COEURS NOIRS Day 23: The Ninth Gate (1999) Review by Kim McDonald!

I don’t usually watch film noir, but I was intrigued to see THE NINTH GATE included on a genre list. I love this film so I gave it another watch, and yes, it definitely qualifies. Then again, if film noir is about pessimism and fatalism, one could argue most of Polanski’s work qualifies. And what could be more fatalistic than trying to conjure the Devil?

The film is based on the book “El Club Dumas,” written by Arturo Perez-Reverte. It follows Dean Corso, played by Johnny Depp, a rare book dealer who is commissioned by collector Boris Balkan, (Frank Langella,) to authenticate his copy of an obscure occult book, “The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows”. He managed to get it from another collector, Telfer, before his suicide. Now Balkan wants Corso to compare his copy with the only other two copies that exist. This book is supposed to conjure the Devil, but as Corso jests, He didn’t show up.

Corso immediately realizes this is no normal job and this is no normal book. As he travels to Portugal and France to hunt down the other two copies, he finds himself being pursued by Telfer’s “dishy”, but viscous, widow (Lena Olin,) who has a secret interest in retrieving her husband’s book. He also has The Girl, (Emmanuelle Seigner.) She is his tag along/protector, who seems to have a secret interest in helping him succeed. As he is able to compare all three copies, he stumbles upon a hidden code unknown to any of their owners and finds himself drawn into a mystery that leaves dead bodies everywhere he goes.

Telfer’s widow calls Corso a “book detective,” and the film does remind me of the old Bogart movies. In one scene, we see Corso’s apartment with a desk against a window and the neon light from a street sign is shining through the blinds. The color scheme is subdued with earthy browns, blacks and greens. It’s like a mystery set in a labyrinthine library; one with Satanists waiting for you behind the stacks.

Polanski co-wrote the screenplay with John Brownjohn and Enrique Urbizu. The dialogue is
clipped and full of caustic wit, punctuated by a lot of smoking and drinking. It is especially fun watching Depp and Langella bouncing off of each other. The sets are wonderful; tucked away, unassuming places in the middle of beautiful locations. They add to the feeling of a very old menace that has been lurking in the dust, biding its time.

Corso is a typical hard boiled detective type who doesn’t buy into the Satanist agenda. Books are a commodity to be bought and sold; as he tells Balkan, “I believe in my percentage.” As the film progresses, he realizes he can’t walk away, even though The Girl encourages him to many times. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you believe in the Devil if She falls in love with you.

 

Do follow Kim on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dixiefairy

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COEURS NOIRS Day 22: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) Review by Jon Weidler

[117 minutes. R. Director: Sidney Lumet]

Hollywood loves “family” as an income generator, but hates it as a theme and institution.
And for good reason. It’s much more palatable to potential ticket buyers if the family is treated as an abstract concept with no basis in reality. The highs and lows of having parents and siblings is mandatory, but the fact remains: family is a thing of permanence, and few films deal with the nuts and bolts of love, guilt, responsibility, and madness that informs most (which is why we have the acceptably quirky dysfunction of the Griswolds and Fockers).

What could be “worse” than a piece of art that forces us to confront the fact that the family unit is often rooted in apprehension and fear?

This is why Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is so refreshing: it may be steeped in its own kind of pulp exaggeration, but the interlocking plot and performances present a reality that’s just convincing enough to be plausible. It’s a film where Albert Finney is a credible and convincing father to brothers Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke; while they may not look related, their interactions, conflicts, and resentments convince the viewer otherwise.

Devil is a blue-collar crime flick grounded in the doldrums of working-class malaise. Not surprisingly, financial desperation is the name of the criminal game. Andy (Hoffman), who works in the payroll department of a real estate firm, wants to escape to Brazil with his wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei). Andy’s brother Hank (Hawke) works in the same office, but is in financial dire straits (he owes back child support), and carrying on a secret affair with Gina. Their father, Charles (Finney), owns the family jewelry store with wife Nanette (Rosemary Harris). Andy brings Hank in on a plot to solve their money problems – by robbing the store.

While cut and dry in synopsis, the robbery comprises only a small part of the film; director Sidney Lumet (who knows his way around great ensemble casts) is far more interested in the trickle-down effect of its moral fallout.

