Iro's One Movie a Day Thread

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1. The Dark Knight

I consider it a classic.
2. The Dark Knight Rises

It had some political themes. I didn't find hero/ villain lines to be so clearly cut. My favorites were Bane, imprisoned Bruce (and the theme of the prison) and Miranda at the end.
3. Batman Begins

Fear theme was the best in it. The effect of what you do to who you are is also worthy of consideration. For me it was least memorable movie of the trilogy, though.

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I would still rate each one higher.
Who wouldn't?
I really just want you all angry and confused the whole time.
Iro's Top 100 Movies v3.0

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#674 - Return to the 36th Chamber
Lau Kar-leung, 1980

When a group of ruthless Manchurians interfere with the operating of a Chinese dyeing mill, a small-time conman is brought in to ameliorate the situation in one way or another.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is probably one of my favourite martial-arts films thanks to the lavish production values provided by the Shaw Brothers studios and the physically talented performers that take centre-stage in the tale of Gordon Liu's young Chinese student who opts to fight back against the province's Manchurian overlords by mastering kung-fu at the local Shaolin temple. Two sequels were made to the film - this film and Disciples of the 36th Chamber, the latter of which I already reviewed. I was ultimately unimpressed with Disciples of the 36th Chamber because it decided to play the original film's training-centric narrative for disappointingly broad comedy using an extremely foolish lead who had to be bailed out of trouble by Liu's strict Shaolin monk; even the action-packed finale did little to redeem the film as a whole. As a result, I was hoping that the original film's other sequel would at least prove to be a bit more palatable thanks to the fact that Liu apparently played the actual lead in this one. Unfortunately, it seems that The 36th Chamber of Shaolin really wasn't intended to yield sequels as Return to the 36th Chamber proves underwhelming despite my relatively heightened expectations.

The main problem comes from the fact that Gordon Liu does not play student-turned-warrior-monk San Te, who he played in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Disciples of the 36th Chamber. Instead, he plays a lowly con artist named Chu, who is willing to impersonate Shaolin master San Te if it gets him some money. This impresses some naive Chinese dye-mill workers who want to use him in order to fool some vindictive Manchurians who have taken over their workplace. Of course, this causes no end of trouble as Chu is ultimately made to serve the temple, who understandably treat him as a nuisance. This leads to Liu having to go through another extended training montage that attempts to milk some comedy out of his irresponsible novice being made to endure some punishing training (most memorably involving his being made to wash up at a well without using a bucket). While The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was able to make its hero undergoing various trials fairly compelling due to their inventive nature and serious approach to the material, here the attempt to make Liu's character into a foolish Jackie Chan type fails pretty miserably and makes the bulk of the film a bit of a chore to watch. Having it so that there is an experienced Shaolin monk named San Te in the film (even though he is being played by a different actor) only serves to make things a bit more illogical and confusing. At first I thought that Liu was originally going to be revealed to be San Te disguising himself as a beggar but the truth is actually more disappointing for a variety of reasons.

As poor as Return to the 36th Chamber is, it isn't totally terrible as it not only has the eye-catching Shaw Brothers aesthetic going on but also manages to provide an appropriately exciting climax during its final fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, to get there you do have to sit through a rather dry eighty minutes where the bare-bones plot rehashes that of the original film in a way that initially seems confusing and feels longer despite being shorter. The decision to add a comical bent to the proceedings fails because Liu is much better at being serious than clowning around like Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung. I guess I should be grateful that the humour isn't quite as exaggerated as that of Disciples of the 36th Chamber, which was definitely undone as a result of that decision. The innovation that made the original film's training sequences so memorable is absent here, neutering this film's main draw considerably. Your appreciation of this film may depend on how much you like old-school martial-arts films, but outside of its ending there's very little to make Return to the 36th Chamber stand out on its own terms.

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#675 - Dead Man
Jim Jarmusch, 1995

After a timid accountant is mortally wounded during a shoot-out, he meets a Native American who intends to take him on a spiritual journey.

