Why You Should Love Keanu Reeves for His Acting

Keanu’s understated demeanor and humility, combined with the Sad Keanu meme and reddit love (for having done things like giving part of his earnings to the rest of the crew on his movies), have won him at least a begrudging respect from even the most hardened and dismissive critics of Keanu.  A common refrain now, after years of being the dumb Ted Logan or the wooden Neo, is that, well, Keanu seems like maybe he’s a great person, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good actor!

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Let me attempt to convince you otherwise.

Basic Filmography

My exposure to Keanu at an early age took the form of watching Parenthood over and over because it was on TV all the time.  That movie, an under-rated film (and, I must digress, was a significant influence in my life as it showed me the dysfunctionality of families well before I was able to see it in the families around me, due to my age and immaturity), came out in 1989 which was also the year the original Bill and Ted came out.

I don’t know which film influenced this doofus young dude character the most but Keanu as Tod in Parenthood was one of the first indications of Keanu as a sweet, innocent, misunderstood character, as he played what seemed to be a trouble-making, trouble-attracting boyfriend who actually ends up helping to bring a family together.  He played Tod and Ted, I might add, after being a character in Dangerous Liaisons (with John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Glenn Close, et al).

Ted dominated the early 90’s (note that somehow he ended up a timeless film with George Carlin), and in my childhood I would watch Bill & Ted in their animated cartoon show.  Yes, that’s Keanu, animated.  How many actors were animated before digitization became a thing?

Strangely as a college kid I didn’t follow films that much but I did fall in love with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which features some of Keanu’s most infamous acting work as a ridiculous Jonathan Harker.  Point Break, My Own Private Idaho, and Little Buddha I didn’t experience until I was much older.

Speed took Keanu out of the Ted phase of his career and into an older, more wooden phase in which he wasn’t perceived as a goofy kid anymore, but just a bad actor.  Some other classic films did little to change his reputation but he managed to accomplish a lot: a William Gibson novel (Johnny Mnemonic), a film with Charlize Theron and Al Pacino as a badass Satan (Devil’s Advocate), a scab quarterback in The Replacements (with Gene Hackman, Orlando Jones, and yes, a younger Jon Favreau!), and some poor attempts at blockbusters (Chain Reaction with Morgan Freeman) and Feeling Minnesota (with Cameron Diaz and the great Dan Akroyd).

I’m just covering the facts here, ma’am, but it’s to get us on the same page.  You probably loosely know this history up to this point, since it’s the foundation for much of the criticism of Keanu’s acting chops.  Even my argument that few actors have worked in such a wide range of roles with such a high caliber of fellow actors is not enough to convince many.

I bring it up because I think like most projects of creation, it is interesting to see which people tend to end up working with each other.  I figure even the most assholish of assholes will get at least one big chance to work on a project with other talented types, but unless that person is just a pure genius and everyone knows it, it’s unlikely that others will want to pick that person again.

I tend to think of Kanye as that ridiculously creative, assholish genius, while I think of Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up as a person who had one chance to work with a group of friends but turned them off. I’ve read that the Knocked Up cast thought Heigl was a total stuck-up bitch and that reputation has followed her since — like, how could you not enjoy hanging out with the Apatow crew?

The fact that Keanu in his career has been able to work with so many different actors of high esteem is a pretty good indicator that he’s a pleasure to work with and, based on the stories revolving around him, an inspiration to be around.  This guy is the definition of a force multiplier who makes those around him better, even if his own qualities can be somewhat indeterminate (and this is a common theme among my favorites: Tyson Chandler, Paul Walker, Kenneth Manimal Faried, and my best friends, as examples).  Keanu reportedly took pay cuts in Devil’s Advocate and The Replacements to land Al Pacino and Gene Hackman.

But does that make him a great actor?  No!, most detractors would say.

The Outsider

So, let me get to the meat of my argument.  And I’m going to need to make a personal parallel here.  Keanu is a halfie like I am.  He’s mostly Canadian, but of mixed descent.  Some British.  Keanu is half-white, half-Hawai’ian/mutt.  Born in Lebanon, raised by his mom with several stepdads around.

I am mostly American, some Brit (by my Brit parents).  Half-Asian, half-white.  Raised mostly American but with some tiger mom ideals.  I was quickly outpaced by my advanced classmates (mostly Asian) in middle and high school, but I didn’t fit in with the rest of the student body, and while I enjoyed sports I was stuck in right field or last spot on the tennis team.

So with all that in mind, I began to notice I identified with Keanu in a key respect: he tends to play the role of the outsider come to help the community deal with and resolve its problems.  And if you look at things this way, you’ll see a whole new side of acting and of Keanu open up.

