Out-Of-Sight

The Good (70 – 74)

The Good (70 – 74)

Title Director, Genre, Year

Rating

Out of Sight
Terrific adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel by Steven Soderbergh with George Clooney in top form as a serial bank robber who breaks out of a Florida prison so that he can pull a diamond heist with the help of his regular accomplice (Ving Rhames). While doing so, he is forced to kidnap a beautiful but tough federal marshal in the form of Jennifer Lopez and an unlikely relationship between the two develops. As you’d expect from a Leonard-Soderbergh project, Out of Sight is a slickly crafted and worded film with all the style of Soderberg’s Oceans films but with more restraint and a better story. David Holmes chimes in with an equally slick and well weighted score. The highlight of this synthesis between dialogue, look, and score comes during the central romantic moment of the film which is full of playful innovation. Lopez and Clooney are brilliant together displaying palpable chemistry as they woo and zing each other in equal measure.
Soderbergh, Crime, 1998

74.9

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Rocky
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 Billy Dee Williams 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”.
Avildsen, Sport, 1976

74.9

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The Magnificent Seven
Given the stature that this film holds it has arguably been somewhat overrated. The brilliance of the story has obviously been lifted straight from Kurosawa’s masterpiece so there’s no credit due on that front and if anything some of the scenarios don’t make sense from the perspective of the old west. For example, the idea that James Coburn’s character is a Musashi type figure who’s only interested in the perfection of his art doesn’t sit right for a western gunslinger. However, despite some translation problems the film is deserving of much of its praise due to the great ensemble cast led by Yul Brynner’s magnetism and Steve McQueen’s showmanship. Elmer Bernstein’s score is epic and John Sturges’ direction certainly resulted in one of the most beautiful westerns ever shot. The final showdown doesn’t disappoint either although it holds little of the poignancy of its jidai-geki predecessor.
Sturges, Western, 1960

74.9

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Midnight Run
Robert De Niro who stars as a bounty hunter attempting to bring in Charles Grodin’s crooked accountant while being pursued by the mob, the FBI, and a competing bounty hunter. The movie is chockfull of motley characters played with an abundance of personality (not to mention a generous comedic license), from Yaphet Kotto’s testy FBI agent, John Ashton’s indefatigable pain-in-the-ass bounty hunter, to Dennis Farina’s hilariously baleful mob boss who spends most of the movie threatening his hapless goons with various forms of highly imaginative corporal punishment. De Niro embraces the easy comedy of George Gallo’s classy screenplay and drives the movie with an acerbic moxie but, despite a well balanced chemistry, Grodin (along with Farina) steals the show with his usual combination of dry warmth and laconic delivery. Martin Brest directs it all with an understated panache adding little touches here and there that contribute richly to the overarching sense of fun.
Brest, Comedy, 1988

74.9

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The Lost Weekend
Billy Wilder takes us on a rather perceptive journey into the soul of alcoholism with the help of Charles R. Jackson’s semi-autobiographical account of a three day rockbottom-bound bender. Ray Milland takes the lead as Don Birnham, a struggling alcoholic writer living with his moidered brother (Phillip Terry) who together with Birnham’s patient and dedicated girl (Jane Wynham) strives to keep him away from the drink by cutting off his credit and blacklisting him with the local bars and liqueur stores. In addition to setting up the characters and relationships, the first part of the film amounts to an expose of the strategies and general cunning which a man in Birnham’s shoes has learned in order to secure and (if worse comes to worse) scrounge one last drink. There’s not much humour here but Milland’s charm is what we invest in as he plays the loveable rogue card as far as it’ll take him. Of course, that was never going to last and it’s not long before Miklos Rozsa’s strange warbling score (the type of which normally accompanies a flying saucer sighting in a b-movie) begins ringing in our protagonist’s ear, an aural manifestation of his urge for his forbidden fruit. This ushers in the darker half of the film which charts his spiral into desperate delirium and petty thievery. As Wilder was to later do again in Sunset Blvd (only with a touch more delicacy), he spins a visual and auditory web of despair full of nightmarish images and sounds which give rich texture to Birnham’s descent. Unflinchingly and deliberately, he shows no temptation to ease off and let the audience reset their resolve. The result is an uneasy final act that one must persist through rather than savour. But it’s all very real. From the self-justifications of the articulate drunk to the arm’s length concern of onlookers when it doesn’t affect them and their crashing impatience when it does, it’s all deeply perceptive and astute. But where Wilder, Jackson, and Milland really nail it is in Birnham’s deep down fear and self-loathing. But this perceptiveness is not born of judgemental disdain. Quite the contrary. The finger pointing may be unflinching but in their interest in getting it right and calling it what it is, there lies some compassion. And it’s that genuine sentiment which allows all concerned to ultimately shift the tone towards resolution and make The Lost Weekend a peculiarly rewarding experience.
Wilder, Drama, 1945

74.8

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Mystery Street
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. 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.
Sturges, Film-Noir, 1950

74.8

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Where Eagles Dare
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.
Hutton, War, 1968

74.8

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The Next Three Days
Outstanding thriller about a community college professor (Russell Crowe) who schools himself in the art of prison breaking in order to spring his wife (Elizabeth Banks) who has been sentenced to life for a murder he believes she did not commit. It sounds like an unlikely premise but Paul Haggis’ taut direction and Crowe’s strong acting make it tantalisingly believable. So much so in fact, that you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat willing Crowe’s character to succeed. The film is perfectly weighted, with the tension slowly yet unwaveringly escalating from the beginning of the second act onwards. By the time the third act is in full swing, this film will have you hooked. Easily one of the best thrillers to come out of Hollywood in recent years.
Haggis, Thriller, 2010

74.8

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Light Sleeper
Fascinating noirish drama that signals the high point in Schrader’s directorial career. This unique film experience perfectly captures the subtle sense of foreboding that accompanies a high class drug dealer (Willem Dafoe) as a particular seedy chapter in his life is coming to a close. The different aspects to this internal struggle are mirrored in various ways from the garbage on the city streets to Michael Been’s haunting soundtrack that repeatedly fades in and out of the film. Dafoe is utterly convincing in the lead role (so much so that it may even be his most complete performance) while Susan Sarandon is terrific as his seemingly caring boss. Everything about this film feels new and (from the point of view of other films) unexplored, from the characters to the particulars of their personal dilemmas. In a medium where true novelty is the rarest of flowers that alone makes this film worth watching but in this case it’s only one of a myriad of reasons.
Schrader, Crime, 1992

74.8

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The ‘Burbs
”I’ve never seen that. I’ve never seen anyone drive their garbage to the street and then beat the hell out of it with a stick. I’ve never seen that”. Joe Dante’s affectionate homage to old horror films and westerns alike ranks way up there due to a witty script and great performances from all concerned. Tom Hanks plays an uptight family man who takes a week off work to unwind but begins to suspect his new neighbours of being homicidal maniacs who are burying their victims in their backyard. Together with his fellow suburbanites (Bruce Dern and Rick Ducummon) they begin a campaign against the new arrivals resulting in all sorts of mayhem. Dante brings his usual bag of slickly interwoven film references to the party and with Jerry Goldsmith’s clever score and the instinctive humour of Hanks, Dern, and Ducommun he creates a thoroughly entertaining and genuinely funny movie. “I’ve been blow up. Take me to the hospital!”.
Dante, Comedy, 1989

74.8

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Moneyball
Brad Pitt stars as general manager of the Oakland A’s Billy Bean who in 2002 decided to throw all traditional thinking on player recruitment out the window and brought in a young Yale economics graduate (played by Jonah Hill) to employ Bill James’ statistical system for identifying hidden value in underrated players. Losing the respect of his coaches, the media, the fans, and much of his back room staff, he persisted through a very rocky start to secure the longest winning streak in modern baseball history. Moneyball is a peculiar film. It’s not really a baseball movie as the off-field drama takes precedence. Nor is it about winning which most sports films are. An honest interest in the welfare of those players left behind by the game rests at the core of this picture and it’s to the director Bennett Miller’s credit that he maintains this throughout. The lack of baseball action reinforces this but it also ties in with the more clinical statistical approach which Bean and his number crunching assistant were enforcing. That said, Miller is both inspired and disciplined in his use and incorporation of real game footage into the story and given the infrequency of it, it tantalises the audience and really juices up the more exciting moments in the film.
Miller, B., Drama, 2011

74.8

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Carlito’s Way
One of Brian De Palma’s most stylistic films, Carlito’s Way tells the story of Puerto Rican hood Carlito Brigante as he attempts to escape a life of crime only for his friend Davy Kleinfeld to land him back in the middle of some nasty business. Al Pacino is excellent as the charismatic Carlito and it’s to Pacino’s credit that he chose yet another ethnic minority gangster to play rather than playing a series of Italian-American mafiosos. On the other hand, Sean Penn not only holds his own against the Titan that is Pacino but in many ways steals the show. That said, Carlito and the film in general would’ve been far more compelling if Penelope Anne Miller’s annoying character and love-story side line were dispensed with outright. De Palma gives his usual master class in the art of capturing great production design on screen and his action choreography particularly in that Grand Central chase sequence is as full of grace and electric energy as any before it or since. The characters are a little (ok a lot) stereotyped and the side story is nonsense but for the most part Carlito’s Way is very good gangster film.
De Palma, Gangster, 1993

74.8

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Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
George Clooney was just the man to give Charlie Kaufman’s script a level of accessibility that his own directorial typically sometimes lack. The story is based on the memoires of famous game show host Chuck Barris, wherein he professed to having moonlighted as a CIA hit-man whilst working on the television. Sam Rockwell takes on a rare lead role and we should all be thankful for he dominates the screen. Even as big names such as Julia Roberts and Clooney himself are giving lovely little cameos your attention is fixated on Rockwell due to a combination of his natural magnetism and subtle characterisations. Being a mainstream mega-star with a taste for the quirky George Clooney knew exactly how far down the road of the bizarre he could take a mainstream audience before they rebel and as a result this is one of the few ultra-quirky dramas that is completely enjoyable from start to finish.
Clooney, Comedy, 2002

74.8

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Friday the 13th
One of the original slasher films follows a group of young fun-loving camp counsellors as they prepare to re-open a lakeside summer camp that was the scene of some grizzly murders years beforehand. This is still to this day a genuinely creepy film as one by one the counsellors are picked off by an unseen stalker. Director Sean Cunninham paces the film extremely well and makes the interesting decision to skirt the boundaries of the supernatural as well as the natural.
Cunningham, Horror, 1980

74.8

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The Faculty
”Aliens are taking over the world, weight it”. Superior take on the alien invasion story set in an Ohio high school, the faculty of which has been taken over by alien parasites that are bent on making hosts of the whole town. Six different students catch on to what’s going down and attempt to put a stop to their nefarious plans. Robert Rodriguez has great fun blending the John Hughes high school movie genre with the alien invasion genre as he plays with all the various stereotypes that pop up in both types of movie. The Breakfast club are all present but with a more modern look and acerbic language. The high school characters are well thought out and the various (pre-stardom) youngsters inhabit them wonderfully. Jordanna Brewster, Elijah Wood, Clea DuVall, and Josh Hartnett do particularly well with Hartnett putting in a more substantial performance than we have typically seen from him in later years. The faculty members are perhaps the most entertaining from Robert Patrick’s delightfully nuts coach to Bebe Neuwirth’s against type principal. The Faculty doesn’t really miss a beat as it gives us a fresh take on an old story while keeping us thoroughly entertained throughout.
Rodriguez, Horror, 1998

74.8

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Haywire
Muay Thai champ Gina Carano headlines as an elite black ops mercenary running, fighting, and kicking for her life through Europe and the US while trying to piece together the clues to who in her agency has set her up. The plot is well developed and populated with terrific characters, each one tougher than the next. Furthermore, shot as it was on location in Dublin and Barcelona where the actual backstreets of those cities are used to splendid effect, Haywire counts as a hugely authentic and grittier action bonanza than anything we’ve seen since the Bourne trilogy (purposefully not counting the fourth film). The plot is explicated with a technocratic dialogue even more opaque than in those films but this gives it a Kuleshov-like functionality allowing the audience to project all sorts of intrigue onto it and the wider plot. There are also some genuinely funny and unique moments of physical comedy lightly sprinkled throughout the film acting as well time breathers from the ass-kicking roller coaster. Of course, set up as an alternative to your more typical 21st century mind numbing actioneer, Haywire was always going to stand or fall on its action sequences. To simply say it does the former would be to vastly understate the case because the action choreography and execution is jaw dropping. Carano is outstanding with the physical stuff but it’s the design, pretext, and shooting of those sequences that’s so special. Soderbergh intrigues the audience with a disciplined and ultra composed build up to each fight with the various spies sent to work with and/or kill Carano and the actors who play them, enriching the drama no end.
Soderbergh, Action, 2011

74.7

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Coffy
“Coffy is the color”. The definitive blaxploitation movie stars the excellent Pam Grier in the film that made her an icon. Grier plays a nurse who has had enough of the pushers and pimps who are bringing her neighbourhood down and takes justice into her own hands. The movie opens with her setting up the pusher that got her sister hooked on drugs but her attention is quickly shifted to the self-styled ‘King George’ (just check out his intro track) and his bosses. Coffy is everything that Hollywood movies both then but especially now have been afraid to show. A black female heroine who gets bloody, no holes barred vengeance on her male oppressors and isn’t afraid to compromise her chastity to do it. In that sense, it’s a cinematic breath of fresh air but in a more general sense, it’s a cracking little story directed with panache and bravado by the legendary Jack Hill. Grier is electric and easily the most endearing of heroines to lead a film and there are some belting action scenes that prove she’s no soft touch either. Yes, there are all the drawbacks of an exploitation movie such as shoddy production values and cheesy acting but that all adds to the underground flavor. And on top of all that, movie buffs will enjoy spotting just how much of this film affected and influenced the films of Quentin Tarantino, the ultimate example of which being none other than Jackie Brown.
Hill, J, Crime, 1973

74.7

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The Bridges of Toko-Ri
Superb account of the crew of a US aircraft carrier as they built up to their most important and dangerous mission in the Korean War. William Holden stars as an embittered veteran pilot who was called out of retirement despite being an inactive family man with a law practice at home. Grace Kelly stars as his beleaguered wife who pulls some strings to visit her husband while he’s on leave in Japan. Frederic March is the caring Rear Admirable who takes Holden and his wife under his wing for personal reasons. The personal drama takes centre stage here as the various characters wrestle with their fear, doubt, and confusion and the three actors mentioned above do an able job. In truth, director Mark Robson could have handled the pace to these sequences better as the tension diffuses at important times and causes the film to lag when it shouldn’t. However, the main theme of sacrifice is handled quite deftly thanks to the calibre of the actors and Robson’s decision to give them all the breathing room they needed.
Robson, War, 1954

74.7

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Prime Cut
”He’s the expert from Chicago. I heard people talking”. Michael Richie’s gritty quasi-satire is as hard nosed as 70’s cinema got and it’s not difficult to see why with Lee Marvin playing the enforcer sent by the Chicago mob to deal with fearless and loathsome cattle rancher Gene Hackman in Kansas City. This is a film which plays by its own rules right from the beginning as we see Hackman’s henchman turning the mob’s previous enforcer into sausage before sending him back up to Chicago. Marvin is steel (as usual) in the main role as Devlin but with the calm intelligence of a man who knows how to get things done. Hackman is just plain disturbing as the sadistic Mary Ann who treats women like cattle (literally) while Sissy Spacek scores well as one such woman who latches on to Marvin for help. Richie brings it all together with a thunderous punch so successfully in fact that there are definite shades of Prime Cut in later masterpieces such as Reservoir Dogs. The pace drops at points as Ritchie doesn’t always find the right balance between paradoy and hard edged action but for the most part this is vintage stuff.
Ritchie, M, Thriller, 1972

74.7

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One False Move
Carl Franklin’s excellent crime thriller is a dark story about two men and a woman who after ripping off some LA drug dealers leave a trail of bodies as they head south for Star City, Arkansas the town of Chief of police Dean “Hurricane” Dixon. Bill Paxton is electric as the backward, mile a minute lawman and much of the film’s comedy comes from his interplay with the two incredulous LA cops (played by Jim Metzler and Earl Billings) sent down to track the murderers. The dramatic tension comes mostly from the other side to the story as unlikely couple Billy Bob Thornton and Cynda Williams along with their cold blooded friend Michael Beach make their way south for Hurricane’s patch. This is an original and quietly gripping film. The script is full of intelligent dialogue and is structured in a somewhat unorthodox manner. The main character is undoubtedly Paxton’s Hurricane though he is introduced almost incidentally while the remaining secondary characters all remain hugely and equally important throughout. It’s all the more impressive, therefore, that Franklin coordinates the different sub-stories so well and maintains an even pace to the film. Although there isn’t much bloody violence, there are a couple of scenes which are seriously dark and Franklin uses them well to set the tone to the film. Michael Beach’s cold and calculating Pluto comes to the fore in these scenes and leaves a sinister impression. Thornton and Williams are also strong as his amoral accomplices as are Metzler and Billlings as the cops but all are blown off the screen by Paxton’s tour-de-force.
Franklin, C., Crime, 1992

