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Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Quentin Tarantino has been playing in the realm of genre filmmaking for much of the last twenty years. He’s made highly artful, Oscar-winning variations on B-movies and grindhouse exploitation pictures. There are some film fans that wished he would return to the time of the 90s where he was telling more personal, grounded stories. His ninth movie, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is Tarantino returning to the landscape of his youth, the Hollywood back lots and television serials that gave birth to his budding imagination. Tarantino has said this is his most personal film and it’s easy to see as a love letter to his influences. It’s going to be a divisive movie with likely as many moviegoers finding it boring as others find it spellbinding.

In February 1969, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is struggling to recapture his past glory as a popular TV star from a decade prior. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is Rick’s longtime stuntman, personal driver, and possibly only real friend. Rick’s next-door neighbor happens to be Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a rising star and the wife to famed director Roman Polanski. All three are on a collision course with the Manson family.

The thing you must know before embarking into a theater to see all of the 160 minutes of Tarantino’s latest opus is that it’s the least plot-driven of all his movies, and it’s also in the least hurry. This feels like a hang-out movie through Tarantino’s memories of an older Hollywood that he grew up relishing. It’s very much a loving homage to the people who filled his head with dreams, with specific affection given to the life of an actor. Tarantino is exploring three different points of an actor’s journey through fame; Sharon Tate is the in-bloom star highly in demand, Rick Dalton is the one who has tasted fame but is hanging on as tightly as he can to his past image and wondering if he’s hit has-been status, and then there’s Cliff Booth who was a never-was, a replaceable man happy to be behind the scenes and who has met his lot in life with a Zen-like acceptance. Each character is at a different stage of the rise-and-fall trajectory of Hollywood fame and yet they remain there. This isn’t a movie where Rick starts in the dumps and turns his life around, or even where it goes from worse to worse. Each character kind of remains in a stasis, which will likely drive many people mad. It will feel like nothing of import is happening and that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is more a collection of scenes than a whole.

What elevated the film was how much I enjoyed hanging out with these characters. Tarantino is such a strong storyteller that even when he’s just noodling around there are pleasures to be had. Tarantino movies have always favored a vignette approach, unwieldy scenes that serve as little mini movies with their own beginnings, middles, and often violently climactic ends. An excellent example of this is 2009’s Inglourious Basterds where the moments are brilliantly staged and developed while also serving to push the larger narrative forward. That’s missing with Hollywood, the sense of momentum with the characters. We’re spending time and getting to know them, watching them through various tasks and adventures over the course of two days on sets, at home, and on a former film set-turned-ranch for a strange commune. If you’re not enjoying the characters, there won’t be as much for you as a viewer, and I accept that. None of the central trio will crack Tarantino’s list for top characters, but each provides a different viewpoint in a different facet of the industry, though Sharon Tate is underutilized (more on that below). It’s a bit of glorified navel-gazing for Tarantino’s ode to Hollywood nostalgia. There are several inserts that simply exist to serve as silly inclusions that seem to be scratching a personal itch for the director, less the story. I was smiling at most and enjoyed the time because it felt like Tarantino’s affection translated from the screen. I enjoyed hanging out with these people as they explored the Hollywood of yesteryear.

DiCaprio hasn’t been in a movie since winning an Oscar for 2015’s The Revenant and he has been missed. His character is in a very vulnerable place as he’s slipping from the radars of producers and casting agents, filling a string of TV guest appearances as heavies to be bested by the new hero. He’s self-loathing, insecure, boastful, and struggling to reconcile what he may have permanently lost. Has he missed his moment? Is his time in the spotlight eclipsed? There’s a new breed of actors emerging, typified by a little girl who chooses to stay in character in between filming. Everything is about status, gaining it or losing it, and Rick is desperate. There’s a terrific stretch where he’s playing another heavy on another TV Western and you get the highs and lows, from him struggling to remember his lines and being ashamed by the embarrassment of his shaky professionalism, to showing off the talent he still has, if only given the right opportunity. DiCaprio is highly entertaining as he sputters and soars.

The real star of the film is Pitt (The Big Short) playing a man who seems at supernatural ease no matter the circumstance. He’s got that unforced swagger of a man content with his life. He enjoys driving Rick around and providing support to his longtime friend and collaborator. He has a shady past where he may or may not have killed his wife on purpose, but regardless apparently he “got away with it.” This sinister back-story doesn’t seem to jibe with the persona we see onscreen, and maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s merely a means to rouse suspicion whether he may become persuaded by the Manson family he visits later in the movie dropping off a hitchhiker he’s encountered all day long. The role of Cliff seems to coast on movie star cool. There is supreme enjoyment just watching Pitt be. Watch him feed his dog to a trained routine, watch him fix a broken TV antenna and show off his ageless abs, and watch him navigate trepidatious new territory even as others are trying to intimidate him. It’s Pitt’s movie as far as I’m concerned. He was the only character I felt nervous about when minimal danger presented itself. There’s something to be said that the best character is the unsung one meant to take the falls for others, the kind of back-breaking work that often goes unnoticed and unheralded to keep the movie illusion alive.

There aren’t that many surprises with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as it moseys at its own loping pace. It reminded me of a Robert Altman movie or even a Richard Linklater film. It’s definitely different from Tarantino’s more genre-fed excursions of the twenty-first century. It’s a softer movie without the undercurrent of malice and looming violence. There is the Manson family and Tarantino knows our knowledge of the Manson family so we’re waiting for their return and that fateful night in August, 1969 like a ticking clock. It wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without an explosion of bloody violence as its climax, and he delivers again, but I was shocked how uproariously funny I found the ending. I laughed throughout but as the movie reached its conclusion I was doubled over with laughter and clapping along. There’s a flashback where Cliff and a young Bruce Lee challenge each other to a fight, and it’s so richly entertaining. The phony film clips are also a consistent hoot, especially when Rick goes to Italy. It’s a funnier movie than advertised and, despite its ending, a far less violent movie than his reputation.

As Tarantino’s memory collection, the level of loving homage can start to eat the narrative, and this is most noticeable with the handling of Sharon Tate. The initial worries that Tarantino would exploit the horrendous Manson murders for his own neo-pop pulp was unfounded. Tate is portrayed with empathy and compassion, and as played by Robbie she nearly glides through the film as if she were an angel gracing the rest of us unfortunate specimens. She has a great moment where she enters a movie theater playing a comedy she is a supporting player in. The camera focuses on Robbie’s (I,Tonya) face as an array of micro expressions flash as she takes in the approving laughter of the crowd. It’s a heartwarming moment. But all of that doesn’t make Tate a character. She’s more a symbol of promise, a young starlet with the world at her fingertips, the beginning phase of fame. Even the Manson clan doesn’t play much significance until the final act. Charles Manson is only witnessed in one fleeting scene. I thought Tarantino was including Tate in order to right a historical wrong and empower a victim into a champion, and that doesn’t quite happen. I won’t say further than that though her narrative significance is anticlimactic. You could have easily cut Sharon Tate completely out of this movie and not affected it much at all. In fact, given the 160-minute running time, that might have been a good idea. The movie never really comes to much of something, whether it’s a statement, whether it’s a definitive end, it just feels like we’ve run out of stories rather than crafted an ending that was fated to arrive given the preceding events.

The Tarantino foot fetish joke has long been an obvious and hacky criticism that I find too many people reach for to seem edgy or clever, so I haven’t mentioned it in other reviews. He does feature feet in his films but they’ve had purpose before, from arguing over the exact implications of a foot rub in Pulp Fiction to Uma Thurman commanding her big toe to wiggle and break years of entropy in Kill Bill. However, with Hollywood, it feels like Tarantino is now trolling his detractors. There are three separate sequences featuring women’s feet, two of which just casually place them right in the camera lens. At this point in his career, I know he knows this lame critique, and I feel like this is his response. It’s facetious feet displays.

