Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Movie Review: Fast & Furious 6


I feel it’s necessary from time to time, for the sake of my critical pedigree, to begin a review with the disclaimer that there is a place on the pop culture landscape for mindless, escapist entertainment. We can not live in a world, nor should we, where every film is Citizen Kane and while all movies should be evaluated based on their merits, it’s also appropriate to reward a production for succeeding at its own unique mission. So, as we enter the core of the Summer Movie Season, filled to overflowing with loud noises, big explosions and male gaze, let us remember that a little popcorn, from time to time, is good for the soul.

It is in that spirit that I give my full recommendation to Fast and Furious 6, the latest installment of the “Ride or Die” franchise that somehow seems to get better with age. Twelve years after The Fast and The Furious made a star of Vin Diesel and inserted Nitrous into the national lexicon, we again find our original pack of anti-heroes (with a few additions picked up along the way that makes the Fast franchise one of the most notably diverse casts in Hollywood, a feat in itself) behind the wheel at breakneck speeds.

There isn’t much to the plot. Essentially, the skills of this rag-tag group of former thieves are recruited by returning human locomotive Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who plays FBI agent Luke Hobbs, to stop a similarly vehicle-inclined international criminal, played by rising star Luke Evans. Evans’ team is effectively a shadow-squad of our heroes alternates, but includes the plot-point addition of Michelle Rodrigues’ Letty, presumed dead after the events of Fast 4. Conveniently, her memory seems to have been damaged in her near-death experience, providing a reasonable motivation for her actions without betraying “the family.”

I’ve never been a Fast and Furious apologist by any means. If anything I was little more than a casual observer having watched the original film and its fourquel Fast and Furious, bypassing Tokyo Drift altogether and catching snippets of 2Fast 2Furious during scattered rebroadcasts on TNT.

But then came Fast Five, in which the little franchise that could abandoned its lingering attempts at being both a glum urban rock opera and hip-hop music video to instead embrace the gasoline-fueled bravado of a full scale balls-to-the-fall action extravaganza. I came to see Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson pummel each other into pudding but was fully converted at the seemingly hours-long scene in which two cars lay waste to Rio de Janeiro by dragging a gargantuan safe, tumbling and tossing, through the streets.

That sense of unapologetic fun and unhinged madness continues in Fast 6, as the plot skips gingerly from one elaborate action sequence to the next, at one point involving a tank chase (pictured above) and finally climaxing in a car vs. car vs. airplane showdown on the world’s longest runway.

Despite the absurdity and potentially physics-defying shenanigans on screen, director Justin Lin is careful to maintain as much realism as possible, employing truly impressive practical effects and touching up with digital chicanery only as a last resort. The result is an old-school thrill ride more reminiscent of the glory era of American action that brought us the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon franchises than the modern overload of flash-bang CG wizardry. Want to see it in 3d? You can't, because that ain't how Lin do, another impressive feat given the action genre's current love affair with the completely pointless and unnecessary medium. In a market over-saturated with loud noises, Fast 6 manages to stand apart by somehow being bigger and louder.

Fast 6 also manages to unite the various hanging threads of its 5 predecessors, details that will go largely unnoticed by the uninitiated but appreciated by longtime fans (for example, were you aware that Fasts 4, 5 and 6 are actually PRE-quels to Fast 3?). It also ends with a jaw-dropping final tease setting up the inevitable Fast 7 that has THIS art- and indie-film aficionado counting the days for the next installment.

Grade: B+

*Fast & Furious 6 opens wide in theaters on May 24.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

My Life Online: Love Me Tinder



I came across a troubling report the other day. Online-dating website WhatsYourPrice.com had used Google Analytics to calculate the amount of time people in particular U.S. cities spend evaluating online dating profiles.