74.7

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Escape from LA
Kurt Russell is back as Snake Plissken 16 years after the original only this time LA is the penal fortress and instead of the President he needs to recover a doomsday weapon. Co-written by Russell himself, this film pushes the boundaries of satire to its limits (to the point where some people didn’t realise the film was a satire!) as Snake takes on a south American drug lord in a series of set-piece scenes each more mad-cap than the last. The dialogue is as cool as ever, the wit is razor-sharp, that iconic score is back (if not slightly reimagined), and there’s a host of great actors (from Pam Grier to Steve Buscemi) on show. What more could you ask for? How about one of the great sci-fi endings? Ok, you got it!
Carpenter, Sci-Fi, 1996

74.7

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The Last of the Mohicans
Michael Mann’s screen adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s famous novel might have been a new departure for the master of gritty crime thrillers but it’s no less emphatic a statement of his skills as a moviemaker. In fact, it is arguably his most spectacularly shot film. Hawkeye and his adopted father and brother of the Mohawk nation come to the rescue of a British company as they are attacked by a Huron war party and consequently are drawn into the Seven Years War between the British and the French. Things get even more complicated when Hawkeye and the daughter of a British general become embroiled in a dangerous romance. This is a sweeping film that follows the three heroes up and down the frontier as they attempt to keep the general’s daughters out of harm’s way. Along the way, we encounter every kind of battle you can imagine from the French heavy artillery bombardment of the British fort, the mid-range battles between rifle companies, to the close combat of the Native Americans. And all of it is captured immaculately by Mann and his usual DP Dante Spinotti. Mann’s ability to use music as a spiritual backdrop to the action is as clear here as it was in Thief or his later film Heat as Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones’ beautiful score becomes an ever-present feature of the film’s drama. On the acting front, Daniel Day Lewis is bang-on perfect as Hawkeye and whether his scenes called for action or romance, he played them with charisma and integrity to the role. Madeline Stowe is pretty good also as the initially icy love interest while Eric Schweig and Russell Means are excellent as the two Mohawks that complete our hero’s trio. Mann’s typical forensic touch is all over the battle scenes, making them some of the most well choreographed and sensationally conceived from a film set in any era. The final showdown alone will quite simply blow you away as Mann combines gunplay and close combat in as viscerally slick a manner imaginable.
Mann, Adventure, 1992

74.6

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Return of the Living Dead
This tongue in cheek punk horror is every bit the cult classic, funny as hell, and damn near the best zombie film not made by George A. Romero. When a couple of blundering warehouse employees open a misplaced government capsule containing a zombified corpse, toxic gases escape into the atmosphere and turn everything not living into a fully conscious hyper zombie. Yes, even before the concept was flogged to post zombification by generations of creatively stunted film (& tv show!) makers, writer director Dan O’Bannon still insisted that even his comedy zombies bring something new to the canon. And what a re-imagining it is. The quick rampaging zombie (predating Boyle’s 28 days later) adds a whole new level of terror to the concept while the “conscious” aspect was the perfect platform for outrageous comedy horror. Thus, the zombies of Return of the Living Dead have no problems or indeed hesitation in getting on the radio and asking police dispatch to “send more cops”, paramedics, or anything else they fancy a bite of, and it’s freakin hilarious hearing them do it. The scenario is just as humour friendly as the primary fodder for the undead hordes are a group of punks who crash the local cemetery for an impromptu party only to get caught in the inevitable tenant uprising so to speak. The colourful punk getup of the gang combined with the even more classic punk soundtrack provides a wonderfully reflexive backdrop to the carnage as casual anarchist meets the truest incarnation of their tribe’s ideal. As limbs fly, the angry fear of the disenfranchised generation is a sound to behold for the ensuing apocalypse seems just plain inconvenient! The casting in this film is inspired with James Karen in the form of his career as one of the two warehouse caretakers and Don Calfa reminding us yet again why he should’ve had a bigger career as he steals every scene as the ready disturbed embalmer. Clu Gulager also puts in a strong show and for a film that hinged on how well the cast got what the film was about, much of its success must go down to the younger and older actors who filled it out. In the final analysis, Return of the Living Dead can be largely understood to be the fruit of O’Bannon’s (err..) delicious screenplay and in many places inspired action direction. The concept of intelligent zombies is exploited in one ridiculously funny sequence after another to such a great extent, one wonders why we haven’t seen more of it since. The momentum he gives to the proceedings is spot on perfect and when channeled through that thumpingly witty Matt Clifford score, it becomes the most enjoyable feature of the film. And to top it all off we have a cheeky “Fail-Safe” like close taking us into the credits with a genuine sense of having spent 90 minutes of worthy film viewing. “Classic” is right.
O’Bannon, Horror, 1985

74.6

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The Best Man
Gore Vidal and director Franklin J. Schaffner joined forces to give us this perceptive analysis of 1960’s politics and the ugly machine which drove it and thanks to the very systematic problems it attempts to shed a light on, it’s as relevant today as it was then. Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson star as the two frontrunners in their party’s Presidential nomination race vying for the President’s nomination on convention day. Fonda is a principled and honest liberal determined to run a clean campaign who is forced into a dirty battle by his ruthless fearmongering rival. There aren’t enough comedy dramas like this. The comedy isn’t the slightest bit contrived where characters are asked to be wittier than the average person or where unlikely circumstances are contrived to elicit laughter. Here the comedy comes from the serious and realistic interactions of the various political movers and shakers. This approach allows the serious tones of Vidal’s screenplay and Schaffner’s direction to remain strong throughout without dominating the drama to the point that it becomes depressing. And of course, that’s exactly the point for the hypocrisy and selfishness of the politicians is so rampant and invulnerable that to face it head on would leave one exasperated. Fonda’s William Russell is the embodiment of this sentiment. As a witty intellectual who feels compelled to race in the absence of a candidate who could do his party justice, he forces himself to play a game he has a clear distaste for and attempts to rise above it through clever his jibes at the hypocrisy he sees all around him. Robertson’s Joe Cantwell, on the other hand, is the personification the worst elements of the political system who has lied so often and so prolifically that he now believes his own rhetoric as gospel despite his own actions providing evidence to the contrary on a second-by-second basis. Vidal and Schaffner get the personal sides to the story just right by humanising both candidates and their wives in a way which excavates some interesting explanations. The central story revolves around a blackmail scam which Cantwell tries to pull on Russell and the manner in which the latter fights it makes for an interesting if somewhat simplistic morality play which unfolds with a wonderful tension right up until the penultimate scene. Schaffner handles all this with the competence you’d expect, effectively backdropping the deal-making and manipulations of the day against the hustle and bustle of the convention. Fonda is his usual shining light of liberal ideals, that is, a strong, intelligent, and relatable leading man while Robertson offers a tastier sample of the kind of character which is typically overplayed in these dramas. His version is more restrained, low key, and therefore, sinister. The Best Man isn’t Schaffner or Fonda’s most piercing social analysis but it is an eminently neat political burner which because of its limited ambition doesn’t put a foot wrong.
Schaffner, Drama, 1964

74.6

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Kiss of Death
Kiss of Death is a lesser addition to the film noir catalogue made interesting only really by the malicious presence of one of cinema’s nastiest villains. Victor Mature stars as a jewellery thief who goes on one last job to provide for his family and gets nabbed by the police in the process. As they dangle deal after deal in his face, he turns them down in the belief his family are being looked after. When he hears otherwise, he goes to work for the D.A. (Brian Donlevy) in a bid to help bring Richard Widmark’s deranged Tommy Udo to justice. There’s a tidy premise to this wrapped up in a couple of worthy subplots concerning Mature’s private life but it’s let down by a frustratingly weak central performance. Mature struggles flatly to carry the film and worse still, the director Henry Hathaway doesn’t know how to handle it. As such, the film looses cohesion with every passing scene. Hathaway enjoyed filming on location where possible and while it adds to the gritty atmosphere, the lack of contained sets occasional exasperates this lack of cohesion. The story becomes ponderous with the only reprieve coming with the intermittent appearances of Widmark’s insane Tommy Udo. Udo has gone down in cinema history as one of its most disturbing villains and there’s no doubting the shocking nature of his darkest deeds in this film nor the unflinching manner in which Hathaway shot them. The key ingredient of course is Widmark, who used his debut appearance on the silver screen to blistering effect. With a vicious glint in his eye and that degenerate snigger, it’s an altogether creepy turn that captures the more nuanced insecurities that go hand in hand with over the top violence. This naturally makes him more scary because the character becomes all the more real and plausible. Widmark would go on to gift us a host of dangerous characters (good and bad), all of which were built on a similarly rich psychological base but this was the performance that lit the fire. For that reason alone we should all be grateful for Kiss of Death, and it’s that reason primarily why this is still an essential watch for all noir fans.
Hathaway, Film-Noir, 1947

74.5

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Get Shorty
The 90’s was easily the decade that gave us cinema’s coolest films and this was easily one of its top 5. The personification of cool himself John Travolta plays a movie loving loan shark Chilli Palmer, who heads out to LA to collect a debt and sees a chance to get involved in the movie business by protecting a down-on-his-luck director (Gene Hackman) from some smalltime gangsters he owes money to. Based on an Elmore Leonard novel this charming and often hilarious film has all the trademark twists and turns you come to expect from a Leonard story. Travolta and Delroy Lindo get most of the cool lines and although Travolta and Danny DeVito will get some chuckles the funniness of the film is primarily down to Hackman and Dennis Farina (as the gangster Chilli works for). Their respective characters are absolutely hysterical and the scene where they finally meet is unquestionably the highlight of the film. The last mention should go to director Sonnenfield who brings as much wit to the proceedings as anyone.
Sonnenfeld, Comedy, 1995

74.5

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The Abyss
The very definition of a concept film, The Abyss is a different animal to the average sci-fi flick. The story centres on an deep submersible drilling rig that is sequestered by the US Navy when one of their nuclear subs goes missing in a deep trench. Ed Harris plays the head tool-push who has to contend with a trigger happy SEAL unit as well as his pushy ex-wife played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio taking over his rig. The visual effects were spectacular at its time of release and are still hugely impressive while the underwater live action shots have never been equalled. The scale of the film’s production has become the stuff of legend given the giant underwater set that was built in an old missile silo and the extended dives the actors and crew (particularly Cameron) underwent to get the hugely impressive action sequences shot. Happily, Cameron gets it all up there on screen, making this one of the most uniquely impressive film experiences. The acting is top drawer for an action film with Harris, Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn (as the unhinged SEAL commander) all in terrific form. The ending borders on the fluffy (adolescent ‘messages’ about world peace and all) as Cameron’s movies sometimes tend to do but one is compelled to forgive it given the earlier technical and dramatic achievements. Stat away from the extended edition though because it only turns the volume up on the cheesier elements to the film.
Cameron, Sci-Fi, 1989

74.5

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Outland
Writer/director Peter Hyams does High Noon in space and produces one of the more underrated science fiction thrillers. He doesn’t attempt to touch on all of the personal complexities that High Noon examines. In Outland, most of that is brushed over in favour of tense atmospheric drama. Sean Connery stars as the marshal of a mining station on Jupiter’s moon IO. When he starts taking down a lucrative drug smuggling racket, the nasty station manager Peter Boyle calls for some heavies to do away with him, knowing he will be forced to stand alone. Hyams burns this one slowly and (like Zinnemann did in that western classic) lets the station clock steadily build the tension as it ticks unerringly down towards the arrival time of the next shuttle – when the hitmen arrive. The production quality is actually quite impressive with the set-design and visual effects being particularly outstanding. Hyams was certainly going for that same utilitarian vibe that defined Ridley Scott’s Alien (just check out that opening title sequence and Jerry Goldsmith’s similarly minimalist score) where the station and hi-tech equipment are a quietly impressive but incidental background to the action. Thus, like Scott’s masterpiece, the simple story is all the stronger. Connery is superb in a role that was tailor made for a man of his qualities and Boyle is suitably shady. Overall this is a terrific science fiction movie that went on to inspire many later films of the same genre including Duncan Jones’ seminal Moon.
Hyams, Sci-Fi, 1981

74.5

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From Dusk Til Dawn
One of the most daring and original films to come out of Hollywood in the 90’s was this Rodriguez/Tarantino collaboration. The former directed while the latter wrote the screenplay and co-starred as the younger of two brothers (the other being George Clooney) who are on the run from the Texas police and kidnap a family so they can sneak over the Mexican border in their camper van. Clooney puts in an awesome performance as the menacing and hardened criminal while Tarantino does quite well as the unstable psychopath. Harvey Keitel plays the owner of the camper van and it’s his and Clooney’s dynamic that is the most fascinating feature of the film as the two very different alpha males play off each other. Of course, just when the film is turning into a damn good crime movie, they turn the tables on us and the film suddenly becomes a vampire horror flick. To turn your back on the first half of the story when it was going so well took guts but it pays off in spades as the uneasy alliance between Clooney and the family he kidnapped provides a great backdrop to the vampire killing action that unfolds. It’d be easy to dismiss this film as a gimmick but playing with genres and pushing their boundaries has always kept cinema from going stale and having a good story, some great action sequences, and some extremely slick and cool dialogue to boot makes this one hell of a cinematic experience. The crowning achievement of this fascinating project couldn’t have come at a better moment as right before the crossover occurs Salma Hayek takes to the stage in one of the most arresting dance sequences you’ll see in an action or horror movie. “Ok ramblers, let’s get ramblin”.
Rodriguez, Horror, 1996

74.5

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Mississippi Burning
Alan Parker outdoes himself with this powerful and perfectly sculpted thriller about an FBI investigation into the disappearance of three civil rights activists in 1960’s Mississippi. The pacing, editing, writing, and acting are the central forces of this film experience and the steady but tempered build-up of emotion and drama is the result. Willem Dafoe is sensational as the straight-laced and driven (but multi-layered) FBI man charged with leading the investigation. It’s a testament to this perennially underrated actor’s ability that he not only holds his own with the legendary Gene Hackman but goes on to form one of the more subtly powerful onscreen partnerships with the great man. Hackman himself is sublime as the equally complex former southern sheriff who moved to the FBI because “the grits started leaving a bad taste in my mouth”. His character walks the line between professionalism and breathtaking ferocity as deftly as he understands the white southern mentality of that time. The nastier characters are played with similar relish by some more underrated big-hitters such as Michael Rooker and the always fantastic Brad Dourif. Parker doesn’t just content himself with making a top-notch thriller. Instead, he attempts and succeeds wonderfully in conveying a layered understanding and explanation of racism, its roots and its catalysts. Look deeper into each of this film’s scenes and you will be rewarded with this subtle commentary.
Parker, Thriller, 1988

74.5

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The Untouchables
Of all Brian De Palma’s forays into mainstream cinema this is perhaps the story that best met his overt style. Kevin Costner plays Elliot Ness, Sean Connery the tough Irish cop (questionable accent and all) and Robert De Niro toplines as Al Capone. Costner was at entering the highpoint of his career and was doing a good job in very interesting movies. This was no different as he gave Ness some nice depth. Connery got the Oscar for his entertaining supporting role and De Niro stripped the paint of the walls with a searing performance as Capone. This was De Palma at his most extravagant and Ennio Morricone met him head on with an equally opulent score. Thankfully (and not surprisingly) both the style and score worked just right and indeed, they really elevated the famed story to something altogether more interesting. As you’d expect from De Palma, the set pieces as are exquisite with the shoot-out in the train station standing out in particular. The chemistry between Costner, Connery, Andy Garcia, and Charles Martin Smith (with the latter two rounding off Ness’ unit as the gun hand and accountant respectively) is spot on and enjoyably to watch and overall this is a damn good treatment of one of America’s great legends.
De Palma, Gangster, 1987

74.5

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The Andromeda Strain
Robert Wise brought Michael Crichton’s early novel to the screen in this unique looking thriller about a team of top scientists who are sequestered in a hi-tech underground facility to investigate a lethal extra-terrestrial bacterium. Initially contained within a crashed satellite, it quickly spread to a nearby town wiping out its entire population in the process. There are no major acting names here, just some solid journeymen actors who each do their bit in raising the tension levels. In that respect, however, the star of the show is undoubtedly Ernest B. Wehmeyer’s (him behind The Sting) outstanding production design. He gives the deep underground facility an even deeper sense of authenticity and when captured by Wise’s assured eye, it is primarily responsible for creating the tense and often claustrophobic atmosphere. The story is fantastic too and Nelson Gidding’s adaptation of the famous author’s book cuts away none of the muscle.
Wise, Sci-Fi, 1971

