Get Ready for Summer Film Excitement

May 17, 2017

As the house lights dim and the big screen is adjusted for the coming film, a movie house anticipates another brick in its wall of wonders, another summer film to delight the viewers amassed there in the dark. For yet another year, the CineScene column tries to do the same thing, delight readers looking for a discussion of a film of interest, or a recommendation for what to see next.

Maybe I’m pushing it a little with the verb “delight.” Regardless, hello again for another summer of cinematic discussion and judgment. I’m really happy to be back, and look forward to sharing some thoughts about the films we’re given to watch during the summer months.

I try to be kind to the films, but there’s another “Transformers” film coming up, and I’m already sharpening the ballpoint since I like to use grotesque cinematic excesses such as “Transformers” to support my theory about how Hollywood looks at the summer season. More about this in subsequent columns and reviews.

Back to the movie house analogy, these aren’t just any group of viewers, these are probably school kids on their summer vacay looking for some diversion in their week, or busy moms trying to get a break from their kids for a few hours, or if it’s an animated film, give their kids a break, too, or retired folks looking for something completely different to do.

Summer flicks have a pretty important job – they have to uphold a standard set way back in the 1970s, back when “Jaws” trolled the cinescape, beginning the era of the “blockbuster” film. That standard, set back in 1975, insisted that the summer was a good time to debut a film that upped the action ante to include explosions, eruptions, and outbursts of myriad semi- or full automatic weapons. So over that 40-year span, the summer blockbuster got noisier than some of the “smaller” films. But if we’re lucky, in the warmer months both types try to coexist on the big screen. These smaller films depend on either romance or comedy to propel them, while the blockbusters will destroy whole cities when necessary, or show action of such an incredible sort that the mind reels when considering the verisimilitude of such deeds.

So now we come to the purpose of CineScene, the great defender of verisimilitude – our little experiment in film criticism. It’s our job here to watch as many films as we can, sometimes close to 30 a summer, and discern which ones deserve your hard-earned $8.50 or $11 or $14 (depending on your screening’s time of day). Is it worth the price of admission? That question has always helped film viewers make decisions. Of course, we’ll look at more than that – there’s usually a lot to say for each film – but chances are we’ll come back to that criterion at the end.

For our column this week, we will discuss two such films, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “The Fate of the Furious,” and also peek at some of the films to be released this summer. Let’s look at our two films first.

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“The Fate of the Furious” was the first film in the franchise, the eighth overall, filmed totally after the death of actor Paul Walker, who had helped launch the franchise back in 2001 with Vin Diesel in “The Fast and the Furious.” Technically, he’s still alive in the film’s back story, off living with Mia and her kids, having given up the new role the gang of former street racers now had, that of an international group of quasi-military agents saving the world from an ever-expanding group of bad guys.

Even in the first film in the series, I was never quite sure who the “Furious” were in the title, but they certainly got knocked out in the street-racing scenes. Now in “Fate” I’m still not sure who the Furious are, although one of them, Cipher, the Charlize Theron character, played a character named Furiosa in last summer’s “Mad Max” reboot. I suppose we learn their “Fate” in this movie, which of course is left wide open for another film in a few years.

Dominic Toretto, a.k.a Vin Diesel, leader of the “team,” is on his honeymoon in Cuba as the film begins. Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) share an ideal romantic retreat, featuring scantily clad women and street racing, both necessary features in this high-octane honeymoon. Soon Dom’s life is off-kilter as he is roped into working again for Cipher, who has an offer he can’t refuse, complete with blackmail, to help her dominate the world.

As government agent Hobbs (the Rock, a.k.a. Dwayne Johnson) is given a very serious job the Toretto team must undertake, we’re introduced to Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), Hobbs’ governmental contact, and Nobody’s assistant, Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood), who bears an uncanny resemblance to his more well-known father. Speaking of well-known actors, this week is Kurt Russell week in CineScene, since he is in both flicks we’ll be discussing. He steals several scenes in “Fate” and has some of the best lines in the film. He’s a joy to watch whenever he’s on screen.

