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Christopher Webster [Celluloid 03.09.09] movie review noir

Year: 2009
Directors: Jeremy Alter
Writers: Anton Pardoe
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: agentorange
Rating: 5.8 out of 10

It's strange to think that we live in a world where such a great American genre like Film Noir is dead. Not buried yet mind you, just dead. Some of the genre's iconography still exists here and there, like in the visual aesthetics of modern thrillers, but true Film Noir can't seem to exist on its own anymore without some kind of post-modern crutch to prop it up and give it relevance. It seems to NEED the high school hallways of Rian Johnson's Brick, the animated landscape of D. Jud Jones' Film Noir, or the over-the-top parody of The Spirit to exist anymore. I find it interesting that a criticism that's often thrown at modern Film Noirs that try to play it straight is that they're too "cliched." Well duh, that's because the genre is completely antiquated and can only really exist as a stylistic relic of the 30s and 40s. The problem is that most filmmakers don't know how to deal with that and often become way too self aware (indulgent?) when they work within the genre. Need proof? I typed "Film Noir" into IMDB and found an upcoming film called "Film Noir" whose tagline is ...drumroll... "The Ultimate Cliche." I ask you, is this really what it's come to for Film Noir? Now I know what you're thinking; "hey loser, there are cliches in every kind of film!" True, and my point is not to decry a film for resorting to tropes because that's what genre is all about. It's how a filmmaker comes to terms with them that counts and, unfortunately, The Perfect Sleep is just a little too cheeky for me. In fact, while there is much to admire in the film, it ultimately felt like the final nail in the genre's coffin and I swear I could hear the faintest sound of Taps being played as Film Noir was finally laid to rest.

Those of you who have read some of my film reviews in the past already know that I have a hard time with too much self-awareness in films. I hate overt winking. I think it's a defense mechanism that writers use to beat you to the punchline and protect themselves from the hurt of being called "sincere". Don't TELL me how I feel, MAKE me feel. Don't TELL me what I think, MAKE me think. Unfortunately, The Perfect Sleep too often falls into this trap with too much narration about the film itself. Philip Marlow style narration is a staple of the genre but I certainly don't remember Philip Marlow commenting on a particular shot, let alone whether or not the French would like the way it looked.

Just look at the above still. Why in the world would you use cynical dialog to undercut such beautiful photography? It doesn't make any artistic sense to me and I doubt it makes any more sense to director Jeremy Alter, a guy who's worked mostly as a location manager. But it's not his fault, it's the script. Let me give you an idea of what I'm talking about. Below is the very first line of the film, spoken in narration over the breathtaking visual above:

"By now I know what you’re thinking. Not the first to use it. But with a visual like this, what does it matter."

Wha? That's not what I was thinking but okay now your visual feels less powerful and all because you were so worried someone might think it's a cliche. This is just one example. It goes on like this, the main character commenting on all the filmic cliches that are at play as if by doing so it gives the film some "cool" badge. Some people love that stuff but I don't. The 90s are over dude. Tarantino's dead. Even he knows it so lets move on and just tell good stories.

Anyway, blah blah blah you get the point. Let's talk about the film itself now.

first of all, it's visually stunning. No question. It's got a lush and dreamy patina that makes it feel like a Film Noir fantasy, particularly when it goes into flashbacks (which it does often). It's kind of cool because a lot of the time it feels like the film is set in the past but it's not.

The story is truly labyrinthine, spanning generations. Its cast of characters are given mythic proportions which works in this fantasy vein as well. It's about fathers and sons, brotherly betrayals, friends becoming enemies and, of course, unrequited love. Sounds almost Godfather in scope doesn't it? Unfortunately, the story is told a little schizophrenically and jumps from past to present a little too much. Alter has a hard time finding a decent rhythm and pace for the film and at times it starts to feel like a series of still photographs with narration over them. So basically, stylish yes but engaging? Not so much.

Even though I don't like his script much I like Anton Pardoe as the lead actor and narrator a lot in this film. He does an admirable job at delivering some pretty gummy narration and dialog without ever loosing his dislocated cool. That's important too because what's more crucial to Noir then a main character who's a cool customer no matter how many thugs are pummeling his face in? It's an essential ingredient.

The film isn't overly violent or anything but when it is it's in a comic book way. Not a crazy over-the-top Sin City way but a stylish, methodical slow motion kind of way.

The Perfect Sleep is not the worst example of Film Noir nor is it any kind of second coming. It's actually right in line with what I have come to expect from a modern attempt at the genre. The storytelling mostly falls short of the stylistic visuals and it lacks a cohesive rhythm.

But hey, you don't have to take my word for it. Film Noir starts its limited theatrical run this Friday night (March 13th) in Los Angeles and continues on travel through the states. You can find out more about the film on it's website.

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