74.5

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House of Games
Mamet regular Joe Mantegna plays the charming con-man who takes straight-laced psychiatrist Lindsay Crouse under his wing as she fulfils a dangerous impulse to indulge her darker side. Naturally, things go wrong and she finds herself in more than one morally and emotionally compromising position. This is your typical David Mamet adaptation of his own work in that you can imagine it was translated from the stage word for word. To his eternal credit, Mamet has always managed to get the audience to forget that and just willingly dive in. House of Games is also arguably his most accomplished work on screen as it’s a beautifully paced and compelling little side-winder of a thriller with two strong central performances. Crouse in particular balances the two sides to her character’s personality very well and Mantegna was and always will be the ultimate deliverer of Mamet’s extraordinary words. Those two guys were born for each other.
Mamet, Mystery, 1987

74.4

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Internal Affairs
One of the more underrated crime thrillers of its era sees Andy Garcia taking on the role of the high-strung Raymond, a driven Internal Affairs detective who gets drawn into a deadly game of cat and mouse with nasty LAPD veteran Dennis Peck (in a thrilling turn from Richard Gere). As Raymond works hand in glove with his no-nonsense partner, played by the wonderful Laurie Metcalf, Garcia’s relationship with his wife (Nancy Travis) begins to unravel as Peck uses the young detective’s insecurities against him. Henry Bean’s story has all the hallmarks of the great cop dramas and Mike Figgis proves more than capable in teasing out all the latent tension of its earlier stages and the troubled psychology of its latter scenes. A sophisticated touch reveals itself in the soft lit photography and edgy composition but, most of all, it’s the manner in which the film is sewn together that gives the movie its more seductive qualities. Figgis and editor Robert Estrin throw a hazy vibe over the proceedings that seems coded to the humidity of the LA streets and imparting a grittiness that graced the likes of To Live and Die in LA and Colors (which Estrin also edited).
Figgis, Crime, 1990

74.4

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Dunkirk
An oft forgotten WWII movie dramatising the large scale evacuation of retreating Allied troops from the French countryside and ultimately the port of Dunkirk. The incident became a banner call for the Allied resistance and it’s surprising we’ve seen so few attempts to capture it on film. That said, Leslie Norman’s treatment is a fitting testament given its balanced and comprehensive approach. We see the operation from most relevant perspectives. John Mills’ corporal and his ragtag squad are in retreat through a countryside crawling with German infantry and stalked by their Stukas (dive-bombers) above. Richard Attenborough is the business owner who reluctantly agrees to offer his recreational boat up to the Navy only to fully commit to the evacuation once he sees the tattered troops getting off the boats. As the film moves between its settings, we get a richer flavour to the time and place behind the story than we might otherwise have got if the story focused on one of them alone. Mills is eminently watchable as usual as the reluctant commander while Attenborough and fellow boat owner Bernard Lee are terrific as the two civilians embodying the contradicting attitudes to the war as it morphed from its “phoney” stage to the stark reality of what the troops on the continent were experiencing. The beach sequences are ably handled and given impressive scope by Norman. Especially impressive is the manner in which David Devine and W.P. Lipscomb’s screenplay teases out the different social, military, and political perspectives both on the ground amongst the troops and back in England from the army headquarters to the public houses. A nuanced piece of war cinema if ever there was one.
Norman, War, 1958

74.4

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Cold in July
Jim Mickle’s film about a family man whose shooting of a home intruder entwines him in the travails of an aged ex-con and his old war buddy is an intriguing throwback to the crime thrillers of the 1980’s (and 70’s), crafted with all their style and some of their substance. Michael C. Hall leads the cast as the ordinary working stiff who just wants to set things right with the intimidating father of the man he shot. That the latter is played by the great Sam Shepard is only the first of two brilliant pieces of casting because the reborn Don Johnson pops up in the even more interesting role of the pig-farming private detective who owes Shepard his life. There are a number of twists and turns to Nick Damici’s austere screenplay, too many of which are alluded to in the trailers and publicity posters, but it gets ever darker as it goes and culminates in a Rolling Thunder type showdown that makes for a rather effective release of tension.
Mickle, Crime, 2014

74.4

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The Man with the Golden Arm
Old Blue Eyes plays a former illicit card dealer recently released from prison where he kicked a drug habit with the help of a good doctor and healthy distractions such as learning to play the drums. He arrives home to both an overbearing (not to mention overacting) wife who uses her paralysis as an emotional hammer and his former boss and drug supplier who use every opportunity to harass him back into the illegal rackets and the drug use that goes with it. Only his dream of making it big as a drummer and an old flame (Kim Novak) whom he never pursued because of the guilt he feels over his wife give him the motivation to resist. Though it is never explicitly named, the drug is heroin and for 1955, that was controversial enough. There’s an admirable attempt to show the grittier side to the life of an addict from the demeaning desperate acts to acquire a fix to the turmoil of cold turkey and Sinatra and writers Walter Newman and Lewis Melter (adapting Nelson Algren’s novel) give it a reasonably dramatic depth.
Preminger, Drama, 1955

74.4

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Get the Gringo
In addition to co-writing this action gem with Stacy Perskie and director Adrian Grunberg, Mel Gibson headlines as a seasoned criminal with no name and only hints of a past (finally writers who remember to offer less is to stimulate more) who is incarcerated in a Mexican “prison town” after robbing a sizeable sum from a money from an American gangster. It’s fair to say that cultured action cinema fans will be sitting up more attentively from the very beginning of this movie as the opening chase sequence unfolds in strategically outrageous fashion and Gibson’s character (referred to only as the “Driver” in the credits) begins narrating us through the chase and his subsequent “vacation”. What unfolds is a story so fresh and entertaining that it not only meets but surpasses those early glimmers of expectation. Gibson’s Gringo is gritty charm personified as he begins establishing a base and purpose within the prison camp not through unfettered toughness but through intelligence and the types of honed instincts which have always defined the best action heroes. It’s not long before he has the place wired tight and together with the help of a young hoodlum in the making, begins scheming a way to get out and retrieve the money the police took from him when they arrested him. The finest aspect to Get the Gringo is its hearty doses of irreverence which is primarily channeled through Gibson who owns the camera in ways he hasn’t often done outside of Lethal Weapon.
Grunberg, Action, 2012

74.4

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Foxcatcher
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 those particular emotions’ 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. 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.
Miller, B, Drama, 2014

74.4

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Big Wednesday
One of the great coming of age dramas that follows a group of three men through the defining years of their young lives. Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey are equally excellent (Vincent and Katt were accomplished surfers in real life – and it shows) as the friends who were bound by their love of surfing in their teenage years but who grew apart as those years passed. Bruce Surtees’ (son of the great Robert) beautifully captures the sea and surfing in a number of memorable sequences but John Milius is clever enough not to allow the film to become dominated by the action and instead he uses it as an emotional backdrop to the drama. This gives the film a real sense of authenticity even in the more schmaltzy moments which serves to heighten the nostalgia.
Milius, Drama, 1978

74.4

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Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
Following in the illustrious footsteps of City of God, José Padilha’s Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is a stylish yet gritty take on the crime world of Rio de Janeiro but from the perspective of the corrupt police and politicians who run the city and the few good men who rail against them. It follows a clean and determined cop from his early days as the former commander of Rio’s elite police force BOPE to his under-secretaryship of the entire intelligence division. He narrates us through his attempts to rid the slums of its drug dealers to his discovery that a more dangerous cartel of crooked cops has taken the place of those dealers. Wagner Moura plays this character with a quietly burning intensity and the film pivots on his watchability. With such a sprawling array of characters all with their own important roles and subplots, such a central turn was crucial to the coherence of the film and Moura delivers time and again throughout the two hours. He’s framed as a dark anti-hero but like Dirty Harry, his conviction keeps him in the good graces of the audience while his ability to exact undiluted vengeance bristles through his calm and suited exterior in an always tantalising manner. The bad guys are terrifically played too with Sandro Rocha giving us one of the more loathsome villains in recent years with no small amount of help from the film’s writing.
Padilha, Crime, 2010

74.3

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Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Jim Jarmusch’s quirky yet deeply compelling film about a hit man who spends his days absorbing the Hagakure (or way of the samurai) and his nights applying those lessons to his profession. This is as original a take on the hit man genre that you will find as Jarmusch blends a number of the seemingly incompatible conventions (i.e., hip hop, samurai sword play, Italian mobsters) into a coherent, tongue-in-cheek, yet serious story of commitment and discipline. Forest Whitaker is perfect as the hit man, while Cliff Gorman brings just the right amount of humour and malice to his role as the vicious mobster who doesn’t appreciate Ghost Dog’s finer perspectives on life. There’s some great action on show also.
Jarmusch, Crime, 1999

74.3

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Play Misty For Me
Considering all the praise Clint Eastwood’s more recent directorial projects have received, it’s surprising how little focus there has been on his earlier efforts especially given that they are of a far superior quality in both craft and entertainment value. His directorial debut, Play Misty For Me, is the perfect example of such given how well he balances a somewhat experimental style with a gripping story. He stars as a reasonably successful disc jockey who is finds himself the focus of an increasingly frightening and disturbed young woman who develops an obsession with him after she stages a one-night stand together. Jessica Walter is really very good as the stalker as she gives one extreme reaction after another a chilling believability. Eastwood for his part offers his usual steady presence but seems to revel in the chance to play a more emotionally exposed character that he had typically done up to that point in his career. Behind the camera, he shows great patience as nothing is forced or rushed into. On the contrary, the film plays out with an unusually slow but welcome momentum. This makes the more violent sequences all the more effective as protracted periods of quiet drama are interrupted with the piercing mania of the obsessed Walter’s fan.
Eastwood, Thriller, 1971

74.3

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Gone Baby Gone
Ben Affleck turned many heads with this thoughtful and deftly crafted tale of two private investigators searching their local neighbourhood for traces of an abducted little girl. There are many things that make this film work so well but the writing, casting, and decision to make the working class Bostonian neighbourhoods so central to the story are paramount. Affleck co-wrote the script with Aaron Stockard and it’s fair to say that the result is one of the most insightful and authentic sounding screenplays. The cast of (mostly local) actors are just as integral to this authenticity as their accent, attitude, and mannerisms reel the audience in their world one scene at a time. Affleck captures the feel of the streets perfectly never missing a chance to contrast their geography and identity with the big city which is ever looming in the background of the interluding shots. The central characters are played with real authority too with Casey Affleck and Ed Harris being supremely engaging in very different ways. Ben’s younger brother is proving to be one hell of a unique character actor who never fails to make his unusual voice work for his characters. He leads the cast brilliantly here and being a local boy himself is never better than when he’s interacting with the locals. Ed Harris is equally interesting as the seasoned detective who Affleck and his partner Michelle Monaghan must work with. There are times when the freshness of the dialogue threatens to sound more important than the story but they always reign it in before it gets that far. The story of the missing girl never leaves the audience’s mind even though there are an array of other things going on and at all times it’s dealt with maturity and intelligence.
Affleck, Mystery, 2007

74.3

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The Glass Key
The film that provided the premise for Miller’s Crossing stars Alan Ladd as Ed Beaumont the brains-over-brawn right arm of a crooked politician Paul (Brian Donlevy), who’s looking to straighten out his public image by turning his back on local organised crime and garnering the support of a respectable reformist. Things get complicated for Paul when he is implicated in the murder of the reformist’s son and of his fiancée’s (Veronica Lake) brother. As such, Ed takes it upon himself to help Paul even if it means ostracizing his friend in the process. The Glass Key is classic film-noir territory, full of clever sub-plots and devious characters. Ladd is excellent in the lead, delivering his lines with pure coolness. Lake is as watchable as ever and shares a sizzling chemistry with Ladd (so sizzling in fact it saw them through five more movies together and seven in total). Donlevy is suitably mean and genial depending on the needs of the scene and, overall, it’s just a treat to watch.
Heisler, Film-Noir, 1942

74.3

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Ghosts of Mars
This John Carpenter sci-fi/horror/western about a police officer (Natasha Henstridge) and a dangerous prisoner (Ice Cube) trying to escape a terraformed Martian town as it becomes overrun by spirit-like aliens (or something) is a tongue-in-cheek heavy metal opera. Just like said music, everything about this movie screams mock-rebellion. Women run the show, aliens are ghosts, their language is a ferocious scream, the good guys are criminals, and like that music, if you’re not a fan of Carpenter you just won’t get it. Thus, Ghosts of Mars has the semblance of rebellion but it’s not really that dangerous and Carpenter has a ball with it. Even the more technical aspects to the film such as the special effects and fight choreography come across as superficially good but on closer examination they’re just plain goofy. Once you accept all this, however, you can really start to enjoy it. The patient start uses a series of dissolve-cuts to tell the back story as quickly as possible without feeling rushed but as the action moves through the gears, Carpenter’s utterly superb heavy metal soundtrack kicks in and sweeps you forward until the end. As with many of Carpenter’s films, the Rio Bravo theme is present and there’s plenty of innovative and over the top violence on show to keep most horror fans happy. There’s a great supporting cast on hand too (e.g., Pam Grier, Jason Statham, Joanna Cassidy) to deliver some outstanding and cheesy lines alike. And on top of all that, we have that wonderfully thunderous opening inspired in part by the opening to Bad Day at Black Rock.
Carpenter, Sci-Fi, 2001

74.3

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Scanners
Terrific horror/thriller film by Cronnenberg who strikes just the right balance between mainstream and skewed story telling. This is a film accessible enough to engage everyone but inaccessible enough to leave them slightly uncomfortable. It tells the story of a telepathically gifted group of humans (scanners) in North America who are caught between a defence contractor who wants to use them in its weapons programme and a more sinister force led by the always great Michael Ironside. The film does come across slightly dated by now though the special effects seem all the creepier because of it (check out those grotesque pulsating veins). Stephen Lack is completely wooden and a little laughable in the lead role. However, all shortcomings on the acting front are made up for by Patrick McGoohan as the scientist studying the scanners and in particular Ironside who devours the scenery as one of the great sci-fi villians, Darryl Revok.
Cronnenberg, Horror, 1981

74.2

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Disclosure
Michael Douglas stars as an IT executive who struggles to keep his job when his new boss and former girlfriend (Demi Moore) accuses him of sexual harassment after he spurns her advances at a late night meeting. Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel could’ve been dismissed as just another sexual thriller coming as it did on the back of Douglas’ controversial Basic Instinct, but thanks to some delicious plot and character construction, it becomes a cleverly gauged and robust investigation into sexual politics set against a colourful background of corporate intrigue. Douglas was always a dab hand at playing the wounded cad but he puts a nice spin on the concept in this movie by playing a dedicated family man who, with the exception of partaking in a few risky water cooler jokes and some presumptive behaviour towards female colleagues, has put his wildcatting years behind him. As the splash of ice water from his past, Moore is impressively biting, and her character is used exquisitely to phase plot and commentary multiple times over. Some impressive acting talent rounds off the cast with Donald Sutherland and the always excellent Dylan Baker playing the ruthless head honcho and slimey lackey respectively and Roma Maffia weighing in as an expert sexual harassment attorney.
Levinson, Thriller, 1994

74.2

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Fright Night Part 2
While 80’s sequels traditionally attempted to rehash the plot and scenarios of the original, Fright Night Part Two is a laudable attempt to do something legitimately different with the story but maintain the remarkable ambiance of its predecessor. The movie begins with an inventively brief montage of clips from Fright Night, at the close which, we discover that Charlie Brewster, now in college, has convinced himself that his memory of his previous vampire encounters are mere delusions. However, after an array of bizarre characters arrive in town, he begins to recognise a quality in them that encourages him to team up again with his old friend Peter Vincent, Vampire Hunter (Roddy McDowell). The special effects are more or less everything that the first film offered up and look a damn sight better than the CGI effects of the recent remake. The plot is strikingly novel and unpredictable relative to the original, while the dialogue nicely captures the spirit of that film. The central characters are also quite fascinating and well acted by the four main players. William Ragsdale shines once again as the unlikely hero and his chemistry with the excellent McDowell is as good as ever. Traci Lind does well as the new love interest while Julie Carmen puts in a fine shift as fanged seductress and leader of the vampire crew. For their part, Jon Gries and Brian Thompson form a nice double act which adds a welcome touch of humour whenever they’re on the screen. Director Tommy Lee Wallace should be given most credit however, for he not only successfully replicates that magical atmosphere of Fright Night but made the concerted decision to build on the stranger dimensions to that film thereby tapping into the hypnotic vibe which defined it so successfully. The soft focus and untraditional lighting balanced with the most exquisite use of sound combine to give one the that same deliciously enchanted feel. In fact, it could be argued Fright Night Part 2 is the more enchanting of the two. Whether Wallace went too far is difficult to say because while being a completely unusual and sometimes perplexing film, it’s at no times unenjoyable. However, it does feel rushed towards the end which suggests the time spent on time trying to get the feel of the movie right may have eaten into his focus on getting the story right. It’s, therefore, not as sophisticated a piece of work as Holland’s effort as the latter struck a near perfect balance between the two. The scenarios and set pieces of this sequel lack the polish and seamless integration with the story of Holland’s. Visually striking and forensically constructed though they may be (such as the bizarre but immensely affecting shot of the (err…) rollerblading vampire coming in for the kill), they sometimes come off as individual vignettes rather than progressions in the story. Likewise, the background and motives of the vampires could’ve been better accounted which is a shame because each of them were intriguing in very different ways and so a lot of fertile ground was left underexploited Nonetheless, Fright Night Part 2 is a sterling follow up to a movie many would think too unique to follow up and counts as both one of the most interesting and underrated sequels of the 80’s.
Wallace, Horror, 1988

