THE DRIVER (1978) / Crime-Thriller

Running Length: 91 minutes
MPAA Classification: PG for language and violence.

Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern, Isabelle Adjani, Ronee Blakely, Matt Clark, Felice Orlandi
Director: Walter Hill
Producer: Lawrence Gordon
Screenplay: Walter Hill

Ryan O’Neal (Love Story, Paper Moon) is the titular of Walter Hill’s classic crime flick, The Driver, which is one of those films from the 70s that has literally been cannibalized by others that have preceded it. Overall, The Driver is nothing more than your typical cops and robbers actioneer, but its intentional lack of character depth makes it somewhat intriguing. Hell, these guys don’t even names.

O’Neal is “The Driver”, a hardened professional who provides criminals and other assorted lowlifes with a getaway as long as they’re willing to pay enough. He’s the best in the business and knows it, which is why “The Detective” (Bruce Dern, Coming Home) is after him. The Detective is willing to do anything to catch “the cowboy who can’t be caught”, even if it means crossing the line of police procedure. And this time he’s got a fool-proof plan to put The Driver away for good, but it turns out that The Driver has got plans of his own.

Most will find their attention invested in the two car chases that bookend The Driver, as these are indubitably the film’s finest moments. Magnificently executed, paced, and edited, these chases are what the film is mainly known for, and for good reason, too. Philip H. Lathrop’s daring cinematography weaves through the streets of Los Angeles as The Driver either eludes pursuing police cruisers or stays on the tail of opposing criminals. And as long as these chases are – (each one clocks in at about eight minutes) – they are never boring.

O’Neal wears the same distant expression for most of the movie and it suits his character. He looks detached, empty. The Driver lives alone, has no real friends, and doesn’t talk much, and O’Neal captures most of this quite well. His handsome features are deceptive, for he’s capable of killing with the snap of a finger. You expect one thing and get the other. Opposite him is Dern, who you can tell is really relishing his role. The Detective is grossly self-confident and conceited, and seems just about as seedy as the supposed bad guys that he’s after. (His final expression at the end of the film is priceless.)

Walter Hill manages to turn Los Angeles into a very dark and sinister place; a place where crime runs rampant and police sirens echo throughout most of the night. The Driver is nothing remarkable and it’s nothing close to original, but it’s cool and very entertaining.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

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PASSION FISH (1992) / Drama

Running Length: 134 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language and brief sexuality.

Cast: Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, David Strathairn, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Leo Burmester, Lenore Banks, Nora Dunn, Angela Bassett
Director: John Sayles
Producers: Sarah Green, Maggie Renzi
Screenplay: John Sayles

Passion Fish centers on May-Alice Culhane (Mary McDonnell), a star of daytime television who finds herself paralyzed from the waist down after being involved in a taxi cab accident. Frustrated and despondent, she relocates to her family’s old home in Louisiana, where she takes out her frustration on every caretaker that her agency sends. She is coarse and rude and develops a rather sizable drinking problem, but this begins to change with the arrival of a black nurse, Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), the last caregiver that the agency is willing to send. Chantelle has problems of her own as well and eventually, she and May-Alice begin to develop a slow-but-steady friendship.

Now normally, this would work as the setup for a Lifetime channel movie; a tale of two women gaining the courage to rise up against the problems in their lives. And at first, that’s what Passion Fish seems like it’s going to be about. (A good reason for why the film did so poorly at the box office.) But that’s only the setup. What Passion Fish becomes so much more.

Like Lone Star and Silver City, Passion Fish deepens as it progresses. Sayles’ screenplay has all of the complexity and intricacy of a fine novel. He gradually adds depth to his characters, bringing their pasts into the picture. There is as much detail to their lives as that of any living and breathing human, and Sayles expresses this by giving each one of them a well-developed back story. It’s almost unexpected how involved you have become with these characters by the time that the story has ended.

Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard, the film’s two leads, deliver powerful performances. (McDonnell was honored with an Academy Award nomination, while Woodard was robbed.) McDonnell starts out as a nasty and unlikable character. In some of the film’s softest and most delicate moments, she exhibits unprecedented strength. Her character is angry with the way that the world now views her because of her immobility and McDonnell channels this like no other. Woodard is equally as good and plays quite well off of her, even shining in scenes where she is the only one present. As well, David Strathairn is good as McDonnell’s friend from long ago and former love interest, although he has little screen time.

John Sayles has dominated independent cinema since the mid-1980s and Passion Fish is no exception. It marks his ninth outing as writer and director and fifth as editor, and his work continues to be original in all three of these aspects.

Final rating: ★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986) / Horror

Running Length: 82 minutes
MPAA Classification: Unrated, but originally released with an X rating for strong graphic violence.

Cast: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles
Director: John McNaughton
Producers: Malik B. Ali, Waleed B. Ali, Lisa Dedmond, Steven A. Jones, John McNaughton
Screenplay: John McNaughton, Richard Fire

Often cited as one of the greatest horror films of all time, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a dark and unflinching look at the killings of a pathological mass murderer loosely inspired by real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Originally filmed in 1986, Henry was not released until 1989 due to its controversial content, despite receiving rave reviews from critics.

The hoarse-voiced actor in the role of Henry is Michael Rooker, who was unknown at the time of the film’s release. In the film, Henry lives in a dank apartment with Otis (Tom Towles), a dim-witted parolee with whom Henry shared a cell in prison. With the arrival of Otis’ sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), things begin to move ever-so-slowly downhill.

Henry largely works due to two particular elements: Michael Rooker’s performance and John McNaughton’s direction. There is no story to Henry. McNaughton delivers his film as an uncompromising look at real life. We merely observe as Henry and Otis perpetrate their murders. There is no method to how they choose their victims; it’s a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather than having a motive, Henry and Otis do it out of sheer boredom with no regard for human life.

Rooker’s performance is the more effective of the two. As Henry, his deadpan approach is bone-chilling and so realistic that, at times, Henry seems as if it could almost be happening. He rarely utters more than a few sentences of words and carries an expressionless face, providing us with one of the most eerie portrayals of a serial killer in cinema.

As well, McNaughton’s minimalist direction works. He doesn’t focus as much on the other aspects of storytelling as he does on generating mood. Mood is key in Henry and McNaughton accomplishes this fairly well. From the grimy Chicago streets to the haunting techno score, Henry is a film all about atmosphere.

Of course, Henry is not as powerful today as it was back at the time of its release nor is it as gory as many have been led to believe. Nonetheless, it still succeeds in providing those who watch it with a harrowing experience that they’re unlikely to forget.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

CROUPIER (1998) / Crime-Drama

July 17th

“Now he had become the still center of that spinning wheel of misfortune. The world turned ‘round him, leaving him miraculously untouched. The croupier had reached his goal. He no longer heard the sound of the ball.”

Here, Clive Owen has a performance similar to Gosling’s in Drive inasmuch as it relies on understatement to work. Yet brimming just underneath that equable façade is a kind of chilling intensity that once in a blue moon manages to rear its ugly head. And it’s frightening.

That’s how most of Croupier pans out. Our relationship with the film itself mirrors that of Jack Manfred and the gamblers, his subjects. Just like its eponymous character, Croupier is a work of sheer minimalism, but there are secrets underneath its well-groomed, class-act exterior. There is ambiguity, uncertainty –complexity. It’s a waiting game. We wait. Maybe we’re rewarded, maybe we aren’t. It doesn’t matter. We’re there to be taken for a ride.

One of the joys about journeying back through a catalog of films you’ve previously loved to see if that love still stands is that you’ll more than often find that it does. Such is the case with Croupier. I’ve been in love right from the start with its luminous cinematography, its slow-mounting sense of dread, its noir conventions – that aforementioned Clive Owen performance, which is as enthralling and mysterious as any sculpture. And in the femme fatale(?) role, Alex Kingston provides us with the film’s sole source of something resembling humanity.

Final rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest