Not included among the twenty new VOD releases reviewed this week are any of the seven Bond films—From Russia with Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds are Forever, The Man with the Golden Gun, Moonraker, Never Say Never Again, The Living Daylights—newly acquired by Netflix; quite why so random a selection of 007’s adventures have been selected is quite the mystery given the ownership of the entire canon by the one distributor. Time constraints are to blame for Bond’s omission, the first week of the month as always signalling a content explosion, and a desperate scuttle to provide as much coverage of as many titles as possible. Scorsese, Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Lynch are the major directorial names of the week, excellent offerings from each to be found below. Oscar winners abound, Eastwood brings one of his worst pictures to the table, a pair of intriguing documentaries on fascinating subcultures shine, genre movies run wild, and Nicolas Cage raises his head twice for out viewing pleasure. If that doesn’t get you streaming, I’m not sure I know what will.
Cards on the table, no deceit: I love Breaking and Entering for its beautiful depiction of a world and a subject near and dear to my own heart. The people followed in Benjamin Fingerhut’s enthralling documentary each strive to set or break a Guinness World Record—from fastest marathon while “joggling” to longest spinning session to furthest grape toss to the mouth—each determined to leave their mark on the world by becoming the certified best in the world at something, no matter how silly it may be. As a (former, it pains me to say) GWR holder for most bananas peeled and eaten in one minute, I can relate entirely to this inane drive, but it’s surely a universal idea: we all yearn to, in whatever way we can, enrich our lives with a sense of purpose. A great documentary, Breaking and Entering is as much about life and death as it is about people doing silly things to get in a book. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Nicolas Cage is an enigma. Known for his eccentric, overblown performances, he’s regularly and justifiably slammed as one of the worst actors in the business, yet in the hands of a master director Cage can turn out a performance to rival any and all of his peers. Scorsese is one such master, and the lead performance of Bringing Out the Dead is a perfect collusion of director and actor. Cage’s manic mannerisms are channelled pristinely into the character of Frank Pierce, a New York City paramedic haunted by insomnia and the ghost of a young woman he failed to save. Scorsese brings his typical style to the Manhattan streets, capturing the manic city life and its inherent grittiness within the confines of a dark mental drama worthy of consideration as a spiritual sequel to Taxi Driver (they also share screenwriter Paul Schrader). A bothersome soundtrack and excess visual flashiness distracts from the film’s thematic depth, yet Bringing Out the Dead still stands at the top end of Scorsese’s work. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
A film which never quite lives up to the iconic stature earned by its immediately recognisable opening scene, Chariots of Fire is a nonetheless solid sports-centric drama tackling the idea of personal fulfilment in the face of nationalistic duty. Hugh Hudson’s film thrives on the strength of its leads, Ben Cross and Ian Charleson starring as Cambridge students selected to run at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, whose various personal problems complicate matters at every turn. Strong support comes in the form of a terrific Ian Holm as the former’s coach, a memorable character who steals every scene he features in. It’s all well conveyed with some very fine direction; Hudson’s at his best when his camera weaves among large crowds having multiple conversations, never cutting even when it would be very convenient to do so. For all its aesthetic and acting prowess, Chariots of Fire doesn’t quite reach the heights of greatness reputation might suggest, highly entertaining though it is. RECOMMENDED.
Inevitably linked to the release three years earlier of Dirty Harry, Michael Winner’s vigilante thriller sees a believably emotive Charles Bronson cast as the widowed architect who begins to take the law into his own hands when he is unable to cope with the injustice of the world around him. Condemned at the time for the inherent trickiness of its morality, the film’s romanticisation of what is essentially serial murder raises several intriguing questions as to the efficiency of the judicial system and the foreboding escalation of crime rates in contemporary America. The exploitative sensibilities at Death Wish’s core manifest themselves regularly in delightfully silly contrivances, where groups of the city’s nastiest criminals continually just happen to run into the increasingly violent Bronson. It’s the B-movie mania herein that causes so much of the film’s problems, its nonsensicality jarring with the down-to-earth grittiness of the film’s aesthetic. It may be something of a tonal, amoral mess, but Death Wish is a fascinating watch, a fascinating rumination on violence. WORTH WATCHING.
