Mysteria (2011)

US / 94 minutes / color / Arramis, Mysteria, Gruntworks, Omnicomm, ITN Dir & Scr: Lucius C. Kuert Pr: Rafael Primorac, Robert Miano, Lucius C. Kuert, Marlon Parry Cine: Keith Smith Cast: Robert Miano, Danny Glover, Billy Zane, Martin Landau, Meadow Williams, Michael Rooker, Silvia Spross, Gretchen Becker, Alan Wooley, Carlucci Weyant, Peter Mark Richman, Cassandra Gava, Gary A. Kauffman, Katarzyna Wolejnio.

Mysteria - 0 openerMysteria - 0a second opener

A strange and challenging piece of neonoir that’s as enigmatic as something by David Lynch (although it’s not at all in his style) that I’ve had to watch twice just to get my head around . . . and I may at some time feel the need to give it a third whirl.

Once upon a time Aleister Bain (Miano) was one of the most sought-after scriptwriters in Hollywood. Now he’s crouched over his portable typewriter in a crummy motel room fighting a losing fight with writers’ block. He’s three months overdue with his latest script for producer Finelli (Zane) and he’s out of money for the rent although not, it seems, for whiskey and cigarettes, both of which he consumes interminably.

At the start of the movie we don’t know this, because in the opening sequence someone comes into Aleister’s room and puts a bullet through his head.

And then the phone rings.

And then Aleister moves to answer it.

And then he’s in a barebones office fielding the questions of an interrogator (Glover), who may be a cop or perhaps some kind of psychopomp trying to organize the dying Aleister’s jumbled memories of the last few days of his life. “Where am I? How did I get here?” says Aleister, invoking one of the standard tropes of film noir.

Mysteria - 1 Aleister gats a light from his interrogator

Aleister (Robert Miano) gets a light from his interrogator.

The tale that Aleister tells is indeed a jumbled one. Producer Finelli, quite clearly disbelieving Aleister’s claims that the script is almost finished, gives him a two-week deadline to complete it. This scene is rather neatly handled by the two players, because it’s quite obvious neither of them believes that Aleister will meet the deadline, yet they’re both going through the formal motions of pretending to do so.

Mysteria - 2 Producer Finelli has little time for Aleister's excuses

Producer Finelli (Billy Zane) has little time for Aleister’s excuses.

Further distracting Aleister from his task is that he’s been approached by a young UCLA film-studies grad student, Lavinia Cordoba (Williams). He arranges to meet her at a swanky Italian restaurant, to which he’s driven in a taxi prominently numbered 666 and driven by a strange, golden-fanged cabbie (Wooley). It’s at this point we start to realize this isn’t going to be just another film noir—that, while it’s going to be playing fast and loose with all sorts of noir tropes and clichés, like the amnesia reference noted above, it’s doing something rather different. Another warning is, of course, the spelling of Aleister’s forename.

Mysteria - 3a That cab . . .

That cab . . .

Mysteria - 3b . . . and that cab-driver

. . . and that cabbie (Alan Wooley).

Inevitably, at the restaurant, Aleister doesn’t have the money to pay for the meal, although he makes a play of searching for his credit card. Lavinia happily coughs up the requisite $120, but extracts from him the promise that she can come visit him in his “office” the next day so as to watch him at work.

When he gets home he finds that the motel manager, Sanders (Landau), has changed the locks.

Aimlessly Aleister drifts to his favorite watering hole, the one where barman Jack (Weyant) has let him run up a huge slate even though it’s evident he’s unlikely ever to be able to pay it. It’s the middle of the night and the place is dark but, implausibly, Jack has left the door unlocked and a flagon of whiskey at one of the tables. In typical fashion, Aleister makes short work of the whiskey, and is soon in a drunken slumber—a slumber from which he’s woken (or is it all a dream?) by a beautiful woman (Becker) who tells him that, even though he can remember nothing of it, they have a relationship, and, as an afterthought, informs him that earlier she “took care of that little rent problem of yours.”

Mysteria - 7 Jack the barman finds Aleister sleeping there in the morning

Jack the barman (Carlucci Weyant) finds Aleister (Robert Miano) sleeping there in the morning.

And sure enough she has. He wakes in his room later in the morning to discover the rent’s been paid up for the next six months.

