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!

Weekend Roundup: Reviews of ‘Ant-Man’ & ‘Cartel Land’ documentary

Boy it’s quite a sweltering Summer weekend, I practically lived in my shorts & rompers these days. I love it when you found stuff in one of your old wallets, it’s like getting an unexpected gift. Apparently I left two gold AMC tickets in there, so we ended up going to the movies after all.

I also had time to spare to watch the remaining two episodes of Downton Abbey Season 3, and caught the first episode of season 4. My hope is that I’ll be done with season 5 by year’s end, which I think is feasible. I might blog about it later in the year, as I’m getting ready for the final season of the series in 2016!

In any case, here are quick thoughts of the two films I watched this weekend:

ANT-MAN

We went to the 2D showing as that’s the only time that worked for us and honestly I hate wearing those heavy 3D glasses. I wasn’t really anticipating this movie at all, frankly I’m feeling a bit superhero fatigue. So it’s nice to see that Ant-Man turns out to be more of a heist flick, as Ted’s mentioned in his review, instead of a full-blown superhero movie. The scale is also much smaller than other Marvel movies, which proved to be quite refreshing.

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I had a lot of fun with it. Just like Chris Pratt was perfect as the lead of The Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel hit another casting home run once again with Paul Rudd. He’s just so effortlessly likable and we immediately want to root for this down-on-his-luck con-man. The movie is definitely lighthearted and fun, but not devoid of heart either with a familial theme running through the veins of the main characters. Director Peyton Reed is known mostly for comedies (Yes Man, The Break Up) so I guess he’s the perfect man for the job here.

Michael Peña is the movie’s scene stealer, which is not a surprise to me as I’ve always liked him in various supporting roles throughout his career. Interesting that people say he’s the comedic breakout here as I think he’s always got great comic timing, he’s just so under-utilized in Hollywood. I also love Evangeline Lilly’s role and her character Hope actually has a decent arc in the story. Funny that she has a similar hairstyle as the lead female character in Jurassic World, but thankfully her bad-assery didn’t feel forced in this one. I actually enjoyed this movie more than The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which again proved that sometimes bigger [scale] doesn’t mean better.

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CARTEL LAND

I always love documentaries that take you to a world that’s rarely explored, and few are as immersive as this one. Filmmaker Matthew Heineman got an unprecedented access, on-the-ground look at the journeys of two modern-day vigilante groups and their shared enemy – the murderous Mexican drug cartels.

CartelLand_Doc

It’s rated R for a reason as the film is pretty intense and show some really brutal scenes of what the drug lords do to people who wronged them. There are also some crazy shoot-outs that made me wonder just how in the world the filmmaker manage NOT to get shot! It’s also astounding that Heineman got access to film a meth lab, which was shown in the beginning and end of the film. It’s an unsettling scene to be sure, as the filmmaker was surrounded by heavy-armed men cooking meth at night in the desert. One of the workers interviewed said they’re so poor that they had no choice but to do this line of work and that they’ll continue cooking meth “as long as God allows it.”

The two main characters in the film came from opposite backgrounds. In the the Mexican state of Michoacán, we have a charismatic physician Dr. Jose Mireles (who looks like a latin version of Omar Sharif) who leads the Autodefensas, one of the vigilante organizations aiming to restore order to Mexican communities. They felt they couldn’t rely on the government to protect them, so they had to take matters into their own hands.

On the other side of the border in Arizona’s Altar Valley, also known as Cocaine Alley, Army veteran Tim Voley felt the same way about the US government. He felt that the authorities/border patrols didn’t do enough to keep Mexico’s drug wars from seeping across American border. Even though Mireles and Voley never met, they definitely share the same vision and brought their own brand of justice.

MethLab_CartelLand

What’s interesting is how initially the film portrayed them as a big hero, but as the film progressed, we saw that they’re flawed human beings like the rest of us. The Autodefensas themselves turn out to be as morally corrupt as the organizations they fight against. For one thing, vigilantism isn’t a black and white matter. I highly recommend this if you’re looking for a really gripping documentary that at times felt all too visceral and horrifyingly-real.

Heineman won Best Director and Special Jury Award for Cinematography at Sundance this year. Both awards are well-deserved as the director practically risked his life making this and the result is one of the most gripping doc I’ve ever seen. Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow also served as one of the executive producers for the film and I could see her making a film version of this topic.

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So that’s my weekend roundup. What did you see this weekend, anything good?

FlixChatter Review: Zero Dark Thirty

ZDT_poster

Apart from perhaps Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow’s films are often a one-time-viewing-only for me and this one is no exception. It’s not a dis mind you, it’s just that the subject matter she picks are usually so difficult to watch.

The beginning of the film took us back to September 11, 2001. With nothing appearing on screen, we hear the tape of the air controller and 911 operators responding to the people in the twin towers. It was an efficient way to remind us what’s really at stake in the investigations that take place two years later. A CIA officer named Maya has just been brought to the black site where an ongoing interrogation of an alleged terrorist takes place. It’s during the first 20 minutes of the torture and humiliation scenes, including waterboarding, that’s become the subject of tons of controversies. Kathryn Bigelow has since defended her film, saying that “…depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices.” Well said, I’d say.

