I’ve begun the last couple of reviews for films in the Fast & Furious series by noting just what an unusual path this franchise has taken to becoming one of the most successful and important film series of modern times. I don’t want to get too repetitive, but let’s just say that my opinion of this series has turned around so much that I’ve gone from thinking they were actively bad movies that I wouldn’t consider paying to see, to being hugely excited about seeing the latest instalment on opening night. Continue reading
As the summer movie promos were kicking into gear online a few weeks ago, I was struck by quite a thought; by the end of this year, I’m going to have seen new Terminator, Mission: Impossible and Jurassic Park films. What would my 13-year old self have made of this? Honestly though, I would probably have been more surprised than any of these to learn that 2015 would see the release of a seventh Fast & Furious film (the original of which came out when I was 13). Seventh! Even weirder, the seventh instalment in this preposterous series also marked a turning point for me; for the first time I was actually quite excited to see a new Fast & Furious movie. Well what the hell happened? Let’s just take a minute to consider how supremely unusual this series is. Continue reading
It’s no secret that Hollywood has a diversity problem, but it’s one that seems to be getting more and more attention and calls for change nowadays. In particular, it appears Walt Disney Pictures has come in for more flak than other studios recently regarding both its general lack of non-white characters, and its treatment of the few people of colour in its films. It’s understandable as their output is all widely seen and aimed at kids, indeed Disney films occasionally feel like mandatory viewing for children at certain periods in life. This was particularly emphasised in the wake of the phenomenal recent success of Frozen.
This isn’t going to be another piece about Disney’s representation issues; there are plenty of them out there already. Instead I’d like to present one example that seems to buck this trend. That’s not in any way an attempt to try and counter the valid existing arguments, just to shine a light on one Disney movie that appears to get it right when it comes to diversity. It’s true that the complaints are aimed more toward the animation division than the live-action one, but I think this film still may be worth a mention.
I’ve been taking a few long plane journeys recently (in fact I wrote this article during a layover). Whenever I’m on flights I tend to avoid watching films that I think will actually be good. I’m usually half-asleep and don’t want my first experience of a great film to be seeing it on a tiny screen that’s too close to me, the sound coming through lousy headphones with interruptions for in-flight announcements. I also tend to select kids’ movies as many others, even PG-13 movies will be ‘edited for content’ and I never like seeing neutered cuts of films.
Anyway, I was browsing the ‘family’ section after boarding a seven and a half hour flight a few days ago and saw one of the available options was Disney’s The Game Plan from 2007. I have absolutely zero interest in American football and had pretty much forgotten this film existed after not seeing it upon its initial release. However anyone who follows this blog will know that I’m a big fan of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson so being reminded that he was in the film was enough to have me hitting ‘play’ on a film I expected nothing more from than to keep me mildly distracted for a couple of hours of flight.
The Game Plan isn’t great by any means, but it was better than I expected. Johnson plays the star quarterback for the Boston Rebels, whose bachelor lifestyle is interrupted by the arrival of a young girl claiming to be his daughter. The film’s fairly predictable and succumbs to childish gags on occasion but on the whole it’s fine for its intended audience, probably on a par with the likes of Frozen. I don’t wish to dwell on the film’s quality much though as it’s another aspect of the film that struck me as I was watching it; it’s diversity.
As I mentioned, Dwayne Johnson is the main character and his daughter is played by mixed-race child actress Madison Pettis (the mother character is absent). So already we have 2 non-white leads, but this extends to the supporting cast. Johnson’s best friend and team mate is played by Morris Chestnut, and indeed the majority of his team are African-Americans. Not only that though, the daughter’s ballet teacher who becomes a major character in the second half is played by Puerto Rican actress Roselyn Sánchez, and the only significant white character is Johnson’s agent, who’s a woman (Kyra Sedgwick). It’s a prime example of casting a female in a role that could easily and would normally be written as male (aside from a couple of moments it could be swapped without much dialogue alteration at all). But as it is the film passes the Bechdel test on numerous occasions, and it’s no surprise to see the film’s 3 credited screenwriters are all women. In fact the film is an almost entirely white-male free zone, with the only white man of note being the team dimwit who’s often the butt of pranks. The Game Plan never tries to make a big deal out of its characters’ ethnicities of genders and doesn’t present anyone in a notably stereotypical manner.
Again I’m not trying to claim this is an excellent film or suggesting that it counters legitimate complaints made at Disney, however I do think that it represents an example of how mainstream family movies can be made more inclusive, and it was a big success, grossing almost $150 million on a $22 million budget.
Anyway, if you think I’m completely off the mark here, or know of any better examples, feel free to let me know in the comments.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the critical tide turned against Brett Ratner. He was never particularly respected but his breakthrough film Rush Hour was well received (and fairly decent). He didn’t make a truly terrible film until After the Sunset (his sixth), after which he was hired last minute for the rushed X-Men: The Last Stand. Before that film had even come out he was frequently mentioned online as one of Hollywood’s worst directors. He certainly shows all the signs of being a studio hack, but while he does on occasion, he doesn’t routinely put out complete garbage. This actually gives him a bit of a boost when it comes his latest film Hercules, as everyone seemed to be expecting it to be a steaming pile (the trailer didn’t help) so when it turns out to merely be a satisfactory action movie people are pleasantly surprised. Ratner deserves a little more credit than he’s given too, he’s avoided franchise fare recently, with his last film being the moderately amusing Tower Heist, and even though it concluded with the dire Rush Hour 3, he did create a successful movie series with 2 non-white leads, something still all-too rare. He’s continued to be mildly progressive (by Hollywood standards anyway) with Hercules too, casting Dwayne Johnson as the Greek demigod, a role that would unusually have been handed to a white actor.
Ratner’s take on the legend of Hercules, based on the recent comic Hercules: The Thracian Wars, also has a delightful wave of scepticism flowing through it. Only in its opening moments does it appear to be recreating the famed 12 Tasks of Hercules, with clips of Johnson briefly squaring off against some huge CGI beasts, before pulling an about turn and revealing this to all be a story his nephew is stringing to some pirates who’ve captured him. In this world, the legend of Hercules exists, but he’s a real person. The stories about him are all highly exaggerated versions of the truth, the monsters aren’t real (the hydra was a group of men in masks for example) but they choose to spread the stories that he’s the indestructible ‘son of Zeus’ as it helps to instil fear in their enemies. It’s a clever little touch that gives this Hercules more purpose than a simple retelling of the myths might. This extends to other aspects of the film’s world too, with there being an amusing running gag about a soothsayer’s (Ian McShane) inability to correctly predict things and subsequent attempts to fulfil them himself.
That’s not to say that this Hercules is some kind of phoney. He’s still a fearsome warrior with some remarkable combat skills (the manner in which he deals with an attacking horse is a stand-out comedy moment). Charisma-machine Johnson undertook an extreme training regime to play the role, and he’s never looked bigger. Here he’s the leader of a ragtag group of mercenaries with varying abilities (archer, knife thrower, err… storyteller) who are hired by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), daughter of Lord Cotys (John Hurt) to train the armies of Thrace to fight against nearby warlord Rheseus.
Aside from the aforementioned myth-debunking, Hercules is not an intelligent film, with its plot essentially functioning as a showcase for a series of battle sequences. Ratner’s not going to pose a challenge to the likes of Peter Jackson but his combat staging is competent enough. Unfortunately, as I had suspected heading into Hercules, it’s yet another example of the ongoing problem of PG-13 violence. Here we have countless slashings, hackings and clubbings, all of which must be presented without a drop of blood. There’s nothing quite as obviously compromised as Pompeii but I’m really getting fed up of this.
Hercules is a predominantly straightforward film with a few good ideas up its sleeve. It takes a twist in the third act that’s hardly shocking or ingenious but I can honestly say I hadn’t expected. Johnson unsurprisingly owns the title role but if he’s truly to be the next Schwarzenegger (as he’s been touted for over a decade now) he really needs to find a film to match his talents, his movies have yet to reach Terminator/Predator/Total Recall levels. There’s nothing particularly special here, but Ratner’s myth-busting Hercules essentially delivers what it sets out to do in a brisk 90 minutes, which in a world full of overly-bloated blockbusters that verge on 3 hours, makes it almost as fat-free as its star.
Dwayne Johnson’s had five movies out this year. They’ve ranged from one of the year’s biggest hits (Fast & Furious 6) to a straight-to-DVD film you probably never noticed (Empire State). I’ve been a fan of his acting for some time now, he’s a born performer, but he’s unfortunately not been in a great deal of particularly good films. He first started acting in films in the early 2000s, at around the time when Arnold Schwarzenegger was quitting to go into politics. He seemed like the natural successor to Arnie, with his first starring role, The Scorpion King bearing many similarities to Arnie’s breakthrough, Conan the Barbarian. I recall reading a magazine article at the time assessing who would be the next cinematic action hero and concluding that he was the most likely (though it also said Jason Statham was the least likely so what did they know). He started off alright but made the move to drama (Gridiron Gang, Richard Kelly’s misunderstood spectacular Southland Tales) and family comedy (Tooth Fairy) without having really established a body of action cinema. In 2010 he got back into action films with Faster and Fast Five, and his star just seems to have been growing since then, but the films have still been mixed. I hope he’s not destined to just be someone who’s always good in average movies. Anyway, the actual point of this article, is that there’s been an unusual trait throughout his acting career; that of appearing in sequels to films when he wasn’t in the original. I’ve heard him referred to as ‘franchise Viagra’ a few times (he may have coined that himself) but is that really the case? Let’s have a look.