Here we see Tod, healing his girlfriend’s small family by teaching the young son without a father that his entree into puberty is not abnormal.  Shane Falco as the quarterback of a bunch of scrubs who get a chance at filling in where they don’t belong.  Harker traveling to Transylvania to be a liaison between the modern world and the mystical world.  Siddhartha himself, the man who sought to leave the gates of elite security and see how his people truly lived.

This helps to explain the interpretation of his acting as well, certainly.  For him to be an outsider means that he did not grow up with the same cultural imprinting, ritual, and mannerisms as the rest of the community.  He is going to be perceived as not acting “normally” or quite human enough.  He is foreign, he is weird.  This I identified with very strongly since the most common characterization of me is that I am non-emotive and stoic — but this never quite resonated with me because within myself is a complex torrent of insecurities, feelings, and understandings about the relationships occurring around me.

In Keanu’s more recent films, the outsider theme is even more prevalent.  In 47 Ronin, Keanu is a half-Japanese, half-white subservient mystical nature outcast who is treated with contempt by the samurai around him.  Says one of the characters, “I would rather have been killed by that beast than saved by a half-breed.”

Perhaps the perfect role for Keanu under this intepretation was as Klaatu, the stoic alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still who comes to Earth in human form to warn humans that we are on a path of self-destruction.

The Life-Weary Veteran

There’s a theme of Keanu as detective and beaten-down veteran, or as a technical expert.  Detectives are, culturally, those who investigate the other side in order to unravel the truth that has been hidden away.

His efficient, calm demeanor actually suits him well as a head-shotting ex-hitman in John Wick:

As a detective in A Scanner Darkly, Keanu’s character breaks down as he loses his ability to maintain identity. and is rotoscoped (how many actors have been rotoscoped?) by Richard Linklater (a triumphant director of our time) based on a Philip K. Dick book.  Keanu is enmeshed into the fabric of our age, are you getting the picture yet?

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He plays an exhausted truth-seeker forced into his trade in Constantine, Johnny Mnemonic, John Wick (though this also fits his villainous Street Kings and Man of Tai Chi roles), and of course Point Break.

Now, Point Break is legendary (Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days and Point Break are spectacular — Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty seem very different and distant).  It wasn’t always, but it’s quotable now.  And, I’m very happy to say, it was playing the day of my wedding when I was with my groomsmen waiting for the ceremony to start.  I AM AN FBI AGENT!, a line both praising and mocking our hero.

The Humble

Arrogance is exhausting to deal with when I hear it in others.  Look how Keanu phrases things.  It’s refreshing.  “I get to play Kai” (about 47 Ronin).  On his most recent reddit AMA: ” Thank you everyone for spending some time with me. It was great to spend some time with you.”  An older reddit AMA was entitled “Ask me, if you want, almost anything”.  He is asking for your permission and is grateful for it.

The Blind Mystic

There is, obviously, the Neo phase of Keanu’s career, when the mocking progressed from Speed to WHOA.  Thomas Anderson as the office drone.  But let’s look at The Matrix within this context: Keanu’s girlfriend had miscarried their child shortly before, and then not too much longer afterwards, they had broken up and she had died in a car accident.  Since then Keanu has not really had serious relationships at least that we know of, and he’s seemed to exist in a separate plane more than ever since.

With this in mind, consider the scene where Trinity dies:

Keanu, blinded, but omniscient of Agent Smith, the robots, his mortality, and his Jesus metaphor (“table for 12”).  That’s a powerful scene and no one else fits it better than Keanu does, as a human and as an actor.

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So now we can begin to see depth in Keanu’s acting and in his role choices.  His most recent shift to gunkata, martial arts, and killing somewhat parallels Liam Neesonian films after Neeson’s wife died.

Next he will be in a TV mini-series John Rain, in which he’s an ex-Special Forces (near and dear to my own heart) ex-CIA assassin-for-hire, based on a book character of the same name who is half-Japanese, half-American.  It’s like the perfect damn role for him.

The Fellow Sufferer

Keanu understands the human condition, such as this comparison to the trials of life being like quicksand:

As Siddhartha, he chose to see death instead of comfort:

Naturally he chose the red pill:

He’s been somewhat aloof about his alter-ego, Sad Keanu

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but he’s aware of how others perceive him, such as in his picture book Ode to Happiness, which my brother thoughtfully got me for Christmas last year:

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Do you see now, Neo?  What you know you can’t explain, but you feel.  It’s there, like a splinter in your mind.  Keanu Reeves is Hollywood’s best outsider, the definition of the role, the person who crosses boundaries between realms, who fits in neither here nor there.  He has traveled the world in search of truth, and he sets an example for us all to be better people through his roles and his personal deeds.