The main reason why the Western has proved such an easy genre to deconstruct over the past few decades is because the triumphant mythology surrounding brave pioneers and righteous lawmen didn't exactly reflect the harsher realities of life on the lawless frontier. Though old-school classics may have hinted at the darker side of the Wild West, they were still effectively constricted by an underlying dedication to championing the legendary side of things. John Ford's The Searchers is a prime example in how it tried to show how John Wayne's seemingly noble quest to rescue his niece from the Native Americans that murdered his other relatives was fraught with moral ambiguity and racist cruelty (to say nothing of the off-screen implications of rape and murder), yet it still couldn't help but play into the inherently exciting prospect of seeing cowboy icon Wayne swagger his way across the screen and conquer any threat with ease. Still, that was one of many films that ended up being steps towards more nuanced cinematic portrayals of the Wild West over the following decades. This brings us to Dead Man, a film by the notoriously idiosyncratic Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch has worked in a variety of genres over the years as he's made movies about vampires, assassins, prisoners, and spies, yet his unique cinematic sensibilities can be felt across every single film he's ever made. Dead Man sees him take on the Western, and in doing so he makes what might just be his masterpiece.

An interminable prologue that takes place aboard an infernal-looking train introduces us to Bill Blake (Johnny Depp), a meek young man who is moving from Cleveland to the ominously named town of Machine in order to start a new job working as an accountant in a steel factory. Once he arrives in the filthy and miserable Machine, he soon discovers that the job that he was promised has been given to someone else instead. After being run out of the factory by its shotgun-wielding boss (Robert Mitchum), he hooks up with a flower girl (Mili Avital). However, her ex (Gabriel Byrne) stumbles in and opens fire on the two of them. Blake manages to kill Byrne, but not before getting a bullet lodged in his chest. After making his escape, he ends up being resuscitated by a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer). Nobody becomes convinced that Blake is actually English poet and painter William Blake and works to take him on a spiritual journey so as to return him to the spirit world (which, given the title and the bullet in the chest, doesn't really feel like much of a spoiler). Meanwhile, it is revealed that Mitchum is actually Byrne's father, which prompts him to hire three extremely vicious bounty hunters (Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, and Eugene Byrd) to track down Blake and kill him.

While many revisionist Westerns are unflinching in their portrayal of the frontier as an extremely grim and horrible place, few of them actually get under my skin as much as Dead Man does. There's no pastoral charm to the frontier town where the folks are miserable and one of the first things Blake sees upon his arrival is a man forcing a woman to service him at gunpoint. Even his dalliance with the kindhearted Avitil is short-lived thanks to the arrival of Byrne, and even then he's not so much a moustache-twirling villain as an incredibly depressed and lonely (but still homicidal) person who seems to welcome the incompetent Blake taking several shots to actually hit him. Even Blake's trip into the wild with Nobody, who is more or less the only friend he's got despite their initial friction, is tempered with unease as he soon realises that there's a price on his head. He may not personally be aware of the bounty hunters hired to kill him, but the film is definitely sure to check in on their activities from time to time anyway. In doing so, it reveals that, while the loquacious Wincott and the stubborn Byrd are reasonably sane as far as hired killers go, Henriksen in particular is practically the incarnation of pure evil and stands out as the greatest monster in a film packed with horrible people. Even leaving aside the men tracking him, Blake also has to contend with the possibility that every single person he runs into during his trip through the wild is potentially dangerous regardless of whether or not they know about the bounty. Also, the violence tends to be ugly and senseless in a way that defies simple glorification (though it does make something of an exception for Blake and Nobody since they are the closest this film gets to having heroic characters).

Considering Jarmusch's tendency to depend on characterisation in lieu of plot, it's a good thing that he's stacked the cast with some great actors. Depp gives one of his best performances here, selling Blake's progression from hapless city-slicker to confident outlaw extremely well through soft vocals and polite desperation. Farmer carries the film well as he plays a character who admittedly doesn't have much of an arc outside of his quest to help Blake reach the spirit world, but he proves such a charismatic foil to the uncharacteristically understated Depp. Nobody gets more backstory than Blake himself as he describes things such as his traumatic upbringing that involves being shunned by his people and paraded around as a noble savage by the white man. Their odd-couple chemistry is magnificent even though the bulk of the dialogue comes from the extremely talkative Nobody. While most of the film concerns their travails alone, the rest of the cast is still pretty solid even though several actors only get a scene or two. In his final acting role, Western veteran Mitchum is still capable of channeling considerable menace as a ruthless industrialist who will aim a shotgun at anyone who dares to challenge his authority and who is so thoroughly business-minded that his contract on Blake even prioritises the recovery of the horse that Blake stole. Weather-beaten character actor Henriksen proves a chilling presence as the extremely determined and sadistic bounty hunter, while the gravel-voiced Wincott proves a darkly amusing foil as he also seems incapable of shutting up (which I suppose makes them very evil counterparts to Blake and Nobody). Recognisable actors will show up in the smallest of roles - John Hurt plays Mitchum's sycophantic subordinate, Crispin Glover plays a prophetic train engineer, and Alfred Molina plays a gleefully racist missionary. There's even an trio of deranged fur trappers played by Billy Bob Thornton, Jared Harris, and Iggy Pop, whose one scene together aptly demonstrates the film's very off-kilter sense of humour.

