Saturday, April 29, 2017

Furious 7


After finally making the franchise actually "good" with the fifth movie, the Fast and Furious franchise had held onto that streak with its next movie... by the very skin of its teeth. The unfortunate thing is, they seem to keep wanting to outdo themselves in ridiculousness. Which, by the end of the sixth one, had me worried about what was next. And yes... somehow, Furious 7 manages to be even more stupid and ridiculous than the last one, at a higher rate. The difference? There's not enough good stuff to balance it fully out. 

This seventh film concerns what happens when Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham)--the brother of Owen Shaw, the last movie's villain--comes looking for revenge against Dom Toretto and his team for crippling his brother. That actually sounds like a pretty awesome premise--Vin Diesel, The Rock and company versus Jason Statham--but oddly enough, it gets put aside way too much for another subplot involving this surveillance hacking program that this mercenary named Jakande (Djimon Hounsou) wants, and can supposedly help the team get Deckard... which feels a little pointless at times, particularly when Deckard literally follows the team everywhere they go, even when it makes no sense whatsoever. Even that subplot getting unexpectedly thrown in wouldn't be quite as bad if there weren't so many other nonsensical things in the story that I can't mention due to spoilers. 

So yes, the story department takes a hit in Furious 7, after at least sort of trying the last few movies. Of course, part of the pull of the Fast & Furious franchise is all the ridiculous stunts--some of which work better than others. The car skydiving sequence and the chase that follows is awesome. The "car flying one from skyscraper to another" thing is unrealistic... but still kind of cool. 

But then you have the climactic act, in which there are so many utterly insane instances of defying death that it would be take me forever to list them all... but I'll stick with this one, which is arguably the most egregious in the entire series, in which a character drives a car at full speed off a ramp of debris in a parking garage (near the top of said garage, mind you), scrapes an enemy helicopter with said car, and then of course falls all the way down to what should be a fiery demise... and the character somehow lives. 

And as if stuff like *that* wasn't enough, let's address James Wan, who took over at director for Justin Lin for this film. He should probably stick to horror movies. His directorial style is much more irritating, with lots of weird camera movements. And somehow, the script is a lot weaker than in the last two movies, despite no change in writer. And let's not forget how Dwayne Johnson, one of the best things about this franchise, is sidelined for almost the entire thing due to injuries (in real life, it was scheduling conflicts). 

With all of these negatives about the film, one probably had to be worried about how they'd handle the death of Paul Walker; yet they manage to come up with a surprisingly well-done and emotional farewell for him. It's only even more powerful when you think about the fact that Dom's final lines to Brian aren't Dom speaking to Brian; they're Vin Diesel speaking to Paul Walker (the two were actually like brothers in real life). With that in mind, that makes it much more meaningful, regardless of your opinion on Paul Walker and his acting. 

Beyond that nice moment, the few positives include the car skydiving sequence mentioned earlier, The Rock vs. Jason Statham, and the overall chemistry between the various actors (even if the script is weaker this time around). It is still a fairly exciting movie overall, even if there are some things that just make you scratch your head. You won't be bored, regardless. 

Unfortunately, despite a few good things, Furious 7 still represents the franchise going back to being not so good. The last two movies were entertaining, and this one still kind of is to a degree, but it's also much harder to swallow. If they only intend to make it crazier from here, that might be a problem. But even then I might be able to put up with a lot if the story were just more comprehensible and not filled with contradictions and holes. Unfortunately, the days of the Fast and Furious franchise being "good" may have been short-lived. 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Fast & Furious 6


The Fast and the Furious series had finally sort of hit its stride with its fifth installment, thanks in part to the addition of The Rock as well as the addition of more humor and basically ditching the whole "street-racing" theme. So now we're at Part 6, and if the last movie was a heist-themed one with fast cars included, this is just straight up action/adventure... with fast cars still included. 

