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Tuesday, May 15, 2007


If there is such a thing as a successful piecemeal horror film, 28 Weeks Later is it. A sequel in source only to the wildly inventive 2002 Danny Boyle classic, this latest twist on the zombie genre (Okay! Okay! Let’s just call them ‘murderous maniacs’ and be done with it, all right?) suffers from a great many missteps. It gives us protagonists we really don’t care about, follows a very uncomfortable extreme vs. ennui narrative structure, and substitutes gallons of grue for ideas and innovation. And then there are the problems it could not have anticipated. Thanks to last year’s stunning Children of Men, the notion of a devastated UK as a symbol for social decline and war torn terrorism has already been purchased and spent. This makes any attempt at commentary by new director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo feel like a parable without a point.


We get off to a good start, however. It’s been several months since the outbreak of the Rage Virus in Great Britain and the US military has stepped in to start cleaning up the country. London itself is basically quartered off into two main areas – the danger free “Green Zone” (oh, how Iraq War) and everything else. Outside the boundaries of the tough talking, foul mouthed yanks, the countryside is crawling with the infected…as well as a few survivors. Don and Alice are two of the barricaded refugees, eking out a meager life inside a squalid yet secure cottage. They are joined by the home’s original owners, an elderly couple, as well as a pair of unidentified men. There is also a young woman whose boyfriend has gone out looking for help. Conversation naturally turns to this act of desperation, and after much hopeless banter, a knock at the door brings the group the latest in a seemingly neverending list of ‘do or die’ quandaries.


At this point, 28 Weeks Later makes its first minor fumble. The argument over who to let behind the intricate set of locks and barricades itself leads to a massive slaughter spree, and while the terror element is fantastic, the logical aspect is daft. One of the key flaws in this film is the idea that youth trumps everything. It is the reason Don and Alice end up staring into the face of horror yet again, and it will also become the catalyst for the film’s far more devastating plot decision. As stated before, the US military is envisioned as a sex obsessed, by the book battalion of bumblers who are supposed to guarantee the Green Zone’s security. Yet they can’t seem to stop a pair of pretentious kids from crossing over into danger. Backtracking for a moment, these juvenile lawbreakers are Don’s kids, released from a refugee camp in Spain and part of the lucky 15,000 individuals allowed back into London. So naturally, the first thing they want to do upon entering the country is sneak off to their old abode to snag some mementos.


It’s a jarring, unimaginable narrative fumble, the kind of logistical left turn that literally derails the film. In fact, it is so outrageously bad that Fresnadillo must spend the entire rest of the movie making up for it. And just as he almost succeeds, a second sloppy situation stuns the story. At that point, 28 Weeks Later is beyond saving. This is not to suggest what we have here is a horrendous flop. On the contrary, the visual elements employed and the generous amounts of inventive gore do a splendid job of supplementing our incredibly weak internal rationales. Even as more baffling incongruous coincidences occur (the kids found more than just keepsakes during their journey), leading to perhaps the most ludicrous re-infestation ever conceived for a fright film, the way Fresnadillo handles the artistic aspects is absolutely fascinating.


Still, there is a lot of ludicrousness to pardon here. Again, the Americans are looked upon as clueless, reduced to basically two surprisingly simple strategies – preserve order, or nuke everybody. When called to respond to the new epidemic, their carefully plotted out plan is basically this – unload your entire magazine into any crowd you see. Similarly, the lack of crystal clear characterization makes everyone’s motives seem suspect. Take the troublesome adolescent twosome. First they seem happy to be in England. Then they miss their ‘mum’. Then they act like spoiled little brats when they wind up in quarantine, and before long, their whimpering like whelps to be saved and protected. Similarly, our GI Joe hero shifts wildly from cocky to caring, arrogant to altruistic without a clear reason for the massive mood swings. The rest of the cast comes from the one note school of genre performance. They just keep hitting that single stance over and over again until we finally give up and concede the personality point.


There are reasons, however, to really like this scattershot effort. As stated before, Fresnadillo really wants to be a movie macabre innovator. He’s desperate to diffuse the typical dread dynamic by employing filming techniques that draw the audience right into the action. By mixing quick cutting, jagged handheld camerawork, mangled mise-en-scene and any other untested trick he can come up with, he allows us to experience both the fear and the frantic pace of a siege situation. Similarly, he uses this inventive approach to keep as much of the brutality intact as possible. There are sequences of violence in 28 Weeks Later that rival their literal zombie brethren in nastiness and effectiveness. Again, Fresnadillo must be livid that Grindhouse hit theaters first. His clever helicopter gag is actually better than Robert Rodriguez’s splatter session.


