Iron Man Lives Again

If I were to include all the things that make Iron Man a good movie with all the worst traits of the absolutely useless The Incredible Hulk, I’d fit snugly into my opinion of Iron Man 2 as a picture.

Of course, that statement is not enough to sum up how it is a movie so allow me to elaborate:

The film almost immediately takes its plot reins from the final beat of Iron Man, where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) said “fuck it” to secret identities and laid out in public his being Iron Man. This coincides with the death of an elderly man in Eastern Europe and his grieving son Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) takes it upon himself to begin taking up his own revenge on the Starks. To fuel this vengeance, Vanko, a second-generation physicist, looks at his father’s research and uses it to effortlessly create something it was thought only one man could create: an arc reactor.

Lucky for Stark, the US Government does not know about this second arc reactor’s existence just yet, but they are still insistent that Stark surrender the Iron Man technology to them, with Stark’s Air Force brass best friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard and the role ending up so much better for it) standing as the middle man.

And a chemical reaction with the palladium in Tony’s arc reactor is in fact poisoning him and accelerating his impending death.

… And there’s a shit load of other plot lines thrown in. Director/Actor Jon Favreau and Co-Writer Justin Theroux clearly don’t have much restraint in how many dumb things they want to throw into the fray to provide some semblance of a plot – there’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson in yet another amazingly inspired bit of comic book movie casting) upgrading himself from being a glorified cameo and Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsson) being mysterious and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) dealing with how many secrets Tony is holding from her – that it eventually muddles into The Amazing Spider-Man 2 territory of plotlessness, the only true substance being in how much Iron Man 2 services itself as a trailer to The Avengers than in being a coherent story for itself.

Like really. If there’s any film in the MCU than can be called out for being an advertisement for the next films, it’s Iron Man 2. In addition to the disorganization of its multiple threads of plot, it’s clear that each thread means to reach out to the next big thing that might promise another direction for the franchise. Return of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Check. Black Widow shoehorn? Check. Hammer Industries? Check.

Which speaking of the character of Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) – rival to Stark as a military supplies contractor – brings me to note something. While again almost everybody in the cast is perfectly serviceable save for Favreau and Johansson (who we completely know is purely eye-candy but still… dammit, Scar Jo, you can do better than dazily waltz around inconsequentially to the scene), Rockwell is the only actor other than Downey Jr. that gives a pop-out performance. Which comes, a lot more in this field than RDJ, from dismissing outright what the character in fact is in the comics – a decrepit old man who would have no stomach for the sort of energetic dancing gladhappy-handing shenanigans Rockwell engages in during the film.

Still Downey Jr. is best in show as he fits more into Stark’s character like a glove than Rockwell comfortably shakes his own persona into Hammer. Paltrow, Clark Gregg, Jackson, Cheadle and Rourke do what they can to remind others they are in the movie and important to what Stark has to do – especially frustrating when these roles are more artificially tailored to their skills by that same confused script by Favreau and Theroux than Stark is to RDJ, but dems the brakes with them.

See, what makes Iron Man 2 a much more frustrating affair than any movie fearing Robert Downey Jr. in the role of Tony Stark once again is how aesthetically speaking it’s fine-tuned – we get some great design work visually and audibly and even a fantastic cameo by John Slattery playing Walt Disney Howard Stark that is possibly my favorite moment of the whole film – but creatively speaking, more effort is clearly wasted on making the fan service apparent rather than the actual story working out on its own. And let me tell you, the fan service is not what I come to a movie for. I don’t care about Captain America’s shield yet, especially when it’s the butt of a dumb 2-second joke shortly after the movie goes “HEY GUIZE LOOKZ WAT WE GOT HEAR!!!” I don’t care about Black Widow if she’s not going to do anything except have a glare stuck on her face for all the screentime she wastes. It’s not for me.

It’s especially not for me when the stuff that isn’t fan service – ie Rockwell and Downey Jr. – is the only thing that works in the movie. Please, I’m glad Favreau dropped out of Iron Man 3 if he actually couldn’t figure out what truly went right about his first picture.

I mean, look, it’s not a film I dislike. It’s still pretty entertaining for me on the stance of its humor, its performances, even its action sequences – which include a run little prison escape, an a brief ten second ground drone battle that you can expect use to scream “FUCKING AWESOME AT THE SCREEN!” before Stark cockblocks you with lasers – that are pretty ok (although once again if the fight scene involves Black Widow or Favreau’s Happy Hogan, then… no. It’s a mess of editing. They’re bad omens, I guess.). But there’s nothing in Iron Man 2 that actually surprises or shakes me the way that Iron Man or Guardians of the Galaxy did that make me re-watch them again. And considering how many looser ends it leaves, which it does (I was not lying when I say the script leaves itself a mess – it resolves the plot threads clearly Favreau cared about and the rest are just meaningless fluff pieces apparently), I just can’t put myself through that disappointment by watching it again.

Again, it’s not by any means a film I actively dislike. At all.

But it’s a film that’s hard to love.

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Smashed

Perhaps I was being a little too hard on Iron Man. Certainly lack of personality except in the form of a fantastically charismatic leading performance is not exactly the sort of thing that gets people leaving away from the cinemas in a grumbling hurry and, after all, we can still call Iron Man a good movie and look forward to watching it again and again as I have.

We cannot say the same thing about The Incredible Hulk, one of the first properties Marvel Studios regained control over and greenlit to off-shoot the apparent damage that Ang Lee’s 2003 picture Hulk had made on the potentials of the hero/property as a franchise. Well, Lee may not have made a great picture himself at all but it was clear that he truly wanted to make something.

The Incredible Hulk has the problem of not really wanting to do anything itself except run through the narrative numbers again very quickly like Iron Man did, to end itself with another nudge and wink towards an Avengers film. I mean it’s not like the movie itself is defectively constructed, like say Catwoman or Batman & Robin, but is there is a thorough lack of energy in any moment of the film, everything is just so shut down. I don’t know if we can blame it on the fact that lead actor Edward Norton, like he famously did on-set of American History X, attempted to have more creative control over director Louis Letterier than an actor is usually afforded, but while that clearly damages American History X severely, there is nothing within The Incredible Hulk to suggest it could have possibly been a good movie.

