Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness

Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness (1992)

Dir. Sam Raimi

Written by: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz

 

As will become apparent later in this project when I review the first half of the Friday the 13th series, a few Nightmare on Elm Street films, and, eventually, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I had a soft spot for horror movies growing up, particularly slashers and gore-fests. This obsession with the macabre goes back to my early childhood and my introduction to the classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s and 40s. I came to love Dracula and the Invisible Man, but particularly Frankenstein’s monster, and I would search the weekly television listings for classic monster movies and record them off of cable late at night. When I was a little older, I’d sneak glances at the Friday the 13th movie marathon that ran every, well, Friday the 13th on the USA Network, and my tastes in scares began to mature and get a little darker, a little gorier. It wasn’t until probably my early teens, maybe 13 or 14 years old, that I first encountered the uniquely weird horror offered up by Sam Raimi. I saw Army of Darkness on television and it was immediately intriguing to me. It satisfied the gore and gross-out component, although it wasn’t really a true horror movie, and it added a strong comedy component that I wasn’t expecting. I liked the movie a lot but I didn’t really come back to it until my later teens. During high school my friends and I would start seeking out more and more hardcore and taboo horror films, often turning to Asian cinema and the emerging torture porn genre to provide these cheap thrills. The first two Evil Dead movies, providing some legitimate scares along with their moments of campy comedy, were acceptable to my friends’ deviant tastes, but the lighter, goofier Army of Darkness was more of a stretch to some of them. Eventually, sometime in high school, I picked up the director’s cut (officially titled Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness, the film’s original title), and would occasionally share it with friends, particularly around Halloween. By my early twenties, this movie, along with most of the horror movies in my collection, had gotten largely shelved. My tastes were changing rapidly and I didn’t see much value in the schlockier elements of my collection at the time. I still don’t go for horror movies too often, but I’ve enjoyed the later films from Raimi and I was happy to go back to one of his classics for this project.

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The film picks up immediately after the events of Evil Dead II with Ash (Campbell) being transported to the year 1300 AD. After arriving in the middle ages, Ash finds himself in the midst of a conflict between Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert) and Duke Henry the Red (Richard Grove). He is captured by Arthur’s knights who believe him to be a spy of Henry the Red, but Arthur’s Wise Man (Ian Abercrombie), believes Ash to be a hero promised in a prophecy. After being taken prisoner, Ash is taken to Arthur’s castle where he is thrown into a pit to be executed. Ash is able to escape the pit, killing a Deadite with the help of the Wise Man who returns his chainsaw to him. When he climbs his way to the top, he regains his “boomstick,” which he uses to quickly dispatch of another Deadite that attempts to escape the pit behind him. Ash is celebrated as a hero and he garners the affections of Sheila (Davidtz), a beautiful maiden. The Wise Man agrees to help Ash return to his own time, and tells him he must seek out the Necronomicon in order to do it. Ash’s quest for the Necronomicon leads him to battle demons and Deadites, but he finally persists and makes his way to the graveyard where the evil book is stored. However, Ash has never been one for attention to detail, so he has forgotten the magic words that will allow him to open the Necronomicon, and when he attempts to open the book without reciting the words properly, Ash unleashes an army of the dead on the land. Now in order to return to his home, he must defeat the Army of Darkness to save the castle and Sheila, who has been captured by the Deadites.

If that doesn’t exactly sound like the description of a horror movie, that’s because Army of Darkness really isn’t one. Although it does contain a few unsettling or scary moments, for the most part it’s a fantasy movie that leans heavily on slapstick comedy set pieces. The first two installments of the Evil Dead trilogy have their tongues firmly inserted into their cheeks, but they still fall distinctly into the horror genre. For the third installment, Raimi wanted to go in a different direction by getting Ash out of the cabin in the woods and into the larger world. He incorporates the influence of classic fish out of water tales like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Gulliver’s Travels, and the end result is a film that is distinctly different from its predecessors while retaining the same attitude and tone. Though he’s traded in the familiar setting of the first two films, plenty of Raimi’s filmmaking tricks are still on display in Army of Darkness. He returns often to the low tracking shots and queasily fast zooms that defined the Evil Dead films, implying the presence of spirits chasing Ash through the woods. He also retains his fondness for jump scares, and the few that show up in Army of Darkness might be the only moments in the film that could induce real terror in the audience. But, of course, Raimi’s most familiar tool is the star persona of Bruce Campbell in his signature role as Ash.

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A close friend of Raimi’s, Campbell helped him finance and create the original Evil Dead and has gone on to use his appearances as Ash to launch a career for himself as one of the most recognizable character actors currently working. As the film’s original title would suggest, in Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness, as in the other Evil Dead films, Campbell is asked to essentially carry the load from an acting standpoint. He is the most heavily featured actor in the series by far, and in many of his scenes he is paired with shrieking, nearly nonverbal demons. Luckily, Campbell very easily has the chops to entertain on his own for the film’s 90-minute run time. Campbell plays Ash as a spoof of the hyper-macho action stars of the time, and he delivers his punches as readily as his punchlines, never at a loss for words as the film spawned many catchphrases among horror fans. He is the engine for both action and comedy in the film, as Campbell possesses both the bravado of a traditional leading man, and the rubber-faced, physically performative gifts of an expert slapstick comedian. Raimi knows how to perfectly capture Campbell’s expressive face to render emotions ranging from confidence, to fear, to hysteria and he uses this malleable mug to great effect throughout the film. It’s impossible to imagine the Evil Dead series without Campbell as Ash; another actor just wouldn’t feel right in the role.

Raimi is able to do a lot with a little as a filmmaker, and that economy is on display again in Army of Darkness. Though the film was made well into the beginning of the CGI boom, he chose to use practical effects throughout the movie, employing miniatures and stop-motion animation to create the army of the dead. Though the effects do look a bit dated, they don’t necessarily look bad. In fact, there is a sort of nostalgic charm to the skeletons, as they recall the groundbreaking stop-motion work of Ray Harryhausen. Raimi uses sharp, quick edits to propel the action in the film’s climactic battle between Ash, Arthur’s army, and the army of the dead, led by a reincarnated Evil Ash. These edits allow Raimi to mask the fact that he is employing a very small cast, and maintain the level of action at a fever pitch. Army of Darkness definitely feels like a throwback to a time when film genres weren’t as rigidly codified and swashbuckling heroes could coexist with supernatural demons and beautiful damsels in distress. This is decidedly a B-movie, but it’s a rather well-made one, and an entertaining one to boot. Campbell’s charisma carries over to the entire production, with even some of the animated skeletons delivering throwaway lines that are laugh-out-loud funny.

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Army of Darkness is a very fun movie experience, and it’s one that I would probably go back to more often if it weren’t for the terrible quality of the video transfer on the DVD copy that I own. I don’t know if the image quality has degraded over the years, but it’s really difficult for me to imagine myself watching this disc as a teen. There are times when the image becomes so grainy and dark that it’s almost impossible to see what’s going on on the screen at all. This is particularly the case during the film’s final battle, which was entirely shot at night. I’ve watched Army of Darkness on streaming services and it doesn’t seem to suffer from this lack of clarity, so I’m assuming that it’s just a bad transfer on this particular Director’s Cut edition of the DVD. It’s really a shame, because I think the Director’s Cut, with the film’s alternate ending (which is something of an homage to Planet of the Apes) is the superior version of the film, but I just can’t see myself sitting down to watch this particular DVD again anytime soon. I will, however, likely be revisiting this cult classic, along with its predecessors, sometime around Halloween this year, just on a streaming platform. Although my taste for straight horror movies has somewhat diminished, I’ll always enjoy the humorous horror that Raimi offers up here and in his later films, which are equally as good at blending the genres of horror and comedy. I probably enjoy the Evil Dead films a bit more than Army of Darkness, but it’s great in its own right for taking the series in a totally new direction while still maintaining that distinctive early Raimi feeling.

A Bronx Tale

A Bronx Tale (1993)

Dir. Robert De Niro

Written by: Chazz Palminteri (based on his play)

Starring: Chazz Palminteri, Robert De Niro, Lillo Brancato, Jr.

 

It surprises me somewhat that A Bronx Tale doesn’t have a bigger following among movie fans. I think that it’s probably well known among people who came of age in the early- and mid-90s, and among big fans of the gangster movie genre, but it’s not a film that I hear very many people talk about. Often as films come up on significant anniversaries, they receive a sort of critical reexamination or reevaluation, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article or think piece written on this film. Maybe it isn’t as remembered because it arrived at a time when there were an unusual number of Hollywood mob movies being released, or because it was sandwiched in between De Niro’s more well-known work in Goodfellas, Cape Fear, and Casino, but I think A Bronx Tale deserves a bit more credit than it seems to get. While it wouldn’t make a list of my favorite gangster movies and I definitely have some problems with the film as a whole, A Bronx Tale is worth a watch because it provides a different take on the typical gangster movie. It isn’t as good a film as the commonly accepted genre classics, but it often rings truer than some of the more touted gangster movies and the obvious care that the cast and crew, particularly Palminteri, have in bringing the story to the screen makes for an entertaining watch.

Based on his one-man show, A Bronx Tale is Palminteri’s semi-autobiographical tale of growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s. The coming of age tale uses Calogero (played early in the film by Francis Capra, and later by Brancato, Jr.) as a surrogate for Palminteri. Calogero is a bus driver’s son, and his father, Lorenzo (De Niro) tries to instill a sense of morality in him and teach him the value of an honest day’s work. However, the boy is drawn to another father figure in the neighborhood, Sonny (Palminteri), the local mafia boss. From Sonny, Calogero learns the art of the hustle, and he begins to learn the complicated code of ethics that exists on the streets, and he earns the nickname Cee. As he grows up, Cee is caught between two worlds, the straight world, peopled by working stiffs (or suckers, as Sonny calls them) like his father, or the more glamorous life of crime and luxury that Sonny represents. To further complicate matters, Cee is coming of age at a time when the Bronx is beginning to change, with racial integration beginning in earnest, so he must also learn to navigate a world that will soon be vastly different than the one that either of his father figures came up in.

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The most compelling thing about the film, unsurprisingly, is Palminteri’s portrayal of Sonny. When he’s first introduced, the audience isn’t given much insight into his character. We first see Sonny as the young Calogero is introducing the neighborhood figures, and he points out Sonny holding court on the street corner, but he appears to be an average mobster. We learn early on that Sonny is capable of delivering lethal violence at the drop of a hat when Calogero witnesses him shoot a man over a dispute over a parking spot. After Calogero clams up and doesn’t identify Sonny as the shooter to the police, he begins to take the boy under his wing and other aspects of his personality begin to emerge. Initially, Cee is a sort of mascot and good luck charm for Sonny, serving drinks to Sonny and the other gangsters, and playing dice. In these scenes, Palminteri plays Sonny with a sense of humor and geniality, but he also gives the character more than a little undercurrent of manipulation, as it seems very apparent that he is grooming Cee for a life of crime despite the objections from Lorenzo. Sonny’s worldview is informed by an Old World code of ethics and respect and a quasi-capitalist dog-eat-dog view of economics where the strong survive by any means necessary and if the weak can’t do for themselves then they’re suckers. Despite this approach to life, however, he is capable of genuine emotion and in the later parts of the film Palminteri reveals Sonny to be a fully nuanced character, as he begins truly mentoring an older Cee. While their relationship is inherently complicated, Sonny’s motivations seem to become clearer towards the end of the film. He sees promise in Cee and tries to steer him in directions that will lead him to have a better, happier life than either Lorenzo or Sonny have had. Usually relegated to supporting or character roles, Palminteri shines as the lead in a role he created for himself. I can’t picture anyone else playing Sonny, and this is definitely Palminteri’s signature role.

