WHAT'S YOUR DAMAGE, BATHSHEBA? - My Review of FAR FROM THE MADDING… MoreWHAT'S YOUR DAMAGE, BATHSHEBA? - My Review of FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (4 Stars)
Oh, my good God, swoon! I've never been a big fan of the corsets and tea genre, often finding them to be elitist first world problem tales. Maybe it's the inherent feminism or the fully alive direction, but Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, whose THE CELEBRATION was a fantastically subversive piece of psychodrama, and writer David Nicholls (ONE DAY), have adapted the Thomas Hardy classic and have infused it with a palpable sense of romantic longing.
From the start, cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen presents some lovely tableaus of the English countryside, and Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene enters on horseback and beautifully, deliriously lies down on her steed, looking up at the sky and the infinite possibilities of being a free woman in the world. It's an auspicious entrance for her character, who quickly proves herself to have a strong backbone, confidence, and a sense of who she is and what she wants out of life. Set in the late 19th century, when a woman became a man's property once married, Bathsheba wants none of it.
She meets her neighbor and landowner, Gabriel Oak, played by one of my favorite rising international stars, Matthias Shoenhaerts (RUST AND BONE, THE DROP), who instantly proposes marriage. Despite his obvious kindness, Bathsheba spurns his advances, setting in motion a series of events, including two other marriage proposals and constantly shifting loyalties. Her other two suitors are played by Michael Sheen, truly touching as the rich but aging William Boldwood, and Tom Sturridge, creepy yet complicated as Sergeant Francis Troy, a military officer with some pretty upsetting behavioral tics. All provide distinctive, well-wrought characterizations. Even the ostensible villain of the film, Francis, is given his understandable point of view. He behaves like a man of the times, preening and claiming women as his prize, but he also shows palpable moments of vulnerability. Also of note is Juno Temple, heartbreaking as Fanny, a woman whose fortunes turn on a dime.
At first, I was truly annoyed with Bathsheba when she refuses to marry Gabriel. She reminded me of every commitment-phobe I've had the displeasure of meeting my entire adult life! I wanted to go all HEATHERS on her and ask, "What's your damage?" But context is everything, and her need to prove to the world and more importantly, to herself, that she can make her own way, deserves to inspire every young woman (and man) who sees this film. STILL, did she really say no to Matthias Shoenhaerts???
Well, yes she did, because otherwise, this would have been a 10 minute short. In retrospect, I'm thrilled she denied him, because this is a saga about earning it. And earn it they do, as there is nothing stodgy about this film. It feels urgent and current, despite the period setting and costumes. There's a delicious majesty to the yearning here, because it's so often undercut with some hard edges, thanks to Mulligan's perfectly calibrated performance. I've never seen John Schlesinger's nearly 3 hour 1967 version starring Julie Christie and I've never read the novel, but the through line of passion, yearning and unrequited love felt so deeply resonant in this remake.
There's a scene in a hollow in which Sergeant Troy seduces Bathsheba with some fancy sword play. It's so slinky and startling, that the sexual undertones rose to the surface. Any time Gabriel and Bathsheba interact, you feel the connection and the stunning control in their acting. I've been a fan of Mulligan's since AN EDUCATION, but worried she would become too instantly anointed as that kind of actor who studios love to put in classic period pieces. Instead, she impressively chose some pretty diverse, edgy projects (DRIVE, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, SHAME, NEVER LET ME GO). So I went to this film with great trepidation, thinking she would finally succumb to the prim and proper gods. On the surface, she has, but her strong, self-possessed grasp on her character, the connections she builds with her fellow cast members, and the effortlessness in which she carries this movie, made me want to stand and cheer. This is lush storytelling, aided immeasurably by Craig Armstrong's hummable score, and if you decide to surrender to one chick flick this year, make it FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD.
ALL ABOUT ALEVE - My Review of CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (4 Stars)… MoreALL ABOUT ALEVE - My Review of CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (4 Stars)
Writer/Director Olivier Assayas, whose work on CARLOS I greatly admired, has returned with the quiet, meditative CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA. Featuring a trio of fantastic performances by Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Grace Moretz, this backstage showbiz drama takes on issues such as aging, identity, relevancy, honesty, feminism, agism, and the inevitability of change. Think of it as a modern day ALL ABOUT EVE, but with headier concerns.
