Two of the biggest differences between film reviewing Then and Now are that in the 1990s, reviewers for the national press (such as Philip French of The Observer or Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times) were obliged to see and review every film that came out, and their wordcount was always dictated by how much space was available in the paper. Whereas many of today’s bloggers can pick and choose which films they want to cover, and there are no space limitations – they can ramble on for as long as they want.
Please note I’m not saying one of these reviewing models is better than the other. They each have their plusses and minuses. But it does result in a lot of self-employed film bloggers all writing about the same films over and over again – usually blockbusters, superhero or action pics – at the cost of smaller, more obscure or less obviously appealing offerings. And it makes sense – when you’re not invited to press shows and have to dip into your own pocket to buy a ticket, of course you’re going to limit yourself to the films you actively want to see, rather than take a chance on an unknown quantity that you might not enjoy.
When I first started reviewing for national newspapers in the 1980s, there were usually two or three new releases per week. Gradually, through the 1990s, the number rose, until by the end of the 1990s it wasn’t unusual for there to be nine or ten new films per week. Not all were good; some were so bad they were almost unwatchable, but one of the things I appreciate now about this period was that, throughout most of the 1990s, I saw ALL THE FILMS*. I’m not sure I would ever want to do that again – especially now, when the number of new releases in a week has swollen even more – but I’m glad I did it then.
Looking back over my old reviews, it’s striking how many of the films I reviewed have since fallen off the map. They’ve never been hip or cultish, or historically important. They weren’t particularly innovative, they didn’t win awards, and there’s no real reason for anyone now to talk or write about them. Perhaps there is room for only so many titles in any cinephile’s canon at any one time, but I decided to post my original reviews of some of the lesser-known ones I enjoyed anyway. These aren’t necessarily the Best Films Ever Made, and they certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I think they’re all worth watching.
*Except ones that came out when I was on holiday.
Storyville works better if you think of it as as American art movie, rather than as a big-themed thriller. Its tone is pitched midway between Southern Gothic and Hollyweird, and it is the feature directing debut of Mark Frost, hitherto best known as David Lynch’s collaborator on Twin Peaks, the cult TV series as remarkable for its arch pop references as for its calculated wackiness.
James Spader, the scion of rich white trash who have built their fortune on shady land deals, is running for Congress. (Spader, a diligent actor who will probably only be allowed to show his range once his white-bread yuppie image has been raddled by age, is a little too young to be credible here.) He becomes involved with blackmail, murder, and Charlotte Lewis as a Vietnamese femme fatale whose legs are longer than you ever thought legs had a right to be. He ends up defending her in court.
When every other American release seems to be a pastiche of the latest box-office sensation, it is almost refreshing to come across a movie that has been heavily influenced not by Basic Instinct or Lethal Weapon, but by two of the best movies of the 1970s. Storyville kicks off with a powerful family in the throes of a garden party, peaks in a celebration cross-cut with a fatality, and fades out on a facial expression from which all warmth has been drained: all favourite tricks of The Godfather director Francis Coppola. Meanwhile, the onion-layered plotting and Carter Burwell’s faux oriental score conjure up the ghosts of Chinatown. Frost scores top marks for ambition, even if he can’t quite cut the Dijon.
This sort of story, with its accumulation of revelations and reversals, needs to be devised with pedantic attention to detail. Either that, or the pace should be so breakneck that audiences don’t get time to stop and quibble. But Frost and his co-writer, Lee Reynolds, have tried to plug the gaps with nothing more substantial than atmosphere.
You’re left scratching your head. Is it likely that Spader would volunteer to defend the chief suspect after he has plastered his own fingerprints all over the murder weapon? How has Joanne Whalley-Kilmer managed to rise to the rank of Assistant D.A. when she is unable even to establish that opposing counsel has been rogering the defendant? Why, when Spader has an enormous family estate at his disposal, does he choose to live in a sparsely furnished flat in the middle of the red light district?
It would require an entire cult TV series to do justice to the sprawl of characters. Frost attempts to do it in 112 minutes and, not surprisingly, trips himself up time and again. But for all that, it’s a pleasure to see a film-maker going for broke on his very first feature.
The performances are entertaining as well. It’s always good for a laugh when a lot of actors get together and do Southern accents. Michael Warren and Charles Haid are cleverly cast in contrast to the buddy act they played in Hill Street Blues. And Piper Laurie’s definitive study of the soused Southern matriarch is worth the ticket price on its own.
ETA: This really is one of Carter Burwell’s loveliest scores. Here’s a sample of it. (Full disclosure: I like it so much I uploaded this track to YouTube myself.)
