Thursday, July 25, 2013

Man on Film: Fast & Furious 6

After the supremely bombastic fifth installment of the Fast & Furious series, Justin Lin had all but predestined himself to let down fans of what he has turned the series into when he took over at Tokyo Drift. Fortunately, if you thought that the action couldn't get any more over the top, you were wrong. Sure, Vin Diesel and Paul Walker aren't laying waste to Rio with a vault that's tethered to their cars, but the action set-pieces are bigger, the stunts are even more insane, and the hand-to-hand combat is much more engaging.

When you consider the humble Point-Break-in-muscle-cars origins of the series, the point that the franchise is at now could not be more surprising. That it's peaking both commercially and creatively five and six films into the series is completely shocking. But here we are, and Fast & Furious 6 is totally insane in the best ways possible.

Now to be totally honest, Fast & Furious 6 doesn't quite measure up to its predecessor, Fast Five. Fast Five was about as good as high-octane action dripping in testosterone gets. Furthermore, the setting (Rio) gives the fifth installment a vibrancy that Fast 6 never quite attains.

Having said that, Fast & Furious 6 does a much better job of using Dwayne Johnson's strengths and strength to its benefit. With the better utilization of Johnson and the addition of Gina Carano, the hand-to-hand combat sequences are much more impressive than in any of the previous films in the series. Some might complain that this film got a bit away from the series' bread and butter in relying a bit more heavily upon fight scenes and less upon car stunts, but these scenes add quite a bit to a film already brimming over with action.

The film isn't without its flaws, sadly. Where the Dom/Letty storyline is supposed to be the heart of the film, it's really hard to give a shit about what happens to Letty as Michelle Rodriguez emotes about as much as a rock. The heart of the film is in the Han/Gisele scenes, though it seems as though that's unintentional. Regardless, Sung Kang and Gal Gadot are the ones who win our affection while Tyrese Gibson carries the film's lighter comedic moments. With a film this large, I suppose it's easier to have scenes stolen.

All in all, Fast & Furious 6 is a helluva ride, delivering pretty much exactly what it is supposed to. Now we just have to cross our fingers and hope James Wan doesn't screw the pooch on Fast & Furious 7.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Man on Film: The Place Beyond The Pines

Having thought quite highly of the emotional wrecking ball that was Derek Cianfrance's 2010 breakthrough Blue Valentine and seen nothing but positive buzz about this film, it was nearly impossible to not have high expectations for The Place Beyond The Pines despite going in nearly completely blind.

While there were elements that worked quite well, the film's unwieldy narrative structure--and most importantly its uneven and quite distinct three acts that spanned a 140-minute stretch of time that felt more like 180 minutes--made for a disappointing moviegoing experience.

Much of this owes to the film's strongest section being its first act. If one were looking at the first act as a genre film independent of the rest of the film, it would be difficult to not come away completely enamored with the film. On its own merits, the first act is a brilliant bit of motorcycle B-movie exploitation. Ryan Gosling is every bit the badass that he was in Drive, but Luke Glanton is much more complex than Driver was, allowing Gosling to run the gamut from boyishly charming to unhinged and volatile. In fact, there's almost nothing not to love about this first section of the film. Eva Mendes is surprisingly dextrous as the downtrodden former flame trying to piece together her life on the fringe; the motorcycle stunts are fucking visceral and exhilarating; and the spectacular Ben Mendelsohn knocks his supporting part out of the park.

Unfortunately the first section is only the first section. The film trudges on through two more lengthy acts as Cianfrance explores the theme of the sins of the father permeating their progeny. Each of the subsequent acts drags more than its predecessor, the air is slowly let out of the movie, and by the time we get to the film's conclusion, its impact is diminished by the question nagging the viewer: when will this fucking movie end?

To be fair and forthcoming, there are elements of these latter acts that work. Bradley Cooper does what he can with his role. Just as Luke Glanton is filled with pathos, so is Cooper's Avery Cross. His journey, his conscience, and the ethical dilemmas he faces are all at least moderately engaging. Is Avery's section as electric as Luke's? Absolutely not. Fortunately, Cooper is adept enough to take the audience wincing along with him. Hell, if the film had simply concluded with a little coda after the Avery section, you'd probably have read this review months ago when I actually saw the film.

