Category Archives: Existential

Scarface (1983) 4.43/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 79.1
Genre: Crime
Duration: 170 mins
Director: Brian De Palma
Stars: Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Bauer

Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone’s reimagining of Howard Hawks’ prohibition-era gangster epic replaces the grime of old Chicago with the neon glitz and kitschy glow of 1980’s Miami and sets the scene for one of the most unique gangster movies of them all. Drop Al Pacino into the lead role of Cuban exile come narcotics trafficking kingpin and you can add “most explosive” to that accolade too. Pacino inhabits the gnarly skin of Tony Montero like few actors could or have as he steels the screen with his presence. An unpredictable concoction of balls to the wall attitude and psychopathic viciousness that bubbles to the boil around five minutes in and continues that way until the movie’s gargantuan close. Though everyone else falls in his frothing wake, there’s a lot of fun in their performances from Tony’s partner and incorrigible ladies-man Steven Bauer, to his reluctant self-hating wife Michelle Pfeiffer, to Robert Loggia’s weak-willed mob boss desperately trying to keep his insanely ambitious young charge on a leash.

Much has been made of this remake’s audacious production design and it’s usually this aspect that most detractors set their sights on. But regardless of criticism, there’s no denying that Scarface is its own film. Moreover, the truth is that, alongside Giorgio Moroder’s amusingly profound score, De Palma’s vision goes so far beyond cheesy that the movie exists in a fascinating kind of hyper-real haze of meta-gangsterism. And as is the case with every one of that director’s 1980’s movies, that’s exactly the point! Scarface isn’t a straight gangster narrative even though its works brilliantly as such, nor is it an action film even though its littered with sublimely staged (not to mention rather grisly) set-pieces that dwarf most of that decade’s best. Scarface is a twisted fairytale of greed and ambition funnelled through the intense personality of one of cinema’s most powerful actors at the height of his powers. Through this vessel, Stone’s crazy but endlessly quotable dialogue bristles with the megalomanic intention of a coke-fuelled tyrant and again, like all De Palma’s movies from around that time, it thus becomes a statement on the state of contemporary cinema itself. That it’s a riveting blast to experience just makes it all the more remarkable.

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High Sierra (1941) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.8
Genre: Crime, Film-Noir
Duration: 100 mins
Director: Raoul Walsh
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Alan Curtis

The same year John Huston and Humphrey Bogart were to make their big splash with The Maltese Falcon, they preceded it with this collaboration but with Raoul Walsh at the helm. Bogie stars as the career criminal, Roy Earle, recently pardoned and heading straight for the Sierras for the biggest score of his life. On arriving there, he finds his volatile young partners fighting over the street-smart Ida Lupino while becoming enamoured of a crippled girl who reminds of him of his old family’s country stock. The story is a little stretched and Earl’s hard exterior could probably have been penetrated without the extended subplot concerning the young girl and her family which pulls against the tension of the darker scenes rather than offering an effective contrast. It’s a pity too because the planning and execution of the heist is wonderfully put together juiced up by the sultry presence of Lupino and hardbitten grit of Bogie at his most intimidating. The turns of phrase, the simmering of violent urges, the psychology of the criminal relationships, and the action sequences all furnish High Sierra with the most important elements of the classic noirs and result in some hair-raising confrontations. The memorable ending involving the police’s mountain pursuit of Earl is also terrifically staged and would’ve provided an even more effective end-point to a more streamlined script. In the end, Huston can chalk it off to experience because his next film was to be a veritable masterclass in the funnelling of plot but High Sierra still offers much more than most crime thrillers from that era.

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The Offence (1972) 4.24/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.8
Genre: Crime, Drama
Duration: 112 mins
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Sean Connery, Trevor Howard, Vivien Merchant

Sidney Lumet is not a man you’d expect to direct a dark psychological drama set in the north of England but The Offence is in many ways one his most brilliant films. Sean Connery plays a hard case veteran detective whose most recent case has finally pushed him past his breaking point. What follows is a dark and disturbing exploration of a scarred and tormented psyche. Connery is superb in a role that shoulders most of the drama and together with Lumet’s gritty direction they slowly reel the audience into that psyche resulting in a fascinating yet deeply uncomfortable experience.

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Kagemusha (1980) 5/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 89.4
Genre: Jidaigeki, Drama
Duration: 162 mins
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken’ichi Hagiwara

Uniquely stunning psychological drama about a lowly thief and uncanny double for one of feudal Japan’s most powerful daimyos and his inwardly crushing effort to assume the place at the head of that great Lord’s armies after the latter is secretly assassinated. Akira Kurosawa’s lesser known masterpiece translating as “The Shadow Warrior”, is a soulful examination of character backdropped against starkly visceral concepts of death and afterlife set amidst some of the best choreographed action sequences on Kurosawa’s CV. Tatsuya Nakadai turns in yet another mind-blowing central performance as both the mighty General Takeda Shingen (known as “the Mountain) and his eventual impersonator, seamlessly deconstructing both his characters so that their boundaries ultimately phase in and out much like the film’s wider treatment of life and death, reality and unreality. As is usually the case with Kurosawa’s feudal epics, the story is overflowing with rich support players brought to life by a splendid cast with the boisterousness and social deference that has defined the quintessential jidaigeki performances. The historical context tantalises Kurosawa’s corporeal tome as the fascinating intrigue of the era imbues the plot with a steady drama. In place of a building tension in plot, the inner journey of Shingen’s “Kagemusha” takes centre stage crystallising in emotionally punctuating moments that exhibits the best of both Nakadai and Kurosawa’s crafts. Shinichirô Ikebe’s haunting score and/or the diegetic sounds of the various battles’ creakings become the glue to these moments leaving Kurosawa’s audacious vision to actualise around them in a manner not easily forgotten. One moment in particular, a mesmerising depiction of the Kagemusha finally “becoming” “the Mountain” in front of his troops and enemy alike, is a perfect coalescence of these smaller workings of genius and this master director’s unmatched broad visual aesthetic. Kagemusha nearly didn’t happen as Toho Studios ran into financial difficulties during production but thankfully George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola stepped in and convinced 20th Century Fox to finance the remainder of the shoot. It’s no small thing to say that despite their own monumental achievements, that assistance still counts among their most important contributions to cinema.

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Deliverance (1972) 4.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.4
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 110 mins
Director: John Boorman
Stars: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty

Four weekend warriors attempt to kayak a great southern river in its final days before it’s diverted to a hydropower plant. However, their cockiness and petty snipes at the inbred locals are soon turned on their head when two of the men are accosted by said locals and one of them is viciously raped. Forced into acts of murder to survive, their trip becomes a personal exploration of guilt, anger, and fear. Boorman crafts a haunting and disturbing tale that in no small way parallels the arrogance of modern life with the cruel indifference of nature. But he makes no judgments as he does it and that is the true lasting strength of the film. The four men were excellently cast and each do their part. Jon Voight was the straight man, Burt Reynolds the tough guy, Ned Beatty the arrogant victim, and Ronny Cox played the more sensitive of the four. This isn’t an easy watch because it’s as much a primal scream at the times it was made in as it is a thriller. Nonetheless it works equally well as both.

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Into the Night (1985) 4/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.2
Genre: Comedy, Thriller
Duration: 115 mins
Director: John Landis
Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Carmen Argenziano

A wild and trippy furlough into the LA night as envisaged within the quirky mind of John Landis at the height of his powers. Jeff Goldblum stars as an aerospace engineer suffering from insomnia, marital discord, and a general malaise. Michelle Pfeiifer is the confident and plucky damsel in distress who jumps into his car on lonely sleepless night only to see them both pursued by a peculiar group of foreign gangsters led by the director himself. Ron Koslow may have written this wonderfully off-kilter comedy thriller but make no mistake, it’s Landis’ world we are thrown into where the ride is as enjoyable as it is unique. The variety of peripheral and support characters is a treat to behold as are their various realisations at the hands of a brilliantly counter-intuitive cast of actors (David Bowie’s bizarre hit-man alone makes this one worth the watch). But paramount among the movie’s virtues is the foundation in which the plot is rooted. Convincing the audience to tag along on such a meandering journey isn’t simply about ingeniously engineered set-pieces (which Into the Night offers in spades) but a weight of reality that could see a normal Joe’s life shunted into hyper-reality. Like Scorsese did that very same year in After Hours, Landis places huge faith in his leading man’s ability to strike a paradoxical balance between delicacy and sturdiness. And in achieving that, Jeff Goldlum becomes the rock against which the delightful insanity can repeatedly crash. If anything, Landis ups the ante on Scorsese by adding a similarly finely tuned lead performance into the mix which not only bolsters her co-star’s but offers the madness a second pillar to rest on. Pfeiffer is nothing short of exquisite in a feisty reformulation of the femme fatale trope adding as much solidity as she does intrigue. And it helps not a little that her and Goldblum click like few male-female on-screen partnerships have! It’s all wrapped up in a rather pretty package too as Landis and his director of photography Robert Paynter shoot it in the soft night glow of 1980’s L.A. and soundtrack it to Ira Newborn’s equally contemporaneous (not to mention sumptuous) electronic score. A must see!

