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.
Seeing this movie thirty years ago felt like riding a fast elevator down twenty stories. Seeing it again on DVD, confirmed that impression. The combined talents of director John Schlesinger, screenwriter Daniel Pyne, and lead actors Melanie Griffith, Matthew Modine, and Michael Keaton produced a durable thriller.
Griffith and Modine are a young couple staking everything on buying a Victorian House and relying on income from two apartments in the house to pay the mortgage. One apartment is rented by ideal tenants, an elderly couple. The other is rented by Michael Keaton, and the nightmare begins.
The husband and the wife respond to their tenant's abuses in different ways. Which one will have the best strategy for saving their investment and their lives?
Pacific Heights is a thriller of that era when the leading woman began to take charge. She was allowed to fight back and often did so effectively. To Die For (1995) with Nicole Kidman is such a film, as is Sleeping with the Enemy with Julia Roberts. They are the forerunners of today's female super-heroes.
Anyone who finds the plot far-fetched would be well advised to consult laws regarding tenants' rights in San Francisco. It is still possible for someone to move into a rental property, never pay one dollar for rent, and avoid eviction for a very long time.
Anyone who finds the setting far-fetched would be right. The house used for the exterior shots is actually in another neighborhood. Nothing unusual in that. More to the point, lovely as it is, I doubt there is a house that small in the neighborhood called Pacific Heights.
We watched The Highwaymen and enjoyed it. Then I read the mainstream reviews. The professional reviewers seem preoccupied with how it compares to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the enduring classic starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway by Arthur Penn.
The Highwaymen is a different movie for a different time, as is Gun Crazy (1950), which also dramatizes the real-life crime spree of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. It's different because it tells the story from the point-of-view of law enforcement, but also because of what it says about America.
This film makes clear that in the 1930s people were desperate for work and desperate to put food on the table. Since hard work and playing by the rules wasn't working, the people loved the idea of breaking all the rules and taking whatever they needed and wanted. Bonnie and Clyde became their heroes.
This film makes equally clear that Bonnie and Clyde robbed and killed poor people as well as rich people. They had to be stopped, and conventional law enforcement couldn't do the job. So the governor of Texas, Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates), hired a couple of former Texas Rangers to work without official authorization.
Thus, this movie is about outlaws chasing outlaws at a time when the people had lost faith in the law. There is no romance about the real-life law men played by Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner. They're smart and they're tough, but they are thugs hired by the state to kill. They know that's what they are. That's made clear in a speech by Harrelson late in the film.
There are neither heroes nor anti-heroes in this film. There is instead a description of America falling apart as it did in the 1930s. There is also a reminder that, bad as income inequality is today, we have seen nothing approaching the Great Depression in my lifetime.
Back in 1995, the reviews for To Die For were full of phrases like "black comedy," "sharp satire," and "witty parody." I was spellbound by this movie, but I didn't find much to laugh about.
The plot is lifted from James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. A woman is frustrated by her boring or boorish husband so she seduces some fool and persuades him to kill the husband.
But, in the screenplay by Buck Henry, based on a story by Joyce Maynard, there is a variation. The wife isn't bored as in Cain's iconic novel; she is ambitious. She wants to be a television personality, and she's willing to start her career by doing the weather on a local cable channel.
When the film was released, critics focused on the satire of America's obsession with celebrity, and there is some of that. But, in my humble opinion, they overlooked the film's chilling rendition of the archetypal noir plot.
For one thing, the fool is a teenager played by Joaquin Phoenix with heartbreaking vulnerability. And two other teenagers, brilliantly played by Casey Affleck and Alison Folland also fall under the wife's spell. That makes the noir a bit darker.
But most of all there is Nicole Kidman's performance. She compels belief as her character progresses from cute "little lady," to driven career woman, to ruthless exploiter, to deluded psychopath. This role should be studied and taught as an example of finding the arc of a character.
