Movie reviews: Latest 'Furious' bombastic, but sputters on fun
Published Friday, April 14, 2017 6:30AM EDT
THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS: 2 ½ STARS
Preposterous is not a word most filmmakers would like to have applied to their work but in the case of the “Fast and Furious” franchise I think it is what they are going for. Somewhere along the way the down-‘n’-dirty car chase flicks veered from sublimely silly to simply silly.
Perhaps it was the wild train heist in “Fast Five,” or the entirety of “Tokyo Drift” or the skyscraper-to-skyscraper jump from “Fast and Furious 7.” Whatever it was, at some point in the sixteen years someone decided more is really more. Bigger stunts, more stars and more pedal-to-the-metal action, which leads us to “The Fate of the Furious.”
This latest slab of preposterous bombastity begins in Havana. Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are honeymooning when, surprise, surprise an unexpected car race breaks out. Although clearly out-gunned (SPOILER ALERT ONLY IF THE OUTCOME WASN’T SO PREDICTABLE) Dom wins, his car speeding backwards and engulfed in flames.
As if that wouldn’t be enough for most movies, we’re then introduced to criminal mastermind Ciper (Charlize Theron). As her name implies, she’s a tricky one, and soon Dom has turned his back on his crew—Letty, Roman (Tyrese Gibson), ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Tej (Ludacris)—to work for her. Why? Not sure. She shows him something on a mobile phone screen that changes his once unbending loyalty to his peeps. “You're going to abandon your crew and shatter your family,” Cipher snarls. “Your team is about to go against the only thing they can't handle—you.” She has highfalutin ideas about holding the world accountable for it’s sins ands who better to help her than a grease monkey with a raspy voice and a can-do attitude?
In another part of the story covert ops team leader, the excellently named Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) convinces Dom’s old crew to work for him again. The plan this time involves tossing Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) in prison to aid the escape of assassin Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham).
Throw in a series of exotic locations—the movie zips from Cuba to New York City to Russia and every where in between as Hobbs and crew try to understand Dom’s defection while at the same time stop him from amassing an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. That’s right, a series once satisfied with fast cars and socket wrenches now concerns itself with WMDs.
“The Fate of the Furious” is fast, furious but it’s not much fun. It’s an unholy mashup of James Bond and the Marvel Universe, a movie bogged down by outrageous stunts and too many characters. Someone really should tell Diesel and Company that more is not always more.
The love of family is the subtext that that bonds the all the movies together is given lip service but little else. Despite aspiring to be “The Brothers Karamazov” with muscle cars, the movie is little more than a preposterous demolition derby that values vehicular wham bam thank you ma'am over anything else.
In the classic sense it does prove the old theory that for every action there's a reaction… and a one liner. “They're going to flank us!” “No they ain’t,” yelps Hobbs as he punts a military vehicle into outerspace. It’s a catchphrase-a-looza where the characters don’t actually talk to one another, they trade quips.
“The Fate of the Furious” is big, loud and while the “Zombie Time” gag of switching on all the cars in a 10-block New York City neighbourhood, then having them perform a street ballet of a sort, is kind of cool, but is a highlight in a film filled with things we’ve seen before. It’s almost worth the price of admission for the Vin Diesel One Single Tear Scene © but you can’t help but feel that tear would be better shed for the “Fast & Furious’” lost fun factor.
GIFTED: 3 ½ STARS
“Gifted” is the story of a fractured family. Like a hybrid of “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Little Man Tate” (with a taste of “Good Will Hunting” thrown in), it bases a family custody story around a child prodigy.
Chris Evans leaves his Captain America mask at Avenger’s HQ to play Frank Adler, a single man trying to give his niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) a normal life in a Florida coastal town. As the seven-year-old’s guardian, he enrols the high-spirited girl in public school. “Please don’t make me go,” she says. “No more argument, we’ve discussed this ad nauseam,” he replies. “What’s ad nauseam?” “You don’t know? Looks like someone need school.”
In school she outpaces all her classmates academically, particularly in mathematics. When her teacher (Jenny Slate) tries to stump her, asking what 57 multiplied by 135 is, the little girl pauses and says, “7695” off the top of her head. Then goes on to supply the square root. “87.7 plus change.” It is clear she is gifted, but her abilities raise concerns for Frank. “I promised my sister I’d give Mary a normal life,” he says. “She has to be here,” and not in the special school her grandmother (Lindsay Duncan) wants to place her in. “You are denying her potential.” Cue the custody battle.
