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 – 71.4 Genre: Crime, Drama Duration: 92 mins Director: Phil Karlson Stars: Richard Conte, Dianne Foster, Kathryn Grant
A modest forerunner to mob classics such as The Godfather and Goodfellas, The Brothers Rico is a compelling crime drama centring on Richard Conte’s Florida business man and former accountant to “the organisation” who is brought back into the fold when his brothers go on the run from the big boss. In place of shootouts, The Brothers Rico falls on the more subjective side to organised crime as Conte attempts to balance his duty to his former employers with his family’s future. In a prescient piece of social commentary, the expansion of the family (he and his wife are adopting a son while his brother and his wife are expecting one) acts as a personal contrast to the semblance of family attributed to by the mob to themselves. And the more Conte begins to appreciate the former, the more the veil drops on the latter. For an actor that skirted so close to stardom as he did, this is one of the few wholly dramatic roles Conte got to sink his teeth into and he’s gives it plenty of nuance. Diane Foster is equally interesting as his wife while James Darren excels as the younger brother on the lamb. Most memorable perhaps is Larry Gates who puts in a quietly formidable turn as the crafty boss Sid Kubick. Phil Karlson adequately directed the movie but one wonders what a stronger director would’ve brought to the table for the movie’s style lacks the personality of both Georges Simenon’s story and Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay. The film’s close skips a couple of beats too in a not too subtle attempt to reel a rather dark tale into warmer waters. Again, more commitment here to the essence of the story and The Brothers Rico would probably be more than a footnote in the history of mob cinema.
Rating: The Good – 67.7 Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller Duration: 118 mins Director: Gregory Hoblit Stars: Dennis Quaid, Jim Caviezel, Shawn Doyle
A pulsating and smart sci-fi thriller infused with unabashed sentiment, Frequency is a movie that ultimately shouldn’t work but does. A troubled homicide detective (Jim Caviezel) accidentally comes in contact with his father (Dennis Quaid) 30 years in the past, just in time to warn him of his impending death. When the father heeds his warnings, the time line begins to change with unexpected consequences and the father and son find themselves tracking down a serial killer in a desperate effort to protect their wife/mother. Given that the central time travelling device here is a ham radio in an electrical storm and that most of the thrills come from the cross-time conversations between the father and son, this script must have been a dilly of pickle to sell. Nonetheless, Gregory Hoblit’s typically polished direction and his quality cast pull it off. Quaid was always a dab hand at playing the heroic everyman and if Caviezel is less familiar in such roles, you’d never know it. And even though they share different ends to a radio frequency there’s lots of chemistry to enjoy too. The real hook here, however, is the plot which works as all good mysteries do, by keeping the audience guessing and their pulses racing. But what truly separates Frequency from the slew of science fiction thrillers is its unapologetic pandering to that audience’s desires, something often considered a compromise from an artistic point of view. Fairytale like resolutions are not necessarily to be avoided, though, and in an age when even Hollywood blockbusters offer up token sacrifices, it might even be a welcomed once-off treat.
Rating: The Good – 71 Genre: Thriller Duration: 120 mins Director: Bruce A. Evans Stars: Kevin Costner, Demi Moore, William Hurt
Okay, so the plot is way over the top but this quirky little movie about a wealthy serial killer (Kevin Costner) battling with his impulses to kill (personified in the form of alter ego William Hurt) is both an amusing black comedy and a very engaging thriller. Costner is as good as ever in the title role and his balancing of family man, business tycoon, tortured soul, and meticulous serial killer wasn’t an easy one to pull off particularly because of the story’s comedic artifice. But he actually nails it and makes for a charming lead who we root for throughout. Hurt is in giddy form as his twisted Id, a partner in crime, who nobody else can see or hear, while Demi Moore continues her recent revival with an equally charming turn as the detective on his trail. Where Mr. Brooks stalls is in the multitude of subplots it presents us with. Actually, four of them work quite effectively together but a fifth involving Moore’s pursuit of a second unrelated murderer is needless and distracting. But while it takes from the integrity of the story, writer director Bruce A. Evans and co-writer Raynold Evans’ irreverent approach to the subject matter softens the blow. Simply put, Mr. Brooks is just about the fun we get from following its twisted plot and seeing three of Hollywood’s old hands plying their trade with the charm and savvy that many of their recent counterparts are missing.
Rating: The Good – 73.3 Genre: Sport, Drama Duration: 131 mins Director: Gavin O’Connor Stars: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte
One might expect a movie set in the world of mixed martial arts to be nothing more than another vehicle in the sport’s locomotive-like publicity convoy. That it’s not, is only the first surprise Gavin O’Connor’s fight drama servers up. Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy play Brendan and Tommy, two estranged brothers who were separated when the latter took off with his mother to escape their physically abusive father (played by Nick Nolte) years earlier. The older Brendan stayed with his father only to shun him at a later date and settle down as a physics teacher and family man while Tommy lost his mother, escaped poverty by joining the Marines, and served in Iraq.
The story begins with a ferociously volatile Tommy showing up at his father’s door 14 years later to throw insults at the now recovered alcoholic – not to mention his former wrestling trainer. However, it’s not long before he asks the desperate old man to train him for a blockbuster MMA event in which the winner takes home $5 million – so long as only training is discussed. Unbeknownst to them, over in Philadelphia, Brendan’s family are in danger of losing their home and so he too decides to return to fighting, eyeing the same prize as his brother. With the second half of the film dedicated to the all out carnage of the cage, the fraternal dynamic is only alluded to (in a standout night time scene that was shot on the Atlantic City waterfront) but it seems that the bluntly manic Tommy has never forgiven Brendan for not leaving with him and his mother and so their inevitable collision in the ring promises to erupt into a grudge match of biblical proportions.
There’s obviously lots going on here and that’s not the half of it. The film is beset with two or three needless subplots mostly concerning Tommy but given the tendency for these types of films to pay mere lip-service to back stories, the attempt to do more as opposed to less should be somewhat respected. It does come together thanks to some contrived character dynamics, some less than believable plot development, and O’Connor’s cleverly manipulative direction but so hair-raising is the end product that most will forgive the heavy handedness. Moreover, if you are content not to dwell on the negatives, the film can whisk you forward in a wave of unsubtle emotion right into the frenzied grinder of the tournament battles.
They’re a rousing bunch of set pieces connected with an adrenaline charged yet elegant montage of highlights from those fights we don’t see in full. And MMA fans won’t be disappointed either given the quality of the fight choreography. Yes, some of the physical untidiness of real-life fighting is filtered out in favour of more flowing moves but the hard edged savagery is represented clearly and authentically. The climax is a little on the nose and unashamedly gives the audience what they want but it undeniably works.
On the acting front, Edgerton shows once again what an interesting talent he is and Nolte does his best to battle the pathos with which his character is overflowing (a ridiculously overwrought drunken-relapse scene notwithstanding) but in truth everyone is overshadowed by Tom Hardy’s monstrous turn. As an unstable brute, it’s a commanding piece of acting that makes quality use of the writers’ best ideas for Tommy and avoids the pitfalls of their worst. Furthermore, not only does he maintain a deep and necessary vulnerability but he funnels it into his character’s personality so completely that it only juices his formidable energy all the more. Movie fans will get much from this film regardless of whether their preference is drama or action, but what will stay with everyone the longest is Hardy.
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 – 73.8 Genre: Drama, Thriller Duration: 100 mins Director: Debra Granik Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt
Daniel Woodrell’s novel is given a pared down but respectful treatment in this assured adaptation and surprise 2010 hit. Jennifer Lawrence puts in a “star is born” performance as Ree, a self-sufficient 17 year old from an impoverished mountain family and surrogate mother to her younger siblings in the absence of her criminal father and her mentally ill mother. Having grown up in a culture of lawlessness, she tries to keep her brother and sister away from the local business of meth production but supporting them with no means of income isn’t easy. Things hit breaking point when her father puts up their home as collateral for his bail bond only to go missing on his release. This forces Ree to track him down if she is to keep a roof over her family’s head. However, every where she looks, she is met with resistance and outright malice as she’s warned away in increasingly severe fashion. Only her locally feared uncle (John Hawkes) seems willing to help, if reluctantly so in the beginning.
