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52 Pick-Up
MGM

John Frankenheimer skillfully translates Elmore Leonard's amoral Detroit pulp to an excessive Los Angeles cityscape in 52 Pick-Up, one of the better American thrillers of the 1980s. Frankenheimer evokes the seediest environments of the sex-crazed L.A. underground, navigating his adulterous antihero, Roy Scheider, through a vortex of live nude shows, porno theaters and homemade snuff films to get to the three slimy villains who are blackmailing him with a tape of his extramarital affair. The sleaze is practically tactile, and the unfortunate synthesized score gives a Cinemax-at-1 a.m. feel, but the bad guys' performances and characterizations go above and beyond the call of duty. John Glover is unsettling as the soft-spoken, subversively soothing head honcho, and Clarence Williams III channels Samuel L. Jackson's future persona as a take-no-shit loose cannon. The movie is proof that action flicks don't need a good guy for the audience to identify with. —John Thomason

 

The Aura
IFC Films

It's not every day a film's lead character is an epileptic Argentinean taxidermist with a photographic memory. Strange, huh? Sure, but maybe it's what makes Esteban (Ricardo Darín of Nine Queens) fantasize about the perfect bank heist. He's a loner with a nagging attention to detail and no outlet for his gifted but short-circuiting brain. Then a fatal hunting trip allows Esteban to follow his dream.

There's much to admire about The Aura — haunting locale, interesting dialogue and good performances. But from the moment Esteban accidentally kills a lodge owner, unbelievable coincidences pile up and it becomes increasingly convoluted; his dumb luck will have you wondering if there's a horseshoe crammed up his ass. As for his epilepsy, it's but a character quirk that rears only when convenient.

Director Fabian Bielinsky, who died last June at 47, might've envisioned The Aura as a bucolic noir. At more than two hours, Bielinsky pads his film with long contemplative stretches filled with picturesque cinematography of the Argentinean forest, which are postcard-pretty but sadly inert. The slow pacing kills tension, and worse — allows time to notice plot holes large enough to accomodate an armored car. —Paul Knoll

 

The Verdict (Collector's Edition)
Fox

One of three Paul Newman classics reissued in sterling two-disc sets from Fox, this Verdict Collector's Edition is more than anyone can ask for. It suffers from redundancy, even, with at least two of its five featurettes repackaging material already available elsewhere. But the verdict is in on the gorgeous anamorphic transfer, for a film well worthy of one. This perfectly crystallized harmony of David Mamet's caustically honest script, Sidney Lumet's workman-like direction and Newman's poignant lead performance produced, in 1982, the greatest courtroom drama since Anatomy of a Murder, a title it surely still holds. Newman acts more with his eyes than most actors do with every word, gesture and physical movement at their disposal, and this deliberately paced — yet fast-moving — alcoholic redemption story gives him plenty of space to communicate without words. The featurette Paul Newman: The Craft of Acting touches on this aspect, and includes a newly recorded interview with Newman, but the most illuminating supplement is the reflective Milestones in Cinema History: The Verdict, which makes a strong case that the Academy was wrong in showering Gandhi with Oscars instead of this. —John Thomason

 

Silk
Tartan Asia Extreme

One of the promotional quotes on the box art for Tartan's release of Silk, ostensibly in praise of the movie, reads "The realism of White Noise with the sheer terror of The Eye." Some pull quote. Lumping Silk in the category of these two heaps of supernatural swill will do nothing but discourage potential horror fans from thinking twice about removing the title from the shelves at Blockbuster. Silk is a far more interesting film than those two combined; a better likeness might be to the frightening and cerebral genre films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the greatest master working in horror cinema today.

As in several of Kurosawa's movies, a police investigation of paranormal activity is at the heart of the plot. A group of scientists with access to a groundbreaking material called the Menger Sponge has used the technology to detect ghosts. They trap the creepy ghost of a boy in a room and monitor his every move, enlisting the film's hero – a cop named Tung (Chen Chang) who has a heightened sense of sight and an ability to read lips – to solve the mystery of the dead boy: to find out how he died, where he's buried and why he keeps reverting to the same pattern of movement.

Tung is also dealing with a moral dilemma. His mother, comatose from ALS, is surviving as a vegetable, kept alive only by her son's wishes. What could be a maudlin, preachy contrivance in a lesser movie is perfectly valid here, woven subtly into the film's existential questioning of life, death and the afterlife.

In the making-of featurette on this disc, writer-director Chao-Bin Su talks about his intent to make a ghost movie like no other, and to some extent he achieves this goal. Silk works as a ghost thriller, to be sure; it's just scary enough to qualify as acceptable in the Asian horror tradition of quality. But it really excels because of its pathos. Silk is propelled by an underlying layer of humanity too often lost in films as gory as this. Each moment of bloodshed is balanced by an equally stunning pang of melancholy. The closing-credits music seems to reflect this duality, starting with a panic-induced bludgeoning and easing into the sweet tinkling of piano.

Silk isn't perfect. Not all of Su's plot twists work. One character's sick and perverse turn feels like an action-movie concession, and another's escape from a surely life-ending car crash would have Steven Seagal shaking his head in disbelief. These elements, along with a curiously fable-like conclusion, take away from the complexity – and perplexity – of the film's visionary merging of science fiction and science fact. In the end, though, they do little to diminish the overall impact of this ambitious anti-ghost flick. If anything, Silk suffers from an overabundance of ideas, the most refreshing flaw a film can have. —John Thomason

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