Rating: The Good – 83.1 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 99mins Director: Joel & Ethan Coen Stars: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya
The Coen Brothers’ debut and arguably their signature film stars Ray Hedaya as a wealthy but jealous bar owner who hires a seedy private detective (M. Emmet Walsh), firstly, to confirm that his younger wife (Francis McDormand) is having an affair with his employee (John Getz) but eventually, to kill them both. As you’d expect from the Coens, there are lots of ins and lots of outs in this story and, combined with the seductive dialogue, it makes for a compelling modern film noir that ranks among the best of the genre. Appropriate also to the genre is Barry Sonnenfeld’s atmospheric photography and the way in which the wider setting (in this case Texas) becomes a character in the story in and of itself (ditto Carter Burwell’s seeping score). The cast are uniformly excellent with McDormand, Walsh, and Hedaya being particularly memorable. Hedaya for his part has never been better and would easily run away with the film if it wasn’t for the caliber of his co-stars. Blood Simple is as atmospheric as movies get and there isn’t a single feature of the production that a movie buff wouldn’t relish. Most importantly, however, is the fact that it’s an electric story with more twists and turns than a bag full of corkscrews.
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 – 77.1 Genre: Crime Duration: 98 mins Director: John Dahl Stars: Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper, Lara Flynn Boyle
It may have been forgotten over the years but John Dahl’s moody thriller is about as good as it gets. Back when he was one of the most interesting actors on the scene, Nicolas Cage took the lead role in this neo noir as a former marine drifting through the town of Red Rock when he gets mistaken for a hitman by a bar owner (J.T. Walsh) who wants to do away with his wife. (Laura Flynn Boyle). Broke and out of gas, he takes the money with the intention of warning the wife and leaving town but it’s not long before the real hitman shows up in the form of the not surprisingly unhinged Dennis Hopper.
In a town straight out of a Coen Bros. film, Cage soon finds himself up to his neck in double crosses and murder to the point that you won’t know where he’s going to end up. Dahl’s soft atmospheric lighting sets an intuitive backdrop for all those unravelling plans and slippery loyalties. Cage is an outstanding rube with just enough about him to stay one step ahead of them while Flynn Boyle was born to play an out and out femme fatale. Walsh does what he always did so well though his nastiness is nicely tempered by a doubt and trepidation that his other villains were not often afforded. Of course, Hopper owns the screen when he’s sharing it but he doesn’t give us an undiluted lunatic. Like everyone else in Red Rock, he’s motivated by money and quite rational about how he’s going to get it. Sure, if he gets the squeeze his trigger all the better!
There’s a luscious script beating at the heart of all the action infused with the outlaw romance of the west as Dahl and his brother Rick reveal a keen ear for the way people talk when in trouble. Red Rock West is what you get when all the ambitions are in the right place and everyone is clear on their role and tailor-made for the job. A thriller pure of focus and rich in theme.
Rating: The Good – 91.8 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 100 mins Director: Alex Proyas Stars: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly
This is one of those films that is so conceptually and aesthetically stunning that it can hit you like a freight train if you’re not expecting it. And isn’t that one of the great joys of cinema? Alex Proyas’ film has been described as a Kafkaesque sci-fi noir and it very much is. It begins in a strange grimy hotel room where John Murdoch wakes up to find a dead prostitute on his floor and a group of sinister men pursuing him. His escape brings us into a world that seems at odds with everything we know and expect. It quickly transpires that Murdoch isn’t quite normal himself and may even have abilities akin to those of the strangers who are following him.
For a film that was always going to repel mainstream audiences who demand conventional narratives and accessible plots it’s amazing at how much money seems to have gone into this. The production design is truly awe-inspiring and combined with Proyas’ dark vision it becomes psyche affecting. The script is electric and is as honest an attempt to live up to the potentials of science fiction as you’ll find. It presents us with highly defined yet idiosyncratic characters who are cast to perfection. William Hurt and Jennifer Connelly are excellent but it’s Kiefer Sutherland’s Dr. Schreber and Rufus Sewell’s Murdoch who are so utterly captivating. Sutherland nails his character and is responsible for much of the film’s thrust, while Sewell is immense in an altogether more difficult role. Proyas’ direction is slick and intense employing quick cuts with sharp angles to get the most out his extraordinarily lit and shadow friendly sets.
Dark City is a monumental piece of science-fiction that pre-dated The Matrix by a year but went well beyond that film in its scope and daring. Ultimately, the best thing you can say about Dark City is that it achieves that holy grail of science fiction movies. A film that looks and feels like nothing that came before it or since. Utterly utterly sublime.
Rating: The Good – 76.8 Genre: Action, Black Comedy Duration: 103 mins Director: Shane Black Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan
A playful action comedy with an ability to shift towards darker gears is what we got when seminal action writer Shane Black stepped behind the camera to resurrect the careers of two of Hollywood’s most interesting would-be leads. Robert Downey Jr. stars as a New York thief hiding out in Hollywood who gets caught up in a noir style mystery involving his former high school crush (Michelle Monaghan) and Val Kilmer’s gay private detective.
As much as this film’s curiosity and success rests on its novel story, riff-abundant script, and fairytale like narration, the three leads are in smashing form. A natural chemistry among the cast is a gift for any action director because it can breathe additional layers of life into the necessary action set pieces and Black found himself triply blessed here as Downey Jr., Kilmer, and Monaghan reflect the best trio since Gibson, Glover, and Pesci. The story is a purposeful mash up of those that the great detective noirs served up replete with converging subplots and dark subject matters. Ever in cheeky mode though, Black spins the character archetypes on their head and none more so than Downey’s central hero who is more Jack Burton than Mike Hammer. This or course only adds to his charm as the movie’s narrator and, for his part, Downey is in commanding form and perfectly self-deprecating – in line with where his career was at the time.
If anything, Kilmer is better as the sarcastic detective batting for the other team. Though his character’s sexuality is the basis for most of his jokes, Black occasionally shows a subtler touch when he uses it to merely inform the comedy background. Purposefully avoiding one character stereotype only to unwittingly embrace another is the definition of self-defeating but thankfully, Kilmer’s impeccable timing and natural presence compensates and he gives us one of the better characters Hollywood has offered up in recent years – an original and interesting good guy and wickedly funny to boot. Far from being eclipsed by any male double act, Monaghan is just as quirky and even more charming. Moreover, by virtue of the story’s construction, it’s usually up to her to carry the story forward and she combined her dual roles with an effortless vibrance.
Black’s direction deserves some comment given it was his first time taking the reigns and though he allows the self-referential narration to ironically interfere with the narrative rather than aid its progression, the visual profile of the movie is flush with personality. Aaron Osbourne’s production design combined with Michael Barrett’s photography gives L.A. a modern fairytale quality in keeping with the themes of the story. The action sequences too are well handled thanks to some innovative ideas and deft editing. However, the most impressive feature of Black’s helmsmanship is perhaps his ability to change the tone of the movie without warning. There’s a moment when Downey confronts a heartless hitman – who had previously pulled off his recently sewn on finger in a nihilistically amusing episode – and it chills to the bone. It adds gravitas to the overall experience and enriches the film’s homage to the great noir. And in doing so, it rounds off this little gem in admirable style.
Rating: The Good – 85.2 Genre: Crime Duration: 112 mins Director: Robert Altman Stars: Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden
Stunning, audacious, daring, provocative, ingenious are only some of the adjectives one could aptly use to describe Robert Altman’s affectionate parody of the Raymond Chandler novel. Elliott Gould is in the form of his career as the famous P.I. Phillip Marlowe but his isn’t the type of portrayal we saw from Bogart, Powell, or even Mitchum. His is a scruffy, wearily bemused, mischievous, and ultimately more complicated Marlowe. In fact, some may argue that this last similarity makes him more akin to Chandler’s notion. As as is typical for any of the Marlowes though, this one gets embroiled in a couple of cases that may or may not be related to the apparent suicide of his friend who was on the run for the murder of his wife. And as Marlowe carries out his own investigation he discovers some dark secrets that ultimately lead to a spectacular conclusion that brings this beloved character full circle from the point at which he was first created on paper.