The hushed tones of the film are not for everybody and are highly reminiscent of the late Eric Rohmer's work. Very talky and complex, with overt themes spelled out in nearly every conversation, the film tells the story of Maria Enders (Binoche), who accepts a part in a play revival which made her a star decades earlier. Now, however, she's been cast to play the older character, with her original role going to a Lindsay Lohan-esque actress Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz). For the bulk of the film, Maria holes up in the chalet of the late writer to better absorb the part and rehearse with her incredibly competent personal assistant, Valentine (Stewart).
Soon the lines get blurred between reality and the play they're picking apart, whose subject and circumstances seem to mirror what's right in front of them. The chalet is in the shadow of a Swiss Alpine weather phenomenon called the Maloja Snake, which also is the name of the play Binoche is in. Essentially a rolling fog/cloud formation that works its way through a mountain pass, the metaphor of its mystery and reliability to charge ahead will not be lost on the viewers of this film. That's because the script goes to great lengths to make sure you get it.
Regardless, this is is a truly engaging film, but not without its flaws. Nearly every male role in the film is awkwardly performed and somewhat thankless. There is a very strange interlude in the film in which Valentine takes a road trip that defines ambiguity and will lead to after-movie discussions. Same goes for a late-in-the-movie scene with Binoche and Stewart; the less said the better. Trust me, you'll be talking about it. Sometimes the dialogue is highly stilted, yet our two leads always find a way to ground it in reality with their considerable chemistry.
Stewart won the Cesar Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first American actress to ever win France's equivalent to the Oscars, and it's easy to see why. Stewart is assured, complicated, and so entirely present in her scenes. She and Binoche work up such a lovely rapport, prickly one moment and affectionate the next. It's by no means a showy role, bereft of that big scene actors chew on in order to win statuettes. Instead, Stewart is focused, presenting a highly accurate depiction of the assistant's life. This isn't a wisecracking Thelma Ritter performance. Valentine must be a jack of all trades, as proficient in rehearsing as she is in making travel plans, and Stewart invests herself so completely in this role. With her performance here and in STILL ALICE (and let's not forget she's done stellar work before in PANIC ROOM, INTO THE WILD, and ADVENTURELAND), she may just yet succeed in making me forget the TWILIGHT SAGA.
Binoche has always been great. I look back on an incredible career with her star-making turn in THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING and subsequent stellar performances (ok, we can pretend GODZILLA never happened!), and see that the role of Maria is a meta-critique of her own experiences. Everything that Maria experiences clearly has a counterpart in Binoche's own life, and her brave, tough-as-nails portrayal is a career highlight.
Moretz doesn't appear until very late in the film, but she leaves her mark as a character with impressive duality. One moment, she's the strung out starlet we're used to seeing stumbling panty-free out of limos on TMZ, and the next she's lucid, highly articulate,and pulled together. There's either scenes of scary ambition in her squinting eyes or no doubt a half bottle of Visine in others, and it begs the question, "Which one is the real Jo-Ann?" The fun of this role is finding out the answer, and her final scene with Binoche is a knockout.
Yorick Le Saux's cinematography is simple yet effective, but the real technical star here is Production Designer François-Renaud Labarthe, whose stage set for the play-within-the-movie alone is something he needs to put in his highlight reel for the remainder of his career. Contrasting so sharply with the nature photography that comes before it, the set is a jaw-dropping, highly imaginative realization of a modern office. If only the stage musical to 9 TO 5 had Labarthe on their team!
Again, this isn't a film for those who need action, loud soundtracks, or explanations. It's small, haunting charms, however, will resonate with moviegoers who have grown tired of the BOOM BOOM POW.
NYET WITHOUT MY DACHA - My Review of CHILD 44 (3 Stars)
As of this… MoreNYET WITHOUT MY DACHA - My Review of CHILD 44 (3 Stars)
As of this writing, CHILD 44 has only a 23% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so it was with great trepidation that I attended a screening. I'm so glad I did. Based on the bestselling Tom Rob Smith novel, the film, written by Richard Price (THE COLOR OF MONEY, SEA OF LOVE) and directed by the Swedish-born Daniel Espinosa (EASY MONEY, SAFE HOUSE), CHILD 44 is a sprawling story set in the waning years of Joseph Stalin's rule. A brutal, Soviet military police officer named Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) hunts a serial killer but faces the obstacle of a system which denies that murders can even exist in such a worker's paradise, thereby forcing him to question the regime itself.
