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It’s all resting on his shoulders now!

It’s late, I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t a chance to see The Fast and the Furious 8 or otherwise known as The Fate of the Furious (I’ll refer to it as Fast 8 as we go) when it first came out. Weird time of year for me, what can I say? I’m seeing more movies now, though, and I finally got around to the latest entry in one of my absolute favorite franchises. This is a key entry, too. When Paul Walker died, everybody asked “how the fuck is this thing gonna work from now on?”. Many critics wondered whether the series would focus more centrally on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) with the beloved ensemble taking a back seat. The central relationship of the series was always Dom and Brian (Paul Walker) and it seemed like there were two possible directions for this to go: try and replace Brian, or center it on Dom alone (at least for now). It looks like they decided to focus on Dom after all, and the results are just fine though that central relationship is certainly missed.

In many ways, Fast 8 feels more thematically grounded and focused than the last few. This was a bit of a surprise, and worked better than I think a lot of people might have expected given the general attitude about Diesel’s ability to shoulder a movie. I think he’s pretty good, though, and while he isn’t stretching the emotional range of Dom much here, there are a few nice subtler moments and we’re definitely seeing Dom in a new situation. With the key relationship of the series missing, Fast 8 decides to trouble the very thing that has kept the characters and the audience along for this very bizarre and now very lengthy ride: fambly.

Is Fast 8 better than the last few movies? Not really. As always, the highs are pretty high but I think this is maybe the least light-hearted of all of them and offers less of the jokes, camaraderie, and goofy warm heart the series is known for. Of course, all this stuff is still here, but this is also the entry where Fast 8 goes darker. That’s not going to work as well for some people, but I think this movie is less uneven than Fast 7 was (particularly the action). The important question isn’t even really if this movie lives up to the rest of the franchise, because of course it does, it’s more about whether it leaves you with a sense that this franchise can keep going without Paul Walker. I think it can, but I think Fast 8 is unable (and probably this is intentional) to fully get to a new stable dynamic on its own. There are seeds of it, but it’ll probably take the next movie before we see where they’re going with certain elements, which this review will explore in detail.

DOING SPOILERS A QUARTER-MILE AT A TIME Read the rest of this entry »

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Silly Brian, have you even seen a Fast and the Furious movie? This is just natural evolution, baby.

The Fast and the Furious is the most bizarre beloved franchise since there were franchises to be bizarre and be beloved. Much commentary has been made about the odd trajectory of these films, which started out as earnest but mostly braindead “car movies” and evolved to become a sequence of mythos-laden homages to unexpected and awesome cinematic sources. Each Fast movie is like what they’ve been doing with Marvel’s Phase Two: an experiment in pseudo-genre riffing within a consistent fictional world with its own rules. Also like Marvel, each entry evolves the world and its rules, so that we can go from street racing undercover cops to street racing, globe-trotting, drone-fighting superheroes without ever doubting that consistency. Just as Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a political/techno-thriller within the superhero framework, Furious Seven is basically Mission Impossible/G.I. Joe within the Fast and the Furious framework.

But is it a good movie? It would be very difficult indeed to surpass Fast 6 as the pinnacle of the franchise (although many would say the best one is Fast 5), and I’m sad to report that Seven doesn’t quite get there. What’s lacking is the sense of “surprise! we can do this stuff too!” which charactized both 5 and 6 and basically reignited this franchise with a renewed sense of momentum and fan appreciation. The Fast movies keep you with them, totally non-judgemental about the cheesy machismo, ridiculous physics, and earnest inclusive themes. I once compared them to friendly puppy dogs. If that’s what they are, collectively, then Seven is the dog having a bit of a sad day. That sadness, sense of finality due to Paul Walker’s untimely death, hangs over the movie in both good and bad ways. What they managed to craft out of the wreckage of both Walker’s death and the movie they were making ends up being perfectly great on its own merits, but lacking just a bit of that special something that makes each of these movies stand out from each other, for good or bad. It’s basically a direct sequel to Fast 6, and one with a familiar and somewhat unfitting theme for this franchise: revenge.

That Seven is a revenge movie somewhat conflicts its big cast, global scope, and huge action. At the same time, Fast 4 was basically a revenge movie and its lack of a big diverse cast of people we know and with relationships we’re invested in made that film suffer. Seven is a much better movie mostly because it still contains the sense of camraderie, fun, and yes: family which has characterized the franchise both on and off-screen. Read the rest of this entry »

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The word is family.

