Thursday, September 8, 2016

Fast & Furious (2009) Review

 Fast & Furious (2009)

What goes up must come down. Of course, defining the comedown in the Fast and Furious franchise is a matter of debate. The film series hit its financial low with the previous film, Tokyo Drift, since audiences apparently wouldn’t bother with a Fast film that didn’t feature either Paul Walker or Vin Diesel in the lead role. This didn’t matter on the creative front though; series newcomers Justin Lin (director) and Chris Morgan (writer) were brought in to conceive an in-name-only Fast movie that was originally slated to go direct to video and in the process they created the best one up to that point. Likely sensing a great opportunity for rejuvenation, the producers kept Lin and Morgan for the next chapter and reunited the stars of the original movie that started it all. The decisions worked out on their end, as the starkly titled Fast & Furious brought the series back into the pop culture forefront. The film itself is another matter, however, as it settles into a dour tone that saps the life and excitement out of the whole endeavor in a bid for integrity.

Things start out fine enough. The opening heist on a gas tanker announces that we’re in back familiar territory with old friends Dom, Letty, and…Han?! That’s right, the best character from the Tokyo diversion is alive and well, and his short appearance positions this film as a prequel. Anyway, the thrilling heist goes awry but Dom and Letty make it out alive after dodging the horrifying sight of bad special effects. Our reconnection with these two is short-lived as they go their separate ways and Dom learns some time later that she was murdered in connection with drug lord Arturo Braga. Dom’s search for her killer reunites him with Brian O’Connor, who has (inexplicably) joined the FBI and is also on Braga’s trail, so the two join forces in revenge for their slain friend.

The death of a character who barely clocked more than half an hour of screen time across two films doesn’t register as strongly as it does for Dom, but it’s a satisfying enough setup for him to cross paths again with Brian. Each of them also gets their own reintroduction action sequence too, with Dom’s recalling the truck-jacking days of old in Los Angeles and Brian’s set-piece signaling the next change of direction and tone for the series. Whereas Lin took the neon-infused style of the first two films and jacked it up on steroids for Tokyo Drift, the director attempts to reignite the old L.A. spark by shaking off all the shallow surface details that the series became defined by.

Harsh blues, grays, and browns now define this updated world in place of the familiar colorful hues, but Lin struggles to maintain his sense of fun in this new “realistic” take. The movie practically begs the audience to take it seriously, and these characters may hold pathos between them but even they can’t shoulder the dramatic weight placed on them here. Everything is so grim that it’s difficult to find a smile in the humorless bro posturing. The stylistic shakeup isn’t all for naught though. Brian’s first chase sets the tone off on the right foot with such breathless pacing and choreography that you half expect Jason Bourne to come barreling through the scene. And while Vin Diesel doesn’t quite recapture the adventurous twinkle in Dom’s eye amidst the po-faced grimness, Paul Walker feels more comfortable in his role than he ever did before.

The movie also has a potentially worthwhile villain in Braga thanks to actor Jon Ortiz. It’s a shame that Braga is so underutilized, and with a twist as predictable as can be, since Ortiz later proved with Silver Linings Playbook that he’s a reliable character actor who can steal scenes from bigger stars with ease. He’s not in the picture long enough to truly make an impact but in a series that often struggles with creating strong villains he’s better than most of them. Our heroes also cross paths with series newcomer Giselle (played by Gal Gadot) in their quest for revenge against Braga, but she’s given little to do as well and her chemistry with Diesel is non-existent.

The movie occasionally springs back to life when it lets Lin cut loose in his toy car sandbox, and the director cooks up a mid-film race way more exciting than almost anything that Singleton and Cohen achieved in their Fast entries. But even the new series shepherd can’t help but fall into his predecessors’ missteps that he so gracefully dodged in his Tokyo outing. Lin mostly sticks to a do-it-all-for-real method of action until collapsing into a lengthy sequence of nothing but dimly lit cars driving through Playstation-level cave walls. His inconsistent work here reveals a franchise that still, four films in, hasn’t 100% found its central identity. Fast and Furious ends up stumbling further than it ever did before with its attempts to rekindle an old fire, and it doesn’t nearly prepare us for the dizzying heights that would follow.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Visit (2015) Review

The Visit

M. Night Shyamalan has had a rough path getting to The Visit. Shyamalan had been on a very slow and steady decline since his breakout smash hit The Sixth Sense but once the thudding failure salvo of Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth arrived it looked as if the once promising writer/director’s career was fast approaching it’s expiration date. He needed a hit and he needed it fast. After multiple attempts at more high-concept features that were met with a mixture of frustration and unintentional laughter, The Visit finds its creator returning to simpler and sturdier ground for this modest concoction of family and frights.

