Star Wars: The Last Jedi

December 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Brian, Reviews

Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher
Directed by: Rian Johnson (“Looper”)
Written by: Rian Johnson (“Looper”), George Lucas (based on characters created by)

It was 1977 the first time that cannonblast-of-a-musical-fanfare, yellow text crawl, and intrepid white runner-ship exploded across a celluloid starfield, changing movies forever. Forty years on, few phrases have the capacity to ripple the pop-cult zeitgeist like an upturned bedsheet in quite the same way as “they’re doing a new Star Wars.”

Toss it casually into your nearest social-media flea market of opinions and it’ll be met, in part, by a tide of cocksure pessimism, even anger – but know that these reactions are inflated artificially by their purveyors (even the most hardened and embittered of fanboy cynics and Han-Shot-Firsters) to castigate themselves for the inner flame of hope they dare not allow themselves to indulge.

Because that’s the power of this series: Even that wide (or at least vocal) swath of a generation that purports to feel intimately burned by the trio of p-words (sort of rhymes with “seagulls”) that “everyone hates” (disclosure: I don’t) would likely have to admit that their fear of feeling that way again is still tempered by a light side – a deep, secret longing to feel the wonder and awe they did when, as children, they watched a towheaded space-hick teenager thread the needle on a no-scope proton-torpedo shot that blew up a planetful of jackbooted, corrupt-establishment assholes. And of course it is. That fear and that hope coexist always, in all of us, swirled like chocolate-and-vanilla soft-serve, one amplifying the other. We’re afraid to wish for the feeling we grew up with, but we want desperately for someone to give it to us again, the same but different. So. Enter Rian Johnson?

Johnson’s “The Last Jedi,” Episode 8 of the Saga That Launched a Quadrillion-Million (Toy) (Space)ships, takes the baton (almost literally) from J.J. Abrams’s “The Force Awakens,” the December 2015 sequel that kickstarted a third trilogy under Lucasfilm’s new auspices at Disney. (Disney further cemented its “Star Wars” ownership this week – including new rights to the original theatrical versions of Episodes IV-VI – by purchasing 21st Century Fox). “Awakens,” despite its colossally daunting charge, acquitted itself more-than-admirably well: It delivered thrills, introduced winsome new players, and was for the most part received warmly, even enthusiastically, with perhaps its most common and agreed-upon criticism (a fair one, perhaps) being that it tried too hard and too often to call back to the original films. For my money, it was certainly a good time.

“The Last Jedi,” then, benefits not only from Awakens’ strong start, but more particularly from its predecessor’s having laid down backstory and development for such characters as First-Order-Stormtrooper-turned-rebel-hero Finn (John Boyega), orphan-junk-scavenger-turned-lightsaber-wielding-icon Rey (Daisy Ridley), and – despite the actor’s own demurrals, let’s face it – inescapably Han-Solo-esque fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). This legwork done, Johnson’s film is free to hit the ground running, and wisely does so, kicking things off with a rather breathtaking space-action sequence, engaging multiple concurrent storylines, and bringing faces old, new, and new-but-familiar into the galactic fold. At times, in fact, there almost seems (but doesn’t quite) to be too much going on: Clearly expository dialogue, which would otherwise chafe, is instead often welcome, as it helps explain (natch) and contextualize things that are happening quickly. Without spoiling much of anything (I promise): Rey has gone in search of Luke Skywalker (and found him, as we saw in “Awakens”), Finn decides to go in search of Rey, and Poe and Leia are alternately fleeing and facing down the First Order (General Hux [Gleeson], Kylo Ren [Driver], Supreme Leader Snoke [Serkis], et al.), who want the Rebellion quashed, because that’s what oppressive regimes like to do to rebellions. More happens, of course. But you don’t want me to tell you about that.

So. Does it work? As a film, and as a Star Wars film? In a word: Yes.

In another word: ABSO-PORG-ING-LUTELY.  Johnson is bold in his choices – and, more importantly, enacts his choices with the requisite confidence and style (and then some) to bring us along for the rollicking ride, even when we’re not immediately onboard. Further, again, so much is happening, and so much of it is so good, whatever’s questionable is easily and happily swept up by the consistent and captivating entertainment that surrounds it. One conceptually brilliant plot point/character motivation, for instance, doesn’t seem to get to breathe enough cinematically to have maximum impact, but is intrinsically such a stroke of genius that it nearly gets there on its own anyway. Johnson, who also wrote the film, uses humor early and liberally (and often notably modern-seeming humor, at that), which occasionally threatens to distract, tonally, but ultimately lands frequently enough to more-or-less justify itself. A few performances aren’t the sort in which one gets lost and forgets the effort being expended, but work well enough, for various reasons, to not break things up much. The porgs probably aren’t as cute (or omnipresent) as you think they are, but they’re still pretty freakin’ cute.

Much of everything else: Great.

Battle scenes, in space or otherwise, are gripping and spectacular. One of them contains a short action set piece that is, without exaggeration, one of the most instantly unforgettable sensory experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater. Visually, sonically, narratively, emotionally, it’s utterly, utterly stunning. We were at a press screening, full of critics – generally a more restrained audience (no whoops at the onscreen appearance of the words “Star Wars,” say) – and here there were audible gasps, surprised laughter, cheers, … even applause, I think. Ridley, as Rey, has come fully into her own. While she was certainly scrappy and charismatic in “Awakens,” “Last Jedi’s” Rey anchors and drives the emotional and narrative core of the film. Her focus is unblinking; her power undeniable. She’s one of a number of self-possessed, memorably heroic women in the film (there are a couple in even just the first few minutes), but Ridley’s transformation, and the calm certainty and resolve with which she carries vital portions of the picture, are astounding: She’s become the legend-in-the-making “Awakens” was hinting at, and I can’t wait to see more. The same could be said of Driver’s Kylo Ren, whose arc and inner turmoil are further explored and expanded, giving us a deeper, emerging portrait of a truly fascinating character – rendered so in large part by the actor’s quietly searing, often transfixing performance. Both actors are dialed in, and Johnson crafts a sprawling, compelling narrative around their interwoven fates — one that makes me want to keep watching.

Oscar Isaac, too, is phenomenal. He’s given much more to do this time around, and knocks it all out of the park. He flies like Maverick, disobeys orders for good reasons (like Maverick), and lights up like a Christmas tree when he sees buddies Finn (Boyega is as heart-on-his-sleeve magnetic as ever) or BB-8 (whom I could watch speedroll chirpily around for hours). (Side note: You deserve someone who looks at you the way Poe Dameron looks at Finn or BB-8. We all do.)

