Rating: The Good – 83.4 Genre: Thriller, Drama Duration: 95mins Director: John Flynn Stars: William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes
As good a thriller as the 70’s offered up, Rolling Thunder is damn near perfect. The ever cool William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones play two POW’s who, after returning home, find life as torturous as their imprisonment was. Things get steadily worse for the hard boiled Major Charles Rane (Devane) when his wife and son are murdered by a gang of home invaders who also take his hand. Devane gives a smouldering performance as a man who has “learned to love” torture as a means to surviving it. A young Tommy Lee Jones is sensational as the equally stoic Johnny who ultimately helps him to exact his revenge. John Flynn allows this masterpiece to develop at its own pace building the film not around the inevitable action but rather the drama that comes with a man who is pushed to the brink but never breaks. The parallels between Rane’s time in captivity and the life he has returned to are repeatedly drawn but never explicitly so, ensuring that the viewer discovers something new on each viewing. Thus, the more one watches this gem the better it gets. “Let’s go clean ‘em up”.
Rating: The Good – 75.5 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 93 mins Director: Michael Winner Stars: Charles Bronson, Vincent Gardenia, Jeff Goldblum
A milestone in vigilante cinema that doesn’t as much walk the line between right and left wing politics as it draws it. Bronson takes on perhaps his most dramatic role as the liberal architect whose wife and daughter were respectively murdered and attacked in their home. After a slowly realised grieving process, he finds himself increasingly drawn towards the idea of taking matters of self-protection into his own hands. Director Michael Winner ducks and weaves his way through the political hinterland of his drama with a series of right jabs but lands a couple of integral left hammer blows so that he deceives his way to a rather interesting analysis of crime and morality. There’s no rush to the action either as he lays out in meticulous manner Bronson’s remorse and development from fearful citizen to eager vigilante. It’s richly shot in what is clearly one of Winner’s more polished productions and embellished with some outstandingly staged action sequences.
A particular treat however is the cynicism and indeed prescience of Wendell Mayes’ screenplay (adapting Brian Garfield’s novel) which sets the actors on an even strain within Winner’s languidly unfolded drama. The cast blow got and cold however with the normally excellent Steven Keats missing the mark completely as the son in law and a young Jeff Goldblum featuring briefly as one of the most ridiculously unthreatening hoodlums to tumble his way through a murder scene. Bronson too struggles woefully to give his lines the right cadence but his charisma burns through those failings to the point that few could’ve done the job better. On the plus side Vincent Gardenia is fantastic as the bemused police captain in charge of bringing the vigilante to justice.
Not surprisingly, this movie has been both hailed and denigrated as a piece of right wing propaganda but that perception is to completely miss the intricacy of the story being told. From the examination of violence in the television/movie culture, the use of both white and black criminals, to the manner in which Bronsan sets out to lure his victims, there’s little to suggest that self defence against an impoverished underclass is what lay deep in Bronson’s heart. Something else was in play, something much more insidious and interesting from a dramatic point of view. And with that infamous final shot of Bronson smiling at a group of thugs, Winner and co. didn’t just close in style but they had one last go at getting their point across. They made it count!
Rating: The Good – 77.8 Genre: Crime, Drama Duration: 112 mins Director: Sidney Lumet Stars: Sean Connery, Trevor Howard, Vivien Merchant
Sidney Lumet is not a man you’d expect to direct a dark psychological drama set in the north of England but The Offence is in many ways one his most brilliant films. Sean Connery plays a hard case veteran detective whose most recent case has finally pushed him past his breaking point. What follows is a dark and disturbing exploration of a scarred and tormented psyche. Connery is superb in a role that shoulders most of the drama and together with Lumet’s gritty direction they slowly reel the audience into that psyche resulting in a fascinating yet deeply uncomfortable experience.
The Conversation is a dark and introspective study of a private surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), whose private life becomes increasingly infected by those traits his profession requires, namely, paranoia and anonymity. When Caul comes to believe that his latest subjects’ lives could be in danger due to his recordings, past anxieties emerge to ultimately tear down the fragile order he has created in his life. Hackman is superb in the lead role and gives a breadth of reality to the deeply idiosyncratic Caul. Furthermore, he is well supported by John Cazale, Harrison Ford, and Robert Duvall. Coppola’s taut direction is at its best here as he assembles and disassembles reality primarily through his use of sound but also through his use of darkly lit interiors and ambiguous dialogue. And it is this ambiguity that dominates the film’s theme as Caul’s overconfidence in words and voices become a lesson in the subjectivity of life. The influence of Japanese cinema is all over this film, particularly in the dream sequences and that memorable final scene which strongly echoes the extraordinary ending to Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom.