In addition, Fresnadillo is not afraid of flaunting convention. There are several moments in this movie where a firm foundation in standard Tinsel Town tendencies are tossed out the window in favor of shocking, sometimes sickening realities. No one is safe, anyone can die at any time, and the typical caveats against killing children, the innocent and the infirmed are almost wholly abandoned. Of course, for every shocking stance like this, we must suffer through a series of unbridled happenstances that are supposed to have some manner of emotional resonance. Instead, we as the audience become keenly aware that somewhere, in a studio bungalow, a group of screenwriters (four are credited here) actually concocted this forced accidental tripe. With an ending that’s uninvolving and kind of flat (never mind the direct rip off of Stephen King’s tunnel sequence from The Stand), and the purposeful placement of facets to form 28 MONTHS Later, what should have been a knock out can barely manage a decision on technical merits.


And yet there is something about 28 Weeks Later that definitely gets under your skin. Perhaps it’s the last remnants of Boyle’s initial inventive conceit. Maybe us horror fans are so sick of lackluster living dead movies that we will accept anything remotely resembling the genre just because it manages to be competently made and expertly manipulated. It could be the amount of bloodshed strewn across the screen, or the expressionistic way the violence is tempered (can’t wait for the UNRATED DVD edition). Whatever the case, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is definitely a filmmaker worth following. His future is very bright indeed. After this unexceptional sequel however, few will be anticipating another return to this fractured franchise.


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Monday, May 14, 2007


Saddle up shoppers – this is going to be one confusing (and cash draining) DVD roundup. On top of the titles chosen by SE&L as representing the releases to look out for, there are dozens of previously available offerings (Goodfellas, Natural Born Killers, The Omega Man) making a reappearance on the medium for absolutely no good reason. In fact, we can’t tell if these are merely re-priced reprints looking for a little budget buying power, or barebones versions of still available special editions. Whatever the case, make sure you’re paying attention as you pick through the digital doggies waiting to be corralled. Indeed, you might wind up with a busted bronco instead of a magnificent mustang. Of course, you can avoid all the confusion and simply stick with this week’s prize pony, an overlooked masterwork that deserves to be the premium pick of 15 May:


The Fountain


Darren Aronofsky deserves SO much better. When he first pitched this time travel love story five years ago, he had Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and a $70 million budget ready to realize his dream. Come 2006, he had to settle for a magnificent Hugh Jackman, an equally radiant Rachel Weisz, and a clear critical and commercial conundrum. More or less dismissed during its theatrical release, what most audience members saw as self-indulgent and confusing was actually the makings of a post-modern masterpiece. There have been lots of cinematic stories about death and the loss of a loved one, but nothing has done a better job of tapping into the internal struggle over the acceptance of same than this fascinating film. Aronosfky’s decision to go as lo-tech as possible with his F/X gives the entire production an earthy, natural glow, and the passion between his characters is palpable. Ignore it if you must, but decades from now it will be listed among the medium’s greats. Guaranteed.

Other Titles of Interest


Becket


It contains a cast of British acting heavyweights – Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Sir John Gielgud – and a story of substantive historical significance. But when it came time for the 1965 Academy to divvy up trophies, its 12 nominations could only manage a single screenplay win. So what beat this otherwise exceptional period drama – why, the lightweight musical mediocrity known as My Fair Lady.

Bill


Okay, this was a TV movie, so we’re sort of violating our own ‘theatrical only’ rules. But Mickey Rooney was just so good as a mentally handicapped man finally escaping his life under institutional control. With a VERY young Dennis Quaid as the documentary filmmaker that helps Bill out, it remains a weeper that definitely earns its emotions. The sequel was equally satisfying.

The Dead Girl


A lot has been written about this under the radar indie drama – and almost all of it has been better than good. Using the identity of the title entity as a means of tying many divergent characters and storylines together, actress Karen Moncrieff’s second full length feature crackles with a complexity and collection of perfect performances that few Hollywood efforts just can’t achieve.

