Reel Opinions

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Age of Adaline

Sometimes a movie can be completely implausible, yet heartfelt and engaging at the same time.  Such is the case with The Age of Adaline.  This is a movie that needs to make up its own science, as well as include an off camera Narrator to explain said science to the audience, in order for the plot to make any sort of sense.  But the characters, performances and the romance at the center of the story ground the whole idea in a kind of reality that makes the whole thing work. 

Credit the sensitive performance of Blake Lively as Adaline Bowman, a woman who was born shortly after the dawn of the 20th Century, and has not aged a day in the past 78 years.  This occurred after a freak accident which combined hypothermia and a lightning strike.  It is to Lively's credit that we focus on her performance, and not the implausibility of her character's situation.  She perfectly sells the sorrow and loneliness of a woman who has had to cut off contact with nearly everyone she loves, save her daughter (played by Ellen Burstyn, who in the present looks old enough to be her grandmother), less her secret of being eternally young and apparently immortal (she celebrates her 107th birthday early in the film) is discovered.  In some flashbacks, we witness how medical science and the government found out about her secret when her appearance did not match her age on her birth certificate.  Not wanting to be experimented on, Adaline has spent her life on the run, changing her identity and moving to a new location every 10 years.  This life of constantly moving and changing her identity has caused her much heartbreak in the past, and has prevented her from getting close to anyone. 

As the film opens, it is the tail end of 2014, and Adaline (going under the name of Jenny) is living in San Francisco and working at the local library.  She is planning to move once again in a few weeks, and start her life over again, until fate steps in.  On New Years Eve, she has an encounter with a persistent young man named Ellis (Michiel Huisman), a historical preservationist who is working on a project with the library where Adaline works.  She tries to avoid getting into a relationship with him, as she's going to be leaving this current life behind shortly.  But Ellis is charming, and there is genuine chemistry when they spend time together.  When it looks like she is actually falling for him, her daughter advises her to let go and enjoy life for the first time in over 70 years.  Adaline and Ellis begin a relationship, and it culminates with him taking her to meet his parents.  Little does Adaline realize, Ellis' father is a man whom she once loved back in the 1960s.  His name is William (Harrison Ford), and he has not forgotten her, or the time they spent together.

In the wrong hands, I can easily see how The Age of Adaline could have easily been overwrought or melodramatic, but the movie never once veers into corny theatrics.  It is low key, elegant and kind of sad, while keeping a glimmer of hope for its characters.  It sympathizes and understands what they are going through, and never tries to play up the drama too broadly.  The character of William is a perfect example of this.  Not only is Ford's performance fantastic (it's probably the best acting he's done in a long time), but the character is written in a realistic way so that we can sympathize with him.  When Adaline walks back into his life as the girlfriend of his son, William feels a range of emotions.  Yes, he has been happily married to his wife of 40 years, but he has never forgotten his time with her.  And yet, he never once tries to break things off between her and his son, nor does he try to betray his wife's trust.  He remains conflicted and confused, and when he finally confronts Adaline, telling her that he remembers who she really is, it is a beautiful and sad moment with genuine performances from both Lively and Ford.  They know they can't be together, and maybe she can't even be happy with his son.  But they approach the problem as real people would.

There is a subtlety and a sweetness to this movie that really won me over.  Everybody here is smart, likable, and never once act like pawns of an underwritten screenplay.  This is what helped me suspend my disbelief over the basic premise.  The movie is not about the weird science that has kept Adaline eternally young for over 70 years, it is about the hearts and the emotions of the characters.  The performances are gentle and likable, and the emotions they feel for each other feel genuine.  We want to see these characters happy.  We also enjoy listening to them talk, which is a good thing, since this is a very dialogue-heavy film.  There's a lot to enjoy here, from the writing, right down to the casting.  Speaking of the casting, I should single out something that impressed me, which would be when we see flashbacks of Adaline spending time with the younger William (played in flashbacks by Anthony Ingruber).  I have not noticed Mr. Ingruber before, but he bares a remarkable physical resemblance to a younger Harrison Ford, it's almost eerie.  At first I thought some kind of CG was involved, as he even kind of sounded like him.   The filmmakers did a remarkable job of casting the younger version of the character here.

The Age of Adaline is a tender and romantic film, but more than that, it is a smart movie that really works.  Eventually you stop trying to figure out the science behind Adaline's condition, just accept it, and fall in love with the characters and the performances.  This is not check your brain at the door entertainment, rather it's a movie that requires you to take a mental leap of faith, and then rewards you with some great characters in a very sweet love story.

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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2

When I reviewed the original Paul Blart movie six years ago, I wasn't a fan, but I found it harmless, and bent over backwards in order to be kind to it.  Looking back over my review, I see words like "likable", "sympathetic", "gentle" and "goofy" used to describe it.  None of these words will be seen in my review of Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, which is a soulless and lazy retread of the first film.

Here is Kevin James back again as the titular mall cop, although at some point between the two movies, the character changed from being a clumsy goofball into a mopey sadsack who is obsessed with protecting his teenage daughter (Raini Rodriguez).  As the film opens, we learn that his love interest from the first movie whom he married at the end of that film left him only six days later.  Not only that, but his kindly and sweet mother was struck and killed by a speeding milk truck while collecting the morning paper.  And yes, we are supposed to laugh at this.  Blart's depression over these events has led him to be overly protective and clingy toward his daughter, Maya.  Speaking of Maya, she's been accepted to UCLA, but she doesn't know how to tell her dad, who thinks she wants to stay home and attend a local tech college. 

Around this time, Paul is invited to a mall cop convention that's being held at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas.  He arrives under the mistaken impression that he will be a keynote speaker.  This is the first of many embarrassments that will befall Blart during his time in Vegas.  Some other incidents include him getting in a prolonged and unfunny fight with a peacock with attitude, hijacking a Cirque du Soleil-style performance where he winds up knocking out half the cast with his clumsiness, and pretty much falling over or running into anything that isn't nailed down to the floor.  As for the plot, it's exactly the same as before, only in a different location.  A group of thieves plan a heist of the Wynn's priceless art collection, kidnap his daughter in the process, and Blart must stand alone against them.  Unlike the first film, which had a sort of admirable underdog quality to it, here Blart just comes across as an obnoxious buffoon who doesn't even come across as any sort of hero we can get behind.

There were many moments in Paul Blart 2 where I found myself asking just what the joke was supposed to be.  One example - There is a scene where Paul questions a man, and the man for no reason starts eating a black and moldy banana while Paul talks to him.  Are we supposed to be laughing at this?  Why is this funny?  I stared at the screen dumbfounded, and listened for anyone else in the theater who may be laughing, but heard none.  I did, however, hear some big laughs around me during a scene when Blart runs face first into a glass door, so they obviously found more enjoyment out of the film than I did, as I must report I did not laugh or smile once.  This is a stupefyingly dumb comedy where every joke and pratfall lands with a deadly thud.  It takes what little charms I found in the first movie, and tramples them into the ground with forced or repeated shtick. 

Were it not for the abysmal Hot Tub Time Machine 2, this would rank as one of the most uncomfortable sequels I've sat through in a while.  Every scene seemed to contain a new reason for me to hate the film.  I hated the way that Blart talks down to and basically insults the intelligence of the lovely hotel manager (Daniella Alonso), which somehow makes her fall in love with him.  I hated the total lack of heart or emotion this movie held for its characters, turning everyone who walks on screen into a mindless simpleton.  I hated the numerous clumsy gags that have no payoff or went nowhere.  But most of all, I hated the very idea that director Adam Fickman (You Again) creates such a sluggish and lethargic atmosphere that he generates unease instead of laughs.

Paul Blart 2 obviously only exists because the first one was a surprise hit at the box office.  Even then, everyone involved with this should have second guessed this script before it went before the cameras.  This is a mean-spirited and sloppy continuation of an idea that probably should have been limited to one film in the first place.

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Friday, April 17, 2015


Levan Gabriadze's Unfriended is essentially a hi-tech and effective variant of the kind of movie Roger Ebert used to like to call a "dead teenager movie".  Those are the kind of horror movies that starts with a bunch of teenagers being alive, and then ends with all of them being dead.  The movie sets itself apart from the norm by being set entirely on the Internet, and filmed with Skype cameras.  The movie is authentic in its depiction of chat rooms, both video and message, and creates a certain tense atmosphere as it builds.

The character types have not changed much from the "dead teenager movies" of the past.  We have the nice girl Blaire (Shelley Hennig), the boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), the blonde Jess (Renee Olstead), the overweight and obnoxious Ken (Jacob Wysocki), the best friend Adam (Will Peltz), and finally Val (Courtney Halverson), the catty girl that everyone pretends to like, but talks behind her back.  The friends are video chatting with each other, when a mysterious and unidentified person joins in on the chat.  The friends trace the account to Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), a classmate and former friend of Blaire's who killed herself one year ago after an embarrassing video of her being drunk at a party showed up on line, and she was shunned by everyone.  The friends initially brush it off as a glitch or a computer error, but the mysterious account cannot be blocked or removed from the conversation.

That's when the mysterious account starts joining in the chat, and begins threatening the friends.  It begins exposing their individual secrets through text messages, videos and images that are sent to the individual kids.  They also learn that whoever is doing this is also somehow watching them, and manipulating their environment. (Their lights suddenly turn off at random.) During the course of the night, sexual and embarrassing secrets about the individual kids are revealed, and they start turning up dead one by one, apparently by suicide.  The movie suggests that Laura's spirit is somehow taking vengeance on these kids who either mistreated her, or mocked her in the past.  The cast is slowly depleted in various ways, but the movie never fails to keep a dark sense of humor in tact, such as when the song "How You Lie, Lie, Lie" by Connie Conway begins playing from the kids' computers when the mysterious entity is forcing the kids to reveal their darkest secrets.

Unfriended is the rare found footage film that works, because it understands the technology that it's using to tell the story.  This isn't one of those movies where computers are doing impossible things.  One of the clever ways that the movie manages to build suspense to have the cameras lag or break up from time to time, so we can tell that something horrible is happening to one of the chatters, but we only see pieces of it.  What we do see (a kid sticking their hand in a blender under the influence of the evil spirit, or another putting a gun to their head) creates enough shock value, and the movie is smart to show just enough, but not overdo it.  The fact that we can't see everything, and the Internet camera will suddenly black out at a key moment actually makes it somewhat more suspenseful.  And as the kids slowly turn against each other in order to keep each other alive, it creates a realistic sense of what these characters would do in a desperate situation.

What Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves understand is that the unknown is scarier than something that is overly explained.  We get the basic idea that the spirit of this dead teenage girl is messaging her former friends from beyond the grave, and is even possessing them to kill themselves in gruesome ways.  The movie is smart enough to never actually explain how this is happening.  It does at least give us an answer to the obvious question - Why don't the kids just sign off?  The answer: The spirit of Laura threatens to kill them if they do.  It's not a perfect answer, but it works well enough within the context of the film.  This is not a deep or a complex film, but it's effective at what it wants to do.  We laugh, we jump a little, and it's fun to watch it in a crowded theater that's really getting into it.  I doubt this movie would work any other way.  In other words, it's almost certain to lose something on DVD.

Unfriended is clever in the way it uses things we use everyday like Facebook, jpegs, and Youtube, and makes it seem threatening.  That's really what makes the film successful, is how it taps into our normal lives, and puts a sinister spin on it.  I highly doubt anyone will be ripping their computers out after watching this, but it may make them pause a little when they get an e-mail from someone they don't recognize.

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Harvest

John McNaughton's The Harvest starts out as a human drama about two lonely children who meet, and help each other to come out of their shells.  One is a sickly young boy who seldom leaves his house, and spends most of his time looking out his bedroom window.  The other is a girl the same age as him, who has just moved to town and has no friends.  As the two bond, some darker layers of the story and the boy's home are unraveled, and the film subtly yet effortlessly switches to an effective psychological thriller.

The sick young boy is Andy (Charlie Tahan).  He is mostly bound to his wheelchair or bedridden, and often dreams of being strong enough to go outside and play, or perhaps go to school like other kids. (He is home-schooled by his mother.) The girl, Maryann (Natasha Calis), has just moved to town after the death of her parents.  She is living with her grandparents (Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles), and is not thrilled about her new school or the kids there.  While out exploring her new neighborhood, she comes upon Andy's house, and takes an interest in the boy when she peers inside his bedroom window.  She invites herself in by opening his window, and introduces herself.  The two bond over talk of baseball and video games, and before long, they are best friends.  Andy's mom, Katherine (Samantha Morton) walks in on them, and is surprised to see her son with this girl.  Surprised, and perhaps even a bit suspicious.  Maybe angry.  We can't put our finger on it, but something is off.

Katherine is overly protective of her son, and she seems determined to shield him from every aspect of the outside world, except for the few select things that she allows Andy to be exposed to.  She fears that Andy's illness is getting worse, and he is close to dying.  Katherine's husband, Richard (Michael Shannon), seems to be long-suffering the moment we lay eyes on him.  He quit his job as a nurse so that he could look after their son 24-7, except when he goes on errands to get more life-saving medication for the boy.  He meets an old friend, a woman, in order to pick up the medication, and there are hints of an affair.  Katherine and Richard's marriage is clearly hanging by a thread, but they hold on for Andy's sake.  They don't argue in front of him.  But now, Maryann has arrived, and she keeps on coming to visit Andy every day.  Richard is fine with this, and happy that their son finally has someone to talk to.  But Katherine almost seems to view the girl as a threat that needs to be dealt with.

Through plot details too complicated to summarize, Maryann finds herself trapped in the house during one of her secret visits to Andy, and is forced to duck in the basement when Katherine comes home unexpectedly.  It's at this point when Maryann discovers what Andy's parents are doing in the basement that the movie switches gears from a drama about a broken family, to a disturbing thriller that puts the parents, especially Katherine, in a completely different light.  I'm not going to spoil what's down there, but it's an effective and surprising shock that I did not see coming.  The Harvest has spent the past hour being a quiet and character-driven piece that this discovery not only changes our view of the characters, but also the entire tone of the film itself.  And while it is not quite perfect (I had an issue with how determined Maryann's grandparents were about not believing her, or even refusing to listen to her or let her speak when she tries to tell them what she saw.), it still manages to create some genuine tension.

In order for a small and intimate thriller such as this to succeed, the performances have to be believable, and this is fortunately the case here.  The two young actors in the lead roles are likable, and create a believable friendship.  They talk and act like real kids, and even when the plot goes into thriller territory, they never come across like tiny adults.  They are frightened, and not quite sure how to deal with the truth.  As Andy's parents, Samantha Morton could have easily hammed up her performance and gone into total "Mommy Dearest" mode, and while she's not exactly subtle, she doesn't go so far over the top that she oversells it.  The best performance in the film belongs to Michael Shannon, though.  He gets the best role, as his Richard is conflicted between staying by his wife's side, and giving his son a chance to live a normal life where he's not constantly under their thumb.  His performance is a mixture of tragedy and terror, and he does a great job of letting his character's pain and confusion across, even when he doesn't have any dialogue. 

The Harvest was actually finished back in 2013, and has been playing the film festival circuit the past couple years and building word of mouth.  It's now being released in an extremely small theatrical release, but it can be downloaded through Video On Demand.  If you're in the mood for a quiet thriller that gradually builds, it's worth seeking out.  For anyone who has suffered through such recent mainstream attempts at thrillers like Ouija or The Lazarus Effect, this should prove a decent antidote.

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Longest Ride

Considering how fast these movies based on Nicholas Sparks' books are coming out (the last one was a mere six months ago), I think it's safe to say that Sparks is to Hollywood today what Stephen King was to Hollywood back in the 80s and early 90s.  While the two authors couldn't be more different in their style and storytelling (Sparks is a hopeless romantic who mainly deals with melodrama, while King usually dabbles in the supernatural), they both have an installed fanbase, as well as follow a pretty rigid formula.

The latest Sparks novel to hit the screen, The Longest Ride, is probably the best adaptation of his work since The Notebook.  It's certainly one of the more watchable recent efforts.  The key to the film's success is to toss aside some of the unfortunate elements that have become regular tropes in a Sparks story, like over the top melodrama, contrived tear-jerking moments built around someone dying (usually cancer), evil rednecks who look and act like rejects from a Texas Chainsaw Massacre family reunion, and unnecessary side characters who are trying to keep the central lovers apart because they come from different worlds.  Mind you, some of these elements like the evil rednecks are still present, but they don't play as prominent of a role.  And somebody does die, but it's not of cancer for a change.  And when trouble does show up in the relationship of the two young lovers, it's their own decision to end things, not the result of outside manipulation. 