When it comes to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, if you’re not digging the vibe, man, then there’s less to latch onto as an audience member. It’s a definite hang-out movie reminiscent of Altman or Linklater where we watch characters go about their lives, providing peaks into a different world. It’s a movie about meandering but I always found it interesting or had faith that was rewarded by Tarantino. It doesn’t just feel like empty nostalgia masquerading as a movie. It’s funnier and more appealing than I thought it would be, and even though it’s 160 minutes it didn’t feel long. The acting by DiCaprio and Pitt is great, as is the general large ensemble featuring lots of familiar faces from Tarantino’s catalogue. I do think the inclusion of Sharon Tate serves more of a symbolic purpose than a narrative purpose and wish the movie had given her more to do or even illuminated her more as a character. However, the buddy film we get between DiCaprio and Pitt is plenty entertaining. It might not be as narratively ambitious or intricate or even as satisfying as Tarantino’s other works, but Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a fable for a Hollywood that may have only existed in Tarantino’s mind, but he’s recreated it with uncompromising affection.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (2017)

If Marvel was ever going to have a dud in its near historic run of blockbuster success, it should have been Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that asked audiences to care about a talking raccoon and a tree creature who could only say three words. And yet that movie had me in tears by the end, and I was not alone. Writer/director James Gunn (Slither, Super) graduated from Troma to demented indie films to the Big Time with studio tentpoles. A sequel was fast-tracked and is definitely one of the most highly anticipated films of 2017 not named Star Wars. Can Gunn still deliver fans what they want without falling into the morass that is fan service, a sticky trap that can sap big-budget sequels of differentiation and make them feel more like product?

Set mere months after the events of the first film, the Guardians are enjoying their newfound celebrity and taking lucrative for-hire jobs. Star-Lord a.k.a. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are still going through their will-they-won’t-they sexual tension. Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) is still looking to gain the upper hand. Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is growing up and still cute. Drax (Dave Bautista) is still mourning his family and trying to better fit in. And Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is still making rebellious, self-destructive decisions, like stealing valuables from The Sovereign, a race of genetically bred golden snobs. The leader of the Sovereign, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, looking good in gold), declares a bounty on the Guardians for their disrespect. The Ravagers are hired to collect the Guardians, though Captain Yondu (Michael Rooker) is hesitant to go after his surrogate son, Peter. Complicating matters further is the arrival of Ego (Kurt Russell), a mystifying man who happens to also be a living planet and Peter’s biological father.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is highly enjoyable with great moments, great action, and great characters but I was left feeling like it was a step or two behind the original and I’ve been trying to articulate just why that is. I thought perhaps it was better to be upfront. I think it all stems from the fact that it’s not as fresh the second time, it doesn’t quite have the same blast of attitude and personality to disarm and take you by surprise, and I’ll admit part of this is just due to the fact that it’s a sequel to a hugely popular movie. However, also because of this there are now a set of expectations that Gunn is leaning towards because audiences now have acute demands.

We have an idea of what a Guardians of the Galaxy movie can provide, and from those demands spur creative decisions that don’t fully feel as integrated this go-round as they did in the first film. It feels like Gunn is trying to also work within a box he’s created for himself, and for the most part he succeeds admirably, but it still feels slightly lesser. The standout musical moment occurs during an opening credits that involve an action sequence from a Baby Groot-eyed point of view. As the Guardians are flying and falling to destroy a ferocious alien blob in the background, Groot is strutting and dancing to “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO. It’s a moment of unrestrained pleasure and it also undercuts action movie conventions by having a majority of the events obscured or implied. It’s the moment that feels the most like that electric feeling of discovery from the first film. There are also 80s pop-culture references and cameos and some off-kilter comedy again. Much of it is fun, especially one cameo in particular as it relates to Peter’s father, but they also have the noticeable feel of boxes to be checked, expected items that now must be incorporated in what a Guardians of the Galaxy feature should be. Expectations can lead to fan service and then that leads to less chances and originality. Hey, I loved the 2014 original and consider it my favorite Marvel movie so I don’t want them to simply chuck out everything that worked just for something one hundred percent different. You want what you loved but you don’t want it exactly the same, which is the creative bind. Gunn leans into what the audience wants and I can’t fault him too hard. It’s still a really good film.

What Guardians vol. 2 does best is remind you why you love these characters. It even elevates a group of supporting players from the first movie into characters you genuinely care about, chiefly Nebula and Yondu. Both of these characters were slightly defanged antagonists in the first film, problems but problems you didn’t want to see go away. Yondu gets the biggest boost thanks to the thematic bridge of Peter’s search for his father. The notorious leader of the Ravagers has a definite soft spot for the scrappy human and it’s finally come to a head with his tempestuous crew. They mutiny on Yondu and declare him to be an unfit leader, unable to do what is necessary. This direction allows for a lot of introspection for a character that was essentially just Michael Rooker in blue paint. He has a history to him and he makes a moral deviation from his expected path, one that bears ongoing consequences. He’s Peter’s real surrogate father, and his acceptance of this reality brings a snarling secondary antagonist into the realm of a full-blown character that earns our empathy (a Mary Poppins joke also had me in stitches).

The same can be said for Nebula, who is working out some serious daddy issues. She is the stepsister to Gamora and holds quite a grudge against her green sibling. It seems that their father, Thanos, would constantly pit them against one another, and Nebula would always lose, and with each loss came a painful consequence. It’s the kind of back-story that’s given more time to breathe and develop. It opens up an antagonist into another person who is dealing with trauma and pain and who doesn’t play well with others, which seems as good a job description to join the Guardians as anything. Nebula has a fearsome sense of competition with her sister, and that parlays into some fun over-the-top action sequences. When the movie allows the two women to talk, as surviving sisters of rather than enemies, is where Nebula comes into her own.

Gunn makes sure there’s a grounded and emotional core to his characters, which makes these appealing underdogs and antiheroes ever easier to root for. Guardians vol. 2 doesn’t really move the overall plot forward too much but it does explore the relationships and their personal lives with greater depth and clarity. The characters are spread out into smaller pairings for a majority of the extended second act, which allows interesting connections and developments due to the personalities. Drax is paired with Ego’s assistant/pet Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and it’s an instantly winning couple, a man who only speaks literally and a woman who is able to channel the feelings of strangers through touch. They’re both relied upon for the greatest amount of comic relief and they routinely deliver. Klementieff (Old Boy) is a wide-eyed delight. Rocket and Yondu being stuck together allows for both to come to realizations that feel organic though also too fated by Gunn’s hand. Their general disregard for decorum leads to some great action sequences. Gamora and Nebula are working through their family issues and it makes both more interesting. When they come to a form of resolution it still feels awkward but earnest and right. But the biggest personal exploration is Peter and his own lingering space daddy issues.

Another fantastic addition to the movie was the character of Ego because of the wonderfully charming Russell (The Hateful Eight) and also because of what the character allows for. The very fact that Ego is a millions-year-old living planet is a clever curveball for the Peter Quill “who’s your daddy?” mystery sweepstakes. It also opens all sorts of intriguing questions that the second act wades through, like the exact mechanics of how Ego exists, projects a Russell-looking avatar, and what is his ultimate purpose. I’m going to steer away from spoilers but fans of the comic will already have suspicions where this whole father/son reconciliation may lead, and you won’t be disappointed. Russell radiates paternal warmth and it goes a ways to cover up the purposeful obfuscation of the character. Because Gunn has to hold back on certain revelations, some of them gasp-worthy, he can’t open up the father/son dynamic too fast or too unambiguous. As a result, the latent bonding relies upon more familiar touchstones, like throwing the ball out back with your pops or sharing a love of music. Russell makes even the most ridiculous thing sound reasonable, which is important considering we’re talking about a planet boning ladies.

Gunn also takes several steps forward as a visual filmmaker with the sequel. He has a great feel for visual comedy and how to undercut the more boilerplate heroic moments in other superhero fair. He fills his screen with crazy, bight, psychedelic colors and has a Tarantino-esque instinct for marrying film with the right song. The sequel doesn’t have as many iconic moments set to music but it will play most agreeably. The special effects are pretty terrific all around but I appreciate that Gunn doesn’t allow the movie to feel overwhelmed by them, which is important considering there are fundamentally CGI-only characters. Gunn’s action sequences, chases, escapes, and breakouts are presented with plenty of dazzling style and witty attitude to spare without feeling obnoxious. The comedy is consistently funny and diverting. There’s a bit with the need for tape that just keeps going and actually becomes funnier the longer it goes, undercutting the end-of-the-universe stakes with the search for something as mundane as tape. My screening was presented in 3D and I was worried about the film being set in space and being too dark. This is not the case at all, and while the 3D isn’t a high selling point like it was for Doctor Strange, it is a nice experience that doesn’t dilute Gunn’s gonzo color scheme. The level of thought put into his novelties can be staggering, like an end credits series of dancing clips that also manages to play upon a character note for Drax. Gunn manages to further comment on characterization even during the freaking end credits. The final showdown goes on a bit longer than necessary and is the only section of the movie that feels consumed by CGI spectacle, but the fact that only the end feels this way can be considered another small triumph of Gunn fighting through a corporate system.

Marvel knows what it’s doing to a molecular level. Almost ten years into their system, they know what works in their criss-crossing franchises and how to calibrate them for maximum audience satisfaction. At this point after Guardians, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange, they’ve more than earned the benefit of the doubt no matter the premise. However, entrenched success has a way of calcifying audience expectations. Guardians of the Galaxy was so funky, so different, so anarchic, and so wildly enjoyable. It should only be expected that the things that made it different would now be folded into audience expectations. The misfits can only be misfits for so long. It may not be as brash and fun or memorable as the first edition but it does benefit from the strong rapport of its cast and the deeper characterization, tackling some serious subjects while still slow motion stepping to a murder montage set to the golden oldies of the 1970s. The movie matters not because of the action, or the funny one-liners, or the adorableness of Baby Groot. It’s because we genuinely love these oddball characters. The first one introduced them and brought them together, and the second film deepens their bonds and widens their scope of family. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is a sequel that provides just about everything that fans should want. If it feels slightly lesser it’s probably just because it can’t be fresh twice, but Guardians vol. 2 still dances to its own beat and it’s still a beautiful thing.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

I’ve written before that all I demand from the ever-ascendant and popular Fast and Furious franchise are its eye-popping action set pieces that teeter into madcap lunacy and impressive stunt work. A fiery meteor could crush all the characters, short of The Rock, and I wouldn’t shed a tear. Despite the super serious plaudits about the importance of family and loyalty and blah blah blah, I’m only here for the action spectacle that obliterates the laws of physics. I’ve said before there’s a fine line between stupid action and stupidly awesome action, and the Fast and Furious franchise has planted its flag like few others. Nobody today goes to the level of action spectacle that the Fast and Furious films achieve, bringing to life exciting action set pieces that feel fully plucked from the imagination of an exuberant child, and I don’t mean that at all disparagingly. These movies deliver like few others nowadays. We’re a long way from undercover cops and underground street racing. Vin Diesel and his team are essentially superheroes and their power involves doing amazing things with cars. I’m not a gearhead, I don’t care a lick about automobiles, but I’ve come to eagerly anticipate this franchise. It delivers ridiculous action on a ridiculous scale like few others. It’s earned my confidence. The Fate of the Furious, the eighth film, still delivers the high-octane goods even if it can’t quite keep up with the best of the franchise’s entries.

Dom (Diesel) has been preaching the virtues of family for years but now he’s turning his back on them. The notorious cyber terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron) extorts Dom into helping her get her hands on nuclear codes. Dom’s crew (The Rock, Michelle Rodriguez, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, Nathalie Emmanuel) is wondering whether the man they know is still there. Government agent M. Nobody (Kurt Russell) reassembles the team to track down Dom, and they’re working with some unexpected help. Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) has been released from maximum-security prison to thwart Cipher.

This is a franchise that soared to new heights of commercial success after it left behind its inhibitions of the imagination. It’s a franchise that lives or dies depending upon its giddy action set pieces. As I wrote about Furious 7: “The set pieces of the last few films have been stunners, and at its height, the franchise can make you feel giddy like a child watching the unreal unfold with such delight. There’s a tremendous and infectious high watching a well-executed action scene on such a large scale. With every movie our expectations are hungrier, and the franchise has found a way to satiate our action movie demands.” Fortunately for the eighth film, there are two standout action set pieces that are some of the stronger ones in the history of the franchise. The first is a car chase through New York (though filmed primarily in Cleveland) that builds and changes as it continues, an essential element for any great action sequence to stretch forward. At one point Cipher takes control of an armada of hackable, self-driving cars and pilots them as a collective weapon of mass destruction. They resemble a herd of runaway bulls. The destructive fleet leads to some impressive sights such as a bevy of cars plummeting from a parking garage. It’s a strong sequence that also finds room for the other characters to try and take down Dom, and it allows Dom the ability to outsmart them, adding the personal element. The other standout is the entire third act set around the Arctic Circle in Russia that climaxes with the dizzying heights of a nuclear sub chase and The Rock manually redirecting a speeding torpedo. There are multiple points of action and mini-goals that lead logically to the next, allowing escalation to mount. It’s dangerously over-the-top even for this franchise and it’s generally awesome and I loved it.

Eight movies in and Fast and Furious is really becoming an expansive ensemble series. The core team has been picking up players here and there with each additional movie, building its diverse definition of a diverse family. This is getting to be a crowded film and there’s just not enough room to go around for everyone to contribute meaningfully, which means it’s more likely from here on out, unless there is some judicial pruning, that characters stay religiously archetypal. Ludacris is the tech guru, but isn’t Emmanuel now also the tech guru, or does she only specialize in the tech subgroup of hacking? Why do I need Scott Eastwood (The Longest Ride) to join the gang as the awkward rookie trying to look cool? Isn’t that a milder version of what Tyrese Gibson offers as the comic relief bravado? Admittedly, I only started really paying attention to this franchise once it added The Rock, but I’m still unsure what Rodriguez brings to the dynamic beside history and romance. This general sense of the characters settling into their expected roles is exemplified in the in-car banter and one-liners. It appears often that they’re just talking to themselves for these lines. I could do with far less Tyrese reaction shots and Rodriguez one-liners. Theron is also generally wasted as the new villain du jour. She’s got the icy glare down and looks to be having fun, but she’s not given anything interesting to do. Without going into greater spoilers, I will say that Dom’s heel turn is wrapped up by the end of its 135-minute running time. No need to turn it into a multi-film arc.

Paul Walker’s character is understandably absent and I’d hate for them to bring him back after the very sweet and surprisingly poignant sendoff at the end of Furious 7, but he does still exist in this universe. I can agree with characters not wanting to get him involved in their dangerous missions across the globe, but at the end when they’re all dining as one big family, wouldn’t they also invite Dom’s sister, brother-in-law, and their children too? It gets into the Avengers territory where you start wondering why the Avengers haven’t assembled for the world-destroying threats from their respective solo film adventures.

The best post-Rock addition to the franchise has easily been Statham (Spy) and he proves it with his limited but highly entertaining time on screen. His appearances were a fun disruption in the previous film and he served as the most formidable villain. Reintegrating him onto the team was a smart move because he adds charisma, unpredictability, and a new dynamic that also seeds conflict. It was also smart because more Statham means including hand-to-hand combat action sequences that can involve a higher degree of stunt choreography, even if the former Transporter is starting to show his age. His scenes with The Rock were a natural highlight. However, adding Deckard onto the team to tackle a bigger baddie presents some weird questions. By the film’s end, everyone seems rather chummy with the man who straight up murdered their friend Han (Sung Kang). Sorry dude but it seems like everyone is rather relaxed with your murderer and big government having unlimited and regulation-free surveillance powers. My advice to future Fast and Furious installments, and there will be various, is to try and include as much Statham as possible (it’s essentially a repeat of The Rock Rule).

Where the movie has rougher terrain is in the area of drama and comedy. Look, nobody is going to confuse the Fast and the Furious films as great works of human drama. Director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Straight Outta Compton) takes over for James Wan (The Conjuring) who took over for Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond), and the discrepancy is noticeable. While having two excellent set pieces that place highly along the big board of the franchise, they’re not as well shot. Gray’s command of visuals is more than adequate but lacks the sizzle and vision of his predecessors. Wan was able to adopt the house style of the franchise and deliver a satisfying though lesser experience (Lin is king). Gray has a harder time with the material. The CGI approaches cartoon levels at points and Gray doesn’t better maintain tone. He doesn’t know when to pull back, which is unusually exemplified in the comedy asides. Everything that gets a laugh will be repeated until it becomes somewhat annoying, in particular a scene with Statham and a baby. It begins fun and cheeky, and Statham even uses the baby carriage as part of the fight choreography, but then it overstays its welcome like the other comedy bits. The dramatic moments are also far too overwrought, even for this franchise. It can be a bit much.

