Tag: Woody Harrelson

Triangle of Sadness (2022)

Triangle of Sadness (2022)

Östlund’s super-rich satire lines up straight-forward targets to easily knock down

Director: Ruben Östlund

Cast: Harris Dickinson (Carl), Charlbi Dean (Yaya), Dolly de Leon (Abigail), Zlatko Burić (Dimitry), Iris Berben (Therese), Vicki Berlin (Paula), Henrik Dorsin (Jarmo), Woody Harrelson (Captain Thomas Smith), Alicia Eriksson (Alicia), Jean-Christophe Folly (Nelson), Amanda Walker (Clementine), Oliver Ford Davies (Winston), Sunnyi Melles (Vera)

In my review of The Square, Östlund’s previous Palme d’Or winner, I described its targets as “so obvious, the entire film might as well be footage of fish being shot in barrels”. If only I’d known: Triangle of Sadness, his satire on the super-rich, takes this to the Nth degree: it’s an entire film of Östlund spraying machine gun bullets into an aquarium of drugged fish. That’s not to say there ain’t good jokes in here and several of its sequences are cheeky, engaging and funny. It’s well-made and high quality: but it’s also obvious and is in a such a rush to make its oh-so-clever satirical points that it frequently blunts its own impact.

The film revolves around a luxury cruise liner. On board: the self-obsessed, selfish, greedy representatives of the world’s oligarchs. A Russian who repeatedly amuses himself by bragging that he sells “shit” (fertiliser), a Danish app builder who splashes his cash, a married couple of British arms-traders who jovially bemoan how UN restriction on landmines made for tough financial years… you get the idea. Also on board: Instagram influencer supermodel Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and her insecure male model boyfriend Carl (Harris Dickinson). All of them treat the staff like slaves. But when the ship sinks after a storm and an attack by Somali pirates, the surviving passengers find they entirely lack the skills needed to survive on an island, unlike toilet-cleaner Abigail (Dolly de Leon) who rockets from the bottom to the top of the social hierarchy.

Östlund’s film lays into the emptiness, greed and selfishness of the super-rich with glee, even if it hardly tells us anything we don’t already know. The rich are only interested in their own needs and can only see others as tools for their own pleasure: who knew? Wanting to expand his satirical targets even further, Östlund also takes a pop at the social media generation. Apparently, they are shallow and interested only in commodifying their own lives. Who knew? It’s the sort of stuff that makes for a punchy student revue, but you want something a little bit more challenging that moves above cheap shots from a Palme d’Or winner.

In many ways the film’s most interesting section (and most subtle ideas) take place before we even reach the boat. The film’s first chapter exclusively follows Carl and Yaya. Carl auditions for a modelling job where he’s treated like a piece of meat (hilariously they mutter about him needing botox). At a fashion show, staff pleasantly demand three people move out of their seats to make way for VIPS – who immediately ask for one more seat. Everyone shuffles along one (the camera following this with a neat tracking shot), leaving Carl seatless. This is a more subtle commentary on the self-obsessive focus of the super-rich than anything that follows.

Carl and Yaya are in an interesting position: they are both part of the beautiful super-rich and not (they don’t have any money). That early act opener balloons from a disagreement over who pays for a meal into Carl inarticulately arguing for sexual-equality and mutual partnerships that defy gender roles. It’s more interesting than almost anything that follows, because it’s multi-layered and raises genuine issues we all face (to varying degrees).

But the film abandons multi-layered the second it steps foot on the boat. There are fun set pieces. Carl unwittingly gets a pool attendant fired because he’s jealous of Yaya’s admiration for his topless body. The staff on the boat gee themselves up for days of enthusiastic deference with a tip-expectant-group-chant. A Russian lady demands the staff all swim in the sea so they can have as much fun as she is having (and to show how ‘normal’ she is). The film’s most infamous set-piece occurs as a storm coincides with the captain’s dinner (with the fish courses under-cooked due to the aforementioned obligatory staff swim) leading to nearly all the passengers projectile vomiting across the state room, then sliding around the floors of the swaying ship in their own filth.

Amusing as that can be in its guignol excess, it tells you how subtle the film is. The film is awash with obvious, lazy jokes – of course the polite arms trading couple are called Winston and Clementine! To hammer home the social issues the film whacks us over the head with, the Captain (an awkward performance from Woody Harrelson) an alcoholic Marxist spends the storm pissed in his cabin, reading Noam Chomsky and his own anti-capitalist ravings over the ship’s tannoy. This takes up a huge amount of screen-time and manages to be both obvious and not very funny.

The film enjoys taking these pot-shots so much, it ends up feeling rushed when we arrive at the island. If we had seen more of Dolly de Leon’s Abigail earlier in the film (in actuality, the film sidelines her as much as the characters do, barely allowing her more than a minute of screentime in its first hour), the shift in social hierarchy would have carried more impact. If Östlund’s film had more patience to show the passengers expectation that shipwrecked life would be identical to that on the boat, then Abigail taking charge after a few days that would have carried more impact. Instead, Abigail takes command from arrival, and then essentially behaves (in a way I’m not sure the film quite understands) with exactly the same self-entitled greed as the passengers did. She takes the best cabin, establishes a hierarchy, keeps most of the food and turns Carl into a sex toy.

Because we’ve not really seen Abigail earlier in the film, we don’t get a sense of her earlier mistreatment (really, most of the film would have been better told from her point-of-view) or join her satisfaction at the tables being turned. The film also exhausts its commentary on the super-rich leaving it with little to say about in its third act Lord of the Flies set-up. Instead, the film dawdles its way to a conclusion and cliffhanger ending that feels unearned.

