Category: Mystery


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Rarely do “horror” or “thriller” film seriously deal with complex and abstract emotional states of mind. Even most psychological thrillers tend to pay lip service only to the emotions of paranoia or fear. That’s about as emotionally deep a well as they are willing to dig. So, perhaps it’s the film’s devastating look into grief and a crumbling marriage, but 1973’s Don’t Look Now is a supernatural thriller unlike nearly anything else I’ve ever seen (even if Rosemary’s Baby is the immediate and obvious comparison). Director Nicolas Roeg’s manic film is a proto-Lynchean thriller as that serves as an exercise in impressionistic and surrealistic horror.

Though it’s a leisurely paced film (or so you might think at first glance), Don’t Look Now expertly wraps the viewer in an almost endless wave of dread and anxiety. With hyper-kinetic editing that owed a great deal to the French New Wave, the film jostles the audience along in a foreign land and with inexplicable phenomena so that one may never truly gain his bearing. And thanks to the film’s masterful pay-off, you don’t feel as if you’re just being jerked along. Don’t Look Now requires a sizable investment of patience and observation. One can not half-watch the film, but as this traumatic tale concludes, you realize you’ve been rewarded with a truly stellar ghost story.

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When a burgeois couple, American  John Baxter (The Hunger Games‘s Donald Sutherland) and his British wife Laura (Julie Christie), lose their daughter in a freak drowning accident, they move to Venice so they can escape any reminders of their horrific loss (and so that John can help renovate a Venetian church). However, at a restaurant, Laura meets two elderly British sisters, one of which is blind. The blind sister claims to be a psychic medium and that she can see the Baxters’ dead daughter. It isn’t a happy vision because the psychic gives an ominour warning that the Baxters must leave Venice because John’s life is now in danger.

It probably doesn’t sound like much on the surface, but it’s hard to reveal too much of the complex and tangled webs of the plot of Don’t Look Now without ruining the magic of discovering just what is happening beneath all of the premonitions and psychic claims. I spent the vast majority of the film (even up until its final moments) wondering just what in the hell was happening in this supernatural mystery, but when the light bulb finally clicked in my head, I was nearly bowled over by how well director Nicolas Roeg fused past, present, and future with fantasy, delusion, and just a hint of prophetic truth.

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I really can’t overstate how important the direction and editing of Don’t Look Now was on the overall quality of the film. This movie had to have been a considerable influence on the later works of David Lynch (particularly Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr.), and it’s embedded religious and sexual symbols and almost nausea-inducing flow dip the audience headfirst into a world where the difference between the sacred and the profane is almost non-existent. And, in the editing department, an excellent use of cross-cutting gives Don’t Look Now a very classy but also surprisingly explicit love scene that may very well be one of the sexiest love scenes in the history of cinema.

Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are both formidable in their roles. Though I haven’t found it hard to understand the dialogue of the film (the movie often felt like I was eavesdropping on an intimate conversation that I wasn’t allowed to hear every word of), when the camera was focused squarely on the suffering spouses, I couldn’t tear myself away. Sutherland and Christie both tap into the wrenching grief and anger that any parent would feel after losing a child, and in a locale where the city itself is slowly sinking (an important symbol of the film), Sutherland and Christie perfectly capture the last gasps of a marriage on the rocks.

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This may sound heretical, but I honestly think Don’t Look Now is a superior film to the more lauded and well-remembered Rosemary’s Baby. In fact, if there were a Polanski film that I could make the most positive comparisons to (even though they have little in common plot-wise), it’s Polanski’s psychological horror masterpiece Repulsion. I don’t think that Don’t Look Now will be for everyone. Some will likely find it unbearably dull (though if you do, you don’t have much of an imagination), but for those with the willingness to devote the mental energy to this film that it deserves, you will be rewarded with a truly unique horror experience that paved the way for some of the great modern thrillers of our age.

Final Score: A-

 

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In 2006, two films about purveyors of illusions hit theaters, and much like the battle between 30 Rock and Studio 60 (which ironically both premiered that year as well I believe), only one would prevail. Of course, the film that made the biggest cultural headway (and helped to catapult Christopher Nolan into the public imagination) was the Christian Bale/Hugh Jackman vehicle, The Prestige. But, over the years, the other magic themed film from that year, The Illusionist, has gained a considerable cult-following and I’ve meant to watch it for years now. And, I must sadly report that I found the film disappointing. Like any magic trick properly explained, The Illusionist is a hollow, fleeting experience with only just enough flashes of magic o keep it interesting.

I say that it’s hollow and fleeting because The Illusionist has joined films like War Horse as proof that you can have a technically competent and well-executed film that I won’t find especially enjoyable when the the important pieces (plotting, characterization) are merely shadows in fact. Because, like the ethereal projections that Eisenheim the Illusionist (American History X‘s Edward Norton) conjures late in the film, there is nothing substantive beneath The Illusionist‘s surface. With flat, one-dimensional characters and torpid pacing that seems to revel in its own predictability, this film tested my patience to sit through its motions and only earned my attention on rare occasions.

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Years after being pushed away from his childhood love, almost supernaturally gifted illusionist Eisenheim moves to Vienna to practice his trade. But during a packed performance attended by none other than the crown prince of Hungary, Eisenheim sees his childhood love, Sophie (Jessica Biel), for the first time in years. A contessa herself, Sophie is now engaged to the Crown Prince, but seeing Eisenheim brings up feelings that both thought were  lost. As Eisenheim becomes even more popular with the Viennese people and embarrasses the Crown Prince with his tricks, Eisenheim is investigated by Inspector Uhl (Private Parts‘s Paul Giamatti) for any possible wrongdoing. But, of course, nobody knows the massive trick Eisenheim has up his sleeve.

