Fast & Furious 6




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Back in 2001, who among us thought that the wheels of the ‘Fast and the Furious’ series would still be in motion twelve years later (with a sixth entry with the seventh entry being released in Summer 2014)? The best way to enjoy ‘Fast & Furious 6’ is to pretend that it is a sequel to ‘The Avengers’. Newton’s Laws of Motion may not have any bearing here, but it doesn’t need to if we can accept that this movie is essentially a live-action cartoon (albeit a very good one). If you can leave your critic’s brain at the door, I think you will find yourself (as I did) having a tremendous amount of fun. Contradictory to the laws of probability as well as the laws of diminish returns, this is a series that is picking up a great deal of momentum (with this picture and the last one), and ‘Fast & Furious 6’ is my personal favorite in the series. This is spectacular summer entertainment! I have no reservations in saying upfront that I love this movie!

Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Dwayne (formerly “The Rock”) Johnson feel the need – the need for speed. Taking up where ‘Fast Five’ left off, Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), and Dominic ‘Dom’ Toretto (Vin Diesel) are enjoying the fruits of their labour from the previous heist that made them and the rest of their crew fabulously rich. All retired, Brian and Dom receive a surprise visit from Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) with a proposition to stop an ex-military terrorist from getting his hands on the last piece of a powerful weapon he’s going to use on the world. Soon, the entire team is reunited. Most of the picture’s comic relief rests of the shoulders of Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris. There is also a new member – a CIA operative played by Gina Carano. She could send The Rock home crying after a fight. No, really! Luke Evans is fine as the villain, but these special ops turned ruthless crime lord types are starting to become a cliché.

Does the story really matter? The plot is just at the service of the revved-up engines and adrenaline-pumping action sequences. If you’re on the lookout for sharp dialogue, and fine performances, well, what the hell are you doing at ‘Fast & Furious 6’? This is about color, movement, technique – and on that basis, it operates terrifically. Despite pretty much hating the first four entries in this series, the opening credits (which plays off well on the nostalgia factor for fans of this series) made me realize how much I’ve grown to enjoy these characters; yes, even when they talk about the importance of family, and working as a team (usually exchanged over the obligatory barbeque montage which has become a staple of this series). Also, the picture’s notions of masculinity would make Howard Hawkes blush.

Whether we are looking at stunt-work, CGI, or a combination of the two, director Justin Lin (who worked on two other films in this series – ‘Tokyo Drift’ and ‘Fast Five’) raises the bar with one action sequence following another and another… If you’re laughing at the movie, I can almost guarantee the laughs are intentional – the vehicular manoeuvrings are impossible (and just before the end credits, we get a disclaimer stating that the stunts should never be replicated by the viewers). Humans fly in the air, land on hard surfaces with very loud thuds, and just brush themselves off and carry on with only a few bruises – like I said, this is a cartoon.

One thing that needs to be said about ‘Fast & Furious 6’ is that it is, by far, the most honest movie of the year. It has no delusions of grandeur; it knows exactly what it is and fully embraces the ridiculousness of it’s gleefully over the top ever-escalating action sequences. This includes an OMG finale that I won’t even begin to describe – except that it involves a number of four-wheelers, a cargo plane that is about to take off, and four-wheelers contained within the cargo plane. Most action pictures make the choice of delivering sensation at the expense of characters and plot – I’m not saying that ‘Fast & Furious 6’ is an exception to this category; but I am saying that Mr.Lin has done an exceptional job in crafting a motion picture experience that is among the best of its kind. Even among the hardest of cynics, I defy anyone to come out of this movie saying they were bored.  

Despite its 130 minute runtime, this was a movie that does not wear out its welcome; I didn’t want to see it end – a joyous experience that you could file under “Guilty Pleasure”. Except that I won’t. I feel no guilt in giving ‘Fast & Furious 6’ a very strong endorsement. This is the sort of picture that demands to be seen on the big screen. Thankfully, the movie is not in 3-D. QED.

