Category Archives: Film Reviews

Something Wild (1986)

In honor of Ray Liotta’s untimely death I recently watched Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, a mid-80s film starring Melanie Griffith,  Jeff Daniels and Ray Liotta. Notably, this dark comedy not only features a critique of finance capital careerism but lingers on the eccentric details of an America that began to erode with the advent of the Reagan Era and at present no longer exists.

Daniels plays Charlie, a yuppie schmuck whose rising fortunes in the company counterpoint his diminished personal life. Griffith is Lulu (Audrey), who conscripts him into her chaotic plan to dazzle her mother and former high school classmates with the illusion of an all-American life that includes a successful (normie) husband, a suburban homestead, and the imminent prospect of children. Unfortunately for both of them Audrey’s ex-boyfriend Ray (Liotta) arrives at their 10th anniversary high school reunion with every intention of picking up a relationship interrupted by his incarceration for armed robbery. Liotta’s Ray is sociopathic and seductive, not only prone to violent outbursts but capable of moving (and calculated) appeals to his victims’ trust.

I’ve had more than one female friend who found Griffith’s screen presence irritating. Her elocution skirts the fringes of baby talk. In the earlier phases of her career, at least, she hardly ever wears a bra. Yet as I was watching her entice Charlie and handle Ray I was struck by both her weird resemblance to Kristin Stewart and the way she dramatizes the plight of a woman whose vivacity and beauty renders her the target of male obsession.

Two linguistic moments stand out in this otherwise action-oriented film. The first, uttered by a man who offers Pepto Bismal to a very hungover Charlie, runs thus: “it’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion.” Eventually Charlie repeats this bromide to a colleague in the film’s final moments as he prepares to abandon his career. The substance of that phrase clearly valorizes the joys of ordinary life over yuppie hubris.

The second comes in the form of a spray-painted tag on the building housing Audrey’s recently vacated apartment: “Speculators Out.” If such a statement counts as subtext then it’s clear that Something Wild ultimately has the neoliberal turn in its sights. And, oddly, it’s Liotta’s character who shoulders the baggage. Ray’s self-satisfying violence, his endless concern for himself, resembles nothing so much as the toxic narcissism of Late Capitalism’s vaunted heroes. His certainty and ambition constitute a form of psychosis sharing more in common with a smug, entitled stockbroker than a desperate, love-struck ex-con.

In sum, Liotta– the foundling-cum-movie-star,–whose No Escape I watched in the Sarasota Mall after smoking a bunch of dope, demonstrates yet again with Something Wild that he was truly a king among men.

The Nightingale (2018)

Jennifer Kent’s second full-length feature is harder to watch than The Babadook, at least in its opening moments, largely because of its portrayal of sexual violence. Still, that’s surely the point: any close study of the history of European settler-colonies leads to the conclusion that there is a close, even necessary, relationship between imperialism and rape (of the colonized, of the land).

Kent’s political imaginary doesn’t equalize Irish convicts with Aboriginal people so much as it highlights their common dispossession at the hands of the British Empire. Without delving too deeply into the film’s plot, I can say that it’s as bloody as any revenge tragedy– a fitting genre for this aspect of Australia’s history.

In the effort to dramatize the violence of colonialism from a post-colonial perspective, however, Kent departs from the very register that might give form to imperial depravity. Horror is the appropriate mode for this story.

On the other hand a plethora of middle-brow horror films in recent years– most yearning after some adequately weighty subtext– may have diluted the genre’s power. Even narrative itself exerts a kind of tyranny over what it is possible to effectively communicate about the past. Are the realities and legacies of colonialism adequately addressed in a well-rounded tale that features no untidy excess? If a flm can contain these historical forces within a satisfying story that possesses the requisite moments of suspense leading to ultimate dramatic closure has it told a kind of lie? As Nicholas Cage said on the evening of his Oscar award, cinema is the marriage of art and commerce. And the commercial mode can’t sustain the kind of avant-garde experiments with form that might capture the ragged, spasmodic truths of historical experience.

