Tag Archives: Neo-Noir

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

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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.

OUT OF SIGHT – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

“It’s like seeing someone for the first time. You can be passing on the street and you look at each other and for a few seconds there’s this kind of recognition. Like you both know something, and the next moment the person’s gone. And it’s too late to do anything about it. And you always remember it because it was there and you let it go. And you think to yourself, what if I stopped? What if I said something? What if?” – Jack Foley

This bit of dialogue from Out of Sight (1998) perfectly captures the essence of the relationships between the characters in this film. It is about the what ifs and the what could have beens. What the characters do and, more importantly, what they don’t do that directly determines their fate.

As the film begins, Jack Foley (George Clooney), a career bank robber, escapes from a Florida prison with the help of his loyal accomplice Buddy (Ving Rhames). In the heat of the moment they kidnap a beautiful Federal Marshall named Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). She and Jack are stuffed in the trunk of her car as they make a hasty retreat. Trapped in such a small, confined space Jack and Karen have nothing to do but engage in idle chitchat. Even though they are on completely opposite sides of the law there’s a spark, an initial attraction that blossoms into something more as the film progresses and their paths inevitably cross again.

Out of Sight
is based on the book of the same name by Elmore Leonard. He had wanted to do a bank robber story for a long time. Several years ago, he saw “a picture in the Detroit News of an attractive young woman who was a Federal Marshal standing in front of the Federal Courthouse in Miami. She held a shotgun which was resting on her cocked hip and as soon as I saw that picture, I knew it was a book.” Danny DeVito bought the rights to a previous Leonard book Get Shorty for his production company Jersey Films. After the success of that film, he bought the rights to Out of Sight.

The film came to George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh at a time when both of their careers had reached a critical junction. Clooney was coming off the commercial and critical train wreck known as Batman and Robin (1997). Soderbergh had completely shunned the mainstream with the one-two punch of Gray’s Anatomy (1996) and Schizopolis (1996). Both men were looking for a hit that would put them back on the map. Soderbergh had already made two films for Universal and one of its executives, Casey Silver, offered him Out of Sight with Clooney attached. Soderbergh was close to making another project and was going to pass but Silver told him, “These things aren’t going to line up very often, you should pay attention.”

Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank achieve a perfect mix with Out of Sight. The film’s pace moves with effortless ease and self-confidence. They know when to slow things down and savor the moment as well. As Frank proved with his excellent screenplay for Get Shorty (1995), he perfectly understands Leonard’s distinctive cadence and the speech patterns of his characters. Cinematic adaptations of books are almost always inferior because so much has to be cut out or changed to fit into a two-hour film. However, Leonard’s books are tailor-made for movie adaptations because they are very visual and almost entirely dialogue and character-driven — ideal for the screenplay format. Out of Sight is one of those rare movies that is actually better than the book.

Soderbergh and his cameraman, Elliot Davis (White Oleander), paint their film with a specific color code. The bright colors of the Florida scenes — especially the prison sequences with vibrant blue and the bright yellow prison uniforms worn by various characters — provide a nice contrast to the second half of the film, which consists mainly of a gun-metal blue color scheme. The Detroit scenes have a cold, metallic feel to them and this really comes out. David Holmes’ catchy R&B score comes in and instantly transports the viewer into this world. He mixes in his own brand of funky electronica with old school tunes from the likes of the Isley brothers and Willie Bobo. From the atmospheric noises in the background to Holmes’ superb trip hop beats, this is a great sounding film.

After a string of so-so films, George Clooney finally found the right project that suited his particular talents with Out of Sight. With his movie star good looks and suave charm, he is perfectly cast as the smooth talking criminal. This may be his finest performance to date. For Clooney what attracted him to this role was the chance to play a character that evoked his cinematic heroes of the past. “When I was growing up the heroes for me were the bankrobbers — you know, the Cagneys and the Bogarts, Steve McQueen and all those guys, the guys who were kind of bad and you still rooted for them. And when I read this, I thought, This guy is robbing a bank but you really want him to get away with it.” Clooney’s style of acting is perfect for this role as he plays Foley with the right amount of laid-back charm. This is typified by his character’s introduction — the most pleasant, non-violent bank robbery ever committed to film. Clooney has such a likable screen presence that you want to see his character succeed.

