The Fate of the Furious

Release: Friday, April 14, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Chris Morgan

Directed by: F. Gary Gray

Sometimes I find myself asking how we have managed to get to the point where women and children are being threatened by cyber terrorists in a franchise built around car racing. I find myself wondering if things have gotten a little too out-of-hand. Of course, with each passing installment it has become increasingly clear this isn’t car porn anymore. Sadly, the narrative can no longer concern itself with the thawing of a once bitter rivalry between a street racer and an undercover cop either.

Out of necessity The Fast and the Furious have had to evolve, and though they have definitely become less furious they haven’t become any less fun to watch as each new chapter has placed them in some situation more ridiculously physics-defying than the last. And The Fate of the Furious is absolutely the most far-fetched demonstration of their newfound collective purpose yet. I suppose how we have arrived here isn’t that much of a mystery. They say formulaic writing can only get you so far, but it actually has netted Universal at least eight films and well over $5 billion.

The — let’s call it natural, even though that’s stretching the term — evolution of the family and Dom Toretto in particular finds us wading into legitimately dramatic territory in The Fate of the Furious. F. Gary Gray’s first time behind the wheel steers the story in an altogether more somber direction, pitting the star with a type of gasoline as a last name against his loyal compadres after being manipulated by cunning cyber terrorist Cipher, played with true menace by Charlize Theron.

For better and for worse, Chris Morgan’s screenplay remains as knowingly outrageous (and clunky) as those he has penned before. That this ragtag bunch of car enthusiasts could be the difference between World War III happening or not happening is pushing it, even for this franchise. Though Dom’s relatively unique trajectory is going to generate most of the post-viewing discussion, the specifics of the plot are as reliant as ever upon his crew’s mutually beneficial relationship with Kurt Russell‘s government agent Mr. Nobody. (And on that note, can someone please enlighten me as to why we needed Scott Eastwood’s Little Nobody? Also: how someone born of Eastwood blood can be so bad at acting.)

Fate succeeds in cementing its familial themes by way of finding redemption for characters hitherto on the periphery. In the wake of Dom’s theft of an EMP device at the behest of Cipher, Special Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) finds himself having to set aside past differences with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) as they work to take down a common enemy. After what happened to his brother, Deckard is eager to settle the score, even if that means working alongside a team who had once pooled their resources into eliminating him.

Gray’s film finds plenty of surprises along the way, like Dame Helen Mirren making a brief appearance as matriarch Magdalene Shaw, clad in leather jacket and brass knuckles (well, those are more or less implied). The character may be more plot device than person but Mirren’s quietly simmering intensity doesn’t allow her to be quite as dispensable as the script would like her to be. There’s also something vaguely amusing about seeing an actor of her stature in a film like this. (Ditto that the first time Kurt Russell appeared.)

With the integration of more Shaw’s into the narrative, you can think of Fate as one big, bullet-riddled family reunion. With nuclear submarines and Game of Thrones-sized enemies thrown in for good measure. Given the situation, you would think forgiveness would be a particularly high virtue to which these characters aspire, especially in a movie where the bonds of family are being “tested as never before.” It’s disappointing that that aspect is more convincingly framed through Hobbs’ and Deckard’s banter than it is through the evolution of Dom and Letty’s relationship.

While it’s heartwarming to see former enemies arrive at a place of mutual respect — after all, maturity is one of those tenets this multi-billion-dollar franchise has been built on — the lack of weight attached to the final, obligatorily dinner-table-set scene proves a major step backward for a film that otherwise was able to convince me that this was indeed the most serious situation our exonerated heroes have yet faced.

Recommendation: The Fate of the Furious offers more of the same. A lot more. Two-plus-hours more. In the absence of Paul Walker, it’s a testament to the comfort we have with the others that not much feels “different,” although certainly his absence is noted. Fate succeeds far more in elevating the action stakes than the emotional ones. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “. . .it’s neon orange. The International Space Station will see it coming.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Eye in the Sky

'Eye in the Sky' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Guy Hibbert

Directed by: Gavin Hood

Eye in the Sky presents an intriguing, if not familiar moral conundrum as a British Army Colonel weighs the pros and cons of pulling the trigger on a drone missile strike that could eliminate top terrorist targets sheltered in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. In the end the results aren’t entirely surprising, so why such a rewarding experience when all is said and done?

