Tag Archive: Thriller


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: A+

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: B+

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: B

 

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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-

 

Drive (2011)

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Where do we draw the lines between films that aestheticize violence for its own sake and those that aestheticize violence in the purpose of a higher calling? No one would deny the aesthetic nature of the violence in Luc Besson films such as The Professional or La Femme Nikita but you could also make the argument that those films subverted the violence whenever possible alongside their emphasis on character development. But,  then there are films like Django Unchained which on one hand use violence for clearly stated thematic goals (any thing doing with slavery) but also for cartoonish revenge fantasy. 2011’s Drive from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn seems, on an honest assessment, to be pretty much all style and aesthetics with little to no substance. But, when the style is this good, I sort of don’t want to complain.

The lack of an actual substantive theme or rich character development in this film is absolutely baffling because Drive is very much a European art-house film at its core. It’s just an arthouse film that doesn’t mean anything beyond its plot. This was the first of Refn’s films that I’ve seen but if his technical talents to visually evoke a mood and sense of time and place (in this film’s case, the 1980s even though it takes place in modern times I assumed) are like this in the rest of his works, Refn is a visualist of the highest order. I mean, he’s not a Mallick or a Fellini, but he can join the ranks of the Gaspar Noé‘s of the world. This movie is very popular among young film types (who tend to prefer style over substance), but I found it almost shocking because it isn’t until nearly halfway through the film that the ultra-violent (and boy is it ultra-violent) action of the film began to take over.

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Ryan Gosling (Lars and the Real Girl) plays the unnamed Driver, a Hollywood stuntman who also makes a living as a getaway driver in his part time. The Driver is a man of few words and almost immaculate professionalism, and the film opens with him leading the LAPD on a cat-and-mouse chase through the city and then losing them at the Staples centers after a Lakers game. In addition to being a stuntman and a getaway driver, the Driver also works as a mechanic in a classic/retro car garage with his only friend in LA, a crippled wanna be gangster named Shannon (Argo‘s Bryan Cranston). When the Driver moves into a new apartment, he begins making googly-eyes at one of the building’s tenants, kind single-mother Irene (Doctor Who‘s Carey Mulligan), but when her ex-con husband is released from prison, the Driver’s carefully maintained world is thrown into chaos.

I want to say as little about the plot developments of later on in the film as possible to stop from spoiling a relatively new indie film for those who haven’t had the chance to watch it yet. Needless to say though, twists abound (albeit predictable ones) and the body count stacks higher than an early Tarantino picture. Drive was very much a Ryan Gosling vehicle (pun half intended), and though Gosling’s performance in this doesn’t match his lovably eccentric (and simultaneously heartbreaking) turn in Lars and the Real Girl, it continues his transformation, along with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, into one of Hollywood’s thinking man action stars and leading men (and for women, his transformation into the thinking woman’s [or any woman with a pulse] sex symbol). Gosling speaks very little in the film and he has to do much of his acting just with his facial expressions which he thankfully succeeds in.

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However, the best aspects of the film (aside from Refn’s remarkable skills as a director) are the performances of Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston. Bryan Cranston has proven himself week in and week out to be the greatest lead performer in the history of television on Breaking Bad so its no surprise that he is more or less perfect as the half-crippled and scheming Shannon, but Albert Brooks’s terrifying performance as ruthless but affably evil gangster Bernie is the real treat of the film. I mostly know (more accurately, entirely know) Albert Brooks as a comedic actor. Comedy is the bread and butter of his career, but his take on Bernie is just exceptional. There isn’t a second he’s on screen (but his power is even more pronounced once he drops the nice guy schtick) where he isn’t controlling the whole scene. He should have gotten a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in 2011.

I just wish that the movie had more to say or that the characters were at least more clearly drawn. There isn’t much in the way of a character arc for the Driver. Yes, he goes from a lonely man to someone who loves another man’s husband, but he himself seems to be more or less the exact same man from the beginning to the end of the film. The extreme acts of violence we see him commit later in the film (i.e. smashing a man’s hands to bit with a hammer and then threatening to drive a bullet with a hammer through said man’s skull) are things he was capable of earlier in the film. He just hadn’t been given an excuse to engage in them yet. And though the film has its share of eccentric characters, they’re mostly defined by one or two eccentricities. They almost uniformly lack depth. Irene herself is nothing more than a cipher for inspiring the Driver to an act of altruism. And Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks has a small part in the film but she’s on screen for like all of five minutes.

