Film Review: Unforgettable (dir by John Dahl)


You have to give the makers of the 1996 film, Unforgettable, some credit.  It takes a certain amount of courage to give your movie a title like Unforgettable.  You’re practically asking some snarky critic to comment on the fact that she can’t remember your movie.

Well, I’ll resist the temptation because I can remember enough about this movie to review it.  I saw it a few days ago on This TV and, at first, I was excited because it was a Ray Liotta movie.  Ray Liotta is an entertaining and likable actor who, nowadays, only seems to get cast in small, tough guy roles.  Nowadays, a typical Liotta role seems to be something like the character he played in Killing Me Softly.  He showed up.  He was tough.  He got killed for no good reason.  So, whenever you come across a film in which Liotta gets to do something more than just get shot, you kind of have an obligation to watch.

In Unforgettable, Liotta plays Dr. David Krane, who is haunted by the unsolved murder of his wife.  Fortunately (or perhaps, unfortunately), Dr. Martha Briggs (Linda Fiorentino) has developed a formula that can be used to transfer memories from one person to another.  All you have to do is extract some spinal fluid!  Or something like that.  It doesn’t make any sense to me and I have to admit that I kinda suspect that the science might not actually check out.

Anyway, Dr. Krane is all like, “I want to inject myself with my dead wife’s spinal fluid so I can experience her final moments!”

And Dr. Briggs is all like, “But this could kill you because there’s all these vaguely defined side effects!”

But Dr. Krane does it anyway and he discovers that his wife was murdered by a lowlife criminal named Eddie Dutton (Kim Coates)!  So, Dr. Krane chases Eddie all ocer the city and it’s interesting to see that a doctor can apparently keep up with a career criminal.  I mean, you would think that Eddie’s experience with being chased and Krane’s inexperience with chasing would give Eddie an advantage.  Anyway, regardless, it doesn’t matter because Eddie is eventually gunned down by the police and Dr. Krane is fired from his job.

Hmmm … well, that was quick.  I guess the movie’s over…

No, not quite!  It turns out that someone hired Eddie to kill Dr. Krane’s wife!  And it turns out that person was a cop!  But which cop!?  Well, there’s only two cops in the film who actually have any lines so it has to be one of them.  And one of the cops is so unlikable that it’s obvious from the start that he’s a red herring.  So, I guess that means the actual murderer is the one that you’ll suspect from the first moment he shows up.

(For the record, the two cops are played by Christopher McDonald and Peter Coyote.  I won’t reveal which one is unlikable and which one is a murderer but seriously, you’ve already guessed, haven’t you?)

Anyway, it’s all pretty stupid and a waste of everyone involved.  Ray Liotta is likable and sympathetic but the film gets bogged down with trying to convince us that crimes can be solved through spinal fluid.  It’s a dumb premise that the movie takes way too seriously and it never quite works.

Still, I hope that someone will give Ray Liotta another good role at some point in the future.  He deserves better than supporting roles and Chantix commercials.

Horror Film Review: Joy Ride (dir by John Dahl)


The 2001 film Joy Ride is an example of a subgenre of horror that I like to call the Don’t Fuck With Truckers genre.  It all started with Duel back in the early 70s and since then, there’s been a large number movies about ordinary people who end up getting on the wrong side of a trucker.

Myself, I would never piss off a trucker.  First off, I have a few cousins who are proud members of the Teamsters and I can tell you, from personal experience, that you don’t want to get on their bad side.  Secondly, those trucks are really, really big and it takes a certain amount of skill to drive them, certainly more skill than it takes me to drive my little convertible.  (Truckers can make turns in those gigantic trucks and somehow do it without crashing into a stop light.  I can barely parallel park.)  Trucks block out the road, making it impossible to see anything beyond them, which makes the prospect of trying to pass them all the more frightening.  Essentially, if you get into a vehicle fight with a trucker, you’re going to die.  There’s just no way your little car is going to be able to beat that giant truck.

Now, I have to admit that I really like Joyride but sometimes, I feel like maybe I shouldn’t.  It basically comes down to two things:

Number one, I have always defended horror movies against the charge that they always feature people making the stupidest possible decisions.  My defense is usually that people in real life are actually far more stupid than they realize and that whenever anyone says, “I would never be stupid enough to wander around a deserted camp ground in the middle of the night!,” they are essentially lying.  Seriously, everyone would do that just so they could later joke about how it was just like being in a horror movie.

That said, the majority of the characters in Joy Ride are really, really dumb.  Basically, two brothers (Steven Zahn and Paul Walker) are driving from California to Colorado so that they can pick up Walker’s best friend (Leelee Sobieski).  Along the way, Zahn and Walker decide to have some fun by getting on the CB radio and telling a trucker who calls himself Rusty Nail (voiced by Ted Levine, who was also the killer in The Silence of the Lambs) that there is a prostitute named Candy Cane waiting for him in a motel room.  The joke, of course, is that Zahn and Walker know that an obnoxious businessman is actually staying in the room.