Instead, Cianfrance and co-screenwriters Ben Coccio and Darius Marder tacked on the third act with Luke and Avery's sons (played by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, respectively) playing out the string as their fathers' sins infect their lives. Perhaps if the sons, especially Cohen, were played by young actors with more gravitas--I'm extremely familiar with DeHaan's work, and he can play emotionally fragile and volatile, but it seems like he lacks the ability to thrive doing anything else--then the film wouldn't have ended on such a sour note. Cohen's performance not only lacks gravitas but is grating. Each line he delivers screams Long Island, well at least when you can understand him through the marbles that he's got lodged in his mouth. Moving past a performance that sticks out so plainly as inadequate, it's hard to say that the film would have been saved with a different actor in the role. The final section would have likely fallen flat regardless of the performances. The Place Beyond The Pines's conclusion is simply too long coming and is almost entirely punchless. Perhaps the final section plays differently if the film hadn't peaked at least 90 minutes earlier. That isn't the movie that we got, though, and The Place Beyond The Pines ends up uneven at best.

The Place Beyond The Pines is available for pre-order on DVD and Blu-ray on Amazon (their release date is August 6th) or you can stream on Amazon VOD as of today. Don't take my word on it. Watch for yourself.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Reading Rainbow: Attempting Normal by Marc Maron

Over the last ten months or so, I've been taking in a whole lot of Marc Maron. Sure, the first season of his show Maron aired on IFC recently, and I watched every episode--most more than once--but that's mostly the icing on the cake. I really liked the first season--it managed to be exactly as honest as you'd have hoped while holding to the standards of broadcast cable (I really don't understand why IFC holds to these standards while freely showing unedited films later in the evening, as they should given the origins of the network, but that is neither here nor there)--but that's the tip of the iceberg for my borderline Marc Maron obsession.

Since the end of last summer, I've probably spent more time listening to his WTF? podcast than doing anything else. At first, I just listened to episodes in which he interviewed people who interested me. Then, I started listening to episodes that vaguely interested me. What broke the floodgates open, though, was probably the episode with Jimmie Walker, which was fucking fascinating and a complete surprise. It was around that time that I decided to go back and listen to every episode from the start. I'm over 100 episodes in, re-listening to episodes that I'd already listened to in an effort to keep Maron's past four-plus years in order.

So it should come as no surprise that I also read Marc's (when you have someone talking in your head for well over 100 hours, it's hard not to think of them as a friend--hence the use of the first name there--despite the obvious insanity implicit in that leap) latest foray into the realm of the humorous episodic memoir, Attempting Normal. Just as one would hope, it's every bit as funny and brutally honest in that self-evaluative way that is uniquely Marc Maron's way. His voice is finely honed through his more than 25 years of work on the stage. It should come as no surprise (not having read his first book The Jerusalem Syndrome: My Life as a Reluctant Messiah) that Maron speaks about himself and his struggles laying everything extremely and unabashedly bare. Sure, as someone who has listened to a fuckload of his podcast episodes over the past year, a lot of the issues have at least been touched upon in his monologues that open each of his podcast episodes, but there's still a unique spin on even these stories that makes them not feel like they've simply been rehashed to fill a book.

Thankfully, Maron avoids this potential pitfall, and Attempting Normal is an outrageously propulsive read. No subject is off limits, and his perspective spins these situations in a singular and refreshing fashion. His insights into a wide range of topics, but as he works through (his) issues, it opens a doorway in your own head that helps you work through your own issues. His introspection gets the reader to join along with him while never stepping over the line into being laborious. The stories within are all funny, but more importantly they are easily relatable, at least metaphorically, to your own life. While reading Attempting Normal, you'll surely laugh, but you'll also figure out things about yourself.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Man on Film: The Way, Way Back

Perhaps my life of enabling the aquatic enjoyment of others combined with the sometimes crippling inferiority complex that I've dealt with on-and-off for the bulk of my life make me the extremely specific target audience for this film, but I was completely enamored with Jim Rash and Nat Faxon's directorial debut, The Way, Way Back. Hot off their Oscar-winning scribe work on The Descendants, Faxon and Rash--soon to co-star in their own absurdist hour-long buddy cop dramedy on TNT that will be packaged with Franklin & Bash--elected to wade into the indie waters of the awkward coming-of-age flick.

Liam James and AnnaSophia Robb
Positioning Liam James--who already has quite an extensive resume having already worked on films including 2012 and Horsemen and series including Psych and The Killing at the age of just 16--front-and-center, Rash and Faxon put their young protagonist, Duncan through the emotional ringer of adolescence while trying to acclimate to divorce and his mother's new douchebag boyfriend (Steve Carell) while at that boyfriend's beach house in the Northeast (presumably either the Cape or Long Island) for the summer. James is called upon to play the teen uncomfortable in his own skin, content to sit at home by himself rather than socialize with peers, who eventually comes into his own with the help of the social safety net provided him by his de facto mentor, Owen (Sam Rockwell)--his supervisor at the surreptitious summer job he gets at a run-down water park. As Duncan gradually grows more confident under the lead-by-example tutelage of the irreverent yet juvenile Owen, James sheds Duncan's timidity and awkwardness with aplomb.

