Tag Archives: Neo Noir

CAPSULE: TERRIBLY HAPPY [FRYGTELIG LYKKELIG] (2008)

DIRECTED BY: Henrik Rubin Genz

FEATURING: Jakob Cedergren, Kim Bodnia, Lene Maria Christiansen

PLOT: After a mysterious nervous breakdown, city cop Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) is

Still from Terribly Happy (2009)

re-assigned to a claustrophobically small, rural town as its only marshal. He quickly discovers the town’s frightful dynamic: its inhabitants all aware of resident bully Jørgen’s (Kim Bodnia) adulterous and abusive antics, but no one takes a stand against him.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though riddled with strange characters and unexpected darkness, for the most part Terribly Happy is played as a straight thriller with Coen brothers-style humor.  There are a few weird and creepy moments to create tension, but nothing truly unreal.

COMMENTS: Poor Robert.  As played in an understated performance by Jakob Cedergren, he’s a stand-up guy whose darker side is persistently tested as he meets with more and more obstacles.  The more he pushes for change, the more the town’s internal politics and penchant for keeping secrets rise up against him.  The old marshal spent most of his time drinking and allowed a lot of “accidents” and petty crimes to go by undocumented.  After Jørgen’s desperate wife Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christiansen) comes to Robert with evidence of her husband’s physical abuse, he is determined to convict him, but is frequently hindered by both the town’s strict social structure and his own conflicting passions.

This movie feels as if it’s made by someone whose biggest cinematic influences are Blood Simple and Fargo, and that isn’t a bad thing.  Most of Terribly Happy does seem like the Coen Brothers appropriated the premise of Hot Fuzz with Danish actors and more dramatic intent.  A lot of the story plays as an extremely black comedy, but as the film progresses, the development and uncovering of Robert’s character become more focused, and it twists itself into a somewhat bleak but gripping drama.

The narrative is filled with a number of comedic moments placed up against truly unsettling ones, with certain simple visual cues to either send a shiver down the spine or elicit a knowing smile.  Director Henrik Ruben Genz utilizes the expansive boggy fields surrounding the town to create a slightly desolate atmosphere, which results in some visually interesting scenes.  The script, while well-written, is a little uneven and doesn’t do anything especially new, but the strengths of the cast and twisted tone make this film a cool experience.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It may not sound funny, but there’s a bleakly comic air about the story, and a bit of surrealism, suggesting the most caustic side of the Coen brothers.”–Walter Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

NOTE: This review is also published in a slightly different form at Film Forager.

CAPSULE: MEMENTO (2000)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT:  A man suffering from an inability to form short term memories hunts for his wife’s murderer, relying on notes he leaves himself and important facts he tattoos on his body.

Still from Memento (2000)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It isn’t weird.  Other than the unconventional narrative structure, Memento could even be viewed as a bit of hardcore realism.   But it is easy to see why lovers of the weird are attracted to it; the cloudy mystery that attaches to the story and its central cipher doesn’t lift until the very end, creating a disorientation that feels subjectively weird even though the story is actually firmly grounded in reality.

COMMENTS: Here, I’ll make it easy for you with this paragraph.  To appreciate just how intricately Memento is constructed, and how big of an accomplishment the movie is, try reading the sentences in a story or essay backwards, from the last to the first, and see how much sense they make and how satisfying the experience is.  This time, it’s executed flawlessly.  The movie is epistemologically pessimistic, but artistically invigorating; it’s one of those rare, unique plot hooks that come around once or twice a decade, and you can only hope the filmmakers don’t compromise and do invest the extra work required to pull it off.  It’s a simple concept but far more than a gimmick; the inversion of cause and effect works wonders.  Nothing distracts our attention from trying to unravel the puzzle.  The direction and the performances by the three principals are professionally transparent; the script is the star, as it should be in a mystery.  Leonard insists that memory is faulty, eye witness testimony is unreliable, and that the only thing he can depend on is facts—the notes he inks indelibly on his own body—but as the story works its way from the conclusion to the origin, we start to suspect that there may be nothing that we can accept at face value.  It quickly becomes apparent that it would be Continue reading CAPSULE: MEMENTO (2000)

CAPSULE: THE PERFECT SLEEP (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Jeremy Alter

FEATURING: Anton Pardoe, Roselyn Sanchez, Patrick Bauchau

PLOT: A man returns to dark, nameless city to save the life of “the one who got away,” putting his life at risk and his very soul at hazard while navigating the streets and his own past for clues as to her whereabouts.

