“Terminator Genisys” Review

The Terminator franchise has reached a point of no return. After the thrilling neo-noir elements of the first film and the spectacular action bonanza of its sequel, the series has not progressed much since. It went for the typical summer vibe of including a sexy female Terminator for T3: Rise of the Machines and it tried to play with straight grit in Terminator Salvation. I’m not saying the PG-13 ratings of summer blockbusters hampered these films, but it sure didn’t help. And here we are back in the mode of Terminator acting more as campy summer fair with nostalgic banking. But there’s a bit of a twist this time in that Terminator: Genisys, the fifth movie in the franchise, takes a kamikaze approach.

All of the Terminator movies up to this point have been fairly faithful in sticking to the timeline of events as they unfold. This is not the case with Terminator: Genisys as it deliberately rips pages out of the original story and rewrites everything. It may be considered blasphemy towards the franchise and ludicrous for time-travel logic, but what more can we expect from Terminator at this point? Its story has been told in more ways than one. We know all about Skynet and the events that transpire before and after the rise of machines over man. It’s time to shake things up with a story we don’t entirely see coming a mile away.

The movie begins with the familiar scene of John Connor (Jason Clarke) preparing to send Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to stop the machines. Even with the grand battle of humans versus robots in the opener, it’s all stuff we’ve seen before (and most likely better). But then something strange happens when John travels back to 1984. Some new sentient software dubbed Genysis and experiences new memories on his journey to the past attack John. When he arrives in 1984 to save Sarah Connor from the evil T-800 (younger Arnold Schwarzenegger), except the good T-800 (slightly younger Arnold Schwarzenegger) arrived early to help her. And the T-1000 shows up ahead of schedule as well. But, wait, there’s more! You also get more time travel where Connor and Reese travel into the modern present where they must stop Genysis in the form of a cloud application with the aged T-800 (present day Arnold Schwarzenegger). AND there’s a new Terminator that can heal faster and is allergic to magnets.

All of this sounds as though it were a Terminator fan-film come to life with its changing storyline, nostalgic callbacks and laughable means of making sense with time travel. The story is convoluted, the acting is not to scale and the action is comically overblown with flipping cars and explosions that are a hair short of matching an atomic bomb. And, yet, I didn’t mind this movie so much. Perhaps I am so enamored with Genysis‘ desire to trash the legacy of its lesser predecessors. If the Terminator movies want to continue being sequels or anything other than reboots, they can’t keep repeating themselves with the same old Skynet doom scenario. I could have done without the goofy franchise house cleaning to get to this new story of different evil robots, but this is the world we live in. You can’t completely do something new in a franchise without tossing in a few references or familiar characters.

Naturally, the biggest draw will be the action. Director Alan Taylor stages some big sequences of war-torn battlefields of the future, massive-sized research facilities for chase sequences and large enough buildings to demolish. There are car chases, gunfights, laser fights, Terminator fights and even a helicopter chase. From a technical standpoint, you can’t fault Genysis in the action department. Another surprising plus was the humor. While there are plenty of nostalgic nudges and winks that almost all fall flat, the more original and genuine comedy between Arnold, Emilia and Jai is actually rather amusing. If the character can’t be engaging on a dramatic level, there’s at least a twinge of cheesy amusement. The addition of J.K. Simmons as an eccentric conspiracy nut adds a little more levity to this doomsday plot.

Terminator Genysis is no ’84 Terminator or T2: Judgment Day, but why would it want to? Those movies were perfect and it’d be impossibly pointless to try to replicate them in the form of a reboot. I guess this is why I found Genysis more enjoyable than it should have been, as the divergence appears healthy. There’s a happy ending where crisis is averted and we don’t have to watch Schwarzenegger die yet again for the sake of humanity. That bit is as old as Schwarzenegger. This movie does its best to buff out the wrinkles of a franchise that is past its time. While it may not succeed entirely, it’s at least refreshing to watch the commitment to trying something new – even if it’s a mess of silly time travel and flawed characters.

“Pixels” Review

Pixels is a movie that used cheat codes to get to its own nostalgic special effects. It bypasses all the story, character and necessary logic to feature Adam Sandler and his friends battling video game characters in real life. It’s not important that there is any rhyme or reason to any of spec of this action comedy – all that matters is Adam Sandler’s passive commentary on video games and Josh Gad screaming at the top of his lungs. Sadly, there is no cheat code on the DVD to make any of this funny.

