Review: ‘The Gateway’ (2021), starring Shea Whigham, Olivia Munn, Frank Grillo and Bruce Dern

December 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Shea Whigham and Olivia Munn in “The Gateway” (Photo by Antony Platt/Lionsgate)

“The Gateway” (2021)

Directed by Michele Civetta

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “The Gateway” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A well-meaning bachelor, who works for a city’s social services department, finds himself caught up in criminal warfare when he tries to protect a mother and her young daughter after the child’s father gets out of prison.

Culture Audience: “The Gateway” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in forgettable and formulaic crime dramas.

Shannon Adawn and Frank Grillo in “The Gateway” (Photo by Antony Platt/Lionsgate)

“The Gateway” is such a generic and unimaginative rehash of many other crime dramas, it’s likely to be soon forgotten after people see it. It’s yet another story about a hero who has an “against all odds” struggle against gangster thugs. In “The Gateway,” the protagonist does battle against drug-dealing goons, in order to save (cliché alert) a damsel in distress and her child. It’s all very hackneyed and boring. There’s absolutely nothing creative about this movie, which lumbers along until its very predictable end.

“The Gateway” was directed by Michele Civetta, who co-wrote the drab screenplay with Alex Felix Bendaña and Andrew Levitas. The movie is Civetta’s second feature film as a director. His feature-film directorial debut was the unremarkable 2020 horror flick “Agony,” which describes what any viewer might have felt if they watched that painfully dull film. And although Civetta says in “The Gateway” production notes that “The Gateway” was inspired by crime thrillers such as John Huston’s “Fat City” (released in 1972) and John Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (released in 1976), “The Gateway” has none of the intrigue or style of those films.

The name of the U.S. city where “The Gateway” takes place is never shown or mentioned by the characters in the movie, which was actually filmed in Norfolk, Virginia. Wherever “The Gateway” is supposed to take place, it’s a city where gambling is legal, because the “damsel in distress” is a blackjack dealer in a casino. She’s not the movie’s protagonist though. The story’s main character is yet another stereotype of a “regular Joe” who suddenly has to battle gangsters as if he’s an experienced member of law enforcement. Yawn.

The protagonist of “The Gateway” is Parker (played by Shea Whigham), a lonely middle-aged bachelor whose life revolves around his job working as an investigator for the city’s social services department. In the movie’s opening scene, viewers see that Parker is compassionate when he responds to a complaint about child endangerment in a house that’s basically a drug den. Parker finds a boy at the house who’s about 7 years old, and he comforts the boy when it’s discovered that the boy’s mother has overdosed. Two men in the house are then arrested.

For an unspecified period of time, Parker has been looking out for another child named Ashley (played by Taegen Burns), who’s about 12 years old. His interest in Ashley extends beyond his social worker job. He has become somewhat of a father figure to Ashley, whose father has been in prison for an untold number of years. Ashley’s mother Dahlia (played by Olivia Munn) has been raising Ashley while Dahlia holds down a job as a blackjack dealer.

Viewers never see any flashbacks of how Parker became close to this family, so the relationship that he has with Dahlia and Ashley feels too rushed and contrived in this movie. As an example of how Parker goes beyond his social worker duties for Ashley, Parker volunteers to take Ashley to school when he’s needed. It’s hinted that maybe Parker is attracted to Dahlia, but he doesn’t cross the line into making any inappropriate and unprofessional moves on her.

Dahlia might have a substance abuse problem, because the reason why Parker takes Ashley to school in an early scene in the movie is because she seems to be drunk or high, and Parker doesn’t want Dahlia to drive under the influence. The dynamics between Parker, Dahlia and Ashley change when Ashley’s father Mike (played by Zach Avery) gets out of prison and makes it clear to Parker that Mike wants to be the only father figure in Ashley’s life.

Soon after Mike get out of prison, he goes right back into a criminal lifestyle. At a bar frequented by shady people, Mike meets up with a local drug kingpin named Duke (played by Frank Grillo, in yet another one of his “tough guy” roles) to set up a heroin deal. Mike tells Duke and Duke’s associate Louis (played by Alexander Wraith) that Mike knows about two bricks of heroin that were stolen from a Mexican drug cartel.

Mike offers to deliver this heroin to Duke. In exchange, Duke says that he will set Mike and Louis up with enough money for Mike and Louis to open their own bar. Duke also offers to lend out the services of his henchman Hector (played by Mounir Quazzani) to help Mike and Louis for protection in retrieving this heroin, which is hidden in a place that could be guarded.

“The Gateway,” which already has a very simple-minded plot that would barely be enough for a short film, stretches everything out to tedious levels with repetitious scenes of Mike and his cronies committing crimes; Mike and Dahlia having tensions in their already shaky relationship; and Mike threatening Parker to stay away from Ashley. Parker was assigned to check on the welfare of Ashley, so he tells Mike that it would be up to the city to decide when Parker will no longer have to check up on her.

This movie is so poorly written that it does little to show who Parker is as a person. The only thing about his personal life that’s shown is that he has a rocky relationship with his father Marcus (played by Bruce Dern), because (as shown in flashbacks) Marcus was a verbally abusive alcoholic to Parker when Parker was a child. In fact, all of the characters in the movie don’t have much depth or personality. They’re just hollow vessels to act out the movie’s unimpressive action scenes. Two police detectives named Detective Vaughn (played by Shannon Adawn) and Detective Bachman (played by Nick Daly) are essentially useless, since this movie is about making Parker the biggest hero.

