Archive for May 2013

Furious 6

May 25, 2013

Fast-and-the-Furious-6-7It’s easy to see why the Fast and Furious series — which started rather modestly twelve years and five films ago — has developed into a major going concern and reliable ATM for Universal. Yes, the vehicular mayhem has gotten crazier and more convoluted with each new entry, but it isn’t just that. Partly it’s the same reason a TV show succeeds: people like the characters and want to hang out with them. The reason for that, in the F&F movies, is simple: they show a well-calibrated team, a tight unit, a family, and without much bickering (aside from some good-natured ribbing). Over and over again, Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto spells it out: family this, family that, all that matters is family. And this family is a bunch of people of different colors and genders working smoothly to get the job done.

This franchise has turned, very lucratively, into a fantasy of being part of a super-cool group, being part of something larger than oneself, where everyone is respected (once they’ve earned it by right of talent) and nobody is judged (as long as they stay true to the family). Former FBI agent Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) once betrayed the trust of Dom and his crew, but has since made up for it to the extent that Dom is now the proud uncle of Brian’s son (by way of Dom’s sister Mia). Dom’s girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), presumed dead but discovered alive at the end of 2011’s Fast Five, has gone to work for a group of international thieves, but only because she has amnesia. You see, once you’ve been in Dom’s family, only a catastrophic memory loss can break the bond.

Furious 6 (as it’s actually titled onscreen) doesn’t have as much tough-guy sentimentality or, consequently, as much amusing inadvertent (or perhaps advertent) homoerotic subtext as its predecessor, which offered hostile staring contests and a brutal fistfight between Dom and the oak-necked special agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). Here, Hobbs recruits Dom and his crew to help catch the thieves who took Letty away. Yeah, blah blah, the thieves also possess a MacGuffin that threatens national security, but the real mission is to get Letty back in the family. Other things have to happen first, though, including a mad chase through London employing “flip cars” (which, as advertised, ram into oncoming vehicles and flip them), a highway chase involving a tank, and a climax featuring a plane trying its best to take off while weighed down by several cars attached to it by grappling hooks.

None of this is quite as much hilarious fun as the endgame in Fast Five involving two cars dragging a ten-ton vault at high speed through the streets of Rio de Janeiro. But it’s fun enough, with a satisfyingly vicious fight between Letty and agent Riley (Gina Carano, pretty much as wooden an actress as she was in Haywire) and frequent comic relief via Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges. The villain this time (Luke Evans) isn’t much, but the villains have never been the point of the F&F series; the plot of the next sequel — and there will be a next sequel — could be about how Dom and his posse have to stop a movie critic from drinking too much iced tea as he writes a review, and as long as it retains the family dynamic and somehow involves outlandish stunts, it’d still fly.

These last four F&F installments have been directed by Justin Lin, who has taken a shaky franchise and beefed it up into the monster it is today. Furious 6 is his farewell to the series, and I think he’s getting out while he’s ahead. Where else can the stunts go? Will Dom and his people be chasing a space shuttle in Faster and Furiouser? Or will the series do a U-turn with Slow and Mellow, featuring Dom and his family sitting around their picnic table and encountering no bigger adversary than the occasional mosquito? The end-credits stinger promises the introduction of a new Big Bad played by a veteran of not one but three recent action franchises noted for their cranked-up excess and machismo. The thought of the sullen staring contests between him and Dom is more exciting than the idea of however the new filmmakers plan to ramp up the action.

