Saturday, 27 August 2016

Coming around to the Fast and the Furious saga

Like many bien-pensant movie fans, I've spent the last fifteen years laughing derisively whenever the subject of The Fast and The Furious came up. They featured some not particularly excellent actors, and seemed with each installment to add yet another action star, Expendables-style, to the roster, and another dumb variation on the original name (2Fast 2Furious! Fast 5! Furious 7!).

Graphs like this didn't help, frankly

And yet...

I recently broke down, since I saw that Netflix had the first three movies on streaming. I'd actually seen parts of the original movie on TV a few years ago, and part of the seventh on the plane last year, so I was curious about a number of things, like how they'd gone from that original film to the set-pieces and exotic locales of the latest. And I was curious how they would see of Paul Walker's character, following the actor's death in 2013 while Furious 7 was in production.

I can also blame my youngest sister, who revealed to me when Furious 7 came out that she'd seen and loved all of the movies. Since she has a master's degree in English from Oxford, how can I argue with an endorsement like that?

So yeah, not only did I mainline (heh) the first three movies, I then rented the fourth through sixth movies on Amazon and caught the seventh on HBO Go. This all took me about ten days, with my lunch breaks devoted to watching a bit at a time, and then catching a bit more while watching dinner after work.

It was kind of tough going at times, I'll admit. 2Fast 2Furious, to me, is easily the worst of the bunch, badly acted and poorly scripted, with holes in logic large enough to drive a fleet of Skylines through. There were similar problems with the third installment, Tokyo Drift, but I actually liked that one a lot.

The problem with criticizing those aspects, though, is that the movies are just so damn fun. The first one starts with a truck-jacking run by three souped-up Civics, and the filmmakers double down on the car-related capers in each film, to the point that by Fast & Furious, the confusingly named fourth installment (and the start of FF's imperial phase), you can't help but laugh with joy at what they're doing. It could be Walker and Diesel dragging a safe through the streets of Rio, or it could be Dwayne Johnson knocking out a military chopper with nothing but a gatling gun ripped from a downed predator drone, but it makes you happy.

Yes, this is The Rock firing a gatling gun at a helicopter. What's your point?

Another thing that sets these movies apart from other recent action movies is the relationships between all the characters. The first traces Paul Walker's undercover cop being drawn in by Vin Diesel's "family", composed of siblings, lovers, neighbors - all folks united by their love of ten-second cars. By the end Walker and other actors collected over the course of the saga (like Ludacris and Dwayne Johnson) are also part of the family, joking around with each other in ways you rarely see in ensemble flicks - the Avengers movies are dour and dysfunctional in comparison with this crew.

Related is the fact that each movie does a good job of showing its characters' joy. Weak as it is, Tokyo Drift is the first film where I put my finger on this aspect - there's a scene late in the second act, where Lucas Black is driving with his love interest along a mountain road at night. They're relaxed, talking about their childhoods, while the wide shots have a convoy of sports cars drifting left and right along the road's hairpin turns, in such perfect unison that they look like a single organism.

But even as early as the first movie you can see this joyfulness. Paul Walker's just lost his first race against Vin Diesel, and badly, but he's in the mob of fans congratulating Diesel on his win, and despite losing his car Walker's got this broad, goofy grin on his face - I once heard Walker referred to as "possibly the worst actor of his generation", but it's hard to see it in that single scene. And it carries on through the seventh movie, where you have the entire crew joking and teasing as they prepare to parachute their cars out the back of a plane over a remote mountain pass in Azerbaijan (of all places).

It was also nice that they gave Paul Walker's character a decent send-off at the end of Furious 7, almost breaking the fourth wall for us to share in celebrating what the actor meant to them as characters and us as viewers. I'm curious what they plan to do with the character, if anything, in the forthcoming eighth installment; the best would be leaving him out of further adventures, rather than using the character's death as an inciting incident to set Vin Diesel and the others on their latest quest, but we'll see.

I will, anyway - in the theaters. Probably not on opening day, but hopefully with my sister in tow, a new set of silly films for us to bond over.

Monday, 15 August 2016

The Naturalism of Stranger Things

Like pretty much everybody else in America, I've now finished watching Stranger Things on Netflix (or rather, binged watched it over the course of three days). I'm not really looking to discuss the plot, but I'd also like to be able to talk about whatever I want, so here's your warning:

Anyway, how about all that 80s goodness? I guess I should admit up top here that I'm actually kind of nuts for stuff from that decade - I've recently been looking (not always successfully) for action movies from the 80s on Netflix, after having caught Rambo II and III in close succession, and watched The Running Man not long after that. Also, Back to the Future is one of the few movies I own, and it's hard to get more 80s than that.

So it was fun to see something that looked a lot like my childhood, and did so without (to my mind) being excessive. Sure, I did think when they introduced Sheriff Hopper that they were taking the Stephen King references a little too far by casting someone for the role who looked way too much like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, but David Harbour actually managed to do so much with the role that by the end of Day One of my viewing (when I was wrapping up the fourth episode) I'd forgotten about that association.

It's also true that sometimes the visual references back to other shows or movies could be distracting - when Mike and the gang are walking along the tracks looking for the gate, I want to be thinking about what's happening, rather than thinking, "Oh, right, Stand By Me." But I suppose that's the danger in creating something that unashamedly parades its influences for the audience.

In my opinion, that's why the show was so successful - people will usually respond favorably to things that are a melange of stuff they know, as long as the mixing is done well and doesn't follow the source material too slavishly. It's why Super 8, JJ Abrams's attempt at a similar homage to the 80s and to Steven Spielberg, was less successful - Abrams made everything look and feel too much like The Goonies mixed with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and didn't end up having the space to make the audience care about the characters.

Another reason is that Stranger Things also feels like an artifact of its time. Much like Drive, which felt like a lost 80s Michael Mann film of the type you might find randomly channel-surfing on a Sunday afternoon, Stranger Things looks and sounds and feels like a story that's been sitting around since 1984, which we've only just noticed now.

No matter the fact that they hired the super-recognizable Winona Ryder as the put-upon single mom (another 80s sci-fi archetype, btw), or that most of the cast hadn't been born yet - the kids' faces are of the type that you'd have seen back then, and they're engaging in behaviors that would get modern-day parents sent up the river by child services (like, you know, swearing and riding bikes on their own).

That casting is extremely important, incidentally. I noticed it while I was watching (and it's one of the things that Super 8 got mostly right too), but the changes in casting policy for kids didn't hit home for me until just a few days later, when I watched The Amazing Spiderman, the 2012 reboot featuring Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker.

Andrew Garfield doesn't look or sound 17 in Spiderman, and the reason for that is that he was 29 when it came out. Even Emma Stone was 24 despite playing Peter's classmate Gwen Stacy. There are probably advantages to casting older actors, but I found myself being pulled out of the movie at times when Peter smiled and looked like a guy well past drinking age.

Although that's the nature of film-making now, isn't it? Verisimilitude isn't as important as getting butts in seats, and if it takes name stars who are 12 years older than the characters they play, then studios are probably happy to do it.

But I'm getting off topic. The casting was one of things that the Duffer Brothers got so, so right, along with the music and dialogue and references, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens in Season 2.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Second Season Syndrome

Just finished Season 2 of Daredevil, and over the last 13 episodes, I've been struck by the odd idea that second seasons of shows are typically the best of all.

It shouldn't be too much of a surprise, but it's something that had never occurred to me before. In this specific case, Season 1 of Daredevil was focused on setting the scene, with Matt Murdock not donning the red suit until the very end of the season finale. This led to a lot of stuff that we saw play out in Season 2, like the Hand and more of the Kingpin's machinations, but whereas getting through Season 1 was kind of a slog, I couldn't get enough of Season 2 - to the point that I've been watching two episodes a day this week.

I can think of a few other examples, like the Big Bang Theory, Star Trek: TOS, Justified or (more controversially) the Wire. I can also think of a few counter-examples, notably Heroes, which apparently turned into a real stinker in its second season.

But thinking about it, I believe that improving in the second season or iteration is a lot more common for TV shows than other media. The "difficult second album" or "shitty sequel" is almost axiomatic for music and movies - in the case of the latter, a band or artist that's emerged with a singular vision that they developed over years is suddenly expected to hit it big again in vastly different circumstances, while for movies a sequel is usually driven by similar dynamics in that the studios and financiers want more of the same.

Where TV shows have the edge, I believe, is that by being serialized they're expected to continue, and lead on to bigger and better. A hit CD or movie or novel, as I said, emerges from nowhere and makes everyone fall in love with it, but generally speaking stands on its own. JRR Tolkien took so long to write The Lord of the Rings because he probably never expected The Hobbit to be so resonant (and yeah, WWII-related paper shortages and bombings likely also helped).

A TV show, by contrast, has the time (unless it's a real stinker from the start) to figure out its strengths and weaknesses, and calibrate accordingly, both across a single season and across multiple seasons. To cite the Big Bang Theory again, the first couple episodes are pretty painful to watch, thanks to some weird gender politics and treatment of socially awkward types. But as the relationships fleshed out, the season ended strongly, and when it came back for Season 2, the show fired on all cylinders until about the middle of Season 3, when Penny dumped Leonard.

Or, in the case of a show that starts well, the second season allows the writers to expand on the universe. This is the case with Justified, where the Crowder storyline from the first season expands out to include other characters from Harlan County, like the Bennett Clan, who insinuate themselves into proceedings for the rest of the show (or at least, through to Season 5, which is as far as I've gotten).

Similarly with the Wire, the second season allowed the creators to show that it wasn't simply about cops and drug dealers, by showing how the decay and hopelessness of the West Baltimore projects was mirrored in the destruction of the dockworkers' livelihood.

Of course, not all shows improve in the second season - Star Trek: The Next Generation didn't get good until Season 3, and Grimm, as I've said, plodded along as a kind of guilty pleasure until the end of Season 4 when the writers decided to throw everything out the window and go apeshit. Others, like the aforementioned Heroes, are so perfect in the first season that they can never live up to that early promise - or they write themselves into a corner with an overarching plot that gets too convoluted to ever resolve.

Daredevil, pleasingly, managed to open out its universe in ways that felt right, and if the overall plot was more disjointed than in Season 1, it just all felt much more assured. What I'm a little concerned about is Season 2 of Mr. Robot - the first season felt so perfectly done, and went to such interesting places, that I have trouble imagining how they top it.

Because that's what you're meant to do in creative endeavors - or really anything. Doing a great job at first is wonderful, but once you show what you can do you're held to that standard for ever after. Satisfying customers is simple, but not easy, because it involves doing the same thing, but better. So I'll be checking out reviews and ratings for this new season of Mr. Robot - fingers crossed.