Category Archives: Niche

Everest (2015)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76
Genre: War, Drama
Duration: 130 mins
Director: Joseph Sargent
Stars: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kiera Knightley

Movies recounting humankind’s gruelling attempts to overcome nature’s obstacles tend to be either underproduced and rather dull affairs or overproduced and predictably brainless action movies so it’s a welcome surprise when we come across one that so effectively balances the internal and external factors to the story as much as Baltasar Kormákur’s film does. Couched in a comfortable budget, Everest captures the visceral wonder of the experience but maintains the writing and acting as its prize assets. And with a cast of A-listers all willing to do their bit for far less billing than their status normally demands, it pays dividends. Jason Clark hits all the right notes as the expedition leader and Josh Brolin and John Hawkes add handsomely to the medley of emotional tribulation while Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Worthington, Kiera Knightley, and Robin Wright help shape both the story’s physical and personal contexts so that theme and drama meet harmoniously in the middle. Not everyone will be happy with Kormákur’s aversion to set piece action but those with an appreciation for attritional authenticity should find his adventure rather compelling.

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Sicario (2015) 4.14/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77
Genre: Crime
Duration: 121 mins
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro

Cold and sinister narco-thriller with Emily Blunt top-lining as a FBI agent recruited by the CIA for a series of clandestine operations against a powerful Mexican cartel. As the missions begin to increasingly circumvent the law, the beleaguered agent grows suspicious of Josh Brolin’s lead agent and ever fearful of his mysterious cartel expert, Benicio Del Toro. After an admirable attempt in Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve succeeds in crafting a morally bleak thriller with sufficient traction and believability to keep the audience engrossed all the way through. The war on drugs is articulated almost completely through the actions of the protagonists. The drama is shot with a slow-thudding realism while the dialogue chills the story a couple degrees lower. Left of centre to the plot, Blunt is subtly magnificent as she manages to stay relevant even while her character is necessarily marginalised. On the other side of things, Brolin is quietly having a ball but Del Toro is just plain scary. The narco-wars are very much in vogue at the moment but on several occasions, Sicario peels off a layer or two and reels us towards a world not often seen. Yes, the narrative moves inescapably towards Hollywood’s notion of closure but there are a sufficient number of unfamiliar twists and turns to intrigue the most ardent fans. Roger Deacons’ crisp textures and contrasts are central to this experience as is Joe Walker’s editing but it’s Villeneuve’s steely focus that makes this so darkly compelling.

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Trance (2013) 3/5 (1)

 

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

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

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The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) 3.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 68.8
Genre: Horror
Duration: 119 mins
Director: Scott Derrickson
Stars: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Shohreh Aghdashloo

Laura Linney stars as a successful defence attorney who agrees to defend a Catholic priest (Tom Wilkinson) when a young woman who he performed an exorcism on died shortly thereafter. As she delves into the case, she not only begins to believe the priest’s story but she comes to suspect that the same dark forces are now working against her. Scott Derrickson’s film strikes an original chord within the genre by attempting to examine the case from a legal perspective and he sets a wonderfully sinister atmosphere that peaks in some truly chilling moments. Linney’s skill in the lead lends even more credibility to the film’s serious aspirations as does the wider casting from Wilkinson’s beleaguered clergyman to Campbell Scott’s determined prosecutor. However, things go wrong with the screenplay just as it should be ratcheting up towards an intriguing conclusion. The relevance of the exorcism to the law is only barely glanced at as evidenced by Wilkinson’s marginalisation as a character and the main plot gets a little silly towards the close. Most disappointing of all, however, the creepy subplot concerning Linney’s inexplicable experiences never really amounts to anything. Instead, the movie satisfies itself in the main by offering multiple retrospective accounts of the events leading up to and including the exorcism which themselves bear an awfully familiar bent. At the very least, a Rashoman-like contrast between the various firsthand accounts would’ve added an interesting layer of ambiguity to the proceedings but given that they’re all in accordance with each other, we’re left with a clear but less intriguing delineation between truth and mistruth. Thus, it can be argued that The Exorcism of Emily Rose turns its back on its most promising story angles to serve its most ordinary:- a real shame give the calibre of talent  on hand.

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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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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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The Conjuring (2013) 4.22/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.5
Genre: Horror
Duration: 112 mins
Director: James Wan
Stars: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston

Bone chilling 70’s-set possession story adorned with all the hallmarks of the best vintages. Married couple Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are the married paranormal investigators called upon to help a terrorised family who are being haunted by a particularly nasty demon. By now, we all know the final score and how the points are scored but James Wan’s movie nuances the familiar plot in all manner of creepy ways to exact as much out of it as possible. Forsaking the safety net of gore, Wan and company rely completely on mood, timing, and no small number of innovative devices to generate the scares. Using the investigative couple’s background in the occult as a basis for both tension and sub-plot, there are essentially three horror stories spun together here but not so anything is taken away from the central plot. In fact, as is often intended but rarely transpires, they compound each other so that they generate a cumulative terror. The result is genuinely one of the scariest movies to emerge from Hollywood in decades.

The Conjuring looks and sounds the part too thanks to some comprehensive production design, Joseph Bishara’s even score, and Kirk M. Morri (visual) and Joe Dzuban’s (sound) elegant editing. The final piece to the puzzle is the casting. Without breaking the bank, the four leads are all household names which not only nests the events in a priceless familiarity but also ensures a degree of class that most horror movies lack. This only adds to the film’s earnestness and thus magnifies the fear factor. Wilson is, as usual, slightly stiff but again, as usual, in a manner that suits his character. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston are equally strong as the beleaguered mother and father. However, Farmiga makes the most of her character with a steady turn as the compassionate but strong psychic. It all gets very loud towards the end and while this is perhaps one of its more unsubtle touches, it doesn’t destabilise the movie as is often the case. On the contrary, from beginning to end, The Conjuring is utterly text-book in its construction.

