Tag Archives: casey affleck

A Ghost Story is a bonafide masterpiece

You can tell whether or not A Ghost Story will work for you based on your first look at the actual ghost of the picture. Is it a representation of something as ineffable and difficult to capture as the spirit as something so small and ridiculous that it becomes inextricably human? Or is it Casey Affleck under a sheet?

If you’re still with me (and for a film that features Sheet Affleck and a whole lot of unbroken shots of people staring at things, I don’t necessarily blame you) or even if you’re not, A Ghost Story is perhaps one of the most incredible works of cinematic artistry this year.

More poetics than prose, director David Lowery (who filmed this in just over two weeks, functionally in secret) has crafted an intimate epic, a story of love across death and how small we are against the span of time. A work that can only be done through the unique powers of filmmaking and a work that will haunt long after it ends.

I don’t want to signal too much about this film. There are things you need to uncover for yourself. You simply need to know that C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are a married couple living in a house in Dallas. One morning, C dies in a car crash outside his home. He wakes up in the morgue and returns to haunt his home and the people left behind.

It’s a tale of sickeningly raw grief, the slight sense of unreality that comes with having to move on and drawing out every single moment to the breaking point, giving no break away from what you’re seeing. It’s a remarkable intimacy, the constant feeling of seeing something that you’re not supposed to see, those moments that we talk about but never want to show.

Mara excels at this, letting herself go to a very difficult place, putting so much of herself out there and being constantly under the camera’s eye for every microexpression she can give. She gives a phenomenal performance, grief and acceptance mixing into something cathartic and understanding. There’s also a five-minute sequence that I kind of can’t believe someone agreed to and that there’s no way to explain how it’s as brilliant as it is.

But you can’t speak performance in this film without talking about its most perpetual presence and scene partner…Casey Affleck underneath a sheet. That sheet removes C from humanity, really sells that outsider feeling. Just as Affleck removes basically every actor trick possible. No eyes, no dialogue, and most of his movements hidden. It’s all about the spacing and the timing and his large motions and his gait. Yet he manages to convey so much. It’s a performance that competes with Manchester by the Sea for career best.

But all of this is at the control of Lowery. A Ghost Story is an excessively small film, but that’s how it gets it power. It pulls in so so close to its subjects, Lowery lets his camera linger just past the point of comfort to make his audience squirm as they recognize what’s going on. It’s bold and ambitious filmmaking, seeing exactly what you can extract from every bit of setting, from the shadows of the night and from the faces of recognition.

It’s a beautiful, haunting, incredible story. It’s hard to praise it enough. Yet up until now, I’ve been discussing the film’s grief-stricken first half, the easiest to pull from what’s already out there. The film becomes so much more. I’m gonna ask you that if you are at all interested in this film, stop here, check my grade, and go see it. If you want to know more, click on to page 2.

Grade: A+

Oscars Watch 2017: The Far Less-Depressing Campaign: What Did That All Mean?

So…wow guys.

Look, I know I’d been talking predictable for the Oscars this year, and I realize now that I’m sorely wrong about that. Trust me, my ballot shows it. For better and for worse, this year knew how to keep us on the toes.

There’s enough recaps of the whole night out there (including one elsewhere from me), so I won’t bore you by going over the clips you’ve seen a hundred times, praising and jeering what’s already been plenty praised and plenty jeered. Instead, I want to try to dive a little deeper here, and get into some of the political and industrial shifts and moral questions raised by the winners that we’ll have to deal with.

First things first, Moonlight won Best Picture. That’s huge for a lot of reasons. It’s a 1.6 million dollar film from a first-time production company (though long-time Distribution company) that was made by a majority Black production crew with an all Black cast that told the story of a young Black gay man.

It’s an almost direct repudiation to the idea that Black films simply don’t have an audience. Moonlight is not a slavery narrative nor a Civil Rights narrative. It’s a contemporary one about the Black experience as it exists in the modern day. It does those same things with its queer themes, telling the story of a gay man coming into his own with fullness, even ending on a romantic and joyful note. It’s unabashed about that, it presents the world with thought and deep deep empathy. And it won. That’s major, and it’s likely the clearest signal to Hollywood that these contemporary stories do have a prestige audience, even if they should have had that signal YEARS AGO.

It’s also a signal of a shift in the industrial necessity of filmmaking. It’s no secret that the film industry is staring at a bit of a precipice and it’s absolutely trying to figure out where to go right now. The mid-budget picture is all but gone as filmmaking increasingly splinters into massive budget and low budget. This puts the major studios over a barrel in how to keep up on both ends, and that leaves a vacuum for new groups to move in.

Last night was pretty much the confirmation that A24 and Amazon Studios would likely be those, with A24 functioning as the millennial Miramax. Amazon Studios seems to simply be the benefit of a great cash stream, picking up great films and giving them strong campaigns. A24 is a bit bigger.

Moonlight was the first film fully financed by A24, making it their first film as Production company rather than just as Distributor. Which means, yes, the first film from A24 won Best Picture. For a company that went from a dotted few wins to Best Picture in a year after being founded 5 years ago, that’s a huge deal. Expect to hear their name again, A24 has all eyes on it now more than ever. The A24 style is gonna get hot, as is their penchant for allowing directors a lot of room to tell unique, singular, visually stylish stories on low budgets. Putting 1.6 million (the kind of money a young first-timer could finance) into a film and getting a Best Picture out of it is the model everyone is going to try to follow.

The second big thing we need to talk is the Best Actor win. Casey Affleck won out over Denzel Washington. Casey is, of course, mired in controversy for 2010 sexual harassment allegations. This is the art and the artist conversation we’ve had for years, but it reflects an interesting wrinkle to the way we do awards.

With awards, we usually ask two separate questions. Does the performance merit it and does the performer merit it? This is how we get narratives like “It’s DiCaprio’s time” where he wins for a performance that is impressive but not necessarily good or what he’s good at. We think through what’s deserved for the performer based on who they are and their history.

In other words, separating art from the artist doesn’t just mean excusing the artist for the art. It means understanding how the artist and the art really are separate, and that we must look at them separately. That also means that both must factor in when we ask questions about rewarding any singular piece of art. Because though we separate them, we view an award as a validation of the art and the artist.

I bring this up here because the question of whether Casey Affleck deserves the award for this performance and whether we should give it to him are two entirely different questions. Does his performance deserve the award? Despite what the revisionism may tell you, of course he does. Casey’s performance in Manchester by the Sea is EXTRAORDINARY. A truly all-timer, jaw-dropping cinematic performance that wears years of history and pain and grief effortlessly, that carves out a character that you truly do feel for.

Does he deserve it though? Does Casey himself deserve it? With that sin hanging over his head, no. It’s a reward for bad behavior, a proof that he really could just get away with being an absolute scumbag to the women he had power over. Remember, this was on a film that he was directing, he had power over those people. The art may be worthy, the artist is not. We validated the artist by validating the art, and we have to wrestle with the fact that a harasser was validated by that.

It’s important to understand too that good art can come from bad people. Every time we pretend that only good people make good art, we create the environment where people get away with all manner of misdeed. We refuse to believe the people we like and that we look up to can be evil. Hell, that’s the message of the Best Documentary winner from this year. OJ Simpson was OJ, he could never murder anyone no matter what.

We have to understand art in its fullness and wrestle with what it means to see deep empathy come from people who don’t seem to feel it themselves. It’s how we begin to actually break down the power structures where when you’re a celebrity, you can apparently get away with anything.

Finally, I just want to say that I’m again incredibly thrilled for Moonlight. I love La La Land, but I think Moonlight is the first film in decades that can bear the weight of being a Best Picture nominee, and certainly the best film that’s won since 2007 or possibly 1993. I’m looking forward to the hopeful shift in storytelling possibilities that Moonlight winning will allow for the industry, and I’m looking forward to La La Land being a movie that I’m allowed to just enjoy and no longer being the avatar of film industry evil.

So yeah, that was a hell of a thing. I’ll see you all next year.

Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 10: Casey Affleck tries to keep up with a fitfully funny close to the year

And so we wrap on the first half of Season 42 on SNL with the annual Christmas episode, a sigh of relief as we try to get in good cheer and restack and refresh for the upcoming year. Usually this is the return of an alum or an reunion with an old favorite, but this year we had a first-timer (though the brother of a member of the Five-Timers). How’d it work for ’em? Let’s find out.

How’s the Cold Open?

But first, let’s take our big stop at Trump Land, in hopes that an angry Tweet will soon be there.

SNL seems to have its handle on who Baldwin’s Trump (which I’m beginning to believe might be here to stay) is as a piece of satire. It’s taking the tack of Trump not as an evil dictator, but rather as a blustering and easily distracted buffoon who’s being used by much smarter people for their nefarious ends. His constant interruption with unrelated surface issues in this one is pretty damn cutting. How much you buy it is up to you, but we’ve actually seen it get under the skin of the person it’s going after, so the effectiveness of it is absolutely undeniable.

And the sketch itself is pretty funny. Bennett’s Putin is an increasingly welcome presence, owing to Bennett’s weird ability to play sinister guys, and John Goodman’s arrival as Rex Tillerson is also a genius stroke, given Goodman’s documented history playing the blustery sort of evil that Trump’s cabinet seems largely composed of. And Baldwin is selling the hell out of each of his one-liners. While not as flashy as campaign Trump, he’s a much more nuanced performance at this point. This is the kind of sketch we need, just brutal enough and finding its own distinctive voice and direction.

Who’s Hosting?

The SNL stage is very familiar to five-timer Ben Affleck, but this is his brother Casey’s first time. And weirdly, it is perhaps no appearance more than has illustrated the difference between the two of them than seeing them both on SNL.

Ben is a movie star, he’s got the charm and the weird energy that really helps him play well. He always seems like he’s having fun and like other people are having fun around him, very game. There’s an extraordinary amount of confidence.

Casey is an artist, he’s got clear talent but feels uncomfortable out of his wheelhouse. While he’s never necessarily bad, he feels more nervous than one would expect. Except one would expect it, because Casey’s never really done this live-wire comedy stuff before, especially comedy this broad. The talent is there, but Casey never feels sure enough to keep up with the game.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Dunkin’ Donuts Commercial”

Keeping that in mind, it’s kind of no surprise that this is the sketch where Casey Affleck shines the most. I’m sure it being pre-recorded helps, but this is also letting him play a character I can imagine that he’s fairly familiar with. Playing that stereotypical Boston Masshole in the most New England of places is right up his alley and this one is just a whole hell of a lot of fun, it’s a shame he didn’t get a chance to get more like this.

“Hillary Actually”

This is like the second parody of this scene SNL has done (they did one with Pete Davidson in 2014) but this one works way better. McKinnon’s Hillary is absolutely a welcome return for the show, and the performances are all just a right parody. Plus, this is one of those that’s designed to go viral, owing to the general sense we’re all doomed. It’s pointed and the idea that Trump’s real deeds are more insane than any joke they could make is an approach having increasing satirical dividends.

“He’s Going to Kill Us All”

“Jingle Barack”

This is a pretty dead-on parody of “Christmas in Hollis” with just the right amount of our performers having fun and the jokes about the transition into a possible worst case scenario for our country hitting just hard enough to work. Great fun, and dancing Casey as Jesus is all I need to know I’m gonna see this again and again.

But can we talk seriously here? Why isn’t Chance the Rapper hosting? He could not be more fun here or in the other sketch he appears in, he’s clearly game to host, and his positive energy could really be good for the show. Get on this SNL!

“Bar Stabbing”

This one is all about the performance. Everyone is weirdly committed to this weird shy, apologetic character combined with a New York bluster and the repetition just drills it down to the point of hilarious. It’s what a 10-to-1 is about, a weird and high-concept bit sold more through performance than necessarily being the best idea. That ending is great too.

Huh…What…Okay…Yeah?

Sometimes a sketch isn’t necessarily good or bad. It just sort of…is. This is for the occasionally slightly less binary thinking.

“Microsoft Tech Expo”

This sketch is pretty much about where the joke is. It’s all over the place and weirdly low-key for a higher concept sketch. Is the joke about the gay robots? About the reaction to raising objections to them discussing being gay? Is the joke about tokenism or about shoving representation into everything? While the performances and the reactions are all about right with Casey’s laid-back thing actually helping this one, I just felt the writing was too hard to pin down to necessarily find my feelings on it.

What Didn’t Work?

“Christmas Miracle”

Can we just admit this only worked the first time because Gosling couldn’t keep his shit together? McKinnon is having a lot of fun, but not necessarily doing anything she doesn’t do in other characters. Gosling breaking added the little bit of chaos this sketch needed, same with Brie Larson. Affleck keeps it straight-faced, in fact pretty much everyone does. So the sketch doesn’t work. McKinnon is still good and there are plenty of bizarre images and turns of phrase, but the X-factor is gone and this one just feels limp.

“Kinky Elves”

WHY IS THIS A RECURRING THING? It’s a weird concept and just sort of off-putting after a while. It might have been funny in that “I can’t believe they’re actually doing this” way once, but by the time we come to expect it, it doesn’t work.

“New York Now”

The less said, the better. Sometimes there’s just an embarrassing sketch, this is that one. Remember this when Affleck is accepting Best Actor this year, for funsies.

“Casey Affleck Monologue”

A fun run or two, but just not much here. Perfectly perfunctory to get this going. See Manchester by the Sea, people.

Weekend Update!

I’m gonna get the correspondent out of the way up front. It’s Armisen and Bayer’s “Dictator’s Best Friends Growing Up.” Cool to call Putin a dictator. This sketch goes on forever and harps on one same joke. Like all of Armisen’s Update characters. Love the guy, but always groan a little when he shows up here.

Jost and Che have vacillated throughout this season, but since the end of the election, they seemed to have finally snapped fully into focus. Their delivery seems set and they’ve got a clearer set of targets.

Jost on the Order of Friendship Award given to Rex Tillerson: “The only higher honor Russia can give you is President of the United States”

Jost on Trump knowing about Russian interference in the election: “Trump was just acting like a Patriot.”

Che on Women’s March on Washington logo: “It’s a good logo because like many feminists, it puts the white women first.”

They seem to be hitting more often and they feel a little more righteous and focused. It’s good, Weekend Update has definitely improved over their tenure, the shakier early days have passed for a much better team, let’s see how they do with the Trump Presidency.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

You bet your ass I did.

Chance the Rapper is one of our great hip-hop artists, relentlessly positive and talented and tons of fun. His performances here were amazing. =

CHANCE FOR HOSTING.

MVPs!

Beck Bennett deserves a win anytime he pulls out Putin. His conception of that character is riotously funny and dead-on with the creepy KGB vibe he always has. But he had some other strong starring roles and generally felt pretty comfortable all around.

Season so far:

Kate McKinnon – 2
Cecily Strong – 2
Beck Bennett – 2
Jost and Che – 1
Leslie Jones – 1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Ensemble – 1

Final Thoughts!

Casey Affleck was just a little too nervous to sell this one which reeks of the exhaust fumes they must be running on by this point. Some decent stuff but you see the cracks all over the place. It’s been a hell of an interesting season, in the world and on the show, and I’m curious to see what they do now that their paradigm has shifted and they’re back into the counter culture, rather explicitly.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Dave Chappelle
  2. Tom Hanks
  3. Lin-Manuel Miranda
  4. Emma Stone
  5. Kristen Wiig
  6. Margot Robbie
  7. Casey Affleck
  8. Benedict Cumberbatch
  9. John Cena
  10. Emily Blunt

Manchester by the Sea is a masterpiece of incurable grief

Summary: Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor/maintenance man living in Boston in a haze of work and drinking. A call about the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) brings him back home to Manchester, where he grew up. Charged with taking guardianship of Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Lee is putting the pieces of his life back together from the tragedies of the town that still haunts him.

The first time I cried couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes in. Lee Chandler  arrives to the hospital where his brother Joe has just died. He passed during Lee’s drive to the hospital. The news seems to hang in the air, suffocating in silence. No one bursts into tears, at least not for a little while. Everything is just quiet, a few questions asked in a stupor, doctors trying their best to read the room and keep things composed. It’s not performative, it’s not dramatic. It’s stifling, it’s trying your best to keep it together and figure out what comes next.

Longergan’s triumphant return to cinema is couched in what could have been cliche. Let’s face it, we’ve been here before. Sundance is the world’s leading exporter of “Movies Where A Sad White Guy Who Doesn’t Have His Stuff Together Goes Back To His Small Hometown And Is Given A Charge He Doesn’t Want While He Reunites With His Ex.” It’s their bread and butter.