It makes you regret the loss of its earlier more subtle commentary on Instagrammers Carl and Yaya (good performances from Harris Dickinson and the tragically late Charlbi Dean) who are drowning-not-waving in a world where they must commodify their bodies but have no power over them, struggling to work-out where they fit in a world. It throws this overboard to go for some (admittedly at times funny) gags about greed and very obvious social commentary. If it had committed to its social underclass uprising earlier – or carried on with its more subtle themes from the opening prologue – it would have been a better film. Instead it’s as subtle and probing as the faceful of vomit it serves up halfway through.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Javier Bardem is terrifying in the Coen’s Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell), Javier Bardem (Anton Chigurh), Josh Brolin (Llewelyn Moss), Woody Harrelson (Carson Wells), Kelly Macdonald (Carla Jean Moss), Garret Dillahunt (Deputy Wendell), Tess Harper (Loretta Bell), Barry Corbin (Ellis), Stephen Root (Wells’ Hirer)

The borderlands of America. A vast panoramic countryside, where times may change but the underlying violence and savagery continues to lurk just under those dusty plains. It’s ground the Coens have explored before, but perhaps never with such mastery as in No Country For Old Men, a film that mixes the style of a classic Western with the nihilism and bleakness of their most challenging work, all capped with just a hint of their incomparable quirky black humour. A pitch-perfect adaptation of Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men scooped four Oscars, including Best Picture.

In the border Terrell County in Texas in 1980, a Vietnam-vet and welder Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across a drug deal gone wrong in the desert: several dead men, a truck full of drugs and a suitcase containing $2 million. Taking the case, Moss sends his wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald) to her mother’s for safety and flees first to Del Rio then Mexico to try and keep the money. Unfortunately, he’s being followed by relentless, psychotic hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who will stop at nothing to fulfil his contract – and heaven help anyone who gets in the way. Trailing in their wake is worn-out Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who feels increasingly adrift in a violent world he no longer understands.

The Coen’s film is a bleak, pessimistic and doom-laden look at man’s inhumanity to man – all of it watched with a weary sadness by Jones’ tired Sheriff, in a hauntingly gentle performance. The vision the Coens present is a world that may have moved on in decades from the Wild West, but still has that era’s cavalier regard for life. Life is very cheap in No Country For Old Men and even the slightest mistake, hesitation or act of kindness can have horrific consequences. It’s a film where death is a constant, terrible surprise – so much so it claims the life of one significant character entirely off-screen and can be handed out on the basis of a coin toss.

That coin toss will come at the prompting of Chigurh. Played with an Oscar-winning calm voidness, by an unworldly Javier Bardem, Chigurh is relentless, merciless and completely detached from humanity. Emotion is a complete stranger to him, other than a pride in his work and a capability for being irritated by a non-co-operative target. Chigurh sees himself as an instrument as fate, a nihilistic view where individual choice is removed from the equation. In one chillingly memorable scene, he relentlessly but with a terrifying calm gets a gas station attendant to call a coin toss: the attendant struggles to understand what he’s wagering, but it’s all too clear to us – and in case we miss the point, Chigurh urges him to keep the coin afterwards as it’s a momentously lucky object.

There’s a possibility that this is how Chigurh rationalises the world to himself. He is absolved of all moral consequences for his actions, as everything is pre-ordained, objects and people travelling to predetermined outcomes. It’s a viewpoint another character invited to toss a coin late in the film will firmly reject, saying all Chigurh’s actions are a choice. They’re probably also right. Chigurh kills throughout the film partly because it’s the most expedient way to get what he needs – from a car, to escaping a police station – but also because of the pride he takes in his work being the best, and anything obstructing that should be punished. He has no regard or interest in the money or even for his employers, all of them disposable in the pursuit of doing his job well. It’s perhaps not a surprise that a survey by psychologists named him the purest psychopath caught on film.

Pity those who cross his path. Compared to him, Woody Harrelson’s professional hitman is just that: a guy doing a job rather than an elemental, unstoppable force of nature (Harrelson is superb as a charming, slightly cocky pro, who accidentally gets in over his head). In many ways, it makes it even easier to root for Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss as he tries to stay one step ahead of him with his ill-gotten gains. In a breakout role, Brolin makes Moss the quintessential everyman, with just enough touches of grace and decency to make us overlook the fact that he’s an opportunist putting himself and his family at risk to steal drug money. Moss is such an underdog – but also so ingenious and determined – he becomes the perfect person to root for.

The film largely chronicles the battle of wits between Llewelyn and Chigurh across Texas and Mexico, the two of them carrying out a hunter-tracker dance that has echoes of similar duels from directors like Leone. In one set-piece moment after another, we see their coolness under fire, as well as their focused determination to get what they want, regardless of cost. Brolin’s performance is a superb slice of taciturn Texan-ness, with just enough decency to get him in trouble: from protecting his wife, to taking water back for an injured man, to rejecting the advances of a poolside floozy. It’s interesting that he invariably ends up in more trouble when he tries to do something good – but such behaviour sets him aside from Chigurh and lets us know he’s one of us.

All this bleakness is followed with sad-sack sorrow by Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff, whose eyes speak of endless, uncountable horrors that fresh ones don’t even seem to shock him anymore. Jones bookends the film with two superb monologues, that reflect on what seems like the increasing brutality of the modern world. But the Coens are smart enough to know that this sentimentality is misleading – Bell’s uncle Ellis (a fine cameo by Barry Corbin) tells him frankly that the world was ever thus and its naïve to think otherwise. This is also one of Jones’ finest performances, a tragic Homer, totally ineffective, reduced to following around and picking up the pieces.

