Friday, May 19, 2017

IN THEATRES: John Wick, Chapter 2

It has been a few months since its release everywhere else, but John Wick 2 is finally here! YAY! 

The first John Wick re-acquainted me with my love of watching bad people getting shot in the face. Cool, clean and simple, it felt like a glimpse into what a seventies action movie would look like if the eighties had never happened. There is an economy and intelligence to the way those movies (generally directed by Don Segiel  and Walter Hill) were made that we don't see enough of any more (it's the same reason I loved Mad Max: Fury Road and Dredd).

After the events of the first film, John Wick is trying to rebuild his life when he is paid a visit by Italian crime boss Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). Wick owes him a favour after D'Antonio helped him get out of the game the first time around. With the 'boogeyman' back in the game, D'Antonio is here to collect. Soon, Wick is back on the run with a massive bounty on his head...

Keanu Reeves has made a few great action movies which got sequels. This is far and away the best one. 

Like Raid 2, this is bigger in scope, and like that movie, it loses a bit of the intensity. But this is no Matrix Reloaded. The movie makes up for this with inventive set pieces, eye popping art direction and plenty of pitch black humour.

With his sunken eyes and hangdog face, Reeves is starting to look his age, and that world-weariness works for the role: John Wick is the modern successor to the taciturn gunmen Lee Marvin, Chuck Bronson and Steve McQueen used to play in the sixties and seventies. Like those actors, Reeves is more of a presence than an actor. His range is extremely limited, and his off-kilter delivery has sunk him more times than not. But in a role like Wick, or Neo or Ted, his stiffness gives him an otherworldly quality that works for those roles.

The same goes for Common, playing Wick's rival Cassian. Like Reeves, he is not the best actor in the world, but the minimalist aesthetic of the Wick-verse fits him perfectly. Though it is hard to tell, it looks like he does most of his own action. He moves well, and with no wasted motion.

Playing another killer on Wick's tail, Ruby Rose's scenes feel like clips from Young Rosa Klebb Chronicles. Good female characters are hard to come by in action movies -- they are either victims or sexpots (or both). Apart from one weird butt shot, her character is constructed in the same economical fashion as the other assassins. Her character is mute, which actually adds to the role. I cannot see her Australian accent passing muster in this world.

The supporting cast from the original return. As the Continental staff, Ian McShane and Lance Reddick continue to be terrifically deadpan. The rest of the supporting players are a bunch of familiar genre faces: David Patrick Kelly, of The Warriors and Commando, pops up briefly, Laurence Fishburne chews every piece of scenery as a homeless gang boss and, in the biggest surprise of all, Italian cinematic icon Franco Nero appears as the manager of Continental's Italian subsidiary.

Now to the action: it's great. With the bigger budget, the action has expanded, but it built on the same fundamentals: actors doing the action; shoot in wides; only cut when absolutely necessary.

We start with a great car chase (complete with a wonderfully deadpan appearance from Peter Stormare) through the streets of the Big Apple, before moving to an outdoor rave, a train, an art museum and, as the finale, a bravura sequence in a hall of mirrors.

The colour palette is vivid and splashy like a comic book, and the set design is wonderfully lush. There is a bathroom in this movie that is one of the most beautifully shot rooms I've seen in a long time. It's a gorgeous-looking movie.

It is also extremely funny. Unlike so many action movies of recent times, this one bothers to have a sense of humour. It knows that it is ridiculous, but has the sense to play everything straight. The high-point in this respect are the two extended running fights between Wick and Cassian that take up the movie's second act. They are filled with wonderful beats: the endless fall down a flight of stairs; the silent gun battle through a busy train station; their final showdown inside the train, which climaxes with the frozen passengers fleeing as soon as the train stops. The movie's sense of timing and tone is perfect.

As I mentioned at the outset, the movie is not flawless.

One quibble that grew on me was that is that there is no real physical threat to our anti-hero. While he sustains some damage, Wick is so superhuman that the fights begin to feel repetitive. While they are initially presented as such, neither Common nor Ruby Rose are compatible as physical antagonists. Common initially appears to be Wick's equal, but he is dispatched fairly quickly. that leaves Ruby Rose, whose final showdown is extremely brief. At first I thought her size and looks were a misdirect. I was expecting her to be a real threat, like Mad Dog from The Raid or that little guy from The Simpsons.

Frankly, it would have made more sense to just amalgamate Common and Ruby Rose's roles into one character. You could cut Common from the movie and the movie's narrative trajectory would not be greatly affected. The movie's main villain is totally functional (and rather reprehensible), but he's not that memorable.

These are pretty small nitpicks, but I hope we get some memorable baddies in John Wick 3 that can put Reeves through his paces.

Overall, John Wick Chapter 2 is exactly what you want it to be. It has got great action, it is beautifully shot and covers everything in a thick (but unobtrusive) layer of irony. The dog is also adorable. It's hard to beat a beagle, but I really liked Dog Mark II - he's basically the dog version of his owner. He doesn't make noise, he doesn't wander off or get up to 'cute' hi-jinx. 

If it wasn't already obvious, go see this movie.   

Thursday, May 18, 2017

CAUGHT ON NETFLIX: Chewing Gum & Lovesick

I find it hard to get into TV shows now. There are so many shows now, and they have such long runs I find it hard to jump on-board. Here are two examples of recent shows that combine being extremely good, and extremely succinct.

Chewing Gum (2016 - present)
I caught this show a couple of weeks ago -- it's got two seasons, six episodes each, and it featured a few players I had caught on other shows. It's great.

Created by and starring Michaela Cole, Chewing Gum chronicles the adventures of Tracey Gordon (Cole), a 24-year-old virgin who is really keen to get some.

It is rare to see a show based around a sexually frustrated woman. Usually these kinds of shows are based around young men. This premise could make for a pretty simple show, but Chewing Gum is more nuanced than that. The show is basically about sexual desire, and the different expectations people have about fulfilling their own individual desires.

Tracey's best friend Candice (Danielle Isaie) is involved in a long-term relationship, but expresses dissatisfaction with her boyfriend. Her subplot is based on sexual dissatisfaction, and her willingness to explain what she wants and needs from her boyfriend is refreshing. Sexual frustration is not usually a popular subject, and Candice's desire to experiment and try new things is a rare case of a female character being given agency over how she wishes to express her sexuality.

The show deals with race and class but they are woven into the fabric of show, but the primary concerns of the humour around female agency and sexuality. However, that does not mean these themes are completely ignored -- when it does deal with race, it makes for some of the show's strongest material. One episode involves Tracey's entanglement with a racist white man who is obsessed with the 'exoticism' of blackness. Fetishizing race is rarely pushed to the forefront in dramas, let alone comedies, and this vignette is awesome.

