Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Good Son

It's always interesting to return to films I enjoyed as a kid and find out if they still hold up. In many cases they do, even if it is with a heavy dose of nostalgia. And then there are times when the problems with a flawed film that I was able to overlook as a young one become far more apparent with adulthood. The Good Son is one that definitely falls into the second category. Controversial when it was released mainly because of it's casting child star Macaulay Culkin as a murderous kid, today comes off a like a bit of a dud.

The film opens with young Mark (played by Elijah Wood) having recently lost his mother. His father (played by David Morse) is leaving him in the care of his Aunt Susan (played by Wendy Crewson) and Uncle Wallace (played by Daniel Hugh Kelly), while he goes away on a very important business trip (How important? Apparently after it, he and Mark will be "set for life." Wow, that is important. And also annoyingly vague. Oh well, I'm here for homicidal pre-teens not family drama so onward with the half-assed plot machinations!). Once they arrive in the picturesque Maine village where they live, Mark gets settled and meets his cousins, the clearly odd Henry (played by Culkin) and Connie (played by played by Quinn Culkin). Henry starts introducing his cousin to his dark and twisted world slowly, taking him up to his ridiculously high tree house. How high is it? If anyone fell from there, it'd be a guaranteed death*. Which begs the question why anyone would let the kid build it in the first place? Its just the first of many red flags that the parents in this movie are terrible. This is followed by a run through the graveyard and a smoke by the old well.  

Things escalate from there as Henry shows off his homemade crossbow/bolt gun contraption to Mark which leads to them first trying to scare the ultimately unfazed family cat, or so Mark thinks since Henry says in his even keel monotone that the sight isn't right yet. Second time out, Henry manages to successfully take out a vicious dog that apparently just runs freely around the village (because it just shows up in one scene out of nowhere with no explanation of where it came from or where it belongs). Still reeling from that little bit of animal homicide, Henry then introduces Mark to a dummy he constructed that he has named Mr. Highway. Mark and Henry haul Mr. Highway out to a nearby overpass and Henry tosses Mr. Highway off the side, causing a ten car pileup because people thought it was an actual person and swerved out of the way. Mark finally decides to tell his Uncle Wallace what has been going on but is stopped just before he does by Henry, who threatens Mark with blaming everything on him. For whatever reason, Henry continues to include Mark in his future plans which include offing his sister Connie much like he did his baby brother Richard a few years ago. 

It's at this point that a film that is already straining plausibility to the max falls headfirst into cliche and Idiot Plot Syndrome. For those not familiar with the term, Idiot Plot Syndrome is exactly what it sounds like; in order for the plot to progress everyone has to act like a complete idiot. In this case, it's all of the adults. Everywhere Mark turns Henry pops up and apparently Henry has them all charmed into thinking he's a good kid and that Mark is the one troubled. He even manages to fool the town's child psychologist Mark had been visiting with, which strains credibility even further because not only is she a trained professional, but the stuff Henry says sounds so unconvincing and so much like utter bullshit I can't believe anyone buys it. 

There are two big problems in this movie. One is the plotting is all wrong, with none of the adults raising any concern or noticing Henry is a twisted little brat. The kids are allowed to run freely around the village and surrounding areas, including some extremely high cliffs, which seems unlikely at best, build ridiculously high tree houses and play around old and very deep wells. The second is the larger problem and it's Culkin's performance as Henry. It's just not convincing. As a kid I thought it was fairly creepy the way he spoke in a soulless monotone but now it's almost annoying. Then around adults he puts on an act of being a sweet little goody two shoes, except every note of is unconvincing. He's just trying too hard to be a sweet innocent kid and therefore it all rings false. The fact that the parents, the psychiatrist and literally anyone else doesn't pick up on this hurts the credibility of the film. Given Elijah Wood's future acting roles, I can't help but wonder if the movie would've been better if the two kids had switched roles. Wood does well in the hero role, but as the more talented actor, he could have made Henry a more compelling and convincing character. 