74.2

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Seven
Not nearly as impressive as some would have you believe, David Fincher’s dark thriller about two homicide detectives searching for a killer who’s crimes reflect the seven deadly sins is a strong effort that still packs a punch. Fincher was still in his angsty punk-cinema phase so we have lots of edgy direction and gritty force but we also have signs of the more mature and disciplined director he was to become as he frames and paces his story immaculately. Brad Pitt is interesting and enjoyable as the cocky young detective while Morgan Freeman is excellent as the more seasoned and disillusioned detective. It’s not always easy to watch but it’s worth doing so if only for the dramatic close this film comes to.
Fincher, Thriller, 1995

74.1

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Screamers
Decent “alien-planet” science fiction is so difficult to come by that any Dan O’Bannon adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story which stars Peter Weller should be given a chance. Thankfully, the result isn’t that bad although with a slightly bigger budget (or with any budget at all!) it could’ve been a lot better. Weller plays the commander of a military station on a distant planet upon which a war is being fought between Earth’s two rival powers. After being abandoned by the authorities back on Earth he decides to call a truce with the opposing force. However, in order to do so, he must cross a nuclear wasteland inhabited by lethal robotic weapons called Screamers, which were not only created by his own side but have evolved beyond their original design and are now targeting all humans. With minimal production design and visual effects, this movie was always going to rely on the strength of its story and direction and on the actors playing it out. O’Bannon’s screenplay (based on Dick’s “Second Variety”) is clever and efficient. The scenario and plot are reasonably original and excellently constructed. The Screamers are genuinely scary in conception which is realised well thanks chiefly to the way they sound but also to an array of clever tricks employed by director Christian Duguay. Weller brings his usual commanding presence to the party and gives his character just the right balance between toughness and weariness. The support players range from very good to decent and given that there’s only a handful of characters in the whole movie, they do more than their fair share in giving it a distinct personality. The action is nothing special but nor is it pedestrian and it all builds to a nice climax. Overall, Screamers will go down as an opportunity wasted because with a bit more interest from the money men, this could’ve been a classic. However, as it stands it’s a fairly gripping sci-fi movie with a unique feel and vibe of it own and driven by a great premise and a fine central performance. For a science fiction movie that’s all very important.
Duguay, Sci-Fi, 1995

74.1

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Vampires
John Carpenter finally gets around to the vampire theme and doesn’t disappoint as he crafts one of the tighter and more memorable vampire movies. That weird species of Carpenter-bashing movie cynic jumped all over this one as evidence that he was on the slide but there’s nothing about this that doesn’t work. James Woods is terrifically nasty as the leader of a Church-sponsored unit of bad-ass vampire slayers and even Daniel Baldwin finds a role that he is perfect for – and was perfect in. Ok, the vampire make-up effects are slightly cheesy but that was always an endearing aspect to this low-budget auteur’s films. On the other hand, the special effects work nicely and so does Carpenter’s nifty action choreography and western laden score. Great fun.
Carpenter, Horror, 1998

74.1

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Fallen
”I can’t seem to get my mind around this”. In those words lie the standout strength of this film. Denzel Washington plays a high-flying cop John Hobbes, who has just sent a notorious serial killer Edgar Reese (played with typical gusto by Elias Koteas) to the gas chamber. However, immediately afterwards he and his partner (played by John Goodman) uncover a series of bizarre murders each of which leave cryptic clues that not only tie them to Reese but do so in ways that defy all natural explanations. This is as intelligent a supernatural thriller as you could hope for and proof that the most chilling cinema comes from those films that crawl around inside your head. While most horror films treat the moment when a lead character comes to believe that supernatural forces are at play as an incidental feature of the story (“Oh so it’s a demon then”), Fallen stretches that moment out across the film and therefore explores the progression from not believing to believing in a slower and seemingly realer sense. The result is a far more mature and enthralling experience than most movies of that genre. Nick Kazan’s dialogue is utterly superb and more than anything else sets the tone and tension of the film and when uttered by heavyweights such Washington (who is particularly special in this film), Goodman, Koteas, James Gandolfini, and Donald Sutherland, it’s given a whole other level of resonance. If Fallen has one flaw it’s the recurring use of the demon’s perspective which if omitted could’ve allowed the film to take on an even more sinister “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” vibe. That said Fallen is its own film with its own look and sound and for the most part hits all the right buttons.
Hoblit, Horror, 1998

74

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Timecrimes
As opposed to being just a run of the mill sci-fi thriller that uses time travel merely as a context or vehicle, this intelligent Spanish time travel story focuses on the consequences and theoretical complications that would likely accompany such a feat. Timecrimes stands alongside Primer as one of the more original approaches to an often jaded genre. Not as intellectually charged as Primer, however, this film looks at the emotional questions that the lead character Héctor faces as he gets accidentally sent back an hour into the past whilst trying to escape a murderer. Héctor soon learns that each decision he makes has unforeseeable consequences that see his life spiral ever faster out of control. Nacho Vigalondo’s tight and perfectly paced direction proves that concepts and writing can make a sci-film far more compelling than big budget special effects while a Elejalde is strong in the lead role.
Vigalondo, Sci-Fi, 2007

74

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I Was Monte’s Double
I Was Monte’s Double or “Hell, Heaven or Hoboken” is a-one-of-a-kind WWII movie based on an amazing real life operation and starring the man who was at the very centre it. It’s based on M.E. Clifton James’ own account of how he, as an enlisted stage actor with a remarkable likeness for General Montgomery, was co-opted by intelligence to impersonate the general in North Africa in order to fool the Germans into thinking the 1944 invasion might launch from there. It’s a riveting premise for a movie made more so by the convenient fact that it was James’ acting background that made him fit for the part in real life and so doubly (excuse the pun) fit for the movie role. Moreover, James and Montgomery were outright doppelgängers and when the former is introduced on screen for the first time, everybody should look up a picture of old Monty to get a first hand appreciation. The story gets even more bizarre in that the officer responsible for recruiting James in real life was David Niven (then serving as a Lieutenant Colonel in the army’s film unit). However, writer Bryan Forbes rightly replaced him with an intelligence operative played by John Mills presumably to give the whole operation a more contained and dramatic tone. Mills and James establish a splendid chemistry from early on as Mills’ Major Harvey sets about transforming the timid actor into the battle hardened taskmaster. This part of the film is full of humour with James being put through the paces as he keeps up with the actual Monte’s (played also by himself!) rigorous schedule and scrutinises the man and his habits up close. When they put the show on the road so to speak, the film takes a turn for the thrilling as James’ impersonation faces several tricky tests some expected and some not. James is outstanding in the role of both himself, Monte’s double, and Monte himself and captures the transition brilliantly when needed and disguises it completely when not (i.e., when he’s supposed to be the actual Monte). The insecurity of the man in his moments of doubt (even prior to his recruitment while working in the pay corpse) is endearing and his ability to turn that insecurity on its head when in character is most satisfying. Mills offers much personality to the movie whether he’s sharing the screen with James or his own on-screen superior played well by Cecil Parker. Forbes takes some liberties with actual events towards the end of his screenplay but it plays wonderfully with the rest of the film and gives director John Guillermin a chance to present us with an excellently constructed action sequence shot with all the tension and exquisite pacing of the best war movie sequences. Some might find John Addison’s jaunty score a little twee and it perhaps could’ve been replaced by something with a more serious tone but for the most part, it’s unnoticeable or at least ignorable. The sound production hasn’t really stood the test of time either and it can often be difficult to pick up on what’s been said. A restoration would be most welcome for this reason alone. Despite some issues, I Was Monte’s Double counts as a refreshing and thoroughly enjoyable film built around an intriguing turn from James. In fact, in all of cinema, there’s arguably never been a more reflexive nor historically relevant performance and if that’s not a reason to see a film, what is?
Guillermin, War, 1958

74

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The Silent Enemy
TLawrence Harvey stars as the real life eccentric and enigmatic explosives expert Lieutenant Lionel Crabb, who after learning the Italians are mining allied ships docked at Gibraltar using underwater chariots, trains himself in underwater demolition and then begins shaping a unit of frogmen into an elite demolition crew. The Silent Enemy is one of those unique WWII features that stands out from the pack for its originality and tension. Few enough films deal with the considerable efforts of the Italians in stopping the allied ships from supplying their African forces and fewer still (if any) have looked at the unique art of the frogman bomb disposal expert. The characters in this film are well rounded and full of personality with the “Carry On’s” Sid James doing especially well in the supporting stakes. Not surprisingly, therefore, there is some wonderful humour sprinkled amongst the drama and it gives the film a real charm. However, this is Lawrence Harvey’s film and what a pleasure it is seeing him playing a good guy with the same class and playfulness he brought to the many more famous bad guy personas he took on. In a style Roger Moore was to later adopt in North Sea Hijack, Harvey portrays Crabb as an irascible, caring, but most of all obsessive officer. This gives The Silent Enemy a psychologically slanted intensity the likes of which The Hurt Locker was to build itself around as Crabb repeatedly breaks procedure and endangers himself in the acts of his bomb disarmament. The action in The Silent Enemy is hugely impressive thanks to Otto Heller’s splendid underwater photography and director William Fairchild’s courageous direction. These peak towards the end of the second act when Crabb’s frogmen are accosted by their Italian counterparts as both teams attempt to salvage classified allied documents of a recently sunken plane. It’s a thrilling piece of action and there’s not many underwater sequences which can match it. The big finale maintains the momentum of these earlier sequences as Crabb himself takes the battle to the enemy in a clockwork constructed hair-raiser. As with all low-key WWII films which are based on fact, it’s hard to know how much of this is accurate. But that’s not really the point. The characters represent the courage that all who fought in that war demonstrated while the story shines a cinematically rousing light on one of the more fascinating yet ignored fronts of that conflict. The Silent Enemy is now public domain so you can find a link to the full movie below.ext
Fairchild, War, 1958

74

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Tin Cup
”The word normal and him don’t often collide in the same sentence”. Delightful sporting comedy with Kevin Costner in top form as an eccentric golf pro who qualifies for the US Open in an effort to win the heart of his therapist (Rene Russo) but is routinely hampered by his constant desire to show off by doing things the hard way. Costner and Russo are excellent together but the real chemistry is between him and his long suffering caddy (the always enjoyable Cheech Marin) who together deliver some of the wittiest repartee since Lemmon and Matthau. Don Johnson rounds off the impressive cast nicely as Russo’s smug boyfriend and Costner’s more successful former golf partner. Writer/director Ron Shelton is a dab hand at sporting comedies as he proved with Bull Durham and White Men Can’t Jump but this little gem is his crowning moment. Just a shame that at the time of its release, the world was still preoccupied with hating Costner to notice. At over two hours, the running time is a tad long for a comedy but it doesn’t really drag because of the fun being had by all.
Shelton, Comedy, 1996

73.9

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The Lady From Shanghai
Orson Welles saw many of his films butchered in the cutting room at the request of angry execs and The Lady From Shanghai is one of the more interesting examples. An awesomely shot and at times near inscrutable plot with baffling dialogue and widely eccentric characters, there’s something undeniably compelling about this film-noir. Welles stars as an Irish sailor and veteran of the Spanish civil war, Michael O’Hara, who becomes embroiled in the in-fighting and politics of a small group of people when he agrees to sail their boat down to Mexico. The attraction on this particular boat is Rita Haworth as the blond bombshell whom O’Hara rescues from a mugging at the beginning of the film and wife of a rich, successful, but crippled lawyer played with twisted relish by Everette Sloane. However, the more familiar he becomes the group, the more he’s been reeled into something sinister culminating in murder. Welles’ awful “approximation” of an Irish accent does begin to grate after a while given that he not only plays the lead, but that character also narrates us through the film. However, he brings enough of his typical charisma to the part to offset that for the most. Hayworth is striking in a role many thought would ruin her career due to the dramatic change in hair colour. She adds to the general air of mystery as the seductive counterpoint to her husband and his cronies. The Lady From Shanghai is full of Welles’ directorial flourishes from overlapping dialogue to the magnificent use of shadow and staging. The finale which takes place in a house of mirrors is particularly memorable thought it was by some accounts, considerably slashed when Welles turned in a 155 minute cut. The plot can be difficult to track due to the sound mixing during some of the more intensive dialogue driven scenes, the strangeness of the plot itself, as well as the characters playing it out. But somehow, despite all this, there’s a quirky yet compelling vibe to the film as it whisks us through one exotic locale after another revealing shadowy glimpse of the plot as it goes. The South American context has served many a classic noir well and despite it being somewhat underused, there are some lovely sequences reminiscent of the Mexican scenes in Touch of Evil. It’s not at the level of that film story, acting, or directing wise but The Lady From Shanghai does make for a unique noir with many interesting qualities.
Welles, Film-Noir, 1947

73.9

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The Frighteners
If you are in the mood for a genuinely scary film that keeps you laughing throughout and is bags of fun to watch then look no further than Robert Zemeckis’ and Peter Jackson’s collaboration. Michael J. Fox plays Frank Bannister, a con-man psychic who uses his powers to convince a couple of layabout ghosts (who only he can see) to haunt houses so that he can show up and expel them – for a fee of course. Things get truly spooky when a bad-ass reaper like ghost shows us and starts killing people right before Bannister’s eyes leaving him as the police’s only suspect. The concept is totally original and the story moves ahead at a firm pace without ever losing momentum. As is typical for Jackson, he chose to shoot in his native New Zealand and as a result the setting is quite lovely (at least in the day time shots) and as is also typical for Jackson the special effects are a treat to watch. This also marks one of Fox’s best performances and reminds us of exactly how good and charming he was to watch at the height of his powers.
Jackson, Horror, 1996

73.8

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The Way Way Back
An endearing drama following an awkward teenager as he spends the summer with his mother and her cantankerous boyfriend at his beach house. While the mother gets indoctrinated into her boyfriend and his friends’ grownups-gone-wild culture, he finds solace at a local water park under the wing of its wisecracking manager. Critical to this type of film is the script and cast and the former (courtesy of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) is an honest breath of fresh air, rarely sacrificing the film’s sentiments for cheap gags or tangential comedy vignettes. The latter is loaded with quality from the typically wonderful Toni Collett as the mother to an against-type Steve Carell as her asshole boyfriend. Allison Janney is the crazy neighbour responsible for most of the wilder antics and fulfilling that remit to perfection. As is always the case, The Way Way Back is infinitely enriched by the presence of Sam Rockwell as the park manager. Playing a big kid with a big heart in a quirky comedy is meat and potatoes to Rockwell but his charisma is irresistible and sends a charge of energy throughout the movie. That said, the real rewards to be found here are in young Liam James’ central performance and his relationship with Collette and Rockell’s characters. Charmingly awkward, entirely sympathetic, yet with a hidden strength he’s the steady pulse at the movie’s core.
Faxon & Rash, Drama, 2013

