Saturday, May 16, 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

I do not own the above image.  Copyright Warner Brothers Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

            It’s amazing what movies you look over sometimes when you weren't in existence when they were released.  Kubrick only made two movies while I was alive, but the movies he made before my time (DR. STRANGELOVE, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) are masterpieces.  My father got to see the original STAR WARS trilogy during their original runs before he & my mother started our family.  I like to think my parents went to see BACK TO THE FUTURE when my mother was 6 months pregnant with me.
            I’ve known of the MAD MAX trilogy for about a decade.  I understood it to be a cult hit.  What I didn’t know was how large that cult was.  The entire run-up to FURY ROAD was based solely on just how great the original trilogy was.  So, in a three day span earlier this week, I watched the first two movies on-demand.  The original MAD MAX is an interesting character study of a man who reaches his breaking point in dystopic Australia, even if it does take a while to get there but doesn’t stay with the rise & climax long enough.  THE ROAD WARRIOR is a near-masterpiece about the desire & necessity of communal survival with a stupendous action setpiece at the center.  With predecessors like these, how can a modern-day movie in an age of inflated budgets & computer-dependent sequences live up to them?  MAD MAX: FURY ROAD exceeds all realistic expectations a moviegoer can have.
            In the near, post-nuclear war future, Max Rockatansky (Hardy) is captured by a local cult called the War Boys to be used as a blood donor for one of their own, Nux (Hoult).  Nux is soon called into action to help retrieve the cult’s lone gasoline tanker, being driven by Imperator Furiosa (Theron), who has gone rogue while on a mission to refill the cult supply of fuel, which is very scarce to begin with.  In addition, King Immortan Joe’s Five Wives, his designated breeders, have disappeared.
            MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is, on the surface, is a chase movie.  Frankly, it’s a 120 minute long chase scene.  This movie is every gear-head & weapon-junkie’s dream.  The War Boys are armed with javelins that explode on impact.  Furiosa is armed with every type of gun & knife in this dystopia, each hidden in every nook & cranny in the tanker’s cab.
            But any movie could have the action elements.  What makes MAD MAX so special is the flawless execution & tension.  The extreme sense of urgency is smeared over nearly every second.  Any instance of car trouble, whether it be by engine overheating, gunshot or low fuel, could spell doom our heroes.  Tension is enhanced to 11 thanks to Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL’s pulse-pounding, electrifying score.  Nearly every bit of action was meticulously storyboarded by director George Miller.  Miller, along with drug-out-of-retirement cinematographer John Seale, is able to craft action scenes that put every Michael Bay movie to shame using nothing but actual vehicles & living breathing stuntmen.  It is rare in this day & age to see such scenes, let alone have an entire movie with as little CGI as possible.
            Imperator Furiosa is, by far, the best female protagonist this side of Ellen Ripley.  Furiosa’s reputation of being the best at what she does is displayed in her near-wordless introduction as the driver of the rig.  The poor, dirty crowd goes wild for her and her face never changes expressions.  Furiosa’s early fight with Max and her maneuvers of the rig & inside the cab when needed show she lives up to her name.  And her robotic left arm is perfect: futuristic in its basic design but not a technological marvel like other sci-fi movies.  Like Sandra Bullock in GRAVITY, MAD MAX made me care about Charlize Theron for the first time.  Max, based upon my review so far, appears to be nothing more than a bystander.  But Max does get his opportunity to do what he does best: lead the good guys to achieve their goal while saying few words and asking for little more than his freedom while battling demons of his own.
            There are hints of deeper meanings to MAD MAX.  The most obvious being our dependency on oil and its consequences.  There are also serious religious overtones.  King Immortan Joe preaches to his men that if they give their lives to the cause, they will be met with riches in the afterlife.  Having these messages is fine if you follow through with them.  Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t.  The one symbolic thing that does work is the opening scene, where we see Max stomp on then eat a two-headed, CGI lizard, signifying that realness of the effects you are about to witness are superior to the fake effects generated by computers in every other movie you’ll see this summer.
            MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is an old school action flick in a world with other modern “action” movies that are wholly dependent on cheap computer graphics & well-know superheroes and puts them to shame.  A movie that starts quick and never stops; even accelerating as the finish line draws near.  A true feast for the eyes, ears & mind of moviegoers who should expect more bang for their buck.  Easily the most fun I’ve had at a movie theatre since THE LEGO MOVIE.  This is the movie FURIOUS 7 and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON wishes they were.

****1/2



Thursday, May 7, 2015

HOT PURSUIT


I do not own the above image.  Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

