Steven Soderbergh and friends take a working holiday in Las Vegas for this entertaining reworking of the Rat Pack’s heist comedy. George Clooney fills Sinatra’s shoes as Danny Ocean, the recently paroled con-man who assembles a motley crew to take down Andy Garcia’s ruthless casino owner while simultaneously nabbing his ex-wife (Julia Roberts) back from his clutches. Brad Pitt is the Dean Martin sidekick while Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Carl Reiner, and Elliot Gould among a couple of others complete the rest of the gang. A party-mode Soderbergh unleashes every bit of his directorial panache to craft the entire affair into an interminably slick feast for the eyes and ears – with a production budget to match (not content with taking over actual casinos, they even staged a title fight between Wladimir Klitshcko and Lennox Lewis). Playing the coolest versions of themselves, the cast cruise their way through the complicated and very well executed heist in a manner befitting the project’s ambitions with David Holmes’ repetitive but impossibly suave compositions providing the most complementary soundtrack imaginable. If it sounds, like a “can’t-miss” type of movie, allay your excitement somewhat because, though eminently fun, its lack of depth ensures that it’s a little cold. In the final analysis, Ocean’s Eleven is what you get when a bunch of talented movie guys spitball a movie concept around a poker table at 3 am. Lots of well conceived but ultimately stand alone moments in desperate need of some serious screenwriting to bind them together.
Rating: The Good – 66.7 Genre: Action, Adventure Duration: 113 mins Director: Jan de Bont Stars: Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Cary Elwes
Jan de Bont’s second directorial effort after the smash hit Speed upped the ante on the action by following a bunch of storm-chasing scientists through tornado country as they attempt to figure out the secrets of the twister. Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton lead the ragtag pack of adrenaline junkies as the estranged married couple competing with a highly financed rival scientist (a slithery Cary Elwes) who stole their methodology. The action is everything you’d expect from the man who shot Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October and the relatively early CGI effects still hold up to this day. The tornado sequences themselves range between formidable and unlikely as writer Michael Crichton takes his usual liberties in adapting science for the screen. Hunt and Paxton are more than comfortable with each other and add an understated charm to the movie while a young Philip Seymour Hoffman puts in a memorable shift as the “crazy guy”. There’s plenty of humour courtesy of his and everyone else’s antics and a neatly developed assortment of characters (an often ignored strength of Crichton’s screenplays) ensure it blends seamlessly with the plot’s progression. Incidentally, Twister was the first movie released in DVD format and so it not only scores as an enjoyable action adventure but it also holds a position of some significance among the geekiest of movie fans.
Rating: The Good – 74.9 Genre: Action, Comedy Duration: 126 mins Director: Martin Brest Stars: Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto
About as much fun as you can have watching one guy drag another cross country, Midnight Run is a minor triumph on the résumé of Robert De Niro who stars as a bounty hunter attempting to bring in Charles Grodin’s crooked accountant while being pursued by the mob, the FBI, and a competing bounty hunter. The movie is chockfull of motley characters played with an abundance of personality (not to mention a generous comedic license), from Yaphet Kotto’s testy FBI agent, John Ashton’s indefatigable pain-in-the-ass bounty hunter, to Dennis Farina’s hilariously baleful mob boss who spends most of the movie threatening his hapless goons with various forms of highly imaginative corporal punishment. De Niro embraces the easy comedy of George Gallo’s classy screenplay and drives the movie with an acerbic moxie but, despite a well balanced chemistry, Grodin (along with Farina) steals the show with his usual combination of dry warmth and laconic delivery. Martin Brest directs it all with an understated panache adding little touches here and there that contribute richly to the overarching sense of fun – such as Robert Miranda’s big lug of a henchman mock boxing with Richard Foronjy as the latter pleads with Farina over the phone for forgiveness. Everything skips along to Danny Elfman’s mirthful score in an unapologetically lighthearted style but there’s enough drama wrapped up within Gallo’s neat plot to justify Midnight Run’s status as one of the 1980’s best comedy thrillers.
