This is an attempt to start a short series of articles featuring a personal selection of “alternative” movie and TV- recommendations for the “most wonderful time of the year”. My idea is to eschew the usual works that are brought up during the season every year.
The presented selections may be Christmas-themed, but not necessarily. Some of them I chose for being adequate to create a Christmas-y feeling even though they are not connected to the holiday, others just take place during the holiday but are not silent and holy at all.
Today I will start with a somewhat forgotten thriller that tells the story of a hot and murderous X-Mas season.
directed by: Annabel Jankel, Rocky Morton
A man stumbles into a police station to report a murder. When he is asked who was murdered, he replies with “I was”.
Flashback. The man from the prologue is revealed as college professor Dexter Cornell (Dennis Quaid). Cornell was once a successful novelist, but is currently at a low point in his life. He handles the trifecta of misery that is the divorce from his wife, his writer’s block and the unusually hot Christmas weather with the help of witty snark and alcohol. Things go awry after his most promising student Nick (Robert Knepper!) commits suicide by leaping from the roof of the college building, clashing with his face against Dexter’s office window in a very effective shot. An ensuing drinking binge is followed by an for the functional alcoholic usually strong hangover though and to Dexter’s shock, the doctor finds traces of a deadly poison in his blood. From now on, he has only 24-48 hours to live, which he decides to spend on finding his murderer. He gets unexpected help from the student Sydney (Meg Ryan!), but things take an even more dramatic turn when more people are murdered and Dexter becomes the main suspect.
“Is that the best your petty, prosaic little mind can come up with?”
“It’s a petty, prosaic little world, Mr. Cornell.”
I have a soft spot for cheesy thrillers from the late 80s and early 90s -except for entries into the dreadful “domestic peril” subgenre- and this one is a somewhat forgotten highlight.
D.O.A. is a remake of the noir movie with the same name from 1950, but apart from the premise they don’t share a lot of plot similarities. There are a few nods to its roots when Dexter gets entangled in the machinations of his deceased student Nick’s rich foster family, a bunch of kaput and/or rotten individuals led by an icy matriarch (spot on casting: Charlotte Rampling), which is a staple of the noir genre.
As an amateur writer whose native language is not English I find myself often hitting a wall when it comes to pointing out similar patterns I already mentioned before in other reviews in new ways. So forgive me when I describe the style of his movie with the overused platitude “very much a product of its era”. It’s indeed what critics back then called “MTV-style”, when that phrase still meant something. And what it meant is shots of light either poking through window blinds, framing silhouettes of people making out in front of it, or creating moving shadows by shining through fan blades (obligatory). The bookends of Dexter being interrogated at the police station are filmed in stark b/w, to great effect. A few fancy camera moves and angles here, a montage with music there, voilá. Through the filter of hindsight, some of the casting choices appear baffling, such as Jane Kaczmarek, now mainly known as the mom from “Malcolm in the Middle” as Dexter’s ex-wife or Daniel Stern as his colleague. Every time the latter was on screen, I expected an iron to hit his face.
To create suspense and drama, the characters are thrown into several slightly contrived situations, but the actors sell it believably. Actually the movie would probably forgettable if it wasn’t for the acting powerhouse that is Dennis Quaid. There is not a phony note in his performance, as he doesn’t treat the script as the B-material as it would have probably been perceived by certain other actors. Quaid really gives it his all, talk about a performance that elevates the movie!
“This is life. Here, now. Take it or leave it.”
Somehow his portrayal of a man stuck in a rut who has to face death to appreciate life always struck a chord with me, although I have neither an ex-wife nor am I a novelist or college professor. Maybe it’s his cynicism? Ah, no way. Underneath the flawlessly delivered snark there is a subtle melancholic quality I can quite put my finger on. Indeed, I find myself watching this movie almost yearly and I am unable to switch the channel when I catch it on TV. Apart from Quaid’s awesome rubber face, the cuteness of Meg Ryan, the alluring, inscrutable iciness of Charlotte Rampling and the shamelessly dramatic, pulpy score by Chaz Jankel are other elements that factor heavily into the entertainment value. Brion James is there too!
For me personally, this movie also resides in the pantheon for “Best Final Lines”, delivered by Quaid, which I cannot post here, as they only work in context and contain a potential spoiler.
For a Merry Christmas that will make you appreciate both life and Dennis Quaid more.