Capricorn One (Hyams, 1977)

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Toss an arm-load of rotten eggs into a crowded street and chances are five out of every ten’ll hit a conspiracy theorist convinced we never went to the moon at all. I’m still not convinced about that. What I do know is that O.J. Simpson nearly made it to Mars. Yes, nearly. That is, until powerful men from On High decided to shut an almighty trapdoor on his face with compatriots Sam Waterston and James Brolin buried deep in the hole with him.

Back in 1978 these great actors – well, two great actors and O.J. – were venerated astronauts, but their long-awaited mission to Mars became an expenditure the American government could no longer justify to itself. Of course, that didn’t stop them orchestrating an elaborate pantomime to appease the flag-waving multitudes, and running with it to the bitter end.

They hijacked the three patriots – perplexed but unafraid at first – from the Capricorn One, secreted them in an old military warehouse for months on end and let the American public believe in the ‘reality’ of unexplored outer limits of space being breeched by mankind for the very first time.

A kindly doctor is charged with explaining the situation to our three heroes and he bemoans the quirks of fate in an eloquent manner, levering his argument with that old standby: this is for the Greater Good of the world’s greatest nation.

Quite a production this would be, sealing a trio of men in the tomb of a makeshift set made up of tinfoil crafts and red sand. They denied them access to the outside world naturally – even their blissfully unaware families who would wait, biting their trembling nails, for every minute detail of the flight to be relayed back to them.

Then something horrible happens: many months into this elaborate hoax, this simulation that even NASA officials believe to be real, a heat shield separates aboard the imaginary shuttle. Normally this would mean death for its occupants. Suddenly three astronauts sequestered in the desert are having their corpses described to the rest of the world via news reports.

Yes – it’s time to run! And they do, though not getting very far at first in a plane with mere droplets of fuel in its tank. So into the desert they race on foot, spreading out on different routes to avoid a mass capture. Will they be eliminated one by one? Or can at least one of them reach even a tiny, forlorn pocket of civilisation so that the biggest conspiracy in history can be blown wide open?

Director Peter Hyams either had a very vivid imagination or he knew something the rest of the world could only conceive of in their most outlandish, probably drunken, speculations. But Capricorn One, like his later, equally entertaining films Outland (1981) and The Star Chamber (1983), is slick, superior entertainment with a smart screenplay that defies the illogicality of its set-up to become something entirely plausible.

His casting is crucial to the film’s effectiveness, with Sam Waterston and James Brolin providing real authority. True, it’s hard to hold your own against the method stylings of O.J. and that dazzling array of empty, inscrutable glares he can seemingly conjure at will, but somehow they pull it off.

A fine – and for once, tempered – Elliot Gould plays reporter Robert Caulfield who becomes drawn into the conspiracy when his lowly NASA console-operating friend Elliott Whitter (Robert Walden) gets wind of processes at work on the ‘flight’ that don’t quite compute. When his nosy queries become a little too irksome to Dr. Kelloway (a brilliant Hal Holbrook), he’s made to disappear like smoke as if he never existed. An effective form of elimination unless the apparent illusionist’s most trusted confidante is a nosy journalist. Even Telly Savalas turns up in an inspired and hilarious small role late in the game as an abrasive crop-dusting pilot.

Exceptional widescreen cinematography from Bill Butler, who was fresh off Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) at the time, and a punchy, militaristic score from the greatest film composer in history, the legendary Jerry Goldsmith, complete the package. Though spread over two hours, Capricorn One still feels remarkably tight, assiduously cutting back and forth from the plight of the astronauts to the strained efforts of the elite few attempting to uphold the monstrous façade at whatever the cost. This remains fantastic B-grade fare from a decade that rarely disappoints.

