Triple 9

Cast: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet

Director: John Hillcoat

Writer: Matt Cook


Whenever I watch a film, the single most fundamental thing I require before I can regard it as a success is for the film to give me something that I can take away. Personally I don’t buy into the theory that film is a means of escaping reality. Instead I believe that film is a means of understanding reality. Even if the film in question is simply mindless entertainment, the very fact that I’m watching and enjoying it means that I need some mindless entertainment in my life. Therefore I need the film to actually give me something, whether it be entertainment, insight or emotion, that I can take with me into the real world. If I don’t feel like I’m actually getting anything from the film, then what’s the point of watching it? This is where Triple 9 let me down. Because I never felt attached to any of these characters, I found myself wholly indifferent to their fates. When it was all said and done then, I found the entire experience to be ultimately pointless.

After completing a major bank heist, a group of criminals are blackmailed by an incarcerated Russian mobster’s wife, Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), to carry out another job. This crew includes career criminal Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), computer whiz Russell Welch (Norman Reedus) and his brother Gabe (Aaron Paul), and also two corrupt cops called Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins, Jr.). The crew decides to organise a plan that involves a Triple 9, which means sending out a distress call for a downed officer as a means of distracting the major police units. Marcus suggests using his new partner Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) as the victim, a cop who has recently started to notice something off about his partner and has started to ask too many questions. Things get complicated even further when Chris’ uncle Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson), a veteran detective, starts investigating the original heist.

While writing the above summary I was painstakingly reminded of how little I cared about the plot. Had I been unable to consult IMDb for information I would not have remembered half of the film’s plot points or characters. The only part of the story I can even remember with any real clarity was its wildly unsatisfying ending. Most of what came before in the build-up to that climax simply didn’t register with me. The film was so dense and hasty in its storytelling that I never found the time or the space to actually get drawn into what was happening. Characters were never introduced or established, they just appeared and would then disappear just as quickly. Right from the start the film drops us straight into the action without allowing us time to actually get a grip on what’s happening and allowing ourselves to get invested. It was a bit like taking a random book, abridging the first three or four chapters into half a dozen pages and then expecting the reader to make sense of whatever remains.

Keeping up with a haphazard story becomes even more problematic when you’re unable develop an attachment to any of the characters. The film provides little help in this regard by ensuring we learn as little as possible about any of them. Of the characters actually taking part in the heist, the only one who is revealed to have any sort of motivation is Michael, whose son is effectively being held hostage by Irina. Even then the film barely devotes any time towards defining or demonstrating their relationship. In truth the only reason I’m even able to remember any of these characters is by virtue of the actors playing them. I don’t remember the Welch brothers due to their arcs within the story, I remember them because they happen to be played by Darryl Dixon and Jesse Pinkman. Apart from one terrific cameo by Michael Kenneth Williams (seriously, I would much rather watch a movie about his character than any other in this film), I cannot recall a single character that made this film worth watching.

There are some technically good things about this movie. The cast is made up of some very strong actors, the cinematography is fairly decent and there are some well-executed action scenes. Despite all that however, I’m giving this movie a one-star rating because it failed to do the single most important thing that a film needs to do. It failed to leave any sort of an impact on me. As soon as the film was over I felt nothing about what had transpired over the past two hours and had forgotten most of what happened by the time I got home. I don’t even dislike the film; even a negative reaction would still be a reaction. I feel nothing for this film. This film took two hours of my life and left me with nothing to show for it. Triple 9 may not be a terrible movie but, for me at least, it is worthless to the point that the distinction hardly even matters.

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Trumbo

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg

Director: Jay Roach

Writer: John McNamara


In the long, colourful history of Hollywood, the story of the Hollywood Ten marks one of its unhappier periods. In the early days of the Cold War when insecurity and paranoia grew from the fear of the Soviet Union, leading figures in American law and politics (most infamously Senator McCarthy) sought to prevent their communist ideology from taking hold of the American public. The result was a witch-hunt that propagated fear, corrupted institutions and ruined lives. It is remembered today as a dark episode of American history that demonstrates what happens when irrational panic and warped patriotism are allowed to permit the abuse of democracy. Dalton Trumbo, as one of the Hollywood Ten blacklisted for his political activism, is hailed as a man who stood up to the oppression of the Blacklist and is often credited with defeating it. Trumbo is a film that sets out to celebrate the man’s legacy by giving his story the Hollywood treatment. (On a sidenote I first learned about this subject because of Herbert J. Biberman who was also one of the Hollywood Ten. He went on to direct a movie called Salt of the Earth, a film about socialism and feminism that is well worth a watch).

Upon the conclusion of the Second World War Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is one of the most celebrated screenwriters in Hollywood. However his radical politics gets him into trouble when the McCarthyist hunt for Communist sympathisers turns its head towards the entertainment industry. Persecuted by such figures as the influential columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), Trumbo and his friends, including fellow writer Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), are made to testify before the House Committee of Un-American Activities where they are subsequently found in contempt and blacklisted. Exiled and disgraced, Trumbo seeks to find a different means by which he can provide for his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and his children, including his socially active daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning). His solution is to anonymously write B-movie screenplays for the low-budget King Brothers Productions led by Frank King (John Goodman). It is also during this period that Trumbo secretly writes the screenplays for Roman Holiday and The Brave One, both of which would go on to win Academy Awards, as well as Spartacus, the movie that effectively ended the Hollywood Blacklist.

The big problem with this movie, as is often the case with other ‘based-on-a-true-story’ movies of this type is that it takes a simplistic approach towards its subject matter. In order to convey what an injustice the Hollywood Blacklist was, the film determinedly portrays its perpetrators as decadent villains and its victims as venerable heroes. While the Blacklist was indeed an injustice, the approach this film takes felt too one-dimensional. There is a scene that stuck out where J. Parnell Thomas, the judge who had Trumbo convicted, is himself found guilty of tax evasion and ends up serving time in the same prison. Upon meeting each other during their incarceration Thomas remarks on the irony of them both ending up in the same place to which Trumbo defiantly counters, “Except that you committed a crime and I didn’t”. The movie was so superficial yet morally superior in its portrayal of these events that this scene felt cornier to me than heroic. I felt like the complexity and significance of this truly fascinating figure and his story was somewhat lost by the film’s desire to overcompensate for the wrongs that were committed. In a way Trumbo suffers from a similar problem that I found with fellow Oscar nominee The Danish Girl, which is that its depiction of the story is too safe and lacks power and weight because of it.

As much as I like Cranston as an actor, I must say that I thought his depiction of Dalton Trumbo came across as something of a caricature. This doesn’t exactly mean that I think he gave a bad performance, I just thought it was a little thin. Trumbo never really felt like a character to me, but instead felt more like Cranston trying to play a character. It is for sure an entertainingly eccentric performance but it lacks the nuance that I know Cranston can bring. In truth most of the characters in this film are thinly written, meaning that many of the performances provided only work on a surfaced level. Mirren for instance delivers a delectable performance as the malicious columnist who has set out to ruin Trumbo and his allies, but it is a performance completely lacking in substance. Consequently she comes across as more of a cartoon villain than she does a portrayal of a real-life figure. In fact most of the famous names portrayed in this movie, including Edward G. Robinson, John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, feel more like soulless simulations than they do characters.

The film is simplistic, distortive and hollow but it still has its merits. It is by all means an entertaining and even a compelling film, even if it does lack the weight that a more challenging and introspective approach to the story would have given it. Cranston certainly provides a solid leading performance as the idealistic Trumbo and is backed by a formidable supporting cast who all deliver stronger performances than the material warranted. The film is sketchy and historically selective in its approach to the story but still depicts it in an appealing way to those looking for a simple and straightforward movie about a real-life hero overcoming and defeating a movement of tyranny and persecution. The story of the Hollywood Blacklist is an important one that deserves a smarter and worthier film but Trumbo is agreeable enough, if otherwise undistinguished.

★★★

Dad’s Army

Cast: Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tom Courtney, Michael Gambon, Blake Harrison, Daniel Mays, Bill Paterson

Director: Oliver Parker

Writer: Hamish McColl


The transition from television to film is difficult to pull off, especially for a sitcom. Most of the great classic sitcoms that I can think of, such as Fawlty Towers, Blackadder and Only Fools and Horses, revolved less around story than they did around characters. Those shows got their greatest laughs from simply having their characters interact with one another and having them respond to whatever situation they were in. The plot only existed to get them from point A to point B and was usually kept minimal to allow more room for the comedy. It’s tricky to see how such a format can work for film where audiences tend to expect a more cinematic experience. In other words everything, from story to humour to action, has to be bigger. Thus the question is whether a cinematic version of Dad’s Army (a show that I am admittedly only partially familiar with from occasional glimpses on the BBC) can retain its wit and charm through such a transition.

In 1944, with their victory of the Second World War in sight, the British army is making final preparations for the invasion of German-occupied France. The Home Guard at Walmington-on-Sea, led by Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones), is placed on high alert when British intelligence discovers that a German spy is operating within the area. With the aid of his second-in-command Sergeant Wilson (Bill Nighy), the task of uncovering this spy falls onto Mainwaring who relishes the chance to make an actual difference in the war effort. Amongst the men under his command are Lance Corporal Jones (Tom Courtney), Private Walker (Daniel Mays), Private Pike (Blake Harrison) and Private Godfrey (Michael Gambon). Morale is suffering amongst these men until they are visited by the beautiful and glamorous Rose Winters (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a journalist working on a story about the Home Guard.