“Gifted” doesn’t exactly reinvent the family drama wheel. Frank is the “quiet damaged hot guy,” Mary the precocious kid with a snappy line and many a heart tugging moments. We’ve seen all that before but it’s the chemistry between Evans and Grace that elevates the material. The poignancy of their relationship cuts through the film’s clichés, taking some of the saccharin edge off the story.
Evans is a superhero of a different sort in “Gifted.” As the protective uncle of a brilliant niece he is a fully engaged father figure. He’s a man who saw his sister’s brilliance turn her life upside down and does everything he can to avoid the same fate for his niece. It’s a nice, sensitive performance that provides a nice break from his Avengers’ work.
Grace offers up a nicely balanced blend of brains and childhood behaviour. She’s the smartest person in the room, but she’s also a child, prone to temper tantrums and confusion. Still she is capable of great insight. Why does she want to stay with Frank? “He wanted me before I was smart.”
The movie works best when it focuses on the surrogate dad and niece. There is nice supporting work from Jenny Slate as Mary’s teacher, Octavia Spencer (in her second film about gifted mathematicians) as the girl’s much older best friend and Duncan as the stern Evelyn do solid work, but this is a basically a two hander.
“Gifted” is a warm and funny family drama, a film so well cast it overcomes its conventional idea.
MAUDIE: 4 STARS
“Maudie,” the true story of folk artist Maud Lewis, is a romantic movie about a physically challenged woman who found beauty in life’s simplicity.
Born with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that left her undersized and frail, Maud Dowley (Sally Hawkins) was shunted around to relatives in her youth. Told she couldn’t look after herself she was treated like an outsider by her family and rural Nova Scotian community. “Some people don't like it if you're different,” she says. In a bid to get out from under the thumb of her controlling aunt she answers a help wanted ad at the local general store. It leads her to Everett Lewis’ (Ethan Hawke) rundown one-room shack. He’s a man of few words, raised in an orphanage, now a loner who ekes out a living selling fish and chopped wood.
“You walk funny,” he says, unsure she’ll be up to the job. “You a cripple? You sick?”
“I was born funny,” she replies.
The circumstances are rustic in the extreme but for room and board plus $0.25 a week spending money she agrees to try and turn the shack into a home. To pass the time when she isn’t cooking and cleaning, she retreats into her art, painting colourful landscapes on the walls of the house. She paints flowers, birds and a portrait of their prize chicken—now a long ago digested meal—so, “we can remember his happier days."
As romance blossoms between this odd couple Maud’s art—handmade postcards, paintings—slowly gains fans, including Vice President Richard Nixon who purchased a landscape by mail. As Maud’s increasing recognition threatens Everett’s simple way of life their union becomes strained.
“Maudie” is a quiet movie with nicely wrought moments. The excitement and joy that spreads across Hawkins’ face as she negotiates her first big sale—$5 a painting plus $1 for postage—is infectious and touching. Later, a muted but emotional reconciliation is heartfelt without being showy or obvious. This is a movie about small moments, an exchanged look, a caress. Like its real life inspirations the film is unpretentious, occasionally gruff but always honest and truthful.
Hawkins is remarkable as the determined Maud. Frail but indomitable, she is a classic movie heroine, a woman who succeeds against all odds. Hawke is a solid presence, gruff on the outside and, if not exactly mushy on the inside, then at least open to love. They are, as Maud says, “like a pair of odd socks.”
Director Aisling Walsh is unafraid to tug at the heartstrings. He sometimes errs on the emotional quality of the score, pushing towards the saccharine, but Hawkins and Hawke always rein it in before we get too much of a sugar rush.
THEIR FINEST: 3 STARS
On film war heroes are usually seen dodging bullets or rescuing wounded comrades from the field of battle. Rarer are the stories of those who stayed behind, never touched a gun or saw the front lines. “Their Finest” is one of those tales, a World War II drama about people who pitched in by raising morale.
It’s 1940, bombs are falling, decimating London and confidence is at an all time low. In an effort to boost the public’s confidence The British Ministry of Information, Film Division commissions a propaganda film that will be both “authentic and optimistic.” To this end they recruit Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) to provide “a woman’s touch,” or as they less politely call it, “the slop."
Working alongside the cynical lead scriptwriter Buckley (Sam Claflin) she comes up with the mostly true story about two sisters who stole their father's boat to help rescue soldiers from the siege at Dunkirk. Their story isn’t quite as exciting as promised but it does provide two details they can use. The sisters remember a French GI who tried to kiss them and an English soldier with a dog in a tote bag. It’s perfect they say, it has, “authenticity, optimism… and a dog.”
As they toil to craft a script that will please both the Ministry of Information and the movie’s star, aging matinee idol Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), Mrs. Cole and Buckley’s relationship turns from testy to tender.
“Their Finest” is a feel good movie almost as melodramatic as the film within the film. Luckily the melodrama—unexpected romantic twists and deaths—is wedged between Arterton’s steely-but-sweet performance, a showy turn from Nighy—“The war has slipped off the cream and we're left with the rancid curds,” he says, complaining there are no good waiters left in Soho—and a vivid portrait of the casual condescension heaped on women, even as they took on an expanded role in the work place.
The melodrama also helps sidestep the obvious inspirational landmines this kind of story usually offers up. The rousing ”when life is precarious it's a shame to waste it,” message is none too subtle but is gently pushed aside by Mrs. Cole’s character development as she learns to trust herself and accept that heroes aren’t always only on the battlefield.
“Their Finest” is a love letter to film—the source novel’s title was “Their Finest Hour and a Half”—with grand statements about the magic of movies. “Film,” says Buckley, “is real life with the boring bits taking out.” But more than that, it’s a tribute to the women who kept the home fires burning… and the movies playing.
A QUIET PASSION: 3 ½ STARS
“A Quiet Passion” avoids the two major pitfalls of most poetry movies, it neither seeks to ponder the creative process or glamourize the poet’s excesses and rakish behaviour. Instead, this is a modest movie that focuses on Emily Dickenson’s reclusive existence; giving us insight into the personality published just seven poems in her lifetime.
Set in nineteenth century Amherst, Massachusetts, at the start Emma Bell plays Dickenson as an unconventional young woman who leaves her women’s college because she, “will not be forced to piety.” Later “Sex and the City’s” Cynthia Nixon takes over the role as the poet matures into a fiercely opinionated and vivacious woman who lives with her father (Keith Carradine), mother (Joanna Bacon), brother (Duncan Duff) and sister (Jennifer Ehle).
Unlike most dour representations of Dickenson, Nixon plays her as an intense, intuitive person bursting at the seams with ideas. Despite the strict morays of the time—she had to ask her father for permission to write—she would stay in that tightly knit family unit her entire life, soaking up the inspiration that fed the nearly 2000 poems she wrote but (mostly) never published. Writing poetry by hurricane lamp, calling it, "my solace for the eternity that surrounds us all," she pours a life ripe with bereavement and disappointment onto the pages.
There’s not a lot of action in “A Quiet Passion.” It is primarily housebound, as Emily withdraws from the outside world, surrounding herself with those she knows and trusts best. It is, I suppose, a good way to visualize her growing sense of societal alienation but it makes for a film that often feels closed in, claustrophobic.
Luckily there is nothing stodgy about the performances. Nixon leads the cast, breathing life into a character who retreated from the world, expressing her joy and pain in the written word. She makes the mannered dialogue seem natural, bringing an ease to the conversation and societal structures. It’s a lovely performance, one that transcends the film’s archness and artifice.
There is poetry in “A Quiet Passion.” Perhaps not enough of actual poetry for Dickenson purists—it’s mostly heard in voiceover—but a cinematic poetry from director Terence Davies who has visualized one woman’s intimate connection with words.
MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA: 4 STARS
“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” is an audacious animated film from graphic novelist Dash Shaw that has been described as, “John Hughes fused with The Poseidon Adventure.” That’s not far off the mark. It’s a bravura, bizarro-land high school disaster flick, unlike anything else you’re likely to see this year.
Animated using a colourful hodgepodge of drawings, paintings and collage, it’s the strange story of sophomores Dash (voice of Jason Schwartzman) and his best friend Assaf (voice of Reggie Watts), writers for the newspaper at Tides High School. A wedge is pushed between the junior Woodward and Bernsteins when editor Verti (voice of Maya Rudolph) offers Assaf solo assignments. To even the score Dash writes a fictitious story about his former friend’s erectile dysfunction. He is suspended and when he uncovers an actual story—their school isn’t built to code—no one will believe him.
No one, that is, until an earthquake strikes, toppling the school into the Pacific trapping everyone inside. Racing to escape the crumbling building Dash and Assaf plus a crafty lunch lady (Susan Sarandon) and school-know-it-all Mary (Lena Dunham), must battle sharks, jellyfish, senior gangs, electrocution and more.
“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” startles with its originality. Visually it’s an eye-bending exercise in collage while the script’s dry wit and explorations of high school hierarchy are bang on the money. High school is about a balance of power and how better to test friendships and power dynamics than to throw everyone into a potentially life threatening situation?