Needless to say in a predictable movie like “The Gateway,” Parker, Dahlia and Ashley unwittingly get caught up in Mike’s big heroin deal when the heroin stash goes missing. Expect the usual chase scenes and shootouts that clog up substandard thrillers such as “The Gateway.” The cast members and the filmmakers don’t put much effort into bringing any creative spark to this tired story. With all the better-quality movies that have already been made about drug deals gone bad, viewers don’t have to waste their time on “The Gateway.”

Lionsgate released “The Gateway” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on September 3, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on September 7, 2021.

Review: ‘Small Engine Repair’ (2021), starring John Pollono, Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro, Ciara Bravo and Spencer House

September 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro and John Pollono in “Small Engine Repair” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Small Engine Repair” (2021)

Directed by John Pollono

Culture Representation: Taking place in Manchester, New Hampshire, the comedy/drama film “Small Engine Repair” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one African American and one Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged mechanic, who has recently been released from prison, reunites with two of his longtime friends after they’ve had a falling out, but their reunion becomes a test of loyalty and morality. 

Culture Audience: “Small Engine Repair” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in unpredictable movies that put a dark comedic spin on serious issues.

Ciara Bravo in “Small Engine Repair” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Three middle-aged men who’ve been friends since childhood reunite after spending several months apart. They hang out, party, and reminisce about the good old days. It sounds a lot like other movies, but “Small Engine Repair” is like no other film.

That’s because what seems at first to be a straightforward and predictable comedy/drama takes a very sharp, dark and unexpected turn in the last third of the film. What saves “Small Engine Repair” from being an unremarkable depiction of machismo is a sinister plot twist that walks a fine line between absurd and realistic.

“Small Engine Repair” is the vision of John Pollono, who is the writer, director and star/protagonist of the movie, which is based on Pollono’s stage play of the same name. For the first two-thirds of the movie, it’s about the up-and-down friendship between recently released prison felon Frank “Frankie” Romanowski (played by Pollono) and two pals he’s had since childhood: Terrance Swaino (played by Jon Bernthal) and Packie Hanrahan (played by Shea Whigham). Frank, Terrance and Packie have lived in Manchester, New Hampshire, since they were children.

Frank is a single father to a foul-mouthed, tough-talking teenager named Crystal Romanoski (played by Ciara Bravo), who is in her last year of high school. Despite her brash and often-crude personality, Crystal is quite intelligent and doesn’t like to show her sensitive side to very many people. She loves her father but she hates how his problems have negatively affected her life.

Terrance is happily married, and he is the most likely one out of the three friends to show common sense and think logically. He has a quick temper like Frank does, but Terrance is less likely than Frank to get violent. Because Terrance is a husband who has settled into a content life for himself, he’s also less likely to want to get into trouble, compared to how he was in his rebellious youth.

Packie is a bachelor who is somewhat simple-minded, irresponsible and emotionally immature. Packie is more likely than Terrance to want to get Frank’s approval. Packie and Frank are sometimes at odds with Terrance, who doesn’t like to think of himself as a “third wheel” but as someone who is smarter and more deserving than Packie to be Frank’s closest confidant.

Frank, Terrance and Packie come from generations of working-class people who think that getting a university degree is either a waste of time or an unaffordable dream. And where they live in Manchester has been ravaged by the opioid epidemic and devastated by a steep decline in the types of factory jobs that used to keep the community thriving. During the course of the story, the three buddies will push each other’s buttons and decide how loyalty and morality play roles in their friendship with each other.

In the beginning of the movie, Frank has been released from prison for a crime or crimes that aren’t mentioned in the film. However, it’s later shown many times in the movie that Frank is a hothead, so it’s likely he spent time in prison for a violent crime. It also isn’t mentioned how long he was in prison, but it was definitely more than a few months. Now that he’s out of prison, Frank resumes his work as a mechanic. He owns his own shop called Frank’s Small Engine Repair.

Where and who is Crystal’s mother? Her name is Karen Delgado (played by Jordana Spiro), a drug addict who lives in the Los Angeles area. Frank and Karen were never married, and their breakup was very bitter. Based on what people say about Karen, she’s even more irresponsible than Frank, which is why he has custody of Crystal and has been the parent who has primarily raised her.

While Frank was in prison, Terrance and Packie looked after Crystal. As guardians, they’re permissive, since they’re the ones who sometimes supply Crystal with the marijuana that she smokes. Crystal has a rebellious streak, but she’s a good student who has done well enough academically that she can attend a major university.

One of the first conversations that Frank has with Crystal when he gets home from prison is about where she wants to go to college. Her first choice is the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), but Frank wants her to go to a university that’s closer to Manchester. He doesn’t deny it when Crystal accuses Frank of discouraging her to go to UCLA because it’s in the same area where her mother Karen lives.

At first, Frank says he wouldn’t be able to afford UCLA’s tuition. Crystal says she’ll take out student loans to solve that problem. However, Frank is still down on the idea of her going to UCLA. Crystal explodes in anger and shouts that if she goes to the University of New Hampshire at Manchester, she’ll end up as “a 49-yearold supermarket checkout girl with carpal fucking tunnel!”

Finally, Frank relents and agrees to support Crystal if she’s accepted for admission into UCLA. He tells her he’ll figure out a way to help pay for the tuition. A happy and relieved Crystal promises Frank that getting a UCLA degree will be worth it. “I’ll make a lot of money,” she says.

Not long after Frank comes home from prison, he finds out from Terrance and Packie that Karen will be back in Manchester for a visit. Terrance and Packie use a lot of derogatory words to describe Karen. Frank doesn’t like Karen either, but he objects to Terrance and Packie saying degrading things about Karen, because she’s the mother of Crystal.