Unfortunately Dad’s Army does not pull off the TV to film transition. The main issue is that the film simply isn’t very funny. There are a few laughs here and there but regrettably much of the comedy gets brushed aside in order to make room for the story and action. I get that since the film is set during the Second World War, perhaps the filmmakers wanted to embrace the more cinematic aspects of that period in order to provide an all-round more entertaining film. Maybe if the story and action had been a bit more compelling and thrilling or had been better employed in service to the comedy they might have succeeded. What they’ve made instead however is a stale, disjointed film with occasional comedic highlights. The best parts for me were the scenes when Mainwaring and his men were all together dysfunctionally performing one of their drills. Any time the film chose to focus on the spy story or one of the romantic sub-plots it just ground straight to a halt for me. The comedy in those scenes did not do anything for me because I simply wasn’t interested in what was happening.

The characters were overall very well cast and I can only imagine how hilarious they could have been had they been given a funnier script. Jones for instance has exactly the right sort of pomposity befitting a man like Mainwaring, a proud and conceited figure who gets carried away with his delusions of grandeur. Gambon in particular shines as the clueless Godfrey, providing the film with its one consistently hilarious performance. Every joke the film provides for him is executed splendidly with an undeniable charm on the actor’s part. I like that the film chose to diverge from the show in one important respect by expanding the roles of the women, including Mrs. Mainwaring who famously remained off-screen throughout the show’s entire run. Although the film was not entirely successful in actually portraying them all as interesting or funny characters, it was still a fair effort (although I will say that there is one particularly amusing moment involving the women that takes place during the film’s climax). All in all however Dad’s Army is essentially an exercise in how lost a great cast can be without any decent material.

While there are definitely some great comedic moments in this film, they are too few and far between. There were far too many instances when the film got caught up in its tedious story and I found myself wondering when the comedy was going to return. What little I have seen of the original show has displayed an uncanny and consistent sense of wit and charm to its humour. In this film we only get occasional glimpses of that same quality. It raises the question of whether this film should even have been made in the first place when there already is an acclaimed and beloved TV series that got it all right the first time. It is not affront to the show or what it stood for, it is simply a pale imitation that delivers the odd chuckle.

★★

The Finest Hours

Cast: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger, John Ortiz, Eric Bana

Director: Craig Gillespie

Writers: Eric Johnson, Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy


This is the kind of film that I’ve always found to be the most difficult to review. The Finest Hours is not a complicated film. It has a simple story that gets told in a straightforward manner. It is not an artistically ambitious film either nor does it tackle any challenging or difficult themes. Therefore, as far as deconstructing and interpreting the story goes, the film does not pose any particular challenge. It also isn’t a particularly surprising film and did not provoke any sort of a notable emotional reaction out of me. It is on the whole an adequate film with writing, directing and acting that is perfectly serviceable. That’s the problem. I have found this film to be so overwhelmingly average that I can hardly think of anything to write about it. Just about every element of this film that I can think of can be summarised by the word ‘fine’. It is difficult to write anything substantial on a subject that does not provoke any strong feelings from you whether they be positive or negative. For the sake of the word count though I’ll have to try.

The story is that of the 1952 rescue of the SS Pendleton, a real-life event that is still remembered today as the greatest rescue mission in the history of the United States Coast Guard. The SS Pendleton is torn in half during a fierce storm and the surviving crewmembers have to work out a plan to survive until the rescue crew can reach them. Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), the ship’s engineer, uses his knowledge of the vessel to keep her afloat for as long as possible. Meanwhile the Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) orders that a rescue mission be carried out by Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), a young but talented coast guard still feeling the weight of his last failed mission. This operation requires Bernie and his crew, including the hardened seaman Richard Livesey (Ben Foster) to cross a bar that is perilous and difficult to navigate even in the most ideal weather conditions. As Bernie embarks on what many consider to be a suicide mission, his fiancé Miriam (Holliday Grainger) prays for his safe return.

I wish there was more of substance I could offer to this review but there really isn’t much more to say. This movie is fine and that’s about it. The film hits the beats that it needs to, showing the stories of both the rescue team as they make their way to the ship and of the crewmembers in their struggle to remain alive. Characters and motivations are sufficiently established, the conflicts and tension are passable enough and the major plot points are all given the suitable amount of coverage required. It doesn’t offer anything new or surprising but it also isn’t exactly bland or substandard. I wasn’t actively invested in the fate of these characters or in the outcome of their mission but I also wasn’t wholly indifferent to them. The film goes where it needs to go and it does what it needs to do.

The cast does well for the most part. Chris Pine plays a different sort of character from his usual as this shy, quiet, unconfident who is basically everything that Captain Kirk is not. Holliday Grainger looks like she really belongs in the 50s setting and does well enough as a wilful and assertive woman tackling the dilemma of marrying a man whose job could very well kill him. Ben Foster gives what is probably the strongest performance in this film as this haggard sea veteran taking on a job that his gut tells him cannot be done. Even after seeing him in Six Feet Under and the National Theatre’s recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire, I often forget how good he is at being brooding and intense. Eric Bana on the other hand gives the weakest performance playing what is by far the film’s most one-dimensional character. He is basically this uptight, inexpert authority figure who is an outsider to the community and doesn’t understand how this job is really done.

There really isn’t much more to say. The Finest Hours is an average film that did not leave any notable impression on me. It is a feel-good based-on-a-true-story film (the kind that your mum likes) that goes exactly where you think it will go. It is a decently executed film that manages to convey the feelings that it needs to convey but not much else. I enjoyed it while I was watching it and have barely thought about it since. Disney didn’t seem to have much faith in this movie and barely put any effort into advertising it, probably because they’re more focused on promoting movies like The Force Awakens and Captain America: Civil War. It seems like with all of these massive and highly publicised blockbusters in the works, this was essentially the movie that slipped between the cracks. For what it’s worth it is a decent picture, but the fact that Disney did not show any strong support for it doesn’t really surprise me.

★★★

Anomalisa

Cast: (voiced by) David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

Directors: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson

Writer: Charlie Kaufman


Trust Charlie Kaufman to make an animated film unlike any other ever made. As a writer and director known for his visual creativity, surrealist narratives and dreamlike atmospheres, one could only have wondered what he could achieve within the realms of animation. However it is also interesting that a filmmaker known for exploring psychological themes and venturing into the depths of human emotion should choose a format that is by its very nature artificial. While Kaufman showed in Being John Malkovich just how expressive puppets could be, placing the whole story within the world of puppetry is a different thing entirely. However, after about five or ten minutes of watching this film, it became all too evident that Anomalisa could only have worked as an animation. While the story itself is surprisingly simple (given the strikingly complex narratives penned by Kaufman in the past), it is a story that thoroughly embraces the world it inhabits.

The film takes place across a 24-hour period and follows the character of Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a famed and successful author and expert in customer service going through a midlife crisis. He is unhappy with his work, his family and his station in life and exudes a melancholic air as he drifts aimlessly. He flies into Cincinnati where he is scheduled to deliver a conference and checks into his hotel. Every person to cross his path along the way such as his taxi driver and the bellboy is indistinguishable to him as they all speak with the same inexpressive, monosyllabic voice (Tom Noonan). It isn’t until he hears a voice out in the hallway, an entirely different voice from that possessed by every other character, that he is suddenly awakened from his lethargic state. He discovers that the voice belongs to Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy, sheepish woman with low self-esteem who gets embarrassed when receiving any sort of attention. Michael is immediately infatuated and asks her to spend the night with him.

Initially I took this film to be Lost in Translation with puppets, but Anomalisa is actually a very different kind of beast. Although they tackle similar themes of dejection, alienation and romanticism, Kaufman’s is an altogether sadder and stranger film than Coppola’s is. Michael Stone seems at first to be a forlorn soul experiencing a state of estrangement as he traverses this impassive, artificial world. Yet, the more we see, the more one gets the feeling that Michael is the architect of his own misery. After checking into his room he calls up an old flame who lives in Cincinnati, hoping their reunion might lead to something. During their meeting however Michael seems utterly oblivious to the grief he inflicted upon this woman when he left her completely out of the blue eleven years ago. After later meeting Lisa and spending their romantic night together, he readily declares his intention to leave his wife and son for this woman whom he has idealised in his mind only for her to gradually transition into another blank face with that same Tom Noonan voice. Michael shows himself to be less of a crestfallen wanderer than he is a tragically flawed individual doomed to keep making the same mistakes over and over again. His behaviour would be utterly appalling if he weren’t so downright pathetic.

What’s startling about this animation is how it manages to maintain a balance between artificiality and reality. The characters of course look like puppets with their joints and rubber bodies (I should probably mention that there is some puppet nudity in this film that’s handled with a little more artistry than in Team America), but they move and behave like real people. This effect owes just as much to the three actors providing the voices as it does to the puppeteers. So much of the emotion in this film is deftly conveyed through the inflections heard in the dialogue that align perfectly with the carefully crafted facial expressions. The film fully embraces its format as an animation with the use of a collective face and voice being shared by every side character being just one example. There is one particularly great scene following Michael and Lisa’s night of passion that fully demonstrates the effectiveness of this medium in a way that only the mind of Charlie Kaufman could have envisioned.

