Category: Crime Thriller


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(A quick aside before I begin my review. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. My Funny Games review from August to be exact. It’s been a busy Fall for me. I finally have a final draft version of my long gestating film noir screenplay that’s consumed me for much of this semester. I also got hired to be the interim managing editor for a month for the music journalism site that I write for on occasion, and I also more recently got hired to do freelance reviews by GameSpot, one of the internet’s biggest video game journalism websites. That said, it’s my goal to do these reviews for my “A” and “A+” films with more consistency cause I like to keep this particular writing muscle fresh.)

Civil libertarians (that are not the same thing as the Rand-ian variety) will tell you that if there’s a societal demand and there isn’t a net negative utility to the supply of this demand, then there should be no governmental impediment to its delivery. Generally, I’m inclined to agree with that world view. But, as with all axiomatic principles, that involves accepting some rather ugly consequences of that philosophy. We want to get high, but addiction flourishes. We want freedom of artistic expression, but crude and vapid reality television rules the airways. We want unfiltered access to “news” and the stunning Nightcrawler examines how low we’ll sink to get it.

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In the age of torture porn, extreme gore, and fresh off the assembly line horror, it’s easy to become desensitized to the violence and brutality of horror movies. With the exception of the best modern horror (The Descent, Let the Right One In, American Psycho), audiences come in expecting personality-free, nubile youth to be murdered in increasingly “clever” and fresh ways to sate some primal blood lust. And while I love the original Scream as much as any body who grew up in the 90s, there’s something ethically repugnant about taking pleasure in the suffering of others, even if said others are obnoxious, fictional constructs. Austrian director Michael Haneke (Amour) shares those misgivings, and his 1997 psychological anti-horror masterpiece, Funny Games, is a scathing middle finger at anyone who thinks abuse can pass for entertainment.

With all of the dangers of Poe’s Law in full effect, Funny Games is satire played brutally, viscerally straight. When it made its premiere at Cannes, many critics mistook Haneke’s intentions and thought Funny Games was a vile, reprehensible extension of the increasingly raw horror films of the 90s. And it was all those things, but that was intentional. Funny Games is nothing short of Michael Haneke’s attempts to play the soul-crushing terror, violence, and cruelty of modern horror without any of the titillating entertainment/escapism/power fantasy that often seeps into the genre. And while the film may be unwatchable to many, that was what Haneke wanted and I suspect the way I watch horror from now on will be colored by my experience with this film.

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Anna (Susanna Lothar) and Georg (Ulrich Mühe) are two upper-class Austrian vacationers on holiday with their son, Georg II (Stefan Clapczynski), at their large summer home. Before their world is turned upside down, Anna and Georg’s life is one of luxury and ease, and they entertain themselves by challenging the other to name increasingly obscure classical compositions. But as soon as they arrive at the lake where their summer home resides, things seem subtly off, and their usually friendly neighbors are oddly distant. But the real horror doesn’t arrive until Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering) show up on their doorstep.

Pretending to be friends of their neighbors (who they’ve already killed), Paul and Peter are grade-A psychopaths quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the cinema before. Although they attempt to appear to be nothing more than slightly rude  youths at first, it doesn’t take long for Paul and Peter to reveal their true colors by murdering the family dog and breaking Georg’s leg with a golf club. And from there on, Paul and Peter submit the family to a series of increasingly cruel mind games, centered around a bet that the family won’t leave til 9 AM the next day. And, needless to say, the deck is stacked against Anna and Georg.

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Funny Games utilizes a modernist disrespect for the fourth wall to help hammer in its points. On several different occasions, Paul turns directly towards the camera and addresses the viewer. He talks to the viewer like they’re a typical horror fan and they’re there to relish in the carnage that’s about to occur (which mostly happens off-screen which enhances the horror because you can’t even get off on the gorn of it all). If Paul’s little asides don’t make you feel like a prick, you’ll never understand what makes this film special. And when the movie has one moment where it seems maybe things may go the heroes’ way, well… let’s just say that Haneke isn’t afraid to remind viewers that this is a movie that he has control over.

And that leads into the most important part of Funny Games and what makes it such a powerful and important film. Funny Games is horror without any of the catharsis that comes with horror as entertainment. In most horror, the majority of the cast will die, but at least one person will live. That figure becomes the audience surrogate. For fear of spoiling the film, you don’t get that release in Funny Games. Some films (even the best like American Psycho) will turn the supreme violence into comedy. There are occasional moments of pitch-black comedy in Funny Games, but it is mostly “hands over your mouth” brutality. Some horror films allow you to get off on the violence by making the ones being killed insufferable pricks. Anna and her family may be minimally characterized, but you’re given no reason to dislike them. And you feel every stab of dread and pain that shoots into their lives.

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Funny Games should have been the last word on home invasion horror films. But the litany of Scream sequels, The Strangers, and the two The Purge films show that Hollywood has failed to grasp this film’s message (that said, I actually think The Strangers is a surprisingly scary horror film). Haneke himself seems to have forgotten the point he made with the original Funny Games considering he would do a shot-for-shot remake 10 years later with American actors. If you make a film that is a harrowing condemnation of the kind of person who would watch this movie in the first place, why would you remake it and invite those who sat through the first one to see that same horrifying tale again? It comes off as vaguely hypocritical.

Funny Games isn’t easy to sit through. It’s as intentionally transgressive and challenging a film as I’ve watched for this blog, and it would have fit right in with the films of the French New Extremity of the early 2000s if they’d been half as philosophically challenging as Haneke’s masterwork. I feel comfortable calling Funny Games the best straight horror film I’ve ever seen (particularly if one counts American Psycho as more cultural satire than horror). But many of you will sit down and be either utterly disgusted by it (which you should) but not understand why, or you’ll find it to be an utter bore. For those that can appreciate the subtext and criticism Haneke lays out, you’re in for one of the most powerfully disturbing films of the 1990s.

