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I became a fan of Stephen Dorff after his role in Sophia Coppola's Somewhere and Emile Hirsch in the great Alpha Dog. Even the smaller roles with Kris Kristofferson and Dakota Fanning are remarkable in this movie. But all the good acting still keeps the flick just a notch above average. Its not so much about life in a motel or all that, but the lives and decisions of two brothers and all the drama that goes with it. Dorff plays an immature amputee who is dependent on Hirsch and does a great job. Man, just watching Dorff complain and cry is almost nerve-racking. The dark, cold, snowy, gloomy scenes make you feel the weather, but I wish there was more to the story line than just good acting and the scenery.
Movies like this only come around every half century or so. The last
time, the name of the movie was "Midnight Cowboy." This time, it's "The
Motel Life," which is based on a cult debut novel by Willy Vlautin
published in 2006. It's the story of two close-knit brothers, bonded
together by the untimely death of their mother when they're in their
early teens. Since then, these brothers have been inseparable, living
rough on society's fringes due to no fault of their own. When the movie
opens, the brothers are living in their hometown of Reno, Nevada in the
cheap-motel miasma on the "other" side of town. Although one's a gifted
artist and the other is an accomplished storyteller, they live at the
bottom of the economic pile with nothing but odd jobs for support.
The two brothers, Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan, are played by Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff respectively with about as much emotional depth and raw credibility as you're likely to ever see portrayed on screen. The supporting cast includes Kris Kristoffersonin a truly moving performanceand Dakota Fanning who also gives a terrific accounting of her character. The inspired animation of Mike Smith adds substantially to the movie as well, cleanly delineating the "real" world from Frank's fantasies.
Like "Midnight Cowboy," this film deals with many dark, adult themes. "Midnight Cowboy" was made in 1969. It was highly controversial back then but it's now listed as #36 on the American Film Institute's Top 100 Greatest Movies of all time. If you're squeamish or prudish about what you see on screen, this might not be your film, but if you can stand to look at a portion of society that you likely don't see often or ever, you will be rewarded by the tremendous performances in this film.
You're going to have to work a bit harder than usual to find this movie when it opens on November 8. It will open in only 20 markets. But it will be worth the quest. We saw it early as part of the ongoing efforts of Tim Sika and the San Jose Camera Cinema Club. After the showing, the audience talked with Stephen Dorff via Skype for 45 minutes. Dorff shared a lot of background that greatly enhanced the experience. Thanks Tim.
The Motel Life (2012)
Brimming with conventional thriller possibilities, including a serious tinge about brothers remaining loyal to the end, "The Motel Life" ends up a near miss in scene after scene. We learn quickly that there is a pact made between the two because of a mother who dies and leaves them little to live on. And we see how one brother has killed someone in his car by mistake (it seems) and so ends up dragging both brothers into the flight from justice.
This all sounds solid, yes. But there are just those endless little things that set it wrong. The acting varies from excellent (Frank, one of the two brothers) to strained (Jerry, who overacts) to awkward (a couple of their friends playing stereotypical parts). The plot has elements of intensity, for suretoo many, you might saybut it also rings too many familiar bells. There is death, gambling, amputation, prostitution, drinking, gay-bashing, attempted suicide, theft (of a dog!), and an extended hospital scene that ends with great and necessary drama.
To say the flaws here are the result of the low budget is to miss what might have been a golden opportunity: making a truly original story out of these young men caught between honor and ordinary crime. That is, there is a raw edge here that could have been exploited with less aggressive writing that tips every angle into sensational excess. Only the steady, thoughtful leading actor, Frank, played by Emile Hirsch, holds it all together and makes it, in the end, at least worth watching. To his credit, a small but key part by Kris Kristofferson is also compelling and gives the movie some weight.
Co-directors Polsky and Polsky are new to movie-making, and it shows. But it's also apparent that something deeper is at work that might grow and be rewarding, especially with a better screenplay. Let's hope this is just a first tentative step forward.
Argh! The Motel Life looked like it might be a cool indie film thanks
to the trailer with all the fun animation. Unfortunately, the cartoon
segments are the only parts of this interminable snoozer that were
enjoyable at all (and the only source of female nudity). The movie is a
titanic bore, unremittingly depressing, with unlikable characters
doing--well, not much of anything. They act like losers for the entire
run time, bad things happen as a result, and there are no surprises how
it ends, except how it took so long to get there. It reminded me of
Leaving Las Vegas it was so utterly bleak and dull.
The cast is fine, the direction and production values are fine, but the script, man! Oh, the script! Any comparisons to Midnight Cowboy, Drugstore Cowboy, or any other "once in a generation" movie (with or without "cowboy" in the title) are completely unfounded. The Motel Life will either put you to sleep (as it did me) or depress you enough to want to commit suicide.
