Film Review: To Die For (dir by Gus Van Sant)


The 1995 satire, To Die For, is a very clever film about some seriously stupid people.

Of course, you could debate whether or not Suzanne Stone-Maretto (Nicole Kidman) is actually dumb or not.  Suzanne may not know much about anything that isn’t on TV but she does have a natural understanding for what makes a good story.  She knows exactly the type of story that the public wants to hear and she does a good job of faking all of the right emotions.  As she proves throughout the course of the film, she’s also very good at convincing people to do stuff.  Whether it’s convincing the local television station to put her on the air as a weather person or convincing two teenagers to murder her husband, Suzanne always seems to get what she wants.

Of course, what Suzanne really wants is to be a celebrity.  She wants to be a star.  As she explains it, that’s the greatest thing about America.  Anyone can become a star if they just try hard enough and find the right angle.  If the film were made today, Suzanne would be a social media junkie.  Since the movie was made in 1995, she has to settle for talk shows and murder.

So maybe Suzanne isn’t that dumb but her husband, Larry (Matt Dillon) …. well, if we’re going to be honest, Larry’s more naive than dumb.  He’s the favored son of a big Italian family and it’s obviously never occurred to him that a woman would possibly want something more than just a husband and a lot of children.  He thinks it’s cute that Suzanne’s on TV but he’s also fully convinced that she’s going to eventually settle down and focus on starting a family.  It never occurs to him that his wife would be willing to sacrifice him on her way to stardom.

Of course, if you really want to talk about dumb, just check out the teenagers who Suzanne recruits to kill her husband.  They’ve been appearing in a documentary that Suzanne’s been shooting.  The documentary’s title is “Teens Speak Out,” which is something of an ironic title since none of the teens that Suzanne interviews really has anything to say.  Lydia (Allison Folland) is just happy that the “glamorous” Suzanne is pretending to care about her.  Russell (Casey Affleck) is the type of grinning perv who drops a pen just so he can try to get a peek up Suzanne’s skirt while he’s on the floor retrieving it.  And then there’s Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), with his flat voice and his blank stare.  Jimmy is briefly Suzanne’s lover before he ends up in prison for murdering her husband.  It doesn’t take much to convince Jimmy to commit murder, either.  Apparently, all you have to do is dance to Lynard Skynard while it’s raining outside.  Media interviews with Lydia, Jimmy, Suzanne, and Larry’s sister (Ileana Douglas) are sprinkled throughout the film and Jimmy continues to insist that he will always love Suzanne.

As for Suzanne, she’s got stardom to worry about….

Though the subject matter is a bit familiar and the film, made before the age of Twitter and Instagram, is a bit dated, To Die For‘s satire still carries a powerful bite.  One need only watch A&E or the Crime and Investigation network to see that Suzanne was absolutely correct when she decided that killing her husband would make her a star.  If To Die For were made today, you could easily imagine Suzanne leveraging her infamy into an appearance on Dancing With The Stars and maybe Celebrity Big Brother.  At the very least. she could get her own house hunting show on HGTV.  Delivering her often sociopathic dialogue with a perky smile and a positive attitude, Nicole Kidman is absolutely chilling as Suzanne.  Meanwhile, Joaquin Phoenix’s blank stare will continue to haunt you long after the film ends.

And speaking of endings, To Die For has a great one.  You’ll never hear Season of the Witch the same way again!

Little Red Riding Hood On Acid: Freeway (1996, directed by Matthew Bright)


Vanessa Lutz (Reese Witherspoon) may not be able to read but she ain’t dumb.

When her mother (Amanda Plummer) gets arrested for prostitution and her stepfather (Michael T. Weiss) goes to jail for meth possession, Vanessa knows that it’s time to leave South Los Angeles and go to her grandmother in Stockton.  She puts on her red jacket, packs her possession in a picnic basket, and heads for the freeway.  Vanessa is determined to get to grandmother’s house and she’s not going to let anyone stop her.  Not the police.  Not the gangbangers who murdered her boyfriend, Chopper (Bookeem Woodbine).  And certainly not Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), the psychiatrist who moonlights as the I-5 killer.

