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 – 87.7 Genre: Crime Duration: 115 mins Director: Joel & Ethan Coen Stars: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro
A rare gem of a film that has remained relatively unacknowledged (when compared to more commercially successful Coen films), Miller’s Crossing stands alongside The Big Lebowski as the Coen brothers’ best film to date. Based loosely on an often forgotten film-noir, The Glass Key, the film is set during the prohibition era and follows kingmaker Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne) in his attempts to play two rival gangs against the middle for reasons that are never entirely clear. This is a film that boasts perfection from all quarters from the casting, the acting, the writing, the directing, the cinematography, to the scoring. The cast is loaded with heavy hitters with Albert Finney and J.E. Freeman (as the terrifying Eddie Dane) doing particularly well alongside Gabriel Byrne who is in the form of his career. The directing is textbook as the brothers create a flawless synthesis of Dennis Gassner’s production design, Roger Deacons’ cinematography, and Carter Burwell’s score, all of which are stunning.
Of course, the standout strength of Miller’s Crossing is the dialogue which is not only the best example of Coen dialogue but perhaps the most powerful use of dialogue in modern film. The main thrust of the film’s quick and steady pace comes from the lyrical and relentless back and forth between the film’s characters and in typical noir fashion, this is usually between Tom and someone else. The story is the usual rubix cube of crosses and double-crosses which we have come to expect from the Coens but the payoff is perhaps more sharply realised here than in any of their other movies. In fact, the manner in which it all comes together is so sublime that Miller’s Crossing isn’t just one of the Coen’s best films, it’s also one of the best gangster noirs – period!
Rating: The Good – 68.5 Genre: Crime, Comedy Duration: 90 mins Director: Jonathan Sobol Stars: Kurt Russell, Matt Dillon, Jay Baruchel, Katheryn Winnick
Kurt Russell might not be the box office draw he once was but he shows no sign of losing his irascible charm and overall screen presence. Case in point is Jonathan Sobol’s modest crime caper The Art of the Steal. In it, Russell stars as Crash, a thief turned stuntman who after being betrayed by his conman brother (an equally evergreen Matt Dillon) reluctantly agrees to run one last scam with him. Enter a “Leverage” style team of forgers and thieves and a slickly realised heist corkscrews its way to the close. It’s a pleasantly satisfying affair as the chemistry between Russell, Dillon, Jay Baruchel, and Kenneth Welsh proves amusing at times and laugh-out-loud hilarious at others. Nothing new is offered in the way of style or story but, Sobol confidently handles the basics while Geoff Ashenhurst’s editing gives the plot a coolish gliding quality which makes the whole thing very easy to watch. Struggling at the production level, the film could look a lot better but by living up to Sobel’s unpretentious yet funny screenplay, The Art of the Steal will endear itself to most.
Rating: The Good – 75.6 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 88 mins Director: Otto Preminger Stars: Gene Tierney, Richard Conte, José Ferrer
Otto Preminger’s minor classic of psychological suspense has Gene Tierney playing the troubled wife of Richard Conte’s famous psychotherapist who is hypnotised into implicating herself in a murder by quack therapist José Ferrer. Preminger’s rich and sophisticated touch is all over this appealing little thriller and, from frame one to the close, Whirlpool looks wonderful. But what it boasts more loudly is an elegant story and some truly excellent performers at its centre. Tierney is a beautiful picture of nervous energy and strikes a delicate balance between confidence and vulnerability. Conte is surprisingly believable as the famed intellectual she is fervently dedicated to and Charles Bickford is fantastic as the grisly old detective whose sympathy for the married couple drives him deeper into the case. However, this is the great Ferrer’s film. It’s a devious little turn full of charm, malice, and well disguised pettiness. Yet another villain on his resume but completely different to anything he or anyone else had previously (or since) given us. Guy Endore’s novel provides the intriguing premise but the legendary Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt bring it to the screen with so much grace. Yes, it approaches the world of psychotherapy with a little too much respect and even fear but such mystique does a tricksy thriller like this no harm whatsoever. Highly recommended.
Film-noir was always much more than just hard boiled detectives going up against vicious criminals. It’s about volatile personalities following their dark and natural trajectories to an increasingly inevitable collision point. Night in the City is one of the purest examples of such. Richard Widmark stars as Harry Fabian, “an artist without an art”, who spends his nights crawling through the underbelly of London’s nightlife looking for the next big thing. When he thinks he’s found it, he drags everyone from his devoted girlfriend (the always radiant Gene Tierney) to his bloated boss into a scheme which will make or break him.
Widmark is outstanding in a difficult role which required the audience to dislike him yet simultaneously root for him while the supporting cast, one and all, give their characters colourful flourishes which make them instantly memorable. Tierney is unfortunately a little underused but steps up admirably when she’s needed. Jo Eisinger’s screenplay (adapted from Gerald Kersh’s novel) catches the cold cynicism of the darker characters with every uttered syllable and Jules Dassin gives post-war London a style and verve rarely achieved yet brilliantly uses the still rubble-laden areas to frame Fabian’s lower moments, particularly his ultimate descent.
Night and the City is one of the great film noirs built around the tension of one man’s desperation and the uncomfortable but unstoppable inertia of that despair. In short, it encapsulates what the genre is about.
Rating: The Good – 77.3 Genre: Crime, Comedy Duration: 97 mins Director: George Armitage Stars: Fred Ward, Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh
“Now, I want you to sew my eyebrow back on.” George Armitage’s deeply quirky crime comedy stars Alec Baldwin as Junior, a recently released convict, whose behaviour and personality borders between the enigmatic and the downright eccentric. Landing in Miami, he steals a suitcase full of clothes, kills a Hare Krishna, hooks up with a call girl (player by Jennifer Jason Leigh) to whom he is trying to hock the stolen clothes, and sets out on a campaign of mugging and armed robbery. However, it’s not long before a local homicide detective (the always excellent Fred Ward) picks up his trail and the two enter into a compelling and completely unpredictable game of cat and mouse with each other.
It’s not easy to pigeon-hole Miami Blues into one particular genre or another and that’s exactly what’s so damn refreshing about it. There’s some drama, there’s lots of crime, and there’s lots and lots of dark quirky comedy. Plot is almost entirely replaced by characterisation but it’s seriously intense characterisation. Junior’s bizarre personality seems to steer him unerringly from one insane encounter to another and Armitage and his co-writer Charles Williford make no judgements either way. Nor do the actors. The relationship which Junior strikes up with Leigh’s call girl is wonderfully realised and she sparkles in the role. Ward is utterly outstanding as the bewildered and highly sympathetic good guy and is as important to the film’s progression as Baldwin. That said, Baldwin is a force of nature in his role as he unleashes all his skewed and electric charisma. It’s a completely unique portrayal of a sociopath that has rarely been equalled in its charm and, indeed, its empathy for the character being played (as the final 20 minutes attest to best). It’s also a genuinely hilarious portrayal and his Tony Montana imitation alone will leave you howling with laughter.
Miami Blues is a gutsy triumph of outside-the-box writing, extremely sensible direction, and thunderously inspired acting. It has to be seen to be believed or even understood but, once seen, you may find yourself going back for more.
Rating: The Good – 84.5 Genre: Drama Duration: 129 mins Director: George Roy Hill Stars: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw
The greatest caper movie of them all. George Roy Hill’s classic about two grifters (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) attempting to con a wealthy gangster (Robert Shaw) is a triumph of cinematography and production design thanks largely to that wonderful use of sepia tones. Newman and Redford are terrific together and prove their on-screen chemistry in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was no fluke while Shaw is fantastic as the nefarious Doyle Lonnegan. With all the twists and turns this one takes and with the great characters and dialogue on show there’s more than enough to keep the audience engrossed throughout. The Sting is what movies are all about. “Ya follow?”
Rating: The Good – 84.1 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 106mins Director: Andrew Niccol Stars: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law
Andrew Niccol’s feature debut is a lesson in how science fiction film’s should be made. Ethan Hawke excels as the natural born genetically imperfect Vincent who must contend with a world tailored for the genetically modified where his ambitions of becoming an astronaut in the elite Gattaca programme are hampered by a culture of discrimination which proclaims him too mentally and physically weak to do so. The film becomes a profound meditation on the timeless mind/body debate as Vincent assumes the identity of the genetically ‘superior’ Jerome (brilliantly played by Jude Law) only to successfully infiltrate Gattaca and become its best and brightest astronaut. Like all great sci-fi, this film succeeds on both the technical and conceptual levels. Niccol’s vision and Slawomir Izdiak’s sumptuous cinematography give the drama a distinctly modern nourish feel using shadow and light as majestically as the great film makers of the 40′s did. They also use a perfect mixture of predominantly blue, yellow, or green lit scenes to set the various tones of the film. All this is accompanied by Michael Nyman’s haunting score which will stay with you forever.
The true power of this film, however, is in the writing. There is an array of deeply layered characters, the motivations of whom reflect their different personal perspectives on the moral issue of genetic engineering. From Alan Alda’s older police man who is all too willing to believe that an “invalid” could infiltrate Gattaca’s elite to the motivations of the genetically engineered detective he answers to, who is twenty years his younger and also Vincent’s brother Anton. He is not so keen to believe even though he knows in his heart that there is an infiltrator and that it’s his brother. Though they live in a world foreign to us technologically speaking, each character comes across as completely real. This is down to the writing, the superb ensemble acting, and the cultural parallels that this story draws with our own world. Though Vincent’s relationships with Jerome and Uma Thurman’s character are themselves fascinating, the film is about Vincent’s determination to overcome or simply disprove biological predetermination. This is encapsulated beautifully in the scene where he races his brother across a moonlit bay as he turns to his floundering brother and explains how he has done what he did: “I never saved anything for the swim back”. Near perfection.
Rating: The Good – 83.4 Genre: Fim-Noir Duration: 98mins Director: Otto Preminger Stars: Alice Faye, Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell
Not often remembered when listing the great film-noir or even Otto Preminger’s best films but it’s a cracking representative of both categories. Dana Andrews plays a penniless drifter with a silver tongue and no scruples who becomes enamoured of the manipulative Stella (Linda Darnell) and joins a long cue of suitors. Not content to wait, he sets about seducing a straight-laced young woman (Alice Faye) in an attempt to con her out of her money and impress Stella. Andrews is excellent as usual in a role that couldn’t have been easy to pull off. Darnell is a sultry temptress fitting of the genre and Faye provides a decent moral backbone to the story. Preminger’s authoritative touch is all over this and the scenes including Andrews and Darnell are imbued with a dark yet luscious sensuality. The lighting and stage design throughout are sumptuous and the tension he builds in an otherwise slow moving story is hugely impressive. The screenplay ties the various themes together with an admirable subtlety and the characters are all fascinating and wonderfully realised with various mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. Faye left acting after much of her work in this film ended up on the cutting room floor and indeed, the movie might have benefited from a greater explication of her character’s thinking. However, film-noir is built on implicit reference to the dark recesses of the mind and so the strangeness of her behaviour offers some interesting and fitting opportunities for conjecture.
Rating: The Good – 81.1 Genre: Thriller, Mystery Duration: 99 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Stars: Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Cedric Hardwicke
Suspicion is a minor triumph on Alfred Hitchcock’s CV and one that plays as both a romance and a thriller shifting genres (in typical Hitchcockian fashion) somewhere around the midpoint. Cary Grant is in fine form as the charming playboy who catches the eye of would-be spinster Joan Fontaine and sweeps her off her feet. Things go well until shortly after they’re married, when she begins to suspect her new husband of ever darkening deeds as he attempts to avoid his massive gambling depths.
Suspicion is a beautifully photographed picture full of innovative devices the type of which Hitchcock typically uses to elevate tension and sink the hook deeper into the audience’s subconscious (check out that glass of warm milk!). Grant is excellent in a role that required some subtle contradictions and Fontaine doesn’t skip a beat. The two work off each other well to give what could have been an unappealing dynamic some proper zest, accessibility and, at the right times, a dubious warmth. It all pays off in a satisfying manner making this one of the Hitchcock’s more original films not to mention one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films of all time.
Although the general consensus is that Intolerable Cruelty is as a poor show by the bothers Joel and Ethan Coen, it’s in fact an often hilarious and delightfully goofy comedy about a successful and clever divorce lawyer (George Clooney) who gets romantically and professionally involved with a scheming and just as clever divorcee (Catherine Zeta Jones). The plot has some of the twists and turns of a typical Coen brothers’ film (though they are definitely dialed down) but much of the charm thanks mainly to Clooney’s fantastic slapstick performance and his chemistry with the thoroughly watchable Zeta Jones. The Coens are no doubt at half speed where the wackiness/zaniness is concerned but that itself is a welcome change of pace and reveals yet another more disciplined side to their film-making. That said, there are some great moments in this film with the showdown with Wheezy Joe being a particular standout. Their long-time collaborators, Carter Burwell (score) and Roger Deacons (cinematography) as usual contribute richly in their own respects.
Rating: The Good – 78.5 Genre: Drama Duration: 146 mins Director: Richard Brooks Stars: Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy
“Tell me. How is it so many people can only find hate in the bible?” Richard Brooks’ highly complex tale of the emergence of revivalism during the prohibition era bible belt is a stunningly mature and impartial examination of manipulation, faith, truth, and redemption. Burt Lancaster is magnetic as the eponymous silver tongued charlatan who finds he has a knack for rousing people into religious fervour through guilt and moralistic soundbite. Jean Simmons matches him as the self-proclaimed “Sister Sharon”, leader of a travelling roadshow who preaches damnation and forgiveness through the embracing of Jesus and her message.
Brooks’ adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel is superb and whether it be the top of the voice preaching, the more veiled rhetoric, or the quiet and more honest interactions of the principals, it captures the power of that discourse with amazing precision. Through his direction, he brings an easy flow to the movie and he adapts the tone seamlessly as the film repeatedly transitions between big prayer meetings and the smaller more intimate one-on-ones. However, it’s the clarity of focus and motivation which defines the movie so well and it’s astonishing to note how relevant Elmer Gantry is to modern day as it was to the 1960’s when it was made and the 1920’s when it was set. It takes no sides and in doing so, through all the smoke and mirrors, it zeros in on the essential point like few other investigations into the subject have.