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The Usual Suspects (1995)


“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

In a world of shadowy morality, something has gone very wrong in a heist on San Pedro Bay. Of all the questions raised, the one the cops most want answered is: “Who is Keyser Soze?”

The Usual Suspects is a neo-noir thriller directed by Bryan Singer. It stars Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, and Kevin Pollak.

Something has gone very wrong in San Pedro Bay, leaving a cargo ship ablaze and only two known survivors. FBI Agent Jack Baer and U. S. Customs special agent Dave Kujan arrive to investigate, and one of the survivors, a hospitalized Hungarian criminal, mentions that someone named Keyser Soze, whose reputation paints him as a legendary boogeyman, was in the harbor killing people. He saw him, though, and can describe him. Meanwhile the other survivor, a palsied con man named Verbal Kint, has his own story to tell, in exchange for near-total immunity. He paints a convoluted series of events leading to the explosion in the harbor, including how his crew was assembled to perpetuate a robbery targeting corrupt LAPD officers, and how they were subsequently hired for another job by the mysterious Mr. Kobayashi, on the behalf of the even more mysterious Keyser Soze. Things start going wrong, as things tend to do in these stories, but not everything is as it seems in Kint’s story, forcing Kujal to try to parse out facts from fiction in order to get to the bottom of what actually happened in San Pedro Bay.

This is not a movie that you can just turn on and zone out in front of. There are twists and turns, betrayals and double-crosses, and you may find yourself wanting to make a flowchart to keep track of all the players and events, only to have your initial theories trashed by later events. There are ultimately three versions of events: two are presented by Kint, and the third is what actually happened. This complicated Rashomon plays with your head as you are forced to not accept the narrator’s account as absolute fact, but rather try to parse out the story yourself – and then the ending hauls off and kicks you in the nuts with the conclusion that you probably still got it wrong the first time. This gives the movie a lot of rewatchability: you watch it the first time at face value, and then you watch it again knowing a lot of things that only come out during the conclusion, and you pick up even more subtle cues and clues with each successive rewatching.

The cast is fun to watch as well. The core group are scoundrels and scumbags, a loose gang of antiheroes out to screw someone over. The two agents are left scrambling in the wake of the massacre, forced to rely on a known con man for the only available account of things. Of the lot, Verbal Kint is glib and helpful and seems willing to aid the authorities – but how far can he be trusted? Everyone has their own motivations and means for reaching their goals, all working at cross-purposes until you’re not even sure who to root for. I won’t spoil anything for those who have yet to watch it, though, except to say that the ending is a HUGE twist, and those who have seen it shouldn’t forewarn people who haven’t. (I had The Sixth Sense ruined that way. Meh.)

If you like your thrillers twisty, your villains terrifying, and your heroes ambiguous, I highly recommend The Usual Suspects. The Rashomon-style storytelling will leave you guessing until the very end.

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In the Mouth of Madness (1994)


H. P. Lovecraft knew a long time ago that there was a fate worse than death. However, this was not, as many believe, insanity. In the world envisioned by Lovecraft, everyone must remain slightly deluded in order to protect themselves from the more horrifying truths of the universe, and from truly comprehending our own place in it. Therefore, in Lovecraft’s universe the only fate worse than death is stark raving sanity.

John Trent is just looking for a few answers. He is about to find them… whether he wants to or not.

In the Mouth of Madness in a horror film directed by John Carpenter and written by Michael de Luca. The third film in what Carpenter calls his Apocalypse Trilogy (following The Thing and Prince of Darkness), this movie stars Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jürgen Prochnow, David Warner, Frances Bay, John Glover, and Bernie Casey.

Insurance investigator John Trent is very good at his job, winnowing out the truth behind would-be insurance scams. When hideously-popular horror writer Stephen King Sutter Cane comes up missing, with his latest book still pending, Trent thinks finding the reclusive author will be a snap – a publicity stunt meant to drive up demand for the expected book. These books are already wildly popular, but can cause sanity-shredding effects in readers who might not have all their marbles to start. Trent doesn’t believe the hype, but when he starts reading Cane’s books to find out what all the hoo-ha is about he starts to suffer vivid nightmares of monsters and deformed humanoids. He also finds that the cover art of Cane’s paperbacks contain strange red-lined shapes that when lined up properly, form a map of the state of New Hampshire, pointing to a town that only exists in Cane’s novels – Hobb’s End.

