Horror Film Review: Single White Female (dir by Barbet Schroeder)


Allie Jones (Bridget Fonda) is an always fashionable software designer who is living in New York City and who has just broken up with her cheating lover, Sam (Steven Weber).  She has pretty hair, a big apartment, a closet full of nice clothes, and a totally devoted gay best friend.

Hedra Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is shy and socially awkward and in need of someone who will give her a cute nickname like “Hedy.”  She has pretty hair that’s just slightly less pretty than Allie’s, a job at a bookstore, a dead twin sister, a pair of really nice earrings, and a television that only seems to show old black-and-white movies.

Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

No, actually, they don’t.  Instead, Hedy answers an ad that Allie placed about needing a new roommate.  Even though Allie was thinking of asking another homeless woman to move in with her, Hedy impresses Allie by fixing her sink.  Seriously, how can you turn down a potential roommate who knows how to do simple plumbing?  Allie invited Hedy to live with her and, at first, everything is great.  Hedy even brings home a dog that Allie quickly falls in love with.  However, then Sam shows back up and we quickly discover just how obsessed Hedy has become with her roommate.

Single White Female was originally released way back in 1992 and, even if you’re viewing it for the very first time, you’ll probably feel a sense of deja vu while watching the movie.  This is one of those films that has been so endlessly imitated and has been unofficially remade so many times that you probably already know everything that happens in the film, regardless of whether you’ve actually sat through it or not.  A few years ago, there was a film called The Roommate that basically was Single White Female, just with a college setting and a bit less of a subversive subtext.  As well, I’ve lost count of the number of Lifetime films that have basically ripped off Single White Female‘s plot.  Any time that a new friend proves herself to be excessively clingy, chances are that she’s going to get compared to Jennifer Jason Leigh in this film.

 

And yet, despite all of the imitations, Single White Female still holds up surprisingly well.  A lot of that is because Single White Female was directed by Barbert Schroeder.  Schroeder started his career as a disciple of the French New Wave and, much like Paul Verhoeven, his American films tend to be genre films with just enough of a subversive subtext to stick in your mind afterwards.

For example, Single White Female is often describes as being a film about “the roommate from Hell” but what always seems to be missed is that, especially during the film’s first half, Allie is often as bad of a roommate as Hedy.  For instance, when Allie comes home late after spending two days with Sam, Hedy is pissed off and waiting for her.  On the surface, the scene is the first indication that Hedy has become obsessed with Allie.  But, at the same time, Hedy actually is making a valid point.  After repeatedly telling Hedy that she wants nothing to do with Sam, Allie runs off and spends two days with him without bothering to call home once.  Though Hedy may have been a bit too quick to yell, she still had every right to be annoyed.

In fact, Allie really is a bit of self-centered character.  She impulsively invited Hedy to live with her and then, just as impulsively, she gets back together with Sam and decides that it’s time for Hedy to move out.  Of course, then Hedy tosses a dog out of a window and you pretty much lose whatever sympathy you may have had for her.

Still, you can’t help but feel that, just as Hedy wants to be Allie, there’s a part of Allie that would like to be Hedy.  Hedy does all the things that Allie’s scared to do.  When Allie is sexually harassed and nearly raped by a client, Hedy’s the one who actually gets revenge.  While Allie tries to get over and suppress her anger at Sam, Hedy’s the one who acts on that anger.  Just Hedy seems to need Allie’s life to be happy, Allie seems to need Hedy’s anger to survive.  In short, there’s a lot more going on underneath the surface of Single White Female than its reputation might lead you to presume.

Not surprisingly, the film is dominated by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance.  When Hedy first appears, Leigh plays her as just being slightly off.  She has some obvious confidence issues but, at the same time, she comes across as being so innocent and naive that you can’t help but want to protect her.  You find yourself wondering how she could have possibly survived living in a city like New York.  It’s only as the film progresses that you start to discover that Hedy was never particularly naive and everything that she’s done and said has basically been about manipulating the people around her.  And yet, even after Hedy has started killing dogs and people, you can’t help but feel a strange empathy (though not necessarily sympathy) for her.  There’s an emptiness to Hedy, an emptiness that she attempts to fill by stealing the personalities of the people around her and Leigh does a great job of expressing the pain that would come from not having an identity of your own.  Plus, poor Hedy just seemed so happy with Allie said that she liked her earrings!  I mean, I just can’t imagine being that insecure but I get the feeling it would really suck.

(Fortunately, I’ve also never really had a truly bad roommate situation.  One advantage of having three older sisters is knowing that you’ll always have someone to stay with.)