This might sound like heavy material, but the joy of Chewing Gum is how Cole manages to handle these themes with the lightest possible touch. Each episode runs 20 minutes, but Cole manages to pack a lot into these brief runtimes. You would think this would be reductive, but Cole is so deft with how she explores major themes. She will focus on an extremely small but significant aspect of a particular issue, nail it, and get out. The way she deals with the issue of colourism in the relationship between Tracey and Candice is so well-done. Cole recognises that these themes are worth exploring, but in a way that works within the world she has created. To boil it down without spoilers, she is not willing to distort the dynamics of her characters' relationship to address an idea. The ideas are always natural outgrowths of the story, not the other way around.

A series of tight little haikus on the inherent weirdness of relationships and sex, Chewing Gum is one of the best comedies I've seen in recent years.

Lovesick (2014 - present)
Lovesick is a UK sitcom originally broadcast in 2014, and then picked up by Netflix. Originally this show was called Scrotal Recall, a title which encapsulates the premise while completely short-selling the show's warmth, intelligence and humour.

It's not as flat-out funny as Chewing Gum, but Lovesick is great in its own right. An example of strong storytelling and an ensemble of well-rounded characters, Lovesick is a gem.

The show is based around Dylan (Johnny Flynn), a man in his late twenties who learns that he has contracted chlamydia. Now tasked with contacting anyone he has ever been intimate with, each episode takes us back through time to an important point in Dylan's past. As Dylan's quest progresses, he begins to come to terms with his inability to form lasting connections.

Despite the show jumping back and forth in time, the story unfolds in a fairly linear fashion. Over the course of six episodes, the writers gradually piece together these characters -- where they have come from and where they are now.

While the actors are great, and have really strong, believable chemistry, the male characters definitely feel like they are built out of recognizable types: Dylan is the wet blanket romantic lead, while his debauched mate Luke (Daniel Ings) is your typical womaniser. The secret weapon is Evie, played by Misfits's Antonia Thomas.

Evie is a great character, and a great showcase for Thomas. She was always good in Misfits, but there were times it felt like she was written as the object of Simon's affections rather than a character in her own right. Evie is different -- she is smart, complex and as given to making silly choices as her mates. To her credit, she is (far) faster on the uptake than her friends.

Resurrected and re-titled by Netflix, Lovesick's second season is where the show really begins to grow out of its premise into something far more real, as the writers delve more into our central characters. The best example is Episode Two, which flashes back six-and-a-half years to the day Dylan and Evie first met. This is where we are introduced to an alien character: good Luke. After his girlfriend of three years dumps him at a party, Luke crashes and burns into the douchebag of the present.

Now that we have a second season, the story does feel more fully formed. The season ends with a reversal of the previous season finale -- Dylan is attempting to make good on a long-term commitment while Evie has broken off her engagement. If I had caught this on its original release, I don't know if it would have stayed with me -- Season 2 adds so much that the story really feels complete.

While it is funny, Lovesick is pretty low key for a comedy. As an examination of growing out of your twenties, it's great. Season Three cannot come soon enough.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

RAMBLING RANT: James Horner's COMMANDO score is good for your health

Commando was one of the great guilty pleasures of the eighties. A combination of wooden/hammy acting, a brilliantly moronic script and a healthy disdain for anything resembling reality, it's a great time.

Just to catch up anyone who hasn't watched it, the plot is simple. Ah-nuld plays John Matrix, a former black ops soldier living a blissful retirement with his daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano). When a former foe kidnaps his daughter, Matrix kills a kajillion bajillion people wearing fake moustaches and gets her back.

Now back to the music.

When broken into its constituent parts, Commando is a bizarre movie. And one of the funkiest parts of the movie is its score, by future Academy Award winner James Horner. I've tried to come up with a way of describing what this music sounds like, and I'm still stuck. It sounds like three different musicians trying to drown each other out in the same recording studio -- one has a bunch of synth keyboards, another has an array of steel drums and the third is just an asshole with a saxophone.

Let's go through this masterpiece, track by track.

Okay, now 'Prologue - Main Title' probably bares the closest resemblance to an actual song you can listen to. Heavy synths, steel drums and saxophone. It kinda works. The second half, which plays under scenes of Arnie playing with his daughter, eating ice cream and feeding a deer, it also kinda works. Turning into a mawkish melody played on an extremely cheesy-sounding electronic piano, it sounds like the opening to an eighties sitcom.

'Ambush and Kidnapping' introduces another trope of this score -- repetitive themes that go on for three minutes with little-to-no variation. Thank Christ for the sax.

'Captured' starts slow, with a low, repetitive synth rumble. Partway through the track it explodes into a completely different synth action theme. Once again, it goes on forever, but it sounds cool. It should be noted that this music plays during Arnie's escape from the airplane taking him to South America. Let's just say that the music is way more exciting than the action onscreen.

'Surprise' is where the score just starts aping whatever is going onscreen. In Hollywood terms this is known as 'Mickey Mousing.' In Commando terms it's known as 'Matrix running'. That joke sucks, but so does this music. Moving on! 

'Sully Runs' is where our three musos are gate-crashed by the music for a Caribbean cruise line. Seriously.

'Moving Jenny' sounds like something made by a human being. A mawkish, slowed-down version of the movie's main theme, it highlights the hopelessness of Jenny's plight. But not really.

Back to the action! 'Matrix Breaks In' follows the same sophisticated pattern as 'Captured'. Slow and steady for a minute or so, and then BAM! Action theme! This one is actually pretty good at getting the juices flowing. You can definitely add it to your workout mix while you're doing your reps and getting totally jacked.

'Infiltration, Showdown and Finale' is a 14 minute monster that plays under Arnie's final assault on the bad guys' compound. Right from the beginning, it sounds like Horner ran out of ideas and just decided to play every previous track again at the same time. The one piece that gels is the aural bliss of 0:57 through 1:17, as Horner accompanies Arnie's 'getting ready' montage with a lot of extremely satisfying 'clangs'. It is awesome -- especially if you edit it out in GarageBand -- then you can play it over and over again.
The soundtrack to Commando is a glorious multi-vehicle car wreck. It doesn't work as well without the movie, but if you are in the mood to build your own set of Arnie-sized guns, it might do the trick.

Monday, May 15, 2017


Released at the intersection in Eddie Murphy's career where he transitioned from adult comedy star to family friendly funny man, Metro is notable as Murphy's last stab at R-rated action comedy.

