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Friday, Dec. 15, 2006 05:14 am

Neo-noir

The purists say it can’t be color, but you be the judge

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Oliver Platt and John Cusack in The Ice Harvest

Film noir is a style of filmmaking that characterized Hollywood detective and murder thrillers in the 1940s and ’50s. The name essentially means “dark cinema,” and its influences are German expressionism and French existentialism. Noir came to life with The Maltese Falcon (1941), and its last great gasp is the classic Touch of Evil (1958). It enjoyed a mini-revival in the 1970s, highlighted by The Long Goodbye (1973), Chinatown (1974), Night Moves (1975), and The Late Show (1976). Recently the puritanical purists decided that film noir cannot exist in color, hence the new and improved name neo-noir. That trend was short-lived, and neo-noirs made only sporadic appearances until recently. Perhaps Joel and Ethan Coen set off the recent spate with the endlessly quotable The Big Lebowski (1998). The Coen brothers specialize in twisting genres inside out, and with Lebowski they fused noir conventions with an odd ’60s sensibility. They may be the only filmmakers who could successfully propel a noir thriller with a hippie-slacker protagonist. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) is the more genuine article, but it lacks the flash of the Coen brothers’ best work. At least it’s black and white, so it’s OK to call it film noir.

Robert Downey Jr. stars as a thief mistaken for an actor in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). Pretend becomes reality as he becomes embroiled in a real Hollywood murder. His acting technical advisor, a gay private eye (Val Kilmer), comes to his aid. Kiss is an oddly witty and intelligent ’60s-style comedy thriller. Lucky Number Slevin (2006) is a good film that was trashed by critics and the public. Josh Hartnett is mistaken by gangsters for someone with a gambling debt, and he is forced to make restitution by carrying out a hit. Nothing is exactly as it seems, but the twists remain logical. Hartnett is surprisingly adept at handling the quirky machine-gun-paced dialogue and the shifts in his character. The Ice Harvest (2005), the best of the recent batch, is certainly on a par with the classics of the genre. John Cusack and his partner, Billy Bob Thornton, have swindled the mob out of $2 million, and Cusack spends a night of hell before they can leave town the next morning. His plans are thoroughly hindered by his ex-wife’s drunken husband, hilariously played by Oliver Platt. Cusack’s deadpan persona works perfectly in this dark comedy.

New on DVD this Tuesday (Dec. 19): Little Miss Sunshine, Invincible, Step Up, The Wicker Man, Fearless (Huo Yuan Jia), A Scanner Darkly, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, and Lady in the Water (Wu Ji).

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