Just like with any other Kaufman film, Anomalisa is a film that will have to be revisited in order to be fully appreciated. It is abstract in its approach, complex in its thematic discussion and ambiguous in its ending. What resonated most strongly with me however was the emotional weight of it all. This is a tragic film about the agony of mundanity, the strangeness of uniformity and the delusion of an idealised romance. There is a sad beauty to this film, the kind that Charlie Kaufman is so great at depicting. The artificial effect of the puppetry adds an extra dimension to this film that would simply have not been there had it been done in live-action. Anomalisa is just as strange and as fascinating as any one of Kaufman’s other films and is astoundingly unlike any other animated film that I’ve ever come across.

★★★★★

Time Out of Mind

Cast: Richard Gere, Ben Vereen, Jena Malone, Kyra Sedgwick, Steve Buscemi

Director: Oren Moverman

Writer: Oren Moverman


It’s easy to view the homeless as little more than faces on the street. It’s easy to forget that they are real people who have led real lives and who have real stories to tell. It’s easy to underestimate how much they have to struggle to find the things that the rest of us take for granted such as food, clothes and shelter. This is why films like Time Out of Mind are important. Films that are based on an informed and empathetic understanding of a struggle such as this are able to bring those stories to a wider audience. They can give a voice to the voiceless and a face to the faceless. They can inform, enlighten and challenge audiences about issues that they have perhaps never really thought about or that they’ve even tried to ignore. Homelessness is not a pretty issue which is why Time Out of Mind is not a pretty picture. It is harsh, uncomfortable and forlorn, just like the world these men and women have to live in.

George (Richard Gere) is a homeless man in Manhattan. We don’t know who he is or what his story is, we only know that he spends his days not knowing where he’s going to sleep tonight or where his meals are going to come from. He applies for refuge at Bellevue Hospital where he is required to sit through endless interviews in order to be accepted. Once in he inadvertently becomes friends with another homeless man called Dixon (Ben Vereen), a man who is utterly incapable of shutting up even when the lights are out and everyone’s trying to sleep. As the film follows George going about his day he crosses paths with a variety of characters including Art (Steve Buscemi), an ambivalently unbending building manager, Karen (Kyra Sedgwick), an eccentric homeless woman, and Maggie (Jena Malone), George’s estranged and unsympathetic daughter.

While there is a story taking place in this film, Time Out of Mind is not a plot-driven film. The beginning is not really the beginning and the end is not really the end. It’s more about the kind of life that this man leads than it is about reaching some sort of narrative resolution. While the film does end on quite a definitive note, it is still inconclusive and open-ended. After all the struggles this man has had to endure in the film’s runtime, we aren’t given any real assurance that things are going to get better for him in the future. We only get a hint that things might get better. Even then it’s not going to be easy and it definitely isn’t going to be painless. And that’s the point. Homelessness is not a problem that can be solved overnight, not even on an individual level. It’s about more than finding a home and making a living, it’s about changing a person’s frame of mind and having them go through a delicate process of rehabilitation. Maybe George is up for that task or maybe he’s reached an age where he’s too old to change. Time Out of Mind is not interested in happy endings or in pathos, it is interested in honesty.

Richard Gere single-handedly carries this film, giving a modest, understated performance. It is interesting to see a famous Hollywood star inhabiting such an unpretentiously deglamourized role as this. There is one scene when the registrar at the homeless shelter conducts an interview with him and asks if he’s ever been married, commenting “a handsome man such as yourself”. George’s embarrassed reaction to this comment is certainly indicative of the past life he led that perhaps led him to where he is, but one wonders whether it’s also the film trying to sneakily address the elephant in the room. While George is poor, dejected and miserable, there’s no getting around the fact that he looks like Richard Gere. In any case Gere delivers an admirably authentic performance as he conveys the gloom, loneliness and degradation that has become this man’s life. That he was able to carry the entirety of the film on his shoulders with such a subdued performance is commendable.

Homelessness is a difficult issue to contend with which is perhaps why Time Out of Mind can be quite difficult to watch. It directly addresses an issue that many people are often uncomfortable with addressing. It’s easier to let the homeless people we see on the pavement just blend in with their surroundings, to view them in the same way we view the traffic and the rubbish on the streets. These are all things we can escape as soon as we enter our homes. The homeless however do not have that luxury. The sound in Time Out of Mind places special emphasis on the noises of the New York streets such as the running engines of the cars, the obtrusive beeping of mobile phones and the inane chatter of passing pedestrians. These are sounds that George cannot escape wherever he goes, so instead they are a part of the life that he lives. Time Out of Mind is a rough film for an infinitely rougher subject.

★★★★

Truth

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, Dennis Quaid, Bruce Greenwood

Director: James Vanderbilt

Writer: James Vanderbilt


The questions of fact vs. fiction, honesty vs. bias, and journalistic integrity are very hot topics in today’s political and social climate. In an age where opinions are often mistaken for facts or facts are viewed as opinions, where unchecked citizen journalism continues to be problematic, and where people feel compelled to ignore evidence and undermine the reliability of stories they don’t agree with, it is enough to make you wonder whether the truth even matters anymore. I found the casting of Robert Redford to be an interesting choice due to his role in All the President’s Men, a film about the pursuit for truth led by two journalists that led to the downfall of Richard Nixon. It is a film that celebrates the honest and principled art of journalism as exemplified by Woodward and Bernstein, both of whom are contemporaries of Dan Rather. Although Truth is not nearly as strong a film as its predecessor, its message is clear. The age of noble journalism has long since departed.

