Category Archives: Neo-Noir

SIFF 2010: Perrier’s Bounty ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 29, 2010)

Despite an acute case of Pulp Fiction envy and Guy Ritchie déjà vu, the quirky Irish gangster flick, Perrier’s Bounty (directed by Ian Fitzgibbon) sucked me in with its outstanding cast, saucy dialog (written by Mark O’Rowe) and dark humor (reminiscent of In Bruges). Cillian Murphy stars as a ne’er do well who owes money to a brutal mobster (Brendan Gleeson). After Murphy’s downstairs neighbor (Jodie Whittaker) accidentally kills one of the mob’s bill collectors, the two are forced to go on the run. Along the way, the fugitives are joined by Murphy’s father (Jim Broadbent), who demonstrates that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. It’s a hoot to watch two brilliant character actors like Gleeson and Broadbent going head-to-head, and I found myself laughing out loud, despite the predictability of the narrative.

DVD Reissue: Carny ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 28, 2009) – Warner Archives DVD

This oddball affair (Freaks meets Toby Tyler in Nightmare Alley) is set in the seedy milieu of a traveling carnival. Robbie Robertson and Gary Busey star as longtime pals and carnies who take a teenage runaway (Jodie Foster) under their wing and give her a crash course in the art of the con (i.e. hustling customers out of their hard-earned cash).

The story is elevated above its inherent sleaze factor by the excellent performances. Busey’s work here is a reminder that at one time, he was one of the most promising young actors around (up until the unfortunate motorcycle mishap). Director/co-writer Robert Kaylor also showed promise, but has an enigmatic resume; a film in 1970, one in 1971, Carny in 1980, a nondescript Chad Lowe vehicle in 1989, then…he’s off the radar.

The reissue is part of the Warner Archive Series, which is a good news/bad news proposition for film buffs. Bad news first: These are bare-bones editions (they are burning them “on demand” based on number of orders placed on their website). Also, these are not necessarily restored prints (making the $19.99 list price a bit dubious). But the good news is that Warner claims to be utilizing this new product line as an excuse to eventually clean out everything  languishing in their vaults that was previously unavailable on DVD.

Fear and loathing in the 9th Ward: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 19, 2009)

Who could have guessed that the man who helmed art house classics like Fitzcarraldo, Woyzeck and Aguirre the Wrath of God would one day make a film entitled Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans? Then again, one might argue that the iconoclastic Werner Herzog’s career would be nothing, if not perennially unpredictable.

Herzog’s latest film, arguably adorned with the year’s most unwieldy title for squeezing onto a marquee, is a (sort of) sequel to Abel Ferrara’s highly controversial 1992 neo-noir about a drug and gambling-addicted NYC homicide investigator. In that film, Harvey Keitel gave a completely fearless and thoroughly maniacal performance as a “cop on the edge” who made most of the criminals he was paid to apprehend look like choir boys. Not an easy act to follow-but Nicholas Cage proves to be more than up to the task here.

To my observation, Cage has demonstrated two basic personas in his repertoire over the years. First, there is the Slack-Jawed, Dead-eyed Mumbler (Peggy Sue Got Married, Moonstruck, Red Rock West, Leaving Las Vegas). His other character is the Manic, Wild-eyed Loon (Wild at Heart, Vampire’s Kiss, Kiss of Death, Face/Off). Personally, I get a real kick out of his performances in the latter mode, and it goes without saying that you can now add the role of “bad” Lt. Terence McDonagh to that section of his resume.

As far as I could glean, there is no effort to bridge with Ferrara’s film and explain how Lt. McDonagh transitioned from NYC to New Orleans. Not that it really matters. Anyone who has followed Herzog’s career probably has figured out by now that he is perfectly content to wallow in his own peculiar universe. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing-it’s what makes his work so continually interesting to me. The “plot” ostensibly concerns itself with the murder of a Senegalese family, and the police investigation. Not that the “plot” really matters, either (although Herzog’s post-Katrina milieu is quite atmospheric).

No, if you are going to watch this film (which has “destined to become a midnight cult item” written all over it), I’ll tell you right now that you needn’t concern yourself with trying to follow the (probably deliberately) convoluted and complex murder mystery. You’ll be too busy asking yourself questions like “Did I just see what I think I just saw?” as Herzog and screenwriter William M. Finkelstein proceed to turn the “cop on the edge” genre on its head with every blackly comic twist and turn.

Cage and the rest of the cast (including Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Fairuza Balk, Brad Dourif and Jennifer Coolidge) all seem to be in on the director’s joke, and play it to the hilt. By the time you’ve processed Herzog’s use of the “alligator/iguana-cam”, you will have to make a decision to either run for the exit, or go with the flow and say to yourself “Well…I’ve bought the ticket, I’m gonna take the ride.”

This is the most twisted noir I’ve seen since Tough Guys Don’t Dance. So do I think you should rush out and see this? That depends. If you are looking for a refreshing alternative to the usual fourth-quarter Hollywood offerings (Oscar-baiting dramas, prestige biopics and bloated, CGI-laden epics in 3-D)-by all means, knock yourself out. But don’t say I didn’t warn you-if you don’t consider an inspired line like “Shoot him again-his soul is still dancing!” to be pure  genius, then you’d best keep away.

Death wish 300: Law-Abiding Citizen (no stars)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 17, 2009)

Man of few words: Gerard Butler studies his line.

Matt Groening published a panel back in 1985 entitled “How to be a Clever Film Critic”, challenging wannabe Eberts and Kaels to ask themselves (among other things) this soul-searching question: “Do you thrill at the prospect of spending a career writing in-depth analyses of movies aimed at sub-literate 15 year-olds?” After suffering through Law Abiding Citizen, let’s just say… I’m doing a little soul-searching.

 “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

M.K. Gandhi

 “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Basically, I am a man of peace. But I do love me a cathartic revenge fantasy every now and then (helps to purge all the bad thoughts). After all, it’s been a popular meme in cinema, from Tod Browning’s silent Revenge (1918) to Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga (if you search “revenge” on the Internet Movie Database, it yields nearly 5,000 titles). Call it what you will-tit for tat, squaring accounts, settling the score, quid pro quo-the desire for reciprocity runs deep in our DNA.

That  said, there are different sub-categories of revenge flicks. When I say I “enjoy” the odd revenge tale, I’m thinking along the lines of narratives where the antagonist receives just desserts; but not necessarily by violence (yet still served up cold). Examples? Wall Street, Michael Clayton, The Politician’s Wife, Dangerous Liaisons (OK, that involved some bloodletting-but you get my point). Then you have revenge films in the “put your brain on hold” category like Law Abiding Citizen, the new star vehicle for Beefcake du Jour, Gerard Butler (who also produced), which has plenty o’ violence.

Butler is an “ordinary citizen” named Clyde Shelton (we’ll address the “law-abiding” part of the equation shortly). The filmmakers, in their eagerness to plunge the audience headfirst into the squishy viscera of righteous retribution, jump right to it while the opening credits are still warm.

Clyde, appearing to be a mild-mannered inventor-tinkerer type, is enjoying a Hallmark evening at home with his lovely wife and adorable little girl (obviously, they’re doomed). Enter a trailer-trash variation on Alex and his droogs, a pair of hygienically-challenged home invaders who wreak mayhem on the family, leaving Clyde maimed and his wife and daughter dead.

Fast-forward to the trial, where assistant D.A. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx, phoning it in) is directed by his superiors to negotiate a reduced sentence plea bargain for one of the murderers in exchange for damning testimony against his accomplice (much to Clyde’s chagrin).

Fast-forward another 10 years; the snitch is released from the joint, while his ex-partner sits on Death Row. D. A. Rice gets a disturbing visit from Clyde, who has become an ominous figure in the interim. When the freed killer turns up murdered, Clyde does everything imaginable to implicate himself as prime suspect, short of making a legally admissible confession, and is soon in jail. From this point forward (that would be the remaining three-quarters of the film) the narrative begins to hemorrhage logic from the gaping holes in its cliché-riddled script, as Clyde turns into a cartoon Bond villain.

Frankly, what I found troubling about the film is that while slickly dressed up as a polemic about our broken justice system, in reality it is an ugly piece of reactionary torture porn, somewhere between “Dirty” Harry Callahan’s re-imagining of “justice” as a one-man court system and the Gospel according to Jack Bauer.

I don’t deny that there are problems with our criminal justice system, but I am not sure that vigilantism, assassinating judges, blowing up federal buildings…well, basically engaging in domestic terrorism is the best message to put out there as to how one might go about reforming it (and even more unsettling to me were the audience members who were literally cheering this behavior).

This film will likely make a ton of money (Butler is scheduled to host SNL later this evening, which I’m sure will bolster ticket sales). That makes me sad, somehow. The biggest “injustice” of all? Hollywood continues to get away with churning out this offal. Oh well, I guess there’s no use getting myself all riled up. I could shoot my eye out.

Remake/remodel: The Taking of Pelham, 1-2-3 **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 20, 2009)

Washington and Travolta: Got to do with where choo-choo go.

Well, summer is back, and apparently, so are the Seventies. Let’s put it this way: if I had been able to construct a time machine back in 1979, and had set the controls for 30 years hence, I would have looked at the marquees and assumed that either a) my experiment had failed, or b) Hollywood had completely run out of original ideas.

The latest Will Farrell vehicle, Land of the Lost is based on the 1970s TV show. Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming (and spellchecker-challenged) Inglourious Basterds is a remake of a 1978 B-movie. And now,  we have Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, a retooling of Joseph Sargent’s original 1974 action thriller of the same name.

Good morning, Mr. Blue.

In Joseph Sargent’s gritty, suspenseful 1974 thriller, Robert Shaw leads a team of bow-tied, mustachioed and bespectacled hijackers who take control of a New York City subway train, seize hostages and demand $1 million in ransom from the city. If the ransom does not arrive in precisely 1 hour, passengers will be executed at the rate of one per minute until the money appears.

As city officials scramble to scare up the loot, a tense cat-and-mouse dialog is established (via 2-way radio) between Shaw’s single-minded sociopath and a typically rumpled and put-upon Walter Matthau as a wry Transit Police lieutenant. Peter Stone’s sharp screenplay (adapted from John Godey’s novel) is rich in characterization; most memorable for being chock full of New York City “attitude” (every character in the film down to the smallest bit part is soaking in it).

Years later, Quentin Tarantino blatantly lifted (OK, I’ll be nice and say: “paid homage”) to one of the film’s signature gimmicks. Shaw’s gang adapts nom de plumes for their “job” based on colors (Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey and Mr. Brown). The men who pull off the heist in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs are designated by their ringleader as Messrs. White, Orange, Blonde, Blue, Brown, etc. (prompting the chagrined Steve Buscemi’s immortal line: “Why am I Mr. Pink?!”)

Which now brings us to Tony Scott’s new version. Refreshing myself on the director’s credits (as listed on the Internet Movie Database), I see that I have somehow managed to overlook all of his output between Enemy of the State (1998) and this one. It wasn’t necessarily by design; I love Enemy of the State, which holds a coveted place in my Conspiracy-A-Go-Go section. It’s just that Scott historically doesn’t make the types of films that particularly grab me (The Hunger and True Romance aside). And don’t get me started on that towel-snapping military recruitment ad, Top Gun (no, seriously…don’t).

In the new film, Denzel Washington steps into Walter Matthau’s shoes as Walter Garber, with a slight shift in job description (here he is a subway dispatcher, instead of a transit cop) and John Travolta plays the heavy, simply referred to as Ryder (What? No more Mr. Blue?!).

The setup remains the same; Ryder and his henchmen hijack a subway, seizing hostages and demanding ransom. Now, the prices have gone up since 1974 (even terrorists have to adjust for inflation). Ryder wants $10 million…and one cent. As in the original film, Garber and Ryder verbally square off (via cell phone in this outing) while the ransom is assembled and the clock ticks away.

I know that this is  an action movie, but the problem with Scott’s hyper-kinetic visual style is that his goddamned camera never stops moving, even when it should. For instance, there’s a bit of exposition where the Mayor (James Gandolfini) is standing on the street having a confab with his advisors about the crisis. For the entire scene, Scott never stops spinning his camera in a dizzying 360, making you feel like you’re on a runaway merry-go-round (it damn near triggered a positional vertigo condition that I suffer on occasion).

