Rating: The Good – 76 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 130 mins Director: Joseph Sargent Stars: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kiera Knightley
Movies recounting humankind’s gruelling attempts to overcome nature’s obstacles tend to be either underproduced and rather dull affairs or overproduced and predictably brainless action movies so it’s a welcome surprise when we come across one that so effectively balances the internal and external factors to the story as much as Baltasar Kormákur’s film does. Couched in a comfortable budget, Everest captures the visceral wonder of the experience but maintains the writing and acting as its prize assets. And with a cast of A-listers all willing to do their bit for far less billing than their status normally demands, it pays dividends. Jason Clark hits all the right notes as the expedition leader and Josh Brolin and John Hawkes add handsomely to the medley of emotional tribulation while Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Worthington, Kiera Knightley, and Robin Wright help shape both the story’s physical and personal contexts so that theme and drama meet harmoniously in the middle. Not everyone will be happy with Kormákur’s aversion to set piece action but those with an appreciation for attritional authenticity should find his adventure rather compelling.
Rating: The Ugly – 67.4 Genre: Action, Sport Duration: 107 mins Director: Tony Scott Stars: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Robert Duvall
Tony Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer take the Top Gun formula and apply it to the racetrack in what turns out to be a surprisingly enjoyable piece of fluff. Tom Cruise top lines as the hot shot speedster laden with daddy issues who, after rocketing to stardom, develops a crisis of confidence after he barely survives a crash. It’s the Top Gun story right down to the grinning nemesis (Cary Elwes as opposed to Kilmer) but a tad less maudlin and with two special additions. First is presence of Robert Duvall, the seasoned mechanic who reluctantly takes the Cruiser under his wing. It’s his nous that lifts the entire drama by lacing the movie with grizzled sentiment and wise humour. Second is the drafting of Robert Towne to write the screenplay which gives the characters and their dialogue the kind of traction that rarely grace such hot air storytelling. Nicole Kidman offers strong support in an equally capable female role and though it resulted in one of modern Hollywood’s more atypical romances, she and Tom share a rather solid chemistry as the driver and his doctor girlfriend. In a nice twist on the intimidating rival trope, Michael Rooker scores terrifically as the older driver who, after being knocked off his pedestal by the cheeky Cruise, forms a tentative friendship with him – their wheelchair race alone makes this dramatic tangent worthwhile. As you’d expect from Scott, the driving sequences are wisecrack funneled and testosterone charged but thy’re shot and cut with a more coherent style than his films often exhibited. A suitably rousing rock anthem soundtrack wraps them up into neat little action package and though you may feel a tad guilty for falling for the director’s unabashed heavy handedness, you’ll find yourself amusingly entertained all the same.
Rating: The Good – 70.5 Genre: Sport, Drama Duration: 118 mins Director: Peter Berg Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Jay Hernandez, Derek Luke
Director Peter Berg and writer David Aaron Cohen’s adaptation of H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s novel chronicles the travails of a football mad Texas town and their high school team’s attempt to win the State Championship amidst social and personal pressures. Living up to the seminal novel was always going to be next to impossible especially for a (albeit) solid journeyman like Berg but there’s no denying this one just sort of works. From the bone shaking tackles, the swagger of the touchdowns, to the strategising on the sidelines, Berg does every bit of the game justice and so the audience will be suitably engrossed on that level alone. But it’s the team camaraderie and off-field personal tests that coach and players alike face throughout the season that gives this movie its substance despite Berg and Cohen presenting only fleeting snippets of each drama ‘s due to time limitations. Berg quite smartly uses the energy of the rough and tumble to exhilarate the audience and then funnel it into some rather touching moments of emotion when needed. It’s all very explicit with plenty of slow motion shots and uplifting score but, because of its honesty and Berg and Cohen’s success in binding us to the players, the resultant goosebumps are guilt free and welcome. Billy Bob Thornton puts in an outstanding shift as the thoughtful coach desperate to keep both his self respect and his job despite their mutual interference. But it’s a bunch of unknowns that fill out the rest of the cast and not one puts a foot wrong. Modest in its aims yet efficient in its execution, Friday Night Lights does what all good sports dramas should do and remains respectful of the source material as it goes. Nicely done Mr Berg.
