Category: Psychological Thriller


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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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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+

 

 

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-

 

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Long-time readers may remember that I have complicated feelings towards the horror genre. And by complicated feelings, I think that most of the output of the genre is unequivocal garbage. More than any other genre (except for like pornography), cheap, easily disposable horror is the mainstay of the genre and people think they can substitute cheap gore effects and tired cliches for strong writing and a genuine sense of terror. But, when good horror films come along (The Exorcist, Let the Right One In, or Paranormal Activity), they are incredibly powerful experiences. And, one of my favorite horror films of the last decade is the British creature feature, The Descent. Though I found the sequel to be incredibly disappointing (mostly for abandoning the atmosphere and tension that made the original so brilliant), there have been few horror films of the modern era as terrifying as 2005’s The Descent.

So much horror today (and ever since the 80s resurgence of the genre) is predicated on massive amounts of blood and gore. This may seem like a weird thing to complain about (considering that The Descent is quite gory), but without characterization and atmosphere, modern audiences have become completely desensitized to gore. Most horror films (think the torture porn subniche films like Hostel or Saw) exist not to scare audiences but to satisfy their bloodlust. They go into the films hoping to see new and inventive ways for people to be killed and dismembered. And that’s not scary. It’s just gross. Horror films have always been most effective when the director and writer are able to create an empathetic relationship between the films’ doomed heroes and the audience. And that dedication to establishing sympathetic heroines is one of many reasons that The Descent is a modern horror masterpiece.

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One year after the tragic death of her husband and young daughter in a car accident, British adventure junkie Sarah (Shauan MacDonald) travels to America to go caving with her five best friends, including the adrenaline junkie Juno (Natalie Mendoza) that may or may not have been sleeping with her late husband. But the girls’ trip into a North Carolina cave system turns out to be a bigger adventure than they bargained for when Juno leads them into an unexplored cave system to up the group’s thrills. And if traveling through a cave prone to cave-ins and with no idea where the exits are wasn’t a big enough problem, it becomes readily apparent that these six action girls aren’t alone in the cave as they are slowly picked off one by one by a race of subterranean humanoids with a taste for human flesh.

What makes this film work where the sequel (or any other writer/director trying to handle similar thematic material) fails is how much this movie makes you wait for the bloody payoff. In fact, I almost think the arrival of the “Crawlers” is less scary than the cave exploration before hand. You don’t get your first  real sight of the creatures until more than forty minutes into the film. Before the caves are even reached, a good fifteen to twenty minutes is spent establishing the relationships and tensions of this group of friends so that you actually care about everyone and you know who everyone is besides Red Shirts A, B, and C. And that sense of claustrophobia and paranoia that the film establishes as the girls make their way through the cave before the creatures show up is simply suffocating in the best sense of the word.

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And, The Descent is a film built entirely on the perfect call-and-response of tension and release. You would think that a film as reliant on jump scares (and fake jump scares at the beginning) would not fare well upon repeat viewings. That is… not the case. In fact, because of the excellent costume and make-up work of the “Crawlers,” the tension of waiting for them to make their inevitable, terrifying appearance becomes even more unbearable on later viewings. Particularly, the now classic scene when they first make their appearance known to the group while Sarah uses a video recorder’s night-vision mode. And when the violence arrives, it is so brutal and against characters that we actually give a shit about, that it carries more visceral impact than a year’s worth of horror movie deaths combined.

Also, The Descent is a massive fuck-you to the misogynistic and male-dominated world of horror. Women tend to be the primary cannon fodder of most horror films (and yes, most of the main characters of The Descent die), but in The Descent, the bad-ass female heroines avoid every negative female horror stereotype that they can. And when they make mistakes that lead to their deaths, they are generally believable and realistic human error. For example, Juno’s decision to explore an un-marked cave system totally fits with her character’s adrenaline-fueled need to prove herself and a different character, the possibly lesbian Holly, had complained about the “tourist” cave they were supposed to be exploring. One of my biggest complaints about horror films is that characters don’t act in rational ways, and The Descent totally avoids that trap.

