If Nicholas Ray’s 1948’s masterful film noir They Live By Night was the true cinematic template for the “doomed lovers on the run” subgenre of films that eventually led to Arthur Penn’s revolutionary Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, then Robert Altman’s Thieves Likes Us brings it all back full circle. By adopting the Bonnie and Clyde standard of the time that was the employment of period detail, authentic locations, and, when necessary, graphic violence, Altman’s film utilizes the same 1937 Edward Anderson novel that was the source material for Ray’s film and gives the audience what the Norman Rockwell-inspired, George Gross-rendered one-sheet poster promises. But the film ends on a note of brusque cynicism which slyly deprives the audience of a traditional resolution and, in true Altman fashion, upends the genre’s conventions.

Thieves Like Us, also the title of the Anderson novel, begins much like Ray’s film and, in fact, doesn’t much divert from its plot during its entire running time. After bathing in a beautifully lazy, unbroken shot across a Mississippi work farm, courtesy of French cinematographer, Jean Boffety, we see prisoners Bowie (Keith Carradine) and Chicamaw (John Schuck, delivering his final performance in an Altman film) steal away to an adjacent field to meet T-Dub (a terrific Bert Remsen) who has rooked an unwitting hick taxi driver in aiding in the escape of the two. From there, the trio hides out with alcoholic garage owner, Dee Mobley (Tom Skerritt), and his daughter, Keechie (Shelley Duvall in her first above-the-title role) before moving on the the home of Maddie (Louise Fletcher), the wife of T-Dub’s incarcerated brother. While on the run and convalescing after a car accident turns into a deadly confrontation with police, Bowie falls in love with Keechie and she reciprocates in such a fashion that their union can’t be met with anything but doomed and tragic consequences.

From a ten thousand-foot view, there isn’t anything detectable to distinguish Altman and Ray’s different treatments of the material from each other. Sure, Altman’s film is more committed to the Depression-era period of the novel and neither film keeps Anderson’s nihilistic ending but, on first blush, Thieves Like Us is just a seemingly more relaxed and softer roll through the same territory as They Live By Night. But there comes a time in Altman’s film that the focus on the women characters becomes sharper and causes the film to shift away from a film about boys at play and towards a film about, to paraphrase my wife, how women will do whatever necessary to achieve a sense of normalcy, regardless of what that might look like. First, we see this in Keechie. Bored but resigned to her fate, Bowie gives Keechie someone other than her drunken father to look after and mother. Bowie’s murder rap, as explained by him, doesn’t seem all that just so Keechie goes with him out of a blend of genuine affection, boredom, and hope for a better life than her present one which Altman paints as desperately terminal.

It should be noted that Shelley Duvall is so real and so natural as Keechie that you can feel true romantic tension build between her and Keith Carradine during their silent moments together early in the film. They talk like actual people and respond in kind. When Bowie remarks that she’s cut a great deal of her hair off, she smiles, looks to the ground, and says “I dunno” in a manner that is so genuine and sweet, it recalls deep, buried memories of the awkwardness and shyness of first love. This is in diametric opposition to the way the characters are played by Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell in Ray’s film, faultlessly walking a fine line between love-sick, smitten pups and hard-edged, damaged souls. In specific contrast to Granger, Carradine’s Bowie is a sweet-faced greenhorn, only slightly more streetwise than his ill-fated cowboy character in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Duvall’s Keechie is at once more naive and tougher than O’Donnell and her anguish at the end of the film is told in spades as Altman trains his slow motion camera not on the gory details of the police ambush that kills Bowie, but on her face as she watches it unfold, held back in a quasi-embrace by Maddie, the true driving force of the second half of the film.

In They Live By Night, Maddie’s character (played with gusto by Helen Craig) is spitting fire from the get-go, making her prime turncoat material. But Fletcher’s interpretation of the role is closer in spirit to Julie Christie’s Constance Miller; a woman who can see far more clearly than any of the men around her and will cut her losses as quick as breathing when she must. At no time in the film would any of the men suspect that Maddie would double-cross them for her own gain. And, honestly, neither would the audience. If one were to go into Thieves Like Us completely cold, Fletcher would seem like a harried but big-hearted good sport. She’s far more focused on the details of running a home and distracting her children from the awful details of her houseguests by ensuring her son knows to use his roll as a pusher at dinner time. But with her life in virtual ruin as it contains both a husband in prison and rugrats she can scarcely control, Fletcher exudes the quietest of strengths in a role that is by turns tough, honest, and canny. Slowly emerging in the second third of the film, Fletcher’s presence permeates the final act and, by the time the credits roll, more than a little of her character will have imprinted itself on Duvall’s Keechie’s. Keep a stiff upper lip and believe the stories you have to tell yourself to keep moving forward.