Final Score: A+

 

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Certain movie ideas shouldn’t work. A movie about two pretentious intellectuals having a two hour long dinner conversation in real time shouldn’t work. But My Dinner With Andre somehow does. A film adaptation of a decidedly internalized, fantastical religious thought experiment/coming of age tale shouldn’t have been possible to make. But Life of Pi is a modern masterpiece. An animated children’s film (per the filmmaker’s intentions anyway) chronicling a brother and sister slowly starving to death in the wake of the destruction of the second World War would never be greenlit in America. But, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most powerful war films ever made. One can add Robert Altman’s 1973 film noir deconstruction The Long Goodbye to a list of that films that seem insane on paper but turn out great despite any initial misgivings.

Philip Marlowe, the beleaguered but cocksure private eye at the heart of a series of seminal Raymond Chandler mystery novels, became an archetype of all hard-boiled detectives to follow and his portrayal in Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep by Humphrey Bogart set the standard for practically every movie Brother Sheamus afterwards. And Robert Altman’s decision to update the iconic gumshoe from his native 1940s to the decadent 1970s and to transform Marlowe from a portrait of street-wise masculinity to a zen, cat-obsessed stoner makes no sense on paper. Leave it to Robert Altman to utterly buck convention and still craft a noir mystery that outshines many of the films that came before by becoming a masterful commentary on the genre itself (although there’ll never be a better Marlowe than Bogie).

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The Long Goodbye is a loose and modern adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel of the same name. Living in a high-rise penthouse across the way from topless, acid-dropping female yoga enthusiasts, Philip Marlowe (American History X‘s Elliott Gould) has few worries other than getting his cat to eat the off-brand cat food she despises. That is, he’s worry free until his old friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) shows up at his door and asks Marlowe to give him a lift to Tijuana. And the next day, Marlowe quickly learns to regret giving his friend that simple favor when Lennox’s wife turns up dead and days later, Lennox apparently commits suicide in the jungles of Mexico.

And it isn’t long before the cops want to pin Marlowe as an accessory in the murder of Lennox’s wife. And even if he’s able to clear his name from those charges, a gangster by the name of Marty Augustine (The Rose‘s Mark Rydell) thinks Marlowe is covering up the disappearance of Terry Lennox, who stole $350,000 from Marty’s organization. And to round out The Long Goodbye‘s appropriately large Altman cast is Eileen (Nina van Pallandt) and Roger Wade (The Godfather‘s Sterling Hayden) as a married couple whose problems with a suspicious psychiatrist (Henry Gibson) may be related to the murder/suicide of the Lennox family.

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The Long Goodbye is a deliciously anachronistic creation. Taking a story ripped right out of the early 1950s, with one of the most beloved fictional characters of the 1940s, and placing it in the coked-out world of the 1970s and cramming it chock full of period details of both eras is as inspired a decision as Altman has made in his lengthy, illustrious career. Whether it’s the ever-present 1940s jazz standards, Marlowe’s glorious 1948 Lincoln Continental convertible, the suits ripped right out of classic noir wardrobes, and the signs for food prices that are too low even by 1940s standards, The Long Goodbye creates an almost delirious atmosphere of a man totally out of time and place minus the nearly zen koans that pass as his occasional conversations with passer-by.

And, that’s the first of a major string of commentaries that forms the subtext of Altman’s neo-noir masterwork, The Long Goodbye. Film noir hasn’t been fashionable as one of the go-to American movie genres since the 1950s, but heroes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe (both played by Bogie at different points in his career) or Jake Gittes are timeless favorites of all serious movie fans. Although there are aesthetic elements in the appeal of noir (the black and white photography, the gorgeous femme fatales, the fashion), much of the love of the genre is the counter-culture heroes who stand just outside of normal society while still adhering to their own strict codes of honor and morality (something Altman plays with as well in the film’s shocking denouement).

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But other elements of classic noir are on display throughout, yet always in a way that subverts the traditional mold. I’ve read Chandler’s novels and there’s always an undercurrent of perverse homosexual villains (despite the fact that many Chandler historians think he was a closeted homosexual), and The Long Goodbye turns this on its head with one of the most intentionally hilariously homoerotic scenes in noir history in a scene featuring one of the first movie appearances of Arnold Schwarzenegger. And Chandler’s twisting-turning tales with ambiguity are only amplified by this film’s psychedelic, drug-soaked haze.

In practically every way, The Long Goodbye deals with the subversive sexual undertones of Chandler’s works in more honest and apparent detail than The Big Sleep. Released in 1946, Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep was forced to censor so many elements of Chandler’s novel that if you hadn’t read the book, it was nearly impossible to follow. I’ve never read The Long Goodbye (I’ve read The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely), but the film never had to skirt around the darker elements of the story although it also never felt the need to hammer things home in completely ham-fisted trite ways either. This is a Chandler adaptation that captures the spirit of the novels like no other film before or after.

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And, of course, The Big Lebowski couldn’t exist without The Long Goodbye. If The Big Lebowski‘s story is ripped whole-sale from The Big Sleep, it’s visual style is taken directly from this film, and I was honestly stunned by the number of direct visual shout-outs I was able to pick up on just from my first viewing of The Long Goodbye. All of the devil-may-care satire that Robert Altman crams into this film would ultimately be perfected by the Coens in their cult magnum opus. And unlike many later Altman films (i.e. Gosford Park), the film never gets bogged down with so much dialogue that you never quite know who to pay attention to although Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue is still present.

For fans of the 1970s neo-noir renaissance, including gems like Chinatown (arguably the greatest American film ever made) and Arthur Penn’s criminally underappreciated Night Moves, The Long Goodbye should be required viewing. Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe may never capture the public’s imagination the way Humphrey Bogart did, but there’s a drug-fueled logic to his performance and the entire film that is there for the taking if you allow yourself to get lost in the nearly surrealist atmosphere that Altman cultivates. Alongside the film version of M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye is one of the crown jewels in the career of one of America’s most innovate filmmakers.

