Snow Falling On Cedars is an interesting one, but I can’t say I mean that in much of a good way. I’ve rarely seen a film that focuses so intently on atmosphere, incident and specific isolated scenes and kind of leaves it’s own overarching story in the dust, or rather snow. That’s okay if you’re making a mood piece or deliberately impressionist film that doesn’t need the lucidity of a clear narrative, but that this is not. Its one gorgeous looking film though, shot by Robert Richardson who really earns the Oscar nom, full of looming boreal scapes, whirling blizzards and rustic homesteads. Set in the Pacific Northwest during a particularly tumultuous pair of timelines in the 40’s and 50’s, it sees the plight of a small coastal fishing village when a mariner is found dead, entangled in nets near his own boat. The local Sheriff (Richard Jenkins) discovers this, prompting a trial in which an accused fellow fisherman (Rick Yune) is prosecuted by an annoying shark (James Rebhorn) and defended by a German American (Max Von Sydow). Now, the accused is also part of the Japanese community residing nearby, and it being sometime after WWII, it’s not a very great period of history to be Japanese in the States, casting a dark glow over the trial before it’s even begun. Ethan Hawke plays the reporter with whom the accused’s wife (Yûki Kudô) has a lasting and deep romantic involvement with. Sound complicated? It is, but really shouldn’t be. The film chooses to tell the story in a meandering, out of time nature and as such it’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on at any given time. What’s more, the relation between Hawke and Kudô, although deeply touching and wonderfully acted by both, has little to do with the trial and murder mystery and as a result much of the story feels like a slog through snowbanks with no reward on the other side. Other actors make appearances, like Sam Shepherd as Hawke’s publisher father, James Cromwell as the trial’s overseeing judge, Celia Weston and her deplorable Scandinavian accent, Daniel Von Bargen, Anne Suzuki, Akira Takayama and others but they’re sort of swallowed up by the scattered hollowness of a story that should mean more, and should cut deeper based on the effort put into this production. And what a good looking film, I’ll give it that. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is breathtaking, somehow vast yet contained at the same time as we see life in the northwest unfold, attention to period detail immaculately kept up. The score by James Newton Howard is a swell of orchestral emotion and a strong point too. This film would have been so much more affecting if it spent more quality time on the central relationship between Hawke and Kudô, the latter of which gives the best performance. The matter of Japanese people being carted off to internment camps is handled realistically and gives us some of the film’s strongest scenes, these actors also steal the show with their obvious heartbreak and theft of dignity. But who really cares about the murder trial when there’s so much else going on in the big picture that’s more fascinating? So much time is spent in that dark courtroom discussing details of an event I had no stock in with the film as a whole, and if your narrative has that effect on even just one person, well.. that’s a problem. Perhaps the novel is different but I’m not really sure what they were going for here in the film, from both an editing and story focus standpoint. I left with an admiration for the technique used, the photography and atmosphere achieved is something to be proud of, as is the romantic angle. Everything else left me as cold as that falling snow.
Somewhere out there in the gypsum dunes of New Mexico there’s White Sands, a long lost, slightly unfinished yet captivating neo-noir about small town law enforcement, big time gun runners and everyone else who gets caught up in between. Willem Dafoe is Ray, a bored rural sheriff who sees a way out of the dusty hum drum when an apparent smuggler turns up dead on his watch out there in the national park, prompting him to steal the guy’s identity and dive headlong into the illicit arms business with no real crash course or idea of what he’s doing. A risky move that propels the film down an exciting, sexy, ambient journey of untrustworthy alliances, atmospheric shootouts and a dangerously charming Mickey Rourke as Lennox, the kind of reptilian criminal who’s so good at seducing you into the lifestyle that you don’t realize you’re in the snake pit until it’s almost too late. Dafoe and Rourke have shared the screen aplenty before and while my favourite team up has to be their cartel duo in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon A Time In Mexico, this film certainly takes second place honours. They just work so well on camera together, a shaky bromance built on Ray’s deception and Lennox’s unpredictable penchant for violence that proves electric as the narrative weaves around them. The always phenomenal Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays an underworld connection who Ray unwisely gets steamy with in probably one of the hottest sex scenes of the 90’s and a complete false advertisement for the success rate of getting it on in the shower. Samuel L. Jackson has a fantastic early career villain role as the kind of corrupt FBI agent in whom it’s very unwise to place trust, and watch for others including the great Maura Tierney, M. Emmett Walsh, James Rebhorn, Beth Grant, Miguel Sandoval, Jack Kehler, Mimi Rogers and a sneaky unbilled double cameo from Fred Dalton Thompson and the inimitable John P. Ryan as slick arms dealers. The setting of White Sands park plays such a role in atmosphere here; the ghostly sight of white sand dunes brings about the thought that something is out of place, rare in nature and the same can be said for Dafoe’s affable sheriff thrown into a mixing pot of big city psychos and genuine menace, a fish out of water shtick that pulls you in the more accustomed to this netherworld the man gets. How about that knockout original score from Patrick O’Hearn too, who only composed for a handful of things since, it’s a hazy, melodic set that suggests both the beauty and danger lurking out there in the Sands, especially in the simmering climax where several characters meet poetically grisly fates. I do have a few minor issues with this film, it could have been at least fifteen minutes longer and rounded out the epilogue with Dafoe’s arc clearer, it almost feels like there’s a missing reel or some editing glitch that marred the final product just a tad, but it doesn’t hurt the film too much overall. This is a lost classic for me, a gorgeously specific film noir with some of my favourite actors giving some of their most fun, playful work, the aforementioned score and some cinematography that won’t quit. Great film.
