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.
Rating: The Good – 77.7 Genre: Comedy Duration: 103mins Director: Michael Lehmann Stars: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty
“Dear diary, my teenage angst bullshit has a bodycount.” Recent addition to the school’s most popular clique, Winona Ryder, is growing ever wearier at the inane conventions of her new friends, three preppy girls all named Heather. In steps Christian Slater, a proactive cynic whose extreme reactions to the superiority complexes of the chosen few are the source of the some shockingly funny moments.
Like all great black comedy and unlike so many recently failed attempts, the darkness in Heathers is effortless and so the comedy is viciously hilarious. Daniel Waters’ delicious script is driven by a playful yet unyielding focus that slices fantastically at the indulgence of the high-school movie genre and indeed society’s broader indulgence of the precious order that its middle class teenagers had so mercilessly forged in the 1980’s in particular.
Ryder has never been better and for those who’ve only seen her Dracula-type performances, they should take a look at this. For such an acerbic story, she brings a level of reality and even warmth to the role that serves to make her incredulous narrations and interactions with the various characters all the funnier. Slater is at his best too, his slow burning charisma making him the perfect choice to play the self-anointed social equaliser. His character becomes both Waters’ main vessel and his target as he slowly works his way through the equally self-anointed social elite. Michael Lehmann’s directing is adequate but a little uninspired, which is actually quite a shame because this movie would otherwise be damn near perfect.
Rating: The Good – 66.9 Genre: Crime, Drama Duration: 92 mins Director: Simon Hawkins, Zeke Hawkins Stars: Mackenzie Davis, Logan Huffman, Jeremy Allen
Three young friends just out of high school get drawn into a local gangster’s plans to rip off his boss when one of the friends steals some money for one last blow out on the town. Mackenzie Davis and Jeremy Allen White excel as the two college bound friends while Logan Huffman is wonderfully creepy as the layabout resenting been left behind. Dutch Southern’s script works hard to make this dramatic triangle the basis to some peculiar decisions amongst the three and to keep his audience off guard but aside from giving their actors something to sink their teeth into, he and directors Simon and Zeke Hawkins fail to properly gel their personal situations with the plot. They do achieve the lazy tension of a desolate town in the manner films like Blood Simple did but, at all times, the plot seems to run in parallel to the characters. Mark Pelligrino has the most fun as their slightly nuts but very mean puppeteer but, here too, the directors fail to reign in his admittedly intriguing turn so that it doesn’t supersede the plot. In the end, Bad Turn Worse (or “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” as it was originally released) feels very much like a pale imitation of an early Tarantino or Coen Brothers’ screenplay, more a creature of the mid 90’s than a modern crime film and relying on quirky performances to keep it interesting.
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 – 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.
Rating: The Good – 70.9 Genre: Thriller Duration: 114 mins Director: Scott Frank Stars: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour
A refreshingly focused thriller from a writer-director who continues to defy the current trend by honouring the genre’s best traditions of putting brains before action. Liam Neeson stars as an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic who’s hired by a drug dealer to find the brutal lunatics who kidnapped and murdered his wife – before they sent her back in pieces. Walk Among the Tombstones walks a number of lines very well. It’s dark without being dreary, thrilling but not over the top, and pensive without being boring. But most welcome of all is that it’s paced with an old time respect for story. The well nourished plot develops seamlessly around three or four intriguing characters from the excellent Dan Stevens as the atypical dealer with a thirst for vengeance to Brian “Astro” Bradley’s homeless kid who latches onto Neeson with notions of being a “Sam Spade”-like partner. And as the killers enter the fray, David Harbour and Adam David Thompson provide just the right amount of menace to not detract from the film’s tempered mood. After a solid debut behind the camera with The Lookout, the writer of Out of Sight and Get Shorty raises his game further by achieving a more comprehensive balance between the script, production design, Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s clean cinematography, and Carlos Rafael Rivera’s quietly tense score. Unsurprisingly, given his writing credits, the dialogue is laced with hard grit and the cast, particularly Neeson and Harbour, eat it up. The finale threatens some melodrama and a familiar backstory to Neeson’s character hold this one back a little but its overall tangibility and coherence raise it well above the recent fluff the genre has suffered. And on top of all that, how great is it to see Neeson back in a role worthy of his talent!?!