Another issue is the lack of character development. What made the original so good that it was a great ensemble piece; even minor walk-on characters had detectable personalities. There are a few attempts; for instance, Washington’s character has hints of moral ambiguity that begins to move  the narrative in an interesting direction, but then drops it (I had expected a little more from screenwriter Brian Helgeland, because he had done such a marvelous job co-adapting L.A. Confidential).

Even the bad guys all had distinct personalities in the original film; here it’s all about keeping an over-the-top Travolta in the spotlight, while his cohorts are just your standard-issue, nondescript evil henchmen.

I realize no matter how big, dumb and loud they are, summer films are virtually critic-proof. And to be sure, Washington and Travolta are talented actors (especially with the right material) and lend box office clout to any opening weekend; but this is strictly a paycheck gig. My advice? Stand clear of the closing doors…and this movie.

Pure escapism: The Escapist ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 2, 2009)

Shakespeare in gloves: Joseph Fiennes fights dirty.

I always face prison dramas with trepidation. While there have been outstanding ones produced over the years, it’s one genre that has gone a bit hoary. What more could they possibly do with it? I sometimes amuse myself by ticking off my mental checklist of prison drama clichés . I played this little game while screening The Escapist, the feature film debut for British writer-director Rupert Wyatt:

Shiv in the kidneys? Check.

 Suffocation by pillow? Check.

Shower rape scene? Check.

Brutal fistfight (with wagering) while guards look the other way? Check.

 Someone takes an “accidental” header from the upper cell block? Check.

 Cat-calls and wolf-whistles for the “new meat” as they’re processed? Check.

Drug vending via rolling book cart? Check.

 And of course, a daring, seemingly impossible escape plan? Check.

Just as I was thinking that I had The Escapist sussed and settled  in to brace for another intense (if  predictable) British prison drama along the lines of Scum, McVicar or The Criminal, I soon found myself sitting up a little straighter. Then, before I knew it, I was literally on the edge of my seat, breathlessly caught up in an exciting and compelling story that is capped off by an unexpectedly mind-blowing finale.

The story is set in a London facility that vibes vintage Wormwood Scrubs (in reality, Dublin’s  Kilmainham Jail). Brian Cox stars as an aging, life-tired convict named Frank Perry, who is doing life without parole. When he learns that his daughter has fallen gravely ill as a result of her struggle with drug addiction, he devises an escape plan that involves literally worming one’s way through the city’s hellish labyrinth of underground infrastructure to freedom. He enlists a team of four disparate personalities (played to the hilt by Dominic Cooper, Seu Jorge, Liam Cunningham and Joseph Fiennes)-who are bonded together by a fierce desire to escape their bleak milieu.

The storyline is relatively simple, but it’s really all about the journey (in this case, both literally and figuratively). The attention grabber in Wyatt’s screenplay (co-written with Daniel Hardy) is the flashback/flash forward construct; it’s an oft-used narrative trick that can be distracting or gimmicky, but it’s very effective here.

As the escape itself unfolds, the events leading up to it are revealed in a deliberate, Chinese puzzle-box fashion. With this device, the filmmakers build dramatic tension on two fronts, and by the time they intersect, you’ll have to remind yourself to breathe. What’s killing me here is that I can’t reveal the classic crime thriller that this most closely recalls-as that would be tantamount to a major spoiler!

The actors are all superb, particularly Liam Cunningham and the Scottish-born Cox, who I think is underrated. He’s one of thos skilled, “all purpose” character actors whose name may escape you, but you definitely have seen him. He worked extensively in British television from the early 70s thru the mid-80s, but didn’t register a blip with U.S. audiences until his memorable turn as (the original) Hannibal Lecktor in Michael Mann’s 1986 crime thriller, Manhunter.

I have to admit, I didn’t recognize Joseph Fiennes until the credits rolled; I guess that proves he is more of a chameleon than I had previously thought. Damian Lewis is also quite good as the prison kingpin, and Steven MacKintosh delivers an edgy, unpredictable performance as his dangerous, perpetually tweaked brother.

I think Wyatt will be a director to watch. I can tell that he has studied the masters. There are echoes of Carol Reed, particularly in a sequence that takes the escapees through the London sewers; the expressionistic use of chiaroscuro lighting recalls The Third Man. He’s not overly flashy, and most refreshingly, does not appear to be trying to remake Reservoir Dogs (like so many first-time out directors are these days). There’s no escaping one fact: this is one terrific film.

