Rating: The Good – 76 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 130 mins Director: Joseph Sargent Stars: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kiera Knightley
Movies recounting humankind’s gruelling attempts to overcome nature’s obstacles tend to be either underproduced and rather dull affairs or overproduced and predictably brainless action movies so it’s a welcome surprise when we come across one that so effectively balances the internal and external factors to the story as much as Baltasar Kormákur’s film does. Couched in a comfortable budget, Everest captures the visceral wonder of the experience but maintains the writing and acting as its prize assets. And with a cast of A-listers all willing to do their bit for far less billing than their status normally demands, it pays dividends. Jason Clark hits all the right notes as the expedition leader and Josh Brolin and John Hawkes add handsomely to the medley of emotional tribulation while Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Worthington, Kiera Knightley, and Robin Wright help shape both the story’s physical and personal contexts so that theme and drama meet harmoniously in the middle. Not everyone will be happy with Kormákur’s aversion to set piece action but those with an appreciation for attritional authenticity should find his adventure rather compelling.
Rating: The Good – 77 Genre: Crime Duration: 121 mins Director: Denis Villeneuve Stars: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro
Cold and sinister narco-thriller with Emily Blunt top-lining as a FBI agent recruited by the CIA for a series of clandestine operations against a powerful Mexican cartel. As the missions begin to increasingly circumvent the law, the beleaguered agent grows suspicious of Josh Brolin’s lead agent and ever fearful of his mysterious cartel expert, Benicio Del Toro. After an admirable attempt in Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve succeeds in crafting a morally bleak thriller with sufficient traction and believability to keep the audience engrossed all the way through. The war on drugs is articulated almost completely through the actions of the protagonists. The drama is shot with a slow-thudding realism while the dialogue chills the story a couple degrees lower. Left of centre to the plot, Blunt is subtly magnificent as she manages to stay relevant even while her character is necessarily marginalised. On the other side of things, Brolin is quietly having a ball but Del Toro is just plain scary. The narco-wars are very much in vogue at the moment but on several occasions, Sicario peels off a layer or two and reels us towards a world not often seen. Yes, the narrative moves inescapably towards Hollywood’s notion of closure but there are a sufficient number of unfamiliar twists and turns to intrigue the most ardent fans. Roger Deacons’ crisp textures and contrasts are central to this experience as is Joe Walker’s editing but it’s Villeneuve’s steely focus that makes this so darkly compelling.
Rating: The Good – 76 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 101 mins Director: Danny Boyle Stars: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel
A suave and tricksy thriller detailing a heist mob’s unconventional attempt to hypnotically uncover the location of a stolen painting amidst emotional turbulence and full-blown crises of identity. Trance offers the best and worst of mercurial director Danny Boyle at about a 30/70 split. Stunningly shot and soundtracked to Rick Smith’s pulsing melodies, it sets out to explicitly defy narrative convention and treat us to a razzle-dazzle experience over old fashioned storytelling. Though we’ve seen attempts like this before, what Trance lacks in originality it makes up for in burning focus and unflinching persistence. And with James McAvoy and the always splendid Rosario Dawson mischievously wrapped up in the deep dark psychological hijinks, the experiment is only enriched. But trippy entertainment only goes so far and with the plot hoisted so brazenly atop of Boyle’s sacrificial alter, not even actors of their class and magnetism can keep us invested in the manner we’d expect and desire from a clever heist thriller.
Rating: The Good – 71 Genre: Horror Duration: 110 mins Director: Scott Derrickson Stars: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone
Spooky psychological horror with Ethan Hawke playing a true crime writer desperate for another bestseller who moves his family into a house where the previous occupants were hanged so that he can investigate the unsolved crime. Discovering a box of 16mm home video tapes in the attic, he briefly wonders how the police could’ve missed something so important but quickly finds himself absorbed in the revelatory footage and the series of family murders that they reveal.
Veteran horror director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) meticulously crafts a movie of unyielding creepiness in this original take on the haunted house scenario that reaches into pagan lore as opposed to the more typical Christian mythology. Hawke is intense enough to carry the majority of it and though the support cast are more peripheral than usual, Juliet Rylance is outstanding as his past tolerance wife while James Ransone provides a slightly mercurial presence as a comical but deceptively competent deputy. Draped in shadow and deep blacks, even the daytime scenes are dreary to the point that the audience will find few opportunities for some much needed reprieve. The excessive gloominess thus bleeds into the narrative rendering Sinister an unforgiving watch even for the most seasoned horror fans.