Final Score: A

 

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Chinatown is arguably one of the five greatest American films ever made if not the greatest period, and while the subtext of cruelty and random violence exists alongside a masterful deconstruction of the elements of classic noir, Chinatown‘s genius primarily resides in being an excellent story perfectly told. It has those elements of being about more than the story of Jake Gittes as well as great characters, but unlike most of the films I herald as “the greatest ever made,” it’s story is 99% of the draw. Chinatown is practically the Platonic ideal of great screenwriting, and 2000’s Memento from director Christopher Nolan is the greatest neo-noir since Polanski bowled us over 40 years ago.

Memento‘s reputation as “the movie told in backward chronology” kept me from watching it for many years. As someone who’s found Christopher Nolan’s work to be very good but not as great as many others seem to believe, I assumed the film’s gimmick was its only draw. That isn’t the case, but even if it had been and there weren’t any more layers to Memento other than its tightly-layered narrative, Memento would have been one of the most expertly paced and structured crime thrillers of the last decade. But by becoming a commentary on how we remember things and what we choose to remember (as well as a slick discussion of the emptiness of revenge), Memento is so much more than its gimmick.

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Though it is more than its gimmick and as sharply scripted and clever as any film of the aughts, Memento‘s unique structure provides half of the thrills of any first viewing. Guy Pearce (Iron Man 3) plays Leonard, a man suffering from a severe (and not medically accurate but I honestly don’t care in this film) case of anterograde amnesia. Leonard’s wife was raped and murdered, and during the assault, Leonard was given serious brain damage. He can remember everything before his injury with perfect clarity, but Leonard no longer has the capability of producing short term memories. Before long, Leonard forgets everything that’s just happened to him, and the only way he’s able to function is through an elaborate series of tattoos and photographs that direct him towards his next action.

Leonard’s sole raison d’etre is to find and kill the man who murdered his wife and left him with his condition. And the film begins with Leonard killing the seemingly friendly Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) because a photograph of Teddy that Leonard is carrying says he is the one and that he must kill him. And from there, the film continues to unravel back towards the beginning as we find out that maybe Teddy wasn’t him, and we get to know a dangerous femme fatale (Carrie Anne-Moss) that is helping Leonard and his photo says that he can trust her, but can he really? And what secrets are being hidden from this man who is constantly meeting people for the “first” time?

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Part of Memento‘s clever conceit of being told backwards is that it is actually a perfectly “structured” story of the Syd Field/Robert McKee vein. Yes, we’re getting all of the facts in backwards order, but if Memento were told from start to beginning, it would be a terribly structured tale with the revelations in a jumbled, poorly paced mess. Memento is a classic mystery/noir based around picking apart what is the truth and what are the lies in the life of Leonard and why he kills Teddy at the beginning and whether or not he should have done that. And few films can match Memento on a twist-by-twist basis as you navigate the minefield of its mental gymnastics. But, from a point-of-view of pure structure, it follows the classic mold to a tee; it just warps and plays with it to its own (and the audience’s) delight.

But Memento distinguishes itself by having more to say than just your traditional crime thriller. And that’s funny because I was almost content to give this movie perfect marks before I realized what the film’s real point was. I can’t talk too much about what this film is about without ruining some of the major twists of the film’s final act, but Memento is a stark subversion of your average revenge tale (as any film about revenge should be). Leonard can’t remember more than 20 minutes of his life at once, but he functions perfectly during those moments of time. And that means he can fall prey to human vice and human flaws, and are the facts that Leonard has written on his body really facts at all? Or do we simply remember what we want to even when we can barely remember anything at all?

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The worst that can be said about Memento is that it is not a visually imaginative film. With the exception of The Prestige and Inception, Nolan’s films are rooted in a gritty realism, and Memento‘s visuals are no exception. Although the claustrophobia of anonymous motel rooms and abandoned buildings works to Memento‘s advantage as it adds a level of disorientation for the viewers that matches Leonard’s state of mind. And, the black and white sequences that are running concurrent to the main story (without following the backwards tale [I don’t want to spoil this too much]) is a nice if perhaps too simple way of segregating these lanes of Memento‘s story.

Guy Pearce’s performance is one of those rare performances that you might think is stale and boring at first (because he’s a dude who literally can’t remember more than 15 minutes ago) but you grow to appreciate it more and more as the film progresses until you reach the end. But, as the layers of his character are revealed, you see the obsessiveness and cold brutality that is lying beneath the seemingly lost exterior of Leonard, and Guy Pearce (and Christopher Nolan) peel back these characters with laser precision. Carrie-Anne Moss also shines as the femme fatale whose real motives are constantly up in the air.

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For those, like me, who found the cult of Christopher Nolan to be a bit insufferable, Memento may likely be the only film capable of changing your mind. For those whose itch for neo-noir can never be fully sated, Memento and its labyrinthine layers will keep your brain working long enough to scratch that itch. Great story is so rare in today’s world of sequels, remakes, and reboots, and while Christopher Nolan has never managed to live up to this remarkable second feature, it’s one of the most refreshing and intellectually invigorating stories of the 2000s and a true can’t miss for any real cinema lovers.

Final Score: A+

 

 

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Plus or minus 5 movies (I think I might have forgotten to put a handful on my big list of all of my review scores), this will be my 448th review. That’s a lot of movies in the last three years. And, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned having reviewed nearly 450 films, it’s that there’s a depressing homogeneity to the vast majority of movies. The stories are nothing more than a variation on a theme, the details never vary too far, and years of watching movies have trained you to guess every twist and turn. Silver Linings Playbook was one of my favorite films of 2012, but even it is a conventionally structured romantic comedy that just happens to change up all of the details to beautiful effect.

