Rating: The Good – 77.7 Genre: Comedy Duration: 103mins Director: Michael Lehmann Stars: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty
“Dear diary, my teenage angst bullshit has a bodycount.” Recent addition to the school’s most popular clique, Winona Ryder, is growing ever wearier at the inane conventions of her new friends, three preppy girls all named Heather. In steps Christian Slater, a proactive cynic whose extreme reactions to the superiority complexes of the chosen few are the source of the some shockingly funny moments.
Like all great black comedy and unlike so many recently failed attempts, the darkness in Heathers is effortless and so the comedy is viciously hilarious. Daniel Waters’ delicious script is driven by a playful yet unyielding focus that slices fantastically at the indulgence of the high-school movie genre and indeed society’s broader indulgence of the precious order that its middle class teenagers had so mercilessly forged in the 1980’s in particular.
Ryder has never been better and for those who’ve only seen her Dracula-type performances, they should take a look at this. For such an acerbic story, she brings a level of reality and even warmth to the role that serves to make her incredulous narrations and interactions with the various characters all the funnier. Slater is at his best too, his slow burning charisma making him the perfect choice to play the self-anointed social equaliser. His character becomes both Waters’ main vessel and his target as he slowly works his way through the equally self-anointed social elite. Michael Lehmann’s directing is adequate but a little uninspired, which is actually quite a shame because this movie would otherwise be damn near perfect.
Rating: The Good – 77.1 Genre: Drama, Satire Duration: 102 mins Director: Mike Nichols Stars: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Mike Nichols turns his prodigious talent for satire to Aaron Sorkin’s clever adaptation of the true story of a Texas congressman’s attempts to secure the covert military funding that would ultimately tip the balance of the Soviet-Afghan war. Tom Hanks as the unorthadox good-time politician and Philip Seymour Hoffman as his irreverent CIA adviser form one of the best on-screen partnerships in recent decades as they bat Sorkin’s indignantly funny dialogue back and forth while Julia Roberts and Any Adams help to fill out the support roster intelligently rising to the spirit of Sorkin and Nichols’ storytelling as they go. The movie that unfolds is a delight of sardonic wit in both its writing and directing but, in typical Mike Nichols fashion, it effortlessly doubles as an engrossing political drama by perceptibly accounting for geo-political implications and character development alike. Sorkin’s feisty screenplay zips along at its usual pace but Nichols knows exactly when to channel that momentum or temporarily contain it so that its energy is maintained without dumbing down the drama. Unsurprisingly, Wilson comes out smelling like roses but only because Hanks and co. know exactly how to turn those warts into beauty spots and so, like the man himself, Charlie Wilson’s War charms its way into the audience’s hearts.
Rating: The Good – 85.2 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 111 mins Director: Billy Wilder Stars: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur
Billy Wilder shows that film-noir can be done just as well outside the traditional confines of murky streets and shadowy cities by giving us a dry and dusty noir that has all the punch of the more famed classics. Kirk Douglas is the professionally exiled newspaper man who takes up with a small town paper hoping for a big story that’ll propel him back into favour with the big city papers. And when a cave-in traps an average schmuck who had been looting a local Indian burial chamber, he seizes his chance with both hands. There’s just one problem: the schmuck may be rescued too soon for the story to get enough traction. Using all his wiles to co-opt the sheriff and rescuers, the driven reporter orchestrates a slower rescue while, outside the cave, the public interest reaches fever pitch.
Ace in the Hole makes for a rather picturesque film even if you don’t immediately notice it. The sun bleached New Mexican landscape contrasted with the dust and darkness of the cave harnesses the mood of Wilder’s perceptive screenplay to create a rather impressive canvas for his critique of media sensationalism. Chomping down on some outright seminal dialogue, Douglas is arguably in the form of his career and his boisterous presence is the centre of the film. As the money craving wife of the trapped man, Jan Sterling is a streak of caustic self-regard, an underrated triumph in the femme fatale stakes. But Ace in the Hole remains a vehicle for Douglas and his director. The latter peppers more languid moments of contemplation with a litany of amusing carnival type set pieces involving grandiose crane shots and wide contrasts. All framed around Douglas’ arch manipulator buzzing about somewhere within. And on top of all this, they go and give us one of the great noir endings too.
Movies that tread new ground are a rare breed these days but Dan Gilroy’s grimy psychological thriller gets neck deep in a premise, plot, and movie perspective that’s unlike anything we’ve really seen before. Jake Gyllenhaal headlines as Louis Bloom, a degenerate dork looking for a vocation in which he can shine not to mention make a quick buck. Happening by a late night accident, he rapidly immerses himself in the world of sensational nighttime news and places himself at its forefront by videotaping crimes, accidents, and anything that bleeds and delivering them to Rene Russo’s desperate news director fresh off the blood-soaked pavement.
