Tuesday, 5 May 2009

The Cheap-Arse Film Review #31- "JUNEBUG."










Okay, I'm expecting alot of people to call bullshit on me covering this movie. I could see people maybe, maybe buying that I managed to find this second-hand somewhere, like at CEX or a market or somewhere like that. But brand new? From a shop? and the two-disc Special Edition, no less? Again, maybe they'd be willing to except that I picked it up at a discounted price, as part of one of those deals where you buy a certain number of DVDs for £20. I mean, it wasn't a massive hit, more of a critical darling really, so getting it for less than the suggested retail price isn't totally out of the question. But £1.00? I can almost hear what some people are saying to themselves right now- "Okay, now he's just buying movies he wants to talk about and lying to us about how much he's paying for them. Infact, how do we know he bought this recently? It could easily have been sitting in his collection for years and he just feels like talking about it. This is a crock, and I feel disappointed and used."

And I wouldn't blame anybody for feeling that way. I'd be suspicious too.

Which is why I kept the receipt.

If I'm honest, I wasn't completely surprised when I eventually found this, as I'd already been told it was out there. For those that don't know, I'm a member of quite a few pop culture message boards and communities, and I'm not afraid to say I pimp this place like a motherfucker on pretty much all of them. Sometimes this doesn't go down too well (I'm very proud of the fact that I've been banned from the Total Film Magazine boards for spamming. I only joined there so I could post the link there, I've not read an issue of their magazine since the gave "The Blair Witch Project 2" three stars. THREE STARS!), but some of the places have been cool with me doing this, and in some cases the people there have gone so far as to pass information onto me regarding deals and films I might be surprised to find. One of the main people I want to thank is Film Brain, who contributes Bad Movie Beatdown and has also created a few 5 Second Movies for thatguywiththeglasses.com. He'll often send me things through their forum, and I'm always thankful, but... there's a hint of sadness that goes along with my thanks, as the movies he'll draw my attention to are awesome and I'd love to write about them, but they very rarely make it to my branch of Poundland. Yes, I've written before about how you can sometimes find real hidden gems at Poundland, and that's true, but we seem to get only a fraction of what's on offer in most other places.

Even this one I didn't find easily- I picked it up not at my local branch in Romford, but rather from a branch in Cambridge whilst I was there visiting a friend for her Birthday. I can't believe Cambridge even has a Poundland. I was told it hadn't been open long. Proof if proof is still needed at this point that the recession is biting hard everywhere. I'm not sure, but I think they may have stuck it where a Zavvi used to be. A true sign of the times.

The beginning of this movie was... strange. Very strange. And I don't mean in a wacky, zany, frantic way, I mean... it's dudes yodelling. And from the looks of it, it's not cast members or anybody they brought in especially to do this, it's just old stock footage of dudes yodelling. Then they fade away, and we're left with a static shot of some forestation. A long static shot. Held to absolute silence. Then up on the screen in big red letters comes the word, "Junebug." And that's our opening. They may as well of had a a shirtless man walk out of the undergrowth with the word, "Idiosyncratic Indie Movie" written on his chest in squirrel's blood. Then suddenly we're in an urban setting, that being an art auction. It's been put together Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz, a woman I can only think to describe as looking like a beautiful cartoon Deer), who we later find out specializes is "Outsider Art," that being pieces created by eccentric, self-taught artists. As the auction is going on, she spots a ruggedly handsome man (Alessandro Nivola) across the room, and I swear you can visibly see her knees go weak at the sight of him. Were this a movie from the fifties, she may very well have fainted. She approaches him, they make small talk, and when the auction's over, they go back to her place (actually I'm just assuming that, it's not established where they went. They could still be in the auction building for all I know), and start snogging each other's faces off. It's not a typical love scene though, as they're both really awkward, especially Madeleine, who you get the impression doesn't do this sort of thing very often. They're both also smiling and laughing through the entire thing, which I found to be quite sexy. Maybe it's just a personal thing, but I think laughing during sex or any intimate moment can be quite erotic. This is not to be confused with being laughed at during sex or an intimate moment, which can be soul-destroying.