On April 30, the site released a press released titled "Salt Lake City Ranks 1st Among 'Most Superficial Cities in America'", which included the impressive statistic that Utahns spend a whopping 7.2 seconds deciding whether to interact with or callously dismiss another human being.
"Salt Lake City members clearly value physical appearance above all other profile information," says Brandon Wade, Founder and CEO of WhatsYourPrice.com. "One cannot possibly determine dating potential in only 11.5 seconds. Evidently, superficial factors such as looks and income influence attraction when Salt Lake City members browse profiles."
Of course, Wade was actually being generous by confusing the 11.5-second average of Louisville, Kentucky with SLC's 7.2. Also in case you're interested, the rest of the top 5 are Portland with 7.7 seconds, Houston with 8.3 seconds, Chicago with 8.6 seconds and D.C. with 9.8 seconds (at least it's not just a Red State thing).

Now, this is a problem for two reasons: 1) I just so happen to live in Salt Lake City at the moment and 2) My well-documented failures in the dating arena would suggest I am not what most people would describe as "conventionally attractive."

Obviously this report is less than scientific and should be taken with a huge grain of salt. That said, do I personally agree with WhatsYourPrice.com that Salt Lake City (and Utah by extension) is among the most, if not THE most, shallow places in the country?

Emphatically, yes. Which is why it does not surprise me that the mobile dating app Tinder has done gangbusters businesses in Utah since its launch in October.

I described Tinder briefly in my last post but in a nutshell, the app presents a user with a photograph of someone in their geographical area and asks them to swipe right if their interested or swipe left if their not. Should two individuals independently approve of one another, a "match" is created, whisking the two would-be lovers to a private chat room where they can exchange pleasantries and contact information.

The app seemed to arrive in Utah via Brigham Young University (the global epicenter of superficiality) before quickly spreading through the Wasatch Front and eventually seeping into the farthest reaches of the Beehive State. I recently took a trip to rural Grand County (home to Arches National Park and the world-famous Slickrock Bike Trail) and had no shortage of profiles to ogle/reject.

That's right, baby doll! I'm on Tinder. And I love it.

As I've written (ad nauseam, potentially) online dating is an awful experience, consisting of unpleasant conversation, laborious self-promotion and a seemingly endless routine of checking various profiles to little or no avail. You're little more than a fisherman at the end of a Los Angeles pier, spending the long, hot day maintaining 12 hooks in the water while the only action you get on your line is occasionally snagging the drifting corpse of a gangland victim, thrown at you by the indifferent current.

And lest we forget, you're probably paying for the luxury of participating in this grand social experiment, which also puts online dating into that dubious category of businesses that get rich off their customers failure, like weight watchers or nicotine patches. The longer I remain a romantic misfit the more money I'll end up paying to the design-inept overlords of my niche online dating service (Hint: it's not SinglesWithFoodAllergies.com).

So I press on, adjusting the keywords in my search criteria and scrutinizing my profile photos for greatest appeal despite feeling like I'm doing little more than wasting time.

Contrast that which Tinder, which is an addictive way to kill time. No need to describe my interests, hobbies, musical preferences and income level (phew). No need to plant my flag in the perpetual cats vs. dog debate or anticipate the number of children I one day hope to sire. All I need is four decent photos of myself culled from Facebook, a catchy tagline ("Writer, Biker, Ukulele Player") and I'm off to the races, casually browsing a veritable host of mostly beautiful women (sadly the cutest ones have a habit of being 19 and I have a strict cutoff line at age 20...most of the time).
photo
Compared to the depressing seriousness of many online dating profiles ("Hoping to find a nice guy, if they still exist. I'm not so sure, my ex-husband was a lying cheat and ran over my chocolate lab") Tinder is casual to the point of silliness. After a match is made, users are encouraged to strike up a conversation with prompts like "You look great together," "Tinder can't type for you...actually, it could, but it won't," and "They probably look better in person."

It's not perfect. There's a litany of online etiquette issues that have yet to be established due to the app's infancy. For example, what do you do when you come across an attractive coworker's profile? Or a friend's ex? (For the record I swiped right on both occasions, though the gesture was evidently not reciprocated).

Also, with the quick-paced, visual-exclusive medium you quickly latch on to arbitrary but obnoxious photographical turn-offs. When was it that big, comically fake mustaches became a thing? That picture of you at the wax museum? No one is fooled OR impressed. And stop it with all the pictures of you and smiling, starving third world children. We get it, you're a decent human being who builds orphanages in your spare time and we're all lazy, spoiled American snobs. That's not the kind of think I want to be reminded of while I'm making snap judgements on your physical appearance.

But I digress. Since I'm engaged in a year-long online dating project, I say "Hi :)" to ever single match that I get. I don't have any particular expectation or desire to actually meet these people, except for Kelsey.

Kelsey and I matched on April 29 and of all the pictures I've swiped right, hers was the only one I really hoped would come back from the dead. She's brunette, a sort of cross between Felicity Jones and a young Virginia Madsen and from the scientific measurement of four self-selected photos she seems like a nice girl (what? I'm from Salt Lake City, remember?).

I sent her the usual "Hi :)" but after a day or two of silence figured I had to up the ante from a simple emoticon. "Go big or go home!" as me and my frequently home-going high school friends always said.

Me: Instead of awkward small talk, I'm just going to act like we're already best friends.  How was your day? Did you finish that project you were working on? My coworkers were crazy today, you know how they can be. 

And then, out of the darkness, a voice!

Kelsey: Oh yeah, I know. Those coworkers of yours, I know all about that, obviously. Any fun new projects? 

Me: Seriously, totes cray. Nothing big, I'm just wrapping up an article before I go out of town tomorrow. I tell ya, this Moab trip can't come soon enough. How about you, any big plans for the weekend? 

Kelsey: Are you going to Cinco de Moab? 

Me: Not intentionally, I didn't even know that was a thing :) We're just going down for some biking. 

Kelsey: Some of my friends are going down and having a Cinco de Moab party. 

Me: I like your friends, except that one guy who's name I can never remember. The one with the hair. You're not going with them?  We should get dinner when I'm back in town. It's been way too long since we hung out last. 

Kelsey: True Story. Catch you later.

I gave it some time, a completely casual and not-at-all calculated three days.

Me: Hey, how was your weekend? 

Silence. I knew from my research into online dating that a date had to happen relatively early on before conversational momentum died. Had I squandered my shot at true love for a few days in the Moab sun? I had but one choice, I had to go for broke.

Me: Dinner. On me. Your favorite restaurant. Just tell me when and where. 

Kelsey: When I'm back in town, that would be great. Next week sometime. 

Me: Great, let me know when works. 



And so I wait, hoping for the mechanical buzz in my pocket that will alert me to a new message from my Annabel Lee. I tell myself that she wouldn't have bothered to respond if she was insincere. We are, after all, complete and utter strangers with no form of communication beyond a third-party and easily-disregarded application.  In the meantime, I guess I better check on my other profiles (groan).

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby



After a six month delay from its initial release date and a string of well-crafted trailers that somehow seemed to assault and entice all five senses at once, Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece The Great Gatsby has finally arrived with all the fanfare and bright shiny colors we would expect from the Australian auteur.

For those of you who slept through the Fitzgerald unit in your high school English class, The Great Gatsby tells the story of the titular Jay Gatsby, a mysterious man of extravagant means who throws lavish parties at his Long Island mansion home in the hopes of one day encountering his long-lost love and New York socialite Daisy Buchanan. The story is narrated by Gatsby's neighbor and Daisy's cousin Nick Carraway, an aspiring-writer-turned-Wall Street suit-turned-disillusioned-romantic and has become the signature portrayal of the "Roaring 20's" era of American history, known for its criticism of the American dream and [Obligatory but probably unnecessary spoiler alert] for killing its protagonist with a shot to the back in a swimming pool [end spoiler alert].

In Luhrmann's creation, all of the crucial Hemingway elements are preserved, including the narration shoehorned in somewhat awkwardly by a plot device that sees Carroway telling his story as a form of therapy in a sanitarium. I mean sure, Nick is affected by the tragic events that unfold but a sanitarium? Excessive much, Baz?

Except excess is the calling card of Luhrmann, who's previous directorial outings include the 90's IT movie Romeo + Juliet and the early-00's IT musical Moulin Rouge. Those movies, more than the directors other works, form a sort of natural bridge with Gatsby as the director has increasingly embraced flash-bang CG gimmickry as a supplement to his storytelling abilities. R+T, Moulin Rouge and Gatsby could be considered Luhrmann's star-crossed lovers trilogy, with each installment upping the pomp and circumstance of the last at the cost of raw, emotional heft.

Each frame of Gatsby is painted over, almost lustily, with a sort of otherworldly, cartoonish glow, which is made all the more noxious by the completely ill-advised use of 3D technology. Even the night scenes, as lovers steal kisses or gaze across Long Island sound at the piercing glow of a distant green light, sparkle with an all-too-dazzling luminescence. As for the grandiose party scenes, in which panache is both expected and welcome, Luhrmann's camera can hardly allow one bursting champagne bottle or piece of confetti to go unnoticed as he pans the crowd of revelers in their full display of pre-depression decadence.

It all makes for an enthralling spectacle, but when the music stops and the sweeping camera pauses for breath, Luhrmann misses out on the opportunity for quiet resonance that made Romeo + Juliet the memorable classic that (at least I think) it is.

But I do not mean to sound overly critical. While it falls short in some areas the movie is not without its strengths. DiCaprio and Joel Edgerton – as the brutish and unfaithful Tom Buchanan – deliver strong performances, particularly in the film's climax that sees them pitted against each other in a battle of wits for the affection of the waifish Daisy. DiCaprio, looking as ageless as ever, IS Jay Gatsby, wearing a mask of irresistible charm over the shame of being "new money," bought through questionable business dealings and all but bursting from within under the weight of his own, repressive hope for an unattainable future. His entrance, late in the first act, is an editing masterpiece as the music swells and the camera swirls around to DiCaprio's smiling face, arm outstretched offering a martini glass as fireworks burst behind him. Great, indeed.

The second act comes the closest to capturing Fitzgerald's work as we begin to peel back the layers on the enigmatic Gatsby and watch as he awkwardly reunites with his former flame and, in a fog of giddy ecstasy, parades her around his estate figuratively and literally throwing the symbols of his wealth at her. For a moment the heavy-handed dialogue slips away and we see what Gatsby sees, a future of hope and possibility, and even though we know its doomed to fail we can't help but wish for the best.

The other romances and sub-plots are mostly sidelined in favor of the central love triangle. Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki (who looks like the lanky love-child of Rooney Mara and Zooey Deschanel) serves her purpose and is all but dispatched, much like Isla Fisher's Myrtle Wilson who is given the bare minimum of screen time necessary to set up a crucial plot point for the film's third act. As for Tobey McGuire, his initial voice-overs are cloying but after 20 or so minutes the movie settles into its grooves and the baby-faced man who was Spiderman becomes a satisfactory, if not welcome aspect of the unfolding drama.

The Great Gatsby is a movie that should be seen in theaters; it warrants that much. The performances are solid and the imagery, coupled expertly with the Jay-Z produced soundtrack, more than warrant the price of admission. But exiting the theater, I found myself longing to watch one of Luhrmann's more memorable creations (like R+J or Strictly Ballroom) and arriving home I snatched my personal copy of Gatsby off the shelf and immediately sat down to read Fitzgerald's beautiful words without all of the background noise.

Grade: B

The Great Gatsby opens wide in theaters on May 10.