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.

12 Years a Slave

November 1, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch
Directed by: Steve McQueen (“Shame”)
Written by: John Ridley (“Red Tails”)

Already considered by many to be the frontrunner for a Best Picture Oscar in March, Steve McQueen’s harrowing pre-Civil War narrative “12 Years a Slave” definitely has all the elements voters usually look for when designating a top-tier film. From its significant subject matter to McQueen’s fine direction to a script that pits man’s brutal nature against the persevering human spirit, “12 Years” has a lot going for it as we enter the start of awards season.  Lest we forget a handful of performances (specifically from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o) that can possibly garner each of them their own accolades at the end of the year.

Set in the antebellum U.S., “12 Years” tells the story of Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), a free black man living in upstate New York who is kidnapped, sold into slavery in the American South and kept imprisoned for 12 years before he is able to find his freedom. Most of the story covers the time Solomon spends under the confinement of Edwin Epps (Fassbender), a cruel slave driver who purchases him after his former, and less heartless, slave owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) informs him that he can no longer guarantee his safety. While working at Epps’ plantation, Solomon suffers immensely through vicious beatings and abuse, but does everything he can to survive in hopes of one day reuniting with his wife and children.

Adapted from Solomon’s 1853 memoir of the same name, “12 Years” is certain to be compared to the 1977 award-winning TV miniseries “Roots” starring LeVar Burton and Louis Gossett, Jr. because of the historical similarities. However, Solomon is a different man compared to Burton’s Kunta Kinte. Solomon knows what freedom tastes like, so when it is taken from him, the effects seem even more devastating. That’s not to say Kunta had it any better, of course, but Solomon had build a life for himself and his family. Kunta, who was taken from Africa as a teenager, becomes a slave first and then a man; for Solomon, it’s the opposite.

While much of the attention will be paid to the brutality of the film, McQueen avoids “12 Years” becoming sensationalized in any way. The violence is there without a doubt, but McQueen is able to balance it well with the strongly written characterizations shared by Solomon and some of the other slaves he meets during his time on the plantation. One of these women is Patsey (Nyong’o), a highly skilled cotton picker who draws the unwanted attention of Master Epps much to the dismay of Epps’ equally merciless wife (Sarah Paulson). The entire film is, at times, is difficult to watch, but it is during Solomon’s years with Edwin which break him down into something he never imagined he could become and, in turn, will make audiences recoil at the sheer hatred humankind had to endure.

“12 Years” is extremely powerful and should be considered essential viewing for everyone. The problem, however, comes from the fact that it feels less epic in scope than it should for a film of its caliber. The timelines are vague and by the end of the picture, when Solomon is set free, it is less emotionally gratifying that it should be. It might’ve been presumptuous to hope for an ending like “The Color Purple,” where each scene builds to a grand reunion, but there’s much less of that here. Add to that some dialogue from secondary characters that is delivered more like the actors are on stage than in front of a camera, and a not-so-fitting cameo by Brad Pitt (you can’t help but only see Brad Pitt in a beard), and “12 Years a Slave” deserves less praise than it’s currently receiving, but is still as raw and real as anything to hit theaters in recent memory.

Salt

July 23, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Directed by: Phillip Noyce (“The Quiet American”)
Written by: Kurt Wimmer (“Law Abiding Citizen”)

It might be a studio’s biggest nightmare when a megastar like Tom Cruise drops out of your potential summer blockbuster, but when you’re able to secure someone with just as much celebrity power as Oscar winner Angelina Jolie, having to go back and rework the script to read “she” instead of “he” is a welcomed endeavor. (Yes, we realize there is probably much more to it than simply replacing pronouns, but it is well-received news nonetheless).

While screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (“Law Abiding Citizen,” “Street Kings”) was able to adjust his script according to gender for the film “Salt,” he doesn’t take the opportunity during the rewriting phase to fill in any of the plot holes or enhance some of the foolish dialogue. Despite its shortcomings, however, “Salt” is entertaining, unpredictable and a much-needed albeit moderate kick to the less-than-stellar mainstream summer action flick lineup. Even on that thinly-built frame of hers, Jolie can still carry a movie on her own.

