Rating: The Good – 67.1 Genre: Thriller Duration: 128 mins Director: Roger Spottiswoode Stars: Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris
Slightly above average war-drama from Roger Spottiswoode and starring Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, and Joanna Cassidy as war correspondents who rush from one third world country to another in order to get the scoop on the latest skirmish between despot and the poor. Landing in Nicaragua in time to document the final days of the Somozoa regime, the three find themselves caught up in a love triangle, bombings, and the political machinations of spies and government officials alike. Not quite as subjective and daring a film as Missing or as cavalier a film as Salvador, Under Fire falls in between as a safer and more mainstream examination of the South American political climate of the 70’s/80’s. That said, it’s an interesting story with solid performances and some decent action thrown in to boot.
Rating: The Good – 67.9 Genre: Drama, War Duration: 103 mins Director: Predrag Antonijevic Stars: Dennis Quaid, Nastassja Kinski, Pascal Rollin
There’s no two ways about it, this film grabs a hold of you. In a story about an American military agent who after his family are killed in a terrorist attack turns into a rabid anti-muslim and enlists in the Muslim-Serbian war on the Serbian side, the writers were always going to have to take risks in the depicting the main character’s darker actions. Whether it attempts to justify or even forgive some of those actions early on is difficult to tell but given that the audience have to throw in with that character for the entire film it perhaps becomes less important. Either way once that pretext is got out of the way, the story of redemption kicks in wherein he attempts to shepherd a young Serb mother and her newborn to safety across a country that has descended into murderous madness. Dennis Quaid is exceptionally good in the lead role as he has to carry most of the film on his own with little extended dialogue with the other characters. There’s not much action because this is a more pensive war film and it pays off as it allows you to engage with Quaid’s character all the more. In fact, Savior is all about the emotional pay off. No cloying soppiness, just proper direction and Quaid putting the most delicate of touches on an all-round smashing performance.
Rating: The Good – 76.9 Genre: Thriller, Drama Duration: 122 mins Director: Costa-Gavras Stars: Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Melanie Mayron
Costa-Gavras’ gem of a film chronicles the true story of a political writer (played by John Shea) based in Chile during the revolutionary turmoil of the 1970′s who disappears after he is taken away by the military. The story follows the attempts of his wife (the wonderful Sissy Spacek) and his father (a sterling turn by Jack Lemmon) to find out where he is and what happened to him. Shea is fine if a little wooden but he is only really a support player as this movie is all about Lemmon and Spacek’s considerable performances and on-screen dynamic. Costa-Gavras structures the film superbly and bookends the film in a profoundly clever manner. All in all, Missing is a glowing testament to the quiet power of cinema and not to be missed if you like slow-burning political thrillers.
Rating: The Good – 77.5 Genre: War, Drama, Thriller Duration: 141 mins Director: Roland Joffé Stars: Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich
The Killing Fields is arguably the standard bearer for those political thrillers of the 1980’s that focused on embedded reporters in various Cold War time conflicts. It tells the true story of Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran’s reporting of the Khmer Rouge’s abominable “Year Zero”, when, under the leadership of tyrant Pol Pot, they attempted to purge Cambodia of its “decadent ideology” and stamp a political submissiveness into the consciousness of its population. They achieved this primarily by taking children from their parents, moulding them into vicious shock troops, and often placing them in charge of older more corrupted officers. The resulting brutal murder of two million civilians gave rise to the eponymous paddy fields where the bodies were discarded.
The story naturally guarantees a level of power and captivation that few can rival but the starkness of Roland Joffé’s direction and the delicate manner in which he persistently contrasts the beauty of Cambodia’s countryside and people with the death and perverted ideologies of the Khmer Rouge is striking. Thanks to an interesting screenplay from Bruce Robinson, Sam Waterston is allowed flourish in a complex role and he hits just the right balance between righteous, self righteous, selfish and selfless. Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a real life survivor of the Khmer Rouge, is remarkable in his Oscar winning role of Pran, Schanberg’s loyal interpreter, who was sentenced to the death camps after he failed to escape with his western colleagues.