There are no two ways about it – Gould is just sensational as the mumbling detective who lives with his cat and across from a hippy commune of naked women. As we’d expect, he handles the satirical element of Altman’s project effortlessly but that he manages to channel the purest understanding of Marlowe while doing so is really quite stunning. For much of the time the world-weariness that defined Mitchum’s turn in Farewell My Lovely seems to determine everything Gould’s Marlowe does and is likely to do (albeit in a less pessimistic manner) but, at key moments, the unique sense of justice which defined the detective on paper can be felt simmering – until one exquisite moment when it explodes! The supporting cast is also fantastic from Sterling Hayden who improvised most his lines to Mark Rydell as the seriously eccentric and equally terrifying mobster (you know it’s a scary performance when it even manages to blot out a pre-stardom Arnold Schwarzenegger as his henchman).
As usual, Altman’s documentary-like style adds a captivating quality to the proceedings and there is much fun to be had as he repeatedly tips his hat to old and new Hollywood alike. It’s a daring piece of film-making that paints a rich picture of L.A. both seedy and romantic and makes intuitive use of Leigh Brackett’s marvelously attentive screenplay. Given it’s commentary on the genre, it might strike one as a curious film to include among the great noir works but, in actuality, The Long Goodbye stands alongside the great films-noirs regardless of (or perhaps even because of) its ability to step outside the genre and look in.
Rating: The Good – 77.4 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 110 mins Director: Stephen Frears Screenplay: Donald E. Westlake Stars: Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Bening
The Grifters is a darkly spun story about three confidence artists that borders on black comedy. John Cusack and Anjelica Huston play son and mother respectively who are both on the grift and both estranged from one another. Their paths cross when she is sent to Los Angeles to work one of the local tracks. This gives Cusack’s lady friend Annette Bening, herself a grifter, some ideas on running a scam of her own. The film is shot in traditional noir style with Stephen Frears directing and Martin Scorsese (who was originally down to direct) as producer. The dialogue is as sharp as you’d expect from a modern noir with shades of David Mamet’s style in places. Being a long-time fan of Jim Thompson’s novel, John Cusack is in fine form as the young con-man who is caught between two titans of the art who both use their experience and feminine wiles to pull him this way and that. Huston and Bening are utterly superb as said titans and Pat Hingle puts in a nasty turn as the overtly ridiculous Bobo Justus.
Rating: The Ugly – 60.1 Genre: Thriller, Crime Duration: 102 mins Director: Kathryn Bigelow Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ron Silver, Clancy Brown
Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red teamed up so perfectly on Near Dark that it seemed a cinch they’d do it again but unfortunately this uneven story about a female police office who is targeted by a deranged stalker falls well short of the mark. There are too many sub-plots most of which are rushed and some of which are laughably realised and at times Ron Silver really hams it up as the bad guy. However, the main story which pits Jamie Lee Curtis and the always excellent Clancy Brown against Silver’s lunatic obsessive is actually quite interesting. Furthermore, it’s a wonderfully shot movie with some brilliantly staged night time sequences adding significantly to the atmosphere. Thus, despite some considerable failings, one feels strangely compelled to forgive it – but only barely.
Rating: The Good – 74.8 Genre: Drama, Crime Duration: 103 mins Director: Paul Schrader Stars: Willem Dafoe, Susan Sarandon, Dana Delany, Sam Rockwell
Fascinating noirish drama that signals the high point in Paul Schrader’s directorial career. This unique film experience perfectly captures the subtle sense of foreboding that accompanies a high class drug dealer (Willem Dafoe) as a particular seedy chapter in his life is coming to a close. The different aspects to this internal struggle are mirrored in various ways from the garbage on the city streets to Michael Been’s haunting soundtrack that repeatedly fades in and out of the film. Dafoe is utterly convincing in the lead role (so much so that it may even be his most complete performance) while Susan Sarandon is terrific as his seemingly caring boss. Everything about this film feels new and (from the point of view of other films) unexplored, from the characters to the particulars of their personal dilemmas. In a medium where true novelty is the rarest of flowers that alone makes this film worth watching but in this case, it’s only one of myriad reasons.
