Category Archives: Mindbender

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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Guilty Pleasures

Oblivion (2013) 3.5/5 (2)


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Rating: The Ugly – 66.1
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 124 mins
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Stars: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough

Take Moon, 2001, Omega Man, Silent Running, The Matrix, Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run, Star Wars, and practically any other science fiction movie of the last 50 years, mix and match their plot points, add a bold yet rather pretty score and you get Oblivion. Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough play a couple of technicians entrusted to maintain the drones and water harvesters of a post-apocalyptic Earth so that the remnants of the human race can build a new life on the moon Titan. When the Cruiser happens across (literally) the woman from his dreams one day, he begins to suspect that all is not what it seems with his life and incurs the wrath of who or whatever has been issuing him his orders these last few years. To accuse Joseph Kosinski’s movie or his own graphic novel that it’s based on of being derivative is kind of redundant for so overt is the derivation that, structurally, it seems more akin to an exhaustive homage to the great science fiction of cinema. That it doesn’t function like a homage but a strange exercise in script construction is where the problem lies. So familiar are all the elements to the plot and premise that those source movies veritably intrude on Oblivion’s own attempt at a narrative to the point that we find ourselves struggling to feel engaged. Kosinski has certainly made a beautiful looking film though, a crisp fusion of old school cinematography and CGI punctuated with wide angle moments of grandeur worthy of the writer-director’s overall ambition. But while Riseborough manages to make her character work with a wonderfully creepy turn as Cruise’s paramour, the antiseptic nature of his character gives him little room to shine. Thus, we miss the presence he normally brings to his movies leaving Oblivion a rather cold movie to behold. For sci-fi fans, there’s much in the way of interest here but just noting to get our teeth into.

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The Usual Suspects (1995) 3/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 88.8
Genre: Crime
Duration: 106 mins
Director: Bryan Singer
Stars: Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro

Supremely captivating noir-ish crime thriller that spins an intricate tale about a group of elite hijackers who are brought together by an outside force and get mixed up with crooked cops, drug dealers, and an underworld boss who nobody is sure exists but everyone is scared of. This is one of those films that redefined the genre and, in doing so, it set a new standard for every subsequent crime film. High school buddies Bryan Singer (director) and Christopher McQuarrie (writer) became household names after this one and it’s not difficult to see why. McQuarrie’s hugely original and slick writing combines perfectly with Singer’s taut and stylish direction to give this film a truly unique look and a feel. Most of the actors on show give career best performances. Spacey got the Oscar but he is matched by Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, and Chazz Palminteri. However, this is undeniably Gabriel Bryne’s film as his broody, charming, and serious Dean Keaton more than any of the other character sets the tone for this film from start to finish. A special mention of John Ottman’s dual role is appropriate also as he not only gives us one of the most memorable scores of the 90′s but is also responsible for the film’s super slick editing.

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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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The Final Countdown (1980)


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Rating: The Good – 69.5
Genre: Science Fiction, War
Duration: 103 mins
Director: Don Taylor
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, Katharine Ross

Cracking sci-fi thriller starring Kirk Douglas as the captain of a 1980’s aircraft carrier which gets pulled into a vortex during routine manoeuvres off Hawaii and gets sent back to December 6th 1941. The premise is compelling to say the least and it’s tapped for all its worth as the crew of the massively advanced ship weigh the moral and philosophical implications of intervening in the Japanese sneak attack which is about to be launched against Pearl Harbor. The film is set up wonderfully with plenty of time dedicated to substantially introducing the various characters and establishing their various political and moral positions and whatever relationships which will become relevant later on. The scenario is made more interesting with the inclusion of Martin Sheen as a civilian consultant who provides an unpredictable counterpoint to the hardened military personnel.

As two of the most professional actors to ever grace the screen Douglas and Sheen are great either on their own or together and they each bring an abundance of personality to the film. Katherine Ross and the always excellent Charles Durning offer equally interesting points of view as 1941 civilians (Durning playing a wily old senator) rescued by the aircraft carrier after the Japanese attacked their boat. Director Don Taylor is to be commended for his handling of the large scale logistics which include shooting everything from live action fighter jets, helicopters, the carrier itself, to the infamous Japanese “zeros”. The various action sequences are elegantly shot and edited and would rival any dedicated war film from the time. Furthermore, Taylor shows real panache in how he shoots the time-travelling sequence and imbues the moment with a real sense of primordial menace. This is particularly important because if captured in the wrong manner, the tenuousness of the story’s premise could be exposed (for example, just imagine how a “Time Tunnel” like shot of the carrier spinning two-dimensionally into the past could’ve undermined its credibility).