This is a franchise that revels in the ridiculous, that embraces being a big dumb action movie in the best way, delivering imaginative and often eye-popping action that deserves the full big screen treatment. Fate of the Furious falls somewhere in the middle of the franchise from a quality standpoint. It’s not as good as seven, which wasn’t as good as six, which wasn’t as good as five, but it’s still good enough. It’s definitely lesser and the new director doesn’t have the same natural feel for the preposterous as previous directors, and even after eight films I’m still mostly indifferent about the far majority of the characters on screen. As I’ve written before, though, thankfully the movie has the good sense to know what the audience is paying to see. It’s here for the fast cars, eye-popping stunts, and gratuitously framed camera angles highlighting women’s derrieres (I think there’s a contractual law that a close-up of booty shorts must make a grand entrance in the opening minutes of every film). Fate of the Furious is just enough of what I want from the franchise, though it’s getting harder to keep up with every new movie. Furious 9 and 10 are already in the works, and it’s only a matter of time before we get Fast and Furious in Space. It’s getting further and further removed from a sense of reality but as long as it keeps up with incrementally raised expectations and employs enough charming actors to compensate for Diesel’s enormous lack of charisma, then they’ll keep fans like me happy in the short run.

Nate’s Grade: B

Deepwater Horizon (2016)

cpbdmd7wgaafqfs-1-jpg-largePeter Berg is becoming the go-to director for inspirational true-life thrillers following the heroic exploits of everyday Americans thrust into danger. It began with Lone Survivor, it will continue this year with the Boston bombing drama Patriot’s Day, and in between there is Deepwater Horizon about the oil rig drillers and the culminating explosion that lead to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. It’s a sober and reverent movie, with Berg and his screenwriters taking great care to educate the audience on the science of drilling, the technology, the geography of the floating rig, and just exactly why things went as badly as they did that fateful night. The windup lasts about half the movie but that’s because when the explosion hits there isn’t much plot left (the movie is barely 100 minutes). Deepwater Horizon becomes a full-tilt disaster movie by that point with Mark Wahlberg stalking hallways and looking for injured survivors. The tension prior to the blown pipeline can get genuinely powerful, and the action that follows is suitably rousing as the rig resembles a snapshot of hell. Flames and heat consume the rig and escape seems nigh impossible. The sound design is sensational. The characters are mostly stock roles, with Wahlberg as our blue-collar everyman, Kurt Russell as the irritable boss fighting for his workers, and John Malkovich as the villainous penny-pinching BP representative. Malkovich’s campy performance almost needs to be seen to be believed. It’s like he’s visiting from another planet, the garbled Cajun representative. The lack of politics and curiously narrow focus (nothing about Halliburton, nothing about BP consequences, no environmental effects) does hamper any greater impact the film could have had. It’s a respectful slice-of-life drama that humanizes some of the lives lost that day but only by keeping to formula and stock action character development. It’s like a Towering Inferno-style Hollywood disaster movie, except one that treats its subject with stiff-lipped seriousness. In this new docu-action sub-genre, Berg and Wahlberg are kings.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Hateful Eight (2015)

the-hateful-eight-posterThe Hateful Eight almost didn’t happen thanks to our modern-day views on copyright and privacy. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino sent the first draft of his newest script to three trusted actors, and within days it had spread to the outer reaches of the Internet. Tarantino was so incensed that he swore to shelve Hateful Eight and never film it. After a staged reading in L.A. with many of the eventual actors for the film, he changed his mind, to the relief of his sizable fanbase and actors everywhere. The Hateful Eight is a drawing room mystery with plenty of Tarantino’s signature propulsive language and bloody violence, but it’s also the director’s least substantial film to date.

In post-Civil War Wyoming, famous bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is taking the outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hang for her crimes. Along the way, he meets up with Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter who served in the North and carries a letter written to him from none other than Abraham Lincoln. They’re both heading to Red Rock to extract their bounty earnings. Due to an oncoming blizzard, they’re forced to make a stay at Minnie’s haberdashery, except Minnie isn’t anywhere to be found. There’s Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir) who says Minnie left him in charge, a foppish hangman Oswaldo Moblay (Tim Roth), a quiet cattle driver Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a Confederate general, Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the son of a Confederate rebel who claims to be the newly designated sheriff of Red Rock. Over the course of one long night, everyone’s true identity will be learned, because someone is not who they seem to be and is secretly waiting to free Daisy and kill the rest.

Even as lesser Tarantino, The Hateful Eight is still an entertaining and talky stage play put to film. The setup is strong and invites the audience to play along, to scrutinize the assorted characters and determine who is telling the truth. There are plenty of twists and turns and some violent surprises to keep things interesting. The conversations of the characters are such a pleasure to listen to; I want to luxuriate in Tarantino’s language. His wordsmith abilities are unparalleled in Hollywood. There’s a reason every star is dying to snag a part in a Tarantino movie, especially now that they’ve caught Oscar fire as of late. That’s somewhat crazy to think about. Cinema’s ultimate indie voice with his encyclopedic knowledge of the medium, high and low art, has become an institution within the system and his violent period films are now looked at as year-end prestige pictures. Tarantino’s M.O. has been to take B-movies and to transform them into A-movie level talent and intelligence. Never has a Tarantino flick felt more B-movie than The Hateful Eight. It was inspired from episodes of TV and it’s easy to see that genesis in its execution. It’s a self-contained mystery that comes to a head. It’s a limited story that’s likely taken as far as it could possible go, pushing three hours. I’m a tad befuddled why this was the movie Tarantino insisted on filming in “glorious Panavision 70 millimeter.” It’s almost entirely set in that one-room interior location. The extra depth that 70 millimeter affords would appear to be wasted, unless you enjoy looking at general store items on shelves in the background. Still, The Hateful Eight is a movie that doesn’t feel like three hours and harbors enough intrigue and payoffs to hook.

I tried to diagnose why this felt like lesser Tarantino, and it’s because over the course of almost three hours we don’t have much at stake because the people inhabiting the movie aren’t really characters but tough-talking facades. Tarantino is often cited for his uniquely florid dialogue, and nobody writes dialogue like Tarantino and his naturally stylized cadences, but another of the man’s skills is how great he can write a coterie of colorful characters that pop from the big screen. You might not be able to remember many lines from Hans Landa or Vincent Vega or Django, but you remember the vivid characters. Tarantino is preternaturally skilled at building characters that feel fully realized with their own viewpoints and flaws and prior experiences. He can make characters stand out but he also has the great ability to make the larger-than-life characters feel real, which is truly genius screenwriting for characters so flamboyant. The older romance in Jackie Brown is perfectly captured and felt. It’s downright mature. This is the first time I would say Tarantino has disappointed when it comes to his characters.

There are broadly drawn folk aplenty onscreen and they still talk in that wonderfully florid language of Tarantino’s that actors must savor like a fine steak, something they can sink themselves in for and enjoy every morsel. However, the characters onscreen have never felt this empty before. They are what they are and the only real change that occurs is that many will be dead before the end credits. They don’t have arcs per se but end points. It’s all about unmasking and identifying the rogues in a room full of rogues. Beyond Warren and Mannix, we’re left with precious little for characterization beyond bravado and nihilism. The effect of how empty they are would be felt less if we weren’t stranded with them for near three hours. Trapped in a room with a group of suspicious characters can only go so far, and ultimately it’s a parlor game that cannot sustain longer staying power. I doubt I’ll ever watch this with the frequency of other Tarantino flicks.