Pan’s Labyrinth


The left over Oscar argument from 2007 will always be whether Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others deserved to win the award for Best Foreign Film over this clear fan favorite. After revisiting it recently on home video, it is obvious that Guillermo Del Toro’s adult fairytale about war and sacrifice is a stellar motion picture. In fact, its timeless nature will keep it considered long after Lives is forgotten.

Stomp the Yard


The black college tradition of stepping definitely deserves more than this hackneyed formula film, especially given director Sylvain White’s remarkable way with a camera. He brings an energy and a vitality to the ‘dance’ sequences, experimenting with shot selection and post-production optics to tweak convention. Too bad the rest of the movie is so routine.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Tex Avery’s Droopy: The Complete Theatrical Collection


Finally! Every other half-baked animated creature seems to be getting a major DVD release these days, and yet Tex Avery’s dour hound dog always gets left behind. It’s hard to describe what makes Droopy so incredible – his hurdy gurdy nerdy voice, the intensely violent physical comedy that forms his humor, or the hyper-stylized way Avery and his crew realized his pen and ink personality. Whatever the reasons, this two disc set – offering 24 theatrical shorts and a bevy of added content – promises to make fans of the zany animator and his prized pooch happy indeed. We here at SE&L are smiling all the way to the brick and mortar. Now, if they could only find a way to bring the complete Screwy Squirrel to the digital medium.

 


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Sunday, May 13, 2007


Perhaps you’ve seen the trailer. It features a whisper thin slacker type sitting by the seashore, melodiously requesting that somebody listen to his story “all about the girl who came to stay”. For a moment, the feeling seems sad and somber, the dark, dreary setting matching the mood and atmosphere of the plea perfectly. Still, there’s something gnawing at the back of your brain, a familiarity that keeps you from getting completely lost in the scene. And then it hits you. The actor, Jim Sturgess, is not presenting an original sonic sentiment. No, he’s channeling John Lennon circa 1965 and Rubber Soul, crooning the Beatles’ tune “Girl” as part of a…what’s this? A musical based on the compositions of the Fab Four? Apparently, current filmmakers have learned nothing from the past.


In an industry not noted for its intellectualized approach to art, the notion of using the creative canon of cultural icons John, Paul, George and Ringo is not a new idea, but it certainly is a bad one. With at least two certified cinematic disasters looming in the medium’s rear view mirror, how anyone could greenlight a project which melds a myriad of Beatles songs into a operetta-like look at the most tumultuous time in US history screams of stupidity – or at the very least, short sightedness. Yet now, with the trailer for director Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe showing up in theaters, it appears that some suit drank the creative Kool-Aid on such a cockeyed conceit. And the potential apocalypse is up on the screen for everyone to see.


In brief, the preview offers up the story of Jude, a naïve Englishmen who arrives in America and gets a job as a dockworker. Instantly, he is swept up in the peace and love movements of the ‘60s. All throughout the various meet-cute moments and supposedly iconic vistas, the reworked hits of the greatest band ever waft in the background and pour from the pouting mouths of the frighteningly young cast. We even see snippets of what looks like a dream/LSD sequence, with British comedian Eddie Izzard as a diabolical circus ringmaster (Mr. Kite, anyone?). Things change, however, when the Army calls Jude’s pal. Before you know it, hippies are doing choreographed dance moves in the middle of Central Park, while soldiers scream in rice patties, “Helter Skelter” blaring in the background.


Sounds potentially promising, right? Maybe, thanks to Taymor’s stint as the director and creative force behind the Broadway smash The Lion King. That’s no small feat, considering she was starting with a cartoon as the source material for a live action extravaganza. Perhaps she can find a way to make this work. After all, Milos Forman took the similarly formless rock opera Hair and found a way to make its divergent collection of poptones perform in tandem to tell an actually story. So why not Taymor? Well, the comparison between Universe and the 1979 Forman film is apt, especially since this new show looks like a direct rip-off of the previous production. From the aforementioned park sequence to the mimicked moment when a young man faces the military draft board, there’s a clear filmic familiarity capable of breeding a serious amount of creative contempt.