Rating: The Good – 78.2 Genre: Martial Arts Duration: 134 mins Director: Hark Tsui Stars: Jet Li, Biao Yuen, Rosamund Kwan
Epic martial arts adventure starring Jet Li as the famous warrior Wong Fei-Hung who becomes embroiled in the intrigue of foreign powers and local corruption as he attempts to protect his homeland and traditions from their destructive influence. The outright strength of this magnificent piece of cinema is the tapestry of plots and stories it weaves into the central narrative not to mention the chorus of martial artists that intermittently set the screen alight. The result is a sprawling extravaganza of martial art drama. Hark Tsui brings an unabashed grandiosity to the film with striking cinematography and balletically choreographed action. James Wong’s magnificent score tells the story on its own level while Marco Mak’s editing whisks the audience along to the melodically unfolded action. As imaginative as the wire-work action sequences are there’s a slightly anaemic quality to their thrust which is a common problem with the flying style of fight movies. But what is lacking in oomph is made up for in artistry as Li, Biao Yuen, and company put on a masterly exhibition of on-screen action gymnastics. Within this, Li makes for a strong lead and catches the dramatic qualities of the famous leader admirably. Like the life and personality that Hark breathes into his epic saga from behind the camera, his lead actor and the remainder of the cast ensured that Once Upon a Time in China became much more than just another Kung-Fu flick.
Rating: The Good – 78 Genre: Crime, Action Duration: 120 mins Director: Tony Scott Stars: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Brad Pitt
Tony Scott’s finest hour came when he purchased a young video store clerk’s script and executed it with much of the panache and dry wit that the same clerk would soon become renowned for. It tells the story of a geek-come-wild boy Christian Slater who falls in love with prostitute Patricia Arquette, kills her slightly deranged pimp, accidentally steals his cocaine, and then attempts to sell it to some rich Hollywood producer before the coke’s real owner, mob boss Christopher Walken, tracks him down with prejudice.
True Romance quickly became a cult classic because it cut across genres with the same audacity as Reservoir Dogs did. Colourful characters posing hip monologues, an unlikely romance at the center that flavours the entire movie with an essential unreal vibe, and more fists and guns action than you can shake a stick at ensures that the entire caper is bags of unpredictable fun and looks a treat too. With the verve that Scott’s movies were always reaching for coming pre-loaded with Quentin Tarantino’s white hot script, the former commercial director softens his touch and lets the dialogue do the talking. Free from intrusive editing and over the top score, his consistently outstanding scene composition is finally given the room to breathe and the time to be appreciated. Smokey slats of light grace everything with a cosy noir-esque ambiance, perfectly backdropping the lyricism of Tarantino’s words and the enthusiastic performances that bring them to life.
In that last regard, Slater has never been better and he shares a magnetic chemistry with the even better Arquette. Walken is Walken (in the best way possible), Hopper is in fine form as Slater’s estranged father, Oldman is forgivably over the top as the crazed pimp with an epic inferiority complex, and Brad Pitt is a riot as Slater’s L.A. stoner buddy. However, in one of the smaller parts, it’s James Gandolfini who nearly steals the show as the very real (in a wonderful contrast to practically everything else) and very scary enforcer. The last word should go to Hans Zimmer though who, on his own, seems to give this movie a tenderness that raises it above your standard actioner. Okay, not quite in his own, Scott, Tarantino, and Gandolfini helped, a lot.
Rating: The Good – 71.1 Genre: War Duration: 117 mins Director: Mark Robson Stars: Frank Sinatra, Trevor Howard, Raffaella Carrà
“Padre, you’re priceless.” Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard pair up for this jaunty WWII actioner as senior Allied officers imprisoned in an Italian POW camp on the eve of the country’s liberation from Nazi rule. One being an improvisational US Air Corps Colonel, the other being a stoic by-the-book British Major, the two inevitably butt heads in how exactly they’re going to safeguard the entire prison camp across Italy after their camp wardens flee. It never really got the credit it deserves but Von Ryan’s Express is loaded to the hilt with fine action set pieces and defined by a cast with personality to burn. From the earlier scenes of the soldiers toiling in the prison camps to the frantic rail pursuit of the last two acts, the movie swings easily between explosions and wisecracks. That said, there are more pensive moments to be had here and there and a few dark tracks are crossed along the way. Sinatra is in cruise control but he seems to be enjoying every bit of it while Howard hams it up for all he’s worth. It’s not the most delicate turn from the great English actor but, like the movie itself, it’s bags of fun.
