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.
The Alphabet Killer is a silly one, a stone-serious account of some serial killer out there that tries to go the route of straightforward, down to earth fact tracking, and then deliberately messes up it’s own tone by tossing in cheap, ineffective ghostly gimmicks that seem so out of place one wonders if the editor accidentally spliced in frames from an episode of Supernatural or something. The film would have been something pretty decent without those jarring schoolyard level scare tactics tossed in, but I guess shit happens. This is very, very loosely based on an actual set of murders over in Rochester, NY, but what actual similarities to that case we see here is beyond my knowledge and, I suspect, pretty scant. What we get is Dollhouse veteran and cutie pie Eliza Dushku as a determined cop, hunting a killer of children all over upstate New York, while an impressive load of a character actors make slightly unnecessary yet well acted cameos, if only to pad the pre credit billing on the DVD cover and boost rentals. Tom Noonan, who has a running theme in his career of playing exactly the type of beast she’s tracking here, switches it up to play her stern Police Captain boss. Michael Ironside briefly plays a belligerent small town sheriff who withholds information gleefully, Bill Moseley as a reformed sex offender who’s tagged as a suspect, Timothy Hutton her wheelchair bound scholar and consultant buddy, as well as Cary Elwes and Melissa Leo. None of these actors do much but show up for a minute or two to make their presence known, and recede into the frays of supporting plot, until it’s time for one of them to resurface as the killer in the third act, the end of a whodunit guessing game we’ve seen countless times over. It wouldn’t be such a tiresome thing if they left out the spooky-dooky stuff, but there you have it. The film’s otherwise fascinating, earnest docudrama style is somewhat ruined by the occasional presence of moaning, white eyed spectres of murdered children that leer out at Eliza like minimum wage kids doing weekend shifts in the haunted house at the local county fair. Shame.
Throwbacks to horror films of the 70’s and 80’s either work or they don’t. The filmmakers are either able to replicate that specific tonal aesthetic and look from back then, or they aren’t. It’s not easy to do, but writer director Ti West makes it seem like a walk in the park with his near flawless House Of The Devil, a gorgeous love note to the satanic works of yester-year that so adeptly recreates that time and place until we really believe we’re watching a film that was made then. From the nostalgic hand drawn poster that beckons with atmosphere of a bygone era, to the use of full on, lovingly lettered credits ahead of the film, it’s pure vintage bliss, like that one perfect vinyl you find in the second hand shop. It starts out like many of these horrors do, with a young teenage girl (Jocelin Donahue) innocently wandering into a situation that leads down an inevitable path of gruesome terror. In this case it’s a seemingly innocuous babysitting job posted on her college notice board, by a cheery enough landlady (horror veteran Dee Wallace). Arriving at a creepy, ornate old manor, she meets Mr. and Mrs. Ullman, two gaunt, old world looking weirdos played by soft spoken yet disconcerting Tom Noonan, and genre legend Mary Woronov. They seem kind yet just kind of…off, explaining to her that the kiddies are alseep already upstairs, assuring an easy night for her. They depart and she’s left alone in the vast empty halls, or so she thinks. She’s been chosen for a bizarre, bloody ritual and soon is plagued by nightly terrors, a ghastly witch, the Ullmans themselves and all sorts of devilish deeds. Noonan could stand there and order a large double double with a honey dip and still make you uncomfortable, the guy is just perfect for horror, and makes a purring gargoyle of a villain for our our young heroine to go up against, backed up by Woronov’s nasty Morticia vibe. Eventually it gets quite graphic and startling, but the slow, solemn lead up is the key in making the horror shock us all the more. Nothing happens for an agonizing first half, filled with silent apprehension, and when all hell finally breaks loose, our nerves are already taut strings waiting to snap, like the ones in the shrill, ragged violin score. That’s how you pace a horror film, and many artists today should take note of this one’s pace, soundscape, mood board and production design, because it’s all about as good as it gets for this type of thing. Essential horror viewing, and I’d love to see a grainy VHS edition complete with box art, if that’s something they even do these days.
“Some will fly, some will fall..”
Snow Angels is an agonizing film to put yourself through, as it determinedly focuses on two people who are losing track of their path in life. Their emotional and psychological clarity is dimming, blinded by possible mental illness and lingering tragedy, mentally snowed in, so to speak, like the ironically idyllic Midwestern town they call home. Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell are Annie and Glenn, a couple wading through a bitter separation that is taking a damaging toll on their little daughter (Gracie Hudson). Glenn embarrassingly clings to Annie and what they had, leaning on the crutch of alcohol and making a pitiable fool of himself. Annie is lost and fragile, unsure of appropriate action at this particular crossroads in life. Their story is laced with that of other residents in the town, and you’ll be pleased to know it’s not all doom and gloom: a budding romance plays out with the talents of Michael Angarano and the wonderful Olivia Thirlby. There’s also work from Griffin Dunne, Nicky Katt and the excellent Tom Noonan in an extended cameo that bookends the film’s enigmatic emotional climate. Rockwell seeths with regret and heartache, lashing out passively at first until his behaviour becomes very destructive to himself and those around them. Beckinsale has never been better, downplaying Annie by bottling up her feelings, and letting them corrosive erupt in a third act of unimaginable tragedy that demands courage and compassion from the viewer. A highly complex, grounding story of lives gone off track and the not always so simple way in which we humans conduct ourselves with each other. A must see.