Tag Archives: Neo-Noir

Oliver Stone’s U Turn

Ever had one of those days where literally everything seems to go wrong and there’s some kind of invisible cosmic force aligned against you? Sean Penn’s Bobby has one of those in Oliver Stone’s U Turn, a deranged, sun drunk parable by way of neo-noir and near Boschian displays of brutal human behaviour punctuated by pockets of the blackest comedy one can find. This is a deliberately, brutally unpleasant slice of nihilism that wouldn’t be easy to swallow were it not so fucking funny, so gorgeously visual, so perkily acted by the knockout ensemble cast and so beautifully scored by Ennio Morricone. Penn’s Bobby has the rotten luck of breaking down in the one horse town of Superior, Arizona, where bumpkin mechanic Billy Bob Thornton takes his sweet time patching up the rig, leaving him to drift about town and get in all sorts of trouble. There’s a rockabilly maniac named Toby ‘TNT’ Tucker (Joaquin Phoenix) who wants Bobby’s head for ‘making time’ with his girl (a loopy Claire Danes). The menacing local Sheriff (Powers Boothe) seems hellbent on doing anything other than protecting and serving. Jennifer Lopez is sultry babe Grace, who snares him up in a dangerously lurid love triangle with her husband Jake (Nick Nolte at his utmost Nick Nolte-iest), who also happens to be her stepfather (!). This all boils into a mucky miasma of murder, violence, sex games, insurance fraud, gas station robberies, betrayal, severed limbs, manipulation and any other noisy calamity you could think of to befall a small town in Arizona that the rest of the world has seemingly forgot. Bobby is on the run from a scary Vegas loan shark (Valery Nikoaelev), but nothing he can do compares to the level of hurt these warped townsfolk inflict upon him, so it’s kind of an out of the frying pan into the fire type scenario. The thing is, Bobby himself is something of a reprehensible scumbag anyways, so there’s a cheeky masochist edge in watching him traverse this dusty, 9th ring of Americana hell and circle an ending of inevitable doom. ‘Treat others how you wish to be treated’ is an adage that almost every single character in the film seems to have sadly forgotten or chose to ignore except one individual, a blind old native man played with disarming truth by Jon Voight. Bobby has several encounters with him, and he’s the only one who isn’t after something, doesn’t display hostility or unkindness, he speaks plainly and offers Bobby bitter pearls of wisdom that ultimately go unheeded. Stone employs the same type of jittery, whacked out visual surrealities he used in Natural Born Killers, a deeply saturated colour palette, tumble dry editing techniques and more breathe life into this vivid version of curdled small town life in the vast, lonely desert. Morricone’s score is a spring loaded jack-in-the-box in areas and a melodic, melancholic lullaby in others, an underrated composition that gives the film an eerie sadness and zany vibration all it’s own. There’s more going on than meets the eye here; at surface level it’s a dark crime comedy with a quirky edge, but both Voight’s character and a few mysterious hints at Lopez’s backstory with the tribes in the region hint at a deeper, darker sense of malice lurking out there with the coyotes, suggestive of an almost mythic aspect. Stone gets high praise for his political dramas, but I’ve always loved him best when he’s doing genre stuff, he’s such an expressive storyteller and the real fruit of his imagination comes out when he’s turned loose. For me this is his second finest work after Natural Born Killers and before Savages, the three films that seem most genuine and celebratory of the medium. In any case, U Turn is a southern fried, asphalt laden, angry, sexy, perverse road trip to sunny noir heaven or hell, and a masterpiece. Watch for neat cameos from Laurie Metcalf, Bo Hopkins, Brent Briscoe, Julie Hagerty and Liv Tyler.