Nightcrawler introduces us to one unsavoury character after another but each are rooted in a desperate need that makes their wretched deeds all too relatable. Gilroy lures us through this looking glass of fast food media and successfully captures the upside down personal morality of all involved. Everything seems a little too incredible but at no point do we disengage. In fact, we want more, even as, no especially as, the credits begin to roll.
A skeletal Gyllenhaal is electric in a performance that reflects the movie’s creepy themes of the ‘real unreal’ on a singularly focused level. We begin by dismissing the likelihood that anyone could be so deranged only to recoil later on at the frightening sincerity in his bulging eyes and the sound of his voice as he recites his night-school rhetoric for business success. Gilroy was certainly taking a risk building the movie around the one truly irredeemable character but the entire film gravitates around Gyllenhaal’s magnetism and though we loathe him, we definitely enjoy doing so. Russo is wonderfully complicated as the TV exec who crawls onto his web, soliciting everything from the audience’s pity to their curiosity. The always great Bill Paxton pops up in a compelling cameo as a fellow nightcrawler who crosses paths with the manic Bloom and Riz Ahmed rounds off the cast with a sympathetic turn as the latter’s weary assistant.
Gilroy’s script is gleefully twisted in its originality while behind the camera he, cinematographer Robert Elswit, and indeed composer James Newton Howard give the nighttime streets of LA a character and personality of the kind we experienced in Michael Mann’s Heat. And whether they act as a still background to the patient madness of Bloom waiting for his scanner to announce his next shot or the frenetic blur of the subsequent high speed pursuit, they bring a critical balance of grit and gloss to the proceedings. It all adds up to a triumphant movie experience that should easily stand the test of time not only as a satirical social commentary but as a pulse thumping crime thriller to boot.
Rating: The Good – 87.4 Genre: Satire, War Duration: 116 mins Director: Robert Altman Stars: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt
Robert Altman unfolds his broad interpersonal canvas to stunning effect in this classic piece of American cinema. Bold, hilarious, touching, and heartbreaking, there are few statements on war as focused as what he serves up here. Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerrit, and Elliot Gould are at their unorthodox best as the ragtag bunch of draftee surgeons working three miles from the front line of the Korean War to keep their spirits high and the endless wounded alive. Sally Kellerman and Robert Duvall are a hoot as the stiff career officers whom they pester unmercifully both intentionally and unintentionally. As with most of Altman’s films, the plot isn’t what drives M.A.S.H but rather the satirical vignettes which loosely coalesce around the personal conflicts. Whether it’s Hot Lips and Major Burns’ infamous broadcast or the gleeful irreverence of that “Last Supper”, Altman’s dry script and impeccable distance, not to mention the immense craft of his actors ensured they became immortal moments of humour. The result is an iconic piece of film making and one of the few movies that helps to definitively mark a moment in time and culture without ever feeling dated. “Hot Lips you incredible nincompoop, it’s the end of the quarter!”
Rating: The Good – 71 Genre: Thriller Duration: 120 mins Director: Bruce A. Evans Stars: Kevin Costner, Demi Moore, William Hurt
Okay, so the plot is way over the top but this quirky little movie about a wealthy serial killer (Kevin Costner) battling with his impulses to kill (personified in the form of alter ego William Hurt) is both an amusing black comedy and a very engaging thriller. Costner is as good as ever in the title role and his balancing of family man, business tycoon, tortured soul, and meticulous serial killer wasn’t an easy one to pull off particularly because of the story’s comedic artifice. But he actually nails it and makes for a charming lead who we root for throughout. Hurt is in giddy form as his twisted Id, a partner in crime, who nobody else can see or hear, while Demi Moore continues her recent revival with an equally charming turn as the detective on his trail. Where Mr. Brooks stalls is in the multitude of subplots it presents us with. Actually, four of them work quite effectively together but a fifth involving Moore’s pursuit of a second unrelated murderer is needless and distracting. But while it takes from the integrity of the story, writer director Bruce A. Evans and co-writer Raynold Evans’ irreverent approach to the subject matter softens the blow. Simply put, Mr. Brooks is just about the fun we get from following its twisted plot and seeing three of Hollywood’s old hands plying their trade with the charm and savvy that many of their recent counterparts are missing.
