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Out in Theaters: ‘TRIPLE 9’

There’s so many tattered sleeves of other (greater) crime films sifting in and out of John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 that the final product plays a bit like a voodoo pincushion of greatest hits moments. There’s buttons of Heat, The Departed, American Gangster and many other crime classics, with characters seemingly beamed in from Bad Lieutenant, Sicario and End of Watch, all come to rumble in Hillcoat’s dirty little Atlanta playground. That this stable of influences is mostly able to coalesce into a largely exciting, ceaselessly dark and somewhat intelligible thriller is admirable, even if it sometimes finds itself a touch off the rails. Read More

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Out in Theaters: EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS

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If there’s one thing Ridley Scott‘s Exodus: Gods and Kings gets right it’s the amount of hairstyles Christian Bale can rock in one movie. I stopped counting after about the eight iteration of mangy hair/trim beard to mangy beard/trim hair transformation. Eventually some gray enters the mix. It’s very life affirming.

That ever changing facial hairiness belongs to Moses, the badass war commander from the Bible. See you may mistakenly remember Moses as a peace loving, water-parting, commandment-carrying lover of all things Hebrew but Scott’s film reminds us of his true roots: slicin’ and dicin’ Barbarian hordes. Because what is a Ridley Scott movie without scene of “civilized” warriors running down rudimentary inferiors? In 3D, it’s all the more punishing.

Moses starts the film as a Prince of Egypt, a devout servant to the Egyptian throne and underling to the one and only Jesus (John Turturro with drawn on eyebrows). Moses is the cousin to hairless heir Rhamses, an antagonist with a serious case of the Charlie Browns and an even worse case of miscasting. Moses advices Rhamses in matters of … uh…  untold things? and tries to quell his overly developed Commodus qualities by being sword twinsies. Plucked right from Gladiator, Jesus (ok fine, Turturro’s real name is Seti) tells Moses he wishes that it could be him who takes the reins after his demise, but alas! that vexing bloodline thing! After a fraudulent Ben Mendelsohn ousts Moses as a Hebrew with a birthright (that being a birthright to drown in a river like all those other pesky Hebrew babies), Rhamses throws a hissy and gives Moses the boot from his kingdom of pyramids and cat statues. Plagues follow.

For what feels like forty days and forty nights, the film is as much of a slog as its title implies. The diaspora of narrative is as thinned out as Moses’ herd of hungry hungry Hebrews. No stone is left unturned as the screenplay by committee (four credited screenwriters) make room for just about every uninteresting element in Moses’ 120 year long life. See Moses struggle with leaving his (Muslim?) family, Moses trekking there and back again and then back again and then back again, Moses’ teach his flock to rise and rise again until lambs turn to lions and, finally, Moses waiting horrified in the wings as God unleashes a lashing of super gnarly pandemics.

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Squatting somewhere on a fence between super-naturalism and realism, Exodus never can make up its mind about how pragmatic it wants its divinity to be. The whole celestial curse comes with a footnote of “How the Plagues Could Have Actually Happened” (narrated by the film’s best Ewen Bremmer lookalike) that mostly involves alligator fights and acne. As things heat into a realm of “don’t mention it” magical realism, a deathly hallow of blackness consumes the lives of first borns a big fat dementor. When Scott gets around to revealing God as a neatly shaved, petulant child with an overdeveloped sense of vengeance, things get laughable.

Bale, as always, is up to the task, even if the film itself is not. He gives his all to Moses. Both the battle-worn soldier and the identity-confused harbinger of commandments are juicy with Bale’s overzealous commitment to character. The rest of the performances are disposable at best. Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, who FEELS NO PAIN!!!!) peeks around corners and catch Moses in the act of talking to God (aka talking to a bush like a madman) not once, not twice but a heaving four times.

Ben Kingsley shows up because it’s a movie about Egypt so Ben Kingsley has to show up. Signourney Weaver is stuffed inside some horrendous Egyptian dress to spout out some vitriol about something or other and then never reappear. But it’s Edgerton who suffers most under the weight of Rhamses’ stupidly whitewashed part. The character is dumb enough before draping itself in pale yellow anacondas.

To watch Exodus is to endure exodus. At 150 mins, it’s easily one of the most taxing films of the year and surely one of its least inspired blockbusters. Darren Aronofsky struggled to find his footing in Noah and misstepped more than once, but at least there was some kind of palpable driving force behind that film. Here, it’s a challenge to make heads or tails of the intent. It seems like a $140 million dollar tax write off starring Christian Bale’s hair-growing abilities.

