Tag Archives: Woody Harrelson

Triple 9 (2016)

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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.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014)

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If I’m going to be honest then I might as well say it: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is a well-executed disappointment.

I had expected this to be the case when I heard that they were, like every other successful major book franchise these days, splitting the final book of the series into two films. This lit up alarm bells in my mind straight away, because having read the books, I already knew that  Mockingjay had the least amount of action and “wow factor” of the trilogy. It may have barely worked for Harry Potter and Twilight, but the final books of those series are nearly double the length of Mockingjay. 

The story picks up when Catching Fire left off: after destroying the Quarter Quell Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is rescued by the mysterious District 13 while her games partner, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), remains a captive of the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). With no more excuses to toss her back into the arena, this time the film is all about surviving on the outside and being groomed by District 13 president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) into the “Mockingjay”, the symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol.

Consequently, Mockingjay  is a very different film compared to the other two. It’s darker and arguably even more intense because there’s a lot more death and destruction and the stakes are no longer just confined to the artificial world of the Hunger Games. The fate of Katniss, all the people she cares about, and even the entire world, lies in her unwilling teenage hands. Rather then making observations about the world of reality television, Mockingjay  explores political propaganda and the sacrifices of rebellion and consequences of war. It’s heavy stuff, but for the most part these themes are handled effectively and delicately.

The decision to split the final book meant that director Francis Lawrence (who did Catching Fire) was forced to stretch about 390 pages of material over what I presume will be about 240-250 minutes. By comparison, the adaptation of Catching Fire was 391 pages into 146 minutes, while for The Hunger Games it was 374 pages into 142 minutes. The first two adaptations were taut and action-packed affairs that largely kept close to the book editions. On the other hand, even if you litter Mockingjay with some additions not from the book, it’s just technically impossible for the film to keep pace with its predecessors.

This is not to say the film is bad — far from it. The overall standard of the production is still very good, on par with its predecessors. Lawrence makes the most of what little action he has to play with, creating some marvellous set pieces filled with high intensity that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats. The additional running time also afforded more opportunities for contemplation and character development, taking the accumulated emotions from the two earlier films and building them up to the next level.

The performances are still top notch. Jennifer Lawrence may have had a tumultuous time recently, but in the Hunger Games world she’s as solid as ever. This was arguably the most difficult performance for her thus far because in this film she has to be a “bad actress” at times and a genuinely inspiring icon at others, and sometimes somewhere along that spectrum — and yet she manages to knock it out of the park. Josh Hutcherson doesn’t get to do nearly as much in this one, but the scenes he’s in are dynamite. Liam Hemsworth, on the other hand, is relatively wooden by comparison. Gale is one of those key characters who has a bit of a raw deal in this story because he’s never really central to the narrative, and Hemsworth doesn’t do much to elevate the character above that.

New additions like the ever-reliable Julianne Moore and Game of Thrones‘s Natalie Dormer are positives to the ensemble while also boosting star power, though for me the standout supporting performance still has to be the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose presence as former head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee makes you realise just how much of a loss his death is to the acting community. It was initially a little jarring to see him on screen, but he’s so good that after a while you just see him as the character rather than the deceased actor.

My difficulties with the film ultimately lie in what comes between all of its well-executed moments. Every now and then a scene feels a tad longer than it needed to be. Some reactions and conversations are drawn out when they probably didn’t have to be. It may be imperceptible at first, but they adds up over the course of the film and stick out like obvious time-fillers by the end. You could even argue that, with the exception of a couple of key occurrences, the entire film was one long, unnecessary filler.

It’s a shame, because I think Mockingjay had the potential to be one heck of a 140-150 minute movie that could have been on the same level as the first two films in terms of overall quality. Instead, they had to be greedy and split the book into two films, meaning that each one would be that much slower and that much less eventful. When you break it down, not a whole lot happens in this film. The impact of this decision becomes pronounced when the film ends on what’s supposed to be a semi-cliffhanger but feels more like an anti-climatic “is that it?”