Sidney Lumet’s second collaboration with Sean Connery was for this inspired & subtly satirical story of surveillance, perception, & a recently paroled thief’s last big job. Connery is that thief and he seems to be genuinely enjoying himself in what must be one of his best roles. His character is proud and tough but generally good-hearted and you can’t help but weight in behind his optimism and certainty that he’s masterminded the perfect heist. The team he assembles are just as interesting with Christopher Walken’s electronics expert & Martin Balsam’s camped up merchandise valuer being the picks of the bunch.
The Anderson Tapes is imbued with that peculiar 1970’s paranoid vibe but there’s a much more light-hearted, satirical, and even comical sentiment insinuated into the narrative and in particular into those surveillance sequences which recurrently punctuate it. It makes for a highly original movie and one that has really been under-appreciated in terms of the subtle undertones Lumet and co. bring to the party.
Rating: The Good – 91.4 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 92 mins Director: Alex Cox Stars: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Tracey Walter
Alex Cox’s cult classic captures all the anarchy of the punk generation with the perfectly apt metaphor of a punk repo man. To explain the story would be impossible but also redundant as this film is an exercise in rebellion and counter-culture from the first scene to the backwards rolling credits. Emilo Estevez is excellent in the lead in what must be his best performance. A mixture of attitude and apathy, he’s the perfect counter-point to generations of hero archetypes. Naturally, the legendary Harry Dean Stanton steals every scene he’s involved with as the live by the code/die by the code repo man. It’s a performance of iconic stature and one that endeared himself to nearly every kid who grew up on this film. In truth, there’s not a single cast member who is not perfectly in tune with the spirit of the project and it’s that factor above all else which allows Repo Man to work as well as it does.
Alex Cox puts in the shift of his career by breathing a kind of structured life into the free-form chaos that is the plot and telling a cracking science fiction tale in the process. Eschewing the narrative conventions of story telling is easier said than done because, by their nature, conventions implicitly creep into our framing of everything. However, Cox manages to do just that by creating a film that glides forward under its own brisk momentum employing a series of dream like cuts between camera angles and scenes alike. The score and dialogue are as surreal as the visuals yet it all seems to make sense on an implicit level. The soundtrack is straight out of punk heaven as Black Flag, Fear, Circle Jerks, and of course Iggy Pop balance out Steven Hufsteter and Tito Larriva’s serene score in rousing fashion. However, the crowning action in Repo Man comes as Cox borrows from the 1955 noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (and pre-dating Pulp Fiction), turning the trunk of the Chevy Malibu into the ultimate MacGuffin by inverting the conventions of that device in a reflexive brainstorm of epic proportions.
Repo Man is one hell of a muscular statement from all concerned and we’ve yet to see another film like it even though countless filmmakers have tried. It’s a testament to independent cinema and the punk mentality alike and has rightly become the anthem film for a generation of movie fans who love to see boundaries obliterated. It’s fitting therefore, that this film ends with what must be the greatest ascension scene of them all for it couldn’t have self-reflected its own meteoric rise to the top of cult cinema better.
Rating: The Ugly – 64.4 Genre: Action Duration: 88 mins Director: Mark Neveldine/Brian Taylor Stars: Jason Statham, Amy Smart, Carlos Sanz
With all its flashy “CSI”-ish editing, any self-respecting movie fan should hate this film but its free-form action hilarity is liable to best even the most hardened of movie snobs. Jason Statham is a hit-man who wakes up to find himself poisoned with a drug that is slowly shutting his system down until he’s brown bread. Not the kind of guy to take things lying down, he immediately sets out on the trail of his poisoners while using any means possible to keep his system fired up with adrenaline. As wild as the premise is, it undeniably makes a great platform for a comedy-action movie and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments of madness along the way. Don’t think too much about this one, simply give in to the sublimely ridiculous.
Rating: The Good – 87.8 Genre: Drama, Satire Duration: 121 mins Director: Sidney Lumet Stars: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall
Surely one of the most complete and effective satires, Network is a delicious take on the business of television programming, human relationships, and how both feed and feed off the impartial narratives that so many shows are built around. Peter Finch stars as the disturbed news anchor who upon hearing that he’s been fired launches an attack on his network live on air. So good are the ratings that the executives (an emotionally vacant yet ruthless Faye Dunaway and an equally ambitious Robert Duvall) order head of the news division William Holden to build a show around his deteriorating friend’s rantings. The script is pure gold with some of cinema’s most subtly cutting and scathing commentary threaded throughout. The characters are all in different ways reflections of the greed and selfishness of the modern world and are as good as the actors inhabiting them. The film is genuinely hilarious with Finch’s outbursts being the highlights. Lumet’s delicate touch is all over this and it is he who allows Paddy Chayefsky’s searing script to come to life in as stimulating a fashion as it does. Watch out for Ned Beatty’s thunderous cameo which ultimately more than anything else sets the tone for this cinematic monument.