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Star Trek Into Darkness

May 18, 2013

header-star-trek-into-darkness-first-volcanic-clipStar Trek Into Darkness is such a brooding, portentous title for such a zippy goofball of a movie. Why Into Darkness? Probably because it sounds cool. The movie also sounds cool — the decibel level, as usual with these summer behemoths, is punishing — and looks cool. “Cool” has seldom been an adjective associated with Star Trek, at least among non-Trekkies; what franchise rebooters J.J. Abrams (director) and his writing cohorts Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci have done is to make Gene Roddenberry’s gentle humanist daydream safe for consumers of more steak-and-potatoes fare like Fast and Furious. To that end, lots of things explode and there are many, many chases, many races against the clock. This is a movie in which an event that would climax a frailer movie — Spock (Zachary Quinto) setting off a cold-fusion device inside a volcano to quell its eruption — is just the throat-clearing opener, explaining why impetuous Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is busted down to First Officer.

Kirk saved an entire planet, but he wasn’t supposed to — he broke the Prime Directive, observe but don’t mess with alien civilizations — so, for his troubles, he gets demoted and loses his ship, the Enterprise, to his mentor, Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood). That doesn’t stick, though, because soon a terrorist (Benedict Cumberbatch) has someone set off a bomb in London (it’s nice to see that London will still have trees in the 23rd century) and tries to kill all of the Starfleet’s captains. This is bad, so Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) authorizes Kirk to take off after the terrorist and terminate him with extreme prejudice. The terrorist turns out to be Khan, a name familiar from a thousand internet memes featuring William Shatner bellowing it.

This is not quite the Khan we remember from the original Star Trek episode “Space Seed” and its feature-length sequel The Wrath of Khan; this rebooted Star Trek follows an alternate timeline, which theoretically means the crew of the Enterprise should be free to have all new adventures and encounter fresh new threats, not face off once again with a reiteration of a villain they battled 31 years ago in a different timeline. Benedict Cumberbatch seems to know he can’t compete with Ricardo Montalban’s beloved and richly campy reading of Khan, so he doesn’t even try; besides, he doesn’t have the dialogue. (And this movie, chasing as it does the Vin Diesel crowd, wouldn’t dream of having a Melville-quoting Khan spitting venom at a Dickens-reading Kirk. This Kirk might only pick up a book if it were lying atop an issue of Playboy, but it’s amusing that he’s still listening to the Beastie Boys.)

A Star Trek film lives or dies on the chemistry of the crew, and on that level the new movie sort of works. I like how actors such as Simon Pegg and Karl Urban seem to have enough reverence for James Doohan and DeForest Kelley to mimic the late actors’ mannerisms, but also enough of their own wit to make the characters their own. The characters are fun to spend time with. But the script deals in so many pointless twists and so much parking-lot logic (i.e., the kind of plot holes that make you go “Wait a minute” on your way to your car, and perhaps sooner) that there never seem to be any serious stakes. The movie hits the ground running and never stops; it gets winded with the frantic efforts to keep hustling us over all the plot speed bumps. Also, the movie ends with a glaring cheat that essentially means nobody in the Star Trek universe has to die any more. At least Spock stayed dead for a while, back in the ’80s when death still mattered in movies.

Fairly early on, I figured out how dumb Star Trek Into Darkness was going to be, so I just relaxed into the dumbness. It’s a top-notch light show (I saw it in 2D, so can’t comment on how effective the post-converted 3D is), scored with excitable flourish by Michael Giacchino. After a while I laughed at myself for watching a movie that climaxed, more or less, with a chase on foot between Khan and a really pissed-off Spock. This, I remind you, is a movie that begins with Spock stopping a volcano from erupting, and eventually winds up with the same mechanics — minus the hopping from airship to airship — that you see at the end of every fifth-rate cop show. The poor movie. It just wears itself right out. You almost want to offer it some iced tea and sit it under a tree for a spell.

The Great Gatsby

May 11, 2013

Great-GatsbyF. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby may be the most strongly Hollywood-flavored of the Great American Novels — its ready-made visual symbols (the green light on the dock, the all-seeing eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg), its unabashedly melodramatic plot, the noisy dazzlement of its parties — but it has never blossomed like a flower at the lips’ touch of cinema. It’s a tricky novel, staunchly interior, a tale told by a simple man about a fool — Jay Gatsby, who built a fortune so he could possess his long-lost love Daisy. What Gatsby doesn’t understand about himself — that a man who runs away from love out of shame at his poverty, then spends five years constructing a hollow shrine to his new status as a great catch, has deeper problems than money — is what powers the novel. The Great Gatsby is, among many other things, a prescient pre-Depression portrait of a bubble that had to pop and did.