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Monsters (2010) 3.86/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76.9
Genre: Drama, Science Fiction
Duration: 94  mins
Director: Gareth Edwards
Stars: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able, Mario Zuniga

Writer director Gareth Edwards announced himself as a filmmaker of note with this subjective approach to the monster movie, which became the basis for his less successful attempt at Godzilla (2014). Whereas most movies of this type sacrifice the personal drama at the expense of big budget monster carnage, his laudable independent feature takes entirely the opposite approach by making a highly personal drama about two lost souls who are thrown together in a near future Mexico which has been overrun with giant creatures from outer space (don’t worry, it works!). Scoot McNairy is a photographer who shoots the disaster left in the path of the creatures and Whitney Able is the daughter of his rich boss who, for her own reasons, has been hiding away in Mexico. However, at her father’s request, she must now return to the US under the care of his initially begrudging employee. But as the airports and ports close due to the encroaching monsters, the pair end up having to make their way through the infected zone and over the border.

The monsters are kept very much on the periphery of the drama and there are no action set pieces in the traditional sense as Edwards chooses instead to use the unusual context to contrast and therefore accentuate the authenticity of the relationship that develops between the two characters. And in truth, he brings us remarkably close to them and keeps us intimately engaged with their struggle. Real life couple, McNairy and Able share a palpable chemistry but are excellent in all other respects too and, of course, this was crucial because we are only too happy to leave the monsters in the background and focus on the couple as they work out their own problems amidst their burgeoning friendship. The movie glides forward thanks to smoothness of their acting, Edwards equally intimate photography (he was DP too), and Jon Hopkins serenely cool score. The threat of the monsters helps ratchet the tension when needed but if the movie has a failing, its that the danger never really materialises in the manner most will be waiting for. This would be fine if Monsters was a straight up romantic drama but the presence of monsters in the first place makes certain promises that will let many a moviegoer down. For the rest of us, there’s more than enough to justify Edwards’ fascinating project and ensure it becomes a cult favourite in the future.

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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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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) 4.76/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 88.6
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 115 mins
Director: Philip Kaufman
Stars: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum

One of the very best science-fiction classics, Philip Kaufman’s film is a flawless exercise in paranoia inducing film-making. With practically every frame he breathes sinister life into the world he creates from recoiling telephone cords to the gazes and half-looks of countless bystanders. Donald Sutherland has rarely been better as the San Fransisco health inspector working against time to figure out what, if anything, is changing the personalities of the town’s inhabitants. Brook Adams is strong in the co-lead and works wonderfully well with Sutherland as they both give slightly skewed performances which are in keeping with the overall feel of the film. Leonard Nimoy is excellent as the psychiatrist with all the answers and so too are Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright. This is one of the few remakes to actually justify its existence (of course it’s from a time when remakes were actually reinterpretations and not lazy money-grabbing exercises) as it goes far beyond that of Siegal’s original in imbuing the audience with its unsettled and deeply disturbing ambiance. And while doing so, it actually brings back the lead actor from that film (Kevin McCarthy) in an inspired and utterly ingenious cameo to make perhaps its most disturbing observation. Of all the great ‘paranoid’ movies of the 1970’s, it’s fair to say that few if any have captured the essence of paranoia like Invasion of the Body Snatchers does. This is film-making at its very best and like all great movies, it culminates in one of the most memorable endings in cinema history.

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Hidden Gems

SubUrbia (1996) 3.71/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.6
Genre: Comedy Drama
Duration: 121 mins
Director: Richard Linklater
Stars: Giovanni Ribisi, Steve Zahn, Nicky Katt

Richard Linklater’s completion of an unofficial trilogy of films looking at the plain nuances of late adolescent life in small town U.S.A. is the most understated and indeed pessimistic movie of the bunch. After the ‘devil may care’ optimism of Slacker and the nostalgic charm of Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia (not to be confused with the famous and not dissimilar punk documentary of the same name) takes an acerbic glance at the disaffection of middle class kids a year out of high-school. Following a group of friends over the course of a night as they hang out on their preferred corner of a convenience store, the film looks at the effect that the return of a former friend, now a successful rock star, has on their night and already touchy self perceptions.

