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 – 70.9 Genre: Thriller Duration: 114 mins Director: Scott Frank Stars: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour
A refreshingly focused thriller from a writer-director who continues to defy the current trend by honouring the genre’s best traditions of putting brains before action. Liam Neeson stars as an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic who’s hired by a drug dealer to find the brutal lunatics who kidnapped and murdered his wife – before they sent her back in pieces. Walk Among the Tombstones walks a number of lines very well. It’s dark without being dreary, thrilling but not over the top, and pensive without being boring. But most welcome of all is that it’s paced with an old time respect for story. The well nourished plot develops seamlessly around three or four intriguing characters from the excellent Dan Stevens as the atypical dealer with a thirst for vengeance to Brian “Astro” Bradley’s homeless kid who latches onto Neeson with notions of being a “Sam Spade”-like partner. And as the killers enter the fray, David Harbour and Adam David Thompson provide just the right amount of menace to not detract from the film’s tempered mood. After a solid debut behind the camera with The Lookout, the writer of Out of Sight and Get Shorty raises his game further by achieving a more comprehensive balance between the script, production design, Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s clean cinematography, and Carlos Rafael Rivera’s quietly tense score. Unsurprisingly, given his writing credits, the dialogue is laced with hard grit and the cast, particularly Neeson and Harbour, eat it up. The finale threatens some melodrama and a familiar backstory to Neeson’s character hold this one back a little but its overall tangibility and coherence raise it well above the recent fluff the genre has suffered. And on top of all that, how great is it to see Neeson back in a role worthy of his talent!?!
Rating: The Good – 77.5 Genre: Western Duration: 115 mins Director: Ed Harris Stars: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen
Written, directed, and starring Ed Harris, Appaloosa isn’t merely a revisiting of the quintessential American film genre nor is it exactly a revisioning (which is, in its own way, kind of refreshing). It’s more a slowly exhaled understanding of what makes it so damn special as a context for storytelling. A celebration of its principles like the restoration of a great art without the controversy of compromising any of its natural glory. Harris and Viggo Mortensen are the hired guns Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, brought into the town of Appaloosa to offer protection from Jeremy Irons’ ruthless rancher Randall Bragg, who killed the last sheriff when the latter attempted to arrest two of his men for rape. Recalling the rich and intriguing relationship of Fonda and Quinn in 1959’s Warlock, Harris and his faithful companion are a thoughtful yet hardened pair of lawmen who live by the gun and wield it like it comes naturally. The film’s broader comprehension of life on the frontier is reflected at a personal level within their dynamic, the edges and corners of which being exposed only when Rene Zwellweger’s woman of questionable motives enters the fray and attempts to destabilise it. Plot comes to the fore here in wonderfully unobtrusive manner and it offers a circuitous and totally understated testing of marrow and allegiances alike. Gnarly old Lance Henriksen pops up as a notorious colleague from Cole’s past and matters come to a head in blistering showdown that ups the ante on where the Unforgiven left off. Robert Knott and Harris penned the words that so adequately express the grizzled sentiment and honest wonderings of the men and women of this world and there’s plenty of perceptive and expertly timed humour to be discovered along the way. But it’s Harris and Mortensen who shine most bright under the prairie sun, the mutual respect shared by their characters translating fluently at the acting level. Characterisation helps mightily of course and you’d have to delve deep into the history of the western to find a couple of gun-slingers as intriguing not to mention as cool as these here guys. Harris shows a steady and considered touch behind the camera and lets it all play out with the ease of the era in which it was set. You won’t see anything new in Appaloosa but a visit every now and then will remind you of why the western has and always will be so cherished.
Rating: The Good – 78.4 Genre: Thriller Duration: 118 mins Director: Jonathan Demme Stars: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn
One of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful thrillers, The Silence of the Lambs scooped all five top Academy Awards and gave us arguably the most celebrated villain in movie history. Starring Jodie Foster as FBI recruit Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, Jonathan Demme’s film focuses on the attempts of the talented but inexperienced young agent to tap the mind of the brilliant but deranged psychiatrist in order to aid the bureau’s pursuit of a terrifying serial killer who skins his victims. Though The Silence of the Lambs is perhaps best remembered for its acting and writing, it’s Demme’s directing that sets it apart from the majority of thrillers by intricately setting and maintaining the right tone and mood throughout, an achievement that ultimately elevates the aforementioned acting and writing. In fairness, Foster didn’t need much help for she delivers a wonderfully vulnerable performance full of tempered resolve. As Demme’s moral crucible she helps ground perspective no matter how outlandish the story becomes. This is crucial because Harris has a proclivity for overplaying his hand and skirts the edge of caricature a little too often for comfort. This is best exemplified by his Lecter character. There’s undeniably an arresting quality to the cannibalistic therapist but it takes a deft touch to tease out the more fascinating features of his personality that, for the most part, lie latent. Brian Cox had masterfully humanised him in the seminal Manhunter (to which this film is an unofficial sequel) but Hopkins goes another way and, while he puts in a wholly dramatic not to mention memorable shift, it lacks nuance and therefore realism. There’s just too much looniness to his Lecter and altogether too much revelling in said looniness. Psychopaths, after all, are very good at concealing their pathology but this Lecter is blatantly bananas. However, what he lacks in sophistication, Demme makes up for. Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography is rich in the grime of murder and Howard Shore’s score is softly invigorating and along with some exceptional production design, the director renders palpable a moody tension that carries the audience all the way to the close.
