The Crying Game

Dir: Neil Jordan, 1992. Stephen Rea, Jaye Davidson, Miranda Richardson, Forest Whitaker. Mystery.

In his introduction to the published screenplay of Chinatown, Robert Towne wonders if there’s anything left to do with noir. He wonders if the aesthetics and thematics and poetics of noir are simply outdated in the information age, where a sense of mystery is harder to come by. Sensibly, he shrugs off this worry and points to The Crying Game as an example of how noir can still say new things to us as a modern audience. The thing I admire so much about the film, though, is that it manages to be both a deeply personal love story as well as a morality play about modern day political crime in Britain. It’s an IRA story with terrorism, assassinations, and a queer love story at its center. Somehow it all makes complete sense.

The first third of the film is told in flashback. Fergus, played by Stephen Rea, is an IRA operative who feels immense guilt for having had a role in the death of a hapless British soldier, Jody, played by an overbearing and overacting Forest Whitaker. Whitaker’s character gets to know Fergus after he’s nabbed and before the inevitable happens, Jody makes Fergus promise to check in on his girlfriend, a London hairdresser named Dil, after he is gone. The story goes from IRA thriller to blue neon Brit noir when Fergus goes to London, haunted by the tragic fate of Jody. He looks in on Dil as promised and quickly becomes infatuated with her. Dil is a cool London chick and a transgendered woman (with a penis) though Fergus has no idea. Fergus isn’t saying who he really is and Dil isn’t saying who she really is. Once nature takes its course and Fergus discovers the truth about Dil he doesn’t handle it very well. But because of the fact that he actually has a conscience, and his genuine confusion over his feelings towards Dil, he doesn’t ever really leave her. The IRA is never truly going to let him go, though, and his loyalty to them becomes a liability for someone in the throes of a curious new relationship.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Apr 10, 2014 10:49am

Compliance

Dir: Craig Zobel, 2012. Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy. Mystery.

I’m all for being provoked by a film if I think there is a good reason. I’ve steered clear – right or wrong – of legendarily sadistic fare such as Salo, Irreversible, and Takashi Miike’s work, to name a few, because whatever important things about modern society they think they’re getting at, I just don’t like watching people horrifically degrade one another for two hours at a time. I don’t really think it’s a necessary punishment we need to go through when we go to the movies in order to learn about life or art. It’s just not something I can easily stomach. Maybe that makes me a dubious critical voice here but I think there’s a fallacious connection between onscreen depravity and important, serious cinema. It’s a weird kind of pretension that suggests that the movie-as-endurance test is the most serious kind of cinematic art. I think that’s dumb. But hey, that’s just me.

That said, Compliance, Craig Zobel’s true crime tale of a sinister phone prank played on a fast food manager in Kentucky, had its fair share of walkouts. A lot of people got angry at this film and were disgusted by what they saw onscreen and exasperated by the idiotic decisions made by the principle characters, but I didn’t mind because the film is an excellent and very timely morality tale. It’s a morality tale in that it’s a story with an actual moral seriousness running through it - something that I don’t think you can say of similarly provocative films of late. Maybe it’s the fact that it depicts a world so familiar to some of us – a fast food restaurant off the highway in rural America where employees are made to feel entirely dispensable and where there is always some omnipotent higher level of authority in charge but never present. That the employees never question the horrific things they are asked to do by a sociopathic prank phone caller is telling because, as service industry workers, they are made to feel so passive to the authority and control of the corporation that owns the franchise that it tragically never occurs to them to say no.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Jan 3, 2014 11:31am

Dirty Pretty Things

Dir: Stephen Frears, 2002. Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sophie Okonedo. Mystery/Thriller.

Who the hell is hounding you in the BMW
How the hell he find you, 147'd you
Feds gonna get you
Pull the strings on the hood
One paranoid youth blazin' thru the hood 

– M.I.A. “Galang”

In the introduction to his published screenplay of Chinatown Robert Towne considers the depressing state of contemporary cinema in a Hollywood decades removed from Chinatown and the New Hollywood of the 1970s. For him it's the overload of expository dialogue meant to move the plot along and wooden, one-dimensional quality of characters in current films that kills any suspense or drama.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Sep 10, 2013 8:26pm

Deep Cover

Dir: Bill Duke, 1992. Starring: Lawrence Fishburne, Jeff Goldblum, Clarence Williams III, Victoria Dillard. Mystery-Thriller.

Deep CoverDeep Cover is one of those underrated films with a bold social commentary that is often swept under the carpet because it's from the '90s—that time in America that everyone loves to hate (but I love unabashedly.) When I first saw the film as an adolescent there was something about it that begged a very adult question; is mankind good in nature but drawn to necessary evils, or are we evil drawn to the predisposition of trying to be good? Living in Los Angeles, where the film is set, I still find myself asking that question.

