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Thursday, April 2, 2015

On Fast Cars, Ludicrous Dystopias and Timeless Fairy Tales

Despite it currently being something of a lackluster period in cinemas - as it always is this time of year - there are three quite big films out right now that deserve at least a quick, cursory glance. One is a well done but slightly redundant remake, one is daft but fun and one is just daft. Guess which one's which...

Insurgent. The Hungers Games film franchise, despite its generally positive critical reviews and enthusiastic public reception, has often been the target of frankly often sniffy critics and bitter hipster contrarians as nothing more than juvenile nonsense that does nothing more than knock off classic examples of the dystopian genre for the rapid consumption of stupid, ADHD-suffering teenagers. Quite aside for the fact that this overlooks the franchise's many obvious merits, as well as the fact that they may well serve as a perfect "gateway drug" for a whole new generation to check out classics like Brave New World, Battle Royale or A Clockwork Orange (though hopefully not until they're quite a bit older, as far as the latter two go), I can only assume that the Hunger Games' harshest critics have simply never seen either film in the Divergent series.

An obvious cash-in of Suzanne Collins's tremendously popular Hunger Games novels and their cinematic adaptations, The Divergent series is similarly set in a dystopian not-too-distant future where humanity is divided across very rigid lines, whose salvation lies in a one-in-a-million teenage girl who reluctantly takes on the whole rotten system with the help of but a few ragtag allies. The difference is that while The Hunger Games' broken world is one that is based on a very recognizable and well thought out class-system and its portrait of rebellion is surprisingly layered and believable, the Divergent series rests on a premise that doesn't make a lick of sense and on themes that are as muddled as they are simplistic.

It kind of doesn't matter that Insurgent is a well-enough put together blockbuster and that the clearly disinterested actors are still of a high enough caliber that they more or less keep everything afloat, with a story this brain-pulverisingly stupid, it never stood much of a chance to be anything but a befuddling, overly familiar dud. It's not really any better or worse than Divergent - though the performances do seem a bit more phoned in this time - as it suffers from precisely the same problem: no matter how they execute it, the premise of a world in which people are divided according to a specific character sense is utterly moronic.

No matter what else goes wrong or right with the film, the premise's staggeringly ill-informed understanding of basic human nature does nothing but highlights the film's other weaknesses (plodding pacing, under-developed characters, an ostensible "lead actor" who is out-acted by everyone around him) and sinks the half way decent stuff (the quite enjoyable virtual reality scenes).

And the fact that we still have two more of these things (again only based on one final book though) does not exactly fill me with glee - though if reports are to be believed, the main cast are, if anything, even less enthused. Mockingjay Part 2: where are you?

Cinderella. I'm going to keep this extra short as I really don't have too much to say about it. After countless "post-modern" takes on old fairy tales (or, in the case of a couple of them, back to their Grimm basics), there is something to be said for the fact that the latest screen adaptation of the immortal Cinderella story is so traditional. Sure, there are a handful of small changes - most notably the first time Ella meets Prince Charming - but this is very much the story you know, told in a way that offers next to nothing in the way of surprises but plenty in the way of good, old-fashioned fantasy storytelling.

To be honest though, while I thought the script was fine, the performances very solid and Kenneth Branagh's directing predictably impressive, it is this very traditionalism that stopped me from enjoying the film more. Cinderella is such a well known story that I couldn't help but be more than a little bored at the film's lack of invention and ingenuity. It's a great story, very well told but, though it will undoubtedly work wonders on its young audience (this is very much a Disney film), older viewers who are very well acquainted with the story of Cinderella - and, really, who isn't? - will probably be left feeling like they have very much been there, done that and bought the T-shirt (and other assorted merchandise). Still, I suppose there are far worse things than films that actually work for their intended audiences...


Fast and Furious 7. Considering how little interest I had in the series when it was primarily about illegal street racing, it's amazing how much I've grown to love the Fast and Furious franchise over the last few installments. Sure the dialogue is often shockingly lame and the series has been lead by two of the least charismatic, though still weirdly likable, action stars around (Paul Walker's death is obviously incredibly tragic and he was apparently a really good dude in general, but that doesn't make him a good actor or a particularly compelling screen presence) but the last few installments' mix of sheer likability and off-their-rocker lunacy have made these films a very particular kind of delight. They would be perfect reminders of just how much fun the action genre can be, but they're so cheerfully demented, they've sort of become a genre in and of themselves.

The seventh installment picks up right where its predecessor left off, as our group of (increasingly non-anti) anti-heroes have to deal with a deadly new foe, Deckard Shaw (the Stath!), whose deadly personal vendetta against them has already cost the life of one of their members. From there, the plot inevitably goes off in increasingly tangential directions, culminating in an espionage plot with Kurt Russell who is clearly having the time of his life here, but, frankly, who gives a damn? The plot might have a personal edge to it and Paul Walker's untimely death certainly adds a real poignancy (and occasional bitter irony) to the proceedings but the old formula of larger-than-life characters and hilariously, bodaciously demented action set pieces is still very much to the fore.

It's hard not to just list all of the film's many, many crazy moments here, as I am genuinely itching to to talk about a couple of them that made me laugh particularly hard, but suffice to say that its mix of unblinking sentimentality, riotous sense of humour and bold refusal to play by the laws of physics or believability makes Fast and Furious 7 a terrific addition to the series - and perhaps even a nice capper to the whole series or at least this era of it. And make no mistake, regardless of how many more of these films are made, there is a very real sense of finality here, as the final fifteen or so minutes of the film are an occasionally awkward but always heartfelt and genuinely moving farewell to Paul Walker.  

Unfortunately, however much I loved the vast majority of Fast and Furious 7, I do have a few reservations that prevent it from gaining an extra star or two on my rating scale. First, both the Rock and, surprisingly enough, the Stath are decidedly underused here, as the latter seldom gets the chance to be more than a faceless killing machine and the former simply isn't in it enough. This is a pity as they are easily the most charismatic members of the cast and Dwayne Johnson, in particular, is so much fun to watch in his limited role here that I did spend much of the film wishing that he, rather than Vin Diesel, was the film's main focus.

Finally, though the action scenes are as fun as ever, the hyper-kinectic cinematography and editing - though very far from the worst of its kind - was occasionally distracting, even confusing. I assume that this largely has to do with James Wan taking over from Justin Lin in the director's chair as the film uses the same cinematographer and editors as its predecessor, which suffered notably less from this problem.

Still, as far as flaws go, these are relatively minor. Fast and Furious 7 is a blast and most definitely should be seen on the big screen for the full effect. Fans should love it and, who knows, it might just win over those who aren't.

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