Then, suddenly, they're married. We don't see the wedding, it happens off-screen. It seems like a quick jump for the movie to make, but we later find out that it was a quick jump for the characters as well, as they tied the knot after knowing each other all of a week. We rejoin them six months into their lives together, as Madeleine's scouts are checking out an artist they've discovered in North Carolina, George's home state. The artist in question is a man named David Wark, who specialises in painting depicting the American Civil War and slavery. His interpretations of those events are... unique. For example, there are computers and snakes with human heads and nudity. Lots of nudity. When he's showing his art to the scouts that have come to see it, he say something I didn't quite catch, as his accent is so deeply southern and speaks in this lilting, sing-song drawl. I thought he said he couldn't fit General Custer's cock on the front of the painting, so he had to paint it on the back of the canvas (which all look to be torn-off pieces of cardboard), but dismissed that as being, well, insane. But then he turns the painting over, and sure enough there's General Custer's penis, which if this paining were to scale would stretch at least a good two feet. It's killing a man too, shooting him with a combination of bullets and sperm. Well then.

Madeleine is informed that visiting him may be enough for him to sign with her and have his art shown in Chicago, so she and George travel down to see him, and also to stop off and visit his family. The meeting goes well, and Madeleine leaves assuming he's decided to do business with her, calling her business associates in the car on the way to George's parent's house, as... Jesus Christ, is he fingering her? I think he is, he's driving along the road with his hand so far up his wife's skirt that it's bunching up around his wrist as she speaks on the phone. I was actually surprised by how much sex there was in this thing. Okay, the hook-up at the beginning is positively PG, but after that there's painting of shrapnel-spitting wangs and handjobs (is it still called a handjob when a guy's doing it to a woman?), and when George and Madeleine get to his parent's house, they're first caught by his Father getting to second base with each other in their car whilst it's parked in the family garage, then they spend literally every night rutting in a shamelessly noisy fashion. I think the fact that their relationship is so heavily sexual means something- maybe it's meant to imply that their relationship is based more on physicality than it is anything deeper. Or maybe it's due to the fact that George comes from a heavily religious family that, as we find out, are very good at keeping things from one another, so it's supposed to represent that he's pretty repressed, especially sexually. Of course there's every chance I'm completely off-base, and they just love each other so much that they can't be in the same room alone together for any amount of time without wanting to rip each other's clothes off with their teeth.

Oh, and there's also a scene where a heavily-pregnant woman pleasures herself whilst looking at a picture of herself and her boyfriend when they were in High School. You don't get to see that in many sensitive independent dramas.

I've been trying to come up with the right words to describe his family, or rather, I've been trying to decide how stereotypical I think they are. I've seen more offensive portrayals of southern folk. It's not like they're all wearing overalls and chewing so straw or anything like that. They're all broadly drawn, and on the surface they're pretty stock, with the mother, Peg (Celia Weston), being the worst offender, being judgemental to the extreme, taking something of a dislike to Madeleine even before she's met her, and liking her even less when she does, proclaiming her "too smart and too pretty." But they're all allowed a little depth, and given moments that surprise us. The two most interesting characters in this group are George's brother, Johnny (Ben McKenzie) and his wife, Ashley. Ben McKenzie's portrayal of Johnny is actually really brave, because it's not very often in a film that an actor it willing to play a role in as completely an unlikable way as he does here. There's no other way of putting it, Johnny is a absolute prick for virtually this whole flick. I can't be 100% sure, but I think there's only one scene in this entire film where he smiles, and that's when he's at work with his buddies. For the rest of the movie he abrasive, teenager-level sullen, flying into a rage at the silliest things, like to being able to record a show about Meerkats because the VCR keeps spitting out the video he's trying to put in (to be fair, I fucking hated it when that happened, too). He's repugnant, and you almost don't want to think about why he could be that way, because doing that would mean trying to understand him, and trying to understand him's just took close to trying to like him for comfort. It's one thing he says that gives you some insight into why he's this way, and it's tossed out their so casually that it could be easily missed- Madeleine is trying to help him write a paper on a book he's supposed to have read, and he ends up getting so frustrated that he flies off the handle and starts randomly stewing things that piss him off, including the fact that he could have moved to Washington for whatever reason had it not been for his relationship with Ashley. That when I understood that he's just so fucking angry, all the time, about the fact that he feels so trapped (except when he's at work, which is why he's happy there), that he can't stop himself from lashing out at everybody. And I don't think he has any control over it. The two times he massively blows up, at Madeleine who he accuses of leading him on and thinking she's better than him, and George where he actually throws a wrench at his face and makes him bleed, he looks contrite the second he's alone, as if he's thinking, "Why did I just do that? What's wrong with me?"

