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Thursday
Apr022015

Furious 7

Few things in the world of film perplex me more than the popularity behind “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. It’s not so much that people enjoy them—they can indeed be mindless fun—but the passion those fans exert seems like it could be used on something of more substance. Still, one can’t deny the franchise’s effectiveness, at least in the last couple entries. What started as a mediocre (at best) street racing story with poor dramatics and thin characters turned into an over-the-top, jet setting action extravaganza. The franchise retained its poor dramatics and thin characters, but it began to realize what it was, downplaying the things that didn’t work while increasing the action with each successive entry. But this seventh entry has a very been-there-done-that feel to it. They try to up the ante, and do, but the last two films were so exaggerated that it’s a marginal increase at best. “Furious 7,” despite some fun moments, shows pretty clearly that this franchise is running out of steam.

The story this time, as inconsequential as it may be to the overall picture, sees the gang getting back together to collect for a shady government agent (Kurt Russell) a device called God’s Eye that allows them to track down and find anyone on the planet using every technological resource available to them. If they do this, they’ll be able to use it to find Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who is on the hunt to take them all out after they severely crippled his thought-to-be-dead brother, the antagonist of the sixth film.

And that’s pretty much all there is to it. Despite a lengthy set-up with lots of cringe worthy dialogue—including speeches about finding oneself and an extremely poor exploration of Letty’s (Michelle Rodriguez) PTSD symptoms—there isn’t much filler. In fact, after this set-up, there’s barely a moment to breathe at all, as the film jets from here to there and does things with cars that only a screenwriter in Hollywood could think up.

And boy, are those sequences stylish. Director James Wan, the man behind horror films “Saw” and “The Conjuring,” brings his usual flair to the film, even if he allows the camerawork to get too shaky for its own good; long gone is the fluidity of “Fast and Furious 6” where you could actually see what was going on, a concept that has become novel as action films have tried to up their excitement through manufactured stylistic techniques.

Yet one can’t help but appreciate what Wan brings to the table—you’re not likely to have seen a body slam portrayed in quite the way he does here—but, unfortunately, some of that style is misplaced. Taking a page out of the late Tony Scott’s book, Wan tries to make even the calm moments more interesting with unnecessary camera movements, like when it rapidly rotates around characters as they’re doing nothing more than standing there and talking. It’s an understandable addition; when the rest of the film moves so fast, attempting to mask the boredom with something resembling action makes sense.

But this tactic comes off as silly, similar to how subtitles zoom on and off the screen with a ridiculous sense of urgency. Perhaps worse is its egregious use of slow motion and brooding stares. There’s more macho posturing here than the bro-est of bro-dude movies, particularly in the half a dozen times Jason Statham and Vin Diesel gaze at each other with a strange, almost homoerotic hate.

The reason to see “Furious 7,” however, isn’t due to its highflying antics, explosions or car chases. No, it’s to see the beautiful tribute to Paul Walker at the end, who died before filming was completed. Not only does this tribute work within the context of the story up to this point, but it’s a fitting sendoff to a man who was said to be one of the kindest, gentlest people in Hollywood. The final shots are enough to make even the most jaded moviegoer shed a tear, as the fictitious film ends its run and the realization that someone very real lost his life far too soon.

In a way, though, it almost makes you appreciate the movie more. The franchise has gone on for so long that each successive film is actually becoming a generic copie of its forebears, but even with a far-too-long runtime of two hours and 20 minutes, “Furious 7” managed to end on the best five minutes it has ever produced. And no, there wasn’t a fight or an explosion or any gunfire whatsoever. It was a quiet moment, with a poignancy few other films, even the best dramatic ones, fail to achieve. I may not be the biggest fan of this franchise, but these final moments alone, as it remembers a friend it has sadly lost, makes “Furious 7” worth seeing.