Rating: The Good – 96.2 Genre: Horror Duration: 114 mins Director: Peter Weir Stars: Rachel Roberts, Anne-Louise Lambert, Vivean Gray
Quite simply the most haunting film you will ever see, this tale of three girls who walk up a rock formation never to be seen again forgoes ghouls, monsters, or ghosts in favour of an intangible force altogether more terrifying. Set in the early 1900’s, it follows a party of school girls from a prestigious boarding school who, accompanied by their teacher, visit the ancient rock formation known as Hanging Rock on a sunny Valentine’s Day afternoon. Weir gives the early stages to this film a hypnotic dreamlike flow as the teenage girls prepare for and embark upon their eagerly awaited trip. However, as the movie proceeds, this dreamlike haze begins to feel more and more like a spell cast on the girls and audience alike by an inexplicable force. As three of the party break away to be whisked up the rock by some irresistible pull, out of nowhere, the film takes a startling if not piercing turn.
Peter Weir’s ability to imbue the otherwise lifeless rock with an elemental and terrifying life-force that dwarfs anything our minds can conceive of is one of the truly great directorial feats even if it’s relatively unrecognised as such. However, looking back on Picnic at Hanging Rock after just watching it, what he does in this film seems far broader in scope, as you get the unavoidable feeling that you were truly mesmerised and lulled into a thick perceptual and conceptual haze. That you were lured up that rock yourself! This isn’t frightening in the typical shock horror movie sense. This is frightening in a much more primal and evolutionary sense as if Weir is tapping directly into the baser regions of our psyche. This is cinematic power at its most sophisticated.
Rating: The Good – 78.4 Genre: Thriller Duration: 110 mins Director: John Boorman Stars: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty
Four weekend warriors attempt to kayak a great southern river in its final days before it’s diverted to a hydropower plant. However, their cockiness and petty snipes at the inbred locals are soon turned on their head when two of the men are accosted by said locals and one of them is viciously raped. Forced into acts of murder to survive, their trip becomes a personal exploration of guilt, anger, and fear. Boorman crafts a haunting and disturbing tale that in no small way parallels the arrogance of modern life with the cruel indifference of nature. But he makes no judgments as he does it and that is the true lasting strength of the film. The four men were excellently cast and each do their part. Jon Voight was the straight man, Burt Reynolds the tough guy, Ned Beatty the arrogant victim, and Ronny Cox played the more sensitive of the four. This isn’t an easy watch because it’s as much a primal scream at the times it was made in as it is a thriller. Nonetheless it works equally well as both.
Rating: The Good – 94.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 122 mins Director: William Friedkin Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow
When a young girl succumbs to an unknown illness, her movie star mother becomes convinced that there are demonic overtones to her convulsions and solicits a conflicted priest to examine her. To his shock, he comes to agree with the mother and turns to seasoned exorcist Max von Sydow to expel the intruder. The Daddy of all horror movies, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is a testament to the power of psychological terror. Turning the horror movie model on its head, this crawling piece of cinema limits its shocks and jolts almost entirely to one room, the girl’s bedroom, but bathes the external drama in a pool of socio-cultural unease. The canon and rituals of Catholicism are fertile ground for sophisticated horror cinema and, though Friedkin and author William Peter Blatty weren’t the first to plough it, most others did so directly on a mythological level. These guys, however, did it through everyday character construction and forensic examination of the intangible touch points between spiritualism and psychological vulnerability, between faith and the harshness of the real world, between taboo and subjectified sacrilege, wincingly subjectified.
Jason Miller’s Father Karras is a vessel of pure intensity as the troubled priest sent in conflicting directions by the doubt and fear that he was already experiencing through a crisis of confidence. Fear and doubt that are monstrously amplified when he’s called into help the girl. Von Sydow is calmer but more visceral in emotional demeanour as he wilfully uses a combination of intellect and profound belief against his nemesis. As the film’s sense of reason, the paranormal side to the story is bolstered all the more because his is an ability to reason against the unthinkable. Linda Blair, under close instruction by her director and with no little help from Mercedes McCambridge’s vocal support, is a bristling package of tortured spite and venom, a relentless abomination, and arguably the bold fella’s most ferocious screen incarnation. But sometimes forgotten in all this is Ellen Burstyn’s distraught mother. Given that little Linda isn’t much in the mood for conversation, Burstyn is the glue that binds together the disparate characters including Lee J. Cobb’s endearing homicide detective. It’s a remarkably levelled turn that is critical to the film’s balance.
