Tag Archives: Drama

Review: Good Will Hunting

Director: Gus Van Sant
Year: 1997
Score: 7.5/10

Rest in peace.

Rest in peace.

I’m listening to Elliott Smith while I write this review. I rarely need an excuse to dive back into Smith, but this time I have two: his songs permeate Good Will Hunting so thickly that I’d be humming him anyway at this point, so I might as well listen instead; and I know of no better mourning music.

The person I’m mourning is, of course, the great Robin Williams. Much has been written about him over the past couple of weeks, and I’m not intending to add to that, except to say that he was a supremely talented man who brought me a lot of joy and will continue to do so as I revisit his work.

I hadn’t seen Good Will Hunting since its theatrical release seventeen years ago, back when I was young and naïve and entirely deserving of the condemnation Sean (Williams) serves Will (Matt Damon) in the park bench scene. Given that, and the fact that it was the film for which he won an Oscar, watching and reviewing it seemed like a fitting tribute.

This is a thoughtful and moving film, probably my favourite of the Gus Van Sant films I’ve seen (though ask me another day and I might choose Milk instead). It’s not short and it sags a little in the second half, especially in scenes without Williams or Minnie Driver. However, the ending is solid and there are some very nice emotional beats along the way.

Williams’ performance is excellent, showing restraint, warmth, pathos, depth and nuance. He truly is the heart of the film (and I was surprised, upon revisiting it, that he doesn’t appear until the 33 minute mark). As for his co-stars, Damon is fine in the lead role; Driver gives the best performance I’ve seen from her; Stellan Skarsgård is memorable if unsubtle; and Ben Affleck is a noticeably weak link.

In fact, Affleck’s character seems entirely superfluous. I recognise the narrative and thematic purpose of Will’s group of friends (or “retarded gorillas”, as they’re labelled at one point), but really, there’s no reason at all for their ringleader to be played by Affleck. He brings nothing to the role beyond a retrospective “hey look, it’s Ben Affleck!”, and the sense that he only got it because he co-wrote the script with Damon. At least his brother Casey is interesting to watch as another of the gorillas (though that may be more to do with my appreciation for Casey’s later work), especially knowing that he apparently improvised quite a few of his lines.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the script, which scored Damon and Affleck Oscars. As far as entries into Hollywood go, their’s was pretty remarkable, moreso when considering the heights they would both go on to reach.

Van Sant’s direction is relatively straightforward, letting the actors do their work and thankfully avoiding stylistic flourishes that might have distracted from or undercut the story. Even when the film loses steam, there’s enough momentum to carry through to the end. Somehow, despite the fake-sounding Boston accents and the familiar nature of many of the key moments and conflicts, it never quite tips over into cliché-ridden or saccharine tosh. Elements such as the liberal sprinkling of Smith tunes – which fit well with the mood of the piece and add an air of melancholy and maturity – are especially helpful in this regard.

Reading this review, my score of 7.5 might seem a touch low, given all the praise. It’s not a perfect film; in fact, I’d hesitate to even call it great. However, it’s iconic, has much to like, and serves as a wonderful showcase for Williams’ non-comedic acting chops. For those reasons, I can wholeheartedly recommend it, especially for fans of Williams or anyone who either hasn’t seen it or hasn’t seen it since its original release.

Review: On Golden Pond

Director: Mark Rydell
Year: 1981
Score: 7/10

Both Fonda and Hepburn died during filming, and their corpses were used in scenes that still needed to be shot. Pretty disrespectful, I thought.

Both Fonda and Hepburn died during filming, and their corpses were used in scenes that still needed to be shot. Pretty disrespectful, I thought.

Tender if saccharine drama about an elderly man, his troubled relationship with his daughter, and the time he spends fishing on Golden Pond (a lake) with her boyfriend’s teenage son.

Henry Fonda won an Oscar for his solid lead performance, and died soon thereafter. Katharine Hepburn also won one – her fourth Best Actress Oscar, a record unlikely to ever be equalled – for playing his wife, though reportedly it was widely regarded as a sentimental win rather than necessarily being deserved for this particular performance. In my view both are good enough to deserve their wins, though Hepburn is really in more of a supporting role than a lead one. The relationship between their characters is the film’s strongest and most moving facet.

On the other hand, the relationship between Fonda’s character and his daughter – played with mixed results by his real-life daughter Jane – doesn’t quite click, though from a narrative perspective it’s supposed to be the main event. Dabney Coleman is amusing in a supporting role. The stuff with the loons is a tad heavy-handed, contributing to the sense of over-sentimentality.

