Rating: The Good – 70.1 Genre: Action, Crime Duration: 131 mins Director: Oliver Stone Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Benicio Del Toro
Oliver Stone has to work hard these days to make up for two decades of over-stylised not to mention confused pictures and such is the reason that this surprisingly slick crime feature fared poorly both critically as well as commercially. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Taylor Hitsch star as two wildly successful cannabis dealers on the California drug scene who come up against a ruthless cartel attempting to stake their claim north of the border. As the genius botanist, Taylor-Johnson is the brains of the operation while Hitsch’s former Navy SEAL is the enforcer and together they engage Salma Hayek’s drug lord in a bloody chess game as they attempt to secure the release of their hostage girlfriend Blake Lively. Factor in an utterly loathsome and genuinely scary Benicio Del Toro as Hayek’s right-hand man and you’re left with a colourfully twisted little thriller. Nested in Lively’s inevitably stylised visual narration, Stone allows the energetic if sometimes clunky script to play out in a relatively coherent manner as he shows the most directorial restraint he’s managed since Born on the Fourth of July. Make no mistake, it’s vibrantly shot and edited with flair but with enough discipline for the visual aesthetic to not only be enjoyed, but also be complementary of the well conceived set pieces. On the acting front, the leading threesome (as improbable as their relationship is) are satisfactory without shining and while much fun is had with an overwrought John Travolta’s crooked DEA agent, it never detracts from the the darker tones that Stone’s story paints. It all adds up to a rather satisfying crime thriller that should be judged on the merits of that genre’s most essential elements.
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.
Steven Soderbergh and friends take a working holiday in Las Vegas for this entertaining reworking of the Rat Pack’s heist comedy. George Clooney fills Sinatra’s shoes as Danny Ocean, the recently paroled con-man who assembles a motley crew to take down Andy Garcia’s ruthless casino owner while simultaneously nabbing his ex-wife (Julia Roberts) back from his clutches. Brad Pitt is the Dean Martin sidekick while Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Carl Reiner, and Elliot Gould among a couple of others complete the rest of the gang. A party-mode Soderbergh unleashes every bit of his directorial panache to craft the entire affair into an interminably slick feast for the eyes and ears – with a production budget to match (not content with taking over actual casinos, they even staged a title fight between Wladimir Klitshcko and Lennox Lewis). Playing the coolest versions of themselves, the cast cruise their way through the complicated and very well executed heist in a manner befitting the project’s ambitions with David Holmes’ repetitive but impossibly suave compositions providing the most complementary soundtrack imaginable. If it sounds, like a “can’t-miss” type of movie, allay your excitement somewhat because, though eminently fun, its lack of depth ensures that it’s a little cold. In the final analysis, Ocean’s Eleven is what you get when a bunch of talented movie guys spitball a movie concept around a poker table at 3 am. Lots of well conceived but ultimately stand alone moments in desperate need of some serious screenwriting to bind them together.
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 – 66.7 Genre: Action, Adventure Duration: 113 mins Director: Jan de Bont Stars: Helen Hunt, Bill Paxton, Cary Elwes
Jan de Bont’s second directorial effort after the smash hit Speed upped the ante on the action by following a bunch of storm-chasing scientists through tornado country as they attempt to figure out the secrets of the twister. Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton lead the ragtag pack of adrenaline junkies as the estranged married couple competing with a highly financed rival scientist (a slithery Cary Elwes) who stole their methodology. The action is everything you’d expect from the man who shot Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October and the relatively early CGI effects still hold up to this day. The tornado sequences themselves range between formidable and unlikely as writer Michael Crichton takes his usual liberties in adapting science for the screen. Hunt and Paxton are more than comfortable with each other and add an understated charm to the movie while a young Philip Seymour Hoffman puts in a memorable shift as the “crazy guy”. There’s plenty of humour courtesy of his and everyone else’s antics and a neatly developed assortment of characters (an often ignored strength of Crichton’s screenplays) ensure it blends seamlessly with the plot’s progression. Incidentally, Twister was the first movie released in DVD format and so it not only scores as an enjoyable action adventure but it also holds a position of some significance among the geekiest of movie fans.