It’s not just the idea that a series of songs, disconnected from each other in time, theme, style and substance, are being jerryrigged into an equally narrow-minded view of one of history’s most important and multifaceted eras. No, the recent trend, even on the Great White Way, is to take an artist’s entire catalog (say that of Abba, or Bob Dylan), draft a dodgy script that tries to link the material together, and present it with a fair amount of verve and generational gusto. Pop culture is fueled by youth, and with many of the sources several DECADES out of the limelight, such songfests had to appear fresh and innovative – at least to this just out of diapers demographic. There are also hints of knowing nostalgia, a determination that boomers and their ever increasing outer fringes will find the trip down memory lane wistful and warm.


But the Beatles – they’ve proven downright deadly before. Taymor is not the first filmmaker to tackle the quartet’s potent portfolio, and before you start screaming over a certain Peter Frampton/Bee Gee debacle entitled Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, let’s recall the first real Fab Four fiasco. Back in 1976, documentarian Susan Winslow was approached by 20th Century Fox with a very strange proposition indeed. The studio was looking for a novel way to exploit their vast vault of World War II battle and newsreel footage, and they thought that juxtaposing it against the Beatles would be a perfect commentary on the importance of both entities. Monty Python ex-Pat Terry Gilliam reportedly rejected the idea as “sacrilegious”, but Winslow thought she could make it work.


Of course, the still-feuding boys would have nothing to do with the project, so all of their songs were re-recorded by ‘famous’ rock acts of the era. Elton John’s previous hit version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was dug up, while other artists like Helen Reddy (“The Fool on the Hill”), The Four Seasons (“We Can Work it Out”) and the Brothers Johnson (“Hey Jude”) came onboard specifically for the film. There were some interesting takes on the material – vaudeville crooner Frankie Laine’s version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, Rod Stewart’s sizzling “Get Back” and Tina Turner’s dynamic cover of “Come Together” – but the problem wasn’t the music itself. No, once placed alongside scenes of battle and Nazi propaganda, the entire project took on a weird, almost diabolic tone.


Try as she might, Winslow could not save her film, now entitled All This and World War II (a supposed satiric stab at irony, ala the British dance hall dramatization of WWI, Oh What a Lovely War! ). A massive soundtrack album was released, but the project was eventually shelved. For many, it was the only logical choice. After all, the very idea that music created in an era of freedom and revolution would be used as the backdrop to an overview of international atrocities in the name of power seemed ludicrous. Currently available only in bootleg editions, the final product is actually fairly entertaining. The songs may suffer every now and again, but the context they provide on the War is actually very astute.


All This and World War II appeared to be the last word on adapting the music of the Beatles to the big screen. Still, the lads from Liverpool remained as popular as ever, and when music executive Roger Stigwood was looking for a way to channel the reputation of his prized act The Bee Gees into other lucrative venues, an off Broadway production from 1974 seemed like the perfect solution. Stigwood’s RSO Records label had released the massive hit double LP score for the disco draw Saturday Night Fever, as well as the hit soundtrack to the movie version of Grease. With the Brothers Gibb under contract, and a desire to work with then Comes Alive powerhouse Peter Frampton, the genesis of future flop Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was born.


Stigwood had it all figured out. He would hire the former band’s legendary producer, George Martin, tap famous faces (Steve Martin, George Burns) and rock acts (Alice Cooper, Aerosmith) to play important characters, and dress the whole thing up in a silly psychedelic dreamscape that was part frilly fantasy, part scathing attack of the debauchery-laced record biz. He hired Cooley High/Car Wash director Michael Schultz to helm the project, opened up his checkbook, and plunked down a whopping $18 million for the budget. Now, that may not seem like a lot, but only the year before, Steven Spielberg’s epic UFO thriller Close Encounters of the Third Kind cost a scant $20 million. Certain he would make back his money on the inevitable record release, Stigwood saw nothing but dollar signs.


Of course, said symbols all ended up in red on the bottom of his movie’s balance sheet. Pepper was a disaster, an unmitigated morass of bad casting, inert performances, horrendous narrative spasms and an overall feeling of camp creepiness. The Bee Gees were bad, Frampton failed to impress, and even the professional member of the acting team – Donald Pleasance, Paul Nicholas, etc. – seemed subdued. Instead of capturing the magic of the Beatles, the movie buried their energy and invention in a fog of Muzik-lite adaptations and arcane artistic choices. A critical and commercial catastrophe, Sgt. Pepper sat as the industry’s delineated disaster du jour – that is, until Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate came along and stole its box office bomb thunder.  And yet Stigwood was right in the end. The soundtrack album sold extremely well. 


