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The Fate of the Furious — 6/10

THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS (2017, F. Gary Gray)

Unrepentantly stupid, and not in the tongue-in-cheek way that the series’ highpoint to date (FURIOUS 7) was — nobody expects verisimilitude in a franchise where cars jump through skyscrapers and drive off airplanes, but the movies are still more fun when the plot isn’t so dependent upon people making the most senseless possible choices at every conceivable point. This may not reach FAST FIVE levels of idiocy, but it’s close, and it has only a few bravura sequences and a few savior cast members to push it into still-entertaining-but-a-little-disappointing territory.

Basically existing as meathead Bond films for the last several installments, Neal Moritz’s F&F movies improved tremendously with the introduction of The Rock as series regular, and since then additions like Jason Statham and Kurt Russell have been huge assets. Now it’s hard to imagine the movies being even remotely good without those three guys, because all the scenes with Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez are like Fred Durst’s version of a Lifetime movie. Now they’ve added Oscar-winner Charlize Theron as the new Big Bad, and audiences get to see her kick more ass in the ATOMIC BLONDE trailer that precedes the movie than in the film itself. She spends most of her time behind a bank of monitors, wearing a headset and barking orders. Does Gray not think she could have pulled off a sequence like James Wan (still the series’s best director, and only a one-time drop-in) shot between Ronda Rousey and Rodriguez in Dubai? George Miller would argue otherwise. In other casting mistakes, the loss of Paul Walker evidently required a new bland white guy to reach the frat bro demographic, so in comes Scott Eastwood to be amazingly unmemorable and boring, and to play an FBI agent who mispronounces “nuclear.”

The worst thing about these episodes has always been Chris Morgan’s writing (he’s done all but the first two scripts) and whenever the films are good, it’s despite Morgan, not because of him. I have to imagine Johnson came up with the Samoan soccer dance (one of the funniest scenes) and vets like Statham and Russell make even the corniest dialogue sing with their expert timing and charisma. But the first scene in F8 has Diesel saying “it doesn’t matter what’s under the hood — it’s who’s behind the wheel” and then instantly putting nitrous oxide under the hood of the car he’s racing in order to win.

Luckily, that car chase is tremendous. The prison riot that follows is equally thrilling (the face-melting rap banger “Speakerbox” from Bassnectar helps a ton), and the top-notch action sequence trilogy concludes a little over halfway through with the “make it rain” New York City set piece, which will give pause to everyone like me who simply can’t wait until self-driving cars are all that’s left on the road. Unfortunately, the Iceland-shot climax involving a nuclear sub (with some keen parallel action involving a baby with headphones straight-up ripped out of FACE-OFF) happens with the tank on E, as everything limps towards a predictable conclusion — as a flashback revolving around Helen Mirren tells a story we’d much rather be watching than what’s actually on screen.

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Star Trek Into Darkness — 6/10

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013, J.J. Abrams): 6/10

Technically unassailable (well, except for one bad edit that goes from Scotty with his right hand on a joystick to the same hand flipping a switch above his head), which is something that should not be taken for granted — even when Hollywood just unloads dumptrucks full of money at a summer blockbuster, it doesn’t necessarily translate to cinematic competence (such as with STAR TREK’s producers/writers Orci & Kurtzman & Lindelof’s 2011 debacle COWBOYS & ALIENS). So give Abrams credit for being captain of a beautifully purring ship here, from the photography to the special effects to the sound design. But you know what else is technically unassailable? My iPhone.

In other words, holding the attentions of its viewers — the hordes of Americans who were cattle-herded into theaters this weekend (to the tune of $70 million in ticket sales; an objectively staggering figure despite the proclamations that such a number was a “disappointment” — especially in light of IRON MAN THREE’s $170M+) in order to sit on their asses, shovel popcorn into their faces at a ferocious pace, tear their eyeballs away from Facebook for 140 minutes, and find themselves agreeably distracted by a lot of colors, flashing lights, and high-pitched noises and booms — is an admirable feat but not one that’s going to get me to stand up and applaud. The substance here is spelled out cleanly (the closer Abrams’s camera gets to faces, the more we’re supposed to pay attention), i.e. storylines such as Kirk’s volatile heroism vs. Spock’s seemingly cold rationality, government’s troublesome hawkish responses to terrorist action, sacrifice & teamwork, etc. But that doesn’t make it profound: it still came off as shallow to me, and I couldn’t really overlook it in the context of pretty thin supporting characters (Uhuru plays nothing more than a fiesty girlfriend in this one, Sulu a workhorse of a pilot, and Khan a one-dimensional face of evil). Pine is a rock star, and deserves a better starring role — he has great moments in this film opposite the equally strong Quinto, but Kirk is imagined as a micro-managing superhero, not only serving as captain and ace-sniper, but also sacrificial mechanic and political diplomat. He only delegates when he can’t be two places at once.