Fantastic as the cast are, the movie’s power ultimately comes down to the full-on confrontation with the profane which Friedkin and his writer serve up here so relentlessly. The term “genius” is bandied about a little too freely these days but Friedkin and Blatty’s perceptive (not to mention daring) use of western culture’s deep-wired moral coding to impact the audience beyond the confines of the film was as extraordinary an accomplishment as Kubrick’s final act in 2001. It also laid the groundwork for some of the best horror movies of the last 40 years as that particular trick was exhausted to the point that Hideo Nakata was forced to have his demon actually crawl out of the TV in order to imbue his audience with the requisite sense of intrusion. Blatty’s script swings between the warm and scathingly twisted and spanned across its unpretentious dialogue is a clear idea of what he wants this movie to be. Though, on the issue of unpretentiousness and clarity, no review would get far without mentioning the film’s archetyping use of Mike Oldfield’s haunting Tubular Bells.
But the masterstroke comes courtesy of the director who ensures that the atmosphere and tension are defined primarily within the personal tribulations of his protagonists. At crucial moments, the insanity of the story’s events is snapshot back within the boundaries of the world in which we live as it refocuses around the authenticity of those personal trials. Friedkin complements this by keeping the movie’s visual profile rooted in the gritty lighting of contemporary crime cinema and the warmer production design of a family drama. Unlike most horror movies which can’t resist going ‘big’, at no point does he get sucked towards the absurd of horror porn or supernatural melodrama. And with that, the horror is kept pure and unabated so that, when it spikes, it will chill you to the core of your marrow. A peerless form of dissonant terror that’s even more extremely exemplified in that spider-walking director’s cut. A true classic!
Rating: The Good – 67.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 117 mins Director: Stuart Rosenberg Stars: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger
A family’s new home becomes not just the setting but the cause of their physical, emotional, and psychological unravelling as the father shows signs of repeating the murderous activities of the house’s previous occupier. Though not operating in the rarified air of The Exorcist, this one remains a refreshing example of how to tell a standard possession tale in the absence of Friedkin’s visionary talent. What distinguishes Stuart Rosenberg’s movie from the mire of recent possession stories (including the tedious remake of this movie) is the patience it takes in the buildup and the manner in which it pays more than just lip service to the normal family dynamic at the centre of the spiritual corruption. It’s not rocket science, it’s simply old school film making or, in other words, paying attention to the fundamentals. Yes, the scares are familiar and the plot formulaic (though in 1979, this was more forgivable) but the fresh faced nativity of the protagonists (and in this regard James Brolin and Margot Kidder don’t put a foot wrong as the husband and wife), their dialogue, their actions, and fear gives the film a resonating factor. That innocence is carried over into the shooting of the film. Rather than immersing the film in moody photography, Rosenberg uses an abundance of warm lighting and soft contrasts to frame his narrative. This is something even The Exorcist or The Shining didn’t attempt. At its essence, the movie’s aesthetic could pass for that of any old drama or comedy specific to that era if it wasn’t for all the spooky goings on and the manner in which it frames the house in question. Of course, preceding those spooky events with the creepiness of familiarity only augments the terror they can induce and it’s exactly this type of solid film-making which ensures that The Amityville Horror will remain a defining example of the haunted house sub-genre.
Rating: The Good – 76 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 130 mins Director: Joseph Sargent Stars: Gregory Peck, Dan O’Herlihy, Ed Flanders
Joseph Sargent’s little recognised account of General Douglas MacArthur’s career from the beginning of WWII to his retirement is a rather compelling and fully engaging military drama. Gregory Peck takes on the role of the larger than life figure and imbues him with all the self-certainty and military vision that have come to be associated with him but balanced that with a healthy dose of sadness at the passing of time, and a complicated look at the self-proclaimed pacifist’s contradictory craving for war.
As much as Franklin J. Schaffner did with Patton, Sargent captures the point at which myth and reality meet and seems to paint the entire picture with that theme. At all times, we feel we are witnessing something epochal. Befitting the name and the myth, there’s a majesty to the tone of the film and there’s nobody better to shoulder any accompanying stress points than Gregory Peck. Such stress points take the shape of necessary omissions of key occurrences that would give more accurate shape to the political and military incidents MacArthur is otherwise given full credit for. But through Peck’s ownership of the role, he gives one the impression that such cracks in the story don’t exists – just like the General himself did! In its place, is a very elegant progression of events as Sargent unfolds a rather substantial history of the man and America’s contemporaneous international concerns.
The look of the movie can impress at times but, at others, it has a distinct TV movie feel. The wide staging of some of the battle sequences for example is magnificent but when up close with the soldiers, it all gets a little artificial. But unlike say The Longest Day, this isn’t about the knitting together of the large and small scale realities of war. Instead, it follows the likes of Patton, by using the latter as dramatic filler between the more dramatic scenes. Just not as substantially as was done in Patton.
