Rating: The Good – 76 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 101 mins Director: Danny Boyle Stars: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel
A suave and tricksy thriller detailing a heist mob’s unconventional attempt to hypnotically uncover the location of a stolen painting amidst emotional turbulence and full-blown crises of identity. Trance offers the best and worst of mercurial director Danny Boyle at about a 30/70 split. Stunningly shot and soundtracked to Rick Smith’s pulsing melodies, it sets out to explicitly defy narrative convention and treat us to a razzle-dazzle experience over old fashioned storytelling. Though we’ve seen attempts like this before, what Trance lacks in originality it makes up for in burning focus and unflinching persistence. And with James McAvoy and the always splendid Rosario Dawson mischievously wrapped up in the deep dark psychological hijinks, the experiment is only enriched. But trippy entertainment only goes so far and with the plot hoisted so brazenly atop of Boyle’s sacrificial alter, not even actors of their class and magnetism can keep us invested in the manner we’d expect and desire from a clever heist thriller.
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.
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 – 83.6 Genre: Crime Duration: 122 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson
Michael Mann’s seminal crime thriller focuses on James Caan’s master thief who, in an effort to attain the family he always wanted, eschews his independence and reluctantly agrees to work for a crime king-pin (Robert Prosky) only to find himself locked into an interminable contract. Caan rated this as his best performance outside of Sonny Corleone and he is utterly mesmerising as the balls-of-steel Frank who is willing to sacrifice everything rather than lie down for anyone. Prosky is immense as the old mobster who can switch from genial father-figure to ruthless monster at the drop of a hat. Thief has all the trademarks of the great Mann films. The ultra-real dialogue, the technical proficiency of the criminals, a subtle yet powerful score (courtesy of Tangerine Dream), and slick night time shots of Chicago’s mean streets. Moreover, Mann’s films are often based on the study of obsession and disciplined dedication to one’s craft and nowhere is this better realised than here. The set pieces are as innovative and disciplined as we’ve come across and when combined with the searing performances and inspired dialogue, it becomes truly captivating. Thief is a crime classic and arguably one of the genre’s greatest representatives. It achieves a gritty realism that movies of that genre are always in search of but rarely attain.
Rating: The Good – 66.9 Genre: Crime, Drama Duration: 92 mins Director: Simon Hawkins, Zeke Hawkins Stars: Mackenzie Davis, Logan Huffman, Jeremy Allen
Three young friends just out of high school get drawn into a local gangster’s plans to rip off his boss when one of the friends steals some money for one last blow out on the town. Mackenzie Davis and Jeremy Allen White excel as the two college bound friends while Logan Huffman is wonderfully creepy as the layabout resenting been left behind. Dutch Southern’s script works hard to make this dramatic triangle the basis to some peculiar decisions amongst the three and to keep his audience off guard but aside from giving their actors something to sink their teeth into, he and directors Simon and Zeke Hawkins fail to properly gel their personal situations with the plot. They do achieve the lazy tension of a desolate town in the manner films like Blood Simple did but, at all times, the plot seems to run in parallel to the characters. Mark Pelligrino has the most fun as their slightly nuts but very mean puppeteer but, here too, the directors fail to reign in his admittedly intriguing turn so that it doesn’t supersede the plot. In the end, Bad Turn Worse (or “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” as it was originally released) feels very much like a pale imitation of an early Tarantino or Coen Brothers’ screenplay, more a creature of the mid 90’s than a modern crime film and relying on quirky performances to keep it interesting.
Rating: The Good – 75.8 Genre: Crime, Film-Noir Duration: 100 mins Director: Raoul Walsh Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Alan Curtis
The same year John Huston and Humphrey Bogart were to make their big splash with The Maltese Falcon, they preceded it with this collaboration but with Raoul Walsh at the helm. Bogie stars as the career criminal, Roy Earle, recently pardoned and heading straight for the Sierras for the biggest score of his life. On arriving there, he finds his volatile young partners fighting over the street-smart Ida Lupino while becoming enamoured of a crippled girl who reminds of him of his old family’s country stock. The story is a little stretched and Earl’s hard exterior could probably have been penetrated without the extended subplot concerning the young girl and her family which pulls against the tension of the darker scenes rather than offering an effective contrast. It’s a pity too because the planning and execution of the heist is wonderfully put together juiced up by the sultry presence of Lupino and hardbitten grit of Bogie at his most intimidating. The turns of phrase, the simmering of violent urges, the psychology of the criminal relationships, and the action sequences all furnish High Sierra with the most important elements of the classic noirs and result in some hair-raising confrontations. The memorable ending involving the police’s mountain pursuit of Earl is also terrifically staged and would’ve provided an even more effective end-point to a more streamlined script. In the end, Huston can chalk it off to experience because his next film was to be a veritable masterclass in the funnelling of plot but High Sierra still offers much more than most crime thrillers from that era.
Rating: The Good – 75.9 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 91 mins Director: William Keighley Stars: Mark Stevens, Richard Widmark, Lloyd Nolan
Thrilling undercover detective noir that sees Mark Stevens’ FBI agent infiltrate Richard Widmark’s methodical gang of thieves and murderers only to find himself in a highly organised underworld where every recruit is screened and validated through illicit access to confidential police files. Joseph McDonald (he who shot My Darling Clementine) brings an irresistible neon glow to the damp and murky streets of the fictitious Central City that ranks with the seminal look of that noir classic Murder My Sweet. Director William Keighley utilises every bit of it too as he frames many a dramatic moment around that glitzy grey world. Perhaps even more remarkable is Harry Kleiner’s script that, when enacted through McDonald’s lens and Keighley’s conceptualisation, was to become a major influence on everyone from Scorsese to David Chase. And it’s the inimitable Widmark who is chiefly responsible for its most potent realisations. As the quirky kingpin with a serious distaste for draughts and colds, Widmark’s “Alec Stiles” was to personify a new kind of American mobster whose intelligent yet impatient control over his gang led to many a violent reprimand and foreshadowed that of Goodfellas‘ Jimmy Conway and later on, one Tony Soprano. As the thorn in his side, Stevens is actually quite strong given that he could sometimes fall flat in the lead. Even if one is left with the impression that a more substantial actor would’ve made more of the role, it remains a playful turn as the streetwise detective and nicely complements the sophistication of Stiles’ clever helmsmanship. Where this piece of crime fiction falls short of the classics, however, is in its hokey championing of the FBI as a glowing beacon of honesty in the criminal justice apparatus. It was a feature of a peculiar type of movie being made at the time where the cooperation of the justice system in providing locations and on-set advice seemed to be repaid with an unabashed adulation.
Rating: The Good – 77.5 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 73 mins Director: André de Toth Stars: Gene Nelson, Sterling Hayden, Charles Bronson
Another top class crime thriller from the annals noir, this one coming courtesy of maverick director André de Toth, who fought tooth and nail with Jack Warner so that Sterling Hayden could take on the role the latter wanted for a certain Humphrey Bogart. Hayden stars as the cynical detective on the tail of two escaped prisoners who are forcing an ex-con gone straight and his wife to help them in a bank robbery. Ted de Corsia is the brains of the nasty outfit, a young Charles Bronson is the volatile brawn and a host of other gnarly faces of the time (including an even spacier than usual Timothy Carey) provide the backup. Needless to say, Hayden chews the scenery about as much as does the toothpick sticking out his mouth in place of the cigarettes the doctor has banned. There’s rarely been a more grizzled character actor so well suited to gritty street noir but he tempers that nicely here with a veiled compassion for the two victims at the centre of the tale. Relatively unknown at the time, Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk are genuinely excellent as that couple and provide the perfect platform to connect both sides of the law. Crane Wilbur’s hard bitten screenplay simply oozes class and funnelled as it is through de Toth’s focused momentum, it gives the movie a palpable energy. Choosing to shoot on location in LA, de Toth dresses his film in that priceless atmosphere that was an unfortunately rare feature of the majority of studio shot thrillers of the day. From the first person perspective of the daytime driving sequences to the fleeting shadows of the nighttime encounters, he turns Crime Wave into the cinéma vérité masterclass of the LA noir.
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 – 78.3 Genre: Drama, Crime Duration: 125 mins Director: J.C. Chandor Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Al Brooks
The rise and further rise of writer-director J.C. Chandor continues with this bleak morality play about a resolute family man (Oscar Isaac) attempting to build an honest company in the crooked world of home oil delivery. When his trucks are repeatedly hijacked, he must resist pressure from both his mob-daughter wife (Jessica Chastain) and his desperate business partner (Al Brooks) to adopt the violent practices of the business while simultaneously trying to save the biggest deal of his life. The story plays out in 1981 New York, a historical high point in the city’s crime statistics and against this backdrop, his determined decency seems at odds with everything around him and the plot hinges entirely on his ability to maintain an even keel.
