Tag Archives: popcorn

The Fate of the Furious

Magic tricks are based on misdirection through visual distraction and patter. This eighth installment of the F&F franchise is a beautiful magic trick. While it is better than the previous couple of releases, it isn’t a great movie. But thanks to the application of the tenants of magic, it is entertaining and holds together more than what has come before.

When the series took a left turn in the sixth release from racing films to caper films, it revitalized the storyline and introduced new characters to expand the viewpoints and chances for comedy. Then came Furious 7, which was huge in stunts, but thin in story to the point of frustration for me (even with the Paul Walker reality in the background).

Fate takes the series to a new level. Don’t misunderstand me, Chris Morgan’s (47 Ronin) script is still full of holes and over-simplicities. So many and so obvious I had to pause the film to point out aspects a few times because I just couldn’t contain myself. But, that is where the magic comment comes in. The action is huge. Every time you see a hole, suddenly there is some eye candy to distract you from thinking about it or some clever dialogue to engage you so you let it slip by. F. Gary Gray’s (Straight Outta Compton) direction is responsible for that pace and success, and it is no easy feat.

But it wasn’t just the pacing that mattered. Bringing the story back to Vin Diesel’s (xXx: Return of Xander Cage) Dom recentered the movie. The level of tension and the opportunity for reversals keeps the film tight. OK, some of Dom’s story is forced to heck, but he plays it well and, again, Gray’s pacing keeps it rolling along nicely.

Where, I think, the movie made its best choices, however, was in some of the non-core cast members. Charlize Theron (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) as the villain was a brilliant choice. She plays a wonderfully chilling and believable sociopath, never once giving in to cliche scene chewing, which kept the movie on an even keel. And the return of Kurt Russell (Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2.) also contributed to keeping the movie afloat, though in his case through dry, well-delivered humor. His protege, played by Scott Eastwood (Suicide Squad), however, was just a cutout, broad comedy character.

I don’t know where they go from here. Topping these latest stunts is going to be very hard. At some point, they are going to have to pull it all back to the simplicity of the first film or risk getting so absurd thta it crosses into comedy rather than staying exciting. The franchise has been managed very well, despite the weak scripts, so I’m sure they’re aware of the issue. Of course, when you make a $1B/film you kinda get to do whatever the heck you want. But I will admit, this movie was way better than I expected it to be…I’m almost sorry I didn’t see it sooner.

The Fate of the Furious

Going in Style

This is more Tower Heist than Hell or High Water, which is a bit of a shame as the talent in the film is pretty stand-up. Top lining are Morgan Freeman (Last Vegas), Alan Arkin (Love the Coopers), and Michael Caine (The Last Witch Hunter); three guys who have massive presence on screen and can still share it with others.

And this bouncy comedy, with a tinge of seriousness, has a great supporting cast as well. Ann-Margret, John Ortiz (Kong: Skull Island), Joey King (Independence Day: Resurgence), Matt Dillon (Wayward Pines), and some extra silliness by Christopher Lloyd fill out the lives of our main characters with some nice color.

The thing is, the story had more potential than that. Much like a ton of other options like Now You See Me, Stand Up Guys, Lavender Hill Mob, Topkapi, there were depths to be plumbed. It starts off more serious and on a note that will resonate with much of the audience out there. But that note, instead, is just a MacGuffin that has little bite and barely any threat.

A better script would have helped. Writer Melfi (St. Vincent), despite some good moments, really fell into cliche and obvious choices. Some of that blame, though, has to go to the director, Zach Braff (Scrubs), who has little sense of subtlety and who clearly played this for broad laughs rather than something, potentially, richer. It still could have been fun and funny, but it could also have had a bit more grounding to raise the stakes and involve the audience rather than solely using cheap tricks, like kids and hospitals, to win our affections.

I’m not saying don’t watch this movie. It is diverting. It is funny. It is relatively satisfying. But, much like eating a single Cheeto, once it dissolved I found I was still hungry.