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I’ll draw this review to a close mostly because I need to start getting ready for class (I woke up at 4 AM this morning; I have a meeting with my adviser at 8:30 AM; and I work tonight until 1 AM. Oy vey), but if you couldn’t tell, I could rave about how much I love this movie for another 500 words or so. I’ve seen it a little over half a dozen times now, and each time I notice a new bit of foreshadowing or I think I notice a creature in the edges of some shot before they’re supposed to actually show up. That’s the sign of a great film. Great movies offer you something new each time you see them, and The Descent clears that bar. I rarely find a film to be legitimately scary. Even the horror movies that I tend to love don’t scare me very often (I more often appreciate their technique and atmosphere), but The Descent is an honest-to-god scary movie, and those are so rare that you can’t pass them up when you find one.

Final Score: A

 

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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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Although horror generally doesn’t fall under the purview of films that I attempt to review for this blog (which is a thousands films long list of award-nominated movies), I make a special attempt to sneak them in here when I get the chance. Ever since I was a child, horror has been a guilty pleasure of mine, and the nights I wasn’t able to sleep in elementary school after my parents mistakenly let me watch A Nightmare on Elm Street still stick with me nearly 20 years later. And, over this blog’s two and a half year lifetime, I’ve often mused about what was the greatest horror film ever made. I’ve reviewed classics like The Shining, The Exorcist, and Poltergeist, as well as modern greats like Let the Right One In and Paranormal Activity. But after much thought and debate, I think my heart belongs to 2000’s American Psycho.

Perhaps it’s unfair to even discuss American Psycho in rankings of the great horror films because under any real inspection, American Psycho is a horror movie in only the most superficial and surface ways. Because despite the buckets of blood, slasher film tropes, and skin-crawlingly creepy performance from Christian Bale, American Psycho is as much a pitch-black comedy and satire of the greed, narcissism, and general misogyny of the 1980s as it is a retread of the familiar serial killer tale. In fact, were the film meant as a straight horror, it would be mediocre at best because it’s not scary in the slightest, but as a brutal evisceration of the dark underbelly of the Reagan years and Wall Street avarice, American Psycho turns itself into a horrific, dark mirror of the worst sides of American life.

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Patrick Bateman (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Christian Bale) is the embodiment of the 1980s American dream. He’s a young successful Wall Street executive on the rise. He has a perfect body, perfect skin, and the perfect NYC high rise apartment. He has a gorgeous girlfriend, Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), a willing mistress (Samantha Mathis), and absurdly rich friends whose biggest problems in life seem to be whether or not they can get a reservation at the swankiest New York City restaurants and passive aggressively loathing one another over who has the best business card.

But, beneath his perfect exterior, Patrick hides a dark, dark secret. He is a serial killer and an absolutely unhinged one at that. Taking great pride in beating and mutilating prostitutes and the homeless, Patrick unleashes his misogynistic, anti-woman hatred out whenever he can. And when professional jealousy towards one of his colleagues (Jared Leto) ends in a Huey Lewis & the News preceded murder, Patrick finds himself tailed by detective Donald Kimball (Faraway, So Close!‘s Willem Dafoe) who is investigating the man’s disappearance. Will Patrick be able to keep his dark nature in check or will he explode in an orgiastic bloodlust of violence and mayhem?

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Christian Bale has become one of the most consistently intriguing and promising stars of his generation, and alongside the much earlier Empire of the Sun, this was one of the films that put Bale on the map. Alongside his role in The Fighter, I still believe that American Psycho is the premier performance of Bale’s career. Some might be put of by just how bizarre his characterization of Patrick Bateman becomes. This odd combination of yuppie misogyny, misanthropy, and vanity alongside a terrifying milieu of true psychotic behavior seems outrageous at first, but it’s this same horrific otherworld-ness that comes to define how fantastic Bale is at playing men on the fringe of sanity.

Mary Harron’s direction places American Psycho right alongside Wall Street and Bonfire of the Vanities (the book, not the god-awful film) as one of the most accurate satirical looks at the Reagan years. With long, lingering shots of suits, business cards, lavish parties, fancy restaurants, and even fancier apartments, American Psycho has the attention to detail of a Merchant/Ivory film or Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, but within that framework, the film never fails to remind you of the hollowness of these characters’ existence.

