Thoughts on The Congress (2014) and the Question of What, Exactly Modern Celebrities are Selling

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One of the most wildly imaginative sci-fi films in recent memory, for my money, was the often-overlooked, “technophobic” film industry satire The Congress. In the film, Princess Bride actress Robin Wright plays a fictionalized version of herself facing an exponentially shrinking list of potential career options thanks to an industry that has a long history of underserving women as they age past their 20s & 30s. Wright’s agent uses this professional crisis to pressure her into allowing a major movie studio to digitally capture (or, in the movie’s lingo, “hermetically scan”) her very essence, essentially selling her tangible soul to a media conglomerate. This leads to a psychedelic existential crisis involving an animated wonderland of dystopian terror that makes The Congress one of the most visually bizarre films I can remember from the last couple of years.

As eccentric as The Congress‘s visual pallet can be, it isn’t exactly what’s been keeping the film fresh in my mind since I first reviewed it last year. There’s been a recent string of news stories reminiscent of the ways The Congress depicts movie studios owning actors’ likeness that feel oddly off-putting in a way the film seemed to forewarn, keeping it fresh in my mind. For example, during the press tour for the recent Zack Snyder debacle Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, eccentric Lex Luthor actor Jesse Eisenberg went into great detail about the fake Michael Shannon body double used in the film. Shannon, who played the villainous Emperor Zod in Snyder’s Man of Steel, didn’t fully reprise his role in the sequel as Zod’s corpse (who could blame him?), but instead allowed the studio to include him via lifeless dummy created based off his headcast. Where it gets really creepy is in Eisenberg’s description of the fake Michael Shannon, which appears in the film completely nude. According to Eisenberg, the Shannon doll was entirely, unnecessarily anatomically correct to the point where the detail was a little disturbing (long story short, he had a penis).

There are, of course, even more direct comparison points to Robin Wright’s fictional plight in the way celebrity actors are being represented & altered digitally. Actors appearing posthumously in commercials for beer, junk food, vacuum cleaners, etc. is crass enough of a concept in itself and has been around long enough to likely have influenced some of The Congress‘s digitizing paranoia. Things have snowballed even since the film’s production, however, including two high profile instances of actors being digitally inserted into feature-length works they didn’t live to see completed (Paul Walker in Furious 7 & Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Mockingjay Pt II). Even actors who did film their role to completion are being subjected to digital alterations in post-production. Sometimes this can be as simple as removing a pimple or a blemish or the effects of aging with computer magic (Paul Rubens in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a recent example) or as horrifying as the very recent reports of Paramount & DreamWorks allegedly testing a digital technique to make white actors appear “more Asian” in post-production for the already-controversial live action Ghost in the Shell adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson. Whether or not you agree with the actors’ decision to accept those roles/paychecks in the first place, you have to admit it’s super shady that the studio attempted to dress them in digital yellowface after the fact (presumably without their knowledge or consent).

The question at large here is what, exactly are celebrities selling to movie studios when they sign a contract for a big budget role? In the past (and, indeed, in smaller current productions) actors were strictly selling a performance, a record of work delivered. Modern celebrities, however, seem to be selling much more than that. They’re not selling a record of their work so much as the rights to their personalities & essence. This current era of digital recreation & the ownership of celebrity likeness is on much shakier, creepier ground and it’s difficult not to think of The Congress‘s sci-fi celebrity culture dystopia as each of these news stories crop up. The film didn’t do so well critically or financially upon initial release, but I find that its pointed satire about Hollywood’s future gets more eerily relevant on almost a daily basis. It’s difficult to say for certain exactly why The Congress failed to strike a chord with a larger audience. I’ll admit that it plays a little off-balance & unsure in moments, but if nothing else I greatly respect the film’s tendency to swing for the fences even when what it delivers lands way off target. I also am continuously taken aback by just how much the film has to say about modern celebrity culture, especially when I see modern celebrity culture talking back.

