The Fate of the Furious (***): Don’t think. It’s Meat

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The Fate of the Furious – 2017

Director F. Gary Gray
Screenplay Chris Morgan
Starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Scott Eastwood, Nathalie Emmanuel, Elsa Pataky, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron

Don’t think that I don’t know that this series is as dumb as anything I have ever seen.

Don’t think I don’t want to see someone beaten like a Cherokee drum.

Don’t think that I don’t know that there is some serious man crushing going on between The Rock’s Hobbs and Statham’s Deckard.

Don’t think that it isn’t kind of cool to see all those cars fall from above in NYC.

Don’t think that it isn’t cool seeing Dom turn heel when they run out of story-lines.

Don’t think for a minute I can’t tell you’re trying to make Scott Eastwood a star eventually. And I hope it works well enough to give him a personality, too.

Don’t think I buy for a second that anyone who dies in this series is really dead. And the one guy who died outside the series will ever be shown as dead.

Don’t think I am any less tired of Tyrese Gibson’s Roman than I am of Dom “Meathead” Torretto.

Don’t think I don’t miss Sung Kang and Gal Gadot.

Don’t think I don’t know it’s not random choice that Theron’s Cipher makes when doling out punishment. It’s about as Random as Gadot dying just before her boyfriend Kang in part 6.

Don’t think I don’t enjoy watching The Rock kicking ass.We always need more Statham.

Don’t think I don’t enjoy watching Luda as a techno Wiz. I would buy anything he’s selling.

Don’t think that the snow chase isn’t as dumb as it is cool. More submarine, please.

Don’t think I can ever get enough of Helen Mirren.

Don’t think the laws of physics on this or any planet will apply.

Don’t think I don’t want to hear Roman stop yelling.

Don’t think any of this will ever make sense.

Don’t think that the grand master antagonist isn’t working for some other grand master antagonist in another movie down the line.

Don’t believe there won’t be a full immunity or full reinstatement at the end of every film.

Don’t think I don’t want to see Hobbs beat down Torretto.

Don’t think. It will all be better that way.

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (*****): More please

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 – 2017

Written and Directed by James Gunn
Starring  Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell

I am so happy this film didn’t stink. It could be a little bit of an overreaction to the fact that it doesn’t that I feel that Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is the best film of the year so far and right on par with the best that Marvel has released into their Cinematic Universe. It sure feels like I will be watching this film with the same zeal and exuberance I have felt watching most of the films.

First of all, the characters have developed. Sure they are antagonistic as ever to each other, but they also show the propensity for caring not many ensemble casts are talented enough to do. Most obvious here is Drax (Bautista) with his awkwardly expanding foray into the world outside of the literal. His moments are consistently fresh, for such a seemingly limited character and actor, and it is a delight to see.

Speaking of limited, Baby Groot (Diesel) is the most adorable tiny version of a character to be in a sequel since Mini-Me. Every scene he is in draws out sympathy and affection, then a punctuated laugh. My favorite moments in the movie is when Drax calls Baby Groot the “smaller, dumber version,” and when Baby Groot beats on Drax for destroying his groove.

Many of the jokes in the film (and some carrying over from the previous film) have a tremendous payoff. Rocket (Cooper) breaks new ground in his establishment of a relationship with Yondu (Rooker). It might have been nice if the Racoon had been granted one liners consistently throughout, but there were so many characters, it’s tough to choose who’d be left out.

Rooker’s Yondu gets an excellent fleshing out with way more to do this time around. Some of the moves are telegraphed, but no less enjoyable when played against the plot.

Even the burgeoning romance between Quill (Pratt) and Gamora (Saldana) is played with a self-awareness of what normally happens at this point with “TV” relationships. Turning into the skid allows a certain grace with the audience for a second film. They’d better move past it by then.

Gamora is given a more complete reprise of her relationship with her adopted sibling Nebula (Gillan). The turn they take is one more conducive to her staying within the franchise and both actresses give an emotional heft to the story that is a pleasant addition to the standard sibling stuff.

Of the new characters, Mantis (Klementieff) and Ego, the Living Planet (Russell) have the most going on. Ego claims to be Peter’s dad, and he’s charming enough to convince us of anything. The faux crisis about his worthiness as a parent is finished quickly enough to move on to more interesting things. Mantis has an interesting character that fits sublimely with the rest of the team.