But engaging with the movie on that level is a pithy way to refuse engaging with the staggering power of what Lonergan has crafted here, as pithy and stupid as I am for making that joke because I’m still having trouble fully coming to terms with my own emotional reaction to this film.

Because Manchester is about very specific masculine ways of dealing with grief, of letting it soak into the bone and infect your life, never expressing openly. Of trying to move through life as you deal with it. It’s got that working class New England flavor for sure, the rawer and ruder expressions therein. But as a lifelong Southerner, I still see it and I still hear countless men who try their best to keep pushing through because they don’t express grief.

In this movie, Lonergan is asking what happens when grief becomes terminal, when it so overtakes your life that you can do nothing else but try to overcome it. And more importantly, that life isn’t necessarily going to let you do that.

The world of Manchester by the Sea acknowledges that even when your world stops, the rest of it goes on. As much of a tearjerker as I’ve described, the film is often hilarious, a series of witty put-downs and awkward comedic beats. Life doesn’t stop, the joy comes even in the tragedy.

Much of that is thanks to the two towering performances at the film’s core. Much ink has been spilled on Casey Affleck in this film (and in general, as of late), so I will spare you all from more. Let it simply be said that no matter what, this is the kind of performance that some actors can only dream of, perfect in its control and subtlety, the kind of performance where an actor lives in a character and lets you live with him. It’s about what he’s willing to express, and that’s extraordinary.

I want to talk a little more about Lucas Hedges, the bigger surprise of this film. In many ways, Patrick is what Lee isn’t, confident and expressive with his shit actually together, though he is to some degree parallel. Hedges gives an incredibly nuanced and real performance, announcing himself as a remarkable young actor capable of generating a lot of empathy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about an old Roger Ebert quote as of late.  He said that movies are a machine that generates empathy. That’s Manchester by the Sea. There’s a towering scene of writing and acting later in the film that is so much about that. A scene between Williams (who’s limited time in this film is completely made up for in that single scene, I almost wish that had been her only one) and Affleck is so much about that idea. About helping you to understand how much hurt and grief can linger and last with you. Expression vs. non-expression, hard to ever truly understand.

It’s also in the little ways Lonergan puts his world together. The sound of this world, grating and scraping, the little noises of day to day activities become just a little louder a little more grating. It’s a particular brilliance of sound design, helping you understand how it feels for the entire world to feel set against you, to feel like it’s no longer your own.

Manchester by the Sea is a film deeply felt, and one that demands that you feel it just as deep. Dripping with bone-deep grief and effusive and hilarious humanity, Manchester by the Sea is a special sort of brilliant and Lonergan has tapped into something real for its creation. This is a movie that heals, that helps you understand how to piece it all back together.

GRADE: A

Oscars Watch 2017: The Less-Depressing Campaign: Best Actor

Alright, now finally time for Best Actor.

All the rules from Best Actress apply here. Best Actor is just a slightly different campaign due to…you know…society. Men tend to be the leads of major films more often and are often given meatier roles. That means Best Actor can be a much tougher race with multiple actors competing fiercely for the spot.

That being said, that’s not how it was last year, and that’s not how it is this year. While last year was clearly just the time to hand DiCaprio his Oscar so we could shut everyone up about how much he needed an Oscar (There were like two years he deserved to win, the rest he rightfully got trounced), this year looks like a horse race. A pretty standard sort as we’ll get into below:

SURE THINGS:

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Denzel Washington, Fences
Ryan Gosling, La La Land

Casey has always been the real-deal actor of the Affleck brothers. At his biggest, Ben is the headliner, a man of big charisma and everyman affability. Casey is the artist, an actor who knows how to get raw and real and expressive. His performance in Manchester by the Sea as the grief-addled and stuck-in-place Lee Chandler seems to be the clincher for that. He’s the center of the universally affecting Manchester by the Sea and if the movie itself gets to everyone, Casey’s performance seems to be the main driving force of that. Combined with the layers the performance has, Manchester apparently has as many comedy beats as affecting drama beats, it could be an easy one to connect with. Easy to connect with and powerful performance from a respected actor who’s never received his recognition could be an easy enough choice.