To be fair, back in 1995, critics recognized the high quality of the acting and writing, and of the direction by Gus Van Sant. Perhaps they came away laughing, because a woman with career ambitions was not taken so seriously then. After #MeToo, we're not laughing any more.
You know something is wrong, right from the beginning.
When Louis meets his bride-to-be, fresh off the boat on a remote island, she doesn't look like the picture she sent. Julie says she sent a picture of her sister in case she changed her mind about getting married.
When he drives her to his stately home, he confesses he lied to her too. He doesn't work in a factory. He owns the factory. He didn't want her to marry him just for his money.
This is the opening of Waltz Into Darkness, the 1947 novel by Cornell Woolrich, published under his pseudonym, William Irish. It plays beautifully in Francois Truffaut's 1969 film adaptation, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve.
With minimal changes to the novel's plot, the movie tells this classic noir tale of two people, doomed by their personal histories to play out a downward spiral of crime. The many lessons Truffaut learned from Alfred Hitchcock are on full display here.
The movie falls short of Woolrich's dark vision in only one way. Belmondo and Deneuve are just too attractive. In the novel, Louis is an aging bachelor, which helps justify his obsession with holding onto Julie. It's hard to imagine Belmondo being desperate to meet women.
In the novel, Julie falls in love with Louis, but cannot stop being the psychopath her circumstances in life have made her. It's hard to imagine Deneuve as anything but an angel.
No Man of Her Own (1950), directed by William Leisen, starring Barbara Stanwyck, is a rare instance of a movie that is as good as the book its based on.
I enjoyed the book, I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich. The opening chapters set up a tall tale: a pregnant woman meets another pregnant woman on a train; the train crashes and one of them dies; the one who lives is mistaken for the one who died.
The rest of the book plays out this premise. The survivor reluctantly accepts the new identity thrust upon her because her own prospects as an unmarried mother are grim, whereas the other woman was a newlywed mother on her way to meet her husband's wealthy family.
Once past this unlikely premise, the suspense mounts steadily as the mother lives a lie for the sake of providing a better life for her child. It's a classic noir dilemma: doing a bad thing for a good reason.
The film makes the premise easier to believe thanks to Leisen's efficient visual style. The director's craft is evident throughout the rest of the film as well. He frequently lets Stanwyck's face tell the story in long close-ups.
If you go looking for this film, don't confuse it with another film of the same title made in 1932, starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Also, don't be mislead by the film's credits, which say it is based on the book by William Irish. Woolrich originally published I Married a Dead Man under a pseudonym.
Underworld U. S. A., (1961), written and directed by Samuel Fuller, treats the subject of organized crime with a complexity and sophistication that rivals Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972).
As a teenager, Tolly Devlin sees his father beaten to death in an alley by four men. Grown to manhood, he vows to find them and take revenge.
I’ll admit I expected the movie from here on to be repetitive: find one, gun him down, move on to the next. But Fuller accomplishes much more.
The process of finding each man becomes a psychological chess-game as he trades information to get the names of the murderers who are only shadowy figures in his memory.
Finding them exposes a criminal organization disguised as a legitimate business that supports benevolent social programs.
The process of killing each man involves uneasy partnerships with law enforcement
There is no romance about extended Italian families in this movie. Fuller’s take-down of organized crime is unsentimental. This movie reminds readers of Fuller’s autobiography, A Third Face, that he spent his early years as a crime reporter for a daily newspaper in New York.
It was a special pleasure to see Underworld U. S. A. in the Castro Theater, as part of the Noir City festival.
Having recently read Samuel Fuller’s autobiography, I jumped at the chance to see one of his best films on the big screen at the Castro Theater.
Pickup on South Street (1953) starts with a scene worthy of Hitchcock. On a crowded subway train in New York City, a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) lifts a wallet from a woman’s (Jean Peters) purse.
Two men watch the theft unfold without interfering. Since they seem to have no interest in arresting the thief, why are they following his every move?
In the next few scenes, we learn that the wallet contains a formula stolen by a Communist cell bent on compromising America’s security. The men watching the pickpocket on the subway are FBI agents searching for “Commie” sympathizers.