An audaciously wild take on the story of Little Red Riding Hood, Freeway used to be a HBO mainstay, where it developed the cult following that it retains to this very day.  The violence is graphic and the humor is often viscous but Reese Witherspoon has never been better than she was in the role of the loud and unapologetically profane Vanessa Lutz.  Whether she’s cussing up a storm or shooting a pervert in the face or plotting her escape from jail, Vanessa is a whirlwind of nonstop energy and it is impossible not to get swept up with her.  Witherspoon has since won an Oscar and appeared in all sorts of “prestige” pictures but she’s never had a better role than she did in Freeway.

Witherspoon is such a force of a nature that she dominates the film but the rest of the cast is interesting as well, with several familiar faces in small roles.  Sutherland has played so many psychos that it is not a surprise when Bob turns out to be one but he still throws himself into the role.  (Like a cartoon character, it doesn’t matter how badly injured or disfigured Bob gets.  He just keeps on going.)  Dan Hedaya and Wolfgang Bodison play detectives.  Alanna Urbach and Brittany Murphy play two inmates who Witherspoon meets in prison.  Brooke Shields has a small role as Bob’s unsuspecting wife and is convincingly clueless.

Ultimately, though, the movie belongs to Reese Witherspoon.  Vanessa might not always be pleasant to be around but she’s so determined to make it to grandmother’s house but you can’t help but be on her side.  She’s the Little Red Riding Hood that we all deserve.

Embracing The Melodrama Part III #7: True Confessions (dir by Ulu Grosbard)


The 1981 film True Confessions tells many different stories.

It’s a story about Los Angeles.  It’s not necessarily a story about Los Angeles as it exists.  Instead, it’s a story about Los Angeles as we always imagine it.  It’s the late 40s and, having vanquished the Nazis in Europe, men are returning to California and looking for a new life.  Meanwhile, aspiring starlets from across the country flood into Hollywood, looking for stardom.  It’s a city where glitz and ruin exist right next to each other.  It’s the mean streets that were made famous by Raymond Chandler and, decades later, James Ellroy.

It’s a murder mystery, one that is based on one of the most notorious unsolved homicides of all time.  The bisected body of woman named Lois Fazenda has been found in a vacant lot.  When the newspapers discover that Lois was both a prostitute and a Catholic, she becomes known as “the Virgin Tramp.”  One need not have an encyclopedic knowledge of unsolved crimes to recognize that Lois Fazneda is meant to be a stand-in for Elizabeth Short, the tragic and infamous Black Dahlia.

It’s a story about corruption.  Crooked cops.  Rich perverts.  Greedy politicians.  Sinful clergy.  They’re all present and accounted for in True Confessions.  As quickly becomes apparent, Los Angeles is a city where you can do anything as long as you have the money to pay the right people off.

And finally, it’s a film about two brothers.  Tom and Des Spellacy grew up in a strong Irish Catholic family but, as they got older, their lives went in different directions.  Tom (Robert Duvall) became a detective, the type who is willing to cut corners but who, in the end, takes his job seriously.  Des (Robert De Niro) entered the priesthood and is now a monsignor in the Los Angeles diocese.  Des is ambitious and he has a powerful mentor, Cardinal Danaher (Cyril Cusack).

Though Tom and Des have gone their separate ways, they are still linked by Jack Amsterdam (Charles During).  To the public, Jack is a wealthy and respected businessman.  However, Tom and Des both know the truth.  When Tom first joined the department, he worked as a bagman for Jack and he knows that Jack made most of his money through a prostitution ring.  Des know that Jack donates to the Church as way to cover up his own corruption but Des looks the other way.  The Cardinal, after all, wants Jack’s money.

When Tom starts to investigate Lois’s death, it doesn’t take him long to figure out that Jack is probably the one responsible.  Meanwhile, Jack and his lawyer (Ed Flanders) start to pressure Des to convince his brother to let the case go.  Finding justice for Lois Fazneda could mean the end of both Tom and Des’s career.

