Review: Triple 9 (2016)

Director: John Hillcoat


This review was originally published on

Triple 9 opens on a meeting in a car in an underground location. The participants are a mix of shady cops and ex-marines, shrouded in darkness, the occasional facial feature barely illuminated by a red light outside. The three men in the car, Terrell (Chiwitel Ejiofor), Gabe (Aaron Paul) and Marcus (Anthony Mackie) are going over their planned bank heist. Their four man crew (the fourth being Norman Reedus’ getaway driver Russel) will enter the bank in central Atlanta, sweep through the place, get what they want and leave before the police can arrive. There’s just one problem: no-one’s told these guys there in a second-rate double-cross thriller with pretensions. Haven’t these guys watched Scorsese or Mann? If they did, they’d know this just can’t end well.

The oeuvres of Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann are just two figures in whose shadow Triple 9 skulks. The heists and police procedural aspects are steeped in a moral turpitude that’s nothing new to director John Hillcoat. Granted, Triple 9 doesn’t share or need the same level of bloody-minded decay and destruction as The Proposition or The Road, but it can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. The opening credits establish the cops and robbers in this narrative web; at one point we see mob boss Irina Vlaslov inspect a couple of bound soon-to-be corpses in a car boot. Irina is played by Kate Winslet, chewing the accent and clearly having a lot of fun. Her performance is one of two sources of relatively levity in Triple 9, the other being Woody Harrelson in a typically focused-yet-relaxed drawl as Detective Allen. He’s investigating how Terrell and his crew committed their broad-daylight heist, and for whom they committed it. Allen can’t see how they’re linked to Irina yet, but the film will go to great lengths to resolve itself, even if it takes all too quick a route to get there.

Triple 9 has ambition, but we’ve visited this territory before; there are Training Day-esque crooked cops (no-one plays these kinds of guys quite like Clifton Collins Jr.), a Russian mob straight out of Eastern Promises, and a surfeit of character arcs and plots to try to juggle. Writer Matt Cook is aiming for the grandeur of Heat, but Triple 9 has been compromised somewhere along the way. It clocks in at just under two hours, but there’s an inescapable feeling of lacking. When Irina sends Terrell and co. on another job, more personal stakes get involved. Irina blackmails Terrell into doing her bidding with their familial bond (Gal Gadot gets little to do as Terrell’s ex/Irina’s sister). Moreover, the team decide that they need to pull a ‘Triple 9’ in another part of town (shooting a cop in the line of duty) to distract from their heist elsewhere, and Marcus nominates his new partner Chris (Casey Affleck) as the target. It’s difficult to place whether the script or an overly-tightened edit is to blame, but as enemies turn on allies and vice versa, it’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm. Too many characters are scrambling for oxygen, and while there are solid performances aplenty, there’s nothing in the screenplay to make most of them stand out. Hillcoat at least delivers crunchy action, with a midsection raid on a drug-dealer’s hideout making for riveting viewing. Still, something with this much talent and determination to punch above its weight should be more memorable. By ticking a few too many procedural boxes, Triple 9 sells itself too short.


Review: Interstellar (2014)

Director: Christopher Nolan


This review was originally published on

Kubrick, always Kubrick.

Why is it that whenever a new and ripe filmmaking talent comes along, some critics feel a need to make a comparison to the late, singular Stanley? Besides being a lazy comparison, it’s a dead weight around the person being praised. It gives them a shadow they’ll spend forever trying to escape (A notable recent example was Jonathan Glazer, whom more than one critic nominated as an heir to Kubrick in reviews of Under The Skin). When Memento launched his career proper (Following is a fascinating but problematic experiment), Christopher Nolan was suddenly encumbered with the Kubrick comparisons, and they’ve never totally disappeared. But they make no sense. He’s based his career to date on thrillers with a sci-fi edge. Presumably too many people are still reeling from 2001: A Space Odyssey to remember there are other sci-fi directors, or that Nolan’s yet to make a black comedy or a war film.

Now, Nolan actively invites the Kubrick comparisons with Interstellar, a film grappling with heady themes and huge effects-driven set-pieces similar to 2001, not to mention Hans Zimmer’s organ-led Strauss-baiting score. One has to praise both Nolan and his film for their gumption; they’re going after something far bigger than their contemporaries could ever manage. Mainstream films don’t generally ‘do’ ideas as grand as the effect of a black hole on the driving power of love, but Interstellar isn’t really all that mainstream. Yes, it’s from the director of the Dark Knight trilogy. Yes, it stars Mr. ‘Alright Alright Alright’, Catwoman and Jessica ‘Scannain‘s reviews editor wants to marry me’ Chastain. Despite all this, Interstellar is aiming higher. Therein, however, lies the film’s inherent risk. Comparisons between Nolan and Kubrick do neither much favour, but to compare this new space opera to Kubrick’s opus will only serve to demean the new pretender. Take it on its own terms, because Interstellar is too indebted to 2001 for it to step out of the monolith’s shadow.

