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.
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.
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.
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 – 96.2 Genre: Horror Duration: 114 mins Director: Peter Weir Stars: Rachel Roberts, Anne-Louise Lambert, Vivean Gray
Quite simply the most haunting film you will ever see, this tale of three girls who walk up a rock formation never to be seen again forgoes ghouls, monsters, or ghosts in favour of an intangible force altogether more terrifying. Set in the early 1900’s, it follows a party of school girls from a prestigious boarding school who, accompanied by their teacher, visit the ancient rock formation known as Hanging Rock on a sunny Valentine’s Day afternoon. Weir gives the early stages to this film a hypnotic dreamlike flow as the teenage girls prepare for and embark upon their eagerly awaited trip. However, as the movie proceeds, this dreamlike haze begins to feel more and more like a spell cast on the girls and audience alike by an inexplicable force. As three of the party break away to be whisked up the rock by some irresistible pull, out of nowhere, the film takes a startling if not piercing turn.
Peter Weir’s ability to imbue the otherwise lifeless rock with an elemental and terrifying life-force that dwarfs anything our minds can conceive of is one of the truly great directorial feats even if it’s relatively unrecognised as such. However, looking back on Picnic at Hanging Rock after just watching it, what he does in this film seems far broader in scope, as you get the unavoidable feeling that you were truly mesmerised and lulled into a thick perceptual and conceptual haze. That you were lured up that rock yourself! This isn’t frightening in the typical shock horror movie sense. This is frightening in a much more primal and evolutionary sense as if Weir is tapping directly into the baser regions of our psyche. This is cinematic power at its most sophisticated.
Rating: The Good – 70.9 Genre: Thriller Duration: 114 mins Director: Scott Frank Stars: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour
A refreshingly focused thriller from a writer-director who continues to defy the current trend by honouring the genre’s best traditions of putting brains before action. Liam Neeson stars as an ex-cop and recovering alcoholic who’s hired by a drug dealer to find the brutal lunatics who kidnapped and murdered his wife – before they sent her back in pieces. Walk Among the Tombstones walks a number of lines very well. It’s dark without being dreary, thrilling but not over the top, and pensive without being boring. But most welcome of all is that it’s paced with an old time respect for story. The well nourished plot develops seamlessly around three or four intriguing characters from the excellent Dan Stevens as the atypical dealer with a thirst for vengeance to Brian “Astro” Bradley’s homeless kid who latches onto Neeson with notions of being a “Sam Spade”-like partner. And as the killers enter the fray, David Harbour and Adam David Thompson provide just the right amount of menace to not detract from the film’s tempered mood. After a solid debut behind the camera with The Lookout, the writer of Out of Sight and Get Shorty raises his game further by achieving a more comprehensive balance between the script, production design, Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s clean cinematography, and Carlos Rafael Rivera’s quietly tense score. Unsurprisingly, given his writing credits, the dialogue is laced with hard grit and the cast, particularly Neeson and Harbour, eat it up. The finale threatens some melodrama and a familiar backstory to Neeson’s character hold this one back a little but its overall tangibility and coherence raise it well above the recent fluff the genre has suffered. And on top of all that, how great is it to see Neeson back in a role worthy of his talent!?!
Richard Burton leads a unit of commandos behind enemy lines to infiltrate the Alpine headquarters of the Wehrmacht located in an inaccessible fortress perched atop of a snow covered mountain. WWII based men-on-a-mission movies are very a different animal to the more mainstream WWII treatments. Emerging in the 1960’s & 70’s as a less cynical tonic to the earnestness (forced or otherwise) of the propaganda films of the 40’s and dramatised retrospectives of the 50’s, they were the first action extravaganzas of the genre – not to be taken too seriously but a pleasant distraction on a lazy Sunday afternoon. And Brian G. Hutton’s 1968 classic is arguably the best of the bunch as Burton and Clint Eastwood sidewind their way through a series of double crosses as labyrinthine as the formidable fortress amid gunfire, TNT, and showers of grenades, and all along to Ron Goodwin’s mighty soundtrack. The brilliant action becomes a cathartic backdrop to the intelligently constructed plot, and mirroring those dual tones are Burton and Eastwood at their most enigmatic. The former’s character with that mellifluously accented English being the very embodiment of intrigue and deception while the latter, Eastwood’s serial Nazi slayer, Lt. Schaffer, being the coolest and baddest assassin to ever grace a war movie. While classics such as The Dirty Dozen and Guns of the Navarone (also penned by this movie’s writer Alistair MacLean) mixed personality with an edge of moral commentary, Where Eagles Dare substituted any such sentiment for immense style and a callous bodycount making the whole thing a treat to the the baser depths of our brains. Given the more carefree vibe of the sub-genre, such stylish entertainment is perhaps its most critical quality and so Hutton’s movie rises to the top of the pot.
