Every now and then you get a movie with a cast that’s out of this world, and yet the movie itself doesn’t get much buzz. This raises two questions: one, why did so many big stars attach themselves to this project, and two, why didn’t the movie get more buzz? Triple 9 is one such movie.
The answer to the first question is probably director John Hillcoat, the master Aussie filmmaker who gave us The Proposition, The Road, and most recently Lawless. Although a bunch of actors such as Shia La Beouf, Charlie Hunnam, Cate Blanchett and Christoph Waltz dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, Triple 9 still ended up with a ridiculous ensemble cast featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelslon, Aaron Paul, Gal Gadot, Norman Reedus and Teresa Palmer.
The answer to the second question is that the film, while finely made, doesn’t quite live up to the cast. It’s barely made back its US$20 million budget on paper (which means a loss in real terms), and that’s because it got neither much advertising nor hype through word of mouth.
Set in the summer heat of Atlanta, Georgia, Triple 9 is a fairly standard crime thriller/drama about a bunch of crooks and corrupt police officers who pull off a heist. Things start to unravel when the crime boss they work for, played by Kate Winslet in an uneven Russian accent, forces them into one final job, while a newly transferred police officer (Casey Affleck) starts to suspect there might be more to things than meets the eye.
In typical Hillcoat style, Triple 9 is bleak, uncompromising and gritty. There’s brutal violence and scary depictions of gang life and police corruption. It’s intense stuff, but really, it’s also nothing we haven’t seen before — and arguably done better — in films like The Town, End of Watch, Training Day and so forth.
I don’t think it’s really Hillcoat’s fault — the issue is the unspectacular script by Matt Cook, which offers nothing truly fresh or intriguing. There aren’t many twists and turns, and the only surprises are from seeing all these big-name actors dying one by one in matter-of-fact fashion. But on the other hand, all these deaths mean there’s no real central protagonist. We know who the good guys and bad guys are, but we don’t really get a chance to genuinely care about any of them. Casey Affleck is supposed to be that guy, but he splits so much screen time with the rest of the cast that you never get the sense that he’s the lead.
On the whole, Triple 9 is a solid crime film due to Hillcoat’s skills and bolstered by a brilliant cast and strong performances all round. However, the boilerplate storyline — that does nothing to differentiate itself from other thrillers in the genre –severely limits how good the movie can be. It’s more of a good rental than a film you feel like you need to see at the cinema.
I must reassess my judgment that Jobs, the Steve Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher released earlier in the year, isn’t very good because it only covers a small segment of the Apple founder’s life. Now I am convinced that it’s not very good because, well, it simply isn’t.
The reason? I recently watched Steve Jobs, the second Steve Jobs biopic of 2015, and the one that actually took its time to develop into something worthwhile. Strangely, it’s an anti-biopic of sorts, choosing to eschew conventional storytelling in favour of behind-the-scenes looks at three separate Apple product launches that are presented virtually in real time, with a few snippets of flashbacks, news footage and other footage to fill in the gaps.
I was initially not a fan of the idea, thinking it might come across as gimmicky and failing to present a complete picture. But as it turns out, they totally nailed it, delivering a powerful, dramatic and insightful film that captures one of the most iconic innovators of this generation better than I could have ever expected. It’s proof that unconventional approaches can work if the right people are involved and it’s executed the right way.
Credit should be shared across the board, starting with director Danny Boyle (who won the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire in 2008) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. This was a difficult project for a myriad of reasons, the first of which being that Boyle wasn’t even supposed to be directing in the first place. Sorkin had originally written the script with David Fincher in mind, aiming to emulate the success of their previous collaboration, The Social Network. But then Fincher dropped out due to contractual reasons, and Boyle took over a project that was already in mid-flight and custom built for someone else. The actor playing Jobs was supposed to be Christian Bale, and then Leo DiCaprio, and then Bale again, but eventually they settled on Michael Fassbender, whose casting raised eyebrows due to the complete lack of physical resemblance.
And yet, Boyle was able to steer the ship around in the right direction, executing Sorkin’s tightly-wound, threatre-style screenplay into an intense and captivating drama. There are shades of The Social Network in Steve Jobs as both films portray unlikable geniuses who go on to accomplish amazing things, though Boyle adds his lighter touch to the tone and aesthetics so that it doesn’t feel quite as dark.
