Friday, April 29, 2011

Fast Five

I'm an unapologetic fan of the Fast and Furious franchise. Justin Lin has revitalized a franchise once thought to be near death, and by restructuring the timeline (which currently sits at 1, 2, 4, 5, 3) writer Chris Morgan has turned what was once simply a remake of Point Break - set in the world of street racing instead of surfing - into one of the most entertaining action franchises currently in Hollywood. The newest addition, Fast Five, reunites all the major players of the series and continues its tradition of providing audiences with big, dumb, overcharged fun drenched in testosterone.

Fast Five
Director: Justin Lin
Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Dwayne Johnson


The film picks up where Fast and Furious left off: Dominic Toretto (Diesel) has been sentenced to 25 years without parole, and it's up to former FBI agent Brian O'Connor (Walker) and his girlfriend Mia Toretto (Brewster) to bust Dom out. After a ludicrous bus crash sequence, our lovable group of antiheroes flees to Rio de Janeiro, where they can catch their breath and lay low for a while. (The audience never forgets they're in Rio, because there are no less than four excessive sweeping helicopter shots of the giant Jesus statue overlooking the city.) But since the audience doesn't want to see a movie about people sitting around and waiting for the heat to blow over, Brian and Mia sign up for a job almost instantly after arriving. Their mission: boost a series of cars from a moving train. This sets up one of the best action sequences in a movie full of them - I won't go into the details, but it's a great sequence, well paced and executed with style by Justin Lin, who I really feel is coming into his own as a director.

The worst part about this new gig is the boosted cars belonged to Reyes, the resident villain who practically owns all of Rio (including their entire police force). He's none too pleased to be put out; he's searching for something that's in one of those cars. So it's up to Dom, Mia, and Brian to find out what it is and use it to take Reyes for all he's worth. And good news for fans of this series: there are a ton of familiar faces, including Tyrese and Ludacris from 2 Fast 2 Furious, Vince from the original, Han from Tokyo Drift, and many more. But that's not all: this franchise gets a boost of energy from Dwayne Johnson as Hobbs, a special agent tasked with tracking the Toretto crew down. I imagine Chris Morgan relished writing this character, a seemingly no-nonsense guy who ironically spouts nothing but nonsensical one-liners. A sample: a lackey tells Hobbs he has good news and bad news, to which Hobbs replies, "You know I like my dessert first." Johnson is particularly well matched with this material, considering his professional wrestling background; Hobbs is basically a pro wrestler, complete with two inch staredowns with other sweaty men.


There is a much-touted fight scene between Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson that was worth the price of admission if you're a fan of either of those guys. Unlike Stallone in The Expendables, Lin knows how to make a star-studded face-off engaging and bone-jarringly effective. (Sorry Sly. You're my boy, but that movie was disappointing.) Like its predecessor, Fast Five also sets up for potential sequels, and Johnson has expressed interest in being a major player in The Fas6 and the F6rious or whatever they end up calling it. By the way, make sure to stick around for the post-credits sequence in Fast Five - fans of the series will definitely walk away intrigued.


I alluded earlier to Justin Lin's impressive abilities behind the camera, and now I'll go a step further: I think Michael Bay finally has some true competition in this genre. Bay has always been a master of expertly staged set pieces, but the extended vault heist sequence at the end of Fast Five is as equally destructive, ridiculous, and frenetic as anything I've seen in a Bay film. And after Lin dropped briefly into the TV world and directed Community's "Modern Warfare" paintball episode, it's even clearer to me the man has a deep understanding of all things action and can successfully walk the line between parody and legitimacy. None of the Fast and Furious movies should be taken seriously, but that's the fun of them - the actors all play it straight while the audience sits back and laughs at the audacity and preposterousness of their scenarios.


