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 – 75.8 Genre: Romantic Comedy Duration: 113 mins Director: Mike Nichols Stars: Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver
Of its time but in the best ways possible, Mike Nichols’ Working Girl is a superior rom-com starring Melanie Griffith as an ambitious secretary who, on discovering that her ruthless boss (a delightfully obnoxious Sigourney Weaver) has stolen her idea for a lucrative merger, assumes the role of an executive to close the deal herself. Along the way, she inevitably falls for the man helping her to put it together (Harrison Ford in top comedic form) while evading any and all situations that might disclose her real identity to him and everyone else. Working Girl achieves that priceless balance between the drama and romance by laying out a well developed plot and seamlessly weaving it with the various romantic angles. Nichols compensates for Griffith’s acting limitations by setting a comedic tone just wacky enough to forgive her flat delivery but not so much that it detracts from the relative sophistication of the story. Ford greatly assists him in this endeavour as he demonstrates, yet again, his impeccable timing and instincts for light comedy while Weaver proves equally critical with a brave and perfectly judged turn that she uses, like Ford, to coax the best out of Griffith. Nichols composes the entire thing with polish and remains master rather than victim to the business and fashion cultures from which so much of the humour is derived but the jewel in the movie’s crown is undoubtedly Kevin Wade’s witty screenplay that Ford in particular has a ball with. All that plus an electric Alec Baldwin as Griffith’s old squeeze, and some glorious cameos from Oliver Platt and Kevin Spacey ensure that Working Girl sits right at the top of that era’s genre offerings.
Rating: The Good – 88.1 Genre: Comedy, Romance Duration: 112mins Director: George Cukor Stars: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart
Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart form a golden trio for this definitive comedy of manners. Hepburn is the iron clad “goddess” with an inside made of bronze, Grant is the ex-husband who resurfaces on the eve of her next marriage to one of the “new money”, and Stewart is the working writer sent to cover the wedding for a celebrity gossip magazine. The three way relationship is bang on perfect thanks to the three titans of cinema and the deliciously worded back and forths present in Donald Ogden Stewart’s magnificent adapted screenplay and Philip Barry’s original play.
Hepburn is immense as the quick witted socialite, Tracy Lord, who has learned to repress her more compassionate side. In any other movie, she’d own the entire thing but with Grant and Stewart in top form they share the spoils equally. Grant is at his most charming as C.K. Dexter Haven and, while only really coming to the fore in the second hour, he’s responsible for most of the film’s emotional thrust. As the one more responsible for the movie’s straight comedy, Stewart’s Macaulay Connor is the perfect foil for Tracy’s playful cynic and indeed the funniest moments are the product of their dynamic. There’s a fine support cast on show too with John Halliday in great form as Lord senior.
George Cukor does an exemplary job in coaxing the drama from the more constrained parameters of the stage and onto his luscious monochrome while simultaneously keeping the quick repartee as the primary driver. The Philadelphia Story is one of those rare immortal comedies in that it’s lost none of its sophistication as the years go by. In fact, with the relative dumbing down of the modern romantic comedy, it has only grown in stature.
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 – 80.6 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 95 mins Director: William Wyler Stars: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson
From its exquisite opening scene in which a sleepy plantation is sharply awoken by an impeccably dressed Bette Davis gunning down a late night visitor, William Wyler’s The Letter lures us into it a wispy world of pretense and fettered emotion. Playing the well-to-do wife of a Singapore plantation owner who must defend herself for the killing of a man she claimed made unwelcomed advances, Davis was at the peak of an unparalleled run of successful screen turns and she harnesses all that confidence to shoulder the movie. A tantalising balance of threat and vulnerability, she commands the camera when it’s on her. As her legal council in her inevitable prosecution, James Stephenson goes a long way to match her as a source of conflict while providing a moral lens through which we can examine Davis’ actions. Gordon Kahn’s flawless screenplay centres around the initial murder that, in the absence of any Rashoman-like reconstructions, verbally retells it several times as new evidence comes to light. It’s a deft piece of writing that gives tangibility to the story during such transitory moments. Wyler crafts it all to exacting standards, lighting and shooting critical scenes in a noir aesthetic that rivals the best while affording the remainder of the film a lush profile highly complementary of the narrative. A genuine classic!
Rating: The Good – 72.2 Genre: Romantic Comedy Duration: 117 mins Director: Reginald Hudlin Stars: Eddie Murphy, Robin Givens, Halle Berry
Eddie Murphy blew hot and cold during the 1990’s but when he got it right, he usually nailed it. This smart and unusually wise romantic comedy is perhaps the best example of him doing just that. Murphy stars as the soft cracking lady-killer who gets knocked off his stride when he falls for his new boss, a stunning Robin Givens, and sees his caddish ways thrown back in his face by the alpha female. One tends to pigeon hole Murphy as nothing more than a comic but this guy could act (and probably still can) and in Boomerang he mixes this with quintessential humour and bags of presence. He’s excels in both sides to his dual role, from the charming ladies’ man to the charmed boss-lady’s man-slave. Wright is pitch perfect as his ringmaster and the watching him jump through her hoops is genuinely amusing. A radiant Halle Berry is just as good as Murphy’s girl-next-door type love interest and, as his best friends, Martin Lawrence and In Living Color’s David Alan Grier play off each other to hilarious effect. There are so many standout moments here that it’s two hours running time flies by and with a (finally) properly used Grace Jones as a ramped up version of well…herself, most of them will stay with you well past the close of the movie. That said, despite the wealth of comedy talent, the funniest moments involve a man-servant grinning at Murphy as he’s being forcibly seduced by Eartha Kitt’s man-eating 80 year old. Reginald Hudlin gives the whole thing a softly polished vibe that gently evokes early 90’s New York without smacking of it but it’s Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield’s mature and witty screenplay and the manner in which the cast deliver it that allows Boomerang to stand so tall amid the several other rom-coms of the era.
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 – 78.2 Genre: Martial Arts Duration: 134 mins Director: Hark Tsui Stars: Jet Li, Biao Yuen, Rosamund Kwan
Epic martial arts adventure starring Jet Li as the famous warrior Wong Fei-Hung who becomes embroiled in the intrigue of foreign powers and local corruption as he attempts to protect his homeland and traditions from their destructive influence. The outright strength of this magnificent piece of cinema is the tapestry of plots and stories it weaves into the central narrative not to mention the chorus of martial artists that intermittently set the screen alight. The result is a sprawling extravaganza of martial art drama. Hark Tsui brings an unabashed grandiosity to the film with striking cinematography and balletically choreographed action. James Wong’s magnificent score tells the story on its own level while Marco Mak’s editing whisks the audience along to the melodically unfolded action. As imaginative as the wire-work action sequences are there’s a slightly anaemic quality to their thrust which is a common problem with the flying style of fight movies. But what is lacking in oomph is made up for in artistry as Li, Biao Yuen, and company put on a masterly exhibition of on-screen action gymnastics. Within this, Li makes for a strong lead and catches the dramatic qualities of the famous leader admirably. Like the life and personality that Hark breathes into his epic saga from behind the camera, his lead actor and the remainder of the cast ensured that Once Upon a Time in China became much more than just another Kung-Fu flick.
Rating: The Good – 67.8 Genre: Romantic Comedy Duration: 95 mins Director: Frank Coraci Stars: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Christine Taylor
Down and out and recently left at the altar 1980’s wedding singer, Adam Sandler, befriends a sweet co-worker in the form of Drew Barrymore as she herself prepares for her wedding. Naturally, a guilty love blossoms as the jilted crooner attempts to pick up his life and nab the girl from her ridiculous Miami Vice obsessed fiancé. Rom-coms may be the most feebly represented of US movies, 80’s retrospectives may fall flat on their face more than any other nostalgia comedies, and Adam Sandler tends to hit or miss at a ratio of 1:4 but this one manages to defy all three trends. The low key self-deprecating humour of Sandler’s character seems to suit his screen presence better than most of his roles and he very much drives the comedy from every angle with boyish charm and bone-dry delivery. Barrymore too is perfectly cast as the girl of his dreams, in who’s mouth, butter wouldn’t melt and the chemistry between the two leads is palpable. The 80’s gags are gentle but for the most part will bring a smirk to your face, there are a few hilarious musical contributions from Sandler, and the soundtrack nails the era with affectionate humour. All that and a couple of show stopping cameos from Steve Buscemi and Jon Lovitz as a miffed best man and rival wedding singer respectively render The Wedding Singer a thoroughly satisfying 90 minutes.
Rating: The Ugly – 61.7 Genre: Thriller Duration: 128 mins Director: Mick Jackson Stars: Kevin Costner, Whitney Houston, Gary Kemp
Stoic protector Kevin Costner is hired to mind diva movie star Whitney Houston when her life is threatened by an anonymous maniac. With his client growing increasingly unhappy with the new restrictions on her life and everything happening in the midst of an entourage, the methodical minder gets more than he bargained for, especially when he inevitably falls for the women he’s supposed to be protecting. Nauseatingly hyped on its release, The Bodyguard is one of those movies which the world seemed happy to forget in recent decades. However, as a straight up thriller, we’ve seen a lot worse than a relatively original premise being executed with enough twists and turns to keep its audience guessing. The problem lies in the romantic angle which, at all times, seems at odds with characters who are written fit for purpose with the movie’s plot. Writer Lawrence Kasdan needed to raise the sophistication of his characters if he wanted to provide a tenser platform for the mushy stuff but, as it is, their bog-standardness ensure they can’t support anything other than the most basic drama. Fine for a straight thriller, not so fine for a romantic drama. Not surprisingly, therefore, Costner has frequently been better but even at half speed he manages to cut a decent lead. Houston is a little more mixed in her performance. In what could of been an interestingly reflexive role, the actual singer come movie star Houston escapes any acting acrobatics by simply playing herself. And though there are shades of charisma here and there, she spends most of the film belting out one painfully plain song after another before she makes her way to the then showstopping cover of Dolly Parton’s country classic. It’s a whiny turn by virtue of Kasdan’s lack of character ambitions not to mention her limitations as an actress but she nonetheless succeeds in giving us some brief moments of chemistry between her and most of her co-stars. Unfortunately, Costner isn’t one of them and so whenever the movie is shoved into its romantic gear, it labours to keep moving.
Rating: The Good – 78 Genre: Crime, Action Duration: 120 mins Director: Tony Scott Stars: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Brad Pitt
Tony Scott’s finest hour came when he purchased a young video store clerk’s script and executed it with much of the panache and dry wit that the same clerk would soon become renowned for. It tells the story of a geek-come-wild boy Christian Slater who falls in love with prostitute Patricia Arquette, kills her slightly deranged pimp, accidentally steals his cocaine, and then attempts to sell it to some rich Hollywood producer before the coke’s real owner, mob boss Christopher Walken, tracks him down with prejudice.
True Romance quickly became a cult classic because it cut across genres with the same audacity as Reservoir Dogs did. Colourful characters posing hip monologues, an unlikely romance at the center that flavours the entire movie with an essential unreal vibe, and more fists and guns action than you can shake a stick at ensures that the entire caper is bags of unpredictable fun and looks a treat too. With the verve that Scott’s movies were always reaching for coming pre-loaded with Quentin Tarantino’s white hot script, the former commercial director softens his touch and lets the dialogue do the talking. Free from intrusive editing and over the top score, his consistently outstanding scene composition is finally given the room to breathe and the time to be appreciated. Smokey slats of light grace everything with a cosy noir-esque ambiance, perfectly backdropping the lyricism of Tarantino’s words and the enthusiastic performances that bring them to life.
In that last regard, Slater has never been better and he shares a magnetic chemistry with the even better Arquette. Walken is Walken (in the best way possible), Hopper is in fine form as Slater’s estranged father, Oldman is forgivably over the top as the crazed pimp with an epic inferiority complex, and Brad Pitt is a riot as Slater’s L.A. stoner buddy. However, in one of the smaller parts, it’s James Gandolfini who nearly steals the show as the very real (in a wonderful contrast to practically everything else) and very scary enforcer. The last word should go to Hans Zimmer though who, on his own, seems to give this movie a tenderness that raises it above your standard actioner. Okay, not quite in his own, Scott, Tarantino, and Gandolfini helped, a lot.
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.