Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Modern noir

I recently watched two movies that would best be described as "modern noir". Both were from screenplays by Robert Benton and Richard Russo. It was a coincidence that I saw them in such proximity, but it seems a good opportunity to compare the two.

Twilight was the first of the two. It was directed by Benton. The Ice Harvest was the more recent. It was directed by Harold Ramis.

I liked Twilight a lot. It's not without its flaws, but it has a wonderful mood and more than most "noir" styled movies really explored the kind of sadness and guilt that accompany being involved in murder, assuming one is not a sociopath, which even most murderers are not.

The Ice Harvest was an interesting attempt, but ultimately fell flat for me. It was a wonderful idea, performed well that never quite gelled.

The key difference for me was the look. The late Piotr Sobocinski, cinematographer for many of Krzysztof Kieslowski's films, shot Twilight with a very low contrast look that creates real atmosphere. Alar Kivilo, whose best work as a cinematographer seems to be the wonderfully understated looking A Simple Plan, shot The Ice Harvest in the same kind of harsh high contrast looks as the classic black and white film noir of the '40s and '50s.

Unfortunately, that very high contrast look creates a much different mood in color than it does in black and white. Here it doesn't seem moody and reflective of a world gone mad as much as it just looks ugly. In black and white, the high contrast focuses your eyes on the fact that only some things are clearly illuminated. It feels mysterious and strange. In color, the low contrast focuses you on the reality. Reversing those formulas, tempting as it seems to be, very rately works.

Connie Nielsen is also a major problem. She looks the part of a noir heroine, by and large, but has neither the presence or acting chops to carry off the part and make all of the actions that surround her. Susan Sarandon, on the other hand, owns her part, she has all three elements in spades. Adding Stockard Channing into the mix just sends the noir woman into high gear.

Reese Witherspoon may seem an odd choice as part of that, but she is not the Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Bennett of the movie. She is the Martha Vickers to Sarandon's Lauren Bacall. She also has a nice nude scene at the beginning. Not nice because she's nude, although that is nice, but in that kind of wonderfully casual way that filmmakers with backgrounds in '70s film manage that few more modern filmmakers can. They're naked because they would be naked and the camera only records it because it happens.

Neither are especially good mysteries and are pretty easily guessed from a long way off. Another way in which Twilight is stronger by focusing on the characters and how the events make them feel and behave. It's more an exploration of the elements that most noir imitators lose track of than a through-story of the centerpiece mystery anyway and all the stronger for it.


Marty McKee said...

Good to see TWILIGHT getting some props. I'll watch any movie with Newman, Hackman, Garner, Sarandon and a naked Reese. I saw it in a nearly empty theater, and I don't know anyone else besides me who ever saw it. I like it, and I like THE ICE HARVEST too, although I think Ramis is "miscast" and I wish Cusack's GROSSE POINT BLANK director, George Armitage, had gotten a chance at it.

Neil said...

THE ICE HARVEST is the one I liked enough things well enough that I came close to liking it overall. I definitely agree that Armitage would have been a much better choice.

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