One has to wonder how much of this specific focus came at the hand of Joan Tewkesbury who, along with Altman and Calder Willingham, adapted Anderson’s novel for the screen. Instead of keeping Ray’s ending where Keechie reads the tragic love note that was written by Bowie just before he is killed in an ambush, and likewise jettisoning Anderson’s ending where the both of them are killed in the same event, Thieves Like Us presses a more tragic point about the very human cost and the actual wreckage that occurs to those in the orbit of criminals. It explicitly deals with the unfortunate shame and social baggage that (mostly) women have to tote around with them due to the careless and thoughtless actions of the men in their life. Not coincidentally, this theme would likewise emerge in Nashville, Altman’s next feature which was also penned by Tewkesbury.

Additionally, the connection between Thieves Like Us and Nashville is also clear due to their strong usage of pop iconography and corporate branding across the American landscape. Thieves Like Us shows the radio tying the country together in a way that previous mediums could not and by synching the diagetic music and dialogue from the radio dramas with the action on screen, Altman suggests an emerging correlation between real life and shared entertainment while also displaying a savvy focus on cultural mass marketing that is beginning to take root. Where prison gates are used as literal ad space for Coca-Cola, the almost outsized presence of that product in Thieves Like Us predates the Goo-Goo Clusters that will eventually underwrite the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville where the country crooners on the radio will no longer be selling Rinso Detergent, but Hal Phillip Walker’s goofy, untenable brand of populism.

Thieves Like Us was part of a cycle that came in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde, itself as much a film about the then contemporary change in America as it was a biopic of Depression-era criminals. But where Bonnie and Clyde pops, Thieves Like Us simmers letting the individual ingredients stew and causing the material to cook into something else entirely. It never feels like Altman’s players are wearing stuff from the wardrobe department as is the case in Martin Scorsese’s underrated but undeniably budget-hampered Boxcar Bertha nor are things quite as clean as in the other Corman-produced films cut from the same cloth, such as Bloody Mama and, later, The Lady in Red. By letting us slowly wade into the world of Thieves Like Us, Altman rewards us by reminding us that the quiet details of real-life feel much more piercing than the grand sweep of Hollywood dramaturgy.

Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night is a true beauty with a well-deserved, unimpeachable reputation as a film that is as hard-edged a piece of business that you can find. It’s a film that talks tough, moves fast, and kisses tragic. Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us isn’t nearly as well known but it operates in the same, languid style as his adaptation of The Long Goodbye. It’s a film that speaks softly, takes its time, and ultimately reveals itself to be positively ruthless.

John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic

Calling Exorcist 2: The Heretic a horror movie is a bit of a stretch, but anyways. The only heretics to be found here are the studio heads that green-lit this script and the nimrod who edited it. This is a an embarrassment to the power of the first film and a weird (not in a cool way), hectic, inexplicable piece of wanton disarray. I don’t usually give out and certainly never enjoy these lashings but this one knows good and well what it did and had it coming.

Directed by John Boorman (who also did the solid Deliverance and the masterful Emerald Forest so maybe we shouldn’t fault him entirely here), this sees a now teenage Regan McNeil (a now teenage but still baby faced Linda Blair) afflicted once again by that pesky demon, or sorta kinda. The Vatican wants answers as to what happened to their first two dudes and so they send an investigative priest (Richard Burton) who teams up with Regan and her psychiatrist (Louise Fletcher) to stir some shit up. This all runs parallel to an expansion on Father Merrin’s (Max Von Sydow) exploits in Africa battling the very same demon and I know it’s supposed to all make some sort of intrinsic sense but the thing feels like it was written on an etch-a-sketch and edited with a jackhammer.

So what actually works? Well the film looks great, from Regan’s aggressively postmodern penthouse apartment to the spooky crags and mud huts of Africa. The visual atmosphere is great and permeates everything. And what doesn’t work? Pretty much everything else, really. Blair doesn’t have the same magnetism she had as a kid and both her lines on the page and her delivery feel detached and flat. The great Ennio Morricone takes scoring detail but I’m not sure what he was on that day because what he comes up with here is… I dunno. Where atmospherics should have been employed he’s used a soundboard of wails, howls, hollers, hoots and other nondescript aural diarrhea to the point where it’s laughable and distracting. The hypnotism and African stuff sort of work in isolated fashion but in terms of tying a coherent story together they’re used in a completely nonsensical way and there’s just so many “huh?” moments in the plot. I’m not sure what went wrong here but I’m sure there’s a reasonable story behind the mess, perhaps one more interesting than the actual film itself. Probably, because I feel like doing taxes would be more interesting and less confusing than this thing. Stick to the classic first one or also excellent third instead.