But come to think of it, Vin Diesel is also in “Guardians Vol. 2,” as the voice of baby Groot. So both films are kind of cross-pollinating one another. So let’s call it Kurt Russell and Vin Diesel week at CineScene. O.K., back to the action.

Cipher has plans for world domination, and she needs Dom’s peculiar talents to gain her goal. Dom seems to be turning his back on his “team,” and all of them fear for his well-being. Even Letty can’t seem to fathom what he’s doing, but after watching a steamy kiss with Cipher, Letty tells Hobbs that it can’t be the real Dom. Really? Trust me, Letty. It’s the real Dom.

Diesel uses one expression throughout the whole film, and of course he has patented that growl he uses for his voice. In the scenes he shares with The Rock, he makes the former wrestler come off like Laurence Olivier. Whatever hold he has on film viewers who like him, the shirts he wears without sleeves, like the Rock’s tank tops, accentuate his bulging musculature. When both of them wear their sleeveless shirts, it looks like a steroid convention gone wild. Seriously, what the heck …

That’s not all for the serious butt-kickers in “Fate,” because Jason Statham is also in the film, having lost against The Rock and the team in “Furious 7.” Statham plays Shaw, a former British bad guy who serves some time in prison until he escapes, along with Hobbs, but you must see the film for what Hobbs is doing in prison. It is too much to explain here. Soon all these bad guys are now on the good side, and are all aligning against Cipher, who flies through the skies in a black, and supposedly invisible, spy plane.

From Cuba to New York City to the Arctic, Hobbs and Toretto’s team, along with Little Nobody, race to thwart Cipher’s plans. That they succeed is due in no small measure to the fact that Shaw has joined the team, and you must watch how he succeeds in blowing away all the bad guys on Cipher’s plane while holding a baby in a bassinette. Sheer poetry, or lunacy, depending on your take. But take it with a grain of salt.

And yes, there is the obligatory rooftop family dining scene at the end, even with the two Nobodies, causing many a tear to flow. But I digress.

I must admit I attended a screening of “The Fate of the Furious” fully expecting not to like the film. But Eastwood and Russell, and Statham and Helen Mirren, who plays his mother, are too tough to dismiss. Especially Statham. I’ve liked him ever since he began not to take himself too seriously.

Does “Fate” pass the verisimilitude test? No. There are so many red herrings in the film that trying to understand how things happen, when nothing is explained, brings it about that nothing, then everything, eventually makes sense. Kind of.

Does it pass the worth the price test? Yes, it does. It’s worth the price. It’s a very entertaining film, but like the fight scene with the baby, take the whole film with a grain of salt.

But I still can’t figure out who is furious, and why.

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Now for Kurt Russell and Vin Diesel part two. “Guardians of the Galaxy,” another brick in the very substantial Marvel Comics wall of fame, was successful enough back in 2014 to spawn a sequel, this one called simply “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” Like the first flick, a good part of this film revolves around some good tunes, specifically of the 1970s and 1980s era, the Awesome Mix Tape Vol. 2. More on that later.

Russell plays Ego, the energy-field creation looking to match up with species like itself to have planetary domination. That way they have double the energy field, like double the whammy, and that would lead to great things, which usually end in planetary domination. Atypically, world domination is not enough for these guys.

Diesel voices Groot, the tree-like being who gave its life in the first film to help its “family” survive, and to keep the lineage going, left a small “baby tree” behind. This fits right in with Dominic Toretto’s strong belief in “family,” and is a theme of both films. What an amazing connection!

Not only that, but another theme is the search for the Star Lord’s father, which probably should have caused “Vol. 2” to be released about a month later, nearer to Father’s Day, so strong is this theme. Star Lord is, by the way, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the leader of this little family.

The family theme continues with the green Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Star Lord’s secret crush, who gets her sister Nebula (Karen Gillen) back as a reward for helping another civilization, the Sovereigns, and intends to take her back to Xandar and turn her over to the authorities, once they find some. Nebula, for her part, wishes to kill Gamora. Yep, one big happy family.

Quill’s team kills a particularly difficult alien, gets some important batteries, and returns them to the Sovereigns. But one of Quill’s crew, Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), steals some batteries, and the Sovereigns send out a massive crew of drones to take down Quill’s ship in retaliation.

Suddenly, all the Sovereigns’ drones are destroyed, and as the destroyer’s ship flies by, they notice a man standing on top. Quill’s ship is nearly destroyed in the battle with the drones and crash lands on a nearby planet. The mysterious ship that destroyed the drones also lands on the planet, and out steps a man who claims to be Quill’s father.

Meanwhile, on another planet, Yondu (Michael Rooker), who helped raise Quill, is approached by the high priestess of the Sovereigns asking him, now the leader of the Ravagers, a group of space pirates whose better days are behind them, to find Quill and friends. They find the wreckage of Quill’s spaceship, but find only Rocket and Groot, who were left behind to watch Nebula and fix the spacecraft, while Quill, Gamora, and Drax (Dave Bautista) went with Quill’s “father” to his planet.

At first Quill is skeptical, but after being invited to his “father’s” planet, called Ego, Quill realizes that this being is all-powerful; his father calls himself a “Celestial,” and the planet Ego lives literally through him. His consciousness is the planet’s, and he’s able to harness the energy of all that grows around. He’s looking for one son who can rule with him, born from mothers whom he seeded, along with seeding plants on the same planet that will come alive and cause massive destruction to all the planets in the galaxy, but bring the needed energy to be used by the overlord.

Nebula gets loose and joins the Ravagers, who supply her with a ship so she can go looking for Gamora.

Peter discovers his father’s bitter secret later, when a ship with old friend Yondu shows up, and after both Gamora and Nebula have discovered the true nature of planet Ego. They’ve reconciled, and now they’re friends again. So roughly the last third of “Vol. 2” is taken up with the Guardians fighting Ego, both Quill’s father and the planet, helped by Yondu and the sisters. When Peter learns that he has more with his “family” than he would have ruling the cosmos with Ego, he decides to fight him, even though he was nearly convinced to abandon them and join with Ego a little earlier.

So “Vol. 2” ends similarly to “Fate.” Diesel has influenced both worlds, while Russell, embraced by one, is destroyed by the other. One day a study will be written with a complete comparison between both these films, but for now, we consider whether “Vol. 2” passes the verisimilitude test. It does not. However, it is a sci-fi fantasy, so perhaps the verisimilitude test is the wrong one to apply.

Does it pass the “worth the money” test? I would say that it does, for I was entertained. Besides, this film is governed by some awesome 1970’s music, from Looking Glass to Fleetwood Mac to Cat Stevens. As the notes of Stevens’ “Father and Son” play at the film’s end, the father-son theme comes through loud and clear. And perhaps by summer’s end, I’ll come up with the complete comparison paper. It was my idea, anyway. Now if someone would just tell me who was furious, I can go away happy.

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Since last summer was the summer of Margot Robbie, who starred with Tarzan and then the Suicide Squad, it is fitting that this summer is Charlize Theron’s turn. Theron was around last summer, too, in the aforementioned Mad Max reboot, subtitled “Fury Road,” playing Imperator Furiosa, adding a dollop of fury to the mix. This summer Theron is back, twice, in what might be two of the biggest films. We already know a little about “The Fate of the Furious,” but she will also play a secret agent called in to investigate the murder of another agent in the highly anticipated “Atomic Blonde,” due late July in the Cineplex.

Let’s look at a few others. We’ll chart them month by month, looking at mostly the “big” films. “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is director Guy Ritchie’s take on the great Arthurian legend. Judging by the title, it looks like Excalibur will have a major role, and this marks around 10 or so films that have been made based on that legend. Ritchie’s films tend to be hyperkinetic exercises, so this will be no exception. It’s in the theaters now, starring Jude Law and Charlie Hunnan.

Also in the theaters are “Snatched,” a female buddy comedy starring Goldie Hawn (Kurt Russell’s wife, incidentally) and Amy Schumer, and “The Wall,” director Doug Limon’s story about a sniper team of two soldiers, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena, stuck behind a wall as victims of an Iraqi sniper. Still to come in May are “Alien: Covenant,” another creature feature starring Dave Franco and Danny McBride; and “Baywatch,” a reboot of the popular(?) television show that starred David Hasselhoff. If the “Hoff” won’t come back for an encore, get The Rock to fill in. He does, admirably, along with Zac Efron.

Rounding out May is another “Pirates of the Caribbean” flick, this one subtitled “Dead Men Tell No Tales.” I have a feeling tales will be told, so Jack Sparrow and crew will find themselves very busy. Johnny Depp will be there, along with a couple of originals, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, and newcomer Javier Bardem.

June begins with one of the most highly anticipated films, “Wonder Woman,” with Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and Robin Wright. The origin of the female crime fighter is told, and Gadot looks smashing in her crime-fighting garb. Tom Cruise rolls through the early summer with a remake of “The Mummy,” with Russell Crowe, and Scarlett Johansson plays a bride to be in “Rough Night,” telling the story of a bachelorette party that goes way wrong, with Zoe Kravitz, Jillian Bell and Ilana Glazer.

Rounding out June is “Transformers: The Last Knight,” with Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Hopkins (?!), who plays a robot researcher, presumably looking for a last knight. Either Hopkins is slumming it, looking for a quick paycheck, or this “Transformers” might get nominated for an Academy Award. A remake of a very fine early Clint Eastwood movie also comes out in June, a film called “The Beguiled,” starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst, and lastly a comedy with Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler called “The House,” about a cash-starved couple (Ferrell and Poehler) who use their basement as an illegal casino.

July comes in with a bang as Spider-Man comes back home. Yes, it’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” with Tom Holland wearing the red and blue Spandex, sharpening up those spidy senses. In mid-July there’s another “War for the Planet of the Apes,” this time with Woody Harrelson and Steve Zahn, and Andy Serkis playing the lead Ape. Christopher Nolan directs a World War II retelling of the miraculous saving of thousands of British troops in “Dunkirk,” with Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh. The aforementioned “Atomic Blonde” rounds out July.

August heralds in “The Dark Tower,” director Ron Howard’s take of Steven King’s novel about a western gunslinger (Idris Elba) fighting and plying his trade across multiple dimensions. Also starring is Matthew McConaughey. The 1967 Detroit race riots get a cinematic retelling starring John Boyega, Anthony Mackie and Jason Mitchell in “Detroit,” helmed by Kathryn Bigelow. Taylor Sheridan, who wrote “Hell or High Water,” last summer’s surprise hit and this critic’s vote for best picture of the summer, wrote and directs “Wind River,” about a murder on an Indian reservation, with Jeremy Renner and Jon Bernthal.

The summer nears an end with “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” a comedy with Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, about a button man who has massive information the government needs for a trial, being guarded by a security expert. It’s a buddy comedy with Reynolds as the guard and Jackson as the hitman. Hijinks should ensue.

I’ve only highlighted the supposed “big” films, and these are the ones I’ll try to see, but I left out “All Eyez on Me,” a cinematic biography of Tupac Shakur; “Cars 3,” a sequel of modest interest the kiddies should enjoy; and “Despicable Me 3,” ditto. I hope to get to see them. And since they are scene-stealers, I think we’ll soon see sequels featuring Groot and Rocket the Raccoon, maybe as soon as next summer. Who knows? Enjoy the summer’s movies, and I’ll see you at the Cineplex.


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