F8: Hallelujah, it's raining cars

By Tom Von Malder | Jul 09, 2017
Photo by: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment Jason Statham, left, and Dwayne Johnson square off in "The Fate of the Furious."

Owls Head — The Fate of the Furious (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 136 min.). Put your mind in neutral and enjoy this highly entertaining ride. The eighth installment of "The Fast and the Furious" franchise continues to push the envelope of spectacular car stunts -- we now are definitely in "James Bond" territory -- while also nodding back to the original films with a prologue drag race set in Cuba, a very nicely done segment. However, it is a relative latecomer to the franchise, Jason Statham as Deckard Shaw, who steals the film, which goes out of its way to separate Dom Toretto (a mostly grim-looking Vin Diesel) from his "family" of fellow racers. Indeed, the film's script, by Chris Morgan, who also acts as a producer, forces Dom to act against his crew.

Dom and wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are staying in Havana, when Dom comes across Cipher (an underused Charlize Theron), pretending to have car trouble. Whatever she shows him on her cell phone, it is enough for Dom to follow her commands and act against his cohorts, starting with an operation in Berlin to recover a stolen EMP device (electromagnetic pulse). Cipher is a super hacker, whom we learn, was behind the two teams defeated in the last two films; for the most part though, Cipher is aboard an airplane, typing on her computer, which does not make for a very dynamic villain -- although one scene proves she is extremely cold-hearted.

Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) gets a funny scene as coach of a young girls soccer team, before he is called to action. Luckily for the viewer, Kurt Russell is back as Mr. Nobody, the shady probably-government, but off-the-books operator, who gives the team a mission. Mr. Nobody is given a comic sidekick, who gets the name Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood, Clint's handsome son). When Hobbs is arrested after the Berlin job, he is sent to the same prison where Deckard is incarcerated. A string of insults between the two quickly escalates when all the prison doors are thrown open. Here, director F. Gary Gray ("Straight Out of Compton") presents a prison riot that happens almost too fast to take in, but it gets Hobbs and Deckard out, and Mr. Nobody adds Deckard to the team. Deckard's Mom has a brief appearance, deliciously played by Helen Mirren. Director Gray previously worked with Diesel in "A Man Apart" and with Theron in "The Italian Job," both released in 2003.

As for the stunts, which usually are outrageous, they include a fast-traveling car that is literally on fire; the takeover of dozens of cars that can be operated remotely (I didn't even know that was a thing) that leads to some major collisions, even in Times Square; a 65-car pileup that includes cars raining down from a parking garage; and a spectacular car-armed vehicles-submarine chase across an ice field, with the submarine at times surfacing like Moby Dick. This surely is a film that likes to crash and explode vehicles. My only two criticisms would be the underuse of Theron and why, if nuclear codes are stolen, can they not simply be changed?

Extras on both versions include audio commentary by director Gray; a look at the stunts (18:27 total), specifically, the Cuban road race, the ice field (with Iceland substituting for Russia) and the New York City streets; extended prison and plane fight sequences (5:03); and access to a digital extended director's cut of the film. Blu-ray exclusives  include a nice look at filming in Havana (8:04; F8 was the first major studio movie to film in Cuba); a four-part look at family in the film (21:16 total) that includes Cipher and Dom, the Dom-less crew, the Shaw family and the Nobodys; and a look at the vehicles (21:21), including the hero cars, zombie cars and the Ripsaw military vehicle. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (Sony Pictures Classics DVD, R, 118 min.). The first American-made film by Israeli director Joseph Cedar ("Footnote") stars Richard Gere in one of his best performances, as Norman Oppenheimer, a lonely man who most likely lives in the basement of his synagogue, but strives to be a fixer, everybody's friend who ceaselessly tries to connect people for their betterment. He operates on the fringes of New York City power and money, but never quite connects himself. However, one day he makes a connection with a young Israeli politician (Lior Ashkenazi as Micha Eshel) at a low point in the charismatic man's life. The meeting literally gives Norman a foot in the door, especially when three years later, Eshel becomes prime minster of Israel.

Norman, always in a brown overcoat, wearing hat and telephone earbuds, is an "operator," a self-styled consultant who is not above lying, especially if the lie might engender a result that would help it come true. Probably a real-life Norman might not be that likeable; however, Gere's strong performance, including a lot of acting just with his face, makes Norman a fascinating character, as the film evolves from humor to impending tragedy when Norman becomes involved in a scandal brewing around the prime minister. At the same time, Norman tries to get a wealthy financier (Harris Yulin as Jo Wilf) to donate half the $14 million Rabi Blumenthal (Steve Buscemi) needs to buy the synagogue building so it is not forced to relocate.

While Norman is in nearly every frame of the film, other key roles are played by Michael Sheen, as Norman's nephew who urges him to be cautious; Charlotte Gainsbourg as Alex Green, a government worker Norman meets on a plane and continues to try and impress on a train; and Josh Charles as financier Arthur Taub, whose dinner party Norman crashes. Hank Azaria shows up late as Srul Katz, basically a clone of Norman, yet Norman does not realize that.

Writer-director Cedar, who was born in New York City but emigrated to Israel at age 6, also worked with Ashkenazi in his "Footnote" (2011). He joins Gere for a screening discussion (22:50), as well as a brief Q&A at the premiere (4:37). Gere, who says his performance is one he is "most proud of," also says, "I found a way to be Charlie Chaplin in this." Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2 stars

London Heist (Lionsgate DVD, R, 95 min.). Jack Cregan (Craig Fairbrass of "The Bank Job") is a vicious armed robber who hails from a crime family. He and his three mates pull off their fifth robbery in five years -- they send the police to the wrong side of London each time --  which nets them 4 million pounds. Afterwards, Jack says that is it, they are retiring. However, then Jack's criminal father (Steven Berkoff of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "A Clockwork Orange") is tortured and murdered, with all the stolen cash taken. While Jack has a good idea who did the deed, or at least ordered it, he wonders how the killers got the knowledge of where the money was at that precise time.

The film suffers from a prologue that basically removes a lot of the suspense, as one sees a bloodied Jack driving towards the seaside with a large bag that one would surmise is stuffed with cash. It also is pretty easy to suss out who the ultimate bad guy is, although some of the background is a bit of a surprise. Roland Manookian plays Sammy, Jack's cousin and one of the four robbers, while Nathalie Cox plays Nicole, Jack's wife. James Cosmo ("Trainspotting," "Braveheart") plays Ray Dixon, a criminal pal of Alfie's with whom Jack and Nicole hide out in Spain. Nick Moran ("Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels") plays corrupt police investigator Wickstead, who is trying to bring Jack in however he can, now that DNA and other forensic evidence makes it hard to have false charges stick, as he explains to a colleague.

The generic film is directed by Mark McQueen (noted for work on British reality TV projects) and written by Fairbrass, who does not bring anything special to either the script or his acting. You have probably seen a dozen or more similar films. There are no DVD extras. Grade: film 2 stars

Bitcoin Heist (Vietnam, Well Go USA, Blu-ray + DVD, NR, 116 min.). A much more entertaining heist film is this one by award-winning  director Ham Tran ("Journey from the Fall"), even though it is about the digital currency bitcoins, of which I do not understand much. Bitcoins are crypto-currency that exists only digitally. The film has several engaging characters and performers, while moving from comedy to adventure (a mixture of TV-style "Mission Impossible," with some magic, a la "Now You See Me," blended in) to horror.

Interpol special agent Dada (Kate Nhung of "Sut") is put on leave after her attempt to capture a notorious computer hacker and ransom ware distributer known as Ghost fails miserably. The operation devolves into a shootout and then a street pursuit that results in collateral damage. Off the books, she assembles a team to make another stab at identifying and taking down Ghost. Her team candidates are thieves that she is acquainted with, including a street magician/pickpocket (Petey Majik Nguyen of "The Last Dragon" as Jack Magique), who used to be her boyfriend; a father (Jayvee Mai The Hiep of "Sword of the Assassin") and 10-year-old daughter (Lam Thanh My of "How to Fight in Six Inch Heels") grifter duo; an expert hacker (Suboi of "Hollow" as Vi); and an accountant (Thanh Pham of "She's the Boss" as Phuc) who does work for Ghost. They believe Thomas Nam (Teo Yoo of "Codename: Jackal"), owner of the online game company Khimera, is Ghost, but need to steal his ring, which carries the code to his bitcoin wallet, and then go through several layers of his home security to reach his computer mainframe.

The comedy comes while the team members are introduced and begin working together. The ring theft is accomplished through Jack Magique's act at Nam's party. When the seemingly successful caper goes awry, there is a bit of horror as the team members are tortured for information. A lengthy coda resolves all the issues in the film, but may disappoint viewers due to one's affection for certain characters. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 2.75 stars

American Fable (IFC DVD, NR, 96 min.). The time is the Ronald Reagan presidency during the 1980s, when farmers, especially in the area of Wisconsin in which the film is set, are losing their farms, unable to keep up with monthly payments. Eleven-year-old  Gitty (Peyton Kennedy) lives on one of those farms with her hard-working father, Abe (Kip Pardue of "Remember the Titans"); her pregnant mother, Sarah (Marci Miller of "Death Race 2050"); and older brother Marty (Gavin McIntosh of TV's "The Fosters"), who acts quite cruelly towards her much of the time. Gitty, who has a chicken friend, named Happy,  likes fantastic stories and hopes to see the world one day. What she does not expect is to find a man (Richard Schiff of TV's "The West Wing" as Jonathan Winters) imprisoned in the farm's derelict silo.

