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Sunday 23 June 2013

Unconscious (2012)

Director: Stephen Joel Root
Stars: Eric Schultz, Matt Wilson, Sydney Tolchinsky, Laura Burt, Kenlynn Shields, Kriss Victor, Tony Sutera, Will McDonald and Donovan Wood
This film was an official selection at the Jerome Indie Music & Film Festival in Jerome, AZ in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.

When Stephen Joel Root introduced Unconscious at the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival, he felt the need to apologise in advance for his lack of budget. He wrote it, directed it, produced it, edited it, scored it and shot it, and surely took care of anything else it needed too, so it's undeniably his movie. He shot it on weekends over three years and there's nothing in it that screams money, but there's little that leaps out as cheap either. I can see and hear everything I need to, for a start, which alone ranks this above at least 75% of microbudget movies. There are odd moments where cash would have been beneficial, such as to brace static cameras on wobbly theatre floors, but none are annoying. Well, maybe Hop's beard. What Root ended up with is a characterful piece full of local charm, which he wisely played up on the film's DVD cover. 'Shot in Flagstaff,' it proudly proclaims. 'Starring actors from Flagstaff. Written and directed by a guy from Flagstaff.'

As you can imagine, not all those actors from Flagstaff are particularly great, but there's much to praise here that sits above such concerns. For instance, as the film began, I wasn't concentrating on the slight graininess in the picture quality, I was being impressed by how sharp editing tied the sound to the visuals from the very first frame, the cuts matching the sound cues. I quickly enjoyed the neat idea of having a pair of burglars communicate in sign language to keep quiet, prompting some subtitling that ventures hilariously into the surreal as one finds a copy of Ulysses by James Joyce and highlights its literary merits through hand gestures. Having them search a room whose tenant is passed out on the bed in a Jim Beam-induced stupor is a clever nod to the film's title, while what they find fleshes out his character while he's still unconscious: by his bed is a stack of self help guides for writers, while in his typewriter is a page reading 'Chapter 1. I've got nothing.'

As you can imagine, he's our lead, Raymond Hopajoki by name, though generally known as Hop, and he would dearly love to be a writer. Unfortunately he's having a hard time of it. 'I can't write,' he tells Andy, his younger, cruder friend, in the first of a pair of cruel ironies that make this script work so well. The second is no spoiler, given that it's outlined on the back of the DVD cover, and it's that this wannabe writer who can't write proceeds to write a bestselling novel that he doesn't remember, because he wrote it while suffering from a brain injury caused by a typewriter falling on his head. That key scene is handled pretty well. He falls off his chair, cracks his back and pulls the table to get up. Root telegraphs what is clearly about to happen with both suspense and dark humour. Hop wakes up in a restaurant with a glass of orange juice, a bad beard and a bestseller under his belt called Sucker Punched that he doesn't remember in the slightest.
I really like this starting concept, spawned from the realisation that drugs kill rock stars but make the music better, and I like the way that Root brings it to life. The film is a primarily a comedy, but it's also a drama and a romance, even when reading it straight. An alternative reading goes a lot deeper psychologically into the writing process itself, but I'd need to watch again to see how well that take plays out. Let's just say that Bobby Ewing is not in the shower during the final scene to point out that everything that happened after Hop got hit by the typewriter is a dream, a fantasy, imagination, an alternate reality, or a potential future, so let's leave such speculation to the brief black and white interludes that clearly unfold while Hop is unconscious. That happens more than you might expect. After all, this is a film with dialogue like, 'I'm your best friend. I know what's good for you. Let me hit you in the head with a baseball bat.' You'll have fun figuring out why.

The comedy works well, especially as much of it builds cleverly through recurring gags that keep our eyes open. Even the very last lingering shot, which I won't spoil, ties to to a couple of these. I was kept consistently amused, even if Andy's sense of humour doesn't ever make it past the level of 'your mom' jokes, and at times I laughed out loud. What's more, the humour builds through the characters and the situations they're placed in. Perhaps because he didn't have much money to brighten up the screen with flash, Root had to make his characters interesting to us and he found mixed success with that. Hop is particularly well written; he's the sort of everyman that we surely all know but don't even think about. There's nothing interesting about him at all, at least on the surface. Getting to know him in this film, discovering what really makes him tick, makes him very interesting indeed and, while Eric Schultz is fine in the role, it's the writing that stands out.

The supporting characters are less consistent. Matt Wilson does well as Andy but he's the opposite of Hop, obvious and memorable but without any substance or depth. We probably all have a friend like Andy and they'll probably come immediately to mind when we see him. Similarly, Bobbi Jo, the girlfriend Hop lost two years earlier but can't get over, is a one note character who we'll recognise from our own lives. She's the epitome of the annoying hanger on who somehow never goes away even though we can't believe that any friend of ours would put up with her. Laura Burt is capable in the role but it really doesn't call for her to do much. The other two ladies we meet are far more interesting and substantial: Sharon and Maria. Sharon is a film critic so naturally interesting (like I'd say otherwise), who happens to be in the next seat at a movie theatre when Hop is confronted with Bobbi Jo and tries to pretend he isn't still stuck on her. Maria is Andy's girlfriend.
That's how we meet them, anyway. Relationships are flexible things in this film. We find out about Hop and Bobbi Jo in the very first scene after the opening credits and meet Sharon in the next one after that. You'd think we're being set up for a love triangle, but Bobbi Jo arrives with the General, Hop and Andy's boss in snow shovelling and softball and who knows what else, and things become much more complex from there. I actually tried to map this out, because I had a vague impression in my brain while watching of this being a love pentagram or a love star of David, but it's not quite that mathematically precise. It's more like the sort of web that a spider spins when it's on caffeine. Anyway, Sharon has a lot of character and she's introduced right before the typewriter incident as someone with potential to shape the story, so Kenlynn Shields has a lot more than Burt to explore. Sydney Tolchinsky has even more depth to play with as Maria, but we take longer to find that out.

I don't know if Root wrote the script after being hit on the head with a typewriter but, if he did, I'd recommend the process to everyone. Clearly this isn't going to become the Great American Novel or top the New York Times bestsellers list, like Hop's novel in the film, but it's written better and with far more thought than I expected it to be. After all, this is a feature written by someone who practically served as a one man crew and it quickly becomes obvious that it's anchored so deeply in Flagstaff that it's unlikely to ever escape it. None of the actors have other IMDb credits, though many have stage experience, so neither the lack of Oscar winning performances nor the reliable quality of their work are surprising. Occasionally, a nuance here or a burst of emotion there show that some have potential beyond simply meeting the need at hand. Perhaps Root's next feature will give them the opportunity to grow on film.

Like the acting, the technical side is capable and does what it needs to, rarely becoming flash. It's the script that stands out above all that, perhaps appropriately given that it's rooted firmly in the process of writing. Beyond the long nights, driven focus and varied response ringing very true, the little details are worthy of mention. The best stand up comedians often pepper their routines with little moments that by the end provide emphasis for the final punchline; Root does that a lot here, with Hop running into cars, Sharon dishing out slaps, Andy answering the door in outrageous attire and Maria being unable to finish a book, though she's always reading. The surreal black and white interludes shot at a local theatre are wild, especially the full blown Mexican dance number. There is also enough for a repeat viewing. Hop sees mystery movies in Flagstaff by asking for a number six. If I asked for a number six and got Unconscious again, I wouldn't be disappointed.

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