Movie reviews: 'Destroyer' is Kidman in full-blown anti-heroine mode
Film critic and Pop Life host Richard Crouse reviews two movies featuring Nicole Kidman, "Destroyer' and 'The Upside,' plus the Carey Mulligan showcase 'Wildlife,' and the psychological-lite thriller 'Escape Room.'
DESTROYER: 3 ½ STARS
The last time Nicole Kidman wore this much prosthetic make up she won a Best Actress Oscar. "Destroyer" sees her almost unrecognizable except for her unmistakable movie-star jaw line in silhouette.
Kidman plays Erin Bell, a police detective ground down by years on the job, booze and the haunting memory of a case going wrong. When we first meet her she's on the scene of a crime. When she spots a familiar tattoo on the victim she realizes a former adversary is back in town. It's Silas (Toby Kebbell), a mini-Manson who controls his people through intimidation and drugs. "He's either cleaning up," she says, "or restarting again."
To get to the bottom of the latest murder she begins an investigation that forces her to confront her behaviour on a long ago undercover case. The case puts her at odds with her estranged daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) and draws her down a path populated by increasingly sleazy characters including a crooked lawyer (Bradley Whitford) who tells her she is sad and stupid for revisiting the past and Petra (Tatiana Maslany), a drug addict and direct link to Silas. It's dangerous territory, but she is undaunted.
"I don't care what happens to me," she says.
Eventually the past, told through flashbacks, catches up with the present filling in the details of how Erin ended up where she is today.
At the heart of "Destroyer" is a complex moral question: can you ever really pay for the sins of your past? It mostly goes unanswered, although her actions hint at some sort of uneasy resolution. In the end it is obvious that, while she may be trying to do the right thing, it seems likely she'll end up in a bad way.
Kidman is in full-blown anti-heroine mode. You can practically smell the stale breath; feel her pounding hangover headaches. She's in rough shape, the result of a lifetime of bad decisions. Kidman does a Herculean job of brushing aside any likable traits in Erin and adds a few interesting flourishes as she paints the portrait of this troubled woman, but overall the result is mostly a paint-by-numbers picture you've seen before in other hard boiled crime dramas.
"Destroyer" is a gritty drama that, despite Kidman's makeup, doesn't change the complexion of similar stories in other movies.
THE UPSIDE: 2 ½ STARS
Remake happy Hollywood goes intercontinental, casting its eyes to France for the new Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart film. "The Upside" is a "based-on-a-true-story" odd couple tale of a wealthy quadriplegic and his ex-con caretaker lifted from "The Intouchables," a movie so popular it was voted France's cultural event of 2011.
Cranston plays Phillip Lacosse, an author who, through clever investments, is "richer than Jay-Z." A hand-gliding accident has left him paralyzed, a prisoner in his fancy Park Avenue apartment. When parolee Dell Scott (Hart) shows up on his doorstep looking for a job Phillip hires him, even though he has no qualifications whatsoever. As an ex-con, Phillip figures Dell will enforce his Do Not Resuscitate order.
"Is that why you asked me instead of those other guys?" Dell asks. "‘Cuz you thought I would DNR your ass?"
Also in the mix are Dell's ex wife Latrice (Aja Naomi King) their son Anthony (Jahi Di'Allo Winston) and Phillip's devoted assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman).
Despite Phillip's fatalistic disinterest in living, he gradually comes to life, spewing a series of dad jokes and doling out practical advice. The two men bond, learning from one another. Dell learns an appreciation of his boss's open mind — both in curiosity and acceptance — while Phillip is exposed to Aretha Franklin, weed (for medical purposes) and New York City hot dog stands. Each is enriched as Phil rediscovers his lust for life and Dell becomes a better father and husband.
What "The Upside" lacks in originality — every plot point is telegraphed to the point where anyone, even if they had never seen a movie before, will see where this is going — it almost makes up in committed performances from its leads.
Hart is unusually restrained, heaping on the earnestness and the occasional bit of slapstick. He earns a few laughs although a "funny" catheter scene isn't going to bolster Hart's bruised rep in the LGBTQ community.
Cranston does wonders with a performance that comes completely from the shoulders up. His expressive face conveys a range of emotions from utter joy to frustration to unbridled rage it's a performance that subtly brings us into Phillips thought processes.
Only Kidman is wasted in a role that asks very little of her except to nod, do a little dance and add some heft to the marquee.
Despite strong performances "The Upside" is a slight feel-good movie that values melodrama and manipulation over real emotion.
