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Movie Review: “Furious 7″

As “big, dumb movies” go, the last few “Fast and Furious” films are some of the best – they’re solidly character-driven, and generally pack an emotional heft beyond your average superhero flick. “Furious 7” is no exception: it’s a briskly paced, action-drenched adventure that hits a new high point for the franchise.

In a nutshell, the “Fast and Furious” series centers on Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel), Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), and their team of exceptionally capable drivers/hackers/mayhem specialists. While the first few installments focused on the world of underground street racing, more recent films have amped up the vehicular carnage and added in a global/geopolitical focus. This time around, Toretto and company are out for revenge against Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who murdered one of their number in the closing minutes of “Fast and Furious 6.” Cue a series of gigantic set pieces stretching from Azerbaijan to Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles. all jammed full of physics-defying stunts and envy-inspiring supercars. It all builds to a delightfully berserk climax involving Predator drones, Miniguns, parkour, hand-to-hand combat, and dozens of exploding vehicles, which caps off the series in fine fashion. Add in a top-tier soundtrack, solid direction from James Wan (“Insidious,” “Saw,” “The Conjuring”), and “Furious 7” promptly emerges as the best chapter of the saga. (It’s also worth mentioning that the last few “Fast and Furious” films have added Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – one of the most likable actors currently working – into the mix. He certainly steals the show here.)

The “Fast and Furious” franchise has always been a bit of an outlier, characterized by a traditionalist ethos in an era of morally murky cinema (a sincere respect for religious faith, for example, permeates the series). More specifically, “Furious 7” offers an interesting counterpoint to the recent spate of “geri-action” films, in which an aging Hollywood star (or several) delivers beatdowns to swarms of enemies half his age (e.g. “Taken,” “The Expendables,” “The Last Stand,” “The Gunman,” etc.). Here, growing older is linked to maturation, family, and responsibility – which, in turn, are not portrayed as chains to be overcome, but as joys to be celebrated. The franchise also offers an atypically robust example of deep male friendship (Dom and Brian), which goes well beyond a casual “buddy cop” dynamic and leads into a surprisingly emotional coda (Walker was killed in a car accident during filming; the movie is dedicated to him).

Furthermore, Dom’s crew is never portrayed as “anti-heroic” in the sense that they electively violate genuine moral norms at their leisure (breaking traffic laws, after all, is the quintessential example of malum prohibitum versus malum in se). Rather, these characters routinely make the “right choice” between multiple difficult options – a perspective hewing far closer to an Aristotelian understanding of “virtue ethics” than a Batman-esque deontological approach or a James Bond-style utilitarianism.

“Furious 7” will win no awards for its script, which reads like a computer-generated algorithm of action hero clichés (though it undoubtedly does have some fantastic one-liners). Additionally, the camera’s constant ogling of bikini-clad female extras feels gratingly sexist, though it bears mention that the film’s female leads are treated with surprising respect.

That said, “Furious 7” is still a cut above many of its competitors (I confess, I was more excited for this than for the forthcoming “Avengers” sequel). The automotive action scenes grow ever more eye-popping, the cast continues to turn in solid work (as stupid as the dialogue might be, it’s clear everyone is enjoying themselves immensely), and the series’ underlying themes continue to resonate on an unexpectedly deep level.

It may not win an Oscar (as promised by Vin Diesel), but it’ll certainly make a lot of money. And it deserves to.

VERDICT: 8.5/10
The Platonic form of the early-summer action blockbuster. Highly recommended.

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Posted by on April 4, 2015 in Thrillers

 

Movie Review: “Jupiter Ascending”

The trailers for “Jupiter Ascending” were works of art. I’ve seen a lot of movie promos, but few have grabbed my attention like the artfully composed teasers for Andy and Lana Wachowski’s latest high-dollar project. Despite disappointing reviews, I figured I’d give it a shot – after all, it looked like a nice distraction in the midst of art-movie season (and bitter New England wintertime).

Simply put, “Jupiter Ascending” is a hot mess of a movie. It’s gorgeous to look at and laced with elements of real genius…but beyond these flashes of brilliance, it finds itself bogged down by a cataclysmically terrible script, a legion of bad casting choices, and a scattershot plot.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is working as an unassuming housecleaner when her life is abruptly upended by alien attackers. Enter love interest Caine (Channing Tatum, whose character was probably introduced in the pitch meeting as “Space Meathead with Heart of Gold”), who informs Jupiter that she is actually the genetic reincarnation of a long-dead galactic queen. Since the queen (the head of the Abrasax dynasty) bequeathed her holdings to her “future self,” Jupiter is the rightful heir to Earth and dozens of other worlds. Alas, she must first contend with the treacherous Abrasax children, who will stop at nothing to reclaim what they believe to be their inheritance. The worst of the bunch is evil astro-corporatist Balem (Eddie Redmayne, trying very hard to come off as Young Voldemort; it doesn’t work), who’s ensconced on the planet Jupiter with a squad of dragon-men at his command.