Murphy stars as police negotiator Scott Roper. After his friend is killed, Roper gets on the tail of his killer, a psychopathic criminal called Michael Korda (Michael Wincott). However, Roper's attempts to get his man are soon complicated when Korda turns his sights on Roper's ex-girlfriend Ronnie (Carmen Ejogo)...

Directed by Thomas Carter, Metro is a strange beast. While it has sprinkles of the old Murphy magic, the overall tone is more strait-laced action movie than action comedy. And while he has a green partner in Michael Rappaport, there is no attempt at a 'buddy cop' dynamic ala Beverly Hills Cop or even Lethal Weapon.

Even the action sequences are not played for laughs -- the film's most OTT sequence, the tram chase, feels a beat away from some cutaway gag or a one-liner, but we get nothing. The scene is played dead serious. There's even a home invasion sequence which feels like something out of an eighties slasher movie. While it never goes too dark, the tone is noticeably more solemn than Murphy's previous vehicles in the action genre.

Perhaps the Murphy factor is throwing me off. Maybe the movie is intended as a straight action drama. It's just that having Murphy as the star immediately evokes a set of expectations that the movie does not play to. Roper is a cop who is good at his job -- which is pretty similar to Axel Foley. But Roper lacks Foley's sense of fun. Roper is more restrained. When his friend is killed, Roper reacts with anger and dismay. When he goes after the killer, Roper never antagonises the villain or makes fun of him. 

A case could be made that Metro is Murphy's only full-on action movie lead. His character has a few wisecracks, but overall he plays Roper completely straight. Murphy's acting choices work for the role -- Roper is a police negotiator, and knows that every choice he makes when confronting the psycho could cause more mayhem. Murphy's measured, empathetic performance is very good, and it might have gotten more attention if the movie was better.

The movie establishes a series of threads that the movie drops -- Roper is established as an emotionally stunted gambling addict, but once the plot clicks into place, this baggage is dropped very quickly, and it never feeds into his conflict with the villain. 

Speaking of which, Michael Wincott's Korda, with his flash-flood rages and love of mailing cops body parts, feels like a character out of a much darker movie. Wincott is very good, and his antagonism with Murphy works well, but when they are together it feels like they are in a far darker movie.

The action sequences, while competently staged, never really pop. The one exception is the tram car chase, which builds a nice sense of peril and stakes. The finale, involving a bound Ronnie being menaced with a saw, feels like something out of Looney Tunes or The Perils of Pauline.
Another odd note is the relationship between Roper and Ronnie. While they have an easy rapport, the age gap between Murphy and Ejogo creates a disconnect. While one can imagine them being friends,  their relationship feels so platonic, it is a bit disconcerting whenever they get more intimate. 

Overall, what makes Metro interesting is how far it strays from what you would expect from an Eddie Murphy movie. Considering the direction Murphy's career went after its release, with The Nutty Professor and Dr Doolittle, the movie gains a weird poignancy: this is the last time we see Murphy working in the sandbox we were used to. While it has its flaws, Metro is a pretty fun flick, with a strong villain and a legitimately terrific performance from Eddie Murphy.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Blast Of Silence (1961)

To celebrate the release of John Wick, Chapter Two this week, here is a review of a movie about another hit man, Blast of Silence!

We open on a black screen, with only the sound of a train chugging and whistling in the background. And then a a raspy voice intones: "Remembering, out of the black silence, you were born in pain..." A woman moans and shrieks, soon joined by the cries of an infant.

The pinprick of light grows -- are we in a womb? A gun barrel? No! We are in a tunnel, careening toward the exit. A title card flashes onscreen: BLAST OF SILENCE.

Thus we are introduced to the diegesis of this 1961 cheapie. Made with no-name actors on the streets of New York, Blast of Silence tells the story of a sociopathic hitman Frankie Bono (played by the film's writer-director, Allen Baron), in town to do a hit and go home. While our monosyllabic anti-hero goes about his business, the raspy narrator (blacklisted character actor Lionel Stander) offers his thoughts on the hitman's progress and his place in the world.

I love old noir movies, especially the more obscure ones. If you go looking you can find some real gems -- Branded to Kill and The Narrow Margin are personal favourites of mine. Strictly speaking, Blast of Silence is not a film noir -- it was released in 1961, long after the noir cycle had run its course. But with its spare, monochromatic style and fatalistic tone, it is the perfect example of the genre.

The big selling points are all related to the film's style. The performances are mostly wooden: Baron is fine when silent, but loses all gravitas when he opens his mouth. The standout is Larry Tucker as Big Ralph, Bono's duplicitous contact in the city.

The film is well-shot, with some excellent location photography of the Big Apple's seedier locales. Meyer Kuperman's score adds to the sleazy atmosphere, swinging between jazzy urban menace and histrionic strings.

But the the component which ties the whole enterprise together is Stander's extraordinary narration. Written by Waldo Salt, the narrator is never identified but appears throughout the movie to describe the protagonist's thoughts. Based on Baron's performance, it is possible that the narrator was a late addition during post-production. Whatever its origin, it is a fantastically offbeat touch which drags the movie across the line from average b-movie to true genre oddity.

Aside from its aesthetic and genre aspects, Blast of Silence is also noteworthy as a document of New York in 1960, which offers a look at the streets and fashions of the time. And because it is the early Sixties, we get one of my favourite signs of the age: bongos!

Re-released a decade ago as part of the Criterion collection, Blast of Silence is a strange, haunting picture that manages to overcome some rote writing and bland performances to emerge as one of the more striking and original crime flicks ever made.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

IN THEATRES: Alien Covenant

Following his return to form with The Martian, Ridley Scott has reacquainted himself with the extra-terrestrials who made his name nearly forty years ago.   

Before going further, this review is spoiler-heavy. So be forewarned.

Ten years after the events of Prometheus, the colony ship Covenant is seven years away from its destination on a new world. After an unexpected cosmic event, the ship is damaged. During repairs, the crew pick up a mysterious signal emitting from a nearby planet. Deciding to investigate, they find a quiet, beautiful planet, filled with unseen terrors and the rogue android David (Michael Fassbender).

For a long time, I was not sure about this one. Prometheus was a mixed-bag, and I didn't like how much we saw of the alien in the trailer (although the above poster is SWEET).

In its favour, Alien Covenant is not Prometheus. The story is more straightforward, and scribes John Logan and Dante Harper even manage to clean up the pieces left over from the previous movie, especially David, Fassbender's ambiguous android.

In Prometheus, David's motives were confusing. In the sequel, we open on a flashback between a newly-minted David and his creator Weyland (Guy Pearce, reprising his role from Prometheus), in which the artificial man begins to see the weaknesses in his human 'father'. 