“You keep talkin’. You’re gonna talk yourself to death,” says one of those hateful numbers to another member. I’d pay to listen to Tarantino rewrite the phone book, that’s how excellent the man is with his dialogue. The man likes to hear his words and I like listening to them too. The problem is that The Hateful Eight has no reason for its gargantuan running time. As stated above, the characters we’re getting are nowhere near as complex or interesting as previous Tarantino escapades, so the talking can grow weary. Tarantino has patented a new formula from 2009’s Inglorious Basterds that involves characters playing a game of I-know-you-know-I-know while they suss out the truth, all the while the tension finely simmers until it blows. It’s a long fuse of suspense that can pay off rich rewards, like the near-perfect tavern scene in Basterds. The dinner table scene with Candie and the skull of his favorite house slave is another good example. Once our titular eight have gathered at Minnie’s, the entire movie is this sort of scene. It may be broken up into chapters and flashbacks but it feels like one long scene.

There’s also far less at stake than there was with Basterds or Django Unchained, even Reservoir Dogs, and that’s because the protagonists had goals and we had built up far more allegiance and time with them. When they were in danger, it mattered. The danger doesn’t feel as immediate because so little else is happening. There are plenty of comparisons to Dogs, which also utilized a hidden identity and a confined location. I think the difference was that, besides it being Tarantino’s first foray as a director, the tension was felt more because the danger was immediate from the start and we cared about character relationships. I cared about Mr. Orange and Mr. White and their bond. I can’t say I cared about any of the characters in Hateful Eight. I found them interesting at points, sure, but they were all a bunch of rotten bastards with little variation short of a burgeoning understanding between Mannix and Warren. The wait at Minnie’s feels like the Basterds tavern scene on steroids, pushed to the breaking point, and yet absent the urgency.

The acting is yet another tasty dish served up by Tarantino, and it feels like the actors are having the time of their lives playing their lively scoundrels. Jackson (Kingsmen: the Secret Service) settles in nicely and always seems to elevate his game when he’s reciting Tarantino’s words. He’s icy cool in scenes where the other characters are trying to do whatever they can to fire him up. He’s less bombastic than we’ve come to expect from Jackson. For bombast, there’s Russell (Furious 7) who cranks his performance to the broad heights of his bellicose lawman. Goggins gives a sly and extra caffeinated performance that answered the question of what it would sound like if you dropped his character from TV’s Justified into a Tarantino movie. Roth (Selma) feels like he’s doing his best manic Christoph Waltz impression. Dern (Nebraska) is a racist codger with a soft spot for his kin. Madsen (Kill Bill vol. 2) seems somewhat wasted as a taciturn “cow puncher.” Bichir (The Heat) gets some laughs as a seemingly aloof caretaker. It’s Leigh (Anomalisa) who steals the show, especially in the film’s second half. Daisy is a character that relishes being bad, and Leigh takes every opportunity to enjoy the fun. Her character plays a bit of possum during the first half but it’s the second half where she lets loose and becomes unhinged, and her exasperated and grotesque responses are often played for great sputtering comic effect. It’s a boys movie but it’s the lone woman who will prove most memorable. Tarantino’s last two movies have won acting awards and Leigh just might make it three-in-a-row.

20150511105106982878uThere are also some uncomfortable elements that can deter your viewing enjoyment, which isn’t exactly a foreign charge against Tarantino’s career. At this point you can probably repeat the oft-cited accusations: flagrant use of the N-word and exploitative violence. At least the historical background provides a context for the other characters unleashing the N-word, and I’d argue it tells us something about the characters as well. The characters that use the N-word when referring to Warren are the ones with allegiances to the Confederacy and those viewpoints don’t vanish even after you lost a war. They’re dismissive and intolerant and view Warren as sub-human. It also doesn’t approach Django Unchained-levels of excess, so I let it slide (I know my perspective as a white male makes my opinion on this effectively meaningless). It was the violence that got to me, specifically the violence directed at Daisy. Tarantino’s penchant for violence goes all the way back to his ear-slicing debut, so it’s nothing unexpected. He often tells stories about violent men and women fighting their way in a world governed by violence. I accept that these characters are bad to their core. That doesn’t excuse behavior. Violence on screen can be tempered with authorial commentary, but it’s the association that bothered me with Hateful Eight. For the entire movie, Daisy is put through the physical wringer. Our very first image of her is with a black eye. She’s a nasty woman and Ruth often expresses his distaste of her by punching her in the face, which is played as dark comedy. This happens repeatedly. We’re meant to recoil from much of the bloody violence on screen but repeatedly we’re meant to laugh at the violent suffering of Daisy. Tarantino has often used over-the-top violence as dark humor, and I’ve laughed along with it. This was one instance though where I stopped laughing and starting shifting uncomfortably in my seat.

Even lesser Tarantino can still be plenty entertaining and superior to most of what Hollywood usually cranks out as product. The Hateful Eight can be exciting, funny, surprising, and plenty of things, but what it can’t be is more than a lark. Tarantino has taken stories that would seem like larks, particularly the Kill Bill series, and infused them with pathos and meditation and soul to go along with all that snazzy genre stuff. It’s disappointing that Hateful Eight isn’t more than what’s on screen, but what’s on screen is still worth watching, though I don’t know whether it’s worth watching a second time.

Nate’s Grade: B

Furious 7 (2015)

fast-furious-7The Fast and the Furious series has never been more popular, which is crazy to think about for a franchise entering is sixth sequel. Then in November 2013, it suffered its biggest shock. Actor Paul Walker was killed in an automobile accident. The already-filming seventh film was put on hold, pushed back a year for release, and retooled to accommodate the new tragic reality that one of the core members of a popular series going back to 2001 was no longer walking this Earth. With this context, it’s hard not to apply an added level of gravitas and dramatic weight to a series that previously skirted by on its fun and outrageous stunts. It’s weird to watch an actor’s final filmed moments, knowing this is the last time you’ll see that face, hear that voice, on screen again. I’m already dreading that painful realization in November that, with Mockingjay Part 2, this will be the last cinema will see of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. With tragedy hanging over it, Furious 7 does an admirable job of sticking to what it does best while serving as a fitting tribute and sendoff for Walker.

Coming on the heels of the events of Furious 6, Dom (Vin Diesel) and his crew have dispatched Owen Shaw (Luke Evans, collecting a paycheck for one scene lying in bed). Shaw has an older brother, Deckard (Jason Statham), who swears vengeance and comes hunting after Dom’s team, killing Han in Toyko (events previously seen in 2006’s Tokyo Drift). Then Shaw hobbles Agent Hobbes (The Rock), leaving him sidelined for much of the movie. Dom and Brian (Walker) place their families in safety and then set off to eliminate Deckard Shaw. Little did they know that the government has a similar interest. Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) promises to help Dom in his quest if Dom agrees to a secret mission to rescue a computer hacker (Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel). This hacker, codenamed “Ramses” has developed a device that taps into every camera and microphone on the planet to track anyone anywhere. If Dom can secure the device, Mr. Nobody will use it to track and take down Deckard Shaw.

furious-7What elevated the Fast and Furious films into new heights of critical and commercial acclaim are the over-the-top action set pieces that don’t just defy the laws of physics, they obliterate them. There’s a fine line between stupid action and stupidly awesome action, and I think Michael Bay is still trying to finesse this understanding. Under the guidance of director Justin Lin, the franchise got bigger and ballsier and enjoyably insane. The action set pieces were huge and wild and well developed with organic complications and world-class stunt driving. The set pieces of the last few films have been stunners, and at its height, the franchise can make you feel giddy like a child watching the unreal unfold with such delight. There’s a tremendous and infectious high watching a well-executed action scene on such a large scale. With every movie our expectations are hungrier, and the franchise has found a way to satiate our action movie demands (for my money, Fast Five is the best). Furious 7 is the first Fast film not directed by Lin in ten years. James Wan, best known as the director of horror films Saw and The Conjuring, stepped into the director’s chair and he assimilates well into the “house style” of the franchise. However, I found myself missing Lin’s touches; he has a natural feel for choreographing action sequences with style and a clear eye for orientation. I found the editing for Furious 7 too choppy and several action sequences hampered by not getting a better sense of the wider surroundings and what was happening. Wan acquits himself well and keeps things running smoothly, though Furious 7 is a slight step down but still plenty entertaining.