Starting today (and going forward), I will include a ‘Three to See’ section at the bottom of my reviews, which list out my three favorite movies playing in theaters (or that are newly available on DVD/Blu-Ray).

Three to See: ‘Lore’ (TIFF Bell Lightbox), ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ (Cineplex Yonge/Dundas, Famous Players Canada Square, Magic Lantern Carlton Cinemas), ‘Fast & Furious 6’ (Wide-release)

The Great Gatsby

In its second week of release, ‘The Great Gatsby’ has already split critics, with just as many upward thumbs as downward thumbs. For the record, mine is up. The best way to enjoy ‘The Great Gatsby’ is to forget about F.Scott Fitzgerald’s third novel which you were forced to read in high school (or in college/university if you were a slacker). Gatsby, like any literary work, isn’t scripture – filmmakers have to right to take artistic liberties with the source material. For those who can’t bare the sight of the slightest deviation – and, mind you, this is directed by Baz Luhrmann (‘Moulin Rouge’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’), well, there’s no convincing you.

For those who didn’t submit their end of term paper but somehow managed to eek a passing grade, this is the story of an unassuming young man (Tobey Maguire) who gets pulled into the roaring twenties world of the wealthy when a mysterious millionaire (Leonardo DiCaprio) wants to rekindle his romance with the man’s married but equally wealthy cousin (Carey Mulligan).

The Great Gatsby’ is splashy with lots of glitter and the picture seamlessly combines old-fashioned production values with new-age digital filmmaking – it is even released in 3-D (which I can’t really comment on, because I attended a 2-D screening). Those two dimensions were enough to take in all the artifice, which is suitable for the illusionary world it creates. If you didn’t think the book worked as a commentary on American consumerism, wait til you see what Luhrmann’s created.

Luhrmann does respect the source material – some lines are taken straight out of the page, while others are improvised by the performers. But, his craftsmanship as a filmmaker is evident –juxtaposing present-day hip hop imagery on its 1920 jazz-era setting (unless of course I’m mistaken and Jay-Z’s ‘No Church in the Wild’ was released nearly a hundred years ago). And in doing so, he’s created a mood for the times that unfortunately no living person can accurately verify, but we can accept it as presented.

Gatsby is first seen through the window of his mansion – and to both the Tobey Maguire character, and to the viewer, he is an enigma. He has got money, flashy cars, and the liquor bill for his parties must be in the six-figure category. Yes, he is a rich man and his wealth makes a striking contrast against the poverty of two other supporting characters in the picture – George and Myrtle Wilson. But, his past remains something of a mystery. Leonardo DiCaprio is a charismatic screen presence but this role requires more of him – it is tricky to walk the line between confidence and desperation.

The film’s climactic moment, a scene set in the Plaza Hotel, shows how great Luhrmann and these performers really are. Everyone takes full advantage of the moment. And while the performances do get showy here, take quiet notice of the fact that  there isn’t any music,  and watch camera cuts across these individual’s faces after their truths have been revealed.

‘The Great Gatsby’ is lavishly presented, with perhaps the most costly production design cinema has ever known. This is an entertaining, big budget soap opera with fine acting and amazing visuals. Good Gatsby, not great. QED.


If you’re a baseball fan, you’ve probably been waiting in anticipation for the great Jackie Robinson to get the big-screen treatment. But, ‘42’ isn’t a picture for fans only – if it isn’t already, I think this is going to be a crowd-pleasing hit. Even so, there will be some detractors, and I think one scene in particular is going to create a few haters. If you were offended by the overuse of the n-word in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’, you will probably be equally offended by a scene in ‘42’ where Philladelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) repeatedly slings racial epithets at Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). It’s a scene that will make you feel uncomfortable, but I think it’s very important – the scene reminds us of a time in American history when this racial segregation existed – blacks couldn’t even share the same restrooms as whites. 