D+

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Out in Theaters: NEED FOR SPEED

“Need for Speed”
Directed by Scott Waugh
Starring Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson, Ramon Rodriquez, Michael Keaton
Action, Crime, Drama
121 Mins
PG-13

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Need For Speed
is the kind of movie that the descriptor “high octane” was conceived for. It’s dumb but technically competent enough to pander to the NASCAR hillbilly types and Formula One engine snobs at once. But with neck-breaking car stunts and tightrope tension, it’ll keep your posterior numb and your adrenaline glands humming. Promising that if you get up for a bathroom break, you’re sure to miss something, Need for Speed rockets forth at breakneck speeds, blasting past the roadblocks of story beats and into head-on collisions with nonsense. In the very least, Scott Waugh has seemed to eek past the first set of crash dummy drafts as the undeniably cinematic experience he presents seems more finely tuned than one might first expect. It’s no Chauser but, at the very least, it won’t require you to strap in for a crash course on idiocracy.  

Setting the events to a ticking clock is a bit of a stroke of genius on screenwriter George Gatin‘s behalf as this provides the perfect framework for a movie about fast cars driving fast that has little to offer outside of the temptation of increasingly sleeker, and more European, cars set against an Imogen Poots stripping down layers by the ten minute marker. It’s seduction 101 and it works wonders.

As a movie based on a video game, Speed hits all the marks of mainstream adaptation one would expect, complete with shameless product placement and leggy blondes to ogle at. But beneath the veneer of corporate construction, this is a movie that reaches slightly above the plastic wrappings of strict VG adaptations. There’s obvious fun taking place beyond the lens and, thankfully, it’s the kind of fun we can actually revel in.

Michael Keaton, for one, is having the time of his life and his hammy performance as the illusive Monarch is representative of Need for Speed at large. As he goofs into the mic, accessorized with gaudy, almost Elvis-esque, shades and a flashy wardrobe, he’s the ridiculous meta commentary this kind of movie needs. He’s the outlet for the film’s sarcastic self-mockery and only with his kind of wink-wink-nudge-nudge attitude is Need for Speed able to get away with all its gravity-defying shenanigans.

Piping hot off the untouchable success of Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul is given a chance to reinvent his image in this more mainstream, but still mostly antihero, personality. Moving away from his persona of forlorn but corruptible Jesse Pinkman and into a guy that we can feasibly buy as a studio action figure, Paul, like Jesse in his fleeting moments, has started down a long and windy road. Even though he’s been (mostly) shaved clean and (as far as we know) isn’t at any point addicted to meth, he shares the chiseled brand of intensity – raging yet dopey – that we’ve come to know spending time with Jesse. For his part though, Paul’s still immensely watchable. We see the gears work as Paul faces the canals of yet another moral trauma; the ticktock of a man on the edge of his rope. No one does wounded like Paul. He’s got haunted down pat.

But regardless of how many times Paul and Waugn try to push the idea that Need for Speed is nothing like Fast and the Furious, don’t believe a word of it. What we’ve got here is very much in the same wheelhouse and a good hair below in quality. Beyond the cars, crimes and carnage, the biggest similarity is the ensemble-driven cast. Speed, whether intentionally or not, seeks to recreate a familiar team of interracial, eclectic banditos. We’ve got the wisecracking black man, the reliable Latino, the standard cut white dude and a vaguely Middle Eastern mechanical genius. It is a surprise however that Scott Mescudi (or Kid Cudi as he’s known in hip hop circles) stands out most amongst a dudery that includes Dominic Cooper, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson and Ramon Rodriquez. I guess there’s something behind the unadulterated charisma of rappers that translates well into onscreen supporting characters. Who knew?

C

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Talking with Aaron Paul and Scott Waugn of NEED FOR SPEED

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Doing press tour rounds for their upcoming film Need for Speed, star Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) and Scott Waugn stopped by Seattle to sit down and talk about what it took to bring the popular EA Sports video game to the big screen in a big way. They touched on subjects from stunt driving know-how to the advantages of practical effects over CGI, their first cars, driving recklessly and how they hope their film won’t be seen in the same vein as the massively popular Fast and Furious franchise. Although I’ve seen the film, my words are still under lock and key but rest assured, it’s certainly the brand of light-hearted car romp one would expected from a movie called Need for Speed.

 

Q: Aaron, tell me about an occasion in your past when you were driving recklessly outside of a film set.

Aaron Paul: That’s never happened (smirks) I don’t know what you’re talking about. Be safe kids. When you’re young and you get your license, it’s all about the freedom of the road. My first car was an ’82 Toyota Corolla, goldish color, stick shift, anytime it rained the trunk would fill up with water but I loved that car.

Scott Waugh: Don’t we all remember our first car and have such an emotional relationship to our first car?

AP: Yeah, I do think about that car. Anytime I see that car on the road, it kind of puts a smile on my face.

SW: Man, the things I did in that car. I grew up out in the country and my dad was a stuntman. We grew up on a private road so it was like a mile dirt road so my dad taught me to stunt drive on that road. I had a Honda Civic, that I had for four years, and my parents used to send me down the road to go get the mail when I was young to learn how to drive and I started drifting the car and spinning it around. It was private so we were allowed to do whatever we wanted. It was our own road. My mom was always mad if I did that so one day I was in the car and driving down there thinking to myself “I wanna throw a 180 and come back up the hill.” My mom would never know. So just as I’m getting it up to speed and drifting it sideways, here comes my mother around the corner. I was committed though so I did it. I got so yelled at and reprimanded. The only reason I could do that though was because it was private.