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Only God Forgives (Refn, 2013)

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With the cool quotient amped up to mega-freeze, Ryan Gosling’s performance in Nicolas Winding Refn’s second most recent film establishes a new frontier for minimalist acting. It’s as though the pair have re-imagined ‘Driver’ from their previous collaboration before bleeding every last vestige of emotion from him – emotion he didn’t exactly possess in spades in the first instance. The result is a vacuous, unctuous portrait of violence and revenge, lacking not in cinematic power but in subtext and delicacy.

Only God Forgives is, predictably, stunning to behold: every frame bears the mark of Refn’s extraordinary gift for stylisation for its own sake, fetishistically inflicting striking reds into intricate, painstakingly arrayed set-ups. It’s a shame then that such remarkable care in sculpting scenes with vivid gradations of light and colour is squandered on a transparently empty narrative that barely registers. Gosling’s Julian is a mamma’s boy, held fast in a rigid psychological grasp by the poisonous Crystal, (Kristin Scott Thomas). When she decrees revenge for the killing of her other son, a conscienceless murderer in his last moments as well, Julian becomes her pawn.

But revenge takes a while and Julian’s nemesis-to-be, absurdly corrupt and murderous Thai policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), has a few bodies to sadistically add to the pile as well. This slow motion dance of death will have its inevitable denouement to be sure, and whilst the vacancy that fills out Refn’s lacklustre narrative ultimately sinks it, there’s a trail of memorably staged scenes to admire along the way.

Cliff Martinez, seemingly often channelling Vangelis through a retro synth sound, produces a savage musical beast in accompaniment. His score, more often than not pushed to the foreground by Refn for maximum impact, gives the unfolding drama its contrived sense of horror. It’s one of his finest scores, though its life beyond the film may be limited.

Is Gosling even acting here? If so, he’s establishing new borders for what the term encompasses; his lone, abstract expression, monotonously worn, has revealed suggestive subliminal powers in the past – in Drive (2011) of course, and even recently in The Place Beyond the Pines (2013). Here, it becomes a wearying device employed by Refn to deflect any definable human cognisance of what’s to come. These are not to be taken seriously as humans anyway; Julian and Chang are just near-statues being robotically manoeuvred into place for the inevitable final confrontation.

Only God Forgives (2013) is a disappointing step backward for the prodigiously talented Refn; his screenplay is absolutely the worst of his career. Yet, his garish, deliberately provocative intermingling of violence, colour and aesthetic perfectionism still guarantees a feast for the senses, if not the intellect.

Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, 2012)

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Zero Dark Thirty is a sleek, well-oiled machine. This follow-up to The Hurt Locker (2009) from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal is a lengthy but compelling portrait of obsession that encapsulates terrifyingly modern definitions of terrorism and controversial means to an end. C.I.A agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), over the course of a decade, is portrayed via a resolute, systematic transformation of will. From naïve but flinty rookie operative – whose early exposure to the extraction of information via torture strengthens a weak stomach – she becomes the kind of lead investigator who will take no prisoners in her quest to see Osama Bin Laden’s influence eliminated.

Directed with the invasive, irresistible proficiency we’ve come to expect from Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is a remarkably immersive film though not without flaws. Taking into consideration the length and detailing in the script, the film does possess a sense of grinding relentlessness. This is partially a reflection of the central character, no doubt, but it does mean dramatic impetus is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of broadening the ‘bigger picture’.

Is Chastain’s work all it’s cracked up to be? It’s a steely, gripping performance, certainly, but somewhat devoid of colour or dimension. The relentless pursuit of the shadowy, messianic spectre of Bin Laden reveals a rare fortitude in Maya as her obsession blooms into an inexorable vendetta. We can certainly appreciate her integrity and passion on this level, but the one-track mode of thought tends to both enhance and detract from the film.

A host of quality support performances contribute to what is a flawless ensemble but Australian Jason Clarke deserves special mention for his work as the agent who becomes a valuable mentor to Maya after he first exposes her to the realities of wartime interrogation – scenes which are handled well and without any of the exploitative edge that the adverse publicity which surrounded the film may lead you to believe is present.

