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.
Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone’s reimagining of Howard Hawks’ prohibition-era gangster epic replaces the grime of old Chicago with the neon glitz and kitschy glow of 1980’s Miami and sets the scene for one of the most unique gangster movies of them all. Drop Al Pacino into the lead role of Cuban exile come narcotics trafficking kingpin and you can add “most explosive” to that accolade too. Pacino inhabits the gnarly skin of Tony Montero like few actors could or have as he steels the screen with his presence. An unpredictable concoction of balls to the wall attitude and psychopathic viciousness that bubbles to the boil around five minutes in and continues that way until the movie’s gargantuan close. Though everyone else falls in his frothing wake, there’s a lot of fun in their performances from Tony’s partner and incorrigible ladies-man Steven Bauer, to his reluctant self-hating wife Michelle Pfeiffer, to Robert Loggia’s weak-willed mob boss desperately trying to keep his insanely ambitious young charge on a leash.
Much has been made of this remake’s audacious production design and it’s usually this aspect that most detractors set their sights on. But regardless of criticism, there’s no denying that Scarface is its own film. Moreover, the truth is that, alongside Giorgio Moroder’s amusingly profound score, De Palma’s vision goes so far beyond cheesy that the movie exists in a fascinating kind of hyper-real haze of meta-gangsterism. And as is the case with every one of that director’s 1980’s movies, that’s exactly the point! Scarface isn’t a straight gangster narrative even though its works brilliantly as such, nor is it an action film even though its littered with sublimely staged (not to mention rather grisly) set-pieces that dwarf most of that decade’s best. Scarface is a twisted fairytale of greed and ambition funnelled through the intense personality of one of cinema’s most powerful actors at the height of his powers. Through this vessel, Stone’s crazy but endlessly quotable dialogue bristles with the megalomanic intention of a coke-fuelled tyrant and again, like all De Palma’s movies from around that time, it thus becomes a statement on the state of contemporary cinema itself. That it’s a riveting blast to experience just makes it all the more remarkable.
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 – 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.
Rating: The Good – 72.1 Genre: Action Duration: 126 mins Director: J.J. Abrams Stars: Tom Cruise, Michelle Monaghan, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Easily the better of the first two sequels, Mission Impossible III isn’t as much defined by its traditional set pieces as it is by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s über-villain. After retiring from the field to get married, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is drawn back into the fold when his protege is killed by the aforementioned nasty arms dealer who among other things is attempting to secure some kind of doomsday device. Picking up the ball after John Woo had somewhat fumbled it in MI:II, J.J. Abrams, fresh from his television successes with Alias and Lost, shows an intuitive touch in his handling of some modestly conceived but impressively staged set pieces. And though opening in perhaps too high a gear, the movie does eventually settle to the extent that a decent story plays out.
After a six year hiatus from the role, Cruise gives us the same enjoyable but watered down version of Ethan Hunt as he did in the first sequel. No doubt the movie could’ve used the cheeky verve of his cracking original turn but what he fails to provide, Seymour-Hoffman makes up for in spades. Not known for his roles in action thrillers, Seymour-Hoffman spits his wonderfully acidic dialogue at everyone and anyone who gets in his way right before he tortures them in some novel but psychologically cruel manner. He’s as thrilling a bad guy as you’ll find and a scene in which he wakes up in chains yet immediately turns the tables on his captors through sheer force of will is chilling to behold. The majority of the characters excluding Hunt’s new bride (Michelle Monaghan) and his sarcastic tech-specialist (Simon Pegg) are merely vessels through which the extended action sequences play out but so brisk is the pace Abrams sets, it won’t really be noticed.
Rating: The Good – 65.4 Genre: Action, Thriller Duration: 105 mins Director: Kenneth Branagh Stars: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley
Chris Pine assumes the role of CIA analyst Jack Ryan for this unambitious yet entertaining reboot of the Tom Clancy series. Beginning with his recruitment to the agency, we follow Ryan from England to the U.S. to Russia as he attempts to uncover the latter’s plans for a financial attack on his country. With his handler (an always in-form Kevin Costner) watching over him and his girlfriend (Kiera Knightley) suspicious of his covert behaviour, he suddenly finds himself “field operational” and charged with infiltrating the accounts of Kenneth Branagh’s ruthless former KGB agent who’s leading the Russian attack. Once again, Pine gives us a charming younger version of a well known character and he and Knightley form a strong pairing on which much of the drama is surprisingly built. Best of all, though, is Branagh who contrasts his own peculiar charm with a cold edge that proves nicely intimidating. Impressively, Branagh is also calling the shots from the director’s chair and he sets and maintains a taut pace throughout its 100 minutes. In the post-Bourne world, the set pieces were always going to feel somewhat subdued but they’re all executed with skill. Martin Walsh’s crisp editing is particularly impressive, his job made easier by Branagh’s slick angles and pans. David Koepp’s script is of the efficient variety in that it doesn’t get in the way of the action but nor does it rise to level of his best work. However, where Shadow Recruit fails to live up to its predecessors is in the absence of any substantial agency intrigue or inter-military politics. This should probably come as no surprise given that it’s the only movie in the series not based on an actual Clancy novel but because of this, Shadow Recruit succeeds merely as a generic action thriller, albeit a well polished one.
