Beauty and the Beast (2017)


Shall we dance?

(2017) Fantasy (Disney) Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Kevin Kline, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ray Fearon, Haydn Gwynne, Gerald Horan, Nathan Mack, Clive Rowe, Thomas Padden, Gizmo, Rita Davies, Adrian Schiller, Harriet Jones, Zoe Rainey. Directed by Bill Condon

 

Disney has of late taken the strategy of remaking animated classics as live action films. It has thus far been successful for them; Maleficent, Jungle Book and Cinderella have both been moneymakers for the studio. Now comes the most lavish and most recent of the animated classics to get a live action version.

The tale’s as old as time; Belle (Watson) is a bookish, intelligent young woman growing up in a provincial town in France in the 18th century. The daughter of Maurice (Kline), a widowed inventor, she happily borrows every book she can get her hands on and cheerfully ignores the advances of the young men of the town, particularly Gaston (Evans), a former soldier chafing in his idleness in a life of hunting and drinking, assisted by the loyal LeFou (Gad).

On the way to the market, Maurice gets chased by wolves onto the grounds of a creepy looking castle. It turns out to be inhabited by a dreadful Beast (Stevens) and living furniture who used to be the servants of the castle. When Maurice’s horse comes home without him, Belle knows something is wrong and races out to rescue her father. When she finds him locked up in a prison cell in the castle, shivering and sick, she offers to take his place and the Beast agrees.

What she doesn’t know is that the Beast and all who lived with him are victims of a curse leveled by a witch (Morahan) who was refused hospitality on a cold stormy night because she was ugly. Now time is running out on the curse which can only be broken by someone who loves the Beast and is loved by him. But Belle is beautiful; she can have any man she wants. Why would she want a Beast?

Although roughly based on the French fairy tale, this version more closely adheres to the 1991 Disney animated version and includes the songs written by the Oscar-winning duo of the late Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken and includes four new songs written by Mencken and lyricist Tim Rice. The results are lush and elegant, gathering many of the elements that worked so well in the original and transferring them note-perfectly into live action.

The production design here is intense and we feel that we are given a glimpse not necessarily into 18th century France so much as a France of myth and legend. It’s an idealized version that is at odds with the suffering amongst the poorer classes that was so great that they rose up and slaughtered their own ruling class. Here however, the ruling class in their rococo Versailles is beloved by the simple folk despite the cruelty and conspicuous consumption displayed by the palace’s occupant that was so egregious that he and all around him were cursed. Well, he had some daddy issues so I suppose he can be excused, right?

There also was much made over the “outing” of LeFou as Disney’s first outright gay character, but even that is a bit of a tempest in Mrs. Potts (Thompson). LeFou’s coming out consists of him dancing with another man (who is dressed as a woman for reasons I won’t get into here) for a few seconds of screen time at the movie’s conclusion. Considering the brouhaha it created in the religious right, I’m not surprised Disney is taking baby steps towards inclusion (there are also a couple of interracial couples among the castle’s inhabitants) but it does feel like the studio didn’t have the courage of their convictions here.

Still, one must commend them for at least trying and for not bending to pressure, refusing to re-cut the movie for Malaysian censors who banned the film from their country based on those few seconds of screen time. Personally, I think the studio should have cut the film a little more judiciously; it runs over two hours long which is about 45 minutes longer than the original animated feature. Condon and writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spillotopoulos flesh out the backstory, explaining why Belle’s mother is out of the picture and why the Beast’s human prince was such a rotten individual among other things and it makes the movie a little too ponderous for its own good. Several little princesses in full regalia at the screening Da Queen and I attended got extremely restless during the movie’s final half hour.

But the ending is definitely worth it. It is slightly different than the animated version and the difference is enough to really tug at the heartstrings and create an emotional catharsis that warms the cockles even as you’re wiping away the tears. I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did; everything I heard about it made me fear that it was a bloated mess and in some ways it is, but there is enough heart here that it actually becomes a worthwhile viewing. Plenty of little princesses are going to be demanding that their parents add this to their video collection not too long down the line when it becomes available.