Mysteria - 5 Lavinia easily charms Aleister

Lavinia (Meadow Williams) easily charms Aleister.

Lavinia arrives and is almost admiring of the dingy squalor of his room:

“I feel like I’m in an old film noir of the ’50s, like Touch of Evil. . . . I love my old black-and-white noirs, like Kiss Me Deadly, Notorious, The Killing. All the dim lighting and femmes fatales and doublecrosses . . .”

He agrees that he always chooses to write in somewhere that’s appropriate to the script he’s working on and tosses off a few writerly bon mots—“I always write the beginning last, so I won’t curtail my creativity”—to impress her. They also discover a confusing message on his answerphone, a woman hysterically shouting that he’s in danger and concluding, according to Lavinia, with the words “Are we <<no “the”>> dreamers or the dreams?”

They go out for a breath of air, to be confronted by Captain McCarthy (Rooker) of the LAPD. McCarthy gives him a photograph of a woman whom Aleister recognizes as the one from his vision in the bar last night:

McCarthy: “The lady in that photograph was brutally murdered last night. ‘Brutal’ is actually an understatement. We had to use her teeth to make a proper ID.”

Mysteria - 9 Stony Captain McCarthy spells out the situation to Aleister

Stony Captain McCarthy (Michael Rooker) spells out the situation to Aleister (Robert Miano).

The woman was the wife of Senator Robert C. Mitchell (Richman), and she was murdered in a phone booth while trying to call Aleister’s number. The obvious conclusion is that it was she who left the hysterical message on his answerphone. But how could she at the same time have been paying Mr. Sanders for Aleister’s next six months’ rent?

Mysteria - 6 Aleister's 'Fairy Woman' fumbles the coind at the phone booth as her murderer stalks

Aleister’s “Fairy Woman,” Senator Mitchell’s wife (Gretchen Becker), fumbles the coins at the phone booth as her murderer stalks.

The tale becomes ever twistier, with more and more conflicts between different versions of events. What’s for sure, however, is that it’s inspiring Aleister. For the first time in months he’s writing like a demon, despite falling over pretty frequently from the amount of booze he’s putting away. The script that he’s writing is, of course, based on the events that are happening to him and on his conspiracy theory that Mrs. Mitchell knew something that, if made public, could derail her husband’s current re-election campaign, and that the senator accordingly had her “dealt with.” Our uncertainty grows as to what it is we’re watching: the events that Aleister is adapting for his script, or a dramatization of the script itself, or even a reality that’s being molded by the script.

Mysteria - 4 The interrogator's skepticism grows concerning Aleister's story

The skepticism of the interrogator (Danny Glover) grows concerning Aleister’s story.

Visually Mysteria is quite superb, with lighting and cinematography (and some superlative shot-construction) that are almost self-consciously noirish. Most of the best of this work is too subtle to show here, as with some beautiful overlayering of differently angled shots in a street scene, but here’s an attempt, as Aleister leaves Lavinia on the UCLA campus and walks into the light from a low sun . . . or does the light signify something else entirely?

Mysteria - KEYED IN IN TEXT

There’s a sense of joyous creative anachronism about the mise-en-scène. Aleister batters away at a typewriter that looks like it belongs in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and his phone appears to be of similar vintage, yet other props—like Finelli’s cell phone—are determinedly up-to-date. When Aleister is given an incriminating piece of CCTV footage, it’s on VHS rather than DVD.

Mysteria - 10 Senator Mitchell puts the squeeze on Aleister

Senator Mitchell (Peter Mark Richman) puts the squeeze on Aleister (Robert Miano).

The sets are in general very simple, even minimalist, in keeping with film noir’s traditions; for one of them, supposedly a coffee bar, there’s no pretense that it’s anything but a set.

The performances are uniformly fine, with Miano splendid as the disintegrating scripter, Rooker excellent as the gritty cop and Landau offering us a gleefully squalid rendition of the motel manager; after seeing him eat a burger you may be avoiding your local BK for a while. My only quibble is with the soundtrack, which I found rather dull, repetitive and eventually intrusive.

Mysteria - 8 Sanders, the seedy motel manager

Martin Landau as Sanders, the seedy motel manager.

