Collateral Beauty


Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here...

Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here…

(2016) Drama (New Line) Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Jacob Lattimore, Naomie Harris, Ann Dowd, Lisa Colón-Zayas, Natalie Gold, Kylie Rogers, Shirley Rumierk, Alyssa Cheatham, Benjamin Snyder, Mary Beth Peil, Andy Taylor, Michael Cumpsty, Jonathan Rivera Morales, Joseph Castillo-Midyett, Ella Monte-Brown. Directed by David Frankel

 

We all deal with grief in different ways. Some of us pour ourselves into our work; others lose all focus. Some of us rage against the universe; others try to find something constructive to do, such as create or work for a charity. Sooner or later however all of us must deal with the loss of a loved one.

Howard (Smith) is doing just that. His beloved daughter has passed away and now, two years later, the successful advertising agency he built is floundering, losing clients left and right because Howard, their main creative force, just doesn’t care anymore. His best friends all work at the company; Whit (Norton), who co-founded the company with him, Claire (Winslet) who has given up marriage and children to give her full focus on the company and Simon (Peña), the numbers man.

There is an offer on the table to buy the company but Howard won’t even consider it. All of the principals stand to lose everything if they can’t salvage the situation and the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Whit, Claire and Simon, desperate to understand what’s going on with Howard, hire a private detective (Dowd) to figure out what their friend is doing. Nothing much; mainly building domino constructions, biking back and forth from work and writing letters.

The latter is kind of the peculiar part; they’re not letters to people but to things; concepts, really. He’s been writing to Love, Death and Time. The three partners hit upon an idea that, well, never would have occurred to me; to hire three unemployed actors that Whit has found who can play the parts of Love, Death and Time who will personally answer Howard’s letters. They’re not really hoping that this performance will bring Howard back but the detective can film Howard talking to them (yelling at them really) and then digitally remove the three actors so that Howard can be proven incompetent and the sale go through without him.

The actors that Whit recruits – Brigitte (Mirren) who plays Death, Amy (Knightley) who plays Love (now, that I can believe) and Raffi (Lattimore) who plays Time each begin to spend time with one of the partners – Brigitte with Simon, Amy with Whit and Raffi with Claire – and end up helping them with their own problems. In the meantime, Howard has started attending a support group for grieving parents run by the lovely Madeleine (Harris) and looks like he might finally be emerging from his shell. But will it be in time to save everything he’s built, including his friendships?

If the plot summary sounded implausible that’s pretty much because it is. I can’t imagine “friends” doing something that awful to a friend, and the movie portrays them as genuinely concerned for Howard’s well-being. I can’t really reconcile the actions of concocting an elaborate scam to prove their friend incompetent (which has other ramifications beyond the sale of his company) with all the mea culpa chest-beating about what a great guy Howard is and how much they “miss” the old Howard. I mean, friends just don’t do that.

The cast is one of the best you’ll see gathered in a single movie with a couple of Oscar winners and four nominees. None of them will be adding to their nomination total here but the performances are nonetheless solid. Peña caught my attention for a very emotional performance as a family man facing a terrible crisis of his own, and Smith who is the main performance in what is essentially an ensemble cast gets to keep everything in until the last scene in which he unleashes some of his best acting of his career.

That ending however contains a twist so unbelievable that at that point most people are just going to throw their hands up in the air and give up on the movie, and I can’t blame them. However, if you do as I do and just enjoy the ride rather than try to make sense of things, you’ll be far happier.

Now as you can tell the critical response has been harsh. Keep in mind however that most professional critics don’t like being emotionally manipulated and films that do that tend to get harsh scores. In that sense, critics can’t be trusted with films like this. You really have to go and experience it on your own and judge for yourself. You, after all, may not mind being having your emotions manipulated. Maybe you need it. I do, sometimes. Sometimes I need the release of a good cry. Catharsis makes us all emotionally healthier after all.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances throughout, particularly by Peña and Smith. The premise is at least intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Many of the plot twists are telegraphed. The ending is a bit preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity but mostly the themes are pretty adult in nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winslet, Mirren and Smith were all nominated for Oscars in 2007, although only Mirren was victorious.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Meet Joe Black
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The True Memoirs of an International Assassin

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Observance


Oh black water, keep on rolling...

Oh black water, keep on rolling…

(2015) Psychological Horror (Artsploitation) Lindsay Farris, Stephanie King, Brendan Cowell, John Jarratt, Benedict Hardie, Tom O’Sullivan, Roger Ward, Gabriel Dunn, Joseph Sims-Dennett, Ash Ricardo, Louisa Mignone. Directed by Joseph Sims-Dennett

 

Grief does some disturbing things to our perceptions. It changes how time reacts to us, making it stretch out interminably. It sometimes causes us to see things that aren’t there. It makes us feel as if we are dying ourselves – even though we aren’t. We just wish we were.

Parker (Farris) is a private detective, but he hasn’t been doing much detecting lately. His son passed away recently, and he has been devastated by it. His marriage has disintegrated because of it and he is deeply in debt due to his boy’s medical bills. He takes a surveillance job which involves staying in a derelict apartment, filled with garbage and barely inhabitable, and keeping an eye on Tenneal (King), a beautiful blonde girl who lives across the street. He taps her phone, sets up a camera pointing into her apartment (which she conveniently lives in without drapes) and sits back to observe.

At first things seem fairly normal but as the days go on it gets more sinister. Things begin to happen that Parker can’t explain. He becomes unnerved and contacts his employer (Cowell) to find out what to do if someone attacks the girl, but he is told to sit back and relax – just report what he sees. Parker agrees, but is getting more reluctant by the minute. If he didn’t need the money so badly, he’d be so out of there.

The visions begin to get worse. He finds animal corpses in disturbing places. A strange black fluid is leaking from just about everywhere, including from Parker himself. His dreams – or rather nightmares – are terrifying. He has a real fear that something terrible is about to happen, but he can’t bring himself to warn the girl – or leave. One way or another, things are going to play themselves out and when it’s all over, the results will not be pleasant.

This is a movie that plays with your perceptions. Unrelated images are inserted from time to time and the film shifts from black and white to color to a mixture of both seemingly at random. We’re meant to be getting into Parker’s mind and it is rapidly disintegrating. We see images of his child with the black goo pouring out of every orifice, and images of the sea pounding the shore – and of dead things in every nook and cranny. We’re never sure what’s real because he isn’t.

A movie like that requires a really strong lead and independent films, particularly micro-budgeted films like this one, can be really hit and miss with the actors that are available to them, but fortunately the filmmakers lucked out in Farris, who is a good find. Matinee idol handsome, he has a definite presence and while occasionally he errs on the side of scenery chewing for the most part he gives a subtle nuanced performance that bodes well for his big screen future.

There are some fairly disturbing images here and a few genuinely horrific ones but most of the horror will be inside your imagination and while that’s always a good thing for the most part, you may end up being somewhat perplexed at the barrage of images that seem to be there for their own sake rather than to serve the story or the film. Cinematic masturbation is what I call it, and there’s definitely some of that going on here.

This is an Aussie-made film which has to it’s advantage the reputation of Down Under as a hotbed for amazing horror film directors; this isn’t one of the better films to come out of there in recent years unless you like your horror on the surreal side. From that point of view, most mainstream horror movie fans aren’t going to like this much, and for that reason it’s getting a mediocre rating – but those who love cult films and don’t mind a little thought to go with their viscera will find this a worthy addition to their film library.

WHY RENT THIS: A movie that bears repeated viewings.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a little too art house for the grindhouse crowd.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing and occasionally bloody images, brief foul language and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Released first in Australia, the movie is available there on iTunes. Exclusively available on Vimeo in the States (see below), it will expand to most VOD streaming platforms beginning in October.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The film is preceded by a three-minute preface.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: iTunes, Vimeo
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Eye in the Sky


The final onscreen performance of Alan Rickman is a good one.

