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: X-Men: Apocalypse

14 02 2017

Is it becoming contractually obligatory for a series’ third installment to be bland and lackluster? Must they expend all their energy in the first two films? Because by the time “X-Men: Apocalypse” came to a close, I found myself struggling to recall what it was that had me so jazzed after Matthew Vaughn’s reinvigoration of the franchise in the first place.

“It’s like a two hour pilot that introduces you to a fantastic ensemble while also fleshing out the conflict between its two biggest stars,” I wrote of “X-Men: First Class” back in 2011. So to extend the television metaphor, I guess this is that point a few seasons into a show where I disengage after noticing it’s clearly jumped the shark. The deeper dive into the series’ key figures, James McAvoy’s Professor X and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, has now officially ceded way to bloated, overstuffed “Spider-Man 3” syndrome.

The numerous characters in the “X-Men” universe, from supersonic Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to teleporting Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), have moved from strength to liability. Singer, with the aid of screenwriter Simon Kinberg, packs “X-Men: Apocalypse” full of new characters who ultimately feel like they are playing out narratives in search of a spinoff franchise. And while there’s really only one villain, Oscar Isaac’s prehistoric Apocalypse, he gets so little to do that a great actor ends up giving a mummified performance.

That cast of rising stars, once such an asset for the series, now weighs like a millstone around its neck. McAvoy, Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult have all seen their stars rise considerably since 2011. They owe a lot of that to the “X-Men” franchise. And they don’t pay it back in what could likely serve as their final outing in the respective roles. It’s less acting and more contract fulfillment. C+2stars





REVIEW: Equals

27 07 2016

EqualsDystopian sci-fi often tends to paint in broad strokes as it outlines a vision of an alternate reality. But in Drake Doremus’ “Equals,” however, the focus is on the minutiae and the barely perceptible.

Though its color-drained, emotionless milieu exists somewhere on the spectrum between “Pleasantville” and “The Giver,” the pleasures hardly derive from the gradual revelations of the imagined premise’s limitations. In fact, the film often stumbles when it ventures into thriller-style intrigue around the “escape” from oppression. “Equals” soars when Doremus allows the incredibly specific, gently realized acting of stars Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult to shine.

As cogs in an industrial machine that has sought to biologically eliminate emotions in the name of productivity and peace, Hoult’s Silas begins to feel the stirrings of affection for Stewart’s Nia after observing – ironically enough – her distinct mannerisms like lip biting and unusual eye movement. In these initial flirtations, their attractions scarcely register as the most minor of gestures. Doremus shows an eye for the subtle, the virtually unnoticeable that proves so unique to the cinema.

The chaste, hidden-in-plain-sight romance that plays out in public possesses a truly beautiful nuance and a wonderful correlation to the world all of us inhabit. The small graze of a crush’s hand or the intercepted glance often packs the most profound emotional wallop. It’s a shame that when their relationship moves into the more physical, sensual realm that “Equals” loses this bliss. In their fumbling for sexual intimacy, Doremus presents Silas and Nia as darkly silhouetted and reduced to mere grunts, gasps. Yes, they are discovering sexuality on a primal scale. But there has to be more to it.

Actually, there is more to it, as Hoult and Stewart so clearly demonstrate. With each passing scene, we can see the gradual expansion of the emotional pallets available to Stewart and Hoult – mostly in the latter. Stewart maintains a primarily leveled tenor as Nia, but Hoult grows into an emotionally sensitive character on par with his deeply empathetic turns in films like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Warm Bodies.” Doremus may spin in circles doing a kind of Harmony Korine-esque haze of words, fragmentary shots and trance-like score, but the actors of “Equals” keep the film centered. B2halfstars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 9, 2016)

9 06 2016

Young OnesThe recent hiring trend for studio tentpoles has been to pluck indie directors from obscurity, combining their strong imaginative knack with their weak negotiating power and strong incentive to roll over and obey for the career boost. Some of these moves make a lot of sense (Duncan Jones, Gareth Edwards) while others still feel strange, like transitioning Colin Trevorrow from “Safety Not Guaranteed” to “Jurassic World” or Marc Webb from “(500) Days of Summer” to the “Spider-Man” reboot.

I find it rather shocking that Jake Paltrow is hitting the press tour this week touting a new documentary about Brian De Palma (co-directed with the venerable Noah Baumbach) and not talking about some massive franchise flick. His prior film, 2014’s sci-fi/western “Young Ones,” plays like the perfect audition tape for a hit factory. The way he conjures an entire desert world on a small budget recalls some of Tatooine from George Lucas’ original “Star Wars.”

