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 – 63.8 Genre: Crime Duration: 91 mins Director: Aaron Woodley Stars: Kevin Zegers, Ray Liotta, Laura Vandervoort
Slightly above average thriller involving the abduction of three rich kids by three malcontents who attempt to ransom their prisoners to the three wealthy fathers. A low profile cast add some bite to a well structured screenplay with Ray Liotta bringing his natural snakiness to his fatherly role. The dialogue can struggle to rise to the sharpness of the story but Aaron Woodley’s classy directing fills some of the void. For the most part, The Entitled sidesteps the more formulaic tracks and tickles the audience with the ambiguous morality and strained allegiances found among each of the three parties. It’s that moral coolness that allows the movie to play out to a satisfying conclusion and without ever really catching fire, The Entitled manages a continuous simmer.
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 – 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 – 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.
Rating: The Good – 87.6 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 86 mins Director: Joseph H. Lewis Stars: John Dall, Peggy Cummins, Berry Kroeger
One of the all time great films noir, Gun Crazy or “Deadly is the Female”, as it’s also known, stars John Dall and Peggy Cummins as a husband and wife sharpshooter, turned stick-up team who, piece by piece, unfold a romantic tragedy across the American Midwest. Joseph H. Lewis’s masterpiece was revolutionary for myriad reasons but most notable among the trails it blazed were the technical innovations of the movie’s shooting and its unflinching account of a homicidal woman and her guilt ridden husband. Lewis improvised a number of unique methods with which to stage and capture the various heist sequences including an early use of insert cars and modified camera cars. A solitary process shot that captures the couple’s dreamlike honeymoon is all we get in the way of rear projection, a magnificently symbolic contrast to the down and gritty life of crime that was to follow. In addition to such technical mastery, Lewis brings all his know-how to bear on the movie’s aesthetic, rendering this one of the more beautifully shot noirs. A relative abundance of daylight sequences would appear to belie the genre’s more typical remit but they serve here as a conceptual contrast as powerful as any amount of shadow or key lit faces (though there’s plenty of those too). What stirs most effectively however is the simple tale of desire and morality that’s spun at the film’s core. Cummins’ Laurie cuts a sinister strip through the film and while Cummins is more than adequate in the role, it’s (then blacklisted) Dalton Trumbo’s writing that largely plumbs her murky depths. Dall’s is the more tragic character and an extended introduction of him and his childhood makes him resoundingly sympathetic before we ever lay eyes on the actor himself. Armed with some heart wrenching dialogue and thrillingly shot set pieces, Gun Crazy ever develops a subtle power as it moves through the reels, so much so that its wonderfully staged finale will linger as long in memory as the outlaw mythology it so deftly taps.
Rating: The Good – 69.8 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 106 mins Director: Michaël R. Roskam Stars: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini
James Gandolfini’s final film sees him play a former small time gangster now running a bar for the Chechen mob which doubles as a drop point for their nightly collections. When the bar is robbed, his bartender and younger cousin “Bob” (Tom Hardy), who is simultaneously being drawn into a strange game of cat-and-mouse with a local psychopath, begins to betray his understated appearance by taking control of both situations in contrasting ways. It’s a complicated plot made nicely ambiguous by Hardy’s outwardly soft character and nervous demeanour. But it’s the dissolution of that ambiguity which ultimately gives The Drop its cutting edge and ties the disparate plot strands together in intimidating style.
Though Gandolfini’s “Cousin Marv” amounts to a support player, he’s central to the movie’s permeating pessimism. It’s the type of turn we had come to expect from the dexterous old pro, a sophisticated blending of pettiness, ego, ruthlessness, and humanity that serves as a final reminder of his tremendous depth as an actor. Hardy continues to hold his own with the best in the business by adding yet another unique personality to his repertoire and he rather delicately drives the film with the subtle detail to his sympathetic “Bob”.
Ultimately, Belgium director Michaël R. Roskam’s film spins a dark and unforgiving yarn that forges new ground in the crime genre but repels as much as it seduces. Nicolas Karakantsanis’ bleak photography dull with pitched yellows and browns sets much in the way of tone but, like Dennis Lehane’s (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) screenplay, it lacks heart. As the movie progresses, it intrigues beyond any initial expectations but struggles to carry us. As with its visual profile, the personalities are just too harsh. Naomi Rapace’s would-be love interest threatens to turn things around at a couple of junctures but ultimately she, like the story’s potential for genuine emotional resonance, is a little wasted.
Rating: The Good – 73.8 Genre: Thriller Duration: 108 mins Director: Damian Harris Stars: Laurence Fishburne, Ellen Barkin, Frank Langella, Michael Beach
Lawrence Fishburn stars as a disgraced former CIA agent who moves to the world of corporate espionage where he immediately becomes embroiled in a double cross involving his devious new partner Ellen Barkin and a host of other nefarious individuals each with their own agendas. The plot may be as mad as a box of frogs but there’s much to recommend in the manner of this thriller’s execution. It’s an eminently slick and determined piece of intrigue that panders little to an impatient audience. A psychological homage to the murky combination of intelligence and greed shot in the soft glow of 90’s lighting and set against a emphatically sinister Carter Burwell score. Ross Thomas adapted his own novel and didn’t compromise an inch in how he depicted the ambiguity of this dark world and while Damian Harris repeatedly spills the tension of his expositional scenes, he crafts his key moments with some real finesse and proper power. So much so that the bleak rawness of the emotional landscape can become quite repelling towards the end. The acting is for the most part as competent as you’d expect from a cast as good as this but it’s their ability to see the hidden qualities in their characters that hooks the audience and keeps us guessing. Fishburn in particular gives us a colder more unsettling anti-hero than we are typically used to and Michael Beach treats us yet another seriously intimidating 1990’s villain. Where the movie falls down quite significantly is in its progression. Too many crucial sequences are omitted or rushed through so that the plot loses cohesion as it twists and turns to avoid our expectations. Bad Company is more than worth a watch but one suspects this could’ve been a genuine classic in more capable and/or artistic hands.
Rating: The Good – 71 Genre: Thriller Duration: 120 mins Director: Bruce A. Evans Stars: Kevin Costner, Demi Moore, William Hurt
Okay, so the plot is way over the top but this quirky little movie about a wealthy serial killer (Kevin Costner) battling with his impulses to kill (personified in the form of alter ego William Hurt) is both an amusing black comedy and a very engaging thriller. Costner is as good as ever in the title role and his balancing of family man, business tycoon, tortured soul, and meticulous serial killer wasn’t an easy one to pull off particularly because of the story’s comedic artifice. But he actually nails it and makes for a charming lead who we root for throughout. Hurt is in giddy form as his twisted Id, a partner in crime, who nobody else can see or hear, while Demi Moore continues her recent revival with an equally charming turn as the detective on his trail. Where Mr. Brooks stalls is in the multitude of subplots it presents us with. Actually, four of them work quite effectively together but a fifth involving Moore’s pursuit of a second unrelated murderer is needless and distracting. But while it takes from the integrity of the story, writer director Bruce A. Evans and co-writer Raynold Evans’ irreverent approach to the subject matter softens the blow. Simply put, Mr. Brooks is just about the fun we get from following its twisted plot and seeing three of Hollywood’s old hands plying their trade with the charm and savvy that many of their recent counterparts are missing.