One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 27
By Laurence Lerman
At the risk of being accused of false advertising, this week’s column does not contain a trio of write-ups on wintry, snow-filled films. No, the three reviews represent the movies I checked out last Monday night after finishing dinner and settling into the couch, the snow continuing to fall as it had all day, with the prospect of shoveling our stoop, driveway and sidewalk the next morning looming menacingly in front of me.
Quickly, though, if I had to choose a couple of snowy pictures off the top of my head, I’d first go with Dead Snow, Tommy Wirkola’s 2009 Norwegian horror comedy about a bunch of thawed-out Nazi zombies stalking a bunch of hikers in Northern Norway. Second would be Renny Harlin’s 1993 Cliffhanger, a mostly undistinguished Sylvester Stallone action vehicle save for a truly terrifying opening where Sly fails to save a novice mountain climber whose safety harness breaks, and he watches her plunge to her death in a snow-capped Rockies valley.
So, three movies three, in the order I watched them as the snowy night settled in...
Originally slated for release in early 2014, Joe Carnahan’s comedy crime adventure Stretch got derailed in some sort of studio hullaballoo and quietly snuck into the marketplace as a VOD title later that year, and onto disc only last month. Not that it’s a lost gem or anything.
Patrick Wilson’s titular Hollywood limo driver is our guide in an L.A. odyssey that kicks off when our boozing, coke-snorting hero has to come up with some quick cash to pay back his debts to a notorious gangster. Taking on a shady job for a billionaire client (an inspiringly wacky Chris Pine) in hopes of a big, immediate payday, Stretch is quickly lured into a night of chases, nightclubs, drug dealers, sexual roleplaying, Feds, gunfights, blind dates, David Hasselhoff and the ghost of a legendary nice-guy limo driver who killed himself (Ed Helms). The loooooong night is accented with some dark humor and regular check-ins with Stretch’s lively limo dispatcher, Charlie (Jessica Alba).
Writer/director Carnahan’s overflowing, put-in-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach and style is reminiscent of his 2006 Vegas-set Smokin’ Aces, with shout-outs to such L.A.-centric films as Collateral and Into the Night, as well as Stanley Kubrick’s Manhattan-based Eyes Wide Shut.
It’s all episodic, colorful and distracting enough, for a while, until it goes over the top, and you’re only left with the performances of a game cast that also includes Ray Liotta, Brooklyn Decker and James Badge Dale.
I moved on—or backwards—to the 1970 drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, which marked the directorial debut of Jerry Schatzberg, who would later go on to helm such notable Seventies entries as The Panic in Needle Park and Scarecrow.
Fashion photographer-turned-director Schatzberg’s handsomely mounted film takes us into the life of a disturbed former model, Lou Andreas Sand (Faye Dunaway), and her downward spiral into drugs and depression, resulting in suicidal tendencies and a nervous breakdown. Living alone in a beach cottage, Lou recounts her sad story to photog Aaron Reinhardt (Barry Primus), who records their conversations in the hopes of developing them into a feature film.
Puzzle’s splintered chronology bounces between Lou and Aaron and then various episodes in Lou’s life—fashion shoots gone wrong, romances gone wrong (one with Roy Scheider), business dealings gone wrong, and so on. The real puzzle of Puzzle is how Lou made it as far as she did to begin with!
Schatzberg receives a co-story credit on Puzzle, along with screenwriter Carole Eastman, basing their screenplay on real recordings of Schatzberg’s model friend Anne St. Marie (with the part of Aaron inspired by Schatzberg himself).
The fragmented confessions and self-destructive tendencies of the beautiful people, presented in a consciously arty and jagged style, was more innovative and provocative a half-century ago than it is now, though the performances here keep it more interesting than not. And at the center is Lady Dunaway herself, giving audiences a preview of the drama and histrionics she would shift toward a decade later after a quick stop in Chinatown and Network.
As the witching hour approached and the snow continued to fall, I switched off the lights, caffeinated once again and popped in 1945’s Leave Her to Heaven, long championed by Martin Scorsese and a platoon of cinephiles as one of the great film noirs, luxuriously garbed as an A-list Twentieth Century Fox melodrama.
Gene Tierney has never looked more stunning as the alluring but erratic Ellen, a knock-out obsessed with her late father. She falls madly in love with Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), a novelist who strongly resembles and apparently behaves like Ellen’s dear old dad. Rushing him into marriage after she breaks off her romance with a rising D.A. (Vincent Price), the elegant Ellen soon begins to display intense feelings of jealousy and obsession, which doesn’t make things any easier—or safer—for her new husband, his disabled younger brother (Darryl Hickman), or her sweet half-sister (Jeanne Crain).
Based on Ben Ames Williams’ bestselling novel, Leave Her to Heaven is a forerunner to Fatal Attraction and other women-on-the-edge flicks of later years. And it’s a really juicy one, led by Tierney’s elegantly simmering performance, Leon Shamroy’s Oscar-winning cinematography and director John Stahl’s precisely composed set-ups. The film’s general story, natural settings and lustrous Technicolor give it the initial feel of a straight melodrama, but its overall mood and leading lady’s dangerous obsession (which remain potent until the final frame) land it squarely in noir territory.
It was creeping up to 2:00 am when I powered down. One last look out the window revealed a still steady snowfall, prompting a sigh before I headed up the stairs to bed. Leave Her to Heaven’s sly noir posture disguised as melodrama might work on a windy, wintry night like this, but there’s nothing all that stylish about a morning-after session with a shovel, 18 inches of snow and nary a femme fatale in sight.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.