In the present, David has turned on humanity. Having witnessed the flaws of his creators, the android sees the destruction of the human race, along with the god-like Engineers (previously known as the space jockeys) that birthed them. To that end, he has bidder his time, using the space jockeys' technology to engineer his own creation, an organism whose sole purpose is to kill all living things.

When the movie focuses on David, Alien Covenant is a joy. Both Frankenstein and Monster, his creation of the Alien is the most terrifying and well-realised aspect of the film. But when it does not, which is most of the movie, Alien Covenant is stuck in neutral.

The story is fairly rote, and the characters, while better realised than Prometheus, are never really fleshed out. For one thing, there are too many -- most of them solely there to create a bodycount.

But the biggest problem with Alien Covenant is the existence of Prometheus. For try as it might, this movie is a sequel to it and therefore is indebted to the confusing, muddled mythology that that movie created.

David's arc, from innocent servant to corrupt overlord, is a fine one. But it requires a knowledge of the previous film which -- going off memory -- did not lay the groundwork that arc in the first place. So David's story is a retcon, and therefore the movie has to distort and bend itself to accomodate this backstory. So while it gets parts of this story right (such as Noomi Rapace's fate), other parts still carry the inconsistency of its prequel (the origins of the Engineers remain baffling). 

The movie is two pieces -- a sequel to Prometheus, and a generic Alien story. This hodgepodge of different story directions results in a movie that frequently loses its centre. Who is the protagonist? Katherine Waterson's traumatised but tough second-in-command? Fassbender as David? Fassbender as David's updated successor Walter? Instead of focusing on one of these characters, and building the character relationships around them, the movie feels off base.

The combination of the two strands also raises a logical inconsistency. The Engineers have created an airborne pathogen which infects and demolishes living organisms. Pretty insidious and (based off its use in the film) completely effective. So why does David need to create the Alien in the first place? Hubris? Maybe, but the Engineers' weapon ends up as the far more terrifying of the movie's alien antagonists.

Years ago I read a book about the making of the Alien movies. It was fascinating to see the ideas that did not make the cut: an alien temple in the shape of a crouching man, an alien that looked like a squid; a chest-burster that resembled a skinned turkey. One of the problems with Prometheus was that it felt like Ridley Scott had taken all those old, discarded ideas and put them in a movie. Whereas Alien felt unique and spare, Prometheus felt hackneyed and old-fashioned -- trying to explain everything that was unique and frightening about the original (the space jockeys; the alien's origins).

There is less of that gobbledegook here, but - aside from the airborne virus - the movie's new creature, the 'neomorph' comes across as a fairly bland knockoff of HR Giger's original design. It also winds up looking like a plucked turkey, but I'll give Scott the benefit of the doubt that this was not homager to the original chest-burster design.

Sadly, Scott's interest in the new toys means he deserts the movie's real selling point. The alien, when it arrives, is a tad underwhelming. A CG creation, Ridley Scott shows it in a variety of wide shots that dispel the creature's menace. In the first two Alien movies, part of the terror came from our inability to get a good lock on what the xenomorph looked like. Here, it is all-but strolling through scenes.

This review is starting to sound like pan. Back to the good. Waterson's role is undercooked, but she is a good lead. Danny McBride is also effective as the Covenant's blue-collar pilot.

Of the human roles, Billy Crudup has the most interesting character as the crew's captain Oram. Forced into the role when the original captain is killed during the incident that cripples the ship, he is a man of faith without the stomach or instincts for leadership. His humanity and weakness make him feel like the most relatable character of the cast.

Ultimately, while it is a far cleaner movie than the over-ambitious and inconsistent Prometheus, Alien Covenant suffers from the intertextual imperatives of its story, which prevent it from standing alone as a simple thrill ride. Check it out for the atmosphere, Fassbender's performance as David, and a deliciously bleak ending.

Friday, May 12, 2017

National Theatre Live: Amadeus

First released in February of this year in the UK, the National Theatre's acclaimed production of Amadeus screened earlier today at the Academy Theatre.

Lucian Msamati (Game of Thrones) stars as Salieri, the court composer in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. Devoted to becoming a famous musician in service to God, Salieri finds his good standing (and character) challenged by the arrival of young prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Adam Gillen). Jealous of the young man's talent, and aggrieved at his dissolute, childish nature, Salieri sees his appearance as a challenge from the God he serves -- a sign that he is not in divine favour.

Driven mad by his obsession, Salieri engages in a campaign to denigrate and destroy his rival, and thereby the deity that has deserted him...

 I first saw Amadeus 17 years ago when my high school put it on as their annual production. TO date, I have not seen the 1984 motion picture, nor have I read the play text. And to be honest, it did not matter. Neither did the three-and-a-half runtime (with intermission). 

Because this production is fantastic. 

I had heard about the National Theatre's Live productions for years, and this was my first time watching one. I had held off for a long time, because live theatre on a screen sounded like a terrible experience.

Theatre and film are completely distinct from each other, and one of the key distinctions is the power of the close-up. It is the divining rod, separating the mediums and the types of performances and stories that each can portray.

Far from the stilted, remote experience I was prepared for, the choreography of the performers, the minimalist but impressionistic, moving sets and mobile orchestra was captured perfectly. The camera-work was dynamic and -- most impressively -- completely unobtrusive.

The production itself is directed by Michael Longhurst, but whoever organised the filming strategy does a brilliant job of capturing the atmosphere of the production. Every cut to a new set-up feels completely appropriate, from the lingering close-up on Constanze's disbelieving face while Salieri tries to woo her, to the cut to the dramatic low angle to showcase the silhouette of the ghost during the production of Don Giovani, while Salieri, framed in the foreground, pontificates on the work's relationship to Mozart's own dead father. 

As the title character, Gillen is exactly what you would expect: thoroughly annoying. It's intentional, of course, and since the show is framed from Salieri's point-of-view, completely appropriate. From the older man's perspective, Mozart is a cartoonish collection of hate-able qualities, from his obsession with poo jokes, to his petulant outbursts, and, most annoying of all, his complete self-awareness of his talents (as both a musician and universal irritant). Gillen brings a childlike, punkish energy to Mozart, that highlights the juxtaposition between his contemporary nature and the stolid, fossilised world around him.

Caught between her immature, unfaithful husband and the scheming Salieri, Midnight Ramble spirit animal Karla Crome plays Mozart's wife Constanze. A welcome dose of common sense amid the madness, she essays a grounded portrait of a commoner thrust into an awkward, thankless situation. Simultaneously appalled and thrilled by Mozart, she makes for a believable counterpart to Gillen's manic portrayal, and adds a few fingers of cynicism to her scenes with Salieri. She sees through the old man's halting attempts to seduce her, gaining a sense of agency that I remember lacking from the high school production I saw. 

