Category Archives: Indie

Sinister (2012) 3.81/5 (6)

 

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Rating: The Good – 71
Genre: Horror
Duration: 110 mins
Director: Scott Derrickson
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone

Spooky psychological horror with Ethan Hawke playing a true crime writer desperate for another bestseller who moves his family into a house where the previous occupants were hanged so that he can investigate the unsolved crime. Discovering a box of 16mm home video tapes in the attic, he briefly wonders how the police could’ve missed something so important but quickly finds himself absorbed in the revelatory footage and the series of family murders that they reveal.

Veteran horror director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) meticulously crafts a movie of unyielding creepiness in this original take on the haunted house scenario that reaches into pagan lore as opposed to the more typical Christian mythology. Hawke is intense enough to carry the majority of it and though the support cast are more peripheral than usual, Juliet Rylance is outstanding as his past tolerance wife while James Ransone provides a slightly mercurial presence as a comical but deceptively competent deputy. Draped in shadow and deep blacks, even the daytime scenes are dreary to the point that the audience will find few opportunities for some much needed reprieve. The excessive gloominess thus bleeds into the narrative rendering Sinister an unforgiving watch even for the most seasoned horror fans.

Embedded within this stark profile, novel demon concepts permeate the story and plot adding a serious dose of unpredictability while a slow creeping collaboration between Christopher Young’s score and obscure indie tracks haunt the darkest parts of the movie, in particular, Hawke’s viewing of the 16mms. Derrickson’s script is economic or revealing where needed and does well to steadily intertwine the necessary expositions with the unfolding drama. However, while everything outside of Hawke’s new home is necessarily kept at a distance, it could be argued that his family, particularly his son and daughter, needed to be more relevant to the narrative given its ultimate destination. That said, it can’t be denied that the ending works in a uniquely chilling manner. It may make for a bleak bit of entertainment but Sinister counts as yet another success in the catalogue of indie horror.

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The Entitled (2011) 3/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 63.8
Genre: Crime
Duration: 91 mins
Director: Aaron Woodley
Stars: Kevin Zegers, Ray Liotta, Laura Vandervoort

Slightly above average thriller involving the abduction of three rich kids by three malcontents who attempt to ransom their prisoners to the three wealthy fathers. A low profile cast add some bite to a well structured screenplay with Ray Liotta bringing his natural snakiness to his fatherly role. The dialogue can struggle to rise to the sharpness of the story but Aaron Woodley’s classy directing fills some of the void. For the most part, The Entitled sidesteps the more formulaic tracks and tickles the audience with the ambiguous morality and strained allegiances found among each of the three parties. It’s that moral coolness that allows the movie to play out to a satisfying conclusion and without ever really catching fire, The Entitled manages a continuous simmer.

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The Babadook (2014) 3.71/5 (7)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.5
Genre: Horror, Drama
Duration: 93 mins
Director: Jennifer Kent
Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall

Every now and again, an independent horror movie comes along that celebrates the art of the genre by doing the most important things well. Things like: being unpredictable so that the scares don’t just come as shocks, or subverting the natural to generate a primal fear, and darkly colouring the story with fairytale-like themes so that it crawls inside the recesses of our psyches. While not scoring flawlessly on each of these levels, the Australian chiller The Babadook nonetheless achieves an even enough balance to comprehensively scare the bejesus out of you. Essie Davis stars as a single mother left traumatised by the death of her husband and trying to raise her seemingly disturbed son. But when a terrifying storybook entitled “The Babadook” appears mysteriously in her son’s room, she begins to believe his claims that the eponymous monster is in their house. What follows is as much a psychological thriller as it is horror as the despairing mother slowly loses her sanity and falls deeper into the monster’s clutches. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook demonstrates admirable restraint in the buildup and combined with some spine-tingling concept design (particularly with regard to the creature’s voice), the scares can be vigorous. However, against the austere set design and dull toned photography, the film’s mood is perhaps even more affecting and the movie would’ve surely veered towards the depressing if it wasn’t for some timely humour and the engaging performances by both Davis and Noah Wiseman as her eccentric son. And if the final act begins to feel a little familiar, rest assured that Kent reigns it in with a wryly unpredictable ending that will satisfy the more knowing and/or jaded horror fans alike. Highly recommended.

