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Final Destination

'And When I Die'
The word 'original' gets thrown around a lot in film criticism but 'Final Destination' is a truly original and devilishly inventive horror film. It is clever and unusual and the young cast is likable and play their roles well.

Seated upon a plane which is about to take off for Paris, France, young Alex Browning (Devon Sawa) has a terrifying premonition in which he and his group of fellow students and teachers are killed when the plane explodes shortly after takeoff. Understandably, he flips out, and his resulting panic causes him and a small group of his friends and one of their teachers to be thrown off the flight. Mere minutes later, they watch in horror, shock, and disbelief, as Alex's premonition comes true and the plane does, indeed, explode.

But, it turns out that they are not quite so lucky as they think. They soon learn that Death will not be cheated of their lives so easily and before long that terrible spectre is hunting them down, one by one, and killing them in a series of what appear to be bizarre accidents. Can Alex figure out Death's design before it is too late?

The deaths in this film are cleverly put together and staged, and quite violent at times. There is a macabre kind of fun to be had in trying to figure out who will be next to fall beneath Death's merciless scythe. Another really neat thing about this film is that most of the main characters have surnames which reference great classic horror actors, directors, and producers. This is a really nice touch.

'Final Destination' is intelligently written and surely has one of the coolest final shots in film history. It is no surprise that the film has turned into a profitable franchise for its studio, New Line. What is a surprise is that the sequels are actually pretty good and they always kick off with an exceptionally well-staged catastrophe which sets the scene for what is to follow.

If you are a fan of horror, then 'Final Destination' should definitely be a part of your flight plan!

Fight Club

A memorable, iconoclastic, disturbing film
'Fight Club' is a memorable, iconoclastic, disturbing film. Director David Fincher's visual style is really on display here - he has an exceptionally good eye, and the film is not only thematically dark but also quite dark visually. The visual darkness of this movie recalls Fincher's earlier film 'Se7en', which also starred Fincher regular Brad Pitt.

The Narrator (who remains unnamed throughout the course of the film but who is played by Edward Norton in a wonderfully neurotic performance) is an insomniac office worker who feels as though he is a slave to corporate ideals and senses that his humdrum life has no meaning. Things change drastically via a chance meeting with an anarchist soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Together, the two men channel their latent male aggression by forming a primal 'fight club' which meets on a regular basis in the dank basement of a seedy bar named Lou's Tavern. This cabalistic club invites fellow frustrated angry young men to find catharsis by fighting each other and rediscovering their baser instincts. But Tyler has an even more ambitious agenda in mind...

This film, while highly recommended, is definitely not for the squeamish. Special makeup effects genius Rob Bottin provides some very graphic makeups and, while the film is about a lot more than just violence, there are some pretty horrifying moments. The violence depicted here is stomach-churning and horrific, and this is precisely how violence SHOULD be presented on screen. This is, after all, what real violence is like.

'Fight Club' has become a cult classic and rewards repeat viewings. The source material - Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 novel - is an excellent read shot through with a dark vein of black humour. Returning to the film, particular mention should go to British actress Helena Bonham Carter, who is wonderful as the bonkers Marla Singer, a suicidal woman who is sucked into Tyler's world. Carter made her name in period pieces like 'A Room With a View' and 'Howards End' so it is exciting to see her play a very different role here. And she has great fun with it.

I sense that 'Fight Club' is going to live for a long, long time. For a mainstream film, it is intelligent, vital, and has a great deal to say about modern society and the way we live our lives.

Fear in the Night

Do not expect blood, but do expect a stylish and engaging horror film.
No matter how bad the film, the august presence of the wonderful horror character actor Peter Cushing always lifts the proceedings considerably. Which is not to say that 'Fear in the Night' is a bad film, because it is quite well-constructed and enjoyable.

Recovering from a traumatic experience, the fragile Peggy Heller (Judy Geeson) moves with her new husband Robert (Ralph Bates) to a boys' school, the headmaster of which is Michael Carmichael (Peter Cushing). Peggy makes the acquaintance of Michael's wife, Molly (Joan Collins), and soon begins to believe that she - Peggy - is being stalked by a one-armed man.

I really liked the twist in this film and did not see it coming, which of course made it all the more enjoyable. 'Fear in the Night' is well-made and the performances are naturalistic and convincing. Judy Geeson is a sympathetic heroine and you do feel for her plight. From the ever-reliable British horror film studio Hammer, this is a film worth watching at least once.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

What a long, strange trip it's been.
It would have been great to see what talented British director Alex Cox would have done with this film; he was originally going to direct before being replaced by Terry Gilliam. To his credit, Gilliam does a very good job, serving up a completely off-the-wall affair which compliments the spaced-out goings-on of Hunter S. Thompson's source novel very well indeed. Gilliam takes a novel widely considered unfilmable and translates it very cleverly to the screen. I would love to know what the late Hunter S. thought of this movie.

America's favourite actor, the wonderful Johnny Depp, is splendidly wacky as dope fiend extraordinaire Raoul Duke. His partner-in-crime is the loathsome Dr Gonzo, portrayed by Benicio Del Toro. These two actors bounce off each other extremely well and spend the whole film pushing each other towards more and more manic mischief.

A writer for Rolling Stone magazine, Duke is assigned to cover the Mint 500 motorcycle race in Las Vegas, Nevada. So he teams up with his attorney, the aforementioned Dr Gonzo, they pile into the 'Red Shark' - a gorgeous cherry red 1971 Chevy Impala convertible - and head for the bright lights of Vegas. In the trunk they have stashed a suitcase which contains a veritable cornucopia of mind-altering substances, which they partake of with wild abandon. Pretty soon they are hallucinating and spiralling wildly out of control. Vegas - with its bright lights and non-stop party atmosphere - is the perfect place for this drug-addled pair, and they stagger through its many attractions with crazed abandon.