            It was around this time last year that I saw a movie meant as a fun excuse for a girls’ night.  The movie shall remain nameless (THE OTHER WOMAN…dammit…) but the sentiment won’t: women are moviegoers too and deserve quality movies for them.  So, on a weekend where the guys get to fawn over their comics coming to life on the big screen again, the ladies get HOT PURSUIT.  What an unfair trade.
            Officer Cooper (Witherspoon) is tasked with protecting the wife of a potential witness in the arrest of a drug kingpin.  But the wife, Daniella (Vergara), is having none of it.  But after the murder of Daniella’s husband and Cooper’s US Marshall partner by dueling assassins, the ladies go on the run.
            And hilarity ensues!  It a perfect world, that is the case.  Unfortunately, this a world co-created by a staff writer on According to Jim and the writer of AQUAMARINE & MATERIAL GIRLS directed by the choreographer-turned-director of STEP UP and 27 DRESSES.  So, it should come as no surprise that the jokes are such lowbrow topics as a woman’s love of shoes, a man’s love of lesbianism, granny panties and a lengthy discussion of Sofia Vergara’s menstrual cycle.  I remember laughing not a single time at all the slapstick and half-assed attempts at adult humor.  There are numerous occasions where jokes about sex are cut off mid sentence so as to not set off the MPAA Ratings Board in order to keep the PG-13 rating.
            I have no large issue with Sofia Vergara.  I quite enjoy her on Modern Family.  In the little spurts we get of her on Wednesday nights, she can be very funny.  Here, she is nothing short of awful.  As a co-lead in a motion picture, her lack of coherence goes from an amusing little gag to a giant, headache-inducing annoyance.  The fact that English is Vergara’s second language works as a joke on television but is destructive when it is occurs while telling a joke.
            There are a few moments where Witherspoon shows us why she has an Academy Award winner.  Not because anything she does here is awards worthy, but instead because we see her try really hard to get this less-than-buoyant movie afloat.  Her Texas accent is so over the top that with minisculely better material, a significant portion of the movie might actually work.  Witherspoon needs to stay away from toxic screenplays like this.  Luckily, it appears she is going back to Alexander Payne next.  Finally, something & someone worthy of her enormous talent.
            There is one little element to the movie that does work.  During the opening credits sequence, we see young Officer Cooper in the backseat of her father’s police cruiser, idolizing him as he goes about his business ethically.  It is in this simple, two-minute montage that the movie presents a false sense of hope that this movie could be anything other than horrible.  But all is quickly downhill from there until we reach the joyless, boring third act that takes place at the recently released drug kingpin’s daughter’s quinceanera.  This forced finale lacks any tension whatsoever since it wants to be played without comedy, none of the villains are developed beyond the caricature stage and climax with a scene featuring a villain only seen in television news clips up until that point.
            HOT PURSUIT ends up as a disastrous, “Girls’ Night Out” wannabe movie.  With its 87 minute runtime, it’s barely a movie.  With its cutoff, overlong & failed jokes, it’s barely a comedy.  With Sophia Vergara as a co-lead, it’s barely comprehensible.  With yours truly as a paying customer, I’m barely sane after this experience.  With the target audience (hopefully) saving their money for PITCH PERFECT 2 next week, it’ll barely get noticed at the box office and deservedly so.  Ladies, you *still* deserve better.


*

My (Very Late) @slashfilm Summer Movie Wager Entry

Commentary coming soon.
1. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON $485 million
2. MINIONS $425 million
3. JURASSIC WORLD $385 million
4. ANT-MAN $285 million
5. INSIDE OUT $245 million
6. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 5 $237 million
7. TOMORROWLAND $232 million
8. TED 2 $220 million
9. PITCH PERFECT 2 $205 million
10. MAGIC MIKE XXL $195 million
WC1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
WC2. SPY
WC3. FANTASTIC FOUR

Sunday, May 3, 2015

MARVEL'S AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON


I do not own the above image. Copyright Marvel Studios. All Rights Reserved.

               There is something special about the opening of the summer movie season.  For the past dozen years or so, one movie gets the honor of opening on the first Friday of May to kickstart the summer.  Some are successes (SPIDER-MAN, THE AVENGERS) others are downright disasters (remember VAN HELSING and X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE?).  Then there’s the seemingly “too big to fail” starter for 2015, MARVEL’S AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.  This time, the stakes are higher, the collaboration of our heroes is tighter & the enemy is more fierce.  But are the proceedings better?
            After a battle & raid on an Eastern European Hydra compound to retrieve Loki’s staff, the supercrew reassembles at Avengers Headquarters in New York.  Using the powers inside the staff, Tony Stark (do I really need to tell you who plays him...Fine, Downey, Jr.) enhances his prototype global defense system.  But the experiment goes horribly wrong and it becomes a global destruction system.  Can the destruction of our planet be stopped?
            Before I continue with the most negative positive review ever conceived, I need to state that I did in fact enjoy watching the movie.  I sat there, shifting back & forth in my seat like I usually do, actually enjoying what I was watching.  I swear.  But…
            AGE OF ULTRON, to be honest, only has two problems but they are large enough to almost destroy any memory of the enjoyment.  The first is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver.  This Quicksilver looks & sounds like a 90’s boy band reject trying to infiltrate the KGB.  Taylor-Johnson, who almost ruined last year’s GODZILLA  is little more than a pretty-boy actor who just doesn’t have “it”, whatever “it” is.  His facial expressions, his accent, his body language, his…everything is just so awkward & wrong.
            But where AGE OF ULTRON really falters is in its overall tone.  Sure there are the usual Whedonisms throughout.  Plenty, if you ask me.  But there is something weird this time around.  The 2012 version has this lightness to it.  There was a line of dark clouds in that movie.  But here, this time around those dark clouds are in a cluster that seems trapped between two high pressure systems (possibly named Kevin Feige & Joss Whedon).  The original’s lightness & sense of joy is abundant in the opening scenes.  The opening long shot is gorgeous in reintroducing us to our heroes.  But the second Ultron is introduced about 25 minutes in, those clouds arrive and never move.  There are dozens of one liners disbursed over the last two hours and some are quite amusing but everything feels just a bit off. 
            The film is caught between two conflicting ideas, two men who believe they are right, one man with most of the money & one with most of the talent.  And we know who has all the pull and it is unfortunate that Feige is the one who will always win.  I worry for the series post-Whedon.  I worry just how serious this Cinematic Universe can possibly get.
            I worry for the future of movies.  What if this superhero movie bubble bursts?  A short story from my showing: There is a sequence where we meet the extended family of one of the Avengers.  This sequence lasts about 10-12 minutes.  During this time about 15 people get up at the same time and leave for a few minutes.  I know nothing was exploding at the time but is the American moviegoing public so bored by dialogue that they don’t care to listen to it?
            In the end, THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON falls into the “Enjoyed While I Watched” category.  Since leaving the theatre around 9:10 Friday night, the movie has soured like month old milk.  Most of this review reads like a downer.  But that’s how I feel right now about the past, present & future of this series, superhero movies & movies overall.  Marvel will no doubt continue to look for filmmakers who will conform to their vision, their hope$, their de$ire$.

***

Sunday, April 26, 2015

SNOWPIERCER and the Perils of Internet Hype

I do not own the above image.  Copyright The Weinstein Company.  All Rights Reserved.

