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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Suicide Squad (***1/2) shall remain standing

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Suicide Squad – 2016

Writer and Director David Ayer
Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnamen, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevingne, Karen Fukuhara, Adam Beach, Alain Chanoine, Jared Leto

This movie barely got out of the gates before being slaughtered by reviews. Normally I don’t make a practice of mentioning other gasbags, because Lord knows I value my own gasbagging so much more. In the end, it all doesn’t matter too much. This time, I have to say, something dumb is afoot, and the stupidity is not on the screen.

Suicide Squad, for better or worse, is a latter day DC comic book film. The outlook is dark and more than a little hopeless. The characters are disposable, except for a few. The bad guys are an afterthought and a little too CGI heavy. The things that make one uncomfortable about portrayals in the largely sexist and violent, especially regarding The Joker (Leto) will find those same things here.

If you rule this film out because the word is that it is somehow equally miserable as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, you aren’t trying hard enough to enjoy life. In all fairness, those who did not take to that math problem of a film or it’s measurably better Director’s cut, there is a reason to approach cautiously any film in this Universe that they’ve put in Zack Snyder’s hands, as producer or otherwise.

That alone is not reason enough to avoid giving David Ayers a chance. The artist responsible for Training Day, End of Watch and Fury deserves your time. Suicide Squad would have been a worthless pile in many other hands.

The story starts in the wake of events that culminate with Superman’s death. We get a series of introductions as we get to see Federal Intelligence Operative Amanda Waller (Davis) reveal her plans. Some characters get two intross, one’s first meeting is strangely absent until they are on the tarmac. When we see what happens to this sinister agent, it becomes apparent why they did not invest too much time.

Waller’s plan is the formation of a team of “metahumans” who are the baddest of bad criminals that shall be used to accomplish missions for the government. In essence, her rationale is that they need people of extraordinary ability who can take out “the next Superman,” if that one turns out to be bad. If it seems a little thin, well, so did the comic book’s premise. Who’s counting though?

These agents of misfortune are given an offer they cannot refuse in any way, then they are pushed out into their first mission. Will things work out for this crew? When it does, will they get what they are promised? Well, yes to the first question. Of course. It’s the first of a kind of film franchise that they would love to continue. As for the second question, the amount everyone gets is directly proportional to how well this film does and whether refrained from signing a multi-picture deal.

The characters are numerous and differently talented. Some of these talents are useful, some are not as much. Most importantly, are they entertaining? In large part, they are. Robbie absolutely steals the film from her catbird seat. It’s a glorious thing that we get to see Harley Quinn in all of her glory, before she’s is relegated to second banana in a later film tied to The Joker’s insane and often wearying shenanigans. There are zero moments that her mad doctor graces the screen where she is not the character most worthy of our attention.

The only one close to Robbie’s magnetism is Will Smith, who gives his career a necessary jolt with his truly identifiable Deadshot. That he’s given multiple dimensions is not a surprise. He has the chops to pull off the anti-hero that we all can rally behind. He even overcomes a tired subplot of faux-tension with an overly antagonistic Flag (Kinnamen) with charisma beyond the contrivance.

Viola Davis is convincingly charmless and ruthless as Waller. Her acting ability is better than her type of character normally gets or deserves. There is a gravity prevalent that gives the viewer confidence that Waller has the intelligence to survive, so it makes up for the film’s lack of a compelling main villain.

There are drawbacks, to be sure, that keep this film closer to average than classic. First and foremost, Leto’s Joker barely registers. It’s not that this is a bad thing for this reviewer, as the more one heard about the Dallas’ Buyers Club Oscar Winner “method acting” for this role, the more troubled the production appeared. He has a handful of scenes that are pushed to the forefront. The biggest bouts of sexism occur when we look back on his history with Robbie’s Harley Quinn. Even if you know that’s their particular kink, it is not easy to process. There is even a scene with Common that makes absolutely no sense, which – one could suppose – is the point.