GUILTY AS SIN
This week’s other slice of inspired garbage is a legal thriller called Guilty as Sin. This may well have been directed by Sidney Lumet, but if you expect another 12 Angry Men or Serpico you will end up feeling severely short-changed. You would be better off taking your cue from the name of the screenwriter – the very wonderful Larry Cohen, whose CV includes three films about killer babies and one about America being invaded by a malevolent dairy dessert.
I love watching gorgeous Hollywood actresses pretending to be anxious lady lawyers in tight skirts and high heels. Rebecca De Mornay does the “objection-your-honours” here, but the film’s main calling-card is an outrageously batty performance from Don Johnson, playing a ladykiller so obvious it’s laughable. We know right from the outset that he pushed his wife out of a window, but surely De Mornay won’t be stupid enough to sleep with him…
Maybe not – but this slimeball has ever more devious tricks up his sleeve. Don’t waste energy picking holes in the colander of a plot – sit back, soak up the hokum, and revel in the ridiculous ending.
ETA: This comes under the heading of what I call The Preposterous Thriller. The specific absurdity of the ending, by the way, has since been repeated many, many times in thrillers and action movies, but this was the first time I’d ever seen it. If someone can think of an earlier example of the trope, I’d be interested in hearing about it.
EL PATRULLERO (HIGHWAY PATROLMAN)
In recent years, Alex Cox has seemed better suited to introducing films in his Moviedrome TV slot than to directing them. Until now, that is. One can hardly describe his new film as a return to form – because it’s the best thing he has ever done.
Highway Patrolman first surfaced at festivals two years ago, and with its Mexican cast speaking in Spanish, it’s unlikely to end up in your local multiplex. Still, it’s a cause for great optimism. If this is what happens when British directors go off and make films in Mexico, then we should club together and buy plane tickets for a whole lot more of them.
Pedro, an idealistic graduate fresh out of police academy, is assigned to the most godforsaken stretch of highway in the land. He gets married, realises the only way to make a living is to take bribes from peasants, crashes his patrol car, acquires a junkie mistress, gets shot in the leg, loses his best friend to drug traffickers, and plots his revenge – one man against impossible odds.
Put like that, it sounds like any other action-packed cop movie, but Cox films Lorenzo O’Brien’s neatly crafted screenplay in a deliberately unsensational way, with a series of long, absorbing takes that draw you into the character and the locations. The humour is as dry as the dust on the highway, and the occasional dollop of magical realism is treated with appropriate matter-of-factness.
Roberto Sosa gives a superb performance as the graduate with the adolescent facial fuzz, who starts off strutting proudly, chest puffed out, and ends up crippled and weary, but with spirit still unbroken. If the dialogue sometimes lapses into cliché (“I’m your wife, but I don’t want to be your widow”), the characters, particularly the women, are real people rather than stereotypes.
At no point does Cox indulge in any of the irritating mannerisms one has come to associate with the director of Sid and Nancy. No gimmicky casting, no pastiche, no in-jokes, no rock music, no goofing around. He cuts straight to the chase, and the result is an authentic low-key epic. You can almost taste the tequila.
LA ARDILLA ROJA (THE RED SQUIRREL)
The week’s best new release is The Red Squirrel, the second film from intriguing Spanish director Julio Medem. Jota (Nancho Novo), a failed pop-star whose wife has walked out on him, witnesses a motorcycle accident in which a sexy young woman (Emma Suárez) loses her memory. Presented with this tempting blank slate, he calls her Lisa, pretends she is his girlfriend, and takes her on a camping holiday.
But “Lisa” is no pliant victim, and Jota begins to realise he’s got more than he bargained for. His attempts to forge the woman of his dreams, the fake couple’s interaction with the other campers, and the mysterious activities of the local wildlife are all woven together into a wonderfully entertaining study of the war between men and women.
ETA: Reportedly this was one of Stanley Kubrick’s favourite films. But don’t let that put you off. It’s great.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT
But wait! – the week is not lost! Riding to the rescue comes Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, one of the most endearing slices of horror hokum since The Evil Dead. A mysterious drifter (William Sadler), on the run from a demon called The Collector (Billy Zane whooping it up) is tracked down and trapped in an isolated motel with a ragbag of lowlifers – hookers, alcoholics and ex-cons – who are variously mesmerised, menaced and mangled by the forces of evil. (The well-chosen cast includes Dick Miller, C.C.H. Pounder, Thomas Haden Church and Jada Pinkett Smith.)
Ernest Dickerson, cinematographer on Jungle Fever and Malcolm X, shows that he is already capable of directing the socks off Spike Lee. The result is scary, fast-paced genre fun with a full complement of rubber monster meltdown, and flashbacks to Golgotha, no less. What more could a girl want?