            I sit here, 6 days from the American opening of THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.  Some of you who live overseas have already seen it and have thrown your two cents into the ring.  I also sit here less than 24 hours before my wife & I see EX MACHINA, a small science fiction film that has finally entered my neck of the woods after weeks of praise from those I admire, respect & follow for their knowledge of film.
            Most of the time, I take their (or your, if you are one of those people described above) advice when something comes along, sometimes under the radar, that blows your mind that you can’t stop talking about.  A review is sometimes not enough.  You take to Twitter to argue over every single element of said movie, all the while begging the general movie going public to see it instead of junk like 50 SHADES OF GREY.  But what happens when one of your own (and I use that term very, very loosely) sees one of these movies and just shrugs his shoulders at the supposed greatness.
            SNOWPIERCER is the English-language debut of acclaimed South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, whose previous films have been completely overlooked by my eyes.  SNOWPIERCER follows the oppressed passengers of the titular train circumnavigating the globe after a failed attempt to stop global climate change turned Earth into a giant ball of ice.  One such passenger Curtis (Evans) leads a mutiny on the train that has been planned for some time.  Can they reach the front and stop the class war?
            Ultimately, I grew frustrated really quickly because the movie is nothing more than the hype surrounding it.  I’m not saying the movie is terrible or anything like that.  But where the movie loses me is the action/chase second act.  The entire middle hour of SNOWPIERCER is action scene upon action scene.  Each is unique and never duplicated.  They are shot decent enough but what purpose do they serve in the end?
            But where the hype destroyed the desired effect is in the social commentary.  Every single moment where someone isn’t getting stabbed there are elements of Atlas Shrugged all over the place.  I mean, they’re even on a freaking train.  And Tilda Swinton, let’s be honest, PLAYS AYN F*CKING RAND!  The look, the mannerisms, the condescending attitude.  We get it.  She is the devil incarnate!

(SPOILER ALERT)

            But worst of all, she doesn’t meet her end appropriately.  Ayn…I mean, Mason, meets her maker in the middle of the movie.  Yeah, just shot in the head after one of the many action sequences.  The villain from that point forward is just one of her unnamed minions with a gun.  Instead, our hero (yes, hero, singular) gets into a mano-a-mano with John Galt.  Fine, he’s the conductor/owner of the train Wilford.  It is Wilford (and Wilford alone) who delivers the third act stinger.  Sure, the mysterious Wilford was hyped as this God among men.  But for a majority of the movie, Curtis had this main villain to chase after then have her (him?) as a hostage.  The movie misses a perfect opportunity to have “Ayn Rand”, “John Galt” and our hero have one profound discussion in the front of the train about the past, present & future of the journey the human race is taking.  And I guess there’s my problem with the entire movie: the missed opportunities to expand on the social commentary and the emotional payoffs.  Curtis’ emotional monologue at the beginning of the third act doesn’t have the desired effect when so much time & action has occurred since the characters were killed off in one of the many action scenes. 

(END SPOILER ALERT)

            On the surface, SNOWPIERCER is somewhat exciting at times & exquisitely shot.  Each action sequence is unique in its design & style.  The performances are top notch, especially Swinton, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary, she’s great in everything.  The entire story is set up almost perfectly.  It’s the execution that’s the problem.  I liked what I watched while watching, I just hated thinking about it after.
            Hype can lead a film to the promised land: the general movie-going public’s mind.  Whether it be in a theatre at a multiplex or in their own home, every great movie needs to be seen & available to everyone.  But hype has its downsides.  You just read one.  Sometimes, a movie, if not seen right away, can be destroyed by the hype machine, whether it be critically or commercially.  Film is fragile.  Film is special.  Let us not attach too much to a movie, lest it be too much for us to handle.  And that is why I don’t watch trailers or read reviews before seeing movies: Hype kills movies.


***1/2

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Review: TRUE STORY

            Is there a more telling sign of a mediocre movie than a weak main character?  Not just a weak main character, a meek main character.  A character so weak & meek that the character’s significant other has the big emotional scene, even if it is poorly written & makes little sense.  That movie is TRUE STORY.
I do not own the above image.  Copyright Plan B Productions & Fox Searchlight Pictures.  All Right Reserved.

            Michael Finkel (Hill) just got fired from The New York Times for bending the truth on a cover story.  He heads home to Montana where he lives with his girlfriend Jill (Jones), hoping to revive his career.  Eventually, a fellow journalist alerts him to suspected murderer Christian Longo (Franco), who hid in Mexico under his name.  After one face-to-face meeting, Finkel thinks he has his ticket back to relevancy.
            TRUE STORY is about as bland as its title.  The movie plays like a cheap version of CAPOTE.  You have the interactions between Finkel & Longo, where Franco outshines not only Hill but also the dialogue between them.  You get the sense Franco has Longo down to a tee: somewhat intelligent, manipulative with a sliver of implication that there is something hidden underneath.  It is just a shame that we get nowhere down that road.
            The deep psychological elements of the two leads are never explored in any meaningful way.  For instance, in the letter Longo sends Finkel, demonic drawings fill the opposite sides of many of the pages.  But the deepest into them we get is a single scene with Michael & Jill.  Even then, all Michael says is how odd it is that these drawings are similar to ones he saw in Africa.  Never is there a scene where Michael & Christian talk about it.  I understand that Finkel isn’t a psychiatrist but why even have that element in the movie if you are only going to wade into the kiddie pool instead of jumping off the diving board.
            And that’s not the only element of the movie like that.  For a long while, I thought Hill was miscast.  Eventually, I woke up to the fact that Michael Finkel the movie lead character is plain old poorly written.  (spoiler alert?)  There are scenes where he interacts with the lead prosecutor on the case.  For a while, he protects Longo like he is his client or patient instead of the criminal he is.  But once, Longo reveals he has been playing with Michael all along, Finkel runs to the prosecutor like an informant, hoping to stay relevant and save his work.  It is one thing for a character to assert himself in turning on someone close to him but Finkel is written more in a groveling tone than a cooperative one.  I half-expected Hill to be on his hands & knees, begging for forgiveness. (end spoiler alert)
            The best thing I can say about TRUE STORY is it kept my attention and the attention of the senior citizens in the audience.  This first feature by director/co-writer Rupert Goold trudges along like a made-for-TV crime movie that would have been on CBS on a random Saturday night in the summer of 1987.  Franco is serviceable but the rest does not live up to any major cinematic level.  Felicity Jones is given one scene to do anything of any consequence but the scene is absurd and adds nothing but further irritation.  Irritation that the movie half-assed a story that could have been a little intriguing.  We learn nothing of consequence about these characters, these murders or ourselves as a society.  There is no there there.