The film still bears marks of his signature style despite working within genre confines. The found footage approach seems as though it would rob Shyamalan of his careful sense of shot composition, something that even his weakest works bear, but the director gets around this by establishing the teenaged Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) as a film geek with the technical know-how to keep the damn camera steady. Rebecca wants to see the grandparents (Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan) that she and her brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) never met before and form a documentary about their week-long visit to the family farm. Initial awkwardness aside, things start off fairly well between the estranged generations, although the siblings realize over time that something isn’t quite right with their older relatives.

While advertised as a straight horror ride of creep-outs, The Visit stands apart from the pack with its emphasis on the family dynamic that fuels its story. Shyamalan is unable to avoid all of the pitfalls that plague other found footage entries. The middle section of the film drags without much action to rely on and a sense of repetition creeps in. There’s a particularly hair-raising sequence just after the halfway mark involving multiple cameras and a kitchen knife that would have suitably raised the stakes had it occurred earlier in the plot. However, the filmmaker is able to soften the lull of this stretch thanks to his juggling of the parallel stories. The family tension at the heart of the story, which began with Rebecca and Tyler’s mother running away from home as a teenager, infuses a dramatic backbone for the film to rest itself on so that it isn’t relying on shallow jumps and temporary scares.

The cast of actors is also stronger than usual for the genre, with the confidence of DeJonge and Oxenbould’s performances standing out especially. The young duo are shorn of the affectations that bring down most child actor roles and carry their roles with natural charisma, something that is miraculous in Oxenbould’s case given that Tyler’s inclination to rap could have easily made him an annoying brat. McRobbie grounds the situations with his aloof humanity, even if something seems “off” with John, but it’s Dunagan who carries the real weight of the picture. She’s frequently at the center of the film’s most tense sequences and believably portrays a character who can be picture-perfect sweet one moment and then flip over into unhinged hysteria another time. Dunagan’s performance goes a long way in adding unpredictability to Doris’ presence; we’re never sure when she’s harmless and lucid or about to fly off her rocker.

Like with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan is less interested in providing a constant stream of shocks and more with building a sense of creeping dread and unease, which is aided by keeping the level of danger created by the grandparents’ actions hazy. There is no left field rug pull to be found here, and the director admirably keeps things simple and avoids providing a far-out explanation for the grandparents’ actions. It isn’t until the climax that tensions reach a sustained fever pitch, and there’s a delicate balance to the proceedings that doesn’t put the children in danger in cheap ways or in unbelievable scenarios. There are some minor directorial decisions along the way that betray the handheld camera approach, like jarring establishing shots of the sky and the out-of-place use of music, but these quibbles are easily ignored with the vice of suspense tightening around the characters in the home stretch.

It has been rather dispiriting to see such a raw and original talent as Shyamalan devolve into self-indulgence and general incompetence in the last decade after the immense promise of his early work. But The Visit proves that there’s always room to allow for a fallen star to pick itself back up even after it crashed into the embarrassing lands of The Happening and The Last Airbender. Shyamalan will need to find the right inspiration before he can make another hit on the level of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (and Signs too, which is much better than it’s remembered as), but The Visit proves that an idiosyncratic director such as himself can take familiar material and mold it into an effective work that fits into their wheelhouse of filmmaking.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Mad Max Fury Road (2015) Review

Mad Max Fury Road

Killing for gasoline is now passé in the Mad Max world; the only thing that really matters in this wasteland of scorched earth is survival. Basic humanity has been lost as the desert wretches scavenge off each other for food and water while the few in power rest atop their kingdoms and enjoy the spoils still left in the world. These powerful oppressors look down upon the masses as if they are ants under the magnifying glass, using their pressure points of desperation to wield control over them. But what if someone were to push back against that control? What if someone were to say enough is enough and hit these ruthless leaders in their own pressure points? What if these tyrants were revealed to be just as desperate as the wretches in their futile mission to cling onto dying societal values? This is the story of Mad Max: Fury Road.