That’s hard to get across in a movie, even with narration that spells everything out and often infantilizes Fitzgerald’s meanings. The new Great Gatsby rides a rainbow wave of 3D and hip-hop, straining mightily to seem relevant in the era of Jay-Z and Iron Man 3. (Gatsby is the original Iron Man, sheathed in the armor of privilege but with a wounded and vulnerable heart.) But all it can be, like every other attempt at the book, is a flip-page visualization. The 3D lends spatial depth to the sets, but the people in them are two-dimensional. This was to be expected from Baz Luhrmann, who has been drawn again and again to lushly doomed romances (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge) only to litter them with lurid images. His Great Gatsby may be his most solid work (at least its structure holds his carny-barker instincts in check) but it’s still as aggressively opulent as his other films. The camera goes on being wowed by the signifiers of vast wealth long after the party’s over. Luhrmann is a guest who doesn’t know when to leave.

The film does offer a pleasantly bombastic intro to Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has invited the story’s narrator, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), to one of his epic shindigs. DiCaprio is a little old for Gatsby but still looks young, and he does everything he can to nail the different sides of the former James Gatz. He works up a posh Oxford accent that amusingly drops the T from such words as “start” and, of course, “old sport.” He’s touchingly childlike when waiting impatiently for the now-married Daisy (Carey Mulligan) to arrive at Nick’s modest house for tea. DiCaprio seems to have read, understood and internalized the book; aside from gothy newcomer Elizabeth Dabicki as the extravagantly bored golf champion Jordan Baker, who exactly matches the Jordan I envisioned in the book, DiCaprio is the best at bringing the novel to the screen.

Luhrmann throws great colorful parties. But with anything that doesn’t involve spectacle or dazzle, he’s hopeless. An intractable problem may not be Luhrmann’s fault: Daisy is as dull as she was in the book. But in Fitzgerald she’s dull for thematic reasons — Gatsby knocks himself out to be worthy of a woman who isn’t all that interesting. His version of the American Dream is premised on self-delusion, wanting what he can’t have. In a movie we at least expect the camera to show us some of what attracted Gatsby to Daisy, but Luhrmann is too busy tossing confetti. To illustrate a greater failing — and I suppose this is a spoiler alert for a story most of you should have read by now — Luhrmann’s depiction of Gatsby’s fate is offensively pictorial, turning the elliptically-told tragedy in the book into a faux-poetic visual. Forget about Dr. T.J. Eckleburg; the eyes of Baz Luhrmann are all that matter here.

It’s not impossible to make a great movie out of material like this. The closest cinema has come to what Fitzgerald achieved was, of course, Citizen Kane, and Gatsby and Charles Foster Kane have been compared and contrasted endlessly by university students over the decades. (From some angles, DiCaprio, whose face has filled out in his post-heartthrob career, could pass for Kane here. Don’t give Luhrmann any ideas.) Orson Welles used every technique at his disposal to shed light on the inner turmoil of a man devoted to surfaces. Luhrmann is quite content to stay on the surface, to rub elbows with tuxedoed gents and bewitching flappers. (If the movie brings back the flapper look, it will have justified itself in at least one regard.) Even the book’s final line, perhaps the most famous last line in all of American literature, is given a bland and uncomprehending reading by the morose Maguire and accompanied by shiny text on the screen. Teenagers who rent this movie in lieu of reading the book deserve to flunk their summer-reading tests next September.

