Rating: The Good – 67.1 Genre: Thriller Duration: 128 mins Director: Roger Spottiswoode Stars: Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris
Slightly above average war-drama from Roger Spottiswoode and starring Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, and Joanna Cassidy as war correspondents who rush from one third world country to another in order to get the scoop on the latest skirmish between despot and the poor. Landing in Nicaragua in time to document the final days of the Somozoa regime, the three find themselves caught up in a love triangle, bombings, and the political machinations of spies and government officials alike. Not quite as subjective and daring a film as Missing or as cavalier a film as Salvador, Under Fire falls in between as a safer and more mainstream examination of the South American political climate of the 70’s/80’s. That said, it’s an interesting story with solid performances and some decent action thrown in to boot.
Rating: The Good – 77.5 Genre: Western Duration: 115 mins Director: Ed Harris Stars: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen
Written, directed, and starring Ed Harris, Appaloosa isn’t merely a revisiting of the quintessential American film genre nor is it exactly a revisioning (which is, in its own way, kind of refreshing). It’s more a slowly exhaled understanding of what makes it so damn special as a context for storytelling. A celebration of its principles like the restoration of a great art without the controversy of compromising any of its natural glory. Harris and Viggo Mortensen are the hired guns Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, brought into the town of Appaloosa to offer protection from Jeremy Irons’ ruthless rancher Randall Bragg, who killed the last sheriff when the latter attempted to arrest two of his men for rape. Recalling the rich and intriguing relationship of Fonda and Quinn in 1959’s Warlock, Harris and his faithful companion are a thoughtful yet hardened pair of lawmen who live by the gun and wield it like it comes naturally. The film’s broader comprehension of life on the frontier is reflected at a personal level within their dynamic, the edges and corners of which being exposed only when Rene Zwellweger’s woman of questionable motives enters the fray and attempts to destabilise it. Plot comes to the fore here in wonderfully unobtrusive manner and it offers a circuitous and totally understated testing of marrow and allegiances alike. Gnarly old Lance Henriksen pops up as a notorious colleague from Cole’s past and matters come to a head in blistering showdown that ups the ante on where the Unforgiven left off. Robert Knott and Harris penned the words that so adequately express the grizzled sentiment and honest wonderings of the men and women of this world and there’s plenty of perceptive and expertly timed humour to be discovered along the way. But it’s Harris and Mortensen who shine most bright under the prairie sun, the mutual respect shared by their characters translating fluently at the acting level. Characterisation helps mightily of course and you’d have to delve deep into the history of the western to find a couple of gun-slingers as intriguing not to mention as cool as these here guys. Harris shows a steady and considered touch behind the camera and lets it all play out with the ease of the era in which it was set. You won’t see anything new in Appaloosa but a visit every now and then will remind you of why the western has and always will be so cherished.
Star studded legal thriller with a still fresh faced Tom Cruise as the brash young attorney whose dream job at a Memphis law firm turns into a nightmare when he discovers they’re a front for the Mafia. Throw in a meddling FBI and a largely unseen Chicago mobster and the scene is set for some old school thrills and a nice spot of running for the always eager Cruiser. As usual for a John Grisham adaptation, an array of cracking characters lie at the base to this movie played by no one but the cream. Hal Holbrook, Holly Hunter, Wildord Brimely, David Strathairn, Ed Harris, Gary Busey, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Paul Sorvino are all in top form while Cruise puts in a strong shift as he was, at the time, just emerging from the shadow of his late 80’s “pretty face” status. However, it’s Gene Hackman as Cruise’s incorrigible yet charming mentor who steals the show. The movie comes alive the moment he shows up and he adds much needed droll to the otherwise stiff suited side to the movie. As as you’d expect from the man behind some of the great 70’s thrillers, Sydney Pollack ratchets up the tension and strikes a relatively even balance with the personal drama even if he could do nothing for the Cruise-Tripplehorn mismatch as husband and wife! He does however manage to keep his audience distracted from the story’s sometimes ludicrous plot developments – a useful skill for a Grisham thriller! John Seale’s photography gives Memphis an intriguingly inviting yet obscure quality which actually complements the conspiratorial tone of the movie while not alienating the mainstream audience. Ditto Robert Towne, David Raybe, and David Rayfiel’s screenplay. It’s just a shame that Dave Grusin’s score couldn’t do the same as it bounces buoyantly among the octaves, too often oblivious to the cadences of the script. The whole thing runs about 35 minutes too long but it’s worth hanging in there if only to see Tom use his briefcase to beat seven shades of crap out of Brimely’s slightly ridiculous but eminently enjoyably bag man.