To me, any small sliver of all this puts him up there in terms of acting, but altogether, how could you argue differently?  Perhaps I look up to what he represents more than most, and identify with his feelings of alienation and isolation but deep sympathy with the human condition, but I hope that others see him the same way.

And with that, what’s a better way for me to sign off than with this Johnny Utah/Ferris Bueller (one of my top 3 films of all time) mashup?

Why You Should Love the "Fast and the Furious" Series

[updated for Furious 7]

Despite the Fast and Furious series becoming one of the most durable and profitable movie franchises in Hollywood, with endless potential for follow-ups, it was long regarded as somewhat of a joke, a predictably summerish action film orgasm with outlandish stunts and horrible dialogue featuring poor actors and garish music and fashion.  I originally wrote this post back when the franchise was less respected — things have obviously changed in the 6th and 7th films now that they are Hollywood juggernauts.

What I want you to understand is that you should appreciate this franchise beyond its profitability and new-found (as a result of Paul Walker’s death) sentimentality.

I know it looks cheesy and it seems geared towards a young high school male crowd.  But what the franchise has actually done is provide an overview of the history of street-racing culture and documentation of U.S. international affairs issues.

The movies, in order of release (domestic):

  1. The Fast and the Furious, Rob Cohen, $144.5mil
  2. 2 Fast 2 Furious, John Singleton, $127mil
  3. The Fast and the Furious:  Tokyo Drift, Justin Lin, $62.5mil
  4. Fast & Furious, Justin Lin, $155mil
  5. Fast Five, Justin Lin, $209.8mil
  6. Fast & Furious 6, Justin Lin, $238.7mil
  7. Furious 7, James Wan, $320.5mil (as of 26 Apr 15)

Tokyo Drift is the outcast of the series and actually takes place after all the other 5 first films.  Vin Diesel has appeared in all of the films except the 2nd one (he was working on xXx).  Paul Walker has appeared in all the films except the 3rd one (which only Diesel cameo’d in).

The first movie came as a complete surprise.  It was one of those films that got more popular the longer it was in theaters, and especially once it hit DVDs and TV.  It is now well-established in the cultural zeitgeist.

ffThe first movie only made $40mil in its opening weekend, but ended up making $144mil total.  Tokyo Drift, the third film that came after the weak second film, was the only film to have a weaker opening and total.

The latest film is now the 5th highest grossing film of all time, internationally!  And 36th pre-inflation domestically.

Talk about organic growth!

Directors

It’s worth talking just about the directors because they impact how the series has progressed.  Rob Cohen directed the first film.  Cohen appears to be an expert at crafting big-budget summer action films, even if they don’t end up being that memorable later.  John Singleton directed the next film, which was a train wreck.  Justin Lin took over for the rest of the series, starting with the oddball Tokyo Drift third film.  Lin dropped out for the seventh film (and went on to direct a couple episodes of True Detective and Star Trek 3), to be replaced by James Wan, most notable for his direction of the film Saw.

Justin Lin had an inauspicious beginning with Tokyo Drift but that film ended up being so instrumental in the backstory for the rest of the franchise that Lin has pretty much defined the franchise ever since.

Music

Back when I was a kid, collaborations made movie soundtracks actually awesome.  Judgment Night, The Crow, Strange Days: these were powerhouse albums.  The FF films don’t do collaborations but have been noteworthy for delivering new original music from top artists.  For example, the Fast & Furious 6 soundtrack had tracks from 2 Chainz, Wiz Khalifa, Deadmau5, Cypress Hill, Crystal Method, and David Guetta.  Furious 7’s tribute to Paul Walker was a song by Wiz Khalifa that Vin Diesel has ended up singing in various occasions to remember his deceased friend.

The Fast and the Furious

The first movie sets out to cover street-racing culture essentially where it became biggest, in Los Angeles.  The culture as proposed by the film is macho in nature, mainly men racing cars against each other for money or for pink slips (car titles, or the ownership of the car) or for the favor of women who are usually dressed in skimpy, bimbo’d out outfits.  American muscle is the thematic powerhouse.  Michelle Rodriguez plays a tough mechanic in Diesel’s crew who races cars — she breaks the stereotype.

I think it’s important to note that prior to this film, street-racing really wasn’t a pop culture thing.  It defined a whole generation’s love affair with custom cars.

The cars in this film are mostly import tuners rigged up with NOS (nitrous oxide systems) with replacement engines and pearlescent detailing on the body.  The idea is that you buy a cheap car and kit it up so it can go faster with less weight and at a lower cost than buying a sports car (with the added benefit of being a good example of how open standards and modular equipment can lead to innovation, similar to custom-built PC computers).

