Insomnia File #22: Insomnia (dir by Christopher Nolan)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Last night, if you were up at 2 in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the atmospheric 2002 mystery, Insomnia.

I have to admit that I’m cheating a little bit by including Insomnia in a series about obscure films that you might find on cable late at night.  While Insomnia does seem to often turn up during the early morning hours, it’s hardly an obscure film.  A remake of an acclaimed Norwegian film, it not only stars three Oscar winners (Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank) but it was directed by Christopher Nolan.  Insomnia got a lot of attention when it was first released in 2002.  But, doing an insomnia file about a movie that’s actually about insomnia was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.

I should also mention that I didn’t have insomnia last night.  I was up because I currently have a cold and I watched Insomnia in a feverish and congested haze.  And yet I couldn’t help but feel that, somehow, that was actually the ideal way to watch Insomnia.  With its ominous atmosphere and Nolan’s eye for the surreal, Insomnia plays out like a semi-lucid fever dream.

A teenage girl has been murdered in a small Alaskan fishing village.  The chief of police (played by the great character actor Paul Dooley) asks his former LAPD partner, Will Dormer (Al Pacino), to come to Alaska and help with the investigation.  Accompanying Dormer is his partner and friend, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan).

Dormer has issues that go far beyond anything happening in Alaska.  He’s burned out and he’s plagued by rumors that, in the past, he was a crooked cop.  He’s being investigated by Internal Affairs and, shortly after they arrive in Alaska, Eckhart admits that he’s been given immunity as part of a deal to testify against Dormer.  While pursuing the suspected murderer through the Alaskan fog, Dormer fires his gun.  When the fog clear, Dormer discovers that he’s killed Eckhart.  Was it an accident or did Dormer intentionally shoot  his partner?  Not even Dormer seems to know for sure.  He lies and says that the murderer shot Eckhart.

Working with a local detective (Hilary Swank), Dormer tries to solve the Alaska murder, with the knowledge that, once he does, he’ll have to return to Los Angeles and he’ll probably be indicted.  Because of the midnight sun, night never falls in Alaska and, tortured by guilt, Dormer cannot sleep.  Add to that, the murderer knows that Dormer shot Eckhart.  And now, he’s calling Dormer and cruelly taunting him.

Who is the murderer?  His name is Walter Finch.  He’s a writer and, in a stroke of brilliance, he’s played by none other than Robin Williams.  To me, Robin Williams’s screen presence always carried hints of narcissism and self-destruction.  Even in comedic roles, there was a transparent but very solid wall between Williams the audience.  When he was shouting out a thousand words a minute and rapidly switching from one character to the next, it always seemed as if it was all a technique to keep anyone from figuring out who he really was.  In Insomnia (and, that same year, in One Hour Photo), Robin Williams reveals an inner darkness that he rarely showed before or after.  Finch may possess Williams’s trademark eccentric smile and nervous voice but, underneath the surface, he’s an empty shell who views human beings as being as disposable as the characters in his paperback novels.

Christopher Nolan takes us directly into the heads of these two enemies, with shots of the desolate Alaskan landscape seeming to perfectly capture the inner desolation of two minds destroyed by guilt and paranoia.  (Neither Finch nor Dormer is capable of connecting with the world outside of his damaged psyche.)  As seen through Nolan’s lens, Alaska becomes as surreal and haunting as one of the dream landscapes from Inception.  For those of us who found both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar to be so bombastic that they verged on self-parody, Insomnia is a nice reminder that Nolan doesn’t need a pounding Han Zimmer score to make a great movie.  With Insomnia, Nolan gives us not bombast but a deceptively low-key and atmospheric journey into the heart of darkness.

Ironically, for a film about two men who cannot sleep, Insomnia will haunt your dreams.

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Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #108: The Brave One (dir by Neil Jordan)


Brave_one_2007For our next entry in Embracing the Melodrama Part II, we take a look at Jodie Foster in the 2007 film The Brave One.  And…

Well, how to put this delicately?

I hate hate hate hate HATE this movie, with every last fiber of my being.  I hated it the first time that I saw it and I hated it when I recently rewatched it and right now, I’m hating the fact that I even decided to review this damn film because it means that I’m going to have to think about it.  I’m going to try to get this review over with quickly because, with each minute that I think about this film, I doubt my commitment to cinema.  That’s how much I hate this movie.  If I’m not careful, I’m going to end up joining a nunnery before I finish this review…

So, in The Brave One, Jodie Foster plays Erica Bain.  Erica lives in New York and hosts one of those pretentious late night radio shows that are always popular in movies like this but which, in real life, nobody in their right mind would waste a second listening to.  Erica spends her time musing about life in the big city and hoping that we can all just love one another and expressing a lot of other thoughts that sound like they’ve been stolen from an automated twitter account.

Erica also has a boyfriend.  His name is David and he’s played by Naveen Andrews.  That means that he looks good and he has a sexy accent and when he first shows up, you hope that he’ll stick around for a while because otherwise, you’re going to have to listen to move of Erica’s radio monologues.  But nope — one night, while walking through Central Park, David and Erica are attacked.  David is killed.  Erica is raped.  And their dog is taken by the gang!

(And the film doesn’t seem to know which it thinks is worse…)

When Erica gets out of the hospital, she is, at first, terrified to leave her apartment.  Or, at least, she’s terrified to leave her apartment for about five minutes.  But then she does find the courage to go outside and, of course, the first thing she does is buy a gun.  At first, she’s buying the gun for her own state of mind but, almost immediately after purchasing her firearms, she happens to stumble across a convenience store robbery.

Bang!  Bang!  Erica’s a vigilante now!

But, of course, she’s not really sure if that’s what she wants to be.  Even though she eventually ends up sitting on a subway and waiting for a guy to approach her so she can shoot him, Erica is still never really that comfortable with the idea of seeking vengeance.  And this is why I hated The Brave One.  The film is so damned wishy washy about Erica’s motivations.  Instead of allowing Erica to get any sort of satisfaction or emotional fulfillment out of her actions, The Brave One has her constantly doubting whether or not violence is the answer.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that violence is the answer.  But if you’re going to make a film about a female vigilante who is out looking for vengeance, why don’t you at least allow her to get some sort of empowerment out of her actions?  That doesn’t mean that the film itself can’t be ambiguous about what she’s doing.  But by having Erica constantly questioning her actions, it makes her into a weak character and it lets the men who raped her and the ones who subsequently threaten to do the same off the hook.  It allows them to be seen as victims, as opposed to products of a society where men are raised to believe that women will never fight back.

There’s a far superior New York-set film that has almost the same plot as The Brave One.  The title of that film was Ms. 45.  It was made for a hundred times less money than The Brave One and, at the same time, it was and remains a hundred times better.  (I previously wrote about Ms. 45 and The Brave One in my essay, Too Sordid To Ever Be Corrupted.)

The difference between the two films can be summed up by the film’s tag lines.  The Brave One was advertised with, “How many wrongs to make it right?”  Ms. 45 was advertised with: “She was abused and violated … IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN!”   Ms. 45 features a vigilante who never doubts her actions and, as a result, she becomes a symbol not of violence but of empowerment.  Meanwhile, Jodie Foster is so constantly wracked with guilt and doubt that the film almost seems to be criticizing her for not staying in her apartment and trusting the police (represented by Terrence Howard and Nicky Katt) to do their job.

Oh!  And, of course, at the end of the film, Erica gets her dog back.  Because nobody ever permanently loses their dog in a big budget studio film…

And really, that’s why The Brave One is such a failure.  It takes a subject that was tailor-made for the grindhouse and attempts to give it the slick and self-important studio approach.  And part of that approach is that no one can be offended.  This is a film that both wants to celebrate and condemn at the same time.

And that’s why I say, “Give me Ms. 45!”

At least that movie knows what it wants to say…

Back to School #49: Dazed and Confused (dir by Richard Linklater)


Oh my God, I love this freaking movie.

First released in 1993, Dazed and Confused is a classic Texas film.  Taking place in 1976 and following a large and varied group of characters over the course of the last day of school, Dazed and Confused is like American Graffiti with a lot more weed.  In many ways, it’s a plotless film, though things do happen.  The students of Lee High School survive one final day of school before the start of summer.  (Interestingly enough, most of the characters here are incoming seniors and freshman, as opposed to the confused graduates who usually show up in films like this.  This may lower the stakes — none of the students are worrying about whether or not to go to college or anything like that — but it also gives the film a fun and laid back vibe.)  The incoming freshman are all hazed by the incoming seniors.  For the girls, this means being covered in ketchup and mustard and being forced to ask the seniors to marry them.  For the boys, the hazing is a lot more violent and disturbing as they are chased through the streets by paddle-wielding jocks.  A party is planned and then abruptly canceled when the kegs of beer are delivered before the parents leave town.  Another party is held out in the woods.  A high school quarterback tries to decide whether or not to sign an anti-drug pledge.

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No, not much happens but then again, plot is overrated.  Dazed and Confused is not about plot.  It’s about capturing a specific time and place and showing how different individuals define themselves within their environment.  It’s one of the best high school films ever made, perhaps the best.

Why do I so love Dazed and Confused?  Let me count the ways.

First off, it’s a true Texas film.  This isn’t just because it was directed by Texas’s greatest filmmaker, Richard Linklater.  It was also filmed in Texas, it’s full of Texas actors, and, as a native Texan, I can tell you that it’s one of the few films that gets my homestate right.  Even though the film takes place long before I was even born, there were still so many details that I recognized as being unique to Texas today.  I guess the more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Perhaps the most Texas scene in the entire film was when quarterback Randy Floyd (Jason London) was talking to the old couple at the minor league baseball game.  Both the old man’s obsessive interest in the high school football team (“We’re countin’ on you boys next year…”) and Randy’s patiently polite answers, were, to me, the epitome of Texas.  And, of course, we can’t forget the store clerk advising the pregnant woman to eat a lot of “green things” while selling her a pack of cigarettes and the guy who reacts to the destruction of his mailbox by running around with a gun.  I suspect I might live a few blocks away from both of those guys.

But, beyond that, just the entire film’s laid back atmosphere epitomized everything that I love about my state.

Secondly, Dazed and Confused is an amateur historian’s dream!  Richard Linklater went to high school in the 70s and he recreates the decade with a lot of obvious care and love.  (It’s also somewhat obvious that both the characters of Randy and incoming freshman Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) are meant to be autobiographical.)  Now, me, I’ve always been obsessive about history and I’ve always somewhat regretted that I was born long after the 70s ended.  Dazed and Confused is probably about as close as someone like me will ever get to having a time machine.

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I’m also something a political history junkie so how excited was I to see that, during one scene, all of the candidates for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination were listed on a bulletin board.  How many other movies have featured a reference to the Fred Harris presidential campaign?  Admittedly, I know nothing about that campaign.  I just think it’s neat that somebody with as common a name as Fred Harris once ran for President.

Finally, if you look really carefully, you’ll notice that Lee High School is located right next to a movie theater that, according to its marquee, is showing Family Plot, Alfred Hitchcock’s final film.  Just imagine the fun that I could have had going to Lee High.  I could have skipped school and gone to a movie!

Third, this film has a great soundtrack!  The low rider gets a little higher … hey, I think there’s a double meaning there…

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But, really, the main reason I love this film is because I love great ensemble work and Dazed and Confused has a wonderful cast.  Some members of the cast went on to become famous and some did not, but all of them give great performances.  In fact, the entire cast is so great that it’s difficult to know who to single out so I’m just going to name a few of my favorites.

First off, there’s the jocks.  Some of them, like Jason London’s Randy “Pink” Floyd are surprisingly sensitive.  Some of them, like Don Dawson (Sasha Jenson), remind me of the type of guys that I, despite my better judgment, would have totally been crushing on back in high school.  And then the others are just scary, running around with their cars full of beer and obsessively paddling freshman.  Benny (Cole Hauser), for instance, really does seem like he has some issues.  (Perhaps it’s because he lives in Texas but still has such a strong Boston accent…)

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However, the scariest of the jocks is, without a doubt, Fred O’Bannion (Ben Affleck). A complete and total moron who has actually managed to fail his senior year,  (“He’s a joke,” says Randy, “but he’s not a bad guy to have blocking for you…”)  O’Bannion is such a total idiot that, not only is it fun to see him eventually get humiliated, but it’s even more fun to watch him and think, “That’s Ben Affleck!”  And, it must be said, Affleck is totally convincing playing a complete and total dumbass.  That’s not meant to be an insult, by the way.  Future multiple-Oscar winner  Affleck does a really good job.

And then there’s the three self-styled intellectuals, Tony (Anthony Rapp), Mike (Adam Goldberg), and red-headed Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi), who spend the whole day driving around and discussing what it all means.  These are actually three of my favorite characters in the entire film, just because I’ve known (and, I must admit, loved) the type.  Plus, Cynthia has red hair and we redheads have to stay united!

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There’s the two incoming freshman who get to spend a night hanging out with the older kids — Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) and Sabrina (Christin Hinojosa).  Mitch is adorable while Sabrina gets to ask Tony to marry her.  Of course, Sabrina is covered in ketchup, mustard, and flour at the time.  (“She probably looks really good once you get all the shit off her,” Mike offers.)