There are surprises to be had, and remembrances to be made. Go in willing to have a good time, and it might just be inevitable. Johnson tackles a monumental task with aplomb, paying deep homage in ways that feel integrated with and advance the story while putting his own stamps on it, as well. He knows how to create truly “cool” movie moments, but also how to weave them into the narrative so that they feel organic and earned. While Abrams is back at the helm for “Episode IX,” Disney has announced that Johnson will be directing an entirely separate Star Wars trilogy – which, following Last Jedi, sounds good to me.

The LEGO Batman Movie

February 10, 2017 by  
Filed under Brian, Reviews

Starring: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson
Directed by: Chris McKay (TV’s “Robot Chicken”)
Written by: Seth Grahame-Smith (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”), Chris McKenna (“Igor”), Erik Sommers (“Spider-man: Homecoming”), Jared Stern (“The Watch”), John Whittington (debut)

Learning, post-screening, that “The LEGO Batman Movie” director Chris McKay cut his stop-motion, pop culture incisors on three-seasons-and-a-movie of “Robot Chicken” feels something like — if you’ll be a peach and pardon the simile — the final piece clicking into place in that pixel-y, scale-model-ish helicopter/racecar/pontoon boat/Millennium Falcon you’ve been coaxing into being from a puddle of disparate, primary-colored, plastic Danish peg-bricks.

That is: It fits. It makes sense. It was always there, formless yet undeniable until it was made explicit and you uttered a sotto-voce “of course!” It’s what Lego Oprah (surely that exists) might call an “Everything is Ahawesome” moment. (Good gravy. No more Lego puns for me.)

It explains, in other words, the palpable kinship in sensibility between the incumbent Bat-comedy and the wryly frenetic Seth Green brainchild, which strobe-lights references both broad and arcane at its adoring viewers with the stamina and breakneck pace of a Gatling gun manned by a circa-’90s Dennis Miller.

In case this sounds like a complaint: It isn’t. For one thing, if “Lego Batman” feels something like kissing cousins with “Chicken,” it feels even more unmistakably and specifically at home (by purposeful design, certainly) with its record-breaking, Chris Pratt fronted forebear, “The Lego Movie” (on which McKay served as editor and animation co-director, among other credits). Fans of the latter, thus, should find much to enjoy here. For another thing, it’s replete with more than enough fond-and-loving nods to Batman’s greatest hits (Burton/Keaton, Nolan/Bale, et al.) and deep cuts (Killer Moth? Gentleman Ghost? CONDIMENT KING?) — as well as to pop culture at large — to satisfy Batman casuals, diehards, and don’t-cares alike.

As the film opens, we’re re(re-re)introduced to our iconic, mildly bell-shaped, adorably Byronic antihero (Arnett): He broods, raps cavalierly at the fourth wall, raps (and beatboxes) and thrashes on electric guitar, and saves the city in a stunning pyrotechnic display of superheroic prowess without so much as breaking a shiny yellow sweat. And: He never takes off the cowl. Figuratively, at least, but pretty much literally, too. At home, he absently microwaves lobster thermidor, pads through cavernous, echo-chamber hallways, gazes wistfully at pictures of his parents when he thinks no one’s looking, and otherwise generally worries manservant/father figure Alfred (voiced by Ralph Fiennes, in apparent and much-appreciated observance of my deeply held personal belief that Ralph Fiennes should be in everything, please), who wants nothing more, in keeping with canon, than for his ward to lighten up and let people into his hermetic, kevlar-insulated world. Enter Richard “Dick” Grayson: uncommonly spry orphan, megawatt-candlepower Pollyanna, recent adoptive-son-via misunderstanding to billionaire Bat-beard Bruce Wayne, and soon-to-be alter ego of pantsless ur-sidekick Robin — limned, in a stroke of mad casting genius, by Michael Cera.

“The Lego Batman Movie” is at its best and most brilliant in these moments of winking, hyperbolic-yet spiritually-reverent adaptation. The characters we know like family, the tentpole relationships that have been hewn in granite for decades, are giddily skewed and exaggerated here, but are also yoked to the thrust and load-bearing theme of the tale: No Batman is a Bat-island. (Or, if you like, a Batcave beneath the surface of a Bat-island.) As did “The Lego Movie,” “Lego Batman” creates fruitful comedic juxtaposition by imagining The World’s Greatest Detective as a whiny, moody, braggy, dim, nigh-pathologically self-absorbed virtual adolescent who happens to be a superhuman athlete and crime-fighting savant.

Wisely, though, the film digs deeper to suggest the roots of this Big-style emotional stunting: Bruce is, in many ways, just a well-muscled kid who misses his parents. Alfred, ever of sage word and furrowed brow, a sea of tough love restrained by propriety and diction, struggles to shepherd his Herculean middle-schooler: In one of the cleverer bits divulged in trailers, he places a parental lock on the Batcomputer. Robin, traditionally conceived as a youthful, bright counterpoint to the “Dark Knight,” is here pushed to 11-and-then-some: He communicates in giddy squeals and effervescent ’80s pop songs and takes the world in guilelessly via Coke-bottle lenses that turn his eyes into saucers.

The most inspired mutation, though, is in Batman’s relationship with Zach Galifianakis’s Joker. Under Lego’s watch, the well-documented “you hate me but you need me,” intertwined-fate, two-sides-of-the-same-coin trope is writ flatly and unapologetically as an “An Officer and a Gentleman”-style “why won’t he let me in” movie romance, to the point that, when it resolves, you almost want Bats carting the Clown Prince off in his arms to the silky-gravelly strains of Jennifer Warnes and Joe Cocker. It’s one of those moves, an idea so simple and immediately, obviously right that you can’t believe you haven’t seen it before, or that you didn’t think of it yourself. Well played.

There were brief moments in which I found myself drifting. The story progresses logically and well, and even drew tears from me at certain points (it gets sweet, and I’m a crier), but “Lego Batman” is so engaging when it’s poking practical, affectionate, self-aware fun at the monolithically established Bat-Universe that I found myself wishing for a companion version of the film that eschewed plot and emotional resonance and cohesion and character growth and just let its writers loose to “Robot Chicken” jokes at me for 106 minutes. Still, McKay and company do an impressive job of weaving the thing into a working, breathing, family-friendly cautionary tale about overcoming pain and fear and letting oneself love and be loved again. (Again: I cried. At “Lego Batman.”)

