Tuesday, December 13, 2011

FAST FIVE (2011)

Let me preface this review of the latest FAST AND THE FURIOUS entry by admitting that this is my first F&F movie.  So there is a good chance I have missed subtle character development begun in a previous installment or failed to grasp the significance of some revelatory moment or scene.  F&F completists may justifiably complain about my limited knowledge of the film series’ mythology.  To them I say:  whatever, just shut up and drive.  Before the opening title Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) and squeeze Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster) stage a prison break by spectacularly overturning a bus full of inmates on an open highway (a TV news report is careful to note that there were no casualties!?).  One of those inmates is Mia’s brother Dominic (Vin Diesel), and the trio meets in Rio de Janeiro to join Vince (Matt Schulze) in a daring train heist to fill their empty coffers.  But the heist goes wrong when hired thugs of local criminal overlord Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida) betray our team of honorable thieves and kill some federal agents in the process.  This brings Dominic and company to the attention of relentless agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson fka The Rock), who arrives in Rio with his team to stop them.  Despite being caught between a Rock (sorry) and a hard place, Dominic hatches a plan to steal all of Reyes’ money.  To achieve this he calls into action several characters (I assume) from previous films, including Roman Pierce (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej Parker (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), among others.  Director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan are on solid ground when their characters are behind the wheel.  The train heist and the film’s final half hour are action-packed – imaginative, exciting, and gloriously ridiculous.  However, the filmmakers have B-grade OCEAN’S 11 ambitions, and the middle hour sags as actors, whose abilities range from adequate to awful, are asked to be witty, charming and engaging.  These sides of beef are better served in fast cars, driving furiously.  Because when they are, this movie is tons of fun.  When they’re not, it’s a drag.  Just shut up and drive.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) ghost writes a popular series of young adult novels about the trials and tribulations of a popular high school girl with whom she relates completely.  When she receives the birth announcement of her former beau’s child, she becomes obsessed with returning to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, to win Buddy (Patrick Wilson) back.  So Mavis packs her car and leaves the city to reclaim a youth she never really abandoned.  At the local watering hole she runs into Matt (Patton Oswalt), a geeky former classmate best known as the kid beaten up and crippled because he was mistakenly thought to be gay.  He attempts to dissuade her from her sociopathic pursuit of Buddy, but Mavis ignores him.  However, she comes to rely on him as a sounding board and to appreciate his home distillery.  Buddy either misreads Mavis’ insinuations or decides they are innocuous and invites her home to meet wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) and baby.  Mavis, in turn, projects her unhappiness onto Buddy and pursues him insidiously to rescue him from his miserable life.  Writer Diablo Cody reteams with her JUNO director Jason Reitman, and their collaboration has clearly matured.  Here Cody’s dialogue sounds less mannered, and her characters feel like real people, albeit not necessarily ones with whom we’d want to spend quality time.  Reitman captures the look and feel of suburban Minnesota and succeeds in making even remote and guarded characters approachable if not wholly accessible.  And the performances here are first rate.  Theron allows Mavis to be funny, delusional and mean, but never sentimental.  Wilson makes Buddy opaque enough so that anything can be read into his inscrutable features.  Oswalt, however, nearly steals the movie from Theron, masking his emotional wounds behind glib sarcasm.  Cody and Reitman struggle to find a satisfying ending, but, since their subject is a woman who refuses to change, perhaps they should be forgiven.  This bracing comedy about an unwillingness to confront uncomfortable truths may be the most socially relevant movie of the year.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

HUGO (2011)

Martin Scorsese loves the movies.  You see it in every frame of his films:  from the ultraviolent gangster picture GOODFELLAS to his overrated period piece THE AGE OF INNOCENCE to his underrated nightmare comedy AFTER HOURS (one of my favorites).  This is his love letter to moving pictures.  Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of a Paris train station circa 1930.  The orphan has kept the station clocks running ever since his drunk Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) failed to return to the job.  When he isn’t scurrying around inner workings or hiding from the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), Hugo pilfers gears and small parts from a grumpy toy seller named Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley).  With the help of a notebook created by his late father (an affecting Jude Law, seen in flashback) Hugo has been using these items to repair an automaton that he believes holds the key to a mystery.  After Méliès confiscates the notebook, Hugo befriends the proprietor’s goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) to help get the precious papers back.  With the guidance of Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), a keeper of books, and historian Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), the children discover Méliès’ hidden past as a magician and fabulist filmmaker.  Scorsese directs John Logan’s screenplay, based on the children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, with a leisurely European tempo and atmosphere.  Hugo spends much of the film’s first half observing train station denizens through clock faces.  He watches Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) tentatively woo Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour).  Meanwhile the self-conscious Station Inspector, whose leg was crippled in WWI, struggles to approach flower seller Lisette (Emily Mortimer).  Robert Richardson’s marvelous cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s gorgeous production design add to the film’s lush look, and Butterfield’s expressive face says much with little dialogue.  While Logan’s script introduces plot threads that lead nowhere and Scorsese, like an indulgent lover, allows his film to ramble on too long, movie buffs will find this cinematic confection irresistible.  (Scorsese uses the 3-D process beautifully, but I would have preferred to see the film in the standard format.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


The final film precursor to Joss Whedon’s highly anticipated adaptation of THE AVENGERS (due out next year) is an art deco-infused entertainment set during World War II that hits its arbitrary marks but feels as flat as its superhero’s back story.  Chris Evans (who provided what little spark THE FANTASTIC FOUR had) stars as Steve Rogers, a proverbial 98-pound weakling whose desire to shoot Nazis is considerably bigger than his biceps.  The patriotic fellow courts repeated rejection from military recruiters until Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) plucks him from the ranks for a controversial treatment.  Despite doubt from leggy Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and derision from Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), Erskine and inventor Howard Stark (father of Tony, played by Dominic Cooper) turn our diminutive hero into Captain America, complete with bulging pectorals.  The new physique captures the attention of Peggy but Phillips remains skeptical, leaving Rogers to peddle war bonds for jingoistic politicians.  Meanwhile rogue Nazi Johan Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), with the help of Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), hunts for magical items to create super weapons to arm his Hydra army.  Schmidt, revealed to be Red Skull, captures Rogers’ friend “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and his division.  Captain America must disobey orders to rescue his friend and thwart Red Skull’s diabolical plan to take over the world (auf natürliche!).  Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely’s script, based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, covers a lot of ground but does so so superficially that by film’s end Captain America feels like a construct rather than a character.  Director Joe Johnston maintains a brisk pace but he has neither the finesse nor the patience to nurture his actors.  Despite the best efforts of pros like Tucci, Weaving, and the Joneses, the performances fail to engage.  Fans of the comic may be able to fill in the gaps, but the rest of us remain in the dark.  While its period look is gorgeous and its visual effects impressive, the film’s best moment is the teaser for THE AVENGERS.  Help us, Joss Whedon!  You’re our only hope.