Rating: The Good – 68.4 Genre: Drama, Sport Duration: 110 mins Director: Ivan Reitman Stars: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Frank Langella
Kevin Costner is certainly an actor to keep your eye on. He may have dropped out of the A-List in the mid-90’s but he has remained an astute reader of scripts and, not infrequently, pops up with a very good movie that flies under most people’s radar. Draft Day is one of the more recent examples and perhaps the most surprising given the cloying sentiment the movie embraces from the opening scene. Costner is the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, desperate to make his mark on the team by using his number seven pick in the NFL Draft pick to acquire a prodigious defensive prospect in the face of pressure from his owner to go for the quarterback everyone wants. Bowing to the pressure, he makes a deal for the number one spot that his entire staff balk at only to change his mind and try something even more bold.
The drama unfolds over the course of “Draft Day” and sweeps us around the country as one franchise after another attempt to make some magic happen for their teams. But with Costner and his Browns at the centre of it all. Whether it’s the quick pacing or the fascination with team strategy or just the quality of the drama, director Ivan Reitman manages to build a wholly engaging tension that peaks several times across the final act. Opting bravely to mirror the theatre of the event itself, he shoots shiny graphics across the screen, splits it, and litters it with brand advertisement.
Thankfully, a cast full of good pros, either making telling cameos or playing more substantial roles, adds a touch of solidity to the all these bells and whistles. Costner is in fine form as the decent football man just trying to get the team he wants, Jennifer Gardner is fantastic as Costner’s younger girlfriend who announces the morning of that she is pregnant and wants more from their relationship, Dennis Leary is the mouthy coach beleaguered at his manager’s impulsive manoeuvres, Frank Langella is the charming yet power-happy owner monitoring everything, while Sam Elliot, Kevin Dunne, Tom Welling, Josh Pence, and many, many others fill out the rest of universally entertaining roster. Among the benefits to a cast like this isn’t just some great chemistry but plenty of well timed and delivered comic moments. But it’s the drama of the strategising and last minute negotiations that drives the ball home and makes this piece of fluff as thrilling as it is.
Rating: The Good – 73.8 Genre: Drama, Comedy Duration: 103 mins Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Stars: Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell
Endearing drama following an awkward teenager as he and his mother spend the summer at her cantankerous boyfriend’s beach house. While the mother gets indoctrinated into her boyfriend’s grownups-gone-wild culture, he finds solace at a local water park under the wing of its wisecracking manager. Rights of passage comedies are difficult to get right because there’s often an onus on the filmmakers to extract the comedy from real life. But as comedy more typically comes from exaggerated characterisation and circumstances, that is easier said than done. The Way Way Back has its fair share of exaggerations but so charming is the project and so easy is it to watch, that they successfully solicit our forgiveness for such transgressions. Of course, that much of the comedy does indeed emerge from realistic sequences (or at least the emotions they’re built around) and that those sequences are so perceptively judged and written helps a great deal.
Critical to this type of film is the script and cast and the former (courtesy of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) is an honest breath of fresh air, rarely sacrificing the film’s sentiments for cheap gags or tangential comedy vignettes. The latter is loaded with quality from the typically wonderful Toni Collett as the mother to an against-type Steve Carell as her asshole boyfriend. Allison Janney is the crazy neighbour responsible for most of the wilder antics and fulfilling that remit to perfection. As is always the case, The Way Way Back is infinitely enriched by the presence of Sam Rockwell as the park manager. Playing a big kid with a big heart in a quirky comedy is meat and potatoes to Rockwell but his charisma is irresistible and sends a charge of energy throughout the movie.
