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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: It Chapter Two

The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans

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The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.

It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.

The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material). 

It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.

The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.

As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.

Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.

It Chapter Two is in cinemas now

IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes

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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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