Friday, April 29, 2011

'Fast Five' Movie Review

There’s a running theory in my house that The Rock, also known as Dwayne Johnson (sorry buddy, but you’ll always be The Rock to me), and Vin Diesel are actually the same being. Like they’re different versions of the same dude from parallel dimensions, or some sci-fi trope like that. They make similar movies. Couldn’t you imagine Diesel playing the protagonist in “Faster”, or The Rock with silly looking sunglasses bouncing around space in the “Riddick” movies. Even the children’s films they do, like “The Pacifier” (Diesel) and “The Toothfairy” (Rock), could have gone either way. Now before you get your panties in all twisted in a fit of rage and start bombarding the comment section with snarky notes about how I’m obviously a dumbass who has never seen a movie before, I’m just trying to say that I imagine that there are a lot of casting lists in Hollywood with these guys in spots one and two, that’s all.

The latest installment of the “Fast/Furious” franchise, “Fast Five”, perhaps the fastest and most furious thus far in the series, finally brings these two well-muscled action stars together. I was a bit concerned that as soon as they met onscreen that some sort of rupture would appear in the very fabric of our universe, because, as we all know, two versions of the same person from different planes of existence cannot simultaneously occupy the same space. That’s elementary science fiction. Sorry, I’ve been watching a lot of “Fringe” lately, but putting Diesel and The Rock together in a single movie is a bit of a mind-blowing proposition. Going in, I wasn’t sure a single celluloid frame could handle that much man-beef.

And not only does “Fast Five” bring these two meaty juggernauts together, but it is also a reunion of almost every memorable character from the first four films. With the notable exceptions of Michelle Rodriguez and Lucas Black, the cast features Dom Toretto (Diesel), Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker), Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), Gisele (Gal Gadot), Leo (Tego Calderon), Santos (Don Omar), and Vince (Matt Schulze). There’s even a we-need-to-put-together-a-crew team assembly montage. It’s a good time, especially if you’re already a fan.

“Fast Five” opens with Dom, recently sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. So of course, Brian and Mia break him out in a daring high-speed chase where Brian basically trips a bus. Think about how you would stick your leg out and trip someone, and that’s pretty much what he does, only to a bus, which makes it rad. The trio, now headline-making fugitives, flee to Rio de Janeiro, where Vince lives. Mia finds out she’s pregnant (don’t babies always fuck things up?), they all go on a job that turns bad, and run afoul of Rio’s biggest crime lord (Joaquim de Almeida). Not only that, but Hobbs (The Rock), the biggest, baddest, most cliché spouting federal agent ever, is also hot on their tail. Seriously, Hobbs pretty much just yells lines that Tommy Lee Jones said in “The Fugitive”. He spends every second in the middle of a roid-rage meltdown; sweaty, twitchy, and about to explode his biceps all over the place. At one point he also says that his team had better be wearing their “thunderwear”, so there’s that. Amidst all of this, our anti-heroes have to try to figure out how to steal $100 million dollars so they can all retire in style and freedom.

The story of “Fast Five” is stupid, but it’s the best kind of stupid, and story’s not why you dragged your ass all the way to the theater, is it? You want to see cars driving, guns firing, brawny giants fighting, chase scenes galore, and if a couple of ass shots happen to find their way into the film, that doesn’t hurt the situation any. That’s the foundation the “Fast & Furious” franchise is built upon. The only chink in the otherwise gloriously absurd armor of “Fast Five” is that this time around the producers tried to make a heist film instead of a straight up action film. The pace definitely falters when it tries to be clever (it’s not), and there is a bait and switch move that is straight out of one of the “Ocean’s” movies. But this isn’t much of an issue, because “Fast Five” never takes itself too seriously, and even when it does get melodramatic and emotional, like when Dom and a sexy Brazilian cop bond for a moment over dead loved ones, those moments are so asinine and cheesy that you can’t help but laugh your ass off.

