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Last updateFri, 16 Sep 2016 12pm

In The Fate of the Furious—easily the dumbest title in the Furious franchise, even dumber than Tokyo Drift—you get to see the most disgusting, stomach-churning moment in cinema so far this year.

That would be Charlize Theron planting a big, sloppy kiss on Vin Diesel, the visual of which creates a “girl from Monster meets the Pillsbury Doughboy on steroids” nightmare. Five years ago, I made a list of five things I never wanted to see, and that came in at No. 3, right under “Donald Trump as President” and “Spiders in My Scrambled Eggs Being Served to Me by a Man With Weeping Hand Sores.”

Somewhere along the way, the Furious franchise went completely bonkers and became less about cars racing around and more about dudes, with upper arms the size of a bull’s torso, who think hair on the top of their heads is total bullshit. It also went off on some sort of international-spy-team tangent. That worked to a hilarious degree in Furious 7, but in The Fate of the Furious, the trajectory becomes ridiculous without much fun: It’s just dumb and plodding. The big thing here is that Dominic Toretto (Diesel) has gone rogue and turned on his family, which has something to do with a cyber villain named Cipher (Theron) and her crazy dreadlock extensions.

The film opens with Dominic and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) having a good old time in Cuba, where we last saw them. Dominic gets into a car race that involves his vehicle catching fire, and him speaking in a growling, marble-mouthed manner. Post-race, he’s approached by Cipher, who is wearing a stunning outfit involving denim shorts. Dominic takes a look at something on her cell phone, mumbles and groans a bit—and the international intrigue begins.

Cipher is after nuclear launch codes and electromagnetic pulse contraptions, and Dominic becomes her pit bull. Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard (Jason Statham) are eventually employed by Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) to get with Dominic and see what’s going on in that big, Barry Bonds-sized head of his.

The portions of the film that involve Johnson and Statham are good—good enough to inspire thoughts of a spinoff film in which their characters join up and solve crimes while fighting Batman, Sylvester Stallone, Godzilla, etc. However, a very real chance at something like that apparently got squashed because Diesel screamed, “Mine, mine, mine, all mine!” and put the kibosh on it.

The biggest problem is that the film takes itself too seriously, with heavy doses of drama being ladled into the mix. The movie even makes way for Vin Diesel to have his Denzel Washington-in-Glory tear moment—that moment in which a single, solitary tear rolls down his cheek while the actor does his best to remain stone-faced.

The whole premise of Dominic going rogue has zero dramatic tension; I’ll simply say that there’s little mystery behind his “traitorous” actions. Also—and this goes without saying—he mopes a lot.

Theron is a great actress, but her supposed computer-genius Cipher is a character who mostly stands in a room barking out commands while everybody else does the legwork. Yes, there’s a scene or two in which she types really fast on a keyboard, but the notion that she is a cyber-terrorist goddess gets lost somewhere in those crazy dreadlocks.

The Furious franchise will go on, obviously. Hopefully, producer Diesel will remember what makes the whole thing fun and shift the emphasis from him squirting tears back to cars going, “Vroom, vroom!” and jumping between skyscrapers and over the Grand Canyon.

And, hey, let’s keep these things around 90 minutes in the future. This one clocks in at 156 minutes. That’s almost an entire other movie too long.

The Fate of the Furious is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

From the makers of ParaNorman and Coraline comes Kubo and the Two Strings, another stop-motion wonder that’s a fantastically fun combination of puppetry and CGI. It’s the best animated film I’ve seen so far this year.

The title character is a young boy (an amazingly expressive creation voiced by Art Parkinson) who must go on a quest to deal with a nasty family war that has claimed the lives of his parents. He searches for a suit of armor needed to combat his evil granddad (Ralph Fiennes … of course). He’s assisted on his quest by a monkey (Charlize Theron) and a beetle (Matthew McConaughey, in his first animated film).

The visuals are constantly breathtaking; the writing is often very clever and funny; and the message is sweet and enduring. As with some of the Laika studio’s past creations, some sequences might be too much for the young ones, but it’s nothing the average 8-year-old can’t handle.