-Nate Hill

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Gary Fleder’s Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead

The 90’s was a heyday of hard boiled, ultraviolent film noir, a ripple effect that can undeniably be traced back to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, however it’s silly to say that they all are derived from that film, because plenty of them have their own distinct groove and flavour. One such flick is Gary Fleder’s Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, a mouthful of a title that serves as harbinger to one of the most idiosyncratic, verbally flamboyant scripts Hollywood ever produced, penned by Scott Rosenberg. They scored the cast to back it up too, for a beautifully melodramatic neo-noir pulp opus that should be as legendary as any of the household name films to come out of that era. Andy Garcia is the definition of slick as Jimmy The Saint, an ex mobster on the straight and narrow who’s pulled back into the game by The Man With The Plan (Christopher Walken) his former employer and the most dangerous crime boss in all the land. Hired to scare the piss-ant boyfriend who stole Walken’s son’s girl, Jimmy rounds up a crew that shouldn’t be trusted to watch a junkyard. Pieces (Christopher Lloyd, brilliant) is a diseased old porn shop owner, Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), tough guy with a heart of gold Big Bear Franchise (William Forsythe) and Critical Bill (Treat Williams) the psychopathic wild card who uses his day job at a mortuary as an anger outlet by pummelling the corpses like punching bags. Of course they royally fuck up the job, and Walken places scary, symbolic ‘hits’ on each of them. The clock ticks as they all try to either leave town or face the music, but Jimmy is the one with something to lose as he’s fallen in love with elegant, posh rich girl Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar). The script could have easily gone for just colourful carnage and glib posturing, but there’s real, palpable gravitas to the character relations, especially between Jimmy and Walken, who’s history is hinted at and brought to complex life by the two pros. This is Walken at his weirdest and wildest, confined to a spooky wheelchair and locked up in a guarded, dimly lit estate like Count Dracula. There’s a touching subplot involving wayward hooker Lucinda (Fairuza Balk, always terrific) that brings out the dormant humanity in hardened Jimmy. The cast here really is a marvel, and includes Don Cheadle and Glenn Plummer as a couple of loudmouth criminals, Jack Warden, Jenny McCarthy, Tiny Lister, Marshall Bell, Bill Cobbs, Michael Nicolosi, and Steve Buscemi as a freaky hitman named Mr. Shhhh, because he shoots first and doesn’t ask any questions at all. The dialogue is unique and flows from the actors like urban Shakespeare, it’s one of the coolest scripts ever written, and serves not just to be slick for the sake of it, but use jive and jargon to bring forth character naturally, and effortlessly provide buoyancy to the story. One of the great hidden gems out there. Boat Drinks.

Danny Cannon’s Phoenix

Phoenix is a half forgotten, neat little Arizona neo-noir noir that isn’t about much altogether, but contains a hell of a lot of heated drama, character study and hard boiled charisma anyways, which in the land of the crime genre, often is an acceptable substitute for a strong plot. Plus, a cast like this could hang around the water cooler for two hours and the results would still be engaging. Ray Liotta is terrific here in a mid-career lead role as an a police detective with a nasty temper, huge gambling problem and just an all round penchant for trouble. He’s joined by his three partners in both crime and crime fighting, Daniel Baldwin, Jeremy Piven and Anthony Lapaglia. There’s no central conflict, no over arching murder subplot and no orchestrated twist or payoff, it’s simply these four sleazy cops just existing out their in the desert on their best, and it’s a lot of sunbaked, emotionally turbulent fun. Liotta vies for the attentions of a weary older woman (Anjelica Huston, excellent) while he’s pursued by her slutty wayward teen daughter (Brittany Murphy) at the same time. He’s also hounded by eccentric loan shark Chicago (Tom Noonan with a ray ally funny lisp) and trying to close countless open cases in his book. Piven and hothead Lapaglia fight over Piven’s foxy wife (Kari Wuhrur) too, and so the subplots go. The supporting cast is a petting zoo of distinctive character acting talent including Glenn Moreshower, Royce D. Applegate, Giovanni Ribisi, Xander Berkeley, Al Sapienza, Giancarlo Esposito and more. I like this constant and obnoxious energy the film has though, like there’s something in that Arizona sun that just drives peoples tempers off the map and causes wanton hostility, a great setting for any flick to belt out its story. Good fun.

