Rating: The Good – 77.1 Genre: Drama, Satire Duration: 102 mins Director: Mike Nichols Stars: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Mike Nichols turns his prodigious talent for satire to Aaron Sorkin’s clever adaptation of the true story of a Texas congressman’s attempts to secure the covert military funding that would ultimately tip the balance of the Soviet-Afghan war. Tom Hanks as the unorthadox good-time politician and Philip Seymour Hoffman as his irreverent CIA adviser form one of the best on-screen partnerships in recent decades as they bat Sorkin’s indignantly funny dialogue back and forth while Julia Roberts and Any Adams help to fill out the support roster intelligently rising to the spirit of Sorkin and Nichols’ storytelling as they go. The movie that unfolds is a delight of sardonic wit in both its writing and directing but, in typical Mike Nichols fashion, it effortlessly doubles as an engrossing political drama by perceptibly accounting for geo-political implications and character development alike. Sorkin’s feisty screenplay zips along at its usual pace but Nichols knows exactly when to channel that momentum or temporarily contain it so that its energy is maintained without dumbing down the drama. Unsurprisingly, Wilson comes out smelling like roses but only because Hanks and co. know exactly how to turn those warts into beauty spots and so, like the man himself, Charlie Wilson’s War charms its way into the audience’s hearts.
Rating: The Good – 94.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 122 mins Director: William Friedkin Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Max von Sydow
When a young girl succumbs to an unknown illness, her movie star mother becomes convinced that there are demonic overtones to her convulsions and solicits a conflicted priest to examine her. To his shock, he comes to agree with the mother and turns to seasoned exorcist Max von Sydow to expel the intruder. The Daddy of all horror movies, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is a testament to the power of psychological terror. Turning the horror movie model on its head, this crawling piece of cinema limits its shocks and jolts almost entirely to one room, the girl’s bedroom, but bathes the external drama in a pool of socio-cultural unease. The canon and rituals of Catholicism are fertile ground for sophisticated horror cinema and, though Friedkin and author William Peter Blatty weren’t the first to plough it, most others did so directly on a mythological level. These guys, however, did it through everyday character construction and forensic examination of the intangible touch points between spiritualism and psychological vulnerability, between faith and the harshness of the real world, between taboo and subjectified sacrilege, wincingly subjectified.
Jason Miller’s Father Karras is a vessel of pure intensity as the troubled priest sent in conflicting directions by the doubt and fear that he was already experiencing through a crisis of confidence. Fear and doubt that are monstrously amplified when he’s called into help the girl. Von Sydow is calmer but more visceral in emotional demeanour as he wilfully uses a combination of intellect and profound belief against his nemesis. As the film’s sense of reason, the paranormal side to the story is bolstered all the more because his is an ability to reason against the unthinkable. Linda Blair, under close instruction by her director and with no little help from Mercedes McCambridge’s vocal support, is a bristling package of tortured spite and venom, a relentless abomination, and arguably the bold fella’s most ferocious screen incarnation. But sometimes forgotten in all this is Ellen Burstyn’s distraught mother. Given that little Linda isn’t much in the mood for conversation, Burstyn is the glue that binds together the disparate characters including Lee J. Cobb’s endearing homicide detective. It’s a remarkably levelled turn that is critical to the film’s balance.
Fantastic as the cast are, the movie’s power ultimately comes down to the full-on confrontation with the profane which Friedkin and his writer serve up here so relentlessly. The term “genius” is bandied about a little too freely these days but Friedkin and Blatty’s perceptive (not to mention daring) use of western culture’s deep-wired moral coding to impact the audience beyond the confines of the film was as extraordinary an accomplishment as Kubrick’s final act in 2001. It also laid the groundwork for some of the best horror movies of the last 40 years as that particular trick was exhausted to the point that Hideo Nakata was forced to have his demon actually crawl out of the TV in order to imbue his audience with the requisite sense of intrusion. Blatty’s script swings between the warm and scathingly twisted and spanned across its unpretentious dialogue is a clear idea of what he wants this movie to be. Though, on the issue of unpretentiousness and clarity, no review would get far without mentioning the film’s archetyping use of Mike Oldfield’s haunting Tubular Bells.
