Tag: nicholas hoult


Tolkien (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

When I see or hear the name “Tolkien,” my mind teleports into a world of overwhelming imagination: colossal dragons keeping terrified knights at bay, aging wizards wielding wands as long as their beards, strange and mystical places, indomitable fellowship, heartbreaking sacrifice, an epic battle between good and evil. It is most disappointing then that this biographical drama about the formative years of John Ronald Ruel Tolkien—J. R. R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult)—is diluted in such a way that by the end it looks and feels so ordinary, the viewer is left to wonder why the man in question is special. I sensed the goal is to create a picture worthy of being taken seriously rather than to remain true to the artistic spirit of its subject.

There is nothing particularly wrong with the performances. Hoult portrays the adult Tolkien with a sense of charisma and flair; when he reads words off books out loud, he made me listen closely to cadence and attitudes of excerpts in the off-chance that what is being read might have impacted the author in surprising ways. But the screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford dedicates so much time in showing the subject either in love or heavy-hearted that his talent for creating languages that roll off the tongue is constantly overshadowed. Hoult is that rare performer who exudes a physical strength and intelligence without having to do much, and so it is strange that the material fails to play upon that strength.

We get it: Tolkien is smitten with fellow lodger Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a pianist who yearns freedom from the woman who decided to take them in following their orphanage. But surely there are many more interesting events in Tolkien’s life outside of the standard romance? For instance, I enjoyed learning about Tolkien’s best friends—Geoffrey the poet (Anthony Boyle), Robert the painter (Patrick Gibson), and Christopher the composer (Tom Glynn-Carney)—and noting their similarities and differences. Although Tolkien does not come from a privileged background, all four Team Club, Barrovian Society (T.C.B.S.) members are artists who yearn to be free of traditional expectations regarding which careers they should pursue. Their parents wish for them to be doctors, lawyers, accountants. Through their fellowship, they encourage each others’ work. To me, this is the more interesting angle of the story.

The movie is also plagued with an unnecessary structural issues. For more than half of its nearly two-hour running time, the story is told in flashbacks. We first lay eyes on the protagonist, feverish and desperate to find Geoffrey the poet in the trenches of the Battle of the Somme. War images are not at all convincing on their own. But to inject fantasy elements on top it is another miscalculation altogether. The point, I suppose, is to juxtapose Tolkien’s inescapable reality with the images in his head waiting to be put on paper. But it is ineffective here because the depiction of the horrors of World War I is not established in the least. Thus, there is no drama, just a choreography of men holding muskets, charging the front lines, explosions, painful screaming.

“Tolkien” is directed by Dome Karukoski, and the project is most effective when two people simply sit down and have a conversation: about societal expectations, about what it means to be young and poor, about language as sound versus language as meaning. I can imagine that the author’s formative years is far more interesting—and challenging—than what this film shows. Otherwise, he would not have created such memorable fantasy epics that have something compelling to say about human nature. In the end, the film is just another Famous Writer movie with minimal personality and vision. It fails to take risks in order to be respectable.

Dark Places

Dark Places (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

Written for the screen and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, “Dark Places” is a mystery-thriller that offers many secrets but it does not come together as tightly as it should have. A major reason is the screenplay’s attempt to cover too much ground too quickly. As a result, the cursory characterizations fail to build up to anything substantial. We never get to know them in meaningful ways. So when a secret is revealed eventually, it is usually met with a shrug rather than with genuine surprise, horror, or something that resonates.

It has been twenty-eight years since the murder of Libby’s mother (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters, which means that her brother, Ben (Tye Sheridan, Corey Stoll), has been in prison for almost three decades. Ben was the primary suspect although evidence against him were inconsistent at best. Libby (Charlize Theron), still haunted by the trauma of the past, is approached by a young man named Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult) who claims to be a part of The Kill Club, a group of people who dedicate themselves to solve murder mysteries and other crimes. They believe Ben is innocent, but they need Libby’s help in order to exonerate the man.

The story’s structure requires careful attention because it jumps between the past and the present. Although the look between the two periods is distinct enough, there is often a lack of flow from one scene to the next. This is inappropriate because critical pieces end up being overlooked as we acclimate between eras. There are many names, faces, and motivations to remember so it is critical that the audience is never lost in the process. The material ought to have been approached as a procedural.

Furthermore, Libby’s narration enters and exits seemingly without control. I felt the narration should have been more consistent with its presence because Libby, although solidly performed by Theron, does not get enough personal scenes that allow us to understand that depths of her thoughts and therefore her actions. This is a woman who is supposed to be so plagued by guilt that she is unaware she is living in her own prison but we never realize this until another character provides an expository dialogue. It lacks the elegance of well-written mystery.