I tend to give more in-depth discussions of characters and plots here, but as I’ve said, there isn’t much going on underneath the surface of The Illusionist. Characters are exactly what they seem, and if you are able to pay even the most remote attention, things play out as you think they will. Although I actually enjoyed the ending (mostly for the film paying off how I expected things to turn out), it is also 100% predictable and even then, it glosses over certain things that would have made more sense with better foreshadowing. Though Eisenheim is meant to be mysterious, the film’s dogged insistence on not fleshing out his character any robs the film of nearly any ability to generate audience sympathy.

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Ed Norton is one of my favorite actors of his generation. I’m not sure if it’s possible to watch him in Primal Fear or American History X and not simply stand in awe of his mastery of his craft. But, like everything else in The Illusionist, his performance in this film is simply “meh.” He can’t maintain his Prussian accent for more than half a scene, and the writing provides him with very little to work with in strengthening the characterization of this bland magician. Jessica Biel is just an outright mediocre actress at best, and she showed nothing new as the Contessa. But, thankfully, like all films he’s in, Paul Giamatti shines as the tireless investigator because he’s just always a champ.

I’m going to keep this review short. I want to play a bit of The Last of Us tonight and keep catching up on Game of Thrones. Hell, maybe if I’m lucky I can even watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which is the next film on my blog list that I have waiting at home from Netflix. And honestly, there was just nothing special about this film. It wasn’t that the movie was bad. And, I actually really enjoyed the cinematography at times, but there was nothing astounding about The Illusionist. And it had enough glaring flaws in terms of its characterization that I couldn’t ever fully (or even mostly) invest in this tale. For fans of the technical aspects of film-making, The Illusionist has some secrets to reveal, but everybody else could probably stay home.

Final Score: B-

 

The Village

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After the massive success of The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan had positioned himself to be the “next big thing” in American cinema. And although Unbreakable didn’t have the same level of commercial success, critical consensus has come down that it was Shyamalan’s best work. People loved Signs, and it too was a hit, but somewhere along the way, M. Night Shyamalan lost his way. Most people point to 2004’s The Village as the moment this happened. His hold on the box office broke, and the critics suddenly stopped fawning over his works. And while I can see why The Village began to alienate so many of Shyamalan’s fans, I’m going to make the unpopular case that The Village isn’t nearly as bad as everyone thinks it is. Take away its absurd ending (which I predicted early on during my first viewing) and you have a genuinely atmospheric thriller centered around a fantastic ensemble cast.

One of the things that makes The Village still enjoyable despite its contrived ending (I’m going to rant a lot about how dumb the ending is without actually saying what it was cause… spoilers) is the genuine sense of place and atmosphere leaking out of every frame. Shyamalan’s greatest strength as a director and writer has always been lending a feeling of authenticity and sincerity to his workThe titular village feels lived in, and early on, the film deftly sets up a steady stream of interesting tidbits and secrets hidden within the nooks and crannies of the village that flood the film with Shyamalan’s trademark anxiety. The Village certainly never rises to the level of high drama, but it doesn’t want to. However, as a spooky period thriller it delivers legitimate chills even when you want to punch somebody in the face for how god-awful the twist at the end is.

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Deep in the Pennsylvania woods, in the late 1800s, lies a village cut off from the rest of the world. Though the town is peaceful and happy, it has a dark secret. The townspeople are beset on all sides by monstrous creatures that live in the woods. Though there have been no sightings by “those that we do not speak of” for many years, fear of their wrath is enough to keep the townsfolk scared and within the borders of their peaceful hamlet. When a young child gets sick and dies, brave Lucius Hunt (The Master‘s Joaquin Phoenix) believes that the only hope for the future of the village is to leave its borders and seek the nearby towns for medical advances.

Lucius immediately runs into the disapproval of the town’s elders who insist that no one exit the town for fear of “those that we do not speak of.” And so Lucius must grow frustrated even as he finally speaks his love for the beautiful Ivy Walker (The Help‘s Bryce Dallas Howard), the blind but tomboyish daughter of the town’s head elder (Kiss of the Spider Woman‘s William Hurt). But when the blooming romance between Ivy and Lucius enrages the jealousy of the mentally disabled Noah Pearcy (Midnight in Paris‘s Adrien Brody), a terrible act of violence makes breaching the village’s borders a matter of life and death, and Lucius and Ivy must confront the village’s secrets once and for all.

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Lest any one still think that Bryce Dallas Howard only has a career because her father is director Ron Howard, let The Village and The Help (her performance being one of the few good things about that garbage film) be shining examples of why that isn’t true. The romantic chemistry between Ivy and Lucius helps hold the film together as well as the ultimate bravery that we learn rests deep within Ivy, and Bryce Dallas Howard (along with Joaquin Phoenix) made that possible when the film’s dialogue seemed overly silly. Adrien Brody also really excelled as the both innocent and violent Noah Percy.

The Village also succeeds with  a lush cinematography with an exquisite understanding of the value of a strong color palette. The movie is awash in shades of red and yellow, and when one dominant color presides, it heightens the entire mood of a scene. And, a fantastic use of fire and candle light accentuate the period appeal of The Village‘s setting. The movie’s score also works to help enhance the anxiety and fear of the unknown that defines the life of the people living in this village.