Embedded within this stark profile, novel demon concepts permeate the story and plot adding a serious dose of unpredictability while a slow creeping collaboration between Christopher Young’s score and obscure indie tracks haunt the darkest parts of the movie, in particular, Hawke’s viewing of the 16mms. Derrickson’s script is economic or revealing where needed and does well to steadily intertwine the necessary expositions with the unfolding drama. However, while everything outside of Hawke’s new home is necessarily kept at a distance, it could be argued that his family, particularly his son and daughter, needed to be more relevant to the narrative given its ultimate destination. That said, it can’t be denied that the ending works in a uniquely chilling manner. It may make for a bleak bit of entertainment but Sinister counts as yet another success in the catalogue of indie horror.
Rating: The Good – 75.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 112 mins Director: James Wan Stars: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston
Bone chilling 70’s-set possession story adorned with all the hallmarks of the best vintages. Married couple Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are the married paranormal investigators called upon to help a terrorised family who are being haunted by a particularly nasty demon. By now, we all know the final score and how the points are scored but James Wan’s movie nuances the familiar plot in all manner of creepy ways to exact as much out of it as possible. Forsaking the safety net of gore, Wan and company rely completely on mood, timing, and no small number of innovative devices to generate the scares. Using the investigative couple’s background in the occult as a basis for both tension and sub-plot, there are essentially three horror stories spun together here but not so anything is taken away from the central plot. In fact, as is often intended but rarely transpires, they compound each other so that they generate a cumulative terror. The result is genuinely one of the scariest movies to emerge from Hollywood in decades.
The Conjuring looks and sounds the part too thanks to some comprehensive production design, Joseph Bishara’s even score, and Kirk M. Morri (visual) and Joe Dzuban’s (sound) elegant editing. The final piece to the puzzle is the casting. Without breaking the bank, the four leads are all household names which not only nests the events in a priceless familiarity but also ensures a degree of class that most horror movies lack. This only adds to the film’s earnestness and thus magnifies the fear factor. Wilson is, as usual, slightly stiff but again, as usual, in a manner that suits his character. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston are equally strong as the beleaguered mother and father. However, Farmiga makes the most of her character with a steady turn as the compassionate but strong psychic. It all gets very loud towards the end and while this is perhaps one of its more unsubtle touches, it doesn’t destabilise the movie as is often the case. On the contrary, from beginning to end, The Conjuring is utterly text-book in its construction.
Rating: The Good – 69.5 Genre: Adventure, Action Duration: 124 mins Director: Colin Trevorrow Stars: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Ty Simpkins
Just when you thought it was safe to buy the box set, Universal go ahead and repackage the merchandise in a whole new brand that promises bigger, better, and lots more teeth. The plot is basically a re-hash of Michael Chricton’s original story as Bryce Dallas Howard stars as the no-nonsense manager of the new park that, in an attempt to wow their jaded consumer base, is about to unveil a monstrous genetic splicing of every lethal dinosaur they could think of. Regular dinosaurs it seems are no longer any more exciting to Jurassic World’s fictitious fanbase as they are to this movie’s actual fanbase. Once again, it’s not long before everyone is running for their lives including Howard’s vacationing nephews and it’s up Chris Pratt’s Raptor Whisperer to save the day.
The visual effects reflect what you’d expect from a 21st Century upscaling of the franchise but without the tingling sensation that comes with having never seen such effects before – as was of course the case in Spielberg’s classic. The action sequences, though capably constructed, are similarly missing the metronomic mastery of the great director while the script, though rather funny at times (courtesy largely of Pratt’s leading man’s wit), cries out for the intellectual ribbing of Goldblum and Attenborough. The biggest disappointment however is in the big nasty that they unleash on us. With no reputation preceding it, it was left up to the writing and concept design guys to terrify us with some creature of barely conceivable malice but all we got was kind of a big Raptor. The “Spinosaurus” of Jurassic Park III was more formidable than this thing plus it kicked the T-Rex’s ass! Given the former’s absence from this film, we just don’t seem to be getting an upgrade in the teeth and claws department. Perhaps they should’ve made this an aquatic disaster movie so that the far more fearsome “Mososaurus” could be the central monster – of course, there’s probably going to be a sequel for every year the dinosaurs have been extinct so maybe they’re pacing themselves!
In the end, however, there’s more than enough adventure and monster mayhem to provide a satisfactory level of entertainment and even if it fails to live up to its promise of “bigger and better”, Jurassic World has all the box-office polish of the first two instalments. It also maintains the magic that the first movie had, finally fulfilling the dream of bringing a paying public together with awe-inspiring dinosaurs. Director Colin Trevorrow’s directing comes into its own during these moments as “Jurassic World: The Spectacle” gets juiced up with all the childlike wonder of Spielberg’s park. In this regard, one shouldn’t overlook Michael Giacchino’s score as it keeps up with and even builds on John Williams’ original in a rather pleasing manner. Good fun.
