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The Hot Spot is a heavily stylized film noir, one in which the the traditional fog and shadows have been replaced by clouds of dust and blinding sunlight.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.

Trailer – Top Gun: Maverick


Maverick is back in the skies in Top Gun: Maverick. In the newly released trailer, it looks like Pete Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is still flying after all these years, which explains why he isn’t an Admiral by now. He still has that old motorcycle, though it looks like he rides a newer one and we’re seeing F-18 Hornets in combat, which should be cool. Tomcats are also still in flight, bless the angels.

Not much is known about Top Gun: Maverick save that Christopher McQuarrie (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Mission Impossible: Fallout) has the writing duties here along with a few others. The directing duties are tied to Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy). Kosinski and Cruise also worked together on Oblivion.

Top Gun: Maverick also stars Academy Award Winner Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Lewis Pullman, Ed Harris and Val Kilmer.

The movie will be released in theatres next Summer.

Enjoy.

Shattered Politics #50: Once Upon A Time In America (dir by Sergio Leone)


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Before I start this review of Sergio Leone’s 1984 gangster epic, Once Upon A Time In America, I want to issue two warnings.

First off, this review is going to have spoilers.  I’ve thought long and hard about it.  Usually, I try to avoid giving out spoilers but, in this case, there’s no way I can write about this movie without giving away a few very important plot points.  So, for those of you who don’t want to deal with spoilers, I’ll just say now that Once Upon A Time In America is a great film and it’s one that anyone who is serious about film must see.

Secondly, I’m not going to be able to do justice to this film.  There’s too much to praise and too much going on in the film for one simple blog post to tell you everything that you need to know.  Once Upon A Time In America is the type of film that books should be written about, not just mere blog posts.  Any words that I type are not going to be able to match the experience of watching this film.

For instance, I can tell you that, much as he did with his classic Spaghetti westerns, Sergio Leone uses the conventions of a familiar genre to tell an epic story about what it means to be poor and to be rich in America.  But you’ll never truly understand just how good a job Leone does until you actually see the film, with its haunting images of the poverty-stricken Jewish ghetto in 1920s New York and it’s surreal climax outside the mansion of a very rich and very corrupt man.

I can tell you that Ennio Morricone’s score is one of his best but you won’t truly know that until you hear it while gazing at Robert De Niro’s blissfully stoned face while the final credits roll up the screen.

I can tell you that the film’s cast is amazing but you probably already guessed that when you saw that it featured Robert De Niro, James Woods, Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Elizabeth McGovern, and Jennifer Connelly.  But, again, it’s only after you’ve seen the film that you truly understand just how perfectly cast it actually is.  Given the politics of Hollywood and the fact that he’s unapologetically critical of Barack Obama, it’s entirely possible that James Woods might never appear in another major motion picture.  A film like Once Upon A Time in America makes you realize what a loss that truly is.

So, if you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to see it.  Order it off of Amazon.  Do the one day shipping thing.  Pay the extra money, the film is worth it.

Much like The Godfather, Part II (and Cloud Atlas, for that matter), Once Upon A Time In America tells several different stories at once, jumping back and forth from the past to the present and onto to the future.

The film’s “past” is 1920.  Noodles (Scott Tiler) is a street kid who lives in New York’s ghetto.  He makes a living by doing small jobs for a local gangster and occasionally mugging a drunk.  He’s also the head of his own gang, made up of Patsy (Brian Bloom), Cockeye (Adrian Curry), and Dominic (Noah Moazezi).  Despite his rough edges, Noodles has a crush on Deborah (Jennifer Connelly), a refined girl who practices ballet in the back of her family’s store.  When Nooldes meets Max (Rusty Jacobs), the two of them become quick friends.  However, their criminal activities are noticed by the demonic Bugsy (James Russo), who demands any money that they make.

The film’s “present” is 1932.  Noodles (Robert De Niro) has spent twelve years in prison and, when he’s released, he discovers that some things have changed but some have remained the same.  Max (James Woods), Cockeye (William Forsythe), and Patsy (James Hayden) are still criminals but they’ve prospered as bootleggers.  Occasionally, they do jobs for a local gangster named Frankie (Joe Pesci) and sometimes, they just rob banks on their own.  During one such robbery, they meet a sado-masochistic woman named Carol (Tuesday Weld), who quickly becomes Max’s girlfriend.