Kelly Masterson’s script is structured via multiple perspectives – Andy, Hank, and Charles – and where they intersect and overlap. It’s a gimmick that recalls Pulp Fiction and Memento, but isn’t simply style for style’s sake: Lumet uses it to tease out information and withhold plot or character beats until the absolute necessity of their reveal. While disorienting at first, this approach unravels a deceptively simple heist plot with unexpected depth.

The tricky brilliance of the writing and performances is that each character is working within the same tangled, incestuous web: Andy’s dubious bookkeeping as the IRS audits the firm; Hank’s relationship with Gina; Gina’s relationship with Andy and Hank; and Charles’s responsibility for his children when the details of the robbery come to light. Nobody is in an enviable position, and that conveys the soul-swallowing darkness that earns the film’s valid categorization as Noir.

Lumet’s aesthetic touches are wonderfully subtle: an antiseptic look in the cold exteriors of modern high-rises, with indoor colors desaturated just enough to amplify the slickness of transparent glass surfaces (while also accentuating shadowy corners); conversely, the image is periodically overexposed to heighten the drama (the quick-cut reaction shots of Hank as the robbery occurs). Early on, the rental car used to carry out the crime is glaring white on a highway clogged with darker-colored vehicles, unconsciously drawing attention to itself. And details like wardrobe and hairstyle (Hank’s disheveled, loose look; Andy’s fitted suits and slicked-back hair) accentuate the characters’ sense of control (or lack thereof).

The family dynamics of Devil are spot on. Charles is presented as a cold patriarch, Hank is emasculated by everyone around him (repeatedly called “the baby” by his dad, and “faggot” by his brother and peers; hell, his own daughter even calls him a loser when he doesn’t come through on the funds for a pricey field trip), and Andy is left to shoulder the burden once the robbery goes South. The film is most interested in its male characters, with Nanette dispatched in the opening minutes, and sister Katherine (Arija Bareikis) left in the margins. Tomei imbues Gina with her own emotional and financial conflicts, but remains outside the most severe consequences of Andy and Hank’s actions.
Perhaps Lumet and Masterson are suggesting that, when left to their own devices, men will royally fuck things up.

See also: Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects, and just about any crime thriller to come out of the 1990s.

8 out of 10 stars

COEURS NOIRS Day 20: Niagara (1953) Review by Michael E. Wilson

NIAGARA  (1953)

The theatrical trailer for this film is almost as good as the film itself. Shot in Black & White (the film is presented in color), the trailer opens with a breathtaking shot of Niagara Falls. Then these words appear on screen:

“A raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control! NIAGARA! And…….MARILYN MONROE!

The trailer continues with scenes from the film. It concludes with another look at the Falls. This time, Miss Monroe’s face is superimposed over the Falls and these words appear:

“NIAGARA and MARILYN MONROE…..the two most electrifying sights in the world!!

NIAGARA and MARILYN MONROE……the high water mark in suspense!!”

With a buildup like that, you can expect a pretty good movie experience. And this movie doesn’t disappoint. Released by 20th Century-Fox and directed by Henry Hathaway, this drama is filled with Noir imagery and sensibilities. But its primary reason for being made was for Fox to promote Monroe, then the fastest rising actress, or more accurately, sensation, in Hollywood. Monroe had broken into films in the late 1940s with only minor success. Her luck changed when she appeared in a small role in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE for director John Huston at MGM in 1950. The same year she did another small role in ALL ABOUT EVE, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz at Fox. The studio gave her a contract and promoted her vigorously. While she was mostly cast in comedies, she also got her chance at serious drama in Fritz Lang’s CLASH BY NIGHT and Roy Baker’s DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK. In NIAGARA, Monroe was given her first and only “evil” character to play, a woman who plots to kill her husband so she can run off with another man. After this, Fox never let their gorgeous star play the bad girl again. A real shame, because her character in NIAGARA is perfectly suited to her hyper-sexual image.

