Tag Archive: Mystery


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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-

 

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Primal Fear

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: B+

What is there to say about Watchmen that hasn’t already been said a million times before? Easily the most celebrated graphic novel of all time, Watchmen isn’t just a seminal work in the burgeoning realm of graphic novels (that would ultimately allow other celebrated works like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man to exist), but it is simply one of the defining novels of the last 30 years. Simultaneously science fiction, political satire, mystery, superhero (the definitive supehero tale), psychological drama, and a massive deconstruction of every comic book that predated it, Alan Moore didn’t just write the premier superhero story of all time; he made it nearly impossible to look at any superhero tales before or after in the same light ever again. As a child, I was a huge comic book fan, but I grew out of it as I got older because for the most part, the average superhero story wasn’t maturing as I was. Then, my sophomore year of college, I saw that Watchmen was being released in theaters and I felt it was high time to read this story that every one kept praising, and nothing was the same ever since. It rekindled my love with the comic book genre (and produced a drain on my finances thanks to my new comic book addiction), and introduced me to what is simply one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

At its core, Watchmen begins as a murder mystery but to say its morph into so much more would only be scratching the surface of the various layers of this dense and complex novel. In an alternate U.S. history where superheroes are real (though only one has any actual superpowers and is therefore essentially a god amongst men) and Richard Nixon is seeking his fourth term as U.S. President after superhero involvement led to a U.S. victory in Vietnam, one of the world’s superheroes has been murdered. A caustic and darkly comic man known as the Comedian (one of two superheroes still legally allowed to fight crime) was thrown out of his apartment in New York by an unknown assailant and the remaining superheroes (retired or vigilante) are worried that someone may be gunning for former masks. The remaining superheroes include Nite Owl (an aging millionaire [the Batman stand-in] who spends his days reminiscing with one of his predecessors from the 1940’s, the original Nite Owl), Silk Spectre (the daughter of one of the original 1940’s superheroes who only got into the business to please her mother), Rorschach (a psychotic and violent crime fighter who refused to retire and sees the world in starkly black and white terms), Ozymandias (smartest man in the world and most financially successful of the superheroes as he cashed in on his name post-retirement), and Dr. Manhattan (a former nuclear physicist who was transformed into a godlike being that can alter the state of matter at will among many other powers after a lab accident disintegrated him). As Rorschach investigates the Comedian’s murder, the others deal with personal and psychological flaws until they eventually stumble onto a conspiracy that may destroy the world.

Let’s start with the artwork. This is going to be a long, long review, and I guess art seems like the logical place to begin an assessment of a comic book. I’ve read Watchmen in its entirety about 4 times now, and the simple fact that I notice new things (and a large number of new things) every time I read the book should be a testament to just how much detail is crammed into each individual frame of this story. Whether it’s Dave Gibbon’s artwork simply from an aesthetic view point, which can be both beautiful and terrifying (those who’ve been exposed to some aspect of this piece know how gruesome it can get) or its the many recurring visual motifs and symbols that frequent the pages, it is likely you will spend as much time parsing the images of Watchmen as you will reading Moore’s words (and ultimately that is where the true genius lies). It truly takes a special talent to keep up with the brilliance of Alan Moore, and I honestly can’t think of a better author and artist pairing than Moore and Gibbons in this work. If it weren’t for the fact that there are still literary types that can’t get fact that this is a comic book, I would personally guarantee that academics could spend as much time parsing Watchmen for all of the symbolism and deeper meanings that they could Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest, and Dave Gibbons’ art adds richly to the symbolic tapestry of this novel.

Next, the characters. As a grown-up comic reader, when I read a traditional Marvel or DC story, I would say that 75% of my enjoyment from those tales comes more from an attachment to the characters rather than the plotting itself, which is often cliche comic book material. There are so many fun and memorable comic book characters out there, and it takes decades of mythology to turn them into the beloved icons they are today. In 12, 28-page, issues, Alan Moore was able to craft the most complex and distinct characters in the history of the genre. With the possible exception of Silk Spectre (who movie or book remains the least compelling character in the story), these characters all have dense psychological profiles that are explored in-depth and they almost all seem to represent some specific philosophical archetype. Rorschach is the definition of a right-wing deontologist where things are either right or wrong. There is no gray area. The Comedian can also be called a nihilist because he sees how damaged and broken the world is and decides to be a dark mirror of the world. Ozymandias is more of a utilitarian though I can’t get into exactly what that entails without spoilers. Dr. Manhattan is an examination of how an all-powerful deity would view something as mundane as human life (which is to say with bemused indifference). Nite Owl doesn’t really represent one of these philosophies. He was just a bored playboy who had a romanticized fascination with the superheroes of his youth and wanted to follow in their footsteps (which isn’t to say he’s not as emotionally scarred as everyone else).

