Horror Film Review: Single White Female (dir by Barbet Schroeder)


Allie Jones (Bridget Fonda) is an always fashionable software designer who is living in New York City and who has just broken up with her cheating lover, Sam (Steven Weber).  She has pretty hair, a big apartment, a closet full of nice clothes, and a totally devoted gay best friend.

Hedra Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is shy and socially awkward and in need of someone who will give her a cute nickname like “Hedy.”  She has pretty hair that’s just slightly less pretty than Allie’s, a job at a bookstore, a dead twin sister, a pair of really nice earrings, and a television that only seems to show old black-and-white movies.

Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

No, actually, they don’t.  Instead, Hedy answers an ad that Allie placed about needing a new roommate.  Even though Allie was thinking of asking another homeless woman to move in with her, Hedy impresses Allie by fixing her sink.  Seriously, how can you turn down a potential roommate who knows how to do simple plumbing?  Allie invited Hedy to live with her and, at first, everything is great.  Hedy even brings home a dog that Allie quickly falls in love with.  However, then Sam shows back up and we quickly discover just how obsessed Hedy has become with her roommate.

Single White Female was originally released way back in 1992 and, even if you’re viewing it for the very first time, you’ll probably feel a sense of deja vu while watching the movie.  This is one of those films that has been so endlessly imitated and has been unofficially remade so many times that you probably already know everything that happens in the film, regardless of whether you’ve actually sat through it or not.  A few years ago, there was a film called The Roommate that basically was Single White Female, just with a college setting and a bit less of a subversive subtext.  As well, I’ve lost count of the number of Lifetime films that have basically ripped off Single White Female‘s plot.  Any time that a new friend proves herself to be excessively clingy, chances are that she’s going to get compared to Jennifer Jason Leigh in this film.

 

And yet, despite all of the imitations, Single White Female still holds up surprisingly well.  A lot of that is because Single White Female was directed by Barbert Schroeder.  Schroeder started his career as a disciple of the French New Wave and, much like Paul Verhoeven, his American films tend to be genre films with just enough of a subversive subtext to stick in your mind afterwards.

For example, Single White Female is often describes as being a film about “the roommate from Hell” but what always seems to be missed is that, especially during the film’s first half, Allie is often as bad of a roommate as Hedy.  For instance, when Allie comes home late after spending two days with Sam, Hedy is pissed off and waiting for her.  On the surface, the scene is the first indication that Hedy has become obsessed with Allie.  But, at the same time, Hedy actually is making a valid point.  After repeatedly telling Hedy that she wants nothing to do with Sam, Allie runs off and spends two days with him without bothering to call home once.  Though Hedy may have been a bit too quick to yell, she still had every right to be annoyed.

In fact, Allie really is a bit of self-centered character.  She impulsively invited Hedy to live with her and then, just as impulsively, she gets back together with Sam and decides that it’s time for Hedy to move out.  Of course, then Hedy tosses a dog out of a window and you pretty much lose whatever sympathy you may have had for her.

Still, you can’t help but feel that, just as Hedy wants to be Allie, there’s a part of Allie that would like to be Hedy.  Hedy does all the things that Allie’s scared to do.  When Allie is sexually harassed and nearly raped by a client, Hedy’s the one who actually gets revenge.  While Allie tries to get over and suppress her anger at Sam, Hedy’s the one who acts on that anger.  Just Hedy seems to need Allie’s life to be happy, Allie seems to need Hedy’s anger to survive.  In short, there’s a lot more going on underneath the surface of Single White Female than its reputation might lead you to presume.

Not surprisingly, the film is dominated by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance.  When Hedy first appears, Leigh plays her as just being slightly off.  She has some obvious confidence issues but, at the same time, she comes across as being so innocent and naive that you can’t help but want to protect her.  You find yourself wondering how she could have possibly survived living in a city like New York.  It’s only as the film progresses that you start to discover that Hedy was never particularly naive and everything that she’s done and said has basically been about manipulating the people around her.  And yet, even after Hedy has started killing dogs and people, you can’t help but feel a strange empathy (though not necessarily sympathy) for her.  There’s an emptiness to Hedy, an emptiness that she attempts to fill by stealing the personalities of the people around her and Leigh does a great job of expressing the pain that would come from not having an identity of your own.  Plus, poor Hedy just seemed so happy with Allie said that she liked her earrings!  I mean, I just can’t imagine being that insecure but I get the feeling it would really suck.