The final onscreen performance of Alan Rickman is a good one.

(2016) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Phoebe Fox, Bakhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Richard McCabe, Monica Dolan, Kim Engelbrecht, Ebby Weyime, Babou Ceesay, Faisa Hassan, Aisha Takow, Armaan Haggio, Carl Beukes, Bob Chappell, Daniel Fox, Jessica Jones, Michael O’Keefe, Laila Robins, Lex King. Directed by Gavin Hood

Warfare is full of shades of grey. The morality of killing other people for political or economic purposes is shaky to begin with but in modern war, killing can be done with the touch of a button and with a change from armies facing each other in remote places into terrorists in urban places, war can come to the population. Of course, in the 20th century that had already taken place but now there is no place a military strike can’t take place, or at least very few places with the advent of drones.

A multi-national task force is tracking an English radicalized terrorist (King) with ties to Al Habaab in Kenya. In an operations center in Britain, Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) is coordinating with her superior, Lt. General Frank Benson (Rickman) as they observe her activities in a house in a terrorist-run part of the city. They have eyes on through the use of drones, piloted by American airman Steve Watts (Paul). On the ground in Kenya they have Jama Farah (Abdi) who is observing the house directly.

At first they think they hit paydirt when their target meets with some high-level terrorist officers, but their satisfaction turns to concern when they discover that a suicide bombing is being planned for and executed out of the house. That changes the color of the mission and frantic calls start going up the chain of command asking for and receiving an authorization to use a Hellfire missile to take out the terrorists. But things get further complicated when a little girl sets up a bread stand outside the terrorist house; the drone controller begins to have doubts and the calls up the ladder take a more urgent tone. Suddenly those who were eager to authorize the mission earlier are passing the buck, while time ticks away. Is the life of a single girl worth the dozens of lives that might be taken if the suicide bombers carry out their mission?

I don’t know that the movie really intends to answer that question; in fact, it can’t really be answered. From a strictly numbers viewpoint the answer is no – the people who might be killed by the suicide bomber are no less innocent and no less important than the life of a little girl. The question really is does knowingly ordering an airstrike that will be likely the death of a little girl more monstrous than allowing a bombing to take place when it could have been prevented. And that’s where the waters become a little bit murkier because we get into political territory then.

But that’s as may be. As a movie, Eye in the Sky does a credible job of keeping the tension high, although there are times when I thought they were being overly redundant in explaining that when you bring politicians into a military matter, things tend to get worse rather than better for while a soldier is more interested in accomplishing their particular mission, a politician is more concerned about covering their own derrieres.

And in conveying that message, Hood inserted some prestigious performers in key roles. Mirren is as gifted an actress as there is in the business, and her hawkish, shrill colonel is as stiff as a ramrod, as pitiless as a predator and as patient as a boiling teakettle. Colonel Powell is in many ways the epitome of a military mind, very centered and focused on completing the task at hand. Powell in and of herself is basically not very likable, but Mirren makes her human, a deceptively difficult job.

The late Alan Rickman, who passed away this past January and who will be much missed by this critic, never disappointed during his career and went out on a high note. In all honesty his General Benson is the epitome of a liaison, trying to balance the needs of the soldier with the needs of the politicians and having to stand on one leg while holding an umbrella over his back with a teacup balanced on the tip of his nose. Rickman gives the part some humanity as the one character who truly sees both sides of the argument.

Paul, who won three Emmys for Breaking Bad hasn’t really had a role in the movies that has utilized him as well as this one did. He is an airman with a conscience, one who doesn’t blindly follow orders but questions them when the orders appear to be morally ambiguous. In many ways, he had the most complicated role of the three main leads, but he shows that his award-winning performances were no fluke.

