In honor of the new month, here’s a DVD review of indie flick November, originally published on IGN upon its initial release a couple years back. To wit:
There are an unfortunate number of independent movies that ape their big-budget siblings in story and attempted scope, telling indulgent tales of smart-talking, gun-toting criminals and the like when you know that the filmmakers have neither the personal experience nor the resources to back up their narratives. Instead of chronicling something they know and are passionate about, these writer-directors (after all, multi-hyphenates are a default designation when variable viewpoint collaboration is the enemy) simply undertake a miniaturized recreation of something much more formulaic. With substance taking such a deep, deep backseat to style, in the worst of these movies you can virtually feel the filmmakers — and even the actors, sometimes — all padding out their reel, reaching for that peach Hollywood gig.
The much rarer flip side of this phenomenon — the category into which the indie November, a noteworthy letdown, unfortunately falls — is that of a movie so self-serious and hell-bent on showcasing its pseudo-intellectual weight that it saps from the audience any notion or recollection that film, as a medium, might actually be fun or stirring. Directed by Greg Harrison (Groove) from a script by Benjamin Brand, November is every bit the coy calling card as every bad Tarantino or Scorsese knockoff out there, the only difference here being that the ambition is not a big studio deal but independent financing for another exercise in willfully arty mimicry.
In the lead, Courteney Cox absolutely swallows her extroverted Friends personae, in what is undoubtedly the film’s strongest selling point. She stars as Sophie Jacobs, a quiet amateur photographer and instructor at a local community college whose short, sensible haircut her bossy mother (Anne Archer) deems that of “an underachiever.” After a dinner out, Sophie and her boyfriend Hugh (James Le Gros) stop at a convenience store. Hugh runs in to buy some chocolate, but is murdered in violent smash-and-grab robbery.
Sophie is haunted by guilt, and starts visiting a psychologist (Nora Dunn) to cope with both her feelings and a series of debilitating migraine headaches. When photo slides of the store from the night of the murder — showing Sophie sitting in her car outside — start mysteriously appearing at her class, Sophie becomes convinced there may a witness that can help apprehend the heretofore uncaught perpetrator.
November is divided equally into three segments — titled “Denial,” “Despair” and “Acceptance” — that re-tell the same basic narrative arc of the plot with differing details, perspective and style. Like Run Lola Run, the film can be loosely construed as the story of a troubled mind trying to set right the confounding and contradictory details swimming around in our protagonist’s head. With its carefully attuned sound design (ominous noises from the apartment above Sophie’s) and the totemic importance given certain objects, November has the feel, for its first half hour, of something of weight and substance. Harrison also deftly uses color filters, slight costume changes and other schemes to differentiate his shifting realities.
The problem with November is that it gets progressively less unsettling and interesting as it unspools. The film is neither fish nor fowl. It doesn’t work as a thriller — it’s too plodding and ponderous for that — and neither are its dramatic stakes high enough to hold sway on its own. There’s no expanding sense of doom or intrigue to the movie, in other words. Once the riddle of its premise is easily unlocked, there’s little left but some experimental and somber filmmaking — a display case presentation. November wears its solemnity like a cloak, but I for one am calling “emperor’s new clothes.”
On DVD, November is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that does cinematographer Nancy Schreiber’s dark, moody digital video compositions few favors. While contrast holds steady and grain, of course, isn’t a problem, there are recurrent pixilation problems. Colors, too, seemingly suffer from attrition around the edges of frame. While the artistic strategy and reach of the movie still comes through, the capacity of Harrison’s rigorous saturation suffers in a small screen presentation, particularly in low- and fluorescent-lit scenes in the convenience store and Sophie’s apartment.
An English language, Dolby digital 5.1 mix anchors this release, and it’s a solid one. The dialogue is clear, if mixed a bit lowly. Plenty of room is instead given to slurry and surreal effect, with natural ambience tightly tamped down. The film’s partitioned construction offers up an interesting primer course for would-be filmmakers, in that returned-to settings are manipulated aurally as well as visually. Sophie’s dinners with her mother, for instance, become more disquieting and estranged, and Sophie’s apartment an unnerving extension of headache-riddled confusion. Subtitles in French are also included — a good choice, since November seems the type of conjectural, inwardly reflective movie that Franco-philes would enjoy.
Two audio commentaries anchor the bonus materials, and offer parallel views of the movie’s exacting construction. The first features Harrison and screenwriter Brand, and delves into the plot twists and decisions about the repeated-act structure. While not riddled with spoilers, this almost assuredly isn’t a commentary you’d want to indulge in before watching the film. A bit more academic, then, is cinematographer Schreiber’s commentary track, also in conjunction with Harrison. Also included are an alternate opening sequence, static photo galleries and a nine-minute conversation with Lew Baldwin, who, interestingly, wore two hats as both the movie’s composer and visual effects supervisor. His thoughts are interesting, and while November doesn’t hold up well as a whole due chiefly to some story flaws, this inclusion does make you pine for a more streamlined post-production sound team. If more filmmakers and/or composers had an intimate grasp of music composition and sound design, movies (particularly those of the independent variety) would benefit from this uniformity of purpose.
Overall, as its thoughtful extras indicate, November is a film that at least attempts to do some different things, to stretch beyond the normal modes of pat, indie narrative. Its forced dourness, though, isn’t a convincing substitute for artfulness. C- (Movie) B (Disc)