For fans of noir nightmares from Double Indemnity to A Simple Plan---especially those who like a dash of absurdity as in Blood Simple---Prime Video's Blow the Man Down is a very interesting little film.
We start with a volatile situation: two sisters at their mother's funeral inherit nothing but problems. One doubles down on taking charge; the other goes wild. There's a murder, and covering it up turns into a farce. We are deep into noir territory.
But, there's a chorus of fisherman with surprisingly operatic voices singing sea chanteys. The movie is set in a New England fishing town, so, I guess, they're musical scenery.
And there's a trio of older woman who keep turning up . . . at the funeral . . . out for a walk in the village . . . they're always around. And there's Margo Martindale playing a matriarch as few other can.
There are plot twists. There are surprises. Ominous things turn out to be unimportant. Little things loom large. When it was done, I had to mentally reverse-engineer some developments to see if they made sense. But I was always fascinated.
We went to the Balboa Theater, one of San Francisco's remaining neighborhood movie houses, to see Bullitt, the 1968 action film starring Steve McQueen and green, Mustang fastback.
You don't see the title on the marquee, because it's on the other side. I could have photographed the other side, but then you wouldn't have seen that glorious sunset.
The car chase in Bullitt is rightly famous and more than fifty years later it still works. I had not remembered that the movie is a series of chases. Earlier in the film, McQueen chases the killer through the stairwells and basement corridors of a hospital. Later, he chases a different bad buy across the runways of SFO while planes are taking off.
This showing was part of the Total SF series hosted by two writers for the San Francisco Chronicle, Peter Hartlaub and Heather Knight. There pre-show trivia contests are fun and it's fun to see films shot in San Francisco with a home-town audience turning out to see how the place looks on screen. We previously saw The Rock and Sister Act in this series.
The numbers don't add up for the financing of a film production because it's really a front for human trafficking and drug dealing. An uptight bank investigator gets framed for the crime he is investigating.
We expect him to be no match for the Russian mob and their psychopathic enforcers, but he applies his analytical mind to each situation and beats them at their own game.
Michael Keaton deserves a lot of credit for pulling this off. The easy choice would have shown this numbers nerd discovering a side of himself he never knew existed and becoming an action hero. Instead Keaton remains the same guy throughout the film. He's just solving different kinds of problems. Very cool.
Michael Caine is predictably wonderful as the star of the fake film and Judith Godreche provides credible support in the always thankless role of the girl in the action film.
This film from 2003 went "straight-to-video." Back then no theatrical release meant no one believed in the film enough to back it. Fortunately it's still around for streaming. It's a conventional thriller with more light moments than usual. I found it entertaining.
Landmark has announced it will close the Clay theater, which was built in 1910 as a movie house---no backstage! Reportedly they have lost money for years on this single-screen neighborhood theater, showing new art-house films and cult classics.
Elsewhere in the city, Landmark is doing well. Its Embarcadero Cinema emerged from a re-do with luxurious seats and upgraded food and beverage service. Landmark has announced it will refurbish the Opera Plaza Cinema, which needs it. Both are multi-screen houses.
There is hope the Clay will be saved by the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, which has saved the Vogue (1912) and the Balboa (1926). The Castro (1922) survives in all its glory thanks to community support. A few others survive around the city, mostly divided into multi-screen theaters.
It sounded like my favorite kind of movie. The promotional descriptions says, "A charismatic jeweler makes a high-stakes bet that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime. In a precarious high-wire act, he must balance business, family and adversaries on all sides in pursuit of the ultimate win."
To me, it sounded like the perfect-crime scenario, beloved of noir writers and filmmakers. A guy or gal down in a tight spot comes up with a plan to make a big score, get out of trouble, and be set for life. I've written about several in this blog, including The Concrete Flamingo by Charles Williams, Out of the Black, by John Rector, and The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips.
But Uncut Gems didn't play out that way. We watch the jeweler pile risk upon risk to make a huge bet on basketball game. When it doesn't work out, he does it again, and again, and . . . It turns out he has no plan for what to do with the windfall. He just likes gambling.
Watching the jeweler rob Peter to pay Paul for the umpteenth time so he could place a bet reminded me of watching All in the Family and waiting for Archie Bunker to make a bigoted remark. Sure enough, there he goes again. About halfway through the film, the audience of about 300 with whom I saw the film started laughing whenever the jeweler went for it one more time.
It would be easy to miss how good this movie is. The dialogue is limited to what people would really say in the circumstances. That means most of the storytelling is visual.
When Mickey asks a doctor to write a prescription so she can get oxycontin for her father, the doctor asks what her plans for college are. She has none. Later, she sneaks into a doctor's office to steal a prescription form and accidentally spills some rosewater, wipes it up with her sleeve, and wipes her hands on her pants. The doctor's influence is now real. Nothing need be said. This film is full of such clues.
Publicity for the film says, "a young woman dreams of living life on her own terms." That's soft-pedaling it. Mickey is devoted to her father who suffers PTSD from his combat in Afghanistan. He tells her boyfriend the reason to have kids is, "When your shit starts to look look sewage, they're there to clean it up for you." As the film goes on her dreary situation turns dangerous.