WILDLIFE: 3 ½ STARS
Paul Dano needs no introduction as an actor. In front of the camera the Golden Globe nominee has impressed with powerful performances in films like "There Will Be Blood," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Love & Mercy." He brings a similar quiet intensity to his directorial debut, "Wildlife," a dysfunctional family drama adapted from Richard Ford's disquieting 1990 novel of the same name.
Set in 1960s Montana, the story focuses on the frustrated Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan), alcoholic husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), and 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). When Jerry gets fired from his golf pro country club gig he's forced to take a job fighting wildfires, a dangerous occupation that only pays $1 an hour. With her husband gone most of the time Jeanette wanders, beginning an affair with car dealership owner Warren Miller (Bill Camp). "Your mother is a very passionate dancer," says Miller. "Did you know that Joe?" With his parents occupied Joe becomes a de facto parent to them both, struggling to keep them together as their relationship hits the rocks.
Dano, who co-wrote "Wildlife" with actress and significant other Zoe Kazan, provides an elegant showcase for Mulligan's soul-searching performance. The story of this quickly unraveling family is meted out slowly, deliberately low key, in an effort to allow the audience to get under the skin of the three main characters. Bonded by blood and marriage they struggle with unity in an era of change.
At the heart of it is Mulligan. As an Eisenhower Era wife and mother she projects an aura of calm but is actually a churning vessel of emotions; a person clamouring for more. The cracks in her Norman Rockwell façade are beginning to show. "Do you like Mr. Miller?" asks Joe. "Not very much," she replies. "Things do happen around him though. He has that feel about him." Mulligan breathes life into Jeanette, subtly and believably portraying a woman coming of age.
Oxenbould as Joe, the son forced to become both protector and confidant to his mother — "This is my desperation dress," she says to him, modelling a revealing frock — is also very good, effectively showing us the dissolution of his parent's bond through his eyes. His character doesn't grow, he is an observer, a conduit for the audience's sympathy.
Despite the title, "Wildlife" doesn't exactly kick up its heels. It's a chilly tale with a few unnecessary detours — like Joe's after school job and his friendship with a female classmate — but its story of survival hits home.
ESCAPE ROOM: 2 ½ STARS
In "Escape Room," the new psychological thriller starring "True Blood's" Deborah Ann Woll, the young characters don't have time to mull over the past. They're too busy thinking of the future and whether or not they will survive long enough to actually have one.
The story centres around six good-looking people (Woll, along with Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Tyler Labine, Jay Ellis and Nik Dodani) trapped in a series of immersive escape rooms. The twist? Whoever leaves last is necessarily the winner.
Each have been lured to the game — and possibly their doom — by a mysterious puzzle box delivered in the mail. They're invited to test out a new, immersive escape room and, if they keep their wits about them and find their way out, they'll be rewarded with $10,000. "They're basically like real life videogames," enthuses Danny (Dodani), an escape room geek the others nickname Gamer Boy.
Seems like an easy payday until they realize the puzzles are terrifying manifestations of each and every one of their deepest fears or trauma. One room turns into an oven ("We gotta find a way out of this Easy Bake Oven!"), another is an upside down hellscape and if that wasn't enough, there's even a Victorian drawing room that gets a little too close for comfort. "I can't figure this out!" shouts truck driver Mike (Labine). "Who would do this?"
Like the less Kafkaesque (and less gory) offspring of "Cube" and "Saw," "Escape Room" also borrows from the "Final Destination" flicks. The thing it is missing is the sense of grim fun that seeped into those other films. The rooms themselves are elaborate and yet all pretty much all the same. Find a key, unlock a door. There is suspense along the way and the stakes rise as the number of survivors lowers but we never get to know enough about each character to be invested in them. Sketchy background details fill in some blanks but it's not enough to make you mourn the loss of any of them. Even when they do start to fall away it is with a casualness that sucks some of the drama out of the scenario. It's as if all the effort went into the planning of the methods of executions and not the killings themselves.
Add to that some psychoanalysis and morality à la "Saw" and you have a movie that is more psychological drama than horror and even then it's psychology-lite. The sequel ready ending promises more of the same should they ever get around to making "Escape Room 2: Breakout Boogaloo."
"Escape Room" won't exactly make you want to escape the theatre but it doesn't really give you a great reason to be there in the first place.
Richard Crouse shares a toast with celebrity guests and pundits on the talk show Pop Life on CTV NewsChannel and CTV. Catch up on all the entertainment news, reviews and interviews at the Pop Life website.
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