Category Archives: Gender

Network (1976) 4.33/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.8
Genre: Drama, Satire
Duration: 121 mins
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall

Surely one of the most complete and effective satires, Network is a delicious take on the business of television programming, human relationships, and how both feed and feed off the impartial narratives that so many shows are built around. Peter Finch stars as the disturbed news anchor who upon hearing that he’s been fired launches an attack on his network live on air. So good are the ratings that the executives (an emotionally vacant yet ruthless Faye Dunaway and an equally ambitious Robert Duvall) order head of the news division William Holden to build a show around his deteriorating friend’s rantings. The script is pure gold with some of cinema’s most subtly cutting and scathing commentary threaded throughout. The characters are all in different ways reflections of the greed and selfishness of the modern world and are as good as the actors inhabiting them. The film is genuinely hilarious with Finch’s outbursts being the highlights. Lumet’s delicate touch is all over this and it is he who allows Paddy Chayefsky’s searing script to come to life in as stimulating a fashion as it does. Watch out for Ned Beatty’s thunderous cameo which ultimately more than anything else sets the tone for this cinematic monument.

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Fight Club (1999) 4.14/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.8
Genre: Satire
Duration: 139 mins
Director: David Fincher
Stars: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter

A chronic insomniac (Edward Norton) in a pit of mental despair at the predictable safety and comfort of his life finds release by attending disease support groups posing as a fellow sufferer. That is until he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the living embodiment of anarchy. Immediately seduced into Durden’s strange world, the two men establish an underground network of fight clubs where the disenfranchised male youth of America come together to knock ten bells out of each other in a form of social mega-catharsis. However, as Durden becomes increasingly mythologised, he uses this enchanted network to form an underground army intent of bringing the consumer world to its knees.

To say that Fight Club tapped into the masculine subconscious would be an understatement. Every word Durden utters is the adult articulation of adolescent and post-adolescent angst and rebellion. Of course, the whole thing is pure satire as writer Chuck Palahnuik and director David Fincher are saying as much about the masculine mindset as they are about the consumer society that is ostensibly suppressing it. It doesn’t matter that the majority of the fans take it too literally; in fact it just goes to show you how sophisticated the satire is because their seduction mirrors that of the disenfranchised generation of the film.

On a more technical note, Fight Club is Fincher’s most innovative and stylistic film. The contrast between the clean, santised world of Norton’s office and apartment and the dank dilapidated world of Tyler Durden is almost visceral thanks to Fincher’s bold direction, some outstanding lighting and equally outstanding production design. A rich visual humour dominates the entire film and when threaded together with Palahnuik’s words it takes on a life of its own. Norton is excellent as the unnamed “narrator” while Brad Pitt has seldom been better as the enigmatic Durden. Helena Bonham Carter gives a deliciously dark turn as Edward Norton’s fellow traveller and even Meatloaf pops up in one of the more memorable roles. All said, Fight Club is a startlingly good movie built on inspired writing, direction, and acting. There isn’t one aspect to the production that lets the side down and the substantial footprint it has left on recent pop culture is testament to such quality.

Suspicion (1941)

 

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Rating: The Good – 81.1
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
Duration: 99 mins
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Cedric Hardwicke

Suspicion is a minor triumph on Alfred Hitchcock’s CV and one that plays as both a romance and a thriller shifting genres (in typical Hitchcockian fashion) somewhere around the midpoint. Cary Grant is in fine form as the charming playboy who catches the eye of would-be spinster Joan Fontaine and sweeps her off her feet. Things go well until shortly after they’re married, when she begins to suspect her new husband of ever darkening deeds as he attempts to avoid his massive gambling depths.

Suspicion is a beautifully photographed picture full of innovative devices the type of which Hitchcock typically uses to elevate tension and sink the hook deeper into the audience’s subconscious (check out that glass of warm milk!). Grant is excellent in a role that required some subtle contradictions and Fontaine doesn’t skip a beat. The two work off each other well to give what could have been an unappealing dynamic some proper zest, accessibility  and, at the right times, a dubious warmth. It all pays off in a satisfying manner making this one of the Hitchcock’s more original films not to mention one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films of all time.

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Samurai Rebellion (1967) 4.71/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 86.8
Genre: Jidaigeki
Duration: 128 mins
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Yôko Tsukasa, Gô Katô

Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion is a lesser known feature from the jidaigeki genre but one of its most impressive examples. Set in the 1700’s, it tells the story of a dutiful vassal Isaburo (Toshirô Mifune) who has spent his life obeying both his objectionable wife as well as his clan’s elders for the sake of peace and quiet. As the most accomplished swordsman in his lord’s fief, he gets his small pleasures in life from discussing martial arts with his friend and closely matched rival played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai. Things change when his son is ordered to marry one of his lord’s former ladies, Ichi. Although, reluctant at first, things go well as his son and new daughter-in-law develop a proper bond and give him his first grandchild. However, when the lord demands the return of his daughter-in-law, he decides he and his family have taken enough and refuses to send her back. Things inevitably come to a head and a mighty showdown ensues between his clan and the lord’s men.