Since the setting is LA, the mix of people is diverse:  Vin Diesel and his sister and girlfriend are Hispanic, Walker is white, Ja Rule (a rapper) is black, and there are competing street-racing gangs such as the Hispanics and the Asians (who of course have rice rocket motorcycles).  The shy, wobbly guy in Dom’s crew is a dyslexic kid who is somehow a genius with CAD and rebuilding cars.  He, like all the nerds in the series, dies.

The first movie moves at one point to a “Race Wars” in the desert, cognizant of the illegality of street-racing inside the city.

At the end, Dom and Walker’s character chase a shamed Asian gang’s leaders (victim to a Joy Luck Club-like humiliation in the form of an FBI raid while eating dinner with their parents and elders) and then finish in an industrial zoning section of LA.  Dom’s car of choice is an American muscle car, a 1970 Dodge Charger R/T.  He was afraid of its power after his father died while racing it.  Yet he rebuilt it anyway.

This movie is all about the American muscle mentality ultimately, despite the use of Asian tuner cars. (see the cars from this film)

2 Fast 2 Furious

The second film had a ridiculous title, a new director, no Vin Diesel, but Tyrese Gibson as Paul Walker’s counterpart.  The franchise lost a lot of momentum with this film.

But the second film took place in Miami around Miami’s narcotics underworld.  Instead of the LA FBI, this film deals with customs agents, Miami nightclubs, and Miami yachts and boatyards.  Instead of straight-up American muscle cars, there are convertible ragtops. (see the cars from the second film)  Miami will always be a lucrative waypoint for drugs entering the country and being distributed throughout the US, so the FF style being adapted to Miami weather and convertibles is fitting.ff2

Eva Mendes is the requisite superstar hot chick (Dom’s sister in the first film, Jordana Brewster, was hot but not well-known enough) who is an undercover agent herself.  Ludacris, the rapper, is the bankroller for the good guys in this film, and he seems to be friends with this super-hot halfie chick named Suki, who drives a pink ragtop that she designed herself.  Obviously in this film there was more effort to break stereotypes.

This was the weakest of the four films.  John Singleton directed it, and it came off plain.  It took the least risks.

Tokyo Drift

Tokyo Drift is already playing on cable TV.  It is a sleeper favorite of mine.  It was the worst-performing movie of the franchise, but it was just so outstandingly different than its previous films and than other peer films.  It showed respect to driving and went outside the US to prove it.  It also ends up being crucial to the overall story.

Tokyo Drift takes the young cornfed American muscle car driver kid and portrays him as a troublemaker with a broken family (Navy dad) who doesn’t respect authority.  He wins a race at the beginning, his muscle car against a Dodge Viper driven by a high school football player.  Winner gets the football player’s girlfriend.  The starting line girl takes off her bra to start the race.  Very American.  But both guys end up totaling their cars so the kid gets shipped off to Tokyo to stay with his Navy dad.  Football player’s a trust-fund kid with a rich dad so he gets off, thanks to connects.ff3

So muscle car American goes to Tokyo (his flight has Japanese businessmen and a bunch of college kids going to Japan for summer vaycay) and starts attending a Tokyo school and of course hits on a non-Japanese girl who ends up being the “Drift King”‘s girlfriend.  He also befriends Bow Wow (a rapper), who’s the only other American in Tokyo because he’s a military brat.

Muscle car American challenges Drift King (DK) to a race.  But the race is within a parking garage and simple drag racing down a straight strip won’t fly.  Dolled-up Japanese girls in knee socks and lots of makeup line the race’s track.

“You wouldn’t have that problem with a V-8.”

“Boys.  All they care about is who’s got the biggest engine.”

“I’m a guy.  It’s in my DNA.  So y’all race with these things, huh?  Cute little toys.”

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Thus the American learns about drifting, or detaching your car’s wheels from the road to skid around corners without losing speed, being bankrolled by a rich Japanese guy who doesn’t care about wasting money but is so bored he wants to see something interesting.

What’s cool about drifting in the film is that drifting started in Japan, and it is proper for this racing franchise to pay homage to it.  YouTube has a bunch of videos including the originals of the drifting founder, Kunimitsu Takahashi.  Watch this history of drifting on YouTube:

So the American has to learn to drift in order to beat DK at the end, who is actually son to a Yakuza (Japanese mafia) boss.  The American also has to learn how to drive much smaller cars (Bow Wow’s shows a VW Touran with some punched-out frame work done for a fist-shape effect, delivered out of a Tokyo-appropriate automated parking garage machine).  See the rest of the Tokyo Drift cars.  In the end, the American beats the Japanese guy by drifting…in an American muscle car.

Japan is instrumental to racing and racing culture.  Import cars and parts, compact cars that are easily modifiable, reliability.

A prominent theme in the film is being gaijin, or outsider.  DK’s woman was a gaijin, and the white protagonist is a gaijin as well.  They’re discriminated against but they eventually adapt and are celebrated.

The best part for the franchise?  At the end of the film, Dom makes a cameo at one of the parking garage races.

Dom pays homage to Han, who is the only one from the third film to join the crew in later films.  Probably because of his great perspective on what’s important in life in these speeches:

Naturally he’s an Asian so he has to die in the film’s canon.

Fast & Furious, the Fourth

For the fourth film, the original cast was brought back. Dom is on the lam, now raiding fuel trucks in the Dominican Republic and Michelle Rodriguez is trying to get his freedom back and also rebuilds his Dodge Charger (the car which takes on a mythical presence in the franchise).

This time, Dom and Brian (Walker’s character) are going to Mexico to kill/arrest a drug cartel leader who offs Dom’s girlfriend.  The American muscle cars are back, and as this page of Fast and Furious’s cars says, the German-engineered BMWs and Mercedes get destroyed.  No love for them.

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Drivers are getting executed in the desert after making a run through the US border control.  Transporting massive loads of drugs across the border.  The movie came at a time of increasing drug trafficking activity along the Mexico-TX/AZ/CA borders, as Caribbean drug routes began to be closed down by increased U.S. law enforcement activity (hence the end of Miami Vice, Scarface, 2 Fast 2 Furious).  Quite prescient since now the Mexico border violence is palpable, and people being executed as part of the trafficking has become standard.

For some reason this movie did better than the rest of the previous films, I suspect because it had the original cast back and people expected it to re-capture the original experience.

Fast Five

The fifth film in the series, Fast Five, takes place mainly in Rio de Janeiro, after Dom is rescued from a prison transfer bus by Mia and Brian.  The film covers the corruption of the police, influence from the drug lords, and the use of the favelas to control, process, and hide the drugs and resulting cash.  Perhaps when Dom and Brian have to go find some race cars for their heist is the piece that ties the movie back to all the rest, for when they show up at the night race, they say it’s home sweet home.  All the cast from all the movies makes an appearance, including old cast members after the credits, so stay and watch.

In today’s affairs, drug trafficking is being pushed south.  Central America has gotten violent as the Zetas have been pressured to move south after increased U.S. DEA/intel/operations presence in the north and in Mexico City.  Meanwhile South American countries are increasing their drug production as Colombia fights the lingering presence of its ugly 80’s drug cartels.  Why Brazil?  It’s hot right now.  It’s getting the Olympics and World Cup as well.  It’s part of the BRIC countries.

The vehicles?  American muscle cars, a few race cars, and a bigass MRAP military looking South African urban combat looking vehicle driven by “Captain America/Samoan Thor”, The Rock.  With SUVs, new Dodge Chargers, and a dune buggy.

None of this should be confused with The Onion’s Today Now! interview with the 5-year-old screenwriter of Fast Five.

This film transitioned the franchise from a weak series of films into a blockbuster, by way of adding The Rock and expanding the crew.  This also transitions the franchise from less of a street-racing homage series to more of an action film series with ridiculous stunts and Hollywood action.

Fast & Furious 6

The latest installment, number 6, brings together the entire crew once again, to face an equally skilled crew operating out of Europe.  The interesting connection here for international affairs is that Europe has been the focus of world news for the last 5-10 years because of the financial crisis and subsequent bailout plans for countries.  Most of the film takes place in London, the financial capital of the world, but it also moves to Spain (ground zero for financial trouble a few years ago) and Russia.  Interpol, the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, and NATO are the prominent legal organizations involved.

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The cars are a mix of American and Brit.  Dodge Mustangs and Chargers (for Dom) vs. BMWs, Interceptors, Mark I Escorts.  The good guys drive 3 cars, colored red, white, and blue.  The Rock is of course still in his massive MRAP-like vehicle.  There’s a NATO tank.

One interesting thing that happens is that the opposing crew tries using electronic devices to override electronic controls on Dom’s crew’s cars, so they end up switching to cars without electronic chips.  That technical twist is forgotten in the rest of the movie but there’s still tension between old cars, new cars, American muscle, and import toys, running throughout the series.

Furious 7

Paul Walker’s death (by, fittingly, sports car accident) contributed greatly to the awareness of this film, but it was already going to do well because of its all-star cast, adding Jason Statham as the new villain.  Gone are the early days of Han’s philosophizing and LA subculture turf wars — it’s now international action that in many ways reminded me of Mission Impossible (the car stunt at the Abu Dhabi towers is reminiscent of Ghost Protocol), James Bond, and other similar action films.