73.8

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Winter’s Bone
Daniel Woodrell’s novel is given a pared down but respectful treatment in this assured adaptation and surprise 2010 hit. Jennifer Lawrence puts in a “star is born” performance as Ree, a self-sufficient 17 year old from an impoverished mountain family and surrogate mother to her younger siblings in the absence of her criminal father and her mentally ill mother. Having grown up in a culture of lawlessness, she tries to keep her brother and sister away from the local business of meth production but supporting them with no means of income isn’t easy. Things hit breaking point when her father puts up their home as collateral for his bail bond only to go missing on his release. This forces Ree to track him down if she is to keep a roof over her family’s head. However, every where she looks, she is met with resistance and outright malice as she’s warned away in increasingly severe fashion. Only her locally feared uncle (John Hawkes) seems willing to help, if reluctantly so in the beginning. Set in the back end of the Ozarc mountains, Winter’s Bone takes us into a world that movies don’t visit too often and such is the attention to detail that, despite the obviously rich dramatisation, Winter’s Bone at least feels very authentic. As such, writer-director Debra Granik is able to, quite sneakily, make the experience of that world as central to the movie as the plot is. She allows the film to rest on those moments that distinguish the characters’ way of life from their socialising and their dialogue even to the manner in which they get their food. There’s no doubt that this makes for a more engaging film but at times, she and her co-writer Anne Rosellini go too far with the regional dialogue. Making it centre stage and stretching its use beyond that which seems probable eventually takes too much attention away from the plot and the film can lose momentum from time to time. Her direction shows greater sturdiness making maximum use of a minimal budget by utilising the bleak landscape of wintertime Missouri to enhance the coldness of the script and frame the entire film with a desolation and wildness. The sense of outsiderness in Ree’s community is thus accentuated as, more and more, we get the feeling that these people have been, at best, living in parallel with the rest of the 21st century. This is a dark portrayal of a way of life so palpable and so fraught with foreboding that it feels more like a thriller than a drama. But a drama it is for the essence of the story is Ree’s strength of purpose. Refusing to feel sorry for her predicament, she soldiers through the film driven by an unwilting desire to do what her family need her to do. It could make for a rather plain performance in the wrong hands but so dexterous is Lawrence that she’s able to reveal enough nuances as she goes to give Ree’s focused pursuit some genuine texture. The edge to this film is provided by its support cast with Hawkes showing yet again why he’s one of America’s most underrated actors in an intense but well judged turn as the vicious but ultimately caring uncle. Dale Dickey is similarly impressive as the battle axe matron of a powerful local family and while her character’s actions get a little silly towards the end, she helps substantially in painting the film’s more menacing tones. Winter’s Bone isn’t the easiest watch given its no holes barred storyline and bleak direction but it’s deeply compelling and, regardless of its few missteps, it carries you right through to the end.
Granik, Drama, 2010

73.8

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RocknRolla
”You didn’t realise that they had guns? Big, long, dangerous machine guns with war criminals attached to the trigger?” After a disappointing eight years on the back of Lock Stock and Snatch., Guy Ritchie returned to stylish form with this playful caper movie wherein a bunch of loveable rogues get caught up in a real estate scam between London’s underworld and a Russian oligarch. Things are made even more unpredictable when the junkie rockstar stepson of London’s chief mobster fakes his demise and starts stirring the shit from the shadows, just for kicks. Credit where it’s due, RocknRolla is one hell of an original crime feature. The characters, the dynamics between them, the plots, and the set pieces are all fresh and forged with an often twisted hilarity. And that it’s all cooked up in a big pot of fun and easy going humour ensures that it’s finest virtue is sheer enjoyability. Moreover, it was critical for Ritchie to take himself less seriously after the pretentiousness of his previous two outings. The dialogue isn’t as overtly sharp as Lock Stock and Snatch. but it’s more than tinted with wit and satire. This more mature and seasoned approach to Ritchie’s writing is a nice development in his career and with the real estate plot, it was necessary to the film. However, his directorial style is still defined by the burning intensity of a young talent trying to catch the eye of his audience but given the carefree nature of the film, it doesn’t hurt the script. In fact, it complements the playfulness of the plot. In front of the camera, Ritchie assembles the cream of Britain’s current crop of talent with Gerard Butler, Tom Hardy, and Idris Elba playing the small time chancers and setting a charming tone both as a team and on their own. Thandie Newton is in delicious form as a deviously eccentric accountant and Tom Wilkinson scores yet again as the colourful if sometimes cartoon like mobster kingpin. Best of all though, are Toby Kebbell and Mark Strong. The former, as the eponymous meddler, puts in an enigmatic and lyrical turn to meet his cockney character’s writing head on. The latter, as Wilkinson’s charismatic smooth talking trouble shooter, shows yet again that he’s the most interesting British actor on the go at the moment.
Ritchie, Crime, 2008

73.8

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Riddick
Waking up tattered and broken on a desolate alien planet, the surly goggle-donning Riddick decides to hole up and recuperate. However, when hordes of slumbering monsters begin to awake from a long sleep, he decides the time has come to leave and so he lures a bunch of gnarly bounty-hunters to come get him with the intention of nabbing their ship. With Riddick, writer-director David Twohy has attempted to return to the basics of Pitch Black and for the most part, he’s got it right. Again the central story here is that of a manhunt, the pillars of which are a scintillating group of gritty characters. The “working together or die alone” theme is played on yet again but to sufficiently different effect than in Pitch Black as to warrant another trip around the block. Best of all, everything is again coloured (but not eclipsed) by Riddick’s personality and Vin Diesel is every bit as good as he was thirteen years ago. It’s not easy to be both charming, sinister, and bad ass but Diesel always seemed to have a handle on it while in Riddick mode through a combination of his good timing, drawl delivery, and burly physique. Of course, Twohy’s writing and framing and that familiar minimalist costume design helps but it remains impressive that Diesel has managed to retain that same edge. As he did in Pitch Black, Twohy shows enough trust in his long time collaborator’s presence to surround him with all sorts of uniquely memorable characters. The technical qualities of the film are just as impressive. Twohy does much to give the planet a personality of its own through a combination of rich lighting and impressive CGI. The nasty inhabitants of the planet, everything from roaming packs of strange wolves to giant amphibious scorpions, are well designed, ably brought to life, and quite scary. Beating within all this is a powerful sense of momentum thanks to Twohy’s ability to establish, maintain, and escalate pace. The stirring signature score of the original fleets in and out but the less defined replacement is both muscular and pleasing. The action is again restrained compared to big budget actioners which of course magnifies its overall all effect and leaves more time for character and Twohy’s ever tasty dialogue. As impressive as all this is, it’s a series of little things that partially let the show down. A needless vulgarity on Riddick’s part at one or two points only diminishes his mystique and takes the sheen off the screenplay. An early flashback sequence linking the events of the second instalment with this one during which Karl Urban reprises his role also feels out of tone with the rest of the film. Most unsettling however is the transition between manhunt and monster fighting which occurs much later than in Pitch Black and is somewhat rushed. In the end, it feels like a token step for the story to take as if to fully replicate the template of the first film. That said, the plus column significantly outweighs the negative as thanks to its character respecting slickly written script, its interesting cast, and the bold technical qualities of the film, Riddick is thrilling and loaded with personality.
Twohy, Sci-Fi, 2013

73.8

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The Woman in the Window
Fritz Lang and Edward G. Robinson paired up for this haunting if slightly flawed tale of murder which ultimately became a dry-run for their superb later collaboration Scarlet Street, a film which used the same story template but more savagely plumbed the depths to our psyches. The Woman in the Window doesn’t quite reach as far as that movie but it does go dark for interesting stretches. Robinson plays a professor of psychology leading a comfortable but not altogether fulfilled life. When leaving his social club after enjoying a night with his two friends, one of whom is the district attorney, he stops to gaze at a seductive portrait of a pretty woman (Joan Bennett) displayed in a window next to his club. To his dismay, he sees the model’s reflection staring back at him from the window only to discover her standing beside him in the street. From there, some natural conversation arises and as happens to all people who look like Edward G., she invites him back to her apartment. It’s not long though before their evening of whimsy is shattered by a fast tempered ex-suitor who forces Robinson’s typically mild mannered gentleman to use deadly force in the defence of his own life. Not wanting to be caught up in a public scandal which would destroy his career, he and the like-minded woman carefully arrange to dispose of the body miles away from her apartment and to never meet again. Unfortunately, for both of them, a blackmailer in the form of Dan Duryea (who also starred in Scarlet Street) catches on to what they’ve done and begins devising his own nefarious plan against them. Meanwhile, the professor is unwittingly tortured every evening by his district attorney friend who reveals how his investigation into the very same murder is moving closer and closer to the killer. The most striking thing about The Woman in the Window is its easy and dreamlike momentum which reflects the cruel and unstoppable inertia which Robinson’s portrait-gazing has generated. Lang’s assured touch is present in his remarkable staging and lighting which, together with Nunnally Johnson’s tempered screenplay, complements that momentum. As ever, Robinson gets the tone of his man just right and plays intelligently on the audience’s considered pity. Bennett similarly qualifies her character’s desperation with some well measured vulnerability while Duryea is in his typical insatiable form as the bad guy. For all its strengths, The Woman in the Window does fall short of Lang’s best work. The professor’s personal life could’ve been better incorporated into the narrative to raise the jeopardy stakes (though Robinson’s natural likability fills much of the gap). However, the main issue is with the ending which without giving away anything is a little weak. That said, the class of the principal players makes this an easy watch and, for the most part, it wades knee-deep in classic noir waters. Best of all, it whets the appetite for the outstanding Scarlet Street and that’s no paltry thing.
Lang, Film-Noir, 1944

73.8

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Edge of Darkness
Errol Flynn stars as a fisherman in Nazi occupied Norway who rallies his village against the vicious soldiers amid traitors, devout pacifists, and quiet folk just afraid for their lives. Director Lewis Milestone gives Edge of Darkness all the trappings of classic Hollywood movies. It’s paced beautifully and there’s drama bursting from all angles as a number of interesting subplots are played out, some of which are quite dark. The cast could’ve done more to give their characters a sense of authenticity as the abundance of thinly veiled American accents slightly detracts from the premise as the film progresses. However, that aside, the acting is generally competent and the large ensemble cast work well together with Flynn and Ann Sheridan bringing most presence to their roles. It all builds up to an exciting conclusion, wherein each of the subplots are tied off neatly and to much satisfaction. Edge of Darkness is classic propaganda fodder given the time it was made and the message it sent out. However, given the value of that message, it’s no bad thing and it certainly doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the film.
Milestone, War, 1943

73.7

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Biloxi Blues
Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical play is wonderfully brought to the screen by Mike Nichols and amongst others Matthew Broderick as Eugene Jerome. Taking a different slant on the boot camp days of a fresh faced bunch of recruits to the likes of Full Metal Jacket (released a year earlier) it offers a far more human and personal account of growing up to face the harsh realities of the adult world. The comedy is much softer also but no less effective as that scene with the prostitute is testament to. Broderick is somewhat in Bueller mode but that’s no bad thing as you’ll find yourself smirking your way through most of his lines. Christopher Walken gives us a typically original and unorthodox performance as the drill sergeant who the audience will find as difficult to work out as the recruits did. And truth be told, it’s in such reality-based ambiguity that Biloxi Blues properly triumphs.
Nichols, Comedy, 1988

73.7

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The Score
A neat little crime thriller about an ageing master thief (Robert De Niro) who takes one last job when a brash and cocky young counterpart (Edward Norton) convinces him to stage a robbery in his own town. Frank Oz defies the worn premise by bringing a fresh energy to the caper and allowing the considerable acting talent at his disposal to improvise their characters across the movie. As the man behind the schemes, Marlon Brando is, in particular, a treat and despite not getting on with his director, the latter is clearly in his element when Brando begins playing with his lines. De Niro had hit a point in his career where he was giving less to each role but while nowhere near as intense as earlier showings, he’s strong as oak in this film. He does however allow both Brando and Norton plenty of room to shine and they take every inch. Though littered with slickly executed set pieces, The Score’s most distinctive technical achievement is Jackson De Govia’s production design. Informed largely by its Montreal setting, it’s one of the chief reasons the film feels as fresh as it does. Films set in lesser seen cities are often more interesting not necessarily because of something inherent to the cities but because the director and PD usually take more time to introduce the audience to the town and its personality. In two or three early scene Oz, De Govia, and Rob Hahn’s noir-esque photography gently gives us a flavour of this Montreal and it inhabits the film as much as it inhabits the city. It all adds up to one hell of a classy thriller that measures modestly but proudly against the best heist films.
Oz, Crime, 2001

73.7

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The Big Steal
Not being one of the best film-noirs from that era, The Big Steal still has one of the heavyweights of the genre (Robert Mitchum) in front of the camera and one of its best known directors behind it. Mitchum plays an army lieutenant who tracks the man who stole the payroll he was custodian of to Mexico where he joins forces with the thief’s girlfriend (Jane Greer) who was also left high and dry. The chemistry between Mitchum and Greer is perfect, their dialogue crackles nicely at times, and the film has a little bit more action than is typical of films of that genre. This last feature substitutes for the relatively simple plot which might perhaps be a touch simple for strict film-noir fans. By the way, there is a colourised version of this film floating around on DVD (who knows why) so if you purchase it unwittingly don’t panic – just turn your colour down to 0 and you’re good to go!
Siegel, Film-Noir, 1949

73.7

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Cast Away
Robert Zemeckis’ soulful approach to the old stranded on a desert island idea is a unique and deeply engaging tale. Tom Hanks scores well as the sole survivor of a plane crash who finds himself washed up on a desert island torn away from his bride to be Helen Hunt. In retrospect, it seems that Hanks was the perfect actor for a film that went long stretches without conventional dialogue and he uses all of his craft and innate humour to keep the audience’s attention. The film is full of memorable moments that are tied together in an unpredictable yet effective manner. The most memorable of these is the plane crash which is surely one of the most terrifyingly real experiences ever committed to celluloid. The island scenes are almost perfectly conceived of and not overdone. There is of course that now infamous use of a volleyball named “Wilson” but despite the humour it (either intentionally or unintentionally) evoked, it was in essence a very clever device that impressively used the Kuleshov effect to give Hanks and the audience a much needed emotional counter-point. Cast Away is Hollywood at its best and the ending is case in point as it manipulates us with big emotions that themselves are rooted in a truthfully resonating story. You’ll be surprised by how easily it sucks you in and it’ll stay with you for a long time.
Zemeckis, Adventure, 2000

73.5

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Terminator 2: Judgement Day
James Cameron’s follow-up to his seminal The Terminator was made about the time the director was becoming overly preoccupied with the technology of special effects. Thus, despite the tendency for tribes of adolescents to rate it higher than the original (yep higher – but don’t worry that’s what themoviesyndicate is for), it really doesn’t compare to it. That’s not a criticism in itself because the 1984 classic represented one of the finest pieces of film making in the history of the medium. Judgement Day sees the machines of the future sending another terminator back to our present but this time to kill the future resistance leader himself as a young child. Like before, the resistance send another protector, this time a reprogrammed Terminator (in a cynical attempt to make the now famous Arnold a good guy). Another high octane pursuit around LA develops as John Connor and his protector spring Sarah Connor from a mental institution and then set about trying to change the future themselves. While the stunts and special effects were just about the best thing to have ever hit the screens at that time (and still look sensational even to this day), the story is weakened considerably by Cameron’s newly found soppiness (more superficial Abyss-like messages here that he continues to make us cringe with to this day) and cynical effort to cash in on a younger audience by introducing a child, removing bad language, and reducing (by far) the death count. Of course, all this changes the entire feel of the world he created in the first film which was built on taut and elegant direction, economic but gritty dialogue, and clever low budget stunts and special effects. The result is a lighter hearted, one-line infested, child-orientated blockbuster. We know the real Cameron was in there somewhere though because it still manages to be one hell of an entertaining film with some great set-pieces. Schwarzenegger is great value yet again as the more diminished (from the point of view of being threatening) cyborg. Linda Hamilton is excellent as the more hardened Sarah and Robert Patrick is suitably nasty as the new, slick, and deadlier terminator. Unfortunately, Edward Furlong is unbelievably annoying as the whiny kid through whom Cameron delivers most of the schmalz that this film sadly offers up in regular doses.
Cameron, Sci-Fi, 1991

73.5

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Starship Troopers
Paul Verhoeven’s surprise hit is worth every bit of the hype that surrounded it on its release and subsequent history. It tells the comic-book story of an Earth of the future that is at war with giant alien bugs which inhabit far reaching planets human kind has attempted to settle on. The film is full of hugely impressive ground and space battles and the special effects are startlingly good to this day. The cast does uniformly well in engendering the story with a carefree sense of fun and Basil Poledouris’ score is suitably rousing to the occasion. Verhoeven and writer Edward Neumeier clearly decided to make a point with this one and as the film progresses the volume is slowly turned up on a delicious commentary regarding colonialism and propaganda. The film is all the richer for it as it not only gives the proceedings much greater weight but makes the whole damn thing seriously funny to boot.
Verhoeven, Sci-Fi, 1997

