The Conversation (1974)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford

Revisited this one recently to show it to my wife who has a penchant for mystery thriller movies. I find this to be Coppola’s third best film after Apocalypse and The Godfather, its use of sound design editing music, dialogue, and sound effects to reveal aspects of the mystery was innovative and engaging. A reflection of the times in which it was released, this became an unintentional echo of the Watergate trials.

The film follows a freelance surveillance expert working in San Francisco, hired to monitor a couple’s conversation for a cryptic business executive played by Harrison Ford. Disturbed by details of the conversation and an increase in suspicioius events surrounding his business and the job, Hackman’s character decides to delve deeper into the background of the assignment and discovers a horrible secret that could ruin his career if not his life.

Several scenes in this movie still stick with me, and it was refreshing upon viewing again after about 10 years to see my mind’s eye had preserved them accurately. The long lens deep focus shots of the couple walking through the crowd, the lonely, empty frames capturing Hackman at work in his warehouse office, the horrific toilet scene overlaid with distorted screams, and the final shot of Hackman, mentally broken, surrounded by the destructive power of his own paranoia. Credit where credit is due to Walter Murch, master editor and crafter of many these memorable interwoven sounds and images.

Also by this director: The Godfather (1972), Apocalypse Now (1979)

Man Bites Dog (1992)

Directed by Rémy Belvaux

Starring Benoît Poelvoorde

Since out last film took place in Belgium, why not a Belgian film?  I revisited this film recently while preparing for a presentation on the subjective camera and it’s uses in film. In the past, I’ve found Man Bites Dog to be an inspirational film for me, one that I actually referenced for some comedic scenes in a children’s animated movie, Surf’s Up.

The film follows a fictitious documentary crew as they record the daily events of an amiable, erudite serial killer. Sometimes funny, sometimes scary, often times repellant, the film is decidedly original. The immersive nature of the camera work and natural acting on the part of Poelvoorde, draws the viewer into the strange world of the protagonist and eventually the film crew as well.

As the film progresses, the documentary crew becomes more and more involved in the killings and two members are coincidentally killed. We used this idea in Surf’s Up when we had the camera crew following a chicken hunted by cannibal penguins get hit with darts and spears. A little morbid for an animated movie about surfing penguins, but it got a few laughs and a nod for technical application.

It’s a student film on a shoestring budget, but it will draw you in and rivet you to your seat. Not for the squemish, this film is definitely a horror movie, but one with some interesting reflections on the media and modern society.

In Bruges (2008)

Directed by Martin McDonagh

Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes

I have to lead the review with the stated prejudice I went into this film with, a general dislike for Colin Farrell’s previous body of work. Nothing against the actor, it seems that the majority of his roles revolved around playing some egotistical, over-confident, one-dimensional tough guy with a chip on his shoulder. I find it hard to relate to that kind of character or harbor any shared empathy. Which is probably why I liked this departure from form on his part.

In Bruges is the story of two hitmen hiding out in Belgium after the younger inexperienced Farrell accidentally kills an innocent child. Immature and unsure how to deal the guilt he’s feeling, Farrell attempts to quiet his conscious with women, drugs, and drink but his sins eventually overcome. Coincidental encounters set against the backdrop of a film set with a Boschian theme adds to internal torment the protagonist is undergoing. Strong supporting character performances from Gleeson and Fiennes add a whimsical morality that make the final act come together in a very satisfying way.

This film is beautiful, shot in a storybook town in Belgium, with lots of subtext and allegorical meaning. It’s funny, tense, heart-warming, and sometimes sad. The only gripe I have with it would be the odd insert of the American dwarf actor who’s comedic scenes seem to detract from the momentum of the script and never really add much to the plot except for the payoff.

Heathers (1989)

Directed by: Michael Lehmann

Starring: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker

Awards: Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature (1990) and nominated Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (1989)

The 80’s were a magical time. Big hair, synsthesized music, and let’s not forget shoulder pads. A lot of bad movies also came out of the 80’s, but thankfully, there was also a few great ones such as the film Heathers. This dark comedy, written by Daniel Waters, tells the story of four high school friends who rule the school as the popular clique. Heather, Heather, and Heather use intimidation and sex appeal to get what ever they want while Veronica (Winona Ryder) is torn between being “cool” and doing what is right. Along comes the mysterious outsider J.D. (Christian Slater) who helps Veronica make a choice meanwhile taking her down a dark road of murder, suicide pacts, and high school bombings.

Heathers is a movie that may have some difficulty being made in a post-columbine world. Featuring such subject matter as students killing fellow students and an attempted bombing, one might find the subject matter a little difficult to find funny. The film doesn’t use such themes lightly though. They are used to show the difficulty of teenage angst, the futility of suicide, and the fleeting duration of popularity. Even though the movie was made before the recent spat of high school tragedies, the subject matter was still troublesome for many at the time of production. Several actors turned down the roles due to the nature of the script, including Jennifer Connely, Brad Pitt, and Heather Graham. The original ending was also much more darker but I won’t spoil it for you. The DVD has the script or you could read it here at and remember, teenage suicide… don’t do it!