When CIA officer Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is pegged as an undercover spy by a Russian defector, her escape from custody leads to lively foot chases, illogical assassination plots, and some terribly choreographed fight scenes. On her trail are her friend and colleague Ted Winter (Live Schreiber), who assumes she is innocent, and counter-intelligence officer Peabody (the always reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor), who does not.

The ambiguity of Evelyn’s character is what keeps the pace of the film at frenzied levels. It’s also what makes it so fun despite its number of implausible scenes. Still, it is nice to have a hero who isn’t tweaking on testosterone or afraid to break a nail. When Jolie is leaping off highways and onto the tops of semi-trucks it’s kind of hard not to pay attention.

Directed by Phillip Noyce, who is best known for a couple of those Harrison Ford-as-Jack Ryan flicks back in the 90s (his best work are his more dramatic films like “The Quiet American” and “Rabbit-Proof Fence”), “Salt” might feel like another Jason Bourne offering at times. But with Jolie taking the lead there is a distinctive dynamic that comes with featuring a female Hollywood sex symbol that can kick as much butt as the boys.

As far as ridiculous thrillers go, it’s highly unlikely the summer is going to produce anything with more flavor than “Salt.” But even if films like “The Expendables” or “Machete” do end up proving to be more enjoyable, there definitely won’t be a scene in either movie where Sylvester Stallone or Danny Trejo do what Jolie does and outmaneuvers their adversaries with a pair of panties.

2012

November 13, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Directed by: Roland Emmerich (“The Day After Tomorrow”)
Written by: Roland Emmerich (“The Day After Tomorrow”) and Harald Kloser

While the new apocalyptic thriller by director/writer Roland Emmerich (“The Day After Tomorrow”) might look like a 10.5 on the Richter scale based solely from its highly-intense, CGI-heavy previews, the event itself is more comparable to the seismic energy of a lopsided shopping cart wobbling down a grocery store aisle.

It shouldn’t be too surprising, however, if you’re familiar with Emmerich’s work. Giving audiences things that are both enormous and awful isn’t a new idea for him. From 1998’s larger-than-life lizard remake “Godzilla” to last year’s unfortunate prehistoric epic “10,000 B.C.,” it’s fairly safe to say Emmerich isn’t the type of filmmaker anyone would consider a minimalist when it comes to the technical aspects of his movies.

While it wasn’t such a problem with the cheese-fest that was “Independence Day” in 1996 (who wasn’t cheering for Will Smith to annihilate some hostile aliens?), there is something about “2012” that can’t be fixed no matter how many tsunamis are unleashed or buildings obliterated.

Forget the fact that a comprehensible narrative is missing and that the dialogue is worthy of massive eye-rolling. You might even overlook some of the countless cornball scenes throughout the film’s 158-minute runtime. What mainstream moviegoer is walking into this for character development anyway? The main problem with “2012” is that none of it is startling anymore. Emmerich does little to take the disaster movie to the next level other than to shell out more cash for extra special effects that ultimately feel worn.

In the film, John Cusack (“1408”) plays Jackson Curtis, a limo driver and small-time author who inexplicably finds out the world is coming to an end. Jackson isn’t the only one that knows this secret. The government, with the help of geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is aware of cataclysmic events that will happen. Judgment Day has been prophesized with the end of the Mayan calendar coming on Dec. 21, 2012. Now, with scientific evidence supporting this theory, administrations around the world have prepared for the worst by building “ships” to save as many people as possible before the earth begins to implode on itself.

As Adrian battles dishonesty within the White House, Jackson’s thoughts are with his family who – along with a majority of the popuation – have no idea what is about to happen. It’s at this point in the big-budget adventure where the destruction begins and never lets up. While the first rescue mission is actually quite fun (basically, it’s what you see in one of the movie trailers), Emmerich chucks in just about every disaster movie cliché in the book. It’s like getting punched repeatedly in the face. The first few blows are going to sting the most, but after 18 rounds, everything feels numb.

Emmerich tries to balance out the action by raising moral questions about the significance of saving certain people and things from being destroyed, but it all comes in a distance second to what most people are probably looking for – death and mayhem. It’s all there in “2012” for the less demanding moviegoers. For everyone else, the world doesn’t end soon enough.