But given the shortcomings of the script it’s still noteworthy that the action scenes make such good sense in the midst of the sci-fi ridiculousness, the best of which is Kirk and Khan’s fingernail-biting dive-through-space from the Enterprise to the other ship. Abrams learned pacing, consistency, and spectacle from his mentor Spielberg. But I’m just worried that he only learned how to mimic the appearance of interest in humanity, not embody it.

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Trance — 3/10

TRANCE (2013, Danny Boyle): 3/10

For all of you who thought ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND was too sophisticated, too nuanced, too emotional and heart-breaking, too intelligent, or too funny, thank heavens there’s Danny Boyle here to deliver you ETERNAL SUNSHINE FOR DUMMIES. This is a shallow, sappy love story masquerading as a heist film and neo-noir, and it’s all done with a bizarrely tone-deaf attitude that makes me wonder if Boyle even gave a shit about the script at all.

Stylistically it’s not lacking, but that doesn’t mean it’s good — plenty of visuals are here just to be flashy, as if Boyle was trying to do De Palma without ever realizing that De Palma has a reason for every camera move and editing trick. But the real crimes here are the dialogue and story, which are just violently stupid at a rapidly increasing pace. Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson, two very talented actors, are hung out to dry even as they do their best with this subject matter. James McEvoy, on the other hand, may just never have what it takes to be a leading man. Boyle needs Ewan McGregor circa 1998 to pull this character off, and try as he may to recreate young McGregor in McEvoy, the results are depressing.

It’s a vulgar, trashy, slickly-shot C-movie that commits the worst sin a disposable matinee can commit: thinking that it is far more profound than it actually is. This adds a sticky layer of pretension to a film that uses pubic hair as a main plot point and hypnotherapy as a serious criminal weapon.

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Sleepwalk With Me — 4/10

SLEEPWALK WITH ME (2012, Mike Birbiglia & Seth Barrish): 4/10

There’s a reason Birbiglia is so good at telling stories on stage. From The Moth to This American Life to guest spots all over the place, I love listening to him spin a yarn — especially because it comes from such an honest place. And whatever that reason is, whatever is making him so affecting as a tale-teller, it’s exactly what makes him a bad filmmaker. Turning his life story into a movie is akin to those horrible animated shows on HBO that turn Ricky Gervais’s podcast into a cartoon — there’s absolutely no reason to watch something that’s better off being heard. Or more accurately, it’s like watching a drunk on a dance floor acting out the lyrics to a song. So my piece of advice to the very talented Birbiglia is this: tell, don’t show.

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Django Unchained — 8/10

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012, Quentin Tarantino): 8/10

It’s end-of-year catchup time, and I’ve been watching a ton of movies, as the 11 of you reading this know if you’ve kept up with my flurry of posts lately. And I’ve started watching even more than I’ve written about because I didn’t finish a few (e.g. THE TURIN HORSE, the first 30 minutes of which I found beautiful and potentially devastating, but plodding and depressing and grueling to endure). Furthermore, Michael Haneke’s AMOUR tops my list as the best of the bunch — and it’s a slow, relentless march towards decay, death, and nothingness.

Well, there’s only so many more AMOURs and TURIN HORSEs a man can take before he blows his brains out, and my antidote came just in time — and who better to bring the medicine than Quentin Fucking Tarantino. Here’s a guy who’s never made anything close to a bad film, and two of them (KILL BILL & PULP FICTION) are singular, timeless masterpieces. So why am I not surprised that DJANGO UNCHAINED came as an adrenaline surge of entertainment — rip-roaring, howlingly funny, seductively visual, and primally satisfying.