73.5

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30 Days of Night
For a genre as tired as the vampire one, films that push the boundaries and enter new territory are always welcome. Such is the case with the sensational 30 Days of Night, an atmospheric tour de force about an extremely northern Alaskan town that is invaded by a horde of vampires during the 30 days of darkness it experiences at the height of winter. A major strength of this film is its original depiction of the vampires with regard to how they look, sound, and behave, much more animal than human. David Slade skillfully uses the geographical isolation of the town to augment the sense of desperation and panic and outdoes himself with a truly inspired ariel shot of the town as it’s being massacred. The acting is uniformly excellent with Danny Huston giving us one of the most memorable and nasty vampires in the genre’s history. The most impressive performance, however, is undoubtedly Ben Foster’s portrayal of the desperately needy and grotesque vampire stooge. No review of this film would be complete without mentioning Jo Willem’s remarkable cinematography and Brian Reitzell’s inspired mechanical score. The ending gets a little Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayerish and really should’ve stayed closer to the ending of the graphic novel but the rest of the film is so good you’ll forgive it.
Slade, Horror, 2007

73.4

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Guardians of the Galaxy
Yet another comic book blockbuster from the Marvel stable of sci-fi fantasy. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel are the eponymous heroes whose self-interests bring them together against a common foe who, like every other super villain these days, will settle for nothing else but the destruction of the galaxy. What saves this film from the black hole pull of a mind-numbingly familiar genre is the fresh sense of fun James Gunn brings to the script and its direction. The characters are drawn and played out with a care-free irreverence that drives the movie as a whole. There are no erroneously earnest pauses in tone to allow for some heavy handed emotional button pushing – well, none that aren’t cleverly rescued in time. Guardians of the Galaxy is a joke and everyone’s happy to play it that way. It all lays the groundwork for some genuinely side splitting humour, most of which, involves Cooper’s talking and brilliantly mental space rodent. Where the movie inevitably falls flat however, is in the wearingly repetitive plot that seems no different to that which the likes of Thor, The Avengers, or any number of the endless comic book adaptations (that we’ve been utterly plagued with these last five years) have offered up. Plots that seem to serve no other purpose than to provide a platform for endless battles and flashy explosions. For all the good this movie does with its character construction and comedic dialogue and for all the ingenuity of Gunn’s action, the brain eventually just switches off during these protracted sequences because the premise is too flimsy to support them. It’s part of Hollywood’s magic formula so it won’t soon change but anyone who doesn’t have the hormonal constitution of a 14 year old boy, is liable to find this movie’s visual narrative veering towards 3rd act tedium. Thankfully, Guardians of the Galaxy wraps up at just under two hours and while still perhaps 15-20 too long, it’s a damn sight shorter than most other modern comic adaptations. Alongside its richer character and dialogue base, that saving grace, gives Gunn’s movie a significant edge on the generic horde of superhero vehicles.
Gunn, Science Fiction, 2014

73.4

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Training Day
Man-sized performances and slick direction define this excellent crime drama about a rookie cop’s one day trial with a hard core LA detective who crosses the line he’s supposed to be protecting all too often. Ethan Hawke proves yet again that he’s one of the most interesting actors around as the fresh-faced Hoyt while Denzel Washington (in a different kind of role to his more typical ‘good cop’ personas) puts in a blistering performance as the edgy Alonzo who roams the streets of LA like a king. Antoine Fuqua’s direction is both faultless and inspired as he brings a gritty, kinetic LA to the screens. David Ayer’s script gives everything an authentic feel and with Washington and Hawke as his mouthpieces, the dialogue is seriously cool. The always enjoyable Scott Glenn is one of the many decent support players but for the most part this film is all about the tense chemistry between the two leads.
Fuqua, Crime, 2001

73.4

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Primal Fear
An urbane legal thriller starring Richard Gere as a big shot attorney defending a naive and seemingly gentle young man who is on trial for the murder of an archbishop. As the plot is slowly excavated, he and his team begin to suspect their client may be suffering from multiple personality disorder and the real murderer is buried in his psyche. Primal Fear is a layered and nimble thriller with just enough sprinkles of political, social, and romantic drama to enrich the tapestry of the central murder trial. Gregory Hoblit’s usual sophistication makes the thing very watchable as his eye for composition combined with his overall discipline and sense of balance, ensures the visual tones never intrude on the plot. Instead they perfectly complement it by sitting in the background and allowing the engrossing characters and story to at all times occupy centre stage. The shining cast adds an additional touch of elegance as Gere, Edward Norton, Laura Linney, Frances McDormand, and John Mahoney give us one well rounded character after another. Norton in particular created one of cinema’s more memorable defendants and he’s liable to blow your socks off if you’ve managed to remain oblivious to this movie and the direction it takes. Of course, as always, Gere is a proper lead and he owns the movie even if Norton is responsible for the more agile acting. Beneath the movie’s sheen, the movie looks less sure footed. There’s some loose construction of the story especially early on as Hoblit and his editors place one or two of scenes out of sequence. And while the weaving of the different subplots starts out promising and proceeds in accomplished fashion, their connections become less focal as the story moves past them. Inevitably, a degree of tension is spilt when this occurs. Linney is, as always, a tremendous addition to the proceedings but an unfortunate regression of her character from strong female attorney to helpless victim of her clever male opponents, (one using charm, the other force) negates much of what made the script so promising to begin with. If Gere’s brash yet somewhat conflicted legal maestro has the tables turned on him late on, it feels less like an attempt to parallel it with her degradation and more like a rather unadventurous examination of ego. In the end, it matters little for the film aims primarily to be just a cracking good thriller with strong shades of class throughout. And that some are lighter than others doesn’t do too much damage.
Hoblit, Thriller, 1996

73.4

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Weekend at Bernie’s
Two lowly office workers (Jonathan Silverman and Andrew McCarthy) discover an insurance fraud on their company’s books and, as a reward, they are invited to their playboy boss’ beach-house for the weekend. Upon arriving at his house, they discover that he has died from an apparent overdose but rather than letting the weekend go to waste, they make like he’s alive by propping him up and basically treating him like a life-sized puppet for two days. The premise could’ve hit or missed but thanks to some great chemistry between McCarthy and Silverman, the outstanding physical comedy of Terry Kiser’s Bernie, and several memorable set pieces, Weekend at Bernie’s is comedy gold. McCarthy was slipping into cutsie romcom hell at the time and though it didn’t end up saving his career to the extent it should have, this was a healthier direction and he’s terrific in the role of the cheeky layabout Larry. Silverman is a precursor to David Schwimmer’s “Ross” but without the annoying whiny quality and he and Catherine Mary Stewart’s romance provides a great pretext for continuing the pair’s ruse. As good as the two younger guys are though, the show is totally stolen by Don Calfa’s ridiculously funny hit-man and Kiser’s inspired turn as the corpse at the centre of everything. His facial expressions alone are worth his pay-check but the way in which he understands what’s required of him during the various physical sequences with his body movement and general floppiness (yes, that’s an actual word!!) is just hysterical. Ted Kotcheff (the guy behind First Blood!) shoots the movie with a wonderfully easy going vibe which together with the smart scenarios and dialogue of Robert Klane’s script makes this one really quite addictive not only for those of us who grew up on the 80’s comedy but for anyone who let’s it past their more cynically tuned filters.
Kotcheff, Comedy, 1989

73.4

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Any Given Sunday
Oliver Stone changed his directorial style during the making of JFK where the telling of a long-winded complex story benefited from a quick, edit-heavy style. Unfortunately, he imposed this style on every subsequent picture he made whether it warranted it or not. And given that most films do not warrant it, he became a worse director for it, undisciplined and egotistical. However, Any Given Sunday is exactly the type of project that benefits from this style and so his penchant and genuine skill in putting large scale stories to film elevates what could’ve been a disaster into a thoroughly engaging and riveting tale of a franchise American football team struggling to reach the highs of its recent past by overcoming the egos of players and management alike. Granted, if you’re into sports this will be all the more enjoyable but this film, full of the acting heavy weights you typically find attached to a Stone project, just plain works even without a love of sports. Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx, and James Woods all do particularly well but this is Al Pachino’s movie from start to finish and there’s that “inches” speech to prove it.
Stone, Sport, 1999

73.4

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The New World
Terrance Malick can be an acquired taste but if you accept what you are about to see is not a “film” in the conventional sense, the images, sound, and emotions he so skilfully weaves together on screen can be some of the most rewarding movie experiences. The New World tells the familiar story of the native American girl Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) and 17th century explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell) who form an unlikely relationship in the early days of European colonisation. This is no Disney version however, as the film offers a harsh look at the barbarity of the times. In many ways, The New World mirrors Malick’s earlier The Thin Red Line which also dealt with one man’s admiration of nature and the simpler life that comes from being close to it. As you would expect from a Malick film, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematograpahy is out of this world and together with Malick’s sense of timing the film becomes an enchanting, melancholic trip into a long-since vanished world.
Malick, Adventure, 2005

73.4

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Charley Varrick
Don Siegel’s hard hitting thriller about a modest bank robber (Walter Matthau) who knocks over a mob bank without knowing and becomes the target of their ruthless bag man (played effectively by Joe Don Baker). Like all of Siegel’s movies, Charley Varrick is slow burning and gritty, full of interesting characters and superb actors. Matthau is a great lead (as ever) and he commands the attention of the viewer with his burly presence and acerbic charm. The film has dated in parts so the over-elaborate ending which probably counted as a decent climax in 1973 is a little old hat now. Despite that, the movie as a whole is far stronger than the majority of fluff delivered today.
Siegel, Crime, 1973

73.4

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Blackhawk Down
Describing a film that focuses on one battle that 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 but Josh Hartnett and in particular Eric Bana score very well. The action is as good as any war film before or since and most important for a movie with action on a scale this big, it’s perfectly co-ordinated (due to Pietro Scalia’s sublime editing) so that the viewer can keep track of events. Also worth mentioning is that this is one of the few pre-blu-ray technology film’s that transfers superbly well to that format, a testament to Slawomir Izdiak’s stunningly graded cinematography.
Scott, R., War, 2001

73.4

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The Five Fingers of Death (King Boxer)
Two rival Kung Fu schools prepare for a tournament of champions but one is willing to stop at nothing to ensure victory even if it means killing the rivals off. Five Fingers of Death or King Boxer as it is also known was one of the earliest martial arts films to come out of the Shaw Brothers’ stable although you’d never know it from the choreography of the fight scenes or their beautiful remastering by Dragon Dynasty (in collaboration with The Weinstein Company). The story follows one fighter in particular (played by the always interesting Lo Lieh), who after a difficult induction is given the secrets to his master’s “iron palm” technique in order to defend his school. In a world where all the masters have their own gimmick, this technique and the glowing hand that comes with (cue the audacious yet hilarious yet supremely effective “borrowing” of the Ironside theme tune – which Quentin Tarantino used himself in Kill Bill) is the one that settles all arguments. The fight scenes are plentiful, varied, imaginative and really quite ferocious for such an early venture. Eye gouging, flying kicks, and head butts galore all tied together with balletic blood spatter and crunching sound effects, these are only some of the treats you’re in for when you watch The Five Fingers of Death.
Jeong, Martial Arts, 1972

73.4

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Redbelt
An unusual take on a film that involves martial arts, Mamet’s film is a pensive drama that follows the fortunes of a struggling but deeply principled Brazilian Jui Jitsu instructor. Chiwetel Ejiofor quietly excels in the lead role while Tim Allen scores well against type. The slow build-up pays off well in the end as the final showdown is breath of fresh air for those of us fed up with the highly repetitive “buffy-the-vampire” style of fight scene in which fighters merely go through the motions. This is very different to typical martial arts films as its it not an action film so be warned before you see it.
Mamet, Drama, 2008

73.4

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The Big Easy
Dennis Quaid plays a young New Orleans police lieutenant who while attempting to get closer to the new assistant district attorney (Ellen Barkin) finds himself knee deep in an apparent drug war that may or may not involve police corruption. This is a charming comedy thanks mainly to the charismatic performance from Quaid, the superb chemistry between him and Barkin, and a great Cajun soundtrack. McBride’s direction strikes a good balance between the action and the comedy and John Goodman and Ned Beatty as usual provide great support.
McBride, Crime, 1986

73.4

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Foxy Brown
The ultimate exploitation movie shows us how vengeance should be done. Pam Grier takes no prisoners but she does take some things as she lays waste to the prostitution and drug racketeers responsible for killing her boyfriend. Yes, the acting is a bit wooden (but not everywhere) yes, the plot is basic but that’s not the point with these movies. The point is you get a chance to see everything Hollywood is afraid to show you!
Hill, J, Crime, 1974

73.3

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Warrior
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.
O’Connor, Drama, 2011

73.3

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Sink the Bismark
Sink the Bismarck is a decent naval thriller about the efforts of the British admiralty to track and destroy the pride of the German navy and the largest destroyer the world ever knew as it breaks into the Atlantic to wreak havoc on the British shipping lanes. The film charts the British war efforts at an interesting point in the Second World War as, at the time, the Americans had yet to enter the war and with the defeat of the French, the British were standing alone against the might of Germany’s western advance. Moreover, the Bismarck posed a profound threat to Britain’s one advantage over the Germans, it’s domination over the sea. The early naval battles in Sink the Bismarck are somewhat confusing as it is sometimes difficult to tell the British and German destroyers apart. Thankfully, however, there is no such problem with the climactic scene and it’s really quite impressive to watch the British fleet converge on the Bismarck from all angles. Most of the drama is played out in the London headquarters of the Admiralty and director Lewis Gilbert switches back and forth from there to the North Atlantic with a well timed ease. Kenneth More and Dana Wynters work very well both together and on their own as the Commander of tactical operations and adjutant respectively, while on the German side of the story, Carl Möhner does a tidy job as the politically ambitious German fleet commander. Sink the Bismarck isn’t the best of the World War II naval dramas but it is a strong representative of the genre and is definitely worth a watch by those who have a passion for the sub-genre.
Gilbert, War, 1960

73.3

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Mallrats
Kevin Smith’s “Clerks in a Mall” lives up to it’s unofficial title by giving us a similar series of dialogue saturated scenes whilst dialling up the zaniness to almost cartoon levels. This film is a laugh a minute with an array of fascinating characters all zinging off each other in ways each cooler than the last.
Smith, Comedy, 1995

73.2

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Battle Royale
Original action movie set in a future Japan where the authorities attempt to keep their rebellious youth under control by selecting troublesome classes and dumping them on an island until there is only one left. The concept is fairly original and Fukasaku uses it as an interesting way to explore the various relationships between the students. The action is standard enough with some gore but it’s the performances that mark this film. Fujiwara and Maeda are excellent in the lead roles but as usual “Beat” Takeshi steals the show as the lonely teacher whose taken enough from his out-of-control underlings.
Fukasaku, Sci-Fi, 2000

73.2

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Seabiscuit
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.
Ross, Drama, 2003

73.2

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The Bourne Ultimatum
Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is back to bring down the CIA program responsible for his training. As was the case in The Bourne Supremacy, Joan Allen is on hand (in another excellent performance) to aid his pursuit but this time nasty David Strathairn takes charge of the broader umbrella program determined to thwart him. Yes, the set-pieces are a repeat of those used in the first and second of the franchise but they are so overtly repeated that writer (Tony Gilroy et al.) and director (Paul Greengrass) are clearly signaling to the audience that here comes an even bigger example. To be fair, they succeed in those ambitions in every instance with the possible exception of the car-chase (which was so extraordinarily done in the second installment that it would’ve been difficult to beat). Thus, The Bourne Ultimatum provides us with a bounty of slickly directed and edited (Christopher Rouse) high octane action sequences with the crowning moment coming in London’s Waterloo Train Station when Bourne shepherds a journalist through a web of surveillance in one of the best executed action set-pieces we’re likely to see on screen. This final installment (involving Damon and Greengrass) is arguably the most enjoyable of the first three as by now both lead and director seem to be fully familiar with the concept of Bourne and what makes his so damn cool to audiences of all ages.
Greengrass, Action, 2007

73.1

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Sex, Lies, & Videotape
Steven Soderbergh’s debut is a low-budget slowly paced drama about four people and their attitudes towards sex. It’s a well crafted exploration into voyeurism and works very well as a meta-analysis given the purposeful lack of nudity or any explict sex scenes. Andie MacDowell and Peter Gallagher are just about good enough as the estranged couple but given that both have never been great at imbuing their characters with personality it’s difficult to relate to either. Adding James Spader’s typically skewed performance was risky in that it could’ve alienated the audience further but it’s in his soft and meditative performance that the other characters are tied together.
Soderbergh, Drama, 1989

73.1

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Blue Collar
Paul Schrader’s directorial debut is a tense and entertaining story of three auto-factory workers (played by Havey Keitel, Richard Pryor, and Yaphet Kotto) who struggling to make ends meet while their union looks after its own concerns decide to rip off their local union office. The three leads are all excellent, the story is interesting, and Schrader’s direction is for the most part competent. The dialogue can come across a tad wooden at times which is more a fault with the way Schrader captures it as opposed to being a fault with the script. Furthermore, there are some unnecessary flourishes during the opening credits that are typical of a new director attempting to find his style. That said, this is decent film that captures much of the paranoia that defined that decade’s cinema.
Schrader, Drama, 1978

