Rating: The Ugly – 64.5 Genre: Science Fiction, Action Duration: 101 mins Director: Paul W.S. Anderson Stars: Sanaa Lathan, Lance Henriksen, Raoul Bova
Sanaa Lathan stars as a crack mountain climber who agrees to shepherd Lance Henriksen’s “Mr. Weyland” and his team of scientists to a desolate corner of Antarctica to investigate a newly discovered pyramid. As they move deeper into the recesses of the structure, they trigger an age-old battle between the two seminal sci-fi monsters (a rivalry that first arose in a comic and then playfully alluded to in Predator 2). It may be considered sacrilege to fans of both the Alien and Predator franchises and the sight of Lathan and a fierce predator exploding into the night air on a shared sled may just be one of the silliest sci-fi images ever committed to screen. However, *if* you can forgive those indiscretions, AvP can be cracking fun. At its core, the movie was sold on the idea that an AvP showdown would be a cool thing to see and, in fairness to that other Paul “middle initial” Anderson, he achieves that goal in style. The battles, a series of impressive and slickly conceived duels between the heavyweight bad guys, are as epic as they deserve to be and as rousing as the best action sequences from either of their franchises. They’re bolstered by some superb creature effects too (not counting those lumbering, out of shape predators) and, to their periphery, is a decent array of reasonably fleshed out support characters. Lathan proves a worthy action heroine and carries the movie’s final act largely between her and her predatory comrade. But best of all, the movie is replete with some really nice touches such as the Predators’ disgust for the Aliens not to mention the oblique reveals of the former’s culture. Of course, the premise is the weak point. Though fine for a stand alone sci-fi, in the context of the two mythologies, it veers unavoidably towards the ridiculous. Sure, it’s exciting fun but it ultimately takes the sheen off both mythologies.
Rating: The Good – 78.2 Genre: Martial Arts Duration: 134 mins Director: Hark Tsui Stars: Jet Li, Biao Yuen, Rosamund Kwan
Epic martial arts adventure starring Jet Li as the famous warrior Wong Fei-Hung who becomes embroiled in the intrigue of foreign powers and local corruption as he attempts to protect his homeland and traditions from their destructive influence. The outright strength of this magnificent piece of cinema is the tapestry of plots and stories it weaves into the central narrative not to mention the chorus of martial artists that intermittently set the screen alight. The result is a sprawling extravaganza of martial art drama. Hark Tsui brings an unabashed grandiosity to the film with striking cinematography and balletically choreographed action. James Wong’s magnificent score tells the story on its own level while Marco Mak’s editing whisks the audience along to the melodically unfolded action. As imaginative as the wire-work action sequences are there’s a slightly anaemic quality to their thrust which is a common problem with the flying style of fight movies. But what is lacking in oomph is made up for in artistry as Li, Biao Yuen, and company put on a masterly exhibition of on-screen action gymnastics. Within this, Li makes for a strong lead and catches the dramatic qualities of the famous leader admirably. Like the life and personality that Hark breathes into his epic saga from behind the camera, his lead actor and the remainder of the cast ensured that Once Upon a Time in China became much more than just another Kung-Fu flick.
Rating: The Good – 78 Genre: Crime, Action Duration: 120 mins Director: Tony Scott Stars: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Brad Pitt
Tony Scott’s finest hour came when he purchased a young video store clerk’s script and executed it with much of the panache and dry wit that the same clerk would soon become renowned for. It tells the story of a geek-come-wild boy Christian Slater who falls in love with prostitute Patricia Arquette, kills her slightly deranged pimp, accidentally steals his cocaine, and then attempts to sell it to some rich Hollywood producer before the coke’s real owner, mob boss Christopher Walken, tracks him down with prejudice.
True Romance quickly became a cult classic because it cut across genres with the same audacity as Reservoir Dogs did. Colourful characters posing hip monologues, an unlikely romance at the center that flavours the entire movie with an essential unreal vibe, and more fists and guns action than you can shake a stick at ensures that the entire caper is bags of unpredictable fun and looks a treat too. With the verve that Scott’s movies were always reaching for coming pre-loaded with Quentin Tarantino’s white hot script, the former commercial director softens his touch and lets the dialogue do the talking. Free from intrusive editing and over the top score, his consistently outstanding scene composition is finally given the room to breathe and the time to be appreciated. Smokey slats of light grace everything with a cosy noir-esque ambiance, perfectly backdropping the lyricism of Tarantino’s words and the enthusiastic performances that bring them to life.
