Rating: The Good – 76 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 130 mins Director: Joseph Sargent Stars: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kiera Knightley
Movies recounting humankind’s gruelling attempts to overcome nature’s obstacles tend to be either underproduced and rather dull affairs or overproduced and predictably brainless action movies so it’s a welcome surprise when we come across one that so effectively balances the internal and external factors to the story as much as Baltasar Kormákur’s film does. Couched in a comfortable budget, Everest captures the visceral wonder of the experience but maintains the writing and acting as its prize assets. And with a cast of A-listers all willing to do their bit for far less billing than their status normally demands, it pays dividends. Jason Clark hits all the right notes as the expedition leader and Josh Brolin and John Hawkes add handsomely to the medley of emotional tribulation while Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Worthington, Kiera Knightley, and Robin Wright help shape both the story’s physical and personal contexts so that theme and drama meet harmoniously in the middle. Not everyone will be happy with Kormákur’s aversion to set piece action but those with an appreciation for attritional authenticity should find his adventure rather compelling.
Rating: The Good – 68.8 Genre: Horror Duration: 119 mins Director: Scott Derrickson Stars: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Laura Linney stars as a successful defence attorney who agrees to defend a Catholic priest (Tom Wilkinson) when a young woman who he performed an exorcism on died shortly thereafter. As she delves into the case, she not only begins to believe the priest’s story but she comes to suspect that the same dark forces are now working against her. Scott Derrickson’s film strikes an original chord within the genre by attempting to examine the case from a legal perspective and he sets a wonderfully sinister atmosphere that peaks in some truly chilling moments. Linney’s skill in the lead lends even more credibility to the film’s serious aspirations as does the wider casting from Wilkinson’s beleaguered clergyman to Campbell Scott’s determined prosecutor. However, things go wrong with the screenplay just as it should be ratcheting up towards an intriguing conclusion. The relevance of the exorcism to the law is only barely glanced at as evidenced by Wilkinson’s marginalisation as a character and the main plot gets a little silly towards the close. Most disappointing of all, however, the creepy subplot concerning Linney’s inexplicable experiences never really amounts to anything. Instead, the movie satisfies itself in the main by offering multiple retrospective accounts of the events leading up to and including the exorcism which themselves bear an awfully familiar bent. At the very least, a Rashoman-like contrast between the various firsthand accounts would’ve added an interesting layer of ambiguity to the proceedings but given that they’re all in accordance with each other, we’re left with a clear but less intriguing delineation between truth and mistruth. Thus, it can be argued that The Exorcism of Emily Rose turns its back on its most promising story angles to serve its most ordinary:- a real shame give the calibre of talent on hand.
Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone’s reimagining of Howard Hawks’ prohibition-era gangster epic replaces the grime of old Chicago with the neon glitz and kitschy glow of 1980’s Miami and sets the scene for one of the most unique gangster movies of them all. Drop Al Pacino into the lead role of Cuban exile come narcotics trafficking kingpin and you can add “most explosive” to that accolade too. Pacino inhabits the gnarly skin of Tony Montero like few actors could or have as he steels the screen with his presence. An unpredictable concoction of balls to the wall attitude and psychopathic viciousness that bubbles to the boil around five minutes in and continues that way until the movie’s gargantuan close. Though everyone else falls in his frothing wake, there’s a lot of fun in their performances from Tony’s partner and incorrigible ladies-man Steven Bauer, to his reluctant self-hating wife Michelle Pfeiffer, to Robert Loggia’s weak-willed mob boss desperately trying to keep his insanely ambitious young charge on a leash.
Much has been made of this remake’s audacious production design and it’s usually this aspect that most detractors set their sights on. But regardless of criticism, there’s no denying that Scarface is its own film. Moreover, the truth is that, alongside Giorgio Moroder’s amusingly profound score, De Palma’s vision goes so far beyond cheesy that the movie exists in a fascinating kind of hyper-real haze of meta-gangsterism. And as is the case with every one of that director’s 1980’s movies, that’s exactly the point! Scarface isn’t a straight gangster narrative even though its works brilliantly as such, nor is it an action film even though its littered with sublimely staged (not to mention rather grisly) set-pieces that dwarf most of that decade’s best. Scarface is a twisted fairytale of greed and ambition funnelled through the intense personality of one of cinema’s most powerful actors at the height of his powers. Through this vessel, Stone’s crazy but endlessly quotable dialogue bristles with the megalomanic intention of a coke-fuelled tyrant and again, like all De Palma’s movies from around that time, it thus becomes a statement on the state of contemporary cinema itself. That it’s a riveting blast to experience just makes it all the more remarkable.
Rating: The Good – 75.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 112 mins Director: James Wan Stars: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston
Bone chilling 70’s-set possession story adorned with all the hallmarks of the best vintages. Married couple Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are the married paranormal investigators called upon to help a terrorised family who are being haunted by a particularly nasty demon. By now, we all know the final score and how the points are scored but James Wan’s movie nuances the familiar plot in all manner of creepy ways to exact as much out of it as possible. Forsaking the safety net of gore, Wan and company rely completely on mood, timing, and no small number of innovative devices to generate the scares. Using the investigative couple’s background in the occult as a basis for both tension and sub-plot, there are essentially three horror stories spun together here but not so anything is taken away from the central plot. In fact, as is often intended but rarely transpires, they compound each other so that they generate a cumulative terror. The result is genuinely one of the scariest movies to emerge from Hollywood in decades.
The Conjuring looks and sounds the part too thanks to some comprehensive production design, Joseph Bishara’s even score, and Kirk M. Morri (visual) and Joe Dzuban’s (sound) elegant editing. The final piece to the puzzle is the casting. Without breaking the bank, the four leads are all household names which not only nests the events in a priceless familiarity but also ensures a degree of class that most horror movies lack. This only adds to the film’s earnestness and thus magnifies the fear factor. Wilson is, as usual, slightly stiff but again, as usual, in a manner that suits his character. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston are equally strong as the beleaguered mother and father. However, Farmiga makes the most of her character with a steady turn as the compassionate but strong psychic. It all gets very loud towards the end and while this is perhaps one of its more unsubtle touches, it doesn’t destabilise the movie as is often the case. On the contrary, from beginning to end, The Conjuring is utterly text-book in its construction.
Rating: The Good – 77.5 Genre: Horror, Drama Duration: 93 mins Director: Jennifer Kent Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall
Every now and again, an independent horror movie comes along that celebrates the art of the genre by doing the most important things well. Things like: being unpredictable so that the scares don’t just come as shocks, or subverting the natural to generate a primal fear, and darkly colouring the story with fairytale-like themes so that it crawls inside the recesses of our psyches. While not scoring flawlessly on each of these levels, the Australian chiller The Babadook nonetheless achieves an even enough balance to comprehensively scare the bejesus out of you. Essie Davis stars as a single mother left traumatised by the death of her husband and trying to raise her seemingly disturbed son. But when a terrifying storybook entitled “The Babadook” appears mysteriously in her son’s room, she begins to believe his claims that the eponymous monster is in their house. What follows is as much a psychological thriller as it is horror as the despairing mother slowly loses her sanity and falls deeper into the monster’s clutches. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook demonstrates admirable restraint in the buildup and combined with some spine-tingling concept design (particularly with regard to the creature’s voice), the scares can be vigorous. However, against the austere set design and dull toned photography, the film’s mood is perhaps even more affecting and the movie would’ve surely veered towards the depressing if it wasn’t for some timely humour and the engaging performances by both Davis and Noah Wiseman as her eccentric son. And if the final act begins to feel a little familiar, rest assured that Kent reigns it in with a wryly unpredictable ending that will satisfy the more knowing and/or jaded horror fans alike. Highly recommended.
Rating: The Good – 75.8 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 133 mins Director: Clint Eastwood Stars: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner
Bradley Cooper takes on the role of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, in Clint Eastwood’s take on the personal politics of war and the wearing effects it has back home. Putting in another immense shift, Cooper constructs a strong character that sways and bends under the stresses that come with his elite skill. Beginning with his training as a Navy SEAL, we follow Kyle through his four tours in Iraq and his intervening attempts to build a family, where a number of plots play out in successive manner. Plots ranging from the SEALS’ mission to take out a local warlord to Kyle’s personal but often thrilling battle with an elite enemy sniper. Eastwood is to be commended for maintaining the integrity of each of these plots while sewing them into the wider dramatic story concerning Kyle’s wife (Sienna Miller in a solid turn) and his increasingly debilitating PTSD. In fact, American Sniper is arguably the veteran director’s most artful film from the point of view of its structuring. His use of flashback and parallel scenes help to move the film forward so the audience is informed and engaged at an equally steady rate. The action sequences are less inspired with respect to Clint’s directing but their sheer scale tend to compensate for that. Where Eastwood’s touch truly lets him down, however, is yet again in the dramatic stakes. Always a relatively cold director, he fails to make the camera one with his protagonists and while this could have allowed for a more realist style, his pedestrian camera work is incapable of serving that end. In the end, much of Bradley’s good work is left unharnessed as what should be a very personal movie feels decidedly impersonal. American Sniper has been the subject of much political discussion concerning the “War on Terror” and the lauding of an elite killer who showed less remorse in real life than is depicted here but such criticisms are outside the scope of a straight up film critique and so, as a war movie with a dramatic edge, American Sniper must stand on its artistic merits alone. In that respect, it has much going for it even in spite of some directorial limitations.
An elegantly directed sci-fi adventure considerably undermined by yet another painfully flat Nolan screenplay, Interstellar charts the epic attempts of a small group of scientists and astronauts to locate a planet capable of supporting the human race as its Earthly sustenance quickly dries up. Mathew McConaughey heads the cast as the mission’s pilot desperate to get back to the children he left behind before they age beyond the point where he can help them while Ann Hathaway’s stiffish scientist and a couple of nicely conceived robots keep him company on board the spacecraft. Back on Earth, Michael Caine is the brains behind the mission, Jessica Chastain is the grown up version of McConaughey’s equally clever daughter, and Casey Affleck is his son who, like the majority of remaining humans, is attempting to farm what’s left of their desertification-headed planet.
Regaining his 2008 Dark Knight directorial form, writer-director Christopher Nolan composes a quite beautiful and thrilling action thriller that achieves a perfect balance between mood and energy with no small help from Hans Zimmer’s sublime score. Making the deftest use of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s stark and striking cinematography, he avoids overplaying the CGI card keeping the story front and centre. The story isn’t bad either and, predictable as its key moments are, it serves Nolan’s grand ambitions for a Kubrickian like space epic. More the pity then that the screenplay does not. Bloated with expositional dialogue and artificial sentiment, it bungles its way towards a gargantuan mishandling of a straightforward (“save the world before it’s too late”) premise with the kind of overblown piece of psycho-physical drivel that plagued Inception. Co-penned with his more adept writer-brother (Jonathan sat Inception out), this script at least shows more restraint than that 2010 monument to tedium but not nearly enough to engender its protagonists nor their dilemmas with the depth and cadences that the premise deserved. The well conceived drama emerging from the astronauts ageing more slowly than their loved ones back home is an exception to this and proves to be the movie’s one successful appeal to the audience’s emotions.
Ultimately, the problem with Interstellar is yet again one of Nolan reaching beyond his capabilities by attempting to match the work of masters who simply operated at a level higher than his own (that’s not an insult Chris, most filmmakers toil in the shadows of Kubrick and Tarkovsky!). The innumerable references to 2001: A Space Odyssey eventually feel less like a homage and more like an attempt to disguise that failure, proving far more imitative than emulative. That said, the couple of HAL-inspired robots (the Bill Irwin-voiced “TARS” in particular) work fantastically within the confines of this story, coming alive in a whirl of mechanised motion during the best of the action sequences and adding most of the humour outside of them. And, thankfully, it’s these such lighter more grounded touches that sees Interstellar passing muster as a sci-fi thriller even while failing as an attempt at something more profound.
Rating: The Good – 77.1 Genre: Drama, Satire Duration: 102 mins Director: Mike Nichols Stars: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Mike Nichols turns his prodigious talent for satire to Aaron Sorkin’s clever adaptation of the true story of a Texas congressman’s attempts to secure the covert military funding that would ultimately tip the balance of the Soviet-Afghan war. Tom Hanks as the unorthadox good-time politician and Philip Seymour Hoffman as his irreverent CIA adviser form one of the best on-screen partnerships in recent decades as they bat Sorkin’s indignantly funny dialogue back and forth while Julia Roberts and Any Adams help to fill out the support roster intelligently rising to the spirit of Sorkin and Nichols’ storytelling as they go. The movie that unfolds is a delight of sardonic wit in both its writing and directing but, in typical Mike Nichols fashion, it effortlessly doubles as an engrossing political drama by perceptibly accounting for geo-political implications and character development alike. Sorkin’s feisty screenplay zips along at its usual pace but Nichols knows exactly when to channel that momentum or temporarily contain it so that its energy is maintained without dumbing down the drama. Unsurprisingly, Wilson comes out smelling like roses but only because Hanks and co. know exactly how to turn those warts into beauty spots and so, like the man himself, Charlie Wilson’s War charms its way into the audience’s hearts.
Rating: The Good – 88.1 Genre: Comedy, Romance Duration: 112mins Director: George Cukor Stars: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart
Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart form a golden trio for this definitive comedy of manners. Hepburn is the iron clad “goddess” with an inside made of bronze, Grant is the ex-husband who resurfaces on the eve of her next marriage to one of the “new money”, and Stewart is the working writer sent to cover the wedding for a celebrity gossip magazine. The three way relationship is bang on perfect thanks to the three titans of cinema and the deliciously worded back and forths present in Donald Ogden Stewart’s magnificent adapted screenplay and Philip Barry’s original play.
Hepburn is immense as the quick witted socialite, Tracy Lord, who has learned to repress her more compassionate side. In any other movie, she’d own the entire thing but with Grant and Stewart in top form they share the spoils equally. Grant is at his most charming as C.K. Dexter Haven and, while only really coming to the fore in the second hour, he’s responsible for most of the film’s emotional thrust. As the one more responsible for the movie’s straight comedy, Stewart’s Macaulay Connor is the perfect foil for Tracy’s playful cynic and indeed the funniest moments are the product of their dynamic. There’s a fine support cast on show too with John Halliday in great form as Lord senior.
George Cukor does an exemplary job in coaxing the drama from the more constrained parameters of the stage and onto his luscious monochrome while simultaneously keeping the quick repartee as the primary driver. The Philadelphia Story is one of those rare immortal comedies in that it’s lost none of its sophistication as the years go by. In fact, with the relative dumbing down of the modern romantic comedy, it has only grown in stature.
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 – 75.5 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!
Rating: The Good – 67.1 Genre: Thriller Duration: 128 mins Director: Roger Spottiswoode Stars: Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris
Slightly above average war-drama from Roger Spottiswoode and starring Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, and Joanna Cassidy as war correspondents who rush from one third world country to another in order to get the scoop on the latest skirmish between despot and the poor. Landing in Nicaragua in time to document the final days of the Somozoa regime, the three find themselves caught up in a love triangle, bombings, and the political machinations of spies and government officials alike. Not quite as subjective and daring a film as Missing or as cavalier a film as Salvador, Under Fire falls in between as a safer and more mainstream examination of the South American political climate of the 70’s/80’s. That said, it’s an interesting story with solid performances and some decent action thrown in to boot.