There is a lack of balance between past and present. It is strange that we learn more about the characters in the past rather than the present where the actual investigation is occurring. Thus, when the picture jumps to the present, it gives the impression that the answers are merely given as opposed to excavated. There is a glaring lack of tension in the present which is most disappointing because the present offers great performers like Theron, Stoll, and, to some extent, Hoult. Take note of the final time Theron and Stoll meet in prison. It is the best scene in the movie. The film lacks scenes that command emotional weight and catharsis.

And what about The Kill Club? We are given very limited knowledge about the group which is unexpected, in a negative way, because the script makes a big deal about it in the beginning. The writer-director’s screenplay has a nasty habit of introducing characters and potential avenues worth exploring and dispensing them just as quickly.

Perhaps “Dark Places,” based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, might have turned out to be a more effective piece of work if it had a writer who appreciates the most minute details as well as a director who has a patience of a sphinx. A slow-burn approach is perhaps most appropriate and so when revelations are thrown in our laps, we are jolted eyes wide open.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

Assigned to drive a massive truck to collect gasoline, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has another plan: once there is a good distance between the vehicle and her starting point, she would veer off-track and return to her homeland—along with five wives of cult leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byryne). A hot pursuit erupts, with ailing Nux (Nicholas Hoult), chained to a prisoner named Max (Tom Hardy), hoping to impress Immortan Joe so he can be welcomed to Valhalla when he dies.

“Mad Max: Fury Road,” directed by George Miller, is an orgasmic visual exercise of yellow-orange sand, sweltering heat, vehicle acrobatics, dramatic explosions, and deformed, heavy makeup-wearing citizens of a collapsed world bound by no rules. Even without a deep story, it engages thoroughly because the images are so hyperbolic, there is not one film that is remotely like it in the past decade.

The action scenes are inspired and creative. The picture is composed of one long chase sequence but there is variety in the counters between heroes/heroines and villains. With each geographic change, we get an idea about the group of people who live within that area. Particularly memorable is the biker gang waiting atop a narrow canyon. A deal has been made between the gang and Furiosa. Based on how the scene is shot as our protagonists enter the canyon, we know immediately that something is about to go wrong.

Such is the film’s strength: it is shot with a sense of urgency. Although the narration in the beginning briefly describes the circumstances that led to humanity’s decay, we remain curious about its universe nonetheless because it does not spell out every detail. As the characters trek across dry terrains, we discover the journey with them. For instance, the challenge is not only avoiding or eliminating those who try to kill them. All characters must also be wary of and be prepared for the cruel environment that awaits.

At times the picture attempts to do too much. A romantic connection is introduced eventually which does not work at all. The problem is, we have a basic understanding about only half of the would-be couple. Character depth and development is not one of the film’s strengths and so such a desperate attempt to get us emotionally involved, through a romantic scope, comes across as forced and unnecessary. Sometimes less is more.

The two leads, Hardy and Theron, and two supporting actors, Hoult and Keays-Byrne, are a joy to watch because they are unafraid to exaggerate their emotions, to look unattractive physically, to embody their deranged characters completely. Each one commands a high level of creative energy and so he or she is front and center, there is a magnetism and charisma to the performance. We are inspired to learn more about each one of these characters and yet the material has a way of always keeping us at arm’s length. Perhaps we are not meant to get to know these people for their world is so different than ours, they might as well have been of a different species.

Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a visual spectacle but there is room for some improvement as mentioned previously. I see potential as a modern franchise—one that is not about superheroes or chosen ones destined to save a dystopian world, but one that is about a decaying world and the degenerates who are struggling to survive in it.

Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies (2013)
★ / ★★★★

“Otto; or Up with Dead People,” written and directed by Bruce LaBruce, explores a male zombie slowly coming to life, experiencing feelings and thoughts of what makes someone human. It is smart enough to remain vague until the closing credits. Either Otto is literally dead and is lucky enough to have achieved a second life or he is a figurative zombie all along, eventually jolted into choosing to live more actively by not simply allowing life to happen to him. Though it has its limitations, it shows a depth of potential. I was optimistic that a movie with a similar premise would come along and get more things right.

“Warm Bodies” is not the movie that I am waiting for. Since it lacks a willingness to fully establish and stay within the boundaries of its universe’s rules, everything within the scope of the petri dish comes off silly and, even for a fantasy, unbelievable. If anything can happen at anytime and anywhere like a zombie magically turning human, humans might as well turn into zombies magically–without getting bitten, being infected by zombie blood, or inhaling pathogens in the air. It is not enjoyable because instead of being enveloped in the story, our minds–or at least mine because I like to think about what I am seeing–are too busy asking questions and connecting the dots.

Perhaps there is a reason why zombies do not speak. Not for once did I believe that R (Nicholas Hoult) really is a zombie. Instead, I saw an actor plastered with makeup who is trying really hard to play an undead. It is not Hoult’s fault; he is capable of controlling the emotions on his face–especially his eyes–and body. The problem is the script. It allows him to speak too much while disregarding rules it sets up for itself along the way. Isn’t the nervous narration in his head enough?