All of this plays out without hardly any trace of a music score – Carter Burwell’s scant score makes use of everyday sound and hints of music at a few dry moments – hammering home the coldness and bleakness of it all. Excellently shot by Roger Deakins, whose classic, restrained, pictorially beautiful presentation of the West brings back a truckload of cinematic memories, the Coen’s film still finds room for dashes of dry humour. Sure, it ends with a nihilistic comment on the horrors of the world and our hopelessness in them, but there are small shoots of hope growing in there if you look closely. They are well hidden, but they are there.

No Country for Old Men is perhaps the Coens’ most fully rounded, morally complex, intriguing and dynamic film, a wonderful mix of the style of their earlier work with the bleakness of Fargo and just some touches of the wit they displayed elsewhere. Cormac McCarthy is the perfect match for two masters, whose direction is as faultless as their script. It’s a film that rewords constant viewing and is constantly shrewd and terrifying in its analysis of the human condition. Essential watching.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson head back into the area in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Director: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee), Jeffrey Wright (Beetee Latier), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Donald Sutherland (President Coriolanus Snow), Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair), Lynn Cohen (Mags), Jena Malone (Johanna Mason)

It’s a year on from Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta’s (Josh Hutcherson) victory at the 74th Hunger Games. They and the other victors live a life of relative luxury in the dictatorship of PanAm. Problem is Katniss’ humanity and defiance of the ‘rules’ from her victory have started to inspire whispers of discontent into open mutterings. When a “victor’s tour” fails to impact on her lustre, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) follows the suggestion of Games Maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – let’s celebrate the 75th Anniversary by chucking two victors from each district back into the ring. As the only female victor from District 12, this means Katniss will either wind up dead – or be put into a position where she has to abandon her humanity to become the killer she never wanted to be. But is there another game going on inside the game?

Catching Fire is an entertaining, fast-paced, well made sequel to The Hunger Games that successfully broadens and deepens the franchise. Far from being a difficult middle chapter, it’s well structured to tell a pretty self-contained story that riffs on events from the first film without being enslaved to them. It also very sharply deepens the social and political commentary from the first film, widening our knowledge of PanAm and our understanding of its corrupt, murderous system.

Lawrence’s direction is punchy, pacey and provides plenty of emotional depth and scope. It’s a film that skilfully balances questions of trauma and the horrors of murder-for-entertainment, with poundingly exciting action sequences in the games themselves. In some ways Catching Fire is the only film in the series that ends (more-or-less) with a triumphant bang, and it’s possibly why the film is the most satisfying of the lot, with the cleanest structure. It also has the advantage of widening the outer edges of the world of the film, while still largely operating within the self-contained world of the games arena.

Within that, it also manages to keep us on our toes. Many of the same set-ups – both in the build-up to the games and the action in the arena itself – echoes or reflects what we’ve seen before. The film uses this to throw at us moments the surprise us – as allegiences are revealed – or provide opportunities for dark humour (such as the setpiece Katniss decides to use to showcase her skills this time round, markedly, darkly different from her archery display in the first film).

The film is entertaining and also thought-provoking. Within the confines of its 12A certificate, it doesn’t flinch from the oppressive horror of PanAm in the districts, where sudden executions and brutal beatings are an everyday occurrence. Similarly, it demonstrates even more the heartless opulence of the capital, a world of hedonism where no questions are asked about what props this whole system up.

And at the heart we have Katniss. Wonderful played, with a full-blooded emotional commitment from Jennifer Lawrence, Katniss is slowly become aware of her iconic status, but hasn’t changed dramatically from the at-times judgmental, prickly, abrasive loner she was at the start. She’s a reluctant figure-head for a new movement, but that’s what makes her both so effective and so moving. She’s not pretending or playing a hero – she simply does the right thing, because that’s what she believes she should do. Sure she makes a host of poor character choices, but that’s what genuine people do.

Lawrence’s grounded emotional realism in the lead, helps sets the tone for the whole franchise as something surprisingly gritty, dangerous and at times quite emotionally challenging. Hutcherson does fine work as the true heart of the film series, a decent, kind man who not only sees but also brings out the best in other people. Claflin is very good as a matinee idol victor who keeps us guessing on his motivations. Harrelson and Banks provide skilled depth to characters that could have been flamboyant cartoons. Sutherland enjoyably quietly munches some scenery as the dastardly Snow, while Hoffman coasts showily but effectively.

Catching Fire bursts along with a great deal of flair and lets us really see how despotic regimes like this operate. Katniss is manipulated into situations designed to fit a narrative that will cement the position of the regime. Ordinary people are corrupted by the wickedness around them. Humanity is seen as a dangerous quality. It’s intriguing and way more insightful than you might expect from a YA blockbuster. And its treated with a profound respect by everyone involved.

And it works because it also tells a cracking, entertaining story, revolving around richly drawn characters with fully fleshed out hinterlands and personal story arcs. For all it takes place in a dystopian future, it feels a real and grounded story. And its hard not to relate to a film where the central character, for all her flaws, is fighting for her right to not kill, maim and slaughter those around her for entertainment: who clings to her humanity despite all temptations to the contrary.

Catching Fire is also blessed with being the neatest, most straight-forward and cinematic of the stories (it’s the only film in the series that ends with anything near a triumphant bang rather than a searching question – for all that it’s a compromised triumphant bang). Told with verve, smoothness and pace it’s a very entertaining movie – and surprisingly rewarding.

The Hunger Games (2012)

Jennifer Lawrence takes aim against a corrupt system in The Hunger Games

Director: Gary Ross

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Donald Sutherland (President Coriolanus Snow), Wes Bentley (Seneca Crane), Toby Jones (Claudius Templesmith), Alexander Ludwig (Cato)

“May the odds be ever in your favour”. They certainly were for The Hunger Games, the first adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian YA trilogy. It was one of many franchises trying to ride the success of the Harry Potter series – and easily the best (it’s vastly superior to, say, Twilight or the woeful Divergent). Shepherded to the screen by a confident Gary Ross, it’s a film that doesn’t shy away from book’s social politics and darkness, while also balancing that with complex and engaging characters. It stands up well to repeated viewings and never lets you forget it’s a film about teenagers involved in a brutal series of murderous blood sports.