As for Noodles, he continues to love Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern). But, when he discovers that she’s leaving New York to pursue a career as an actress, he reveals his true nature and rapes her.  It’s a devastating scene — both because all rape scenes are (or, at the very least, should be) devastating but also because it forces us to ask why we expected Noodles to somehow be better than the men who surround him.  After spending nearly two hours telling ourselves that Noodles is somehow better than his friends and his activities, the movie shows us that he’s even worse.  And, when we look back, we see that there was no reason for us to believe that Noodles was a good man.  It’s just what we, as an audience, wanted to believe.  After all, we all love the idea of the romanticized gangster, the dangerous man with a good heart who has been forced into a life of crime by his circumstances and who can be saved by love.  In that scene, Once Upon A Time In America asks us why audiences continue to romanticize men like Noodles and Max.

As for the gang, they’re hired to serve as unofficial bodyguards for labor leader Jimmy O’Donnell (Treat Williams) and, in their way, help to found the modern American labor movement.  (“I shed some blood for the cause,” Patsy says while showing off a huge bandage on his neck.) When fascistic police chief Aiello (Danny Aiello) needs to be taken down a notch, they kidnap his newborn son and hold him for ransom.  (While pulling off this crime, they also manages to switch around all the babies and, as a result, poor babies go home with rich families and vice versa, neatly highlighting both the power of class and the randomness of fate.)  However, the good times can’t last forever and, when prohibition is repealed, the increasingly unstable Max has to find a new way to make some money.

Finally, the film’s third storyline (the “future” storyline) takes place in 1967.  Noodles has spent decades living under a false identity in Buffalo.  When he gets a letter addressed to his real name, Noodles realizes that someone knows who he is.  He returns to a much changed New York.  Carol now lives in a retirement home.  Deborah is an acclaimed Broadway actress.  Jimmy O’Donnell is the most powerful union boss in America.  Fat Moe’s Speakeasy is now Fat Moe’s Restaurant.

Once Noodles is back in town, he receives a briefcase full of money and a note that tells him that it’s an advanced payment for his next job.  He also receives an invitation to a party that’s being held at the home of Christopher Bailey, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

Who is Secretary Bailey?  He’s a shadowy and powerful figure and he’s also a man who is at the center of a political scandal that has turned violent.  And, when Noodles eventually arrives at the party, he also discovers that Secretary Bailey is none other than his old friend Max.

How did a very Jewish gangster named Max transform himself into being the very WASPy U.S. Secretary of Commerce?  That’s a story that the film declines to answer and it’s all the better for it.  What doesn’t matter is how Max became Bailey.  All that matters is that he did.  And now, he has one final favor to ask Noodles.

(There’s a very popular theory that all of the 1967 scenes are actually meant to be a hallucination on Noodles’s part.  And the 1967 scenes are surreal enough that they very well could be.  Though you do have to wonder how Noodles in 1932 could hallucinate the Beatles song that is heard when he returns to New York in 1967.)

Once Upon A Time In America is an amazing film, an epic look at crime, business, and politics in America.  It’s a film that left me with tears in my eyes and questions in my mind.  The greatness of the film can not necessarily be put into words.  Instead, it’s a film that everyone needs to see.

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So, was Noah good or not?


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Was Noah a good movie or not?

That’s a question that was first asked way back in March.  At the time, the answer depended on who you asked.  For instance, Noah is one of Arleigh’s favorite films of the year.  My reaction, however, was far more mixed.  Noah was one of those movies that I thought I would review as soon as I watched it but that proved to be a lot more difficult than I expected.  As I found myself wondering what I should say in my review, it became very apparent to me that I wasn’t sure whether I liked the film or not.

By the time that I finally decided that I was, overall, disappointed by Darren Aronofsky’s controversial and spiritual-but-not-quite-biblical version of the Deluge, over a month had passed and we had all moved on to different movies.

And so that review remained unwritten.  And, at first, I thought it wouldn’t matter.  As much as I try to review every single movie that I see, I know that the world is not going to end if I miss a film or two.  After all, I’ve never specifically written down just how much I hated the latest Transformers movie and the world has yet to plunge into the sun…

And yet, for all of its flaws and the fact that it left me feeling underwhelmed, Noah has stuck in my mind in a way that many of the films that I saw this year have not.  It would be a struggle for me to remember much of anything about Dracula Untold but Noah Noah has stayed with me.

Thinking back, it’s easy for me to say what did not work about Noah.

As opposed to Aronofsky’s best films (Requiem for A Dream, The Wrestler, and my beloved Black Swan), Noah felt oddly paced with certain scenes ending too quickly while other scenes seemed to drag on forever.

The film’s environmental message was delivered with such a heavy hand that it ultimately did not make much of a difference whether you agreed or not.  For a film that went out of its way to establish itself as not being a traditional biblical film, Noah was certainly preachy.