ETA: I have no doubt Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight is already known to (and probably loved by) a great many horror aficionados. The people I’m trying to reach here are viewers who like to dip into a bit of horror now and then, but who won’t dutifully work their way through every single film in the genre. This is just the sort of low budget, low prestige production that would have been ignored by mainstream reviewers, and is unlikely ever to figure on anyone’s Best Of lists, so I’m recommending it here. Because it’s a blast.
THE NEW AGE
Michael Tolkin, best known as author of The Player (filmed in 1992 by Robert Altman), has directed a couple of oddball movies, including this bone-dry black comedy about a couple of ferociously chic but financially strapped Los Angeles narcissists whose brilliant careers crash and burn, leaving them scrabbling around for the meaning of life amid a flurry of sex, shopping and psychobabble.
Peter Weller and Judy Davis give fearlessly unsympathetic performances as the yuppies whose trendy spiritual values are exposed as a sham. The best bit is when they open a shop selling nothing but a few tastefully arranged but totally useless objects; we’ve all known shops like that, but they’re not all metaphors for modern life, like this one. Don’t expect belly laughs; do expect to get a little creeped out.
ETA: Tolkin’s The Rapture (1991) is another cinematic UFO (ie too weird for the mainstream but doesn’t slot easily into any known genre) that is well worth seeking out.
Junk Mail is a small but perfectly formed black comedy from Norway, which means that it’s very black indeed. Roy the postman (played by the Polanski-esque Robert Skjaerstad, who reportedly spent months wearing worn-down shoes to achieve the right walk) is one of life’s runts, with a round that takes him through some of Oslo’s least savoury areas. He thinks nothing of steaming open and reading the mail before delivering it, or of using the keys accidentally left in a deaf girl’s mailbox to snoop around her apartment when she’s not around.
Of course, she turns out to be mixed up in something dodgy, and Roy gets drawn into a sub-Hitchcockian plot incorporating stolen money, attempted suicide and one of the funniest karaoke scenes ever filmed. Roy is a gloriously low-rent creation – the sort of loser who will steal chocolates from a patient on life-support – and Pål Sletaune’s debut feature is 83 minutes of deadpan heaven.
ETA: I have yet to meet a Norwegian film I didn’t enjoy. (I’m sure bad ones exist; I just haven’t encountered them.) Junk Mail has a sensibility similar (albeit more low-key and less splattery) to that of more recent Norwegian thrillers such as Headhunters, Jackpot and In Order of Disappearance. I’m also fond of Insomnia (1997), Kitchen Stories and O’Horten (both directed by Bent Hamer), The Troll Hunter, the Cold Prey and Dead Snow horror movies and the Varg Veum series.
If my novels could be translated into one other language (two of them have already been translated into German, but that’s all), I would love it to be Norwegian.
Zero Effect is a sure-footed debut from writer-director Jake Kasdan, son of writer-director Lawrence Kasdan. Though the title may suggest another Armageddon-type disaster movie, it turns out to be an ingenious – and only slightly tongue-in-cheek – modern variation on the classic Philip Marlowe or Sherlock Holmes detective story, and allows the ever-reliable Bill Pullman to give one of his most delightful performances.
Pullman plays Daryl Zero, a private detective who, like antecedents from Holmes to Morse, is better at detecting than at functioning as a normal human being. He’s a master of disguise who lives the life of a Howard Hughes-type paranoid recluse in a Los Angeles penthouse, dresses like a slob, solves most of his cases without budging from his desk, and deals with clients via Ben Stiller, a resentful front-man who also acts as straight man to his eccentricities.
Zero’s latest case is to find out who is blackmailing stressed-out Portland tycoon Ryan O’Neal, and the plot moves along well-oiled tracks: objective detective falls for female quarry and loses objectivity. But Kim Dickens is nothing like the standard femme fatale, and Kasdan manages to keep the tone light and funny without ever lessening the stakes or betraying his genre.
Above all, it’s a super showcase for Pullman, a slacker Sherlock who thinks he can play guitar, but can’t, who can tell you how much space motels are required by law to leave between beds and radiators, but who has never kissed a girl. He’s an addled genius with masses of off-kilter charm, and such a brilliant character that, for once, you wish someone would make a sequel, so you could once again have the pleasure of his company.
Perdita Durango is a deliciously trashy Spanish-Mexican co-production directed by the politically incorrect Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia and co-written by Barry Gifford. Rosie Perez plays the Tex-Mex temptress (first glimpsed in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, where she was played by Isabella Rossellini with a monobrow), who hooks up with a weirdo called Romeo Dolorosa, a voodoo bankrobber with lucrative sidelines in drug-dealing, grave-robbing and ripping people’s hearts out.
Since this scumbag is played by my absolute favourite actor right now – Javier Bardem, who as far as I’m concerned is sex on a stick – I had a whale of a time with this sloppy road movie, which combines morally reprehensible characters with a truckload of embryos, the gratuitously nasty kidnapping and sexual subjugation of two whitebread American teenagers, and the music of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, whose Spanish Flea provides the film’s with one of its highlights.