After the events of Fast Five, the protagonists have finally settled down and avoided their lives of crime. But this movie exists, so of course they're going to get dragged into something. In this case, it's actually a good cause: Hobbs shows up and wants Dominic Toretto and his crew to help him catch an international criminal named Owen Shaw. Of course these guys who are retired from all the action wouldn't bother, right? Unless, of course, Hobbs shows them a picture of Letty working with Shaw. Supposedly *dead* Letty. And thus another crazy adventure begins involving lots of insane stunts. 

This movie is quite conflicting, actually. On one hand, it's even more fast-paced than its predecessor, and has some pretty exciting action sequences (an early car chase and the tank scene come to mind, despite the latter's ridiculous end). There is *lots* of hand-to-hand combat in this movie, and it's all genuinely great. There isn't quite as much humor in this one, but there's still some (a scene where The Rock gets info out of an official by literally crushing his hand during a handshake comes to mind). The production quality has gotten much better, with some great set pieces and brilliant cinematography. Also, kudos to the stunt work in this film should be given. And the acting's fairly good most of the way also. In addition to the actors seen in previous films, Luke Evans is surprisingly decent as Owen Shaw. 

But for all of that good stuff, there's also a lot of pretty stupid stuff. Let's start with how Letty's even alive. Without giving too much anyway, they literally alter her original death scene from the fourth movie in order for her to live in one of the most infuriating "character-thought-dead-actually-survived" scenes I've ever seen. And of course Letty eventually rejoins the team (so that's not really a spoiler)... but she does it way too easily. And falls in love with Dom again even more all too easily. There's also some other things elsewhere in the movie that make very little sense story-wise. This movie just so happens to contain the stupidest "this character was evil all along" reveal I've ever seen. It makes zero sense due to the fact this character and another fight at one point like they're trying to kill each other... when apparently they were on the same side all along? I'm convinced it was a decision made late in production or something. 

Aside from the story elements that make little sense, of course there's plenty of action moments that make no sense either. It seems that they try to outdo their own ridiculousness each film now, and while I'm not certain that anything here actually tops the ridiculous finale of Fast Five, this one does include a scene where a falling Mustang somehow causes a tank to flip, and a scene with a runaway that has to span at least 10 miles without one single turn... so this film comes close at times, is what I'm saying. 

In some ways, this installment is actually more thrilling than its predecessor. But it's also a lot more infuriating at times. For a movie that often clearly wants you take it seriously, it also tells you "screw you" quite a bit. It's an enjoyable film that many people will probably come away mostly enjoying due to its constant thrills. More serious watchers, however, may find themselves more conflicted. It's a movie I actually wish I could recommend a bit more, and yet I'm already probably giving it a bit more credit than it deserves. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Fast Five


So, this movie should totally have been the last gasp for a franchise that, up to this particular point, had never even gotten off the ground enough to die in the first place, right? Because the first four movies weren't good at all. And considering that that they were bringing back the same director that had given us the last two installments, this one shouldn't have been any different, right? Right? Yeah. About that... 

This fifth installment picks up literally right from where the last one left off, with Dominic Toretto being transported in a prison bus, and Brian, Mia and a couple others coming to save him. They do that... then they go hiding in Rio. After an auto theft incident (on a train!) gone wrong, their names shoot up on the Wanted list--enough to the point that DSS agent The Rock (aka Dwayne Johnson, aka Luke Hobbs in this movie) comes to Rio just to bring them in. Wanting to disappear permanently, Dom and crew do one last job: stealing all the money from a corrupt businessman who is at least partially responsible for them being extra wanted in the first place. 

Yup, this fifth movie in the franchise decides to shift gears... from racing to a heist film. Which is certainly a welcome change. In doing so, they bring in several characters from previous movies: Han from Tokyo Drift, Gisele from the fourth movie, Vince from the first movie (yes, seriously) and Roman and Tej from 2 Fast 2 Furious (which I didn't even watch, so this was my first introduction to them). Oh yeah, and these two guys Leo and Santos from the last movie that just kinda hang around and do random stuff are there too. 

