Category Archives: Neo-Noir

SIFF 2017: Godspeed **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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This neo-noir “buddy film” from Taiwanese writer-director Chung Mung-Hong concerns an aging, life-tired taxi driver (Hong Kong comedian Michael Hui) who unwittingly picks up a twitchy young drug mule (Na Dow). Blackly comic cat-and-mouse games involving rivaling mobsters ensue as the pair are pushed into an intercity road trip, with their fates now inexorably intertwined. If the setup rings a bell, yes, it is very reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Collateral, but unfortunately not in the same league. It’s not the actors’ fault; the two leads are quite good. The problem lies in the uneven pacing (an overlong and gratuitous torture scene stops the film in its tracks). Likely too many slow patches for action fans, yet too much jolting violence for those partial to road movies. It does have its moments, and I’m sure there is an audience for it, but I’m just not sure who.

SIFF 2017: Pyromaniac ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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It’s not your imagination…”Nordic noir” is a thing (e.g. Scandinavian TV series like The Bridge, Wallander, and the Millennium trilogy). One of the progenitors was Erik Skjoldbjærg’s critically acclaimed 1997 thriller Insomnia (not to be confused with Christopher Nolan’s 2002 remake). The Norwegian director returns with this somewhat glacially-paced but nonetheless involving drama about the son of a fire chief who goes on a fire setting spree. The troubled protagonist’s psycho-sexual issues reminded me of the lead character in Equus. Beautifully photographed by Gosta Reiland.

He was a human being: R.I.P. John Hurt

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 28, 2017)

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Man of 1,000 faces: 1940-2017

Maybe I should just trash this whole movie review gig and become a full-time obit writer. I can’t keep up. I realize that this is all part of life’s rich pageant…but Jesus H. Christ.

When Digby texted me last night about John Hurt, I hadn’t heard about it. After reeling for a moment or so, I mustered up all the eloquence that befits my métier and texted back:

“No! Fuckity-fuck.”

I know. Style under pressure, right? But seriously, there are no words. He was one of the good ones. He was a master thespian with an embarrassment of rich, immersive performances. He was one of those actors who was so damn good that “he” wasn’t there.

But his characters were. Wholly present. In the moment. Fully human. And unforgettable.

Here are five performances I will never forget:

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I, Claudius – While an opening line of “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus…” could portend more of a dull history lecture, rather than 11 hours of must-see-TV, the 1976 BBC series, adapted from Robert Graves’1934 historical novel about ancient Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasty, was indeed the latter, holding viewers in thrall. While it is possible that at the time of its first run on Masterpiece Theater, my friends and I were more in thrall with the occasional teasing glimpses of semi-nudity than we were with, say, the beauty of Jac Pulman’s writing, the wonder of the performances and complexity of the narrative, over the years I have come to realize that I learned everything I needed to know about politics from watching (and re-watching) I, Claudius. With such a huge cast of heavyweight actors (many hailing from the Royal Shakespeare Company), it’s no small feat to steal the show…and John Hurt did just that, without blinking, as the mad emperor Caligula. This was my introduction to his work, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

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Midnight Express– If you can get through the first 15 minutes of this 1979 Best Picture nominee without experiencing even the slightest little anxiety attack, well then you are a much bigger man, or woman, than I. Which brings me to my next question: Have you ever been in a Turkish prison? Alan Parker’s almost unbearably intense drama is the next worst thing to actually being there. Oliver Stone won an Oscar for his adaptation of the screenplay from the eponymous book by Billy Hayes and William Hoffer, which recounted Hayes’ harrowing, real-life experience as an American student who got busted at the airport while attempting to smuggle some hash out of Turkey. The late Brad Davis is nothing short of astonishing as Billy Hayes, but interestingly it was John Hurt who caught the Academy’s eye; he earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination (and a Golden Globe win) for his portrayal of a long-time inmate who befriends Billy and becomes a father figure (or junkie uncle?). The film won a 2nd Oscar for Giorgio Moroder’s score.

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The Shout– For some unknown reason, Robert Graves and John Hurt go together like soup and sandwich. This 1978 sleeper was adapted from a Graves story by Michal Austin and its director, Jerzy Skolimowski. Hurt is excellent as a mild-mannered avant-garde musician who lives in a sleepy English hamlet with his wife (Susannah York). When an enigmatic vagabond (Alan Bates) blows into town, their quiet country life begins to go…elsewhere. This is a genre-defying film; somewhere between psychological thriller and culture clash drama. I’ll put it this way-if you like Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, this one is in your wheelhouse. Look for an uncharacteristically low-key Tim Curry in a supporting role.