The motorcycle race soon takes a back seat to the non-stop, drug-fuelled partying. The two run up an outrageously large room service bill which, of course, they have absolutely no intention of paying! How long can they maintain this insane pace before reality must inevitably descend? 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' is a wild ride and definitely not for all tastes. The scene in which Dr Gonzo humiliates a waitress at the North Star Cafe in North Las Vegas (the waitress is played by the sultry Ellen Barkin) is genuinely unpleasant to watch and shows just what a repellent character this Dr Gonzo really is. Thankfully, Duke is nowhere near as nasty as his sociopath friend. If you like Johnny Depp then you should check this out but be warned - it is pretty shocking at times.

The Evil Dead

Just push play
Like Peter Jackson's 'Bad Taste', 'The Evil Dead' demonstrates director Sam Raimi's wild brilliance in its nascent form. Budgetary limitations can not serve to curb his fertile imagination. This movie is quite possibly the quintessential video nasty, but the liberal amounts of blood and gore on display are tempered by a very black sense of humour which ensures that the terror is balanced by laughter.

The premise is wonderfully simple: a group of friends decide to spend a weekend at a deserted wood cabin in the wilds of Tennessee. Once there, they happen upon an ominous tome called the 'Necronomicon' - the 'Book of the Dead'. This is accompanied by a reel-to-reel tape recorder featuring the recorded notes of a scholar studying the book. As part of his research, the scholar quotes extensively from the book and, when the group of friends play back this recording, an unspeakable evil is raised in the woods nearby. Said supernatural force invades the cabin and possesses several members of the group, transforming them into the titular evil dead. It is up to Ashley 'Ash' J. Williams (Bruce Campbell) - he of the superhero jaw and resourceful nature - to save the day... if he can! For those with a strong constitution, 'The Evil Dead' is an instant horror classic. It does not take itself too seriously which works heavily in its favour, and Bruce Campbell is an immensely likable everyman who plays the hero brilliantly. At one point, at his wit's end, he exclaims to the demonic forces which have laid siege to the cabin, 'Why are you torturing me, you bastards?!'.

Perhaps the most infamous and most discussed scene in the film is the from-out-of-nowhere rape scene in which a woman is sexually assaulted by a tree. It totally throws you a curve and is as bizarre as it is sickening.

It is no surprise that Sam Raimi has conquered Hollywood so effectively; the talent and chutzpah on display in 'The Evil Dead' - his directorial debut - really makes you sit up and take notice. Or take cover!

Die Hard: With a Vengeance

Die Hard: With a Pungence
I was pretty disappointed when I first saw 'Die Hard: With a Vengeance'. From the opening frame, warning bells sounded: no '20th Century Fox' logo. Not a good sign considering that said studio was behind the film. As I watched the film, I was unmoved by some pretty dodgy special visual effects (the huge torrent of water which sweeps up reluctant - and hungover! - hero Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis), and the rather underwhelming explosion which destroys the cargo ship near the film's end). On the whole, I felt that the whole affair was a letdown, especially considering the raised expectations cued by the fact that this installment marked 'Die Hard' director John McTiernan's most welcome return to the franchise.

Now it seems that every time I see the movie I enjoy it more and more. It is the final splatter film in the series; 'Die Hard 4.0' was the first flick in the series to be awarded a PG-13 rating. 'Vengeance' is, like its two predecessors, R-rated, and contains some pretty shocking violence: a close-quarters shootout in an elevator yields a great deal of bloodshed, and later a henchman is cut in half by a cable.

Once again we have a memorable and charismatic villain in Simon Gruber (British actor Jeremy Irons). While Irons - an extremely talented actor - can not better fellow Brit Alan Rickman's bad guy, Hans Gruber, from the first 'Die Hard', he still delivers a solid and engaging performance, always keeping his cool despite being constantly thwarted by McClane. His sultry and silent partner, Katya, is played by former Contemporary Christian Music singer Sam Phillips. The fact that she does not speak throughout the entire film is a very clever conceit, and she is able to say a great deal with just a glance. But Katya is not just along for the ride, something she demonstrates by dispatching - in a very bloody and graphic display - several security guards.

'Die Hard: With a Vengeance' is lean and mean and very entertaining. The film opens explosively... quite literally! We see various shots of New York as The Lovin' Spoonful's 'Summer in the City' pounds on the soundtrack. Suddenly, a bomb explodes at the Bonwit Teller department store, shattering the hustle and bustle of a typical morning in the Big Apple.

Responsibility for the bombing is taken by a man who calls the New York Police Department and identifies himself only as 'Simon'. He wishes to play a game with McClane whom, we discover, is on suspension. 'Simon' is insistent: if McClane does not participate in this 'game', then 'Simon' will detonate another bomb in another part of the city. Our first sight of McClane is very telling: he is hungover and half-asleep, and dosing himself up on coffee and aspirin. This is no muscle-bound Schwarzenegger-type hero out to save the day and kill the bad guys: McClane would clearly rather be in bed, catching up on much-needed sleep. This makes him all the more human, and his particularly nasty hangover becomes something of a comic motif as the action-packed events of the day unfold. He is the ultimate reluctant hero: jaded, cynical, and very profane. He would much rather someone else save the world on this occasion. The problem is, 'Simon' is calling for him, and no one else.

McClane's first task is as bizarre as it is dangerous: he has to strip down to his boxer shorts ('You're the first person since Holly to see me do this,' he tells cop Connie Kowalski (Colleen Camp). 'I'm honoured,' she replies with a distinct lack of enthusiasm) and walk through Harlem, wearing a sandwich board bearing a racially inflammatory declaration. An electronic goods store proprietor, Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) happens to notice McClane and, fearing an imminent homicide, takes pity upon him and rescues him from certain death when McClane is set upon by a group of young men who have taken the greatest possible exception to the sign he is wearing.

What follows is more of these deadly 'games' and riddles which McClane and Carver must solve in order to prevent further bombs being detonated in their city. Like McClane, Carver is a reluctant hero who is caught up in the mayhem. He would much rather leave McClane to his own devices but he feels an obligation to help if he can.

Three very strong action set pieces spring to mind: in the first, McClane commandeers one of those ubiquitous yellow cabs and tears through Central Park while joggers, picnickers, and mime artists(!) leap for desperately for cover. The second serves up a spectacular subway crash which recalls those in 'Speed' and 'Money Train'. The third involves two helicopters and closes the film with a very satisfying amount of pyro.