Based on a novel by John Gregory Dunne, which was adapted into a screenplay by Dunne and Joan Didion, True Confessions is an imperfect but intriguing film.  This is one of Robert Duvall’s best performances and he brings a manic edge to the role that keeps the audience off-balance.  In the role of Jack Amsterdam, Charles Durning is the epitome of casual corruption and Burgess Meredith does a good job as an aging priest.  On the other hand, Robert De Niro seems strangely uncomfortable in the role of Des and you never quite believe that he and Duvall are actually brothers.  Director Ulu Grosbard does a good job of creating a proper noir atmosphere but, at the same time, he denies the audience the dramatic climax to which the film appears to be building up to.

That said, for whatever flaws True Confessions may have, it’s an always watchable and thought-provoking film.

Sundance Film Review: Blood Simple (dir by Joel Coen)


(The 2018 Sundance Film Festival opens tonight!  Over the years, Sundance has become the premiere festival for independent film.  Not only have some of the best American films ever made premiered at Sundance, but it’s become the first stop in many a successful Oscar campaign.  Manchester By The Sea, Whiplash, Brooklyn, Beasts of the Southern Wild: all of them started their journey to a best picture nomination at Sundance.  For the duration of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, from today to the 28th, I’ll be reviewing films that first made a splash at Sundance.)

Blood Simple is an essential film.

If you love American movies, this is a movie that you have to see.  A delirious tribute to film noir, it’s a film that takes place in the darkest corners of America.  This is a film that shows that stories of love, betrayal, and murder can be just as complicated in the middle of America as in California and New York.

If you’re fascinated by the history of indie cinema, Blood Simple is a film that you have to see.  Joel and Ethan Coen, at a time when they were best known for their work with director Sam Raimi, created a trailer for Blood Simple long before they shot the actual movie.  They used this trailer to raise the film’s small budget.  Blood Simple was not only their directorial debut (though only Joel received a directorial credit, while the screenplay was credited to Ethan) but it was also both the feature debut of Frances McDormand and cinematographer (and future director) Barry Sonnenfeld’s first major credit as well.

If, like me, you love films about Texas, Blood Simple is an essential.  Long before they made No Country For Old Men, the Coens filmed Blood Simple in Texas.  Texas is as much a character in Blood Simple as Minnesota and the Dakotas were in Fargo.  Along with their twisty crime plots, Fargo, No Country, and Blood Simple all share a similarly cynical and fatalistic view of human nature, one that is perfectly reflected by the bleak locations where their stories take place.  Watching Blood Simple, it’s easy to imagine that, once the film ended, it fell to No Country‘s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell to laconically look over the carnage and try to figure out what the Hell just happened.

Like many Coen Brothers films, Blood Simple starts out simply and then gets progressively more and more complicated.  Almost all of those complications are due to a combination of human stupidity and greed.  Abby (Frances McDormand) and Ray (John Getz) are having an affair.  Abby’s husband, Marty (Dan Hedaya), owns the bar where Ray works as a bartender.  Marty hires a sleazy private detective named Loren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) to kill Abby and Ray.  Visser has other plans.  By the end of the movie, almost everyone is dead but no one’s sure why.

The film largely serves as a showcase for Walsh, so much so that McDormand, Hedaya and Getz run the risk of getting lost in the shuffle.  That’s a shame, because all three give excellent performances.  McDormand brings strength and determination to the role of Abby.  Meanwhile, both Getz and Hedaya play two very familiar types.  Anyone who has spent any time in Texas will immediately recognize the characters played by Getz and Hedaya.  Ray may not be the smartest guy in the world but he’ll keep your car running and your glass full.  He’s probably never going to amount too much but he’s what is universally known as a good guy.  On the other hand, Marty, as played by Hedaya, is perhaps one of the most pathetic characters to ever appear in an American film.  Film noirs are full of betrayed husbands but it’s hard to think of a bigger loser than Marty.  Marty is the guy who tries to act tough but even he secretly knows that no one will ever take him seriously.  With the combination of his northern accent and his pathetic attempts to dress “western,” Marty is an outsider in Texas, one who is too stupid to realize just how far outside he actually is.