This film definitely challenges us to ponder on various moral issues and as a viewer I was put into a roller coaster ride as all kinds of raw emotions run through me. At the center of it all, we have a relentless protagonist Maya, who’s become obsessed with this manhunt. What started out as an assignment straight out being recruited out of high school, her hunt for Bin Laden (nicknamed ‘UBL’ by her colleagues) quickly became a personal vendetta.

ZDT_Chastain

It plays like a documentary at times in the way it depicts true events such as the various terrorist bombings, including one that Maya herself almost become a victim of at the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan. Despite its claim that it was based on true events though, of course it’s still a movie so creative liberties are obviously taken. As a thriller, it definitely works. Despite the 157-minute running time, Bigelow’s direction based on Mark Boal’s script managed to keep my attention throughout. There’s not a boring moment as even the slower moments are packed with tension. There’s also some humorous moments such as when Maya relentlessly writes on the glass window of her CIA boss how many days its been since she gave out her intel but nothing has been done about it. She also delivered the most bad-ass lines to Leon Panetta (played by Mr Soprano himself, James Gandolfini) when he asked who she was during a meeting discussing Bin Laden’s compound.

“I’m the motherf***** who found this place, sir!”

I don’t like to cuss but that is one heck of an awesome line delivered in such deadpan perfection by Jessica Chastain. She gave a credible performance in the role. Maya’s reserved, even aloof at times, but she’s definitely a fighter and she stops at nothing to get the job done. There’s a powerful scene where she tells her boss Joseph Bradley a piece of her mind, it was a ‘you go girl’ moment and Chastain nailed it.The supporting cast delivered a solid performance as well, most notably Jason Clarke (an Aussie who always play Americans), Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez and Mark Strong. Joel Edgerton plays one of the SEALS Team Six that appeared in the last 40 minutes of the actual raid in the compound in Abbottabad.

I thought that the whole sequence was well-directed. The views from night-vision goggles and the handheld camera movements offer quick cuts in a dark environment, but thankfully it didn’t make me feel nauseous watching it. I’m also glad that Bigelow didn’t over-dramatize the actual killing of Bin Laden with excessive slo-mo, what have you. Though we know how the end plays out, it’s still an edge-of-your-seat ride from start to finish.

ZDT_Stills

The end of such an exhilarating, dangerous, and not to mention expensive operation ends with a solemn moment of Maya alone on an airplane as she leaves the military base. It’s the right kind of sentiment I’d expect someone in her position would have. She’s spent years at the agency to finally get to this moment, to bring justice a man who has killed thousands of innocent victims. But yet, there’s no self-congratulatory cheer, no high-fives with the troops… it’s not a moment of celebration. It was such a relief for me that the whole ordeal is over and I had only been watching it for 2.5 hours, I can’t begin to imagine how the real ‘Maya’ must have felt.

As I said in my Oscar nominations reaction, I think Bigelow was snubbed and now I’m even more convinced of it. It was a well-crafted film all around, the non-flashy, no non-sense directing style works for this subject matter, and acting-wise it was top notch. The whole film was enhanced by the terrific score Alexander Desplat. It’s minimalistic but definitely effective in setting the mood. A riveting film that certainly leaves much to ponder about for days to come.

4.5 out of 5 reels

What are your thoughts on this film? I’d love to hear it.

Weekend Roundup: Quick Thoughts on Life of Pi

Hello all! It’s been quite a hectic weekend for me – one company holiday party and a farewell dinner for a friend who’s moving out of town. But I was able to fit in a trip to the cinema to catch Life of Pi before its last theatrical run. We were expecting an empty theater at 10:30 in the morning but the theater was actually about half full. So the Oscar nominations surely has an impact on those films being nominated. Speaking of award season, apparently the Golden Globes was on tonight (check out Sati’s entertaining musings on the telecast). I found out about it as I was on Twitter, but really I had no desire to watch it for some reason. Just wasn’t quite ready for the self-congratulatory award season yet, despite my Oscar reaction post this past week.

Truth be told, I’m feeling a bit under the weather, so I haven’t quite finished my review of Zero Dark Thirty yet, but I’ll say this though, the film certainly deserved the Oscar nomination for Best Picture and I’m even more convinced that Kathryn Bigelow is robbed big time out of the directing nod.

Anyway, here’s my quick review of…

Life of Pi

LifeOfPiPosterMy friend Sarah M. has given me her review a few months ago and she absolutely loved the film. She also loved the book but I actually never read the famous novel by Yann Martel. It tells a fascinating story of an Indian boy named Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma) who survives 227 days being stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The film was told in flashback by the older Pi (Irrfan Khan). How the boy and the tiger got their names are quite amusing, but more than mere amusement, the story attempts to explore the journey of spirituality and faith. Pi was an earnest seeker, searching for life’s meaning and grasping with the concept of ‘God’ by embracing various beliefs, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, all at once.