Conversely, Jennifer Lopez is his perfect foil as a smart, tough law enforcement officer who can’t help but fall in love with this charismatic criminal. She is a very attractive woman but not above wielding a shotgun to apprehend a fugitive. There is a genuine chemistry between the two actors that makes their romance work. And it is this relationship that gives Out of Sight its depth. There is more to this film than snappy banter and a hip soundtrack. Incredibly, Sandra Bullock was originally considered to play Karen Sisco opposite Clooney, however Soderbergh said, “What happened was I spent some time with [Clooney and Bullock] – and they actually did have a great chemistry. But it was for the wrong movie. They really should do a movie together, but it was not Elmore Leonard energy.” Someone must’ve listened as the two ended up acting opposite each other years later in Gravity (2013).

A killer cast supports the two lead actors. Steve Zahn, an underrated character actor, is perfect as Glen, a stoner screw-up who looks up to Jack but is a royal pain in the ass. Dennis Farina plays Karen’s laid-back dad who buys his daughter a handgun for her birthday and just wants to see her married to a lawyer or a doctor. Albert Brooks is Richard Ripley, a bumbling white-collar criminal type who is in way over his head and sports a truly awful toupee. Don Cheadle plays “Snoopy” Miller, a tough guy-wannabe that is a classic schoolyard bully. Rounding this cast out is Ving Rhames, Jack’s tough, God-fearing partner in crime who always has his friend’s back.

Despite its lackluster performance at the box office, Out of Sight received widespread critical praise. It was clearly a career turning point for both Clooney and Soderbergh. The actor said in an interview that “Out of Sight was the first time where I had a say, and it was the first good screenplay that I’d read where I just went, ‘That’s it.’ And even though it didn’t do really well box office-wise — we sort of tanked again — it was a really good film.” Clooney went on to success with O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Soderbergh saw Out of Sight as “a very conscious decision on my part to try and climb my way out of the arthouse ghetto which can be as much of a trap as making blockbuster films. And I was very aware that at that point in my career, half the business was off limits to me.” The film’s critical reaction gave Soderbergh a foothold in Hollywood that led to the commercial success of Erin Brockovich (1999) and Oscar gold with Traffic (2000).

Out of Sight
is a film about making choices and taking chances despite the sometimes inevitable, painful consequences. It is also an entertaining look at a collection of colorful characters and the exciting world they inhabit. This is a smart, sexy and wonderfully stylish crime thriller that was ignored by audiences (due to lousy advertising and an even worse release date) but garnered strong critical reaction (winding up on many Best Of lists that year). Fortunately, Out of Sight has been re-discovered on home video and recognized as one of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations ever put to film.

JEREMY SAULNIER’S BLUE RUIN — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Spare. Menacing. Near constant tension. Vice-grip direction. Air-tight plotting that MAKES SENSE when you stop to think about the fine details. Graphically violent yet never exploitive. Virtually faultless. Blue Ruin was writer-director-cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier’s big coming out as a top-notch genre-buster, and I absolutely can’t wait to see Green Room, which has been kicking ass at the various festivals of late. Reminiscent of the Coen brothers with its dark thrills and exacting formal precision, this is a true screw-turning thriller that takes no prisoners. It’s like no revenge movie I’ve ever seen, and I admired how Saulnier used the blackest of comedy to somewhat lighten the heavy, nihilistic load of neo-noir mayhem. Macon Blair’s uncommonly focused, award-worthy, multi-layered lead performance is one for the ages and totally mesmerizing to behold – I don’t care how stiff the competition was, this guy was ROBBED of an Oscar nomination. I don’t want to spoil the plot to Blue Ruin, but I’ll allow that it’s a “man on a mission” narrative that gets turned upside down due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, each escalating in violence, and culminating in an extra fierce finale. This is a dangerous, all-consuming work, strangely beautiful, and horrifyingly bloody. I loved all 90, ultra-precise moments, and along with Ben Wheatley, Saulnier is one of the most exciting new voices on the hardcore indie scene.

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