Rating: The Good – 74.4 Genre: Drama, Sport Duration: 134 mins Director: Bennett Miller Stars: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo
When a billionaire dilettante, John du Pont, attempts to build a reputation as a wrestling coach, he persuades the more vulnerable of the Olympic champion Schultz brothers, Mark, to lead his new team on his family’s Foxcatcher estate. As du Pont insinuates himself into Mark’s life until the latter withdraws, the disturbed misfit refocuses his attempt to lure the older brother, Dave, to Team Foxcatcher to the ultimate detriment of both siblings.
Based on actual events, Bennett Miller’s flagellating drama is a cognitively murky examination of the loneliness and exasperation of unfulfillment, from both human and more extreme perspectives. Changing Tatum becomes the focus for the former as the insecure and confused young man who has lived in the shadow of his older brother’s heroics. It’s a revelatory turn from the former model as he distills all the raging emotion of his character into a dangerous simmer. Representing the psychotic end of that personality’s spectrum is Steve Carell in an outstanding turn against type. Bloated with rabid inferiority issues and deranged paranoia, he’s unrecognisable as the insidious du Pont. But rounding off the cast as Dave Schultz is Mark Ruffalo and it’s the performance we always knew was coming from this consistently impressive actor. With rather limited screen time, given the first two acts’ focus on the other two characters, he gives this story the emotional grounding it desperately needs. It’s a touching not to mention commanding piece of acting that should consolidate his reputation as one of the best actors working today.
Telling a distinctly unusual tale, Foxcatcher offers much in the way of psychological intrigue and it curiously compels on those terms alone. Flush with revealing symbolism and set against Rob Simonsen’s (Moneyball) thoughtful score, it’s another starkly polished film from Miller in which he spends much of his time laying an immaculately composed canvas for his drama. But, while there’s plenty of it, it unfortunately needed more traction. Whereas Miller was aiming for a pensive touch, his directing instead feels a tad aloof. With such strong characters, we needed to see more of their human side. And in the case of Ruffalo who still managed to imbue Dave Schultz with all manner of deeply impressive personal touches, embracing that side to the story might well have paid dividends. As it stands, Foxcatcher remains an affecting work but not one that will bear too many revisits.
Rating: The Good – 68.4 Genre: Drama, Sport Duration: 110 mins Director: Ivan Reitman Stars: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Frank Langella
Kevin Costner is certainly an actor to keep your eye on. He may have dropped out of the A-List in the mid-90’s but he has remained an astute reader of scripts and, not infrequently, pops up with a very good movie that flies under most people’s radar. Draft Day is one of the more recent examples and perhaps the most surprising given the cloying sentiment the movie embraces from the opening scene. Costner is the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, desperate to make his mark on the team by using his number seven pick in the NFL Draft pick to acquire a prodigious defensive prospect in the face of pressure from his owner to go for the quarterback everyone wants. Bowing to the pressure, he makes a deal for the number one spot that his entire staff balk at only to change his mind and try something even more bold.
The drama unfolds over the course of “Draft Day” and sweeps us around the country as one franchise after another attempt to make some magic happen for their teams. But with Costner and his Browns at the centre of it all. Whether it’s the quick pacing or the fascination with team strategy or just the quality of the drama, director Ivan Reitman manages to build a wholly engaging tension that peaks several times across the final act. Opting bravely to mirror the theatre of the event itself, he shoots shiny graphics across the screen, splits it, and litters it with brand advertisement.
Thankfully, a cast full of good pros, either making telling cameos or playing more substantial roles, adds a touch of solidity to the all these bells and whistles. Costner is in fine form as the decent football man just trying to get the team he wants, Jennifer Gardner is fantastic as Costner’s younger girlfriend who announces the morning of that she is pregnant and wants more from their relationship, Dennis Leary is the mouthy coach beleaguered at his manager’s impulsive manoeuvres, Frank Langella is the charming yet power-happy owner monitoring everything, while Sam Elliot, Kevin Dunne, Tom Welling, Josh Pence, and many, many others fill out the rest of universally entertaining roster. Among the benefits to a cast like this isn’t just some great chemistry but plenty of well timed and delivered comic moments. But it’s the drama of the strategising and last minute negotiations that drives the ball home and makes this piece of fluff as thrilling as it is.