If you’re a fan of the franchise then you’ll have no choice but to watch Mockingjay, Part 1 and then Part II when it comes out next year. And it annoys me that I’ll have to spend double the money for the series finale when a book perfect for a single film adaptation is being stretched unnaturally into two. I’m not saying Part I isn’t still a relatively entertaining and enjoyable experience; I’m just saying it isn’t as good as The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, and more importantly, not as good as it could have and should have been.

3.25 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part VIII

Why the heck not?

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

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I admit I didn’t know a whole lot about Nelson Mandela’s life outside of him ending apartheid in South Africa and his long prison term, which is why I was particularly interested drawn to Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, based on his autobiography.

I had previously seen Morgan Freeman (his Hollywood doppelganger) as Mandela in Invictusso I had my doubts when I discovered that in this film he’s portrayed by strapping British actor Idris Elba, best known as crime kingpin Stringer Bell in The Wire and more recently in Pacific Rim.

While I was wrong about the casting of Elba, who turned out to be magnificent in the role despite being four inches taller than the real Mandela at 6’4″, Long Walk to Freedom turned out to be a disappointment, more a telemovie than the definitive adaptation of the great man’s life.

The film essentially begins with a fully-grown Mandela who is already a lawyer in South Africa and beginning to gain a broader interest in fighting for the rights of his people. From there, the film is a fairly straightforward blow-bu-blow account of his life, from organising protests to his imprisonment and eventual release. None of it is poorly executed or lacks subtlety, but at the same time the pulse of the film is so flat that it had trouble sustaining my interest. There, I said it: I was bored.

Thought I haven’t compared Elba and a young Mandela side by side, I believe there is some resemblance, or at least the performance is so good that it made me believe there is one. Far from a glorified hero, Elba portrays Mandela as a complex, flawed man who cheated on his wife and neglected his family for his cause. It’s still a respectful portrayal because you ultimately come to see his growth as a leader and person, and the remarkable change he brought to the world through his inspiring resolve and perseverance.

Another aspect that pleased me was the portrayal of Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, played by Brit Naomi Harris. We usually only hear about Mandela’s greatness but here we also learn about what an amazing woman Madikizela-Mandela is and her significant contributions to the plight of her people and especially South African women.

Unfortunately, two stellar performances weren’t quite enough to elevate Long Walk to Freedom into a superior biopic. A less conventional approach would have been welcome to give the film more layers and nuance. As it stands,  it’s still a passable Mandela flick, just not a great one.

3 stars out of 5

Wolf Creek 2 (2013)

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Wolf Creek, released in 2005, was Australia capitalising on the torture porn era ushered in by the Saw and Hostel movies. I personally though it was overrated, but it did have a couple of things going for it: a very uniquely Australian villain played by John Jarratt, who is as amusing as he is terrifying, and the “based on a true story” tag thanks to Ivan Milat and the disappearance of British backpacker Peter Falconio — which highlight the dangers of the vast Australian outback.

So eight years later, we have the obligatory low-budget sequel, which brings back Jarratt as maniacal serial killer Mick Taylor and a bunch of poor foreigners waiting to be tortured and slaughtered.

The film starts off as camp as can be, with Mick taking on a couple of cookie-cutter dickhead cops. It doesn’t make much sense but at least it sets the stage for the carnage that is yet to come. A film like this is always bound to contain gratuitous and over-the-top violence. Wolf Creek 2 embraces its destiny and just goes for it.

There’s not much by way of plot or character development. Mick picks up a German couple (one of them’s played by an Aussie) and then a Pom (also played by an Aussie, Ryan Corr of TV’s Packed to the Rafters fame). Be prepared for a lot of screaming, a lot of stupidity, and loads of visceral, extreme acts of violence.

Surprisingly, it’s quite effective as a torture porn horror, with moments that will make you cringe and others that challenge you not to look away. The tension is there, even though it doesn’t feel real and some suspension of disbelief is mandatory.

The original actually had plenty of what I call “filler” moments, which made it a bore to sit through. But Wolf Creek 2 disposes all the formalities to give viewers what they want almost straight away. As a motion picture it’s much rougher around the edges, but in terms of pure entertainment value it arguably trumps its predecessor.

Wolf Creek 2 is B-grade rubbish, all the way down to its laughable and cliched ending, but it knows what it is and at least tries to have a good time on its way to the dumpster.