Speaking of the film's ending... The Definitive Edition DVD release offers a very classy alternative ending in which McClane tracks Simon down to a swank gentlemen's club. Seating himself opposite Simon, McClane places a specially designed rocket launcher upon the table and begins to spin it slowly around and around as Simon tries to figure out which end of the weapon is the dangerous one. McClane then gives Simon a taste of his own medicine, reeling off riddle after riddle before solving the rocket launcher puzzle in a very clever way. Not as spectacular as the theatrical ending but interesting nonetheless.

McTiernan has not built a better 'Die Hard' the second time around. But 'Vengeance' is full of action and some great lines and certainly earns its rightful place in the series. It is refreshing that the script does something a little different and takes risks. They pay off.

Die Hard 2

Wrong place. Wrong time. Right man.
'Die Hard 2' was always going to be a disappointment because the original was so good. Having said that, the second installment in the hugely successful franchise is a solid and very entertaining splatter film which contains some outrageously unpleasant moments such as John McClane (Bruce Willis) shoving an icicle through a villain's eyeball and biting off another bad guy's thumb and spitting it out.

It is Christmas Eve again and we find McClane at Dulles International Airport in Washington. He is there to meet his wife, Holly, who is flying in from Los Angeles. A group of mercenaries led by Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) disable the airport's communications and threaten to cause plane crashes should their demands not be granted. And Holly's plane is one of those in danger. The mercenaries are awaiting the arrival of South American drug lord General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), who is being flown in to Dulles in chains. Upon the plane's arrival, they are planning to storm the aircraft, kill anyone who gets in their way, and free Esperanza.

'Die Hard 2' is a thoroughly entertaining action extravaganza. If you can stomach the graphic, brutal violence and the constant profanity, then you are in for a great roller-coaster ride. This is classic spectacle cinema, a crowd pleaser writ large for the popcorn-munching masses. There are plenty of thrilling action set pieces to enjoy: a fight amidst a maze of conveyor belts holding moving luggage, McClane ejecting from a cargo plane cockpit right before said cockpit is blown to smithereens (a conceit which would find its way into the Bond film 'Goldeneye' five years later), and some hand-to-hand combat upon the wing of a moving 747 in the midst of a ferocious snowstorm. There are pyrotechnics galore and some truly spectacular explosions.

Excellent support is offered in the form of Dennis Franz as Captain Carmine Lorenzo, who is head of airport security and who spends his whole time on screen trying to sabotage McClane. Bonnie Bedelia reprises her role of Holly, and William Atherton pops up again as the arrogant and self-important news reporter Richard Thornburg. The film gains enormously from its snowbound setting, and Finnish director Renny Harlin would go on to direct two more similarly successful action films set against snowy backdrops: 'Cliffhanger' and 'The Long Kiss Goodnight'. Both are worth checking out. In 'Die Hard 2' Harlin has crafted a tense and exciting two hours. If you are looking for violent action, you will definitely not be disappointed.

Die Another Day

'The coldest weapon of all'
Perhaps 'Die Another Day''s biggest sin is using CGI rather than relying upon the splendid stuntwork which has always made the Bond films stand out from the rest of the action pack. That said, it is still a very entertaining experience. Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade reference every past Bond movie throughout the course of the film as a nod to the fact that 'Die' is the twentieth flick in the enduring and influential series. It is a lot of fun to sit there and see if you can spot each reference, and this clever device does not intrude upon the narrative.

The writers of Bond films have a tendency to reheat plots, and the space weapon - Icarus - on display in 'Die Another Day' recalls the deadly satellite with the lethal diamond-fuelled laser in 'Diamonds are Forever'. Icarus is the brainchild of smarmy diamond tycoon Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens, the son of Maggie Smith), who is the main villain of 'Die Another Day'. Also along for the ride to give Bond a headache in the bad guy department is Zao (Rick Yune) who, thanks to Bond, has diamonds embedded in his face. Seeing Zao after some time, Bond tells him, 'I've missed your sparkling personality'.

Halle Berry as Jacinta 'Jinx' Johnson - 'Born Friday the thirteenth' - makes an excellent Bond girl, and she has her share of action scenes and acquits herself very well. She proves more than a match for Bond. And Miranda Frost (English rose Rosamund Pike, excellent) is as cold as her name suggests and - seemingly - immune to Bond's overtures. And it is nice to see Michael Madsen in a minor role as Damian Falco.

Certainly, some of the action scenes are ridiculous; the parasurfing-on-a-massive-wave comes to mind. But Bond is often ridiculous, and more often than not ridiculously entertaining. Sometimes it is fun just to suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride. Probably more than any other Bond film, 'Die Another Day' really feels like a summer blockbuster. The action sequences are spectacular - especially the airborne climax - but are countered by a very witty and intelligent script which crackles along nicely.

The invisible Aston Martin was hugely controversial; I know that many Bond purists hated it 'with the fire of a thousand suns'! Personally, I thought it was fun, if a little far-fetched. And the car chase on the frozen lake is a real showstopper.

'Die Another Day' may lack the grittiness of 'For Your Eyes Only' and 'Licence to Kill' but it makes up for it with pure popcorn escapism. Watch out for the stunning swordfight betwixt Bond and Graves which destroys a swank London fencing club ('Place needed redecorating anyway' a dreadlocked messenger observes drily as he regards the wreckage all around him); very impressively shot. Oh, and there is an amusing and uncredited cameo from Madonna as a leather-clad fencing coach named Verity. Madonna also sings the title song.

Diamonds Are Forever

'If at first you don't succeed...'
'Diamonds are Forever' marked the return of Sean Connery as British superspy James Bond for one film. The plot involves diamond smuggling and takes Bond to Las Vegas. His love interest here is Tiffany Case (Jill St. John), and there is terrific support from a pair of homosexual (very risqué for the time - 1971) hit men named Mr. Kidd (Putter Smith) and Mr. Wint (Bruce Glover), and also from Charles Gray as the villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

As usual, there are plenty of action set pieces on display: a close-quarters fight betwixt Bond and an adversary in an elevator, a splendidly shot car chase through the glittering streets of Vegas, and a helicopter raid upon an oil rig at the film's denouement. This helicopter raid recalls the one on Piz Gloria - where Blofeld had based his headquarters - in 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'.

Sean Connery is in fine form. He is, and always will be, the best Bond and, as a valediction, 'Diamonds are Forever' is pretty good. It is no 'From Russia With Love' but it certainly entertains. And there is a wonderful theme song which marks the always welcome return of Shirley Bassey's powerful and bewitching voice.

The Devil's Rain

John Travolta's first film
Hollywood had a fascination with devil worship in the mid seventies which produced such films as 'The Devil's Rain' and 'Race With the Devil'. 'The Devil's Rain' stars Ernest Borgnine, Eddie Albert, Ida Lupino, William Shatner, Keenan Wynn, and Tom Skerritt. The film revolves around a book containing all the names of people who have sold their souls to Satan. Martin Fyffe (William Shatner) steals the book and hides it in order to save the souls of the people listed within. In doing so, he invokes the wrath of Jonathan Corbis (Ernest Borgnine), who vows to recover the book at any cost. Determined to retrieve the book, Corbis curses Fyffe and all his future generations.

The film opens in a very ominous way, with images from the art of Hieronymus Bosch accompanied by the cries and wails of the damned. Then the action commences amidst a raging storm. Mark Preston's (William Shatner) - whose ancestor was Martin Fyffe - family is attacked, and Mark must take the book his family protects to Jonathan in the desert. When Preston confronts Corbis in the middle of nowhere, he finds a Satanic church where he pits his faith in God against Jonathan who is, it turns out, the Devil himself.

'The Devil's Rain' marks the film debut of John Travolta, who plays Danny and who is barely recognisable beneath a big black hood. At the film's climax, Tom Preston (Tom Skerritt) smashes a vessel containing countless damned souls suffering beneath the unending 'Devil's rain' of the title. This frees the souls and causes a deadly rain to pour from the sky which melts Corbis and his army of Satanists. This protracted melting sequence is pretty memorable and features some very good Tom Burman makeups.

The movie offers a very clever twist ending. Interesting that Satan is personified by Jonathan Corbis, whose initials are J.C; perhaps that was deliberate. 'The Devil's Rain' had as its technical consultant Anton LaVey, who was at that time High Priest of the Church of Satan. His input lends the film a verisimilitude it otherwise may not have had. 'The Devil's Rain' is quite a curiosity for William Shatner enthusiasts and a must see for John Travolta completists, even though he does not have any dialogue. Other viewers may well find themselves rather nonplussed by this unusual film.

Dark City

'Dark City' shines
Australian director Alex Proyas' 'Dark City' is a cerebral and splendid science fiction film noir. Many people have called it one of the best science fiction films ever made, and they are right. The film recalls 'Blade Runner', another sci-fi film noir. Proyas' vision is original and uncompromising, and he has crafted a wonderful head trip which really stays with you.

John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakes in a bathtub with blood on his forehead. He is suffering from amnesia and believes himself to be a serial killer. He must discover his true identity and find an escape from the eternally dark city in which he lives.

Murdoch's love interest in the film is Jennifer Connelly, and she is very well-cast in the role of John's wife, Emma/Anna. She was wonderful in another film noir, 'The Hot Spot', in which she starred with Don Johnson. In 'Dark City' she plays a sultry nightclub singer who is racked with guilt after cheating on her husband.

The best thing about 'Dark City' is the presence of the tall and thin Richard O'Brien, who played Riff Raff in 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' way back in 1975. It is so great to see him again, and he lends a real gravitas to the proceedings. The Strangers, of which he is a member, are actually quite reminiscent of the Cenobites in the 'Hellraiser' franchise. These Strangers are an alien race who are trying to find out what makes us human. Every night at midnight, they induce the city's populace to fall asleep while they - the Strangers - change the city in order to alter our lives and to study how we respond.

This is a clever and original film. Unlike some science fiction movies, it really stays with you. And it is further proof - if it was needed - that Australia is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to movie-making talent.

Silent Night, Deadly Night

For anyone sick of all those saccharine Christmas films, 'Silent Night, Deadly Night' is a notorious antidote from 1984. It caused huge controversy upon its release when respected reviewers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert publicly damned the film on their television show. As a result, audiences flocked to the film, wanting to see what all the fuss was about.

When young Billy (Danny Wagner) sees his parents murdered by a man dressed as Santa Claus, he is mentally scarred for life. He is sent to live in a foster home run by nuns and headed by a cruel and heartless Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin). When Billy is released from the home at the age of eighteen, the Mother Superior has arranged for him to go to work at a toy shop named Ira's Toys.

Everything is going great. Billy (now played by Robert Brian Wilson) is popular and well-liked, and it looks as though his reintegration into society is going to be a success. Then Christmas Eve arrives, and the man who is meant to dress up as the shop's Santa is indisposed, so Billy is asked to don the costume and to assume the role. Terrible memories come flooding back into Billy's troubled mind, he grabs a handy axe, and begins slaying everyone who crosses his path.

Porn star and bad horror film regular Linnea Quigley pops up as Denise, one of Billy's victims. One scene which is really memorable is the one in which Billy is confronted by an innocent young girl. Believing him to be Santa Claus rather than a deadly psychopath, she asks him if he has brought her a present. Billy reaches into his pocket and presents her with a dangerous-looking Stanley Knife. Twisted stuff.

If you are a horror aficionado then 'Silent Night, Deadly Night' and its first sequel are required viewing. Anyone else should probably steer clear. Merry Christmas everyone.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

David Fincher: The best of the ex-music video directors
Technically, 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' is stunning. Everything falls neatly into place, sweeping the viewer up on a wave of pure movie magic. The special visual effects are amazing: Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born old and shrunken, wrinkled and withered, and over the course of the lengthy narrative becomes young and chiseled. Director David Fincher proved that he could handle the epic with his serial killer thriller 'Zodiac', a film which, like 'Button', is close to three hours in length. Neither film seems to drag; the pacing in each case is measured and deliberate.