A wild and trippy furlough into the LA night as envisaged within the quirky mind of John Landis at the height of his powers. Jeff Goldblum stars as an aerospace engineer suffering from insomnia, marital discord, and a general malaise. Michelle Pfeiifer is the confident and plucky damsel in distress who jumps into his car on lonely sleepless night only to see them both pursued by a peculiar group of foreign gangsters led by the director himself. Ron Koslow may have written this wonderfully off-kilter comedy thriller but make no mistake, it’s Landis’ world we are thrown into where the ride is as enjoyable as it is unique. The variety of peripheral and support characters is a treat to behold as are their various realisations at the hands of a brilliantly counter-intuitive cast of actors (David Bowie’s bizarre hit-man alone makes this one worth the watch). But paramount among the movie’s virtues is the foundation in which the plot is rooted. Convincing the audience to tag along on such a meandering journey isn’t simply about ingeniously engineered set-pieces (which Into the Night offers in spades) but a weight of reality that could see a normal Joe’s life shunted into hyper-reality. Like Scorsese did that very same year in After Hours, Landis places huge faith in his leading man’s ability to strike a paradoxical balance between delicacy and sturdiness. And in achieving that, Jeff Goldlum becomes the rock against which the delightful insanity can repeatedly crash. If anything, Landis ups the ante on Scorsese by adding a similarly finely tuned lead performance into the mix which not only bolsters her co-star’s but offers the madness a second pillar to rest on. Pfeiffer is nothing short of exquisite in a feisty reformulation of the femme fatale trope adding as much solidity as she does intrigue. And it helps not a little that her and Goldblum click like few male-female on-screen partnerships have! It’s all wrapped up in a rather pretty package too as Landis and his director of photography Robert Paynter shoot it in the soft night glow of 1980’s L.A. and soundtrack it to Ira Newborn’s equally contemporaneous (not to mention sumptuous) electronic score. A must see!
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.
Rating: The Good – 70.5 Genre: Sport, Drama Duration: 118 mins Director: Peter Berg Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Jay Hernandez, Derek Luke
Director Peter Berg and writer David Aaron Cohen’s adaptation of H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s novel chronicles the travails of a football mad Texas town and their high school team’s attempt to win the State Championship amidst social and personal pressures. Living up to the seminal novel was always going to be next to impossible especially for a (albeit) solid journeyman like Berg but there’s no denying this one just sort of works. From the bone shaking tackles, the swagger of the touchdowns, to the strategising on the sidelines, Berg does every bit of the game justice and so the audience will be suitably engrossed on that level alone. But it’s the team camaraderie and off-field personal tests that coach and players alike face throughout the season that gives this movie its substance despite Berg and Cohen presenting only fleeting snippets of each drama ‘s due to time limitations. Berg quite smartly uses the energy of the rough and tumble to exhilarate the audience and then funnel it into some rather touching moments of emotion when needed. It’s all very explicit with plenty of slow motion shots and uplifting score but, because of its honesty and Berg and Cohen’s success in binding us to the players, the resultant goosebumps are guilt free and welcome. Billy Bob Thornton puts in an outstanding shift as the thoughtful coach desperate to keep both his self respect and his job despite their mutual interference. But it’s a bunch of unknowns that fill out the rest of the cast and not one puts a foot wrong. Modest in its aims yet efficient in its execution, Friday Night Lights does what all good sports dramas should do and remains respectful of the source material as it goes. Nicely done Mr Berg.