The story is a remarkable one and even more remarkable is how seldom we have seen it anywhere before or since given its obviously compelling and universal themes. It brings the best out in all the actors and truthfully, this is one of Mifune’s best performances, even if it is less explosive than some of his more famous roles. It’s also a slow burner as the first 90 minutes are spent building the pretext for the action that is to come. However, when it does come, we are not disappointed as Samurai Rebellion offers up some extraordinary action choreography and direction. Equally impressive are the cinematography and lighting which really come to the fore during the dramatic scenes and combat sequences (two scenes in particular to look out for are the moment when Ichi is grilled by the clan’s elders and the final showdown as Isaburo hunts down the musketeers in a breezy meadow).

In many ways, Samurai Rebellion is a spellbinding film. The actors are perfectly in sync with the directors’ immaculate pacing and as good as Mifune and Nakadai are, they are well matched by Gô Katô as Isaburo’s son and Yôko Tsukasa as Ichi. Above all, it is the heart-rendering story of love, family, strength, and courage which we remember best as this is one film that can be appreciated by fans of any genre and by people of any nation.

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Badlands (1973) 4.71/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 89.8
Genre: Crime Drama
Duration: 94 mins
Director: Terrence Malick
Stars: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates

A blinding debut from recluse Terrence Malick. Badlands follows the kill-spree of two young free spirits in a thoughtful exploration of young adults playing by their own rules while trying to make their mark on the world. Martin Sheen gives the performance of his career as the James Dean wannabe with homicidal tendancies. Sissy Spacek is a revelation as the confused young girl who is just as culpable as her boyfriend yet just as innocent. This is a powerhouse of a film that will leave you with many unanswered questions and a great sense of unease but with Malick’s prodigious sense for visuals and sound as well as the acting of the leading pair, it’s worth the watch and then some.

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Under the Skin (2013) 4.43/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 88.9
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 108 mins
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams

In his 2000 debut Sexy Beast, Jonathan Glazer burst onto the scene with all the swagger and verve of a young Tarantino but instead of capitalising on that success, the music video director made only one more movie (2004’s underwhelming Birth) in the next decade and a half. However, despite the lack of hands-on practice, his new film is nonetheless marked by the kind of reach and maturity that, back in 2000, we all would’ve hoped he’d be showing right now.

Based on Michael Faber’s novel, Under the Skin is a stunning piece of science fiction cinema that lives up to the genre’s loftiest promises in the manner 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark City, and Primer do. It begins with an extraordinary Scarlett Johansson assuming the guise of a human female in order to lure lonely men (played by unwitting non-actors who thought they were genuinely being picked up and who the crew filmed with hidden cameras) back to her apartment where human reality and that of her species’ morph into a gateway from the former to the latter. The purpose of this seduction is revealed in one remarkable scene that will chill you to the bone – a process of extraction that someone or something else takes care of while Johansson’s alien predator goes back out on the prowl. But with each foray into the world of humans and each victim she brings back, something changes within her that causes her to crave a fuller range of human experience.

Within this stripped down narrative, Under the Skin achieves two equally daring and intangible objectives. Primarily, it offers an examination of human existence as an alien construct but within that aim is the ostensibly narrower but infinitely broader goal of pondering the oft dodged question of what alien consciousness might amount to. It does this not through abstraction or surrealism but through a dramatic realignment of the traditional realism in which movies are shot. Under the Skin has been compared by some to 2001 and it is this regard that such comparisons are warranted. For Kubrick is one of the very few to have previously addressed the hypothetical question of alien perception. Thus, like Kubrick does in the closing sequence of 2001, Glazer (albeit to a lesser extent) methodically probes what experience might be to a sentient being of an incomprehensible nature (incomprehensible to us). A creature born to and framed by a different reality and dimensional constraints. This is what so many sci-fi films avoid dealing with because it obtrudes on any traditional notion of narrative. But through Glazer’s ability to detach from the standards of character perspective and meticulously frame a new kind of perspective around Faber’s vision, an intriguing marriage between the two is achieved.

Central to the project’s effectiveness however is Johansson’s bravery and strength as an actor. She not only carries the film as the only significant character but she builds a character every bit as nuanced as the reality which Glazer gives her to inhabit. A level of technical proficiency is equally crucial here for one misstep along the way and the delicate tangibility of that reality could shatter. Thankfully, that’s what we get. There’s a stark beauty to Daniel Landin’s cinematography that complements the bleakness of the subject matter and Mica Levi’s ubiquitous but unobtrusive score provides an appropriately haunting quality.

