(In theaters, April 2011) My unexplainable love for The Fast and the Furious series suddenly gets a lot more explainable with this surprising fifth segment: Reaching well beyond the street-racing antics of the previous volumes and deeper into the criminal action/thriller mode, Fast Five manages to satisfyingly weave together plot threads and a dozen characters from the four previous films, while delivering inventive action sequences. The prologue effectively sets the tone and the film’s lack of regard for physics: thus reassured, we can enjoy the rest of the film, the over-the-top action sequences, the reunion of the series regulars and the colourful Rio de Janeiro locale. This has to be one of the best pure-action movies of the past few years: It’s snappy, it’s competent, it doesn’t take itself seriously and when it clicks, it really works. Vin Diesel growls as well as he can, and he’s joined by Dwayne Johnson for a head-on collision between two of the most credible action heroes of the moment. While the script isn’t perfect (a few lulls; a few nonsensical plot development; little refinement by way of dialogue), it’s pretty good at giving a few moments to everyone in the cast, at setting up the interesting action sequences, and even at winking at the audience: There are a number of inside jokes for series fans here, perhaps the biggest being a cut that skips over the film’s usual street-racing sequence. The cars may not be as nice at the previous films, but the action sequences are quite a bit more striking. I wish, however, that director Justin Lin would open up his action sequences a bit more, lay off the crazy editing and let the long-shots speak for themselves. (Fortunately, he’s already much better now than in the previous two films.) Don’t leave during the credits: there’s a short scene that will please series fans while setting up a promising sixth instalment.
(In theatres, April 2011) The possibilities of computer animation are in full bloom in this high-spirited, fizzy, highly enjoyable adventure starring talking songbirds. The story has chases and romantic comedy plot points that we’ve seen dozens of times before, but they’re executed in such light-hearted fashion that it’s hard to be overly critical. (Although there are two spitting gags that don’t really fit.) From the spectacular opening musical number to the closing credits, Rio does honour to its namesake by being as vibrant and colourful as Brazil often feels. And yet, for a film aimed at kids, it still manages to slip in a few socially-relevant mentions of animal smuggling and poverty in the favelas. Still, the emphasis is on the animals, and that’s where the vocal performances matter. Jesse Eisenberg is good as the socially-mystified hero, but his voice is, by now, so closely identified to an nebbish archetype that it can be distracting. Meanwhile, wil.i.am and Jamie Foxx have the chance to sing a bit, while Anne Hathaway is generally unobjectionable as the other main character. While Rio gains to points for audacity, it does the now-familiar animated-feature characteristics well: A few fast-paced action sequences, cute anthropomorphic characters, a humorous tone, some singing and dancing and a finale that wraps everything up. It may not push the envelope like many of Pixar’s films, but it’s good enough to be pleasant and satisfying both to kids and adults.