In that last regard, Slater has never been better and he shares a magnetic chemistry with the even better Arquette. Walken is Walken (in the best way possible), Hopper is in fine form as Slater’s estranged father, Oldman is forgivably over the top as the crazed pimp with an epic inferiority complex, and Brad Pitt is a riot as Slater’s L.A. stoner buddy. However, in one of the smaller parts, it’s James Gandolfini who nearly steals the show as the very real (in a wonderful contrast to practically everything else) and very scary enforcer. The last word should go to Hans Zimmer though who, on his own, seems to give this movie a tenderness that raises it above your standard actioner. Okay, not quite in his own, Scott, Tarantino, and Gandolfini helped, a lot.
Rating: The Good – 76.9 Genre: Drama, Science Fiction Duration: 94 mins Director: Gareth Edwards Stars: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able, Mario Zuniga
Writer director Gareth Edwards announced himself as a filmmaker of note with this subjective approach to the monster movie, which became the basis for his less successful attempt at Godzilla (2014). Whereas most movies of this type sacrifice the personal drama at the expense of big budget monster carnage, his laudable independent feature takes entirely the opposite approach by making a highly personal drama about two lost souls who are thrown together in a near future Mexico which has been overrun with giant creatures from outer space (don’t worry, it works!). Scoot McNairy is a photographer who shoots the disaster left in the path of the creatures and Whitney Able is the daughter of his rich boss who, for her own reasons, has been hiding away in Mexico. However, at her father’s request, she must now return to the US under the care of his initially begrudging employee. But as the airports and ports close due to the encroaching monsters, the pair end up having to make their way through the infected zone and over the border.
The monsters are kept very much on the periphery of the drama and there are no action set pieces in the traditional sense as Edwards chooses instead to use the unusual context to contrast and therefore accentuate the authenticity of the relationship that develops between the two characters. And in truth, he brings us remarkably close to them and keeps us intimately engaged with their struggle. Real life couple, McNairy and Able share a palpable chemistry but are excellent in all other respects too and, of course, this was crucial because we are only too happy to leave the monsters in the background and focus on the couple as they work out their own problems amidst their burgeoning friendship. The movie glides forward thanks to smoothness of their acting, Edwards equally intimate photography (he was DP too), and Jon Hopkins serenely cool score. The threat of the monsters helps ratchet the tension when needed but if the movie has a failing, its that the danger never really materialises in the manner most will be waiting for. This would be fine if Monsters was a straight up romantic drama but the presence of monsters in the first place makes certain promises that will let many a moviegoer down. For the rest of us, there’s more than enough to justify Edwards’ fascinating project and ensure it becomes a cult favourite in the future.
One of the most daring and original films to come out of Hollywood in the 90′s was this Rodriguez/Tarantino collaboration. The former directed while the latter wrote the screenplay and co-starred as the younger of two brothers (the other being George Clooney) who are on the run from the Texas police and kidnap a family so they can sneak over the Mexican border in their camper van. Clooney puts in an awesome performance as the menacing and hardened criminal while Tarantino does quite well as the unstable psychopath. Harvey Keitel plays the owner of the camper van and it’s his and Clooney’s dynamic that is the most fascinating feature of the film as the two very different alpha males play off each other. Of course, just when the film is turning into a damn good crime movie, they turn the tables on us and the film suddenly becomes a vampire horror flick. To turn your back on the first half of the story when it was going so well took guts but it pays off in spades as the uneasy alliance between Clooney and the family he kidnapped provides a great backdrop to the vampire killing action that unfolds. It’d be easy to dismiss this film as a gimmick but playing with genres and pushing their boundaries has always kept cinema from going stale and having a good story, some great action sequences, and some extremely slick and cool dialogue to boot makes this one hell of a cinematic experience. The crowning achievement of this fascinating project couldn’t have come at a better moment as right before the crossover occurs Salma Hayek takes to the stage in one of the most arresting dance sequences you’ll see in an action or horror movie. “Okay ramblers, let’s get ramblin.”
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.
Rating: The Good – 78.6 Genre: Action Duration: 91 mins Director: John Carpenter Stars: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer
John Carpenter’s second outing as director is a tour de force in atmosphere generation as he gives the story of a recently decommissioned police station which is under siege by a marauding gang an almost apocalyptic tone. By not giving the gang members any lines and by focusing the action on the co-operating occupants of the police station (prisoners and police alike), Carpenter quite ingeniously imbued the former with a zombie-like quality which makes them all the scarier. This Carpenter film more than any other reveals the great director’s influences from Hawk’s Rio Bravo to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and the good news is that Assault on Precinct 13 is easily worthy of being mentioned alongside these two classics.