The film covers the real life story of Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), the producer of the CBS news programme 60 Minutes, and the scandal that destroyed her career during the 2004 presidential election. She enlists the help of the famed veteran news anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and her handpicked research team including Mike Smith (Topher Grace), Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss) and Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid) to report a story on President George W. Bush as he seeks re-election. The story they run accuses Bush of exploiting powerful connections and political advantages during his military service in order to avoid being drafted for Vietnam in the early 70s. Once they report the story however, their evidence is brought to question leading to an inquiry. As the procedures, intentions and principles of these journalists are condemned and their reputations are ruined, the larger issue at stake gets lost until the point when the entire purpose of their original story becomes irrelevant.

While watching this film I couldn’t help but compare it to a superior film about journalism that came out this year, Spotlight. This might be unfair since the two films are in a way telling two different kinds of stories. While Truth tells of an incident when the ideals of journalism were defeated by bullying tactics, misshapen public perception and the bottom line, Spotlight is an instance where it actually succeeded in spite of them. However when I compared the two as narratives some of the weaknesses in Truth became readily apparent to me. While Spotlight allowed each of its main characters to be fully realised as crucial members of the team in creating their story, many of the journalists in Truth amount to little more than talking heads. Grace’s character serves as a vessel for some of the impassioned speeches that seemed to be trying to hard while Moss’ character only exists to ask questions for the benefit of exposition. Those who follow this story can quite easily work out the major themes being explored but, unlike Spotlight, Truth feels the need to hammer the point in as hard as it can. It is an important and a relevant point but it isn’t one that needs to be preached in order to be conveyed.

The redeeming qualities of this film are Blanchett and Redford in the leading roles. While Mapes is clearly a smart and capable producer with clear principles and a passion for what she does, she is not portrayed as a paragon of truth. As the investigation into the story proceeds, the film acknowledges that mistakes were made and corners were cut because Mapes believed so strongly in the story’s importance. They even raise the question of whether her politics clouded her judgement as a producer. Blanchett is, as usual, stellar as her character is thrown under the bus by her superiors and is forced to defend her actions to a panel that doesn’t even care about the truth of the story. Redford meanwhile brings the right amount of gravitas and class to the role of an accomplished and beloved news anchor facing the regrettable end of a distinguished career.

While Truth is not a great film, it does raise important points. The subject of the inquiry is the mishandling of the allegedly fabricated documents proclaiming that Bush never actually served his time in the military. As the doubt over these documents is exploited to undermine the entire story as well as the journalists who led it and the concerns of the network’s parent company lead the top executives to adopt a policy of appeasement and scapegoating, the one question that is never brought up is whether the story is actually true. The film invites the audience to debate the very purpose of journalism and how far the pursuit of truth and the greater picture has been corrupted. That the film came out just in time for another election year is no coincidence.

★★★

Love & Friendship

Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Morfydd Clark, James Fleet, Jemma Redgrave, Tom Bennett, Justin Edwards, Stephen Fry

Director: Whit Stillman

Writer: Whit Stillman


In a year that has brought us Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Stillman’s new film offers an entirely different satirical take on Jane Austen. Love & Friendship meticulously replicates the Jane Austen style from the look to the tone to the dialogue. If Stillman had set out to simply make a straight adaptation of one of her novels I have no doubt that he would have succeeded. What sets Love & Friendship apart is that it treats its story, characters and setting with an acute self-awareness. There is a strong yet subtle degree of irony and parody as this film depicts the political nature of these Georgian relationships. As the scheming, duplicity and guile driving these loves and friendships are unfolded and portrayed, one cannot help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. This isn’t to say however that Love & Friendship is a mockery of Austen’s style but rather that it is a tribute.

The film’s star is the widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) who has set out on a mission to find husbands for herself and her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). She takes up residence at the Churchill estate where she stays with her brother-in-law Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell). There she sets her sights on Catherine’s handsome and eligible younger brother Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), whom she hopes to seduce for herself. Susan also invites the wealthy but utterly clueless Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) to stay with the intention of organising a union between him and Frederica. Susan partner in crime throughout this endeavour is Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), an American lady with a thirst for gossip and deception to rival Susan’s.