Anyway, one of the first better marks we can hand to The Incredible Hulk is having the deftness to avoid outright being an origin story by summing up the ordeal of Bruce Banner (Norton) as he finds himself exposed to gamma radiation that causes him to turn into a green behemoth every time he stresses himself to anger. This poses him as a danger to society and so he leaves behind his girlfriend Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and runs across the continent to avoid capture from Gen. Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt), who also happens to be Betty’s father. And so after a disastrously failed suicide attempt (a deleted scene from the film, but later talked about in The Avengers so I think it’s safe to assume it canon), we see Banner hiding in South America attempting to channel his anger into something more not big and green.

And from there on, nothing much really happens in the way of plot so much as incidents. Banner runs, turns, attacks, then runs some more, and the closest we get to a plot point is how Emil Blonsky (a horribly underused Tim Roth) enters the situation, and how he exits with a big ass CGI setpiece that wasn’t impressive back in 2008 and certainly isn’t impressive today when we have movies upon movies upon movies devoting their action setpieces to CGI. I mean, it’s even disappointing by Letterier standards – this time around, the action isn’t what matters clearly to these scenes, so much as it is that things get broken down and tossed around.

What room the film finds to develop itself, it simply jams in with more in-jokes for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, essentially making this movie just a Trojan meat puppet for hype about a world that – while we now have seen enough of – was right now frustratingly absent from the final product.

One of my friends once tried to address this matter to me when I was ranting about the film… the matter that the Hulk is not a very compelling character himself. When in the form of Banner, he’s supposed to be that emotional and narrative anchor we all root for but the character just is too boring for us and we want to see more of the Hulk in action, in which case the character would be a one-note rock ’em sock ’em machine.

For a time I did believe that about the Hulk. For like about a day after hearing that observation. Then I recalled that Iron Man itself had the opposite of that effect – Stark was the man we wanted to see more of, not the action, not the in-jokes, Stark his own damn self (who does make a last-minute cameo at the end of the film to tie that “HEY WE’RE MAKING A MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE” noose). Entirely because Robert Downey Jr. works enough with the script to make a compelling performance and explore the psychology of Stark himself.

I know a lot of people are fans enough of Edward Norton to not want to hear this, but… Norton is not charismatic enough as Bruce Banner’s neurotic wreck and the script is not willing enough to dig into that neurosis to make me care about Banner in THIS film. What Norton does is put himself in a cold sweat occasionally and otherwise delivers his line in a pseudo-zen monotone that really just doesn’t catch the lack of stability Banner carries in himself as a person (Mark Ruffalo when we get to the Avengers is the only actor to date to have communicated this about Banner loud and clear without calling attention to himself). He bores me as Banner.

At least Ang Lee’s Hulk in its boldness was willing to give that aspect of Banner a shot and while Eric Bana is not a great performance himself, he’s better than Norton in that regard. In fact, Hulk, despite not being a good movie in my opinion, is one I find infinitely more rewatchable than The Incredible Hulk where if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it all.

And The Incredible Hulk does not have itself a plethora of flaws like Hulk did. It just doesn’t have any strengths at all.

Luckily, not having any strengths is enough to keep it from being the worst movie in the MCU franchise so far…

He Was Turned to Steel in the Great Cinematic Field

There’s something really special in being able to approach Iron Man now with foresight of all the things it brought us as a film. It inarguably made Robert Downey Jr., then taking baby steps to reignite his previously thought dead career, a bigger star than he already was prior to his infamous 1996-2001 downward spiral. It was public knowledge even then that Iron Man was both the first self-financed film by newly created Marvel Studios and that Marvel Studios intended to craft a new separate universe from Marvel Comics’ Earth-616, though I personally would not have been able to call out how vast and sprawling their imagination allowed, given the one-shot short films and the tv series and even comic book spin-offs. It made open the possibility that superhero movies didn’t have to be as dark and gritty as Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Dark Knight trilogy (the second and most successful film of which rivaled Iron Man that year, but thankfully was not able to bury Iron Man) to be worth a damn and make big bucks. And above all, I think it was Iron Man that essentially made the “stay after the credits to see if there’s some good shit there” practice of moviegoers as regular as it is today (even though nobody in their right mind would assume Iron Man was the first movie with a post-credits tag).

And so, as I attempt to complete this retrospective for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which, given I already reviewed Guardians of the Galaxy, I have a headstart on) before Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s US release on May 1st (expect that review delayed, though, as I will be in NY that weekend and so won’t actually be rushing to see the movie), I begin this daunting task with its inaugural picture and reflect upon what made it work so well as to encourage viewers to come back and see more of this world Downey Jr., producer Kevin Feige, and director Jon Favreau put posts in.

It’s definitely Robert Downey Jr.

People are already hopping on RDJ’s dick about how much he has done for the character, willing to toss aside how obviously the role has done so much more for him by making him a household name. I’ll gladly hop on that hype train myself by stating what absolutely works about Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark… Robert Downey Jr. doesn’t know a damn thing about Tony Stark.

That’s maybe not true, he claimed to have been a fan of the character during the production of the movie, but before I talk about how Downey Jr. works with the character, let me give a rundown on everything else that is forgotten about the movie.

Howard Hughes Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is a billionaire industrialist ladykiller playboy who made that fortune piggybacking off his old man’s success at selling war toys and weapons to the US Military until the very opening of the film where he is kidnapped and nearly killed by an Afghan terrorist organization known as the Ten Rings. Just moments before his kidnapping, he witnessed his own brand name on the weapons used to kill the soldiers that attempted to rescue him and so upon his escape, he shuts down the weapons division of Stark Industries and begins to investigate into the matter himself.

Yeah, that’s as concise as I need to make it, because while the film is not short of adequate if not impressive performances by Shaun Toub (as the man who saved Stark’s life), Jeff Bridges (as someone else who runs Stark Industries), Clark Gregg (as Agent Phil Coulson who we know by heart now) and Gwyneth Paltrow (as Pepper… I think I should put a description here), a somewhat memorably bombastic rock-driven score by Ramin Djawadi, and some pretty great banterish presentation by Jon Favreau that makes the movie feel more Robert Altman-esque while also ensuring that at 126 minutes, the movie still feels way too short not to want to go through it again (my own experience at watching the film started with me and my best friend going in to sneak into Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanemo Bay (we were not 17) to meet with my brother and my cousin… only to have had so much fun with Iron Man we decided to ditch the latter two), these don’t do anything really except provide the best backdrop for Downey Jr. to shine.