It is great to see Julia Ormond again (in the role of Caroline), after an absence from our screens of several years. She is as beautiful and as talented as ever. Fincher's muse, Brad Pitt (this is their third film together) handles the material well and delivers a mature and well-rounded performance. His passage from old to young reminded me of the mini-series 'Stephen King's Golden Years', but 'Button' is far, far superior to that. If you would like to see what Fincher referred to as the 'Holy Grail of visual effects', here is your chance.


'Let off some steam, Bennett'
'Commando' is a wonderful piece of eighties excess. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as John Matrix, a retired colonel who lives in picturesque seclusion with his young daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano). The opening credits have hardly finished rolling before the action explodes and never lets up until the deliciously overblown conclusion. In order to induce Matrix to assassinate a dictator of a South American country named Val Verde, one of Matrix's former colleagues named Bennett (Vernon Wells), after faking his own death in order to disappear, kidnaps John's daughter. But instead of meekly following orders, Matrix launches into action, using all his training and deadly skills to get his daughter back alive and take out anyone who stands in his way.

Bennett is backed up by a motley crew of henchmen, among them the intimidating, man-of-few-words Cooke (Bill Duke, who would reteam with Schwarzenegger two years later for the similarly testosterone-fuelled 'Predator') and the sleazy Sully (David Patrick Kelly). Matrix eliminates them one by one as he works his way breathlessly towards Bennett. Along the way, he teams up with flight stewardess Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), who is reluctantly swept up in his campaign of mayhem.

Early in the film, Matrix lays waste to the Galleria shopping mall, trouncing a whole team of hapless security guards, ripping a phone booth out of a wall and swinging, Tarzan-style, on a piece of bunting. This is a great action set piece, but my favourite is the one which sees Cindy freeing Matrix from a police truck using a rocket launcher which she accidentally fires backwards before successfully blowing the truck carrying Matrix off the road. Great stuff.

The third act is pure escapism, as Matrix and Cindy, travelling by seaplane, arrive at the island where Jenny is being held. While Cindy stays with the plane and gets ready to call in the troops using the radio, Matrix embarks upon a very Rambo-like massacre of a seemingly endless number of enemy soldiers before finally going up against Bennett in a knifefight to the death in front of a horrified Jenny.

'Commando' is anything but realistic. What it is is a thoroughly entertaining action film in which realism takes a backseat in favour of cartoonish violence. We know as soon as she is taken that Jenny will be rescued by her muscle-bound, mono-syllabic Dad; the fun is in finding out just how much destruction he is going to wreak along the way. The film was produced by Joel Silver, who has an incredible talent for producing crowd-pleasing blockbusters. Ten years later he would produce another action film called 'Fair Game' which is similar to 'Commando' in that both films have very lean running times - each movie clocks in at under the ninety-minute mark. Both films offer almost non-stop action and great stunts.

Director Mark L. Lester's 'Commando' is the antithesis of the so-called 'chick flick', although it does contain a love story. This is a film about brute force and unbridled masculinity, and guns and grenades. Jolly good fun... if you like that sort of thing.


Chop Chop Chop
Australian director Andrew Dominik makes his directorial debut with this violent and profane character study. Eric Bana is utterly convincing as real-life standover man Mark Brandon 'Chopper' Read, and he gained a substantial amount of weight in preparation for this role.

There has been quite a bit of debate as to whether Read's numerous gruesome anecdotes are actually true; perhaps we will never know. But he never comes across as arrogant or as someone suffering from a severe case of narcissism. I was watching him in a documentary the other day entitled 'Fatbelly' which was very interesting. He is a charismatic man who does not glamourise or excuse the things he has done (or allegedly done). And he likes to paint! 'Chopper' is a very bloody affair but, like 'Goodfellas', the violence is contextual and never violence for the sake of violence. Chopper inhabits a dark and sleazy underworld peopled with shady characters such as weaselly junkie Jimmy Loughnan (Simon Lyndon) and gangster wannabe Neville Bartos (Vince Colosimo). As soon as the film begins, it is clear that we are in for a decidedly rough ride: within the first ten minutes, Chopper - who is incarcerated at the beginning of the movie - launches a frenzied attack upon fellow prisoner Keithy George (David Field), stabbing him repeatedly in the neck.

There are quite a few memorable scenes in this film. The aforementioned opening attack upon George is one; another sees Chopper have a fellow prison inmate hack off his ears with a razor blade so that he - Chopper - can get a transfer to another part of the jail. Upon release, Chopper pays a visit to Neville Bartos and extorts money from him. Later Chopper, his body covered with scars and prison tattoos, calls upon Jimmy Loughnan, who is living in squalor with his fiancée and young daughter. Chopper's avuncular approach to their daughter sends a chill down the spine. Looking around the filthy flat, Chopper remarks to Loughnan, 'Well, this is swank, mate. This is plush. Who says crime doesn't pay, eh?'. Then there is the shooting of Sammy the Turk (Serge Liistro) outside the Bojangles nightclub, for which Chopper gains a very odd, sick kind of fame when fans of his come from all over the world just to be photographed outside the notorious nightspot. And then there is the scene in a pub in which Chopper demonstrates a very to-the-point method of getting a desirable young woman's attention.

'Chopper' is just another reason why Australian film is so great. It is up there with other dark and graphic Australian films such as 'Ghosts of the Civil Dead' (which also starred David Field) and 'Head On'. Andrew Dominik went on to make the brilliant 'The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford' with Brad Pitt as James and Casey Affleck as the socially inept but ambitious Ford. Like fellow Australian director Alex Proyas, Dominik has made the transition to Hollywood; both directors continue to excite and challenge. Check out 'Chopper', but only if you have a strong constitution.

Children of the Corn

Stephen King's Children of the Yawn
This is a really disappointing adaptation of an excellent and terrifying short story which appeared as part of American horror novelist Stephen King's first anthology of short stories, 1978's 'Night Shift'. King's story offers a dreadful sense of growing unease and a truly horrific ending which is completely scrapped in the movie version.