Better still, it looked like future filmmakers had finally gotten the point. Since Sgt. Pepper, no one has again tried to tie the Beatles to a big screen musical. In fact, until Michael Jackson bought the rights to the group’s publishing and started allowing certain songs to be used in advertising campaigns, the remaining members of the band have been very careful to control their use. Only recently, for 2001’s I Am Sam, did a significant amount of Fab Four material find its way into a film (and again, it was cover versions of famous songs). But this time, they were used sparingly, offered to help define Sean Penn’s mentally handicapped character.


Across the Universe, on the other hand, looks like someone trying to remake both Hair and Pepper with just a little of Oasis’ “All Around the World” thrown in for good measure. And for all we know, it could turn out to be a major motion picture triumph. Indications are, however, that trouble is looming on the hit parade horizon. A few months back, Revolution Pictures Executive Joe Roth (himself a quasi-filmmaker) took Taymor’s cut of the film, carved out nearly 40 minutes (it was originally running somewhere in the area of two hours plus), and showed his ‘version’ to test audiences – all without the director’s knowledge. Then we learn that the movie has been ‘done’ since 2005, and that Ms. Taymor herself has been tinkering with the editing for over a year. All claim it’s merely an issue of length, not legitimacy. Right.


We’ll have to wait until September before the final fate of Across the Universe can be determined. Maybe Taymor’s talent for the unusual has cracked the knotty nut that is utilizing the Fab Four’s music in movies. Perhaps the jarring effect of hearing seemingly tone-deaf performers bellowing out the band’s songs will be softened by some new narrative or performance perspective. Maybe everything will gel together – reality and fantasy, song and sentiment. The trailer tends to indicate otherwise, as does the track record for such a strategy. There’s a line in the title track that seems to suggest a possible outcome. “Nothing’s going to change my world”, the lyric boasts, and in the universe of the Beatles on the big screen, such a prediction is dour indeed.



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Saturday, May 12, 2007


Vietnam veteran Cage Diamate is in trouble. He’s indebted to the mob, required to fight in illegal kickboxing matches. He is also tormented by a pretty severe case of post-traumatic overacting stress syndrome. Every time he’s about to score a KO, he sees images of that Asian Hell and he slumps over like a ragdoll sans stuffing. His gangster boss is incredibly pissed by his losing streak, and gets even angrier when Cage skips town to “find his way”. Apparently, said destination was a VA hospital, where he befriends a freaked out hop head named Legs who suffers from agoraphobia. Eventually released by his doctor even though he is not quite cured, Cage heads over to the local nightclub where his old job as a dishwasher is waiting for him. So is his ex-gal pal, a little flaxen-haired honey who worships the ground he walks on.


As he gets back to his pruny fingered/soiled serving platter life, Cage also reconnects with his rural bayou roots. He begins writing songs in secret, hoping to restart a previous path toward musical superstardom. When his girlfriend hears his tunes, she tries to convince him to join her on stage. When he won’t, she goes on and wows the crowd with his claptrap anyway. In the meanwhile, our unhappy hoodlums want Cage back, and plan one final death match for the marked man. In addition, the club where Cage and his sweetie work is about to go under, and they decide to stage a benefit to save it. Naturally, it’s scheduled for the night of the big fight. When he refuses to brawl, his crooning companion is kidnapped! It will take a miracle for this Ragin’ Cajun to win the day.


Like a stand-up comic recognizing that he is just a few fatal moments away from completely bombing, Ragin’ Cajun is shameless. This movie tosses in everything but the My Lai massacre in order to avoid some manner of formulaic flop sweat. It’s an action adventure drama carved completely out of clichés. However the way in which actor David Heavener and his main muse, writer/director William Byron Hillman combine the standard cinematic archetypes becomes a sheer jaundiced joy to behold. They don’t care if it’s all been done before. This crazy combo just wants to entertain, to tell a standard tale of vengeance and redemption that hits all the right beats. So what if every section is beaten with a sledgehammer full of hokum - they’re still striking, aren’t they? As a result, Ragin’ Cajun is an impossible film to dismiss, no matter how hard it tries to circumvent your expectations with inane, worn-out hogwash.


