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Film Review: Nicotina

Nicotina is diverting stuff, not anything that will garner any foreign-film Oscar nominations, but quite enough to wash the foul taste of mediocre late summer.

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It becomes apparent during Nicotina’s 93-minute running time that director Hugo Rodriguez and screenwriter Martin Salinas have watched their share of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie pictures. Nicotina is packed with the same sort of darkly comic aspects that came to be the trademark of those two directors, but manages to dispense with the “wink-wink, look at my genuine appreciation for obscure, unknown cinema” affectations that burden much of Tarantino’s work. Nicotina is not a heavy film, knowing well enough not to take itself seriously, but it is an adept examination of human vices and how far working-class people will go when they are presented with the opportunity to shed their workaday burdens with one momentous decision.

The story, set on a lazy, warm Mexico City evening, is put in motion by a low-level computer hacker named Lolo (Diego Luna, who’s becoming hard to miss these days), who is the crucial cog in a scheme to rob a Swiss bank in exchange for a cache of diamonds. He spends his down time spying on his comely cellist neighbor, Andrea (Marta Belaustegui) through hidden cameras, but he’s too shy and unassuming to be considered creepy. His partners in the caper, Nene (Lucas Crespi) and Tomson (Jesus Ochoa) tool around the city, waiting for Lolo to acquire the account numbers which are to be delivered to a pair of Russian gangsters.

All the while, Nene puffs away on a constant string of cigarettes, citing their esoteric value while the older, wiser Tomson berates him for neglecting to note the significant health risk. As the title suggests, the cigarettes act as the film’s primary metaphor, every major character either possessing the habit or just having gone cold turkey. Meanwhile, Lolo acquires the account numbers and burns them to a disc; that is only until Andrea becomes privy to his network of hidden cameras in her apartment.

After conniving her way into Lolo’s apartment next door, she sends his CD-R collection of hidden camera footage asunder and sets it aflame while Lolo is locked outside. Once he regains entry, now without the trademark code monkey horn-rimmed glasses, he picks up what he thinks is the disc with the account numbers and bolts down to the street where Nene and Tomson are waiting. As luck and convenient plotting would have it, it isn’t the right disc. 

The Russian gangsters, on the discovery of the disc containing something other than account numbers, react harshly and swiftly, as any classic gangster would once they think they’ve been had. Nene and Svoboda, the chief Russian gangster, take bullets, inciting a cycle of selfish violence that continues to devolve as far as the flawed players can remotely rationalize it. Amidst the unfolding chaos, Lolo scrambles around futilely trying to convince those involved that it was his fault, as others continue to fall bereft of his own awareness of the failed scheme’s spiraling after-effects.

Rodriguez and Salinas push the story forward by repeatedly putting the film’s ordinary characters into extraordinary situations, dropping them headfirst into scenarios where their moral well-being gets put to the test. The cigarettes become the major X-factor, manipulating what would normally be a difficult decision and rendering it a decision that should not be foisted upon any mortal being. The film’s dark themes and violence are softened by a snappy pace, some pop film editing tricks, and clever dialogue, turning what could be humorless material into quite the lightweight, enjoyable morality tale. Never thought you’d hear those terms in the same sentence, did you?

Nicotina is diverting stuff, not anything that will garner any foreign-film Oscar nominations (unlike Amores Perros, a fellow Mexican film from the same production company), but quite enough to wash the foul taste of mediocre late summer fare from your palette. In addition to being a well-thought out film, it is also visually appealing, taking on much the same feel as Michael Mann’s Collateral, with many cool, striking nightscapes. It won’t weigh upon your soul, but it’s not supposed to.

The movie is in a limited release stateside, appearing mainly in metropolitan areas with notable Latino populations, so you’ll have to seek it out. But it’s definitely worth a look if you can find it. And for the first and last time, don’t let the subtitles deter you. That’s no excuse, you son of a silly person.

NICOTINA
Directed by: Hugo Rodriguez
Cast: Diego Luna, Rafael Inclan, Lucas Crespi, Jesus Ochoa

Film Reviews

Film Review: Hobbs & Shaw

If you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion

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Hobbs and Shaw

It is hard to believe that 2001’s The Fast & The Furious was just a film about the underground culture of street racing. Fast forward nearly 20 years later and the films have gotten so ridiculous that the only logical next step for the film series is to blast it into space. Our endless appetite for the series has seen us grown accustomed to cars taking planes out of the sky (Fast 6), cars jumping from one building to another (Fast 7), and cars being remotely controlled to act like a pack of mechanical wild dogs (Fast 8). Ridiculous is not a barrier the film series will ever brake for and so it brings us to this, the biggest spin-off the series has seen, Hobbs & Shaw.

When the chemistry between The Rock and Jason Statham proved magic in Fast 8, it only took The Rock butting heads with Vin Diesel to see that logically, the series needed a freshness to it. Who better than Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham? Well, as Hobbs & Shaw proves, if you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion as the film cares not for subtlety, pouring gasoline on the fire. The film sees the addition of Idris Elba as supervillain Brixton Lore and the effervescent Vanessa Kirby as Hattie Shaw, the sister of Statham’s character. Both characters fit in superbly well to the colorful, over-the-top personas of the series, but with one difference; they haven’t worn thin yet and are extremely likable. The film benefits greatly from the absence of Vin Diesel’s dopey head and the majority of the dopey Fast “family”, instead taking the Fast and Furious formula and giving it a spit shine, turning it sideways, and sticking it right up… well, you know the drill.

