Friday, February 26, 2021

White Sands in Your Crack

I was very happy to be back on The Projection Booth podcast to discuss Roger Donaldson's White Sands. I hadn't seen the film in twenty-five years and was excited to revisit it. What did stand out again on my revisit is the cast. Holy cow is it stacked. Always somebody interesting to watch and appreciate especially thirty years on as both Willem Dafoe and Samuel L. Jackson have built tremendous careers. 


It's a high-desert daylight noir that twists about perhaps too much for its own good. Curious to know how writer Daniel Pyne might have directed the material and if he could have milked the late in the film revelations for greater impact, but as Roger Donaldson had already delivered high-impact thrills out of the similarly convoluted No Way Out, I'm inclined to believe the script is the weaker element. 


On the episode you'll hear me and guest Andrew Nette square off against host Mike White on the merits of No Way Out, a film which both Nette and I adore, but which inexplicably turns Mike off. Like, way off. And I do adore No Way Out. Truly, madly, deeply adore it.

Still the low-key feel of the whole affair is part of White Sands' appeal for me. It's a mostly-solid mystery with an A-plus cast and director that won't make a crime fan out of a non-fan, but will be a delightful discovery for genre fans looking for forgotten fare from the era.

Also on the episode Mike talks at length with screenwriter Pyne about his decades long career including his fascinating sole feature directorial effort, the meta-noir Where's Marlowe? starring Miguel Ferrera. Mike, if you're planning an episode on that one, I'd love to tag along.

A few things I've been into lately...


Blake Howard's latest podcast project, The Zodiac Chronicle is up and running, talking about David Fincher's 2007 film uh, Zodiac. This podcast is not a minute by minute analysis of the film and features multiple and overlapping discussions and observations about the movie. Once again, he's chosen a film made by, about and for obsessives, check it out if that's your bag.


After wrapping up the Increment Vice podcast Travis Woods has a new written piece on Cutter's Way up at The Secret Handshake and it's really nice to read new words from him taking on his favorite films on his favorite subject (toxic masculinity - one of mine too!).


Jen Hohans
continues to put out great conversations on her podcast Watch With Jen. Check out the episode with Jordan Harper on David Mamet and S.A. Cosby on Neon Noirs. She's also continuing her essay series for Netflix spotlighting favorite actors. The latest one on David Morse pre-cludes an upcoming episode of the podcast with William Boyle.

And speaking of Jordan Harper, dude's got a new blog called Welcome to the Hammer Party and I suggest that you check that out.

Jake Hinkson has a few things to say about old movies over at The Night Editor and, as always, I'm here for them.

And I'm all here for Pete Dragovich regularly sharing opinions on the internet again. His The Nerd of Noir blog was a staple for me years ago and while I do miss hearing about books from him, I'm enjoying his Letterboxd feed where he's been leaving pith takes on all the film stuff. 

I don't watch an awful lot of TV these days as I'm finding movies more satisfying and easier to take a chance on, but I did recently enjoy all three seasons of Killing Eve, adapted from the Luke Jennings books by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer are both a lot of fun and the show is ridiculous, but it went down pretty easy. 

I also rewatched Terriers and in an attempt to find something close to that, gave Stumptown a go (adapted from the Greg Rucka comics that I enjoyed). It's... very network-TV-y and that is a hard thing for me to sit through. I did enjoy Cobie Smulders as Dex, though I wasn't left bitterly disappointed that there weren't going to be more seasons. 


Fucking loved Fargo's fourth season though. Holy shit, it continues to be the best thing on television. A tremendous ensemble cast, regional and historical specificity, sharp as hell writing from Noah Hawley and company and every year a body count that actually hurts. Please never stop making this show.


And you know what? Perry Mason was pretty good too.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

My Favorite Crime Flicks of 2020


I don't believe we're out of any mess yet, and the calendar rolling over doesn't change anything on its own, but, as a unit of measure, I'm sure we can all agree that 2020 was a fucker. I'm glad it's behind us. In 2020 I watched 1111 movies. I had a hard time picking 10 favorites from the year (a couple of these go back to 2018/19) and I think that my favorites for the next few years will have met me still reeling and dealing with personal, emotional and spiritual fall out (hopefully not physical) from this time. The picks I've settled on are collectively more downbeat than previous years.