But, occasionally, movies come along that are truly their one. There are few coming-of-age films as beautiful and insightful as Life of Pi. There are few American comedies as riotous and “screw-the-rules” as Wet Hot American Summer. Charlie Kauffman’s entire ouevre is one-of-a-kind, but when Being John Malkovich came out, it was one of the most revolutionary films of the already revolutionary 90s. 1990’s King of New York is far from a great film, but it’s dedication to pure style and its glorious subversion of the 80s crime picture make it one of the most memorable and unique crime films of the 90s.

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After serving years in prison, powerful New York City drug lord Frank White (The Dead Zone‘s Christopher Walken) is released into his beloved city and his only goal is to make up for lost time. With a primarily African-American gang, Frank White isn’t your tpical 80s/90s crime boss. He’s a committed community activist that is willing to spend $16 million of his own cash to build a children’s hospital, and (mostly) he only resorts to violence when people aren’t willing to play ball with him in a civilized and cooperative manner. But, if you’ve pissed off Frank White, prepare to die in a hail of bullets that would make John Woo jealous.

Frank doesn’t have much trouble consolidating power back under the umbrella of his organization upon his release from prison. When tasked with violence, his men (including a young Laurence Fishburne who was still calling himself Larry at the time) are more than up to the task. Frank’s troubles come from a group of overzealous cops who are willing to get their hands as dirty as Frank in order to bring him back under the heel of the law. And when Frank’s men walk away clean from a clear murder conviction, the cops decide vigilante justice is the only answer.

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The number of great character actors in this film besides the always mesmerizing Christopher Walken is ridiculous. King of New York predates Boyz N the Hood by just one year, and it’s astounding to see Laurence Fishburne in a role that is less Furious Styles and more Ice Cube’s Doughboy on PCP. Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito has one of his more recognizable non-Do the Right Thing roles as another of Frank’s henchmen, and although he isn’t in the film very long, it blew my mind to see such a young Steve Buscemi as a technology-minded henchman.

And, the cops are another Who’s Who. David Caruso (Session 9) steals the show as Dennis Gilley, one of the cops who is most hellbent on bringing Frank in by any means necessary. Between this and Session 9, I was reminded how great he can be in eclectic character roles, and it was a shame he had to waste years of his life on a network crime procedural. Wesley Snipes isn’t given much to work with as another of the rage-fueled cops, but there’s a scene where he’s arresting Laurence Fishburne where Fishburne threatens to “slap the black off” him and Snipes’s reaction is priceless.

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Christopher Walken is absolutely transfixing as Frank White. There are many things that make King of New York such a unique and “different” film, and Walken’s take on Frank White is chief among them. Moving beyond Walken’s unique diction and the phrasing of his sentences with the deep, pregnant pauses, Walken’s Cheshire cat grin and electric magnetism make it clear why all these gangsters would want to work for him. But when the role calls for it, Walken flips the switch and White becomes an explosive outlet for violence. Frank White is like “What if Tony Montana were actually an interesting character?”

King of New York is “urban” to its core. The hip-hop soundtrack is always spot-on; there’s a scene where Schooly D’s “Am I Black Enough For Ya?” is played where the Public Enemy-esque political lyrics and hard-pounding beat perfectly fit the bloodbath that’s about to arrive. And while there are moments where Fishburne’s Jimmy Jump seems like a Run DMC stereotype, the movie’s urban sensibility is always played with tongue slightly in cheek. And in a decade where crime movies were either white mobster films or black “gangsta” movies, it’s so god damned refreshing to find a film that is both.

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King of New York‘s cinematography is also neo-noir perfection. Whether it’s capturing the neon-streaked lights of late 80s/early 90s New York or following Frank and his crew through their criminal enterprises, King of New York is a beauty to behold. On the other hand though, the film also knows not to take itself too seriously. Too many “crime epics” think they’re high art (*cough* Scarface *cough*); King of New York knows it isn’t and plays its hand accordingly. There’s a moment in the film where Frank backs down a group of thugs on the subway that exists just to show what a bad-ass Frank is, and the film is better for it.

If you’re wanting deep characterization or a serious commentary on urban crime, look elsewhere; Baby Boy this ain’t. When King of New York first came out, it was a critical disaster because of its over-the-top “glorification” of crime (that’s not really what the film does though), and if you like your films centered in reality, King of New York is going to disappoint. But for those with a taste for films with the touch of a true auteur’s style, Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is one of the most memorable and entertaining crime dramas of the 90s.

Final Score: B+

 

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I’ve generally thought that the school of film criticism thought which says you should judge a film by the standards of when it was released is… and pardon my French… horse shit. From a technical perspective, The Birth of a Nation remains an astounding masterpiece, but its politics are as abhorrent today as they were in 1915. From the opposite end of the spectrum, yes, there are elements of Rebel Without a Cause which seem dated by modern standards, but its portrayal of teen angst (and subtle homoeroticism) has a universal, timeless appeal. The best movies are great no matter when they were made, and films that are simply great for their time are really only of interest to students of film history. 1948’s The Naked City plays hopscotch with my feelings on the matter. As one of Hollywood’s first great crime procedurals shot on location, it broke new ground in many ways, and while a healthy portion of the film has lost its luster over the years, the movie’s cinematography and tone kept me engaged through out and it remains a highly enjoyable proto-noir.

The Naked City was directed by French director Jules Dassin, most famous his French crime thriller, Rififi, though The Naked City couldn’t be more American, specifically more New Yorker, if it tried. There’s a lengthy montage at the beginning of the film where the movie’s producer, Mark Hellinger, explains that the movie was primarily shot on-location in the streets of Manhattan (and other boroughs as the movie progresses) and it lends an almost documentary feel to most of the film’s exterior shots. Though there are campy elements to the actual crime procedural at the heart of the film (it can’t decide if it wants to be hard-boiled noir or a light mystery), when the film is outside and walking the streets of the Big Apple, you feel lost in the titular naked city and no film before and few since have so aptly captured the chaos and everyday street life of New York City.