This movie is an improvement over its predecessors in many ways, but realistic physics and stunts are not one of them (if anything, they're taken up a notch). In the very beginning, one car is able to somehow flip over the prison bus Dom is on (and all the prisoners live, even after the bus flips about ten times). Almost everything else is at least sort of tolerable... until we get to the climactic action sequence, which oddly ditches the heist theme for a drunken video game action sequence in which after all their planning they literally just drive through the wall of the place they're breaking into, tie a giant several-ton safe with money in it to two cars using tow cables, and then drag it all the way through Rio while utterly destroying all the cops in the process (they're basically all corrupt, so don't worry about it too much) and not having the cables snap or just get flipped over by the sheer weight of the safe they're attempting to drag. It's kind of fun... but it's also really stupid. 

But the film is a vast improvement over all the others in most of the other facets. Save for one very brief drag race, the street racing theme is dropped completely; which is honestly a bit of a welcome change. The "planning the heist" stuff is actually fairly cool. And there's actually quite a bit of levity and humor--something that was missing from previous installments. The actors all seem to have great chemistry with one another--particularly Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris (who provide most of the humor), the latter of whom is better than you'd expect. Dwayne Johnson is a super-welcome addition too, arguably now being the best actor in this entire series. In this movie, he's often spitting out ridiculous hammy lines you can't help but chuckle at. And few can pretend they weren't excited to see Vin Diesel and The Rock fight each other. 

What ultimately makes this installment so much more bearable? It's genuinely *fun.* Yes, it's a little ridiculous, over-the-top and even a little stupid at times, but it's still quite fun. And that's really what the other movies were truly missing. The first was sort of fun in a throwback-to-the-90's way, but the others weren't that at all. The fourth was at least interesting, so it was watchable, but there was very little levity in it. 

At this point, the franchise starts going the route of just being fun ridiculous movies that aren't meant to be taken too seriously. I am ultimately mostly fine with that. It probably means the films won't ever get ratings higher than this one did, but come on, who could ever really expect a franchise like this to have actual classics? For what it is--a fun popcorn action movie--it really works. It's a formula that really shouldn't have worked, but it somehow did. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Fast & Furious


This is the fourth movie of the franchise, and it comes eight years after the first one. But somehow, only now did the people involved realize that the last two movies had suffered from not featuring Vin Diesel (save for a late cameo in the Tokyo Drift) or any of the original characters, save for Paul Walker's character in the second one.

Yes, it only took eight years, but a more proper sequel to the original Fast and the Furious movie finally happened. Vin Diesel and Paul Walker's characters are both finally reunited, and the female co-stars Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez are back too (well, in the latter's case, briefly). And also, the movie brings back part of what was more fun about the first movie; the vehicular action sequences, rather than the actual street racing (Tokyo Drift focused *way* too much on the latter).

This particular plot revolves around Brian O'Conner's and Dominic Toretto's paths crossing as they're both after the same man--Braga, the head of a massive drug cartel. O'Connor is an FBI agent now (how?) and is trying to bring down the cartel, and Toretto is out for vengeance after one of Braga's men murdered someone close to him. That sounds like a pretty simple plot, and it really should be, but it somehow gets convoluted at times. And Braga's an incredibly forgettable antagonist (though to be fair, none of the villains in this series so far have been memorable). 

That said, it's quite a bit more exciting than its predecessors and at least has a *somewhat* more compelling storyline; even though if you've seen Fast & Furious 6 or know what happens in it, it's kind of moot. There's some pretty exciting action sequences; while some of the stunts and what not are pretty doggone improbable (such as driving a car through a gate, off a ledge and onto a busy highway and not crashing), they're not such that they take away too much from what's going on. 

Perhaps what's most impressive is that they actually managed to make the one actual street race in this movie exciting... by making it happen during busy city traffic instead of just being a one-on-one drag race or something like that (yawn). In doing so, they manage to create the film's best scene in an unexpected place. Beyond that, the opening sequence is pretty fun too, as is the climactic one. 

