Rating: The Good – 71 Genre: Horror Duration: 110 mins Director: Scott Derrickson Stars: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone
Spooky psychological horror with Ethan Hawke playing a true crime writer desperate for another bestseller who moves his family into a house where the previous occupants were hanged so that he can investigate the unsolved crime. Discovering a box of 16mm home video tapes in the attic, he briefly wonders how the police could’ve missed something so important but quickly finds himself absorbed in the revelatory footage and the series of family murders that they reveal.
Veteran horror director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) meticulously crafts a movie of unyielding creepiness in this original take on the haunted house scenario that reaches into pagan lore as opposed to the more typical Christian mythology. Hawke is intense enough to carry the majority of it and though the support cast are more peripheral than usual, Juliet Rylance is outstanding as his past tolerance wife while James Ransone provides a slightly mercurial presence as a comical but deceptively competent deputy. Draped in shadow and deep blacks, even the daytime scenes are dreary to the point that the audience will find few opportunities for some much needed reprieve. The excessive gloominess thus bleeds into the narrative rendering Sinister an unforgiving watch even for the most seasoned horror fans.
Embedded within this stark profile, novel demon concepts permeate the story and plot adding a serious dose of unpredictability while a slow creeping collaboration between Christopher Young’s score and obscure indie tracks haunt the darkest parts of the movie, in particular, Hawke’s viewing of the 16mms. Derrickson’s script is economic or revealing where needed and does well to steadily intertwine the necessary expositions with the unfolding drama. However, while everything outside of Hawke’s new home is necessarily kept at a distance, it could be argued that his family, particularly his son and daughter, needed to be more relevant to the narrative given its ultimate destination. That said, it can’t be denied that the ending works in a uniquely chilling manner. It may make for a bleak bit of entertainment but Sinister counts as yet another success in the catalogue of indie horror.
Rating: The Good – 75.5 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 93 mins Director: Michael Winner Stars: Charles Bronson, Vincent Gardenia, Jeff Goldblum
A milestone in vigilante cinema that doesn’t as much walk the line between right and left wing politics as it draws it. Bronson takes on perhaps his most dramatic role as the liberal architect whose wife and daughter were respectively murdered and attacked in their home. After a slowly realised grieving process, he finds himself increasingly drawn towards the idea of taking matters of self-protection into his own hands. Director Michael Winner ducks and weaves his way through the political hinterland of his drama with a series of right jabs but lands a couple of integral left hammer blows so that he deceives his way to a rather interesting analysis of crime and morality. There’s no rush to the action either as he lays out in meticulous manner Bronson’s remorse and development from fearful citizen to eager vigilante. It’s richly shot in what is clearly one of Winner’s more polished productions and embellished with some outstandingly staged action sequences.
A particular treat however is the cynicism and indeed prescience of Wendell Mayes’ screenplay (adapting Brian Garfield’s novel) which sets the actors on an even strain within Winner’s languidly unfolded drama. The cast blow got and cold however with the normally excellent Steven Keats missing the mark completely as the son in law and a young Jeff Goldblum featuring briefly as one of the most ridiculously unthreatening hoodlums to tumble his way through a murder scene. Bronson too struggles woefully to give his lines the right cadence but his charisma burns through those failings to the point that few could’ve done the job better. On the plus side Vincent Gardenia is fantastic as the bemused police captain in charge of bringing the vigilante to justice.
Not surprisingly, this movie has been both hailed and denigrated as a piece of right wing propaganda but that perception is to completely miss the intricacy of the story being told. From the examination of violence in the television/movie culture, the use of both white and black criminals, to the manner in which Bronsan sets out to lure his victims, there’s little to suggest that self defence against an impoverished underclass is what lay deep in Bronson’s heart. Something else was in play, something much more insidious and interesting from a dramatic point of view. And with that infamous final shot of Bronson smiling at a group of thugs, Winner and co. didn’t just close in style but they had one last go at getting their point across. They made it count!
The Conversation is a dark and introspective study of a private surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), whose private life becomes increasingly infected by those traits his profession requires, namely, paranoia and anonymity. When Caul comes to believe that his latest subjects’ lives could be in danger due to his recordings, past anxieties emerge to ultimately tear down the fragile order he has created in his life. Hackman is superb in the lead role and gives a breadth of reality to the deeply idiosyncratic Caul. Furthermore, he is well supported by John Cazale, Harrison Ford, and Robert Duvall. Coppola’s taut direction is at its best here as he assembles and disassembles reality primarily through his use of sound but also through his use of darkly lit interiors and ambiguous dialogue. And it is this ambiguity that dominates the film’s theme as Caul’s overconfidence in words and voices become a lesson in the subjectivity of life. The influence of Japanese cinema is all over this film, particularly in the dream sequences and that memorable final scene which strongly echoes the extraordinary ending to Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom.
