Category Archives: Cerebral

Trance (2013) 3/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Duration: 101 mins
Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel

A suave and tricksy thriller detailing a heist mob’s unconventional attempt to hypnotically uncover the location of a stolen painting amidst emotional turbulence and full-blown crises of identity. Trance offers the best and worst of mercurial director Danny Boyle at about a 30/70 split. Stunningly shot and soundtracked to Rick Smith’s pulsing melodies, it sets out to explicitly defy narrative convention and treat us to a razzle-dazzle experience over old fashioned storytelling. Though we’ve seen attempts like this before, what Trance lacks in originality it makes up for in burning focus and unflinching persistence. And with James McAvoy and the always splendid Rosario Dawson mischievously wrapped up in the deep dark psychological hijinks, the experiment is only enriched. But trippy entertainment only goes so far and with the plot hoisted so brazenly atop of Boyle’s sacrificial alter, not even actors of their class and magnetism can keep us invested in the manner we’d expect and desire from a clever heist thriller.

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The Conversation (1974) 4.86/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.7
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 113 mins
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Stars: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Harrison Ford

The Conversation is a dark and introspective study of a private surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), whose private life becomes increasingly infected by those traits his profession requires, namely, paranoia and anonymity. When Caul comes to believe that his latest subjects’ lives could be in danger due to his recordings, past anxieties emerge to ultimately tear down the fragile order he has created in his life. Hackman is superb in the lead role and gives a breadth of reality to the deeply idiosyncratic Caul. Furthermore, he is well supported by John Cazale, Harrison Ford, and Robert Duvall. Coppola’s taut direction is at its best here as he assembles and disassembles reality primarily through his use of sound but also through his use of darkly lit interiors and ambiguous dialogue. And it is this ambiguity that dominates the film’s theme as Caul’s overconfidence in words and voices become a lesson in the subjectivity of life. The influence of Japanese cinema is all over this film, particularly in the dream sequences and that memorable final scene which strongly echoes the extraordinary ending to Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom.

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Miller’s Crossing (1990) 4.36/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.7
Genre: Crime
Duration: 115 mins
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Stars: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro

A rare gem of a film that has remained relatively unacknowledged (when compared to more commercially successful Coen films), Miller’s Crossing stands alongside The Big Lebowski as the Coen brothers’ best film to date. Based loosely on an often forgotten film-noir, The Glass Key, the film is set during the prohibition era and follows kingmaker Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne) in his attempts to play two rival gangs against the middle for reasons that are never entirely clear. This is a film that boasts perfection from all quarters from the casting, the acting, the writing, the directing, the cinematography, to the scoring. The cast is loaded with heavy hitters with Albert Finney and J.E. Freeman (as the terrifying Eddie Dane) doing particularly well alongside Gabriel Byrne who is in the form of his career. The directing is textbook as the brothers create a flawless synthesis of Dennis Gassner’s production design, Roger Deacons’ cinematography, and Carter Burwell’s score, all of which are stunning.

Of course, the standout strength of Miller’s Crossing is the dialogue which is not only the best example of Coen dialogue but perhaps the most powerful use of dialogue in modern film. The main thrust of the film’s quick and steady pace comes from the lyrical and relentless back and forth between the film’s characters and in typical noir fashion, this is usually between Tom and someone else. The story is the usual rubix cube of crosses and double-crosses which we have come to expect from the Coens but the payoff is perhaps more sharply realised here than in any of their other movies. In fact, the manner in which it all comes together is so sublime that Miller’s Crossing isn’t just one of the Coen’s best films, it’s also one of the best gangster noirs – period!

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Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) 4.86/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 96.2
Genre: Horror
Duration: 114 mins
Director: Peter Weir
Stars: Rachel Roberts, Anne-Louise Lambert, Vivean Gray

Quite simply the most haunting film you will ever see, this tale of three girls who walk up a rock formation never to be seen again forgoes ghouls, monsters, or ghosts in favour of an intangible force altogether more terrifying. Set in the early 1900’s, it follows a party of school girls from a prestigious boarding school who, accompanied by their teacher, visit the ancient rock formation known as Hanging Rock on a sunny Valentine’s Day afternoon. Weir gives the early stages to this film a hypnotic dreamlike flow as the teenage girls prepare for and embark upon their eagerly awaited trip. However, as the movie proceeds, this dreamlike haze begins to feel more and more like a spell cast on the girls and audience alike by an inexplicable force. As three of the party break away to be whisked up the rock by some irresistible pull, out of nowhere, the film takes a startling if not piercing turn.

