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 – 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 – 78.4 Genre: Thriller Duration: 110 mins Director: John Boorman Stars: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty
Four weekend warriors attempt to kayak a great southern river in its final days before it’s diverted to a hydropower plant. However, their cockiness and petty snipes at the inbred locals are soon turned on their head when two of the men are accosted by said locals and one of them is viciously raped. Forced into acts of murder to survive, their trip becomes a personal exploration of guilt, anger, and fear. Boorman crafts a haunting and disturbing tale that in no small way parallels the arrogance of modern life with the cruel indifference of nature. But he makes no judgments as he does it and that is the true lasting strength of the film. The four men were excellently cast and each do their part. Jon Voight was the straight man, Burt Reynolds the tough guy, Ned Beatty the arrogant victim, and Ronny Cox played the more sensitive of the four. This isn’t an easy watch because it’s as much a primal scream at the times it was made in as it is a thriller. Nonetheless it works equally well as both.
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 – 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 – 88.4 Genre: Drama Duration: 114 mins Director: Ted Kotcheff Stars: Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty
There are films you watch and there are films you experience and this once lost classic of Australian cinema belongs, without any doubt, to the latter category. Once entitled “Outback”, during a dismally unsuccessful international distribution, Ted Kotcheff’s blisteringly pessimistic examination of the human condition – not to mention adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s autobiographical novel (!) – was rediscovered and re-released in 2009 to a very different and much more intrigued public to the one that decried it in 1971. With an opening shot that lands us lost in a desperate slow panning 360 degree scan of the Australian desert, we find our narrative vehicle in the form of a snobby school teacher John Grant, whose prim and polished exterior belies the agonising realisation lying on the horizon of his mind. With the Christmas break upon him, he leaves the one-horse town in which (rather symbolically) he is state bonded to teach for a definite period of time, and heads off for Sydney to ostensibly visit his girlfriend. However, when he lays over in the working man’s outpost town of Bundanyabba (referred to simply as “the Yabba”), his life’s previously creeping trajectory quickly crystallises into an extended five day session of drunken depravity wherein he descends into a nightmare of both physical and existential entrapment and the baser side to humanity.
Thematically, what Kotcheff does here is a stunning triumph of reversalism and paradox. Within Grant’s rapidly closing parameters of existence, pastimes become gateways to excruciatingly endless stretches in time, the vast open territory of the Yabba and its hinterland becomes a sweaty cage, the relentless hospitality of its townsfolk sharpens into a belligerently wielded weapon, a horrifying alcohol-fueled nighttime slaughter of kangaroos morphs into a balletic even hypnotic ritual of hopelessness, while sensibility and sexuality are suddenly and violently reversed. However, that it all wraps up in a surgically precise metaphor for Grant’s life and for that of a generation of young men with no real prospects is even more astounding. His layover in the Yabba becomes a mythical journey as epic as any legend of Ancient Greece and equally poetic too. Donald Pleasence’s white hot presence as a disgraced alcoholic doctor who has shunned society by moving to the Yabba where his indiscretions are as oblivious to the people as they are to them is the wise man of this fable but also its monster incarnate. He sits slightly above the rest of the primal characters and expounds the realities of existence to Grant – comments on civilisation, “a vanity spawned by fear”, being the blunt edge to the film’s political statement. It’s an immense turn and maybe even the finest in the great actor’s distinguished career. Gary Bond’s central performance is the real hero though and with a face perfectly sculpted for a film like this – just as Peter O’Toole’s was for Lawrence of Arabia – it’s difficult to imagine anyone else pulling off what he did here. He gives Grant’s sprawling descent an edged realism that haunts as deeply as what Kotcheff was doing behind the camera.