Rating: The Good – 70.1 Genre: Action, Crime Duration: 131 mins Director: Oliver Stone Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Benicio Del Toro
Oliver Stone has to work hard these days to make up for two decades of over-stylised not to mention confused pictures and such is the reason that this surprisingly slick crime feature fared poorly both critically as well as commercially. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Taylor Hitsch star as two wildly successful cannabis dealers on the California drug scene who come up against a ruthless cartel attempting to stake their claim north of the border. As the genius botanist, Taylor-Johnson is the brains of the operation while Hitsch’s former Navy SEAL is the enforcer and together they engage Salma Hayek’s drug lord in a bloody chess game as they attempt to secure the release of their hostage girlfriend Blake Lively. Factor in an utterly loathsome and genuinely scary Benicio Del Toro as Hayek’s right-hand man and you’re left with a colourfully twisted little thriller. Nested in Lively’s inevitably stylised visual narration, Stone allows the energetic if sometimes clunky script to play out in a relatively coherent manner as he shows the most directorial restraint he’s managed since Born on the Fourth of July. Make no mistake, it’s vibrantly shot and edited with flair but with enough discipline for the visual aesthetic to not only be enjoyed, but also be complementary of the well conceived set pieces. On the acting front, the leading threesome (as improbable as their relationship is) are satisfactory without shining and while much fun is had with an overwrought John Travolta’s crooked DEA agent, it never detracts from the the darker tones that Stone’s story paints. It all adds up to a rather satisfying crime thriller that should be judged on the merits of that genre’s most essential elements.
Rating: The Good – 63.8 Genre: Crime Duration: 91 mins Director: Aaron Woodley Stars: Kevin Zegers, Ray Liotta, Laura Vandervoort
Slightly above average thriller involving the abduction of three rich kids by three malcontents who attempt to ransom their prisoners to the three wealthy fathers. A low profile cast add some bite to a well structured screenplay with Ray Liotta bringing his natural snakiness to his fatherly role. The dialogue can struggle to rise to the sharpness of the story but Aaron Woodley’s classy directing fills some of the void. For the most part, The Entitled sidesteps the more formulaic tracks and tickles the audience with the ambiguous morality and strained allegiances found among each of the three parties. It’s that moral coolness that allows the movie to play out to a satisfying conclusion and without ever really catching fire, The Entitled manages a continuous simmer.
Rating: The Good – 77.5 Genre: Horror, Drama Duration: 93 mins Director: Jennifer Kent Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall
Every now and again, an independent horror movie comes along that celebrates the art of the genre by doing the most important things well. Things like: being unpredictable so that the scares don’t just come as shocks, or subverting the natural to generate a primal fear, and darkly colouring the story with fairytale-like themes so that it crawls inside the recesses of our psyches. While not scoring flawlessly on each of these levels, the Australian chiller The Babadook nonetheless achieves an even enough balance to comprehensively scare the bejesus out of you. Essie Davis stars as a single mother left traumatised by the death of her husband and trying to raise her seemingly disturbed son. But when a terrifying storybook entitled “The Babadook” appears mysteriously in her son’s room, she begins to believe his claims that the eponymous monster is in their house. What follows is as much a psychological thriller as it is horror as the despairing mother slowly loses her sanity and falls deeper into the monster’s clutches. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook demonstrates admirable restraint in the buildup and combined with some spine-tingling concept design (particularly with regard to the creature’s voice), the scares can be vigorous. However, against the austere set design and dull toned photography, the film’s mood is perhaps even more affecting and the movie would’ve surely veered towards the depressing if it wasn’t for some timely humour and the engaging performances by both Davis and Noah Wiseman as her eccentric son. And if the final act begins to feel a little familiar, rest assured that Kent reigns it in with a wryly unpredictable ending that will satisfy the more knowing and/or jaded horror fans alike. Highly recommended.