Special Features: They include an audio commentary from the director, and a solid making-of doc. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Four years ago, when Snow White and the Huntsman came out, Kristen Stewart was all the rage. The film made lotsa money, and it looked like the former Bella had a new franchise on her hands.

Not so fast. Kristen, in a moment of shameful and delicious wickedness, made out in public (well, in front of somebody’s unauthorized camera, anyway) with that film’s married director, much to the chagrin of then-boyfriend Robert Pattinson—and, consequently, her fan base. Plans for a sequel starring her were scrapped, and a whole new plan centering on co-star and budding movie giant Chris Hemsworth (Thor!) was hatched.

What producers didn’t realize at the time was that Hemsworth basically sucks when he’s doing anything other than playing Thor. Blackhat, In the Heart of the Sea, Vacation and now this mighty slice of hell are proof of this.

While Snow White was no creative party, it was a tolerable misfire. However, The Huntsman: Winter’s War is a complete mess. It probably looked good on paper or around the pitch table, but the finished product plays like a drunken, straining renaissance festival after the organizer was strung out on heroin.

Because sorcery and magic mirrors were involved in the original, Charlize Theron is allowed to return as the evil Ravenna, even though she was dead. Because Stewart is gone, there’s enough money for two new stars, so in come Emily Blunt as Queen Freya, and Jessica Chastain as Sara. Of course, you have Thor on hand as the Huntsman, the most useless, banal role this guy has taken on in his mostly useless, banal career.

Despite all of this talent on hand, the movie largely consists of the two main villainesses talking all slow and evil, as if they were related to the elves from the Hobbit movies. Meanwhile, Hemsworth is garbling all his lines through some sort of Scottish accent. Note to directors: Hemsworth, from Australia, is capable of American and Australian accents. That’s it. Attempt other accents at your own peril.

The plot involves some sort of bullshit involving the magic mirror that allows Ravena to come back. Ravena takes the time to explain just how she came back, and how she’s only sort of dead, but not really. It doesn’t make much sense, even with her detailed, slow, deliberately paced explanation.

The movie actually starts years before the first movie, with Freya all excited about having a baby with some married dude. An unfortunate event inexplicably turns her into an ice queen, and she freezes a bunch of the countryside (echoes of Disney’s Frozen). The movie then jumps over the events of Snow White into a new, sequel-type adventure. So it’s a sequel and a prequel, all in one.

It’s unfortunate to see Blunt embarrass herself like this. She’s coming off the triumph of Sicario and Edge of Tomorrow. Then again, Into the Woods sucked, too, so perhaps Blunt’s agents need to keep her far away from fairytale based films. Theron, who has an impressive track record, sometimes shows up in clunkers, so her presence here is no surprise, and should buy her another decent house. Chastain is clearly looking for a franchise, and she’s not going to get it here.

Hemsworth certainly has movie-star looks, and he’s perfectly fine when he’s playing exaggerated forms of himself. Beyond that, he’s possibly the worst actor on the planet when he has to do difficult accents and emote. If he’s not wielding Thor's hammer, he’s horrendous.

The lesson here, I guess, is that if you have Kristen Stewart in your movie, and she makes out with the director, don’t kick her out of your franchise; give her a raise! Christ, you are in Hollywood, so all bets are off as to who’s doing whom.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

For the second time within a year or so, a Gillian Flynn novel has been made into a movie. While David Fincher’s Gone Girl was a masterpiece, Dark Places, based on Flynn’s second novel, is bloody awful.

Even though Oscar-winner Charlize Theron is its star, Dark Places never rises above the level of a Lifetime movie. The storytelling is ham-fisted, and the stars, especially Theron, look absolutely lost. It also boasts shoddy production values that give off the vibe of a subpar episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit—and that’s a show I hate this much. (I have stopped typing, and I’m stretching out my arms, palms parallel, as far as possible.)

As with Gone Girl, Flynn’s story is inspired by real news events. Gone Girl was an obvious nod to wife-murderer Scott Peterson, while Dark Places draws its inspiration from ’80s and ’90s cases involving alleged Satan worshippers (including Ricky Kasso, as well as the Robin Hood Hills murders). Fincher took Gone Girl (with a screenplay penned by Flynn herself) and went for something darkly satirical and outrageous; meanwhile, director and screenwriter Gilles Paquet-Brenner plays Dark Places straight, with a far-inferior script.