Chances are, you’ve already seen this and if you haven’t, I strongly urge you see it on the big screen while you still can. The amazing special effects deserve the best possible presentation. Even if you aren’t required to see it by a child in your life, this is actually a fine motion picture for adults, if for no other reason the nostalgia that it evokes. It truly is a tale old as time.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are gorgeous. The film has a lot more heart than you’d expect from an effects-heavy fantasy.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a little too much ephemera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and action sequences, scenes of peril and a few frightening images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ian McKellen was originally offered the part of Cogsworth for the 1991 animated version and turned it down (David Ogden Stiers eventually took the role) but he chose to accept it this time out.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Dinner

New Releases for the Week of March 17, 2017


BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

(Disney) Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Directed by Bill Condon

This live-action version of the beloved Disney animation contains the classic songs from the original as well as some brand new songs by original composer Alan Mencken and legendary lyricist Tim Rice. We all know the story; an inquisitive young girl rescues her father who has been poking around a castle where he shouldn’t have been and has been captured by a terrible Beast. She offers herself in his stead and stays at the castle where everything is alive – even the candlesticks. What she doesn’t know is that a curse has been laid on the Beast and his castle and time is running out on reversing it. It will take a miracle; after all, how could Beauty ever love a Beast?

See the trailer, interviews, clips, featurette and B-Roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Romantic Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for some action violence, peril and frightening images)

The Belko Experiment

(BH Tilt/Orion/MGM) John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz. A group of American workers are trapped in a high rise where a mysterious voice orders them to kill some of their number – or more of them will be killed at random by the owners. And as things progress, the dog eat dog world of business turns into a deadly game of survival. James Gunn, director of the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 wrote this.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence throughout, language including sexual references, and some drug use)

Kedi

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) Bülent Ustün. Istanbul (not Constantinople) is one of the world’s most ancient cities. They’ve had a tradition over the years of taking care of stray cats as a community. The cats have become an indelible part of Istanbul’s charm and personality. Told from a distinctly feline point of view, this is the viral cat video to end all viral cat videos.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: NR

Land of Mine

(Sony Classics) Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Mikel Boe Følsgaard. As World War II came to a close, German prisoners of war in Denmark are given a daunting task to complete before being allowed to return to their homes. They must clear a beach of literally thousands of land mines that had been placed there by the German army. The painstaking and crazy dangerous work is high stress and the Danes are not terribly happy about having the Germans around at all but slowly the Danes begin to see the Germans differently as the beach is slowly made safe again.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: War
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for violence, some grisly images, and language)

The Last Word

(Bleecker Street) Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Ann’Jewel Lee, Philip Baker Hall. A formidable woman, in the twilight of her life, has been of late reading obituaries of people she knows and finds that the obituary writer is making their somewhat ordinary lives sound extraordinary. She decides that having exerted control over everything her entire life she wants to read her obituary before she actually dies, but to get the kind of write-up she wants she may need to make a few changes. Cinema365 was privileged to be invited to a press screening for this; the review will run tomorrow.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for language)

The Sense of an Ending

(CBS) Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Matthew Goode, Emily Mortimer. A recluse who is happy in his quiet existence is confronted with secrets from his past. This will force him to face that his flawed recollections of what actually happened are not the truth about his first love and that he has yet to experience the full consequences of decisions made long ago.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, a violent image, sexuality, and brief strong language)

The Girl on the Train (2016)


Emily Blunt realizes she's on the express train to Hell.

Emily Blunt realizes she’s on the express train to Hell.

(2016) Thriller (DreamWorks/Universal) Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Rebecca Ferguson, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, Lisa Kudrow, Lana Young, Gregory Motley, Mac Tavares, John Norris, Peter Mayer-Klepchick, Darren Goldstein, Nathan Shapiro, Cleta E. Ellington, Tamiel Paynes, Fernando Medina, Rachel Christopher. Directed by Tate Taylor

 

Perception is a tricky thing. Memory is unreliable; we may think we see something but did we really? Was it something that our minds embellished, either because of altered perception or our own prejudices? Was it something important? Ask ten people about something they saw fleetingly from a moving vehicle and you’ll get ten different answers as to what they saw.

Rachel Watson (Blunt) takes the Long Island Railroad train from the Island into the City twice a day. She’s been through a lot lately; a divorce following the revelation that her husband Tom (Theroux) had been cheating on her with their real estate agent Anna (Ferguson) – and had worse still married Anna and had a beautiful baby daughter with her, after efforts for Rachel to get pregnant had turned out fruitless. She already had a problem with alcohol when they were married; now that problem has become full-blown alcoholism.

From the train she sees a house not far from the one she used to live in and where Tom still lives with her new wife. In the house live a beautiful blonde and her husband, the perfect couple to Rachel’s mind, who have everything she ever wanted but cannot have. It comforts her somehow that this perfect union exists. Then one morning she sees the wife in the arms of another man and this sends her into a tailspin. She gets blackout drunk and ends up in a field not far from her old house and the one that the not-quite-perfect couple live in.

Then comes the news that the woman is missing; her name is Megan Hipwell (Bennett) and husband Scott (Evans) is frantic. As Rachel was spotted in the area, she is questioned by Detective Riley (Janney) about the situation. Rachel tells the Detective what she knows but Rachel isn’t exactly the most reliable witness.

Consumed by the case, Rachel sets out to find out who the mysterious man was and to find out what happened to Megan. Slowly, as she stumbles drunkenly from one clue to another, she begins to get closer to the truth about what happened to Megan – and discovers to her shock that the answer is closer to her than she could ever know.

This is based on the runaway bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins and is quite frankly a hot mess. Director Tate Taylor (The Help) has a history of deftly weaving multiple tales of different women together into cohesive films but that doesn’t happen here. The focus is largely on Rachel but Megan and Anna are both heavily in the mix and we do get their points of view as well.

Blunt has gotten some strong praise for her performance as Rachel, even critics calling for Oscar attention but I don’t see it. Frankly, this is one of her weaker performances that I can remember. She is unconvincing when asked to do scenes of drunkenness; quite frankly I’ve spent a lot of time among the inebriated and this is more of a caricature than anything else. Blunt tends to be more successful here when we get glimpses of her underlying torment. Rachel is definitely not a happy woman and when Blunt gets to let glimpses of that out, the performance works.

She isn’t helped much by the other cast members. Their performances are mainly unmemorable, but that isn’t necessarily the fault of the actors. They are given preposterous dialogue to say and characters who have little or no development to work with. It’s like the filmmakers decided to do something Hitchcock-esque (which this is) but instead of writing actual characters they used stereotypes from other films to fill in the blanks. While Rachel’s alcoholism is a nifty idea, it’s used more as a gimmick than as a real interesting plot point.

I haven’t read the novel this is based on but I’m told it’s very well-written by people whose judgment I trust on such matters. I can’t believe though that the story is identical; it’s too pat, too been there-done that. The twists are telegraphed and let’s face it, if you can’t tell who the criminal is in the first twenty minutes you’ve been asleep.

Bailey as Megan shows some promise (she’s also in the much better Magnificent Seven remake) doing her best Margot Robbie impression and ironically enough Robbie was originally considered for the role. Ramirez incomprehensibly has a Spanish accent for a character who’s supposed to be Arabic and Janney is unbelievable as a tough Detective Sergeant. I mean, think about it; these are all competent actors who are known for their consistently strong performances. Why are they all doing subpar work here all at the same time? One can only blame the filmmakers. The only actor who really makes an impression is Lisa Kudrow in a brief but important role who gets to utter the immortal line “Rachel! I haven’t seen you in a million years!” which may or may not be a conscious reference to Friends.

I’ve read some decent reviews for this thing and can’t for the life of me which movie those critics saw. Most of the reviews have been, like this one, on the negative side. The houses don’t look lived in, the lives don’t feel real. It’s like watching a movie in which Barbie and Ken dolls are used as surrogates. Blunt shows flashes of her normal brilliance but that is tempered with her portrayal of drunkenness as more of a lampoon than anything remotely approaching realism and that is symbolic of the movie’s issues as a whole; at the end of the day, this feels empty and without a connection to anything like real life. Why spend money on a movie that feels divorced from reality when you can watch a presidential debate for free?

REASONS TO GO: The alcoholism makes for an interesting plot point.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot twists and the whodunit are incredibly predictable. The acting is surprisingly blah.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence, sexual content, profanity and a bit of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film Taylor has made that hasn’t had Octavia Spencer in it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vertigo
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Handmaiden

High-Rise (2015)


An open house you may not want to attend.

An open house you may not want to attend.

(2015) Thriller (Magnet) Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Enzo Cilenti, Augustus Prew, Dan Renton Skinner, Stacy Martin, Tony Way, Leila Mimmack, Bill Paterson, Louis Suc, Neil Maskell, Alexandra Weaver, Julia Deakin, Victoria Wicks. Directed by Ben Wheatley

Florida Film Festival 2016

It is part of human nature to divide people into class by their wealth; the upper classes – the haves – all the way down to the lower classes – the have-nots – and in between. Some places, class distinctions are much more concrete than others; the British have made an art form of it.

Set in 1975, this film based on a J.G. Ballard novel posits something that back in that time was only beginning to catch on as an idea but is more prevalent today – the lifestyle apartments. You know the kind; the ones that have shopping and sometimes even office space in the same building, allowing those that live there to need never venture beyond the walls of their high rise. This particular one sits just outside of London.

The middle class inhabit the lower floors with few amenities; the further up you go, the more amenities there are (gymnasium, swimming pool and so on) and of course the wealthier the resident. On the very top floor is Royal (Irons), the reclusive architect of the whole she-bang and his shrewish wife Ann (Hawes). Their luxury penthouse includes an outdoor garden where there is enough room for Ann to ride a horse and Royal to work on the other four towers of the five he has planned.

Into this environment comes Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston), a physiologist who is single and immediately catches the eye of Charlotte (Miller), the resident nymph who raises her son Toby (Suc) on her own as a single mom, who catches the good Doctor sunbathing nude. She invites him to a party where he meets Wilder (Evans), a dissatisfied television news reader who has the hots for Charlotte and a little bit too high of an opinion of himself.

The building is brand new and starkly furnished in the style of the time, but cracks begin to show in the facade. Electrical outages at first affect the lower floors before spreading and ending up in a complete blackout. The store where all groceries are bought fails to get resupplied and eventually panicked residents ransack it.

The social order breaks down quickly as the haves and have-nots arrange themselves into violent tribes. The women begin to gravitate towards men who can protect them from the violence and chaos going on in the building. The upper classes gravitate towards Royal as a leader (as he is the wealthiest) while the lower classes choose Wilder because of his fearlessness. Before long, civilization is a distant memory.

Ballard’s allegorical commentary on how thin the veneer of civilized behavior is was controversial in its time, although given recent events one can’t help but wonder if he erred on the side of caution. It also isn’t a particularly lightbulb-glowing concept, that the classes don’t like each other much. In some ways, the point was made better and earlier by Jonathan Swift in his A Modest Proposal which suggests that with overpopulation and food shortages inevitably befalling any civilized nation that the wealthy should look to eating the poor. And you thought Ballard was cynical!

Hiddleston has been coming on lately as a legitimate leading man presence. He has a bit of an edge compared to guys like, say, Matt Damon; I think of him as more of a ‘70s archetype for a leading man, which makes him perfectly cast here. Initially, he’s got a bit of a shy and reclusive nature, which might be what draws the ladies to him (including Wilder’s very pregnant wife Helen (Moss) with whom he has a dalliance late in the film) although it might be more due to the fact that he’s got crazy good looks. I know at least a few ladies who have him on their list of five (five men they get to do anytime, anywhere even if they are married). He’s also a hell of an actor and we watch his descent into obsessive insanity, although he never quite hits bottom. While Hiddleston is known for his villains at present, I would imagine leading roles in big-budget franchise films are just around the corner for him.

I was a teen in the era that is depicted here and there’s a bit of a shock in seeing how many people smoked (according to iMDB there are people smoking in 80% of the film) including pregnant woman. There was also rampant sexuality going on, including a crapload of extramarital affairs and plenty of drug use. All of which is captured here, which while I found unsurprising, still seemed jarring when given today’s mores. Still, I ended up feeling a bit grimy just watching it.

Likewise there are things that sort of rock the logic meter to its core. For instance, why don’t people just LEAVE? After all, the chaos is limited to this one building; if the situation became that out of control, wouldn’t you just walk out the door and be done with it? Also, why doesn’t the grocery store get restocked? That’s never addressed.

I think a lot of how you’re going to digest this movie is going to depend on your own social situation. People who are wealthy and/or conservative are going to identify with the upper class tribe; those who are working class and/or liberal might well identify with the lower class tribe, although the latter were guilty of some unspeakable acts which might give you a hint as to where Ballard’s own sympathies lie (or at least the filmmakers; I haven’t read the source novel yet). Quite frankly, from what I’ve read the jury is out as far as opinions regarding the book’s sympathies.