Nothing about this premise is all that original. The idea was based off a visual effect short of the same title and the story is ripped straight from an episode of Futurama. Slam them both together with the usual lazy writing of Happy Madison productions and you have one big mess of a movie about video game themed aliens invading Earth. The aliens – which we never see out of the form of licensed video game characters – declare war on Earth after viewing some of our video games from 1982. I never thought Pac Man or Galaga were declarations of war, but what do I know about aliens? I can tell you I don’t know much about these aliens considering how little of their intent is revealed.

To combat this threat, the United States decides to enlist the aged video game champions of 1982 comprised of Adam Sandler, Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage. Why are they recruited as opposed to all the other video game champions or alien experts of the past three decades? From what I can gather, Sandler is apparently able to recognize that the Galaga enemies were from the arcade version and not the home console version. Why is this important? It’s the script’s laughable excuse for using men in their 40’s for a video game themed movie. Could they have at least tried to make the scenario plausible and maybe abduct everybody on Earth born after 1982? It wouldn’t make much sense, but would be far more plausible.

Pixels banks entirely on nostalgia. Most of its comedy seems to derive from the mere sight of a CGI Pac Man devouring cars and Centipede ripping up buildings. Director Chris Columbus crowds the screen with so many of the visual gags, perhaps to cover up the script of lesser characters and dialogue. Sandler is portrayed as a tired and boring nerd that has been reduced to house calls for setting up electronics, but he’s still not above picking up chicks while on the jobs. A bad hygiene trait is forced on his character to enforce some sort of nerd stereotype. Peter Dinklage is an imprisoned champion of Donkey Kong, performing the worst accent of his entire career. Kevin James is the president of the United States and doesn’t have much to do until the third act. Josh Gad plays an alien conspiracy theorist who spends most the movie screaming.

I suppose the movie wants us to marvel at such unlikely heroes, but I’m more floored by such unlikable characters with nothing all that funny to do. Gad must instruct some soldiers on the mechanics of video games and makes a plethora of gay jokes while shouting at the men. He then spanks their butts while they are playing video games. There might have been a subplot to this humor about Gad’s character being a closeted homosexual, but such creativity is not in the cards. After all, Gad has a terrible romantic subplot about being in love with a female video game character. And if you can make any sense of that arc, I would love to hear about it.

I’m not much for video games, but even I was staring at this picture in astonishment for how much it got wrong. There are no cheat codes in Pac Man or Donkey Kong, but the scriptwriters believe every video game has a cheat code. Q-Bert pops up as an ally, but speaks in perfect English as opposed to the garbled babble he spoke in the video games. Even the title of the movie is wrong as the CG video games characters are assembled with voxels and not pixels. If the movie gets so many of these geeky facts wrong while focusing on a very geeky subject, the mind reels at just who this movie is intended for. It’s not for the geeks for its inaccuracy and it’s not for kids since they won’t get the references to Max Headroom or Hall and Oates. I can only fathom that it must be meant for baby boomers who played a lot of arcade games in the 1980’s and haven’t played one since. What an oddly specific demographic for such a terrible comedy.

“The Divergent Series: Insurgent” Review

If you’re familiar with the current crop of young adult novels turned movie franchises, you may find yourself with a bit of Deja vu while watching Insurgent. Didn’t I just see this movie a few months ago, and wasn’t it called The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1? They both feature scenes of running through the woods with gunfire following our fleeing characters. Wait a minute, that happened in The Maze Runner as well. These young adult heroes do so much running through the woods I’m surprised they all don’t run into each other at some point.

For as tired as I’m becoming of this formulaic subgenre, there was one aspect of Insurgent that brought me a small bit of relief. The movie sets up a society-changing MacGuffin that the corporate villains possess, but need our hero to activate it. It appears as too much of a game-changer that I was sure it would just be left on the shelf for the next movie. Thankfully, I was wrong. This story feels more complete in how it follows through on its premise by providing a beginning, middle and end to an event. After having seen so many of these young adult series that use their sequels as mere bridges of half-arcs to the final showdown, it was refreshing to watch a movie in a series that can stand on its own.