Several qualify as horror. There are a few playful bursts, a couple of large-hearted moments and optimistic swells to be found in this group, but overall it's a bleak lot. Nihilism, capitalism, corruption and moral bankruptcy rule the day. The strength of and longing for human bonds repeatedly give way to inescapable human bondage. The nobility of sacrifice goes unnoticed, unappreciated and scorned while quick capitulation to avarice, betrayal and debasement are rewarded and revered. 

And America,baby, we were predictably spotlight hogs in that three-ring shitshow of a year. While it's not making my list of favorites, I do think that Capone, Josh Trank's haunted septic spill of a gangster picture about perhaps our most celebrated and mythologized national criminal figure slowly dying in his palatial tropical home, trapped inside his rotting body and disintegrating mind, cut off from and tormenting the family, friends and sychophants who once depended on and worshiped him and now are there to suffer his abuse and clean him up when he soils the bed, deserves a note for being the most spot-on depiction of the end of our recently evacuated administration's stupid reign of terror. When he can no longer terrify his enemies, when the FBI is putting him in his place and the only option he's got left in the toolbox is to shit his pants and make everybody sit with the stench and be as miserable as he is... that's a special and uncomfortably prescient moment. 


Anyway, here it is - my psychic self-portrait, a snapshot of 2020 in crime films.

Ash is Purest White
Jia Zhangke - A love story between underworld figures in Datong (Shanxi Province, China) that starts off feeling familiar; a young, rising gangster and his moll enjoy their life and position in the developing industrial city until a flash of violence and a sacrificial act of love change things forever, but the set up soon gives way to a meditation on love, loyalty and honor that weighs more than your average rise and fall in crime saga. The slow crush of time and the intensity of the trial Liao Fan and Zhao Tao face reveal the truth about their love, their character and their place in the world. The central metaphor works beautifully, heartbreakingly and finally  (with resignation) peacefully, and with certainty leaving impersonal and irresistible forces - time, tide and gravity - to express simple things like the quality of love relies more on the lover than the beloved. It's a slow, crucible of a film, emblematic of the type of meditative, atmospheric noir-inflected pictures that liberally mix crime, social parable and melodrama coming out of China lately - probably the next wave of distinctive flavor in global crime film (see also recent examples from Diao Yi’nan, Bi Gan or Chung Mong-Hong). 

Beasts Clawing at StrawsKim Yong-hoon - A degenerate gambler, an abused sex worker and a low income wage slave caring for an elderly parent are the disparate desperate characters circling the same economic drain whose heads are turned by the siren song of crime sung alluringly by a bag of money. Yes, the classic tropes of noir are as strong as ever and the mystery mammon maguffin is a particularly potent standby ever ready to rend morals, shred assumptions of character, debase the pious and rain damnation on the least suspecting citizens. Attached to this bag of money by nearly invisible bloody tendril are vicious gangsters, alpha predators, ready to grind them all in the same mill and mix them into a morass of mortar with which to pave the potholes pocking the path to perdition. It's a deep and dark motherfuck and no one escapes unscathed, but, as grim as the goings on grow, the film, based on the novel by Keisuke Sone, is not without mirth evinced by a spectral cackle and a set of phosphorescent choppers set in a cold cheshire grin you'll swear isn't there before it opens wide and swallows you whole. 

Black '47 - Lance Daly - This fucking grim famine drama debuted on the international film circuit in 2018, but watching it ten months into a deadly global pandemic being treated by a wealthy super power primarily as a nuisance to the bottom line perhaps heightened the experience. James Frecheville plays an Irish ranger returned home from fighting the empire's wars to find his kith and kin facing eviction on top of starvation - their homes systematically destroyed rather than shelter them as soon as they can no longer afford to pay live in them and the meager crops being shipped away to their land lords and sovereigns. An entirely legal all-out war on the poor is being waged and with approximately zero hesitation the former soldier turns his formidable murderous skills to the private sector turning his weaponry against the same oppressors that taught them to him and taught him it was his duty to use them for their purpose. Sent after the rogue ranger is Hugo Weaving's conflicted, disgraced and condemned detective who once fought alongside his quarry. Strains of First Blood, The Proposition and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid run through, the violence is up close and personal and the supporting cast is top notch to boot (Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea, Freddie Fox, Barry Keoghan, Moe Dunford, Sarah Greene).