The story, by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch and Richard Breen, has married couple Polly and Ray Cutler (Jean Peters and Casey Adams) arriving at Niagara Falls for a belated honeymoon. They get involved in the lives of another couple, Rose and George Loomis (Miss Monroe and Joseph Cotten). George seems unstable and very jealous of his beautiful young wife. Rose tells the Cutlers that George has recently been in a military mental hospital and she’s concerned about his violent, erratic behavior. When the Cutlers are taking a tour of the Falls, Polly sees Rose kissing another, much younger man, Patrick (Richard Allan). We learn that Rose and her lover plan to kill George, making it look like suicide. Patrick attempts to throw George down into the Falls, but George kills him instead. Rose tells the police her husband is missing and Patrick’s body is found, but is assumed to be George’s body. When Rose goes to the morgue to identify her husband and sees Patrick’s body instead, she collapses and is taken to a hospital. George goes to Polly and tells her of Rose’s deception and asks Polly to let everyone thing he’s really dead. Rose, fearing for her life, tries to leave Niagara Falls. George confronts her and strangles her. He attempts to escape the police by stealing a boat that Polly inadvertently is in. The boat runs out of gas and is headed toward the Falls. George manages to get Polly to safety before he and the boat go over the Falls. George is killed.

Once Miss Monroe has left the film, it becomes necessary to quickly tie up the loose ends and finish the story. Admittedly, the watery climax is exciting, but although Jean Peters is a likable and attractive actress, she is unable to rouse the same level of emotional involvement as Monroe. The movie is, of course, also somewhat of a travelogue because of the amazing scenery. It also serves as a kind of historical record of what this beautiful location looked like in 1953. Undoubtedly it is a completely different place in this day and age. NIAGARA, as a rather typical, big budget Hollywood studio product, delivers the goods on all levels. Most definitely worth seeing, and worthy of study for its Noirish quality.

For anyone whose only experience of Marilyn Monroe is the succession of “dumb blondes” she played to perfection in films like GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, her other two releases of 1953, or THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955), seeing her play a genuine femme fatale in a dramatic story may be a little shocking. In my opinion, she gives one of her very best performances as Rose Loomis. It’s possible that even 20th Century-Fox didn’t expect her to be so good playing bad, and that’s why they never gave her another chance at it! Veteran actor Joseph Cotten, by this time looking a little haggard in middle age, does an excellent job as a man who just wants to possess the beautiful creature who happens to be his wife. He personifies the traditional Noir male who is driven to destruction by a duplicitous female.Most of his scenes take place in the darkness of the honeymoon cabin he shares with Rose. He is rarely seen outside in the light, and when he is, he seems not to belong there. While George Loomis ends up as a killer we still see him as a sympathetic character, especially at the end when he saves Polly’s life.


Rose, although evil, also manages to get the audience’s sympathy. If she had been played by any other actress, that may not have been the case. But when Rose is pursued by George and killed, we care about her. Maybe its because the viewer sees Rose as such an amazingly sexual creature that deserves all the ecstasy she can possibly get. And if she has to bump off her troubled husband and take up with a young stud to do it, well, why not? Of course it isn’t that simple or carnal, but remember: this was 1953, when the post-war public was completely dazzled and fascinated with the image of Marilyn Monroe that she, and Fox, were serving up on the big screen. the public was on Marilyn’s side, and therefore was also on Rose’s side. The complexity of Rose was completely bound to the reality, or what the public assumed was the reality, of Marilyn the actress.

Early in the film, we are presented with Miss Monroe in a pink dress that, as George describes it, is cut so low you can see her kneecaps. During this extended scene, the camera forgets all about Niagara Falls for a while and takes us on a tour of the Monroe image. Real? Manufactured? A makeup miracle? Does it matter? It exists. And the young woman who lived in that image seemingly takes immense pleasure in letting us look. Much has been said over the years about Marilyn’s mysterious relationship with the camera. Many people said she was rather ordinary and unexceptional until the light of the camera enfolded her. Then she somehow transformed herself into the glimmering star she wanted herself to be. Marilyn Monroe, not Norma Jean, the troubled girl from a broken home who was shy and unsure of herself. In this sequence in NIAGARA, with Rose showing off in the pink dress, we can actually see this transformation happen. For a moment, she is in partly in shadow, but suddenly the light flickers across her face. Her lips are parted, and she seems to kiss the light as it caresses her. And so Norma Jean receives the light that transforms her into Marilyn Monroe. A raging torrent of emotion that even Norma Jean couldn’t control.

COEURS NOIRS Day 19: Out of the Past (1947) Review by Amanda Bergloff

“I’m not sure exactly how I got here. Time and life got all mixed up into an amalgam of events that put me on this path. Sometimes I hate who I’m with, sometimes I don’t. I do get tired of running, though. Just when I think I can stop, I can’t…and I don’t care much for the options given to me by the guy who just slapped my face.

They think they’ve trapped me, but they haven’t. I’ve thought of a way out. I always do.

One thing I know for sure is that I prove fatal to anyone who tries to hold me for too long.

I am calling the shots now.

I am Kathie Moffat, and I will not be defined by anyone or anything from out of the past.”

That’s how I imagine the interior dialogue for one of my favorite femme fatales, Kathie Moffat (played by Jane Greer) from “Out of the Past.”

For me, the success or failure of a film noir flick depends on a great femme fatale character being the counterpoint to the anti-hero detective role. She is a powerful catalyst that sets the hero on his journey. She puts her foot on the gas pedal, propelling him into the brick wall of his future. No apologies. No hope.

Directed by Jacques Tourneur, “Out of the Past” tells the story of mysterious gas station owner, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) who finds he can’t escape his own private detective past of corruption, double crosses, and one particularly dangerous dame, even though he’s trying to reinvent himself in a small town. While planning a quiet future with his current sweet and innocent girlfriend, he is summoned by shady businessman, Whit Sterling, (Kirk Douglas) for one last job to set things straight between the two of them. Jeff realizes he must tell his current trusting girlfriend, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston) of his former life, and do the job for Whit in an effort to put the past to rest so they can start their new lives together with a clean slate. However, things are not so easily dismissed and past and present collide when his former lover, femme fatale Kathie Moffat, (Jane Greer) turns up again.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer’s performances make this dark storyline extremely watchable. Mitchum’s face was designed for noir with uplit angles and skeptical looks. It’s a face that has been sculpted by cynicism, smoking, and the strange desire for redemption. This anti-hero with a talent for self preservation is mirrored in Greer’s femme fatale character. Her Kathie matches Mitchum’s level of “cool” with every calculating glance she gives. She’s a survivor who does what she needs to do, regardless of other’s well-being. Kathie can’t match Jeff’s brute force, but her strength is in her mind and the willingness to play against society’s morals.

When they first meet, they are attracted to one another’s physical presence, yet show a vulnerable side when they decide to buy into the illusion of love and run off together for a brief time. Events end up destroying that illusion, yet I couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for Kathie when she seems to want a little redemption of her own by returning to the place where she felt the illusion of happiness the strongest in the end. This vulnerability and predatory side to the character are what makes Kathie such a great femme fatale to me and ultimately, she’s the realist in the film when she reasons that she’s no good and Jeff isn’t either, and that’s why they deserve each other.

Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling is foxlike and cunning in the role. Whit has a sense of humor on the surface that hides his darker self and knocks his opponents off balance so he can understand them better through their weaknesses.

And look out for Rhonda Fleming’s side role as Meta Carson. She’s a scene stealer as a player in the framing of Mitchum’s Jeff.

As in all great film noir, the main characters are headed for a collision. The audience just hopes that Jeff will walk away from it. After all, don’t we all have things in our past we’d like to change? If Jeff can redeem himself, then maybe there’s hope for all of us to escape from something from out of the past.

You can find Amanda Bergloff on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/AmandaBergloff

COEURS NOIRS Day 16: Night and The City (1950) Guest review by Gene R. Hole

I only saw this film for the first time one year ago, but the romance has not yet worn off.  I’m still madly in love with this iconic noir masterpiece.  The shadows of noir are rarely inkier than in Night and the City, a film that crushes all hopes of a happy ending for every one of its characters…that is, unless you watch the alternate European cut, which has the slightest suggestion of hope for at least two characters.  The UK cut also has a different musical score!

But despite some really great foreign contemporaries, film noir was essentially an American movement, and in an interesting way, those difference between the two are a good example of what makes American noir such a unique phenomenon of its time and place. That is an idea that will have to remain unexplored for now.  I’ll leave that topic for another day- an alternate turn in the dark cavern of noir that shall be visited on some later spelunking expedition. I simply mention it now to explain that the American cut will be the one to which I refer in this appreciation (and not because the alternate is necessarily a bad/worse film for the changes made to it).