When Karen shows up at Frank’s house, Terrance and Packie are there too. She’s rude and very rough around the edges, with indications that she hasn’t given up her hard-partying ways. In her tense and hostile conversation with the three buddies, she makes it clear that she is only interested in spending time with Crystal, not in resolving any hard feelings that she has toward this trio of pals whom she’s known since childhood. Karen quips sarcastically, “Hey, remember when when we were all friends, before I had tits?”

Frank reluctantly lets Crystal spend some time with Karen on a girls’ night out. With Crystal out of the house, the three pals decide to let off some steam by going to a local bar. Because Frank is on parole, he has to be careful about what he says and does in public. For example, he doesn’t want to get drunk in public because that could be considered a parole violation.

Outside the bar, in the parking lot, Frank flirts with a woman named Dottie (played by Jennifer Pollono), whom he later finds out is a 35-year-old divorced mother to a 4-year-old son. Just as Frank and Dottie are about to exchange numbers and continue with their flirtation, Karen and Crystal show up. Crystal sheepishly asks Frank for some cash because Karen doesn’t have any money and Kaen says her credit cards are all maxed out. Frank expresses his disapproval but gives some cash to Crystal, who gives him a big hug and compliment to thank him.

Frank thinks that Karen is under the influence of drugs at that moment, and Crystal doesn’t deny it. However, Crystal assures Frank that Crystal, not Karen, is driving the car that they’re using. Frank doesn’t want to be an overbearing parent, so he doesn’t interfere in the plans for Crystal and Karen to spend time together.

Even though Karen and Frank haven’t been a couple in several years, Karen still acts a little jealous and possessive when she senses that Frank and Dottie have sexual chemistry together. Karen asks Dottie in a hostile tone of voice, “Who the fuck are you?” Dottie doesn’t want to get in the middle of any family drama with a man she just met, so she makes a hasty exit.

This unexpected visit from Karen has unnerved Frank, who’s also annoyed that Karen ruined his potential hookup with Dottie. When he goes back in the bar, several people are drunk, including Packie and Terrance. And not surprisingly, a bar fight breaks out, with Packie, Terrance and Frank getting involved.

Frank’s violent temper erupts and he viciously and repeatedly punches one of the instigators of the fight. It’s the type of beating where people can tell that Frank has lost total control of his anger. When he realizes that he just violated his parole with this assault, Frank yells at Terrance and Packie: “I knew this would happen! You stay away from my family! I don’t want to see you again!”

The movie then picks up six months later. Frank, Terrance and Packie have a tentative reunion. Frank has invited them to his mechanic’s shop to watch a boxing match, drink alcohol and have some steaks that he’s cooking. It’s mentioned that during their six months apart, Terrance and Packie were also estranged from each other because Terrance slapped Packie during an argument that’s not shown in the movie.

“Small Engine Repair” has occasional flashbacks showing Frank, Terrance and Packie together at various points in their lives. These flashbacks usually happen when the three pals are together and reminiscing on their past. There’s a flashback to when Crystal was 6 years old (played by Nina Peterson), when she was with the three pals and someone took a smiling photo of Crystal holding a wrench. That photo would later be used on signs and other promotional materials for Frank’s Small Engine Repair.

A harrowing flashback of when the three pals were about 11 or 12 years old shows that their childhoods included violence and other domestic abuse inflicted by their fathers. (Zachary Hernandez plays a young Frank, and Hunter Jones plays a young Terrance.) This childhood abuse serves as context for why Frank, Terrance and Packie think it’s normal to have a “rough and tumble” lifestyle where they get involved in violent fights.

Frank tells his buddies during this reunion that he wants more than alcohol and marijuana for their partying. Frank says that he recently met a university student named Chad Walker (played by Spencer House) who sells Ecstacy. Chad is coming over with some Ecstacy that Frank wants to buy. The other guys are eager and willing to do Ecstacy at this small party.

What happens after that is what makes “Small Engine Repair” so memorable and not your typical buddy movie. However, this sudden change in the movie’s plot comes fairly late in the film. Some viewers might get bored with the meandering way that the story unfolds in the first two-thirds of this 103-minute movie, which can get a tad repetitive in showing how volatile this three-way friendship can be. Other viewers might be turned off by all cursing in “Small Engine Repair.” However, if viewers stick with the movie and watch it from beginning to end, then they will see why the last third of the film is the best part.

It’s not easy to bring a comedic touch to disturbing scenarios, but “Small Engine Repair” manages to accomplish this balancing act, which could easily go wrong and become very offensive with the wrong dialogue, horrible acting or a tone-deaf perspective. All of the actors do well in their roles. However, the real star of this movie is the somewhat shocking twist, which tests the boundaries about what people might think is an acceptable way to solve problems.

Vertical Entertainment released “Small Engine Repair” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 10, 2021.

Review: ‘F9,’ starring Vin Diesel, John Cena, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel and Jordana Brewster

June 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Michelle Rodriguez and Vin Diesel in “F9” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“F9”

Directed by Justin Lin

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, Spain, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Azerbaijan and the nation of Georgia, the action flick “F9” features a racially diverse cast of characters (black, white, Latino and Asian) representing the middle-class and wealthy in law enforcement and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A daredevil team tries to save the world from a group of criminals that includes an assassin who is the estranged brother of the daredevil leader. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to fans of the “Fast and the Furious” movie franchise, “F9” (the ninth movie in the series) will appeal primarily to people who want to a predictable action flick with high-budget stunts and low-quality screenwriting.