While they are both very good, the acting honours go to Lucian Msamati. 

Charting the character's arc from devout (albeit self-serving) man of god and music, to the hollow, self-loathing monster who destroys Mozart's life, Msamati is marvellous. While he handles the character's more extreme emotional states, he finds the wit and irony in the character, to make Salieri more of a relatable everyman (albeit an extremely gentrified one). 

Able to sense Mozart's talent, but unable to match it, Salieri could become a cartoon -- an evil automaton motivated by jealousy -- but Msamati keeps his hand on the character's pulse. We feel Salieri's pain, even as we are repulsed by his actions. 

The focus of almost every scene, Msamati is brilliant. Even as Mozart's work is brought to life around him, he remains the centre of attention -- a mere mortal helpless before the divine talent of his rival. 

A brilliant, dynamic production of Peter Shaffer's play, Amadeus feels like a living, breathing experience -- an example of how to bridge two distinct mediums, without sacrificing the pleasures of either. If you have a chance, give National Theatre Live a shot. You won't regret it.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

IN THEATRES: Get Out & Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2

Get Out
I went into this movie only knowing that it was great. I didn't watch the trailers, I didn't read the synopsis. For once, I had an opportunity to go into a movie almost totally blind.

By the way, I'm going to spoil this movie, so come back after you've seen it.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose (Alison Williams) go on a weekend trip to visit her parents, Dean and Missy Armitage. Shortly after arriving, Chris begins to realise something is not right with the family, their friends and their house staff....

Written and directed by Jordan Peele, Get Out is something of a surprise. But if you view the movie through the same lens as his work on Keye & Peele, Get Out is cut from the same thematic cloth. Get Out is the perfect example of how the fundamental mechanics of comedy and horror are essentially the same.

While it is not a comedy, Peele's film does satirize one under-explored aspect of racial representation in American society: the idealization and objectification of black bodies. What Ex Machina was to female bodies and agency, Get Out is to black bodies and agency.

The villains of Get Out are not racists in the way we have learned to identify. They mythologise and obsess over black bodies, seeing them as ideals of (based off the examples in the film) physicality, sexual prowess and artistic talent. The plot of the movie boils down to white people placing their brains into the bodies of black people. At the end of the day, black people are still treated as less than human. It is an insidious form of objectification, which Peele skewers with precision.

In terms of direction, Get Out is orchestrated with a firm hand. From the opening one-take pre-credit scene, Peele establishes himself with a strong understanding of film grammar and its potential for agitating and provoking viewers into heightened emotional states. The sound design is exquisitely precise, the shots and choice of angles are designed to be completely immersive and 

The performances are uniformly terrific. Lead Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris with a level of amused detachment. Aware of the subtle prejudices he will have to contend with, he is on edge from minute one, trying to analyse his hosts without showing his hand. Once he cottons on to what is going on, his placid exterior slowly crumbles. It's an emotional arc that's been done before, but Kaluuya plays it without histronics, which makes the situation feel far more traumatic. Alison Williams has always been a little uncanny, and that slightly unsettling quality is put to good use here. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener bring a wonderfully understated menace to their roles, never tipping over into out-in-out horror movie villainy. By stripping out obvious tropes, Peele keeps the viewer off-balance. By refusing to frame his antagonists in conventional terms he deprives the viewer of an easy out.
While it does have some big scares, the most unsettling scenes in Get Out are not the obvious show-stoppers. The most disturbing moments in the film are at the level of basic social interactions: Chris talking to his girlfriend's brother; Chris meeting the guests at the Armitage's party -- all scenes in which our hero has to contend with implicit racism. Peele gets a lot out of even minor beats -- the silent auction; the housekeeper staring at her own reflection.
Ultimately, Get Out is a wonderfully unnerving experience, both on a visceral level, and as an examination of the current state of race relations in post-Obama America.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2
While my interest in Marvel is case-by-case, I am a big fan of James Gunn. Super is insanely violent yet strangely heartfelt, while PG Porn is one of the funniest web series I have ever seen.

When it was announced that Gunn was moving over to Marvel, it sounded so weird I was in. The first Guardians of the Galaxy was great -- it was funny, offbeat and created a sympathetic band of screw-ups. Some of Gunn's edge had been worn off, but not much, and it has the same offbeat empathy for its characters that his previous work had.

While I missed Marvel's slate last year, with this and Thor: Ragnorok in November, 2017 looks like it's going to be right up my alley.

When we re-connect with our anti-heroes, they are working as freelance mercenaries. After a job goes sour,our heroes are split up. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) are rescued by a mysterious stranger who turns out to be Ego (Kurt Russell), Peter's long lost dad.

Gunn deserves credit for making sure the core ensemble all have something to do. Sequels with large tasks can struggle to give everyone a reason for being in the movie. As before, Pratt's journey to learning his origins serves as the spine of the movie, but it also acts as a catalyst for the rest of the team to recognise their own familial ties -- Gamora with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), Yondu (Michael Rooker) with the Ravagers who exiled him, and Racoon (Bradley Cooper) with, uh, everybody. Drax finds a friend in Ego's innocent servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), who is operating on the same naive bandwith as himself.

One piece that feels a little forced is Baby Groot (Vin Diesel, in an Oscar-worthy performance*). While he is very cute and clearly a crowd-pleaser, there seem to be a few too many beats that feel like forced attempts to milk him for extra 'awws'.

Marvel does not have the best luck when it comes to villains, but Volume 2 has the benefit of a villain with a strong connection to our hero's story. Kurt Russell is, as usual, great. His natural charm is a great cover for Ego's self-centredness, and makes his casual disregard for other beings genuinely disturbing.

While the first 30-40 minutes, Gunn sprouts a couple of competing plot lines which cause the movie to feel a little adrift. Once Ego's real intentions are revealed, the plot pulls itself together. The first Guardians revealed a vein of overt sentiment previously missing from Gunn's work. Here, he hits the family theme a bit harder, and it makes for a few overt message moments which hit the nail on the head with a heavy 'clunk' (Gamora's reconciliation with Nebula is an obvious example, as is Yondu's 'we are the same' speech to Racoon). Despite this, the movie's emotional beats do ring true, and the actors manage to save these passages from feeling too didactic.

The soundtrack track was a highlight of the last movie, and the sequel is similarly eclectic. I don't think it hits the same high as the first one, but as with the original movie, Gunn builds it into the movie's text in a way that syncs with the movie's focus on Peter and Ego's relationship.

