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.
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 – 63.3 Genre: Crime Duration: 104 mins Director: Steven Soderbergh Stars: Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda, Lesley Ann Warren
Steven Soderbergh’s film about a British gangster who travels to LA to kill the rich music producer who killed his daughter is edited in a supremely frustrating style akin to that which Soderbergh used in the key romantic scene in Out of Sight – when Clooney and Lopez meet in the hotel bar. Dialogue and shots are desynchronised as time is stretched out and condensed simultaneously. It works wonderfully in Out of Sight because it came at a transitory point in the movie, lasted only a couple of minutes, and was accompanied by David Holmes’ lovely score. In the Limey, all it does is irritate because it is employed recurrently throughout the movie and almost entirely for the first 20 minutes. On top of that, having Terrance Stamp stopping to translate his cockney wide boy slang to the various Americans is nauseating, unrealistic (surely he just wouldn’t use it to save time), and suggests that the inclusion of said slang was merely a gimmick.
Having said that, about 50 mins in this film rights itself and the story becomes more viewer friendly. The main characters are finally established and the remaining 50 mins is really entertaining. Stamp is decent as the grieving tough guy, Luis Guzmán is good support, Peter Fonda amuses, and that man Nicky Katt pops up (as he typically does) in an interesting if under-exploited cameo. If you’re in the mood for a revenge story with a twist this is worth sticking with.
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.
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 – 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 – 74.4 Genre: Crime, Action Duration: 109 mins Director: Jim Mickle Stars: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson
Jim Mickle’s film about a family man whose shooting of a home intruder entwines him in the travails of an aged ex-con and his old war buddy is an intriguing throwback to the crime thrillers of the 1980’s (and 70’s), crafted with all their style and some of their substance. Michael C. Hall leads the cast as the ordinary working stiff who just wants to set things right with the intimidating father of the man he shot. That the latter is played by the great Sam Shepard is only the first of two brilliant pieces of casting because the reborn Don Johnson pops up in the even more interesting role of the pig-farming private detective who owes Shepard his life.
There are a number of twists and turns to Nick Damici’s austere screenplay, too many of which are alluded to in the trailers and publicity posters, but it gets ever darker as it goes and culminates in a Rolling Thunder type showdown that makes for a rather effective release of tension. It could be argued that there’s one twist too many and that signposting and adhering to one streamlined plot might have served the ultimate purpose of the film (which was nothing more than to engineer a sleek actioner) better but it’s fair to say the delayed reveal adds an abundance of intrigue to the project.
Needless to say, with a cast like this one, there’s much to admire on the acting front. Hall makes for an impressive lead and captures all the hard headed nativity of his character. Shepard is mean as hell but with an essential humanity that drives the final act. However, it’s Johnson who blows them all away with his crackling charm and steady nerves. Moreover, it’s he who carries the movie over it’s tallest hurdle, namely, a lack of proper exposition for Hall’s motives. Crucial as they are to the plot’s credibility, more work was needed in figuring out exactly why such an everyday Joe would stay the course.
In the end, we both do just that, not only because Johnson has us hook, line, and sinker but because Jeff Grace’s purposeful score – with resounding echoes of Tangerine Dream at their Near Dark best – promises so much in the way of classic crime cinema ahead. The good news is that we just about reach that hallowed furrow even if it’s not as substantial an arrival as Thief, Heat, or Rolling Thunder.
Rating: The Good – 77.4 Genre: Thriller Duration: 90 mins Director: Jeremy Saulnier Screenplay: Jeremy Saulnier Stars: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves
“No speeches, no talkin. You point the gun, you shoot the gun.” From simple ideas, great stories come and when in the hands of disciplined film makers, they can thrive on screen. With its spartan screenplay, understated performances, and strong direction, Blue Ruin is a case in point. Macon Blair puts in a strangely magnetic turn as a man left traumatised and homeless by the murder of his parents who returns to his hometown to exact revenge on their killer. Once done, he gets sucked into a war with the killer’s siblings which reveals an unconventional aptitude for (or at least commitment to) murder. A low profile support cast admirably fills out the rest of the movie but this one is all about Blair’s sympathetic lost soul performance and the stirring originality of the central premise – a man with nothing to lose who gives as good as he gets. There’s nothing very original about the plot but through Jeremy Saulnier slow-roll direction and his spare but thoughtful script, it plays out in remarkably authentic manner. Never dragging and laced with genuinely shocking moments, Blue Ruin grabs hold of its audience in much the same manner that Blood Simple did. Like that movie, it suffers on the sound production front but, again, as with Blood Simple, the unprocessed vibe that comes with such indie film-making seems to champion the film’s aversion to any romantic notions of vengeance. In its place, we get that rarest of flowers, a revenge movie that delivers on what it promises but with the balancing forces of compassion, maturity, and social commentary. It’s raw, it’s gritty, it’s powerful and it’s just so damn fresh that Blue Ruin becomes the type of satisfying experience that every now and then pops up to reinvigorate the medium.
