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‘Axis’ (Portland Film Festival, review)

Produced by R. Vaughn Gill, Vertel Scott,
Barry Sonders, Aisha Tyler
Written by Emmett Hughes
Directed by Aisha Tyler
Starring Emmett Hughes, Emily Bett Rickards,
Aisha Tyler, Sam Rockwell, Amber Nash,
Jonathan Sadowski, Paget Brewster,
Ciarán Hinds, Ted McGinley, Jerry Ferrara,
Kevin Pollack, Thomas Gibson, Adam Rodriguez


When a film depends on the performance of only one actor (whether by importance, quality, or cast size) the capability of the director is even more of a factor than usual.

This is one of the reasons there is much promise for the career of Aisha Tyler in her directorial debut Axis.

It is tightly shot and balances tragedy and humor well with a lead that holds his own with supporting actors as mainly voices over the phone.

Tristan Blake (Emmett Hughes) is an Irish actor, currently sober but with a past of drug addiction. He’s booked a Hollywood blockbuster, but Blake is not driving to the set. He has other business to attend to, much to the chagrin of his publicist and the film’s director. As he drives in Los Angeles, with each call he takes adding layers to his complicated situation, he battles challenges to his psyche, sobriety, and his own life.

Shot on a shoestring Kickstarter budget over less than a week with the majority being in the car, this movie has a bare bones quality that works for the subject matter. Hughes both wrote the screenplay and stars as Blake. It would be easy for this to veer into pure snark or sanctimony, but Hughes keeps it witty and emotionally honest, if not slightly heavy on the tragedy. In these days of the underbelly of Hollywood coming to light, a movie that explores its dark corners is timely and clever. 

 As Tristan, Hughes gives a breakthrough performance that makes us fine south the fact that he is the only corporeal character, with everyone else calling in to give him more material to work with.

The cast of voice actors included heavy hitters like Sam Rockwell, Ciarán Hinds, and Kevin Pollack that audience members will recognize as people that they know, even if they can’t quite put the face to the voice. But a phone call is no substitute for having an actual person to interact with, which speaks to how promising Hughes is in his ability to give a performance with depth, charm, heartbreak, and humor. As we watch him struggle with his past refusing to stay behind him, the strong portrayal draws you into the battle he is waging.

The movie jumps around between past, future, and present without describing where in that timeframe you are at first. This might be one of the more confusing aspects of the movie, but worthwhile to stick with.

The pacing is good and adequately covers the material without feeling rushed to fit it in such a short timeframe (the film is less than 90 minutes), but even so the editing out of 10-15 minutes would be welcome. It is not a serious flaw, however. Amazingly, this one location movie also has a one band soundtrack with L.A. rock band Silversun Pickups. The background music compliments the tone of the film nicely.

I’d rather not spoil the ending, but it is a serious twist that shocks and awes. Axis is a very emotional journey from beginning to end, taken on an L.A. afternoon. Audiences are lucky to have talent like Tyler and Hughes at the wheel.

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