Rating: The Good – 73.8 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 132 mins Director: J.J. Abrams Stars: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch,
The young crew of the USS Enterprise are back for their second outing in J.J. Abrams’ reimagined universe as they face Benedict Cumberbatch’s ruthless Khan, a genetically engineered superhuman recently awoken from a long cryo-sleep. Throw in a gung-ho Admiral in the form of the always great Peter Weller, some marvellous action scenarios, and the usual personality clashes between Chris Pine’s “Kirk” and Zachary Quinto’s “Spock” and the stage is set for one of the better movie instalments of the franchise. Abrams brought a lot back to the series in his 2009 “Star Trek” and, in most cases, he ups the ante here. A striking visual profile and immaculate visual effects provide the movie’s backbone while the cheeky script adds several layers of enjoyment throughout its long duration. The plot is rudimentary enough, the usual rehash of several past episodes, but Abrams’ trump card once again makes up for it. That card, of course, is this new series’ cast of actors which, as was the case in the 2009 movie, bring huge amounts of personality to their roles. And though the links with their characters’ previous incarnations are all maintained with tongue firmly planted in cheek, if truth be told, this new generation is far more talented than their older counterparts. This quality adds a sheen of professionalism to the new films that was often missing from the earlier movies. At the centre, Pine and Quinto are fantastic value as space’s endlessly quarreling “odd couple” and, while playing yet another “super-genius”, Cumberbatch makes for a memorable Khan. Sure, he doesn’t possess the cheesy greatness of Ricardo Montalban, but his more furious brand of egomania adds to the movie’s overall darker demeanor. Best of all, however, is that man Weller whose booming voice and gritty presence brings an added edge to the proceedings.
Rating: The Good – 74.9 Genre: Action, Fantasy Duration: 132 mins Director: Bryan Singer Stars: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender
Director Bryan Singer brings an assured and classy touch back to the franchise he helped forge in this surprisingly gripping fantasy sci-fi in which two versions of the same X-Men are united across time in an epic showdown to save the Earth against a future army of robot “Sentinels”. Superbly balancing the multiple threads to the story so that the main plot pulses steadily and clearly from start to finish, X-Men: Days of Future Past counts as a rather impressive feat of story-telling. With Patrick Stewart’s “Prof. X” and Ian McKellen’s “Magneto” on one side of the temporal divide, their successors (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender respectively) on the other, and Hugh Jackman’s “Wolverine” straddling the two, we move between a nicely realised 1970’s and a desolate future as the older X-Men attempt to alter their own history and preclude the invincible Sentinels from ever coming into being. On the technical front, this movie is pillared by some genuinely striking action set pieces opening with an elegantly edited showdown between mutant and robot and peaking with an acutely impressive prison-break in the bowls of The Pentagon. This latter sequence, wryly soundtracked to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle”, involves Evan Peters’ delightfully impish “Quicksilver” making a high speed mockery of the famous building’s security in a whirlwind of smile-inducing not to mention brilliantly conceived mischief-making. Alongside this brief cameo of what very well might prove to be the franchise’s most lovable character, what really sets Days of Future Past apart from the myriad of modern superhero movies is the sophistication of its construction. Though most of the future mutants offer mere cameos, Singer makes the most of their personalities and powers, deftly interweaving their trials and tribulations with those of their past counterparts and culminating in a suitably rousing finale. Given how uninspired and formulaic the genre has become, it’s genuinely refreshing to come across a simply well made movie.
Rating: The Good – 75.8 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 133 mins Director: Clint Eastwood Stars: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner
Bradley Cooper takes on the role of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, in Clint Eastwood’s take on the personal politics of war and the wearing effects it has back home. Putting in another immense shift, Cooper constructs a strong character that sways and bends under the stresses that come with his elite skill. Beginning with his training as a Navy SEAL, we follow Kyle through his four tours in Iraq and his intervening attempts to build a family, where a number of plots play out in successive manner. Plots ranging from the SEALS’ mission to take out a local warlord to Kyle’s personal but often thrilling battle with an elite enemy sniper. Eastwood is to be commended for maintaining the integrity of each of these plots while sewing them into the wider dramatic story concerning Kyle’s wife (Sienna Miller in a solid turn) and his increasingly debilitating PTSD. In fact, American Sniper is arguably the veteran director’s most artful film from the point of view of its structuring. His use of flashback and parallel scenes help to move the film forward so the audience is informed and engaged at an equally steady rate. The action sequences are less inspired with respect to Clint’s directing but their sheer scale tend to compensate for that. Where Eastwood’s touch truly lets him down, however, is yet again in the dramatic stakes. Always a relatively cold director, he fails to make the camera one with his protagonists and while this could have allowed for a more realist style, his pedestrian camera work is incapable of serving that end. In the end, much of Bradley’s good work is left unharnessed as what should be a very personal movie feels decidedly impersonal. American Sniper has been the subject of much political discussion concerning the “War on Terror” and the lauding of an elite killer who showed less remorse in real life than is depicted here but such criticisms are outside the scope of a straight up film critique and so, as a war movie with a dramatic edge, American Sniper must stand on its artistic merits alone. In that respect, it has much going for it even in spite of some directorial limitations.