Hold the Dark (2018)

Jeremy Saulnier’s (Blue Ruin) third film is a cryptic and mesmerizing journey into the frozen north where a child has disappeared, perhaps taken by wolves. The child’s mother, Medora (Riley Keough), a name that’s a near-match for Medea, summons a retired naturalist, Russell (Jeffrey Wright) to hunt down the wolves who have taken her son, but events quickly indicate that stranger things are afoot. Without attempting to delineate an often inscrutable story, I can say that explosive plot events and Wright’s soft-spoken performance carry the film. 

Unlike other Far North thrillers such as Wind River (Sheridan 2017) Hold the Dark‘s sanguinary journey contains gothic, even tragic elements rather than celebrating vengeance as a kind of rude justice. Where Wind Rivers opts for a hackneyed fantasy of violence which only underscores the burgeoning psychopathy of American culture in the wake of 20 years of undeclared war, Hold the Dark counterpoints dark, irrational drives with longing and something like redemption. 

Jade (1995)

Touted as an “erotic thriller”– a genre that effectively means neo-noir?*– Joe Eszterhas’s film features several veteran supporting actors such as Victor Wong, Kevin Tighe, and Richard Crenna. It’s a shame that these actors– or Donna Murphy for that matter, whose character Det. Karen Heller would have made for a very interesting protagonist– weren’t given more things to do and say.

Continue reading

Copycat (1995)

 

With the exception of a shot from Twin Peaks that pans down the westside to Ocean Beach, there’s almost nothing of San Francisco in this above average thriller starring Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Helen Hudson), the always compelling Holly Hunter (Inspector MJ Monhan) and an “eyebrows and handcuffs” Dermot Mulroney (Inspector Reuben Goetz).

Continue reading

Double Jeopardy (1999)

A bad film with a great premise, Double jeopardy could have taken its audience deep into noir territory with a few alterations in character and motive. Ashley Judd plays rich mom Libby Parsons, who is married to an arrogant financier (Bruce Greenwood). Waking in the middle of the night aboard their recently acquired yacht Libby finds herself covered in blood and her husband missing. Convicted of his murder, she’s sent to a surprisingly mild prison where she works out a lot and meets new people, eventually learning by chance that her late husband Nick is actually alive, living with the woman she thought was her best friend. Years pass and Libby is released on parole to a halfway house, under the supervision of former law professor turned PO Travis Lehman (Tommy Lee Jones)– a man with his own tragic past and a relatively low key drinking problem. Having learned in prison that the principle of double jeopardy forecloses the possibility of being tried for the same crime twice, Libby violates her parole to collect her son and get payback.

Two aspects of the film are particularly noteworthy. First, Double Jeopardy is an early example of the Internet Thriller, featuring suspenseful search engine queries which require Libby to get other people to use their computers to answer vital questions. Second, a couple of fairly over the top action sequences pad out the pursuit of her son and treacherous husband. But the most perplexing vagary of the film is its reluctance to delve deeply into the dark side. It’s almost as if the Production Code was still in effect, insisting that the characters embody uncomplicated moral stances rather than embracing the dissolution and ambivalence of the noir mode at its best. If Travis were crooked, for example, willing to exploit Libby for his own gratification, the dangers she runs would have been compounded and the story made more thrilling. Wounded by the death of a daughter roughly Libby’s age, a sleazier version of Travis could have been manipulated by her in a vaguely incestuous manner, summoning some of the Oedipal energies that animate film noir at its most uncompromising. In fact, Double Jeopardy is far too cop friendly, confident in the good intentions of the institutions that have helped to destroy Libby’s idyllic, affluent life. Had her prison experience been harsher, she might have become harder and less appealing, perhaps even repelling her son at their reuinion. In the final struggle between Nick and Libby, we get the retribution we’ve been led to expect but it’s justified as an act of self-defense rather than as a cathartic crime of vengeance. For all the blood, action, and fleeting nudity in Double Jeopardy, it’s a conservative story unwilling to relinquish an exhausted Code-era template of moral clarity.

