Lone Star (1996)

Lone Star – 1996

Director – John Sayles

Starring – Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Joe Morton, Kris Kristofferson, and Matthew McConaughey

In the mid-nineties after Sex, Lies, and Videotape opened a great many doors for as well as quite a few minds to indie films, there was a rich landscape of films like John Sayles’ Lone Star being made.  Films that cared as much about characterization and plot as they did explosions and profitability.  Looking back, I’ve come to the realization that, in today’s film climate, movies at the level of Lone Star are very hard to find.

The story is both simple and complex.  Simple in it’s set up and execution, and complex in how it affects each of the characters tied to the story.  Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), son to the town legend, Sheriff Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), finds a skeleton out in the desert with a sheriff’s badge.   Questions about how his father came to be Sheriff begin to come to the surface, when the body starts to look like it might have been that of Buddy’s predecessor the ruthless, corrupt, Sheriff Charlie Wade.  This discovery prompts Sam to examine  the difference between right and wrong, memory and fact, and the strength of family bonds.

Typical of John Sayles films (or at least the one other one that I’ve seen, Sunshine State), there are multiple story lines, usually dealing with family, relationships, and the weight of the past as it affects the potential of the future.  While Sam continues his investigation into what happened between his father and Charlie Wade, he reconnects with his old high school sweetheart, Pilar, played wonderfully by the magnificent Elizabeth Pena, works with the town’s mayor, and with the owner of a local bar that caters to African-Amercian clientele.  Each of these characters’ stories weave elements of the past with present-day drama, and each holds a piece of the puzzle of the body in the desert.

In terms of tying in the themes of the inter-connectivity of the past and the present, John Sayles utilizes transitions that blend seamlessly into the present-day.  Often times it seems as if Sam is part of the audience, watching each of these pieces fall into place, watching the story weave itself together as we go along.  Aside from this small visual flair, the film rests mostly on the strength of its actors, and rest assured, its actors more than carry the load.

Through simple (NOTE: when I say simple, I don’t mean that it’s easy, only that it looks effortless when he does it) use of pauses, inflection, body-language, and facial expressions, Chris Cooper gives a fully realized performance as a man tired of living under his father’s thumb.  McConaughey and Kristofferson embody memories, each filtered through the recollections of Sam, and the townsfolk, each is strong and absolute.  Pilar is an emotionally, fully rounded woman who has deprived herself of happiness trying to do what’s right by her children and by her mother.  Each character lives and breathes, and though they make believable choices, none of them are predictable or boring.

It is unfortunate that films like these aren’t being made as much as they were in the 90s.  In the wrong hands they could be mundane and mediocre, but in the right hands, filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Todd Solondz, Steven Soderburgh, and John Sayles can make us love movies on a whole other level.

P.S.  This is possibly the best acting that Matthew McConaughey has ever done.

P.P.S.  If you’d like to learn more about the indie movement of the 90s I can’t recommend “Down and Dirty Pictures” by Peter Biskind highly enough.

La Jetee (AKA: The Pier) (1961)

La Jetee

La Jetee (AKA: The Pier) – 1961

Director – Chris Marker

Starring – Jean Negroni

Although this small scale, experimental film is short in length, it is certainly long in premise.

***SPOILERS***

If you’ve seen the Terry Gilliam film, 12 Monkeys, then you know the basic gist of what La Jetee is attempting.  La Jetee, the basis for 12 Monkeys, doesn’t have as much story to deal with, but still manages to pack a lot of plot into its 30 min. run time.  Unfortunately (in my humble opinion) it’s innovation and it’s stumbling block are the same, the delivery of the story not through motion pictures, but through still photos, or Photo Roman.  (For those who’ve never heard of it, Photo Roman is an older style form of story telling that is essentially photo-montage.)

***END SPOILERS***

I say, “stumbling block”, because the pacing of the film really is unable to accelerate to the degree I felt it needed to in order to stay exciting.  The drab black and white photos, while completely serving the tone of the film, somewhat hinder it’s ability to keep the audience engaged for the duration.  Save for one short sequence, the entirety of the film is in the Photo Roman style, with a French-accented English-language narration over the top over the top of it.  While this may have been a fine choice for a work that was 10 minutes, 30 minutes is a long time.

The story, for those who haven’t seen or heard of 12 Monkeys, is a simple one in theory, but a complex one to illustrate in a piece as short as this.  We open on our main character as a young boy with his parents at the airport, watching planes take off.  While there he is witness to an act of murder, imagery that sticks with him throughout his entire life.  Soon after, a terrible disaster (in this case a nuclear fueled World War 3) strikes and his home town of Paris is leveled.  We jump forward many years in the future,  the world on the surface is uninhabitable, and people are forced to live underground.  Our main character is now a prisoner of the “winners” of the war, and subject to experiments trying to send him through time for the answers to re-populate the earth.  The strong imagery of the man’s death, makes him an ideal candidate for the process, but his keepers may have ulterior motives for him when he returns.

The music/sound effects are the only other element that helps to carry this work along, and while they are well done and very tonally appropriate, they do very little to pick the pace up.  The Photo Roman style works very well to get across the dreariness of the main character’s present-day setting, but it does very little to capture the nostalgia and romance of his earlier days.   The impression that this story feels like a found record of what happened (a’la “The Blair Witch”, or “Cannibal Holocaust”), works well most of the time, and helps to see why this movie was influential in film history.  An area that doesn’t work as well with that tone, is the airport setting.  Some of the photography is pretty stunning, but after seeing it the first time through his younger self, the subsequent times we visit the airport don’t have any more impact, and in-fact, may have less.

By and large, La Jetee was a good piece of work that was most certainly influential, but it felt incomplete, and was ultimately overshadowed by the very similar, and visually superior, 12 Monkeys.

“If only all family vacation slideshows were this interesting.” – Ashley