Category Archives: Thriller

Review: The Place Beyond The Pines

This isn’t so much a Crime Thriller as advertised, rather it’s more of a Father & Son story, and not in the sense of Finding Nemo. It is an intense character driven experience that will challenge your concepts of morality and justice. The Place Beyond the Pines goes to places mainstream movies just don’t, it deals with consequences.

Luke (Ryan Gosling) is a Motorcyle stunt rider who has just learnt he is a Father. His son is a year old and the product of a fling with Romina (Eva Mendes). Faced with the choice of continuing to tour with his stunt show or quit and stay to do his fatherly duty, Luke makes a choice that will have far reaching consequences well into the future. That’s all I am going to say for the plot, because frankly it goes places you don’t see coming and you should be free to enjoy that without any spoiling it for you.

The journey through this story is as much a though provoking commentary on the nature of good and evil and the consequences of our decisions as it is a delicately balanced drama. It’s character driven, and that is the only reason the story works. Split into three acts that take the movie in different directions, you will be hooked from start to finish. My only criticism is that third act is too predictable and draws the film out just a little too much.

Director Derek Cianfrance deserves much credit for being able to balance such a complex and delicate film. It could easily have been an incomprehensible mess, but it’s all handled with such passion that even small moments are captivating. Special mention must be made of the high speed motorcycle scenes, they are great on the big screen. A shout out to Mike Patton also for a wonderfully eery and mood setting soundtrack.

There are notable performances from Ryan GoslingEva MendesBradely Cooper, and Ben Mendelsohn who are also joined by a number of named actors in a large ensemble cast. None of these people are wearing make-up, they on screen warts and all. For some of them who have previously sold their image publicly this difference is noticeable. It certainly does the movie justice however.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a challenging and intense movie, but it’s long and can be taxing if your just out for some entertainment. It’s well worth it my opinion however, sometimes we need these kinds of stories to give ourselves some perspective.

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Review: Skyfall

The Bond franchise has had its fair share of ups and downs. From classics like From Russia With Love to the utterly woeful Die Another Day. To last 50 years however is a testament to the ideas that drive the stories, and its these ideas that make Skyfall the best of the twenty-three Bond films to date. This story ditches the wall to wall action that plagued many of its lesser incarnations including the last film Quantum of Solace in favour of deep and engaging characters. Its a classy film, an instant classic. You will be hard pressed to find someone walking out of this movie without a sense of satisfaction.

The film opens with a rare Bond failure. Shot, presumably killed he leaves MI6 in a deep hole with the names of every agent embedded in terrorist organisations around the world in the hands of an unknown enemy. It’s a very modern plot where the enemy is unseen, unknown, and not easily categorised. This leads to significant conflict between the Government and M at MI6 after their headquarters is hacked and bombed. Bond and M must not just discover who their enemy is, but what it is that they want.

There are a lot of themes that are thrown about in this very heady yarn. Old versus new, modern terrorism and public discourse, not to mention a not so subtle dig at politics. These themes support the strength of the plots core and provide a wonderful relevance to our society. In possibly the films best scene Bond meets the villain. Issues of globalisation, modern espionage, sexuality, and the temptation of modern evils are woven into a very personal and classic encounter. It’s a credit to the numerous writers and it’s delightful an action movies best moments are in its conversations.

Director Sam Mendes was an unusual choice for a big budget action movie, but he brings some much needed drama. It can be easily argued that his deft touch is what provides the film with its most appealing features. Cinematographer Roger Deakins also brings his A-game with some stunning visual moments in the film. There are several sequences that are visually creative and downright fantastic to watch.

Daniel Craig returns as Bond and continues his edgy take on the character flaws and all, and Judy Dench as M scores a great deal more screen time which is very welcome. But the films best performance goes to Javier Bardem as the villain. He’s as threatening as his role from No Country for Old Men perfecting that vacant stare, but he brings a very camp touch that was unexpected and very enjoyable. With such a personal story the villain was always going to be the critical point for the film to get right and the casting of Barden seems inspired.

Other critics have described Skyfall as Nolanesque, which is just a way of saying that a big budget blockbuster has decided to emphasise it’s characters and its drama. Christopher Nolan didn’t invent this, but it cannot be denied his Batman trilogy is a wonderful example of it. Regardless, if this is a sign that Hollywood has rediscovered the magic of story telling then it is very welcome.

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Review: Argo

This is the kind of story you couldn’t make up. There really is nothing like real life when it comes to one of the years most gripping films. Based on a true story, Argo is a dramatic retelling of the rescue of six U.S. Diplomats from Tehran. Its far fetched, terrifying, grounded, and a little bit absurd. It’s all those things, but most of all it’s entertaining from start to finish. I never liked Ben Affleck as an actor, but as a Director he has a lot of things going for him! This is his third film after Gone Baby Gone and The Town, with both receiving wipe spread critical acclaim. With Argo, he brings his authentic film making to a story that thrives on it, and it’s likely to place him in the box seat for an Oscar.