There are no big names on show just some solid acting talent whose quirky and fleshed out performances are as important to the movie’s success as anything else. Austin Stoker makes for an enjoyable lead as the officer in charge of the deserted precinct and Laurie Zimmer scores well as the tough female lead typical to other Carpenter films. As good as they are, however, everyone takes a back seat to Darwin Joston’s Napoleon Wilson who eats up Carpenter’s bad-ass dialogue and spits it in the face of authority with a care-free smile. He more than anyone else embodies the hypnotic grittiness of the movie as he presents us with what surely must be one of the most iconic anti-heroes.
Assault on Precinct 13 is a triumph of independent cinema and defined by that foreboding sense of momentum which Carpenter sews so seamlessly into all his movies. From the opening credits when yet another legendary Carpenter score begins to resonate with whatever recesses of the mind its composer seems to have a direct line to, you’ll know you’re in for something different.
A scarred stuntman stalks parties of young women by night and then mows them down in his reinforced stunt car. Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof really is a visionary triumph of action comedy. A film that defies its grainy perspectives, low-budget cast and sets and becomes more slick and pulse-thumping than most big budget actioners. Tarantino took on the DP duties and in some ways, this is visually his most impressive film. Many of those visuals are also wonderfully humorous such as the deep staging of the bobble head and the running-to-the-bathroom tracking shot of the opening scene or the Kill Bill-esque black-&-white-to-colour transition. The dialogue is hip, engaging, and sharply real and despite the majority of it revolving around typically female conversational topics, it’s no less appealing if you’re male.
Of course, the movie’s appeal to males is helped by the presence of the perennial man’s man Kurt Russell as the instantly iconic “Stuntman Mike”. Russell is tremendous as the disturbingly charming yet cowardly psychopath and it’s he who links both halves of the movie by being the only character to feature in both. The first half focuses on your typical college gang as they party the night away in Austin only to inadvertently welcome Stuntman Mike into their midst. The second half focuses on an older, more mature, and ultimately tougher gang who also get Mike’s attention. Tarantino has lots of fun in separating the two stories (Michael Parks cameo as the familiar sheriff is a howl) and contrasting the two groups (check out his very subtle tongue in cheek morality lesson) and despite each story having its own feel and plot, they never feel like two different films. The numerous female characters are all terrifically played by a host of top young actresses with Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson, and real life stunt woman Zoe Bell (playing herself) doing especially well.
Ever the student and expert crafter of his characters’ movement, Death Proof is one of Tarantino’s most sensationally choreographed movies and strangely enough, the most memorable sequence in that respect is not one of the driving scenes but the gently and seductively framed lap-dance sequence which is the coolest thing we’ve seen since Hayek took to the stage in From Dusk til Dawn (and there are some nice parallels between those two scenes such as the women dancing in the background). The action driving sequences are nothing short of stunning in both their choreography and cinematography and they beat most of the car-chase films which inspired this feature with the possible exception of the 1974 Gone in 60 Seconds.
Death Proof is a celebration of cinematic freedom and adventure that will have you looking forward in time as much as backwards. It nods affectionately to its influences from the indie road films of the 70′s, the cinema of John Carpenter and Brian DePalma, to the TV shows that made the car chase its most important staple. Whether you’re a fan of those films/shows or simply an appreciator of the hip conversational films of the 1990′s, this film hits all the right notes and will have you coming back again and again.
Rating: The Good – 74.3 Genre: Martial Arts, Crime Duration: 116 mins Director: Jim Jarmusch Stars: Forest Whitaker, Henry Silva, John Tormey
Jim Jarmusch’s quirky yet deeply compelling film follows an unusual hit man who spends his days absorbing the Hagakure (or “The Way of the Samurai”) and his nights applying those lessons to his profession. Ghost Dog is as original a take on the hit man genre as you will find as Jarmusch blends a number of the seemingly incompatible conventions (i.e., hip hop, samurai sword play, Italian mobsters) into a coherent, tongue-in-cheek, yet ultimately serious story of commitment and discipline. Forest Whitaker is perfectly odd as the hit man in question, while Cliff Gorman brings just the right amount of humour and malice to his role of the vicious mobster who doesn’t appreciate Ghost Dog’s finer perspectives on life. And just because this movie is all about the moments in between the lines that’s not to say there isn’t some great action on show also. Let’s just say chambara fans won’t be disappointed.
