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Film Review: Triple Frontier

“You’ve Been Shot Five Times For Your Country And You Can’t Even Afford A New Truck…”

Hot off the heels of winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in the form of the excellent and beautiful Roma, Netflix returns to the land of small screen blockbusters with Triple Frontier, a dramatic blend of action and heist movie with a top notch, a-list cast and helmed by A Most Violent Year and Margin Call director, J. C. Chandor. Featuring a screenplay from both Chandor and Mark Boal, the acclaimed writer behind The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Triple Frontier sees Oscar Isaac (The Last Jedi) as Santiago Garcia, a private military advisor who after being tipped off about the location of a paranoid, cash-rich drug lord, forms a band of merry mercenaries and ventures into the jungle in order to steal what he believes is rightfully his after years of service to war without any just reward. With Chandor previously showcasing his realist cinematic sensibility with A Most Violent Year, Triple Frontier continues the director’s hard-edged approach to filmmaking with a release which attempts to be much more than just a sub-standard testosterone-fuelled action flick, and whilst there is an underlying interesting notion regarding greed and the psychological cost of combat, Chandor’s latest is still a rather generic and slightly overlong cliche which just happens to have a superb cast to push it along nicely.

Glossed with a primary aesthetic which comes across as a hybrid between the dusty, anti-Western feel of Sicario and the militaristic sheen of Michael Mann, Triple Frontier begins with an Ocean’s 11 style team-up as we see Isaac’s Pope journey back into the lives of his previous Army colleagues as he attempts to woo them with an endless supply of cash which is there for the taking from the hands of Reynaldo Gallegos’s drug lord, Lorea. Cue a rather enjoyable opening act in which we are treated to laddish interactions between Pope, Ben Affleck’s (Gone Girl) Redfly, Charlie Hunnam’s (Pacific Rim) Ironhead and Pedro Pascal’s (Narcos) Catfish, as they finally agree to work together, The Expendables style, in order to carry out their unethical and highly illegal mission. Whilst there is no spoilers in saying the initial part of the heist goes without any major issues, Chandor’s primary point of the movie comes into fruition just past the hour mark as we witness our leading band of war-torn killers turn on each other, and whilst I appreciate any movie which attempts to rise above its’ generic conventions, Triple Frontier just becomes way too plodding as we strive through an hour of fairly repetitive set pieces as we witness the group attempt to make their escape. With a full-on level of dedication from the cast however and the likes of Isaac and strangely enough, Hunnam, on top acting form, Chandor’s movie falls into the category of interesting, yet flawed, but does ultimately go down as another success for Netflix. Oh, and Chandor must love Metallica which is always a good note in my book.

Overall Score: 6/10

Film Review: Annihilation

It’s Not Destroying. It’s Making Something New…”

Wowing audiences and critics alike in the past with screenplays for works of brilliance including 28 Days Later, Dredd, albeit unaccredited, and of course his masterful directorial debut in the form of 2015’s Ex Machina, the breath of fresh air which is Britain’s own, Alex Garland, returns this week with Annihilation, yet another hotly anticipated release which uses Netflix as its’ chosen distributor in the UK after somehow failing to secure a deal for a nationwide cinematic release. Whilst Ex Machina was essentially a low-key, claustrophobic comment on the notion of artificial intelligence which always settled for brains over brass idiocy, going against the ilk and financial safety net of many contemporary sci-fi blockbusters, Garland’s latest expands the film-making horizons of which genuinely interesting science fiction can be explored, a movie which although at times seems to not entirely piece together as smoothly as one would ultimately like, powerfully blends thought provoking notions of unidentified alien contact with nightmarish surrealist terror which both takes cues and evolves on from classic genre pieces of which the movie undeniably takes reference from.

Based upon Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel of the same name, the first entry within the well received “Southern Reach Trilogy”, Garland’s movie focuses on Natalie Portman’s, Lena, a former soldier turned biologist who after the mysterious year long absence of Oscar Isaac’s (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) husband figure and current serving member of the U.S Army, Kane, embarks on a high risk expedition into the unknown phenomenon known as only as the “Shimmer” in order to find both an explanation behind its’ origins and answers regarding Kane’s sudden disappearance. Teaming up with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s (The Hateful Eight) Dr. Ventress, a straight-faced terminally ill psychologist who takes lead of the group, and Tessa Thompson’s (Thor: Ragnarok) somewhat timid and “damaged” physicist, Josie, among others, Annihilation explores a mode of discovery as we venture into the ambiguous “Shimmer” with Portman’s Lena taking point as the audiences access into the surrealist undertakings our heroine witnesses through her journey into the unknown. With an opening thirty minutes which leans heavy on background details regarding Kane and Lena’s unfaithful relationship and the apocalyptic nature of the “Shimmer” itself, the remaining runtime hands forth a narrative which keeps the audience on edge, forever guessing the threat which ultimately will be discovered as the cards reveal themselves come a Under the Skin inspired final act.