But the masterstroke comes courtesy of the director who ensures that the atmosphere and tension are defined primarily within the personal tribulations of his protagonists. At crucial moments, the insanity of the story’s events is snapshot back within the boundaries of the world in which we live as it refocuses around the authenticity of those personal trials. Friedkin complements this by keeping the movie’s visual profile rooted in the gritty lighting of contemporary crime cinema and the warmer production design of a family drama. Unlike most horror movies which can’t resist going ‘big’, at no point does he get sucked towards the absurd of horror porn or supernatural melodrama. And with that, the horror is kept pure and unabated so that, when it spikes, it will chill you to the core of your marrow. A peerless form of dissonant terror that’s even more extremely exemplified in that spider-walking director’s cut. A true classic!
For a film that boasts lots of stars and acting talent, Syriana is a rather more unorthodox thriller than we might expect. Set amid the world of oil trading and based on Robert Baer’s book, it follows Amirs, petroleum executives, senators, high profile lawyers, terrorists, and CIA agents as they engage each other in a global chess match where the tool is geographical instability and the prize is power. The result is a collage of intersecting plots that thrill on a variety of dramatic levels. Political machinations, corporate intrigue, religious extremism, cultural ambition, and personal tribulation all bound together with coherence and momentum.
An ambitious project to be sure but one that succeeds due to a tight script and intelligent directing which combine to give a story of such scale much focus while, at all times, giving the audience the benefit of the doubt. Nothing is spoon-fed here as every deal, negotiation, and conversation is veiled and approached at an angle. Much is left for the audience to work out, a tactic that encourages them to invest in the story. But what really defines Stephen Gaghan’s film is its overarching sense of realism. The plot is allowed to increment forward in a manner where little looks to be happening but where a lot feels like it is. A triumph of efficient directing where each character is embellished richly with a mere half-glance or dinner order. Back-room wheeling and dealing portrayed so incidentally that what would appear outlandish comes across as chillingly real.
And the cast contribute strongly too. George Clooney puts in an Oscar winning turn as a spy very much caught between two worlds and cultures, who is sent to Beirut on CIA business only to be frozen out when things go wrong. Jeffrey Wright is deviousness personified as the Washington lawyer asked by his sinister senior partner Christopher Plummer to take a closer look at a merger between two oil giants, one of which, is headed up by the always excellent Chris Cooper. A host of other top names and some talented newcomers fill out the lesser roles but it’s fair to say everybody plays second fiddle to the intricate plot. That it all plays towards a deeply moving and emotional crescendo is what precludes this almost experimental political burner from unravelling. Instead, it seems to cohere rather impressively and honestly around some unappetising home truths and leave everyone thinking. Impressive indeed.
Rating: The Good – 63.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 118 mins Director: Jim Mickle Stars: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Kelly McGillis
“All that goodness destroyed by some crazy Christians dropping vamps from the sky.” Any movie that can make those words sound unremarkable must surely do a job in (err…) sucking you into whatever messed up world it’s created. In Stake Land, that world is a United States overrun by vampires, cannibals, murderous religious cults, and pockets of humans struggling to survive the bloodsucking apocalypse. Our narrator is Martin, a young man being shepherded though this nightmare landscape by a notorious vampire killer known only as “Mister”. Characters like Mister don’t allow for much in the way of sentiment so what follows is a cruel story where any warmth seems to fight against the wider reality and inevitably fade away. It makes for a rather compelling reflection of the movie’s themes of self-sufficiency and needs-based politics but a bleak night in front of the TV. Where things could’ve been lightened up is with the Mister character. Nick Damici’s atypical physical presence tantalises at the outset and writer-director Jim Mickle’s refusal to elucidate his backstory sets him up for genre defining greatness. But however nice it is to see a lesser known actor get the opportunity to impress, he undeniably lacks the personality of an effective lead. Connor Paolo is equally slight as the narrator and although there are some nice turns of phrase scattered about Mickle’s script, he really doesn’t deliver them with enough punch. Falling back on its moodiness and some marginally imaginative obstacles, Stake Land thus becomes a somewhat occupying if ultimately cold addition to the genre.