Other Notable Films by this Director: Airheads (1994), The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996), 40 Days and 40 Nights (2002)


The Lookout (2007)

Directed by Scott Frank

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels

It’s not an Austrailian film, but I’ll get back to that theme tomorrow.  Had to post about this beautiful little film noir I just watched called The Lookout, Scott Frank’s directorial debut, graduating from accomplished script doctor.  Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, fresh off another little indie film noir called Brick, that though important, never really broke through. 

The story follows brain damaged Chris Pratt, injured by his own hand and reduced from hockey superstar to bank janitor.  Emotionally devastated and unconfident, he’s an easy target for a group of bank robbers who recruit him to be their lookout for the heist they’re planning at the bank he works at.  Things start to go wrong though when Chris recalls how his actions destroyed the lives of others before his injury and he has a change of heart about his involvement in the robbery.  The consequences are deadly.

There’s a couple scenes in here I would have shot differently, mainly the one where Pratt is called up to crawl into the vault, all shot in a wide, maybe would have worked better with some mids and close-ups to really hammer home the moment, amp up the tension.  Still, Frank showed technical prowess and great actorial direction, especially this being his first film.  Great writing as well, putting the script into the territory of an orginal Memento-ish crime drama.  The score is also subtle, yet spot-on, another great accomplishment to James Newton Howard, Shamalyan’s go to man.

As long as Gordon-Levitt keeps making these great little film noirs, I’ll keep seeing them.  Though I have to admit, he needs a few more years until he really hits his prime as an actor, but once he does, I think he has leading man potential.

Other Notable Films by this Director: Script-Doctoring– Dawn of the Dead (2004), Minority Report (2002), Out of Sight (1998 )

Delicatessen (1991)

Directed by: Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Starring: Dominique Pinon, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Karin Viard

Awards: Won European Film Award for Best Production Designer (1991) and Cesar for Best Editing, Best First Work, Best Production Design, and Best Writing (1992)

In a post-apocalyptic 1950’s France, food has become so scarce that people have resorted to dire means. Louison is an unemployed circus clown down on his luck until he finds an ad for a delicatessen looking for a handy man. In exchange for food and board, Louison is in charge of doing odd jobs for the delicatessen’s butcher, Clapet, and all the tenants who live in the building above the shop.. All is not what it seems, however, as Louison soon discovers that the previous handymen were fattened up by the butcher and ultimately became the “source” for new meat to feed the building’s tenants. Further complicating things, some of the tenants learn to like Louison, including Clapet’s daughter Julie, who even falls in love with the doomed man. Desperate to save him, Julie makes a deal with a group of subterranean dwellers/rebels who disavow meat (no, not vegetarian CHUDS!) to rescue him.

Shot prior to The City of Lost Children, Delicatessen shares the same great visual style and atmosphere. Filled with wonderful quirky characters, beautifully orchestrated scenes, and clever scenarios that all come together like a giant life-size version of the game Mousetrap. If you are in a mood for something dark and fun, then give Delicatessen a taste.

Other Notable Films by these Director’s: The City of Lost Children (1995)


Fargo (1996)

Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring: William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare

Awards: Oscar for Best Actress and Best Writing, Saturn for Best Action/Adventure/Thriller, David Lean Award for Direction, Critics Choice Award for Best Actress and Best Picture, and Best Director Award at Cannes Film Festival, to name a few (1997).

Fargo almost feels like a Tarantino film made with an emphasis on the fun and less on the heavy. Jerry Lundegarrd is a car dealer who has fallen heavily into debt. He quietly cooks up a plan and hires two men to kidnap his wife so that he can collect the ransom from her wealthy father. Things quickly sour from there as a simple kidnapping plot turns into a murder spree and a man down on his luck inadvertently changes the lives of everyone around him.

First off, I must admit that I’ve only seen one Coen Brother’s movie prior to recently sitting down and watching Fargo (The Big Lebowski). Ever since the early 90’s I’ve constantly heard how great their movies were and for one reason or another I’ve just never taken the time to see what all the fuss was about. After viewing Fargo, I now have the pleasure of saying that is about to change. Right from the opening credits this movie had me glued till the end. I went into it knowing only that the film was notorious for it’s odd Minnesota accents (“yah, you betcha”) and that it involved a murder. I wasn’t expecting to be sucked into a world of wonderfully odd characters, well shot scenes, and beautiful score that together create an odd mix of dread, black humor, and mood.

Other Notable Films by these Directors: Raising Arizona (1987), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), No Country For Old Men (2007)