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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


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


Battle: Los Angeles

If you thought a Michael Bay movie had a lot of explosions, wait until you see this. Loud, crazy and ridiculous are the only ways to describe Battle: Los Angeles, an escapist film that has zero substance, but manages to make up for it with little downtime and non-stop action. By normal movie making standards, it’s not what one would call “good” (the script, quite frankly, is garbage), but my job is to say whether or not the film is worth seeing and based on pure fun factor alone, I have to conclude that it is.

The movie takes place in the not-too-distant future, August 2011, and Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) has just signed his release papers after 20 years in the Marines and a tour in Iraq where he lost his platoon of soldiers. Recent reports on the news have been saying that meteors have been falling from the sky, landing near coasts all around the world. The strange thing, however, is that they’re slowing down before impact. The world quickly finds out these are no ordinary meteors and that aliens have landed and are planning to wipe out all human existence. In light of this, Nantz is pulled back into the Marines and is tasked, along with a new platoon of soldiers, with defending Los Angeles.

Before the attack, things are running normal at the California Marine base where we are introduced to a host of faces. Each character has their own story. Some are comedic, but not funny, while others are dramatic, but emotionless. It jumps so frantically from character to character that none really work. Rather than develop these plot points and show why certain people act the way they do, they’re quickly said through expositional dialogue and brushed over in favor of getting to the action. Because of this, there’s nobody to care about, so when characters get killed off, you won’t bat an eye.

Still, the feeling of war in one of the country’s largest cities is expertly realized. The streets are lined with fire and give off the feeling that the enemy could be anywhere. Cars sit desolate near gas stations while buildings house dozens of corpses of folks unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Aside from some occasionally sketchy special effects, all of this is brought to convincing life with the help of an effective handheld shooting style that gives the film a sense of realism.

Of course, that realism is lost on such a ridiculous science fiction film, as is the horrors of war message, which is forced into the film through corny dialogue filled scenes where Nantz sadly reminisces about the men he lost in Iraq. In addition, the non-diegetic musical score is out-of-place, serving only to further cripple a movie that desires to be authentic.

Regardless of the lack of character development and other flaws, the acting is good and somehow manages to keep you distracted enough to focus on what’s important: having fun. Eckhart is terrific as usual, as is the rest of the cast, even when they are throwing out stupid one-liners, of which none are funny. Essentially, Battle: Los Angeles is a mixture of Independence Day, Cloverfield and the recent Skyline and its quality rests somewhere between the two latter films. It’s not as strikingly original as Cloverfield, but it’s not as bland as Skyline either. Although most will surely be disappointed that it’s not as good as the trailers suggest, it’s still worth a look.

Battle: Los Angeles receives 3/5



In a summer filled with action movies that, at their best, are stupid fun and nothing more, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a movie like Machete, the chaotic, deliberately silly and ultra violent full length feature spawned from the terrific faux trailer attached between the two films in 2007’s overlooked Grindhouse. In all its unrestrained glory, this is a movie that has brains behind its ridiculousness. It may be because this year at the cinema has been particularly underwhelming, but Machete is, at this point, one of the best films of the year.

The movie begins in Mexico where a Mexican cop called Machete (Danny Trejo) is on his way to rescue a girl being held captive by Torrez (Steven Seagal), a druglord who has complete control over all law enforcement in the country. When Machete arrives, Torrez surprise attacks him and ends up killing his wife. Three years later, Machete is living in Texas as an illegal immigrant. Election time is coming up and Republican Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro) is running under the promise of completely wiping out all illegal immigration and closing off the borders with a giant electrified fence. One day, Machete is approached by Booth (Jeff Fahey) and given $150,000 to kill McLaughlin. He agrees, but is quickly double crossed and finds himself on a mission of revenge and righteousness.

Machete is a cynical movie, sarcastically portraying right wing ideologies in as humorous and degrading a way as possible. With the central theme of immigration as its crux, the film takes a stand on the idea that we are fighting a fight that doesn’t need to be fought. While any economist that has studied the issue will agree, many conservatives will not and the film, quite effectively, shows the ignorance and hatred that seeps out of the most extreme. If they aren’t unfairly calling all immigrants “terrorists,” they show how the craziest of those on the right are greedy and power hungry.

Of course, there’s not really a message here as much as playful poking. There’s no hidden left wing agenda supporting immigration and no true hatred for those on the opposite side. The conservative characters come off as mere caricatures, not indicative of the majority of reasonable righties. That’s not what this film is about. It’s about recapturing the feeling of an old, gritty grindhouse picture and it succeeds.

Known for their sexually exploitative and graphically violent nature, grindhouse films are inherently bad, B-movies by their very nature. Machete mimics that experience, but does it purposely, fully aware of how silly it is. Limbs are hacked, throats are cut, people are shot and gratuitous nudity are all basic features. Where it lacks, however, is in its aesthetics. Recall the underappreciated Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez collaboration Grindhouse, which used visual tricks to capture the look of an actual grindhouse film, complete with missing frames and dust specks, intentionally aging its print. Outside of its opening credits, Machete fails to do the same. It captures the feeling of a grindhouse picture, but it overlooks the necessary visuals to accommodate it. But when you’re having this much fun and laughing at the endless amount of gory ingenuity, including a hilarious intestinal rappel, it’s hard to quibble too much.

I haven't enjoyed a goofy, madcap, knowingly absurd movie like this since Shoot ‘Em Up. I loved Machete and if the Bond-esque closing that promises the title character will return is true to its word, my enthusiasm is only just beginning.

Machete receives 4.5/5