An unoriginal week at the movies
Here’s a roundup of the latest new releases – two of which are sequels to sequels and one of which is like the product of a children’s movie mashup exercise. What’s most odd about these films is that for a group so embedded in formula, one breaks its own pattern and gets entirely lost along the way.
Fast & Furious 6
Directed by Justin Lin
The biggest problem the “Fast & Furious” franchise has is to come up with a fresh, or at least workable, premise each time as to why we’re about to see a bunch of cars zooming about. Early on, the connections between some of the films were tenuous but there has actually been some relatively clever writing that has tied them back together, with a recurring cast of characters, each of whom have their own preferred type of car.
The premise problem was even greater this time around as Dom (Vin Diesel) and the gang all ended up fabulously wealthy at the end of the last film – and so a simple heist plot wouldn’t be sufficiently motivating. Instead, they are lured out of semi-retirement by the prospect of finding old friend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), long thought to be dead. Apparently, she’s caught up with some international super-villain intent on stealing the necessary components for a device that could cripple an entire country – in what sounds much more like a plot from a James Bond movie. Except that here the plot is based on driving assorted fast getaway cars and so international super-cop Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) turns to the best drivers he knows to combat the threat.
And once a premise has been nailed down, these films are all about the fast cars and the stunts – and there are plenty of both. I’ve seen articles that estimate that 300-400 cars were destroyed during filming, many of them replicas of cars that would be too expensive to actually break that many times. All of which is a testament to the fact that much of the action here is real, with actual drivers in actual cars, rather than just being computer generated. But it also means that you get fairly awful continuity at times as sequences are seen from different angles and the order of cars changes, and you also see a car making a jump that would obviously fold the car in half, only to see it racing away in the next shot.
All of which can be forgiven if you like to see this kind of car-based action. There’s even a special type of car that the villains use that looks like a high-speed doorstop – it’s so low and wedge-shaped that it flips other cars over on impact. The problem is that in the rush the get ever bigger and louder, the biggest of the set action pieces just become ridiculous – and it’s a shame because the pure driving parts could be enough (and have been enough in the past). But when one of the biggest scenes ends with as many laughs as gasps, you’ve got problems. And there’s a scene that takes place on a runway that would have to be almost 20 miles long just to accommodate the straight line driving sequence that’s shown.
The redeeming moment here, as with “The Hangover Part III,” comes at the very end, as the credits begin. There’s an add-on scene that sets up the next installment in a manner that suggests we might get back to head-to-head basics. I had no great interest in “F&F 6” but I’m already looking forward to “F&F 7.”
The Hangover Part III
Directed by Todd Phillips
What was neat about the original “Hangover” movie was the sense of unexpected and unbridled chaos that characterized the story about a group of friends undertaking the most ill-fated bachelor party of all time. In “The Hangover Part II,” the same basic idea is repeated, almost too exactly, for what felt almost more like a remake than a sequel. Which might lead one to expect that “The Hangover Part III” would do the same thing all over again – but it doesn’t.
The question then becomes whether or not that’s a good thing. While it could very well have been a movie telling the same story and many of the same jokes for a third time, which would have been repetitively repetitive, instead it’s a film that’s quite different and doesn’t seem to fit with the other two. This film is more like a bungled heist caper and is far more predictably linear and mundane. Frankly it’s a disappointment. Sure it’s funny and crass, and crassly funny, as one might expect – but it just doesn’t have the same tone about it.
The odd coincidence is that it redeems itself very briefly, much like “Fast & Furious 6,” with a scene that comes during the final credits. Although redemption isn’t quite the right description. Put simply, the final scene of the movie is better than everything that comes before it – and it’s like a tiny version of what this movie probably could and should have been. There’s more that’s in keeping with the prior two movies and more of the sense of surprise that they capitalized on. And while I was critical of how similar “Part II” was to the original, I’d rather have seen that again than have this ill-fitting lame outing. The best way to watch “The Hangover Part III” is to show up 95 minutes late.
Directed by Chris Wedge
“Epic” has seven credited writers, one of whom is William Joyce, the author of “The Leaf men and the Brave Good Bugs.” This film is based on Joyce’s characters but not on that story, which wasn’t ‘epic’ enough for director Chris Wedge (“Ice Age,” “Robots”).
The outcome is somewhat like a blended cocktail of assorted other children’s stories. If you put the screenplays for “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” “The Borrowers” (or “The Secret World of Arrietty”), “Ferngully,” “The Never-ending Story,” and “Arthur and the Invisibles” into a shredder and then tried to re-assemble them, you’d end up with something not entirely unlike “Epic.”
M.K. has lost her mother and is moving in with her estranged, and strange, father. He has spent years investigating sightings of tiny creatures living in the forest and collecting their artifacts. It broke up his marriage and threatens to ruin his relationship with M.K. until she finds herself face to face with his theories.
The Leaf Men are essentially the soldiers, or hummingbird-mounted cavalry, of a civilization made up of the flower people and bright tiny creatures of the forest. Their mortal enemies are those that feed on rot and decay, who would rather see the forest die. M. K. stumbles into this world on the day that the Queen must pick her heir in order for their society (and coincidentally our forest) to survive.
It’s an odd story, in a sense, because it doesn’t pit good against evil in quite such a clear cut manner as some stories do. In essence, the villains are a group of creatures that simply have a different set of needs in terms of their environment – and both are equally comfortable killing each other. Although they’re short-sighted in that in order to have decay, one first needs fresh material to be able to decay. It might have been a somewhat more interesting or educational tale if it had said more about the natural symbiosis of the two sides.
The strong suit of “Epic,” however, isn’t in the story telling (which will satisfy young kids well enough), it’s in the animation. Fans of animation should see this film just to see the background artwork. It’s still hard to animate realistic looking people and the main characters here are rendered well but not in any way that really sets them apart from many other projects – thy don’t look like real people and they are supposed to (with the possible exception of a relatively real-looking cab driver in a very real looking cab). And many of the secondary characters are predictably goofy, including the comic-relief-providing snail and slug sidekicks. But the scenery is phenomenal. The film opens with a shot of the forest that causes you to have to remind yourself that it’s animated. It’s like the film one might expect if Terrence Malick became a background animation artist.
“Epic” seems destined to do well at the box office as the only mainstream kids film opening on a holiday weekend, surrounded by adult comedies and action films. It has a story that’s derivative of many other books and films, but then so do so many children’s stories, and wonderful visuals that should keep the adults fairly content. The downside in that balance of keeping both short and tall people happy, is that the end credits roll over a neat montage of the kinds of things one might find on M.K.’s Dad’s work tables, and while I wanted to watch until the end, I can imagine the kids being eager to run outside and pretend to fly a hummingbird.
Other local film news
After having its local premiere at the Sacramento Jewish Film Festival, “Hava Nagila” is back at the Crest for a limited engagement playing Saturday, Sunday and Monday of the Memorial Day weekend. Also in exclusive screenings at the Crest are “Dead in 5 Heartbeats” on Saturday and “A Place at the Table,” about food insecurity in America, on May 29th and 30th and June 1st. See www.thecrest.com for showtimes and more details.
Ed's Note: This weekly film review column will be on hiatus for a bit, returning in June.