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.
Rating: The Good – 76 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 101 mins Director: Danny Boyle Stars: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel
A suave and tricksy thriller detailing a heist mob’s unconventional attempt to hypnotically uncover the location of a stolen painting amidst emotional turbulence and full-blown crises of identity. Trance offers the best and worst of mercurial director Danny Boyle at about a 30/70 split. Stunningly shot and soundtracked to Rick Smith’s pulsing melodies, it sets out to explicitly defy narrative convention and treat us to a razzle-dazzle experience over old fashioned storytelling. Though we’ve seen attempts like this before, what Trance lacks in originality it makes up for in burning focus and unflinching persistence. And with James McAvoy and the always splendid Rosario Dawson mischievously wrapped up in the deep dark psychological hijinks, the experiment is only enriched. But trippy entertainment only goes so far and with the plot hoisted so brazenly atop of Boyle’s sacrificial alter, not even actors of their class and magnetism can keep us invested in the manner we’d expect and desire from a clever heist thriller.
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 – 75.8 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.
Rating: The Good – 83.6 Genre: Crime Duration: 122 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson
Michael Mann’s seminal crime thriller focuses on James Caan’s master thief who, in an effort to attain the family he always wanted, eschews his independence and reluctantly agrees to work for a crime king-pin (Robert Prosky) only to find himself locked into an interminable contract. Caan rated this as his best performance outside of Sonny Corleone and he is utterly mesmerising as the balls-of-steel Frank who is willing to sacrifice everything rather than lie down for anyone. Prosky is immense as the old mobster who can switch from genial father-figure to ruthless monster at the drop of a hat. Thief has all the trademarks of the great Mann films. The ultra-real dialogue, the technical proficiency of the criminals, a subtle yet powerful score (courtesy of Tangerine Dream), and slick night time shots of Chicago’s mean streets. Moreover, Mann’s films are often based on the study of obsession and disciplined dedication to one’s craft and nowhere is this better realised than here. The set pieces are as innovative and disciplined as we’ve come across and when combined with the searing performances and inspired dialogue, it becomes truly captivating. Thief is a crime classic and arguably one of the genre’s greatest representatives. It achieves a gritty realism that movies of that genre are always in search of but rarely attain.
Rating: The Good – 83.4 Genre: Thriller, Drama Duration: 95mins 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”.
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 – 75.8 Genre: Crime, Film-Noir Duration: 100 mins Director: Raoul Walsh Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, Alan Curtis
The same year John Huston and Humphrey Bogart were to make their big splash with The Maltese Falcon, they preceded it with this collaboration but with Raoul Walsh at the helm. Bogie stars as the career criminal, Roy Earle, recently pardoned and heading straight for the Sierras for the biggest score of his life. On arriving there, he finds his volatile young partners fighting over the street-smart Ida Lupino while becoming enamoured of a crippled girl who reminds of him of his old family’s country stock. The story is a little stretched and Earl’s hard exterior could probably have been penetrated without the extended subplot concerning the young girl and her family which pulls against the tension of the darker scenes rather than offering an effective contrast. It’s a pity too because the planning and execution of the heist is wonderfully put together juiced up by the sultry presence of Lupino and hardbitten grit of Bogie at his most intimidating. The turns of phrase, the simmering of violent urges, the psychology of the criminal relationships, and the action sequences all furnish High Sierra with the most important elements of the classic noirs and result in some hair-raising confrontations. The memorable ending involving the police’s mountain pursuit of Earl is also terrifically staged and would’ve provided an even more effective end-point to a more streamlined script. In the end, Huston can chalk it off to experience because his next film was to be a veritable masterclass in the funnelling of plot but High Sierra still offers much more than most crime thrillers from that era.
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.
Rating: The Good – 75.5 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 71 mins Director: Ida Lupino Stars: Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman
Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy play two buddies whose fishing trip takes a nasty turn when they pick up William Talman’s murderous hitchhiker. As one of the first women to step behind a camera in Hollywood, Ida Lupino blazed a cinematic trail by penning and directing this relentless film-noir and the fact that it was loosely based on a real story of the time makes the drama all the more chilling. O’Brien and Lovejoy are terrific in different ways and give their characters a believable chemistry. Talmam on the other hand is truly intimidating as the sadistic serial killer with far too many points to prove. It’s the characterisations that make this story so telling with the final scene being particularly perceptive. Lupino does as well behind the camera as she builds an increasingly uncomfortable tension with every passing frame until that breathless finale. The Hitch-Hiker is dark cinema even for the heyday of film-noir but its textbook construction and acting make it just as compelling.
Rating: The Good – 89.4 Genre: Jidaigeki, Drama Duration: 162 mins Director: Akira Kurosawa Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken’ichi Hagiwara
Uniquely stunning psychological drama about a lowly thief and uncanny double for one of feudal Japan’s most powerful daimyos and his inwardly crushing effort to assume the place at the head of that great Lord’s armies after the latter is secretly assassinated. Akira Kurosawa’s lesser known masterpiece translating as “The Shadow Warrior”, is a soulful examination of character backdropped against starkly visceral concepts of death and afterlife set amidst some of the best choreographed action sequences on Kurosawa’s CV. Tatsuya Nakadai turns in yet another mind-blowing central performance as both the mighty General Takeda Shingen (known as “the Mountain) and his eventual impersonator, seamlessly deconstructing both his characters so that their boundaries ultimately phase in and out much like the film’s wider treatment of life and death, reality and unreality. As is usually the case with Kurosawa’s feudal epics, the story is overflowing with rich support players brought to life by a splendid cast with the boisterousness and social deference that has defined the quintessential jidaigeki performances. The historical context tantalises Kurosawa’s corporeal tome as the fascinating intrigue of the era imbues the plot with a steady drama. In place of a building tension in plot, the inner journey of Shingen’s “Kagemusha” takes centre stage crystallising in emotionally punctuating moments that exhibits the best of both Nakadai and Kurosawa’s crafts. Shinichirô Ikebe’s haunting score and/or the diegetic sounds of the various battles’ creakings become the glue to these moments leaving Kurosawa’s audacious vision to actualise around them in a manner not easily forgotten. One moment in particular, a mesmerising depiction of the Kagemusha finally “becoming” “the Mountain” in front of his troops and enemy alike, is a perfect coalescence of these smaller workings of genius and this master director’s unmatched broad visual aesthetic. Kagemusha nearly didn’t happen as Toho Studios ran into financial difficulties during production but thankfully George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola stepped in and convinced 20th Century Fox to finance the remainder of the shoot. It’s no small thing to say that despite their own monumental achievements, that assistance still counts among their most important contributions to cinema.
The Conversation is a dark and introspective study of a private surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), whose private life becomes increasingly infected by those traits his profession requires, namely, paranoia and anonymity. When Caul comes to believe that his latest subjects’ lives could be in danger due to his recordings, past anxieties emerge to ultimately tear down the fragile order he has created in his life. Hackman is superb in the lead role and gives a breadth of reality to the deeply idiosyncratic Caul. Furthermore, he is well supported by John Cazale, Harrison Ford, and Robert Duvall. Coppola’s taut direction is at its best here as he assembles and disassembles reality primarily through his use of sound but also through his use of darkly lit interiors and ambiguous dialogue. And it is this ambiguity that dominates the film’s theme as Caul’s overconfidence in words and voices become a lesson in the subjectivity of life. The influence of Japanese cinema is all over this film, particularly in the dream sequences and that memorable final scene which strongly echoes the extraordinary ending to Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom.