Rating: The Good – 76 Genre: War, Drama Duration: 130 mins Director: Joseph Sargent Stars: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kiera Knightley
Movies recounting humankind’s gruelling attempts to overcome nature’s obstacles tend to be either underproduced and rather dull affairs or overproduced and predictably brainless action movies so it’s a welcome surprise when we come across one that so effectively balances the internal and external factors to the story as much as Baltasar Kormákur’s film does. Couched in a comfortable budget, Everest captures the visceral wonder of the experience but maintains the writing and acting as its prize assets. And with a cast of A-listers all willing to do their bit for far less billing than their status normally demands, it pays dividends. Jason Clark hits all the right notes as the expedition leader and Josh Brolin and John Hawkes add handsomely to the medley of emotional tribulation while Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Worthington, Kiera Knightley, and Robin Wright help shape both the story’s physical and personal contexts so that theme and drama meet harmoniously in the middle. Not everyone will be happy with Kormákur’s aversion to set piece action but those with an appreciation for attritional authenticity should find his adventure rather compelling.
Rating: The Good – 77 Genre: Crime Duration: 121 mins Director: Denis Villeneuve Stars: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro
Cold and sinister narco-thriller with Emily Blunt top-lining as a FBI agent recruited by the CIA for a series of clandestine operations against a powerful Mexican cartel. As the missions begin to increasingly circumvent the law, the beleaguered agent grows suspicious of Josh Brolin’s lead agent and ever fearful of his mysterious cartel expert, Benicio Del Toro. After an admirable attempt in Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve succeeds in crafting a morally bleak thriller with sufficient traction and believability to keep the audience engrossed all the way through. The war on drugs is articulated almost completely through the actions of the protagonists. The drama is shot with a slow-thudding realism while the dialogue chills the story a couple degrees lower. Left of centre to the plot, Blunt is subtly magnificent as she manages to stay relevant even while her character is necessarily marginalised. On the other side of things, Brolin is quietly having a ball but Del Toro is just plain scary. The narco-wars are very much in vogue at the moment but on several occasions, Sicario peels off a layer or two and reels us towards a world not often seen. Yes, the narrative moves inescapably towards Hollywood’s notion of closure but there are a sufficient number of unfamiliar twists and turns to intrigue the most ardent fans. Roger Deacons’ crisp textures and contrasts are central to this experience as is Joe Walker’s editing but it’s Villeneuve’s steely focus that makes this so darkly compelling.
Robert Rodriguez always has fun with his films but never so much as he has here. Part of the Grindhouse double feature (of which Tarantino’s Death Proof was the second feature), Planet Terror is a tongue in cheek homage to the Grindhouse horror movies of the 70′s. Don’t look for story here (town becomes infected by chemical weapon that creates flesh eating slowly dissolving zombies is about it), just enjoy the collage of set pieces one wilder than the other. Rose McGowan shines in an impressive cast as the one-legged go go dancer and Freddy Rodriguez does well as the hero. The rest of the cast amounts to a series of cameos the most welcome of which surely must be Michael Biehn’s as the town sheriff. Bruce Willis shows up here and there and so too does co-producer Quentin Tarantino himself in a hysterical performance as a mutating soldier. In a film such as this, there are film references galore but those nodding to John Carpenter’s and George Romero’s films are most prevalent. Not surprisingly therefore the shocks come mainly as things dart out of night accompanied by piercing sound effects signalling an overdose of gore.
Rating: The Good – 83 Genre: Thriller, Crime Duration: 122 mins Director: Joel & Ethan Coen Stars: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones
“He’s got some hard bark on him.” When the Coen Brothers took on a pensive story such as Cormac McCarthy’s exploration of the inherent evil of the modern world they were moving somewhat out of their comfort zone as even in their more serious past projects they had never tackled such weighty issues without their quirky story (Raising Arizona) or clever plot (Miller’s Crossing) being of more primary concern. Not surprisingly, the Coens rise to the task (and then some) as they meticulously craft one of the finest films of the decade. Josh Brolin plays a man who stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad whilst hunting in the desert. He takes the money and becomes the target of a relentless and remorseless bounty hunter (Javier Bardem) whom the drug buyers hire to get their money back. Brolin and Bardem are sensationally good (with the latter deservedly scooping a best supporting Oscar for his terrifying portrayal of a truly deranged psychopath) as they engage in the most thrilling game of cat and mouse across southern Texas. Tommy Lee Jones is equally good as the world weary sheriff on both their trails. Long time collaborator Roger Deacons’ cinematography is as usual spectacular but even for him it’s pretty special. However, Carter Burwell doesn’t have as much to do as usual because the Coens rightly augmented the sense of desolation by choosing to go without a score for the vast majority of the film. And as if all this wasn’t enough, while most films with lofty ambitions usually stumble at the final hurdle where decisive conclusions must be drawn, the Coens put the seal on this cinematic triumph with one of the smartest endings imaginable.
Extraordinary remake of Charles Portis’ novel adapted and directed by the Coen brothers. Haille Steinfeld plays the headstrong young girl determined to hunt down the man who murdered her father. To this end she hires the one man she believes is salty enough to exact the pitiless vengeance she so desires, the mean tempered Rooster Cogburn. Steinfeld rightly got high plaudits for her performance as she belies her years with a layered and mature portrayal of the driven and angry young girl. Matt Damon puts in a strong supporting performance as the Texas ranger hunting the same villain while Josh Brolin is fantastic in his brief appearance of said villain. However, good as each of these are, they are cast in the shadow of Jeff Bridges’ immense portrayal of Cogburn as he strikes the perfect balance between cinematic charisma and gritty realness. He owns and possesses every second of every scene he features in and provides a superb counterpoint to every other character in the film. On the technical front, Bridges’ performance is equalled by the Coen’s sublime pacing and rhythmic back and forth dialogue that nears the perfection of Miller’s Crossing while Carter Burwell provides one of their most memorable scores. And then after all this, there is Roger Deacon’s cinematography which will simply blow your socks off. Never have the wide daylight illuminated vistas of the old west looked more starkly beautiful that in this film. However, they are nothing compared to the nighttime shots which driven by the Coen’s whimsical vision are the most magical and awe inspiring since Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. Utterly magnificent.