Going in Style

Free Fire

So, if Monty Python and Quentin Tarantino had a co-production to recreate the Black Knight of The Holy Grail as a heist gone wrong, you’d get Free Fire. This is an almost ceaselessly vulgar and violent confrontation at (of course) a gun sale gone wrong. Whether that is a good thing for you or not, is going to be a matter of mood and taste.

Director and co-writer Ben Wheatley reteamed with his High-Rise writer, Amy Jump, to bring this blood-fest to screen. The humor is dark and just as often missed the mark as hits it. On the other hand, the sound effects and engineering are really quite amazing. The biggest directing mistake Wheatley made was never giving us an overhead shot of the participants making their way around the killing field. It would have helped a little with the geography of the fight if folks were more easily located.

At the extreme end of the characters are Sharlto Copley (Chappie), Sam Riley (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Neither plays a believable character, but they certainly do so with abandon. It is the combination of both of them that is the excuse for the mayhem that follows.

As basic tough guys Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders), Jack Reynor (Sing Street), Noah Taylor (Deep Water), Babou Ceesay (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), and Michael Smiley (Luther) fill out the gangs. Each feels a bit like stock characters, but none are overly empty of interest.

But the two that really stand out as characters for me were Armie Hammer (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and Brie Larson (Kong: Skull Island). Each clearly has another life somewhere and all manner of things going on under the surface that we never get to understand, but which make their performances interesting rather than just loud.

Generally speaking, this isn’t a film for the weak of stomach or with sensitive hearing (language or gunfire). It, frankly, isn’t a very good film either, but it certainly will have its audience. I did laugh, on occasion, and winced a great deal through moments…even cheered once or twice quietly inside at the demise of a character or two. But there is little story and little to recommend. It is a vignette drawn out in loving detail for 90 minutes of lead filled hell. If that’s for you, then go for it, but there are plenty of better bullet strewn extravaganzas that actually have characters and plots you can latch onto.

Free Fire

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Di Renjie: Shen du long wang)

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame was visually entertaining and intriguing enough that this follow-up prequel by the same writers and director caught my attention. Director and co-writer Hark Tsui has a boundless imagination and nearly overwhelms you with creative scenery and fights. Actually, if you are stuck with subtitles, it can be exhausting as the dialogue can be fast and furious, even during some of the action sequences.

But the story is full of action and humor and crazy, wild plot choices. Though there is a huge cast of characters, the film is really propped up by three actors: Mark Chao, Shaofeng Feng (Monkey King 2), and Angelababy (Independence Day: Resurgence). The fights are replete with wire work, which isn’t my favorite for martial arts, but this is a fantasy and that is part and parcel of the genre. The fights are still entertaining and inventive…even if they defy all known physics. 

I’m not sure why Tsui decided to loop back on Dee’s timeline to slip in this prequel even while he was planning the next main timeline movie, but perhaps that will become clear when Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings releases. In the meantime, you have this confection to chew on, if you are into this kind of thing.

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon

Alien Arrival (aka Arrowhead)

There is an interesting story somewhere in this script (and probably on the cutting room floor), but it doesn’t really come together on screen. The largely unknown cast is led by Dan Mor as a brooding rebel with mixed and muddled motivations. Pretty to look at, he doesn’t create a character we can invest in or root for because we never understand him or what he wants and needs to do.

Writer/director Jesse O’Brien really attempts to tackle the difficulty of bringing hard science fiction to the screen…with a healthy does of science fantasy on many points. I applaud him for not treating the audience like idiots, and for some interesting moments and storytelling. But, he needed a few more “connect the dots” revelations to help us put together the story he intended to tell. What we end up with is a nihilistic opening chapter in a larger tale about some kind of galactic war that never quite makes any sense. 

I did watch the whole film, because there was just enough to keep teasing me along that there would be answers. Frankly, I’d skip this. But if you are a real fan of Australian science fiction or want to sample a new director and see what he may be capable of down the road, it isn’t entirely unwatchable, just not particularly satisfying.