If I haven’t discussed the plot, it’s because the GOTG movies don’t really need to worry about the plot as much as making sure we can appreciate the fact that the gang is back and still loveable, even if a little different from before. In developing characters, we can enjoy it more despite what it lacks.

To be fair, the plot is a wholesale improvement over what they had last time. It’s more expansive and there is a desperation that one feels for the characters if not for the situation they encounter. It also helps to know not everyone is safe. Yes, and it’s not a spoiler alert.

Pratt is more comfortable in doing less this time around. His job on the team is to play straight man to a bunch of clowns, and he accepts this job willingly. That we don’t have to negotiate his screen time or make all of his actions heroic is a huge plus. There is no other leading man in the Marvel Universe with his unforced appeal.

James Gunn took this series right where it needs to be as a placeholder while waiting for the next Avengers film. He’s taken the reigns of the stories and made the comic his own, all while staying in focus with Feige’s overall scope. He’s completely in his comfort zone, and still treating the property like it is an opportunity, rather than a burden. He is the series most effective creative force.

This film is great, even for those who will say it lacks the freshness of the original. Think to yourself, how many more times will you be seeing Bradley Cooper playing a sarcastic and violent raccoon? When will you ever see Baby Groot again?

Stop taking this marvelous thing for granted. Go watch it.

(***** out of *****)

The Hateful Eight (Roadshow Edition) ****1/2 is a study of balance

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The Hateful Eight – 2015

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring  Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Lee Horsley, Zoë Bell, James Park, Gene Jones, Dana Gourrier

That actors save their best performances for Quentin Tarantino is certainly not a surprise. That he continues to pull new good actors from the fringes is even less of a surprise. Samuel L. Jackson is consistently the best actor in the world when he boldly announces Tarantino’s words, even the one that Spike Lee doesn’t want him to use. This movie is no exception on that front, but he gets a lot of help here, too.

The genius within The Hateful Eight is that one never does secure a sense of balance. Even though the film takes place in a small, rickety inn for much of its three hour running time, there is nothing in the film that amounts to a sure thing as the eight of the title becomes seven, six, five…etc.

The bare essence of a story that only exists as bare essence is Kurt Russell as bounty hunter John Ruth, also known as “The Hangman.” Give you two guesses and a biscuit if you can figure why he has that name. When he comes across Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren just ahead of a blizzard, they have a discussion about their shared trade of hunting bounties. Warren, sitting atop a pile of dead bounties when we see him, first prefers the more certain thing of carrying the dead. Russell, for philosophical reasons, but really more as a contrivance of plot, prefers to watch them hang.

John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth: No one said this job was supposed to be easy.
Major Marquis Warren: Nobody said it’s supposed to be that hard, either!

But hard it has to be, so onward they go, until the blizzard stops them from getting to their destination of Red Rock. Instead, they land at Minnie’s Haberdashery. They find that Minne (Gourier) and her constant, lazy companion Sweet Dave (Jones) have left a Mexican named Bob (Bachir) in charge while she went to visit her ill mother. Most people will be able to piece together the chances of this being true, especially since it takes place in the third of six chapters. There is still a long way to go, but don’t start patting yourself on the back yet, genius.

That we find the rest of the eight there helps us to settle in with the characters to wait out the storm as tensions rise inside. The best scene in Tarantino’s last film, Django Unchained, takes place in the dining room. The terseness of the dialogue is matched only by the thoughts running through everyone’s head, made delightfully obvious by their demeanor and their faces. For anyone who enjoyed that scene, The Hateful Eight should be an utter delight.

The last two acts of the film take place like a vise slowly increasing its grip on the viewer. Every time one thinks they have sure footing on what’s going on, Tarantino yanks on the rug just enough so it’s necessary to reestablish footing. Some of this is predictable, yes. Some of this is built on plot holes and gaps in logic by the characters.  None of this matters because when you are experiencing the journey from Tarantino’s script to his camera lens, it’s easy to get caught up in the rapture of the process.

The cast is remarkable. There is not one bad or even mediocre performance. If I have a blind spot in movies (who’s counting?) it is definitely Samuel L. Jackson. He’s the only reason I even watch Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones anymore. The Tarantino / Jackson movie marriage is one of the best things I have ever experienced watching film. It’s more than Jules Winnfield by a longshot. Here is no exception. Jackson captures the movie with his wise and ruthless Warren. It pays to keep your eyes and ears trained to the Major, but not at the expense of watching his surroundings.

Leigh’s role as prisoner Daisy Domergue is rife with opportunity, and of course she makes the most of it. Her performance is less a victim and more catbird. She comes across more powerfully than the man that has her in chains. She’s funny and menacing both. Her increasing number of ailments throughout only add to the thought of the punishment that would be inflicted once she is unbound.

That Russell is the one delivering the punishment with her in chains makes it somewhat certain that at some point that circumstances will change. His job here is a tough one, because no one ever expects the prisoner at the start of a story to stay one throughout. He chews almost as much scenery as Jackson and Leigh, however. The camera still, after all of these years, loves that aged denim countenance.

That Tarantino misses some spots in his storytelling is obfuscated by his talent for tension building. For every moment one wonders how in the heck a certain character missed a certain clue, we are treated to incredible dialogue and a penchant for human observations one will not find anywhere else. He is not my favorite filmmaker, but his quality is ever constant and never diminishing. He long ago shed the wunderkind moniker and moved into the role of auteur. His energy is fresh as ever, even as his imitators have long ago stopped getting budgets for new projects.

The Roadshow aspect of the film is an example of his obsessive love for movie history. If it seems like overkill to some, it seems a fitting tribute to the art for others. I know I will be keeping my program, since it might be the last one we see in 50 years.

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Is The Hateful Eight his best?  No, that will always be Jackie Brown, I think. It’s right there near the top. They are really hard to rank after #1. They all seem like different parts to the whole. If you are a fan or just appreciate the art, give this one your attention as soon as you can find a 70mm screen. It’s worth it.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Bone Tomahawk (****): I believe those fleas were alive and talented

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Bone Tomahawk

Written and Directed by S. Craig Zahler
Starring Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Sid Haig, Sean Young, Evan Jonigkeit

Two murdering thieves (Haig and Arquette) hear a sound as they rob the corpses of their victims. Going off to investigate, they end up crossing into the sacred ground of a tribe of cannibalistic Troglodytes…the kind that the civilized tribes won’t even go near. One of the two survive long enough to get to the town of Sheriff Hunt (Russell), only to be shot and taken in for questioning. When the town’s doctor is too drunk for surgical repairs, Mrs. Samantha O’Dwyer (Simmons) is called in to take his place. The tribe comes into town, takes the thief, the deputy (Jonigkeit) and Samantha back with them.

Sam leaves behind a husband (Wilson) who is recovering from a broken leg. This does not keep him from being the first on a horse to go with Sheriff Hunt in the quest to rescue the abducted. Town dunce and assistant deputy (Jenkins) and local gunfighter John Brooder (Fox) also join into the doomed crusade.

It goes downhill from the start. The running horses eventually walk and then are absconded. Soon enough, the party is on foot. Mr. Dwyer’s condition is deteriorating and eventually he is left after having his leg set once more. The troglodytes are just waiting for them, but Sheriff Hunt is obliged and he trudges on.

Bone Tomahawk is a deceptively intelligent story with one foot set in grim reality and another set in blind faith. Russell is an actor that does not work nearly enough, for my tastes. This performance falls somewhere between his career best as MacReady in The Thing and Wyatt Earp in Tombstone. His Hunt is in complete control within his own environment, but as he moves further from his base, he becomes less assured, if no less determined. The tweaks that Russell applies to his character ride the line between confidence and fear.

Russell’s interplay with his assistant deputy played against type by Jenkins shows this line as clearly as anything. Jenkins is dim, but sturdy. He takes everything he’s told by the Sheriff as Gospel, but his memory and feedback reflects the changes in his boss like a mirror on Hunt’s soul. If it’s hard to necessarily believe Jenkins could ever be as dim as he appears, but his performance is so steady, the rest of the story benefits.

As the assured, bigoted and strangely honorable Brooder, Fox gives a performance that is more than it would appear. There is a subtle power that is not present in your usual white hat / black heart role that we see in a western. His strength is implied as pomposity at first, but soon enough, we discover that he has the strength to follow through on his word. This is a good role for Fox, who I have barely seen since LOST. He deserves more substantial work, and hopefully this will allow more to come his way. I think I will give Extinction a look for now.

Good as these performances all are, the film does not belong to any of these actors. This is the story of Arthur and Samantha O’Dwyer. Their struggle to maintain their marriage in the harsh western landscape would be hard enough, but the differences between men and women when it comes to wounded pride gives it a different spin.

This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the Indians or the elements, but because of the idiots.

Samantha loves her husband and is completely grounded. She has no pretense and just wants to connect with the part of him that reaches out her in rare moments of honesty. Arthur has wounded pride and a feeling of helplessness. This feeling compounds once his wife is taken from him. But he does not let it deter him from moving towards the chance of rescuing her from a seemingly doomed fate.

We see that even if he has a certain bluster, he still is a practicing Catholic who by faith, by rote or both, continues to hold hope that God will allow him to intervene in some way. This angle is an unusual and very satisfying aspect to Zahler’s story. It takes a strong storyteller to throw belief in the midst of any story these days as anything other than a gimmick or a sign of weakness. Wilson’s character starts off in weakness, but we realize as he is left as an afterthought, he shouldn’t be forgotten. He has a resilience and faith, somewhat like Samwise Gamgee, to keep pushing, unnoticed and underestimated. Wilson is one of the few actors that can at once seem at once intelligent and daft, wounded and dangerous.

The best performance is easily that of Lili Simmons. She loves her husband, even if she knows that he is as foolish as the other men that surround her. She experiences the terror, but keeps a clear mind. Seeing her work with her other captors is a thing of beauty. Never letting the fear getting in the way of her love for her husband, she is a steady presence in the film’s last act. It’s due to her performance and complete grasp of the character as written by Zahler that we do not at any point see her as a victim, but as someone who is formidable for what she knows and how she can control her fear. I know we will see more of her in the future.

Zahler has a knack for developing characters and a delightful command of the English language. There are so many wonderful lines in the film, it feels like watching a book. The story takes forever to give the viewer any sense of hope, which is a brave choice for someone with such relatively meagre experience in the business. He should be given more resources to see what he can do.

The only real blemish in the film is the performance of Sean Young as the mayor’s wife. Her lines, as few as she has, are so poorly delivered it completely takes one out of the experience. I never rooted for her career to tank like it did in the early 90’s, but whatever she’s been doing since then, it doesn’t seem to have been acting.

If you like horror, westerns or both, don’t let this film go unnoticed.

(**** out of *****)

Furious 7 (***1/2): Meatball Hallmark Card

Furious 7 – 2015

Director James Wan
Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Kurt Russell, Jason Statham
Screenplay Chris Morgan

If one could sum up the entire Furious franchise in 3 phrases, it would be:

I don’t have friends. I got family.

I live life a quarter-mile at a time.

One last ride.

At this point, the gang is on their 3rd consecutive last ride. This time it was made especially poignant in the untimely death of co-lead Paul Walker. The filmmakers made the wise choice to re-shoot parts of the film as an impromptu tribute to a person who had become a key figure in the lives of the cast and crew of this most uniquely enduring franchise. To think it all started as Point Break in fast cars…

In a strange twist often mentioned in the past, the movies went to the edge of American Pie Presents Band Camp status, backed up and headed right into Italian Job and then James Bond. To say this was planned would be disingenuous. Most of the actors, including Diesel, have tried and failed to come up with outside franchises. Fast and Furious, though, is like the really big fuel injected engine that could. The success of the franchise has made many fans that were casual into looky loos. And even if each film produces as many cringe-inducing moments as awe-inspiring ones, it is a tribute to the people involved that they have made it into the Juggernaut we see today.

This time around finds the group looking down the barrel of Deckard Shaw. Deckard is the brother of Owen, the antagonist from the last film who now is resting comfortably under maximum guard at the hospital. That is until Deckard obliterates the guard and most of the hospital just to tell the staff to take good care of Owen. This is ridiculous of course, because by destroying the facility, he has negatively affected the chance of his brother getting said good care. As if that is not enough of a reminder, we then see more of what we ended the last film with; the death of Han (featured in 3 films now), the explosion of a package that has arrived from Deckard (seen in two) and the maiming of Hobbs (Johnson). Apparently, the creative staff think the viewers have short memories.