2.5 stars out of 5

Thanks for Sharing (2013)

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Thanks for Sharing is a comedy about three very different men with sex addiction. There’s Adam (Mark Ruffalo), a spunky single guy who has no problem attracting the ladies but wants to start dating again after five very difficult years of self-restraint. There’s Mike (a silver-haired Tim Robbins), a veteran who believes he has turned the corner and acts as a big brother-type to the others at their support group, but doesn’t give much support at home to his drug-addict son. And thirdly, there’s Neil (Josh Gad), a tubby, sweaty sexual deviant who has banned himself from the subway so he’ll stop rubbing himself up against random women.

This is more or less what I expect from a comedy-drama about sex addiction. There are amusing observations and situations the protagonists have to deal with, but also a much darker side to their impulses which inevitably become more serious as the film progresses. It’s not exactly lighthearted but it’s not depressing either. Shame this is not.

The tone of the film actually reminds me of another Mark Ruffalo film I saw last year, The Kids Are All Right, about same sex parenting. As a comedy, however, Thank for Sharing is not in the same class. The majority of the laughs come from the awkwardness of Josh Gad’s character, who shoulders the load in that department, while the arcs of Ruffalo and in particular Tim Robbins are more heavy duty.

In addition to the solid performances of the three male leads, the film also boasts an excellent supporting cast, with the standouts being Gwyneth Paltrow as Ruffalo’s love interest and Pink (as Alecia Moore, her real name) as a female sex addict who befriends Gad’s character. Patrick Fugit, who plays Tim Robbin’s son, is also fantastic, as their explosive relationship is perhaps the most emotional and compelling in the entire movie.

Thanks for Sharing is an interesting take on sex addiction as it offers three perspectives from three very different characters. It’s lightly amusing and the drama is well-executed, but perhaps because the focus is split in so many directions it lacks the depth required to be an exceptional film on the subject. I enjoyed it as much as a film like this can be enjoyed — that is, a solid DVD rental, but not much more than that.

3.25 stars out of 5

Out of the Furnace (2013)

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If gritty, brooding crime dramas is your thing, then Out of the Furnace is just the film for you.

Produced by Ridley Scott and Leo DiCaprio and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), the film stars chameleon Christian Bale as Russell Baze, a likable guy who seems to be on a friendly basis with everyone on both sides of the law. Like his dying father before him, Russell works at a steel mill in a small town and enjoys a steady relationship with his girlfriend, played by Zoe Saldana. Life for him would be stable if it weren’t for his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq war veteran who has trouble coping with an uncertain future.

A tragic accident strikes, and Russell ends up incarcerated. In the meantime, Rodney becomes involved in the shady world of underground bare-knuckle fighting under the management of Willem Dafoe. Once Russell gets out (of the furnace, so to speak), he is immediately thrown into the proverbial fire when Rodney is linked up with violent hillbilly Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) and bites off more than he can chew.

At its heart, this is a film about family, regret and living with the consequences of one’s decisions. Some critics have been scathing about its masculinity and testosterone-filled violence, though personally I found it to be an intense, entertaining experience. The pace is a little too contemplative for my liking, but I liked the old-fashioned themes of redemption and thought the action was well-executed.

The biggest strength of the film still has to be the performances, which are sensational all round. Woody Harrelson, in particular, once again shows us what an underrated actor he is with a terrifying portrayal of a brutal redneck. The script does have a few holes in it, but I was hooked on the bleak tones, which reminded me a little of one of my favourite movies of 2011 (directed by Casey Affleck’s big brother), The Town. And like that film, this one turns a fairly run-of-the-mill plot into an engaging, engrossing drama with explosive sequences.

The result is a raw, in-your-face, uncompromising film that will probably divide viewers. It becomes more conventional as it progresses towards a painful, semi-ambiguous ending, and it does have the occasional clunky scene, though overall I thought it was awesome.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Zombieland (2009)

If I had to sum up the zombie comedy Zombieland in five words, it would be “Pretty good but not great”.

