What is an ensemble cast? How many actors constitute one? There aren’t any guidelines that determine what qualifies as a true ensemble, but if anyone can offer some insight it would be Woody Allen, who has been getting great groups of actors together for decades now. From Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters to Melinda and Melinda and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, he’s always had a keen eye for casting and the stars continue to line up to work with the iconic auteur.
With the home entertainment release of his latest, fore mentioned film at hand, I thought it’d be apt to honor some of the coolest ensemble casts ever assembled. Keep in mind: this isn’t a list of the best films featuring an ensemble cast. It’s about the best rosters of talent roped in for a single production.
This under-appreciated Tony Scott action spectacle was polarizing to audiences because of its ultra-violent approach, particularly toward women. But Patricia Arquette proved herself to be one tough chick, able to take a beating a give it back in equal measure. Together with her beau-to-be Christian Slater, she embarks on an odyssey to free herself from pimp Gary Oldman and, later, his criminal overlord Christopher Walken, all while L.A. detectives Tom Sizemore and Chris Penn are hot on the trail of drugs and blood. With bonus appearances by Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Michael Rapaport and more, True Romance is a twisted web of cameos and special roles filled by some of the coolest actors of the time.
The Thin Red Line
WWII films have a long history of stellar casts comprised of legions of screen legends. This 1998 genre entry continues that grand tradition with enough A-listers to make five separate movies. George Clooney, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Adrien Brody, Miranda Otto, John Cusack, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, Nick Stahl, Elias Koteas and Jim Caviezel all appear in the prestigious picture at one point or another – a logistic achievement in and of itself.
This sweet rom-com gets me every time. Not just because of the cheerful dialogue and warm and fuzzy relationships, but also because of the charming cast of characters played by Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, Keira Knightley, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, January Jones, Elisha Cuthbert, Rodrigo Santoro, Shannon Elizabeth, Andrew Lincoln, Denise Richards and the adorable Thomas Sangster. Together, there are around eight revolving, relatable romances in the film, but we wouldn’t have cared about any of them if not for the lovable cast.
In telling this sprawling tale about the intersecting lives of a handful of Angelenos, director Paul Haggis needed an international cast to represent the diverse population of the City of Angels. He got it with Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Esposito, Shaun Toub, Daniel Dae Kim, Matt Dillon, Loretta Devine, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Keith David, Ryan Phillippe, Michael Pena, Tony Danza and Thandie Newton. Though Dillon was the only actor recognized by the Academy at awards time, the triumph of the film belongs to its eclectic cast.
The Magnificent Seven
Akira Kurasawa’s epic Seven Samurai was practically begging for a Hollywood adaptation when it was released in 1954. By 1960, director John Sturges had made it a reality with a pack of screen idols including the dashing Yul Brynner, the inimitable Eli Wallach, the ultra-cool Steve McQueen, the bad-ass Charles Bronson, the slick Robert Vaughn, the cool James Coburn and the “newbie” Horst Buchholz. The septuplet of stars had a great deal of chemistry that made their on-screen antics all the more enjoyable to watch, and fifty years later their work on this classic film has become the stuff of movie mythology.
The star power packed into these popular motion pictures is astonishing. With Hollywood heavyweights like George Clooney, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt leading an army of talent - young and old - including Don Cheadle, Scott Caan, Bernie Mac, Andy Garcia, Carl Reiner, Eddie Jemison, Elliot Gould, Casey Affleck and Julia Roberts, there's no shortage of charisma throughout the film. You may be wondering why I chose Oceans Twelve over the 2001 remake of the 1960 original; it's because this hit heist pic also features the likes of Catherine Zeta-Jones, Albert Finney, Robbie Coltrane, Jared Harris, Vincent Cassel and Bruce Willis in appearances big and small. Not too shabby for a sequel...
Forget the awful 2008 remake. I implore you to give the original a chance. It’s a virtual who’s who of top Hollywood talent of the era. The premise is simple by today’s standards, but in 1939 its empowering themes were ahead of its time. Some of best actresses to ever grace the silver screen, including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Lucile Watson and Marjorie Main delivered the message. All of the above are Oscar winners or nominees, making this cast of female performers one of the most celebrated of all time.
