REVIEW: “Fast X” (2023)

While none of us can make sense of their hilariously arbitrary titles (“Fast Five”, “Fast & Furious 6”, “Furious 7”, “The Fate of the Furious”, “F9”, etc.), one thing is for sure – the Fast and Furious movies have fully embraced what has made the franchise such a hit. Since taking a dramatic turn in 2011 with its fifth installment, the series has grown into one of the most expense and most profitable popcorn franchises in big screen history.

The latest chapter is “Fast X” and it’s being advertised as the first film in a possible trilogy that will bring the adrenaline-fueled saga to an end (it even sports the tagline “the end of the road begins“). Vin Diesel returns as the series centerpiece Dominic Toretto. Pretty much everyone else is back as well for this $340 million last ride.

“Fast X” doesn’t do anything to break the mold. So if you like the previous movies this one will deliver the same over-the-top, fuel-injected action spectacle you’ll be looking for. The reverse is also true. If you didn’t care for the other films in the franchise there’s nothing new in “Fast X” that will suddenly win you over. Well maybe Jason Momoa who plays the story’s giddily diabolical antagonist. He’s a blast and goes for broke in delivering a villain like none other we’ve seen in the franchise.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

“F9” was a little wobbly with several nagging issues keeping it from living up to expectations. Still it had the crazy set pieces and most (not all) of the characters we have grown to love. As you might guess, “Fast X” amps up nearly everything. It’s not as distractingly absurd as “F9”, but it still features the franchise’s signature reality-defying action and it miraculously finds time to give everyone some meaningful moments. It’s pure fan food, made from start to finish with fans in mind.

One thing is for sure, “Fast X” is far from a standalone movie. In fact you’re guaranteed to have more questions after the movie than you did at the start of it. Director Louis Leterrier, working from a screenplay by Dan Mazeau and Justin Lin, puts a lot of things in motion and their cliffhanger ending leaves several loose story threads dangling. But that’s okay for a tale of the size and scope.

Diesel gives one of his better performances of the series, portraying Dom as both tough-as-nails yet vulnerable. He loves his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and his young son Brian (Leo Abelo Perry) more than anything else and he has worked so hard to keep them and his extended family safe. But the constant worry is clearly taking an emotional toll on him.

But once again the past comes back to haunt Dom. This time its in the form of the flamboyant and maniacal Dante Reyes (a hysterical and unnerving Momoa). He’s the son of Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), a violent drug kingpin who was killed during 2011’s “Fast Five”. Dante is intent on paying back the man he holds responsible for killing his father and stealing their family fortune – Dominic Toretto. And what better way than by taking away what’s dearest to Dom – his family.

Of course in the Fast & Furious movies family isn’t just blood kin. It also includes loyal friends like Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), Han (Sung Kang), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel). Dom’s sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster) and his little brother, Jakob (John Cena) also find themselves in the mix. That’s a lot of people to protect and the sadistic Dante knows it. So he hatches a meticulously crafted plan aimed at separating Dom’s loved ones and luring them all across the globe. Not even Dom can be five places at once. So the danger ratchets up and the personal stakes get higher and higher.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

As the story takes shape Leterrier ushers us around the globe, making stops in London, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Portugal, and Antarctica among others. At each stop we meet old friends like Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) and some old enemies like Cipher (Charlize Theron). And there are plenty of new faces as well played by the likes of Brie Larson, Daniela Melchior, and Alan Ritchson. Yes, it’s a massive cast.

By the end it feels like this final story is only getting started. We’re left shocked by certain outcomes, wondering about certain fates, and curious for what lies ahead. And what can I say – I enjoyed the ride. Even more, Diesel and company did their job of leaving me genuinely looking forward to the next film. As with all the FF movies you have to endure a rather large amount of silliness, and buying into some of the plot machinations can be a challenge. Those are baked-in issues that have been around for years.

But the franchise freed itself from the restraints of reality a long time ago. “Fast X” is openly self-aware yet it has an undeniably big heart. And Momoa brings a blithely psychotic energy that you can’t turn away from. It’s hard to get a good read on the film since so much is left for later. But the movie sets the table well, all while delivering just the kind of big budget popcorn entertainment it advertises. In the end, it’s hard to knock it too much for being exactly what its fans want it to be. “Fast X” is now showing exclusively in theaters.


REVIEW: “Follow the Dead” (2020)

We get a refreshingly ‘indie’ take on the zombie sub-genre with Adam William Cahill’s infectious (bad pun intended) Irish horror comedy “Follow the Dead”. This fun, kooky, at times gleefully irreverent romp bops along on the strengths of Cahill’s keen direction, his even better screenplay, and a fine cast who bring a playful energy to their colorful collection of characters. At the same time, there is some unexpected thematic heft and a surprising amount of heart that help this to be more than come copy-and-paste zombie flick.

At times the film’s modest budget is hard to miss. But like other good filmmakers, Cahill (serving as director, screenwriter, editor, and co-producer) doesn’t let that sink his ship which says a lot. In fact, some of the best showcases of good filmmaking is watching a confident and skilled writer-director overcome any constraints by the sheer quality of their craft. We certainly see that in “Follow the Dead”.

Robbie (Luke Corcoran) is your garden variety milquetoast. He’s a bit timid, lacks self-confidence, and doesn’t seem to know what he wants out of life. He recently moved back to his small Irish hometown where he lives with his sister, an aspiring YouTuber named Liv (Marybeth Herron) and his two cousins, the conspiracy theorist Jay (Luke Collins) and the lazy deadbeat Chi (Tadhg Devery). They’re an offbeat group and most of our time is spent in their company.

When a video of some sort of attack in Dublin goes viral, finding the truth among the wild theories and fake news proves difficult. The authorities are calling it a terrorist attack. Others call it a revolution. And then some are quick to usher in the zombie apocalypse. Robbie and his crew certainly have their ideas. But when the violence begins to spread – even making its way to their small town – the group comes face-to-face with the truth. And not just about the attacks, but about themselves.

Cahill maneuvers through his story well, leaning heavier on the comedy than the horror, but also bringing a sensibility that I wasn’t really expecting. It’s clear he cares about his characters, and some of their exchanges can be as heartfelt as they are hilarious. There are several perfectly delivered zingers, and a couple of running gags that landed every time. Yet there are also tender moments between Robbie and his eccentric family. Then you have his attempts at reconnecting with an old flame named Kate (Christina Ryan), an interesting character who I wish had been given more attention.

The movie is a little slow getting out of the gate, but once it does (particularly in the second half) most things begin to click into place. But there are a few noticeable holes in the story and the “rules” of this particular world remained a little murky. Also, there were a couple of moments where the shaky transitions to and from flashbacks weren’t quite as clear as they needed to be.

But overall “Follow the Dead” is an entertaining and big-hearted zom-com that embraces some of the genre’s many tropes, pokes fun at others, and has enough of its own flavor to stand out in the crowd. There are some genuinely good laughs and it has an emotional center which resonated with me more than I anticipated. As for Cahill, he does a really good job juggling the shifting tones, and he shrewdly works around the film’s budget restraints in ways befitting a seasoned director. It’s a rock-solid first feature and it’ll be fun seeing what he does next. “Follow the Dead” is currently streaming on Tubi.


SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Fair Play” (2023)

The most talked about early acquisition at this year’s Sundance International Film Festival has been Netflix dropping $20 million for Chloe Domont’s semi-erotic workplace thriller “Fair Play”. It was quite a move for the streaming leader who gains the distribution rights for a film that has gotten a ton of buzz since premiering in Park City, Utah.

Written and directed by Domont, “Fair Play” is a gripping examination of gender dynamics, unbridled career ambition, male insecurity, and the pitfalls of intimate workplace romances. It explores them all through one increasingly toxic relationship. Domont’s shrewdly written script keeps us glued to the screen, and her keen direction shows an incredible ability to steadily ratchet up the tension. It’s only in the final act that the film stumbles and gets carried away in bringing everything to a close.

“Fair Play” is anchored by two captivating performances by Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich. They play Emily and Luke, a newly engaged couple who work as financial analysts for the same New York City hedge fund firm. It’s a competitive and cutthroat business; one that’s hardly conducive to romantic relationships. But Emily and Luke seem so in love when we first meet them. So much so that they’re willing to risk their jobs and break company policy that strictly prohibits workplace hanky-panky.

Domont does a great job immersing us into the financial realm without overwhelming us with office patter, investment gab, etc. She gives just enough for us to grasp its merciless high-stakes nature. She also emphasizes the bro-centric, male dominated office space culture which Emily comes up against. But this is no ordinary story of workplace misogyny, nor is Emily your run-of-the-mill movie victim. More on that later.