Far from being a heroine in the vein of Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse, Lady Susan Vernon is a deliciously manipulative and brazenly self-absorbed character who would be right at home in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s School for Scandal. She is incapable of looking at anything beyond her own interests and is positively shameless in her capacity for deceit. As she pursues Reginald, a man who isn’t nearly as smart or assertive as he thinks he is, she deftly wraps him around her little finger as she appeals to his vanity and turns the scandalous stories of her previous affairs into the cruel gossip of slanderers. Beckinsale plays the role with such sophistication, charm and wit that you cannot help but relish her delightfully duplicitous antics. The only other character who even comes close to Susan in terms of entertainment value is Bennett as the stupendously oblivious suitor to Frederica’s affections. As he stumbles, stutters and rambles his way through his musings on advanced agricultural methods or on the Twelve Commandments, he provides this film with its most hilarious highlights.

The film’s take on the Jane Austin mythos works well both as a celebration of the novelist and also as a satire. Love & Friendship looks and feels like classic Austen right down to the costumes, sets and music. There is a clear respect for the writer and her work as Stillman painstakingly recreates the look and feel of the period and adopts her refined style. The film still takes its jabs and includes certain winks to the audience such as the trope of introducing each character by pausing their scenes and allowing them to turn properly towards the camera and nod to the audience in greeting accompanied by a fitting character description. Another amusing scene is when Catherine’s parents set about the task of reading one of their daughter’s letters only to give up halfway through. Each character in this film, save the imbecilic Sir James Martin, is to some extent aware of how silly some of their practices and behaviours are. Part of the joy of this film is watching these characters engage in conversations and confrontations that are exquisitely artful in their ritualistic custom. Every word is methodically calculated to convey the exact form of persuasion, disagreement or deception required while staying true to what is considered proper. It is a practice that is as ridiculous as it is entertaining.

There are a few issues that I have with this film. Some characters such as Sevigny’s Mrs. Johnson are not particularly interesting or funny and the ending felt strangely anticlimactic to me. In terms of style and wit however Love & Friendship succeeds in spades. It is a comedy of manners that adeptly delivers on both the comedy and the manners. Its greatest strength is its dialogue which is sharp, droll and allows its actors to be as showy and elaborate as they please. There is perhaps even a social commentary to be taken away from this film through its depiction of gossip and scandal as an art form. Overall it is a clever and classy comedy that I enjoyed watching and that I believe will be especially pleasing to any fans of Jane Austen.

★★★★

Green Room

Cast: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawcat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, Patrick Stewart

Director: Jeremy Saulnier

Writer: Jeremy Saulnier


Boy, did this film make me feel queasy. In this day and age where we have movies by Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and more horror-movie directors than I can possibly count, we’ve become pretty desensitised to the portrayal of violence and blood and gore on screen. Yet this film really shocked me with its content in a way that doesn’t often happen to me anymore. Green Room is not an overtly violent film. It isn’t over-the-top in its depiction of violence and certainly never ventures into the realm of torture porn. What made it so disturbing for me, rather, was how realistically graphic it chose to be at infrequent intervals. The film dedicated much of its time towards building an irrepressible atmosphere of dread to the point that you can hardly believe what is happening. Thus the selective use of authentically gruesome violence serves to bring the viewers back down to earth and remind them that this is not a bad dream. The danger these characters find themselves in is all too real and all too distressing. As a viewer I couldn’t help but feel trapped with them.

The film follows a punk rock band who agree to play a gig at a secluded venue in the Pacific Northwest. The band members are Pat (Anton Yelchin), the bassist, Sam (Alia Shawkat), the guitarist, Reece (Joe Cole), the drummer and Tiger (Callum Turner), the singer. They discover that the venue is in fact hosting a festival for white supremacists and so decide not to stay any longer than absolutely necessary. After the gig the band members return to the back room where they witness the stabbing of a young woman. Terrified and horrified, they lock themselves in the room along with the murder victim’s friend Amber (Imogen Poots) to try and work out an escape plan. Meanwhile the leader of the neo-Nazis Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart) intends to make sure that none of the witnesses leave the building alive.

I think the kind of tone this film is going for is that of a B-movie, which is a style choice and not a criticism. It has that sort of farfetchedness in its set up and execution coupled with a stark grittiness with no holds barred. However, through the use of its higher-value production, a well-known cast and skilled direction, Green Room offers a more intense and chilling experience than the typical B-movie. The film thrives on claustrophobia as these characters are trapped in a room with no means of escape. It is relentless in its brutality as each plan they attempt only makes their desperate situation even worse. Typically in these kinds of films you can usually tell which characters will end up making it out alright but here it is all up in the air. The film’s refusal to allow these characters any pleasure had me wondering whether any of them would even survive, let alone make it out safely. Any further elaboration on this point risks spoiling the capricious viewing experience so I’ll move on now.