Greed (2020)

This sunny, profane satire centers on the 60th birthday party of a ruthless yet sporadically charming fashion industry billionaire, Sir Richard “Greedy” MacCreadie (Steve Coogan). David Mitchell plays Nick Morris, a shy, self-effacing but ultimately contemptible writer hired to act as Greedy’s hagiographer. The build-up is promising, layering flashbacks to Greedy’s rise into the oligarchy with Morris’s information gathering and the preparations for the party, an elaborate affair set against Greece’s pristine shores.

Greedy’s staff struggles to pull it off, particularly with regard to the decidedly unscenic presence of Syrian refugees camped out nearby. The fact that all of Greece’s beaches are public makes it ultimately impossible to legally eject them. This is but one obstacle among others, including a nauseated lion, EU labor regulations, and the reluctance of certain coveted celebrities to attend the celebration.

Without giving too much away, at the story’s climax writer/director Michael Winterbottom satisfies one of the audience’s vengeful desires only to pull his punches, denying us the knockout blow. This lackluster denouement has as much to do with the limits of realism in representing the enormity of global capitalism as it does with the film’s liberal politics, which are capable of condemning injustice while ultimately doing nothing about it. In this sense Nick Morris is Winterbottom, clearly aware of the savagery of the people and economic forces he describes yet lacking the wherewithal to intervene decisively against them.

A story of underclass vengeance against the system that fattens the .001% at the expense of the health and dignity of workers would necessitate a leap into the surreal, some means of representation that could give commensurable form to the incommensurable totality of the Free Market. Even so, Greed is funny and dark, and definitely worth watching. 

 

The Suspect (1944)

This gaslight noir tells the story of a likable if fairly passive accountant (Philip Marshall, played by Charles Laughton) married to an absolute harridan, who finally snaps and commits murders. Remarried to a charming and age-inappropriate friend (Ella Raines), Marshall seems to be having a stroke of good fortune until an irritatingly persistent Scotland Yard detective begins a campaign of low-grade harassment. When the sinister, wife-beating drunk next door (Henry Daniell, incidentally one of the best Moriartys in the Sherlock Holmes film canon) attempts to blackmail Marshall, the temptation to snuff out a looming threat and an everyday villain proves too appealing to resist. Featuring an oddly procedural reconstruction of the first crime The Suspect is fundamentally noir in its sensibility even if, in the end, the Production Code ensures our sympathies are frustrated.

Impact (1949)

Brian Donlevy stars as Walter Williams, a successful businessman whose faithless wife (Helen Walker) sets him up to be murdered by her sleazebag lover. Bludgeoned unconscious and left for dead, Walter catches a ride in a moving van and discovers that his assailant was killed in an accident immediately afterward. Finding a body burned beyond recognition, the authorities initially conclude that the dead man is Walter, who pauses awhile in a small town in Idaho, working as a mechanic and meeting a local girl (Ella Raines). When his wife is charged with murder he returns to his old life only to experience a sudden reversal. Charles Coburn– whose screen persona is a thousand times more appealing than his real-life political convictions– plays the Irish-American detective on the verge of retirement whose instincts and energy help solve the riddle.

Story of a Love Affair (1950)

In the absence of action or dynamic camerawork a film often depends on dialog to engage its audience. Unfortunately, a combination of tinnitus-inducing sound quality and often near-invisible subtitles render Michaelangelo Antonioni’s adaption of James M. Cain’s seminal hard-boiled novel The Postman Always Rings Twice extremely hard to watch without becoming a bit impatient. If you’re interested in Italian versions of that story it might be best to go with Visconti’s Ossessione.