It begins promisingly enough, with talking head interviews of older people recalling a crisis we have yet to experience. A global blight threatens our food supply; indeed, it has done so for years forcing much of the population in this distant future to take up farming to provide sustenance. One such farmer is engineer and former pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). Like many Nolan leading men, Cooper is widowed and struggling to do right by those left behind. In this case, he’s trying to raise two children in this massive dystopian dustbowl. His son Tom (Timothée Chalemet) is destined/doomed to be a farmer, but daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) is more scientifically inclined, like her pop. This father-daughter relationship drives Interstellar; it carries across galaxies and through black holes, like a constant anchor. It’s good to have something so solid to cling to when the rest of the film demands a few leaps of faith.

The first leap of faith sees Cooper being led to a covert NASA base. Here, a search for a new planet for humanity to inhabit/destroy/do what we will is being headed up by Prof. Brand (Nolan’s good luck charm, Michael Caine). Brand and his theories on black holes are modelled on the work of astrophysicist (and Interstellar producer) Kip Thorne. His ideas of the possibility of interstellar travel are the basis for Nolan’s script, co-written with his brother Jonathan. In this case, a black hole near Saturn is a gateway to at least three planets that might host us. Thus, off go Cooper, Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and fellow scientists Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley), plus robotic assistant TARS, a source of much-needed levity voiced by Bill Irwin. From the start of the film until the eventual blastoff is when Interstellar is at its strongest, effectively establishing a world and a populace under threat, even if we’re not sure when the film’s set or why the blight is so rampant. Having fine actors like John Lithgow and David Oyelowo inhabiting even small roles does help. Meanwhile, McConaughey continues his winning streak with another committed performance, all slow-boil emotion and weariness.

It’s not long after blasting off into the second act that Interstellar begins to lose its footing. Within this black hole, there are large time loops to contend with; depending on the planet, minutes could be weeks, months or even years back on Earth. Nolan played with a similar structural gambit in Inception, but the distances and passage of time in Interstellar deny it the same immediacy. It’s hard to get pulses racing about wasting years in the space of an hour when characters are too far away from each other to feel the effects. Cooper wants to get home to his children, but his children grow up into Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain in the blink of an eye. The children themselves are battling to maintain what lives they have left, all the while not knowing whether their father is alive or not. This is Interstellar‘s failing; its plotting is far, far too ambitious. The second act attempts to dovetail the Earth and space story strands via simultaneously-occurring conflicts, but it doesn’t quite work. 2001 was relatively plotless next to its stirring imagery; Insterstellar tries too hard to explain its earlier leaps of faith. The brothers Nolan cannot make a virtue of exposition as Inception did.

In addition, Interstellar’s underlying emotionality is problematic. Cooper’s love for his family, his daughter especially, is his driving force through this intergalactic chaos. Again, Nolan has covered this story before, but he attempts to give it more air than usual. He goes so far as to introduce the concept of love as a scientific variable. At one point, Hathaway’s Dr. Brand explains her motivation for the mission as an extension of love; it’s the point at which audience goodwill may get sucked out of the airlock. It’s a noble and poetic idea, but any scientist caught saying this in reality may find themselves a laughing stock. Next to this, it’s the moments of more recognisable love and humanity that prove most compelling. The remaining Earthlings send one-way video messages to the crew. One particularly spiteful message from Chastain’s Murphy to her long-gone pop threatens the tear ducts. But next to the over-reaching theories of love in the blackness of space, it’s a wonder the film gets near that level of emotionality at all. The Cooper-Murphy story works; there’s just too much else getting in the way.

If the script threatens to derail Interstellar‘s efforts, the technical skill on show elevates it. The special effects are necessarily impressive, but their heft comes from the efforts of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her). Space is none more black, against which the stars dazzle. In one of the most stirring shots of any film this year, the spacecraft carrying our heroes passes by Saturn, a tiny twinkling diamond rapt to the ringed gas giant. The visual thrills of Interstellar demand as big a screen as possible. Mile-high tidal waves, frozen clouds and an explanation-defying climax will stretch the eyelids to bursting point. Nolan elevates theatricality to artistry, delivering money shots worth every penny. As for that climax, the time loop is closed in a baffling sequence that seeks to explain all. Is Nolan being too neat about this? Probably, but you’ll be astonished he even dared to try.

To date, the films of Christopher Nolan have been accused of lacking in emotional resonance. With Insterstellar, he tries too hard to redress the balance, taking too long and too many liberties to make his point. Interstellar gets to its intended destination, somewhere under a Saturnine ring, but was the scenic route really necessary? Caine’s Prof. Brand quotes Dylan Thomas upon blast-off, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Nolan has raged and rallied against mainstream complacency in his oeuvre, but now might be a good time for him to calm down and come back down to Earth.

Review: ParaNorman (2012)

Directors: Chris Butler, Sam Fell


(This review originally appeared on

It’s a truism that kids love to be scared. It’s surprising, however, that filmmakers don’t take advantage of this fact more often. Tapping into children’s fears gave us the terrific likes of Coraline, Monster House and now ParaNorman. If parents are usually reluctant to bring their kids to animated movies, they’ll at least get a sadistic laugh as the little’uns squirm; ParaNormanis surprisingly creepy for a younger audience. However, it’s also disarmingly good-natured and reverent to its inspirations.

We’ve had family films based around vampires, witches and the like, but ParaNorman may well be the first one based around zombies (by way of witches). If anything, ParaNorman has a few too many sources of inspiration. Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a horror geek, and is also blessed/cursed by the ability to see and communicate with the spirits of the dead. It turns out this ability makes him the only one able to stop some witch-cursed zombie from destroying his hometown. On paper, mashing The Sixth Sense, George A. Romero and stop-motion animation could be an almighty mess, but writer/co-director Chris Butler knows too much about animation and horror to allow him to fall into the traps.

Having worked on both Coraline and Corpse Bride, Butler’s clearly keen to give ParaNorman a definitive look, and to keep it away from stripey Tim Burton-esque faux goth. Under Butler and Sam Fell’s direction, ParaNorman gets a warm and bright look, reminiscent of mid-90’s Nickelodeon output. This extends to some funny yet distinctive character design. Norman and his friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) are fun little fellas, and Norman’s bitchy sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) and school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) are frequently hilarious foils for our young heroes. The zombies themselves are kid-pleasingly gross, but reveal a backstory much creepier than first appearances allow. Their memorability is secured with some good voice work (Casey Affleck as Neil’s jock brother is a neat piece of counter-intuitive casting) and some great gags and one-liners. Norman’s encounter with a dead man’s tongue rates about a 9.0 on the gross-o-meter.

ParaNorman name-checks its numerous influences frequently and in many ways. This includes scenes of violence that bump it perilously close to the 12A rating (bonus points to anyone who spots the reference to video nasty favourite Cannibal Apocalypse). Kids may wonder why their parents are laughing at Norman’s mobile ringtone, but then another character will say something silly or a zombie will go ‘BOO’ and the balance will be restored. Even if it’s a little too busy making its reference-driven plot work, ParaNorman will keep all ages engaged with colourful animation and engaging characters. It’s made by horror fans with horror fans in mind, both young and old.

Review: I’m Still Here (2010)

Director: Casey Affleck


It has always been this critic’s contention that cinema is a liar. Unless you have been told otherwise beforehand, you can assume that the events one sees onscreen are a fabrication. Early on in I’m Still Here, the directorial debut of Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix states that he is sick “of playing the character of Joaquin”, thus setting out to find his real voice. This is the chronicle of Phoenix’s shaky transition from brooding actor to aspiring rap artist. Arguably, this story has already been played out in the tabloid rags of America, with piss-poor public performances culminating in a car-crash interview on the Late Show with David Letterman in February 2009. Affleck collates these clips with behind-the-scenes footage of Phoenix as he descends into arrogance and delusion fueled by drugs and yes men. However, is Phoenix being honest, or is he still “playing Joaquin”? We’ve been told it’s real. But still…

Before I continue, I will (perhaps unprofessionally) give a little personal context to this film. As soon as Phoenix announced his retirement, I called shenanigans on the entire ruse. His subsequent public appearances reinforced my position. When the initial reviews (Roger Ebert, for example) treated the film as real, I was aghast. How did Affleck and Phoenix fool them all? I started to doubt. Then Affleck confirmed the ruse, and all was right with the world. If it had been real, I’m Still Here would have been Phoenix’s one-way ticket to the psychiatric ward. Unhinged, unkempt and often unintelligible, Phoenix has lost all interest in who he is in the pursuit of who he dreams of being. However, since we now know the film is a fake, there is no other way to describe this film than the high point of Phoenix’s career. He’s utterly magnificent as a version of himself that, whilst decidedly removed from reality, is still recognizably Joaquin Phoenix. Can one get an Oscar nomination for playing oneself? It might flout the rules, but Phoenix deserves it, committing himself to his ‘role’ as much as Sacha Baron Cohen committed himself to Borat and Bruno, only more so. Weight gain and the beard are only the tip of the iceberg; Phoenix becomes this hobo-like vision that shocked David Letterman. It takes a fierce talent to pull this act off.

Indeed, it’s a tribute to Phoenix that he convinced so many his career change was real, because Affleck is clearly making a mock-doc. The film, for all its hand-held grit, has its tongue buried deeply in its cheek. The excesses of Phoenix’s showbiz life are so many and so over the top as to be downright hilarious. It’s a good thing that Affleck admitted his deception, because I’m Still Here, once acknowledged as fake, is one of the funniest films of the year. Listening to Phoenix’s (godawful) hip-hop or watching him dance with call girls is a lot funnier when we’re in on the joke. It’s a satire on the media’s obsession with the lives of celebrities, and Affleck and Phoenix have the last laugh.

It might be a little overindulgent (the behind-the-scenes footage can get a little too talky), but I’m Still Here is still a triumph for Affleck and (in particular) Phoenix. It’s a brave film with a brave performance at its centre. Joaquin, we’re glad you’re back! That said, we’re even happier you never left in the first place. Clearly, Affleck and Phoenix share my opinion of cinema as a great liar.