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The Elephant Man -This 1980 David Lynch film (a Best Picture nominee) dramatizes the bizarre life of Joseph Merrick (Hurt), a 19th Century Englishman afflicted by a physical condition so hideously deforming and upsetting to people that when he entered adulthood, his sole option for survival was to “work” as a sideshow freak. However, when a compassionate surgeon named Frederick Treaves (Anthony Hopkins) entered his life, a whole new world opened up to him. While there is an inherent grotesqueness to much of the imagery, Lynch treats his subject as respectably and humanely as Dr. Treaves. Beautifully shot in black and white ( by DP Freddie Francis), Lynch’s film has a “steampunk” vibe. Hurt deservedly earned an Oscar nom for his performance, all the more impressive  when you consider how he conveys the intelligence and gentle soul of this man while encumbered by all that prosthetic. Amazing work from the entire cast, which includes Anne Bancroft, Freddie Jones and John Gielgud.

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The Hit– Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff, spontaneous a cappella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”. Willie relocates to Spain, where the other shoe finally drops “one sunny day”. Willie is abducted and delivered to a veteran hit man (Hurt) and his “apprentice” (Tim Roth). Willie accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm.

What exactly is going on in Willie’s head? That’s what drives most of the ensuing narrative. As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside (toward France, where Willie’s former boss awaits for a “reunion”) the trio engages in mind games, taking the story to unexpected places. The dynamic becomes even more interesting when an additional hostage (Laura del Sol) enters the equation. Hurt is sheer perfection as his character’s icy detachment slowly unravels into blackly comic exasperation; if pressed, this is my favorite Hurt performance. While this is essentially a drama, and not a “funny ha-ha” romp, there are black comedy underpinnings revealed upon subsequent viewings. There’s a great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, and Eric Clapton plays the opening theme.

Blu-ray reissue: To Live and Die in L.A. ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

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To Live and Die in L.A. Collector’s Edition Shout! Factory Blu-ray

Essentially a remake of The French Connection (updated for the 80s), this fast-moving, tough-as-nails neo noir from director William Friedkin ignites the senses on every level: visual, aural and visceral. Fueled by an outstanding soundtrack by Wang Chung, Friedkin’s vision of L.A. is painted in contrasts of dusky orange and strikingly vivid reds and blacks; an ugly/beautiful noir Hell rendered by ace DP Robby Muller (who has worked extensively with Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch).

Leads William Peterson (as an obsessed treasury agent) and Willem Dafoe (as his criminal nemesis) rip up the screen with star-making performances (both were relative unknowns). While the narrative adheres to familiar “cop on the edge” tropes, there’s an undercurrent of weirdness throughout that makes this a truly unique genre entry (“The stars are God’s eyes!” Peterson’s girlfriend shrieks at him at one point, for no apparent reason). Friedkin co-adapted the screenplay with source novel author Gerald Petievich.

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray sports a print sourced from a new 4K scan that is a noticeable improvement over MGM’s from a couple years back, as well as new and archival interviews with cast, crew and composers.

The big heat: The 10 sweatiest film noirs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2016)

With the mercury continuing to soar in many parts of the country, I thought I would cobble together a selection of “hot” film noirs. Hot-as in sweaty, steamy, dripping, sticky, sudoriferous cinema (get your mind out of the gutter). If you’re like me (and isn’t everyone?) there’s nothing more satisfying than gathering up an armload of DVDs (along with a 12-pack of Diet Dr. Pepper) and happily spending hot days ensconced in my dark, cool media room (actually, I don’t have a “media room” nor any A/C in my studio apartment…but I can always dream). So here are my Top Ten (in alphabetical order)…

Body Heat– A bucket of ice cubes in the bath is simply not enough to cool down this steamy noir. Writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 Double Indemnity homage blows the mercury right out the top of the thermometer. Kathleen Turner is the sultry femme fatale who plays William Hurt’s hapless pushover like a Stradivarius (“You aren’t too smart. I like that in a man.”) The combination of the Florida heat with Turner and Hurt’s sexual chemistry will light your socks on fire. Outstanding support from Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, J.A. Preston and an up-and-coming character actor named Mickey Rourke.

