Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

You know, it seems as if life is formulated to plague and beleaguer us with regrets. One of mine is that I never got around to reviewing Fast & Furious 6 after I saw it in theaters in Philadelphia. In fact, I never tackled any of the Fast & Furious films. Given how this brand of "dick flick" are heralded as very polarizing and ripe with various perspectives, I'd rather not obfuscate or conceal mine. In summation, I admire them all for what they are and even for what they are not. But back to the sixth installment, I will share that the viewing experience was one of the most enthralling in my life. The whole audience was transfixed and invigorated on a level unseen by me at the time, hooting and cheering the entire duration of the film.

The salient reason I regret not reviewing Fast & Furious 6 is that I can't provide enough substantial context to justify and elucidate my following statement: Goddamn it! Goddamn you, Fast & Furious movies. Goddamn your tricky method of eradicating solid conclusions. Goddamn your brilliantly hypnotic promotion that never ceases to make me instantaneously surrender all currency I possess. And especially, goddamn your penchant for remaining a propulsive, addictive, entertaining franchise. I shall doubt thee nevermore.

The story, as if it matters, begins with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) enjoying his honeymoon with his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). However, his world is turned upside down when a secretive, ambiguous woman named Cipher (Charlize Theron, rocking a very dubious, bewildering, and sort of uncomfortable hairstyle) convinces Dom to assist her in her objective to steal both an EMF and nuclear football, all the while going against him team. When he accepts, it soon becomes Dom vs. the Furious. Or is it?

I know it's early on, but allow me to revise a prior statement, which was "the story, as if it matters..." It actually matters ever so slightly. Don't get me wrong. The film is laced with its trademark implausibilities, plot contrivances, and especially its strained, baffling lectures on morality and family. However, in the prior installments, the story was on a very rudimentary, innocuous, 13-year-old-compiling level, laying out a very lucid, step-by-step, map for the plot. Here, there's a little bit more going on. 

It actually presents their most multifaceted, intriguing storyline in the franchise. The basic set-up of betrayal and enigma heightens the stakes and the solemnity. When Dom is ensconced in Cipher, Deckerd Shaw (Jason Statham, the most recent villian in the series) is brought in to assist them. While it's not particularly innovative, the route it goes is stocked with more narrative flesh and complexities than expected. Hell, the mere fact that Letty has to deal with her husband going down a villainous trajectory is itself a wistful quandary, delivered gravely and maturely. The story fully culminates, however, with a twist revealed before the second act that is so elemental to the story that it is my obligation to not reveal it, but believe me when I say that it is the most stunning. jaw-dropping moment in the story.

When a story's conflict is fortified and elevated, it creates fodder for greater character development, which begets stronger performances from the cast. The entire cast marry their characters with the ample dosage of doughty heroism, assured guile, stalwart gravity, and audacious humor. Honestly, the majority of the cast play their pre-established roles, but to the nth degree, i.e. Tyrese's energetic comic relief, The Rock's unwavering machismo, Jason Statham's measured minatory, etc. Charlize Theron crafts one of the juiciest, most delicious villains I've seen on film in quite a while, portraying Cipher with a straightforward, calculating authority and a wicked, ferocious gleam in her eye. However, it's Vin Diesel who has shown the starkest amelioration, exhibiting a passionate pain, muddled yet desperate acumen, and a thoughtful tenderness undiscovered through his entire career until this point.

But, fuck it. Let's talk about the good stuff. Ostensibly, these action sequences were crafted by a man with a perpetual snarl and a severe teeth clench, while jacked on cocaine because visually, this film is at the apex of the franchise. If others films can pointedly punctuate their climaxes, this whole film is a climax. Highlights include a chase in Berlin that concludes with a wrecking ball demolishing a bevy of police cars, a bustling, tumultuous fight in a maximum security prison, a moment where the Furious crew has to combat a tidal wave of cars in New York, many of which are in auto-drive, and a 20-minute set piece in Russia...on ice. Every action sequence delivers with such magniloquent awe and tantalizing gusto.

In an era of such ubiquitous technology and continuous Transformers sequels (yeah, I'll be sleeping in that day), this film shows that, yes, fast, snazzy cars, booming explosions, protracted fight scenes, and endless chases can still be surprising and resplendent. It's coincidental that F. Gary Gray directed this, because in 2015, he, similarly with this film, collaborated with Caucasian screenwriters for Straight Outta Compton. With this film, he integrates the grandeur, mettle, and bold, portentous dignity of action films stereotypically marketed to white audiences with the rambunctiousness, color, and inextinguishable energy of films stereotypically marketed to black audiences. 

