Tag Archives: 2022 Reviews

The Big Heat: The 10 Sweatiest Film noirs (and Neo-noirs)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 25, 2022)

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “Hotter than the 4th of July”?

Just as temperatures were heating up for about half of the U.S. population [in late May] the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its monthly climate trends report . The main takeaway? Prepare for a scorcher of a summer.

The agency said that above-normal temperatures are likely across almost all of the lower 48 states in June, July and August, except for small areas in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Plains.

The Northeast, from Delaware to Maine, has the highest likelihood of being extra-hot, along with parts of the West. The agency also forecast lower-than-normal precipitation for much of the West, which means it’s unlikely that the severe drought gripping the region will end.

[…] The climate pattern called La Niña is likely responsible for some of the above-normal heat. But it’s important to remember that, generally, it’s hotter than it used to be.

Oy.

So…with the mercury already soaring  in many sections of the country I I thought I would curate a Top 10 “hot” noirs binge-watch…should you be so inclined. Hot-as in sweaty, steamy, dripping, sticky, sudoriferous crime thrillers (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 spending a hot weekend ensconced in my dark, cool media room (actually, I don’t have a “media room” nor any A/C in my apartment…but I can always dream). So here you go (alphabetically)…

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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 young character actor named Mickey Rourke.

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Cool Hand Luke – “Still shakin’ the bush, boss!” Paul Newman shines (and sweats buckets) in Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 drama.  Newman plays 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.

Highlights include Strother Martin’s “failure to communicate” speech (Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson’s screenplay is agog with classic lines), Harry Dean Stanton singing “The Midnight Special”, that (ahem) car wash scene and George Kennedy’s Best Supporting Actor turn. Also in the cast: Ralph Waite, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Anthony Zerbe, and Joy Harmon steaming up the camera lens as the “car wash girl”.

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Dog Day Afternoon – As far as oppressively humid hostage dramas go, this 1975 “true crime” classic from Sidney Lumet out-sops the competition. The AC 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 at once scary and heartbreaking as Sonny’s dim-witted “muscle”. Keep an eye out for Chris Sarandon’s cameo. Frank Pierson’s tight screenplay was based on articles by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore.

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High and Low– Akira Kurosawa’s multi-layered 1963 drama is adapted from Ed McBain’s crime thriller King’s Ransom. Toshiro Mifune is excellent as a CEO who risks losing controlling shares of his company when he takes responsibility to assure the safe return of his chauffeur’s son, who has been mistaken as his own child by bumbling kidnappers.

As the film progresses, the tableau subtly shifts 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.

While the film is perfectly serviceable as an absorbing police procedural, it delves deeper than a standard genre entry. It is also an examination of class struggle, corporate culture, and the socioeconomic complexities of modern society.

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The Hot Spot – Considering he accumulated 100+ feature film credits as an actor and a scant 7 as a director of same over a 55-year career, it’s not surprising that the late Dennis Hopper is mostly remembered for the former, rather than the latter. Still, the relative handful of films he directed includes 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 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.

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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 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.

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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 many films now regarded as “cult classics”, it was savaged by critics and tanked at the box office upon 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 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.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice  – A grimy (but strapping) itinerant (John Garfield) drifts into a hot and dusty California truck stop and” last chance” gas station run by an old codger (Cecil Kellaway) and his hot young wife (Lana Turner). Sign outside reads: “Man Wanted”. Garfield wants a job. Turner wants a man. Guess what happens.

An iconic noir and blueprint for ensuing entries in the “I love you too, baby…now how do we lose the husband?” sub-genre. Tay Garnett directs with a wonderfully lurid flourish. Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch adapted their screenplay from the James M. Cain novel.

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Touch of Evil– Yes, this is Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that celebrated and oft-imitated 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 one of the most offbeat heavies in film noir.

This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich (“You should lay off those candy bars.”). The creepy and disturbing scene where Leigh is terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by a leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge presages David Lynch; there are numerous flourishes throughout that are light-years ahead of anything else going on in American cinema at the time. Welles famously despised the studio’s original 96-minute theatrical cut; there have been nearly half a dozen re-edited versions released since 1975.

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The Wages of Fear / Sorcerer–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 Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 “existential noir” from 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 some 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.

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If you’ve already seen The Wages of Fear, you might want to check out William Friedkin’s 1977 action-adventure Sorcerer, which was greeted with indifference by audiences and critics upon initial release. Maybe it was the incongruous title, which led many to assume it would be in the vein of his previous film (and huge box-office hit), The Exorcist. Then again, it was tough for any other film to garner attention in the immediate wake of Star Wars.