Coming to you soon in the never-before-seen 3D version it was originally shot in, Hitchcock’s adaptation of Frederick Knott’s tense stage play casts Ray Milland as the scheming husband who plots to have his well-to-do wife killed so he, a former tennis player running short on cash himself, can inherent her fortune. Portrayed with typical angelic splendour by Grace Kelly, she is caught in the throes of passion with another man, eager to reveal to her spouse her betrayal. The plot unfolds slowly and meticulously in typical Hitchcockian style, late reveals and sudden surprises constantly complicating an initially simple idea and racketing up the tension and drama. Milland and Kelly are both at the top of their game, as too are Robert Cummings and John Williams in supporting roles. Set, save for a few short scenes, entirely within the married couple’s living room, Dial M for a Murder is a wonderfully executed exercise in top-end tension. RECOMMENDED.
The last film shot before the untimely death of its leading man, Enter the Dragon pits martial arts legend Bruce Lee against an entire island of adversaries, seeing him play the star student of a Shaolin school who joins a tournament held by the island’s owner Han. Tasked to uncover the illegal operations believed to be running under Han, Lee sneaks about in the depth of night, dispatching henchmen as he goes without ever breaking a sweat. Memorable particularly for its excellently shot final sequence in a hall of mirrors, Enter the Dragon is pristine martial arts entertainment, its fight sequences offering consistent fun to offset the general mediocrity of its plot and unconvincing dubbing of its dialogue. John Saxon brings a good deal to bear as an American competitor in the tournament, helping elevate the non-combat sections of the film with his likeable performance. Though nothing ground-breaking, Enter the Dragon is a fine showcase of its leading man’s prowess, a solid way for a great talent to go out. RECOMMENDED.
Once the go-to cinematographer for Sidney Lumet and Joel Schumacher, Andrzej Bartkowiak opted in 2000 to make the transition to direction, going on to helm a string of action films. Second of these was Steven Seagal vehicle Exit Wounds, which sees the aged action hero play a renegade cop transferred to Detroit’s “worst district” after he kills the would-be assassins of the vice president. What follows, in typical Seagal style, is a mostly incomprehensible plot rife with passably competent action sequences and a dastardly villain played by a rapper, in this case DMX. Save for a memorable use of a belt as extended shotgun trigger, Exit Wounds is a ploddingly dull affair, a staid procession of sub-standard expository scenes clumsily strung together as a means by which to reach the next bout of shooting and kicking. Seagal—never the most extraordinary actor—does his thing as the generally inadequate cast around him flail and fumble. AVOID IT.
A visually daring, narratively complex thriller, Headshot might have earned its place as the Thai submission to next year’s Oscars on the strength of its premise alone. It follows—in no fewer than three interwoven timelines—the story of Bangkok cop Tul, who under blackmail allows a guilty man to be free, finds himself wrongfully imprisoned for murder, and is released on condition he will become a contract assassin, only to be brutally wounded on a job gone wrong. He eponymous wound literally inverts his vision of the world, allowing director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang the artistic licence to play with upside-down shots, skewed perspective, and other such camera trickery that makes fascinating visual fun of Headshot. Yet at the same time Ratanaruang never manages to efficiently congeal his stylistic and narrative leanings, both growing more dissonant and out-of-control as the film progresses. It’s not the great movie the ingenuity of its aesthetic should allow, but Headshot is a well-constructed thriller, engaging enough to overcome the bothersome extent of its flaws. WORTH WATCHING.
Stuffed with the sort of people who pronounce the titular estate as though it were “Hards End”, James Ivory’s pristine period piece is an immaculately scripted and acutely delivered example of attention to detail, the upper class of early 20th century England beautifully replicated at every turn. Anthony Hopkins and Emma Watson are on top form as a wealthy industrialist and the independent woman he courts after the death of his wife, the pair consummately embodying the airs of their class at that time. Helena Bonham Carter and Vanessa Redgrave are among many highlights of the supporting cast; well-written and acted though it is, this is an actor’s film, with each of its performances delivering a rounded, realised character about whom we genuinely care. The central metaphor of the estate and the setting in an England right on the cusp of war offers the bulk of the film’s thematic weight, making this as smart a film as it is an entertaining one. RECOMMENDED.
Following the lives of a selection of independent video game developers in various stages of production and release, Indie Game: The Movie offers an up-close and personal insight into an increasingly profitable business, charting the ups and downs of a world where artistry meets industry. Directors James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot make a visual treat of primarily talking heads, the superb quality of their digital photography often stunning in its beauty. Less appealing are the personalities of some of their subjects, whose incessant self-loathing and sense of entitlement if often insufferable. It’s tough to be sympathetic toward people who complain endlessly despite making a living doing what they love, and such personalities are plentiful within Indie Game to the detriment of the film’s enjoyment factor. Just as common, fortunately, are those thankful to have landed so luckily in life, and it’s their immensely entertaining presences that make the film as funny as it is enlightening. RECOMMENDED.