It all adds up to a profound meditation on existence that reaches deep into the psyche. It’s cerebral and stimulating but, as is often the case, it’s also extremely disturbing. Anything that makes us abandon our archetypes of understanding always is and so anyone looking for a mainstream science fiction movie should be warned away. This is as bleak a film as you’ll ever see and so it works less as a piece of entertainment as it does a work of art. Even those who appreciate such endeavour may not be inclined to revisit it too often such is the level of discomfort it can generate. Not to worry, though, because Under the Skin isn’t a film you’ll forget easily.

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The China Syndrome (1979) 3.61/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76.8
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 122 mins
Director: James Bridges
Stars: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas

One of the great 70’s thrillers, The China Syndrome tells the story of a female reporter Kimberley Wells (Jane Fonda) struggling to gain the credit she deserves in a male dominated profession and who comes to believe that a local nuclear power plant is unsafe. Jack Lemmon (in an excellent performance) plays the nuclear engineer who himself is struggling to convince the bean-counters upstairs to shut the plant down until a costly inspection can be completed. Michael Douglas (who also produced the film) completes an impressive roster of actors and puts in a strong and charismatic supporting turn as Wells’ cameraman. However, The China Syndrome has much more than just a great cast going for it. With its “lone fighter against the shady superiors” theme, it has all the paranoid intrigue of the great thrillers from its era and combined with a taut script, it remains to this day a fascinating and compelling watch – especially so when one considers that the film was released three weeks before the real-life nuclear disaster at Three-Mile Island! And as if all this wasn’t enough, director James Bridges and writers Mike Gray and T.S. Cook round off this little gem by using the proceedings to make some clever observations about the then gender divide in the television industry – which may still have some relevance to this day.

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Manhattan (1979) 5/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 85.5
Genre: Comedy
Duration: 96 mins
Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway

Woody Allen’s greatest homage to his native city pits an array of characters on different sides of the love divide as they each embody the contradictory nature of the city he loves so well. Shot in sumptuous monochrome and giving a virtual masterclass in the use of lighting, Manhattan is not only one of Allen’s most personal works, it also perhaps his most technically accomplished. And as is typical with Allen, the script ain’t half bad either!

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Foxy Brown (1974) 3.57/5 (6)

 

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Rating: The Good – 72.3
Genre: Crime, Blaxploitation, Thriller
Duration: 94 mins
Director: Jack Hill
Stars: Pam Grier, Antonio Fargas, Peter Brown

The ultimate exploitation movie shows us exactly how vengeance should be done. Pam Grier takes no prisoners but she does take certain things (ouch!) as she lays waste to the prostitution and drug racketeers responsible for killing her boyfriend. Yes, the acting is a bit wooden (but not everywhere) and yes, the plot is basic but that’s not the point with these movies. The point is you get a chance to see everything Hollywood is afraid to show you. Foxy Brown does that and then some!

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The Hidden Blade (2004)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.9
Genre: Jidaigeki
Duration: 132 mins
Director: Yôji Yamada
Stars: Masatoshi Nagase, Takako Matsu

The Hidden Blade is a powerful feudal drama from a true master of modern cinema, Yôji Yamada. It follows Katagiri, a low ranked samurai as he balances his duty with the corrupt motives of his lord and his status as a samurai with his secret love for a lower caste woman. There’s always been a silent power to Yamada’s films (much as there was with Mizoguchi and Ozu’s work) and for obvious reasons this style seems a function of the Japanese way of life where the most stirring drama happens in the background. The technical qualities to this movie are particularly special. Isao Tomita’s score complements the tone of each scene in mesmerising fashion and though the film is not in any way a chambara built around sword-fights, there are two extended fight scenes and one lighting quick demonstration of skill that are as originally conceived as they are breathtaking. These sequences happen at just the right time and add tremendous emphasis to the emotional momentum of the story. Masatoshi Nagase is outstanding in the central role and is well supported by Takako Matsu as the love interest. They seem completely in tune with what Yamada is doing and add the final touch of class to this minor gem.

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Alien 3 (1992) 3.07/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.5
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 114 mins
Director: David Fincher
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dance, Lance Henriksen

Picking up where Aliens left off, the concluding part of the original trilogy, sees Ripley crash landing on a maximum security prison planet among murderers and rapists and yet another alien that has stowed away in her shuttle. An initially unsettling presence to the entirely male population “who have found God at the ass end of space”, she inevitably helps to organise the weaponless rabble against the alien.

