Triple Frontier (2019)

tripleIts perhaps fortunate that I watched Triple Frontier in blissful ignorance of the pedigree of creatives behind it- in particular that it was directed by J C Chandor, who had earlier made two films I particularly enjoyed- All is Lost and A Most Violent Year. While I enjoyed Triple Frontier, it is clearly not in the same league as either of those two earlier films (in hindsight, maybe the casting of Oscar Isaac was a clue). From what I gather, Triple Frontier has had a long and protracted development history behind it (Kathryn Bigelow at one time marked to direct it, and a cast that at one time included Tom Hanks) – and it’s perhaps surprising that it has turned out as good as it has, or actually finally got made at all. At any rate, it’s probably not what I would call ‘a J C Chandor film’ in just the same way as several of Ridley Scott’s films were likely made as a ‘director for hire’ rather than a personal project (play a game, guess which ones). Which is a protracted way of me saying that I wouldn’t have enjoyed it quite so much had I been saddled with the expectations from the director’s name/past work. Sometimes you just have to judge a movie by itself, on its own terms.

So Triple Frontier (no, can’t say the title makes a lot of sense even after having seen the film) is a sort of old-fashioned action adventure/heist yarn, in which a bunch of embittered/financially challenged ax-Army Rangers buddies are recruited by one of their colleagues, who knows about a drug dealer down in a South American jungle whose millions of ill-gotten dollars could solve our heroes life problems. Hell, a premise like that, it could have been a great Predator sequel, but nevermind. So yeah, its part A-Team, part Sicario, part heist picture, part buddy picture, part man-against-nature picture. It should have been in all likelihood a terrible mess, and maybe it still is a bit of a mess, but it does actually work.

Sure, there are a few issues with the script, and characters making some odd choices just to further that script towards its various twists and plot-points, but that kind of thing can be inevitable from such a long gestation period and so many hands messing with it over the years. At any rate, the film does pack a few genuine surprises that I didn’t see coming.

It doesn’t hurt that it looks absolutely gorgeous. This is a movie with a capital ‘M’ and not at all what you’d expect – as I have noted before, some of these Netflix Originals are far beyond what might have been considered direct to video, or even tv movie, material, several years ago. There is some amazing location photography here and some great action sequences/stunt scenes. Maybe some of the visual effects don’t quite hold up to the scrutiny that this lovingly sharp and detailed image invites, but it really is quite cinematic. I don’t know what streaming compression Netflix is using but this film looked amazing in 4K, a real improvement on the fairly appalling compression artifacts and banding I suffered watching Voice from the Stone on Amazon a few nights ago.

 

A Most Violent Year (2014)

vy1A Most Violent Year is a period thriller set in 1981, but the film is really a throwback to films of the decade before. Its a riveting character piece, a study of someone trying to stay clean in an increasingly dirty city, slowly losing control of his surroundings and repeatedly finding his moral code and convictions being tested. Beautifully photographed, with a sharp, slow-burning script, a moody score and amazing cast, its an excellent film that just works brilliantly.

A Most Violent Year is the story of the Abel (Oscar Isaac) and Anna (Jessica Chastain) as they struggle to maintain their home oil business during the winter of 1981 in New York City. Their rise over the previous decade has earned them the attention of both shady competitors and a justice dept keen to clean up the industry. Hijackings begin to start happening, injuring his staff, and when Abel turns to the NYPD for help he finds them more interested in investigating his business than protecting it. Abel has set a time-sensitive business contract in motion which threatens to cost him everything he has and leave him with nothing if it doesn’t go through, and the increasingly violent hijacking attacks and investigations by the NYPD gives the bank he relies on cold feet. Abel takes pride in his personal ethos of staying clean and not resorting to violence, but threatened as he is on all sides and with time  running out, what else can he do?

vy2The title A Most Violent Year can be rather misleading. as this isn’t a particularly violent film. It is graphic at times, and quite brutal, but really it isn’t a gangster movie. It’s more a character piece, an examination of a man whose morals and way of life is tested to the limit as he tries to protect his family and save his business from ruin. Isaac is simply brilliant here, obviously a major talent to watch; externally calm and charming but as the pressure on him rises you can sense that internally he is threatening to explode. Chastain however simply burns the screen, stealing every scene she is in. Whenever I see her in a film she just blows me away, and in a dark character piece like this, working off the impressive Isaac in so many scenes, its just phenomenal work. She’s just an incredible actress and it will be fascinating to see her career progress if given decent material.

vy3Credit is no doubt due to director JC Chandor, whose previous film, All is Lost, which I saw earlier this year also impressed me. Both films have the irresistible pull of powerful central performances and a slow burn that raises the tension as the films progress. Both films hark back to that Golden Era of American Cinema, the 1970s. These aren’t fast-paced films that use action and pyrotechnics to disguise lazy writing and plot-holes. This is a film with a beginning, a middle and an end. There won’t be a sequel or a prequel. We’ll never see these characters again. But they won’t be forgotten. Its powerful stuff and definitely worth at least a rental if you are a fan of 1970s-style movies. It certainly deserves a wider audience than it likely has found so far- like All Is Lost, I suspect A Most Violent Year will gain an increasingly appreciative audience in years to come. The best films always do.