While the film deserves credit for not flinching in its portrait of a surly and self-righteous Noah, it still doesn’t change the fact that the movie was essentially 138 minutes spent with a very unlikable character.

Anthony Hopkins gave perhaps the worst performance of his career as Methuselah.  In the role of Tubal-Cain, Ray Winstone was such a one-dimensional villain that I half expected him to invent trains just so he could tie Emma Watson to the tracks.

And, of course, there were the Watchers — fallen angels who had been turned into sentient piles of stone by a vengeful God.  I know that some people loved the Watchers but to me, they looked ludicrous…

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And yet, that’s the reason why we love Darren Aronofsky, isn’t it?

Obviously, it was a risk to portray the fallen angels as being a bunch of talking rocks.  It was also a risk to take a character who is mentioned only once in the book of Genesis — in this case, Tubal-Cain — and then use that character as a representation of everything that’s wrong with the human race.  It was a risk to make a “biblical” film that openly questioned both the existence and wisdom of God.  We expect and demand that directors take risks but, at the same time, we also want to ridicule and judge when those risks don’t work out.  That’s the issue that we, as film lovers, often face.  Do we celebrate and perhaps excuse a director for his intentions or do we solely judge him based on the results?

And the thing with Noah is that, as much as the movie did not work for me, it also did work for me.  For all of those flaws that I listed above, Noah is full of images that are so beautiful and so memorable that I can still visualize them as if I saw them yesterday:

Noah and his sons walk across a gray and blasted landscape, stopping just long enough to stare at a foreboding city in the distance.

Noah walks through a decadent settlement and briefly, this somber film is so full of bright colors and flamboyant characters that the viewer is almost as overwhelmed as Noah.

That Ark, looking small and isolated, floating across an endless blue ocean.

And finally, Noah talking about the horrors of humanity and briefly, we see that the shadows that he’s visualizing are dressed in modern clothing.

For all of my issues with Noah, it’s such a visually impressive film and takes so many risks that I can’t help but respect it.  I don’t consider it to be a great film but, after all this time, I can say that it’s a film that only a true artist could make.

And, considering the current state of American film, that’s one of the best compliments that one can give.

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A Late Film Review: Winter’s Tale (dir by Akiva Goldsman)


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I liked Winter’s Tale.

And I don’t care what anybody else says!

And that’s a good thing too because, critically, Winter’s Tale has been one of the most maligned movies of 2014.  It came out on Valentine’s Day, at the same time as Endless Love.  And the critics absolutely hated it!  For a while there, the online film community was taking bets on which one of the two Valentine’s Day releases would end up with the lowest score on Rotten Tomatoes.  And, though it was a close race, Winter’s Tale actually ended up with the lower score, coming in at 13% as opposed to Endless Love‘s 15%.

That’s right — according to most mainstream film critics, Winter’s Tale was actually worse than Endless Love.

Well, those critics were wrong.  That’s how I felt when I first saw Winter’s Tale and, after watching it a second time on HBO, that’s still how I feel.  Winter’s Tale is not a bad movie!

(Incidentally, Winter’s Tale has a 6.2 rating over at the imdb, which would seem to indicate that I’m not the only person who knows better than Peter Travers.)

Admittedly, the plot of Winter’s Tale does not make much logical sense but that’s kind of the point.  It’s a tale and tales are not about being realistic.  Tales are about emotion and the whole point of listening to or telling a tale is to inspire feelings. To truly appreciate Winter’s Tale, you have to understand that this is a fairy tale that happens to be set in the most mythical of American cities, New York.

Opening in 1895 and ending in 2014, Winter’s Tale tells the story of Peter Lake (Colin Farrell).  When Peter was an infant, his immigrant parents were refused entry into Manhattan because they both had tuberculosis.  So, they put Peter in a toy boat and dropped him into ocean and watched as the boat slowly floated towards America.

Jump forward 21 years and Peter has grown up to be a thief, working for a gangster named Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe).  What few people know is that Pearly is actually a demon who regularly visits his boss, Luicfer (played by Will “Yes, that Will Smith” Smith).  Pearly is immortal as long as he stays in New York City.

When Peter decides that he wants to leave Pearly’s gang, Pearly orders that Peter be killed.  However, while fleeing from the rest of the gang, Peter is rescued by a flying white horse.  While Peter’s first instinct is to fly the horse out of New York and spend the winter in Florida, he instead decides to rob one more mansion.  (It helps that the horse literally takes him to the mansion.)