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Heathers (1988) 3.28/5 (8)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.7
Genre: Comedy
Duration: 103 mins
Director: Michael Lehmann
Stars: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty

“Dear diary, my teenage angst bullshit has a bodycount.” Recent addition to the school’s most popular clique, Winona Ryder, is growing ever wearier at the inane conventions of her new friends, three preppy girls all named Heather. In steps Christian Slater, a proactive cynic whose extreme reactions to the superiority complexes of the chosen few are the source of the some shockingly funny moments.

Like all great black comedy and unlike so many recently failed attempts, the darkness in Heathers is effortless and so the comedy is viciously hilarious. Daniel Waters’ delicious script is driven by a playful yet unyielding focus that slices fantastically at the indulgence of the high-school movie genre and indeed society’s broader indulgence of the precious order that its middle class teenagers had so mercilessly forged in the 1980’s in particular.

Ryder has never been better and for those who’ve only seen her Dracula-type performances, they should take a look at this. For such an acerbic story, she brings a level of reality and even warmth to the role that serves to make her incredulous narrations and interactions with the various characters all the funnier. Slater is at his best too, his slow burning charisma making him the perfect choice to play the self-anointed social equaliser. His character becomes both Waters’ main vessel and his target as he slowly works his way through the equally self-anointed social elite. Michael Lehmann’s directing is adequate but a little uninspired, which is actually quite a shame because this movie would otherwise be damn near perfect.

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Oculus (2013) 3.29/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 70.5
Genre: Horror
Duration: 104 mins
Director: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff

Any horror movie that can be described as original these days is worthy of note and while not completely without formula, Oculus runs just far enough outside the lines of the modern possession story to justify such description. Karen Gillian and Brenton Thwaites star as sister and brother recently re-united after the latter is released from a mental facility 11 years after he murdered their father. It’s not long before we learn that the sister has re-acquired and intends to destroy a creepy old mirror from their family home which she claims possessed their parents and directly caused their murder. With the premise outlined, the narrative then branches by paralleling the events leading up to their parents’ killing with the sibling’s present day attempt to quite methodically destroy the entity in the mirror. In place of the more humdrum horror movie buildup this smart structure creates a tantalising intrigue and becomes the primary driver of the movie’s tension. Gillian’s presence and Thwaites’ deftness work well within its boundaries but the drama would’ve held together better if the lesser known actors mutually shared each other’s strengths. Inhabiting only one strand to the story, Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane have more limited opportunities but still offer more complete performances. Though the tone of the film is expertly set throughout its 104 minutes, the persistent switching of perspective (from the time of the murder to present day) eventually wears on the cohesion of the plot and as writer-director Mike Flanagan escalates his use of that device to actually include time-shifting hallucinations, the audience may struggle to stay engaged. The paucity of even light humour and unrelenting bleakness of the final act will only augment that likelihood. That said, Flanagan stays true to his convictions right up to the close and, best of all, he handles the supernatural concept with welcome restraint by constantly resisting the temptation to up the ante. It may not provide as many classic scares as the average horror vehicle but it furnishes the movie with an integrity that sets it apart from the pack.

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Thief (1981) 4.51/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 83.6
Genre: Crime
Duration: 122 mins
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson

Michael Mann’s seminal crime thriller focuses on James Caan’s master thief who, in an effort to attain the family he always wanted, eschews his independence and reluctantly agrees to work for a crime king-pin (Robert Prosky) only to find himself locked into an interminable contract. Caan rated this as his best performance outside of Sonny Corleone and he is utterly mesmerising as the balls-of-steel Frank who is willing to sacrifice everything rather than lie down for anyone. Prosky is immense as the old mobster who can switch from genial father-figure to ruthless monster at the drop of a hat. Thief has all the trademarks of the great Mann films. The ultra-real dialogue, the technical proficiency of the criminals, a subtle yet powerful score (courtesy of Tangerine Dream), and slick night time shots of Chicago’s mean streets. Moreover, Mann’s films are often based on the study of obsession and disciplined dedication to one’s craft and nowhere is this better realised than here. The set pieces are as innovative and disciplined as we’ve come across and when combined with the searing performances and inspired dialogue, it becomes truly captivating. Thief is a crime classic and arguably one of the genre’s greatest representatives. It achieves a gritty realism that movies of that genre are always in search of but rarely attain.