Like its titular protagonist, the Mad Max series prefers to leave the past behind and forge new territory in an old world. For the post-apocalyptic film series, this means greater freedom to tell singularly completely tales in a malleable setting without the hassle of continuity weighing it down. For Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), the ex-cop who lost his wife, son, and other companions along the way, this means shutting off all hope for a better future in order to repress past pains and rely on base primal instincts for survival. Human connection is out of the question for Max, and his introduction as a longhaired, lizard-eating scavenger paints him as more animal than man. The muzzle that’s eventually placed on him isn’t just a metaphor for his caged emotions, it’s also to contain the beast within and reduce him to nothing more than a valued commodity.

Max is captured and brought to the Citadel of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) where he’s harvested for blood to keep Joe’s sick Warboy fanatics alive. He’s nothing more than an object to them, just like the prized wives that Joe keeps to himself in the hopes of one day having an heir. Joe, like his patriarchal Warboy society, is slowly dying but refuses to acknowledge this; his body is a festering mess of boils and scars held together by armor and a breathing mask that turns the Immortan into Darth Vader by way of Slipknot. But one leader in his army, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), has had enough of Joe’s domineering leadership and takes the wives on a journey to the mythical “Green Place.” With all the pieces laid out on the table, moving at a pace that expects the audience to keep up with the frenetic insanity on display, this allows director George Miller to hit the gas on the vehicular mayhem without sacrificing the integrity of his thematic undercurrents.

Swarms of motorcycle gangs and spiked car rovers descend upon Furiosa’s War Rig while Joe’s military catches up from behind. The relentlessness of the action foregrounds the desperation of Furiosa’s quest for salvation and redemption, and the tentative alliance she forms with Max solidifies as they push through the trials of combat and hardship along their road trip. The potency of Miller’s wasteland vision extends beyond the practical explosions and death-defying crashes performed by real stuntman. Monochrome grays and browns that are visually typical of post-apocalyptic films are replaced by the searing orange heat of the desert sand and cool nighttime blues. The old adage that “less is more” doesn’t apply here, with wild vehicles built out of the scrap heaps of makeshift weaponry and twisted metal. A rocking thrasher with his own stage and flamethrower guitar accompanies the chase with his soundtrack of war, which invisibly melds with the thundering orchestration of Junkie XL’s score.

But amidst all the sound and fury is a human core that remains beating throughout. The extended chase through the unforgiving desert is carried forward by the motivations of the characters rather than contrived plot machinations. Even the despicable Immortan Joe, single-minded as he is, is a compelling presence brought to life by the booming voice of Keays-Byrne and the desires that drive this man to iron-fisted extremes. The action may be big but the emotions behind it are as human as they come. The villain is willing to sacrifice as many men as it takes in this hunt all for the goal of his treasured possessions rather than the continued destruction of the world. But the wives themselves transcend being mere damsels waiting to be saved from Joe’s wrath, and they display strength, weakness, empathy, and cynicism at critical moments.

Tying into Max and Furiosa’s mutual reclamation of their lost humanity is the evolution of turncoat Warboy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Nux’s development provides the arc that properly expresses Joe’s toxic zealotry as he preys on the desperation of the Warboys’ lives and promises them glory eternal beyond death. But while Hardy and Hoult are strong enough actors to shade in the subtleties of their characters, it’s Theron’s Furiosa that runs away with the film. Sporting a prosthetic arm and shaved head that recalls iconic female action hero Ellen Ripley, Furiosa is a character that has seen and been through a lot in her life and those unsaid experiences shine through in the unshakable verve of Theron’s performance. In a rare scene of extended exposition, Furiosa explains to Max what brought her to this point and what she’s trying to achieve by saving the wives, and Theron plays the scene not with the dramatics of an actor trying hard to sell the emotion but with the haggard calm of someone at the end of their rope. This is her last shot to save the wives from Joe’s lecherous desire and herself from succumbing to a life of war and oppression, and it’s taking every last ounce of her energy to escape once and for all.