Furious 7 receives 2.5/5

Friday
May242013

Fast & Furious 6

The most appropriate answer one can give when asked if the new “Fast & Furious 6” is any good is a simple one: “It’s another ‘Fast & Furious.’” It doesn’t sound like a great response, but it tells the asker everything they need to know. It’s no better or worse than any other middling installment in this bizarrely lucrative franchise and if you’re a fan, you’re bound to enjoy this one as well.

After the events of “Fast Five,” Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) and their crew are rich. However, they’re also internationally wanted criminals and are unable to return to the US. Soon, special agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) tracks them down and because he’s unable to extradite them, he asks them for their help in capturing a former British special forces officer turned criminal mastermind named Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). But there’s a twist. Dominic’s thought-to-be-dead girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) has been spotted alive and working with Shaw.

It’s one of those stories of an inconsequential nature, much like every story told throughout this franchise. It would be hard for even a fan to argue that the writing is solid, given its ridiculous dialogue, laughable scene set-ups, undeveloped side stories and thin characters. “Fast & Furious 6” follows suit and little is actually explored or discussed. Even when Dominic and Letty cross paths for the first time, the scene lasts all of five seconds (which is not an exaggeration), despite their relationship being the primary narrative supposedly pushing this thing forward. But when these scenes begin and end in the blink of an eye, like the opening moments when the crew requires little coaxing to once again put their lives on the line, it’s not necessarily due to bad writing, but rather a desire to bypass the fluff and get to the action, showing a firm understanding that story structure is not what these movies are about.

The reason the franchise succeeds as much as it does, despite its vapid stupidity, is because it knows exactly what it is. It has a goal, however shallow it may be, and it delivers exactly what it promises. This series is about action—and lots of it—and the crazier it gets, the more enjoyable it becomes. What began as a franchise with smaller, more contained action scenes that took place during street races has become a full blown extravaganza with planes, tanks, death defying stunts and bodies flying through the air and landing unscathed. Even its subtitles zoom on and off the screen in an adrenaline fueled panic. This is absurdity to the nth degree.

But it’s once again that self-awareness that makes it work, never losing its surprisingly solid sense of humor, despite some overbearing dramatics spoken in muted seriousness about “making things right,” as if any of what’s going on actually matters. What’s perhaps even more surprising, however, is the technical expertise behind the film. Although director Justin Lin may not know how to flesh out a story or wring out performances from his actors that exceed anything above “average,” he knows how to stage an action scene. Responsible for the last four films (and one of the best episodes of the underappreciated television show “Community” called “Modern Warfare”), he knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat, even if you don’t really care about the consequences of said action. His fluid camerawork, even during the film’s most hectic moments, allows for a good view of what’s going on. Implementing the shaky cam technique most action movies rely on these days would be doing a disservice to the fantastic action on display.

Yet the fact remains that this is still overly loud and exceedingly dumb. There’s no real substance, no interesting story and its runtime of two hours and ten minutes is unnecessarily bloated. Many will have likely checked out far before the credits roll around out of sheer frustration for a movie that doesn’t know when to quit, but that’s the series in a nutshell. For better or worse, this is exactly what you expect. From the rap infused soundtrack to the explosive finale that takes place on the longest runway ever, this is indeed a “Fast & Furious” movie, and for fans of the franchise, that news couldn’t be any better.

Fast & Furious 6 receives 3/5

Thursday
Mar282013

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

One mustn’t expect much when sitting down to watch “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.” It’s based on a silly Hasbro toy meant to portray the fighting spirit of the American soldier and as such, one should expect nothing more than mindless entertainment. In this case, the film nailed the “mindless” part, but forgot about the “entertainment.” Having seen the original movie only once, it’s hard to say which is worse—they appear to be equal in terms of quality—but this is action at its most basic. Only junkies of the genre will find anything to enjoy and even they might be put off by the lousy script, horrible puns and desperation seeping through this thing. “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” is an early contender for one of the worst movies of the year.

According to franchise lore, the Joes are an elite covert special mission unit operating under the supervision of the US military. They’re given all the difficult jobs, the ones where a lesser group of soldiers wouldn’t make it back alive. However, they’re about to be set up and most of them are about to be put into retirement for good. After a successful mission with no casualties, an air attack comes by and wipes them out. Only a few survive, including Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), the new leader of the Joes. Along with his remaining comrades, he sets out to discover who double-crossed them and bring them to justice.