If this all sounds convoluted, that’s because it is.

Kunis, while charming as ever, feels out of place as a dramatic figurehead. Given its premise, this film doesn’t need an “endearing fish-out-of-water” as its lead; it requires someone who can unironically pull off a “regal” demeanor (Keira Knightley or Saoirse Ronan would’ve been perfect). Tatum’s contribution to the film consists primarily of “rescuing Jupiter when she falls from high places.” Sean Bean pops up as an old soldier (spoiler alert: he actually doesn’t die this time), but sadly he doesn’t have much to do.

To its great detriment, “Jupiter Ascending” can’t help feeling reminiscent of 2011’s ill-reviewed “Green Lantern.” Both films juxtapose a vivid vision of contemporary Earth alongside highly developed alien cultures. When the human/alien worlds inevitably intersect, a lineup of exotic characters starts giving data-dumps to the protagonist, who then spends most of his or her time wondering “WHY WAS I CHOSEN? WHY ME?” out loud. The Wachowskis (responsible for “The Matrix” trilogy and the film adaptation of “Cloud Atlas”) seem to have forgotten the “show, don’t tell” mantra that made their early work so compelling. (Who can forget the image of Neo waking up from the Matrix to find himself in a future-industrial hellscape?) Over and over and over again, “Jupiter Ascending” lapses into longwinded exposition of plot points, most of which lack any ultimate payoff. By contrast, “Guardians of the Galaxy” worked precisely because it assumed its characters – and its audience – were competent enough to figure out the “rules of the game” as the story unfolded. This isn’t exactly Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: it’s not hard to figure out what’s going on.

As if that weren’t enough, the script is shot through with deficiencies of the most appalling sort. Lack of character development? Check (the Wachowskis have never been particularly good with this). Crammed-in “love story” that becomes inexplicably central to the plot? Check. Unresolved narrative arcs designed to lay groundwork for future sequels? Check. And the list goes on.

That said, “Jupiter Ascending” isn’t altogether terrible. In fact, it’s remarkably entertaining, and a good rainy-day movie (calling it a good movie might go too far, though).

This movie is beautiful – breathtakingly so. In this age of gratuitous CGI overuse, it may seem silly to describe any big-budget sci-fi production as “beautiful,” but no other word seems appropriate. Imagine the production values of the jungles in “Avatar,” applied to massive cityscapes and alien spacecraft: the quality of the effects and art design is that impressive. Powered by such grandiose visuals and Michael Giaccino’s booming score, “Jupiter Ascending” manages to be an imagination-igniting voyage, if not a successful work of art.

From a philosophical standpoint, “Jupiter Ascending” is actually rather unique in its traditionalism. With Balem as its primary antagonist (a galactic Gordon Gekko, so to speak), the film offers a critique of the profit-oriented market culture that characterizes the modern age. Such swipes at the contemporary liberal order certainly aren’t unique to “Jupiter Ascending” – but the alternative the movie depicts is far more Burkean than Marxist. Here, there’s no fetishization of power; indeed, in the tradition of Rome’s Cincinnatus, Jupiter repeatedly rejects the mantle of authority thrust upon her. Happiness is found in hearth and home, and in fulfilling one’s designated life role (indeed, social stratification is taken as a given – even as a genetically-based imperative). If nothing else, it’s an interesting counterpoint to the redistributionist ideals advocated by other works in the genre (2013’s “Elysium” springs to mind).

Is it worth seeing? With expectations properly calibrated, perhaps. It’s no future classic, though it’s a shame some of these concepts and designs probably won’t get a second outing. Truly original sci-fi is hard to come by, and for all its many cinematic failures, “Jupiter Ascending” can’t help but spark a sense of wonder.

But unfortunately, sometimes wonder just isn’t enough.

VERDICT: 5.5/10
While its concepts are grand, and its visuals are magnificent, “Jupiter Ascending” can’t quite overcome its defective writing and plot.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2015 in Sci-Fi

 
 
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