Still from The Perfect Sleep (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the features of a shadowy noir city full of hyper-naturally Hammett-esque characters smack of something rather strange, The Perfect Sleep really isn’t all that odd, nor is it really that good. It’s more of a hyperbolic homage, a sort of tip-of-the-hat to the noir films of the 40s and 50s that’s so hard and abrupt that it tips the person under the hat. There’s tribute, there’s parody, and then there’s The Perfect Sleep, both somewhere in-between as well as something else entirely.

COMMENTS: There’s something to be said for the positively assaulting aesthetics that pervade this film. This town The Perfect Sleep exists in, extreme (and extremely hilarious) anachronisms aside, fully commits to the idea of the dark and atmospheric urban sprawl that populated so many crime dramas after World War II. Every alleyway seems dangerous, and nobody is who you think they are once you pass them in the night that seems to last forever. But once one soaks in the impressive scenery, The Perfect Sleep quickly becomes a bland song-and-dance routine that feels like an amalgam of Last Man Standing, Dark City, and Double Indemnity, aped poorly and without the safety net of an exorbitant budget. I feel, personally, that this movie’s prime directive should have been to let me in on the story at hand, what will be happening soon. Instead, we are allowed to get lost while the hero, Anton Pardoe, reads exposition distantly from a poor script. It’s like the story, and what our nameless hero is doing, is none of our business, and we’re supposed to just continue blithely along, hoping it will all get sorted out in the end.

The Perfect Sleep makes for a very passive movie watching experience that could have taken an example from The Big Sleep, a noir that had a rather weak story but a dynamic style that kept everyone engaged, thus making the mile-long plot holes seem to vanish into thin air. Instead of taking a page from that movie, though, we find ourselves locked into a story that the characters take incredibly seriously, but whose meaning is lost on the audience. As a weird movie, I would not even suggest it for its unusual moments. Some scenes, like when a freaky doctor punctures the lungs of a couple of strangers with a scalpel, work as unorthodox thriller moments or unnerving horror. But these bits are insignificant compared to the massive time spent amidst the clichés of a period crime drama/dark gangster flick. The critics were, for the most part, unanimous about The Perfect Sleep‘s banality, and I’m afraid I have to throw my hat into the ring with them, this time. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, and there’s nothing very weird about that.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Unfortunately, Alter’s often inventive work is kneecapped by a deliriously nonsensical script, which misses the mark as both over-the-top parody and straight-faced homage, and could have been intended as either.”-Andrew Barker, Variety

BORDERLINE WEIRD: DARK COUNTRY (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Thomas Jane

FEATURING: Thomas Jane, Ron Perlman, Laurie German

PLOT: Two newlyweds returning from their Vegas wedding hit a man in the middle of the road; he lives, but the couple finds he is not all that he seems.

Still from Dark Country (2009)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Dark Country is a bit obtuse at times, and it frustratingly delights fans of the obscure by not explaining its motives or workings very often, but I hesitate recommending mainly because it relies a little too heavily on genre standbys and noir reverence instead of blazing new fantastic territory. It is a 50s thriller/noir mixed with a modern horror, but it doesn’t create its own identity between the two stylings. There are moments of heavy cinematic distortion and interesting ideas that run through the story like a highway across the hungry desert, but it can’t quite escape some level of mediocrity as it bends prostrate for that which has already been done.

COMMENTS: Dark Country represents a promising debut effort from a director who is willing to try new things. What’s really impressive from the start is the writing. It is intense and full of good, genuine human touches that help the movie flow from scene to scene. From the first scene to the end, I felt rapt with attention to these immersive characters and their odd relationship, especially after the drive out of Las Vegas.