And again, the writing, concepts, and casting are so smack-your-face fantastic at times (Jenny Slate as Harley Quinn!) and so warmly considerate of its fan base (Billy Dee as Two-Face!) that I’m eager for a second viewing. My viewing partner, an enormous “Lego Movie” fan, didn’t dig this outing as much, and I don’t know that I’d necessarily call it a perfect movie, but there are lots of things about it, particularly as a Bat-fan, that I love and appreciate to an extent that, frankly, I want to hug them and never Lego.

(Last one.)

The Light Between Oceans

September 5, 2016 by  
Filed under Brian, Reviews

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
Directed by: Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”)
Written by: Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”)

There is something about the way some directors — in their wisdom? Confidence? Daredevilry? — allow their actors the considerable space to breathe freely and to nakedly “be” that, when we’re lucky, results in electrically vulnerable performances, dazzlingly intimate in their heedless, tightrope un-selfconsciousness and breathtaking in their vital, textured fullness and authenticity. It’s the sort of freedom that can clear away tricks and tics, stripping things down to the personal and uncrafted, to the spontaneous, inadvertent starbursts of honesty and messy, trembling revelation that inspire special, unexpected, often whole-soul performances from even celebrated, marquee actors, with whose best we previously thought we were well acquainted.

David O. Russell does that. (Witness: Christian Bale in “The Fighter,” the tremendous ensembles of “American Hustle” and “I Heart Huckabees,” Mark Wahlberg in every Russell movie he’s cast in.)
And Derek Cianfrance does that.

Watch “The Place Beyond the Pines” and try to tell me that isn’t your favorite Eva Mendes role, or some of the best work you’ve seen from Cooper and Gosling. Watch “Blue Valentine” and tell me you don’t have to remind yourself to exhale because you feel just that certain that you’re eavesdropping on private moments you weren’t ever meant to see (but can’t possibly tear your eyes from).

Cianfrance’s latest, “The Light Between Oceans,” could hardly be called as “raw” as “Valentine” or as “gritty” as “Pines;” on the surface, in fact, “Oceans” — a sweepingly romantic post-World War I period piece lit like a sunkissed watercolor painting — might seem a departure from the director’s oeuvre of hard-hitting, in-the-room immediacy. Undeniably, though, it shares that observer’s sensibility, that commitment to intimacy that both trusts and challenges its towering, A-list cast. Moreover, a careful viewing of Cianfrance’s recent narrative work reveals a clear lineage, a shared DNA that leads to the conclusion that “Oceans” was, indeed, the next logical step to which this has all been leading.

Based on the best-selling 2012 Australian novel, “The Light Between Oceans” unfolds the sort of heady, tragic tale that might, in lesser hands all around, veer easily and permanently into the swamp of melodrama. Reeling from his time in the Great War, the intensely solitary Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) applies to become keeper of a lighthouse on the fictional Janus Rock, 100 miles from the coast and the nearest human being (a situation which screams metaphor, but not ultimately overbearingly so). In short order, he catches eyes with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) a schoolmaster’s daughter whose piercing boldness and effervescence, despite losing two brothers to the war, disarms Sherbourne completely. Love blossoms, the two decide to marry, and the nearest human being becomes much nearer, as the rapturous newlyweds retire to an idyllic, private life on Janus. As it tends to do, though, tragedy besets the couple, and the inability to bear a child leaves both (and particularly Isabel) despondent — until the day a baby washes ashore in a dinghy, bringing with it the promise of life and happiness, but also an uncommonly heavy choice.

Bathed in exquisitely aching restraint and soul-rending inner turmoil, Oceans is potboiler escapist theater at its very best and classiest. From the early-goings extreme-wide of a steam train billowing a florescence of smoke across an undeveloped landscape, the production design, costumes, setting, and masterful symphonic score by Alexandre Desplat weave a wonderfully nostalgic portal to the sumptuous epic romances that populated the ’80s and ’90s, such as “Out of Africa,” “The English Patient,” and the films of Merchant and Ivory. As my viewing partner noted, “Oceans” feels like a novel — in a very good way. The strength of its direction and performances more-than-ably support what might be otherwise oppressively weighty themes, and the film thrives when we’re given airless, desperate moments in which to co-suffer with our protagonists.

Vikander is at first a luminous firecracker, recalling Audrey Hepburn as she exudes irresistible, irrepressibly girlish glee to chip away at Tom’s first-act stoicism; as the film progresses, she seamlessly “matures,” contending with despair and tribulation in stunning moments of hoarse, raw-throated agony and quiet, hard vindictiveness. Fassbender, our oak, indisputably one of our greatest living actors despite breaking out relatively recently in 2008-2009, is absolutely tailor-made for the repressed torment that inhabits Tom, so much so that “Oceans” seems, finally, to make an incontrovertible and nigh-embarrassingly obvious case for what we all know in our hearts we’ve been clawing to see: Fassbender’s John Proctor in (Cianfrance’s?) The Crucible. (Seriously: Why deny it any longer? Let’s solidify the Day-Lewis heirdom. We’ll all be the happier and more blessed for it.)

Weisz, as a third, profoundly interested party, continues her run as one of Hollywood’s most intriguing and enigmatic screen presences, imbuing a potentially somewhat straightforward role not only with every drop and more of the requisite, excruciating pathos, but also with enough eye-darting lost-ness and unpredictability to bring the character vibrantly to life amid despair. Australian screen giant Bryan Brown also shines in a gruff-then-tender turn as Weisz’s father.

If the film falters, it is, unfortunately, in the end. For my money, the resolution is given too short shrift to land with an emotional finality proportionate to the rest of the story. I needed more time with it, a chance to go deeper. Two, three more short scenes, tops. There are extreme decisions and actions by our protagonists that seemed, at times, a bit to swallow, but they went down eventually, particularly as the events they set in motion and the artistry with which said events were handled justified any misgivings. The film, at day’s end, is good. Very, very, very, very, very, very good. Where “Blue Valentine” gave us frank, uncomfortable, exposed-nerve emotion, acutely beautiful in the openness of its wounds, and “The Place Beyond the Pines” set a harrowing, multi-generational, “Wuthering Heights”-style opera in a dingy, recognizable modern world of motorcycle crime and police corruption, “The Light Between Oceans” blends these spirits, foregoing the “edge” of 2016 for the chance to carry us away like we used to be, once, to wince tear-stained faces and open grateful hearts at the delicate intertwinings of love and pain. Oscar nominations, well-deserved, should be in the offing.

Greater

August 26, 2016 by  
Filed under Brian, Reviews

Starring: Christopher Severio, Neal McDonough, Leslie Easterbrook
Directed by: David Hunt (“Living Dark”)
Written by: David Hunt (“Living Dark”) and Brian Reindl (debut)

On January 4, 1999, a month after Texas’s Ricky Williams won the Heisman Trophy, I was planted in front of a television screen, pulling for Chris Weinke and Sebastian Janikowski’s third-ranked Florida State Seminoles to take down Tee Martin and Peerless Price’s undefeated, top-seeded Tennessee Volunteers. They didn’t, and the Vols rolled to a 23-16 victory in the first-ever BCS Championship Game, posting a 13-0 record and becoming the first of nine BCS champions to complete a perfect season.

It sucked.

Arguably, though, Tennessee’s most memorable test of the season (and one of the most heartbreaking near-upset college football games of all time) had come roughly seven weeks earlier, when the eventual champs ran face-first into the surging, 10th-ranked, likewise-unbeaten Arkansas Razorbacks — who might have snapped their title hopes right then and there if not for a late-game, instantly legendary “sports miracle” — or, depending on your allegiances, “harrowing disaster.”

Sports are like that. Events transpire (balls bounce in or rattle out, are caught or dropped, drift foul or fair) seemingly objectively, even arbitrarily, and we assign meaning to them, use them to fuel our hope or despair. Life, too: “Good” things happen, we believe the world to be a wonderful place; “bad” ones, some of us tend to struggle for meaning. Those of us who are religious may take the dichotomy as a test of faith.

At this intersection — sports, life, crisis of belief — sits David Hunt’s “Greater,” a Christian-faith-based film that aims to meditate on these themes, provide encouragement to those in the grip of such a spiritual conundrum, and tell the remarkable (and remarkably “Rudy”-like) true story of the heart and soul of that Arkansas team: a winsome, bespectacled o-lineman named Brandon Burlsworth, considered to be perhaps the greatest walk-on in college football history, whose life was cut tragically short.

The film opens with the final, day-of preparations for Burlsworth’s funeral in hometown Harrison, Arkansas, in the midst of wrestling with his death. “Of all people,” clicks a local, early on, “How’s that make any sense?” The funeral director sloughs past a sign reading “Lord help us understand.” In short order, we’re following his older brother, Marty (Neal McDonough), who shrugs off condolences and walks about vacantly, stricken by anger and confusion. Marty’s flashback remembrances serve as our entry into Brandon’s ultimately irresistible underdog story: fat-shamed, socially awkward kid declares while watching a game that he wants to play for the University of Arkansas, puts his head down and doesn’t stop fighting the (considerable) odds until he realizes that dream, and more. Intermittently, we pop back out to present-day Marty, whose will-he-or-won’t-he reluctance to attend the funeral he’s dressed for as a protest against a God who would unjustly allow such a calamity — or was unable to prevent it — both furnish the film’s frame story and carry its underlying message.

“Greater,” as is notable in spots, is not a film with an extravagant (reported/estimated) budget, by Hollywood standards. Imdb.com lists it at $9 million; by comparison, “Rudy” spent $12M — 23 years ago. 2006’s “Glory Road” spent $30 million, and the 2013 Jackie Robinson biopic “42” (which nabbed Harrison Ford and a then-unknown Chadwick Boseman) spent $40M. In truth, the movie works best (and feels like big-time cinema — no small feat) when it’s following Brandon, Marty, and family on the path to Razorback glory (Hogs heaven?) and beyond. The football sequences are thrilling and well-wrought, and the performances are solid and charming across the board. Severio channels guilelessness and palpable determination, McDonough handles frustration, comic relief, and emotional weight well. A pair of coaches — Fredric Lehne as Arkansas OT coach Mike Bender, and Peter Lewis as Bulsworth’s high school coach Tommy Tice — are particular standouts, effectively drawing both smiles and tears as focused but large-hearted motivators. Michael Parks gives another raspy, quietly searing turn in a smallish role as the Burlsworths’ troubled father.

I liked “Greater.” In parts, I loved it. I connected with it, laughed with it, cried with it. There are great moments, moments I want to relive via repeat viewings. It succeeds in capturing a purity of spirit that exists in “Rudy,” in “Rocky,” in many of the great sports films. It lost me, though, in moments in which it seemed to fight itself to be two stories: Brandon’s and Marty’s. Its message, that tragedy tests faith, is not one I disagree with or feel isn’t a worthy statement, but the way in which it was handled seemed to press the point too much. A device that embroiled McDonough’s Marty in existential conversations with an enigmatic character named in credits as The Farmer (is he real? is he an embodiment of Marty’s doubt or darkness?) featured good performances, but was befuddling, and seemed tonally at odds with the light, “Hoosiers”-y ethos of the film I felt I was, at times, watching. There are issues with overscoring, and pacing. It’s worth mentioning here that my viewing partner was not as bothered as I was by these issues, so maybe these sentiments aren’t universal.

Finally, though, “Greater” is worth watching — particularly for fans of the sort of fighting-giants, feel-good athletics films to which we’ve already referred. The Brandon Burlsworth story is a very, very good one, and “Greater” tells it well; the movie is at its best, for me, when channeling the enormous heart that pervades his remarkable journey, and must have existed palpably within the young man himself.

Note: Actor Christopher Severio (who plays Brandon Bulsworth in “Greater”) and his family lost everything in the recent Louisiana flooding. The production has established a Gofundme at the following link for those who wish to donate click HERE.

War Dogs

August 21, 2016 by  
Filed under Brian, Reviews

Starring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas
Directed by: Todd Phillips (“The Big Short”)
Written by: Stephen Chin (“Another Day in Paradise”), Todd Phillips (“The Big Short”), Jason Smilovic (“Lucky Number Slevin”)

If, upon watching the driving, energetic, rat-a-tat-tat trailer for Todd Phillips’s “War Dogs,” you found yourself thinking, “Huh — looks kinda like “The Big Short, Jr.,” rest assured: You were neither (1) alone nor (2) wrong in that assessment.