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Savages (2012) 3.86/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 70.1
Genre: Action, Crime
Duration: 131 mins
Director: Oliver Stone
Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Benicio Del Toro

Oliver Stone has to work hard these days to make up for two decades of over-stylised not to mention confused pictures and such is the reason that this surprisingly slick crime feature fared poorly both critically as well as commercially. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Taylor Hitsch star as two wildly successful cannabis dealers on the California drug scene who come up against a ruthless cartel attempting to stake their claim north of the border. As the genius botanist, Taylor-Johnson is the brains of the operation while Hitsch’s former Navy SEAL is the enforcer and together they engage Salma Hayek’s drug lord in a bloody chess game as they attempt to secure the release of their hostage girlfriend Blake Lively. Factor in an utterly loathsome and genuinely scary Benicio Del Toro as Hayek’s right-hand man and you’re left with a colourfully twisted little thriller. Nested in Lively’s inevitably stylised visual narration, Stone allows the energetic if sometimes clunky script to play out in a relatively coherent manner as he shows the most directorial restraint he’s managed since Born on the Fourth of July. Make no mistake, it’s vibrantly shot and edited with flair but with enough discipline for the visual aesthetic to not only be enjoyed, but also be complementary of the well conceived set pieces. On the acting front, the leading threesome (as improbable as their relationship is) are satisfactory without shining and while much fun is had with an overwrought John Travolta’s crooked DEA agent, it never detracts from the the darker tones that Stone’s story paints. It all adds up to a rather satisfying crime thriller that should be judged on the merits of that genre’s most essential elements.

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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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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) 3.9/5 (7)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.9
Genre: Action, Fantasy
Duration: 132 mins
Director: Bryan Singer
Stars: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender

Director Bryan Singer brings an assured and classy touch back to the franchise he helped forge in this surprisingly gripping fantasy sci-fi in which two versions of the same X-Men are united across time in an epic showdown to save the Earth against a future army of robot “Sentinels”. Superbly balancing the multiple threads to the story so that the main plot pulses steadily and clearly from start to finish, X-Men: Days of Future Past counts as a rather impressive feat of story-telling. With Patrick Stewart’s “Prof. X” and Ian McKellen’s “Magneto” on one side of the temporal divide, their successors (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively) on the other, and Hugh Jackman’s “Wolverine” straddling the two, we move between a nicely realised 1970’s and a desolate future as the older X-Men attempt to alter their own history and preclude the invincible Sentinels from ever coming into being. On the technical front, this movie is pillared by some genuinely striking action set pieces opening with an elegantly edited showdown between mutant and robot and peaking with an acutely impressive prison-break in the bowls of The Pentagon. This latter sequence, wryly soundtracked to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle”, involves Evan Peters’ delightfully impish “Quicksilver” making a high speed mockery of the famous building’s security in a whirlwind of smile-inducing not to mention brilliantly conceived mischief-making. Alongside this brief cameo of what very well might prove to be the franchise’s most lovable character, what really sets Days of Future Past apart from the myriad of modern superhero movies is the sophistication of its construction. Though most of the future mutants offer mere cameos, Singer makes the most of their personalities and powers, deftly interweaving their trials and tribulations with those of their past counterparts and culminating in a suitably rousing finale. Given how uninspired and formulaic the genre has become, it’s genuinely refreshing to come across a simply well made movie.

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American Sniper (2014) 3.29/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.8
Genre: War, Drama
Duration: 133 mins
Director: Clint Eastwood
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner

Bradley Cooper takes on the role of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, in Clint Eastwood’s take on the personal politics of war and the wearing effects it has back home. Putting in another immense shift, Cooper constructs a strong character that sways and bends under the stresses that come with his elite skill. Beginning with his training as a Navy SEAL, we follow Kyle through his four tours in Iraq and his intervening attempts to build a family, where a number of plots play out in successive manner. Plots ranging from the SEALS’ mission to take out a local warlord to Kyle’s personal but often thrilling battle with an elite enemy sniper. Eastwood is to be commended for maintaining the integrity of each of these plots while sewing them into the wider dramatic story concerning Kyle’s wife (Sienna Miller in a solid turn) and his increasingly debilitating PTSD. In fact, American Sniper is arguably the veteran director’s most artful film from the point of view of its structuring. His use of flashback and parallel scenes help to move the film forward so the audience is informed and engaged at an equally steady rate. The action sequences are less inspired with respect to Clint’s directing but their sheer scale tend to compensate for that. Where Eastwood’s touch truly lets him down, however, is yet again in the dramatic stakes. Always a relatively cold director, he fails to make the camera one with his protagonists and while this could have allowed for a more realist style, his pedestrian camera work is incapable of serving that end. In the end, much of Bradley’s good work is left unharnessed as what should be a very personal movie feels decidedly impersonal. American Sniper has been the subject of much political discussion concerning the “War on Terror” and the lauding of an elite killer who showed less remorse in real life than is depicted here but such criticisms are outside the scope of a straight up film critique and so, as a war movie with a dramatic edge, American Sniper must stand on its artistic merits alone. In that respect, it has much going for it even in spite of some directorial limitations.

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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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