That said, the real rewards to be found here are in young Liam James’ central performance and his relationship with Collette and Rockell’s characters. Charmingly awkward, entirely sympathetic, yet with a hidden strength he’s the steady pulse at the movie’s core. Collette puts in a gorgeous turn as the insecure mother and there’s so much warmth between mother and son that the movie satisfies despite the darker themes of loneliness. In that last regard, credit must go to Collette and Carell who work terrifically in balancing the tone of the film by maintaining an undercurrent of seriousness through all the laughter. Carell for his part is fantastic as the selfish streak of misery and close observers of this film won’t be too surprised by his more recent Foxcatcher turn. But as deep as everything gets into the adolescent and midlife crises departments, any heaviness is blown away by the fresh sense of fun that Faxon and Rash’s writing and directing bring to the party.
Rating: The Good – 76.1 Genre: Drama, Comedy Duration: 139 mins Director: Cameron Crowe Stars: Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr., Renée Zellweger
Cameron Crowe’s finely pitched romantic comedy has all the hallmarks of the best romantic drama with a healthy dollop of cynicism to keep it honest. Tom Cruise is the sports agent who, after a late night epiphany, turns his back on his once ruthless, heartless, and client churning approach to his career and commits himself to a more personal form of sporting representation. The only problem is the line of colleagues waiting to plunge their knives into his back and his soon to be former clients who’ve been well indoctrinated into the industry’s superficiality. Left with nobody but an enamoured secretary at his former company (Renée Zellwegger) and an embittered but charismatic football player desperate for the contract he feels he deserves (Cuba Gooding Jr.), he strives to build a new business while reconciling the feelings he develops for former and maintaining his turbulent relationship with the latter.
Nearly 20 years after its release, Jerry Maguire remains as fresh and endearing as it was in the 90’s as Crowe approaches things with an energy and fun that gets the best out of his cast and acerbic script alike. The riffs resonate amusingly, the dialogue pops, and the very real personal drama bubbles just under the comedic surface so that the movie avoids succumbing to the palpable angst of Cruise’s central dilemma. Only once or twice does it threaten to do so but Cameron and his cast always pull it back. Cruise has rarely been better morphing seamlessly from the confident, shark-toothed grin of successful agent to the sweaty self doubt of a man struggling to find himself. Zellwegger charms the audience with her rather original portrayal of the needy but admirable single mother while Gooding Jr., in his Oscar winning turn, is simply a force of nature. There’s a vulnerable defiance to his all encompassing presence which makes him much more than just a football jock looking for a contract and it’s around him that much of the film derives its energy. Whether or not the whole thing becomes too thick with sentiment will come down to one’s tolerance of light hearted emotional drama but there’s enough truth and real life sprinkled about the script and its delivery to capture most of us without a fight.
Rating: The Good – 73 Genre: Thriller Duration: 105 mins Director: D.J. Caruso Stars: Shia LaBeouf, David Morse, Carrie-Anne Moss
Brash thrills, teenage angst, and lots of fun, D.J. Caruso’s Disturbia is a great tonic for the over-earnest formula pieces that have passed for thrillers over last decade. Shia LeBeouf is the teenager sentenced to house arrest for his summer break and forced to spend the days spying on his neighbours. On one side, we have an attractive young lady (Sarah Roemer) and on the other we have a possible serial killer (David Morse in terrifically creepy mode). Needless to say, it’s not long before he’s hot and heavy with one and carrying out a Rear Window type investigation on the other. With its hip soundtrack and irrepressible sense of fun, Caruso paces this one to perfection from start to finish and whether we’re watching LaBeouf innovate new 21st century methods for ogling Roemer from a distance or catching Morse in the act of murder, ducking behind windowsills or battling his adolescent awkwardness, we’re with him every inch of the way. LaBeouf was fairly untouchable in these cheeky roles in the mid-naughties and he carries the movie with all the boyish charm and ironic wit that, at the time, was promising so much for the rest of his career. Model-turned-actress Roemer is surprisingly spunky as the love interest and eventual partner-in-peeping while Carrie-Anne Moss (as Shia’s mom) and Morse bring some gravitas to the cast as the “grown ups”. There’s not much more Caruso and co. could’ve done to make Disturbia more enjoyably and though we had seen elements of it in everything from Fright Night to the aforementioned Hitchcock classic, there’s a gleefully fresh vibe to the entire movie.
