FURIOUS 7 (2015)

April 5, 2015

 

furious 7 Greetings again from the darkness. “For Paul”. A touching tribute to the late Paul Walker provides an emotional end to the most high-octane (sorry about that) F&F episode yet … and the perfect victory lap (sorry again) for the franchise. Of course, we know that it won’t be the last, if for no other reason than easy box office money.

The franchise began in 2001, and the familiar faces are back: Vin Diesel as Dom, Paul Walker as Brian, Jordana Brewster as Brian’s wife Mia, Michelle Rodriguez as amnesiac Letty, Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludicrous” Bridges as comic relief Roman and Tej, respectively, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Agent Hobbs. New to the scene are Djimon Honsou as a terrorist, Ronda Rousey and Tony Jaa as elite henchmen (henchpersons?), Nathalie Emmanuel as super-hacker Ramsey, and Kurt Russell as the shadowy government-type cutting shady deals for fuzzy reasons. The biggest add is of course, Jason Statham as Deckard Shaw, the Black Ops big brother to Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) – silenced villain from the previous film (in which Statham made a brief appearance foreshadowing this story line).

Achieving remarkable success for what started as a fun little street racing cult film, this series thrives on its familiar characters, simple plot lines, staggering lineup of dream cars, and ever-louder and larger stunts, fights and set pieces. One of the earliest scenes features a fight scene that would be the climax of most action movies: The Rock vs Jason Statham. Rather than end or solve anything, this fight merely serves as a set-up for one of the film’s punchlines – involving The Rock and a plaster arm cast (pay no attention to that leg cast). In the middle, we get a too brief clash between Michelle Rodriguez and Ronda Rousey, but the real finale is a rooftop battle between Vin Diesel and Jason Statham that has such an extended cut-away, we almost forget they are going at each other.

In between those colossal fights, we get Paul Walker sprinting up the side of a bus that is sliding off a cliff, a wicked and armed drone, car chases galore – including one with a stealth chopper, synchronized10,000 foot car drops from an airplane, and most impressively, car jumps between the Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi. That last one is not just any car, but a stunning red Lykan Hypersport … one with little resale value after its final trip.

Michelle Rodriguez’ character is fighting her amnesia, Ludacris and Tyrese play off each other like Laurel and Hardy, while Dom does his best Yoda impression, and Statham comes off like a revenge-seeking
missile from a Terminator movie. Every character gets their fair share of posing, preening, strutting and smirking. It would be an insult to call this over-the-top because that would imply we have previously seen
the top. This is high-speed, high-altitude mayhem that plays directly to a large fan base.

Personally, I’m not a devout F&F follower, and have seen only the first entry prior to this latest. My attendance for Furious 7 was driven (get it?) by my interest in seeing the tribute to Walker, and my personal code of seeing every Kurt Russell movie (don’t ask). However, I do understand the mass appeal, and I believe the followers will appreciate the approach of director James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring), who replaces 3 time series director Justin Lin.

watch the trailer:

 


42 (2013)

April 13, 2013

42a Greetings again from the darkness. After some soul searching, I have decided to turn off the critical side of my brain and concentrate on what is good about this movie. As a baseball and movie fanatic, a bit of trepidation creeps in when the two worlds collide. However, this isn’t really a baseball movie, though the story focuses on what may be the most critical turning point in baseball history. In fact, this turning point was much bigger than the American Pasttime … it was also a key step in the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement. The movie is a reminder of how different things could have been with the wrong man rather than the right one … Jackie Robinson.

Writer/Director Brian Helgeland (s/p for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River) takes a look at what occurred in 1945-47, when Brooklyn Dodgers President and GM Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) made the business decision to integrate 42cbaseball. We see his selection process … Roy Campanella “too nice”, Satchel Paige “too old”. He settles on Jackie Robinson after their infamous 3 hour meeting where Rickey confronts Robinson with his need for a black player “with the guts NOT to fight back”.

Chadwick Boseman portrays Jackie Robinson as a man thoroughly in love with his wife Rachel (played by Nicole Beharie), and one who says he just wants to “be a ballplayer”, while at the same time taking pride in his world-changing role. We see his evolution from his stint as shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of Negro Leagues to his time with the Dodgers’ AAA minor league team in Montreal and finally to his introduction to the Major Leagues in 1947. Boseman 42eflashes the charisma and athletic ability to pull off the role … there are times he looks identical to the young Jackie.