Mickey and the Bear is full of powerful performances from little-known actors. Camila Morrone as Mickey and James Badge Dale as her father are so good you forget you're watching a movie. With a bigger budget, the director could have had Scarlett Johansson and Bradley Cooper, but they would not have made a better film.
A lot of people say there should be more women making films in Hollywood. If that's going to happen, we have to pay admission to see films like this one by first-time writer and director Annabelle Attanasio. Her accomplishment as a director is all spelled out in the 100% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
Recently I discovered Joe R. Lansdale in a book of short stories, and liked his story so much I sought out some of his novels including The Thicket. He likes stories in which an average guy or underdog gets some help and takes down a bully.
Cold in July, his novel from 1989 puts some interesting twists in this type of story. It starts with a man shooting a thief who breaks into his house in the middle of the night. The aftermath is not pleasant, and the complications are both frightening and thought-provoking.
When I learned it had been adapted for film in 2014 with Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson in the principal roles, I wondered why I'd never heard of it.
Wikipedia explains why the film was difficult to market. Even with three A-list stars it didn't make money. But it is available through streaming services and it's entertaining, so long as you don't mind the violence.
In an interview about 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen was asked what mattered most when making a great movie. He replied, "Story, story, story." Writer and Director Bong Joon Ho could teach a master class on that subject.
Parasite has twists and turns, but it's never smarter than the audience. You see each one coming, or suspect something is coming, or know you could have seen it coming. Every event, every character, every prop, almost every line of dialogue has an echo later in the film. The craftsmanship is amazing.
A family of four---mom, dad, adult son, and adult daughter---live in a tiny apartment in a slum. They all work at whatever they can to get by. The son seizes an opportunity to get hired as a tutor in the home of a wealthy family. He fudges his university degree to get the work, but he's fully up to the job. As scams go, it's pretty benign.
This sets the two families on a collision course. I won't reveal anything beyond the opening minutes of the movie, because you should enjoy each delicious revelation for yourself.
Let's just say the movie is completely satisfying for its suspense, its social satire, and its profound questions. Usually we're satisfied if a movie does one of those things well. How rare it is to get all three in one movie.
When their regular babysitter is not available, a couple hires a friend of a friend to watch their three kids so they can have their anniversary dinner out. They should have checked references.
When the dad brings the new sitter to the house, he swaggers a bit too much. The mom is a bit too needy about her concern for the children. The eleven-year-old brother is a bully. They will suffer for their flaws.
The new sitter arrives with an eerie detachment. When the parents leave, and we find out what she's up to, the fates of the little brother and sister hang in the balance.
This is a psychological thriller, not a horror movie. Violence and gore are minimal. The sound editors do not resort to startling us with loud noises. The chills come from revealing the characters' intentions.
The movie has its flaws. Some minor characters are forgotten in the second half. There are some continuity errors in the run up to the climax. But the writing is better than average, and the performances, even from the little ones, are compelling.
Story guru Matt Bird says your story is not about your hero's life; it's about your hero's problem. The first half of Three Peaks comes close to breaking this rule.
A mother, her son, and her new boyfriend vacation at a cabin in the mountains. We watch them live their lives for several days---cooking, sleeping, playing music---all made awkward by the son's unresolved resentment over his father's absence. The film seems to be showing us what life is like in a new family.
The boyfriend does his best to include the son in manly activities such as cutting firewood and hiking to the peaks. The son starts to threaten the boyfriend. This is where the film starts being a story. The boyfriend (hero) now has a problem. Still, what can a boy do against a grown man?
Quite a bit, it turns out, when that man feels protective toward the boy for the sake of his girlfriend, the mother, and when they hike to the top of a mountain and the fog rolls in. Trapped in a dangerous situation, the boy now has all the advantages.
The final third of the movie plays like a Jack London story directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
This low-budget film was made in the year World War II ended, the threshold of film noir. Only 67 minutes long, it is not one of the great films in that genre, but it was favorably reviewed when it was released and each time it was rediscovered. In 1992 it was selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Most of the critical raves focus on the director, Edgar G. Ulmer. In his review, Roger Ebert said Ulmer "was an assistant to the great Murnau on 'The Last Laugh' and 'Sunrise,' and provided one of the links between German Expressionism, with its exaggerated lighting, camera angles and dramaturgy, and the American film noir, which added jazz and guilt."
This film could be a textbook on making a low-budget film without disappointing the audience. Street scenes in New York show two characters standing under a street sign surrounded by fog. Stock footage of a switchboard operator tells us the hero is making a long-distance call. Visually it's minimal, but enough.
I must say the acting was the least enjoyable part of the movie. For whatever reason, the two main characters were reduced to a single attitude and every line is delivered in the same tone.
The story is perhaps the most interesting and most noirish part of the movie. A singer decides to leave New York and try her luck in Hollywood. Her boyfriend, a fine pianist, decides to follow her. His luck goes from bad to worse as he hitchhikes across the country. As he says at the end, fate can destroy anyone at any time.