As far as technique goes, Dead Man is still a sublime piece of work. Jarmusch once again teams with Robby Müller (who is responsible for shooting quite a few of my favourite films) to create a deliberately monochromatic portrait of the West that makes excellent use of stark balance, whether it's showing the chugging of a steam engine or the stillness of pale forests and gloomy skies. Even the film's approach to violence is depicted in a variety of styles that range from the darkly comical (such as the scene with the fur trappers) to the surprisingly righteous (any time Blake shoots somebody) to the genuinely disturbing (the infamous "religious icon" scene, which still makes me cringe a little in its brutality). The episodic nature of the film is reflected in the use of scene transitions that involve fading to black, which only adds to the film's dreamlike pace. Of course, I don't think anything defines Dead Man quite as much as the guitar score by legendary musician Neil Young. Though it's arguably not to everyone's tastes, it doesn't really matter. The largely-improvised guitar work shifts between acoustic melancholy and electric noise at the drop of a hat and appropriately accentuates the grim mix of humour and existentialism that makes the film work.

Dead Man does have moments where it threatens to grow a little too slow and maudlin for its own good, but it never stays that way for long as it traces Blake's bizarre odyssey through a Wild West that is very far removed from your average John Wayne film or even your average Clint Eastwood film. It says a lot about Jarmusch's oblique style of both writing and directing that a film as brutal and ponderous as Dead Man can actually be considered one of his more accessible pieces of work. Though it may work to depict the frontier as a living hell in more ways than one, there are still many moments of poignancy scattered throughout. The film is buoyed by a stellar cast, with Depp and Farmer proving a great pair of leads around which a revolving door of impressive performers can orbit. Other great collaborators appear behind the scenes as Müller provides some sublime cinematography that is capable of capturing desolation and beauty in equal measure, while Young's cacophonous score really does make for one of the greatest soundtracks I've ever heard. I definitely consider it one of my favourite Westerns and with good reason - it not only offers something different, but it offers it with brilliance.

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Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship.

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#676 - El Topo
Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970

A gunslinger travels through the desert and encounters a variety of bizarre individuals on his journey.

When I first started getting into film as a serious hobby, I heard about a great number of films that were intriguing not just because of their apparent quality but also because of their sheer rareness. This much is definitely true of the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, who I first heard about after reading about his sophomore feature El Topo. The film, a surreal Western about the eponymous gunslinger and the many strange experiences that he has in his quest to become the greatest gunman in the world, had built a cult reputation as one of the original "midnight movies" yet it was still something of a rarity when I first heard about it. Eventually, it got released on local DVD in either 2007 or 2008 and I naturally jumped at the chance to see this legendarily weird film. Naturally, I really liked it and went on to watch a few more Jodorowsky films. However, I never really got around to re-watching it until recently, when I found out that there'd be a proper theatrical screening of it recently I found the prospect very interesting and naturally settled down to revisit El Topo.