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This blog post’s core argument has kind of broken down as the franchise has transitioned away from cars and more to the dominant themes of personalities and “family” along with action filming techniques:

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But supercars and the Middle East are inseparable, along with the Gulf States being a new hotspot of nefarious, shady waystations for international intrigue and illicit commerce.  The infamous princes who bring their supercars to London every summer are featured in Furious 7.

Azerbaijan is another waystation between commerce routes and country borders — a gap in the international system’s fabric.  Just suited for an environment of paradropping vehicles in, having off-road vehicles (Ludacris’s Jeep Wrangler) for the first time, etc.

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A return to LA for the end of the film is a given; it’s the team’s home turf, and still the birthplace of car culture and the franchise.

So many different cars are being used at this point in the franchise that there’s no overall style, but some things remain: Dom and Letty still drive their American muscle cars, Jason Statham drives a Brit Aston Martin, Paul Walker tends to drive souped-up Japanese cars.

Paul Walker and Vin Diesel driving off in different directions at the end, with the aid of CG-rendered clips and Paul’s stand-in brother.  A mark to the end of another stage of the franchise’s development.

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So Why Should You Love the Franchise?

The franchise delves into strange law enforcement and black market/underground bedfellows.  It embraces the drug war, cultural and ethnic divides, and other taboo topics.  Mexican drug cartels, street-racing, the Yakuza, Rio favelas, dark spots in the world’s geopolitics.  It also embraces the car-modding communities in a way that no other films have come close to doing.  It mashes up old cars and new cars and popular actors, musicians, and unknowns.  It pays homage to Paul Newman and drag racing.  It’s strangely relevant to issues affecting world politics.

It adapts its franchise to different locations with different cultures and styles.  It wasn’t afraid to go to Tokyo to tussle up the franchise.  And different locations mean different styles of driving, different cars, different reactions to American bravado and muscle.

It’s highly stylized with quick cutscenes of fuel being injected into a combustible engine with NOS treatment to provide blurry-filmed bursts of speed (sort of an homage to the Three Kings gunshot wound scene).

The FBI should totally try to use this franchise for recruiting — embracing kids who do questionable things but offer skills the FBI might need.  Maybe it’d be a complete waste of time but the FBI could at least exploit the nominally-positive FBI mood in the franchise.  The FBI is seen as the stereotypical insular, out-of-touch organization, but it’s employing a new generation of kids (think 21 Jump Street or The Mod Squad) in the franchise.

The franchise covers a decade of the American experience at home and abroad.  Drug trades in Miami and Mexicali, kitting and piracy in LA, the art of drifting and expats in Tokyo.  US primacy is no longer unquestioned, as external influences in the form of drug cartels and the mafia exert counter-balancing power against American might and American law enforcement.  The rise of the rest, with Latin America pushing in on America’s borders and Japan’s culture being completely unknown, but not untouchable, to Americans, dominates the tone set by the franchise.

To sum up, there just aren’t many other franchises covering strange subcultures like the Fast and the Furious franchise did.  There’s something unique about this one, despite its goofiness at times.  That’s why you should love it.

[More on the franchise from Mahalo.]

I also, now that we’ve had so many films come out, am fixated on how good the third film was.  It was a total black sheep at the time, and made far, far less than any of the other films, but it’s so key to understanding and loving the franchise.  We also learn that it took place chronologically before the later films, such that Han had already finished his time working with Dom’s crew and they were already lifelong family.  For Dom to show up at the end to pay his respects, and then see this turn into the impetus for the seventh film, was well-executed.  The third film also piggybacked off the reverence and quieter moments of the first film for driving culture and for life in general, in a way that the second film (which was pure flash) totally did not care about.

Other Taboo Movie Topics

I explained this amazing franchise to my friend Preetum one time — she’s still skeptical.  But there are other film subjects I will gladly defend with ferocity.  I still maintain that as much as you can make fun of Keanu Reeves (and my buddy MonkeyPope does a hilarious impersonation of him), the guy has a filmography any actor would kill to have:  Point Break, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Much Ado About Nothing, being in a William Gibson book-turned-movie (Johnny Mnemonic), Parenthood, the Matrix trilogy, Dangerous Liaisons, The Replacements, Speed, The Devil’s Advocate, and of course Bill & Ted.  You can’t argue against that résumé.

For that matter, I also think that while the original Matrix was by far the best, the rest of the trilogy is worth watching as a whole summation of parts.

And with that, my nerddom is done for now.

Mash-Up Culture is Still Young

A buddy of mine on IRC posted a YouTube video that mashes up (a phrase meaning to mix up different sources of music and video and other media into one product) drum n’ bass (dnb) music with footage from church sermons with people dancing and being overcome by religious experience and priests giving emotional sermons.  I used to listen to a lot of dnb so I enjoyed the video a lot.