Rating: The Good – 74.3 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 95 mins Director: John Berry Stars: Richard Basehart, Audrey Totter, Barry Sullivan
Wonderful if obscure thriller capturing much of the cleverness which defined the best film-noir but perhaps missing out on the genre’s overall dexterity. Richard Basehart is the meek pharmacist working the long night shift to keep his materialistic and altogether distasteful wife (Audrey Totter in true vixenish form) happy. When she brazenly leaves him for a wealthier man, he creates an alter ego who he intends to ultimately kill the interloper and then promptly disappear. To say it all goes pear-shaped and that unintended homicide is involved isn’t giving much away but the audience is dealt an engaging series of twists and turns along the way. Basehart is as good as his limited craft typically allowed him to be while Totter channels the latter side to the femme fatale trope with relish. Pure vinegar and no wine, she might not grasp the necessary complexity of the great cinematic tradition but she nonetheless makes for one hell of a nasty steak of self-regard – and director John Berry and composer André Brevin don’t waste an opportunity to build the movie’s darker more sultry moods around her. Barry Sullivan is great fun as the homicide detective who wines and dines his suspects until he gets what he wants out of them – even if he is central to a bemusing introduction which seems to serve no other purpose thank to explain the relevance of the title.
Rating: The Good – 80.6 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 95 mins Director: William Wyler Stars: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson
From its exquisite opening scene in which a sleepy plantation is sharply awoken by an impeccably dressed Bette Davis gunning down a late night visitor, William Wyler’s The Letter lures us into it a wispy world of pretense and fettered emotion. Playing the well-to-do wife of a Singapore plantation owner who must defend herself for the killing of a man she claimed made unwelcomed advances, Davis was at the peak of an unparalleled run of successful screen turns and she harnesses all that confidence to shoulder the movie. A tantalising balance of threat and vulnerability, she commands the camera when it’s on her. As her legal council in her inevitable prosecution, James Stephenson goes a long way to match her as a source of conflict while providing a moral lens through which we can examine Davis’ actions. Gordon Kahn’s flawless screenplay centres around the initial murder that, in the absence of any Rashoman-like reconstructions, verbally retells it several times as new evidence comes to light. It’s a deft piece of writing that gives tangibility to the story during such transitory moments. Wyler crafts it all to exacting standards, lighting and shooting critical scenes in a noir aesthetic that rivals the best while affording the remainder of the film a lush profile highly complementary of the narrative. A genuine classic!
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 – 74.8 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 93 mins Director: John Sturges Stars: Ricardo Montalban, Sally Forrest, Bruce Bennett
One of the earliest police procedurals, this wonderful little thriller focuses on the attempts of a detective to solve a Jane Doe case using the help of forensic medicine expert. Ricardo Montalban puts in a composed shift as the young detective and manages to work much of the charm he’d be later renowned for into a personality driven by perfectionism and the anguish of potentially being wrong. Bruce Bennett is slightly more languid as the learned expert who instructs the police on the science behind the clues. Forensics was still in its infancy at the time Mystery Street was made so one could’ve forgiven director John Sturges and co. for framing the movie entirely around the investigation but it’s to their credit that they made a proper drama of the characters and plot. As the investigation develops multiple strands, each is fleshed out by some memorable personalities. Jan Sterling makes a relatively brief appearance as the soon to be victim but sets a brass tone for the more heartless side to the story. The perennially eccentric Elsa Lanchester is delightfully untrustworthy as her greedy landlord while Betsy Blaire, as her kind neighbour, is a ray of sunshine in those otherwise murky digs. And then you have Sally Forrest almost stealing the show as the desperate wife of the man who the police have mistaken for the killer. Such casting provides a solid base to what was happening on the other side of the camera and, in fact, it’s perhaps the technical side to the film that most impresses what with its sly plot and Richard Brooks’ equally cynical dialogue dripping from the tongues of the good and bad alike. Bringing it all together is a pre-prime Sturges exhibiting the controlled energy of his later work but with a welcomed levity. Of course, having the great John Alton shooting the film is no small bonus and the lighting and use of perspective throughout is of surprising quality for a small feature, not to mention, a genuine treat. All in all, there’s little fault to be found here, just a cracking good story shot with plenty of class.
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.
Rating: The Good – 69.8 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 106 mins Director: Michaël R. Roskam Stars: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini
James Gandolfini’s final film sees him play a former small time gangster now running a bar for the Chechen mob which doubles as a drop point for their nightly collections. When the bar is robbed, his bartender and younger cousin “Bob” (Tom Hardy), who is simultaneously being drawn into a strange game of cat-and-mouse with a local psychopath, begins to betray his understated appearance by taking control of both situations in contrasting ways. It’s a complicated plot made nicely ambiguous by Hardy’s outwardly soft character and nervous demeanour. But it’s the dissolution of that ambiguity which ultimately gives The Drop its cutting edge and ties the disparate plot strands together in intimidating style.