Still probably worth watching for the performances, the warm humour, and the bits that succeed on an emotional level, of which there are quite a few. After all, there really aren’t enough good movies about old age.

Review: The Color Purple

Director: Steven Spielberg
Year: 1985
Score: 8/10

Ye olde porn.

Ye olde porn.

Moving tale of hardship and redemption in the Deep South, directed by Steven Spielberg but unlike anything he had made before it. There are some wonderful performances, most notably from Whoopi Goldberg in her film debut, future cult leader Oprah Winfrey, and Margaret Avery; all three received Oscar nominations but none won. There’s also a strong sense of the time and place, and a feeling throughout that these characters and their communities are grounded in reality. It’s hard to make it through the ending without shedding a tear or two (in my case, around about the same time I arrived at work… helpful!). I do have a few gripes, of course: the time jumps tend to be somewhat jarring; there’s some exaggerated slapstick humour that doesn’t gel well with the serious drama elsewhere (you can tell that Spielberg just can’t help himself!); and Danny Glover’s character is too bastardly for too long, with a comeuppance that isn’t satisfying enough.

Review: The Crossing Guard

Director: Sean Penn
Year: 1995
Score: 4.5/10

Wow, Kristen Wiig was not looking good back in 1995.

Wow, Kristen Wiig was not looking good back in 1995.

Misguided, fruitless, angst-filled tale about redemption, forgiveness and guilt. My least favourite film from Sean Penn (as of 2013), though I still count myself amongst his fans. Jack Nicholson is solid in the lead role, and he’s given a few emotional moments in which to really shine, but his character’s struggle is neither engaging nor moving. David Morse is fine too, though he was better in The Indian Runner. Oddly it was Angelica Huston who received award nominations; to be honest I found her a touch wooden. There are occasional effective scenes but overall it doesn’t come together dramatically or narratively, and it’s extremely heavy-handed at times. The music is also pretty bad, especially the pieces featuring saxophone. Skip it; if you want a Sean Penn movie worth watching, stick to The Indian Runner or Into the Wild.

Review: The Indian Runner

Director: Sean Penn
Year: 1991
Score: 8.5/10

Aragorn is tempted by the One Ring.

Aragorn is tempted by the One Ring.

Sean Penn’s debut as writer and director is a sensitive, meditative drama anchored by strong performances from David Morse and Viggo Mortensen as a pair of brothers. The interplay between them has such an authentic feel to it. Penn’s direction is dynamic, bringing a sense of heightened tension and drama to the somewhat depressing material. I believe this is the only film I’ve seen that’s based on a song: Bruce Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman, which I’ve now listened to and found quite beautiful and moving (particularly after watching the movie). Incidentally, the musical choices in the movie are excellent. A couple of odd aspects: Valeria Golino, who I always thought of as French (probably because of Hot Shots and Hot Shots: Part Deux) but who is actually Italian (and part Greek), plays a Mexican for some reason; and the kid who plays Morse and Golino’s little son is super cute but doesn’t seem to age despite the movie taking place over at least nine months. Look for a young Benicio Del Toro in a very minor role. Overall, I highly recommend this movie. It raises some interesting questions about goodness, commitment, obligation and the bonds of brotherhood, and leaves you pondering whether you’re a hero or an outlaw; strong or weak; and most importantly, a bear or a message.

Review: The Seventh Seal

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Year: 1957
Score: 7.5/10

Chess was the knight's idea. Death, who likes multiplayer Euros rather than 2-player abstract strategy games, would have preferred The Settlers of Catan, if for no other reason than that its original German title begins with the word 'die'.

Chess was the knight’s idea. Death, who likes multiplayer Euros rather than 2-player abstract strategy games, would have preferred The Settlers of Catan, if for no other reason than that its original German title begins with the word ‘die’.

Iconic Ingmar Bergman existential drama remains interesting if not wholly profound. Bergman uses the metaphor of a knight playing a game of chess against Death (who cheats, of course), and a medieval setting full of death and injustice and apocalyptic panic (or in some cases, nonchalance), to explore questions of the existence of God, his silence in the face of suffering, the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life, and the inevitability of death. Though I enjoyed much of the film, particularly the exploration of these questions and themes, I didn’t find it emotionally engaging; it didn’t move me, which is precisely what a movie with this premise and ambition should do. Still, there’s some excellent work from Max von Sydow (as the knight), Bengt Ekerot (as Death, a performance that continues to influence how personifications of Death are portrayed to this day) and Gunnar Björnstrand (as Jöns, the knight’s squire), some memorable images, and occasional flashes of solid black humour.

