I feel like part of the reason why DreamWorks’s Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron works so well (Ebert noted this in his excellent review) is the fact that none of the animals talk. Although the titular horse is given internal narration by Matt Damon (of all people), not once does Spirit, or any other creature ever speak themselves. This allows for more time spent on music, visuals and storytelling free from banter or exposition. When you have a movie with such sweeping scope and majestic beauty, it’s nice to just relax and let it wash over you, almost like a music video. I’ll always love 2D animation, and here its done exquisitely, the wild frontier rendered in richly colored strokes, the horses vividly brought to life through the illustrations. It’s one of the last classic 2D outings, before the eventual switch to computer generated stuff. Don’t get me wrong I’m just as in love with 3D animation, but I will always have deep nostalgic pangs for this style as well. Someone once told me that cinema is the only art form in which every single artistic medium you can think of can all inhabit the same space, interacting and complimenting each other to create a symphony for all the senses and perceptions. Spirit is a shining example: exceptional drawing and animation, terrific voice acting, and the music, which is a standout. Both the stirring score by Hans Zimmer and the original songs by Bryan Adams are heartfelt compositions which soar along with the visuals in perfect harmony. Spirit is a wild young mustang, who is captured by a vicious Colonel, gruffy baritoned by James Cromwell. He tries to train the horse and break him, but Spirit has that wild spark of vitality that any protagonist of the animal kingdom must posess. He refuses to give in, never losing hope of one day returning to his herd. He is befriended by young native man Little Creek (Daniel Studi) who is also searching for home. The two form an adventurous bond, putting them against man and nature to return to their origins. Mountains, valleys, corals, trees and the untamed northwest wilderness are all presented in a fashion so gorgeous that the colors nearly pop off the screen. It’s just terrific entertainment through and through, never too silly, sappy or frightening, hitting all the right notes along the whole breadth of its breezy 80 minute runtime. DreamWorks doesn’t often give Disney a run for its money, but consider this a glowing exception.
Barry Levinson’s Sleepers is a deliberately paced, downbeat look at revenge, and is one of the most brilliant yet seemingly overlooked dramas of the 90’s. Part of it could have been marketing; The cover suggests blistering violence, confrontation and courtroom intrigue. While there are such moments within the narrative, they live to serve the story, which Levinson and his dream cast are doggedly intent on telling. It’s a sombre affair to be sure, slow and methodical as well, but never to be confused with boring. It’s just such a great story, one that unfolds exactly as it needs to. It starts in the 1950’s, where four young rapscallions run wild on the streets of Manhatten. It kicks the story off with a sort of urban Stand By Me vibe, and if you thought that film went to some heavy placed, stick around through Sleepers. When an innocent prank ends in tragedy, the four are sent to an austere children’s correctional facility, where they run afoul of some sadistic and abusive guards, led by Kevin Bacon, who is scummier than scum itself. They endure months of ritual abuse at the hands of these sickos, until their eventual release. Life goes on, as it must, the four boys grow up and follow very different paths from one another. Michael (Brad Pitt) becomes an esteemed lawyer. Shakes (Jason Patric) lives a quiet life, while Tommy (Billy Crudup, wonderfully cast against type) and John (Ron Eldard) take a darker road to drugs and crime. Eventually their past rears it’s head, and they are presented with an opportunity for much delayed revenge. It doesn’t all play out the way you may think though, and half the fun of this one is being surprised by geniunly lifelike plot turns and characters who behave as real humans would. Pitt is the highlight in a performance of quiet torment. Dustin Hoffman is fun as a washed up lawyer who gets involved, Minnie Driver shows up as a tough NYC gal who gets involved with Patric, Robert De Niro has a nice bit as a kindly priest who counsels the boys even until adulthood, and there’s further supporting work from Jonathan Tucker, Bruno Kirby, Frank Medrano, Brad Renfro, Terry Kinney and more. Levinson usually takes on bright, chipper comedies and razor sharp political satire. With Sleepers he deviates into tragic dramatic material, and shows his versitility excellently. This one gets grim, no doubt about it. However, it’s a story not only worth the telling, but worth the watching for us.