The color barrier in major league baseball was broken by Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickie (Harrison Ford). He set his sights on Jackie Robinson, a 26-year-old baseball player in the Negro leagues playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. Branch didn’t believe Robinson was the best player at the time, but he was selected because Branch believed he would be able to withstand the racial and social repercussions that were bound to come his way.

The real-life Robinson is the true hero of this story but the best player in ‘42’ is Harrison Ford, giving one of the very best performances of his long career. Some may argue this isn’t a big stretch for Ford; that he’s tapping into his malcontent persona. Here, his character tries to align his personal Christian values of brotherhood with his ambitious professional targets. I think Ford is so good, he deserves Oscar consideration; though that isn’t very likely since Academy voters often have a difficult time recalling films released prior to September. Chadwick Boseman has the look of a professional athlete on the field, but more importantly, he is able to honor his real-life counterpart in those scenes where he absorbs a torrent of abuse from his white opponents, spectators, officials, and even his own teammates.

I did have a few issues with ‘42’ – we learn much about Jackie Robinson the baseball player, but very little about his life off the field; there are very few moments of Robinson with his wife and child and so we don’t really know how he was as a person, or as a husband or father. The movie would have received a stronger recommendation from yours truly had it further developed Mr.Robinson’s background. In the hands of another filmmaker – say, Spike Lee, or Martin Scorsese, ‘42’ would have given us a grittier, more intense account of the events that took place. Director Brian Helgeland plays it safe, giving us a film that very much admires the story’s hero, but in an honest, inspirational, and accessible manner. The end result is a good movie about a great subject; a competently made, historically accurate, and respectable motion picture, even if it remains trapped within the conventions of its biopic genre. QED.

Iron Man 3

It’s finally summer, woot! From the looks of it, there will be at least one major blockbuster release every weekend from now until the end of August, and I will do my best to cover them all. Kicking off this year’s summer blockbuster season is ‘Iron Man 3’, which would sound like it’s a sequel to ‘Iron Man 2’ but it feels more like a sequel to last year’s hugely successful ‘The Avengers’. Shane Black takes over the filmmaking reigns from Jon Favreau and this offering hits enough right notes and is good enough to warrant a passing grade.

The plot – by now, just about everyone knows that billionaire inventor and industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is the man behind the superhero Iron Man. He recently saved the world from an alien invasion with the help of other superheroes, but is now suffering from anxiety attacks and insomnia. Compounding his problems is a mad, bearded jihadist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who’s recently surfaced and broadcasts some terrible executions. There’s also a creepy industrialist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) who has his own weird agenda.

Shane Black has penned some good scripts for action pictures of the 80s and 90s (the original ‘Lethal Weapon’, ‘Last Boy Scout’, ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’, etc.). This is Mr. Black’s second outing as director (his first being ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ from 2005, which also starred Robert Downey Jr.). While that picture only earned $4.4M of its $15M budget, it did gain a cult following once released on DVD. This may seem like an odd choice by the studio – to pass the keys one of Marvel’s most successful film franchises over to Mr. Black. But, it works.

From the opening scene when Robert Downey Jr. starts saying something in voiceover narration, stops, and decides to start this story from a different direction – this is very ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’-ish and Mr. Black opens the picture in a knowingly, self-referential way. I do think this is a script that was made for Downey Jr. Very infrequently does there exist a perfect match between a performer and a screenwriter whereby the actor is able to spew out the writer’s dialogue in the perfect way – such is the case here. The banter between Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow is terrific and the early scenes with these two have a very old-school screwball comedy feel to them. I don’t think that Gwyneth Paltrow has really stood out much as an actress over the years but here she proves she can be quick and funny – again, this could be due to the matched pair factor; maybe Robert Downey Jr. brings out the best in her.