73

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Fury
Writer-director David Ayer’s gnarly actioner follows a WWII US tank crew as they take the war with Germany into the inferno of the crumbling Third Reich. Led by their legendary commander “Wardaddy” (a well seasoned Brad Pitt), their adventures repeatedly morph between a muse of personal and social reflection to a high intensity, mechanised struggle for survival. Powered forward as it is by stirring score and moments of earnest soul-searching, Fury is certainly a modern movie. The fortune cookie meaning of war is given much consideration as Ayer tentatively paints the objective and subjective pursuit of its endeavours in a mismatch of Christian duty and cliched nihilism. Any caricatures, and there are plenty, are drawn along those theme lines from Shia LaBeouf’s lay preacher to Joe Bernthal’s monosyllabic cutthroat. However, despite such tedious trappings of the modern war movie, Fury achieves and maintains substantial traction in the hearts and minds of the audience and rolls forward menacingly to a more than pleasing close.
Ayer, War, 2014

73

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Disturbia
Brash thrills, teenage angst, and lots of fun, D.J. Caruso’s Disturbia is a great tonic for the over-earnest formula pieces that have passed for thrillers over last decade. Shia LeBeouf is the teenager sentenced to house arrest for his summer break and forced to spend the days spying on his neighbours. On one side, we have an attractive young lady (Sarah Roemer) and on the other we have a possible serial killer (David Morse in terrifically creepy mode). Needless to say, it’s not long before he’s hot and heavy with one and carrying out a Rear Window type investigation on the other. With its hip soundtrack and irrepressible sense of fun, Caruso paces this one to perfection from start to finish and whether we’re watching LaBeouf innovate new 21st century methods for ogling Roemer from a distance or catching Morse in the act of murder, ducking behind windowsills or battling his adolescent awkwardness, we’re with him every inch of the way. LaBeouf was fairly untouchable in these cheeky roles in the mid-naughties and he carries the movie with all the boyish charm and ironic wit that, at the time, was promising so much for the rest of his career. Model-turned-actress Roemer is surprisingly spunky as the love interest and eventual partner-in-peeping while Carrie-Anne Moss (as Shia’s mom) and Morse bring some gravitas to the cast as the “grown ups”. There’s not much more Caruso and co. could’ve done to make Disturbia more enjoyably and though we had seen elements of it in everything from Fright Night to the aforementioned Hitchcock classic, there’s a gleefully fresh vibe to the entire movie.
Caruso, Thriller, 2007

73

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Dirty Mary Crazy Larry
A cult classic as bank robbers Larry (Peter Fonda), Mary (Susan George), and Deke (Adam Roark) attempt to escape Sheriff Vic Morrow’s jurisdiction as he runs the manhunt from his helicopter above. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry doesn’t feature as many chase scenes as Gone in 60 Seconds or Vanishing Point. Instead we see a more low-key game of cat-and-mouse involving brief chases and subsequent pit-stops where Larry (the driver) and Deke (the mechanic) share the same roles as they did during their previous racing career. This makes for a very unique chase movie which is more about the relationship between the three leads than the action which is still good but nowhere near the calibre of the aforementioned films. Fonda and George are a bit wooden in the title roles but the rest of the cast hit the right notes especially Roark who excels in the role as Larry’s reluctant sidekick. Ultimately, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry is a low key slice of counter culture, the type of movie that sprung up sporadically throughout the early to mid 70’s, focused on the rebellion of the disenfranchised, and in which form followed function. For that reason alone, it’s a genuinely interesting piece of movie history which quietly documents the sentiments of its time.
Hough, Action, 1974

73

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Colossus: The Forbin Project
Back in the early days of the computer revolution, when computers seemed all powerful and full of potential malevolence, the notion of a sinister AI systematically removing our human liberties was one that made for some unsettling films. Given how overrated we now know those dangers to be, most films premised on this topic don’t maintain that same sense of menace when watched nowadays but a few (the most obvious being 2001: A Space Odyssey) do. Despite its shoestring budget, and modest place in the history of cinema, Colossus: The Forbin Project is one such film. Eric Braeden plays Dr. Charles Forbin, the world’s leading computer scientist, who has just completed work on a massive computer system designed to maintain full autonomous control over the US military’s defence capabilities. However, as soon as this system (named “Colossus”) is placed on line, it detects a similar computer controlling the Soviet network and despite the best effort of both countries, the two supercomputers begin working together to take control of the world. There’s a lovely build up to this film as it begins by picking up at the end of what appears to have been an exhausting project. As the scientists celebrate and the politicians preen, there’s a real sense of one’s guard been let down. James Bridge’s script gives the various characters a believable overconfidence by rooting it not in arrogance but, ironically, in their intelligence. Thus, when Colossus begins misbehaving, a wonderfully drawn out recognition of peril occurs. As he would later demonstrate in The Taking of Pelham 123, director Joseph Sargent has a refined touch when it comes to handling tense drama and his framing and use of space parallels and therefore accentuates the heightening sense of claustrophobia which the apparent omnipresence of Colossus gives rise to. The shots of Colossus’ physical manifestations (close circuit cameras, mainframes, etc), while very dated, still play wonderfully on the Kuleshov effect (which Kubrick tapped so brilliantly in 2001) so that much of the malevolence it takes on begins within the minds of the audience. Of course, no such subtlety is aimed for with its voice but the grizzled electronic sound is a welcomed turn of pace for a film which primarily dealt with the subtle. There are nice touches of comedy layered throughout the picture which are picked up on and channeled well through the cast. Braeden is superb as the stern but thoughtful Dr. Forbin in a performance reminiscent of Gregory Peck in his pomp while Susan Clark’s turn as his chief accomplice in his plans against the computer is a positive addition to vibe of the movie. Colossus: The Forbin Project isn’t an explicitly terrifying film but as we see the machine devise ever more clever ways at keeping the humans under its control, it does become implicitly unsettling which is what these type of science fiction films have always been about.
Sargent, Sci-Fi, 1970

72.9

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Inside Man
Spike Lee takes an above average heist story and turns it into a slick and deliciously layered minor classic. Denzel Washington plays the hostage negotiator who is called to the scene of a bank robbery where the hostage-takers (led by Clive Owen) employ a series of clever tricks which keep the police in a constant state of confusion. Add some conspicuous interference from the Mayor’s office, the owner of the bank (Christopher Plummer), and their pit-bull representative Jodie Foster, and matters become ever more complicated for Washington’s character. The plot is gripping and the dialogue is Lee’s usual brand of real-cool/cool-real but the two standout strengths of this film are the acting and its structuring. Washington revels in his role as the seemingly carefree cop, Willem Dafoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor as his deputies are great bang for your buck. Foster is pure nastiness and Owen seems in charge of everything. The story is structured slightly unorthadoxly so that as the heist is progressing, the film intermittently skips forward and gives us snippets of the hostages’ later accounts to the police. This allows Lee to send us wherever he wants in terms of our suspicions and keep surprising us as he does. Lee’s slick touch is all over this and, in general, it makes an already top story a real treat to watch.
Lee, S, Crime, 2006

72.8

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To Have and Have Not
The first outing for Howard Hawks, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall was not only her screen debut but the film that brought the legendary couple together in real life. For that reason more than any, To Have and Have Not has gone down as a landmark in movie history so much so that some may be disappointed by the fact that the story doesn’t quite live up to its historic billing. Based on Ernest Hemingway’s self proclaimed worst novel (something Hawks bet him he could turn into a hit) and adapted by William Faulkner, Bogart plays the captain of a chartered fishing boat who reluctantly gets caught up with the Free French revolutionaries in their fight against the Vichy government of Martinique. Matters are further complicated when he crosses paths with Bacall’s young singer/pickpocket who is just drifting through at the time. Bogie and Bacall are excellent in their own inimitable ways and it seems redundant to say at this point how well they work together as ‘Steve’ and ‘Slim’ amidst the exotic setting and under Hawks’ direction. In fact, their interplay becomes the chief peg on which the film’s appeal hangs. This is partly because the story is rather weakly constructed. The plot lacks focus and isn’t sufficiently intertwined with the central romance. By most accounts, Hawks continuously ordered scenes to be rewritten to further augment Bacall’s role and take full advantage of the chemistry the crew were witnessing. This ad hoc writing process is never more clear than in the sequence where the two cross back and forth to each other’s hotel room three times. It’s a distracting and cumbersome sequence that disengages the audience despite the chemistry and is only partly rescued by its now immortal closing line “….just put your lips together and blow.” From there on, the unhurried development of the plot and repeated romantic interludes dampen the movie to a ponderous pace and we’re left entertained solely by the magnetism of the leads and the odd legendary line that the film is only lightly speckled with. What the picture does boast beyond its enchanting central dynamic is a striking look. Through a masterful balancing of shadow, lighting, fog, and cigarette smoke, To Have and Have Not is one of the most beautifully shot films of the period, which constantly threatens to engender the film with the thick and heavy atmosphere of the great noirs. However, the occasions when the story picks up to meet it are too fleeting and constantly allowed dissipate in the attempt to drive things back towards Steve and Slim. Despite these significant weak points, To Have and Have Not remains a moderately intriguing film with a visual aesthetic and central chemistry to rival any.
Hawks, Film-Noir, 1944

72.7

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Gentlemen Broncos
For those of you who believe humor is something that needs constant re-inventing then look no further than Jared Hess’ films. Gentlemen Broncos is quite simply one of the freshest, funniest, well acted (from a comedic standpoint), and sharply written comedies in years. The film tells a small but endearing tale which is playfully examined on a number of skilfully interwoven levels. Like Hess’s earlier film, Napoleon Dynamite, Broncos is populated by an array of quirky characters, each with hidden depths. The setting is another small town in ‘Nowheresville USA’, and the context is the wonderfully brought to life world of trashy science fiction writing. Again, as he did in ND, Hess manages to create a world so utterly bizarre from a visual and aesthetic point of view but so familiar from an emotional point of view that as the film progresses, the realness of the characters increasingly stands out against the more surreal elements of the film so that the emotional tribulations of the characters become the dominant focus of the film. Angarano is, as usual, excellent in the lead role and the supporting roles are all manned ably with Coolidge, White, and Clement scoring particularly well. However, as is the case with every film he stars in, Sam Rockwell steals the show from his very first scene to the very end of the closing credits. Being a good actor and being funny in a film are not necessarily mutually compatible skills but Rockwell does it with ease and as the fictional heroes of both Bronco and Brutus, he gives us two entirely different and insanely original comedy Sci-Fi characters that will leave you laughing throughout.
Hess, Comedy, 2009

72.6

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The Lincoln Lawyer
A slick legal thriller that gets the most out of Mathew McConaughey’s self-assured charm while simultaneously feeding a central murder plot and a whole lot of subplots. McConaughey stars as Michael Connelly’s successful defence attorney Mick Haller who works out of his chauffeur driven car for anyone and everyone who can pay his exorbitant fees. When a brash rich kid Ryan Phillippe is charged with the attempted murder of a prostitute, Haller discovers disturbing parallels between that case and another involving a former client (Michael Pena) who Haller convinced to take a plea in order to avoid death row. Armed with John Romano’s purposeful script and clear dialogue, director Brad Furman manages to bring the streets of LA into the middle-upper class world of lawyers and their clients through a healthy balance of stylish editing and a top cast. The plot is considered and drives the film forward despite the potential distraction of Haller’s wider presence. On that note, McConaughey is more than comfortable in the lead and exudes all the easy charisma to set the overall tone but shows much discipline in allowing both plot and subplot to take first billing. Marisa Tomei is a refreshing presence as his age appropriate ex-wife while Phillippe, Pena, William H. Macy, and Bryan Cranston bring a level of depth not to mention fun to the story. The whole thing makes for a nice hybrid of the 21st and 20th century thrillers given its brash visual and character profile and grounded plot. For the latter reason alone, The Lincoln Lawyer isn’t the type of movie that blows the doors off the movie theatres but it’s that degree of modesty in its ambition that makes it so easy to bounce along to.
Furman, Thriller, 2011

72.5

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Cohen and Tate
Eric Red’s success as screenwriter of The Hitcher and Near Dark saw him get the chance to direct his next script, the gritty road-thriller Cohen and Tate. The film follows two contract killers played by the great Roy Scheider and a young Adam Baldwin who after brutally killing two government witnesses and their federal protection, head for Houston to deliver the kidnapped young boy of their victims to some people who wish to speak to him. Who those people are and what they want is largely irrelevant because Cohen and Tate is all about the car journey, the two abrasive personalities of the killers, their uneasy partnership, the police pursuit, and the mind games of the clever (perhaps overly so) little boy who they are forced to keep alive. It’s a lot to contend with but Red’s unique thriller doesn’t get bogged down in it. In fact, it’s a very lean thriller that sits easily within the confines of that car thanks to the slick writing and interesting performances. Red’s screenplays always kept a certain degree of space between the audience and his characters and this film is the strongest example of that tendency. The two leads are chilling and intensely mean. Furthermore, given that the film opens and settles before we even see them, Red makes sure we see them as intruders throughout. In fact, their entrance shatters the uneasy quiet which the opening sets and if you’re watching the uncut version, it will leave you queasy. The characters are defined further with the type of affectations all the great 80’s villains were dressed with. Scheider’s Cohen with a hearing aid which goes unmentioned until a lot later and Baldwin’s Tate with a Terminator like garb. Red intrigues us further by writing one hell of a personality conflict into their relationship which gives the kidnapped boy lots of psychological rope to pull on. Red isn’t going for realism in this film as these guys are either too slick (in the case of Cohen), too insane (in the case of Tate), and too clever (in the case of the kid). But such sharp edges to the characters ensure plenty of sparks will fly when they’re thrown together and that’s exactly what you get in Cohen and Tate. Given this was his first debut behind the camera, Red is to be commended for demonstrating some substantial style. A few rough edges show here and there, particularly in the opening scene as he struggles to get the actors working from the same page. But when in and around the car, he’s buzzing. One scene in particular involves the two killers using the police to walk them through their own roadblock and it’s a minor triumph of staging, editing, and overall composition. The result is a scintillating moment of tension which most directors would be envious of. The last word here should go to the two leads. Baldwin is a touch cliched in his depiction of the sadistic Tate but it’s undeniably an intimidating and entertaining turn. On the other hand, Scheider is electric as the clever, methodical, and mostly heartless Cohen. Yes, his character is written with real verve but it’s the great man’s unique presence that steers it in such a focused manner. Cohen and Tate has seemingly been forgotten as the decades have gone by but a recent Blu-ray release and recent resurgence of interest in the grittier 80’s thriller of Mann and Friedkin might hopefully dictate that it finally gets the attention it deserves.
Red, Thriller, 1988

72.4

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The Bourne Supremacy
Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity may have changed the way action films would be made for the following decade but it was Paul Greengrass’ two sequels that ensured that all those influenced by the Bourne franchise would just be pale imitations. This is the film that made all action heroes before or since look like amateurs. Matt Damon returns as the amnesiac assassin who is roped back into the murky world of the CIA when his girlfriend (Franka Potente) is killed in an attempt on his life. Joan Allen comes on board as the CIA agent charged with pursuing Bourne and Brian Cox is back as the former leader of Bourne’s unit. Damon is just terrific as the stoic spy extraordinaire but it was the set-pieces that made this franchise what it was. The action is simply sensational and Greengrass ingeniously used his documentary-making skills to give every bit of it an ultra-real feel. Whether it’s hand-to-hand combat or car chases he and his hand-held camera up the ante on the first film by a factor of 10 with the final car chase in particular being jaw-droppingly great.
Greengrass, Action, 2004