Unfortunately, if there's a problem that seems to unite every Jodorowsky film (or at least those I've seen more than once), it's that the extreme emphasis on surrealist spectacle above all else does mean that the film is bound to lose a lot of its power on repeat viewings. El Topo doesn't exactly have the most complex of plots as it pinballs from vignette to vignette in very much the same way that El Topo himself goes in search of a purpose. As such, the film is arguably broken into three relatively identifiable parts. The first sees El Topo and his son follow a trail of human wreckage caused by a corrupt military official and his degenerate subordinates. The second sees El Topo traveling with a woman who encourages him to fight against the four greatest gunfighters in the land so that he can be the very best. The third sees El Topo working to free a community of deformed cave-dwellers from their subterranean home by earning the charity of the local townsfolk and building a tunnel with the proceeds. To be fair, there is a clear progression as El Topo starts off being nigh-indistinguishable from the stereotypical Western anti-hero who will fight against the unambiguously evil on behalf of the innocents that they terrorise (even if he does so in some incredibly vicious ways). Things get murkier as his quest to become the best gunslinger alive subverts the expected narrative as El Topo realises that he is severely outclassed by his opponents not just in terms of fighting abilities but also in terms of their personal philosophies, which do recall states of enlightenment instead of his misguided quest for glory. Finally, there is his attempt to redeem himself by being reborn as a monk-like figure and intending to save the less fortunate, which starts off promisingly but soon falls apart for a multitude of reasons. Underneath the film's bizarre imagery, there's a recognisable structure.

Despite Jodorowsky's attempt to supplant a recognisable Western storyline with a cavalcade of images designed to evoke everything from slapstick humour to spiritual contemplation, the second time around it's just boring. Sure, this time around I can concentrate on what the movie is trying to say underneath its superficial weirdness, but it's not really saying too much of note. There's a fairly flat juxtaposition of religious subjects, with El Topo's journey being framed as one towards Zen enlightenment in a way that feeds into the film's vicious satire of Christianity (which is best exemplified by what is quite possibly the most messed-up game of Russian roulette in cinema history), to say nothing of the perverted ways in which bandits are seen mistreating a group of monks early on in the film. The prospect of El Topo dueling the greatest gunfighters fills the second act reasonably well, though it's still given over to dwelling on his relationship with the woman he rescues (which does take some unfortunate turns, such as when he grants her his Moses-like powers to find food and water in the desert by raping her). Even the very unorthodox duels that take place only go so far as they are not given over to tension so much as quasi-philosophical mumblings that define the four masters and explain just why they are fundamentally better at everything than El Topo.

While I doubt that Jodorowsky packs out his films with confrontational imagery for the sake of mere counter-cultural shock value, it's not like the meanings behind them come across as any more profound when the shock value has worn off. As a result, El Topo does seem awfully compromised on a second viewing. It's technically decent in terms of cinematography and production design, adding in some interesting touches such as El Topo's leather ensemble or the omnipresent iconography of the Eye of Providence scattered around the town. Even though I haven't seen it in what must be several years now, this time around I found it a serious slog (which seemed especially pronounced given the theatrical setting - surely one of the original midnight movies would have proved even better with an appreciative audience, but sadly this was not the case here). I suppose that El Topo has enough in the way of compelling visuals to make it worth watching at least once, but a second viewing really does not yield much more except a clarification of not only a lack of depth but also some more problematic aspects in regards to subjects like women, homosexuality, and animal cruelty.

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#677 - Child's Play
Tom Holland, 1988

A single mother buys her son a talking doll for his birthday, which just so happens to have been possessed by the soul of a dead serial killer.

I guess this review is coming from a difficult place considering how I watched the back half of Child's Play on television at some point in the past year, which would undoubtedly suck a fair bit of tension out of even the best horror movies. Child's Play is definitely not one of the best horror movies, though it's not for a lack of trying. I had liked Holland's attempt to update the classic vampire movie for the 1980s with Fright Night, so I figured that he might be able to wrangle something worthwhile out of the "killer doll" sub-genre. Killer dolls seem to occupy a bit of a no-man's-land when it comes to being horrifying because it is superficially silly compared to other sub-genres yet it still plays on enough genuinely unsettling fears that it's managed to have staying power over the course of decades. Child's Play is pretty straightforward in that regard by having a mortally wounded serial killer (Brad Dourif) uses his knowledge of voodoo in order to channel his soul into the nearest available vessel, which just so happens to be a talking doll. Though the doll is torn out of its box and covered in human blood, it still ends up in the hands of a back-alley peddler who sells it to a single mother (Catherine Hicks) who's desperate to give her young son the right birthday present.