This is an earnest and sincere movie that removes the complexities of the times and the main characters. Much of it is portrayed as good guys versus bad guys. The good guys are really good and the bad guys are really bad. Alan Tudyk has the unenviable task of portraying Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who famously unleashed an in-game verbal assault of vile racism on Robinson. Mr. Rickey credited Chapman’s public small-mindedness as the single biggest factor in unifying the Dodger team around Robinson. The other famous moment given time in the movie is when 42bbeloved shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) put his arm around Robinson, shushing the hostile Cincinnati fans. Of course as a baseball fan, I enjoyed the all too brief antics of Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) whose place in the Robinson story would have been much more profound had he not succumbed to the weakness of the flesh (so to speak).

Other supporting roles include John C McGinley, who is spot on as the Hall of Fame announcer Red Barber, Derek Phillips as an unusually quiet Bobby Bragan, Jesse Luken as Hall of Famer Eddie Stanky, Andre Holland as Wendell Smith (the Pittsburgh Courier reporter assigned to follow Robinson), Peter Mackenzie as Commissioner Happy Chandler and young Dusan Brown as a 10 year old boy who would grow up to be major leaguer Ed Charles.  Some comic relief is provided by 42dHamish Linklater as pitcher Ralph Branca (one of the first who welcomed Robinson to the clubhouse, and who would go down in baseball history as the pitcher who surrendered the 1951 “shot heard round the world” by Bobby Thomson).

Filmmaker Helgeland provides a tale of morality and social change, and provides a glimpse at the character and strength required by those involved. The story has much more to do with demonstrating how the times began to change than it does with how Jackie Robinson, an unpolished ballplayer but superior athlete, transformed himself into a perennial all-star and league MVP. And that’s as it should be. As Rickey stated, acceptance will only occur if the world is convinced Robinson is a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. That burden must have weighed heavily at times, but it’s very clear that Robinson was the right man at the right time.

**NOTE: the time frame for this story is limited to Robinson’s historic, barrier-crashing major league debut, but it should be noted that Robinson won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, the MVP in 1949, played in 6 all-star games and World Series in his 10 year career,and was a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1962.  Prior to his baseball career, he was a four sport letterman at UCLA and also served in the US Army.  Robinson died in 1972 from a heart condition and complications from diabetes. His wife is still active and still running the foundation that provides scholarships for youngsters.  Quite an amazing lady.

Here is a photo of the real Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey:

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PROMISED LAND (2012)

January 7, 2013

DISCLAIMER: This blog was set up to provide thoughts and commentary on movies through the eyes of someone who loves and appreciates the art of cinema. Most of the time, these comments focus on the positive aspects of each movie, while also mentioning any particular areas which, by opinion, seem to fall short of acceptable.  It is rare indeed when a movie is so annoying and lacking in merit that I find myself with mostly negative comments to make.   Typically I would just skip the commentary, however, I believe Promised Land deserves to be exposed for the fraud that it is.

promised Greetings again from the darkness. On paper, a story about a controversial environmental issue (fracking for natural gas) presented by a respected director (Gus Van Sant) and featuring a strong cast (Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook) would be a welcome cinematic contribution, despite an expected slant to the story-telling. Most of us enjoy, or at least accept, a well presented argument that brings light and substance to at least one side of the controversial issue. What no one appreciates is having their time wasted … which is exactly what this ridiculous movie does.

Fluff is fluff, regardless of the subject matter that acts as a backdrop. Matt Damon and John Krasinski combined to write the screenplay based on a story by Dave Eggers. The screenplay is simple-minded, uninformed promised3and amateurish. Did they do any research? It seems more likely they got together a couple of times, sipped a few imports, and threw together an outline. If they had then turned that outline over to a REAL writer, the ensuing mess of a movie could have been avoided. Instead, they somehow tricked Gus Van Sant into becoming the director. This process worked just fine 15 years ago when Ben Affleck collaborated with Damon and Van Sant for the excellent Good Will Hunting. That film shouldn’t even be tarnished by mentioning it here.

