This weekend, millions of filmgoers will enter a fantasy world where beautiful, fantastical creatures unburdened by the laws of physics will frolic in the richest kingdom on their planet and pilot customized, futuristic machinery that flies through the air.
The story they will see is headlined by a monosyllabic troll who has the supernatural ability to crash high-speed vehicles over and over again and walk away unscathed. This superhero commands unmatched loyalty amongst his band of misfits, despite his reckless abandon and disregard for everyone’s safety.
At this point, if you think that I’m about to badmouth “Furious 7,” the latest entry in the Fast and Furious franchise, for being supremely unrealistic, you’re only half right. To call it unrealistic would be an understatement. I’m comparing it to the worlds of hobbits, starfighters and superheroes because that’s the lens through which I can enjoy this supremely silly hunk of cheese, even as it embarrassingly begs to be taken seriously on some sort of dramatic level.
On one hand, there’s Dwayne Johnson (unfortunately sidelined for much of the film), who delivers his groan-worthy dialogue with a knowing grin that matches the rampant absurdity of the goings-on. On the other, there’s Vin Diesel, who believes every hokey word about family and loyalty that he utters throughout “Furious 7,” even though he hasn’t earned a lick of it. He also famously said this week that he thinks the movie will win best picture at next year’s Oscars.
So, yes, Diesel’s refusal to be in on the joke makes it increasingly difficult to revel in the one thing that makes “Furious 7” special: it’s blatant disregard for logic.
Director James Wan, the stuntmen, choreographers and special effects wizards who dream up these elaborate set pieces — where all manner of moving vehicles do all kinds of impossible things at high speeds with people inside, outside and on top of them — deserve to be celebrated in the same way as stunt and chase pioneers like Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. It takes an immense amount of creativity and skill to pull off a chase scene that no one’s ever seen in the almost 90 years since Keaton perfected the art form in “Seven Chances.”
Then again, at a certain point you have to marvel at Diesel’s commitment to the corny. Boy, does he lay it on thick. I can sympathize, though, because it has to be tough when you’re a wrench-wielding badass dealing with an amnesiac wife who’s essentially back from the dead (Michelle Rodriguez) and a former bad boy of a best friend (Paul Walker) who drives a minivan and is now a stay-at-home dad.
In this mythic universe, the only way to protect his beloved family is to put everyone at risk by parachuting souped-up cars out of airplanes and crashing into other vehicles head on. Duh.
So who cares if the plot doesn’t make sense? The actors are completely secondary and the hoops they jump through to get to the next action scene are just that. Often times screenwriter Chris Morgan puts the expositional dialogue in the mouth of a character only after the action scene has started, because he knows we don’t care why they’re there: We’re already with them. Oh yeah, and Jason Statham is in it, doing Jason Statham things. Eh.
The tragic car crash that took Walker’s life just before he completed filming on this sequel looms over the entire film. His subplot is pretty tiny, and the couple of moments where digital effects cover his absence are a little noticeable, but mostly it’s the last scene in “Furious 7” that achieves real emotion because it plays on the viewer’s knowledge of Walker’s death even as the characters in the film refer to him as Brian. In fact, it’s the only moment in the movie that actually works on multiple levels.
“Furious 7” is pure escapism, playing high-stakes chutes and ladders in a world where the dudes are handsome and muscle-bound, and the girls are falling out of their skimpy bikinis in slow motion. It’s a shame that the rest of the movie has to fall back on these macho stereotypes, so just try to remember that it doesn’t take place in any kind of reality.
No, this is an imperfect fantasy world; the only kind of place where a knuckleheaded dirtbag like Diesel’s Dominic Toretto could put on a tux and pass as an entitled millionaire in Abu Dhabi.
“Furious 7” is rated PG-13 for prolonged frenetic sequences of violence, action and mayhem, suggestive content, brief strong language, and unrealistic expectation that anything in the real world could ever measure up to being this "cool."
Chaplin short films and The Charlie Crawl
Speaking of silent film icon Charles Chaplin, Liberty Hall is putting on a unique event next Saturday, April 11.
In addition to showing a series of three Chaplin short films at 4 p.m. that day, the theater is holding The Charlie Crawl and encouraging locals to come dressed as Chaplin’s most famous character, The Tramp. Participants are encouraged to “don your derby, slap on a toothbrush mustache, grab your bamboo cane, and congregate at the corner of 10th and Mass. at 2:30 p.m.” where the silent stroll will begin.
