The Power of The Dog (2021)
Written & Directed by Jane Campion
Jane Campion is a shameful blindspot in my personal film viewing. I’ve only previously seen her brilliant television mini-series Top of the Lake. My expectations for this one were on the positive to neutral side of things. I strongly dislike Benedict Cumberbatch in most things, and so his prominent presence in the marketing made me a tad wary. But I saw it popping up on so many best-of-the-year lists that I knew I should sit down and watch it. I had absolutely zero idea what the plot was and even who the other actors in the film were. That absence of knowledge benefited me greatly because this is one of the most deceptively chilling movies I’ve seen in a long time, a Western noir that completely floored me in its third act.
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Body Heat (1981)
Written & Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
I don’t think I’ll ever consider Lawrence Kasdan as one of my favorite writers or directors. However, I do believe he has made some excellent movies. He wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which makes him miles above much of his competition. I am not a fan of Return of the Jedi, which I see as one of the worst Star Wars films, but I don’t necessarily blame Kasdan for that. I have been able to tell that he has a deep love of film, including all genres. I’ve found it interesting that he didn’t achieve the level of public acclaim as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg when Kasdan is arguably as responsible for their successes in the 1980s as they are. Having penned such iconic films makes him deserving of a much closer look and appreciation of his work.
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The Little Things (2021)
Written & Directed by John Lee Hancock
Noir is a genre that can be better than anything else when done right but can crash and burn miserably when all the elements fail to come together. The Little Things doesn’t get noir right. It certainly has some great aspects, but it sputters out when it comes time to put everything together. If this had been a purely theatrical release, I would have skipped it, but because it was offered on HBO Max, I was willing to give it a try. The trailer is intriguing enough and provides a hint of a good mystery with some brooding protagonists. Yet, when I saw Jared Leto come on the screen, I had to worry if it would prove to be a disaster.
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Killer’s Kiss (1955)
Written & Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Specific names in filmmaking have power & weight to them. Stanley Kubrick is one of them. In the last decade or so, I’ve noticed a backlash of sorts about Kubrick’s place in the pantheon of great directors. I get that, though. The prevalence of some names over others allows lesser-known, yet equally deserving directors to be overshadowed. I would counter that I think part of what has led to this annoyance with Kubrick is that he intentionally made films that created division in audiences. Furthermore, his influence on the craft of filmmaking resonates across time, and I suspect will continue into the far future, should humanity survive and keep making movies.
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Written & Directed by Michael Mann
I’d always heard how good Heat was, but it was a film that I’ve circled around without ever sitting down and watching it, until now. I wouldn’t say I am a fan of Michael Mann’s, but I have appreciated every film I’ve seen, with Collateral being my favorite until now. I’ll just get this out of the way now, I loved Heat, so much. Christopher Nolan owes a significant part of his career to Mann, and I hope he has given adequate thanks for the aesthetic he has mimicked. This is a dense neo-noir multi-character novel turned into a movie that delivers on its themes and character arcs so beautifully & tragically.
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Nocturnal Animals (2016, dir. Tom Ford)
Nocturnal Animals is so much and so elusive in letting us know what it is. At a basic level, it is three narratives: The Present, The Past, and The Fiction. All of these narratives are filtered through a single viewpoint, and they tell us much about the effects of love and hate. The story of Nocturnal Animals begins in the Present with Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a California art gallery owner whose life is a comfortable one, luxurious and successful. She is in her second marriage and with a young adult daughter. What she thought would make her happy has failed to do so. Her daughter is living away and distant while her husband is habitually cheating on her. Into this mix arrives a manuscript from her estranged first husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). The novel is titled Nocturnal Animals, a name he used to call Susan.
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Shane Black is one of the fathers of what would become the 1980s buddy cop genre. His addition was Lethal Weapon, written when Black was 23 years old. Black’s career experienced a slump in the 90s and early 2000s when he wrote and directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. With this film, Black returned to play with the genre he helped create while poking fun at the movie industry. Some critics disliked the self-awareness of the picture even though it had very sharp, funny dialogue. The Nice Guys has found a nice middle ground, where it plays with genre conventions while also delivering a self-contained mystery film.
Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a grizzled private investigator who specializes in helping young women and girls deal with creeps. This crosses his path with who he believes is a creep, Holland March (Ryan Gosling). March is actually a fellow private eye, except he’s a buffoon. The two, along with March’s precocious early teens daughter (Angourie Rice) become embroiled in a mystery that involves the death of a porn star, an enigmatic college student on the run, and the Detroit auto industry.
The Nice Guys does a lot right. It balances being a 1980s buddy cop film set in the late 1970s, as well as being a variation on the film noir genre. There are a lot of failures in the film. Our protagonists are very flawed, as every good noir should have, and they comically fumble and deal with more serious dramatic character flaws. Healy is a man who goes to violence as his first resort and has to deal with a challenge to that way of thinking. March is more of the comic relief, but has his own guilt about the way he’s raised his daughter and how he caused his marriage to go to ruins. The balance between these two and the lynch pin of the entire film is Holly, March’s daughter played by the remarkable Angourie Rice. If this film had been made in the 1970s this is the Tatum O’Neal role.
The mystery is complex and labyrinthine, but with enough clues being delivered through dialogue that a viewer can figure things out as they go. The film does present a hyper-realized 1970s. Driving down Hollywood Boulevard we see posters for a litany of films from the era, characters read newspapers talking about the gas crisis and Los Angeles’ severe smog. In the end, not much of these elements add to up to anything life changing. The resolution of the mystery is fairly straightforward, but keeping in line with the down endings of traditional noir. What The Nice Guys does provide is a fun alternative to the more overblown CGI-fests that typically flood our movie screens this time of year. The film is an enjoyable throwback to a style of film not made often.
Revanche (2008, dir. Götz Spielmann)
Starring Johannes Krisch, Irina Potapenko, Ursula Strauss, Andreas Lust, Johannes Thanheiser, Hanno Pöschl
The desire to lash out in revenge against those you believe have wronged you is a deep and powerful urge in humanity. Particularly when the actions of another have caused great loss in your life. The issue of the death penalty bring up the philosophical questions of what we are entitled to when wronged in horrendous ways, and the fact that there is no end in sight to such a debate is proof of how nuanced and complex it is. Revanche, a 2008 Austrian film, takes on this debate and provides many more questions.
Alex is an ex-con, who has gotten romantically involved with Tamara, a Ukranian prostitute that works at the brothel where Alex is a handyman. The must keep their relationship secret from the brothel owner who has designs on turning Tamara into a sex slave for his higher end clients. Alex devises a plan to run away with Tamara, rob a bank, and live their days out in Ibiza. He has a perfect plan. Paul is a police officer who is uncomfortable with his sidearm and the way his fellow officers talk casually about shooting and killing perps. He happens to end up in front of a bank one morning and finds a woman sitting nervously in a car and praying to herself. Paul asks some questions and a tragedy occurs.
Revanche is about two men living in their personal Hells. Alex is torn apart by the loss in life following the bank robbery and Paul is equally shattered by the results of his actions. The two men’s lives become more and more entwined until the film’s climax which is surprisingly redemptive. The heart of the film is Alex’s grandfather, Hausner, a man living on a farm in the deep woods. He has just lost his wife and has not allowed it to crush his spirit. Hausner seeks out the simplicity of life, finding enjoyment a meal of bread and sausage and picking up his old accordion and remembering his youth. Hausner starts out as a convenience for Alex, a place to hideout but goes on to inform Alex on how he can cope with his loss.
Also central to the story is Susanne, Paul’s wife. She miscarried three months before the start of the film and even before Paul’s incident at the bank there is a distance between the two. Susanne ends up being an unofficial caretaker of Hausner, visiting with him in his home and accompanying him to church on Sundays. She develops a friendship with Alex that plays out in a very unlikely way and ends up binding Alex and Paul together forever. The way Revanche comes to its finale, a meeting between Alex and Paul by a pond in the woods, felt very atypical compared to what an American-ized version of this film would do. Despite its bleak and violent world, the film leaves us on a note of hope that we don’t have to be shackled to the pain of our pasts.