The premise is ridiculous enough that the sequels understandably aimed to play up the inherently comical nature of a foul-mouthed kids' toy with homicidal tendencies. Even now, much of the appeal of the original Child's Play comes from the silliness more so than any actual terror. Of course, this film also falls prey to the same (arguably necessary) flaw as Fright Night in that it spends a lot of time on various people refusing to believe the truth about the supernatural threat until it's too late. Half the film becomes quite the chore as a result, picking up only as Chucky becomes much more open about his violent scheming. The film at least tries to pull a Jaws and capture Chucky's initial antics through first-person shots and brief glimpses, but that does very little compared to scenes where he's seen in full complete with uncanny animatronics and Dourif's snarling voice. There's more fun to be had at seeing Chucky take all sorts of violence on his own more so than inflict it in others, with the effects work at once being decent and also amusing. Unfortunately, that's not enough to really redeem Child's Play as a solid film in its own right.

Bride of Chucky was my favourite as a kid but i loved the first three too, it is one of those series' i refuse to revisit because after seeing an excellent teaser for it Seed of Chucky turned out horrible. I imagine the first four would feel the exact same and i would rather preserve the mememory. Saying that i've always been baffled at the idea of them scaring anyone, even the more serious first two (from what i can remember) i found funny at an early age. Also you are spot on with the "no one believes them" part of some Horror movies.

Great write up as usual

28 days...6 hours...42 minutes...12 seconds
I think I've only seen Bride and Seed of Chucky from start to finish. The other films sort of bleed together in a blur of some scenes here and some scenes there.
"A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Why, sometimes in life, it's the only weapon we have."

Suspect's Reviews

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#678 - Unforgiven
Clint Eastwood, 1992

A young gunslinger seeks out a retired outlaw to help him claim a bounty on a pair of cowboys who have disfigured a woman.

"Straightforward" is the ideal word to characterise Clint Eastwood's work as an actor and as a director, and Unforgiven is arguably the prime example of how well he works in both those regards. The Westerns he's directed have naturally tended to be revisionist ones, whether it's the twisted morality tale of High Plains Drifter or the deconstructive ensemble drama of The Outlaw Josey Wales. As of writing, Unforgiven is the last Western he's both acted in and directed and it definitely serves as quite the concluding statement to the man's work in the genre. As far as its deconstructive angle goes, it's pretty simple. The main story begins in the small town of Big Whiskey, where a cowboy has cut up the face of one of the prostitutes (Anna Levine) that works at the local saloon. Her colleagues want the law to come down hard on both the perpetrator and his friend, but the town sheriff (Gene Hackman) decides to fine the two men rather than resort to corporal punishment. Unhappy with the perceived miscarriage of justice, the prostitutes pool their resources to put up a bounty on both men, which starts to draw all sorts of attention. Eastwood himself plays a former outlaw who has given up his notoriously violent ways for the love of a good woman, settling down on a farm and raising two kids. The story begins a few years after his wife's passing, showing Eastwood trying to keep the farm afloat even as his pigs are becoming diseased. It is at this point where a fresh-faced young man (Jaimz Woolvert) arrives on his property with a proposition: team up with him in order to claim the aforementioned reward.

While the most obvious subversion of the Western genre would definitely be scenes featuring an iconic Western actor like Eastwood failing at even the most basic cowboy tasks such as firing a gun or mounting a horse, the deconstruction naturally runs a little deeper than that. There is definitely something disagreeable about the idea that the punishment for a woman being permanently disfigured amounts to a handful of horses being paid to the saloon owner who employs her, yet that doesn't quite seem to excuse the other women's decision to hire gunmen to straight-up murder both men (especially when the decision to post a bounty is made mainly by Frances Fisher as the headstrong and temperamental group leader, whose colleagues just go along with the plan). To this end, Hackman is set up to be a major antagonist with his extremely imbalanced dispensation of justice, especially when his lax punishment of the face-cutting cowboy is contrasted against his uncompromising beat-down and humiliation of a pompous English gunslinger (Richard Harris) who does nothing more than choose to disregard the town's strict no-guns-allowed policy. His life outside the job, where he is seen trying to fulfill a very American goal of building a house with his own two hands, indicates that he's much more complex than your typical corrupt sheriff; one can definitely find themselves questioning whether or not his hard-line tactics (as masked by his outwardly friendly demeanour) are actually effective or not, even though there's definitely something fundamentally tyrannical about the way he runs the town.

