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Column Fri May 24 2013

Fast & Furious 6, The Hangover Part III, Epic, What Maisie Knew, Frances Ha & Safety Last

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Fast & Furious 6


You'd figure that six films deep into a franchise, I'd have made up my mind whether I'm fully on board. But I think after having taken in Fast & Furious 6, I'm willing to say I'm a fan of this wildly inconsistent series, whose most recent two chapters did their job selling me on these films. Most of my hesitation coming out of all of these films has been due to the god-awful writing. Look, I know you don't go to Fast & Furious films for the story or character development, but throw us a bone every once and a while, if only to have something of substance to bite down on.

But what pushed me in the fan column with Fast 6 is that it actually has something of a story, characters who much actually change and grow to advance it, and a villain I really enjoyed. It's not the perfect combination, but it's enough to get you through the film between the always-mind-blowing stunt sequences.

This time out Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) needs the help of Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his team of expert drivers to help stop a new gang of driving baddies led by a man named Shaw (Luke Evans from The Raven, Clash of the Titans, Immortals, the next two Hobbit movies and the lead in the just-announced reboot of The Crow). The not-to-subtle realization to us as an audience is that each member of Dom's team has a corresponding evil "twin" in Shaw's crew, with the added bonus of featuring the long-thought-dead Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) now seemingly working against her former boyfriend, Dom. But why would she turn against him? The answer may surprise you, but it'll likely make you giggle uncontrollably.

There is something fundamentally cooler about having Rodriguez back in the Fast & Furious mix. She's the right kind of crazy badass to energize the proceedings, plus it gives her the opportunity to have not one but two knock-down, drag-out cat fights with Gina Carano (Haywire), playing Hobbs' right-hand Riley. In a bit of sexism, it's weird how the women only get to fight the women in this movie. But what's bad for society is good for us.

The lives of the team members has changed from the last film. Brian (Paul Walker) and Dom's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) have a baby now. Dom is living in domestic bliss with Elena (Elsa Pataky). And everyone else is more or less living above-the-law lives (outside of the US) with cash they made from their last outing. So when Hobbs comes back into their lives waving pardons in their face as incentive to help him, it's disruptive and tempting.

The bad guys seem to specialize in vehicular mayhem, and they're after a device that does something bad to somebody (do the details really matter?). Certain members of Dom's team voice their concern that warfare isn't exactly what this crew is best at, but after you see this film, you might change your mind about that. And you'll believe Vin Diesel can fly.

But let's be honest: there are simply way too many characters in this movie, even without the team of new bad guys, and too much screen time is devoted to reminding us that the filmmakers had enough money to bring everybody back, whether they have something to do or not. Folks like Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris really are there for comic relief and a couple extra "holy shit" reactions. There's a whole mini-subplot involving Brian allowing himself to get arrested to get information from an inmate that seems devised for the sole purpose of bringing back Shea Wingham and John Ortiz from the fourth film. I'm guessing a phone call might have gotten the job done easier.

That aside, director Justin Lin (on his fourth Fast & Furious film; he will not be returning for the next one) has turned this near-death franchise into a genuine epic adventure series with multi-film plotlines, cliffhanger endings (and there's a doozy of one tagged onto the end of this one that finally ties in the oddly placed third film, Tokyo Drift, into the F&F timeline), and the real threat that some of the (secondary) characters might not make it from film to film. Hell, I'm still floored that Lin transplanted the Han character (played by Sung Kang) from one of his earlier films, the fantastic Better Luck Tomorrow.

And we've barely talked about the action sequences themselves. I was actually more impressed with a mid-film highway chase involving a tank than I was by the climactic runway chaos involving a military plane loaded with vehicles. It's a close call, but it comes down to which one looked the most practical and believable (or unbelievable, to be more accurate). Plus, watching a tank simply roll over moving car after car, crushing to death the people inside with no thought for lost life gave it the edge, is just impressive.

Fast & Furious 6 is a loud, visual spectacle of a movie that will elicit cheers everywhere it plays. It's also big and dumb, but not nearly as much as you might expect. Whenever Vin Diesel rattles off something that sounds like a proverb or other thoughtful musing, it made me laugh. Is he the action-oriented Buddha? Dwayne Johnson is still sporting t-shirts about six sizes too small and enough baby oil to drown a buffalo, but I wouldn't trade in his commanding presence for anything in this movie. He's a necessary force that keeps things moving and cuts through the bullshit. That's something this franchise has needed as well, and particularly with these last two installments, we've got ourselves a contender. I continue to eager about where things go from here for Dominic and his team.


The Hangover Part III


You know that old joke that you sometimes make when someone asks you, "What did you think of [Movie X]?" And often the response is, "Well, it's a movie." Oh, how we laugh at that chestnut. Here's the thing: I'm not sure The Hangover Part III is actually a movie. I'll explain as best I can, but I walked out of this hopefully final chapter in the Wolfpack trilogy utterly baffled by what I'd just seen.