Something to get out of the way: this series has no naming convention, with each entry reinventing the titling to such a point that I’ll just refer to them with the word “Fast” and numerically by order of release. This will hopefully be a lot less confusing for everybody!

Every Fast and Furious movie echoes a specific movie. With the sixth entry of what has become one of the best original cinematic franchises out there, that movie is The Avengers. It turns out that it’s not only superhero movies that now exist in a post-Avengers world. One of the things I’ve always liked about the Fast series is that it’s been made by filmmakers who dearly love movies. Cohen, Singleton, and then the long (but now complete) run Justin Lin had all have that in common. Though not as much a love letter to The Avengers as the first one was to Point Break, the signs of Lin’s, and writer Chris Morgan’s, appreciation for the most recent blockbuster game-changer is a prevalent and noticeable ingredient in their superhero team-up movie.

We’ve watched all these characters, and the actors who play them, grow up with the franchise. Each Fast movie is, if not better, more self-assured than the last. The commitment to continuity and the themes of its ridiculous universe has always been a major strong suit for the series. It’s surprising every time, especially rewatching the whole shebang, at just how well this thing supports itself.

In Fast 6, everything that makes the series what it is has been dialed up to eleven. Lin is going out with a bang and here proven himself to be one of the highest potential action directors out there. For all that Fast 6 contains the familiar humor, themes of family and redemption, and ridiculous sense of its world, the place where this movie really outdoes itself is in the action. While this has always been an action series, Fast 6 is the first one that features not just one or two great or iconic moments but a dozen of them. Just as the heroics echo The Avengers, the action feels like Lin picking up elements he loves from other movies and floating them through the world of Fast. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, but somehow the Bourne-style fisticuffs and Michael Mann gunfights (this is one of the rare movies with loud, realistic gun SFX) are less welded on and more breathed in. The confidence with which Lin includes these touches is breathtaking and makes you completely believe in the action, which in turn ripples through everything else in the movie no matter how ridiculous. Read the rest of this entry »

An epic representation of everything these people are up against. And some helicopters too, cuz fuck it why not?

This is the first time I’ve gone back and added to a review other than maybe commenting more in the comment section. I feel that my original review is lacking some commentary that needs to be part of the discourse of this film. Namely that critics keep bitching about it’s “videogame” sensibilities. This is a potentially important point and factors into the target audience and expectations people are going to have about this, let alone action (military action) movies down the road. I will stick my additional comments to the end of the review so you can see its original form and then read what I have chosen to add after initial posting.

Battle: Los Angeles is the rare movie that delivers on its concept so well that it almost hurts it. Told and sold to audiences like it was going to be Black Hawk Down with aliens, that is exactly what this movie is. We never learn much about the enemies, besides that they want our water, but we learn enough through the eyes of our core group of soldiers, with whom the movie is completely committed. We never stray into other characters’ perspectives or see much of the “bigger picture” beyond what information you might expect to be flying around as things unfold.

Battle: Los Angeles is receiving mixed reviews because it is exceedingly well made but has some elements that just don’t work. The dialogue is often corny, full of the kinds of stupid comments and speeches that a writer who has only experienced war movies would try and sell in an otherwise authenticity-bent war film. And Battle: LA does feel very authentic… except for when characters open their mouths. Too often the dialogue takes you out of the movie and plants your perspective on the over-earnest and inexperienced acting or the seriously uninspired writing. It’s not even that the story or characterization is bad, because it isn’t, it’s just that our beloved heroes are too often saying really stupid things. More than once the epically redundant words “it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen” are uttered. I would rather they had characters say nothing at all than dumb shit like this.

The funny thing about this criticism is that I wouldn’t be making it about Independance Day, which has a lot of the same cornball bullshit. Maybe the juxtaposition in Battle: LA (between gritty authenticy and ra ra USMC postering) is what makes the dialogue choices such a let down. Independence Day was a lot more honest about its cheesiness. It is a fundamentally corny film but it works within context. I guess it could also be the times. It seems like Independence Day comes from a more innocent era, when it was a lot easier to cheer on the myth of the American military machine.