When Emily overhears whispers that the position of portfolio manager is opening up and Luke is in line for the promotion, she’s genuinely excited for him. But then Emily gets a late night call from their boss, Campbell (an outstanding Eddie Marsan) who informs her that she’s the one getting the “PM” promotion. Conflicted, she returns to their apartment to share the news with Luke. He takes the news well, mostly concealing his disappointment behind a shaky smile. In these moments there’s a subtlety to Ehrenreich’s performance that blew me away – an ability to convey everything we need to know through such well-measured touches.

But slowly over time their relationship begins to unravel as Luke struggles with his failures and Emily’s sudden success. Working directly under her offers its own set of challenges for their away-from-work relationship. But ultimately it’s Luke’s sense of entitlement and wobbly male ego that pushes him over the edge. But hats off to Domont for avoiding the trap of making this a predictable one-note treatise. While Luke’s fragile masculinity is the root of most of their problems, Emily is hardly exonerated from all wrongdoing. Some of her choices are more than suspect, as is her appetite for power within the ruthless and icky world of hedge-fund management.

Domont’s mix of riveting storytelling and smart direction ensures we’re always in her grip. She steers us through a crumbling relationship, ravaged by jealousy and ambition. And as the tension moves from a simmer to a boil, you can’t help but be absorbed in every self-serving choice and passive aggressive dig. But it does stumble in a final 15 minutes that’s a little too clever for its own good. Read one way, the ending is wickedly revealing. Read another way, it’s a somewhat over-the-top finish that leaves you with some rather obvious questions.

There are some things that feel tacked on and that needed more attention or to be cut altogether. Take Luke’s sudden preoccupation with some online self-help guru or Emily’s intrusive and overbearing mother. Yet Domont finds ways to make even filler interesting. It’s a testament to her instincts as a filmmaker and storyteller, even at such an early stage in her career. Chloe Domont proves to not only be an exciting new voice, but someone with a good grasp of her craft. I can’t wait to see what she does next.


REVIEW: “Four Samosas” (2022)

Part heist movie and part romantic comedy, “Four Samosas” is a low-budget screwball romp in the spirit of early Wes Anderson but with a sneakily infectious personality all its own. It all flows from writer-director Ravi Kapoor who infuses this whimsically toned indie with all sorts of narrative and visual quirks. Better yet, the often hysterically precise writing serves up some really big laughs. And its hard not to love the playful energy that flows out of every pore of this meager yet oh so clever little gem.

While the Anderson influence can be seen everywhere (the storytelling, the endearing collection of goofball characters, the distinct camera choices, the saturated color palette, even some red tracksuits ala “The Royal Tenenbaums”), “Four Samosas” still manages to feel like its own movie. Kapoor gives us an unashamedly farcical culture comedy with a unique, hard to resist energy that makes it easy to look past its limitations. Sure, it’s undeniably frothy and the budget constraints are impossible to miss. But Kapoor shows himself to be a crafty filmmaker, playing around with genre while diving into and having fun with his Indian heritage and traditions.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Set in Artesia, California in a part of town known as “Little India”, the film opens with the camera locked onto Juneja’s Supermarket. Suddenly four robbers sporting disguises too absurd to describe burst out that front doors and tear off across the parking lot. It’s a heist, but had they pulled it off or had it gone bad? Well, the title screen gives us our answer. The words “Four Samosas” is literally followed by “and the ill advised grocery store heist”. ‘Nuff said.

From there we bounce back a few days where we’re introduced to Vinny (Venk Potula), an underachieving yet infinitely likable aspiring rapper who sells garments at a saree shop. Vinny is still having a hard time getting over being dumped by his ex-girlfriend Rina (Summer Bishil) some three years ago. “Pains got its own clock,” he waxes not-so-philosophically. Now he gets wind that Rina’s engaged to marry Sanjay (Karan Soni), an air-headed entrepreneur set to make his fortune in the field of goat poop (yep, you read that right).

In an effort to ruin the wedding, a heartbroken and revenge-fueled Vinny hatches a plan – an utterly ridiculous and doomed-to-fail plan, but a plan nonetheless. He’s going to break into the grocery store owned by Rina’s father (Tony Mirrcandani) and steal a pickle jar full of “dirty” diamonds. To pull it off he recruits three equally oblivious cohorts: his best friend and Bollywood dreamer Zak (Nirvan Patnaik), the chatterbox Anjali (Sharmita Bhattacharya) who publishes her own neighborhood newspaper, and Paru (Sonal Shah), a neurotic malcontent who may or may not have safe-cracking skills.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

From there the story steadily gains momentum, only slowing down for brief chapter breaks. And the humor just gets funnier and funnier with Kapoor pulling as many laughs from his camera as from his script. It’s shot on location and full of local Indian flavor which makes the setting bubble with life. And it’s full of cultural references and inside jokes that’s sure to resonate and amuse some more than others. Me, as someone who loves these neighborhoods slice of life movies, I ate it all up.