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De Niro puts in a good, if unspectacular, performance as Lorenzo, a role which was out of character for him in a period when he was still best known for playing mafia figures and psychopaths. Lorenzo is definitely a supporting role in the film, but De Niro brings a presence to his scenes, creating a worthy foil to the dynamic Sonny. Sparks fly in an early scene that pairs he and Palminteri as Lorenzo furiously returns the money that his son brought home from working at the bar for Sonny. Lorenzo tells Sonny to stay away from his son, and Sonny threatens to hit him, as the two men fight over who should have the bigger influence over the boy. Lorenzo isn’t a violent man but he can’t back down as he tries to protect his family from the influence of the mafia. De Niro plays him as poor but proud, principled and hardworking. As they leave the bar, and the money, Lorenzo explains to Calogero that the only money worth having is money earned justly through work. “It don’t take much strength to pull a trigger, but try to get up every morning, day after day, and work for a living. Let’s see him try that!” he shouts at his crying son, explaining his worldview succinctly. This is probably De Niro’s best scene in the film, rising to the occasion when paired with Palminteri, but the rest of his performance is fairly workmanlike. He’s actually very good in the film, but he doesn’t stand out, nor is he intended to. His steady performance does provide a bedrock for the film, though, and it’s also likely that his focus was diverted due to his responsibilities behind the camera as the director of his first feature.

Like most directorial debuts, A Bronx Tale is a bit hit or miss, but De Niro wasn’t a neophyte to filmmaking, having been one of the most famous and successful actors of the last 20 years. Overall the film is strong, and while it does certainly owe a debt of influence to other mafia films, it has a unique tone and approach to the genre. Visually, the film is reminiscent of early Scorsese, although the camerawork isn’t as virtuosic, but the way De Niro chooses to shoot the neighborhood and the people in it feels familiar. The Bronx, particularly the street corner that houses Sonny’s bar and Cee’s home, becomes a central character in the film. De Niro does some of his best visual storytelling tracking along with cars and up and down the avenues, capturing the essence of the neighborhood. The film also features a great soundtrack, using classics of the 1950s and 60s to establish a sense of place and period. It’s a shame that De Niro often forsakes these obvious strengths in visually and cinematically interesting storytelling for an overreliance on redundant, needlessly expository voiceover. I don’t know if this is another influence of De Niro’s mentor Scorsese or maybe just a lack of confidence in his visual storytelling ability, but the film would be better off without much of its voiceover. Overall, though, De Niro makes strong directorial choices and I’d be interested to have seen him return to this role more frequently, although he’s only directed one other film, 2006’s The Good Shepherd.

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One thing that stood out to me while watching the film again for this post was its somewhat ambivalent treatment of race relations. The film’s second half introduces the topic of neighborhood integration as Cee meets and instantly falls in love with a black classmate, Jane (Taral Hicks), at the same time that his friends from the neighborhood are taking umbrage with the presence of young black men beginning to move into their neighborhood. The film’s depiction of racism is frank and, I’m sure, real for the time period, as name-calling and shouting eventually escalates to physical violence as Cee’s friends attack a group of black teens riding by on bikes. While Cee tries, halfheartedly, for fear of losing face with his friends, to intervene, his friends savagely beat the other teens and then leave them for dead when the police start to show up. Shortly thereafter, Cee is supposed to pick Jane up for a date, but when he meets her, he finds out that her brother was the one who was beaten up by his friends and has told her that Cee was involved. He pleads his case with her but she won’t believe him and leaves, but not before Cee shouts at her brother, calling him the N word. Though the film ultimately supports the interracial relationship of Jane and Cee, and Cee’s racist friends are burned alive in their car, getting comeuppance for their increasingly violent and sadistic actions, that moment where Cee shouts a racial slur is jarring and out of character for him up to that point in the film. It’s meant to be understood that it’s uttered out of frustration, and doesn’t represent Cee’s true character or beliefs, but it’s a real moment and it barely gets acknowledged with Jane’s forgiveness coming too quickly and seeming unwarranted. Overall I think that the film has a positive outlook and message on race relations, and I applaud the frank, realistic depiction of racial tensions, but the resolutions might be just a little too convenient for my taste. That scene keeps sticking out to me as unresolved, but it doesn’t detract from the quality of the film in general.

On the whole, A Bronx Tale is a mixed bag. There’s enough originality to the film to help it stand out from the glut of similar crime movies released around the same time, but the film also wears its primary influences on its sleeve. Palminteri is excellent, and although I’ve always had a problem with Brancato, Jr.’s portrayal of the older Cee, the rest of the cast is very good. There are the building blocks of a better film here, but much of the time, its theatrical roots show through too much and cause the film to feel distinctly uncinematic. When the film tries to get more serious and address social issues, it largely drops the ball, but at least A Bronx Tale doesn’t fall into the same trap of romanticizing Italian racism that I’ve felt from other gangster films, including some classics that I really do love. A Bronx Tale isn’t a forgotten classic or a must see film. It falls squarely in a category of films that I call “hangover cinema,” familiar movies that are good enough to keep one’s attention on television while nursing a hangover on the couch, but not necessarily good enough to pick out off the shelf and watch frequently. It has its flaws, but for fans of the genre, it will be satisfying enough entertainment.

Brick

Brick (2005)

Dir. Rian Johnson

Written by: Rian Johnson

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

 

Around the time that Brick was released, I really wasn’t watching a whole lot of contemporary movies. In 2006, I was just starting to settle into my life in Pittsburgh, having moved here permanently that fall. I was gearing up for my final few semesters of college, and most of my movie watching was done for classes. At that time, I was watching mostly classics and genre films in school, but I still kept my Netflix account for newer movies. Although I wasn’t using it nearly as frequently as I had been in the first couple of years of college, I still made the time squeeze in movies for pleasure, watching them late at night on a laptop, often with a buzz on. This is how I first experienced Brick: receiving a disc in a little red envelope, watching it somewhat distractedly, and sending it back quickly. It didn’t make a huge impression on me that first time, but I did appreciate its transition of a classic noir narrative to the seemingly more benign setting of a high school. I thought it was a good movie, but I didn’t quite agree with the universal fawning over the film that I had read on most of the film and pop culture websites I was following at the time. However, it stuck around in the back of my head long enough that I eventually picked up a used copy of it at the Exchange a few years later. I’m glad I did because Brick is the sort of movie that rewards close watching and gets better with repeated viewings.

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Brick’s convoluted plot is a classic noir detective story, inspired by the work of Dashiell Hammett, and featuring the classic tropes of the gumshoe, the damsel in distress, the femme fatale, and the shadowy underworld figures. Johnson chooses to resituate these familiar elements in a new setting, however, placing his mystery in the sunny setting of a southern California high school. Brendan (Gordon-Levitt) is investigating the disappearance of his former girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), who he fears has gotten mixed up in some trouble involving a local drug ring. Brendan is a loner, modeled on the classic noir detective, but he is assisted in his investigation by his friend, the Brain (Matt O’Leary), who helps Brendan track down loose threads and connect the dots in the search for Emily. Brendan is able to arrange a meeting with Emily where she tells him that he has to let her go, and to stop trying to save her, but of course he can’t. Brendan steals a note of Emily’s which leads him to a drainage ditch near the high school where he finds her dead body, and he takes it upon himself to find her murderer. Along the way, he meets Laura (Nora Zehetner), a high school socialite who was friends with Emily and who takes in interest in Brendan, though she may be playing both sides. Laura is also friendly with The Pin (Lukas Haas), a local heroin dealer who Brendan believes may have been involved in Emily’s murder. Brendan is able to infiltrate the Pin’s gang and after doing so he’s able to unravel the mystery of Emily’s murder, but the film forms a tightly wound knot that he must unwind to do so. Brick ends like so many classic noir films, with its detective standing alone, having tracked down the answers he wanted, only to be confronted with whole new questions and problems.

One of the most memorable and immediately conspicuous elements of Brick is its script. The film’s dialogue is anachronistically hard boiled, with its teenaged protagonists spouting rapid-fire line after line of tough talk. At first, the wordiness and odd phrasing of the dialogue can be a little tough to adjust to, but it quickly develops into beautiful, florid prose. Johnson wrote the script (originally conceived of as a novella) as a tribute to the work of Hammett, and he captures that authorial voice perfectly. Inserting period dialogue into a modern setting could have come off as a gimmick or a crutch, but the performances of the young cast sell it as authentic. In fact, the dialogue helps to define and create a unique sense of place in the film, creating a sort of fantasy world that these characters are inhabiting. Although it is very clearly set in the real world and its tone and subject matter are dark, Brick also has the feeling of a teenage fantasy, where the adults have vacated and left the children to their own devices. The dialogue enhances this sense of fantasy, giving the impression that Brendan is playing detective, mimicking his favorite films and pulp novels.

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The other thing that helps make Johnson’s unusual dialogue choices work is Gordon-Levitt’s strong performance as Brendan. He appears in every scene of the movie, and he carries the movie admirably in a breakthrough performance. Aside from just embracing the period dialogue, Gordon-Levitt embodies the noir detective in other ways. He does a good job of portraying Brendan’s mental processes in a physical, observable way. The viewer can see the wheels turning in his head as he and the Brain meet up behind the school to discuss the details of their case. Although Brick uses a flashback structure, the audience is asked to unravel much of the mystery at the same time as Brendan, and watching Gordon-Levitt portray that discovery is part of the film’s appeal. Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan as doggedly persistent, hell-bent in his pursuit of the truth about Emily’s murder. His performance is equal parts verbal, playing the role of both the conman and the wise guy, and physical, though he isn’t necessarily a man of action. His physicality comes more in his ability to portray a kid who can take a beating. As the movie goes on, Gordon-Levitt often adopts a hobbled gait as Brendan’s frequent encounters with school bullies and lowlifes leaves him on the wrong end of a lot of punishment. Johnson often chooses to focus on his feet as he creates a sort of shambolic ballet, seemingly out of control but all the while possessing a dancer’s grace.

Focusing on characters’ feet is just one of the bold stylistic choices that Johnson makes throughout the film. If the film’s script is totally indebted to hardboiled fiction, its visual aesthetic is something far afield from the typical noir aesthetic. For the most part, Johnson trades in the chiaroscuro and cramped interiors of the classic noir for sunny, wide open exteriors. He frequently chooses to frame his subjects in cutaways, focusing on shoes or eyes, but he returns often to long master shots that dwarf the characters against their environment, be it a parking lot, a drainage ditch, or the startlingly empty high school. If the typical noir used its visual aesthetic to present a world closing in on its protagonists, Brick presents us with a world that is wide open, but rather than representing a freeing experience for the film’s characters, that wide open space seems like a challenge too daunting to overcome. Overall, the film has a kinetic visual style, often employing smash cuts and quick zooms and pans to imply violence or narrative action. The decision to tie narrative point-of-view so directly to Brendan also helps to drive tension, as the audience is left in the dark and has to take the ride along with him. There are several zigs and zags along the way to the discovery of Emily’s killer, and many of the film’s revelations are truly shocking, including its pseudo-twist ending.

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If I had any complaint with Brick, it would probably be that, aside from Gordon-Levitt, the rest of the cast isn’t given enough to work with. Obviously, the film is highly tied to Brendan’s point-of-view and his experience of the world, but that is at the detriment of fleshing out the supporting cast. Haas does give a somewhat interesting performance as the Pin, playing the character with a quiet intensity. However, costuming decisions with the character (he wears a cape and has one leg that is significantly shorter than the other) may be more subtly interesting than anything Haas does with the performance. Emilie de Ravin just isn’t in the film very much. She has an early scene with Brendan where she tries to convince him to forget about her, but otherwise she mostly appears in dream sequences as a silent, reanimated corpse. She was doing good work on LOST as a damsel in distress type of character around the same time that Brick was made, but she simply doesn’t get the opportunities in the film to fully flesh out the role. Nora Zehetner’s Laura should be the most interesting supporting character, as she is ostensibly the film’s femme fatale, and her motives are possibly duplicitous from the start, but she is often reduced to pretty screen filler. She helps Brendan with his investigation and hints that she may be doing so because she’s always had her eye on him, but she rarely rises above the trope of the popular girl who wants to manipulate the class oddball. Ultimately, that’s the biggest weakness of the film. Johnson has created a complicated, nuanced character in Brendan, and that character is brought to life by Gordon-Levitt, but the rest of the cast rarely rise above the standard teen movie tropes of the popular girl, the burnout, the jock, etc. It’s a shame because the film offers up a wholly original take on both the teen movie and the noir, only to be largely peopled with cardboard cutouts.