Just as you wouldn’t (necessarily) have been alone or wrong had you drawn a line of comparison/inspiration/theoretical parentage between “The Big Short” — last year’s Oscar quintuple-nominee and Best Adapted Screenplay winner — and 2013’s Oscar quintuple-nominee “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Or between “Wolf” and “Goodfellas,” for that matter. (Or “Casino” and “Goodfellas.” Or “Blow” and “Goodfellas.” Or “Boogie Nights” and “Goodfellas.” Or 2009 internet-porn origin story “Middle Men” and “Goodfellas.” And on and on.)

The point: If “War Dogs” is “The Big Short, Jr.,” and “The Big Short” is “The Wolf of Wall Street, Jr.,” does that mean, by the transitive property or some-such, that “Dogs” is “The Wolf of Wall Street, Jr.-Jr.?”

Or, to a lesser extent, “Goodfellas Jr.-Jr.-Jr.?”

More to the point: Yes, kind of.

Even more to the point: That’s not altogether a bad thing.

Based on a jaw-dropping, eminently Google-able true story, “War Dogs” follows David Packouz (Teller), a restless Miami Beach masseur who reconnects with high school best friend/stoner pal (and small-time weapons dealer) Efraim Diveroli (Hill) and is summarily drawn in, at the ground-floor level, to the latter’s nascent get-absurdly-rich-reasonably-quickly venture: Capitalize on an early-2000s, post-Halliburton-scandal “trustbusting” atmosphere — in which federal arms contracts were suddenly opened up via online marketplace to virtually anyone who could fill the orders — by becoming go-between munitions suppliers to the United States government at the ripe old ages of 19 and 23. As Hill/Diveroli puts it: “This is the job. To do business with the people and places the U.S. government can’t do business with directly. It’s as simple as that.”

And, for a while, it is. Of course, what seems simple at first becomes less and less so (I mean, come on: Not to belabor this, but … you’ve seen “Goodfellas,” right?), stakes and price tags spiral upward, allegiances are tested and strained, and our dude-bro DoD diplomats find themselves in well over their heads.

The story is a dilly, and Phillips (who gave us the “Hangover” franchise, “Old School,” and “Road Trip”) handles it well. The presentation is largely slick, snappy, fun — the opening lags a bit, as it calls inevitably to mind other (aforementioned) films that are slicker and snappier — but once the yarn gets to unspooling in earnest, we clip along at a sprightly pace that both ramps up and relieves tension in appropriate and pleasing measures. The later portions of “War Dogs” hold a number of shocks, dumbfoundings, and flabbergasts, and Phillips sticks these critical landings admirably. (One is tempted to wonder — though the timelines probably don’t work out — whether seeing “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers’s” Adam McKay broaden his directorial purview and subsequently score with “The Big Short” made Phillips say, “I can do that.” Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome and ably-turned new leaf.)

The cast is watertight, as well. Hill, as Diveroli, cooks: He’s a hoot, dripping with charismatic, sleazy bravado and frequently emitting a curious (but effective and trademark-ish) high-pitched laugh, like air escaping a balloon, or a baked-out-of-his-mind comic book villain. Teller, tasked with the straight-man burden, is wholly believable, casually-but-adeptly comedic, and elicits much more sympathy than one would expect, for a character who says “bro” as much as he’s asked to. Ana de Armas is solid, Kevin Pollack charming, Bradley Cooper properly unsettling in a minimalist but intriguing cameo.

“War Dogs” will remind you strongly of films you’ve seen before — but they’re very good films, and there’s a strong enough combination of familiar structural/tonal elements, confidence in its own story and style, and harrowing ugly-truth-telling to keep things entertaining and eye-opening all the way through.

Blood Father

August 12, 2016 by  
Filed under Brian, Reviews

Starring: Mel Gibson, Erin Moriarty, Diego Luna
Directed by: Jean-François Richet (“Assault on Precinct 13” [2005])
Written by: Peter Craig (“The Town”) and Andrea Berloff (“Straight Outta Compton”)

Setting aside for just a moment the strange and harrowing ways in which it happened, it remains something of a distinctly American cinematic tragedy that, beginning in 2006, the world lost anywhere from 4-10 years of potentially prime work from Mel Gibson, as big and exciting a movie star as ever there was. To date, comeback bids have (understandably) skewed dark, alternately recasting the twinkling-eyed, roguish hero of “Maverick” (man, remember “Maverick?!”) as a criminal (“Get the Gringo,” “Machete Kills,” “The Expendables 3”), a depressive alcoholic (“The Beaver”), or a man on a full-tilt, burn-the-world-down revenge-bender (“Edge of Darkness”).

Jean-François Richet’s “Blood Father” — based on co-screenwriter Peter Craig’s eponymous novel (which, in a striking bit of coincidence, was published less than five months before the infamous Malibu DUI arrest that more-or-less started this whole thing) — efficiently combo-wraps all three in the personage of John Link (Mel Gibson), a gruff, buff, bored ex-con and former Hell’s Angel who dutifully attends AA meetings and maintains his parole terms in the meager hopes of living out his remaining years on the outside. This middling goal is put into sudden and significant jeopardy, however, by a single, last-resort phone call from Link’s estranged and oft-drugged-up daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty): Bad, bad dudes are after her for shooting her badder-dude, cartel-drug-runner boyfriend, and she needs a few grand to get lost. Unsure what to believe, he, nonetheless, scoops her up without hesitation — but when said dudes bring the hunt to his doorstep, Link fights back, old habits and reptilian brain function are dusted off, and the chase is on.

The driving premise and structure here aren’t especially new: It’s the same proven sensitive-and-charismatic-’90s-actor-turned-grizzled-vengeance-and-violence-machine formula that these days has “Field of Dreams”‘s Ray Kinsella slamming heads in car doors, say, or Oskar Schindler ramming faces with fire extinguishers. Movies, though, are so very often less about the “what” than the “how,” and it’s the “how” here that works — and works well. Very well, in fact.

