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.
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 Ugly – 66 Genre: Action Duration: 92 mins Director: Louis Leterrier, Corey Yuen Stars: Jason Statham, Qi Shu, Matt Schulze
A meticulous driver and all-action bad-ass in the form of Jason Statham transports illicit cargo around the French countryside but gets sucked into a people trafficking racket when he breaks his own rules and looks inside the package. Written and produced by Luc Besson but directed by Louis Leterrier, The Transporter still bears all the hallmarks of the legendary director’s most enjoyable work. An action comedy with a quirky energy that flirts with the laws of physics and slaps a couple of charming characters right in the centre. Statham delivers the goods in more ways than one with his usual mixture of suave wise-cracks and kickboxing acrobatics and Qi Shu makes for a worthy co-star as his endearing yet unintended sidekick. The plot is daft as a brush and you may even struggle to recall what the whole thing was about but with two strong leads, a considered screenplay, and more breathless car-chases, bullets and grenades, and kicks and punches than you can keep up with, The Transporter will race into the good graces of even the most cynical of movie fans.
Rating: The Ugly – 66.5 Genre: Action Duration: 112 mins Director: Renny Harlin Stars: Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow, Michael Rooker
A truly awful screenplay meets some of the hammiest acting straight on in this entertaining action romp about a group of mercenaries who co-opt a couple of mountain climbers into their attempt to locate briefcases full of money lost in a mountain wilderness. John Lithgow adds yet another impossibly over the top turn to his catalogue as the merciless leader of the bad guys, Stallone is actually a little better than usual as the burly yet modest climbing expert, Michael Rooker offers sound presence to the mix but Janine Turner is much too bland to matter. Where Cliffhanger succeeds is in giving us a veritable kaleidoscope of nastiness in the bad guy department. From Rex Linn’s crooked treasury agent and 24 carat asshole to Caroline Goodall’s murderous vixen and with a couple/three very punchable faces thrown in between, these guys are the best bunch of venom spitting henchmen since Die Hard. Alas, without much of a script to harness the interesting personalities which the actors bring to the party, that’s all they remain and whatever fun there is to be had, is at watching these world class bastards get their well deserved comeuppances.
Rating: The Good – 71.5 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 130 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang
Michael Mann has been a long time between films and while his latest cyber thriller is marked by his trademark style and dramatic distance, a vague meandering plot ultimately precludes it from ranking amongst his best work. Chris Hemsworth stars as a prodigious hacker released from prison on the condition that he helps a joint FBI-Chinese task force trace the source of a cyber attack on a nuclear power plant. The resulting investigation sprawls across the Pacific from LA to Malaysia sporadically interrupted by some lively gun battles the type Mann has, at this point, mastered to perfection.
Blackhat isn’t as bad as some critics and fans have made out and there’s much to be admired along the way. Despite flimsy character construction across the board, Hemsworth makes for a sturdy lead and Viola Davis cuts a confident figure of authority as the FBI agent in charge of his team. Leehom Wang is competent as the lead Chinese agent even if Wei Tang proves too slight to overcome her character’s writing as Wang’s sister and Hemsworth’s inevitable love interest. Mann’s visual and auditory style is at its impeccable best as the technically astute director seems to have finally come to grips with all aspects of Digital Video. Complementing this aesthetic is Atticus Ross’ grainy score which, while not quite matching that of Heat, is certainly on the same track.
Rather frustratingly, though, it’s the basic stuff that Blackhat fails to get right. The meticulously distanced relationship between Mann’s lens and his protagonists has traditionally helped to engender a documentary-like sense of realism to his stories but, during his prime, that was balanced out with well developed characters whose arcs were functionally relevant to the story as much as the plot. Here, like his previous movies Public Enemies and Miami Vice, the connection ends with the plot as the characters’ depths are kept hidden or at best implicit. If the main players are kept at arms length, then the bad guys are barely acknowledged. Missing is the traction of Neil McCauley’s motivations in Heat or even just the remorseless entitlement of Robert Prosky’s Leo in Thief. Instead, a straight line of inexplicable badness replaces any sense of personality and we struggle to care. Then there’s the equally inexplicable tactical training of Hemsworth’s computer jock. In place of a techno-intellectual showdown, things come to a head in a rather bizarre action face-off that smacks of rushed rewrites and/or studio interference.
Instead of a properly laid narrative, whatever successes Blackhat achieves are episodic in nature such as the visceral action sequences or those informed moments when Hemsworth and co. are hacking into the enemy’s servers or even their bank accounts. Not surprisingly, it’s here where Morgan Davis Foehl’s script comes into its own (forgetting the one or two moments of philosophical gibberish ala Miami Vice). Nothing is dumbed down but neither are the uninitiated left lost at sea. And of course, as is the case in most of Mann’s procedurals, its technocratic lilt adds abundantly to the movie’s overall sense of street smarts. With so much good and so much bad, Blackhat will, like most of Mann’s work since 1999’s The Insider, tantalise his fan’s but ultimately go down as an opportunity missed.
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 – 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.
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.
A neat little crime thriller about an ageing master thief (Robert De Niro) who takes one last job when a brash and cocky young counterpart (Edward Norton) convinces him to stage a robbery in his own town. Frank Oz defies the worn premise by bringing a fresh energy to the caper and allowing the considerable acting talent at his disposal to improvise their characters across the movie. As the man behind the schemes, Marlon Brando is, in particular, a treat and despite not getting on with his director, the latter is clearly in his element when Brando begins playing with his lines. De Niro had hit a point in his career where he was giving less to each role but while nowhere near as intense as earlier showings, he’s strong as oak in this film. He does however allow both Brando and Norton plenty of room to shine and they take every inch. Though littered with slickly executed set pieces, The Score’s most distinctive technical achievement is Jackson De Govia’s production design. Informed largely by its Montreal setting, it’s one of the chief reasons the film feels as fresh as it does. Films set in lesser seen cities are often more interesting not necessarily because of something inherent to the cities but because the director and DP usually take more time to introduce the audience to the town and its personality. In two or three early scene Oz, De Govia, and Rob Hahn’s noir-esque photography gently gives us a flavour of this Montreal and it inhabits the film as much as it inhabits the city. It all adds up to one hell of a classy thriller that measures modestly but proudly against the best heist films.
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 – 88.8 Genre: Crime Duration: 106 mins Director: Bryan Singer Stars: Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro
Supremely captivating noir-ish crime thriller that spins an intricate tale about a group of elite hijackers who are brought together by an outside force and get mixed up with crooked cops, drug dealers, and an underworld boss who nobody is sure exists but everyone is scared of. This is one of those films that redefined the genre and, in doing so, it set a new standard for every subsequent crime film. High school buddies Bryan Singer (director) and Christopher McQuarrie (writer) became household names after this one and it’s not difficult to see why. McQuarrie’s hugely original and slick writing combines perfectly with Singer’s taut and stylish direction to give this film a truly unique look and a feel. Most of the actors on show give career best performances. Spacey got the Oscar but he is matched by Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, and Chazz Palminteri. However, this is undeniably Gabriel Bryne’s film as his broody, charming, and serious Dean Keaton more than any of the other character sets the tone for this film from start to finish. A special mention of John Ottman’s dual role is appropriate also as he not only gives us one of the most memorable scores of the 90′s but is also responsible for the film’s super slick editing.