Rating: The Good – 76.1 Genre: Drama, Comedy Duration: 139 mins Director: Cameron Crowe Stars: Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr., Renée Zellweger
Cameron Crowe’s finely pitched romantic comedy has all the hallmarks of the best romantic drama with a healthy dollop of cynicism to keep it honest. Tom Cruise is the sports agent who, after a late night epiphany, turns his back on his once ruthless, heartless, and client churning approach to his career and commits himself to a more personal form of sporting representation. The only problem is the line of colleagues waiting to plunge their knives into his back and his soon to be former clients who’ve been well indoctrinated into the industry’s superficiality. Left with nobody but an enamoured secretary at his former company (Renée Zellwegger) and an embittered but charismatic football player desperate for the contract he feels he deserves (Cuba Gooding Jr.), he strives to build a new business while reconciling the feelings he develops for former and maintaining his turbulent relationship with the latter.
Nearly 20 years after its release, Jerry Maguire remains as fresh and endearing as it was in the 90’s as Crowe approaches things with an energy and fun that gets the best out of his cast and acerbic script alike. The riffs resonate amusingly, the dialogue pops, and the very real personal drama bubbles just under the comedic surface so that the movie avoids succumbing to the palpable angst of Cruise’s central dilemma. Only once or twice does it threaten to do so but Cameron and his cast always pull it back. Cruise has rarely been better morphing seamlessly from the confident, shark-toothed grin of successful agent to the sweaty self doubt of a man struggling to find himself. Zellwegger charms the audience with her rather original portrayal of the needy but admirable single mother while Gooding Jr., in his Oscar winning turn, is simply a force of nature. There’s a vulnerable defiance to his all encompassing presence which makes him much more than just a football jock looking for a contract and it’s around him that much of the film derives its energy. Whether or not the whole thing becomes too thick with sentiment will come down to one’s tolerance of light hearted emotional drama but there’s enough truth and real life sprinkled about the script and its delivery to capture most of us without a fight.
Rating: The Good – 73.3 Genre: Sport, Drama Duration: 131 mins Director: Gavin O’Connor Stars: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte
One might expect a movie set in the world of mixed martial arts to be nothing more than another vehicle in the sport’s locomotive-like publicity convoy. That it’s not, is only the first surprise Gavin O’Connor’s fight drama servers up. Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy play Brendan and Tommy, two estranged brothers who were separated when the latter took off with his mother to escape their physically abusive father (played by Nick Nolte) years earlier. The older Brendan stayed with his father only to shun him at a later date and settle down as a physics teacher and family man while Tommy lost his mother, escaped poverty by joining the Marines, and served in Iraq.
The story begins with a ferociously volatile Tommy showing up at his father’s door 14 years later to throw insults at the now recovered alcoholic – not to mention his former wrestling trainer. However, it’s not long before he asks the desperate old man to train him for a blockbuster MMA event in which the winner takes home $5 million – so long as only training is discussed. Unbeknownst to them, over in Philadelphia, Brendan’s family are in danger of losing their home and so he too decides to return to fighting, eyeing the same prize as his brother. With the second half of the film dedicated to the all out carnage of the cage, the fraternal dynamic is only alluded to (in a standout night time scene that was shot on the Atlantic City waterfront) but it seems that the bluntly manic Tommy has never forgiven Brendan for not leaving with him and his mother and so their inevitable collision in the ring promises to erupt into a grudge match of biblical proportions.
There’s obviously lots going on here and that’s not the half of it. The film is beset with two or three needless subplots mostly concerning Tommy but given the tendency for these types of films to pay mere lip-service to back stories, the attempt to do more as opposed to less should be somewhat respected. It does come together thanks to some contrived character dynamics, some less than believable plot development, and O’Connor’s cleverly manipulative direction but so hair-raising is the end product that most will forgive the heavy handedness. Moreover, if you are content not to dwell on the negatives, the film can whisk you forward in a wave of unsubtle emotion right into the frenzied grinder of the tournament battles.
They’re a rousing bunch of set pieces connected with an adrenaline charged yet elegant montage of highlights from those fights we don’t see in full. And MMA fans won’t be disappointed either given the quality of the fight choreography. Yes, some of the physical untidiness of real-life fighting is filtered out in favour of more flowing moves but the hard edged savagery is represented clearly and authentically. The climax is a little on the nose and unashamedly gives the audience what they want but it undeniably works.
