The Fate of the Furious


Why so angry>

(2017) Action (Universal) Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Kurt Russell, Nathalie Emmanuel, Luke Evans, Elsa Pataky, Helen Mirren, Scott Eastwood, Kristofer Hivju,, Patrick St. Esprit, Janmarco Santiago, Luke Hawx, Corey Maher, Olek Krupa, Alexander  Babara, Eden Estrella. Directed by F. Gary Gray

 

There was a big question mark hanging over the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious franchise; with co-star Paul Walker gone, could the series continue to reach the heights it achieved with Furious 7? Well, in terms of box office and spectacle, the answer turned out to be yes. But does it hold up with the best of the films in the franchise?

Dominic Toretto (Diesel) is on his honeymoon with his girl Letty (Rodriguez) in Havana, doing what most new husbands do on their honeymoon; get involved in a street race. He is also approached by Cypher (Theron), a world class hacker who has something on Dom but we’re not sure what. His wolfish smile, which looks for all the world like he’s displaying his fangs, turns into a world class scowl – see picture above.

During the next mission with his crew, Dom betrays them leaving Hobbs (Johnson) holding the bag, Cypher holding some Russian nuclear codes and the team unable to believe that Dom would turn on them. The world thinks Dom has gone Rogue but Mr. Nobody (Russell) thinks differently, even after Dom and Cypher attack their headquarters in New York City. Dom flees and Cypher uses her special skills to take control over every computer-enabled car in Manhattan, raining down cars on the team like a really bad hailstorm.

Cypher is after a Russian nuclear sub and with her launch codes could hold the world hostage for a tidy amount of cash but Letty, Mr. Nobody and the until-recently-incarcerated Hobbs have other plans, and they’re going to get some reinforcements of the most unexpected kind. Friend and foe will unite to take on this deadly femme fatale.

Now, I’m not going to beat around the bush; the action sequences are absolutely outstanding. The New York sequence is right there as is the climactic scene in which Dom’s crew chase down the submarine over ice – don’t even ask for sense here. Nothing here makes any. What we have is just cars going fast, things going boom and attractive guys and gals at the wheels of cars we couldn’t possibly afford. What better fantasy is there for a red-blooded American?

I think that the instructions here were to go big and Gray as well as screenwriter Chris Morgan may have taken it too much to heart. This is more in the James Bond territory now than what was once a simple underground street racing movie featuring a bunch of LA guys in wife beaters driving some cool midlife crisis compensators. There are gadgets, CGI and not a whole lot of character development which may be because there are way too many characters here. Too many to keep track of, anyway.

I wasn’t a fan of this franchise initially but starting with the fourth installment I began to get into it. Unfortunately, this is a giant step backwards and while it’s billion dollar worldwide box office guarantees an ninth episode (there will also be a tenth which has already been dated by Universal), I’m not looking forward to it with quite the anticipation of the previous few installments.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are great. You can’t go wrong with a heavyweight cast like this one.
REASONS TO STAY: This is the weakest entry in the franchise since Tokyo Drift. There are too many characters to keep up with.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of violence and action, some sensuality and brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were rumors that Diesel and Johnson were having some personal difficulties with one another; after Johnson posted his frustrations online, the two met privately and resolved their differences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Need for Speed
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Cyclotron

The History of Future Folk


I have very much the same reaction to banjos.

I have very much the same reaction to banjos.

(2012) Sci-Fi Comedy Musical Thingie (Variance) Nils D’Aulaire, Jay Klaitz, Julie Ann Emery, April L. Hernandez, Dee Snider, Onata Aprile, Teena Byrd, Ivan Cardona, Mario D’Leon, Steve Greenstein, Callie Harlan, Dylan Powers, Eddie Privitzer, Billy Lee, Liz Logan. Directed by J. Anderson Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker   

Florida Film Festival 2013

Let’s say you were the biggest badass on the planet Hondo and you were sent to prepare for an invasion of planet Earth by releasing a flesh-eating virus into the atmosphere, paving the way for the Hondonians to take over. What if you heard music for the first time ever on this puny little pipsqueak of a rock? What if the arrangements of tones were so pleasing to your ear that you suddenly realized that this world just might be a world worth saving?

Bill (D’Aulaire) – better known as General Trius on Planet Hondo – is in just such a position, coincidentally enough. He was about to release the virus when he found himself in….a big box store. Awed by the abundance of goods, he hesitated. And then he heard it – music. Well, Muzak to be precise but it was unlike anything he’d ever heard before.

