FlixChatter Review: TRIPLE FRONTIER (2019)

As of last October, Netflix began offering press screenings for its original movies. Yet for some reason, this is the first time I’m seeing a Netflix Original Movie on the big screen. The tile seems rather generic, but the term Triple Frontier actually refers to a tri-border area along the junction of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, where the action takes place in this heist crime drama.

When I first saw the trailer, I thought this was directed by one of its stars Ben Affleck as he’s specialized in crime dramas in his directing career. But no, it’s directed by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All Is Lost) based on a screenplay he’s written with Mark Boal (Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty). The mastermind of the heist is Santiago ‘Pope’ Garcia (Oscar Isaac). We first saw him with his special ops team exchanging gun fire with the people working for powerful drug lord Lorea. I feel the film should’ve opened with Isaac’s character instead of someone else’s. In any case, Pope’s been trying for years to get to Lorea, and for the first time, he’s finally got a credible tip from an informant, Yovana (Adria Arjona).

Instead of alerting FBI or DEA, Pope decided to take this upon himself to bring down Lorea. Well in order to do that, he enlists four of his former Special Forces buddies to join him on this dangerous mission. The film took a bit of time to introduce us to the team: Affleck’s Tom aka Redfly, William aka Ironhead (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother Ben (Garrett Hedlund), and Francisco aka Catfish (Pedro Pascal). Affleck’s basically a down-on-his-luck divorcee who’s been shot five times but now couldn’t even sell a condo to save his life. Despite being strapped for cash and concerned for his daughter, Redfly is the hardest for Pope to convince to join the mission… and for good reason.

The trailer tells us it’s a heist movie and this time, it’s the Americans robbing a drug lord… AND they’re doing it for self, not country. Executive-produced by Kathryn Bigelow who’s no stranger to military-minded stories, Triple Frontier is a heist action movie with a moral quandary. If the guy you rob is a criminal, does it make it less of a crime? I like that the script examines these soldiers’ psyche and moral conscience when faced with such a lucrative but self-serving mission.

The heist itself is quite suspenseful, with plenty of scenes during torrential downpours in the South American jungle and rural areas. People who likes action movies would probably expect more shoot-em-up scenes like in Sicario and fans of Netflix’s NARCOS has definitely seen more brutal violence and extreme gore. I’m glad it isn’t the case here. To me, the highlights of the movie are not so much the action itself, but the psychology of the characters, and the moral dialog the team have throughout the harrowing journey. It’s no surprise that money (especially a huge amount of it) has a forcefully-mesmerizing power and this movie is none too subtle to reveal how fast greed could take over even the seemingly prudent person.

I like that the movie isn’t too concerned about plot twist, but focus more on the moral dilemma. It centers on the themes greed and honor, and how those two things are mutually exclusive. At times Triple Frontier feels like an adventure road movie, which I find mostly engaging as they face one hurdle after another. Each of the five ensemble cast is given a moment to shine, some more than others. Casting-wise, since its inception nearly a decade ago, there have been big names attached, from Tom Hanks, Leo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Tom Hardy, Denzel Washington, etc. But I think the group as it is now works pretty well and it doesn’t rely so much on star power (even Affleck is more subdued here), but more on the power of the ensemble. Isaac definitely has leading man charisma and he’s technically the lead of the film more than Affleck. I personally wish Charlie Hunnam gets more work, he’s an underrated actor whose strong performances often gets overlooked (i.e. The Lost City of Z).

Now, there’s a lot of testosterone here featuring five really hunky men. I suppose the story calls for it, and I for one don’t expect every single film to pass the Bechdel Test. That said, it’s a pity that the sole female character that’s crucial to the story, Yovana, is barely given a compelling arc. Even Isaac’s character is a mystery to me. Other than the fact he’s got a personal vendetta against Lorea and that he feels he deserves to be rewarded more for his military service, we don’t really know much about him.

That said, there’s plenty to like about this film and I’m glad I saw it on the big screen. Netflix now offers their original films in Dolby Color Grading and Dolby Atmos so the movie looks and sounds great. The cinematography by Roman Vasyanov is quite stunning, especially when they get to the Andes mountains. The ensemble cast and taut script makes this a journey worth taking. I might even see it again when it’s out on Netflix.


Have you seen TRIPLE FRONTIER? I’d love to hear what you think!

Guest Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

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Written/Directed By: Ang Lee
Cast: Joe Alwyn, Mackenzie Leigh, Steve Martin, Garrett Hedlund
Runtime: 1 hr 53 minutes

It is frustrating when a film has all the ingredients to be brilliant but ends up just a good movie. The story of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016) is an original and painfully satirical study of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is also a film limited by all-too-obvious visual messages and clichéd one-liners that reduce a possible artwork to an emotionally tame and uneven film.

The story unfolds over a single day in America with flashbacks to a live combat incident in Iraq. A news clip goes viral when young army specialist Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) is filmed trying to save the life of his sergeant.  His Bravo squad are celebrated as heroes and given a two-week promotional tour across America to boost dwindling support for the war. The tour highlight is an appearance in a glitzy halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys game. They are ushered around like a troupe of performing monkeys with little regard for what they have been through or how glaring theatrics might affect soldiers coming straight out of battle. Meanwhile, their tour guide is trying to stitch up a film deal with the tightwad team owner (played by Steve Martin) as virgin Billy falls for a cheerleader (Mackenzie Leigh) who loves war heroes.