Sensing a possible lead, Trent goes looking for this town with Linda Styles, Cane’s editor, sent along to assist Trent. Unexpectedly, he does find Hobb’s End – populated by the fictional characters and storylines from Cane’s books. However, little does he know that his terror is only beginning, as he discovers that Hobb’s End lies far outside the comfortable reality he knows…

Throughout the 80’s, John Carpenter became known for some really kickass horror movies, and In the Mouth of Madness is no exception. Starting off as a mystery, in the style of many of Lovecraft’s short stories (and if you know Lovecraft’s stuff, you already have a fair idea how Trent’s journey will end), the story soon starts down a very dark tunnel that will have you wondering how “real” Trent’s world is, and for that matter whether Hobb’s End is more or less “real” than the “real world”. Numerous authors have since played with recursive reality in this way, like Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but this is really damn hard to pull off in visual media. I am happy to say the Carpenter nailed it, with the budget and resources of an 80’s horror movie. There is no CGI, and truthfully you don’t see many monsters (and what monsters are on screen are dimly perceived at best). However, it is still clear that Hobb’s End infects those who live and visit there, until the veil of sanity is finally clawed away from Trent’s eyes, showing him the true nature of things.

This is one of two movies I’ve seen where Sam Neill’s character goes batshit crazy, and he does “insane” well. He doesn’t overact it, not even at that moment where you realize… yup, his cheese has officially slid off his cracker. Trent and Cane are the only two characters that get any sort of fleshing out – but that’s the point. The whole premise relies on taking writing conventions and batting them all over the floor like a cat with a toy mouse. The people in Hobb’s End are simultaneously fictional and real, in ways that cheerfully stretch the fabric of this movie’s universe, until something has to give. And if that isn’t mindbending enough, several characters even discuss their own fictionality, especially when they do weird things because “that’s how he (Cane) wrote me”. Of course, by the end the fourth wall is gleefully shredded, and… well, there’s a reason why this is the third movie in the Apocalypse Trilogy.

If you like a good, trippy horror movie that messes with your perceptions of “real” and “fictional”, check this movie out. John Carpenter ably pays homage to Lovecraft’s work in ways that few directors have been able to do before or since. And remember: Reality is only what we tell each other it is.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)


In 1968, Stanley Kubrick directed a little sci fi film that remains one of, if not the hardest science fiction film ever. Based largely on “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke (whose day job was in astrophysics), 2001: A Space Odyssey deals with topics such as the evolution of man, technology, artificial intelligence, and the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, though a lot of theatergoers of the day generally just snuck into theaters to drop acid during the last act. Today, critics consider 2001 to be one of the greatest films ever made, even though they can’t agree on what the hell it all means.

The film is divided into four sections, each labelled with a title card. “The Dawn of Man” centers around a troupe of ape-men who, after being defeated and driven away from a prized watering hole by a rival troupe, encounter a mysterious black monolith that kick-starts their evolution, allowing them to discover tools and weapons, allowing them to drive off their recent conquerors and become hunters. This segues into “TMA-1”, set on a space station where Dr Haywood Floyd arrives for a layover on his trip to Clavius Base on the Moon. Rumors abound of “odd events” on Clavius, leading to speculation about an epidemic, but Floyd declines to answer any questions. At Clavius, Floyd heads a meeting of base personnel, stressing the importance of the secrecy surrounding the real mission: investigationg a recently discovered artifact that appeared to have been deliberately buried four million years ago – another black monolith. The visitors investigate the monolith and attempt to take a picture of it, only to discover that it doesn’t appreciate flash photography. Eighteen months later, we get to the “Jupiter Mission” segment, probably the section that most people know about. Aboard the American spaceship Discover One we meet two astronauts and scientists, Drs. Frank Poole and David Bowman, along with three other scientists in cryogenic hibernation (to be thawed out upon arrival at Jupiter), and the ship’s computer, HAL 9000. In a televised interview, HAL makes it clear that the 9000 series is foolproof, completely incapable of error. However, when HAL reports a malfunction in a device that turns out to be just fine, Bowman and Poole grow concerned, especially when HAL insists that he could not possibly in error. The two humans adjourn to a pod to discuss possible remedies if HAL has indeed slipped a disk where HAL can’t hear them, but HAL reads their lips and decides to take matters into his own hands, killing Poole when he goes out to replace the “faulty” unit. Bowman goes out to rescue him, only for HAL to terminate the life functions of the remaining three crew while he’s out, and refusing to let him back in with Poole’s body, stating that the decision to deactivate him is jeopardizing this mission. Bowman deactivates him anyway, in one of the spookiest segments in the whole movie, and only then discovers a prerecorded message informing him of the real purpose of the mission: the Moon monolith was completely inert, save for a signal being beamed at Jupiter. Yay. The fourth section, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”, is the stoner bait I mentioned earlier. Bowman travels into yet another monolith found in orbit around Jupiter, and after that I don’t know what the hell is going on, though everybody has a theory.

This movie will probably turn off most sci fi fans. It’s slow, with minimal dialogue, and not a whole lot is explained to the audience, particularly in the fourth segment, which is symbolic to the point of surrealism. The film and novel were written in collaboration between Kubrick and Clarke, and if you want backstory and explanation, I highly recommend checking out the novel. The third section is the strongest, plotwise, and easily stands alone as a decently tense short thriller, with the infinitely calm voice of Douglas Raines as HAL setting the standards for psychotic AIs thereafter. The rest, though, seem more like thematically related vignettes rather than parts of an overarching storyline (especially since part one starts a couple million years before the others), but it works together, art-wise, progressing to what is less a climax and more an art major’s orgasm.

The acting is subtle and understated. This movie is more about philosophy than action, about concepts than action sequences. In particular, Bowman’s outward calmness in the face of the discovery that the AI that controls the entire ship might be going berserk is easily matched in real-life astronauts (“Houston, we’ve had a problem,” anyone?). Because astronauts are badass, that’s why. Additionally, the effects are very well-done for 1968. With only one minor flub (the crew of a lunar shuttle pours coffee from a pitcher into an open mug – something that would have disastrous consequences in zero-G), the antigravity and artificial gravity effects are well-done and realistic by even modern science, and the models and sets possess an impressive level of detail (including a funny moment where an astronaut who apparently has to pee is stopped in his tracks by the novel-length instructions for using a space toilet), because Kubrick has historically been a bit of a nut about that.

In conclusion, if you want an action-packed sci-fi-film, definitely walk away. If you want a movie where everything is explained to you, look elsewhere. But if you want a beautifully detailed, subtle narrative about human evolution’s past and potential future, try out this classic, and just sit back and relax.

Cube (1997)


You wake up to the sensation of metal pressing against your cheek. You have a slight headache, and you can’t remember what happened last night.

>look

You open your eyes to find yourself in a 14-foot cube crafted of cold metal, lit with blue lighting. There is a door in the center of each face. You see a pamphlet lying on the floor nearby.

>read pamphlet

Cube is a Canadian psychological thriller movie directed by Vincenzo Natali, presenting a Kafka-esque situation: seven strangers separately find themselves trapped in a cubical device made of thousands upon thousands of identical rooms, some of which are rigged with deathtraps. It stars David Hewlett, Andrew Miller, Nicole de Boer, and Nick Guadagni. Despite its minimalist plot and simple premise, Cube was a successful product of the Canadian Film Centre’s First Feature Project and achieved minor critical success upon its initial release.