On the acting front, Edgerton shows once again what an interesting talent he is and Nolte does his best to battle the pathos with which his character is overflowing (a ridiculously overwrought drunken-relapse scene notwithstanding) but in truth everyone is overshadowed by Tom Hardy’s monstrous turn. As an unstable brute, it’s a commanding piece of acting that makes quality use of the writers’ best ideas for Tommy and avoids the pitfalls of their worst. Furthermore, not only does he maintain a deep and necessary vulnerability but he funnels it into his character’s personality so completely that it only juices his formidable energy all the more. Movie fans will get much from this film regardless of whether their preference is drama or action, but what will stay with everyone the longest is Hardy.
Rating: The Good – 84.6 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 73 mins Director: Robert Wise Stars: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias
Told in real time, The Set-Up follows a journeyman boxer’s last grasp at glory as he prepares for, fights, and evades the consequences of the biggest fight of his life. Robert Ryan is in fine form as the man who won’t lie down even when he discovers late on in the fight that the fix is in. He exudes determined vulnerability all the way through and the fight scenes in particular (Ryan was a former Golden Gloves champion) are some of the best captured anywhere. Robert Wise shows early on that he was an exceptional director in the making by giving the real-time action an effortless gliding quality and some of the shots, particularly those exteriors of the arena and the adjacent motel are just gorgeous. Art Cohn’s script is expertly tailored to the tight constraints of the picture and it brings the best out of the various actors. The Set-Up is full memorable moments and scenarios from the middle-aged woman who claims to have no love for the sport only to be baying for blood once inside, to the interactions between the mobster, his floozie, and the surrounding men. At just over 68 minutes long, this one will zip along but it’ll live long in the memory nonetheless.
Rating: The Good – 74.4 Genre: Sport, Drama Duration: 140 mins Director: Gary Ross Stars: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Elizabeth Banks
The timeless story of the “little horse that could” is given near mythological status here by writer/director Gary Ross and the perfect narration of Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough. Seabiscuit is the ultimate long-shot story given the physical qualities of the horse and unorthodox style of its rider Red Pollard. The fact that it’s all true makes it even more compelling. And compelling it is. This is the type of movie, like it or not, that will give you goose-bumps all over with a number of exquisitely-crafted scenes that will stay with you for a long time. Toby Maguire stars as Red and he does a decent job as the troubled jockey who forms a deep bond with the horse. Jeff Bridges is in top form as the wealthy businessman who finds his true calling in looking after troubled jockey and horse alike and Chris Cooper is magic in the role of the seasoned trainer. Perhaps the standout strength of the film is the sense of period and time passing which Ross evokes so powerfully. In this, he is aided by McCullough’s craggy almost epoch-defining narration that comes to life each time the story skips forward in time. This movie will unashamedly pull on the emotional chords but it does so in such a skillful way that you’ll forgive it ten times over. The writing, the directing, and the acting are so meticulous that you’re hostage to it from early on. So just give yourself over to it and enjoy the rewards.
Rating: The Good – 74.9 Genre: Drama Duration: 119 mins Director: John G. Avildsen Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young
We all know the story: a journeyman slugger is given a shot at the title as a publicity stunt dreamed up by the champ but ends up giving the champ more than he bargained for. It may have spawned an ultimately tiresome series of sequels but this original work is a very different film to the franchised money-spinners. Rocky is at times a brutally honest portrayal of a young bruiser reluctantly moonlighting as a loan collector stuck in a rut that it seems may last a lifetime. Sylvester Stallone gives the performance of his life in bringing a phenomenal degree of authenticity to the role. He gives us so many sides to Rocky which are all so well tied into the main core of the man that it might well be one of the most layered performances we’ve seen from anyone (really!). We like him immediately but the film ends with us rooting for him like nobody before or since. Talia Shire, Burt Young, and the charismatic Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed similarly turn in the performances of their careers. Not only did Stallone do the acting, but he also wrote the damn thing and rightly scooped up an Oscar for what is an awesomely fresh and insightful screenplay. For those expecting an action movie like the sequels offered up, forget it. This is a drama and a damn good one. Yes, they’re is an action pay off at the end but it’s actually quite truncated and the real joy is to be had in the extremely fleshed out build up. That said when the fight does begin, it’s a terrifically choreographed and shot spectacle which to the very last emotion captures the theme of the movie. “I just wanna go the distance.”