Maladies of Spain: The Limits of Control ***1/2 & The Hit ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 9, 2009)

The LBJ look: Bill Murray in The Limits of Control.

Any one who has followed director Jim Jarmusch career will tell you there are certain things you can always expect in his films. Or perhaps it’s more about the things not to expect. Like car chases. Special effects. Flash-cut editing. Snappy dialog. A pulse-pounding music soundtrack. Narrative structure. Pacing.

Not that there is anything wrong with utilizing any or all of the above in order to entertain an audience, but if those are the kinds of things you primarily look for when you go to the movies, it would behoove you to steer clear of anything on the marquee labeled as “a film by Jim Jarmusch”.  Rest assured that you will find none of the above and even less in his latest offering, The Limits of Control.

Jarmusch has decided to take another stab at the “existential hit man” genre (which he first explored in Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai).  Here, he concocts something best described as The Day of the Jackal meets Black Orpheus. Isaach De Bankole is a killer-for-hire. Referred to in the credits simply as Lone Man,  this is an assassin who at first glance mostly appears to kill time.

After receiving his cryptic assignment, he sets off via train, plane and automobile through the Spanish countryside, with a stop in Madrid. Along the way, the taciturn Lone Man meets up with an assortment of oddballs, with whom he trades matchboxes (don’t ask).

Each of these exchanges is really a setup for a cameo-length monologue about Art, Love, Life, the Universe and Everything by guest stars like John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and Gael Garcia Bernal (whose characters sport archetypal names like Guitar, Blonde and Mexican). As each contact pontificates on a pet topic, De Bankole sits impassively, sipping a double espresso, which he always demands to be served in two cups (the film’s running joke).

The coffee quirk is the least of Lone Man’s OCD-type eccentricities. When he is on a “job”, he suffers absolutely no distractions…even sleep. He doesn’t seem to require much sustenance either, aside from those double espressos. He can’t even be bothered to take up an offer for a little recreational sex with the alluring  Paz De La Huerta (what is he, nuts?!) who, true to her character’s name (Nude) spends all her screen time wearing naught but a pair of glasses.

The Big Mystery, of course, is Who’s Gonna Die, and Why-but we are not let in on that little secret until the end . OK, you’re thinking at this point, we don’t know who he is chasing, and there doesn’t appear to be anyone chasing him, so where’s the dramatic tension?

Well, dramatic tension or traditional narrative devices have never been a driving force in any of Jarmusch’s films (as I pre-qualified at the outset). It’s always about the characters, and Jarmusch’s wry, deadpan observance regarding the human comedy.

In Jarmusch’s universe, the story doesn’t happen to the people, the people happen upon the story; and depending on how receptive you are to that concept on that particular day, you’re either going to hail it as a work of genius or dismiss it as an interminable, pointless snooze fest.

It so happened I was in a receptive mood that day, and I found a lot to like about The Limits of Control. In purely cinematic terms, it’s one of his best films to date. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle makes the most out of the inherently photogenic Spanish locales and deftly instills  the film with an “acid noir” feel. Jarmusch has put together a great soundtrack, from flamenco, ambient, psychedelic, to jazz and classical. I think I’ve even figured out what this film is “about”. Or maybe Jarmusch is just fucking with me. For the eleventh time.

As the credits were rolling for The Limits of Control, something  nagged at me. It strongly reminded of another film  but I couldn’t quite place it. As I was racking my brain, I thought “Now, there can’t be that many other existential hit man movies, filmed in Spain, which also feature….John Hurt.  That’s it! It was so obvious that I wasn’t able to see it right away. One of my favorite Brit-noirs , The Hit, is an existential hit man movie, filmed in Spain and features John Hurt.

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 and ominous a cappella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”.

Willie relocates to Spain, where the other shoe 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.

As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside toward France (where Willie’s ex-employer awaits him for what is certain to be a less-than-sunny “reunion”) mind games ensue, spinning the narrative into unexpected avenues-especially once a second hostage (Laura del Sol) enters the equation.

