Steven Soderbergh and friends take a working holiday in Las Vegas for this entertaining reworking of the Rat Pack’s heist comedy. George Clooney fills Sinatra’s shoes as Danny Ocean, the recently paroled con-man who assembles a motley crew to take down Andy Garcia’s ruthless casino owner while simultaneously nabbing his ex-wife (Julia Roberts) back from his clutches. Brad Pitt is the Dean Martin sidekick while Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Carl Reiner, and Elliot Gould among a couple of others complete the rest of the gang. A party-mode Soderbergh unleashes every bit of his directorial panache to craft the entire affair into an interminably slick feast for the eyes and ears – with a production budget to match (not content with taking over actual casinos, they even staged a title fight between Wladimir Klitshcko and Lennox Lewis). Playing the coolest versions of themselves, the cast cruise their way through the complicated and very well executed heist in a manner befitting the project’s ambitions with David Holmes’ repetitive but impossibly suave compositions providing the most complementary soundtrack imaginable. If it sounds, like a “can’t-miss” type of movie, allay your excitement somewhat because, though eminently fun, its lack of depth ensures that it’s a little cold. In the final analysis, Ocean’s Eleven is what you get when a bunch of talented movie guys spitball a movie concept around a poker table at 3 am. Lots of well conceived but ultimately stand alone moments in desperate need of some serious screenwriting to bind them together.
Rating: The Good – 73 Genre: War, Action Duration: 134 mins Director: David Ayer Stars: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman
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. The WWII action genre saw its heyday come and go in the 1960’s and 70’s and the self conscious stylising of recent cinema has struggled to match the story-telling power of yesteryear’s movies. Perhaps the genre benefited from being made by people who had lived and even fought through the war or at least grew up in its aftermath but whatever the reason, glossy effects and hollow moral messages being shoved down the audience’s throats does this species of film no favours.
Fury is certainly a modern movie, powered forward as it is by stirring score and moments of earnest soul-searching. 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. Pitt’s honed presence is certainly a determining factor in this as he sidesteps the cliches associated with the trope of hardened platoon leader but it’s primarily the grit of Ayer’s directing and the unpretentious bite of the overall story that allows this movie to survive its more wooden screenplay. Nothing is dwelled on. Like the guys in the tank, Ayer just gets on with it and, in doing so, succeeds in unfolding a simple canvas of coherent action sequences from beginning to end. A truly unerring momentum and ever darkening tone transforms his depiction of war-torn Germany into a nascent underworld of hellish mythology more akin to something Dante would dream up than a Hollywood director. It’s an emphatic triumph for Ayer and one that marks his full evolution from writer of substance to director of note. Steven Price’s relentless hum of a score will prompt much admiration too and the ensemble cast as a whole remains interesting and worthy of our support. Overall, Fury counts as a rare success for a modern WWII action-retrospective.
Rating: The Good – 78 Genre: Crime, Action Duration: 120 mins Director: Tony Scott Stars: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Brad Pitt
Tony Scott’s finest hour came when he purchased a young video store clerk’s script and executed it with much of the panache and dry wit that the same clerk would soon become renowned for. It tells the story of a geek-come-wild boy Christian Slater who falls in love with prostitute Patricia Arquette, kills her slightly deranged pimp, accidentally steals his cocaine, and then attempts to sell it to some rich Hollywood producer before the coke’s real owner, mob boss Christopher Walken, tracks him down with prejudice.
True Romance quickly became a cult classic because it cut across genres with the same audacity as Reservoir Dogs did. Colourful characters posing hip monologues, an unlikely romance at the center that flavours the entire movie with an essential unreal vibe, and more fists and guns action than you can shake a stick at ensures that the entire caper is bags of unpredictable fun and looks a treat too. With the verve that Scott’s movies were always reaching for coming pre-loaded with Quentin Tarantino’s white hot script, the former commercial director softens his touch and lets the dialogue do the talking. Free from intrusive editing and over the top score, his consistently outstanding scene composition is finally given the room to breathe and the time to be appreciated. Smokey slats of light grace everything with a cosy noir-esque ambiance, perfectly backdropping the lyricism of Tarantino’s words and the enthusiastic performances that bring them to life.