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After clothing store model Jean Dexter is found murdered in her high-rise apartment bath tub, old school NYPD homocide detective Dan Muldoon (Going My Way‘s Barry Fitzgerald) is called in to investigate the case. Though Dexter’s murder is staged to look like a drowning, Muldoon quickly deduces (I know I’m using that word wrong like Sherlock does) that it was murder, and the hunt begins to figure out who would kill the beautiful model. Muldoon is joined by his young and fresh-faced partner, Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), who gets to do all of the real leg work of the case, with an emphasis on leg work. And when Muldoon and Halloran find a handsome young swindler named Frank Niles (Howard Duff), they realize that there’s more to this case than they ever expected.

I don’t want to say any more and ruin the pleasure of diving into the twists and turns of The Naked City for the first time even though it’s a 66 year old movie. Because most of the pleasure of watching the film is watching one of the first really detailed crime procedurals in the cinema. This isn’t a Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade-style detective story. There are no tough guy private eyes. It’s a group of cops working leads and interrogating suspects. Only occasionally do hunches lead to major breakthroughs in the case. In fact, it’s safe to say that future movies like Zodiac or TV shows like The Wire owe their existence to The Naked City even if they would ultimately do the things The Naked City does, only better. And, unlike most modern crime procedurals (I’m looking at you Law & Order), the investigation rarely begins to feel stale.

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I’m not sure if The Naked City technically qualifies as a film noir even if it’s generally lumped in with most of the proto-noir films of the late 1940s. The movie feels a little too light-hearted at times to be true noir, but one can’t doubt the film’s cinematography carrying that noir banner. It is gorgeous. As mentioned earlier, the film’s exterior and on-location shots are stunning enough considering how rare they were for the time, but even the indoor shots make perfect use of shadow and striking composition. Jules Dassin is one of the film-makers most associated with inspiring the directors of the French New Wave, and his innovative camera techniques are on display throughout the whole film. For fans of cinematography, that aspect of The Naked City is worth your time alone.

Charming performances from Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor also help ease the film along. I doubt that Dan and Jimmy are cinema’s original old/young cop partner pair, but, I’m hard-pressed to name any from this era that were as immediately likeable and compelling. In one of the film’s sadly rare character driven moments, Jimmy comes home from work to spend some time with his wife, and you get a peek behind the veil of these cop’s lives. In fact, if the movie had spent even a little more time diving into the lives of its leads, it may have truly been a real classic rather than falling just short. Barry Fitzgerald (the only redeeming part of the abysmal Going My Way) was particularly appealing as the aged Muldoon, and I wanted to know more about this wizened cop veteran.

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And that lack of attachment to the characters ultimately proves to be the film’s biggest weakness. Don Taylor and Barry Fitzgerald make us care about their detectives through sheer force of performance and charm. The writing has nothing to do with it. Throw in an omni-present voice-over narration that vacillates between clever and too obvious, and The Naked City becomes unfortunately hit or miss for much of its running time. When the movie is hitting all of the right notes, it never quite reaches the heights of noir classics like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street but it’s a hell of a great time. One can only wish that the movie was able to maintain a high level of quality and interest from beginning to end, which it sadly can not.

Final Score: B+

 

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(A quick aside before my review. I watched this movie on Saturday with my dad. I knew their was an English-language remake coming out directed by Spike Lee but for some reason, I thought it was coming out next year, not today. So, this review’s timing is strictly coincidental.)

In Thomas Pynchon’s crowning magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, a high-ranking Allied officer during WWII consumes the fresh feces of a BDSM psychic (and possible German double agent), the rakish hero participates in a graphic orgy and is subsequently given fellatio by a minor, and a German rocket scientist may or may not be having violent sex with his long-lost daughter. 1998’s practically perfect minus one-subplot Todd Solondz feature, Happiness, turns a child molester into a sympathetic creature without shying away from the terrible things he does and one of its heroes jerks off while making angry phone calls to random women.

I bring up these works of transgressive fiction because, in a world where Gravity’s Rainbow or Happiness exist, it’s hard to shock me anymore or to truly get under my skin.  The only movie I’ve watched recently that truly unnerved me from a thematic standpoint was the Twin Peaks film, Fire Walk With Me because of the incestual rape content. So, perhaps it’s appropriate then that 2003’s cult classic Oldboy found its way into my viewing rotation as it is without question one of the most disturbing and unflinching films I’ve watched in recent memory.

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Oldboy has been heralded as one of the finest exports of Korea’s burgeoning film market and director Chan-wook Park is certainly one of its wunderkinds, but despite Oldboy‘s undeniable ability to get under my skin, it isn’t quite the masterpiece that many believe it to be. Similar to the more recent cult classic Drive, there’s a certain hollowness to the masterful style on display (and a muddled plot that operates on a fuzzy dream logic). And though the film has something to say about the emptiness of revenge, it goes to cartoonish lengths to make a point.

Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) is nobody special. Though he’s a bit of a drunk and a ladies’ man, there’s little else to set this married man and father apart from the crowd. But, after a night of heavy drinking, Dae-su is kidnapped off the streets of Seoul to begin a hell that lasts 15 years. Dae-su’s unknown captors place him in a locked room with nothing but a TV and occasional meals to keep him company, and Dae-su is totally in the dark as to who’s doing this to him or why it’s happening. And, for 15 years, Dae-su stews in his own anger (and insanity) preparing himself to take revenge on those who’ve held him captive and have murdered his wife in the interim.

