Miami Blues (Armitage, 1990)

Sometimes off-the-wall crime films, those blending comedy with dangerous and murderous characters, succeed in bridging the contrasting styles of genre. Sonnefeld’s Get Shorty or Demme’s Something Wild represent successful examples. But Miami Blues takes the formula to the extreme side of obtuse. Alec Baldwin’s con-man Junior remains an enigma throughout, his past history blank and motivations continuously and deviously muddled. Fred Ward’s bumbling Det. Mosely, the hero of Charles Willeford’s literary series, is the only developing entity in the whole film, an old wise-ass cop with too much to prove and no one to listen. The only reason I watched this was on a recommendation from my favorite critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, when he compared the “humor and pizzazz” of the film to Godard’s Breathless. I’m not sure about that, but at least Godard had fascinating ideas behind the structure of his film, more than I can say for this unfunny and monotonous dud.

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Crimewave (Raimi, 1985)

It’s interesting that I came across both Crimewave and Severance in the same week, mostly becuase they both illicit an uncommon sense of fear and dread from horror comedy. The difference is Raimi’s film doesn’t have any agenda or subtext on the mind, instead engulfing itself (almost too far) into a slapstick nature where crime and murder become a flimsy afterthought. Made on a shoestring budget and co-written by the Coen Brothers, Crimewave features some outstanding sequences of action, Raimi blocking the actors much how Buster Keaton would. However, the film feels so one-note the deaths and comedy start tasting like acid and vinegar, a cocktail that doesn’t match nor buzz. By the end, it’s curtains for sanity and story, and we’re left with yet another innane explosion of Raimi’s imagination.

Severance (Smith, 2006)

Severance turns nasty fast and never lets up. The film follows a small group of employees out on a weekend forest retreat for their company, a mega million dollar defense company. The story righteously takes a back seat to the gruesome set pieces and harrowing indictment of the old adage, “the past comes back to haunt you.” We get to know these people well enough and when the blood stars spurting, the wounds run deep. Severance is an incredibly brutal black comedy from Britain, with an axe to grind with fake nationalism/patriotism in order to turn a profit. I can’t say I want to see this again any time soon, but it sure has left an impression – one caked in blood and fear.

Bug (Friedkin, 2007)

William Friedkin has never been one for subtlety, favoring blunt force trauma in his well known works like The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Sorcerer. His latest film Bug, an unsettling and cramped horror film dealing with two trauma victims who meet, mate, then go insane together, kicks you in the head often and without remorse. Agnes (Ashley Judd), who’s a victim of abuse by her degenerate husband (Harry Connick Jr.), also carrys around the guilt of a kidnapped son 10 years prior. Agnes works at a honky-tonk in some nowhere town in the Midwest, so when she meets Peter (Michael Shannon), a quiet and articulate stranger, loneliness wins out. The two spend most of the film in Agnes’ hotel room, slowly descending into madness, convinced the government has infected their skin with bugs. The horror elements of Bug work brilliantly, such as the stark use of color and layered, infested sound design to counter the character’s crumbling sense of reality. But Friedkin’s film, I’m sure because of it’s source material, feels too theatrical. Character development gets rushed into some sensationalist pacing, ironically producing two stunning, bravura performances by Judd and Shannon. But watching these two convince each other their world is ending only goes so far and Bug left me wanting more. I wish Friedkin had explored the shifting emotions and loyalties of these two fascinating characters with a slower pace, really letting the environment sink in before moving the story forward. By the end, Bug comes across rushed, a short burst of surface area frenzy covering a more complex, horrifying tale underneath.

Death Proof: Unrated and Extented Cut (Tarantino, 2007)

The additional 24 minutes of footage add little depth to Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. More talking, inserts, and development might seem like a blessing but the extended scenes merely fill in the gaps which made the shorter version mysterious and scary in the first place. The longer cut is more coherent from a plot standpoint, yet less successful in conveying the horror of Stuntman Mike’s tirades and breaking psychosis. Death Proof remains a film of two distinct and contrasting halves – the first a devastatingly potent horror film building to a dynamic and disturbing crescendo and the second a diva’s action picture with plenty of passion and little humanity. Basically, the long and short of it stays the same either way.

Crimes of the Heart (Beresford, 1986)

A prologue to the Southern infused mise-en-scene and environment Beresford would explore later in Driving Miss Daisy, Crimes of the Heart showcases three stellar performances by Diane Keaten, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek. Beresford lingers quietly in the richness and solitude of wide interiors and humid exteriors, examining shared family histories and long lost ambitions while using plot filler to advance the character driven story. The process provides a number of beautiful scenes between the three diverse sisters, agonizing over their lives through richly textured prose and passionate emotions. What at first might seem like a women’s picture, turns into any acting fan’s dream, if not a screenwriter’s disappointment.

Bad Company (Benton, 1972)

What starts out a seemingly innocent film about boys growing up too fast in the Old West turns nasty fast and leaves its young protagonists reeling with the gory consequences. Director Robert Benton injects the typical 1970’s revisionist Western aesthetics – a folk music score, irony, and extreme violence, yet his film uses comedy in odd ways making the genre feel uncomfortable and uneven. Jeff Bridges’ young thief Jake Rumsey oozes charisma, but it’s a faux male sense of confidence and Benton anchors his themes of a paradise lost to the actor’s cracking facade. While Benton doesn’t always succeed in dancing between the comedy bits and the polar opposite violence, the director handles the child actors with genuine care, getting some outstanding performances, especially from Barry Brown who plays Drew, the moralist to Jake’s wild-child. Bad Company leaves you scratching your head, since it’s ending takes a slightly goofy and pessimistic stance considering the sincere characters developed in the story. But it’s a journey worth taking, especially if you love the Western.