While robbing the mansion, Peter meets Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), a passionate and talented pianist who is dying of tuberculosis.  In what is literally a case of love at first sight, Peter forgets about robbing the mansion and instead has a cup of tea with Beverly.  They discuss their lives and Beverly tells Peter that everyone has a miracle inside of them and that everyone becomes a star after dying.

Soon, Peter and Beverly are a couple and Peter even manages to win over Beverly’s suspicious father, Isaac (William Hurt).  Peter and Beverly spend the winter at her family’s summer home.  Peter believes that his miracle is to save Beverly.  Meanwhile, an angry Pearly waits for his chance to get revenge…

Now, I will admit that there are some obvious flaws with Winter’s Tale.  Russell Crowe goes totally overboard, with his accent wildly going from Australian to New Yorkish to Scottish and back again.  Meanwhile, Will Smith is not necessarily a bad choice to play the devil and he actually gives a pretty good performance but it doesn’t chance the fact that, whenever he’s on screen, all you can think about is that he’s Will Smith and he’s playing the devil.

But, honestly, who cares?  This is an amazingly romantic film and Farrell and Findlay have a lot of chemistry.  When you see them together, you have no doubt that Peter and Beverly are meant to be together.  You care about them as a characters, even if you don’t always understand everything that’s happening around them.  Their love feels real and, when it comes to telling a love story, isn’t that the most important thing?

(Add to that, does any actor fall in love as convincingly as Colin Farrell?)

And the film itself is gorgeous!  From the costumes to the set design to Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography, the film is just beautiful to look at.  Undoubtedly, cynics would argue that the film is almost too glossy in its appearance but Winter’s Tale is not a film for cynics.  It’s a film for romantics.

So, yes,  I did like Winter’s Tale and I am not ashamed to admit it.

Embracing the Melodrama #45: Inventing the Abbotts (dir by Pat O’Connor)


First released in 1997, Inventing the Abbotts is a small town, romantic melodrama about two families in the 1950s.  One family is poor.  One family is rich.  As you can probably guess, each is fated to determine the destiny of the other.

Decades ago, Lloyd Abbott (Will Patton) and Holt were business partners.  However, after Lloyd had an affair with Holt’s wife (Kathy Baker), their friendship ended.  Lloyd eventually becomes the richest man in town and has three beautiful daughters: dutiful Alice (Joanna Going), wild Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly), and virginal Pam (Liv Tyler).  Holt is long since dead and his two sons, Jacey (Billy Crudup) and Doug (Joaquin Phoenix) live next door to the Abbotts.  While the bitter Jacey is obsessed with the Abbott family and ends up pursuing both Eleanor and the married Alice, Doug claims not to care about the Abbotts.  However, despite his claimed indifference, Doug soon finds himself falling in love with Pam.  Will Doug and Pam be together or will Lloyd succeed in keeping them apart?

To be honest, Inventing the Abbotts is not a particularly good film.  It moves way too slowly, Doug and Jacey frequently swtich personalities whenever the plot demands it, the story is way too predictable, the voice over narration is way too obvious, and Jennifer Connelly’s character leaves the film way too early.  This is one of those films that is determined to make sue that you never forget that it’s taking place in the 50s and you can be sure that every cliché that you associate with that decade will pop up at least once.  There are a few scenes that could have been easily been replaced with a picture of Joaquin Phoenix holding a sign reading, “It’s the 50s,” without causing us to miss out on any important information.

And yet, I still liked Inventing the Abbotts.  I think it really comes down to the fact that I’m the youngest of four sisters and therefore, I have a weakness for movies about sisters.  And the sisters in Inventing the Abbotts are all perfectly cast and believable as siblings so, for me, the movie was redeemed because of the number of scenes to which anyone who is a sister or who has a sister will be able to relate.

As such, despite its flaws, Inventing the Abbotts is definitely a guilty pleasure for me.

Your results may vary.

Inventing the Abbotts

Scenes I Love: Noah


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One of the best films (at least in this blogger’s honest opinion) of the year also happens to be one of it’s most controversial. It’s Darren Aronofsky’s follow-up to his equally critically-acclaimed and just as controversial Black Swan. I am speaking of his Biblical epic Noah and the story of the Flood.

It’s a film that doesn’t feel religious yet full of spirituality. It’s a film that dares to take a look at text seen as hallowed by billions in a way that doesn’t take a stand on the debate of science versus religion (though some feel that Aronofsky’s atheist background paints the film on the side of science). Noah has a scene in the beginning of it’s third act (one that some have called the dealbreaker for how they thought of the film in the end) that best exemplifies the conjoining of science and religion. It’s the best retelling of the Creation Story that I’ve heard and/or seen.

Courtesy of Protozoa Pictures…The Creation scene from Noah.