With this pairing, he helps further the franchise's streak of being racially unified and universal. Given how Gray's cinematic spectrum ranges from Friday and Set It Off to The Italian Job, his touch of this franchise has proven to be the most fitting. This film is a consummate popcorn flick; the most pornographic, non-pornographic film of 2017, and a film that I can proudly ennoble with the honor of being the first Fast & Furious film I've seen that ranks above three stars. Ironic, seeing how it's the first one without the presence of Paul Walker.

*nervous chuckle* R.I.P. bruh.

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Boss Baby (2017)

While observing the opening credits that reconstruct the Dreamworks logo as a baby mobile, I swiftly assessed that it was in spirit with what they are as a company now: a gimmick, a company that seems desperate to try and encroach on the zeitgeist when it has already found a comfortable spot in it naturally. I don't want to make it seem like I detest them, because I don't. However, Disney and Dreamworks are at the vanguard of the animated film enterprise and the difference between them is night and day. Disney creates with their heart, while Dreamworks creates with their head. Not to say that Disney isn't heady or clever and that Dreamworks is heartless, but their styles are unique unto themselves. 

Dreamworks' propensity for terse, one-line concepts, sassy, smart-alecky humor, and an irrepressible, ADHD-like energy allows for good films, but they seem to, for the most part, be merely to amuse. Additionally, they seem to be awfully proud of their few stand-out franchises, because their insatiable need for enduring works lead to additional franchises spawning seemingly inexplicably and prematurely. Hello Turbo, The Croods, Home, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and their ignominious sullying of my personal favorite religious cartoon of all time. Yeah, Dreamworks has, more often than not, made Netflix a very precarious, frightening place.

While I don't find Dreamworks virilent or callous by any means, I just never really find much potential with them, at least not enough to believe that they can transcend the patterns set forth by themselves, or at the very least, find a new approach to them. However, there does seem to be hope. Captain Underpants ignites the second-grade nostalgia in me with every promo. As well, Boss Baby gave me hope. Vacillating hope, which ultimately proved to be unfortunately prescient, but hell, I think it's the first time that a mediocre effort actually represents a possible sign of improvement.

The story begins with Timothy, an imaginative 7-year-old, who is perfectly content with his life with just him and his parents. However, an intruder bursts into his life: a baby brother. However, this baby has very specific eccentricities. He dons a business suit perpetually, his innocent, cherubic actions seem to have latent motives possibly linked to sabotage, and, most incredible, he can talk. He is the Boss Baby, sent to Earth to...

Hold on a second. I have to take a breath for this one because this...this is going to hurt.

*inhales* ...sent to Earth via a company called BabyCorp, where he is the manager, after being deemed unsuitable for the family lifestyle. Many babies are employed via BabyCorp, but lose these business skills and knowledge of BabyCorp as they grow older, specifically if they fail to replenish themselves with a Secret Formula that sustains their intellect. He has been sent to obtain reports on a puppy called The Forever Puppy, a puppy meant to stay young and adorable forever. BabyCorp, as well as The Boss Baby, are against this because according to their data, dogs are overtaking babies, in terms of cuteness and appeal. However, if Boss Baby fails his task, he will be forced to live the family way forever. He recruits Tim to assist him on his mission. In exchange, Tim will be rid of his new brother forever, leaving any hint of The Boss Baby untraced. However, they form a bond, as the Boss Baby questions whether or not family life may be apt for him.

Oh, the fucking agony.

I can say with no exaggeration that this has the contingency to be, quite frankly, the stupidest premise in the history of Dreamworks Animation. It's not disparaging or insultingly bad, but moreso painfully misguided. While simple on paper, it gets lost in execution. Every revelation, every surprise, every detail is at best, warmed over and at worst, ineffably asinine. I was tempted to run down a litany of films this rips off, but I will instead explain it simply. This film makes 2003's Good Boy! plausible by comparison. If you don't remember that film or are unaware, watch it and then proceed to recoil in horror from the validity of my statement. Additionally, it robs elements from, of all films, Baby Geniuses. Yeah, that whole babies acquiring copious amounts of human intellect and then suddenly losing it with age nonsense. Baby Geniuses, one of the worst talking baby products ever, did that first.
 
I tried, y'all. I tried telling myself that it was only a movie. Even with the most invasive plot holes, I can usually begrudgingly pass it off as, "Well, they needed to progress the story." However, the plot here is such an incoherent mess that plot holes stick out like a sore thumb. For example, the villain, Francis E. Francis (hardy-har-har), is the mastermind behind the Forever Puppy. He originally worked for BabyCorp, but after discovering that his body could not adequately handle the Secret Formula, he was fired and later invented the Forever Puppy out of spite and vengeance. 

Well, wait a minute. What happened to him forgetting about BabyCorp as he aged? Did his henchman have to keep reminding him? He says that he still has the formula, but it was stated that he can't drink it, so how does that work? For that matter, Boss Baby was able to transport Tim to BabyCorp via a very specific pattern whilst sucking on a pacifier. What if Boss Baby, by chance, sucked on it with the same velocity? Would he infiltrate BabyCorp? On top of that, when were dogs and babies ever dominant over another? From my perspective, the amount of cute dog media and cute infant media are basically equivalent as far as adulation goes and the admiration for dogs and babies are, yet again, on the same level. The way I see it, they can both be irritating and they both can leave shit stains on the floor.

That, in addition to another plot hole I will keep a secret, leads to another foible with the narrative. It's wrongheaded and yet so resolutely thorough. The movie expects us to take this as face value in the context of this world. The final third finishes laboriously with a lachrymose, inordinately syrupy conclusion, which tries to fake us out innumerable times in trying to get us to believe it isn't going to go the predictable route. Spoiler: they do. However, the problem with the movie's objective for us to take it seriously is that not only is there no cohesion, but there's not an ounce of realism. At the very least, it's not grounded.

With a premise like this, you can go about it one of two ways. One, you can abolish all sense of realism, which can work, or two, you can balance fantasy with veracity, which is more ideal, because it makes it more identifiable. Rugrats, for example, is the quintessential paradigm for the talking baby children's product. Not only does it have the pitch-perfect levels of eccentricity, energy, humor, and heart, it makes sure to emphasize that this is all through the perspective of a child. The babies talk, but they don't really talk, not so that it matters to adults. I never expected Boss Baby to be teeming with realism, but the filmmakers pretend that it is. 

It is limpid in this film that babies can talk behind their parents' backs, which is fine on a Toy Story level of storytelling. I can accept that, but goddamn it, two parents conceived a child that sports a tuxedo, a tie, and struts around with a briefcase, and they don't even bat an eye. The parents aren't even eccentric enough for it to be a joke that can propel itself. They're just stupid to be stupid. Hell, this world, with all of the infants' discussions about the role dogs play in the decline of admiring infants, there are barely even any dogs seen in the film. And again, the final twenty minutes are clumsy with regards to providing any sort of sturdy link between what's supposed to represent reality and what is merely blatant fantasy. And as I reiterate, the aspects that aren't confounding are trite and rote.

This focus on such a profoundly erroneous story affects the humor, as well. Don't get me wrong. It has quite a few humorous moments permeated relatively evenly. However, the film is so fixated on creating an energetic tone and being so invested in its story and so ebullient in telling it that that same energy isn't properly or consistently allocated to the humor, so what we end up with are customary infancy gags and anemic attempts at gross-out humor.

So, with my ardent, vociferous disapproval for the script (sorry to screenwriter Michael McCullers), is there anything I liked? Well, yeah. Quite a bit, actually. In fact, on my spectrum, my opinions of the script and the animation are the vastest dichotomy I can produce. While the script is basically bullshit, the animation is breathtaking. On solely animation, I'd easily find a spot for this in my Top 5 Dreamworks animated films. Excluding a few stock, uninspired character designs (particularly the villain), the main characters, specifically Tim and Boss Baby, are animated so affably. On top of that, the backgrounds, the settings, the lighting, the color palette, the bold, hallucinatory, vibrant fantasy sequences, are all at the apotheosis of Dreamworks' animation.

While I am baffled and frustrated by the script, Tim and Boss Baby are developed finely, displaying a very gentle, likable, captivating chemistry, which makes me bemoan the fact that it has found a place in such a thankless script. It also helps that their voice actors do a lot to support their roles. Baldwin, while given gauzy material, does a serviceable job as Boss Baby. As well, I was surprised by newcomer Miles Christopher Bakshi. While I don't believe he will be a breakout star, he emits so much charisma and surprising aplomb that I am definitely in support of him receiving more roles. Even Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow are sweet and good-natured as the parents.

And yes, I will give the film some credit. At the very least, while I consider the script a squandered, feckless, bleary, overstuffed, incompetent tragedy of errors, I can, at the very least, concede that there was an ambitious chutzpah behind it. That's where I see it as a bizarre step in the right direction. This film does have a trajectory that it follows. It knows where it's going. The path is broken and unreliable, but the direction is definitive. I understand that it was based on a picture book, but that's no excuse. Trust me when I say that lack of material wasn't the issue with this film. It's underwhelming in certain aspects and overwhelming in others, as well as doing each in such grandiloquent extremes. So final verdict? Average.

RATING: Two out of four stars