Sunday, January 07, 2018

The Fast and the Furious (2001) ***1/2

On one level, asking whether “The Fast and the Furious” is good is like debating the flavor profile of a malt liquor. It misses the point. This film is about fast-car action, which it delivers in spades.

Paul Walker (who is only famous for making these Fast and Furious movies) plays Brian, an undercover cop trying to infiltrate L.A.'s underground, street-racing scene. His purpose is to figure out who is carrying out high-speed, precision-driving hijackings of 18-wheelers. Brian falls in with Dom and his team of racers and mechanics. He also falls for Dom's sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster). As Brian learns who is doing what in this shady world, he is forced to choose between his law enforcement career and his new family.

While it's fair to call “The Fast and the Furious” a classic of the action genre, I don't want to praise it too highly. This should not be considered a good movie. Vin Diesel is magnetic, but isn't much on dramatic range, and the rest of the cast is worse than he is. With his surfer looks and wooden acting, Paul Walker reminds me a lot of Hayden Christensen, who stunk up theaters in Star Wars: Episodes II and III. Even setting aside the bad acting, the plot barely holds together.

You gotta just put all that aside and enjoy the ride, because when it comes to action, “The Fast and the Furious” is as good a fast-car movie as I've seen. I haven't seen the sequels, but I've read that they devolved into a lot of ridiculous stunts like cars jumping over helicopters. This first film doesn't have anything like that; it's just good, basic, fast driving that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Now, before I praise the film too much, I want to point out that there are plenty of action-packed films out there that don't suffer the liabilities of terrible acting and meaningless plotlines. Think “Die Hard,” “Aliens,” or most of the James Bond films. If it's driving action you are looking for, 2011's "Drive" is a better film, as are the Mad Max movies, especially 2015's "Mad Max: Fury Road".  Like good, craft beers, these films offer complexity and satisfying flavor. “The Fast and the Furious” is the 40 ounces of malt liquor that gets you drunk at a good price. Sometimes that's exactly what you are looking for.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) ****

It isn't often that I like a sequel better than the original movie, but this is one case where I did. I found the original "Guardians of the Galaxy" film to be funny and action-packed, but weighed down by treacle in the third act. The sequel manages to replace most of that sentimentality with genuine emotion, allowing for some believable character development, while retaining all the action and humor.

Starlord (Chris Pratt), Gamorra (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (the raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper), and a tiny, adorable Groot (with his “I am groot”s still voiced by Vin Diesel) are still together, not so much guarding the galaxy as doing mercenary work. In the opening sequence, they battle a giant, multidimensional, Lovecraftian octopus monster, while Groot dances to Electric Light Orchestra's “Mr. Blue Sky.” (This frenetic, goofily-funny scene perfectly sets the tone for the movie, and you can reliably decide whether or not to keep watching based on your response to it.) The Guardian's payment for defeating the Cthulhu-beast for the genetically-engineered Sovereign is Gamorra's blue sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), with whom she had the epic swordfight in the first film. It looks like a fair exchange until Rocket sweetens the deal by stealing a few of the Sovereign's priceless batteries, a theft that Rocket considers hilarious, but which quickly puts the vengeful Sovereign hot on the Guardian's trail.

The Guardians seem doomed until they are saved by a god named Ego (Kurt Russell), who just happens to be, get ready for it---Starlord's father. Ego has his own planet, not to mention a great head of hair, and it's a lovely family reunion at first. As Starlord gets to know his dad, though, he discovers that the old man has some very unsavory plans for the galaxy.

For me, “Vol. 2” is the movie that the original “Guardians” was trying to be. In the first film, the writers couldn't seem to cook up a believable motivation for all these renegades to team up, so they filled the void with some sappy crap about “friendship.” This time around, writer/director James Gunn seems to have figured out how to do character development without nearly as much groan-inducing syrup. The characters deliver action, laughs, and occasionally some genuine emotion, and the story makes just enough sense to keep you tuned in.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Only Living Boy in New York (2017) **1/2

Callum Turner plays Thomas, a young man adrift in New York City, on hiatus from college and stuck in the friend zone with his crush Mimi (Kiersey Clemons). Thomas bounces from art gallery to bookstore to his parent's artsy dinner parties, wasting his intellect dropping aphorisms like, “The most vibrant neighborhood in New York is Philadelphia.” Thomas is sick of being clever and sick of himself, when a fresh wind blows into his life in the form of new neighbor W.F. (Jeff Bridges). W.F. counsels Thomas that to get Mimi,he needs to let life happen, and soon enough, it does.