Rating: The Ugly – 60 Genre: Action, Fantasy Duration: 110 mins Director: Timur Bekmambetov Stars: Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman
It might seem redundant to state that a movie about a secret cult of weavers turned assassins is at best a guilty pleasure but so derivative is this one that it really does need saying. With its comic book premise that itself was cobbled together from dozens of better sources and with a sprinkle of madcap mayhem, James McAvoy stars as a painfully ordinary nobody who, after Angelina Jolie shows up to repeatedly beat the crap out of him, discovers his birthright is to be a super-assassin and avenge his similarly employed father. Absurdly obscure superpowers considered and colourless bad guy aside, this one kind of skirts along of the far boundaries of tolerance thanks to the rollercoaster of fun it serves up. So detached is it from making sense that you’ll gladly just give in and absorb the bullet-bending, car-flipping carnage and chuckle at the few decent jokes they manage to cram in between. McAvoy’s boyish charm helps a lot and when Jolie isn’t doing her smug “I-know-something-that-you-don’t” face, she cuts another fine action heroine. Together, they are fine but don’t expect the chemistry of Ford and Fisher. Noteworthy in his presence is Morgan Freeman who pops up in a (not atypically) curious cameo too but to little effect because Wanted is McAvoy and Jolie’s bag.
Rating: The Good – 73.4 Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy Duration: 121 mins Director: James Gunn Stars: Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Benicio Del Toro
Yet another comic book blockbuster from the Marvel stable of sci-fi fantasy. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel are the eponymous heroes whose self-interests bring them together against a common foe who, like every other super villain these days, will settle for nothing else but the destruction of the galaxy. What saves this film from the black hole pull of a mind-numbingly familiar genre is the fresh sense of fun James Gunn brings to the script and its direction. The characters are drawn and played out with a care-free irreverence that drives the movie as a whole. There are no erroneously earnest pauses in tone to allow for some heavy handed emotional button pushing – well, none that aren’t cleverly rescued in time. Guardians of the Galaxy is a joke and everyone’s happy to play it that way. It all lays the groundwork for some genuinely side splitting humour, most of which, involves Cooper’s talking and brilliantly mental space rodent.
Though Pratt is a wonderfully unassuming lead with lots of self-deprecating charisma and Bradley is in rich vocal form, most of the credit must still go to Gunn. Making a funny movie doesn’t just require you to write funny but to direct funny and armed with his anthology of vintage pop tracks and a very wry sense of editing, he rocket propels the humour in his script. Okay, so a few of the jokes are taken a step too far but most are delivered with polish. And when we’re not laughing, the simply astounding visual effects ensure that we have something impressive to look at too and, while it never escapes the CGI look, the movie remains an immaculate piece of visual artistry. On this canvas, Gunn (particularly early on) crafts some dazzling action sequences and the ceaselessly fantastic gadgetry and conveyor belt of amazing aliens adds handsomely to their enjoyment.
Where the movie inevitably falls flat however, is in the wearingly repetitive plot that seems no different to that which the likes of Thor, The Avengers, or any number of the endless comic book adaptations (that we’ve been utterly plagued with these last five years) have offered up. Plots that seem to serve no other purpose than to provide a platform for endless battles and flashy explosions. For all the good this movie does with its character construction and comedic dialogue and for all the ingenuity of Gunn’s action, the brain eventually just switches off during these protracted sequences because the premise is too flimsy to support them. It’s part of Hollywood’s magic formula so it won’t soon change but anyone who doesn’t have the hormonal constitution of a 14 year old boy, is liable to find this movie’s visual narrative veering towards 3rd act tedium. Thankfully, Guardians of the Galaxy wraps up at just under two hours and while still perhaps 15-20 minutes too long, it’s a damn sight shorter than most other modern comic adaptations. Alongside its richer character and dialogue base, that saving grace, gives Gunn’s movie a significant edge on the generic horde of superhero vehicles.