Let’s talk about those giddy highs of Furious 7, because they are certainly there, though I wish there was more of them. Am I just getting greedy or building a tolerance? There are two standout moments that made me squeal. The first involved a set piece involving cars parachuting out of a transport plane. The next was a car crashing through the window of an Abu Dhabi skyscraper into another skyscraper and then into another skyscraper. Your brain tells you that there are no way any of these moments could truly happen in reality, and that in these circumstances it’s majority CGI, but if you’re like me, you just do not care because the sheer scale of awesome is too enjoyable to pass up. When you can pull off large-scale and imaginative action that manages to also maintain a strong sense of fun, then you’ve landed upon something special. The previous Fast films have been able to maintain that giddy high for a more sustained period of time, but I cannot deny that the same thrills and over-the-top pleasure is present with Furious 7.

A factor that added to my enjoyment is that Furious 7 never dawdles or dwells too often during its 137-minute running time, save for an extended resolution for Walker. This has never really been a franchise that has soared on the strength of its characterization. Seven movies in, I still don’t really care for any of the characters except for The Rock and that’s mostly because he’s The Rock. I was happy that the film was always active to distract me from how one-dimensional and boring most of these characters are, even the villains. Statham (The Expendables) is the best villain the franchise has had so far but even he seems to be stuck in a lesser gear, failing to capitalize on all his abilities with a car chase franchise. The Rock vs. Statham fight shatters all breakable furniture within near proximity, but you still suspect it should be better given the participants. Djimon Hounsou (Guardians of the Galaxy) is wasted as a number two villain who mostly just shouts orders for people to fire weapons, and martial arts superstar Tony Jaa is definitely wasted as a number three villain, an elevated henchman with too few opportunities to bust a move. MMA fighter Ronda Rousey appears briefly as an Abu Dhabi security chief. She performs well, pummeling Michelle Rodriguez while in evening wear; however, you quickly realize that Rousey is not an actor. She’s no Gina Carano (Fast and Furious 6), and speaking of, when is this woman going to finally be cast as a super hero? She’s practically a living Wonder Woman anyway and she has that “it” factor.

furious-7-paul-walkerWhen the movie tries to be dramatic, it starts to stall, which is probably why it relies mostly on platitudes about family (“I don’t got friends, I got family,” Dom says in a weird retort). Jordanna Brewster is once again written to the side as the Concerned Wife, and the movie still doesn’t seem to know what to do with the re-emergence of Rodriguez’s Letty character. She got her memory back in the previous film, but now she’s having trouble readjusting, but before this can develop into an actual plot she disappears again and then the big action just kicks in. There’s enough of a team built up to provide diversity, with Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson serving as comic backup. There’s a sense of camaraderie that doesn’t feel artificial, and the small moments together are perfectly nice, but thankfully the movie has the good sense to know what the audience is paying to see. It’s here for the fast car, eye-popping stunts, and gratuitously framed camera angles highlighting women’s derrieres (there are a lot of thongs in this movie).

With the specter of Walker’s passing, the movie also presents a ghoulish game of looking for the tricks to work around his untimely absence. Reportedly the actor had filmed “most” of the movie and the remaining scenes, retooled after months of production being on hiatus, were completed by Walker’s brothers and some CGI sleight-of-hand. Perhaps I just have a more trained eye for spotting the cinematic wizardry, but by my judgment it sure didn’t feel like Walker was present for most of what was eventually used in the movie. I noticed a lot of wider shots and scenes where Walker is not facing the camera to speak or he’s at an odd angle. At no point did the movie become a strange uncanny valley experience of discomfort; movie productions have digitally attached faces before to other heads, notably for Oliver Reed in 2000’s Gladiator. If you’re not looking for it intently then it will all pass seamlessly. The film’s final ten minutes end up becoming an extended sendoff for the character of Brian, but really it’s the actors saying goodbye to their friend. It’s reverent and respectful and might be the most honestly emotional moment in the series history, which I know isn’t saying exactly much.

I mentioned Phillip Seymour Hoffman in my opening paragraph, and I don’t think anyone is going to confuse Walker for Hoffman in terms of acting talent, but that doesn’t negate or mitigate loss and grief. Personal confession: when I was writing for my college newspaper, I interviewed Walker over the phone for 2003’s Timeline, which if you haven’t seen it, and I’m assuming that’s the majority of readers, is a terrible movie. I’m not going to pretend I had any terrific insight into the man, but I found him to be a good guy with a level head who hadn’t let fame get the better of him. One could argue that the character of Brian was not significant enough in the context of a big, dumb action franchise to deserve this sort of emotional catharsis, but loss is felt, and Furious 7 has two missions: to entertain and to memorialize Walker. While the action as a whole is not up to the same caliber, it’s still plenty engaging and has enough of its characteristically dizzy thrills to be memorable and worth seeing on a large screen. On the second count, it lets Walker race off into the sunset in a way that feels appropriate, sincere, and without tipping over into complete melodrama. In that regard, this is the Fast and Furious movie that had the most to accomplish and it succeeds. It’s a near certainty that there will be a Fast and Furious 8, or a Furious 8, or a Fast 8, or whatever you call it, but for now it’s a chance to take a breath and add a dose of reflection for a series normally about the ridiculous.

Nate’s Grade: B

Fast and Furious 6 (2013)

1973I’ll confess something upfront: I have no interest in cars whatsoever. Never have. I don’t care. Seeing sexy cars with their gleaming and purring engines, well it does nothing for me. Hearing people talk about American vs. import or different engine capabilities, well it puts me to sleep. I get no thrill from cars alone. What I do get thrills from are when the cars are utilized in exciting action sequences that are well developed. I enjoy the role the cars play rather than the mechanics of the cars themselves. I’ve never watched a full Fast and Furious movie until the 2009 sequel, the fifth, which added notable franchise-lifter The Rock. I was won over by the wow-factor of director Justin Lin’s bombastic action. This is not a franchise for me from the gearhead content; however, I have become a fan thanks to the talents of Lin, the inclusion of my man crush The Rock, and some truly spectacular action set pieces. Fast and Furious 6, or Furious 6 as the onscreen title declares, is pretty much everything I thought it would be: dumb, loud, physics-free, and boasting remarkable action sequences, and it delivers.

It’s years after Dom (Vin Diesel) and Brian (Paul Walker) and their crew pulled off their epic heist in Rio. Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) recruits Dom’s team for help nabbing a really bad guy with his own really bad team. Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) is a military-trained Brit who is hijacking advanced weapon parts to put together a super weapon that can knock out the power grid for a country. Dom’s ready to turn down the offer, content to live it up in paradise, when Hobbs shares a photo of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), alive and well, and part of Shaw’s wrecking crew. Letty, Dom’s old squeeze, was thought dead, but it turns out she has amnesia, and Dom is determined to foil the bad guy and reclaim his girlfriend.

99288_galWhen I say Fast and the Furious 6 is a ridiculous movie in the extreme, I mean that as a compliment and a detriment. The movie never attempts to be anything outside of a loony, high-octane action thriller that gleefully ignores reality. Characters will fly off cars at great speeds, crashing into parked motor vehicles as “safe landings.” Brian will get himself thrown in the same prison as a notorious criminal, gather his needed intel, and escape all within a couple of days. The bad guy’s plan is also one of those only-in-the-movies super weapons. For goodness sake there’s even the hoariest of plot devices – amnesia. Really, Letty can’t remember anything. How prevalent is amnesia? Movies make it seem like it’s one Flintstones-style bump on the head away. Then there’s the massive amounts of wear and tear the heroes take on, their cars take on, and in general their superhuman status. But anyone expecting these films to adhere to a recognizable reality, especially after five movies, is adrift. Part of the appeal of the franchise is exactly its over-the-top lunacy with its action.

Having only really checked into the franchise one movie prior, I’m sure that there are plenty of moviegoers who are wrapped up in the ongoing saga of Dom and Brian and their motorin’ crew. I didn’t care about the characters; well, I generally liked most of them in an abstract way, but I was never that involved with them. I enjoyed The Rock’s character the most but that is also due to the innate magnetism of The Rock, someone Diesel could take some serious notes from. I say all this because there is a lot of time spent on the ongoing character relationships between Dom and his amnesiac love, Letty. He’s trying to pull her back, reminding her of the memories he thinks are tucked away, and they talk and drive and talk and I was bored. Perhaps if I had four movies worth of investment I would care more, but I don’t. Then again, we’re talking about a romance between Diesel and Rodriguez, both fine genetic specimens, but neither of them are what you would call gifted thespians outside of their defacto tough guy roles. The rest of Dom’s team are given throwaway bits, though even with those meager offerings Tyrese Gibson (Transformers) comes close to wearing out his welcome as a nagging naysayer. The multiracial cast is so large that it makes it hard for any of them to actually develop as characters. Plus, this movie provides a matching evil cast that doubles the number of characters.