In that last regard, Slater has never been better and he shares a magnetic chemistry with the even better Arquette. Walken is Walken (in the best way possible), Hopper is in fine form as Slater’s estranged father, Oldman is forgivably over the top as the crazed pimp with an epic inferiority complex, and Brad Pitt is a riot as Slater’s L.A. stoner buddy. However, in one of the smaller parts, it’s James Gandolfini who nearly steals the show as the very real (in a wonderful contrast to practically everything else) and very scary enforcer. The last word should go to Hans Zimmer though who, on his own, seems to give this movie a tenderness that raises it above your standard actioner. Okay, not quite in his own, Scott, Tarantino, and Gandolfini helped, a lot.
Rating: The Good – 84.8 Genre: Satire Duration: 139 mins Director: David Fincher Stars: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter
A chronic insomniac (Edward Norton) in a pit of mental despair at the predictable safety and comfort of his life finds release by attending disease support groups posing as a fellow sufferer. That is until he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the living embodiment of anarchy. Immediately seduced into Durden’s strange world, the two men establish an underground network of fight clubs where the disenfranchised male youth of America come together to knock ten bells out of each other in a form of social mega-catharsis. However, as Durden becomes increasingly mythologised, he uses this enchanted network to form an underground army intent of bringing the consumer world to its knees.
To say that Fight Club tapped into the masculine subconscious would be an understatement. Every word Durden utters is the adult articulation of adolescent and post-adolescent angst and rebellion. Of course, the whole thing is pure satire as writer Chuck Palahnuik and director David Fincher are saying as much about the masculine mindset as they are about the consumer society that is ostensibly suppressing it. It doesn’t matter that the majority of the fans take it too literally; in fact it just goes to show you how sophisticated the satire is because their seduction mirrors that of the disenfranchised generation of the film.
On a more technical note, Fight Club is Fincher’s most innovative and stylistic film. The contrast between the clean, santised world of Norton’s office and apartment and the dank dilapidated world of Tyler Durden is almost visceral thanks to Fincher’s bold direction, some outstanding lighting and equally outstanding production design. A rich visual humour dominates the entire film and when threaded together with Palahnuik’s words it takes on a life of its own. Norton is excellent as the unnamed “narrator” while Brad Pitt has seldom been better as the enigmatic Durden. Helena Bonham Carter gives a deliciously dark turn as Edward Norton’s fellow traveller and even Meatloaf pops up in one of the more memorable roles. All said, Fight Club is a startlingly good movie built on inspired writing, direction, and acting. There isn’t one aspect to the production that lets the side down and the substantial footprint it has left on recent pop culture is testament to such quality.
Not the crime masterpiece some would have you believe but David Fincher’s dark thriller about two homicide detectives searching for a killer who’s crimes reflect the seven deadly sins is nonetheless a strong effort that still packs a punch. The drawback, however, is that the film has too strong a sense of itself which at all times seems to drive the narrative instead of the other way around. As such, it often veers into cliche and melodrama concerning the hopelessness of humanity etc, etc. Thankfully, the integrity of the performances and the graininess of Fincher’s direction does help to attenuate this problem, somewhat. 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 due to scenes of graphic and implied gore but it’s worth doing so if only for the dramatic close this film comes to.
Rating: The Good – 78.1 Genre: Crime, Comedy Duration: 102 mins Director: Guy Ritchie Stars: Jason Statham, Brad Pitt, Benicio Del Toro
Take your average Coen Brother’s film with all its twists, turns, and overlapping story lines, make every character a stone cold hardshaw, and shoot it full of steroids. You get Snatch! Guy Ritchie’s follow up to Lock, Stock and Two Smokin Barrels about illegal boxing rackets, gypsies, stolen diamonds, and unkillable ex-KGB agents is a frenetic powerhouse of a film defined by charismatic performances (Pitt, Statham, Farina, and Alan Ford are particularly brilliant), a sensational soundtrack and score (kudos to that maestro John Murphy), supercool direction, tremendous sound production, and a razor sharp script that will keep you laughing throughout. The “greedy as a pig” speech in particular will have you on the floor.