Dom goes to visit Hobbs in the hospital, then goes to pick up Han and gathers the team together for Han’s funeral. If you can’t guess what will happen at the funeral, you get no Parmesan for your meatball. Dom gets acquainted with the new antagonist, and then gets to meet the new covert ops guy, Petty (Russell). That this meeting prevented the conclusion of the movie from happening 30 minutes in is not lost on either Dom or Petty, but that’s okay, we have another 1.5 hours to fill. Petty tells Dom he and his team need to get a MacGuffin called God’s Eye from some bad guys, capture the person of interest that has something MacGuffinish to do with God’s Eye and get them both back to Petty. Then, Petty says, Dom can use the God’s Eye to track down Deckard, who was just in front of him minutes ago, until Petty interfered. That’s okay, though, because Petty is a professional who was smart enough to hire an amateur for…one last ride.

Or three last rides.

Now the real jet setting begins. Dom and company go from the Los Angeles Caucasus Mountains to Abu Dhabi and then back to Los Angeles. They drop in cars from a military cargo plane, crash down a mountainside multiple times, dress up and sneak into a party, crash, jump, crash, jump and crash again through the Etihad Towers, fight it out in an old abandoned warehouse, and then tear the hell out of downtown L.A. before they approach a conclusion. There is literally more damage in this film than the last Godzilla movie. If you think I have ruined any part of this for you, you have not seen the rest of these movies. Literally the only surprise they’ve ever had was dragging the safes through town in Fast Five.

It’s completely taken for granted that whenever they arrive in a new country, they will immediately arrive in a row of expensive cars. What is also a given is no matter how much damage they cause, no one will ever question them and they will never have a problem walking out of that scene and driving into the next in another bunch of expensive cars.

All of this ridiculous action is augmented by the fact that they have collected a group of characters that we have learned to care about through sheer force of the will of all involved in making the film. They each have a few moments to shine in each episode, along with many requisite scenes that hammer the limitations of their characters into the story. This would normally be for the uninitiated. Until I brought my friend Binage, I had not met someone who hadn’t seen at least one of the films who started with in the middle somewhere. He enjoyed it though.

I enjoyed it too, despite all the belly laughs of incredulity. Through all the explosions, all the crashes, the litany of bullets, and the absolute defiance of the concept of gravity, this film really works. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the film is how all of the characters (and the people who play them outside of Bridges, Russell and Johnson) completely lack any sort of self-awareness. It’s almost like a joyful, loving Bronson film. Were it not for Walker’s tragedy, perhaps the defining point of the series would have been when Diesel stomps on a parking garage roof as it is cracking…and a large part (perhaps a quarter-mile) of the concrete  actually breaks away! We should never think of Vin as a short guy again.

The glory in lacking an understanding of who you are results in other great moments, like when, in a flash back scene, we see two characters get married. My friend Binage, until now caught up in the action, leans over and says:

“What kind of guy wears a wife-beater to his own wedding?”

Through it all, the acting is consistent, if not Shakespearean. Walker gets a fitting tribute for the simple fact that they did not take the easy way out. It’s a beautiful statement that choose to alter the formula of the surprise mid-credits scene to set up the next film to give the character the kind of closure he did not get in life.

Throughout the story, however, one gets the sense of déjà vu. Brian is in the midst of fatherhood, now driving a mini-van. He’s frustrated, saying he misses the bullets more than he misses the cars. His woman, Mia (Brewster), hems and haws much like she did last time and tells him over the phone that they are expecting another kid, this time a girl. So if one kid didn’t make him want to retire, the second should do the trick. What would they have done if he’d been around for the next few films? I get the feeling that 5 kids would not be enough to prevent him from taking yet another last ride.

Despite it’s flaws, or maybe because of them, Vin Diesel and company have created a memorable franchise out of ashes. And I am sure this “family” will be around for a while more. In the haze of bad dialogue and forced dramatic tension, there is a brilliant line delivered by Dom that steals the show and demonstrates the draw that the little lug has on the heartstrings of ‘Murica. In a tender moment shared with Letty, she asks him why he had not revealed more of their past together before she recovered from her 3 movie amnesia spell. With complete sincerity, he looks at her an says:

You can’t tell someone that they love you.

Right about now, I think everyone involved with this unlikely saga knows that they are loved.

(***1/2 out of *****)