Review: Triple Frontier

Triple Frontier

Even in the few hours that have passed since I saw this movie, there are some aspects of it that I like considerably more than I thought I did, and some considerably less. In the end, though, it all sort of balances out to the general reaction I had while watching Triple Frontier, which is that it’s… okay.

The premise is a fairly well-worn but reliable one: five former special ops soldiers (Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, and Pedro Pascal) combine their skills to pull off a large-scale heist in South America. They rationalize it by saying they’re taking what they “deserve” and what the military did not provide them with. And they do so by stealing the money from some legitimately bad people. However, given that the heist itself takes place pretty early on in the film, you can probably guess that things don’t quite go as planned.

Triple Frontier does get points for mostly avoiding the swagger-y, brainless pitfalls that many an action movie before it has stumbled into. There are certainly cliched situations here, but the film also takes the time to explore the moral repercussions of the violence that the quintet of leads inflict. On the whole, there is a thoughtfulness and a critical eye that adds a very welcome layer of complication.

So the script does provide some compelling ethical quandaries. But, boy, does it also feature some clunky dialogue. This is surprising coming from co-writers Mark Boal and J.C. Chandor, each of whom have earned Oscar nominations for their writing in the past. (And, in Boal’s case, a win!) This is especially apparent with Hedlund’s character, who we learn little about apart from his penchant for yee-haw one-liners that sadly give the actor little to work with.

Some of the rest of the cast fares better. Isaac and Pascal, in particular, are super charismatic and seem to understand the somewhat tricky balance of tones the film is going for. This is not a film highly focused on character development (proven by a pretty bland “getting the band back together” opening half hour) and I’d argue that no one is at their best here. But the cast is still seasoned and make it all fun enough to watch.

Chandor’s handle on the action, though, is really the high point of this film. In the hands of a lesser director, Triple Frontier would almost certainly have that cheap look and feel of a low-grade action flick. Instead, Chandor translates the gravity of what is happening through the use of precise, clear directing during the action set pieces. There are probably fewer action sequences than some people will go into it expecting, but the ones that are there (and, in particular, a gripping late-stage car chase) are so well executed that the film is wholly satisfying from that standpoint.

In the end, Triple Frontier could have been excellent but made some compromises along the way. Especially when it comes to the script. It’s handsomely made (including some nice cinematography from Roman Vasyanov), though, and if it sounds like your kind of movie it’s certainly still worth a watch.

February 2019 Favourites

I wasn’t sure how much I’d have to say about February, as it’s the shortest month of the year and was a busy one for me personally between projects at work and hanging out with friends. But as I thought it about it, some clear highlights emerged. Here’s a glimpse at what I’ve been watching and listening to this month.

Never Look Away

At the Cinema: Never Look Away

February was a big Oscars catch-up month for me, and one of those films that I caught up was Germany’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Never Look Away. For the uninitiated, this thing is over 3 hours long, so sitting in the theatre for that long felt like an event in itself. And while I wouldn’t exactly say that the 188 minutes flew by, I did really like the film. I’m also glad that I got to experience it in the theatre setting where you can avoid distraction and submerge yourself in what’s happening onscreen.

First Man OSTMusic: film scores

Speaking of Never Look Away, while watching it I really took note of the Max Richter score, which was lovely (even if I didn’t think it was always perfectly congruous with the film itself). This sent me down a wormhole of finding other Max Richter scores, and then compiling a playlist of samples from some of my favourite recent film scores. (If anyone happens to be curious, it can be found here.) All of this also led to the realization that Justin Hurwitz was robbed of an Original Score nomination for First Man. (“The Landing” is a personal fave.)

Podcast: Armchair Expert with Jake Johnson (Feb. 25) and Jason Mantzoukas (Feb. 11)

Armchair ExpertI’ve been dipping in and out of Dax Shepherd’s podcast, Armchair Expert, for a few months now. Generally I find it enjoyable, though (as with most conversational podcasts) I find the mileage varies depending on who the guest is. This month Shepherd had two excellent episodes thanks to guests Johnson and Mantzoukas. Both are actors I like but never knew anything about beyond what we see of them on screen. In the podcast setting, both proved to be thoughtful, funny, and open guests. If nothing else, listen to Jake’s episode for his story about the time he went to a party at Natalie Portman’s house.

Harmony HallSong: “Harmony Hall” by Vampire Weekend

I love Vampire Weekend, and Vampire Weekend is back with a new extremely catchy, upbeat song. It’s perhaps a bit more straightforward (dare I say “basic”?) than a lot of their previous music, but it’s a promising first glimpse from their upcoming album. And I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I first heard it.