Rating: The Good – 74.9 Genre: Action, Comedy Duration: 126 mins Director: Martin Brest Stars: Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto
About as much fun as you can have watching one guy drag another cross country, Midnight Run is a minor triumph on the résumé of Robert De Niro who stars as a bounty hunter attempting to bring in Charles Grodin’s crooked accountant while being pursued by the mob, the FBI, and a competing bounty hunter. The movie is chockfull of motley characters played with an abundance of personality (not to mention a generous comedic license), from Yaphet Kotto’s testy FBI agent, John Ashton’s indefatigable pain-in-the-ass bounty hunter, to Dennis Farina’s hilariously baleful mob boss who spends most of the movie threatening his hapless goons with various forms of highly imaginative corporal punishment. De Niro embraces the easy comedy of George Gallo’s classy screenplay and drives the movie with an acerbic moxie but, despite a well balanced chemistry, Grodin (along with Farina) steals the show with his usual combination of dry warmth and laconic delivery. Martin Brest directs it all with an understated panache adding little touches here and there that contribute richly to the overarching sense of fun – such as Robert Miranda’s big lug of a henchman mock boxing with Richard Foronjy as the latter pleads with Farina over the phone for forgiveness. Everything skips along to Danny Elfman’s mirthful score in an unapologetically lighthearted style but there’s enough drama wrapped up within Gallo’s neat plot to justify Midnight Run’s status as one of the 1980’s best comedy thrillers.
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.
Rating: The Ugly – 60 Genre: Action, Crime Duration: 109 mins Director: Baltasar Kormákur Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster
The modern thriller is a tired animal indeed what with the scarcity of original plots and mind numbing dialogue that, instead of building character, is simply a vehicle for tying scenes together and abiding by an MTV archetype of cool. However, if you must turn one of these scripts into a movie then a watchable cast and able director are bare minimum prerequisites. Contraband just about pulls this off with Ben Foster and an always enjoyable Mark Wahlberg starring as a couple of drug smugglers and Giovani Ribisi as a slightly deranged wannabe tough guy attempting to pull their strings along the way. Yes, the plot swings between predictable and confused and, yes, it’s bloated with the contradictory ideas of a script writing committee but there’s some fine gunplay and car chasing to complement the cast’s chemistry. If you’re stuck for something to watch, this one will fill the void adequately.
Rating: The Good – 77.5 Genre: Western Duration: 115 mins Director: Ed Harris Stars: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen
Written, directed, and starring Ed Harris, Appaloosa isn’t merely a revisiting of the quintessential American film genre nor is it exactly a revisioning (which is, in its own way, kind of refreshing). It’s more a slowly exhaled understanding of what makes it so damn special as a context for storytelling. A celebration of its principles like the restoration of a great art without the controversy of compromising any of its natural glory. Harris and Viggo Mortensen are the hired guns Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, brought into the town of Appaloosa to offer protection from Jeremy Irons’ ruthless rancher Randall Bragg, who killed the last sheriff when the latter attempted to arrest two of his men for rape. Recalling the rich and intriguing relationship of Fonda and Quinn in 1959’s Warlock, Harris and his faithful companion are a thoughtful yet hardened pair of lawmen who live by the gun and wield it like it comes naturally. The film’s broader comprehension of life on the frontier is reflected at a personal level within their dynamic, the edges and corners of which being exposed only when Rene Zwellweger’s woman of questionable motives enters the fray and attempts to destabilise it. Plot comes to the fore here in wonderfully unobtrusive manner and it offers a circuitous and totally understated testing of marrow and allegiances alike. Gnarly old Lance Henriksen pops up as a notorious colleague from Cole’s past and matters come to a head in blistering showdown that ups the ante on where the Unforgiven left off. Robert Knott and Harris penned the words that so adequately express the grizzled sentiment and honest wonderings of the men and women of this world and there’s plenty of perceptive and expertly timed humour to be discovered along the way. But it’s Harris and Mortensen who shine most bright under the prairie sun, the mutual respect shared by their characters translating fluently at the acting level. Characterisation helps mightily of course and you’d have to delve deep into the history of the western to find a couple of gun-slingers as intriguing not to mention as cool as these here guys. Harris shows a steady and considered touch behind the camera and lets it all play out with the ease of the era in which it was set. You won’t see anything new in Appaloosa but a visit every now and then will remind you of why the western has and always will be so cherished.