That said, the film is dominated by M. Emmett Walsh.  As played by Walsh, Loren Visser is one half sleazy redneck and one half demon from Hell.  Speaking in a sarcastic drawl and seemingly amused by all the chaos he has created, Walsh turns Visser into a truly fascinating villain.  He may be evil but you can’t stop watching him.  Walsh’s best moment is also his last in the film, a sarcastic one-liner that suggests that everything that has happened was caused more for his own amusement than anything else.  Visser is clever but not even he can escape the random whims of fate.

Violent and, as is typical for the Coens, darkly humorous, Blood Simple won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival.  Though it was only a modest box office success, it not only launched the careers of the Coen Brothers but continues to be on the most influential independent films ever made.  The film remains impressive today.  Whenever I see it, I’m always stunned to see how, even with their first film, the Coens had already developed their own very unique aesthetic.

Blood Simple is an essential film.

A Movie A Day #263: Running Scared (1986, directed by Peter Hyams)


Running Scared is weird but good.

Ray Hughes (Gregory Hines!) and Danny Costanzo (Billy Crystal!!!) are two tough detectives in Chicago.  All they want to do is three things: retire, open a bar in Florida, and bust Chicago’s most ruthless drug dealer, Julio Gonzalez (Jimmy Smits).  Their captain (Dan Hedaya) wants them to leave for Florida as soon as possible but they are determined to take down Julio first.’

There are two strange things about this otherwise formulaic crime film.  First off, the two tough cops are played by Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal.  According to the film’s Wikipedia page, director Peter Hyams realized that Running Scared‘s plot was nothing special so he decided that the only way to make the movie stand out was by doing it “with two actors you would not normally expect to see in an action movie.”  The other strange thing is that Hyams’s gambit worked.  Gregory Hines may have been best known as a dancer and Billy Crystal as a comedian but both of them were surprisingly believable as Chicago cops.  Running Scared is actually one of Billy Crystal’s best performances.  For once, he’s believable as being someone other than a version of himself.  Even his frequent one liners seem like something that a detective would say instead of Crystal recycling punch lines from his act.  Whether they are chasing down perps and firing their guns at a moving vehicle, Hines and Crystal are never less than credible as action stars.  Lorenzo Lamas has got nothing on the team of Hines and Crystal.

Predictable though it may be, Running Scared is one of the better late 80s cop films.  The action scenes are exciting and Hyams does a good job capturing the grittiness of Chicago.  Jimmy Smits is a good villain and Joe Pantoliano, Steven Bauer, and Jon Gries all shine in supporting roles.  Keep an eye out for the always underrated Darlanne Fluegel, playing Danny’s ex-wife.

A Movie A Day #157: Pacific Heights (1990, directed by John Schlesinger)


Michael Keaton is the tenant from Hell in Pacific Heights.

In San Francisco, Patty (Melanie Griffith) and Drake (Matthew Modine) have just bought an old and expensive house that they can not really afford.  In order to keep from going broke, they rent out two downstairs apartments.  One apartment is rented by a nice Japanese couple.  The other apartment is rented by Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton).  Carter convinces Patty and Drake not to check his credit by promising to pay the 6 months rent up front.  The money, he tells them, is coming via wire transfer.

The money never arrives but Carter does.  Once he moves into the apartment, Carter changes the locks so that no one but him can get in.  At all hours of the day and night, he can be heard hammering and drilling inside the apartment.  Even worse, he releases cockroaches throughout the building.  When Drake demands that Carter leave, the police back up Carter.  After goading Drake into attacking him, Carter gets a restraining order.  Drake is kicked out of his home, leaving Patty alone with their dangerous tenant.