Rating: The Good – 78.3 Genre: Drama, Sport Duration: 116 mins Director: David O. Russell Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams
David O. Russell’s return to directing after a six year absence is a witty and soulful sporting drama that recounts the true life efforts of two working class boxers to overcome their circumstances and banish respective demons. If it sounds like a tired premise, fret not, because The Fighter is a one of a kind film that shifts seamlessly between touching personal drama, wilful farce, exhilarating sporting action, and hysterical comedy and all the while remaining true to the rich characterisations at its core. Mark Walhberg stars as Micky Ward, the younger brother of a briefly famous Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale in sensational form), whose past exploits against Sugar Ray Robinson have become the stuff of local legend and the defining moment in the now crack addicted and failed pugilist’s career. Now Micky’s trainer, he’s quick to point out that the two brothers were very different in the ring and, as the playfully elegant documentary-like opening sequence demonstrates, they are very different outside it too. Despite their differences, there’s a deep bond that Dicky instinctively exploits along with their overbearing mother (Melissa Leo) as they mismanage Micky into one bad fight after another. That is until the younger brother’s new girlfriend (a typically strong Amy Adams) encourages him to stand up for himself.
There’s so much going on here that it’s a testament to all involved the the movie glides so cohesively forward from one differently toned scene to another. An air of sharp comedy hangs over the film through the various characters’ combustible interactions but because of its perceptive portrayal of ordinary people there is, at its core, an honesty reminiscent of the best and most insightful dramas. Furthermore, much like that most untouchable of TV shows, The Sopranos, the realness of the characters and their dialogue acts as a tangible basis that allows their extraordinary experiences to thrill all the more especially during the boxing sequences. Combined with the assured energy of Russell’s direction, the film takes on a real verve and electricity from the viscerally shot fights to the soft and graceful subjective interactions.
But while Russell gives this film its momentum, it’s the cast who gives it its substance. Being the very definition of an actor who can shine in the right role or bomb in the wrong one, Mark Walhberg is beaming here like never before. It’s not a soul scouring piece of acting like Bale’s but it’s a triumphantly weighted ‘roll with punches… until’ performance that parallels Micky’s outside and inside the ring personas in endearing manner. This is a protagonist who we care about. Bale does his not unusual piece of dramatic weight loss to play the “squirrelly” larger than life junkie but it’s his ability to expose the essence of the human being beneath in all manner of interesting and charming ways that grabs the attention here. He deservedly nabbed the Best Supporting Oscar for the turn but it’s his young De Niro-like energy that impresses most. Leo also scooped the Best Supporting gong for her fiery portrayal of the shrewd yet loving matriarch. It’s her and her motley crew of battle axe daughters that allow Russell to generate a fair bit of farcical relief and while the antics of the Ward/Eklund women can sometimes feel a little forced, they are terrifically funny when they get going. The real Dicky Eklund felt it wasn’t an accurate reflection of his mother and sisters and one suspects Leo and Co. added many more claws for comic as well as dramatic effect. If so, job done!
It all builds up to a rousing finale that like the best sporting dramas seems to add more significantly to the tone of the film rather than the plot. It’s a wonderful moment of movie holism where the sum of the film’s parts come together to give us something we were never really promised while getting there but only too delighted to receive.
Rating: The Good – 82.9 Genre: Drama Duration: 134 mins Director: Robert Rossen Stars: Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie
Paul Newman gives a tour de force performance in this darkly affecting drama about a pool hall hustler determined to prove that he’s the best regardless of all costs. The Hustler has many strengths, but the dialogue and the acting deserve the most credit. Newman is in fine form as Fast Eddie Felson and even his pool work looks up to the pace. Jackie Gleeson is stylish and effortlessly charismatic as Minnesota Fats, Piper Laurie is outstanding as Felson’s depressed girlfriend, and George C. Scott is perfectly sinister as Felson’s ruthless manager. The pool scenes give this otherwise dark drama a real electricity and watching the two titans glide around the table locked in a combat of artistry and wit is a real treat.