Dazed and Confused

Rory Cochrane, Jason London and Sasha Jenson


Dazed and Confused is Richard Linklater’s 1993 film doing for 1976 what George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) did for 1962. That is, it looks back fondly at a group of teenagers on the cusp of adult life on their last day/night of high school, while also observing how long ago it now all was, and in more than plain old years.

Like Lucas’s gang, Linklater’s crew are a mixed crowd of jocks and nerds, lookers and plain-Janes and Johns, sensitive souls and bozos, cool kids and the terminally awkward, kids whose best days are to come and those whose lives have already peaked.

The style builds on the loose, superficially disorganised approach of Slacker, Linklater’s film of three years earlier, which followed one person then another. Here it’s as if Slacker had watched Robert Altman and taken to heart that overlapping, collage, multi-stranded approach and then tried to go one better.

Linklater sets his film in 1976, the Last Year of Rock, before punk split the genre and rap arrived to announce a new era. Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, Peter Frampton and Black Sabbath all feature on the wall-to-wall soundtrack, much as music of an earlier era had in American Graffiti. The world is still white and male, or it is on movie screens. 1976 is the Bicentenary of the USA and also the moment when the ever-increasing wealth of the average person, the post-War consensus, was about to stall, before going into reverse. From the vantage point of 1993, when Linklater made his film, very few people had realised that 1976 was probably Peak USA. As with Lucas’s 1962, the year before Kennedy was assassinated, this is a watershed.

“Driving around, mostly,” is how one of Linklater’s characters responds when asked what she’s been doing all night. And this is part of the genius of the film. It looks like it’s nothing more than excitable teenagers driving around, doing a lot of talking, getting involved in initiation rituals, making out, drinking, smoking weed, all that stuff. Nothing momentous happens. See Slacker, or Linklater’s debut feature, 1988’s It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, for where this was coming from.

The cast of unknowns alone make it worth a watch. Jason London is as close as you could come to the star of this film, as Pink (his surname is Floyd, so it figures), the cool, inclusive, socially adept, good looking dude, a football player who also likes to party. London is also such an easy and obviously charismatic presence that it’s a mystery why he didn’t become a star (though he’s never stopped working, at a prodigious level). Compare some of the other unknowns in the cast – Matthew McConaughey, Milla Jovovich, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck.

Jovovich is essentially the slightly drippy girlfriend who plays the guitar and doesn’t figure much, but the other three are more interesting. They’re as near as the film gets to proper villains – over-invested in the high school’s hazing rituals, nasty bullies for the most part. In McConaughey’s case, as Wooderson, he’s the older guy whose high school days were as good as it’s ever going to get.

Parker Posey
Parker Posey’s breakout role


The cast list insists Renée Zellweger is in it too, as Girl in Blue Truck. Further investigation required.

Linklater is a poet of the mundane. He weaves a spell with everyday ingredients, chat mostly. Think of his Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight) – two people talking. Or his sci-fi film, A Scanner Darkly, which turned a story by Philip K Dick (source writer of Total Recall) into a series of scenes in which people either sat around talking or drove around talking.

Some things in Dazed and Confused now seem odd. Jason O Smith as the token black guy. When Linklater returned to this era and subject matter in his 2016 university movie Everybody Wants Some!!, J Quinton Johnson played the same function, so maybe a recreation of the movie ethos of the 1970s might be more Linklater’s interest than the period itself.

By the end, as it introduces its stars in a montage of end credits with photos, there’s the sudden realisation that we’ve got to know a lot of people, and really quite well. The scale of Linklater’s achievement is suddenly apparent. Beneath the surface, while his characters have been packing more weed into a bong or chasing down a brewski, Linklater has been incredibly busy. It’s all going on here at the same time as nothing appears to be going on.




Dazed and Confused – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021






Killer Joe

Matthew McConaughey and Juno Temple in Killer Joe

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

18 August

 

Lolita published, 1958

If you’re looking for a start date for the 1960s, you could do a lot worse than this: 18 August 1958, when Vladimir Nabokov’s novel was first published in the USA. Detailing the love of a middle aged literature professor for a 12-year-old girl, whom he has nicknamed Lolita, it had first been finished in 1953, but was turned down for publication by a string of publishing houses, finally seeing light of day only after Olympia Press in France, a publisher of pornography, printed it in 1955. In spite of its low key debut, it sold like crazy, and by the end of the year it had been praised by Graham Greene as one of the best books of the year. At this point customs officials in the UK were ordered to seize all copies entering the country. It was then banned in France too. On 18 August the controversial publisher GP Putnam’s Sons published it in the USA. Within three days it had gone into its third printing. Within three weeks it had sold 100,000 copies.

 

 

 

Killer Joe (2011, dir: William Friedkin)

As dumb families go, the Smiths take some beating. There’s Chris (Emile Hirsch), his stupid dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and his dumb sister Dottie (Juno Temple) who want their estranged wife/mother dead so they can claim on the insurance money – something about a drugs debt. So they hire full-time cop and part-time hitman Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to do it, a man of slow-poke speech patterns, old world manners and dead eyes. Joe wants a “retainer” and, being dumb, the family goes along with the idea, until they realise that they don’t have any money. That’s why they want mom dead, after all. Joe suggests that instead of cash he’ll have Dottie, who has been dancing around the house braless in a T shirt while the negotiating has been going on and hasn’t been looking bad at all.
All this is set-up, and anyone who has seen William Friedkin’s The Exorcist will know that he’s good at laying out a trail of crumbs, luring us in and then … wham! What he’s setting us up for is entirely in spoiler territory, but let’s just say that Killer Joe spends the last two thirds of the film playing with this family who think they are running the gig, torturing them in one way or another, humiliating them, at one point making Ansel’s new wife (Gina Gershon) fellate a piece of fried chicken in a scene that will stick like crumb in the throat.
What sort of a film is it, that’s the question. An incendiary drama is how it’s usually described, but I reckon it’s a comedy, this family are simply too bone stupid to be the point of identification – they’re not “relatable”. It’s easier to relate to Joe. He’s suave and smart, horrible, for sure, but is only dishing out what this bunch of retards and potential proxy murderers, let’s not forget, have coming. Joe is an agent of natural justice. And the jaunty exit song, as the final credits roll, seems to be nudging the audience towards that interpretation too.
As for the acting. Well, this is one of the films that went towards the “McConaissance” of Matthew McConaughey. Two years before it was the dreck of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Two years later it was an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, having been impressive in The Paperboy, Mud and Magic Mike along the way. Hirsch and Haden Church are, you know, OK. They do what they have to do. It’s Gina Gershon as the slutty spanner-mouthed Sharla who impresses whenever Juno Temple isn’t holding the floor, her Dottie all Lolita eyed and girlie voiced, and swinging her breasts about in ways designed to madden and delight.
No, as a piece of Southern fried gothic, a pale Tennessee Williams drama of inadequate men and women undone by their sexuality, it just won’t do. But as a very dark comedy that never cracks a smile, Killer Joe is mighty fine indeed.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Juno Temple’s great performance
  • Part of the McConaissance
  • An interesting film from an interesting director
  • Is it a comedy?

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Killer Joe – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Mud

Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland and Matthew McConaughey in Mud

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

10 December

 

 