That is the good news. The bad news is that Insurgent can’t quite seem to shake those common young adult tropes. We find our hero Tris (Shailene Woodley) hiding out in the woods as the Divergent messiah in a world where roles are predestined. She bands together with the resistance that are doing their best to defend themselves from the evil Jeanine (Kate Winslet) of the evil Erudites. As Jeanine struggles to open a mysterious box that is said to be a solution to the problem with Divergents, Tris becomes a prime target as the key. Assaults are waged, hostages are taken and lives are threatened unless Tris turns herself in to open the box. Good of the people, fight the oppressors, all the jazz.

The story itself proceeds rather straightforward as you’d expect, but with some strong performances by Woodley, Winslet and, surprisingly, Jai Courtney. For being another messiah of a dystopian future, Woodley plays the role with more emotion than I’d expect in how she tearfully resists a truth serum and darkly accepts responsibility for being a big target. She even gets some great moments of action in between all the escaping and hiding. The action scenes are not too shabby either with some well-staged shootouts and a memorable battle of the psyche in a crumbling metropolis.

But while Insurgent does provide in these areas, it still forgets to give a reason to be invested in its story. The plot is still just as simple and lacking in depths as much as it predecessor. I wanted some drama and a reason to care about the acting and design which has been paid much more attention. I appreciate that the director pulled off some decent style and acting in what is an otherwise bland clone of the young adult genre. Whatever inspired him to more, please slide some of it by the screenwriters as well.

The Divergent Series has improved with Insurgent and just needs an extra kick to stand out from the young adult competition. That kick happens to be an engaging script with more believable drama. Despite some improvements in the acting and design, I just can’t bring myself to recommend the picture on those merits alone. There are much worse young adult movies out there, but Insurgent still finds its stuck in the same box – desperately clawing its way to get out its by-the-book structure. If you never saw the first movie or it just did nothing for you, there’s no reason to get back into the Divergent series with this sequel.

“Jurassic World” Review

While sharing an elevator with a small boy and his dad, this kid ecstatically informed me about how he was going to see Jurassic World for the second time. He beamed with excitement as he described to me the grand finale in which the bad raptors turned good to join forces with the T-rex and beat the evil dinosaur. I smiled deeply at this young man’s enthusiasm which mirrored that twerp of a dinosaur-lover I was when I saw Jurassic Park at the age of eight.

I tend not to bring nostalgia into my reviews since I believe it cheapens the effect for those who are not in on the franchise. But when I first saw this movie in the theater, I sat next to two little girls under the age of 10. Some critics have cited how the grim violence may be too dark and shocking for kids who are into dinosaurs. These two girls were on the edge of their seat during the action and cackled with thrills as dinosaurs gobbled humans. Most kids are smart enough to enjoy the PG-13 action of a monster picture without cowering in their seats. If I could take this type of intensity at 8, then today’s kids are more than capable of not only handling the action, but enjoying it as well. It was such an amazing sights to witness that thrill once again and share it with a new generation.

Okay, enough about the kids. Does the movie succeed without the amazing dinosaur special effects? For what is essentially a winking homage to the original, Jurassic World does its job well. It fulfills that dark fantasy I always wanted to see in the original – the opening of the dinosaur park. All the rides, attractions and exhibits are all fully operational alongside the containment of prehistoric beasts. It’s all very elaborate and commercialized. And I couldn’t wait to see it all come crumbling under the weight of dinosaur carnage. The movie constantly teases all the gruesome fun to come from the “trained” raptors to the giant sea creature that can swallow whales whole.

But what of the human characters? As with any monster movie, the characters are mostly just vessels for the destruction. The good news is they’re likable enough to not be completely one-dimensional. Chris Pratt naturally steals the show as the likable scientist/dinosaur ranger – dressed in a ruff garb and riding into the action on a motorcycle. His romantic interest is a shrewd park manager played by Bryce Dallas Howard with a good mix of being overly business and frazzled with emotion. Vincent D’Onofrio is well cast as the war-hungry military man that becomes the villain and Irrfan Khan does a nice job as an eccentric investor. The only returning character comes in the form of B.D. Wong – reprising his role as the scientist Doctor Henry Wu.

But there are far more returning elements from the original Jurassic Park than just one character. Several winks and nods to the original and peppered into both the story and visuals. The park itself is built around the ruins of the previous movie – leading to its discovery as a tomb of nostalgia. The new prehistoric creatures that roam the park use familiar methods by placing their eyes close to their prey and sniffing them before taking a big chomp. It does become a little tiresome with all its callbacks, but there’s thankfully enough originality at play by the third act when the all the park attractions savage the human guests.