That said, the last word should be saved for how this masterpiece sounds for Wake in Fright is perhaps one of the most enchantingly sounding films ever made. From John Scott’s minimalist score which always seems to know more than the audience, the heavy accents of the characters, to the everyday sounds of the Yabba and its inhabitants’ activities, it’s a deeply affecting piece of production that meets the grainy visual textures and harsh conceptual qualities of the film head on. Yes, Wake in Fright is indeed an experience and with qualities such as these, it’s a profoundly transfixing one at that. So much so that it shares the same rarefied place in Australian and world cinema as films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout.
Rating: The Good – 84.8 Genre: Satire Duration: 139 mins Director: David Fincher Stars: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter
A chronic insomniac (Edward Norton) in a pit of mental despair at the predictable safety and comfort of his life finds release by attending disease support groups posing as a fellow sufferer. That is until he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the living embodiment of anarchy. Immediately seduced into Durden’s strange world, the two men establish an underground network of fight clubs where the disenfranchised male youth of America come together to knock ten bells out of each other in a form of social mega-catharsis. However, as Durden becomes increasingly mythologised, he uses this enchanted network to form an underground army intent of bringing the consumer world to its knees.
To say that Fight Club tapped into the masculine subconscious would be an understatement. Every word Durden utters is the adult articulation of adolescent and post-adolescent angst and rebellion. Of course, the whole thing is pure satire as writer Chuck Palahnuik and director David Fincher are saying as much about the masculine mindset as they are about the consumer society that is ostensibly suppressing it. It doesn’t matter that the majority of the fans take it too literally; in fact it just goes to show you how sophisticated the satire is because their seduction mirrors that of the disenfranchised generation of the film.
On a more technical note, Fight Club is Fincher’s most innovative and stylistic film. The contrast between the clean, santised world of Norton’s office and apartment and the dank dilapidated world of Tyler Durden is almost visceral thanks to Fincher’s bold direction, some outstanding lighting and equally outstanding production design. A rich visual humour dominates the entire film and when threaded together with Palahnuik’s words it takes on a life of its own. Norton is excellent as the unnamed “narrator” while Brad Pitt has seldom been better as the enigmatic Durden. Helena Bonham Carter gives a deliciously dark turn as Edward Norton’s fellow traveller and even Meatloaf pops up in one of the more memorable roles. All said, Fight Club is a startlingly good movie built on inspired writing, direction, and acting. There isn’t one aspect to the production that lets the side down and the substantial footprint it has left on recent pop culture is testament to such quality.
Rating: The Good – 90.3 Genre: Thriller, Mystery Duration: 80 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Stars: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger
Alfred Hitchcock’s cerebral thriller is strangely compelling given its disturbing subject matter. Loosely based on the real life Leopold and Loeb case, it begins with the murder of a young man by two killers who proceed to throw a dinner party immediately afterwards to which, amongst others, the victim’s parents and girlfriend have been invited. John Dall and Farley Granger play the two murderers who are eager to put into practice Nietzsche’s ideas that murder is justified when the victim is an intellectual inferior. The action is shot in real time and involves ten long cuts (with a few sneaky ones hidden in between) disguised as one and the major effect the then revolutionary technique had (along with the off-screen/off-mike conversations) was to immerse the audience in the apartment’s atmosphere as the two men’s intelligent former mentor (James Stewart) picks his way through the clues. Dall gives a chilling portrayal of a sociopath with delusions of grandeur as his every word and in particular every gesture reflects his inner cold blooded precision. Granger provides a decent foil to that cold calmness while Stewart is in his typical scene-stealing mood. Rope concludes in a highly satisfying fashion given that the action never leaves the apartment. Moreover, the sense of time passed and internal disquiet you’re left with is testament to the genius of Hitchcock’s unparalleled ability to manipulate our perceptions and generate that darkest of tension.