It all builds up to a fitting climax and there’s even time to tie some mind bending logical time-loops into the story in the vein of the best time-travel movies. The Final Countdown is exactly what a war/time travel sci-fi should be. It’s entertaining and reasonably stimulating and it really should’ve been remembered better.

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Cypher (2002) 1.71/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 69.1
Genre: Mystery, Science Fiction
Duration: 95 mins
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Stars: Jeremy Northam, Lucy Liu, Nigel Bennett

Cypher (or “Brainstorm” as it was released in Europe) is an interesting attempt at intelligent science fiction that looks and feels different to most other efforts. Jeremy Northam is a corporate spy who is employed by a technology company to spy on its competitor. However, it soon becomes apparent that he’s involved in something much bigger where the walls of reality are obscured and where his life as he knew it is in jeopardy. It’s difficult to describe this one without giving away too much of the plot but, suffice to say, there are definite shades of The Parallax View here.

Strangely enough, the major strength and weakness of this movie both lie in its look. The cold grading of the picture particularly in the first act gives everything an edgy and impersonal tone and when juxtaposed with the more bizarrely shot latter stages, it works a treat both in helping the narrative and grounding the shifting perspective of Northam’s character. However, this also makes the earlier parts to the film rather inaccessible on an emotional level. This is compounded by the fact that there is nothing to entice the audience into the story beyond the mystery. The scenario which Northam’s character finds himself in precludes us from getting to know him and while that is definitely the point, it alienates us from the lead to some degree. On top of that, the story over-complicates itself to the point where the ultimate revelation is clearly evident before it happens simply because it’s the only resolution that makes sense. Despite these reservations, hardcore sci-fi fans should really enjoy the intellectual roller-coaster ride but unfortunately it fails to be anything more than a good genre film.

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Cruising (1980) 3.79/5 (2)


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Rating: The Good – 77.8
Genre: Crime
Duration: 102 mins
Director: William Friedkin
Stars: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen

William Friedkin’s deeply psychological thriller about an undercover cop attempting to draw out a serial killer who operates in the homosexual sub-culture of S&M/leather is a bold piece of cinema and an enthralling watch. Al Pacino stars as the cop in question who spends his days and nights attempting to understand and infiltrate the closed community so that he can figure out who in this world of exhibitionism and hyper liberation he is looking for. The well timed yet fleeting interleaving of Paul Sorvino as his boss and Karen Allen as his girlfriend do enough to keep him grounded in his former life but each time he goes back undercover, he loses a bit of himself. Pacino is brilliant and captures his character’s transformation with an understated naturalness. His performance is just another example of how brave and actor he has always been and one who sees acting first and foremost as an exploration.

Cruising caused controversy among some in the gay community on its release and in truth, the film not only seems streaked with danger, it seems to feed off it. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Friedkin did here but everything about Cruising, from the subject matter, to the dialogue, to the way it was shot and edited seems so far removed from mainstream cinema that it becomes almost the perfect case of form following function. Yet Friedkin is in total control. No matter how deep his characters psychologically descend and no matter how unconventional his central device is, he knows exactly how to make a story out of it. Thus, in the same way in which Pacino is experimenting, Friedkin is too. The ending might not be to everyone’s satisfaction but within the counter-intuitive parameters Friedkin set the story, it’s a genuine success, and extremely effective.

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The Man From Earth (2007) 3.29/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 75.2
Genre: Drama, Science Fiction
Duration: 87  mins
Director: Richard Shenkman
Stars: David Lee Smith, Tony Todd, John Billingsley

This low budget, low tech science fiction drama is built around an interesting premise: a close friend tells a group of friends, learned academics all, that he has been alive for 14,000 years. The Man From Earth unfolds in real time as the friends quiz him to decide whether he is mad or telling the truth.

The progression of the conversation from bemused inquiry to intense interrogation to angry accusation is fascinating and intuitively realised. The richly drawn and assorted characters behave in believable ways and at all times consistently with their personalities. The actors playing them are accomplished journeymen including the likes of Tony Todd, William Katt, and John Billingsley and all are great to watch in their roles. The character at the centre of it all, John, played wonderfully by David Lee Smith, is of course what the film hinges on and it’s a tour de force of scientific research and intellectual construction. The psychology and sociology as demonstrated and indeed described from the perspective of a man claiming to be 14,000 years old are faultless and insightfully conceived and combined with Smith’s intense performance, they make his story truly compelling. Even the anthropological, religious, and historical references and discussions seem on the mark and as John forensically puts it all together with the help of his friends, the audience is left riveted.