-Nate Hill

Indie Gems: American Perfekt


American Perfekt is a disjointed yet darkly compelling little nightmare of a road movie, a dusty ode to bowers of the American southwest left unchecked and decayed, populated by wayward souls with perpetual heat delirium, vixens, psychopaths and hustlers alike, who saunter through lurid storylines that often end in bloodshed and madness. In the vein of stuff like Oliver Stone’s U-Turn and Kalifornia, we once again pair up with some extremely off colour characters as they navigate both the tangled web of highways that lace the States as well as the human capacity for greed, lust and heinous physical violence. The characters, and actors for that matter, who populate this stretch of highway are an especially bizarre bunch, starting with Robert Forster’s vacationing criminal psychologist Jake Nyman. Forster is quite the unpredictable guy, usually found in calmly benign protagonist roles, yet just as capable of stirring the pot with evil antics. Here’s he’s opaqueness incarnate, driving from one place to another until he runs into two sisters played by another couple of acting hellcats, Amanda Plummer and Fairuza Balk. Jake is basing each decision of his trip upon the flip of a coin a-lá Harvey Dent, a tactic which simultaneously causes trouble and indicates how unhinged he might really be.

Plummer is weird and Balk is weirder, but neither as weird as David ‘Professor Lupin’ Thewlis as an awkwardly placed character who seems to exist just to jump into a scene and throw the mood off kilter. There’s others running amok too, including Geoffrey Lewis, as well as Paul Sorvino and Chris Sarandon as a pair of state troopers who serve as comic relief. Forster is scary here, playing a guy who is psychologically hard to pin down or get a read on, and he’s got some dynamite scenes with Balk in the third act, the two talents lighting up the frame. It’s pretty far south of coherent though, mostly just these freaks terrorizing each other and engaging in puzzling romantic flings that only make sense to them, I suppose. If feverish, borderline abstract, sun-stroked neo noir is your thing, go for it. You can certainly do worse than spend a certifiably bonkers ninety minutes with this terrific bunch of actors. 

-Nate Hill

OREN SHAI’S THE FRONTIER — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Sometimes, a film sneaks up on you and takes you completely by surprise. That’s what happened when I viewed The Frontier, a very stylish neo-noir/contemporary western mash-up from director Oren Shai. The less you know about this crafty, twisty, and totally terrific gem the better, as it offers up narrative surprises to match its extremely sharp sense of aesthetics. Clocking in at an extra-tight 83 minutes, the screenplay concocted by Shai and Webb Wilcoxen tips its hat to various genre staples while presenting its own brand of down and dirty atmosphere and attitude. The story pivots on the actions of Laine (the excellent and striking Jocelin Donahue), a loner who drifts into a desert town and stumbles into a plan to rip off some cash from a group of volatile thieves who have taken up refuge at a sketchy motel run by a potentially duplicitous owner named Luanne (Kelly Lynch in an out-of-nowhere performance of complete control and command).

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What happens next I will leave for you to discover, but I will allow that the juicy scenario cooked up by Shai and Wilcoxen is thick with danger and potential violence, while various characters shuffle in and out of view, resulting in a film that feels compact yet bursting with possibilities. The supporting cast of Izabella Miko, Jim Beaver, Jamie Harris, A.J. Bowen, and Liam Aiken all turn in solid performances that perfectly fit the menacing milieu. On an aesthetic level, The Frontier is nearly impeccable, with extra-precise lensing coming from cinematographer Jay Keitel, who chose to shoot the project on 16mm film, and a creepy yet eclectic musical score composed by Ali Helnwein. The spare yet efficient production design by Lindsey Moran stresses open space and confined quarters, making great use of physical locations that project a sense of unease which adds another layer to the piece. Shai also co-edited the picture with Humphrey Dixon, and as a result, you get the sense that every single shot came out as fully intended by the director.

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And I really enjoyed observing how Shai and Wilcoxen subverted numerous expectations all throughout, starting with having a female lead in a role that 99% of the time might have gone to a male; the film is all the more successful and enjoyable because of this one simple decision. The film keeps you in its grasp all the way until the absolute final shot, and feels uncompromised at every turn. After making its premiere at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival, indie specialist Kino Lorber acquired the film for release in cinemas and on physical media. The Frontier is currently playing in limited theatrical release, and will be available to stream via iTunes, Amazon, VUDU, and Hulu starting November 8th. The Blu-ray and DVD are available for pre-order, with a December 6th street date. This is a fantastic piece of pure cinema that casts its spell immediately, never looking back, and staying true to its convictions all the way until the cut to black.