At times “Fast Five” spends too much time building up, and you think the payoff can’t possibly be worth it, but Ramon says things like how his share of the score will mean “a lot of vaginal activity”, so even when it gets slow, it’s never boring. By the time you get to the big climactic scene, you’re ready for an epic chase, and you will not be let down. You haven’t seen cinematic mayhem and destruction since “Bad Boys II”. “Fast Five” wrecks half of Rio in magnificently over-the-top fashion, and, if you go in expecting a movie that is both ridiculous and ridiculously entertaining, you shouldn’t be disappointed. This is the kind of movie where they throw two grenades at you, because one grenade is never enough.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

'Swedish Sensationsfilms: A Clandestine History of Sex, Thrillers, and Kicker Cinema' Book Review

When you think of Sweden you probably imagine the picturesque Scandinavian countryside, universal healthcare, and buxom young blond women, who, at least as portrayed by every sitcom of the 1980, are ditzy and easy. What you may not know, however, is that Sweden also has a long history of underground, sex fueled, out of control sexploitation films. In 1911 Sweden established the world’s first national film censorship board, which set off a century long battle between proprietors of sleaze and mayhem, the public, and the government.

Author Daniel Ekeroth’s (“Swedish Death Metal”) new book, “Swedish Sensationsfilms: A Clandestine History of Sex, Thrillers, And Kicker Cinema”, explores this subculture of depraved, violent, and often questionable films. Ekeroth’s journey spans the decades from 1951, through the sexual revolution of the 60s, the decadence of the 70s and 80s, and into the early 1990s, covering hundreds of movies. These films range from respected classics like Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” to that most notorious sensationsfilm “Thriller—En Grym Film” (which is a way more appropriate title than the English “A Cruel Picture”, because that movie is way beyond cruel and is fully grim).

There are schlocky “Ghostbusters” knockoffs (“Besökarna”), Sweden’s attempts to enter into the slasher movie sweepstakes (“Blood Tracks”), and forays into 3D (“Champagngalopp”). On these pages pseudo-documentaries mix with light sex romp comedies (“Dagmar’s Hot Panties”), and straight up, hardcore porn. Some are otherwise historical dramas with haphazard smut thrown in seemingly at random. Sensationsfilms may run a wide gamut, but all prominently feature continuing themes of base sexual desires and depravation. All of these films proved controversial and shocking to some degree upon release, and most met with some censorship or banishment. Some, like Ekeroth’s pinnacles of the genre, “Thriller” and “Breaking Point”, still inspire raucous debate today.

Taken individually, Ekeroth’s short, alphabetized reviews of each sensationsfilm are all worth reading. He has a biting, sarcastic tone that is a good match for his subject matter. It is obvious that he is a fan of these films, and that they have greatly influenced his life, but his tongue is also planted firmly in cheek, and though he loves his sensationsfilms, he is well aware that many of them don’t hold up, for entertainment, shock value, or even as erotica, and shouldn’t be watched by anyone. A good place to start is his list of “Twenty sensationsfilms to see before you die”.

While each review stands alone as an interesting snippet, together they create into a greater picture. Each entry places the particular film in a wider historical context. Ekeroth cites popular and critical reaction, and examines the larger impact individual films had, not only on the film industry, but on Swedish culture at large. What “Swedish Sensationsfilms” does is weave loose threads together to create a different image of Sweden than you usually see, offering a unique perspective on both film and culture.

Ekeroth recounts some of the more infamous incidents in Swedish film history. From the sound of things, this was an industry dominated by madcap lunatics and nut jobs. My personal favorite is the story of when actor Per Oscarsson went on a popular variety show. “Instead of singing a nice song, he unexpectedly delivered a lengthy monologue on the subject of how to speak to children about sex. He stripped to his underwear on prime-time television, then removed them to reveal another pair of underwear. As the lecture progressed, he continued to peel off layer after layer of undergarments, in the process shocking the entire nation of Sweden to its core.” Not only was everyone crazy, there were also political elements at work. Sexual expression was definitely at the forefront, but Swedish film also overtly attacked subjects like the Vietnam War (“AWOL”) at a time when Hollywood wouldn’t touch that topic with your dick.