An elegantly directed sci-fi adventure considerably undermined by yet another painfully flat Nolan screenplay, Interstellar charts the epic attempts of a small group of scientists and astronauts to locate a planet capable of supporting the human race as its Earthly sustenance quickly dries up. Mathew McConaughey heads the cast as the mission’s pilot desperate to get back to the children he left behind before they age beyond the point where he can help them while Ann Hathaway’s stiffish scientist and a couple of nicely conceived robots keep him company on board the spacecraft. Back on Earth, Michael Caine is the brains behind the mission, Jessica Chastain is the grown up version of McConaughey’s equally clever daughter, and Casey Affleck is his son who, like the majority of remaining humans, is attempting to farm what’s left of their desertification-headed planet.
Regaining his 2008 Dark Knight directorial form, writer-director Christopher Nolan composes a quite beautiful and thrilling action thriller that achieves a perfect balance between mood and energy with no small help from Hans Zimmer’s sublime score. Making the deftest use of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s stark and striking cinematography, he avoids overplaying the CGI card keeping the story front and centre. The story isn’t bad either and, predictable as its key moments are, it serves Nolan’s grand ambitions for a Kubrickian like space epic. More the pity then that the screenplay does not. Bloated with expositional dialogue and artificial sentiment, it bungles its way towards a gargantuan mishandling of a straightforward (“save the world before it’s too late”) premise with the kind of overblown piece of psycho-physical drivel that plagued Inception. Co-penned with his more adept writer-brother (Jonathan sat Inception out), this script at least shows more restraint than that 2010 monument to tedium but not nearly enough to engender its protagonists nor their dilemmas with the depth and cadences that the premise deserved. The well conceived drama emerging from the astronauts ageing more slowly than their loved ones back home is an exception to this and proves to be the movie’s one successful appeal to the audience’s emotions.
Ultimately, the problem with Interstellar is yet again one of Nolan reaching beyond his capabilities by attempting to match the work of masters who simply operated at a level higher than his own (that’s not an insult Chris, most filmmakers toil in the shadows of Kubrick and Tarkovsky!). The innumerable references to 2001: A Space Odyssey eventually feel less like a homage and more like an attempt to disguise that failure, proving far more imitative than emulative. That said, the couple of HAL-inspired robots (the Bill Irwin-voiced “TARS” in particular) work fantastically within the confines of this story, coming alive in a whirl of mechanised motion during the best of the action sequences and adding most of the humour outside of them. And, thankfully, it’s these such lighter more grounded touches that sees Interstellar passing muster as a sci-fi thriller even while failing as an attempt at something more profound.
Rating: The Good – 64.3 Genre: Action, Thriller Duration: 124 mins Director: Mimi Leder Stars: George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, Marcel Iures
Run of the mill action thriller by the 1990’s standards that still managed to distinguish itself with a couple of neatly staged and exhilarating set pieces and a classy performance from Nicole Kidman. George Clooney stars as a special forces colonel assigned to help Kidman’s civilian advisor locate and retrieve some stolen nuclear weapons before they can be used in a terrorist attack. Outside of a severely protracted opening, Mimi Leder sets a jaunty pace and Clooney and Kidman match that pep with a somewhat edgy dynamic that the latter very much controls. Clooney was still a head-bobbing up-and-comer but was on the verge of honing his screen presence and he quite professionally follows Kidman’s lead during the slower scenes while cutting a dashing action man during the more kinetic moments. Unfortunately, Michael Schiffer’s screenplay adapted from Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s article “One Point Safe” is rather ordinary and beyond it serving the plot adequately it does little to build on the leading pair’s chemistry. The Peacemaker was the debut production for DreamWorks SKG so Leder found herself with a fair budget to play with and, for the most part, she spends it well. That said, a rather significant but cheaply attended subplot concerning an aggrieved Eastern European terrorist feels flimsy at best and more often intrudes on the more exciting manhunt narrative. More the pity because The Peacemaker solely succeeds as an action movie.