The Mummy Returns (2001)
Johnson’s big screen debut was little more than a glorified cameo really. He appears as mythical warrior ‘The Scorpion King’ in the opening prologue but is all CGI in the climactic fight. His appearance here really only served to set up the Scorpion King Spin-off prequel, which was fairly average.
Was it an improvement?
No. The Mummy Returns is a fun but stupid movie that gets bogged down by its mythology and isn’t as enjoyable as its 1999 predecessor.
Be Cool (2005)
A decade-later sequel to the excellent Elmore Leonard adaptation Get Shorty, this crime-comedy finds Chili Palmer (John Travolta) entering the music industry. Travolta re-unites with Pulp Fiction’s Uma Thurman and leads a large, starry ensemble cast.
Was it an improvement?
Absolutely not. Be Cool is a pretty terrible film that’s vastly inferior to Get Shorty. However, Johnson’s small role playing Elliot, a gay Samoan bodyguard and aspiring actor, is by far and away the best thing in the film.
Race to Witch Mountain (2009)
This family film from Disney functioned as both a sequel and a remake/reboot to the 1975 film Escape to Witch Mountain, about a pair of kids with psychic powers (which had already had a couple of sequels). Johnson plays a cab driver who gets wound up in the plot as two young passengers of his turn out to be aliens.
Was it an improvement?
Probably? I haven’t seen the original in years but don’t remember it being particularly good. This isn’t an outstanding film by any means but it’s a serviceable kid’s sci-fi movie.
Fast Five (2011)
Johnson joins the gang for this wildly successful fifth instalment, which rejuvenated the action franchise and focussed it on heist stories. He plays secret service agent Luke Hobbs, who’s hot on the tail of the central crew.
Was it an improvement?
Yes. Though overpraised, overlong and overblown, Fast Five is undoubtedly an improvement, and Johnson’s amusing turn as agent Hobbs is a most welcome addition.
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012)
Johnson’s Mummy Returns co-star Brendan Fraser chose not to appear in the sequel to his Jules Verne update Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008), leaving the door open for Johnson to come in as the stepfather to Josh Hutcherson’s character as he embarks on another adventure.
Was it an improvement?
Mildly, neither film is particularly good but they’re functional family adventure films. Johnson makes a likeable action-comedy lead but Hutcherson is always very irritating. It was a commercial success though, outperforming its predecessor.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)
Johnson takes over the lead from Channing Tatum (who also appears briefly) for this ludicrous follow up to G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. He plays Roadblock, a member of the G.I. Joe unit who has to thwart some world-threatening plot by the imposter president.
Was it an improvement?
Not really, the first film wasn’t good but this is another case of Johnson being perfectly fine in a film that’s not. He’s suited to the part and gets to work with Bruce Willis but it’s a big, stupid action film that soon becomes quite tedious, utterly forgettable stuff.
Fast & Furious 6 (2013)
So he was in the previous film in the series but I’m still counting this. Johnson makes an excellent return as unorthodox agent Luke Hobbs, who this time recruits the gang to take on another one. This enjoyably ridiculous movie managed to be even more successful than the fifth instalment.
Was it an improvement?
Most definitely, and Johnson played no small part in that. See my review from earlier this year for my take on it.
So really the conclusion here is that while presence of his Rockness is usually a gratifying addition to a film, it does not always result in the sequel being an improvement. He’s got two films on the slate for next year, a big headlining role in Hercules: The Thracian Wars, and Fast & Furious 7, but also just announced a couple of more interesting sounding projects, Seal Team 666 and Not Without Hope. Let’s see if he can manage to spend a bit more time being a good performer in good movies.