Although set in the 1950s, the story is loosely based on Andrei Chikatilo, aka The Butcher of Rostov, who left a bloody trail across the U.S.S.R. between 1978 and 1990. I happened to find myself in Rostov in the 1980s, and like the Russian citizenry, was completely unaware that there was a madman on the prowl. As such, my interest in this story may be considerably higher than most casual moviegoers.
That's a huge caveat, because the film is very slow and moody. Its overstuffed plot could fill a multiplex and often ventures into pulpy territory. Not content to be only a hunt-for-the-killer procedural, we're treated to professional jealousy, marital strife, closeted gay men ratting on others, small town vs. big city police tactics, the plight of the orphans, a blind alley trip to Moscow, and more. This complexity, however, is the point. A system that required multiple levels of spying on your neighbors, routine torture, random executions, and political prisoners required a propaganda machine to convince the masses that they were living in heaven. North Korea's government uses such Stalinist tactics to this day.
There just wasn't room for an officer to upset the apple cart with the truth, so CHILD 44 takes great pains to detail the amount of effort put into covering up the whole thing. In addition to Hardy, who despite a too-thick Russian accent, gives a powerful, towering performance of a man waking up for the first time, the cast does a terrific job of setting a believable tone.
Noomi Rapace plays Hardy's wife, Raisa, a woman who has her own share of secrets. In an early scene, she's fiercely intelligent yet strangely guarded as Hardy recounts to their friends how they first met. It's a sumptuous dinner scene, and from there Rapace deftly peels back the layers of her character to reveal the desperation and conflicting feelings at her core. I haven't been too fond of her English language performances until she worked with Hardy, both here and in THE DROP. With the right material, she's a staggering actor who wears layers of emotions so beautifully on her face.
Gary Oldman grounds the film as General Nesterov, a small town police officer who may be the only person sympathetic to Leo's cause. It's a quiet performance, but one in which the empathy of people living under severe oppression is given voice. On the complete other end of the spectrum is Joel Kinnaman as the sadistic officer Vasili. His power struggles with Leo frame the film, and despite the fact that Kinnaman is a world-class actor, he's more a bad guy of the twirling moustache variety. Despite this, he has one shining moment early in the film, when his reaction to an execution is simultaneously frightening and vulnerable. Vincent Cassel, Jason Clarke, and Paddy Considine also provide solid support. Cassel in particular is chilling as a government official who will stop at nothing to maintain his comparatively privileged lifestyle.
In addition to the cast, the cinematography by the great Oliver Wood and Production Design by Jan Roelfs goes a long way towards establishing just the right amount of melancholy and the perfect look and feel of Soviet living quarters, especially as Leo and Raisa's fortunes falter. Sure, this won't be everybody's samovar of tea, and yes, the 3rd act literally sinks in the mud, but I felt something here. While redemption stories are as old as time, I found CHILD 44 to be a moving experience through its perhaps too-complicated arc of a barbarous man quelling monsters, both external and from within.
HAMMY AND WRY - My Review of DELI MAN (4 Stars)
One of the most… MoreHAMMY AND WRY - My Review of DELI MAN (4 Stars)
One of the most startling facts to emerge from Erik Greenberg Anjou's thrillingly entertaining and surprisingly moving documentary, DELI MAN, is that in the early 20th century, there were thousands of delicatessens nationwide, but currently there remain less than 200. Sad as that is, it can't take away from the sheer joy of watching this film. The laughter starts in the first montage of interviews and continues for most of its running time, pausing momentarily for some serious lump in one's throat moments.
We're given some historical context for the delis, a phenomenon that started in New York City, where Jewish immigrants sought a fast food alternative to the cooking of their ancestors. When you think about it, Jews were creating fast food out of necessity long before the deli era. Multiple delis would line each block, providing quick sandwiches and pickles to the neighborhood. Delis soon became a communal home away from home, where a motherly swat on the head was as common as the huge piles of corned beef between two slices of rye bread. You came for the food, but you stayed for the insults!
