Category Archives: Morality

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Sicario (2015) 4.14/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77
Genre: Crime
Duration: 121 mins
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro

Cold and sinister narco-thriller with Emily Blunt top-lining as a FBI agent recruited by the CIA for a series of clandestine operations against a powerful Mexican cartel. As the missions begin to increasingly circumvent the law, the beleaguered agent grows suspicious of Josh Brolin’s lead agent and ever fearful of his mysterious cartel expert, Benicio Del Toro. After an admirable attempt in Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve succeeds in crafting a morally bleak thriller with sufficient traction and believability to keep the audience engrossed all the way through. The war on drugs is articulated almost completely through the actions of the protagonists. The drama is shot with a slow-thudding realism while the dialogue chills the story a couple degrees lower. Left of centre to the plot, Blunt is subtly magnificent as she manages to stay relevant even while her character is necessarily marginalised. On the other side of things, Brolin is quietly having a ball but Del Toro is just plain scary. The narco-wars are very much in vogue at the moment but on several occasions, Sicario peels off a layer or two and reels us towards a world not often seen. Yes, the narrative moves inescapably towards Hollywood’s notion of closure but there are a sufficient number of unfamiliar twists and turns to intrigue the most ardent fans. Roger Deacons’ crisp textures and contrasts are central to this experience as is Joe Walker’s editing but it’s Villeneuve’s steely focus that makes this so darkly compelling.

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American Sniper (2014) 3.29/5 (1)

 

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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.

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Rolling Thunder (1977) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 83.4
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Duration: 95 mins
Director: John Flynn
Stars: William Devane, Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Haynes

As good a thriller as the 70’s offered up, Rolling Thunder is damn near perfect. The ever cool William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones play two POW’s who, after returning home, find life as torturous as their imprisonment was. Things get steadily worse for the hard boiled Major Charles Rane (Devane) when his wife and son are murdered by a gang of home invaders who also take his hand. Devane gives a smouldering performance as a man who has “learned to love” torture as a means to surviving it. A young Tommy Lee Jones is sensational as the equally stoic Johnny who ultimately helps him to exact his revenge. John Flynn allows this masterpiece to develop at its own pace building the film not around the inevitable action but rather the drama that comes with a man who is pushed to the brink but never breaks. The parallels between Rane’s time in captivity and the life he has returned to are repeatedly drawn but never explicitly so, ensuring that the viewer discovers something new on each viewing. Thus, the more one watches this gem the better it gets. “Let’s go clean ‘em up”.

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Death Wish (1974) 3.33/5 (3)

 

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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!

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The Offence (1972) 4.24/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.8
Genre: Crime, Drama
Duration: 112 mins
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Sean Connery, Trevor Howard, Vivien Merchant

Sidney Lumet is not a man you’d expect to direct a dark psychological drama set in the north of England but The Offence is in many ways one his most brilliant films. Sean Connery plays a hard case veteran detective whose most recent case has finally pushed him past his breaking point. What follows is a dark and disturbing exploration of a scarred and tormented psyche. Connery is superb in a role that shoulders most of the drama and together with Lumet’s gritty direction they slowly reel the audience into that psyche resulting in a fascinating yet deeply uncomfortable experience.

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Deliverance (1972) 4.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.4
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 110 mins
Director: John Boorman
Stars: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty

Four weekend warriors attempt to kayak a great southern river in its final days before it’s diverted to a hydropower plant. However, their cockiness and petty snipes at the inbred locals are soon turned on their head when two of the men are accosted by said locals and one of them is viciously raped. Forced into acts of murder to survive, their trip becomes a personal exploration of guilt, anger, and fear. Boorman crafts a haunting and disturbing tale that in no small way parallels the arrogance of modern life with the cruel indifference of nature. But he makes no judgments as he does it and that is the true lasting strength of the film. The four men were excellently cast and each do their part. Jon Voight was the straight man, Burt Reynolds the tough guy, Ned Beatty the arrogant victim, and Ronny Cox played the more sensitive of the four. This isn’t an easy watch because it’s as much a primal scream at the times it was made in as it is a thriller. Nonetheless it works equally well as both.

