Friday, April 3, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Blood and Wine (1996)

Blood and Wine (1996) 
Directed by: Bob Rafelson   
Written by: Nick Villiers and Alison Cross & Bob Rafelson.
Starring: Jack Nicholson (Alex), Stephen Dorff (Jason), Jennifer Lopez (Gabriela), Judy Davis (Suzanne), Michael Caine (Victor), Harold Perrineau (Henry), Robyn Peterson (Dina), Mike Starr (Mike).
Blood and Wine felt like a throwback back in 1997 when I first saw it – and feels even more so like one now. It was basically ignored when it came out, and sadly, hasn’t gained much of a following since. It has a feeling like what it is – old pros, who know how to make an old school crime picture, doing so with skill and intelligence. It feels in many ways like a film from the 1970s – and that is probably true, since it reteams Nicholson with director Bob Rafelson, adds in Michael Caine for good measure. There is no ironic detachment to the material here – everyone takes it seriously, which didn’t fit in to the post Pulp Fiction world in which it was made, and sadly, doesn’t seem to have come back around yet. It’s just an expertly crafted sun drenched noir.
The film takes place in Florida, and centers on Alex (Nicholson) – a dealer in fine wines, whose business and marriage are both failing. His wife, Suzanne (Judy Davis) is an alcoholic – and is angry at Alex, and is more than justified in that anger. Her son Jason (Stephen Dorff) hates Alex – but cannot get the old man to fire him, which is what he wants because he wants to spend all his time fishing. Alex is having an affair with a Cuban nanny, Gabriela (Jennifer Lopez) – who works for a super rich couple that is also one of Alex’s best clients. They are also the owners of a very valuable diamond necklace – worth over $1 million. Alex recruits career thief Victor (Caine) to help him steal it. The crime itself is fairly easy. Everything that happens after gets bloody and complicated – in ways in which I won’t spoil.
There is something that happens when Nicholson works with Rafelson that brings out the best in him (and I say this without having seen two of their collaborations – The Postman Always Rings Twice and Man Trouble). Nicholson doesn’t really rely on his normal bag of tricks – he doesn’t smirk or charm his way through these movies, doesn’t rely on his natural movie star charisma. He remains committed to his characters. Alex is an interesting character in many ways – and Nicholson suggests a lot about him that is in the backstory, but not explicit. We don’t see him, say, struggling with the business, struggling in his marriage, meeting and falling for Gabriela, thinking about committing the theft, or meeting and hiring Victor to do the job with him – all that happens before the movie already starts. Most movie would spend most of their time on that downfall, then climax with the theft – this one has the theft done by the end of act one. It’s interesting to watch Nicholson in this mode – he is an asshole to be sure, a terrible husband, and not much of a stepfather, but there’s enough here to suggest that wasn’t always the case – that he was a man who worked hard, and just failed. Now he’s approaching retirement age, and has nothing to show for it. Caine’s Victor is the same way – chain smoking his way through the movie, and prone to coughing fits, he knows he is dying – he just wants to die in style, not in some cheap hospital or prison ward. He has also had a long career – and has nothing to show for it.
The first act does a good job of establishing the characters – and their relationships to each other. They are all basically a series of two-handers – Nicholson and Caine, Nicholson and Dorff, Nicholson and Davis, Nicholson and Lopez, Dorff and Davis, Dorff and Lopez, etc. There are secrets and lies throughout, and in many ways each character is making cold calculations about what is best for them. I wouldn’t blame you to be a little creeped out by the age difference between Nicholson and Lopez – he was 59 at the time, she was 27 (and playing younger) – and yet both actors do a good job of explaining why they are together in their interactions. Nicholson’s motivations are easier to grasp – she’s Jennifer Lopez – but Lopez makes Gabriela more complicated then she first appears. She is a survivor – and smart about it. She came from Cuba with nothing, has a hard time getting and keeping a job because of her status, and grasping onto Nicholson sees someone who may be able to give her the things in life she wants. When it starts to become clear that maybe he can’t – that he isn’t the success he makes himself out to be – she recalculates her options, and considers Jason. He’s younger than her, and naïve in many ways, and she can manipulate him. What she doesn’t want is to end up stuck sleeping on the couch at her cousins anymore. I do wish that the screenplay hadn’t leaned so far in with Lopez’s Cuban accent, and somewhat broken English – although perhaps it wouldn’t be as noticeable if it weren’t Lopez. Davis and Dorff are playing characters that are mainly just pawns for the other characters – although at least Dorff realizes this by the end and doesn’t want any part of it.
Blood and Wine is ultimately one of my favorite type of neo-noirs – the sun drenched kind. The noirs from the classic period are always so dark, taking place in the shadows, in the rain, at night, on the means streets of New York, L.A., Chicago, etc. But when done right, these tropical, sun baked noirs work wonderfully well – contrasting the darkness of the subject, with these beautiful, sunny locations. Rafelson has said that he considered Blood and Wine to be a kind of unofficial end of a trilogy with Nicholson started with Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens – with Nicholson first playing a son, then a brother, and now a father. I’m not quite sure I buy that (Nicholson isn’t really a father here – and it doesn’t play that big of a role in the narrative). I prefer to think of this is another stop on Rafelson’s tour of America – from California and Washington state in Five Easy Pieces, to Atlantic City in The King of Marvin Gardens, to the south in Staying Hungry, to small town America in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Rafelson seems to have made a career out of traversing America, and finding angry, lonely bitter people who seem to resent the fact that they haven’t gotten the American dream they were promised. Blood and Wine is a genre picture to be sure – but all of that is still there.

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