Nowadays, scenes like the amazing autopsy scene (the one in Battle: LA, not Independence Day) have a sort of uncomfortable edge. Personally, I think that subtext elevates both that scene (which features a pair of soldiers experimenting with a still-alive captured alien soldier to find internal weak-spots) and the film itself. There’s a sort of moral grayness to it, especially when five minutes earlier one soldier muses to another that maybe they have something in common just by virtue of being soldiers. Like these aliens maybe don’t want to be here any more than the humans do. This kind of notion fits our times better than the hollow, unrealistic dialogue crammed into characters’ mouths. Leave that shit for over-the-top nonsense (but in a good way) like Independence Day.

Anyway, now that’s out of the way.

There’s a lot to like about this movie, in spite of what finicky critics are saying. It is not as “dumb” as Ebert is saying. It’s also so well shot that you might not notice just how much shaky-cam they are doing to enhance the “realism” or whatever. It works well in war films and is used to great effect here. The film takes the time to introduce the main group of soldiers and gives small scenes to other characters picked up later in order to give us reasons to care about these people. None of this reaches far beyond the generic, but it is enough to give these people identity. Besides, the movie knows what it is and it’s more about injecting modern warfare authenticity into a far-fetched scenario than it is about Sgt. Nantz’s survivor’s guilt or Lt. Martinez’s inexperience as a leader (which is by far the most lazy and cliche choice made about any of these characters, I have a hard time believing anyone thought this was a good move). The one thing I’ll say against the movie is that I wish they had stuck with the cold open instead of dialing back to introduce the characters. A better writer, or team of ’em, would have had the confidence and competence to develop the characters in the lulls, much the way Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down did.

Mostly we’re here to see some hardcore destruction and humanity braced up against the wall by a surprise attack of epic proportions, probably by an enemy that is beyond our ability to defeat. Of course, Battle: LA pulls an Independence Day and gives the key to victory to its heroes but I don’t have a major problem with this. Thinking of some elements of the movie as being homages to the various alien invasion films it is no doubt partially inspired by, it seems like the intent was mostly to string some of this stuff into a newish design and they pulled it off. The action sequences, which make up 80% of the movie, are visceral and inventive. We get to see realistic military tactics on both sides, as well as cool vehicles and almost sadistic (though fun) lack of regard for the well-being of the main cast. A lot of thought went into how to pace and structure this film, how to design it, and how to make it as grounded as possible. Ultimately this is somewhat betrayed by a cliche-ridden script, but with everything else working so goddamn well, it’s impossible for me to condemn the thing as a whole.

The corniness aside, Aaron Eckhart is a total badass and you’d follow him into those sewers too.

You can have guilt-free fun with this movie. It is not fucking Skyline. It is sort of the anti-Skyline. As long as you aren’t going into it thinking it’s going to change your life, it should pretty much meet your expectations. Just be ready to cringe at some of the dialogue and roll your eyes at a corny speech or two.

From here on are spoilers and more serious discussion of the “videogame aesthetic” complaints. Oh, and more about that fucking autopsy scene I like so much:

I was a bit remiss in not talking more about the “autopsy scene”. It’s easily my favorite part of the film. Like I said, there’s a moral ambiguity to it that is never dwelt on. The aliens are an unprovoked foe and it’s clear that humans are in a fight for their survival. Because of this, extreme tactics are a bit more justifiable than they would be if we saw the enemy showing restraint. Of course, there is no indication other than conjecture of their future intentions and the two marines talking about how maybe they’re just soldiers following orders is in the film for a reason.

Why does this matter for the autopsy bit? Well, the aliens are biomechanical and very hard to kill. Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) and a civilian veterinarian desperately try to figure out where the vital areas are so that they can kill them quicker and more efficiently rather than spray-and-praying every time they come up against them. Anyway, while the rest of the marines try to hold the police station from incoming aliens, Nantz and the vet cut open the alien and stab at various parts of its body. The alien is still alive and making various noises while they go about brutalizing it.

Like I said, they don’t dwell on the implications of something like this, which is surprising given how shitty the script is nearly everywhere else. Those implications, though, are clear and elevate the film. The things they do to the alien are horrific and inhumane, but they are necessary and derived from desperation and a soldier’s eye to efficiency of purpose.

It’s a short scene but it delivers something extra to the compact nature of the film, which drives itself objective to objective while (ineptly) delivering character moments along the way.