Even though it’s Helen Mirren’s intense stare that threatens to burn a hole in the official release poster, Peter Travers is so right: this is one hell of a way for the late Alan Rickman to bow out. Not that Mirren isn’t worth mentioning (she definitely is), but Rickman’s last on-screen performance is so stoic it’s uncanny. It’s almost as if he was trying to make this one count. His Lt. General Frank Benson isn’t the focal point of Gavin Hood’s seventh feature film but the images I’ve taken home with me are those of his face, twisted into a look of total disgust as he awaits critical decisions to be made at higher levels — the whole bureaucratic chess game he finds himself caught in while precious time ticks away taking an obvious toll.

It’s like he’s waging his own private battle with his female co-star to see who can emote more intensely, evoking all of the anguish perhaps a real-life general or colonel might not necessarily publicize in the interest of keeping their underlings as calm, cool and collected as possible. Still, Eye in the Sky‘s script is incredibly stressful and part of the reason the film is so brilliant is we understand precisely why our leaders become so exasperated at times.

The mission in question is to take out three terrorist suspects who rank #3, #4 and #5 on the British government’s list of most valuable assets, and Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) hasn’t been this close to capturing them in six years. They have a vantage point from 20,000 feet, a drone plane piloted by relative veteran Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and newbie Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), both stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. They also have ground control in the form of Barkhad Abdi‘s Jama Farah, who is put into a particularly precarious position remote-controlling a camera built to resemble an insect. He is to infiltrate the house and verify the identities of those inside. The footage he is able to get is chilling: the suspects appear to be donning vests rigged with explosive devices and it also appears that they will attempt to detonate the bombs in a public setting.

Making matters worse is a child who appears on the scene hoping to sell bread for her family. It’s the same child we happen to be introduced to from the outset, a sweet girl named Alia (Aisha Takow) who is being privately educated by her parents and learning to hula-hoop in her backyard, out of sight of the patrolling ISIS guardsmen who have been imposing Sharia Law upon the land. In Colonel Powell’s eyes the mission status, which has changed from ‘capture’ to ‘kill’ since the new intel provided by the bug camera, cannot be aborted simply because of one potential collateral damage concern. While a high-ranking American government official agrees via Skype, others don’t see it the same way.

What makes Eye in the Sky such gripping viewing manifests as a truly collaborative effort between writer and director. Guy Hibbert’s script is provocative, emotional and convincing, but it would mean little without Hood’s ability to attract a diverse cast of international talent and to play to each of his actor’s strengths. There’s no one perspective that dominates; an impressive mix of strong roles and comparable screen time given to each lends the film a relatively comprehensive bird’s eye view rather than attempting to encourage controversy. How are governments able to justify civilian casualties as a byproduct of eliminating terrorist suspects, or, more broadly (and hence less novel an idea): is losing one life worth the price of many? When actions are taken the judgment is left up to us; this was never going to be a win-win situation, but ultimately was the right call made?

Dame Hellen Mirren is front-and-center when it comes to asking that question: is it worth it? As the commanding, intense Colonel Powell Mirren might never have been better. She exudes strength as a woman put into a hell of a position on this day. But support comes from unexpected places, such as Paul’s emotionally conflicted pilot who at one point feels it is in his best interest to challenge his superior when it comes to reevaluating the situation once the girl sets up on this street corner. Consider Steve Watts his finest hour as a performer as he frequently shoulders the emotional burden of having a finger on the trigger. It’s his vulnerability that’s just as frequently in the cross hairs.

Then, of course, is Rickman, seated in the situation room somewhere in London, far removed from the dangers themselves but visibly perturbed by the action — or lack thereof — taken in assuring the British armed forces are legally OK to pull that trigger. On his plate are the repercussions of British-American relations, given that one of the targets is an American who radicalized years ago. That’s to go along with the aforementioned unwanted publicity following a potential killing of an innocent youth. Things become messy alarmingly quickly; the grimace he bears suggesting much about the limits of his own considerable power.

Eye in the Sky works as a taut political thriller as well as a compelling ethics debate. Again, and generally speaking, this isn’t a debate we’re having for the first time but it suits the times we live in, particularly as technology plays a larger role in the armed forces and how nations perceive the character of others as they decide to fire (or not fire, in some cases) on their targets. I may never have been taken by surprise by how things played out, but that doesn’t mean the film failed to earn my empathy. This is a smart, engaging and intense drama whose incisive commentary on the matter is provided by a cast and crew that remind us why they’re getting paid to do what they do.