The film feels extraordinarily authentic with the majority of it being shot in neighbouring Thailand but with the help of Mike Oldfield’s foreboding score, which pulses through the two hours and twenty minutes like a portend, Joffé still manages to phase much of the horror onto an otherworldly plane at crucial times. There are moments when Joffé stands back from the narrative a little too overtly to offer commentary that really isn’t needed. The most criminal example of this is of course the final scene when (one suspects with producer David Puttnam’s influence) he uses John Lennon’s “Imagine” like an emotional baseball bat – a song that needed little in the way of heavy handed pressure in the first place. This is the decision that won him Time Magazine’s “Cultural Low of the Year” award and it’s terrible to admit but it tarnishes the entire film. Thankfully, there’s enough complexity, emotion, and drama in the rest of it to do this crucial piece of history justice and enough overall class to excuse that ending.
Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness switches the action from Africa to Vietnam to telling effect given the reverberations the East Asian context would have with an audience of the late 70’s and beyond. Thus, in Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard journeys up the Nung River with a boat full of assorted and richly drawn American GI’s to deal with Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz.
The stories behind the film’s making are legendary (a typhoon destroying the helicopters being used on the film, Martin Sheen’s health troubles, etc.) but the end product is a mesmerising and reflexive exploration of the dark side to humanity. Brando makes a brief but arresting appearance as the disturbed but magnetic leader of a rag-tag jungle army which includes Dennis Hopper in one of his more deranged roles (and that’s saying something!). However, Sheen’s contribution is just as important as Brando’s, if not more, as the film rests on his shoulders for the vast majority of its long duration. It’s a powerfully tempered performance that encapsulates, more than any of the others, the fragile and disturbing yet steely nature of man.
The last word, of course, should be reserved for Coppola for Apocalypse Now is a sublime piece of film-making. From the very opening sound that phases between the sound of helicopters and that ceiling fan to the illuminating shots that followed it to the audacious La Cavalcata Delle Valchirie sequence now immortalised as perhaps the most famous movie sequence of all time, the level of inspiration and innovation demonstrated here, both technical and from a purely artistic point of view, is simply spell-binding. It was also arguably Coppolla’s last truly great work and given that it was capping films like The Godfather Part I and Part II and The Conversation, he certainly seems to have burned twice as bright as practically every other director working at that time. And if Apocalypse Now really was his denouement as a genius director, it’s an utterly unforgettable piece of work to sign off on.
Rating: The Good – 78.7 Genre: Thriller Duration: 134 mins Director: Paul Greengrass Stars: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman
Paul Greengrass channels his high energy ultra real style of direction into the true story of the Maersk Alabama under the command of Captain Richard Phillips and its hijacking by Somalian pirates in 2009. It might sound a bit low key for the director of both The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum but when one considers that the incident culminated in a naval confrontation involving two destroyers and a SEAL team, one begins to appreciate the former wartime documentarian’s interest. A similar predisposition can be discerned within the appetites of its star given that Tom Hanks has, throughout his career, shown a preference for real life characters who have experienced extraordinary events and/or characters who walk a line between tense action drama and inner turmoil. The result is just about everything such a collaboration promises to be.
After a sturdy but efficient introduction to Hanks’ Captain Phillips before he leaves the US for Africa, the film begins switching back and forth between the Somalian pirates as they prepare for their next mission and the Maersk Alabama as its captain and crew set sail. Through these sequences we get to know the two main players: Phillips, the serious-minded but decent company man and Muse, the deceptively diminutive and equally no-nonsense leader of the pirates, played with real electricity by Barkhad Abdi. The stage is set for a tense battle of wills and from the moment the pirates are sighted approaching the ship to the close, Phillips and Muse make for a fascinating pair of adversaries. Hanks for his part is simply terrific and he is pushed all the way by the nascent talent of Abdi who announces himself on the screen with astonishing composure.
There’s no doubt that Greengrass is in his element here as he weaves this central dynamic with a series of spell binding set pieces. There’s an impressive scope to these sequences too ranging from the pirates’ daring attempts to commandeer the ship (and the equally valiant attempts of the crew to stop them) to a scintillating SEAL operation at the apex of the film. There’s an awesome quality to this story that centres on bravery, expertise, and desperation and with the help of Barry Ackroyd’s luscious cinematography and Christopher Rouse’s pulsating editing, Greengrass teases it out with a series of immense images such the SEAL team parachuting towards their objective in near total darkness or the Alabama zigging and zagging in an effort to avoid the pirate skiff. It adds an energy to the film that few movies can equal and combined with the authenticity of everything from the ships to the actions of the various crews, it gives the film a real sense of weight.
