Movie Review ~ End of the Road

The Facts:

Synopsis: A cross-country road trip becomes a highway to hell for Brenda and her family. Alone in the New Mexico desert, they have to fight for their lives when they become the targets of a mysterious killer.
Stars: Queen Latifah, Ludacris, Beau Bridges, Mychala Faith Lee, Shaun Dixon, Frances Lee McCain
Director: Millicent Shelton
Rated: R
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Like many others reviewing movies today, I grew up watching the great Siskel & Ebert duke it out weekly on their eponymous television show. I learned a lot hearing the two critics debate the pros and cons of what they enjoyed and disliked about the various new releases that came out over the years, and while their opinions were obviously coming from one perspective (white, hetero, male), I appreciate even more now that the show taught me perspective. Especially Roger Ebert. I’m not in any minority when I say that I’ve liberally lifted from him the necessity to evaluate each movie on its merits, doing my best not to compare it to anything else that week or even outside of its genre. That’s not fair to the film or the reader.

Take a film like End of the Road. This new Netflix movie starring Queen Latifah is predictable fare with a clear skeleton of previous movies cobbled together, albeit with a highly likable cast and filmmaking far above in the creativity department. It’s not going to win any awards or be the most known for on the resume of anyone involved, yet it gets the job done in the best way possible. However, it’s being released right in the middle of festival season when many critics are reviewing the first crop of potential Oscar hopefuls, so it’s bound to get compared to those films in passing. It’s not in the same league as those, nor does it intend to be. For what it is and what it sets out to do, End of the Road plots out its course and takes audiences on a fast-moving thrill ride with few bumps along the way.

Recently widowed and faced with substantial medical bills, Brenda (Queen Latifah, Girls Trip) is forced to sell her home, uprooting her children to move back to Texas and in with her mother. Understandably her teenage daughter Kelly (Mychala Faith Lee) and young son Cam (Shaun Dixon) aren’t thrilled about losing their father, home, and friends in quick succession, but they’re all pitching in to help their mom. Also coming along on the trip from California is Brenda’s brother Reggie (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, F9: The Fast Saga), who struggles to be a dependable figure in the lives of his family.

The group isn’t too far into their trek when they run afoul of some racists in Arizona (note: the tourism board of AZ will be none too pleased with this one), the first encounter with broadly drawn characters that target Brenda’s family. Shaken, they find a hotel to stay at for the night only to find themselves next door to a man murdered later that evening. As they try to save him, Reggie notices a bag hidden in the bathroom filled with unmarked bills, a bag a local drug kingpin will do anything to get back. Once he figures out that Reggie has made off with the bag, it becomes a game of cat and mouse as Brenda has to find a way to get the money back to a shadowy figure who ups the ante by stealing something of hers in return.

Making her feature film debut, director Millicent Shelton works with production designer Lucio Seixas (Chemical Hearts) and cinematographer Ed Wu to create a hyper-neon-realism of the Arizona desert locations where the film takes place. It makes End of the Road feel like it’s taking place in an alternate dimension at times, which aligns with the entire situation being so foreign and strange for Brenda and her family. Colored with pinks, purples, and other neon glows, I thought it looked incredible and helped the viewer not to focus on some of the more traditional twists and turns the movie leans into. 

Screenwriters Christopher J. Moore and David Loughery concoct a standard wrong place/wrong time scenario and find a way to have Brenda, Reggie, and her kids get into all kinds of worsening situations throughout a harrowing night. Most of this is as believably executed as possible, sold nicely by Queen Latifah, who never gives less than 100% in any project she undertakes. There’s always natural ease to her acting, which helps the viewer acclimate to whatever character she’s trying on for size, and it’s refreshing to see the Oscar-nominated actress in a more physically active part. When she takes charge in the film’s second half and begins to steer the ship instead of letting it sail on its own, you wish you were in a movie theater to see how an audience would have reacted.

I also enjoyed Chris Bridges as Reggie and the strong scenes he shares with Queen Latifah, especially the two children. The uncle character gets a chance for redemption, and while none of the acting in End of the Road needed to be as strong as it was for it to be as enjoyable as it turns out to be, it’s appreciated that the cast took the movie as seriously as they do. In more minor roles, Beau Bridges (Hit & Run) looks good at 80, and his investigating sheriff stands out in the supporting players, along with Frances Lee McCain (Scream).

Running a smooth 89 minutes (shorter if you consider the very long credits), this is a film you can invest time in and not run out of gas. One of those movies you might have stood in line for a Friday night in 1993 and watched while devouring a bag of popcorn with a raucous audience, End of the Road delivers on its promise and doesn’t ask anything more of you. That’s the kind of movie that feels good at this time of the year, so zoom zoom over to Netflix and start ‘er up!

Movie Review ~ F9: The Fast Saga

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Dominic Toretto and his crew battle the most skilled assassin and high-performance driver they’ve ever encountered: his forsaken brother.