Is this manipulative? You bet it is. There is nothing more innocent than a little girl who is trying to help her family by selling the bread her mama baked to her neighbors going to market. That makes the moral issue a bit more focused, but it is a bit lazy – I don’t doubt that those in command of executing drone strikes find any civilian casualties wrenching, whether the victims are cute little girls or old alcoholic men. Taking the life of a non-combatant is not an easy thing for the military, as Rickman so eloquently expresses near the end of the film: “Don’t dare to presume that a military man doesn’t understand the cost of war.”

This is a movie that, if you’ll forgive an unintended pun, flew under the radar. However it is a crackerjack of a movie that should be sought out on VOD or in the near future, on home video. The performances here are scintillating and the questions raised timely and difficult. In many ways this is not only a thinking person’s war film, but a suspense film of the highest order.

Hood is not really trying to send a political message, or at least I don’t think he is. He is simply presenting the world as it is; that when killing comes down to the touch of a button, the morality of it becomes far murkier. And that’s a very powerful subject matter indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat suspense. Tremendous performances by most of the leads. Grapples with the morality of modern warfare.
REASONS TO STAY: Is guilty of being manipulative. Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent images, adult themes and rough language, as well as children in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rickman’s final on-screen appearance; he also lends his voice to Alice through the Looking Glass.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Kill
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Embers

The Tail Job


Nicholas pleads with Stacy as Trevor looks on.

Nicholas pleads with Stacy as Trevor looks on.

(2016) Comedy (Moses Millar) Craig Anderson, Blair Dwyer, Kellie Clark, Laura Hughes, Dorje Swallow, Georgina Symes, Daniel James Millar, Stephen Anderton, Dave Eastgate, Grant Dodwell, Rakesh Dasgupta, Gary Waddell, Troy Russell, William Ryan, Ralph Moses, Dave Williams, David Attrill, Claudia Barrie, Ursula Mills, Lauren Orrell, Jessica Saras. Directed by Bryan Moses and Daniel James Millar

Slamdance

There is no doubt love breeds jealousy. The simplest of acts can be misinterpreted to be sinister – a phone call taken in another room, a vague identification of the caller as “just a friend,” a mysterious rendezvous that you’re not invited to – all can point to infidelity to the jealous mind. And let’s face it; the jealous mind is capable of some pretty imaginative stuff.

Nicholas (Dwyer) is in just such a situation. He believes his beautiful fiancée Mona (Hughes) is having an affair with a man named Sio Bohan. Hurt and stung, when she says she’s off to a girl’s night out in downtown Sydney, he hires a taxi with the idea of following her and taking photos of her caught in the act. Unfortunately, the cab he hires is driven by Trevor (Anderson).

Trevor is one of those “G’day mate” Aussies who means well and is a solid citizen, but Trevor is also one of those guys who can’t catch a break. When he hears of Nicholas’ plight, he is all in to help the cuckold tail his girl. Unfortunately, an encounter with a psycho driver (Millar) with terminal road rage leads them to lose their quarry. Nicholas (whom Trevor repeatedly calls Nick, much to his annoyance) first chats up Stacy (Clark), a friend of Mona’s, to see if she has any idea where Mona is going that night and who clearly has a thing for Nicholas.

After consulting a phone hacker (Anderton) friend of Stacy’s as well as finding out from the cabbie (Dodwell) who drove Mona downtown where he dropped her off, the duo turn out to be miserable detectives, misinterpreting one clue after another and running afoul of the real Sio Bohan (Swallow) who turns out to be a vicious gangster. Nicholas is determined to get the evidence that will end his relationship with Mona, who is actually on an innocent girls night out with her mate Siobhan (Mills), but to rescue her first from the clutches of a dangerous man. Trevor turns out to be far more loyal than you’d expect a cabbie to be, but can the two crack the case and bring Mona back to Nicholas?

Millar and Moses have been filmmakers for a decade but this is their first feature. Made on a shoestring budget shooting mostly at night and on weekends in Sydney, they utilize local actors and Aussie celebrities who make cameo appearances, all of which will fly right over the heads of American audiences unless they’ve spent some serious time in Oz. And that’s okay because it won’t diminish the film any if you don’t get the references, but I’m sure that Australian audiences will get more of a kick out of the film than we Americans will.

