Saturday, April 11, 2009

Film Review - FAST & FURIOUS: Stalls More Than It Accelerates!

Holy hand-grenades! Fast & Furious kicks off with an exuberant bang courtesy of an action sequence that would be perfectly at home opening the next James Bond adventure. Set on a dusty, windy Portuguese mountain road, a team of daring crooks, led by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his tough-cookie girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), attempt to liberate a considerable load of liquid gold from a gargantuan gas-hauling semi-truck. As the unwieldy behemoth swerves aggressively from left to right, and Rodriguez and a female accomplice hang on by the skin of their finger nails while Diesel and co. spin their jacked-up roadsters around like demonic dervishes, we thrill at witnessing a truly effective and brilliant combination of gutsy stunt-work, expert driving and dazzling practical effects combined into a Molotov cocktail of high-octane ecstasy.

Based purely on the stimulating success of this automobilia-erotica foreplay, one would be more than forgiven for expecting director Justin Lin’s stupidly titled film, the fourth in the popular homo-erotic Fast and the Furious franchise - famed for their multiple scenes of shirtless, sweaty men locking eyes and stroking chrome - to provide a heady collection of candy-glazed car-smacking and entertaining gee-whiz discourse. Unfortunately though, after blowing his movie’s wad prematurely, the remainder of Lin’s limp work shows very little grind or thrust.

Arguably set after the epic events of the awesomely campy 2 Fast 2 Furious, and preceding the coma-inducing Tokyo Drift, this entry picks up with Diesel’s outlaw Toretto on the run and seeking revenge. Following the off-screen murder of a close colleague (which is later recreated in full CSI glory), and hunted by the authorities, the lumbering, bald gearhead returns to his American homeland, intend on shutting down the shadowy heroin operations of the mysterious crime-lord Arturo Braga (played by ???). His investigation brings him into uneasy contact with his former “bro”, FBI Agent Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker). Fortunately for the two, Mr. Braga is a street-racing enthusiast – a shock, I know – and soon the two are vying to be a part of his merry band of gear-poppin’ drug transporters.

As Toretto and O’Connor quickly find themselves immersed in the devious goings-ons of Mr. Braga, old wounds and tensions speedily find themselves rising to the surface. While Brian attempts to find a balance between his role within the government bureaucracy and his allegiance to the Toretto clan, including ex-lover Mia (Jordana Brewster), Dominic must battle his own inner demons and seek an end to his high-flying criminal ways. When shit starts to hit the fan, and the identity of Braga is brought to light, the duelling car junkies are forced with a decision: to play by the rules or to shift into maximum overdrive and attack the foe head-on... Fast and furiously!

Now, before going any further, I’d like to take a little moment and examine Mr. Braga’s criminal organization. Fronted by the deceptively friendly Campos (John Ortiz), one would assume that, due to the elusive nature of the group’s figure-head and the FBI’s inability to bust them, they would be intent on remaining in the shadows, correct? So why then would they hold initiations for drivers by conducting reckless street-races in heavily populated downtown Los Angeles? Wouldn’t the immense amount of property damage and civilian casualties tip the authorities off? And again, where is the logic in capping your drivers after a single mission? So you can have more deadly automobile contests and rack up more damage in major urban centres? Seems like a pretty questionable tactic for staying secretive... But then again, the FBI can’t seem to find Diesel’s Torreto the entire film, and he’s just hanging out at his sister’s place – which is under strict surveillance!!! Gadzooks!

I know, I know, I shouldn’t concern myself with the plot. Fast and the Furious flicks aren’t about intricate storytelling but rather “sweet” rides and “off-the-hook” car chases. So why has Justin Lin gone to such effort to rob viewers of the expected spectacle? The big L.A. driving competition is filmed in pitch black, choppily edited and shot through a particularly murky lens. Likewise, the climactic pursuit, set in a cramped, under-lit mining tunnel which separates Mexico and California, is too dusty and poorly CG-altered to make any sense or deliver any excitement. For the life of me, I was completely unable to make out the details of Toretto’s miraculous escape and survival.

So, the car stuff sucks, but what works? Well, Diesel, when not moping, is still a forceful and engaging presence and his work here helps erase the lingering ache of dreck like Babylon A.D. or The Pacifier. Similarly, Walker has actually grown into his role, which is refreshing after the character’s previous incarnations as a bleach-blonde haired doofus, calling everyone ‘brah’, and appearing like a home-schooled Eminem-wannabe playing dress-up. He’s better now, I swear, and has a good physicality in a cool early foot-chase and in a nice bit pounding a co-worker to a pulp.

The women fair far worse, obviously. This IS a series built on mutual man-love and sensual displays of automotive arousal after all. Michelle Rodriguez is a lot of fun in her truncated returning role and the film would have been better served by including more of her. Less Jordana Brewster would have been a big plus though, as her emotional histrionics are painful to endure, and a late-game love scene between her and Walker is baffling in its suddenness. Gal Gadot as, um... Gisele Harabo (thanks IMDB!), a bad girl with a heart-of-gold, is a complete waste of time, not even named within the film and used only for cheap ass and tit shots as well as a whole lotta groan-inducing romantic come-ons.

You have to admire the initiative of the producers who have milked this series of Point Break rip-offs for everything they’re worth and are now guaranteed a chance for a fifth go-around. Fast & Furious, to put it mildly, doesn’t live up to its title but will probably modestly entertain the masses until the summer’s heavy-hitters stampede into theatres next month. With that said, by failing to meet the standard for sharply rendered automotive-awesomeness set by the previous films, apathetic movie-goers just may not be rushing quite so fast to the next Furious.

2.5 out of 5

Friday, April 10, 2009

Film Review - ADVENTURELAND: A Funny, Lovable Ride Into Young Romance and Mischief!

Writer/Director Greg Motolla’s Adventureland is the most rewarding type of film-going experience: a genuinely funny, heartfelt slice of coming-of-age narrative that sneaks up and lulls you into a blissful state of nostalgic joy, leaving you not only smiling well after you’ve exited the theatre, but also fondly remembering the tumultuous passionate journeys of your own adolescence. The film remembers a time where every night out with your friends promised a magical universe of possibilities and rapturous dreams of finding that one defining romantic partner who would “get” you and see through the immature goofball exterior. Watching Motolla’s sweet reverie of a comedy I found myself not so much transported into the film’s 1987 amusement park setting as awash in the tantalizing memories of a time which, while not long ago, seems to have mysteriously drifted out of my aging grasp.

Set in the sleepy suburbs of Pittsburgh during the latter years of the Reagan era, Adventureland stars The Squid and the Whale’s Jesse Eisenberg as James Brennan, a well-intentioned, funny young man who has just graduated with a degree in English literature - with a focus on the ever valuable Renaissance period - who finds his planned summer in Europe cancelled due to his families economic struggles. Desperate for money to pay his way into New York’s Columbia University journalism Masters program, James, after discovering the uselessness of an English BA (I felt like weeping during these scenes), finds himself with a dead-end job as a games supervisor at the city’s ramshackle, “Rock Me Amadeus”-rotating, amusement park Adventureland. Temporarily friendless, working for peanuts and still packing a V-Card, James glumly prepares himself for a summer of toil and tedium.

Fortunately however, Adventureland staffs an eccentric crew of wage-slaves so memorable that boredom isn’t really an option. There are Bobby and Paulette, the owners of the joint, a deceptively insane married couple played by SNL pros Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, as well as their ruggedly handsome ride mechanic Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a moonlighting musician who once legendarily jammed with Lou Reed! Also present are the workplace sexpot Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), the uber-smart, cynical nerd Joel (Martin Starr) and the... Oh, hold on, who’s that cute, edgy girl behind that game counter over there? James sure wants to know too. Her name is Em (Twilight star Kristen Stewart) and she’s a wounded beauty who guarantees to make James’ life a whole lot more interesting. Over the course of these simmering, dreamy days of summer ’87, Motolla unfolds the day-to-day dramas of these character’s lives as we look on with an infectious mix of joy, hope, sadness and a heavy helping of youthful exuberance.

What makes Adventureland a revelatory experience, unlike similarly themed romantic-dramedies aimed at early twenty-somethings (Nick and Norah anyone? Yeah, me neither!), is its unswerving commitment to capturing the human truth within each and every character. Em may be cool, funny and adorable, and an ideal potential lover, but she’s also carrying the weight of the world on her lithe shoulders and not immune to poor judgment. Similarly, Reynold’s Mike is a smooth-talking ladies man, cheating on his wife, who talks big but, at the end of the day, innately realizes that his future prospects are slim to none. A lesser film would have made him the pathetic butt of a joke, but as played by the actor and written by Motolla, he’s a fragile human being just trying to remind himself of a time when the future glowed with promise. Heck, even bubbly Lisa P., goofy Bobby, meek Paulette and cynical Joel are interesting individuals with real emotions and genuine struggles to overcome.

It’s the love story between James and Em, though, which makes Adventureland sing. Not since David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels have I witnessed a youthful romance so honest, unconventional and rewarding as the one depicted affectionately here. Motolla remembers that young love is, at the best and worst of times, an exhilarating, frightening, confusing adventure which is as valuable for the passion shared as the accompanying personal revelations and growth. James and Em may not be destined to wind up in wedded bliss, but their time together will forever change and strengthen them for the better. That both young actors communicate this chaotic ride so beautifully is a testament to the maturity and quiet intelligence of their performances.

Leaving the film, it was impossible for me not to think of the Em of my own past, and reflect on how that relationship ultimately laid the groundwork for the course I’ve travelled on since. While I truly hope for a brighter future for Adventureland’s two young protagonists, I feel honoured to have been able to follow them and rejoice in their emotional explorations. This is a movie you want to hug and treasure, a tender reminder of time gone by and of those warm summer evenings when the mysteries of the cosmos could be unlocked by a bright smile or an adoring gaze.

4.5 out of 5