REVIEW: Kill Your Friends

28 03 2016

Kill Your FriendsThe black comedy “Kill Your Friends” might bill itself as satirical, though it hardly ever veers into farcical or absurd territory. In fact, many parts of the film feel all too real and accurate. The lead character, Nicholas Hoult’s loathsome yet endearing A&R rising star Steven Stelfox, speaks boldly about how the keys to his success mainly involve ignoring artistry and holding listeners’ taste in contempt.

Sound exaggerated? It shouldn’t. Heck, it should sound familiar. That same mentality drives not only the music business but also the movie industry … and probably just about any mass-produced art form, for that matter. It’s far easier for the powers that be to manufacture and then force-feed a style or product down the public’s throat. Tell them what they need; do not take the time to listen to what they want.

As can be gleaned from the film’s title, “Kill Your Friends” follows Steven as he lets the insecurities of a fear-based industry drive him to illogical extremes. The transformation is hardly accidental or unconscious, either. Steven has a winking, knowing participatory role in his moral descent and corporate ascent. He functions quite a bit like Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” our slithering guide through the underbelly of an industry thriving on the pursuit of pleasure (and copious controlled substances).

Hoult’s performance, however, recalled another actor for me – a young Tom Cruise, maybe circa-mid 1980s. His Steven is cocky, self-assured and somehow completely magnetic. The confident attitude is merely his shield, albeit one that he wields well, to fend off any doubters of his performance. Yet he is far from perfect in maintaining the ruse. Tough as he may seem, the thought of having to substitute smarts for swagger absolutely terrifies Steven. “Kill Your Friends” proves most compelling during the moments when Hoult allows Steven to let his guard down and lay his insecurities bare … though his unhinged mayhem comes in a very close second. B+ / 3stars

REVIEW: Into the Woods

17 12 2014

The last time a Stephen Sondheim musical received a screen adaptation, Tim Burton and company decided to completely obliterate what made the stage show of “Sweeney Todd” special in order to make the story cinematic.  So when Disney announced they would be making a filmic version of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” all signs pointed to them turning the revisionist fairy-tale musical into something akin to their hit TV show “Once Upon a Time.”  In other words, it could be a Marvel-style converging universe for Grimm’s Brothers tales.

Somehow, against the odds, “Into the Woods” maintains its integrity.  Disney does not force a pop-friendly ditty into the fabric of Sondheim’s notoriously tricky melodies and tough rhythms.  The soundtrack, likely to the pleasure of parents everywhere, boasts no “Frozen“-style tunes that demand playing on repeat.  These songs are better, or at least more purposeful – they tell a powerful story.

Sondheim’s music explores not just the wishes, dreams, and desires that come with the fairy tales.  The lyrics also deliberate the often neglected flip side of these: decisions, responsibility, and consequences.  “Into the Woods” head-fakes its first happily ever after in order deliver an extended post-script, daring to ask whether characters like Cinderella actually made the best decision for themselves.

Rob Marshall, thankfully channeling more of his masterful work on “Chicago” than his dreadful job on “Nine,” orchestrates this massive ensemble reevaluating their respective outcomes with a remarkable economy.  Everyone gets their moment, both in song and dialogue, to express their introspection.  Even with a few numbers truncated or cut altogether, “Into the Woods” still gets its message across with a great balance of obvious telling for the children and subtle hinting for the adults.

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REVIEW: Begin Again

2 07 2014

Begin AgainJohn Carney’s “Begin Again” was first screened for audiences under the title “Can A Song Save Your Life?”  An interesting question, to be sure, but perhaps not the right one … or at least not the one preoccupying most viewers.  Their biggest question is (or ought to be), can these songs save this movie?

The answer is, well, not exactly.  “Begin Again” flaunts some pleasant ditties, including a few from Maroon 5’s Adam Levine (great for boosting soundtrack sales) and several from the surprisingly smooth pipes of Keira Kinghtley.  But they are rather breezy and generic tunes, not quite the game-changing classics Carney and his film make them out to be.

While I’m not a music critic (and do not intend to masquerade as one), I do feel that I can comment on how the tracks are incorporated into the film with relative authority.  And in “Begin Again,” the songs play out rather like music videos, with the one exception of Knightley’s strikingly beautiful opening number about isolation in the Big Apple.  Furthermore, they never reveal anything about the characters participating in their creation (see the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” for a masterclass).

These songs reflect the larger issue with “Begin Again,” which is that it provides a surface-level treatment of just about everything it touches.  Carney occasionally proffers a profound musing on music, both its art and its commerce, but never really explores them fully.

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