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.
Rating: The Good – 63.8 Genre: Crime Duration: 91 mins Director: Aaron Woodley Stars: Kevin Zegers, Ray Liotta, Laura Vandervoort
Slightly above average thriller involving the abduction of three rich kids by three malcontents who attempt to ransom their prisoners to the three wealthy fathers. A low profile cast add some bite to a well structured screenplay with Ray Liotta bringing his natural snakiness to his fatherly role. The dialogue can struggle to rise to the sharpness of the story but Aaron Woodley’s classy directing fills some of the void. For the most part, The Entitled sidesteps the more formulaic tracks and tickles the audience with the ambiguous morality and strained allegiances found among each of the three parties. It’s that moral coolness that allows the movie to play out to a satisfying conclusion and without ever really catching fire, The Entitled manages a continuous simmer.
Rating: The Good – 70.9 Genre: Thriller Duration: 114 mins Director: Scott Frank Stars: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour
A refreshingly focused thriller from a writer-director who continues to defy the current trend by honouring the genre’s best traditions of putting brains before action. Liam Neeson stars as an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic who’s hired by a drug dealer to find the brutal lunatics who kidnapped and murdered his wife – before they sent her back in pieces. Walk Among the Tombstones walks a number of lines very well. It’s dark without being dreary, thrilling but not over the top, and pensive without being boring. But most welcome of all is that it’s paced with an old time respect for story. The well nourished plot develops seamlessly around three or four intriguing characters from the excellent Dan Stevens as the atypical dealer with a thirst for vengeance to Brian “Astro” Bradley’s homeless kid who latches onto Neeson with notions of being a “Sam Spade”-like partner. And as the killers enter the fray, David Harbour and Adam David Thompson provide just the right amount of menace to not detract from the film’s tempered mood. After a solid debut behind the camera with The Lookout, the writer of Out of Sight and Get Shorty raises his game further by achieving a more comprehensive balance between the script, production design, Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s clean cinematography, and Carlos Rafael Rivera’s quietly tense score. Unsurprisingly, given his writing credits, the dialogue is laced with hard grit and the cast, particularly Neeson and Harbour, eat it up. The finale threatens some melodrama and a familiar backstory to Neeson’s character hold this one back a little but its overall tangibility and coherence raise it well above the recent fluff the genre has suffered. And on top of all that, how great is it to see Neeson back in a role worthy of his talent!?!
Rating: The Good – 85.1 Genre: Drama, Crime Duration: 101 mins Director: Paul Thomas Anderson Stars: Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson
Paul Thomas Anderson’s lean and spotless neo noir sees Philip Baker Hall assume the well deserved lead role as a professional gambler who takes a vulnerable John C. Reilly under his wing and teaches him his trade. But when Gwyneth Paltrow’s waitress, moonlighting as a prostitute, enters their lives, a crisis soon emerges that requires all of his seasoned calm to resolve it. There are different levels of acting success out there and the two male leads on show here represent one of the more fortunately unfortunate. Fortunate in that their supreme talent is recognised by the industry but unfortunate to be forever pigeon-holed as nothing more than “strong support players” simply because they don’t look like movie stars. Well it didn’t stop writer-director Anderson from seeing the potential of building a film around the pair and we should all be thankful.
Hard Eight is remarkably efficient story telling even for a director who has specialised in such film making. Dialogue is used sparingly but plenty is said at the right moments and it always rings with sympathetic wisdom. For a cynical film shot with an aversion for the frills and warmth of more stylish directors, this forensic engineering of compassion is a true achievement. Like his casting, Anderson doesn’t shy away from rough edges and the three main players are presented warts and all. But the honesty of how their interactions are captured set against bare production design and dulcet score renders them all the more real and relatable.
Needless to say Baker Hall doesn’t waste a second of this opportunity and, as the jaded Sydney, he finesses the film from drama to thriller and thriller to drama. He may not look like a movie star but he has a great face all the same and regardless of what career his character may have pursued, every day of it seems etched on his face. Reilly is equally splendid in what transpires to be a lesser part but his intense vulnerability wonderfully complements Baker Hall’s composed presence. To her credit, Paltrow isn’t left behind either and she gives us one of the more interesting takes on what has become a standard Hollywood trope of gender economics. Above all else, however, it’s the savvy interplay between these characters who, one and all have been there and done that, which makes Hard Eight so enjoyable and, during the sequences in which Samuel L. Jackson’s sly security guard spars with the ever cool Sydney, the generation gap between their street smarts makes for subtly riveting games of cat and mouse.
Rating: The Good – 75.6 Genre: Thriller, Mystery Duration: 149 mins Director: David Fincher Stars: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens
David Fincher and Gillian Flynn’s eagerly awaited adaptation of her own bestseller has laisser faire husband, Ben Affleck, suspected in the kidnapping and murder of his wife, Rosamund Pike, amid a media storm and public fascination with the curious young woman. If you’re familiar with the book, you’ll know what happens next but if you’re new to Flynn’s post recession world of the neo-consumer thirty-something, let’s just say that it’s not long before things take a turn for the bizarre and the plot corkscrews towards an unlikely conclusion.
As was the case with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the class that Fincher brings to the production seems a little beyond Flynn’s poolside fiction but so polished and so full of disciplined verve is Gone Girl the movie, that it’s a genuine pleasure watching it unfold. That the film offers a wry take on the symbiotic relationship between media and personal perception is an unexpected bonus and goes a long way to offset the madness of the plot. Despite this however, there are many who will feel a little let down by the resolutions offered here or lack thereof. For what it does offer, however, Gone Girl is one of the better and more intriguing thrillers of recent years propped with notable characters and fine performances. The most enigmatic is certainly Pike’s Amy Dunne, the lady at the centre of the rigmarole. Seeing her only in flashback during the first half of the movie, she narrates us through the couple’s early years exclusively via her diary entries. Lines are slowly drawn between her and hubby as she lays bare his infidelity and we duly fall in behind her. However something likeable remains of Affleck’s Nick Dunne and the story pivots on that charm.
Unsurprisingly, Pike received plenty of plaudits including an Oscar nomination. And within the flashback scenes, she’s genuinely outstanding, juggling pathos with a discernible feminine strength. However as the story winds forward, her character becomes more inaccessible and it’s fair to say her performance becomes a little mono-dimensional. If there’s a star turn here, it’s probably the much maligned Affleck who delivers it. In by far his most substantial piece of acting, he plays the disengaged, suspicious doofus with all sorts of delicacy and almost single-handedly carries the movie through its turbulent final act. That said, Carrie Coon as his twin sister and Kim Dickens as the investigating detective offer terrific support in yet another couple of uniquely strong female roles.
But for all the cast’s work, that final 40 minutes would’ve crashed and burned if it wasn’t for Fincher’s immaculate touch. Masterfully integrating Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s mechanical (albeit familiar) score with Jeff Cronenweth’s luscious photography not to mention Kirk Baxter’s spotless editing and embedding it all within Donald Graham Burt’s typically splendid production design, he serves up yet another peach of a film. You won’t see the depth of vision of The Social Network here but the depth of technical achievement is everywhere.
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.
One of the most daring and original films to come out of Hollywood in the 90′s was this Rodriguez/Tarantino collaboration. The former directed while the latter wrote the screenplay and co-starred as the younger of two brothers (the other being George Clooney) who are on the run from the Texas police and kidnap a family so they can sneak over the Mexican border in their camper van. Clooney puts in an awesome performance as the menacing and hardened criminal while Tarantino does quite well as the unstable psychopath. Harvey Keitel plays the owner of the camper van and it’s his and Clooney’s dynamic that is the most fascinating feature of the film as the two very different alpha males play off each other. Of course, just when the film is turning into a damn good crime movie, they turn the tables on us and the film suddenly becomes a vampire horror flick. To turn your back on the first half of the story when it was going so well took guts but it pays off in spades as the uneasy alliance between Clooney and the family he kidnapped provides a great backdrop to the vampire killing action that unfolds. It’d be easy to dismiss this film as a gimmick but playing with genres and pushing their boundaries has always kept cinema from going stale and having a good story, some great action sequences, and some extremely slick and cool dialogue to boot makes this one hell of a cinematic experience. The crowning achievement of this fascinating project couldn’t have come at a better moment as right before the crossover occurs Salma Hayek takes to the stage in one of the most arresting dance sequences you’ll see in an action or horror movie. “Okay ramblers, let’s get ramblin.”