At any rate, it’s a well-directed, terrifically acted “update” of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 film noir (I refer to it as an “update” in deference to Friedkin, who bristles at the term “remake” in a letter from the director that was included with the 2014 Blu-ray).

Roy Scheider heads a superb international cast as a desperate American on the lam in South America, who signs up for a job transporting a truckload of nitroglycerin through rough terrain. Tangerine Dream provides the memorable soundtrack.

Tribeca 2022: Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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Flying saucer, take me away. In 1971, the year before Bowie brought Ziggy Stardust to Earth, T. Rex landed the glam rock mother ship with their breakthrough album Electric Warrior. Originally formed as the duo Tyrannosaurus Rex in 1967, songwriter-vocalist-guitarist Marc Bolan and percussionist/obvious Tolkien fan Steve Peregrin Took (aka Steve Porter) put out several albums of psychedelia-tinged folk before splitting in 1970. Mickey Finn replaced Took, and Bolan recruited additional personnel and shortened the name to T. Rex in 1970.

Bolan’s coupling of power chord boogie with pan-sexual stage attire turned heads, making him the poster boy for what came to be labeled “glam-rock” (although, to my ears Bolan’s songs are rooted in traditional Chuck Berry riffs and straight-ahead blues-rock…albeit with enigmatic and absurdist lyrics). Tragically, Bolan died in a car accident in 1977 at 29. An amazingly prolific songwriter, he left behind a substantial catalogue and a legion of fans.

Ethan Silverman’s film traces Bolan’s career, weaving in footage from the sessions for the 2020 multi-artist tribute album Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex (Silverman was also involved in the production of the album). In addition to archival Bolan interviews and T. Rex performances (much of the latter taken from Ringo Starr’s 1973 Born to Boogie doc), tribute album participants like U2, Nick Cave Joan Jett, and Rolan Bolan weigh in. There are also comments (some archival) from Gloria Jones, Elton John, David Bowie, Billy Idol, Tony Visconti, Ringo and Cameron Crowe.  While it may not be a definitive portrait, it’s a heartfelt nod to a rock icon whose lasting influence cannot be overstated.

Tribeca 2022: Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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Andrew Jenks’ documentary connects the dots between two uniquely American traditions: Appalachian folk art, and shoppers trampling each other at Black Friday sales (“USA! USA! USA!”). But seriously…Cabbage Patch Kids. I’m old enough to remember the phenomena, but when they hit store shelves in the early 80s, I was in my mid-20s and too old to care.

Irregardless, I found some parts of the origin story weirdly fascinating, particularly the brick-and-mortar “hospital” where purchasers could view their doll’s “delivery” (from a head of cabbage) and then sign official “adoption papers” (more akin to Motel Hell than a Disney movie). And then there were the plagiarism lawsuits. Not essential viewing, but if you’re in the mood for a fun wallow in 80s nostalgia, you’ll dig it (hey…it’s even narrated by Neil Patrick Harris).

Tribeca 2022: Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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Several years ago, I saw Tom Jones at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Naturally, he did his cavalcade of singalong hits, but an unexpected moment occurred mid-set, when he launched into Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song”. Jones’ performance felt so intimate, confessional and emotionally resonant that you’d think Cohen had tailored it just for him. When Jones sang, I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice, I “got” it. Why shouldn’t Tom Jones cover a Cohen song? I later learned “Tower of Song” has also been covered by the likes of U2, Nick Cave, and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

A truly great song tends to transcend its composer, taking on a life of its own. The reasons why can be as enigmatic as the act of creation itself. In an archival clip in Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s beautifully constructed documentary, the late Cohen muses, “If I knew where songs came from, I’d go there more often.” Using the backstory of his beloved composition “Hallelujah” as a catalyst, the filmmakers take us “there”, rendering a moving, spiritual portrait of a poet, a singer-songwriter, and a seeker.

Tribeca 2022: The Integrity of Joseph Chambers ***½

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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This psychological thriller has a slow burn, but really gets under your skin. Early one morning, a white-collar father of two (Clayne Crawford) rolls out of his warm bed and readies himself to go deer hunting. His half-awake (and concerned) wife reminds him he has never gone hunting by himself and has limited experience with firearms. Undeterred, he insists that the best way to get experience is to “just go out and do it.” After stopping at a friend’s house to borrow his pickup truck (and a rifle), he heads for the woods. What could possibly go wrong? Anchored by Crawford’s intense performance, writer-director Robert Machoian has fashioned a riveting tale infused with a dash of Dostoevsky and a dollop of Deliverance.