On the other hand, Denzel Washington is…Denzel Washington. Washington is an enormous favorite, a popular man as well as an actor’s actor with little public baggage. Fences is a role that he won a Tony for (much like Viola Davis) and that he seems to be bringing the same dynamo performance to. Now, we haven’t seen anything but the trailer, but that was impressive. As long as the movie isn’t totally firebombed, he’s not only a clear sail to nomination, but he’s a fierce contender just by  how much people love him.

Finally, Gosling is a sure nomination for La La Land. A two-hander of a film that popular will get both of its actors nominated. While it seems that Gosling isn’t quite so central as Stone is to the connection and the drama (and is therefore much less likely to get a win), picking up another nomination is obvious..

MAYBE THINGS:

Ben Affleck, Live by Night
Joel Edgerton, Loving
Andrew Garfield, Silence and Hacksaw Ridge
Michael Keaton, The Founder
Dev Patel, Lion
Tom Hanks, Sully

We could have an Affleck showdown! I have a good feeling about Live by Night, and if the movie is good and Affleck is good, the Academy could want to compensate Affleck for ignoring his work on Argo (Yes, he got Picture, but nothing that he personally did). Could be a fun headline.

Again, I’m working on the assumption that Loving is the kind of smart, small issues-picture the Academy goes ga-ga for. Edgerton looks to be the driving force on the movie, and if so, it’s his nomination to lose. Word about his performance has been strong, and he’s been due recognition for a while.

So, I’m pretty sure Garfield will get a nomination, it’s just a question of what for. While Silence is a Scorsese magnum opus, his performance could be decentralized (even as the lead). Hacksaw Ridge seems to be more about him and he’s playing a more clear positive role. The desired rehabilitation of Gibson could come through recognizing his lead performer.

Keaton got robbed for Birdman and that’s from someone who hated Birdman. The Founder might get a nom off the Academy’s continuing desire to finally recognize Keaton, though god only knows if the film will make enough impact for anything. Plus, this seems like a solid choice for the Trumbo slot. An older actor in a picture people respect in a subject people can get.

Patel’s recognition depends on how Lion hits when it goes wider. I think this seems like a solid awards picture and if it gets that recognition, Patel could ride the middle of the road love for Lion.

Tom Hanks is a national treasure and his performance is one of the few great parts of Sully. Between that and the demographics of the Academy, this seems like one for the older contingent. A muscular, morally decent performance. Never bad to bet on Hanks (even if he was unjustly shunned for Bridge of Spies).

NO-GO:

Michael Fassbender, The Light Between Oceans
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Snowden
Brad Pitt, Allied
Will Smith, Collateral Beauty
Anyone from Moonlight for Lead

The Light Between Oceans came out to reviews that could be charitably described as tepid. Fassbender was pretty fine in it, but the film was a drag. I’m guessing that any love for him is gonna be drowned out by the yawns from actually watching the movie.

If Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets nominated for this when Kermit got no recognition for The Muppet Movie, I’m gonna flip a shit.

Like the movie itself, Pitt is gonna be too much about the juicy gossip for anyone to focus on his performance during the all important press tour.

This could be a heartbreaking performance in a brilliant movie, but I don’t think Will Smith or Collateral Beauty are going to be able to escape the bizarre and confusing trailers or the premise, which a friend charitably described as “Inside Out but shit.”

Finally, as amazing as they are, I just don’t think Moonlight wants to push any of the Chirons for a lead slot. It goes against the point of the film and, no matter what, the nomination votes will get split. Trevante Rhodes might be able to argue, but that’s someone who will rightfully get more recognition down the line.


If you ask me, the two spoiler spots will be for Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge and Hanks in Sully. It’s ultimately gonna come down to Casey v. Denzel and who knows how that goes right now. We’ll have to see Fences to make a better judgement.

NEXT WEEK: BEST DIRECTOR

From the Archives: Triple 9

There’s a special kind of thrill in having a movie take place in your city. I don’t just mean having been filmed in your city, like basically half of all major productions will be from here on out for Atlanteans. But more like the thrill New Yorkers have had for years, when the film uses the fabric of your city to tell the story, seeing and feeling those little bits of recognition when you know you’ve driven down the same roads those criminals are now barreling down.

Hearing an Atlanta audience chuckle at a joke about Buckhead is one of those rare moments that reminds you of the collective experience that theatergoing can be. It’s the kind of goodwill moment that helped carry me through most of the rest of the unfortunately disappointing Triple 9.

It’s not that Triple 9 is necessarily bad. There’s a good Saturday afternoon popcorn flick in here. Unfortunately, there’s also two or three other strikingly mediocre films mixed in. It’s stuffed to the brim by a cast that seems entirely too qualified for a film that largely asks for masculine grunting and feminine objectification.

We follow a heist team of four, led by Michael Belmont (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an ex-Special Forces man in the grasp of the Russian Jewish Mafia led by the intimidating Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), who controls Michael’s access to his son thanks to Michael’s son being by her sister, Elena (Gal Gadot).

Michael’s team includes the sweaty brothers, Gabe Welch (Aaron Paul) and Russel Welch (Norman Reedus), and two dirty cops, Jorge Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Marcus Atwood (Anthony Mackie). They’ve got “one last job”: to steal confidential files out of a Homeland Security base. To do that, they’re going to have to distract the police with a “Triple 9,” an Officer Down.

We also follow a young cop, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), transferred in from Buckhead, to work with his uncle Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson) in the toughest part of the city (though, in John Hillcoat’s Atlanta, they all kind of look like tough parts). His new partner Marcus (remember, from the heist team) seems hostile to him, but just as he starts to warm up, things go awry in a trial by fire for the young family man Chris.

As I said, there’s roughly THREE films worth of plot here, possibly more, and enough cast to configure between 10 tough guy crime films. Yet Triple 9 can’t find a heart to any of it. All of this sound and fury ultimately amounts to nothing, leading to a film that’s a lot of fun but doesn’t work as a piece of storytelling by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s not the cast’s fault. They’re all doing the best they can. They may not be having much asked of them, but they’re doing it. Aaron Paul finally brings the wounded puppy thing that worked for him on Breaking Bad to the big screen, Anthony Mackie continues being ruthlessly entertaining, and Chiwetel Ejiofor uses the hell out of his huge expressive eyes. Gal Gadot proves surprisingly enchanting with very little time, despite spending most of the film as an object. To be fair, that’s a statement that holds for the rest of the film’s female characters, minus Kate Winslet’s Russian devil-woman.

The highlight is Woody Harrelson’s Chief Jeffrey Allen, by the virtue of being the only actor given something interesting to work with. Everyone else is doing good work with basic archetypes, Jeffrey’s a broken, drunken junkie who’s also batshit insane (giving Woody plenty of scene chewing time) and a damn good cop. He’s fun and unpredictable.

Which is more than can be said for the rest of the film, which seemingly settles for just being fun. Oh, Triple 9 thinks it’s unpredictable. But its unpredictability is informed by character stupidity. Matt Cook’s script spends so much time setting up the unbelievable skill level of its characters that when it comes time for things to fall apart, it’s too difficult to believably have any of them screw up through normal means, so they just screw up in ways that strike as instantly baffling. I wasn’t surprised because they were so clever, I was surprised because I couldn’t seriously believe they would have done it.

Perhaps it isn’t all on Cook’s script. The bigger problem might be Hillcoat’s direction, which is, like his characters, equal parts incredibly competent and incompetent. His action scenes are well-staged and legitimately tense within individual scenes. When the film is in the midst of its heists and its police work, the film finds a life and an interesting moment or two. But it quickly becomes clear that’s pretty much the whole reason he made this one.

Because there’s almost no coherency from scene to scene. It’s confusing how much time passes from scene to scene, where exactly they are in the grimy dirty ugly version of Atlanta (the whole of which looks like Hillcoat’s world from The Road), or what anybody’s motivation at any particular moment. He seemed to have had an idea for some action sequences and somehow convinced a bunch of great actors to do them with him.

Triple 9 has no purpose and no function. I can’t honestly tell you why anyone but Michael Belmont was doing what they were doing (because of his son) or what Hillcoat thinks he was saying about them, about crime, about Atlanta, about anything besides how cool he thought this stuff was.

To be fair, some of it is really cool, and really enjoyable to watch. There’s some really strong acting and some thrills to be had. But on the whole, it’s just entirely too incoherent, too empty, and too overstuffed to find anything more interesting than an eventual TNT viewing.

Grade: C-