-Nate Hill

Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel

How bad could your first day on the job as a cop go? For Jamie Lee Curtis in Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel, pretty damn bad. Before the title was a Ben Stiller fourth wall break it was a sexy, simmering, extremely violent psycho thriller from Bigelow, who was always way better back in the day when she focused on gritty genre films and not the politico-war stuff she’s known for today.

Curtis is a rookie cop who finds herself in a tense stand-off with a convenience store robber (Tom Sizemore, fired up in one of his first gigs). When the guy won’t back down she’s forced to shoot him, case closed. Right? Nah. First of all, her superiors take harsh disciplinary actions instead of giving her the medal she deserves, but there was also someone else there that night, a posh stockbroker (Ron Silver) who witnessed the whole thing, and something about the violence and potency in the air just kind of makes him lose his shit. He somehow got ahold of her gun, has been carving her name into the bullets and shooting people all over town, making it look like she’s out there playing vigilante. The captain (Kevin Dunn, always welcome) and the DA (Richard Jenkins, also always welcome) are furious and blame her for inciting this whole hellish series of events. But soon he’s insinuated his way into her life and she finds herself in a steamy affair with him, unbeknownst that he’s the lunatic that’s been circling her for days like a hungry wolf. There’s also another fellow cop, a hard nosed detective played by Clancy Brown, who she *also* starts up a torrid affair with and naturally that doesn’t end well. It’s nice to see Brown in a non-villain role for once and especially as the romantic lead, of sorts anyways. Elizabeth Pena shows up as well, as do Louise Fletcher and Philip Bosco as her troubled parents.

This is a gritty, bloody, scary piece of filmmaking and I can see why it turned many viewers off. There’s a kinky psychosexual vibe running through it like a perverse current of deviant energy and delirious, trashy abandon. Curtis is tough but vulnerable as well, no stranger to playing the lone girl stalked by an unrelenting, spectral madman. Silver is an actor who is no longer with us (remember him as the evil senator in TimeCop?) and it’s a shame because he was a real treasure. This has to be his best turn and he’s eerily on point in showing how a mind can deteriorate and turn sick after witnessing trauma. There’s an ‘unstoppable killer’ vibe to his action and pursuit scenes but he also gives the quieter moments a terrifying humanity as a guy who maybe doesn’t even know what he wants or isn’t in control anymore, it’s deeply disturbing work. Bigelow is just so good at staging practical action scenes and makes the chases, gunfights and jump scares supremely effective while maintaining a shadowy, blue tinged nocturnal palette that’s decidedly noirish and feels like an outright horror film in many instances. A real forgotten classic.

-Nate Hill

On Deadly Ground: A Review by Nate Hill

I tend to actively avoid Steven Seagal films like the plague, and realize intermittently that I do in fact enjoy certain ones from back in the day. He’s made a ton of trash, no doubt, but the clouds part every now and again, for select occasions like Under Siege, The Glimmer Man, Above The Law, Fire Down Below and the snowbound On Deadly Ground. The main marvel in this one is an incredibly hammy Michael Caine as the mustache twirling villain, a Big Oil maniac who has his amoral sights set on sacred land belonging to Inuit tribesman. Seagal plays yet another martial arts trained badass who takes it upon himself to bring down Caine, his nefarious capitalist plans and the violent mercenaries he has hired to wipe the land of indigenous natives. It’s as silly as silly can be, right down to him falling in love with a beautiful Inuit girl (Joan Chen, actually Chinese), but enjoyable on its own terms when you look at the solid choreography, stunts and impressive location work. Also, the roster of villains is too good to pass up, starting with Caine’s outright, wanton psychopath. We’re also treated to the Sergeant himself, R. Lee Ermey as a merc with a particularly salty attitude, John C. McGinley over-playing one of his patented schoolyard bullies, and even Billy Bob Thornton shows up, adding to the sleaze factor. Watch for cameos from Mike Starr, Michael Jai White and an unbilled Louise Fletcher as well. Seagal directed this himself, so it’s essentially one big vanity piece where he gets to play Dances With Wolves for a couple hours, but the trick is to see the unintentional comedy in that and enjoy it. Seagal is one of those goofs who I am not a ashamed to say I am laughing at, not with. Caine is the real prize here, and his merry band of assholes. An action flick is only as good as it’s antagonist, and this guy is bad to the bone in hilariously over the top ways. A big dumb flick, nothing more, nothing le- well maybe a little less in places, but fun in other spots nonetheless.