The film is based on Martin Goldsmith's 1939 novel, Detour, adapted by him and Martin Mooney.
The film is in the public domain and is freely available from online sources. Be sure to look for the restoration by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2018. available from the Criterion Collection.
Hitchcock/Truffaut, the 2015 documentary film about the book of the same title, includes interviews with ten present-day directors. Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Martin Scorcese, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and others testify to the enduring influence of Alfred Hitchcock on their work and film-making in general.
In Still of the Night (1982), director Robert Benton borrowed many techniques from Hitchcock and also created a pastiche of Hitchcock's films. It's fun to watch this movie and pair up its scenes with the scenes from master's catalogue: the auction-house scene, the dream sequence, peeping in the windows across the across the way, etc.
There are also scenes that are genuinely suspenseful, ironic, and scary. Even if you never seen a Hitchcock film, you can be well entertained for 90 mins by this thriller.
Vincent Canby spotted the movie's chief shortcoming when he said the magnetism between the stars, Roy Scheider and Meryl Streep, is too weak to drive the action. Both actors are great, and the director won an Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer, but the spark is not there.
Still there are chills in this movie about a psychiatrist and an expert in antiques and their obsessions.
This ticking-clock thriller has a lot to recommend it. Reviewers complained it strains credibility, but they always do with mysteries and thrillers. That's like complaining that there's no such thing as a light saber. Get with the program, critics! If you want to talk about plot holes and coincidences, let's talk about Oedipus the King.
I liked the low stakes in this movie. One decent but flawed guy (Denzel Washington) gets in over his head by devising a scheme that is partly noble, partly selfish. If it all goes wrong, the worst that can happen is a small town in Florida has to get a new police chief. Leave global domination to the James Bond franchise. Give me one relatable character to root for.
Whether or not you like the basic noir plot involving a guy putting it all on the line to save a damsel in distress (and getting some ugly surprises), you have to admire the performances in this movie. I vaguely recall seeing it in a theater sixteen years ago, and I vividly recall walking out and asking, "Who is she?"
"She" is Eva Mendes. She plays the no-nonsense cop who follows the evidence even when it threatens to lead to her almost-ex-husband. She matches Denzel's intensity and credibility without breaking a sweat (and this is in Florida!).
The same can be said for Sanaa Lathan, who plays the damsel in distress. In fact the performances are uniformly good in this movie with Chris Harrison playing the heavy, John Billingsley as the comic sidekick, and so on down the line.
If you go looking for it, watch out for other films with the same title. Several were released at around the same time as this one. One was released last year. There's also a TV series called Out of Time.
This is an entertaining thriller that reveals the power of at least one underappreciated artist. I'll admit I thought of Don Johnson as the pretty boy from Miami Vice, but in this film he shows range. As the character demands, he goes from boyish charm without empathy to narcissistic rage when anyone tries to deny his whims. Scary.
Rebecca De Mornay has been greatly appreciated for the films of the 1980s and 1990s in which she played roles both heroic and villainous, and she continues to work, most recently in the TV series, Jessica Jones. She has star power here, playing a character more given to fight than flight.
Director Sidney Lumet is in full Hitchcock mode, which is generally a good thing. He photographs De Mornay as Hitchcock famously photographed the blondes in his thrillers. There is more than one back-of-the-head shot and several moments when De Mornay is frozen in terror while we hear Johnson off-screen threatening her. Unlike Hitchcock's blondes, De Mornay's character is in full attack mode from start to finish.
Although screenwriters are generally underappreciated, one aspect of this film made me look up the name Larry Cohen. The moments I found most chilling often come from a line of dialogue, delivered simply, in keeping with the scene. These lines reveal the next twist in the villain's scheme. No underscoring, no camera work, no "action," just story. Perhaps this is not surprising from a writer quoted as saying, "Many of the A-movies are long forgotten. They're boring, slow, and tedious. The B-movies are fast-moving, exciting, and energetic."
This movie has the plot of a thriller, but it doesn't feel like a thriller.
The opening sequences build a familiar situation. The hero is ready to make a better life for herself but is pulled back into her old life for one last score. The middle of the film tightens the screws. Every time she takes two steps forward she must take one step back . . . and sometimes two steps back. The climax and conclusion are full of breathless suspense and terrifying threats.
And yet, it doesn't feel like a thriller. There is no escapism for the audience. The circumstances are not exotic. The hero has no superpowers, The stakes are personal, not global. It's a movie about a working woman and her sister. They've had some hard knocks, they've made some mistakes, but mostly they've done their best.
In other words it's a movie about real people in real trouble doing what real people do. It is carried by a luminous performance from Tessa Thompson. And, as many critics have said, the fact that this is a debut for Nia DaCosta as both writer and director is astonishing.
Both for its craftsmanship and its realism, it feels more like mid-Twentieth-Century realism from dramatists such as Cliff Odets, Lillian Hellman, and Arthur Miller even as its subject matter seems ripped from the headlines. That is indeed high praise.