This is a simple and sweet love story, more precisely, two simple and sweet love stories.  Yes, both are relentlessly cornball as you would expect, but I didn't mind so much this time around, because I didn't feel so jerked around by the screenplay.  The two love stories take place in the present, and in the 1940s and 50s, respectively.  In the present, we have Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson), a straight-laced Sorority girl who is finishing up her last year of college, and has already lined up an internship at a New York art gallery after she graduates.  Then her best friend decides to take her to a local bull riding event, where she meets the handsome and rugged Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood, son of Clint).   Luke is the embodiment of old fashioned Southern hospitality and manly charms.  When one of Sophia's Sorority sisters lays eyes on him, she swoons "I want a cowboy, too".  Sophia and Luke hit it off instantly, and love seems almost certain.

But of course, she's got that job in New York coming up, and he's a born and raised cowboy who lives for riding bulls and the wide open spaces.  How are they going to make this work?  They decide to try their luck anyway, and begin dating.  While driving home together one night, they happen upon a car accident, where they rescue an old man named Ira Levinson (Alan Alda) and a mysterious box he had in his possession from the flaming car.  At the hospital, Sophia builds a friendship with Ira, and learns that the box is full of old letters that he wrote to a woman he once loved named Ruth.  Judging by the number of letters that are stuffed in there, he must have been writing her every week for a good number of years.  As Sophia reads the letters, this brings us to our second love story, as we witness in flashbacks how a younger Ira (Jack Huston) meets the lovely Ruth (Oona Chaplin) and dreams of marrying her and building a family.  When Ira was sent out to fight in World War II, he was wounded, which prevented him from ever having children.  They married anyway after he returned home, and their story follows their efforts to create a life together.

The Longest Ride is fairly laid back for a love story, and especially for one based on a Nicholas Sparks book.  It's simply about two different couples in different time periods, and lessons being passed down from both.  I appreciated that the movie doesn't waste time in introducing outside characters who are against the lovers being together, like we so often see.  The characters here are a little bit more human, make mistakes, and come across as being quite likable.  This is mostly due to some good chemistry between the two main couples in the separate storylines.  Robertson and Eastwood have a certain knowing sense of humor with each other.  They're sweet, but not sappy, and aren't afraid to poke fun at each other.  Yeah, the problems they face are pretty much predetermined by the plot (Will Sophia choose the big city life, or stay with the man she loves?), but the movie doesn't play up this problem as much as you would think, and the ending actually comes up with a somewhat surprising way of solving the central problem to their relationship.

The other couple the movie focuses on, Ira and Ruth, seem a bit underdeveloped, but are still likable thanks to the strong performances by Huston and Chaplin.  They give the characters more life than the script probably provided.  Their nostalgic love story is sweet and good natured, and we buy them as a couple, again mostly due to the performances and the chemistry they share.  As the older Ira, Alan Alda more or less serves as another Nicholas Sparks character type, the wise old elder who passes down advice to the younger couple.  Still, he fills the role well, and gets off some dry sarcastic wit that made me chuckle from time to time.  He may be playing a standard character type, but at least he doesn't act like he is, and injects as much life as he can into his performance.

I was pleasantly surprised by the way that The Longest Ride made me care about the characters.  I liked seeing them together, and wanted them to be happy.  That is ultimately the goal of any romantic drama, and this one succeeds by focusing solely on the characters, and not on a lot of unnecessary outside melodrama.  The movie is far from perfect, but it works well enough for me to like it more than I expected.

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Saturday, April 04, 2015

It Follows

It's never been a good idea to have sex in a horror movie.  Now here is It Follows, a slow burn thriller built around an ingenious hook.  The film's monster is something that appears invisible to everyone except its intended victim.  It can also assume any form it desires to get close to its victim.  Big deal, you say.  What's the catch?  The creature is passed along sexually, so to speak.  It stalks a person until that person has sex with somebody else, and then the creature turns its sights to the person who has just been made love to.

Of course, we don't know this right from the start.  In the film's opening scene, a young girl runs from her house panicked about something that seems to be pursuing her, but we can't see.  She drives to a beach, and makes a tearful final phone call to her parents, telling them she loves them.  All the while, the camera is focused on something that the girl can see, but again, we cannot.  The next time we see her, it is morning, and her lifeless body is now snapped and mangled by whatever it was she was running from the night before.  After that attention-grabbing set up, we're introduced to our heroine Jay (Maika Monroe), a 19-year-old girl who has recently hooked up with a local boy named Hugh (Jake Weary).  They go on a date, and Hugh seems to be acting weird.  While in a movie theater, he claims to see a woman dressed in yellow that Jay can't see.  Hugh immediately becomes nervous, and asks to leave.