ETA: Those familiar with the work of Alex de la Iglesia will already be aware how politically incorrect he can be. Others should consider themselves warned. The misogyny of his films can sometimes be off-putting (as it is, I think, in Acción mutante and Witching and Bitching, both of which start brilliantly but rapidly degenerate), but he just about gets away with it in the agreeably delirious Crimen ferpecto. Day of the Beast, of course, is unequivocally great.
Perdita Durango has its uncomfortable moments (the sexual violence, in particular, is squirm-making) but being made to feel uncomfortable isn’t necessarily such a bad thing, right? Plus, the two leading performances are sensational. Perez has never been better, and Bardem sports one of those demented haircuts that would go on to become a recurring motif in his career.
RIDE WITH THE DEVIL
It seems ages since we last saw a proper epic. The form is too sprawling and expensive to fit snugly into the modern three-act screenplay, which is perhaps why it has upped sticks and relocated to the small screen.
Maybe this is why Ride With the Devil sometimes seems more like an anamorphic mini-series than a movie, but either way it’s wonderful. Director Ang Lee steers clear of the modern tendency towards pump-action narrative, settling instead for a deliberately leisurely pace, which sets personal rite-of-passage against a backdrop of political turmoil. Quite frankly, we are not accustomed to film-makers going to all this trouble.
Ride With the Devil – half Western, half war movie, all epic – is based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel Woe To Live On. It’s set in Missouri, a slave-state which nevertheless threw in its lot with the Union during the American Civil War. Tobey Maguire, who’s in nearly every scene, turns in a brilliant low-key performance as a goofy teenager who joins the Bushwhackers, a guerilla arm of the Confederacy.
In true wrong-but-romantic style, he and his fellow riders grow their hair long, wear brightly coloured baggy shirts (not the most practical way to blend into the undergrowth, it must be said) and gallop around the lush wooded countryside slaughtering Yankees. But Maguire comes from educated German stock, which, as far as most of his companions are concerned, makes him an object of suspicion.
His best buddy is played by the dashing Skeet Ulrich but, as the war progresses, he finds he has more in common with another outsider, played by Jeffrey Wright. He’s a freed slave who, incredibly, is fighting for the South – something which, according to the producer and screenwriter James Schamus, was an unusual but not unheard of occurrence.
In between bloody skirmishes, the film finds time for some lovely campfire scenes in which Maguire reads stolen Union letters out loud to his comrades, giving them an inkling that their enemies might not be so different from themselves. As time goes on, the changing of the seasons is reflected in Frederick Eames’ cinematography, which captures the landscape to consistently stunning effect.
There’s a spot of romance with a comely widow (the screen debut of singer-songwriter Jewel, who has interestingly disconcerting eyes) and the obligatory amputation without anaesthetic. But the story’s turning point – and the day of moral reckoning for Maguire – is Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in August 1863, a real-life atrocity in which as many as 200 civilians were murdered.
Though it doesn’t stint on the bloodletting, this is an epic of rare thoughtfulness. Taiwan-born Lee, the supremely versatile director of Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm, proves adept at big-scale action, but quietly confounds our expectations by giving us violence when we least expect it, and vice versa.
I don’t know how authentic Schamus’ dialogue is, but lines such as, “He’d as soon kill a man as mash a tick” are music to the ears, delivered with a formal lilt that certainly makes them sound like the speech patterns of another, more chivalrous age. And Wright’s character is depicted with a reserved dignity that gives the man his due without ever tipping over into incongruous political correctness.
The only anachronistic misstep – even if, for this viewer, a hugely enjoyable one – is the psychopathic Bushwhacker played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who flounces around like a refugee from Velvet Goldmine. But in an odd way, this merely demonstrates that the film’s themes are as pertinent today as they were in the 19th century. Boys will always be boys.
ETA: Of course, Ang Lee is hardly the sort of film-maker whose work is going to fall into obscurity. But I think Ride with the Devil was given short shrift when it came out; the film’s publicity was hi-jacked by pointless controversy over Wright’s character and a North versus South polemic, and mainstream audiences were disappointed that Lee didn’t deliver a big action showdown at the end (the way the Coen brothers refused to deliver one at the end of No Country For Old Men), never mind that there’s a strong narrative reason for the showdown not being there. Ride With the Devil now tends to be overlooked whenever Lee’s more commercially successful films are discussed, but for me it’s one of his best films.
I’m curious as to what kind of television epic I was referring to in the first paragraph. Clearly I had something specific in mind, but I can’t for the life of me remember what. Any suggestions from those with better memories than mine gratefully received.
All the reviews on this page were originally published in the Sunday Telegraph. Some of them have since been lightly edited.