That the movie’s self-referential is beyond question: it’s very much a writer’s piece, centering as it does on a writer who works for the movies. Some might call it pretentious, which could probably be a reasonable judgment; on the other hand, I quite like me some pretentious, so that aspect doesn’t trouble me.

Mysteria - cinematog noirish anglesMysteria - cinematog shadows

Angles and shadows: this is noir cinematography.

Mysteria is worth a watch for the visuals alone, and for the lovingness of their homage to classic film noir. And, if you’re as intrigued by the rest of it as I found myself to be, you might find that rewatching it becomes a habit.

Mysteria - closer

 

 

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18 thoughts on “Mysteria (2011)

  1. It sounds as if there might be some affinity with Noah Buschel’s excellent “The Missing Person” (2009), which would be a natural for you if you’ve never written about it. I just watched the trailers back-to-back, and that tended to confirm my suspicion.

    I too jump at the opportunity to see films that are called “pretentious”. It usually just means that they are interesting and thoughtful. Americans think that anything with a mild intellectual overlay is pretentious, but Europeans and Latin Americans don’t.

    • Many thanks for the tip about The Missing Person, a movie that has managed to fly under my radar but which I must try to see. It looks as if it didn’t get much of a release, but I see Amazon and others are streaming it.

      Glad we see eye to eye on “pretentious”! Even those movies that do indeed prove to be just bits of pseudointellectual tosh usually offer something to think about, at least, so the exercise isn’t entirely wasted; but most often I find that the “pretentious” movies are the bestest.

    • I definitely think you’d like it.

      I prefer classic to neo

      I’m generally with you on that, but recently — without making any conscious decision — I’ve been mixing in more of the modern furrin stuff and enjoying it really quite a lot.

      • Fair enough – I love the new Nordic noir stuff. For US, I am a big fan of Bound, but nothing later than that.

        Just found Mysteria online free thru Snagfilms. And am stunned by its terrible reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb.

        • And am stunned by its terrible reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb.

          I found those boggling too. As I implied in my notes and sort of repeated to Patrick in the comments, it could be just that I’m a pseud who gets conned by pretentious movies — I’m perfectly prepared to concede the possibility — but if, at the end of a movie, I find myself saying, “I really enjoyed that and it made me think,” then the question of whether or not it’s pretentious garbage really becomes irrelevant. But this one I’d say really isn’t pretentious garbage.

          I just wonder if Kuert offended somebody.

          • I am guessing from having seen the trailer that the self-consciousness and self-referentiality of the film overwhelmed the “average” viewer. But then, why does Memento get high ratings? It’s plenty pretentious.

        • PS:

          I love the new Nordic noir stuff.

          Aside from the usual suspects (Scandinavia, France, Spain) I’ve been tripping over some really good mainland-Chinese stuff, too. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d type!

    • But then, why does Memento get high ratings? It’s plenty pretentious.

      Dunno.

      Oddly, when our pals Randy and Barb had a double date to see the movie, Randy and I loved it and the two women thought it was a pile of pretentious crap. I’ve rarely known such an extreme dichotomy of opinion on coming out of a cinema . . . until, some while later, the four of us went to see the Coen Bros’s The Man who Wasn’t There, which I loved but all three of them thought sucked beyond the boundaries of suckworthiness.

        • I had difficulty with The Incredibles as well. It’s repeatedly stated moral — “If everyone’s special then no one’s special at all” — seemed to me a sort of fascistic justification for inequality.

          • My critique was more about gender. Poor middle-class white man has to work in a cubicle instead of being super guy (and making America great again) while mom loses her superheroism and life outside the home without complaint. She just loves doing laundry.

          • Oh, yes, that too — although, to be fair, those elements could be read as satirizing the relevant social attitudes rather than reinforcing them. The movie most certainly was attempting to undermine some of the preconceptions of superhero comix/movies.

            As I say, it was the meritocracy/fascistic element that worried me the most. Curiously enough, when years ago I was asked by a Channel 4 (UK) documentary team to comment on various Disney/Pixar animations, including especially this one, and expressed these reservations, my bit never made it to the final cut. At least they paid me, though.

    • I’d say it’s certainly worth checking out — one of those that I think, even if you don’t like it, is likely to inspire an interesting conversation afterwards.

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