In addition to the hundreds of film summaries, Ekeroth’s book includes a lengthy interview with Christina Lindberg, star of “Thriller”, and face of sensationsfilms, where she recounts her experiences in the industry, including working with actors who went on to great international acclaim, like Stellen Skarsgard. There are dozens of glossy photographs and posters, though you should pause to consider where you’re reading the book, as many of them are large pictures of naked women. You’ve been warned. Ekeroth also adds in a couple essays about Swedish film history, and rogues gallery of the most notorious figures of Swedish film at this time.

“Swedish Sensationsfilms” is a necessary read for aficionados of sleaze looking to expand their world-view of trashy films, but the best part doesn’t even have anything to do with movies. Near the end, Ekeroth includes a “Glossary of Curious Swedish Culture”, which can only be described as brilliant. Here are some samples. “We don’t miss Finland much, though, since it has no natural resources and is inhabited by gloomy, violent, knife-wielding alcoholics.” “Danish is basically Swedish, spoken by an extremely drunk person with a hot potato in his mouth.” “Since the systembolaget [state run liquor stores] stores are few, and closed most of the time (including weekends), Swedes tend to stockpile loads of booze just to be safe. Hedging our bets, we also make a lot of moonshine.” This will make an awesome addition to your movie books collection.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

DVD/Blu-ray Review: 'The King's Speech'

The Movie:

Over the past few months I’ve said many times, in many places, that I’m sure “The King’s Speech” is a wonderfully-acted, well-crafted motion picture, but one that I have absolutely no interest in. So now it’s on DVD and Blu-ray, and I figured, what the hell, I’ll watch anything once, and you know what? “The King’s Speech” is exactly what you expect. It is a wonderfully acted, well-crafted period piece. It practically screams, “Give me an Oscar, sweet baby Jesus I want an Oscar!” And oh my god is it fucking boring. You should take this with a grain of salt, after all my favorite movie of 2010 was “Piranha 3D”, but I imagine most of you who read this site on a regular basis share similar proclivities. Maybe that assumption is incorrect, but I doubt it, and I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

“The King’s Speech” starts out with the Duke of York (Colin Firth), Bertie to his family and friends (except he has no friends), falling on his metaphorical face in front of an enormous audience, and before an even larger audience listening in on one of those newfangled radio machines. See, Bertie has a serious stammer, which is further exacerbated when he gets flustered, like when speaking to a giant throng of devoted followers. He’s tried everything, including smoking cigarettes to relax his esophagus, and speaking with a mouth full of heated marbles.

Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), ever the dutiful spouse, locates Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a failed Australian actor who has had some purported success curing speech ailments. This is not the kind of place royalty usually hangs. Logue’s office, where he demands they meet, is on a sketchy street in a seedy neighborhood. For crying out loud, the paint is peeling off the wall, the royals have no business being within miles of this place. But Lionel’s combative style, he insists on calling Bertie Bertie instead of Your Royal Highness, yields results, so Bertie keeps on keeping on with the illicit meetings.

The scenes between Firth and Rush are the only things that make “The King’s Speech” worth watching. These are two great actors at the top of their respective games, and their time together invariably turns into the acting equivalent of a cagefight, or at least a jousting match. Firth is especially powerful if you’ve ever tussled with a speech impediment, and at least in the performance realm, the acclaim is warranted. As their unlikely friendship grows and solidifies, it does feel a bit like a romantic comedy, especially when Lionel’s wife discovers the true identity of her husband’s mystery patient.

Unfortunately the entire movie is not just Firth and Rush having a sparring match, and every time the story moves away from those two, “The King’s Speech” becomes bland, toothless, and predictable. It is what you expect it to be, and nothing more. In fact, it’s the exact plot of an up-by-their-bootstraps underdog sports story, complete with a training montage. Only in this instance, the big game is a big speech. The filmmakers take what should be an interesting story and mostly ignore it, or at least deal with it in the most truncated manner. Bertie is third in line to be king, his father dies, and his brother (Guy Pearce) is in love with a married American woman and abdicates the throne, magically transforming Bertie into King George VI (I didn’t know they got to pick their own name) right before the start of World War II.

For a second right before the climax, as Lionel rushes through the streets with Zeppelins hovering overhead and sand bag barricades all over the streets, “The King’s Speech” gets incredibly tense, and you think shit is about to get awesome. Britain is on the brink of war, and WWII was some crazy shit, and then, just when you think things are looking up, bam, all they do is talk. I guess I deserve that. After all, the title does tell you right out of the gate that this movie is about talking, and I shouldn’t expect anything to blow up. That’s one of the biggest problems with “The King’s Speech”, for a movie about power struggles, the looming specter of war, and family intrigue, there isn’t any real tension or conflict, and the stakes never feel high enough. After the fact they try to pretend that the relationship between Bertie and his brother was taut and rigid, that there was some sort of power grab for the throne, but it is never portrayed like that. There’s not even any strife between Bertie and Elizabeth, she is loyal and dutiful and they are very much in love. Like I said, any time the movie moves away from Firth and Rush it gets so painfully dull you want to pop out your eyes with a teaspoon.

The DVD/Blu-ray:

Audio Commentary with Director Tom Hooper—Like the movie, Hooper’s commentary is quiet, mannerly, and boring as hell. He speaks in a subdued monotone, and before long I found myself lulled into a state of sleepiness. Included are the usual bits and baubles about production, behind the scenes things, why they chose this angle, why they shot here, and that sort of information. If you’re a big fan of “The King’s Speech”, then you might find what he has to say interesting, but it isn’t particularly engaging.

An Inspirational Story of an Unlikely Friendship—This making-of featurette includes behind the scenes interviews with the writer, director, producers, and actors, and is standard fare. All of people involved talk about the usual things like acting choices, and pump up the film, making seem as important as possible. The most interesting bits are when they place the story in historical context, and talk about the actual King George VI and Lionel Logue.

Q & A With Director and Cast—Emceed by a sycophantic radio host, most of the time here is consumed by everyone trying to be charming, saying really nice things about each other, and complimenting their work on “The King’s Speech”. Helena Bonham Carter, who is wildly underused in the actual film, is fun in a spacey, wing-nut kind of way, and looks more like Bellatrix Lestrange than British royalty. This would have been much better if Geoffrey Rush had been there.

Speeches From the Real King George VI—This juxtaposes two short speeches from the actual King George VI. The first is the one Firth delivers at the end of the film, which he nails syllable-by-syllable. The second speech is from immediately after the war. Comparing the two you see how much progress the King made over a short, but intense period of time. While there are still a few hitches in his giddy up, the later speech is much more fluid and smooth.

The Real Lionel Logue—Logue’s grandson and biographer is interviewed. He talks about how he knew that his grandfather was the King’s speech therapist, but how he didn’t realize what that meant precisely until he unearthed a forgotten box of Logue’s diaries, medals, and official knick-knacks and awards.

The Stuttering Foundation: A Public Service Announcement—This is exactly what it sounds like.

Friday, April 8, 2011

'Hanna' Movie Review

In “Hanna” a young girl, oddly enough named Hanna, lives a simple existence in a cabin in the woods with her doting father. That sounds nice and picturesque, right? Not exactly. The title character (Saoirse Ronan) is a pale, and I mean looks-like-a-ghost pale, 16 year old that lives a life similar to that of an arctic ninja. She hunts with a homemade bow and arrow, chases down wounded animals, and her father, Erik Heller (former stand up comedian Eric Bana), randomly sneaks up and attacks her just to test her reflexes and preparedness. She may be gutting a dead deer, or sound asleep in the middle of the night, it doesn’t matter. He’s likely to spring when least expected, to keep her on her toes, even when unconscious.

Heller is training Hanna for a very specific mission, to kill Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), a cold, manipulative CIA operative. However, there is a big question, is Hanna being trained to be a tool of her father’s vengeance, or is she being trained so that she can protect herself against unknown dangers that exist for her in the world? Father and daughter knife fight for fun, use antlers for target practice, and train Escrima in the deep winter snow of their remote Finnish home. Heller quizzes her in multiple languages, and drills addresses, dates, times, and a fabricated back-story into her teenage brain. In short, Hanna’s life amounts to one big training montage. While she knows lots of information from books, like the population of Leipzig, Germany, that kissing requires 34 facial muscles working in conjunction, and how to snap a grown man’s neck, she is also incredibly sheltered in many regards. She’s read all about music, but has to ask what it feels like.

Heller gives Hanna a choice. He digs up a tracking device that, once activated, will alert Wiegler of their position. Hanna can flip the switch and activate the beacon if she feels ready, or leave it alone and continue on as before. Being a rebellious teen, she triggers the device, and kicks off a chain of intense action set to a score by the Chemical Brothers. When Hanna is taken into custody by government agents she begins to learn bits of her father’s history as a rogue CIA asset, the truth about the death of her mother, and her own shadowy origins. After killing an agent posing as Wiegler, Hanna escapes from a secure, underground CIA fortress in the middle of the Moroccan desert. Up to this point you know that Hanna is pretty badass, but after watching her dismantle a cadre of highly trained bad guys, you can’t deny how badass she is, plain and simple. She is proficient with firearms, martial arts, and evasive techniques, and has ample opportunity to showcase her skills. This is not your average teenager, this is someone willing to cling to the undercarriage of a Hummer as it bounces over rocky terrain just to make a get away.

Despite the action trappings, “Hanna” is also a quiet, unique coming of age story, a coming of age story that just so happens to include gunfights and international intrigue in addition to raging hormones, discovering friendship, and strained familial relationships. All of the strange growing up moments serve to make the action in “Hanna” that much more awesome. After escaping from the CIA, Hanna makes her way across the map to meet her father, pursued the whole way by a skeevy hitman (Tom Hollander), who runs a burlesque show featuring a bearded midget and a hermaphrodite, and his skinhead sidekicks. Somehow in the middle of all of this, Hanna makes a friend, Sophie (Jessica Barden), and falls in with her hippy clan. Sophie is the bossy, materialistic spawn of overly liberal parents (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng), who think letting their children do whatever they want is tantamount to helping them become fully realized human beings. They think it’s just peachy keen that a young, independent woman like Hanna is making her way across Northern Africa by herself.

This is where Hanna really begins to learn about life outside of training and revenge. Sophie is her first friend, and the duo do typical teenage things, like sneak out to meet boys. For the first time in her life Hanna is able to be a kid, and her doe-eyed, babe-in-the-woods routine works for a while. Director Joe Wright does an excellent job of making you see everyday things that you take for granted from Hanna’s perspective. In one particularly strong scene, Hanna gets overwhelmed in a hotel room, unable to deal with the cacophony created when the TV, fluorescent lights, ceiling fan, and electric teakettle all rattle and hum in unison. However, it does get stale after a bit. Luckily, the pace only bogs down for a moment, and Wright picks things up.

Visually, “Hanna” employs unique settings and architecture to great effect. There is an elevated river, an abandoned amusement park/dinosaur graveyard, and a house where giant glass mushrooms dangle from the ceiling, just to name a few. The framing and settings keep you on your toes and never let you sit back into an easy comfort, keeping you engrossed and on the edge of your seat, even in subtle moments. “Run Lola, Run” springs to mind as a reference point for the action scenes, but that might just be due to the techno score and prominence of shots of a young woman running very fast. The “Bourne” movies are also an apt comparison in that regard, but Wright brings his own sensibilities to the action. The quiet moments are definitely akin to his other films, like “Atonement”. “Hanna” is a unique, often strange take on both an action film and a growing up story, and damn entertaining to boot.