It's funny to revisit this film after so many years with a more mature sensibility. What I once thought was a creepy little film now just appears as a poorly thought out and at times terribly cliche one (it even has Henry holding a flashlight below his face at one point. Honestly, was that ever scary?). The film does have a memorable and suspenseful ending but after an hour and twenty minutes of absurd melodrama, does it even matter? Even that is ruined with some really cheesy narration from Mark. In the end, not only does The Good Son not hold up well as a film, I find myself wondering what all the fuss was about in the first place.   

*This is an intentional reference to a far better film about troubled kids, Moonrise Kingdom. I wholeheartedly recommend watching it over this movie.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Longest Ride

When it comes to Nicholas Sparks adaptations, I enter into them with some trepidation although I always get suckered into them. Who knew I was such a softie? Each one is usually a sweeping love story full of grand gestures and romance with always a impending hint of tragedy. There have been some that I have enjoyed, such as The Notebook, Dear John, and The Lucky One. There have been ones I absolutely hated, such as Message in a Bottle or Nights in Rodanthe. And then there was the one I know I saw but have no memory of, The Last Song. I am happy to report that The Longest Ride falls squarely in the first category. Is it sappy, corny and shamelessly romantic? Oh hell yes it is, but if that's your cup of tea, it's at least a good one.

Sophia (played by Britt Robertson) is an Art Student in her senior year and is a couple months away from graduating and jetting off to New York to start a prestigious internship at an art gallery. She gets dragged to a local rodeo by a couple of her sorority sisters. There she catches the eye of champion bull rider Luke (played by Scott Eastwood). Of course, she's hesitant to agree to go out on a date with him, but she relents when one of her friends says everyone should have a fling with a cowboy once (I can't really argue with that logic). Luke picks her up at her Sorority house, sticking out like a sore thumb on campus, and takes her to a secluded lake front spot for a picnic dinner and bonfire. 

On their way home, Luke notices a busted guard rail on the side of the road and they stop to check it out. They find a car crashed down at the bottom of the hill and rush down to find an injured and disoriented old man, Ira (played by Alan Alda). Luke helps him out of the car and Ira asks Sophia to grab a box from the front seat, which she does. They accompany Ira to the hospital and Sophia decides to stay there and see if he is okay, but says Luke should go. As she waits, she opens the box and finds it is filled with letters that Ira wrote to his wife, Ruth. When she is allowed to see Ira, she returns the box to him. Ira admits he hadn't been able to read them for years, even with his glasses. Sophia offers to read them to him, which he agrees to. The film then begins flipping back and forth between present day and flashbacks to younger Ira (played by Jack Huston) and Ruth (played by Oona Chaplin) in the 1940s and 1950s. The parallels between Ira and Ruth's story and the one between Luke and Sophia become apparent quickly. Ruth is a cultured art lover having moved to America from Vienna and Ira is a simpler man who spends his days working in his mother's shop in small town North Carolina.  

Of course, it's a long road to happily ever after for both couples. For Ira and Ruth, World War II breaks out and Ira is off to war. He proposes to Ruth before he leaves and she accepts, stating she wants to have a big family with him. Through a cruel twist of fate, Ira is injured in the war and due to a subsequent infection is rendered sterile. After all avenues, including adoption, seem closed to them, the two fill their days trying to be happy just as the two of them, taking solace in Ruth's love for both teaching and art. Luke and Sophia have a similar hurdle to jump. Luke is concerned that Sophia would never be happy living out her days on his family's ranch and he knows he doesn't fit into her world nor can he see being happy in New York. This is made crystal clear to the audience in a scene where Luke attends an art show at Sophia's request. He tries his best to play along, but when Sophia's future boss (played by Gloria Ruben) asks him what he thinks of the show, he remarks that he thinks there's more bullshit there than where he works. Luckily for Sophia, her boss laughs at the joke, but the underlying point remains the same. What future can they have if life is pulling them in different directions?

The film does a good job of working it's way through the Nicholas Sparks checklist with his usual story tropes front and center. There's the young couple whose romance his helped along by an older individual, a romance told in flashbacks, tragedy, heartbreak, the parting of the couple and a tearful reunion. But yet everything is given a nice polish with solid direction by George Tillman, Jr. and some gorgeous cinematography as well. Both couples are brought to life remarkably well by the four leads giving engaging performances to their well defined characters. Scott Eastwood is cast perfectly as Luke, bringing the same sort of cowboy swagger to the role that his father refined throughout his career. It also helps that he and Robertson share some genuinely good chemistry with one another. The same can be said for Jack Huston and Oona Chaplin as the younger Ira and Ruth. Ruth is quite a character, so full of passion and life it's easy to see why Ira fell for her so fast. She's a great character and played wonderfully by Chaplin. In fact, I enjoyed their half of the movie more than the modern day portions of the film. Anytime the film switched to Ira and Ruth, I found myself perking up a bit more. It's not to say I found Luke and Sophia's story boring, but I have to admit I did find Ira and Ruth's story a bit more engaging, perhaps because Ira and Ruth had more to overcome than Luke and Sophia. Still, in the case of both couples it's refreshing to see that the only thing keeping both couples apart is each other's genuine desire for the other person to be happy even if it's not with them rather than any sort of ham-fisted plot machinations or scheming villains. I think that it was that touch that helped the story resonate with me a little more than I expected.

Overall, yes The Longest Ride is a sappy romantic movie, one that others would dub a "chick flick," although I hate that phrase. But it's one that is told well, with good performances to support it.  Of course, this is going to be a divisive movie with people either loving it or hating it. If you're a sucker for this type of movie, like me, you're probably going to enjoy it. If after reading this review you thought to yourself, "I'd rather have my right eye ripped out with a hot poker than watch this tripe," well, then you have your answer too. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Furious Seven

And now, finally we come to the latest installment of the veritable action franchise with Furious Seven. Before I dig in to this latest action extravaganza I must say something. Back when Paul Walker died in November 2013, I found myself wondering if I'd ever want to watch one of these movies again. A lot of it had to do with how he died, as a passenger in a single car accident. I really felt like I had lost my desire to see them again. But as time heals and marched ever on, I got caught up in the hoopla surrounding the new movie and felt an overwhelming desire to revisit all of them. And now faithful reader, I will say that here at the finish line, the film ended just as it should have with a Brian O'Connor walking off into the sunset to be with the family he has built with Mia as the film finishes with a loving tribute to Paul Walker. It was touching and moving and I shed a few tears. 

Now that we have that elephant out of the room, we can focus on the actual plot and this movie has plenty of it. The film opens with villain du jour Deckard Shaw (played by Jason Statham), who we saw in the teaser at the end of Fast and Furious 6, standing in a hospital room pledging vengence to his comatose brother, Owen (played by Luke Evans), to the people who put him there. The camera then pans out and we see that Deckard has laid waste to much of the hospital. From there, Deckard begins tracking down the people who took out Owen and his crew, starting with Luke Hobbs (played by Dwayne Johnson). The two square off in one of two hand to hand fights that are impressive, intense and very smashy smashy (the other is Deckard vs. Dom, of course).  

Meanwhile, Dom (played by Vin Diesel) and the rest of his family learns of Han's death and realize they are being hunted. From here, we are introduced to a new character, a CIA spook going by the moniker Mr. Nobody (played by Kurt Russell). He says he's an old friend of the now hospitalized Hobbs and wants to make Dom and his crew an offer. There is a terrorist by the name Jakande (played by Djimon Hounsou) who has kidnapped a hacker known only as Ramsey (played by Nathalie Emmanuel) and wants to gain control of her program, called God's Eye. It's an impressive piece of software that can simultaneously search any camera, any microphone anywhere in the world to locate someone. Nobody makes an enticing offer, stating that if Dom and his crew can intercept Jakande and his crew, rescue Ramsey and retreive the God's Eye, he will in turn allow them to use the software and give them the resources to search for Deckard and go on the offensive to take him out once and for all. Dom accepts the deal and the team, including Roman (played by Tyrese Gibson), Letty (played by Michelle Rodriguez), and Tej (played by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), come together to retrieve the God's Eye and take out Deckard.

Furious Seven once again ups the action quotient with a couple really wild sequences. The first has the gang parachuting in to a secluded mountain road, cars and all, to get a drop on Jakande's transport for Ramsey. It's such a wonderfully preposterous scene that is executed beautifully with moments I didn't quite expect, like Roman's parachute not disengaging right away, so for the first part you just see his car floating around on it's parachute in the background. The sequence ends with Brian trapped in the transport bus as it's about to go off the cliff. Even though it's been in the trailers, it's still a hair raising sequence as he climbs out and runs along the top, making it to the cliff edge just before it goes over the edge. The second big action sequence has Dom piloting an out of control sports car from a high rise penthouse to the neighboring tower, through that and then through a third tower while Brian desperately tries to retrieve the God's Eye chip from the car's on board computer. Both sequences are well executed and quite thrilling. They don't quite beat the Vault chase for me (which I guess has become the action sequence of this series on which all others will be judged now), but they came close.

James Wan takes over directing duties for this entry from series mainstay Justin Lin and by and large it has been a smooth transition. Chris Morgan once again scripts this entry in the series, crafting another great globe trotting adventure as well as giving us the series first really memorable villain, brought to life with serious menace by Jason Statham. Of course, the question on everyone's mind is how did the film handle finishing Paul Walker's unfilmed scenes. To be honest, aside from the final scenes it is really hard to tell what Paul Walker did or did not shoot. There are a couple sequences where I suspect a double was used, but for the most part it was impressively seamless. 

Overall, Furious Seven, is a very entertaining and fun entry in the series and while I will admit Fast Five is still my favorite of the series, this one is a very close second. 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Fast & Furious 6

Fast and Furious 6 had the unenviable task of following up the enormously successful Fast Five, the entry that not only revitalized the series but also brought it some of the best reviews they had ever had. While it isn't quite as successful as Fast Five, it's still a lot of fun.

Brian (played by Paul Walker) and Dom (played by Vin Diesel) are once again called into action Special Agent Luke Hobbs (played by Dwayne Johnson) to help him catch a dangerous mercenary Owen Shaw (played by Luke Evans) and his gang. What entices Dom and Brian to join is the revelation that a member of the gang is Dom's thought to be dead girlfriend Letty (played by Michelle Rodriguez). Soon after, they set about reuniting their team for another adventure, bringing in Han (played by Sung Kang), Giselle (played by Gal Gadot), Roman (played by Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (played by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges). To get them on board with the new mission, they ask in reward the whole crew gets full pardons for their past misdeeds, to which Hobbs begrudgingly agrees. 

Settling in London, the group takes on the task of tracking down the elusive Shaw and try to apprehend him and his gang while rescuing an amnesiac Letty. I really liked how this one mixed up the characters into interesting pairs, partnering motormouth Roman with quiet Han or Tej with Hobbs and letting the different personalities play off one another making for some very entertaining and amusing moments.  

The film also ups the action sequences even higher than the last film (no easy task), with a car chase involving a tank versus several cars, numerous explosions and some spectacular (as well as spectacularly implausible) stunts, namely Dom launching himself out of his car to catch a falling Letty in midair and then the both of them smash into another car only to walk away from it. The climax of the film has all the members of the main crew coming together in trying to keep a massive cargo plane with Shaw and his crew on it from taking off from what has to be the world's longest runway. 

Fast and Furious 6 is where the series fully and completely becomes unabashedly and shamelessly ridiculous. At this point, the series has more retroactive continuity than Marvel Comics (well, maybe not, but it's getting there) with resurrecting Letty and then in the post credit's scene reworking Han's fatal car crash from Tokyo Drift. That's right, the timeline has finally sorted itself out with this series, even though I was more than a little sad to see Han go again (he's my favorite character in the series, okay?). But it also owns that ridiculousness and makes it part of the film. It never takes itself too seriously and because of that, you still remain with it somehow. You know what you're watching it silly and beyond implausible, but since the movie knows it too it somehow works. That's the charm of these movies, at least for me.   

While this one was no Fast Five, it was still a solid follow-up with the addition of, perhaps for the first time in this series, a genuine and threatening villain Fast and Furious 6 is a worthwhile and entertaining follow up in a series that just keeps getting bigger and more audacious as it goes along.  

Friday, April 3, 2015

Fast Five

Now, with the fifth entry, we finally come to my favorite film in the series. Filled with wild stunts, humor, and a general over the top gleefulness, Fast Five does a fantastic job re-inventing and re-invigorating the franchise. 

We pick up where the fourth film left off with Brian O'Connor (played by Paul Walker) once again flushing his law enforcement career down the proverbial crapper as he and Mia (played by Jordana Brewster) break Dom out of prison by forcing Dom's prison bus to crash. We then cut to news footage of the accident (reported by Perd Hapley from Parks and Rec no less) stating all three are now fugitives.

Landing in Rio and in need of some quick cash, the three take a job retrieving three cars seized by the DEA for Rio Crime Boss Hernan Reyes (played by Joaquin de Almeida). When the plan goes south and the DEA agents on board the train are shot down by Reyes' men, not only are Brian, Dom and Mia on the run from Reyes' men, but also attracted the attention of Special Agent Luke Hobbs (played by Dwayne Johnson) since the deaths of the agents were pinned on Brian and Dom.

Brian and Dom figure out there was something in the car they retrieved that Reyes needs and discover hidden on the GPS display is a schedule of cash deliveries to Reyes. Wanting to get even, the two decide they're going to steal it and put together a team of familiar faces to help them do it. Among the team members are Han (played by Sung Kang), Roman (played by Tyrese Gibson), Tej (played by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and Gisele (played by Gal Gadot). From here on the film switches to a full fledged heist film and it's all the better for it.

With an mixture of action and humor, Fast Five is easily the most consistently entertaining and most satisfying entry in the series yet. With a cast of colorful characters mixing with an exotic locale and some of the craziest action sequences I have ever seen make this one to remember. If nothing else, the chase between Dom and Brian towing a ten ton bank vault with two super charged Dodge Chargers and the Police through Rio (while destroying a good chunk of it with the aforementioned vault) ranks high on my top ten list of best action sequences, ever. It's absolutely ridiculous and at the same time, ridiculously fun. I was laughing with delight over every single second of it.

With a fantastic and witty script by Chris Morgan, sure handed direction by series mainstay Justin Lin and the great addition of Dwayne Johnson to the mix, this one remains my favorite of the series. We'll have to see if it stays that way after I see Furious 7

Fast & Furious

For the fourth outing, Fast & Furious, they have brought back much of the cast of the original film and ditched the word 'the'. Other than that, it's pretty much business as usual. That's not to say it's not suitably entertaining, because it has plenty of action and excitement to satisfy the fans, but at the same time it's a point where the series was ripe for a little reinvention. It's also the point in the series where plausibility takes a permanent back seat and the timeline of events starts to get a little muddled.

The film opens with Dom (played by Vin Diesel) and his girlfriend Letty (played by Michelle Rodriguez), along with Han (played by Sung Kang, who I remember being thrilled seeing in this one, considering his character didn't survive to the end of Tokyo Drift), and assorted others back up to their Semi-Truck thieving ways. This time, the prize is tanker truck train (one truck pulling a string of several tanker trailers) loaded with gasoline. Initially, the plan actually works but soon the truck driver gets wise and the heist goes south with the truck crashing and exploding. That night, Dom gets word that the cops are on to him and not wanting to take Letty down with him, leaves her with a couple stacks of cash and splits in the middle of the night. 

We then jump ahead some time later as we catch up with Brian O'Connor (played by Paul Walker), who is now a FBI agent on the trail of a notorious drug kingpin named Arturo Braga (played by John Ortiz). Meanwhile, Dom gets a call from Mia (played by Jordana Brewster) informing him that Letty has been murdered after getting in a serious car accident. Heartbroken, Dom returns to the United States to seek justice for Letty's murder. This puts him on a collision course with his old friend Brian, made all the worse when he finds out Letty was an informant for him by infiltrating Braga's gang. After settling their differences, Brian and Dom team up to take down Braga and take out Letty's killer.

This entry in the franchise was the first entry that showed the series was trying to evolve away from being a series about illegal street racing, and instead working much more as a revenge thriller. The aspect of them infiltrating a drug running operation is very similar to 2 Fast 2 Furious and in that respect the series is still showing it's wear. The plot aspect of Dom avenging Letty's murder adds a certain dramatic weight that helps us to overlook the recycled plot. 

There are a few things that still stick out as ludicrous, even for this franchise. Chief among them is Brian once again working in Law Enforcement. After letting Dom go free at the end of the first film, I'm pretty confident he would never work in the field again as well as all the stunts he pulled in the second film. But then again, this franchise has been built on such absurdity. It's still a plot point that requires more suspension of disbelief than I think even I am capable of. Also the idea of muscle head Dom acting as a forensic detective when he investigates Letty's crime scene also pushes the strains of credibility.

Still, the film is entertaining with solid direction from returning director Justin Lin and the film does a good job of reuniting the the original characters and pairing them with some solid action sequences (even if Lin relies on some seriously sub-par CGI at times). It's not the best of the bunch by far with both the fifth and sixth films being more solid entries, but it's not the worst either. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

The third entry in the Fast and the Furious series is a bit of an odd duck as it has neither Paul Walker or Vin Diesel returning in starring roles (Vin does make a small cameo at the end), but the cast change as well as moving the action overseas gives the series a refreshing shot in the arm, with Justin Lin stepping in as director for the first time in the series.

This time around the film focuses on troubled high school student Sean Boswell (played by Lucas Black), who after getting arrested for taking part in street racing against the school alpha male jock Clay (played by Zachary Ty Bryan) that results in two cars being totaled and some hefty property destruction. In an effort to keep him out of prison, Sean is shipped off to Tokyo to stay with his Dad (played by Brian Goodman).

Despite his father's stern rule that Sean is to not even get near another car, he finds his way to the Tokyo street racing scene in record time courtesy of classmate Twinkie (played by Bow Wow). He finds himself on the wrong side of a wannabe gangster D.K (played by Brian Tee), whose uncle Kamata (played by Sonny Chiba) is a member of the Yakuza. D.K has a problem with Sean because he was flirting with D.K's girlfriend, Neela (played by Nathalie Kelley). D.K challenges Sean to a race and an associate of D.K's, Han (played by Sung Kang) loans Sean his car. D.K easily beats Sean due to his inexperience with the art of drifting, causing him to wreck Han's car in the process. Sean finds himself now indebted to Han and performs errands for him while the two become fast friends. In return, Han teaches Sean how to drift race so he can rematch D.K. Meanwhile, D.K finds out from his uncle that their business is not meeting expectations, leading D.K to realize that Han is stealing from him. 

This third outing in the series isn't a perfect film, but I do have a certain amount of admiration for it. By introducing new characters and a new location, it pumps plenty of fresh air into a franchise that was already dying by it's first sequel. The character of Sean is a fairly bland tough guy role by all indications, but Lucas Black does the best he can with it. The character that stands out for me is Han, who has a quiet, introspective presence that is the direct opposite of the role Vin Diesel played in the first film, but fills a similar capacity in this outing. He's a fascinating character and it's no wonder they brought him back for Parts 4, 5, and 6. 

Director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan inject the film with a certain tongue in cheek sensibility. They know this film is a naff bit of nonsense and set it up from the very beginning as they establish in the opening shot both Sean and the school's mascot being stopped at the high school metal detectors in a surreal, funny moment that starts the film off on the right note. If you weren't convinced by that, you were for sure when you first see Twinkie's absurd Incredible Hulk themed ride. From then on, the film is content to be a super-charged, revved up piece of gear head entertainment and succeeds on that simple level. 

The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift is probably still one of the lesser entries in the series, but it is also one of the more interesting. It may be light on plot and have a lack of a commanding or interesting villain, but the central friendship between Sean and Han, as well as the Tokyo locale used to it's fullest extent help breathe some much needed life into the series. While it has it's faults, I have to admit I still dug it quite a bit.