Today in Movie History: June 22

It’s a close call for the top spot today — there’s some big ones — but we’re going to go with Kermit and the gang making their feature film debut with  The Muppet Movie. The irreplaceable Jim Henson turned directing duties over to James Frawley, but the former’s fingerprints are all over it, bolstered by brilliant songs from Paul Williams and backed by his unbelievable troupe of puppeteers. It remains every inch the sweet, magical, iconoclastic statement the Muppets deserve. Time hasn’t dimmed it one iota, and when people talk about the greatest family movies ever made, this one invariably creeps into the conversation. if you need a break from the bumper crop of real world horrors this summer, the little green frog dude has got your back. It opened today in 1979.

Disney has a few family classics of its own, not the least of which is Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Robert Zemeckis’s gloriously clever take on a Hollywood where animated characters live and work among flesh-and-blood humans. It works brilliantly not only as a unique summer blockbuster, but as a wondrous parody of film noir, a gentle poke at the filmmaking industry, and even a quiet statement about the nature of prejudice, all topped by one of the best performances of Bob Hoskins’ career. It opened 30 years ago today in 1988.

For more classic Disney, we find Lady and The Tramp: landing right in the middle of the company’s 1950s heyday and scoring a huge hit for the Mouse in the process. It’s not quite as beloved as the likes of Snow White or Pinocchio, but the gorgeously animated tale of love between a pampered spaniel and a back-alley mutt still brings honored to the vaunted studio. It opened today in 1955.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton movies remain guilty pleasures for this column, especially when their nuclear chemistry turns into a meltdown. Case in point: Mike Nichol’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, charting the disintegration of a middle-aged couple over a long booze-filled evening. Considered shocking at the time, it’s lost little of that power thanks in no small part to the two leads whose love-hate relationship have become the stuff of legend. It opened today in 1966.

Oh, okay, we’ll include The Fast and the Furious too. Good? No. Not even close. But it clearly grabbed a hold of something — spawning a franchise that shows now signs of slowing down decades later — and the risible hyper-masculinity takes itself WAY too seriously in this initial effort (something the sequels eventually figured out), there’s no denying that the stunt and chase scenes are worthy of attention. It opened today in 2001. Vroom-vroom!



Movie Review: The Fate of the Furious

Starring: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel, Charlize Theron and Kurt Russell
Directed by: F. Gary Gray
Running time: 136 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Year of release: 2017


In my review of the last Fast and the Furious movie, I opined that the franchise had little left to do but pop Vin Diesel on top of a Wile E. Coyote rocket and light the fuse. It pretty much goes there – do not pass Go, do not collect $200 – in the opening scene of The Fate of the Furious, during an impromptu Havana street race to resolve some damn thing or another. “You’ve won the car and my respect,” his vanquished opponent intones. A more appropriate statement might have been “Holy shit dude, WHY AREN’T YOU ON FIRE!?”

Welcome back to the single most ridiculous movie series on the planet… and believe me when I say that’s a feature not a bug. Pauline Kael once claimed that we need to enjoy good trash because good art comes along so rarely. The Furious franchise has adopted that as a mantra, and while eight movies – with doubtless more to come – may be pushing it, it’s not like people are getting tired of them.

The question, then, is not whether the film is any good – it isn’t – but how well it ups the ante in the ridiculous department. These movies live for mayhem, the goofier the better. And the more creative the mayhem, the more entertaining the results. Coherent thought has no place here, nor do criticisms relating to:

  1. The laws of physics.
  2. The way computers work.
  3. Genuine human emotions.
  4. Dwayne Johnson’s capacity to sweat.

Granted, such hurdles bear consideration. But attempting to address them comes down to trying to make pork ribs an acceptable vegetarian entree: it’s a fool’s errand and if you push too hard, you just end up looking like an asshole. You take the ride or you don’t, and you can’t accuse the movie of false advertising.

The worst of it largely comes from those talking parts between scenes of cars careening through city streets like pinballs. Characters explaining their motivations to each other, why they’re doing what they’re doing, how they interact with each other as fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth… that’s for the PBS crowd, and when The Fate of the Furious tries it, you can guess how badly it goes.

On the other hand, the cast always enjoys itself, and their infectious glee makes it easier to forgive the movie its litany of sins. Diesel never cracks a smile, of course, but the rest of the gang is under no such obligations. The lot of them resolutely maintain that twinkle in their eyes, from Tyrese Gibson’s game straight man to Jason Statham and The Rock casting homoerotic glances at each other. It’s all Kurt Russell can do to keep from cackling like a loon every time he’s on screen, and with “lighten up” the order of the day, the connecting segments of plot exposition pass agreeably if not respectfully.

The set pieces remain the real purpose of the exercise, of course, and their cartoonish excess works in concert with some genuine creativity on the conceptual level. It helps to set Diesel’s Dom Toretto against his former crew – forced to betray them because reasons, and looking for a way to wriggle out of the trap he’s stuck in – which gives the conflict some novelty value. Director F. Gary Gray cheerfully sets his little wind-up cars in motion and points the cameras in the right direction. The results are silly, but admittedly loads of fun: when the villain (Charlize Theron, enjoying her evil side) says “make it rain” as Dom zips through the suspiciously empty New York streets, you suspect she’s not talking about the weather.

That trend continues into far more exotic territory, prompting such questions as “how do you drive a Lamborghini to the Arctic Circle?” and “Vin Diesel is just fireproof, isn’t he?” They don’t damage the gee-whiz factor in the slightest, however, which remains the franchise’s devastatingly effective secret weapon. Early entries clung resolutely to the notion that they had to exist in something resembling the real world: a thought that went out the window three or four movies ago. When it did, the Furious movies became more than hot air… or rather, they stopped pretending that they had anything other than hot air to offer and resolved to make it the best hot air money could buy.

That doesn’t make for a quality product, but I can’t say you won’t enjoy yourself… provided you understand exactly what you’re getting when you buy the ticket. The Fate of the Furious benefits because it adheres to formula, which serves as the sole point of its existence. This is commerce, not art, and you can’t accuse it of lying to the paying customers. It does what it does, and delivers your money’s worth in the process, provided you read the packaging before arriving at the theater. You can’t blame the sausage factory for not giving you tofu; if you do, you’re clearly in the wrong movie.