Directed by Ruben Fleischer (no previous work worthy of noting), it has a premise we’ve seen a few times before – the country (America) being overtaken by zombies and an unlikely hero trying to survive against all odds.  That’s about as much as I want to give away.  As with most films, try and avoid the previews if you can.  Plenty of great scenes, lines and jokes were unnecessarily ruined by the previews I had the misfortune of coming across.  If I hadn’t seen them in advance I probably would have liked the film more.

What sets Zombieland apart from other zombie movies of late is that it is more comedy than horror, and what sets it apart from other zombie comedies is that it is actually pretty funny.  It’s definitely more Shaun of the Dead than 28 Days Later, but the laughs aren’t as silly or outrageous – not quite, anyway.  Much of the humour stems from the quirky character traits of, and the witty banter between, the two leads, played by Jesse Eisenberg (from Adventureland, who seems forever destined to battle Michael Cera for all the goofy, awkward boy roles) and Woody Harrelson (last seen by me in 2012, the movie not the year).  Rounding out the main quartet are Emma Stone (Jules from Superbad) and Abigail Breslin (My Sister’s Keeper, Little Miss Sunshine), who both put in solid performances without stealing the show.

Zombieland knows exactly what kind of movie it is trying to be.  Extremely gory (no shortage of over-the-top blood and guts), tongue-in-cheek, and nonchalant about the fact that the whole country (and probably world) has been overrun by zombies who just want to eat human flesh.  And yet, Zombieland does have charm and it does have heart, though it never steps over the line into melodrama as that would mean caring too much – and that would just be too uncool for a movie like this.

That said, Zombieland is far from perfect.  There are a number of slower bits strewn throughout the film, far more than there should be.  And while it is funny, not all the jokes hit the mark, and sometimes it even risks trying too hard to be amusing.  And of course, though it is technically a comedy/horror, the film is not particularly frightening.  The zombies are there more for the laughs than the chills, and you never get the sense that there is any real danger.

Weighing up all the pros and cons, I’d probably say Zombieland is a 3-star movie that is worth watching, but to be honest I wanted it to be much more than just a sweet, mildly enjoyable film.  However, there is a special surprise in Zombieland that is worth a whole half-star by itself – hands down the most unexpected, insane, hilarious cameo I’ve seen in…possibly ever!  Accordingly…

3.5 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: 2012 (2009)

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2012 (the movie not the year) is pretty much what you would expect from a US$200 million blockbuster about the end of the world directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow).  Eye-popping special effects, an epic storyline, a multitude of characters, cliched dialogue, bad jokes, cringe-worthy moments and cheesy one-liners.

And yet, for all its flaws, 2012 is surprisingly absorbing.  It is somewhat overlong at a whopping 158 minutes, but it’s never easy for such films to be short these days.

The plot – well, pretty self-explanatory.  Do I really need to say anything?  I am glad to say that they didn’t try to milk the whole Mayan calendar thing.  It was not much more than a passing reference in the end.

The science of it all was sketchy in my opinion, but I’m not sure they really cared.  As the film rolled along, it became clear that suspension of disbelief was imperative to an enjoyable experience.  Too many things were either implausible or impossible or simply didn’t make sense.  The sooner you realised that this was going to be the norm the better.

Of course, epic movies like 2012 require a lot of characters.  Sure, most of them were cliched and cardboard stereotypes (especially the minor ones), but what I liked about it was that they were all linked in one way or another.  It wasn’t just a random bunch of people who had nothing to do with each other.

The characters were portrayed by a great ensemble cast led by Chiwetel Ejiofor and John Cusack, together with Amanda Peet, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt, and a bizarre appearance by Woody Harrelson.  The only notable weakness was Danny Glover as the President of the United States.  It was just a laughable performance.  Think of an old and tired Barack Obama who has lost his voice and charm after being disillusioned with being in office for 30 years straight.

Although entirely predictable, sentimental and silly, 2012 still managed to eke out some thrills and excitement.  As I said before, if you can suspend disbelief and just go along for the ride, the film is pure pop-corn fun.  Even if you can’t, there’s at least the special effects to enjoy.  More impressive than Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, Armageddon, The War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still, the visuals in 2012 are the most spectacular I’ve ever seen.  If 2012 (the movie) turns out to be prophetic, none of us will have the time or mood to witness the destruction of the earth, so this film is the best opportunity we have.

3.5 stars out of 5!