However, it’s the the synergy between action and acting that makes Captain Phillips so special and this is best illustrated in the final 20 minutes when Greengrass, his cast of actors, and actual navy personnel work together seamlessly to produce an utterly breathless and remarkably affecting finale – a finale in which Hanks reminds us all of exactly how good an actor he really is. Captain Phillips does run a little long (as is the increasingly irritating trend these days) but this ending, the central pairing of Hanks and Abdi, and the brilliantly held and ever tautening tension more than offsets this single weakness.
Rating: The Good – 77.7 Genre: Drama, War Duration: 121 mins Director: Terry George Stars: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte
Solid film but an utterly imperative synopsis of one of the most despicable atrocities in modern world history. The film tells the story through the actions of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who sheltered over a thousand Tutsi and Hutu refugees from the Hutu sanctioned genocide that decimated the Tutsi Rwandans in 1994. Hotel Rwanda is a stirring film that plays on the brain as much as the heart. Rusesabagina’s ability to curry favour with the bloated generals and officials of the corrupt regime, his intelligence in his day to day “handling” of those around him, and his all round dignity in the face of horror continually belie the disdain that the west has for his people. And it’s this disdain as much as the willful hatred rippling through his country that becomes the target of the film.
Don Cheadle gives his character all the inner strength and sense that such a role required because, after all, he was playing a people more than a man. As the murderous fervour is whipped up through radio propaganda and political ineptitude, we witness his struggle to balance his fear for his family with his concern for his guests and his own personal terror. It’s a performance full of compassion and great discipline and it centres the entire picture.
The background to the story is of course more complex than a two hour synopsis can do justice and there’s no doubt the invasion of Paul Kagame’s well oiled Tutsi resistance army gave the hate mongers a platform to whip up fear and resentment in the Hutu majority. However, Terry George’s film rightly aims it’s cross-hairs on the two guiltiest parties. The Hutu militia for their part in orchestrating and executing the genocidal murder of 800,000 Tutsis and the western superpowers for their complete apathy in the face of such carnage. George shoots this one straight in a seemingly deliberate avoidance of any overt directorial craft that might abstract the audience’s attention away from the essence of the story. It wears its heart on its sleeve peaking in big moments of thick emotion but a more subtle directorial craft comes in the restriction of those moments to only a handful and delivering them at the right times. George and Keir Pearson’s script is solid if at times a little unassuming but again anything more polished might have taken from the clear tones that George aimed for.
An essential companion piece to this film is Lt Col Dallaire’s account of the crisis “Shake Hands With the Devil”, that itself was turned into a film by Roger Spottiswoode and was also the subject of Peter Raymont’s award winning (Sundance) documentary. In Hotel Rwanda, Nick Nolte plays the role of the UN commander which was in reality Dallaire’s position and while not having enough time to do his story justice, he does imbue his “Colonel Oliver” with shades of the same wretched torment Dallaire suffered. Other big name stars such as Joaquin Phoenix’s US photo journalist and Jean Reno’s president of the hotel group suffer equally in their character development because of the short screen time their characters were afforded. Reno steers his ship home while Phoenix doesn’t fare so well but any damage that does to the film is outweighed by the attention their presence in the movie undoubtedly attracted and the quality of the true support such as that from Sophie Okonado as Rusesabagina’s wife.
Hotel Rwanda is one of those rare films that transcends the medium becoming a memorial to an event that can’t be forgotten. The power inherent in the story dwarfs anything even the best writers, directors, and actors can muster and so long as they guide it with intelligence and a delicate hand, the rest will take care if itself. That George and Cheadle did more than that allows Hotel Rwanda to become the film it deserved to be.