**

Sunday, April 12, 2015

9 Honest Questions I Have About FURIOUS 7

I do not own the above image.  Copyright Universal Pictures.  All Rights Reserved.

What is the purpose of Djimon Hounsou?
            Hounsou, a two-time Academy Award winning actor who would act circles around the rest of the cast combined, plays Mose Jakande. He has no backstory.  He exists for the sole purpose of chasing the God’s Eye.  Mose supposedly teams up with Statham’s Deckard Shaw but only once are they possibly in the same room together.  Hounsou’s role is a thankless task that involves making faces & screaming commands at his nameless minions.  During the final action sequence, he’s in the passenger seat of a helicopter blown up by a backpack full of hand grenades.
Is there a term for a character who does nothing but chase the MacGuffin?  The FitzMacGuffin?  The Egg McMuffin?  The character-in-need-of-a-serious-rewrite?  What a waste of acting talent.

What is the purpose of Jason Statham?
            Statham plays Deckard Shaw, brother of FAST 6 villain Owen Shaw, looking to avenge his brother’s serious injuries.  He begins the movie by simultaneously killing Han & blowing up Dom’s house.  Shaw spends the rest of the movie chasing or trapping Dom & “family”.  There are moments where I was sure there were two flash drives with the God’s Eye technology and Shaw has one of them.  He’s everywhere.
            During the final action sequence, Statham gets into a much anticipated mano-a-mano with Diesel.  Unfortunately, they have to split time with the helicopter trying to kill the hacker & Dom’s crew and whatever the f*ck the body double of Paul Walker was doing.  The third act of FURIOUS 7 is a mess, pure & simple.

Where did Kurt Russell go?
            Seriously!  How am I not hearing anything about this anywhere?  Russell plays “Mr. Nobody”, a government agent hell bent on getting Mose Jakande anyway possible.  He sees Dom & “family” as the perfect opportunity to do so.  “Nobody” supplies the team with the necessary equipment & travel arrangements.  During an attempted warehouse ambush of Shaw, he is wounded by one of Jakande’s minions.  In the car ride back to the airfield home at about the halfway point, “Nobody” asks to be placed on the side of the road so his helicopter can come & take care of him.  Then…
            Nothing.  We don’t see, hear from nor hear about “Nobody” for the rest of the movie.  A pivotal character during the first half of the movie disappears without a trace.  As he was sitting against a guard rail, there was an inkling that maybe he died waiting for the helicopter in the distance.  But with news that Russell may return for the eighth installment in the series, that’s not the case.  So how do you explain “Nobody’s” disappearance?  A terribly written script.

Why was Dwayne Johnson in a hospital bed for most of the movie?
            I said it to myself since he was introduced: The most interesting character in the series is DEA Agent Hobbs, played by Johnson.  If there is anything in this series that has the joy others see in this series, it’s The Rock.  In FIVE, he chases the “family” through Brazil before earning mutual respect.  In SIX, Johnson uses that respect to incentivize the “family” into stopping former British Special Agent Owen Shaw by offering amnesty.  In FURIOUS 7, Johnson gets to fight Statham in his office. 
Exciting right?  Well, I hope you enjoyed it because Hobbs spends the next 90ish minutes in a hospital bed after being blasted out of the building and onto an SUV.  That’s right: the best remaining character in the series is given nothing to do while the increasingly uninteresting “family” gets to have all the “fun”.  Hobbs, whose daughter is visiting him and adds nothing to the movie, eventually has enough of this lying around crap and ends up ending the final battle with a machine gun stolen from a drone (not a typo).  But this one moment does not save the third act nor the movie. 
There is no such thing as too much Dwayne Johnson in this series.  But too little can sink it.  FURIOUS 7 sunk & stunk because of it.

Why was Han buried in LA?
            Just asking.  I found it interesting that the somewhat mysterious figure who was basically blown up in Tokyo was transported to Los Angeles for burial.  Does he have family there?  If not, was it Dom’s doing?  Is Han buried next to Gisele?  Is the funeral used as a shameless transition to a standoff between Dom & Deckard?  Ding ding!  We have a winner!

Why can’t Roman shut up?
            Tyrese’s character is one of the most annoying characters I have ever witnessed on the silver screen.  I understand that there has to be comic relief in these kinds of movies.  But Roman is less Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and way more Justin Bartha’s Riley Poole in NATIONAL TREASURE where every single word out of his mouth is intended for a laugh but rarely do his words move the plot forward.  And speaking of that one time in the entire series they do…

What was Roman’s original role in the Caucasus Mountains heist?
            So the “family” parachutes out of a cargo plane in Azerbaijan with their cars.  The plan was conceived by Roman to get the “God’s Eye”.  But when it’s Roman’s turn to exit the plane, he doesn’t until Tej remotely deploys Roman’s parachute.  This sequence of events puts Roman behind everyone else, unable to assist in the main plot.  But later, Roman reappears very late in the plan, mostly as a decoy.
            Based upon how the plan played out, I really never saw an opening for Roman’s “expertise”.  Maybe he would have been additional muscle in the bus alongside Brian.  But based upon how difficult it was for Brian to get in the bus, I don’t see how he would have got on.  This just goes to show that Roman, since his first scene in 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS, is a useless, brainless, humorless modern black caricature.  And he looks so much worse when compared to Ludacris’ Tej.

What actually happened to Brian O’Connor?
            As we all know, Paul Walker died tragically on Thanksgiving weekend 2013 in a car accident in the middle of filming the movie.  After a lengthy delay, the cast & crew were decided to alter the script but had to get creative to finish the film.  Using Paul’s brothers as body doubles, stock footage & $50 million to the wizards at Weta Digital, the movie was completed as best it could without Walker.  But was Brian’s story actually finished?
            I’d argue no.  On a story level, Brian’s conclusion is open-ended at best, but closer to incomplete, to put it nicely.  So after finishing the final battle & jailing Shaw, we see the entire crew on a beach with Brian & Mia playing with their son.  I completely understand that Walker & Diesel couldn’t have a conversation about leaving the group behind and that the fact that a major subplot of the movie revolves around Brian’s inner-conflict about potentially settling down with Mia.  But the ending does not equal the sum of its parts.  The fact remains: Brian O’Connor is still alive and there is no concrete closure to his story.  Plus, if Brian is still alive, how can the group interact with Mia?  Can Jordana Brewster just be written out through no fault of her own?  As Brad Brevet of Rope of Silicon joked, can Mia’s excuse be that Brian is at the grocery store?