-Brandon Ledet

Tammy and the T-Rex (1994)

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fourstar

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One year after the release of Jurassic Park, a baby-faced Paul Walker & a teenage Denise Richards starred in a sci-fi horror rom-com about a remote-controlled animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex. Tammy and the T-Rex is a work of inane beauty, a straight-to-VHS gem for schlock junkies & 90s culture fetishists to drool over. It’s technically, objectively, and even sometimes morally a horrendous film with no redeeming value as a work of art. On the other hand, it’s far more fun than it has any right to be, especially when its Looney Tunes logic takes over & the film accepts itself as the dumb, rudderless trash that it is.

Denise Richards plays a teenager cheerleader in the middle of a violent (especially for high school) love triangle. At one end, you have the brutish punk ex-boyfriend (complete with leather jacket & convertible) who refuses to let go of a dead relationship. At the other end stands a naive virgin of a goofball jock (played by future Fast & Furious star Paul Walker) who’s willing to risk life & limb to get under Richards’ cheerleader uniform. The brawls between the suitors are quite vicious. They kick each other in the head, orchestrate drive-by baseball bat beatings, take vice grips on each other’s genitals (“What we have here is an old-fashioned testicular stand-off”), and just generally aim to maim & kill. This escalates to Walker’s empty-headed jock being thrown into a lion & jaguar exhibit at the city zoo, a trauma that leaves him comatose, then “dead”, and then, once interfered with by an over-acted Dr. Frankenstein mad scientist archetype . . . transplanted into the “mind” of an animatronic T-Rex.

Of course, Tammy and the T-Rex really kicks into high gear once the dinosaur hijinks ensue. Continuing the surprise viciousness of the first act’s boyfights, the animatronic dino actually murders people. He crushes heads, flattens bodies out into bloody Bugs Bunny pancakes, tears teens open with his gigantic talons, etc. It’s treated as a lighthearted rampage, but it’s pretty brutal. The killings are fun & all, but what really makes Tammy and the T-Rex special are the dino jock’s more human activities. Watching his little dino arms lovingly stroke the cheek of his lifeless human body & operate a payphone is genuinely belly-laugh hilarious, as is the scene where he attends his own funeral, crying gigantic dino tears & the one where he proves who he truly is to his cheerleader girlfriend by playing charades & eating flowers. The best part is that the cheerleader decides to stick with her dino beau, riding him like a horse & helping him pick out potential new bodies in a morbid bit of window shopping at the morgue. Even when the dino jock is (spoiler alert) cruelly gunned down by the police, his cheerleader sweetheart keeps their love alive by storing his brain in a jar & feeding him strip teases & whiskey as sustenance.

Tammy and the T-Rex is a goofy mess, but it’s an enjoyable mess. Directed by Stewart Raffill, the buffoon behind Mac & Me and The Ice Pirates, the film has a decent schlock pedigree despite having essentially no traction as a cult classic. It can waver a bit in the details, especially in the depiction of the cheerleader’s gay bestie, who alternates from delightfully sassy to homophobic parody from scene to scene. For the most part, though, it’s a delightfully eccentric slice of forgotten schlock. If nothing else, Denise Richards’ wardrobe is 90s fashion-blogging Tumblr ready & the idea of a “party animal” teen dinosaur is goofy enough to carry the film on its own. There are surely some cult followings that have been built on less.

-Brandon Ledet

Superfast! (2015)

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If you only paid attention to the examples of ZAZ-style spoof media inflicted upon the world by Jason Friedberg & Aaron Seltzer, it’d be understandable if you thought the format dead & worthless. For every brilliant spoof movie like Spy & Walk Hard, Friedberg & Seltzer have released a slew of awful garbage fires like Meet the Spartans, Disaster Movie, and Vampires Suck. The duo have an incredible talent for sucking the humor out of even the silliest of genre films under the guise of “making fun”. Their films suffer from something I used to call Mad TV Syndrome (back when that was a relevant reference): the subject they’re parodying is always more amusing in reality than it is in the spoof.

Even though I knew that I had very little patience for Friedberg & Seltzer’s brand of subpar spoof comedy, I was still morbidly curious about their Fast & Furious parody Superfast!. What was most interesting to me about the film was the timing. First of all, it seems strange that they waited until seven films into the franchise to spoof it, but even stranger still is their decision to make fun of Paul Walker so soon after his tragic death. Superfast! is not funny. It’s not clever. It boasts no commendable performances or standout gags. It’s not even particularly knowledgeable about the target of its “comedy”. It is, however, a fascinating exercise in bad taste. Reducing a beloved & much missed action movie star to a punchline in a movie meant to wean scrap change off the release of his final film was ill-advised at best & repugnantly cruel at worst.