The ubiquitous Alexander Desplat turns in another subtly immersive score that – in the same vein of Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders’s work on The Hurt Locker – provides a dark undercurrent without ever drawing undue attention to itself. Then there’s the cinematography of another talented Australian, Greig Fraser, which contributes heavily to the increasingly palpable sense of naturalism conveyed, especially in the lengthy, tense final sequence as the compound that may house Bin Laden is finally breached.

 

The Hidden (Sholder, 1987)

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Maybe once in a journeyman director’s career all the pieces will line up, the stars mysteriously aligned; if so, there’s a chance for something remarkable to occur, and in the case of veteran Jack Sholder, the fateful project was 1987’s The Hidden. Intelligently blending a police manhunt with strong elements of horror and sci-fi, it has – I was pleasantly surprised to discover – survived the intervening decades remarkably well. Earning a shot in the director’s chair on the back of the first Nightmare on Elm Street sequel two years previous, Shoulder delivers the goods with a superbly executed thrill ride featuring two memorable central performances.

L.A. detective Tom Beck (Michael Nouri) and his men are the trail of a ruthless thief and killer engaged in a random spree of terror across the city. With a propensity for stealing Ferraris and blaring heavy-metal music at full blast, Jack DeVries (Chris Mulkey) needs to be stopped, and after an exhilarating chase in the opening sequence, he crashes his car before being ruthlessly pounded by a police artillery. In hospital and near-death, it seems the city’s most wanted criminal has finally come unstuck.

In fact, it’s only the beginning of Beck’s trouble, for DeVries’ body has been nothing but a shell harbouring an alien lifeform, a slithering black worm-like creature that hops from body to body once it senses the weakening physical capabilities of its host. A quiet, undemonstrative FBI agent arrives from Seattle, Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan), his assignment to track down the now dead DeVries, but his concerns are hardly alleviated by the sight of the man’s mortal remains. Confounding Beck with his oblique suggestions of a danger still at large, he keeps the detective frustrated, uncomprehending but intrigued.

Together they hunt for the body-hopping alien, Beck at first convinced of an elaborate scheme tying all the participants together. Before long however, even he becomes a believer as Gallagher, with a secretive past of his own, realises the need to spell out their predicament in black and white to ensure a legitimate chance at tracking the alien down and exterminating it once and for all.

The Hidden succeeds on so many levels, not only as a riveting police thriller, but as a genre film and wicked satire with cleverly suggestive moments of ironic dark humour. Beck and Gallagher are an odd but inspired pairing, with Nouri’s physicality and wearied, hardened edge complemented by MacLachlan’s minimalist underplaying of the outsider and his motivations.

There are clever touches aplenty in the screenplay by Bob Hunt, including a series of light-hearted jabs at the gulf separating the pair’s working processes, the reasons for which remain elusive until well into the film. It’s never clear how it all might end either and even when it seemingly does, Hunt has another neat trick in store for the film’s poignant coda. It’s rare that alien life forms are given the dimensions they are here, with qualities that clearly delineate the hunter from his prey, including empathy for earthly compatriots and a constant pining for simple family values.

Unlike so many films from its era, visually The Hidden has retained a toned-down, drab but gritty appeal that isn’t marred by glaring, grossly anachronistic fashion or style; much of that can be attributed to the fine work of production designers Mick and C.J. Strawn and cinematographer Jacques Haitkin. Another successful component are the many well-chosen pieces of rock music regularly inserted into the action, fitting comfortably between the harsh, jagged electronic daggers of Michael Convertino’s score.

Sholder has been a prolific workman over the years but nothing in his subsequent output – which seems to have ended in premature retirement in 2004 – comes close to what he achieved on The Hidden, a mostly forgotten but genuine treasure from the ‘80’s, one still highly regarded today as more than just a B-grade or cult classic.