Stamp is excellent, but Hurt’s performance is sheer perfection; I love the way he portrays his character’s icy detachment slowly unraveling into blackly comic exasperation. Great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, and Eric Clapton performs the opening theme.

SIFF 2008: Blood Brothers ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 14, 2008)

Woo me, baby.

No film festival would be complete without a fistful of entries from the Hong Kong action factory. One of the more visually stylish genre pics I’ve seen so far at this year’s SIFF is from first-time director Alexi Tan. Although the story is pure pulp and could have stood a little script doctoring, it’s shot with the rich tones of a Bertolucci film and plays like a 90-minute dance mix of Sergio Leone’s greatest hits. Produced by Hong Kong cinema legend John Woo, Blood Brothers is a noodle western posing as a gangster saga, with a narrative more than a tad reminiscent of Woo’s 1990 classic, Bullet in the Head.

Two brothers, Feng (Daniel Wu) and Hu (Tony Yang) make a pact with their lifelong buddy Kang (Liu Ye) to break out of their backwater village and head off to an exotic and sophisticated metropolis to find fame, fortune and, uh, babes. Think HBO’s Entourage, substituting the race to the top of 1930s Shanghai  underworld for success in present day Hollywood as the brass ring.

Handsome and charismatic Kang is the babe magnet of the trio (he would be  the Vincent Chase character. His younger brother Hu is the frequently overshadowed and more chronically underachieving of the two siblings (there’s your Johnny Drama). And last but not least, there is the physically intimidating, fiercely protective Kang, who is thuggish but cunningly “street smart” (sort of a morph between Eric and “Turtle”). Or, perhaps we could just refer to them as Michael, Fredo and Sonny Corleone? Nah…that’s too easy!

To carry the Entourage analogy further, the “Man” in Shanghai who can make or break the three friend’s fortunes happens to be…a movie producer. In actuality, Boss Hong (Sun Honglei) is more adept at producing piles of bullet-riddled corpses than he is at producing films; it’s a ruthless propensity that has made him one of Shanghai’s most successful and feared crime lords.

Among his many enterprises is the Paradise Night Club, which is where Hu finds a job and brother Feng spots an object of instant desire: lovely Lulu (Shu Qi), Boss Hong’s squeeze and the requisite femme fatale of the piece. Serendipity lands all three pals into Boss Hong’s employ, and eventually into his most trusted inner circle, where friendship and blood ties get sorely tested by the corruption of power (see Godfather II, Scarface, Once Upon a Time in America, etc).

Despite the fact that this is a somewhat cliché gangster tale, and has a lot of plot points that don’t bear up so well under closer scrutiny, I really enjoyed this film because it is executed with such panache. I don’t know what it is about the Hong Kong directors, but they’ve got some kind of cinematic Kavorka that  oozes “cool”. Just watch any of John Woo’s pre-Hollywood era classics, and it’s easy to see why Tarantino and his contemporaries geek out so much over this genre.

‘Board certified: Paranoid Park **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

Gus Van Sant’s name has become synonymous with what I call “northwest noir”, and, true to form, his latest film cozies right up alongside some of the director’s previous genre forays like Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Elephant and Last Days.

Dreamlike and elliptical in construct, Paranoid Park is a Crime and Punishment type portrait of a young man struggling with guilt and inner turmoil after inadvertently causing the death of a security guard. A Portland skateboarder named Alex (Gabe Nevins), lives with his brother and their mother (Grace Carter), who is separated from the boys’ father. We get a glimpse of the otherwise taciturn Alex’s inner life through snippets from a private journal, relayed to us in voice-over (a la Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver).

His parent’s pending divorce aside, Alex appears to be a typical suburban high school student. His girlfriend (Taylor Momsen) is a cheerleader; his best friend Jared (Jake Miller) is a skateboard enthusiast as well. The two friends hang out after school at an unsanctioned skateboard course, hidden beneath a freeway overpass and nicknamed “Paranoid Park” by users (the kind of place you don’t want to go to after dark).

Alex and Jared spend most of their time there marveling at the prowess of the hard core boarders. Alex harbors a fascination for the fringe lifestyles of the park’s more feral denizens; a breed he describes in his journal as “gutter punks, train hoppers, skate drunks…throwaway kids.”