These particular videos below are 3 parts of “Baptazia” called “Super Sunday”, posted on YouTube by a user named airloaf.  I don’t know much about him except for what’s on his profile.

Watch the three below:

Well done, dude! Indeed, there’s a whole slew of related videos that mash up gospel stuff with dnb. airloaf calls it “speedgospel”, but I guess it could be dnb gospel too.

It’s funny posting so many YouTube links; the “other” founder of YouTube, Jawed Karim, used to be in the IRC channel I still use to this day.

One of the more well-known mash-up artists right now is Girl Talk. The guy behind Girl Talk is mentioned quite a bit in Lawrence Lessig‘s new book about remix culture, entitled “Remix”.

Girl Talk, coincidentally, has a similar video for the new single off his album “Feed the Animals”; “Play Your Part” also uses church footage:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYhgU4b_JZ8

I don’t know who thought to put the two together, but obviously mash-up artists like using the crazy dancing in church sermons for their video bases.

Intellectual Property Law Hurting Innovation

In Lessig’s “Remix”, he talks about how intellectual property law is constricting innovation in video and music at a time when it’s possible for any individual to mash stuff up easily on their computers. The freedom we have to mash-up and remix text is what needs to happen for video and music next, but we’re a long way from that both in terms of technology and of legal protection.

The Concept of the Screen

Kevin Kelly, former editor of Wired Magazine and well-known internet visionary, recently published an article in the New York Times Magazine about “screen literacy”. Kelly makes similar points to Lessig, saying that we have already achieved “text literacy”, freely cutting and pasting text and bookmarking and Kindle-ing and quoting and referencing in papers freely. Both Lessig and Kelly point out that no one has any problem or legal disagreement with being able to quote someone else’s text without their permission, as long as attribution is made.

Kelly then goes on to say that video sharing is still in its infancy. We can’t yet really link an article about a scene from a movie to the actual scene from a high-quality feed of that movie. Says Kelly:

“With true screen fluency, I’d be able to cite specific frames of a film, or specific items in a frame. Perhaps I am a historian interested in oriental dress, and I want to refer to a fez worn by someone in the movie “Casablanca.” I should be able to refer to the fez itself (and not the head it is on) by linking to its image as it “moves” across many frames, just as I can easily link to a printed reference of the fez in text. Or even better, I’d like to annotate the fez in the film with other film clips of fezzes as references.”

Kelly then closes his article as follows:

“With our fingers we will drag objects out of films and cast them in our own movies. A click of our phone camera will capture a landscape, then display its history, which we can use to annotate the image. Text, sound, motion will continue to merge into a single intermedia as they flow through the always-on network. With the assistance of screen fluency tools we might even be able to summon up realistic fantasies spontaneously. Standing before a screen, we could create the visual image of a turquoise rose, glistening with dew, poised in a trim ruby vase, as fast as we could write these words. If we were truly screen literate, maybe even faster. And that is just the opening scene.”

The Four Screens

Interestingly, Nokia has been doing a lot of hardcore research into the future.  It employs the now well-known (as the result of an inspiring NYTimes article from April of this year) Jan Chipchase as an anthropologist who goes out and studies how people use cellphones or how they build solutions to everyday problems.

Nokia also published a video called “The Fourth Screen”, about how cell phones are a fourth screen of history that are just beginning to revolutionize our world:

Nokia argues that the moving picture or movie was the first screen we ever used.  It was a public meeting place-type viewing experience.  The second screen was the TV, which allowed us to stay in our homes.  The third screen was the computer screen and internet, which let us share with each other again, but still from our homes.

And now there’s the fourth screen, the mobile phone, that lets us go out and be social again, while still having the power of the internet and digital communication with us.

It is interesting to think about this only being the beginning.  In many ways we consider technology to have a predictable path now.  We have cellphones, and okay, maybe they will be a little faster on the internet and have better cameras soon.  But do we really imagine much more?

Nokia and more international development-oriented organizations (Grameenphone, etc.) think that cellphones can do a lot for poor people.  A lot’s been written on the topic.  But how will humankind interact and mash things up once technology is freed from the tyranny of the literate towards video and music, which even the illiterate and uneducated can relate with?  What will happen when we can search videos with the same relative ease as we can with text on Google?

It’s still too difficult.  I’ve been messing with ACID (audio editing) and Final Cut Pro (movie editing) and it takes a long time and it’s hard to get all the different file formats from different media under one roof.  You have to use the tools a lot to learn how to mix up the content well.  I just made a mixtape for a Christmas gift, under a silly pseudonym I like to use, DJ Industrial Average (for DJIA, the acronym for the Dow Jones index), and the quality of my mixing was poor, given especially that it took me many hours to do it.