Alien Arrival

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

It is going to kill me to write this review. Of all the movies this summer, this is the one I was really waiting for; the first big Luc Besson (Léon: The Professional) film in years. I still think you should go see it, but I’ll get to why later. First the painful part.

The source material for Valerian predates and influenced a good part of the ‘classic’ scifi movie cannon, but it is coming to market long after they got to establish themselves. So what we see appears to be part Fifth Element and part Avatar, with healthy doses of Star Wars and Babylon 5 thrown in for good measure. It is visually stunning, no question. It also has some of the best depictions of AR done yet on film. But for all its inventiveness it feels a bit like a pastiche of what you already know even if the comic influenced them first. But that isn’t where the move is weakest.

The main weakness isn’t even in the plot. The plot is relatively obvious by design. There is no pretense about who is good and who is evil in this tale. Clive Owen (Words and Pictures) is about as subtle as a nuke in his role. And are you really unclear that the species experiencing genocide is probably on the side of right? The story, at its bones, is interesting and has captivated audiences for years in comic form as a classic good and evil struggle. Besson could have softened that a bit, grayed out Owen’s role, in particular, to help raise the emotion and tension of the decisions, but it could have worked either way.

No, the weakness of the film is squarely on the acting of the two main characters.

Because there are few character surprises, the strength of the film has to rely on the chemistry between Dean DeHaan’s (Life After Beth) and Cara Delevingne‘s (Suicide Squad) characters. Much like the Bruce Willis/Mila Jovovich interchanges in Fifth Element, it isn’t so much what is happening around the main characters as much as what is happening between them. And, sadly, there is bloody nothing happening in that space for DeHaan and Delevingne. Zip. A gallon jug of liquid nitrogen couldn’t cool their romance any more than it already is. They don’t even seem to react at the carnage they leave in their path during their normal day-to-day assignments. It may be, in part, the directing, but, frankly, neither of these actors has impressed me much in their previous roles. So let’s say it is as much a casting as an acting problem, which still is at Besson’s feet.

All that said, you do have to see this film for a couple reasons. First, it is a big screen experience, no question. The level of detail and artistry on the screen has rarely, if ever, been matched. Second, it is one of the few original ideas out there in the tentpole space. Everything we’re being fed this year is spin-off, sequel, prequel, or remake. Besson is giving us something new. That is a gift in these days of recycling properties and studios too scared to try something new. They need a reason to gamble and that means showing them “new” can sell. Go in knowing you’re there for a visual ride and you’re fine.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Authors Anonymous

It isn’t that there aren’t some good moments in this Chris Guest wannabe about a writing group, but it is too uneven and unsatisfying to outright recommend. That said, if you are in a writing group, you will probably find a lot that is familiar.

Delivering the comedy is a host of recognizable faces. Kaley Cuoco (Why Him?), Chris Klein (Wilfred), Teri Polo (The Hole), Dylan Walsh (Unforgettable), Tricia Helfer (Lucifer), Meagen Foy (La La Land), among them. And, in one of his last performances, Dennis Farina provides his trademark bruised, tough guy.

Director Ellie Kanner is better known for her casting prowess than she is her directing. I can’t honestly say that either aspect shows itself well in this movie. While the individual roles are cast well, the chemistry of the group is off. You don’t really believe these individuals would associate with one another for a long time. That is as much on first-time writer David Congalton as it is on Kanner. The understanding of the current state of publishing just isn’t there. This feels like it was written more than ten years ago, though it was only completed in 2013.

Part of my problem with this flick the use of improvisation for dialogue. The movie bounces between mockumentary-style interviews and long, fly-on-the-wall moments. As I’ve mentioned before, I often find this mixed approach forced and unsatisfying. Authors was no exception.

It isn’t an unwatchable film, but it just doesn’t really connect for me. Even with the two codas during the credits, I’m left feeling a general wondering at why I spent 90 minutes getting to that point. You may find the humor and situation more engaging than I did, but I can’t recommend it.