Jurassic World is genuine adventure and excitement that will entertain adults, but perhaps entertain the kids even more. It’s packed with enough dinosaur action and genuine thrills to make up for all the usual tropes of the monster movie genre that usually dampen the experience. Sure, I could be the downer adult who rains on the parade by berating the lack of deeper character, the banking on nostalgia and the level of violence, which could be deemed inappropriate for kids. But how could I deny the same level of joy that I experienced when it’s renewed for a new generation?

 

“Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F” Review

While the previous Dragon Ball Z movie managed to win me over by taking a new spin on the fantastical fighting formula, Resurrection F finds the franchise going back to its old bad habits. The villain this time around is the purple-domed alien Frieza, the most powerful warlord of the series that just can’t seem to stay dead. He is once again revived by his crazy zealots and once again seeks out Goku so he can once again get his revenge. This is a character that was once fearsome for controlling the galaxy’s greatest army and more than able to handle any warrior that could be thrown at him. But with this movie marking the second time he’s come back from the dead, he has lost that edge as a worthy antagonist. Even our heroes seem to be underwhelmed by his presence since they already know the outcome.

It’s not that Frieza doesn’t have any unique aspects to make him a great villain. He was once the ruler of the galaxy – lording over the villain-turned-hero Vegeta after having decimated his planet and his Saiyan race. Having been beaten twice by the Saiyan race which he once slaved has consumed him in rage. He lives only to see that Goku and Vegeta are dead. But after failing at this exact revenge plan once already, what has he learned since then? Apparently not that much. He builds up a new army to rule over the universe, but they serve as little more than a large amount of fodder for our lesser heroes to fight. Frieza has acquired a new form, but doesn’t have any new powers or surprising traits. And for a being that is revenge-driven, he sure spends a lot of time laughing manically and monotonously monologuing.

Resurrection F goes back to the direction which made Dragon Ball Z both iconic and deeply flawed. Whereas the previous movie Battle of Gods had character, this movie is mostly just fights. Veteran characters Gohan, Krillin, Piccolo, Tien and Master Roshi finally get a chance to show off their fighting abilities in how they dispatch wave after wave of Frieza’s forces. I had forgotten that Master Roshi – as old and feeble as he appears – could bulk up like the Hulk when he’s ready to fight. They all get to battle and show off their trademark special moves that I’m sure will make the hardcore Dragon Ball Z fans cheer to see these attacks once more.

Despite some rousing chase sequences of warriors battling through caves and woods, the fights become simpler and cheaper per Dragon Ball Z‘s budget-tightening animation. Characters will fight in blurs of action lines when in closeup and in spherical explosions when fighting from a distance. Blasts of energy are fired off as big, blinding lights that consume opponents. It’s amazing how this feature-length animation can have such rich colors of design and still revert to the old dog tricks of the series.

I suppose that given my familiarity growing up with the Dragon Ball Z TV series and its movies that I should be having some nostalgia for all this. There is no doubt in my mind that those who grew up on the franchise will have a soft spot in their heart for Goku delivering a Kamehameha wave or Frieza gnashing his teeth in rage at those pesky Saiyans. Memories are most likely surfacing of weekday afternoons huddled around the television to see what Goku would do next. Maybe I’m getting too old, but nostalgia just doesn’t do it for me anymore. After 14 of these Dragon Ball Z movies, I’d expect the resurgence to be something more than the same old thing. Would it kill the franchise to give just a little more depth and personality to Frieza?

But it’s Dragon Ball Z – why would I come in expecting more character than fight? It’s because Battle of Gods actually gave some character and humor in addressing the flaws and finding the stronger points. The past villain Beers, the galactic god of destruction, was such a welcome presence from the usual that he’s actually trotted out in this movie to give some comedic support. He’s just such a great villain as a lazy cat creature that refuses to destroy Earth as long as they keep providing him with ice cream and pizza. Beers grabs the attention of nearly every scene that it’s such a shame his purpose is to provide the most overused third act plot device of the sci-fi genre. They even announce this plot device early just so it doesn’t appear as though the writers just pulled it out of their butts when needed.

