Rating: The Good – 77 Genre: Crime Duration: 121 mins Director: Denis Villeneuve Stars: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro
Cold and sinister narco-thriller with Emily Blunt top-lining as a FBI agent recruited by the CIA for a series of clandestine operations against a powerful Mexican cartel. As the missions begin to increasingly circumvent the law, the beleaguered agent grows suspicious of Josh Brolin’s lead agent and ever fearful of his mysterious cartel expert, Benicio Del Toro. After an admirable attempt in Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve succeeds in crafting a morally bleak thriller with sufficient traction and believability to keep the audience engrossed all the way through. The war on drugs is articulated almost completely through the actions of the protagonists. The drama is shot with a slow-thudding realism while the dialogue chills the story a couple degrees lower. Left of centre to the plot, Blunt is subtly magnificent as she manages to stay relevant even while her character is necessarily marginalised. On the other side of things, Brolin is quietly having a ball but Del Toro is just plain scary. The narco-wars are very much in vogue at the moment but on several occasions, Sicario peels off a layer or two and reels us towards a world not often seen. Yes, the narrative moves inescapably towards Hollywood’s notion of closure but there are a sufficient number of unfamiliar twists and turns to intrigue the most ardent fans. Roger Deacons’ crisp textures and contrasts are central to this experience as is Joe Walker’s editing but it’s Villeneuve’s steely focus that makes this so darkly compelling.
Rating: The Good – 76 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 101 mins Director: Danny Boyle Stars: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel
A suave and tricksy thriller detailing a heist mob’s unconventional attempt to hypnotically uncover the location of a stolen painting amidst emotional turbulence and full-blown crises of identity. Trance offers the best and worst of mercurial director Danny Boyle at about a 30/70 split. Stunningly shot and soundtracked to Rick Smith’s pulsing melodies, it sets out to explicitly defy narrative convention and treat us to a razzle-dazzle experience over old fashioned storytelling. Though we’ve seen attempts like this before, what Trance lacks in originality it makes up for in burning focus and unflinching persistence. And with James McAvoy and the always splendid Rosario Dawson mischievously wrapped up in the deep dark psychological hijinks, the experiment is only enriched. But trippy entertainment only goes so far and with the plot hoisted so brazenly atop of Boyle’s sacrificial alter, not even actors of their class and magnetism can keep us invested in the manner we’d expect and desire from a clever heist thriller.
Rating: The Good – 71 Genre: Horror Duration: 110 mins Director: Scott Derrickson Stars: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone
Spooky psychological horror with Ethan Hawke playing a true crime writer desperate for another bestseller who moves his family into a house where the previous occupants were hanged so that he can investigate the unsolved crime. Discovering a box of 16mm home video tapes in the attic, he briefly wonders how the police could’ve missed something so important but quickly finds himself absorbed in the revelatory footage and the series of family murders that they reveal.
Veteran horror director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) meticulously crafts a movie of unyielding creepiness in this original take on the haunted house scenario that reaches into pagan lore as opposed to the more typical Christian mythology. Hawke is intense enough to carry the majority of it and though the support cast are more peripheral than usual, Juliet Rylance is outstanding as his past tolerance wife while James Ransone provides a slightly mercurial presence as a comical but deceptively competent deputy. Draped in shadow and deep blacks, even the daytime scenes are dreary to the point that the audience will find few opportunities for some much needed reprieve. The excessive gloominess thus bleeds into the narrative rendering Sinister an unforgiving watch even for the most seasoned horror fans.
Embedded within this stark profile, novel demon concepts permeate the story and plot adding a serious dose of unpredictability while a slow creeping collaboration between Christopher Young’s score and obscure indie tracks haunt the darkest parts of the movie, in particular, Hawke’s viewing of the 16mms. Derrickson’s script is economic or revealing where needed and does well to steadily intertwine the necessary expositions with the unfolding drama. However, while everything outside of Hawke’s new home is necessarily kept at a distance, it could be argued that his family, particularly his son and daughter, needed to be more relevant to the narrative given its ultimate destination. That said, it can’t be denied that the ending works in a uniquely chilling manner. It may make for a bleak bit of entertainment but Sinister counts as yet another success in the catalogue of indie horror.
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 – 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 – 63.8 Genre: Crime Duration: 91 mins Director: Aaron Woodley Stars: Kevin Zegers, Ray Liotta, Laura Vandervoort
Slightly above average thriller involving the abduction of three rich kids by three malcontents who attempt to ransom their prisoners to the three wealthy fathers. A low profile cast add some bite to a well structured screenplay with Ray Liotta bringing his natural snakiness to his fatherly role. The dialogue can struggle to rise to the sharpness of the story but Aaron Woodley’s classy directing fills some of the void. For the most part, The Entitled sidesteps the more formulaic tracks and tickles the audience with the ambiguous morality and strained allegiances found among each of the three parties. It’s that moral coolness that allows the movie to play out to a satisfying conclusion and without ever really catching fire, The Entitled manages a continuous simmer.
