6'6'' Tom Noonan strikes a rather imposing and eye-catching presence on screen. The first time I saw him in a movie, playing a government hit man in the film F/X, he looked like a rabid giraffe with a gun as he chased Bryan Brown around Central Park. He's often played the master criminal, thug or at the very least, the uncomfortable creepy guy, and he's very good at it. But Noonan also has the ability to portray a sympathy garnering, vulnerable individual who may just turn out to be a good guy. It's this talent that made his character of Francis Dollarhyde in Manhunter so intriguing. I never thought I'd root for a serial killer character to romantically win over the girl in a film, but that's exactly what Noonan's performance elicited. Oh, if only "the very protective Mr Dollarhyde" could find true happiness with blind, pretty, photo lab technician Reba, then he could stop setting tabloid reporters on fire and occasionally slaughtering the odd family. For a moment in the film, I actually thought his redemption was a real possibility and it's Noonan's performance that sells it.

In House of the Devil, there is a similar dichotomy with Noonan's character of Mr. Ulman. On the one hand, he's a tall and somewhat creepy, cane-carrying cipher. On the other, he displays just enough desperation, neediness and vulnerability for the lead character of Samantha to be influenced by his entreaties. It's that indecipherability that makes Noonan so much fun to watch. There's something going on behind is eyes, we just have no idea if it's good, benign or malignant until too late. Of course, Noonan himself is fully conscious of this and uses it to maximum effect in the 1994 film What Happened Was... which he wrote, directed and starred in. As his character of Michael says in the film "I'm not like a lot of people, my face doesn't have much to do with what I'm feeling".

Synopsis - A legal secretary has dinner with an office paralegal at her Manhattan apartment.

The movie is basically a two-character stage play which all takes place in the secretary's apartment.
From the opening credits, while co-lead character Jackie Marsh (played by Karen Silas) hustled about her New York City loft in preparation for her dinner guest to the accompaniment of 'Til Tuesday's Voices Carry, I felt there was something distinctly unique about the tone of this film. It wasn't exactly a black comedy, although some of the more awkward moments would have made Todd Solondz giggle. Nor was it a straight drama, as it veered a little into the surreal especially during Jackie's awesomely inappropriate and disturbing children's story. Even the plot description can be misleading. It's not a blind date movie as the characters already know each other. It's not a relationship movie either as the characters don't know one another personally. In fact, Noonan does a very good job of avoiding any type of cinematic cliche from beginning to end which may cause the viewer as much discomfort as the couple in the movie.

But that's not a bad thing. As the story begins, both characters painstakingly attempt not to step on each others toes while simultaneously attempting to communicate their worthiness to one another. It's a dance that we've all done in our lives that is rarely portrayed this realistically on film. It's both fun and painful to watch the miscommunication and miscues that keep the couple taking one step forward and two back in their attempt to connect. But there is no 'battle of the sexes' nonsense nor are the characters shown in a sentimental way a la Marty. Ultimately, the characters are two lost, scared, lonely souls drifting through life without a clue as to how it works. But where other films promise salvation in the arms of Mr or Ms Right, this one points out that, not only are they not the answer, but they may be even less equipped to deal with life than their prospective mates. Not exactly Sleepless in Seattle material, but it feels infinitely more honest than such romantic, feel-good claptrap.

Noonan financed the film with money he received for his parts in Robocop 2 and The Last Action Hero, and much as I dislike those films, I'm happy something as unique and interesting as What Happened Was... grew out of the manure. Technically, the film is a bit grainy but the lighting and particularly the sound design are excellent. Jackie Marsh's loft looks a little big and expensive for a legal secretary, but as we've seen before, movie-New York has cheaper real estate than real-New York. Karen Sillas is every bit as good as Noonan in the film which is no surprise as she has done some solid, edgy work previously in movies like Simple Men, Risk and Female Perversions. After seeing and hearing her in a lot of early Hal Hartley stuff, I had a little difficulty adjusting to her self-imposed, Edie Falco-esque, New Yawk accent which seemed to come and go and really wasn't necessary, but overall it wasn't a great distraction. The film slows down a great deal in the second act, but Jackie's reading and the emotional climax make up for the earlier sluggishness in spades.

