Film Review: The Hot Spot (dir by Dennis Hopper)


As befits the title, the 1990 film, The Hot Spot, is all about heat.

There’s the figurative heat that comes from a cast of characters who are obsessed with sex, lies, and murder.  There’s the literal heat that comes from a fire that the film’s “hero” sets in order to distract everyone long enough so that he can get away with robbing a bank.  And, of course, there’s the fact that the film is set in a small Texas town that appears to be the hottest place on Earth.  Every scene in the film appears to be drenched by the sun and, if the characters often seem to take their time from getting from one point to another, that’s because everyone knows better than to rush around when it’s over a hundred degrees in the shade.  As someone who has spent most of her life in Texas, I can tell you that, if nothing else, The Hot Spot captures the feel of what summer is usually like down here.   I’ve often felt that stepping outside during a Texas summer is like stepping into a wall of pure heat.  The Hot Spot takes place on the other side of that wall.

The Hot Spot is a heavily stylized film noir, one in which the the traditional fog and shadows have been replaced by clouds of dust and blinding sunlight.  Harry (Don Johnson) is a drifter who has just rolled into a small Texas town.  Harry’s not too bright but he’s handsome and cocky and who needs to be smart when you’ve got charm?  Harry gets a job selling used cars, though he actually aspires to be a bank robber.  Harry finds himself falling in love with Gloria (Jennifer Connelly), a seemingly innocent accountant who is being blackmailed by the brutish Frank Sutton (William Sadler).  Meanwhile, Harry is also being pursued by his boss’s wife, Dolly (Virginia Madsen), an over-the-top femme fatale who is just as amoral as Harry but who might be a little bit smarter.  Complicating matters is that, while Harry’s trying to rob a bank, he also ends up saving a man’s life.  Only Dolly knows that Harry isn’t the hero that the rest of the town thinks he is.  She tells him that she’ll keep his secret if he does her just one little favor….

The Hot Spot was directed by Dennis Hopper (yes, that Dennis Hopper) and, from the start, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s not really that interested in the film’s story.  Instead, he’s more interested in exploring the increasingly surreal world in which Harry has found himself.  The Hot Spot plays out at a languid pace, which allows Hopper to focus on his cast of small-town eccentrics.  (My particular favorite was Jack Nance as the alcoholic bank president who also doubles as the town’s volunteer fire marshal.)  The film is so hyper stylized that it’s hard not to suspect that every character — with the possible exception of Harry — understands that they’re only characters in a film noir.  For instance, is Dolly really the over-the-top femme fatale that she presents herself as being or is she just a frustrated housewife playing a role?  Is Gloria really an innocent caught up in a blackmail scheme or is she just smart enough to realize that the rules of noir requires her to appear to be Dolly’s opposite?  And is Harry being manipulated or is he allowing himself to be manipulated because, deep down, he understands that’s his destiny as a handsome but dumb drifter in a small town?  Do any of the characters really have any control over their choices and their actions or has everyone’s fate been predetermined by virtue of them being characters in a film noir?  In the end, The Hot Spot is more than just a traditional noir.  It’s also a study of why the genre has endured.

It’s a long and, at times, slow movie, one that plays out at its own peculiar pace.  As a result, some people will be bored out of their mind.  But if you can tap into the film surreal worldview and adjust to the languid style, The Hot Spot is a frequently entertaining and, at times, rather sardonic slice of Texas noir.

Rian Johnson unsheathes the Knives Out Trailer


A filmmaker is sometimes only as good as their last film. If you mentioned director Rian Johnson’s name around 2012, it was probably met with wild applause. After all, he gave us the time travelling thriller Looper, with Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Mentioning Johnson now breeds a bit of contempt after his outing on Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The film was hit with reviews ranging from daring to awful, and most of the Star Wars fanbase don’t think of what he’s done there.

With his newest film, Knives Out, Johnson looks like he’s moving forward. The film appears to be a classic whodunit with a fantastic cast. Christopher Plummer, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Daniel Craig, Don Johnson, Lakeith Stanfield, Michael Shannon, Katherine Langsford, and Jaeden Martell round out the cast list, which is pretty great overall. The story seems to cover the murder of a patriarch, and a family of suspects which reminds me of the classic Infocom game, Deadline.  Hoping for the best with this one.

