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Film Fri Apr 29 2011

Fast Five, Stake Land, Queen of the Sun, Henry's Crime & American: The Bill Hicks Story

Fast Five

The franchise that was born with The Fast and the Furious was never one that I've waited with baited breath for new installments of since it began 10 years ago. But I will admit that, although I know nothing about cars, this variety of car porn has always made my heart race, especially when those muscle cars are standing still and feature sexy ladies draped over them (and all five of the films in this series have managed to include such scenes as reliably as they have included car chases/races). These movies were never about character, story, strong performances, or even humor (yes, even the dumb jokes are underwritten). All of that being said, there is something about these big, dopey, clunky, loud films that is seriously appealing, and Fast Five, a film that finally gets the formula more or less down, is the best of the bunch.

The way you break down this or any of the FFF (Fast/Furious Films) is simple: there's either something going on or there is not. And usually when there is not, the movie slams on the brakes. Banter is attempted and almost always fails to be witty. So, really all there is for us to do is listen to the exposition and/or stare at either biceps or boobs, both struggling to break free of their unnaturally tight clothes. With Fast Five, there's one more thing to do: enjoy the parade of characters returning from one or more of the previous four films. The core characters--Vin Diesel as master thief and driver Dominic Toretto, his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), and the former police officer Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker)--are all back again. The film opens with O'Conner and Mia leading a small team to help Dominic escape from a prison transport vehicle. It's a pretty splashy action sequence, and director Justin Lin (who has helmed this series since the third installment, Tokyo Drift) wisely ramps up each new chase with just a little more speed, destruction, noise, and general excitement.

The other smart thing that Lin and his team have done is begin a transition away from this franchise being strictly about fast cars. A great deal of time (too much, in my estimation, as the film hits the 130-minute mark by the time the credits are done) is spent on a big vault heist. I can only imagine that, with this enormous crew and a seemingly impossible heist involves trickery as well as brute force, the inspiration for the this film were the Ocean's 11 films. On hand to round out the team are former franchise all stars Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Matt Schulze, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot, and Tego Calderon. Added to the list of thieves is Puerto Rican rapper Don Omar.

Pursuing Dom & Co. this time around is none other than Dwayne Johnson (don't call him The Rock) as federal agent Luke Hobbs, who can apparently walk into a foreign country (in this case Rio De Janeiro, where most of the film is set) and snatch up whoever he wants in broad daylight. Hobbs enlists the help of a translator named Elena (Elsa Pataky), who is the only local police officer he can trust. Why does he think the local cops are corrupt? Because a major drug dealer (Joaquim de Almeida as Reyes) is hiding more than $100 million dollars of his money in a vault housed in a police station evidence locker, that's why.

But why am I spending so much time talking about story? This movie would be almost as good if all of the actors were wearing ski masks and everyone was gagged. You don't go to a FFF for the dialogue or plot; you go for the fast cars, and this movie has them in abundance. From an early sequence where the team steals two cars off a moving train to the 30 or so minutes of two cars dragging a massive vault at high speed down Rio's downtown, demolishing everything in its path, Fast Five is at its finest when the speedometer is well above 80 mph. I have no idea how much of what we're seeing in this movie is special effects, but it looks and feels real this time out (in previous films, the CGI seemed very obvious), and that's a vast improvement.

All of the performances are equally bad/good/appropriate for the material, but I did want to give special notice to Dwayne Johnson (fresh off last year's unofficial FFF entry Faster), who might be the only actor in the film who is aware of just how silly everything that's going on around him truly is. He's not playing his role for camp, but it's very clear (and the results are quite funny) that he's adding the only sense of irony this franchise has ever experienced. He's great, don't get me wrong. He just sticks out, even without the heaving muscles. Fast Five is as outrageous, catastrophic, and massively entertaining as Vin Diesel's upper torso. This isn't about sitting back and removing your brain for more than two hours in order to enjoy it. Even the most intellectual among us will find things to enjoy here. You probably won't remember many of the details of the movie by the time you make it to your car, but so what? This is most definitely an in-the-moment kind of experience. Welcome to the summer movie season, folks. It gets earlier every year.

Stake Land

One of the more enjoyable and adult vampire films in recent years, Stake Land takes the a little bit from The Road, a little from "The Walking Dead" and adds a healthy dose of originality, and the result is a solid work in which vampires rule the world and humans scurry like roaches when the lights come on. With his second feature, director and co-writer Jim Mickle (Mulberry Street) has put together a tight little blood-and-guts, pseudo-Western that pits a mysterious vampire hunter known only as Mister (co-writer Nick Damici, who also appeared in Mulberry Street) against a legion of well-organized blooksuckers led by Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris).

On his journey/hunt, Mister picks up a young man named Martin (Connor Paolo) shortly after his family is ripped to shreds by vampires, and the two travel in search of the undead to wipe out. Mickle treats the vampire epidemic almost as if it were a plague that comes out a night. Most of the vampires are mindless zombies in search of blood, but there are a few with smarts, such as Loven, and they are the most dangerous because they are natural leaders. The pockets of humans Mister and Martin come into contact with are worn out, and the few stragglers they pick up along the way (including a kick-ass and pregnant Danielle Harris, a former nun (Kelly McGillis), and a one-time Marine (Sean Nelson)) certainly add strength to their numbers, but also make for easy pickings when the vamps attack. Just keep in mind that no characters' lives are sacred in Stake Land.

While director Mickle clearly loved to keep the action going and the blood flowing, he's not afraid to allow for moments of quiet and reflection in Stake Land. The stark, bleak landscapes are used to create an believable sense of isolation and danger. And Damici plays Mister in such an effective, understated mode that he almost vanishes from the screen when he isn't slaughtering hordes of vampires. The characters, for the most part, aren't dumb either--a common trait in horror films. These seem like thinking people, who understand the consequences of their actions and plan solid strategies for offense and defense. I think vampire-film lovers are going to be genuinely surprised by the quality of this low-budget work, but Stake Land's appeal extends beyond gore hounds. There's a great deal of artistry afoot, and I can't wait to see what Mickle has for us next. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Queen of the Sun

Something I have been told since I was a kid was that if the bees die, we die. I always kind of understood that this belief fell into that "Circle of Life" category, but I never really knew all the sections of that circle until I saw director Taggart (The Real Dirt on Farmer John) Siegel's latest work, Queen of the Sun, which alerts us to the fact that bees are dying at an unprecedented rate, and shockingly enough humans are probably to blame. But the good news of all agricultural-based documentaries is that we also could have a hand in solving or reversing the trend.

I almost wish Queen of the Sun was a little more alarmist, so that I'd be driven to take up arms in defense of bees, stop people from spraying pesticides over their crops or on their gardens, or start up my own amateur beehive on my back porch. But all of the bee experts in this film are so even keeled and laid back that they don't really inspire us to take action. I need a dynamic bee leader! Still, the movie exists partly to educate about the bee community's role in our day-to-day living and eating (beyond, you know, the honey), and how a hive works and can be disrupted or destroyed due to human mingling and chemicals.

It's also incredible watching person after person handle bees in such large numbers in these pockets of the world where apparently no one has to worry about bee sting allergies or issues with pollen. Still, I will admit, I was kind of envious of the beekeepers and the care and attention they give to their various hives. There's zero fear in their hooded eyes, plus they get all the honey they want. I'm not someone who is scared of bees, but I've also never been in favor of living in harmony with our stinger-wielding friends. That is clearly my mistake, and one I will hope to remedy, when the flowers in my garden start blooming again. As for Queen of the Sun, it's a small, non-aggressive movie about a serious subject, so most of you probably won't go see it, but I kind of liked it for its largely sunny disposition as farmers, philosophers, naturalists, and other bee experts told me the world was on the brink of a natural disaster. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Henry's Crime

At its core, the indie heist drama Henry's Crime is about a man adrift who finds his calling in life in the midst of a massive criminal undertaking. Keanu Reeves gives a genuinely nice performance as Buffalo toll collector Henry, who seems to actually enjoy the solitude of the time he spends in the overnight hours in his booth. He finds that when he returns home to his girlfriend (Judy Greer), he doesn't have much to say, no does he seem to have caught the baby fever she has. When a long-absent friend (Fisher Stevens) arrives at his door one morning saying they need a lift from Henry, he's happy to walk away from the conversation with his wife. Turns out Henry is the unknowing getaway driver in a bank job, and ends up being the only one caught.

Henry spends a short stretch in jail, where he makes friends with Max (James Caan), who unknowingly inspires Henry to find something in life to love and strives for. Upon his release, Henry decides to heist from the very band he was caught with outside the first time around. The plan hits him when he sees old blueprints of the theater next door to the bank, which featured an old bootleggers tunnel between the two buildings. In order to have access to the inside of the theater, Henry must become a part of the company in rehearsals for Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," and it turns out that Henry's a pretty solid actor. With his co-horts downstairs in the dressing room digging a tunnel, Henry gets more and more involved in the production and with the leading lady Julie (Vera Farmiga, doing a great job in as the snooty diva).

There aren't any real surprises in Henry's Crime, but this film isn't about that. Despite the heist element, this is a character study of a great number of interesting people. For a man with no ambition, Henry has a great deal of depth, and Reeves plays him beautifully. I absolutely bought that Henry had been a man with no passion in his life before acting, and Reeves captures this period of discovery to perfection. Farmiga has some hidden comic chops, as a confident/insecure actress who is in constant need of assurances that she is talented. She is too easily broken by the production's director (Peter Stormare), and it bothers her.

The bank job elements of the film are fun, especially when the guard who caught Henry in the car the first time around discovers what he's up to. Henry's Crime is far from a great film, but it's nice to remember that Reeves excels most often in these smaller films playing characters that don't resemble the Chosen One. Director Malcolm (44 Inch Chest) Venville has a nice, unobtrusive, low-key style that suits the material, and I'll admit, I was a little disappointed that I didn't get to see the completed "Cherry Orchard" production; maybe it will be on the DVD. There are better films out there, but few that are this odd and charming. The movie opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

American: The Bill Hicks Story

About all I knew about Bill Hicks before his untimely death at age 32 from cancer in 1994 were the routines. I was a religious watcher of David Letterman's NBC show, and Hicks was on more than a dozen times. He was an angry young comic who talked about abortion, politics, racism, and what it means--the good and bad--to be an American in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I've seen slapdash documentaries about Hicks, featuring a parade of famous faces who claim to have been friends with him or been influenced by his work, and I'm not saying these people are liars, but none of them really knew him like the friends and family he knew since secretly sneaking into comedy clubs in his native Houston when he was still a teenager.

What makes American: The Bill Hicks Story so special is the access given to co-director Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas--both access to people and to rare photos and footage of Hicks growing up and coming up on the comedy scene. What results in complete and total emersion into this man's life, as a Southern Baptist to early stand-up appearances to some ugly times when booze and drugs ruled his life (yes, there's footage of that too). Fortunately, we also get plenty of time to spend watching Hicks be as famous as he ever got, when he was the king of topical humor that served as a much-needed reality check for many Americans.

I didn't realize it watching the film for the first time a year ago at the SXSW Film Festival, but there are only 10 people interviewed in American. But they are the right 10 people--his brother Steve, mother Mary, and several Houston-based comics that Hicks stayed friends with throughout his short life. The interviews with Mary Hicks are particularly fantastic, and she ends up becoming the forgiving, unconditionally loving mother we all hope to have (and some of us are lucky enough to have). This film isn't just about one man; it's about the nation that birthed him, shaped him, and hopefully will never forget him. It's a fitting and moving tribute, loaded with laughs and heart, that never gets sappy or overly sentimental. The balance Harlock and Thomas strike is damn near perfect, and you should make a point to find out when this film is coming within 500 miles of you, so you can start driving not to make the first show.

The film will screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center tonight (Friday, April 29) at 6pm, Saturday, April 30 at 8:30pm, Wednesday, May 4 at 6pm and Thursday, May 5 at 6:15pm. Following the Saturday screening, I will moderate a Skype interview and audience discussion with London-based co-directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, as well as Bill's brother Steve Hicks.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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