How can I review this movie so seriously?
            I have been asked many times by family, friends & co-workers why I can't have fun watching movies.  The answer is simple: I do, sometimes more than them.
            Their argument is to turn your brain off as you step into the theatre or as the lights go down.  A nice, flawed argument they have there.  With your brain off at the start, how can you decipher how much fun you can have during the movie?  You need to think about IF a movie is worthy enough to turn your brain off.  For instance, in the first PIRATES OF THE CARRIBBEAN movie, Capt. Jack Sparrow is introduced by comically disembarking his boat while it is sinking.  In last year’s GODZILLA, the movie builds the tension (despite the human story’s lack of quality) to the point where when the monsters are brought together, you are free to sit back & enjoy.
            FURIOUS 7, despite being told by review after review that the movie (and series as a whole ) is dumb fun, there is not one moment, not one stunt, not one line of dialogue that flips the brain’s switch to off.  Some would argue that the cars parachuting out of the plane in the Caucasus Mountains as that moment.  I would counter with how that sequence was set up: Roman’s big unfunny mouth.  Needless to say, I wasn’t amused. 
Two decent action scenes, two unsatisfying villains, one underused hero, one baffling mysterious character and one pathetic third act does not a fun movie make.  I guess I just don’t get the series’ popularity and never will.  And I’m perfectly fine with that.


*

Saturday, April 4, 2015

FAST & FURIOUS(ly Caught Up)

            For 12 years, I avoided this series like it had swine flu.  Hell, I avoided FAST & FURIOUS like it was swine flu.  I am not a car guy.  I drove the same rickety Saturn (remember them?) my parents gave me 11 summers ago until the last weekend of February.  I may be the furthest thing from a muscle-fueled gear head.  I’m 5’9” & way too damn heavy.  I hate rap music…that isn’t Eminem.
            Needless to say, I’m not the target audience for this soon-to-be seven film series.  I do remember seeing the first one at the friendly neighborhood drive-in movie theatre.  (Side note: That drive-in [Skyview-Twin in Carmichaels, PA] is about two miles from my parents’ house and opens for the season on the night of FURIOUS 7’s release.)  I enjoyed it, bought the DVD in January then promptly threw it off to the side, like it was some 3rd place science fair ribbon you are too embarrassed to say you have.  Each sequel looked progressively worse & worse.  Yet, the box office returns blew up with each installment.
            To say the series is a cultural phenomenon may be an understatement.  A $93+ million Memorial Day weekend opening domestically, $239 million domestic & $789 worldwide totals is impressive.  But the eye-opening moment for me came in the aftermath of the tragic, ironic death of the series’ star Paul Walker.  Fan & industry tributes sprung up everywhere you turned.  FAST & FURIOUS meant something to people.
            And that’s where I come to with this piece.  In order to understand the craze, I had to witness the craze firsthand.  But as I said before, I haven’t watched any of the previous 5 movies.  So I decided to do what my generation does best: binge-watch all 12+ hours of moving pictures with sound.  Just like with TWILIGHT 2 ½ years ago, I watched each of the previous installments over the course of a week & wrote a little something about each one before seeing FURIOUS 7 opening night solo.  Enjoy!

Spoilers ahead.  Continue with caution. 




Who am I kidding?  Are you really going to care if I spoil anything in these movies?  I mean, there’s no “Luke, I am your father” or Bruce Willis is dead the whole time moments.  So how spoilery can I really get?




Warning: Major spoilers for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and THE SIXTH SENSE above.




THE FAST & THE FURIOUS

            Gearhead Brian (Walker) wants in on the illegal street racing scene.  To do so, he needs to beat/impress the king of the street, Dom Toretto (Diesel).  After a night of evading the police & a rival car gang, Brian meets the crew: Dom’s girlfriend Letty (Rodriguez), Dom’s sister Mia (Brewster), tech guy Jesse and muscle guys Leon & Vince.  Did I mention Brian is an undercover cop investigating a series of robberies of trucks by skilled drivers?
            One major theme of this series is how the quality of the beginning sequence, both as an individual scene and as how it relates to the rest of the movie.  The opening sequence of the series is quite thrilling as we see the band of auto bandits steal a truck of recently imported electronic goods.  As you sit through the remaining 100+ minutes, you can clearly see the tone is established wonderfully by the opening scene.  There is another great truck robbery sequence to open the third act that’s even more thrilling.  The car races are enough to keep the viewer satisfied, even if you have the check your understanding of the laws of time & space at the door.
            As for the drama provided by the screenplay, it is low on horsepower.  The struggle Brian has with himself between his personal relationship with Dom & his professional obligation as a cop exists but lacks the necessary kick to really jump the movie to the next level.  All the actors try their best but their acting chops are average at best (Walker’s best performance, hands down, will forever be in 1998’s PLEASANTVILLE) and the dialogue does little to assist them.  And the music cues are at times laughable.  One of the opening scenes features a confrontation between Brian & Vince wherein Vince comes from behind Brian to shove him into his car.  All the while, a synthesized chorus on the soundtrack warns the viewer (and, I assume, Brian) to “Watch yo, watch yo, watch yo back!”  I lost it.
            Eventually, I regained my composure to, much to my surprise, enjoy this first installment.  I wanted to see what happen to these characters.  I wanted to see why, in the eyes of critics & the audience, these movies failed where this one succeeded.