Pickup on South Street was showing as part of Noir City, an annual ten-day festival. It is regularly cited as a classic film noir, as are some of Fuller’s other films.
And yet, I couldn’t see this film as noir.
The pickpocket and the “B-girl” ultimately give up selling the formula and work with law enforcement. Order is restored and all’s right with the world because two unlikely souls look past their own interests to serve their country. And their idealism is rewarded.
How can we reconcile this with Roger Ebert’s definition of film noir as "A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending?"
Or with Otto Penzler's description: "The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry."
Pickup on South Street has all the furnishings of film noir---fedoras, slang, street-wise characters, beautiful black-and-white photography---but it’s really a morality play. Good is rewarded and evil is punished.
As such, I really enjoyed it. Fuller’s storytelling craft is impeccable. And it’s always nice to have an excuse to go to the Castro Theater, San Francisco’s last art-deco movie palace.
When I read that Serenity is “a daringly original, sexy, stylized thriller,” starring Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey, I moved it to the top of my movie list.
Then I noticed its scores on Rotten Tomatoes: 22% critics; 31% audience. Ouch! But I’ve learned to read the quotations from top critics on RT.
It seems Serenity has a problem with its twist, which is a revelation of something previously only hinted at. This new information changes the meaning of everything you’ve seen so far.
Several critics say the twist which comes about halfway through Serenity only makes the movie more confusing. Others say the entire movie makes no sense.
And yet, the minority of critics who like the movie write for the L. A. Times, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, and The Globe and Mail---credible sources.
And they say things like, “One of the most ambitious, one of the most challenging - and one of the most entertaining thrillers in recent years” (Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times).
How could a few top critics think so highly of a film most others describe as nonsense?
To begin with, the craft in this film---acting, design, directing, writing---is all top notch. It’s a quality film.
If you accept the twist, it’s a brilliant film; if not, you’re disappointed. And, of course, as in all thrillers, I can’t discuss the twist without spoiling it for you.
But I will say this: if you go to see it, notice how little difference the twist makes. In a plot borrowed from Double Indemnity, it’s not surprising to hear characters talk about “what game we’re playing,” and how, “the rules have changed.”
The twist gives these metaphors a new meaning, but the original meanings still apply.
I agree with Katie Walsh, L. A. Times, “The off-kilter, colorful, cartoonish fantasy of "Serenity" is just so odd and appealing that you want to spend time with the characters . . . in this crazy, upside-down world.”
I’ve read some silly things about this movie. I saw it yesterday, enjoyed it, and wondered why some critics were disturbed.
For instance, Peter Rainer in the Christian Science Monitor writes, “This is one of those radical change-your-image performances that tries too hard to defy our expectations.”
Actually, I thought it was one of those performances in which an actor changes her appearance and changes the way she thinks, walks, and talks to fit the character. In other words, acting.
Peter Keough in the Boston Globe writes about the movie’s “confused, convoluted chronology.” Through most of the movie there are two parallel timelines: the present and fifteen years ago when the conflict began. It’s not that hard to follow. Her hair is longer in the past.
The ending surprises the viewer with a series of flashbacks to earlier scenes in the film. We realize these scenes did not mean what we thought they meant. The flashbacks are surprising, but we saw this done at the end of The Usual Suspects (1995).
Other reviewers wrote that Destroyer did nothing that hadn’t already been done in the rogue cop genre, which has been owned by male actors. Robert Horton in HeraldNet writes, “Switching the sex around doesn’t make it fresh.”
Actually, it does. Remember when Jodie Foster played the lead in a remake of Charles Bronson’s revenge thriller, The Brave One (2007)? I was much more enthusiastic about watching her take revenge on those who victimized her than I was watching Charles Bronson, and I wondered why.
I had a similar reaction to Destroyer. Director Karyn Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi deserve credit for meeting viewers’ expectations of the genre while expanding it to work with a woman in the lead.
