Old Flames. Movies reviewed: Blue Jay, Complete Unknown

Posted in Cultural Mining, Depression, Drama, Movies, Psychology, Romance, US by CulturalMining.com on October 14, 2016

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Did you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you had stayed with your first true love — that summer love or high school sweetheart? What would you two be doing now? And would it have lasted?

This week I’m looking two indie movies about old flames. There’s a chance meeting in small town California, and a planned encounter in New York City.

14520498_1170812952980711_4802563027156445665_nBlue Jay

Dir: Alexandre Lehmann

Jim is blue. He’s sad because his mother died; that’s why he’s back in his hometown in northern California after many years in LA. He’s back at his childhood home, going through old boxes, deciding what to keep and what to give away. And reconsidering the house itself – he works in home reno.

Amanda (Sarah Paulson) is also back in town, helping out her pregnant sister. She’s beautiful, glamorous and dressed for success with perfect hair and clothes. Jim (Mark Duplass) is a scruffy, bearded guy, dressed for work, not for company. When they bump into each other in a grocery aisle, awkward doesn’t begin to describe their emotions. A second meeting in the parking lot screams karma. They take it over to the Blue Jay Café, to catch up on old times.bluejay_03

Turns out, they once had a serious relationship in high school, full of love and commitment. But when something happened it ended abruptly with no further contact. Jim is now depressed, jobless and single. Amanda is in a much better situation, but, she admits, her life just isn’t fun anymore. So they buy some beer and head on back to his family home, perhaps to recover the past.

Once there, they eat, drink and smoke some weed and sing along to corny tunes. Rummaging through old boxes, they dig up some bluejay_01items of special significance: a cassette tape and a sealed envelope. The tape is a game they used to play, pretending to be an old married couple, with kids, house, car, and job. (“Old” meaning their ages now.) Wouldn’t it be fun to play that game again, twenty years later? Then there’s the letter written by Jim to Amanda but never sent. What does it say? And would things have ended differently if she had read the letter back then?

Blue Jay is an engaging, low-budget look at a lost relationship. Beatifully shot in black and white with just two actors, it explores the “what ifs” of high school love and its consequences. The whole movie is done very simply, with just a few plot ideas and lots of dialogue and emotions. But the results are marvelous. Paulson and Duplass are great as bittersweet Amanda and weepy Jim. It feels like an improvised movie, but one that keeps only the best parts.

tumblr_static_dr6vjgh8d28g088oo0g8c8wcgComplete Unknown

Dir: Joshua Marston

Tom (Michael Shannon) is a committed contrarian who works at a methodical job for an environmental NGO. He’s preparing for a presentation before a committee about cattle. He lives with his wife, Ramina, who designs jewelry.

It’s his birthday, and some of his closest friends are coming for dinner. It’s also when Ramina brings up a life-changing decision.

Alice (Rachel Weisz) is an American scientist who made her fame in Tasmania studying frog calls. She shows up at the party as an impromptu date of Clyde, Tom’s lumpy coworker. At first she’s COMPLETE UNKNOWNthe hit of the party, with her erudite knowledge and socially engaging manner. But soon she lets out that this isn’t her first job. She has also worked as an ER nurse in Africa, a concert pianist, and a magician’s assistant in China (“He sawed me in half!”). She admits she enjoys reinventing herself from scratch every few years with a new name, place and specialty. Is she a genius… or a con artist?

The guests turn on her – she’s clearly a sociopath and a compulsive liar. They shame her out of the bar when they go dancing. But Tom wants to hear 1471969439688more. He follows her onto the street.

You see, he knew her, intimately, when they were both students. And then one day she just disappeared. Until now, Tom thought she was dead or missing. And her showing up that day wasn’t a coincidence;  she wanted to see Tom again,  someone she knew before she started her adventure. She invites him to join her at playing her game, even if only for one night. But is he willing to join her thrilling life of reinvention? And can he embrace sudden change?

Complete Unknown has an interesting story about a strange and exciting woman (well-played by Rachel Weisz). Michael Shannon is intense as Tom, a grumpy and suspiciuous office geek. Aside from flashbacks and few set-up scenes, it all takes place over one night. But we never really make it past the concept of Alice’s various, changing identities.  I enjoyed the film but it didn’t move me. It felt more like a hokusai_c0611TV pilot for Orphan Black than a drama or a love story.

Complete Unknown opens today in Toronto: check your local listings. Blue Jay is now playing on video on demand. Also opening today is Miss Hokusai, an animated adult drama about the floating world of an Ukiyo-e artist in Edo, Japan.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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