And so the great General decided to spare this world and took up the banjo. He learned how to play and did some gigs around Brooklyn as General Trius, and it was at one of these that he met Holly (Emery), whom he would marry and eventually have a child, sweet Wren (Aprile) with.

But the leaders of Hondo would not be so easily put off. They sent Kevin (Klaitz), an assassin, to get the mission back on the rails. Kevin is the kind of assassin I’d want after me if someone felt the need to punch my ticket. He is good-hearted and not at all good at his profession. However, he discovers he’s a pretty fair guitar player and singer. Thus the duo of Future Folk are born.

You’d think the high muckety mucks on Hondo would have gotten the picture but NOOOOOO. They send yet another assassin after Bill and Kevin with the express directive to wipe out all life on Earth and this guy is a bit more serious about his work. In the meantime Kevin has fallen for the pretty cop Carmen (Hernandez) and the duo have gotten a regular gig at a club owned by Larry (Snider). Can they save the day and get a record deal on the side?

Of all the movies at the Florida Film Festival I saw this year, this one has the most offbeat and genuine charm. Yeah, there’s definitely a hipster element to it but the filmmakers chose not to stress the usual indie clichés that come with the hipster thing. Instead, they take elements of ’50s b-movie science fiction invasion films, 60s hootenanny films and 70s exploitation flicks. The result is kinda kooky, a little retro, sorta out there but completely fun.

Snider, the frontman for Twisted Sister and occasional Celebrity Apprentice contestant is the most well-known face here but the acting is fairly solid if unspectacular. The music is another matter; the songs are pretty damn catchy and the harmonies spot on with some deft banjo and guitar work. There’s a bluegrass-folk element with kind of B movie Sci-Fi lyrics (and yes there is a soundtrack – you can order it right now through Amazon or iTunes – go to the website by clicking on the photo above for details).

Now I love quirky as much as the next man but be warned that some who have low tolerance for that sort of thing might find the music and movie hard to take. However, the movie is so cheerful in it’s obvious love for all the genres it mashes up that I couldn’t help but feel affectionate towards it. Definitely this takes me back to a certain genre of movies that made rainy weekend afternoons tolerable.

This isn’t a movie that’s out to reinvent the wheel. While it plainly wears it’s heart on its sleeve (and a red plastic bucket on its head), the filmmakers do resist the urge to give their baby a heaping helping of kitsch and instead just let you bask in the goofiness. While a lot of film critics need a film to have some great meaning or message in order to get a favorable review, this movie seems bent only on having its audience feel good by the time the end credits roll and at that mission, this movie succeeds. Five hearty Hondos and an Excelsior to this movie!

REASONS TO GO: Long on charm. Great tunes. And of course, Hondo!

REASONS TO STAY: Some might find the offbeat humor overbearing. An occasional over-emphasis on Hondo!

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some mild violence and a few mildly bad words here and there. Hondo!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Future Folk are an actual band based in Brooklyn who make very similar comments in between songs as they do here; the movie was made in essence to give the band a backstory. Hondo!

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score listed; the jury’s still out on this one which isn’t opening on its limited theatrical run until May 31. Hondo!

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alien Trespass and Hondo!

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Star Trek Into Darkness

Battle: Los Angeles


Battle: Los Angeles

The smog is particularly bad in L.A. today.

(2011) Sci-Fi Action (Columbia) Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Ramon Rodriguez, Cory Hardrict, Ne-Yo, Bridget Moynahan, Michael Pena, Noel Fisher, Bryce Cass, Adetokumboh M’Cormack, Joey King, Neil Brown Jr., Roger Mitchell, Gino Anthony Pesi. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman

In any military action, it is the grunts on the ground that do most of the fighting. While most of our alien invasion movies look at the high flying pilots and the decision makers of government and the military, we rarely get to see much of the guys in the trenches trying to survive the much more advanced weaponry of a space-capable race.

It started out as a meteor shower that came out of nowhere but the attitude generally changed when the meteors began to slow down as if they were under power; infrared pictures taken from the Hubble Space Telescope indicate the presence of mechanical devices in the center of the meteors, and the fact that they were only landing outside the waters of major coastal cities…well, it’s a little bit suspicious. And what do Americans do when they’re suspicious? They send in the Marines.

Among the Marines is decorated veteran SSgt. Mike Nantz (Eckhart) who has seen combat action, but is nursing wounds that can’t be seen after a mission in the Gulf leaves him minus several members of his squad who didn’t make it home, including the brother of Cpl. Jason Lockett (Hardrict), who happens to be in Nantz’s squad.