Blow the Man Down - Danielle Krudy, Bridget Savage Cole - When young Mary Beth Connolly (Morgan Saylor) kills a man who attacked her after picking her up in a bar, the reluctant college student implores her older sister Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) to help her hide the body, fearing that her reputation in their small coastal Maine fishing village and the circumstances of the assault may not make it a clear cut case of self-defense in the eyes of the law. Circumstances like oh... more than one method used to stop him (did you lose control with the brick or the harpoon?). Priscilla, the responsible one, agrees to help her sister, but in fishing villages nothing stays buried forever. Pretty soon all kinds of things are popping up, extra bodies, as well as deep dark secrets about the town and their recently dearly departed mother (the film opens at mom's memorial, but in her wake come the real threats). Turns out mom was part of a matriarchal group who long ago struck a precarious balance that the girls' actions are threatening to upend. A sharp, funny, murder thriller about small town secrets and familial obligations that features Margo Martindale and June Squibb as not to be fucked with forces, what's not to love? 

Come to Daddy - Ant Timpton - The film opens with Elijah Wood's Norval, in response to a letter from the father who abandoned him as a child, trekking up the Pacific coast by bus and then by foot to a lonely house on the cliffs to meet him. Stephen McHattie embraces him at the door and the two start the awkward process of getting to know each other. Things haven't been easy for Norval in the time since he last saw his father. He admits he's an alcoholic and attempted suicide once. He also puffs up his own accomplishments in the most achingly transparent ways - everything we learn about him arouses pity except from the man he wants so dearly to impress. McHattie toys with him, calling his bluff about being close friends with celebrities, sneers at his suicide attempt and scoffs at his refusal to drink with him. He also spies on Wood while he's sleeping and the house emits strange noises in the middle of the night. Things finally come to a head between the two and Norval loses his father for the second time during a violent confrontation. The effect of having finally met, confronted and survived an attack from the man whose absence left a hole in him sends Norval on a wild run of emotions, but he soon finds out that he's inherited his father's unfinished business in the form of violent criminals with a score to settle. The anything can happen experience of the film is fantastic. I've already given more away than I'd like to have, but even revisits are rewarded by the emotional undercurrent - the wide-open quality of Wood's face and the truth he learns about the father he's never known got me right in the feels. Plus... it's funny as hell. Many standout scenes of horrific violence and unexpected laughs along the way - always something lurking around the corner. I loved it. 

First Love - Takashi Miike - A call girl trying to escape captivity and a boxer without long to live come between dirty cops and dangerous gangsters with a pile of money and drugs in the middle and spend a crazy, bloody night staying alive and falling in love on, under and behind the mean streets of Tokyo. It's a clusterfuck of bad intentions with a gooey, chewy love story at the center and I'm pretty sure that only a filmmaker with a proven track record of willingness to go full dark like Miike could make a movie so effectively and un-selfconciously sweet and win this thoroughly with the material. This one's one of the bright spots on the grim year's favorites, a fantasy of oppressed, dead-end lives making good however briefly and dealing a blow against the dark forces of economic oppression and institutional corruption. Good on them. 

Possessor - Brandon Cronenberg - Andrea Riseborough plays an assassin whose specialized skill set makes her an invaluable asset to her employers (personified by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who farm out murder for hire gigs from a sterile office. Killers use the bodies of real people close to the targets as meat puppets by linking into their mind. Assassins have to be able to pass as the people whose bodies they've hijacked for increasingly long periods of time before pulling off the perfect crime. Prep work for her jobs require her to shadow and observe the person she will become (this time it's Christopher Abbott in order to kill his father in law to be Sean Bean) and it takes her away from her husband and child longer than she'd like. When she gets to see them it's clear that the job is taking an increasingly evident psychic toll. The job requires of her the empathy to convincingly become someone else and the cold bloodedness to have to kill someone and it's... not going well. There's a thesis paper to be found somewhere in here about how it's all a metaphor for film making, but I think it lands hardest on the exploitative nature of work. It did this year anyhow. Fucking gnarly violence and trippy audio/visual distortion - the low-rent use of high-tech concepts all make for a visceral experience and confirm that young Cronenberg's directorial debut (Anitviral) was not a fluke. He's got the goods. Long live the new flesh. 



True History of the Kelly Gang - Justin Kurzel - The legend of notorious bushranger Ned Kelly has been puffed up, deconstructed and generally fucked around with enough over the years that I've no interest whatsoever in the veracity of the depiction here. Especially when Kurzel and crew have injected the proceedings with so much raw punk rock power and glammed-up sexiness and hypnotically inviting visuals. This movie will be living in my brain for a long long time. Cast is uniformly good, but the standout performances are Nicholas Hoult and Essie Davis. Gah, have you ever fucked in a dress? 