I’m not sure if Francis Ford Coppola knew what he was onto when he picked his rag-tag group of actors for this kick-ass 1983 film. After all, most of the actors were relatively unknown and untested at the time (save for C. Thomas Howell, who had just starred in Steven Spielberg's E.T.), but that quickly changed in the years following its release. Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane and Tom Cruise all appeared in the acclaimed teen drama, leaving behind one hell of a legacy.
If there’s one thing about film festivals that I enjoy most it’s the opportunity to watch actors accustomed to lavish sets personal trailers and assistants work in a more practical environment and with decidedly more dangerous material. Thanks to the wonderful programmers at the annual Tribeca Film Festival I got to see Matthew Broderick and Brittany Snow get delightfully debaucherous in 2008’s riotous Finding Amanda and Chris Klein and Elijah Wood question their patriotism in the 2007 existential drama Day Zero taking risks and showing audiences sides of themselves that Hollywood rarely allows.
This year there’s no shortage of name recognition on the TFF schedule. I was particularly excited to see J. Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed primarily because of its cast of bankable performers but also because of its intriguing -- if familiar -- premise about a pair of ex-cons who kidnap a rich man’s daughter only to get entangled in a web of lies and double-crosses before they can cash out.
Unfortunately I re-learned the hard way that you cannot judge a book by it’s cover. Mr. Blakeson was incredibly lucky to catch Gemma Arterton (Clash Of The Titans Prince of Persia: The Sand Of Time) and Eddie Marsan (Hancock Sherlock Holmes) in between super-sized productions because without performers of their caliber inhabiting two of the three roles in the film it would’ve completely crumbled as a result of his formulaic and predictable screenplay. It’s not the dialogue that ruins the movie; it’s the forced twists thrown into the narrative that unearth more weaknesses than revelations.
The film begins with a procedural look at Vic (Marsan) and Danny (played with tense insecurity by Martin Compston) as they prepare for the coming kidnapping meticulously sorting out every detail in cold silence. Blakeson leaves the actual abduction of Alice (the stunning Arterton) to the imagination probably because the cruelty and horrific nature of the events that follow are traumatic enough to his audience. As we learn more about Vic’s all-too-common plan the aforementioned twists begin to unfurl handicapping the suspense by making this heightened cinematic situation a victim of plausible but cheap coincidences. From this point on The Disappearance of Alice Creed becomes a rather conventional crime thriller; I guessed my way from scene to scene all the way through the end credits.
The film’s victims in fact are its most endearing aspect. Though Alice’s broken relationship with her wealthy father serves as the catalyst for Vic an Danny’s actions don’t assume that she’s just another rich damsel in distress. Arterton gives the character resourcefulness and an inner strength that should be noted by aspiring young actresses. The 24-year-old Brit is a fearless performer who despite her blockbuster status shows that she isn’t afraid to get gritty in the harshest of scenarios. With her facial features and body language she conveys the primal terror that Alice experiences with total sincerity. Even more impressive is Marsan who is frighteningly fierce as the brains and brawn of an operation that he hopes will provide him enough cash to start a new life. The stakes are high and he never loses sight of the finish line or breaks from his character’s terrifying persona even in the face of deceit and defeat.
Though the film’s sharp cinematography and coarse production design will keep you visually engaged The Disappearance of Alice Creed falls short as a casualty of cliché. It borrows generously from other works within the genre be it Ron Howard’s Ransom or Rob Reiner’s Misery and sadly doesn’t give anything in return making for an awfully average and prescribed moviegoing experience.