Cat’s Eye is Stephen King’s stab at the Twilight Zone, anthology formula, and a damn fine one at that. Just this side of horror, it’s a trio of weird and wacky tales as seen through the eyes of a meandering stray cat who manages to get itself tangled up in each thread. I’ve always marvelled at how they get animals to behave or sit still long enough to do a take and make it look realistic, but I guess that’s why they’re the movie magicians. This kitty fared well and even has a recognizable little personality of it’s own as it navigates each freaky scenario. The first segment sees a jittery James Woods enlist the help of an unorthodox ‘Doctor’ (Alan King knows just how over the top this satirical fare needs to be and goes there) and his… interesting methods of helping people to quit smoking. I won’t say more but this first third of the film feels the most like Twilight Zone in it’s borderline surreal mentality, and is a lot of fun. The middle segment is a hard boiled, vertigo inducing tale of a whacked out gangster (serial scenery chewer Kenneth McMillan in top form), tormenting his wife’s lover (Airplane’s Robert Hayes) in a Las Vegas high rise, whilst the cat looks on and contributes it’s own helping to the mischief. The third story sees an adorable Drew Barrymore adopt the poor stray, only for it to have to fight off a vicious little goblin thing that’s taken up residence in her room. This one is the most simplistic and closest to horror one finds in these three stories, and while a bit underwritten when compare to the others, is definitely the most visually engaging. All together they’re classic warped King, set to a hazy Alan Silvestri score and supported by a screenplay by the King himself. Great stuff.
Michael Cimino’s Desperate Hours, despite only really being a servicable home invasion/hostage thriller, still has a lot of fun with it’s two leads, brash sociopath Mickey Rourke and even brasher estranged family man Anthony Hopkins. Based on a creaky old Humphrey Bogart film, Cimino obviously vamps up the violence and eroticism that simmers beneath it quite a bit, and when you have Rourke as your antagonist you know it’s not going to be anywhere near a relaxed affair. He plays Michael Bosworth, a dangerous felon on the run with two other goons, his volatile brother (Elias Koteas) and another creepy lowlife (David Morse). He crashes into the home life of Tim Cornell (Anthony Hopkins) a boorish father visiting his wife (Mimi Rogers) and children. The film mainly takes place inside the house, as the creep factor rises along with the threat of blaring violence which we know will come, made all the more likely by the growing police presence outdoors, and the tensions of everyone involved, threatening to snap at any moment. Rourke walks a tightrope between amiable and unstable, a man sure of himself, who always gets his way, and is capable of bad, bad things if he feels he won’t. Hopkins plays Cornell as a man used to being in control, but his inability to hold his family together is made worse by the gang’s arrival, rubbing salt in an already festering wound. Cimino has a brawny style to his violence, a trademark that’s seemingly born of both De Palma and Peckinpah, rich bloody gun battles and accentuated slow motion death scenes. Most of the film is held back, but the flood gates do eventually open and action hounds will get what they came for. Watch for Lindsay Crouse, Kelly Lynch, Shawnee Smith, James Rebhorn and Dean Norris as well. Not groundbreaking in the least as far as thrillers are concerned, but still an entertaining little piece made memorable by Rourke and Cimino’s ever interesting pairing.
Anamorph is a loving ode to the wilfully nasty serial killer flicks of the 90’s, obviously borrowing heavily from a few specific ones, the clearest example being Fincher’s Sev7n. It’s got the same dank, dispirited tone of that one, a restless urban nightmare wherein one lone detective searches for a heinous murderer that seems to elude him every step of the way, leaving increasingly grisly crimes in his wake. The detective here is Stan Aubrey (Willem Dafoe), a troubled fellow suffering from OCD, as if he didn’t have enough to handle, with a killer on the loose. Dusky New York streets are the predator’s playground, and he kills using some very elaborate, and very u settling techniques. Anamorphosis is a method used during times such as the Renaissance, where a painter would create a seemingly nonsensical sprawl with neither shape nor form, but when looked at through a tiny window of exposure (camera obscure), or from a painstakingly meticulous angle, a new image comes to light, in this case providing Dafoe with clues. Now this isn’t any Renaissance painter we’re dealing with, and he doesn’t use oil base, if you catch my drift. The crime scenes in this film are very, very horrifying and hard to watch, almost on the level of Sev7n. Dafoe gets help from his art fanatic buddy Blair (Peter Stormare), and tries to look after the troubled Sandy (a moody Clea Duvall), the relative of a deceased friend. There’s also work from Yul Vasquez, Scott Speedman, Don Harvey and the late James Rebhorn. Nasty stuff, this one, but stylish and well worth a late night watch with the lights low and your nerves on edge.