Critics of the film will say, okay yeah — but it’s all surface pleasure, and there’s no “there” there. First of all, you can probably say that about a few other QT films (even the best ones like KILL BILL) but even still, superficial does not mean disposable. Secondly, I would disagree regardless — there is some “there” there, it’s just broad and jagged, much like the whip-scarred shoulders of the opening image: a slave marching in step, something that can boil our blood with moral outrage instantly.

So what’s the “there?” Take the progression of the two leads in this film and follow the shift in focus, shift in power, and ultimate importance. In the first act, the white guy is the protagonist — Schultz teaches Django this and that and is the instrument of the quiet, subservient Django’s every move. In the second act, Django picks up steam and confidence, and soon becomes Schultz’s equal — both in screen time and story dominance, and almost in dialogue as well. In the third act, Django the protege surpasses Schultz the master, and becomes the archetypal hero, reducing Schultz to a mere bystander (or worse) in his mythical journey through hellfire to rescue his princess.

Tarantino has used the progression of Django’s power to mirror the black man in American culture, as overt racism has dissipated and allowed blacks to achieve every bit the importance whitey has. Take the NFL — in the ’50s and ’60s, blacks were predominantly defenders and rare skill position players. In the ’80s, black QBs like Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham were anomalies. Now, the likes of Brady, Brees, and Rodgers have met their equals in Vick, RG III, and Wilson. This is thanks to the end of anti-black-QB prejudice by owners and coaches. (Speaking of which, the black head coach has also become less and less of a rarity). Should we get into the fact that the leader of our country, the most powerful political position in the free world, is black? Didn’t think so. I’m not saying QT is comparing Django to Obama; I’m saying by showing us the huge arc of power-grabbing this lead character occupies, he’s able to cause the audience to consider the sheer horror that slavery (in not too distant a past in this country) really was, and how far we can come when people are allowed the freedom to pursue. This is something Kushner and Spielberg’s LINCOLN was telling us (over and over again), but it’s something Tarantino is showing us.

(Added: wanted to say something about the over-the-top repeated use of the N-word here; something tells me QT is of the mind that if you repeat a word often enough it loses its meaning — and I think he wants to de-thorn the slur. But I can’t be sure, really).

Record scratch. On to the filmmaking.

There’s a reason Tarantino has used so many cover songs on his soundtracks (think of the Blue Swede version of “Hooked On a Feelin'” or the Bedlam version of “Magic Carpet Ride” in RESERVOIR DOGS, or the Urge Overkill version of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” in PULP FICTION); he likes when some newer artist does a take on older, established classics. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Well, Tarantino makes cover movies. Whether he’s overtly remaking CITY ON FIRE like with DOGS, or paying homage to stuff like SEX & FURY and comic books with KILL BILL and VANISHING POINT with DEATH PROOF, Tarantino takes cinema’s past and reinvents it with his unique, wildly original eye and ear. (Yes, an artist can be original even when they’re covering something). Here, he’s covering Spaghetti Westerns, blaxploitation films, and even his own INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. So I don’t mind the familiarity (he uses just the right amount of snap-zooms and Leone cues; enough to remind us what he’s doing, but not so often we’re sick of it). As long as it works, and holy shit does it.

Robert Richardson, one of the best DPs alive, almost outdoes himself here — capturing John Fordian vistas of the wide shots as well as the hot-lighted shootout reminiscent of the House of Blue Leaves bloodbath. The soundtrack is as lively as ever, and although QT must miss the exacting editorial touch of his late collaborator Sally Menke, the pacing of this thing — even at 165 minutes — is still sharp. Then there’s the performances — as sensational and revelatory as Christoph Waltz was in BASTERDS, he’s nearly as amazing here. Jamie Foxx is strong and fascinating when he’s quiet and observing, but heroic and likable when the guns blaze. It takes a while to adjust to what DiCaprio is doing as the heavy, but from the way he holds his cigarette holder (choking up on it like a pencil) to the way his voice cracks when he shouts, Calvin Candie is a juicy villain, cartoonish and one-dimensional, but perfectly detestable. It may be a limitation of the exploitation genre to refuse to draw shadings in characters like Candie, but it didn’t bother me because of DiCaprio’s extraordinary talent.