Except it really isn’t Nantz’s squad; Nantz had recently submitted his retirement papers and was only in this squad because Lt. Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), a bit wet behind the ears and fresh from OCS,  was down a Staff Sergeant because his was on leave. When the meteors turn out to be an invasion force of squid-like aliens who start shooting first and asking questions…ummm, not at all, they are sent on a rescue mission to Santa Monica to pick up some civilians from a police station because in a few hours, the Air Force is going to carpet bomb that part of town to keep the aliens out of the rest of it.

They manage to get to the Police Station but not unscathed; there they find a veterinarian (Moynihan), a man (Pena) and his son (Cass), and pick up an Air Force tech sergeant (Michelle Rodriguez) whose mission went horribly wrong. They are hemmed in by alien ground troops and too late discover that the supposed rule of the airspace that the humans had was a complete illusion.

It becomes obvious that they’re going to have to fight their way through superior forces to get back behind their own lines, and those lines are rapidly moving in the other direction. The Battle of Los Angeles is in danger of being lost, and it will become the crux on which the survival of the human species will balance.

After seeing last year’s Skyline I had low expectations for the genre. The trailers for B:LA made it look far more interesting and a better quality and I suppose in that sense, the trailers don’t lie. However, the movie is just as disappointing as Skyline but for different reasons.

Eckhart is a decent enough lead and makes the rough and scarred Nantz also conscientious and brave. Most of the other roles are more or less disposable and seem to have sprung from a Screen Writing 101 cliché course. The characters are rarely fleshed out and most of the dialogue consists of gung-ho lines like “Marines never quit!” and “I’m not going to leave you behind!” and “Retreat? HELL!!!”

The special effects are only okay and the aliens, when you see them, are sort of squid-like and don’t look very realistic or even threatening which would be okay except that they mostly are seen firing weapons which get more elaborate as the movie goes on. It isn’t the aliens that hold our attention but their guns and when that happens, the movie loses interest. We’re told they’re after our water and that their technology and the aliens themselves use water as a conductive device; that’s really all we ever hear about the aliens and their culture. Someday, I’d love to see an alien invasion movie that lets us actually meet the aliens. Beyond that, the action sequences can be rather nifty, and there are some very cool shots of L.A. under siege.

In fact, think of this very much as a Marine Recruiting Video mash-up with a war-based videogame and throw in some Independence Day besides. There are a lot of elements here that would normally add up to a good movie, but too many Lt. Deadmeats and way too many testosterone-fueled cliché moments make this seem like something you’ve seen before and can go a long time without seeing again, which bodes ill because there are a plethora of alien invasion movies in the pipeline. Perhaps Mars Needs Screenwriters more urgently than it needs moms.

REASONS TO GO: Eckhart is an appealing lead. Some nice video game-like action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the worst-looking aliens in any film ever. Cliché-ridden script with testosterone fueled moments don’t a great movie make.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language and a good deal of battlefield violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in Los Angeles, much of the film was shot in Louisiana with sets built to stand in for L.A. streets.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely big screen fare.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: I Saw the Devil

Iron Man 2


Iron Man 2

Iron Man and War Machine have a little heart-to-heart.

(Paramount)  Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, Jon Favreau, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Garry Shandling, John Slattery, Kate Mara, Leslie Bibb, Paul Bettany (voice), Olivia Munn. Directed by Jon Favreau

With the success of any superhero movie, a sequel is inevitable. Sometimes the sequel is even better than the original, as happened in Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight. In other cases, such as Superman 2 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer not so much. Which side will Iron Man 2 fall on?

It has been a couple years since the events of the first Iron Man and Tony Stark’s (Downey) shocking outing of himself as the armored superhero. In that time, Tony has effectively kept the peace, his Iron Man armor unstoppable by conventional military means.

Success breeds enemies however, and Tony has his share. Rival arms manufacturer Justin Hammer (Rockwell), for one – he has lost some critical military contracts due to Stark’s success. Senator Stern (Shandling) is another – he wants to take the most advanced weapon in the world out of the hands of private industry and into the control of the U.S. Government, where it belongs. Tony is not willing to do this, and is quite vocal about it at the Senate sub-committee hearing.

Tony’s focus is more on his Stark Expo, a Worlds’ Fair-like event he is holding in Flushing Meadow (also the site of two Worlds Fairs in 1939 and 1964-5, respectively) as a celebration of human ingenuity. It’s also something of a giant corporate jerk-off, but that might just be my inner socialist talking here.