I never saw “Edge of Darkness,” or Gibson’s turns in the “Expendables” or “Machete” franchises. The last time I saw the erstwhile Max Rockatansky in a theatrically released film, in fact, was 2011. But “The Beaver,” frankly, didn’t prepare me for “Blood Father,” one of the most unexpectedly kinetic, entertaining, limbically thrilling small action films I’ve seen in a long while. The action is sudden, hard, and impactful, the sort that raises eyebrows, widens eyes, crams your mouth into a tight, silent little “O.” The dialogue is clever, laced with satire, and sharply crafted, but not too much so; in spots, appropriately, it’s lightly reminiscent of Shane Black (which is almost always a good thing, in my book). It’s something akin to getting slammed about in the backseat of a leather-seated, steel-backed muscle car, and Gibson and Richel have a firm grip on the wheel. As Link, Gibson is in fine form: An introductory monologue feels a hair rushed or movie-ish, but thereafter he’s flawless. Regret; warmth; weariness; cockeyed humor; stubborn intensity; that familiar, mercurial spark — these pour forth in equal measure as he flits and swirls from one to the other as organically as ever, as organically as anyone ever has. Indeed, the film is bolstered by able, full performances: William H. Macy as a hoot of an AA sponsor, Michael Parks as a thinning but menacing former colleague. Erin Moriarty acquits herself well as Link’s troubled daughter, and provides an effective energetic and emotional counterpoint to Gibson’s heavy, leathered growl. The film, though, is Gibson’s to carry — and carry it he does.

Am I pushing the point here? Writing emotionally? Maybe. I mean, no: I genuinely think Gibson is excellent as Link; he brings to it what few, if any, could. But there’s something else at play. “Blood Father,” the first Gibson-led piece I’ve seen in a half-decade, both opens and salves a wound I’d long been burying, perhaps somewhat subconsciously: I, as a moviegoer, as an audience member, as a ’90s kid, have missed Mel Gibson. A lot.

In an era in which critics and commenters have lamented that the old-guard Movie Star is dead, it’s significant to be reminded what they look(ed) like. Gibson’s performance is great, but even more refreshing is the experience of being back in a story he’s leading me on, with all the quicksilver confidence, charisma, vulnerability, and impishness I remember so very well and so fondly. And it makes me happy, but sad, as well. As Link (and Gibson) intones, frankly and not-un-self-consciously, hands fidgeting with what appears to be a sobriety coin, during that opening AA monologue: “I did a lot of damage. Lost a lot of people along the way. … But you can’t be a prick all your life and then just say, ‘Never mind.’ You know. I can’t fix everything I broke. All I can do is not drink. So I won’t do that today.”

There’s a seeming mea culpa element to almost every role Gibson has played since 2006. By design, surely. He plays broken men, damaged men, “bad” men. In some ways, he always has, but it’s different now. Gone are the romantic leads, the lightheartedness. Gone are the “good guys with a little bit of damage in ’em, just enough to be fun.” “Blood Father,” at least, casts him as the antipode: “Fuck-up with a sliver of hope, looking for redemption.” “What Women Want” and “Bird on a Wire” seem far, far away.

I truly, truly don’t mean to minimize the pain that was caused by the real-world actions of Gibson the man. I truly do not. I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m doing so, and if it does, I’m sorry. It’s not at all my intention. Hurt is hurt is hurt; it should not be ignored or diminished. Nor do I mean to attempt to pass judgment in any way on a man I’ve never met. God help any of us who is judged publicly and/or primarily by anything but our best days. And even then. Certainly, like it or not, Gibson is giving it another shot: “The Professor and the Madman” casts him opposite Sean Penn in a long-gestating project based on a book subtitled “A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.” The “Apocalypto” helmer is back in the chair for the intriguing-looking “Hacksaw Ridge,” though the trailer gives him the Affleck treatment, eschewing his name in favor of “From the Academy-Award Winning Director of Braveheart.”

It’s been a long time. There are questions, and the easy answers aren’t easy.

All I know is I’ve missed Mel Gibson, the movie star, and “Blood Father” gave him back to me, for a short while. Thank you.

Ghostbusters

July 15, 2016 by  
Filed under Brian, Reviews

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones
Directed by: Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”)
Written by: Katie Dippold (“The Heat”) and Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”)

“’Ain’t no bitches gonna bust no ghosts,” intones bewildered and hurt paranormal-hobbyist-turned-physicist-turned-“Ghostbuster”-2.0 Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), reading aloud a reaction to a YouTube video of her team’s extra-normal exploits. It’s a line that elicits a knowing, involuntary bark of a laugh, not least because it’s an example of art not so much imitating life, but rather faithfully — if painfully — reporting it.

Following an historically inauspicious trailer reception (it’s the “most disliked” movie trailer in YouTube’s decade-plus of existence), and the widespread denunciation of that reception as virulently sexist, and the repudiation of that denunciation by commenters claiming defense of a treasured classic, and so on — all months before the first press or preview screening — Paul Feig’s female-fronted “Ghostbusters” reboot could be forgiven for rolling into theaters this week with a sizable spectral chip on its wearied shoulder.

To wit: If the aforementioned “bust no ghosts” scene is the most pointed of the film’s fourth-wall-chipping glances at its own pre-detractors, it may not be the only one. Subtle (or not-so-) moments in which a male villain taunts our heroes (or heroines?) for “shooting like girls” or opines that they’re late to a showdown because (1) women “always” are and (2) they probably couldn’t pick out the right coveralls to wear, or Cecily Strong’s purposeful emphasis, as a tight-smiling mayoral assistant, in complaining about “these women” are all about as jarring and uncomfortable as they sound, but skate by(?) as paper-thin, self-aware, psuedo-Swiftian satire.

Which assessment brings us more directly to the rightful point: the film. Is it good? Is it funny? How does it fare, pushing distractions and comparisons aside?

Well, that depends.

Structurally (and in many other ways, as it turns out), we’re in strikingly familiar territory — on paper, at least. Wiig’s Gilbert is an about-to-be-tenured professor at Columbia University whose enthusiastic/eccentric/scientific-genius former colleague Abby Yates (McCarthy, introduced sporting decidedly Stanz-ian headgear) is on the verge of a breakthrough in super-spooky studies, assisted by the even-more-enthusiastic/eccentric/scientific-genius-y Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). When Gilbert’s association with Yates leads to a chain of events that outs her as a supernatural-believer to her no-nonsense dean (the wonderful Charles Dance, in what sadly amounts to a cameo) and leaves all three women out of a job, she joins forces with Yates, Holtzmann, and Patty Tolan (Jones), a subway worker with an encyclopedic knowledge of New York City architecture and history, to catch and study incorporeal entities — and, ultimately, save the city from a neon ghostly apocalypse.