Heavener has to be one of the bravest performers in all of the business called show. He is not beyond looking bare-chested and broken (that’s how he ends up most of the time, even when he’s NOT fighting), weepy-eyed and wimpy (dude cries A LOT in this movie) and sexually celibate to the point of near sainthood (he and main squeeze Charlene “Dallas” Tilton share a single, stunted kiss). Add to that his inner rock star (Heavener wrote and performed almost all the music for this film) and the typical psychosomatic licks that come from being a flashback prone ‘Nam casualty, and you’ve got the most completely complex character an actor could ever want. That Heavener attempts to portray EVERY SINGLE facet of this persona in each line reading causes him to resemble a tone-deaf Sybil. If there were an Oscar for most bald-faced bellyaching by an actor, Heavener would have no immediate equal.


And then there is the music. That’s right, Ragin’ Cajun is a kind a musical, in the way that Triumph of the Will is a song and dance extravaganza. Every time an emotion needs to be over-emphasized, whenever the action is getting a little too energetic - Heck, whenever the Hell Heavener feels like it - someone breaks out in semi-melodious mawkishness. Supposedly selling himself in the country and/or western genre, Diamond Dave is all over the map with his harmonious hooey. There are a couple of power ballads, some inspirational singalongs, and lyrics of such lunatic fringe fearlessness that you have to wonder why Heavener’s not a constant on The Doctor Demento Show. Titles like “I Slipped on My Best Friend (and Fell in Love)”, or the classic “I L.U.V.Y.O.U.” just resonate with cornball creativity, and as delivered by Heavener you can’t help but smile with saccharine satisfaction. Perhaps the best bits are when Dave tunes up and sings solo. The minute his fingers hit the guitar, entire orchestras and bands blare behind him in a whacked out wall of sound.


All of this adds up to a movie that can do nothing but amuse. There are barrelfuls of badness here, umpteen ugly moments that make no sense within the standard cinematic showcase. But Heavener and Hillman don’t care - they just keep shoveling the substance, hoping no one notices how impractical and illogical it is. In a sense, Ragin’ Cajun is like a compendium of old Hollywood storytelling. It’s not enough to have the suffering hero with a bad brain and criminal ties. We need the gentle girlfriend, the floundering nightclub, and the owner desperate to bring in some bucks. In addition, there has to be a well meaning mental patient, a mobster with his back to the wall, a couple of hired goons, and a selection of set-pieces - both musical and muscle based - to give us the necessary emotional uplift. Add in minor nods to religion, gun violence, the American policy in Southeast Asia, and a single sequence of narrative invention that’s so surreal it sticks out like a strange sore thumb, and you’ve got a cult classic just waiting to be embraced. Ragin’ Cajun has nothing new to offer at the core of its creation. But how it shamelessly puts those moldy old ideas together is the stuff of B-movie magnificence.


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Friday, May 11, 2007


When the body of a young woman is found along an L.A. street, her body bisected and lacking a single ounce of blood, Detective Tommy Spellacy (Robert Duvall) instantly focuses on her “professional” status and thinks of his old boss, Irish mobster Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning). After all, the calculating crook/pimp turned semi-legit businessman had a thing for fresh faces and Tom used to run prostitution money for him back in the day. To make matters even more complicated, Amsterdam works closely with Monsignor Desmond Spellacy (Robert De Niro), an important priest in the local diocese and Tom’s baby brother.


Much of the Church’s real estate dealings are wrapped up in Des and Jack’s backroom backslapping. As he collects clues, it becomes clear to the veteran lawman that Amsterdam had something to do with the girl’s death. But he knows it will be impossible to implicate the scoundrel and not bring down his sibling. Similarly, Desmond recognizes that he’s fallen away from the service of God and into a web of deceit and lies, and such a crisis of faith is pulling him apart. Unfortunately, both brothers seem fated to a final, fractious confrontation, where loyalties are tested and True Confessions become meaningless in a world overloaded with graft and guilt.


Just call it the anti-noir. Unlike its far more famous cinematic brethren, 1981’s True Confessions is hard-boiled detective fiction as lazy, Southern California calm. It’s a movie with many disturbing elements bubbling right underneath the surface, but decides to keep many of those mysteries dormant, dead, or just plain buried. Offering two stellar performances by Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall, this is a film about vendettas and vice, the lure of power and the arbitrary manner in which is it wielded. Some will see the references to the notorious Black Dahlia crime (here referred to as the “Virgin Tramp” murder) and wonder why novelist John Gregory Dunne (who also wrote the script along with wife Joan Didion) decided to use such an obvious lynchpin for his narrative.