Huckleberry Finn published, 1884

On this day in 1884, Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn. It was the second book to feature the vagabond child of a vagrant drunkard father, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer being the first. Huck Finn would appear in two more short books, Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective, but only as the narrator. Huckleberry Finn is a romantic character, the free spirit not bound by the rules of bourgeois life – hence nice kid Tom Sawyer’s attraction to him. He was based on a Mississippi character called Tom Blankenship, whom Twain was friendly with as a child. “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was… ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed… he was the only really independent person – boy or man – in the community… continuously happy and envied by the rest of us.” The book’s plot largely deals with Finn running away from his father and drifting down the Mississippi River on a raft with Jim, a negro slave running away from his owner, because he fears she is about to sell him. By the end both are free – Jim because his owner has died and granted Jim his freedom in her will; Huck because his father has died. A wildly popular book for decades, largely on account of its story of freedoms large and small, Huckleberry Finn has fallen out of favour in recent years, in no small part because of the frequent use of the word “nigger”. Whether it is used in a derogatory fashion or in a much more neutral way is what the ostensible argument boils down to. Though there is also a community who won’t rest until all the bad, aka “inappropriate”, words have been removed from language, because they believe that sanitising the language equates to changing society. Hence a recent edition of the book which has edited out the offending word.

 

 

 

Mud (2012, dir: Jeff Nichols)

Jeff Nichols makes films about families hitting the skids. In Shotgun Stories it was half-brothers heading for a nasty showdown. In Take Shelter it was a marriage falling apart as a huge storm threatens. Nichols loves his Americana too, and there’s plenty of it in this Mississippi-set story of boys becoming men one weird summer in the company of a hobo (Matthew McConaughey) called Mud who’s suddenly turned up in their area and is hanging out down near the river’s edge. The boys are not brothers but they are as good as – the mouthy one (Jacob Lofland) and the cautious one (Tye Sheridan) – and Mud is your wayward uncle type writ large. But then types feature heavily here – Reese Witherspoon is the cock-tease love of Mud’s life who has spent a life disappointing him by running off with other men, at which point he’s usually done something really bad to the other men. It’s a Huckleberry Finn story, Mud being the grown-up Finn with a lifetime of knocks having shaped him on the way. And the result? An utterly charming though potentially dangerous free spirit who offers the boys a glimpse of life lived without restraint, but whose every decision has taken him a notch lower in status until here he is, with nothing, relying on boys to bring him food and information about the outside world. What plays out barely matters, such is Nichols’s focus on mood rather than plot, types rather than characters. But there are nuggetty plot-driven moments that cry out for attention – driven by Witherspoon (she doesn’t turn up in any old rubbish any more), Joe Don Baker as a local bad guy eager to get some payback against Mud, and Sam Shepard as Tom (name surely not a coincidence), a river dweller who knows what’s what and who’s who. But let’s not get bogged down in star worship, this is a film about the boys, their last summer of innocence, which demands and gets great performances, particularly from Lofland, who we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the future, no doubt.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Nicholls has not made a bad film yet
  • Any film with Witherspoon is also worth watching
  • The watery Arkansas locations
  • McConaughey is acting in this one rather than just taking his shirt off

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Mud – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

U-571

Erik Palladino, Matthew McConaughey, U-571

 

The standard submarine drama – depth charges, beep-beep sonar, bursting bulkheads, “secure that hatch” dialogue – gets an efficient workthrough by director Jonathan Mostow, who did a lot with very little in 1997’s “who stole my wife” thriller Breakdown. He’s got a good cast here too – Matthew McConaughey putting in one of his brattish turns as the “I’m ready for command” lieutenant, Bill Paxton as his “No, you’re not” commander, an underused Harvey Keitel and Jon Bon Jovi, continuing his hopeful advance into movies – but it’s the presence of the Enigma coding machine that is the film’s USP. By which I mean it’s the presence of the Enigma machine that is the film’s USP if you’ve watched the trailer or read any pre-release guff. In fact you could easily lose the German code stuff and the film would still be decent enough. Drama’s a given on a sub, and Mostow knows how to muster action, deliver technically impressive set pieces. But it’s not Das Boot – there’s little time for the psychological sweatboxing that Wolfgang Petersen’s superior U-Boat drama delivers – and the sub-John Williams soundtrack also signals the direction this film is heading, towards flashy spectacle not nail-biting involvement. Prepare to dive.

© Steve Morrissey 2000

 

 U-571 – at Amazon

 

 

The Paperboy

Nicole Kidman's Charlotte Bless is very pleased to see John Cusack's Hillary Van Wetter in The Paperboy

 

 

 

You want Southern Fried? The Paperboy has it for you by the boneless bucketful. Gourmets, look away now.

Thanks to the success of Precious (Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire etc), a peculiarly successful misery memoir, for his follow-up its director Lee Daniels is able to call on a cast starry enough to open several films – Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack. A cast he then submerges in a 1960s Deep South swamp of gators and racial segregation, the spirit of Blanche Dubois invoked by Kidman’s performance as a slut of a certain age who relies on the comfort of whoever happens to be available.

What little plot there is glueing this assemblage together centres on the death of someone at the hands of a local sheriff. Or is it the death of the ornery local sheriff at the hands of someone now on death row? The reason why recall is a little hazy here is because the film takes so little interest in its own story, only falling back on it when Southern cliché number 7 (gators) stops working and number 8 (the Dukes of Hazzard, for all I know) has yet to arrive.

Flippancy aside, the film’s focus is Zac Efron, playing the brother of a reporter (McConaughey) who’s returned to his native Florida town with a black British aide hoping to crack open the story of the latest injustice, and thereby hasten the arrival of civil rights.

We’ve already met Efron, a former swimming champion whose ripped body (we are introduced to it early) suggests he’s still putting in work in the pool. Efron’s is a gopher role, he’s there to join up the various territories of the movie. In that deliberately manly way Efron really needs to jettison, his character Jack Jansen takes us into the campaigning world of his radical brother (McConaughey), the sex-on-a-stick demi-monde of the over-saucy Ms Kidman, and to below stairs, where he plays role-reversal games with the family maid, nicely played by Macy Gray. Efron, though only a cipher, really isn’t keen on all that racism shit.

Incidentally, the whole film is narrated in flashback by this maid, for no good reason, unless Gray needs the money that a few more scenes might bring in, or has a liking for prosthetic ageing make-up. In fact there’s the sense early on that the black actors are being used as some badge of liberal conscience – they’re in the film but not driving the drama. Bolstering this suspicion is black newspaperman Oyelowo, whose presence delivers an early zap of energy but whose storyline simply disappears just as he’s threatening to become the most interesting character on screen.

This is odd since director Lee Daniels is a black man. So let’s reach for the obvious alternative explanation and call this sidelining of black characters a deliberate part of what is intended to be a very ripe homage to films from In the Heat of the Night to Deliverance to Monsters Ball (which Daniels produced). Kidman is certainly facing in that direction, playing a blowsy sex monster who’s been writing to the libidinous inmate (Cusack) on Death Row whom McConaughey and Oyelowo are keen to prove innocent. One of the film’s standout scenes (and it has a few) is when Kidman and Cusack first meet, in a big room complete with lawyers, cops and so on, and have the live equivalent of phone sex, to the point of orgasm, to the embarrassment all concerned except themselves. Meg Ryan just got bumped.

Homage too comes from the split screens, the choice of film stock (or digital simulation thereof) to give everything that grainy, backlit, lens-flare look of The Graduate, or other late 1960s movies. Meanwhile old soul hollers on the soundtrack

Then there’s the swamps, the gators, the inbreeding, the heat, the casual though never cruel racism of the local rich whites (real nasty racism comes from the intended new wife of Efron’s father – she’s from New York, don’t you know). And of course the kinky sex. Not just from Kidman; there’s more kinky stuff which takes us into spoiler territory, so let’s not go there, all part of Daniels’s seeming intention to hit us with another shock Southern meme every fifteen minutes – cue Ned Bellamy gutting a live gator while McConaughey asks a few routine questions.

Is everyone overacting? Hell, yes. Are they meant to be? Hell, maybe. Does anyone bobbing about in this simmering stew ever crack a joke? Hell, no. Lack of anything approaching humour is this film’s big failing. Unless it’s meant to be a comedy.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Paperboy – at Amazon