Pictured in front, from left to right: Vin Diesel, Thue Ersted Rasmussen and John Cena in “F9” (Photo courtesy of Unviersal Pictures)

At this point, movies in the “Fast” movie franchise (which began with 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious”) are no longer rooted in reality and have become over-the-top spectacles for people who want to shut their brains off for a couple of hours while they watch. And that’s okay, if there’s a coherent plot and the stunts are truly creative. But “F9” (the ninth film in the series) is an example of a sequel that’s too bloated, too self-satisfied and too lazy. This movie needed less stunt casting and more impressive stunts that don’t insult people’s intelligence.

Directed by Justin Lin (who co-wrote the abysmal “F9” screenplay with Daniel Casey), “F9” is best described as a live-action movie written and directed like a sloppy cartoon for people with no attention span and no expectations to see an intriguing thriller beyond predictable chase scenes, shootouts and explosions. It’s another “we have to save the world from a power-hungry villain” story, but there’s no real creativity or suspense in this overstuffed, 145-minute movie that tries to distract viewers from the weak plot by zipping around the world to different locations. Too bad with all that globetrotting in search of the villain, the “F9” team couldn’t find anything resembling a suspenseful story, because almost every twist and turn can be easily predicted.

The main characters in the “Fast” saga have become so egotistical and conceited that there are multiple times in the movie where they wonder out loud to each other if their death-defying luck might be because they aren’t mere mortals but might in fact have superpowers. “F9” is not a superhero movie, although it would be a better explanation for some of the ridiculous outcomes of battles where real human beings would die, but these “heroes” just get injuries that are never fatal and they recover in ways that are too quick to believe.

And this wouldn’t be a “Fast” movie without constant use of the word “family.” It can become a drinking game to take a drink every time the word “family” is said in a “Fast” movie. This time around, “F9” is especially enamored with adding more people to the “family,” with some unnecessary stunt casting that looks very out of place. If “F9” is the first movie that people see in the “Fast” series, they might be a little confused, because the movie assumes that viewers will already know a lot of the characters’ backstories. It’s best to watch 2017’s “The Fate of the Furious,” because most of the main characters in that movie are in “F9.”

Here’s a handy summary of who’s in the movie and how their screen time is used in “F9.”

The Heroes

  • Dominic “Dom” Toretto (played by Vin Diesel) is the leader of the daredevil crew that started out as outlaw drag racers and now have vague duties a security/spy team hired to help out government officials and elite business people who are targets of villains who want to take over the world. Vinnie Bennett portrays a young Dom in the movie’s several flashbacks to when Dom was in his late teens.
  • Letty Ortiz (played by Michelle Rodriguez) is Dom’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. In “F9,” Dom and Letty are happily living together with Dom’s son Brian, who’s about 4 or 5 years old in this movie. Brian’s mother Elena Neves (played by Elsa Pataky) was a Diplomatic Security Service agent who died in “The Fate of the Furious.”
  • Mia Toretto (played by Jordana Brewster) is Dom’s loyal younger sister who goes along with whatever Dom wants. Mia is the love partner of Dom’s best friend Brian O’Conner (played by Paul Walker), who is the father of their son Jack. Walker died in real life in 2013, but Brian is supposed to be happily retired.
  • Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) is a nervous and talkative member of Dom’s team. The running joke with Roman is that he’s always anxious about getting into dangerous situtations. Expect Roman to scream at least twice in every “Fast” movie.
  • Tej Parker (played by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) is Roman’s level-headed best friend who has skills as a mechanic and a computer technician.
  • Ramsey (played by Nathalie Emmanuel) is a British computer hacker who has essentially taken over from Tej as being the “computer whiz” on Dom’s team.
  • Han Lue (played by Sung Kang) supposedly died in 2013’s “Fast & Furious 6,” but he makes a notable but brief return in “F9.” Han’s return is not spoiler information, since it’s part of this movie’s publicity, and his re-appearance has this explanation: He faked his own death.

The Villains

  • Otto (played by Thue Ersted Rasmussen), a wealthy German mogul with vast political connections who wants to take over the world.
  • Jakob Toretto (played by John Cena), Dom’s estranged younger brother, who works with Otto as Otto’s top assassin. Finn Cole portrays a young Jakob in his late teens in the movie’s flashback scenes.
  • Cypher (played by Charlize Theron), a cyberterrorist who was the chief villain in “The Fate of the Furious.” In “F9,” she spends most of her screen time literally locked up in a glass cage.

The Rest

  • Sean (played by Lucas Black), Twinkie (played by Shad Moss, also known as Bow Wow) and Santos (played by Don Omar) are three mechanics who are in the movie mostly for comic relief. They’re like the Three Stooges of the “Fast” movie franchise.
  • Mr. Nobody (played by Kurt Russell) is a powerful undercover operative who works with Dom’s team. A plane hijacking involving Mr. Nobody sets off the rescue mission in the movie.
  • Elle (played by Anna Sawai) is an associate of Han’s who plays a key role in this mission.
  • Stasiak (played by Shea Whigham) is an FBI agent who works with Mr. Nobody.
  • Buddy (played by Michael Rooker) is a mechanic who raised Jakob after Jakob’s father died.
  • Queenie Shaw (played by Helen Mirren) is the mother of Deckard Shaw (played by Jason Statham), a longtime nemesis of Dom’s team.

Through a distress video found in Mr. Nobody’s hijacked plane, Dom and his team find out that Jakob was one of the chief people behind the hijacking. Otto and Jakob are after a device called Aries, which has the ability to hack into defense and banking systems around the world. It’s the type of device that any self-respecting villain with world domination goals would want to have.