In the future, after disasters and wars, the nation of Panem has been built. Twelve colonies are ruled from the capital. As punishment for a past rebellion, each year each district sends two tributes to the capital. These tributes will be feted, celebrated – and then pushed into an area and made to fight to the death in “The Hunger Games”, all of it transmitted on TV across Panem. To the winner, a lifetime of fame and comfort. To the losers – well, death. In the poorest district, District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers as tribute after her sister’s name is selected. Stubborn, surly, defiant and an expert archer, Katniss surprisingly finds herself capturing the public imagination – helped by a faked romance with her media-savvy fellow District 12 tribute (Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta). But in the ring will it be everybody for themselves? Or can Katniss keep hold of her soul?

The Hunger Games is rich material. Panem feels more and more like a mix between Gilead and Trumpian pomposity (the capital is a heavily stylised and artificial Rome-inspired centre of excess), in which life and death matters for very little. It’s a film that has astute things to say not only about how totalitarian regimes operate, but also how the oppressed often connive in their own suppression. So wrapped up is the population in the excitement of the Hunger Games, so invested in the results, that they’ve almost forgotten it is a tool of oppression. That the capital can only continue to exist if all the districts co-operate in following its orders and meekly supplying anything it asks – from food and resources, to teenagers for slaughter.

What this world needs is someone like Katniss. An individual who knows her own mind, who won’t play the game and will be herself. The film is brave in not softening the edges of this often prickly personality. Expertly played by Jennifer Lawrence, Katniss is compassionate and caring – but she’s also judgemental, untrusting, holds grudges and in person is often surly, resentful and impatient. But what makes her a hero, is her refusal to collaborate in softening the Hunger Games. She knows she is being manipulated to make a world feel better about itself – and she is repulsed by the idea of taking life needlessly and the slaughter of the weaker and more vulnerable tributes. Indeed, she will go to huge lengths to keep others alive in the games – something that helps to wake a population up to how they’ve been hoodwinked by bright lights to forget their own humanity. Her defiance is less about politics and more about simple human decency and being able to make her own choices – something a whole world has forgotten.

Even the people in the capital have forgotten that the Hunger Games exist to suppress not entertain. The film gets some delightful mileage out of its satire of blanket media coverage. The TV coverage is pure ESPN or Sky Sports, mixed with shallow chat shows. Stanley Tucci has a ball as a flamboyant anchor who lets no moral qualms even cross his mind as he banters with the tributes in interviews with the same excited ease as he will later commentate on their slaughter. Wes Bentley’s would-be Machiavel TV producer has been so drawn into the mechanics of his games, he’s stopped even seeing the combatants as human beings, just another set of ratings-tools he can use to advance his career.

It’s a neat commentary from the film on how we can be so beaten down and crushed by the everyday that we forget – or overlook – how it is both controlling our own lives and forcing us to rethink our own views on life. This is a world where people are being taught that life and death are not valuable, that murder can be entertainment and that everyday burdens are worth dealing with because you have a chance of being allowed to fight to the death for a shot at eternal comfort. It’s a deeply corrupt and savage system, and the film doesn’t flinch away from exploring it.

Alongside that, it’s an entertaining, gripping and involving film (if one that is a little overlong in places). The second half – which focuses on the games – is both exciting and terrifying in its (often implied – after all this is still a film that needs to be shown to kids) savagery. It encourages us to identify closely with Katniss, to experience the same terror she does as well as delight in her ingenuity and inventiveness to escape death and plan strikes against her brutal opponents. By the end of the film we’ve taken her to our hearts – for all we’ve seen how difficult a person she is – as much as the population of Panem have.

Ross’s film is a triumph of adaptation, and you don’t say that about many YA novels. Suzanne Collins’ adaptation of her own book captures its thematic richness, while compressing it effectively. There are a host of interesting actors giving eclectic performances, including Harrelson as Katinss and Peeta’s mentor, Banks and Kravitz as their support team, and Sutherland as the controlling dictator behind it all. The Hunger Games is prime entertainment, with some fascinating design work (the costumes and sets are spot on) and very well made. It’s a franchise to watch.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Alden Ehrenreich tries his best in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Director: Ron Howard (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller)

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich (Han Solo), Woody Harrelson (Tobias Beckett), Emilia Clarke (Qi’ra), Donald Glover (Lando Calrissian), Thandie Newton (Val), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (L3-37), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Paul Bettany (Dryden Vos), Erin Kellyman (Enfys Nest), Jon Favreau (Rio Durant)

Solo did the impossible. No not the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. It showed you could release a Star Wars film that lost money. How could this happen? Well the easy solution is to point at the film’s disastrous shooting. Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were originally announced as its directors, making their live-action debuts. But Lord and Miller lacked experience, and a litany of complaints – poor direction, a demand for constant improvisation slowing shooting, failing to get enough angles to allow options in editing – led to them getting fired and replaced with Ron Howard. 

Unfortunately, even though large parts of the film had already been shot, Howard still needed to go back and reshoot large chunks (and recast, with Paul Bettany replacing the Michael K Williams as the film’s villain due to a scheduling clash). The budget ballooned to nearly $300million, a sum (with marketing costs) the film didn’t stand a chance of hitting with its poor initial buzz and mixed word of mouth. Not to mention the general (misguided) poor reaction from the core fanbase to Last Jedi, which had literally only just left theatres as this film prepared to launch.