Pacific Heights is the ultimate upper middle class nightmare: Buy a house that you can not really afford and then end up with a tenant who trashes the place to such an extent that the property value goes down.  As a thriller, Pacific Heights would be better if Drake and Patty weren’t so unlikable.  (When this movie was first made, people like Patty and Drake were known as yuppies.)  Much like Drake’s house, the entire movie is stolen by Michael Keaton’s performance as Carter Hayes.  Carter was not an easy role to play because not only did he have to be so convincingly charming that it was believable that he could rent an apartment just by promising a wire payment but he also had to be so crazy that no one would doubt that he would deliberately infest a house with cockroaches.  Michael Keaton has not played many bad guys in his career but his performance as Carter Hayes knocked it out of the park.

One final note: Keep an eye out for former Hitchcock muse (and Melanie Griffith’s mother) Tippi Hedren, playing another one of Carter’s potential victims.  Her cameo here is better than her cameo in In The Cold of the Night.

 

Guilty Pleasure No. 28: Swimfan (dir by John Polson)


Oh my God, y’all — Swimfan was on last night!

Do you remember Swimfan?  It originally came out in 2002 and it starred Jesse Bradford, the hot guy from Bring It On, and Erika Christensen, the drug addicted runaway from Traffic.  The movie is like a high school version of Fatal Attraction.  Jesse swims for the high school swim team.  Erika is a psycho stalker who is obsessed with swimmers.  Chaos follows.

I was on a high school date when I first saw Swimfan.  Fortunately, the movie offered up some very important life lessons.

Probably the film’s most important lesson was that you should always put out because, if you don’t, your dumbass boyfriend is going to end up cheating on you with some psycho bitch who is going to go all obsessive on his ass and end up framing him for murder.  When Swimfan starts, Ben (Jesse Bradford!) is dating Amy (Shiri Appleby) and they’re a cute couple but Amy is more into studying and planning for the future than in having sex with Ben.

So, of course, Ben ends up cheating on her with the new girl at school, Madison Bell (Erika Christensen).  He does this despite the fact that Madison is obviously unbalanced from the minute that he meets her, has a major case of the crazy eyes, and tends to come across as being a little bit robotic.  It’s only one night and Ben says that he feels terrible about it but Madison still decides that Ben is her man now.

It all leads to this scene:

(I have to admit that the artful placement of the camera in this scene makes me laugh every time.  The filmmakers were obviously really determined to get that PG-13 rating.  Also, just a little tip — if you’re taking nudes for your man, try smiling.)

When Ben keeps rejecting her, Madison conspires to get him kicked off the swim team.  She also kills the swimmer who takes Ben’s place on the team and frames Ben for the crime.  (The exact same thing happened to Michael Phelps but you never hear about it because all the media wants to talk about is that time he got his picture taken at that party.)  And then she tries to kill Amy and, the movie tells us, this all could have been avoided if only Amy hadn’t spent so much time worrying about which college to go to.  Keep your man happy, girls, the movie tells us, or be prepared to deal with the consequences. Boys will be boys!

The other life lesson is that you should really learn how to swim.  Since this movie is called Swimfan and it features a gigantic subplot about swimming, you can already guess that it’s all going to end with a big fight in a pool.  Ben can swim.  Madison and Amy can’t.  Can you guess what happens?  Watching Swimfan last night reminded me that I still need to learn how to swim.  Thank you, Swimfan!

Anyway, Swimfan is definitely a guilty pleasure.  I mean, if you want to get technical about it, this is a really, really bad movie.  The plot is derivative of every single stalker thriller that you’ve ever seen.  Jesse Bradford is pretty good but Erika Christensen appears to be in a daze.  And yet, whenever I see that it’s on, I can’t help but watch it.  Some of it, of course, is because Swimfan appeals to the same nostalgia that still causes me to sing …Baby One More Time, at the top of my lungs, whenever I’m driving home despite the fact that Britney’s later songs are so much better.  But beyond the nostalgia appeal, Swimfan is just so ludicrous and silly and over the top.  How can you not be a fan of Swimfan?

Swimfanposter

Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly
  26. Project Greenlight
  27. Sex Decoy: Love Stings