Similarly, the movie is polarizing – people either love it or hate it. I wanted to like it more than I did, but like Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, watching any five minutes of this film will convince you that it is brilliant but watching the whole of it will not – he called it the best disappointing film you’ll watch this year and in that he is absolutely correct.

REASONS TO GO: Class warfare for dummies. Hiddleston shows some star power.
REASONS TO STAY: Logical holes abound. Makes you feel like a full ashtray has been dumped on your head.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fairly disturbing stuff here; violence, rape, graphic nudity, sexual content, drug use, foul language and a partridge in a pear tree.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author J.G. Ballard published the novel this is based on in 1975, the same year that ABBA’s “S.O.S.” was released (the song was covered by two different artists on the soundtrack).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snowpiercer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

New Releases for the Week of June 17, 2016


Finding DoryFINDING DORY

(Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Ellen DeGeneres, Diane Keaton, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Eugene Levy, Ty Burrell, Idris Elba, Bill Hader. Directed by Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane

The sequel to Finding Nemo focuses on the fish with the memory issues, Dory. When she suddenly is able to remember that she has a family, she knows she must go on a quest to find them and her friends all volunteer to help her get there. But who are they? Where could they be in a vast ocean? And where did she learn to speak whale? Every kid you know is going to see this in the next few weeks.

See the trailer, interviews, a promo and a Mother’s Day video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements)

Central Intelligence

(New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Amy Ryan, Aaron Paul. Back for a high school reunion, a former big man on campus looks back on his glory days with some wistfulness. He’s an accountant now and lives a boring, quiet life. But into his world comes the former bullied fat kid, now a ripped deadly CIA assassin, who claims to be on a major case. But is he telling the truth or is he just psychotic? Either way, the ex-BMOC wants nothing to do with him – but he finds himself sucked into a world of intrigue and action he only could have dreamed about in his youth.

See the trailer, clips and a video feature here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for crude and suggestive humor, some nudity, action violence and brief strong language)

The Dark Horse

(Broad Green) Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Kirk Torrance, Miriama McDowell. Genesis Potini came out of the slums of New Zealand to become a chess champion. Overcoming the odds and a certifiable genius at the game, he grew up to be an inspiration to his neighborhood and the children of his community, despite having to contend with his own demons.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language throughout, and some violence)

Genius

(Roadside Attractions) Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney. It has been said (mostly by writers) that behind every successful writer is a great editor and Max Perkins was the greatest of the great. Discoverer of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, he had a long-time friendship and professional relationship with the enigmatic Thomas Wolfe. This is the story of that often-tumultuous relationship.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and suggestive content)

High-Rise

(Magnet) Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Luke Evans. A high rise apartment building becomes the setting for a class war as the upper class tenants of the luxury apartments on the higher floors are set against the middle class tenants on the lower floors. Increasingly frequent power outages and disturbing flaws in the design of the building begin to show up, particularly on the lower floors. Based on a novel by J.G. Ballard, this film played at the Florida Film Festival this past April.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content/graphic nudity, language, and some drug use)

Furious 7


Paul Walker and Vin Diesel prepare for one last ride.

Paul Walker and Vin Diesel prepare for one last ride.

(2015) Action (Universal) Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Lucas Black, Kurt Russell, Natalie Emmanuel, Elsa Pataky, Gal Gadot, John Brotherton, Luke Evans, Tony Jaa, Djimon Hounsou, Noel Gugliemi, Ali Fazar, Sung Kang, Ronda Rousey, Iggy Azalea, Levy Tran. Directed by James Wan

If there is a motion picture franchise that has escaped convention and turned all Hollywood wisdom on its ear, it is this one. The first movie in the series that has now reached seven films was pretty good, the next two not so much, the fourth one was excruciating but the fifth and sixth ones were the two best of the series. Would this continue that trend?

Picking up directly where Fast & Furious 6 left off, Dominic Toretto (Diesel) is looking forward to some down time with his friends – except he has no friends, only family. His sister Mia (Brewster) is in full-on maternal mode, bringing up a little baby girl with another one on its way. His best friend Brian O’Connell (Walker) is moving into the daddy role although he’s not always happy about it, telling Mia in a moment of reflection that he misses the bullets. His wife Letty (Rodriguez) is still suffering from amnesia and doesn’t remember that she and Dom are married. Tej (Ludacris) and Roman (Gibson) are getting on with their lives after the run-in with Owen Shaw (Evans) that nearly killed them and left the bad guy comatose.

