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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: Booksmart

Booksmart is the wonderful story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood

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booksmart

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart has had a rough time at the box office since its release a few weeks ago. Pundits have placed blame on poor marketing by Annapurna Pictures (the studio releasing it) but in truth, the film just isn’t a big cinema flick. But there’s nothing wrong with that because, in every sense, Booksmart is a brilliant film. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s wonderfully written, well-directed, and filled with stories that are relatable across generations. But box offices are intrinsically built on those first weekend numbers, it is why it exists, and it is a shame the team behind the film has made a big deal out of the lack of box office draw instead of building on what will surely make it a cult classic- word of mouth.

The film tells the story of Amy and Molly, two high school seniors who have spent their high school careers being great in class, but not so great socially. The day before graduation they realize that their plan of spending their high school careers buried in books, getting straight A’s, and then transcending into the upper echelon of higher education is thwarted when the very people they thought they were escaping, have, in fact, accomplished the same. The difference is that they all had fun during high school while Amy and Molly didn’t. What ensues is a smart pastiche of college humor comedies and high school coming-of-age flicks that have been a staple of cinema across generations. Taking cues from Superbad and the recent Blockers, Booksmart takes raunchy humor and gross-out jokes but injects them with contemporary social dynamics. Universal stories of high school joy, friendship, and heartbreak are told with the kind of relatable charm that is rare- relatable regardless of age, gender, or sexuality. Its inclusivity has been praised not because it is gratuitous or forced, but because it feels genuine and heartfelt.

The two leads, played by Beanie Feldstein (Neighbors 2) and Kaitlyn Dever, are brilliant. If you watched the sitcom Last Man Standing you always knew that Dever was destined for greatness, so it’s no surprise that Booksmart is a great vehicle for her and Feldstein to show their talents. They both act with enough nuance when it is needed, but both sizzle with chemistry when they need to be riotously funny- the screen becomes their canvas and it is hard to escape their presence. Dever and Feldstein are flanked by an assemblage of funny people- Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams, the funny kid from Santa Clarita Diet– who all contribute to the film’s balanced characters. It is only at times that a few of them seem a little too much like a cartoon that it detracts from the film (still not sure what Billie Lourd’s character is about).

Billie Lourd and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart

Wilde’s first turn at directing has proven that she’s got a keen eye for it. Booksmart does all the basics right and when Wilde wants to shoot outside of the box, they get that right too (the scene in which our leads are trippin’ daisies on hallucinogens, in particular, comes off as both funny and well done).

Its strengths, aside from the leads, is the writing and the seemingly truthful way in which the film depicts teenagers (in this case, teenage girls) living through that period of high school transitioning off into college and the so-called ‘real world’. Much has been said about its authenticity, and even if you can’t directly relate, you can still feel and understand the emotions and the relationships. And that is something that is hard to do, and the writers, the cast, and Olivia Wilde have accomplished that.

So what exactly is the problem with Booksmart? And why haven’t people flocked to see it? It still feels like a “small” movie, hindered perhaps by its very Netflix-like production. It doesn’t have that big-budget, must-see-at-the-cinema demeanor that films like Superbad or even Blockers had. Even films like Neighbors and its sequel felt much bigger in scope. Booksmart just FEELS like a television movie, even if it’s not.

Poor box office runs haven’t been the death knell for small-budget, indie successes. There have been plenty of critically acclaimed films that have been dwarfed in the numbers by superheroes, cartoons and sinking ships. Hopefully, ones that fuel conversation (like Booksmart), will keep studios making them. It’s a shame that a lot of the news has relegated Booksmart to “box office failure” because it deserves more. In time, with good word of mouth, and as more and more people see it and realize its resonance, it surely will. It has to because the heart of this movie, the way in which it tells the story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood will not let it die without a fight.

Booksmart is in US cinemas now and opens in Australian cinemas June 27.

BOOKSMART
Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Written by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams
Released by: Annapurna Pictures
Runtime: 102 mins
Website: Booksmart.movie

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