So there’s still lots of work to be done before everyone can use this stuff.  But the flood is coming.

More on Girl Talk

To conclude this post, I’ll leave you with some more mashed up YouTube videos, this time using Girl Talk’s blend of 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s music with their accompanying music videos.  Make sure to watch all 14 parts, which are not all from one user as YouTube is probably removing them gradually for copyright infringement (sadly).

At the Movies: Munich

I went to go see Munich. I had to drive down to Nashville to catch it at the big movie theater, since the local one was no longer playing it. I remember reading in Iraq how Munich was being called the movie of the year and all this stuff. I was skeptical — Spielburg’s most recent films have been questionable to me, ever since A.I. (I perhaps inappropriately defend A.I. I admit it). I didn’t like Catch Me If You Can very much. It seemed overly indulgent (and a waste of what was awesome material, a kid who’s encouraged by his father to be a con man), and so did the next Tom Hanksathon, The Terminal. War of the Worlds was, well, not fun. It was stupid. Who makes an alien invasion a subplot to yet another retarded broken family story?

It seemed to me like Spielburg’s just forgotten how to make fun movies that thrive off the energy of the screenplay or story.

Golda Meir

So Munich, about a fictional hit squad unleashed by the Israeli Mossad to execute facilitators of the Olympic hostage disaster, should have a badass storyline to work with. I mean, fucking political intrigue with Golda Meir! Evil terrorists! Underground assassins! Regret, repugnance, death, and despair! Right?

Munich seemed to me like Spielburg was trying too hard to make an important film. There’s something extremely visceral about the Muslim radicals in the way that they devote themselves to a cause and love their families and think that they are doing the right thing, going through with crazy schemes to get closer to paradise. And the Israelis (particularly the Mossad) live day-in and day-out with the subconscious idea that they’re fighting for their survival. They’re surrounded by the enemy constantly. They are told to do anything to ensure their safety.

Spielburg muddled the film with stupid scenes that were supposed to parallel or haunt both the hit squad’s actions and the hostage crisis. For instance, I don’t get why Eric Bana sees flashes of the hostages dying as he fucks his wife. “Honey, you turn me on so much it’s like a helo full of Jewish hostages getting shot as a terrorist freaks out!”

While I’m on the subject, I hate when we’re supposed to see something through someone’s eyes, yet what we actually see is a third-party view. What, is that fucker like able to live out of his body or something? So much effort is spent on getting into the mind of a character, but we can’t even see important flashbacks through their eyes?

Anyway. It seemed like Spielburg compromised his integrity by trying to pay homage to his Jewish heritage. It’s just totally not interesting. And he shows the “human” side of the evil Arabs being successful people in non-Arab countries. Are they just normal hard-working people with extremist leanings? Or are they trying to blend in to avoid danger? I have no clue. And the whole thing with his wife is just confusing. There’s no relationship there, it’s just some woman who makes cameos every once in a while. “Oh, my husband disappears for months at a time and is doing all this secret stuff…that’s really neat! Hee hee! PLOP! Out comes a baby!”

Spielburg brings in the idea that blood only brings more blood at the end but this too is just more boring moralizing. I mean, do we fucking care? Is movie-watching supposed to be didactic?

Can you imagine if in the Indiana Jones movies, he spent half an hour showing how maybe the Nazis were more human, deeper than we give them credit for, instead of leaving them as the comical, absurdly strict and humorless German kraut Nazi goose-steppers we’ve come to know and hate? Can you imagine if Indiana Jones developed a guilty conscience?

(edit: My buddy MonkeyPope reminded me that Spielburg directed Schindler’s List. I’d forgotten that. I am not sure why that movie turned out so good and this one turned out so bad. Maybe we just know the German Nazi better than we know the Muslim extremist.)

Quite frankly I just don’t understand how I can be so bored and turned off by this movie when I am so intensely fascinated by the Israeli intelligence services and by the call to jihad of the Muslim terrorists. It’s as if I had a naked supermodel grinding in my lap and was like, “Boy, I could really play some Freecell right about now.”

On a brighter note, before Munich, there was a trailer for what looks to be an awesome movie: Why We Fight. It’s a documentary about the effects of contracting in the militaristic culture of the U.S. government. About how defense contractors are capitalizing on the Global War on Terrorism which no one else seems to be benefitting from. This war is hot money, and not only that, the worst kind of hot money, that of opaque, no-bid, nepotistic contracts.

Here is the trailer.

So, yeah, hurray for us! Go USA!