Virtuosity: A Review by Nate Hill 

Nothing says the 90’s like Virtuosity, a big hunk of circuit board sleaze and cheese that is so of it’s time that it’s hard to watch it these days without believing it to be some kind of spoof. Re-reading that sentence it sounds like I was making some kind of underhanded compliment, which I suppose is a better outcome for a film to arrive at than some. It could have gotten stale or dated in a bad way. Well it’s definitely not stale (it is dated though), in fact it’s one of the liveliest flicks from back then, thanks mostly to a ballistic characterization from Russell Crowe. Crowe is Sid.6, a virtual reality program molded from the personalities of several different serial killers and designed to basically wreak havoc. This is exactly what happens when he escapes, or rather is let out by one of the maniacs at the research centre (Stephen Spinella). Sid is now flesh, blood and roughly 200 pounds of extremely skilled, remorseless killing material, running wild in the unsuspecting streets. The head of the Institute (William Forsythe) has the brilliant idea to recruit ex-cop whack job Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) to hunt Sid down and destroy him. Barnes has a bleak history with artificial intelligence, one that has left him with a cybernetic replacement arm and a huge chip on his shoulder. This is one mean, mean spirited film, as we are subjected to a manic Crowe as tortures, murders and maims innocent civilians with a grinning cavalier cadence the Joker would applaud. He’s off his nut here, something which clumsy bruiser Crowe rarely gets to do, so it’s a rare and extreme outing for him. Washington is perpetually angry, ill adjusted and violent here, and the lengths he goes to destroy Sid are almost as bad as his quarry’s homicidal antics. The cast is stacked with genre favourites, so watch for Costas Mandylor, Kevin J. O’Connor, Louise Fletcher, Kelly Lynch, Traci Lords and a weaselly William Fichtner. The special effects… well what can I say, this was the 90’s and they look like a computer game that’s been drenched in battery acid, then souped up with caffeine. There’s brief homages to video games in fact, and the opener where Crowe is still inside the program is fairly creative. I don’t know if the creators of the film were trying to say something about the dangers of virtual reality, but whatever it was, it’s sort of lost in a hurricane of unpleasent shenanigans that are admittedly entertaining. One thing that’s evident is that anyone who makes a computer program with the persona of one, let alone a handful of murderers is just begging for an incident. I suppose that’s the point here though, the catalyst for the whole deal. Crowe and Washington are great though, both down and dirtier than their characters in the next royal rumble they’d share, Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. Fun stuff, if you have a strong gag reflex and don’t take yourself too seriously.

Stephen King’s Firestarter: A Review by Nate Hill 

Film versions of Stephen King novels can be a tricky thing. Often they’re half assed,  clunky miniseries (ever tried to sit down and watch The Langoliers??), and when they’re given the lofty cinema treatment, he has famously turned his nose in the face of Kubrick’s might. I feel like Firestarter escaped unscathed, and still holds to this day, if a bit achingly retro now. It’s a thriller perceived in a childlike manner by its young protagonist, Charlie Mcgee (Drew Barrymore). Charlie can start fires with her mind, and certain shadowy agencies just can’t wait to get their hands on her. Her father (David Keith) once participated in some scary drug testing related to telekinesis back in the day, and some of whatever altered his DNA has been passed on to her. He will do anything to protect her, as the two frantically race across the country to safety, pursued by forces working for Hollister (Martin Sheen), a spook with too much power and nasty ideas about what to do with it. Also on their trail is pseudo spiritual whacko John Rainbird, who wants to absorb Charlie’s abilities, man what a freak. Rainbird is a native American in King’s novel, so white haired yankee boy Scott is an odd choice, but he does a fine job all the same. Two things are what makes this one really stand out in a special way. Tangerine Dream provides yet another ultrasonic, elemental synth score that has since become legendary. It accents the story in an almost fairy tale like way, gilding the danger with a fable style sound, but never stamping out the real menace. Barrymore is the other leg of the table, giving one hell of a fierce and vulnerable performance for such a young girl, her childlike honesty a prism for the audience to see the evil around her through innocent eyes. It’s great stuff, and one of the most solid King adaptations out there. Now there is a sequel (not sure if the man wrote a second book?) called Firestarter 2: Rekindled, which pales in comparison and runs about 45 minutes too long (!), but it’s worth a look for the casting of Marguerite Moreau as a grown up Charlie, Malcolm McDowell taking over from Scott as Rainbird, and Dennis Hopper as well.