The next morning, after playing their little joke and then listening to Rusty Nail and the businessman have a huge fight, the brothers are informed that the businessman has been found on the side of the road.  He’s still alive but his jaw was ripped off.  The brothers’ reaction is to get the Hell out of town.

Okay, so far, so good.  The joke was mean but people are mean.  Leaving town instead of helping with the police investigation was selfish but people are selfish.  What drives me crazy is that, once they’re on the road, the brothers get back on the CB radio and inform Rusty Nail that there was no Candy Cane and that they were just playing a joke on him.

IDIOTS!  Seriously, you’ve just been told that the guy ripped off another man’s jaw and now you’re going to piss him off more?

My other problem is that Leelee Sobieski’s character is so underdeveloped.  The film’s nearly halfway over before Zahn and Walker reach Colorado and pick her up.  Just a few scenes later, Sobieski is kidnapped by Rusty Nail.  Characterwise, she pretty much only exists to be kidnapped and held hostage.  It seems like a waste of Sobieski’s talents and the flatness of her character is especially disappointing when you consider how well-developed the characters played by Walker and Zahn are.

And yet, despite all of that, I really like Joy Ride.  It’s just a well-made film, a relentless thrill ride that succeeds largely because director John Dahl never gives the audience any time to relax and think about whether or not the film makes any sense.  As a largely unseen threat, Rusty Nail is both plausible and seemingly supernatural at the same time.  I mean, that truck literally pops up out of nowhere sometimes.  Zahn and Walker are very well-cast as brothers, with Zahn’s natural goofiness nicely paired up with Walker’s natural earnestness.  You like them, even if they are selfish idiots.

Almost despite itself, Joy Ride is a good movie and it features an important message: Don’t fuck with truckers.

A Movie A Day #90: Red Rock West (1992, directed by John Dahl)


The place is Red Rock, a little town located in the middle of nowhere Wyoming.  When a man from Texas (played by Nicolas Cage) wanders into his bar, the owner, Wayne (J.T. Walsh), assumes that the man is Lyle From Dallas, the semi-legendary hit man who Wayne has hired to kill his wife, Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle).  Wayne gives the man half of his payment in advance and promises the other half after Suzanne is dead.  What Wayne doesn’t realize is that Lyle From Dallas is not actually Lyle From Dallas.  Instead, he is a drifter named Michael who has just recently lost his job.  Michael takes Wayne’s money but, when he sees Suzanne, he tells her that Wayne wants her dead.  Suzanne responds by offering to pay Michael to kill Wayne.  Michael mostly just wants to leave town but his every effort is thwarted, with him continually only managing to get a mile or two out of town just to then find circumstances forcing him to once again pass the Red Rock welcome sign.  Meanwhile, the real Lyle From Dallas (Dennis Hopper) has shown up and he is pissed.

Red Rock West is a clever and energetic neo noir that plays out like the child of a marriage between the Coen Brothers and David Lynch.  Like the Coens’ Blood SimpleRed Rock West is a violent movie that is full of twist and turns and features characters who are often confused and rarely understand what is actually going on.  From David Lynch, it borrows both Twin Peaks‘s Lara Flynn Boyle and Blue Velvet‘s Dennis Hopper.  Red Rock West was made when Nicolas Cage still gave a damn and it also shows why, during his short career, J.T. Walsh was everyone’s favorite duplicitous character actor.  Hopper is his usual crazy self and Boyle is a sultry and sexy fatale.  Red Rock West is one of the best neo noirs of the 1990s.

A Movie A Day #19: Kill Me Again (1989, directed by John Dahl)


killmeagainFay Forrest (Joanne Whalley) and her boyfriend, Vince Miller (Michael Madsen), make their living stealing from the mob.  After their latest job results in the death of a made man, Fay decides that she needs to escape from the abusive Vince.  She runs away to Las Vegas, where she looks up a small-time, financially strapped P.I., Jack Andrews (Val Kilmer).  She hires Jack to help her fake her death, offering to pay him $5,000 upfront and $5,000 after she’s dead.  Jack is reluctant to get involved but he also has a loan shark threatening to break every bone in his body.  Jack helps Fay fake her death but then Fay leaves town without paying him the second $5,000.  Even worse, both Vince and the mob quickly figure out that Fay is not actually dead and join Jack in trying to track her down.

Predictable but entertaining, Kill Me Again is an early example of the type of modern neo-noir that would become extremely popular in the 1990s.  In his directorial debut, John Dahl shows some hints of the style that he later brought to films like Red Rock West and The Last Seduction.  Val Kilmer was miscast and a few years too young for his role but Joanne Whalley (or Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as she was known when Kill Me Again was filmed) fully inhabitanted the stock role of the sultry femme fatale who can never quite be trusted.  Michael Madsen goes all out as Vince, giving an early version of his performance in Reservoir Dogs.