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Sadly, The Village has one of the dumbest endings this side of The Lost Symbol. And it’s not that the ending itself is so bad. Conceptually, I sort of appreciate the whole notion of the world that Shyamalan has created in this movie. It is the utter ineptitude with which Shyamalan reveals his master twist (and by that, I mean the very last “twist” of the film not an earlier, somewhat foreshadowed one). I feel it’s safe to say that Shyamalan gives absolutely no foreshadowing of the actual truth of this film in The Village. This was my third viewing of the film in my life, and I saw no hints of what was coming later on. The only way to pull of the twist Shyamalan uses is to make it possible for audiences to guess it, and the only reason I guessed it the first time I watched it was because it was the most insane twist I could possibly think up. Sadly, I was right.

The Village has garnered a lot of hate over the years, but honestly, the only area of the film that deserves the hate is the ending. At the end of the day, The Village is a fun, modern spin on the American fairy tale and of boogeymen and things that go bump in the night. It crafts a tale around a fascinating mythology and places it in a context of classic character archetypes and solid performances. By no means is the film as earth-shattering as The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, but The Village mostly succeeds on its own terms even as Shyamalan tries to destroy his own work in the film’s final act. I recommend giving The Village another spin. It may have aged better than you think.

Final Score: B

 

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“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

It’s arguably the most important line from arguably one of the most important film of the 1970s. It’s the last meaningful line of Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Chinatown, but I can begin a review of the film with it because it manages not to spoil the cataclysmic event that has just occurred while at the same it manages to encapsulate the mood and style of the film in two clipped sentences. Among movie types, and especially among lovers of great screenplays, few films are as iconic as Chinatown. Robert Towne’s script is often heralded as the single greatest screenplay of all time. For aspiring screenwriters, it is introduction to screenwriting 101. And for director Roman Polanski (Repulsion), it is usually cited as the crowning achievement of his career. Few films can live up to the hype that surrounds every facet of Chinatown. Not only does Chinatown live up to its own hype, it exceeds them to simply be one of the greatest American films of all time.

Chinatown was Roman Polanski’s first film after the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate (as well as several family friends) at the hands of the Manson family (for more information on that terrible incident, I highly recommend Vincent Bugliosi’s true crime novel Helter Skelter). That’s an important piece of background information because the the senseless destruction in his personal life translates into one of cinema’s most evocative tales of despair, fatalism, and the darker realities of life. In fact, Robert Towne’s original screenplay was much lighter and Polanski made him change the ending to something much darker and tragic. Roman Polanski transforms the horrors of his own life into cinema’s starkest portrayal of inhumanity and simultaneously manages to deconstruct the entire film noir genre into its true, seedy building blocks.

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Robert Towne’s story for Chinatown is like marvelously constructed bit of modern architecture where a million tiny pieces keep this dizzying structure in place, but if you were to remove just one piece, the whole building would come crashing down. Jake Gittes (About Schmidt‘s Jack Nicholson) is a private detective specializing in catching spouses in moments of infidelity. A fastidiously dressed man, obsessed with his image, Jake is excellent at his job. In fact, it’s his talent for snooping into other people’s private lives that ends up getting him in trouble and tangled in a case that not only threatens his career but his very life. One day, a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) appears in Jake’s office and asks him to see if her husband is having an affair. And thus, a tangled web of lies, deceit, and murder begins.

Working your way through the labyrinth of Chinatown’s script for your first time is one of a true cinephile’s great pleasures so I fret over spoiling too many aspects of the film. Let us throw down some basic building blocks then without revealing too much of what’s to come. Jake is great at what he does and it doesn’t take long before he catches Mr. Mulwray spending a day with a beautiful young girl. But, somebody steals his photos of the rendezvous and puts them in the paper. The real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) threatens to sue Jake for defaming her husband’s name but it isn’t long before Mr. Mulwray winds up dead in a reservoir. Jake wants to find out who set him and Mr. Mulwray up and along the way he stumbles into a web of public corruption more powerful than he could have ever imagined.

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I could harp on this for pages and pages and feel like I’ve already over-emphasized it, but Robert Towne’s screenplay is the real star of the film (though virtually every other facet of the film is practically flawless as well and is what makes the film such a timeless classic). Whenever you hear someone talk about the fundamental dynamics of a functional screenplay, Chinatown has all of them. From the opening images of the film down to its shocking denouement, Chinatown never wastes a second. Every line and every action has meaning. There is no filler. Even seemingly minor incidents come back in massive ways. In fact, most people’s second viewing of Chinatown will be spent marveling at all of the subtle and easy-to-miss foreshadowing that Towne accomplishes in the first couple of acts. This is a thinking man’s mystery that only gets more enjoyable upon repeated viewings.

It also doesn’t hurt that Chinatown is both an exercise in film noir mastery but it also manages to drop a ten megaton nuclear bomb on every film noir cliche that came before. Similar (but superior) to Gene Hackman’s Harry Moseby in Night Moves, Jake is a a three-dimensional figure. Rather than being a vision of honor in a world of seedy gangsters and dangerous femme fatales, Jake is just a guy doing his job that cares a little too much what others think about him. He’s got a soft spot for dames, and he just can’t let things go. But for all of the ways that Chinatown darkens and expands on the foundations that classic noir left before it, it still does all of the crime-solving and mystery-unraveling better than anything else out there. Thanks to the breadcrumbs of clues that Towne distributes, the slow series of revelations throughout the film never seems forced or beyond belief.

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If you’ve ever seen a Roman Polanski film before, whether it’s Tess or Rosemary’s Baby or any of his other classic films, it’s very obvious that Polanski is a very visual film maker and Chinatown is no exception. The movie is very fond of long, long takes. The average take in a film (even back in the 70s when the takes were longer) was about four or five seconds. Chinatown‘s takes are often somewhere between 30 seconds and a full minute. There’s a certain technical wizardry involved in almost every shot of the film and Chinatown was one of the first great noir films shot in color. And, even without the help of black and white, Chinatown still makes great use of the shadows and soft lighting that defined the noir genre before. But at the end of the day, what stuck with me the most visually with the film were the long takes which heightened the immersion of the film to a massive degree.