Ignoring all the dumb plot points and repetitious messages, when it comes time to unleash some top-draw action, that’s when Lin earns his mettle. The man has guided the franchise through four sequels ever since 2006’s Tokyo Drift, which dovetails with the timeline of this film in a surprising way (did you know these were prequels and not sequels?). I can forgive all the lapses in logic and physics when I get action sequences so good I don’t want to blink. The last two extended action set pieces in Fast and Furious 6 are stunners, massive, constantly evolving, and ridiculous in the best ways possible. The first is a freeway chase involving a tank and along a coastal Spanish highway high above cliffs. The phrase “freeway chase involving a tank” should immediately put a smile to your face. There is such over-the-top vehicular carnage, all along a trepidatious path, and the pacing just keeps things fully amped. The finale involves a giant military aircraft and a seemingly endless runway (seriously, this thing has to be like 80 miles long). Dom and his team are driving cars inside the plane, out of it, zipping around, snagging wings, being carried off with the plane; it’s a glorious sequence that involves multiple points of action, different team members, and develops organically while still escalating the awesome. Lin handles these sequences like a pro. I’m tempted to say that the greatness of these concluding action set pieces is reason enough to see Fast and Furious 6 in the theater on the big screen.

99285_galI’ve never really understood the appeal of Diesel (Babylon A.D.). I felt like I was asleep when it was decided that he had become a major action star. I don’t get it. The man grumbles just about every line of dialogue into an almost indecipherable growl. He also has the habit of getting very quiet when he’s supposed to be serious, thus making it even harder to understand what the guy is saying. I know at this point Diesel is a package deal with the franchise, but I wouldn’t mind if the far more charismatic Johnson (Pain and Gain) were to slide over and replace him as lead. Rodriguez (Battle: Los Angeles) seems to have a habit of dying in franchises and being resurrected (see: TV’s Lost, Resident Evil 5). The rest of the franchise players do their parts well enough with what little they have. Evans (Immortals) makes for a suitable sneering if forgettable villain. My favorite new actor is Gina Carano (Haywire), not necessarily because she’s a great actress, though she’s better than you’d think for an MMA-fighter-turned-actor, but because this woman is a born movie star. She’s got screen presence, a fierce look, and the lady does her own stunts. She is an impressive beast of an action star and hopefully somebody will get her the right project to make her break out big time (Haywire wasn’t it, folks).

While I prefer Fast Five, a more fun flick where the team play their parts in a convoluted but entertaining heist, Fast and Furious 6 is a highly enjoyable summer movie with some top-class action sequences. This franchise is the epitome of the popcorn thriller, its vaunting heights of ridiculousness also its most laudable quality. Six movies in, I imagine most moviegoers know what they’re getting with this franchise and they must like it because every sequel seems to outperform the last at the box-office. The formula of fast cars, sexy ladies, and hyperactive action make for a surefire, turn-off-your-brain summer spectacle. Lin has a real knack for directing large-scale destruction that’s easy to follow and easy to get caught up in. He has a strong tentpole mentality and I imagine he will be tapped to helm some other big-budget action picture. Whatever it is, his involvement guarantees my interest. I don’t know about Fast and Furious 7, scheduled to come out speedily next summer. Lin is being replaced by James Wan of horror fame, notably Saw and Insidious (his DePalma-esque work on 2007’s Death Sentence was actually striking). Considering Lin made one feature before jumping into Furious mode, a small indie crime drama, I won’t discount Wan’s potential, but I’ll miss Lin all the same. In the end, the director could be just as interchangeable as any other part of this franchise as long as it sticks to its tested formula and delivers the goods when it comes to ridiculous action.

Nate’s Grade: B

Grindhouse (2007)

The movie going experience isn’t what it used to be, and Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez want to do something about it. There?s no denying that the joy of seeing a movie has been watered down a bit; there’s soaring ticket prices, floundering product, and let’s not forget the influx of teenagers with cell phones. Rodriguez and Tarantino grew up gorging upon the exploitation films at their neighborhood grindhouse, where they could see kung-fu, blaxploitation, gory Italian zombie movies, and nearly anything that promised to be titillating and shocking. These movies dealt in copious amounts of sex and violence on a shoestring budget and teenagers lapped it up. Grindhouse was designed to be a double feature with Rodriguez and Tarantino each writing and directing an 80-minute movie. This three-hour plus movie is stuffed to the gills with 70s reverence, right down to cheesy retro clips telling us the film rating via an animated cat. If Rodriguez and Tarantino could, they probably would make the floors stickier just to round out the experience. But that’s the marvelous thing about Grindhouse –– it turns the filmgoing experience into an event once again.

First on the bill is Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. An outbreak is about to sweep across a small Texas town. A toxic green gas is causing people to break out in festering wounds that are spreading rapidly. Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) is a go go dancer who runs into an old flame, Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), a badass drifter with a dark past. They get attacked by a group of “sickos” who take Cherry’s leg as a chew toy. At the hospital we’re introduced in rapid succession to Dr. Block (Mary Shelton) and her creepy husband (Josh Brolin) she plans on leaving for the lovingly massive cleavage of Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas (she gets eaten and can, one assumes, be described as being Fergilicious). The sheriff (Michael Biehn) has an unsettled score with Wray and refuses to trust him, even though the town is slowly being overrun by what appear to be zombies. The survivors take refuge at a Bar-B-Q joint, run by the sheriff’s brother J.T. (Jeff Fahey), located only two miles away from the military outpost that released the gas.

Planet Terror is a great blast of fun, a perfect ode to schlocky B-movies. Rodriguez creates action movies closer to cartoons, and the more over-the-top and crazy things get the more joyous his films generally turn out. This is a gonzo world cranked up to a wonderfully weird wavelength, where Cherry can have a machine gun leg without any nagging question on how she even gets it to fire let alone why it would be more accurate. It doesn’t matter because this movie is all about 80-minutes of awesome, twisted, gloriously gory fun. Planet Terror isn’t the first zombie comedy, and its inspirations are quite plain, but the film establishes a wide-range of colorful characters effectively and then ramps up the chaos. Rodriguez amuses with even small touches, like a woman trying to operate a car with a anesthetized hands, a pair of skimpy babysitters who clobber a car with baseball bats, and a bio-chemical scientist (Naveen Andrews) that has a penchant for collecting and bottling the testicles of the men who fail him (hey, we all need hobbies). Even amongst an exaggerated canvas there’s still plenty of humor and adoration for the grindhouse experience, like when the beginning of a sex scene is interrupted with a “reel missing” sign. Rodriguez also intentionally downgrades the look of his film, adding hairs and scratches and pops in the film to look like it had been dragged across the floor. Planet Terror even has a dreadfully dated synth score to compliment the full-tilt celebration of splattery schlock.

Tarantino’s Death Proof is going to sharply divide audiences. The action in Planet Terror is relentlessly paced, which makes the adjustment to Tarantino?s half all the more hard. Rodriguez is all about genre relevance and making a film that would excel in the grindhouse era; Tarantino, on the other hand, is all about taking the genre and catapulting it into something ambitious and different and greater.

Death Proof is Tarantino’s take on the slasher horror genre, with the unique twist being that Tarantino?s roving killer takes out his prey with his car. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) is a stuntman of the old guard. The youth of the day have no idea of the TV shows he worked on or the celebrities he rubbed elbows with. The only lasting visages he has from those removed days are a long scar decorating the side of his face and his stunt car. The vehicle has been outfitted to be death proof, meaning that Stuntman Mike can get into any wreck and come out alive. A group of women are visiting Tennessee for a film shoot. Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) is a makeup artist, Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an actress, and Zoe Bell (herself) and Kim (Tracie Thoms) are professional stuntwomen. The stunt ladies are interested in test-driving a Dodge Charger, the same iconic car used in Vanishing Point. Zoe wants to play a dangerous game known as “Ship’s Mast,” which entails strapping herself to the hood of the car as it speeds along. This is when Stuntman Mike comes roaring with his death proof material and plays an extreme game of chicken.