Western mythology and its creation is definitely a major theme that runs through Unforgiven, especially when it's understood within the universe of the film. The main reason that Woolvert seeks out Eastwood is due to the many stories he's heard about Eastwood's dark and troubled past, constantly expressing disbelief at the fact that the seemingly incompetent old man is the same one he's heard so much about. Meanwhile Eastwood only ever seems to reflect on his past deeds with both regret and confusion, only ever opening up about the truth to his long-time riding partner (Morgan Freeman). The word of mouth that exaggerates various tales (such as Levine's disfigurement being described as even more vicious than it actually is) is embodied in the form of a writer (Saul Rubinek) who follows Harris around and documents his exploits, embellishing them as necessary to make for best-selling tales of adventure and excitement. When Hackman is ready to set the record straight not just about Harris's experiences but also provides an engaging insight into the real psychology of the Wild West, he proves a more fascinating subject for Rubinek's work than Harris. It's an easy enough metaphor for how the easy thrills of older and morally unambiguous Western fiction can easily be superseded by the less overtly exciting but fundamentally more interesting tales that are rooted in realism, though Rubinek's fascination with capturing the truth of the matter is still ultimately seen as a nuisance.

As rich in thematic content as it may be, Unforgiven is still an extremely solid film in just about every regard. On the acting front, things are solid, especially in the case of the four old professionals that headline the film. Eastwood gets to take his usual squinting badass persona and feed it some much-needed vulnerability that really adds depth to later events. He gets in some appropriately sardonic camaraderie with Freeman, who provides something of an intermediary between the embittered Eastwood and the petulant Woolvert. Hackman understandably won an Oscar for his work as the sheriff whose avuncular attitude and dedication to maintaining law and order by any means necessary ultimately make him into a greater villain than any face-cutting ne'er-do-well; he carrying scenes well whether through humourous interplay with others, letting his inner menace shine through, or a combination of both those factors. Harris plays a smaller role than expected, though his debonair British charm and the subsequent derailment thereof make for entertaining scenes. Fisher and Levine exist as more than just plot catalysts, which Woolvert does pretty well playing a character who could have very easily been too annoying but here provides the right air of arrogant bluster and childish insecurity.

The film's visual approach lacks ostentatious style by design, with Eastwood's workmanlike sense of competence proving solid without drawing too much attention to itself. If anything, what really drew my attention this time around was the approach to sound. Though there's a lilting acoustic guitar theme (composed by Eastwood himself) that plays repeatedly throughout the film and also a fair few instances of traditional orchestral score underpinning dramatic moments, these pieces aren't quite as effective as the deployment of background noise. Given how prone the film is to having stormy sequences, it's impressive how much the rumbling thunder is used to emphasise certain beats within scenes without coming across as overdone. In Unforgiven, a well-timed thunderclap does more than any bombastic orchestra could hope to achieve. That is one of many reasons why the film manages to impress time and time again despite seeming to try too hard to do so; it's as effortless a masterpiece as you're likely to find.

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#679 - Jacob's Ladder
Adrian Lyne, 1990

A Vietnam veteran tries to readjust to civilian life but is constantly experiencing paranoia and hallucinations.

Warning: the following review contains unmarked spoilers for Jacob's Ladder.

Pulling off the type of twist ending that changes how an audience will interpret a story the second time around actually seems to be pretty difficult. One can pick up on all the little details that initially seemed insignificant but now add entire layers of depth to the film; then again, one could easily start seeing gaps in the film's established internal logic that have been overlooked in favour of having a left-field development with which to conclude the story in an impressive manner. Jacob's Ladder somehow manages to be the kind of film where the ending is supposed to change everything, but re-watching the film does not provide a sense of added depth or reductive inconsistency so much as...weightlessness. The film itself still seems like a decent example of a psychological thriller as it follows Jacob (Tim Robbins), a Vietnam veteran who now works in a New York post office. Though he's living a fairly normal life now with his girlfriend and co-worker (Elizabeth Peņa), he is still haunted by the thought of his estranged family and his traumatic experiences during the war. That's before he starts seeing more unnerving things take place, such as uncanny figures following him at a distance. As his hallucinations and physical well-being worsen, he starts to realise that there might be a greater conspiracy at work here...