Chandor approaches this one as stoically as he did All is Lost, a 106 minute long film about a man alone on a sinking boat, and that’s saying something given the multitude of characters that we encounter here. However, because he approaches them consistently from the perspective of Isaac’s self-made man and because he is a lone island in troubled waters, the film evokes a heavy loneliness from the middle of the first act onwards. Shot in the flat lighting of the gritty 1970’s and 80’s New York crime thrillers, Chandor seamlessly conflates his film’s moody aesthetic with its central theme and then simply drops Isaac smack in the middle. The director clearly knew he had an actor who was up to the task. It’s a calm but powerful turn that maintains a razor sharp edge despite his character’s inherent inability to intimidate. That edge is no doubt tempered by Chastain’s spiky performance as the increasingly impatient other half who may take matters into her own hands at any minute and, to be fair, she supports the film substantially despite her character’s necessary marginalisation. Brooks puts in solid shift too and a host of lesser know actors fill out the rest of the cast with varying degrees of pathos and personality.
It’s far from an energised ride and the plot coalesces in a severely unorthodox manner but A Most Violent Year develops an intrigue that many dramas lack. Right now, US cinema is going through a renewed phase of self-discovery and so singular films like this one will pop up from time to time, uninfluenced by what came before and unlikely to have much affect on what follows. But for discerning film-goers, they represent a special kind of treat and should be approached accordingly.
Rating: The Good – 82.8 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 100mins Director: Lewis Gilbert Stars: Laurence Harvey, Gloria Grahame, Richard Basehart
Lesser seen Brit noir starring a host of big names from both sides of the Atlantic and embodying all the mood and tension of the genre. Laurence Harvey is the gentleman of leisure who, after being cut off by his older wealthier wife, begins manipulating three desperate figures who he finds commiserating down the local pub into committing a dangerous post-office robbery. John Ireland is an American air force officer who has grown weary of chasing his unfaithful wife (a British-sounding [well, sort off] Gloria Grahame), Richard Basehart is a former US soldier stranded in England with his pregnant wife (a young Joan Collins) who herself is being tormented by her overbearing mother, and Stanley Baker is the ex-boxer prevented from earning a living after his no-good brother-in-law made off with his savings. With so many subplots and characters, director Lewis Gilbert, who was more famous for his later Bond movies, could’ve made a mess of this one but, armed with his and Vernon Harris’ sharp screenplay and a healthy appreciation for the aesthetic of the genre, he crafts a pitch perfect thriller and towards which, each of the subplots contribute equally. Of course, the cast are critical too and they are to a man/woman bang on form. Even Basehart and Ireland who could often be a little dull encourage much in the way of the audience’s sympathy while Baker provides a stoic force to combat Harvey’s sardonic deceiver. Grahame is a little wasted and her accent is off-putting enough question the wisdom of making her character British at all. It’s not like the film is lacking in that regard as it’s defined by London’s post-war murkiness, so much so, that it stands behind only the likes of Jules Dassin’s Night and the City in terms of quality and effectiveness. And like that little masterpiece, this one also ties up in a neat little package so that the intersection of the multiple subplots coheres poignantly with the spirit of the genre.
Rating: The Good – 87.6 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 86 mins Director: Joseph H. Lewis Stars: John Dall, Peggy Cummins, Berry Kroeger
One of the all time great films noir, Gun Crazy or “Deadly is the Female”, as it’s also known, stars John Dall and Peggy Cummins as a husband and wife sharpshooter, turned stick-up team who, piece by piece, unfold a romantic tragedy across the American Midwest. Joseph H. Lewis’s masterpiece was revolutionary for myriad reasons but most notable among the trails it blazed were the technical innovations of the movie’s shooting and its unflinching account of a homicidal woman and her guilt ridden husband. Lewis improvised a number of unique methods with which to stage and capture the various heist sequences including an early use of insert cars and modified camera cars. A solitary process shot that captures the couple’s dreamlike honeymoon is all we get in the way of rear projection, a magnificently symbolic contrast to the down and gritty life of crime that was to follow. In addition to such technical mastery, Lewis brings all his know-how to bear on the movie’s aesthetic, rendering this one of the more beautifully shot noirs. A relative abundance of daylight sequences would appear to belie the genre’s more typical remit but they serve here as a conceptual contrast as powerful as any amount of shadow or key lit faces (though there’s plenty of those too). What stirs most effectively however is the simple tale of desire and morality that’s spun at the film’s core. Cummins’ Laurie cuts a sinister strip through the film and while Cummins is more than adequate in the role, it’s (then blacklisted) Dalton Trumbo’s writing that largely plumbs her murky depths. Dall’s is the more tragic character and an extended introduction of him and his childhood makes him resoundingly sympathetic before we ever lay eyes on the actor himself. Armed with some heart wrenching dialogue and thrillingly shot set pieces, Gun Crazy ever develops a subtle power as it moves through the reels, so much so that its wonderfully staged finale will linger as long in memory as the outlaw mythology it so deftly taps.