I first saw this movie on the Sci Fi Channel one afternoon, and while I expected the channels usual fare of bad acting, stupid plot, and shitty special effects, Cube was actually a damn good little movie. Its cast was primarily obscure unknowns, through Stargate SG-1 fans will recognize David Hewlitt as a proto-Rodney McKay. (He gets the crap beat out of him. Twice. You’re welcome.) The plot is presented only in its broadest strokes, and while the outside is referred to, it is never shown except as fathomless darkness between the rooms and the outer shell, or as white light when the exit is found. Later installments in the film series do little to clear anything up, and instead the storyline raises more questions than it resolves. Instead, as the movie progresses and their situation starts to look hopeless, the inevitable happens: one of the prisoners snaps out. If you’ve seen any of the Saw films, you will expect this to happen. The acting is decent, given the distinct lack of details they have to work with, though I have some minor issue with Holloway’s non-profanity of “Cats! Holy, holy cats!” Not because I was offended, but because it was a damn goofy way to avoid swearing.

Now for an issue that would be minor were it not a plot point. Leaven, one of the two resident math experts, must figure out whether the room coordinate numbers are prime, indicating “safe” rooms. Some of the numbers are obvious non-primes, like two numbers ending in 5 and 2 – very simple. Also, figuring out powers of primes is apparently not as “astronomical” as Leaven claims, though probably only the bigger math nerds would have known the methods of figuring out three-digit primes or the powers thereof without a calculator on hand. Fortunately, this doesn’t detract too much from the movie.

Cube is an obscure little treasure from Canada that will probably please fans of Kafka-esque plots or sci-fi thrillers. Keep an eye out for this one in your local video store.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)


People most likely to attract nasty spirits:

  • Young children
  • Mediums
  • Fake mediums
  • People trying to prove the paranormal is fake
  • People trying to prove the paranormal is real
  • Amateur documentarians

Three high school students are about to learn this last item the hard way…

The Blair Witch Project is an American horror film directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, presented as a documentary pieced together from amateur footage. It stars Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams, with the supernatural talents of the rest of the production crew trying to freak them out.

In 1994, high school students Heather (Donahue), Josh (Leonard), and Mike (Williams) set out to film a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch. Travelling to Burkittsville, Maryland, they interview the locals about the legend, and learn of a hermit named Rustin Parr, who kidnapped, tortured, and murdered seven children, afterwards claiming that the spirit of a witch who’d been hanged in the 18th century had been terrorizing him for a while, and that she’d promised to leave him alone if he killed them. Another Burkittsville woman, Mary Brown, tells them of an encounter she’d had with the Blair Witch as a young girl, describing the specter of a woman covered in coarse hair.

On day two, the young filmmakers hike into the woods in search of evidence of the Blair Witch’s existence, despite a fisherman’s warning that the woods are haunted (sh’yeah, right!). After filming a piece at Coffin Rock, where five men were ritually murdered in the 19th century, they camp for the night. The next day, despite feeling slightly lost, they hike further into the woods and encounter a cemetary with seven small cairns, one of which Josh accidentally disturbs, to be repaired by Heather. That night they hear strange noises in the dark but decide it’s just animals or something. Their tune changes the next day, however, when they realize they can’t find their way out of the woods, and now something unseen and angry seems to be stalking them…

When The Blair Witch Project was first released, it brought with it a small boatload of mythos, trying to hammer home the idea that the Blair Witch story was real and these three filmmakers were genuinely missing, presumed dead. The result of this is that the real-life Burkittsville in Maryland experienced a small influx of people looking for stories of the Blair Witch, only to be disappointed when told, nope, it was all made up for the movie. The whole movie was largely ad libbed, with the three leads being chosen for their improvisational abilities and given only a brief outline of the story ahead of time. Their “interviewees” were planted in strategic locations around the filming area, and clues to the next plot point were hidden on site, to be found with GPS tracking. And of course, in the scary woods scenes, none of the actors knew what was going to happen when; they were given brief notes for plot elements that directly involved them and that was it.

As a result, the finished film has a visceral, “you are there” feel to it, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the bright side, the building dread of being hunted by something unknown feels genuine because the actors really didn’t know that something would attack the tent at night, sending them running and screaming into the night. They didn’t know that the production crew would be making noises in the dark. Additionally, Heather’s much-parodied tearful apology and accepting responsibility for what was very likely to be a grim fate for all three of them really brought home the level of despair that the three of them were feeling by that point.