R is less like a zombie and more like Tarzan. In earlier scenes, he speaks in one or two words. For example, instead of saying, “I want water because I’m thirsty,” it is likely that he will say, “Water. Thirsty.” As the film goes on, he is able to utter full phrases like “I told you it’s not safe.” The problem is, after we hear him communicate in complete sentences, he reverts to speaking in single words in one scene and then full phrases the next. Sometimes he speaks slowly, other times quickly. The lack of consistency with his language is as irritating and maddening as hearing nails scraping on a chalkboard.

I will not even get into R, who is supposed to be dead, breathing heavily after performing a strenuous activity. In direct contrast with scenes in which he is required to run a good distance, he does not breathe afterwards at all.

The romance between R and Julie (Teresa Palmer), which is the fulcrum of the story, is painful to watch. While the idea of someone who is dead and hungry for fresh brains and someone who is alive falling in love is akin to a shark approaching a person splashing about and the two of them becoming best friends, I was ready to buy into what they have. However, pop songs are often employed to speed things up. When it comes to establishing a romance, taking shortcuts is almost never a good idea.

The screenplay by Jonathan Levine, who also directed the film, exhibits no patience and seems to have no knowledge on how to build a believable friendship, let alone a relationship of a romantic nature. If both R and Julie were living in a world with no zombies, just two souls connecting, I still would not believe what they eventually end up having. They are bland while apart, especially Julie, and deadly dull when together.

The best portion of “Warm Bodies,” based on a novel by Isaac Marion, involves the flashbacks that R experiences after eating the brain of Julie’s boyfriend (Dave Franco). Though it fails from a technical standpoint–if what R is seeing is a memory, he (and we) should be seeing the images through the eyes of the dead boyfriend and not as a third person observer–there is an interesting story, a personal one, embedded in those memories. However, when taken together, it is only about two to three minutes in duration. Finally, Julie’s friend, Nora (Analeigh Tipton), does not get enough lines or screen time. Tipton plays Nora as funny, interesting, and full of life–the very qualities that the movie desperately lacks.

Jack the Giant Slayer

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is given the task to sell his uncle’s horse. Instead of coming back with money or gold, Jack has accepted beans from a monk (Simon Lowe) who claims that they are holy relics from a very special time. If Jack delivers the beans to an abbey, he will receive payment that is considerably more than what the horse is worth. However, the monk admonishes that Jack must not allow the beans to come in contact with water.

“Jack the Giant Slayer,” based on the screenplay by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney, takes inspiration from “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Jack the Giant Killer” and shows us a world that is exciting and magical. Though it lacks development in terms of the romantic tension and feelings between the title character and a princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) who craves for adventure, it has enough good action sequences to make up for this shortcoming.

The greatest weapon in its arsenal is the impressive visual effects. Particularly eye-catching is the first time a bean is triggered to grow its stalks up to the heavens. Though obviously generated by a computer, we are shown the details of the plant growing in height and width while crushing everything that gets in the way of its destiny. A thrilling score is utilized and the sound effects are precise in order to keep us transfixed in the moment.

The giants are actually scary. Like the beanstalk, they, too, are computer generated. Although at times they appear somewhat cartoonish, like when they charge in groups, they feel like real threats when one or two share a frame with a human character. The camera gives us enough time to appreciate the look of the giants, from their blotchy, scaly skin as they lumber about to their crooked, rotten yellow teeth when they snarl. One of the more memorable encounters involves a giant taking a bite out of a live sheep and the camera, adopting Jack’s point of view, observes the horror from underwater. Small decisions like this prevents the film from becoming as yet another pedestrian action-adventure.

Tomlinson and Hoult are attractive when together and apart, but their characters’ romance is denied from ripening by the screenplay. Jack and Isabelle share some cute scenes in first half, but the majority of the time they spend together involves running from danger and swinging through collapsing structures. Their interactions start to become repetitive eventually. Would it have been too much for the writers to give these two something interesting to say about their struggles, as a poor farmer and as a future queen, with respect to the teamwork and adventures they are thrusted into?

This is going to sound silly, but it must be mentioned because I kept noticing it. Though Ewan McGregor, playing a knight leader, is a pleasure to watch because he is clearly enjoying his character, most distracting is his hair. In one scene, it is up: very stylish and magazine-ready. The next scene when it is pouring cats and dogs, naturally, it is down. However, when it is no longer raining, his hair is back up–as if the storm had never occurred. The glaring lack of continuity when it comes to the performer’s hair is enough to take me out of the story a few times.

Directed by Bryan Singer, “Jack the Giant Slayer” does not require us to think very hard but it is fun and executed with a lot of energy. I enjoyed its treatment of the villains.