So, wow.  What a gut-punch of movie this is.  Even the innocent party gets no relief from the consequences of the protagonist’s mistakes.  Sort of like real life.  Our actions seldom affect just ourselves, no matter how hard we may argue to the contrary.  In that way, the scheming, dreaming small-time big-ideas grafter Harry Fabian (an outstanding Richard Widmark) is all of us who think we can do things the wrong way and get away with it while not hurt anyone.    Widmark’s performance is a whirlwind of manic, frenzied scrambling, from the first time we see him racing across an open street beneath the shadow of a dark and forbidding city, to the last moments of the picture as he fights with his last breath the “be somebody” and get that easy money that will provide for Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney), the girl he loves almost as much as he loves himself.

Tierney is also terrific at conveying a patient, faithful fiancée who finally has had enough but is too good to really let go of the man she loves.  The pain on her face when she discovers Fabian ransacking her things to find money to pay off one of his many failed “investors” is agonizing and so relatable.  This is real hurt that any viewer can understand.  “You won’t find any money in there, Harry.”  Such a subtly underplayed reaction, and so much more like real life than the more histrionic “hell hath no fury” performances we see so often.  But then that’s what makes Tierney the star she was (and not the first name, as much as I’d like the think so).

The supporting cast is equally to be praised, from Googie Withers and Francis L Sullivan as Mr. and Mrs. Nosseross, a barely-married nightclub running couple whose own story is equally wrenching as the main characters, and perhaps even more fraught with tension, greed, and ambition, and a tragedy that is all-too understandable despite the near-operatic scale of the betrayal and hurt between them.

There are knockout scenes with many of the more minor cast as well, from Mike Mazurki as the professional wrestler “The Strangler,” right down to James Hayter as Figler, king of the Beggars, and Maureen Delaney as Anna O’Leary, the black marketeer who briefly shelters the doomed man as the shadows come crushing in to smother the life out of him.

But my two favorite performances may be the gangster Kristo (Herbert Lom) and his retired Greco-Roman wrestling champion father Gregorious (Stanislaus Zbyszko).  First, if you only know Herbert Lom from the Peter Sellers starring Pink Panther series, you are missing out on the range and versatility of a remarkable, if largely unsung, talent.  IMDB him to see some of the many interesting and diverse roles he’s played.  Here he performs the remarkable feat of portraying a villain that we simultaneously sympathize with and alternately loath, dread and fear.  The pivotal scene that accomplishes that is also Zbyszko’s iconic big screen moment, his herculean showdown with The Strangler and his final gasping moments when his outsized heart breaks from the strain of that effort. Together these two actors create the single most compelling moment of a picture that is abounding in such evocative scenes.  At the sight of his father stumbling out of the ring with heavy perspiration all over his body and a pained, twisted look on his face, Kristo is suddenly shaken out of his cool, cruel attitude and is suddenly a frightened child wondering what he will do without a father.

Zbysko has up to this point made the character so warm (and, dare I say, Gregarious?) that his death scene is deeply heartbreaking for us as audience members. And his performance of those final moments of life is so believable and realistic that Kristo’s reaction reflects our own.  “Shut the window, please, it’s so cold,” has such a terribly chilling affect when we and Kristo see that the window in question is already closed.  But when he goes through the motion anyways, his humanity and even his humane-ity shows briefly. Not a thug or a boss, just a grief=stricken human losing maybe the one person he loves, and certainly the only one who loves him.  That glimmer of sorrow is reflected in the glistening tears that glow in Lom’s eyes.  Then, Gregorious’ breath stops. One could almost swear one sees his soul leave his body, so eloquently acted the moment is.  Then we see Kristo’s soul change too- he is suddenly more cold and alone, more vengeful and bitter than before, and is set quickly to the task of hunting down the one responsible for his father’s death.