Though Gandolfini’s “Cousin Marv” amounts to a support player, he’s central to the movie’s permeating pessimism. It’s the type of turn we had come to expect from the dexterous old pro, a sophisticated blending of pettiness, ego, ruthlessness, and humanity that serves as a final reminder of his tremendous depth as an actor. Hardy continues to hold his own with the best in the business by adding yet another unique personality to his repertoire and he rather delicately drives the film with the subtle detail to his sympathetic “Bob”.
Ultimately, Belgium director Michaël R. Roskam’s film spins a dark and unforgiving yarn that forges new ground in the crime genre but repels as much as it seduces. Nicolas Karakantsanis’ bleak photography dull with pitched yellows and browns sets much in the way of tone but, like Dennis Lehane’s (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) screenplay, it lacks heart. As the movie progresses, it intrigues beyond any initial expectations but struggles to carry us. As with its visual profile, the personalities are just too harsh. Naomi Rapace’s would-be love interest threatens to turn things around at a couple of junctures but ultimately she, like the story’s potential for genuine emotional resonance, is a little wasted.
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 – 70 Genre: Action Duration: 105 mins Director: Tony Scott Stars: Bruce Willis, Damon Wayans, Halle Berry
Tony Scott and Bruce Willis are in top form for one of the better action vehicles of the 1990’s. With Scott’s trademark soft noir lighting, his liberal use of dry ice, and the pump action sarcasm of Shane Black, Willis shoots, grins, cracks wise, and jibes his way through the movie as the weary private dick stuck in a malaise since he was thrown out of the secret service. When he’s asked to protect a young dancer (a brief but telling performance by a young Halle Berry), he and her boyfriend (Damon Wayans) get sucked into a scheme of blackmail and murder in the high stakes game of pro football. With its over the top action scenarios and hair-brained plot, Scott knows that the key to this is chemistry and with Willis and an in-form Wayans, he had all the right tools. The banter is terrific, the quips are cutting, and the hits and kicks are just as funny. Willis was rarely better outside of his McCain persona, his character here being a perfect blend of his dry wit and irascible charm. Wayans is more than watchable despite his acting limitations thanks to some interesting characterisation on Black’s part. Like all the best action movies, the story is balanced out with a number of memorable bad guys from Noble Willingham’s corrupt franchise owner to his slightly nuts right hand man, Taylor Negron in gleefully nasty form. Needless to say the action sequences are bursting with innovation and though modest in premise (at least compared to those of the Die Hard franchise), they’re executed to perfection and always work effectively with the plot. Can you ask for more?
Rating: The Good – 74.4 Genre: Crime, Action Duration: 109 mins Director: Jim Mickle Stars: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson
Jim Mickle’s film about a family man whose shooting of a home intruder entwines him in the travails of an aged ex-con and his old war buddy is an intriguing throwback to the crime thrillers of the 1980’s (and 70’s), crafted with all their style and some of their substance. Michael C. Hall leads the cast as the ordinary working stiff who just wants to set things right with the intimidating father of the man he shot. That the latter is played by the great Sam Shepard is only the first of two brilliant pieces of casting because the reborn Don Johnson pops up in the even more interesting role of the pig-farming private detective who owes Shepard his life.
There are a number of twists and turns to Nick Damici’s austere screenplay, too many of which are alluded to in the trailers and publicity posters, but it gets ever darker as it goes and culminates in a Rolling Thunder type showdown that makes for a rather effective release of tension. It could be argued that there’s one twist too many and that signposting and adhering to one streamlined plot might have served the ultimate purpose of the film (which was nothing more than to engineer a sleek actioner) better but it’s fair to say the delayed reveal adds an abundance of intrigue to the project.
Needless to say, with a cast like this one, there’s much to admire on the acting front. Hall makes for an impressive lead and captures all the hard headed nativity of his character. Shepard is mean as hell but with an essential humanity that drives the final act. However, it’s Johnson who blows them all away with his crackling charm and steady nerves. Moreover, it’s he who carries the movie over it’s tallest hurdle, namely, a lack of proper exposition for Hall’s motives. Crucial as they are to the plot’s credibility, more work was needed in figuring out exactly why such an everyday Joe would stay the course.
In the end, we both do just that, not only because Johnson has us hook, line, and sinker but because Jeff Grace’s purposeful score – with resounding echoes of Tangerine Dream at their Near Dark best – promises so much in the way of classic crime cinema ahead. The good news is that we just about reach that hallowed furrow even if it’s not as substantial an arrival as Thief, Heat, or Rolling Thunder.