Rating: The Good – 87.4 Genre: Satire, War Duration: 116 mins Director: Robert Altman Stars: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt
Robert Altman unfolds his broad interpersonal canvas to stunning effect in this classic piece of American cinema. Bold, hilarious, touching, and heartbreaking, there are few statements on war as focused as what he serves up here. Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerrit, and Elliot Gould are at their unorthodox best as the ragtag bunch of draftee surgeons working three miles from the front line of the Korean War to keep their spirits high and the endless wounded alive. Sally Kellerman and Robert Duvall are a hoot as the stiff career officers whom they pester unmercifully both intentionally and unintentionally. As with most of Altman’s films, the plot isn’t what drives M.A.S.H but rather the satirical vignettes which loosely coalesce around the personal conflicts. Whether it’s Hot Lips and Major Burns’ infamous broadcast or the gleeful irreverence of that “Last Supper”, Altman’s dry script and impeccable distance, not to mention the immense craft of his actors ensured they became immortal moments of humour. The result is an iconic piece of film making and one of the few movies that helps to definitively mark a moment in time and culture without ever feeling dated. “Hot Lips you incredible nincompoop, it’s the end of the quarter!”
Rating: The Good – 93.7 Genre: War, History Duration: 195 mins Director: Steven Spielberg Stars: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley
Steven Spielberg’s most personal film about the attempt of a German industrialist to save 1,100 Jews from the gas chambers by cajoling, bribing, and manipulating the greedy, preening officers of the SS camp in which they worked. There are few subjects so in need of honourable treatment than the Holocaust of WWII and that might explain why there are precious few cinematic accounts out there. That the most moving came from the master of the big screen adventure is both unlikely and likely. Yes, he is better known for movies aimed at younger audiences that leave little if anything to the imagination (because he succeeds so completely in getting it all up there on screen) but by the early 90’s, Steven Spielberg had already shown us he was capable of crafting touching broad-scale dramas with the likes of The Colour Purple. He had also demonstrated a cultured understanding of moviemaking with masterpieces like Jaws. That said, his experience with the ‘in-your-face’ cinematic techniques of the Hollywood emotional payoff is as much responsible for the effectiveness of this film as his more deft qualities. For the holocaust is a piece of history that requires in-your-face type confrontation. The cruelty and horror of what happened to the Jews needs to be shoved down our throats every now and then so we truly don’t forget. Yes, the artistry of the more subtle scenes elevates this film to the echelons of cinematic greatness and that is edifying for its status as a film, and yes, the more mature examination of the complexities of cruelty, guilt, and mass hatred can culture our understanding of humanity. But it’s the refusal to shy away from the raw horror of what happened that gives this film it’s universal resonance and that is imperative.
The result is a gruelling watch that will turn your face to stone yet in some small way do justice the suffering. Technically, there’s barely a false note played from the set and costume design to the sound production. But standing out is without doubt Janusz Kaminisk’s stunningly lit monochromatic photography. Spielberg’s use of his work here is nothing short of sublime from the moment he introduces his main character to the his final scene. In retrospect it seems now that nobody could inhabit this carefully constructed space better than Liam Neeson. He brings all the gravitas of an A-lister to the film but with the daring of an actor who has had to work for a living. It’s a tightrope of a turn that requires capturing all the ego, manipulation, caring, and bravery of the man. As his right hand man, Itzhak Stern, Ben Kingsley is beyond praise. Ralph Fiennes is to be commended too for giving what could’ve (and may well have been in reality) a mono-dimensionally evil character enough layers to, not excuse his actions (and those of many others like him), but to explain them.
However, whether the conversation be the acting, the editing, or John Williams deeply moving score, one always comes back to the director. It may have been a personal project but that in no way comprises his clarity. Despite the broad scale of both the story and the emotions it evokes, Schindler’s List is as focused a work as anything that has graced the medium and made with a level of skill that at times is breathtaking. The varied manner and innumerable methods that Spielberg uses to lay bare the cruelty and indignity with which the Jews were treated is as chilling as it is ingenious and it’s through these contrasts or critical junctures between the surreal and real that this indictment and essential analysis of one race’s inhumanity to another is enacted. And while one race in particular will be forever under scrutiny for these actions, the film’s greatest achievement is that it rises above the primal tendency to point fingers. That Spielberg chooses a German to be the hero in this tale is of course his essential message – the Jewish Holocaust was and is a human problem not a German one.