Wild Goose LakeDiao Yi’nan - When a cop is accidentally killed caught in the escalating crossfire between rival motorcyle thieves Zhou (Hu Ge) finds himself the target of a large scale manhunt pinned down and trying to avoid the dragnet long enough to arrange that the reward money for his capture will go to his estranged wife. He enlists the help of a prostitute named Liu (Gwei Lun-mei) to coordinate an unlikely plan and the two develop a bond one doomed soul to another. I just gave you the quick version of the plot, but it's a gorgeous, stylish, moody, broody piece of vision crafting that should make instant fans of folks who like that sort of thing. I really liked Yi'nan's previous picture Black Coal, Thin Ice, but this one is even stronger - just haunting, stylish stuff shot through with heartbreak. 

ZeroZeroZeroStefano Sollima Janus Metz Pedersen Pablo Trapero - A procedural tracking the origin, transport and brokering of a very large cocaine shipment split between three chief international players - the Italians who want to buy from the Mexicans through American brokers. Global intrigue and cutthroat capitalism delivered ice cold and pitiless. Based on the book and adapted for the screen by Roberto Saviano (Gomorrah, Piranhas) it's a grim and terrifying indictment of... everybody. Oof. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Season Finale


I accidentally deleted a long piece I'd been working on for weeks to accompany this link to my most recent appearance on the Watch With Jen podcast so you'll just take my word for it that I unpacked points from my discussion with Jen Johans about crime film remakes from the 1990s in especially clever and illuminating ways. 

And totally won all the arguments started on the show. Totally.


Still, you can listen to the conversation and still hear some very questionable takes from yours truly about which remakes I preferred to the originals here. Lotta big names dropped in that mix... Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Siodmak, Akira Kurosawa, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Steven Soderbergh, Walter Hill... plus Johnny Hallyday and Larry Mullen Jr.


Also, Megan Abbott joins Jen in this week's episode (the second season's premier... does that make me the 2020 season finale?) to discuss some underrated Martin Scorsese picks. Good stuff. 


Speaking of Megan Abbott, you can now watch the Dare Me TV show's entire run on Netflix. Also, you can check out Jen's best of 2020 list over here

Meanwhile I'm mulling over my 2020 crime flick picks still. Watched 1111 movies last year, though not that many from 2020 itself due to all the weirdness around movie theaters, pulled releases and shit. So... I'll get back to you soon on that shit. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Merry CrimesMas: Pete Dragovich on The Proposition

Christmas Day is brilliantly used in John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, the bloody Australian western and modern classic from 2005. Firstly, it provides a ticking clock for bandit Charlie Burns’s mission. Captured along with his brother Mikey by Captain Stanley and his troops in an ambush that opens the film, Charlie is offered a, you know, proposition: Kill and bring back his older brother Arthur by Christmas Day or gentle Mikey will be hanged. The Jesus B-day deadline puts pressure on the journey but also underlines how biblical such a premise is. Betray the evil brother Arthur, who Charlie and Mikey previously abandoned after he massacred the Hopkins family who were friends with Stanley and his wife Martha, to save the good one.


While we’re hovering around Cain and Abel territory, let’s discuss Morris and Martha Stanley’s little Eden in the meatiest Christmas connection A film in large part about the tragic hubris of colonialism, Christmas in all its 19th Century British genteelness is a major aspect in illustrating Stanley’s delusions as a heroic conqueror. Captain Stanley has aims of civilizing the land assigned to him and ridding it of Arthur Burns is a large piece of that plan, but in the meantime he intends to keep his house and his wife free from the viciousness around them. He expects his men to be groomed in his wife’s presence, for them to never discuss police matters while she is in earshot. She keeps a lovely house surrounded by a modest garden and a little fence that is a bad joke- it could never keep anyone out and there’s no neighbors around to even care about things like where the property line ends.

While everyone in town and in the hills is shown covered in red dirt and sweat, Morris and Martha always wear fine clothes and are nicely powdered and coiffed while at home. After he helps them unpack their imported Christmas tree, Stanley sends their Indigenous servant home. The man goes outside and takes off his shoes at the fence gate, wishes the Captain a Merry Christmas, and walks barefoot into the desert. Then the English couple have a candlelit dinner in front of a decorated tree with presents and cards in its branches. After carving the turkey and making lovely plates, they say a prayer and toast each other a Merry Christmas. It’s the ultimate scene of domesticity, a painstakingly recreated version of the long-held traditions of their previous homeland. Naturally, this scene, their home and their persons are brutally violated by precisely what Stanley has tried to keep at bay immediately following this toast.


