The Fast and the Furious

2001 | dir: Rob Cohen | 106 m

Though The Fast and the Furious has left an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape as the progenitor of one of the most successful and well-known action blockbuster franchises in the world, when it was released in 2001, it was simply a fun movie about street racing, a criminal underworld, undercover cops, and the shameless promotion of undying brand loyalty to Corona. I use "simply" here not in the pejorative sense but in the nostalgic. Now that the franchise that The Fast and the Furious spawned - seven sequels, a spin off, an animated show, and an eighth sequel being released this year - has become so ubiquitous in pop culture, it has become increasingly difficult to separate The Fast and the Furious the movie from The Fast and the Furious the cultural phenomenon. It's nearly impossible to watch the movie now without seeing it through the filter of the incredible success of its sequels and the iconic status the entire series currently enjoys among audiences who watch these movies with the right eyes. It's also so far removed narratively from what its sequels have evolved into, and the connective tissue between this and later entries in the series is so malleable, that it's also still entirely possible to enjoy the film on its own merits. Watching The Fast and the Furious now is almost like watching two different movies simultaneously, which, depending on your point of view, is either incredibly tiring or worth its weight in nitrous oxide.

The first version of The Fast and the Furious is an early-2000s action/crime movie, and one that can legitimately lay claim to the descriptor "high-octane." The parallels to 1991's Point Break are painfully apparent, but the similarities in the stories fall squarely in the camp of homage, and never cross the line from inspiration to plagiarism. The Fast and the Furious is the story of undercover police officer Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) who infiltrates the high-octane (See? It fits perfectly.) world of street racing as part of an investigation into a gang of thieves who conduct precision, high-speed robberies of transport trailers in souped-up sports cars. As part of this undercover operation, Brian is able to befriend one of the gangs involved in the street racing scene, led by the no-nonsense Domenic Toretto (Vin Diesel), whose skills at driving are matched only by his propensity for violence and his loyalty to his friends, family, and Corona beer. Things are complicated by Brian's growing emotional connection to the crew, which includes Dom's equally talented girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodrigues), and his romantic connection to Domenic's sister Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster), that call into question where his true loyalties lie, both to the people in his life and to his choice of brew.

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Red Planet

2000 | dir: Antony Hoffman | 106 m

If you had to choose a movie to aggressively push out the door from the party that was the 1990’s, then I guess it would have to be Antony Hoffman’s Red Planet, starring Carrie-Anne Moss, Tom Sizemore and Val Kilmer in a perilously blundered trip to Mars. With this much nineties star power fueling the trip, I could see myself and friends eagerly going to see this on a crisp November evening, expecting high stakes sci-fi adventure, featuring the latest special effects and near-future fantasy of humanity’s quest to step foot on our planetary neighbour. Indeed, the poster hints at a silhouetted menace awaiting our crew, as our fearless Kilmer drags his crewmate across the arid landscape toward a multi-legged monster, all drenched in blood red, speaks volumes for intriguing poster design and an action packed thriller at hand.  

Just as quickly as I can envision us heading into that theatre, I can imagine the group of us solemnly leaving the multiplex with, scratching our heads, while somebody said “at least we got to see Carrie-Anne Moss topless” while the rest nodded slowly in agreement, still in shock at the misfire of a film we just took in. Indeed, it’s pretty easy to take Red Planet apart. From the beginning moments of Moss’ narrative where her character gives a brief bio of the assembled crew, including such scathing hot takes including: “a hot head, but a fine copilot,” “soul of the crew” and “world’s greatest bioengineer, his own greatest hero”, our expectations for the film are immediately lowered for the remaining 100 minutes. Red Planet immediately tells us the type of film it’s going to be by telling us who everyone is instead of showing us and right after this narration, reaffirms that you won’t be caring about any of these people when they start acting like rude creeps. I was thinking maybe this was the backup crew but nobody told them this before taking off. 

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Underworld: Awakening

2012 | dir: Björn Stein | 88 m

After taking a little break, Kate Beckinsale drops in from a rooftop to fill in the role of Selene again for this series fourth iteration, and I couldn’t be more excited. While I had some fun with Rise of the Lycans, it was ultimately a letdown as it retreads familiar story, so I was eager to pick up Selene’s story for Awakening. As the film’s prologue played out, I tried very hard to stop myself from questioning the direction that the filmmakers decided to take things, and by the end of the film I found surface level overall satisfaction, yet I couldn’t stop wondering if they had done things a bit differently. To be fair, I hate doing that. I hate thinking and advocating that the filmmakers could make a better story, or an entirely different film: I’m no screenwriter (nay, barely a writer at all) so I certainly couldn’t do any better, but that doesn’t stop me from spewing forth some my “better” film ideas. It also makes me feel icky in this day of age where the fandom stumbles into creating online movements toward studios to release director cut versions of films that may or may not exist; sometimes it’s just better to accept that the film is bad and move on – it is after all, how I manage to sit through and actually enjoy many of these series. 

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Message from the King

2016 | dir: Fabrice du Welz | 102 m

I had never heard of Message from the King until it popped up randomly in my Netflix feed, and despite the track record of random movies recommended by the streaming service, I still haven't learned my lesson. I have to say that one of the main reasons I decided to watch this movie late one Friday night not too long ago was specifically because it starred Chadwick Boseman, who sadly lost his battle with cancer last year at the age of forty-three. I don't mean to imply that I watched the movie solely as a way of honouring Mr. Boseman's legacy, though that certainly came into play. It was mostly because he was a master of his craft and a truly captivating screen presence. And also partially because the plot description of a single man on a personal vendetta seeking righteous retribution and beating up and straight up killing a bunch of bad guys who obviously deserve it is like the comfort food of cinema. Watching an action hero walk into a room and lay the smackdown on a bunch of mooks is the cinematic equivalent of sitting down with a big bowl of mac and cheese (Kraft Dinner for my fellow Canadians) or a bucket of fried chicken.

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Elektra

2005 | dir: Rob Bowman | 97 m

Just two short years after being introduced in Daredevil, Jennifer Garner’s Elektra gets the historical distinction of being the first female-led Marvel movies, but also (possibly) stands as a reason why we didn’t get any more female-driven Marvel movies until Captain Marvel nearly fourteen years later. It’s easy to put the blame on the lack of female superhero movies on the failure of Elektra, but I find it hard to believe there isn’t more going on here: when the MCU really got rolling, there’s no valid reason Black Widow didn’t receive her own starring vehicle and there were plenty of interesting female superheroes to pull out of the X-Men series. The fact is, female representation has always been a bit dismal in the comic book realm, and the race to get these adaptations to the big screen had studios picking the most historically identifiable and popular characters from Marvel’s stables, which unironically come from the 1960’s and are all alliteratively named white men.  

That being said, Garner did a decent job – considering the context of the film – in 2003’s Daredevil and the character of Elektra Natchios showed some promise before being sacrificed needlessly to further motivate Matt Murdock’s turmoil and double down on his need for revenge. So maybe an Elektra movie could travel back in time a bit to show us a bit of the story of this mysterious character and the trials she’s overcome to become the fighter she is today. Or, as it turns out, we could just pick up where we left off and just ignore her death for the most part. It’s entirely possible that I just missed a line of dialogue or hazy montage, but Wikipedia is informing me that Stick (a blind martial arts master who trained Daredevil) revived her then proceeded to train her (which I do remember). 

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Synchronic

2019 | dir: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead | 103 m

Almost invariably, time travel films incorporate some issues of causality into their plot. Essentially, there's some event in the past that influences the characters in the present / relative future and it turns out that the characters in the future were actually the ones who were actually responsible for the later events. And almost invariably, the character who is most directly affected by those past events is usually revealed to be the one that caused them initially. This is a well-worn trope in the time travel genre, and like most tropes, the fun isn't in recognizing it, but in seeing how the author/creator finds unique ways to deploy that trope within the worlds they've created.

Synchronic is no different. Which is to say, it's very different. But still the same.

It's time travel, so admittedly, there's going to be some head scratching. The best advice I can give when engaging with any story involving time travel is to quote the late, great Hunter S. Thompson: "Buy the ticket, take the ride..."