Cool Hand Luke– “Still shakin’ the bush, boss!” Paul Newman shines (and sweats buckets) in his iconic role as the eponymous character in this 1967 drama, a ne’er do well from a southern burg who ends up on a chain gang. He gets busted for cutting the heads off of parking meters while on a drunken spree, but by the end of this sly allegory, astute viewers will glean that his real crime is being a non-conformist. Stuart Rosenberg directs; sharp script by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson. Highlights include Strother Martin’s “failure to communicate” speech, Harry Dean Stanton singing “The Midnight Special”, that (ahem) car wash scene and George Kennedy’s Best Supporting Actor turn. Also with Ralph Waite, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Anthony Zerbe, and Joy Harmon as the (seriously-is it hot in here?) “car wash girl”. Oh… and did I mention the car wash scene?

Dog Day Afternoon– As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 “true crime” classic from the late Sidney Lumet easily out-sops the competition. The air conditioning may be off, but Al Pacino is definitely “on” in his absolutely brilliant portrayal of John Wojtowicz (“Sonny Wortzik” in the film), whose botched attempt to rob a Brooklyn bank turned into a dangerous hostage crisis and a twisted media circus (the desperate Wojtowicz was trying to finance his lover’s sex-change operation). Even though he had already done the first two Godfather films, this was the performance that put Pacino on the map. John Cazale is both scary and heartbreaking in his role as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s memorable cameo. Frank Pierson’s whip-smart screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

High and Low– Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 noir, adapted from Ed McBain’s crime thriller King’s Ransom, is so multi-leveled that it almost boggles the mind. Toshiro Mifune is excellent as a CEO who, at the possible risk of losing controlling shares of his own company, takes full responsibility for helping to assure the safe return of his chauffeur’s son, who has been mistaken as his own child by kidnappers. As the film progresses, the backdrop transitions subtly, and literally, from the executive’s comfortable, air conditioned mansion “high” above the city, to the “low”, sweltering back alleys where desperate souls will do anything to survive; a veritable descent into Hell. On the surface, it plays as a fairly straightforward police procedural; and even if one chooses not to delve any further into subtext, it’s a perfectly serviceable and engrossing entertainment on that level. However, upon repeat viewings, it reveals itself to be so much more than a mere genre piece. It’s about class struggle, corporate culture, and the socioeconomic complexities of modern society (for a 50 year old film, it still feels quite contemporary).

The Hot Spot– Considering he accumulated 100+ credits as an actor in feature films and a relatively scant 7 as a director of same over the course of a 55-year career, it’s not surprising that the late Dennis Hopper is mostly remembered for the work he did as the former, as opposed to the latter. Still, it’s worth noting that those 7 films he directed include Easy Rider, The Last Movie, Colors, and this compelling 1990 neo-noir. Don Johnson delivers one of his better performances as an opportunistic drifter who wanders into a one-horse Texas burg. The smooth-talking hustler quickly snags a gig as a used car salesman, and faster than you can say “only one previous owner!” he’s closed the deal on bedding the boss’s all-too-willing wife (Virginia Madsen), and starts putting the moves on the hot young bookkeeper (Jennifer Connelly). You know what they say, though…you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Toss in some avarice, blackmail, and incestuous small-town corruption, and our boy finds he is in way over his head. And damn, it’s hot.

In the Heat of the Night– “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn. While Steiger is outstanding here as well, I always found it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when in reality Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated, but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme.

The Night of the Hunter– Is it a film noir? A horror movie? A black comedy? A haunting American folk tale? The answer would be yes. The man responsible for this tough-to-categorize 1957 film was one of the greatest acting hams of the 20th century, Charles Laughton, who began and ended his directorial career with this effort. Like a great many films now regarded as “cult classics”, this one was savaged by critics and tanked at the box office upon its initial release (enough to spook Laughton from ever returning to the director’s chair). Robert Mitchum is brilliant (and genuinely scary) as a knife-wielding religious zealot who does considerably more “preying” than “praying”. Before Mitchum’s condemned cell mate (Peter Graves) meets the hangman, he talks in his sleep about $10,000 in loot money stashed somewhere on his property. When the “preacher” gets out of the slam, he makes a beeline for the widow (Shelly Winters) and her two young’uns. A very disturbing (and muggy) tale unfolds. The great Lillian Gish is on board as well. Artfully directed by Laughton and beautifully shot by DP Stanley Cortez.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)- A grimy (but strapping) itinerant (John Garfield) drifts into a hot and dusty California truck stop/”last chance” gas station run by a dusty old codger (Cecil Kellaway) and his hot young wife (Lana Turner). Sign outside reads: “Man Wanted”. Garfield needs a job. Turner needs a man. Guess what happens. An iconic noir and the blueprint for ensuing entries in the “That was good for me too, baby…now how do we lose the husband?” genre. Tay Garnett directs with a wonderfully lurid flourish. Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch adapted their screenplay from the James M. Cain novel. Bob Rafelson’s 1981 remake (with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange as the illicit lovers) was much more “uncensored” yet somehow…not as deliciously sordid.