Though this is absolutely Harry Fabian’s story and Widmark’s film, this is the standout scene for me, which of course, it must be, as it represents the turning point for all his plans and hopes.  There can be no escape now. The audience senses it, and understands why he must die, even as we hope against hope he can survive.  I believe that hope is the result of Tierney’s performance, and the sympathy we have for him is given to us by proxy as an extension of our sympathy for her.  We want him to survive for her sake.  But in this dark city, there is no such hope. This is the essence of noir.  Night and the City is noir at its most distilled and pure form, a pitch-dark tragedy that sucks us into its grasp with all the compulsion of a black hole.  This won’t be the last time I watch it.

 

See Gene’s Blog at: http://picksbygene.blogspot.com

Follow Gene on Twitter: https://twitter.com/generasputin

COEURS NOIRS Day 13: Pretty Poison (1968) Review by Jon Weidler

[89 minutes. R. Director: Noel Black]

The distorting effect of glass – and reflective surfaces in general – is a big visual motif in Noel Black’s Pretty Poison, and it makes sense: when lanky outcast Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins, tweaking his Norman Bates persona) is released from an institution, he sets his sights on small-town girl Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld), who is immediately smitten by his claims of being a secret agent. At first, their rapport is easygoing and sort of charming; a spring romance taken from practically any teen-rebellion flick from the 1950s (indeed, the film shares more in common with the Andy Griffith era than the love-generation ‘60s). But a duality emerges in both characters that shows that what may look “normal” on the surface can be harboring a deep, irreparable distortion.

Pretty Poison sets the tone during the first scene, in which a set-to-be-released Dennis speaks with his parole officer, Azenauer (John Randolph). We are made privy to the fact that this young man – with his boy-next-door looks and slightly awkward demeanor – is a pathological liar.

He also looks older than Sue Ann, which adds a queasy subtext to the proceedings (she’s a high-school senior of legal age, first glimpsed in her short-skirted marching-band uniform), one that Black and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. exploit in intriguing and unexpected ways. Despite its seedy neo-Noir underpinnings, Pretty Poison manages to be both tasteful and efficient; complex and fascinating; and full of suspense and mood as the noose inevitably tightens.

Dirty glass windows spattered with chemical runoff that looks ominously like blood. Odd glass tumblers at a roadside burger joint that render faces with the effect of a funhouse mirror. The ridiculously exaggerated viewfinder Dennis uses to monitor the progress of an assembly line (containing sealed glass bottles of an unidentified red liquid). There are even multi-colored glass knickknacks in the front window of Sue Ann’s house. As characters, there is a depth to Dennis and Sue Ann that portends something greater: the thrill of burgeoning young love, the danger of the unknown, and the fragility of human emotion under duress – not unlike a glass placed too close to the edge of a tall table.

In keeping the narrative largely character-driven (with both Perkins and Weld giving great performances), the script and direction thrives due to the teasingly subjective approach. We view the world through the eyes of these mysterious, potentially unreliable, and seemingly disparate individuals. As a result, we are locked out of their inner workings until the antisocial seams loosen, springing something shocking to the surface. Nothing is a foregone conclusion in Pretty Poison, and the less said about the plot, the better. Black treats the seemingly innocent beats of the beginning – including some dorky humor (Dennis’s made-up façade is right out of a bad B movie) – with an appropriate sappiness, which only makes the misdirection that much more effective when the film takes an unexpected midpoint turn.

Now, since there’s no way to dance around it…SPOILERS below!

Given that Night of the Living Dead pushed limits of screen carnage and Rosemary’s Baby transitioned frank sexuality to mainstream audiences that same year, Poison is ultimately rather coy in its depiction of these details; it doesn’t ogle its violent moments, nor is its approach to sex particularly explicit (there is a polite fade to Perkins and Weld’s post-coital faces after their first encounter). However, Black finds clever visual ways to make certain scenes cringe-worthy: take, for instance, the death of the night-watchman at the chemical plant; fazed by a knock to the head and rolled into the river, Sue Ann straddles him while holding his head underwater, a scene filmed with a perverse sexuality that suggests her character may be more than Dennis’s match. Or the montage of gears, springs, and levers on the assembly line – intercut with Perkins’s grinning, distorted-by-the-viewfinder face – to convey a daydream of sexual arousal.