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But just as Dae-su is about to escape on his own, he’s released into the wilds of Seoul (through a giant briefcase on a high rise) with new clothes, a cellphone, cash, and no idea what he’s doing. And Dae-su vows to find the men who locked him up. However, not long after being released, Dae-su meets the beautiful and young Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), and the two share an instant (but severely disturbed) sexual connection. But there seems to be a link between Mi-do and the men who kept Dae-su locked away for so many years and the already frayed and bordering on insane Dae-su becomes even more torn as he has no idea who he can trust.

I won’t say any more about the plot of Oldboy because I imagine that going into this film for the first time knowing what’s going to happen would ruin much of the shock of the film’s climactic twist (which I predicted fairly early in the film because apparently I’m as fucked up in the head as this film’s screenwriters). So, let me simply say that if you find the first two acts of the film to be unbearably uncomfortable and brutal, just wait til you find out what’s really going on. I imagine any future viewings of this movie will take on an entirely new and even more unpleasant light.

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I really can’t stress enough that Oldboy is not for the faint of heart. For some reason, the only thing that I had absorbed about Oldboy before watching it for the first time was that it was a hyper-violent film (it is), and for some reason, that made me assume it was an action film (it most certainly isn’t). Oldboy is a mystery thriller that happens to also deal in gore at unfathomable levels. Clearly, Chan-wook Park is of the Gaspar Noé and Nicolas Winding Refn school of film-making where stylistic beauty has to be matched by an equal amount of brutal carnage. Unfortunately, Park also lacks those premier stylists ability to make any thematic statements beyond the obvious surface.

Oldboy has much in common with another 2003 revenge epic, Kill Bill Vol. 1 insofar as it is a cartoonish revenge fantasy though Oldboy happens to become a cartoonish deconstruction of the cartoonish revenge fantasy by film’s end. There are sequences in Oldboy that turn the old ultra-violence into something that would fit in on a PCP-infused episode of Looney Tunes. And while the film succeeds in making its point that revenge is ultimately a hollow pleasure, the movie doesn’t hammer its point home; it drops a ten-ton nuclear device and then firebombs the surrounding country side to make sure you got the message.

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Ultimately, Oldboy is a film for movie-lovers by movie-lovers where one has to be willing to subserve your need for a coherent or complex story to Chan-wook Park’s masterful direction and sense of visual flair. As gut-wrenchingly violent as it is, Oldboy is as well shot as the best Western films, and you can sense the giddy energy that went into the production of the film. So, if you appreciate the high-class “B” movies like Drive or Kill Bill, there’s no reason to skip Oldboy. Just know that you’re getting yourself involved in a brutal Korean take on Titus Andronicus and a certain Greek tragedy that I don’t want to name for fear of spoiling the film.

Final Score: B+

 

TwinPeaksFireWalkWithMe1Back in 2001, Japanese video game visionary Hideo Kojima finally released the long-awaited follow-up to his now iconic stealth/action classic, Metal Gear Solid. But, when Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was released, critical acclaim was through the roof but fan reactions were more mixed. Though history has vindicated the game as the original and premier example of post-modernism in blockbuster gaming, Kojima ripped the floor out from underneath players who were expecting more of the same by replacing beloved hero Solid Snake with the far more polarizing Raiden and throwing in an ending that works more as an allegory than an actual narrative. 1992’s Twin Peaks follow up film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, bears the Twin Peaks name, but one can almost hear David Lynch cackling with delight for anyone expecting more of the same of the ABC drama.

Fire Walk With Me was a massive disappointment upon its first release, and it’s easy to see why. Fans who wanted answers to any of the cliffhangers that dominated the show’s controversial finale were left hanging when it becomes quickly apparent that Fire Walk With Me is a prequel. Fans expecting more of the show’s quirky humor and lovable characters will also be unfulfilled because Fire Walk With Me is dark. It is, arguably, the darkest film in Lynch’s whole ouevre, outstripping even the terrifying Inland Empire. And, of course, Kyle MacLachlan’s Dale Cooper is in the film for less than ten minutes. But, if you take Fire Walk With Me on its own terms, it is a stark and deeply disturbing allegory for the darkest sides of human nature that is, unfortunately, wrapped in some of Lynch’s most consistent and glaring struggles as a director.

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As I said, Fire Walk With Me is a prequel to the Twin Peaks television program. And, other than the lengthy intro that delves into the investigation of Teresa Banks (the first murder in a string and what drew Dale Cooper to Twin Peaks after Laura’s murder), the film is primarily contained to the final days leading up to Laura Palmer’s (Sherly Lee) murder. And with Laura’s inevitable murder hanging over all of the actions of the film (as well as the true identity of Laura’s murderer), Fire Walk With Me is a study of a woman in the throes of a self-destructive spiral and a close examination of the myriad causes of her downfall.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the action of the film for those who haven’t seen the film, but in true David Lynch fashion, if Fire Walk With Me accomplishes one thing, it’s that it leaves you with more questions than it provides answers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Inland Empire and Eraserhead are both particularly inaccessible but if you ponder them long enough, you’ll realize what they’re about (maybe). And Fire Walk With Me is the same way. And, while it’s packed to the brim with Lynch’s signature surrealistic flourishes, they are almost always in service to the film’s haunting allegory of rape, incest, and drug abuse.

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Fire Walk With Me is scary. Though it occasionally devolves into what I believe may be blatant Lynchian self-parody, when Lynch sets out to scare you, he does. Disturbing barely scratches the surface of many of the film’s most brutal moments. Fire Walk With Me becomes so intense and painfully raw that it hurts to watch. Ignoring the most obvious choice (Laura’s death), there’s a moment mid-way through the film where Laura and Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle has been replaced by the superior Moira Kelly) go to a strip club. And Laura’s sexual degradation is haunting and heart-breaking.