The plot isn’t particularly praiseworthy; there are some lapses of logic that give me the sense that certain plot points exist mainly to send poor Nicholas into a death spiral of jealousy, but the thing is that the Nicholas character doesn’t seem to be unduly emotional or prone to going off half-cocked. He seems like a pretty reasonable guy. Then again, as I said earlier jealousy can manufacture crazy ideas in the brain.

The movie is a comedy and has some genuinely funny moments, like the second road rage encounter and Trevor’s attempts to get into a posh club that end up with him asking a prostitute (Symes) to be his date. There are also some moments of pathos, as when Nicholas finds a photo of Trevor’s family in the glove box and realizes the deep wounds in Trevor’s soul may be what is motivating him.

At times this feels a bit too much like a sitcom for comfort; as I alluded earlier, some of the plot points feel contrived and the movie relies far too much on magic coincidences. However, it also has an immense amount of charm and plenty of heart at its center and those are things you can’t fake. That tells me that these are filmmakers who love what they do and have some truly marvelous films in them. That’s something you can feel in the film and it makes it so much more enjoyable for the viewer.

This is one of those movies who as the late Roger Ebert pointed out wouldn’t exist if the lead characters had a two minute conversation. Then again, divorce probably wouldn’t exist if couples would have more two-minute conversations but that might be a bit of a stretch. Certainly one wonders what sort of chance the relationship between Nicholas and Mona has if they can’t even communicate over a night out with a friend.

The Tail Job isn’t perfect but it is solid entertainment. While Americans might find the Australian sense of humor a trifle broad, the film definitely has its heart in the right place. After making its world premiere at Slamdance this past weekend, it is likely to play the festival circuit and hopefully pick up some distribution. There’s always room for a movie like this and it would be a shame if a wider audience didn’t get to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Has plenty of heart and charm. A cut above similar American films.
REASONS TO STAY: Has a bit of a sitcom feel. Loses its steam towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language, some violence and sexuality and brief frontal nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moses and Millar based their movie on a friend of theirs who actually believed his fiancée at the time was cheating on him with a man named Sio Bohan; the two thought that would make a good movie if they took it to the next level.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Other Guys
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Boy

Spectre


No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

(2015) Spy Action (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona, Stephanie Sigman, Tenoch Huerta, Adriana Paz, Domenico Fortunato, Brigitte Millar, Lara Parmiani. Directed by Sam Mendes

The past has a way of surfacing when we least expect it. Sometimes, it’s just a pleasant memory we’d forgotten. Other times, our sins come back to haunt us in ways we could never possibly expect.

With the carnage of Skyfall behind him (there are spoilers here if you haven’t seen that movie so quick, go see it before reading on), James Bond (Craig) finds himself in Mexico City several months later during the Dia de los muertos celebration. He is after a terrorist who has plans to set off bombs somewhere in the city, but Bond has other plans. Before sending most of the men in the room making plans to end the lives of innocents to kingdom come, he overhears plans to meet with someone called the Pale King. As is the wont around James Bond, buildings are blown up, a chase takes place through the crowded streets of Mexico City and a fight ensues on a helicopter which narrowly avoids crashing into the crowd.

The trouble is, Bond wasn’t authorized to do any of this or even be in Mexico. The new M (Fiennes) is already having issues with C (Scott), the head of MI-5 who has recently merged with MI-6 and is now in charge, and who is threatening on dismantling the double 0 program and replacing it with the Nine Eyes directive – the combined surveillance material from the nine largest agencies in the world, including the intelligence communities of the United States, Russia, China and other nations. Only South Africa remains a holdout.