On the dark side, this was one of the first modern uses of the in-universe camera, and the result is often chaotic and slightly nauseating, particularly towards the second half of the film. Theater audiences reported motion sickness as a result of watching footage filmed by someone running their balls off while toting a handheld, and while it may have helped with the immersion, it turned off a lot of people. Additionally, you never actually see anything menacing the characters. Any manifestations of the Blair Witch or whatever the hell is chasing them always happens outside the camera’s eye. I liked this detail, as it let me use my imagination to dream up what was chasing them, but it might frustrate others.

In total, The Blair Witch Project probably boasts the most elaborate viral campaign of that decade. The mythos is well-detailed, and the sense of “what in the raging hell is out there with them” paints a terrifying picture of our heroes’ collective fate, but the filming style is dizzying and the lack of a concrete monster or known fate for the leads will turn many people off to this film. If you like scary ghost stories that let you scare yourself silly with your own imagination, though, I recommend you give it a shot.

Pitch Black (2000)


Man has always been afraid of the dark. From the days when we lived in caves and had to learn to run from or hunt down every scary thing that presented themselves, the dark has a special place in the human lizard-brain as something to fear because of what you can’t see – the horrible nasty things that might be hiding therein, able to see you while you fumble around blindly. Fortunately, we have daytime as a respite from the unknown scary shit. But what if this wasn’t the case – and what if there was something worse with you?

Pitch Black is a science fiction horror film directed by David Twohy and written by Ken and Jim Wheat. It stars Vin “The Fast and the Furious” Diesel, Radha “Phone Booth” Mitchell, Claudia “Farscape” Black, Cole “Good Will Hunting” Hauser, Keith “They Live” David, and Lewis “The Shiralee” Fitz-Gerald.

When the transport ship Hunter-Grautzner passes through the tail of a comet while on autopilot, debris ruptures the hull and kills some of the crew, including the captain. The remaining crew is awakened, and docking pilot Carolyn Fry (Mitchell) crash-lands on a nearby moon, despite nearly dumping the passenger compartment. While many survive, the ship is completely trashed, leaving them stuck on what appears to be a dead, arid desert world, illuminated constantly by three suns. Amongst the passengers is one Richard B. Riddick (Diesel, in his breakout role), a dangerous criminal, who escapes in the crash. While he is running loose, another passenger is killed in a nearby cave, leading the bounty hunter William J. Johns (Hauser) to naturally blame Riddick when he recaptures the latter. A group of the survivors make their way to a nearby geological research station for supplies, and finds water and a spaceship they could use to get escape, though the latter lacks power cells. Everything seems to be going almost fine, until the passengers discover a rather nasty but light-sensitive species living in the caves under the moon’s surface. Good news: Since the moon is in constant sunlight, the dark-loving beasties can’t come out to menace our intrepid heroes. Bad news: In a few days, the moon is going to experience a triple eclipse. That’s right – all three suns will be obscured, a month-long event that occurs every 22 years, which means that, hey, the monsters can come out to play, which rather gruesomely explains what happened to the conspicuously absent research team. Of all the stupid sucky timing…

As the surviving passengers race to get supplies back to the ship, the eclipse begins, and the monsters emerge from the caves and attack. Riddick reveals that he had illegal surgery performed on his eyes while he was locked up in a prison called Butcher Bay to give him perfect night vision – necessary for survival, as the place was basically a deep dark hole – leaving the rest of the passengers dependent upon him to guide them to safety. Johns, however, is still hell-bent on turning in Riddick for the bounty on his head, and the lines between hero, anti-hero, and pure monster become blurred as the shadows close in on all of them…

Pitch Black pretty much flew in under the radar on its original release, and I didn’t even known much about it when I rented it. I hadn’t heard of any of the actors in it, least of all Vin Diesel (who has become a major star). I was overall pleased, though, when I watched it. The overarching plot was simple, focusing almost entirely on their arrival on the moon (apparently called Hades) and the discovery of Very Bad Things there with them, and how they react when they find Yet Another reason to be afraid of the dark. The character of Riddick has since been expanded upon in other media, but here he’s basically That Scary Dude with the right amount of badassery to face off against things that might even be nastier than he is.