72.4

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Drive
In Drive, we first encounter “the Driver”(Ryan Gosling) on route to a job where he drives getaway. Sitting behind the wheel as he waits for his clients to jump into the car with their loot he calmly prepares, he checks the police scanner (one of the first of many nods to Michael Mann’s Thief), and he waits. When the action begins it unfolds in an unpredictable and ultra controlled manner as we see him avoiding the police not through a series of death-defying side-swiping collisions, 90 degree turns, and/or 20 foot jumps but through cool-headed intelligence. This scene introduces us to the Driver’s skills. The sound then erupts into 80’s-esque synth rock as the pink credits begin to roll, setting a hypnotic yet powerful pace for the film which more than anything mirrors the protagonist’s character – calm, calm, savage, calm. As the film unfolds, we learn two more potentially related things about the Driver. Firstly, he is a loner and prefers a life of invisibility and anonymity (by day he is a stunt driver a profession which evades recognition by nature). Secondly, he is extraordinarily violent, and maybe even a borderline sociopath (though this will be dealt with in more detail later), who can switch from his normal idling persona to 100mph violence in 0.2 seconds. The plot comes into its own when the Driver becomes friendly with his neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her son who together begin to bring out his more human side. However, when their lives become threatened, the two sides to his persona come into conflict and his normally controlled life descends into chaos where his more violent (sociopathic?) tendencies are always going to win out. In review, the first thing that needs to be said about this film (something that has shamefully gone largely unacknowledged by even it’s director) is that the premise was completely lifted from Walter Hill’s often unseen 1978 classic The Driver. Like The Driver, Drive is also about a supreme getaway driver for hire who shows up on the night of the job to ferry his criminal clients through LA avoiding the cops, getting them to safety, and then disappearing never to be seen again. In both films, the main protagonist is referred to only as “The Driver” (played in that film by Ryan O’Neill) and in both films, he is defined by an austere personality (though in the 1978 film, this is explained through an implied intolerance the driver bears for the fools he has to work with). Although Drive’s premise is identical to the earlier film, the story differs substantially due to the presence of Mulligan’s character and the trouble she brings to the driver’s door. From a technical point of view, Drive is a cool and interesting film going experience. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s vision is as audacious as it is slick. The nighttime cityscapes accompanied by Cliff Martinez’ score and the complementary retro soundtrack are sumptuously shot while Matthew Newman’s editing particularly in the driving scenes is flawless. Refn was clearly inspired by Michael Mann’s Heat and Collateral in his depiction of LA but it’s from Mann’s earlier 1980’s films, namely Manhunter and in particular Thief, Drive takes its lead. The action is quite restrained where crafty driving is favoured over brute force and daring and although we would like to give credit to the director for seeing the strength in that decision, he has claimed it was simply because they didn’t have enough money to shoot any large scale car chases. Regardless of the reason, however, it does indeed heighten the power of the action sequences as well as giving them an original feel. In front of the camera, Gosling is outstanding as he breathes life into his character in all manner of subtle ways. His walk, his stare, his smile, even the methodical way he puts on his gloves all combine to give this man with no name a fascinating yet deeply serious disposition. The supporting cast are also very good if a bit underused. Mulligan plays a decent emotional counter-point to Gosling but as with Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman, we did not really see enough of her to warrant further comment. If there is a problem with Drive, and there is is, it seems to rest of the difference between director and star regarding the interpretation of the lead character’s motivation. In interviews and Q & A’s, Refn states that he sees him as the modern day hero and the ridiculous levels of violence he’s responsible for clearly has no bearing on his mental stability in the mind of the director. Not only is this obtuse notion of heroism nonsensical but in his rambling explanations as to how he chose “A Real Hero” for the soundtrack firstly because he thought it sounded cool one gets the distinct impression, he didn’t know what this film was about and rationalised everything around the simplest explanation. However when we look at Goslings contribution to the film, such as the jacket with the scorpion on the back (and, by implication, The Driver’s back) and the featureless stunt mask he wears during the movie’s most potent scene, we realise that he may in fact have an entirely different interpretation in mind. Gosling’s notion of the Driver seems more akin to Travis Bickle than Refn’s childish and even confused notion of a modern day John McClane. Which interpretation which we decide is correct is crucial because Refn’s interpretation is not only nonsensical but it means the Driver’s lack of dialogue, long mono-expressional staring, and extreme levels of violence are only explainable as indulgent gratuitousness with no bearing on the story. Gosling’s (and we must assume the writers’) interpretation, on the other hand, gives Drive a profound subtlety. This lack of subtlety, discipline, and (unfortunately) intelligence on the Refn’s part has another detrimental effect on Drive in that it tarnishes the movie’s best performance, that of Al Brook’s mobster. Though Brooks is very impressive in his playing of the Jewish gangster, there are two obvious moments towards the end where his more violent actions feel forced and extremely artificial. Refn has been accused of being gratuitous in his use of violence in previous films and this criticism can be fairly levelled at him again in both his depiction of the Driver’s actions and those of Brooks’ character. The question is, would those scenes have worked without the violence? In the case of at least two of them, the answer is not only yes (because Brooks’ delivery of his lines is more menacing than any action could ever be) but they might have worked even better as the depths of Brooks’ mean streak would have been unseen and thus in the mind’s eye of the audience it would have been potentially limitless. Despite a seemingly massive divergence between director and star in their understanding of the lead character’s impulses and despite the pretentious gratuitousness of many of the violent scenes, Drive still proves to be a uniquely satisfying and authentically cool film. It’s a treat to watch and it attempts to give us something different. In these times of numerous mindless remakes and formula blockbusters that is not a bad thing to offer.
Refn, Crime, 2011

72.4

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The Time Machine
A politically sanitised adaptation of H.G. Welles’ novel about a scientist who builds a time machine and travels far into the future when the human race has divided into two antagonistic sub-species. Statements on conflict between the working class and societies’ elite are replaced with lesser thought out and more cliched anti-war anti-fascist messages. However, as far as the movie goes, it’s a reasonably entertaining and well structured tale. Rod Taylor plays the scientist and he gives us an interesting mixture of Victorian self-righteousness and American bravado (at least what the audiences would see as such). The special effects are just plain goofy even for a movie of its time but coming as it did from the mind of a Victorian it was somewhat necessitated. But through a combination of innocent writing, fascinating concepts, and good hearted performances, The Time Machine is a uniquely enjoyable film going experience.
Pal, Sci-Fi, 1960

72.4

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Silent Running
Extraordinary sci-fi movie about a fleet of ships housing the last of Earth’s forests and one of its caretakers who takes matters into his own hands when the crew are ordered to destroy the forests so the ships can be returned to commercial service. Bruce Dern gives a uniquely pensive performance as the self proclaimed protector of these last remnants of plant life and combined with Douglas Trumball’s (he responsible for 2001’s visual effects) patient and visually stunning direction this film becomes something far greater than most science fiction. You’ll need to give it time to work its magic but once it gets hold of you, it’ll stay with you forever. Silent Running became a cult favourite amongst hardcore sci-fi fans and filmmakers alike so much so that even to this day, films are nodding affectionately at its influence (just check out the opening of Duncan Jones’ Moon).
Trumbull, Sci-Fi, 1972

72.3

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First Blood
Don’t be fooled by the formulaic sequels, First Blood is a different animal altogether. Directed by Ted Kotcheff (a man more famous for comedies) this film offers a more soulful examination of the impact of the Vietnam war and the civilian attitude towards the soldiers who fought in it. It tells the story of a war hero John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) who after learning that the last of his unit is dead is arrested by a petty small town sheriff (Brian Dennehy) because he has long hair and hasn’t shaved. The threat that Rambo offers to Sheriff Teasle and his ego is the central thread to this film and both the action and drama tie into it wonderfully. Some of the dialogue is truly gripping such as when Rambo snares Teasle in the forest and, in a different context, it could sound cheesy. But in the context of a small town tough guy who has finally met the real thing, it cuts deep. Stallone is brilliant as the brooding killing machine while Dennehy makes his character work in a way not many could. The only negative to the film is Richard Crenna who hams every line he’s given but even that adds some unintentional humour to the proceedings. The action scenes are handled very well by Kotcheff with the tense forest sequence being a particular standout. Of course, they’re ably helped by the great Jerry Goldsmith’s edgy score. So ignore the sequels because as a stand-alone film First Blood ranks amongst the best of the action genre.
Kotcheff, Action, 1982

72.3

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Harsh Times
Writer of Training Day David Ayer steps behind the camera for this film about a deranged former ranger (Christian Bale) who after returning home from Afghanistan cruises the streets of LA with his buddy (Freddy Rodriguez). What unfolds is a riveting exploration of self-destruction and friendship as Rodriguez’ character feels obliged to stick by his friend no matter how much he descends into madness. Rodriguez is excellent but he is uttlery eclipsed by Bale who simply burns a hole in the screen. The action, characters, and dialogue are as gritty as Training Day and with two terrific central performances driving the film, it’s a worthy follow-up from Ayer.
Ayer, Crime, 2005

72.3

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The Seven-Ups
Philip D’Antoni’s role as producer of The French Connection saw him take the helm of Sonny Grosso’s story about a special NYPD unit which uses any means necessary to tackle organised crime and ensure their arrests yield sentences of seven years and up. Roy Scheider stars as the leader of this unit which soon into the movie, becomes embroiled in a series of mob kidnappings when one of their undercover men is mistaken as a kidnapper. In some ways, The Seven-Ups is highly reminiscent of The French Connection. Urs Furrer’s cinematography gives the streets of New York that same coarse atmosphere while Don Ellis (who scored The French Connection) pitches in with another memorable 70’s-esque score. Scheider gives his usual charming and charismatic performance as the tough cop not afraid to bend the rules and Tony Lo Bianco pops up as Scheider’s snitch. D’Antoni even throws in a car chase which rivals that most famous of chase scenes from The French Connection and in some ways actually surpasses it. The result is an entertaining and gritty movie the type of which the 70’s seemed uniquely capable of producing. That said, D’Antoni’s directorial efforts fall far short of Friedkin’s and while Scheider was probably capable of giving something close to Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, the somewhat uninspired writing never gives him the chance. His character doesn’t develop as much as it should and so we never really throw in with him. Moreover, the actors constantly struggle to get into sync with each other and with the spirit of the film, another indication that D’Antoni wasn’t up to the task of director. Despite these shortcomings, The Seven-Ups remains an interesting and very enjoyable feature worth seeing for those 70’s vibes alone but it would’ve been very interesting to see what Friedkin did with it.
D’Antoni, Crime, 1973

72.2

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Gremlins
Terrific seasonal comedy horror by Joe Dante about a town that becomes besieged by an army of mischievous gremlins on Christmas Eve. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates are good as the leads but this is the gremlins’ movie as they entertain the audience in a number of memorable set-pieces. As is typical for a Dante film there are movie references littered throughout which unlike most modern films are cleverly incorporated into the story. Great fun.
Dante, Comedy, 1984

72.2

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Boomerang
This smart and unusually wise romantic comedy is perhaps the best example of him doing just that. Eddie 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.
Hudlin, Comedy, 1992

72.2

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Batman Begins
Last 90 minutes excellent, first 40 awful. Batman Begins is a case of Nolan trying to do too much in one film. It begins with Bruce Wayne in some prison camp – cue token action scenes – and proceeds to tell his story through the use of flashbacks that are completely out of pace with each other. In fact, the overall pacing of those 40 mins is erratic as Nolan attempts to get all the exposition out of the way. So the “more than a man” speech comes far too early and the dialogue in general is wooden, clunky, bombastic (“What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power. You fear your anger, the drive to do great or terrible things”) or outright cringe-worthy (“you’re not the devil, you’re practice”). The action is nothing we haven’t seen before and if anything it’s old hat. The ninja scene is straight out of the opening scene of Rambo III which was already lampooned by Hot Shots Part Deux so why Nolan tried to have a serious stab at it is a mystery. There are some good ideas in the opening act though. Wayne becoming a criminal and witnessing the ambiguity of crime, Wilkonson’s speech that prompted Wayne to disappear are all original and thought-provoking. Happily, once Wayne returns to Gotham, this film really takes off and it becomes quite excellent. Everything becomes more focused. The pacing settles, the score comes into its own and we are treated to one outstanding set-piece after another (with the rooftop sequence particularly standing out). Even the dialogue tightens up and becomes much more effective because of it. The cinematography throughout is splendid but peaks as the night-time cityscapes provide the backdrop to the originally executed action sequences. The seriousness of the film is also counter-weighted in the second act with Michael Caine’s light-hearted portrayal of “Alfred” providing some genuinely funny moments. With the calmer pace, the actors are given room to breathe and Bale starts to show us a much more interesting and charming Wayne (though here too the ‘millionaire playboy’ scenario was rushed). Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman become relevant to the story and add great support because of it. The contrast between the first and final two acts is so stark that one wonders why Nolan just didn’t begin at the 40 minute mark The backstory could’ve been subtly sewn into its fabric with a series of unspoken shots like in Marathon Man (the type of which Nolan did briefly employ in the final act) and the film would’ve been much more fluid because of it. That said the final 90 minutes definitely make it worth wading through the first 40.
Nolan, Fantasy, 2005

72.1

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Thunder Road
Not your typical road movie nor thriller, this 50’s cult classic focuses on a community of bootleggers who defy the law by hiding their stills way out in the mountainside and transporting their shine in muscle cars faster than anything the police have on the roads. Based on Robert Mitchum’s own story, Thunder Road follows Luke Doolin (the fastest of all the transporters) and his battle with both a police task force set up specifically to catch him and an organised crime network determined to take over his family’s patch. Thunder Road is an original movie which stands squarely on the broad charismatic shoulders of Robert Mitchum as Luke. Given the unconventional nature of the premise and its lead actor, it feels exactly like a cult classic should. The chase scenes are few but excellent and hard-hitting, the drama is sufficiently engaging, and the end provides us with a great pay-off. Furthermore, you get a chance to see some well acted scenes between Mitchum and his eldest son who stars as his younger brother. What more could you want?
Ripley, Crime, 1958

72.1

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The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
Gordon Liu’s crowning moment came as San Te, a young dissident who finds shelter from the Manchu forces in a Shaolin monastery. He promptly makes his way through the 35 Chambers of the Shaolin’s Kung Fu school only to create the 36th himself in an attempt to bring his skills to the aid of the people of Canton. 36th Chamber is a hugely impressive and at the times innovative martial arts film from the Shaw Brothers’ stable. Unlike most martial arts films, it spends the majority of its time focusing on the unique training regime of the Shaolin and the different skills and strengths which San Te has to work on to progress through each chamber. The fighting is sensational with Lui proving he had the grace and presence to command such a picture on his own. His boyish impishness gives the film a real charm and ironically makes him all the more intimidating when he starts dishing out the punishment. Dragon Dynasty in collaboration with the Weinstein Company has in recent years remastered this and a number of other titles and the result has been sensational. The quality of the visuals and sound makes it look like it was made today and showcases the class of the filmmaking like never before.
Chia-Liang, Martial Arts, 1978

72.1

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American Psycho
Brilliantly twisted film that captures the frenzied irreverence of the book in all its shades of humour and satire. Patrick Bateman is a wealthy corporate vice president who spends his days grooming himself immersed in fetid anxiety, and his nights engaged in inane social ritual that is becoming ever more numbing to him. As he states himself “Though there is an idea of Patrick Bateman….I’m just not there”. This naturally lays the groundwork to a major psychotic meltdown and that’s when all mayhem breaks lose. Though Harron’s direction is almost faultless, everything falls in the shadow of Christian Bale’s searingly funny yet deeply unhinged portrayal of the lead. You gladly hitch along for the ride as his character slips ever deeper into the abyss and when combined with Harron’s excellent timing the result is a riot of satire and wit. Just check out that ‘Phil Collins’ scene.
Harron, Satire, 2000

72

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The Pope of Greenwich Village
This a relatively unknown but compelling comedy drama about two Italian-American cousins, one of whom (Eric Roberts) keeps the other (Mickey Rourke) in trouble with hair-brained scams and constant foul-ups. Things come to a head when they rob $150,000 from a deranged mobster only for him to discover it was them. It could be argued that Stuart Rosenberg’s film finds itself caught between wanting to be a comedy and wanting to be a crime drama yet succeeding as neither. And while there is some merit to that claim it’s nonetheless an engaging and often amusing piece thanks mainly to Vincent Patrick’s raw and intelligent screenplay (adapted from his own book) and the two central performances. The dialogue, accents, and language is hugely authentic and it isn’t dumbed down for the sake of clarity. That makes the audience work harder but in a way which is rather rewarding. Rourke is as charming as ever while Roberts is at his most memorable and the two form a dynamic reminiscent of Keitel and De Niro in Mean Streets. This is by no means a typical movie but then again that’s exactly the point.
Rosenberg, Crime, 1984

71.8

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Machete
Robert Rodriguez extends his Grindhouse trailer into a full length feature and does so to great effect. Danny Trejo is suitably stoic in the title role and is the perfect choice for this type of tongue-in-cheek character. The film itself pushes the boundaries of zany set-pieces to a new high but the story (same old out-for-revenge story) is kept interesting by balancing the steady diet of “oh, no he didn’t” action with an array of great and memorable characters. De Niro ironically finds more substance in this role than he has found in the two dozen or so he’s played in the last 15 years and he is much the better for it. There are even shades of his glory days as he has fun and experiments with his first risky role in a long time. Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez are highly watchable as two of Machete’s many love interests which he encounters on his adventure. However, Don Johnson steals the show as the vicious tsar of border patrol giving arguably one of his best performances with a layered and fresh portrayal of a mad man who takes his job too far. Don’t spend too much time thinking about this film though. Just sit back and enjoythe ride.
Rodriguez, Action, 2010

71.8

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