Rating: The Ugly – 67.4 Genre: Action, Sport Duration: 107 mins Director: Tony Scott Stars: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Robert Duvall
Tony Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer take the Top Gun formula and apply it to the racetrack in what turns out to be a surprisingly enjoyable piece of fluff. Tom Cruise top lines as the hot shot speedster laden with daddy issues who, after rocketing to stardom, develops a crisis of confidence after he barely survives a crash. It’s the Top Gun story right down to the grinning nemesis (Cary Elwes as opposed to Kilmer) but a tad less maudlin and with two special additions. First is presence of Robert Duvall, the seasoned mechanic who reluctantly takes the Cruiser under his wing. It’s his nous that lifts the entire drama by lacing the movie with grizzled sentiment and wise humour. Second is the drafting of Robert Towne to write the screenplay which gives the characters and their dialogue the kind of traction that rarely grace such hot air storytelling. Nicole Kidman offers strong support in an equally capable female role and though it resulted in one of modern Hollywood’s more atypical romances, she and Tom share a rather solid chemistry as the driver and his doctor girlfriend. In a nice twist on the intimidating rival trope, Michael Rooker scores terrifically as the older driver who, after being knocked off his pedestal by the cheeky Cruise, forms a tentative friendship with him – their wheelchair race alone makes this dramatic tangent worthwhile. As you’d expect from Scott, the driving sequences are wisecrack funneled and testosterone charged but thy’re shot and cut with a more coherent style than his films often exhibited. A suitably rousing rock anthem soundtrack wraps them up into neat little action package and though you may feel a tad guilty for falling for the director’s unabashed heavy handedness, you’ll find yourself amusingly entertained all the same.
Rating: The Good – 74.7 Genre: Thriller, Action Duration: 130 mins Director: Christopher McQuarrie Stars: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Robert Duvall
When a sniper shoots six random people, a former crack investigator with the military police, Jack Reacher, begins chipping away at the District Attorney’s case and uncovers a wider conspiracy. Back in 2000, Christopher McQuarrie slipped into the director’s chair and comfortably exhaled the word “action” and, indeed, that’s exactly what his forte turned out to be. Action dripping with condensation rescued from overkill by a confident playfulness and pulsing with a similarly restrained tension. The perfect accompaniment for his trademark dialogue that, along with Tarantino’s, seemed to define the 90’s crime thriller.
His latest offering to this genre was the subject of much controversy during its development as word broke that Tom Cruise would take on the role of Lee Child’s much loved title character. The problem: Jack Reacher is 6’5″ tall in Child’s books and his physical presence is a defining feature of the fearsome detective. Cruise? Well, as one of Hollywood’s smallest A-listers, 6’5″ is more than a (err..) stretch. However, despite the hesitation on the fans’ part, the movie succeeds as one of this century’s better action thrillers. Sure, it lacks the intimidating presence of Child’s Reacher but Cruise is more than solid in a less distinct formulation of the character and to make up the difference, McQuarrie surrounds him with a highly capable and charismatic cast. Rosamund Pike is equally watchable as the attorney representing the police’s prime suspect, Robert Duvall pops up in an interesting extended cameo as an wily ex-marine sharpshooter, and Werner Herzog, of all people, turns in one of the more bizarre movie villains in recent years. Best of all, however, is Jai Courtney as his right-hand man with a killer charm.
While the set pieces are ably handled, not to mention defined by a refreshing degree of live action stunt work, in a nice twist on the modern blockbuster, it’s the plot that drives this movie as McQuarrie picks the best elements of the original story and juices it up with his edgy yet humorous dialogue. That goes for every character except Herzog’s who is given one lame line after another to struggle with. There’s no doubt that casting a more beast like actor in the lead role would’ve added the much absent menace to this movie’s narrative but, in the end, McQuarrie and Cruise deliver an eminently worthy action flick. Jack Reacher won’t leave you bowled over but you’ll more than likely find yourself substantially entertained.