Though never courting the same level of adoration as Scott’s Alien or Cameron’s Aliens, David Fincher’s film has a lot to recommend. There’s a coherent and focused story set within a context that gives the film a modest philosophical angle. Furthermore, stylistically speaking, it has a very strong sense of itself and no little amount of directorial class. The bridge between Aliens and this film is deftly constructed as credits are interrupted with snippets of the Sulaco’s ill fated return journey and of its face-hugging intruder. That style is stretched out more subtly throughout the remainder of the film reasserting itself fully only twice more. Once when Fincher and co. parallel the burial of Hicks and Newt with the birth of the mature alien (the “chest burster”) and again in the final scene. It’s this style that allows Fincher to crash the two ostensibly duelling themes of Alien 3 together, that of spiritualism and nihilism, while ultimately turning the entire film into a tome for a type of nihilistic spiritualism. It’s a clever conceit and one that is really quite effectively drawn out despite the director’s exit from the project before completion of post production.

Fincher’s withdrawal and his subsequent disowning of the movie was only one of several issues to arise during the production and the conveyor belt of script writers and treatments which ran through the project can be most clearly felt in how peripheral the actual alien becomes to the whole thing. There’s certainly an attempt to have the alien and Ripley define each other but the former pops up in such an understated manner that it inevitably drifts into the background. This leads us to the real problem with Alien 3, namely, that it never quite feels like it belongs to the same universe of the first two instalments. In addition to the alien playing second fiddle to Ripley, the production design, though rich and impressive, is exceptionally dreary and after a while, as the pessimism of the story bleeds through, it all begins to wear heavily. Moreover, whereas the first two films were strongly technological in their visual conception, the story here demands a technologically spare approach. All this makes Alien 3 the least visually interesting of the original trilogy and rather out on its own.

Of course, it could be argued that this distinction gives it a powerfully dark edge over the original films and the sinister manner in which “the company” is depicted in the final twenty minutes does support that. Nonetheless, there is one department where Alien 3 undeniably falls far short of its predecessors. The aforementioned disharmony in the last stages of post production ensured that the creature effects are inconsistent and often excruciatingly bad. Moreover, Alien 3 is a far less exciting movie as the action is restricted to the final act and with the restrictions in the story, it plays out in a comparatively flat manner when placed alongside Aliens and even Alien. That said, in the same way that Alien and Aliens were separable by genre (sci-fi horror vs action sci-fi respectively), Alien 3 can be simply understood to be maintaining that tradition by setting its stall out as a sci-fi drama. It certainly allows for greater exploration of the dramatic subplots and we see a new dimension to the well established character of Ripley as she and Charles Dance’s medical officer develop a brief but intriguing romantic partnership.

Dance is outstanding but this movie more so than any of the other movies in the franchise (four at this point not counting the recent Prometheus) is all about Sigourney Weaver. She hand picked writer David Giler and insisted Walter Hill be brought back on board to properly tease out Ripley’s potential and though the script was ultimately worked on by a troop of other writers, much of their contributions to her story were maintained. Weaver responded with a wonderful turn and one that is strong enough to shoulder the entire film. Ironic as it may appear, given she’s the only female cast member, that strength combined with some overarching themes of motherhood give the film a very feminine vibe. Fans of traditional horror won’t be too disappointed though because this, after all, is a David Fincher film and consequently there’s plenty of squirming scenes.

Overall, Alien 3 is a laudable effort to bring yet another layer to the franchise and indeed overcome the production issues which beset it from early on. It’ll always divide opinion among fans of that franchise and it’s the most independent in style but that just adds to its intrigue.

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Mulholland Drive (2001) 4.86/5 (7)

 

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Rating: The Good – 90.1
Genre: Mystery
Duration: 147mins
Director: David Lynch
Stars: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux

Easily one of the most awe-inspiring feats of film-making to come out of America in recent decades, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. is the culmination of an approach he had been tinkering with for years. This is nothing short of the most subjective horror film you’re ever likely to see, the horror of the subjective if you will. A car-crash on the winding roads of Mulholland Drive leaves Rita (Laura Harring) without any memory but circumstance or something else pairs her with an aspiring young actress (Naomi Watts) and, together, they attempt to discover the clues to the woman’s identity.

Although, Mulholland Dr. represents one of the more extreme examples of Lynch’s surrealism, there is a definite tangible link to the real world here and that is what’s so damn frightening about the whole thing. Lynch manipulates us for long periods and then, almost without warning, holds a mirror to our faces and chills us to the core. One moment in particular (that won’t be flagged here) stands above the rest and must surely count as one of the most disturbing scenes in the history of the medium. Watts is terrific in the lead and her and Harring work so well together that much of the film’s success should be put down to their willingness and ability to understand and buy into what Lynch was doing. Mulholland Dr. is not as accessible as Blue Velvet and so the rewards are not as conventional but it is perhaps the closest thing to a no-foolin vision quest as cinema has given us.

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