Among the group is Giovanni Ribisi’s “Jeff”, who is as close to a lead as Linklater gets here. The tracks to Jeff’s rut are the most worn and, though his rantings are often wearingly familiar, Ribisi layers them with just enough exasperation and angst to make them both funny and relatable. Ribisi always had a sideways charm (that’s probably held him back on the cusp of proper stardom) and it’s in these indie comedies where it works best. Nicky Katt has a (welcome) larger role than he usually gets and he makes the most of it as the twisted ex-soldier “Tim” whose depression has turned to anger because he thinks he’s seen the world outside his town and it’s not much better. Steve Zahn’s manic “Buff” is the only one of the group who seems content with a life of under-achievement and he is the star of the show. Achieving a joyous balance between verbal and physical comedy, his character is the movie’s safety cord, sling-shotting it back from the depths of post-adolescent panic on numerous occasions. As Jeff’s girlfriend “Sooze”, Amey Carrie has the most difficult role too pull off as she plays the only one of the gang with enough optimism to try to escape their rut but who’s barely hidden insecurities are repeatedly exposed by the cynicism of Jeff and Tim.

Whereas most directors would flounder in the earnestness of teenage angst or end up compromising the entire project with the necessary comic relief, Linklater breathes in one and out the other. Like Slacker, a stream of colourful and often disparate experience replaces plot but, through his skill as a writer and director, it coheres around character profile and some marvelously improvised acting. Drunk and stupid is not an easy thing to pull off without losing the audience at some point but so charming is the dialogue, so tangible is the characters’ inertia, and so impeccable is Linklater’s distance that it all plays to the central musings of the film and, with it, a generation of intelligent but under-stimulated minds. And having Steve Zahn’s improvised mannerisms and his remarkable but less seen genius for physical comedy in there hinders not at all.

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Wake in Fright (1971) 5/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 88.4
Genre: Drama
Duration: 114 mins
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Stars: Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty

There are films you watch and there are films you experience and this once lost classic of Australian cinema belongs, without any doubt, to the latter category. Once entitled “Outback”, during a dismally unsuccessful international distribution, Ted Kotcheff’s blisteringly pessimistic examination of the human condition – not to mention adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s autobiographical novel (!) – was rediscovered and re-released in 2009 to a very different and much more intrigued public to the one that decried it in 1971. With an opening shot that lands us lost in a desperate slow panning 360 degree scan of the Australian desert, we find our narrative vehicle in the form of a snobby school teacher John Grant, whose prim and polished exterior belies the agonising realisation lying on the horizon of his mind. With the Christmas break upon him, he leaves the one-horse town in which (rather symbolically) he is state bonded to teach for a definite period of time, and heads off for Sydney to ostensibly visit his girlfriend. However, when he lays over in the working man’s outpost town of Bundanyabba (referred to simply as “the Yabba”), his life’s previously creeping trajectory quickly crystallises into an extended five day session of drunken depravity wherein he descends into a nightmare of both physical and existential entrapment and the baser side to humanity.

Thematically, what Kotcheff does here is a stunning triumph of reversalism and paradox. Within Grant’s rapidly closing parameters of existence, pastimes become gateways to excruciatingly endless stretches in time, the vast open territory of the Yabba and its hinterland becomes a sweaty cage, the relentless hospitality of its townsfolk sharpens into a belligerently wielded weapon, a horrifying alcohol-fueled nighttime slaughter of kangaroos morphs into a balletic even hypnotic ritual of hopelessness, while sensibility and sexuality are suddenly and violently reversed. However, that it all wraps up in a surgically precise metaphor for Grant’s life and for that of a generation of young men with no real prospects is even more astounding. His layover in the Yabba becomes a mythical journey as epic as any legend of Ancient Greece and equally poetic too. Donald Pleasence’s white hot presence as a disgraced alcoholic doctor who has shunned society by moving to the Yabba where his indiscretions are as oblivious to the people as they are to them is the wise man of this fable but also its monster incarnate. He sits slightly above the rest of the primal characters and expounds the realities of existence to Grant – comments on civilisation, “a vanity spawned by fear”, being the blunt edge to the film’s political statement. It’s an immense turn and maybe even the finest in the great actor’s distinguished career. Gary Bond’s central performance is the real hero though and with a face perfectly sculpted for a film like this – just as Peter O’Toole’s was for Lawrence of Arabia – it’s difficult to imagine anyone else pulling off what he did here. He gives Grant’s sprawling descent an edged realism that haunts as deeply as what Kotcheff was doing behind the camera.

That said, the last word should be saved for how this masterpiece sounds for Wake in Fright is perhaps one of the most enchantingly sounding films ever made. From John Scott’s minimalist score which always seems to know more than the audience, the heavy accents of the characters, to the everyday sounds of the Yabba and its inhabitants’ activities, it’s a deeply affecting piece of production that meets the grainy visual textures and harsh conceptual qualities of the film head on. Yes, Wake in Fright is indeed an experience and with qualities such as these, it’s a profoundly transfixing one at that. So much so that it shares the same rarefied place in Australian and world cinema as films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout.

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