The Killer (Woo, 1989)

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Bullets flying, bodies splaying, white doves scattering: all the John Woo trademarks are present in scene after scene of explosive action supplemented with dreamy Asian colours and simplified melodic electronic music. In The Killer (1989), an astonishing early work that brought Woo’s name to the attention of the world, the director strives for operatic heights in a familiar, but daringly realised tale of the perplexing duality adjoining adversaries on opposing sides of the law.

In one corner is hired assassin Jeff (Chow Yun-Fat), a man with only a peripheral sense of morality, despite the ruthless efficiency with which he performs his duty. When he accidentally blinds a nightclub singer, Jennie (Sally Yeh), during his latest hit, his sense of guilt compels him to look out for her. He befriends her without revealing his identity but soon has both the police and the triad he works for on his trail for allowing his identity to become widely known.

Leading the charge for his capture is Inspector Li (Danny Lee), a wayward cop whose obsessive, single-minded approach to crime solving doesn’t always endear him to his superiors. It’s his task to defend an important figure at a public ceremony, a man who turns out to be Jeff’s next target. The subsequent chase draws the two men together where they unexpectedly become aligned by circumstance. Less unexpected is the sight of two men in a familiar stand-off pose with guns pointed at one another. This unique signifier, a Woo trademark, is an insistent, recurring image he uses like a visual motif.

The most intriguing element of The Killer explores the affinity these two men share when forced to become allies to save their lives as the triad closes in with its army of hapless opponents. Li’s curiosity is piqued by both Jeff’s decision to save an imperilled girl during their shootout, as well as his obvious affection for Jennie; in time he senses, in the other man, another outsider straying beyond the expected boundaries of his profession, dubious and morally repugnant to him, though it may be.

This notion of a unifying strand binding the two men only strengthens as their lives are placed in greater jeopardy. Jeff bemoans the dawn of a new era, one he refuses to accept in offering his life or that of Jennie as a premium for his perceived sins; in a reflective moment, he explains that “we’re too nostalgic” to his handler and only friend, Fung (Kong Chu). It becomes increasingly obvious that he and Li’s destinies are entwined, and as twin images of the other, Li needs to assume the mindset of his adversary to track him down.

Michael Mann may have explored similar ground with slightly more sophistication in his later masterpiece Heat (1995), but here Woo infuses his occasionally melodramatic tale with distinctly Asian shadings; equally true is that no American director in history, not even Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch (1969), has achieved the sustained level of exhilarating gunplay that Woo achieves in The Killer.

The battles are furious and bloody, carried off with extraordinary flair and technical precision; despite a series of impressive set pieces through the first two acts however, they prove to be only part of a minor preamble to the final showdown in a church, where the film begins and ends.

The triad descends with its gun-toting minions, and Jeff and Li are backed into a corner with the helpless Jennie cowering beside them. The would-be executioners are as dumb as they are lacking in any notion of strategic attack, but as wave after wave emerge from the dark night, Woo elevates his systematic slaughter to the level of high art, replete with painstakingly choreographed carnage, balletic slow-mo, crude but painterly framings stretched with a range of garish colouring – in short, an assault on the senses that’s impossible to deflect.

Both Lee and Yun-Fat are exceptional, the latter providing that inescapable, sublime charisma that marks all his performances, whilst Lee is an attractive reminder of the kind of renegade, barely-defendable M.O’s of Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan and officers of his ilk, and endlessly embodied in authority-resistant, cinematic anti-heroes ever since.

An essential, defining moment in Hong Kong cinema, The Killer is a staggering film and John Woo’s indisputable masterpiece; it’s sure to be regarded as monotonous and repellent to some for wallowing in its brutal, stylistic excesses, and as passionately glorified and revered by the rest of us for the very same reasons. It remains a visceral funhouse ride, a kinetic, gore-soaked shooting gallery brought to vivid, existential life; in short, though far removed from reality, it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen.