Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Googolplex Gulag with FAST FIVE, THOR and BRIDESMAIDS

Haven't done this in several weeks- due to lack of funds and lack of time- but now it's summer baby, so watch out.  Time to flood the multiplex with sequels, reboots, remakes, rip-offs, knock-offs, and those little cupcakes you might want to buy when you pass by the window on the corner shop.


Fast Five, from Def-Jam records.

This is not just a popcorn movie.  Oh no, that's not enough for Justin Lin doing his third Fast & Furious franchise movie that is now in its fifth gear (see what I did there).  This is popcorn smothered with tons of butter and salt and grease, and then a large one that has ridiculous steroids pumped in that give one extra muscles while watching the movie and then makes one sweat steroid juice the way Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's head does here.

Fast Five is dumber than a box of bricks and happy enough to be that, and while it doesn't have quite the amount of racing as the past films it has, well, a heist plot of ridiculous (but appropriate) proportions, Rio di Janeiro locations, Paul Walker's stone-faced "acting", the return of Tyrese(!) and Ludacris(!!) to the franchise, and... did I mention the Rock?

Apparently this is still going on - this scene, I mean - and it's two weeks since I've seen the movie.  "SUP!"

In short, or as short as I can so I can get back to the rest of the review, the duo of Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) are now in Rio after O'Connor engineered a super-daring WTF escape from a prison bus for Dominic, and now they're on the FBI wanted-WTF-list, being chased by Super-FBI-Cop-Sweat-Bulge Luke Hobbs (Johnson/The Rock).

But there's another problem in that Rio is being run by Super-Drug-Douche Herman Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida, or 'Guy Movies Get To Play Evil Spanish Businessman-Drug-Lord-Whatever), and that his men basically try to kill Toretto and O'Connor.  So, there's payback time as they bring in the rest of the crew from ALL of the past movies - 2 Fast 2 Furious' Tyrese and Ludacris, one of the Asian guys from Tokyo Drift (sorry I didn't see that one), and a couple others - and make a daring plan to heist all of Reyes' monies in Rio.

If you have any other reaction other than 'Cool!' you don't need glasses.

How this happens, and how they try to dodge Sweaty-McRockpants is what the movie is, and it's up to Lin and his writer Chris Morgan.  Do they make it work?  Yes and no.  No in that the movie is really stupid in how it gets out of certain plot jams and how it eventually tries to make Luke Hobbs not so much a "good" guy but not as Super-Raging as he is earlier and one-track-minded (indeed for a little while I was reminded of my friend's webseries Kyle Sands: Raptor Hunter with the kind of hilarious fervor The Rock pitches here).  And near the end the movie almost cops out with a detail I won't put forward here.  But I would say 'Yes' in that I could forget about some of the shit that didn't make sense and focus on the stuff that does: Machismo, fast cars, a few hot female bums, and a wonderfully ludicrous heist plot that is like Ocean's 11 on... what else can use aside from steroids?

It also helps that the actors are having fun with the material too.  Sure, as I mentioned, Paul Walker has the personality of lead, and Vin Diesel isn't that much better (but hey, at least he can kinda, sorta smile, which is like seeing the T-800 trying to smile in Judgment Day), but the supporting cast has good camraderie and their 'training' stuff to get prepared to heist Reyes' loot is fun in an escapist-silly sort of way.  Even the Rock seems to be getting into it as he waddles from one set piece to another - he can't really move much as us regular folk do being that he's a Super-Rockinator now - giving orders and/or kicking ass, and when he finally has his bitch match-up with Toretto, it turns into a wrestling match that made me giddy for the days of WWF.

But yes, I've been a little vague on this heist element.  What is it they're stealing.  Well, a bank vault.  ALL OF IT.  ACROSS THE ROAD FOR MILES!  Yes, you read that right.  And while I can't be sure a monster truck, let alone two cars, can really drag an entire giant bank vault across town, it's enjoyable to let go and just admire the sheer tenacity of the makers to pull it off.  And hey, who needs violence with consequences anyway when there's such a super-thing at stake?

A part of me should try and not be so sarcastic, but it is the only way to ignore the fact that this is one of the most violent films you'll see this year... that is PG-13.  Indeed this is one of those Hollywood movies without any consequences really, save for maybe one death of a character.  But people are shot (a lot), stabbed, punched, and knocked about town with a giant safe... but it's alright, cause it's sans-lots-of-blood.

So on a moral level Fast Five is hard to excuse.  But as a form of entertainment that travels on its fast looks, fast action and sometimes deliberate pacing midway through... it's not bad.  I wish I could hate it, but it's kinda hard to do so.  Justin Lin's direction is smart about being so fucking stupid, and understands at this point in the franchise it's good to just keep the action strong (and, compared to other super-fast-cut action fare, it is), and dialog lean and meaty.  I admire that, even as I don't rush out to ingest such things as Vin Diesel and The Rock having big 2-dimensional words in a 2D setting. 


::turns to audience:: Everybody got that?
I knew of Thor here and there in the comics - haven't really read what he's done on his own, maybe a little Avengers here and there - but I did know Odin through a friend of mine, who actually is (or at least was) an Odinist, believing in the mythological Gods of old Norse times and for the usual things that come with it: like Vikings and raping and pillaging the lands and being cool-looking in blonde hair and giant hammers and swords (in other words, Masters of the Universe minus Skeletor).  But that is in another form, what about the Marvel Thor?

Well, he's kind of similar, in that in Odin is his father, Loki his brother, and they all live in this other dimension on a 'realm' called Aasgaard (not to be confused with its porno equivalent, Assgaard - see what I did there).  And they're the keepers of the Peace, by being bad-ass warriors who know when to fight to protect their lands.  In this film, directed by Shakespeare disciple and now master Kenneth Branaugh, there is inbalance in the kingdom as headstrong Thor (Chris Hemsworth) goes too far in provoking the Ice king and his soldiers, and so is sent by Odin to Earth in banishment.  His Hammer is sent to Earth, too, but unable to use it or lift it up from the rock it's crunched in due to his lost immortal power.  But back on Aasgaard, what about Loki, Thor's (not-quite so it turns out) brother?

Anthony Hopkins as Anthony Hopkins in his Hopkinsiest performance since Beowulf (and now with more eyepatch!)

Again, I must mention that I didn't read the comics, and so I went in with a fresh perspective of just getting the straight story with some context being the world of the Avengers (which will be coming out next year from, ::geek drool::, Joss Whedon).  The effort by Branaugh and company, including writers Mark Protosevich and J. Michael Straczynski, is for good, if not great, result.  It has two kinds of modes, one that takes place in the Norse-Mythological planet (and please don't think me as too joking in comparing to Masters of the Universe, it has such a He-Man vibe I suddenly got flashbacks to a youth I barely had with them), and the one on Earth that involves scientists Natalie Portman and Stellan Sarsgaard who find Thor and are befuddled by how he could've come to Earth.  The real balance here that works is between the serious, B-movie style of acting and design of Aasgaard, and the comedy of what happens when the big Norse fish is out of water.

I was glad about that since my one real worry, going in with limited expectations aside from the excitement of Branaugh directing, was that it would take itself *too* seriously when it's got mythological Gods and giant robot-men controlled by other Gods and a hammer that act as (no joke) helicopter during battle.  It helps keep things grounded to have Thor being up against such things as common human etiquette or walking into a pet-store and demanding a horse.  While some of the comedy could be a little too much (reactions from one-dimensional Kat Dennings), it keeps a good way about the story by cutting between the drama back on the home planet with the dastardly shit Loki finding out about his real past and using it to his advantage, and Thor's comic-serious path to redemption.

Um.... line?

So the action is pretty tight and exciting, such as when Thor and his other warriors Sefi and the Three Warriors (I think that's their name) go after the ice people, and I liked how SHIELD, the organization that plays the big Administrator role (with great deadpan work from Clark Greeg as Agent Colson as always) in the Avengers universe, works its way into getting Thor into it (and hey... is that Jeremy Renner!)  There are some scenes though that do feel a little 'chopped' as it were, as if Branaugh didn't (or just didn't period) have final cut with some of the Aasgaard storylines with Odin and Loki.

The one big criticism I'd have of the direction is an over-use of what's called the 'Dutch' angle, or the tilted shots.  You know the ones from Terry Gilliam movies or (goddamnit) Battlefield Earth.  Sometimes these angles can be effective, but there is a point about halfway through Thor when it just loses whatever meaning Branaugh and his DP mean for it.  I was screaming inside "WE GET IT!  DYNAMIC!  LOKI - EVIL! FINE!"  And it just wouldn't stop.  It's basically the Star Trek lens flare problem all over again.