Authors Anonymous

Love Affair (to Remember)

Ever been watching a film and thought, “I’ve seen this before?”

I recently caught a presentation of Love Affair (1939) with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, directed by Leo McCrarey. About 10 minutes in I realized it was reminding me of something else I’d seen not too long ago: An Affair to Remember (1957) with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, also directed by Leo McCrarey.

You aren’t misreading, McCrarey directed both. It is an incredible example of a director getting a complete do-over later in his life with (almost) the same script, but an entirely different life view and technology advantage. The result is, in many ways, two entirely different films with almost the same plot and words. I don’t know of any other film pairing that could whet the appetite of a film lover more than the chance to see that in action, especially with such big names attached.

I recommend both movies for different reasons. Love Affair has the energy and sensibility of The Thin Man pairing of Powell and Loy. An Affair to Remember is quite a bit more serious and emotional. Both are gorgeously filmed and well executed. And, as dated as both are in some ways, they stand the test of time rather well because they focus more on the emotions than the culture of the era.  Make time for both of these at some point. Together, they are fascinating nuggets of film history; on their own, they are just good films as well.

I could spend an exhaustive amount of effort going through the comparisons, but the folks at Spectrum Culture have already done so, and it is an excellent, if spoiler-ridden, read. So if you want detail before or after you dig these films up, here is a link to the article:

Re-Make/Re-Model: Love Affair (1939) vs. An Affair to Remember (1957)

Love Affair An Affair to Remember

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015)

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Really, yet another Midsummer Night’s Dream?” Or, perhaps, “Shakespeare? Honestly, why do I need to see this?” The answer to both is: Julie Taymor (The Tempest).

Taymor is one of the most visionary stage directors of our time. She employs simple techniques to create magnificent effects. Think the puppets in The Lion King, which have become her trademark. Midsummer certainly leverages that aspect of her talent, but also her ability to distill a play to its essence and manifest it. The opening moments of this filmed performance will grab you and make you wish you’d been in the audience. She takes several minutes before the first piece of uttered dialogue to visually create the world and your expectations, to invite you into a magical realm, to escape for a while into the silliness of this comedy.

There are a number of solid performances, but chief among them in Kathryn Hunter (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). Her Puck is brilliant and carries the show well through acting, voice, and movement. As Oberon, David Harewood (The Night Manager) brings both a power and heart to the self-important ruler, though it is still rather hobbled by the plot he must walk.

The Mechanicals, led by Max Casella’s (Jackie) Bottom, are suitably absurd, and each has their moment. But it is Zachary Infante (Carrie Pilby) as Flute that really shines in one of the play’s most important moments near the end of the film.

The approach to filming the play is done rather well, capturing both an audience feel and “in the action” keeping it from feeling too static. There are a few moments that I’d rather have seen from long shots, to really appreciate the staging, but generally, the cameras floated among the characters like the fairies in the play.

So here’s the truth: The play isn’t perfect. Frankly no Shakespeare is. Sensibilities have moved on and the plays tend to be a bit longer for their purpose than modern times tends to care for and, clearly, a little too forgiving of cultural mores that are well out of date. In the case of Midsummer, the opening scene and the overlong wrap-up probably will grate a little. You are also forgiven for wondering why the heck we have to sit through the mechanical’s presentation while the Duke and co. heckle them. The Mechanical’s play is funny and, really, it is used to get to the single moment with Flute, whose declaration of love is one of the most heart-felt in the entire play, which is full of overblown histrionics by design. That moment brings it all back to earth. More generally, in today’s terms, Shakespeare had written himself into a corner and needed to wrap up the threads and entertain the cheap seats. However, to be a little more fair, the original intent of the play was about (and for) the wedding.

If you’ve never seen Midsummer, this is a great one to start with. If you have, it may well become your favorite interpretation on a broad scale. There have certainly been better and more memorable individual performances of characters in this play, but as an overall delivery, this version is truly extraordinary and wonderful to watch.

A Midsummer Night