Rating: The Good – 77.8 Genre: Western Duration: 122 mins Director: Edward Dmytryk Stars: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn
Terrific western about the scared townsfolk of Warlock who unofficially hire a feared gunman and his disturbingly protective assistant to marshal a gang of cut throats. However, when a outlaw turned hero is formally instated as sheriff, the question of who’s in charge becomes a defining feature of the town’s battle with the outlaws. Some films work simply on the basis of their writing and there’s little doubt that the intriguing characterisation and dialogue on display here would probably make a success out of Warlock even if it didn’t possess a truly outstanding cast, all of whom, act their chaps off. With Richard Widmark headlining as the modestly capable sheriff, his nuanced likability offers a warm contrast to the more interesting dynamic shared between Henry Fonda’s expert gunslinger and Anthony Quinn’s grisly defender. The latter are immense with Fonda in particular relishing the darker meat to his role with one of the genre’s better turns. Quinn is the unknown factor and his slippery personality keeps the audience firmly hooked. Based on Oakley Hall’s novel and adapted by Robert Alan Arthur, Warlock is rich in thematic depth without getting too aloof from the genre’s more modest origins while the always excellent Edward Dmytryk solidly balances the unintuitively related subplots and serves up some intense showdowns as he goes. We could’ve stood to have seen more of Widmark and of his attempt to make a life in the town but Dmytryk clearly saw it as a trade-off worth making.
Rating: The Good – 75.6 Genre: Thriller, Mystery Duration: 149 mins Director: David Fincher Stars: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens
David Fincher and Gillian Flynn’s eagerly awaited adaptation of her own bestseller has laisser faire husband, Ben Affleck, suspected in the kidnapping and murder of his wife, Rosamund Pike, amid a media storm and public fascination with the curious young woman. If you’re familiar with the book, you’ll know what happens next but if you’re new to Flynn’s post recession world of the neo-consumer thirty-something, let’s just say that it’s not long before things take a turn for the bizarre and the plot corkscrews towards an unlikely conclusion.
As was the case with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the class that Fincher brings to the production seems a little beyond Flynn’s poolside fiction but so polished and so full of disciplined verve is Gone Girl the movie, that it’s a genuine pleasure watching it unfold. That the film offers a wry take on the symbiotic relationship between media and personal perception is an unexpected bonus and goes a long way to offset the madness of the plot. Despite this however, there are many who will feel a little let down by the resolutions offered here or lack thereof. For what it does offer, however, Gone Girl is one of the better and more intriguing thrillers of recent years propped with notable characters and fine performances. The most enigmatic is certainly Pike’s Amy Dunne, the lady at the centre of the rigmarole. Seeing her only in flashback during the first half of the movie, she narrates us through the couple’s early years exclusively via her diary entries. Lines are slowly drawn between her and hubby as she lays bare his infidelity and we duly fall in behind her. However something likeable remains of Affleck’s Nick Dunne and the story pivots on that charm.
Unsurprisingly, Pike received plenty of plaudits including an Oscar nomination. And within the flashback scenes, she’s genuinely outstanding, juggling pathos with a discernible feminine strength. However as the story winds forward, her character becomes more inaccessible and it’s fair to say her performance becomes a little mono-dimensional. If there’s a star turn here, it’s probably the much maligned Affleck who delivers it. In by far his most substantial piece of acting, he plays the disengaged, suspicious doofus with all sorts of delicacy and almost single-handedly carries the movie through its turbulent final act. That said, Carrie Coon as his twin sister and Kim Dickens as the investigating detective offer terrific support in yet another couple of uniquely strong female roles.
But for all the cast’s work, that final 40 minutes would’ve crashed and burned if it wasn’t for Fincher’s immaculate touch. Masterfully integrating Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s mechanical (albeit familiar) score with Jeff Cronenweth’s luscious photography not to mention Kirk Baxter’s spotless editing and embedding it all within Donald Graham Burt’s typically splendid production design, he serves up yet another peach of a film. You won’t see the depth of vision of The Social Network here but the depth of technical achievement is everywhere.