While Gitty befriends the man, she is unable to help him escape and she is fearful about telling anyone outside of the family about the man. Plus, on their first meeting, Winters told her not to tell anyone she had seen him. The film, the feature debut of writer-director Anne Hamilton, relies heavily on atmosphere and nearly all of it is told from Gitty's point of view. Hamilton, who interned for Terrence Malick while he was filming "Tree of Life," and cinematographer Wyatt Garfield fill the film with nature and natural light. Shadows and glimpses of a strange figure on a horse add to the surreal. However, the man in the silo is very real and one can sense the story heading towards tragedy. Zeleikha Robinson plays the mysterious Vera who increasingly shows up around Gitty's father. Rusty Schwimmer plays Ethel, a nosy, just-retired sheriff's department evidence technician.

What I did not get is the kidnapping of Winters. Yes, he works for a company that buys up farms, believing his firm can make them much more profitable, but he is just stuck in the silo for days on end with no ransom demand. Is the thought that, if he cannot buy the farms, no one else will? Apparently late in the film, a money demand is finally made.

What I found creepiest about the film is Marty, who is always cruel to Gitty. When we first see him, he invites Gitty to place her hand on the wood block where he is chopping wood, then swings the ax toward her hand, saying he knew she would move her hand. Later on, he is the one to cut off one of Winters' fingers "to make it look like a real kidnapping," yet the finger is keep in the freezer rather than sent to Winters' firm or family. Bonus features include three deleted scenes (4:58), including a conversation between Abe and Winters; and still galleries of costume designs, construction of the silo and a sketch of the silo. Grade: film 3 stars

Pulse (Japan, 2001, Arrow, Blu-ray + DVD, NR, 118 min.). Writer-director Kiyoshi Kurasawa, noted for his B movies in Japan, including "Cure," delivered one of the finest efforts in the so-called "J-horror" cycle with this film, which he says in the extras was "a total copy of 'Ring.'" One must remember that social media was really in its infancy at this time and the idea of sending photos and video by cell phone was only in the creative stage. In many ways, the gloomy film is prophetic, especially on how social media and the Internet could become predatory.

The film is dark, apocalyptic and, at times, very creepy as people in Tokyo start to go missing after encountering social media that asks if they want to see a ghost. There also are forbidden rooms, closed with red packing tape, that appear to contain ghosts, and people are turned to shadows on the wall, before they just flutter apart. The core group of friends in the film also is rocked by the suicides of two members. However, the main horror of the film is the isolation that the characters are driven to. It captures how Internet interaction would become the primary means of social interaction for some people. Sometimes the film, which is filled with creepy and subversive images, is filmed as if looking out through a computer monitor. Characters also have discussions about death.

There are extensive bonus features, including a new interview with Kurasawa (no relation to the master filmmaker Akira Kurasawa) who talks about his career and the film (43:53; numerous clips from the film). He also shows how the scene of a suicide jump was filmed and says that Tobe Hooper's "The Funhouse" inspired the final set here. Director of photography Junichiro Hayashi also does a new interview (25:03) in which he discusses the importance of sound and image as means of scaring an audience. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (both 2016's "Blair Witch") talk about the horror of isolation and their admiration for Kurasawa (17:11). There also are an archival making-of feature (41:03); introductions at the Tokyo premiere (7:04); introductions at the Cannes Film Festival (2:57); and special effects breakdowns of four scenes that show how they were accomplished (26:13 total). Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.5 stars

The Missing: Season 2 (Starz/Anchor Bay, 2 DVDs, NR, 7 hours 50 min.). The unexpected return of a woman in 2014 who was kidnapped as a child -- a young British woman found stumbling through the streets of her German hometown, Eckhausen -- leads to chaos and confusion. The woman, Alice Webster (Abigail Hardingham), has been missing for 11 years. The story is told in dual timelines, going back and forth from 2014 and the present. Shortly thereafter, retired missing-persons detective Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Kayo) arrives to pursue a case he refused to let die, that being the abduction of Sophie Giroux, a French girl kidnapped around the same time as Alice and whom Alice says she was held captive with. Alice's parents are played by David Morrissey (Sam) and Keeley Hawes (Gemma).

The first season had been about a missing boy, with detective Baptiste the link between the two seasons. Season two has eight episodes. There are no bonus features. Grade: season 3.5 stars

Underground: Season 2 (Sony, 3 DVDs, NR, 470 min.). This season brings to life pioneering hero and infamous conductor, Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds of TV's "True Blood"), and renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass (John Legend) as the Macon 7 face challenges in their dangerous escape to freedom within a divided America on the brink of civil war. One of those is the relentless pursuit by Patty Cannon (Sadie Stratton), the illegal slave trader who is after pregnant Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell).  (Historically, Cannon died about 30 years before the events of the series, though.) The set includes all 10 episodes, along with a gag reel and deleted scenes. Also available is a DVD set containing both seasons. The show has been cancelled by WGN America and there will be no season three, unless another network picks the show up. Grade: season 3 stars

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