***1/2


2 FAST 2 FURIOUS
            Brian is now in Miami, off the force and racing cars.  After the opening racing sequence, which has little significance to the rest of the plot, Brian is arrested and given a deal to get out of it.  Brian, along with ex-childhood friend Roman (Tyrese), are tasked with co-operating with undercover agent Fuentes (Mendes) to bring down drug kingpin Carter Verone (Hauser).
            A big issue with this movie is that everything is standard, subpar elements of movies that you have seen before.  The drug dealer is your everyday extravagant living snoozefest of a guy with minions to carry out all his dirty work.  The black best friend is a wisecracking, gun-toting hothead.  Everything on the young Japanese girl has everything covered in pink and generic anime characters.
            Worst of all, all the action scenes are showoffy without advancing the plot.  The movie features the most shifting of vehicles of any movie released prior to 2013’s GETAWAY.  And the third act features the recreation of a scene from The Dukes of Hazzard or SMOKEY & THE BANDIT with about 1/20 the joy.
And the movie is so forgettable I don’t feel like continuing to talk about it.  It still exists, it’s in color, it’s in focus.  That’s all.

½*


THE FAST & THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT
            And now for something completely different.  Mostly.
            High school senior Sean (Black) is in deep with the law.  After destroying portions of an in-construction luxury housing development, it looks like a stint in prison is in his future.  But his mother works out a deal: he’ll finish out his high school career with his Naval officer father…in Japan.  There, Sean falls under the spell of the underground racing scene in Tokyo and a mafioso’s nephew’s girlfriend.  Under the arm of the mysterious Han, can Sean survive the ire of the Yakuza and thrive in the driving world?
            At first glance, TOKYO DRIFT has even less to do with the first movie than the second one.  Sure, there’s street racing & a bland white guy in the lead role but that’s about it.  The basic story is formulaic with the typical hero in a strange land needing to survive with the help of the wise, mysterious guide and the young “damsel in distress” being ruled by the tyrant.  The real problem here is the movie is too crowded.  Alongside the hero’s journey & the street racing, there’s a large chunk of the movie devoted to the villain & his connections to the Japanese mafia.  The movie slides into his subplot so often that I couldn’t help but feel the movie was a Japanese mafia movie first as opposed to how the movie was gift-wrapped & marketed: a FAST & FURIOUS sequel.
            The over-stuffing becomes a major and hilarious problem in the third act.  After Han’s death in a car wreck after being outed as a thief inside the Yakuza, Sean decides to pay off Han’s debt.  After being rejected, he resorts to Plan B: …wait for it…CHALENGING THE VILLAIN TO A STREET RACE AND THE YAKUZA ACCEPTS.  A subplot that was played so deathly seriously that you’d swear the movie were trying for Academy Awards now turns in a way that is so absurd it makes me wonder why the Yakuza didn’t sue.
            And the race itself is even more laughable (if it didn’t take itself so seriously).  First, the race takes place in the dead of night, on a public, hillside road, is at least, in my estimation, 3.5 miles long and contains about 40 turns.  They don’t call the villain “D.K.” (Drift King) for nothing I guess but to run this track would be impossible on the clearest day in the history of Japan, let alone on a foggy, soggy night.  There is little room for spectators on the track.  Luckily, with the (apparent) abundance of HD-quality, live-streaming cell phone video technology (I wish I was kidding) in Japan in 2005, viewing the race is crystal clear.
            Apart from the Vin Diesel cameo and the end credits tie-in in FURIOUS 6, TOKYO DRIFT is little more than the run-of-the-mill, over-serious, poorly-acted, unfocused action flick.  But at least I remember some of it.

*


FAST & FURIOUS

            The on-the-road heist-masters (plus Han) from the original are back.  After stealing and selling six tanks full of fuel the Dominican Republic, Dom disbands the group and go their separate ways.  Months later, Letty is killed in a car accident in LA and the group is determined to find the culprit.  Meanwhile, Brian is on the powerful side of the law again.  This time, he is on a team baffled by the trail of drug kingpin Arturo Braga.  Eventually, Dom & Brian, separately, become runners in Braga’s gang, determined to bring him down.
            This fourth installment suffers from the same issues as the second.  Every scene is bogged down by a single, bland, overreaching drug running plan.  Because the end game is so narrow & specific and the specifics of the world created by the script (the US-Mexico border at one point has a high & wide mountain range that the only way across is through an unlit, man-made, rickety tunnel with automatic garage doors that US Customs hasn’t discovered) are so inexplicable that the movie gets really boring, really quickly with the lack of interesting action sequences.  Driving through a tunnel never looked so boring.  And with that boredom hanging over the proceedings, the climax, despite the ridiculous world described above, is taken so serious you’d swear Mike Leigh were in the director’s chair.
            In the end, you could say this movie only exists to introduce the world the actress who would play Wonder Woman and to create the cliffhanger that opens…

*


FAST FIVE
            After the events of the fourth installment, Dom is sentenced to hard, long time in prison.  Luckily, his “family” arrives to break him out.  Once freed, the crew heads down to Rio for sanctuary.  After a job stealing cars off a train, Dom & Brian draw the ire of the cars’ owner, drug kingpin Hernan Reyes.  Soon, Dom & Brian discover the scope of Reyes’ influence on Rio and with the help of DEA Agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson), plan to end his empire.
            For the first time since the original, there is a sense of joy in these characters and to the script.  Unlike the second & fourth installments, we see the potential for a more open storyline as the “family” looks at the drug cartel from the outside.  Trying to stop a criminal from the outside is more interesting than inside out unless you have the best of the best screenwriters on the payroll.
            FAST FIVE also features the best action sequence of the series.  I know I said I was going to spoil a lot of this series but the third act here needs to be seen to be believed.  For the first time, the mantra “it’s so bad it’s good” applies here.  The setup is absolutely bonkers and the execution is nearly perfect as well.  If you want to watch as little of the series as possible, watch the third act of this one.  It is worth every second.
            Despite the joyous third act, the movie suffers at little from its length and its meandering and forgettable second act.  You’ll enter the end credits satisfied but the journey there is arduous at times.