Richard Riddick (Vin Diesel) has a really bad rep and with good reason: Five years ago convicted killer Riddick escaped the galaxy's law enforcement during a botched interplanetary prison transfer and has been on the lam ever since. As The Chronicles of Riddick picks up our antagonist finds his relative freedom has been compromised when mercenaries out for the $1 million bounty on his head discover his location and hunt him down. Riddick escapes their clutches steals their ship and sets off for Planet Helion to find Imam (Keith David) the Muslim cleric he rescued in Pitch Black and the only person who could have squealed his location to authorities. But while Riddick's hunch about Imam are correct the cleric has a reason for luring the mammoth murderer out of hiding: Helion is falling to unholy armies of Necromongers--warriors who conquer by force in the vein of Star Trek's Borg. Of course Riddick doesn't give a damn about the Helions or their plight--until he gets wind that the Necromogers want to kill him because of an old prophecy that foresees their end at Riddick's hands. Like it or not Riddick is left with no other choice but to battle the Necromongers.
The character of Riddick is unquestionably what made Pitch Black one of the most sequel-worthy sci-fi films in years. And Riddick would not have been one of sci-fi's most intoxicating characters if it weren't for Diesel. Like his Dominic Toretto in the 2001 actioner The Fast and the Furious Riddick is a villain of few words but when he speaks his carefully chosen words have impact--even if the dialogue is at times overly theatrical. Riddick is the perfect antihero; a cold-blooded and indifferent being who somehow evokes more compassion than the film's so-called good guys. Joining Riddick are some recurring characters including David as Imam but Riddick benefits the most from the addition of some new characters particularly Colm Feore as Lord Marshal the Necromonger leader whose goal is to rid the universe of all human life. Feore channeling nuggets of Julius Caesar into his role makes for one of Riddick's most thrilling foes. Another prominent addition to the cast is Judi Dench who has a surprisingly small role as Aereon an Elemental captured by the Necromongers and used for her special powers including ESP.
Writer/director David Twohy took his horror pic Pitch Black which gained a cult following since it was released four years ago and managed to successfully turn it into an sci-fi actioner of epic proportions. Everything is grander here which is almost a given considering Twohy shot Pitch Black on a dime in Australia using colored filters. In Riddick the director distinguishes the film's different environments--the Necros' mothership Crematoria's cavernous prison and Helion--using warm to cool tones that are dazzling yet more subtle than its predecessor. The CGI effects get a little gamey at times but production designer Holger Gross' gargantuan sets are impressive and help craft Twohy's otherworldly vision into a plausible one. And although Twohy jumps genres from Pitch Black to its sequel his storyline evolves logically from the original premise. But while moviegoers unfamiliar with Pitch Black will be able to follow the story easily enough they may have a difficult time grasping what makes Riddick such a big deal; the film explains the legend but never fully captures its quintessence. This could hurt Riddick's chances to broaden its Pitch Black fan base.
In a lighthearted riff on Homer's epic poem set in the Depression-era South verbose
charmer Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney) and two dimwitted cronies (John
Turturro Tim Blake Nelson) break free from a Mississippi chain gang only to face
a long series of trials including a trio of seductive laundry-washing sirens
and a fearsome one-eyed Bible salesman (Homer's Cyclops of course creepily portrayed
by John Goodman). Unlike the original Ulysses Everett also must contend with
pursuing cops Southern-friend politicians and the KKK if he is to prevent his
less-than-faithful former wife (Holly Hunter) from marrying a rival suitor.
Leading goofs Clooney Turturro and Nelson gamely get into the Three
Stooges-ish tone of the piece with Clooney in particular delivering a
winking self-mocking turn that must be his broadest screen performance to
date. Nelson ("The Thin Red Line") is also a riot as a mild-mannered yokel
for whom every slow-moving thought requires visible effort. Disappointingly
Coen veterans Goodman Hunter and Charles Durning have less to sink their
teeth into than in previous outings with the brothers.
Writer-director Joel and writer-producer Ethan Coen rack up yet another enjoyable
romp featuring all of their signature elements - playfully stylized camerawork
offbeat music colorful characters distanced by dripping irony. Evoking the road
comedies of the '30s and '40s this easygoing comic adventure has an old-fashioned
flavor and (for a Coen picture at least) a relative lack of graphic violence
that links it to the brothers' underrated 1994 Frank Capra homage "The Hudsucker
Proxy." Amusing as it is however "Brother" rarely achieves the same hilarious
heights as previous Coen laughers such as "Raising Arizona" and "The Big Lebowski."