The Plight of Freedom – Review

My latest review, a short documentary about the refugee crisis, can be viewed here

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Triple 9 – Review

2 Stars

There were few films released in 2016 that boasted quite the ensemble cast as Triple 9. The cast is riddled with talented names, yet together they are not enough to carry the heist movie out of mediocracy. There is plenty of good points about Triple 9, such as the cast, but every good point is overshadowed by bad one. The result is a mixed bag that provides an enjoyable, but quite flawed, experience.

John Hillcoat’s complex and cluttered crime thriller follows a gang of corrupt cops and ex-military criminals, led by Chiwetel Ejiofor, as they attempt to pull off an ‘impossible’ heist for Kate Winslet’s heavily (and questionably) accented Russian mob boss. A tense and visually intelligent opening caper, featuring some lovely shots of red ink billowing out of a speeding van, makes you feel you may be in for a treat. Street shootouts bring memories of Michael Mann’s Heat, but soon as the dust settles the disappointment kicks in. The viewpoint starts to shift between Ejiofor, Woody Harrelson’s clichéd and troubled detective and Casey Affleck, an incorruptible officer coincidentally paired with one of the criminals (Anthony Mackie).  Any one of these characters could of, and perhaps should have, been the clear and distinct main hero/anti-hero. Instead Hillcoat decides to regularly jump between them, never really giving them enough screen time to fully develop their characters. At the brightest moments, there are flashes of humanity, such as scenes with Mackie and Affleck that reminded me of End of Watch (a prime example of a truly believable relationship between police officers), but these moments are very rare. The result is a cluster of standard and expected character arcs that never really allow you to care about the people in question. At one point, I thought I did almost feel for one of the side characters, but the I realised I knew nothing about him and I just liked a similar, yet much more developed, character the actor had played elsewhere. Just like the three or four main characters, all the actors in supporting roles are spread too thin; Gal Gadot, the new Wonder Woman, is barely in the film for more than 5 minutes and TV superstars Norman Reedus and Aaron Paul are not much better served. All this talented is wasted just to have names on the poster and it’s a real shame.

The action sequences, such as the opening heist and a tense police raid, are well choreographed and do a good job at providing tension and excitement. They are nothing special though, merely solidly made. Some Sicario level tension could have pushed Triple 9 to greater heights, but this level is only grasped at, instead of being embraced.

Overall I had a good time with Triple 9, but I was left feeling that it could have been so much more. Perhaps the scope and complexity of the story in Hillcoat’s mind could have made a thrilling TV show, but instead too much is packed into this movie, resulting in a disappointingly predictable, if at times thrilling, crime caper.

 

Notes on Blindness – Review

5 Stars

Notes on Blindness is hard to put into words (he says, as he puts it into words). It is a sort of line blurring docudrama, but even that sounds wrong. Perhaps the best, and simplest, way to describe it is this: Notes on Blindness is an experience. A pure yet complex cinematic experience. All films are at their best in the cinema, but it is still worth stressing that this film needs to be seen on the big screen, with the best surround sound, with other people equally as enthralled as you.

Directors James Spinney and Peter Middleton have decided to chronicle John Hull’s descent into blindness in a unique way. Hull, a highly intelligent and eloquent academic, kept audio diaries as he began to lose his sight, and in the years following when the blindness was complete. He did this to convey, with heart-breaking honesty, his thoughts and feelings of life without sight. Spinney and Middleton have taken these tapes, along with interviews with the Hull family, and lip-synched them up with actors. This is not the only use of this interesting technique in film (Clio Barnard’s The Arbor), but it is still very refreshing, and allows the film to convey Hull’s thoughts both through his own words, and through film itself. The way Notes on Blindness uses sight and sound is special. Stunning cinematography, alongside Hull’s words, makes you really appreciate sight and even starts to make you feel slightly guilty. The film plays with sight, snapping between darkness and brightness and playing with focus in ways films rarely do. The sounds of the world we see is emphasized, allowing us to imagine how a blind man might visualize the world around him using his hearing. In one eye-opening scene, John Hull describes how he can differentiate between objects when it is raining, as the sound of rain hitting each material is unique. These thoughts are visualized in shots of rain with the noise of the water amped up, making us realise that we too can differentiate, yet are lucky enough to have never had to. There are plenty of other genius moments, but to reveal them here would never do them justice.

Often, when talking about performance in film, people say that acting is all in the eyes and, by extension, the reaction. Notes on Blindness is perhaps the perfect example of this. The lead actors Dan Renton Skinner (John Hull) and Simone Kirby (Hull’s wife Marilyn) never actually deliver a line of dialogue themselves, leading to performances which are all about reaction. Whether it is Skinner’s hands feeling their way round the environment or Kirby’s face as she begins to notice her husband’s deteriorating mental health, every aspect of their physical performance is perfect.

Notes on Blindness uses John Hull’s ground breaking diaries to provide an insight into a world that very few people have any real notion of. It is a necessary piece that has been constructed in such an intelligent way by Spinney and Middleton. A truly unique and educational experience.

The Pursuit of Happyness – Review

3 Stars

The Pursuit of Happyness is a prime example of how having an inspirational and incredible true story does not necessarily make an inspirational and incredible film. It is also an example of how an actor can really carry a film, with Will Smith’s career best performance.

Chris Gardner (Smith) is a man who came close to absolute poverty as he attempted to become a stockbroker through a competitive internship. The juxtaposition of a man working in the city during the day and sleeping in a subway bathroom is interesting, but the film’s exploration of poverty vs wealth isn’t particularly profound. Perhaps this is down to the film being released in 2006, before the economic collapse of 2008. Our current views on the banking industry reflect the events of 2008 and therefore one might be a bit harsh to look down on the film for not criticising the greedy nature of the banking industry. Even so, the huge differences between the homeless life Chris lives and the wealthy one he pursues is not looked at closely enough. The film doesn’t pay much attention to those who are in a similar economic position to Chris, but do not have the ability to escape it.

The overall story is moving but that is more down to Will Smith than anything else. Smith’s charm allows you to believe some quite unbelievable moments, like passing a strict interview whilst not wearing a suit. The relationship between Chris and his son (played by Will Smith’s real life son, Jaden) is the highlight of the film as it is both natural and convincing. Smith has a great ability to convey the stresses and strains Chris Gardner would have had to deal with whilst putting on a brave face. The film’s most moving moments are a direct result of Smith, a weaker performance would give very little emotional impact. There are elements of humour here and there, as well as the sadder moments, which rounds out the film’s feel nicely.

The Pursuit of Happyness is perfectly well made and reasonably entertaining but there is little more to elevate the film beyond that. The story should have been much more profound and, if it wasn’t for Smith’s convincing style, the film could have easily slipped into cheesy melodrama.