Thomas discovers that his dad (Pierce Brosnan) is having an affair. Thomas stalks the mistress, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), and winds up having an affair of his own with her. In its own time, this situation blows up, leading Thomas to discover some deep family secrets and to find his own inspiration.

Will you enjoy “The Only Living Boy in New York”? Well, despite the Simon & Garfunkel song, it's no "The Graduate". It's a serviceable enough coming-of-age tale, but rather forgettable. The excellent cast mostly cover for the limited storytelling and general lack of very much happening. Keep in mind that this is a talky movie about a bunch of New York intellectuals. If you like that sort of thing, and don't feel like re-watching something by Woody Allen or Whit Stillman, then you won't hate yourself for watching this.

Available on Amazon Prime.

2.5 stars out of 5

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Watchmen (2009) ****

I first saw this film a few years ago, and honestly, I had forgotten how good it is. The film takes place in a 1980's where superheroes exist, but they haven't made much difference. They helped America win in Vietnam, but all that did was get Nixon another term. The cold war still rages, worse than ever, and the world edges closer and closer to nuclear war.

Meanwhile, the superheroes, who call themselves “Masks”, have become personae non grata. Outlawed by congress, they live quiet lives, their costumes and gadgets gathering dust. Despite following the rules and laying low, the retired Masks find themselves being hunted. Someone is working their way down a kill list of Masks, someone with access to their secret identities.

Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a vigilante who refuses to retire, sets out to find this killer. He enlists Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), but they can't seem to interest Dr.Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the blue, glowing, godlike superman who can see the future and manipulate time, space, and matter. They also can't get much of a rise out of Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the lightning-fast super-genius, so the three set off with the resources they have, to track down a killer. In doing so, they discover a massive, worldwide conspiracy that threatens the lives of millions.

“Watchmen” is a cross between a noir film and a comic-book movie, heavy on the noir. The look is dark, filmed at night, preferably in the rain, and the outlook is very noir. The characters have dark pasts, and seem to have dark futures. Dr. Manhattan, for example, can see the past, present, and future, and can manipulate matter at will, but he is losing the ability to connect with other humans. “Watchmen” presents these characters in their full complexity. The Comedian was a heavy-drinking womanizer and misogynist, but he had a certain charm, and the original Silk Spectre, now an alcoholic herself, still carries a torch for him.

In a sense, “Watchmen” is an anti-comic-book movie. The story declares that superheroes may be able to catch a few criminals, but they have no impact on the societal forces that create rampant crime. They can rescue a few individuals here and there, but they aren't able to stop nations from sliding towards nuclear annihilation. The message is that humanity can't wait around for a superhuman savior. We have to solve our problems with the regular humans we have.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Signal (2014) **

There's something about seeing a movie at a film festival. Excitement is high, but expectations are moderated. There's a sense of community among the audience, and everyone is rooting for the filmmaker. This energy makes movies seem better than they really are.

“The Signal” is a case in point. The movie debuted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and had I seen this low-budget, sci-fi thriller there, I probably would have loved it. The plot holes, cheap gotchas based on spelling and arithmetical gimmicks, and general lack of originality would have been swept away by the thrill of seeing something so beautifully-filmed, not to mention the Question-and Answer session at the end, where the director would have charmed us all. But I didn't see it at Sundance. On HBO, the movie has to stand on its own, and it just barely limps along to a slightly annoying conclusion.

Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Jonah (Beau Knapp), and Haley (Olivia Cooke) are college friends on a road trip, moving Haley cross-country. The big move is putting a strain on Nic and Haley's romantic relationship, as is the unnamed degenerative disease that requires Nic to use crutches. On the trip, they are taunted by a computer hacker who previously hacked them and their school. Nic and Jonah use their own skills to figure out where the hacker, who calls himself Nomad, is logging in from, and they decide to take a detour to track him down and expose his identity. The trail leads to a shack out in the desert, which the guys explore in a scene straight out of “The Blair Witch Project.”

Then all hell breaks loose, and the next thing he knows, Nic is waking up in some sort of hospital facility, where all the staff are wearing hazmat suits. He meets Damon (Laurence Fishburne), apparently some kind of doctor, who reveals that Nic may have come in contact with aliens. Damon won't explain much, and he wants to run all kinds of tests on Nic. Meanwhile, Nic learns that his two friends are also in the facility, and he hatches plans to get them out. The questions of where they are, what happened to them, and whether Damon can be trusted all get answered in time, in sort-of surprising ways.

Writer/director William Eubank more or less succeeds in keeping you glued to the screen, living this disorienting experience through Nic's eyes. The pace of the film is a bit too slow, though, especially given the limited payoff at the end. Eubank could have skipped a lot of the flashbacks to Nic's running days, and really, the story would have been better served up as a 1-hour Black Mirror episode. (Although it still would have been the weakest episode in that series.) As long as the film feels (it's actually only 1h 37m), there are still major plot points that are poorly explained. Meanwhile, the explanations that are finally delivered tend to be lame and/or derivative. The acting is a strong point, both from the young stars and from Laurence Fishburne, who lends the film an air of gravitas, and they all do the best they can with the script they are given. Overall, “The Signal” doesn't look bad for a $4 million independent film, but it serves less as a fully-realized film and more as a demo tape from a promising, young writer/director who still needs to iron out some wrinkles in his craft.

2 stars out of 5

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Al Final del Tunel (At the End of the Tunnel, 2016, Spanish) **1/2

Joaquin is a physically and emotionally crippled computer expert, mourning his dead family and living alone in a house that he is unable to afford. To stave off foreclosure, he rents out a room to a hot, single mom. Berta (Clara Lago) and her daughter Betty upset Joaquin's quiet life, an invasion he initially resents but eventually accepts, as he and his aged dog come to like the newcomers.

Meanwhile, something is going on downstairs, in the adjoining building. Joaquin hears strange conversations through his basement wall, sometimes mentioning him. He discovers a criminal gang burrowing a tunnel under his house to the bank on the other side. Using his electronics skills, the wheelchair-bound Joaquin learns the gang's plan and hatches his own scheme to get the money for himself.

Argentinean writer/director Rodrigo Grande has created a tense, claustrophobic thriller that is full of plot holes. The character's actions make little sense, and Clara Lago is too much a poor-man's version of a dark, Spanish movie star to be really compelling. Fortunately, the two male leads, Leonardo Sbaraglia as Joaquin and Pablo Echarri as the gang-leader, carry the movie. Federico Luppi also makes a sinisterly convincing appearance as a shady policeman. Grande does a good job putting you in Joaquin's place as he overcomes his paraplegia to pull off his scheme, and the scenes in the tunnel are cool. Unfortunately, the plot falls victim to lazy writing, and no amount of good acting or cinematography can overcome that.

2.5 stars out of 5

Monday, September 04, 2017

Sing Street (2016) ***1/2

More than any working filmmaker I know of, writer/director John Carney makes films that are love letters to music, and specifically songwriting. In “Once”, “Begin Again”, and now “Sing Street”, Carney lets us in on the process as his characters write and perform original songs. The results can be a little uneven in terms of storytelling, but absolutely enjoyable musically.

In “Sing Street”, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays Conor, a disaffected, Irish schoolboy who plays music to distract himself from his parents' constant bickering. With the crappy 1980's Irish economy, the family has to tighten its belt, so Conor has to switch to a cheaper school. Fitting in at the new, more working-class school is tough. Plus, there's a girl Conor would like to impress, so he does the only logical thing: he forms a band.