Aries has been split into two. Jakob and Otto have one half of Aries, and they’re in a race against time with Dom and his team to get the other half of Aries. Cypher is being held captive by Otto and Jakob, who try to get her advice on how to find Aries and thwart Dom and his team. The stakes are more personal for Dom and Jakob because of their family feud.

The origin of this brotherly vendetta is shown through flashbacks. It has to do with the death of Dom and Jakob’s father Jack Toretto (played by JD Pardo), who died during a car race witnessed by Dom and Jakob. Siena Agudong plays a young Mia in these flashbacks.

Various parts of Dom’s team travel to different parts of the world to find the missing half of Aries. Cardi B has a very quick cameo as Leysa, someone from Dom’s past. People might laugh when they see what type of role she has in this movie. (No, she isn’t a stripper.) Along the way, Roman and Tej go into space using a rocket car that was built by Sean, Twinkie and Santos. Now, try say all of that out loud with a straight face.

The Pontiac Fiero that goes into space (by having a cheap-looking rocket launcher attached) is the most ridiculous part of this movie’s dumb plot. But to the movie’s credit, “F9” even knows how stupid this space rocket car gimmick is, because Roman and Tej keep saying while they’re in outer space that they have no idea what they’re doing there. In real life, Roman and Tej would also be dead in space, based on the flimsy-looking spacesuits they wear in this movie. But when a movie is self-aware of how idiotic it is, it doesn’t make the idiocy any better.

There are many examples of how “F9” is wasteful, including how it squanders the great talent of Oscar-winning actresses Mirren and Theron. Mirren’s Queenie character (who is a jewel thief) literally does nothing in the movie but drive Dom somewhere after she’s committed a jewelry heist. The movie makes a point of showing how Queenie is wearing animal print boots underneath her elegant gown and high-priced jewelry. Mirren might as well have been wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m Just Here for the Paycheck.”

Theron spends most of her “F9” screen time as a prisoner in a glass cage, which is the type of cage that people have for large animals. And speaking of sexist depictions of women, the movie has a mansion party scene where only modelesque, scantily clad women wearing white are gathered on the front lawn, as if they’re only there to be sex objects on display. “F9” villain Otto is the host of the party, so “F9” filmmakers can shift the blame to the evil character being responsible for objectifying women. But it just comes across as director Lin deciding to objectify women in this scene just because he could.

Of course, Letty, Mia and Ramsey all embody what it means to be good and strong women. But make no mistake: The men are in charge in these movies. No matter how much Letty, Mia and Ramsey are given to do, all three women are ultimately under Dom’s leadership. So much for female empowerment.

“F9” is one of the worst of the “Fast” franchise because even the chief villain Otto is forgettable and badly written. He comes across as a spoiled wimp, with the wardrobe of a dorky playboy, including wearing tacky leisure suits with loafers and no socks. There’s absolutely nothing scary about Otto. However, look for Statham’s Shaw character to make a mid-credits cameo in “F9.” Statham’s appearance is a reminder of how much better this movie series is when it has a truly menacing villain.

As for Jakob, he’s all brawn and very little brain, just like many characters Cena tends to play in action movies. The flashback scenes take up a lot of time and some could easily have been cut out of the film and still made their point. Diesel continues to display wooden acting. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their roles. The movie’s flashbacks serve as the emotional core of the over-used theme in “Fast” movies: family.

And the return of Han doesn’t happen until the last third of the movie. The not-very-believable explanation for Han’s “return from the dead” is so cringeworthy, even actor Kang seems a little embarrassed to utter the lines. You’d have to believe that Han (who supposedly died in a car explosion) had a similar-looking replacement corpse nearby before the car exploded, and that he was not only able to jump out of the car in time but also put another corpse in the car instead. You’d also have to believe that a medical examiner wouldn’t be able to detect through DNA or dental records that Han’s body wasn’t the body that was found in the car.

With all that being said, die-hard fans won’t care how bad “F9” is because they just want to see fight scenes, car chases and explosions. And in that respect, “F9” does deliver, but not as well as previous “Fast” films that Lim directed. He also directed 2006’s “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” 2009’s “Fast & Furious,” 2011’s “Fast Five” and “Fast & Furious 6.” Those other four movies have something that “F9” severely lacks: a story with some genuine and unique surprises, not coasting entirely on past glories.

Universal Pictures released “F9” in U.S. cinemas on June 25, 2021. The movie was released in various other countries, beginning on June 19, 2021.

Review: ‘City of Lies,’ starring Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker

April 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Johnny Depp in “City of Lies” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“City of Lies”

Directed by Brad Furman

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the dramatic film “City of Lies” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American and a few Latinos) representing middle-class citizens, law enforcement and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A bitter former Los Angeles police detective joins forces with a TV journalist to try to solve the 1997 murder of rapper The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls.

Culture Audience: “City of Lies” will appeal primarily to people interested in the Notorious B.I.G. murder case or movies about true crime, but the movie drags with a sluggish pace and mediocre performances.

Forest Whitaker and Johnny Depp in “City of Lies” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

The life and murder of The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls, has turned into a cottage industry for filmmakers, since there have been several documentaries and narrative feature films about the rapper, who was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles on March 9, 1997. The same could be said of the numerous movies about rapper Tupac Shakur, who died in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas on September 13, 1996. Both murders are speculated to be linked to each other, and these two murder cases remain unsolved. The dramatic film “City of Lies” (directed by Brad Furman) focuses on the Biggie Smalls murder case in such a lukewarm and unremarkable way that people will be better off watching any of the several documentaries about the same subject.