Tony Scott’s Spy Game is a kinetic yet heartfelt espionage thriller that sees the director maintain considerable shards of his assaulting sensory overdrive of style, whilst pausing along the way for a story that is really rooted in the personal story of the bond and friendship between two men. A lot of his films are predominantly visual and auditory, a bullet train of sound and fury, with plot and characterization as passengers onboard. Here those elements are cogs in the machine, resulting in a very touching, extremely exciting outing and perhaps the director’s most overlooked piece. Robert Redford used to be the younger, more naive faction in a lot of cinematic pairings, especially with Paul Newman. Here he flips the coin, taking on the grizzled mantle of both father figure and mentor to Brad Pitt. Pitt is Tom Bishop, an operative taken under the wing of veteran agent Nathan D. Muir (Redford). Nathan no doubt sees some of himself in the lad, and takes a shine to him, grooming him with all the skills and cunning that a lifetime in the business has given him. Life throws curveballs though, and more often than not they involve love. Bishop has gone rogue in an attempt to rescue relief worker Elizabeth Hadley (the brilliant Catherine McCormack, who needs to be in more movies) from a Chinese prison. In his eagerness he is captured, leaving Muir to make some tough decisions, pull some hidden cards and use all of his talent and resources to extract them. Now in many films like this there would be several blistering action set pieces to show how it’s done. Scott instead chooses to give Redford the intellectual grit and subversive genius to pull hidden strings and come up with a wicked fun solution that is endlessly more satisfying than an explosion ridden shock and awe campaign. His struggle to get his friend back is laced with flashbacks of his training, with a 70’s flavour that feels authentic and writing that lovingly builds the blocks of their dynamic. Stephen Dillane provides wonderfully understated work as a quietly smarmy CIA prick, and watch for a quick appearance from the great Charlotte Rampling. To see Scott’s frenetic aesthetic hired for a script that takes its time and plays out less like a conventional thriller and more like the paced, elliptical spy thrillers of years past (vaguely reminiscent of aspects of Le Carré) is a somewhat rare treat. Terrific thriller with Redford at his best, highly, highly recommended.
Deceiver is classic 90’s noir, with a dash of trashiness and a unique cast all suited to the bottom feeding material. It trips along in the same gutter as stuff like Basic Instinct, another film that is simultaneously aware and smugly indifferent to the fact that it’s scummy stuff. Almost every character is a reprehensible, unlikable twat, save for one surprise cameo. I may have just put you off the film, and to many who don’t see this type of thing as your cup of tea, please avoid it. But to those like me who appreciate a nice bit of grimy fun, well this is your ticket. Tim Roth plays Wailand , a wealthy and arrogent young heir to a textile mill. He is under suspicion for the brutal murder of a prostitute (Renee Zellweger) who was found in a park, cut in half. The two detectives who are tasked with hassling him seem almost as dodgy as he is, and when you look at the edgy character actors who play them it’s easy to see why. Detective Braxton (Chris Penn) is buried in gambling debt, owing a tidy sum to nasty loan shark Mook (Ellen Burstyn). Detective Kennesaw (Ann explosive Michael Rooker) is a rage fuelled whacko who is furious at his wife (Rosanna Arquette) for having affairs on him. Wailand has both the cunning nature to see this weaknesses in both of them, and the money to do something about it. This makes the detective’s job very hard, being stymied by their quarry every step of the way. Wailand also has mental issues including blackouts and strange episodes of personality alteration that Roth takes full advantage of in the scenery chewing department. It’s pseudo psychological mumbo jumbo that the actors play straight faced for a thriller that’s quite the endearing little flick. Rooker stands out with his trademark volatility that will put anyone’s nerves up to defcon 4. Roth has a ratty, evil looking face. Nothing against the dude, he just looks like he’d slit your throat in your sleep for a dollar. He’s great as suspicious characters, and has fun here being the wild card. Penn is his usual huff and puff self. Character actor Michael Parks has an awesome cameo as a psychiatrist with a monologue that almost lets the film wade out of cheese territory. Great cast, great flick.
Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia is a brilliantly vicious dark fable, a moody cautionary tale regarding the dangers of trust, the true nature of the sociopath and the ironic way in which demons sneak up on us while we are to busy looking for them with our backs turned. It’s also damn fine thriller filmmaking and fits nicely into a subgenre which I happen to be an avid fan of: the American road movie. The highways, byways and back roads of desolate rural USA have a bitter menace that clouds the air like the desert dust kicked up by many a vehicle on their way through. There’s endless possibility out there, for great and terrible evil, in a place where help is always a county away and opportunity looms on the horizon like the bloated California sun. From The Hitcher, to U Turn, to Thelma & Louise, to Duel and everything in between, it’s a setting that hums with cinematic potential. David Duchovney and Michelle Forbes play a yuppie couple who unwittingly wander into the path of extreme danger. Duchovney is a writer who is working on a book about American serial killers. Their journey takes them to many bloodstained locales where incidents took place. Eventually they decide to carpool with rugged redneck Earley Grayce (Brad Pitt), and his bimbo girlfriend Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis) whose IQ appears to be lower than the cut of her blouse. The two couples couldn’t be more different, yet get on well enough. Slowly it becomes clear that there’s something very off about Earley though, noticed keenly by Forbes’s intuition. Duchovney is enamored by the tumbleweed hick, and thinks he’s made a friend. He’s half right, and not even in the way he thinks. The film takes its time letting Earley’s true nature emerge, Pitt slowly detaches and unravels until the tarp is fully torn off and we see the sociopathic monster within. All set in abandoned clusters of former Americana and given slick, almost action movie direction from Sena, it’s not one to miss for any fan of a crackling psychological thriller.
The Coen Brother’s Burn After Reading is the duo at their height of trolling the audience, a mood they seem to make some of the most devilishly funny films of their career. This one reminds me of long days full of running around, confusion and missed appointments, days where I get home and reach the end only to realize that for all the frenzy, nothing I did all day was really of any consequence. This film is sort of like that; a whole lot of clandestine nonsense and tomfoolery that adds up to.. well, not much of anything in the end. If that sounds like I’m being negative, I’m not. That’s part of the Coen’s charm and a core aspect of what makes this one so hilarious. It’s also full of complete dimwitted morons, which only adds to the chorus of lunacy. John Malkovich teeters on the borders of mania, scary and funny as ex CIA half wit Osborne Cox, in a performance so utterly Malkovich that he almost seems like some other actor parodying him. He’s got a cold hearted bitch of a wife (Tilda Swinton) who is fooling around with even bigger idiot Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney is a riot) who is also fooling around with anything that has a pulse, being the squirrelly sex addict that he is. Cox has started a memoir (or, ‘mem-wah’, as Malkovich ludicrously intones it), the contents of which are on a disc that end up in the hands of yet even bigger idiots. Linda Litzke (Frances Mcdormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) run a gym called Hardbodies (only the Coens, folks) and see the disc as ‘secret spy shit’ they could use to make a buck. That’s where the plot hollers off the rails into pure madness, as each and every character makes the dumbest possible decision along the way. J.K. Simmons are gold as two CIA honchos who are more puzzled than the audience, Richard Jenkins trolls perhaps the subtlest of all, and the cast also includes Jeffrey Demunn, Olek Krupa and a meta cameo from Dermot Mulroney. Among the cloak and dagger chaos, the Coen take every chance they get to spoof and lovingly ridiculue society’s cringe inducing stereotypes, until you start to realize they’re levels of exaggeration aren’t all that over the top. Pitt is gold as the air headed gym rat, Clooney pure screwball, and Malkovich is a force of demented nature, his exentuated word pronunciations reaching a boiling point of absurdity here. This is up there with the Coen’s best, and certainly one of their funniest hours.
Well it’s arrived, folks. The first truly effective horror film of the year (that I’ve had a chance to see anyway). I was drowsily browsing Netflix and came upon Hush, sporting a snazzy poster and a premise ripped straight from the vintage horror flicks I grew up with. Compelled to give it a shot, I was rewarded with a slick, atmospheric and sturdily made exercise in suspense. It’s not often I feel true giddy tension while watching a thriller (even though most brashly guarantee it on the dvd cover), but this baby delivers in spades. It’s funny because the storyline is a identical to many movies of the past, and similar to countless more. The secret to success, obviously, is in the execution, and Hush is made with a caring love for a genre deeply ingrained in cinematic culture. Director. Mike Flanagan clearly loves horror films, and seems to want to rise above the primordial crust, calcifying his effort with a steady hand and fresh direction that gives even the most knowing plot turns a dose of torque using simple tools: a killer soundtrack, whiplash inducing editing and…and.. What’s the most important thing in any horror film? I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it: atmosphere. The setting finds us in a dusky, desolate area, where a deaf novelist (Katy Siegel) toils in isolation, churning out the trimmings of her next book on a laptop, content in her loneliness yet on the verge of unease stirred by cabin fever, restlessness or so,etching else. It’s not long before the film lands the first punch of many: a masked, crossbow wielding serial killer (John Gallagher spits on his previous good guy image, both terrifying, unrecognizable and superb) begins to stalk her with methodical menace, watching from the inky shadows of her home’s exterior while she cowers in terror. He catches on quick about her deafness and uses it against her, terrorizing her at every turn. Now, the film does use genre tropes to churn out its story, and anyone expecting something truly unique to pop out of the ether. Any be disappointed. But to those who yearn for solid, extremely well made horror entries to wade out of the muck and foretell the return to form of a genre that gets maybe two, three winners every year, can rejoice. This one comes up aces. Siegel is instantly likeable and gorgeous to boot, giving her protagonist a resilience that is actually believable, which can’t be said about every girl being pursued by a killer on screen. Gallagher is icky as the psycho, branded with certain idiosyncratic symbols of society which suggest that he’s a jaded outcast driven to sickening extremes by the hand he’s been dealt, given in to his dark impulses completely. For genre fans: this begs a watch and will likely be a highlight of the year. For casual viewers: fun, fun times and a vibe to get sucked in by. For non horror fans: just watch it anyway.
The Courier is a strange little flick that dabbles in the kind of pulpy narrative which the 80’s were famous for. One lone antihero sets out to deliver a package of enigmatic value to a recipient that is always one step ahead of him, proving to be quite elusive. Bad guys and gals hinder him at every turn and violence ensues, leading up to an inevitable confrontation and in this case a neat little twist that admittedly defies any sort of reason, yet is fun for the actors to play out and provides sensationalism, a trait that’s commonplace in such films. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a haggard presence in any role, a guy you immediately feel rooted to in a scene. He gets the lead role here, playing an underground criminal courier, passing along dangerous goods from one cloak and dagger person to another. His latest task comes from his handler (Mark Margolis): Deliver an odd case to a reclusive criminal mastermind known only as Evil Sivle. Little information is given beyond that, but it soon becomes apparant that his mission is a cursed one, as he finds himself a hot target for all kinds of weirdos. German live wire Til Schweiger plays a dirty federal agent who hassles him with that campy charisma and narrow eyed theatricality that only he can bring to the table. Miguel Ferrer and Lilli Taylor are priceless as Mr. & Mrs. Capo, a pair of married contract killers who discuss their dinner plans whilst hunting their quarry, and have devised some truly vile torture methods involving culinary instruments. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie, where B movie mavericks are let off the chain and allowed to throw zany stuff into their otherwise pedestrian material that often borders on experimental. Morgan is assisted by a young chick (Josie Ho) who saves his ass more than a couple of times. Mickey Rourke shows up late in the game as Maxwell, a mysterious Elvis impersonator and Vegas gangster who plays a crucial role in Courier’s quest. Trust Rourke to take a derivitive, underwritten supporting character and turn the few minutes of screen time he has into utter gold that elevates his scene onto a plane which the film as a whole is sheepishly undeserved of. Morgan is better than the flick too, but he’s great in anything. He ducks the heroic panache of the action protagonist and dives into growling melancholy, his grizzly bear voice and imposing frame put to excellent use. This one got critically shredded upon release. Yeah it ain’t great, but it sure as hell ain’t terrible. Worth it for a cast that makes it work, and for that classic genre feel that can’t be beat.