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

A spy for the CIA, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), had been tracking Sebastian Shaw’s (Kevin Bacon) activities for quite some time. Initially unknown to her, he was a mutant and it was his goal to start World War III between the United States and the Soviet Union. He believed that by having the world’s superpowers obliterate one another, Mutants could finally rise and rule. Shaw was also the man who murdered the mother of Erik Lehnsherr, future Magneto, during the Nazis’ evil rule in Germany. Through rage and other negative emotions, he trained Erik to control his ability. Fast-forward to the 1960s, Erik (Michael Fassbender) hunted the men responsible for his terrible past. Shaw was the final man on his death list. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, I found “X-Men: First Class” to be admirable not because of its action sequences but because its attention was largely on its story. It focused on the complicated relationship between Erik and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). The former favored violence while the other valued diplomacy. We learned that Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), also known as Mystique, were childhood friends and how her loyalty shifted over the course of their friendship. We also met Professor X’s first students: the intellectual Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), the timid Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), the assured Armando Muñoz/Darwin (Edu Gathegi), and pretty boy Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till). The cast had great chemistry, especially Fassbender and McAvoy, but I wish the younger actors were given more screen time. The film would have been more fun and exciting if the politics wasn’t always at the forefront. I thought it was wonderful that the screenplay treated us like intelligent audiences by choosing a specific time to establish the parallels and eventual divide in Magneto and Professor X’s beliefs and ethics. But I have to admit that the picture had a certain energy that made me smile with scenes in which the students showed each other their powers and did a bit of destruction while being held by the CIA. Those parts made me realize that maybe it was taking itself too seriously. There were moments of humor dispersed throughout but it needed more to allow the material to breathe. Perhaps two or three grand speeches by Magneto should have been left on the cutting room floor. Furthermore, I’ve heard a lot of negative feedback involving January Jones’ performance as Emma Frost, one of Shaw’s most loyal henchmen, a telepath and whose skin could turn into diamonds. While I thought her acting wasn’t great, I didn’t think she was terrible or distracting. The way I saw her character was she grew up pretty and privileged, though not exactly intelligent despite being able to read minds, and so she was apathetic to the politics around her. To me, all she cared about was being Shaw’s trophy. With some girls, it’s enough for them to have a guy next to them. I want more superhero movies like “X-Men: First Class” because it was clear that it had ambition. Although its tone was vastly different from its predecessors, it made itself an important piece of the package.

A Single Man

A Single Man (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Tom Ford’s first feature film “A Single Man” embodied beauty from the inside out. Colin Firth plays an English professor who recently lost his partner (Matthew Goode) for sixteen years and is contemplating suicide. We get to observe what he does by himself from the moment he wakes up and how he interacts with others, such as his long time friend (Julianne Moore) next door, a Spanish stranger (Jon Kortajarena) and a student (Nicholas Hoult) who shows interest in him. We also got a chance to hear his self-deprecating thoughts and see tender fragments of the past when his lover was still alive. I love how this film felt more European than American. When it comes to its aesthetics, I was mesmerized by how everything seemed to glow due to the perfect lighting, how the wardrobes (with perfect creases at just the right spots) perfectly reflected the era, how the close-ups of the actors’ faces gave us information beyond what was said, and how the presence (and absence) music highlighted the emotional rollercoaster that the lead chaarcter was going through. Firth was simply electric. I totally forgot that I was watching him because I’ve never really seen this side of him before. I’ve seen him excel in romantic comedies but never have I seen him so controlled, so sad and so conflicted. There were times when tears started welling up in my eyes because I completely sympathized with what he was going through. Not only did he lose the person he loved as much as he loved himself (or maybe more), he lost a sense of security. At one point in the film, he lectured to his class about fear and it said so much about his own psychology. Goode was so charming, it was easy to see why Firth was so in love him. Moore was also sublime as an aging woman who still had feelings for Firth but had to control herself because she knew about his lifestyle. The way she hid the pain from her husband leaving her and her son not caring about her by immersing herself in alcohol and make-up was quite moving. I also loved Hoult as the student who saw profound sadness in his professor. (Admittedly, I thought his American accent was a bit off but maybe it was because I was so used to hearing his real accent in “Skins.”) His swagger was just so appealing to me; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Lastly, the appearance of Kortajarena shocked me in so many ways because I was used to seeing him in high fashion photographs. Even though he wasn’t in the movie much, an acting career is a possible road for him. Ford highly impressed me because this was his first time directing a full feature film. The complexity in which he balanced the picture’s emotions and looks really drew me in–a quality that is sometimes absent even with the most experienced directors. I’ll definitely be on the look out for Ford’s next project. “A Single Man” is an ambitious film with tremendous and sometimes lowkey performances. It may not be the best film of the year but it certainly is one of the finest.