Rating: The Good – 68.5 Genre: Crime, Comedy Duration: 90 mins Director: Jonathan Sobol Stars: Kurt Russell, Matt Dillon, Jay Baruchel, Katheryn Winnick
Kurt Russell might not be the box office draw he once was but he shows no sign of losing his irascible charm and overall screen presence. Case in point is Jonathan Sobol’s modest crime caper The Art of the Steal. In it, Russell stars as Crash, a thief turned stuntman who after being betrayed by his conman brother (an equally evergreen Matt Dillon) reluctantly agrees to run one last scam with him. Enter a “Leverage” style team of forgers and thieves and a slickly realised heist corkscrews its way to the close. It’s a pleasantly satisfying affair as the chemistry between Russell, Dillon, Jay Baruchel, and Kenneth Welsh proves amusing at times and laugh-out-loud hilarious at others. Nothing new is offered in the way of style or story but, Sobol confidently handles the basics while Geoff Ashenhurst’s editing gives the plot a coolish gliding quality which makes the whole thing very easy to watch. Struggling at the production level, the film could look a lot better but by living up to Sobel’s unpretentious yet funny screenplay, The Art of the Steal will endear itself to most.
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 – 73.8 Genre: Drama, Comedy Duration: 103 mins Director: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash Stars: Liam James, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell
Endearing drama following an awkward teenager as he and his mother spend the summer at her cantankerous boyfriend’s beach house. While the mother gets indoctrinated into her boyfriend’s grownups-gone-wild culture, he finds solace at a local water park under the wing of its wisecracking manager. Rights of passage comedies are difficult to get right because there’s often an onus on the filmmakers to extract the comedy from real life. But as comedy more typically comes from exaggerated characterisation and circumstances, that is easier said than done. The Way Way Back has its fair share of exaggerations but so charming is the project and so easy is it to watch, that they successfully solicit our forgiveness for such transgressions. Of course, that much of the comedy does indeed emerge from realistic sequences (or at least the emotions they’re built around) and that those sequences are so perceptively judged and written helps a great deal.
Critical to this type of film is the script and cast and the former (courtesy of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) is an honest breath of fresh air, rarely sacrificing the film’s sentiments for cheap gags or tangential comedy vignettes. The latter is loaded with quality from the typically wonderful Toni Collett as the mother to an against-type Steve Carell as her asshole boyfriend. Allison Janney is the crazy neighbour responsible for most of the wilder antics and fulfilling that remit to perfection. As is always the case, The Way Way Back is infinitely enriched by the presence of Sam Rockwell as the park manager. Playing a big kid with a big heart in a quirky comedy is meat and potatoes to Rockwell but his charisma is irresistible and sends a charge of energy throughout the movie.
That said, the real rewards to be found here are in young Liam James’ central performance and his relationship with Collette and Rockell’s characters. Charmingly awkward, entirely sympathetic, yet with a hidden strength he’s the steady pulse at the movie’s core. Collette puts in a gorgeous turn as the insecure mother and there’s so much warmth between mother and son that the movie satisfies despite the darker themes of loneliness. In that last regard, credit must go to Collette and Carell who work terrifically in balancing the tone of the film by maintaining an undercurrent of seriousness through all the laughter. Carell for his part is fantastic as the selfish streak of misery and close observers of this film won’t be too surprised by his more recent Foxcatcher turn. But as deep as everything gets into the adolescent and midlife crises departments, any heaviness is blown away by the fresh sense of fun that Faxon and Rash’s writing and directing bring to the party.