***


FAST & FURIOUS 6
            After the events (& profits) of the previous movie, the “family” once again have gone their separate ways.  But soon enough, they are brought together for one last job.  Owen Shaw is a slick, ex-Special Forces criminal with a talented crew.  If Shaw is caught by Dom & his crew, Hobbs can guarantee they can all go home, their records wiped clean.  Just one twist: Shaw’s number two is the presumed-dead Letty.
            To be honest, I remember very little in the four days since watching it, outside of the third act of this unremarkable movie.  The only thing I remember is the juxtaposition of the two crews.  The heroes act like a family, always there for each other even eating together.  Shaw’s crew members are just in it for the money.  A fascinating detail to throw into this movie.
            But the entire movie is nothing more than padding to set up the final, ludicrous action sequence.  After obtaining the MacGuffin (if you don’t know what that is, please look it up), Hobbs & his crew try to get away via cargo plane.  Dom & his crew stop them by grounding the plane.  Literally.  Using military-grade harpoons, the non-muscle members of the team shoot the flaps on the wings and used their cars as weights to keep them on the longest runway in the universe.  All the while, Dom, Hobbs and a converted Letty steal the MacGuffin then escape before the plane crashes.
The final action scene is impressive but the movie stills lacks that dramatic kick necessary to move this, or any other movie, along.

*1/2

SUMMARY
            To put it simply, I don’t get it.  With a title like FAST & FURIOUS, the action should be that and occasionally it is.  But most sequences fall short of the high bar set not only the nomenclature of the title but also by how the first scene of the first movie.  That first heist is fun, exciting and somewhat original.  The cars & the driving abilities of the characters actually mean something in that scene and in the other heist scene early in the third act of the same movie.  Apart from opening scene of the fourth film and the climatic scene of FAST FIVE, at no other time does the ability to maneuver the cars by any of the characters mean anything to the plot.  It is also telling that the most interesting character of the series is chasing them, played by The Rock & is not introduced until FAST FIVE.
And what’s most shocking of all is that this series only get more popular.  I do not understand the movie-going public’s fascination with these uninteresting characters, the horrible dialogue and the (mostly) subpar action sequences.  It both shocks & saddens me that FURIOUS 7, which I have seen & will write about later, will be seen by more people in three days than will ever see WHIPLASH or DRIVE.  SPRING BREAKERS has a more satisfying gun play than anything these screenwriters could ever conceive.

Quantity does not mean quality.  It never has and never will.  The FAST & FURIOUS series is no different.  The lack of drama & intrigue sinks the series.  Movies should not go in one ear and out the other.  Movies are special, unique and precious.  But that’s a different story for a different day.  The series is a mess.  Pure & simple.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The #TFS100 and 'Favorite' vs. 'Greatest'

     We movie-lovers, film-buffs, cinephiles, what have you, we are an eclectic bunch.  From all walks of life, from full-time writers to accountants, we come together to share our love of cinema with each other & the world.  And since its inception, we have thrived on Twitter.  So much so that one of us started an even smaller & more passionate community called the Talk Film Society (formerly the Tweet Film Society).  It's mission is simple: to talk & celebrate the best of the cinema.
     It's founder, Marcelo J. Pico, decided to do something ambitious this past June: create a list of the best 100 films as voted on by the Society's members.  We were each asked for our lists of the "25 Greatest Movies". Hundreds of you (I say "you" and not "us" because I didn't submit a list, having taken a Twitter break for a few weeks.  Oh, the stuff I miss...) sent in ballots.  And the results were, in short & in my opinion, disappointing.
     We all have a movie collection.  And by all of us, I mean everyone who watches movies.  Usually within that collection, we have a few DVDs with scratches from playing them numerous times.  For me, there are four specifically in that condition: DR. STRANGELOVE, BOOGIE NIGHTS, AIRPLANE! and WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.  These are the four movies that I consider my favorites.  If I have just finished a terrible, waste of my time movie, I usually put one of these in to make me feel better.
     That is what a favorite should be: something you never get tired of.  I would love to proclaim the glory, beauty & greatness of these movies.  Just one problem: I only think two of these movies are "great".  The other two are just "good" or "highly watchable".  But which ones?
     Let's begin with the one by Kubrick.  Simply put, DR. STRANGELOVE is a masterpiece.  It's dark satire about the possibility of nuclear war and its effects on man is just as biting now as (I assume) it was 50 years ago.  I hope to go into greater detail about this in the future.  P.T. Anderson's sophomore effort is still, to me, his finest (2.5) hour(s).  A glorious story of finding fortune, "fame" & "family" in the dark underbelly of the adult entertainment.  We feel for these characters.  We know these characters.  We hope for them to find some sort of happiness.  Again, I will love to get deeper into this later.  These two would probably land on my Top 25 somewhere.
     Let me repeat that: DR. STRANGELOVE and BOOGIE NIGHTS would probably land on my Top 25.  These are my favorites movies.  I think they are perfect movies, right?  Wrong.  I could nitpick these if given the time to re-watch and fully focus on them.  But I have seen better than both.  SCHINDLER'S LIST would be my #1 movie of all time.  It's harrowing look at one man's quest to save potential Holocaust victims is beautiful & disturbing at the same time.  CITIZEN KANE, my would-be #2, is a technical marvel and arguably the most influential film of all time.  The amount of praise I could place on these movies could be endless.  The total number of viewings: Two, each.  Why?  I am not afraid to admit it, both of my top 2 are tough watches.  The former because of subject matter & length.  The latter due to its almost academic nature.  
   Which finally leads me to the #TFS100 itself.  The first movie to grab my attention was #93 SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD.   As a celebration of geek culture, I kinda get the appeal.  But top 100?  Ehhh...  Then two movies 17 spots apart caught my attention.  Cult favorite DONNIE DARKO is #71 over Big 5 Oscar winner ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST at #88.  This really put chill down my spine.  I became worried that the Talk Film Society had recreated the IMDb Top 250.  As the list was revealed more & more, I noticed the same pattern: a blockbuster, followed by a cult favorite, then a oft-repeated action flick, then a revisionist masterpiece with the occasional modern masterpiece.  The same movies were appearing in virtually the same places.
    Then, #16 was revealed: THE BIG LEBOWSKI.  And that confirmed it.  The Tweet Film Society voted the Coen Brothers' 1998 cult hit as their best movie.  Not NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (#47).  Not FARGO (#24).  No.  The Dude is deemed the best.  That placement is proof positive that a majority of voters picked their favorites.
    At best, you could say each member voted for their biggest influences in becoming the film buff they are today.   But that is just spin.  A euphemism.  Their favorites were placed on a pedestal years ago.  Whether they be the movies their brother made them watch (DIE HARD), movies they grew up on (FIGHT CLUB) or a movie they discovered on its opening night (INCEPTION), nostalgia gets the best of us sometimes.  I don't mean to criticize anyone's opinion.  I just want to start a conversation about why THE GRADUATE is a better, but not necessarily more enjoyable or watchable, movie than TITANIC, THE PRINCESS BRIDE or DIE HARD.
    The best films leave that lasting impact that influence all of your love of cinema.  Especially on your favorites.  Our favorite movies are that comfort food that you reheat in the microwave and devour in 90 minutes.  But the best of the best are like a fine wine: preserved in a vault, just waiting to caress your palette.