Overall, Volume 2 is a pretty strong sequel that expands upon the original's template, while deepening its characters. It might not do anything new in terms of action or spectacle, but that's not the reason these movies work. Gunn knows these characters well, and makes sure that they are always front and centre.

*To be read sarcastically

Sunday, April 30, 2017

GoldenEye: Bond back from the dead

Ba-ba-ba...BA-BAM! The Midnight Ramble closes out another month with yet another review of yet another James Bond movie, 1995's GoldenEye

It's 1986. James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and his fellow Double 0 Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) are on a mission at a chemical weapons lab in the Soviet Union. Trevelyan dies during the operation, leaving Bond to blow up the site and escape.

Cut to nine years later. The cold war over, Bond is dealing with changing times and a new (female) M (Judi Dench). When a Russian satellite station is attacked, Bond is put on the case to find the only survivor and prevent the titular weapon from falling into the wrong hands.

Bond's investigation leads him into conflict with a criminal organisation known as the Janus syndicate, and their leader, a resurrected 006...

After a six year break, during which Bond's Cold War milieu folded, and Timothy Dalton had resigned from the role, Bond 17 had a lot riding on its Brioni-clad shoulders.

Following License to Kill's fumbled attempt at revisionism, the six year gap AND the shift in global geopolitics, GoldenEye manages to overcome the obstacle of 007's perceived irrelevance with style and intelligence. A careful balancing act of being both fresh and vintage, it proved to be a major hit with existing fans,while providing an entry point for new viewers.

As an intro to the series, GoldenEye is hard to beat: you get great action, interesting characters and all the other ingredients of classic Bond, but within a contemporary frame. Unlike its predecessor, the filmmakers here retain the lush visual style which remains a hallmark of Bond, and is rooted in classic Hollywood-style continuity story-telling. It is a style which can be adapted to any context. Every time the series has gone for  a different aesthetic (License to Kill; Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace) that does not tie into the story or Bond's milieu, the resulting film fails.

Martin Campbell is the modern hero of the Bond movies. In a previous post, I went into his abilities as a filmmaker, so I won't spend too much time on his contribution. But suffice it to say that Campbell's work here plays an enormous part in this movie's success -- including his leading man.

Re-watching GoldenEye, it's interesting to see how young and fit Pierce Brosnan is. Compared to his later movies, he is a bit stiff, but that works for the movie -- GoldenEye's Bond is cold and methodical. Considering this movie is directed by Casino Royale's Martin Campbell, it makes sense. Brosnan's cool, methodical portrayal is less melodramatic than his later performances, and echoes in many ways the detached economy Daniel Craig has in Casino.
The rest of the cast are really good. Sean Bean makes for a fine bad guy. He's not one of the all-timers, but it is an interesting concept to have Bond face one of his own. The filmmakers under-cook their relationship a bit (the finale, while a good scene, lacks the intended emotional catharsis), but overall he is solid antagonist for this post-Cold War adventure -- and it is always a plus to have a bad guy who combines brains and brawn.

It helps that he is backed up by a great pair of hench-persons:

Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) is the best supporting villain the series has had since Jaws. A half-winking tribute to past femme fatales like Fiona Volpe and May Day, the character rides the line between cartoon and genuine threat expertly.

Gottfried John is also great as the more idiosyncratic General Ouromov. Smirking, drinking and sweating constantly, he casts s strangely human figure. The others may be completely insane, but Ouromov knows he is doing bad things -- which makes him the most despicable of the bunch. It's a bummer that he exits early -- as a character, he is more fleshed out than 006.

One of the movie's major (and unheralded) successes is in its female lead.
Played by Izabella Scorupco, Natalya Simonova is more fully developed than most of the female leads that precede and follow her.

A computer programmer, Natalya is intelligent and has skills that Bond does not. But she is not invincible. A human counterbalance to Bond's superman, she provides an emotional weight to scenes which, in any other Bond movie, would not (think back to previous movies where villains hijack a piece of technology -- here it is grounded in Natalya's point-of-view, which converts the Russian technicians from cannon fodder to actual people). What is interesting about her character is that Martin Campbell aligns his camera with her POV throughout the movie, from her introduction during Onatopp's attack on the Sevranya facility, through her meeting with Bond and interactions with the film's villains. The filmmakers also give her more agency -- she has a sense of humour, she comes up with her own plans, is also smart enough to learn Bond's trade secrets, and even point out the moral ambiguities of Bond's character. She deserves more fans.
The movie's only real flaw is Eric Serra's score -- sounding like mash-up between elevator music and porno movie scores, it makes the movie sound even older than it is. Clearly, the producers felt the same way because they parachuted composer John Altman in to come up with a more orchestral score for the famous tank chase (Serra's version was released on the soundtrack album).

Here is Serra's rejected score for the scene.

And here is John Altman's track, as re-recorded by the Prague philharmonic orchestra.

It is a testament to how good the rest of the movie is that the music is not detrimental to its impact.

This is the first Bond movie I ever saw. I did not grow up with the video game because my parents were not fans of gaming systems so all I had was the movie, which I didn't own but caught on TV a couple times.

As the Brosnan era came to a close, I found this was the one Brosnan that I would watch again and again. Tomorrow Never Dies used to have that title when I was younger, but GoldenEye has more to it, in terms of the movie's story, characters and on a pure filmmaking level. Some parts of it have dated, but overall it is still enormously entertaining.

Taken as either an old-school action adventure, or an encapsulation of the Bond series, GoldenEye is terrific.

Previous reviews

Diamonds Are Forever

The Man With The Golden Gun


For Your Eyes Only


A View To A Kill

The Living Daylights

Licence to Kill

Tomorrow Never Dies

The World Is Not Enough (2010); (2017)

Die Another Day

Casino Royale

Quantum of Solace

Spectre (2015); (2016)

Friday, April 28, 2017

CAUGHT ON NETFLIX: The Wedding Party & Morris From America

One of the great things about Netflix is the chance to watch movies that would otherwise be inaccessible.

A recent example is the Nigerian romantic comedy The Wedding Party. The movie caused a sensation in Nigeria late last year, becoming the highest grossing Nigerian film of all time.

A romantic comedy about the hijinks at the reception for the marriage between the upper class Dozie and the more humble Dunni, The Wedding Party is a fun little caper.

I have never seen a Nigerian movie before, and this movie made for an interesting juxtaposition with the African Film Festival screenings I went to earlier in the month. While those movies were more indie in spirit and subject, The Wedding Party is a rom com, pure and simple. It's pretty conventional in plot, and if you've seen a Hollywood wedding/reception/Christmas/family hijinks comedy, you'll enjoy this.

