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Bottle Up And Go: Courteney Cox hunkers down at a deadly liquor store in 'November.'

Photo Finish

Courteney Cox must relive the past three times over in indie thriller 'November'

By Richard von Busack

LISTEN: Courteney Cox has become unstuck in time. Unlike Billy Pilgrim, Kurt Vonnegut's hero from Slaughterhouse 5, the solitary heroine of Greg Harrison's November is condemned to revisit not an entire life, but one particular fateful day: Nov. 7.

Harrison assembles three versions of the day, wedged between blackouts. All three incidents turn on a fatal trip to a liquor store. Sophie (Cox) sends her boyfriend into the liquor store to pick her up a chocolate bar while she waits in the car.

In one version, she listens to a soul song, cranked up high. In another, she dallies with her side-order lover on the cell phone. In both cases, Sophie's live-in, Hugh (Jamie Le Gros), doesn't get out of the store alive. Sophie, a shy photography teacher with plenty of meds in her medicine chest, tries to make sense of the event. The viewer (the viewer with patience, anyway) has to ask, What am I seeing? Did this really happen—or is it just a dream or a hallucination? Is this all a parallel universe? Is everybody in the movie a ghost?

It's not quite a new voyage of the mind; we've been taken down the road before, escorted by everyone from Roman Polanski to Raul Ruiz to Darren Aronofsky. And some of the did-it-or-didn't-it-happen imagery (the pills, for instance) resembles last week's Dark Water. (Though to be fair, Harrison's movie may have come first. It's been in the can a while. In several shots, we see issues of the L.A. New Times, a newspaper that's been extinct since Halloween 2003.)

Harrison adds a few graphic innovations on the theme of irreality: a sudden spray of blood on a bare light bulb when Sophie tries to staunch the flow of blood from her pain-wracked brain with a Q-tip in her ear hole.

The shock-cuts of boiling crimson fluids and dying bugs are courtesy of Harrison's special-visual-effects collaborator, digital artist Lew Baldwin (who also did the soundtrack). Still, the most disturbing effect is the simplest: an extra slide in the projector's carrousel, a slide that wasn't there when Sophie's lecture began.

Harrison is a Bay Area filmmaker best known for the indie film Groove, which is about as close to the definitive rave movie as anyone made. This follow-up, wreaked from a screenplay by Benjamin Brand, was executed on a 15-day schedule, on mini-DV, using a Panasonic DVX-100.

The film's indie papers are in order, but I find it hard to summon up the patience even for November's modest running time of 73 minutes. Cox shoulders most of the blame. Some will be entranced at the risk she is taking by going unglamorous—especially those with a reservoir of good feeling for her left over from Friends. But critic Tom Carson was right: "Friends don't let friends watch Friends."

As for Cox as a dramatic actress—watching her in close-up is like looking for nuances in the famous drawing of the polar bear drinking milk in a snowstorm. Cox duns herself down in earth tones and puts on the kind of clothes nuns wear if the mother superior doesn't assign them habits. Sophie sports unflattering spectacles and, as a concession to alterna-girlishness, burdens herself with too many earrings.

The look culminates in a coiffure wittily described by her mean mother (Anne Archer) as "an underachiever's haircut." Admittedly, her mother's layers of makeup give us a reason for Sophie's toned-down presentation. She is rebelling against her facile, overbearing mother.

Still, this doesn't explain why so little goes on between Sophie and Hugh. Not much in the way of energy—negative or positive—enlivens them. This, despite some authentic angst in the conversations when Sophie fibs about how she spent the afternoon. ("I saw a movie with that guy who's in all the Woody Allen movies." "How was it?" "I slept through most of it.")

In the doomed couple's meet-cute, Sophie makes Hugh pose for a portrait in what looks like one of Angus' discarded schoolboy uniforms from AC/DC. It looks outré. Worse, it doesn't really deepen the plot, right where there was a spot ready to foreshadow mysterious happenings to come.

The photography is deliberately repellent. It's a dimmed-out L.A. full of bile and khaki-colored exteriors, highlighted with bug-light yellows and the typical blue-tinged white flares of digital light. Rooms appear to be illuminated by the 40-watt bulb from an open refrigerator. The lighting doesn't do any favors for either Archer or Nora Dunn, as Sophie's cryptic psychiatrist. Both are photographed as if they're starring in moving-picture adaptations of their driver's license photos.

The urge was to make November as creepy as it was thrifty. However, since the film is obsessed with the theme of image and afterimage and what a photograph takes in and leaves out, a sleeker surface might not just have been more alluring, but also more to the point.

November (R; 73 min.), directed by Greg Harrison, written by Benjamin Brand, photographed by Nancy Schreiber and starring Courteney Cox and James Le Gros, opens Friday.

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From the July 27-August 2, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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