(Fortunately, I’ve also never really had a truly bad roommate situation.  One advantage of having three older sisters is knowing that you’ll always have someone to stay with.)

Despite all of the imitations and rip-offs that have come out over the years, both Single White Female and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance hold up remarkably well.  I’d recommend watching it before inviting anyone to come live with you.  If nothing else, you’ll at least learn what stiletto heels are really for.

 

A Movie A Day #28: Scandal (1989, directed by Michael Caton-Jones)


scandal-posterLondon.  1961.  Doctor Stephen Ward (played by John Hurt) is an artist and an osteopath.  He counts among his patients some of the most distinguished men and women in British society, including the Minister of War, John Profumo (Ian McKellen).  After meeting two young dancers, Christine Keeler (Joanne Whalley) and Mandy Rice-Davies (Bridget Fonda), Stephen becomes their mentor, the Henry Higgins to their Eliza Doolittle.

Under Stephen’s watchful eye, both Christine and Mandy are soon having affairs with some  of the most powerful members of Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government.  Christine becomes the mistress of both Profumo and KGB agent, Yevgeny Ivanov (Jeroen Krabbe), along with maintaining off-and-on relationships with drug dealer Johnny Edgecombe (played by singer Roland Gift) and musician Lucky Gordon (Leon Herbert).

When a disagreement leads to Johnny slashing Lucky’s face and then getting arrested for firing a gun at Stephen’s flat, the public learns the details of Christine’s affair with Profumo.  With the scandal rocking the British government, Stephen is a convenient scapegoat and soon finds himself on trial, charged with making a living off of “immoral earnings.”

Based on the real life scandal that led to the eventual fall of Harold Macmillan’s government, Scandal is remarkably faithful to the facts of the Profumo Affair, even if it did leave out some of the more interesting allegations.  (For instance, no mention is made of an alleged encounter between Mandy Rice-Davies and President Kennedy.)  Though it may seem tame by today’s standards, when Scandal was first released in 1989, it was considered to be something of a scandal itself and it initially got an X rating when it was released in the United States.  (The scandal over Scandal is one of the things that led to the MPAA adopting the NC-17 rating to distinguish between films for adults and “adult” films.  Of course, it didn’t work as a potential NC-17 still carries the same stigma as the X rating did.)

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Scandal holds up well as both a recreation of London on the verge of the sexual revolution and a look at contrast between private and public mores.  Both Joanne Whalley and Bridget Fonda are excellent in the roles of Christine and Mandy.  Fonda gets to deliver the most famous line of the whole Profumo Affair when Mandy is told that Lord Astor has denied having had an affair with her.  “He would, wouldn’t he?” she says.  After I watched Scandal last night, I did some checking and I discovered that Bridget Fonda has not made a film since 2002.  She is missed.

Not surprisingly, Scandal‘s best performance comes from John Hurt, who plays Stephen Ward as a naive and well-meaning social butterfly who ultimately gets in over his head and pays a steep price for trusting that his friends would remain his friends.  Scandal is just one of many movies that proves what a great talent was lost when the world lost John Hurt.

RIP.

SCANDAL, John Hurt, 1989

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #96: A Simple Plan (dir by Sam Raimi)


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The 1998 film A Simple Plan reunites Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton.  After previously playing adversaries in One False Move, they played brothers here.  However, it’s not just the cast that makes A Simple Plan feel like a spiritual descendant of One False Move.  Both One False Move and A Simple Plan deal with greed and violence.  Both One False Move and A Simple Plan take place in a small town where everyone thinks that they know all there is to know about each other.  Both One False Move and A Simple Plan feature Paxton as a man who turns out to be something more than what the viewer originally assumed.  Perhaps most importantly, both One False Move and A Simple Plan are meditations on guilt, greed, and community.