Rating: The Good – 92.5 Genre: Western Duration: 119 mins Director: John Ford Stars: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles
Bookended by perhaps the greatest opening and closing shots of any film, the image of the great western frontier captured from the dark recesses of the family homestead says it all. The Searchers is an awe-inspiring and sweeping meditation on family and uncharted territory (both physical and spiritual). It begins with the return of civil war veteran, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), to his brother’s home only for the family to be massacred a short time afterwards by a Comanche war party out for revenge. All are killed except for his young niece who they kidnapped instead and Ethan sets out after her but not necessarily with the intention of taking her back. Aware of this, his part Indian nephew sets out with him in order to ensure that his sister is rescued and not killed by the bitter and deeply prejudiced Ethan. The Searchers is a complex and deeply profound examination of love, devotion, and bitterness shot magnificently by a master director at the height of his powers. It also gives us the Duke’s best performance as he towers over everyone else on screen in both the physical and acting sense. It’s not an easy watch in parts but those darker moments are offset by some genuinely funny moments such as the fight between Martin and the fiancé of his would-be bride. But when it does return to darker territory the result is one of the most complicated and fascinating movie going experiences.
Rating: The Good – 74.3 Genre: Crime, Thriller, Mystery Duration: 114 mins Director: Ben Affleck Stars: Casey Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris
Ben Affleck turned many heads with this thoughtful and deftly crafted tale of two private investigators searching their local neighbourhood for traces of an abducted little girl. There are many things that make this film work so well but the writing, casting, and decision to make the working class Bostonian neighbourhoods so central to the story are paramount. Affleck co-wrote the script with Aaron Stockard and it’s fair to say that the result is one of the most insightful and authentic sounding screenplays. The cast of (mostly local) actors are just as integral to this authenticity as their accent, attitude, and mannerisms reel the audience in their world one scene at a time. Affleck captures the feel of the streets perfectly never missing a chance to contrast their geography and identity with the big city which is ever looming in the background of the interluding shots. The central characters are played with real authority too with Casey Affleck and Ed Harris being supremely engaging in very different ways. Ben’s younger brother is proving to be one hell of a unique character actor who never fails to make his unusual voice work for his characters. He leads the cast brilliantly here and being a local boy himself is never better than when he’s interacting with the locals. Ed Harris is equally interesting as the seasoned detective who Affleck and his partner Michelle Monaghan must work with. There are times when the freshness of the dialogue threatens to sound more important than the story but they always reign it in before it gets that far. The story of the missing girl never leaves the audience’s mind even though there are an array of other things going on and at all times it’s dealt with maturity and intelligence. The clever writing develops the plot into a well above average mystery thriller and there are some lightning quick moments of action and terror that are dealt with in the guttiest of ways. Kudos to all involved for sticking to their guns when it came to the decisions Hollywood normally balks at. Gone Baby Gone could stand to be 10-15 minutes shorter but in the main this is a terrific and unique thriller which reflects well on all involved.
Rating: The Good – 95.5 Genre: Mystery, Thriller Duration: 180 mins Director: David Lynch Stars: Kyle MacLachlan, Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rossellini
David Lynch’s unhinged masterpiece follows the fresh faced Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle Maclachlan) into the dark underbelly of a seemingly idyllic all-American town where he encounters cinema’s most disturbing psycho Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). It all begins with the discovery of a severed ear against the backdrop of Jeffrey’s white-picket fenced suburbia. Where the investigation of that ear takes the curious young Jeffrey is almost impossible to explain for this is a uniquely skewed and powerful analysis of a world that exists just beyond our comfort zone in our subjective unconscious. In telling Jeffrey’s story, Lynch traverses a number of genres from film-noir to romance to outright fantasy but it’s the romance that shines through the strongest in his trademark “eye-of-the-duck” scene. On the technical front, the film represents nothing less than the perfect blend of image and sound with Lynch giving life to the latter like no other film before it or since. Machlachlan is truly outstanding in a role that is admittedly tailor made for him. Laura Dern is equally terrific as Jeffrey’s girl of interest while Dennis Hopper simply redefines the concept of madness on film. Raw cinematic power.