Once the Charlies reach Liberty Hall, prizes will be given out for best costumes, and the fun will continue with three of Chaplin’s most revered three-reelers.
“Sunnyside,” from 1919, shows Chaplin cynically parodying his most famous character, while 1918’s “A Dog’s Life” might remind viewers of 2011 best picture winner “The Artist” as The Tramp pals around with his mutt sidekick.
“Shoulder Arms,” also from 1918, is a World War I comedy featuring Chaplin in the trenches in France. At 46 minutes, it’s almost a feature, and the director-star made copies of the film available to fighting troops overseas to cheer them up.
For more info on A Short Journey with Chaplin, go to libertyhall.net.
South Korean director Park Chan-wook is best known in America for his "Vengeance trilogy," the middle film being 2003's "Oldboy," a painful, dazzling, violent film that still generates controversy today. (Spike Lee is remaking the film with Josh Brolin for release later this year.)
"Stoker," opening Friday at Liberty Hall, marks his English-language debut and finds the director working again with extremely stylized imagery and fractured storytelling, but with more implied violence than before. In fact, violence seems to be lurking just outside the frame of every shot of this neo-Southern Gothic thriller.
On her 18th birthday, high-school loner India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) learns that her father has died in a car crash. She then learns of an Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) she never knew she had when he suddenly shows up at the house and begins to get very familiar with India's mother, the cold and remote Evie (Nicole Kidman).
With his widened eyes and fixed stare, Uncle Charlie (the namesake of Joseph Cotten's creepy killer in Hitchcock's underrated "Shadow of a Doubt") looks like an overgrown child who has never seen the world before, but he oozes confidence and menace. Wasikowska also radiates an otherworldly quality, from her introverted demeanor to her Puritan wardrobe. It's as if she were dropped into the present day from another time, which is even more jarring when she goes to school and everything is very contemporary. Kidman, for her part, is mysteriously distant and delivers some of the film's most memorable lines, verging on high camp.
From a plot standpoint, not much happens in the first half of "Stoker," but Park is in complete control, keeping the audience on edge at all times. He subverts standard framing rules when characters are speaking to one another, employs sweeping camera movement from weird angles, and stops key scenes just at their climax only to return to them later for a fuller picture.
The screenplay, by Wentworth Miller, is full of psychosexual overtones, but it doesn't have much in the way of deep emotional investment. "Stoker" wouldn't be the thrilling, atmospheric exercise that it is without Park flexing his cinematic muscle. This is very much a director's movie that, in the hands of a lesser personality, might have been a ho-hum suspense effort.
"Before Jackie was Number 42, he was Number 5 with the KC Monarchs."
This week it was announced that Harrison Ford will be coming to Kansas City next month to participate in a benefit for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. His upcoming movie "42" profiles Jackie Robinson, who first played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues before the Brooklyn Dodgers recruited him in 1947, breaking the Major League Baseball color barrier.
A special advance screening of "42," in which Ford plays Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, will take place at AMC Barrywoods 24 at 8 p.m. on April 11, preceded by a 6:30 red-carpet entrance and VIP reception with Ford and co-star Andre Holland. There are several levels of ticket packages and sponsorship levels for people that want to attend the reception and screening, which can be purchased online at 42kansascity.
Directly following the screening of "42", Joe Posnanski, former sportswriter for the Kansas City Star and Sports Illustrated and author of "The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America," will moderate a panel Q&A with Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and David Robinson, the son of Jackie Robinson.
Nothing less than the greatest movie ever made is showing at Liberty Hall on Wednesday at 8 p.m. Rob Reiner's directorial debut "This is Spinal Tap" will continue to be hilarious and completely relevant as long as brilliant improv comedians blur the lines of reality on TV and film and as long as there continue to be vapid, hollow musicians who rely on showmanship and gimmickry to sell their music.
What "This is Spinal Tap" does is more subversive than simply poking fun at heavy metal. It puts a human face on these loud and not-so-snotty fictional English rockers and makes you care about them. And despite the ridiculous parody-like situations that David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) get themselves into, any musician will tell you that many of those moments still absolutely ring true today.
Following "This is Spinal Tap," Liberty Hall will erupt into a full-out karaoke party and hopefully a guest appearance by Four Jacks and a Jill, a musical group that works out of Kansas City. They've been at a Ramada Inn there for about 18 months. If you're ever in Kansas City and want to hear some good music, you might want to drop by.
Along the way to becoming the fun, disposable piece of Hollywood trash that "Jack Reacher" is, it has a scene or two that may turn the stomachs of those still reeling from the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., last week.
The camera takes the point of view of a rifleman's telescopic gun sight as he surveys the innocent people strolling along in a park. It intermittently lands on various people — a young girl, a businesswoman, a man on a bench, a twentysomething baby sitter — before the gunman opens fire, killing five.
The audience I saw the film with gasped out loud and then got very quiet. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary was still too fresh and it was a wake-up call to the audience, in a very effective and efficient way might I add, to our culture's complete and thorough addiction to guns. The movie goes out of its way to condemn this type of violence, of course, but it was tough to watch at first.
What was also interesting, however, was tracking how my own complicated personal feelings about the subject were negotiating with the movie's simple good vs. evil construct as the movie continued forward. "Jack Reacher" is based on the popular book series by Lee Child about a mythic figure, a mysterious ex-Army investigator who lives by his own moral code and dispenses justice outside of the law — a brute with a heart, if you will.
Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie's rousing slice of mainstream entertainment doesn't take itself too seriously, especially because it seems at least partially designed to strategically up Tom Cruise's tough guy quotient as he turns 50. He does a terrific job keeping the plot tense, the romance simmering, and the action exciting in an old-school kind of way. He’s also good at lightening the mood when things start getting too dark.
Cruise is up to the task of embodying the brooding 6-foot-5 best-selling book character even if he doesn't have the physical stature to back it up, and Robert Duvall, Rosamund Pike, and Richard Jenkins provide ample backup. In a weird bit of stunt casting that mostly works, legendary German film director Werner Herzog plays the film's baddie. Herzog is not much of an actor, but his alternately soothing and menacing voice does most of the heavy lifting.
Gradually, despite the appearance of a shooting range later in the film, "Jack Reacher" overcomes its eerie early parallel to the most recent awful public shooting and becomes what it is: a skillfully plotted, disposable mystery that may serve as a launching pad to a new franchise for Tom Cruise.
Writer/director/producer Judd Apatow's "This is 40" is many things, but mostly it's a messy and consistently funny movie filled with bitter truths and anxieties about middle-aged life. It's easy to forgive movies that ramble as much as "This is 40" does when they keep supplying laughs.
Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprise their roles from 2007's "Knocked Up" (which cemented Apatow as a new comedic powerhouse) as Pete and Debbie, a married couple struggling with the idea that they aren't getting any younger. Besides using his real-life wife Mann in a lead role, the couple's daughters are back as well. At times, the movie feels like a behind-the-scenes peek at the Apatow household, but it's precisely his astute personal observations that make the movie so truthful and funny.
"It doesn’t feel that personal, mainly because the more specific we go about details of our world, the more anyone who saw the movie said, 'Oh, that exact thing happens to me every day," Apatow said recently. "It became universal as it became more specific.'"
To that point, there are certain things about "This is 40" that ring so specifically and absolutely true to my experiences that it feels, at times, that the movie was designed personally for me. Like Apatow's last effort, the bitter "Funny People," "This is 40" feels a little long and it's main conflict isn't as specific and easy to identify as most movies (inner malaise and dread are hard to externalize), but it's overflowing with hard truths and relatable moments — the kind that the best, most hardcore of stand-up comedians can zero in on. With his talented crew of regular players (Jason Segel, Melissa McCarthy, Lena Dunham) and some new additions (Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Megan Fox, of all people), Apatow does the same thing in "This is 40."
Liberty Hall continues its Film Church series this Sunday, Dec. 23, with a 35mm showing of director David Lean's classic 1957 Academy Award-winning Best Picture "The Bridge on the River Kwai." In theory, you may think you don't like two-and-a-half-hour prestige pictures from Hollywood's most indulgent period, but Lean's movie is hugely compelling. Plus, in 35mm, it will be gorgeous to look at as well.
This World War II work camp drama is a monumental battle of wills with lots of ambiguity and no clear cut good guys and bad guys. It features a durable William Holden, one of Alec Guinness' best performances, and the last great role of Japanese Hollywood import Sessue Hayakawa's long career.
The doors at Liberty Hall open at 11 a.m. "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is showing at noon, and brunch and bloody marys will be provided by 715 Restaurant.
The best crime movies are able to strike that tricky balance between a tense plotting and solid character building. "Dog Day Afternoon," "Chinatown," and "L.A. Confidential" spend equal time building suspense and getting inside the heads of their unlucky protagonists. Even "Pulp Fiction," which deconstructs the genre in the most thrilling of ways, spends lots of time allowing its gangsters to prosthelytize on all kinds of mundane subjects before doing their dirty work.
"Killing Them Softly," on the other hand, favors the character side of things way more heavily. It's all the more complex and interesting for it, but calling this movie a thriller at all is a bit of a stretch. Director Andrew Dominik ("The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," "Chopper") dissects the criminal psyche with loads of conversation between lowlifes, all during the 2008 economic crisis and first election of President Obama.
Essentially, "Killing Them Softly" is an ensemble piece, but Brad Pitt plays Jackie Cogan (who used to be the title character in the book "Cogan's Trade" by George V. Higgins from which the movie is adapted), a hitman-enforcer type who cleans up other people's messes. When a couple of scuzzy, heroin-addled dum-dums (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) knock off a mob card game, Cogan hires another professional killer (James Gandolfini) to help him take the losers out and nothing goes as planned.
Dominik indulges his curiosity often with close-ups on nasty, sweaty men who have backed themselves into all kinds of tight corners. All the while, Dominik is seemingly ignoring whatever plot development might seem important at the time. His fetish for the banality of their lives makes up the bulk of "Killing Them Softly." The dialogue is equally crude, disgusting, and revealing while the political overtones come off more and more heavy-handed as the movie progresses.
But "Killing Them Softly" finds its own rhythm and eventually its own way of building dread, punctuated by bravura cinematic moments that won't soon be forgotten -- like a graphic slo-motion murder and a hazy, drugged conversation that switches POV and slips in and out of consciousness.
The trailer makes it seem like a fast-moving story with lots of punchlines, but it doesn't unfold that way. Dominik takes his time and is operating strictly art-house machinery. It's a bleakly funny movie too, with Pitt providing the film's final, wicked punchline in the only moment where his pulse seems to be raised above normal.
Vladimir Nabokov and William Faulkner both agreed that Leo Tolstoy's 1870s serial novel "Anna Karenina" is one of the greatest love stories in world literature. It has been adapted into a film at least eleven times and is the modern template for any tragic romance set against a historical backdrop.
The familiarity of the story comes from the fact that so many movies and books have borrowed so much of "Anna Karenina" in the 20th century. So when director Joe Wright ("Atonement," "Pride and Prejudice") set out to adapt "Anna Karenina," showing at Liberty Hall, with his muse Keira Knightley again in the lead role, he knew he had to do something drastic to make it seem fresh again.
His strategy has paid off handsomely in this new "Anna Karenina," which combines the most creative elements of theatrical staging with clever filmic transitions that echo the moods of its characters. Besides the aesthetic pleasures of the production design and costuming, Wright's camera movements and unique staging (which has characters moving sets around in a theater for much of the time) add another layer of narrative to an already densely plotted movie.
Set against the backdrop of late-19th-century Russian high society, "Anna Karenina" paints a portrait of adultery and idealistic love with a broad set of characters. Knightley is in the title role, Jude Law is her spurned husband, and a whole host of supporting actors acquit themselves admirably, but Wright's storytelling is front and center here. Aided by a literate but approachable screenplay from Tom Stoppard, "Anna Karenina" thrills even when its plot elements seem ordinary.
Also at Liberty Hall is a one-time-only showing of Jonathan Demme's landmark concert documentary "Stop Making Sense," which culls performances from three nights at Hollywood's Pantages Theater to approximate one live performance from the Talking Heads.
On Thursday December 6 at 7 p.m., Liberty Hall will screen the film and encourage the floor to be a dance party. As David Byrne dances around in his larger-than-life suit, the staff will encourage filmgoers to do the same in this "Once in a Lifetime" opportunity. After the movie, the screen will give way to the main stage, where libations will continue to be served and the show becomes an all-out Karaoke party!