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Shifting gears and tailing spirits

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FURIOUS 7. Seeing a decent blockbuster, much less one I've been looking forward to, is probably the closest I'll come to a religious experience, so it seems appropriate to have watched Furious 7 over Easter weekend. (Another even less tasteful metaphor could be made about wandering in the desert of late-winter theatrical releases, but I'll leave it alone.) I've been hooked into this series since The Fast and the Furious (2001), director Rob Cohen's arch, inaccurate, somehow charming B-movie melodrama. Leading up to the weekend, my wife and I screened all six previous installments. Smirk all you want; we have fun. Fast/Furious movies are ridiculous, over-the-top exercises in cinematic excess and they are more often than not a joy to behold. While Furious 7 may not be the strongest installment in the franchise, it lives up to the legacy.

After foiling Owen Shaw's (Luke Evans) plans for global domination, bringing Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) back into the fold and winning pardons for the whole crew in Fast & Furious 6, all is tranquil in the world of Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and associates. Brian (Paul Walker), having reluctantly traded the GTR for a minivan, is settling in to domestication and parenthood with Mia (Jordana Brewster). But Shaw's older, badder brother Deckard (Jason Statham) wants justice. Just as Dom and Brian are gearing up for the fight, a mysterious government operative (Kurt Russell) pops up with an offer. He'd like the team's assistance in rescuing a British hacker called Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), currently held captive by a fearsome and well-funded international terrorist named Mose Jakande (Djimon Hounsou). In exchange, he'll throw the full weight of his black ops and Ramsey's groundbreaking surveillance technology into the hunt for Deckard Shaw. So, of course, it's off to an air-drop into a bullet-riddled, bone-jarring cliff-side pursuit in the Caucasus Mountains, to black-tie infiltration in Abu Dhabi and eventually back to the streets of LA. You know, the usual stuff.

This series may have had its best, clearest expression of intent with Fast & Furious (2009), but that's up for debate. Each installment has been less a car movie with action sequences than an action extravaganza that happens to feature cars. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's a shift that the cast and crew seem to embrace, and they've been resoundingly successful at increasing the scope and craziness of the action. And while I meet each outlandish stunt and fight sequence with as much enthusiasm as the rest of the global audience, part of me misses the smaller scale racing hijinks of the early movies. Really, it's just a moment of nostalgia between gleeful gasps. The drivers of this franchise have set out to establish a new standard for big-time action, and they continue to outdo themselves. Justin Lin, who helmed the last four outings, has ceded the director's chair to the admirable James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring). He continues Lin's legacy of strong, fluid camera moves and big, bright compositions, while incorporating flourishes of his own. Wan transitions from small horror movies to a mega-budget, international production seamlessly. Furious 7 may not feel as immediately gratifying as some of its companion pieces, maybe because of the shadow of Paul Walker's death — the movie includes a tastefully executed tribute — or the way the growing scale obscures some smaller moments. Still, it's big, fun and exciting in a way that all the other tent-poles only wish they could be. PG13. 137m.

IT FOLLOWS. In an unprecedented pairing, this weekend followed the biggest of blockbusters with an unsettling and satisfying low-budget creeper. This one has been much buzzed about, and I was pleasantly surprised to find it playing here among the season's withered crops.

It Follows centers, after a disconcerting and captivating opening sequence, on Jay Height (Maika Monroe), a Detroit early-twentysomething. She's dating Hugh (Jake Weary), who seems nice until he gives her a sexually transmitted haunting disease. From that moment, she is relentlessly pursued by a plodding, ominous presence that takes on various human forms, which, of course, only Jay can see. Despite the efforts of her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the affliction gradually wears Jay down physicaly and emotionally.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell shows a steady hand here, working primarily with tone and atmosphere to cultivate dread. It Follows is a slow-burner with relatively few shocks in it. Instead, Mitchell creates a strong '80s vibe — with a number of nods to John Carpenter — using the suburbs and devastated inner environs of Detroit toward the effect. The fluid editing, languid camera and synth-dirge soundtrack suit the subject matter, and the talented young cast works as a unified force. This may not be the scariest thing going, but it is stylish, original and effective. R. 100m.

— John J. Bennett


DO YOU BELIEVE? Mira Sorvino, Sean Astin and Lee Majors in an ensemble Christian drama. Maybe you missed that: Lee Majors. Mysterious ways, indeed. PG13. 119m.

THE LONGEST RIDE. Another Nicholas Sparks romance about semi-tragic young love swaps in a bull rider (Scott Eastwood), a college student (Britt Robertson) and some old love letters to crank out soft-core cowboy porn. PG13. 128m.

WOMAN IN GOLD. The Austrian government foolishly resists Helen Mirren in a historical drama about a Jewish woman fighting for the return of art stolen from her family by the Nazis. With Ryan Reynolds as her lawyer/arm candy. PG13. 109m.

AMERICAN SNIPER. Bradley Cooper plays a Navy SEAL in an intense and moving biopic/war movie that doles out adrenaline and domestic devastation in equal measure. R. 132m.

CHAPPIE. Stylish visuals and brisk editing outweigh heavy-handed sci-fi moralizing in an AI action movie starring a tragically kind-hearted police robot. R. 120m.

CINDERELLA. Kenneth Branagh's adaptation makes an old story new with classic Hollywood style, solid lead Lily James and the wicked-chic Cate Blanchett. PG. 113m.

GET HARD. Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart respectively play a 1-percenter and a faux tough guy prepping for prison in a comedy that isn't funny enough. R. 100m.

HOME. Jim Parsons and Rihanna voice a pair of misfit buddies in an alien-on-earth animated feature. Brisk, bright and blandly entertaining. PG. 93m.

INSURGENT. Great design and strong performances from Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller almost save it from a bloated plot. Don't worry — more are coming. PG13. 119m.

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE. Funny, charming Taron Egerton steals the show in this imaginative action comedy about a street punk who becomes a spy. With Colin Firth and Samuel Jackson. R. 128m.

SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL. Maggie Smith and Judy Dench are back for the sequel as Brits abroad. PG. 124m.

TIMBUKTU. A drama centered on a cattle-herding family in the Jihadist-controlled city. In French and Arabic with subtitles. PG13. 97m.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill


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John J. Bennett

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