Taking the still-relevant racial tension of an era and focusing on its organized crime and judicial system, the film opens with a young boy witnessing his father holding up a store on Christmas Eve. He is shot and killed, leaving the boy with a determination to never have such a pitiful existence. Russell (Lawrence Fishburne), now a man, is a rookie police officer trying to make a difference in the world. He doesn't drink or do drugs, however, when called into an interview for an assignment, he is told that he has the psychological profile of a criminal. In undercover work, he is assured, all of his flaws will become virtues.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 28, 2013 5:59pm

Killer Joe

Dir: William Friedkin, 2011. Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon, Juno Temple. Mystery-Thriller.

Killer JoeIt's an unfortunate fact that the vast majority of actors who, in their prime, filled roles that were at once progressive and invigorating, turned to ones that were lackluster, if not depressing, once they reached their peak of marketability within a genre. Usually this career transition leans towards comedy--and while viewers strain to recognize adept versatility on the screen, they often find themselves quite underwhelmed. Some notable examples of such actors are Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. That being stated, in Killer Joe one can find a rare opposite in transitions. Here we find the harmless and perhaps awkward Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer, Into the Wild) and the go-to charmer of chick-flicks, Mathew McConaughey, playing two morally reprehensible characters that are not only believable but unnerving.

The plot more or less surrounds the woes of Chris (Emile Hirsch), a somewhat desperate young man of poor character who owes a Texan drug lord 6K for “misplaced dope.” To blame for the drugs going missing is Chris’s mother Adele, a woman whom he, and the rest of the family, hate. He goes to his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) for help. Ansel lives in a trailer park with his new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his daughter Dottie (Juno Temple) from the previous marriage. When it becomes clear that Ansel doesn’t have the money to lend him Chris tells him of a half-brained scheme involving Joe Cooper, a detective who is self-employed as a hitman. The obvious target is Adele, who has a $50,000 life insurance policy. The money could not only pay off Chris’s debts and the $25,000 fee for Joe’s services, but the remainder could send Dottie, the sole beneficiary, to college.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 28, 2013 5:47pm

The Long Good Friday

Dir: John Mackenzie, 1980. Starring: Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, Eddie Constantine. Mystery / Thriller.

The Long Good FridayThe DVD box has a blurb from an old review that compares it to The Godfather, but in all actuality the very British pulp gangster flick The Long Good Friday is much closer in spirit to TV’s The Sopranos. Matter of fact, it’s fair to say that The Sopranos is a direct descendent of this crime and politics saga. Bob Hoskins, in a brilliant, star-making performance, carries the film as Harold Shand and, like Tony Soprano, he’s a two-bit street punk who has worked himself up the criminal food chain; instead of New Jersey he runs London. Like Tony, Harold fancies himself an ambitious businessman. He thinks the gaudy opulence he surrounds himself with gives him class and makes him legitimate. Also like the TV show, his wife plays a key role in his life - she’s almost a First Lady of the underworld. Unlike Tony, Harold seems to be devoted to his wife Victoria (played by the great Helen Mirren, just hitting her stride in her important run of great film and TV roles). She seems to be a little more posh than him and like his fancy boat, helps him feel like he’s arrived. Harold also has a crew of devoted lieutenants, the younger ones treat him like a father figure. Although maybe what makes these husky, bearish gangsters resemble each other most is the complicated rage that they desperately try to control. Even when they know revealing their true sociopathic nature can be bad for business, they just can’t help themselves.

With The Long Good Friday, British television director John Mackenzie, on a very modest budget, inexplicably made probably the best English gangster film ever. Inexplicable because though the guy continued to work in film and TV for decades he never made anything else of note. Nor did screenwriter Barrie Keeffe, who also came from the small screen, and who, after the acclaim for The Long Good Friday, never had another screenplay produced (he went back to TV). These two guys, along with the strong collaboration from Hoskins (who also came from TV at the time), would create such a special little gem that would help usher in a mini resurgence in home grown independent British film in the '80s (British film meaning paid for by the pound, not the dollar).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 7, 2012 1:08pm

Capricorn One

Dir: Peter Hyams, 1978. Starring: Elliott Gould, James Brolin, Brenda Vaccaro, Hal Holbrook. Mystery/Thriller.

Capricorn One posterHow's this for an all-star 1970s line-up? Capricorn One is a kinda sci-fi, conspiracy minded, political-thriller written and directed by Peter Hyams (Peeper, Outland and the similarly themed The Star Chamber) starring the once popular Elliott Gould as a pesky reporter (as if his Philip Marlowe from Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye wanted to grow up to be Woodward & Bernstein). The three innocent astronauts with their lives on the line are played by the manly James Brolin (Westworld), the nerdy Sam Waterson (The Killing Fields) and ex-football star O.J. Simpson who became famous for... well you know. The astronauts wives include Brenda Vaccaro (Midnight Cowboy) and Denise Nicholas (Blackula). Hal Holbrook (Deep Throat from All The President’s Men) is the conniving government bureaucrat doing his authoritative three-piece-suit thing. Listed and boxed in the credits as special guest stars is the underrated and strangely attractive Karen Black (Five Easy Pieces) and Telly Savalas, taking a break from TV's Kojak. The rest of the cast is rounded out with other TV fixtures from the decade: Robert Walden, David Huddleston and David Doyle (Bosley from Charlie’s Angels). It’s not just the cast or the haircuts that make Capricorn One so beautifully '70s, it's the paranoia that has come to define so much of the work of the decade.