And then there's Ashley, played by Amy Adams. In alot of ways she's the main event of this movie, as her performance took home the Special Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and she also netted the movie it's lone Oscar nomination. She's one of those curious actresses the critics are always going to love, and cinema journalists are always going to predict is going to be the Next Big Thing, but whilst I think she'll probably have a great career, and star in alot of fantastic movies, I don't think she'll ever really rise above the level she's achieved now. I find it hilarious that virtually every one of her films is touted as her Big Breakthrough Moment. This was supposed to be her Big Breakthrough Moment. then "Enchanted" was supposed to be her Big Breakthrough Moment. Then "Doubt" was supposed to be her Big Breakthrough Moment. I can't help but be reminded of a quote by the actress Kelly McDonald, where she made note of the fact that she'd been considered an "up-and-coming" actress for so long, sometimes she thought to herself, "When am I going to come?"

But none of that takes away from her performance here, which really is of a superior quality, and deserving of all the awards she picked up for it. On paper, anybody could have looked at this role and thought there was very little to it, as she goes through most of the movie literally barefoot and pregnant (and God bless her, but she's not got very pretty feet)(not that I'm, y'know... into women's feet or anything like that)(... leave me alone), and the character could easily come across as highly annoying. And she does, in all honesty, but Adams manages to undercut that with a layer of vulnerability and sweet-natured charm. Her relationship with Madeleine is particularly cute, as she adores her pretty much on sight and instantly wants to know everything about her, where she was born, whether or not she went to college, what she does for a living. this constant barrage of questions should become annoying, both for Madeleine and for us, but it never does, because Adams makes it so it's almost impossible to look at this character and not want to give her a great big cuddle. If I have to criticize any aspect of her performance though, it's be how she works the bump. She's playing a woman pretty much ready to drop at any second, and yet other then the occasional twinge, she's not acting like it at all. I've been around more than a few pregnant women in my life, and from what I've seen, when they're at that stage of the game, they're not moving around that free and easy.

The meet-up seems to be going well, at least on the surface of things. Madeleine in particular tries very hard to get in with her husband's kin, and in my eyes doesn't once come across as somebody who thinks she's better than these people. She does a few things that could be read that way though, such as kissing Johnny on both his cheeks, which is a touch too continental for these folks, and also the reason he thinks she has the hots for him, and calling Peg "Pat" until Ashley corrects her. They take part in a few family occasions, such as Ashley's Baby Shower, which is the where Johnny's Meerkat-induced meltdown occurs, and a church gathering, where George actually performs a hymn. I'm not a particularly religious fellow, if I were asked to give a definite answer either way I suppose I'd say I'm just your bog-standard, boring, confused Agnostic, but even I found this sequence to be quite affecting. It helps that is would at least appear that Alessandro is using his own voice, so the emotion that's coming across feels more real in a strange way. It has an impact on his family as well- Peg starts to cry, Johnny actually straightens his spine enough to look over his shoulder, but it's Madeleine's reaction that I found most interesting, she has a look on her fact that not many of us are ever lucky enough to see, the look you can only get from somebody that loves you, where they obviously already hold you in a high level of self-esteem, yet you've still managed to find a way to surprise and impress them. I'm still waiting on the look myself.