If it seems a little unfair to open a review of the film with an anecdote about its making, that’s because the film’s tortuous journey to the screen is more interesting than most of the things that actually ended up in it. It’s an origins story for Han Solo (gamely played by a trying-his-best Alden Ehrenreich), which traces his early days towards becoming the smuggler we know, with the background given for virtually every aspect of the character: meeting Chewie, how he got his surname, where he found his blaster, how he did he win the Millennium Falcon from Lando (Donald Glover, who with his charisma and cool is the only one who manages to reinterpret his character to feel both fresh and a natural predecessor of Billy Dee Williams’ interpretation) and just how did he do that Kessel Run in 12 parsecs? 

If that sounds a bit like the film is a series of nostalgic box ticks… that’s kind of because it is. The impact is made worse by the fact that nearly all its events – from Han meeting his “mentor” Beckett through to the end of the film as he jets off to do a job for Jabba the Hutt – seem to take place in a week. As so often, the modern Stars Wars films manage to make its universe as small as possible. The sense of wearying accumulation as every half reference ever made in the old films is given a backstory, makes you wonder how boring the rest of Han’s life must have been if everything he ever talks about is connected to this one job.

The telescoped timeline also has a serious impact on much of the film’s relationships. Han and Chewie get by fine because we’ve already invested in that friendship – and Ehlenreich and Suotamo do a good job of building the regard between these two, one of the best beats from Howard’s direction. But other relationships get short-changed, particularly Beckett. Played with a maverick gusto by Woody Harrelson, this character is meant to be a model of the sort of heartless mercenary Han Solo starts A New Hope as. But the relationship of the two characters never works, because there is no sense of bond – they’ve known each other a week or two at best, and the emotional trust between them doesn’t exist, so the inevitable betrayal (when it comes) means nothing.

The other principle relationship between Solo and his childhood sweetheart, the equally mercenary Qi’ra, similarly suffers from getting lost in the shuffle of ticking off iconic references. It’s not helped by the total lack of chemistry between Ehlenreich and Emilia Clarke. Clarke herself feels painfully miscast in a role that doesn’t use any of her brightness and wit, instead pushing her into the sort of fantasy-genre, fanboy’s-dream woman she might find herself trapped into playing. This links in strongly with a terminally uninteresting criminal gang plot in which a wasted Paul Bettany – playing someone who barely seems to manage to have a personality – is the mysterious crime lord manipulating everyone.

The film goes from set piece to set piece, but none of them really stand out, and all are shot and edited together with a sort of bland competence that perhaps you could expect from a master craftsman like Howard, who works better with actors than he does special effects. The film clearly wants to go for a Firefly vibe (with its heists, mismatched criminal gang, double crosses and damaged hero not wanting to get involved in the problems of others) – and there is something quite sad that this film about an iconic character feels the need to rip off a TV show that ripped off a lot of the vibe of that original iconic character.

But then that’s the problem perhaps. This is a wallowing in nostalgia that depends on your affection for Harrison Ford’s masterful Han Solo – but which will only serve to remind viewers that, for all his work, Ehlenreich is no Ford. It also doesn’t help that the film, by its very nature, can allow no development for Solo. This is a character that spends all of Star Wars as a cynical and selfish hired gun, who acts without thinking and has no interest in helping others if there is nothing in it for him. Since Solo basically starts this origins story like this, he therefore must end the film in the same way – so other than becoming a bit more competent and worldly-wise, he’s stuck not developing in any way. This makes for a film that feels even more like a slightly pointless exercise in nostalgia.

For all that, it has its moments and is fun enough – and certainly not the worst film in the franchise. But it’s the first sign, that Disney should have heeded, that nostalgia and retelling familiar stories over and over again was not a guaranteed box office smash any more. By rooting another film in things introduced in the first two Star Wars, it reminds us again that this is a small and incestuous universe, where we see the same faces over and over again. With a film where every scene is a homage and every possible piece of trivia is laboriously given a back story, that feeling grows even more.

Now You See Me (2013)

A gang of magicians get up to all sorts of antics in light and empty caper Now You See Me

Director: Louis Leterrier

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg (J Daniel Atlas), Woody Harrelson (Merritt McKinney), Isla Fisher (Henley Reeves), Dave Franco (Jack Wilder), Mark Ruffalo (Agent Dylan Rhodes), Mélanie Laurent (Agent Alma Dray), Morgan Freeman (Thaddeus Bradley), Michael Caine (Arthur Tressler), Michael Kelly (Agent Fuller), Common (Agent Evans)

Sometimes the simplest tricks are the best. Remember David Blaine? All his huge illusions and stunts weren’t worth thruppence compared to the simple awe of watching him perform card tricks in front of stunned regular folks in the streets. This film is pretty much the same, a dazzlingly shot con-trick of a film that wants to reveal a stream of tricks that it was holding up its sleeves over its runtime, each twist being less and less impactful. The most magic thing in this is the sleight of hand card trick Jesse Eisenberg performs at the start of the film – after that it’s like watching your soul drain away over two hours under an onslaught of wham-bam twists.

Anyway, J Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) are a ragtag bunch of professional magicians, hypnotists, stunt performers and conmen who are recruited by a shadowy magical organisation known only as The Eye for reasons unknown. One year later they are performing huge stadium gigs, with the support of millionaire insurance man Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), as The Four Horseman. During their first show they magic millions of Euros out of a bank in Paris while performing in Las Vegas – a stunt that attracts the attention of the FBI and Interpol who send agents Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) to investigate. Meanwhile, the Horsemen are on the run from the law, and still working towards ends unknown, while dodging magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). But is anything as it seems?