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You have to understand that my complaints about the undeniably shallow nature of this film need to be taken with a grain of salt. Because from an aesthetic standpoint, Drive is almost designed to appeal to all of my different weird, niche pleasure principles from its super-80s soundtrack (even though they’re modern bands like Chromatics) to its gorgeous, European style cinematography to its absolutely unflinching display of violence in order to achieve some semblance of cinematic truth. I just wish that the movie could have married all of those aesthetic qualities I love to a Luc Besson level of depth. For fans of stylistic crime thrillers, Drive is about as easy a recommendation as they come. It’s not perfect, but I’d be hard-pressed to name a more fun way to spend an hour and forty minutes.

Final Score: B+

 

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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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Without wanting to be “that” guy, it’s easy to tell the real Stephen King fans from the casual readers. Though the man has nearly turned horror into his raison d’etre, his most loyal readers know that many of his most accomplished works fall outside of the typical purview of supernatural horror fiction, and some even abandon horror entirely to be modern fantasy epics (The Dark Tower novels) or simple tales of hope and redemption (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption). Long-time readers of this blog know that I consider his political allegory Under the Dome to be one of the best modern novels I’ve read in recent years. And while The Dead Zone may not rest at the top of my list of King’s works, it was one of the first novels to really explore the man’s range as an author.

As much as I love the 1979 novel, Mr. King’s sprawling and occasionally unfocused tale doesn’t seem like the ideal candidate for a faithful film adaptation. The main villain isn’t really introduced until towards the end of the book, and much of the film’s conflict is internal and psychological. But, to David Cronenberg’s credit, he made one of the most faithful King adaptations I can think of (most Stephen King movies have sadly little to do with their source book). 1983’s The Dead Zone has its share of problems in coming to the big screen, but it helped introduce a whole generation to the possibilities of Mr. King outside of typical horror fare.

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When affable high middle school English teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) drops off his girlfriend after at a night at the fair, his life as he knows is it is destroyed when his car is totaled by an 18-wheeler on a rainy night. Johnny wakes up fives years later from a deep coma, and his whole world has moved on without him. His girlfriend has gotten married and even has children, and his mother dies of a heart attack not long after he wakes up. However, Johnny has bigger problems than just acclimating to being out of the world for five years. When he wakes up, he now has the power to see into a person’s future and past simply by touching them.

Johnny’s powers awaken when he brushes arms with a nurse in the long-term care facility where he’s staying after he wakes up. He sees the nurse’s daughter burning in a fire-consumed house, and it is only by the stroke of Johnny’s premonition that he is able to save the girl. It isn’t long before word of Johnny’s powers reach the public, and he’s brought in to help solve a serial murder case in the classic King town of Castle Rock. After Johnny’s powers expose him directly to the horrors of man during that investigation, he wants to retire until a chance meeting with rising politician Greg Stillson (The Departed‘s Martin Sheen) brings him visions of the apocalypse.

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While The Dead Zone isn’t really a horror book/film, David Cronenberg expertly taps into the dread and horrific violence at the center of the tale. And his direction fuels the unsettling, psychologically unstable world that Johnny must now navigate. In the scene where Johnny and Sheriff Walt Bannerman (Alien‘s Tom Skeritt) finally confront the Castle Rock Killer, Cronenberg (whose background was in sci-fi/horror squickfests) employs every tool at his disposal to heighten the tension and disgust for a man who’s murdered so many girls. And during the premonition sequences, Cronenberg lends the proceedings just the right amount of surrealism to sell the supernatural aspect of what Johnny is experiencing.

A quick search of Christopher Walken in my blog’s search bar shows that if this isn’t straight out the first Christopher Walken movie I’ve reviewed, it’s at least the first one where he’s had a substantive role. And that’s crazy to me since I’ve reviewed over 360 films. Walken gives one of my favorite film performances of all time in The Deer Hunter and while Johnny isn’t as demanding as the shell-shocked Vietnam veteran, it’s still a psychologically complex role and Walken has to show so much of the internal conflict present in King’s novel that had to be left unsaid in the film (for time’s sake). Walken’s Johnny is a frazzled and weary man, but he’s also one that is kind and tough and fiercely protective of the things he cares about. Martin Sheen also bursts off the screen as the sociopathic Greg Stillson.

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Clearly, in a film that’s just over an hour and a half long, much of the characterization of King’s novel is lost, and the scenes involving the Castle Rock killer (as excellent as the denouement may be) seems rushed and almost distracting from the movie’s main themes, but more than most King films, Cronenberg manages to keep enough in to make the film function both as a movie in its own right but also a faithful King adaptation. Even as a novel, The Dead Zone lacks the epic ambition of The Stand or It, but for fans of supernatural thrillers and a movie with a genuinely shocking final act, The Dead Zone is an artifact of 1980s filmmaking that has aged well to this day.

Final Score: B+

The Village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: B

 

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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-