One of just two films of the century to make in into the latest edition of Sight and Sound’s esteemed decennial critics’ poll, David Lynch’s typically surreal, shocking analysis of Hollywood life boasts an astonishing Naomi Watts in the role of Betty Elms, an aspiring actress whose effusive relationship with an amnesiac woman she encounters in her aunt’s apartment recalls the psychosexual intensity of Bergman’s Persona. Lynch’s is a far stranger film, however, its flights of surrealistic fantasy comprising a stark departure from the comforts of narrative norm, taking his viewers on an odyssey of harrowing, almost frustrating oddity. As much a treatise on identity as it is a cerevral analysis of film, the film industry, and our relationship to both. Mulholland Drive is a spectacularly creepy journey through a deranged but brilliant mind, the eerie tones of Angelo Badalamenti’s score ensuring a constant haze of oppression and intrigue. MUST SEE.
Immediately assaulting the senses in its earliest moments, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers is a vivid, visionary, vicious feast for the eyes, an overwhelming experience never keen to settle upon a single style. Shifting from black and white to colour, one film stock to another, realist aesthetic to one rooted in surrealism, Stone concocts a shocking barrage of non-stop imagery, his shots rarely lasting longer than a few seconds, his pace never pausing to allow the viewer breath. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis are the eponymous characters, lovers who run rampant on a cross-country killing spree. Robert Downey Jr’s egotistical, sensationalist TV reporter hammers home the satire, emulating the frantic mania of mainstream media. The difficulty of depicting with comic intention such awful violence and eventually criticising us for our enjoyment thereof is never quite overcome, but Natural Born Killers remains one of the sharpest satires of its age, a flawed yet fantastic embodiment of its time and attitudes. RECOMMENDED.
Released some nine years in advanced of his acclaimed film noir masterpiece The Third Man, Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich sees the director viewing the second world war in altogether more cheery terms, casting Rex Harrison, Paul Henreid, and Margaret Lockwood in a raucous espionage thriller that takes them through the mountains of Germany and Switzerland to escape the clutches of the Nazis upon the announcement of the war. It’s terrific to see contemporary depictions of Hitler and his agents, viewed primarily as buffoonish villains more akin to cartoons than dictators. Each of the three leads are expectedly wonderful, imbuing the plot with marvellous drama as the excellent double act of Charters and Caldicott fill it with humour. The machinations of the plot may become confusingly contorted at times, the allegiances of double agents almost impossible to discern, but Night Train to Munich remains a fine spy thriller, a wryly funny and wonderfully acted adventure as light as it is fun. RECOMMENDED.
Paths of Glory is Kubrick’s masterpiece, in the traditional sense of the word: the work with which he became a true master of his craft. His frame compositions are impeccable, his choice of camera angle meticulous and ingenious. It’s remarkable how black his blacks are; this is a beautifully lit film, its visual contrasts as stark and striking as its ideological and moral. Incredible tracking shots, most notably a breath-taking one across no-man’s-land, are paramount to the gripping imagery of the film, arresting the attention with its cinematic prowess and rich meaningfulness. Kirk Douglas is immense in his role, his stoic reservation throughout making so much more astounding his inevitable, but no less emotionally tasking, explosion of anger. The film is a lot like his character: for so long it simply watches, simply observes the fallacy of war and military hierarchy about its corrupt work, until it can do so no more, until it has to speak up. It speaks loudly. MUST SEE.
Just recently confirmed after much speculation as the choice to helm Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn made his feature debut with 2005’s Slither, a brilliantly balanced horror-comic romp. Starring Nathan Fillion in a revelatory one-liner laden performance as the sheriff of a small town unexpectedly assailed by alien life forms, the film follows in the footsteps of Shaun of the Dead to put a ragtag group of locals against their extra-terrestrial adversaries. Michael Rooker’s turn as Grant Grant. Original host of the parasitic invaders and eventual pulsating mass of hideous alien flesh, is nothing short of disgustingly wonderful, with Elizabeth Banks’ role as his young wife a herald of the later success to come. Not without its flaws, Slither still stands tall in the horror comedy canon, a hilarious and hideous blast that signals Gunn as precisely the right man to bring us so strange a galactic grouping as the Guardians. RECOMMENDED.