Synchronic is the fourth feature film from Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, and one of the few movies I was truly looking forward to in 2021 (and in 2020, but the less said about that particular historical period, probably the better). Not just because I'm a sucker for a good time travel film (or even a bad one), but because Moorhead and Benson have established themselves in the indie film circuit as men of a visionary nature and a distinctive voice. I was hooked immediately after watching their debut, Resolution, last year and was similarly impressed/enamoured with their follow-up to their follow-up movie, The Endless, and their just plain follow-up, Spring. Though Resolution and The Endless have roots reaching deep into the fertile soils of both science fiction and horror (I couldn't help shake the feeling after watching Resolution and The Endless and Ari Aster's Hereditary and Midsommar in the space of a couple months last year that I was witnessing a new age in horror), the dominant genre seems to be science fiction. This is a genre that, like fantasy, requires that rare combination of Big Ideas and Big Imagination and the willingness to, as the character Eames from Inception might have put it, "dream a little bigger, darling."

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Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

2009 | dir: Patrick Tatopoulos | 92 m

I always had the impression that Rise of the Lycans was a misfire in the Underworld series fueled by the loss of Kate Beckinsale. Maybe I was barely paying attention, but the advertising of the film definitely led me to believe that Kate was in the film, and when I discovered she was replaced by someone who looks pretty similar (Rhona Mitra), that I had lost most of my interest in going to see the prequel. The same thing happened in the previews of the film Doomsday, also starring Mitra and mistaken for Beckinsale, except that I couldn’t pass up Doomsday in theatres and was happy to revisit the film fairly recently to appreciate what a ride it was (and Mitra kicked a ton of ass in that film). This was my first viewing of Rise of the Lycans and I’m still not quite sure why this film exists. Didn’t we cover most of the ground here before in the previous two films? 

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Never Rarely Sometimes Always

2020 | dir: Eliza Hittman | 101 m

In an effort to piece together a somewhat coherent top ten list for 2020 movies this year, I embarked on a short journey to watch a few critically celebrated films that I may had missed. This project had me putting on Never Rarely Sometimes Always, an especially impactful film both written and directed by Eliza Hittman whose tale chronicles the journey of two teenage girls making their way to New York city “to seek out medical help after an unintended pregnancy.” And I can’t tell you why – because I had zero exposure to any element of the film save for the high Letterboxd user ratings and the poster of the film – but I went in expecting a bit of a quirky, if dark, comedy. It does not take long for one to realize how far my expectations strayed from the end product, and I’m happy again that my expectations were upended and the film I did take in was quite thoughtful, emotional and poignant.

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Ghost Rider

2007 | dir: Mark Steven Johnson | 114 m

Without any kind of initial explanation, I have a soft spot in my memory for Ghost Rider and a hesitation to really say anything negative about the film, but damn, this movie is bad. While revisiting Nicolas Cage in the starring role of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider, I had an inkling that I would discover something new about the film, and if not new, then something to grasp onto that could elevate this film and redeem it. Unfortunately, it’s not the case: this might be worse off today than when I initially saw it over a decade ago.

A bit of personal context here: I am in no way familiar with Ghost Rider, his origin, cast of supporting characters or history. The Ghost Rider comics I bought in the early 90’s were purchased because of a killer cover done by Adam Kubert on an 1992 issue of Sprits of Vengeance (link here) where Venom is hanging upside down in the sewers, holding Ghost Rider’s flaming skull wrapped up in a chain. I probably went onto buy a dozen or so Ghost Rider comics, read them, bagged them into the collection, and ignorantly forget them moments later.

Ghost Rider is quite a visually striking character and that holds true in this film (for the most part). Wrapped in biker leathers, his skull ablaze in eternal flame and speeding forth on a badass motorcycle with flaming wheels, Ghost Rider is - at least on the visual scale - a fun character to watch. Johnny Blaze (in this film, at least) inadvertently signs a deal with the devil (really Mephistopheles here) that would cure his father’s cancer and in return, hand over Johnny’s soul. Of course, in true genie fashion, the deal comes true, but the devil ensures his father dies the very next day anyway. Johnny, now knowing how serious this is and understanding that the devil can take his loved ones at any time, just leaves, isolating himself for a couple of decades and leaving his sweetheart behind without answers.

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