Fantastic Fest 2011: “Sleepless Night,” reviewed

Fantastic Fest 2011: “Sleepless Night,” reviewed (photo)

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There’s been a lot of good criticism about action movies lately. Matthias Stork and Jim Emerson’s “Chaos Cinema” and “In the Cut” video essays have got people asking the question: what makes a good action movie? I’ve just seen the answer; it’s a French thriller called “Sleepless Night.” Without being didactic in any way, it is action movie as criticism of action movies, leading by example in an era of incoherent films with stale aesthetics. After a long day at Fantastic Fest, a midnight screening of “Sleepless Night” woke me up more effectively than any cup of coffee I’ve ever had in my life. Hours later, I was still riding the high. So the movie’s not only great, the title’s accurate too.

Exposition is kept to a minimum; action defines character. Impressions are made, then upended by new revelations, onion-peeling style. We open on a daring daytime heist. Two men, Vincent (Tomer Sisley) and Manu (Laurent Stocker), steal a bag of drugs from two mules who work for a local kingpin named Marciano (Serge Riaboukine). After the heist, we follow Vincent back to work. At a police station. Only then do we realize: these guys are actually dirty cops.

Marciano figures out who took his drugs. To get them back, he kidnaps Vincent’s son and holds him hostage at a dance club. Despite Manu’s objections, Vincent brings the dope to the club, stashing the bag in the men’s room ceiling before meeting Marciano. He never notices a female cop on his tail; she swipes the dope and hides it elsewhere in the club. Now all the pieces are in place: Vincent needs to give Marciano the heroin he doesn’t have and can’t find or his son is dead. And while he scrambles for a solution, he’s also got to contend with cops and gangsters closing in.

The last character in this story is the club itself, the setting for the entire movie after the introductory scenes. That’s where Frédéric Jardin really distinguishes himself as an gifted action director. The club is a sprawl of dance floors and bars and stairwells and private offices; Jardin connects them all with crystal clarity. The film exhibits a use-the-whole-buffalo mentality: every dangling plot point, every seemingly minor supporting character, every thrown away line of dialogue has a purpose. Vincent might be running like a madman, but Jardin is in total control. He directs every beat with surgical precision.

So what are the qualities that define a great action movie? If we follow the example set by “Sleepless Night,” you need a great protagonist on a quest with some real stakes, fighting a villain you love to hate. From 90-odd minutes Vincent wriggles like a fly in a spider’s web. Each move for freedom gets him stuck in ever deeper trouble. Everywhere he turns there are multiple villains we love to hate, including a few surprise ones. Sisley’s performance as Vincent is as relentlessly intense as the film around him. His situation is so dire and his love for his son runs so deep, you can’t help but root for him despite his flaws. So the action isn’t just cool, it means something.

A great action movie also needs to pay close attention to geography, and it definitely wouldn’t hurt to take enough care when crafting your screenplay to make sure every little detail of plot and continuity fit together. As Vincent dashes around the club, he keeps bumping into the same characters over and over again, from an illegal alien in the kitchen to a battered woman in the bathroom. Each ally he makes becomes a crucial element of his fight to rescue his son. Vincent’s improvisatory escapes are so clever, they make us like him even more.

Lastly, a great action movie definitely need at least one balls-out, tooth-and-nail fight scene like the one that takes place between Vincent and another character in the kitchen of Marciano’s club. In every moment of that fight you can tell who is who, where they are, and what they’re doing. The choreography is clear and the integration of the environment is inventive; if the Oscars added a category for Best Use of Kitchen Drawers, “Sleepless Night” would be a shoo-in. Come to think of it, if they added a Best Action Movie category it would be a shoo-in for that one too.

“Sleepless Night” does not have US distribution; Warner Brothers recently acquired the film’s remake rights. If you see it at Fantastic Fest — AND BY GOD YOU SHOULD — tell us what you think. Leave us a comment below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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