Conor and his band of misfits are a bit rough around the edges, but they possess a young, punk energy and Conor's talent for songwriting. Armed with some good advice from Conor's older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor) (“You don't need to know how to play. Who are you, Steely Dan?”), they set to work making music videos, which is the perfect excuse for Conor to get to know Raphina (Lucy Boynton). Every music video needs a pretty girl, and Raphina is a stone fox. She's also a complicated girl. Conor works on wooing her as he and the band work their way through a variety of 80's musical and sartorial styles, trying on everything from Duran Duran to The Cure.

As his filmmaking career has progressed, John Carney has taken a greater hand in writing the songs for his films. The songs in “Once” were written by his stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, whom you may remember won an Oscar. In “Begin Again,” Carney himself gets a couple of co-writing credits, and for “Sing Street” Carney contributed to almost all of the original tunes. They are surprisingly good songs for what is essentially '80s pastiche.

Unless you are a 15-year-old boy trying to decide whether or not to start a band (Do it!), “Sing Street” isn't going to change your life. Little effort is wasted on a believable plot or on character development. The point of this film is the music, and between the original songs and the '80s classics, it is guaranteed to make you feel good.

3.5 stars out of 5

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Adaptation. (2002) *****

Some books are easier than others to adapt to the screen. Susan Orlean's “The Orchid Thief” is a sprawling, ruminative meditation on life, flowers, and a Florida horticulturist named John Laroche. Laroche is a toothless plant-poacher with an endless willingness to expound on his philosophy of life. He's a great interview subject for a New Yorker journalist like Orlean, and he's the kind of singular character who belongs in a movie. If Laroche is movie-ready, however, Orlean's book is not. A genius was needed to mold “The Orchid Thief” into a screenplay, so the movie studio turned to the genius behind “Being John Malkovich,” screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

As the story goes, even Kaufman developed writer's block in the face of “The Orchid Thief.” Out of ideas, he finally decided to write a movie about his own writer's block. “Adaptation.” is the story of fat, balding screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), a guy so awkward that he can't even use his status as a working screenwriter to hit on a waitress. In Hollywood! This is a guy who could fall into a barrel of tits and come out sucking his own thumb! Kaufman, stuck in his own head, awkwardly lurks on the set of “Being John Malkovich” while struggling to come up with a way to faithfully adapt “The Orchid Thief”. Meanwhile, his (fictional) twin brother, Donald (also Cage), successfully loafs through life, sleeping in Charlie's spare room, hitting on makeup girls, and annoying Charlie by embarking on his own screenwriting project.

Charlie becomes enamored of orchids and develops a crush on Susan Orlean, but his screenplay is still nothing more than the tale of a New York reporter interviewing an eccentric horticulturist. He needs something exciting, some kind of story arc, some kind of drama, but there's nothing in the book that provides that. Then Charlie and Donnie start to suspect that there is something Orlean isn't telling us, that she discovered more than a story idea down in Florida. They set out to find out what she is hiding, and the story takes a wild turn.

At one point, Kaufman describes himself as a snake swallowing its own tale, and that's exactly what his narrative does for a while. The on-screen Kaufman starts to write his own writer's block into his script, then he writes about himself writing his writer's block into the script. The decision to investigate Orlean is what breaks Charlie out of this dead-end cycle, and astute viewers will recognize this as the point where Charlie gives up on being faithful to the book and begins to employ serious artistic license.

Charlie gets an assist from a screenwriting seminar by Robert McKee (played brilliantly by Brian Cox). The real-life McKee is a creative-writing professor and author of the unofficial “screenwriter's bible.” The on-screen McKee tells Charlie, “The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you've got a hit.” By the time Charlie is done, a story that wasn't supposed to have sex, guns, car chases, or characters “learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end” winds up having all of those things.

Directed by Spike Jones, “Adaptation.” is meta, funny, sexy, and mind-blowingly brilliant. And it wows us in the end.

