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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Film Review - FAST & FURIOUS 6

The Fast and the Furious franchise is the rarest of cinematic beasts: a series that’s miraculously improving beyond the halfway marker to double-digit sequels. 2011’s Fast Five was easily the best entry – a propulsive party movie packed with incredible stunts and larger than life performances – and handily replenished the property’s sputtering fuel tanks. This latest installment, Fast & Furious 6 (or, according to credits, Furious 6) doesn’t quite match the inspired craziness of its predecessor, though it’s still a gloriously dopey spectacle that won’t disappoint the die hards and may provoke an appreciative “WHOA!” or two.

The key to Fast’s longevity is its body snatcher-like propensity for swapping genre models with each passing film. Having already offered B-movie variations on Point Break, Miami Vice, The Karate Kid and Ocean’s Eleven, Furious 6 goes full-on Mission: Impossible/A-Team, transforming Vin Diesel’s gang of road-ripping rogues into heroic, resourceful do-gooders-for-hire. It’s an inevitable creative choice, really. Nevertheless, it works.

Picking up shortly after the last picture, Dominic Toretto (Diesel), Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) et al. are filthy rich and living it up in Spain, wanted fugitives in their homeland US of A. Enter hulking Interpol agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson); seems an international criminal named Shaw (Luke Evans) is building a super-weapon capable of knocking out military electronics (or something like that – it’s vaguely defined), and he’s employing Dom’s lost love Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), thought dead since 2009’s Fast & Furious. Offered full pardons for their voluminous past misdeeds, the gang heads to London to chase down the ruthless criminal and return their former friend to the fold.

As has classically been the case, the screenplay - by regular series scribe Chris Morgan – is mostly a nonsensical clothesline for huge action sequences and barn-door-broad humour (there’s a running gag about comic relief Tyrese Gibson’s big forehead that dies on-screen every time). However, under the stylish eye of returning helmer Justin Lin, Furious 6 hums with colorful, goofy energy and big-time rousing high speed car-nage. Although he never tops his safe-swinging Fast Five finale, Lin stages two extended set-pieces – one involving a tank, the other a huge cargo plane – that reach apex after apex, constantly offering new absurd reasons to applaud. And, while the middle section of the movie meanders a bit, the helmer does a fantastic job juggling his ensemble cast (take note Star Trek into Darkness) and making their interactions lively and light.

These are not actor’s films, yet the amiable cast is invaluable in investing us in the preposterousness. Diesel’s moody outlaw philosophizing, Johnson’s sweaty intensity and Walker’s, uh, Walkerness ground Furious 6, while endearing supporting characters like Sung Kang’s Han, Ludacris’s Tej and Gibson’s doltish Roman inject much-appreciated charisma. Rodriguez has her tough girl act down cold, and shares a killer fight scene with Haywire’s Gina Carano (a tough, sexy physical presence who looks like an awkward contest winner in dialogue scenes).

Chances are, this far into the series, you know whether this flick is for you or not. Fair enough. Furious 6 is unlikely to change opinions of the franchise, but it offers the requisite empty-calorie thrills and macho camp you’ve come to expect. And, as far as summer blockbusters go, this one guns its engines with confidence and a big dumb grin.

3 out of 5

*Originally published at BeatRoute Magazine.

Film Review - MUD

There are few sensations more exhilarating for a cinema lover than the discovery of a bold, exciting new talent. With 2011’s haunting apocalyptic supernatural thriller/character study Take Shelter, writer/director Jeff Nichols proved himself a storyteller capable of masterful subtlety, atmosphere and profoundly impactful raw human emotion. It was a dark, ominous picture that wrapped itself tightly around your brain and refused to let go, inspiring multiple interpretations and analysis. In short, it was one hell of a film!

And now, with his latest, the Southern Gothic-tinged coming-of-age tale Mud, Nichols manages to wondrously outdo himself. A poignant, powerful examination of friendship and loss of innocence, this captivating effort – which brings to mind Clint Eastwood’s criminally forgotten 1993 work A Perfect World - solidifies the helmer as one of the most promising emerging American film voices. This movie is a treasure.

Mud stars Tye Sheridan as Ellis, a curious and strong-willed adolescent Arkansas boy whose comfortable world is nearing tumultuous upheaval. His parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are on the verge of divorce, which would yank him away from both his cherished Mississippi river-situated home and scrappy best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), and he’s awkwardly on the verge of romantic involvements with the opposite sex. During a secret journey to a nearby island to visit a mysterious tree-lodged boat, he encounters the enigmatic, vaguely threatening homeless title figure, played by Matthew McConaughey, who persuades the two boys to bring him food and run letters to his troubled girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon). In this shifty stranger, the troubled Ellis sees an idealized reflection of his own na├»ve feelings of masculinity, chivalry and pure, simplified love, and becomes entranced by him, leading to a bond that becomes dangerously complicated – once Mud’s true secrets come to light – and forever changes both men for the better.

Nichols’ stages this tricky material with minimal stylistic fuss and a keen insight into teenage male psychology and their limited emotional intelligence, bringing a true naturalistic tone to the picture and Ellis’s arc. Buoyed by fantastic turns from Sheridan and McConaughey (who brilliantly continues his fascinating transformation from bland hunk-for-hire into top-rate character actor), Mud paints an immersive, layered world, populated by intriguing side-players, such as Sam Shephard’s ornery neighbor, Paul Sparks’ vicious bounty hunter or Michael Shannon’s wacky scuba-diving uncle. Through it all, these people feel like real people, with dreams, weaknesses and inner-strengths, and it’s a joy to merely bask in their company, leisurely taking it all in. Frankly, I would have happily watched them go about their lives for another hour or so.

Make no mistake, though, Mud is also frequently gripping and tension-filled. Mixing in recognizable thriller and film noir tropes, Nichols skillfully weaves a snake-like thread of authentic menace throughout, raising the stakes over the course of the picture. We can always sense something bad just around the corner but, because we’re so invested in the personalities involved, we anticipate the impending revelation with anxiety, not eagerness. 

 The first legitimately great picture of 2013, Mud, akin to Malick’s The Tree of Life, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows or Spielberg’s E.T. before it, implicitly understands the complications of dawning male maturity, and wraps its honest truths in a riveting tapestry of perceptive cinematic beauty. If there’s one drawback to this endlessly rewarding film, it’s that it leaves you with an irresistible urge to see what Nichols has up his sleeve for next time. One’s things for certain: coming off this picture, the sky in the limit.

5 out of 5

*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.