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The Letter (1940) 4.71/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 80.6
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 95 mins
Director: William Wyler
Stars: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson

From its exquisite opening scene in which a sleepy plantation is sharply awoken by an impeccably dressed Bette Davis gunning down a late night visitor, William Wyler’s The Letter lures us into it a wispy world of pretense and fettered emotion. Playing the well-to-do wife of a Singapore plantation owner who must defend herself for the killing of a man she claimed made unwelcomed advances, Davis was at the peak of an unparalleled run of successful screen turns and she harnesses all that confidence to shoulder the movie. A tantalising balance of threat and vulnerability, she commands the camera when it’s on her. As her legal council in her inevitable prosecution, James Stephenson goes a long way to match her as a source of conflict while providing a moral lens through which we can examine Davis’ actions. Gordon Kahn’s flawless screenplay centres around the initial murder that, in the absence of any Rashoman-like reconstructions, verbally retells it several times as new evidence comes to light. It’s a deft piece of writing that gives tangibility to the story during such transitory moments. Wyler crafts it all to exacting standards, lighting and shooting critical scenes in a noir aesthetic that rivals the best while affording the remainder of the film a lush profile highly complementary of the narrative. A genuine classic!

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Coherence (2013) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.6
Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller
Duration: 89 mins
Director: James Ward Byrkit
Stars: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon

The kind of nimble science fiction that makes hardcore genre fans giddy with excitement is a rare event and one that usually emerges within independent cinema where brains are relied on more than visual effects. Coherence is one such movie. When a group of friends meet in one of their homes for a dinner party, a passing comet causes a power-cut which sets in motion a disturbing unravelling of their reality. Though further revealing of the plot will detract from the experience, suffice to say that loyalties are tested, relationships realigned, and soon everyone finds themselves doing things they never thought they were capable of – precisely because they are worried that they might be! If that doesn’t twist your melon enough, then sit down to the full 90 minutes and you’ll be suitably dizzy by the end. Made over five nights and on a shoestring budget, writer director James Ward Byrkit and his crew nonetheless manufacture an eerie psychological thriller, shot, cut, and produced to a rather plush standard. To that end, restricting the drama largely to the house in question was a crafty decision but, by generating a sense of claustrophobia, it also ends up augmenting the power of the movie’s premise. A premise that the cast, a complementary roster of familiar faces from 90’s TV, are all tied into extremely well and who are instantly successful in their roles of leader, trouble-maker, wacky one, etc. That said, not one of them fails to round off their central character dimensions with a compelling degree of humanity. Where Coherence will inevitably and rather ironically be targeted by demanding sci-fi fans will be in the moments of incoherence that naturally accrue within a complex plot. This is not always an empty criticism though, for a film that requires heavy investment from its audience has an onus to keep it straight. But in the case of this one, there are precious few plot-holes to be concerned with and so Coherence can be considered one of those few modern movies that picks up where the “Twilight Zone” left off and helps carry the baton for all of science fiction.

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Fury (2014) 3.86/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 73
Genre: War, Action
Duration: 134 mins
Director: David Ayer
Stars: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman

Writer-director David Ayer’s gnarly actioner follows a WWII US tank crew as they take the war with Germany into the inferno of the crumbling Third Reich. Led by their legendary commander “Wardaddy” (a well seasoned Brad Pitt), their adventures repeatedly morph between a muse of personal and social reflection to a high intensity, mechanised struggle for survival. The WWII action genre saw its heyday come and go in the 1960’s and 70’s and the self conscious stylising of recent cinema has struggled to match the story-telling power of yesteryear’s movies. Perhaps the genre benefited from being made by people who had lived and even fought through the war or at least grew up in its aftermath but whatever the reason, glossy effects and hollow moral messages being shoved down the audience’s throats does this species of film no favours.

Fury is certainly a modern movie, powered forward as it is by stirring score and moments of earnest soul-searching. The fortune cookie meaning of war is given much consideration as Ayer tentatively paints the objective and subjective pursuit of its endeavours in a mismatch of Christian duty and cliched nihilism. Any caricatures, and there are plenty, are drawn along those theme lines from Shia LaBeouf’s lay preacher to Joe Bernthal’s monosyllabic cutthroat. However, despite such tedious trappings of the modern war movie, Fury achieves and maintains substantial traction in the hearts and minds of the audience and rolls forward menacingly to a more than pleasing close. Pitt’s honed presence is certainly a determining factor in this as he sidesteps the cliches associated with the trope of hardened platoon leader but it’s primarily the grit of Ayer’s directing and the unpretentious bite of the overall story that allows this movie to survive its more wooden screenplay. Nothing is dwelled on. Like the guys in the tank, Ayer just gets on with it and, in doing so, succeeds in unfolding a simple canvas of coherent action sequences from beginning to end. A truly unerring momentum and ever darkening tone transforms his depiction of war-torn Germany into a nascent underworld of hellish mythology more akin to something Dante would dream up than a Hollywood director. It’s an emphatic triumph for Ayer and one that marks his full evolution from writer of substance to director of note. Steven Price’s relentless hum of a score will prompt much admiration too and the ensemble cast as a whole remains interesting and worthy of our support. Overall, Fury counts as a rare success for a modern WWII action-retrospective.