Rating: The Good – 82.3 Genre: Drama Duration: 91 mins Director: John Ford Stars: Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston Foster
John Ford’s early feature was made only 14 years after the Irish won their War of Independence against the British so there’s a real sense of authenticity to the characters and events depicted here. Victor McLaghlen headlines as Gypo Nolan, a big lug too fond of the drink, whose recent expulsion from the republican army and desperation for money leads him to inform the whereabouts of his wanted friend to the ruthless Black and Tans and claim the reward on his head. However, when the Tan’s kill his friend, his ensuing guilt combined with his continued drinking throughout the night reveal more and more clues to those around him that he might have been the informer.
The Informer is a dark film shot beautifully by Ford whose eye for staging and lighting imbued it with a heavy tension. The emotional trials faced by the main characters are real and engaging and for the most part the acting is top drawer. McLaglen is unfortunately extremely wooden and the decision to give a non Irish man the central role in a cast full of actual Irish actors was regrettable as his stereotyped accent and mannerisms are exposed all the more. If you can ignore that however, there are plenty of big names from the Irish stage to give the rest of the characters the right tone and thus retain that intimate sense of authenticity.
Rating: The Good – 87.6 Genre: Horror Duration: 88 mins Director: Robin Hardy Stars: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento
If one reason why we have been given so few uniquely original films is because derivation is a natural feature of how we think, then film makers such as Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer deserve all the more credit for breaking free of our mental shackles and fashioning this dizzyingly novel and utterly enthralling masterpiece. Edward Woodward plays devout Christian, Sergeant Howie, whose jurisdiction includes some of the outlying islands off the Scottish coast. When he receives word a young girl has gone missing from Summerisle, an isolated island where the inhabitants long ago eschewed their beliefs in Christianity in favour of more ancient pagan ways, Howie heads off to the island in his sea plane. It’s not long before he suspects foul play which he believes is wrapped up in customs that disturb his Christian sensibilities.
The Wicker Man is a nuanced film that cleverly and playfully examines the subject of religion by contrasting the island’s traditions with more conventional ways. The action unfolds to Paul Giovanni’s seminal folk soundtrack that sets the film’s tone perhaps better than any other score has done before or since. Recounting the rites of their religion, the songs are otherworldly, feel incredibly authentic, and wondefylly capture their seeming irreverence for things Christianity holds sacred. Such is the calibre of the music, that at many points it feels like we are watching a musical as the island’s inhabitants belt out one pagan number after another with gusto. Hardy’s direction is solid to the hilt and he brings the island and its people to vibrant life like few other horror film makers would choose to do. He almost unassumingly contrasts Summerisle’s perfectly normal features with the abnormal behaviour of the island folk so as to make the island oddly and quite sinisterly inviting. Shaffer’s script is as clever and mature as they come and there isn’t a word out of place.
The final jewel in crown of The Wicker Man is the acting. Woodward is perfect as the straight-laced and increasingly incredulous sergeant and he is matched every step of the way by Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle. Lee seemed to intuitively understand the world which Shaffer envisaged and it is through his eloquently delivered speeches that the soul of Summerisle is conveyed to us. It all builds up to one of the most memorable and chilling finales that will leave you fittingly unsettled. Masterful.
Rating: The Good – 84.5 Genre: Action, Adventure Duration: 139 mins Director: Mel Gibson Stars: Gerardo Taracena, Raoul Trujillo, Dalia Hernández
Make no mistake, this is a film unlike anything you’ve seen before. On the face of it, the two sides to the story seem standard enough. On one side, you have a dramatic account of the decadent last days of a once great civilisation and a forgotten way of life. On the other, you have a break-neck violent chase film that makes the central pursuit in Butch Cassidy look tame. However, together you have one of the most blindingly original and substantial action movies ever made. Thus, writer-director Mel Gibson and co-writer Farhad Safinia’s first stroke of genius was in spotting how the former story would make the perfect context for the latter. Their second stroke of genius involved the brave decision to shoot the entire film in ancient Mayan and entirely on location in central and south American rain forests. This paid dividends as it added a unique air of authenticity and relevance to the different aspects of the story whether they be the quiet and communal life of the tribes people, the brutality of their capture by the savage mercenary warriors, the horror of them being sacrificed in the big city, or the frenzied invigoration of their fleetest warrior’s escape.