Rating: The Good – 80.4 Genre: Thriller, Drama Duration: 157 mins Director: Kathryn Bigelow Stars: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt
The search for Osama Bin Laden was always going to make a thrilling story but few would’ve expected it to be depicted in the manner Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty did. Rather than give us a sprawling manhunt full of thrills and close calls or a tense forensic investigative mystery, she and her writer Mark Boal offer up something more contemplative and altogether more unorthodox. Jessica Chastain plays the driven young agent who is charged with fulfilling the increasingly unpopular remit of finding the world’s most wanted man. Beginning in 2003, we see the eroding yet hardening effect the eight year manhunt has on her as she moves from one source to another (the infamous “detainees”) trying to piece together the puzzle from their scant accounts. The controversial torture scenes are incorporated incidentally and without judgement (this shouldn’t be mistaken for approval) so that an overall picture is painted. This of course encourages a more objective assessment of the entire affair and lets the viewers make up their own minds. It’s the personality of the main players that keeps the audience interested during the protracted first and second acts, watching them wear and tear in relation to the pressure of a fruitless endeavour and changes in political climate. Chastain is real and reveals a curiously compelling strength but there’s no doubt her character can grate (there are a few misjudged brattish moments where she genuinely tests the audience’s loyalty). Jason Clarke is excellent as the lead investigator and Jennifer Ehle shows yet again how important she can be to a movie in a well written support role.
As he did with The Hurt Locker, Boal shows that script writing is not his first trade. The structure is almost alien to what we are used to but thanks to the uniqueness of the story and a more refined working relationship with Bigelow, they manage to steer this one home. The first two acts can be slow going but there’s an organic flow to the chapters and events as they unfold. There’s also a serious payout because during the final act when we leave Chastain’s character and pick up with the SEAL team who execute the ultimate search and destroy mission, this films morphs into sleekest depiction of stealth warfare we’ve ever witnessed on film. A series of rugged and grizzled looking men (a mix between lesser known actors and actual former SEALs) begin to fill the cast and Greig Fraser’s cinematography comes into its own as the bleached deserts of day time Pakistan are replaced with the steely grey of the extended night-time mission. The action is slick, real, and very hardcore for when the SEALs aren’t busy surviving helicopter crashes and improvising their entries they’re executing their plan and training with formidable precision. And it’s in this feature that the true strength of Zero Dark Thirty is revealed. It’s authenticity. Based on real life accounts and informed by a team of consultants, this film pulses with realism. Everything in this film from the experimental stealth helicopters, the four goggle night vision apparatus, to the relatively more modest even humdrum tools of the earlier investigation (with the exception of that cool “predator bay”) feels legitimate. And when combined with Bigelow’s methodical buildup and tightly controlled tension, it all amounts to a cinematic experience that is genuinely unique and immensely competent.
Rating: The Good – 74.4 Genre: War, Action Duration: 144mins Director: Ridley Scott Stars: Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Tom Hardy
Describing a film that focuses on a single battle which doesn’t even last 24 hours as epic might seem a little counter-intuitive but Ridley Scott’s dramatisation of the 1993 Delta Force/Rangers incursion into the Somalian city of Mogadishu is as deserving of that description as A Bridge Too Far was. Like that film it focuses on a number of different characters across different aspects of the mission and each with their own personalities. The pace of this film is relentless and it’s to Scott’s, writer Ken Nolan’s, and the actors’ credit that the characters manage to develop in such a taut whirlwind of action. There are too many good performances to mention them all but Josh Hartnett and in particular Eric Bana score very well.
There are a few cliches littered throughout the main body of the film and the dialogue can be a little uninspired and at times jingoistic. Furthermore, despite a few token gestures, the Somalian rebels are portrayed as a mindless horde of automatons or cartoon evil doers. However, in the absence of any loftier ambitions, Scott and co. find themselves with an excuse to cram as much action as possible into its two and a half hours which isn’t a bad thing because the action is as good as any war film before it or since. Most important for a movie with action on a scale this big, it’s also perfectly co-ordinated (due largely to Pietro Scalia’s sublime editing) so that the viewer can keep track of events.
Unfortunately, Jerry Bruckheimer’s ugly, heavy handed, cliche-ridden touch is all over the ending and it undoes much of the power of the brutal war sequences by hammering the audience over the head with soppy sentiment. It could have ruined the whole thing but thankfully, the visceral thrust of the film is so immersive that the ending is practically negated by it. Also worth mentioning, is that this is one of the few pre-blu-ray technology films that transfers superbly well to that format, a testament to Slawomir Izdiak’s stunningly graded cinematography.