Review: Million Dollar Baby

Director: Clint Eastwood
Year: 2004
Score: 7/10

Seems like a pretty silly idea to label this so transparently... surely the Brits would raid it?

Seems like a pretty silly idea to label this so transparently… surely the Brits would raid it?

Generally speaking I’ve not been a huge fan of the movies Clint Eastwood has directed; I tend to appreciate the craft of them but find them heavy-handed or dramatically unsatisfying. For the first 90 minutes of this one I thought it was turning out to be a rare exception, but then the final half hour happened and I must now add it to the pile. Hilary Swank and Eastwood himself are excellent, Morgan Freeman slightly less so (though it may be that I’m simply tired of over-used and oft-ridiculed Freeman narration). It’s so difficult to talk about (and in my case criticise) that final half hour without spoiling anything, but here goes: to the extent that it told us anything about the relationship between Maggie and Frankie, it was unnecessary since by that point we already knew that he cared about her deeply, thought of her as a surrogate daughter, and would always stick by her, and that she had nothing in her life but boxing and him. And to be honest, I was enjoying the story a lot more before the Thing I Shan’t Spoil happened. There is some of that trademark Eastwood heavy-handedness too, such as Maggie’s story about her father having to put a dog down, and some themes expressed far too unsubtly in narration. Side note: horrible though the characters are, it’s great to see Riki Lindhome and the great Margo Martindale as Maggie’s sister and mother.

Review: Boys Don’t Cry

Director: Kimberly Peirce
Year: 1999
Score: 8/10

Ah, bad karaoke: responsible for almost 80% of tragic romances.

Ah, bad karaoke: responsible for almost 80% of tragic romances.

Harrowing tale of a trans man and his relationship with a girl from backwater Nebraska. I didn’t realise it was based on a true story until the very end, which made that crushing ending all the more powerful. Several scenes, particularly in the final half hour, are very difficult to watch, but that’s kind of the point. Beyond the compelling and upsetting nature of the real-life story, two aspects really make this stand out: the first is Hilary Swank’s remarkable (and deservedly Oscar-winning) performance as Brandon; the second is the decision to use the love story as the film’s dramatic centre, which gives us something positive and hopeful to focus on within all the tragedy. The cinematography is also quite good, as are some of the supporting performances. If there’s a moral to be drawn from this, it’s the fairly obvious one that ignorant drunk rednecks and transgender people don’t mix well.

Guest Review: World Trade Center

Director: Oliver Stone
Year: 2006
Score: 4.5/10
Reviewer: Drew Pontikis

Note: this film was previously reviewed by Movies and Bacon, and given a more generous score of 7.5/10, here.

Get used to this expression, it's the only one you'll see during the whole film.

Get used to this expression, it’s the only one you’ll see during the whole film.

This film makes me angry, and I’ll tell you why: it’s ruined by an absolutely appalling performance from Nicolas Cage. Leaving aside that even on a good day Cage would be outperformed by a scotch egg, Oliver Stone has taken a deeply personal story that is inextricably intertwined in a horrific national tragedy and dumped a massive overacting turd in the middle of it.

The film is actually quite original; following the story of the men trapped beneath the collapsing/collapsed Trade Center towers is a clever angle on an event the world has replayed hundreds of times. The confusion that surrounded NYPD as the news broke heightens the tension, the sense of frightening bewilderment at the sound of the jumpers is disturbing, and the scene where the towers come down viewed from the inside is epic. This makes it all the more frustrating when a moustachioed Cage clomps heavy-handedly all over his character, never once letting you immerse in the plot or ever get beyond ‘oh look, it’s Nicolas Cage doing a really bad job of acting’. His performance is similar to the one given in Kick-Ass, just to give you an idea of scale.

The events of 9/11 evoke many different emotions and reactions in a person’s soul and many will be drawn to this movie, as I was. Some will come for morbid curiosity, some will come looking for a story of humanity triumphing over tragedy, and some will come just to hear a new account on one of the darkest days in history. Sadly, whatever you come looking for, you’re unlikely to find it. And that’s the real tragedy being played out here; you don’t see the wonderful heartening true story of the men involved, all you see is frustration and the overwhelming desire for it just to be over.

Drew Pontikis is an avid gamer and film fanatic. A fan of racing sims, first person shooters and horror films, Drew is notable for talking almost exclusively using Futurama quotes. Follow him on Twitter as @drew060609 or read his game reviews at http://obscenegaming.wordpress.com.