The good news about the film is that Linda Hamilton stars; if she has ever delivered a bad performance I have not seen it. She has a toughness and a vulnerability at the same time, and is an extremely likable actress. I just wish she made more movies; I remember seeing her many years ago as the violated wife in the harrowing telemovie 'Rape and Marriage: The Rideout Case'. Hamilton made 'Children' shortly before playing tough heroine Sarah Connor in 'The Terminator', the role for which she is most famous.

Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton) arrive in the small town of Gatlin, Nebraska to find that a small group of mutinous children led by the Damien Thorn-like Isaac (John Franklin) have risen up and murdered nearly all the adults in their town. At the unhinged Isaac's behest, they worship He Who Walks Behind the Rows, and they are not above sacrificing the odd grown up to this mysterious figure.

The shadowy presence of He Who Walks Behind the Rows pervades King's taut tale. In the story, Burt is killed by this thing a few hours after he finds his wife crucified, her eyes plucked out and the empty sockets filled with corn husks. It is an incredibly downbeat and horrible ending to a great story, and draws most of its strength and power from the fact that we do not ever really find out what exactly He Who Walks Behind the Rows is. Is it human? This clever method of suggesting rather than showing horror is discussed by King in his wonderful and nostalgic non-fiction book 'Danse Macabre'. He recalls always being disappointed when a monster was finally unveiled in a horror film. According to King, your imagination will always summon a beast much more frightening than something that a special makeup effects man has dreamt up. Unfortunately, the horror of He Who Walks Behind the Rows is totally diffused by this film. Instead of some terrifying presence, we get an awful electrical current, the product of some pretty shoddy early eighties special visual effects work.

But the worst thing about this movie is the happy ending. As I wrote, King's ending is far better and a hell of a lot scarier. It would have been extremely powerful had Burt and Vicky met a grisly fate more faithful to King's original vision. These are likable characters; we do not want to see something bad befall them. So a downbeat ending would have been that much more effective. The loss of these characters would have been depressing and unsettling. Instead, what we end up with is a forgettable ending to a forgettable film. 'The Shawshank Redemption' this most certainly is not.

Casino Royale

'That last hand nearly killed me'
Daniel Craig silences his detractors with a splendid turn as Ian Fleming's James Bond 007. Craig's Bond is cold and ruthless and very focused. Director Martin Campbell, whose 1995 Bond film 'Goldeneye' introduced Pierce Brosnan as the British superspy, returns to the franchise, and the result is a very classy adventure with some truly breathtaking action sequences.

Described as the 'best poker player in the service', Bond is assigned to participate in a high-stakes poker tournament being held in Montenegro. His target is international terrorist Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) who will be his main opponent in the game. M (Judi Dench) believes that, should Le Chiffre win the tournament, he will use the prize money to finance terrorism. So it is up to Bond to beat him.

The highlight of 'Casino Royale' is a breathtaking 'free running' chase early in the movie which really has to be seen to be believed. It is exceptionally well shot and very well executed. Another major action set piece takes place at Miami International Airport, as Bond races to stop a terrorist from destroying a massive new aircraft which is about to be unveiled to the public. And, as the film nears its conclusion, we find James in Venice, battling to save his love interest, Treasury Agent Vesper Lynd (a sultry Eva Green), from Le Chiffre-affiliated thugs. This showdown happens inside a rapidly-sinking building, and is exciting and brilliantly edited.

'Casino Royale' may not be the best Bond film but it is a worthy and welcome addition to the franchise. It is unfortunate that MGM/UA, the studio behind the Bond catalogue, has gone bankrupt, creating an uncertain future for the series. Hopefully we will see more of Bond in the years to come.


No one stays at the top forever
As a modern tragedy, 'Casino' is downright intoxicating. Every Martin Scorsese film is a wonderful gift, even the ever-so-slightly disappointing 'Shutter Island'.

'Casino' charts the rise and fall of Sam 'Ace' Rothstein (Robert De Niro) who is assigned the task of running a Las Vegas casino. Things go decidedly pear-shaped when his friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) decides to join him in the gambling capital of the world. A real firebrand with a very short fuse, Nicky is violent and erratic and attracts too much negative attention. Soon things are spiralling dangerously out of control.

Sam courts and marries a beautiful hustler named Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone, in the performance of her career). But her surreptitious ongoing relationship with sleazy ex-boyfriend Lester Diamond (a wonderfully oleaginous performance by charismatic character actor James Woods) pushes Sam to the outer limits of his endurance.

Like 'Goodfellas', 'Casino' is based on the book by Nicholas Pileggi. And while 'Casino' does not reach the dizzying heights that 'Goodfellas' did, it is still well worth your time. Sharon Stone steals every scene she is in; casting her was a big risk - she was perceived as more of a sex symbol than a serious actress - and it paid huge dividends. She delivers a bravura performance and is a genuine pleasure to watch. As Nicky, Joe Pesci simmers with that deadly rage which made his character of Tommy DeVito in 'Goodfellas' so frightening and so electric to watch. And in a straight role, Don Rickles is very good as Billy Sherbert.

Clocking in at just under three hours in length, 'Casino' never feels overlong. And, once again, Scorsese fills the film with wonderful songs by artists such as Fleetwood Mac ('Go Your Own Way'), The Moody Blues ('Nights in White Satin'), and - of course - The Rolling Stones ('Long Long While' and 'Can't You Hear Me Knocking' (which opened the film 'Blow'). Lavish, violent, and almost operatic in its dramatic scope, 'Casino' is highly recommended.


'If only all of Rome had but one neck'
'Caligula' is a thoroughly unpleasant experience. It is depraved and disgusting, and it captures the unlimited excesses of ancient Rome very well. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is that it attracted such acting heavyweights as John Gielgud (Nerva), Peter O'Toole (Tiberius), and Helen Mirren (Caesonia); who are all excellent. As is Malcom McDowell in the title role; his wide-eyed, utterly deranged performance is spot on, and his madness seems to grow as every minute of the running time ticks by.