Everything that Miller and his co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris aim for with their story of carnage and female liberation crystallizes into the final mad dash of everyone’s trek. The obligatory third act battle is made purposeful here as the stakes rise and rise with each action beat and the film’s production team continues to push their mad imaginations to the limits. Heroic mistakes are made and the villains overwhelm the War Rig with their sheer numbers, and that’s before the team of violent pole swingers arrive to wreck more havoc. The immaculately choreographed mania of this climatic chase and the concluding scenes that follow provide a message for both the film and the action genre as a whole: don’t run away from the past and give up on a crumbling foundation. Reclaim and rebuild it anew. Forge new paths from old ruins and create something greater and more inclusive than before. Rediscover our better selves through the sins of our past and move forward from there. Live, endure, and live again on the glorious Fury Road.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) Review

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

Tokyo Drift finds itself in a precarious position in the Fast and Furious movie series. When Paul Walker declined to return, the production wiped the slate clean with an entirely new cast and crew that almost completely ignored the previous two installments. This paved the way for director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan’s partnership to bend the movies to their creative wills for four straight entries. It’s also a bridge film of sorts between the grittier action movie approach of the later Fast films and the earlier, more colorful racing-focused phase of the series. Tokyo Drift represents both the end times (almost literally, considering its low box office) and the beginning of a new era, the first indication being that Lin and Morgan crafted by far the best movie in the series yet at that point in time.

Tokyo Drift is essentially the Halloween 3 of Fast and Furious movies: shunned by fans at the time of its release for not featuring the old characters, and then later accepted as a cult favorite. It takes the same combination of oversized egos and machismo and transplants them to a new setting where they feel right at home: high school. If The Fast and the Furious was Point Break and 2 Fast 2 Furious was Miami Vice, then Tokyo Drift is the Karate Kid of the series. Southern boy protagonist Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is an outsider even in his hometown, and with a 1971 Monte Carlo as his early car of choice the movie establishes from the start that he’s a gear hound amongst a bunch of wannabe chest-pumpers.

But the movie serves as a subtle subversion of the series’ sense of bravado by having Sean mess up…a lot. Even when he beats the asshole jock in the opening he still ends up wrecking his car, and up until late in the game Sean’s ego is consistently brought down notches once he’s shipped off to Tokyo to live with his father and to quit racing. Of course he doesn’t quit, because there needs to be a movie, and he ends up losing badly to local racing celebrity “D.K.” (Drift King). Despite this, he catches the eye of racer Han Seoul-Oh (just roll with it). Han is an anomaly in this crowd; he doesn’t engage with the boasting attitude that permeates this mini-society, often standing to the side eating his snacks while everyone else talks their heads off.

Han is the true standout of Tokyo Drift, and much of this can be attributed to Sung Kang’s nonchalantly cool performance. He doesn’t need to say much because he knows that he can walk the walk while everyone else is too busy throwing horribly written insults at each other (the dialogue may debatably be the worst in the series, which is quite an accomplishment), and his Zen-master training helps Sean become a better racer. With all-due respect to the late Paul Walker, Lucas Black is a much more charismatic lead for these movies, capturing the cowboy fun and excitement of shifting into high gear and barreling through the neon-lit streets of Tokyo.

What pushes this particular Fast and Furious over the edge as one of the best in the series is the sense that Lin and Morgan are having fun with the material too. This is immediately apparent in the action sequences, each of which is different and wilder than the last and display a greater sense of rhythm than any seen in the previous movies. Lin’s set pieces crackle with reckless energy, particularly during an escape from D.K.’s goons and the final race along the winding mountainside roads. The addition of drifting into the mix is mostly just window dressing, though it allows for much more exciting scenarios than simple drag races. Lin’s more straightforward style is less reliant on gimmicky tricks to translate the adrenaline rush to his audience, letting the frenzied editing and camera do the work on their own.

The director understands how to project the thrill of racing better than his predecessors did, and it’s not hard to see why his and Morgan’s partnership on this series lasted for four movies straight. They understand that driving is in the blood of these characters; they live and breathe it. Sean’s romance with local schoolgirl Neela is best expressed not with words but when she takes him for a graceful ride along the countryside. Due to this and other factors, Tokyo Drift is arguably the only movie of the bunch that, at its heart, is truly about racing. Even the first and second movies owe themselves more to their crime genre influences than gear head classics such as Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), and when Sean finally owns up to his poor decisions to D.K.’s gangster father (martial artist Sonny Chiba), their agreement boils down to one final race to settle the rivalry.