Rating: The Good – 71.5 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 130 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang
Michael Mann has been a long time between films and while his latest cyber thriller is marked by his trademark style and dramatic distance, a vague meandering plot ultimately precludes it from ranking amongst his best work. Chris Hemsworth stars as a prodigious hacker released from prison on the condition that he helps a joint FBI-Chinese task force trace the source of a cyber attack on a nuclear power plant. The resulting investigation sprawls across the Pacific from LA to Malaysia sporadically interrupted by some lively gun battles the type Mann has, at this point, mastered to perfection.
Blackhat isn’t as bad as some critics and fans have made out and there’s much to be admired along the way. Despite flimsy character construction across the board, Hemsworth makes for a sturdy lead and Viola Davis cuts a confident figure of authority as the FBI agent in charge of his team. Leehom Wang is competent as the lead Chinese agent even if Wei Tang proves too slight to overcome her character’s writing as Wang’s sister and Hemsworth’s inevitable love interest. Mann’s visual and auditory style is at its impeccable best as the technically astute director seems to have finally come to grips with all aspects of Digital Video. Complementing this aesthetic is Atticus Ross’ grainy score which, while not quite matching that of Heat, is certainly on the same track.
Rather frustratingly, though, it’s the basic stuff that Blackhat fails to get right. The meticulously distanced relationship between Mann’s lens and his protagonists has traditionally helped to engender a documentary-like sense of realism to his stories but, during his prime, that was balanced out with well developed characters whose arcs were functionally relevant to the story as much as the plot. Here, like his previous movies Public Enemies and Miami Vice, the connection ends with the plot as the characters’ depths are kept hidden or at best implicit. If the main players are kept at arms length, then the bad guys are barely acknowledged. Missing is the traction of Neil McCauley’s motivations in Heat or even just the remorseless entitlement of Robert Prosky’s Leo in Thief. Instead, a straight line of inexplicable badness replaces any sense of personality and we struggle to care. Then there’s the equally inexplicable tactical training of Hemsworth’s computer jock. In place of a techno-intellectual showdown, things come to a head in a rather bizarre action face-off that smacks of rushed rewrites and/or studio interference.
Instead of a properly laid narrative, whatever successes Blackhat achieves are episodic in nature such as the visceral action sequences or those informed moments when Hemsworth and co. are hacking into the enemy’s servers or even their bank accounts. Not surprisingly, it’s here where Morgan Davis Foehl’s script comes into its own (forgetting the one or two moments of philosophical gibberish ala Miami Vice). Nothing is dumbed down but neither are the uninitiated left lost at sea. And of course, as is the case in most of Mann’s procedurals, its technocratic lilt adds abundantly to the movie’s overall sense of street smarts. With so much good and so much bad, Blackhat will, like most of Mann’s work since 1999’s The Insider, tantalise his fan’s but ultimately go down as an opportunity missed.
Rating: The Good – 74.8 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 93 mins Director: John Sturges Stars: Ricardo Montalban, Sally Forrest, Bruce Bennett
One of the earliest police procedurals, this wonderful little thriller focuses on the attempts of a detective to solve a Jane Doe case using the help of forensic medicine expert. Ricardo Montalban puts in a composed shift as the young detective and manages to work much of the charm he’d be later renowned for into a personality driven by perfectionism and the anguish of potentially being wrong. Bruce Bennett is slightly more languid as the learned expert who instructs the police on the science behind the clues. Forensics was still in its infancy at the time Mystery Street was made so one could’ve forgiven director John Sturges and co. for framing the movie entirely around the investigation but it’s to their credit that they made a proper drama of the characters and plot. As the investigation develops multiple strands, each is fleshed out by some memorable personalities. Jan Sterling makes a relatively brief appearance as the soon to be victim but sets a brass tone for the more heartless side to the story. The perennially eccentric Elsa Lanchester is delightfully untrustworthy as her greedy landlord while Betsy Blaire, as her kind neighbour, is a ray of sunshine in those otherwise murky digs. And then you have Sally Forrest almost stealing the show as the desperate wife of the man who the police have mistaken for the killer. Such casting provides a solid base to what was happening on the other side of the camera and, in fact, it’s perhaps the technical side to the film that most impresses what with its sly plot and Richard Brooks’ equally cynical dialogue dripping from the tongues of the good and bad alike. Bringing it all together is a pre-prime Sturges exhibiting the controlled energy of his later work but with a welcomed levity. Of course, having the great John Alton shooting the film is no small bonus and the lighting and use of perspective throughout is of surprising quality for a small feature, not to mention, a genuine treat. All in all, there’s little fault to be found here, just a cracking good story shot with plenty of class.
Rating: The Good – 75.6 Genre: Thriller, Mystery Duration: 149 mins Director: David Fincher Stars: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens
David Fincher and Gillian Flynn’s eagerly awaited adaptation of her own bestseller has laisser faire husband, Ben Affleck, suspected in the kidnapping and murder of his wife, Rosamund Pike, amid a media storm and public fascination with the curious young woman. If you’re familiar with the book, you’ll know what happens next but if you’re new to Flynn’s post recession world of the neo-consumer thirty-something, let’s just say that it’s not long before things take a turn for the bizarre and the plot corkscrews towards an unlikely conclusion.
As was the case with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the class that Fincher brings to the production seems a little beyond Flynn’s poolside fiction but so polished and so full of disciplined verve is Gone Girl the movie, that it’s a genuine pleasure watching it unfold. That the film offers a wry take on the symbiotic relationship between media and personal perception is an unexpected bonus and goes a long way to offset the madness of the plot. Despite this however, there are many who will feel a little let down by the resolutions offered here or lack thereof. For what it does offer, however, Gone Girl is one of the better and more intriguing thrillers of recent years propped with notable characters and fine performances. The most enigmatic is certainly Pike’s Amy Dunne, the lady at the centre of the rigmarole. Seeing her only in flashback during the first half of the movie, she narrates us through the couple’s early years exclusively via her diary entries. Lines are slowly drawn between her and hubby as she lays bare his infidelity and we duly fall in behind her. However something likeable remains of Affleck’s Nick Dunne and the story pivots on that charm.
Unsurprisingly, Pike received plenty of plaudits including an Oscar nomination. And within the flashback scenes, she’s genuinely outstanding, juggling pathos with a discernible feminine strength. However as the story winds forward, her character becomes more inaccessible and it’s fair to say her performance becomes a little mono-dimensional. If there’s a star turn here, it’s probably the much maligned Affleck who delivers it. In by far his most substantial piece of acting, he plays the disengaged, suspicious doofus with all sorts of delicacy and almost single-handedly carries the movie through its turbulent final act. That said, Carrie Coon as his twin sister and Kim Dickens as the investigating detective offer terrific support in yet another couple of uniquely strong female roles.
But for all the cast’s work, that final 40 minutes would’ve crashed and burned if it wasn’t for Fincher’s immaculate touch. Masterfully integrating Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s mechanical (albeit familiar) score with Jeff Cronenweth’s luscious photography not to mention Kirk Baxter’s spotless editing and embedding it all within Donald Graham Burt’s typically splendid production design, he serves up yet another peach of a film. You won’t see the depth of vision of The Social Network here but the depth of technical achievement is everywhere.
Rating: The Good – 76 Genre: Film-noir Duration: 88 mins Director: S. Sylvan Simon Stars: Franchot Tone, Janet Blair, Janis Carter
Dig into the archives of film-noir and it’s not long before you unearth a forgotten jewel. I love Trouble is one such dusty gem. Franchot Tone is the smart quipping gumshoe, Stuart Bailey, hired by a concerned husband to investigate his wife’s history. A complicated mystery unravels as Bailey moves between Baltimore and California putting the pieces together and juggling one shrewd lady character after another. Don’t get too hung up on the jovial title nor that playful introduction which counts as the first of many bluffs, this is a hard boiled sidewinder of the Raymond Chandler variety. That it’s not Chandler but Roy Huggins who penned it isn’t as much of a disadvantage as some might think for it’s an astute reproduction of the former’s work, in particular, The Lady in the Lake and Farewell My Lovely/Murder My Sweet. The dialogue burning with caustic wit drives the plot forward one baby step at a time until you won’t know where it’s headed. And it’s cast reasonably well too. Tone is more Powell than Bogart but he can dust himself off and crack wise with the best of ’em. John Ireland scores well as the sinister henchman of Steven Geray’s shady nightclub owner but it’s the ladies who share Tone’s limelight. Janet Blair is suitably suspicious as the potential love interest while Janis Carter’s highly secretive lady of leisure makes for an even more ambiguous presence. S. Sylvan Simon offers an assured touch behind the camera and keeps the tension balanced despite the twists and turns. Alas, what came natural to Chandler was a tad mechanical to Huggins and the second-third act transition labours because of it. Simon reigns it in with enough time to spare however and presents us with a wry old ending that Chandler himself would be proud of.