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





REVIEW: A Monster Calls

7 01 2017

A generation raised post-Spielberg’s “E.T.” has come to expect a certain amount of catharsis or salvation from stories in which an unhappy child is visited by a fantastic creature. J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls,” to its credit, resists a lot of the sentimentality and focuses largely on the pain that cannot be diminished or wiped away by some kind of paranormal visitation. If the film makes you cry, Bayona is certainly not there waiting a hug, tissue and reassurance.

Patrick Ness’ screenplay, adapted from his own novel, takes a deceptively familiar premise and finds creative ways to subvert our expectations. The young protagonist, Lewis MacDougall’s Conor, is “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man” yet forced to grapple with the rapidly progressing cancer of his mother (Felicity Jones). At the same time, he receives visitations from a giant talking tree (voice of Liam Neeson) who reads him what appears to be an instructive fairy tale.

But as the story progresses, unfolding before our eyes in creative animation, the true purpose is revealed. It’s a tragedy, not an inspirational fable, and the tree is preparing him for an inevitable loss. Conor’s resistance to the message illustrates the human capacity for deluding ourselves into comforting lies and delusions to shield ourselves from the pain of reality.

His worldview shifts from black and white to gray as well as from sensical to paradoxical over the course of the film, two journeys we commonly associate with the coming-of-age genre. But “A Monster Calls” dwells in the messiness, hurt and loss rather than glossing over it – often times at the cost of being traditionally satisfying or crowd-pleasing. The maturity suggests a film perhaps more aimed at adults looking with retrospection rather than children viewing with a forward glance. B+3stars





REVIEW: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

16 12 2016

Filmed entertainment in the “Star Wars” universe is valuable, expensive real estate – and I am somewhat skeptical that “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is a good use of it.  Admittedly, it is nice to see a film contributing something to a multiverse that isn’t a mere brand extension. But given that the events are a direct vamp up to the pre-determined beginning of the original 1977 film, what’s the point in spending two hours with characters working towards an outcome we already know? Why invest in them?

“Rogue One” has plenty to cheer on, not the least of which includes the thrill of watching the coalition of women and minorities successfully band together to defeat the fascistic empire-seeking men. (Do these things only happen in fiction now?) In a deftly constructed battle sequence to steal the plans to Darth Vader’s Death Star, they come together in an act of valiant sacrifice to save the galaxy. It’s a sight to see, though it does feel like a component or two has gone missing.

The rebel team of rivals, which includes the daughter of the Death Star’s architect (Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso), a rebel intelligence officer (Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor), an Imperial pilot defector (Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook), a blind Force-wielder (Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe) and his mercenary pal (Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus), comes together over the course of “Rogue One.” Given the somewhat languorous speed at which their union occurs, one would think that this is a setup for multiple sequels, “Avengers“-style. By the end of the film, however, it’s quite clear that such is not the case.

So why does Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s script take such a cursory approach to defining each of these characters? The threads they tie together by the final battle are quite thin. Jyn Erso leads her band of rebels into a daring maneuver with the call to action, “Rebellions are built on hope!” The line falls short of rousing because we know so little about her. We know even less about her companions. For all the vicarious inspiration “Rogue One” provides, it offers almost nothing in the way of personal connection and emotional investment. B-2stars





REVIEW: Inferno

30 10 2016

Dan Brown’s historically-inspired adventure tales have never felt more like a “National Treasure” movie than in Ron Howard’s adaptation of his most recent Robert Langdon tale, “Inferno.” What might pass as labyrinthine on the page proves laborious on the screen as the story runs in two opposite directions at once to cover 600 pages in 2 hours.

On the one hand, Langdon (Tom Hanks) tries to piece together two days he seems to have forgotten – during which time he went from Cambridge, MA to Florence, took a priceless artifact from the Uffizi and suffered massive head trauma. He lacks the luxury to sit down and calmly place all the puzzle pieces together, however, as a consortium of Italian police, World Health Organization officials, and corporate interests track him down. Langdon unwittingly possesses information from Ben Foster’s Bertrand Zobrist, a recently deceased billionaire who took Thomas Malthus a little too seriously and gives morbid TED Talk-style lectures about the grave dangers of overpopulation.

If it sounds like “Inferno” has one too many plates for Howard to keep spinning, that’s because it does. Screenwriter David Koepp ensures that none are ever dropped, which is a pretty remarkable feat, though plenty come close to breaking with all the character reversals upon which Brown insists. (Seriously, he makes the “Now You See Me” series look like a model of restraint in this regard.) There are worse things to watch than Hanks’ Langdon on the run with Felicity Jones’ Dr. Sienna Brooks, a child prodigy and early Langdon fan. Yet there are plenty better things as well, especially given the page-turning quality that Brown’s books possess. “Contagion,” but as a glorified chase movie, feels like settling for less. B-2stars





REVIEW: True Story

21 04 2015

True StoryRupert Goold’s “True Story” begins with two men claiming to be Mike Finkel suffering from a painful, embarrassing exposure.  The first is Jonah Hill’s Mike Finkel – the man born with the name – losing his job at The New York Times after his editors uncover some dishonest reporting practices.  The second is James Franco’s Christian Longo – the man adopting the name Mike Finkel – getting arrested for the murder of his family.