The acting here is terrible, and the plot is the kind of stock story that fans of action films have come to expect, but none of that matters when the movie is this well-executed. I caught some flack recently for not liking Scre4m: my detractors were using the tried-and-true "what were you expecting? You know what you're getting into with a movie like that" argument. While that may be true with some of the series-specific gags and such, I felt like that movie should work as either a comedy or a horror film (or both), and I didn't think it succeeded on any level. In the case of Fast Five, some may use the same "what were you expecting?" argument when it comes to the characters, dialogue, story, etc. But the best part of Fast Five is this: it works as an action movie. It's well paced, and there are some truly thrilling sequences, chases, shootouts, and heists. Even if you hate the characters and think the story is idiotic, you can't deny that this is a worthy action film.


The floodgates of Summer 2011 have officially opened, and if the rest of this summer's lineup has the same spirit as Fast Five, this will be a good year. This is a movie that features car surfing, Vin Diesel using his bulging forearms to block a hit from a metal pipe, and a finale chase scene that rivals The Blues Brothers. Go ahead and mark me down for Fas6 and F6rious - if it's more of the same, I'm totally fine with that. Until next time...

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The NJNM Podcast: Ep. 38 - The Fountain


In this week's episode, Ben and Tyler talk about Darren Aronofsky's 2006 film, The Fountain. (Note: we're taking a week off next weekend due to Easter.)




Introduction
Character Name Game Intro - 1:41
In My Netflix - 2:03

Media Consumed
Ben
The 39 Steps - 8:15
TRON: Legacy - 14:18

Tyler
Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures, Daedalus Opus - 20:00
"Happy Endings," Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2 - 21:45

Review
The Fountain - 27:15

Wrap-Up
Next Time: The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppet Movie - 56:15
Listener Voicemail/E-mail/Twitter - 58:15
Character Name Game - 1:00:15
Where You Can Find Us - 1:03:13

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Scre4m

I have a confession to make: I've never seen Scream 2 or Scream 3. If you think that invalidates my opinion about this fourth entry in the franchise, I won't begrudge you that opinion. But I look at it like this: since I haven't seen those earlier films, I'm not bringing the baggage of those movies with me into my experience here, thereby allowing me to look at Scre4m a bit more objectively and measure its merits as a standalone movie. So does Wes Craven's latest work as a horror film, or is it a bit too meta for its own good? Read on to find out.

Scre4m
Director: Wes Craven
Starring: Neve Campbell, Emma Roberts, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Hayden Panettiere, Rory Culkin


This film is all about redefining our expectations for the franchise. After all, it's been more than ten years since Ghostface last slashed his (or her!) way across theater screens. Ten long years, leaving behind a cinematic landscape littered with horror parodies and countless regurgitations of genre variations we've seen a hundred times before. But, as the tagline for Scre4m says, "New decade. New rules." I've got a rule of my own: Any movie in which the characters call attention to being "meta" is probably trying a little too hard.


Because this movie is so overly self-referential, it sacrifices a lot of the fun we're supposed to be having. The film takes itself way too seriously, attempting to dupe the audience at every turn; it goes so far out of its way to circumvent our assumptions that A) when the killer is finally revealed, it feels like a bit of a cheat, and B) it wears the audience down to the point of abuse, blindsiding our notions of what's about to happen, and then instantly blindsiding the blindside just to keep us off balance. Nothing ever feels earned. All the scares are cheap jump scares, and Craven seems content with mining recycled content.


Much like the way Boondock Saints II: All Saint's Day was nearly a carbon copy of its predecessor - even down to featuring some identical scenes - Scre4m feels like an imitation of the original Scream. Just because characters address the fact that similar events are happening in this movie as they did to Sidney back in the first film isn't quite enough to justify this movie's existence. As much as it wants to be about progress and reshaping our thoughts moving forward, this movie (and especially its older characters) are all stuck in the past. Sidney (Neve Campbell) has written a best-selling book about moving on with her life, but she can't resist returning to Woodsboro on the anniversary of the original deaths. From the moment we see her in Scre4m, she's caught in the past: Rebecca, Sidney's publicist (played by Alison Brie) asks Sidney what she thinks of a display case in the bookstore window, but Sidney is captivated by a Ghostface mask hanging from a streetlamp nearby. Gale (Courteney Cox), who has stretched Sidney's trauma into seven books that provide the basis for the Stab movie series within the film, has come down with writer's block. But as soon as Ghostface returns, Gale perks up at the chance to return to solving the case. "This is what I'm good at," she tells her husband, the lovable sheriff Dewey (played by Cox's real-life husband, David Arquette).


Writer Kevin Williamson (who also wrote the original) desperately tries to infuse the story with a modern spin by including multiple opening scenes (one of the only times the "subverting audience expectations" method was actually well-executed) and featuring a character that is constantly broadcasting his every move via a webcam attached to his head. That entire character screams (no pun intended) executive decision, and no - I'm not talking about the Kurt Russell movie. What I mean is that no kid wears a freaking webcam on his head all day long; that kind of broad generalization of "what teens are into" seems like a decision borne from a conference room discussion rather than the writer's creative muse. The new class - Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Rory Culkin, etc. - seem tacked on to give the movie some youthful exuberance, but since they're just spewing genre tropes and not contributing anything that ever feels important to the story, time spent with them seems like time wasted until we return to Sidney's exploits on screen.


There are a scant few fun moments in the movie, but they're spread very thin, crippling the film's effectiveness as a whole. None of the performances stand out, with perhaps the lone exception of supporting actress Marley Shelton, who adds yet another strange role to her resume. I suppose this is worth seeing for the completionists among you, and fans of the series will see it without regard to any review, but I honestly didn't find anything interesting about the movie and therefore can't recommend seeing it. Wes Craven would do better to return to making small confined thrillers like Red Eye than cashing a paycheck for another in this franchise. What's my favorite scary movie? Tough call, but this one's nowhere close. Until next time...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The NJNM Podcast: Ep. 37 - The Thing (Guest: Jim Napier from GeekTyrant.com)


(Poster by the awesome Drew Struzan, whose excellent book I reviewed here.)

In this week's episode, Ben and Tyler are joined by Jim Napier (from GeekTyrant.com) to discuss John Carpenter's 1982 film, The Thing.





Introduction
Character Name Game Intro - 1:33
In My Netflix - 2:03

Media Consumed
Tyler
Fighter's History (Super Nintendo game) - 6:35
Jennifer's Body - 7:49

Jim
This Film Is Not Yet Rated - 13:10
Zapped, The Long Kiss Goodnight - 14:00
Invasion of the Body Snatchers - 14:18

Ben
Gamebox 1.0 - 15:13

Review
The Thing - 21:09

Wrap-Up
Next Week: The Fountain - 1:02:29
Listener Voicemail/E-Mail/Twitter - 1:03:09
Character Name Game - 1:05:02
Where You Can Find Us - 1:06:45

(Information about the upcoming prequel can be found here thanks to i09.com.)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Hanna

Joe Wright's filmography is full of things I've never cared to see: Atonement, The Soloist, Pride & Prejudice. But all that changed with Hanna, Wright's first real foray into directing action. For comparison's sake, it's similar to The Bourne Identity in the way it balances psychological issues with sporadic bursts of action. The young female action heroine subgenre seems to have risen in popularity in recent years with Kick-Ass and Sucker Punch, but make no mistake: Hanna deals with the genre's popular themes much more effectively than either of the aforementioned movies.

Hanna
Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett


Saoirse Ronan - an actress I've never seen before on screen - is phenomenal in the title role. She's captivating, capable of switching between starry-eyed wonder and straight-faced badassery with the ease of someone far more experienced. Raised in the forest by her rogue ex-CIA agent father Erik Heller (Eric Bana), Hanna has been trained her entire life to be a solider. Armed with knowledge of the world memorized from an encyclopedia, Hanna spends the first twenty-ish minutes of the film convincing her father she's "ready." Erik agrees, and they set a plan in motion that aims to destroy Marissa Weigler (Cate Blanchett), Erik's old CIA handler.