In 1979 in retaliation for U.S. support of the recently deposed Shah, militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Iran taking every one hostage. Just six people managed to escape, and they took refuge in the Canadian embassy. With the escapees kept secret for fear they would be arrested and shot, the State Department sort to exfiltrate them from Iran. In comes Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) who floats the idea of staging a fake movie, creating a cover that the six Diplomats are from a Canadian production company scouting exotic locations in Iran to film a Science Fiction movie. As the movie itself states “this is the best bad idea we have,” and so they run with it.

The film is exquisitely pieced together, never ramming anything down your throat (with the exception of it’s slightly misinformed prologue), and relying on the intelligence of the audience to build the tension in their own minds based in some cases on nothing more than the images on screen. The film oozes Affleck’s style, it’s thoughtful, provocative  sometimes challenging, but also quite humorous and most of all completely enthralling. Every scene is littered with details that both challenge and engage, from Muslim women eating KFC in down town Tehran to lingering on the nameless CIA Memorial Wall. It’s the sign of a mature film maker to shows us the elements that can build a sense of the emotional elements and the intangible in our minds. It comes to fruition when the critical moments arrive, no one has to say anything, not even a drop of music needs to be played in order to set that nervous feeling your stomach.

Having a well made film however is one thing, but the glue that holds it together are the cast. In this case the cast are superb, they all seem to fit quite nicely. Alan Arkin and John Goodman play the Hollywood experts in this caper, they fit the roles so perfectly that essentially they don’t appear to be acting. It’s seems to have been the philosophical approach to casting this film, just pick the person who won’t have to act to be convincing. The full cast list is lengthy and it’s littered with faces you’ll recognise but can’t put a name to. I won’t mention them all here, but all of them fit perfectly into the reality of the picture, which is to say you’re never once taken out of the story by a performance that is out of place.

Argo is fascinating, not just because of its many layers and rich screen play, but because it really happened. Well, ok, not all of it. Further research indicates that the role of the Canadian, New Zealand, and British Governments is dramatically underplayed and most of the final 30 minutes dramatic moments are a complete fabrication. It won’t win any awards for accuracy, but in my humble opinion it’s very likely going to win Best Director and Best Picture at this years Oscars. I’m really struggling to find any reason why anyone would dislike this movie, I’m sure that reason exists, but for now I’m happy to call this the first absolute must see of 2012.

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Review: Killing Them Softly

For a movie receiving such wide praise, I frankly just don’t get it. For my mind Killing Them Softly is a confused character drama that doesn’t know if it wants to be a black comedy or a serious hard-hitting political allegory. Writer/Director Andrew Dominik has brought to life a partial adaptation of George V Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade in 97 minutes of slow, sleep inducing character drama interlaced with brutal violence while force feeding a particularly one-dimensional political message down the audiences throat. It’s one of these strange films that receives critical acclaim while the rest of us shake our heads and wonder “what was all that about?”.

Russel (Ben Mendelsohn), Frankie (Scoot McNairy), and Johnny (Vincent Curatola) decide to rob a mob backed card game run by Markie (Ray Liotta). They think they will get away with it because Markie once knocked over his own card game and the mob will just pin it all on him. Unfortunately for the boys, Jackie (Brad Pitt) the mobs hit man doesn’t believe Markie would make the same mistake twice and proceeds to hunt down and execute them. The film gets it’s title from Jackie’s method of execution, by “killing them softly” he takes any emotion out of it and keeps things as matter of fact and business like as possible.

The film loudly states at every possible turn the fact that the card game is an allegory for America’s financial system, the robbery an allegory for the financial crisis, and the hit man an allegory for what the Government tried to do to fix the problem. Jackie goes from scene to scene sitting and listening as the films characters pour their hearts out. They’re all troubled, confused, sad and alone and Jackie basically ignores their plights because it gets in the way of him doing his job. There’s a thick layer of sub-text here that isn’t subtle, there are real people with real problems and our Government ignores them in the name of getting things done.

All of this is interlaced with President Obama’s pre-election criticism of the Governments actions and his rhetoric about community, one people, and searching for a better way. You’ll be confused by the end of the film however, you won’t know if Jackie is a satirical character decrying how destructive and insane the Bush administrations methods of dealing with the crisis were or if he’s a representation of reality and Obama is just kidding himself. It’s over kill if you ask me and the films political overtones take a front seat for almost the entire film damaging some really interesting characters who frankly never get to do anything interesting.