While the film’s tight 80-minute runtime ensures it doesn’t overstay its welcome, it also leaves a few things undercooked. For example, the supporting characters aren’t given much in terms of depth, and there’s the barely scratched relationship between Vinny and his (kinda) estranged father (played by Kapoor). But if you’re okay with the film’s openly mindless free-wheeling spirit (I was), you’ll find a lot to like in this charming and consistently funny jaunt. “Four Samosas” is now available on VOD.


REVIEW: “The Fabelmans” (2022)

Steven Spielberg takes us back to his childhood with “The Fabelmans”, a semi-autobiographical odyssey that sees the acclaimed filmmaker at his most personal. I went in fully expecting to see an epic ‘love letter’ to moviemaking, and it certainly has some of that. But in reality, “The Fabelmans” is more of a testament to why movies are made. It explores what inspires and drives artists to tell the stories they tell. And to no surprise (with Spielberg at the helm), it’s also a testament to the transforming power of the cinematic language, especially in the hands of a gifted visionary and craftsman.

The film features Spielberg exploring key events in his life, making stops along his own personal timeline that impacted his family and shaped his decision to be a filmmaker. Many of the stops highlight specific moments when he began to see his parents, not just as his mom and dad, but as real people. Others show how it was filmmaking that not only helped him to understand the world around him, but also communicate his feelings to others. It doesn’t always come together as seamlessly as you would want, but when absorbed and then considered as a whole, it’s hard not to be impressed (and at times swept away) by what we’re given.

Spielberg’s stand-in is Sammy Fabelman (played as an eight-year-old by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord and later as a 16-year-old by Gabriel LaBelle). We first meet young Sammy in 1952 as he nervously stands in line at his neighborhood cinema. His parents explain what’s about to happen once they go inside for Sammy’s first moviegoing experience. “Mommy and daddy will be right next to you,” his father assures him. “The lights will go down. There may be some organ music as the curtains open. Don’t be scared.” They then follow the line inside as the glowing marquee welcomes them to see “The Greatest Show on Earth”.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Needless to say, the film has an immeasurable impact on Sammy. Before long he’s attempting to recreate DeMille’s famous train crash scene with his own electric train set and a camera. It’s the first leg of his (and Spielberg’s) journey towards becoming a filmmaker. The starry-eyed Francis-DeFord is wonderful at capturing younger Sammy’s awe and wonder. Through him you can see the gears turning as the inquisitive young boy tries to grasp the creative forces behind what he has seen on screen.

While his growing love for cinema certainly has its place in the film, it’s Sammy’s family life, especially his relationship with his parents, that form the crux of the story. The Fabelmans were the only Jewish family in their middle-class New Jersey neighborhood. Sammy’s father Burt (Paul Dano) is a computer engineer and technician for RCA. His mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) is a skilled pianist. As a couple, they have a compelling ‘man of science’ vs. ‘woman of the arts’ dynamic.

When Burt gets hired by General Electric, Sammy, his parents, his three sisters, and their goofball family friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) move to Phoenix. We then bolt ahead several years where Sammy (now a teenager) is ready to make his first bonafide movie. Inspired by “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”, he and a few pals from his Boy Scout troop shoot a Western short he calls “Gunsmog”.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

From there Sammy’s passion for moviemaking only grows, but Burt routinely dismisses it as nothing more than a “a hobby”. He means well and he’s a good father. But his linear thinking and blind optimism constantly hinders him from seeing the obvious. Meanwhile his mother’s frustrations and insecurities lead to impulsiveness and eventually a growing emotional detachment. Cracks are forming and only widen after another move. This time to California, where Sammy’s rollercoaster high school years see him experience bullying and antisemitism, but also his first love and (of course) chances to make more movies.

But what’s most fun and revealing is watching Sammy learn the world through his camera. Not only does it allow him to tell stories, but also to truly see people. He finds that not only can the camera reveal the truth, but it gives the person looking through the lens control of that truth. They can conceal it or expose it; twist it or erase it altogether. He also discovers the camera’s ability to sway opinions, earn respect, and win hearts. And Sammy uses it to his advantage (an interesting bit of self-critique from Spielberg perhaps).