I laughed exactly two times in the entire 100 minutes or so, so I'm pretty sure that doesn't qualify it as Comedy. But the primary thrust of the film doesn't appear to be to induce laughter; it's more action oriented and features a plot that isn't about piecing together some period of time. But the action sequences are so run of the mill (especially when you stack them up again this week's Fast & Furious 6) that it doesn't exactly fit the bill for Action.

What's left? Drama? There's a little of that in there when Alan (Zach Galifianakis) must cope with the death of his loving father (who basically died because of the stress Alan placed in his life). There's a sequence in which Alan is left alone with a young boy, who also is living without his real father. It should be something of a tender moment, but I was so concerned that Alan was going to start molesting or otherwise being inappropriate with the kid that I couldn't take the emotional content of the scene seriously.

While we're digging into characters here, The Hangover series has shifted since it began in 2009. I'm still not in any way convinced that Bradley Cooper (who plays Phil) has any semblance of comic ability beyond saying "Fuck" constantly. "What the fuck was that?" "Who the fuck are you?" "How the fuck did that happen?" "Fuck that guy" and the classic "Fuck you." That's pretty much all the ammo in his machine gun of laughs.

Then there's Ed Helms as Stu, who has always been relegated to the position of straight man, but the stuff that has happened to the mild-mannered dentist is so outrageous that Helms has been able to make the most of the thankless role. But in Part III, nothing happens to him (unless you count a during-credits sequence, which you must because it provided one of the two times I laughed), and I mean nothing. It's like he's there for the vibe but not his proven comic gift.

So what's left? Zach Galifianakis is carrying almost all of the laugh-generation duties on his ample shoulders; no one can accuse him of not working his ass off to bring this limp screenplay by director Todd Phillips and Craig Mazin (the writer of such classics as Scary Movie 3 and 4, Superhero Movie, Identity Thief and The Hangover Part II — do with that what you will) to something resembling life.

And then there's Ken Jeong as the psychotic Mr. Chow. I'm the most torn about this character, but not really. My affection for Dr. Jeong runs deep, but I also think it has hit its limits. I know that Chow had something of an expanded role in Part II, but he barely leaves the screen in Part III, and it turns out that there is such a thing as too much Chow. It's mainly the voice that makes me want to push nails in my ears, but there just isn't enough for him to do. At at some point near the halfway point of the film (probably around the 27th time he offered to blow somebody), I started to tune him out.

Perhaps not surprisingly, The Hangover Part III seems a bit more energized when there are new players on screen, such as John Goodman's crime boss Marshall and especially Melissa McCarthy as Cassie, a pawn shop owner and potential love interest for Alan. McCarthy dials things back a bit, and the results provided me with laugh number two. The film also brings back a couple of supporting characters from the first film, and you won't give a shit. Maybe the worst crime the film commits is returning the action to Las Vegas for not good reason. The characters don't want to be there, the audience certainly doesn't want to be there, and after a couple of moderately thrilling action sequences, everybody leaves like it never mattered... because it doesn't.

I haven't talked too much about the plot. The contrivance to bring the group back together is to take Alan to a home/hospital in Arizona for mentally ill people so he can get back on his meds and come back more normal. But on the way there, Marshall forces the Wolfpack to find Chow and bring back gold that was stolen from him by Chow. Marshall kidnaps Justin Bartha's Doug (thus yanking him out of the proceedings once again) as incentive to get the job done. And that's pretty much it. So although memory loss isn't a part of this story, retrieving Doug still is. Way to mix it up, team.

So back to my original point, if you can figure out what exactly The Hangover Part III qualifies as, you let me know. Or better yet, keep it to yourself. If you run out to see this film over the weekend, I don't need to hear from you.


Epic


What it may lack in unpredictability, the new animated work from Blue Sky Studios more than makes up for in pure visual splendor in the perhaps-overstating-the-case titled Epic. Although they idea of little people living among us may have been covered in The Secret World of Arietty, Epic is in fact a completely different animal, partly because it features completely different animals and several races of small humans that are fighting for the future and the soul of the forest near the home of a teenage girl named Mary Katherine (or M.K., voiced by Amanda Seyfried) and her scientist father (Jason Sudeikis), who just happens to believe in these tiny people of the woods.

Although this is a film set in nature, this is very much an action-adventure film that makes phenomenal use of 3-D for showing how these little folks see the larger world around them. The good-guy soldiers (led by Colin Farrell's Ronin) fly on the backs of hummingbirds; while the villains (following the particularly nasty Mandrake, voiced by Christoph Waltz) ride bats and wear mouse skulls as helmets. The attention to detail in the costuming, weaponry and other ways the small people use things around them as clothes and fighting implements is great.

Every so often in the forest, the current queen (in this case, one voiced by Beyonce Knowles) hands over her crown to a young successor. If she doesn't do this in a certain time period, the soul of the forest may go bad — something Mandrake is counting on as he goes hunting for a particular bulb holding the queen's essence. Somehow MK is shrunk down and is given the task of delivering the bulb to a particular place and specific time, so the essence may go into the rightful heir. And that's pretty much it. Obviously, the journey is long and rough as Mandrake and his group of nasties attack at every chance they get.

There's an unbelievable cast of great voice actors on tap, most especially a slug and a snail (Aziz Ansari and Chris O'Dowd) that are a great comedy pairing. Other talents includes Josh Hutcherson as another soldier who has his eyes on MK, Steven Tyler and even Pitbull, who might be speaking English but I don't think so. Ice Age and Robots director Chris Wedge has shown a talent for appealing to youngsters with his previous works, but Epic is something I think older kids and many adults will find wholly satisfying.

Above all else, the film is gorgeous. I could stare at any frame of this movie for quite some time and still not see all of the nuances in the rendering, and the 3-D really enhances that. There's a bit of dopey magic in the film, but it's kept to a minimum to make room for some truly massive action sequences. There was something about a small soldier wearing a mouse skull on the back of a bat that made me skin crawl; call me crazy. But I loved it anyway. The sequences in the woods are so good, in fact, that when MK heads back home to contact her father, I was a little less engaged, although I did like the way they represented the slow-moving large humans from the perspective of a tiny person.

Epic has a story that keeps on moving and rarely lets up long enough to ever get boring. There's a sweet little love story tucked away here that never gets in the way of the action, and aside from a few questionable voice actors, I really dug the movie. And despite its setting, I wouldn't consider Epic a film pushing any kind of environmental agenda. Maybe there is one, but director Wedge and his five (!) screenwriters left the heavy handedness on the floor. The resulting film is purely about entertainment.


What Maisie Knew


I walked out of the latest film from directing partners Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End, Bee Season) with a true fear in my heart for the future of certain children, in particular, children of divorce. Remember the days when stories about kids of divorce had at least one parent who actually did seem to care about the child's well being, while the other one went off and did something selfish? Well, apparently those days are gone, and what we're left with, according to the powerful What Maisie Knew, is that kids are no longer just the collateral damage of divorce; they are now the unwitting weapon of mass destruction that the parents use against each other.

The biggest shock about What Maisie Knew isn't that it's an adaptation of a lesser-known novel by Henry James from the 1890s. No, the surprise for me was how little the story had to be changed to make it contemporary. Apparently parents have been bastards for a long time. Who knew? In this film, the parents are middle-aged rock star Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan). As their marriage is falling apart and custody of their daughter Maisie (the incredible newcomer Onata Aprile) becomes an issue, Susanna's career picks up again, while Beale's business starts to crash and he's forced to go overseas to drum up business. And the message poor Maisie gets is parents who are fighting not to take her, but to get rid of her.

The calculated nature of their behavior proves without a shadow of a doubt that both are monsters. He starts up an affair with Maisie's young, beautiful nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), while she takes up with awkward hipster bartender Lincoln (a nice turn by Alexander Skarsgard). Both new relationships are entered into so that the parents will each have someone to take care of Maisie when they're away, making things really uncomfortable right off the bat. The upside is that these new caregivers love this sweet little 6-year-old girl, who somehow never manages to display an ounce of bitterness or anger at her parents. Maisie's resilience may not be a quality all kids in this situation would display, but my god she wears it with a kind of grace and dignity that I've rarely seen in a child performer.

The filmmakers shoot most of the film from Maisie's perspective, down low looking slightly up, so that we can experience her anxiety, sense of abandonment and occasionally fear as she is left behind, forgotten and otherwise neglected. When the adults in her life are not around, the camera stays with her. Maisie is a listener (eavesdropping is a big part of the girl's existence) and a watcher of bad behavior; we assume years of therapy will be a part of her future.

A low-level tension builds as the film goes on because we keep expecting something horrible to happen to Maisie, but instead something remarkable happens in the final act that almost seems fantastical and too good to be true. But that certainly doesn't make it any less powerful or emotional. What Maisie Knew is a largely quiet film, punctuated by near-violent episodes of arguing and general anger. Both parents seem willing to fight to the death for custody and to get the upper hand, but these battles and subsequent victories are meaningless because they don't actually care about the prize; they care more about winning. The film is sometimes tough to watch, but it feels essential that we do. This is a film about the price of selfishness, and you will not come out unscathed or not recognizing some aspect of these characters. What a great experience. It opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Frances Ha


I think I can make this easy for you. Whether you enjoy the latest and perhaps most accessible film directed by Noah Baumbach, Frances Ha, comes down to one thing — whether or not you find its star (and co-writer with Baumbach) Greta Gerwig in any way charming or compelling. Many people don't, and I get that; I just don't happen to agree. Since her early days in mumblecore, I've always found her to be an engaging force, often in films filled with the opposite of that. And I say that not just because she will lose her clothes at the drop of a hat. The best way I can describe it is that she feels like someone you know in your life, even if you don't know anyone like her. I guess the better way to say that is, she feels like someone you could know.

She can be brash and declarative in her delivery, but I've also seen her to reserved and uncertain. However she's playing a part in films like Hannah Takes the Stairs, Baghead, Greenberg (her first film with Baumbach), To Rome with Love, Damsels in Distress — hell, even in the Arthur remake — there's always a hint (or more than a hint) of uncertainty and vulnerability mixed in with an often unearned confidence. In ways that have nothing to do with the way she dresses or looks, Gerwig reminds me of a young Diane Keaton — abrasive sometimes as a performer but giving us something and highly watchable.

In Frances Ha, Gerwig plays a 27-year-old dancer named Frances who lives with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner, daughter of Sting), and if the film is about anything in particular, it's about their tumultuous relationship. It's clear these two women are more in love (non-sexually, I think) with each other than they are with any of the men that they date, and when the film is about their friendship, it's remarkable. After a bit of a falling out, Sophie leaves and Frances can't afford their apartment alone, so she begins a series of apartment hops between friends' couches, or sharing a room with two or three guys. Her position at the dance studio is also tenuous; the director has decided not to use her in a performance for the coming season, but when she's offered a desk job, she pretends that she has other offers out there and quits.

Frances is a person who floats. She goes from one living arrangement to another, one job to another, one ill-funded adventure to another. In case you hadn't figured it out, Frances Ha is more character study than plot-driven feature. There's no denying that this feels remarkably similar to what Lena Dunham is doing with "Girls" (especially when Adam Driver shows up as one of Frances' dates), but Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) is taking a radically different approach to the idea that 20-somethings are still "figuring it out." Her dreams are far more defined; she just can't find anyone to help her make them come true, but she refuses to lose hope even when reality slaps her in the face.

On a purely aesthetic level, Frances Ha is shot in rich black and white, and combined with the largely French New Wave score, it feels like something far more European than anything Baumbach has done before. Of course, there are also wonderful touches like Frances running through the streets of New York (to look for an ATM) while David Bowie's "Modern Love" plays for our enjoyment. Watching Frances go through her life, I had two conflicting thoughts racing through my head. I was envious of her freedom and her abundance of optimism; and I would never want to change places with her. This is a strangely joyful work, but I have no idea where Frances is going to land, and that made me sad. It takes a fair amount of great writing and acting to make me care about what happens to a character after the movie is done. The film opens in Chicago today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Frances Ha director and co-writer Noah Baumbach.


Safety Last


For many, the two schools of silent film physical comedy are Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. But the unsung third name that should be alongside those two giants — or at least somewhere in the vicinity — is Harold Lloyd. And his legendary building climb at the end of his most famous work, Safety Last, includes of the moviedom's most lasting images, of Lloyd himself without wires, hanging from a clock face that is in the process of falling off the building's facade. Sure, there's a little camera trickery to make Lloyd appear higher up than he is, but that doesn't take away from the fact that this singular man did the stunt himself and made it very funny in the process.

Plus, there's a great little story to go along with the daredevil. Lloyd plays a dirt-poor man who wants to marry his hometown sweetheart (Mildred Davis). He heads off the big city and manages to get a fabric sales job in a multistory department store. But in his letters home to his lady, he stretches the truth and says he's the store manager. Naturally, when she pays Lloyd a surprise visit at the store, he must pull all sorts of tricks to appear to be the man in charge. To impress the boss, Lloyd tells his boss he's hired a daredevil type to scale the face of the store. But he ends up not showing, so Lloyd takes on the job he ends up climbing the face of the store with no wires or safety nets.

Simply put, Safety Last is one of the great screen comedies of all time, and it's a credit to the acrobats of the time who were able to make a living in the silent era. To celebrate the 90th anniversary of the great Lloyd film, a digitally restored print (from the original nitrate film camera negative) of Safety Last opens today for a four-day run at the Music Box Theatre. For all but one of the showtimes, the score on the print will be played. But on Saturday, May 25, beginning with a reception and preshow at 6:30pm, there will be a special screening of Safety Last accompanied by live organ (played by the theater resident organist Dennis Scott) and the West End Jazz Band, and preceded by live vaudeville entertainment.

It's going to be quite an evening, which will include a preview look at the Music Box's newly redesigned second screen, with all new seats and a much bigger screen. Hope to see everyone there. Tickets can be purchased in advance here.

 
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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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