The talent here assembled is considerable: Wiig and McCarthy are proven and reliable comedic tentpoles; “Freaks and Geeks” creator Feig has delivered with female-led hits “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” and the uproarious and tremendously fun “Spy;” McKinnon, Jones, and Strong are breakout “SNL” stars (McKinnon and Strong, in particular, are capable of unleashing a dizzying array of simultaneously realistic and gut-busting characters; expect big things from them). Hemsworth is undeniably winning (if perplexingly written) as a brick-stupid receptionist, and even Andy Garcia shows up to fill out a small role as an unapologetic rat-sleazehole of a mayor. The ingredients are present, then, for these Ghostbusters to stride confidently in a new direction all their own, exorcising the hulking and formidable spectre of their phantom-fighting forebears.

One significant problem, it turns out, lies precisely in the film’s own reluctance to do just that, instead allowing said spectre to loom unavoidably overhead like a monstrous, anthropomorphic, sailor-suited partial S’more. That is to say, “Ghostbusters” (2016) invests so very much time and energy nodding to and hammer-winking at “Ghostbusters” (1984) in so very many multifarious ways (plot points, art design/visual references, locations, audio cues, déjà-vu-ish characters, a glut of cameos, lines lines lines lines lines) that it does itself a number of great disservices. Not only does this significant a volume of repeated hat-tips (literally, repeated: Annie Potts’s beloved “Ghostbusters, whaddaya want?” squawk is quoted not once, but twice) constantly pull its audience out of the story to remind us that we’re watching a movie (and a contentious remake, at that), not only does it refuse to allow us to to forget the original (and, in fact, all-but-force us to compare the two), but, arguably most damaging of all, it causes the film itself to seem strangely insecure — almost as if, for all the filmmakers’ railing against and dismissal of cage-rattling trolls and hatescream fanboys, they don’t ultimately feel worthy of the mantle without concerted pandering or appeasement. It’s like Cary Elwes’s pitiable-but-understandable attempt at Jim Carrey’s “The Claw” in “Liar, Liar” — no one wants that, man. Just be yourself.

That may seem uncharitable. I apologize, if so. The truth is, I’m frustrated, because the thing could have worked. If this were the film’s only pervasive misstep, Feig and co. might’ve pulled it off — and what a success it would have been.

Let’s pause, though. Because here’s where the “that depends” part comes in.

The (other) truth is: If you’re a child aged 9-14, or if you haven’t seen or aren’t especially fond of or aren’t looking for a tonal successor to the seminal 1984 hit, chances are good you’ll like this “Ghostbusters” very much. You might, in fact, love it. That isn’t a dig. It’s a sincere distinction. This film, with its bright colors, lighter tone, and somewhat scaled-back scares, feels a bit more like a kids’ movie than the original — or even like “The Real Ghostbusters” cartoon I very much enjoyed as a kid (I dug Filmation’s, too). No demon dogs, no monster-hands bursting from the recliner, no eidolic Ackroyd-fellating. Some of the inconsistencies in the universe (particularly those presented by the panoply of cameos — a nod to one character suggests we’re in the original Ghostbusterverse, while other actors are clearly new characters and one seems to have a foot in both) or departures in tone (’84 was quirky-but-subtle, and, though ghosts feature prominently, set in an otherwise “real” world; ’16 presents us with a parade of sketch-comedy characters [and there’s no telling what dimension spawned Hemsworth’s absurdly airheaded Kevin]) or issues with pacing or writing or chemistry or character or performance (a heavier premium on “funny” or “wacky” than “convincing” or “deep”) may not bother a younger viewer, and some of these may not bother an older viewer not beholden to cockle-warming memories of Peter/Ray/Egon/Winston. It is, in some ways, a “fresh” take. Kind of. When it isn’t trying desperately not to be.

And that, finally, is the death-knell. Or is it? On the one hand, you’ve got an exciting team of comedic performers seemingly hamstrung by a script that seems more interested in dutifully bowing to its elders every five pages than in making its own mark, and a film whose first cut was reportedly four hours and 15 minutes (which is palpable, in retrospect). On the other hand, you’ve got that magical viral photo of Kristen Wiig, clasping hands with a positively beaming young girl in a Ghostbusters outfit while another, identically attired down to the unutterably joyous expression, looks on. And that’s when you can’t help but think: “Huh — maybe my opinion isn’t the one that really matters here.”

Knight of Cups

March 14, 2016 by  
Filed under Brian, Reviews

Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman
Directed by: Terrence Malick (“Tree of Life,” “The Thin Red Line”)
Written by: Terrence Malick

In 2011, a peculiar and prominently placed lobby placard accompanied the theatrical run of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” at the Austin, Texas, arthouse where my wife and I saw the film. Customarily, of course, studios will blow up favorable reviews of prestige pictures, poster-sized reproductions of admiring New York Times or Variety think-pieces intended to drive traffic, foster appreciation, and brand the property as “critically acclaimed” and “substantial” and “Academy Award-worthy.” (All three of which, of course, the thrice-nominated Tree [Picture/Director/Cinematography] rather objectively is.)

This lobby card was different, though. No monolithic rave or erudite recommendation, it bore instead a disclaimer. A warning, really. Very nearly, indeed, a tight-jawed semi-apology. It communicated something remarkably similar to — and may in fact have been a close paraphrasing or regionalized adaptation of — a like-minded and somewhat internet-notorious caveat that was displayed at Stamford, Connecticut’s Avon theatre and read, in part: “We would like to take this opportunity to remind patrons that “The Tree of Life” is a uniquely visionary and deeply philosophical film from an auteur director. It does not follow a traditional, linear narrative approach to storytelling. We encourage patrons to read up on the film before choosing to see it … please go in with an open mind and know that the Avon has a NO-REFUND policy…”

In essence: “We realize that, technically, this is a summer movie featuring Brad Pitt and dinosaurs, but please don’t allow that to calibrate your attention span. Take a deep breath, and give it a shot. If you do, we think you might — albeit in spite of yourself — have a meaningful experience.” Or, Eat your peas because they’re good for you and because we can’t just have ice cream all the time, you feckless troglodytes.

The more-recent films of Terrence Malick are, in two insufficient words, lyrical and polarizing. A cursory Rotten Tomatoes jaunt confirms that “To The Wonder” was called both “the best American feature by far of 2013” and “a self-destructed misfire.” I saw “The Thin Red Line” in high school with friends who went in looking for two more hours of “Saving Private Ryan.” And post-screening eavesdroppings and conversations relative to the certainly lyrical-and-polarizing “Knight of Cups” have yielded (1) stunned, breathless utterances of profound gratitude, (2) shaking pledges of enthusiastic hatred from at least one respected friend and Malick fan, and (3) the overheard, apparently concerned puzzler, “Does Brian Dennehy have an issue with his back?”

