Movie Review ~ Papillon (2018)


The Facts
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Synopsis: Wrongfully convicted for murder, Henri Charriere forms an unlikely relationship with fellow inmate and quirky convicted counterfeiter Louis Dega, in an attempt to escape from the notorious penal colony on Devil’s Island.

Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Roland Møller, Yorick van Wageningen, Tommy Flanagan, Eve Hewson

Director: Michael Noer

Rated: R

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While I was familiar in passing with Henri Charrière’s semi-autobiographical 1970 novel Papillion and it’s 1973 film adaption starring Steven McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, I’d never dug deep into either source material before taking in the 2018 remake. So I have little to compare and contrast to what has come before. Maybe that’s a good thing, too, because for all the bleakness and cold to the touch emotions the new Papillion employs, it seems like it would make a good rainy day selection for audiences craving something with some substance.

Set between the years of 1933 and 1941, Papillion follows petty thief Charrière (Charlie Hunnam, Pacific Rim) as is he wrongfully convicted of a murder he didn’t commit and sentenced to serve his time on a penal colony in French Guiana. The conditions are terrible and the punishments for disobeying orders (or worse, attempted escape) are brutal. Through a friendship that develops with Louis Dega (Rami Malek, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) the two men plot an escape from the island prison but face the elements and their own demons along the way.

Fans of The Shawshank Redemption might find more than a few similarities between that film and Papillion. Both are set in hellish prisons governed by an imperious warden and feature a colorful set of supporting characters there to alienate our leads at some points and assist them in their quest at others. While the overall message of hope amidst darkness is delivered expertly in Shawshank, it’s a feeling that Papillion can’t quite relay in the same powerful way.

Danish director Michael Noer and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners) speed through Charrière’s life in Paris with his girlfriend (Eve Hewson, Enough Said), eager to get him convicted and en route with Dega to the island as quickly as possible. The journey by boat is a nightmare for the affluent and slight Dega, but buddying up with Charrière gets him the protection he needs to survive until he makes it to shore. The film soon gets into an episodic routine of Charrière looking out for Dega while planning an escape with fellow inmate Celier (Roland Møller, Skyscraper) and suffering various tortures for both efforts.

Though he’s often lost among the more popular actors of his generation, I find Hunnam to be a real star sitting right on the brink. He chooses interesting projects (2017’s The Lost City of Z was maybe the most unheralded movie of that year) and commits himself completely to his work (maybe that commitment to material he believes in is why he famously bowed out of a leading role in Fifty Shades of Grey) and that same talent is on display here. Charrière gets put through the ringer and Hunnam ably takes us through every heinous step of his imprisonment. Still, he doesn’t let the character wallow too long and while he maintains some impeccably clean teeth even after years in solitary confinement, his physical and emotional transformation is largely impressive.

I still wish I understood why people are trying to make Rami Malek happen as a leading man. He’s supposedly wonderful on TV’s Mr. Robot but I’ve yet to be thrilled by any of the work he’s done on screen. He talks like he has a frog in his throat and maintains skittish tics that feel like nuances derived from Acting 101 textbooks. Malek’s big test will be playing Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody later this year and while he’s perfectly fine as the bug-eyed Dega, he’s matched with an actor that strong arms him in more ways than one.

The cinematography from Hagen Bogdanski and the production design from Tom Meyer (The Internship) are top notch, putting you right into the heat and horrible conditions within the prison. There’s some wonderfully intricate designs that make you curious to explore the space…an impressive accomplishment as the space we want more time in in a dingy prison and, later, an island cut-off from the rest of the prisoners.

Even pushing past the two hour running length, the opening and closing of Papillion feel rushed and unfinished.  It’s frustrating for films to feel constructed around attention spans as opposed to story and that dings the effort a bit in my book.  Still, Papillion is another film like the recently released Alpha that are better than their meager roll-outs suggest. Like Alpha, it’s a film you’re going to have to work to see and work harder to get comfortable with. Those willing to make that pact are likely to be rewarded.