Given the ruthlessness of C, it isn’t any surprise when a terrorist attack in South Africa changes their vote. These events, Bond deduces, are related to his own chase of the Pale King. After seducing the widow (Bellucci) of the assassin, Bond tracks down an old nemesis whose daughter Madeleine Swann (Seydoux) holds the key to a sinister criminal organization known as SPECTRE – and it’s mysterious leader (Waltz) who has a connection with Bond’s past – in more than one sense.

This has every element that makes Bond films so entertaining; a debonair and cool as a cucumber spy, gorgeous women, mind-blowing gadgets, absolutely amazing action and stunt sequences and exotic locations. Well, it’s missing one element – a great theme song, but Sam Smith delivered an absolutely atrocious song that may go down as one of the worst of any Bond film ever – and there have been some absolute turkeys, although the vast majority of Bond themes have been fabulous.

Craig in his fourth film inhabits the role, and while he is contracted for a fifth film (which the ending sets up very nicely), he has said in interviews that he wouldn’t mind finishing out his run here. I think he may want to rethink that; this isn’t his best performance as Bond (Skyfall is) and he might want to go out on a higher note than this.

Part of the problem is similar to what plagued Quantum of Solace – it simply doesn’t measure up to the high bar set by the film before it. While this movie is much better than Quantum, it’s also no Skyfall and that isn’t a knock at all; Skyfall is in my opinion second only to Goldfinger in terms of great Bond movies. Sacrilege to some, I grant you, but that’s how I see it.

While Craig is ice cold through most of this, Waltz as the villain whose name I won’t reveal here is simply put the best villain of the Craig era and maybe the best other than Auric Goldfinger in the whole franchise. Waltz as…he who shall not be named….is as urbane as Bond, has a deadly edge to him and is certifiably insane, but not in a “Look at me I’m Napoleon” manner but in a quiet, serious “I’m going to do something spectacularly evil” way. You have no doubt that Waltz’ character is capable of conjuring up absolutely horrific mayhem and is quite willing to see it through.

We get to explore Bond’s relationships with his team, mainly Whishaw as Q, Harris as Moneypenny and Fiennes as M. There is a cameo by Judi Dench as the previous M whose posthumous message sends Bond careening off to Mexico, and we get a sense of Bond’s loyalty. He doesn’t trust anyone really, but one senses he trusted M – and not the new one, necessarily.

The stunts here are as good as ever – the Mexico City sequence is worth the price of admission alone – and while the gadgets aren’t as gee-whiz as in past years, the best line of the movie comes when Q hands Bond a watch and Bond asks “And what does this do?” Q responds with a droll “It tells the time.”

The movie feels like it’s cramming a little bit too much plot in; I don’t know that we needed to go all over the globe to finally end up in futuristic volcanic lair that we don’t really get to see much of but is apparently immense. They had to conjure up the largest explosion in movie history in order to…well, let’s just say that it doesn’t end He Who Shall Not Be Named’s nefarious plans.

Don’t get me wrong – this is thoroughly entertaining and certainly will keep Bond fans more than happy, although the critical reaction has been disappointing. I do hope Craig does do one more film and finishes his time in the franchise on a better note than this. It’s a good movie, but not a great one. I think Craig has one more great Bond film in him.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific action sequences. Waltz is the best villain of the Craig era. Continues the return to the iconic 60s Bond films.
REASONS TO STAY: A little on the busy side. Sam Smith’s song is terrible.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action violence, some disturbing images, sexual innuendo and some mildly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At age 50 during filming, Bellucci is the oldest Bond girl to appear in the franchise by twelve years (Honor Blackman was 38 when she filmed Goldfinger).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You Only Live Twice
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Veteran

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

Redemption (Hummingbird)


Don't keep Jason Statham waiting for his drink.

Don’t keep Jason Statham waiting for his drink.