Touch of Evil– Yes, this is  Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that famous opening tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as Hank Quinlan, a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town. Quinlan is the most singularly grotesque character Welles ever created as an actor, and stands as one of the most offbeat heavies in film noir. This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich (who deadpans “You should lay off those candy bars.”). The scene where Leigh is terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by a creepy, leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge could have been dreamed up by David Lynch; there are numerous such stylistic flourishes throughout that are light-years ahead of anything else going on in American cinema at the time. Welles despised the studio’s original 96-minute theatrical cut; there have been nearly half a dozen re-edited versions released since 1975.

The Wages of Fear– The primeval jungles of South America have served as a backdrop for a plethora of sweat-streaked tales (Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God come to mind), but this 1953 “existential noir” from director Henri-Georges Clouzot sits atop that list. Four societal outcasts, who for one reason or another find themselves figuratively and literally at the “end of the road”, hire themselves out for an apparently suicidal job…transporting two truckloads of touchy nitro over several hundred miles of bumpy jungle terrain for delivery to a distant oilfield. It does take a little time for the “action” to really get going; once it does, you won’t let out your breath until the final frame. Yves Montand leads the fine international cast. Clouzot co-scripted with Jerome Geronimi, adapting from the original Georges Anaud novel. The 1977 William Friedkin remake Sorcerer has its detractors, but I definitely recommend a peek.

SIFF 2016: The Night Stalker ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths’ speculative chiller is based on serial killer Richard Ramirez. A lawyer (Bellamy Young) is hired to exonerate a Texas death row inmate by extracting a confession from California death row inmate Ramirez (Lou Diamond Phillips), whom the interested parties believe to be the real perp. One complication: When she was a teenager, the lawyer was unhealthily obsessed with the “Night Stalker” murders. A psychological cat-and-mouse game ensues (think Starling vs. Lecter in Silence of the Lambs). Philips delivers an intense, truly unnerving performance.

SIFF 2016: If There’s A Hell Below **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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For the first two thirds of this conspiracy thriller, which concerns a clandestine meeting between a journalist and a government whistle-blower, writer-director Nathan Williams masterfully utilizes the desolate moonscape of Eastern Washington to create an almost unbearable sense of tension and dread (a la Spielberg’s Duel, or the crop dusting sequence in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest). Unfortunately, he jinxes his streak with a lazily constructed third act. Still, it’s an audacious debut that portends considerable promise for any future endeavors…which I am looking forward to.

Stage fright: Number One Fan ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 24, 2015)

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Is it any wonder I reject you first?                                                                                  Fame, fame, fame, fame                                                                                                        Is it any wonder you are too cool to fool                                                                Fame (fame) 

-from “Fame”, by David Bowie

Back in the early 90s, I shared a train ride with David Bowie. It was the least likely celebrity sighting I’ve ever experienced. I was visiting my parents in upstate New York. During my extended stay, I took a side trip to NYC via Amtrak. On the return trip to Albany, I boarded the train at Grand Central. As I was settling in, I shot a textbook double take at the gentleman sitting across the aisle from me (I nearly gave myself whiplash). Could it be? No, that’s too weird. All by himself…no handlers, no entourage?

Why would David Bowie be taking a train to Albany? It had to be a look-alike. However, since it took several hours, I had ample time to (discreetly) confirm…yep, that’s him (the different colored eyes sealed the I.D.). Internally, I was freaking out (I’m a huge Bowie fan), but I always hold back and respect people’s privacy in such situations, because I dread coming off like the embarrassingly star-struck interview host Chris Farley used to play on SNL (“Do you remember when you were with the Beatles? That was awesome!”).

