Today’s VHS File is an odd one called Two Small Bodies, essentially a grim two person drama that sees a police lieutenant (Fred Ward) relentlessly interrogate a single mother (Suzy Amis) who has reported her children as missing. They hang about her house as he goads, manipulates, probes and generally just drives a wedge into her life in an attempt to find out what happened to her kids, and he cultivates a growing suspicion that she’s the guilty party herself. This is based on a stage play, so we just have this one location, two actor story without anything else in the way of dynamics. Thankfully our two leads are both excellent, particularly Ward who is at his most… manic, Jim Carrey style acting I’ve ever seen him in a career full of mostly straight shooter authoritarian/cop roles. His cop (I began to wonder if he even was a real cop) here is a piece of work, and takes full advantage of the fact that Amis’s character is a stripper in his tirade of investigative fury towards her. The film is directed by cult filmmaker Beth B so the kinky underground vibe is there, but she struggles somehow in getting this story successfully across. You can only go so far with a constant back and forth barrage between two characters before you need narrative innovation and for your story to, you know… go somewhere! Unfortunately this doesn’t go anyplace concise beyond having the two leads engage in bizarre, borderline surreal roundtable dialogue and questionable behaviour and then just sort of leaves the ending open for us to figure out. I had a vague idea myself of who these two really were, what happened to the kids and what their situation was really about but the film (not sure how the play goes) does little to solidify any concreteness and let’s the final frames billow out in ambiguity like the perpetually windswept curtains in this woman’s nocturnal abode. That’s not to say it’s inherently a bad choice, ambiguity can be an especially *strong* choice if implemented correctly, but you just never know how each viewer will respond to that, and I was left a little lost. A fascinating exercise, if an incomplete one.
As far as mad bomber movies go, Stephen Hopkins’s Blown Away has to be one of the finest, a personal favourite of mine and a scorching, atmospheric thriller that has aged like fine wine. It had the unfortunate luck of being released the same year as fellow bomber flick and mega-hit Speed which kind of eclipsed it, but for my money this is the better film. Some suspension of disbelief is naturally required to enjoy this story of a psychopathic former Irish radical (Tommy Lee Jones) on a wanton path of destruction as he employs a personal vendetta against an old alliance (Jeff Bridges), who is now a hotshot in the Boston bomb squad division. After a disagreement years ago that led to hellish destruction and Jones’s incarceration for nearly two decades, the two face off in an incendiary game of cat and mouse set against the Boston backdrop, with everyone Bridges has in his life serving as collateral damage in his ruthless adversary’s sick game. Jones clearly had a dialect coach to say certain phrases and his accent slips generously here and there, but he plays his super baddie role with gleeful menace and steals every scene. Bridges always shines in any role and his caged animal intensity fires up the dire situation he finds himself, his family and colleagues in. Lloyd Bridges is fantastic as his old Irish uncle, Suzy Amis nails crucial scenes as his wife who gradually learns about his violent past, while Forest Whitaker does a fine job as the bomb squad’s rookie officer. Hopkins always does well in thriller territory (check out The Ghost & The Darkness for another brilliant outing from him) and the direction here is big, bold but never too far over the top, despite some theatrically elaborate set pieces involving the bombs. Alan Silvestri cranks up the orchestral grandeur for a thunderous, rousing score that’s nearly half the fun of the film. All involved do excellent work in not only making this a gorgeous film to look at but to create genuine suspense for more than one sequence, which isn’t easily achieved in this desensitized viewer. There’s probably a Blu Ray floating around out there and that’s fine, but there’s a smoky ambience and atmospheric 90’s feel to this film that I feel lends itself a bit better to the loving grain of DVD, the format I own it on. I remember watching bits and pieces of it on TBS Superstation back when I was younger and loving it, it’s a great film to keep revisiting.
No matter how many times I watch The Usual Suspects, and believe me it’s been many, I still get the same diabolical thrill, the same rapturous excitement and the same rush of storytelling and dramatic payoff as I did the very first time I saw it. Every performance from the vast and diverse cast is a devilish creation packed with red herrings, juicy dialogue and bushels of menace, every scene piles on the mysticism of the criminal underworld beat by beat, until the characters begin to pick it apart and the whole thing unravels like a great serpent coiling forth bit by bit, scale by scale, swerving toward the shocking, disarming third act that has since become as legendary as it’s elusive and terrifying antagonist. In the crime/mystery corner of cinema, there’s no arguing that this delicious piece of hard boiled intrigue reigns supreme, and it’s easy to see why. In a seemingly random police lineup, five career criminals are harassed by an unseen hand, pushed into carrying out dangerous heists and violent manouvers by a shadowy campfire tale among the world of organized crime, a Boogeyman called Keyser Soze, if he even exists at all. Slick and sleazy ex cop Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) heads up this dysfunctional crew of vagabonds which includes hothead McManus (Stephen Baldwin in a role originally intended for Michael Biehn, which kills me to this day), weirdo Fenster (Benicio Del Toro, using an indecipherable mishmash of an accent that would be the first of many), spitfire Hockney (Kevin Pollak) and Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) the runt of the litter. The lot of them are intimidated into performing risky enterprises by lawyer Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) until the climate of their actions reaches a boiling point and answers emerge from the darkness. This is all told in retrospect by Spacey, to a rabid customs agent (Chazz Palminteri) who has designs on ensnaring Soze. Spacey scored Oscar gold for his heavy work here, spinning a tale whose layers interweave and pull the wool over our eyes time and time again before offering any glimpses of truth. Byrne is a fiercely guarded storm as Keaton, a man with secrets so deep even he doesn’t know who he is anymore, letting the anger set and smoulder in those glacial eyes of his. The supporting cast adds to the class and confusion terrifically, with fine work pouring in from Dan Hedeya, Suzy Amis, Giancarlo Esposito and a wicked cameo from Peter Greene, who provides a moment of inspired improv. The score of the film rarely relies on dips and swells until all is said and done, keeping a tight lid on the orchestra and feeding us nervous little riffs of anxious portent that keeps tension on a tightrope and anticipation on call. A mystery this tantalizing is irrisistable the first time around, but the trick is to make your story rewatchable, and I’ve seen this thing over a dozen times. Every viewing provides some new angle to the story I didn’t see before, or I notice a subtle interaction in the very naturalistic and funny dialogue which escaped me in the past. My favourite thing to do is watch films with someone who hasn’t seen them before, observe their reactions and opinions on every little story beat and cinematic flourish, it’s almost more fun for me than the actual film itself. The Usual Suspects is a showcase piece for that activity, because you get to see this very complex revelation unfold through new eyes as you watch them experience the revelations. Whether your first viewing or your fiftieth, it never loses its power, and the spell it casts just doesn’t dim. Masterpiece.