Rating: The Good – 87.8 Genre: Drama, Satire Duration: 121 mins Director: Sidney Lumet Stars: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall
Surely one of the most complete and effective satires, Network is a delicious take on the business of television programming, human relationships, and how both feed and feed off the impartial narratives that so many shows are built around. Peter Finch stars as the disturbed news anchor who upon hearing that he’s been fired launches an attack on his network live on air. So good are the ratings that the executives (an emotionally vacant yet ruthless Faye Dunaway and an equally ambitious Robert Duvall) order head of the news division William Holden to build a show around his deteriorating friend’s rantings. The script is pure gold with some of cinema’s most subtly cutting and scathing commentary threaded throughout. The characters are all in different ways reflections of the greed and selfishness of the modern world and are as good as the actors inhabiting them. The film is genuinely hilarious with Finch’s outbursts being the highlights. Lumet’s delicate touch is all over this and it is he who allows Paddy Chayefsky’s searing script to come to life in as stimulating a fashion as it does. Watch out for Ned Beatty’s thunderous cameo which ultimately more than anything else sets the tone for this cinematic monument.
Rating: The Good – 95 Genre: Drama Duration: 129 mins Director: Robert Mulligan Stars: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, John Megna, Robert Duvall
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.” To Kill a Mockingbird is cinematic power exemplified as Robert Mulligan brings Harper Lee’s spellbinding novel to the screen and does every word of it justice. Gregory Peck takes on the role of Atticus Finch, the dignified lawyer and father of two whose defence of a black man accused of raping and beating a white woman brings him and his family face to face with the ugliest side of their southern town. Mary Badham and Philip Alford play Scout and Jim, Finch’s two children and it is through their eyes the story is told. Telling this particular story through the perspective of children is surely one of the most ingenuous devices employed in modern story telling as their perspective becomes the soul of the story. Watch out for the scene where the angry mob are shamed into retreat by the mere presence and innocent conversation of the children. If the children are the soul of the film, Peck’s performance is truly its heart and he is utterly tremendous as Finch. Any number of action stars from John Wayne to Arnold Schwarzenegger on their best day didn’t and couldn’t project the strength and force of integrity that Peck did here. In what must be one of the best acting accomplishments in the history of the medium, he gives a masterclass in the power of simplicity as he allows Finch’s disciplined modesty to be the lawyer’s loudest weapons. Through the seminal acting, directing, Elmer Berstein’s beautiful score, and of course its majestic writing the film is completely captivating and has remained the definitive cinematic exploration and indeed explanation of the psychology of racism, fear, cowardice, self-deception, and self-loathing. It is a haunting film that will stay with you on both an emotional and intellectual level for as long as you live.
Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness switches the action from Africa to Vietnam to telling effect given the reverberations the East Asian context would have with an audience of the late 70’s and beyond. Thus, in Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard journeys up the Nung River with a boat full of assorted and richly drawn American GI’s to deal with Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz.
The stories behind the film’s making are legendary (a typhoon destroying the helicopters being used on the film, Martin Sheen’s health troubles, etc.) but the end product is a mesmerising and reflexive exploration of the dark side to humanity. Brando makes a brief but arresting appearance as the disturbed but magnetic leader of a rag-tag jungle army which includes Dennis Hopper in one of his more deranged roles (and that’s saying something!). However, Sheen’s contribution is just as important as Brando’s, if not more, as the film rests on his shoulders for the vast majority of its long duration. It’s a powerfully tempered performance that encapsulates, more than any of the others, the fragile and disturbing yet steely nature of man.
The last word, of course, should be reserved for Coppola for Apocalypse Now is a sublime piece of film-making. From the very opening sound that phases between the sound of helicopters and that ceiling fan to the illuminating shots that followed it to the audacious La Cavalcata Delle Valchirie sequence now immortalised as perhaps the most famous movie sequence of all time, the level of inspiration and innovation demonstrated here, both technical and from a purely artistic point of view, is simply spell-binding. It was also arguably Coppolla’s last truly great work and given that it was capping films like The Godfather Part I and Part II and The Conversation, he certainly seems to have burned twice as bright as practically every other director working at that time. And if Apocalypse Now really was his denouement as a genius director, it’s an utterly unforgettable piece of work to sign off on.