Stark appears to treat everyone (except Paltrow’s character) the same way. He does form an interesting relationship with a kid who helps him when he is desperate and doesn’t have anyone else to turn to. But, he doesn’t treat the kid any differently than he would treat anyone else – the kid is just another annoying adult in Stark’s eyes. I appreciated this element of the picture – most screenwriters would have been tempted to throw in a mushy subplot involving these two characters. How many among of us have fantasized about being able to tell a kid to shut up and stop being annoying? I doubt any of us have actually responded this way. Stark will call it as he sees it.

 ‘Iron Man 3’ is, however, first and foremost a big-budget summer blockbuster. Does it deliver on that level? Yes. There are some very cool individual moments; for example, each time Stark gets into his Iron Man suit – I won’t spoil this by describing it but each time it happened, I responded mentally with “Well, that was pretty cool.” The most recent Bond film, ‘Skyfall’, was what I like to call a back-to-basics Bond. The situation is this – the hero is stripped away of the tools he or she previously had in their possession. This requires the hero to be resourceful and to use their smarts to assemble something worthwhile. ‘Iron Man 3’ features a similarly cool scene where Stark has to go to a Home Depot-like store to purchase the raw materials needed to re-create a badass suit. 

There are also some pretty incredible set pieces and, as one would expect, the film’s climactic action sequence is rather sensational. Let’s face it – summer audience members want to see stuff get blown up real good. ‘Iron Man 3’ doesn’t make the mistake that many big-budget action pictures make – providing viewers with non-stop, wall-to-wall action. Let’s think about that phrase for a moment. Do we want our action films to have never-ending action? When you see something get blown up real good, there should be something underpinning the explosions, or at least someone to care about so that when an explosion does go off, we don’t want to see our characters (that we have a rooting interest for) in harm’s way. It should also be clear why a structure is blowing up at the time it blows up. Thankfully, there are moments of pause between the extravagant set pieces for us to better know these characters.

But, this leads me to some of the weaknesses of the picture. I don’t think that Stark’s character changes here – he always has the perfect response to any situation. One of the joys of the original ‘Iron Man’ was being able to see the evolution of this character from weapons dealer to superhero. He needed to figure out what his true calling was. In ‘Iron Man 3’, it’s clear that he’s battling some internal demons. “Nothing has been the same since New York.” says Stark. Well, we know he’s referring to the events of ‘The Avengers’, but what of that? The fact that he was almost killed while trying to save the planet? I suppose it would be out of character for Stark to talk about his feelings; but, the film doesn’t make the reasons behind his anxiety clear to us. He doesn’t seem to learn from it either. ‘Iron Man 3’ had the stage to intelligently answer a difficult question posed by Captain America’s character in ‘The Avengers’ – “Take off the suit/armour and what are you?”

At one point, Pepper Potts gets to put on the armour, and it had me thinking that she would be more involved in the action this time around. Nope. I think she spends a huge chunk of the back half of the film either hanging upside down or trapped under a heavy structure. I don’t want to see her get rescued in ‘Iron Man 4’ – she’s no longer just a minor character.  The bits involving The Mandarin are also very strange, but I also appreciate the inclusion of these scenes because they give ‘Iron Man 3’ its satirical edge.

There’s a lot going on in ‘Iron Man 3’, with its large cast, convoluted storyline, and equally convoluted subplots. I think that Joss Whedon’s ‘The Avengers’ was much better balanced. He was better able to handle the various moving parts – each character received the right amount of screen time needed to shine, and no one was lost in the shuffle. ‘Iron Man 3’ lacks the cohesion of ‘The Avengers’.

Still, ‘Iron Man 3’ is good enough to earn a recommendation from me because the parts that do work are so good; they make some of the lesser moments worth enduring. But, does my assessment really matter? At the point of writing this review (8:09 p.m. EST, May 9th, 2013), ‘Iron Man 3’ has already made $205M domestically, and $563.5M internationally. Those box office figures may have been sufficient enough for a review. QED.