At its best, Resurrection F will at least hold your attention. I didn’t like how Frieza was so underwhelming, but was amused at how Goku and Vegeta were so disinterested in him as a threat to fight over who will destroy him. The day jobs of the Z warriors are only addressed as lip service, but still very much appreciated to see Krillin as a cop and Piccolo as a babysitter. These are all nice touches, but they still adhere to the usual formula as being minor strokes of character amid fight after fight. The only thing that truly feels different about this movie is the color palette. The new Super Saiyans have swapped out their yellow hair for blue and Frieza has ditched the white and purple exterior for gold and…purple. I guess the new purple is a shade darker so there’s at least some effort present.

“San Andreas” Review

What exactly is the highest peak for disaster pictures? For what essentially amounts to a visual effects showpiece of massive destruction, it’s a genre that tends to be heavy on display and light on just about everything else. Characters and arcs? Mere dressing for a tidal wave to wipe out a city or a volcano to engulf a town. Most audiences going into these pictures are not expecting to care about whether the characters grow or develop from such a situation. They mostly just want to see them tossed into a blender of carnage and really just watch for the spectacle of who will survive. Film critic Gene Siskel, when talking about the movie Twister, stated that you know you’ll get great special effects with the right team behind such a picture. So why not actually conceive a story just as engaging as the effects? Can such a film exist?

At this point, the answer is probably no. Popcorn-chomping audiences favor the bigger disasters over the bigger scripts. It is why the disaster genre of movies is now more of a ride. You strap in for the experience and hope it doesn’t bore or make you sick. With San Andreas, I got what I paid for and was more impressed with what it did not do. There were no cartoonish characters played up for laughs amid all the violence. There were no lame jokes at the cost of toppling buildings or a shuttering Earth. There were no overly ridiculous methods to save the day. It plays to many of the common clichés, as expected, but only to the sufficient degree required – catching itself just before it tumbles over the cliff of lunacy.

Our muscle-bound protagonist running around a crumbling California is a rescue worker played by Dwayne Johnson. He’s a decent man willing to risk his life and, of course, has to save his ex-wife and daughter from the apocalyptic destruction. These characters are all familiar including the hysterical scientist played by Paul Giamatti, but never for the level of camp in that of a Roland Emmerich production. They all just fit neatly into their place for this template – especially the way Dwayne Johnson gets plenty of chances to punch looters and carry the injured to safety. No ridiculous banter or Michael Bay style plays for jokes in the setup. The actors all just seem to be along for the ride – desiring only to enjoy it just enough without appearing as fools.

But all this writing is taking away from the true stars of this picture: the disasters. The Hoover dam bursts in an amazing display of violently gushing waters. Buildings caught in the quake wiggle from side to side as they come apart with people falling out of the holes in the structures. A giant tidal wave threatens the area and the only way to avoid it is ride to the top of the wave (of course). All these special effects do a great job acting at the screen – convincingly playing the role of a decimated Los Angeles. Maybe I’m reviewing this picture the wrong way in that I favor visuals or people when it comes to this genre, but what else is there to root for in a movie such as this? As far as these type of pictures go, San Andreas is about as good as it gets. The best way to conceive a big-budget disaster picture at this point is to fill the screen with lots of detail and make the humans small enough so that they don’t intrude or annoy the spectacle. It’s a passive plot up to the big salute of the national guard that was more pleasing than forced. The disasters occur, the speakers shake and the movie ends. Please watch your step after exiting your seat.

“Tremors 5: Bloodlines” Review

Did they really make a fifth Tremors movie? Yes. Did there need to be a fifth Tremors movie? No. Is it even any good? Surprisingly, yes. For being a direct-to-video feature and the latest entry in a dead franchise, Tremors 5 manages to be a rather pleasing bit of campy monster-hunting action. Am I lowering my expectations having spent so much time in the direct-to-video soup? Perhaps, but this is still one of the more enjoyable bowls of both the genre and the series. And sometimes you just want to enjoy a crazy movie about exploding bugs.

The series staple Michael Gloss returns for the role as the mustached gunmen Burt Gummer. Now a seasoned veteran at dealing with the wormy Graboids, Burt now has his own survival television program where he showcases his monster-hunting skills. Such promotion brings with it pushy young brand manager Travis Welker (Jamie Kennedy). Taking the show abroad, Burt accepts an invitation to hunt Graboids in South Africa. But the plot grows thicker as more Graboids are discovered and a greedy black market dealer desires to have these monsters captured alive.

Naturally, Tremors 5 never takes itself seriously. It’d be hard to do so when the type of Graboid our heroes are hunting is designated as an Ass Blaster class, based on the fire it spews from its rectum to launch through the air. True to the campy spirit of Tremors, the script by the original writers maintains a certain level of fun throughout. Burt showcases his usual gung ho attitude with plenty of guns in tow. He’s such an amusing character that the movie actually has enough faith to lock him in a cage and work with very little. The addition of Jamie Kennedy to the cast is solid given that he perfectly inhabits the role of an eager young assistant. He never plays the role up too heavily by acting as a suitable counter to the crusty old Michael Gloss.

The monster hunting is heavy on the computer graphics, but the picture makes due with the best with what it has to offer. The Graboids don’t appear very cheap for such a production and actually look pretty decent in most scenes. There are some sequences that are awkwardly staged as when one unlucky soul is gobbled up by a Graboid launching out of the sand and swallowing before burrowing back. But there are also scenes that easily avoid being laughable as when an Ass Blaster flies off into the night with human prey in its claws.

Plenty of firepower is brought to the party as Burt goes hunting in South Africa. You’ll rarely find a scene where Burt isn’t armed with a trusty hunting rifle. He may not do as much shooting as I’d like, mostly just taking aim for a Graboid kills, but the picture tries to make up for it in the second act with a helicopter armed with missiles that decimates a Graboid nest. The movie at least delivers on the blood and explosions as the grand finale involves a giant burst of bug guts over an entire African town.

Despite some slow spots, Tremors 5 delivers on a genuine sense of fun for another monster romp down the direct-to-video series. There’s a surprising amount of charm in how it delivers on some capable humor for what could have been a tired change of location and smattering of computer graphics. It would be nice to see Kevin Bacon return to the series after all these years, but Michael Gloss seems to do a good job at keeping a certain level of enthusiasm after all these years. After five Tremors movies, he still has all the intensity with his cackling at victories and teeth gnashing at those who hinder his hunt. He owns this series and he knows it, despite the attempt in this movie to spur a passing of the torch. I also really dug the concept for his reality show that would fit in snugly on National Geographic or the Discovery Channel. If the series has a future, I would be more than okay with a Tremors TV series of Burt hunting Graboids around the globe. Could you imagine him running through the streets of Tokyo with a hunting rifle as monsters emerge into crowded intersections?

“Furious 7” Review

The Fast and the Furious franchise of movies are long past the era of street racing. It’s even past being called Fast and Furious. Nobody has time for that title – it’s too slow! Now boiled down to the title of Furious 7, the series has reached a level of insane action and likable charm that never fails to crack a smile or widen the eyes. We are long past pointing out that these are street racers performing feats more on par with James Bond than Bullit. The previous movie featured a tank being stopped with wires, a mid-air rescue by slamming into a car and a giant cargo plane crashing into the ground. How could the new director James Wan possibly outdo that craziness limit set by Justin Lin? Believe it or not, Wan – the man behind Saw and Insidious – found a way to keep the ridiculous thrills steady and charming.

It’s a combination of both a likable cast and insanely fun stunts that continues to make these movies so much fun. There’s just enough story and character given to the misfit group of international street racers turned special agents. For all the grit and muscle, there’s a heart to Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) in how he fears for the lives of crew. When a rogue special agent (Jason Statham) starts targeting the racers on a mission of revenge, Toretto takes the matter very seriously keeping families out of it. He’s aware of his best pal Brian (the late Paul Walker) trying to settle down with his wife and son. So before Toretto and company go blazing towards the opposition on all cylinders, they make sure everyone is safe and that those who want in on the mission realize what they’re getting into.

There’s enough for everybody to do and not a single actor in this rather large ensemble feels wasted. Even Dwayne Johnson, reduced to a hospital bed for the majority of the picture, still manages to munch on the scenery. He only appears in three scenes and still manages to steal the movie. For a good chunk of the movie, the crew gets their orders from a special agent played by Kurt Russel who gets an equally big opportunity to strut his Russel-isms. He all but winks at the camera in the way he has more fun in this movie than anyone. All the familiars fit perfectly as well with just enough moments to shine from Tyrese Gibson to Michelle Rodriguez. Even the late Paul Walker, who I expected to be downplayed or written off for his death during production, still plays a key role and is given an affectionate sendoff.