They have a second date, which starts out a little better, with them making love in the backseat of Hugh's car.  As Jay enjoys the bliss of her sexual encounter, it is suddenly cut short when Hugh unexpectedly chloroforms her.  When Jay comes to, she finds herself shackled to a chair in an abandoned building, with Hugh standing before her to explain the situation.  A monster that only he can see and assume any form has been following him ever since he had sex with a girl.  Now he has passed it on to Jay.  The rules are simple.  The monster will pursue its target until it is dead.  Once the target is dead, it goes back to following after the previous person.  The only way for Jay to survive is to pass the curse on to someone else the same way Hugh did.  Jay obviously doesn't know how to deal with this situation, and Hugh skips town, so he can't help.  Before she knows it, she starts to see "it" everywhere she goes, which can take the form of anything from an elderly lady in a hospital gown walking across the school ground to her classroom, or a teenage girl who has broken into her house.

It Follows has the spirit of a late 70s/early 80s teen thriller.  In fact, I thought that was supposed to be the era the story was set in, judging by the old fashioned TVs and furniture seen in the characters' homes.  And yet, there are points where the characters use cell phones, so maybe writer-director David Robert Mitchell is only going for a stylistic tribute, instead of actually setting the story in a particular time frame.  As Jay and her teenage friends try to first track down Hugh, and then try to find more information on the creature, the movie builds suspense in a slow but deliberate manner.  Those accustomed to the quick cuts and jump scares of modern horror probably will find the pace of this movie maddening.  And yet, that's all part of Mitchell's plan with the film.  Some of the creepiest moments stem from the fact that Jay and the audience can see "it", but no one else can.  In one scene, they are sitting and having a conversation, and we can see someone approaching them from the distance the entire time.  The fact that the movie does not use any music cues or draws our attention to this is for the better.

The movie owes a great debt to John Carpenter's Halloween, both in its heavily synthesized score, and in the way its monster walks slowly but relentlessly toward its victim, never stopping for anything.  While the movie never quite reaches the heights that Carpenter's classic did, it at least doesn't come across as a rip off, and it knows how to create some successful tension of its own.  It's actually the unrelenting sense of tension that makes the film successful.  Even if nothing is happening, we know that the threat to Jay is out there.  The movie also never lets up.  Aside from a very rare light moment or two, it never wavers from the idea that Jay's life is in danger, and no one can help her from this supernatural entity.  This very idea is scarier than just about any boogeyman that has hit the screen recently.

No, It Follows is not perfect, as I think it could have been scarier.  It's good at building tension, but the payoffs could be better.  Plus, I was personally more disturbed by The Babadook.  Still, this doesn't take away the fact that this is a tense and mostly successful thriller that doesn't rely on gore or cheap jump scares for excitement.  It might be too old fashioned for some, but that's kind of special when a modern day filmmaker doesn't use modern horror techniques, and instead draws on the successes of the past, while still adding his own voice to the material.

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Friday, April 03, 2015

Furious 7

Almost all movies require the audience to throw logic out the window in some way, shape or form.  That's what makes movies fun to watch.  Furious 7, the latest in the long-running The Fast and the Furious franchise, is so illogical it borders on stupidity.  It features cars doing things cars can't do, being driven by people doing things that people can't do.  If I must be honest, the movie is well made, with good special effects.  But by about the one hour mark, I realized that all I had been watching were well done special effects, and that the movie wasn't going to try to make me care about anything else.

Before I go much further, let's address the elephant in the room - Namely the film's star, Paul Walker, and how the movie handles the fact that he died in the middle of shooting in November 2013.  The film is surprisingly respectful in how it handles the situation.  Using a combination of filmed footage, CG, and a body double (who is actually Walker's brother), the movie creates a surprisingly believable illusion that the actor was there throughout the entire film.  Yeah, there are a couple moments where you can tell that they are using the stand-in, but the CG and use of a body double are amazingly smooth, and never seem awkward.  The movie even gives Walker's character a nice little sentimental send off at the end, which might put a lump in the throat of those who follow the series.  It's probably the best way the filmmakers could have handled the difficult unexpected situation they were given, and I commend them.