Favreau is almost as much a source of the flaws of the movie as he is for its biggest strengths. More inclined to family comedies (plus his big break with Swingers), Favreau has trouble figuring out the best places to insert an action setpiece and once he’s there, he doesn’t seem as interested in staying too long (which, granted, also lends the film one of its finest moments of Iron Man walking away from a tank it just busted), while the script written by way too many cooks in the kitchen to bother naming makes the movie feel less invested in the actual minutiae or its plot or bother going through the themes it attempts to introduce about warfare and redemption (as a further aside, it inadvertently doesn’t know how its rhetoric goes with representing the Middle East – I might be so bold as to claim it doesn’t care and… well, it is a superhero film) and instead feels like a paint-by-numbers job and almost like its going through the motions as it needs to. Add some sleepy performance by Terrence Howard (who would be replaced later by Don Cheadle, who gives the Stark-Rhodey dynamic much better chemistry) and Favreau sort of bumbling about as Mike Peters the chauffeur, and it’s clear that the movie has a bigger possibility to fail as entertainment as much as it does as “GREAT CINEMA”.

I don’t want to be the guy who claims “oh, so-and-so actor saves so-and-so movie” and reject it as much as I can, but I can’t be as huge a believer in that when it’s clearly Downey Jr. who does most of the heavy lifting with this picture.

Alright, now we get to the good stuff, Downey Jr. What makes him almost the single best thing about Iron Man, the source of its energy like the arc reactor in Stark’s chest?

Well, it’s not fair for me to go “Oh he doesn’t understand Tony Stark”. He probably does. But Downey Jr. doesn’t seem interested in being “Tony Stark” so much as making Stark a mirror of himself and injecting his own personality into the character. Downey Jr. clearly saw things in Stark’s mistakes that he saw in his own and so it was easier to give himself a name of Tony Stark and use it to reflect on his own previous lifestyle as it is to go through methods to dig into what makes the character so.

Add to that the fact that Downey Jr.’s sarcastic rhetoric is a second language to him and he slips into that skin like a glove and it works so much better for the character than it does for Downey Jr.’s career (which it did wonders for).

The thing about Tony Stark is that… he’s a fucking shmuck. He’s perhaps one of the more dislikable name heroes in the Marvel canon and much of his self-righteousness and self-entitlement made him perfect as a villain-looking sort of dude when the infamous Civil War storyline broke out in the comics. Hell, I’m almost certain that the reason Marvel Studios greenlit projects with their less-savory protagonists like Iron Man and Ant-Man (Hey guys, why doesn’t Hank Pym have a wife in this movie? Beats me.) is because the scramble for superhero rights in the early ’00s didn’t leave them with much to play with.

But you know what? It. So. Works.

Downey is able to turn a prick into a magnificent rock star son of a bitch without betraying or ignoring most of the faults we expect the films to work on organically themselves. There’s an acceptance and shamelessness that when focused through Downey Jr. persona just turns more and more into a volatile little moral compass he twists around for our amusement. It’s not that he demands attention, but he’s so very obviously the most interesting thing in the film (thanks again to Favreau’s flavorless direction) that we’re going to watch him rather than anything else. And so is the movie made by that one performance.

That plus the fact that the moment Downey puts on the suit… He’s fucking thrilled. That flight scene where he’s screaming and shouting we want to scream with him. It’s nice to know that a character is just as excited as we are at his true potential.

And so we are excited for the next Marvel Studios film.

If only that next movie wasn’t less than incredible.

The Passion of the Walker or: 1000 Words About How Furious 7 Was Made Before I Actually Give an Opinion

furious-7-super-bowl-07

It’s been two weeks that I’ve struggled to figure out how to speak out my mixed feelings about Furious 7 and I’m just going to come out with it.

There are obviously reviewers and bloggers, many of whom I follow and admire, that believe that not only is it less than imperative to involve matters off-screen into assessing a film, it’s actually more stunted to involve those matters.

I don’t think they’re wrong at all, but when it comes to some pictures, I can’t help but invoke everything I know about the production history as a context. And while, I’m sure practically everyone now knows one of the main reasons that I will have to approach Furious 7 in this way. But I promise there is more to it than the obvious fact of Paul Walker’s tragic death in the middle of production.

So… let’s come back to 2006, when the terrible terrible terrible The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (also debuting director Justin Lin, who would helm the franchise up until this point) came out, I guess Universal realized they had a true stinker in their hands because after test screenings came back extremely negative, they all but begged star of the first picture (and subsequent face of the franchise) Vin Diesel to please agree to a cameo in the finale of the film. Diesel finally said yes on the condition that he is allowed a hefty amount of creative control on the franchise (as well as the Riddick franchise, but that doesn’t seem to have gotten the kickstart boost of popularity that Fast & Furious has received). For the rest of the series, Diesel has been a name producer alongside franchise founder Neal H. Moritz.

In the meantime, pretty much every subsequent Fast & Furious film had been fast-tracked into production (Fast & Furious and Fast Five were announced subsequently and originally intended to be shot back-to-back). And the increased critical acclaim and popularity of the pictures had been sort of justifying Universal’s craws insistence on making these pictures a bunch at a time. For four pictures, Lin was in fact able to keep with the schedule, but in the middle of post-production of Fast & Furious 6 in 2013, Universal demanded Lin wrapped his shit up and get to shooting up Furious 7, Lin said he couldn’t do that – he felt that not enough post was done and that it would actually hurt the quality of the final cut of Fast & Furious 6.

Universal said “fine” and so fast-tracked production on Furious 7 for the first time without Lin and bringing onto the director’s chair horror movie guru James Wan (coming off of the 2013 successes of the fantastic The Conjuring and the shitty Insidious: Chapter 2, with nary a car chase in either film – I don’t know if it’s more racist of me to assume Universal picked Wan for their car heist franchise because he’s Asian or of Universal to possibly have picked Wan for their car heist franchise because he’s Asian). Lin is unlikely to return given his attachment now to the second season of True Detective and Star Trek 3, I think it’s safe to say he’s out of the franchise for good.

Anyway, in the middle of production, Paul Walker and his assistant unfortunately died in a car accident unrelated to the franchise, and that veered production off-course and ended up forcing Universal, Moritz, Diesel, and company to figure out what to do with the franchise from there…

And eventually, the plot becomes loud and clear from the wikipedia page: Villain from the previous film, Owen Shaw (Luke Evans in a wordless literally comatose cameo) has an older brother named Jason Statham (although the movie swears the character’s name is Deckard Shaw, which is a cool name, but I’m under the impression Statham is playing himself). Statham wants revenge for his brother’s grievances and so goes about killing Han (Sun Kang in another wordless cameo despite being top-billed) before setting his sights on the rest of our gang.

The intention of the picture becomes even more clear from its marketing and the hype it packages and markets itself: “We, the makers of the Fast and the Furious franchise, intend to give a goodbye to Paul Walker’s character of Brian O’Connor”.

From the black and white funereal feeling of its presentation of its posters (with the added tagline of “One Last Ride” in spite of everyone involved being clear in their intention for the franchise itself to continue), to the fact that Diesel and Gibson alone (I recall particularly an interview where Gibson outright wears a T-Shirt with nothing on it but Walker’s face which recalls feelings I had when my own deceased best friend back in ’07 had T-Shirts made of him, but I didn’t get one because it felt exploitative towards his life and my own grief. That said, people grieve however they feel is best.) seems to have kept running around the year-long marketing hype of Walker having a final goodbye in the film, part of what makes the final movie itself sloppy is how much it devotes of its TOO DAMN LONG 137-minute running time to the wacky hopefully self-aware action setpieces and how much it devotes to a very sappy and sincere yet kind of hamfisted emotional arc (not just with Brian’s departure, but with Michelle Rodriguez as Letty’s amnesia from the previous film – both of which feel like afterthoughts) in pseudo-Dear Zachary manner. But that’s fine with all of those setpieces absolutely thrilling – the three major ones taking place in the middle of a truck heist on a mountain road (after the famous car-diving sequence), Abu Dhabi, and a sprawling Los Angeles multi-level chase that is only slightly less messier than the climax of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but still quite able to keep itself intact.

I mean, sure those emotional beats are loud and obnoxious and not really carried by the best actors ever (You will never see Diesel, Rodriguez, Walker, Jordana Brewster, Ludacris, or Gibson described as thespians) and even get annoying after a while (Diesel’s lines are almost entirely laughable “wisdom and insight” that he never felt compelled to give himself previously in the franchise, making Dominic Toretto surprisingly the most annoying character in the film above Gibson’s Roman himself). A friend of mine, who hadn’t seen the movie, stated just from the advertising that “Universal has been better at parading a corpse than a lynch mob” and that’s sadly accurate.

And keep in mind that with each movie prior to Furious 7, Brian was becoming less and less of a lead and more among Dom’s +group.

But I do feel this is quite honestly from Diesel and Gibson’s heart in spite of how loud and obnoxious it comes off. Not only to Walker, but to the fans of the franchise who honestly come off as not the most stonewalled bunch, but just a tad tied to the sort of fans that enjoy mindless Transformers works. They kind of give the illusion of depth to this story with all these wonky emotional beats (complete with, once again, a shitty fucking soundtrack that sounds like a mixtape though composer Brian Tyler gives some cheekiness in his score with choral work in the climax and all) so that fans can feel like their franchise is a lot more epic rather than just being BIG.

So, I just spent 1100 words on the production history and the hype and background of Furious 7, particularly Diesel’s part in it, and why?

Because James Wan is credited as the director of a franchise film in a genre he has never once touched or given any inclined intention to touch. But I don’t believe for a fucking second that Wan was the sole director of this film.

While Wan probably took over the action sequences and more of the Deckard Shaw/God’s Eye driven storyline (which, even if Kurt Russell wasn’t being best in show, is silly in its own regard – the crew want God’s Eye to catch Deckard, but Deckard is always popping into every setpiece to say “hi” with a big fucking gun), I feel like its not exactly impossible to imagine that Diesel took the director’s chair with the more character-inclined moments, like Letty and Dom in the cemetery or the final montage (a moment I admire heavily as perhaps the most earnest minutes of the film, but never feels like it belongs in the same film where the Rock blasted the fuck out of a Black Hawk in the middle of downtown with the remains of a drone he destroyed).

Maybe that’s just insane speculation coming out of me, but it feels like these scenes are moments Diesel (no stranger to directing – while I haven’t seen StraysMulti-Facial wasn’t much more than Diesel attempting to showcase his kind-of-nonexistent range as an actor and sort-of-existent social insight as a writer) would have wanted to helm for himself in his own hands.

And so I can’t begrudge the faults in Furious 7 as one of the biggest messes I’ve seen on-screen as much as I’d like to on account its sincerity and all the sort of things it gets right (Walker’s CGI presence and stand-in is almost seamless all things considered and you probably will only see the slips if you look for them). I still begrudge it its faults – unnecessary runtime, story is neglectful when it shouldn’t be (it makes a big deal that Brian loves the dangerous lifestyle too much to completely devote himself to his family and yet we never get to see a moment where Brian finally makes that mental shift to the arc’s resolution – or we kind of do but the soundtrack and the actors are still not good enough to communicate it beyond lines that are too chewy to come out clean), Wan’s editing style is not as clean as Lin’s (though it never goes into the incoherence of Transformers nor the sterile manner of the first film) – but it definitely tries to overcompensate for those faults.

And I mean overcompensate in the very innuendo-ish manner as well. Bigger scale (in the air, all over the city, between buildings), Bigger Stakes (The whole because Djimon Hounsou and terrorism), even when the Rock, Tony Jaa, and Jason Statham stand on screen (Jaa and the Rock gets such a tiny role but Johnson’s still best in show behind Kurt Russell feeling like a young man again – and making me want to try Belgian Ale), these guys’ screen presence have their own great big gravity.

Again, granting themselves self-awareness, but enough of a serious demeanor to insist that maybe their fans are not all that brainless.

It’s a mess, but in the end, it was a mess I ended up having fun with, even in spite of its running time (I’ve never walked out of a major blockbuster overhearing so many people saying they’ve fallen asleep), and certainly for all of its sincerity. If Diesel actually made this movie, then it’s because he believed in it and you can tell he did. Obviously believed in it more than he should have but enough that we 100% for the running time of the film are game with whatever they’re going to say or do.

Tomorrow Will Die

I’ve been an extremely late-comer to Don Hertzfeldt. In spite of his Oscar nomination in 1999 for Rejected and the constant acclaim he’s received as an independent animation darling, my introduction to his work literally came about, like, 2 years ago (2013) when I happened upon his 2010 short film Wisdom Teeth.

I liked it a lot. Enough to get my feet in the air kickin’, but it’s entirely the feature-length It’s Such a Beautiful Day that definitely made me a legitimate fan of Hertzfeldt and eager to approach all the other work he made in his career. I’m actually extremely bitter than between the year where both It’s Such a Beautiful Day and Silver Linings Playbook came out, it’s the mediocre latter film that has gotten all the rave about its portrayal of mental illness when a more honest film exists.

But that’s one for another post.

My main point behind this intro is that I am so fully in the bag for Don Hertzfeldt, you can tie it up and swing it around. So, it wasn’t so tough for me to decide to shell out the 4 bucks needed to rent his newest short film World of Tomorrow on vimeo-on-demand. Especially when it came out of winning his second Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year.

Hence, I may be biased, but I totally found that worth it. World of Tomorrow is a 16-minute short film so worth that time and money that I implore you to check it out as soon as you can. But, then again, I have to back it up, so that’s why we’re here.

Anyway, like you’d expect for Hertzfeldt, it is philosophically dense, avant-gardely wacky, and at points – surprising for Hertzfeldt on my end – unbearably adorable while becoming – unsurprisingly – nihilistic.

A message is caught by a young girl named Emily (voiced by Winona Mae) living in an undisclosed yet probably futuristic timeline. The message turns out to be from an extensively distant future where the deliverer immediately reveals herself to be one of many generational clones of Emily (this elder version is voiced by Julia Pott) and inviting Emily Prime to join her briefly in the future to discover the many apparent benefits of life there and the overall downside and depression inherent in future life.

And thus goes the movie’s ideology into fear, isolation, loneliness, progress, separation, and all that other anti-social things that astonishingly aren’t that far off from how humans like you and I act. Just as well a theme previously explored in It’s Such a Beautiful Day, but Hertzfeldt goes one further by now making World of Tomorrow weirdly alien to his usual viewers and even possibly to himself.

He does this simply by allowing World of Tomorrow to become his first digitally-animated work. And that actively gives off an inhuman gleam to most of the structures we witness in the future of World of Tomorrow, many of which are just lines of perfect geometry across a smooth colorful surface. We are meant to regard this as the “outernet” and how the majority of future citizens interact with each other (the short film never namedrops or even uses the term “Social Media” but I’m sure that’s one of the many technological advances that it observes as adding to this impersonability that the world of tomorrow encompasses). And yet the only people whom we ever physically live through this with is Emily Prime and Emily, arguably the same people.

The Outernet is physically and objectively “better” as an environment but also less lifeless, especially with this short’s obsession with the past and memory used as a theme and its one-track-minded (and eventually futile) desperation for immortality. Something reflected on how the physical perfection of digital animation is making everything in Hertzfeldt’s film a lot more clearer but also reasonably less personable than the previous works of hand-drawn animation that had a lot more humanity and imperfection in them. A story like World of Tomorrow could only possibly be drawn with that kind of soulful sheen of digital animation from a vehemently independent animator like Hertzfeldt.

And yet there’s still the whole remaining fact that these people are the same usual stick figures Hertzfeldt draws, completely white and thin, taking almost no space of the usually blank screen in Hertzfeldt work – although in here, the figures are overwhelmed by color to especially Emily Prime’s delight.

Ah yes, I’ve been making this sound astonishingly dreary and dark and while some of the humor of the short film comes from that dreary darkness, it also comes from a facet I’ve neglected to mention up until this point. Winona Mae, the voice of Emily Prime, is Don Hertzfeldt’s niece. She has no voice acting experience up until this point. Naturally, for she is four years old.

The majority of Mae’s lines are near non-sequiters reacting to the unfortunate philosophy the clone Emily is conveying to her, only somewhat connected to what’s said or going on on screen. And it plays off wonderfully as both a relief that Emily Prime, who we can assume is also four, is not allowing her to be bothered by what Emily Prime states is the irreversible future of the world and also as a depressing thought that what the Emily clone has tried to explain to Emily Prime will go absolutely nowhere and both from the fact that a four-year-old child simply cannot register the gravity of what’s going on. And the things Emily Prime is enjoying about the Outernet are clearly things that the Emily clone has no interest in and is to distracted with isolating herself from a humanity that is, in effect, also isolating themselves from each other.

Emily Prime also, naturally, gets the best of the lines – My favorites are when she names out several colors in ecstasy of how it changes the Outernet and, after only three, claims she can’t remember any or how she lectures the Emily clone about “snakeboys”.

It also means that Hertzfeldt can be more direct with his themes here than with It’s Such a Beautiful Day, almost flat-out laying them out, though this makes It’s Such a Beautiful Day the work that ends up hitting a lot more harder for this. And the saddest part is that Hertzfeldt doesn’t blame anyone or anything but just observes that humankind has a natural tendency to drift away from each other and put up more screens and more technology in the middle of them. It’s not even a slightly angry short film, it’s just a pensive one, and a perhaps regretful one.

World of Tomorrow is a wonderful, dark, and overall fantastic experience to have for 16 minutes and I implore you to go and rent it from vimeo whenever you have the time. It’s certainly better than all the movies that are coming out this weekend.

And then, obviously, when you’re done… Go out a bit more. Interact. See people. I know that’s what I gotta do.

… Furious(ly late)

(NOTE: Nobody has brought them up, but I figured I may as well. I am aware of the short films Turbo-Charged Prelude and Los Bandoleros, but I have not bothered watching either short film because I’m not THAAAAT much of an enthusiast in this franchise. Still, in either case, I’ll never say never, but I don’t see why I must go out of my way and will opt not to.)

Would you believe me if I said I had this completely typed down, accidentally fell asleep, and by the time I woke up, I had to go to work? Well, don’t believe that first part, but the second and third are truth. Anyway, it’s been known by now by y’all that speed ain’t my forte.

In either case when we left the rival for the Rambo series for “Most Confusingly Titled Franchise”, the Fast & Furious scene was at an all-time low with its picture The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. And I was luckily able to imply that the series obviously took an upturn in my view within its last few franchises…

Fast & Furious (2009/dir. Justin Lin/USA)

… Just not quite yet. While still feeling like a step in the right direction for the franchise by returning to most of the source of its personality (American muscle cars, American muscle heads, American… you get the point), this film is kind of the anti-thesis to the main argument I have against another film I hate, Speed Racer. That being “if you’re going to have a film centered on cars with no intention of filling it with further substance, do not make the proportion of that car action be lesser than the rest of the crap”.

Well, shit, this movie is filled with car scenes and lengthy ones too, thankfully. The only moments it takes a breather is to imply a certain character of the franchise is killed and I otherwise have no literal memory of the story except its ending and bits and pieces around the middle.

But what is unfortunate is how those car action sequences are no better shot than the first film (I don’t know what the hell happened with returning director Justin Lin, but he does not fuck up the cinematography in the rest of his work for the franchise, I swear to you). And his editors, while not entirely making a mess of these scenes like the Transformers franchise, don’t seem to have a good sense of what they’re aiming for with their work beyond just keeping the cars in frame (and covering too much of the 2.35:1 frame, which really bugs me when you don’t give yourself as much leeway with the widescreen standard).

And then there’s the dubious fact of Gisele (Gal Gadot)’s introduction to the franchise as just some lady who really wants to get down with beefcake Dom than having any personality (and in the later films, when they go a 180 to give her actual shit to do, she still lacks personality as a character). But we also get introduced to my favorite characters of the franchise, slapstick pair Tego and Santos, played by Puerto Rican musicians Tego Calderon and Don Omar respectively. I have not heard a single note of their music, although I am told a song appears in the next film by Don Omar and that honestly puts me off. One of the biggest criticisms you can quote from me on even the best movie of this franchise (which I will reach soon) is how the soundtrack sounds less like music aiding the mood and more like a Reggaeton/R&B mixtape by your friendly neighborhood bro. Except in the case of Furious 7 (which I saw last night and will review soon) in which case, it sounds like a mixtape trying so hard not to be conspicuous but just coming off as failing in its manipulative mission (Seriously, even if you’re Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Lars von Trier, or Quentin Tarantino, if your music has lyrics in it, you better work right or your movie will sound like shit).

So, yeah, it’s a step in the right direction and it’s not like I’m not disappointed by such fantastic car scenes like the opening semi hijacking that we recall cheering for our characters so hard back in the franchises’ beginnings. But it’s not quite at its full potential yet.

Fast Five (2011/dir. Justin Lin/USA)

Ok, so now I will be more honest with you dear readers than I usually am, about a certain bias I have. Don’t worry, it’s not at all negative and it lifts the franchise higher than I would have expected if it didn’t have this handicap, especially this particular picture.

I am a strapping young heterosexual lad with no romantic interest in men and I am comfortable enough with my sexuality to state that Dwayne “The MOTHERFUCKING Rock” Johnson is one of just two guys I totally have a screen crush on and puts that heterosexuality at a challenge (the other guy is Michael Fassbender, if you must know). I will watch any fucking movie you toss at me if the Rock is in it and not give a fuck. Hell, the people who made the G.I. Joe films probably knew that when I find The Rise of Cobra to be one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen and decided to bait me into its terrible sequel by having the Rock star in it and you know what? I didn’t hate watching it because IT’S THE MOTHERFUCKING ROCK!

Think I’m gay because of this? IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT YOU THINK!

Anyway, moving on, just the fact that the Rock is in this picture giving a hilariously uptight wide-eyed barking performance that leads Luke Hobbs to being my favorite character of the franchise neither distracts me from the fact that while I love Fast Five, I still can’t exactly call it a “good” movie, nor the other primary strengths that Fast Five has that lift it above being a “bad movie I hated” to a “bad movie I’ll watch again (though probably use the fast-forward a few more times than usual)”.

In the parlance of Hobbs himself, I’ll give the dessert first: The characters are still not fully… dimensioned really and never become so as of the latest Fast and the Furious picture. But their roles and relations with each other have never been clearer than they have been in this picture and their chemistry is even a lit in the most comatose of performances like Gadot’s or Jordana Brewster’s as Walker’s girlfriend Mia. In the vein of the infamous productions of Happy Madison, Diesel has clearly started making the Fast and the Furious franchise paid vacations for him and his buddies, but they clearly incorporate that enough that we care about characters and register that if they matter to each other, they matter to us.

There’s some really lovely photography of the Rio de Janeiro scenery. Like, for once, the movie takes advantage of its exotic locale to make it feel like its atmosphere and even takes pride in it for the whole initial confrontation between Hobbs and Dom. It almost feels as aware as Cidade de Deus.

Plus, while the movie just tries to arrange itself in the form of a heist film and comes off a bit jagged in that structure, it’s one big heist setpiece is also my single favorite: I will merely sum it up as a full-on physical implausibility involving cars doing things there is no way cars will ever be capable of doing and yet the editing, sound work, and cinematography are all able to make it less believable and more exhilarating and astounding, even in complete disregard of the wreckage and collateral damage and casualties it causes. Seriously, the climax of this film alone is worth the price of admission (and for a drinking game, drink every time you are certain they just killed innocents. You will be another one they killed by the end of the film).

The veggies though, other than the obvious collateral damage, and the still constant problems of the writing…

This movie shouldn’t be 2 hours and 10 minutes long and it ought to go fuck itself for all of that bullshit padding to make a film longer than it deserves to be. The story is unnecessarily long and intricate for something which will not at all be full of any sense by the end of the picture… and even worse when what it neglects are car races that it teases like one that Dom uses to win a particular car… much more so when it is so obviously adopted to the furthering of the franchise such as in…

Fast & Furious 6 (2013/dir. Justin Lin/USA)

The final ride for Justin Lin in this franchise, but also the strongest point this series has had yet (even in consideration of Furious 7). It contains basically all of the weaknesses of the previous picture but amps up enough of the strengths of it to drown those weaknesses out.

More emphasis on action setpiece after action setpiece (like fucking really), more chemistry between characters to believe these actors are all as close as they were in real life (as well as an emphasis on the ensemble of the plot for all of these characters now), more cinematography and smart editing for the picture (oh my the editing and the sound mix just makes me dream so hard of engines). Even the CGI is worth a damn and if a layman were only interested in one of these films for a thrill ride, I’d insist THIS were the picture he check out.

Still paper-thin characterizations, still doesn’t deserve its 130 minute runtime, still unconcerned with the collateral damage… But it is certainly a worthwhile ride.

And so we come to the present with Furious 7 and see what will come with it…

Fast…

Unless you’ve been literally born yesterday, you know that the next installment in the Fast & the Furious franchise comes out tomorrow, Furious 7And maybe a while ago, I would have gone “ugh” at the idea of seven movies in the franchise, over the past few films I’ve actually grown to become excited at what is next for this series. And it honestly looks like it might be the best movie of the month (certainly not of a year that includes Timbuktu and Li’l Quinquin already).

Of course, it wasn’t always like that – this and the Mission: Impossible franchise are pretty much in my heart as the franchises that started bad and pushed on enough movies to end up decent fast than you can say “Wham, Bam, Bambi!” – and so, for this post and the next one later today, I would like you to follow with me my personal feelings for each of the six previous films prior to the upcoming obviously-going-to-be-a-blockbuster and see how far down low my esteem for the franchise can go.

Also, please watch this and tell me you do not laugh.

The Fast and the Furious (2001/dir. Rob Cohen/USA)

Ahhhh, the one that started it all. Well, of course, one would expect some leverage to be given to it for igniting the franchise, and well, back when I was 9 years old when this movie came out, I totally loved it. It was all that machismo and macho attitude that 9-year-old STinG was looking for.

But the last time I saw this film was in 2012 and for all it is considered an action genre hallmark now, it’s… pretty damn lousy. Rob Cohen has never been a completely competent storyteller and not entirely promising an action filmmaker either, so in spite of Michelle Rodriguez (who, up until the Rock’s entrance into the franchise, was my favorite performer in the series) and Vin Diesel keeping the ante up for the film as much as they can, it can’t entirely change the fact that this movie is very thinly-veiled repackaging of Point Break (replace surfboards with cars) minus almost all of the strengths that made Point Break such a classic (replace the charisma of Patrick Swayze with the almost equal value charisma of young Vin Diesel – curiously, I think the character of Dom Toretto got a lot more boring as the franchise moved forward) or the fact that Cohen shoots car races like commercials rather than as the exciting action setpieces they should be.

But hey, this movie started it so I guess we should be happy. And it never becomes too miserable of a picture, it’s just so blatantly uninterested in being more than the surface of its parts. And still as this post will conclude, The Fast and the Furious is undoubtedly the best film in the first half of the franchise so far. God help us all.

 

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003/dir. John Singleton/USA)

First of all, let’s get this out of the damn way: One of my favorite movie titles ever. I know it’s gimmicky and stupid, but the fun treatment of the numeral integrated in the title to keep it from just sounding like The Fast and the Furious 2 makes me happy almost as much as the introduction of John Singleton into the franchise as a director makes me.

Of course, the problem with this film is that the title IS the best part of the movie. See, we’re not getting Singleton at the cusp of his selling-out, we’re getting him right as he sold out. And so behold, the best part of a movie was – for once – Paul Walker’s smugly bro-ness as a police officer Brian O’Connor (the protagonist of the first movie and arguably the main protagonist for the whole franchise), coming off as off-putting when surrounded by better elements in the first film, but here being an anchor to any sense of fun this movie has as it now tries to adopt itself less as an adrenaline ride and more as police procedural by people who have probably no idea how real-life or fictional police procedurals work. In any case, the movie is astoundingly sedate without much to kick back up save for Walker and every once in a while Ludacris’ fake but still admirable enthusiasm.

Any worthwhile usage of Miami’s landscape in the photography? Nope, pissing off a Miami native like me who doesn’t even like this fucking city. Just slightly bluer nights and hot and sticky days.

Well-shot car races? Worse than The Fast and the Furious. Grain and fuzz all around with neon lines only slightly implying “hey, a car was here”.

But mainly, I take this film down just a bit further for introducing my least favorite character of the franchise: Tyrese Gibson’s completely unemotive Debbie downer presence as Roman Coppola, allegedly O’Connor’s best friend, but it is fucking impossible to imagine anybody could be friends with a character so full of apprehensive and annoying at all the wrong places.

And yet, the film is still not as bad as…

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006/dir. Justin Lin/USA)

The good news, alas! We have actually fantastically shot car action scenes and I personally would not have initially guessed this possible from long-time franchise director Justin Lin based on his 2002 film Better Luck Tomorrow (a crime drama that actually managed to be exciting even without having much action within it and the only non-Fast franchise movie of his that I saw). Sleek, fast, exciting, engaging, all the great words you can say about a car chase, especially the climax at DK’s mountain.

The bad news: This is the worst movie in the franchise. Period.

First of all, the movie to recognize that Tokyo is a city that is more than just large neon building signs that make it indistinguishable from all the other big metropolises of the world and that really really breaks my heart. If you’re suddenly going to move your franchise to Japan for the most bullshit of reasons, at least do us the great opportunity of really showing Tokyo. Not just mediums of a white kid in a blue car in a bunch of heavily crowded business streets. Goddamn.

Not mention how banal the story is in itself, now completely stripping its potential as a bare and compelling thrill ride to just be a story about how some kid has to feel like an outcast and wants to earn his way into the in-crowd by drag racing. Armed with lousy performances by Bow Wow, Nathalie Kelly, Sung Kang (apparently playing the same character from Better Luck Tomorrow, except in Better Luck Tomorrow Han and Fast and the Furious Han are two way too different personalities), and even the usually great Lucas Black, plus an unforgivable cameo by Sonny Chiba where he gets to do absolutely nothing and I spent the majority of the movie in fear that he was in a coma.

Oh yeah, the forced mythology invoking the Yakuza and the Drift King and the Mountain as if that’s how Japan, High School Students, or Gangsters work. It’s just as an atrociously silly film that doesn’t know how silly it is and dedicates too much of its time to make us take its bullshit seriously.

Thankfully, when a movie is this idiotic, there’s only one way to go… up…

The Word Is Blue

1999 was a brilliant year for movies from all of those who were alive to see that. I was like 7 years old and too drunk off of how much I loved The Phantom Menace to do so but in retrospect, I do see what established 1999 as a hardcore cinephile year.

We got Rosetta, we got Toy Story, we got Being John Malkovich, we got Eyes Wide Shut (and as a bonus, we killed Stanley Kubrick), we got uh… I guess American Beauty and Magnolia and the Matrix for everybody into those movies. My point is that the year of 1999 was unwanting for films.

And so it should come as no surprise that 1999 was where cinema history received its greatest fucking movie ever made.

NO! DON’T YOU DARE ARGUE WITH ME! NUH UH! NO WAY! THIS Is NOT UP FOr FUCKING DEBATE! WHAT I AM ABOUT TO SHOW YOU Is HARDCORE SOLID FACT THAT THIS FILM IS THE BEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME BY A LARGE MARGIN NEVER TO BE SURPASSED!

In 1998, the best band that ever existed – Eiffel 65 – released their debut album of Europop and took the world by storm by unleashing a new genre of music: Europop. But the biggest bomb had not exploded yet until 1999 when they released one of their tracks as a single:

“Blue (Da Ba Dee)” is largely considered the pinnacle of modern music since Lou Reed started making noise with Metal Machine Music. Sure, it won no Grammys but neither did “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Nirvana is too fucking dank not to be considered dank (Guys, did you know that the drummer for Nirvana – Kurt Cobain – is also the singer for the Foo Fighters?).

Anyway, moving on to the real genius of “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” beyond its vivid storytelling and pensive lyrics open to interpretation ranging from closeted homosexuality (“I’m in need of a guy”) to contemplation of suicide (“if I was green I would die”) to environmentalism (“if I was green I would die”) and its impressive production work to blanket the organic beats and fresh keyboard riff that comes off clear as the fuzz on a caterpillar’s ass that separates an annoying pop tune like “Imagine” by John Lennon from banging masterpiece like this song.

The true power is from the song’s incredible music video that I linked above. Never will we ever experience such an outstanding masterwork of visual art and if the Renaissance masters were still alive (For those who don’t know who they are: Leonardo Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Georgia O’Keefe, Raphael, Splinter), they’d kill themselves over shame that they will never reach the polished heights of this music video.

I mean, just on the surface level, it’s a riveting rousing intergalactic adventure, we have some top-notch uncanny special effects that just can’t make tell who is realer – the cookie-cutter blue aliens or the super-tan frosted-tips spiky gel Italian kids, and most of all, we finally have a film accessible enough to allow deaf viewers (or people who don’t speak English, but same shit) to watch the fantastic visuals while still getting the gist of what the film is talking about.

I mean, yeah, the design on these aliens is ugly, but they’re aliens, man. You’re ugly too and you don’t even have that excuse. Unless you meant Eiffel 65 in which case, they’re at least trying to be pretty, but you know that’s a lost cause for yourself.

Now really, let’s not be shallow and see what this video is all about to make it such an ultimate classic. Look here at what opens the video!

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Yeah. I know. You’re not the only one who thinks Terry Gilliam and H.R. Giger did uncredited design work on this and that’s fantastic to me, because it means that they’ll always be remembered by riding on the coattails of this never-going-to-be-infamous phenomenon. Centuries from now shit like Alien and Brazil will be forgotten, but not this song. Not this video. And after a second of marveling at this technological wonder, we have a guide introduce himself to us…

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First of all, look at that stiff unrelaxed posture. Such restraint! Such physique! His jaw moves in centimeters to showcase that Yo! His hip up the top with the lingo, son! His name is tanguy and he here to say but the blue lil’ midgets in a land of play!

Anyway, the movie is very aware that you feel unlucky in not being able to see him and his kung fu swerving and fast running friends in concert and uses blue aliens as a metaphor for that when they straight hijack the tanguy in the hat and take him to their planet.

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When his friends go to rescue to him, you might think “what the fuck? That’s a small ship”, but dude, you just don’t get it! It’s a metaphysical journey out of France to the blue planet. They’re not taking their bodies. They’re taking their souls!

Also, apparently their souls are faster than the blue aliens’ ship

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But that’s ok because cardboard soul and the other fat guy wait until the blue aliens make it to the planet first. Because this movie is too smart to feed you information, it leaves it ambiguous as to whether it’s because the cardboard soul and fat guy are being polite and know that you shouldn’t break down a motherfucker’s door when he’s not home or if it’s because they’re supposed to be taking blue aliens’ lead and don’t know where they are going otherwise. I go with the former because these guys are just too cool and you don’t need directions on a metaphysical journey.

And boy oh boy, when they arrive, it’s a gunfighter Wyatt Earp showdown as fuck, I tell you hwat.

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But cardboard soul, with his Adonis blood and Goku DNA, ain’t having that shit.

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They’re straight murdering motherfuckers backstage of their little attempt to have an Eiffel 65 show (because it’s really unrealistic to believe that any band as big as Eiffel 65 does not have an intergalactic fanbase).

And because tanguy is so cool, he doesn’t even care where these blue children came from suddenly, he’s just jamming for them. We need characters in film as respectful as tanguy.

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While his buddies be backstage busting blue balls so hard that cardboard soul doesn’t even have to touch them.

And because the geniuses at Bliss Corp. know what’s up and what sells, they know Forrest Gump is another one of the greatest movies in the world and so they have the fat guy run like a real bro.

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It’s really a fantastic action fiesta, respectful of continuity, crossing-the-line, lighting balance, and all that other stupid filmmaker shit that kids on /r/movies talk about that other movies like Steven Spielberg, Die Hard, and The Wire steal a little too much from this music video not to be suspicious. but it even has a final feel-good ending where everybody (except the fucking fools Eiffel 65 murked) gets what they wanted people are all happy. And believe it or not, it does something you would have nebver expected…

It ends in a musical number.

SPOILER ALERT

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“Blue (Da Ba Dee)” is the greatest movie of all time. Of all motherfucking time. And if you like anything else more, you’re a fucking idiot. Get the fuck out.

Mic fucking drop.