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Recommendation: A strong cast and a strong(er) script make Eye in the Sky a worthwhile drama seeing unfold on the big screen. I recommend most strongly to fans of Dame Helen Mirren, or those wanting to see Alan Rickman in his final performance — either or works. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Woman in Gold

woman-in-gold-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, April 1, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Alexi Kaye Campbell

Directed by: Simon Curtis

For a film trading in the recovery of stolen artwork at the hands of the Nazis Woman in Gold should, without necessarily resorting to graphic depiction, linger in the mind much longer than it’s going to.

Simon Curtis’ suitably respectful tone and ability to extract heartfelt performances from his leads does not make for a product that approaches poor quality, but here is a film that wastes more often than passes time laboring over detail in its over-reliance on flashbacks to set the scene of a contemporary legal battle. The legalities in question revolve around Jewish refugee Maria Altmann (an endearing Helen Mirren) and a young lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), who together bring the Austrian government to court in a bitter dispute over whom some of the nation’s most famed artwork ultimately belong to.

One particular painting by Gustav Klimt, the ‘Woman in Gold’ portrait — so named by the Nazis who took it from her home — of Maria’s aunt Adele is regarded as “the ‘Mona Lisa’ of Austria” and is valued at $135 million (this is the price a New York museum buys it for when all is said and done, anyway). This is the piece with which Maria’s ultimate concerns lie. Will the last remnants of her family history remain property of the famed Belvedere Gallery in Vienna or do they belong stateside with her? A large portion of the film is indeed spent in the present (well, in 1998 Los Angeles) focusing on the practicalities of setting up her case. Reynolds is excellent in another mature performance as Maria’s put-upon legal representation. His new job at a major law firm grants him a week to pursue this most unlikely avenue but his boss (Charles Dance) advises him that he ought not to get too invested.

Which of course he absolutely does. His initial impetus for helping out the elderly (and cranky) woman is of a financial nature, which no one can really blame him for. But things change once he has spent said week in Vienna only to have unsuccessfully built a case for Maria to retrieve the art. An Austrian journalist by the name of Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl) inexplicably, though conveniently, takes an interest in the case as well, assuring them that not all hope is lost, although in order to pursue further action it’ll cost the pair a fortune in court costs. Thus far investing in the drama is almost as effortless as Mirren makes it look in portraying a woman so historically connected to, yet simultaneously repulsed by this part of the world, and Reynolds is again far removed from his days as a partying, wise-cracking slacker.

One of Woman in Gold‘s strengths is its ability to etch a portrait of human strength using minimally distracting cinematic tricks. The flashbacks are perhaps as ambitious as this film gets. Quite a few moments spent in the 30s serve to heighten the drama and contextualize our first visit to Vienna, a trip Maria initially claims she’d rather die before undertaking. We should have some background on this character, the significance of the artwork as well as the characters of Maria’s opposition. Of course, the fascists hiding in the shadows of the past we need little introduction to.

Unfortunately Curtis overestimates the technique’s effectiveness. After awhile the repetition and reinforcement of Maria’s haunted past cross over into redundant exercises in sentimentality. There are easily ten to 15 minutes that could be removed from his final cut. For a film that clocks in under the two hour mark time moves rather listlessly, save for a harrowing scene that explains just how narrowly Maria and her husband managed to escape the clutches of the Nazis. Woman in Gold is certainly not known for its action sequences, nor should it be, and perhaps it is overly critical to call out its deliberate pacing for this is a narrative that effectively absorbs — particularly hitting upon nostalgia with a marvelously crafted opening scene. Impossible to shake though, is the sense that the film sans a few of the trips down memory lane would have struck a deeper nerve.

This is a potent film all the same. It’s terrifically acted and to their credit the flashback cuts possess an ethereal quality that begets an, ironically enough, simpler era. They counter in an often colder palette the warm yellows and reds of the modern portions. Indeed, cinematography resembles that of a labor of artistic love. Maybe not as elegant as a Klimt, but it’s certainly a feast for the eyes and heart all the same.

yay-we-won

3-5Recommendation: The true story of Maria Altmann, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 94, makes for compelling cinema. This is a few shades away from being a truly memorable tale though and could have benefitted from editing and a few sharper scenes. Still, it’s getting ever more exciting watching Ryan Reynolds adapt his skill set and any fan of historical events and Helen Mirren ought not to give this a pass.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 109 mins.

Quoted: “I wasn’t going to miss all of the fun! This is like a James Bond film, and you’re Sean Connery.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com