Finally, there’s Sam Jackson. A Tarantino regular, his appearance here is both unsettling in its anachronism and absolutely perfect in its depiction. In the character of Stephen, QT implies there’s something even more vicious and tragic about the blacks who kept slavery humming than the whites. And nobody relishes Tarantino dialogue like Jackson. It’s a treat for the ears. Unfortunately, Kerry Washington is supremely ineffective as the object of Django’s affections. In a nearly wordless role, she’s there to act as an object to be rescued, but doesn’t get to express the passion necessary to get invested. (Aside from a jokey bang-against-the-wall between DeNiro and Fonda in JACKIE BROWN and some uncomfortable rape scenes, Tarantino simply does not do sex scenes — the most chemistry and love to come from his pen was directed by Tony Scott in TRUE ROMANCE). I don’t mind the lack of a Beatrix (turning this 19th century slave revenge tale into one of feminist power would be fairly absurd), but he needed to either re-cast Broomhilda or give Washington something more identifiable to do.

And let’s just not speak about Tarantino’s own role as an Australian. Seriously.

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Lincoln — 4/10

LINCOLN (2012, Steven Spielberg): 4/10

LINCOLN is Spielberg at his worst and his most crassly manipulative, but I’m sure audiences are just going to lap this up. It cajoles, seduces, and congratulates all of us in the theater for understanding that slavery is bad, and that all men are created equal. (And gets in a few har-har jokes at how ridiculous it seemed to 19th century politicians that women would ever get to vote). If you need to be reminded that Lincoln passed the 13th Amendment, or that he ended the Civil War, or that he fought for the rights of black Americans, this is the film for you!

For the rest of us, this dry, pompous, pious, dusty shoebox of a movie is a thudding bore. Occasionally it takes a break from men drinking tea, smoking cigars, and measuring their mutton chops against each other to get in a few jolts of sopping wet humor — partly in the form of sick burns delivered by the heroes of the film (Lincoln gets several, Mary Todd gets a good one in, and the rest of the time in the form of Tommy Lee Jones’s lovable old scamp Thaddeus Stevens). Jones is terrific, but the script just serves up his opponents as softballs for him to swat away like Ty Cobb.

When the film isn’t letting its Good Guys oh-snap-no-he-didn’t verbally smackdown the evil racist Congressmen, it follows around Honest Abe as he leans against desks, unleashing one corny anecdote after another. I can see an SNL sketch forming already, where time is of the essence but Lincoln is around, so everyone has to wait while he spins an old yarn with a moralistic punchline. It’s a shame that the character is so absurd, because Daniel Day-Lewis plays him to perfection. He’s one of the world’s best actors and deserves all the praise he’ll get come awards season. But although he carries the weight of the world on his tall, lean shoulders, and knows how to calm nerves with a sly joke, this president is forced by Spielberg to serve as a Holy Savior with Human Struggles, a figure more than a man.

And all the while, Spielberg uses the hoariest of cinematic tools to hammer his points home. In one outrageously over-the-top scene, Abe and Mary argue over whether to allow their son to fight in the Civil War. Behind Abe is a window revealing a relentless lightning storm (because all arguments in movies happen during thunderstorms, while all romantic scenes happen in sunlight), the audio popping in thunder strikes with each fierce point — and behind Mary is a raging fire in the fireplace, its flames licking the screen to prop up Mom’s fury. It’s another example of Spielberg having so little faith in his audience that not only are we forced to listen to preachy lecture after preachy lecture on ideas that are already obvious, but he supports these messages with ham-fisted direction. He might as well have shot the film in black-and-white and left only Lincoln colored in red, white, and blue.

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Rampart – 7/10

RAMPART (2011, Oren Moverman): 7/10

Better than Werner Herzog’s BAD LIEUTENANT; not nearly as good as Abel Ferrara’s BAD LIEUTENANT. This is a skillful film — richly photographed and delicately directed. While there are explosive moments of drama, none of them are overplayed or phony. As a character study, it’s terrific — thanks of course to Woody Harrelson, who’s in every scene and just bores a hole right through the camera lens. He’s a marvel. The script, however, is a different beast. Not that this is meant to be a clean narrative, but I’m questioning if Ellroy’s novelistic skills can ever really translate to the cinema (I’m in the camp that L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is overrated; and while that could be Helgeland’s fault, it’s starting to become a trend that films based on Ellroy works are consistently underwhelming, and now that he has a screenwriting credit, things haven’t improved). I wish it had gone through another draft (my kingdom for Shawn Ryan giving it a polish), but it’s not without some really good stuff.

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