By this point in The Proposition Captain Stanley hasn’t kept up his end of his bargain i.e. he hasn’t kept Mikey alive and likewise Charlie has failed to kill Arthur. As revenge for Mikey, Arthur and his psychopathic protege Samuel Stoat ruin the Stanleys’ Christmas. A candelabra is blown out and the locked door blown in by rifle blast and Stoat is left to watch Martha at the dinner table while Arthur takes Stanley off-screen and beats him nearly to death. With the muffled sounds of blows to Stanley’s body in the background, we watch the child-like Stoat feast greedily and admire some earrings gifted to Martha and insist she read to him what Stanley wrote to her in his card. 


Of course, when she tries to get up from the table the comically innocent reverie is interrupted by his assurance to her that he will stab the carving fork through her eye if she moves again. When Arthur calls them into the room Stoat drags her by the hair and Stanley is made to watch Stoat rape his wife while singing “Peggy Gordon.”


After we watch Stoat and Arthur truly trample with their full weight and power any notions of civility out of the Stanley’s quaint playacting of British holiday festivities, it is Charlie’s turn to resolve what he can of his bloody arc. Having buried Mikey while his brother and Stoat went ahead to the Stanleys, he shows up mid-rape to stop from happening what he didn’t at the Hopkins household. He puts a bullet through Stoat’s brain and Arthur barely flinches since, naturally, his brother could never do such a thing to him. When Charlie puts one in his gut and one in his chest Arthur is genuinely surprised. He stumbles out of the house and crashes through the sad low fence to watch his last sunset free of the Stanley’s Lil’ Britain. Charlie sits beside him and stares at the coming darkness. Arthur acknowledges that he has been bested before asking what Charlie’s going to do now. Then he dies and leaves him alone on Christmas to puzzle it out in the fading light. That he doesn’t go back inside and kill Stanley for his part in Mikey’s death is a Christ-like mercy in the world of this film. Who is to say he doesn’t while the credits roll?


It’s a Christmas movie befitting our current holiday season. One man is left without any family to celebrate with while another’s attempt at family holiday normalcy is violently disrupted. Those of us not living with families or friends can relate to the former this year while almost everyone can relate to the latter. Let’s hope Christmas 2021 brings to mind a Crimesmas movie with a happy ending, one of the Shane Blacks, maybe.


Pete Dragovich
used to regularly review stuff as the Nerd of Noir for places like Crime Factory and Spinetingler. Now he just writes a little something about everything he watches at letterboxd (Nerd_of_Noir) and puts up a few words on twitter (@nerdofnoir) about everything he reads. He lives in Minneapolis.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Merry CrimesMas: Eryk Pruitt on The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Lost Holiday and Fatman


Call me old fashioned, but nothing gets me in the Xmas spirit than a down-home, heartwarming holiday classic movie. I’m talking about the true classics. It’s not Christmas at my house until Hans Gruber falls off the top of Nakatomi Plaza. The need for lighter fare calls for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Not to mention the “Bloody Christmas” in L.A. Confidential. Also, if you haven’t seen Rare Exports yet, you better remedy that shit, toot sweet. 

However, this year—2020—has been “extra” and it will require a bit more than Elf, Bad Santa, and the old yippee-kay-yay.

This might be an interesting link here.

Thank the gods for a new slate of holiday movies that may or may not be introduced into the canon. 


First up is The Wolf of Snow Hollow.

This movie will scratch itches you didn’t know you had. The movie is written/directed/starring Jim Cummings (Thunder Road) who really knows what tools are in his box. His portrayal of Deputy John Marshall is one of the best holiday performances we’ve seen since that kid stuck his tongue to the frozen light pole. Marshall is clearly out of his own element, having been assigned to investigate a series of gruesome (highlight that) murders in a small, snowy Utah mountain town, all while his personal life is falling to pieces.


How Christmasy is it, you ask? Not very. Not even a little bit. But they do pipe in some Christmas carols into the soundtrack, almost as an afterthought, which means they at least knew what time of year people were most likely to stream this bad boy. But there is a message about family embedded into this film (I think) and it features Robert Forster’s final role, so go get you some. 