Theron is Libby Day, a bitter woman who witnessed the murder of her mother and sisters when she was a child in 1985. Her brother, Ben (played by Tye Sheridan of The Tree of Life in 1985, and Corey Stoll of Ant-Man in the present), is sitting in prison for life, based on her testimony. It was suspected the murders were fueled by Ben’s love for all things Satan.

Libby has been living off the spoils of unwanted celebrity, having received money over the years from sympathetic check-senders. The book she wrote, however, did not sell all that well, and the checks are drying up, so she’s a bit desperate. She gets a weird letter from Lyle (Theron’s Mad Max: Fury Road co-star Nicholas Hoult), offering her a few hundred bucks to appear at a weird meeting for some sort of “murder club.”

The “murder club” is a sort of miniature macabre comic-con at which people dress up as murderers (yes, the John Wayne Gacy clown is in attendance), and people involved in infamous cases make appearances. Libby thinks she’s just a guest of honor, but soon discovers the murder club also looks to solve murders—and they believe her brother is innocent: They think Libby lied in her testimony. After being initially pissed off at this accusation, she joins forces with the club to solve her family’s murders.

The film becomes two stories in two different times, with Libby and the murder club investigating the killings in the present, and the actual build-up to the murders in the past. The 1985 cast includes Sheridan; Chloë Grace Moretz as Ben’s Satan-worshipping, cow-slaughtering girlfriend; Christina Hendricks as Libby’s noble mother; and Sterling Jerins as young Libby.

Paquet-Brenner doesn’t navigate between the two periods well, as his film features sloppy editing to go with some bad acting. While Hendricks delivers a decent-enough performance, the normally reliable Moretz goes overboard in her bid to be bad. Sean Bridgers plays Libby’s dad in both periods, and is trying to do his best Charles Manson impersonation. A scene Theron shares with Bridgers—whose character is coughing from progressive arsenic poisoning—is unintentionally hilarious.

As for Theron, she often looks confused and frustrated, as if she regrets taking the role. It’s very difficult to make Theron hard to watch, yet that’s what happens here.

Flynn didn’t have a hand in the screenplay; perhaps that’s one of the reasons Dark Places is so flat and putrid. Or perhaps Flynn only has one great story suitable for the movies in her—because this one is an undercooked dud.

Dark Places is now playing at the Ultrastar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100) and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430). It’s also available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in Reviews

George Miller has been trying to follow up Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome for 30 years. He was all set to go with Mel Gibson in a fourth movie before setbacks.

Then, of course, Mr. Gibson said some very bad words, making him virtually unmarketable due to his temper and his generally poor outlook on things. So here we are, 30 years since Tina Turner put on that goofy wig and sang that lame song for Thunderdome. After a bunch of films involving talking animals (Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet), Miller is back in his post-apocalyptic world, messing around with fast rigs on desert landscapes. He also has a new Max—that being Tom Hardy. Charlize Theron is also along for the ride.

The results are a blast: Max Max: Fury Road is probably the franchise best when it comes to action. However, I prefer Gibson over Hardy for his Max portrayal. Hardy is good, but Gibson is the original and best Max—even if he is a total asshole.

The film starts off with a shot reminiscent of The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2)—and then it goes berserk. Max gets himself captured by a really disgusting-looking, villainous ruler named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and finds himself hanging upside down and providing blood for a pale, bald minion of Joe’s, Nux (Nicholas Hoult).

Theron then shows up, head shaven, as Imperator Furiosa, a one-time loyal of Immortan Joe; she tricks him and kidnaps his wives, intent upon taking them to some sort of green promised land. When Joe figures out she’s making a run for it, his soldiers (who look a little like the cave creatures from The Descent) take off after her. This includes Nux—with Max strapped to the front of his car and wearing a face mask that reminds of his Bane getup in The Dark Knight Rises.

As far as plot goes, that’s about it. Theron and the wives try to drive really fast, and those pursuing her drive really fast, too. Along the way, they pick up a few other characters, and some folks get mulched under car wheels. You get the picture.

What makes Miller’s latest a cut above the rest is a major reliance on practical effects for the stunts. Sure, CGI shows up (and when it does, it’s very well done), but much of what we see is stunt people doing crazy, crazy things in front of cameras.

The folks who developed the look of this movie—from its terrific cinematography, to its costuming, to its incredible stunt work—all deserve praise and extra beers. The pounding soundtrack and the editing help make this a true pulse-racer. No matter how frantic the action gets, there’s a certain visual clarity to everything. It’s easy on the eyes, even when the edits are rapid.

Theron brings a nice bit of gravitas to this blockbuster. Sporting a CGI mechanical arm, face paint and a permanently stern expression, she is one badass rebel. While Hardy is fine in the Max role, the really great performance in this film comes from Theron.

Hardy actually spends much of the movie silent, especially in the early going. He looks great, even when he’s playing the part of a blood bag. Hoult actually manages to be quite moving under all of his makeup as the kamikaze who has a change of heart.

This is supposed to be the first film in a new trilogy, but it should be noted that Pitch Perfect 2 kicked its ass at the box office, so it isn’t exactly setting the world on fire. Let’s hope that critical praise and word of mouth result in a healthy worldwide run for Mad Max: Fury Road. I want more.

Mad Max: Fury Road is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Nothing cinematically sucks more than a comedy that makes you yawn.

A Million Ways to Die in the West is one of the summer movie season’s biggest bummers. Seth MacFarlane’s second feature directorial effort (after the breezy and hilarious Ted) is a lumbering enterprise. It’s not awful, and it does have its share of giggles, but it can’t be classified as anything close to a good movie. That’s a kick in the balls, because some slicker editing and a dial-back on the gross-out gags could’ve kept this thing closer to 90 minutes (instead of nearly two hours) and would have gotten rid of the moments that go too far.

Like Mel Brooks with the classic Blazing Saddles, MacFarlane tried to make a satirical Western that truly looks and feels like a Western. He gets the cinematography right, but his tempo is way off. While Blazing Saddles had the exuberance of a grand Western, MacFarlane’s dependence on comic violence and slow pacing feels like he’s trying to make something like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, but funny. It doesn’t work.

MacFarlane plays Albert, a snarky, ahead-of-his-time guy trying to survive in the great American West. He’s a sheep farmer, but he’s terrible at it; one of his animals constantly winds up on his roof. He’s always getting into trouble with his wise mouth, and his inability to stand up for himself in manly gunfights has earned the ire of his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried).

After getting dumped, Albert is determined to win Louise back. Enter newcomer Anna (a stunningly sweet Charlize Theron), who befriends Albert and tutors him in the ways of women. She also must show Albert how to shoot a gun after he challenges the evil Foy (Neil Patrick Harris)—Louise’s extravagantly mustachioed and arrogant new beau—to a gunfight.

Instead of going for something goofy with the relationship between Albert and Anna, MacFarlane tries to make their budding romance feel “real.” It is completely out of place in a movie like this. And, let’s face it: MacFarlane has his charms, but he doesn’t seem like a likely romantic partner for Theron. They look unintentionally funny together, like Peter Brady trying to kiss Marilyn Monroe.

Liam Neeson appears in the thankless role of Clinch, a resident killer and the husband of Anna (unbeknownst to Albert). Neeson sneers his way through his role with nothing funny to do, unless you regard the sight of him having a daisy shoved in his butt as funny.

A subplot involving a hooker (Sarah Silverman) and her virgin boyfriend (Giovanni Ribisi) is full of jokes too obvious and too old for them, although they try hard to rise above the material. (I did like the moment in which Ribisi referenced his deranged dance moves from Ted.)

MacFarlane drags out some gags way too long. For example, Neil Patrick Harris crapping in hats after ingesting laxative powder is kind of funny. However, we don’t need to see the results of an accident spill out of a hat. As for the violence, the first few deaths get laughs, but they grow tiresome, fast.

MacFarlane’s attempt to emulate Mel Brooks has fallen flat. He has Ted 2 on the boards as a producer. He should just go ahead and direct that film, and return to some familiar territory for recalibrating. If he were to, say, announce a Frankenstein or Robin Hood spoof in the near future, that would be a bad sign.

A Million Ways to Die in the West is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews