Category: Suspense


Vertigo1It is one of my great hopes for this blog that I watch an established Hollywood classic that I had seen for the first time when I was younger and didn’t particularly enjoy and suddenly find myself transformed by the film’s power upon this viewing where my tastes have matured after three years of reviewing films. Sadly, it hasn’t happened yet. Although I’ve watched films like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey which I loathed as a teenager but appreciated their technical merits as an adult, I’ve yet to find a film that I’ve completely changed my mind about. 1958’s Vertigo, long considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, is the closest one of these films has come yet, but it, too, falls short.

Vertigo is the easy answer for most critics when asked to name Alfred Hitchcock’s best film (my money is on Rear Window or North by Northwest), and it was recently named the greatest film of all time in a Sight & Sound critic and director’s poll. When I first saw it as a kid, I thought it was an almost irredeemable bore, and now, a month shy of being 25, I still think that’s true. For the first hour and forty minutes. Then, the film’s major twist is revealed and Vertigo starts picking up momentum. And it closes out on one of the best final sequences of any film ever (the only ending that immediately springs to mind as being better is Cinema Paradiso). I just wish the first hour and forty minutes weren’t slower than Jordan Belfort on one too many Quaaludes.

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John “Scottie” Ferguson (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation‘s James Stewart) is a retired police detective who has developed a crippling case of acrophobia, the fear of heights, after he is indirectly responsible for the falling death of a fellow policeman. Scottie’s acrophobia has developed itself as a dizzying vertigo that appears any time he’s near heights. After Scottie’s retirement from the police force, he is asked by an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to shadow the friend’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), because Gavin believes that Madeleine has been possessed by the spirit of a deceased Spanish countess. But the truth is far stranger as Scottie begins to fall in love with the woman he’s meant to follow.

I won’t ruin any more of the plot of Vertigo for those who have somehow managed to not see this film over the years. Not that Vertigo goes out of its way to hide the film’s most famous plot twist. Viewers know what’s really going on half an hour before Scottie finds out. But, the transformations, both real and imagined, that occur in the film’s closing acts make up for the turgid spell that comes before. And if you don’t know what’s really happening with Madeleine, Scottie, and a new friend Scottie makes later on, I don’t want to be the one to spoil it for you.

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Vertigo is a Hitchcock film, and from beginning to end, it looks it which makes the film soporific first half a little easier to swallow. Hitchcock’s camera is light and fluid (much credit must be given to cinematographer, Robert Burks), and there are extended sections of the film with little to no dialogue where Hitchcock lets the story unfold through the sheer power of image. It’s fascinating and, for technically minded viewers, a treat to watch a film-maker who understood the value of composition better than any director since Sergei Eisenstein. But, somewhere along the lines, the pretty camera work grows stale, and you keep waiting for the story to finally kick in.

And therein lies Vertigo‘s most fatal sin. It’s opening stretch is vital to establishing the film’s powerful pay-off, but it all unfolds at such a languid pace. Scenes last too long. Hitchcock floods the scenes with so much compositional detail, and they certainly invite the viewer into Vertigo‘s world, but they are just bandages masking weak storytelling. Scottie is a flat character for 60% of the film, until he isn’t and that leads to the film’s astounding denouement. Unfortunately, Hitchcock doesn’t give the audience any glimpses of the darkness simmering beneath his surface beforehand.

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But, when Jimmy Stewart is finally given real material to work with, he pulls one of cinema’s all time “against type” performances out of it. Dark, possessive, angry, paranoid. These aren’t adjectives we ever use to describe Stewart who is one of the definitive All-American movie stars. But Scottie takes a tumble down a well of pitch-black, misogynistic darkness, and Jimmie Stewart’s performance is rightfully one of the truly iconic performances in Hollywood’s history. Kim Novak is also marvelous as the mysterious Madeleine, and Madeleine is certainly one of Hitchcock’s greatest female creations.

I would talk about what makes the final sequence so brilliant (and so deliciously subversive of the feminine identity roles of Hollywood’s Golden Age as well as the traditional values of masculine heroes), but I don’t want to spoil what happens in the film’s closing moments. Had the first half of the film been half as good as it’s second half, this would clearly be one of the true greatest movies of all time. As it is, it finishes on a note of absolute perfection that few films have since touched, but it isn’t enough to excuse the film’s unfortunately dull start.

Final Score: B+

 

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Alfred Hitchcock once famously explained the difference between a surprise and suspense as the difference between a bomb suddenly exploding underneath a table versus knowing the bomb is there and wondering when it will go off. This can be extrapolated to horror films. Jump-scare horror movies work on surprise. They work on the killer appearing from nowhere and terrorizing those on screen and providing a momentary jolt to the audience. The best horror movies survive on atmosphere. They fill the audience with dread and you can never tell whether the scares were intentionally crafted by the film-maker or your imagination is playing tricks on you.

An adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, 1963’s The Haunting is a true classic of the suspenseful school of horror film-making. It’s far from perfect. The lead actress’s performance is actively grating and over-the-top, and elements of the film are hilariously dated. But, when it comes to the power of set design to create pure atmosphere, The Haunting is almost peerless (something the awful 1999 remake failed to understand). Throw in the film’s powerful ability for implication and suggestion, and you have a classic horror that knows how to burrow right into the primal fear centers of an audience without any of the blood and guts that sadly define modern horror.

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When British scientist Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) hears rumors about the haunted Hill House in New England, he has to investigate it. Despite nearly a century of rumors of untimely deaths and tenants who refused to stay in the house for more than a week, Markway assembles a group of individuals who have been touched by the supernatural to stay in the house and to help him confirm any haunting if it’s real. And, with that summons, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), Theodora (Claire Bloom), and Luke Sanderson (Django Unchained‘s Russ Tamblyn) arrive at the home for a stay they’ll wish they’d avoided.

Eleanor Lance is a perennially nervous and clinically anxious old maid who’s spent the last 11 years caring for her sickly mother. And, now that the mother has passed away, Eleanor lives with her sister and her sister’s husband. Eleanor’s life is fueled by self-doubt and self-loathing and the chance to get away to the Hill House is a god-send despite the fact that the house is haunted. Theodora is a bohemian artist with ESP and also a lesbian which the film makes fairly obvious without ever coming right out and saying it. And, Luke is set to to inherit Hill House when his aunt, the current owner, dies. By the end of the film, he’s wishing he didn’t have the property.

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Beyond the atmosphere and production design (which I’ll get to in a second), The Haunting succeeds because like the best horror movies (The Exorcist, Let the Right One In, The House of the Devil, etc.), it understands the power of building up your characters before you put them through hell. Though the film’s characterizations are certainly classic Hollywood caricatures in bold strokes, I still felt like I knew the people in this movie. Nell is terrified of her own shadow. Theodora is a shameless flirt who may be less a psychic and more naturally observant. Luke is a cocky playboy and cad. And Dr. Markway is an eccentric scientist who is both enamored by the supernatural and without the proof he needs to know he’s just not crazy.

And because we knew these men and women, it adds layers to the film. There’s a certain element of “what’s actually happening” in the film which works in it favor (rather than clearly spelling everything out for viewers), and because of Nell’s crippling anxiety, there’s a question of whether or not what’s happening is really occurring or simply in her head? In the remake, the Dr. Markway character was conducting a study on sleep deprivation, and throughout this whole film, I constantly wondered if the house wasn’t a psychological test he was performing (it isn’t).

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The only films I’ve watched for this blog where the set design and atmosphere of the film were this suffocating are The House of the Devil, The Descent, and Session 9, and on many levels, I think The Haunting outclasses them all. It’s attention to detail is positively Kubrick-esque (which of course makes me sad that I forgot The Shining on that list a sentence ago). The characters constantly remark on how Hill House feels alive, and because of the meticulous composition of shots and the unsettling construction of the house (with its bizarre angles and macabre decoration), you feel the dread of the film’s heroes.

And Robert Wise’s direction in general is something to applaud. I was struck over and over again during this viewing of the film about how great black & white photography is at capturing the essence of horror. I’m not saying that color films can’t be great horror (every other movie I’ve mentioned is in color), but the deep shadows and striking contrast in the film’s shots in Hill House made you constantly wonder what was hiding in every dark corner of the screen. Additionally, the film often utilizes bizarre and tilted (if not totally rotating) camera angles to increase the unsettling nature of the film.

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As I said though, the film isn’t perfect. Julie Harris’s performance is bad. Just plain and simple, she wasn’t suited for the role. Eleanor seems like a demanding role because the themes of her sexual frustration and neuroses are key to the supernatural elements of the film as well. Eventually, the “haunted house” seems to become an extension of her psychological maladies. And, she makes it too over-the-top. But, that (and additional smaller complaints about dated elements of the film) are no reason to not watch one of the best horror films of the 1960s. Just avoid the 90s remake like the plague.

Final Score: B+

 

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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

 

The Village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: B

 

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2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford remains one of the most under-appreciated Westerns of the last decade, and were it not for it’s semi-bloated final act, it could have been one of the true masterpieces of the decade (visually, it remains a work of genius despite its narrative missteps). With just that film (I’m yet to see 2000’s Chopper),  director Andrew Dominik asserted himself as one of the true artistic visionaries working in the modern cinema field, and his visually resplendent work harkens back to other celebrated filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson or Terrence Malick. Combining slower-paced epic crime yarns with cinematography that is simply stunning, Andrew Dominik  is making movies unlike anything else being created right now, and while 2012’s Killing Them Softly ends on a too obvious note, it is an incendiary work from one of Hollywood’s most promising talents.

Born out of what can only be described as unchecked fury with the American psyche and cultural/economic/social institutions that allowed the 2008 economic crisis to occur, Killing Them Softly is Andrew Dominik’s fiery reaction to greed, capitalism, and our culture of cruelty and exploitation. While some were bothered by the “anvilicious” nature of the films political message (click on that link, if you need the phrase explained to you), I applaud a modern director actually trying to make a political statement when ironic indifference seems to be the critical vogue these days. Taking place in the days leading up to the 2008 presidential election, Killing Them Softly mixes in a large amount of speeches and news reports from the financial crisis during the more quiet moments of the film, and by the film’s end, the criminals, robbers, and murderers at the heart of the film become inseparable from the robber barons who wrecked our nation’s economy.

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After being egged on by his boss, Johnny Amato (The Sopranos‘ Vincent Curatola), small-time hood Frankie (Argo‘s Scoot McNairy) teams up with his heroin-addicted friend Russell (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Ben Mendelsohn) to rob a mob-ran poker game organized by pathetic criminal Trattman (Smokin’ Aces‘s Ray Liotta). They think they can get away with the crime because Trattman robbed his own game years earlier and drunkenly admitted to it without any consequences. Though the robbery goes right according to plan, Russell’s big mouth eventually draws attention to their exploits and mafia hitman Jackie (Moneyball‘s Brad Pitt) is called in to take care of the problem. With the “assistance” of depressed, whore-chasing fellow hitman Mickey (The Sopranos‘ James Gandolfini), Jackie does what he does best. Clean up messes.

Just like The Assassination of Jesse James, this is a very “talk”-y movie. Probably even more so than Jesse James. But, unlike your average crime film (even some of the better ones), you actually feel like you know the people driving the action of the film. When Russell inevitably fucks up and blabs about the crime, it doesn’t seem unexpected (while the reveal of the situation avoids predictability through how well-shot the scenario was). While the entire film carries an air of tragic inevitability, it works within the context of Dominik’s work. As our nation’s economy is crumbling around these men, it makes perfect sense that the once mythologized criminal underworld would lose its sheen and glamour. In fact, much how Jesse James deconstructed the classical American Western, Andrew Dominik takes a bazooka to the tropes and mythic stature of the American crime film.

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Brad Pitt continues his remarkable transition into one of the most respected acted talents of his generation. It was obvious as far back as 12 Monkeys and Fight Club just how talented he was, but in recent years, the man has undergone a career renaissance (thanks in no small part to mostly consistently excellent career choices, though I am nervous about The War Z), and more than almost anyone else, he is a massive A-List star who seems to spend as much time in indie-ville as he does more mainstream affairs. His Jackie is a terrifying creation of greed, professionalism, and absolutely no remorse. Yet, thanks to the strong writing and Pitt’s subtle performance, he is a fully-dimensional create and more than just a commentary on the cultural forces that would produce a man like him.

I’m going to keep this review short. I’m going to see Aziz Ansari tonight (!!!) at the Creative Arts Center here in Morgantown. He’s doing a stand-up show. My sister got tickets for free, and I drove her around town when she needed something, so she’s giving one of her free tickets to me. It should be a good night since I like Aziz’s stand-up and I also love Parks and Recreation (a show I began watching after this blog stopped reviewing television). If I have one major complaint about Killing Them Softly, it’s Brad Pitt’s final speech which I understand sums up all of the themes and anger of the film. But it’s also so mind-numbingly obvious and apparent that it’s an insult to the audience’s intelligence. Otherwise, the film continues to paint Andrew Dominik as one of the most intriguing and rising talents in the industry.

Final Score: A-

 

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(A quick aside before I begin my actual review. I’m on literally like five or six different types of cold/sinus/allergy medicines at the moment, so if this review is incomprehensible gobbledy-gook, that’s why, and I’ll fix it when I’m not drugged out of my gourd and my sinuses don’t make my face feel like it’s simultaneously melting and being squeezed by a massive vise)

If you were a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, how would you vote in the race for Best Picture? Would you vote for what you simply thought was the finest film of the year based solely on its artistic merits or would you allow for more complicated factors such as mainstream accessibility and cultural significance? I bring this up because for the last five years, I can’t honestly imagine that the Academy voters went with Option A (unless their tastes in movies are just stunningly shallow) and instead went with the option of smart films with mainstream appeal. It’s not that The King’s Speech or The Artist are bad films. They’re very good films, but like 2012’s Best Picture winner, Argo, they were released in a sea of films with far more artistic vision and insightArgo2

With that prior warning, it may come as a shock when I say that Argo is a virtually flawless film. There wasn’t a single moment in the film where I thought to myself, “That was mishandled,” or “They should have done that differently.” However (and I’m about to coin a word here), it was also a totally “awe”-less film. For a movie that is now enshrined as the “Best Picture” of 2012, there was simply not a single exceptional element to the film.  At literally no point in the film (except for maybe Alan Arkin’s performance but more on that later) did I sit up and say, “Wow. That was superb.” From the direction (Ben Affleck’s now infamous Best Director snub was honestly well-deserved) to the cinematography to the characters to the story, everything about the film was very good. Nothing about it was great.

A fairly fictionalized account of real events, Argo is the story of a recently declassified CIA op that occurred during the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1980. After the Iranian revolution that deposed U.S.-supported Shah Reza Pahlavi and began the reign of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s turn into an Islamic Republic, Iran had a very legitimate beef with the actions of the U.S. government in overthrowing their democratically elected leader prior to Shah Pahlavi. And after months of unrest, protestors stormed the U.S. embassy and took 52 American diplomats and members of the foreign service hostage for 444 days. Argo is the story of six Americans who escaped the embassy before they were captured and the efforts of the C.I.A. to extract them from Iran.

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Tony Mendez (Dazed and Confused‘s Ben Affleck) is a C.I.A. exfiltration expert. His job is to get wanted targets out of highly hostile environments without any violence or calls for alarm. When the State Department and C.I.A. are tasked with extricating the six American escapees (who have been staying at the home of the Canadian Ambassador to Iran), Mendez has to come up with a plan to get them out of the nation alive. So, Mendez decides to have the escapees pretend they’re part of a film crew surveying Iran as a possible location for their new science fiction film, and with the help of Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (The Big Lebowski‘s John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Catch-22‘s Alan Arkin), that’s just what Mendez is going to do.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about the film is that it’s like eating a box of popcorn. When all is said and done, the film tastes good and it keeps you full as you’re going along, but when the credits roll, you realize it was completely empty and you’re hungry for something of actual substance. I said earlier that the film was flawless although perhaps that was the wrong word. It has a big glaring flaw, but you only really notice upon later reflection once the credits roll. This is a film simply over-flowing with eccentric and interesting characters, but for the life of me, I couldn’t give a shit about a single one of them because the film spent zero time developing them and letting the audience emotionally invest in their troubles.

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Part of me also wants to find fault in the almost comically stoic performance from Ben Affleck as the film’s lead, but upon reflection, I’m going to say that it makes sense and is logical within the context of the performance. Mendez is a hardened C.I.A. spook and his job is navigating high-tense situations. It makes perfect sense that he would be as calm and collected as humanly possible. But, honestly, the only performance from the film that wowed me was another delicious comic turn from Alan Arkin as the foul-mouthed movie producer. If nothing else sticks with me from Argo, the catchphrase “Argo-fuck-yourself” has already become part of everyday vocabulary thanks to Alan Arkin.

I was also bothered by the film’s decision to add unnecessary and totally fictional conflict and complexity to the mission that Tony Mendez was trying to perform. I understand that the film wouldn’t be very interesting if it had stuck strictly to the facts of the “Argo” case, but it could have found depth and tension in other areas rather than a strict portrayal of historical facts with some completely made-up shit thrown in for good measure. The film wants to be taken seriously as a portrayal of the events that occurred (and it does get a lot of points for showing why Iran had a good reason to hate the U.S. at the time), but when it adds fictitious elements like the near shoot-out at the airport in the film’s climax, the movie loses some of its credibility.

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And Argo committed one of the most disappointing movie crimes of all (at least for me). Other than the often hilarious and refreshingly comic moments that lampooned the sillier sides of Hollywood, the film seemed to never generate an emotional response from me other than a vague sense of pleasure from the admittedly very clever and daring mission it portrays. I didn’t care about the characters. Their actions never make me feel sympathy or distaste. And, as mentioned before, their characterizations (even that of Tony Mendez) were crudely thin.

So, it’s becoming clear that my earlier statement that Argo was flawless is coming apart at the seams while I’ve yet to find much positive to say about this film. So, let me close out with this addendum to the torrent of issues I took with this Best Picture winner. I honestly enjoyed this film, and I thought it was a very good, mainstream crowd-pleasing thriller. It is the fact that it was named the Best Picture of last year that I feel the need to examine it with such intensity. As a political thriller and a loose retelling of historical facts, Argo is a success. But if you call this the most artistically significant film of last year, well, “Argo-Fuck-Yourself.”

Final Score: B+

 

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(A quick aside before I actually begin this review. I’m on something of a hot streak right now. Long time readers know that they come and go [and occasionally I am forced to watch several awful films in a row] but those times where the blog gods align to increase my cinematic fortunes is always a  delight. This is one of those moments because, counting this review, my last four films have all been either “A”s or “A+”s. It doesn’t get much better than that)

It’s hard to make a good cop movie/show. Ignoring for a second that the greatest television program of all time (and arguably the greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced) is the cop drama The Wire (although obviously that show is much more than just a cop show), just think about how many terribly mediocre procedural crime dramas fill up the time between advertisements on TV. The CSIs, the NCISs, the endless Law & Order spin-offs. And for every Training Day or Rampart, you get thirty lame Steven Segal films or something with Michael Bay attached to them. So, when I say that 2012’s sleeper hit, End of Watch, is the best cop movie I’ve seen since Training Day, it should mean something.

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End of Watch is reminiscent of the similarly “bro-mance” heavy and intimate military indie, The Messenger, although rather than focusing on the day to day lives of two soldiers whose job is to inform family members of the deaths of their loved ones, End of Watch peeks into the lives of  two cops in the LAPD serving in some of the roughest neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Brian Taylor (Brokeback Mountain‘s Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) are both shining examples and stark subversions of the “Cowboy Cop” trope. Brian is a pre-law college student who is filming his daily shifts (and regular life) with his partner Mike. Mike is happily married with his first child on the way while Brian is just starting to date Janet (Anna Kendrick) as the film begins. And Brian and Mike’s lives take a turn for the worse when their cop heroics put them on the bad side of a powerful Mexican cartel that will stop at nothing to get revenge.