Being a relative ignoramus on Nigerian movies, I was doing a bit of research while watching -- I read that Nigerian cinema had taken a few style notes from Bollywood (which is very popular in the country) and there are aspects of the movie where you can definitely see a bit of that influence.

While it is intended as entertainment, there are elements which are specific to the local context: the end of the oil boom hangs over proceedings; Dunni's parents try to placate their wealthy in-laws by booking a troop of dancers from their tribe, but pick the wrong one. While class is present as a fracture between the families, the filmmakers do highlight the bubble the characters are in by including a subplot about a poor man who finds an invite by accident and decides to crash the party. 

The acting ranges between totally naturalistic (the leads are really winsome) to panto (the mother of the bride is HUGE), but it helps to delineate between specific groups of characters and adds a few different tones to what could have been a fairly predictable ensemble (scorned ex, scorned brother, rowdy band of best men etc).

The most distinctive character is the wedding planner (Zainab Balogun). She is starring in a very different movie --  from her POV, The Weding Party is a social horror story in which a professional iwoman loses her sanity trying to fulfill the the conflicting demands of the warring families

A fun distraction, and a good intro into a cinema scene I was only vaguely familiar with.

Another movie worth recommending is the independent coming-of-age film Morris From America.

Craig Robinson has been a great comedic actor for several years now, but this is the first movie to  give him a real leading role.

 Here he plays Curtis Gentrya widower who has moved to Germany for work along with his 13-year-old son Morris (Markees Christmas). While Curtis is at work, Morris struggles to fit in with other kids his age. After his German tutor suggests going to the local youth centre, Morris decides to get out of his shell. Cue first love, and all that entails.

Variations on this premise have been done before, but this one manages to strike out on its own. While some plot turns are vaguely predictable, the understated direction and naturalistic performances help maintain an air of unpredictability. This elliptical quality prevents the movie from feeling hooked to a specific set of expectations -- the lack of music helps -- and makes the emotional stakes feel more real.

It's a small, intimate story with an empathetic, non-demonstrative perspective of its characters. It's really good.
Both movies are good examples of what platforms like Netflix and Amazon can offer. 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

FRESH MEAT Season Two: For The Love Of Vod

After a bit of a break, The Midnight Ramble dives back into Netflix's selection of British TV shows with the second season of campus comedy Fresh Meat.

Season Two takes a running leap over its predecessor. Our 'heroes' return, some having learned some hard truths, other having learned nothing at all.

Episode One
The house re-gathers following the semester break. Invisible Paul Lamb has left, so they are on the hunt for a new flatmate and contend with a host of personal crises: JP is dealing with his friend Howard's homosexuality; Vod is in debt to everyone in the house; and Josie tries to sabotage Kingsley's blossoming maybe-relationship with her friend Heather (Sophie Wu).

While it has the benefit of a previous season's worth of backstory, the first episode feels so fresh and full of energy. The various subplots are juggled effectively, and all the characters get plenty to do. Already, this show feels like it has found its groove.

Episode Two

Kingsley's relationship with Heather has caused Josie to become extremely vindictive. She ends up breaking Heather's arm during a self-defence demonstration. In an attempt to solve her financial woes, Vod gets a job as a maid in a hotel. She also pulls double duty, looking after JP when he comes down with the mumps. Fearing sterility, he stores a sample of his seed in the house's ice tray -- hijinks ensue.

Episode Three
This episode is the first time our anti-heroes have contemplated life after (failing) university. Following a bit of skullduggery at a jobs fair, Kingsley is presented with the opportunity to work for BP. This turn acts as a catalyst for Simon and JP consider new careers.

Already employed, Vod is deeply unhappy in her job. Sadly, this means she fails upwards and gets a promotion. This in turn presents an opportunity for Josie, who gets a job as a maid. Because she is an idiot, Josie gets fired. Flag this as the point where Josie's tenuous status as sympathetic lead begins to dip.

In an increasingly rare moment of self-evaluation, Kingsley gives up his invite to intern at BP, and gives his invite to the big BP function to Simon. In turn, he takes Vod as his plus-one. She stages a protest, exploding bags of oil on a dining table.

This episode represents an interesting case of use-and-effect. A character makes a choice, which influences another character to make a choice. It's a basic tenant of drama and comedy, and this domino effect continues to ripple throughout the season.

Episode Four
JP takes the team down to his estate for a weekend study-session/freakout party. At this point, I'm wondering how the girls can tolerate him -- this feels like the fiftieth time he's suggested the housemates have an orgy.

JP has a crisis when his mother reveals the house is being sold. This leads to a drunken party, and JP finally learns to let go -- granted, he ends up taking his father's ashes and taking a bunch of useless rich guy crap, but that's big for him. Meanwhile Josie learns her ex-fianc√© is still getting married and decides to crash the wedding. She winds up parked outside and watching the festivities, unable to do anything.

It's a pretty bleak episode all round. There are a few laughs (Vod hunting is something we need more of), but there's a sense of melancholy here which dampens the spirits considerably.
Episode Five
This episode presents something I never expected: Vod in love.

The house gets burgled, after Josie leaves the keys in the door. In order to make it look like someone else did it, Josie smashes in the front door. Enter Al, a handyman tasked with fixing the door.

Enter Vod, fresh from an all-night bender, who spots Al the handyman and promptly falls in love with Al the handyman.

Cue the worst sex scene I have seen in a long time. While Vod is satiating her love for the handyman,  Simon is left heartbroken after Dutch housemate Sabine ignores him after their tryst last episode, and Josie botches a surgery because she is far too drunk.
At this point, I realised how little I cared about Kingsley and Josie. Thankfully the rest of the ensemble make up for the leads' deficiencies.

Episode Six
This episode begins with the revelation that Josie has been booted out of her course. On another front, Vod has to take a drug test to get the next instalment of her RAF bursary. She takes a sample of Josie's urine -- which leads us to discover Josie is taking her own version of happy pills.

Oregon finds the perfect man, a post-grad who works at the library, She spends this episode trying to nab him. However, having secured her prize, her euphoria is short-lived -- it turns out her new boyfriend is Tony Shales' son. Oh boy.

Meanwhile the boys go on a field trip for Geo. Sick of lecturer Dan's (Mark Webb) screw-ups, they lay a complaint which he finds about. The trip turns into a series of mind games as Dan tries to figure out who laid the complaint.

On top of this, Kingsley is suspicious that JP has eyes on his girlfriend, and Simon is trying to get over his feelings for housemate Sabine.

JP climbs up a rock face and gets stuck. This acts a catalyst for the guys to completely fall apart over their various sexual failings.