This seems to be the summer of villains who don’t do shit. We’ve had some horrible antagonists with Apocalypse,  Krall and now Enchantress (Delevigne). Their job, essentially is to make big plans with the thinnest of motivations. If that seems too much, they also need to wait long enough to for the plot to bring the good guys in the vicinity where, you know, the magic happens. The effects, and especially the dialogue for Delevigne’s Enchantress approaches comically bad. This is deadening to the momentum of each film. It makes one wonder if this is what is what is forcing Marvel’s hand in their re-evaluation of the Avengers Infinity Wars. Two movies of a charmless nemesis Thanos waiting for the inevitable just seems agonizing.

Fortunately this is countered by some excellent work by the less developed characters like El Diablo, Killer Croc and Boomerang (Hernandez, Akinnuoye-Agbaje). All three provide the film with some real entertainment during points in which the story battles inertia. Courtney is a big surprise. It’s rare that he finds a role that allows him to show any amount of charm. Hernandez’ work is especially fulfilling. The marriage of character and story for El Diablo is resonant enough that it gives yet another example of Ayer’s instinct for portraying Hispanic characters with a remarkable depth and clarity. He’s caucasian, just like this reviewer. With only my experiences to draw upon, his Hispanic male characters always resonate for me.

Other things to enjoy are the cameos. I will not go into detail, other than to let you know there are more than one and they do add dimension to the film. Hang on after the credits too past the incredibly apt Twenty-One Pilots song Heathens  and a wonderful collage.

Add up the positives, subtract the negatives and it’s an easy win for Suicide Squad. This movie, especially for Robbie and Smith’s performances, will be watchable for years. If you want to find stuff to hate about the story and film, you will have no problem doing so. If one is honest, the film is definitely likable, even if it does not approach classic overall.

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

Fury (***1/2) Rolls over familiar ground

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Fury – 2014

Written and Directed by David Ayer
Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Scott Eastwood

How to get a coward to fight late in the last days before VE Day? This is the question that Fury spends its time trying to answer. Pvt. Norman “Machine” Ellison (Lerman) is a young man with a “conscience” who can’t bring himself to shoot dead men or a Kraut in the back. This position, along with a general uneasiness with his new role as gunner on the titular tank make him an easy target for the rest of his crew. Then when he shoots some men emerging in flames from a blown up tank, he’s told that he “should have let ’em burn.” His commander US Army S/Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt) us a straight forward fighter who understands the risk having someone of such a high learning curve on his 5 man crew.

“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”

Collier is not an unreasonable man. You can tell by the way that Pitt squints at opportune times that he has a lot on his mind. When he and Ellison come across a woman trying to hide her younger cousin, he asks them to make them a meal. While they do so, we get to see Collier take his shirts off, showing us how handsome he is, until he turns his back on them and we see what war has done. Still looks like Brad Pitt from the front, though as the older cousin gets to see and appreciate, after the two younger kids get to go in the back room and do stuff Disney-style. After all this serenity, the rest of the team (LaBeouf, Peña and especially Bernthal)  come along and ruin the next meal. Not long after, German bombs arrive to ruin the rest of the day.

Next thing we see, they are given the important mission to protect a vital “crossroads” somewhere in Germany. What they are protecting and why is not necessarily as important as seeing how the team reacts and begins to bond. Of course with every encounter with the armaments of the enemy they lose people they are travelling with until they are down to just their one tank.

Soon enough, Fury is inoperable and 200-300  SS troops are on their way. Norman has steadily developed into a vital part of the team. His enthusiasm as a response to his Staff Sgt.’s bravery helps prepare them all for the fight of their lives.

Ayer’s film looks beautiful as anything he’s done. With all the dirt rubbed on the faces of his stars, all except Bernthal look like they head right for their trailer after every shot. For his part, LaBeouf is at his best as Technician 5 Boyd “Bible” Swan. His character has a real sense of clarity for one who should be more conflicted.

Bernthal has worked himself into a typecast in this role. It’s a good performance, but he’s got more in the his repetoire than a southern piece of trash nicknamed “Coon Ass.” Peña is able to make much of his role as driver Cpl. Trini Garcia. He has more than one excellent scene and just may be one of the most versatile actors around today.

Lerman has the benefit of being able to voice everything a person battling his conscience and his cowardice would. His role is not as believable, especially when he goes through the gauntlet just to end up right where he started. His dough eyes would have been obliterated with the rest of him in the first few minutes of a real battle.