But this economy of scale and maximizing of impact alone is not the reason for choosing “Young Ones” as my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” (As is customary at the beginning of the month, I’ll remind you that “F.I.L.M.” is a contrived acronym for First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie.) Neither is it because the film features odd flourishes of De Palma-esque style, if you know to look for it – particularly during exciting or charged moments.

No, it’s because Paltrow takes the time to craft an intriguing human story in an environment where the dystopian agrarian society might overwhelm character. “Young Ones” puts interpersonal conflict first and foremost, pitting parents against children, families against outsiders, and even siblings against each other. Protection and survival guide most actions from Michael Shannon’s patriarch Ernest Holm and his son, Kodi Smit McPhee’s Jerome.

The real attention-grabber, however, is Nicholas Hoult as Flem Lever, who makes a deceitful journey from boy to man at the Holm family expense. He assumes the role of a patrician in a manner befitting “The Godfather,” although the frequent slow pushes Paltrow has director of photography Giles Nuttgens executes does recall Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood.” Flem seizes power far more frequently than he earns it, which puts him at odds with the more earnest Jerome.

But rather than devolve into shouting matches or stylized fighting, “Young Ones” simply lets their struggles play out naturally. Paltrow relies on the cut and the implication to convey what an action set piece would otherwise show. As blockbusters get noisier and more frenetic, executives ought to give this film (and filmmaker) another look if they want to appeal to a pendulum potentially swinging back the other way.

 





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: Dark Places

7 08 2015

Dark PlacesDark Places,” the latest cinematic adaptation of novelist Gillian Flynn, provides a similar ride to her smash hit “Gone Girl” on a smaller and slower scale.  Satisfactory yet not sensational, it will play just fine for the shut-in cinephile looking for a modest recreation of Fincher’s phenomenal film.

Like “Gone Girl,” “Dark Places” shuffles back and forth between two timelines.  The first takes place in the present day, where Charlize Theron’s Libby Day grapples with a little bit of survivor’s remorse but far more money issues.  The second, set in 1985, depicts the infamous events that gave her fifteen minutes of fame: the slaughter of her mother and two sisters.  Her good-natured but incorrigible brother, Ben, takes the rap for the crime.

Arguably, there are more balls in play during “Dark Places.”  The present day story centers on Libby almost exclusively as she begins to question her recollection of the murders and her testimony that put Ben behind bars.  Her quest to re-examine the truth comes after honest probing – and cash bribing – by Nicholas Hoult’s Lyle, a fanatical devotee of the case’s minutiae.

Meanwhile, on the Day’s rural turf, the film follows more than just Ben (Tye Sheridan) as he gallivants between some Satanist burnouts and his ill-tempered girlfriend Diondra (Chloe Grace Moretz).  It also shows the travails of the embattled matriarch, Christina Hendricks’ Patty, as she fights tooth and nail to preserve her family’s dignity and land.

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REVIEW: Mad Max: Fury Road

13 05 2015

George Miller certainly trusts his audience.  30 years after the last entry in his cult franchise, he throws us into a fully realized dystopian society with little spoon-fed exposition in “Mad Max: Fury Road.”  It’s a nice gear shift in the Marvel Cinematic Universe age, where the minutiae of everything require spelling out in excruciatingly explicit terms.

He also respects his audience, giving them plenty of what they want: high-octane, well-choreographed motorized action.  Miller, no doubt aided by the spectacular lensing of John Seale and the precise editing rhythms of Jason Ballantine, conducts an orchestra of crashing contraptions in the desert sands.  These complex sequences flow effortlessly, and only when the following scene began in silence did I realize how rapidly and loudly Miller made my heart beat.

These thrilling sequences also gain some emotional heft since “Mad Max: Fury Road” gives them actual human stakes within the narrative.  For once, a film does not equate adrenaline with testosterone – “men’s rights” activists be damned.  Despite the character’s name in the title, Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky hardly sits in the driver’s seat to guide the film forward.  That honor belongs to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, a warrior fleeing the tyrannical kingdom to lead several of the leader’s concubines to freedom.

Strength through silence is a fairly common method for males to assert dominance on screen, though it only works partially for Hardy here.  Perhaps my limited knowledge of “Mad Max” lore plays into this, but Max’s ambivalence seems rooted in a lack of character development and background.  Miller doles out flashes of Max’s clairvoyant mental state here and there, although the uninitiated like myself are left to wonder if they are alluding to the past or setting up future installments.

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