Rating: The Good – 91.8 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 100 mins Director: Alex Proyas Stars: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly
This is one of those films that is so conceptually and aesthetically stunning that it can hit you like a freight train if you’re not expecting it. And isn’t that one of the great joys of cinema? Alex Proyas’ film has been described as a Kafkaesque sci-fi noir and it very much is. It begins in a strange grimy hotel room where John Murdoch wakes up to find a dead prostitute on his floor and a group of sinister men pursuing him. His escape brings us into a world that seems at odds with everything we know and expect. It quickly transpires that Murdoch isn’t quite normal himself and may even have abilities akin to those of the strangers who are following him.
For a film that was always going to repel mainstream audiences who demand conventional narratives and accessible plots it’s amazing at how much money seems to have gone into this. The production design is truly awe-inspiring and combined with Proyas’ dark vision it becomes psyche affecting. The script is electric and is as honest an attempt to live up to the potentials of science fiction as you’ll find. It presents us with highly defined yet idiosyncratic characters who are cast to perfection. William Hurt and Jennifer Connelly are excellent but it’s Kiefer Sutherland’s Dr. Schreber and Rufus Sewell’s Murdoch who are so utterly captivating. Sutherland nails his character and is responsible for much of the film’s thrust, while Sewell is immense in an altogether more difficult role. Proyas’ direction is slick and intense employing quick cuts with sharp angles to get the most out his extraordinarily lit and shadow friendly sets.
Dark City is a monumental piece of science-fiction that pre-dated The Matrix by a year but went well beyond that film in its scope and daring. Ultimately, the best thing you can say about Dark City is that it achieves that holy grail of science fiction movies. A film that looks and feels like nothing that came before it or since. Utterly utterly sublime.
Rating: The Good – 65.3 Genre: Thriller Duration: 116 mins Director: Scott Cooper Stars: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe
Scott Cooper’s down and dirty small town revenge drama is a sometimes interesting film made with all the right intentions but also a lack of directorial savvy. Christian Bale and Casey Affleck are brothers struggling to get their lives on track after a jail sentence and traumatising tour of Iraq respectively. Bale is the more sensible elder brother who’s back at the local steel mill which is threatening to close for good while Affleck has taken to underground fighting to pay his debts. When the latter gets mixed up with some mountain folk and their bare knuckle and meth dealing rackets, he disappears leaving his brother and uncle, played by the evergreen Sam Shepard, to track down the vicious maniac responsible.
Cooper takes a meditative approach to Out of the Furnace, employing an extended yet concealed introduction of the main characters. Lots is alluded to but, with sparse dialogue and an abundance of secondary characters, nothing is for sure. For a film that moves as slow as this, there’s actually a lot going on in the way of character dynamics and what Cooper is trying to say about the daily lives of his working class protagonists. And with a cast like this, one would expect some powerful drama. Unfortunately, it all runs a little flat save for a handful of scenes as Cooper’s incompatible ambitions see it fall between two stools. In the first place, there’s just too many characters in play to justify that meditative style. Taking time in the buildup can be a virtue (and a rare one these days) but it hurts this movie as its focus constantly bounces around from one of the many characters to another. Furthermore, long periods without dialogue with only brief interludes of character interaction make it difficult to engage with even the main characters despite the wealth of acting talent behind them. Setting the characters amongst some palpable conflict or anxiety can offset this but Cooper and co-writer Brad Ingelsby simply allude to their troubled backgrounds and keep them completely separate from their current travails. This itself can often be an elegant approach to storytelling but again the wrong choice here as it compounds the first problem. And finally, when Cooper finally gets around to colouring in between the lines, he paints a fairly bleak picture making it yet more difficult to stay invested. On paper, he may make all the right moves but the final cut unsurprisingly fails to add up to the sum of its parts. Matters aren’t helped by some overfamiliar motifs and the equally worn metaphors used to tease them out – does cinema really need another moment of personal revelation involving a seasoned hunter’s sudden inability to shoot a cute deer?
Regardless of Cooper’s slip ups in shooting his script, the sterling cast ensures a reasonably entertaining if frustrating watch. Bale is terrific as usual and despite having to do most of it in silence, he inhabits the soul of his character in the manner we’ve become accustomed to. Affleck does what he can though both he and Bale alike would’ve benefited from a few substantial scenes together. Ditto Sam Shepard. Willem Dafoe tantalises with an extended cameo as Affleck’s bookie but Forest Whitaker’s turn as the local chief of police is utterly wasted. Woody Harrelson has won most of the plaudits as the crazed yokel and Cooper does his level best to raise the intimidation factor including a needless and unimaginatively violent introduction at the opening of the film. To be fair, the star reborn gives it plenty of oomph but again, we have to ask: is it anything we haven’t seen before?
Ultimately, it’s this level of over-familiarity that may wear most on the viewer and it doesn’t stop there. Though apparently written in 2011, the story bears strong resemblances to 2010’s Winter’s Bone, 2011’s Warrior, and 2012’s The Place Beyond the Pines right down to Masanobu Takayanagi’s moody photography. However, though it may lose points for unoriginality, following the formula set forth in those sleeper hits reaps some rewards for Cooper’s film because, like in those movies, Out of the Furnace comes alive during its tenser moments. It’s also in these moments where the actors’ contributions pay off most effectively. The inevitable showdown at the end is itself quite well handled and Bale in particular is brilliant in a scene defined by a more everyday act of heroism than those that revenge films typically play out to. And even if it does sign off with another (lets say) “nod” to The Deer Hunter – the final shot is a decent attempt to satisfy the story both narratively and thematically.
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.