Enjoy.

Drive-In Saturday Night 3: MACON COUNTY LINE (AIP 1974)/RETURN TO MACON COUNTY (AIP 1975)


cracked rear viewer


Yee-haw! Southern Fried Exploitation was box office gold during the 1970’s, a  genre that usually had one or more of the following elements: race cars, moonshine, redneck sheriffs, scantily clad country girls, shotguns, and/or Burt Reynolds .  One of the foremost practitioners of this art was Max Baer, namesake son of the heavyweight boxer and erstwhile Jethro Bodine of TV’s THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, who scored a surprise hit when he produced, wrote, and costarred in 1974’s MACON COUNTY LINE.

The story’s set in the 50’s, complete with some vintage tunes on the soundtrack (The Chords’ “Sh-Boom”, Laverne Baker’s “Jim Dandy”, Big Joe Turner’s “Corrine, Corrina”). “The story is true”, reads a pre-credits scrawl, “only the names have been changed” (Actually, the story was concocted by Baer and director Richard Compton, but what the hey…). Brothers Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by brothers Alan and Jesse Vint ) are a pair…

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The TSL’s Grindhouse: A Boy And His Dog (dir by L.Q. Jones)


(Nearly every Saturday night, the Late Night Movie Gang and I watch a movie.  On January 20th, we watched the 1975 science fiction satire, A Boy and His Dog.)

A Boy and His Dog begins, quite literally, with a bang.  A bang followed by a mushroom cloud.  And then a second mushroom cloud.  And then another.  And another.  When the explosions finally stop, we are informed that World War IV only lasted five days.  Of course, it destroyed most of society.  The year is now 2024 and … well, things aren’t great.

(For those of you keeping track, that means we’ve got another six years left.  Enjoy them!)

The world is now a barren wasteland, an endless stretch of desert.  There are a handful of survivors but they’re not exactly the types who you would want to survive an apocalypse.  Take Vic, for instance.  Vic (played by Don Johnson) is an absolute moron.  He can’t read.  He’s not very good at thinking.  He has no conscience.  He’s someone who kills and rapes without giving it a second thought.  When Vic isn’t scavenging for food and supplies, he’s obsessing on sex.  When we first meet him, the only thing redeeming about Vic is that almost everyone else in the world is even worse than he is.

That Vic has managed to survive for as long as he has is something of a minor miracle.  Vic has been lucky enough to team up with a dog named Blood.  Blood is not only surprisingly intelligent but he’s also telepathic.  Unfortunately, the same experiment that granted him telepathy also caused him to lose his instinct as a hunter.  So, Blood and Vic have an arrangement.  Vic keeps Blood supplied with food and Blood helps Vic track down women.

Blood’s voice is provided by actor Tim McIntire and, from the minute we first hear him, it becomes obvious that Blood may be cute on the outside but, on the inside, it’s a totally different story.  Blood rarely has a good word for anyone or anything.  He delights in annoying Vic, calling him “Albert” while still demanding that Vic get him food.  He’s a surprisingly well-read dog but you wouldn’t necessarily want to get stuck in a kennel with him.  Much as with Vic, Blood’s only redeeming trait is that everyone else is marginally worse than he is.

(Sadly, if there was an apocalypse like the one that starts this movie, most of the survivors probably would be like Vic.  The only people who would survive something like that would be the people who were solely looking out for themselves.)

A Boy and His Dog is a highly episodic film, following Vic and Blood as they wander across the wasteland and bicker.  They fight other scavengers.  They spend a rather depressing night at a makeshift movie theater.  Eventually, they come across a young woman named Quilla June (Suanne Benton).  Blood dislikes her but Vic says he’s in love.  (Mostly, he’s just excited that he’s now having sex regularly.)  Eventually, through a whole series of events, Vic discovers an underground city named Topeka, where everyone wears clown makeup.  The head of the town (Jason Robards) informs Vic that his sperm will be used to impregnate 35 women.  Vic is excited until he finds out that reproduction in Topeka is a matter of artificial insemination.

(Both the wasteland and Topeka are nightmarish in their own different ways.  The wasteland is world without morality or compassion.  Topeka is a world where everyone looks like a mime, there’s always a marching band, and order is maintained by a robot wearing overalls.)