James Blake live

Live Music: James Blake at Sony Centre, Toronto (February 27, 2019)

I devoted a lot of time last month to gushing about James Blake’s new album, Assume Form, and that’s continued to be on heavy rotation for me in February. But the real treat was getting to see Blake live in concert. It was my first time seeing him live, and he actually exceeded expectations. His voice sounded amazing (only aided by the Sony Centre’s great acoustics) and he proved to also be a more dynamic performer than I anticipated. As well as performing most of Assume Form, he made my night by including “Love Me in Whatever Way” from his previous album, and “A Case of You” as a nod to Canadian icon Joni Mitchell. All around a fantastic show.

Top 5 first-time watches of February

  1. Never Look Away
  2. Free Solo
  3. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
  4. Incredibles 2
  5. Vice

Review: Live Action Oscar Shorts

In my quest to watch as many of this year’s Oscar nominated films as I can, I checked out a screening of all five of the Live Action Short nominees. The results were… depressing!

That said, I did like 4 of the 5 films, to varying degrees. Below are my brief thoughts on each, in the order I watched them.

Mother

Mother (Rodrigo Sorogoyen, Spain)

Perhaps the ideal use of the short film format, Mother tells an economical story in a trim 18 minutes. It’s self-contained and propulsive, ratcheting up the tension by using a single shot for the majority of its runtime.

The acting is solid, selling this story of a mother who receives a call from her young son who’s been left by himself in an unknown location. Of course, things only escalate from there, but we always stay on the mother’s end of the line so the viewer is similarly left in the dark of what exactly is happening.

I would have liked a bit more character development to make it easier to get emotionally invested. But the slick filmmaking provides plenty of narrative stakes on its own.

Fauve

Fauve (Jeremy Comte, Canada)

Comte’s short is easily my favourite of the bunch, telling the story of two boys who are out exploring on their own and get into far more trouble than they expect. The child actors are excellent and Comte’s camera is patient, giving the film an extremely naturalistic feel. The story unfolds at the perfect pace, building to a subtle but emotionally impactful ending.

There is an artistry to Fauve that sets it apart from the others, and I’d be extremely interested to see what Comte could do with the feature-length format. He has a knack for visual storytelling. Because while like most of the other shorts in this programme Fauve is grim, it never wallows and instead earns its somberness. I would be surprised if this one won the Oscar, but it would certainly be worthy.

Marguerite

Marguerite (Marianne Farley, Canada)

The category’s second offering from Canada, Marguerite is actually the most uplifting of the bunch. Which is an interesting thing to say about a film that follows a dying elderly women thinking about the great regrets of her life. But there is a hopefulness and warmth to Marguerite that actually makes it quite lovely. There are only two actors in the film (Beatrice Picard and Sandrine Bisson) and both are wonderful, lending a lot of emotional heft to the proceedings.

The film’s character intimacy is its great strength. Less strong is the pacing, which feels a bit shaggy even at only 19 minutes long. While emotionally affecting and overall a strong showing, it felt like there was just one small element missing.

Detainment

Detainment (Vincent Lambe, Ireland)

I can almost always find a way to at least justify a film’s existence, but that’s not really the case with Detainment. Tackling the distressing true story of two 10-year-old boys accused of murdering a toddler, it comes across as not only exploitative (which would be bad enough) but also artless. There’s no real visual style, atmosphere, or narrative tension (beyond the general sense of dread stemming from the subject matter) to be found.

The bright spot (if you can call it that) of the film is the performance by Ely Solan as one of the two boys, the doe-eyed Jon. It is an unsettlingly excellent performance from such a young actor, to the point where it made me wonder about the ethics of putting child actors into such a disturbing (yes, fictional) situation.

There simply isn’t a reason for this movie to exist. It’s one thing to be bleak. It’s another to use real-life tragedy for shock value and do nothing more with it.

Skin

Skin (Guy Nattiv, USA)

I have mixed feelings on Skin. Partly, I think it suffered for being the last of the five shorts shown in the programme, forced to follow up all the grimness that came before. But more than that, I think it just goes overboard to make its point. The subject matter (concerning a racially-based hate crime in the small-town southern USA) is no doubt important. But while I think (?) the heavy-handedness is intentional (meant to be allegorical rather than taken at face value), the stereotypes and oversimplification of the complex themes is a bit hard to stomach.

That said it is beautifully shot, and the story flows well. The acting is also strong – Jonathan Tucker and Danielle Macdonald are experienced and talented enough to imbue some intricacy to what would be otherwise very one-dimensional characters. If only the story itself had an ounce of nuance.