Rating: The Good – 81.6 Genre: Crime, Film-Noir Duration: 86 mins Director: Don Siegel Stars: Eli Wallach, Robert Keith, Richard Jaeckel
Don Siegel’s “films noirs” were often more mainstream crime vehicles than straight up noirs but this scintillating gem is one of the few exceptions for there are few character studies as dark as what he serves up here. Beginning with an investigation into a murder drug trafficking case, the film seems to set its stall out as an above average cop thriller more in the line with the television series of the same name. Marshall Reed (star of that same series) and Emile Meyer play the two San Francisco detectives who uncover evidence of a large scale and highly organised trafficking operation. When all signs point to an imminent shipment, the two men begin running down the leads in an attempt to get the drop on it. All this provides a nice platform for a classy if standard cop drama. However, though the studio excecs wanted the film to continue in that vein for fear of offending the target audience (fans of the show), Siegel thankfully had very different ideas. Therefore, with the introduction of the men the cops are attempting to track down, Eli Wallach’s “Dancer” and his mentor Julian (Robert Keith), the film largely shifts its focus to the criminals and, with that shift, it enters truly dark territory.
Wallach is simply chilling as the pathological bagman with unusual sensibilities for presentation and composure. With every darting look and crooked smile, he exudes menace and an unpredictable cruelty. So much so that his is easily one of the most effective screen villains even if it has slipped through the cracks of the medium’s memory. However, its Dancer and Julian’s fetishistic master-apprentice dynamic that gives The Lineup its real edge. Julian is the rapier to his protege’s broadsword and in his own way just as disturbing. This is partly down to Keith’s performance but largely due to the architecture of his character, an erudite voyeur who gets his thrills through Dancer’s second person reports of each murder he commits. It’s an ingenuous conceit that turns these characters into something altogether more intimidating. And just when you think it can’t get any more creepy, the elusive kingpin they were hired by (known simply as “the Man”) shows up in the form of Vaughn Taylor whose blistering menace sets the stage for an immortal showdown between heavyweight psychopaths.
Siegel directs everything with his usual steadiness and, as he did in The Big Steal, he opts for day settings over night. However, given the subject matter, the tone of the film remains dark. He treats us to some wonderful set pieces too with a climactic car chase and the ultimate showdown between Dancer and the Man representing a sterling release valve for all the tension the movie built up to that point. Given that one of the most defining criteria for film noir is the darkly psychological angle, The Lineup surely must count as one of the genre’s most effective representatives. And the fact that it has been forgotten so completely only adds to its lustre.
Robert Rodriguez’ adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel is a tour de force in conceptualisation and story-telling. Shot on digital video against green screen to give the effect of comic book pages coming to life, it tells three main stories that are interwoven into one overall tale of life in a city dominated by corruption, murder, sadism, and men and women of steel. This is hardcore squared as one mean mutha goes toe to toe with another until not one is left standing. Mickey Rourke’s Marv is the Alpha in this tale and the segment dedicated to his all-or-nothin revenge rampage is indisputably the best. Rourke is electric as the man mountain and with his gnarly voice being married to his digitally enhanced visual frame he becomes an awesome sight. The direction is truly inspired and elegant almost beyond belief. Rodriguez deserves the lion’s share of the credit obviously but he is aided by Frank Miller himself and Quentin Tarantino who did the tar pit sequence. The final sequence involving Bruce Willis’ character is the most visually arresting and wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Wilder or Welles film from the 40/50′s. Sin City is a singular film going experience and not to be missed if you’re a fan of graphic novels, film noir, action, or just plain great movies.
Rating: The Good – 67.8 Genre: Comedy, Romance Duration: 93 mins Director: Thomas Schlamme Stars: Mike Myers, Nancy Travis, Anthony LaPaglia
Mike Myers unique comedic style turns a decent idea into a delightfully quirky comedy about Charlie, a man who finds fault with every woman he dates until he meets Harriet. Harriet is everything he wanted in a woman with the slight exception that she may or may not be an axe murderer. Like many great comedies, the real fun in So I Married an Axe Murderer is to be found between the lines in the way the various characters play off each other and particularly in how Myers’ extraordinary talent for improvisation dominates the tone and feel of the movie. Travis is spot on as the secretive yet charming Harriet, Anthony LaPaglia is terrific as Charlie’s well-meaning best friend, and Brenda Fricker is a hoot as his forward mother. There are a host of great comedy names all combining wonderfully with the lead players in hilarious and well thought-out cameos (best of which must be Steven Wright’s stoned pilot). Though Myers ultimately steals the show, it’s not by playing Charlie but rather his Scottish father, the Bay City Rollers/Celtic fanatic who spends his days shouting obscenities at his large-headed younger son. Priceless.