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Hipster Holy Grail: Midnight Crossing (1988)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Midnight Crossing is the sort of movie that I'd probably not write about for the Holy Grail if I had more time to watch an alternate pick for the week.  It has a few interesting ideas, a couple of decent scenes, and a few good-bad laughs.  But most of it is forgettable, which makes it hard to write an engaging in-depth review.

My Rating: 3 / 5 (Nothing To Say)

The Plot Summary

The movie opens in a remote island village in Cuba during the 1960s.  The Bay of Pigs invasion is just about to be called off, and a couple of naval officers decide to use the ensuing chaos as cover for a quick scheme.  They intercept a bunch of supplies that are being transported in/out of the area, including a pallet with a huge stash of money - over a million dollars, as we're later told.  One of the officers steals the cash when nobody's looking and hides it beneath the floorboards of an abandoned shed.

Now, this would be a good time to just cut to the present since that's all you really need to know, but the movie goes one step further by having another officer involved in the scheme come down to check on the first guy.  They get into a disagreement about The Plan, so the first guy murders the second guy and shoves him in a closet.  Cut to the 1980s.

I'm sure there's a pragmatic reason we saw this murder.  I'm sure it plays into one of the reveals that comes up later on.  But I'll be honest and admit that I never made the connection.  If they address it at all, it's in a quick throwaway line later.  So, it just kinda seems like they put a murder here in case you weren't sure you were watching a thriller.

Anyway.  Opening credits.

We cut to a marina where we meet Jeff Schubb (John Laughlin), a struggling charter boat operator.  Jeff is a laid-back dude whose dad was in the navy and imparted in him a love of the sea.  As a result, he's stubbornly clinging to his charter business even though it's not making him any money - in fact, he's nearly facing bankruptcy.  This is not lost on his wife, Alexa Schubb (Kim Cattrall), who is generally supportive of his dreams even though she's frustrated by their troubles.

Alexa and Jeff have a few minutes of banter before we cut away to the Bartons, Helen (Faye Dunaway) and Morely (Daniel Travanti).  The Bartons were longtime family friends of Jeff's; they knew his father back when he was still alive and Morely served with him in the navy.  The Bartons appear to be generally happy and well-to-do.  They're getting ready to have Jeff and Alexa over for dinner so they can charter Jeff's boat for a couple of weeks.

But before they can have dinner, they have to let you know that Helen is blind.  And boy, do they let you know it.  The first thing Faye Dunaway does in this movie is to mourn losing vision to her cataracts, and then, just in case you don't get it, she goes on to explain what cataracts are and how ironic it is that she has them and can't see since she was apparently an ophthalmologist in the past and helped people with their vision.  But now she can't, because she's blind.  (She has cataracts, you see.)

This will be Helen's single note for... oh, pretty much all of the movie.  Any chance she gets, she reminds you.  There are entire sequences that exist solely so she can be blind, such as a protracted scene in Jeff's boat where she's wandering around to familiarize herself with the setting.

If the movie didn't hammer it home so hard, I'd probably not keep whining about it now... but wow, this gets old fast.  And to make it worse, Dunaway brings the wrong amount of gravitas to her performance.  It never gets quite to Mommie Dearest levels, but it's still miscalculated, especially since everyone else in the cast takes a more naturalistic approach to their dialogue.

So, the dinner party.  Helen is reluctant about chartering Jeff's ship at first, but when Jeff says he'll give her time to get acclimated to it before they leave, she's eager to move forward.  They all drink a toast to a good trip, and then we're off and sailing... after a few more minutes of pre-trip nonsense.

Eventually they finally get to the cruise, maybe around 25 minutes in or so.  It's a good time.  There's drinks, food, music, and gorgeous weather.  All is well, and they take as many opportunities as possible to douse Kim Cattrall with water.

There's a sex scene around this point where Jeff takes Alexa into an outboard raft they've been towing.  It's kind of pointless.  It only exists a) to show off some breasts, and b) to seed a bit of distrust with Morely, because he overhears them and spies creepily.  I wouldn't bother to mention it except for two things that bugged me.  One is that they frame much of it as though they were using a body double for Cattrall, but since she shows off her breasts later (and, let me remind you, is constantly wearing a wet T-shirt), it just seems like poor blocking.

But the other part is how the sex scene begins.  Jeff and Alexa are making out, and then he creepily takes out a knife and cuts off her underwear with it.  Now, this just seems like a dick move.  I'm sure Alexa was smart enough to bring plenty of fresh underwear for the trip, but even so, you're out in the open sea.  What happens if her spares get knocked overboard?  Now the only pair she could possibly wash and reuse has been cut into a useless ribbon.  And sure, Jeff, I get that whipping out a knife and gouging the clothes off your wife might be sexy for you, but did you check with Alexa to make sure she was into it?  Knives, like diapers, are a thing you bring into sex very carefully.

Anyway.  The movie's well underway by this point and doesn't have a plot yet, so we cut to a random port restaurant somewhere and watch the Schubbs and Bartons eat dinner for the seventh or eighth time.  This is where Morely reveals that he's had an ulterior motive in chartering Jeff's ship.  He knows about the million dollars hidden on that one Cuban island, and he wants Jeff to sail over so they can retrieve it and split the loot.  Jeff doesn't want to go because a) he doesn't believe it's there, and b) it's Cuba.  Morely insists that they'll be fine - the boat will technically stay in international waters and they can be surreptitious enough to get in and out.

Then some fat drunk asshole named Ellis (Ned Beatty) bumbles into the scene and basically just makes fun of Morely for a little while.  Ellis and Morely have an inept fistfight until Jeff breaks it apart.  Then Jeff and Alexa get into an argument about whether or not to get the money, which culminates - naturally - in Alexa running to the beach so she can get her T-shirt wet again.

A bit of time passes, and for reasons I don't quite remember, Jeff changes his mind and agrees to go get the money.  Almost immediately after, Morely and Alexa sneak away to make out and it's revealed that they've been having an affair for some time.  Helen seems to be aware of this, and she warns Jeff not to go get the money because now she has misgivings and thinks that Morely might be plotting to murder him.

If it seems like I'm glossing over all of these character turns and changes in motivation, I apologize, but the movie doesn't really spend a lot of time tracing how each character evolves.  It's very strange.  For as long as it takes to get the plot underway, it really plows through all these plot points later on.

So, they get to the island, and everybody breaks off into their own little mini-quest.  Jeff sneaks away from the group and snoops around on his own while Morely and Alexa go off on their own, leaving Helen by herself on the boat.  There's a lot of discussion about possible schemes and a lot of footage implying that a plot is underway, but you don't see a ton of stuff actually happen.  I kind of like this part.  It's a good way to set-up some double-crosses later on; you only get snippets of information while people are separately trying to come up with their own plots, and that's pretty cool.

The implication, based on Helen's panicked musings and what we can see, is that Morely is going to steal the money with Alexa, then double-back and take Jeff down into the shed with him.  That way, when they open up the floorboards and see nothing, Morely will pretend to be shocked and accuse Jeff of stealing the money, which will give him a totally rational excuse to keep all the money for himself and sever ties with Jeff.

Meanwhile, Jeff may or may not be actually stealing the money, since he has been snooping around.  And Jeff and Helen may or may not be plotting something, and Helen may or may not be planning to stab Morely in the back later.  Helen also reveals that she thinks Morely killed Jeff's dad many years ago.  On what she's basing this, I'm not sure - it's another detail that was brought up in a seemingly throwaway line.

So, finally, the stage is set.  Jeff, Morely, and Alexa all go to shed to get the money, but when they open the floorboards - gasp! - the money is gone.  Jeff and Morely immediately accuse the other of setting them up, and they have an argument.  This is also around the time when they make it clear that the officer we saw at the beginning of the movie - the one that murdered the other guy - was a younger version of Morely.

The argument escalates into a fight, which culminates in Alexa accidentally bludgeoning Jeff, seemingly killing him.  Morely and Alexa flee, supposedly with the money already stashed on the boat, and start pulling up the anchor to escape.

Before they can get far, however, they're accosted by another ship.  At first it seems like a Cuban military ship of some sort, but then Ellis shows up and you realize they're pirates.  Morely fights them off and sinks their ship, but he's injured in the process.  They narrowly get away, and it seems like Morely might pull off his coup.

Then, while they're sailing, a thunderstorm breaks out.  Morely goes to look for the cash and can't find it.  He accuses Helen of stealing it, and then they start fighting.  It seems like Morely might kill her until Jeff shows up at the last second - he apparently snuck on board while they were having the pirate fight, and he's been laying low.  Bloodied and paranoid, he demands answers and tries to sort out the truth while holding Morely at gunpoint.  But he's also weak and losing a lot of blood, so he can't stand for long.

Helen yanks loose a rope that has been holding back one of the sails, thinking that it will swivel a pole around and hit Morely.  But Morely dives out of the way at the last minute and the pole knocks Alexa into the ocean instead.  Morely and Jeff dive after her to save her, and there's an odd lull where nobody is visible.

Then Morely leaps out of the water, Voorhees-style, and grabs Helen.  They wrassle and fight their way through the ship, with Helen occasionally blindly pointing a gun at Morely and trying to shoot him based on sound.  This sequence is another high point - I dug this whole scene and I really wish more of the movie was like this.

It ends when Morely lurches after Helen above deck and she turns around to reveal - GASP! - that she's just been wearing white contacts.  She's actually been totally able to see the whole time, and with no witnesses around, she can easily shoot Morely to death and pretend to be a simple, helpless blind woman.  So, she does.

I liked this character turn, but this is where the movie as a whole can't seem to decide what ending it wants.  They have it perfectly set up so that Helen has been a criminal mastermind and is about to walk away with everything scot-free - an emergency boat finds Jeff's ship floating aimlessly and some crew comes on board to escort the "helpless blind woman" to safety.  If it ended here, you have a stronger movie.

...alternately, you could try for one more twist.  While rescuing Helen, they reveal that Jeff is still alive; he lashed himself to the ship while diving overboard and he's just barely clinging to life.  The crews save him, and he vaguely hints to Helen that he hid the money.  Helen realizes that the duffel bag she stole from Morely earlier is a decoy, and Jeff is possibly about to die.  If it ended here, you also have a stronger movie.  It's a nice double fakeout where everybody's greed causes them to lose.

...but then the movie settles on its actual ending, which is just that Jeff recovers perfectly and goes back to the island with Helen later to reclaim the cash where he hid it.  They run into no problems and return home with a million dollars, and apparently they're both totally cool with Helen having killed both of their spouses.

Sure.  Why not.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

There's a lot of potential here.  I loved the back-stabbing hijinks late in the movie - back-stabbing hijinks are my jam.  (Shameless plug: It's not out just yet, but look for Born Loser on later this year when I publish it.)  I loved the confined setting of the boat.  I loved the economy of a small cast and a simple plot that could go wrong in so many ways.

And as much as I bitched about Dunaway's performance earlier, it ended up being an unintentional bright spot in the movie.  Her "I'M BLIND!!!" freakouts and line readings are occasionally pretty funny, and that's worth something.

The acting is otherwise decent, the cinematography works well, the script is okay... this should be a good movie, if not a great one.  This should be a nice, lowkey thriller that you watch on Netflix on a whim and you say, "Hey, that was pretty good.  Surprised I didn't hear about it before."

But it ultimately isn't.  I think the blame has to go to one of my most common complaints about movies: pacing.

It's such a strangely plotted movie.  The first half hour drags so much, yet you barely get to understand the characters' motivations and personalities.  When the character turns and plot twists start coming up later, the movie starts running so fast you can't keep up with it.  Morely's transformation from "boisterous family friend" to "cold-blooded murderer" gives you whiplash.  And Ellis?  What the hell is that guy's deal?  He just arbitrarily inserts himself into the movie halfway through, then leaves again when he's killed twenty minutes later. Why even bother with him in the first place?

The result is that you alternately feel bored and confused.  Not so much that you hate the movie.  You're never so bored that you want to turn it off, and you're never so confused that you can't understand what people are trying to do.  It's more like you're getting frustrated the whole time.  You keep thinking, "Why didn't you spend the last five minutes giving me more background on whatever the hell it is they're doing now instead of showing them barbecue a fish?"

I'll give it a marginal pass, but I can't recommend it without reservations.  It's not particularly memorable.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Not too much.  There's a minor 10 point obscurity bonus since it only has around 400 IMDb ratings, but frankly, there's not really anything hipstery about this one.  I guess I can give it a tiny TV actor boost for Daniel Travanti and maybe another tiny boost for having stereotypical '80s mood music.  Let's say it's worth 20 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

It's not hard to find if you're willing to get it legitimately.  You can rent/stream it on Amazon, Vudu, and Youtube, or you can get the disc version from Netflix like I did.