Obviously, there are still issues; as mentioned before, they somehow managed to make the plot a bit more convoluted; and there are lots of little things scattered here and there that just make no sense. (Seriously, how is Brian an FBI agent now?) And beyond the main actors and the return of Han (for about ten minutes), and Gal Gadot, there is no other star power here whatsoever and it's part of why the villains are ridiculously forgettable. 

But really, the biggest issue is, though they're trying hard to make the story more meaningful here, there's just hardly anything of note beyond the action scenes. There's very little levity or humor (although you might be laughing at the ludicrousness of certain stunts). The tone shift does help here, but there's just not a whole lot here to cheer about beyond the fun action scenes. It's oddly mostly empty of memorable content beyond that. If you're going through this series, it's important enough story-wise to the series that it needs to be watched, but don't expect much beyond a bunch of crazy vehicular action sequences and Vin Diesel's admittedly undeniable charisma. 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


We thought we were all done with the Harry Potter series and Wizarding World, right? The final book came out almost ten years ago, and the final movie came out a little over five years ago. But now we're back again, with a new series of films centering around the HP universe. Because J.K. Rowling decided she couldn't leave well enough alone. She *wrote* this film, in fact; and she is writing the ones to come. 

This is set back in the 1920's in America; thus, you won't see any of the usual beloved characters here. In fact, aside from this taking place during the Grindelwald era (thus, he's a part of this film, albeit briefly) and a brief mention of Dumbledore, the only character whose name you *might* recognize is Newt Scamander, our main character--a researcher who is writing a book about magical creatures (hence the name of the film). These creatures whom he keeps in his suitcase. All of them. His suitcase being practically a magic portal to another world or something. 

And due to an accidental suitcase mix-up with a Muggle (or a "No-Maj," as they're called in America for some reason) named Jacob Kowalski, some of these creatures end up escaping. Which causes chaos, of course. And there's already enough chaos in New York as it is, what with there being an evil dark CGI cloud ripping through the area, destroying stuff and killing people as it sees fit. As stupid as *that* sounds, there's actually a rather clever explanation for it--but in typical prequel fashion, it's something that we probably should have heard of in the original series, but we didn't, of course. 

This movie is a pretty mixed bag, even if it just manages to come out on the enjoyable side. There are some things in this movie that almost contradict things from previous books/movies. Namely, the character that has Legilimens abilities (mind-reading) which seem *way* more overpowered than I remember Legilimens being. And then there's the "beasts" themselves. Pretty much all of these creatures are neither seen nor mentioned in the main HP series. Granted, it's quite plausible that what we've seen/read before hadn't quite scratched the surface of the various magical creatures out there, but I feel like we would've heard of a giant hippopotamus-esque creature before. And the beasts in general just range from fitting in well in the magical world to looking more like Star Wars aliens or something. 

Oh, and director David Yates, who has mostly done a pretty darn good job with the HP series before, showcases his greatest flaw again by showing off *way* too much wandless and wordless magic. There's a part where a villain literally makes something fly with just his hand--as if he's using the Force or something instead of magic. 

Regarding the good, the plot is actually fairly clever once it comes to full fruition. And there is a shocking twist near the ending which is quite nice. Our new main characters--which include Newt, Kowalksi, and Tina and Queenie Goldstein--aren't as endearing as our previous characters from the original series, but they're surprisingly not half-bad either (even if Eddie Redmayne's mumble speech gets a little annoying at times). And it is pretty interesting to see the Wizarding culture in America, which often shows its differences. Though most of the actors and actresses here are relatively less prolific than the ones in the original film series, they're pretty decent too (including Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, and Colin Farrell). 

On one hand, I kind of wish Rowling had left the HP universe as was with the end of Deathly Hallows. On the other hand, it is an interesting experience, returning to this universe and seeing a new part of it. With five of these movies coming *and* a possible trilogy or something coming out of Cursed Child, it looks like we're still in this for the long haul. This isn't a bad first installment, but there's loads of room for improvement. I don't know if my patience will last for all five movies, but I certainly am looking forward to more Johnny Depp as Grindelwald, if not much else.