The manner in which the characterizations overlap is wonderfully twisted, as Sue Ann – despite her popularity, beauty, and seeming social normality – is the product of a single-parent household, and subjected to the abuse of her mother (Beverly Garland). Her “bad girl” tendencies have been waiting for someone to properly bring them out (but who is to say they haven’t been brought to the surface before?). Dennis, meanwhile, is haunted by the “innocent” incident that led to the burning house Black periodically cuts away to. The strategy of having both characters cling to their own distorted, subjective versions of “normality” keeps the viewer guessing. And the violence, presented in a cold and matter-of-fact way, foreshadows Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, which brought senseless killing to suburbia in a similarly detached manner.

Unlike modern-day thrillers that build up the plot solely for the sake of a cheap twist, Pretty Poison opts for an elliptical conclusion that nonetheless exhibits a satisfying arc for all characters involved. And certain unassuming setups, like Dennis’s retrieval of a paycheck – serve as deliciously unexpected lead-ins to further danger and risk. Norman Bates may be a legendary character, but Dennis deserves as much recognition as a sociopath with flaws and frailties that we can never completely trust; the same can be said for Weld’s mature performance as the alluring Lolita.

8 out of 10 stars

Find some of Jonny’s reviews and film articles here: https://loudgreenbird.com

Follow Jonny on Twitter: https://twitter.com/JonnyNumb

 

EXAFM 2016 Day 24: Battle Royale (2001) review by Jon Weidler

[121 minutes. Unrated. Director: Kinji Fukasaku]

You gotta hand it to Asian schoolkids: they could be the most resilient, adaptable human beings walking the Earth today.

Seriously: Sin City notwithstanding, how often do you see bodies riddled with a dozen bullets at close range, that somehow bounce back to fight some more (even delivering profound parting words before shuffling off this mortal coil)?

When SkyNet was considering its design for Terminators, the tech department probably had Battle Royale streaming on an endless loop.

While all of Internet Geekdom has caught fire lately with nit-picking, ultimately meaningless “chicken-or-the-egg” arguments comparing the adaptation of a certain popular young-adult novel to this rip-roaring, fire-on-all-cylinders Japanese import, the Bottom Line is this:

Battle Royale is an astonishing piece of cinema. And The Hunger Games, for all its derivative elements, remains a compelling read.

And this is coming from someone who finds most offerings of Asian cinema slow, dry, and preoccupied with style over substance. Sure, the films may be postcard-pretty to look at, or plumb depths of imaginative horror that Americans are tone-deaf toward…but 9 times out of 10, the feeling I’m left with is one of alienation, something that may well be the result of my own cultural background.

In any case: Battle Royale is still an astonishing piece of cinema, and easily refutes some of the above paragraph.

If you can discern the tongue-in-cheek satire piercing the violent hard edges of Paul Verhoeven’s films (think Robocop and Starship Troopers), you will be right at home here.

The setup is ingenious, done in rapid-fire voice-over during the opening credits, cutting right to the chase: it’s The Future. Unemployment is at an all-time high. Youth are rebelling against the educational establishment. The Government decides to subsidize a macabre televised contest where a class of 42 high-school students is set loose on a deserted island.

The objective? Kill or be killed. With room for only a single winner, Battle Royale is a free-for-all hybrid of “The Most Dangerous Game,” Lord of the Flies, and an elaborate Monty Python sketch (I tend to say that about any movie that takes the bloodletting to comical extremes; I really have to find a new comparison).

And what the hell: let’s throw in some John Hughes-style teen angst and romance!

I had always been aware of the film’s cult reputation, but was never curious enough to actually view it until recently. The experience was therefore untainted by spoilers or anything beyond a basic plot outline.

And by the time I got to the end credits, I was so glad.

Battle Royale is a grueling, visceral experience that caught me in its spell from start to finish. The less said about the actual plot and character turns, the better, but for a film that daringly juggles disparate tones, emotions, and stylistic flourishes, I couldn’t help but wonder how this all didn’t go disastrously wrong.

I laughed. I thrilled. My emotions stirred. I was left in aural rapture by well-known classical pieces used in painfully ironic and dramatic ways. And I was ultimately shaken to my foundations. Battle Royale is an absurd, spot-on metaphor for the battleground that is High School.

And so much more.

Just see it.

Jonny Numb’s Rating: 8.5 out of 10
(This is a slightly revised version of a review that was originally uploaded to my blog, Numbviews (numbviews.livejournal.com) on April 4, 2012.)