The 6th Day is a tidy and modest attempt to embrace the qualities of the science fiction action blockbusters of late 80’s/early 90’s. Like many of those those films, it’s set in the near future and plays on seemingly plausible but morally ambiguous advancements in contemporary biotechnology. In the case of The 6th Day, that advancement is cloning and its technical facilitation and sociocultural and moral implications are handled in a creepy yet still light-hearted manner. In this future, cloning of animals including pets (by a company called “RePet” – laughs are encouraged) has become commonplace but human cloning on the other hand has been outlawed due to some disastrous early attempts and the moral quagmire an issue like that dredges. On top of the well handled premise, The 6th Day has got the undisputed king of the 80’s sci-fi Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role and more than one Arnie at that! Throw in a top actor like Robert Duvall and give him a generous subplot through which the central themes to the film most clearly surface and one begins to wonder why this film suffered a mediocre financial and critical return.
Arnie plays a helicopter pilot who ferries rich executives and party goers back and forth from the nearby mountain ski slopes. When a rich biotech exec is assassinated on one of these trips, a series of misunderstandings results in a cloned duplicate of Arnie being let loose on the world. It might sound daft but to say any more would give away one of the more interesting aspects to the story. But fret not, because it all adds up to a relatively neat basis for some futuristic action as not before long Arnie and Arnie set about trying to figure out what’s going on and then rectifying the mistake.
The set up to The 6th Day is quite skilfully crafted by Roger Spottiswoode as he allows the central characters plenty of time to tour the audience through their futuristic world. The cloning issue is introduced humorously with the subject of “repetting” taking prominence in the early exchanges and in its own way preparing the ground for the more weighty human related questions which arise later. Thus, the character dynamics and philosophical quandaries that pop up during these early stages are playfully realised, more than likely in an attempt to balance them with the unrealistic physical action a Schwarzenegger vehicle demands. Unfortunately, it’s the action element that lets the film down as its really quite pedestrian and uninspired compared to the films that made Arnie famous. The visual effects are fine without being spectacular but like the action, they’re not really informed by the plot and premise as is the case with the best science fiction films. Arnie’s character/s are also a little undercooked and as the movie progresses the subplots tend to take over the film. Given one of them involves Duvall that’s not the worst thing but it’s just not what one would expect from this type of film.
The 6th Day is still worth a look for fans of the genre or those who like to chew on some interesting concepts while firmly remaining in popcorn mode. However, given the flatness of the action, it’s clear that this was the beginning of the soon to be Governator’s slide from all out action hero-status to something more tame. For those of us who grew up on his movies, that offers a whole other level of reflection.
Francis Ford Coppola’s follow-up to the seminal The Godfather is generally regarded not simply as the best sequel of all time but one of the best films of all time. The linear format of the first story is relinquished in favour of two interwoven tales. One focuses on Michael (Al Pacino) as he continues to lose the battle for his soul while the other tells the the tale of how a young Vito (played by Robert De Niro) managed to rise to the rank of Don Corleone during his early years in the US.
The Godfather Part II differs from the original in many distinct ways beyond the obvious format changes. The themes explored are much darker as Michael Corleone’s arc is replaced by a straight line of descent. While many authors would’ve been tempted to turn him into another Vito, it’s a sign of genuine integrity that Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola remained loyal to the character’s original complexities and charted an uncomfortably believable journey. Pacino has less range to play with, given that he was no longer juggling a contrasting character shift but he does have some murky depths to plum and he responds in astonishing fashion turning in one of the most intense performances we’ve ever seen on screen. De Niro rightly got much plaudits for his uncanny depiction of a young Brando but the more weighty and arresting acting was done by the former. That said, De Niro is truly magnetic as Vito Corleone in his prime and, as such, he gives the flashback sequences a different energy all together. Through his retro-engineering of Brando’s Vito and some awfully clever writing, these segments are chock full of fascinating clues as to what made Don Corleone the man he was. These sequences are also directed with more verve when they need to be but, during more important moments, they are slowed down to create a breathless tension. The rooftop sequence in particular (like the restaurant scene in The Godfather) is a veritable masterclass in pacing as Coppola lures us into the mind of Vito as he crosses that same threshold Michael was to cross years later in Louis’ restaurant.