Most critics liked Destroyer It scored 71% on Rotten Tomatoes, but deserves better. Some praised it as a good neo-noir. Sure enough, the worldview is pessimistic, the morality is ambiguous and the tone is grim. Plus, this one has that tragic dimension in which a character with noble ambitions never has a chance to realize them.
I went to Shoplifters expecting a crime-caper, a film full of ironic humor about a rag-tag bunch who survive through petty crime, but are good people underneath it all. I was not expecting noir, but I'm forced to the conclusion that's what I saw.
I doubt anyone thinks of noir when they see the trailer or advertising for this award-winning Japanese film. Most of it happens in broad daylight. The colors are pretty. The people are happy. Where is the darkness that gives noir its name?
Without wading into the quagmire of defining noir, I will recall that in noir films, novels, and stories, the worldview is pessimistic, the morality is ambiguous and the tone is grim. This is where Shoplifters throws us a curve. The tone is not grim. It is upbeat.
But the morality is ambiguous to say the least, and . . . well, you'll have to see it and decide for yourself whether the worldview is ultimately pessimistic. A case could be made for that.
At the beginning, it appears to be a crime-caper film. A man and a boy move skillfully through a grocery store plying their trade with hand signals and deft deceptions. It's hard not to celebrate with them when they go out for snacks afterward.
On the way home, they come to the aid of a little girl crying outside a house where adults are having a violent altercation. When they take her home with them, it seems obvious they are rescuing her. But soon the question arises: is this a kidnapping?
Throughout the film, we are accomplices in each of the survival schemes, and we cringe as we learn more about what is really going on beneath the pleasant exteriors.
It's noir enough for me.
As you can see in the "Movies" section of this blog, I've been happily commenting on various films as examples of film noir. In doing so, I've relied on Otto Penzler's definition.
Now I learn there's more to it than that---much more. In the table of contents for the Wikipedia article on film noir, the first item is "Problems of definition." It turns out there are so many problems, and they are so complicated, that, "There is no consensus on the matter."
Yet the article tells us that in film noir the worldview is pessimistic, the morality is ambiguous and the tone is grim. Penzler says essentially the same, and this article refers to Roger Ebert's description, "A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending."
All this sounds depressing, yet film noir (and neo-noir such as Chinatown, Raging Bull, Basic Instinct, Body Heat, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Training Day and many more) remain popular for the same reason tragedy has always been popular (Oedipus the King, Hamlet, A Doll's House, Death of a Salesman).
We hope that Good conquers Evil and that Love is the answer, but we know those statements are are not always true. Too often in life a force greater than ourselves overwhelms our best efforts. The Greeks called it fate. The twentieth century called it socio-economic conditions.
We watch a play or a movie about an imperfect man or woman who struggles for happiness, knowing all the while they will lose. We suffer with them as they fight the good fight. When they lose, we experience a purgation of fear and pity, which Aristotle called catharsis. And we feel better.
Reviews of this fine film have focused on how well it handles its central issue, drug addiction, and how suspenseful it is. I found it compelling for the suspense alone.
Lee Child has written that creating suspense is simple: ask or imply a question, and postpone giving the answer. Writer-director Peter Hedges seems to have learned this lesson well.
From the beginning, the film methodically implies its questions. A young man runs around a house peeking in windows. When his mom and sister return from church, he says his sponsor suggested he spend a weekend at home, on leave from rehab. If so, we wonder, why weren't they expecting him? Wouldn't he have called?
His mom is thrilled to see him. His sister is not. Why aren't they on the same page? We find out soon enough, but not before several more questions have been raised. Throughout the movie, Hedges's screenplay keeps us waiting for the next revelation.
Some critics fault the film for being a drama about a social issue that mimics the conventions of thrillers. I see it as a thriller that involves addiction, the way Hitchcock's North by Northwest, for instance, involves espionage.
The problem of addiction gives the film an extra dimension for fans of noir. Though we're pulling for the main characters all the way through, we sense that their fate is sealed, no matter what they do.