Rating: The Good – 74.3 Genre: Crime, Thriller, Mystery Duration: 114 mins Director: Ben Affleck Stars: Casey Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris
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. The clever writing develops the plot into a well above average mystery thriller and there are some lightning quick moments of action and terror that are dealt with in the guttiest of ways. Kudos to all involved for sticking to their guns when it came to the decisions Hollywood normally balks at. Gone Baby Gone could stand to be 10-15 minutes shorter but in the main this is a terrific and unique thriller which reflects well on all involved.
Rating: The Good – 78.9 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 91 mins Director: Alfonso Cuarón Stars: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
Rarely do critically acclaimed big budget blockbusters live up to their dual billings but Alfonso Cuarón’s story of an astronaut attempting to get back to earth after being slung into free orbit on a disastrous space walk really does seem to do just that. As immersive and visually spellbinding a film as there has ever been, Gravity is a truly singular cinematic experience and one that needs to be seen to be believed. Sandra Bullock plays the astronaut in question (actually she’s an engineer on a technical mission) whose shuttle is destroyed by debris from a nearby satellite leaving only her and George Clooney’s veteran astronaut to traverse the vacuum of space to the international station in order to procure a way home. Without giving too much away, suffice to say, Bullock ends up largely fending for herself and relying on her minimal experience and training to get her through in once piece. Bullock is excellent in a role that required a lot of depth but also presence not to mention an ability to act with nothing but one’s face and voice. She forms an essential bond with her audience so that every breath she takes raises the tension. Clooney is very much in the Clooney-mode of his earlier films. That is to say, he’s really just playing an astronaut version of himself. But all that comes with a priceless charisma and against the blackness of space, the film needed him to bring it during his handful of scenes.
One might suppose the premise of a woman drifting through space would lend itself to a rather monotonous story but surprisingly the drama is non stop. In fact, so relentless are the trials she has to overcome while hurtling around the planet, the tagline to this film could’ve read “whatever can go wrong in space, will go wrong!”. Everything from oxygen depletion, fuel depletion, random collisions with flying debris, to space station fires conspire to thwart her desperate attempts to get home. However, a series of intermittent pauses for some moments of less than subtle symbolism (and cinematic reference) revolving around the central theme of rebirth ensure the film has a serene quality to complement the many tense moments.
There’s no two ways about it, Gravity is just a well directed film. Constructing action sequences with an elegant grace yet tangible terror isn’t easy but setting them against a contemplative silence (this is one film that respects the ‘no sound in space rule’) is even more complicated. But Cuarón does it with an apparent effortlessness. Of course, the jaw dropping visual effects and cinematography make this a little easier for when the endless black and immaculate stillness of space is repeatedly contrasted with the emphatic blue of the earth as impeccably as it is here, both the physical senses and intellect are honed all the more. Almost impressive as the visual artistry is the level of detail that defines practically every single shot. The zero gravity environments of the various stations and shuttles are brought to visceral life with an endless series floating objects such as tools, trinkets, cutlery, and even liquids providing for one of the most realistic depictions of weightlessness out there. This of course is heightened by the 3D experience but even in 2D, it’s breathtaking. For technical boffins, the realism largely ends there and while not a valid criticism of a fictional film, many will (and have) balk at the technical and physical liberties the story takes.
On the subject of writing, it’s important to point out that Gravity isn’t the Citizen Kane of space movies. There’s a story here but it’s nothing mind blowing. This is primarily an action adventure film with a modest level of subjective drama underpinning it. Rather than the writing, it’s the (Oscar winning) direction that elevates the latter as Cuarón pushes all the right buttons to raise the goosebumps and stir the soul into feeling that we’ve followed something more substantial than we actually have. Simply put, he crafts this movie with so much class and focused energy that you’ll either forgive the cliches and heavy-handedness or just straight up not notice them. In fact, the direction becomes the defining feature of the film. And given the scale of the visual effects, that’s no mean feat.