Credit where credit's due, Jacob's Ladder holds up okay thanks mainly to the fairly effective atmosphere it builds up. Robbins makes for an appropriately uncomfortable everyman protagonist who believably communicates the wide variety of emotions one might experience during a paranoid breakdown, while Peņa does well as his beleagured girlfriend who tries to be supportive through the strain. Other recognisable character actors lend weight to fairly limited roles, whether it's Danny Aiello as Jacob's philosophical chiropractor or Jason Alexander as a sleazy attorney. While the plot doesn't exactly feel especially interesting in and of itself, it's at least compensated for by some fairly inventive uses of horror-like visuals such as inhuman vibrating heads or that entire hospital scene that takes place late in the film. The more overtly disturbing sights on display are enough to compensate for a somewhat underwhelming plot that is not exactly improved by foreknowledge of the ending and a comprehension of its rather shallow religious subtext.

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#680 - Dredd
Pete Travis, 2012

In a futuristic dystopia where the law is enforced by elite police officers known as "judges", one such judge and his trainee must fight their way through a skyscraper full of violent criminals.

Given how the last attempt to bring dystopian anti-hero Judge Dredd to the silver screen ended up being the disastrous 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle, it's not like there was an especially high bar to clear when it came to delivering a follow-up. Surprisingly enough, 2012's Dredd features a far less convoluted plot than the framed-for-murder plot of the Stallone film, instead settling on a very simple variation on the old Die Hard plot. It begins by establishing the ruined world of the future, which extends to a single grimy and densely-populated mega-city surrounded on all sides by inhospitable post-nuclear wasteland. The crime inside the mega-city is so extreme in terms of frequency and severity that any law is kept by an organisation of enforcers known as "judges", who must make snap-decisions when it comes to dispensing justice - though this can extend to imprisoning people, a lot of the time it simply involves an immediate death sentence. After introducing the eponymous judge (Karl Urban) as he relentlessly pursues a small-time gang of crooks, the plot begins when he is put in charge of carrying out the final assessment of a judge-in-training (Olivia Thirlby) who happens to have psychic powers. They then proceed to investigate a crime scene involving three dead bodies on the ground floor of a gigantic residential skyscraper. When the judges arrest their prime suspect (Wood Harris) and attempt to escort him out of the building, the ruthless crime boss (Lena Headey) who rules over the building decides to lock everything down and trap the judges inside. This is all the plot the film needs as the judges have to not only survive but also bring the villains to justice.

Making a good B-movie is a difficult thing to pull off in this day and age, with many films attempting to couch things in self-awareness as a defence mechanism against a jaded audience (though it's not like reveling in their own silliness is an automatic guarantee of enjoyment either). Dredd strikes the right balance in trying to do right by its cult source material without falling into self-parody or taking itself too seriously. It features a good odd couple by putting together Urban's gruff veteran with Thirlby's wide-eyed rookie, with the former showcasing personality without compromising his hardened exterior while the latter displays vulnerability and qualms about her role without undermining her ability to carry out said role. Headey makes for a great villain that is able to arrange all sorts of clever (or just plain brutal) countermeasures against any enemies she encounters, giving off an intimidating aura that does not leave any doubt as to how she managed to easily take over a skyscraper filled with violent gangs. Harris may spend most of his screen-time as the judges' surly hostage, but his role as a calmly sadistic henchman is played for both discomfort and dark laughs (often in quick succession). There aren't too many other notable presences in the film (save perhaps Domnhall Gleeson as the villains' visibly traumatised tech genius), but this isn't exactly a film that demands great characterisation so much as dependable characterisation, especially when certain twists are added in to keep things interesting.

The plot is straightforward enough so as to not really require too much comment, but it's definitely impressive as to how quickly and efficiently it is told over the course of a lean 90 minutes. There's quite a lot of world-building and plot points to establish, which are both accomplished thanks to an economical use of dialogue and editing that does not sacrifice style or substance through brevity. The same applies to the film's visual aesthetic, which does admittedly rely on both post-apocalyptic monochrome and used-future neon. However, by over-saturating the film with high-contrast colours (as if to make each shot really look like a panel out of a comic book), Dredd more than makes up for any apparent lack of reinvention. It gets turned up to gleefully excessive levels when the film opts to play with the fantastic, whether it's in depicting the effects of Thirlby's psychic powers or showing what it's like to be high on "slo-mo", the aptly-named street drug that plays a major role in the film's conflict. The film doesn't skimp on intensity or action as it shows the various methods and tools that the judges use to fight back against their aggressors; though the confines of the narrative result in this mainly extending to shoot-outs more than anything, it still finds time to throw in a high-speed pursuit and more than a few explosions. The effects work is definitely top-notch considering the relatively small scale of the production.