This film was such a heartbreaking journey. Following these two brothers who seem to just drift through life together, the strength of brotherhood and the necessity of imagination and distraction in getting by in life through tragedies and struggles are themes both strongly examined throughout the film. And the animations are incredible - really bringing to life this drunken journey in an icy and isolating environment. I'll definitely be keeping my eye on the Polsky brothers to see what they create next. Definitely buying it on their site and helping them to get the word of it out there by signing up to become a TML affiliate on their site - themotellifefilm.com!
Plot abstract - brothers grow up with bad luck always looking for them; almost every imaginable thing that can go wrong does. But, they still have each other's back and their storytelling. From an acting, filming and creative storytelling pov it's a four or five but a couple of things moved it down the charts for me. First, no subtitles and for a film which is storytelling dependent that is a no-no. Not only difficult for any hard of hearing, etc. but the enunciations and unique dialogue were difficult to follow anyway. Second, the pacing and over redundancy of the main theme made watching really slooow. Perhaps intended to embellish the cold desolate mood which the director also provided with other filming techniques but it turned out to be too much. Like having the same meal repeatedly, it loses it's taste eventually.
Recently, I saw the The Motel Life with Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff and
Dakota Fanning and thought it was really interesting, captivating and
told a true, dark story of two brothers. Directed by the Polsky
Brothers, they took on the adaptation of The Motel Life. I haven't read
the book, but I wonder what the book fans thought of the movie.
Emile and Stephen's performances are intense and both characters are challenged as they run from the cops, search for money and try to survive. I really enjoyed Emile's performance. He portrayed Frank very well and could see the struggle to keep his brother well. As well, the sketch animation that is incorporated in the film just added to the story. That was one of my favorite aspects of the films. Sometimes films that try to add in animation with real life does not turn out well, but in this case, it worked!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Motel Life tells the story of Frank and Jerry Lee, played by Emile Hirsch and Stephen Dorff, as they navigate through their hapless life bouncing from motel to motel. When Jerry Lee is involved in a fatal hit and run, the two brothers go on the lamb from authorities. This is a film that really has a great story to it, great characters but never really capitalizes on where we think it is going to go. Instead, The Motel Life trades realism for nihilism as we see Frank telling his handicapped brother Jerry Lee wildly unrealistic stories to get him through the pain of his life all while running away from the inevitable consequences of his fatal hit and run. While the idea of the fanatical alternate universe that these brothers create for themselves represents their wanting for a better life, it never really shows them doing anything to achieve that desire. Unfortunately, the film focuses way too much on the depressive empty hope that Frank fills Jerry Lee's head with. While the stories are told in a unique way, by crude animation shorts over Hirsch's voice over, these stories never really progress into anything more than something different. The Polsky brothers direct the hell out of their actors, but spend little time trying to make any sense of the script. The script is uneven, spending too much time introducing the characters and not enough time developing something close to a coherent plot. Despite the negatives of the screenplay, The Motel Life does feature fantastic performances around the board. These performances make the film worth watching on that fact alone. Joining Hirsch and Dorff are Dakota Fanning and Kris Kristofferson, both of whom turn in wonderful supporting performances. Emile Hirsch is amazing as Frank and carries the film on his scrawny shoulders and brings it to the finish line but the real prize winner here is Stephen Dorff. Dorff's ability to make you genuinely feel heartbreak for him is impeccable. His performance as Jerry Lee shot to the top of my list of most underrated performances of all time. He is so sincere, his delivery is amazing and his scenes of showing true emotional pain and anguish is so believable you want to hug him through the screen and tell him everything will be okay. It is truly a remarkable performance from an actor that never really got his due. Dakota Fanning, while her role is rather pointless and underdeveloped, gives a very good performance here, shedding her child star persona for a gritty and truly heart wrenching portrayal of an abused runaway. Fanning's performance here is excellent but it really makes you want more out of her and the film leaves you wishing that the Polsky brothers gave her character a bit more screen time. Overall, this is a very uneven film in regards to a story but the performances are so amazing, making it worth the watch.
The initial premise for Alan and Gabriel Polsky's low-budget indie
movie is a familiar one. Two brothers - Frank (Emile Hirsch) and
Jerry-Lee (Stephen Dorff) make a childhood pact never to be separated.
They hole up at a Reno motel, where we discover that Jerry-Lee has
killed someone, forcing the brothers to move on to another seedy motel
in a remote small town during the depths of winter. The focus centers
on the rootlessness of their lives as they try to make the best of
Several road movie conventions are present in the movie - the use of shots of deserted, often soulless highways; the impersonality of motel rooms with their identikit furniture and cramped living conditions; and the seedy roadside cafés where Frank spends much of his time having snatched conversations with passing acquaintances before buying food for his disabled brother. The two of them have never enjoyed a settled existence; like nomads they move from place to place, making the best of primitive living conditions.