Rating: The Ugly – 66.8 Genre: Thriller Duration: 110 mins Director: Roger Spottiswoode Stars: Sidney Poitier, Tom Berenger, Kirstie Alley
The 80’s thriller was a unique animal. All soft focus, dialogue skirting the edges of cheesiness, disciplined competent action, great leading men, and pure entertainment. Deadly Pursuit (or Shoot to Kill as it was called Stateside) is case in point. Sidney Poitier stars as an FBI agent who tracks a ruthless killer to the mountains of the Canadian border where he enlists the reluctant help of mountain guide Tom Berenger whose girlfriend (Kirsty Alley) has been kidnapped by the killer. Poitier is comfortable as the cultured city man out of his element and he and Berenger play off each other to great effect. The action is exactly what you’d expect with lashings of humour thrown in but it’s that great 80’s vibe that makes the whole things so damn satisfying. Clancy Brown and Andrew Robinson are among the excellent support cast and Brown in particular puts in yet another fine display.
Rating: The Good – 70 Genre: Thriller Duration: 153 mins Director: Denis Villeneuve Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis
Flawed but nonetheless intensely atmospheric drama that attempts to rise above the mire of serial killer movies by probing mutually constraining questions of guilt, responsibility, necessity, and revenge. When two girls are kidnapped, one of the fathers (Hugh Jackman) kidnaps the original suspect who he is convinced is the guilty party despite the lead detective’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) assertions he isn’t. As the mystery into the kidnapping throws up more and more barriers to detective Loki’s investigation, Keller Dover subjects his suspect to torturous treatment in the attempt to uncover the girls’ whereabouts. It’s a scintillating premise and the first 60 minutes lives up to its promise thanks to the compelling performances of the two leads and the heavy mood its director Denis Villeneuve establishes from early on. Boasting an immaculate visual profile courtesy of the great Roger Deacons, Prisoners is veritably defined by its dark palette of colours and bleak tonal lighting and combined with the methodical yet artful direction of that opening hour, it sets its stall out as a wholly consuming piece of cinema.
However, just when the story should be consummating this style and premise, it gets bogged down under the weight of its lofty ambitions. The moral conundrum which the bulk of the movie is constructed around ultimately loses cohesion thanks to a ludicrously protracted second act. So, what should’ve been a straightforward dichotomy of moral relativism becomes bloated as Villeneuve leaves and revisits it over and over and the lack of any genuine ethical counterpoint inevitably takes its toll. But it’s not simply a failure to properly tease out its central moralism that scuppers Prisoners. A second issue is the ending. As a twist, it works relatively well but things get a little too caricatured and cliched to the point that it borders on the absurd. However, the most frustrating issue with the film is undoubtedly a gargantuan plot hole concerning the police’s investigation and (without giving anything away) their failure to use scent dogs to do something so fundamental that the case would’ve been solved within the first 24 hours if they did. For a film that runs for two hours beyond that point in the story, it becomes an unforgivable contrivance and sours the entire experience. Yes, there are many interesting curve-balls written into those two hours but, by that point, writer Aaron Guzikowski has lost a critical degree of his audience’s trust. Less gargantuan but still significant are the plot holes surrounding Loki’s failure to connect glaringly overlapping incidents from early on in the film and there’s also an uninspired and overfamiliar antagonism between Loki and his superior that recalls the ‘angry police captain’ of 70/80’s cop movie (a cliche that was lampooned as far back as 1993’s So I Married an Axe Murderer).
All this is a real shame because, in addition to the wonderful aesthetic, Jackman and in particular Gyllenhaal are outstanding. The former got most of the plaudits but it’s the latter’s textured approach to his character that is the more engaging. There’s an interesting back story to his character that suggests an added impetus to do the type of work he does. But because it’s only really alluded to, it’s left to Gyllenhaal to tease it out. He does so admirably. From the idiosyncratic blinking to his general physical and verbal comportment, he layers Loki with intriguing qualities that on their own could drive a film. But as Dover’s side to the story takes precedence and the aforementioned plot holes accrue, that boat sails.
In the end, Prisoners feels like an opportunity missed but with the outstanding performances and that rich atmosphere, there are enough reasons to recommend it. The second half isn’t all bad either. There’s a beautifully shot driving sequence right at the climax that capstones the film’s tension in audacious style and even rivals Pacino’s driving scene from Heat. And while the ending gets a little silly, it’s shot with enough adroit class and clever tension that it can still be enjoyed over a bowl of popcorn.