The troubled behind-the-scenes story of “City of Lies” is actually more interesting than the movie itself. “City of Lies” was originally supposed to be released in 2018, but the movie’s release was abruptly cancelled by then-distributor Global Road Entertainment, formerly known as Open Road Films. The company was sued by Bank Leumi, which loaned $32 million to make the movie and wanted the money back since the movie’s release was cancelled. In a separate lawsuit, “City of Lies” star Johnny Depp was sued by the movie’s former location manager Gregg “Rocky” Brooks, who claimed that Depp assaulted him on the set of “City of Lies.”

Global Road filed for bankruptcy in 2018, thereby shielding the company from debt collectors. As of this writing, Brooks’ lawsuit against Depp is pending. Open Road Films was revived in 2019 under new ownership. Meanwhile, “City of Lies” was shelved until Saban Films purchased the rights to the movie and released the movie in 2021.

It’s easy to see why “City of Lies” wasn’t considered a priority release by its original distributors. It isn’t a terrible film, but it’s a terribly monotonous one, with lackluster acting and tacky re-enactments of over-recycled theories about Biggie Smalls’ murder. “City of Lies” throws in some unnecessary fictional characters to bring more drama to the story. Christian Contreras wrote the “City of Lies” screenplay, which is based on Randall Sullivan’s 2002 non-fiction book “LAbryinth.”

The movie, just like the book, takes the angle that former Los Angeles Police Department detective Russell Poole (played by Depp) had the most plausible theory that Smalls was murdered by corrupt LAPD cops who were working as off-duty security for Marion “Suge” Knight, the founder of Death Row Records. Knight and Death Row (which was the Los Angeles-based record label that Shakur was signed to when he was murdered) were involved in a bitter East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry with Sean Combs, the founder of the New York City-based Bad Boy Entertainment. The Notorious B.I.G. (a Brooklyn, New York native whose real name was Christopher Wallace) was signed to Bad Boy. The media often made it look like The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur were enemies, when the two rappers actually were friends early on in their careers until their record label bosses started feuding with each other.

“City of Lies” opens with a scene that takes place on March 18, 1997, in North Hollywood, California. An undercover LAPD cop named Frank Lyga (played by Shea Whigham) gets into a road-rage incident with a guy in a SUV over the type of music that is loudly playing in the SUV while both are stopped next to each other at a traffic light. There are racial undertones in their argument because Lyga is white and the other driver is African American.

The SUV driver starts to threaten Frank and chase after him in the car. During this car chase, Lyga shoots and kills the other motorist, who crashes his SUV into another car. It turns out that the other driver was also an undercover LAPD cop. His name was Kevin Gaines (played by Amin Joseph), and his alleged connection to the Biggie Smalls murder case is explained later in the movie for people who don’t know already.

Poole is called to the scene of Gaines’ death. Lyga claims he killed Gaines in self-defense. But in the wake of the 1992 riots over the Rodney King trial verdict, the LAPD does not want a repeat of these riots. Gaines’ family files a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles. This lawsuit might or might not have affected how the LAPD investigated Gaines’ alleged involvement in the Biggie Smalls murder.

It’s not the best way to start off “City of Lies,” which is mostly about how retired LAPD detective Poole teamed up with a TV news journalist named Darius “Jack” Jackson (played by Forest Whitaker) in 2015 to re-examine the Biggie Smalls murder case. Poole left the LAPD in 1999 to start his own private detective agency, where he continued to investigate the Biggie Smalls murder. Although most of the characters in “City of Lies” are based on real people and the characters keep the names of their real-life counterparts, Jackson is a fictional character who works for the fictional American World Network, which is supposed to be like CNN.

Jackson is a character fabricated for this movie so that he can be a sounding board for Poole’s theories and so that Jackson can do a lot of the legwork of investigating that Poole might not be able to do because of Poole’s alienation from the LAPD. Jackson seeks out Poole at Poole’s cluttered and dingy apartment/home office because Jackson is doing a retrospective special on the Notorious B.I.G. and he wants to possibly interview Poole for it. When Jackson arrives unannounced at Poole’s apartment, he finds the door unlocked and enters. The unlocked door is a small detail that doesn’t ring true, considering that the movie goes out its way throughout the story to show how paranoid Poole is.

Poole surprises Jackson by pulling a gun on him. It didn’t help that Jackson showed up unannounced. After the former cop sees that Jackson isn’t a threat, Jackson explains why he’s there and reminds Poole that he actually interviewed Poole years before, for a documentary called “East vs. West,” about the 1990s East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry. Jackson proudly mentions that the documentary won a Peabody Award, but Poole isn’t impressed.

Poole, who is divorced and lives by himself, has his apartment walls covered in clippings and other items related to Biggie Smalls and the unsolved murder. In conversations with Jackson, it becomes very apparent that Poole has been so obsessed with the case, it’s cost him his job at the LAPD (he quit under a cloud of discontent after being suspended) and he lost his family over it. Poole’s wife divorced him, and he is estranged from his son Russell Poole Jr. (played by Joshua M. Hardwick), who is a minor league baseball player.

Sure enough, this hackneyed movie has a subplot of Poole pining for his lost relationship with his son. There’s a scene of him watching Russell Jr. during baseball practice, but keeping his distance because there’s too much bad blood between them. Jackson is with Poole as they watch Russell Jr. in the stands.

There are also a few flashbacks to Poole and his son in happier times when Russell Jr. was a 6-year-old child (played by Antonio Raul Corbo) and they did father-son activities, such as fishing. Poole also has an adult daughter (played by Ashleigh Biller), who isn’t even given a name in the movie. Meanwhile, the movie never shows anything about Jackson’s home life.

