REVIEW: “Triple Frontier”

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There has been no shortage of heist films over the past few years and they have pretty much covered all the bases. We’ve seen widows, hillbillies, magicians, even the elderly all set out to for that one big score. The new Netflix Original “Triple Frontier” gives us a different type of heist movie yet one that doesn’t stray too far from its genre roots.

“Triple Frontier” had me at its cast. Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, and Garrett Hedlund are all actors I throughly enjoy. I wasn’t as familiar with Pedro Pascal but he’s a good addition to this group. The five play old special ops buddies who reunite to pull off a seemingly quick and easy heist. Of course it wouldn’t be much of a movie if the job was easy.

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J.C. Chandor directs and co-writes the script along with Mark Boal. They offer up characters who aren’t just out for a quick buck. They are real-world people struggling to make a living after their military service. Tom (Affleck) is a realtor who can’t afford to send his daughter to college. William (Hunnam) does low paying motivational speeches for troubled vets. Ben (Hedlund) makes what money he can in warehouse mixed martial arts fights. Francisco (Pascal) faces an upcoming court date for transporting drugs.

Santiago (Isaac) is only one still semi-working in the field. He’s a private military consultant assisting the Colombian government in their war against the drug gangs. He learns through an informant that a local kingpin is holed up in a remote safe house with millions of dollars in drug money. Santiago travels back to America to recruit his old squadmates to help him take out the kingpin and grab the money for themselves.

At first the band is reluctant to get back together, especially Tom. But Santiago knows the situations of his cash-strapped pals and his sales pitch is good. He convinces the team to get back together for the proverbial ‘one last mission’ but this one isn’t for their government or their country. This one of for them and their future. Or so it seems.

For me these characters are a real strength of the film and the motivations that drive them are compelling. I do wish Chandor and Boal would have spent a little more time on their individual stories, but once the five are together their chemistry is undeniable. So many big names have been attached to the movie – Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Tom Hardy, Mahershala Ali, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, among others. That’s a lot of talent but I still wouldn’t change a thing. The cast is spot-on top to bottom (keep an eye on Hunnam. I like him more with each performance).

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Another strength is Roman Vasyanov’s cinematography. Hawaii and Columbia provide the beautiful and rugged vistas for him to capture and he shows a keen eye for shooting action sequences. They are tense and thrilling but also shot in a way that reflects conscience. What does that mean? This isn’t a full-throttle 80’s style action picture. There’s no thrill or enjoyment in the gunplay. But there is real conflict and consequence. In fact the violence is never gratuitous and Chandor’s camera often focuses on the shooter’s face instead of the bloody results.

It should be said that “Triple Frontier” doesn’t paint its characters out to be heroes. They’re flawed, damaged, and conflicted men wrestling with their own moral justifications for what they are doing. Some of their actions clearly originate from a deeper personal anguish, something I wish the film delved deeper into. Still, their chemistry is authentic and palpable, the story is full of tension, and just when you think you have it figured out it throws an unexpected but welcomed curveball.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Lost City of Z”

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“He’s been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.” We get this key line of dialogue early on in James Gray’s masterful biographical adventure “The Lost City of Z”. This snide, condescending jab is aimed at the film’s lead character Percy Fawcett and surprisingly it gives a ton of insight into what makes this complex fellow tick.

Percy Fawcett was a British officer, geographer, and eventual South American explorer. His intriguing life was made all the more fascinating by his mysterious disappearance in the Amazon during a 1925 expedition to find a long-lost ancient city. Many theories blossomed concerning his vanishing but there has never been any concrete evidence to help determine his fate.

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James Gray writes and directs this sweeping epic that’s based on David Grann’s 2009 book. As with his previous film 2014’s “The Immigrant”, Gray exhibits  a strickingly classical form of filmmaking and an impeccable eye for period detail. There is an undeniable familiarity with many of his visual and narrative choices, yet he stays away from common cliches and he’s not afraid to hold a magnifying glass to subjects glossed over in similar movies.

Fawcett is played with sturdy authenticity by Charlie Hunnam whose performance travels the spectrum from dashing and gentlemanly to rugged and determined. We first meet him in 1905 where he is stationed in Ireland but called to London to meet with the stuffy heads of the Royal Geographical Society. He’s offered an assignment that would allow him to redeem his family name and finally earn officer decoration that has unfairly been denied him due to his father’s (wisely unexplored) past transgressions. The mission – represent the British government as a neutral party in surveying and mapping the border between the warring Brazil and Bolivia.

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Fawcett agrees but it will require him to be away from his young son and wife Nina. She’s played by Sienna Miller who is very good here. Nina is a strong progressive type but is also supportive of her husband. She vanishes for a good chunk of the film but plays a more significant part in the second half. We also get Robert Pattinson in another absorbing yet slightly underutilized role. He plays Corporal Henry Costin, a man familiar with the Amazon who faithfully accompanies Fawcett on his mission.

Upon getting wind of an alleged lost city somewhere deep in the Amazon, Fawcett is driven to push further into uncharted territory to prove its existence. Gray does several interesting things here. The dangers of the land grow more and more evident yet Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji offer a unique perspective. Often the dangers are camouflaged by a liberating sense of calm and beauty captured through the camera. I don’t mean to say it’s romanticized. In fact at times it feels downright tranquil – the result of a crafty visual touch that puts us in tune with Fawcett’s point of view.

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It’s also interesting to watch Gray tilt the Fawcett character towards madness without ever letting him topple over. Both script and performance move him dangerously close to the mental edge, but he never ceases to be sensible and empathetic. Hunnam is a perfect canvass for this, equally balancing Gray’s call for rationality and obsession. And despite the film’s massive scale, it always maintains an intimacy with its lead character.

“The Lost City of Z” is as beautiful and mysterious as the isolated world it explores. You can’t help but see shades of Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo”. Even touches of John Huston come to mind. Yet remarkably James Gray has created a movie that feels completely of itself. It’s his best film. It’s Hunnam’s best performance to date. It’s one of my favorite movies of the year.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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