Also available: Lost Holiday.

Listen, I like drugs as much as the next guy, so long as the “next guy” has a head full of LSD. However, this movie was not for me. The plot centers around a couple of bored twenty-somethings who return home from New York City to their small town and have nothing better to do than get fucked up and half-ass investigate a crime. The crime element appears as slapdash as the Christmas carols in The Wolf of Snow Hollow, but it’s not even at the top of the list of things you will just have to “go with” while watching this film. To its credit, there is one moment in the film which manages to wrench some heart strings, but the mumblecore, the acting, the shaky camera work all adds up to feeling like you’re stuck watching your buddy’s student film during a lame Christmas party full of tacky sweaters.


How Christmasy is it? Well, it actually takes place during the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s, so that counts, and anyone who has ever had to return home can easily relate to the central premise. And furthermore, the last line alone will make you want to axe-murder your entire family, which earns its spot on this list. 


But if there is one holiday movie that belongs on the top of everyone’s holiday viewing list in 2020, it’s Fatman.

You read that right. 

Fatman has everything 2020 has, needs, and deserves. There’s a spoiled rich kid who’s never been told “no.” There’s ridiculous government overreach. And, oh yeah, don’t forget about your racist uncle.

Fatman is lean, mean, and pulpy AF. It’s the film you would get if someone gave Adam Howe a sleigh full of money to make a holiday film. 


An economic downturn forces the Kringle family to become a subcontractor for the American military, and the strain of this decision can be read all across Mel Gibson’s timeworn face. With only his top elf Seven, and the perfectly cast Mrs. Claus, he bemoans the state of the American youth, which is personified by an evil rich kid who declares vengeance after receiving nothing but coal from Santa. That vengeance is delivered in the form of Walton Goggins, who goes balls out to replace Alan Rickman as Xmas Baddie #1. There is great joy in watching a megalomaniacal super villain get his origin story, as well as the inevitable comeuppance that will soon be meted, but I digress, lest I veer too hard into spoiler territory. 

All you need to know is that this flick is streaming on Amazon prime and you can watch it right now if you wanted. Sometimes you are looking for the right movie, well look no further. 


And think of all the arguments you can have with your friends after you tell them how much you think Fatman is the best Xmas movie of 2020. In fact, feel free to start some right now in the comments. I’ll @ the living shit out of you.

Happy holidays.

Eryk Pruitt is a screenwriter, novelist, filmmaker, bar owner, and true crime investigative journalist who more than likely ate the milk and cookies your mom left out for him last night.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Merry CrimesMas: Tim Hennessy on The Long Kiss Goodnight

When The Long Kiss Goodnight was released in 1996, I'd seen the trailer a few times, but I wasn't racing out to see it. For someone with a steady viewing diet of action films, a movie about a rural school teacher with amnesia who, after suffering a head injury in a car crash, regains her ass-kicking instincts, "one bullet at a time" was sure to hit the right spot. It was the out of the blue recommendation from a classmate, a perma-grin cheerleader, who was also relegated to waiting for a ride after school, which prompted me to check it out. While I was known for loving movies, cheerleaders weren't going out of their way to acknowledge me, let alone chat with me about movies.


A few weeks later, I caught a matinee of The Long Kiss Goodnight in a second-run theatre. Within a short span of its release, the film faded fast. Now, if people think of The Long Kiss Goodnight, it's for the excesses, a Christmas time action packed antidote to the steady stream of saccharine rom-coms and holiday melodramas, not the film that was the career tipping point for its creative team.


The film premiered with considerable expectations – Shane Black's spec script, written specifically with Renny Harlin in mind to direct, was one of the highest sales at the time.Then-Variety editor Peter Bart penned an editorial attack piece, taking umbrage at Black and his work, balking at the $4 million payday for the script."I've been talking to people around town who've read the thing," Bart wrote, "and based on my survey, the breakdown is something like this: About one-third of the readers vowed to quit the business forever; another third made firm offers; the final third simply threw up."


Known for revitalizing the buddy-cop genre, Black's mark on action films reverberated widely in the ten years since Lethal Weapon launched his career. A few years earlier, the original script of Last Action Hero parodied his work. The film was intended to be the epitome of summer blockbusters. The script grew unwieldy, enough so, Black was among the many credited and uncredited writers brought in to fix it. Black's contributions were substantial enough he got ascreenwriting credit and took heat for his role in creating one of the 90's highest-profile commercial and critical fiascos. 