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Because American Psycho is a pitch-black comedy/satire, you would be forgiven for thinking that its humor wouldn’t be of the “laugh-out-loud” variety. But it most certainly is. There’s a moment late in the film where Patrick discusses eating the brains of some his victims; I’m not sure if it’s meant to be as funny as I found it, but at that moment, I found myself laughing absolutely hysterically. I was on the verge of tears. And the film is full of little moments of subtle humor that are played just right to elicit big laughs. An ATM machine tells Patrick to feed it stray cats, the insanely narcissistic poses he makes having sex to Phil Collins’ “Sussudio.” The list goes on.

I watched this several nights ago and have been writing the review off and on for a couple days now. Work has kept me from finding the time to actually finish it so I’ll draw this review to a close. I haven’t given this score out in a while. In fact, it’s been three months since I reviewed my last “A+” film, The Master. But American Psycho totally deserves this honor. I am unable to come up with a single flaw to this film, and having watched it dozens of times at this point in my life, it keeps getting better and better. If you want to watch what I believe is the greatest horror film of all time and arguably one of the best satires of the last twenty years, American Psycho is it.

Final Score: A+

 

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If you’ve been reading this blog for any extended period of time, you know that my tastes in cinema tend towards the obscure and artsy. And, generally, this makes me the perfect candidate to enjoy movies that have gained “cult” status over the years. Although I’ve never been to a midnight showing (cause I never had a way to get to the ones in Morgantown when we still had them), I consider myself to be a pretty huge Rocky Horror Picture Show fan, and I know far too many of the words and choreography to that show, and the list of cult films I enjoy goes on. 2001’s Donnie Darko is one of the most popular and defining cult films of the 2000s. I last watched it when it was first released (I was 12 at the time), and I did not like it. At all. Over the years, I’ve grown to think maybe I was too young to appreciate it. Well, as a 24 year old, I still find it to be mostly muddled gobbledygook with some occasional great elements thrown in. And I still can’t for the life of me comprehend why this has become such a modern cult classic.

And before some Donnie Darko fanboy jumps down my throat for not understanding the film (which seems to be the case whenever I criticize either this film [which I find to be sometimes bad, usually good, once or twice great]) or Inception, which I legitimately enjoy), I get the movie. Although the theatrical version (which is what I watched earlier today and which will be the version of the film that I review) has a fairly open-ended finale, there are still only two real ways to interpret the events of the film (either a Looper-style stable-time loop or the film is essentially David Lynch’s Lost Highway with a talking bunny. I realize that it’s the former in the Director’s Cut). It’s that I find Donnie Darko to be a ham-fisted tale, bloated with half-assed subplots and at a mere two hours, I still found myself constantly begging for the film to draw to a close. If the Director’s Cut is longer, I honestly can’t imagine any way it made this film better.

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In October of 1988, on the heels of the Dukakis/Bush election, Donnie Darko (End of Watch‘s Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled young teenager living with his family in the Blue Velvet-style suburban Hellhole of Middlesex. Donnie’s not your average angsty teenager though. He is potentially a total crazy person showing all of the signs of classic paranoid schizophrenia. With chronic sleep-walking (he may wake up later at the top of a mountain or at the local golf course), Donnie begins to see an “imaginary” talking man in a bunny suit who tells him that the world will end in 28 days. And as Donnie spends the next 28 days battling with a puritanical teacher, a phony self-help guru, and the douche bags who attend his high school (as well as his own mental illness), it might be for the best for Donnie if the world ends after all. The only thing keeping him attached to anything is the appearance of new girl Gretchen (Saved‘s Jena Malone) that Donnie quickly falls for.

There are, in my mind, exactly two consistently excellent things about Donnie Darko. The first is the soundtrack which is a great collection of 1980s alternative/indie rock hits. And let’s face it, I’m not sure if there was ever a better era for alternative rock. A lot of great Oingo Boingo, Tears for Fears, and Joy Division. You can’t ask for more than that. Also, Jena Malone was a marvelous breath of fresh air in a film full of awkward, stilted performances. She was (she’s not that young anymore) one of Hollywood’s most interesting and talented young actresses, and it’s really a shame that she never got more mainstream exposure. She’s beautiful and talented, and she put more nuance and subtlety into her portrayal of Gretchen than everyone else was able to find over the course of the whole film. That’s not necessarily true. Mary McDonnell also found some real emotional gravitas as Donnie’s beleaguered mother.