Things kick into high gear (well, as high a gear as movies like this ever go up to) when Ashley goes into labour. The event itself isn't treated as anything really all that special, they just get er things together, put her in the car and the entire family, sans Madeleine, drive off to the hospital. Where things become complicated is when them movie throws up what's actually is's most conventional moment- the good old-fashioned moral dilemma. You see, throughout the movie, Madeleine has been having issues with David Wark and his sister, who are being courted by another gallery in New York, and when Ashley's rushed to hospital, she's informed that Wark has agreed to go with the other Gallery. Believing she can talk him back around, she has George drop her off at Wark's place before he goes onto the hospital, believing everything will be fine and that she's not needed there, even though George very clearly believes she should come with him. She meets up with Wark, and discovers all she needed to do to get him to sign with her was to get him a fruit basket.

Mission accomplished.

She then recieves a phone call telling her Ashley's son was stillborn.

This twist didn't come as a total surprise to me, because the filmmakers had been hinting all the way through that Ashley really wasn't taking very good care of herself- she was obsessed with looking like she was fat, bragging at the start of the movie that she'd managed to lose two pounds even in her condition, and that one day she's got by on a bun-less hot do with a bit of Mustard on it. She was also shown doing the kind of exercizes a pregnant woman really shouldn't be doing, involving alot of thrusting and stretching, but even beyond that, she was always bending down and carrying things that looked too heavy for her, and everytime she did something like that I winced and thought to myself, "Sweetheart, please don't do that. It's really not a good idea."

Basic human decency is a difficult thing to capture on-screen, because it can easily come across as mawkish. I have to tip my hat to Alessandro Nivola in the scene he shares with Amy Adams in the hospital then, because he manages to come across as a decent, loving human being without inciting a single cynical feeling in me. I've not really written much about his character in this movie, because other than the hymn and all the shagging, he doesn't really do much throughout most of it, he's more the driving force of the whole thing. This then is both the actor and that character's moment to shine, and it's also the moment that I believed that Madeleine could easily fall so in love with this guy that she'd marrying him in a week. Amy Adams is also astonishing, how she goes from being so strong, to falling to pieces and questioning everything in her life from her relationship to her belief in God, do then pulling everything back together again, all in the space of about five minutes. I've made fun of people who do things like this in the past, saying emotions don't work that way, and only the unhinged can switch gears that quickly. Well, I can't make fun of her reaction, because I really can believe the grief of an event like this could momentarily send a person insane.

The film's pretty much over after this, as Madeleine and George leave to return to Chicago. Is it a happy ending? Well, not really. Johnny calls Ashley at the hospital and says he'd be willing to try for another baby, which of course makes her deliriously happy. He still doesn't look too thrilled about the whole thing though, as if he's just doing it to make her happy and has resigned himself to the fact that he never will be. You come out of the flick still worrying about their relationship. George and Madeleine also don't appear as strong as they once were. They're still together as the film fades to black, but you get the sense that they now realise how little they actually knew each other (in one of the last scenes, Madeleine has to ask Peg if George likes mayo on his sandwiches, to which she responds, "He eats it with a spoon!"). I'm more hopeful for them though, which gives the ending a bittersweet tang.

As you can probably tell by now, this is a deceptively complex movie, and depending on how you watch it, I suspect you'd take home two completely different takes on it. This is not, as I've described some movies in the past, a Sunday Night Movie. You can't really have it playing in the background, as you'd end up missing alot of important things without even realising it. No, this is a movie you need to pay attention to and study. It demands quite a bit of you, more than even most other movies of its sort. But it's worth it, though. If you're willing to put the effort in, this film is a very rich, rewarding experience, and it bares repeat viewing, because I'm sure there are little things I missed or maybe even read the wrong way, and I find this story and the people in it so captivating, that I want to know both it and them as well as humanly possible.



Just look at that picture. I've now kept so many films, I'm having difficulty getting Marv in. I don't know how I feel about that.

Until next week,I'm The Cheap-Arse Film Critic, and I wouldn't live with you if the world were flooded with piss and you lived in a tree.


Jesue V // FILM MUSIC ART blog said...

A DVD for one pound?
Here in Australia, you're ultra lucky to get anything between $5-$10. And usually they don't even come with the proper case!

The Cheap-Arse Film Critic said...

I was really shocked to find this. I think alot of distrubution companies use places like Poundland as a way of off-loading surplus stock.

Anonymous said...

i'll admit that i walked out of Junebug 20-25 minutes into the movie!