Aided by an uncertain, uncomfortable sensibility, a tonal cornerstone which is completely rife from beginning to end, Annihilation is at times genuinely unnerving in nature, with minimal use of jump-scare tactics and a tendency for a complete lack of resolution regarding particular plot threads resulting in a Blair Witch style behaviour pattern in which the audience builds up tension ready to be alleviated but is instead left stranding and unsure of what to expect next. With the movie at times resorting to handheld footage in order to explore the outcome of previous expeditions within the “Shimmer”, the Blair Witch similarities are abundantly clear, whilst it comes not much of a stretch to see the likes of the monster effects of The Thing, the surreal science fiction beauty of Arrival and the nihilistic low-key apocalyptic themes of the little seen mind bending Coherence within the DNA of the piece too, and whilst at times dialogue does seem a tad on the nose and the special effects not exactly pitch perfect, a surprising weakness considering the Oscar winning work of Ex Machina, Garland’s latest is a wonderful work of science fiction cinema, one which will please genre fans from the outset and one which too leaves a lasting impression like all the best experimental works of art do so well.

Overall Score: 8/10

Film Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

“I’ve Seen This Raw Strength Only Once Before. It Didn’t Scare Me Enough Then, It Does Now…”

Knocking every other big-screen release of 2017 out of the park in terms of mind-melting anticipation, Disney and Lucasfilm return with the eighth direct entry into the Star Wars universe with The Last Jedi, with it being a whole two years since the revival of the franchise with the scintillating revelation which was The Force Awakens. Dispatching with J. J. Abrams for the time being, with Abrams returning to directorial duty on Episode IX after the cancellation of Colin Trevorrow’s contractual duties, Looper director Rian Johnson takes charge of a release which continues on with the many dangling plot threads left over from its’ predecessor with a returning cast featuring the likes of Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and the final on-screen performance of Carrie Fisher as the ever-majestic Princess Leia. Whereas The Force Awakens realigned the critical consensus of a universe which had been somewhat tarnished thanks to the George Lucas directed trilogy released at the turn of the century, The Last Jedi has a somewhat blank slate to go where and which way it chooses, and whilst the latest entry within the Star Wars canon doesn’t exactly hit the lofty heights of its’ predecessor, with particular and crystal clear flaws affecting the final, overall product, Johnson’s movie is a spectacle fuelled adventure thrill ride which has enough twists, turns and eye-watering action to leave even the most casual of Star Wars fans gasping for more.

With a narrative which continues the many dangling plot threads left over from The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi is primarily wrapped around the centre of an escape movie, with the hunted Rebel Alliance at front and centre of the movie’s action straight from the offset in which characters both old and new are are brought into the mould of a two and a half hour journey which moves from the darkness of space to the salt laden plains of an ice covered rebel retreat without ever really coming up to the surface for breath. With subplots which include Daisy Ridley’s Rey and her interaction with Mark Hamill’s aged and hermit-esque Luke Skywalker, the wandering temperament and conflicted heart of Adam Driver’s beefed up Kylo Ren, and John Boyega’s relationship with Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose, The Last Jedi is a film which can’t be faulted for a lack of substance and plot, but with a sagging middle act in which we see one of our heroes venture to a casino-laden planet of riches coming off as the obvious editing misstep, sometimes Johnson’s movie does begin to feel incredibly heavy, and whilst there are comedic elements aplenty throughout the course of the action, the overall tone of the movie is much more darker and melancholic that one might have expected, with the notion of death and loss not exactly hiding away akin more to the sensibility of Rogue One than any other previous release in the series so far.