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Rolling Thunder (1977) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 83.4
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Duration: 95 mins
Director: John Flynn
Stars: William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes

As good a thriller as the 70’s offered up, Rolling Thunder is damn near perfect. The ever cool William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones play two POW’s who, after returning home, find life as torturous as their imprisonment was. Things get steadily worse for the hard boiled Major Charles Rane (Devane) when his wife and son are murdered by a gang of home invaders who also take his hand. Devane gives a smouldering performance as a man who has “learned to love” torture as a means to surviving it. A young Tommy Lee Jones is sensational as the equally stoic Johnny who ultimately helps him to exact his revenge. John Flynn allows this masterpiece to develop at its own pace building the film not around the inevitable action but rather the drama that comes with a man who is pushed to the brink but never breaks. The parallels between Rane’s time in captivity and the life he has returned to are repeatedly drawn but never explicitly so, ensuring that the viewer discovers something new on each viewing. Thus, the more one watches this gem the better it gets. “Let’s go clean ‘em up”.

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Bad Turn Worse (2014) 3.09/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 66.9
Genre: Crime, Drama
Duration: 92 mins
Director: Simon Hawkins, Zeke Hawkins
Stars: Mackenzie Davis, Logan Huffman, Jeremy Allen

Three young friends just out of high school get drawn into a local gangster’s plans to rip off his boss when one of the friends steals some money for one last blow out on the town. Mackenzie Davis and Jeremy Allen White excel as the two college bound friends while Logan Huffman is wonderfully creepy as the layabout resenting been left behind. Dutch Southern’s script works hard to make this dramatic triangle the basis to some peculiar decisions amongst the three and to keep his audience off guard but aside from giving their actors something to sink their teeth into, he and directors Simon and Zeke Hawkins fail to properly gel their personal situations with the plot. They do achieve the lazy tension of a desolate town in the manner films like Blood Simple did but, at all times, the plot seems to run in parallel to the characters. Mark Pelligrino has the most fun as their slightly nuts but very mean puppeteer but, here too, the directors fail to reign in his admittedly intriguing turn so that it doesn’t supersede the plot. In the end, Bad Turn Worse (or “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” as it was originally released) feels very much like a pale imitation of an early Tarantino or Coen Brothers’ screenplay, more a creature of the mid 90’s than a modern crime film and relying on quirky performances to keep it interesting.

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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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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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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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The Limey (1999)

 

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Rating: The Good – 63.3
Genre: Crime
Duration: 104 mins
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda, Lesley Ann Warren

Steven Soderbergh’s film about a British gangster who travels to LA to kill the rich music producer who killed his daughter is edited in a supremely frustrating style akin to that which Soderbergh used in the key romantic scene in Out of Sight – when Clooney and Lopez meet in the hotel bar. Dialogue and shots are desynchronised as time is stretched out and condensed simultaneously. It works wonderfully in Out of Sight because it came at a transitory point in the movie, lasted only a couple of minutes, and was accompanied by David Holmes’ lovely score. In the Limey, all it does is irritate because it is employed recurrently throughout the movie and almost entirely for the first 20 minutes. On top of that, having Terrance Stamp stopping to translate his cockney wide boy slang to the various Americans is nauseating, unrealistic (surely he just wouldn’t use it to save time), and suggests that the inclusion of said slang was merely a gimmick.

Having said that, about 50 mins in this film rights itself and the story becomes more viewer friendly. The main characters are finally established and the remaining 50 mins is really entertaining. Stamp is decent as the grieving tough guy, Luis Guzmán is good support, Peter Fonda amuses, and that man Nicky Katt pops up (as he typically does) in an interesting if under-exploited cameo. If you’re in the mood for a revenge story with a twist this is worth sticking with.

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