FilmSpace: Fast & Furious 8; The Student; Win It All - reviews

CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at the big movies of the moment

A WORLD-RECORD smasher, a fanatical Russian drama and another new Netflix release make for a decent week.

Fast & Furious 8 – ★★★☆☆

Sorry nerds, but Fast & Furious 8 has dethroned Star Wars: The Force Awakens to claim the highest-grossing opening weekend of all time with a staggering $532m. We can expect Universal to confirm 20 more sequels any day now.

It begins with Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto street-racing in an aged car that’s on fire, and he’s doing it in reverse. It’s in Cuba, where the girls are smokin’ and the tunes are constant, and it’s over a kerfuffle involving Toretto’s cousin. It only gets sillier from here.

It’s so silly it makes Furious 7 look like Carol. Toretto is roped into joining cyberterrorist Cipher, played by Charlize Theron who, between Mad Max: Fury Road and the upcoming Atomic Blonde, is currently action movie royalty. He turns his back on his family, and so it’s up to Dwayne Johnson’s Luke Hobbs and the rest of the gang to solve the unthinkable.

Its success relies on your personal tolerance for the ridiculous.

Theron’s presence is a reminder of what this film isn’t. Fury Road was revolutionary, and its influence here is clear – a pursuit across an icy landscape draws heavily from George Miller’s post-apocalyptic chase, but therein lies the problem. Furious 7 was a trail-blazer, fully embracing the franchise’s ability to be a modern James Bond-like globe-trotting adventure, and do it better than anyone else. In this, the 8th instalment, it feels like the series is coasting, content with second place.

Its success relies on your personal tolerance for the ridiculous. Hacking into a city’s worth of electric cars? Jason Statham kicking ass while babysitting? A submarine chasing cars? It slips from believable to fantastical in the shift of a gear, and tangible to artificial too, a flaw when you want your escapism to be relatable.

It’s a casualty of the series’ own past glories. It's fun, totally daft, and great to look at. It's also overlong, too daft, and lacks a spark. Fast & Furious 8 seems happy to be left in the dust; dust created by Furious 7.

The Student – ★★★★☆

The kind of satirical film you hope no one died over, The Student is about a lot of things, one of which is a staunch criticism of Vladimir Putin.

Young Veniamin is enraptured by the Bible, quoting scripture at every opportunity. He rallies against everything, most notably his biology teacher who tries to teach safe sex and evolution, two things that are the work of Satan himself.

Elena, the teacher, is liberal-minded. She deals with science and fact, she says, to two higher ups who try to come to a half-baked compromise. The school’s priest is affable and familiar, a positive influence in the community, and as modern as one would expect in present-day Russia. Veniamin befriends a bullied kid with one leg shorter than the other – a cripple, in the eyes of God – who becomes his disciple.

So when Elena rallies against the authoritarian nature of Veniamin’s preaching, the message is hardly subtle. She gesticulates wildly while a framed portrait of Vladimir Putin hangs just out of focus. When she champions fact, she sounds like any liberal’s Twitter feed, and has the smugness to accompany it.

The film seems to admire the devotion people have to faith, but is happier to be envious of it than fall victim to it.

Veniamin is as militant as the Westboro Baptist Church, but his classmates find it funny, and the headteacher is hesitant to see him as much more than a bit of a nuisance. She suggests Elena teach creationism alongside evolution.

It’s Russian, yes – there are pro-LGBT messages that are clearly aimed at the country’s poor track record. But it’s also universal in its inability to come close to any sort of conflict resolution. Two sides think they’re right, and those in the middle think they’re both as bad as each other when that’s not quite the case.

It’s quietly provocative in its brashness. Each passage Veniamin quotes is accompanied with a visual reference, as if to say “yes, the Bible really says this.” The film seems to admire the devotion people have to faith, but is happier to be envious of it than fall victim to it. In its condemnation it’s clear, but when it’s simply pointing the finger, The Student is nihilistic – “this is how bad it is” it’s saying, without any sort of solution.

Win It All – ★★★☆☆

Netflix continues to pick up films from festivals, with Win It All arriving on the streaming service after debuting last month at SXSW. If this continues, the next decade could see a major seachange in how films end up in front of us.

Win It All doesn’t require a cinema-sized screen. It’s a quiet film, directed by Joe Swanberg who’s known for his work in the mumblecore scene. Jake Johnson, of New Girl fame, plays Eddie Garrett, a man struggling with, but enjoying, an addiction to gambling. Triggered by a potentially lethal situation and meeting the beautiful Eva, he wants out.

It’s about how waking at the crack of dawn to get breakfast with that pretty girl you met is better than stumbling into bed at 7am.

The gambling aspect is a sideshow and a vessel for this pleasant little redemption story. Not unlike Paterson, the heart of Win It All is in the joys of a working class lifestyle. Eddie’s brother, Ron, is happily married and runs a small landscaping business. He leads no lavish life, but he has love and stability, something Eddie could never manage while playing cards until the sun comes up.

It’s about how waking at the crack of dawn to get breakfast with that pretty girl you met is better than stumbling into bed at 7am. Ron employs Eddie with the promise of stability if he can stay on the straight and narrow. Eddie is likable and we want him to wake up when his alarm goes off, stay away from bad influences, and be a positive force in the lives of his brother and Eva.

Some narratively-required tension does its job – will this have a happy ending? – but Win It All will be remembered for people simply wanting the opportunity to be happy and comfortable, and how the effect that can have on your mental health is extraordinary. Its warmth is in the recovery and in the genuine desire to see a man, whose road to recovery is authentic, liberated.

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