Of course, other prominent franchise characters play their roles as well, like Snake Eyes (Ray Park), Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) and Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey), though keeping track of them all is a daunting task for the uninitiated. So many characters appear, some of whom look similar enough to be indistinguishable from each other, that it’s sometimes difficult to tell who is on whose side. To blame this entirely on the existing franchise would be unfair, however, as it’s primarily the screenplay that does such a poor job of establishing them. “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” has the most hackneyed screenplay of the year so far and it’s filled with so much expositional dialogue that you’d be playing the odds if you bet that the rest of this year’s movies combined wouldn’t equal its amount.

It’s insulting, quite frankly. Characters, motivations, schemes, places, all are explained almost entirely through exposition, as if the audience is too dumb to figure it out for themselves. When so much of that exposition is interrupted with some of the lamest jokes this side of “Jack and Jill,” it becomes difficult to handle. One attractive woman introduces herself as a reporter for Fox News. “That must be why you look so fair and balanced,” the man says in reply, as if that somehow makes sense. Early on, one Joe tells another to prepare for extraction and he replies, “Extraction? What are we, teeth?” The villain even refers to himself as the “quicker blower-upper,” a clear play on words of Bounty’s paper towels.

These moments will make you roll your eyes so far into the back of your head, you may put yourself into a catatonic state. The only thing that could have saved “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” from total irrelevance is its action scenes, but they’re hardly exciting. Aside from one impressive, though CGI-fueled, battle on the side of a mountain, what is presented here is generic of dozens of other shoot ‘em ups that have come before. To make matters worse, the action scenes are too short and too few while the narrative sections are unnecessarily stretched out, despite their simplistic nature. One example of this simplicity comes fairly early on (so this can hardly be considered a spoiler) when the Joes figure out that the President isn’t actually the President. “Last week, he said soda. Now, he says pop!” one Joe proclaims. “When he crossed his fingers together, the right thumb rest on top, but now it’s the left!” she follows. If this is all the deduction it takes to uncover a terrorist plot, we would all be super soldier sleuths.

“G.I. Joe: Retaliation” is awful, yet it doesn’t even realize it. It doesn’t play off its own obvious deficiencies with a playful wink and nod. To the contrary, it actually thinks it’s good, but its dramatic moments are flat, its humor is desperately unfunny and its action scenes are unimaginative. Let’s hope next time someone double crosses the Joes, he takes them all out so we won’t have to sit through another one of their movies.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation receives 0.5/5

Friday
Apr292011

Fast Five

It’s hard to believe that 2001’s The Fast and the Furious is now ten years old. It’s even more difficult to understand how that movie sparked a franchise. It’s almost impossible to comprehend how that franchise reached its fifth installment. Was anyone asking for even one sequel, let alone four? I suppose it’s a moot question because here we are with the alliteratively titled Fast Five, which for all intents and purposes is no better or worse than the rest of the franchise. Take that as you will.

There’s some type of story here that has something to do with a corrupt businessman who has the whole Rio de Janeiro police force in his back pocket and stores his riches in a high security vault inside the police station. And of course, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) are going to rob him. It’s a loose premise that is negligible at best, but if you’re going to see Fast Five for the story, boy are you going to be disappointed.

Like previous incarnations, Fast Five is poorly written and it fails to tie its scenes together. It spends its whole middle section with the characters preparing and concocting an elaborate plan to break into the safe, but then that plan changes almost entirely. The final action scene, as thrilling as it is, only goes to show the pointlessness of everything that came before. It’s like the writers wrote the closing sequence first and then couldn’t come up with a way to get the characters to that point.