Ti West’s slow-burn chiller spends so great a deal of time building its central characters—two employees at a hotel one week away from closure—and their banter-laden relationship that you’d be forgiven for thinking it more comedy than horror. It’s to the credit of West and leads Sara Paxton and Pat Healy that The Innkeepers works so well in its opening act, the wry humour of his writing and believable chemistry they share allowing the film a friendly form that welcomes the viewer openly to join the fun. What a shame, then, that West’s grip on the spookier side of things is not nearly as firm, his pedestrian jump scares and abundantly predictable plot twists destroying all positives of the movie’s setup. It’s just not very scary, and no amount of character development of slow pacing can hide the fact that this is a silly story we’ve seen done a thousand times before. The liberal, nauseating use of Dutch angles throughout adds aesthetic issues to the already plentiful narrative ones. AVOID IT.
A quintessentially British haunted house horror, it should be noted from the start that The Legend of Hell House isn’t even remotely scary, its efforts at supernatural eeriness never anything more than atmospheric. Why then, you might ask, is it a worthwhile watch for genre fans and nonfans alike? Rarely has a horror film, particularly within this subgenre, had characters and relationships so well-defined, Richard Matheson’s excellent script combining with the performers’ distinctively English accents to create an amusing dialogical repartee that makes each of these people a joy to spend time with. Rife with conventional scenes and typical scares, The Legend of Hell House never excels as a piece of horror cinema, but nor thanks to likability on the part of its characters does it ever fail, remaining throughout a thoroughly engaging journey in the company of intriguing people, the sort who never fail to meet a ghostly disturbance with a shocked “oh hullo!” WORTH WATCHING.
The Heat of its day, John Ford’s stark revisionist western united the two greatest leading men of the time, channelling the perceived screen presences of John Wayne and James Stewart into a layered story of self-reflexive analysis that boldly questioned the generic foundations which Ford himself had helped establish. At the surface a simple tale of the old west, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance sees Stewart as the lawyer whose shooting of the eponymous villain makes him the hero of his new town, and begs a questioning of the fundamental values of the law on which his life has thus far been based. Wayne, embodying the sort of hero he had by then played for Ford times innumerable, is Stewart’s guide to the rougher ways of life, the multifaceted dialogue between the pair essential to the film’s moral and metatextual ingenuity. Brilliantly acted and shot in gorgeous, crisp monochrome, this is not only one of Ford’s finest achievements, but an essential piece of its genre’s history. MUST SEE.
One of few full throttle action films directed by Clint Eastwood, The Rookie sees him star alongside Charlie Sheen as a veteran cop intent on tracking down the leader of an illegal auto business responsible for the death of his former partner. Hugely entertaining spectacle though the opening scene—an extended chase down a busy highway involving an auto carrier—might be, the film as a whole is among the worst of Eastwood’s canon, a sloppily-written, embarrassingly cheesy, hammily-acted mess with little more than impressive crash scenes to rescue it from the depths of drudgery to which it sinks. It’s telling that Sheen might be the best thing here: fresh-faced and young, he brings some degree of character to bear, but not nearly enough to negate the nonsensical conventionality of all around him. Quite how Eastwood could produce something this dreadful immediately before the genius of Unforgiven is the sort of cinematic mystery that may go forever unsolved. AVOID IT.
Far more palatable in a three minute YouTube highlights reel than stretched across the vastness of a 103 minute feature, Nic Cage’s infamously accentuated performance in Vampire’s Kiss surely stands among the strangest things ever committed to film, his bafflingly overblown mannerisms and unflinchingly ecstatic accentuations spellbinding in the scope of their oddity. It’s difficult to decide even if it’s a good or bad contribution to the film, the sheer inhumanity of Cage’s portrayal of literary agent Peter Loew arguably apt for the sharp satire inherent within the character, but also so shriekingly hysterical and distanced from reality that it overwhelms everything else going on in the movie. Essentially a vivacious condemnation of the coke-addled excess of the 1980s, particularly in the subplot concerning the egregious treatment of Loew’s terrified secretary, Vampire’s Kiss is undoubtedly funny—hilarious even at times—but so bloated and baggy in its social commentary that little of the menace manages to be all that meaningful. SO-SO.