Ultimately, though, it’s the insane car stunts that keep the blood flowing in this series. And at this point the name of the game seems to be finding new ways to keep the cars off the ground as much as possible. The grandest of stunts involves our heroes being dropped from a cargo plane in parachuting cars. But if watching all the cars land safely from such a plunge isn’t crazy enough, there’s a ridiculously absurd scene where Diesel and Walker drive a car through the windows of not one, but two skyscrapers in Dubai. And just in case logic wasn’t completely thrown out the window, Diesel and Statham both smash their cars head-on into each other and walk away unscathed. All these sequences are so over-the-top where it appears as though the finale is just a blur of cars, guns, explosions, debris and fire. I swear there’s a moment in this movie where you could easily confuse it with G.I. Joe: Retaliation.

While Furious 7 is loud and dumb, it’s a playful picture that’s aware of its silly nature and lets us in on the fun once more. It’s impossible not to stare in awe at the over-the-top stunts or crack a smile at the solid cast with real chemistry. The death of Paul Walker does little to dampen the tone of the picture – especially when you consider the comradery of all the characters and tribute ending attached. His death also does little to discourage the series in how it seems to boast that there is plenty of gas left in the tank for another round. By the end of the picture, I felt both thoroughly entertained with popcorn-chomping stunts and touched by the final performance of a beloved cast member. And if a picture that features cars flying out of planes can make me feel something I wouldn’t expect that’s the sign of a strong movie considering it’s already getting by on just being crazy, stupid fun.

 

 

“Spy” (2015) Review

Despite having the most unoriginal title for a spy satire, Paul Feig’s latest action/comedy finds plenty of original humor per his fearless style of comedy. He once again uses Melissa McCarthy in a role that emphasizes her glee over girth, but doesn’t play dumb about her capabilities. You won’t see McCarthy doing daring jumps off high peaks to avoid an explosion, but you will see her get involved with smarts and instinct that are believable. But, most importantly, Spy is hilarious while still paying its respects to the genre.

It’s refreshing to finally see McCarthy back in a role that challenges her more as opposed to her just phoning it in as the bloated dunce of pictures such as Identity Theft and Tammy. She starts off as the most interesting character of the plot – a desk jockey for secret agents in the field. As Jude Law dashes around lavish locations – shooting bad guys in a tuxedo – McCarthy directs his every move from the proximity of the enemy to the ETA of backup. She’s tactful with her response, but giddy about her crush on the man she watches over.

Eventually McCarthy will have to end up in the field, but the script swiftly skips the training montage. It turns out she’s already been trained well enough and is ready to do her job. Initially assigned with working recon, she’s given secret identities the likes of cat ladies and frumpy saleswomen. Her secret weapons come in the disguise of baby wipes and a Beaches watch. As you might expect, she’s not very favored by her organization. Even Jude Law fails to read the signs of her flirting. Rather than being a series of mean-spirited jabs that could engulf the picture, McCarthy simply laughs along knowing she’ll eventually get her moment to rise above that mountain.

While we watch her climb, she’s a general riot in more ways than one. I especially dug her fight scenes the way she frantically tries to wrestle away knives and guns with a comedic grip, but capable strategy. It’s so strange to see a woman outside of ideal appearance for an action star able to hold her own in the spy game. And, unlike some ludicrous idealism that could easily make such a picture go off the rails, her determination and victories are believable. Well, for about as much reality can be solidified in a picture with guns and nukes.

But McCarthy isn’t alone as she has plenty of strong actors to play from. Miranda Hart is perfectly cast as the overly eccentric co-worker who tags along as much she can as McCarthy’s fast-talking sidekick. Rose Byrne makes for a great ambiguous villain that scowls with her royalty status among terrorists. My favorite supporting character is undoubtably Jason Statham who appears to be reprising his role from the Crank movies the way he rattles off his insane moments of action in the spy field.

While Feig does a fantastic job playing up the characters and comedy, he still brings some class to satirizing the spy genre. The soundtrack sets the perfect tone, the locations are lavishly decadent and the action is very intense. Even the opening and closing credits embody the true spirit of a spy picture with respect and cleverness. It should also be worth noting how bitingly violent the picture is featuring everything from impaled hitmen to melting throats. It could be written off as just a shock element, but there’s something just so funny about a secret agent who accidentally shoots the bad guy in the face when he sneezes.