A Simple Plan takes place in Minnesota, in a world that seems to exist under a permanent layer of snow and ice.  While out hunting, Hank (Bill Paxton), his well-meaning but dim-witted brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and their redneck friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) stumble across an airplane that has crashed in the woods.  Inside the airplane, they find a dead pilot and a bag containing 4 million dollars.  At first, Hank says they should call the authorities and let them know what they’ve found but he rather easily allows Jacob and Lou to talk him out of it.  Instead, they agree that Hank will hide the money at his house until spring arrives.  They also agree to not tell anyone about the money but, as soon as he arrives home, Hank tells his pregnant wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda) everything that has happened.

Needless to say, this simple plan quickly get complicated.  Sarah is soon telling Hank that he should not trust Lou and Jacob.  The local sheriff (Chelcie Ross) saw Hank and Jacob leaving the woods after discovering the plane and may (or may not) be suspicious of what they found.  Alcoholic Lou starts to demand his share of the money early.  As things start to spiral, Hank finds himself doing things that he would have never thought he would ever do.  Or, as Sarah puts it, “Nobody’d ever believe that you’d be capable of doing what you’ve done.”

And then, one day, a mysterious FBI agent (Gary Cole) shows up and says that he’s looking for the plane.  Except that, according to Sarah, he’s not really with the FBI…

It’s appropriate that A Simple Plan takes place in a world that appears to be permanently covered in snow because it is a film that is both chilly and chilling.  Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton are both perfectly cast.  (Thornton received an Oscar nomination for his performance.  Paxton undoubtedly deserved one.)  Bridget Fonda turns Sarah into a small town Lady MacBeth and Gary Cole, Brent Briscoe, and Chelcie Ross are all memorable in smaller roles.

(Brent Biscoe, in particular, is a redneck nightmare.)

The next time that you want to contemplate the evil that is done in the name of money, why not start off with a double feature of One False Move and A Simple Plan?

 

Shattered Politics #58: City Hall (dir by Harold Becker)


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Interestingly enough, New York City may be the center of wealth and politics in the United States but being Mayor of New York rarely leads to any sort of greater office.  Though the Americans Elect people tried to unsuccessfully recruit Michael Bloomberg in 2012 and there’s a few deluded souls who seem to think that Bill de Blasio could run and win in 2016, only three NYC mayors have taken the plunge and actually run for President.  Of the three of them, DeWitt Clinton was the most successful.  He not only won the Federalist nomination but he came close to beating James Madison in the election of 1812.  However, both John V. Lindsay and Rudy Giuliani were forced to end their campaigns when their electoral success in New York failed to translate into votes outside of the Northeast.

And that’s the thing really.  Everyone in America knows that New York is an important city, perhaps the most important city in the United States.  And they resent the Hell out of it.  It’s kinda like how the rest of country hates my home state of Texas because they need our oil more than we need … well, whatever the Hell it is that the rest of the country brings to the table.

I mean, let’s face it.  There’s a lot of resentment out there.  And that resentment will probably keep anyone from going from Gracie Mansion to the White House.

That’s one of the problems that I had with the 1996 film City Hall.  In order for City Hall to work, you have to believe that Mayor John Pappas has a legitimate chance to not only be nominated for President but to win the election as well.  At the start of the film, we’re informed by Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack, speaking in one of the worst attempts at a Louisiana accent that I’ve ever heard) that Pappas is the greatest mayor that New York City has ever had.  I guess that might be true, even though we really don’t see any evidence of that fact.  (Pappas does get to deliver a few monologues about how much he loves New York but if love is all it took, I’d be a really kick ass Prime Minister of Canada.)  However, it’s because Mayor Pappas is such a product of New York City that he’d probably never be able to actually win a primary in Vermont and capture Iowa’s electoral votes.  That’s one reason why it’s difficult to buy Mayor Pappas as a future President.

The other reason is that Mayor Pappas is played by Al Pacino.  And we’re not talking about Godfather or Dog Day Afternoon Al Pacino here.  Instead, we’re talking about raspy voiced, constantly bellowing, thousand-yard state Al Pacino.  As played by Al Pancino, it takes only one look at Mayor Pappas to imagine thousands a middle American voters running in terror away from the voting booths.

(One gets the feeling that if a large group of police officers ever turned their back on Mayor Pappas, he would immediately start jumping up and down while yelling, “YOU ARE TURNIN’ YOUR BACKS ON DA MAYOR HERE!  WHAT DA FUCK IS GOIN’ ON WITH THIS SHIT HERE!?”)

