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2 ½ (out of 4)
It only took nine successively dumber movies for the Fast and Furious franchise to eventually realize just how stupid it actually is. Even with the most rudimentary skeleton of a plot, a heavy injection of cheekiness and a competent man of action behind the camera in director David Leitch, somehow the seemly spin-off Hobbs & Shaw fails to outshine the best of the adjacent films like it seemed properly primed and poised to.
Not that this flick isn't immediately superior to a majority of the rest of the macho, metal-minded affairs. The simple onscreen marriage of The Rock and Jason Statham – the antagonistic furrowed brows of parts 5 and 7 respectively before each antagonist became an ally – adds up to more chemistry, allure, likability, what have you than any cast led by Vin Diesel. Statham doesn't extend beyond his Transporter gruffness and The Rock just plays himself as always, but their personalities properly suit the marginally sillier material. Idris Elba deserves better than his stock villain role but the esteemed actor has some appreciable fun as our bionic baddie. Leitch, the tactician behind Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2 and part of the original John Wick, implements at least some kind of cinematographic gravitas akin to Justin Lin's (The Conjuring, Aquaman) series-best direction in Furious 7.
And the right turn into broad laughs – not just tired quips via Tyrese Gibson – should have happened ages ago. Remember when the crux of The Fate of the Furious just two years ago was Charlize Theron threatening to murder a baby? Johnson and Statham's over-the-top personas bring about enjoyable repartee but the indication to laugh is spelled out a little too clearly given prominent supporting roles for Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Hart to ad-lib it up. The lighthearted direction also follows less trodden paths by reducing the fetishization of the major female players (mostly Vanessa Kirby, not the only element reminiscent of Mission: Impossible – Fallout). All I'm saying is there’s only one obligatory ass shot – the times really are a-changin'.
Still, at over two hours – the runtimes of these movie have ballooned just as fast and furiously as the budgets and 'splosions – you couldn’t have indulged in more paint-by-numbers action plotting. This "presentation" sports so many genre clichés (a mad scientist, a deadly virus McGuffin, world ending stakes, evil corporations, twisted bad guy logic and monologues) you might get whiplash. Now, having binged every Fast & Furious movie in one week awhile back, recalling the finer narrative facets of any of them would be too impossible even for Ethan Hunt. But there'd be no reason to whine about a braindead story if the action icing on top of this cardboard cake was considerably worth licking off.
Sadly, apart from a few seconds of practical exhilaration scattered throughout, Leitch’s proficiency in superbly arranged stunts and standoffs is all but lost amidst the numbing stubbornness of quick-cutting and 200 million dollars of VFX. When there is something worth mouthing “wow” for, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw usually feels the need to spoil it with gratuitous slow motion. Still, within a relative scale in quality that almost forces you to call crap palatable, on charm alone the film becomes part of the upper crust of a rather barrel-bottom-tier media property.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Quentin Tarantino has managed to sustain the novelty of his immediate success rather flawlessly. His filmography really only diminishes in quality based on individual taste and how you feel about Tarantino's exceptional ability to tread the middle ground between high and low-brow filmmaking. The man's reputation long precedes him by now – the inexhaustible penchant for graphic violence, the ear for the musicality of film dialogue, the sheer number of female feet and so forth. Tarantino is a sort of perpetual wunderkind, informed by a multitude of cinematic obsessions and nonetheless a stalwart original all the same.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood broadens the scope of his controlled catalogue and helps make the case that despite his last film The Hateful Eight forming the lowest rung on the ladder of his career, Tarantino's historical revisionist trilogy (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and now this) are on par with his most laudable work. His latest doesn’t quite attain the momentary high highs of Basterds' scrupulous tension or deftly merge genres like Django’s fearlessly satirical Blaxploitation/Spaghetti Western hybrid. Once is Tarantino’s most restrained, sophisticated and sweepingly subtextual film in years, and already destined to age finer than anything he’s composed in a long time.
For as indulgent as Tarantino is (really? Tarantino? Indulgent?) with the runtime and the restlessly breathable pacing, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood saves its darkest gratifications for an ending at once marvelously tasteless – like some of his best bloodbath finales, though it's no Crazy 88 massacre from Kill Bill: Volume 1 – and in touch with the purpose of movies. In making a mockery of Manson's murderous followers, he's able to retroactively alter the evil and immorality of the world by creating an idyllic and hopeful antidote, not unlike killing Hitler and exacting retribution upon slavers. Of course the director’s insensitive sensibilities spawn new detractors at every turn (he got away Django guys, he’s going to get away with anything) but any fresh semblance of misogyny or racism is clearly satirical, and any naysayers are probably projecting their values against a radically different period in hope of contradiction. This epic tinsel town fairy tale abides only by well-considered scripting and the intrepid auteur's childhood idea of the era.
Which means the lens with which Tarantino sees late '60s Hollywood is intensely nostalgic if still unusually authentic. Neither Charlie nor Sharon Tate is key to the sprawling, era-capping chronicle. Splendid as Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Tate is, the moviemaking reality here is obviously obfuscated by Tarantino’s ageless playfulness, and the inserted fiction shuffling around the events of 1969 is in sharper focus. The fictitious Western actor Rick Dalton (played to pure excellence by Leonardo DiCaprio), his equally fictitious stuntman Cliff Booth (a perfectly pitched Brad Pitt) and the steady wane of their respective careers form a tragicomic snapshot of the seemingly copious possibilities Hollywood, and popular culture at large, appeared to offer through the 20th century's most culturally prosperous decade.
It’s not exactly worthy of Sergio Leone’s titular legacy and yet, my god, Tarantino's ninth feature is in the same ballpark, which is no small feat. Everyone should witness the sublimity of Once Upon a Time in the West unless you, like Rick Dalton, believe Italian Westerns to be awful. As much as Brad Pitt anchors the film in classic, studied cool and an everyman fantasy only he could provide, Leo is the one turning out perhaps the peak performance of his career (up there with The Wolf of Wall Street and The Aviator). In terms of sheer virtuosity, especially backed by Tarantino's ability to harness Leo's larger than life, 120% persona, you end up with a faultless dramatic display and priceless performances within performances – DiCaprio's really exquisite here.
Tarantino's myriad influences have always been plainly conspicuous but while he's never made a fool of himself in relying so dearly on homage, it's sad that his seasoned skills will likely be with us for only one more film, if he sticks to his word and ends his career with ten features to his name. It's wise to quit while you're ahead but Tarantino's singular style of post-modernist, hyper-escapist, cinematic history potpourri still feels like a taste of a Brand New Wave after more than 25 years in the racket. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may come across underwhelming side by side with his most unshackled, exaggerated works but it's yet another Tarantino film worth carefully dissecting, gleefully quoting and lackadaisically living in, only this time you can feel reasonably less ashamed.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Ari Aster effortlessly entered horror's ongoing revival with last year’s Hereditary but he swiftly secures his name as one worth remembering in his gonzo follow-up a mere thirteen months later. Swapping out demons and mental illness for culture shock, PTSD and ancient perversions, Midsommar is a real doozy.
Grandly composed yet atmospherically insular, Aster ignores the safeness of the supernatural to take a classically inspired look at the most macabre facets of human nature – grief, resentment, temptation and betrayal. The commitment to measured realism naturally informs the irresistible slasher setup with grace and patience while invoking copious genre thrills. Aster sows together break-up subject matter with once-a-generation Swedish folk festivals, finding advantageous ways to thread together the setting, mythos and themes without sacrificing verisimilitude at the altar.
With strong subtext coursing through its scarce plot, the narrative overambition noted in Hereditary is channeled into a discreetly organized summer vacation from hell, packing its own punch of internal panic while justifying the evolution of its enticingly psychotic premise every creeping step through. Reminiscent of seminal excerpts in film history (the sinuous trickery of The Shining, the patient escalation of Rosemary’s Baby and of course the cult crazies of The Wicker Man), Aster reverts today's tastes craving more spookhouse hogwash to create a vivid psychological horror epic abundant in dauntlessness.
Tonally Aster has achieved something so delicately bizarre it becomes difficult to resist laughing along with the absurdity just as surely as we wince at the freakiest turns. Midsommar is so strangely funny – thanks Will Poulter – even its most jaw-droppingly grotesque moments may have you guffawing simultaneously. It’s a risky spatial and emotional balance to strike – this could have so plainly been parody in lesser hands.
Though the band of characters are function-only, they're developed enough that the typical frustration as a powerless horror movie audience member doesn't impede captivation. Partaking in the Kool-Aid and going with the flow bring you two tripping sequences so eerie in their own subtlety and thematic employment they stand apart as their own separate bookends of scariness. The lure of spiritual rebirth only to find death awaiting you with a warm smile on its face is its own warped brand of creepy.
Like anything so initially inviting, Midsommar doesn’t entirely deliver on every promise of its foregone potential but it arrives damn close. Hereditary had something special going until it wet the bed in the home stretch. Aster aims past the risers here and comes out far more unscathed than his debut.
2 (out of 4)
Well it appears the Marvel/Spidey mashup has officially hit the brink of diminishing returns. With Spider-Man (the character and Tom Holland) trapped like a cute kid in a nasty divorce, Sony and Disney's bickering and bartering over the rights appears to have finally settled down. After losing the webslinger for about a month or so, Disney reclaims Spidey as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – though, in that leg of limbo the Disney executives pretended they actually did everything they planned to with Spider-Man concluding with Far From Home. The Mouse can't help but affect the movie's themselves with their backstage wheeling and dealing, but even viewed as just a comic book movie, Far From Home is Marvel at its most conventional and monotonous.
After Endgame left nothing beyond Thor and Guardians adventures to forecast post-Phase 3 – at least until Comic-Con reminded us, inevitably, that nothing about this franchise is ending whatsoever – Far From Home approaches the cinematic situation with even less. Spidey's second subtitled affair doesn't come close to sufficiently serving as the soothing comedown to the biggest theatrical release of all time. Some impressive aspects notwithstanding, this Marvel "vacation" proves just why the long running and recycling series will never match the pure evocative earnestness of Sam Raimi’s original trilogy, let alone the better parts of the MCU.
The most bothersome blemish of Disney's two featureless Spider-Man films is the fact that the insanely iconic hero just isn't trusted to be the star of his own show. The boilerplate themes of Far From Home are even more frustrating than they were in Homecoming, particularly because they haven't changed at all. Peter Parker must once again strive to live up to Tony Stark’s precedent (now in death rather than the flesh), but the responsibility-shrugging struggles were lame the first time and RDJ's shadow looms all too imposingly and unnecessarily – it's a flagrantly unmasked repeat of stale ideas.
Tom Holland has been a dependable age-appropriate Spider-Man and Jake Gyllenhaal continues Marvel’s late-period streak of strong antagonists as Mysterio who, granted, may be one of the finest villains of the series. The underplayed teen romance is surprisingly sweet, although I do not respect Zendaya as an acting talent, or as any talent really. The third act gets things moving but by then the series has been slightly retconned and you’re being frequently reminded of a bad take on The Incredibles. Gyllenhaal's perfect casting as a nerd favorite has to be cathartic for some but still, whatever righteous reinvention Homecoming offered with our central characters, Far From Home has scrubbed off most of the residual charm. The movie wants to be a relaxing summer tonic following a far more eventful, emotional heavy hitter a la Ant-Man rearing Age of Ultron (or their respective sequels three years later) but the hype is all exhausted and any exaltation at new CG effects and freshly stale quips is long expired.
Furthering the John Hughes imitations and those pesky recurring jokes – best friend Ned's fling, Jon Favreau's Happy's infatuation with Marisa Tomei's Aunt May (haha isn’t she HOT?) – does not assist the amusement but deflate it. Never has the classic MCU “comedy” been so strained, the action literally been more artificial and the sense of wonderment and heroism been so dampened by the overwhelming serialization and minimal digestion between installments. This is the fourth time Spider-Man has played a key role in an MCU film, once per year since 2016 – it just makes Far From Home, especially as a farewell to the relatively grand, if overlong Phase 3, the antithesis of amazing.
Until J K Simmons reappears in a rare, actually worthwhile post-credits stinger (sadly more enjoyable than the entire preceding movie), Far From Home offers few particulars of enjoyment other than some psychedelic Spidey-screensavers via Mysterio's anticipated trickery and high school hipster courtship. There are no puzzle pieces left to put together and the forward motion of the most momentous Hollywood endeavor ever is suddenly glacial. As a mere passable dessert following Endgame's purposeful overindulgence, Far From Home purposely seeks to evade routine and ends up one of Marvel's most formulaic efforts.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
The Current War,
"So what've you been up to?"
"Escaping mostly... and I escape real good."
- Inherent Vice