This admittedly waning culture is wonderfully covered by an array of owners across the country, customers, and Catskills-style pundits such as Jerry Stiller and Fyvush Finkel. We learn how the skyrocketing cost of meat and the transport of it justifies the $14 sandwich costs. Not to mention, delis across the board are not profitable businesses anymore. While the WISE SONS deli in San Francisco's Mission District leaves it mark for mouth-watering Jewish Fusion items, the heart and soul of this film belongs to Ziggy Gruber and his Houston-based deli, Kenny & Ziggy's. Younger than most owners and classically trained in French cooking, Gruber touchingly chose to pursue the simpler, heartier fare as a way to preserve the culture. He also clearly relishes the familial feel of a deli, proudly working each table like a pro and ruling the kitchen with an iron fist, lest these Old World recipes go the way of the dinosaur. Overworked and overweight, it's Gruber's journey that touched me. He seeks to improve his health by seeking out acupuncture sessions, a personal trainer, and love in the most unexpected place. A late-in-the movie event brought me to tears as I felt such tremendous admiration for this man and his need to not only keep a tradition alive but to pay homage to those who have come before us.
Funny enough, it's Gruber's father, an elderly man who walks with a cane and can barely stay awake during his sit-down interviews, who has the more modern approach to life. He not only accepts change, but embraces it. This dichotomy between father and son concisely illustrates the larger themes at play in this film. Sure, you will laugh your head off at the various examples of demanding deli customers, and you'll definitely want to eat the entire menu of your local Jewish restaurant afterwards, but what will stick with you is this the sweet sentiment of those who wish to preserve history. What noble sacrifices these owners have made to give people the comforting atmosphere of no-nonsense Jewish parents, the aromas of an Eastern European kitchen, and hearty, artery-clogging delicacies. It's not a sappy film, however, as even during the touching moments, Gruber is schvitzing up a storm or barreling through his kitchen, micromanaging his staff. It all comes across as live theater with your blustering hero multi-tasking, speaking loudly, and owning the stage he's on. Oy vey, this movie is fun, fun, fun!
THE IMITATION OF LIFE GAME - My Review of EX MACHINA (4 Stars)
In… MoreTHE IMITATION OF LIFE GAME - My Review of EX MACHINA (4 Stars)
In this day and age of giant, 3-D science fiction bowdlerizing our multiplexes, it's downright refreshing to encounter what amounts to a small, haunting chamber piece of otherworldly charms in EX MACHINA, Alex Garland's (writer of 28 DAYS LATER, SUNSHINE and NEVER LET ME GO) directorial debut.
Derived from Greek and literally meaning, "God from the machine", a deus ex machina has come to represent a storytelling technique in which the writer has reached an impasse and to reach a resolution, an unexpected plot twist occurs. EX MACHINA plays with both meanings superbly. Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a programmer at a GOOGLE-esque company who in the economic opening scene wins a lottery to spend time with the company's CEO (the brilliant Oscar Issac plays Nathan). In a twist on Bring Your Child To Work Day, Caleb is whisked away via helicopter to Nathan's highly secluded, top secret estate to discover he will take part in a Turing Test with Ava (a perfectly cast Alicia Vikander), a robot of artificial intelligence. Essentially, Caleb will help determine if Ava truly has human qualities indistinguishable from the real thing.
I won't spoil any more plot, but this being sci-fi, I think it should come as no surprise that things are definitely not as they initially appear. This little film of grand ideas supplies such sleek mood and texture, as well as absorbing performances, to give us something closer to what I imagine the Stanley Kubrick would have done had he lived to direct A.I. Cinematographer Rob Hardy and Production Designer Mark Digby contribute wonderfully to this aesthetic, all such clean lines and stark compositions that I thought I was experiencing the movie equivalent of living in an Ian Schrager hotel.
Literally locked away from the world, Caleb comes to learn so much about humanity. These lessons not only come from Ava, but from Nathan, who Isaac plays as an ambiguous genius with a disarming sense of humor. One moment he's commiserating with Caleb about his drunken escapades or busting out some incredible dance moves, the next he's interrogating him for exploring off-limits sections of the compound. This push-pull creates a palpable sense of menace, and the beautifully calibrated way the stakes are raised here, moving from luxurious calm to life or death situations, makes for highly intelligent, nail biting storytelling.