First off, American Gangster is not even close to being in the same bracket as Goodfellas (as some over-zealous critics exclaimed on its release) but this movie is actually a good showing from a director that has blown hot and cold these last 30 years or so. Russell Crowe stars as a New Jersey narcotics officer, who after becoming a pariah to his peers for turning in a million dollars in drug money, is given the opportunity to set up his own squad of straight-shooting undercover operatives. The man he targets as the king-pin of the east coast drug rackets is a seemingly self-made African-American gangster Frank Lucas, who modelled his organisation on the mafia, so successfully in fact that he became the Italians’ biggest supplier. Denzel Washington plays Lucas and as usual brings all his charisma to the role while Crowe handles his role of the good cop with an assured touch and for the most part outshines Washington. The story zips in many directions (with the best sub-plot undoubtedly being that which involved Josh Brolin’s crooked New York cop) but Scott keeps it together despite the somewhat rushed ending. Steven Zallian’s script is extremely strong and gives the police investigation in particular an enjoyable level of realism. There are some great ideas incorporated into the story also that allow important junctures to be realised in both an original and swift manner (with the fur coat being the best example). American Gangster is a long film at 2 hours and there are threads that could’ve been dispensed with all together but, that said, it’s worth looking at the extended edition (what? Ridley Scott releasing an extended edition? never!) for Clarence Williams III’s decent turn as Bumpy Johnson.
Rating: The Good – 64.5 Genre: Adventure, Crime Duration: 110 mins Director: John Stockwell Stars: Paul Walker, Jessica Alba, Scott Caan
Loose remake of Peter Yates’ The Deep, Into the Blue is a thoroughly entertaining and gorgeously photographed underwater adventure. Paul Walker and Jessica Alba play two amateur prospectors who along with their friend (Scott Caan) discover a potentially valuable shipwreck while partying out on the water. Unfortunately, it’s beside a recently crashed plane which was carrying a local drug baron’s illicit cargo and that makes things a little tricky when it comes to salvaging the wreck.
The story is decent enough even if it does employ some broad strokes towards the end. However, it’s the chemistry between the three leads and some exceptionally well crafted underwater set-pieces which make this film work. Walker is decent-ish in the lead role if sometimes a little wooden but he works well off Alba, Caan and Ashley Scott (as Cann’s trouble-making girlfriend) who are all terrific fun in their own ways. Josh Brolin also makes an appearance as a hi-tech prospector who may or may not be trying to horn in on their find and, as usual, he steals the show whenever the camera is on him.
The luscious cinematography makes this a very easy film to sink into just like the warm Caribbean seas it’s photographing and John Stockwell (that guy who played Dennis in John Carpenter’s Christine) shows some real flair in the action stakes culminating in a nicely edited and staged finale. Given that it’s a remake of a decent thriller from the 70’s and it brazenly attempts to play to a young early-20’s/late teen generation, Into the Blue is exactly the type of film that usually ends in disaster – even if the box office does not reflect that. And with the goofiness of Walker’s acting, it, at times, feels like a guilty pleasure more than a film worth recommending. But the sense of fun and flashes of skill genuinely make it just that.
Rating: The Bad – 59.5 Genre: Drama Duration: 133 mins Director: Oliver Stone Stars: Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Carey Mulligan
For a director who underwent such a dramatic shift in style from JFK onward, it was always going to be fascinating to see if, while revisiting a film he made in the 80′s, Stone would adopt the more patient and story-centred approach that made that film and his earlier films so good. Well in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, he did and he didn’t. Many of the film’s scenes are given the time to grow naturally as Stone (for the most part) resists his usual craving for frenetic edits and short lens shots. There is a (somewhat) trackable story and the abrupt interjection of source music is kept to an acceptable level. There are even shades of the exciting stock manipulation sequences that made the original so tense. As with the first film, Stone manages to make New York look great while not overdoing it on the aerial or wide cityscape shots.
For every similarity with Wall Street, however, there are many differences. There are split screen shots galore as well as bubble (sigh) and laser graphics floating through various scenes the likes of which never featured in the original. But the fact that this film has a different style and feel to it is not necessarily a problem. This isn’t Wall Street 2, it’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, part sequel and part stand-alone film. Instead, the real problems centre on the disconnect between the personal story Stone is trying to tell about Shia LaBeouf, Carrie Mulligan (as Gekko’s daughter) and Michael Douglas (as the great man himself) and the wider story of the economic collapse of 2008. These stories are separated by just too wide a scale to comprehensively parallel one another. As a result, the film loses coherence and comes across as a number of different and only slightly related stories. This isn’t going to be the iconic film that Wall Street turned out to be. It’s not nearly as complete or coherent a story and it’s made by a director who has lost much of his subtlety and directorial class. However, this film does feature the return of one of cinema’s most iconic characters, Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko, and an interesting story-arc brings something new to this character. Alas, Stone chickens out and deprives us of an ending that would have given this most intriguing of characters a near perfect return to form. Gekko deserved better!