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Reviews

Time to hit the road with Pop Aye, Fast & Furious 8 and Mean Dreams

Pop Aye, Fast & Furious 8 and Mean Dreams follow the lure of the open road

The siren call of the open road is this week's theme. In one movie, a man hopes to reclaim his manhood by walking from Bangkok to his home village. In another, Vin Diesel and gang bring down terrorists, armed with only a Lamborghini and a couple of Chevys. In the third, a pair of teens flee nasty men in a series of stolen cars.

Road movies are loved by indie film-makers because they deliver atmosphere without the effort of writing a story. Singapore writer-director Kirsten Tan defies that stereotype in her playful but poignant feature debut, Pop Aye(M18, 101 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4.5/5 stars), winner of a jury award for screenwriting at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) is a middle-aged architect who is losing everything, including the affection of his wife Bo (Penpak Sirikul), the respect of his peers and even the Bangkok building that established his name. 

A chance encounter with a "beggar elephant" - an animal used to coax money from tourists on Bangkok streets - fills Thana with the quixotic need to rescue the pachyderm he thinks is "Pop Aye", a childhood pet, and return it to a sanctuary in the north of the country. 

(Above) Thaneth Warakulnukroh stars in Pop Aye, about a man's journey with an elephant.
(Above) Thaneth Warakulnukroh stars in Pop Aye, about a man's journey with an elephant. PHOTO: GIRAFFE PICTURES

Along the way, Thana meets a sainted madman, a pair of ageing prostitutes (hence the M18 rating) and bungling cops.

Music producer-turned-actor Thaneth anchors this pilgrim's progress. There is a low-key authenticity to everything he does, helped by Tan's tasteful use of silence and body language to tell the story. 

And it is the storytelling that makes this work stand apart.

Events that occur in the first part of the film are resolved in the second; Tan's arcs have a beginning, a middle and an end. This is not only satisfying, but also shows respect for the viewer. 

Spoof action movie Machete Kills (2013) includes a trailer of a sequel, Machete Kills Again... In Space! 

The joke - that all sequels, given enough time, mutate into science fiction - has become the reality of Fast & Furious, the movie franchise in which going way over the top is never enough.

In Fast & Furious 8(PG13, 136 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 stars), there are no cars flying out of skyscrapers or acrobatic tanks.

But that is not to say there is no ridiculousness. Here, cars race on ice against a submarine and a terrorist hacker remote-controls every car in a city through the Internet. 

The Dom Toretto Family Values are also back, repeated ad nauseum - family comes first. This makes sense, until one realises that everyone is family to Dom (Diesel), except those who want to kill him.

The story here is as disposable as those in previous films. The crew (played by Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges and Nathalie Emmanuel), with the aid of agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), is the rag-tag commando team sent to cripple super-terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron).

Director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton, 2015) takes over the franchise at a time when it has settled down into a Mission: Impossible-with-wealth-porn mode, or what the holidays of the rich kids of Instagram might look like if they had permission to destroy public infrastructure. 

While past helmers have ventured into science fiction, sacrificing everything for spectacle, Gray includes a few character-driven comic moments - Hobbs coaching his daughter's soccer team with manic intensity and Jason Statham doing gongfu while holding a baby, in retro John Woo style, for example.

But along comes the nuclear submarine and we are back in familiar computer-graphics territory, where everything blows up, nothing is at stake and Dom's team looks like the Power Rangers, except more cartoon-like. 

(From far left) Sophie Nelisse, Bill Paxton, Josh Wiggins and Colm Feore in Mean Dreams, a cute teen romance turns thriller.
(From far left) Sophie Nelisse, Bill Paxton, Josh Wiggins and Colm Feore in Mean Dreams, a cute teen romance turns thriller. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

Mean Dreams (PG13, 108 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars) will be remembered for two things: its terrible title and being one of Bill Paxton's last movies. How fortunate then for the actor's legacy that this is a good one - it is bleak when it needs to be and sweet when required.

A cute teen romance between farmboy Jonas (Josh Wiggins) and new neighbour Casey (Sophie Nelisse) turns dark when her father Wayne (Paxton) is less than the upstanding new sheriff he appears to be. 

A rash act drives Jonas and Casey out of their homes, with Wayne pursuing them. The switch in tone from romance to family drama to chase-thriller is handled in great style by director Nathan Morlando. 

As with Pop Aye, the story is driven by character, not coincidence, with the bonus of Paxton giving a powerfully nasty performance as the protective dad from hell.

With him waiting by the door, bringing his daughter home past curfew is a very bad idea.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2017, with the headline 'Time to hit the road'. Print Edition | Subscribe