Except that Owen’s bigger and badder brother Deckard (Statham) is out for vengeance and he has already murdered Han (Kang). He drops a bomb on Dom’s house and puts their own private federal agent Hobbs (Johnson) in the hospital. The crew realize they’re being hunted down one by one by a superior killer.

Enter Mr. Nobody (Russell), a black ops sort who is willing to help them drop Deckard out of the world but there’s one little catch; they must retrieve Ramsey (Emmanuel), a comely hacker and her ultimate surveillance hack Godseye from ruthless warlord Jakande (Hounsou). Considering that he doesn’t care how many civilians die for him to get ultimate power and control through Godseye which essentially accepts the feeds from everything with a camera or a cell phone in the world, it can locate anyone anywhere on the planet.

They’ll have to pull out all the stops, taking crazy to a whole new level in the process. None of them will be safe, either from the heavily armed drone that is chasing them or from the lethal Deckard who has already offed one of their numbers and looks to add others to the tally before all is said and done.

This continues the frenetic pace that has made the last two movies in the franchise so enjoyable. The stunts are more breathtaking with cars dropping out of airplanes and flying out of skyscrapers into other skyscrapers. This is some of the best car-centric action you’re likely to see this year and although some of the stunts defy logic, they will nonetheless leave even the most intellectual moviegoer on the edge of your seat. Just go with it, says I.

And there are some pretty badass baddies to deal with. Statham is the best villain to date in the franchise and he is absolutely lethal, having one of the better fight sequences in recent memory with Johnson early on in the movie. Hounsou, an Oscar nominee, also makes for a mad dog African warlord that while somewhat over-the-top and somewhat stereotypical is still one you love to hate. And the great Tony Jaa makes his English language debut as Jakande’s enforcer and he gets a couple of fight scenes with Walker that are amazing.

Yeah, that’s a lot of superlatives to throw around but in fact this may well be the best of the franchise, although I think that the sixth entry edges it out by a hair. There’s a little bit too much mention of “family” by Dom (which would make a great home video drinking game if you take a shot every time he says the word) and this really doesn’t do much more than give us more of the same only at greater volume.

There is also a very nice tribute to Walker at the movie’s end. Walker, who passed away in a car crash (ironically) on November 30, 2014 was about halfway through filming his role when he died, but thanks to stand-ins and body doubles (supplied in part by his brothers Cody and Caleb) as well as timely CGI and archival footage the movie was able to be finished. Now there are some snarky critics who claim they could tell when Walker was “real” and when he was CGI. That’s odd because I couldn’t and I suspect the average moviegoer won’t be able to either. However, Walker’s voice was stilled for much of the film and the actors and crew paid tribute to him in subtle ways throughout.

It is a fitting farewell to Walker who was just coming into his own as an actor and looked to be moving past the typical mumble-mouthed wooden action hero he was generally cast as. Imagining what kind of career he had ahead of him will haunt an awful lot of people’s imagination as to what sort of future he had ahead of him. That his last movie broke box office records is kind of a lovely grace note to all this.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible stunts and driving sequences. A fitting farewell to Walker. Statham, Jaa and Hounsou make fine adversaries.
REASONS TO STAY: More of the same but who cares?
FAMILY VALUES: Nearly non-stop action, violence and automotive mayhem, a fair amount of cussing and some sexually suggestive visuals.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At 2 hours and 17 minutes, this is the longest entry to date in the film franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Need for Speed
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: A Better Life

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


Martin Freeman mulls "His Precious".

Martin Freeman mulls “His Precious”.

(2014) Fantasy (New Line/MGM) Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Aidan Turner, Jed Brophy, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Richard Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Sylvester McCoy, Benedict Cumberbatch (voice), Billy Connolly, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage. Directed by Peter Jackson

Since I read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein as a boy, I was hooked not only on Middle Earth but on fantasy films in general. From Tolkein, I went on to read the works of Robert Howard, Fritz Leiber, Terry Brooks, Melanie Rawn, Piers Anthony, David Eddings, Raymond Feist and many others. I became an avid Dungeons and Dragons player in college. In short, I became a fantasy nerd.

When Peter Jackson did the Lord of the Rings trilogy I was in fantasy nerd heaven. All three of the movies were standout films, epic in scope and yet humanized by Frodo and Sam who ironically weren’t human but Hobbits. I looked forward to the new Hobbit trilogy eagerly.