Rating: The Good – 74.4 Genre: Drama, Sport Duration: 134 mins Director: Bennett Miller Stars: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo
When a billionaire dilettante, John du Pont, attempts to build a reputation as a wrestling coach, he persuades the more vulnerable of the Olympic champion Schultz brothers, Mark, to lead his new team on his family’s Foxcatcher estate. As du Pont insinuates himself into Mark’s life until the latter withdraws, the disturbed misfit refocuses his attempt to lure the older brother, Dave, to Team Foxcatcher to the ultimate detriment of both siblings.
Based on actual events, Bennett Miller’s flagellating drama is a cognitively murky examination of the loneliness and exasperation of unfulfillment, from both human and more extreme perspectives. Changing Tatum becomes the focus for the former as the insecure and confused young man who has lived in the shadow of his older brother’s heroics. It’s a revelatory turn from the former model as he distills all the raging emotion of his character into a dangerous simmer. Representing the psychotic end of that personality’s spectrum is Steve Carell in an outstanding turn against type. Bloated with rabid inferiority issues and deranged paranoia, he’s unrecognisable as the insidious du Pont. But rounding off the cast as Dave Schultz is Mark Ruffalo and it’s the performance we always knew was coming from this consistently impressive actor. With rather limited screen time, given the first two acts’ focus on the other two characters, he gives this story the emotional grounding it desperately needs. It’s a touching not to mention commanding piece of acting that should consolidate his reputation as one of the best actors working today.
Telling a distinctly unusual tale, Foxcatcher offers much in the way of psychological intrigue and it curiously compels on those terms alone. Flush with revealing symbolism and set against Rob Simonsen’s (Moneyball) thoughtful score, it’s another starkly polished film from Miller in which he spends much of his time laying an immaculately composed canvas for his drama. But, while there’s plenty of it, it unfortunately needed more traction. Whereas Miller was aiming for a pensive touch, his directing instead feels a tad aloof. With such strong characters, we needed to see more of their human side. And in the case of Ruffalo who still managed to imbue Dave Schultz with all manner of deeply impressive personal touches, embracing that side to the story might well have paid dividends. As it stands, Foxcatcher remains an affecting work but not one that will bear too many revisits.
Rating: The Good – 84.4 Genre: Crime, Drama Duration: 167 mins Director: Sidney Lumet Stars: Treat Williams, Jerry Orbach, Richard Foronjy
Sidney Lumet’s second instalment in his unofficial trilogy on NYPD corruption is his most excavating and downbeat – and that’s saying something given the first was Serpico! Treat Williams stars as a narcotics detective who volunteers to help a task force take down a litany of crooked cops by wearing a wire and acting as general go between. The only condition: they overlook any wrongdoing perpetrated by him and his partners. However, after the initial adrenaline rush, he starts to see the toll his work is taking on his family and partners and ultimately his own wellbeing. Things get worse when the federal government take over and draw him into a seemingly endless series of cases culminating in the prosecution of his old partners.
Prince of the City is a dark and pensive thriller that almost incidentally seems to serve up some of the best cop to cop drama this side of the French Connection. The gritty one-on-ones, the back-of-diner meets, the greasing of stoolies all reek of so much grimy reality that the audience would be forgiven for feeling like they were the ones putting themselves in the crosshairs. With so much wiretapping going on, it gets to feel like we ourselves are listening in on the dirty deals, the hits, and the extortion (a device Lumet had used before in The Anderson Tapes), where every conversation is a lesson in the actuality of crime. Shooting the movie in much the same style as he did with Serpico, Lumet uses his flat palette of colours to starkly enhance the inward loneliness of his central character’s existence. And armed with such material, Williams is stunning, the perfect embodiment of anxious inertia and frenzied exhaustion. Among others, Lindsey Crouse as his wife and Jerry Orbach as his partner pitch in with some terrific supporting turns but this is Williams’ vehicle from start to finish.
At over two and a half hours long, this one requires much investment but even a moderate love for the great crime dramas of the 70’s & 80’s will elicit that naturally. That it feels like a slog for the audience (albeit a welcomed one) is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement, however, for it mirrors profoundly the tortured commitment of his central protagonist.