Quick Movie Reviews (Matthias & Maxime, Chemical Hearts, & Retaliation)

Matthias & Maxime

With it now being over a decade since his directorial debut I Killed My Mother, treasured Quebecois star Xavier Dolan has gone from breakout filmmaker to bonfide auteur, all before the age of thirty. His expressive dramas have increased in ambition and scale, from the sprawling trans saga Lawrence Anyways to the frantic mother-son intensity of Mommy. But as his career and scope have progressed, the critical acclaim hasn’t rode along side it, with his last two films, It’s Only the End of the World and The Life and Death of John F. Donovan, not only getting varying critical thrashings but even struggling to get distribution in the U.S.. But now Dolan is back again with maybe his most uninspired work yet, his eighth feature Matthias & Maxime.

matthias & maxime
Image via Mubi

The film stars Dolan himself as Max, a slightly aimless, personality-free twentysomething — his most distinguishing mark is a literal birthmark that’s on the right side of his face — who’s preparing to move to Australia. Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas is Matt, his straight-laced and possibly closeted longtime friend, who spends the whole film agonzing over his obvious, unresolved feelings for Max, stirred up by a kissing scene the two perform while acting in a student film. A few of Dolan’s regular hallmarks — pop song musical cues, a tumultuous mother-son relationship — are present and accounted for. But Matthias & Maxime sees Dolan tamper down the hallmark of large emotions and shrinks to a smaller scope that arrives with a more flattening effect. Dolan and cinematographer André Turpin do still flood the screen in tangible forms of sound and color, smoothly switching between film stocks and aspect ratios, coating the film in blazing reds and smoky blues. The performances are even relatively strong, but Dolan’s script isn’t exactly; lost in weak characterizations and prosaic conventions. With Matthias & Maxime, Xavier Dolan still brings his sensual tenderness but lacks his almost signature tornado of emotional urgency, pushing the film into a swirling vortex of uneven, mixed-bag melodrama.

Grade: C+

Matthias & Maxime will be available to stream on Mubi on August 28th

Chemical Hearts

The MPAA has continually put teen movies in a tricky bind: When they reflect the lives of their young target audience a little too relatably, they’re slapped with a rating that excludes the very demographic they’re about. It’s an irony that corners too many films in the genre into a safely sanitized PG-13 space, clean and cute and not entirely real. That Chemical Hearts has bitten the bullet and accepted an R-rating initially bodes well: Unafraid of depicting casual teenage swearing, drug-taking and modest sexual activity, Richard Tanne’s melancholic, tastefully presented romance promises a more mature, impressionistic take on standard adolescent rites of passage. And its been released on Amazon Prime Video, so who’s really going to keep anyone away? The problem is, with its all surface accuracies, Chemical Hearts never quite rings true. There’s a lot of solemn pondering here on the disorienting nature of so-called “teenage limbo,” with its erratic emotions and precarious hormonal surges, yet this isn’t life as almost any teenager watching might know it. With its sadcore stylings, the film can’t help but resemble a millennial adult’s ideal of what first love should have been like.

Chemical Hearts is largely dependent on its leads to help make it a more emotional film than mood board — and it has two fine ones. As anxious senior-year lovers battling oversized emotional baggage to see their relationship through to graduation day, Lili Reinhart and Austin Abrams commit valiantly and sensitively to thin characters who never stop telling us how they’re feeling: The script, adapted by Tanne from Krystal Sutherland’s YA novel Our Chemical Hearts, could stand to trust to them a little more. Henry (Abrams) is a high-school wallflower and aspiring writer who likes to fix broken things — to the extent that his side hobby is kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing ceramics with golden joinery. (If you’re wondering whether this metaphor is eye-rolling, then consider yourself not on the film’s wavelength.) Yet mending enigmatic new arrival Grace (Reinhart), who walks with a limp and a fixed, mournful expression, may be beyond his capabilities. When they’re paired to edit the school newspaper, he’s immediately drawn to her guarded intelligence and discerning taste in poetry, but it’s increasingly clear she’s nursing trauma that far outweighs his limited, cosseted life experience.

chemical hearts
Image via Amazon

So far, so sad. Yet Chemical Hearts takes only thirty minutes to unlock exactly what Grace’s deal is, leaving the film’s remaining hour to run in place as the teens’ star-crossed relationship runs its entirely expected course. There could be more layers and nuances to this anti-drama if Tanne let us into Grace’s head a little more, but this is oddly framed as Henry’s story, and it simply isn’t much of one. He admits upfront that “nothing interesting or remarkable has ever happened to me,” he’s a kindly but clueless witness to his crush’s thornier, more volatile emotional arc, and progresses from not understanding her at all to understanding her a little. A subtler film could imbue this micronarrative with great poignancy. This one winds up swamped by its script’s grandiose reflections on neurochemistry, existential exhaustion and, superficially and somewhat dubiously, the legacy of teen suicide. On occasion, Reinhart and Abrams emerge as plausible messy, vulnerable people, not just vessels of prettified, heavily written feeling. No secondary character is as lucky: Henry has two best friends whose names you couldn’t recall at gunpoint once the credits start rolling. Chemical Hearts is rarely less than agreeable to watch: It’s largely handsomely shot in misty teals and grays by cinematographer Albert Salas and any fans of Baltimore dream-pop duo Beach House may be glad to know that their lovely 2010 track “Take Care” gets every last ounce of pathos wrung from it in its role as the film’s musical leitmotif. (It’s hauled out at least four times — again, Tanne with much more taste than restraint.) Still, as we’re told here many times over, being a teenager is hard. This film never is. Never escaping glaring clichés, Chemical Hearts is not only entangled with superficial sensitivity but ham-fisted pop-philosophy and a questionable point of view; feeling lost in slender nostalgia.

Grade: C

Chemical Hearts is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video

Retaliation

Retaliation isn’t the violent revenge picture its title promises. When this movie, directed by Ludwig and Paul Shammasian, had its premiere three years ago, it was called Romans. And anyone who expects Orlando Bloom in Charles Bronson mode will instead get a serious-minded, if heavy-handed, British drama about a man coping with the trauma of having been sexually abused as a child by a priest. Bloom plays Malky, a construction worker whose current job — typical of the film’s blunt symbolism — involves tearing down a church. At a pub, Malky spots the priest (James Smillie) who abused him. The sighting brings Malky’s twenty-five years of silent suffering to a boil. That torment has already affected his relationship with the bartender (Janet Montgomery), whom he’s been seeing on and off; his best friend (Alex Ferns); and his mother (Anne Reid), whose own guilt makes her reluctant to acknowledge the abuse.

retaliation
Image via Saban Films

Largely, Retaliation accords Bloom a chance to deliver some impressive, anguished monologues, although the scenes focusing on those around him hint at a more expansive, unrealized complexity. Malky, initially drawn to revenge, confronts his tormentor with a sledgehammer. But the screenplay, by Geoff Thompson, offers Malky an opportunity to avoid violence in the form of another abuse survivor (Charlie Creed-Miles) who found religion in prison and wants Malky to. Retaliation settles on what feels like an easy way out: Malky expels his demons with implausible abruptness, while a fiery finale strained gullibility to the breaking point, even as it allows the movie a bracing cut to black. In the end, Retaliation is entirely a performance movie, and, for the most part, Orlando Bloom delivers; openly embracing all the intense trauma, anguish, and brooding material.

Grade: B-

Retaliation is available on VOD

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