And, of course, you can’t forget Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey).  In many ways, Wooderson is a truly creepy character.  He’s the older guy who still hangs out with the high school kids.  When he asks Mitch what the incoming freshman girls look like, you get the disturbing feeling that he’s not joking.  (“I get older but they stay the same age,” Wooderson says about his underage girlfriends, “yes, they do.”)  And yet McConaughey gives such a charismatic performance that Wooderson becomes the heart and soul of the entire film.  In the end, you’re happy that Randy has a friend like Wooderson.

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And there’s so many other characters that I love.  There’s the hilarious stoner Slater (Rory Cochrane).  There’s Mitch’s older sister, Jodi (Michelle Burke), who is the type of cool older sister that I would have liked to have been if I actually had a brother and wasn’t the youngest of four.  There’s Randy’s girlfriend, Simone (Joey Lauren Adams) and Don’s occasional girlfriend, Shavonne (Deena Martin) who, at one point, refers to Don as being “Mr. Premature Ejaculation.”  Even the characters that you’re supposed to hate are so well-played and so well-written that it’s a pleasure to see them.  Parker Posey is hilarious as head mean girl Darla.  In the role of car-obsessed Clint, Nicky Katt is dangerously hot — even if he does eventually end up kicking Mike’s ass.  (“You wouldn’t say I got my ass kicked, would you?” Mike says.  Sorry, sweetie, you did. But everyone watching the movie totally loved you!)

(And let’s not forget that future Oscar winner Renee Zellweger shows up for a split-second, walking past Wooderson during his “that’s why I love high school girls” monologue.)

Dazed and Confused is a great film.  If you haven’t seen it, see it.  And if you have seen it, see it again.

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Quickie Review: Phantoms (dir. by Joe Chappelle)


If there was ever an actor in the last twenty years who has suffered ridicule regarding his body of work it would be Ben Affleck. Nevermind the fact that he has actually done very good work as an actor. People tend to view his acting work through some very bad film projects which the online film bloggers (and trolls) have lambasted year after year. One such film which has gained a cult following for all the reasons is the 1998 horror film Phantoms which was adapted from the Dean Koontz horror novel of the same name. This was a film which came out of nowhere and which no one really saw when it first hit the theaters. There’s a reason for this and the main reason for this being that the film was really awful though not without some entertaining bits.

Phantoms starred Ben Affleck in a role that really seemed more suited for an older actor. His Sheriff Hammond in the novel was much older and fit the backstory told in both novel and film that never truly fit Affleck’s youthful appearance and mannerism. He’s joined in this Joe Chappelle production by classically-trained veteran actor Peter O’Toole (who must’ve really needed the money to sign up for this film) in the role of Dr. Exposition dump aka Timothy Flyte who ends up explaining to the surviving cast of characters the very danger facing them in the abandoned town of Snowfield. Rounding out the cast is  Liev Schrieber as the creepy Deputy Stu Wargle who becomes a sort of plot device as the film moves forward. To add to this mix are Joanna Going and Rose McGowan as sisters who first discover that their town has just gone through a terrible event.

The novel this film was based on was pure scifi-horror pulp which stressed one’s suspension of disbelief, but was quite entertaining from beginning to end. Dean Koontz is like the generic fast-food version of Stephen King. This film adaptation borrows heavily from films such as Carpenter’s The Thing and the remake of The Blob. This wouldn’t have been a bad thing since the film’s story does bring into it an interesting concept of an ancient enemy which might or might not have been responsible for unexplained mass disappearances of people and animals throughout history going back to prehistoric times.

What Phantoms ends up doing which ruins the film as a whole was to rush through the narrative it was adapting it. The film pretty much goings through a checklist of all the major scenes in the novel, takes those scenes and truncates them to fit uncomfortably into a 90+ minute film. Some of these scenes could’ve been extended a few more minutes to add to a sense of grandiose to a film that needed it despite it’s B-movie foundation. One such scenes would be the arrival of a special Army unit designed to combat unexplained events, but the film treats this sequence from their arrival right up to their untimely demise in less than 15 minutes. I think in the hands of a much more capable filmmaker these scenes would’ve made the film much more entertaining.

Phantoms was a horror film that could’ve become a 90’s cult-classic if it had been given the proper time and effort from it’s producers, but seeing that it was the Weinsteins of Miramax and Dimension Films this final product was probably the best Joe Chappelle could’ve come up with. Weinsteins during the 1990’s were more concerned of pushing their Oscar-baiting film productions than actually giving time and effort to all their films. If there was any reason to see Phantoms it would be to see just why it kept being mentioned in Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Other than that there’s really no reason to see it unless there’s nothing else on.