The characters are played straight but the tone of their adventure is done with a subtle nudge and wink (Bow Wow’s annoying sidekick Twinkie literally winks at the camera when he enters an elevator full of women). The backdrop of Tokyo provides a colorful playground for the characters to roam in, and Lin relishes in the cartoonish little details of the racing world like Twinkie’s tricked-out Incredible Hulk car. The term “car porn” has often been applied to these movies and that has never been more true than here, basking in the sleek edges of international sports cars while admiring the raw power of American muscle. Tokyo Drift is about the bridging of cultures and worlds across the sea, all of which is given a nice bowtie when Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto shows up at the end to race Sean, a nice acknowledgement that the movie is not just The Fast and the Furious in name only. It would be a shame to toss the movie aside because of its hard-swerve into a new direction for the franchise, one that would set the course for the insane heights to come.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) Review

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)

Note: Check out my original 2009 review to see how much of a better writer I am now

2 Fast 2 Furious is exactly the type of sequel that one would expect to come from a movie such as The Fast and the Furious. There are more cars, more racing scenes, more beautiful women, and more dumb sequel titling. It’s the type of sequel that replicates the shiny surface details that defined the first movie without trying anything new or even understanding why that movie resonated on some level with its audience. The Fast and the Furious is not particularly good even by action movie standards, though it still merits a spot in the genre’s annals for the niche world it created and Vin Diesel’s authoritative role. Now with Diesel off working on his other iconic role, this 2 dumb 2 care sequel tries to keep cruising along a yet-to-be-defined series path even as it doubles down on the elements that didn’t work out last time.

With only Paul Walker returning to his part as Brian O’Connor, 2 Fast serves as a soft restart that allows for newcomers who can jump right in without missing a beat and also returning fans who want to see where undercover cop Brian’s story goes after letting Diesel’s Dominic Toretto ride off to freedom. He’s now fully integrated into the racing subculture on the Miami front with a whole new group of friends to call his own, including future “Fast and Furious Avengers” member Tej Parker. Knowing that Fast Five would fold back Ludacris’ character (and others) into the series got me wondering: why stop there? I say Devon Aoki’s Suki and her pink ride are long overdue for a return call, especially since she gets more to do and say than Letty did in installment one and yet I haven’t seen her get a death/revenge/resurrection storyline. (Spoiler?)

It’s a new world with a new director in John Singleton but done with the same old tricks, even the ones that failed before. The digital effects found in The Fast and the Furious’ opening drag race were excessive but Singleton, perhaps due to his lack of experience in action movies, pushes them to a higher, much more obtrusive degree. Not content to simply let the cars’ power and speed speak for themselves, the director opens the movie with a race through the Miami streets that’s filled with distractingly digital camera movements and unconvincing computer-generated vehicles. Even the sequence’s money shot, where Brian’s car flies over an opponent’s on a drawbridge, loses all impact due to its obviously faked nature. Real cars doing real stunts are viscerally exciting; fake cars doing fake stunts are just video game cut scenes.

One of the few set pieces that is mostly free of these distractions is a memorably crunchy race around the Miami highways so that drug kingpin Carter Verone can pick a couple of drivers for his operations. If the first movie was glorified Point Break redo then this one does the same for Miami Vice, complete with corrupt cops, undercover cops, loose cannon (ex)cops, and angry chief cops. It’s also written more in line with the buddy cop genre along the likes of Lethal Weapon rather than the serious crime thriller tone of the previous movie, bringing in Tyrese Gibson as Brian’s estranged old friend Roman Pearce. Brian and Roman’s reluctant alliance brings forth a history of bottled tension and also possibly the greatest repressed gay action movie romance since Maverick and Iceman played volleyball.

Their charged banter together is so laced with unintentional innuendo and Roman’s resentment of Brian’s attraction to undercover FBI agent Monica Fuentes is so strong that it’s hard not to pick up on it. But there’s no time for love when they’ve got to take down Verone for the FBI men that hired them to infiltrate the operation. The clearer goals give the movie a tighter focus and momentum than the slippery plotting of Rob Cohen’s entry, but they’re undercut by Cole Hauser’s apathetic performance as the lead villain. Hauser, who coincidentally costarred with Vin Diesel in Pitch Black, hits the same low pitch growl note for his personality-less performance in every scene, sapping away any sense of menace to the heroes. Mendes fares only slightly better given the lack of real material written for her, and yet she’s arguably more useful to the plot than any other female in the series until part six.

Walker and Gibson’s tense friendship (possibly more?) is the real backbone that keeps the movie going through its rough patches, and their chemistry together brings out a looser side to Walker’s performance that was previously missing. The free-wheeling sunny spirit of the movie itself is a virtue too as it moves along at a fast clip all the way up to its sprawling climax across the streets and swamps of Miami. But apart a Dukes of Hazzard-esque car jump 2 Fast 2 Furious is lacking in memorable values, and with a visual style that screams “USA Original Series” it loses the underworld mystique of its predecessor. Its biggest lasting merits wouldn’t come until years later when Fast Five brought Mendes (briefly), Tyrese and Ludacris back into the mix, so it is important to the franchise in a roundabout way, but as its own entity the movie lacks inspiration to stand out.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Fast and the Furious (2001) Review

The Fast and the Furious (2001)

Note: Check out my original 2009 review to see how much of a better writer I am now

The dirty little secret of the Fast and Furious series is that they were never really about the cars they so proudly displayed. Writer Gary Scott Thompson used the Vibe Magazine article “Racer X” as an inspiration for the first installment, but the series has proven itself to be a strange and ever-changing beast since entering the pop culture landscape 14 years ago. And then there’s the popular, rather true notion that the original movie is basically just Point Break with cars instead of surfboards, and we never talk about Point Break as a surfing movie. The Fast movies are an often lost and yet bizarrely coherent collection of pieces that have adapted to extenuating circumstances over time into something bigger and altogether more interesting than originally envisioned.

However, to understand the context of its zigzagging evolution we need to return to the beginning. The characters of The Fast and the Furious live apart from the rest of us with their unique world that’s powered by magically ready-made rolls of cash, a little elbow grease, and a lot of attitude. The movie presents a clear distinction between the “normal” world and the nightlife racing culture as the sun sets and the flashy neon cars light up the streets. Director Rob Cohen lovingly pans his camera across these cars with as much fetishistic glee as he does the scantily clad women that cling to the drivers like rock band groupies. Cohen and Thompson create this insular microcosm of people that all know each other and the code of respect that defines them, so when Paul Walker’s Brian O’Connor presses his way into this circle he immediately stands out like bleached-blonde sore thumb.

Walker’s severe stiffness as an actor almost works for the character; sometimes it’s hard to tell in the early scenes whether Walker is just trying to pull off a convincing line delivery or if the actor is playing this up to emphasize the undercover cop’s weariness. Walker’s lack of screen presence, intentional or not, is put into perspective every time he shares a scene with Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto. Before we even get to know Dom, Cohen and Thompson lay the bricks for his legend status in the racing community. Cohen stages his introduction in such a way that we already understand the type of person he is before Diesel opens his mouth. With his back turned to the camera and two crossed shotguns adorning the office wall, Dom is immediately established as the outlaw figure who only enters trouble when absolutely necessary.

In Diesel’s hands Dom is the ideal image of macho bravado without the toxic impulsiveness that undoes many of the other characters in this society, including those in his own crew. Even as the Fast movies found their voice late in life, their baritone lead actor never quite recaptured the same level of charisma he displayed here. The hyper-macho attitude extends to everyone else in the movie, with every guy trying to one-up each other in races and insults. So pervasive is the movie’s manly nature that one of its few prominent females, Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty, is so masculine that she takes the phrase “just one of the guys” to another level.

The only sensible way for these people to vent themselves is through the thrill of underground street racing, a life so in-tuned to their desires that they might be able to describe the accessories of their cars faster than Cohen can montage them. But Cohen has a few tools of his own; his computer-assisted journeys into the car engines have become a trademark element of the series. A character’s press of the NOS button is more than just a little boost, it’s an intricate mini roller coaster that gets to the literal heart of these speed machines and provides the movie’s audience with an adrenaline shot of their own. Cohen pushes the effects to such a degree in the first drag race that the cars feel like they’re gliding more on pixels than pavement as he relies too much on green screen effects when real driving would have worked to better effect.

This is certainly true with the botched truck robbery that comes right as everything starts falling to pieces for both the characters and the increasingly haphazard plot momentum. When looking at the larger set pieces to follow in the sequels, this sequence is rather stripped back in comparison, and to its advantage. Dom, against his better judgment, tries to save resident asshole crewmate Vince from the shotgun-wielding driver, whose faceless presence gives him an otherworldly quality, recalling the sinister and also unseen villain of Steven Spielberg’s classic Duel. The entire sequence is accomplished with nary a trace of digital trickery, allowing the tension to build naturally through a series of close-calls, daring maneuvers, and Dom’s refusal to let his friend go.