(2013) Action (Roadside Attractions) Jason Statham, Agata Buzek, Vicki McClure, Benedict Wong, Ger Ryan, Youssef Kerkour, Anthony Morris, Victoria Bewick, Christian Brassington, Danny Webb, Sang Lui, Bruce Want, Dai Bradley, Siobhan Hewlett, Steven Beard, Ian Pirie, Lillie Buttery, Macey Chipping, Emily Lue Fong, Michelle Lee. Directed by Steven Knight

We all do things we’re not proud of. It’s just a part of living and learning. Sometimes we do and say things we wish we could take back. Sometimes we make decisions that upon reflection were unwise or thoughtless. Other times we do things out of self-interest that end up having unintended consequences. Still other times we do things we know are wrong but we do them anyway. The ramifications of the latter can be devastating.

Joseph Smith (Statham) – not the Mormon leader – is a British soldier in Afghanistan. He has deserted from the army and lives on the streets of London, a homeless alcoholic. He’s also suffering from major PTSD, often seeing hallucinations of hummingbirds. He shares a cardboard box with Isabel (Bewick), a drug-addicted prostitute who’s also homeless. The two are set upon one night by thugs who snatch Isabel and chase Joseph off. He finds his way into a very snazzy flat – one in which the wealthy owner will be leaving conveniently vacant for 8 months, returning on October 1st as Joseph discovers on the answering machine.

Rather than wallow in the new found luxury, Joseph decides to change his life around. He shaves, puts on a new suit and with the help of a conveniently left credit card reinvents his image. He becomes Joseph Jones and even gets a job washing dishes in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. When some rowdy customers need to be evicted, Joseph evicts them none too gently, catching the eye of his employer Choy (Wong) who is impressed and makes Joseph his driver/enforcer. Now known as Crazy Joey, Joseph spends a lot of his new salary on feeding the homeless, and thanking the comely Sister Cristina (Buzek) who runs the soup kitchen that fed him while he was on the streets. The two strike up one of those more-than-friendship things. He even has enough to help out the wife (McClure) and kids he left behind.

Then he finds out that Isabel was beaten to death and dumped in the Thames. Once he gets over his grief, he knows that his time in the flat is running out and Sister Cristina is off to do missionary work in Sierra Leone – coincidentally, on the same day. He has one more job to do before he returns to his homeless, drunk existence – revenge before redemption.

This is the directorial debut of Knight, best known for writing the gritty David Cronenberg film Eastern Promises and there’s a similar vibe here. The seedy side of London is filmed unapologetically and without accusation – this is just the way things are, that’s all. No pointing fingers, no sermonizing. Everyone has their story and Joseph has his (and yes, we do find out what happened in Afghanistan to drive him AWOL and to the streets of London).

Statham is the premiere action star going, even more so than Liam Neeson in that Statham is more bred for the type of role than Neeson who had a thriving dramatic career and an Oscar to his credit before changing paths into the ass-kicking one. But, like Neeson, Statham has some acting chops – perhaps not quite to the degree of Neeson – but there nonetheless. The main complaint about Statham is that he doesn’t seem to portray a lot of emotions other than anger, bonhomie and cheerfulness. It’s a fair enough criticism, but it can’t be made here as we see Statham at his most emotionally vulnerable maybe ever. He also kicks plenty of butt however, so no worries on that score.

Knight, who co-wrote the movie, gets the benefit of cinematographer Chris Menges who gives us plenty of neon-lit images, some of which are pretty scintillating. However, the thing that kind of puzzles me is that Knight, who is quite a good writer judging on his resume, put so many frankly unbelievable coincidences in the script. For example, who would leave an expensive flat vacant for eight months without someone checking on it at least periodically, or without a security system installed?

Statham’s performance thankfully elevates the movie beyond its writing flaws. This isn’t going to be the movie that elevates him beyond the typical action roles he gets, but it’s certainly another brick in that particular wall. In the meantime, we can enjoy him at his butt-kicking best.

WHY RENT THIS: Statham is always entertaining. Some pretty nifty fight scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Requires too much stretching of the imagination. Been there done that plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Brutal violence, graphic nudity and lots of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed almost entirely at night in environs in London where homeless people hang out; several also served as extras in the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.7M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/Streaming), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Safe
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Search for General Tso