Since he’s not out to solve the case, the allusion appears to be merely symbolic—perhaps to illustrate the dualistic dynamic between equally corrupt brothers Thomas and Desmond Spellacy. Tommy, the cop, is the more outwardly dishonest. He was once a bagman for the rotten racketeer Jack Amsterdam and now spends his days living down his crooked past. Desmond is a Monsignor in the local Catholic diocese, more valuable to the Cardinal for his business acumen than his ability to save souls. Though his purpose is clearly distorted, it’s the company he keeps that sullies his basic decency.


Thus we have the perfect setting for some standard cinematic redemption. Tommy will find a way of pinning the gruesome murder on Amsterdam, and Des will rediscover his vocation and abandon the wheeling and dealing except True Confessions doesn’t want to make it that easy. Like any story wrapped around religion, salvation comes at a price and, with all the dead bodies floating around, as well as the rumors and innuendos of even more disturbing crimes, Dunne is desperate to drive this point home. The sin of late ‘40s L.A. is definitely seeping into every aspect of the Spellacys’ world and director Ulu Grosbard is out to illustrate this in his own unique, atypical manner.


Noted for his major Broadway successes (The Investigation, American Buffalo) and sporadic Hollywood output (The Subject was Roses, Straight Time), the Belgian auteur wants to peel away the forced mystery surrounding the standard thriller and turn the tide on its potboiler particulars. In Tinseltown’s golden era, this film would be steeped in dark shadows, deflected light, and a thick ambient fog of human liability. True Confessions, on the other hand, is bathed in an error-exposing luster. Even in scenes where darkness would heighten the horror, Grosbard keeps the ever-present California sun center stage.


This is specifically true in one of the movie’s more devastating moments. Tommy has traced the victim’s last days to a fly-by-night porno outfit functioning in an abandoned barracks in El Segundo. Traveling to the location midday, he wanders into a dimly lit makeshift studio. Instead of bringing out the flashlight and surveying the scene, he immediately goes for the canvases covering the windows. As each drape is ripped from the walls, more and more of the room is visible. Sure enough, Tommy finds what he is looking for—a mattress soaked in blood and a trail of gore leading to the bathroom equivalent of an abattoir. It’s the one and only time that Grosbard and Dunne allows us to see the ugly underneath.


Even when the “Virgin Tramp” is discovered, split in two, her body separated along different sections of a vacant lot, we are kept at a distance. The director’s camera only picks up part of the scene, eager instead to focus on the interplay between cops and coroners, ambulance attendants, and muckraking press. It’s the same during the autopsy. All we see is a single shot of a naked, pale white torso. Indeed, everything about True Confessions is misdirection and insinuation. The first-act death of a priest is really nothing more than an expositional red herring. A power play among Church administrators over the ousting of a longtime Monsignor named Seamus is another narrative non-event.


In order to make this work, Grosbard needs actors who understand the value in internalized emotion and subtle character suggestion, and the casting in this film is first rate. Robert Duvall’s Tommy always recognizes his own bad temper, but he’s much more frightening in his static, slow-burn mode. He’s the catalyst for all that will happen, and the actor does a terrific job of balancing interior and exterior importance. As for De Niro, he has the far more difficult part. Desmond is many things—priest, businessman, apologist, confidant, brother, son—and he constantly carries all of them around in a presence of non-volatility and calm. It must have been difficult for De Niro to be so mousy and controlled. Granted, he is a multi-faceted actor, quite capable of playing anything. But here, he’s supposed to be a man drowning in his own despair, eager to be free from the false life he’s leading.


True Confessions main flaw is that we never see clearly the connection between Tommy’s detecting and Desmond’s deliverance. It is apparent that the two are interconnected in ways beyond family, but the subsurface strategy to the storytelling leaves many of the mechanisms unexplored. Purposefully paced to let every restrained reaction and sudden emotional explosion sink in, it is both devastating drama and half-hearted whodunit. In the end, we come to care about neither and, oddly enough, don’t really mind at all.


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