Iron Man 3

May 4, 2013

357553-iron-man-3-pepper-potts-gwyneth-paltrow-armors-up-in-new-teaserCan you name a third film in a franchise that was better than the previous two films? You’d probably have to go deep — A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, perhaps? — but Iron Man 3, despite my misgivings as someone who yawned through Tony Stark’s first two adventures, turns out to be deft summer entertainment, cheerfully amoral (I’ll get to that) and lightly coated with terrific little bits of comedic business. The difference here, it’s clear, is director/cowriter Shane Black, whose scripts for Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout still hold up as winking macho fantasies. Black doesn’t take much seriously unless it involves a hero trying to rescue or avenge his loved one. Everything else is fair game, all in fun, the clatter and concussion of action tropes as syncopated as the dialogue.

Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is up against some heavy hitters this time: exploding, supercharged assassins — juiced up with some form of nanotech called Extremis — who do the bidding of a shadowy, preening terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). The Mandarin, probably the most durable of the rather forgettable rogues’ gallery in Marvel’s Iron Man comics, is sort of tossed aside in this movie, in a wittily cynical fashion that almost reads as subversion. Black doesn’t take mustache-twirling supervillains seriously either. Mostly, the movie is a matter of Stark up against amputee war vets whose exposure to the putatively healing Extremis has made them aggressive and vicious. Someone in a bad mood might find Iron Man 3 unforgivably callous and thoughtless, especially after the events in Boston, where we saw real terrorism, real explosions, real amputees.

But the combination of Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr., which worked a treat in 2005’s little-seen but well-loved Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, wants only to put you in a good mood — especially if you were there for the ’80s and ’90s action bonanzas from which Black emerged. Right down to its holiday setting — every scene is sprinkled with festive (and patriotic) Christmas lights — Iron Man 3 is a slick late-’80s throwback, with a bad guy (Guy Pearce) whose mullet and glib smile recall Val Kilmer’s Chris Knight in Real Genius, except this real genius is bent on domination via manipulating the terrorist market. (Kilmer, of course, was also Downey’s co-star in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.) Black expands his boys’ club a bit, though — one of the more fearsome Extremis brutes is a woman (Stephanie Szostak), and even the unfortunately named Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark’s loved one, gets to administer some beatdowns. Iron Woman!

If the thought of William Sadler and Miguel Ferrer — two character-actor favorites of the action era this movie fondly references — as President and Vice-President puts a spring in your step, welcome to Iron Man 3. (I wish Black had time to throw in Michael Ironside or Tom Atkins, just for me.) The rapport between Stark and fellow armor-wearer James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) likewise calls back to Riggs and Murtaugh. The action, framed by legendary cinematographer John Toll, is clear and crisp and satisfying, harking back to the days when directors felt it was important for us to see what was happening to whom, and where. (I’d advise skipping the 3D on this one — it works just fine in plain old 2D, and the colors most likely pop better.)

Downey is as blithely smug as he usually is in these hefty franchise events, but with Stark suffering Post-Avengers Stress Disorder, Downey has something new and likable to play: the current reality of gods and monsters has tweaked Stark’s head a little — he’s no longer the biggest kid on the block, and he’s a bit more humble. Technology, too, smacks him down to size, and at the end, after a symbolic fireworks show casting off tech support he no longer needs, we feel that Stark has grown up, left his toys behind. While we wait for the loud climax we have diversions in the form of witty banter between Stark and various admirers (including a fatherless kid who’s around just long enough not to wear out his welcome), and Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley making meals of their sinister dialogue, and Rebecca Hall, looking like an odd amalgam of Liv Tyler and Scarlett Johansson (Betty Ross! Black Widow!), as a botanist and former Stark one-night stand. The theme of the movie seems to be that the past — whether a woman scorned or a nerd snubbed at a New Year’s Eve party — will come back to bite you, and that extends to ghastly experiments on war veterans and destructive technology that can be used against its maker. For all its snark and lighter-than-air pyrotechnics and aesthetic, the movie has a bit more going on under the hood — or helmet — than it’ll get credit for.