Virtually every perversion one can think of is represented here, and is performed against massive, stunning sets which are lavish and amazing in their construction and attention to detail. There is casual sadism aplenty; people are put to death at Caligula's slightest whim, and sex is never far from the frame. The film has been called the most expensive porno ever made, but directors Tinto Brass, Penthouse magazine founder Bob Guccione, and Giancarlo Lui, deserve praise for not taking the easy way out and making some awful 'I've come to repair the cable' kind of affair. Instead, they have attempted a much more ambitious project: the story of the rise and fall of the most notorious Roman emperor in history.

If you can stomach all the sex and violence, then you can certainly watch 'Caligula' for its acting. But you are definitely going to need a shower afterwards! You might do better watching the superb HBO cable television series 'Rome'.

Bride of Re-Animator

Not as good as the first one
'Bride of Re-Animator' is okay, I guess, but it is certainly not as good as the first one, which is a horror classic ('Who's going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow!'). Jeffrey Combs reprises his role as the manic and dangerously driven Doctor Herbert West, and the actor has really made the role his own. He is marvellous to watch - completely over-the-top! Bruce Abbott also returns as Doctor Dan Cain; he is the straight man to West's innate craziness. Dan's love interest in the film is Francesca Danelli (Fabiana Udenio, who played the provocatively-named Alotta Fagina in the hilarious 'Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery').

In this sequel, the two doctors learn how to create human life, and subsequently attempt to make a 'perfect' woman using necrotic tissue. Their plan goes horribly wrong and, before you know it, they are once again up to their necks in reanimated corpses. David Gale makes a welcome reappearance as Doctor Carl Hill's severed reanimated head. With the assistance of bat wings, he is able to take flight; this makes for a pretty bizarre spectacle as you might imagine.

One of the main reasons to watch this movie, aside from Combs' wonderfully deranged performance (his appetite for scenery is never sated!), is for the unbelievably good special makeup effects by the strangely-monikered Screaming Mad George. He sure lives up to his name!

At the bloody climax of 'Bride of Re-Animator', a crazed and airborne Doctor Hill asks, 'Are we having fun yet?!'. I guess the answer is, 'Yeah... kind of'.


Wonderful film noir
On a Saturday afternoon in 1996 I took in a screening of David Cronenberg's controversial 'Crash' at the Palace cinema in Adelaide. One of the pre-film trailers advertised a movie I had never heard of. It was a thriller called 'Bound' and the preview totally sold me - the flick looked stylish, violent, and intense. I had to see it! So, when it was released, I returned to the same cinema to check it out. I was far from disappointed. 'Bound' is a wonderful film noir up there with 'After Dark, My Sweet' and 'The Grifters'.

Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Corky (Gina Gershon) steam the screen as lesbian lovers who decide to steal two million dollars from a Chicago mobster. They first meet in an elevator and Corky, who is just out of prison, soon discovers that she is doing some plumbing right next door to the apartment where Violet lives as a kept woman with her low-level mobster partner (the always excellent Joe Pantoliano).

One evening Caesar bursts through the front door with a large paper grocery bag almost overflowing with blood-soaked money. He explains that the money belongs to Gino Marzzone (Richard C. Sarafian), the head of a Chicago crime family. Caesar's plan is to wash the blood off the money, hang it up to dry, iron each and every bill individually, then divide the money into denominations using an automatic counting machine, and place a band around each denomination. Then he will place all the cash neatly into a suitcase and present it to Gino when he flies in to collect it. But Violet and Corky have other ideas, and they hatch a plan to make off with the cash. Will they get away clean? This is a thoroughly enjoyable thriller, but it is not for the prudish or the faint of heart. There are plenty of clever twists and some shocking violence. 'Bound' represents an opportunity to see what the directing team of the Wachowski Brothers did before they conquered the world with the mind-bending science fiction of the 'The Matrix' trilogy and the brilliant and unfairly reviled 'Speed Racer'. They show that they can be just as inventive and imaginative on a small budget as they are on a big one. If you like film noir, then this is highly recommended.

Body of Lies

Leonardo DiCaprio is both the new Marlon Brando and the new Robert De Niro
Leonardo DiCaprio is both the new Marlon Brando and the new Robert De Niro, all rolled into one glorious package. His performance as Roger Ferris in 'Body of Lies' is typically strong. This techno thriller is very like one of author Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan adventures; there is plenty of cloak and dagger intrigue, and a dash of pretty spectacular action. Ferris' sparring partner is Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) and the New Zealand-born actor is in fine form. And, in a fairly small role, Simon McBurney is excellent as IT wiz Garland.

Roger Ferris gets a tip-off about a major terrorist leader who is believed to have his base of operations in Jordan. Roger must undertake his investigation in partnership with Ed Hoffman who is back in the USA, and who instructs and advises Roger by telephone and email.

'Lies' contains some very unpleasant torture scenes which no doubt have a very disturbing basis in reality. It is a complex film which requires close attention, but the viewer is rewarded by William Monahan's ('The Departed') intelligent and multi-layered screenplay.

In the course of the movie, Ferris pursues a love interest named Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani). If Aisha wishes to date the American, her sister Cala (Lubna Azabal) must first approve of him. So a meal is shared at which Roger is the guest but, unfortunately, Cala does not believe the relationship is going to be possible due to the two's cultural differences. But Roger is determined to date Aisha and she is happy to continue to see him. This love story lightens the mood and also offers some humour which is a pleasant relief considering that the film often shows the darker side of the human condition.

It is great that director Ridley Scott is being so prolific these days. What is even better is the fact that the quality of his films is not suffering; each of his offerings is exceedingly well-made. He obviously has a very good relationship with his muse, Russell Crowe, as they have made quite a few films together now. And while 'Body of Lies' is not the best flick they have made together, it is still worth a look, especially if you like the techno thriller subgenre.