Anyways, it’s time to talk about the videogame issue.

I have to call bullshit on this complaint. It’s way too easy to pick on videogames in most contemporary action sequences. You can break them down to “action stage, cutscene, action stage, boss fight, rinse and repeat” but I think that is a bit in ignorance of how action videogames arrive at that structure in the first place. In pre-videogame action movies, particularly the shoot-em-ups of the 80’s, there was that same structure of action sequences tied together by set-up, reprieves, and small character bits. The writing in videogames tends to be uninspired, mostly based on the cliches of those same action movies videogame creators grew up watching. Battle: Los Angeles is certainly guilty of its writer, Christopher Belini, being less concerned with what the characters would actually spend their time saying or talking about than he was about throwing in “classic” military machismo and action movie cliches. So in a sense, the dialogue actually does feel like the kind of shit you hear in a videogame. It’s a lot more forgivable in a videogame too, mostly because this downside is offset by the experience of playing the game. I think it’s more difficult  to parse dialogue and character moments from the overall entity of a film but your mileage may vary. While videogames may be getting better at maintaining a flow between talking scenes and the action of gameplay, a failure to create that flow in a movie is a noticeable flaw that quickly reminds one of the hackneyed story elements of lazy FPS games.

So in that sense, I get why someone might say there are parts of Battle: Los Angeles that remind them of videogames. The bad dialogue, though, doesn’t seem to be brought up in that context very often.

A lot can be made of Battle: Los Angeles‘s seeming use of Call of Duty stylization in terms of how things look and move, if not in the structure and pace of the action vs. story beats. I disagree that this is all that important an issue to either hold against the movie or comment on for the sake of sounding like you’re catching filmmakers in the act of mimicking games.  Which is, I think, a curmudgeonly tendency of older critics or ones who think they’ll sound smarter by being dismissive without really bothering to think about it much.

My other big problem with the videogame complaint about most movies where it’s raised is this:

The suggestion is not that Battle: Los Angeles was deliberately made to appeal to a generation of people who didn’t grow up simply watching macho military-action movies, but playing them in a very realistically rendered genre of games. That this is so is obvious to the point that it barely needs to be mentioned. The suggestion, though, is that this is somehow a bad thing or detracts from some imagined filmic integrity that pre-videogame generation critics imagine is being destroyed by the presence of this sensibility in certain films.

To that I can only make loud farting noises with one hand and a jerking off motion with the other. I mean, that the lines are blurring is the result of one media reacting to the presence and emulation of another. Videogames are in a stage where they often emulate cinema and even the word “cinematic” is omnipresent in discussions about AAA action games, especially the military-themed and uber-popular ones like Call of Duty or Battlefield.

To the extent that Battle: Los Angeles has lazy writing (dialogue and character stuff only, everything else is aces), it is not fair to say it’s because it’s a “videogame movie without the videogame”. There were poorly written, vacantly felt action movies before this one. To extend that to the aesthetics is similarly unfair and probably a bit ignorant/curmudgeonly to boot.

Movies and videogames are in a weird feedback loop and Battle: Los Angeles is a product of that paradigm, no more and no less. To disparage a movie for being “videogamey” by default is to be out of touch with pervasive cultural and media changes. The familiarity in the audience gained by being inside of that feedback loop is probably part of the reason Battle: Los Angeles will be widely seen by the demographic those games (and these movies) are made for. This is not de facto weakness but at worst a weird phenomenon brought on by the awkward early courtship of our two most powerful narrative mediums.

Knives. Stabbing weapons.

I think Black Dynamite is a better “modern exploitation” movie than Machete. At the very least, it’s much much funnier. That said, Machete is almost constantly violent and often in delightful and hilariously unlikely ways. I mean, the guy literally uses a dude’s intestine to jump out  a window and swing to a lower one. This happens about 3 minutes after two nurse characters are chatting nonchalantly about how long intestines are. You can’t make this shit up. Or, if you’re Robert Rodriguez I guess you can.

It’s no secret that this is based off of one of the Grindhouse trailers. Rodriguez had threatened to make it into a movie every year thereafter and now it is finally a reality. Then of course there’s the Rutger Hauer vehicle they made out of Hobo With a Shotgun (click here to slashfilm to see a comparison between the original trailer and the trailer for the upcoming “meta-film”). So I guess there’s a whole new sub-genre or something. Eli Roth once talked about making a movie out of Thanksgiving which was one of the more entertaining trailers. I think this is a weird mutant cousin of the remake frenzy Hollywood is currently suffering from, but I like its gills and strange webbed feet enough to see it live to find its place in our miserable world. I mean, Machete is super entertaining and lets Danny Trejo not only lead a pretty great group of actors and personalities, but it also lets him be a rampaging badass and (gasp) ladykiller. Bow-chicka-bow-wow literally arises from the ether whenever a woman even looks at him twice. He not only nails Michelle Rodriguez and Lindsay Lohan (say whatever you want, she’s still kinda hawt), he also rides off into the sunset with Jessica Alba.

Yes. Her. Look at her.

It’s true that Lindsay Lohan looks older and more worn (read: forehead wrinkles!) than the actress who plays her mother (who was born in 1975), but Michelle Rodriguez has never looked hotter. While Lindsay plays a boring bit part that culminates in a bizarre scene of nunnery and gun violence, Rodriguez brings some serious game to her role which doesn’t really join in on the camp of the rest of the movie until the very end. She and Jessica Alba are playing two sides of the same coin and both are more serious characters whose ideological and moral beliefs present an intellectual conflict that feels sort of odd in a film like this.

The debate is whether or not “it’s the law” is justification for tossing illegals out of the USA or taking more extreme tactics to “protect” the border. It’s a silly movie that features a US senator (Robert De Niro in a hammy, hilarious role) who calls Mexicans terrorists and rides around the border with militia guys shooting them like rabbits. He also wants to build an electric fence which, as a hilarious little video shows us, will deal with the interlopers appropriately. Even though it is such a silly movie, the conflict between law and the well-being of her people is what drives Jessica Alba’s character and ultimately the subtext of the film. It isn’t taken too seriously, but it is kind of a serious question. Not that Machete tries to answer it in any substantial way, it’s just interesting to me that they both exploited the recent events in Arizona (and the larger controversy in general) as well as commented on it. The movie is unashamedly on the Mexican side of the debate so it’s not like a docudrama meant to shed light on all sides of the issue. Need I remind you that Danny Trejo uses an intestine as a jump rope?

Maybe I should also take a moment and mention Steven Seagal as well as the other heavies they pooled for this movie. Steven Seagal is fat. But that doesn’t mean he can’t play a Mexican samurai drug tycoon. They even let him do his signature aikido hip-throw-reversal-thing. And, at the end, he taunts Machete that a 2-foot blade through the guts is nothing and then commits seppuku as a final “fuck you”. I am not kidding. It is glorious.

The other boys, Fahey and De Niro and Johnson are old-timers getting a shot at some fun. Fahey is actually kind of an interesting case because of Lost turning him into a major character, probably because there’s just something about him. Fahey has this cool voice which tosses out the silly, over-the-top dialogue like it ain’t no thing. He also has these thick eyebrows and cobalt-blue eyes. They pierce right into your soul like ninja spears. He should be cast in everything. De Niro gets to be silly and thin and it’s very sad that this movie is probably the best thing he’s done in the last 5+ years. Don Johnson gets to be a villain and there’s a funny “introducing” credit for him. Tom Savini also shows up briefly but his introduction steals all his thunder (funny fucking series of videos showing off all his badass assassin skills). I was also quite distracted by his fake hair.

Then there’s Cheech Marin who is always reliable and of course Trejo himself. Trejo is playing the culmination of every laconic badass he’s ever been in all of the myriad movies he’s been in which required him to be exactly that. Machete is the ur-Mexican Scary Guy, risen from the ghostly metaplane from whence these fuckers come.

Make no mistake, this is an evil man. He is not your friend. In fact, he hates you.

In all seriousness, Machete is a very entertaining movie. It’s silly but it revels in it, daring you to douse yourself in the gasoline of its mirth. I think you’ll enjoy it if you like manly things, and it is certainly a damn sight better than other recent “throwback” movies like The Expendables. I don’t think they should ever make Machete Kills or Machete Kills Again but Rodriguez et all should keep on having this much fun. Guys like Trejo getting to play mythic icons generated from the stuff of their very careers while others self-parody with a knowing wink… I can think of worse things.

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