Peter Weir’s ability to imbue the otherwise lifeless rock with an elemental and terrifying life-force that dwarfs anything our minds can conceive of is one of the truly great directorial feats even if it’s relatively unrecognised as such. However, looking back on Picnic at Hanging Rock after just watching it, what he does in this film seems far broader in scope, as you get the unavoidable feeling that you were truly mesmerised and lulled into a thick perceptual and conceptual haze. That you were lured up that rock yourself! This isn’t frightening in the typical shock horror movie sense. This is frightening in a much more primal and evolutionary sense as if Weir is tapping directly into the baser regions of our psyche. This is cinematic power at its most sophisticated.

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Coherence (2013) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.6
Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller
Duration: 89 mins
Director: James Ward Byrkit
Stars: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon

The kind of nimble science fiction that makes hardcore genre fans giddy with excitement is a rare event and one that usually emerges within independent cinema where brains are relied on more than visual effects. Coherence is one such movie. When a group of friends meet in one of their homes for a dinner party, a passing comet causes a power-cut which sets in motion a disturbing unravelling of their reality. Though further revealing of the plot will detract from the experience, suffice to say that loyalties are tested, relationships realigned, and soon everyone finds themselves doing things they never thought they were capable of – precisely because they are worried that they might be! If that doesn’t twist your melon enough, then sit down to the full 90 minutes and you’ll be suitably dizzy by the end. Made over five nights and on a shoestring budget, writer director James Ward Byrkit and his crew nonetheless manufacture an eerie psychological thriller, shot, cut, and produced to a rather plush standard. To that end, restricting the drama largely to the house in question was a crafty decision but, by generating a sense of claustrophobia, it also ends up augmenting the power of the movie’s premise. A premise that the cast, a complementary roster of familiar faces from 90’s TV, are all tied into extremely well and who are instantly successful in their roles of leader, trouble-maker, wacky one, etc. That said, not one of them fails to round off their central character dimensions with a compelling degree of humanity. Where Coherence will inevitably and rather ironically be targeted by demanding sci-fi fans will be in the moments of incoherence that naturally accrue within a complex plot. This is not always an empty criticism though, for a film that requires heavy investment from its audience has an onus to keep it straight. But in the case of this one, there are precious few plot-holes to be concerned with and so Coherence can be considered one of those few modern movies that picks up where the “Twilight Zone” left off and helps carry the baton for all of science fiction.

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Blackhat (2015) 3.76/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 71.5
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Duration: 130 mins
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang

Michael Mann has been a long time between films and while his latest cyber thriller is marked by his trademark style and dramatic distance, a vague meandering plot ultimately precludes it from ranking amongst his best work. Chris Hemsworth stars as a prodigious hacker released from prison on the condition that he helps a joint FBI-Chinese task force trace the source of a cyber attack on a nuclear power plant. The resulting investigation sprawls across the Pacific from LA to Malaysia sporadically interrupted by some lively gun battles the type Mann has, at this point, mastered to perfection.

Blackhat isn’t as bad as some critics and fans have made out and there’s much to be admired along the way. Despite flimsy character construction across the board, Hemsworth makes for a sturdy lead and Viola Davis cuts a confident figure of authority as the FBI agent in charge of his team. Leehom Wang is competent as the lead Chinese agent even if Wei Tang proves too slight to overcome her character’s writing as Wang’s sister and Hemsworth’s inevitable love interest. Mann’s visual and auditory style is at its impeccable best as the technically astute director seems to have finally come to grips with all aspects of Digital Video. Complementing this aesthetic is Atticus Ross’ grainy score which, while not quite matching that of Heat, is certainly on the same track.

Rather frustratingly, though, it’s the basic stuff that Blackhat fails to get right. The meticulously distanced relationship between Mann’s lens and his protagonists has traditionally helped to engender a documentary-like sense of realism to his stories but, during his prime, that was balanced out with well developed characters whose arcs were functionally relevant to the story as much as the plot. Here, like his previous movies Public Enemies and Miami Vice, the connection ends with the plot as the characters’ depths are kept hidden or at best implicit. If the main players are kept at arms length, then the bad guys are barely acknowledged. Missing is the traction of Neil McCauley’s motivations in Heat or even just the remorseless entitlement of Robert Prosky’s Leo in Thief. Instead, a straight line of inexplicable badness replaces any sense of personality and we struggle to care. Then there’s the equally inexplicable tactical training of Hemsworth’s computer jock. In place of a techno-intellectual showdown, things come to a head in a rather bizarre action face-off that smacks of rushed rewrites and/or studio interference.

Instead of a properly laid narrative, whatever successes Blackhat achieves are episodic in nature such as the visceral action sequences or those informed moments when Hemsworth and co. are hacking into the enemy’s servers or even their bank accounts. Not surprisingly, it’s here where Morgan Davis Foehl’s script comes into its own (forgetting the one or two moments of philosophical gibberish ala Miami Vice). Nothing is dumbed down but neither are the uninitiated left lost at sea. And of course, as is the case in most of Mann’s procedurals, its technocratic lilt adds abundantly to the movie’s overall sense of street smarts. With so much good and so much bad, Blackhat will, like most of Mann’s work since 1999’s The Insider, tantalise his fan’s but ultimately go down as an opportunity missed.

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Syriana

Syriana (2005) 3.97/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.4
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Duration: 128 mins
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Christopher Plummer

For a film that boasts lots of stars and acting talent, Syriana is a rather more unorthodox thriller than we might expect. Set amid the world of oil trading and based on Robert Baer’s book, it follows Amirs, petroleum executives, senators, high profile lawyers, terrorists, and CIA agents as they engage each other in a global chess match where the tool is geographical instability and the prize is power. The result is a collage of intersecting plots that thrill on a variety of dramatic levels. Political machinations, corporate intrigue, religious extremism, cultural ambition, and personal tribulation all bound together with coherence and momentum.

An ambitious project to be sure but one that succeeds due to a tight script and intelligent directing which combine to give a story of such scale much focus while, at all times, giving the audience the benefit of the doubt. Nothing is spoon-fed here as every deal, negotiation, and conversation is veiled and approached at an angle. Much is left for the audience to work out, a tactic that encourages them to invest in the story. But what really defines Stephen Gaghan’s film is its overarching sense of realism. The plot is allowed to increment forward in a manner where little looks to be happening but where a lot feels like it is. A triumph of efficient directing where each character is embellished richly with a mere half-glance or dinner order. Back-room wheeling and dealing portrayed so incidentally that what would appear outlandish comes across as chillingly real.

And the cast contribute strongly too. George Clooney puts in an Oscar winning turn as a spy very much caught between two worlds and cultures, who is sent to Beirut on CIA business only to be frozen out when things go wrong. Jeffrey Wright is deviousness personified as the Washington lawyer asked by his sinister senior partner Christopher Plummer to take a closer look at a merger between two oil giants, one of which, is headed up by the always excellent Chris Cooper. A host of other top names and some talented newcomers fill out the lesser roles but it’s fair to say everybody plays second fiddle to the intricate plot. That it all plays towards a deeply moving and emotional crescendo is what precludes this almost experimental political burner from unravelling. Instead, it seems to cohere rather impressively and honestly around some unappetising home truths and leave everyone thinking. Impressive indeed.

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Sexy Beast (2000) 4.71/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 88.4
Genre: Crime
Duration: 89  mins
Director: Johnathan Glazer
Stars: Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Ian McShane

This British gangster movie stars the daddy of British geezer-actors Ray Winstone and a barely recognisable Ben Kingsley giving the most intimidating and ferocious performance this side of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. Winstone plays the retired thief enjoying life with his wife in their Spanish villa. Kingsley plays the nutter sent to bring him back to London for one more job. Winstone has never been better while Kingsley simply burns a hole in the screen. This was Jonathan Glazer’s feature debut and it’s fair to say that there have been few more stunning. A deft blend of comedy and intimidation plus all the energy and innovation of a Tarantino or Scorsese at their most daring, the only question you’ll be left with is why he didn’t go on to become one of the industry’s hottest properties? Sexy Beast really does have it all, visionary directing, great cast, delicious script, beautifully shot, razor-sharp comedy, and a sensationally clever metaphorical double bluff just in case you weren’t already impressed.

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Live Die Repeat (2014) 3.21/5 (6)

 

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Rating: The Good – 80.5
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 113 mins
Director: Doug Liman
Stars: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton

After decades of waiting for an action sci-fi that can match those of the late 80’s and early 90’s in class and smarts, Doug Liman, Christopher McQuarrie, and Tom Cruise have come up with the goods. Set during a future war for the planet against a horde of prescient aliens, the Cruiser headlines as a cowardly press officer who is railroaded into the infantry on the eve of humanity’s attempt at a D-Day style liberation of Europe. However, during the battle he gets killed and caught in a time loop that sees him re-live the same day over and over again which allows him to hone his initially hapless skills and, at the same time, avoid the pitfalls of the previous day.

The concept which inspired Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s graphic novel All You Need is Kill (brilliantly adapted as “Live, Die, Repeat” before some drone snatched “Edge of Tomorrow” off a low shelf) may have been the classic video game scenario, but Liman adds so much more polish and depth to the concept that, as with Groundhog Day, Cruise’s most wearing and touching battle is his fruitless and unending dance with time. However, that Liman merely tantalises us with this heaviness only to constantly kickstart the scenario with energetic optimism is his masterstroke. Thus, the danger with the Groundhog premise, namely repetition boredom, isn’t as much sidestepped here as it is leapfrogged…. in a funnel of brilliantly edited, pulsating action! They even make the mechanised exoskeleton (which everyone from James Cameron to Neill Blomkamp has failed to actualise) look cool while also making it work for the script.

Cruise is to be commended for playing such an unflattering character with real gusto and whether it be tapping the humour, hopelessness, and/or heroism of his circumstances, he makes for a smashing lead. As his comrade in day-tripping, Emily Blunt is equally strong in an admirably feminine way and watching the pair burst their way off the beaches of Normandy in a whirlwind of mechanised alien fighting (along to Christophe Beck’s muscular score) is just spine-tingling.

McQuarrie, Jezz and John-Henry Butterworth deserve their fair share of credit too for delivering the freshest but most purposeful screenplay the genre has seen in quite some time but it’s Liman’s mastery of time-playing that deserves most respect. A coalescence of shot composition, alternate camera angles, and editing tempo that propels the plot forward in a series of groundhog-esque transitions. So good is this part of the movie, that the scenes in which a more traditional narrative is employed suffer immensely by comparison and even begin to drag. The relative facelessness of the aliens becomes more obvious at these points too alerting us to the fact that this is one area where Live Die Repeat (the original title has thankfully been restored for home-market release) fails to live up to the classics of the genre and is more in tune with today’s more generic movie evil. In the long run, however, these issues are eminently forgivable because the rest of this movie is such an irresistible blast from the past that it’s as likely to stand the test of time. Do Not Miss!

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RoboCop (2014) 3.64/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.4
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 117 mins
Director: José Padilha
Stars: Joel Kinnaman, Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson

An audacious and laudable remake that takes the opportunity to look at a central concept of the original film from a fresh perspective. In other words, it does exactly what a remake should! Whereas most modern remakes simply use the name recognition of the original as a basis for spewing out a series of CGI action sequences and nothing more, this one takes the most fascinating ideas underlying the original RoboCop and teases them out one by one. And that it does so on a level that would put many academics on the subject to shame is even more impressive. The scenario is only roughly similar to the 1987 movie. An America of the future where OmniCorp (who are restricted to non-domestic military applications like the ED209) are eager to overcome a congressional bill by getting the American public to accept robot law enforcers on their streets. Their villainous CEO (a brilliant Michael Keaton with a performance so utterly untouched by cliche that we spend most of the movie liking him) comes up with the idea of putting a man in a machine. Unfortunately, an immediate conflict between the robotic components and his free will raises financial, political, and philosophical implications that place pressure on the scientists to separate the two when in reality they may share a much more dynamic and inseparable relationship.

In a further gutsy move, the man to play the hero was picked from relative obscurity. Far from an obvious choice, The Killing’s Joel Kinnaman nonetheless cuts a decent Murphy. He doesn’t have the booming presence of Peter Weller but his character is conflicted from the moment he’s awoken and thus less assured as the cyborg law enforcer. In truth, with everything that’s going on, he isn’t as central as Weller’s RoboCop was in the first place and while he, like the plot, could’ve had a little more room to breathe, the “secondary” characters, representing as they do the film’s wider questions, are just as important.

Keaton may not be playing a machine himself but he’s no less electric. There’s a genuine substance to his character’s actions like tiptoeing into his underling’s office out of concern for bring rude. Gary Oldman as the scientific mind behind the robot interface is just as complex and terrifically realised on screen. Of course, much of the credit must go to Joshua Zetumer and Edward Neumeier’s (yes, the same man responsible for the glorious satire of the original film) well nourished script (though much was added by uncredited James Vanderbilt). A less satirical screenplay but even more cynical, in this RoboCop humans are human, whether they be bad or good. Caricatures are few and far between in this remake – and there’s a sentence for you!

But what tips this movie into the net is the movie’s intellectual ambitions. Fascinatingly and indeed admirably informed debates regarding the nature and constituency of human consciousness and self-determination lie at the centre of the story and even the plot so that the film coheres like almost no other modern blockbuster. That it’s cohering around the most complex of subject matters is fairly impressive when practically every other tentpole movie can’t even balance the most trite themes of the human condition. Contrary to movies like Inception which have absolutely no bearing on the reality of human psychology, RoboCop 2014 is framed around cutting edge considerations in the science from the neuropsychological basis of free will to its fundamental interdependence with unconscious action. Similarly sophisticated is its glancing swipe at the role of the right wing media in the politics of fear through reduction, simplistic disingenuousness, childish anger, and naked hypocrisy.

Where the movie undoubtedly runs flat, however, is in its action sequences. Here, Jose Padilha’s direction (which by some accounts was beset with studio interference) needed a little more elegance and much more punch. The set pieces smack of tokenism and an overuse of the Call of Duty PoV attenuates their cinematic quality. That the original scored as high in this department as it did on its satire places it firmly above this remake. But then again, action is not what this remake is about. The ultimate twist here is that RoboCop 2014 isn’t an action sci-fi at all but a cerebral sci-fi with just a little action sprinkled on top.

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Seven Samurai (1954) 5/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 96.7
Genre: Jidaigeki
Duration: 207 mins
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima

This inspired meditation on class, morality, passion, and duty is Akira Kurosawa’s finest hour behind the camera and possibly Mifune’s finest hour in front of it. As funny as it is touching, there’s not a single aspect of this film that could’ve been improved upon and it offers more than perhaps any other. Watch how Kurosawa wonderfully counterbalances the necessarily languid scenes where the characters are waiting for the battles to commence with the shocking brutality of those battles one they begin. As incredible as Toshiro Mifune is he’s equalled by Takashi Shimura’s simmering portrayal of the head samurai which is one of most quietly powerful pieces of acting ever captured by a camera. With every rub of his shaven head Shimura expounds kindness, generosity of spirit, and a keen sense of leadership and in doing so, his performance as much as any other aspect of the film reflects the soul of this poingent masterpiece. Timeless.

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Dark City (1998) 4.79/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 91.8
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 100 mins
Director: Alex Proyas
Stars: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly

This is one of those films that is so conceptually and aesthetically stunning that it can hit you like a freight train if you’re not expecting it. And isn’t that one of the great joys of cinema? Alex Proyas’ film has been described as a Kafkaesque sci-fi noir and it very much is. It begins in a strange grimy hotel room where John Murdoch wakes up to find a dead prostitute on his floor and a group of sinister men pursuing him. His escape brings us into a world that seems at odds with everything we know and expect. It quickly transpires that Murdoch isn’t quite normal himself and may even have abilities akin to those of the strangers who are following him.

For a film that was always going to repel mainstream audiences who demand conventional narratives and accessible plots it’s amazing at how much money seems to have gone into this. The production design is truly awe-inspiring and combined with Proyas’ dark vision it becomes psyche affecting. The script is electric and is as honest an attempt to live up to the potentials of science fiction as you’ll find. It presents us with highly defined yet idiosyncratic characters who are cast to perfection. William Hurt and Jennifer Connelly are excellent but it’s Kiefer Sutherland’s Dr. Schreber and Rufus Sewell’s Murdoch who are so utterly captivating. Sutherland nails his character and is responsible for much of the film’s thrust, while Sewell is immense in an altogether more difficult role. Proyas’ direction is slick and intense employing quick cuts with sharp angles to get the most out his extraordinarily lit and shadow friendly sets.

Dark City is a monumental piece of science-fiction that pre-dated The Matrix by a year but went well beyond that film in its scope and daring. Ultimately, the best thing you can say about Dark City is that it achieves that holy grail of science fiction movies. A film that looks and feels like nothing that came before it or since. Utterly utterly sublime.

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