Set in the back end of the Ozarc mountains, Winter’s Bone takes us into a world that movies don’t visit too often and such is the attention to detail that, despite the obviously rich dramatisation, Winter’s Bone at least feels very authentic. As such, writer-director Debra Granik is able to, quite sneakily, make the experience of that world as central to the movie as the plot is. She allows the film to rest on those moments that distinguish the characters’ way of life from their socialising and their dialogue even to the manner in which they get their food. There’s no doubt that this makes for a more engaging film but at times, she and her co-writer Anne Rosellini go too far with the regional dialogue. Making it centre stage and stretching its use beyond that which seems probable eventually takes too much attention away from the plot and the film can lose momentum from time to time. Her direction shows greater sturdiness making maximum use of a minimal budget by utilising the bleak landscape of wintertime Missouri to enhance the coldness of the script and frame the entire film with a desolation and wildness. The sense of outsiderness in Ree’s community is thus accentuated as, more and more, we get the feeling that these people have been, at best, living in parallel with the rest of the 21st century.
This is a dark portrayal of a way of life so palpable and so fraught with foreboding that it feels more like a thriller than a drama. But a drama it is for the essence of the story is Ree’s strength of purpose. Refusing to feel sorry for her predicament, she soldiers through the film driven by an unwilting desire to do what her family need her to do. It could make for a rather plain performance in the wrong hands but so dexterous is Lawrence that she’s able to reveal enough nuances as she goes to give Ree’s focused pursuit some genuine texture.
The edge to this film is provided by its support cast with Hawkes showing yet again why he’s one of America’s most underrated actors in an intense but well judged turn as the vicious but ultimately caring uncle. Dale Dickey is similarly impressive as the battle axe matron of a powerful local family and while her character’s actions get a little silly towards the end, she helps substantially in painting the film’s more menacing tones. Winter’s Bone isn’t the easiest watch given its no holes barred storyline and bleak direction but it’s deeply compelling and, regardless of its few missteps, it carries you right through to the end. It ran out a deserved winner of 2010’s Sundance Festival’s Grand Jury Prize and helped make the career of one of acting’s brightest talents but be warned, Walton’s Mountain it ain’t!
Rating: The Good – 81.9 Genre: Western Duration: 118 mins Director: George Stevens Stars: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin
Alan Ladd is the archetypal hero in George Stevens’ cracking western about a wandering gun fighter who finds a home as a labourer with a small farming family who are been intimated off their land by a nasty cattle baron and his dangerous right hand man Jack Palance. It’s a slow burner but not difficult to stick with thanks to the solid performances (Ladd and Palance were never better) and that awesome cinematography courtesy of Loyal Griggs. Of course, Shane is also one of the best movies to address the construct of bravery and strength and while the majority of its themes are realised in a quiet but overt manner, some are much more subtly drawn. This makes Shane a truly rewarding watch. There are so many little things to admire about this movie too but to point out one, check out that final showdown and the sound Ladd’s gun makes a millisecond after it’s been drawn. Completely out of kilter with what for long periods is a quiet and restful film, it must surely represent one of cinema’s most effective uses of sound.
Rating: The Good – 92.7 Genre: Drama, Mystery Duration: 119 mins Director: Orson Welles Stars: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore
Orson Welles’ astonishing debut sits at the top of many critics’ list of greatest films and it’s not difficult to see why if you bear in mind that nearly everything that Welles tried in the shooting of this picture was new and previously untried. Citizen Kane follows the story of Charles Foster Kane who torn away from his family as a child grows up to be one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world. The film pieces together in seamless fashion the clues to explain the dark reaches of this man’s psyche all in an attempt to explain one of cinema’s greatest mysteries, the meaning of his last words. Welles’ acting is simply thunderous as he embodies the essence of ruthless success and there isn’t one member of the supporting cast that lets the side down. However, it’s the technical aspects to this film that make it so very special. Every scene in this film was masterfully conceived from Welles’ use of lighting and camera angles to the editing that knitted them all together. Citizen Kane is nothing short of an explosive celebration of cinematic innovation that more than any film before it or since changed the medium forever.