Rating: The Good – 73.4 Genre: Thriller Duration: 85 mins Director: Wes Craven Stars: Rachel McAdams, Cillian Murphy, Brian Cox
A hotel manager is co-opted into an assassination plot by the man sitting next to her on the plane when he threatens to have her father killed if she doesn’t follow his instructions regarding a high profile guest staying at her hotel. Wes Craven coolly turned his hand to the art of straight suspense in this metronomic thriller that scores on every level it aims at. Rachael McAdams is the woman who finds herself next to Cillian Murphy’s very creepy passenger from hell and she delivers an admirably even performance as the likeable yet focused young woman. After his character dispenses with the not very deceptively charming persona, Murphy settles into the role of slimy puppeteer and the pair do well to shoulder much of the movie from the confines of the plane. That said, the always solid Brian Cox is on hand as the father on the ground and Jayma Mays is fantastic as McAdams’ nervous assistant back in the hotel. With a concept thriller like this, Carl Ellsworth’s screenplay was always going to be the ultimate decider in whether Red Eye rises above the ordinary and, happily, it sets a tempered balance between the psychological and visceral as Murphy’s threat bombardment intermittently boils over into physical intimidation. Craven uses the small space of the plane to quicken the pace keeping matters especially energised with his typically clever use of character movement. As the movie races to a close, he dips into his time honoured tool bag to generate some modest scares and, while somewhat familiar, they provide a tidy outlet for all that in-flight anxiety. At the production level, the movie boasts a degree of accomplishment that makes it all the more than enjoyable to watch.
Rating: The Ugly – 64.5 Genre: Thriller Duration: 99 mins Director: Tom Holland Stars: Timothy Hutton, Lara Flynn Boyle, Faye Dunaway
Daft as a brush but forgivably sardonic, Tom Holland’s The Temp is a fast and loose thriller about an executive’s beautiful but sinister assistant whose recent arrival coincides with a number of accidents that move both her and her increasingly suspicious boss up the ladder. Timothy Hutton is the beleaguered exec, Laura Flynn Boyle, his self-appointed but apparently unstable cat’s paw while Faye Dunaway and Oliver Platt play their cut throat co-workers. With its unpredictable plot and outlandish progression, The Temp scores for its sheer uniqueness but with the writer-director of the quirky Fright Night pulling the strings, it’s also a riot of rather well disguised black comedy too. Contrasting dark tones of paranoia with over the top villainy, there’s barely a scene that won’t elicit a crooked smile. However, so unorthodox is its execution that the sarcasm is perhaps too well disguised. As often as not, the movie comes across as a tad unsure of itself and even erratic. In these moments, it can let the audience slip through its fingers despite the best efforts of Hutton and co. In the end, it all unravels rather resoundingly but, at the very least, it maintains its eccentricity.
Rating: The Good – 72.1 Genre: Action Duration: 126 mins Director: J.J. Abrams Stars: Tom Cruise, Michelle Monaghan, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Easily the better of the first two sequels, Mission Impossible III isn’t as much defined by its traditional set pieces as it is by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s über-villain. After retiring from the field to get married, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is drawn back into the fold when his protege is killed by the aforementioned nasty arms dealer who among other things is attempting to secure some kind of doomsday device. Picking up the ball after John Woo had somewhat fumbled it in MI:II, J.J. Abrams, fresh from his television successes with Alias and Lost, shows an intuitive touch in his handling of some modestly conceived but impressively staged set pieces. And though opening in perhaps too high a gear, the movie does eventually settle to the extent that a decent story plays out.
After a six year hiatus from the role, Cruise gives us the same enjoyable but watered down version of Ethan Hunt as he did in the first sequel. No doubt the movie could’ve used the cheeky verve of his cracking original turn but what he fails to provide, Seymour-Hoffman makes up for in spades. Not known for his roles in action thrillers, Seymour-Hoffman spits his wonderfully acidic dialogue at everyone and anyone who gets in his way right before he tortures them in some novel but psychologically cruel manner. He’s as thrilling a bad guy as you’ll find and a scene in which he wakes up in chains yet immediately turns the tables on his captors through sheer force of will is chilling to behold. The majority of the characters excluding Hunt’s new bride (Michelle Monaghan) and his sarcastic tech-specialist (Simon Pegg) are merely vessels through which the extended action sequences play out but so brisk is the pace Abrams sets, it won’t really be noticed.