Sheryl Lee (who was originally cast just for the show’s pilot and to be a corpse but was eventually made a recurring character as Laura’s cousin Maddy because she made such an impression with David Lynch) has to carry the entire film, and her performance is something of a mixed bag, and it’s weird where it falters. She handles the “biggest” scenes of the film extraordinarily well to the point that I suspect David Lynch was actually torturing her somehow (Hitchcock was notorious for abusing his leading ladies to get more natural performances). But, during the little moments, her acting is wooden and artificial. It’s confusing. Ray Wise is the best performance of the film as the terrifying (and more complex than previously on the show) Leland Palmer.

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But, lacking Inland Empire‘s excuse of being a literal nightmare in movie form, Fire Walk With Me can be unforgivably unfocused. It takes nearly forty minutes before Laura, the main character of the film, shows up and while there are some inspired moments here and there, the intro, told from the point of view of new characters Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaaks) and Sam Stanley (The Lost Boys‘ Kiefer Sutherland), seems to serve no other purpose than to tease the audience. It’s only contribution to the over-all plot was a Chekhov’s Gun for the very end, and it could have used some heavy editing.

You have to come into Fire Walk With Me with an open mind or you’re going to be terribly disappointed. Though it is technically Twin Peaks: The Movie in name, it is not Twin Peaks: The Movie in content or style. But, it is still required viewing for fans of the show who want a deeper look at the figure whose tragic murder drove the entire first season. And though I took umbrage with Lynch’s inability to stick to what was working (certain elements of the film felt like he was trying to shoehorn in plots the networks wouldn’t let him run on the show), this film is an undeniable look into sheer terror and one of the most terrifying films I’ve seen in ages.

Final Score: B

 

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(A quick aside before I begin this review. I watched this film last night at work at the bar. Beyond the usual interruptions that come with watching this film at the bar like having to pause it any time a customer wanted a beer or something, I also had to stop it for hours at a time not once but twice when old ladies came into the store and I felt it was probably wise to turn off the R-Rated movie. If I thought the pauses would have overly affected my review, I just wouldn’t have written one. But I figured I should be up front about it since as a horror movie, I kept regularly escaping the tension and atmosphere of the film).

In Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining (though I suppose it’s equally true in Stephen King’s book), the Overlook Hotel was as much a character as Jack, Wendy, and Danny Torrance. Kubrick’s camera lavished fetishistic attention on every nook and cranny of the secluded hotel, and with a decided Mid-West Native American meets 1920s art style, it’s impossible to forget the time spent within its haunts (pun most definitely intended). Genuine atmosphere and tension are becoming a lost art (though 2009’s The House of the Devil is a brilliant exception). And while 2001’s Session 9 may have a somewhat muddled central story, no one can deny the suffocating atmosphere and unease at its core.

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That The Shining-centric introduction is not without reason. Session 9 is cut very much from The Shining‘s same “haunted house” cloth. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that they’re less “cut from the same cloth” and more, “The Session is a wide-eyed homage that occasionally borders on stylistic plagiarism” (but, thankfully, it’s borders on that line. It never crosses it.). And if the Overlook was the secret star of The Shining, then the real-life Danvers State Hospital (which an asylum for the criminally insane that was the inspiration for Arkham Asylum in the Batman universe) steals every second of Session 9. Though the film has actual quality performances and tension, the abandoned and supremely terrifying Danvers State Hospital is the star of the show.

Shot almost entirely on location in the hospital, Session 9 is a creepy and atmospheric modern spin on the classic “haunted house” horror trope. Struggling haz-mat removal contractor Gordon Fleming (War Horse‘s Peter Mullan) is desperate for work. He’s just had a child and his business is on the verge of going under. So, the opportunity to remove the asbestos from the Danvers State Hospital is too good to pass up even if it means seriously underbidding the competition and agreeing to do the job in one week when it should take three at a minimum. And, when he and his partner Phil (David Caruso) cross the threshold of the hospital for the first time, it’s immediately clear that this job will be more than they bargained for.

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But, despite the overwhelming creepiness of the hospital (and the fact that Gordon may or may not have heard voices when he first entered), they take the job and bring on three workers for the crew. Petulant and obnoxious Hank (You Can Count On Me‘s Josh Lucas) is banging Phil’s ex-girlfriend for no other reason than he can and he knows it pisses off the hair-trigger temper of Phil. Gordon’s nephew Jeff (Brendon Sexton III) is new to asbestos removal and terribly frightened of the dark which is probably the wrong phobia to have in this hotel. And law school drop-out Mike (Oz‘s Stephen Gevedon) labors away at this job despite being way too smart to spend any time with manual labor.

And, as the crew passes the time in the hospital, they get an almost hilariously miniscule of real work done as each member of the crew (except for Phil and Jeff) splits away from the group as they discover secrets and scares lurking in the shadows of the asylum. After accepting the job, Gordon has a fight with his wife though you don’t learn til later on what it was about and Gordon slowly starts to become unhinged over the week. Hank finds a cache of old coins behind a loose brick in the walls and concocts a scheme to steal them and get rich. All the while, Mike discovers a series of recordings of a former patient in the hospital with split personality whose tale is linked to the inevitably lethal turn their work takes over the course of the week.

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Perhaps the most shocking element of the film is that (beyond Brendon Sexton III’s Jeff) the performances are almost uniformly excellent, particularly Stephen Gevedon and Peter Mullan. Peter Mullan is wound immensely tight and is a bundle of nervous, desperate energy that you’re constantly left wondering when he’ll finally snap. And Stephen Gevedon (who I know from his Season 1 turn on Oz as Scott Ross) captures Mike’s morbid curiosity and intensity. There’s an especially memorable moment where he teases/abuses the new guy, Jeff, by explaining the practical applications of a lobotomy with a chop-stick millimeters away from Jeff’s eye.