The thing about “Knight of Cups” is that there isn’t just one thing about “Knight of Cups.” Or about “The Tree of Life,” or “The Thin Red Line.” “Knight” (literally) follows a reeling-and-gutted, hollow-eyed Bale (playing a screenwriter named Rick — though, I missed something, because I thought he was meant to be an actor until I checked the IMDB synopsis just now) through a numb, soft, swirling, glittering, emotionless-and-emotionally-harrowing minefield of beauty, decadence, lovers, and loss. Sounds are muted, dialogue Dopplers in and out, voiceover and chamber music and quotations from sources as varied as The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Bible and was-that-really-“Twin Peaks” abound, and the whole sordid, dreamy affair is awash in natural light and revealed by Chivo Lubezki’s always-swimming, too-close-for-anything-but-comfort camera. There’s a lot going on, always. You lean forward and push your ears up to catch everything, and you don’t catch everything. And so, you remain patient and open and have faith that everything will come together and make sense.

Increasingly, it may be said, certain of Malick’s films are in some ways less “films” and more experiential, stylized realities. And somehow, in their stylization, in their stream-of-fractured-consciousness, in their gauzy haze and sudden, uncanny specificity, they approximate reality and the sense of life more closely and accurately than the work of almost any other filmmaker who comes to mind. There is form in this formlessness, method in this Malickness. Malick’s work spends purposeful time breaking us of our expectations, of the ingrained and deep-dug structures and movie-languages we carry in unconscious second nature as veteran consumers of film; we find ourselves adrift, and it’s then that we truly begin paying attention — and finding inalienable personal meaning — moment by moment.

Malick isn’t the only cinematic artist who succeeds here. The universal value of film, and of art itself, lies (arguably, I suppose) in communicating love, in letting us know we are not alone. That’s the draw. I cannot, though, name another cinematic artist who does it quite like Malick, who achieves his particular, impressionistic poetry of intimacy. Is it repetitive and inscrutable, at times, or demanding of patience? Sure. Like life is. Is it susceptible to reductive parody? Yes, as are many vulnerable or distinctive works. Does he get more of a pass because he’s Malick, and because of his body of work? Yes, and that’s exactly as it should be.

There are wonderful, wonderful things about “Knight of Cups.” It’s a concert for the soul and the senses. Performances are raw, real, closer than you’ll ever get. Cate Blanchett shows, once again, that she can crack your heart wide open with a look. Michael Freaking Wincott is in it. (YES.) So is half of Hollywood. You still may not like it. (It’s kinda like “8½” meets Koyaanisqatsi, if that helps.) But there are very few films that will get you and everyone who saw it with you talking and feeling in the same way. And that, perhaps, is the point: “Knight of Cups” is the latest reminder and resounding reinforcement of how very, very desperately we need Terrence Malick — and the filmmakers he continues to inspire.

Triple 9

February 26, 2016 by  
Filed under Brian, Reviews

Starring: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie
Directed by: John Hillcoat (“The Proposition,” “The Road,”)
Written by: Matt Cook (debut)

There’s a compelling desperation to much of John Hillcoat’s work – a seething, a clawing, a straining-to-survive in a world that seems indifferent and unforgiving at best and actively predatory at worst. “Gritty” suggests itself. “Ruthless” does nicely. His protagonists, set-jawed, tired-eyed men often caught between two irreconcilable inevitabilities or in the tangles of an impossible decision, strive against wounds corporal, emotional, and psychic in a landscape swaddled by corruption, murder, and greed.

Pairing Hillcoat, then, with “Triple 9” – a twisting, ensemble yarn of doublecross and dirty-coppery in which good is often bad and bad is almost invariably worse – would seem a sound and promising (ahem) proposition. Whereas the director’s previous outings have been set in past or projected timelines, alternate or isolated realities that may at best only invite pointed comparisons with our own, the Atlanta-set, aggressively “real” “Triple 9” marks Hillcoat’s first opportunity to spin a tale of human frailty that’s happening right here, right now. As is often the case, the extent to which the narrative lands or not may depend at least partly on the viewer’s expectations sitting down.

In Georgia’s apparently-crime-ridden capital city, here doing its best approximation of “Robocop”-era Detroit, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Michael Atwood leads a sub-rosa gang of police, ex-police, and ex-military mercenaries obliged to pull off a pair of increasingly tricksy, increasingly high-stakes, occasionally pyrotechnic data thefts to sate the desires of the Kate Winslet(!)-headed Jewish-Russian mob to whom they are in hock. Very soon, it becomes apparent that certain of said gang (a trigger-happy Collins, Jr.) are more comfortable with the particular brand of carnage and casualty required than are others (Mackie, as an active-duty gang-unit officer named Marcus). Ties begin to fray when the first job goes a bit screwy thanks to the sloppiness of junkie-loose-cannon Gabe (Aaron Paul), and, with the police force now alerted and a near-impossible mission to break into Homeland Security (beat THAT, Ocean’s Eleven), the crew decide to buy time for the heist by creating what the film tells us is the ultimate calling-all-units distraction: the titular “triple nine,” or 999 – police code for “officer down.”

Enter Chris Allen (Casey Affleck): idealistic, new to the force, and Marcus’s new partner. He gnaws gum, meets everyone and everything with an unflappable Mona Lisa smirk, wants “to make a difference.” He is, it is summarily decided, the perfect mark. What then unfolds is a somewhat Byzantine cat-and-cat-and-mouse-and-more-cats-and-other-cats-dressed-as-mice game, as the appointed time approaches, various dramatic arcs play out, and the important questions (Will Mackie do it? Since they’ve got Ejiofor’s kid, he’s kind of a good guy, right? Are those fake teeth on Woody Harrelson?) are blurred, come into focus, and get re-blurred again.

With Hillcoat at the wheel and a humiliation of casting riches, “Triple 9” rolls into town behind prohibitively towering expectations. The fact is, it’s a serviceable crime drama, with solid set pieces and some nice acting moments (Mackie and Affleck forge a genuine and endearing chemistry; Harrelson adds some characteristic oddball charm; Michael K. Williams does much with a brief but vibrant cameo), but it seems to fall short of what its pedigree might suggest. Some acting beats miss marks, some plot turns are foreseeable, some dialogue feels like frank exposition. The result, alas, is conventional: something like a pulpier “Heat,” or a less-kinetic “The Departed.” Which, depending what you’re up for, might be fine.