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New films: Furious 7 and three bonus moviebriefs

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Furious 7
Directed by James Wan

The seventh film in the Fast & Furious franchise, “Furious 7” was in jeopardy when actor Paul Walker died prior to the end of principle photography. However, a few script tweaks and some special effects tricks saved the project and the film now serves as both the latest and loudest of the series, and a eulogy for Walker (you’ll understand if you see it). And it takes a sharp eye to notice where Walker’s Brian O’Connor isn’t fresh footage of Paul Walker.

At the end of the last film, we caught a brief glimpse of Jason Statham as Deckard Shaw, the seriously ticked off brother of the villain who Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew had just taken out. This set up “7” to be a glorified revenge flick, with Shaw attempting to kill his way through Toretto’s world.

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As a stand-alone film, that would have provided enough action, albeit with little plot (as if that ever really mattered), but this appears to be a series with legs and so there appears to have been a conscious decision to launch in a new direction with a mysterious new character, played by Kurt Russell, who will presumably be back in future installments being equally mysterious. Russell’s “Mr. Nobody” appears and promises to give Toretto a tracking system he can use to find and kill Shaw, before Shaw tracks and kills them.

The problem with this, as a plot device, is actually explained by Toretto himself in the movie: There’s really no real need to go out and find Shaw, when Shaw is coming to find them anyway. So it’s all about getting the upper hand in that dynamic, or at least attempting to. And it’s basically an excuse for most of the films action sequences as Toretto et al. head off around the world to find the super-villain (an under-utilized Djimon Hounsou) who has the tracking system and the hacker who dreamed it up.

It’s another of these systems that’s become common in film plots that hacks into every conceivable camera to find people anywhere in the world. We’ve seen the same idea in films as diverse as “Eagle Eye” and “Closed Circuit” and almost every recent spy thriller.

Which is all well and good, but once upon a time these films were about guys who raced cars. Somewhere along the way, they have become about guys who take down international crime figures using cars in unlikely ways in the process. “Furious 7” is like the car equivalent of a seventh film based on “Point Break,” in which Keanu Reeves travels the world on a surf board, playing super hero, jumping out of planes on surf boards, jumping between buildings on surf boards, and destroying cities with surf boards.

There’s a ton of action here for those who like this kind of thing, but it’s simply ridiculous. There’s nothing faster or more furious than the eye-rolling that accompanies this film. Even when there are scenes with real cars being driven on real streets, the footage is noticeably accelerated and most of what we’re seeing is just beyond silly – like a whole convoy of specially adapted cars, free-falling with their drivers out of a secret cargo plane, then landing with parachutes that have little obvious steering capability in a neat formation on the correct, remote, mountain road. And I’m not sure that it helps to know they pushed real cars out of a real plane to shoot some of this. At some point it devolves into the mental blooper reel from the mind of a stunt director, showcasing all the stunts that are too crazy to ever be taken seriously.

That said, while it’s a film that doesn’t benefit from serious consideration, it’s also a film that never solicits it. It’s loud, fast, ridiculous eye candy to be enjoyed in the moment by people who enjoy such things. But it also achieves the improbable, by making me miss the relative simplicity and car-centered purity of the earlier films.

Moviebriefs

In “Woman in Gold,” Helen Mirren is rather subdued as an elderly Austrian-American woman, Maria Altmann, trying to regain ownership of artwork her family lost to the Nazis. She enlists the lawyer son of a friend of hers, played quite earnestly by Ryan Reynolds, and does on again, off again legal battle with both the country of Austria and a prestigious museum where some of the paintings are now housed. One of the major problems is that the primary work in question, painted by Gustav Klimt, has gained the status of national treasure for the Austrians, while to Maria it is quite simply a portrait of her Aunt Adele which used to hang in the family home. It’s a low key film, based on true events, that highlights the ongoing struggle to reunite art with pre-WWII owners – pleasant enough but not especially noteworthy in any regard.

Two other films opening in Sacramento this week focus on difficult marriages and even more difficult divorces. I had the odd experience of watching them back to back and it’s disappointing to see how little the fates of some women have improved in approximately 150 years from, in these particular cases, Victorian England to modern Israel.

In “Effie Gray,” actress Emma Thompson has written a new screenplay (which struggled past multiple copyright challenges) about the ill-fated marriage between English writer John Ruskin and his much younger wife Euphemia (Effie). Ruskin (Greg Wise) met Gray (Elle Fanning) when she was 12 and seems to have been captivated by her spirit and beauty, and married her when she came of age. (It’s worth noting that in later life he seemed drawn to another, even younger, girl and it has been said that his story influenced Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.”) However, he didn’t seem especially interested in actually being a husband and, as represented in the film, worked with little regard for others and largely lived in the shadow of his parents, especially his domineering mother. Ultimately, in terms of their marriage, his young wife fell for the brilliant young painter John Everett Millais and pursued an annulment. “Effie Gray” is a somewhat dull telling of part of what is a fascinating and much larger story. The most appealing aspect of it for me was the manner in which it drew me to details of all of these lives afterwards online. But it’s slow when little is happening and seems to gloss over the interesting details of how this unfortunate young woman managed to seek assistance in ending her brutally unhappy and unfulfilled marriage.

Set a century and a half later, in modern day Israel, “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” is an exercise in frustration and desperation. Viviane has been married to Elisha for decades, and has raised their four children, despite being unhappy the entire time. But Israel has no civil divorces (or marriages for that matter) and only a husband can grant his wife a divorce – and Elisha is stubbornly unwilling. This leads Viviane to her only potential recourse, before a Rabbinical Court – a panel of three rabbis who have the power, in theory, to force Elisha’s hand if they feel there is cause. And this is where the entire film takes place – in the small, plain courtroom and in the waiting room outside, as Viviane and Elisha, their counsels and acquaintances, argue over a period of several years about their marriage. It’s a powerful and stunningly well-acted film but it’s not an easy film to watch. There’s a sense of tight constraint and it’s almost claustrophobic in its setting, like a small, minimalistic stage play that’s been filmed. And the circular arguments and logic feel like a trap that can’t be escaped, much like Viviane’s marriage. This certainly isn’t a film for a light evening of entertainment but it’s more than worthwhile when the mood is right.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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