David Ayer’s Fury is the most fearsome, unrelenting war film of the decade and quite the experience to sit through. One stumbles out of the theatre as shell shocked as the brave soldiers we’ve just witnessed onscreen, needing time to wind down from the horror, after which we realize that among the thunderous bravura and non stop, head shattering combat are moments of tender humanity and ponderous reflection, just enough to contrast the madness. Logan Lerman has the pretty boy look, which is quickly stripped away and replaced by frenzied terror and confusion, playing a young army clerk who hasn’t seen one second of combat, suddenly tasked with joining the ranks of a tank warfare crew. They are each hardened in their own way by what they’ve seen and done. Brad Pitt is Wardaddy, their iron jawed commander in a gritty, unstable and altogether brilliant performance. Jon Bernthal is the obligatory redneck Neanderthal, a big lug whose brutish ways mask a childlike yearning beneath. Shia Leboeuf is the restrained one, a bible reader and thinker whose resentment of the war radiates from his eyes like sad and sick beams of sympathy. Michael Pena, reliably excellent, is the closest to neutral of the group. Ayer airdrops us right into the action without pretext, warning or proclaimed intention. This isn’t a ‘men on a mission’ war flick, this is a single harrowing day in the lives of men at the end of the world as well as their ropes, an intimate study of the horror inflicted on both body and soul, both soldier and civilian, the collective horrific impact of the war refracted through the prism of a small period of time. Such a tactic has huge potential, and here it works wonders in brining us closer to these characters, as well as anyone they meet along their way. Pitt leads this ragtag band with the indifferent sentiment of a hardened, brittle man who has been in one too many a tight spot and seen one too many a comrade fall under his care to waste time with compassion for the enemy. Time and tide have turned killing into a purely instinctual, second nature business for him, and we see this unfold in a kicker of a scene where he forces Lerman to murder an unarmed German private who begs for his life. Such is war, and such is Ayer’s film, free from Hallmark moments and structured escapism. Midway through, the film stops dead in its tracks for a beautiful, tension filled sequence in which the band finds temporary refuge in crumbling abode with two German girls. The culture shock is numbed out by the extremity of the war, and these two groups are forced to coexist, if only for an hour or so. The youngest of the girls (Alicia Von Rittberg) is stunning, a baleful example of the corrupts of innocence, her character arc a testament to the senselessness of war. The combat scenes within the tank clank with clammy, claustrophobic dread and desperation, helped by the fact that for the most part they filmed inside real replicas. Jason Isaacs shows up in yet another war movie role as a grizzled commander who briefly assists them, and (of course) steals his two quick scenes in the process. War films often struggle to find humanity amongst the ugliness by trying a little too hard, and by being a little too obvious. This one is frank, unrelenting and assaults you with a deafening roar of chaos, with a few extremely subtle moments of introspect and emotion. It may just have cracked the formula for finding the comfort in such turmoil: less is more. One of the best war movies I’ve ever seen.
I’ve always thought that Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane is the movie Michael Bay made in another reality where he matured a little more. I mean that as a compliment to Sir Ridley and the film. The crisp, aesthetically lighted style has Bay written all over it, but it’s employed alongside a human story of one girl facing some truly daunting odds. Demi Moore plays Jordan O Neill, a determind, plucky individual who has her mind and heart set on going through the infamous Navy SEAL training, making her the first woman to undertake the task. She just wants to do her training like the rest of her peers, but unfortunately her situation comes with a tirade of media attention and notoriety, something which she never signed on for. Corrupt politician Theodore Hayes (the late Daniel Von Bargen smarming it up) wants to ruin her, and he’s at odds with a pushy Senator (Anne Bancroft is as stiff and sour as the glass of kentucky mash she constantly pulls from). Meanwhile, Moore begins her training, thrown in with a bunch of testosterone fuelled dudes, rabid dogs who don’t react well to a girl in their midst. Her instructors do their best, but she meets quite the adversary in Master Chief James Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen) a no nonsense guy with a razor sharp intellect and a personality to fuel it. Mortensen gets to do something really special with the role. Where other drill instructors in film are somewhat caricatures, monstrous, profane loud-mouths with all the depth of a wood plank, Urgayle has a metallic edge that encases real human qualities beneath. Mortensen latches on to that right off the bat, blessing the film with a fully three dimensional person. The cast is great as well, with work from Kevin Gage, David Warshofsky, Jason Beghe, Morris Chestnut, Jim Caviesel and the legendary Scott Wilson who is mint as the cranky base commander. His dialogue is straight out of a Mamet script and Wilson bites down hard, especially in a scene where he verbally owns Bancroft. Moore is combustible, lacing her take no prisoners attitude with the grace and power of her femininity. She’s also in wicked shape too, her physique a reflection of both Jordan’s commitment to her goal and Demi’s steadfast need to tell the best possible story. This one is far better than some critics would have you believe, with a story arc both suited to the character and theme. It’s also just plain powerhouse filmmaking that chimes in on all the right notes. Awesome stuff.