This drives at the heart of what this tight knit group of people is all about, which is the binding force of family. For all it’s races and clashes, of which there’s surprisingly little of for an action movie, The Fast and the Furious is much more concerned with its bromantic bonds and attitude than it is about getting the adrenaline pumping, which works both for and against itself. Like any outlaws, Dom and his crew live by a code; it’s just that this code is often expressed through the simple pleasures of a Corona and some barbeque with mates.  The outlandish world of street racing is made human, even as it retains its ridiculous nature with earnestly acted nonsensical dialogue such as, “I live my life a quarter mile at a time.” Try as it might, words and convincing emotion aren’t the movie’s strong suits.

This presents a problem later on when the drama feels like it should be hitting a peak and yet stalls out repeatedly in the third act. The plot continuously pivots around its multiple threads and never manages to bring them together in a cohesive fashion, leaving the disjointed climax to fizzle out before it can generate real excitement. The final drag race between Brian and Dom feels like a forced attempt to provide closure, especially when the impending threat of Brian’s LAPD superiors turns out to be a total non-starter. The perfect analogy for The Fast and the Furious is Brian’s first street race experience: he has the right tools and just enough bluster to carry himself through, but he sputters out wildly before hitting the finish line, leaving a trail of smoke and little else to show for it.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

TV Review: Better Call Saul (1×06) – “Five-O”

TV Review: Better Call Saul (1×06) – “Five-O”
Reprinted from The Young Folks as posted on March 11, 2015

How’s this for a change of pace? Last week, Better Call Saul shifted the perspective from Jimmy McGill to Mike Ehrmantraut for its closing minutes as it concisely put into focus the lonely and closed off existence that Mike has built around himself. The final beat had two officers from Philadelphia arriving to question Mike about a matter from his old home city, and although “Five-O” follows up on this, the majority of the episode details the tragic and noir-laced circumstances that led to the estrangement from his family and his eventual arrival in Albuquerque.

Aside from a brief appearance from Jimmy when Mike calls upon his services in custody, “Five-O” takes a notably serious side-turn from the lighter McGill saga. Jimmy does get some great moments in his limited screen time, from the coffee spill routine to the line, “I look like a young Paul Newman, dressed as Matlock,” though the meat of the episode rests in Mike’s relationship with his widowed daughter-in-law Stacey. The death of Mike’s son, who was also on the Philadelphia force, put a strain on them, explaining their apprehensive looks at each other last week. Their weathered existence with each other is reflected in the scene where Mike plays with his granddaughter Kaylee on the swings, where a high angle shot reveals the patchy backyard and difficult history is drudged up between them.


This difficult history is represented in the blue-tinted flashbacks that adorn “Five-O,” evoking the chilly, hard-bitten atmosphere of film noir. All of Mike’s actions that bring him to this present state are fueled by the revelations that spill out in a teary-eyed monologue to Stacey. Jonathon Banks already elevated Mike to iconic status during his tenure on Breaking Bad, but “Five-O” cracks open the hidden mysteries of his life in such a way that completely reinvents how this character is viewed. Banks too reveals greater depths in this man throughout his performance here, and the concluding monologue is a crowning moment for the storied character actor’s career.

I would be curious to know the reactions to this episode from Better Call Saul viewers who haven’t had the chance to go through Breaking Bad, and this is something that ran through my mind once I realized that the hour would be dedicating it’s time almost solely to this haggard man. Breaking Bad fans certainly gain a lot from seeing Mike’s past explored in detail, but what of the viewers who only know Mike as the amusing parking attendant? This is the ultimate problem with prequels in general and one that I hope the shows writers can sidestep in the future: prequels are written with the foreknowledge of what happens later, meaning that writers can have a tendency to place greater importance on elements that don’t hold as much weight for people who lack said foreknowledge. They’re taken along for the ride without entirely understanding the import of these events, especially when a show unexpectedly swerves to the side for an ancillary character at best.


This isn’t to say that the events lack the necessary weight, and once the episode transitions back to Philly again to Mike walking into a bar from a dark alley it’s become totally immersed in the iconography of film noir. The high contrast blue-tinged lighting and Mike’s boozy interactions at the bar fill out the generally chilly tone, one that turns especially dark once he exacts revenge on the two officers who murdered his son. Also interesting is how these events concerning Mike and his son strained his relationship with Stacey much like how Slippin’ Jimmy did the same with Chuck, adding in a thematic thread that ties Jimmy and Mike’s stories together in a way that will likely bring them closer together. To these two men, their stories are ones of repair and absolution in the face of greater disappointment, but seeing how this is only the beginning of their stories I highly doubt that their reaches for redemption in the eyes of family will last very long.