Q: Are you guys are hoping to expand this into a franchise?

SW: We hope. We want to work together again.

Q: Do you worry that people are going to compare this to the Fast and Furious franchise?

SW: No, not at all. I think when they see the movie, it’s gonna be obvious that it’s nothing like it.

AP: Once you watch it, it’s so apparent. When I saw the script on my desk, I instantly thought of Fast and Furious. Once I started reading the script, I was so excited about the story behind all of these cars. It was very character driven and story driven, I was instantly invested in these characters. It’s an homage, Scott wanted to do a throwback to the classics.

SW: It was all about the car classic movies that started the whole thing.

AP: Bullit, Vanishing Point.

SW: Bullit is the best car movie of all time. We don’t quote Fast and Furious, we quote Bullit.

AP: Fast and the Furious are fun movies but this is a completely different thing. They didn’t start the genre and they’re not gonna end the genre. Car movies have been around forever.

Q: Having your experience being mostly in stunts and coordinating stunts, did you find you were able to get better action scenes than traditional action directors would get and Aaron did you notice the difference in that when Scott was directing you?

AP: It was such a perfect marriage with Scott and this film because he was born into a stunt family. That was his world. He was the perfect guy holding the reigns and driving this film.

SW: I was lucky. You’re only as good as your experiences and you can only show what you’ve seen. So I was just lucky as a child and until 35, I was doing stunts. I’ve just seen so many things from my perspective. So when I direct my action movies, I’m trying to show the audience what I’ve seen and been lucky enough to see. So there’s no other directors that have done what I’ve done so that’s probably why it feels different to the audience. I’m showing you and hopefully giving you the experience of what I’ve been so blessed to have done and bringing that to the film.

AP: The first thing he told me was “I do not use CG, all these stunts are gonna be practical and I’m gonna need you to be behind the wheel in a lot of it. You need to know how to drive.” We’re so used to being lied to. Movies with CG are such fun movies and are great because they’re in such a fantasy world but he doesn’t want to fool the audience. He wants it obviously that I’m driving the cars and these stunts actually happened, which I thought was really great.

Q: Scott given that this is your second movie and Aaron since you have a background in such an iconic character, what did you guys do differently to prepare for this?

SW: I did documentaries before these and with every movie you do, you find out what the voice of the movie is and the style of the movie and you stick to it. When I gravitated towards this material, I always wanted to do a car movie. I had my sights on doing a car movie after doing Act of Valor and be careful what you wish for because it came to fruition. I wanted to do a throwback. So I stayed true to that. The next movie will be different. That’s the wonderful thing about directing movies, every single one is different…or at least I hope so.

AP: Same. For me, I always try to do the polar opposite of what I’ve just done. In terms of preparation, it’s the same thing but you’re prepping for that particular film and that skin you’re about to zip on.

SW: I was just so excited as a filmmaker to work with greatly talented actors. It’s tough as you’re scrapping your way up as a filmmaker and then to get to work with people like Aaron Paul was fantastic. It was a director’s dream. The whole cast was so good.

AP: It really was. It’s ridiculous how much fun we had. It just doesn’t seem fair.

Q: Did either of you have a favorite scene in the movie?

SW: I’m personally proud of Moab because I don’t think it’s anything that anyone’s seen before and I haven’t done it before. With the helicopter and the car, doing that practically and for real was super challenging.

AP: We shot that towards the end of the film and I kept saying “Are you really going to [hang a car from a helicopter?]” When I read the script, I was like “Ok, we’re gonna do everything practical but you’re not gonna drive a car off a cliff and have it caught by a helicopter? That’s not gonna happen, right?” “No, that is gonna happen.” I could not wait to see that happen and it was fantastic.

Q: Did you actually get to drive that car or would the legal team not let you?

AP: No, they would not let me drive that car.

SW: We’re not reckless. I knew that safety was a huge factor and there are wonderful, professional stuntmen that would take over and execute those scenes so that Aaron could stay safe. It’s not even a safety factor, sometimes you need people who have that experience and expertise level driving in that kind of situation. In case something went awry, they’d know how to handle it immediately and keep it going straight. So we put professional stunt men in.

Q: Did you just do that stunt once?

SW: Yeah. I’ve found in my career there’s just no reason to do those stunts over again. I’ve seen so many accidents in my life and I’ve seen people get killed in stunts by repetition, doing a stunt over and over. For some reason, the director wanted to do something again and I was like “Why? The stunt was great. Why are we doing it again? The only thing that could happen is something bad.” We just did it. So every time we would do a stunt in this movie, it was only once.

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