A common complaint people have had about the film is that it is sort of formless and “plot”-less, but honestly that was one of the most appealing parts of the film for me. It’s not meant to be a story intensive film (at least not until it’s shocking and explosive finale), and it’s rather meant to be a serious (though often intentionally comic) character drama, and in that regard, the film is a resounding success. My dad turned to me half way through the film (which he enjoyed although not as much as I did) and said “Son, you’re probably enjoying this a lot more than me cause of the dialogue.” And he was right. As Brian and Mike bond through car rides, quincineras, shoot-outs, and other turns in their personal life, you feel like you really get to know these two, and writer/director David Ayer paints a fully-realized and sympathetic (but also honest) portrayal of two men just serving their duty in the LAPD.

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Anyone who’s seen Brokeback Mountain knows that Jake Gyllenhaal is more than just a pretty face (can I say that as a straight man? who gives a sh*t). He is a talented actor that is able to delve into depths of sensitivity that few of his male compatriots his age can (Heath Ledger was an early peer obviously but he’s gone now). And while End of Watch certainly isn’t one of his most challenging roles, Gyllenhaal certainly rises to the occasion. Michael Peña was the film’s pleasant acting surprise. He’s gotten a ton of smaller (and occasionally larger) parts throughout the years ever since exploding in Crash, and End of Watch reminds me why this man should get more roles. He had better comedic chops than Gyllenhaal and was able to keep pace during the dramatic moments. In fact, Peña’s very expressive face captured possibly more of the inner turmoil yet iron courage that defined these two men than Gyllenhaal could. Here is a man that needs to be a bigger star.

I usually think of the found footage genre as being something primarily used for horror movies (Paranormal Activity, The Last Exorcism, etc) not something that you see in serious dramas, but David Ayer makes it work. The film is told almost entirely either through the cameras that Brian and Mike have placed on their chests, a handheld camera that Brian uses, their squad car’s official camera, as well as cameras held by other characters such as antagonists. It really places you right into the heart of the film’s action and you feel like you’re riding along with these two knuckleheads on one of their patrols and when the film swithces into a first-person mode, it really ups the tension to nearly unbearable levels. My only complaint about the film are the moments that seem to violate the pattern of only using footage that someone else is filming. It draws you out of End of Watch‘s universe.

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I watched this movie Friday night and I haven’t had a chance to review it til now. I just went to the doctor today after my health more or less disintegrated over the weekend at work. I developed a terrible cough and I completely lost my voice. Turns out that I have bronchitis and a sinus infection. A real double whammy that has been a lot of fun. So, when I haven’t been working these last couple of days, I’ve been resting. I’m going to keep this review short just because I waited too long to do the review, and I don’t feel like I can do it proper justice. Hopefully, I’ll be getting better over the next week or so and my blogging can stop suffering. What you need to take from this review then is that this is an excellent movie. It joins Perks of Being a Wallflower and Liberal Arts as being one of the best films that I watched from 2012, and I’m not sure if a film has a had a more shocking and brutal ending in recent years than this excellent crime drama/thriller.

Final Score: A

 

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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+

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: A-

 

Film noir’s heyday may have been 60 years ago when the Sam Spades and Philip Marlowes of the world ruled the dime book stores and the big screen, but it’s clung to life with the same tenacity as the molls, private eyes, and hoods that populate its culture. My favorite film of 2010 remains the noir-influenced Winter’s Bone, and 2005’s Brick was one of the breakout indie hits of the aughts. There’s something about the seediness and moody atmosphere of noir that draws us in even when it’s a noir where the bad guys are the main characters. The lurid appeal of criminal activity scratches that itch in our baser instincts that we don’t want to admit is there in the first place. 1990’s multiple Oscar nominee The Grifters combines elements of noir with shades of Oedipus Rex. While it may not live entirely up to that compelling description, it’s still a dark (and surprisingly comic) descent into the world of matchstick men (and women).