Despite relatively lean production values (e.g., lighting and sound), The Man From Earth reels you in and keeps a hold of you for the best part of 90 mins. Mark Hinton Stewart’s interesting score plays a strong role in this picking up in unpredictable ways during more intense points in the discussion while defaulting back to a more soulful melody during calmer moments. Through a combination of it, the acting, and the crafty dialogue, the film moves steadily towards a strong conclusion.

However, in taking the more difficult route and basing the premise on the trust of friends rather than some climactic demonstration of proof, the writer (Jerome Bixby of Star Trek fame) and director (Richard Shenkman) gave themselves a might task and in truth, it seems like they never quite figured out how to end this fascinating tale. As a result, the film tends to fizzle out in the closing scenes. That said, this is well worth a watch for sci-fi fans with a taste for something different (which should really be all sci-fi fans, right?).

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Donnie Darko (2001) 3/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 81.1
Genre: Mystery
Duration: 112  mins
Director: Richard Kelly
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell

Writer/director Richard Kelly’s sci-fi mystery is easily one of the most affecting and originally conceived science fiction movies to address the issue of time. It follows (literally) the troubled yet highly intelligent young Donnie Darko (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) through a period of time when his strange visions and conversations with what seem to be an 6-foot imaginary rabbit have alarmed his parents and seen him sent to therapy. As the visions continue however, Donnie begins to see a pattern that ties into events which are occurring in the real world and ultimately leads him to a key choice that will define his future.

Donnie Darko is a superb film that effortlessly balances the more weighty conceptual content with a cheeky wit and dark humor. There are some delightful exchanges between the various characters which make the whole experience a treat to the ears. But of course, there is much more going on beneath the surface and Kelly switches tone almost instantaneously at times but also seamlessly. The film is coloured with an intense but appropriate film-making style and there are some truly beautiful moments of cinematic self-reference that feed perfectly into Darko’s story such as the sequence in the theatre where images from The Evil Dead bleed into the narrative. The twist is not so much a twist as it is a methodical unveiling which requires the audience to step up and see it (it won’t come to more passive audiences).

Gyllenhaal is extraordinary in a title role that required a lot from its actor and there are a host of other top actors rounding out the supporting cast. The film’s soundtrack gives the proceedings a nice era-specific bedding and the politics of that era become an interesting and informative backdrop to the turmoil (both inner and outer) which is defining the various characters’ lives.

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All that Jazz (1979) 5/5 (2)


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Rating: The Good – 90.1
Genre: Musical
Duration: 123 mins
Director: Bob Fosse
Stars: Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer

Bob Fosse’s autobiographical existential musical is an astoundingly profound and honest exercise in self confrontation not to mention one of Stanley Kubrick’s favourite films! It’s also a veritable masterclass in choreography, music, and story telling. All that Jazz tells the compelling tale of a musical director whose drug fuelled life is steadily disintegrating as he struggles to balance the demands of his ego with those of his family, girlfriend, and ultimately his body. Roy Scheider is nothing short of mesmerising in the lead role, giving the performance of his career, but he is ably helped by a strong supporting cast including Jessica Lange.

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Fitzcarraldo (1982) 4.72/5 (5)


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Rating: The Good – 89.7
Genre: Adventure, Drama
Duration: 158 mins
Director: Werner Herzog
Stars: Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, José Lewgoy

Werner Herzog’s masterwork is a stunning achievement both in terms of the logistics involved in making it (it was shot on location in some of the roughest terrain and on actual river rapids and yes, they actually did drag a boat over a mountain!) and the statement on mankind it becomes. The typically brilliant yet unpredictable Klaus Kinski headlines as Fitzcarraldo, an opera worshipping and eccentric businessman who attempts to exploit an inaccessible resource of rubber trees by dragging a steam ship over a small mountain to a parallel river. Driven not by monetary greed exactly, he is more concerned with doing something monumental and beautiful for the jungle which he loves in his own strange manner. The way in which he ultimately might go about building his monument takes many twists and turns and requires severe shifts in perspective but that is the ultimate point of this extraordinary film as his and the audiences’ perspective slowly become one. This is cinema at its most invigorating as Kinski and Herzog combine yet again in an artistic marathon. The former is electric as the white suited, blonde adventurer while Herzog frames it all in a way only he can as he brings both the jungle and story to life in equally impressive measures.

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