To their credit, Faxon and Rash manage to expertly navigate tricky emotional waters, adroitly balancing the emotionally raw and painful with much-needed uproarious laughter. Rash and Faxon's decision to set the tale against the emotional backdrop of a mother (Pam, played by Toni Collette) and son still reeling from the divorce and essential abandonment of the husband and father is what gives the film its weight. Both are damaged, and James and Collette both thrive in their roles as the fragile, beleaguered survivors. As the stunted boyfriend, Trent, Carell channels Michael Scott at his most odious and petty and infuses it with a cocksure swagger masking his deeper insecurities. While entirely unlikable, Carell does good work here, making his early exit from The Office retroactively rewarding (at least for those of whom thought Michael Scott should have stayed on the show despite the fact that the character really had nowhere else to go).

Where The Way, Way Back's dramatic core sits mostly in the seasonal cottage abode of the makeshift family--there is a pretty distinct dichotomy in the film's two spheres that only Duncan and eventually the two neighbor kids, Peter and Duncan's love interest, Susanna, played by AnnaSophia Robb [pictured above] are able to traverse until the final act--Duncan's clandestine work world is where the film's humor is mostly injected (not to take away from Allison Janney's turn as the terrible drunk mother at the beach house next door, which is largely hilarious). The color, the heart, and the joy of the film all comes from the weird world of Water Wizz. Stacked with accomplished comedic character actors (Maya Rudolph, Rockwell, Rash, and Faxon), Water Wizz is the almost forgotten water park staffed by adults whose development was arrested and who could never quite bring themselves to leave the job that was at least as much fun as it ever was work. [Again, I'm kind of the target niche demographic for this movie (there was even a time when a fellow lifeguard and I entertained the notion of moving to the Wisconsin Dells and working at Noah's Ark for the summer).] Faxon, Rash, and Rudolph all do their thing exceptionally well, but to actually buy into the film completely, one needs to have Rockwell kill. He does. Rockwell's Owen acutely intuits that Duncan needs a bit of guidance, and while he never comes out and tells Duncan that he'll take him under his wing, he builds up Duncan's self-esteem like an older brother, or really, like a father. He's far from perfect, but if it isn't for Owen as the mentor, Duncan doesn't come out of this film emboldened. Water Wizz is where Duncan gets to start his life anew, breaking forth from the chrysalis of pubescence and paternal abandonment.

If anyone doubted how much of an imprint Faxon and Rash had on The Descendants, those nagging questions can likely be put to rest. The Way, Way Back has every bit the heart that The Descendants had. Faxon and Rash masterfully tug at the heartstrings while avoiding being overtly manipulative, somehow mining a rich vein of emotional pain within me that I thought had been tapped out ages ago and allowing me come out on the other side both intensely happy and very sad. It is rare that a movie makes me feel anything as much as The Way, Way Back did, but it's a testament to Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's deft touch as burgeoning filmmakers, a path that I personally hope is a long and fruitful one.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Man on Film: The Heat

I actually saw this at an advance screening at least two months ago, so The Heat isn't exactly fresh in my mind. I had however formulated what I wanted to say in my head a while back. I wanted to love this movie because of its director, Paul Feig. If there's anyone who has earned the undying love of the world at large, it's the creator of Freaks and Geeks.

The Heat is far from being bad. Its last half is actually quite good. Unfortunately, the first half takes an insanely long time to get going and doesn't deliver the funny with nearly enough frequency. Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy work very well together, and McCarthy (not even remotely surprisingly) puts the movie on her shoulders and carries it. For the past few years, this has been the case. McCarthy stole the show in Bridesmaids (the first time McCarthy and Feig worked together), and her scene in This Is 40 was the best scene in the film by far. She is a comic force to be reckoned with and once the clunky (and over-long) first act gets out of the film's way she is allowed to shine.

If a film is going to have a slow half, I suppose it's preferable to have the first half be the slow half, but it still makes for an uneven movie-going experience if the early goings of character development doesn't bring sufficient laughs along for the ride. Thankfully, it picks up and almost hits a stride with enough confidence to cleanse the first half from your palate, but it doesn't quite get there, leaving this in the realm of merely decent comedies. I suppose it's possible that this will be a film that grows on you with repeated viewings like Anchorman or The Big Lebowski, but I'd say that's unlikely.

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