Tribeca 2022: Lakota Nation vs. The United States ***½

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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The history of the Black Hills is a microcosm of America’s “founding” …discovery, expansion, exploitation, and genocide (and not always in that order). I put “founding” in quotes because, of course, “someone” was already here when Columbus (and eventually, the Pilgrims) landed. In the case of the Black Hills (1.2 million acres encompassing adjoining sections of South Dakota and Wyoming), those residents were the Očéti Šakówiŋ (aka the Sioux Nation).

Writer-director-narrator Layli Long Soldier makes it clear in the introduction to her film that it is not going to be a chronological history, with reenactments of key events. In other words, don’t expect a Ken Burns joint here…but that’s a good thing, because essentially her documentary is a tone poem that embodies the spirit of the Oyate people and beautifully conveys their deep connections to the Black Hills (after all, Long Soldier is a poet).

There is plenty of history in the film; sadly, most of it bleak, revealing an endless string of broken treaties and general lack of respect for sacred land (from the Indian Wars of the 1800s to President Trump’s boorish Fourth of July rally at Mt. Rushmore in 2020). But Long Soldier holds out hope for the future as well, with profiles of longtime Native American activists and a new generation of community leaders and organizers. Powerful.

Tribeca 2022: My Love Affair With Marriage ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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It’s a safe bet that the most oft-asked question throughout history (well, after “Where’s the restroom?”) is “What is love?”. Philosophers, poets, writers, psychologists and even scientists have tackled this age-old query, and come up with just as many disparate explanations. This lack of consensus informs the clever conceit behind animator Signe Baumane’s mixed-media feature.

Baumane’s semi-autobiographical study follows “Zelma” as she navigates the various passages of sexual self-awareness from childhood to adulthood…which then presents her with the complexities of love and relationships. Zelma’s vignettes are interspersed with neuroscience/biochemistry analyses done in the style of high school educational films (remember those?), with the odd musical number thrown in. Funny, touching and insightful.

Tribeca 2022: Nude Tuesday ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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I must warn you: this film is complete gibberish. Literally…the dialog is spoken in a made-up language. Frankly, I was fully prepared to find this gimmick annoying, but thankfully a) there are subtitles and b) the film is nonetheless entertaining.

Writer-director Armagan Ballantyne’s off-the wall dramedy concerns middle-aged couple Laura and Bruno (co-screenwriter Jackie van Beek and Damon Harriman), who have hit a roadblock in their marriage. Bruno’s mother browbeats them into attending a couple’s retreat, to rekindle their passion. The resort is lorded over by a free-spirited sex guru (played with aplomb by Jemaine Clement). Vacillating between riotous cringe comedy and surprising sweetness, the film also pokes gentle fun at “self-actualization” culture (reminiscent of Bill Persky’s 1980 satire Serial).

Tribeca 2022: The Wild One ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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Tessa Louise-Salomé directs this biography of theater and film director Jack Garfein. A Czechoslovakian-born Holocaust survivor, Garfein (who passed away in 2019) only directed two feature films, The Strange One (1957) and Walk on the Wild Side (1961); but each was notable for tackling then-taboo issues (homosexuality in the former and rape in the latter). Garfein tells his own story, with a wealth of archival clips and photographs woven throughout.

Most affecting are his recollections of the concentration camps, and how this harrowing experience informed his work as an artist. He also recalls his longtime marriage to actress Carroll Baker (which I was previously unaware of) and his involvement with The Actor’s Studio in New York (he later moved to Hollywood and co-founded Actors Studio West). An engrossing and intimate portrait.

Tribeca 2022: We Might As Well Be Dead **½

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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We might as well be deadpan. Natalia Sinelnikova’s (political satire? black comedy? psychological thriller?) was a puzzler for me.  Or maybe it caught me on a bad day. An insular community of apartment building residents turn on each other after one resident’s dog goes missing. The building’s live-in security person (Ioana Iacob) desperately tries to corral the creeping paranoia and hysteria.

Her stress is exacerbated by her daughter, who has locked herself in the bathroom and informed Mom that she has “the evil eye” and is cursed by effective thoughts and dreams. While Sinelnikova and co-screenwriter Viktor Gallandi make intriguing allusions to Stasi-era East Germany and the Jewish diaspora, the film never gels; at best, it’s a glorified remake of the Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”.