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The movie’s called Donnie Darko. Donnie is the main character. So, if you’re assuming that a significant portion of the film rests on Jake Gyllenhaal’s shoulders, you’d be right. This was one of Jake’s earliest high-profile roles (along with October Sky). I think Jake’s a great actor. His performance in Brokeback Mountain is mesmerizing and a perfect display of male vulnerability and sexual aggression all at once. He’s not good in this role. He has some good moments. But when he’s trying to look demented and mentally unhinged, he succeeds, but it’s also so comically over-the-top that I begin to wonder if he’s trying to be satirical. The film hinges on me believing that he’s crazy, and while I believed he was crazy, I would have appreciated a little restraint. It’s good to know that by the time Zodiac and Brokeback Mountain came around, Gyllenhaal had matured as an actor.

I mentioned this earlier, but this film is the rare movie that clocks in at under two hours (I think I had it at an hour and forty-seven minutes when the end credits began to roll), but it’s just overflowing with material that needed to be cut. There are at least half a dozen subplots in this film that supplement the central story of Donnie losing his god damn mind and worrying about the impending apocalypse. And there isn’t a single one that works. It’s almost as if director Richard Kelly realized he didn’t have enough material for a full-film but didn’t take the time to write out at least one or two good subplots and just made six insultingly thin ones instead. And, while the film does do a really excellent job of stringing together some of the seemingly random shit the movie throws at you just in time for its ending, that was the rare beam of proficiency in the film’s storytelling.

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As an allegory for modern teen angst, the film is just as hit or miss. There are times where it captures the pain and heart-ache that we feel as teenagers as well as anything else. It has highs that are nearly as high as The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It just doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word consistency. While I admire characters that defy easy categorization (it’s what makes the people that populate the films of Kenneth Lonergan so entrancing), Donnie’s characterization often defies any human logic. And not often in a good way. He’s dickish to people he has no reason to be an asshole to, and while I understand that he’s a crazy person, his acting out doesn’t always seem centered in whatever psychosis he’s suffering from. As a character, Donnie is a hot mess (and gives a bad wrap to all other Don’s out there. *cough cough* me.)

Despite the total thrashing I just gave this film, it does have its moments. The score is amazing (not just the soundtrack). Jena Malone solidified herself as a rising indie talent in this film. In terms of sheer atmosphere, Donnie Darko captures something essentially anxious and fear-driven in both its visuals and its thematic content. I just wish that Donnie Darko could keep up the illusion of competency over its entire run-time. I understand how many people LOVE this movie, and my mostly indifference to it isn’t meant as disrespect to a film that so many hold dear to their heart. It’s just a statement of both my inability to connect with the film as well as what I hope is a logical pointing out of some of the myriad flaws working against this modern cult classic.

Final Score: B-

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It’s weird how popular the “erotic thriller” genre became in the late 80s and early 90s. The combination of highly stylized sex and violence as a mainstream form of artistic expression seems to be at odds with America’s usual puritanical values. Basic Instinct turned Sharon Stone into a household name, but, honestly, she mostly spends a lot of the film naked and let us not forget the movie’s most infamous scene. Don’t get me wrong. I actually think Basic Instinct is a pretty great movie. It just astounds me that this particular genre of film experienced so much commercial success. It seems so European (although with about half of Europe’s subtlety). One of the most famous examples of the genre is 1987’s Fatal Attraction (from erotic thriller mainstay Adrian Lyne), and while it’s not quite a great film, Glenn Close is scary as hell in it and it should make any man think twice about having an affair with a complete stranger.

Dan Gallagher (The American President‘s Michael Douglas) is a successful lawyer, married to the gorgeous Beth (Anne Archer) and has an adorable five year old daughter named Ellen. Dan and Beth are in the process of trying to find a home in the country so they don’t have to raise their daughter in the crowded New York City. One weekend, Beth and Ellen go to look at homes in the country while Dan has to stay in the city to work. There he meets the seductive Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) and the pair share a passionate weekend of love-making. But Dan’s married and loves his wife despite his infidelities, and Dan wants to break it off. But from the get-go, it’s clear that Alex isn’t that willing to let go. When things escalate from Alex ceaselessly phoning Dan’s office to Alex shifting into full blown psychopathy, Dan knows he may have to go to extremes to protect his family.