Meanwhile, back in Moscow (there’s a future for me in the cheesy writing industry) a brooding Russky ex-con covered in tattoos and muscles named Ivan Vanko (Rourke) watches his father die and vows revenge (actually, he says something more like “Waaaaaaarrrrrrgggghh!” but you get the idea). Revenge against whom? Why, Tony Stark, whose dad Howard (Slattery) had dear old dad deported back in the day,  but not before stealing his design for the ARC reactor which powers the suit and not so coincidentally, Tony’s ailing heart. With his daddy’s designs, Ivan creates an ARC of his own to power a couple of supercharged whips which cuts through just about anything but especially race cars, one of which Tony is not so coincidentally driving at the Monaco Grand Prix. Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?

Still, Tony saves the day with his suitcase armor (one of the coolest things not only in the film but ever) and Vanko a.k.a. Whiplash is sent to prison. However, Hammer likes what he sees, arranges Vanko’s extraction from prison and supposed death, the better for creating an army of armored soldiers for Hammer who, quite naturally, wants his military contract back.

Yes, you could say Tony’s got problems but none more serious than the fact that his ARC reactor is slowly poisoning his bloodstream, which will eventually kill him. There are no known elements to replace the palladium that runs his reactor and with all the pressures besetting him Tony begins to lose it a little bit. He hands the CEO job at Stark Industries to his longtime assistant Pepper Potts (Paltrow) and starts to drink a little bit, forcing his longtime friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard in the role) to take action and take an older set of armor for himself. Potts’ promotion necessitates a new assistant for Tony, in the person of the beautiful and mysterious Natalie Rushman (Johansson) who has secrets of her own.

In some ways Iron Man 2 suffers from Spider-Man 3 syndrome; too many villains. Rourke’s an excellent villain in many ways but the character doesn’t hold the interest of a Joker or a Goblin. He’s more or less a two-chord garage band; he’s either brooding or laughing maniacally. There’s not much in between for Rourke to do, but then again he does a really good job with what he has. Whiplash becomes a decent enough villain and might well have made for a warped reflection of Tony; both sons of fathers who worked together, one bent on world peace, the other on humiliating his enemy.

Rockwell, who’s an excellent actor and at times gets to show Hammer as an un-self-confident geek who craves attention and affection but is as cold and as ruthless as they come. Unfortunately, his alliance with Whiplash makes his character a little bit irrelevant. Rourke overshadows Rockwell to a large degree, but that’s not because of either man’s skills but more because of the way their characters are written.

The action sequences are top-notch and particularly the final battle sequence is absolutely spectacular. Unfortunately, some of the green screen work is surprisingly sloppy, such as one scene where Whiplash emerges from flaming wreckage in Monaco where he is obviously green screened and it takes you right out of the movie immediately.

The supporting performances are awfully good here, from Cheadle as Rhodes to Paltrow as the harried and somewhat overwhelmed Pepper (a bit of a far cry from her cool and collected performance in the first movie) and Johansson, who has never been sexier as the assistant with a difference. Samuel L. Jackson makes a more substantial appearance as Nick Fury, the head of SHIELD, further giving fanboys like me a reason to appreciate the nine-film deal Jackson signed with Marvel to play the character. Hopefully he’ll get a movie of his own somewhere down the line. Favreau as bodyguard Happy Hogan also has some pretty nice moments. The interplay between all of them and Downey is realistic, like old friends bickering and ribbing each other. It helps you like the movie a little more.

This is a nice start to the summer movie season. In some ways it’s not as good as the first movie but in other ways it’s a little better. Certainly Downey is redefining the way superheroes are going to be portrayed in the future; he’s a little bit quirky and a lot more vulnerable than the average superhero. You get the idea that Tony Stark is on the ragged edge and could tip over the side without much prodding.

The action is big and bold but it doesn’t break any new ground in particular. The high tech is a little higher and techier (advances since the first movie have made the tech in that film seem a little dated now), and the acting is solid. The script might be a little bit of a rehash of the first (two armored men battling it out) but at the end of the day you’ll leave the cinema entertained. What more do you need to know than that?

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are outstanding, and the interplay between Downey, Favreau, Paltrow and Cheadle feels comfortable and familiar.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the green screen effects were choppy and ineffective. Rockwell’s Justin Hammer seemed unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some intense comic book action and a few bad words but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee makes a cameo appearance as talk show host Larry King near the beginning of the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Big battles, stupendous fight scenes, oh yeah this one is big screen all the way!

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Air I Breathe

Babylon A.D.


Babylon A.D.

Despite the indicator on her cap, Vin Diesel still has trouble spotting Melanie Thierry.