The answer of course is no. But then what do you expect from a film that proudly announces (frequently) “the closer you look, the less you will see”. It’s a pretty good message for the film – but not in a good way – as Now You See Me is as insubstantial as air, a puff of showmanship so pleased with its twists and tricks that it completely fails to have a heart. By the time we get to the end of the film and realise almost everything we saw over its runtime wasn’t real you’ll feel disconnected rather than engaged.

In fact, as a heist/con movie, this isn’t that good. The formula depends on you thinking you’ve got it worked out and then BOOM you realise you didn’t. It also by and large depends on charming, playful leads (think Newman and Redford in The Sting) and on a sort of consistent logic where you get the satisfaction of pieces you didn’t even notice falling into place as vital clues. Now You See Me does none of this.

In fact, it’s so pleased to tell you that it pulled the wool over your eyes that it rushes several of its reveals with an indecent haste. It largely fails to sprinkle clues throughout the film and basically plays unfair with the whole audience. There are things you can never hope to work out as they are based on not being shown vital clues early on. Characters and the film carefully never reveal any hints of true allegiances or motivations until the last possible minute.

In fact it’s one of those films where most of the characters are, for large chunks of time, really pretending to be someone else. This can work, but it doesn’t here as most of the Horsemen are basically rather unlikeable arrogant arseholes. The four actors mostly coast through basic set-ups, and you’ll be pleased when they fade into the background in the second half of the move (all four of them are basically decoy protagonists, and the film shelves them when it can no longer think of a way of hiding their true motivations in plain sight any more). The real lead is actually Mark Ruffalo’s FBI agent, and Ruffalo is a charming, likeable, schleppy presence that you can root for, even if the plot takes us on a character journey with him that makes no real sense (the clue for this is the film’s references to a magician who buried a card in a tree years earlier for one trick). 

It’s flashy in its film making, and Leterrier has a workmanlike touch with making things look cooland putting the camera in interesting places. He has no real idea of character or pacing – the film is frequently quick, quick, slow – and he creates a film here that has nowhere near the brains it thinks it has. It’s all flash and no substance. Look too closely and you’ll see nothing there.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Frances McDormand is looking for justice in Martin McDonagh’s razor sharp Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Director: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Frances McDormand (Mildred Hayes), Woody Harrelson (Sheriff Bill Willoughby), Sam Rockwell (Officer Jason Dixon), John Hawkes (Charlie Hayes), Peter Dinklage (James), Abbie Cornish (Anne Willoughby), Lucas Hedges (Robbie Hayes), Željko Ivanek (Sergeant Cedric Connolly), Caleb Landy Jones (Red Welby), Clarke Peters (Abercrombie), Samara Weaving (Penelope), Kerry Condon (Pamela), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Jerome), Amanda Warren (Denise), Kathryn Newton (Angela Hayes)

How do we deal with grief? What might it drive us to do? How does it make us behave – and what sort of person can it make us become? Martin McDonagh’s superbly scripted and directed, brilliantly acted film explores these themes in intriguing and compelling depth, consistently surprising the audience, not only with unexpected plot developments, but also wonderfully complex characters, whose personalities and decisions feel as distanced from convention as you can get.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a grieving mother, who feels let-down by the police and justice system as they have failed to locate and arrest the rapist who murdered her daughter. She hires three large billboards on a quiet road out of her town in Ebbing, and places on each of them a stark message: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests?” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”. The billboards lead to Sherriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) doing what he can to re-open the case – a case with no real evidence or leads. But the local community – many of whom adore Willoughby – are increasingly angered by the billboards, not least Willoughby’s semi-protégé, controversial red-neckish officer Joe Dixon (Sam Rockwell). The billboards lead to increasingly violent disagreement in the small community – and surprising allegiances developing.

McDonagh’s black comedy-drama balances immense sadness and searing rage with jet-black humour. McDonagh’s distinctive (and often foul-mouthed) style runs through the entire film. It’s a film that not only defies real categorisation, it also defies expectations. You would expect this film to be a commentary on a heart-rending grieving mother struggling against an indifferent, incompetent, racist (or all three) legal system. Perhaps even a film that will build towards a sort of “whodunit” murder mystery. All these expectations are constantly turned upon their head. Any obvious, traditional narrative development – and lord the film plays with this throughout its runtime – is diverted. You never know where the film is going – and you would certainly never have guessed its conclusion from the opening. 

Our expectations are immediately inverted when Woody Harrelson’s Sheriff meets with Frances McDormand’s mother in the opening moments. We expect him to be indifferent, annoyed or bitter – instead he’s liberal, concerned, sympathetic and hurt, while understanding why Mildred has done what she has done. Mildred, who we expect to be moved by, whose pain we expect to empathise with – instead she’s burning with fury and resentment, is amazingly confrontational and unyielding, and her ideas for investigating the crime border on the ruthlessly right-wing. Far from the predictable drama you might expect, you are thrown into something unusual – and real.

The storyline continues throughout in this vein – McDonagh never takes the expected route, but constantly pushes towards something unexpected. His trademark spikey dialogue throws you off balance – this is surely one of the few films where you’ll see a son affectionately call his mother “an old c**t”, or a happily married, middle-class couple address each other with a stunning, loving crudity. Pay-offs to plot developments are confidently unorthodox, and devoid of the expected sentimentality. The murder mystery element of the story is played with in a unique way: even the crime itself remains unexplored and unexplained, with only a few grim photos and a few hints dropped in dialogue as to what happened.

Instead, the film focuses on how grief and upheaval affects a community. All of the characters deal with a profound personal loss over the course of the story, and the impact of this on them leads not just to anger and rage, but also in some a profound reassessment of their life and choices. It’s a film that looks at the struggle we have to control the narratives of our own lives, to not be a victim but instead to give the things that have happened to us meaning and importance. Each character wants to find a way to make the things that have happen to them have meaning, and to find a sense of closure. It asks what can and can’t we forgive, and how far do we need to take actions to find a sense of closure. The film’s open-ended conclusion both points towards suggested answers to these questions, while at the same time offering few.