Unfortunately, MacArthur has been forgotten by everyone but the strictest of war movie buffs. Peck always walked a tightrope between stoic brilliance and wooden delivery but such an affectation seems very befitting of the blood-military “General’s General”. Like the film as a whole, it’s a delicate balance that comes out firmly on the right side and deserves a wider audience.
Rating: The Good – 68.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 92 mins Director: Michael Winner Stars: Cristina Raines, Chris Sarandon, Martin Balsam, Jeff Goldblum
After moving into a New York apartment, a young model (Christina Rains) seemingly begins to lose her grip on reality. However, once her boyfriend (Chris Sarandon) investigates the building’s history, he learns she isn’t crazy at all and her apartment is, in fact, the gateway to hell. Though rather eclectic in his abilities, Michael Winner was in many ways well suited to the horror genre given his oblique directorial style. Thus, it’s not surprising that, with The Sentinel, he furnishes Jeffrey Konvitz’ novel, rich in premise as it was, with the type of atmosphere that can rival the best of the genre. It’s a gleefully creepy old horror that fully engages thanks to a familiar but compelling mythology and a litany of colourful characters played with relish by some of the best in the business. In fact, the cast is a veritable who’s who of that era’s up and comers (such as Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, and even a very young and fleeting Tom Berenger) and old-timers (such as Ava Gardner, Martin Balsam, Eli Wallach, Arthur Kennedy, José Ferrer, and Burgess Meredith as the boogeyman man himself).
The real shame here is that they’re all bit parts or supporting roles and so most of the film rests on Rains’ far slighter shoulders. With an absence of personality and presence, she’s a genuine weak link and the movie threatens to wither when she’s on screen. As the other main character, Sarandon is better but, like Rains, he is constantly overshadowed by the heavyweights on show, especially both Gardner and Wallach who are in giddy form as the sinister real estate agent and curious homicide detective respectively. In truth, some of the blame must fall at Winner’s feet for a recurrent failing of his was his inability to use and engage his cast properly.
Though it suffers inevitable and unfavourable comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby, it’s more likely these aforementioned issues that precluded The Sentinel from ascending to the realm of hallowed horror. But make no mistake, it scores in nearly every other department. Winner’s uniquely gaudy touch is all over the ornate production design and helps immerse us in the strange world he and Konvitz have created. Moreover, Gil Melle’s equally unsubtle score echoes the best of the classic horror accompaniments. It may not scare the socks off you like The Exorcist does but, like a good John Carpenter horror, it will give you the creeps.
Rating: The Good – 87.4 Genre: Satire, War Duration: 116 mins Director: Robert Altman Stars: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt
Robert Altman unfolds his broad interpersonal canvas to stunning effect in this classic piece of American cinema. Bold, hilarious, touching, and heartbreaking, there are few statements on war as focused as what he serves up here. Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerrit, and Elliot Gould are at their unorthodox best as the ragtag bunch of draftee surgeons working three miles from the front line of the Korean War to keep their spirits high and the endless wounded alive. Sally Kellerman and Robert Duvall are a hoot as the stiff career officers whom they pester unmercifully both intentionally and unintentionally. As with most of Altman’s films, the plot isn’t what drives M.A.S.H but rather the satirical vignettes which loosely coalesce around the personal conflicts. Whether it’s Hot Lips and Major Burns’ infamous broadcast or the gleeful irreverence of that “Last Supper”, Altman’s dry script and impeccable distance, not to mention the immense craft of his actors ensured they became immortal moments of humour. The result is an iconic piece of film making and one of the few movies that helps to definitively mark a moment in time and culture without ever feeling dated. “Hot Lips you incredible nincompoop, it’s the end of the quarter!”
Rating: The Good – 79.8 Genre: Drama Duration: 110 mins Director: George Lucas Stars: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Harrison Ford
For those who (somewhat understandably) used the most recent Star Wars films as reason to doubt George Lucas’ talent as a director, this is one of two films they should watch that will assuage any such doubts (the other being THX 1138). An ode to the 1950-60′s cruising generation, American Graffiti follows a group of friends the night before two of them are due to head off for college. Lucas knits each of the scenes together with a medley of era-specific rock and roll hits which are intermittently punctuated by local radio pirate Wolfman Jack and he quite brilliantly uses the radios of passing cars, restaurants, gas stations, etc to ensure the soundtrack is a constant feature of the background. The fun of the evening’s adventures are had in a series of cracking set pieces ranging from drag races to that now classic liquor store robbery. On the acting front, all acquit themselves admirably with Richard Dreyfuss and Paul Le Mat scoring particularly well. Dreyfuss brings a lot of depth to his character and taps that ever present ability to strike up immediate chemistry with a variety of on-screen partners. On the other hand, Le Mat quite simply gives us one of cinema’s coolest characters as king of the strip John Milner. Unmissable.