Episode Seven
Josie has taken to pretending to go to class, and then heading into town to gamble on the horses and eating ice cream while swinging (in a playground, not the other kind). Heather signs Kingsley up for an open mic night -- it's an embarrassing failure. After recognising her vocal talents, Kingsley forms a band with Oregon.

Speaking of Oregon, Tony finds out she has been seeing his son. Good times. Kingsley quits the band over the introduction of bongos before their first gig and ends up sitting outside with Josie. Ugh, guess where this going?

JP falls in love with one of his rich mate Tobeys' French cousin Celeste -- an alien concept. However his mate Ralph has called dibs, and then asks JP to guard his 'prize' while he is away. JP gives into his feelings, but in true JP fashion, screws it up all by himself.

Vod goes drinking with a famous poet who then dies. Vod has a wonderful sense of style this episode -- she dresses like Marilyn Manson at one point, and ends the episode dressed like a gentleman on the Titanic.

Episode Eight
The end of season two features several threads coming to a head. Kingsley wants Heather to move in, but the housemates hate the idea -- Kingsley decides to move out.

The other Professor Shales discovers that Oregon is dating her son -- unlike her estranged husband, she threatens to tell him what/who Oregon has done unless she breaks up with him. Meanwhile, Vod is forging poetry to hawk to Tony Shales.

Things come to a head at the Shales' pretentious party -- Kingsley and Josie give in to their desires and have vigorous sex while the Shales clan collapse in on itself and Oregon is abandoned by everyone and cries her brains out. oh, and JP ends the episode buying the house.

Vod's style choices continue to be on point -- at the party she's sporting a tweed coat and dress shirt ensemble with frilly collar. Great stuff.

By the end of this season, I have lost all sympathy or interest in Kingsley and Josie. The rest of the ensemble make up for their shared self-absorption. Not that they are paragons of virtue, but the show-runners appear to be engaging in inverting specific expectations relating to the characters: While the 'good' people start at the top and are in decline,  characters like JP and Vod are going the other way. The key difference is that these characters are true to who they are, while Kingsley and Josie are not.

Previous reviews


Saturday, April 15, 2017

IN THEATRES: Fate of the Furious

Two years after the blockbuster success of Furious 7, the Fast crew return in the eighth instalment of the un-killable petrolhead franchise.

Following the departure of Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker), the family of vehicular superheroes is torn asunder when growly patriarch Dom (Vin Diesel) goes to the dark side, joining forces with a hi-tech terrorist (Charlize Theron) intent on doing something bad. With cars.

The F&F movies, especially since Fast 5, has become one of the biggest franchises in the world. Embracing the 'family' dynamic, and exploding every idea of what a car can do, this series has somehow become one of the few non-superhero related film series out there. And this instalment is no different.

Let's get this out of the way, this movie is stupid. It's not 'Vin Diesel wearing a white tank and jeans to his wedding' stupid, but it is in the ballpark.

The arrival of F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) in the director's chair  initially had me a bit skeptical. Apart from his recent success with Compton, Gray's filmography has not been strongest: could he catch the same lightning in a bottle that previous helmer Justin Lin (and to a lesser extent, James Wan) had captured? Honestly, it's hard to detect much change from the usual palette. We do get some more high-stakes (melo)drama, which leads to something you don't usually see: Vin Diesel emoting.

On the action front, Gray earns his stripes. While the car stuff remains good (the nature of some of the action does require more CGI than the last few), the hand-to-hand combat and gunplay here is fantastic. The prison break sequence features the Rock and the Stath barrelling through a riot, body-slamming and beating up prisoners and guards alike. It's so cleanly shot and exciting, it had a shot at being my favourite scene in the movie -- up until the ending, which features Jason Statham rocketing around an airplane nailing bad guys while holding a baby. It's amazing.

Going into the plot will make my brain bleed, so let's just roll through the key players.

Screenwriter/franchise godfather Chris Morgan has given Dom a really strong motivation for turning heel (even though it does through a spanner in the previous movies' timeline which makes no sense), and it makes his character far more interesting than he's ever been. His motivation is quite dark (and involves the death of a familiar character), but it boils down to something very primal, which gives his eventual escape an emotional resonance I have not seen in the series before.

As usual, The Rock is great as hard ass Hobbs, but his appearances in these movies feel like teases for a spinoff we'll never get. Even outside of the franchise, the Rock has not gone full action star in years. This guy needs a Predator or a Commando. He has the charisma, the muscles and the one-liners, but he needs a whole movie to kick ass in. The Rundown is still the closest thing he's had to an action vehicle, and that was over 13 years ago.

Tyrese Gibson is so good in these movies. I recently watched Baby Boy, which was his first starring role, and watching him here really clarified what he can and cannot do. In a complex character study like Baby Boy, he cannot navigate between the character's conflicting impulses. With a character like Roman, a man of extremely limited goals, he is perfect. He gets most of the movie's best jokes. He also gets a couple of clunkers you can see coming from the opening credits.

Ah, Nathalie Emmanuel. So beautiful, so boring. To her credit, her character is involved in two of the movie's better jokes. Apart from that, she disappears into the scenery. It does not help that she has to share hacking duties with Chris Bridges. It's ludicrous.

Scott Eastwood
But if anyone takes the none-entity award it is Scott 'Son of Clint' Eastwood. He is the butt of everyone else's jokes but he's so lifeless even on that level it doesn't matter.

On the villain front, Charlize Theron does not get enough to do. Chris Morgan has a depraved, cocaine-fueled genius (I'm guessing?) for writing these movies, but he totally misses the boat with the villain, sticking her on a plane and giving her pages of the most inane speeches I've heard in a F&F movie -- and that's saying something. Theron spouts a couple of metaphors which take about five minutes to get to the point. Or she gets meaningless garbage like this:

"You always said you live your life a quarter-mile at a time. So why don't you live your whole life that way?" 

Ah... Wait, what?

Theron does her best with what little she has, but the inspiration for her character appears to have finished with her hair extensions.

Jason Statham is great in this. He gets to be a part of the movie's best set pieces -- the prison riot, and the finale on the plane -- and forms a rapport with the Rock that made me want to see a buddy movie with these two. He follows the trend of the franchise redeeming its villains (remember this guy killed fan favourite Han), which makes none of the sense. But then again, the filmmakers kinda screwed up having him as a villain in the last movie, so his turn here is irrelevant.

This movie does not have the comic √©lan of Justin Lin's instalments, nor the emotional heft of James Wan's, and some of wear is starting to show. But I laughed from beginning to end, from the first gratuitous butt shot to the Rock nudging a speeding torpedo with his hand. The main actors have eased into their roles (Kurt Russell is having a blast), Helen Mirren pops in for a cameo, and the action scenes are all great.