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The film came out in 1987, and the AIDS crisis was really starting to get underway, and it was scaring the hell out of everyone who was having sex on the planet (I say this shit like I was even alive in 1987. Anywho). Consequence free sex was quickly becoming a thing of the past and everyone was terrified that the next person they might have sex with was going to infect them. Perhaps I’m reading way too much into this film, but Fatal Attraction seems like a huge allegory (just with a semi-happy ending) about the paranoia and fears that were destroying the sexual liberation movement. A man has a brief fling with an intelligent and well-to-do women and then it suddenly threatens to destroy his very life. If this movie were made today, maybe I wouldn’t jump to this same conclusion, but for the time that it was released, I don’t see how you can get anything else from the film.

But even if you take away the possibility (more like reality) of the film as an AIDS parable, you’re still left with a morality play on the consequences of infidelity. As far removed from the intellectual polyamory of Woody Allen films like Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Manhattan as humanly possible, Fatal Attraction is a stark warning to men about sticking their dick where it may not belong. In fact, one of the most daring things the film does is that it doesn’t give Dan an obvious excuse to cheat on Beth. She’s gorgeous. Their marriage seems to be in great shape. Other than the usual marital ruts, they seem to be a picture of contentment. But Dan sees the opportunity to spice up his life and takes it. And then the film tortures him and his family for nearly two hours because of that decision. If you watched this film when it was first released and still had affairs, you were a brave, brave man.

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Let’s ignore for a second my inability to actually believe that someone would cheat on Anne Archer with Glenn Close and focus on the film’s performances. First off, Glenn Close should have an Academy Award for this movie. The fact that she lost to Cher for the unfuckingbelievably awful Moonstruck has to be one of the worst travesties in Academy Awards history. Her woman scorned ranks among the all-time great crazy women in movies. She’s up there with Natalie Portman in Black Swan and Laura Dern in Inland Empire. When she said, “I’m not going to be ignored, Dan,” I got chills. I was just thankful that her icy stare wasn’t being directed at me. I dated a girl that was bipolar. Obviously, she was much more sane than Alex, but watching Glenn Close’s performance, all I could think about was how well she captures a woman with a clear case of borderline personality disorder.

Ever since my mom made me watch Romancing the Stone as a kid, I’ve always been a big Michael Douglas fan. I don’t think he’s one of Hollywood’s greatest actors or anything, but he’s a great-looking guy (can I say that as a straight man) and he always brings sizzling sexual chemistry to whatever woman he’s paired with on-screen. His on-screen relationship with both Anne Archer and Glenn Close are no exceptions. Clearly Alex is unhinged, but Douglas makes Dan so sexual and so sensitive that you can at least understand why she’d fall for him so quickly (although not why she’d be such a crazy bitch other than the fact that she’s literally insane). Anne Archer was also great as the wife who quickly realizes that her husband may be hiding something from her and finds that she is willing to go to any length to protect him and her daughter.

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A random funny aside before I continue this review. I’m actually pretty sure that you can see Glenn Close’s nipples in just about every picture I used for this review. That girl does not believe in brassieres (at least not in this film). Back to the review, Adrian Lyne’s direction is great and he certainly earned his nomination for Best Director at the Academy Awards (though he rightfully lost to Bernardo Bertolucci for The Last Emperor). When the film needs to be steamy and erotic, good lord is it. The sex scene in the loft elevator is a moment of pure genius. And when it needed to be horrifying, it really, really was. The film has the infamous “bunny” sequence and the cross-cutting among the different members of the Gallagher family as they realize what’s about to happen was brilliantly executed.

Fatal Attraction isn’t perfect. It might run a little too long. Sometimes, the banter sequences (which are meant to establish the character of the Gallagher family and their friends) seem a little stale. Maybe there should have been more signs of Alex’s instability before she tries to kill herself early in the film (though it wasn’t really a legitimate suicide attempt). Regardless, Fatal Attraction is a smart and sexy thriller. I’m not sure if I enjoy it as much as Basic Instinct (although I haven’t actually watched it in years), but it’s a movie that I can finally mark off my list of movies that I’ve been meaning to watch for years. And now I know better to sleep with strange women in New York City with a penchant for not wearing a bra.

Final Score: B+