The storyline bears little resemblance to the typical war genre film, but this one is not about guns, bombs and bodies. Filmed in ultra-high definition with extensive shallow depth of field, Billy and the squad are often in pin-sharp focus against soft backgrounds, a technique that keeps them in a separate plane of existence to the crassly insensitive stage onto which they have been thrust. The surreal stadium scenes are a spectacular but clichéd message about commodity wars for a public wanting to ‘make America great again’. It is hard not to empathise with Billy or feel his disorientation as he watches prancing cheerleaders and hears musical fireworks exploding all around him while he struggles with flashbacks of hand-to-hand combat in the midst of a mortar firestorm.

There is much to commend in this film. Young Joe Alwyn plays a complex role with nuance beyond his experience. The cinematography is vivid (almost to the point of distraction), and the pace and casting is strong (although comic Steve Martin seems out of place). A lighter directorial hand may have produced a more naturally flowing story without the corny melodrama and trite one-liners like “that day no longer belongs to you…its America’s story now” or “we’re a nation of children who fight in other countries to grow up”. But you will long remember that stadium extravaganza as an echo-chamber for the horrors of PTSD. For that alone, this film is worth seeing.

cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’? Well, what did you think? 

FlixChatter Review: PAN (2015)

PAN2015Hollywood’s obsession with origin stories continue with this latest reimagining of Peter Pan story. The story is set during the WW II Blitz era London and centers on the 12-year-old orphan Peter (Levi Miller) who lives in cheerless orphanage run by heartless and cunning nuns. But of course we know he won’t stay there for long as he will soon be whisked way to the magical world of Neverland to fulfill his destiny [yawn].

Pardon my dread there, but really, there have been a plethora of ‘chosen one’ storyline done in the past, and this one doesn’t really add nothing new. One of my pet peeves is whenever I hear ‘it’s your destiny’ or something along that line, I just can’t help to roll my eyes as it’s just so darn clichéd. Well, despite all the pixie dust we see in this movie, it lacks a certain kind of magic that would fill me with wonder.

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Don’t get me wrong, I think Joe Wright has a way with creating unique spectacle on screen. The 3D looks bright, colorful and panoramic, and feature some stunning camera work, especially the moment we get to Neverland and introduced to its flamboyant pirate leader Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). Here we’ll see how Blackbeard’s plucked a bunch of kids from orphanages all over the world to work as slaves in his mine. So yeah, this movie is VERY loosely based on J. M. Barrie’s classic story, but that’s what you get from a reimagining adaptation. The quarry visual is reminiscent of Mad Max: Fury Road and the rousing rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is rather amusing as it’s so unexpected.

In Neverland, Peter also encountered James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) who’s still working as one of Blackbeard pixie dust mine minions. Hedlund‘s basically channeling John Wayne-style cowboy and though he’s fun in parts, he’s rather devoid of real charm. There’s all the teasing that Peter and the would-be Captain Hook would not be friends later on, and there’s deliberate *suspense* over when Hook would lose his hand to a crocodile. There’s even a giant CGI croc leaping across your screen, just one of a plethora of sound and sight oddities throughout. Did I mention Cara Delevingne also makes a cameo as a mermaid triplets?

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The relentless CGI-fest will no doubt engulf your senses. At times the effect felt like a huge sugar rush overload. There is only so much eye-popping effects your eyes can handle, I actually had to close my eyes a few times just to recharge my senses. But no amount of visual spectacle can replace a heartfelt story and I think that’s what’s lacking here. There are moments later in the film between Peter and his long-lost mother that’s quite moving, but that emotional resonance is so few and far between.

I think one of the worst moments is between Hook and Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) which is just so awkward and pointless. In fact, the entire sequence in the island of the tribe that protect the fairy kingdom feels haphazard with garish colors and absurd battle action. Not to mention the fact that the casting of Mara as a Native American princess is just egregious. I read one reviewer who said ‘…Rooney Mara was crushed by a United Colours of Benetton ad’ Ouch! Ok so there is one character played by a non-white actor Adeel Akhtar, but he’s relegated to comic relief purpose and not much else.

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You won’t expect any subtlety in this movie and I don’t think Wright even tried. What’s also not-so-subtle is the fact that the film seems to be made to launch a franchise. Yet the script by Jason Fuchs is already stretched so thin, with minimal character development. It doesn’t help that it gets lost in the extravagant, noisy special effects. The film’s already a massive box office flop as it’d be a struggle to even make up the $150 million budget. But hopefully this means Wright will return to making intriguing dramas like Atonement and Pride and Prejudice.

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As far as performances go, I have to say that Jackman’s theatrical background is put to good use as Blackbeard. I know the role likely begets over-the-top performance, but all the scenery chewing gets irritating fast. Just like the movie, all the makeup/costume is so showy and circus-y but the character itself isn’t all that interesting. I do like Levi Miller as Peter though, I think he has that expressive face that reminds me of the young girl in the first Jurassic Park movie. Apparently Wright traveled to the UK, the United States, Canada, and Australia and looked at thousands of kids before he found Miller.

Overall, all the well intention of the filmmakers involved is swallowed up by overwhelming action and CGI spectacle. It also went on for far too long at nearly 2-hours, but too short on humor and whimsy. Like a rollercoaster in an amusement park, there are up and down moments, if only there were more ups than downs.

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Did you see PAN? Well, what did you think?