Goold sets up the two men as doubles, practically dopplegangers, for each other.  This connection that extends beyond just a nominal level makes “True Story” quite a compelling story to observe unfold.  Finkel visits Longo frequently in prison and provides him with writing lessons in order to get the exclusive testimony from the accused killer.

The fascination quickly wears thin, however.  Goold utilizes hardly any variation to recurring scenes such as the interrogation scenes between the two leads.  He shoots Hill and Franco in tight close-ups and alternates between them in a predictable edit.  The performances of the duo are so sullenly subdued (which is admittedly somewhat admirable) that the unimaginative approach becomes rather monotonous.

Furthermore, “True Story” almost completely drops the line of thought about Finkel and Longo mirroring each other in the second half when the long-awaited trial of the latter finally begins.  At this point, the film veers into standard courtroom drama territory, a disappointing turn for a film that began with an intriguing cat-and-mouse thriller angle.  Since nothing too bizarre ever occurs between them, the torpid acting style never really pays off.

As a sidebar, “True Story” also features Felicity Jones in a shamefully underdeveloped role.  The film casts her as Finkel’s wife, one that is precisely the kind of conventional, passive spouse that Jones so brilliantly eschewed in “The Theory of Everything.”  Hopefully her new prefix of “Academy Award Nominee” will allow her to avoid such thankless parts in the future.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Breathe In

8 12 2014

Breathe InWriter/director Drake Doremus’ “Breathe In” begins with obvious symbols abounding: a carefully curated family photoshoot, a tower of Jenga blocks, the copy of Jane Eyre lying about.  If you cannot predict what will happen the Reynolds’ take in an English exchange student, Felicity Jones’ inquisitive but indeterminate Sophie, then your high school english teacher owes you an apology.

Doremus, thankfully, does not just lay all the sexual tension out on the table from the outset.  Instead, there is a gradual, more lifelike build in Sophie’s burgeoning attraction to her host father, Guy Pearce’s Keith.  This restraint provides some reason to stay attuned to the story, which is otherwise too clichéd to draw us into Sophie’s psychology.  (And thankfully, Jones looks quite a bit older than high school age, thus eliminating any vibes of their relationship resembling something dangerously close to statutory rape.)

Sophie’s tale, that of a British girl who comes to live with a family in New York for a semester only to find her peers superficial and self-involved, just never feels particularly compelling.  All these scenes really seem to highlight is that Sophie possesses a wisdom beyond her years, an attribute highly accentuated by another highly perspicacious performance from Felicity Jones.

Pearce gets a somewhat more interesting story to work with.  His Keith is a frustratedly immobile cellist who has never been able to achieve the recognition for which he yearns.  Instead of playing in a symphony, he is relegated to teaching at a high school in order to support his family.  Sophie offers him the opportunity to fulfill his desires, not his responsibilities, and his internal vacillation is much more fascinating because it carries those high stakes.  Unlike the rest of “Breathe In,” Pearce’s performance proves quite subtly effective.  C+2stars





REVIEW: The Theory of Everything

1 12 2014

‘Tis the season when phenomenal performances occur in decently passable films, and “The Theory of Everything” has arrived to fit that bill.   The movie is little more than a stage for a stunning physical transformation by Eddie Redmayne and a formidable emotional turn by Felicity Jones.  Their work shines particularly brightly because the film does not present anything else nearly as remarkable as them.  And actually, this hardly proves bothersome.

Director James Marsh and writer Anthony McCarten certainly provide admirable mood and story, respectively, to bring Jane and Stephen Hawking’s life and love to the screen.  They manage to pull off “The Theory of Everything” as a two-hander, giving both characters roughly proportionate screen time and development.  Normally, this kind of tale makes the woman subordinate to the man, reducing her to little more than a support system for her partner.  (Ahem, “The King’s Speech.”)

Granted, this was not too daunting of a task given that the source material is a book by Jane not solely about his illness and ingenuity but about their life together.  McCarten wisely keeps her story a central component of the film.  She is more than just the opposite that attracts him once, marries him, and then sits quietly on the sidelines as he acquires his own goals.  Jane is a person with flaws and ambitions in her own right, and by allowing her struggles equal credence, “The Theory of Everything” gives her both agency and weight in the overarching narrative.

As Stephen pursues his equation to encompass relativity and quantum mechanics, Jane is putting in the labor to achieve her own theory of everything.  She wants to serve as a wife and mother as well as attain her Ph.D. in Spanish medieval poetry.  She seeks not only to give love but also to receive it, and the latter becomes a source of compelling tension when Steven’s condition deteriorates to critical levels.  Jones shines in these later scenes, illustrating Jane’s good-hearted attempts to maintain a cheery caretaker’s facade.  Behind it all, though, Jane clearly yearns for the kinds of affection which her husband can no longer supply.

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