And Sorkin, of course, did a fantastic job with the script. When I first head that it was going to be “based on” the definitive biography written by Walter Isaacson — one of the most comprehensive and detailed biographies I’ve read — I thought the film was going to be a chronological, step-by-step telling of Jobs’ life story. Instead, what Sorkin did was just take the product launches and a bunch of characters, some personal details and the interactions between them, and essentially craft a brand new story of his own. It’s highlighted by Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire dialogue and his unique brand of high-voltage conversational conflicts, but at the same time he’s paying careful attention to the transformation of the characters over the years while staying true to the core facts.
The focus and common thread running through the narrative is Jobs’ relationship with Lisa, the daughter he vehemently denied for most of the early years of her life. This relationship is the “pulse” of the film, and from memory Sorkin gets the father-daughter dynamic — at least as it feels in Isaacson’s book — right on the button.
Sorkin’s best work usually comes when he’s confined by a set of parameters (like for this film and The Social Network), as opposed to when he’s given unfettered authority over the material (like for The Newsroom). It’s a minor travesty that Sorkin wasn’t nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the upcoming Academy Awards because there’s no one else on the planet who could have written a masterful script like this.
The performances also play a huge part. Assbender has bent asses before, but never quite like this. Yes, you worry about the lack of physical similarities between him and Steve Jobs, but he is so utterly brilliant in this role that you essentially forget about it by the end of the film. He embodied Jobs — or at least Sorkin’s version of him — so completely that he makes the character his own, so much so that he actually begins to physically resemble Jobs more by the film’s final act. There is no comparison between Assbender’s performance and that of Ashton Kutcher, who may have looked more like Jobs than his counterpart but was ultimately doing an impersonation.
The two main supporting roles — Kate Winslet as marketing exec and confidant Joanna Hoffman, and Jeff Daniels as former Apple CEO and mentor John Sculley — are also worthy of praise. Winslet, ever the chameleon, instantly makes Hoffman the most likeable character in the entire film, not just because she’s one of the only people who sees Jobs for who he is and dares to stand up to him, but also because she makes Jobs more human by accentuating both both his flaws and virtues. Winslet also does a cracking accent too, and her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress is well deserved.
Daniels, on the other hand, gets to handle some of the most explosive dialogue in the film as Sculley, the man forever blamed for ousting Jobs from Apple back in the 1990s. He’s solid as usual, though my guess is that Academy voters overlooked him because he comes across as too similar in feel to Will McAvoy, his character in The Newsroom.
Other quality actors fill up the cast, including Inherent Vice‘s Katherine Waterston, A Serious Man‘s Michael Stuhlbarg and rising Aussie star Sarah Snook. The one that stands out, however, is Seth Rogen as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Frankly, I never thought Rogen could play anyone other than a stoner, and it’s kinda weird — but very welcoming — that he holds his own against Assbender.
The problems I have with Steve Jobs are simple. First of all, despite my praise for Sorkin’s masterful screenwriting, the film is still limited in scope. As well as he did in presenting us with a layered picture of Jobs, we’re still only getting three product launches, and they’re likely not be the ones that you envisaged. I wanted more, perhaps in the form of an additional launch or extended flashbacks, but with a hefty 122-minute running time already the film risked becoming too much to swallow.
Secondly, it’s hard to accept the film as a biopic when most, if not all, the scenes and conversations are merely figments of Sorkin’s imagination. It’s more or less historical fiction, and as such, you can only consider it a piece of entertainment as opposed to any kind of legitimate portrayal of Jobs’ legacy. It’s similar to Sorkin’s version of Zuckerberg in The Social Network, except even more fictionalised. Apparently there are those who say Sorkin, Boyle and Assbender got Jobs completely wrong, while there are others who say the unflattering depiction of Jobs is actually going easy on him. It’s not a criticism per se, though it is weird that a movie called Steve Jobs doesn’t accurately portray the man, especially when it is promoted as being based on the only authorised biography of the subject.
Steve Jobs is ultimately a work of fiction featuring the names of real people, but boy is it a wonderful work of fiction. To be able to capture the essence of such a remarkably successful and complex man in a two-hour movie across three real-time set pieces — irrespective of how it compares to the real-life version — is an astonishing feat in itself. Limitations aside, it’s a superbly directed, written and performed drama that also happens to be entertaining and inspirational.
