“Fast & Furious 6”: Going along for the ride

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“Fast & Furious 6” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema and Cinema Cafe. PG-13, 2 hours 10 minutes, 2 and a half stars out of four.

Back when I reviewed the first “The Fast and the Furious” movie in 2000, I griped about the unreality of the film’s car chases. Surely a car wouldn’t really fly that high in the air after hitting a jump that small.

In “Fast & Furious 6,” as a tank flipped up on the highway, launching the woman perched on its turret over a gorge, and another man leaped from the other side of the divide to catch her in midair, I considered I might have been too hasty in my original criticism.

Forget real-world physics. The car chases and crashes of the sixth installment don’t adhere to the physics of my old Matchbox car races, when cars would do septuple-flips off the dining room table and into the litter box.

But that is much of the fun of the franchise since director Justin Lin (who was at the Wisconsin Film Festival a lifetime ago with his indie debut “Better Luck Tomorrow” in 2003) took over the “F & F” movies. “Fast Five” was unquestionably the best of the series, bookending a decent heist plot with two inventive and hilariously over-the-top car chases.

“6” doesn’t have quite the gonzo appeal of that giant safe smashing through the streets of Rio, but it does end with two lengthy and inspired action sequences, which is all anybody is in their seats for. It’s loud, dumb fun — sometimes too dumb for its own good.

After the $100 million heist of “Fast Five,” the heroes are enjoying their ill-gotten goods in extradition-free countries. But government agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) convinces them to reunite, this time on the side of the angels to take down an ex-Special Forces agent named Shaw (Luke Evans) and his team, who want to steal a thing. Really, it does not matter what that thing is, so why waste time explaining it?

Hobbs’ ace card is that one of Shaw’s team is Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), back from the dead and apparently suffering from amnesia. (They must be saving the evil twin plot for “F&F 7.”) So her ex-lover Dom (Vin Diesel), partner Brian (Paul Walker) and the crew are persuaded to take Shaw down so they can take Letty back.

For a six-film series that’s basically a series of tenuously-connected action sequence, it’s surprising how much “Fast & Furious” relies on its mythology, bringing back recurring characters and tying up loose ends. Dom and Brian’s team has gotten larger and larger with every film, and the movie hammers home its idea that this isn’t car thief ring, it’s “family,” every chance they get. A welcome addition to the team this time around is MMA star Gina Carano (“Haywire”), who plays Hobbs’ new partner and gets into one dilly of a fight in a subway station.

The film briskly moves along — there may be as many as a dozen separate action sequences before those two closing setpieces — only slowing down enough for some comic relief from Tyrese Gibson or Chris “Ludacris” Bridges (who have the only good lines in the film). And those setpieces — a tank vs. cars duel on the freeway, and a desperate chase to catch a plane that’s taking off, with cars ending up dangling off the plane’s wings like Christmas ornaments — are pretty great.

A coda contains a cameo setting up the villain for the next installment — it’s the one actor who should be in these movies by now but isn’t. I expect it’ll be about as good and about as silly as this one — this is a franchise that knows what it is and what it needs to deliver.

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“The Reluctant Fundamentalist”: From Manhattan to the madrassah

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“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 2 hours 8 minutes, 3 stars out of 4.

In the mid ’00s we got a spate of films that looked at the post-9/11 world and tried to “make sense of it all,” both what was happening in the Muslim world and what was happening in America. Some were good (“In the Valley of Elah”), some were not (“Sorry, Haters”), all seemed well-intentioned. Then, right about the time President Obama was inaugurated, they seem to die down, as if a collective memory fog was descending on Hollywood. Who would want to go back there?

But the next generation of post-9/11 films, including “Zero Dark Thirty” and now “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” seems to be coming around, having the benefit of a little perspective to tell their stories. I came into “Fundamentalist” worried that it would suffer from the didacticism and stridency of some of its predecessors. But the film from writer William Wheeler and director Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding’) is smart and complex, as unwilling to cling to one ideology as its protagonist.

The weakest part of the film is its ticking-clock framing device. An American professor (and likely CIA agent) has been kidnapped off the streets of Lahore, Pakistan. A newspaper writer (and even more likely CIA agent) named Bobby (Liev Schreiber) thinks one of his fellow professors, a young Pakistani man named Changez (Riz Ahmed), might have terrorist ties. So, in a cafe, Bobby and Changez sit down for what shifts between a friendly conversation and a canny interrogation. Meanwhile, Bobby’s superior (Martin Donovan) is listening, ready to send the troops in to seize Changez at a moment’s notice.

It’s a little hokey, but the film gets much better once Bobby and Changez start to talk. Changez spins a fascinating tale of his life, a former financial analyst (“a Navy SEAL of finance,” in his words) who takes a job in New York in the late ’90s, fully committed to living the capitalist dream.  Kiefer Sutherland is terrific has his boss and mentor, who recognizes a fellow predator in his rising young star.

But then the planes hit the Twin Towers, and everything changes for the aptly named Changez. It would be easy for a film to overstate the shift in attitude that Muslims had to face, but “Fundamentalist” is subtle and believable in charting that change. Changez gets pulled aside at the airport every time he flies, receives dirty looks and epithets from passers-by on the streets. In the office, his co-workers whisper anti-Muslim sentiments to each other, and make nervous jokes when Changez decides to grow out his beard. Even his artist girlfriend (Kate Hudson) makes a ham-handed art installation about Islam. Changez, formerly on his way to being a titan of Wall Street, finds himself an outcast.

So he returns to Pakistan and takes a teaching job, and the film keeps us guessing how far his intellect and passion took him, if he became the thing that America suspected he always was. The film is helped immeasurably by Ahmed’s canny, sympathetic performance. Changez is no victim — he radiates confidence and intelligence in all situations, so clearly beyond the simple fundamentalism of both sides of the culture war.

The essential question of “Fundamentalist” is whether his intelligence and humanity keeps him from getting sucked into the undertow of fundamentalism. Once you get away from the kidnapping plot, the audience spends an engrossing time in the film finding that out.

UFOs (Ultra-fun Films Outdoors) descend on the Terrace this summer

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One of the best ways to spend a Monday night in Madison during the summer is at a Lakeside Cinema movie on the UW Memorial Union Terrace. Okay, one of the best ways to spend any summer night in Madison is on the Terrace, so I’m cheating a bit.

Still, the long-running free Lakeside series is a pretty much guaranteed good time. They set  up a screen by the lake, and people cluster around with their popcorn and beer. There’s usually a trivia contest or some kind of other giveaway before the show starts at dusk. And the Union has greatly improved the projection and sound in the last few years, so you can actually appreciate the movie, which wasn’t always the case.

Every summer program has a theme, and this summer’s is “Outta This World” — movies both serious and silly that feature aliens and outer space. It kicks off next Monday at 9 p.m. with “E.T. The Extraterrestrial.” Which I know just played at Olbrich Park as part of Madison Parks’ own outdoor summer movie series. But, come on, it’s “E.T.”

Then comes “Spaceballs,” “Alien,” the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and many more. It’s all free, so keep watching the skies! And the screen by the lake.

Here’s the full schedule. Visit union.wisc.edu/film for more information.

May 27: “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”

June 3:   “Spaceballs” 

June 10:  “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”

June 17: “Mars Attacks!”

June 24: “Alien”

July 1:  “Muppets from Space”

July 8:  “Men in Black”

July 15: “The Last Starfighter”

July 22: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”

July 29: “Galaxy Quest”

Aug 5: “Little Shop of Horrors”

Aug 12: “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”

Aug 19: “WALL-E”

Aug 26: “Total Recall” 

Sept 2:  “Space Jam”

Instant Gratification: “The Wrath of Khan” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix

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Every Tuesday, Instant Gratification brings you five movies currently streaming on Netflix Instant, most of which are new to the service. I made an exception for this week’s top choice, since I bet it’s of particular interest this week. If you have suggestions for movies on Netflix to recommend, let me know in comments.

Top pick of the week: “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” — Whatever you thought of “Into Darkness,” you should have left the theater hankering to see this 1982 film, unquestionably the best of all “Star Trek” movies. Action, humor, exciting cat-and-mouse combat between starships, and a truly great villain.

Drama of the week: “Leaving Las Vegas” — Nicolas Cage’s name may be synonymous with hammy acting now, but he deservedly won an Oscar in 1995 for playing an alcoholic deliberately drinking himself to death, with Elisabeth Shue playing against type as the prostitute who falls for him.

Comedy of the week: “Gregory’s Girl” — A charmer from Scottish director Bill Forsyth (“Local Hero”), about an awkward teen who wants to ask out a fellow player on his soccer team.

Foreign film of the week: “Flame and Citron” — This World War II film, co-starring Mads Mikkelsen of “Hannibal,” follows a pair of celebrated Danish Resistance fighters who showed no mercy in fighting the Nazis on their doorstep.

Foodie film of the week: “Big Night” — Green Bay’s Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci play brothers who own an Italian restaurant, preparing for a possible visit from the great Louis Prima. The last, wordless cooking scene in the film is a thing of beauty.

 

 

A few more spoiler-y thoughts on “Star Trek Into Darkness”

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I’ve loved the comments I’ve gotten so far on my original “Star Trek Into Darkness” review from last week, even though they differ widely from those who absolutely loved the film to those who were crushingly disappointed. To be clear, I’m somewhere in the middle — I enjoyed most of it as a purely fun ride, but ultimately felt somewhat let down by the missed opportunities. And, for the record, I say so as someone who is both a lifelong Trekkie and huge fan of J.J. Abrams’ first “Star Trek” film.

My biggest problem with the film is the ending, which obviously I couldn’t get into in my original review. So I wanted to take a little time now under the “Spoiler Alert!” banner to talk about that.

I can pinpoint the exact moment that “Into Darkness” lost me:

“KHAAAAAAN!”

Up until then, like I said, it was a fun ride. The film is Abrams’ chance to riff on the best “Trek” movie of all time, “The Wrath of Khan.” Benedict Cumberbatch makes a fine, imperious villain (although his level of villainy seems to vary widely depending on the needs of a given scene), and the film has great visual effects sequences, like the Enterprise in free fall, the characters inside clinging onto walls as the ship rotates helplessly.

I also thought the Kirk-Spock friendship was nicely developed, to the point where I thought recreating the iconic engine room death scene from “Khan,” the roles reversed, actually worked. It was one of those sweet-spot moments that Abrams shoots for — something that will work for general non-Trekkie audiences while giving a nod to the diehard fans.

And then, “KHAAAAAN!” Having Spock yell that completely disrupts the death scene, drawing lots of knowing chuckles in the audience I was with. More importantly, it’s just the worst sort of pandering to “Star Trek” fans, as if Abrams had a checklist of “Wrath of Khan” elements that he was briskly checking off. “Oh, they’ll want to see that!”

Well, no, not if it disrupts the emotional arc of the movie for what’s basically a cheap callback joke. For me, I think the “Star Trek” reboots work when they riff on the overall dynamics of the series and the relationships between the characters. But to recreate a specific line from a specific movie in that series — especially at such a dramatic high point — feels cheap.

And after that, the film descends into what I call the usual “chase-fight-dangle” — a big starship crash and an interminable fight on top of a shuttle, because that’s how these big action movies end, right? It’s another form of pandering, just now to the broad general audiences who expect that sort of thing.

I’ve tried to assiduously avoid comparisons to how “Wrath of Khan” did it because, I agree, “Into Darkness” should be allowed to stand or fall on its own merits. You can’t make a 1982 film in 2013 and expect it to work. But on its own merits, and despite being a lot of fun at times, “Into Darkness” doesn’t live up to the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot.

“Lore”: Over the river and through the Allies

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“Lore” is now playing at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 1:49, 3 stars out of 4. I’ll be doing a post-show chat after the 7:05 p.m. showing Monday in Sundance’s Overflow Bar — it should start about 9 p.m. if you just want to come for the chat.

“Lore” is unlike any movie about the Holocaust that I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s because writer-director Cate Shortland is Australian, not German, and so doesn’t feel the weight to exorcise demons and “tell the truth” the way many well-meaning films from Germany seem to.

Instead, Shortland has gone more in the direction of her first film, 2004’s “Somersault.” Both films are about teenage girls trying to navigate circumstances they clearly aren’t emotionally ready for. It’s just that, in this case, the girl is a Nazi.

Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is a 14-year-old German girl who knows something’s very wrong when she gets home from school. Her SS officer father and mother are packing up, quietly panicked. The Allies are at the country’s doorstep, and the family needs to flee. The parents are quickly seized, and it’s up to Lore to guide her four younger siblings, including a baby, through the Black Forest to her grandmother’s house.

If that sounds more like a fairy tale than a historical drama, the comparison is deliberate. Shortland is almost Malick-like in her use of the natural world to tell her story, with long takes of the family trudging through dark woods and bright meadows, hiding in decrepit farmhouses, scrabbling for enough food to survive. Politics takes a back seat to survival.

Eventually, the siblings come across a young man named Thomas (Kai Malina), who has a six-pointed star among his papers. Thomas has had years of practice surviving on the run, hiding out, and he’s able to procure food and transportation for the family. But Lore has been trained all her life to hate Jews, and the film very subtly tracks her growing confusion over those prejudices, and her adolescent feelings towards Thomas.

One could have made a much more didactic film with the same story — German girl learns Jews aren’t so bad after all! — but Shortland is after something much more elliptical here. She ties Lore’s slow moral awakening to the universal transition of adolescence, as children come to realize that their parents don’t have all the answers, and come to rebel against those answers. It’s a tricky balanced to pull off, but “Lore” works, especially thanks to Rosendahl’s fearless, unvarnished performance.

Here’s a girl we should hate — I thought of her as the Nazi girl in “Schindler’s List” who nastily shouts “Good bye, Jews!” as Jewish families are rounded up — and yet we become deeply invested in her journey.

What’s playing in Madison theaters: May 17-23, 2013

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It’s commencement weekend, which means that graduating students are thrilled, parents are teary-eyed, restaurants are packed — and this column gets a lot shorter for a while as the campus film series come to an end.

All week

“Star Trek Into Darkness” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Sundance) — My full review is here. J.J. Abrams’ second outing in the captain’s chair of the Enterprise is getting mostly positive but not many rapturous reviews. I had a fun time watching it (especially in eye-popping IMAX 3D) but felt the screenplay panders too much to Trekkies (of which I’m one) instead of pushing the franchise forward.

Lore” (Sundance) — Cate Shortland’s film dares the audience to identify with a teenage girl who at least shares her Nazi parents’ Aryan sensibilities, as she tries to shepherd her siblings to safety in post-war Germany. It’s a beautiful, at times elliptical film that’s more about adolescence that politics. I’m doing a post-show chat on Monday after the 7:05 p.m. showing at Sundance Cinemas, 430 N. Midvale Blvd. Come for the movie, or if you already saw it at the Wisconsin Film Festival or elsewhere, just meet us in the Overflow Bar at 9 p.m.!

Free the Mind” (Sundance) — A documentary about pioneering research in the beneficial aspects of meditation on the brain could be a high-falutin’ esoteric exercise, but this film is level-headed and practical, looking at research done right here in Madison on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and preschoolers with ADHD. Some teachers from the program will take part in a post-screening chat after the 7 p.m. show on Saturday.

Saturday

“E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” (8:30 p.m., Olbrich Park) — Madison Parks and the Madison Mallards have a great idea — show free movies outside all summer long, at both local parks and the Duck Pond. The series kicks off with Steven Spielberg’s enchanting sci-fi classic. UPDATE: This screening was originally scheduled to take place Friday, but was moved to Saturday because of the weather. Free!

Wednesday

Crafting a Nation” (7:30 p.m., Barrymore Theatre) — Did Madison Craft Beer Week make you thirsty to learn more about craft beers and the people who make them? Check out this new documentary, which looks at craft beer makers in seven states (not Wisconsin, though) who quit their jobs and cashed in their 401ks to chase their dreams of making and selling great beer. Tickets are $10 in advance through barrymorelive.com, $12 at the door.