Rating: The Good – 75.4 Genre: Science Fiction, Action Duration: 139 mins Director: James Cameron Stars: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn
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 director James 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 (cliched ‘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. There’s a somewhat interesting extended cut of this movie that adds nice touches to some of the characters but, given it also turns the volume up on the cheesier elements to the film, those who prefer their messages with a little more depth and finesse may want to give it a miss.
Coma is an entertaining medical thriller in which Genevieve Bujold plays a doctor who begins to suspect foul play in her hospital when a number of surgeries leave the patients permanently comatose. As he later did with ER, Michael Crichton brings a level of technical authenticity to the script which helps to elevate the dramatic tension and Bujold responds with a strong vulnerability that helps the movie to engage on a more emotional level too. Michael Douglas offers strong support as Bujold’s politically motivated colleague and partner and there’s a nice chemistry between the two. Best of all, however, is the great Richard Widmark who gives a pitch perfect turn as the erudite head of the hospital whom all the doctors cower before. The whole thing plays out with the ease of those great 70′s thrillers which makes it a hugely compelling and satisfying watch. However, Coma ultimately pushes the boundaries of believability so far (in terms of premise and the actions of its characters) that regardless how engaging it is, a “guilty pleasure” (Ugly) warning must be attached.
Rating: The Good – 80.2 Genre: Adventure Duration: 133 mins Director: Peter Weir Stars: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell
Directed by one of most profoundly talented directors of his generation and featuring three seriously impressive performances from Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, and Saoirse Ronan, The Way Back is amongst the most extraordinary movie going experiences of recent years. It tells the true story of a group of political prisoners who escape from a Siberian gulag and traverse 4,000 miles of snow swept wilderness and searing desert to freedom. There are few directors with Peter Weir’s ability to exhilarate with the simple and mundane so you can imagine what he does with this material. But it’s not Hollywood exhilaration – full of slow-motion and melodrama. It’s a tempered, meditative, and ultimately more satisfying form of exhilaration. The film looks and sounds almost as spectacular as the story itself. Russell Boyd’s cinematography (particularly the night time scenes) pulls you into the film while Burkhard von Dallwitz’ beautiful score carries you through it with ease. It’s a long watch at just over two and a half hours but like all great films you don’t notice it, nor do you want more, it’s just right.
Rating: The Good – 91 Genre: Drama Duration: 193mins Director: Philip Kaufman Stars: Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris
One of the wittiest and most compelling historical dramas you’re ever likely to see, The Right Stuff details the events leading up to and including Nasa’s first manned space flights (the Mercury Mission). A glittering cast of actors play a glittering array of characters but none score better than Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeger. Director Kaufman rightly went his own way with his adaptation of Wolfe’s book and built the film around the legendary fighter ace. Shepard is near mesmerising as the stoic Yeger but in truth there’s not one actor in the extensive cast who lets the side down. Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, and Ed Harris in particular are fantastic as the famous Mercury astronauts. Kaufman deserves huge credit for the way he brings this expansive story together as he crafts an extremely intelligent, often funny, often cutting satire of politics, ego, and personal ambition. However, rather than take the easy way out, he remains true to spirit of the book and skillfully interweaves the far more optimistic story about passion and dedication into the fabric of this ostensible critique. The result is a hugely complex and profoundly uplifting experience worthy of the esteemed literary source which spawned it.
Rating: The Bad – 54.1 Genre: Action Duration: 96 mins Director: Roger Spottiswoode Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris
Okay, the first two acts of the film have a clichéd sub-plot involving an annoying son and some cartoon bullies but the premise was fascinating and had the potential to develop in to something really special. Small town man Tom Stall lives what seems to be the perfect small town life: close-knit family, respected around the community, and a solid little diner-business. Until one evening, two psychopaths stop by his diner and attempt to murder a waitress while holding the place up. Stall springs to life and disarms one of the assailants before killing him and his partner in a clear cut case of self-defence, albeit an incredibly heroic one. Things get even more interesting when some mob guys from Philadelphia, having seen Stall’s picture on the news, show up and claim that Tom is their old acquaintance, crazy Joey Cusack. Stall denies it vehemently and an enthralling guessing game ensues which sees even Stall’s family begin to doubt him. (Note: Spoilers are a necessary feature of this critique from this point on).