With particular elements which come across somewhat baffling and jarring, including a Guardians of the Galaxy moment for Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia and a handful of wasted opportunities for particular underdeveloped characters, Johnson’s movie does ultimately make up for these missteps by being a fundamentally stunning and beautifully made movie, with cinematographer and Looper collaborator Steve Yedlin creating a wide range of jaw-dropping images and shots which made me want to stand up and applause in a manner similar to Roger Deakins’ outstanding work on Blade Runner 2049, a film which on some levels does share similarities with The Last Jedi with both movies focused primarily on their feel, look and emotive qualities above anything else, resulting in Johnson’s movie coming across as arguably the least relatable Star Wars movie to date thanks to a somewhat cold and unnerving spiritual tone. With a lightsaber battle which ranks up there with the best the series has produced thus far, a satisfying resolution for particular character arcs and an ambiguous conclusion which leads the Star Wars path onto a vast number of potential directions, The Last Jedi is a flawed but emotionally riveting and spectacular addition into the Star Wars universe, and whilst it may not be the best series offering, Johnson’s movie is undeniably the most beautifully crafted.

Overall Score: 8/10

Film Review: Suburbicon

“These Animals Took Everything From Us…”

Forged around a screenplay devised by the talented minds of Joel and Ethan Coen, who for less aware cinephiles like myself have previous writing and directorial credits on films including Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, Suburbicon, the latest directorial release from George Clooney, on paper, is the type of all star release which almost seems too big to fail, with the likes of Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac all arriving to the heed of Mr. Clooney’s wishes, and whilst Clooney’s directorial career hasn’t exactly matched the worldwide success of his acting back catalogue, Suburbicon has without doubt all the right ingredients to allow the American to finally earn credence as a director in his own right. With the off-kilter zaniness and black comedic ripeness of the Coen’s writings evident throughout and some committed performances from the film’s leads, Clooney’s latest is a mixed bag of a movie, one which channels previous Coen scripts to an almost uncanny degree but more interestingly, a movie which suffers from a dwindling sense of having too much to say without ever having any real sense of substance or depth to pull it off.

Set in the heart of the titular, fictional white-picket fenced, idyllic neighbourhood of Suburbicon, Clooney’s movie focuses on the Fargo-esque narrative of Matt Damon’s Gardner Lodge and the events surrounding him regarding the death of his wife, his suspicious son and the presence of his dead wife’s twin sister, Julianne Moore’s Margaret. Pulling on notions which lightly touch on themes of racism, class wars and the American dream, Clooney’s movie is almost an idiot’s guide to the workings of the Coen brothers, utilising the murderous, black hole comedy of their best work but primarily evoking Fargo and its’ brilliant television spin-off series, and whilst there are interesting ideas at work within the movie, the handling of the transition from paper to screen seems to have been somewhat lost in translation, with the movie not really sure whether it wants to focus on societal commentary or a straight forward shocker comedy, resulting in a jarring collection of scenes which don’t entirely work, primarily a plot thread regarding a racist coo after the all-white population of the area is threatened by the arrival of an African-American family. With that in mind, when the movie does focus on the underlying narrative of betrayal and murder and the interactions between Damon, Moore, Jupe and the drastically underused Oscar Isaac, Suburbicon is enjoyable, but for a movie with this many superstars, Clooney’s movie is the type where much more should have been expected.

Overall Score: 6/10

Film Review: The Promise

“Our Revenge Will Be To Survive…”

Whilst I can admit to not always being a fan of outside arguments and discussions regarding the arrival of a new cinematic release, due simply to the fact that after all is said and done, a film is only a film, the controversy revolving around Terry George’s The Promise is one which has been an undeniable eye-catcher ever since its’ first release way back last year when the ever-popular IMDB rating system was apparently being hacked and improperly used by those accused of awarding the film a measly one star out of ten in a subversive tactic which was regarded as a orchestrated campaign to derail the release of the movie by Armenian genocide deniers. Tough stuff I know, and whilst this may or may not be the case, it did seem strange that a film in which had only been watched by a minuscule amount of audiences at pre-release screenings within festivals seemed to have such a negative reception with over 50,000 one-star ratings being awarded to the film before its’ intended wide-spread release date. As for the film itself, The Promise is unfortunately nowhere near as interesting as the events preceding its’ release, tackling a harrowing and shocking subject matter and lacing it with sub-par levels of drama and a leading love triangle which verges on the edge of cringe, resulting in a picture which potentially could have had the same impact of a movie such as Son of Saul but with trying narrative twists and awful set design, ends up being a complete and utter bore.

Of the many problems with the movie, the film’s choice to focus primarily on the leading trio of the dodgy accented Isaac, the walking contradiction of Le Bon and the always awesome, Christian Bale, is a fundamental movie killer with neither of the characters really having enough development or admirable traits to which an average movie audience can relate with in order to find them interesting. Putting all of their chips on the figure of Oscar Isaac’s Mikael, a character who not only decides against marrying his future betrothed in favour of a love affair with the wife of a respected journalist but essentially destroys the life of both said wife and said journalist respectively with his ignorant involvement in getting between them, the audiences involvement never really gets going and the sickening sights of forced drama when the saccharin sweetness of the romance pauses in favour of seemingly out-of-place violence is really quite aggravating to behold. From my point of view, you simply cannot comprehend a 12A rated movie based upon genocide and then fill it with a soppy love story and expect the audience to get on-board with it, and whilst this is exactly the decision those behind the creation of The Promise have got behind, I cannot shy away from the fact that it was not the film I was after regarding such a underdeveloped strand of history and with a narrative as corny as the one holding together Terry George’s latest, I take no pleasure in stating that I am probably right.

Overall Score: 4/10

Film Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

“I Was There To Spark And Fan The Flame of Man’s Awakening, To Spin The Wheel of Civilisation…”

Like the complete cinematic geek I am, Tuesday night at my local world of cine offered the chance to not only witness the midnight showing of the latest Marvel offering but to watch a riveting triple header of mutant goodness beginning with X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past and then leading smoothly into the UK release of X-Men: Apocalypse, the newest feature from the mind of Bryan Singer, the worldwide proclaimed saviour of all things X-Men when it comes to the big-screen after the superhero mess which was The Last Stand. I mean come on, Vinnie Jones? Watching all three on the big-screen once again gave the opportunity to see who was victorious in the realms of mutant supremacy and after watching almost seven hours of Marvel mayhem, I can safely say that Apocalypse is most definitely not the best of the X-Men canon, with that torch still indeed belonging to the far superior Days of Future Past, and in a month where the release of Captain America: Civil War emphasised the staying power of a franchise as gargantuan as the MCU, X-Men: Apocalypse is somewhat of a let-down, a let-down with a whole lot of CGI destruction intertwined with moments of greatness which only remind you how previous entries into the X-Men canon have been in the past.

Amongst the crazy amount of plot lines thrown into Apocalypse, including the introduction to a young Jean Grey and Scott Summers, played by Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan respectively, our ever-growing team of mutants led by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), now living life in the early 1980’s, soon have to face the growing threat of the powerful Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), the world’s first mutant, who has risen from his tomb after centuries of being preserved and hidden from the outside world. Capturing the powers of Magneto (Michael Fassbender) as well as a young Storm (Alexandria Shipp) to fuel his destruction, Apocalypse believes the only way to save the Earth is to first destroy it and recreate it in his own image. Cue CGI mayhem and major mutant face-offs, intertwined with rather rushed introductions to a wide range of new mutants, Apocalypse almost seems the complete opposite of Civil War, a film which rather brilliantly manages to juggle its’ eye-watering cast and the introduction of new players, with the former struggling to keep up with the extraordinary demands it places upon itself.

One of the main reasons Apocalypse falters in this regard is the titular Apocalypse, a villain with only a shallow background to start him off and a motive of destruction which seems flawed to say the least. Add into the fact it was difficult to look at the character without laughing due to the rather rubbery amount of make-up leathered on Oscar Isaac, an actor of whom I would pay to watch in anything I might add, and Apocalypse can only be regarded as having the worst villain of the series so far. Even Kevin Bacon was better. A re-hash of the slow-motion Quicksilver scene from Days of Future Past halfway through the film only strengthens the claim that after four films in the directorial chair, Bryan Singer may indeed be running out of ideas on the mutant front with Apocalypse seemingly being the end point for the man who began the franchise all the way back in 2000. As Jean Grey states after a trip to watch Return of the Jedi during the course of the film, “the third film is always the worst”, and ironically, Apocalypse adheres to this assumption rather disappointingly. Civl War, you are still in the lead.