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Overall, though, Brick is a winner. It’s a movie about teens that doesn’t dumb itself down to its audience, instead offering a glimpse into high school life that is artful and fantastical. If you remove the murder from the film, it becomes about a young man trying to come to terms with his girlfriend dumping him and his inability to move on. That’s a relatable subtext for any young person, and it serves as the film’s emotional heart. The bones around that heart are the complex murder mystery that Johnson weaves, and then dresses in the trappings of the film noir. There are a lot of constituent components to Brick, but they ultimately combine to form a film that embraces and elevates its influences. It’s full of subtle allusions to classic films, but it is never derivative thanks to Johnson’s kinetic visual style. The director’s continued stylistic evolution, genre experiments, and knack for storytelling and world building has now landed him a spot helming the next film in the Star Wars saga, but his debut is still probably my favorite film of his. Despite its small budget and relatively unknown cast, Brick had all the indications that its director and star would be on to bigger things very soon.

Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves (1996)

Dir. Lars von Trier

Written by: Lars von Trier

Starring: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge

Breaking the Waves is one of the films in my collection that I have watched the least. I picked the film up on Bluray a few years ago during one of Barnes and Nobles’s periodic half price Criterion Collection sales. I have been following the career of Lars von Trier since seeing Dancer in the Dark shortly after it was released, but to that point I had never seen Breaking the Waves, one of his most celebrated films, so I decided to take a chance on the purchase. I watched the movie shortly after buying it, and I was very impressed by its emotionally affective morality fable, and by Emily Watson’s heartbreaking performance as Bess, a naïve young woman who sacrifices everything in an attempt to please and heal her ailing husband. Since that initial viewing, I have only watched Breaking the Waves one other time before watching it for this project, simply because, like many of von Trier’s films, it is an incredibly difficult watch. The film’s beauty and artistic merit are without question, but its subject matter and emotional brutality make for an uncomfortable viewing experience.

Set in a small village on the northern coast of Scotland in the early 1970s, Breaking the Waves begins with the wedding of Bess (Watson) and Jan (Skarsgård). The Calvinist elders of the village don’t approve of this marriage as they are distrustful of outsiders, and Jan, a Scandinavian who has come to their village to work on an oil rig, is certainly an outsider. The tall, hard-drinking Jan, and Bess, who is devoutly religious and meek, make for an odd couple, but their marriage seems genuinely happy. Bess matches her religious devotion with a new-found devotion to her husband, and begins to find herself in a new context through Jan’s introduction of a previously forbidden sexuality into her life. When their honeymoon phase comes to an end and Jan has to go back to work on the rig, Bess comforts herself in prayer, giving voice to her own wants and concerns as well as God’s responses. While at sea, Jan suffers a head injury and is returned to Bess immobilized and confined to a hospital bed. Possessing of a childlike faith, Bess believes that her prayers for Jan’s early return from the oil rig are the cause of his injury, and, feeling guilty, she seeks a way that she might be able to heal him. Bess also begins to believe that she and Jan have a metaphysical connection, through both action and prayer. Jan suggests that Bess take another lover and then describe their sexual encounters to him, telling her that if she does this, it will help him to get better. Bess secretly begins prostituting herself, hoping in vain that through her debasement, the man she loves will be healed. Though her friends and family, including her sister-in-law (Cartlidge) who is also Jan’s nurse, caution her against her actions, insisting that she is being used by Jan, Bess persists, hoping that she can bring about a miracle.

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Von Trier often groups his films into sets and trilogies, and Breaking the Waves is the first film in what he calls his “Golden Heart” trilogy. It is followed by The Idiots, which I haven’t seen, and Dancer in the Dark, which I will be writing about for this project in time. These films are all influenced by a fairytale that von Trier read as a child in which a little girl is lost in the woods and gives away everything she owns to those who are needier than she is, and they all explore themes of exploitation, martyrdom, and absolution. Though he experienced critical success throughout Europe from the beginning of his career, Breaking the Waves marks von Trier’s first crossover success, with the film receiving near-unanimous praise from critics, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes, as well as garnering an Academy Award nomination for its star. The film also marks the genesis of the criticism of von Trier for perceived misogyny and exploitation of his female leads. Though von Trier has countered these criticisms, claiming that his female protagonists are representations of his own feminine side, there is certainly an argument to be made that the female protagonists of von Trier’s films are unfairly and sadistically treated, particularly in the “Golden Heart” trilogy. I’m not sure exactly whether I think that von Trier is a sadist or a misogynist, or if he is simply interested in documenting some of the baser, crueler aspects of human relations as a reflection of his own mental anguish. Watching his films often makes me uncomfortable, which is absolutely his intention as a filmmaker. He has often stated that his intention is to create films that are a “stone in your shoe,” that are provocative in both style and subject matter, and that lead the audience to consider positions or truths that may be unsettling. Breaking the Waves is certainly successful in this respect, and as uncomfortable as it might be to watch, it is often a beautiful and profound film.

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Arriving just over a year after von Trier’s announcement of the Dogme 95 manifesto, a set of rules announcing a new experimental cinema movement that aimed to return filmmaking to a focus on core values of story, performance, and theme, Breaking the Waves shares many stylistic similarities to later Dogme films, but it is not considered a true Dogme film. One goal of Dogme filmmaking was to better connect with the audience by stripping away the artifice of special effects and slick post-production, and though he doesn’t strictly adhere to the filmmaking tenets laid out in the manifesto in Breaking the Waves, the desired effect of audience engagement and delivery of cinematic truth is achieved through von Trier’s beginning to experiment with a more minimalist and naturalistic style. The film was shot entirely with handheld cameras, with von Trier often framing his leads in extreme close ups. The audience is granted an unusual intimacy to Bess and Jan, with von Trier explicitly and frankly filming them having sex, lying in bed, dancing. The camera engages in a sort of dance, as well, with the freedom of movement provided by handheld allowing von Trier to film his subjects from unusual angles. In post-production, von Trier chose to transfer the images from film to video and back to film again, resulting in a slightly grainy, occasionally out of focus image that is reminiscent of a home movie. Although both of these unusual stylistic choices could be seen as disruptive or distracting, used for their distancing effect on the audience, I think that they enhance my own personal identification with the film and the characters, as well as lending the film a sort of cinéma-vérité quality. Sometimes devout realism can rob a film of some of its emotional impact, but in this case I think it helps to create poignancy.

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Of course the real emotional engine of the film is Watson in her performance as Bess. The film requires her to portray the full scope of human emotions, from the joy that Bess experiences when she and Jan are first married to the utter anguish that she feels when she realizes she may have been somehow at fault for his accident. Her performance ranges from performative, histrionic fits of despair to quiet moments of prayer and internal reflection. Despite her devotion to Jan, Watson plays Bess as primarily internally focused, and she incorporates subtleties into the character that hint at her mental illness and her stunted emotional development. There are several scenes that feature Bess praying, and in them she utters her prayers out loud and also vocalizes what she believes to be God’s personal responses to her. Watson’s subtle change of inflection in these scenes, a conversation of one, demonstrate the sadly rich internal world that Bess inhabits, and the extreme religious faith to which she clings. Watson’s Bess is a, literal, wide-eyed innocent, von Trier often framing her face in extreme close up and highlighting her eyes, which seem to be constantly searching. As the film progresses, we see more and more pain enter into those eyes as Bess continues to put herself through emotional and physical punishment. The performance was lauded by critics and Watson earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Astonishingly, Breaking the Waves was her debut feature but she carries the film entirely, imbuing her character with heartbreaking pathos.

Although it is a bleak film, Breaking the Waves isn’t an entirely grim affair. It does have moments of levity and some astonishingly beautiful compositions. The film’s opening scenes at Bess and Jan’s wedding begin the film on a light hearted note. There is music and dancing, and despite the misgivings of Bess’s family and the village Elders, everyone generally seems happy for her. The cultural differences between Jan’s coworkers and the chaste villagers is largely played for laughs, although there is a sinister undertone to an exchange between Jan’s friend, Terry (Jean-Marc Barr), and Bess’s grandfather (Phil McCall), in which the latter smashes a glass with his bare hand in response to the former crushing his beer can in an aggressive manner. Largely, though, the scene sets up what will be a fairly quaint setting for the beginning of the film, before Jan’s accident triggers the film’s darker portions. Von Trier’s film depicts the Scottish countryside as rugged and cold, but beautiful, and the intertitle shots that introduce the seven chapters that he has chosen to break his film up into are stunning, possessing a painterly aesthetic. These intertitles are jarring, made up of landscapes so vibrant they appear to be tinted, the static long shots are soundtracked by 1970s British rock classics, and they stand in stark contrast with the aesthetic of the rest of the film. Their beauty is almost transcendent and its radical departure from the established visual aesthetic of the film indicates that for von Trier, perhaps, there is little place for traditional beauty in the real world of his film. These intertitles could also be seen as a sort of fantasy informed by the influence of Jan on Bess’s life and mental state, as she quickly mentions music as being one of the noteworthy contributions of outsiders like Jan to life in the village when she is being interrogated by the village Elders prior to her wedding. Even when working somewhat within the framework of a restrictive code of filmic ethics such as Dogme filmmaking, von Trier can’t help but include some of the beautiful, set compositions that would become more prevalent in his post-2000 work.

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Von Trier also pulls his punches somewhat by including a quasi-happy ending to the film. While I won’t go into depth on the specifics of the film’s ending, because I think that its final shot is a thing of true beauty and needs to be seen to truly be understood, it does offer some absolution and redemption for Bess. Von Trier’s later films would abandon this sentiment, and often find their heroines left in a much more precarious or pessimistic position at film’s end, but I think that Breaking the Waves is a better film for allowing some light to permeate its darkness. Many seem to think that this film is von Trier’s finest work, but I think that I prefer Dancer in the Dark, perhaps just because I saw it so much earlier in life than I saw Breaking the Waves. Watching it this time, though, I was struck by the film in a way that I hadn’t necessarily been in my first two viewings. It’s easy to get caught up in the film’s bleakness, as its long running time compounds the experience of watching Bess’s prolonged suffering, but the moments of true beauty are certainly there in the film. It’s a more complex film than I had previously realized, and it bears many thematic resemblances to one of my favorite films, Au Hasard Balthazar. Just like that film always does, the ending of Breaking the Waves brought me to tears. Experiencing a Lars von Trier film can be an emotionally exhausting experience, and, to be honest, I don’t know that all of his films are worth the amount of trauma that they can inflict upon a viewer, but Breaking the Waves is a piece of high art. It probably isn’t the best introduction to the cinema of von Trier, but it is a film that’s not to be missed.

Boyz N The Hood

Boyz N The Hood (1991)

Dir. John Singleton

Written by: John Singleton

Starring: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ice Cube, Laurence Fishburne, Morris Chestnut

 

Boyz N The Hood arrived in the summer of 1991, the debut feature from John Singleton who was fresh out of film school at USC. The film was both a box office and critical success, and Singleton would eventually be nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards. He was the youngest person to ever be nominated for the award, and the first African-American filmmaker to ever be nominated for the award. The film likely stands as the high water mark for a career that has seen Singleton chart an interesting course, veering from his socially conscious early films to high profile gigs at the helm of Hollywood action blockbusters and franchise films. Through all of his creative divergences, Singleton has established a persistent thematic interest that ties his filmography together. Many of Singleton’s films serve as meditations on inner city violence and the systemic forces in America that contribute to the proliferation of violence and inequality in the African-American community, but never has he explored these issues as presciently or as urgently as in Boyz N The Hood.

Singleton began to develop the script that would become Boyz N The Hood while he was still a teen, basing much of the film on his own experience growing up in South Central L.A. The film begins with young Tre Styles (played first by Desi Arnaz Hines II, but later by Gooding, Jr.) being suspended from his school in Watts, and subsequently being shipped off to live with his father, Furious (Fishburne), in Crenshaw. As Tre grows, his father tries to give him advice and encourages him to avoid the temptations of crime and drugs that are so abundant in their neighborhood, and that could lead him down a path to destruction. Tre’s best friends, brothers Ricky (Chestnut) and Dough Boy (Ice Cube), choose radically divergent paths, with Ricky choosing football as an escape route from South Central, while Dough Boy graduates from petty crime as a child to more violent and reckless behavior as a teen, sinking deeper into the gangster lifestyle. Despite their differences, the three remain close friends and try to navigate coming of age amidst the turmoil of the constant violence that surrounds them. Ricky receives a scholarship offer from USC, and he and Tre sit for the SAT together, with the hopes that going to college will be their ticket out of Crenshaw. However, a chance encounter with a gang member pulls them both back into the violent realities of life for young African-American men growing up in South Central.