Frances McDormand gives a compelling performance in the lead role, as a domineering, strong-willed woman who resolutely refuses to be a victim, but wants revenge. Burning with a simmering rage at the world, and quick to respond with aggression and even violence, McDormand never allows the character to become fully sympathetic, but constantly challenges us. It’s the sharpest-edged grieving mother you’ll see on film, as full of prejudice and judgemental behaviour as she is pain and guilt. She attacks each scene like a bull in a china shop, and Mildred Hayes is a smart, ruthless woman who takes no prisoners.

The part was written especially for McDormand, as was that of Joe Dixon for Sam Rockwell. Rockwell, one of those eminently reliable supporting actors, gives an extraordinary powder-keg performance as an on-the-surface dumb, racist bully with poor impulse control, who is barely able to hide a vulnerable mummy’s-boy complex and a strangely touching sense of loyalty. Rockwell is dynamite in each scene, but constantly gives us interesting and varied line-readings, changing our perceptions of his character with each scene. 

To briefly address a controversy that has arisen about the film.  McDonagh has explored extremes like this in the past – his work in the past has humanised murderers, child-killers, terrorists and executioners, while not excusing their actions. The film has courted controversy by refusing to condemn Dixon’s racism, or for not ‘punishing’ the character enough, but it instead asks us to understand why Dixon has done or said the things he says – and to empathise with the pain, despair and anger in his own life. Is Dixon a racist? He’s a product of his time and place, I’d say he’s really just very angry, without understanding why, and without having the emotional intelligence to deal with it. He might have done unpleasant things – in the film doesn’t dodge this – but it asks us to question why he might have done this, rather than paint him as a demon.

Equally brilliant (perhaps one of his greatest performances) is Woody Harrelson as the surprisingly liberal, good-natured, patient and humane Sherriff Willoughby. Surely no one could expect the authority figure in a film of this nature to be the most sympathetic and likeable character in the film, the one with perhaps the most moving personal story. Harrelson is simply superb in the part, and his gentle, lingering regret hangs over the film.

But the whole cast is marvellous. Hawkes is a deeply troubled and pained man hiding it under anger and mid-life crisis. Dinklage is a sad eyed, lonely man. Cornish sports a slightly unusual accent but is warmly loving and very normal as Willoughby’s wife. Hedges is impressive as Mildred’s son, whose life is made increasingly difficult by his mother’s unwillingness to compromise. Landy Jones is excellent as the empathetic billboard manager, too good for this town. Peters brings a reassuring air of authority and dignity to the film. With the dialogue a gift for actors, there isn’t a weak performance in the film.

McDonagh’s fine, simple direction adds a Western-style sweep to the action and allows the story to speak for itself, working with the actors to bring out some brilliant, unique characterisations. It’s an intelligent and thought-provoking film, that constantly pushes you in unexpected directions and asks intriguing and challenging questions about profound issues, especially grief. Despite this, it’s a laugh-out-loud black comedy, that will move you and which has the courage to leave many of its plot issues open-ended and true-to-life. It asks questions, but it also acknowledges that life doesn’t give us answers. It also reminds us that we can never judge people from our initial impressions or expectations.

Triple 9 (2016)

An all-star cast fail to make Triple 9 a classic, or even a decent watch

Director John Hillcoat

Cast: Casey Affleck (Chris Allen), Anthony Mackie (Marcus Belmont), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Michael Atwood), Clifton Collins Jnr (Franco Rodriguez), Woody Harrelson (Jeffrey Allen), Aaron Paul (Gabe Welch), Kate Winslet (Irina Vlaslov), Gal Gadot (Elena Vlaslov), Norman Reedus (Russell Welch), Michael K Williams (Sweet Pea), Teresa Palmer (Michelle Allen)

Triple 9 that never gets anywhere near fulfilling its potential. You look at the cast and you think “Wow! That has got to be one of the films of the year! Right?” Wrong. Triple 9 is another journey into the macho bullshit of the criminal underworld, where the “good” thieves have honour, the bad thieves are unscrupulous, the cops are all sorts of shades of grey, and the real baddies are foreign gangsters exploiting American criminals. All told with a backdrop of shouting, shooting and doping. You feel, and I suspect the filmmakers feel as well, that the film must be about something – but it really isn’t, it’s a super violent, dark Rififi with none of that classic’s touch.

Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a crack crook, leader of a gang that executes difficult jobs on demand for their Russian paymaster, mob boss’ wife Irina (a showboating Kate Winslet). Atwood’s crew includes dirty cops Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jnr). Tasked to steal federal investigation data on Irina’s husband, Michael and his crew decide their only chance is to distract the police with a Triple 9 call out – the shooting of a cop. Their target? Belmont’s new partner, hotshot honest cop Chris Allen (Casey Affleck).

Triple 9 isn’t particularly inventive or unique. The problem is it also isn’t very interesting. This is largely because you don’t engage with any of the characters. Atwood is a blank, played by a disengaged Chiwetel Ejiofor. He has a standard sub-plot of a son he isn’t allowed to see. But it’s not enough to get us caring about him. Chris Allen isn’t particularly likeable (Casey Affleck is not the most relatable of actors) so it’s hard to get worked up over whether he’s going to be killed or not. The most interesting character is Anthony Mackie’s Belmont – but he has been saddled with an “I feel growing guilt” sub-plot that you’ve seen dozens of times before.