Although I recently wrote of my fondness for Armageddon, I still can’t consider myself a fan of director Michael Bay. There’s just no defending the likes of Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. However, due mainly to his high profile and massive (over $4 billion) box office takings; he’s evolved into something of a hate figure for many film critics. I feel I frequently hear him talked about as being one of, if not the worst working filmmaker. He has also on occasion been singled out as being the prime example of everything wrong with Hollywood movies today. This kind of exaggerated contempt is more akin to the scrawling of anonymous fanboys on internet forums than supposedly serious film criticism, and it leaves people like me vaguely wanting to defend the man even though I don’t care for much of his work. For the record, aside from my previously detailed Armageddon penchant, I do think 1996’s The Rock is a genuinely great action thriller. I can take or leave the rest of Bay’s directorial output and only seriously disliked Transformers 2. I think he is, for the most part however, an intelligent filmmaker who’s unfortunately more interested in box office success than producing good movies. In general, he knows what he’s doing and who he’s doing it for. The Transformers series has been increasingly more profitable, with the third entering the billion dollar club. He might always work within the major studio system but he’s no anonymous hack, he maintains a recognisable style. Labelling him as the worst director in the world is kind of like calling Ron Howard the greatest director in the world; lazy and narrow minded. An article on film.com earlier this year made the following very good point about him:
“He’s also one of the few iconic auteurs of the last 20 years whose entire body of work has probably been seen by huge swaths of the American public – simply by virtue of going to the biggest new movie in town, even casual moviegoers might unknowingly be familiar with the complete output of Michael Bay.”
This brings us to Bay’s latest offering; Pain & Gain. This is a film unlike anything Bay’s made before. It’s not an action film at all, instead being a mid-nineties set, crime-themed dark comedy, based on a true story, and produced for a fraction of what most of his films cost. It presents Bay’s first real chance to alter his reputation.
Pain & Gain stars Mark Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo, an overly self-confident personal trainer who’s just reinvigorated an ailing gym business. He’s desperate to live the American dream, as he sees it, and be the best (the US flag is deployed liberally throughout as a constant reminder). One of his clients at the gym is Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a highly unpleasant but wildly successful Colombian-American entrepreneur. After spending some time training with him, Wahlberg hatches a plan to kidnap and extort him. To assist him in this he recruits two bodybuilders, Adrian (Anthony Mackie), another over-confident man, but who’s been rendered impotent by steroid abuse, and Paul (Dwayne Johnson), a formerly alcoholic ex-convict who’s become a born again Christian. All, one could charitably say, possess below-average levels of intelligence.
Pain & Gain’s bizarre story becomes more disturbing as it progresses, with the film even pausing to remind you of its fact based nature come one particularly gruesome moment. This material is certainly a change for Bay, and while it features minimal special effects and action (compared with his other work), he doesn’t seem interested in any visual reinvention. Instead the film is shot in Bay’s usual slick style, featuring lots of sunsets and fast editing (not to mention scantily clad women). He’s taken a script that could have been a low-budget indie film and made the whole thing like a big blockbuster. It’s not an inherently bad decision, and could have resulted in Pain & Gain feeling more unique, but instead often lets you forget that this was supposed to be his ‘small movie’.
Another significant talking point to Pain & Gain is its humour. It’s arguably possible that the story could have been made as a serious drama, though the sheer dim-wittedness of its central trio would have proved a challenge there, and it’s a tricky thing to turn a real-life tragedy into a dark comedy, something many people will just object to in principle (though I don’t count myself among them). Comedy has never been a strong suit for Bay though, and it shows, with many jokes failing and the film being way too long for this genre. He adds known comedic actors like Ken Jeong and Rebel Wilson for bit parts but just leaves them to do their usual thing. He has got himself a decent central cast to work with though, Mark Wahlberg has been much better in comedic roles recently and he brings a relentless energy to the moronic Lugo. Anthony Mackie also shows a new side here but Dwayne Johnson is particularly good, conveying even a hint of childlike innocence beneath his hulking, brainless exterior, which manages to bring him a little sympathy, even though he’s quite possibly a coke-addled psychopath. I really think this guy could be an A-list movie star if he picks his projects well (hint: less G.I Joe: Retaliation). On the other-side, Ed Harris also brings strong support as the film’s only intelligent character. The film utilises an unusual voiceover technique too, having various different characters describe their feelings or explain the plot at different points.
Pain & Gain is a problematic film, many of Bay’s usual flaws are apparent, and it risks simply being a big dumb movie about big dumb people. Still though, it is Michael Bay taking a big risk, and attempting something new. Even if it was a complete disaster, I think I’d rather have Bay trying and failing than just churning out another soulless Transformers sequel (though that’s unfortunately his next move). For all the troubles you could identify in Pain & Gain, at least it’s…..interesting.