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: A Little Chaos (2014)

Director: Alan Rickman


This review was originally published on

At one point in A Little Chaos, garden designer Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet) has a chance encounter with no less than King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman), for whom De Barra has been commissioned to design a part of the gardens for his new palace at Versailles. As the conversation comes to their mutual love of gardening, the king declares, “It is the ease of it I like. The ease.” A Little Chaos is a film of ease, a simple and gentle period piece. However, like claiming to have an interest in gardening just from watching Gardener’s World, there’s no real grit, drama or effort involved.

The extensive history of the French court at Versailles is a fascinating tale, but Rickman’s sophomore turn behind the camera has little interest in anything beyond being a frothy little bodice show. De Barra is a fictional creation, hired by the garden’s true architect Andre Le Nôtre (Matthias Schœnaerts) to craft one section of greenery into an ‘outdoor ballroom.’ She’s keen, but her relative free-thinking approach ruffles many a powdered wig. Le Nôtre is sufficiently convinced, however, and he visits De Barra at her home in a scene to offer her the job in a scene so over-produced and shot that we half-expect Meryl Streep to barrel in for a musical number. Ellen Kuras’ cinematography is undeniably cheery but, much like the gardens of Versailles, the design and look of the film draws attention to its own artifice. Every bodice is too perfectly stitched, every candle shines too bright and every conflict feels too well-constructed. It’s all too handsome to be taken seriously.

Take Schœnaerts, for example. He’s normally an intense and brooding presence, and his build can’t help but stand out amongst the delicateness of his onscreen surroundings. As Le Nôtre, he’s given very little to work with. As is the way of these things, or rom-coms for that matter, he finds himself enamoured with the young woman he’s just hired. He and Winslet exchange mild flirtations amidst handsome woodlands and crushed velvet, but it all moves with that accursed ease so beloved of Rickman’s king (and indeed, Rickman the writer-director) that it threatens to grind to a halt. That it manages not to do so is down to the cast. De Barra is a typical Winslet role: standoffish yet charming all the same. The screenplay doesn’t give Winslet to work with beyond those traits and a sob backstory, but its the most any cast member gets here. Helen McCrory adds another snobby bint to her repertoire as Mme. Le Nôtre, and Stanley Tucci crops up in an extended cameo as the Duc d’Orleans. With wig and purple pantaloons in tow, he ramps up the camp for his handful of scenes, allowing him to overcome weak characterisation to steal these scenes, or at least what there is of worth to steal.

Construction starts on the garden as De Barra feels frustrations on all sides. Divisions of class ensure her competition seek to scupper her efforts, while Le Nôtre gives her dreamy looks of yearning. We might have cared more if there wasn’t such an air of artifice around proceedings. The gardens of Versailles were all about manipulating nature into submission, but A Little Chaos will not force anyone under its power. It’s simply too safe and lethargic; indeed, a little chaos of its own might have gone a long way.

Review: Carnage (2011)

Director: Roman Polanski


After two young boys fight in a schoolyard brawl, and one injures the other, the two sets of parents meet to discuss what happened and to rectify matters. The only problem is they end up getting into a nasty verbal brawl and prove themselves to be as childish as their offspring. Welcome to Carnage, a hilarious-but-smug little flick that isn’t quite as clever as it might think.

The parents of the children being childish?! Oh, how very clever! Like her stage play ‘Le Dieu de Carnage’, Yazmine Reza’s screenplay centres on the plush New York apartment of the headstrong Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly). They host power couple Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet) after their sons fight, but initial niceties and servings of peach cobbler give way to insults and snipes being regurgitated like so much gone-off cobbler. Carnage is brilliantly and inescapably funny. Try not to titter every time Alan’s cellphone goes off and he must go discuss business in a corner. The aforementioned dessert ends up causing the best scene of projectile vomiting since Terry Jones ingested a “waffer-theen mint”. As whiskeys are passed round and indignant noses are bent out of shape, all pretense goes out the window and all four characters are forced to acknowledge their submission to the ‘god of Carnage’. As the only four characters in the entire film, the leads are uniformly excellent. Foster’s snippy, Reilly’s blustery, Winslet is boorish, Waltz is cynical and they all compliment each other wonderfully.

Reza adapts her stage play for the screen with Polanski, and it touches on a lot of issues; however, it can’t help but seem like an exercise in farce before devolving into a battle-of-the-sexes power play. There’s not a lot new to learn from Carnage; people are beastly, women and men differ, and we can’t change that, whoop-de-do. Carnage is the closest the four leads can come to starring in a play without actually getting on stage, so it makes sense that Carnage plays to their acting instincts. It’s just a pity that that ‘staginess’ translates into the direction. On stage, it makes sense that Alan and Nancy never get to leave the apartment but, watching them on the big screen you’ll scream at them just to get up and leave! As well as that, these people seem to get drunk very quickly. The constrained setting draws attention to itself frequently, and Polanski never manages to overcome that problem. He’s lucky that he has a hilarious script and able performers to work with, because that’s all Carnage has going for it. Watching Carnage, you are guaranteed to laugh. Enjoy watching the actors be ridiculous; just don’t think too much about what they’re saying. You just may end up feeling patronized.

Review: Contagion (2011)

Director: Steven Soderbergh


Watching Contagion, the first thing you’ll notice is the many close-up shots of hands. Hands touching doorknobs, holding glasses, cupping faces. As Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) points out, we all touch our faces on average 3-5 times every waking minute. Considering hands are a primary means of spreading disease, isn’t it a wonder we haven’t been wiped out by some nasty bug long ago?

After dallying in apparently experimental films, Steven Soderbergh turns his attention to potential blockbuster territory. Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a business trip to Hong Kong feeling unwell. Her husband Mitch is worried, but she dismisses it as jetlag. In movies, it’s choices like this that get you killed, and so it proves as Beth succumbs to seizures and dies in the emergency room. If that sounds like a spoiler, don’t worry; all this happens within the first 10 minutes of Contagion. It had to, because there are many other storylines that are gasping for air. There’s the rush for a cure, led by CDC head Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle, possibly the best thing in the film). There’s the attempts by Dr. Mears to control things on the ground following Beth’s death. There’s also the plot about paranoid blogger Krumweide (Jude Law) who claims to have discovered an alternate cure for the virus. Law, with his cocky disposition and snaggletooth grin, is a repeat scene-stealer here, and lightens the oft-overbearing atmosphere of Contagion. Given the plot, a sombre tone is to be expected, but that’s no excuse for the lack of emotional involvement here. Scott Z. Burns’ script squeezes too many characters and plotlines in and the net result is our failure to engage with hardly any of them. Gwynnie’s gone in a flash, a subplot involving Marion Cotillard’s WHO doctor and a kidnapping feels like an afterthought, and great character actors like Ehle, Bryan Cranston and John Hawkes are left to pick up whatever scraps of runtime are left. Soderbergh’s in too much of a rush for character; the timeline leaps forward weeks at a time, and any sense of jeopardy evaporates pretty quickly.

Contagion does manage to create a palpable sense of paranoia, and it does reflect how vulnerable our society can be when faced with panic. Despite this and some strong performances, however, Contagion never sticks. The focus is always on the virus, and not the people carrying it. The characters here are cyphers for Soderbergh paranoid pacing and plotting, and the film suffers for treating them as such. For a film about a virus, Contagion is disappointingly sterile.

P.S. Don’t think Elliot Gould’s character’s crack about blogging being ‘graffiti with punctuation’ wasn’t noticed!