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All the King’s Men (1949) 3.72/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.5
Genre: Drama
Duration: 110 mins
Director: Robert Rossen
Stars: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru

John Ireland takes a rare centre billing as the passionate young reporter who is determined to make it without the help of his step-father’s wealth. When he learns of a local hick come political candidate standing up to the power brokers of a small town, the journalist and that politician’s paths become one, not to mention, a cautionary tale of the temptations of power. A more gritty and serious take on the subject matter of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, All the King’s Men is a pull no punches look at the yearning for power and the Shakespearian demise inherent in its pursuit. Broderick Crawford is the headstrong politician Willie Stark with the baseball bat ambition and total absence of scruples and he dominates the film. Ireland is unsurprisingly weak in the lead and is probably the primary reason why this movie’s popularity failed to display the longevity of other classics. But outside of the acting and Robert Rossen’s (adapted from Penn Miller’s novel) cynical screenplay which simply exudes unapologetic exploitation, it’s Rossen’s cultured touch behind the camera that marks this movie above most. Allowing context to breathe and grow, his film is defined by the power of setting-influenced perspective. This is best seen in the contrast between Ireland’s childhood home, Burden’s Landing, an island of wealth and security aloof from the sharp consequential world of politics which its most wealthy inhabitants still manage to determine. Rossen strikes a fine tuned balance between the otherworldly qualities of Burden’s Landing and the cut throat political scene. The former hazy with childlike mythos and naive optimism, the latter strewn with the grit and deceit of the great noirs. With an island named “Burden’s Landing”, it will come as no surprise that metaphor plays a sometimes heavy handed role in exacting the movie’s themes but it seems to curiously resonate with the naivety of the place rendering their harshness more forgivable. On the dramatic front, Rossen’s film is flush with political intrigue and offers a an up close and personal examination of the mechanism of US politics that probably hasn’t changed much since the era of its making.

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Hard Eight (1996) 4/5 (2)

 

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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.

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A Most Violent Year (2014) 4.5/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.3
Genre: Drama, Crime
Duration: 125 mins
Director: J.C. Chandor
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Al Brooks

The rise and further rise of writer-director J.C. Chandor continues with this bleak morality play about a resolute family man (Oscar Isaac) attempting to build an honest company in the crooked world of home oil delivery. When his trucks are repeatedly hijacked, he must resist pressure from both his mob-daughter wife (Jessica Chastain) and his desperate business partner (Al Brooks) to adopt the violent practices of the business while simultaneously trying to save the biggest deal of his life. The story plays out in 1981 New York, a historical high point in the city’s crime statistics and against this backdrop, his determined decency seems at odds with everything around him and the plot hinges entirely on his ability to maintain an even keel.

Chandor approaches this one as stoically as he did All is Lost, a 106 minute long film about a man alone on a sinking boat, and that’s saying something given the multitude of characters that we encounter here. However, because he approaches them consistently from the perspective of Isaac’s self-made man and because he is a lone island in troubled waters, the film evokes a heavy loneliness from the middle of the first act onwards. Shot in the flat lighting of the gritty 1970’s and 80’s New York crime thrillers, Chandor seamlessly conflates his film’s moody aesthetic with its central theme and then simply drops Isaac smack in the middle. The director clearly knew he had an actor who was up to the task. It’s a calm but powerful turn that maintains a razor sharp edge despite his character’s inherent inability to intimidate. That edge is no doubt tempered by Chastain’s spiky performance as the increasingly impatient other half who may take matters into her own hands at any minute and, to be fair, she supports the film substantially despite her character’s necessary marginalisation. Brooks puts in solid shift too and a host of lesser know actors fill out the rest of the cast with varying degrees of pathos and personality.

It’s far from an energised ride and the plot coalesces in a severely unorthodox manner but A Most Violent Year develops an intrigue that many dramas lack. Right now, US cinema is going through a renewed phase of self-discovery and so singular films like this one will pop up from time to time, uninfluenced by what came before and unlikely to have much affect on what follows. But for discerning film-goers, they represent a special kind of treat and should be approached accordingly.

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