Rating: The Bad – 52.4 Genre: Action, Horror Duration: 116 mins Director: Marc Forster Stars: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz
As cities around the world are overrun by hordes of zombies, former UN inspector Gerry Lane is asked to leave his family and lead a team across the globe in an attempt to investigate the causes of the disaster. World War Z went on an epic journey through development hell before it reached the screens and so we could be legitimately skeptical as to whether the end result would be worth the effort. After all, blockbuster movies typically fail to materialise because the various vested interests (the bigger the project, the more the risk is spread around) each pull in different directions demanding rewrite on top of rewrite so that their competing ideas win. Compromises are the only way forward which means the story usually ends up an incoherent mess where plots collide and characters suffer. Unfortunately, and quite frustratingly, World War Z is a case in point.
Based on Max Brooks’ novel that details the attempts of a UN official to compile an oral history of a zombie apocalypse in the aftermath of the event, this is a movie that had two very interesting dimensions at its disposal, dimensions that could separate it from the err.. “hordes” of other zombie movies. Firstly, it uses the outbreak scenario as a means to explore the zombie apocalypse, focusing primarily on the investigations into the pathology of the plague. Secondly, it employs a world wide perspective zipping from one location to another in an attempt to trace the history of the disease. The movie more or less succeeds in including and doing justice to the latter dimension but makes only gestures at achieving the former. Whereas the investigation absolutely needed to be the primary focus, it emerges in fits and starts disappearing almost as quickly as it arose in a cloud of zombie mayhem as if the producers kept asking “where are the zombies?”. This only disengages the audience and kills the narrative that writers Matthew Michael Carnahan and Drew Goddard explicitly attempt to establish in the first act (no coincidence that this is the best part of the film). Thus, the script suffers immensely from a lack of stability and it prevents any momentum from building and even though Pitt is flying from the US to Korea, to Jerusalem, to Britain, the plot stands as still as a statue. The movie just never seems to go anywhere.
With so many ideas interrupted by the zombie marauders, one might at least hope the set pieces were spectacular in and of themselves. Aside from the opening sequence that whets the appetite nicely, they don’t. There are some clever ideas scattered about but none of them are given enough time to materialise and so they each come off decidedly pedestrian (the insistence on a PG-13 cut didn’t help here either). One gets the distinct impression that while Producer X was asking the writers to get straight to the action as quickly as possible, Producer Y was asking them to get back to the plot even more quickly. Or….. that everything good was being held off for a sequel!
With the story offering so little inspiration, it’s not too surprising that the dialogue is perfunctory and that crucial moments of exposition flounder in rushed attempts at adaptation – such as “the 10th man” explanation as to why Israel were prepared for the virus. To add insult to injury, much of the dialogue is mumbled which will frustrate the audience as they strain to hear it. Director Marc Forster can be at least lauded for giving the spaghettified story the semblance of structure and, again in the early sequences, he gives the zombies a reasonably formidable presence. However, there’s little he could do to salvage this.
Where the movie suffers most is in its now infamous third act. Damon Lindelof was brought in to rewrite the entire segment and while the largest portion of blame should fall on the producers and their tiresome inanity, this is yet another example of how Lindelof is all reputation and no product. His replacement for the original conclusion (where Pitt leading an invasion force back into the States is rewritten so that Pitt arrives at a WHO site in Wales because all of a sudden he thinks he has discovered a weapon against the zombies), is an utter shambles, disconnected or worse, antagonistic to everything that proceeded it in tone, spirit, and momentum. Even the look of the film changes as the cinematography becomes as dreary as the Cardiff weather.
Within all this, Brad Pitt ploughs a lonely furrow as his Gerry Lane is whisked back and forth through one rushed sequence or another. This is particularly unfortunate because he cuts an interesting figure and really seems to capture the unique heroic qualities of his character. It was these qualities and Brooks’ lucid conception of the story that should have spearheaded this film so that Lane’s decisions and thought processes shaped every sequence and set the tone. This would allow the many interesting ideas to gravitate towards each other so that the epic quality arose naturally. Instead, the “epic” was crowbarred into the film anywhere it seemed to fit.
In any analysis of World War Z, it can only be concluded that it doesn’t even come close to being the film it should be. A thrilling movie was hidden inside here waiting to get out but it was never let out. Whether that was due to producers who couldn’t keep their grubby hands off the creative components of the film, Lindelof who now has his own fingerprints all over two of the most catastrophic scripts of the last few years (Prometheus being the other one), or everyone involved is impossible to tell because the entire thing is so confused. What is for sure is that script-writing by committee has rarely worked and the sooner the producers realise this, check their egos, and let their writers do what they alone in the room are qualified to do, the sooner the Hollywood blockbuster will become something to look forward to again.
Rating: The Good – 78.9 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 129 mins Director: Terry Gilliam Stars: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe,Brad Pitt
Bruce Willis stars as a prisoner sent back in time from a post-apocalyptic world to help future scientists learn the secrets of a virus that wiped out five billion people in the late 20th century. There are few directors as suited to depicting the unfathomable qualities of dystopian futures as Terry Gilliam is. As he did in the masterful Brazil, Gilliam presents us with a world which, unlike the spartan imagination-deprived Hollywood notions of the future, is just plain inaccessible. Yet, so visually creative is it, that despite this inaccessibility we stay connected. That’s film-making! Thankfully, for the sake of being able to fully engage with the film, most of the story plays out in the present tense when Willis’ slightly deranged character and the psychiatrist who is inevitably charged with his care (Madeline Stowe) attempt to piece together the clues to what happened in the days before the virus’ release.
Willis is terrific and this must surely go down as one of his better roles and performances. He’s exactly what a fish out of water (scarred by the trauma of his horrific world) should be – naive, innocent, violent, immature, and unhinged. Stowe is excellent also as his slightly incredulous caretaker while Brad Pitt is on hand to slightly over-egg the pudding as the crazy inmate of the asylum which Willis initially finds himself in. David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) and Janet Peoples’ script is a delight and while helping to set the darker tones is also balanced out with some neatly written humour. Ultimately, Twelve Monkeys became one of the most striking, creative, and original films to emerge in the 90′s. It’s a tour de force for Gilliam and Willis and it will stay with you for a long time.
Rating: The Good – 94.5 Genre: War, Satire Duration: 153 mins Director: Quentin Tarantino Stars: Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth, Christoph Waltz
Brad Pitt’s priceless Lt. Aldo Raine leads a group of Jewish soldiers into occupied France to do what they do best: “kill Nazis” and in doing so, leave a trail of terror that will give every soldier of the Third Reich nightmares of moral retribution. Only one man seems smart enough to stop him: the dastardly Col. Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz in an Oscar winning performance). Wrapped up in this wider tale is the story of Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent in a barnstorming performance), a young Jewish woman whose family was slaughtered by Landa’s men years earlier and who has escaped to Paris where she now runs a modest cinema. When a dashing young war hero (Daniel Brühl) and protege of Herr Goebbels fails to impress her with his charm, he persuades the propaganda minister and self-proclaimed father of the new wave of German cinema to hold the premier of his new film at her establishment. The scene is thus set for an emotionally charged retribution wherein the Basterds and a vengeful Shosanna converge on the Nazi elite in “cinematically epic” fashion.
With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino does for WWII films what Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West did for westerns. That is to say, the film is a daring meta-analysis of the genre, a war film about war films, making an audacious and powerful statement on the interaction between film and history which plays on a multitude of levels. Being a tongue-in-cheek examination of propaganda films, the majority of characters are all necessarily caricatures from Michael Fassbender’s wonderful portrayal of the quintessential British officer, to the master of cliche exploitation Mike Myers’ hilarious performance wherein he embodies the distilled comic essence of every British general we’ve ever come across on screen.
Tellingly, the only two well rounded characters in the film are those whose lives the “two films within the film” are about: Shosanna and the German war hero who is enamoured of her. Only in their respective “films” do their characters become cliched. Rounding off the colourful cast are of course Pitt and Waltz. The latter got all the praise and it’s a rousting performance. Full of dangerous charm, hypocrisy, false smiles, and a dark sociopathic streak, it must be one of the best satirical turns from an actor in decades. But Pitt should not be overlooked for he is simply brilliant. How an actor can do so much by doing so little is always a mystery but Pitt’s eccentric Aldo makes it look easy. There’s not an eye-movement, squint, word, or half smile that doesn’t drive home with subtext and, for all the humour, there’s a compelling strength at the core of the character that the film’s plot quite simply hangs on.
On top of all this, Inglourious Basterds is a visually stunning film with an immaculate attention to detail. There are sequences and shots littered throughout this film that are as brilliantly constructed as anything Welles, Ford, Wilder, Leone, or Scorsese has done. From the breathless static shots of the opening farmhouse scene to the crane and tracking shots of the climactic “Revenge of the Giant Face” sequence, this film is an awesome spectacle and one that makes gorgeously subtle reference to its influences along the way.
There are a couple of rare but minor missteps by Tarantino. Specifically, his mate Eli Roth was totally miscast as the Bear Jew (a Basterd? – yes, the Bear Jew? – no) and that Stiglitz intro which was totally out of sync with the rest of the film. Those minor quibbles aside, Inglourious Basterds is as clever a war film and as well pitched a satire as you’ll find. And with that ending, it becomes downright halting and a profoundly important piece of cinema. In fact, you know something? It might just be QT’s masterpiece!
Rating: The Good – 74.8 Genre: Sporting Drama Duration: 133 mins Director: Bennett Miller Stars: Brad Pitt, Robin Wright, Jonah Hill
After the success of The Social Network, we were all waiting with bated breath for Aaron Sorkin’s next screenplay and it wasn’t long before we heard he (together with that other screenwriting heavyweight Steven Zaillian) was taking on the story of Billy Bean’s Oakland A’s and the then revolutionary system of identifying underrated baseball players through statistical analysis. It’s a similarly weighted premise as that which drove his Fincher collaboration in that it focuses on a unique couple of individuals and their plans to revolutionise a cultural pastime. 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.
As mentioned, it’s the personal drama which wins out here as we are presented with a man who, through repeated losses as a player and manager, has reached an interesting moment of self-reflection in his life. And following this reflection, he decides to take on a system which bears no mercy, pity, or respect for its most essential workers, the players. The Billy Bean of this story has a complex relationship with the game. He deliberately avoids interacting with his players and refuses to watch the games live. He seems burned out and at times even resentful of the game but something must keep him so invested in it. He jogs around the field when exercising. Is the field just a tool to be used because it’s there or does he want to be close to it? On numerous occasions, he refers to the romance of the game. Most of the time it’s sarcastic but on a few crucial occasions, it’s meant. In his heart, is a burning ambition to change the system at the game’s base so that players stop getting chewed up and spat out when they fail to make the grade….. as happened to him. It’s a deeply personal crusade and it would certainly be worthy of a film’s focus if it had the right performance carrying it off.
Unfortunately, Pitt puts in a mis-measured performance. There’s a lot to admire in it but it just doesn’t carry the film like it needs to. He’s charming, he’s funny, and when needed, he’s angry but it all feels somewhat disconnected. It lacked the kind of hidden intensity that allows quieter performances to hit their mark. Furthermore, one wonders what Pitt thinks he’s doing with the constant eating in his films (something that was fine for the Ocean’s movies) but it’s becoming a distracting affectation. So personally focused a film is Moneyball that the only other actor to do anything of note is Jonah Hill as the number cruncher. It’s a surprisingly levelled performance and the unintentional humour which his character’s nervous poise but steely resolve produces is a treat.
Moneyball is an admirable film excellently directed and colourfully written. The dialogue is crisp and cool in that same mature way The Social Network was and there’s a strong central character and plot driving the piece. However, for all these positives, it still feels like there was a better film to be made here. In The Social Network, Fincher evenly balanced the excellent drama with what really interested the audience (the 21st Century concepts behind the Facebook). That doesn’t happen here and the statistical system which lies at the centre of everything isn’t really mentioned that often. Miller seems preoccupied with showing Pitt’s Bean driving around with a tortured expression, or sitting in his office with a tortured expression, or standing in his kitchen with a tortured expression. And all the while eating. The most exciting moments definitely come when Hill’s character points out his various target players and explains the theory behind his high valuations of them so why not bring this more into the story? Unless someone else tackles this story and allows the fascinating intricacies of Bill James’ system to share centre stage with the personal drama, we’ll never know what could’ve been but as it is, Moneyball is still a sharp, entertaining, and original film.