The narrative structure of Death Proof is deliberately slow. The focus is on a group of Texas girls (including Sydney Poitier’s daughter named, rather unoriginally, Sydney Poitier). They dance to jukebox jams and drink. And they talk, and talk, and talk, and talk. The dialogue is clever but you worry Tarantino has been hypnotized by his own pithy writing. The movie drags a bit but mostly because it follows a film that had the pace of a runaway train. The slow buildup is an intentional correlation to slasher films, which would spend their first half hour setting up characters for the eventual slaughter. I liked how Stuntman Mike was seen playing with his prey and interacting with them. The wait is worth it, though, but then Tarantino turns around and repeats this same setup with a new batch of girls. Many will grow impatient going through the same process all over again and become irritated that they have to endure another round of talky pop culture diatribes in order to get to some more vehicular manslaughter. And at this point, the only character the audience has any affinity for is Stuntman Mike, so it’s a little tough to wait so long for his reappearance. When he does appear, the movie takes some unexpected turns and transforms into a female revenge thriller that left my audience cheering by its conclusion. My wife loved it. I married the right woman.

The makeup work is outstanding. Most of the effect work gets its spotlight during Rodriguez’s half, and Greg Nicotero and KNB have created the most gut churning, sickeningly inventive makeup work since John Carpenter’s The Thing. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is dripping in blood, and the gore is heightened to such an unrealistic, comical degree that it becomes more tolerable and, in the end, another element in the overall outrageous vibe of the film. Some memorable gore work includes makeup pioneer Tom Savini being ripped apart like a child’s jigsaw puzzle, soldiers whose faces undulate and bubble until they look like close relatives of the Elephant Man, and a truck smashing against bodies like they were made of paper and filled to the brim with Kool-Aid. This is the kind of movie where entire hoses of blood explode from single gun shot wounds. It is a gory, gruesome, sticky icky movie but that?s part of the fun.

Whereas the makeup work shines in Planet Terror, the stunt work in Death Proof is stupendous. Bell was Uma Thurman’s stunt double in the Kill Bill tandem, so by writing a part specifically for her Tarantino knew he could get up close and personal during the scary moments. Seeing Bell struggling to stay atop the hood of a car zooming at 80 miles per hour is nerve-racking and exhilarating, and you know there isn’t any computer trickery given how Tarantino’s own characters bemoan how computers have blunted action cinema output. That really is Bell and even though it’s all a movie a part of you does think, “Oh my God, this woman is going to die for real.” This killer bumper-car sequence in Death Proof will have you holding your breath. It takes much longer for Tarantino to rev up his action, but when he does he puts the pedal to the mettle.

But don’t get up for pee breaks once Planet Terror is over, because you may miss some of the best parts of Grindhouse. In between the feature films are three fake trailers directed by friends of Tarantino and Rodriguez, who made a fake trailer himself for Machete, about a Federale (Danny Trejo) out for revenge. The Machete trailer gave me the everlasting gift of a line, “They f***ed with the wrong Mexican.”

The best trailer, hands down, is Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright?s trailer for Don’t, a Dario Argento style horror film where a narrator instructs the audience lots of items not to do (“If you are thinking about turning this door… DON’T! If you think about going into the basement… DON’T!”). What makes Don’t so wonderful is that the trailer builds a thick head of steam, to the point where all wee see are bizarre rapid-fire images and the announcing repeating the message, “DON’T!” The momentum builds to a great comic high that left me giggling.

Eli Roth, who gave us Hostel and Cabin Fever, one of my all-time favorite filmgoing experiences, runs a close second with his slasher trailer for Thanksgiving. The concept is rather straightforward, a person dressed as a Pilgrim picks off residents around Turkey Day, and a great showcase for Roth’s sense of tongue-in-cheek homage and his warped sense of humor. This trailer has some gasp-inducing moments, chiefly among them a topless cheerleader who performs the splits right onto a knife blade. Wow. Then there’s a guy humping a stuffed turkey with a human head attached. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Roth is one sick bastard but he’s my kind of bastard.

Rob Zombie’s trailer for Werewolf Women of the S.S. sounds better on paper than how it turns out. There’s a subgenre of Naziploitation films (did you know you could add “-sploitation” to damn near any word?), most famously popularized by Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. Zombie?s trailer has got hairy wolf boobs, Nazis, shiny fetish outfits and S&M, but it feels too new and doesn’t work on the same vibe of Grindhouse. It feels too polished and too happy with itself; it spends more time telling you who’s in this fake movie than delivering anything juicy. The trailer is saved by a brilliant cameo by an actor whom I will not spoil, but suffice to say that I was left in stitches.

Honestly, I cannot say another movie released this year that provides more bang for your buck than Grindhouse. Tarantino and Rodriguez’s double bill will leave you giddy. This is the fastest 3 hours and 10 minutes of your life, folks. Unfortunately, the film hasn’t been doing as well at the box-office and this has caused the Weinsteins to contemplate splitting the films into two to make the most of their investment. I suppose Grindhouse was never going to have a 300-sized audience, since the idea of making a sloppy three-hour love letter to trashy cinema seems destined for a limited appeal. This is a high-art tribute to high camp, and you really do feel you get more than your money’s worth even if you pay, like I do, 10 bucks a pop for a show. I can’t imagine having a better time at the movies this year than the one I had during Grindhouse.

Nate’s Grade: A

Poseidon (2006)

The Poseidon production design is rather fantastic and director Wolfgang Peterson (Troy) has a real handle on large-scale carnage, but Poseidon is a stripped down action flick that lacks the suspense and emotional involvement to bring strength to its attempts at harrowing survival. Some sequences, only some, are nail-biting, like a very claustrophobic escape through an air vent slowly filling with water. We’re presented a situation and then Peterson cranks up the tension and utilizes different characters working together. The sequence has the added benefit of utilizing the child to save them, unlike most films of this nature where irritating kids just become a liability to your own safety. The fact that this sequence, the film’s high point in my view, is also the least expensive of this $160 million dollar movie’s sequences is not lost on me. The film’s premise of working through the bowels of an underwater ship is filled with potential. The original Poseidon Adventure was cheesy, yes, but it was a lot of fun. This slick remake brings the action fairly early, having its “rouge wave” flip the ship at the 15-minute mark. Because of this decision the audience has no attachment to the film’s collection of characters, given fleeting seconds to establish some sense of personality. You really don’t care at all what happens to these people in the ensuing danger. The female characters add nothing to the story except to fall into the constant need of being rescued. Peterson paces his obstacles mercilessly right after the other, but he runs into the problem of killing off all his expendable (read: non-white) cast off too quickly. That lessens even the small amount of tension the film had going. Poseidon is way too big-budget and serious to go for camp. The special effects are above average and the pacing is swift. Frankly, you could do worse this summer for entertainment than spending 100 minutes watching this movie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Sky High (2005)

The film is pleasant, the acting overall is even pretty good, the humor is really peppy, but it’s not enough to overcome such a formulaic plot. Sky High feels exactly like a Disney afternoon movie; everything is there just fill in the blanks, Mad Libs style. Disney cranks these out like processed hamburgers. This time people have super powers and the budget is slightly bigger. There are some things I’ve seen so many times in teen movies. People still learn big lessons, people still go through social awkwardness, there’s another big house part where everyone is invited and someone has a misunderstanding, the best friend since childhood obviously has a crush on the lead that he cannot see, and the person the moves up the ranks of popularity becomes a self-centered jerk and shuns his true friends from the beginning. The best aspect is its comedic support cast including two members of Kids in the Hall, Bruce Campbell as a gym coach, Kevin Hefferman from the Broken Lizard troupe. This supporting cast should really be the focus of the story. A super hero high school is interesting but the staff of a super hero high school is even more interesting. Still, it has a nice sense of humor and is pleasant enough.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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