Of course, while Vic is dealing with life underground, Blood waits above ground.  By the end of the film, Vic is forced to make a choice between settling down or remaining loyal to his dog.  It all leads to a final comment from Blood that will either make you laugh or throw a shoe at your TV.  I did both.

A Boy and His Dog is a strange movie.  It definitely isn’t for everyone.  It’s a comedy but the humor is pitch black.  Still, that strangeness — along with the talent of the dog playing Blood and Tim McIntire’s savagely sarcastic voice work — is what makes the film watchable.  There’s literally no other film like A Boy and His Dog.  By the time Vic ends up in Topeka, the film has become almost a fever dream of apocalyptic paranoia and satire.  The ultimate message of the film appears to be that the apocalypse would really suck so let’s try to not blow each other up.

Who can’t get behind that?

 

A Movie A Day #181: Guilty As Sin (1993, directed by Sidney Lumet)


When wealthy playboy David Greenhill (Don Johnson, doing a one-note Michael Douglas impersonation) is accused of throwing his wife out of a window, there’s only one lawyer who he wants to defend him.  Jennifer Haines (Rebecca De Mornay) may have just won a huge case but it is obvious that the only reason that David wants her on his team is because she’s sexy as Hell and David has an obsessive streak.  Still, despite the misgivings of her boyfriend (Stephen Lang) and her mentor (Jack Warden), she takes the case, convinced that she is the only attorney smart enough to be able to get David acquitted.

It becomes very obvious that David is not only probably guilty but that he might be a serial killer as well.  Not only does he start to turn up everywhere that Jennifer goes but, protected by attorney/client privilege, he starts to tell her all of his dark secrets.  Jennifer finds herself trapped into defending an obviously guilty client, one who appears to be setting her up to be his next victim.  Even when he fails to pay her for her services, the trial judge refuses to allow Jennifer to quit the case.

Back in the 90s, Guilty As Sin used to frequently show up on late night HBO and Cinemax.  I always watched because I had a crush on Rebecca De Mornay and I bet I was not alone as far as that’s concerned.  Late night cable is where Guilty As Sin belongs, which makes it strange that this weak and implausible movie was directed by Sidney Lumet.  One of the legitimately great American directors, Lumet directed several classic courtroom thrillers over the course of his career.  Guilty As Sin is not one of them.  This is probably the most impersonal film that Lumet ever made.  Other than the presence of Lumet favorite Jack Warden, there is nothing about Guilty As Sin that would lead anyone to think that it had been directed by the same man responsible for 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, or Prince of the City.

Fortunately, though Guilty As Sin was one of his Lumet’s last films as a director, it was not his final film.  Released in 2007, Lumet’s final film was a crafty thriller called Before The Devil Knows Your Dead, which showed that, at the age of 83, Lumet was still one of the greats and that Guilty As Sin was just a minor bump in an otherwise brilliant career.

6 More Film Reviews From 2014: At Middleton, Barefoot, Divergent, Gimme Shelter, The Other Woman, and more!


Let’s continue to get caught up with 6 more reviews of 6 more films that I saw in 2014!

At Middleton (dir by Adam Rodgers)

“Charming, but slight.”  I’ve always liked that term and I think it’s the perfect description for At Middleton, a dramedy that came out in January and did not really get that much attention.  Vera Farmiga is a businesswoman who is touring colleges with her daughter (Taissa Farmiga, who is actually Vera’s younger sister).  Andy Garcia is a surgeon who is doing the same thing with his son.  All four of them end up touring Middleton College at the same time.  While their respective children tour the school, Vera and Andy end up walking around the campus and talking.  And that’s pretty much the entire film!

But you know what?  Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia are both such good performers and have such a strong chemistry that it doesn’t matter that not much happens.  Or, at the very least, it doesn’t matter was much as you might think it would.

Hence, charming but slight.

Barefoot (dir by Andrew Fleming)

Well, fuck it.

Sorry, I know that’s not the best way to start a review but Barefoot really bothered me.  In Barefoot, Scott Speedman plays a guy who invites Evan Rachel Wood to his brother’s wedding.  The twist is that Wood has spent most of her life in a mental institution.  Originally, Speedman only invites her so that he can trick his father (Treat Williams) into believing that Speedman has finally become a responsible adult.  But, of course, he ends up falling in love with her and Wood’s simple, mentally unbalanced charm brings delight to everyone who meets her.  I wanted to like this film because I love both Scott Speedman and Evan Rachel Wood but, ultimately, it’s all rather condescending and insulting.  Yes, the film may be saying, mental illness is difficult but at least it helped Scott Speedman find love…

On the plus side, the always great J.K. Simmons shows up, playing a psychiatrist.  At no point does he say, “Not my tempo” but he was probably thinking it.

Divergent (dir by Neil Burger)

There’s a lot of good things that can be said about Divergent.  Shailene Woodley is a likable heroine.  The film’s depiction of a dystopian future is well-done. Kate Winslet has fun playing a villain.  Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort are well-cast.  But, ultimately, Divergent suffers from the same problem as The Maze Runner and countless other YA adaptations.  The film never escapes from the shadow of the far superior Hunger Games franchise.  Perhaps, if Divergent had been released first, we’d be referring to the Hunger Games as being a Divergent rip-off.

However, I kind of doubt it.  The Hunger Games works on so many levels.  Divergent is an entertaining adventure film that features a good performance from Shailene Woodley but it’s never anything more than that.  Considering that director Neil Burger previously gave us Interview with the Assassin and Limitless, it’s hard not to be disappointed that there’s not more to Divergent.

Gimme Shelter (dir by Ron Krauss)

Gimme Shelter, which is apparently based on a true story, is about a teenage girl named Apple (Vanessa Hudgens) who flees her abusive, drug addicted mother (Rosario Dawson).  She eventually tracks down her wealthy father (Brendan Fraser), who at first takes Apple in.  However, when he discovers that she’s pregnant, he demands that she get an abortion.  When Apple refuses, he kicks her out of the house.  Apple eventually meets a kindly priest (James Earl Jones) and moves into a shelter that’s run by the tough Kathy (Ann Dowd).

Gimme Shelter came out in January and it was briefly controversial because a lot of critics felt that, by celebrating Apple’s decision not to abort her baby, the movie was pushing an overly pro-life message.  Interestingly enough, a lot of those outraged critics were men and, as I read their angry reviews, it was hard not to feel that they were more concerned with showing off their political bona fides than with reviewing the actual film.  Yes, the film does celebrate Apple’s decision to keep her baby but the film also emphasizes that it was Apple’s decision to make, just as surely as it would have been her decision to make if she had chosen to have an abortion.

To be honest, the worst thing about Gimme Shelter is that it doesn’t take advantage of the fact that it shares its name with a great song by the Rolling Stones.  Otherwise, it’s a well-done (if rather uneven) look at life on the margins.  Yes, the script and the direction are heavy-handed but the film is redeemed by a strong performance from Vanessa Hudgens, who deserves to be known for more than just being “that girl from High School Musical.”

Heaven is For Real (dir by Randall Wallace)

You can tell that Heaven is For Real is supposed to be based on a true story by the fact that the main character is named Todd Burpo.  Todd Burpo is one of those names that’s just so ripe for ridicule that you know he has to be a real person.

Anyway, Heaven Is For Real is based on a book of the same name.  Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is the pastor of a small church in Nebraska.  After Todd’s son, Colton, has a near death experience, he claims to have visited Heaven where he not only met a sister who died before he was born but also had a conversation with Jesus.  As Colton’s story starts to get national attention, Todd struggles to determine whether Colton actually went to Heaven or if he was just having a hallucination.

You can probably guess which side the movie comes down on.

Usually, as a self-described heathen, I watch about zero faith-based movies a year.  For some reason, I ended up watching three over the course of 2014: Left Behind, Rumors of War, and this one.  Heaven is For Real is not as preachy (or terrible) as Left Behind but it’s also not as much fun as Rumors of War.  (Rumors of War, after all, featured Eric Roberts.)  Instead, Heaven Is For Real is probably as close to mainstream as a faith-based movie can get.  I doubt that the film changed anyone’s opinion regarding whether or not heaven is for real but it’s still well-done in a made-for-TV sort of way.