Centered on three con artists, each trying to get the leg up on the other, The Grifters is a tale of family and betrayal. Roy (Being John Malkovich‘s John Cusack) is a small-time grifter, running minor-league cons to get by. His girlfriend, Myra Langtry (The Kids Are All Right‘s Annette Bening), used to be a “long con” swindler (think Sawyer on Lost), leading scams with her old boyfriend to milk tens of thousands of dollars out of rich oil men. Finally, you have Roy’s mother, Lilly (Choke‘s Anjelica Huston), who helps adjust the odds at horse races for the mob, all while skimming some money off for herself on the side. When Roy gets injured trying to scam a measly $15 off a bartender and the mob sends Lilly to California to cover their races, a mother and son who haven’t spoken in eight years are finally reunited only for the jealousy and greed of Myra to threaten to cause everyone’s world to come crashing around them.

Noir is all about the details. It’s about that sense of immersion you get because the world feels so lived in and so run down. More than many other genres, it’s about not having to suspend your disbelief because the script and direction have created enough of a real universe that these characters are inhabiting. In that regard, The Grifters is a success. Heavily reliant on con-man lingo and with a rapid-fire deliver that would make Aaron Sorkin proud, the dialogue pops off the screen all while subtly informing you about the world these grifters live in. There’s a brilliant moment where Lilly’s boss is about to torture her and he forces her to explain why insurance scammers would beat people with oranges in a towel. If it had been handled any other way, it would have seemed like unnecessary and artificial exposition (i.e. two characters would never say it) but the way its used to terrify Lilly makes for one of the film’s best scenes.

Unfortunately, noir also boils down to how great the crime is (because the film is either defined by the attempts of the protagonists to pull of the perfect crime or for the private eye to unfurl a seemingly unsolvable mystery), and in that respect, The Grifters falls a little short. The story plods along, and although the film teases you (and years of film noir conditioning subconsciously trains you) with the idea that there are going to be three different schemes working simultaneously in the movie (as in each person is trying to scheme the other two), that isn’t what happens. There isn’t an actual grand plot in the film, and it’s more of a character study of three desperate grifters whose lives suddenly spin madly out of control. Perhaps, the next time I watch this film, I’ll be able to appreciate it more for what it was, but during the film, I kept expecting a pick-up that never really arrived.

Movies like this and Being John Malkovich make me wonder what could have happened to John Cusack’s career if he hadn’t decided to go down the (admittedly more profitable) route of conventional rom-coms. Back when he was still making bold career decisions like playing a low-life con man with deep-seated mommy issues, he had the making of being a real star. I’m not saying his performance was Oscar-worthy (though Annette Bening and Anjelica Huston totally earned their nominations), but he has a thinking man’s star appeal, and he’s let it squander in lesser roles. I think Annette Bening is one of the greatest female actresses of her generation, but her performance in this film was confusing at first. She almost came off as too ditzy and bizarre, until you finally realize that it’s all an act. Bening’s ability to flip in and out of the various shades of Myra’s personality was a great indication of her future star power, and it’s easy to see why she’s received so many Academy Award nominations.

Of course, leave it to screen legend Anjelica Huston to steal the whole show. Along with Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Lilly is one of the molls to end all molls. She’s tough as nails and at one point elbows a drunk in the throat who wouldn’t stop harassing her at a diner. She threatens to have a doctor killed if he isn’t able to save her son who she hadn’t even spoken to in eight years. She intimidates everyone around her, but underneath that tough edge, there’s a mother who (at least thinks she) cares about her son and is willing do what it takes to look after him. Yet, she’s also a fragile woman who’s aging, and when her world collapses, she lets it show. Anjelica Huston conveys all of this and more with her nuanced performance. I honestly can’t decide if she was better or Kathy Bates in Misery (who won that year’s Best Actress Oscar).

If you want a grand mystery or even a film noir with a plot that will leave you constantly wondering how it’s all going to turn out, The Grifters might not be for you. It’s got a compelling character study beating away at the core of the film, but The Grifters still always left me wanting a little bit more. With a world so magnificently created, it deserved to have a little more meaningful action populating the frames. Still, the excellent performances and eye for detail make The Grifters more than just your average crime story. For fans of the neo-noir revolution that has swept Hollywood the last twenty years, it’s a must see movie and for all fans of Anjelica Huston, it’s another check mark in her brilliant career.

Final Score: B