That said, there’s another reason why Mayor Pappas may never be President.  There’s been a shooting.  An undercover cop and a drug dealer shot each other.  A little boy was hit by a stray bullet.  The little boy is black but, oddly enough, nobody in the film ever suggests that there was any sort of racial element involved.  Instead, Mayor Pappas goes to the boy’s funeral and is enthusiastically applauded by the entirely African-American congregation.

It turns out that the drug dealer is the nephew of a mafia don.  He should have been in prison at the time of the shooting but instead, he was given an early release by a seemingly incompetent judge (Martin Landau).  As Calhoun and a lawyer named Marybeth Cogan (Bridget Fonda, giving a good performance in a generically written role) investigate how the dealer came to be released, they discover that local politician Frank Anselmo (Danny Aiello) may have had something to do with it.  Calhoun also discovers that his idol, Mayor Pappas, may know more than he’s saying as well…

If you do happen to watch City Hall, be sure to compare Danny Aiello’s performance with Al Pacino’s.  Both Aiello and Pacino are playing larger-than-life characters.  And both Aiello and Pacino have a tendency to bellow and to play big.  But, whereas Pacino’s performance feels forced and oddly empty, Aiello’s performance feels totally natural.  You actually believe that Aiello could be elected to a citywide office whereas Pacino — or at least the version of Al Pacino that shows up for City Hall — seems like he’d have a hard time getting elected to a student council, much less Mayor of America’s largest city.

Anyway, City Hall is currently making the rounds on cable, which is how I saw it.  It had the potential to be an interesting look at urban politics but, ultimately, it just doesn’t work.  To a certain extent, I hate to be negative about any film that, like City Hall, has its heart in the right place but the movie just doesn’t work.

 

Shattered Politics #53: The Godfather Part III (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


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Well, it’s come to this.

First released in 1990, The Godfather Part III was nominated for best picture (it lost to Goodfellas Dances With Wolves) but it’s got a terrible reputation.  Over the past two weeks, whenever I’ve mentioned that I was planning on reviewing The Godfather and The Godfather Part II for this series of reviews, everyone who I talked to mentioned that they loved the first two Godfather films and that they hated the third one.  Quite a few, in fact, suggested that I shouldn’t even bother reviewing the third one.  In their eyes, The Godfather Part III was like that one cousin who you know exists but, because he got caught cashing your grandma’s social security check, you never send a Christmas card.

But you know what?

It was never even an option for me to skip reviewing The Godfather, Part III.  First off, I’m a completist.  It’s long been my goal to review every single best picture nominee and, regardless of how much some people may dislike it, that’s exactly what The Godfather Part III is.

Plus, I love the Godfather movies.  I’m a fourth Italian (and, much like the Corleones, my Italian side comes from Southern Italy) and I was raised Catholic.  Let’s face it — The Godfather movies were made for me.  Even Part III.

So, with all that in mind, I recently sat down and rewatched The Godfather Part III.  And I’m not saying that it was an easy film to watch.  It’s a flawed film and those flaws are made even more obvious when you compare it to the previous two Godfathers.  It’s hard to follow up on perfection.  And I have to admit that, even though I had seen Part III before, I was still expecting it to be better than it actually was.  I had forgotten just how many slow spots there were.  I had forgotten how confusing the plot could get.  I had forgotten….

Okay, I’m really starting to sound negative here and I don’t want to sound negative.  Because I like The Godfather, Part III.  I think it’s a good but uneven film.  Some of my favorite films are good but uneven…

But this is a Godfather film that we’re talking about here!

The Godfather Part III opens in 1979, 20+ years since the end of the second film.  Tom Hagen has died off-screen (booo!) and Michael (Al Pacino) is nearly 60 and looking forward to retirement.  He’s handed the Corleone criminal empire over to the flamboyant Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna).  Michael has finally become a legitimate businessman but he’s lost everyone that he loved.  Kay (Diane Keaton) has divorced him.  His son, Anthony (Franco D’Ambrosio), knows that Michael was responsible for killing Uncle Fredo and wants nothing to do with the family business.  Instead, Anthony wants to be an opera singer.  Meanwhile, his daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) is headstrong and rebellious.  (Or, at least, she’s supposed to be.  That’s what the audience is told, anyway.  None of that really comes across on the screen.)