“City of Lies” goes back and forth between showing how Poole was on the original LAPD investigation team in the Biggie Smalls murder case in 1997, and how he’s still investigating the case as an under-funded private detective in 2015. Poole was also part of the internal affairs investigation over the 1997 shooting death of LAPD police officer Gaines by fellow LAPD cop Lyga. “City of Lies” references the LAPD Ramparts scandal, which involved some of the same cops who were connected to the Biggie Smalls murder. One of those cops was Rafael Pérez (played by Neil Brown Jr.), who was accused of being a member of the Bloods, a gang affiliated with Death Row founder Knight.

Other LAPD characters in the story who worked on the Biggie Smalls murder case in the late 1990s include Detective Fred Miller (played by Toby Huss), who was Russell’s closest co-worker on the case, and Detective Varney (played by Michael Paré), who gets scolded by Miller for saying that Biggie Smalls was behind Tupac Shakur’s murder. Other law enforcement officials who are part of the story include City Attorney Stone (played by Louis Herthum) and FBI Agent Dunton (played by Laurence Mason), who is undercover as a street thug connected to Death Row chief Knight. The movie is a bit heavy-handed in depicting Poole as the only LAPD cop willing to take down some of his colleagues if he thought they were murderers in cases that he was investigating.

In 2015, the LAPD cops that Jackson has to deal with include Commander Fasulo (played by Peter Greene) and Lieutenant O’Shea (played by Dayton Callie). These cops have written off Poole as a crazy loose cannon. However, Jackson isn’t so sure, and he begins to believe that Poole could be right about the LAPD being involved in some kind of cover-up to protect corrupt cops who might have been involved in the murder.

If you believe the main theory presented in the movie, a rogue LAPD cop named David Mack, nicknamed D-Mack (played by Shamier Anderson), was one of the key people with direct knowledge of the Biggie Smalls murder. Mack’s involvement is a theory that has already been widely reported, but it won’t be revealed in this review, since some people watching the movie might not know the theory. In real life, Mack was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison for a December 1997 bank robbery of $722,000 in Los Angeles. The bank robbery is re-enacted in the movie.

Just as Poole ran into problems with his superiors for believing that the Biggie Smalls murder was a conspiracy among corrupt LAPD cops working for Knight, so too does Jackson get pushback from his boss named Edwards (played by Xander Berkeley) because Jackson wants to present this theory in the TV special. Jackson getting stonewalled by his boss is somewhat of an unbelievable part of the movie, because this theory was widely reported long before 2015, so Jackson really wouldn’t be reporting anything new. In the world of “City of Lies,” viewers are supposed to forget all of that and believe that Jackson will be breaking this news on TV for the very first time.

“City of Lies” includes cheesy re-enactments (some parts in slow-motion) of the Biggie Smalls murder, which happened after he left a Soul Train Music Awards after-party at the Petersen Automotive Museum. He was a passenger in a SUV that was at a stoplight when he was shot by someone in a car that pulled up to the SUV. The role of Biggie Smalls is played by Jamal Woolard, who’s played the rapper in multiple films, including the 2009 biopic “Notorious.” An eyewitness named Tyrell (played by Dominique Columbus), a character fabricated for the movie, is interviewed in 1997 flashback scenes.

And just so the audience knows that “City of Lies” was approved by the family of Biggie Smalls/Christopher Wallace, his mother Voletta Wallace (portraying herself) has a cameo in a scene where she meets with Poole and Jackson in a diner. She thanks Poole and Jackson for clearing her son’s name when there were rumors that The Notorious B.I.G. was involved in the murder of Tupac Shakur. The only purpose of this scene is so people see that Voletta Wallace considered Poole to be an ally when it came to investigating the murder of Biggie Smalls.

“City of Lies” is very much told from Poole’s perspective, because the flow of the movie is frequently interrupted by his voiceover narration where he spouts some hokey lines. After the opening scene where Poole is called to the scene of LAPD officer Gaines’ death, Poole says in a voiceover about Gaines’ death and Biggie Smalls’ death: “I didn’t connect the two at first, but when I did, I lost everything that mattered. That day, on that street corner, the labyrinth opened.”

Later in the movie, Poole says in retrospect of how the LAPD was investigating Gaines’ death: “The ghost of Rodney King was still haunting the city, so there was only one way this was going to end. I was the only idiot to think otherwise.” When Poole and Jackson meet in Poole’s apartment for the first time, Jackson asks Poole directly: “Who shot Christopher Wallace?” Poole replies: “I don’t know. I had a theory, and my investigation was ripped out from under me.”

You get the idea. “City of Lies” is about portraying Poole as a noble but very flawed martyr for his theory. The problem is in the the way it’s presented in “City of Lies,” which oversimplifies things and makes it look like Poole is the only person who had this theory and the only one to uncover key evidence in this theory. But by his own admission, what he uncovered wasn’t enough to solve the murder.

By the time Jackson meets Poole in Poole’s apartment, the former cop is jaded and distrustful, but Jackson’s interest in the case seems to renew Poole’s spirit and he gradually learns to trust Jackson. But the movie also spends a lot of time on flashbacks of Poole working on the case in 1997, and Jackson retracing Poole’s investigative steps instead of trying to look at other theories too. It’s lazy journalism that shouldn’t be glorified in a movie.

Depp and Whitaker have a lot of talent in other films. Unfortunately, they aren’t very interesting together in “City of of Lies.” The direction of the movie makes everything look fake. The actors playing cops look like actors, not cops.