While a script about a manned rocket ride to Mars that may or may not actually happen sounds coincidentally 2012, Capricorn One is all 1978. Following on the heels of political assassinations, the Vietnam war and Nixon’s Watergate scandal, Hollywood was hot for covert government and corporate dirty work, represented with a number of conspiracy driven films as diverse as All The President’s Men, The Conversation, Winter Kills, The Parallax View, Chinatown, Executive Action and Three Days of the Condor. The '70s sci-fi genre into which Capricorn One sorta falls had similar themes with flicks like Westworld, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and Silent Running. Of course both genres were basically driven out of business the year before Capricorn One was released when Star Wars was unleashed on the world. Along with the success of Rocky, Hollywood was becoming less interested in the cynicism of the past and now looking for heroes for the future (also ending the mega-stardom of an actor like Gould who specialized in rumpled losers.)

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 21, 2012 5:51pm

Black Sunday

Dir: John Frankenheimer, 1977. Starring: Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, Marthe Keller, Fritz Weaver. Action.

Black SundayBefore novelist Thomas Harris created the character of Hannibal Lecter for his Red Dragon book series, he had written one other novel entitled Black Sunday. It was a terrorist thriller obviously inspired by the massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. The adaptation for the screen by legendary screenwriter Ernst Lehman (North by Northwest, Sweet Smell of Success) provides the setting for one of the best action flicks of the 1970s and another cool movie notch in the belt for director John Frankenheimer. Along with The Deep released the same year (’77), Black Sunday would provide the peak role for actor Robert Shaw as a big star leading man, before tragically dying of a heart attack the following year.

A kinda sexy Palestinian terrorist, Dahlia (Marthe Keller, who played a similarly spooky Euro a year earlier in Marathon Man) finds the perfect boyfriend—Vietnam Vet Mike Lander (Bruce Dern, in his full whacked-out mode) who works once a week as a Goodyear blimp pilot for the NFL. To make a point about America’s support for Israel, she convinces him to fill the blimp up with explosives and blow up the Super Bowl. (Oh yeah, the President is going to be attending the game, too). Luckily, badass Israeli intelligence agent David Kabakov (Shaw) is on her tail.

Like the adaptation of Frederick Forsyth&r...

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 27, 2011 5:06pm

Deliverance

Dir: John Boorman, 1972. Starring: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox. Mystery/Thriller.

Deliverance is a wholly original American film, directed by a Brit, an action survival thriller in the Straw Dogs mode. Ahead of its time in ’72 it precluded a number of genres that would emerge over the decades from “hillbillyxploitation” of the '70s to “torture porn” of more recent years. Films from Southern Comfort to The Descent have been explained and pitched as “Deliverance with…” No film since has been able to combine the stunning filmmaking and the shock, but not just for shock's sake. This isn’t an exploitation film, beneath the horror there is great and powerful purpose, when man takes on wild nature, he also finds out what is buried in his own nature.

Instead of an easy weekend of golfing, four Atlanta white collar guys get out of their depth with a canoe trip on a river that is slowly being damned up deep in the Appalachian mountains. The trio are linked by the family man Ed (Jon Voight); he is joined by two cronies completely out of their comfort zone, Bobby (Ned Beatty in his film debut) and Drew (Ronny Cox, Richard “Dick” Jones of Robocop). Luckily joining them in the adventures is he-man Lewis (Burt Reynolds), who seems to know what he’s doing and who is quite the Hemingwayesque philosopher as well, “sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything.”

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Apr 19, 2011 3:45pm

Inception

Dir: Christopher Nolan, 2010. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe. Thriller.

Inception is the brilliant vision of the future where corporate espionage is administered through the human mind instead of the tangible environment. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a brilliant thief and fugitive who is very accomplished in the enterprise of extraction. He and his associates are the best at what they do. Their job is to essentially hack into the minds of powerful businessmen, via their dreams, to obtain secret ideas. As a way for Cobb to clear his name and pave the way to redemption, he takes a job for Saito (Ken Watanabe), a wealthy businessman who has commissioned Cobb and his colleagues, not to cull ideas from his rival, but to plant an idea – thus, inception. It is not so much the act of inception that prevents our hero from obtaining redemption but an outside element that prevents Cobb from carrying out his duty.

With amazing cinematography by Wally Pfister and film editing by Lee Smith, Inception brings to life a world in which dreams are not only within one’s mind but also exists on an entirely new dimension. Adding to that new dimension is the utterly brilliant and haunting score (which plays almost as a secondary character) from Hans Zimmer. With mind bending action, beautiful visuals, hallucinatory special effects and a break-neck pace, Christopher Nolan proves that, as a director and creative force, one does not need a comic book, a sequel or a remake to create a highly adroit and fascinating story.

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Posted by:
Travis King
Mar 11, 2011 6:43pm
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