Late one night, out of sheer boredom (and against his better instincts) Alex ventures into the park and hooks up with one of the “train hoppers”, a dubious character named “Scratch” (tempted by the Devil?). The resulting incident and its aftermath forms the crux of Alex’s churning moral dilemma and creeping paranoia.

The director’s script (adapted from Blake Nelson’s novel) features the minimalist dialogue we’ve come to expect in his films. This probably works to the young star’s advantage; especially since this was his first acting role (the director picked him out of an open casting call in Portland for extras).

Nevins, a slightly built, doe-eyed teenager who bears an uncanny resemblance to 70s bubble-gum idol Leif Garrett, fits the physical profile of the typical Van Sant protagonist. He and the rest of the largely non-professional cast give naturalistic performances. There is some nifty work from cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Kathy Li, especially in the chimerical skateboarding sequences.

As with many of Van Sant’s efforts (especially those of most recent vintage), your reaction to this film may hinge on your disposition when you watch it. Not for all tastes; but fans of movies like Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge and Francis Coppola’s The Outsiders will likely want to check out this similarly haunting mood piece about youthful angst.

The case of the cracked case-cracker: Mad Detective **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 2, 2008)

“When I was in school, I cheated on my metaphysics exam. I looked into the soul of the boy sitting beside me.”

 -Woody Allen

 In the opening scene of Mad Detective (a new psychological drama/murder mystery that cheats on its metaphysics exam), detective inspector Chan Kwai Bun (Lau Ching Wan) appears to be intently staring into the soul of a dead pig, suspended from the ceiling of a homicide division squad room. A group of his fellow officers silently stands by, transfixed by the sight of Bun, wielding a formidable looking knife as he circles the dangling porker.

When rookie inspector Ho Ka On (Andy On) blunders into the room to report for duty, he is pulled aside and shushed by another officer, who whispers, “Bun is immersed in the investigation.” Suddenly, Bun lunges at the pig and begins to stab it repeatedly. Then he dives under a desk and grabs a travel bag, bidding the wide-eyed Ho to accompany him to the top of a staircase. “I’ll lie inside the suitcase,” Bun says. “You push me down the stairs.” And so begins the partnership between inspectors Ho and Bun.

Bun apparently possesses the ability to literally “look into the soul” of both perpetrators and deceased victims alike (a neat trick that handily one-ups the cognitive abilities of your typical criminal profiler), and has consequently racked up a 100% success rate solving his murder cases.

This odd ability doesn’t come without its psychic/social price; Bun is viewed by most of his peers as a bit of a freak show and is pushed into an “early retirement”. The doubts about his overall mental state appear to be confirmed when, at the end of his career, he inexplicably slices off one of his ears (a la Van Gogh) and dutifully presents it along with his gun and badge. (Cuckoo! Cuckoo!)

However, according to the Rules of Old Mentor/Young Protégé Cop Buddy Movies, at this point in the narrative, an occasion must arise that precipitates Bun being dragged out of retirement to help solve “one last case” (otherwise, we would only have a 20 minute film.) After a cop mysteriously disappears, Ho talks the reluctant Bun into assisting in the case, to lend that special voodoo, that he do, so well.

Now, this is where co directors Johnny To and Ka-Fai Wai decide to borrow a few tricks from M. Night Shyamalan, and have some wicked fun with the viewer’s perception of reality; especially when you realize that you are “seeing” the inner personalities of certain characters just as Bun “sees” them. Toss in a prime suspect with multiple personalities, and buckle up for a real mindfuck.

While this is not your typical Hong Kong crime thriller, it contains enough requisite elements to genre enthusiasts, like the inevitable denouement wherein all the principal characters converge (usually in a deserted building or warehouse) and have a Mexican standoff. There are some nice visual touches, especially in a nifty “hall of mirrors” climax a la The Lady from Shanghai or Enter the Dragon.

Although there isn’t a lot of “ha ha funny” inherent in the screenplay (written by co-director Ka-Fai Wai along with Kin-Yee Au), it does contain dark comedy, helped by some subtly arch undercurrents in Wan’s deadpan take on inspector Bun. Not a masterpiece, but an intriguing watch for fans of (really, really) off-beat whodunits.