Despite all of the imitations and rip-offs that have come out over the years, both Single White Female and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance hold up remarkably well.  I’d recommend watching it before inviting anyone to come live with you.  If nothing else, you’ll at least learn what stiletto heels are really for.

 

Film Review: I Shot Andy Warhol (dir by Mary Harron)


When did Andy Warhol die?

The official date of death is February 22nd, 1987.  The 58 year-old artist died in his sleep of a cardiac arrhythmia.  He was at Manhattan’s New York Hospital, recovering from gallbladder surgery.  The surgery itself had been a minor procedure and, in the days before his death, Warhol was reported to be making a good recovery.  Warhol himself was scared of doctors and had continually put off having the procedure done.

Others, however, argue that Warhol might as well have died on June 3rd, 1968.  That was the day that the world-famous pop artist was shot, at point blank range, by a woman named Valerie Solanas.  Warhol barely survived the attack, spending five hours in surgery and carrying both the mental and physical scars with him for the rest of his life.  It’s debatable whether Warhol ever physically recovered from being shot.  It’s been theorized that the reoccurring gallbladder problems that led to Warhol entering the hospital were directly the result of being shot.  If that’s the case, then Solanas murdered Andy Warhol.

But even beyond the lingering physical injuries, the shooting left Warhol mentally shaken.  The artist who, in the 60s, was famous for hosting a never-ending party at The Factory became far more reclusive and paranoid.  No longer could anyone from anywhere show up in New York and, if they were interesting enough, become a member of Warhol’s entourage.   No longer would Warhol direct films that challenged the assumption of what film had to be.  Warhol spent most of the 70s doing portrait commissions and finding new ways to make money.  (As he wrote in 1975, “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.”)

It can be argued that, with the pull of a trigger, Valerie Solanas changed the course of history and yet, she has always remained an obscure figure.  (Many would argue that she deserves to remain an obscure figure.)  After the shooting, when Solanas turned herself in, she said that she had no choice but to shoot Andy because “he had too much control over my life.”  Others theorize that Solanas was upset because Andy hadn’t helped her get her book, The SCUM Manifesto, published.  Solanas was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and, for nearly a killing an artist, she spent three years in prison.  While she was in prison, The SCUM Manifesto was finally published.  Ironically, she died in poverty and obscurity, just a few months after Warhol, as forgotten as Andy as was celebrated.

So, who was Valerie Solanas?  That’s the question that 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol attempts to answer.  Lili Taylor portrays Valerie, giving a performance that is both frightening in its intensity and empathetic in its portrayal of Valerie’s desperation to be heard as a human being and respected as an artist.  Wherever Valerie goes, she’s an outsider.  As a lesbian, she’s been rejected by conventional society.  When she appears on a local talk show, the audience boos her and the host has her thrown off the set.  As a writer, she is rejected by publishers and readers who view her work as being, as one person puts it, “too sick even for us.”  When, like many aspiring artists and lost souls, she arrives at the Factory, the members of Warhol’s entourage reject her because she’s neither beautiful nor glamorous.  Valerie is stuck in a winless situation.  It’s her intensity that makes her a memorable writer but it’s the same intensity that guarantees that almost no one will be willing to read what she writes.

Valerie has written The SCUM Manifesto.  (SCUM stands for Society of Cutting Up Men.)  Throughout the film, we see black-and-white scenes of Valerie reading from the opening of her book:

“Life” in this “society” being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of “society” being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.”

Today, of course, Valerie could just start a tumblr or maybe get a job teaching at Evergreen State.  In the 1960s, though, Valerie believes that the only way she’ll ever be heard is by getting her work to Andy Warhol.  When she first meets Andy (Jared Harris), he seems to be receptive to her but we soon see that this film’s version of Andy is receptive to almost anyone.  I Shot Andy Warhol portrays Andy as being an emotionally detached voyeur, a master of passive aggressive behavior.  Instead of personally rejecting Valerie, he lets the more bitchy members of his entourage do it for him.  In fact, at times it seems as if the reason that Warhol surrounds himself with such angry people is so he’ll never have to get angry himself.  It’s actually a rather interesting interpretation of Warhol and the Factory, though it does rely a bit too much on the clichéd image of Andy Warhol as a passive voyeur.  Whenever Jared Harris is onscreen, you never forget that you’re watching someone imitate Andy Warhol as opposed to feeling like you’re watching Warhol yourself.

(When Andy Warhol died, he was worth 220 million dollars.  That alone should be enough to debunk the image of Andy Warhol being a passive voyeur of his own life.)

I Shot Andy Warhol is a frequently fascinating film, one that is sympathetic to both Solanas’s artistic ambitions and her desperate need to be acknowledged as a writer, while also not shying away from the fact that she was a very sick and dangerous person.  At the same time, the film does leave out one very important detail of Solanas’s later life.  After she was released from prison, she still continued to stalk Andy and other members of the New York art world.  That’s an important detail that should have, at the very least, been acknowledged.

Finally, after Andy Warhol’s death, Lou Reed wrote a song called “I believe.”  The song dealt with his feelings towards Valerie Solanas and it’s reasonable to assume that Reed spoke for many of Warhol’s associates.  Here are just a few of the lyrics: ” “I believe life’s serious enough for retribution… I believe being sick is no excuse. And I believe I would’ve pulled the switch on her myself.”

A Movie A Day #30: Prince of the City (1981, directed by Sidney Lumet)


220px-prince_of_the_city_foldedIn 1970s New York City, Danny Ciello (Treat Williams) is a self-described “prince of the city.”  A narcotics detective, Ciello is the youngest member of the Special Investigations Unit.  Because of their constant success, the SIU is given wide latitude by their superiors at the police department.  The SIU puts mobsters and drug dealers behind bars.  They get results.  If they sometimes cut corners or skim a little money for themselves, who cares?

It turns out that a lot of people care.  When a federal prosecutor, Rick Cappalino (Norman Parker), first approaches Ciello and asks him if he knows anything about police corruption, Ciello refuses to speak to him.  As Ciello puts it, “I sleep with my wife but I live with my partners.”  But Ciello already has doubts.  His drug addict brother calls him out on his hypocrisy. Ciello spends one harrowing night with one of his informants, a pathetic addict who Ciello keeps supplied with heroin in return for information.  Ciello finally agrees to help the investigation but with one condition: he will not testify against anyone in the SIU.  Before accepting Ciello’s help, Cappalino asks him one question.  Has Ciello ever done anything illegal while a cop?  Ciello says that he has only broken the law three times and each time, it was a minor infraction.

For the next two years, Ciello wears a wire nearly every day and helps to build cases against other cops, some of which are more corrupt than others.  It turns out that being an informant is not as easy as it looks.  Along with getting burned by malfunctioning wires and having to deal with incompetent backup, Ciello struggles with his own guilt.  When Cappalino is assigned to another case, Ciello finds himself working with two prosecutors (Bob Balaban and James Tolkan) who are less sympathetic to him and his desire to protect the SIU.  When evidence comes to light that Ciello may have lied about the extent of his own corruption, Ciello may become the investigation’s newest target.

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Prince of the City is one of the best of Sidney Lumet’s many films but it is not as well-known as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, The Verdict, or even The Wiz.  Why is it such an underrated film?  As good as it is, Prince of the City is not always an easy movie to watch.  It’s nearly three hours long and almost every minute is spent with Danny Ciello, who is not always likable and often seems to be on the verge of having a nervous breakdown.  Treat Williams gives an intense and powerful performance but he is such a raw nerve that sometimes it is a relief when Lumet cuts away to Jerry Orbach (as one of Ciello’s partners) telling off a district attorney or to a meeting where a group of prosecutors debate where a group of prosecutors debate whether or not to charge Ciello with perjury.

Prince of the City may be about the police but there’s very little of the typical cop movie clichés.  The most exciting scenes in the movie are the ones, like that scene with all the prosecutors arguing, where the characters debate what “corruption” actually means.  Throughout Prince of the City, Lumet contrasts the moral ambiguity of otherwise effective cops with the self-righteous certitude of the federal prosecutors.  Unlike Lumet’s other films about police corruption (Serpico, Q&A), Prince of the City doesn’t come down firmly on either side.

(Though the names have been changed, Prince of the City was based on a true story.  Ciello’s biggest ally among the investigators, Rick Cappalino, was based on a young federal prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani.)

Prince of the City is dominated by Treat Williams but the entire cast is full of great New York character actors.  It would not surprise me if Jerry Orbach’s performance here was in the back of someone’s mind when he was cast as Law & Order‘s Lenny Briscoe.  Keep an eye out for familiar actors like Lance Henriksen, Lane Smith, Lee Richardson, Carmine Caridi, and Cynthia Nixon, all appearing in small roles.

Prince of the City is a very long movie but it needs to be.  Much as David Simon would later do with The Wire, Lumet uses this police story as a way to present a sprawling portrait of New York City.  In fact, if Prince of the City were made today, it probably would be a David Simon-penned miniseries for HBO.

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