January 2019 Favourites

Maybe it’s the clean slate of a new year, but for me January has been a really good month. And that includes the things I was watching, listening to, and reading. Here’s a look at some of my favourite things from the past month.

James Blake

Album: Assume Form by James Blake

If there’s one thing I’ve been obsessed with this month, it’s the new album by James Blake, which came out on January 18. Even though it’s only been out for a couple weeks, I’ve been playing it constantly. I don’t usually listen to albums over and over again in a short period of time, but there is something so relaxing about this album. Blake has really grown as a songwriter and the most straightforward approach of Assume Form suits him beautifully. There’s no way this doesn’t end up being my favourite album of the year.

Lost City of ZAll things Lost City of Z

I caught a 35mm screening of James Gray’s The Lost City of Z in January, and MAN this thing blew me away. The movie had gotten a fair bit of praise when it came out in theatres last year, but I just couldn’t muster up enough excitement to watch it until now. But it’s exquisite, compelling, beautiful… All the complimentary adjectives. And while I’m usually not super tuned into the subtleties of film vs. digital, it looked amazing on 35mm. I also loved the Christopher Spelman score, and have found myself listening to it quite a bit in the weeks since. And just to cement my status as full-blown fangirl, I also have the Mark Grann audiobook queued up and waiting for me on Scribd.

Bad BloodBook: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

My favourite read of the month was John Carreyrou’s nonfiction book from just last year, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. It tells the story of Theranos, a biotech startup that claimed they found a way to test for a multitude of diseases using just a single drop of blood from the patient. Too bad the technology was bogus and their tests didn’t work. Carreyrou gives a detailed but extremely readable account of everything that went down when Theranos soldiered on and decided to pretend nothing was wrong. It’s a fascinating tale of how ambition and greed can bring out the worst in people, and it’s also just a highly entertaining read. Even if you don’t typically enjoy nonfiction, I think most people would find something to like with this.

The Yards

At the Cinema: The Yards (plus James Gray)

Yes, we’re back to James Gray. Along with The Lost City of Z, I also caught a 35mm screening of The Yards (which I’d also never seen), including a post-film Q&A with Gray himself. Gray proved to be an incisive, hilarious, and sassy guest. (He also accompanies every one of his anecdotes with an impression of the person he’s talking about.) It was definitely a treat. Previously, the only Gray films I’d seen were Two Lovers and The Immigrant, which both got a bit of a shrug from me, but I guess I now have to consider myself a convert. Patiently awaiting Ad Astra.

The Sixth SenseAt the Cinema: The Sixth Sense

This was a rewatch for me, but my first time seeing it on the big screen and only my second viewing. It of course plays completely differently on rewatch, but is a blast in its own right as you notice all the things you missed the first time around. Also fun was the fact that someone in the group I went with had never seen the film before, and miraculously made it to 2019 without having the twist spoiled.

Top 5 first-time watches of January

  1. The Lost City of Z (2017)
  2. Our Little Sister (2016)
  3. The Yards (2000)
  4. Stagecoach (1939)
  5. Beau Travail (1999)

Review: Cold War

cold war

I don’t often wish that movies were significantly longer than they already are, but I think Cold War easily could have added another 20-30 minutes to its run time. And not in the sense where I just wanted to spend more time with the characters (although also kind of that). It’s because a scant 89 minutes didn’t feel long enough to tell this story in a fully satisfying way.

Following the “romantic epic” model, Cold War bounces between years and countries to tell the complicated love story of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig). But the story moves at such a clip that it’s not until the second act, taking place largely in Paris, where it feels like the film finally gets the space it deserves to let the story breathe.

Obviously it was Pawlikowski’s intention to present the story more in snippets or as fragments of a relationship. I’m just not sure I agree with him that that was the best way.

You may be surprised to learn, though, that my review of the movie is a positive one. The truth is that I liked everything else about the film so much that I still think it’s ultimately a success, and quite a visual achievement in particular. The black and white cinematography (as was the case in Pawlikowski’s previous film, Ida) is absolutely stunning, heightening the tension, longing, and volatility of many a scene.

The performances, too, are excellent. Kot is equal parts sadsack and dreamboat (to great effect), while Kulig deserves every word of praise she’s been getting for her turn. Zula is a fantastically complex and fiery character, and Kulig brings both the charisma and depth to carry her off perfectly. (I’ve been seeing a lot of Jennifer Lawrence comparisons, but there are many moments where she seemed to me the spitting image of a young Gena Rowlands.)

It was a thrill simply watching the central relationship play out. While I did feel the narrative structure made Cold War feel remote at times, ultimately the spirited performances and dazzling visuals brought it right back into the here and now.