What lifts this film above the run-of-the-mill is the emphasis on the brothers' creativity. Jerry-Lee has only one leg, the result of a childhood accident when he fell off a moving train. But this handicap does not prevent him from being a talented artist. His abilities relate directly to one of the film's major themes, realized through Mike Smith's brilliant animation. Frank is a storyteller, weaving fantasies of male heroism and female conquest every night to keep Jerry-Lee amused; these fantasies are portrayed on screen, suggesting that Jerry-Lee is using his god-given talent to create mental images in his imagination. Through this device we learn something of the brothers' potential; despite their humdrum lives, they have stories to tell that can engage our interest just as deeply as those higher up the social scale.
Alan and Gabriel Polsky's use of music is striking, not only evoking the mood of each scene but creating a wistful ambiance, making us realize how people often have little or no opportunity to make use of their talents. THE MOTEL LIFE may be a modest movie, but it is certainly compelling.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's hard to believe that Nevada -- desolate Nevada -- is one of the
most urbanized states in the union. Aside from Las Vegas and Reno,
there are the smaller towns of Elko, Sparks, and Winemucca. Nobody
lives in between. Well, maybe tiny Tonopah where, one hundred years
ago, I danced on the stage of the LDS church.
In this case we're dealing with two brothers, Hirsch and the older Dorff, who are involved in a hit-and-run accident in wintry and rain-slick Reno. Dorff is full of chagrin. Distracted, he shoots himself in the leg, promptly amputated at the hospital. Hirsch tends to his brother quietly but lovingly.
However, the cops are on their tails and Hirsch must hustle Dorff out of the hospital into an old beaten up car he's just bought by selling his Dad's priceless Winchester rifle, the one that's never been fired. I mention that rifle because it's a splendid-looking weapon, all engraved and glistening brass, kept in a velvet-lined case. And Hirsch sells it for four hundred dollars road money although the reluctant store owner advises him that he could get much more at a gun show or on the internet. These guys are down-and-outers. They have to scratch for every penny.
Their few friends include a guy recently released from a mental hospital who acts odd and at times manic. Then there is Kris Kristofferson as the Jungian archetype, the wise old man. He's full of advice like, "Always think you're great, or if not great, at least good, and then you can have everything." Well, what the hell. It's not Deepak Chopra but you'd pay fifty dollars an hour to hear the same thing from a shrink.
The pair make it in their old clunker to Elko, which is actually a scenic little town where only the people seem to mar the allure. Fortunately, one of the people is Dakota Fanning, now grown up, an old girl friend of one of the boys. She quite attractive too. She has very large blue eyes over which two very large lids droop. Her background is as hard scrabble as everyone else's, her mother a hooker.
There are some moving scenes of Hirsch caring for his bed-ridden brother in an Elko motel. That stump causes his a great deal of discomfort. He needs to be helped, very awkwardly, in and out of the shower, and Hirsch must dress what's left of his leg. In the movies, that's usually good enough, but here, as in real life, the caring brother is no doctor and has no antibiotics and the leg becomes infected and Hirsch takes Dorff to a hospital where he dies.
It's a gloomy picture. There's nothing funny about it. But the performances are uniformly good. Hirsch really has a passive role, but Dorff is convincing in showing us emotions like pain and fear. He looks a little like Dennis Quaid. And he comes across as a nice, affable kid who wishes no one any harm. The screenplay lets them down once in a while. In their last scene together, night time, in the kind of cheap motel room where you can still smell the disinfectant, Dorff tells Hirsch, "You're a good guy and I love you." We already know it.
There's something else I didn't quite get. Dorff draws a lot of picture in comic book style. And Hirsch tells him fantastic stories about BJs and cross-dressing pirate captains and desert islands. They take up quite a bit of screen time and they're illustrated in the style of an animated graphic novel. I don't get it.
Dakota Fanning isn't given much to do except blink once in a while, which practically sets the air around her in motion. Let's have no more girls named Dakota. I see that name everywhere these days. Kristofferson is appealing as the car salesman who dispenses stale recommendations. Thirty years ago, it would have been Ben Johnson, the actor, not the playwright.
One thing that keeps the film worthy of watching is the use of settings -- landscapes, weather, indoor locations. It's something that isn't often given much attention, yet has a great impact on our response to the story. And I don't mean just majestic mountains or grimy city streets, but something more personal and subtle. "Fargo" was another instance, as were "The Hustler", and "Desert Hearts" (Reno again), and "Atlantic City."
The story isn't exactly gripping but the performances and the bits of interaction are so well displayed that you'll probably stay interested.
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