Monday, May 5, 2014

THE (not so) AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (opening weekend)

When a movie earns $91.6 million over a three day period, a celebration commences at a studio.  But today, in the board room of Columbia Pictures, a Sony Entertainment company, no one should be celebrating.  I mean, champagne may have been uncorked, but it certainly shouldn't have been flowing.

Simply put, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (TASM2) underperformed this past weekend.  Sure, $91.6 million won the weekend by about $75 million over the dreadful THE OTHER WOMAN.  But look beyond the real money.  You find the tracking projections, ranging from $95-100 million.  Swing and a miss there.  What is "tracking"?  Tracking is, simply put, the awareness of a movie's existence with the general public and their possibility that John Q. Moviegoer & family will buy a ticket opening weekend.  An inexact science, yes, but most of the time is very accurate.

I know what you're thinking right now: Almost, you just want to bury the movie because you hated it and aren't a real Spider-Man fan.  Well, it is true that I'm not a comic book guy (never have), I loved the original Raimi/Maguire trilogy and hated the reboot two years ago but I certainly didn't hate this installment.  Don't get your fanboy panties in a bunch.

Anyhoo, projections are just one part of the equation.  Box office receipts are just like a CEO's wallet, the larger the better.  Let's start with the original trilogy.  The first SPIDER-MAN, released in 2002 and seen by yours truly at 16, blasted opening weekend records with $114.85 million.  At the time, opening weekend meant something but movies with legs were still common.  SPIDER-MAN 3 performed even better, bringing in $151.1 million opening weekend; of which, $6.00 coming from then 21-year-old, colIflege junior me.

Aha!, you say.  You discovered 2004's SPIDER-MAN 2 and its $88.1 million weekend.  But, as 18-year-old me will remind you, I saw SM2 twice: on a Friday night with friends...(wait for it)...on Wednesday, June 30 at my hometown drive-in with my family.  That's right, SPIDER-MAN 2 opened on a Wednesday.  And, as we all know, official opening weekends are always recorded on the first Friday-Sunday.  Therefore, the first $64.25 million earned but SM2 doesn't count in this record.  There's more to this story, but I'll get to that soon enough.

But, you say defensively, TASM2 has the biggest weekend this year and kicked off the summer.  You're half right, it did kick off the summer.  But let's take a look at CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER.  Sure, this weekend it didn't do that well ($7.775 million), but what do you expect for a fifth weekend at the box office?  Let's look at my brother's birthday weekend, April 4-6.  $95 million.  Not a typo there.  The sequel to the reboot of the most popular Marvel comic book character was defeated by the maybe the fifth most popular one; in my opinion, rightfully so.  And did I mention Steve Rodgers had 300 fewer screens than Peter Parker?

The disappointment of TASM2, however, underlines a major issue facing the movie business today.  There are three advantages TASM2 had over the original trilogy a decade ago.  First, ticket prices.  Compared to the first sequel, SPIDER-MAN 2, TASM2 had an $2.25 higher ticket price.  If you adjust for inflation, SPIDER-MAN 2 goes from $4.5 million down to a whopping $31.4 million advantage.  Second item in TASM2's favor are the 3-D & IMAX upcharges.  Let's say I log onto my favor theatre's website and try to purchase tickets.  To go to the mid-afternoon matinee, that's $6.50.  Not too bad.  For the 3-D showing, $9.50.  OK, tolerable.  But the IMAX 3-D?  $13.50.  That will empty the wallet quickly.  But what if you have a dayjob and have to go at night?  Prepare yourself for $8.50, $11.50, or $13.50, respectively.  For context, my dad took 5 people to see SPIDER-MAN in 2002 and spent $25 for tickets.  A couple seeing TASM2 in IMAX 3-D at 7:30 on a Friday night spent more on two tickets than my now-retired father spent on five 12 years ago.

Which leads to this scary conclusion: When you factor in everything, SPIDER-MAN 3 ($174.8 million adj. opening weekend) sold TWICE AS MANY TICKETS opening weekend than TASM2.  And it's not just SPIDER-MAN with the problem.  It's an epidemic in all of Hollywood.  2012's MARVEL'S THE AVENGERS, the third highest domestic grosser of all time, is only 27th when adjusted for inflation, behind GREASE.  GREASE!  Audience sizes are going down.  The factors, from prices to quality of product to audience behavior, are too numerous and complex for this article.

TASM2 has its moment in the sun now.  With the weak competition, it will probably win next weekend too.  But with GODZILLA and X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST coming up in the following weekends, TASM2 will disappear into the background.  But how far back?  Sure the 56% on Rotten Tomatoes doesn't help, but fanboys don't listen to critics like me (or so they say).  But the CinemaScore (a polling of opening night audiences by an independent party) of 'B+' means word of mouth is mixed, at best.  Today, 50% second weekend drop-offs are normal.  Anything higher than 55% could be considered a disaster.  At worst, TASM2 needs a $43.5 million next weekend against the likes of an R-rated comedy and a poorly marketed animated flick.  After the worst first weekend of the summer since 2006, the summer movie season can only get better.  Well, at least until TRANSFORMERS 4...