Now let's talk about the movie itself, and good gravy, where do I even begin?  Apparently no longer content to just have cars driving recklessly down the streets at insane speed, in this movie, we gets cars skydiving out of airplanes, leaping in-between high-rise buildings, flying off of cliffs, and even intercepting an attack helicopter that some terrorists are using to attack the streets of L.A.  Naturally, the people behind the wheels of these cars are never once shown hurt or even showing physical pain.  In one scene, one of the main characters, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) drives his car off a cliff in order to escape some gunmen.  We see the car flip and smash all the way down the side of a cliff, and land in a crushed heap at the bottom.  And yet, both Dominic and his passenger step out of the vehicle, not the slightest bit rattled or injured.  In a later scene, Dominic is struck in the face with a metal pipe during a fight, and he immediately gets right back up without missing a beat.

Am I missing something here?  Unless Dominic has somehow been replaced with an indestructible cyborg replica between sequels, this should not be happening.  I know that in a lot of action movies, the heroes usually seem invincible or incredibly lucky, but this movie takes it to ridiculous extremes.  The heroes here get in gunfights, kung fu fights, flip their cars over a couple dozen times, and throw their bodies off of high ledges, and the very next scene, they're posing on a beach like models in a music video.  In fact, there are a lot of scenes in this movie that seem to exist to simply show off how attractive its cast is.  Outside of the action scenes, the actors are required to do as little as possible.  They recite the bare minimum of dialogue to set up the next ludicrous set piece, pose and show off their bodies, and then climb inside their next vehicle that probably won't survive the upcoming action sequence.

If I haven't talked about the plot yet, that's because it doesn't matter.  The bad guy this time around is Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who is the older brother of one of the villains Dominic and his gang of hot rod outlaws defeated in an earlier movie.  Deckard wants revenge, though his exact means for revenge are unclear.  He simply shows up without warning, shoots at the heroes, then disappears.  He does this throughout the movie, until it is time for his final showdown with Dominic.  In a subplot, Dominic is approached by a government agent who calls himself Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell).  He wants Dominic's help in rescuing a pretty young computer hacker (Nathalie Emmanuel), who has a device that they can use to help track down Shaw.  But wait a minute, since Shaw keeps on showing up wherever Dominic and his pals happen to be (Abu Dhabi, Tokyo, L.A.), why do they need the device to track him down in the first place? 

Whenever an action movie emphasizes action and special effects over being coherent, I usually find myself comparing the film to a mindless video game.  Not so here.  Furious 7 doesn't so much resemble a video game, as it does a movie trailer that runs for almost two and a half hours.  You could take any two minutes out of this movie, and make a trailer out of it.  The film is constructed entirely out of major action scenes that have been edited with such rapid precision by director James Wan (The Conjuring), it's almost too fast for the mind to comprehend.  I'm used to action movies being edited to the point that we only get a brief glimpse of what's going on, and while this isn't the worst editing I have seen (that honor still belongs to 2013's Getaway with Ethan Hawke), it still seems overstuffed.  But then, this is a movie that manages to throw a break in at a penthouse, a martial arts catfight, and a car driving through three different buildings all in one sequence.  Overstuffed is kind of an understatement when it comes to this.

There's no doubt in my mind that Furious 7 will be a smash at the box office.  It already has a built in audience, and there will be the people who will be curious to see Paul Walker's last starring role.  And you know what?  I think those people will get what they're looking for.  This movie wasn't made for me.  I realize that.  This was made for the loyal fans who have stuck with this series for so long.  They most likely won't mind the fact that the action sequences make your average superhero movie seem plausible, or the fact that there's little to no plot.  They'll just want to see the fast cars doing crazy stuff, and the attractive actors.  If that's all you want from this movie, you'll enjoy this.  This review is being written from the point of view of someone who has seen the entire series, has even enjoyed some of the entries, but overall never really has gotten fully behind it.  If you want to read a review from a fan (which you're sure to agree with more), there's probably a dozen of them on the Internet.  You'll probably agree with them, too.

Furious 7 is a movie that wants you to check your brain at the door, but I think it asks to check more of your brain than I was willing to give up to enjoy it.  I've been able to enjoy many ludicrous and silly action films, but this one kept me at a distance.  I found this movie too stupid to be fun, but I can also see it being a guilty pleasure for someone else. 

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