And the monsters – variously called bio-raptors or demons (and both terms fit) – are nasty critters. Because light burns them, you only get a few clear looks at them, leaving you to imagine what could have slaughtered all the inhabitants of a research station and apparently everything else on the planet, all the while navigating with eerie whoops and howls like evil dolphins. They are ravenous and tenacious, and while they’re not the brightest monsters I’ve seen, what they lack in smarts they make up for in sheer Eat Your Face factor. Having set up Riddick as a nasty customer himself, the bio-raptors mainly serve to demonstrate that he is not the worst thing the universe can create, not by a long shot.

So, if you’re looking for a good dark, scary movie, check out Pitch Black. While Vin Diesel has since achieved starhood, this movie is a nice look at where he started, and a nice little horror movie in its own right.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

02/08/2011 1 comment

Some believe that a zombie movie should be philosophical, offering some form of deep social commentary on the state of humanity, how we treat our fellow man, consumerism, the evils of this or that common social ill. Others believe that a zombie movie should be terrifying, menacing us with the creeping horror that is our own animated dead, tirelessly pursuing us with the simple goal of eating our flesh.

Then there’s these guys.

Shaun of the Dead is a romantic zombie comedy (technically, a zom-rom-com) directed by Edgar Wright, starring Simon “Hot Fuzz” Pegg (who also co-wrote), Nick “Hot Fuzz” Frost, Kate “This Little Life” Ashfield, Lucy “Sex Lives of the Potato Men” Davis, Dylan “Run, Fatboy, Run” Moran, Peter “Run, Fatboy, Run” Serafinowicz, and Bill “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” Nighy.

Shaun (Pegg) is a loser. He fails in his career (a sales manager who gets no respect from his co-workers), his home life (his housemate Pete (Serafinowicz) is annoyed by Simon’s best friend Ed (Frost) living on their couch and selling marijuana), his family life (his relationship with his stepfather (Nighy) is… rocky at best), and his love life (his girlfriend Liz (Ashfield) is sick of going to the Winchester pub every night, and wants to do something – anything – with Shaun that doesn’t involve dragging Ed along). After yet another romantic failure (forgetting to reserve a table at a posh restaurant for a romantic couples’ evening like he promised Liz he would), Shaun’s life seems to be falling apart. With all these personal problems hanging over his head, he doesn’t even notice the zombie apocalypse happening around him for a full half day.

When he does notice, Shaun realizes he has to man up and save the day. Why him? First of all, he’s the hero, and second of all, the only other protagonist nearby is Ed. Think Ed will save the day? Didn’t think so. A plan is hatched that will allow Shaun to pick up Liz from her friends’ flat, rescue his parents from certain doom, reconcile with his stepdad, redeem himself with Liz, and all hole up at the Winchester until the whole thing blows over. Sounds simple? Of course it does. Think it will go off without a hitch? Of course it won’t.

Shaun of the Dead is a tongue-in-cheek take on the zombie apocalypse movie, acknowledging once and for all how hard it is to make a scary zombie movie anymore by simply not trying. The humor is subtle and dry, with a lot of missed important events happening in the background while the oblivious main characters go about their business, and piles of shout-outs and nods to previous zombie movies. Shaun and Ed are unapologetic losers, in sharp contrast to the instant competancy many zombie movie heroes scratch up, and they spend a lot of the movie just trying to get back to the baseline loserhood that they call normal.

The zombies, of course, are the classic Romero “slow zombies”, staggering and shambling patiently towards you with the goal of eating your flesh, though they do show signs of remaining humanity (at one end of the spectrum, they can be fooled by the living heroes pretending to be zombies, while on the other, they mindlessly go about their daily habits in the tradition of most of the Romero zombies and occasionally seem to have dim memories of how things “should” be). The zombie gore can be hilariously jarring when compared with the tone of the rest of the movie, but the whole thing works as an affectionate parody of the whole genre.

So, if you like zombie movies but are sick of the ones that take themselves too damn seriously, pick up Shaun of the Dead. It’s quirky, shambling, flesh-eating fun.