If you haven’t seen this film, then the set-up described should have you tingling with excitement and up to this point, the film lives up to any expectations you might have. Viggo Mortensen is excellent as everyman Tom Stall who just found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cronenberg took his time getting there and had struck just the right balance between the more violent and calmer aspects to the story (with a fantastically staged opening shot capturing the essence of such an approach). Best of all, Ed Harris as the Philly wise-guy is electric in a role that has you guessing from the first time we see him. Unfortunately, just when Cronenberg should be ramping up the mystery and tantalising us with a resolution that is better off not provided, he resolves it flatly and in as manic and unintentionally farcical a fashion as you could possibly imagine. The third act descends into an eye-deceiving second-rate Jean-Claude Van Damme flick with unexplained martial arts ability, gratuitous sex scenes, illogical family behaviour, and cartoon gangsters everywhere.
There are those who have attempted to interpret this dramatic shift in tone as a facilitator for a kind of cultural commentary regarding violence and its place within us. However, there is simply no denying that any such commentaries could have been infinitely better explored by denying the audience the childish catharses of the third act. In fact, in resolving this story in the way it did, Cronenberg et al. refused to shine the light back on the audience and thus give credence to the notion that there was an intelligible social or cultural commentary in play.
It must be pointed out that, A History of Violence is an adaptation of a graphic novel of the same name (written by John Wagner or Vince Locke) and if anything, John Olson’s adaptation and Cronenberg’s interpretation do try to elevate the central mystery and consequently delay the thriller-action movie transition (there is no indictment here of Wagner or Locke as graphic novels are expected to be action heavy). But the fact that those making the film realised how important the mystery was but didn’t have the vision to protect it, is the biggest mistake a director of Cronenberg’s class is likely to make.
To say that this movie’s final act was a let-down is the understatement of all understatements. If you like brain-at-reception movies, then this is probably the film for you. However, if you believe a film which starts off intelligently should conclude in similar fashion (if not more so) then avoid, avoid, avoid! A History of Violence is a perfect example of a film that needs to be remade. Leave the classics alone, remake the films that had potential, but failed to live up to it because the writers didn’t have the perspective to see it.
Rating: The Good – 76.3 Genre: Drama Duration: 103 mins Director: Peter Weir Stars: Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Ed Harris
Peter Weir somehow manages to turn what could’ve been just another mundane concept piece into a deeply touching tale of loneliness, celebrity, and self-determination in this story about a young man named Truman who is the unwitting star of a reality TV show based around his life. Having grown up in a self-contained artificial bio-sphere where day and night are at the whim of a manned control centre and where everyone he knows are actors playing to a script, Truman’s life has been staged and manipulated from the minute he was born. At the centre of all this is the guru-like producer, Christof, who treats Truman like his greatest artistic masterpiece and who professes love for him. That is until that Truman begins to suspect that there is something strange about his world and decides to leave his “town” for the first time in his life.
Jim Carey turns in one of his best and most straight-laced performances as the star of “The Truman Show”. His eccentric qualities turned out to be well suited to playing a person who had a less than normal upbringing while his genuine acting ability allows him to make the entire thing believable particularly in the more emotional third act. Ed Harris is in terrific form as the temperamental Christof and he too pulls some acting aerobatics in grounding what would in other hands come off as a rather wild concept. Laura Linney is her usual expert self as Truman’s on-set wife and Christof’s most surgical tool of manipulation.
Of course, as with any Peter Weir film, the director is the true master behind the project and as ever, his iron hand in a velvet glove approach ensures this is a subtle but powerful piece of film-making. The humour of the early sequences is well handled but it’s the shifting of gears in the third act that makes what he does here so special for out of nowhere, The Truman Show (both the film and show within a film) becomes a profound and touching crucible for the exploration of free will, personhood, and self-expression. Carey is with him all the way and the by the beginning of the closing scene, they’ve firmly got a hold of their audience which allows them to deliver one hell of an emotional pay-off.