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Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE – A Review by Frank Mengarelli

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DRIVE is a film that could have easily been made by Michael Mann in the height of his 80’s neo noir phase. It would have starred William Petersen, Robert Prosky, Tom Noonan, Dennis Farina – the seminal Mann players. Tangerine Dream would have composed a remarkable score. But it wasn’t, and that’s what makes this film an undeniable masterpiece. It was made by Nicolas Winding Refn, with Ryan Gosling transforming himself into a top tier actor, and Cliff Martinez providing a hypnotic score in the year 2011.

There are many aspects of the film to marvel over. The vibrant neon color scheme, the stoicism and deep introspective turn from Gosling, Refn’s tranquil direction. Career pivoting performances from Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston. There is such a fertile quality to this film that sets the tone for this decade’s cinematic landscape.

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Gosling, who has been remarkable since DRIVE, is perfect in this film. His dialogue is minimal, as are his physical actions. His performance is commanded through his eyes. He’s always watching, always internal, he is slowly calculating everything.

The forbidden love between Gosling and Carey Mulligan is handled with such sensibility and grace by Refn. It is never overplayed, and at no point in the film does it become generic. The purity of their relationship splashes off the screen and leaves impending doom on the viewer.

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Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks are phenomenal in the film. Cranston completely shakes his comedic shtick as well as the trajectory of Walter White. He’s likable, due to his casting, but overall he’s smarmy and pathetic. Neck tattoos, chain smoking, hobbling around the frame looking for his next get rich quick deal.

Brooks, who was completely robbed of an Academy Award nomination, is a fascinating antagonist. Yes, he’s the monster, but he’s also genuine. He doesn’t want to do what he does, but his back is against the wall due to the unraveling of the plot. As the viewer, we like him, even when he’s pulling an eyeball from a guy’s head with a fork. Because the guy he’s doing it to had it coming.

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Refn struck gold with this film, and by making a mainstream-ish film, he was able to gather the clout to make whatever he wanted in the future, no questions asked. ONLY GOD FORGIVES and the much anticipated NEON DEMON are complete validations. Refn has a progression that is akin to post TREE OF LIFE Malick; with each new film, he’s not only challenging the audience, but himself as an artist. DRIVE is one of the finest films of this decade, and it only grows more poignant and incredible as time passes.

B Movie Glory with Nate: The Box

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The Box is a moody little crime drama thriller starring James Russo, whose appropriately brooding persona lends itself to grim neo noir films such as these. He’s an actor who has almost entirely worked in B movies for a long time, and while you have to watch out for most as they are usually geniune piles of dog shit, this one is a jewel amongst the rubbish. Russo plays Frank Miles here, an ex con trying to go straight, sticking with the dead end job his P.O. has given him to stay out of trouble. Soon he meets beautiful waitress Dora (Theresa Russell) who falls in love with. The two of them try to start a new life together, but as we all know sometimes it’s very hard to run from your past, and soon enough trouble comes looking for them. Frank tries to get some money owing to him from his sleazebag of an ex-associate Michael Dickerson (a detestable Jon Polito) and things go wrong. Violence ensues, and Frank finds himself in the possession of a mysterious box which he can’t open and hasn’t a clue about. Dora has a scumbag boyfriend in club owner Jake Ragna (a terrifying Steve Railsbac) who I’d dangerous, volatile and obsessive about her. Soon, an evil corrupt Police Detective named Stafford (Michael Rooker) makes their lives hell as he searches for the box. Frank and Dora take refuge at the home of Stan (Brad Dourif, excellent), Frank’s former cell mate,  friend who is now a weed dealer. Even this may not be enough to keep them safe, as the long arm of the crooked law probes, and Stafford gets closer and closer. It’s a depressing situation forged by bad decision and the perhaps inescapable knack for trouble that some people tend to have, whether it’s coincidence or a measurable character flaw is eternally up for debate. The pair try so hard to fix their lives and still seem to be headed for a tragic dead end. Russo has sadness in his eyes in every role, as well as a boiling anger to match it, he fills out his protagonist very well. Rooker and Railsback make scary work of the two villains, especially Rooker who uses the kind of blatant brutality and abuse of power that are essential ingrediants in very dangerous men. Dourif is Dourif, which is never not mesmerizing, and Russell does the wounded angel thing down to the bone. A sad story, with a dream cast (for me, at least), a downbeat reflection on lives gone down the wrong path, a diamond in the rough noir thriller of the best kind.