And some of the re-creations of people in the rap music industry look awkward, as if these scenes were created by people who only know about hip-hop culture from watching music videos. When the release of “City of Lies” was originally cancelled in 2018, movie audiences didn’t seem to know or care that much. And now that “City of Lies” is available, it’s easy to see why this movie is so inconsequential and forgettable.

Saban Films released “City of Lies” in select U.S. cinemas on March 19, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital and VOD is April 9, 2021.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Low Tide’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Jaeden Martell and Keean Johnson in “Low Tide” (Photo courtesy of A24 Films)

“Low Tide”

Directed by Kevin McMullin

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

The Jersey Shore in the dramatic thriller “Low Tide” isn’t at all like what’s portrayed in dumbed-down reality TV shows filled with argumentative, fame-hungry people who don’t want real jobs. “Low Tide” (the first feature film from writer/director Kevin McMullin, a New Jersey native) is told from the perspective of 1980s working-class teenagers, who have simmering resentment of the well-to-do people who vacation on the Jersey Shore. The locals have a name for these wealthy interlopers: “benny,” because they usually come from the nearby cities of Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark and New York.

The local residents need the wealthy vacationers (who often have second homes on the Jersey Shore) to keep the local economy going. The money that flows in during peak season is needed during slower seasons. It’s a cycle that often keeps the working-class locals stuck in a co-dependent rut with the rich people who spend money on their goods and services.

In this environment of tension over class and wealth, three local teen rebels—Alan (played by Keean Johnson), Red (played by Alex Neustaedter) and Smitty (played Daniel Zolghadri)—commit burglaries together in unoccupied houses owned by the type of privileged people who use the Jersey Shore as a place for another home or other real-estate investments. Alan is the heartthrob of the group, Red is the bullying leader, and Smitty is the scrawny runt who’s constantly trying to prove his merits to Alan and Red.

The movie begins with the trio almost getting caught during a botched burglary. While escaping, Smitty jumps off of a roof and breaks his foot, but he’s carried to safety by his two friends. In the panicked confusion, Smitty accidentally leaves one of his shoes behind at the scene of the crime. It’s a mistake that will come back to haunt them later in the story. Smitty’s hobbling around town on crutches doesn’t go unnoticed by Sergeant Kent (played by Shea Whigham), the local cop who’s investigating the burglaries.

It’s summer, and these high schoolers have a lot of time on their hands. In between making mischief, they go to the beach, boardwalk and other local hangouts, where Alan meets and becomes attracted to a pretty teen named Mary (played by Kristine Froseth), who (somewhat predictably) happens to be in the benny crowd . Alan strikes up a budding romance with Mary, while they both try to ignore the differences in their socioeconomic status. He isn’t exactly the smartest guy in the room, so he doesn’t notice that Red is also interested in Mary—or he’s at least jealous that Alan might be accepted into a benny social circle, while the rich kids in town treat Red like a dirtbag.

Meanwhile, the police use Smitty’s lost shoe as evidence to bust him for the botched burglary. Even though Smitty has been arrested and let out on bail, he won’t snitch on his friends. Smitty’s broken foot and arrest have put the three friends’ crime spree on hold. But when they find out that a wealthy elderly recluse has died and has left behind an unoccupied house, it’s a temptation they find hard to resist.

With Smitty out of commission, Alan enlists his younger, well-behaved brother Peter (played by Jaeden Martell), who reluctantly agrees to replace Smitty as their lookout during the burglary. After breaking into the house, Peter and Alan find a bag of rare gold coins. This time, the police catch them in the act of the burglary—Alan is arrested, but Peter and Red narrowly escape from the scene of the crime in separate ways. Unbeknownst to Red, Peter has kept the bag of coins and has hidden the loot in a secluded, wooded area near the beach.

After Alan is released on bail, Peter shares his secret about the coins with Alan. The two brothers decide to lie and tell Red and Smitty that they didn’t take any valuables found at the house because they had been interrupted by the police. Alan and Peter then take a few of the coins to get appraised at a local pawn shop, and they discover (based on the estimates) that the coins are worth a total of about $100,000.

Alan is eager to sell the coins, but Peter cautions that they can’t do too much too soon with the coins, or else it will raise suspicions. They bitterly argue over how to cash in on their stolen haul and how much money should be spent. The conflict leads Peter to doubt if he can trust Alan.

Meanwhile, the police are building a case against this group of teenage thieves (in this relatively small beach city, it’s easy to know who hangs out with each other), and it isn’t long before the cops and other members of the community find out that the dead man had some valuable coins that have gone missing from his house. The rest of the movie is filled with tension over secrets, lies and betrayal, as Red and Smitty begin to wonder if Peter really has the stolen coins, and if anyone in the group will snitch about the burglaries. Red, who has a history of being a violent thug, is also seething with anger when he notices that Alan and Mary have gotten closer.

“Low Tide” isn’t a groundbreaking film—the movie’s screenplay and production use a lot of familiar tropes—but the story is elevated by the believable performances of the cast. Martell (who played Losers Club member Bill Denbrough in the 2017 horror blockbuster film “It”) is a particular standout, since he brings an intelligent sensitivity to the role. Peter is younger than the teenage boys who’ve lured him into their criminal mess, but he’s wiser and has more inner strength than they do. In that sense, “Low Tide” is also an authentic portrait of coming-of-age masculinity in a pre-Internet/pre-smartphone era when teenagers didn’t need social media to validate themselves. “Low Tide” is a crime thriller, but the movie is also a compelling look at how these boys make decisions that will have a profound effect on the type the men that they will become.

UPDATE: A24 Films will release “Low Tide” in select U.S. theaters on October 4, 2019.

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