All Is Lost (2013)

all1It’s curious how some movies share plots/themes with others. Sometimes its clearly a case of rival studios making competing films that are different spins on the same story- Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down are pretty much the same film but each with opposing approach (the former overly serious, the latter tongue-in-cheek fun). It happened years ago regards extinction event/deadly asteroids with Deep Impact and Armageddon (again, the former rather serious while the latter deliriously camp fun). Sometimes studios balk at launching expensive rival projects (usually one wins the box office and the other loses it) which results in one getting canceled (Baz Luhrmann’s Alexander project giving way to Oliver Stone’s film). But I guess its possible that films with similar subjects get made independently and ignorant of each other.

I don’t know if this was the case with All Is Lost, that its similarities were accidental, but the most immediate impression whilst watching J.C. Chandor’s film is the feeling that you’re watching Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity transposed to the ocean. Indeed I rather fear that many viewers will be distracted by the sense of deja-vu and dismiss All Is Lost as a rip-off and inferior. This would be unfortunate really, because All Is Lost is a great survival movie and character piece that benefits from its real-world setting and the lack of cgi spectacle that dominates so much of Gravity. Gravity, by its blockbuster nature, raised the stakes to huge levels and at times threatened its suspension of disbelief -indeed, in my own reading of the film, I believe the characters all perish early on and the ensuing events are Sandra Bullock’s near-death/post-death experiences similar to Tim Robbin’s character in Jacobs Ladder (there are simply too many happy coincidences/nearby space stations to be wholly realistic). Everytime Bullock pulls herself up on the shore at the end I expect to glimpse a little girl (her dead daughter) just on the edge of the final shot.

All Is Lost may be destined to forever suffer in comparison to its big-budget counterpart and sit in its very long shadow, but this would be a great shame. Both are great movies- its just that one is much quieter than the other. There’s nothing wrong with that, surely- maybe something superior even. All Is Lost is far less a blockbuster and much the better for it. Its a much quieter film, and slower-paced. Very often I reflected that the film reminded me of the films of the ‘seventies with its pacing and quiet thoughtfulness. There is hardly any dialogue at all, just a few muttered expletives really- it’s all about what we see, an exercise in Pure Cinema, far removed from how many modern movies explain everything through dialogue.The soundtrack is restrained, the (very good) Alex Ebert semi-ambient score mixed well into the superbly effective sound design.


all3Robert Redford is excellent- he plays a nameless mariner (simply named ‘Our Man’ in the credits) who awakens to find water in his cabin- he discovers that his yacht has been holed by a rogue shipping container during the night (so there’s another similarity to Gravity– in both films it’s junk that causes the ensuing drama; is there further meaning to that in both films?). In the middle of the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean, the mariner’s ship floats in complete isolation with its navigational and radio equipment ruined by the impact. The immediate danger seems minor, as he separates his boat from the container and starts makeshift repairs, but it becomes apparent that the yacht is dangerously harmed and following an ensuing storm the mariner’s attempt to survive becomes increasingly desperate. It’s a tale of survival against ever-increasing odds, of man dwarfed by, and at odds with, mother nature- the endless desolation of the ocean as indifferent and cruel as the cold depths of space are in Gravity.

We don’t learn much at all about our unnamed protagonist, except that as the events unfold he begins to re-examine who he is, what he has achieved and who/what he leaves behind should he die. In a similar way to the events of Gravity, it becomes a transcendent experience, the increasing closeness of death forcing a reappraisal of oneself. I had a sense that he isn’t a very nice guy, that while we empathise with his plight, he has a past unknown to us that wouldn’t really cast him in a very good light were it revealed (in one of his lowest moments he writes a last note and it is tinged with regret). It’s a tour-de-force from Redford, who incredibly was in his late seventies when this was shot, and this could well be considered one of his very best performances. His is the only character in the film, and Redford has to carry it completely on his own (in Gravity at least Bullock had other actors she could play off from). The mariners calm confidence is slowly chipped away by the unfolding events and his worn face starts to betray the quiet desperation he feels as his survival becomes ever unlikely. Its a great performance from Redford and a fine demonstration that not every leading man in a movie has to be young, fit and apparently unmarked by life (the one thing that bugs me about casting Keanu Reeves in John Wick, for instance, is that he hardly looks worn by the life of a hitman).

So if you can shake off the nagging sense of deja-vu when watching it, I’m sure you will be rewarded if you give All Is Lost a try. I’m certain it will eventually turn up on television with little fanfare and people will discover it (Redford himself was very critical of the films marketing on its theatrical release and its disc release has been similarly under the radar). Maybe it’s one of those films destined for reappraisal in years to come.

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