Rating: The Good – 70.5 Genre: Sport, Drama Duration: 118 mins Director: Peter Berg Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Jay Hernandez, Derek Luke
Director Peter Berg and writer David Aaron Cohen’s adaptation of H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s novel chronicles the travails of a football mad Texas town and their high school team’s attempt to win the State Championship amidst social and personal pressures. Living up to the seminal novel was always going to be next to impossible especially for a (albeit) solid journeyman like Berg but there’s no denying this one just sort of works. From the bone shaking tackles, the swagger of the touchdowns, to the strategising on the sidelines, Berg does every bit of the game justice and so the audience will be suitably engrossed on that level alone. But it’s the team camaraderie and off-field personal tests that coach and players alike face throughout the season that gives this movie its substance despite Berg and Cohen presenting only fleeting snippets of each drama ‘s due to time limitations. Berg quite smartly uses the energy of the rough and tumble to exhilarate the audience and then funnel it into some rather touching moments of emotion when needed. It’s all very explicit with plenty of slow motion shots and uplifting score but, because of its honesty and Berg and Cohen’s success in binding us to the players, the resultant goosebumps are guilt free and welcome. Billy Bob Thornton puts in an outstanding shift as the thoughtful coach desperate to keep both his self respect and his job despite their mutual interference. But it’s a bunch of unknowns that fill out the rest of the cast and not one puts a foot wrong. Modest in its aims yet efficient in its execution, Friday Night Lights does what all good sports dramas should do and remains respectful of the source material as it goes. Nicely done Mr Berg.
Rating: The Good – 84.3 Genre: Western Duration: 88 mins Director: Robert Wise Stars: Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Preston
Robert Wise impressed across a number of genres during his career and this contribution to the great American movie form was one of his most significant, even it is has gone relatively unacknowledged. Blood on the Moon is a shadowy western noir that embraces the crime genre’s visual and writing conventions head on and pits hardened, sharp talking men and women against one another amid silhouette and darting slits of light. That everyone is sporting Stetsons and six shooters and fighting cattle wars is the only thing that reminds us we’re in the Old West.
Robert Mitchum is the drifter who finds himself drafted into one side of a complicated conflict in which his old friend (a loathsome Robert Preston) is manipulating two sides in a open range dispute against the other for his own aims. Lille Hayward’s dialogue is slick with insight and street (prairie) smarts to the extent that the cast and director alike seem inspired by it. Mitchum’s typically soulful presence is the central pillar to the movie’s success and that it’s one of his more endearing performances says a lot. Balancing the self preservation instincts of the great noir anti-heroes with the morality of the Old West champion, he foreshadows the great characters of the spaghetti western nearly two decades earlier. Barbara Bell Geddes makes the most of her plucky character in whom her affection for Mitchum’s gun hand represents an interesting conflict.
But Wise deserves the last mention for Blood on the Moon is certainly one of the more striking westerns to behold both flush with moodiness and overflowing with dusty grit. There was a time when cinema and television was inundated with westerns to the point that cinema goers became jaded with the genre. Despite a few efforts to rejuvenate its look and style in the late 50’s and 60’s, it never really recovered. That Blood on the Moon came at the height of the genre’s popularity makes Wise’s project all the impressive and indeed prescient. If others had taken more notice, the western might have survived.
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.
For a film that boasts lots of stars and acting talent, Syriana is a rather more unorthodox thriller than we might expect. Set amid the world of oil trading and based on Robert Baer’s book, it follows Amirs, petroleum executives, senators, high profile lawyers, terrorists, and CIA agents as they engage each other in a global chess match where the tool is geographical instability and the prize is power. The result is a collage of intersecting plots that thrill on a variety of dramatic levels. Political machinations, corporate intrigue, religious extremism, cultural ambition, and personal tribulation all bound together with coherence and momentum.
An ambitious project to be sure but one that succeeds due to a tight script and intelligent directing which combine to give a story of such scale much focus while, at all times, giving the audience the benefit of the doubt. Nothing is spoon-fed here as every deal, negotiation, and conversation is veiled and approached at an angle. Much is left for the audience to work out, a tactic that encourages them to invest in the story. But what really defines Stephen Gaghan’s film is its overarching sense of realism. The plot is allowed to increment forward in a manner where little looks to be happening but where a lot feels like it is. A triumph of efficient directing where each character is embellished richly with a mere half-glance or dinner order. Back-room wheeling and dealing portrayed so incidentally that what would appear outlandish comes across as chillingly real.