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The film benefits from Singleton’s lived experience, as well as from the performances of its incredibly young cast. Besides Angela Bassett, who plays Tre’s mother, no one in the principal cast of the film was over the age of 30 when it was released, and many of the actors were barely in their 20s. Sometimes I think it takes a younger voice to really connect to the reality that inspires a film, and Boyz N The Hood is definitely the product of a young filmmaker willing to take chances and make bold statements. Singleton was protective of his script when it was being shopped to studios, insisting that he direct the film himself in spite of his lack of feature experience. He knew that someone from outside of the community represented in the film wouldn’t be able to connect to the story in a meaningful way, and the end result of his tenacity is a brave, emotional passion project. Boyz N The Hood explores the root causes of racial inequality in 1990s Los Angeles from a position of informed authenticity. The film doesn’t shy away from depicting graphic gun violence, but it never glamorizes violence, or hold it up as a spectacle, in the way that it often is in traditional Hollywood films. Instead, the film shows us violence as a cyclical phenomenon that has real and devastating consequences on the people and communities that it is acted out upon. Other films of the period that explore inner city crime and violence feel, at best, moralizing and stilted, and, at worst, exploitative. Boyz N The Hood feels like a dispatch from the real world, announcing the struggle of a real community that was heretofore largely underrepresented.

Growing up in the 1990s, I was aware that people of color had a vastly different experience of life in America than did White people like myself. From a young age I followed the news and current events, and I can remember seeing footage of Rodney King beaten on the side of the road by officers of the LAPD. I remember thinking that King’s skin color had something to do with the way that the officers felt they could savagely assault him. In my head, I tied these images to the ones I had seen in books of civil rights protestors being sprayed with hoses and attacked by police dogs, and I started to understand the concept of an institutional sort of racism that persists over generations and is less about individual acts of racial hatred, and more about an overarching denial of basic humanity and an attempt to maintain a repressive status quo. Of course, I didn’t come to all of these conclusions all at once, and certainly not at the young age of seven or eight years old, which I was when I started to consider some of these questions during the time of the Rodney King trial and subsequent riots, and the O.J. Simpson trial. It took time and life experience to understand the complicated issue of race in America, and watching Boyz N The Hood helped to put some of the final pieces into place. I’ve written before about using films as a way to explore other cultures or other experiences different than my own, and Boyz N The Hood was an early example of that in my life. I watched it for the first time when I was in high school, about the same age as the film’s protagonists, and while it didn’t open my eyes to a reality that I was blind to, it did present its central problems in ways that I had never considered them before.

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I’m referring to the scene in the middle of the film in which Furious takes Tre and Ricky to Compton and shows them a billboard advertising cash for homes. He introduces them to the concept of gentrification. This scene was also my first introduction to the concept of gentrification and to the economic ramifications of institutionalized racism. In under two minutes, Furious outlines the attempts to marginalize African-American communities through flooding them with drugs and guns, and by so doing to undermine and devalue African-American lives. He hits on the media’s ignorance of the societal problems of the African-American community, until those problems begin to cross over into suburbia or the “heartland,” at which point they are deemed “epidemics.” The violence of the film is a symptom of the larger disease of institutionalized racism, a centuries’ long campaign on the part of governments and corporations to delegitimize non-White communities. Keeping people fighting amongst themselves is a great strategy to maintain existing power structures, and agents of the State such as the police and the media exist to help foment that infighting, and to uphold the yoke of official power that is exacted over repressed communities. Hearing these sorts of ideas expressed explicitly in the film, coupled with a burgeoning interest in Socialism, helped to influence my worldview as a young man. Though I was a White man, I understood that I could stand in solidarity with minorities by trying to resist the influence of these power structures and exposing the fallacy of race as a factor of contention between people. The scene isn’t the most successful one in the film cinematically, as Furious’s sermonizing on the street corner to a magically arriving crowd of listeners simply feels a bit forced and inorganic, however, it is the most ideologically important moment in the film, because it helps to unpack the complicated gnarl of roots behind the pervasive violence shown in the film.

This scene likely sticks out as feeling somewhat inauthentic simply because the rest of the film is so naturalistic. As I’ve mentioned several times now, Boyz N The Hood is simply an authentic movie. The performances are nuanced, naturalistic, and emotionally resonant, and in many cases the performances belie the actors’ lack of professional experience. At the time known only as a rapper, Ice Cube steals the movie with his powerhouse portrayal of Dough Boy. He is both menacing and charming at the same time, displaying the charisma and onscreen presence that would lead him to a crossover career in films. In the early 1990s, Ice Cube was one of the unflinching faces of West Coast gangsta rap, but in Boyz N The Hood, he displays an emotional range not exhibited on his solo albums or with N.W.A. The scene where he and Tre carry Ricky’s lifeless body into his house after he is gunned down by a local gangster whom he had disrespected never fails to make me tear up. The loss of Ricky’s life is senseless, but something about the desperation in Dough Boy’s pleas that he be allowed to take Ricky’s infant son out of the room is the hardest part of the scene for me to watch. “He doesn’t need to see this,” he insists repeatedly, and there seems to be an underlying knowledge that this early trauma could lead the boy down a path towards the same vicious cycle of violence that Dough Boy himself is caught up in. That knowledge is certainly apparent in the single tear that Dough Boy sheds immediately before he pulls the trigger, exacting his revenge on Ricky’s killers. The bullet won’t bring Ricky back, and it will likely serve as a death sentence for Dough Boy, as well.

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Cuba Gooding, Jr. also turns in an emotionally affective performance, portraying Tre as a young man attempting to claim his own masculinity in a world that is set up to undermine it at every step of the way. Though his friends are caught up in gang activity, Tre eschews violence and is generally a law-abiding young man. He takes his father’s lessons to heart, and even though he goes above and beyond to walk the straight and narrow, Tre sometimes still finds himself on the wrong side of forces of oppression. This is most obvious in the scene where Tre and Ricky are pulled over, profiled for “driving while Black,” and Tre is threatened by a racist African-American cop. During the traffic stop, both men are pulled out of the car, and Tre is forced up against the hood. “I hate little motherfuckers like you,” the cop says as he presses his gun into Tre’s chin, threatening to kill him. The police receive a call of a possible murder and let Tre and Ricky go, but the damage has already been done, as Tre realizes the truth in the cop’s words: “I could blow your head off and you couldn’t do shit.” This lack of power in the face of racist, State-sanctioned authority is at the heart of Tre’s crisis of masculinity. How can an individual reclaim agency in a system that is designed to deny him of his basic human dignity?

This is the question at the center of Boyz N The Hood, a film in which its characters are struggling to define personal success as something greater than simply surviving the day. Singleton begins the film with statistics about the homicide rate in the African-American community and ends it with a title imploring its audience to “increase the peace.” In between he paints a vivid picture of a generation rapidly being lost to drugs and violence, turning to nihilism in the face of oppressive powers often too vast to easily comprehend. He paints a picture of a community in crisis. I imagine Boyz N The Hood must have felt like a bomb dropping for audiences who saw it for the first time in 1991. I know that it felt that way for me when I first saw it some ten years later, and it still feels that way today over a quarter century after its release. Ricky’s death left me as emotionally raw watching the film a few days ago as it did the first time I saw it, and its questions of race, identity, and masculinity feel even more relevant today. The film drops knowledge but it also helps to foster empathy, and I think those are two of the highest purposes of any work of art.

Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights (1997)

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly

 

It didn’t take long for Paul Thomas Anderson to gain recognition as one of America’s most promising young filmmakers. To date, he’s released seven features, and the opening of a new Paul Thomas Anderson film has become one of the biggest events in contemporary cinema. Later films such as There Will Be Blood and The Master have cemented his spot in the pantheon of great 21st century filmmakers, but I find a lot of pleasure in watching his first few features, as well. It’s interesting to watch a great talent struggle to find himself and develop a unique style and voice. Anderson’s 90s films are marked by his perfect mimicry of the style of some of his great influences, but there are also some early indicators of the distinctive visual and narrative style that he would begin to develop after the turn of the century. I’ll be writing about all of Anderson’s films in depth for this project, minus his most recent release, Inherent Vice, which I never picked up despite enjoying a lot. I think it’s fitting, though, to start off with Boogie Nights, even though it isn’t his debut feature, nor was it my first experience with the director. I think it’s fitting to start here, because Boogie Nights is the first, if not best, example of the director’s blend of artful homage and innovative storytelling that would eventually develop into his own directorial signature. I think that it is also Anderson’s most accessible and easy to enjoy film.

Boogie Nights charts the rise and fall of both Dirk Diggler (Wahlberg) and the adult film industry through the late 1970s and into the 80s. Loosely based on real-life porn actor John Holmes, Dirk is discovered by Jack Horner (Reynolds), an auteur of pornography, who aims to bring a touch of class and storytelling to the medium. Dirk is added to Horner’s stable of actors, but it doesn’t take long for him to separate himself from the pack and become one of the industry’s shining stars. Horner’s crew forms a sort of surrogate family, with Dirk in the middle as the golden child, around whom all the other performers are orbiting. The crew lets the good times roll throughout the 1970s, with the film reveling in its depictions of bacchanalia, giving the audience an inside look at the seedy, yet somehow still glamorous world of high-end pornography. However, as the calendar turns and as public tastes prove fickle, no one is prepared for the realities that begin to set in in the 1980s. Too much cocaine and too much hubris precipitate Dirk’s ejection from Horner’s troupe, and the rise of video sees the porn industry, in general, facing great changes. Fame is a roller coaster ride, and the dizzying heights must be matched by plummeting depths, and the film’s third act sees all parties finding rock bottom before they can hope to experience any redemption.

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Growing up in a show biz household, surrounded by films, Anderson began experimenting with filmmaking at an early age. By his teens, he was shooting videos and editing them on a VCR, and, in fact, the inspiration for Boogie Nights comes from an early short from this period. When he was 18, Anderson shot a 30-minute mockumentary called The Dirk Diggler Story, which would go on to become Boogie Nights a decade later, with some of the scenes being recreated nearly verbatim, and the mockumentary itself being referenced in an abridged version as the film that Amber Waves (Moore) shoots about Dirk halfway through Boogie Nights. After a decade of development, the final cut of Boogie Nights bears little similarity to its earlier, truncated counterpart. Anderson’s directorial choices reveal a devotion to the New Wave of American Cinema, particularly to the style of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese. Anderson leans on these pillars of American filmmaking throughout Boogie Nights, evoking their unique filming styles, as well as some of the thematic concerns on display in their filmographies, particularly Altman’s. Though the film wears its influences on its sleeve, to me it doesn’t feel plagiaristic as much as celebratory. Anderson announces his intentions immediately with the film’s opening shot, a three-minute tracking shot that follows Jack and Amber through Maurice’s (Luis Guzman) nightclub. The shot is showy and virtuosic, calling to mind the opening shot of The Player or, perhaps even more immediately due to the nightclub setting, Goodfellas. The camera winds through the club, tilting, spinning, and panning, pausing to light on the faces of the film’s main characters as they catch Jack’s watchful eye. It finally settles on Dirk, then known as Eddie, a busboy at the club who takes the bus in from Torrance just to be close to the action. More than just introducing the principal cast, this opening shot also introduces the world of the film as highly stylized and glamorous, but still slightly seedy. The costumes and sets feel authentic and they pop off the screen, matched by the stylish, attention grabbing camera work of Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit. The film is full of these types of long takes and carefully plotted out tracking shots, and though it may be somewhat derivative, Anderson has clearly set his artistic bar very high as a young filmmaker, and there are few other filmmakers who would be able to deliver this level of homage to acknowledged masters of the medium like Altman and Scorsese.