5 stars out of 5

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Passengers (2016) ***1/2

An interstellar vessel hurtles through space, full of hibernating colonists and crew, on a 120-year journey to a new planet. An unexpected asteroid field puts a strain on the ship's shields, causing one of the sleep pods to malfunction and wake up its passenger, Jim (Chris Pratt). Imagine Jim's growing horror as he discovers that 1) He is the only person awake on the ship. 2) They are still 90 years from their destination. and 3) There is no way for him to go back into hibernation. Jim goes through all the stages of despair as he exhausts every possible way to reactivate his sleep pod, get a message to earth, or break into the secure crew quarters to wake one of them up.

After a year of this frustration and solitude, Jim is bearded and depressed. Only two things keep him going. One is the robot bartender, Arthur, who can not only converse, but dispense bartenderly advice. The other is his growing infatuation with a sleeping fellow passenger (Jennifer Lawrence), a writer named Aurora Lane (I know, it's a stripper name. Just go with it.). Jim agonizes over what to do about Aurora. He can't reactivate a sleep pod, but he has figured out how to wake someone up from one. He could wake Aurora up and have a companion, but then he would have damned her to live out her life in deep space, missing out, like him, on the colony they are all destined for. Spoiler alert: He does it, and then has to live with the guilt. On top of that, there's a problem with the ship.

“Passengers” is beautifully filmed, with impressive space imagery, but at its core, it isn't science fiction. Jim's ethical dilemma is the beating heart of the story. Essentially trapped on a desert island, he has the opportunity to have someone join him on the island, but then, of course, she will be trapped there, too. How much solitude could you endure before you gave in to that temptation?

In the end, Jim and Aurora face the same existential questions we all do. We all at some point have to make the best of a situation that isn't what we wanted. When our dreams are utterly out of reach, how do we find a new dream? How do we forgive those who wrong us, and how do we forgive ourselves?

Considering the weight of the questions it deals with, “Passengers” doesn't have quite as much gravity as it should. You could rightfully accuse the plot of being a bit predictable, and wrapped up too neatly and too quickly. There's a lot of food for thought, but you have to cook most of it yourself, as the end of the film feels hurried. Still, this is a decent story with charming actors. Most of the reviews I have read on it were negative, but I think it's well worth a watch.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Performance (1970) ***

“Performance” is ostensibly a crime drama, but what it is really about is sexual identity, or just identity in general. James Fox plays Chas, a British gangster who spends his days brutally intimidating people. He enjoys his work, perhaps too much. When he pushes the wrong guy's buttons, he winds up having to kill him, which puts Chas in trouble with his boss. On the run from the London underworld, Chas dyes his hair and rents a basement room in what turns out to be the home of a faded rock star named Turner (Mick Jagger). Turner lives there with his girlfriend Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and the androgynous Lucy (Michele Breton).

Turner and Chas don't hit it off at first. Chas describes his new housemates as “long-hairs, beatniks, druggers.” Still, Chas can't help but be attracted to the ladies in the house, and he becomes fascinated, as well, with Turner's artistic energy. As he dallies with them, Chas starts to open his mind to his own artistic, and feminine, side.

This is definitely one for when you're in the mood for some art-house fare. The camera work is shaky, the acting is iffy, and the plot is really just a weak excuse to get to the orgies, gender-bending, and naked Anita Pallenberg. Still, “Performance” has a certain artistic spirit that can't be denied. James Fox is like a British Steve McQueen, tough and iconically masculine, which makes it rather trippy to watch Anita Pallenberg get him to dress like a girl. The chemistry between Chas and Turner is also interesting. The thrill that Chas gets from violence is not unlike Turner's artistic drive. These two complete opposites recognize a kindred spirit within each other.

As interesting as the movie itself is the controversy surrounding it. The rumor is that Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg had actual intercourse during the sex scenes. That wouldn't be all that scandalous except for the fact that Pallenberg was Keith Richard's girlfriend at the time. Meanwhile, the movie studio thought they were bankrolling a Rolling Stones version of one of those happy-go-lucky Beatles movies. Instead they got this weird, psychedelic experiment that was banned in many venues. It seems you can't always get what you want.

3 stars out of 5