Rating: The Good – 65.4 Genre: Action, Thriller Duration: 105 mins Director: Kenneth Branagh Stars: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley
Chris Pine assumes the role of CIA analyst Jack Ryan for this unambitious yet entertaining reboot of the Tom Clancy series. Beginning with his recruitment to the agency, we follow Ryan from England to the U.S. to Russia as he attempts to uncover the latter’s plans for a financial attack on his country. With his handler (an always in-form Kevin Costner) watching over him and his girlfriend (Kiera Knightley) suspicious of his covert behaviour, he suddenly finds himself “field operational” and charged with infiltrating the accounts of Kenneth Branagh’s ruthless former KGB agent who’s leading the Russian attack. Once again, Pine gives us a charming younger version of a well known character and he and Knightley form a strong pairing on which much of the drama is surprisingly built. Best of all, though, is Branagh who contrasts his own peculiar charm with a cold edge that proves nicely intimidating. Impressively, Branagh is also calling the shots from the director’s chair and he sets and maintains a taut pace throughout its 100 minutes. In the post-Bourne world, the set pieces were always going to feel somewhat subdued but they’re all executed with skill. Martin Walsh’s crisp editing is particularly impressive, his job made easier by Branagh’s slick angles and pans. David Koepp’s script is of the efficient variety in that it doesn’t get in the way of the action but nor does it rise to level of his best work. However, where Shadow Recruit fails to live up to its predecessors is in the absence of any substantial agency intrigue or inter-military politics. This should probably come as no surprise given that it’s the only movie in the series not based on an actual Clancy novel but because of this, Shadow Recruit succeeds merely as a generic action thriller, albeit a well polished one.
An elegantly directed sci-fi adventure considerably undermined by yet another painfully flat Nolan screenplay, Interstellar charts the epic attempts of a small group of scientists and astronauts to locate a planet capable of supporting the human race as its Earthly sustenance quickly dries up. Mathew McConaughey heads the cast as the mission’s pilot desperate to get back to the children he left behind before they age beyond the point where he can help them while Ann Hathaway’s stiffish scientist and a couple of nicely conceived robots keep him company on board the spacecraft. Back on Earth, Michael Caine is the brains behind the mission, Jessica Chastain is the grown up version of McConaughey’s equally clever daughter, and Casey Affleck is his son who, like the majority of remaining humans, is attempting to farm what’s left of their desertification-headed planet.
Regaining his 2008 Dark Knight directorial form, writer-director Christopher Nolan composes a quite beautiful and thrilling action thriller that achieves a perfect balance between mood and energy with no small help from Hans Zimmer’s sublime score. Making the deftest use of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s stark and striking cinematography, he avoids overplaying the CGI card keeping the story front and centre. The story isn’t bad either and, predictable as its key moments are, it serves Nolan’s grand ambitions for a Kubrickian like space epic. More the pity then that the screenplay does not. Bloated with expositional dialogue and artificial sentiment, it bungles its way towards a gargantuan mishandling of a straightforward (“save the world before it’s too late”) premise with the kind of overblown piece of psycho-physical drivel that plagued Inception. Co-penned with his more adept writer-brother (Jonathan sat Inception out), this script at least shows more restraint than that 2010 monument to tedium but not nearly enough to engender its protagonists nor their dilemmas with the depth and cadences that the premise deserved. The well conceived drama emerging from the astronauts ageing more slowly than their loved ones back home is an exception to this and proves to be the movie’s one successful appeal to the audience’s emotions.
Ultimately, the problem with Interstellar is yet again one of Nolan reaching beyond his capabilities by attempting to match the work of masters who simply operated at a level higher than his own (that’s not an insult Chris, most filmmakers toil in the shadows of Kubrick and Tarkovsky!). The innumerable references to 2001: A Space Odyssey eventually feel less like a homage and more like an attempt to disguise that failure, proving far more imitative than emulative. That said, the couple of HAL-inspired robots (the Bill Irwin-voiced “TARS” in particular) work fantastically within the confines of this story, coming alive in a whirl of mechanised motion during the best of the action sequences and adding most of the humour outside of them. And, thankfully, it’s these such lighter more grounded touches that sees Interstellar passing muster as a sci-fi thriller even while failing as an attempt at something more profound.
Rating: The Good – 64.3 Genre: Action, Thriller Duration: 124 mins Director: Mimi Leder Stars: George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, Marcel Iures
Run of the mill action thriller by the 1990’s standards that still managed to distinguish itself with a couple of neatly staged and exhilarating set pieces and a classy performance from Nicole Kidman. George Clooney stars as a special forces colonel assigned to help Kidman’s civilian advisor locate and retrieve some stolen nuclear weapons before they can be used in a terrorist attack. Outside of a severely protracted opening, Mimi Leder sets a jaunty pace and Clooney and Kidman match that pep with a somewhat edgy dynamic that the latter very much controls. Clooney was still a head-bobbing up-and-comer but was on the verge of honing his screen presence and he quite professionally follows Kidman’s lead during the slower scenes while cutting a dashing action man during the more kinetic moments. Unfortunately, Michael Schiffer’s screenplay adapted from Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s article “One Point Safe” is rather ordinary and beyond it serving the plot adequately it does little to build on the leading pair’s chemistry. The Peacemaker was the debut production for DreamWorks SKG so Leder found herself with a fair budget to play with and, for the most part, she spends it well. That said, a rather significant but cheaply attended subplot concerning an aggrieved Eastern European terrorist feels flimsy at best and more often intrudes on the more exciting manhunt narrative. More the pity because The Peacemaker solely succeeds as an action movie.