This is one of those rare films that grabs you by the senses and refuses to let you go from the calm beauty of the earlier scenes to the adrenaline rush of the later scenes. Dean Semler’s cinematography is utterly extraordinary and with Gibson’s sensibilities for action they capture some of the best and most beautiful action witnessed on screen. In many ways, this is the film Hero should’ve been. Gibson knows when to unveil some of the more stunning shots of the forest and when to focus on the grittier elements. The fighting has a thrust and impact which gives the film a remarkable visceral quality and, when he combines the two, he does it at the right time and always with discipline and foresight. The actors are very much unknown Native, Central, and South Americans but they are exceptionally good. In particular Rudy Youngblood gives us an iconic hero (intelligent and quick rather than brutish and strong) whom we are only too happy to root for. An action cinema masterclass!
Rating: The Good – 81.1 Genre: Mystery Duration: 112 mins Director: Richard Kelly Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell
Writer/director Richard Kelly’s sci-fi mystery is easily one of the most affecting and originally conceived science fiction movies to address the issue of time. It follows (literally) the troubled yet highly intelligent young Donnie Darko (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) through a period of time when his strange visions and conversations with what seem to be an 6-foot imaginary rabbit have alarmed his parents and seen him sent to therapy. As the visions continue however, Donnie begins to see a pattern that ties into events which are occurring in the real world and ultimately leads him to a key choice that will define his future.
Donnie Darko is a superb film that effortlessly balances the more weighty conceptual content with a cheeky wit and dark humor. There are some delightful exchanges between the various characters which make the whole experience a treat to the ears. But of course, there is much more going on beneath the surface and Kelly switches tone almost instantaneously at times but also seamlessly. The film is coloured with an intense but appropriate film-making style and there are some truly beautiful moments of cinematic self-reference that feed perfectly into Darko’s story such as the sequence in the theatre where images from The Evil Dead bleed into the narrative. The twist is not so much a twist as it is a methodical unveiling which requires the audience to step up and see it (it won’t come to more passive audiences).
Gyllenhaal is extraordinary in a title role that required a lot from its actor and there are a host of other top actors rounding out the supporting cast. The film’s soundtrack gives the proceedings a nice era-specific bedding and the politics of that era become an interesting and informative backdrop to the turmoil (both inner and outer) which is defining the various characters’ lives.
Rating: The Good – 80.3 Genre: Drama Duration: 107 mins Director: Jim Sheridan Stars: Richard Harris, John Hurt, Sean Bean, Tom Berenger
John B. Keane’s seminal play about obsession with land in the context of post-colonial Ireland is masterfully brought to life by Jim Sheridan’s insightful direction and Richard Harris’ mesmeric performance as the Bull McCabe. Brenda Fricker, Sean Bean, Tom Berenger, and John Hurt (as the Bird) are all outstanding but this is all about Harris’ powerhouse performance as the intelligent but deeply blinkered farmer with the physical disposition and temper of the animal he’s named after. Harris burns a hole in the screen from second one and you quite simply cannot take your eyes off him in what is surely one of all time great cinematic performances. The Field is a subtly profound film that captures the nuances of the post-famine and post-colonial culture in rural Ireland better than perhaps any other film. It’s a dark watch in many ways, but truly compelling at the same time.
Martin Scorsese’s searing Mean Streets screams cinematic counter-culture from the first scene to the last as Harvey Keitel plays Charlie, a loan collector who must continually balance morality, religion, familial duty with a night life of dangerous partying on the mean streets of the director’s youth. Keitel’s performance is flawless and full of playful improvisation which adds layers of substance to his various on-screen relationships. However, this film has been best remembered for Robert De Niro’s incendiary performance as Johnny Boy, Charlie’s unstable cousin who has been ostracised by everyone but Charlie and whose continuing descent threatens to take Charlie with him. The level of innovation and style present in Scorsese’s direction is truly breath-taking with the closing sequence in particular standing out as one of the great moments of 1970’s cinema. In fact, on many levels, even those beyond its direction, Mean Streets is arguably Scorsese’s best picture. A true cinematic masterpiece.