The way that Moore lays out the story manages to be even more dense (and beautiful) than the artwork itself. Eschewing a linear format, the story jumps all over in time and place, and there is one chapter told from the view point of Dr. Manhattan (whose mind exists outside the normal bounds of linear time) that is arguably the single greatest issue of any comic I’ve ever read in its masterful non-linear story and haunting tragedy. At the end of every chapter, Moore provides several pages of non-comic book material that are presented as either excerpts from books within the Watchmen universe or newspaper articles or similar diegetic material. About halfway through the book, you are suddenly introduced to an in-universe comic book called The Tales of the Black Freighter which seems oddly out of place at first until you reach the end of the story and you realize just how relevant it truly was. The most amazing thing about this comic is that in spite of all of its intellectual pretensions and ambitions (which it fulfills extrrordinarily well), it also manages to stand on its own as an entertaining and engaging superhero story. Even when the mechanics of its ending are a little odd (perhaps the only area where the movie was better), it doesn’t lessen the impact of this story’s brutal and shattering climax.

If you somehow haven’t read Watchmen yet, you have to. Even if you saw the movie and didn’t enjoy it (which a frustratingly large number of people didn’t), you should still read the novel as I know several people who are big fans of the book that don’t like the movie either. It’s one of the most important novels of the last 50 years. It’s really a shame that DC screwed Alan Moore out of the rights to these characters and that led him to sever all ties with the company because considering what he was able to accomplish with a brand new set of characters (though many of these characters are direct responses to certain obscure Silver Age comic characters), I can only imagine what he could have done with established heroes. His The Killing Joke story for Batman remains one of the definitive Batman tales along with Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and The Dark Knight Returns. I’m very glad that I chose to re-read Watchmen for this blog because each journey into that dark and twisted world reveals a little more of its secrets and I guarantee I still haven’t discovered all there is to know. Who watched the Watchmen? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I sure as hell know who’s telling everyone else they should read them.

Final Score: A+

I often like to imagine my life having a theme song at any moment, and my past love of creating mixtapes that matched my current mood only speaks of my most pretentious music inclinations. When I went to NYC for my interview for the internship, my theme song was LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” because if there is a better hipster/indie anthem then I don’t know what it is. When I returned to America at the end of my first trip to Italy, we flew in to Logan International Airport, and of course, classic rocker’s Boston were blasting from my headphones. Despite my own personal agnosticism, when I dated an extremely conservative Christian girl during the summer before college began, my theme song was “Into My Arms” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (one of my top five love songs of all time and it fit the relationship perfectly). Right now my theme song should be Amy Winehouse’s (in retrospect) darkly accurate “Rehab” because I have an addiction to Star Wars: The Old Republic and “I don’t want to go to rehab. So I said no, no, no!” It’s a problem. Ever since it came out, if I’m not at work, I’m playing it. It’s more addicting than Skyrim was (although I would argue Skyrim is still a much better game). Anyways, if readers are wondering why my writing has slowed to a crawl, my awesome Zabrak Imperial Agent/Sniper named Yoqeed is the reason why. Anyways, time for a review in a day that I have set aside as being for absolutely no video games.

Dennis Lehane is a hot property in so many different worlds right now. He wrote several episodes of the single greatest television program of all time, The Wire. His novel Mystic River was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film that would have likely won Best Picture had it not been up against the Oscar juggernaut The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I actually enjoyed Gone Baby Gone even more than Mystic River, and Martin Scorsese left his directorial comfort zone to direct the psychological thriller, Shutter Island, another of Lehane’s novels (though I’ve yet to see the movie). If you want intelligent and morally challenging crime fiction, you don’t have to look much further than Mr. Lehane who has made a name for himself as arguably the premier crime novelist of the 2000’s. I bought my little sister all of the Lehane novels I mentioned earlier for Christmas one year and she ate them up like candy. I haven’t had a chanec to read any of them yet (until now), and I can say that his delirious and mind-bending Shutter Island makes me very excited for something in a genre that Dennis Lehane is more accustomed to working in. As much a gothic horror story as a frenetic whodunit, Shutter Island managed to keep me on the edge of my seat and guessing even though it’s big climax had been partially ruined for me by unintended spoilers from the film version.

Shutter Island is set in the 1950’s and follows the investigation of U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck Aule as they investigate the disappearance of a mental patient from a secure room in an experimental mental hospital on the remote titular island off the Boston coast. A veteran of World War II and one of the best Marshall’s in the service, Daniels has been called in because every inch of the island has been scoured and the patient, a woman named Rachel Solando who murdered her children and then placed them at the dinner table like dolls, still hasn’t been found even though it should have been physically impossible for her to escape her cell in the first place. It doesn’t take long on the island for Teddy and Chuck to realize that something isn’t right. All of the doctors and orderlies seem like they have something to hide and one of the key doctors left the island around the same time as the patient escape. It also looks like potentially illegal and Nazi-esque techniques are being used on the patients and not to cure them but for the sake of experimentation. When it’s revealed that Teddy may have had ulterior motives for accepting this mission in the first place and a connection between one of the patients and the murder of Daniels’ wife years ago, the tale journeys further down the rabbit hole until it reaches its shocking and truly brilliant climax.

I can’t talk about the one thing I thought was the most brilliant about this book without giving away its ending, and if you’ve somehow managed to not see the movie or read the book yet and no one has ruined the twist for you, I have to avoid any spoilers out of good conscience. So without wanting to ruin anything, let me simply say that form most definitely follows function and for those of you who have read it, you know just how deftly Lehane foreshadows the books climax if you read it with an eye for what’s coming ahead. Most endings like this books are cheap but if you pay attention, Lehane lets you know its coming at least half-way through  and its great just how intimately Lehane is able to get the reader into the head of the protagonist. This is a psychological thriller at its finest, and while I haven’t heard as many great things about the film adaptation, this book almost reminds of a David Lynch film except for the fact that the ending is rather clear compared to Lynch’s more ambiguous works. Let us just say that this is a taut and thrilling page-turner that will keep you hooked til the final moments.

This is an easy read but at the same time the pacing is absolutely top notch, and I was left dissecting the myriad ways Lehane’s story bowled me over hours after I finished the book. I knew how it ended (but not necessarily the exact details) and the ending still managed to have me saying “Wow.” and “holy crap” to myself over and over again and it made putting the puzzle of the novel together while reading even more enjoyable than the shocking twist would have been had I gone in cold. It’s simply a great book. Not perfect by any means but Lehane is a top-rate novelist, and I’m excited for seeing the rest of his library. I’m torn as to whether I want my next Lehane novel to be Gone Baby Gone or Mystic River. I know which movie I prefer, but Nicole (my sister) says neither book is like the film. I’m sure I’ll enjoy them both quite a bit.

Final Score: A-

My feelings towards Robert Altman films are often very, very conflicted. For example, M*A*S*H* was a brilliant and subversive political comedy but there were times that there were so many people talking at once on screen (a common Altman tactic) that I wasn’t really sure who I was supposed to be listening to at any given moment. A Prairie Home Companion was a beautiful and understated comedy about the last days of the iconic radio program but it was so slow and droll at times that I questioned if it really deserved to be a movie. His most famous film of the 2000’s Gosford Park is another Altman film that has left me not knowing exactly how it is I felt about the film.

The film follows a weekend at the Gosford Park mansion owned by Lord William McCordle (Michael Gambon) where he is having a shooting party with a large group of other rich socialites. The film also, however, follows the lives of the very large group of servants living in the house or traveling with the other socialites. Much of the humor of the film comes from the dichotomy between these two distinct worlds. Towards the end of the film, it also becomes a murder mystery focusing on the murder of someone in the house (I won’t ruin who was murdered or the murderer was for the sake of preserving the suspense if anyone wants to watch it still).

The film’s cast is huge, and it may have been simply one of the best ensemble casts that I can think of. It’s basically a who’s who of fine British actors. Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Kristen Scott Thomas, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, and a large group of others. The acting was absolutely spectacular which is par for the course of an Altman picture. Special mention has to go to Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith. Maggie Smith stole every second she was on screen as a bitchy countess and Helen Mirren, as always, wowed as one of the head servants. Kelly MacDonald also did an absolutely stellar job as a maid as did Emily Watson. The acting and directing are really the biggest selling points of the film along with the cinematography and production values in terms of costume and set design. The film is beautifully shot and made.

The film has some serious problems though. It’s far, far too long. I felt a good 40 minutes of the film could have been cut and it would have been better for it. Also, the pacing can be absolutely dragging at times. It can get so boring. I kept looking at my watch wondering how much longer the film could possibly be. Fortunately, for the most part, the script is sharp and it tries to make up for its excessive length in that area. It’s an Altman film and the dialogue is always top notch. If you like mystery movies or period pieces, you should watch it. This movie probably isn’t for everyone, but I enjoyed it. I just wish it had been a lot shorter.

Final Score: B+