But, beyond any other element of the film, what makes Session 9 work (when it’s central mystery is obvious from the start) is how “lived in” the film feels. And, of course it would feel lived in because Danvers State Hospital was a working asylum (and one of the most notorious in the country) up until 1992. Even if the members of the crew didn’t start getting murdered halfway through the film, the hospital itself would have been scary enough, and like The House of the Devil and The Descent, Session 9 wisely holds off on any jump scares or real horror so long that when it arrives, you’re on the edge of your seat.

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The only time where the film falls apart is at the ending which is both open-ended enough to invite speculation over whether the killer is crazy or possessed (which is good though I tend to lean towards possessed) but it’s also handled in such a muddled way that certain things simply don’t make sense within the continuity of the film itself. They are minor complaints because Session 9 is one of those rare horror films that relies more on an audience’s over-active imagination and paranoia than gore and violence. If you don’t like slower paced horror, you will probably find Session 9 to be a snooze, but I thought it was a treat.

Final Score: B

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Can a movie predicated on an endless series of twists and turns still carry any dramatic or emotional weight even if you can predict every turn before it happens? 90% of the time I would say no it can’t, and that would be the end of the story. Predictability should be the death-knell of any noir or thriller worth its weight in salt, but leave it to playwright auteur David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) to be the exception to that rule. The psychological gamesmanship on display in House of Games is blindingly forecasted almost from the start, and when all is said and done, if you can’t guess what’s going to happen, you’re likely a little dense. But, despite the fact that House of Games is a psychological crime thriller/neo-noir on its surface, it is really a character study into man’s attraction into our darkest impulses, and in that regard, it’s a typical Mamet success.

My rather immense enjoyment of House of Games was unexpected (despite how much I worship Glengarry Glen Ross and mostly enjoyed Wag the Dog) because at the beginning of the film, the movie radiates a sense of theatrical artificiality. House of Games was Mamet’s directorial debut, and considering his background as a stage director, I had initially assumed that he was simply struggling to adjust to the big screen. I realized that was all intentional because House of Games is all about the masks we wear when we interact with others and how virtually all human interactions involve the exploitation of others to fulfill our own needs. And so as the leads of the film slowly start to shed their masks (or are simply better at hiding their mask than others), the lens of theatricality slowly begins to slip away from the film and it is revealed for the stunning psychological insight it is.

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Margaret Ford (Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Lindsay Crouse) is a best-selling author and psychiatrist specializing in addiction and compulsive behavior. But, Maggie’s life is empty and she feels that much of her work is meaningless and that her most vulnerable patients are beyond her help. And when a young, troubled gambling addict walks into her office fearful that a $25,000 debt he owes to a bookie may mean his life, Maggie attempts to truly help someone for maybe the first time in her life. But even then, Maggie’s motivations aren’t quite what they appear. At the back room poker game, Maggie meets Mike (Joe Mantegna), the bookie that the gambler says he owes money to. But, in the first of many of the film’s twist, the debt isn’t $25,000. It’s only $800, and soon after, Maggie finds herself seduced into a world of fast-talking con-men and dangerous liars.

Though the film finds itself falling down a somewhat predictable path, I don’t want to ruin anything for those who haven’t seen it (and maybe don’t have my perceptive sense for how noir and crime thrillers work). But, House of Games starts out as what you think may be one woman’s attempt to redeem herself and instead chronicles her descent into a world of crime, easy money, and constant deception. And in that regard, House of Games hits on that classic Mamet theme: a cynical perspective on human nature. In Mike’s world (which quickly becomes Lindsay’s world), there are two types of people: suckers and those with the gumption to part the suckers from their money when given the opportunity. And Mamet extends that dynamic to our entire life where we either suffer or we exploit someone else to alleviate our own suffering. He isn’t saying that’s right. He just observes that’s how it is.

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I have complex feelings towards the performances in this film because of the sense of artificiality that I mentioned at the beginning of the movie. Early dialogue is either delivered in bored monotone or from a place of theatrical bombast. But, they’re doing that intentionally so part of me can’t fault them for this. And, in fact, I suspect that on a future second viewing, I might appreciate this more at the beginning when I understand what’s meant to be done. Because as the film progresses, both Joe Mantegna and Lindsay Crouse (particularly Crouse) deliver hidden layers and unexpected complexities. Crouse finds herself finally free to be herself for the first time in her entire life and without wanting to spoil the film, let it be said that Mantegna proves to be overwhelmingly excellent as a con man and reader of human nature.

I also have somewhat complicated feelings towards the film’s direction. Glengarry Glen Ross worked so well as a movie because the director gave the film a suffocating visual atmosphere that wasn’t even possible in the stage play. And while there are some inspired shots in House of Games, it was also clear that it was Mamet’s first directorial feature and thus the film comes of as slightly stale from time to time. Also, understanding his intentions to make the film seem artificial at times (it draws attention to itself so we, the audience, recognize the hollowness of the characters’ lives), that doesn’t mean there weren’t times where it all felt too forced and it drew me too much out of the action of the film. What happened at moments was that Mamet appeared supremely proud (and rightfully so of his dialogue) and by putting so much theatrical emphasis on words, we were forced to recognize his (admitted) genius. It entered the realm of literary pretense.

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Thankfully, the script more than outweighs any concerns I may have about direction or acting. Mamet is, along with Kenneth Lonergan, one of the great writers of our day. And through his obsession with the darkest impulses of human nature (how capitalism and ambition turn us into monsters in Glengarry or how the pursuit of power can only lead to corruption in Wag the Dog), Mamet fashions tale after tale of men and women at the brink of morality. House of Games shows how the allure of depravity and dishonesty can seduce even the most seemingly upright members of the community. And though House of Games appears to limp out of the gates, once it picks up a head of steam, it flies onward full-stop to a satisfying (if not unexpected) finale and for all fans of Mamet’s work and great neo-noir, it is a must-see film.

Final Score: A-