Rating: The Good – 92.5 Genre: Western Duration: 119 mins Director: John Ford Stars: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles
Bookended by perhaps the greatest opening and closing shots of any film, the image of the great western frontier captured from the dark recesses of the family homestead says it all. The Searchers is an awe-inspiring and sweeping meditation on family and uncharted territory (both physical and spiritual). It begins with the return of civil war veteran, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), to his brother’s home only for the family to be massacred a short time afterwards by a Comanche war party out for revenge. All are killed except for his young niece who they kidnapped instead and Ethan sets out after her but not necessarily with the intention of taking her back. Aware of this, his part Indian nephew sets out with him in order to ensure that his sister is rescued and not killed by the bitter and deeply prejudiced Ethan. The Searchers is a complex and deeply profound examination of love, devotion, and bitterness shot magnificently by a master director at the height of his powers. It also gives us the Duke’s best performance as he towers over everyone else on screen in both the physical and acting sense. It’s not an easy watch in parts but those darker moments are offset by some genuinely funny moments such as the fight between Martin and the fiancé of his would-be bride. But when it does return to darker territory the result is one of the most complicated and fascinating movie going experiences.
Rating: The Good – 77.8 Genre: Crime Duration: 102 mins Director: William Friedkin Stars: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen
William Friedkin’s deeply psychological thriller about an undercover cop attempting to draw out a serial killer who operates in the homosexual sub-culture of S&M/leather is a bold piece of cinema and an enthralling watch. Al Pacino stars as the cop in question who spends his days and nights attempting to understand and infiltrate the closed community so that he can figure out who in this world of exhibitionism and hyper liberation he is looking for. The well timed yet fleeting interleaving of Paul Sorvino as his boss and Karen Allen as his girlfriend do enough to keep him grounded in his former life but each time he goes back undercover, he loses a bit of himself. Pacino is brilliant and captures his character’s transformation with an understated naturalness. His performance is just another example of how brave and actor he has always been and one who sees acting first and foremost as an exploration.
Cruising caused controversy among some in the gay community on its release and in truth, the film not only seems streaked with danger, it seems to feed off it. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Friedkin did here but everything about Cruising, from the subject matter, to the dialogue, to the way it was shot and edited seems so far removed from mainstream cinema that it becomes almost the perfect case of form following function. Yet Friedkin is in total control. No matter how deep his characters psychologically descend and no matter how unconventional his central device is, he knows exactly how to make a story out of it. Thus, in the same way in which Pacino is experimenting, Friedkin is too. The ending might not be to everyone’s satisfaction but within the counter-intuitive parameters Friedkin set the story, it’s a genuine success, and extremely effective.
Rating: The Good – 78.6 Genre: Action Duration: 91 mins Director: John Carpenter Stars: Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer
John Carpenter’s second outing as director is a tour de force in atmosphere generation as he gives the story of a recently decommissioned police station which is under siege by a marauding gang an almost apocalyptic tone. By not giving the gang members any lines and by focusing the action on the co-operating occupants of the police station (prisoners and police alike), Carpenter quite ingeniously imbued the former with a zombie-like quality which makes them all the scarier. This Carpenter film more than any other reveals the great director’s influences from Hawk’s Rio Bravo to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and the good news is that Assault on Precinct 13 is easily worthy of being mentioned alongside these two classics.
There are no big names on show just some solid acting talent whose quirky and fleshed out performances are as important to the movie’s success as anything else. Austin Stoker makes for an enjoyable lead as the officer in charge of the deserted precinct and Laurie Zimmer scores well as the tough female lead typical to other Carpenter films. As good as they are, however, everyone takes a back seat to Darwin Joston’s Napoleon Wilson who eats up Carpenter’s bad-ass dialogue and spits it in the face of authority with a care-free smile. He more than anyone else embodies the hypnotic grittiness of the movie as he presents us with what surely must be one of the most iconic anti-heroes.
Assault on Precinct 13 is a triumph of independent cinema and defined by that foreboding sense of momentum which Carpenter sews so seamlessly into all his movies. From the opening credits when yet another legendary Carpenter score begins to resonate with whatever recesses of the mind its composer seems to have a direct line to, you’ll know you’re in for something different.