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Of course there is much more to Boogie Nights than simply period authenticity and fan service to some great American filmmakers. The film marks the first major indication that Anderson is a great director of actors, and a great crafter of nuanced, lived-in characters. The performances in his debut, Hard Eight, are stellar top to bottom, but the scope of what he attempts and manages to pull off in Boogie Nights is on a completely different level. The film has over two dozen speaking roles, and the primary supporting cast around Wahlberg numbers around a dozen, and is made up of veteran character actors and up-and-coming stars. All of the film’s secondary and tertiary characters feel authentic and fleshed out, their side plots unraveling alongside and intertwined with the tale of Dirk’s rise and fall. Anderson’s Academy-Award-nominated screenplay gives these characters detailed backstories that are revealed subtly through overheard pieces of conversation or carefully observed actions, but much of the life is breathed into the characters through the cast’s overall great performances. The film’s supporting cast is deep and diverse, and they are all asked to shed light on different aspects of the tapestry that makes up the world of Boogie Nights through their performances.

Heather Graham delivers a star making turn as the memorable Rollergirl, one of Horner’s actresses. Her performance balances the bubbly, vivacious personality presented by her porn persona with the tragic reality of the girl who had to drop out of high school when her peers found out she was making pornographic films. She shares a scene with Julianne Moore, when she asks Moore’s Amber Waves to be her mother that cuts to the bone, and reveals the shattered little girl that Rollergirl obviously still is, despite her existence in this very adult world. John C. Reilly adds his goofily likable charm to the character of Reed Rothschild, Dirk’s friend and sidekick, while providing much of the film’s humor, along with Guzman. He’s a reassuringly normal oasis in this world of hurt, twisted people. Philip Baker Hall and Robert Ridgely appear as porn producers, and lend a suitable level of sleaze to the otherwise light, glamorous proceedings. Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in a powerful early performance as Scotty J., Horner’s in-house boom operator, who is closeted and in love with Dirk. Hoffman makes Scotty’s shame palpable in the awkward scene where he tries to kiss Dirk, only to be rebuffed, left alone with the car that he bought to impress Dirk. These types of performances would become the norm for Hoffman, and he would go on to bigger and better things, both with and without Anderson, but his sad performance as Scotty has always stood out as one of his best to me. Ditto for Don Cheadle’s performance as Buck Swope, Horner’s token black porn star. Buck spends most of the film caught between worlds, unable to rectify his own perception of himself with the world’s expectations of him as a man. Buck’s dream is to open up a stereo shop, aided by the fame he has garnered through his career in porn, but his ambitions are thwarted at every turn. There is a scene midway through the film where Buck is alone at a party wearing a Rick James-style dreadlock wig, and Cheadle’s still, quietly pained expression tells volumes about Buck’s experience of the world. The wig is patently absurd and humorous, but that humor is covering up a well of pain. All of the characters in Boogie Nights are either running from something or desperately trying to get to something.

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No one in the film personifies this as much as Amber Waves. Moore plays Amber as a matronly figure to the entire production crew, but particularly to Dirk. It’s revealed early in the film that she has lost custody of and contact with her own son, so she uses Dirk as a surrogate. Throughout the film, Moore is asked to portray cocaine-induced mania alongside gut wrenching despair, sometimes even blending the two in the same scene, and she delivers with aplomb. Wahlberg might be the central axis on which the film swings, but Moore’s performance gives it both its heart and its backbone. Anderson offers more direct glimpses into Amber’s backstory than most of the other characters’, but even without the custody hearing scene, the steeliness of Moore’s performance as Amber would be enough to hint at the pain that she has been working for years to heal, or at least numb. Julianne Moore has long been one of my favorite actresses, and her performance in Boogie Nights earned her her first Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actress. She has turned in many powerful performances since, but her work in this film still stand out to me as some of her best.

Though the film’s industry setting and expansive ensemble cast recall classic Altman and Anderson’s storytelling structure and shooting style are reminiscent of Scorsese, Boogie Nights has elements of a unique style beginning to bubble up at moments in the film. These impulses wouldn’t crystallize immediately, but there are glimpses here of the voice that would emerge in There Will Be Blood. The most impactful example of Anderson experimenting and developing is in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, in which Dirk, Reed, and Todd (Thomas Jane) attempt to rob Rahad (Alfred Molina), an unpredictable, violent cocaine dealer. The scene comes near the very end of the film, long after Dirk has descended into a spiral of addiction and desperation that has alienated him from Jack and the rest of the crew. He spends his time exclusively with Reed and Todd, who comes up with a scheme to help them score plenty of coke and the cash they need to support their habits. Anderson masterfully orchestrates the scene, combining masterful shot and framing choices, his actors’ performances, and a perfect soundtrack of 80s classics into a palpably tense, unforgettable moment. While the scene isn’t wholly original, its eccentricity and audacity set it apart from any of Scorsese’s memorable musical sequences. It’s a slow burn of a scene, with the trio of Dirk, Reed, and Todd becoming increasingly more agitated as they realize they’re in over their heads at the sight of Rahad’s bodyguard’s gun, the tension ratcheting higher and higher as Rahad gets increasingly more manic, and Night Rider’s “Sister Christian” builds to a crescendo in the background. There is a persistent weirdness to the scene, with a young Asian man in Rick Springfield T-shirt wordlessly lighting firecrackers and tossing them around the room. Everyone but Rahad flinches at each tiny explosion, while Rahad, dressed in a silk robe and briefs, rants and raves, smoking crack, showing off his gun, and pontificating on his mixtape skills, seemingly unfazed by the incessant pops. The tension in the scene builds to a head when Rahad’s mixing skills are shown to falter and “Sister Christian” cuts off mid-chorus, leaving Rahad stunned and angry. The silence is quickly broken by an exploding firecracker, and Rahad seems to snap out of his temporary, wordless rage, taking another hit off of his crack pipe as the opening riff of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” fills the soundtrack and side two of the mixtape starts up.

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Other filmmakers might use this opportunity to cut straight to the action, but Anderson is content to let the tension continue to build, as he films Molina dancing and singing along to the song. He reverses the shot to a close-up of Dirk’s face, wearing a blank expression as the gravity of the situation washes over him and over the audience. He holds that static close-up for nearly a full minute, an unusually long and uncomfortable shot duration, with Wahlberg’s expression remaining largely unchanged. It’s a microcosm of the scene as a whole, a slow build that is allowed to play out at its own pace and celebrate its own weirdness. When the bullets finally do start flying, the counterpoint of the bright, familiar guitar riff of Springfield’s biggest hit ramp up in the background on the soundtrack, a pairing of music and image that is more ironic than anything Anderson could have borrowed from Scorsese’s catalog. This scene is one of the first times that I think Anderson really starts to emerge as a filmmaker who is in dialogue with his influences, appropriating bits of their style and reimagining them in new and original ways. There would still be refinements and additions that would lead to Anderson becoming one of America’s most original and artistically successful filmmakers, but the evidence is all there in this bold scene.

I don’t watch Boogie Nights all that often. In fact, I’ve probably seen it a half a dozen times or less in my life, despite being a big fan of it as a movie. This is likely due, at least in part, to the fact that in spite of what a good film it really is, Boogie Nights pales in comparison to the quality of Anderson’s later output. It’s probably also due to the fact that the film is so instantly memorable. Its characters and set pieces are big and bold, and its stylish camera work comes to mind easily. It may not quite rank up among Anderson’s very best work, but Boogie Nights is an accomplishment in any right, and may be Anderson’s most fun film. It’s a big film that is easy to get immersed in, and its world is genuinely enticing, with even the film’s darker third act containing moments of levity and humor. Initially, the film sees its director trying on the clothes of his greatest influences and finding that they are, in fact, a good fit for him, but by the end, it proves to be a crucial link in the chain of Anderson’s development as an auteur. It isn’t quite original enough to earn the masterpiece title that will be bestowed on some of his other films, but it is a perfectly fun and engaging film, enjoyable on several different levels, and a good indication of big things to come.

The Blues Brothers

The Blues Brothers (1980)

Dir. John Landis

Written by: John Landis and Dan Akroyd

Starring: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Carrie Fisher, Cab Calloway

 

When I was very young, I often felt like I was out of step with my peers. My interests didn’t line up with theirs and I rarely participated in the fashions and trends that the other kids at my elementary school were obsessed with. My mother made most of my clothes and she cut my hair in a Lennon-esque shaggy bowl cut until I was about 10 or 11 years old. When other kids my age were getting into sports, I was reading tomes about the history of the Civil War and writing my own short stories on my family’s ancient word processor. This isn’t to say that I didn’t have plenty of commonalities with my classmates; I was as into Cool Runnings and The Mighty Ducks as any American kid was in 1993, and I was an avid video gamer, cherishing the Super Nintendo that my sister and I received as a Christmas gift in 1992, even though we originally played it on a black-and-white television. I did have friends, and good ones, at that, but even amongst friends, I felt that some of my interests were outside of the norm. While my friends started getting into contemporary pop culture, borrowing rap albums from older siblings or sneaking into the room to watch the ending of a scary movie, my tastes stayed decidedly retro. Until the time her turntable broke in 1993 or 1994, my main source of music came from my mother’s record collection. My sister and I had kids’ tapes that we’d listen to in the car, but we weren’t allowed to watch MTV until a little later, so our only source of “adult music” was from these three dozen or so records kept on a shelf, collected from the late 1960s into the 80s. We listened to Rubber Soul and Dylan’s Greatest Hits, but it was the copy of Briefcase Full of Blues, the debut album by The Blues Brothers that most intrigued me.

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I don’t remember the exact first time I put that record on the turntable, and dropped the needle to hear the walking bassline of “I Can’t Turn You Loose” played by Donald Duck Dunne and the tight but raucous horn stabs from “Blue” Lou Marini and “Bones” Malone, but I do remember the impact that the record had on me. This was something far afield from the folk music I was most familiar with from her collection. This was party music. It was loud and celebratory, but it also had an edge that made it feel dangerous. There was something mysterious to me about the image of the Blues Brothers on the cover; their black hats and suits, and matching dark Ray Bans were the epitome of cool to nine-year-old me. I knew that the group was something of a novelty act, music being performed by comedians, but it didn’t matter. I knew Aykroyd well from having seen Ghostbusters roughly 100 times to that point, and I was aware that there was a movie called The Blues Brothers, but I was introduced to the group first through the music. To me, the Blues Brothers were a band, not characters from a sketch or a film, and they were the coolest people in the world. Seeing the movie around the time I was 12, long after the turntable was kaput and I was no longer able to hear the music, did nothing to diminish that image in my mind. On the contrary, it cemented their status as cool guy role models for a young kid who was still a couple years away from discovering punk rock.

The Blues Brothers expanded on the sense of raucous fun I got from listening to the record, and it gave the titular group a back story and an insane world in which to live. For the uninitiated, the plot is very simple. The film opens with “Joliet” Jake Blues (Belushi) being released from prison. His brother, Elwood (Aykroyd), picks him up in a decommissioned police cruiser that he bought after trading in the “Bluesmobile” for a microphone. Soon after, they visit the Catholic orphanage in which they were raised and find out that the orphanage owes $5,000 for a tax assessment or it will be closed. The Blues Brothers take it as their “mission from God” to raise the $5,000 and save the orphanage. They have to figure out a legitimate way to raise the money, so they decide to reassemble their backing band for a big performance that will help them raise the money. They meet some initial resistance, but they ultimately get everyone to agree to the gig, however, there are other roadblocks in their way as they are being pursued by Jake’s jilted ex-lover (Fisher), the Illinois Nazi party, a rival country band, and a cadre of law enforcement, up to and including the United States Army. The Blues Brothers is the rare musical comedy that succeeds in providing both great musical set pieces and genuinely funny scenes. It enlists a who’s who of Blues and R&B legends to join with The Blues Brothers for unforgettable musical cameos, as well as cameos by established and up-and-coming comedic actors. The Blues Brothers is a big, exciting blockbuster of a comedy and it ranks up as one of my favorites in the genre and potentially my very favorite musical.

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Much of the movie’s comedic success comes from the natural chemistry between Aykroyd and Belushi, and their combined charisma as performers. After years of performing together on SNL and after having taken their Blues Brothers act on the road, the two had honed their onstage personae to a razor sharp point. Their characters are perfect foils for one another. Belushi’s Jake is the larger than life, bellicose frontman of the band, while Aykroyd’s Elwood is the more stoically reserved sidekick. Their interplay is perfect and they bounce off of one another with aplomb, each one filling in the gaps of the other’s personality. Elwood doesn’t have a tremendous amount of dialogue in the film, but Aykroyd’s line delivery never fails to crack me up. He has a clipped, Joe Friday delivery that implies a level of simplicity belied by the mechanical ingenuity that Elwood often shows throughout the film. Aykroyd embodies Elwood with a sense of natural cool. He doesn’t say much because he doesn’t have to; he lets his persona do the talking for him. However, as good as Aykroyd’s performance is, it can’t match the scene-stealing force that is John Belushi as “Joliet” Jake Blues.

The Blues Brothers is Belushi at his unhinged best, dancing, jiving, and shouting his way through the film with no shame. If he gained mega-stardom through his portrayal of the dumb brute Bluto in Animal House, he showed off his full range in The Blues Brothers, using his physicality in both predictable and surprising ways. Belushi is a force of nature in the film, staggering and swaggering, but also unexpectedly lithe and graceful, showing off a great deal of athleticism as he dances and cartwheels his way through the performance scenes. Unlike Bluto, Jake is the brains of the operation, and as such, Belushi is given a great deal more dialogue to work with. Jake is lecherous and scheming, but he’s also good-hearted and devoted to his brother and their surrogate father from the orphanage, Clarence (Calloway). Belushi’s passionate performance in The Blues Brothers makes me wonder what he would have gone on to do had he lived just a little bit longer and made a few more films. This film was his first big opportunity to showcase his range as a performer, and, sadly, he would be dead less than two years after its release.

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While the stars of the film do a good bit of the heavy comedic lifting, their task is lessened by the hilarious odd ball world that Aykroyd and Landis’s script envisions for them to inhabit. The Blues Brothers is absolutely a celebration of the city of Chicago, but its version of Chicago is viewed through a fun house mirror. Like a handful of the other comedies that I’ve written about here, The Blues Brothers feels like it’s taking place in a world that is just adjacent to our own. This probably shouldn’t be surprising as more than most other genres, musicals require audiences to totally suspend their disbelief to accept a world in which the characters will break out in song in public at the drop of a hat, giving even the most “realistic” musicals a sense of artificiality. The world of The Blues Brothers is madcap and wacky, involving high speed car chases that employ impossible physics in their cinematic ballet of destruction, vengeful white supremacists and country groups, and a bazooka wielding ex. Jake and Elwood are repeatedly wrecked, blown up, and shot at in the film, and manage to take it all in stride and come out on the other side with nary a scratch. But beyond its larger scale weirdness, The Blues Brothers is simply packed with small, memorable moments that are patently absurd that form its distinctive comedic tone. From the brothers’ standard lunch order (four whole friend chickens and a Coke for Jake, dry white toast for Elwood), to the repeated impetus of their quest (“We’re on a mission from God”), Jake and Elwood have a magical, charmed quality about them that informs the whole film with a sense of lightheartedness. The weird, goofiness of the world of the movie underscores the absurdity of its stone-faced protagonists.

Fleshing out this strange world are a cast of characters comprised of some of the period’s best rising comedic stars. Carrie Fisher’s role as Jake’s unnamed jilted bride, who is hell bent on hunting he and Elwood down and killing them, leveling whole buildings in the process, is the only other role that I ever picture her in besides Princess Leia. She is a mysterious figure until near the film’s end, but her largely unexplained back story is hinted at by the glimpses that we get into her life. John Candy shows up as one of the detectives hunting down the Blues Brothers, and his ad-libbed “Orange whip” bit is one of my favorite lines from the whole film. Frank Oz has a brief cameo as the prison guard who returns Jake’s possessions to him when he is released from prison at the beginning of the film. But of course, the supporting roles that steal the show are the musicians who make cameos throughout the film. James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker all make appearances, alongside other famous blues and R&B musicians of the 1950s and 60s. Aretha’s performance of “Think” in the soul food restaurant is my favorite in the film, but the scene featuring James Brown’s portrayal of Rev. Cleophus James never fails to illicit a smile with its over-the-top choreography. Ray Charles’s performance of “Shake a Tail Feather” along with the Blues Brothers Band is the film’s central showpiece. The film’s final performance is great, but it doesn’t match the energy of the band really getting into a great dance number, alongside one of the greatest pianists of all time, with hundreds of extras dancing in the Chicago streets.

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Obviously, I have little but kind words for The Blues Brothers, but it does have a few technical shortcomings, some of which are glaring, such as “Blue” Lou’s saxophone solo during “Think.” The moment that Lou struts down the counter of the soul food restaurant during his solo should be his shining moment in the film, but unfortunately, he is framed from the neck down with his face not appearing in the shot. Landis isn’t the most visually innovative filmmaker, and I can forgive some of his more minor technical mistakes, simply because most of the film is shot very well. The car chase scenes are big and exciting, and, at the time, the film set a record for most automobiles destroyed during filming (a record that would later be broken by its sequel). Landis is able to balance these bigger scenes of spectacle with the smaller moments that provide the film its humor, and he successfully creates the rare musical comedy that nails both the performative, spectacular elements of the musical and the subtlety of perfect comedy. At the time of its filming, The Blues Brothers was one of the most expensive comedies ever filmed, and the pressure was on Landis and the film’s stars to deliver a hit. The film was a box office success, more than recouping its budget and actually grossing slightly higher box office in foreign markets than in the U.S., which was a rarity at the time. Although it wasn’t a smash hit, the film would go on to grow long legs in the emerging home video and cable television markets, earning itself new fans into perpetuity.

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I’ve seen The Blues Brothers so many times over the years that I can anticipate the jokes before they arrive, and I watch it with a permanent smile across my face, ready to break into a full laugh when the punch line hits. I think Belushi’s death shortly after the film’s release paints it in a slightly different light, but even if he had gone on to lead a long life and enjoy a storied career, I think that Jake Blues would still be remembered as his iconic performance. I do wonder how younger audiences respond to The Blues Brothers, without a more direct connection to its inspirations and its featured performers. Of its principal cast, only Aykroyd is still alive, and Aretha Franklin is the only living featured performer left. The film’s iconic Chicago setting is somewhat unfamiliar after 35 years of urban development. However, I think that the things that made me connect to the film and the music early on in life are universal. There’s inherent humor and cool in the line, “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses. Hit it.” The joy and beauty expressed in the film’s musical scenes ring true to any audience, and tap into a primal desire to dance, sing, and enjoy life. I think I love The Blues Brothers so much because it’s a celebration of so many of the things that I have come to love about life: humor, music, goofy black suits, stupid dance moves. It might look a little bit retro now, but for me, The Blues Brothers has never gone out of style, just like a black suit.

Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet (1986)

Dir. David Lynch

Written by: David Lynch

Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper

 

The camera descends from a cloudless, blue sky, settling on vibrant, red roses highlighted against a white picket fence. A shot of a firetruck slowly crossfades in, a firefighter riding alongside, casually waving at the camera. Children cross a street with the aid of a crossing guard. An unidentified man in a hat is watering his lawn, struggling with a kink in the hose. As an ominous hum fades in on the soundtrack, the man drops to his knees and then falls, grabbing his neck, the hose remains in his grip as he writhes painfully, spraying water into the air. A dog comes along barking and nipping at the water as it sprays from the hose wildly, and the film briefly shifts into slow motion, focusing on the snapping jaws of the little dog, giving his playful nips a sinister undertone. The camera cuts to the lawn and begins a slow zoom, turning the blades of grass into a topiary, under which a teeming nest of beetles writhes, crawling over one another. We are then greeted by a bright sign, featuring a beautiful woman waving and welcoming us to Lumberton. We are in suburbia, but something seems slightly off about this glimpse into the heart of Americana. No time is wasted in showing the audience the rotten core underlying the myth of small town tranquility. The opening sequence of Blue Velvet is seared onto my brain, representing something primal, seminal, and profound. It was my first brush with the perfect oddity of the cinema of David Lynch, who would go on to become my favorite filmmaker.

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I’m really not sure how or why I decided to pick up Blue Velvet. As I mentioned, it was my first experience with David Lynch and I do remember purchasing the DVD without having seen the movie before. I must have seen something about it online, on a list of movies, or maybe I had heard about David Lynch in the commentary of some other movie I’d seen, although I don’t know what that would have been. Regardless, for some reason I picked up a copy of Blue Velvet at my local Circuit City, likely sometime in 2003. When I watched the movie for the first time, I really wasn’t sure what to make of a film like this. Though it doesn’t traffic in the same overt surrealism and narrative disjointedness that have become Lynchian calling cards, Blue Velvet is a perfect introductory film for those looking to get into David Lynch. Leaving The Straight Story aside, Blue Velvet is one of Lynch’s most straightforward and least narratively complex films, but there is plenty of weirdness and mystery creeping around the edges. Like its opening montage, the film seeks to take a look behind the idyllic white picket fences of Middle America and reveal the rot and decay hiding therein.

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The film stars Kyle MacLachlan as Jeffrey Beaumont, who is returning to Lumberton from his first year of college after his father collapsed while watering the lawn. While returning home from visiting his father in the hospital, Jeffrey finds a severed human ear in an abandoned lot. He inspects the ear, which appears to have mold on it, and takes it to a detective who he knows from the neighborhood. Det. Williams (George Dickerson) thanks Jeffrey for providing him with the piece of evidence and suggests that he not concern himself in the investigation any further. However, after a chance meeting with Williams’s daughter, Sandy (Dern), Jeffrey’s curiosity is once again stoked, and the two decide to continue looking into the mysterious ear themselves. Information gleaned from Sandy eavesdropping on her father’s phone calls leads the junior detectives to the apartment of lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini), who has recently been under police surveillance and who may have something to do with the ear. Sandy agrees to help Jeffrey break into Dorothy’s apartment, against her better judgment. Using a key that he had stolen earlier, Jeffrey sneaks into the apartment one night while Dorothy is performing. He’s nearly caught when she returns, but is able to hide in a closet where he spies on Dorothy taking a phone call from a man named Frank (Hopper), who has kidnapped her husband and child, and who is using them to blackmail and coerce her. Dorothy discovers Jeffrey and forces him out of the closet, making him strip off his clothes at knifepoint. Her initial desire is to humiliate Jeffrey, who she takes for a peeping Tom, but then she begins to kiss him. They’re interrupted when there’s a knock at the door, and Frank arrives at the apartment. Jeffrey is again forced to watch from the closet as the sadistic Frank shouts at and assaults Dorothy. All the while, he’s huffing amyl nitrate and practically foaming at the mouth with rage and desire. After Frank leaves, Jeffrey tries to comfort Dorothy. They end up having sex and she asks him to hit her, which he initially refuses, though he will eventually, reluctantly, do it. After their encounter, Jeffrey seems disturbed by what he’s seen and experienced, but also feels a responsibility to help Dorothy, so he continues his investigation into Frank and his crime syndicate, despite Sandy’s protestations. Jeffrey becomes caught between two worlds: one bright and promising, represented by the blonde, youthful Sandy, the other dark and sinister, represented by the seductive Dorothy. He risks getting in too deep with Frank and his dangerous friends, but by the time he realizes just how dangerous they may be, it’s too late. The sickness and malice that Frank represents have begun to infect Jeffrey’s formerly benign day-to-day life in the small town paradise of Lumberton.

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I mentioned being somewhat perplexed by the film after my first viewing, and that certainly isn’t due to any lack of narrative clarity. I had understood the film fine, but I was left unsettled. I don’t remember if I watched it again in quick succession, or if I let myself stew on the film for a while, but the weirdness of Blue Velvet was lingering around in my head for days. Bugs crawling out of the ear, Isabella Rossellini singing “Blue Velvet” bathed in an ocean of blue light, the savagery of a dog’s jaws opening and closing in slow motion. The images from the film were persistent and strange, and they suggested a certain sort of world view that was maybe a bit skewed. I watched Blue Velvet again and again, becoming more comfortable with its tone and appreciating more and more Lynch’s cynical, surreal take on small town Americana. Growing up in a small town myself, although one that was more urban and was certainly a bit more populous than Lumberton, I had first-hand knowledge that the mythos of the pristine, Middle American, small town experience was often belied by what happened after dark when the shades were drawn.

Blue Velvet launched my obsession with the work of David Lynch. Even though his feature output isn’t necessarily as large as some other filmmakers, Lynch is undoubtedly an auteur, having developed an unmistakable style, sonically, visually, thematically, and in his choices of subject matter. I went next to Mulholland Dr., at the time Lynch’s most recent film, and I was shocked and often terrified by the strange film. If Blue Velvet had left me vexed, then Mulholland Dr. had me flat-out stupefied. I couldn’t put the film together coherently in a narrative or thematic sense, and I really had no idea how to process what I’d just seen. I wanted more, but I couldn’t find copies of Eraserhead or The Elephant Man or anything else Lynch, so I just watched Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr. repeatedly over the last two years of high school. After I came to college, I had access to so many more movies, and I would start to work my way through Lynch’s filmography. I remember well a bus trip to the Regent Theater to see INLAND EMPIRE, Lynch’s most recent film, in 2006. When I had the opportunity to take a class on the films of both Lynch and Luis Bunuel (which I mentioned when writing about Belle de Jour), I jumped at the opportunity and my fandom was cemented. I filled in most of the gaps in the Lynch filmography through this class and I relished the opportunity to write at length about Mulholland Dr. which had become my favorite of his films, and try to work out some of the questions that I still had about the film. After college, I had less and less time to watch films as I’ve mentioned many times before, but I always came back to Lynch. Every five years or so, I take another deep dive into his work. In 2012, it was sparked by a rewatch of Twin Peaks on Netflix with a roommate. In 2017, it was another rewatch of Twin Peaks in anticipation of the release of the currently airing Twin Peaks: The Return. Lynch has been on my mind quite a bit lately, and rewatching Blue Velvet reminds me of where it all started.

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Lynch’s original cut of the film was rumored to have run nearly four hours before he cut the runtime in half. Nearly an hour of that excised footage has been recovered and was included on the Bluray rerelease of the film. I don’t have that edition and I haven’t seen the footage, but from what I’ve read, it hints that Lynch’s original version of Blue Velvet was to be a much darker and stranger film, more in line with his later style. Though I would be interested to see some of these deleted scenes, I think that Blue Velvet works best just the way it is. Keeping the Lynchian surrealism to a minimum makes the film’s dark undertones seem all the more sinister. Unlike the later fictional town of Twin Peaks, Lumberton feels like a real place that could exist, indicating that the evil contained there is linked to the evil that exists in our own world. The final cut includes a (seemingly) happy ending that sees Frank defeated, Jeffrey and Sandy united as a couple, and order seemingly restored to Lumberton. The film’s final shot is of a robin crunching on one of the beetles from the film’s beginning, a callback to an earlier line by Sandy where she describes a dream in which there was no love in the world, only darkness, until thousands of robins were released, symbolizing the return of love to the world. However, I think that this happy ending is somewhat facile, because even though the robin eating the beetle might signify the return of natural order and the triumph of love and goodness over evil, it just serves to remind me that there can never be enough robins to do away with all the beetles. Digging deep into the soil of any town will turn up a nest of vile creatures. Lynch films tend to want to expose the teeming underbelly of their worlds, forcing the viewer to confront ugly truths, although often in a distorted, surreal manner.

Even after excising some of the film’s stranger elements, Blue Velvet retains many of the key elements that would come to define Lynch’s cinema over the years. Not only does the film explore themes of hidden darkness and the depths of depravity, it also engages in a light/dark dichotomy that becomes central to Lynch’s symbolism. Lynch loves doubling and doppelgangers and in Blue Velvet, the light/dark dichotomy is very literal, pairing Sandy and Dorothy, whose contrasting hair colors are symbolically representative of their moral standing. The symbolic use of night and day in this film and throughout the Lynch filmography is another example of this light/dark dichotomy. The film additionally features many actors who have come to make up something of a stock cast for Lynch, appearing in multiple films, often playing roles that share some similarities from film to film. Kyle MacLachlan has worked with Lynch frequently, most notably here and in Twin Peaks, while Laura Dern would go on to star in Lynch’s follow up to Blue VelvetWild At Heart. Jack Nance, who plays Paul, a member of Frank’s gang, was a close friend of Lynch’s and the star of his debut feature, EraserheadBlue Velvet also features many of Lynch’s iconic visual motifs, such as lounge singers and night clubs, highly staged and stylized interiors, and overtly performative acting style. The scene where Ben (Dean Stockwell), an associate of Frank’s, lip syncs to “Candy Colored Clown”  is the best example of this type of performative style, and is a decidedly Lynchian set piece. Though the film doesn’t go over the top with its strangeness, its core is rooted in Lynch’s avant-garde, surrealist style.

I think there is a temptation, particularly among those who are maybe not as acquainted with the entire corpus of Lynch’s work but I have even seen it in academic writing, to lump discussion of Blue Velvet in with its obvious influence of Lynch’s television series, Twin Peaks. There are many similarities between the two, and Lynch has even admitted that the idea for Twin Peaks began germinating while he was directing MacLachlan in Blue Velvet, but I think it’s important to point out a major difference between the two texts. There is no hint of supernatural or metaphysical forces at play in Blue Velvet. While both works explore the duality of human nature and the darkness that can be revealed when the veneer of polite society is stripped away, Twin Peaks attributes the evil in its universe to malevolent beings who live in an interdimensional space called the Black Lodge, the entrance to which happens to be in the woods near the town of Twin Peaks. In Blue Velvet, the evil infesting Lumberton is inherently a part of the town. It is represented by a figure of pure destruction in Frank Booth, one who is not being controlled by any forces other than his own desire to hurt others. Frank is an unrestrained id, manifestly evil, but he is real, and represents the terrifying reality that anyone could potentially break bad like this. That realization fuels Jeffrey’s nightmare and anguish the morning after he hits Dorothy during sex. He doesn’t know why or how Frank’s psychosexual fury developed, but he fears that he may have taken the first steps down that same path. I think this insistence on reality makes Blue Velvet a more successful and compelling work of art than the later television show. I love Twin Peaks, but one of my only criticisms of the show is that its insistence on an intentional artificiality makes its darker themes seem less serious, particularly in its troubled second season. I think that Lynch took steps to resolve that in the harrowing prequel film Fire Walk With Me, which he released after the show was canceled, and which marks one of Lynch’s most overt forays into out-and-out horror filmmaking.

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When I do go back and watch Lynch films, all of which I’ve seen more than a few times now, excepting The Straight Story, I sometimes pass over Blue Velvet. Probably because I’ve seen it so many other times earlier in life, I’ve felt like my time is better spent familiarizing myself with Lynch’s 90’s works, Wild at Heart and Lost Highway, both of which are incredibly interesting, but neither of which work nearly as well as a film as Blue Velvet. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to love about Blue Velvet in this post, from Angelo Badalementi’s gauzy score, to the actors’ strange, exciting performances, to Lynch’s subtle attempts to drop surrealist tropes into a more straightforward narrative. Blue Velvet is packed with information and symbolism; Freudian critics can have a field day with this film, and with the dreamscapes that Lynch creates, in general. While I don’t subscribe to that line of critical thinking, I do find myself finding new ways to arrange the tapestry of signs that make up Blue Velvet, even after 15 years and more than 15 viewings. The film still feels fresh and transgressive after all this time, and I think that makes it the perfect introduction to the cinema of David Lynch. It provides a strong enough narrative foothold to give viewers a sense of security while still introducing the darker elements of Lynch’s visual style and his thematic obsessions. Form and content match up well in the film with its traditional mystery narrative masking Lynch’s more subversive content, which mirrors the idea in the film that there are hidden evils coursing just below the surface of Lumberton. If you’ve been wanting to get on the Lynch bandwagon after hearing about the Twin Peaks revival but don’t know where to start, this would be the perfect place.

Blow

Blow (2001)

Dir. Ted Demme

Written by: David McKenna, Nick Cassavetes (from the book by Bruce Porter)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Jordi Molla, Paul Reubens, Ray Liotta

 

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a glut of movies about the illicit drug trade hitting American theaters. From harrowing looks at heroin addiction like Requiem For A Dream, to thoughtful examinations of the intricacies and failures of the “war on drugs” like Traffic, to gritty police procedurals such as Narc, the subject matter of these films was as varied as their overall quality. It would seem, however, that Hollywood was addicted to drugs, and that audiences were looking for a fix as well. Looking at my shelf, I certainly tended toward enjoying these types of movies it seems. I owned all three of the aforementioned films, plus other druggy classics from the 90s like Trainspotting and New Jack City. Blow slotted in nicely alongside some of these other films, it wasn’t as gritty or real as something like Traffic, but it made for a slick, entertaining movie about the life of one of the biggest cocaine traffickers in history. I remember enjoying the film a lot as a teen, but watching it for this post for the first time in a decade, Blow mostly felt hollow and definitely doesn’t stand up with the rest of the movies mentioned here.

Blow is a biopic about the life of George Jung (Depp), America’s biggest cocaine trafficker in the 1970s and 1980s. Jung was a part of the infamous Medellin cartel, headed by Pablo Escobar, and he is almost single-handedly responsible for the cocaine craze of the 1980s. It was once estimated that some 85% of the cocaine imported in that decade was brought across the border by Jung. The film opens with Jung’s childhood in Massachusetts, where his hard-working but poor father, Fred (Liotta), teaches him the lesson that money is not important, despite the materialistic instincts of his mother. It would seem that the lesson didn’t stick, because as soon as Jung is able, he and his friend Tuna (Ethan Suplee) move to California to pursue bigger and better things, and end up becoming local celebrities selling high-grade marijuana. Jung’s ambition lands him in prison when he is busted with over 600 pounds of marijuana, and it is here that he meets Diego (Molla) who offers to introduce him to his Columbian friends after they get out of prison. Diego makes the introduction to Escobar, and the rest, as they say, is history. Jung becomes a bigger trafficker than ever, making millions in the cocaine trade, until the birth of his daughter causes him to have an epiphany and a change of heart, and he promises his wife Mertha (Cruz) that he will get out of the life. However, Jung is unable to fly straight, and his continued dalliances with cocaine end up robbing him of his life and his family, and putting him in prison for a 60-year sentence. Jung was released from prison in 2014, but the film ends with him still locked up, having never reconciled with his daughter.

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As crime films go, Blow follows a fairly standard arc. The protagonist comes up from nothing, is introduced to the criminal underworld, finds that he has a particular knack for criminality, and, ultimately, flies too close to the Sun and must pay the consequences. It borrows heavily from established classics of the genre, in particular Scorsese’s Goodfellas. The casting of Liotta as Jung’s father only serves as a constant reminder of that other, better film. It isn’t that Blow is a bad film, necessarily. Most films would pale in comparison to Goodfellas, as it’s universally recognized as one of the best crime movies ever made. It’s just that Blow lacks the depth of some of the better films in the genre. It is perfectly fine entertainment, but its over-reliance on voice over narration and montage makes the audience feel like we’re never really getting close to the real George Jung. Too often the film opts to tell, rather than show, causing it to feel light and insubstantial, like a cheap knock off. Rarely does the film deviate from the standard path set for it by the generic conventions of storytelling, and even its more inspired sequences feel predictable because it is a story that’s been told so many times before. I think a big problem might just be that George Jung is not an inherently interesting subject for a biopic. There’s no attempt to portray him as morally conflicted, or even a suggestion that the toll that his product can take on lives has ever even occurred to him. In the film, Jung seems purely interested in acquiring money and possessions, and he’s motivated by little else. He’s a largely influential and notorious figure, but he doesn’t seem to have any particular personality traits or quirks that make him a noteworthy subject.