The movie does have its small lulls as when the plot goes a bit heavy on the reveals and the camera remains on just a tad too long for improvisation. Those minor qualms aside, Spy is a well-oiled machine that delivers on Feig’s brilliant level of clever comedy and his surprising direction of action. Similar to Feig’s The Heat, McCarthy once again acts as the glue with her amazing wit and exceptional comic timing. And while it certainly has a progressive edge with its largely female cast in an R-rated action picture, it’s still a hilarious picture first. Take note of how McCarthy’s appearance acts as a part of the joke, but not THE joke. You’ll see her struggle with her self-esteem in passive-aggressive nuggets, but you won’t see her fall on her butt or break a seat with her weight. Such gags are too easy, too tired and out-of-place for a picture that succeeds as the most pleasing spy comedy since Top Secret.

“Skin Trade” Review

Skin Trade is rather unique in how it attempts to weave a real message about human trafficking into its low-rent action. It may not sound like much the way it picks an easy subject for Dolph Lundgren to become a one-man-army that blows up the bad guys, but it at least brings some attention and a little heart to a very passive action movie. And a certain respectability towards its real subject of painful loss helps make the bland dialogue and poorly edited action mean just a bit more. Sure, I may be grasping at straws here, but can you blame me? Several of these small action pictures destined for the bargain bin tend be so devoid of any type of story or meaning that it’s easy to stomp them to the bottom of the pile. Skin Trade will at least garner some real thoughts before it evaporates from your mind.

Let’s start with the clichés. Dolph Lundgren – looking as big and aged as ever – plays a cop trying to foil a human trafficking operation by Ron Perlman trying to pull off a Russian accent. When Dolph gets too deep, the goons kill his wife and kidnap his daughter in a brutal display of explosions and guns. Tired of playing by the law, Dolph goes rogue to find his daughter and take down the traffickers with his big and bloody vengeance. His travels eventually lead to Thailand (where else for a low-rent action movie?) where he finds himself teaming up with Tony Jaa as another gritty cop willing to go off the books. Jaa dangles a gangster off a balcony to give him information or else he’ll drop him to his death. After the key info is divulged, Jaa drops him anyway and remarks that “negotiations are over.” There are several ridiculous moments such as this that further magnify the shameless 80’s action vibe.

But this leaves the movie with a rather conflicting tone. I wanted to grin at the ridiculousness of its assembly, but was taken aback by the serious perspective on human trafficking. These two sides sometimes clash in scenes that are rather confusing. There’s a moment where a slave girl is forced to have sex with three men on camera by her overlord. Dressed in a schoolgirl outfit, she sits on the bed as the men and grope her body. While this continues, the soundtrack continues to play a seemingly erotic techno track which makes this forced sexual experience feel more like an actual pornography feature. It isn’t until Tony Jaa acting as her boyfriend busts into the room and sprang the trap of guns blazing that the track actually fits the scenario without seeming strange.

So the movie itself can be divided into two varying tones: campy action clichés and serious commentary on the dark world of forced prostitution. The human trafficking subject is treated with a dark and serious degree. The rape and trade scenes are not overdone and there’s a genuine sense of a plight to a very real problem. Most importantly, there’s a sense of loss in the picture that narrowly avoids a revenge movie cliché and turns it into something more powerful.

In terms of action, everything is stylized in a familiar way that is sometimes decent and sometimes laughable. There’s a gun battle a ship yard which at several points twist around into martial arts. It’s weird, but still entertaining to watch. There’s a chase between Dolph Lundgren and Tony Jaa through the Thailand streets with Lundgren on a motorcycle and Jaa on the rooftops. As Jaa pursues, he starts doing a sort of cartwheel over every second hurdle. I never thought a low-rent action picture would make me think about Gymkata again.

The good news is that most of the silliness is somewhat forgivable for a picture with an energy and a soul. For what little character is established, Skin Trade moves at a brisk pace and ends with a title card that fulfills more than the basic public service announcement requirements. When the movie finishes, you’ll have gained a little thrill and a little perspective. You’ll probably forget it days later as there isn’t a memorable shot or scene in all of this, but you probably won’t feel as bad for having watched a better-than-expected action movie stocked with the familiar tropes.