The Other Woman (dir by Nick Cassavetes)

According to my BFF Evelyn, we really liked The Other Woman when we saw it earlier this year.  And, despite how bored I was with the film when I recently tired to rewatch it, we probably did enjoy it that first time.  It’s a girlfriend film, the type of movie that’s enjoyable as long as you’re seeing it for the first time and you’re seeing it with your best girlfriends.  It’s a lot of fun the first time you see it but since the entire film is on the surface, there’s nothing left to discover on repeat viewings.  Instead, you just find yourself very aware of the fact that the film often substitutes easy shock for genuine comedy. (To be honest, I think that — even with the recent missteps of Labor Day and Men, Women, and Children — Jason Reitman could have done wonders with this material.  Nick Cassavetes however…)   Leslie Mann gives a good performance and the scenes where she bonds with Cameron Diaz are a lot of fun but otherwise, it’s the type of film that you enjoy when you see it and then you forget about it.

Film Review: Cold In July (dir by Jim Mickle)


Cold in July

Cold in July, which is currently available OnDemand and also playing in select theaters, is a great film.

To a large extent, you’re simply going to have to take my word about that because to give too much away about this twisty and emotionally resonant thriller would be a crime.  Quite frankly, I’d rather write a vague review than rob you of the pleasure of discovering this film’s secrets for yourself.

Here’s what I can tell you.

Cold In July takes place in east Texas and, speaking as a Texan, it manages to perfectly capture the odd mix of southern gothic and western stoicism that distinguishes that section of Texas from the rest of the state.  Cold in July is one of the best Texas-set films that I’ve ever seen, one that is uniquely Texan and yet still accessible for those viewers who live elsewhere (except maybe for Vermont).  Director Jim Mickle and cinematographer Ryan Samul fill Cold In July with hauntingly beautiful images of the landscape, capturing that unique Texas stillness that can be both tranquil and threatening at the same time.

Michael C. Hall plays Richard Dane, an ordinary guy who, at the start of the film, confronts and kills a burglar who has broken into his house.  While nearly everyone else in town is impressed by Richard’s actions, Richard is haunted by them.  While everyone else tells Richard that he should be proud for standing up against crime, Richard is obsessed with the bloodstains that now decorate his living room wall.  Richard grows even more uneasy when the town’s police chief informs him that the burglar’s father has recently been paroled from Huntsville Prison.

When Richard goes to the burglar’s funeral, he meets the quietly menacing Ben Russell (Sam Shepard).  Ben reveals that Richard killed his son and then goes on to suggest that maybe, in order to even the score, Ben should now go after Richard’s son.  Even after the police agree to protect Richard and his family, it quickly turns out that Ben is a lot more clever than anyone realized…

And that’s all I can tell you about this film’s plot without spoiling the many twists and turns.  I can, however, assure you that anything you may be assuming about this film or the relationship between Richard and Ben is probably incorrect.  This is a film that starts out like an effective but standard thriller and then, about 30 minutes into the action, the story suddenly goes off in an entirely different direction.  The fact that the film manages to pull off such a sudden shift in tone and plot is due to both Mickle’s confident direction and the excellent performances of Hall and Shepard.

I can also tell you that this film features a great and award-worthy supporting performance from Don Johnson.  Johnson plays Jim Bob Luke, a flamboyant private detective who also owns a pig farm and drives a red Cadillac with vanity plates that read “RED BTCH.”  Johnson brings a jolt of life to the film right when it most needs it.  Jim Bob starts out as comic relief but, as the film progresses, Johnson brings a surprising amount of gravitas to the role until finally, Jim Bob is as much the moral center of the story as Tommy Lee Jones was in the thematically similar No Country For Old Men.

Finally, I can tell you that Cold In July is a violent film but it’s not the empty, consequence-free mayhem that you might expect to see in a thriller like this.  It’s hard to explain without giving away too much of the plot but I would have to describe it as almost being “violence with heart.”  Cold In July may be violent but it’s never mindless and that makes all the difference.

As I said, it’s difficult to review Cold In July because to go into too much detail would run the risk of ruining the film’s many surprises.  So, instead, I’ll just say that Cold In July is one of the best films of the year so far.

It’s a film that you, as a lover of cinema, owe it to yourself to see.