(20th Century Fox) Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, Gerard Depardieu, Charlotte Rampling, Mark Strong, Melanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, Jerome Le Banner. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz

In a world where survival is achieved only by the most ruthless and compassion is as extinct as dinosaurs, is it possible that someone could learn the meaning of sacrifice for the greater good?

Toorop (Diesel) is a mercenary/assassin living in a squalid flat in the remains of a former Soviet Bloc city that has fallen into disrepair and decay. Guns are sold on street corners like pretzels and dinner is whatever game you can kill or steal. Toorop has lived by his principles, his wits and his ability to come out ahead whenever violence is necessary.

His flat is invaded by a bunch of goons who interrupt Toorop’s dinner to take him outside to a high-tech armored limo wherein resides Gorsky (Depardieu), a powerful ruthless Russian crimelord who Toorop owes a debt to. Gorsky tells Toorop if he can smuggle a girl to America – New York to be specific – in six days, his debt will be wiped out and Toorop, who is wanted for terrorism in the good ol’ U.S. of A. can get a new passport, the key to a new life.

The girl turns out to be Aurora (Thierry), a curiously naïve young woman living in a convent run by the Noelites, a somewhat recent addition to the religious scene. She will be accompanied by Sister Rebeka, a rather serene nun who can kick booty when the occasion calls for it. The two of them will have to make it to a train that will take them to Siberia, where they can cross the Bering Sea in a commandeered submarine. It becomes reasonably obvious that someone doesn’t want Aurora to get to where she’s going, but Toorop and Aurora herself manage to avoid bombs, traps and cage fighters in order to get across the ocean with the aid of Toorop’s friend Finn (Strong).

Crossing the automated drone-patrolled frontier of Alaska and Canada into the States proves to be a difficult, although not insurmountable problem. Once the trio makes it to New York, they discover their problems are really starting.

Kassovitz, the director of such excellent films as Metisse and The Crimson Rivers, has publically disowned the movie, complaining loudly about studio interference from the beginning and quite frankly, it’s clear that this is the work of many hands. There are nonsensical action sequences that do nothing to advance the plot, and whole chunks of exposition missing that might make the actions of the lead characters a bit clearer.

Kassovitz has a wonderful dystopian vision here; the Eastern European sequences (mainly filmed in the Czech Republic) are dreary and muddy, speaking of a society in major decay where the infrastructure has all but fallen apart. By contrasts, New York is glittering and gaudy, the very model of a futuristic city. Toorop moves through both of them with the same panther-like grace, his very muscles radiating the tension of an animal that can rip your face off at any moment without any provocation.

However, all those beautiful images are submarined (no pun intended) by a plot that is at equal turns ludicrous and muddy, hard to follow and hard to believe when you can figure it out. The appearances of Rampling as a kind of homicidal Pope and Wilson as a scientist on life support who essentially has all the answers to all the questions about who Aurora is and why she’s so damned important. Worth dying for? Apparently yes….twice.

Although critics are fond of taking shots at Vin Diesel, he is far from the reason this movie doesn’t work. His Toorop is the closest thing he’s played to his signature character of Riddick yet; he’s a little less sociopathic than Riddick but still clearly a survivor that will trample over anything getting in the way of his survival. Not particularly new territory for Diesel but he knows it well and covers it adequately.

Yeoh is also a gamer, and she is given even less to work with than Diesel, but still manages to make her character memorable and believable. Yeoh has been one of my favorite actresses for the past decade and I’ll walk many miles over broken glass to see one of her movies…well, almost. Still, I will go out of my way to check out any movie that’s she’s in, even this one.

There are some good solid concepts in here somewhere and there might have been a decent movie made if the studio had left it alone, and if the writers had made the last third a little better. Kassovitz is a very talented director who deserved better material than this which, unfortunately he had a hand in. Still, something tells me he’ll think twice before working for a big Hollywood studio again and that’s a shame; he’s got some really great movies in him that might benefit from those kinds of budgets.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the visuals are spectacular. Yeoh and Diesel give it the old college try but really don’t have enough to sink their teeth into.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is a real mess. It feels like too many hands were stirring this soup; it’s the poster child for studio interference and overly ambitious directors clashing with the final film being the ultimate loser.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence and foul language, as well as some implied sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The round Sigil Tattoo on Toorop’s neck is meant to be a protective ward and is known as The Gate of the Necronomicon, symbolizing Man, The Creator and The Watchers.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are full versions of the commercials playing in the background, as well as an animated “prequel” that explains some of Aurora’s backstory.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 13 Tzameti