Perhaps aware that a lot of the writing was paper-thin, the film recruits a number of familiar actors to “do their thing” so that we can shortcut to what sort of person the character is meant to be, by seeing crude drawings of their more famous, nuanced roles. Aaron Paul’s performance will be familiar to anyone who has seen Breaking Bad; Norman Reedus essentially reprises his role from The Walking Dead. Woody Harrelson does his grizzled half-genius, half-dope fiend, difficult man schtick he’s done many times. Only Kate Winslet is cast against her type – and her scenery-chewing enjoyment of the role makes her feel like an actress doing a guest turn, rather than a real person.

Hillcoat’s direction doesn’t bring any of the film’s threads together. It never feels like a film that is about something. Where is the depth, where is the interest? It’s not even a particularly exciting film to watch, with the heist moments not particularly exciting or interesting, and its shot with a wicked darkness that never gets the pulse going. After some initial build-up, the plot never really goes anywhere unexpected, and the final pay-off is stretching for a narrative weight it just doesn’t have. 

Hillcoat and crew obviously feel they are making a higher genre film – but this is really just a pulp thriller, with actors acting tough but never convincing. None of the major events make a massive amount of sense: characters run into each other in a way that stretches credulity, the Russian mob runs its business with a counter-productive brutality, the dirty cops alternate between super cunning and horrendously dumb.  It’s a dumb, badly written movie that never comes to life. It doesn’t even have the real moments of excitement you need to at least grab you while the rest of the film drifts along. Not good. Not good at all. Triple 9? Not even triple stars.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Andy Serkis goes to war as Ape Leader Caesar in the final entry in the new Planet of the Apes saga

Director: Matt Reeves

Cast: Andy Serkis (Caesar), Woody Harrelson (The Colonel), Steve Zahn (Bad Ape), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Terry Notary (Rocket), Ty Olsson (Red), Michael Adamthwaite (Luca), Toby Kebbell (Koba), Judy Greer (Cornelia), Sara Canning (Lake), Gabriel Chavarria (Preacher)

The Planet of the Apes trilogy of the past few years is so far superior to the original films (bar the first) that even decent efforts still stand tall over their forebears. War isn’t quite the classic you want, but it is a worthy companion to the two previous films, and sets a tough act to follow for (inevitable) sequels and remakes.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) is nearing the end of a long war with humanity, desperate for peace to allow the apes to set up their own home. But after a night attack by demagogue rogue soldier The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) leaves Caesar suffering a huge personal loss, he finally succumbs to his rage and anger and goes on a quest for vengeance, accompanied only by his oldest and closest companions. Along the way he discovers the doom of mankind has already begun, with a virus slowly robbing them of the power of speech and reason.

It’s a slight shame that the final film in an excellent trilogy isn’t quite the knock-out I hoped it would be. It’s a good film, but not a great one. It won’t exactly leave anyone disappointed, but it doesn’t quite send the entire trilogy out on as triumphant a high as hoped. Part of the problem is that I just found it a slightly more straightforward, less thematically rich than the other films. It’s more of a simple “revenge” story, married up with a host of film genre references from Apocalypse Now to Westerns to old-school Hollywood Biblical epics.

The title suggests a bit more action than the film actually offers. The war, such as it is, turns out to be almost a macguffin – a feud between rival groups of humans rather than an ape-human smackdown. It’s actually the most internalised conflict yet – the war to decide the sort of planet the apes will inherit is in the soul of the sort of leader Caesar will decide to be. Like all revenge dramas around sympathetic characters, the big question is will our hero decide to lay aside vengeance – to be the better man. It’s a tribute to the film that the answer is as difficult and unclear-cut as you expect the question would be.

As this film, more than any other, is ape-centric (there are at best three human characters), it rests even more than on the strength of Serkis’ acting. It feels unoriginal to say it now, but what Serkis has achieved is astonishing. He has turned a special effect with an actor behind it into a living, breathing character – someone you never doubt is real. His performance is a complex internalisation, as far away from flashy as you can get – it’s all about the eyes, and Serkis’ shine with life.

It’s lucky that Serkis is  here, as he elevates the entire film to a higher level, where otherwise it can occasionally  feel like a careful assembly of bits and pieces of other films. Caesar and gang’s journey through the snowy depths of North America looks and feels like a spaghetti western. By the end of the film, Caesar feels like a Moses figure leading his people to the promised land. The biggest influence by far however is Apocalypse Now. The soldiers all feel like angry Vietnamese war vets, the opening battles through the forest have a definite air of the jungle, while Woody Harrelson’s slightly underpowered villain is so reminiscent of Kurtz, he even does a Brando impersonation at points. The structure of the film even matches Heart of Darkness, Caesar on a trek “down river” to confront a rogue soldier turned cult leader.

It’s not exactly unique and recycles much of its content, but Reeves is still a damn fine director and not only shoots with dynamism, but also ensures there is heart and depth behind everything. There is a subtle understory of ape civil war, with the followers of Koba now serving the humans out of an “enemy of my enemy” mentality. Making the Colonel the leader of a maniacal cult also makes him a good contrast with Caesar’s standing with the apes. At least two characters develop in ways far different than you are led to expect, due to clever playing with the viewer’s expectations of how movies are “supposed” to pan out.

So why doesn’t it all quite work as well? If it’s so full of good stuff, why doesn’t it sing like the others? Well maybe it’s a little too long. Maybe the Colonel isn’t quite a good enough antagonist for Caesar. Maybe the grim mood and focus on the revenge arc mean some of the thematic richness of the previous films has been lost. Maybe there just isn’t quite enough “humanity” in this story of apes. It’s hard to put your finger on – but it’s just not quite as good as the others, not quite as memorable. It’s a strong well-made film, very well directed and superbly acted by Serkis and the other motion capture artists – but it’s not quite the classic it feels like it could be. You’ll be slightly unsatisfied but find it hard to work out exactly why.