What the writers didn’t seem to understand, however, is that it doesn’t matter. Fast Five is a turn-off-your-brain action flick whose viewers demand very little (that this shoddy story has now gone on for five movies is telling of that fact). They want explosions, fast cars and gunfights. Unfortunately, the film spends far too much time talking and foolishly skips over would-be action scenes, like when Dominic agrees to go car for car in a race. After a dialogue exchange, it cuts back to the hideout where it’s evident he won. I imagine this was done to lower the runtime of the film, but at an already exhausting 2 hours and 10 minutes, what’s another few ticks of the clock?

Boredom may set in at certain points in Fast Five, but when the film moves, it moves fast (natch). The action scenes become cases of “enough is not enough.” Take the opening, for instance, which sees our boys robbing a moving train. As they take their loot, there’s a double cross which breeds a fist fight that causes a string of events that plants a car in the side of the train. Naturally, the car begins to leak gas, which causes an explosion and then…well, I suppose I’ll let you experience the rest for yourself. With ample supplies of machismo and crazy action scenes like that one, there’s enough testosterone in this movie to make a eunuch grow a pair.

Fast Five tries so hard to be exciting even its subtitles zoom on and off the screen with a sense of urgency. It’s admirable in a way, but it’s also perplexing because you begin to wonder where things went wrong. The pairing up of Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (playing an FBI special agent) should have been an epic showdown, a battle of fisticuffs as brutal and bloody as any put to screen, but instead it’s merely adequate, an adjective that more or less describes the entire film.

Fast Five has all the pieces to make a great action movie, but forces them into spots they don’t belong. While I am recommending it because, yes, I did have some fun with it, it’s nothing more than another derivative rehash. At this point, the most interesting thing about the franchise is what stupid title they’re going to attach to each film.

Fast Five receives 3/5

Wednesday
Nov242010

Faster

CBS Films is turning out to be one of the most unreliable production companies around. Founded in 2007, CBS Films has had a slow start with the release of only three movies, but when your best is basically a made-for-TV movie, and a bad one at that, there is some cause for concern. After Extraordinary Measures and the excruciating The Back-up Plan, one would think they could take a step forward with the hard R rated, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson led Faster, but such is not the case.

Johnson plays a man known only as Driver who is about to be released from prison after serving 10 years. His first order of business: kill those responsible for the death of his brother years before. But to do so, he’ll have to avoid a killer called Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and a junkie cop named…Cop (Billy Bob Thornton). The characters are so one-dimensional that they aren’t even given proper names.

Dwayne Johnson is built for this type of role. He has the makings of the next big action star, but he has relegated himself in recent years to nonsense kiddy fare, like Tooth Fairy and last year’s Race to Witch Mountain. In theory, this is exactly what he should be doing, but he’s stuck in a movie that doesn’t allow him to shine. Johnson, through roles in films like The Other Guys and Get Smart, has shown that he can bring the charm along with his impressive physique, but Faster keeps him from saying much of anything at all. He is quiet for the majority of the movie, limited to scowls and blank stares.

That demeanor is suitable in this genre, but the action is so bland, so boring and so weak that it isn’t of much use. Driver has five names on his hit list, but each encounter is more boring than the last. Three of his victims he simply walks up to and shoots in the head. The fourth turns out to be already dead. And the fifth he forgives, but not before having a good cry first. What a tough guy.

The action hits its creative peak during a car chase where Driver is swerving his way through traffic backwards and even that isn’t all that exciting. Faster is played out. It’s derivative and predictable, with a final twist that can be seen coming from the moment the film begins, and it doesn’t have enough material to cover its short 95 minute runtime. Instead of focusing on Driver, it dwells on idiotic side plots where Cop wants to set his life back on track, get off the dope and move back in with his family. It even gives Killer a personality, showing him at his weakest, struggling with his assassin lifestyle and wanting a simpler life, wishing to get married and start a family. Who cares? Faster is as impotent a revenge picture as has ever been produced.

Where’s the excitement? Where’s the vigor? Where’s the fun? You’ll find none of that here. It’s difficult to mess up a movie with as simple a premise as this. All you need is guns, blood and maybe an explosion or two, but Faster misses the target by a mile.

Faster receives 1/5