REVIEW: Collide

4 07 2017

What do you do when you’re making a vehicular-centered action thriller but you don’t have the stunt budget of a “Bourne” film or the pyrotechnic capabilities of the “Fast & Furious” franchise? Hopefully not what Eran Creevy does in his film “Collide,” which is to do a low-key version of those series and not to compensate by adding onto another element.

The easiest thing to do would have been further developing Nicholas Hoult’s Casey, an American living in Germany and participating in its seedy underbelly – until he falls in love with Felicity Jones’ Juliette. They enjoy a brief courtship and fall in love quickly only for her to develop a medical condition requiring dialysis and a hefty sum of cash. In order to cover the cost of her care, Casey delves back into the Cologne black market. One simple task, however, gets him caught in the crosshairs between two kingpins.

The vast majority of “Collide” details Casey’s escape, evasion of capture and ultimate showdown with his pursuers. That makes sense: look at the poster, watch the trailer, read the logline – this is a car chase and explosions movie. But I so desperately wanted them to mean more. Creevy fails to connect them back to the human core of Casey’s mission, which makes the scenes feel like soulless metal clanging and gears shifting.

He had incredibly capable actors in Hoult and Jones to hold the emotional center, too! Jones rarely gets to be more than an accessory in “Collide,” but there are moments when Creevy rests the camera on Hoult’s shifting eyes and restless face that speak volumes for his character. The film needed about twice the length of exposition on Casey and Juliette’s relationship to make the film work. That would be just 15 minutes added onto a movie that only runs an hour and 30 minutes, and it would have made all the difference. C

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REVIEW: Life

1 06 2016

LifeLife” gets its title from the now-shuttered magazine which featured iconic pictures of actor James Dean shot by photographer Dennis Stock. It’s clever wordplay, sure, but not necessarily indicative of the film’s actual content. The better moniker for Luke Davies’ screenplay might have been “Fame,” or “Success.”

Those are the two biggest burdens weighing on the two subjects of the film. Dane DeHaan’s James Dean prepares to go supernova with the impending release of “East of Eden” and his forthcoming casting in “Rebel Without A Cause.” He wants recognition and validation but gets spooked by the fame that will likely dovetail receiving such plaudits.

Robert Pattinson’s Dennis Stock, meanwhile, frequently attempts to remain calm amidst his nervousness and insecurities. He has talent but is unsure if the gatekeepers will accept and allow it to blossom into art, so he settles on James Dean as a subject – someone on the cusp of stardom but not yet fully blossomed. This drive has wide ranging echoes in Pattinson’s own career as he seeks to shed the skin of the “Twilight” series.

“Life” also feels like a meta commentary for its director, Anton Corbijn. About midway through the film, Dean comes to realize that photography says as much about the person behind the camera as it does the subject in front, even when supposedly capturing non-fictional moments. Corbijn, who was himself a photographer before entering the word of fictional feature filmmaking, seems to exert a strong biographical pull on the relationship between the two men.

It’s a shame that the film feels more about events and charted course than exploring thematic threads and character interiors. There was likely a version of “Life” as revealing and honest as “The End of the Tour,” another 2015 release about the push and pull between journalists and artists. But as it stands, the film feels like an interesting but unfulfilled biography of a telling period in Dean’s life. It sinks or swims based on DeHaan’s portrayal of the actor. While he does nail the mannerisms and general aura of Dean, the vocal cadences always serve as a reminder that this is a performative interpretation. B-2stars





REVIEW: The Jungle Book

17 04 2016

I do not have a strong attachment to the 1967 original Disney animated film “The Jungle Book.” I do not have strong feelings one way or the other about Jon Favreau’s 2016 live action Mowgli/CGI animal version of “The Jungle Book.” I remain, for the most part, fairly ambivalent, unable to summon strong words to praise or condemn any aspect of the film. And that makes for the hardest kind of review to write.

Might as well start with the good: Bill Murray as Baloo. The actor has become a cult figure over the past few years for his erratic and endearing off-screen behavior (as well as for his partnership with hipster darling Wes Anderson). When not acting inside one of Anderson’s dollhouses, Murray’s iconography can often overcome the project in which he participates. That film becomes “The Bill Murray Show,” for better or for worse. Favreau finds a happy balance of letting Murray entertain while also ensuring that he never distracts too much.

The CGI is quite good, I suppose, yet should we not be asking for photorealism from all movies these days? Call me a child of the digital age, but I only tend to notice computer animation when it goes horribly wrong. The graphics impress, though not to the extent that they truly wow.

“The Jungle Book” glides along on lots of charm and slickness, which gets it decently far. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) makes for a rather bland protagonist, one we mostly follow for the talking animals he encounters along his reluctant and perilous journey to rejoin his human companions. The episodic nature of the plot makes it hard for momentum to build, which is something that does not bother me in particular though seems an odd choice for a film pitched at youngsters. The message of cross-species cooperation to raise and protect someone who might be a predator is – timely, I guess? (“Zootopia” did it better.)

There is a lot going on, although there is simultaneously not enough going on. I could try to resolve or reconcile my feelings, but I would rather just leave them be. Other films just seem more worthy of that time. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Self/Less

10 07 2015

The central conceit of Tarsem Singh’s “Self/Less” is effortlessly appealing, if not incredibly novel.  A new technological breakthrough allows for the transfer of a nimble mind from a decaying body into a more spry figure.  As Matthew Goode’s well-coiffed scientist Albright puts it, think of what Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, or Steve Jobs could have accomplished with a few more years.

The man who receives this revolutionary soul transplant seems to share little in common with those three luminaries, though.  Ben Kingsley’s Damian Hale simply amassed a fortune as a real estate baron.  When he sheds his cancer-addled body and reemerges in the toned physique of Ryan Reynolds, Damian uses the new lease on life not to help humanity but rather to please himself.  In pursuit of nothing but hedonism, he beds plenty of women and never once shows why he deserves an extension of his time on earth.

Beyond Damian’s clear lack of merit to receive the shedding treatment, “Self/Less” suffers from plot holes and shallow thinking aplenty.  Writers David and Alex Pastor do add in a few complications to the concept, mostly resulting from the incomplete erasure of the mind that used to inhabit Damian’s new frame.  (Side note: Why not just clone these new bodily vessels?)  The ethical questions surrounding who really owns a physical body or a life are fascinating ones indeed…

…that will have to be answered by another movie, because “Self/Less” would much rather just cut to a mindless car chase than linger on a mindful discussion.  The Pastor brothers placed their fingers on a topic that could inspire meaningful, relevant debate.  Perhaps if they were able to complete two or three more drafts of the screenplay, they might have stumbled on something really profound.  But as is, the potential for a great movie gets squandered to produce a merely passable one.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Iron Man 3

18 06 2013

History will look back at the summer of 2013 and remember most of all the precipitous decline of the “Hangover” series.  However, there’s another franchise that has brought me disappointment this summer as well.

In the summer of 2008, I was over the moon for Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man,” so much so that I rushed out on opening night for the disappointing “Iron Man 2.”  By the time Tony Stark suited up for “The Avengers,” I really could have cared less.

Perhaps it’s most telling that the way I saw Shane Black’s “Iron Man 3” was on a Thursday afternoon when a combination of rain and wind knocked out my Wi-Fi.  Otherwise, I would have been content to sit in bed and watch a movie on Netflix.  But the big event film of the summer, the $175 million dollar opener that was second-best ever, to me was just another movie.

It was really just a box to check.  Since I’d invested 4 hours in Tony Stark’s story already (6 if you count “The Avengers”), I figured I probably ought to finish it.  And seeing a film out of misplaced obligation instead of real desire isn’t necessarily the most fulfilling feeling.

“Iron Man 3,” all in all, was entertaining.  It could have been a lot worse, and it was an improvement from its predecessor.  But it’s such a stark decline from the first installment that being more bad than good can hardly be considered a victory.

The visuals are good, although that ending sequence seemed to be more or less lifted from the lackluster summer 2010 bust “The A-Team” and Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin.”  The story manages to move along at a decent clip without ever boring too much, yet it lacks the effortless engagement encouraged by the original film.

The biggest difference, though, is Robert Downey Jr., who moved from being the series’ X-factor to its hidden liability.  His Tony Stark began as an endearingly sardonic character whose spiny personality could be accepted as just the inability to look at life seriously.  Over the course of the series, the scribes have tried to harden Stark to hide the fact that Downey Jr. had grown smugly complacent to the point of disdaining the other characters.  The darker, somber tone hasn’t worked because, well, Jon Favreau and Shane Black are not Christopher Nolan.

I’ve also felt that Downey Jr. has disdained the audience as well, as if every icy quip is played with the subtext of “I’m making millions of dollars for being the jerk you can’t be.”  While “Iron Man 3” seems to say goodbye to Tony Stark (or at least Robert Downey Jr. playing him), it’s not a good riddance.  But I’m certainly not choked up or even upset.  Not at this level of mediocrity.  B-2stars





REVIEW: The Dictator

24 06 2012

The first time Sacha Baron Cohen lost himself in a character for a full-length theatrical release was 2006’s “Borat,” and it hilariously exposed American xenophobia while also providing a rollickingly good comedy for those unwilling to see what the humor was meant to reveal.  He did it again in 2009 for “Brüno,” and its lack of success (and arguably humor) may have shown how much less ready America is to deal with pent-up homophobia.

Now Sacha Baron Cohen is at it again in “The Dictator,” this time not as a personality from his outrageously funny “Da Ali G Show” from HBO.  Admiral General Aladeen, the dictator of the fictional Republic of Wadiya, is every bit as politically incorrect and outlandish as his previous three (if not more so).  He makes jokes about 9/11 and being friends with Osama bin Laden, executes just about anyone who disagrees with him, sleeps with actress/underground escort Megan Fox, and asks his pregnant wife (Anna Faris) if she will be having “a boy or an abortion.”  Yeah, he went there.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still a few jokes that Cohen can squeeze out of his boundary-pushing routine.  “The Dictator” has plenty of brilliant comedic moments, although the ones that succeed seem only giggle-worthy and the ones that fail appear to have been ripped straight from the Adam Sandler playbook.  However, the laugh gap isn’t the movie’s biggest problem.

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REVIEW: Hugo

10 01 2012

It’s slightly disingenuous to make a film all about the magic of the movies and then have little to offer itself in the way of enchantment, but that’s what Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” is – take it or leave it.  His ode to the pioneering days of cinema, when trailblazers like the Lumière Brothers began making movies and Georges Méliès invented special effects, is definitely heartfelt and powerful enough to awaken plenty of latent nostalgia.  However, his movie serves as a better tribute to their genius than it does as an equally majestic film deserving to stand alongside them in the annals of history.

What I left the theater being nostalgic for was “Goodfellas” and “The Departed” and “Gangs of New York.”  While I certainly admire Scorsese for taking on a radically different project, and good for Paramount to give him $150 million to realize this passion of his, I missed the bullet-riddled, F-bomb filled director that I’ve come to love.  It’s a very finely crafted movie, clearly the work of an expert like Scorsese.  All of the below-the-line elements are as good as ever with his usual suspects – editor Thelma Schoonmaker, costume designer Sandy Powell, production designer Dante Ferretti, and cinematographer Robert Richardson – returning to whisk us away to a train station in 1930s Paris with astounding precision.

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