With his reputation as one of the highest-paid screenwriters of his generation preceding him, Black needed a hit. Riding high from the success of Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Die Hard 2, and Cliffhanger, Harlin was able to pick his projects and he and then-wife Geena Davis had a production company with an eye toward furthering her growing career. The first project they took on to launch Davis as an action lead, the swashbuckling epic Cutthroat Island, was hindered by a troubled production, escalating budget, and script with an uneven tone that doomed it. Following in its wake with a cloud of schadenfreude already forming was The Long Kiss Goodnight


In it Davis stars as Samantha Caine, a suburban mom with an eight-year-old daughter, living in rural Pennsylvania with her boyfriend. Eight years earlier, she was found on a New Jersey beach,pregnant and having no memories. Samantha has gone through several private investigators trying to dig up any information about her past in the years since. The latest low-rent P.I., Mitch Hennessey (Samuel L. Jackson), gets a lead from a deceased woman's family who rented a room to Samantha. 


Samantha gets in a car accident during the Christmas season, and the subsequent concussion slowly unlocks her dormant skills and personality. The suitcase Hennessey brings her leads them to Dr. Waldman who, in the midst of a sudden attack by a team of government agents, reveals Samantha is really Charly Baltimore, an expert CIA assassin. She and Hennessey are on the run, seeking out more answers to her past, while operatives from both sides of a government conspiracy are in hot pursuit.


In a 1996 interview with Pauline Adarnek, Geena Davis described the film's pulpy plot,"It's kind of a goofball premise, that the character has amnesia so it's fun to try and take it seriously and make it work. I first tried to figure out who Charly is; why is she so tough and lethal and how and why did she become so hard? … She'd so divorced these soft sides of herself that the mothering, nurturing instincts had no way to live – she'd amputated half of her personality that she needed to get shot in the head and this other side of her fought to come out. When she got amnesia, that's when the person she never got to be could exist. …By creating a family, she's let herself get vulnerable and she's put her life and family at grave risk. These two personalities are at war and she had to find a way to be both."


Geena Davis threw herself into the role, training extensively, learning how to handle firearms, and performing her own stunts. Despite her efforts and performance, the film performed poorly. The shadow of failure cast by Cutthroat Island may have been a hindrance; some saw it as further proof that an action film with a female lead couldn't be financially successful.In the same interview with Adarnek, Geena Davis said, "Mostly I just look for characters that arein charge of their own fate. …I like to play characters that aren't victims, or just waiting to be rescued or waiting to have decisions made for them about their lives. They get to be involved actively in their own fate and that's what I look for – it's just more interesting to play somebody like that."


While those may have been the roles Davis wanted, she turned 40 right after coming off two high profiled action movies viewed as commercial failures – her career came to a near stand-still. Almost overnight, the same woman who was a lead in A League of Their Own, and Thelma & Louise, iconic roles in two of the 90s' most culturally significant films no longer was viewed as a viable lead.

Unhappy with her career direction and the lack of control over her fate, Davis changed her focus to activism. In 2004, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, using actual data comparing the number and types of male and female roles and used that data to convince the industry it needed change. Her ongoing work led to an investigation into the systemic discrimination against women directors and an ACLU campaign against discrimination. She executive produced the documentary This Changes Everything, which investigates gender disparity in Hollywood and its impact. 

Also during the time, Davis took up archery and became an Olympian. In an interview with Terry Gross, she described what she enjoyed about archery."Once you have a really good shot, your job is to recreate it exactly and – every time. And everything gets in the way of that, every possible thought you have, every different circumstance. Like competing – if you're nervous, your shot's going to be off. And so it's just a battle with yourself the whole time.""


A battle with yourself to not battle with yourself" was how Gross put it.Although Davis didn't have the action career she'd intended, her impact on a generation will outlast any one of her roles. While we were robbed of more bad-ass Geena Davis movies, actors like Charlize Theron, Regina King, Carrie Coon, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Gardner, Gal Gadot, to name a few have followed in her footsteps.  

A regularly re-watched Christmas classic in my house; we can only hope one day the rumored Long Kiss Goodnight sequel will be more than fanboy daydreams.

Tim Hennessy is a bookseller and a contributor to Publishers Weekly, Tough, Mystery Tribune, Crimespree, & others. He is the editor of the anthology Milwaukee Noir from Akashic Books. Follow him on Twitter @timjhennessy.