Though it's easy to fault Dredd for a number of reasons - simple plot, repetitive action, the occasional moment where a B-movie trope is recycled more instead of refined - I still find it a very watchable (and, perhaps more importantly, re-watchable) piece of work. It makes for a great throwback to the cult classics of the '80s that knew how to handle the extraneous parts of action movies like plot and characterisation, creating simple but effective examples of both in the process. Not only that, but it makes use of the technological upgrades afforded by 21st-century film-making to craft some impressive-looking scenes of carnage while also indulging lean but potent character moments and even evoking terrible beauty out of otherwise painful-looking events (case in point - the final "slo-mo" scene). Everything comes together in such a way that even the background score full of chugging electric guitar feels like a natural fit instead of an obnoxious concession to the lowest common denominator. I'd definitely hold this up as one of the best action movies of the 2010s, and though there's no telling what's likely to come along in the next few years, there's no doubt that Dredd will be waiting to take on any comers (hopefully including its own sequel).

Welcome to the human race...
For a second I thought Iro was becoming the Armond White of Mofos.
You say that like it's a bad thing.

Welcome to the human race...
#681 - Freaks
Tod Browning, 1932

Follows the lives of the people who work in a traveling circus's freak show as a vain trapeze artist tries to get her hands on a little person's inheritance.

One of the earliest examples of a cult film has to be Tod Browning's Freaks, a tale about the lives of the people who work in a traveling circus. As befitting the title, much of the film's plot has to do with the people who work in the circus's freak show, which includes little people, "pinheads", a bearded lady, conjoined get the idea. Its prologue showcases an audience recoiling in disgust at an unseen sideshow attraction, at which point a carnival barker launches into telling the story behind said attraction. This segues into life at the circus and all the interpersonal dramas that unfold between the various employees of the company. Though there are a few different plots featured in this film, there's one that takes precedence above all others - that of Hans and Cleopatra. Hans is a little person who has recently received a considerable inheritance. When beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra learns of this inheritance, she conspires with her strong-man lover Hercules to lure Hans away from fellow little person Frieda, marry him for his money, and murder him.

As far as plots go, that's so simple that it barely fills out an hour-long picture. Fortunately, Freaks at least manages to pad it out reasonably well. Part of the reason that Freaks has held up really well isn't so much out of technical or narrative aptitude so much as the rather impressive humanism displayed in telling the stories of these marginalised folks. An opening disclaimer goes to great length to point out how the people who work in the freak show and anyone like them don't just deserve sympathy (which is vaguely condescending) but respect, and the plot bears that out. The aggressively cruel villains of the piece - gorgeous Cleopatra and musclebound Hercules - are living embodiments of able-bodied ideals, while the freaks themselves may not fit said ideals but are still far more capable of being friendly and likable. Their sense of community (as demonstrated in the infamous "one of us" scene) is palpable and even extends outside their fraternity, as demonstrated by the comical sub-plot where a pair of conjoined twins must deal with the conflicts caused by their different suitors. Even with its attempt to provide a more nuanced portrayal of sideshow freaks, it still can't help but show off some of their talents, with one of the film's most memorable moments being watching the "Human Torso" light a cigarette despite not having any arms or legs. It arguably qualifies as essential viewing, though I wouldn't exactly think of it as a horror film - it's so much more than that.

Still loving the reviews, Iro. I agree that Unforgiven is a masterpiece and I'm with you on Freaks too. I didn't care much for Dead Man. I've heard others praise it's cinematography as well, but I thought it looked like it was filmed in my back yard. I plan on giving it another go.

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Still loving the reviews, Iro. I agree that Unforgiven is a masterpiece and I'm with you on Freaks too. I didn't care much for Dead Man. I've heard others praise it's cinematography as well, but I thought it looked like it was filmed in my back yard. I plan on giving it another go.
You must have one hell of a backyard.