And just to be the icing on the well-directed, masterfully-written cake, the performances are all highly impressive. Jack Nicholson gives easily one of the top five performances of an already peerless career as the beleaguered J. J. Gittes. Jake is cocky, charming, smooth, a little bit racist, and all-around kind of a dick. However, the role lacks any of the manic energy you often associate with Jack Nicholson (i.e. in The Shining). And so, you get to see how talented Nicholson can be even when he has to be restrained and subtle. It’s one of my favorite “change of pace” roles from one of Hollywood’s favorite leading men. Also, perhaps as a young person, I’m just so used to seeing “old man Jack Nicholson,” but watching Chinatown, you are immediately and constantly reminded why Nicholson was an iconic sex symbol and notorious ladies man. He’s able to be a charmer even with a massive bandage covering his nose.

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Faye Dunaway provides easily one of the definitive femme fatale performances in all of film noir. It is as important to the genre as Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. But what makes Dunaway’s performance one of the greatest of all time is, perhaps, helped by the script which slowly unravels the onion of her character, but also because Dunaway finds the dualistic nature that composes the haunted and almost broken Evelyn. It’s really a shame that Mommy Dearest ruined her career because she was one of the all-time great female leads. Legendary director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) also provides a stunning turn as Evelyn’s evil and very powerful father, Noah Cross.

It is entirely possible that I have now overhyped this film for any of my reviewers who have somehow managed to get this far in their lives and still have not seen Chinatown. It’s one of the greatest movies ever made, and those expectations are a little hard to match. I hope you ultimately feel the same way about it as I do. Just a little over a week removed from my “A+” score for Glengarry Glen Ross, we’re back here again for Chinatown. Both films deserve  perfect marks. What’s crazy is that either today or tomorrow, I have to watch The Godfather: Part 1 and within a week or so, I’ll be watching The Godfather: Part 2. That likely means that we’re going to have the most “A+”s in a single 50 block unit of movies that I’ve had since 2011. I’m excited about it though.

Final Score: A+

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Some times, you know love a movie ten minutes in. From the opening shots of J.J. Gittes’s well-maintained (but somehow seedy and desperate) office in Chinatown, I knew I was going to love that movie. From the first bit of dialogue between Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer in Pulp Fiction in the diner, I knew I loved that movie. That’s not always the case. Sometimes, I may not even realize I loved a film until a day after I watched it. That’s what happened with Werner Herzog’s Stroszek. Arthur Penn’s now seminal neo-noir classic Night Moves is the definition of a slow burning film but when you reach its explosive pay-off, it’s all worth it.

Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) is a hell of a private detective but not much of a man in his private life. The same sure-eyed obsession that helps him always solve his cases isolates him from his wife (who’s having an affair) and any thing resembling a social life. So, all he has to look forward to is the thrill of the chase and basking in the glory days of his short-lived professional football career. When Harry gets a job trying to find the missing daughter (Melanie Griffiths) of a faded movie starlet, he finds himself thrown into a case that not only threatens to destroy the last strands of his relationship with his life but could pose a threat to his very life when it turns out that nothing is remotely what it seems.

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Along with Roman Polanski/Robert Towne’s Chinatown, this was one of the most important film noir movies that established character development as key to the success of the genre. Although the Sam Spades and Phillip Marlowe’s of the world were archetypes of honor in seedy worlds, they were almost devoid actual character and depth. More time is spent exploring what makes Harry Moseby tick in this film than is spent on the actual criminal investigation in the case. In fact, the case seems almost so secondary to this film that I couldn’t put my finger on what the point was of the whole film until all of the pieces gelled together for the film’s spectacular finale.

And carrying the weight of the film’s psychological complexity is the masterful turn from Gene Hackman as the schmuck of a detective. He thinks he’s the type of honorable man that Sam Spade and Phil Marlowe turned out to be, but in reality, he’s in it for reasons as personal and self-centered as those he despises. And Hackman, who was reaching the crest of middle age, finds the world-weariness and tired edge that defines Harry as much as his marital woes and his professional tenacity. And throw in great turns from Melanie Griffiths, James Wood, and Jennifer Warren, and you have a delightfully acted film.

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The film is as dark and brooding as they get, and if one thinks about the era where the film was made, the jaded cynicism and pessimism that lies at the core of the film is the perfect summation of post-Watergate angst and paranoia. The world of Night Moves is one of corruption, despair, and greed, and even the characters least touched by vice aren’t spared by the costs of the inequities of others. No one is innocent and everyone suffers. The suffering just catches up to some characters sooner or later.

I didn’t actually think I was enjoying Night Moves that much until well past the hour mark in the film. The plot meanders at a snail-like pace for a while until you realize just how perfectly the screenwriter was setting up the pieces for its denouement. But when it all comes together, you get a feel for how structurally sound a film this was and you almost get mad at yourself for questioning what has come before. Still, on a first watch, you may find yourself turned off by the film’s initial tepid pace. Let me promise you that if you invest the time in this movie, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best mystery films of the 1970s.

Final Score: A-

 

Primal Fear

What does justice truly mean in America? Is the point of our criminal justice system retribution, rehabilitation, or something else entirely? What matters more, ensuring that the innocent are never convicted of a crime or pursuing the guilty by any means necessary? Tragically, far too much of the American populace and those in charge of dishing out the sentences for criminal actions tend to work in the hellfire and brimstone vengeance school of thought and if a couple of innocent people get trampled along the way, well that’s the price to pay to stop evil. Even most movies paint law and order in a starkly black and white perspective. You are either innocent or guilty and you should either face the full weight of the law or absolutely nothing. Most cinema fails to capture the shades of gray that define such antiquated subjects as guilt and innocence. And that’s without getting into cinema’s complete lack of understanding of the way actual courtrooms work which cause nearly every pre-law and law school student to devolve into massive fits of outrage at the screenwriter’s poor research skills. Perhaps that’s why Primal Fear was so interesting. It wasn’t as realistic a crime procedural as Zodiac, but it asked some tough questions about what we truly stand for in our nation’s legal system. It’s a shame the film’s (admittedly brilliantly pulled off) twist ending subverted nearly every question the film answered from beginning to end.

Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is the most successful and famous criminal defense attorney in Chicago. Interested in both the wealth and notoriety of taking on high-visibility criminal cases, Vail also legitimately cares that his clients are afforded the full protection of the Constitution. When a nineteen year old altar boy, Aaron Stampler (Fight Club‘s Edward Norton), is caught running from the scene of the murder of an archbishop covered in blood, his seemingly open-shut case has Aaron on the fast track to death row. Believing that the challenge of at least keeping Aaron off death row will help garner him more fame, Vail decides to take on Aaron’s case pro bono despite the overwhelming evidence of his guilt. Vail finds himself up against his ex-girlfriend (The Savages‘ Laura Linney) as the prosecuting attorney and a vindictive Attorney General (Frasier‘s John Mahoney) as Vail fights to ensure that Aaron gets a just trial. Much of the film relies on a series of perfectly implemented reveals so I’ll refrain from ruining any of the other pieces in this giant legal puzzle.

I’ve never really understood the appeal of Richard Gere before. He was just another Hollywood pretty boy, but he did a great job in this movie (though not as great as Ed Norton). Martin Vail is all about being a rakish charmer, and Richard Gere just oozes charisma in the role. And when it comes time to be angry or torn or confused, he nails all of those emotions as well. However, this was Ed Norton’s film. I feel like I can’t get into too much of what made his performance so phenomenal without ruining the film, but let’s just say that as excellent as he is at the beginning of the film, if you’re concerned that his performance is going to be a little one note, you’re wrong. I won’t say this is the best performance of Ed Norton’s career (that goes to his part in American History X), but he was most certainly better than Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire. Ed Norton is one of the most under-rated actors of his generation, and as far as breakthrough roles go, it’s pretty hard to top this one.

I’m not generally a fan of courtroom dramas. As someone who was actually a student of the law for a while, I know how awful they are, and while even Primal Fear had me tearing my hair out at moments that would have never been allowed to happen in a real courtroom, it still managed to ask enough interesting questions about the very nature of our legal system that I had to forgive its technical flaws. This is one of those films that relies so heavily on twists (albeit twists that don’t feel cheap when you actually think about them because they’re all foreshadowed well enough) that it’s difficult to discuss some of the themes of the film without ruining things. Yet, the notion of guilt and innocence, sanity and insanity, and justice versus a railroaded trial all form the core of this film, and for the most part, the film offers up an intriguing take on these issues that gibed with my political belief system. While I think the ending still cheapened the rest of the film (though its twist was brilliantly pulled off as I’ve said), part of me could also make a case for how it forces you to face the realities of the liberal legal idealism that the movie was wanting you to espouse.

I was shocked by how engrossed I found this film despite not being the typical crime thriller fan. That statement alone serves as the best recommendation I can give to this film. Even for non-thriller/non-crime procedural fans, Primal Fear delivers a cerebral and white-knuckle ride into the heart of our justice system and the hearts and minds of the people at the core of this system. Some elements of the plot are a little contrived/predictable (and some subplots were more left-field than others), but with a film shouldered on the backs of the great performances of Richard Gere and Edward Norton, Primal Fear is easy to recommend even to people who aren’t fans of the genre. It may not be the most unconventional tale ever told (though it has its share of dark and disturbing moments that managed to shock me in their depravity), but it’s a solidly constructed film that I can recommend to virtually all of my readers. I still find myself torn about its ending, but I’m sure after some thought over the next couple of days, I’ll be able to come down one way or the other on whether it hurt or helped the overall film.

Final Score: B+

When I watched the original Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larrson’s novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was very intrigued with the inherently unsettling nature of the material (as well as the great performances from leads Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist) but I found myself disappointed with the very conventional nature in which it was filmed. The tale is so dementedly lurid and disturbing, but that unease and hint of depravity never permeated the film (except for its most horrific moments). I’m a firm believer that form should follow function, and a dark tale deserves an equally dark style of filming, and the Swedish version never delivered. I knew before I watched the original that David Fincher was directing the American version, and as anyone who has seen Zodiac, Se7en, or Fight Club can attest, David Fincher is one of the true auteurs of dark and menacing cinema. He (along with the Oscar winning script of Aaron Sorkin) even managed to transform the tale of the founding of Facebook into a modern parable of greed and shattered loyalties. It should come as no surprise then that Fincher’s re-imagining of a conventional mystery (that happens to feed on reader’s darkest voyeuristic fears) should stand head and shoulders above the 2009 original and possibly even Larsson’s novel. Proving himself yet again as one of the most under-appreciated talents in Hollywood, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the rare event film that lives up to its promises.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a whodunit in the classic vein with fascinating characters and settings to offset its more well-worn plot. Mikael Blomqvist (current James Bond, Daniel Craig) is a Swedish investigative journalist (who for no apparent reason has a British accent) who has been publicly disgraced after he accuses a wealthy industrialist of criminal activities but is instead successfully sued for libel. Lisbeth Salander (Youth in Revolt‘s Rooney Mara) is a 24 year old computer hacker and poster child for goth fashion working for a security firm as a researcher for background investigations and other sensitive issues. A ward of the state (for setting her father on fire when she was a little girl) Lisbeth is the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her state appointed guardian. Mikael is hired by Henrik Vanger (The Last Station‘s Christopher Plummer), another wealthy businessman, to investigate the 40 year old unsolved murder of his niece, Harriet. Before long, Mikael and Lisbeth cross paths and team up to take down a decades long conspiracy of serial killers, nazis, and unspeakable abuses against women all while navigating the minefield that is the Vanger clan.

As highly as I spoke of Noomi Rapace’s performance in the original film, Rooney Mara simply blew away all expectations. Combining all of the fiery strength and righteous fury that made Noomi Rapace so captivating with even more complex layers of vulnerability and nuanced emotions, Mara has given the best female performance since Natalie Portman last year in Black Swan (although to be fair I haven’t seen very many of the award type films of 2011 yet [I’ll get there]). Much like Carey Mulligan in An Education in 2009, we have a young actress who may have had a few small roles here and there in her past, but she steps up to the bat in a huge way for what will surely be her break out film. Very few actress can give such naked performances (emotionally and literally) without coming off as slightly over the top. But I was consistently wowed by Ms. Mara’s seemingly veteran chops, and I know she’s going to be a force to reckon with in the future. Daniel Craig was serviceable even if he was the only person in the film without a Swedish accent. Stellan Skaarsgard (Thor) was also exceptional as one of the members of the Vanger clan, and he remains a foreign talent who fortunately gets the American attention he deserves.

Again with the references to Black Swan, but not since Darren Aranofsky took me down the rabbit hole with last year’s Black Swan have I enjoyed simply looking at a film as I did The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (though once again, I haven’t seen Melancholia and The Tree of Life which are the big artsy films of the year). Style is first and foremost in this film (as the plot itself can get a little messy) and David Fincher creates perhaps his most visually unique film since Se7en. Whether it’s the desolate yet gorgeous shots of the Swedish landscape or a dark-lit and grungy apartment building, Fincher either includes so much detail in any given shot that you spend as much time examining the frames as listening to the story or its composed in such a simply striking manner that you are forced to recognize just how much work and artistry went into every frame. The lighting is generally superb and Trent Reznor has secured himself another Oscar nomination (if not another win) for his score. Even when the composition of a shot isn’t contributing to the overwhelming sense of tension and depravity, Fincher works within the bounds of the plot to simply add more life and terror to the minutiae of the investigation at the core of the film than the original film could ever manage.

My only complaint with the film is essentially one of the same problems I had with the first. No matter how disturbing and creepy this tale can be, it is just your average detective story, and unlike Fincher’s earlier film, Zodiac, watching the mystery become unraveled isn’t quite as much fun as it should be. It has some pacing problems here and there although since it’s over two and a half hours long that is to be expected. The movie takes a little longer to get off its feet than I remember from the first (though that does give us time to better know our two heroes), and it’s last twenty minutes drag and could have used the similar editing that they received in the Swedish version. It’s not the most puzzling mystery you’ll see on screen and I called who the killer was during my first viewing and my sister knew who it was when we saw Fincher’s version together (though I feel like he televises the solution a little more obviously than the Swedish film), so there’s no “I’m Tyler Durden” moment in this film that you’ll be talking about in ten years although you may leave the theater unable to shake its most nightmare inducing scenes for the next several weeks.

At the end of the day, all fans of Fincher’s previous films should watch The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In a world where the most prominent female heroes are the almost useless Sookie Stackhouse and Bella Swan, a fierce and determined female with her own distinct identity like Lisbeth Salander is a feminist breath of fresh air. This film can be extremely graphic and while the scenes of sexual abuse and rape are not played for exploitation, they will not be for everyone and I saw people walking out of the theatre because they could not handle the very intense nature of this film. David Fincher continues to make his name as one of the best directors in the country, and his vision (along with her fiery performance) has hopefully shot Rooney Mara to stardom. I will be watching the two Swedish sequels in the coming weeks to prepare myself for the remaining films in the trilogy when they finally come stateside as I simultaneously pray that David Fincher remains to direct this franchise to conclusion. Along with Darren Aranofsky and David Lynch, he owns his vision for his films, and the series wouldn’t be the same without him. Crime thriller fans owe themselves a quick jaunt to their local multiplex and into madness for you will surely not be disappointed.

Final Score: A

Have you ever had a dream where you were so scared that you couldn’t speak. You were so immobilized with fear that no sound would come out of you. It is a terrifying feeling to be in danger and know that you have no way of alerting others to your plight. This is why isolation and loneliness are such major themes of so many horror films. The films hope to prey on that most basic of human fears and use it to enhance the sense of terror from whoever the film’s villain may be, whether this is Michael Meyers, Jason Vorhees, or random strangers terrorizing you and your wife in a cabin. In 1946’s The Spiral Staircase, this terrifying sense of helpless vulnerability is taken to its logical extreme by making the  endangered heroine mute and showing that without one’s voice, we are as shieldless among others as we are alone if no one can hear us scream. Alas, a fairly predictable and conventional plot are saddled with the additional burdens of hammy over-acting and the subtlety of a wrecking ball, but thankfully, the film’s cinematography is simply gorgeous and saves what would have otherwise been a terribly mediocre picture.

In The Spiral Staircase, Dorothy McGuire plays Helen Capel, a mute serving girl caring for the elderly Mrs. Warren (an Oscar-nominated Ethel Barrymore) in her massive estate. The film begins by setting up the major conflict of the film which is that a serial killer has been murdering all of the disabled women in town and has just murdered a crippled woman in her hotel room. Everyone in town believes that Helen will be next, and so she is under strict orders not to leave the mansion of the large family she takes care of. Rounding out the cast are George Brent as Mrs. Warren’s son, a professor, and the virtual patriarch of the mansion as Mrs. Warren is very ill and bed-ridden, Kent Smith as the local doctor who loves Helen, and Gordon Oliver as Professor Warren’s womanizing stepbrother. As the night progresses, we soon see how any of these men could potentially be the killer, and slowly but surely, the killer begins to make his move to take out the defenseless Helen.

Despite the heavy-handed nature of the story which tried to sell you so obviously on certain characters being the killer that you knew it wasn’t them, this film was shot in a stunning black-and-white and the effective camera-work made even the most obviously red-herring scenes more tense than the actual final stand-off. The film did some really creative things in terms of composition of shots such as some scenes being shot as reflected off of an eyeball. It’s been done to death these days, but in the 1940’s, that was a fairly revolutionary technique and it works. Also, the shadow work was phenomenal and it did an extraordinary amount to sell the tension and grimness of the proceedings. Ethel Barrymore was always shot in such a way as to make her seem like an even more ill and crazy version of Miss Havisham from David Lean’s version of Great Expectations.

For fans of classic crime thrillers, this is definitely a must watch as it will throw in virtually every trope and cliche of the murder mystery genre. At one point a character says that the killer could be anyone in the room, and I almost started laughing because no one says that line in a serious voice these days. This film hails from a more innocent and less refined time, and as an initial foray into some light psychological thrills, the movie definitely has some value. For those who require the complexity and ambiguity of modern thrillers, you may find this film to be hopelessly ham-fisted but one must always remember to analyze old films in the context of their times and not necessarily by today’s standards. I’m not able to forgive the acting which was pretty over-the-top all around except for maybe Ethel Barrymore, so that’s the only truly awful part of the film. All in all though, if you’re looking for a good thrill that you’ve never seen before, you could do worse than The Spiral Staircase.

Final Score: B-

 

Occasionally, one comes across a film that is simply so quirky and its characters so eccentric, the audience is unable to suspend its disbelief and fully embrace the fiction of the film’s universe. I am unable to enjoy Napoleon Dynamite because despite my love of quirky, eccentric films, it crosses that invisible line between unique and enters the world of pretentiously self-aware. I have a similar problem with the overly idiosyncratic dialogue of Juno which tries to come off as cute and fresh but instead comes off as forced and insincere. If one were to watch Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of John Berendt’s true crime novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and not know it were a true story, they might be forgiven for thinking this film was simply trying too hard to come off as weird and eccentric with its seeming overflow of strange characters inhabiting an almost mystical world. Yet, the reality that this is a true story (mostly since several details from the novel were changed) adds an authentic oddity to this film that allows it to be a preservation of an especially strange chapter of our American story. While it is far from Clint Eastwood’s best work and the addition of a romantic subplot not present in the novel did nothing to help the film, this was still an incredibly intriguing film which keeps its hooks in you for its entire 2 and half hour length.

Loosely based around actual events in Savannah, Georgia, in the 1980’s, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil recounts the sprawling saga of a complex and scandalous murder trial of one of the town’s most celebrated figures as well as providing an extraordinarily strange portrait of high society in the deep south. John Kelso (John Cusack) is a journalist from the North who has been sent to Savannah to write a magazine piece on a Christmas party being thrown by noted antiques collector and closeted homosexual Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). After witnessing a fight between Jim and Jim’s live-in lover Billy Hanson (Jude Law), John is woken in the middle of night to the sound of police cars and discovers that Jim shot Billy to death. Jim claims it was self-defense but some unconvincing evidence sways the police to charge Jim with murder, and John finds himself drawn into the murder trial of Jim, the experiences from which he is hoping to use to write a book. Along the way, John finds himself interviewing every aspect of Savannah society, from old, past their primes southern Belles to the drag queen, Lady Chablis (playing herself), to the height of debutante society to a voodoo witch doctor all to find out the truth behind this vexing mystery.

As the film runs for over two and a half hours, you’d expect that an attention to detail would be key and you would be right. Clint Eastwood and his camera (as well as the script itself) revel in the delight of capturing every minute detail of this microcosm of Southern society. Using the Northern John Kelso as the audience stand-in, we are dropped in a world that is practically alien in its strangeness. Everyone, including old women, carry loaded guns and are able to laugh and tell charming anecdotes about their dead husbands’ suicides. No one even suspects that the incredibly masculine looking Lady Chablis was a drag queen because homosexuality is just ignored in these circles (even though they all “knew” that Jim was gay). A man walks a non-existent dog on a leash every day because it was a job he was paid to do a long time ago and no one ever took him off the books when the dog died. A man walks around with flies tethered to his body on strings and carries around poison that he consistently threatens to use on the town, but no one really bats an eye. The details never stop even after the film is over, and it’s a delight to lose yourself in this strange antebellum world.

Outside of his early role in Say Anything, I’ve never considered John Cusack a top-shelf actor, and nothing about this performance does anything to change my mind. It wasn’t bad. It’s just the most boring role in the film and he didn’t do anything to freshen the part up. Kevin Spacey bears what can only be called a frightening physical resemblance to the real-life Jim Williams, and while this isn’t a The Usual Suspects or American Beauty caliber performance, he definitely plays the restrained southern genteel aristocracy quite well. If Lady Chablis weren’t playing herself, I would have said that she had stole the entire film. Out of a cast full of memorable characters and distinct personalities, she tops the list and then some. She is perhaps the most open and honest person in the entire film, and since she is herself in this role, the authenticity of her performance is staggering. She also adds the film some darkly comic moments whenever things begin to get too serious with the trial and John’s investigations. Needless to say, she was a star in a cast with established stars.

Even at two and a half hours, this film moved at the perfect pace as fans of other true crime novels like Helter Skelter or the movie Zodiac will love getting lost in the investigation and trial that John Berendt documented for his book (although in the book, there were four trials as compared to the single trial in the film). My only complaint about the film was the unnecessary love story involving John Kelso and one of the local women who was played by director Clint Eastwood’s daughter, Alison. I would never accuse Clint Eastwood of nepotism but I can’t think of any other reason for why that part of the movie is in the film. Once again, Alison Eastwood did fine in her role, but it didn’t contribute anything productive to the film. For fans of true crime books and movies as well as for those who love scathing deconstructions of the so called perfect societies as done in Blue Velvet and here, this is a must watch.

Final Score: B+

Mentally exhausted is the first word to comes to mind to describe my state of being at the moment. I just finished my first David Lynch film for this blog, and it was a bit of a doozy. I’m a big fan of David Lynch and his movies, as I’ve stated countless times on this blog. Mulholland Drive was simply one of the best films of the 2000’s much like Blue Velvet was for the 1980’s. There are few (if any) directors on Earth who are capable of combining sheer mind screw and non-linear storytelling into such grandiose pieces of art as David Lynch. His debut picture, Eraserhead, still remains (even with its bare semblance of a plot) one of the most disturbing and artful films that I’ve ever seen. I just finished his most recent film, 2006’s Inland Empire, and it is by far the most difficult of Lynch’s films to watch because the viewer will spend three hours on a psychological roller-coaster ride through the disturbing mind of David Lynch and not get much in the way of plot to ease the travels. While it is not for everyone (or even 90% of people), if you can make this journey, it will be worth the trip.

It is an exercise in futility to try and explain the plot of Inland Empire as it is quite secondary to the style, themes, and imagery of the film, but here goes. Laura Dern plays married actress Nikki Grace who has been cast as the lead actress in the newest film of director Kingsley (Jeremy Irons). Her co-star is the rakish Deven (Justin Theroux). Nikki ends up sleeping with Deven but you are unable to tell if this is part of the film or really happening (or all in Nikki’s mind). While the film starts out with plenty of weirdness, at the end of the first act, one just has to give up on the whole grasping the film thing and just go along for the ride because trying to keep up with the psychological head trip that is the film will just cause the viewer to have an aneurysm.

As always, Lynch’s camerawork is superb. This is the first Lynch film I’ve reviewed for this blog, but I’ve seen plenty of his movies before this. Having seen a couple of Federico Fellini’s pictures sine this blog began, I was struck with an incredible bit of awe in just how Fellini-esque Lynch can be at times. While Lynch is undoubtedly one of the most unique and original brains in the industry, I can definitely see more of his inspirations now that my knowledge of cinema has grown. Much of the camera work is meant to be disorienting to add to the viewers level of confusion from the already fuzzy plot, and it works marvelously. Not only is the camera work intentionally disorienting and all over the place, it can be extremely terrifying. Not since Eraserhead has a film disturbed me on such a deep and confusingly unexplainable level. The mind of David Lynch is not a place that I would wish to stay for too long, and Inland Empire drops you straight into his subconscious for three hours of pure bewilderment and terror.

Laura Dern is simply stellar in this role. I’d be willing to go ahead and say that this is the second best female performance on this blog, only trailing Natalie Portman in Black Swan. By playing an actress that I believe gets intensely caught up in her own role with a steadily declining mental state, Laura Dern channels so many different levels of emotion and energy that it’s a wonder she didn’t end up like her character, Nikki. Dern plays around four or five distinct roles in the film, which are all unique and vastly different creations. Yet she brings more talent and character to each of those parts, then most actresses can give to characters who have stories that make sense. While I thought she had done a good job in Blue Velvet, I was not prepared for her acting tour-de-force in this role. It’s a sin she wasn’t at least nominated for an Oscar for this part. It’s easily her finest.

David Lynch is notorious for refusing to offer explanations for his films. He wishes to simply let them stand on their own merits and doesn’t want to detract from the viewer’s pleasure of extracting their own meanings from the films. So, any time someone tries to analyze and state definitively what a Lynch film is about, they are basically full of shit. Even though I felt Mulholland Drive was fairly straight forward, my own interpretation of the film is simply that. It’s my opinion. I believe that Inland Empire is about an actress with an already fragile mental state who simply loses all grips on reality when she accepts the film role that ultimately consumes her. Very much in the vein of Mulholland Drive and especially Lost Highway, it’s an incredibly psychological and distinctly dream-like journey through Nikki’s conscious. David Lynch wrote the film as they were shooting it. So, while the beginning scenes were being shot, he didn’t necessarily know where the film would go next. This lends the film its ethereal and dream-like structure which makes it so incredibly unique.

Most films are like popcorn. You watch them, and fifteen minutes later they’re gone. The best films are different. Long after they’re over, you will spend hours and hours analyzing them in your head and trying to make sense of what you just saw. While David Lynch practically forces you to spend hours analyzing his films because he’s never going to explain them for you, mind screw isn’t the only way to achieve this goal. However, David Lynch turned mind screw into an art form that he is the undisputed master of. This should not be the first David Lynch film you watch. Start with Blue Velvet and then go to Mulholland Drive. You can then watch this, Eraserhead, or Lost Highway in any particular order you prefer. However, you need an entry level course in the craziness that is David Lynch before you can even begin to approach this film. If you need films with sane plots and things like resolution or climaxes, this is not for you. However, if you have even the slightest appreciation of art-house cinema and are familiar with the works of David Lynch, this is must watch.

Final Score: A