The Godfather Part II is as much a masterclass in composition, lighting, framing, and pacing as the original was. The film opens with another gloriously constructed family sequence which Coppola uses to once again outline the various political and personal circumstances of the main players. The Cuban segments in particular stand out not only because they lighten the heavy mood of the Nevada segments and the earlier timeline but because of how Coppola incorporates the political intrigue (both outer and inner) into the wider story of Michael’s search for his hidden enemy. That said, it must be noted that, due to the inevitability of the Corleone family’s trajectory, The Godfather Part II does not maintain that same warmth and sense of connection that the events of the first film took place within. Even during the more unsettling moments of the original, there was always a sense of family and protection surrounding Michael and co. In this film, those securities have been almost completely eroded. Michael’s relationship with Kay (in another brilliant performance from Diane Keaton) withers and, with it, his trust in others begins to falter irrevocably. It’s a powerful piece of writing done justice by the equally impressive acting and directing.
Whether or not The Godfather Part II is better than the original will always be a matter of debate and perhaps more so, preference. What can be said, is that together they easily rank as one of the greatest two-part stories ever told on film. Alone, they are something just as special and equally timeless.
“It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” Francis Ford Coppola’s epic tale of the Corleone crime family’s battle to maintain their position at top of the mob underworld gives us two of the finest acting performances in history and is the peak of cinematic story-telling. The story opens with a lavish wedding which in addition to setting a contrasting tone to the latter half of the film outlines the dynamic of the Corleone family as well as the various political allegiances both of which will define the tensions to follow. This scene also counts as one of the most awesomely written, staged, edited, and shot openings in cinema history and has become a revered masterclass in film-making
With the main players and their relationships established, writers Mario Puzo and Coppola allow both to develop throughout the rest of the film in resonating style resulting in a tragedy of moral corruption as profoundly perceptive as anything we have seen before or since on film. Within the broader battles and strategies of the Corleone organisation’s fight to remain dominant lie the more interesting and richly drawn personal battles as hopes and ambitions are turned on their heads and Michael Corleone is drawn into the world from which his father fought to save him. There are no caricatures here as father and son, brother and brother, husband and wife, and enemy and enemy are turned and twisted against each other which intermittently boil over into one sublime and daring set piece after another. As Vito Corleone Marlon Brando is at his improvisational best and commands every bit of our attention when the camera is on him. It’s one of those rare performances that is so rich and intuitive that every aspect to the character’s personality and demeanor feels real and substantial. On the other hand, Al Pacino gives us the most complete and contemplative performance imaginable. He is nothing short of mesmerising as he transforms before our eyes from the young and innocent war hero to the cold and calculating puppet-master.
Rather than embracing the counter-culture of many of his contemporaries, Coppola tells the story in the classic style of old Hollywood and the result is a Shakespearian masterpiece of pacing and intrigue informed by Nino Rota’s seminal and mesmerising score. Philip Smith’s set decoration, Dean Tavoularis’ overall production design, and Gordon Willis’ cinematography are sumptuous to behold but seductive and engaging enough to comfortably contain a story as broad as the one told here. Coppola’s use of the visual feasts they serve up is truly inspired as he frames the slow and blisteringly fast drama and action with precision and controls their momentum with his trademark ultra-disciplined innovation. And in the scene where Michael meets Sollozzo and McClusky, he gives us perhaps the best example of tension building the medium has ever offered. Sublime indeed.