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THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT

The third installment in this hopped-up, high-octane series featuring beauteous bodies (both human and automotive) jettisons the plot device of the first two, in which Paul Walker’s cop went undercover to catch some bad guys, in favor of a simpler “Rebel Without a Brain” scenario. The twist from the 1950s formula is twofold. One is that the car-race visuals take advantage of every technical advance made in the intervening half-century; the metal-on-metal choreography is spectacular. The other is that it’s been relocated from Kansas or Nebraska to Japan, where the neon tunnels of the capital can perform a shining dance against the chasses of the speeding autos.

The premise is that southern bad-boy Sean Boswell (Lucas Black, sporting a drawl so heavy it borders on caricature) is shipped off by mom (Lynda Boyd) to his father (Brian Goodman), a Navy officer living in Tokyo, after he’s been involved in a reckless drag-race that’s pretty much annihilated an under-construction subdivision. (Compare this to the recent opener in “Stick It,” except there it was done with bicycles.) He immediately falls in with local “drift” racers–a technique that involves skidding cars sideways not only around street corners but down confined spaces like parking garage ramps. He’s adopted by ultra-cool American expatriate Han (Sung Kang), a gang member who operates in league with surly, preening DK (Brian Tee), the champion “drifter” who runs illegal operations in the area by reason of the fact that his uncle is yakuza boss Kamata (JJ Sonny Chiba). Sean is also attracted to Neela (Nathalie Kelley), DK’s Asian-Australian squeeze, immediately earning him the champ’s enmity. And he gets a buddy in the form of their school’s army-brat hustler Twinkie (Bow Wow). Before long Sean is helping Twinkie sell his contraband merchandise while becoming a trusted lieutenant to Han and making googly eyes at Neela, which naturally brings down DK’s wrath. In between the purple patches of dialogue–Neela’s recollections are quite bad enough, but the really risible monologies come from Han, who, despite the fact that he’s Japanese, sounds like he’s reciting fortune cookies–Sean also learns to “drift” with the best of ’em.

Maybe a person who’s never seen a movie before could be surprised by where “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Draft” is heading, by who’s going to bite the dust along the way, and by the way in which it’s all going to be resolved (even though the fashion in which the script glamorizes the idea of yakuza “honor” is still pretty contemptible–these are, after all, among the most brutal, vicious gangs in existence). But you still have to admit that though the movie is the most formulaic sort of testosterone-driven junk, it’s served up expertly by director Justin Lin (“Better Luck Tomorrow”) and his associates–cinematographer Stephen F. Windon, editors Dallas Puett and Fred Raskin, the large effects team, and the equally massive sound department and army of stunt personnel. If you’re into seeing souped-up race cars fly around city streets and mountain roads, smash into one another, explode, and go through other forms of eye-catching tricks, or if you just ooh and ah over the glistening cars in show rooms and auto extravaganzas, this is a movie that will appeal to you.

On any level more cerebral than that, though, the picture offers little. The script is rudimentary, with dialogue that doesn’t get much beyond the adolescent (and at times into the absurd when Han waxes “eloquent”), and the acting is, too. As “Friday Night Lights” demonstrated, Black has certainly bulked up in the decade since “Sling Blade,” and assumes the pose of a cocky twenty-something more than adequately–he has the look of a younger Mark Wahlberg–and while the part doesn’t demand much beyond the barest emotional responses, he carries it off decently enough. The others do basically one-note bits of shtick–Bow Wow the fast-talking smoothie, Kelley the beautiful but fragile damsel, Kang the cool-as-a-cucumber but angst-ridden loner, Tee the scowling but insecure thug, and Chiba the hard-as-nails but honorable mobster–but fill the undemanding bill. And though from a technical perspective the movie is slickly made, even its best feature–the grandiose car chases–get wearying after a while, particularly since the soundtrack volume, abetted by Brian Tyler’s thumping score, is so high and the special effects grow more and more obvious. Fans will undoubtedly appreciate a comic epilogue that uses a surprise guest to tie this entry to the original “F&F.”

Like the earlier movies in the cycle, “Tokyo Drift” moves in fits and starts, but the more revved-up, energetic portions will satisfy viewers who go in for this sort of mindless, gas-powered action. Others are advised to bring along earplugs, which may help in the dialogue scenes, too.

ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL

Even the most devoted fans of Terry Zwigoff’s previous films–“Crumb,” “Ghost World,” “Bad Santa”–should have trouble defending “Art School Confidential,” a movie that promises to be zanily different and then descends into the most tedious kind of bland conformity. Though it’s based, as “World” was, on a comic by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the script), it’s hardly likely to tap into the same vein of emotional recognition that their earlier collaboration did for some viewers.

On its most basic level the picture is a satire about art school, for which Clowes, as a former student, apparently feels very little nostalgia. As experienced by incoming freshman Jerome Platz (Max Minghella), a spindly suburban kid who dreams of becoming a great artist but is unappreciated by his own family, the Strathmore Institute, located in a seedy area of New York City, proves a sea of student stereotypes–brown-nosers, pseudo-hippies, druggies, feminists, etc.–pointed out to him by bummed-out perpetual student Bardo (Joel David Moore). But the teachers, like snappish Sandiford (John Malkovich) and statuesque Sophie (Anjelica Huston), are a posturing group too–mostly failed wannabes who epitomize the old saw that those who can’t do, teach. Jerome is also saddled with a couple of goofy roommates–a fashion design student (Nick Swardson) who tries to hide the fact that he’s gay by talking about his supposed girlfriend, and a sloppy would-be moviemaker (Ethan Suplee) who’s working on a picture about a mysterious neighborhood serial killer. That’s connected to the script’s second major thread, involving that killer and the police suspicion that he might just be a student at the school.

Jerome’s growing disaffection with Strathmore stems from a couple of circumstances. One is that he becomes enamored of Audrey (Sophia Myles), a beautiful student model who turns out to be the daughter of a famous painter, and who’s pleasant enough but wildly out of his league. The other is that he’s overshadowed in class by hunky primitivist Jonah (Matt Keeslar), whose works everybody but Jerome enthuses over, and who interests Audrey, too. Jerome’s simmering frustration finds expression in the dismissive remarks of Marvin Bushmiller (Adam Scott), a successful alum who trashes the place when he returns to lecture, and Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), an alcoholic artist living a recluse’s life in a seedy apartment.

All of this comes together, after a fashion, in a complicated denouement that has Jerome going to desperate measures to win the recognition being denied him while the cops focus in on the notorious killer. The concluding twist is a cynical commentary on the whole art business, equating success with notoriety. But that’s a point that was made, though in a different area, four decades ago at the end of a fluffy comedy like “The Pink Panther.” And it was funnier there.

Of course, in that case the joke revolved around Peter Sellers, and though Minghella’s hangdog manner has a certain charm, it doesn’t wear well over the long haul. Malkovich puts his sinister snideness to good use, particularly in a scene in which he encourages the uncomprehending boy to experiment, in a way that doesn’t necessarily involve a canvas. Moore gets his share of smiles as a slacker who might have wandered in from “Dude, Where’s My Car?” while Suplee does the know-it-all slob bit well enough; but Keeslar and Myles are stuck in thankless parts and play them tepidly, and Broadbent might have been encouraged to tone his performance down several notches. Indie fave Steve Buscemi, who was so integral to the success of “Ghost World,” shows up unbilled as an obnoxious club owner, but quickly grows tiresome.

One way in which “Art School Confidential” resembles Zwigoff’s other movies is in its decidedly scruffy appearance; Howard Cummings’ production design and Jamie Anderson’s cinematography have a ragtag feel, though the accouterments of the art school milieu are reasonably well caught.

In the final analysis, though, the picture fails because its pretensions to black-comedy daring prove an example of promise without delivery. “Art School Confidential” wants to be cutting-edge, but instead seems cookie-cutter, like a mass-produced copy rather than an original. Back to the drawing board.