Overall Score: 6/10

Film Review: A Most Violent Year

Sympathy for the Devil

J. C. Chandor’s, A Most Violent Year, is the second of two films released in the past week, the first being Ex Machina, that include Star Wars –bound Oscar Isaac, who is slowly becoming one of my favourite actors. I first noticed Isaac when watching Inside Llewyn Davis, yet after looking at his back catalogue, it’s surprising to see the wide range of films he has been a part of, such as Drive and two Ridley Scott efforts; Robin Hood and Body of Lies respectively, all of which are pretty fab, particularly, Drive. Similarly, Jessica Chastain also seems to be in films that particularly appeal to me, such as Zero Dark Thirty, and most recently, Interstellar, yet the third cog in this particular wheel, director J, C. Chandor, hasn’t won me over, yet, with his last effort, All Is Lost, not enthralling me in the slightest. Still, two out of three ain’t bad. 

The film is set during the latter stages of 1981 New York, a time in which, statistically, crime rates reached an all time high, particularly those consisting of a rather violent ilk, and tells the story of Abel Morales, who attempts to expand his business by purchasing a new, and valuable, piece of land. In the background however, his oil trucks are repeatedly being stolen and sold on, whilst the DA, played by Selma’s, David Oyelwo, is running an investigation into potential illegal activity within his empire. Within my review for Ex Machina, I stated Isaac’s performance was, “top notch,” and the same can be said for his performance in this film, with his portrayal of a character, who, although the title suggests otherwise, attempts to stay within the boundaries of the law despite all of the ongoing threats to him and his business, being simply brilliant.

Adding to this brilliance, is Jessica Chastain, who plays the role of Anna Morales superbly, and who, in contrast to her husband, is no stranger to violence thanks to her father’s gangster background. The chemistry between the two leads is explosive,  and helps develop the way in which each character changes throughout the course of the movie, particularly Abel, who transforms from an almost reluctant hero into a no-nonsense hard-man. These strong performances help keep the film going, particularly when it is at its’ weakest, with the rather shallow plot taking a while to kick in, and just slightly stretching its’ two-hour run-time.

Overall, A Most Violent Year, is J. C. Chandor’s best film to date, helped particularly by two terrific performances from Isaac and Chastain. Although its’ rather simple plot is stretched into the film’s run-time, the film is an entertaining and gripping crime drama that can stand strong next to other films in the same genre. 

Overall Score: 8/10

 

Film Review: Ex Machina

I, Robot

Another week, another bunch of brand new film releases, with this weeks’ most anticipated (for me anyway) being Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, starring Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, both of whom are set to star in that little thing called Star Wars which is out later this year. After discovering Garland had wrote screenplays for both 28 Days Later and Dredd, both of which I love, I was instantly compelled to go and see his latest effort, and his directorial debut. Off we go…

For the plot, I will try not to give too much away, (I went in to the showing hardly knowing anything) so I will stick to the basic premise which is laid out within the trailer. After Domhnall Gleeson’s character, Caleb, wins a competition to spend a week with the CEO of his company, “Bluebook”, he soon becomes part of a groundbreaking experiment that focuses on Ava, an AI created by Oscar Issac’s character, Nathan, and is asked to determine whether it is capable of exhibiting human behaviour by means of the Turing test. First off, Ex Machina, benefits slightly from last year’s release of The Imitation Game, which documented the life of Alan Turing, so those who saw it may indeed have the upper hand already in understanding the basis of the test used in the film. In terms of similarities between the films however, they most certainly end there as Ex Machina is a creepy and claustrophobic, proper sci-fi film, reminiscent of last years’ Under the Skin, which I named my top film of 2014. Good start…

Much like Under the Skin, Ex Machina, relies on an overall sense of isolation, with each having very little cast, and both focusing on the differences of what is is to be human against what it is to be considered the “other” or the “outsider”. In the context of Under the Skin, the “other” was an alien who had taken the form of Scarlet Johansson, whereas in Ex Machina, the other can arguably be recognised as the AI Ava or Nathan, whose paranoid and untrustworthy tendencies have pushed him into a reclusive lifestyle, where the interaction with Caleb only succeeds through Caleb signing his freedom away. Literally. The secluded nature of the film gives it an overarching feeling of forthcoming dread, especially in the scenes where we witness power cuts, where the sense of danger is emphasised by the colour changes from natural to a bold, blood-like red.

The film also includes top-notch performances from Isaac and Gleeson, but it is Alicia Vikander’s portrayal as AI Ava that really steals the show, so much so that it would have been interesting to see if her, or the film in general, would have been recognised by the Oscars if it had been released only a few months earlier. Although the film does suffer slightly from being rather too slow in places, it is strong and effective addition to the sci-fi genre. I look forward to seeing Mr. Garland again.

Overall Score: 8/10