Let’s just be upfront about this. The Divergent series is to the Hunger Games what Percy Jackson is to Harry Potter. It’ll always be the less attractive, less appealing, shittier cousin.
It might be unfair to Shailene Woodley, who might be every bit as capable as Jennifer Lawrence in playing a strong, albeit unwilling action hero, though it remains unavoidable that the two franchises will always be compared to each other.
And accordingly, Insurgent compares unfavourably to Catching Fire as the second instalment of a post-apocalyptic teen franchise. It’s not badly made, but if you didn’t enjoy the first film all that much — put me in that category — then it’s unlikely this one will change your mind about the series.
One thing the film does well is in reminding us of the story, or explaining it to newcomers, using a short voiceover that more or less summarises the premise — ie, the future world, following an extinction event of sorts, splits humans into specific groups because it helps maintain peace. Everyone is put into either Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), or Erudite (the intelligent), or they are Factionless and ostracised from the community.
Woodley plays Tris, a teenage girl who happens to be Divergent, meaning she has elements of multiple groups and therefore can’t be squeezed into any. Big deal, right? Well apparently, yes, because evildoers led by Kate Winslet want to hunt her down and kill her.
All this is explained efficiently at the beginning so there’s not a lot of confusion. From there, Tris, her loverboy (Theo James), brother (Ansel Elgort, incidentally her loverboy from The Fault in Our Stars and Mr Fantastic (Miles Teller) find themselves on the run and scheming to defeat Winslet and her goons.
They meet people like Octavia Spencer and discover that James’s mother is Naomi Watts, but the whole focus of the film is about a secret box that came out of nowhere but is supposed to hold some really important info. And guess who is the only person that can open it? Yeah, you guessed it. There’s more of those virtual reality trials they had from the first film, and you can pretty much guess what happens in the end.
The problem I had with Divergent was that I couldn’t buy the concept of a society where everyone can be categorised by a single trait. With Insurgent, it’s more about not buying this whole “box” business. It seems like something conjured up to help create a point for the story to continue, and it makes the narrative predictable and cliched.
I don’t want to make it sound like Insurgent is a bad movie, because it’s not. It’s decently made with enough passion and quality performances from quality actors. But for me it was just such a “meh”‘experience. I was only mildly interested and entertained, and frankly, it just didn’t do much for me at all. I have doubts the next part in the series, Allegiant, annoyingly split into two parts as well, will be able to change that.
I’m still washing my hands at least 20 times a day after watching Contagion last week.
This medical thriller directed by Steven Soderbergh plays out like a horror movie because of how possible it might just become reality some day. The film begins on day two of a new, highly infectious and deadly disease outbreak and follows several key characters from different walks of life as they fight for survival — of their own lives and that of the human race.
Soderbergh is known for his amazing ensemble casts, and Contagion is no different. No single actor or actress dominates, but there is enough screen time in this 106 minute film to fit in significant roles for the likes of Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes (remember him from Winter’s Bone), amongst others, including my new favourite actor, Bryan Cranston (I’ve recently become addicted to the sickeningly great Breaking Bad — and it took me almost a full season to realise that he’s Tim Whatley from Seinfeld!). Ensemble casts are ordinarily troublesome but every actor in this film played their part perfectly and without trying to steal the show, resulting in an awesome experience where you are constantly watching an A-lister without feeling overwhelmed by the fact.
There have been several ‘outbreak’ films in the past (Outbreak being one of them), but Contagion surely has to be one of the better ones, and certainly one more the most realistic. It looks at how different people deal with the news of the infections, how the government tries to pinpoint the source of the outbreak, how it seeks to contain it, and how certain people may try to profit out of it — on an international scale.
Soderbergh controls the film at a deliberate pace — fast enough to not get bored but considerate enough to allow the audience to appreciate the magnitude of the events. Contagion tackles numerous themes and gives viewers plenty to think about if, god forbid, this film became reality — loss of social order, public vs personal interests, wealthy countries vs poor countries, and the systems governments have in place to deal with and control sudden mass deaths and mass hysteria. It’s actually all quite fascinating. And yet, despite these potentially heavy themes, the film is rarely bogged down and manages to keep the focus on the characters.