The first two movies I enjoyed but less than the LOTR films; the third one I enjoyed less than the first two. Essentially what happens here is that the Dwarves led by their new King Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) have taken Erebor back and the dragon Smaug (Cumberbatch) has gone on a rampage, taking out Laketown with fire and destruction. At last Bard (Evans) the Archer with most of the city fleeing for their lives takes out Smaug.

However, the damage has been done. His town is no longer habitable and his people are refugees. They’ll need assistance in rebuilding their lives, and so Bard approaches Thorin to get a share of the mountain’s treasure which Thorin had promised, but Thorin – now mad with greed – refuses and turns his back on them. He also refuses to return to Elven King Thranduil (Pace) artifacts which belonged to him. With little choice, a battle looms between the three armies.

This is where Gandalf (McKellan), who has been a prisoner of the Necromancer (Cumberbatch again) until rescued by Galadriel (Blanchett), Elrond (Weaving) and Saruman (Lee), arrives to warn all the parties that a massive orc army is approaching. When it arrives, the dwarves are in for the fight of their lives, even aided by Dain (Connolly) a cousin of Thorin’s. When a fifth army arrives from an Orc stronghold, it appears that the Elven, Dwarven and Human armies may be annihilated. However, the courage of a special Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) may be the turning point for the entire affair.

Lots of fans have groused at the adding of new material that wasn’t in the original source material in the first place, particularly of Tauriel (Lilly) an Elf created by the filmmakers to have a romance with Kili (Turner). I can only say that while much of the material served to pad out the book which would have never supported three films on its own that for the most part enhances the original material somewhat. I blow hot and cold myself on the matter but it is at least interesting to see Jackson’s take on the background of the book although I still wish that he’d found some way to shoehorn Beorn into the movies. C’est la cinema.

The biggest gripe I have with the movie and the reason why I have given it the lowest rating I have given any of the Middle Earth films is that it is mainly one long battle scene. Everything in the movie is either battle or leading up to it, beginning with the fight with Smaug at the beginning, Thorin’s battle with his own morality and of course the major battle scene that concludes the film which lasts not quite an hour. Sure, there was an extensive battle sequence at the conclusion of the first trilogy, but that film also had the quest of Frodo and Sam interweaving in to relieve the nonstop clanking of swords.

That said, the CGI effects continue to impress, particularly at the increased frame rate and in IMAX 3D which as I’ve said before, is a rare upcharge that’s actually worth it. Also worth it are the performances of Armitage, who is plagued by demons of greed and at last realizes that he is not that guy, and Freeman who is the heart of the Hobbit and at last demonstrates it. At times throughout the series we have seen that there is more to Bilbo than what we see on the surface and never more than in this film. Freeman is a superb actor – those who saw his performance in the Fargo mini-series earlier this year will agree. He is finally coming into his own after years of being stuck in character actor purgatory. I look forward to seeing him continue to get expanded roles in important projects.

While the movie goes full circle in linking to the original trilogy with some off-hand remarks and essentially reuniting Gandalf and Bilbo as the preparations for the party that began The Fellowship of the Ring are underway, in many ways the links to that trilogy are more assumed than anything else. I would have wished for a little tighter of a bond between the two trilogies.

This will be Jackson’s last foray into Middle Earth and in that sense, we do get some closure, saying goodbye to a film series that will always remain close to my heart as a fan and as a critic. It is not the best movie to go out on and really shows quite graphically how the decision to make three movies out of The Hobbit was not a good artistic decision although it must be said it was a sound financial one as the second trilogy will have generated close to three billion dollars U.S. in box office by the time all is said and done.

Still in all, the movie is sufficiently entertaining to be worth seeing if just for the special effects, although those who didn’t care for the first two films in the trilogy or for fantasy in general will continue to dislike this trilogy. For the rest of us, it is a bittersweet occasion as I will miss our trips to Middle Earth and the company of hobbits, elves, dwarves and wizards.

REASONS TO GO: A pretty solid farewell to Middle Earth. Freeman and Armitage do solid work. Terrific effects.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much battle which gets numbing after awhile. Lacks relief from the constant battle scenes.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence mainly of the fantasy warfare sort, some scary monsters and other frightening images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lee Pace, who plays the father of Orlando Bloom in the film, is actually two years younger than Bloom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Into the Woods