Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A mumblecore MONSTERS movie? That's right. And, unfortunately, that's wrong.

Just last week, in his discussion of the interesting DIY mumblecore film Open Five, TrustMovies was bemoaning the fact that m'core so often means characters who appear to be drifting rather aimlessly toward... whatever. No one exhibits much energy toward any objective, and emotional laissez-faire is the law of the land. Now, you wouldn't exactly peg this type of ambience as appropriate for a monster movie, particularly one entitled, with stunning subtlety, MONSTERS. But, then, neither would you be Gareth Edwards -- writer, director, production designer, cinematographer and guy-in-charge of visual effects for this new mumblecore monster movie: the first, perhaps, of a brand-new sub-genre.

When any one person has this much control, particularly over the visuals of a film, responsibility for those visuals can be laid directly at his feet. Here, Edwards (shown at right) succeeds, I think, beyond the wildest dreams of most young moviemakers. He has done a crackerjack job of putting together a film in which the monsters are indeed scary, different and about as "real" as you could want -- on a low budget. (Hell, even a mid-size budget would be lucky to produce stuff this good.)

Edwards uses his widescreen well, too -- producing a sense of enormous space, disconnection and something bad hovering just outside that space. Like a good sci-fi johnny, though he shows the monsters early on (first scene, in fact), they are viewed on crappy video, in which the image is distorted, high contrast and fuzzy. We catch other glimpses and representations along the way (the pain-ted mural on a barrio wall, above), but the filmmaker saves his best and fully-articulated "monster" scene for the finale. It's a beaut.

Unfortunately there's also a plot to consider, along with dialog and performances, and here Monsters scores about as low as you can go. DIY filmmaking does seem to lean toward mumblecore, probably because it's relatively easy to have your actors semi-improvise, which, when not executed properly, leads to that sense of "aimless drifting" noted earlier. Neither Edwards nor his lead actors -- Whitney Able (above) and Scoot McNairy (below) -- give us any indication (via intent, dialog, response to situation, sense of dread) that anything more untoward than a flat tire is afoot.

Granted, in the one scene of a monster attack, the two cower and look pained, but for the rest of the movie they dawdle and doodle and carry on dialog that is, at times, so embarrassing that they sound like two babbling idiots. Soon after that big monster attack, Able's character notes that, "Tomorrow, everything we've been through won't matter anymore." Really -- and just why is that? Then there's the bit of back-and-forth drivel about how McNairy's charac-ter "practiced laughing." I could go on. God knows, these two do.

Blame for this nonsense cannot be laid at the feet of the actors, who were clearly following some sort of orders. But Edwards? I can only hope that his next movie lives up, in its totality, to the level of the amazing visuals found in this -- his first full-lenth and very schizophrenic -- theatrical release.

Monsters opens this Friday, October 29, via Magnolia Pictures, in a limited release. In New York City, catch it at Landmark's Sunshine Cinema and in L.A. at the NuArt. You can find further playdates through November and December, with cities and theaters, here.


Big said...

I googled "mumblecore" and "monsters" right after I watched this movie, and your review popped up. Very on-point. Looks great visually, but, ye Gods, what in the heck is going on in the story? It's like 90% emo love story and 10% monster movie. Great visual kick to it, though.

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, for your comment, Big. Yes indeed: what IS going on here? Maybe we'll find out when the writer/director makes his NEXT movie....