“If you believe in everything, you will end up not believing in anything at all,” Pi’s father told him. A profound word of wisdom indeed, though in the end neither the protagonist nor the film itself follow such an advice. Instead, it would rather subscribe to the [much more popular] notion that ‘all roads lead to Heaven.’ I find the spirituality aspect very intriguing… it’s a story that ‘will make you believe in God,’ said the protagonist as he began to tell his life story. It’s a rather abstract concept of God however, as the film does not make a stance for or against one way or the other. It’s simply presenting the protagonist’s interpretation of who God is.

As a fantastical film, it’s beautifully-made by Ang Lee, who’s known for his knack for genre-jumping. Just look at his filmography and you’ll find he’s quite bold in his film choices. So it’s only natural that he picked a fantasy adventure and pick what people deemed an ‘unfilmmable’ novel. Right from the opening sequence, it’s clear we’d be treated to a visual feast. Nice to see that the 3D was worth it, it enhances the experience without being overwhelming. The colors are so vivid, I find the night scenes even more beautiful.

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Performance-wise I’m quite impressed by both actors playing Pi, as they both give an emotionally-engaging performance. The young Pi was played by Suraj Sharma in his big-screen debut, whilst the older Pi was played by a popular Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan. He’s not always very expressive, but for the most part, Sharma was able to make us sympathize with his character, which is quite a feat as most of the time he’s the only one on the screen with barely any dialog. The real star is perhaps Richard Parker, the beautiful Bengal tiger which shares most of the screen along with Pi. I was quite mesmerized by its beauty, it was quite a technical feat to combine the use of CGI and real-life tiger (you can watch the featurettes here). Despite never actually sharing a scene together on set, I thought the CGI of the tiger interacting with Pi was pretty realistic. That storm scene was also pretty incredible to watch.

In summary, I do appreciate the hopeful and optimistic message, but at the same time it’s not really as spiritually-enlightening as it is beautiful to look at. It may not change your views about spiritual faith, but it might restore or affirm your faith in the magic of cinema. This is a film that’s best viewed on the big screen and I’m certainly glad I did see this in its 3D glory.

4 out of 5 reels


So what did you see this weekend? Anything good?

Random Thoughts: What critical darlings you can’t sing praises of?

Happy Tuesday, readers!

Critics everywhere seem to fall all over themselves in declaring The Hurt Locker a landmark movie-making achievement, giving director Kathryn Bigelow one major award after another, which in and of itself is a record as she’s the first female director who’ve won some of these awards. I finally saw it this past weekend – with my my expectation set quite high given all the positive buzz – and well, for the life of me, I can’t figure what’s all the fuss is about.

As I started working on my review, I kept thinking how underwhelming it was. I mean, I thought it was just okay… you could even say it’s a good film, but a milestone? Hmmm, I don’t know about that. I guess this isn’t the first time I disagree with the critics, a couple other recent movies that I had really high hopes for didn’t quite deliver: Up and Bright Star (read my full review). I don’t know if I’ll ever get to writing a full review for The Hurt Locker and Up, but let me just say that despite some great scenes and performances that perhaps merit some acknowledgments, overall I don’t think they’re worth all the critical praises (both of them are almost 100% fresh on rottentomatoes!) and all the awards they’ve reaped.

Let’s talk about The Hurt Locker as it’s still fresh in my mind. Castor at Anomalous Material highlighted some of the preposterous scenarios in the movie, which practically echoes the sentiments voiced in this Huffington Post article. Now, I don’t claim to know much about military facts, so my critique is more about how the movie’s done and whether it works as an engaging/stimulating cinematic experience for me. The answer to that is not quite. In the end, it just didn’t leave that big of an impression on me. Sure it’s got some intense, edge-of-your-seat thrills, but I didn’t come away forming any emotional attachment with any of the major characters (in fact, I was easily distracted by the cameos of big-name actors such as Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes). For instance, I have no idea why the protagonist was indulging in such risky behavior (somewhat recklessly at times as he risked his fellow soldiers’ lives), is it because he’s addicted to the adrenaline rush of war (like the opening line of the movie suggested) or was there something more? I find that another war-themed movie that shares a similar sense of realism and grittiness, District 9, tugs at my heart strings more. Somehow I felt more ‘connected’ to and thus care more for Sharlto Copley’s Wikus than Jeremy Renner’s James, it’s that bond with the character that I find lacking in The Hurt Locker.

Hmmm, I guess that’s a cliff-notes version of my review. What I meant to do with this post is to pose this question to you readers: what critically-acclaimed movie(s) have you seen lately that are somewhat of a letdown? Whether the hype is from film critics/bloggers or perhaps the movie is from your favorite genre or by a director you love, so you’ve been somewhat predisposed to liking. And, on the flip side, are there movie the critics trashed that you actually like? Let’s hear it!