Now, the first two Godfather films featured their share of melodrama but neither one of them comes close to matching all of the schemes, betrayals, and plots that play out over the course of Godfather, Part III.  Let’s see if I can keep all of this straight:

As the film opens, Michael is receiving an award from the Vatican.  Kay, who is now married to a judge, shows up with Mary and Anthony.  Michael is obviously happy to see her.  Kay glares at him and says, “That ceremony was disgusting!”  (Damn, I thought, Kay’s suddenly being kind of a bitch.  Fortunately, later on in the movie, Kay’s dialogue was both better written and delivered.)

Then, Vincent (Andy Garcia) shows up!  Vincent is one of those handsome, sexy gangsters whose every action is followed by an exclamation point!  Vincent is Sonny’s illegitimate son!  He wears a cool leather jacket!  He openly flirts with his cousin Mary!  He has sex with Bridget Fonda!  He kills Joey Zasa’s thugs!  He convinces Michael to mentor him!

And, as soon as Vincent enters the film, suddenly every scene starts to end with an exclamation point!

And then, Michael goes to Sicily!  He gets swindled by the corrupt Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly)!  He gets targeted by a corrupt Italian politician!  He confesses his sins to Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone)!  Lamberto later becomes Pope!

Meanwhile, Don Altobello (Eli Wallach) is conspiring to kill Michael!  Because that’s what elderly Mafia dons do!  And then Kay, Anthony, and Mary all come to Sicily!  Anthony is going to be making his opera debut!  And soon Vincent is sleeping with Mary, even though they’re first cousins!

And even more people want Michael dead and I’m not really sure why!  Everyone goes to the opera!  We sit through the entire opera!  Meanwhile, enemies of the Corleones are killed!  And some Corleones are killed!  And it all ends tragically!

Okay, I’m starting to get snarky here and it’s probably getting a little bit hard to believe that I actually do like The Godfather, Part III.  And, as much as I hate to do it, there are a few more flaws that I do need to point out.  Sofia Coppola is one of my favorite directors and she has really pretty hair and we both have similar noses but …. well, let’s just say that it’s probably a good thing that Sofia pursued a career as a director and not as an actress.  Reportedly, Sofia was a last minute pick for the role, cast after Winona Ryder suddenly dropped out of the production.  It’s not so much that her performance is terrible as much as it’s not up to the level of the rest of the cast.  Watching this Godfather, you’re acutely aware of how much of what you’re seeing on screen was determined by Sofia’s inexperience as an actress.

And then there’s that opera.  Now, I know that I’m supposed to love opera because I’m a girl and I’m a fourth Italian.  And I do love big emotions and big drama and all the rest.  But oh my God, the opera at the end of the movie went on and on.  There’s only so much entertainment you can get out of watching actors watch other actors.

But, at the same time, for every flaw, there’s a part of the film that does work.  First off, the film itself is gorgeous to look at, with a lot of wonderfully baroque sets and scenes taking place against the beautiful Italian landscape.  Al Pacino brings a very real gravity to the role of Michael and it’s fun to watch him trying to win back Diane Keaton.  (In those brief scenes, The Godfather Part III almost becomes a romantic comedy.)  Talia Shire is obviously having a lot of fun playing Connie as being a Lady MacBeth-type of character.  (In fact, they needed to give Connie a film of her own where she could poison anyone who get on her nerves.)  And Andy Garcia does a great job as Vincent.  You watch him and you never have any doubt that he could be Sonny’s son.

The Godfather Part III may not live up to the first two Godfather films but what film could?

Scenes I Love: Jackie Brown


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Latest “Scenes I Love” comes courtesy of Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson.

There’s nothing else to say other than: “AK-47, the very best there is. When you absolutely, positively, got to kill every motherfucker in the room; accept no substitutes.”

Now, that is true since the venerable rifle designed by the late and great Mikhail Kalashnikov sprays all over the place like a freshman seeing a naked girl live for the very first time. Now, his comments about the .45 was a tad misleading. The .45 will jam once in awhile, but not more than any other firearm and the fact it’s still one of the most sought after and popular handguns in the world speaks to the creative genius that is John Browning.