Although the musicians trapped in the back room are the movie’s protagonists, Patrick Stewart is the headliner. As the ruthless leader of the vicious neo-Nazi skinheads he provides the film with an intriguing and menacing villain. Being the class act that he is, Stewart brings some dignity to the role of a cruel and powerful man trying to command a situation that is getting more and more out of his control. His screen-time is limited but Stewart commands every second in which he appears. The young musicians also deliver formidable performances as they are overcome with fear, anxiety and desperation. With only a locked metal door standing between them and a brutal death, it is all these characters can do to not give in to despair or panic. As their situation grows more hopeless with each passing second they try to use what few resources they have at their disposal to escape, only for everything to keep getting worse.

Many people are not going to like this film, that is a simple reality. Having seen it, I’m not sure if I could ever bring myself to watch it a second time. Green Room is one of the most gruelling and distressing experiences I’ve ever had in a cinema. It does such an impressive job of creating a desolate and petrifying atmosphere that watching it all the way through to the end feels like a feat of survival. It is so unflinching and convincing in its brutality that I think many viewers will find it difficult to detach themselves. With that said though, I certainly cannot say that it wasn’t thrilling or enthralling. It is a harrowing film but it was still fun to watch in a twisted and macabre way. Those who believe they might be able to endure such a film should go and see it and I wish them the best of luck.

★★★★

Demolition

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis

Director: Jean-Paul Vallée

Writer: Bryan Sipe


Sometimes when I watch a film that is clearly trying to say something profound and I find that I don’t understand it, I’ll often wonder whether the fault is with me or with the film. Is the film really saying nothing of value or am I just missing it because I haven’t thought enough about it? Other times however I know straight away that there is no need to ask myself that question. Either it possesses a genius that is self-evident or it has failed spectacularly. Demolition is one of the latter. It tries so hard to be deep and thoughtful that it completely misses the target and fails to reach any sort of a meaningful resolution. Through its attempts at providing social commentary, its blatantly obvious metaphors and its moments of forced emotion the film tries to present itself as being intelligent and insightful. Instead it achieves the exact opposite.

When his wife dies in a car crash Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is rendered into a kind of stupor where he feels detached from everything around him. He finds himself unable to mourn for his wife and alarms everyone, especially his boss and father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper), with his seeming aloofness and indifference. He is no longer focused on his work, he lies in his bed wide awake for hours on end and he speaks to everyone he comes across glibly and apathetically. When the vending machine at the hospital fails to produce a packet of M&Ms for him, he decides to complain to the machine’s company in a series of letters that detail the entire history of his relationship with his late-wife for context. The company’s head of customer services Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) is moved by these letters and reaches out to Davis. With her help and that of her teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis) Davis attempts to build a new life for himself by destroying (or demolishing if you prefer) his old life.

It is clear that Demolition wants to say something deep and insightful about life and loss, new beginnings, the pursuit of happiness and the nature of change. However Sipe’s script tries far too hard at this and ends up becoming almost a parody of the kind of film it’s trying to be. The film wants to be quirkily unbelievable, in that it depicts two unlikely characters finding each other in an unlikely way, but ends up being wildly implausible. Davis speaks and writes as if every statement he makes is intended to be profoundly contemplative, almost as if he thinks he’s the first person to think any of these things, but just comes across as superficial and hollow. Some of his insights are downright laughable such as in one particular instance when he asks, “do you ever feel like everything is a metaphor?” (a question that is almost worthy of an ostentatious high school English essay). Any hint of complexity and perceptiveness gets lost in the film’s attempts to be cute and quirky, allowing cheap sentimentality to undermine and destroy whatever depth this film might have had.

In fairness to the film there were some moments that I enjoyed. One scene I enjoyed was when Davis meets Karen’s son for the first time and is met with a barrage of F-bombs. Davis puts Chris in his place by explaining to him that “fuck” is a fantastic word and that he undermines it by overusing it. Another scene I liked was where Davis and Chris find a gun that belongs to Karen’s boyfriend and decide to try it out. What follows is incredibly silly but it is also the funniest scene in the film. A few highlights however is not enough to save a film that had me rolling my eyes at its cutesy tone, one-dimensional characters and weak philosophy. There is nothing believable about how Davis and Karen become friends with one another and little chemistry to speak of. Chris is a decent character but is still a victim of the script with its embarrassingly hollow dialogue.

For a film that wants to be intuitive and meaningful, it takes a frustratingly safe approach to its concept. Instead of really trying to confront its themes of loss, sorrow and rebirth, it throws in some light comedy and half-baked philosophies that end up undermining the story. It wants to convey this fantastical feeling of wonderment and chance by having its two unlikely characters meet in an unlikely way and finding both of their lives to be richer for it, but it simply isn’t smart enough to pull it off. It is too farfetched, too schmaltzy and too senseless. The deeper meaning that the film thinks it is finding is clichéd and trite and falls short of anything close to profundity. Neither the story nor its characters feel real; therefore the emotions they are trying to inspire don’t feel real. The result is an aimless, overdone and empty film.

★★