Movie Review: “Triple 9″

Starring
Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Kate Winslet, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Gal Gadot, Teresa Palmer
Director
John Hillcoat

Director John Hillcoat makes unpleasant movies. His films (“The Road,” “The Proposition”) tend to focus on violent worlds, and how characters embrace, accept or run from their environment. Hillcoat is an unflinching filmmaker, even when he’s making more commercial movies. “Triple 9” is a more conventional picture from the director, but as proven with “Lawless,” he knows how to spin a familiar tale well.

The Russian mob, led by a ferocious and dazzling Kate Winslet, has a well-trained team of robbers firmly under its thumb, including two corrupt cops (Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins Jr.). Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the leader of the gang and wants out, but due to personal reasons – he has a kid with the mob boss’ sister (Gal Gadot) – starting a new life isn’t going to be easy. To begin again, Michael will have to pull off a near-impossible heist. However, an opportunity presents itself when one of his crew members, Marcus Belmont (Mackie), is assigned a new partner in rookie cop Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), who he may have to betray in order to earn his last big score.

This crime thriller, written by Matt Cook, is very much rooted in genre. The setup, some of the archetypes, and the payoffs are often what you expect, but when Cook and Hillcoat dig a little deeper, the results are generally rewarding, especially when it comes to the more dynamic performances.

Woody Harrelson as Chris’ brother, Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen, is just a big ball of unstoppable, unhinged and enigmatic energy. Whenever he enters a room, “Triple 9” just lights up. It’s not because Harrelson is playing a scene-stealing kind of character, but it’s the duality of his performance and Cook’s writing that makes the detective such a fascinating figure. He’s a mess, always looking like he just got out of bed. He’s a goof and breaks the rules, but he’s also a kind-hearted guy and a cop dedicated to his job and his brother. The character goes to some funny places, and when Hillcoat and Harrelson go there, it’s very entertaining.

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Movie Review: “Steve Jobs”

Starring
Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Katerine Waterston, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Ortiz
Director
Danny Boyle

Most biopics go to great lengths to humanize their subjects, to show that even the great ones are flawed in some way. “Steve Jobs” sets its subject on fire, and then pokes the body with a stick for 122 minutes. They make it clear from word one that Jobs was a sociopath, blinded by ambition and seemingly incapable of empathy or love. He was an insufferable boss and an even worse father, yet the son of a bitch changed the world.

And the thing is, those are all okay elements to include in the film of someone’s life. More often than not, though, those pieces aren’t the whole story. Here, they are, and it’s framed within a narrative that seems designed to make the audience even more uncomfortable. “Steve Jobs” is well written and well-acted, but it is not an easy movie to like, let alone love. It challenges the audience, and that is an admirable thing, as long as they’re willing to suffer the consequence that people may ultimately decide that they don’t like the movie because the supposed protagonist is an unrepentant jerk.

The film covers three product launches, peppered with a few informative, non-linear flashbacks, over the course of 14 years. The first one takes place in 1984, where Jobs is about to launch the Macintosh. Ridley Scott’s “1984” ad during the Super Bowl had everyone talking, and now it is up to Jobs to deliver. The only problem is, the Mac isn’t ready, and yet he still tells the press that he anticipates record-shattering sales. Before he makes his presentation, though, he has to deal with Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), mother of Jobs’ daughter Lisa, though he refuses to acknowledge Lisa as his daughter. Next up is Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), the man with whom he invented the first Apple computer in a garage, and the two are still quibbling over what turned out to be game-changing innovations that Jobs rejected out of hand.

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Movie Review: “Insurgent”

Starring
Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Naomi Watts, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer
Director
Robert Schwentke

No movie franchise embodies the term “meh” better than the “Divergent” tetralogy, because although the second installment is a competently made sci-fi thriller, it suffers from many of the same problems as the last movie – namely, a troubling lack of excitement, suspense and emotion. You’d think the fact that “Insurgent” isn’t bogged down by the same tedious exposition would allow the film to dig deeper into its characters and mythology, but you don’t learn much more about the main players by the end of the movie than when it began. That might be forgiven if author Veronica Roth’s universe was the least bit interesting, but the whole faction concept is so silly and contrived that it’s a wonder no one thought to question it sooner. And to think there’s an entire faction dedicated to intelligence.

“Insurgent” picks up several days after the events of the first film, with Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) denying involvement in the attack on Abnegation, instead placing the blame on Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James) and the rest of their sympathizers, who have since sought refuge with Amity. When Jeanine recovers a mysterious box containing a message from the colony’s founding fathers that requires a Divergent to unlock it, she sends bulldogs Eric (Jai Courtney) and Max (Mekhi Phifer) to round up Divergents to put through the box’s rigorous testing process. Meanwhile, Tris and Four unite their Dauntless friends with the factionless rebels – which is led by Four’s presumed-dead mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts) – to take down Jeanine and the whole faction system.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that “special one” Tris is the key to unlocking the film’s MacGuffin, which apparently doesn’t even appear in Roth’s novel, because there isn’t a single original idea in the movie. The generic plot device doesn’t serve much purpose, either, other than to keep Jeanine busy and provide a staging ground for the special effects-heavy final act that puts Tris through a series of virtual reality simulations designed to test her aptitude in all five factions. The problem, however, is that with the exception of the final 20 minutes and a few small character moments, “Insurgent” doesn’t do enough to progress the overarching story to warrant an entire film. The big reveal at the end will undoubtedly change the direction of the series going forward, and hopefully for the better, but the real question is whether anyone will still care by that point.

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Movie Review: “Divergent”

Starring
Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, Miles Teller, Ray Stevenson, Tony Goldwyn
Director
Neil Burger

The young adult craze (“Twilight,” “The Hunger Games”) has recently crashed (“Beautiful Creatures,” “Vampire Academy,” “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones”), and the media has decided that the fate of future young adult film adaptations will live and die on the box office returns of “Divergent.” This is patently unfair, of course; “The Hunger Games” sold 14 times as many books as “Vampire Academy,” so why should anyone expect anything less with their film adaptations? Answer: they shouldn’t, but somehow this is now “Divergent’s” problem. The good news is that “Divergent” should fare much better than the three ‘crashed’ movies. It’s intriguing, and asks valid questions about when we can reasonably expect a young adult to know who they truly are, and why we tend to punish people who prefer to think for themselves, but it has some issues as well, namely an absurd amount of exposition, a rigid story structure, and a lack of emotional impact.

Set in dystopian post-war Chicago at an undetermined time, all residents of the city are divided into five factions. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is a member of the selfless Abnegation faction, but she faces a big decision in the next few days. As a 16-year-old, she, along with her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and all other 16-year-olds, will choose whether to remain in their current faction or join a new one. Both Beatrice and her brother defect to other factions, with Caleb choosing Erudite (smart, fact-driven) and Beatrice choosing Dauntless (brave, fearless). As a “stiff” (A derogatory term for Abnegation), Beatrice has her work cut out for her, but she proves to be more resilient than most had expected, and a lot of that has to do with the results of her pre-ceremony exam, where she was found to be Divergent, meaning that she exhibited the qualities of more than one faction. Her examiner (Maggie Q) warns her against telling anyone that she was Divergent, and Beatrice (who rechristens herself Tris in Dauntless) quickly discovers why: the fluid (read: non-conformist) tendencies of Divergents have branded them as the enemy of Chicago’s faction world, and they are hunted and killed when exposed.

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Movie Review: “Labor Day”

Starring
Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, Tobey Maguire
Director
Jason Reitman

For a moment, it seemed like Jason Reitman could do no wrong, following up his excellent directorial debut, “Thank You for Smoking,” with one great movie after the next, and earning a quartet of Oscar nominations in the process. But even the best filmmakers are capable of making bad movies, and though “Labor Day” isn’t a complete failure, it’s the director’s weakest film by a country mile. Based on the 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard, the movie represents a major departure for Reitman, who’s made a name for himself telling stories with a dark comedic bite. That trademark humor isn’t present in “Labor Day,” instead replaced by the kind of gooey sentimentalism that you’d be more likely to find in a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, which leads me to wonder what Reitman was even thinking.

Set in a quaint New England town during Labor Day weekend in 1987, the film stars Kate Winslet as Adele, a shut-in single mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown. During a rare excursion outside to take her teenage son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) clothes shopping for the new school year, they’re approached by a wounded stranger named Frank (Josh Brolin), who takes Adele and Henry hostage and holes up in their rundown house with the intention of making a run for it at nightfall. A convicted murderer who escaped from the hospital while recovering from an emergency appendectomy, Frank insists that there’s more to the story, and as they spend more time with the supposedly dangerous fugitive, he turns out to be a pretty nice guy. So when Frank ends up staying the next day to do some repairs around the house, Adele and Henry don’t complain, and before long, he’s accepted as a part of the family, serving as a father figure to Henry and passionate lover to the fragile Adele.

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