Overall, Fury doesn’t offer much more story-wise than we’ve seen in other WWII films.  It is presented with a lot of style and many moments of grace. One can tell, though, from the first frame who is going to die, in what order, and how many dramatic words they will get before it happens. Guess who will look the prettiest when the time comes. The war is a stage for spectacular moments and, ultimately just an ironic ending. It’s a good story, but it falls short of The Red Badge of Courage.

Texas Chainsaw: I’ll settle for a stick of that jerky

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Texas Chainsaw – 2013

Director John Luessenhop
Starring Alexandra Daddario, Dan Yeager, Tremaine Neverson, Tania Raymonde, Thom Barry, Paul Rae, Scott Eastwood, Bill Mosley, Gunnar Hansen, Marylin Burns, Richard Riehle
Screenplay Kristen Elms, Adam Marcus, Debra Sullivan

Texas Chainsaw is the kind of movie that exists outside of time.  It tries to make some sort of sense by ignoring the myriad sequels and remakes that had been created over the years and picking up exactly where the original left off.  It even has scenes directly out of Hooper’s film.  In the ensuing moments we find that there is a young child lost in the raid on the Sawyer home.  She ends up in the arms of two of those who attended the massacre of what is left of the family.

Cut to, say, 20 years later.  The baby is now a young woman named Heather (Daddario).  She is presented with a letter informing her that a grandmother she never knew she had passed away, leaving a residence to Heather in her will.  One might figure that this should be somewhere in the mid-90’s.  Much of the evidence, including modern cell phones, show that the film could have been made today, nearly 40 years after the events of the original story.  Either way, many of those who stay in the town have not aged more than that 20 years,  It’s a convenience, to be sure, but logic is not why one watches a film with the word “Chainsaw” in the title.

So in this film, we have the tables slightly turned.  Those who ignore the wise lawman (Barry) at the beginning of the film, wreaking havoc on a house that had just been the scene of horrific events, are painted in big crayola colors as bloodthirsty fools.   Of course they will be the real enemies in this film, particularly the ring leader (Rae), who is now the town mayor.

Somehow, the slightly daft, yet extremely violent Leatherface (or Jed, to be even more backwoods)  is looked upon as a hero of sorts.  This is a stretch for the viewer to believe, as the group that Heather arrives to the house with gets the usual Jed treatment before Heather comes around to his way of thinking.  The townspeople are  such unbelievable assess that one has no choice but to side with the guy who kills teens.  Really, those are the options.  I am pretty sure Jack Benny would still be debating on why the hell he turned into the town of Newt after all.

So, when we get to the real draw of the film, it would have to be the gruesome death scenes.  In this case, I am sad to report that the only thing to change in almost 40 years is the hue of the blood.  The rest of the routine has become exactly that.  Hammer, hook, chainsaw, and “What, that person isn’t dead yet?”

Raymonde really enjoying a smoke...
Raymonde really enjoying a smoke…

There is a semblance of satisfaction to some of the grisly killings, but that is only because, you know, one-dimensional people need a good killin’ now and then.  My biggest fascination was in the strange good looks of the best friend girl, played by Raymonde.  Her large lips and somewhat remarkable features held my attention, until I realized she was the one that played Ben’s daughter Alex on Lost.  Then I was immersed in the small, ill-fitting coat of shame.  Then I see this scene and it starts again:

Welcome to Texas

Problem for me with the TCM series has always stemmed from the truth that the original film is not really good at all.  It is just gory.  Since it’s release, we’ve seen many better movies…Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Silence of the Lambs…even Hostel and the Rob Zombie Firefly movies mined the territory with more of tension, buildup and acting.  The sequels and remakes of TCM have gone all over hell and back, and they’ve supplied weird and gross, if not necessarily a cohesive mood and story.  The film was one of the first, but it was not necessary to try to flesh out the weirdness.  To paraphrase Jim Gaffigan, just because camping is in everyone’s history doesn’t mean we would not want to live in houses if they are available.

If you’ve seen all the remakes and sequels, you will see this.  When you finish, you will wonder why you had to.  You will also wonder what year it is supposed to be in Newt, Texas.

(** out of *****)