Stars: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel, John Cena, Charlize Theron, Sung Kang, Helen Mirren, Kurt Russell, Lucas Black, Finn Cole, Vinnie Bennett

Director: Justin Lin

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Oh my, my!  Can 20 years have flown by so fast? The biggest thing I remember about 2001’s The Fast & The Furious is that on the way to the screening a rock hit my windshield and sent a huge crack through it and I obsessively thought about it during the whole movie, clouding my vision of what would kick off a multi-billion dollar franchise.  The second film two years later came out on what was then the biggest screen in my state but after that the movies in the Fast saga have tended to blend together, creating a bit of a mish mash in my head of plot lines and characters.  For a time, each entry built upon its predecessor and gained an edge, but they’ve never not been entertaining in one way or another. Part of the fun is the way the series is willing to go over the top to please its devoted audience.

While fans have waited longer for a sequel before, they’ve been positively chomping at the bit to get behind the wheel of F9: The Fast Saga, which was delayed a full year when it became one of the first films to commit to pushing their release date when the pandemic hit in early 2020.  And really, watching one of these adrenaline-fueled action pics in a theater is truly the only way to see them…at least for the first viewing.  Car stunt wise, I’m not sure that F9: The Fast Saga is the biggest the series has had to offer but the entire experience is certainly the furthest over-the-edge the unexpectedly hearty epic has to offer.  It’s also completely ridiculous and pushes credulity so far even ride or die fans might need to pull of for a breather.

After a flashback opening set far enough back in time that the film opens with Universal’s older logo (a nice little thrill for this nostalgia hound), we’re back in the present to find Dom (Vin Diesel, Riddick) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, She Dies Tomorrow) living the quiet life on a farm with Dom’s young son.  Out of “the life” long enough to mention it and then in the next scene have some old friends stop by to pull them back in for a rescue mission, the two leave their peaceful retirement behind and enter into a deadly operation that puts Dom face to face with his past. 

As with most of the Fast films, it pays to know the history of the franchise and the various characters that have floated in and out because a number of them zoom through.  Charlize Theron (Bombshell), Kurt Russell (Backdraft), Helen Mirren (The Good Liar), and Shea Wingham (The Quarry) are just a few previous players who make an appearance, along with several more whom I won’t reveal in order to keep some surprises for you to discover.  New to the racetrack is John Cena (Bumblebee) as Dom’s younger brother (this ain’t no spoiler) and due to their complicated history there’s more than a little sibling rivalry going on between the two that has led to the men operating on opposite sides of the law.  Cena (who looks two and a half times as large as Diesel) sort of works perfectly in the film, obviously meant to fill a gap that The Rock left when he and Jason Statham were spun-off into 2019’s Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. Cena may still have room to grow in the acting department but so did Diesel when he started back in the day and even he’s still finding the right gear to operate in.

By this stage, the plots are almost beside the point, seeing that we know each film is but a pit stop in an apparently never-ending highway of crazy.  Multiple times during this ninth outing I had to stifle a ‘bu**ls**it!’ from coming out of my mouth (and actually let one slip out) because what screenwriters Daniel Casey and Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond) have come up with strains at the very limits of disbelief and it’s only because audiences are in the ninth go-around of this journey that they’ll likely absolve the filmmakers of some of the audacious flights of fancy they send Dom and his gang on or superhuman strength they imbue them with.  At the very least, you have to get some credit for not rolling your eyes all the way around in their sockets for Diesel making it through nearly the entire film wearing the crispest white T-Shirt you’ve ever seen and never see it get a mark on it.  I couldn’t walk through an airtight box of air without getting it stained somehow yet this racer can flip his car and send it soaring over bridges and escape without barely a smudge?  Or a tear? 

The rest of the group is accounted for and giving their same best pedal to the metal, with Rodriguez again finding more soul to her character than I ever could have thought way back when it was a one-note second banana that nearly exited before a miraculous resurrection.  I’m shocked Tyrese Gibson (Fast & Furious 6) and Ludacris haven’t also found themselves in their own film because their chemistry is locked and loaded – it’s time for them to branch out.  She’s featured much less in this one but Theron (sporting a haircut even worse than the last film) revels in her villainy, understanding completely the role she’s tasked with.  Jordana Brewster (Furious 7) gets roped in for more action, and it makes more sense because this one involves her two brothers and not just taking the place for her husband, Brian (the late Paul Walker).  While it is noble the filmmakers chose not to write Walker’s character out of the picture after his tragic death, it is becoming odd that they are continuing to pretend he’s still alive…going so far as to show Brian’s car driving around but not Walker driving it.

I haven’t done a full re-watch of the series yet and I think before the inevitable F10 it’s time for me to get around to that.  Timelines and storylines have all zig-zagged around so much that it’s beginning to get hard to track who is coming and going but as long as there is gas in the tank and air in the tires, this box office speedster is unstoppable.  It might not make any kind of logical sense, but F9: The Fast Saga has made the lengthy wait worth it for legions of its admirers.