::Insert Black Swan joke here::

But overall, Thor works as a solid little piece of the bigger puzzle Marvel is putting together.  They've introduced through a charismatic and *good* actor Chris Hemsworth a character that will endure for at least a while in the right proportions, and it's fun to see him kick some serious ass when he does.   Some of it very silly, and you may half expect Queen to come on the soundtrack ala Flash Gordon.  But it's a smart silly, as if Branaugh is sitting next to you jutting you side going, 'Ahaha, look at those big actors saying big things, isn't it a hoot!"  Yes it is, Kenny boy.


and third:

Six women. One of them is not who they say they are.  K-Billy's Super Sounds of the 70's continues...
Judd Apatow productions are not all completely alike, but enough are by this point since the release of 2005's The 40-Year Old Virgin among others that one sees how Bridesmaids is the way it is.  It's a mix of what Apatow's movies do their bestest to combine: Cassavetes-inspired improvisation scenes that go on for a while longer than even most other comedy movies (sometimes for great effect, sometimes, as with Cassavetes, actors' indulgence), and TV inspired plot and character devices that has a certain formula to it (for example every one of these movies has a scene, or maybe more, where the main character messes up big time and gets into bad times with other characters, and then they'll redeem themselves or something else will happen to straighten things out). 

But with Bridesmaids, a story of a flawed 30-something (Kristin Wiig) watching as her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) about to get married and the trouble she has with the well-off 'new' friend Helen (Rose Byrne), the problem is tone, and sometimes length, and with characterization.  The film boats a wonderful cast, mostly brought over from TV from various walks of work - Mad Men (Jon Hamm), The I.T. Crowd (Chris O'Dowd), Melissa McCarthy (Gilmore Girls), Wiig and Rudolph (SNL), Terry Crews (with an AMAZING guest appearance/cameo, Everybody Hates Chris) - and most of them have at least something interesting to do on screen, whether it's just one scene (McCarthy's heart-to-heart that is more like a near beating to Wiig's Annie) or throughout (Rudolph is always charming, Hamm gets to milk every scene for comic gold which is a nice surprise from him).

But what it came down to for me is... I just never liked Annie, or at least the film worked pretty hard for me to not like her AND like her at the same time.  Wiig's performance isn't to blame so much as her writing, which makes her into such a self-centered and shallow kind of person that even the shit we should be on her side for - such as a plan involving France/Parisian stuff for a wedding shower that is snatched from her by Helen - that I found it hard to be on her side as the progonist when it comes time for the usual Apatowian reversal-of-drama in the last act.  It's a movie that is supposed to kind of take on some of the tropes of these awful romantic comedies, where the female characters become so bitchy and backstabbing, but with Annie it was hard for them not to fall into those same tropes.  And they do.

Maybe too it has to do with the other male interest, Chris O'Dowd who finally breaks through after years on The IT Crowd, being such a wonderful guy (the kind, you know, that she probably shouldn't deserve), or that the obstacles for her character should be so clear and yet she acts bitchy when there's no real reason to, such as at her job.  To be fair before I go much further on this tract, Wiig being talented as she is does make this character funny when she goes over the top (even when I hated her the most, when she flips out at the bridal shower tearing about a giant cookie, I was chuckling if awkward), or at least can write some funny situations.  One of those, which finds a nice melding of the long improv and comedic timing in Apatow movies, is when Annie and Helen after so soon meeting at an early pre-wedding party get into a competition of congratulations to their friend.  It feels like it should be going too long, but the comic momentum and the timing is what saves it. 

Not so much a scene that involves, well, shit, and vomit, as the girls get food poisoned at a Brazilian BBQ Annie unwisely chooses for the bridesmaids to go to, and that definitely goes on for too long with little to make it work.  But then as much as I can (and do) complain about the Annie character, there is still stuff about the movie that makes me want to recommend it to people just looking for a good time (maybe, as an aside, this is the theme of this week's Gulag - quasi-turn-off-your-brain-Hollywood-spectacle), as with the actors I mentioned or how the situations wind up funnier than expected like a protracted ecstasy trip Annie has on an airplane ride.

It's a case really of the parts being much better than the whole, which goes on too long, has other parts that could just be cut (what's with those not-funny British roommates of Annie's anyway, aside from the eventual plot pay-off?), and it being much too much to get past the characters faults.  The tone thing with that is that, perhaps, if it had been more of a straight dramedy it could have worked, looking at a person like Annie being at rock-bottom and overcoming her personal shit to be there for her friend(s) at such a crazy time.  But it's still a gross-out Apatow production with servicable Paul Feig direction, and it doesn't go anywhere that is interesting with the characters past some inspired comic set-pieces.  That may be enough for some.  For me a good many jokes and gags started to fall flat after the half-way point (or the Big Shit scene), and I just got tired of it really.  It's a true mixed bag.

Also, two more little things: 1) this is NOT "The Hangover: Chick Edition" as advertised (albeit it's not one of the Sex & the City movies either so that helps), and 2) near the end the movie pulls a big gag involving Wilson Phillips that just made me really pine for a similar (and MUCH funnier) bit from Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.

PS: RIP Jill Clayburgh

re: Raptor Hunter:

re: Queen's "Flash Gordon:

re: Harold & Kumar:

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