And the cast contribute strongly too. George Clooney puts in an Oscar winning turn as a spy very much caught between two worlds and cultures, who is sent to Beirut on CIA business only to be frozen out when things go wrong. Jeffrey Wright is deviousness personified as the Washington lawyer asked by his sinister senior partner Christopher Plummer to take a closer look at a merger between two oil giants, one of which, is headed up by the always excellent Chris Cooper. A host of other top names and some talented newcomers fill out the lesser roles but it’s fair to say everybody plays second fiddle to the intricate plot. That it all plays towards a deeply moving and emotional crescendo is what precludes this almost experimental political burner from unravelling. Instead, it seems to cohere rather impressively and honestly around some unappetising home truths and leave everyone thinking. Impressive indeed.
Rating: The Good – 74.7 Genre: Thriller, Action Duration: 130 mins Director: Christopher McQuarrie Stars: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Robert Duvall
When a sniper shoots six random people, a former crack investigator with the military police, Jack Reacher, begins chipping away at the District Attorney’s case and uncovers a wider conspiracy. Back in 2000, Christopher McQuarrie slipped into the director’s chair and comfortably exhaled the word “action” and, indeed, that’s exactly what his forte turned out to be. Action dripping with condensation rescued from overkill by a confident playfulness and pulsing with a similarly restrained tension. The perfect accompaniment for his trademark dialogue that, along with Tarantino’s, seemed to define the 90’s crime thriller.
His latest offering to this genre was the subject of much controversy during its development as word broke that Tom Cruise would take on the role of Lee Child’s much loved title character. The problem: Jack Reacher is 6’5″ tall in Child’s books and his physical presence is a defining feature of the fearsome detective. Cruise? Well, as one of Hollywood’s smallest A-listers, 6’5″ is more than a (err..) stretch. However, despite the hesitation on the fans’ part, the movie succeeds as one of this century’s better action thrillers. Sure, it lacks the intimidating presence of Child’s Reacher but Cruise is more than solid in a less distinct formulation of the character and to make up the difference, McQuarrie surrounds him with a highly capable and charismatic cast. Rosamund Pike is equally watchable as the attorney representing the police’s prime suspect, Robert Duvall pops up in an interesting extended cameo as an wily ex-marine sharpshooter, and Werner Herzog, of all people, turns in one of the more bizarre movie villains in recent years. Best of all, however, is Jai Courtney as his right-hand man with a killer charm.
While the set pieces are ably handled, not to mention defined by a refreshing degree of live action stunt work, in a nice twist on the modern blockbuster, it’s the plot that drives this movie as McQuarrie picks the best elements of the original story and juices it up with his edgy yet humorous dialogue. That goes for every character except Herzog’s who is given one lame line after another to struggle with. There’s no doubt that casting a more beast like actor in the lead role would’ve added the much absent menace to this movie’s narrative but, in the end, McQuarrie and Cruise deliver an eminently worthy action flick. Jack Reacher won’t leave you bowled over but you’ll more than likely find yourself substantially entertained.
Rating: The Good – 73.8 Genre: Thriller Duration: 108 mins Director: Damian Harris Stars: Laurence Fishburne, Ellen Barkin, Frank Langella, Michael Beach
Lawrence Fishburn stars as a disgraced former CIA agent who moves to the world of corporate espionage where he immediately becomes embroiled in a double cross involving his devious new partner Ellen Barkin and a host of other nefarious individuals each with their own agendas. The plot may be as mad as a box of frogs but there’s much to recommend in the manner of this thriller’s execution. It’s an eminently slick and determined piece of intrigue that panders little to an impatient audience. A psychological homage to the murky combination of intelligence and greed shot in the soft glow of 90’s lighting and set against a emphatically sinister Carter Burwell score. Ross Thomas adapted his own novel and didn’t compromise an inch in how he depicted the ambiguity of this dark world and while Damian Harris repeatedly spills the tension of his expositional scenes, he crafts his key moments with some real finesse and proper power. So much so that the bleak rawness of the emotional landscape can become quite repelling towards the end. The acting is for the most part as competent as you’d expect from a cast as good as this but it’s their ability to see the hidden qualities in their characters that hooks the audience and keeps us guessing. Fishburn in particular gives us a colder more unsettling anti-hero than we are typically used to and Michael Beach treats us yet another seriously intimidating 1990’s villain. Where the movie falls down quite significantly is in its progression. Too many crucial sequences are omitted or rushed through so that the plot loses cohesion as it twists and turns to avoid our expectations. Bad Company is more than worth a watch but one suspects this could’ve been a genuine classic in more capable and/or artistic hands.