It is a journey through dark and unforgiving territory, perhaps a metaphor for the new marriage between main characters Gina and Dick, newlyweds who don’t really know what they’re in for. The young couple just made it official in Vegas, and are ready to go home, but even before their fateful accident, things aren’t what they seem between them. There is tension, there are incidents between the two that are hinted at, and they have secrets from each other right off the bat. After their encounter in the desert with the strange man they hit, things only get worse between them. From an artistic standpoint, Dark Country can be commended as a smart thriller with some brains to back up its craziness.

Visually, it’s a feast for the eyes, and it’s tonally interesting. Thomas Jane wants a very engrossing visual experience, but he is also on a budget here, so we are caught in a limbo of many special effects, none of which really hit the mark in a spectacular way. The CG is on the cheap side (it looks like a violent episode of “Reboot” when they wreck the car near the end!) The green screen is not very successful in melding the real and fake, but the color effects are interesting, not to mention plentiful, and we are treated to some good old fashioned camera trickery with slick editing and nifty shots.

But while it’s a solid debut for Jane, and an offbeat one at that, we’re still not treading across any bold new frontiers with Dark Country. This is a movie I have seen before, in bits and pieces: intense psychological implications, a noir aesthetic, and the lush, frightening mysteries of the deep desert. It’s not anything breathtaking or unflinching. It’s a good and often disturbing take on some classic thriller ideas, and it has a twist in the story that will have you on your toes, but I wouldn’t consider this to be one of the weirdest movies I’d ever seen. With a good cast, a taut script, some interesting effects, and a more intelligent angle than your average thriller, Dark Country has a lot going for it. Just don’t expect it to be too weird, because you might be disappointed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The developments in Tab Murphy’s script are never quite as shocking to us as they are to Dick and Gina, and the story eventually builds the feeling of marking time on the way to its TWILIGHT ZONE-esque resolution… Jane’s visual sense assures that the film is always a spooky pleasure to watch, though…”–Micgael Gingold, Fangoria (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ANGEL HEART (1987)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, Lisa Bonet

PLOT:  1950s private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is hired by a suave, sartorial client (Robert DeNiro) to track down a crooner; as the search takes him from Harlem to New Orleans, Angel finds that every lead he interviews ends up dead.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  With its (sometimes literally) dripping atmosphere, mysterious dreamlike flashbacks, and a conclusion that will chill the blood if you don’t see it coming, Angel Heart appeals to lovers of the weird. In the end, however, this macabre film noir is simply too conventional to be weird, a standard detective story with the supernatural grafted onto it.  The fact that the mystery is completely and satisfactorily resolved at the end leaves us little wonder to carry forward.

COMMENTS:   There was one throwaway scene that almost tipped Angel Heart into the weird column.  Angel is standing on the beach at Coney Island, backing off from the oncoming tide, wearing a plastic nose shield on his sunglasses (more than a little reminiscent of the bandage Jack Nicholson wore in Chinatown) on an overcast day, and talking to the wife of a carnival geek as she soaks her varicose veins in the Atlantic.  Now that’s a situation you don’t find yourself in everyday!  Had there been more subtly off-kilter scenes like this peppered throughout, Angel Heart could have been a weird classic.

On its original release, the film was notorious for the bloody, MPAA-enraging sex scene with recent ex-Cosby kid Lisa Bonet.  The scene still packs a wallop today, and is even more memorable because it isn’t wholly gratuitous, but has a horrifying significance within the context of the story.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Angel Heart,’ with its stigmatic sets and satanic text, makes the perfect cult movie just as the Rev. Jones made the perfect batch of Kool-Aid. It already has assured itself a limited audience, as most moviegoers will be repulsed by the needless gore, including sudden open-heartsurgery and assorted other murder-mutilations. The lot overwhelms this devilishly clever detective allegory, a supernatural variation on ’50s pulp mysteries.” –Rita Kempley, Washington Post (contemporaneous)