Rating: The Good – 84.8 Genre: Satire Duration: 139 mins Director: David Fincher Stars: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter
A chronic insomniac (Edward Norton) in a pit of mental despair at the predictable safety and comfort of his life finds release by attending disease support groups posing as a fellow sufferer. That is until he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the living embodiment of anarchy. Immediately seduced into Durden’s strange world, the two men establish an underground network of fight clubs where the disenfranchised male youth of America come together to knock ten bells out of each other in a form of social mega-catharsis. However, as Durden becomes increasingly mythologised, he uses this enchanted network to form an underground army intent of bringing the consumer world to its knees.
To say that Fight Club tapped into the masculine subconscious would be an understatement. Every word Durden utters is the adult articulation of adolescent and post-adolescent angst and rebellion. Of course, the whole thing is pure satire as writer Chuck Palahnuik and director David Fincher are saying as much about the masculine mindset as they are about the consumer society that is ostensibly suppressing it. It doesn’t matter that the majority of the fans take it too literally; in fact it just goes to show you how sophisticated the satire is because their seduction mirrors that of the disenfranchised generation of the film.
On a more technical note, Fight Club is Fincher’s most innovative and stylistic film. The contrast between the clean, santised world of Norton’s office and apartment and the dank dilapidated world of Tyler Durden is almost visceral thanks to Fincher’s bold direction, some outstanding lighting and equally outstanding production design. A rich visual humour dominates the entire film and when threaded together with Palahnuik’s words it takes on a life of its own. Norton is excellent as the unnamed “narrator” while Brad Pitt has seldom been better as the enigmatic Durden. Helena Bonham Carter gives a deliciously dark turn as Edward Norton’s fellow traveller and even Meatloaf pops up in one of the more memorable roles. All said, Fight Club is a startlingly good movie built on inspired writing, direction, and acting. There isn’t one aspect to the production that lets the side down and the substantial footprint it has left on recent pop culture is testament to such quality.
Rating: The Good – 76.8 Genre: Action, Black Comedy Duration: 103 mins Director: Shane Black Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan
A playful action comedy with an ability to shift towards darker gears is what we got when seminal action writer Shane Black stepped behind the camera to resurrect the careers of two of Hollywood’s most interesting would-be leads. Robert Downey Jr. stars as a New York thief hiding out in Hollywood who gets caught up in a noir style mystery involving his former high school crush (Michelle Monaghan) and Val Kilmer’s gay private detective.
As much as this film’s curiosity and success rests on its novel story, riff-abundant script, and fairytale like narration, the three leads are in smashing form. A natural chemistry among the cast is a gift for any action director because it can breathe additional layers of life into the necessary action set pieces and Black found himself triply blessed here as Downey Jr., Kilmer, and Monaghan reflect the best trio since Gibson, Glover, and Pesci. The story is a purposeful mash up of those that the great detective noirs served up replete with converging subplots and dark subject matters. Ever in cheeky mode though, Black spins the character archetypes on their head and none more so than Downey’s central hero who is more Jack Burton than Mike Hammer. This or course only adds to his charm as the movie’s narrator and, for his part, Downey is in commanding form and perfectly self-deprecating – in line with where his career was at the time.
If anything, Kilmer is better as the sarcastic detective batting for the other team. Though his character’s sexuality is the basis for most of his jokes, Black occasionally shows a subtler touch when he uses it to merely inform the comedy background. Purposefully avoiding one character stereotype only to unwittingly embrace another is the definition of self-defeating but thankfully, Kilmer’s impeccable timing and natural presence compensates and he gives us one of the better characters Hollywood has offered up in recent years – an original and interesting good guy and wickedly funny to boot. Far from being eclipsed by any male double act, Monaghan is just as quirky and even more charming. Moreover, by virtue of the story’s construction, it’s usually up to her to carry the story forward and she combined her dual roles with an effortless vibrance.
Black’s direction deserves some comment given it was his first time taking the reigns and though he allows the self-referential narration to ironically interfere with the narrative rather than aid its progression, the visual profile of the movie is flush with personality. Aaron Osbourne’s production design combined with Michael Barrett’s photography gives L.A. a modern fairytale quality in keeping with the themes of the story. The action sequences too are well handled thanks to some innovative ideas and deft editing. However, the most impressive feature of Black’s helmsmanship is perhaps his ability to change the tone of the movie without warning. There’s a moment when Downey confronts a heartless hitman – who had previously pulled off his recently sewn on finger in a nihilistically amusing episode – and it chills to the bone. It adds gravitas to the overall experience and enriches the film’s homage to the great noir. And in doing so, it rounds off this little gem in admirable style.