Johnny Depp tries to breathe some life into Jung, and he does a nice job in the film of making Jung somewhat relatable and interesting. This film was released just a couple of years before the first Pirates of the Caribbean film would propel Depp into absolute mega-stardom and divert the direction of his acting career, and it’s one of the last movies where he isn’t playing “Johnny Depp playing Character X.” I’m not a huge fan of Depp as an actor, particularly not his post-Pirates work, but he does good work as Jung. The part doesn’t require him to do much dramatic heavy lifting, as it doesn’t really delve much into Jung’s psychology or emotion, but he feels genuine towards the end of the film when he is attempting to resolve the broken relationship with his daughter. By this point, Jung has lost everything, and Depp plays him with a kind of calm acceptance, rather than desperation. The film’s final scene is supposed to be the emotional climax, when it’s revealed that an aging Jung, sentenced to 60 years in prison, has never received a visit from his daughter. It’s a shame that the script didn’t provide enough opportunity for Depp to fully flesh out the character or his relationships, because this emotional payoff falls flat entirely.

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The rest of the cast performs admirably, for the most part. I like Ethan Suplee in just about everything he’s done, but he is largely used as wallpaper in the film, dropping out of the story entirely by the middle. Paul Reubens is great as a flamboyantly gay hairdresser who introduces Jung to the world of marijuana sales. The role was a big comeback for Reubens after his popularity had declined in the 1990s following his arrest for indecent exposure. He brings the same manic energy to the role of Derek Foreal that he brought to his signature role as Pee Wee, although for a much different audience. The biggest disappointment in the movie is probably Cruz, as Jung’s wife. She isn’t really on screen much, as her character isn’t introduced until over halfway through the film. She plays a bigger role towards the end of the film, but her performance is largely forgettable. She rebounds for a scene late in the film where reconciles with her former husband, but her role is otherwise too light.

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The film doubles down on its lead actor and protagonist, to the detriment of its overall success. It chooses to highlight style over substance, with multiple showy montages set to classic rock staples. These sequences are fun, and they’re probably the best parts of the movie, but, like I mentioned before, they feel preordained and derivative. Watching Jung and Diego do blow and try to find places in their apartment to stash boxes upon boxes of money while “Blinded by the Light” by ELO plays in the background is fun, but it isn’t particularly inspired, nor is “That Smell” by Lynyrd Skynyrd underlining Jung’s descent into full-blown cocaine addiction. Scorsese is probably the best when it comes to taking iconic classic rock songs and pairing them with memorable filmic images. He’s been doing it his whole career. It’s obvious that Ted Demme is borrowing heavily from that style, but in being so literal with his song choices, he misses a lot of the point of the exercise.

Ultimately, Blow is a fine movie. It is entertaining, it’s well shot, and generally well-acted, to boot. It’s just tough to want to watch Blow when there are so many other films from the same time period that deal with similar subject matter in a more interesting or more in-depth manner. Blow was only modestly successful at the box office, and it currently has an approval rating of just over 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, which feels about right. It’s certainly not a bad movie, but it isn’t very good either, or very memorable. Honestly, I think that the experience of watching Blow is pretty similar to the experience of using its namesake drug. It’s fun while you’re doing it, but whenever the effects wears off, you’re really not left with a whole lot.

Blood Simple

Blood Simple (1984)

Dir. Joel Coen

Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Starring: Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedaya, Samm-Art Williams, M. Emmet Walsh

 

I’ve written before about the breadth and depth of Coen Brothers’ filmography. Blood Simple is a perfect example of that depth. Their debut film, it serves as an artistic statement that would define the scope of their career. It finds the brothers arriving on the cinematic scene, nearly fully formed. Though later works would achieve more popularity or prestige, Blood Simple stands out as one of the great debuts in all of film, resembling more the work of an established filmmaker at the height of his or her powers than the first offering from a couple of neophytes. It establishes their interest in genre filmmaking, and many of their trademark cinematic devices appear in the film, at least in rudimentary forms. Far from serving as a still-developing sketch, or an indicator of potential artistry, Blood Simple is a fully formed near-masterpiece in its own right. It’s a dark tale of murder, adultery, and deception set against the backdrop of the Texas desert that winds itself up to a frenzy by the third act and maintains a breakneck pace towards disaster. An unyielding thriller that can keep an audience on the edge of their seat for the duration, the film stands up among the best work that the Coen Brothers have done in their long and fruitful career, despite still being somewhat underseen when compared to their more popular works.

The film opens with Ray (Getz) and Abby (McDormand) driving down a Texas highway at night. Their conversation concerns Abby’s failing marriage to Marty (Hedaya), who also happens to own the bar that Ray works at. Though their stated destination is Houston, the two pull into a motel and spend the night. Marty, suspecting their affair, has hired a private investigator, Loren Visser, (Walsh) to follow them, and he snaps a few photos of them in their hotel room as proof of the affair. When he provides this proof to Marty, the detective implies that for the right price he’d be willing to eliminate Marty’s problem, though Marty initially turns him down. Eventually, though, Marty seeks out Visser, hiring him to kill both Ray and Abby for $10,000. Rather than go through with the hit, Visser breaks into Ray’s home and steals Abby’s gun, then takes photos of them sleeping again. He returns to Marty with doctored photos, depicting the sleeping couple as corpses riddled with bullet holes, and after receiving his payment he double-crosses Marty, shooting him in the chest with Abby’s gun and leaving him to bleed out. Later, Ray returns to the bar to find an unresponsive Marty and Abby’s gun. Thinking that she has killed Marty, he decides to cover up the murder. The ensuing cover up leads to miscommunications between Ray and Abby, with each thinking that the other is responsible for the killing of Marty, while Visser engages in a deadly pursuit of the couple, hoping to erase any link to his crime.

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Blood Simple is a master class in economical storytelling. At its core, it’s a straightforward revenge story, and even as its narrative gets more complex with the added double-crosses and misunderstandings, it doesn’t lose any focus or narrative momentum. The film essentially has only five characters, the previously mentioned four, plus Meurice (Williams), the other bartender at Marty’s bar, who finds himself tangentially caught up in the murder plot. Largely though, the film revolves around the principals in the love triangle and the murderous Visser, as they play out a savage game of cat and mouse in the Texas back country. With a few notable exceptions, the Coens eschew narrative ambiguity or overarching mystery as drivers of tension in the film, instead letting the audience in on all of the details of the story. Watching the characters make questionable decisions and wrong assumptions about one another heightens the tension for the audience, as the spectators are able to see the Greek tragedy unfolding in front of them, even as the characters are blind to their surroundings. In fact, the title comes from a turn of phrase in which someone is said to be “blood simple” after being rendered incapable of higher thought or decision making in the face of violent surroundings. The film makes the viewer want to reach through the screen and shake Ray and Abby, warning them of the impending doom that’s closing in.

The Coens also heighten narrative tension through the film’s masterful appropriation of classical noir visual style. The Coens have transported their crime drama from its usual urban setting to the middle of nowhere in the Texas desert, but they otherwise retain many of the stylistic cues of the genre. Aside from a few sunbaked exteriors, the film is dark, scenes often employing contrasting chiaroscuro lighting. Shadows are extreme, with characters’ faces often partially or totally obscured by darkness as they issue straightforward, hardboiled dialogue. There is more than enough visual information in the frame to make up for the paucity of verbal context. The shadows reflect both the dubious nature of the characters’ morality, and their duality. In this film, there are no true heroes; everyone is kissed by darkness in some way. Borrowing a trick from Sergio Leone, the Coens frame their characters in claustrophobic close-up, highlighting every pore and bead of sweat. At times, lazy flies are allowed to buzz in and out of the frame, crawling along Visser’s brow while he meets with Marty to discuss their dirty deals. To say the film is atmospheric would be an understatement, as its mise-en-scene does more than suggest the seediness of its environs, it insists upon the palpability of the griminess of this universe. At times, the desperation practically leaps from the screen.

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In addition to successfully adapting the tropes of the noir film, the Coens begin to establish their own unique visual and narrative style in Blood Simple. The slow burning tension of later films like Fargo and No Country For Old Men is on display here, with the brothers already proving to be masters of pace and timing. The film’s first two acts are languorously paced. Scenes of dialogue are allowed to play out slowly, either unexpectedly erupting into acts of violence, or, rather, expected violence is denied. The Coens punctuate their shot/reverse shot with stylish tracking shots and rapid zooms that force the viewer to take notice. The final third of the film boils over with tension as Visser closes in on Abby and Ray, stalking them through her apartment. The characters have all gotten on a runaway train, and they’re forced to pursue the ride to its logical end. The violence in the film, as in most of the brothers’ later films, is matter-of-fact, an unfortunate consequence of the corrupted world in which these characters live. It seems that the Coens enjoy spinning yarns about everyday people who find themselves embroiled in larger schemes, and the roots of that narrative preoccupation are in Blood Simple.

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The performances in the film are all top notch, with the Coens already showing a deft hand at directing actors. In what was her first ever film role, McDormand is perfect as Abby. Her performance gives the character just enough subtle edge to keep her true nature in the dark until the film’s end. It’s hinted that Abby might be some sort of femme fatale, but her actual level of duplicity is hard to pin down. She’s a woman torn between a man she loves and one she fears, but McDormand never plays her as a dependent. She has steely resolve, and agency, that grows to a lethal capacity in the film’s final showdown with Visser. She’s able to balance manic outbursts of emotion and quietly determined acts of violence, and remain convincing in both circumstances. Neither Getz nor Hedaya are given much dialogue to work with, but they embody both of their roles with a lived-in physicality. Hedaya’s Marty haunts most of the film as a dead or dying presence, his body often visible on the edges of the frame as a reminder of the murder that has embroiled all of these characters. Getz plays Ray as a working stiff who’s simply in over his head, but his workmanlike approach belies a darker side to the character. When it comes time to dispose of Marty’s body, Ray drives him out to the desert where he finds out that Marty is mortally wounded, but not dead yet. He proceeds to bury him alive in a harrowing, slowly-paced scene that escalates the stakes and the tension in the film. There is no dialogue, but both actors give memorable performances, with Hedaya struggling mightily to stay alive while Getz slowly, steadily shovels dirt into his face.

It’s Walsh, however, who steals the film with his unhinged portrayal of the sleazy detective, Visser. Unlike the other characters in the film, there is little duality to Visser. Walsh plays him as purely evil, and in fact, he seems to enjoy and revel in his impurity. He breathes malice and corruption into his words, and his physical performance is palpably slimy. Visser seems to ooze into locked apartments, snapping his covert photographs and stealing bits of evidence, his stealth belied by the actor’s large stature. When it is time for him to pursue his quarry in earnest, Walsh plays Visser as a ruthless, efficient hunter, stalking Abby through her apartment until she is finally able to get the drop on him. Walsh’s performance is similar to John Goodman’s performance as Charlie Mundt in Barton Fink. Both characters come to symbolize evil incarnate in their filmic worlds, but unlike Mundt, Visser is rotten to the core. Where Goodman’s good-natured charm shines through some of Mundt’s cracks, Walsh never allows any light to permeate Visser’s dark patina. Even his humor is black as the Texas asphalt over which he tracks Ray and Abby.

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In lesser hands, a movie like Blood Simple might add up to just another paint-by-numbers pot boiler. The familiar elements are all present here: a spurned lover spurred to murderous rage, cases of double-cross and mistaken identity, a Chekhov’s gun which fulfills its narrative promise. However, the Coens routinely elevate basic subject matter and genre filmmaking to the level of complex, high art, and that streak is begun with their debut. They take a very straightforward story in Blood Simple and filter it through excellently realized character work and impeccable visual style to produce an end result that is engaging and visionary. Most of their films are genre experiments, but rarely are they as pure as Blood Simple. The film sets out to deliver a compelling tale of murder and do it in a suspenseful manner, despite removing narrative ambiguity, and it succeeds entirely. Like the characters in the film, once things start to break bad, the audience is simply along for the ride, hoping to survive to the end. When that end arrives, the audience has been taken on a sickening ride that explores the depths of moral depravity and human capacity for malice. Many of the Coen Brothers’ narrative and stylistic obsessions are on display here, so it is a must watch for any fan of their corpus, as well as any fan of well-realized suspense and crime films.