Movie Review ~ Need for Speed

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Fresh from prison, a street racer who was framed by a wealthy business associate joins a cross country race with revenge in mind.

Stars:  Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Ramon Rodriguez, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson, Scott ‘Kid Cudi’ Mescudi, Michael Keaton, Dakota Johnson

Director: Scott Waugh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Though I want you to read the whole review, let me say right off the bat that there’s no real need to see Need for Speed.  It’s a hare-brained, noisy, overlong film that most will probably find subpar in comparison to other muscles and muscle car films like Fast & Furious 6.  Even with that disclaimer, I’ll tell you that I found myself enjoying Need for Speed more than I thought I would/could.

Based on a popular game from Electronic Arts, Need for Speed has a rather lenghty set-up that takes up a good half hour of your time but ably covers a lot of bases you’ll need to get something out of the final 100 minutes.  Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is a good ole boy living in the kind of quaint small time town that so many city denizens would long to visit…for a weekend.  Taking over an auto-body shop from his recently deceased dad, he’s seeing the bills pile up and begrudgingly takes an offer from rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) to soup up a car to be sold at auction.

Said car is a beaut and attracts the attention of a Julia, a comely associate (Imogen Poots) of a wealthy business man…and leads to a dangerous situation that sees Tobey imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.  Upon his release he sets out for revenge, bringing Julia and a bunch of emotional baggage along for the ride.

A gigantically silly film, I couldn’t help but just sit back and enjoy the ride that the 3D converted film provides.  Needing to make it cross-country in less than 48 hours, Tobey burns rubber though scenic vistas while avoiding the police and an array of roadblocks both literal and figurative.  Culminating in an illegal street race across the beautiful coast of California, Need for Speed should be credited with never slowing down…because it’s only after the lights come up that you realize how ludicrous the whole thing is.

Compensating for his tiny facial features by pitching his gravely voice to the Christian Bale basement level and over emoting the simplest of line readings, Paul isn’t nearly as impressive here as he was in his award-winning turn on TV’s Breaking Bad.  He’s better than Cooper (Dead Man Down, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), though, who isn’t the formidable foe the character and movie calls for.  Michael Keaton (recently seen in 2014’s failed Robocop reboot) must have filmed his scenes in a day and laughed all the way to the bank as a hyper mastermind behind the final race.

The grand prix winner of the film is Poots who works the same kind of magic she did with That Awkward Moment earlier in 2014 by effectively stealing the role out from under her male counterparts.  I had forgotten she was in this so when she appeared on screen I had the feeling the movie was about to be kicked into a higher gear…and I was right.

Though it hits the skids plot-wise as it nears the finish line, director Scott Waugh stages some mighty fine action sequences that don’t fall victim to repetition.  Using very little in the way of visual effects, Waugh is able to up the ante on race films without coming off as showboating.  It adds a considerable amount of realism to a non-realistic flick and I enjoyed his employment of interesting camera angles.

This is a film I wish was released later in the summer when I could have seen it at a drive-in movie theater.  Though set in present day it has a pleasingly retro-vibe to it even if it lacks the overall cool factor that made classics like Bullitt so monumental in the race genre.  If you’re in the mood to put your brain on cruise control and can take your hands off the wheel, Need for Speed could be a road trip worth taking.

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The Silver Bullet ~ Need for Speed

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Synopsis: Fresh from prison, a street racer who was framed by a wealthy business associate joins a cross country race with revenge in mind. His ex-partner, learning of the plan, places a massive bounty on his head as the race begins.

Release Date:  March 14, 2014

Thoughts: I’ll admit the first time I saw the preview for Need for Speed I feared we had lost star Aaron Paul to the Nicholas Cage darkside of films.  The more I saw it though (and I’ve seen it a LOT lately) I’m intrigued by what looks to be a popcorn flick (ala Fast & Furious 6) wanting to emulate those grindhouse-y films from decades ago but filtered through a modern lens.  It’s hard to balance a retro-feel with an updated approach but I find myself cautiously optimistic that this will deliver the goods.  Bonus points for having the intriguing Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment) and Michael Keaton (Gung-Ho, also in the RoboCop reboot) on board in supporting roles.

Movie Review ~ The Master

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future – until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.

Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rami Malek, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, David Warshofsky

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 144 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Writer-director Anderson has given cinema several very fine films over the course of his career.  Wild and epic, all of his films have a lot of high-level ideas and concepts to them which can make them fun discussion movies when the lights come up.  A case could be made that most of these films involve some sort of fatherly figure and the relationship they have with someone they see as their child. In his little seen and underrated Hard Eight, Philip Baker Hall played a wise figure that takes nobody John C. Reilly under his wing and provides tutelage in the world of gambling.  Boogie Nights finds the porn producer inhabited by Burt Reynolds guiding protégé Mark Walhberg to becoming a star.  Magnolia, There Must Be Blood, and even the dreadful Punch-Drunk Love all find similar situations.

It’s more of the same with Anderson’s newest work, The Master, as it documents the bond formed by a loner veteran Freddie Quell (Phoenix) brought into the fold of The Cause by its founder  Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).  As Quell gets in deeper with Dodd and his family (including Adams as his wife), he’s tested greatly physically and mentally until like all Anderson films something inevitably has to give.

There’s some mighty fine acting happening in The Master and it is clear why Hoffman has been nominated for an Oscar for his work.  The troubling thing for me is that he’s nominated as a Supporting Actor when he really is a co-lead with the also-nominated Phoenix.  (The same thing happened with lead actor Christoph Waltz snagging a Supporting Actor nomination for Django Unchained).  Sure, Phoenix is the character the film revolves around but Hoffman has just as much responsibility in the grand scheme of things.

Hoffman can sometimes make me weary as the characters he takes are quite passive but in The Master he delivers a career high performance with a conviction and underlying deceit.  He elevates nearly every scene he’s in and does it with an assured ease.  It’s clear that Hoffman and Anderson worked in tandem to create this character and it’s a fine example of the symbiosis between an actor’s craft and the written word.

As the troubled Quell, Phoenix is back on the screen after a hiatus from acting that saw the actor go through a truly weird metamorphosis.  Phoenix still maintains his unfortunate trait of mumbling through his dialogue and even if it is a character choice that works better with this character than others, it does create an invisible barrier between his performance and the others onscreen. 

Anderson’s last film was working with the infamously committed Daniel Day-Lewis and Phoenix is much the same type of method actor.  What sets the two actors apart is that Phoenix’s commitment seems unplanned rather than spontaneous and before you say what’s the difference – there is one.  Day-Lewis may make his choices in the moment and feed off of others but you know that he’s so invested in the character that even the most unexpected moments come from an understanding of the work itself. On the other hand, Phoenix has more than a few scenes in the movie that feel as if they are in service to him rather than the movie. Still, Phoenix and Hoffman have two dynamite scenes that are so good they dwarf everything and everyone else in the film.

I feel like I’ve seen Adams doing this kind of work for a while now.  It’s clear that Adams is an actress with ingenuity and strength but I’m not seeing what the big is with her performance here.  For my money it’s not a memorable enough performance to warrant the Supporting Actress nomination she received.  I kept waiting for that one scene that would truly blow me away – even if a few moments started up that mountain the peak was never reached in a satisfying way. 

Much has been made about the film being a thinly veiled insight into the rise in popularity of Scientology and it’s easy to draw comparisons between the movement started by L. Ron Hubbard and The Master’s movement, The Cause.  Not being overly familiar with Scientology I have to say that even if that’s what The Cause is getting at it’s not the central focus of the film.  The people at the heart of the matter are what the movie is focused on.

As is the case of all Anderson’s films, this one overstays its welcome.  I thought the film was winding up with a nice coda, only to witness an extra 10 minutes that did nothing to make the film better than where it could have stopped.  It’s strange that some directors don’t know when to close up shop and go home and Anderson’s The Master (along with Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained) winds up being that friend at the party you were happy to see arrive but now just wish would go home so you can sleep.