Bad Lieutenant

Abel Ferrara's best film
One of the most notorious films ever, 'Bad Lieutenant' is a long day's journey into night which follows The Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) as he goes about his police work while chasing the dragon using heroin seized as evidence, injecting himself with the aforementioned drug, snorting cocaine, slamming down vodka, and spiralling further and further down into debt by consistently placing huge bets on the losing team in the World Series betwixt the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets. In what is perhaps the most disturbing scene of the film, he pulls over two club-going young women from New Jersey, and has one of them show him her ass while he forces the other to simulate fellatio. As they do this, he masturbates. That this happens on a public street is all the more unsettling.

The film centres around the brutal rape of a young nun (Frankie Thorn). The two young boys who perpetrate this horrendous crime also pierce the young woman's hymen with a crucifix and steal a gold chalice which contains the holy sacrament. Assigned to the case, the Lieutenant is determined to deliver his own form of justice to the criminals; it is pretty clear from what he says to the brutalised nun at one point that he is going to kill them. In contrast to his outraged outlook, the nun has already forgiven the boys.

Harvey Keitel is definitely the focus of this film and, as usual, his performance is excellent. The Lieutenant is dead on his feet - constantly dishevelled with wild scarecrow hair - and looks as though he is about to collapse at any moment. But the nun's forgiveness of the boys has a profound effect on his cynical perspective, and leads him to an act of redemption in the movie's third act.

'Bad Lieutenant' is one of the darkest, bleakest films ever made. It contains sexual violence, strong sexual situations and dialogue, and graphic drug use. It is also director Abel Ferrara's finest hour; the always uncompromising director has delivered a fascinating character study about a man who wants to be good but does not know how. If you can stomach it, you could a lot worse than 'Bad Lieutenant'.

Body Melt

A worthy addition to the 'melt movie' subgenre
Australian director Philip Brophy's wonderful 'Body Melt' is a cool mix of gore and humour. The residents of suburban Pebbles Court, Homesville, awake one morning to find a free sample of a new product in their mailboxes. It appears to be a powdered energy drink - just add water. The reality, though, is far darker: these hapless suburbanites are being used as human guinea pigs by an amoral pharmaceutical company which has manufactured a new drug it wants to test. This drug, disguised as the energy drink powder, causes those who ingest it to... well, melt! There are lots of familiar faces who would doubtless rather forget they ever had any association with 'Body Melt'! Ian Smith, well-known as Harold in the popular soap opera 'Neighbours', plays the scheming Doctor Carrera, and he has the film's best line: 'F**k the chain stores. What about the cops?!'. A young Matthew Newton appears as Bronto, a member of an inbred rural family. And, yes, that is Lisa McCune - better known for roles in such television shows as 'Blue Heelers', 'Sea Patrol', and 'Rake' - as Cheryl Rand, a young housewife whose pregnancy is turned into a living nightmare by the deadly drug.

Brophy should make more movies; he is clearly a very talented director and writer. His films are unique, unusual, and uncompromising. His other film, the experimental 'Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat' (see my review) is amazing and unforgettable. It is just unfortunate that it is so hard to find; hopefully it will be released upon DVD soon.

If you are a fan of such films as 'Braindead' AKA 'Dead Alive', 'The Incredible Melting Man', and 'Street Trash' (see my review), then you are definitely going to enjoy 'Body Melt'. If not, then you need a different cinematic drug. By the way, keep an eye out for the bodybuilder with the high-pitched voice... funny stuff!

The Incredible Torture Show

'Her mouth shall make an interesting urinal!'
'The Incredible Torture Show', retitled 'Bloodsucking Freaks' by Troma for its 1980s re-release, is a difficult film to rate. Technically, it is dreadful; amateurish filmmaking at its worst. It is also incredibly depraved and debases and insults women. But at the same time, there is a vein of black, black humour running through the amoral proceedings which makes the film entertaining in a very perverse sort of way.

Master Sardu (Seamus O'Brien) runs a theatre which offers a grand guignol show to the unsuspecting public. What they do not realise is that the murders 'depicted' on stage are actually real. Sardu keeps a group of naked women imprisoned backstage; these female actors are promoted on the film's poster as the 'caged sexoids'. I would love to hear feminist author Camille Paglia's take on this film! Upon the film's theatrical release in 1976, it was picketed by the women's group Women Against Pornography (WAP), who were outraged at the movie's blatant sexism and misuse of females. Along with the humour, there is a very nasty misogynistic streak about this film. A case in point: at one stage Sardu is eating his dinner. Sounds fairly innocent, right? It is, except that his 'table' is the back of a naked woman upon her hands and knees. To add insult to injury, Sardu has a candle burning, and its hot wax is running directly onto the poor woman's bare flesh. Then he slaps her irritably and tells her to keep still! A date movie this most definitely is not.

Niles McMaster appears as Tom Maverick, a professional footballer whose partner (Rita Montone), a ballet dancer, has been kidnapped by Sardu and his midget assistant Ralphus (Luis De Jesus, credited as Louie de Jesus). Sardu brainwashes her and forces her to dance in his twisted show. McMaster played Dominick 'Dom' Spages in Alfred Sole's underrated horror film 'Alice, Sweet Alice' AKA 'Communion' AKA 'Holy Terror', and Rita Montone appears as a hooker in the horrific 'Maniac'.

Sardu is also involved in white slavery, and at one point transacts business with a white slave dealer played by Alphonso DeNoble (credited simply as Alphonso). Like Niles McMaster, DeNoble was also in 'Alice, Sweet Alice'; he played the sweaty, obese landlord who is graphically stabbed to death.

'The Incredible Torture Show' is a notorious film - notorious for its graphic violence and relentless humiliation and torture of women. It deserves every bit of its notoriety. This film will offend and disgust, so proceed at your own risk. In one memorable scene, a disgraced doctor performs a little do-it-yourself brain surgery upon a hapless victim; this is just a taste of what to expect from this movie.

Do not worry, though, because the evil Sardu does get his comeuppance in the final reel. Just when you thought the film could not get any worse, we are treated to the coup de grace: a filthy, naked woman biting ravenously into a 'sandwich' whose meat is Sardu's severed penis! Like I said, proceed at your own risk.

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