As we’re ushered through the family drama, Spielberg’s patchwork approach can feel a little messy. And while I loved most of the performances (Paul Dano is terrific and Judd Hirsch brings a jolt in his brief ten minutes), I sometimes struggled with Williams’ Mitzi – an emotional maelstrom who is rarely given a quiet moment. Yet in the end they all help bring life to Spielberg’s memories. They’re still a little blurry in spots, and some of the pieces are missing. But this inward looking feature achieves what it sets out to do. It sees one of cinema’s all-time greats not just showing how he became a filmmaker, but also what it means to be a filmmaker. Once that aim came into focus for me, my expectations suddenly didn’t matter, and Spielberg had me, just as he always has.


REVIEW: “Fall” (2022)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

When talking about movies, there are countless examples of utterly absurd ideas that somehow found funding and made their ways to the screen. At the same time, when put in the hands of smart filmmakers, the silliest concepts can sometimes be turned into something unexpected and memorable. This is especially true when said filmmaker remembers a central component of good cinema – the human element.

To its credit, the new thriller “Fall” from director Scott Mann makes an effort to weave in some of that humanity mentioned above. Themes like grief, loss, fear, betrayal, and renewal all find their way into the story. But the emotional underpinning is so weak and flimsy that none of the themes resonate. And the ginned up drama that’s meant to add character depth is so poorly conceived that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. So that leaves us with nothing but the incredibly silly concept which only gets sillier as the movie progresses.

Grace Caroline Currey plays Becky, a young woman still reeling from the death of her husband Dan (Mason Gooding) during a mountain climbing accident. That was nearly a year ago, and Becky hasn’t climbed since. Overcome by her grief, she spends her time locked up in her apartment, soaked in booze and calling Dan’s phone just to hear his voicemail. Jeffrey Dean Morgan pops up as her well-meaning but insensitive father who’s genuinely worried about his daughter but can’t quite veil his long-held dislike for Dan. Despite his good intentions, he only drives Becky deeper into her hole.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Just as Becky has about had all she can take, she’s surprised by a visit from Hunter (Virginia Gardner), her best friend who she hasn’t seen in months. Hunter was there on the rock face with Becky and Dan the day he died. Determined to get her friend out of the apartment, Hunter plans an outing. But not to have coffee, to see a movie, to take a hike, or do some shopping. No, instead Hunter recommends they climb to the top of a remote 2,000-foot television tower.

In fairness to the screenwriters, there is a thematic throughline about getting back on your feet and conquering your fears that’s meant to give purpose to the lead duos’ dangerous climb. But as the absurdities rack up and the flimsiness of the characters becomes evident, the entire premise (brittle as it already is) falls apart.

The pair arrive, park their truck next to the locked gate with the big “No Trespassing” sign (hardly a deterrent to these two), and then make the two-mile walk to the base of the tower. Now for most people, one simple look at the rusty and rickety tower would be enough for common sense to kick in. It would make us think “You know, maybe this isn’t a good idea.” But not these two. Instead they begin to ascend what Hunter proclaims is the fourth tallest structure in the United States (forgive me if I didn’t bother to fact-check that). To her credit, Becky does show a little hesitation. But Hunter, a thrill-seeking YouTuber, sees it as a chance to impress her 60,000 followers.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

If you’ve seen the trailer or even the poster you know that Becky and Hunter make it to the top. There they pose for pictures, let out some primal screams, and do a few other things that make us question their sanity before deciding to descend. But when the ladder breaks and crashes to the ground below, the two friends are left stranded 2,000 feet above land with no way down. From there it becomes a fight against fear, the elements, and one pesky vulture. A laughable survival element is introduced, we get a hokey Hallmark-esque reveal, and there’s one particular far-fetched twist that isn’t nearly as clever as it wants to be.

In one sense you could say the movie does its job. My wife (who has an intense fear of heights) told me her hands were sweaty throughout, and she was constantly having to look away from the screen. That’s because Mann uses some impressive CGI and a number of cool dizzying camera tricks to amplify the sense of height-induced dread. In that way “Fall” is effective, and I can see it terrifying those with anything close to acrophobia, especially on the big screen.

Sadly the frights only go so far, and they aren’t enough to cover the silly and sometimes nonsensical directions this thing goes. Yes, there were moments when I felt the anxiety of being stranded and exposed high above the earth. But more than that I felt bewilderment as I tried to grasp the inanity of the story turns and the borderline bizarre character choices. I wish this were a case of just turning off your brain and enjoying the movie for what it is. Unfortunately, “Fall” never gives you a reason to have your brain on in the first place. “Fall” opens tomorrow (August 12th) in theaters.