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Movie Review: Fast & Furious 6

Fast cars, leggy women, big guns, money and loads of piston-pumping action is the stuff of the Fast & Furious. Six movies in and it's like they're just starting their engines as the flags go down and the winner takes all. Although to be fair, the road has had some twists, veering into new territory with Tyrese Gibson in 2 Fast 2 Furious and then reinventing the series altogether with the third one, Tokyo Drift.

The Fast & Furious franchise has come a long way - peaking with their hybrid of Ocean's Eleven, The Italian Job and Elite Squad in Fast Five. Throwing Rio de Janeiro culture and Dwayne Johnson into the mix certainly added to the weight, machismo and chemistry of the team, piling on plenty of pressure for the London-based follow-up, Fast & Furious 6.

The burgeoning Fast & Furious family continues to expand. Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Tyrese Gibson reprise their long-running co-lead characters, while it's a welcome return for Fast Five heroes: Dwayne Johnson, Ludacris, Sung Kang, Jordana Brewster and a long lost Michelle Rodriguez. Each actor brings their particular set of skills to the team with great tension between Diesel and Johnson for star and team leader. The new recruits include MMA and Haywire star, Gina Carano, as a second-in-comand for Hobbs and a slick British villain in Luke Evans.

The sixth film is set in London and takes some cues from Sherlock, a new contemporary TV series, which inspired at least two scenes involving observation and sniper rifles. Justin Lin has directed the majority of Fast & Furious films, including Fast Five, and has a good handle on what works. This sequel focuses on three major action set pieces with plotting, posing and humour filling in the gaps.

The team are doing "one last mission" for Hobbs to take down a high-powered criminal in exchange for a full pardon. What results is a Fast & Furious versus Fast & Furious showdown, as the "Ocean's Eleven" crew are pitted against an equal-opposite British team, who are arguably stronger, better equipped and more street savvy. The high octane action continues, knocking things up a notch with some Burnout style takedowns and high tensile cable mayhem.

Fast & Furious 6 has a spill of new characters and egos to worry about, giving ample time for each player to show their stuff with prevalence towards an amnesia plot involving Diesel and Rodriguez. The film see-saws between the teams as they try to stay one step ahead of their competition without falling prey to the police or bad intel with Rodriguez and freedom as main prize.

It's spectacular, bringing the same level of stunt work and special effects as Fast Five, within the confines of a bustling London. The effects team have used tensile steel cables to elevate action pay offs - connecting vehicles for more death-defying moments. Unfortunately, Lin's imagination is unhinged and the third act goes from unbelievable to virtually impossible.

The film must have been partly inspired by the success of The Avengers, which was a compilation of three climax-worthy action set pieces. In doing so, they've given the characters special attributes that make Dwayne Johnson's other film, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, look like a documentary. Yet, these two films are bound by more than a central star. They both share similar popcorn aspirations, leveraging the success of Fast Five or "The Brazilian Job" and pushing the audience to the limit of possibility.

The quick pacing, solid action cast, slick visuals, funny chirps and video game plot make for easy-viewing. However, the final climax just seems unnecessary, over-the-top and unintentionally funny, turning what started as another solid sequel into a ridiculous thrill ride in the realm of superheroes. It's not terrible, it just becomes terribly funny as one miraculous stunt dwarfs another.

The bottom line: Entertaining


Movie Review: Bernie

Jack Black is an irrepressible jack-in-the-box and pent up ball of energy ready to explode. At least, that's how most of his characters come across - making him funny, outrageous and supremely entertaining. When he does tone his performance down in something more sedate, we notice. Bernie is one of those films, reconnecting Jack Black with School of Rock director, Richard Linklater, to tune into his sweeter side in a remarkable true story.

Bernie Tiede, a small town mortician, was a very popular man in the small Texan town of Carthage. Friendly, sweet-natured and generous, he was heavily involved in the church and local upliftment programmes, making him a firm favourite among locals. So much so that when he befriended a wealthy widow and murdered her, it was almost as if he had cast a spell on the townsfolk.

Bernie is a dark comedy that would be best described as a true crime TV documentary in the style of Christopher Guest. Bernie echoes the work of Guest's improvised comedies: Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and Waiting for Guffman. The documentary style interviews with locals set the scene as we get to know the lead characters unpacking a series of questions surrounding the crime. There's even a touch of Wes Anderson's Rushmore, portraying a sweet, naieve and likable character, whose misguided pursuit for love and acceptance in a closed environment lands him in a predicament.

We're immersed in the culture, introduced to Bernie by the sympathetic locals, before the real story plays out. Jack Black plays Bernie like a mixture between Poirot and well, Jack Black. He's sweet, round, well-mannered, effeminate and courteous to the point of murder. Black manages to keep a lid on his energy, channeling it into the business of his character, who seems intent on turning the film into a musical.

He's supported by Shirley MacLaine as Majorie Nugent, who plays a shade of what's become a regular character outing for her. She's tempestuous, bitter and largely despised by her counterparts, who are only too quick to tell it how it is. It's a rather thankless role and antithesis for the charms of Jack Black, which eventually makes way for another good turn by Matthew McConaughey as self-appointed chief justice and District Attorney, Danny Buck.

Jack Black's composed performance as Bernie and Richard Linklater's ode to the work of Christopher Guest and Wes Anderson give this comedy class. The film's 'based on a true story' tag line grounds it, dulling some of the comedy and creating a strange small town tension around the nature of the crime with a bunch of colourful commentaries from locals.

Bernie is character-driven and we derive enjoyment from the details, customs, wardrobe, state of mind and sense of humour of Carthage. The blot of murder on Bernie's clean sheet reputation show how a popular gentleman's lifetime of good deeds blur the lines of justice. It's an entertaining, sharp-witted, fascinating and sympathetic character study into the life and times of a irrepressibly sweet and seemingly innocent man.

The bottom line: Charmed

Movie Review: Promised Land

Promised Land deals with the contentious fracking debate, which isn't surprising, considering it's a Gus Van Sant film. The director is known for tackling difficult subjects head-on and he's opted for a big one as far as environmental concerns go. While he's quite fearless in most of his films, he's taken a step back with his approach to Promised Land, delivering a quietly powerful message that's neither backdrop nor full-blown propaganda.

Instead of beating us over the head with the issues or going for a underdog versus corporate scenario, Matt Damon and John Krasinski have written a screenplay from the salesman's perspective. Matt Damon is known for playing likable, everyman characters and he delivers a fine performance from a difficult standpoint. Beyond the ecological frame, it's a small town drama about pioneering, doing what it takes to clinch the deal and being able to keep your head high.

In many ways, the eco-drama is a skin for a high school popularity, Mexican stand-off or election contest as two forces go head-to-head in a race to get the sway of public approval. Promised Land rumbles with enough humour and infotainment to keep us locked in, but it's Damon's performance that elevates the film.

Damon knows the script well, which helps him translate the complex character of Steve Butler with great aplomb. It's not as determined as Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, but he manages to make us like him despite his apparent oblivion. He's supported by heavyweights in Frances McDormand as his colleague and Hal Holbrook as a local science teacher, with co-screenwriter, John Krasinski filling in for Ben Affleck as a charming environmental activist and thorn in his side.

Promised Land is a product of our times. You could argue that Man's proclivity towards hedonism and narcissim has made us a selfish, self-made, independent and vain species. However, the "plague" or "scourge" of the Earth as David Attenborough put it, better known as humanity, is becoming more environmentally-conscious. Then another trend is that community can effect change - just take a look at the rise of organisations like Avaaz, Groupon, Kickstarter and Waze.

Most films of this type generally underplay the issue or fall headlong into a preachy one-sided affair bordering on propaganda. Gus Van Sant's film falls into neither, which would put it at risk of being bland. The human drama has real weight and we're able to get an insider's perspective. By taking the flawed salesman's point-of-view with sympathy, he disarms us. Keeping the fracking and social context as the glue, Van Sant affords the opportunity to inform his audience in a subtle manner and he doesn't harp on.

The end result is an entertaining coming-of-age small town drama with an ecologically-conscious message. While fracking leads to a clean energy source in natural gas, the method of extraction has a serious impact on the environment. By the end of the film we're both moved and enlightened by a first-rate cast, solid performances, subtle direction and a script that bristles with life.

The bottom line: Compelling

Movie Review: Bullet to the Head

Bullet to the Head is a long-awaited match-up of Hollywood veterans, Walter Hill and Sylvester Stallone. Walter Hill directed Arnold Schwarzenegger in Red Heat and Bruce Willis in Last Man Standing, so it was only fitting that he complete The Expendables 2 triumvirate with Sylvester Stallone in Bullet to the Head.

Stallone's had a good run of form rebooting Rocky and Rambo, with a tongue-in-cheek tribute to action men with The Expendables, which is about to become a trilogy. The Italian Stallion's used to playing tough guys and with that sucker punch accent and brute physique who can blame him? He brings his old school charm and experience to Bullet to the Head, but unfortunately it's not enough.

Bullet to the Head is a loose adaptation of the graphic novel, Headshot (Du plomb dans la tête). Part buddy movie and part crime thriller, the film lies somewhere between Rush Hour and one of those stone cold straight-to-video WWE actioners in a story, which sees a hitman (Stallone) and detective (Kang) join forces to take down a common enemy.

The Rush Hour buddy movie dynamic draws a New Orleans-based Italian-American and a Washington D.C. detective of Korean descent together, much like Hill's 48 Hrs. As the tag team gets into gear, there are several comedic moments resulting from mistrust and prejudice. However, they don't have Jackie Chan's legs or Chris Tucker's motormouth to play up the action comedy, making this one more about getting down to business.

Bullet to the Head is better than most WWE action hero vehicles. The casting alone is an improvement as Sylvester Stallone's mere presence, Sung Kang's equal opposite contrast and Jason Momoa's intimidating physique and cold-blooded determination carry much of the story. Add some solid action set pieces and better-than-average production values and you've got yourself a gritty little crime thriller.

Hill adds some flair to the action scenes ranging from Eastern Promises style hand-to-hand bath house combat to a firefighter axe duel that wouldn't be out-of-place in The Expendables. It's a trigger-happy foray into the criminal underground as a yin-yang double team get payback in style.

Bullet to the Head is mostly entertaining thanks to Stallone's star power, some decent "haven't we seen this somewhere before" crime drama, some mood-lightening buddy movie comedy and some well-worked action set pieces. However, everything is undermined by an out-of-sync conclusion.

While it's refreshing to watch an action thriller of this calibre without Jason Statham, Bullet to the Head has a sting in its tail. The 'it is what it is' rule can only go so far and after coasting along at a good pace, Bullet to the Head fails to execute in the third act. The co-lead chemistry is disavowed like a bad one night stand and one of the central characters is hijacked by his evil twin, the end.

The bottom line: Unfinished

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