It’s about this time I should talk about the performances, and yes they are all quite adequate and interesting, but what’s the point? None of the characters have any kind of charisma or likability and their functions as allegorical material over shadow anything meaningful about them as people. In one case a second hit man named Mickey (James Galdolfini) is hired to do some of the dirty work, but when he turns out to be a drunk he’s discarded. James does a fine job with the role and gives him an emotional core, but who cares? He essentially has two scenes where he does nothing but bore us with a lengthy speech designed to establish that he’s a hopeless human being. I just don’t see the point? Where is the conflict? The drama? The tension? The unique insight into the criminal underworld? It’s a film void of anything interesting for these characters besides their role in its message.

Occasionally the film manages some technical brilliance with a fairly well shot drive by shooting, and the Directors take on what it would “feel” like to be high on drugs is quite clever, but it’s all too little and it doesn’t seem to mesh well with the film nor help drive it’s narrative forward. There is a strange selection of music too that underscored the film, and overall it’s sound design is off-putting and obtuse. I’m sure there is someone who would appreciate it, but it’s not me, and I don’t think the general public would really get into it either.

Killing Them Softly killed me softly for its entire running time, I was bored and unimpressed. There is some artistic merit here and a few moments of either genuine tension or good black comedy, but they are too few and far between. I don’t think this is a movie many casual movie goers will enjoy, so I won’t even recommend you wait for the DVD.

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Review: The Bourne Legacy

How do you make a sequel to a trilogy of movies about a specific character without that character? Could you make a Bond film without actually having James Bond in the movie? Well the The Bourne Legacy is the answer. Void of the series star Matt Damon this fourth film successfully manages to move out of his shadow and forge a surprisingly decent spy movie. Set during the events of the third Bourne film, Legacy follows the impact of Bourne’s actions on the other spies created by the same program that molded the Matt Damon character.

Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is a spy. A spy like Bourne who we find in an unknown location, on an unknown mission, doing unknown things. It’s revealed in this installment that these spy’s from the super secret program that created Bourne are dependant on pills that alter their genetic makeup that allow them to be the super human killing machines that they are. It’s a little inconsistent with the previous films, and there is a token line about how Bourne appears to have been surviving without his “meds”, but despite the plot holes the film commits to this new line so strongly that at least I was quite hooked. While Aaron treks around an unknown snowy mountainside his superiors are trying to deal with the fallout of the events from The Bourne Ultimatum. They decide to scuttle the whole program and proceed to take out the evidence, but of course Aaron escapes unharmed.

The plot as you can tell is not going to win any awards but the dialogue and screenplay are quite good, and the writers have committed to the themes of the Bourne series so strongly that the film becomes quite appealing. There is a number of memorable scenes and one in particular that would unnerve event he most hardened. At the very least there is a sense this is not a simple cash grab and someone has put some effort into crafting an original story into the existing mythology without damaging what has made the series successful.

Renner and his co-star Rachiel Weisz who plays Dr. Marta Shearing, a scientist involved in the program, also add star power and sense of credibility to the film. It is arguable that the dialogue delivered by lesser actors would not have been as satisfying. It’s a testament to the acting, proving Hollywood’s obsession can also work for a film’s credibility. The two seem to share a genuine bond which is important as the Bourne series relies on emphasising human relationships and feelings.

In the end however, you can be excused for being a little unsatisfied. The film ends abruptly, not dissimilar to a television shows series finale where a number of plot threads remain open. Regardless, it’s an exciting way to spend two hours and it won’t make you feel like this was a sequel you could have done without.

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Review: The Hunger Games

The first thing you should know is that while this film is billed as next Harry Potter or Twilight in the teen movie market, and it will be very successful in that sense, it offers so much more to a much wider audience. It’s the kind of movie that almost everyone will find something to enjoy and something to think about. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Suzzane Collins, it has the potential for sequels and I think it deserves them.

Set in a dystopian future, The Hunger Games brings ancient Rome into a modern Science Fiction setting. Every year the districts of Panem offer up in tribute one male and female between the ages of 12 and 18 to fight to the death in a reality television show. It serves as entertainment for the upper class inhabitants of the Capitol and a reminder of the cost of rebellion to the countries twelve Districts.

Explaining the plot can come across as absurd, and it’s really not original with several older films covering similar subject matter. But this film manages to weave our modern and very real obsession with celebrity and reality TV with a dash of teen romance and social commentary to make it very relevant, and very appealing. It’s quite a triumph on behalf of story that it manages to make you forget the premise is really a quite out there.