Overall, I enjoyed my date with Tom Noonan, and best of all, even though I didn't know what he was thinking, I didn't get killed at the end of it.

Score 7.5/10

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Green Monster for the Win

Decisions, decisions. I had two different 2011 horror films to choose from on my Instant Watch queue, Zombie Apocalypse and The Oregonian. Both had virtually identical scores of 4/10 on IMdB. The zombie film starred Ving Rhames, whom I like, but who seems to be cashing a Brinks truck worth of paychecks these days and thus, the movies he's been in haven't always been quality. The other movie had Lindsay Pulsipher, a competent young actress best known for her stint as Crystal Norris on True Blood. The Oregonian was an indy film written and directed by Calvin Lee Reeder who had done a few shorts, none of which I'd seen. At this point, it's a coin toss as to which movie to watch. I do love P/A stuff, even when it flogs the worn out plague zombie corpse yet again. However, I noted this movie was made by Asylum for the dreaded Syfy channel so the odds that it would be anything approaching the least bit original or entertaining were slim. A further check of the IMdB stats showed that over half the people rated The Oregonian either 9 and above or 2 and below. The zombie movie's stats were pretty evenly distributed denoting that there weren't really any strong feelings about it. Previously, I've found a love/hate movie is always more interesting than a meh one so I chose to watch The Oregonian.

Film Synopsis:
A young woman from Oregon, who is traveling in the northwest, regains consciousness behind the wheel of her wrecked automobile and seeks help.

Note: I think it's best to go into this film as blind as possible. Most viewers will suss out what's happening sooner rather than later, but it still adds to the film if one is as disoriented as the main character after she stumbles out of her car.

At the beginning of the movie, there is a kind of And Soon the Darkness vibe as the titular character (we never find out her name), played by Lindsay Pulsipher, wanders up and down a deserted, rural Washington highway looking for help. She eventually stumbles upon a strange, seemingly crazy lady who doesn't speak but only smiles at her manically. Unable to find anyone else, she returns to her wrecked car where she makes, not one, but two, previously unobserved, horrifying discoveries. Ultimately, she flags down a van, the driver of which is the quiet weird type. The 'make or break' scene of the movie then ensues as the driver pulls over to take a leak. I'm pretty sure that a stream of urine has never been used to convey a plot twist in a movie before, but it does in this one. From then on, things get even weirder and even though the girl acquires a shotgun along the way, you don't get the sense she's any safer in this odd universe.

I'd fully understand any frustration with the film as it tips precariously on the edge of Lynch-sanity on numerous occasions seeming to conjure up bizarreness for its own sake especially towards the end. Director Reeder does strike the weirdness button once too often later on in the film, and at times, it feels like he is just trying to run out the clock out by padding with variations on scenes that have played out already. There is also a big technical problem with the audio level of the film. At first I thought the sound was blown out, but when I turned my volume down to half its normal level, it sounded very passable. Since there's very little dialogue in the movie, and what there is isn't critical to understanding it, there isn't any irreparable harm done by this technical flaw.
On the positive side, the film does occasionally break up the grim nightmare aspects with some black humor and even a little heart. At one point, the main character stumbles upon another accident where the driver has been killed, but a passenger, dressed in the cheesiest green monster costume of all time, has survived. The monster is endearing partly because of its crappy costume (which against all practicality, it won't remove), and partly because it follows Pulsipher's character around, at one point, giving her a much needed monsterly hug.

But that's about as close to cheerful whimsy as the film ever gets. It's a pretty dark ride otherwise that may be off-putting to some in its bleakness and lack of narrative. Pulsipher is easily the best actor in the film and Reeder wisely stays focused on her throughout. At a certain point, you can just feel Pulsipher's character give in and just start rolling with the weirdness. Up until the last ten or fifteen minutes the pacing is fine and the movie is involving, especially early on when everything is still in question. As I said the director goes to the weirdness well a couple of times too often, and the film would have worked better at 70 minutes instead of 83 but it's an interesting ride that beats the heck out of generic plague zombies.

Score 6.5/10