Hobbs (Johnson) and Shaw (Statham) play the unlikeliest (but most charismatic) buddy cop twosome since the days of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. Unexpectedly, this film is really quite hilarious- with the two swapping one-liners and jibes that keeps the film light and funny. The two are tasked with stopping global genocide at the hands of the megalomaniacal terrorist organization known as Etheon. The “face” of Etheon is superhuman Brixton Lore (Elba), an agent left for dead and turned into a weaponized cyborg-esque villain using genetic engineering. He’s the “black Superman” as he says, and he’s got an array of tech and gadgets (including a transforming, autonomous motorbike that would have found itself at home in a Transformers movie) that are part of Etheon’s plan to rid the world of the “weak”.

Vanessa Kirby
Vanessa Kirby is one of the highlights of Hobbs & Shaw

Etheon are after a deadly virus that is in possession of Hattie Shaw and what ensues is the expected cinematic equivalent of flexing your muscles and undoing the top few buttons of your blouse soundtracked to explosions, fast machines, and zippy dialogue. Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) keeps things by the book, and visually it’s all very on brand with the film series. But it is the chemistry and likability of the stars- namely Kirby, Statham, and Johnson- that keeps Hobbs & Shaw light on its feet, big with its set pieces, and never a chore. Kirby, in particular, has shown that her action chops are as deadly as her acting chops (is it too late to make her Black Widow? Or maybe just put her in all the action films). She never spends the film waiting to be rescued and is often the one quelling the childish, but hilarious quarrelling between Statham and Johnson.

The film trades the tired Fast family for real blood family, and while we still get the whole “family” and “heart” spiel that Vin Diesel loves to harp on about in these films, there is definitely a welcome change to the last few films. In fact, the Fast films haven’t been this fun in a long time. Unlike the last few, Hobbs & Shaw knows that the stakes of the film are global, but never does it take that too seriously and we the audience never feel too burdened by the ridiculousness of it all. There are some great cameos (two unexpected stars pop up that add the right comedic touches, plus Helen Mirren is always brilliant) and while the changing of scenery to Samoa is reminiscent of the previous Fast family vacations to South America et al, there’s something spiritual about this trip.

In the end, you don’t even have to turn your brain off because the film is soaked in charm and lightness that makes for a fun, smart enough romp that keeps its two-plus hour run time feeling like quite a breeze. Hobbs & Shaw is what this film series desperately needed. And while we can’t say the appeal will still be there when we’re inevitably sitting through Hobbs & Shaw 2, 3, 4, 5… we can say that for now, we’ll live this life one spin-off at a time.

HOBBS & SHAW
Directed by: David Leitch
Written by: Chris Morgan, Drew Pearce
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Helen Mirren
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Run time: 135 minutes

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Film Reviews

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a splendid coda to the Avengers

Save the world, save the girl?

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Spider-Man

Where do you go after Avengers: Endgame? The finale to an 11-year journey was always going to be a heavy exhale. But with much of the story finding conclusion, it was only natural that the next chapter would be something a little lighter, less fraught but still tense with importance. The question of responsibility and the burden of carrying it has been a fundamental principle of being a superhero in this universe, a burden that only continues in the final film of this phase. So where does the Marvel Cinematic Universe go after Endgame? Well, on holiday of course. Spider-Man: Far From Home is not only a splendid film but a nice coda to the biggest cinematic undertaking we’ve seen in recent history.

You can find Spider-Man: Far From Home nestled in the cinematic landscape somewhere between Iron Man 3 and National Lampoon’s Vacation. Peter Parker (Tom Holland, really solidifying himself as this generation’s best Spider-Man) is Clark Griswolding himself across Europe to chase the heart of MJ (Zendaya). As a bumbling 16-year-old who only wants to find the girl, his romance is cut a little short by the expected Marvel cinematic tomfoolery we’ve come to expect from our arachnid hero. Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn as Mysterio is a concerted effort; a cross between Tony Stark’s wise but too cool tutelage and Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin (take that how you will). As the carnage across Europe unfolds, the film becomes a well-balanced juxtapositioning of the kind of humor we’ve found appealing within in the MCU and action and adventure that doesn’t become overly burdensome or heavy. Far From Home keeps things light and breezy, but you never forget the stakes or think that this is just a tacked on fling after the events of Endgame.

The cast are well rounded and the addition of Marvel players we’ve come to love (Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan, Spider-Man sidekick Ned, and both Nick Fury and Maria Hill) makes it hit with almost the same gravitas as the previous films. But more importantly, they never make the film feel like an overstuffed mess that plagued outings like Age of Ultron. The pace is engaging, and as the story unfolds amongst the smoke and mirrors, you can’t help but feel a kind of comic book happiness that you felt through Homecoming. It’s charming, it’s earnest, it’s funny, and at times, doesn’t take itself too seriously (Spider-Man video game in-joke included!). Plus it has those little moments that while may have been written for fans, will appeal to anyone who enjoys a good laugh, a touching moment, and good filmmaking. While the death of Tony Stark looms large within the narrative of the film, it doesn’t become baggage- but rather the catalyst for growth within Parker and helps propel the story to its conclusion.

However, one can’t help but feel that the continued presence of Tony Stark, and the reminder that he is gone, really does give this universe a sense of finality. If you stay for the end-credits (both scenes), you’ll know that Marvel has plans both big and small in the coming years. Far From Home is both the end and the beginning in a sense. It’s a nice coda to Endgame, and for some, probably a good place to step away from the past 11 years. Far From Home is also continued proof that heart and the desire to do good doesn’t always have to follow the same tired script. Save the world, lose the girl? Maybe not this time.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is in cinemas now.

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME
Directed by: Jon Watts
Written by: Erik Sommers, Chris McKenna
Cast: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Jake Gyllenhaal, Samuel L. Jackson, Colbie Smulders, Marisa Tomei
Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Run time: 129 minutes

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