There is no shortage of articles available with actual facts on the companies and process involved with natural gas fracking. In 2010, Josh Fox even put together GasLand, a very effective documentary on the subject. So, the idea of formulating a Hollywood dramatic version makes sense. Matt Damon’s name alone ensures better exposure in one week than Mr. Fox’ film has had in two plus years. What doesn’t make sense is a version that is so lightweight and lacking in details, that a convoluted, half-assed love triangle steals the spotlight off what should be the real story.

promised2 What is the real story? A fictional $9 billion company with the generic name Global Crosspower Solutions sends their crack closing team of Steve Butler (Damon) and Sue Thomason (McDormand) into rural Pennsylvania to buy up the land leases from the area’s struggling farmers. Somehow we are supposed to believe that Steve, this hotshot rising star, makes two blunders in the first couple of days – allowing the town to vote, and getting blackout drunk in the only town bar. Then, this brilliant executive totally loses his equilibrium when a small time environmentalist (Krasinski) shows up and starts charming the locals with his horror stories of fracking.

Steve walks around telling people “I’m not a bad guy“, McDormand shakes her head at him and says “It’s just a job“, and Krasinski buddies up with everyone … including local school teacher Rosemarie DeWitt, on whom Damon has a bit of a crush. One of the more ridiculous bits is that Damon’s character supposedly grew up in a farm community just like this and saw it shrivel up when the factory closed. He is probably the only guy to ever grow up on a farm who can’t drive a stickshift and has to be chauffeured around by McDormand. As if all of that isn’t ridiculous and lame enough, here comes the most absurd movie twist of all time. Since the first 2/3 of the movie promised4lacks any sense of realism, the twist is not surprising, but rather just plain ludicrous. It’s a cheap writing device.

As for positives, it’s always a joy to watch 88 year old Hal Holbrook on screen. More attention to his character could have saved the movie …he is far and away the most intelligent and interesting character. Also, Damon’s character goes on a heartfelt rant towards some drunken rednecks. It’s his only scene that works and ends, logically, with a punch to nose. Titus Welliver, Scoot McNairy and Lucas Black all have moments of support that deserve a better movie. The same can’t be said for Damon, Krasinski and Van Sant … the blame and embarrassment falls at your feet, gentleman.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you shut your eyes and plug your ears for all except Hal Holbrook’s scenes

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer not to reward a couple of Hollywood stars for their lackadaisical efforts

watch the trailer

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHQt1NAkhIo


GET LOW (2009)

August 22, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. I am not familiar with director Aaron Schneider, who apparently has done mostly cinematography work on TV for the past 10 years. He must feel like a lottery winner getting to direct his first feature film and having a cast with Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek.

This is a very odd film centered on the story of 1930’s Tennessee backwoods recluse Felix Bush, played exceedingly well (no surprise) by Robert Duvall. We learn – slowly – that Felix has been in a self-imposed exile carrying enormous guilt over an incident from 40 years prior. The wonderful thing is that it takes us just about the entire film to discover what caused this guilt and how Felix has dealt with it.

Over that 40 years, the legend of old man Bush has grown with the town people. It is approaching Tall Tale status when he whips up on a local wise-ass on one of his rare visits to town. When Felix realizes that stories have been concocted about him over the years, he heads to local funeral home to arrange a “funeral party” where everyone can come and tell their stories … while he is still alive!  The local mortician is played by Bill Murray and I can best describe his personality as eager opportunist.

While this appears to be a slow moving story, it really isn’t. The real motivation for the party, a reconnection with the past and a cleansing confession all play parts in this fine story. Sissy Spacek plays a painful link to Felix’ past, as well as a key to this latest/last event.

Excellent performances by Duvall, Spacek,  and Bill Cobbs really make this one work. While Bill Murray and Lucas Black hold up their end by supplying a bit of humor and purity, respectively, the story really belongs to Duvall. His ability to convey emotion with a grunt or facial expression is just amazing to watch.

My only real complaint with the film is that it lasted about 2 minutes too long. The perfect ending had occurred and then we are dealt one final, seemingly forced scene. A minor quibble with a film that kept me fully engaged.