Katniss Everdine (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteer’s herself for the Games at a public Reaping when her 12 year old sister is chosen by random draw. It’s quite a disturbing opening sequence, the simple idea that a 12 year old girl will be pitted against 18 year old boys in a fight to the death is unsettling let alone the manner in which that face is ignored. Katniss is sent to the Capitol with fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) where they are groomed and trained for the Games.

The coldness of the reality of being sexed up, sold, and paraded as a piece of meat for slaughter is what makes most of this film gripping to watch. The tributes must sell themselves to get sponsors who can provide them with life saving food and medicine while inside the arena, failure to gather such sponsors means almost certain death. It’s unsettling because it mirrors the way in which our own celebrities and politicians appear to sell themselves to us.

Unfortunately when the tributes make it into the arena the slick social commentary and thoughtful film making make way for something a little too Hollywood, a little too immature. It feels a bit rushed, unfocused, and at times contrived. The ultimate ending of the Games isn’t as strong as the rest of the film which is a bit of a disappointment. I can’t help but wish that the film spent more time paying respect to its violence and deeper implications than what is really a shallow love plot.

Lawrence as Katniss is very impressive, she brings depth to what could have been a shallow character. She’s has the right build for the role too, she’s very attractive but she’s not a wafer thin supermodel. I might be walking a delicate line here but I think the body image on display here is far more positive than if they had cast someone else. Unfortunately the rest of the cast either don’t get enough screen time to shine, or are actually quite weak. Elizabeth Banks as Effie deserves special mention, but the likes of Donal Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, and even Lenny Kravitz really only bring credibility to their roles.

It’s a problem with the film overall, that it doesn’t give us time to come to terms with many if it’s characters which are too many to mention. It also doesn’t give us time to dwell on many of the implications of the story, instead favouring a bit of shallow teen romance or the like. In one scene where the tributes train for the Games you lose all sense of the depth of the story and it is instead replaced with action movie cliché’s complete with motivational music and Rocky like montages.

The Hunger Games is far from a perfect movie, but it has a lot to offer. It can be enjoyed for what it is, or its greater meaning and implications can be discussed at length. A trip to the cinema for this film would be most rewarding.

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Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

There is a certain expectation of a Spy Thriller these days, they’re almost a form of the superhero movies with usually one unbelievably capable and classy guy pulling off impossible action stunts with super cool gadgets while saving the world from some kind of evil organisation. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is exactly none of those things. Instead it’s a highly intelligent, character-based drama, set in a world that a real spy might find much closer to home.

George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a retired spy, his wife has left him, and he spends his days in secluded boredom taking in daytime television on his couch at home. He was forced out of British Intelligence when his Boss, Control (John Hurt), resigned after a botched job that saw an agent, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), shot and captured in Budapest. That changes when a field agent named Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) brings a story of an attempt to bring in a Russian Defector gone wrong, seemingly because someone inside British Intelligence engineered it to. There is a mole in British Intelligence, and it seems Control knew it, and Prideaux paid the price.

What follows is a slow and methodical dissection of the inner workings of British Intelligence, the agenda’s at play, and the revelations of how complex the real world of spying must be. You get a sense that you couldn’t go around shooting people and blowing things up like a James Bond or Jason Bourne because the ripples of such activity would have disastrous consequences. It takes delight in creating tension through simple activities, such as stealing a log book from an archive where getting caught won’t mean an extended chase sequence, but rather the end of your career and being labelled the mole yourself.

The whole film fits that understated tone, with almost no audience assistance at hand either. You’re left to put all the complexities together yourself, there isn’t an excess of dialogue and the Director (Tomas Alfredson) asks you to fill in a lot of blanks. It’s that stylistic choice that will probably alienate a large majority of the cinema going public, and it is for this reason also the film is good but not great. John Le’Carre’s Novel for which this film is based on is extraordinarily complex when crammed into a film of this length, I struggle to see how someone who had not read it could fathom the breadth and depth of the events portrayed. I’m disappointed that the tone of the film at times got in the way of telling the good story that it is.

There is quite a large cast and they all turn in believable and thoughtful performances, but perhaps Gary Oldman as the understated George Smiley deserves special mention. Oldman is arguably one of the finest actors of his generation, although he’s not been recognised by the Academy as yet, and in this film he turns in one of his finer most measured performances. With nothing but a look Oldman conveys endless meaning, he keeps Smiley as an enigma with rare moments of outward emotion and a sense of cutting superiority when he does choose to tell those around him his thoughts. It’s hard to play a dull man, but if you could ever make it entertaining Oldman certainly keeps you watching.

Despite all this, and my own four star rating, I find it hard to recommend this film. It is after all a movie you have to invest yourself in to get any reward from it, and for that reason it won’t suit a lot of tastes. If however you are prepared to pay attention, fill in the blank spaces and enjoy the characters for who they are and not so much what they are doing, then this is a film for you.


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