Rating: The Good – 78.9 Genre: Crime, Neo-Noir Duration: 110 mins Director: John Dahl Stars: Linda Fiorentino, Peter Berg, Bill Pullman
Smokey, sultry, and a 24 carat bitch, Linda Fiorentino takes the femme fatale concept to a whole other level in this outstanding made-for-tv John Dahl feature. She stars as a devious manipulator who flees to a small town outside Buffulo while on the run from her slightly deranged husband (Bill Pulman’s finest performance). Peter Berg is the small town guy with big city aspirations who is enchanted by Fiorentino’s sophisticated grittiness and ultimately becomes the central pawn in her attempt to rid herself of all her problems at once. Everyone involved in The Last Seduction acts their pants off (in many cases that’s a literal truth) and Steve Barancik’s script sizzles as the likes of Fiorentino, Pullman, and the late great J.T. Walsh revel in its delivery. Berg plays the perfect rube throughout managing to be even less savvy than William Hurt in the not dissimilar Body Heat. Dahl’s atmospheric stamp is all over the look and sound of the film as shadow, eye lighting, and cigarette smoke combine with Barancik’s dialogue and Joeseph Vitarelli’s cheeky score to tie it all together into such a nice little package that you’ll find yourself revisiting this modern noir gem time and time again.
Rating: The Good – 90.5 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 117 mins Director: Ridley Scott Stars: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young
Few films can be truly described as seminal and Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic would intuitively seem like a prime candidate given the fact that it has become a landmark in science fiction. However, truth be told, it is such a singular achievement that nobody seems to have known how to pick up where Scott and company left off. Though many would argue that Alien is Scott’s crowning achievement, many directors proved capable of at least emulating the industrial sci-fi vibe which he forged in that film, resulting in a traceable sea change right across the genre. Blade Runner had no such obvious effects and when one takes in the breadth of both its technical and conceptual complexity one begins to suspect that it is because nobody knew how Scott did exactly what he did.
Based on a Philip K. Dick story, Blade Runner is set in a future when evolution in robotic technology has produced genetically engineered robots or ‘replicants’ which are almost completely indistinguishable from humans. When four of the most advanced and dangerous replicants escape their enslavement and make it to Earth, one of the few crack investigators (called ‘Blade Runners’) who can identify them is forced out of retirement to track them down and eliminate them.
Blade Runner is a spectacular film graced with sublime production design, unrivaled visual effects, and that mesmerising Vangelis score. However, it’s the qualitative experience of Scott’s futuristic vision that is so utterly captivating and such an experience can only be achieved when every aspect of the film-making process is pitch perfect. The actors from Harrison Ford as the Blade Runner to the improvisational Rutger Hauer as the nastiest of the replicants are totally in tune with the proceedings and provide that final touch of mastery to what surely must be one of the most impressive science fictions films ever made. It’s not always an easy watch because this is a darkly heavy and profoundly existential film. But stick with it and you’ll never forget it.
Rating: The Good – 80.5 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 100 mins Director: Arthur Penn Stars: Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Susan Clark
Truly excellent thriller starring Gene Hackman as a struggling private detective who after finding out his wife is having an affair, takes on the job of tracking down and bringing home a rich woman’s runaway daughter (a young Melanie Griffith). Arthur Penn’s film tells a very low key yet thoroughly engaging story and he keeps just the right distance between the audience and main characters to subtly reel the former in. The plot is reasonably dramatic but the more interesting drama lies in between the lines and everyone from the director, to the writer Alan Sharp, to the outstanding cast do their bit to ensure it remains murky and ambiguous throughout. Penn’s brave decision to let this one play itself out was very much in keeping with that goal and the result is an unorthodox film-noir with a very unique feel. In many respects, there are two stories being told here and Sharp’s clever screenplay and Penn’s unwavering hand do well to keep them intertwined. The attempt to resolve both stories together may come across as a little rushed but the abrupt acceleration and deceleration of pace really grabs the attention and so Night Moves closes in memorable style.