Performances are good by our main trio, and this is basically a 4-hander, with one extra main character whose role is best kept quiet. Gleeson does a terrific job of being the audience surrogate, and Vikander, aided fantastically by clicks and air compression sounds, is that rarest of things, a machine with soul. The true accomplishment, however, is that of Oscar Isaac. Clearly an actor who refuses to repeat himself, or look the same from film to film, he is building a towering career. Fans of DRIVE, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, or A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, may have trouble recognizing him at first, but we're left with an actor who knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat wondering how he'll react. It's a gift.
EX MACHNA asks a lot of questions about what it means to be human. It's a common theme in science fiction, with such examples as BLADE RUNNER, UNDER THE SKIN, and CHAPPIE coming to mind. In such a crowded field, tone is everything. EX MACHINA acquits itself quite nicely, because of its memorable feel, the blank but haunted expressions on Ava's face, and a casualness with highly technical explanations.
Throughout the film, I kept trying to second guess what was happening. Who are the real robots? Is everyone a robot? Are such concepts as emotions, and thought exclusive to humans, and therefore something special? Do androids dream of electric sheep? Ok, that last question was written by Philip K. Dick, but it's a fair one to ask here. Regardless, this is less a film about shocking revelations, and more about the yearning for free will. It's an ache felt by organic and man-made creatures alike, if you drink this particular brand of Kool-Aid. I did, and I want some more!
THE MESSINA COMPLEX - My Review of ALEX OF VENICE (3 Stars)
Mary… MoreTHE MESSINA COMPLEX - My Review of ALEX OF VENICE (3 Stars)
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, THE THING) has such a beguiling screen presence, a natural beauty who radiates intelligence and heartbreak with equal measure. She's in a league with Laura Linney, Debra Winger, and Jodie Foster, strong female actors whose faces are sometimes enough to keep you watching almost any movie they headline. Although ALEX OF VENICE is a fairly low stakes slice of life drama, Winstead and an incredible cast make for a pleasantly entertaining film experience.
Making his feature directing debut is actor Chris Messina (THE MINDY PROJECT, ARGO), and his sun-dappled, naturalistic approach appears to pay homage to COMING HOME-era Hal Ashby. Alex is an environmental attorney whose house-husband (Messina) grows weary of their setup and leaves her with her son and ailing father (Don Johnson). Picking up the pieces, Alex must navigate an important case, family problems, and her own parental failings. Enter her loose cannon sister Lily (Katie Nehra, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jessica Goldberg and Justin Shilton) and Alex has her hands way too full.
What follows is a sweet, charming, lovely film about figuring out how to navigate through a very complicated world. At times the story defies credibility, as when Alex strikes up a relationship with a defendant (a charming Derek Luke) she's prosecuting. I found it very hard to believe neither would discuss the conflict of interest or what would happen when one of them loses the case. This type of omission seems out of character for someone like Alex, who may stumble through life but who is clearly much smarter than that.
Alex's dilemma is that she just needs to stop being so self-centered, care a bit more about her son (a terrific performance by Skylar Gaertner), and let go a little. She's your classically uptight character in a pencil skirt who's one hit of Ecstasy away from having more fun in her life. Providing said mood enhancer and winning an MVP award is Nehra. As a writer, she's given her actor self a great, scene-stealing part. The chemistry she shares with Winstead is so snappy and believable, and she's taken a stock character, the slutty sister, and given her such lovable shading, great humor, and unexpected depth. I look forward to watching Nehra blossom in her duel careers.
Another revelation is Don Johnson, who finds the ache and panic behind his eyes as a father slowly losing control of his life. As a struggling actor cast in a local production of THE CHERRY ORCHARD and who can barely function in his daily life, Johnson is stunning. This role hits the sweet spot of an aging actor who still looks great but isn't getting MIAMI VICE attention anymore. It's easy to believe he knows where this character lives, and a Johnson career revival is right up there with PULP FICTION-era John Travolta or THE WRESTLER's Mickey Rourke.
Technically, this is a beautiful film, with Doug Emmett's cinematography and Linda Sena's production design perfectly evoking Venice, CA in all its current beauty. This beach community has always felt a little trapped in the 70s, and ALEX OF VENICE harkens back to that era of small humanistic stories. Great close-ups of Winstead's face as she fights back tears, or Johnson's shifting eyes revealing his inner turmoil become the great takeaways. You may not remember what happens in this film, but you'll certainly recall how it made you feel.
Side Note: At the screening I attended, Jane Fonda, who starred in THE NEWSROOM with Messina, very generously and professionally moderated the Q&A. Not only did she look great, but she had total control of the proceedings, never once allowing it to be about her, keeping the focus rightly on Messina and his film. Proving herself fully engaged with the material and current styles of filmmaking and storytelling, Fonda should be in charge of every Q&A from here on out. Everyone else, thanks for playing, but Jane's got it covered!
LOVE ON THE ROCKS (Of Cocaine) - My Review of DANNY COLLINS ( 3 1/2… MoreLOVE ON THE ROCKS (Of Cocaine) - My Review of DANNY COLLINS ( 3 1/2 Stars)
DANNY COLLINS operates on the odd premise of an aging rock star (Al Pacino) receiving a long lost, inspirational letter from John Lennon, which sends him on a quest to discover the true value of his life. Dan Fogelman, the talented writer of CRAZY, STUPID LOVE and TANGLED, makes his directorial debut here with this fairly standard yet beautifully spirited and wonderfully acted film.
The film starts in 1971 as a magazine interviewer (Nick Offerman, whose laugh is the first of this film's many delights) sits down with a young Collins to inform him that he's about to become a superstar with the writing ability of John Lennon. This sequence is highly reminiscent of ALMOST FAMOUS, and this won't be the only Cameron Crowe reference this film has to offer. Cut to modern day, and our title character is a coked-up, washed-out shell of his former self. He's not doing SCARFACE levels of the drug, but enough to threaten his health and ensure that he's going to Hell by keeping his stash inside his Crucifix. He's about to go onstage at the Greek Theatre to an adoring crowd of elderly, swaying post-Soccer Moms. Seeing older white people dancing is enough to send anyone spiraling, no? He performs his signature hit, "Hey Baby Doll", which sounds so close to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" that a lawsuit surely must be pending! Pacino isn't believable for a second when singing and prancing awkwardly. Sure, the character is dead inside and has long ago lost his will to get up on a stage and thrill an audience, but most in his position know how to at least phone it in with some credibility. Still, it's the only stumble in some of the best work Pacino has done in years.
The first act deftly sets up Collins' extravagant life, his gorgeous house, circle of sycophants, and cheating girlfriend less than half his age. At his birthday party, there's a fantastic dolly shot past a long row of aging men ogling some sexy women frolicking in a pool. Collins' longtime manager, a hilarious Christopher Plummer, gifts him with the aforementioned letter, forcing Collins to reexamine his life and seek out the son he's never met. Bobby Cannavale, in the most soulful performance of his career, plays his son, who harbors deep resentment and faces some tough obstacles of his own as he raises his bouncing-off-the-walls daughter (a terrific Giselle Eisenberg) with his stern but supportive wife (a nicely grounded performance by Jennifer Garner). Sure, this is a redemption story as old as time, but what makes this movie sing is its wit, energy and chemistry-infused patter.
Holing up in a Jersey Hilton, Collins delights the young staff, played with sweet guilelessness by Josh Peck (THE WACKNESS) and Melissa Benoist (GLEE) while he woos Mary, the Hotel Manager, played with considerable Midwest charm by Annette Bening. Refusing to drink Collins' Kool-Aid, Mary clearly enjoys sparring with Danny but has the good sense to spurn his advances. Pacino and Bening are so good together, he with his creepy, animated come-ons and she with her Waspy rigidity offset by the most beguiling smiles she's ever attempted on film. I grew to love Mary, the buttoned-up professional, right alongside Danny, fully understanding why she is such a prize. She almost single-handedly manages to wake up a narcissist and find the genuine, hurting person underneath.
The lion's share of Danny's wake-up call, however, belongs to his interactions with his son, Tom. While most of the cast contributes to the comedy, Cannavale grounds this film with his bruised, angry, and understandably damaged character. Without Tom, Danny would be a laughable buffoon. Danny, perhaps woken up by John Lennon, or maybe he merely wants to tap into the good person deeply buried within, finds the ache in wanting to connect with his boy. The silent moments of this pair, especially when huddled close, are some of the most lovely, perfectly calibrated moments of closeness I've seen in a film so far this year. That the stunning final scene finds a reference in SAY ANYTHING only adds to its appeal. Sure, this is the type of film rarely attempted anymore, a family drama where the stakes are seemingly low, but DANNY COLLINS finds warmth and true kindness on its somewhat silly journey. It's not a feat of exceptional visual filmmaking, but it has characters you would die for, and a real beating heart. That's nothing to sniff (or snort) at, right?
PRETTY TITTY GANG BANG - My Review of FURIOUS 7 (4 Stars)
The FAST… MorePRETTY TITTY GANG BANG - My Review of FURIOUS 7 (4 Stars)
The FAST AND THE FURIOUS series is Universal Pictures' biggest franchise of all time. Its success has been a result of thrillingly over-the-top action sequences, an hilariously self-aware cheesiness to its dialogue, and a charming, perfectly calibrated ensemble who all seem to know what kind of movie they're making. By now, anybody with an internet connection is aware that Paul Walker tragically died in a horrific accident before principal photography was completed on this latest installment. Utilizing seamless CGI overlays and Walker's brothers as doubles, it's virtually impossible to tell when Walker was absent, but his loss is felt so deeply in every frame, that FURIOUS 7 takes on an unexpected emotional grandeur largely absent from prior films. I never thought I'd say this before when speaking of this series, but I defy anyone not to watch the last beautiful minutes of this film without dissolving into a puddle of tears.
James Wan (SAW, THE CONJURING) is new to the FURIOUS world, but he proves himself exceedingly adept with the non-stop barrage of action set pieces. You always know where you're at in any given sequence, which is a credit to Wan, his team of Editors ( Leigh Folsom Boyd, Dylan Highsmith, Kirk M. Morri, and Christian Wagner), and Cinematographers Mark Spicer and Stphen F. Windon). Writer Chris Morgan, who was written five of these films, fully understands the world, where certainly fatal crashes only result in minor contusions, and where no portentous line is uttered without a slow dolly in on an actor turning towards camera with the alacrity of a RuPaul's Drag Race finalist.
The storyline is superfluous. Our gang is enlisted to find a lethal Black-Ops operative (a scary Jason Statham) bent on avenging his brother's death. Trust me, that's all you need to know. Besides, we all come to these films wanting to see if they can top prior action sequences, and in that department, this movie delivers the thrills for its entire 2 hour an 20 minute running time. Whether it involves paratrooping vehicles, cars flying off mountains, a breakneck bus chase, or in the most jaw-dropping sequence, hurtling through a series of skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi, I found myself engaged, on the edge of my seat, and laughing hysterically at the sheer insanity on display. Any film in which Dwayne Johnson gets a lock and load montage where one of his steps is downing pain meds, gets a standing clap from me!
Of course, no FURIOUS film would be complete without its homoeroticism and blatant misogyny. The bro stare-downs between Vin Diesel and Walker are now the stuff of legend and assorted fan fiction, and these films love to wrap their women in skin-tight gowns just so they can risk wardrobe malfunctions during WWE-worthy hand-to-hand combat scenes. Bikinis play a central role in not one, but two scenes, one set at a desert race track and the other unbelievably taking place in a Middle Eastern country which forbids such displays of the female flesh. Now, I can honestly say I know what it must be like to live inside a Pitbull music video.
Depsite the cornball tone, the actors work up a sweet rapport, with Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris providing the most charm and humor. Diesel is an acquired taste, and by now, he seems to be doing a self-parody of the gruff, strong, silent type. Even when Bruce Willis phones it in, he still manages to seem Oscar-caliber compared to Diesel's flat non-efforts. Regardless, it works within the silly rules of this universe, especially when Diesel does his final send-off. Paul Walker wasn't a great actor, but he was a great star. He had a Kid In A Candy Store quality to his acting, always appearing to love jumping from car to whatever else was hurtling along, or looking terrified/turned-on when danger loomed. The reason everything always seems to come together in these films is because nobody ever pretended this was anything but a mega-budgeted B movie.
Ridiculousness aside, I had a great time watching this film. The sound design alone, with its revving engines and perfectly silent breaks whenever cars fly in the air, leads to a fully immersive experience. Check your brain cells at the door, sit back, put your seatbelt on, and enjoy this mindless, fun joyride.