Film: Praising MIFF, Dissing Speed

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You could feel it in the air. That excitement movie buffs from all backgrounds bask in as they share decades-old anecdotes and discuss recent screenings that went better than expected.

It was Tuesday night, Day 5 of the 31st Miami International Film Festival, and the chatter on the long, snaking admission line on the third floor of the Regal Cinemas South Beach multiplex did not revolve around crushing disappointments or the occasional projection glitch, pet peeves one expects to eavesdrop in as you kill time before being handed an audience award ballot and walking into the auditorium. Instead, peers and festival members were raving about how well their festival experience was going so far, how, for example, that early-evening, not-so-well-attended showbiz documentary that may have escaped ticket buyers’ attention as they were planning out their schedule turned out to be marvelous. How the opening night film may have underwhelmed, but really, who cares when you have Hollywood royalty up on the Olympia Theater stage and A-listers making surprise appearances on the red carpet outside?

I listened attentively and told the longtime MIFF patron next to me as we waited to catch the Florida premiere of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive about the delightful Swedish movie about a middle school all-girl punk rock trio I’d just caught at the Paragon Grove, and from which I bolted the second it was over just so I could make it in time for this next screening. And even though I really wanted to review the Swedish movie for last week’s column and was told by the U.S. distributor I had to wait until it opens commercially in South Florida, it ultimately didn’t matter. I was living in the moment, and at the halfway point, this year’s MIFF had been, and not just by my account, a wealth of riches. (The Jarmusch film, a wry, surprisingly tender vampire tale starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, goes down like fine wine, but lest I tempt the fates at Sony Pictures Classics, I’ll refrain from further comment until it opens commercially later in the year.)

You can always count on me, readers, to play movie police whenever a local festival’s standards are dropping, when you stare slack-jawed at the screen and wonder how a particular cinematic turd was accepted into the lineup. This week finds me in a most unusual spot: I am gushing, but that’s because this year’s MIFF is gush-worthy. (It’s even yielded some choice gossip about a revered A-lister being a tad too fond of the open bar, but that’s a subject for another column.) So, congratulations, executive director Jaie Laplante and the rest of the festival’s creative team, for making MIFF shine again. And keep it up, because I’m going to be watching you (cue Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents) like a hawk.

NeedforSpeed_1So what’s the rest of the nation up to while us cinephiles are feasting on MIFF 2014′s banquet? If they’ve already checked their brains at the box office for 300: Rise of an Empire, unseen by yours truly, they’re suiting up and revving up for Need for Speed, the film adaptation of the popular video game. My initial reaction, naturally, is to deplore the cynical mindset that would allow such a production to be greenlit. (I can imagine the pitch session: β€œIt’s like the Fast and Furious franchise, only less ethnically diverse and set in the good ol’ U.S. of A.”) There is a place in the movie firmament for a gearhead-friendly, beauties-on-the-road-and-on-the-driver’s-seat racing yarn. But did it really have to be this generic and milquetoast?

Stunt coordinator-turned-director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor) has even achieved the dubious feat of making Aaron Paul boring. In Need for Speed, the Breaking Bad star plays repair shop owner Tobey Marshall, who’s facing the prospect of having the bank swoop in and close the workplace he inherited from his dad, something he keeps from his attractively nondescript buddies/fellow employees. How does this wholesome clan let off steam in their hometown of Mt. Kisco, N.Y.? Well, by staging illegal, adrenaline-jolting drag races, of course.

The race that opens the film has our fearless drivers taking off from a drive-in theater – nice touch to have Bullitt be that night’s main attraction onscreen – and then darting down quiet roads and city streets. The staging and camerawork are adequate enough, but Waugh doesn’t quite capture the rush these speed demons must be experiencing like, say, Quentin Tarantino did in his sorely underrated Death Proof.

Need for Speed doesn’t fare much better in the story department, as household-name professional racer Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper, who ought to know better) enlists Tobey and his posse to work on a pricey Ford Mustang GT for a wealthy client. Tragedy ensues shortly after the job is finished, and Tobey winds up in the slammer for something he didn’t do. The payback scenario that follows, in the form of a clandestine race put together by motormouth eccentric Monarch (an annoying Michael Keaton, who serves as the movie’s Greek chorus), should have given the heretofore feeble proceedings a cathartic charge, but Need for Speed just goes through the motions in perfunctory, workmanlike fashion. Where’s the spark that would have made this popcorn movie go? It’s squandered in a wan, though thankfully not overplayed, odd-couple romance between Tobey and Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), who works for the Mustang client and who joins our hero in his by-the-numbers competition.

Here’s the problem with Need for Speed in a nutshell: The wheels are sexy, but the cast is anything but. Even some comic relief by wingman Finn (Rami Malek), which involves the character giving the finger to his soul-crushing office job, falls as flat as the actor’s flabby bare tush. Most perplexing of all is the way Paul’s dark side, so intriguingly mined in Breaking Bad, is left unexplored, and that was the very quality Need for Speed desperately needed. A little grit and bad-boy demons would have gone a long way toward making this would-be franchise starter stand out from the crowd. As it stands, Need for Speed embarks on a sleek, self-satisfied road to nowhere.

Need for Speed opens March 14 in wide release. The 31st Miami International Film Festival (miamifilmfestival.com) wraps up March 16.

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