As an ensemble cast film, Contagion obviously struggles to provide the deeper emotional impact some top-notch single protagonist films can, but I think overall it was done well enough to provide an entertaining and thought-provoking viewing experience.
I’ve done it. I finally managed to watch all the Oscar/Golden Globe nominated films I could possibly get to before the Oscar ceremony on Sunday!
Here’s the third instalment of my short Flixter film reviews and possibly the best of the lot! The first instalment can be found here(Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler, The Reader, Vicki Cristina Barcelona, In Bruges, Pineapple Express, Burn After Reading, Tropic Thunder, Changeling, Mamma Mia, The Dark Knight and Kung Fu Panda) and the second here (WALL-E and Gran Torino).
Again, ratings are out of 5 stars.
Rachel Getting Married (3.5 stars)
Years of suppressed family emotions explode around a family wedding. Well-written script with some clever dialogue and witty interactions, even though this type of drama would not be everyone’s cup of tea. A remarkable performance by Anne Hathway (I didn’t know she could act this well) and a solid supporting cast. Not all of it worked but enough of it did.
Doubt (3.5 stars)
Extraordinary performances all round (Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman as always, but Amy Adams really stole the show as the doubting nun), but it was an obvious play adaptation with lots and lots of talking. The characters were extremely well defined, though I couldn’t help but feel there was a certain clunkiness in the way things panned out. Not to take away too much from this film because it tackles many of the themes very cleverly through subtle actions and explosive dialogue. Doubt is indeed an apt title for this film.
Milk (4 stars)
True story about the first openly gay public official in America. Pretty incredible movie and a ridiculously superb performance by Sean Penn. It was entertaining, informative, frightening and enlightening all at the same time. Hard to believe it was only 30 years ago that this happened in our world. I particularly liked the ending where they showed the real life counterparts of the actors.
Revolutionary Road (4 stars)
It’s hard to know where to begin with a movie that explores the essence of life, love, marriage, children, work, dreams, hopes and reality. It is so rare to see such a brutal, honest, emotional portrayal of suburban and married life, no matter what era. Granted, some people won’t get it for one reason or another, but those that do will find a story that will resonate with them for a long time. All performances are outstanding – I know Kate Winslet has gotten all the attention for this role and The Reader, but Leonardo DiCaprio is really her equal in this film, and it’s a shame he didn’t get the same recognition. Michael Shannon was also brilliant and stole every scene he was in.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (4.5 stars)
A strange premise but an ultimately rewarding film. The make up and special effects are the best I’ve ever seen, both the ageing and the de-ageing stuff is just phenomenal. The film works not really as a running narrative but rather as a series of moments, like its tagline. I found it very captivating to go through the journey of life with this bizarre character, through his ups and downs, flaws and all. There are some minor problems and it is a tad too long, plus Brad Pitt wasn’t truly able to capture the nuances of the ageing process (he acted like the way he looked rather than the age he was) – however, I think when it’s all said and done this is one of the more memorable movies in recent years.
* * *
NB: Just a few words about my rating and review system. First and foremost, they are taken directly from Flixter, so are always short. I don’t like to discuss too much plot in my reviews because I think it ruins a movie. Which is why (even though I can’t help but watch them) I generally dislike previews because they tend to give away too much by revealing the best bits and almost always contain spoilers. I also hate long reviews that reveal too much plot (this happens a lot these days in reviews I read) – what’s the point of telling everyone what the entire film is about? With my ratings, they are out of 5 and are entirely subjective, always decided on the spot based on gut instinct after viewing. I never re-adjust a rating afterward and I don’t compare them to previous ratings – hence two films can have the same rating but I may think one is better than the other. Also, I tend to find there is a significant difference between 2.5 stars (below average) and 3 stars (good) and 3.5 stars (pretty good) and 4 stars (excellent), more so than other half-star differences.
Lastly, the only 5 star film reviewed in these 3 posts is The Wrestler, which I think is the best film I’ve seen so far this year. For the Best Picture Oscar nominees, The Reader and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button are tied with 4.5 stars, but I think the latter is the film I prefer. Though it is a moot point anyway since Slumdog Millionaire is going to win!