Bana disappears for long stretches of the film, but he gives a compelling performance when he pops up. He's a versatile actor: for my money, he was the best part of both Wolfgang Petersen's Troy and Judd Apatow's Funny People. Cate Blanchett - an actress I normally despise, despite her near-universal critical acclaim - was also relegated to a smaller role than the trailer indicates, and much to my surprise, I enjoyed her performance. She adopted some sort of Southern or Texas accent (a creative decision I assumed would make her even more difficult to tolerate), but she showed restraint and didn't overplay it. This may be the first time I've truly appreciated her in a film (keeping in mind that as of now, I've only seen a handful of her movies).


More than anything, Hanna is Joe Wright's canvas to explore the strangeness of growing up and punctuate these thoughtful, dreamy moments with bouts of ass kicking. Hanna meets a traveling family led by Olivia Williams ("Dollhouse") and Jason Flemyng (Deep Rising), and forms the first friendship she's ever had with their daughter, Sophie (Jessica Barden). Sophie couldn't be farther away from Hanna in a cultural sense, but this provides Wright with some material to ponder that tactile sense of bonding with a friend for the first time that almost everyone can relate to. (Perhaps not quite to the extent that this movie delves into it, but at least on some level.) Wright does a good job at balancing the two aspects, using violence to highlight the power of the relationships formed and giving action film fans something to chew on. There are some phenomenal sequences in this movie: Hanna's interaction with fake Marissa in the holding room, the cargo container chase scene, and - this film's pride and joy - the magnificent long take following Eric Bana through the bus station and continuing down into an extended fight in a subway chamber. (The subway fight will certainly be one of my favorite scenes of the year.)


I don't know anything about The Chemical Brothers, who did the score for this movie, but I do know that their work here was fantastic. The score is pulse-pounding in all the right places and inquisitive when it needs to be, using synths and techno beats to emphasize action and xylophones and bell tones to indicate innocence and curiosity. The score is a work of art unto itself, one that has real staying power and will probably be one of my favorites at year's end. As of this writing, some of the score is streaming for free online over at MySpace, so check it out over there. It's not music I'd normally be inclined to listen to, but it compliments the action on screen really well and the whistling melody adds to the overt fairy tale qualities of the film.


In my review of Sucker Punch, I pleaded that we'd see some smarter blockbusters during this summer season. While I wouldn't categorize Hanna as a blockbuster by any means - the movie has a very down-to-Earth vibe to it - this is the kind of intelligence I'm hoping for. Joe Wright knows what's up: it's not an impossible task to make a movie with a message that also includes excellent action scenes. Fans of the Bourne series, this one's for you. Until next time...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The NJNM Podcast: Ep. 36 - The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Guest: Kate Erbland from GATW)


In this week's episode, Ben and Tyler are joined by Kate Erbland (from Gordon and the Whale) to discuss Terry Gilliam's 2009 film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.





Introduction
Character Name Game Intro - 1:31
In My Netflix - 2:00

Media Consumed
Kate
The Big Lebowski - 6:41
We Are What We Are - 8:35
Source Code - 11:14

Tyler
Final Fantasy XII - 14:41
Assaultgirls - 16:57

Ben
"Dinner for Five": Season 1, Episode 11 - 20:05

Review
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus - 28:38

Wrap-Up
Next Week: The Thing - 52:46
Listener Voicemail/E-Mail/Twitter - 53:42
Character Name Game - 59:05
Where You Can Find Us - 1:02:30

Attack the Block

Joe Cornish is a name many of you probably aren't familiar with...yet. But this guy is poised on the edge of breakout status, and my hope is that in a few years, he'll be drawing the same admiration and acclaim as his contemporary and sometimes-writing partner, Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). The duo co-wrote the screenplay for Spielberg's upcoming holiday release The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, and they have been working on a script for the lower-tier Marvel superhero Ant-Man for years now. Attack the Block marks Cornish's feature directorial debut (he also wrote the movie), and with its kinetic pacing, solid character work, and genre-mashing sensibilities, the movie already seems destined to become a cult classic.

Attack the Block
Writer/Director: Joe Cornish
Starring: Jodie Whittaker, John Boyega, Alex Esmail, Leeon Jones, Nick Frost


It opens in South London with a girl named Sam (Whittaker) getting mugged by a gang of teenage hoodlums, led by Moses (Boyega). The mugging is interrupted when an alien smashes through a car roof nearby, and after the guys kill the creature and parade it back to their "block," they soon realize the invasion isn't limited to one creature - there are many more falling from the sky, and these are a lot bigger and meaner than the first one. Teaming up with Sam and a few potheads (one played by Edgar Wright staple Nick Frost), the gang must band together in order to survive both the invasion and the unstable antics of the perpetually pissed off psychotic local drug dealer Hi-Hatz.


Rarely have the genres of action, comedy, and science fiction combined to such rousing effect as in this movie. The script is blazingly quick-witted, tearing from chase scene to set piece with jokes peppered throughout and near-perfect comic timing. Every gag works, every action scene is both conceived and executed in terrific fashion, and the character moments are spectacular. Similar movies may feel predictable, but things actually matter here: characters you grow to love die thanks to the glow-in-the-dark fangs of the aliens, and since no one is off limits, it heightens the drama throughout. The montage sequences of the gang preparing for battle has Wright's influence all over it, and the movie has a genuinely fun atmosphere even though these characters are enduring a horrifying situation.


Cornish used a cast comprised almost entirely of unknowns and they all work wonderfully together. They bounce their London slang off each other and practically finish each other's sentences with a youthful exuberance and blustery bravado found in kids who think they're gangsters, but are really just victims of a bad social situation. The colleague who got me into this screening (Drew McWeeny at HitFix - thanks Drew!) told me Cornish went through a four month casting search, and after he found everyone, he allowed the kids to essentially rewrite the dialogue into more natural language, mimicking the way they actually speak. That sensibility comes across brilliantly in the movie; the characters feel like real people instead of stock roles, and each one has his or her own defining characteristics. The accents may be a bit harsh at times, but there's absolutely no reason to subtitle the movie if and when it gets U.S. distribution (as discussions have indicated since Attack the Block's SXSW Film Festival premiere).

Unfortunately, you read that correctly - this movie hits the UK on May 13th, 2011, but if you're in the United States and you want to see it, you're sadly out of luck. It's shocking to me that distributors haven't picked this up yet, because it's a surefire cult classic that may not do gangbusters at the box office, but will make some serious cash in the home video market. I know I'll be purchasing the Blu-ray and showing it to all of my friends; this is the type of movie that plays great to a crowd, and fans of science fiction, comedy, or even some of the old Amblin films will be in geek heaven.


Attack the Block is full of references to other films, but these aren't nearly as obvious as the ones in Paul, another recent alien film with which Edgar Wright and Nick Frost were involved. Instead, this one relies more on the vibe than specific homages; there are touches of Gremlins, Alien, The Thing, and many more, but Attack always feels confident in its own skin, fine with sitting back and allowing the story to speak for itself. The language of the characters actually serves to strengthen this film's own voice: catch phrases and exclamations like "allow it," "truth!" and "believe!" give the movie a charm that no American remake (shudder) could hope to recapture.

Props must be given to first-time actor John Boyega who carries the film as Moses, the leader of the gang. He's equally successful in the quietly intense moments as in the bombastic slow motion battle scenes, and I'm certain we haven't seen the last of him on the big screen. Alex Esmail (who plays Pest) and Leeon Jones (who plays Jerome) also did some solid work, and Jodie Whittaker (Sam) did a great job as the emotional center of the movie. Nick Frost has a really small role, but he's content with underplaying his part in order to let the young cast shine, so don't expect much from him or you'll surely be disappointed.

I can't imagine having a more purely fun time in theaters this year, so expect Attack the Block to make it onto my Favorites of the Year list come December. If you ask me, there aren't enough movies that feature swords and fireworks as ridiculous weapons, and this movie not only has both, but embraces them - they actually provide some of the coolest moments in the movie. Keep your eyes peeled for this one - it's totally worth your while. Until next time...