With the clarity of hindsight, why wouldn’t David Bowie take a train from NYC to Albany? There’s no law that says David Bowie can’t take a train to Albany, if he should so desire. For all I know, he was planning to shuffle off to Buffalo. And why would I assume a famous person never travels without handlers or an entourage? After all, he’s just another human being. He takes his pants off and puts them on the same way I do.

But “fame” is a funny thing; as Bowie himself once sang, it “makes a man take things over”. Among other things, it “puts you where things are hollow”, and if you’re not careful, “what you get is no tomorrow.” Apparently, in some cases, “to bind your time…it drives you to crime.” Which brings us to a twisty French thriller called Number One Fan (aka Elle l’adore), a rumination on fame, fandom, crime, punishment, and erm, wax jobs.

This is a film that is difficult to review without inadvertently divulging spoilers, so I will do my best not to. Sandrine Kimberlane stars as Muriel, a divorcee with two teenagers who works as a beautician. Muriel is attractive and outgoing, but a bubble off plum. She regales friends, family and co-workers with bizarrely concocted anecdotes (like the time she “recognized” one of her customers as Klaus Barbie’s daughter halfway through a treatment, and promptly sent her packing sans one waxed leg…under threat of revealing her identity to the other customers).

She is also a big fan of pop idol Vincent Lacroix (Laurent Lafitte). Her apartment is chockablock with Vincent’s CDs, collectibles, posters, and photos (one of them autographed “To Muriel, with love”). We see Muriel backstage after one of Vincent’s performances, hoping for a brief audience or an autograph. “Not tonight, Muriel,” his handler tells her, implying she’s a frequent lurker. You could say that she is…obsessed.

Imagine Muriel’s surprise when she answers her door late one night, and sees her idol standing there. While she’s still processing whether or not this is even really happening , he tells her he desperately needs her help. Vincent’s done a bad, bad, thing. It was an accident, but he needs a civilian to be his, you know, “cleaner”. I can say no more.

This is the directing debut for actress Jeanne Herry (who also co-wrote the screenplay, with Gaelle Mace) and it’s an impressive first feature, with excellent performances, effective atmosphere, and a unique piano score by Pascal Sangla. I detected a touch of Hitchcock  in the film’s central themes of obsession and duplicity (I believe it has been a rule since Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black that every French thriller is required to have a touch of Hitchcock). The film makers also make keen observations about the cult of celebrity. Most notably, there’s acknowledgment of the ever-odious duality of “justice” systems everywhere: the fact that there’s one for the rich, and one for the poor.

And here’s “number one fan” Chris Farley, in a classic SNL skit:

SIFF 2015: Alleluia ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 16, 2015)

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Belgian director Fabrice du Weiz’s shocker (inspired by the “Lonely Hearts Killers”) morphs the hallucinatory blood lust of Natural Born Killers with the visual asceticism of Badlands. A con artist Lothario (Laurent Lucas) meets his match when one of his victims (Lola Duenas) turns the tables by stealing his heart. Then, she offers to become his partner in crime. If he only knew what he was in for! Not wholly original, but Duenas’ performance is electrifying.

Aiming low: Kill Me Three Times *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 11, 2015)

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This is a public service announcement, brought to you by Saturday Night at the Movies. Are you an aspiring film maker? Do you have Tarantino-Coen Syndrome? Know the 5 major warning signs:

  • Do you have excessive blood in your spool? Surf music?
  • Does your screenplay suffer from shortness of breadth?
  • Do the twists and turns in your narrative cause viewer dizziness?
  • Do you have difficulty keeping your timelines linear?
  • Do your influences go as far back as Blood Simple or Pulp Fiction?

If you answered “yes” to 3 or more of these questions, don’t feel alone. You’ve got company. Take Messrs. Kriv Stendors (director) and James McFarland (screenwriter). Clearly, these gentlemen are among the afflicted, as evidenced from their strictly by-the-numbers “hit man comedy”, Kill Me Three Times. Despite the presence of seasoned comic actor Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), the film is a curiously dull and not-so-funny affair about a smarmy hit man (Pegg) who ties together a triumvirate of nefarious schemes involving (wait for it) revenge, blackmail and murder in the Australian outback. Not that I am imperiously declaring that there should be a moratorium on employing those reliable noir staples in a genre pic, but if you want to stand out from the pack, at least pretend you’re making an effort come up with an original angle. Otherwise, take 2 aspirin and see a script doctor first thing in the morning.