Within the film, Walker’s surrogate, Lucas, is dumb & Californian. That’s essentially the extent of the film’s humorous insight into his seven-film stretch as an undercover cop turned international criminal with a heart of gold. Lucas isn’t bright & he sounds like a surfer. Boy, did they get him good. They really showed his recently-deceased ass who’s boss. To be fair, Superfast! also makes time to poke fun at the supposed low intelligence of Vin Diesel & The Rock (who are, by all accounts, intelligent & kind human beings in real life) and at the very least they didn’t name the character “Paul” (despite other characters being named Vin, Michelle, and Jordana after the real-life actors who play their counterparts), so it easily could’ve been worse. That still isn’t much a consolation, though, considering the nature of Walker’s death & the timing of the film’s release.

The film isn’t completely devoid of insightful jabs at the Fast & Furious franchise. It picks up on a lot of the same rapper cameos, car parts gibberish, and Corona ad-placement elements that I poked a little fun at in my own tour through the series. It just feels like it’s at least four or five films into the franchise too late, considering the kind of jokes it’s making at the film’s expense. Despite the inclusion of a The Rock stand-in, almost all of the film’s humor is based on the first three Fast & Furious movies, a major mistake considering that the franchise didn’t culminate until its own unique property until almost five films into its run. There wasn’t even a single reference to Vin Diesel’s longwinded rants about “family”, which have essentially become the heart of the franchise. At this point, it’s been so long since the series’ trashy lowpoint beginnings that titles like Tokyo Drift play much more humorously than any jokes about the movie ever could. Combine Superfast!‘s too-late 12 year old boy humor with the porn-quality production, an extended reference to Minions (a vile offense, that), the misguided belief that it’s just hilarious to suggest that Michelle Rodriguez is homosexual (she’s bi), and the cringe-inducing mistake of poking fun at a recently-deceased actor and you have one terrible film that I’m already actively trying to forget.

-Brandon Ledet

A Newcomer’s Guide to the Fast & Furious Franchise

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As I have previously explained, I am a recent convert to the Fast & Furious universe. Despite the 15 year run of the franchise’s cultural ubiquity, I’ve somehow managed to avoid ever seeing a Fast & Furious movie in full until a few weeks ago. Sure, I’ve seen them playing as background noise in various bars & living rooms over the years, but I’ve never bothered to watch a single picture from front to end. When the series first got started I was a gloomy teenage snob who wouldn’t be caught dead watching such mindless machismo, but something happened in the years since: I grew a sense of humor. And while I was working on that, something else happened: the series seemingly got exponentially ridiculous with each sequel. It’s rare these days for any genre film outside of slasher flicks to earn six sequels, but here we are in 2015 with a car racing movie reaching its seventh installment this month: Furious 7. The ads for that seventh installment finally brought me to my tipping point. Furious 7 promised to be so deliciously over the top that when I first saw the ad in the theater I finally felt compelled to catch up with the entire series, an urge I followed voraciously in the past few weeks.

It turns out that the story of the Fast & Furious franchise is the story of an ever-ballooning budget. The 2001 debut installment cost $38 million to make, while in 2015 a Fast & Furious movie costs $250 million. The first three or so Fast & Furious movies serve mostly as cheap cultural relics, time capsules of bad taste in the early 00s. As the budget continued to expand (along with Vin Diesel’s delightfully long winded musings on the nature of “family”) so did the scope of the action sequences and the feeling that the franchise had actually started to pull its own weight as a unique intellectual property. During this transition the focus of the films also deviated from its street racing roots and instead pursued what it self-describes in the latest film as “vehicular warfare”. The street racing of the early films are mostly gone, but far from forgotten as the series has become completely wrapped up in its own mythology, pretending that the past was more significant than it was and pushing what it can do in the present to any & all ridiculous heights allowed by the strengths of an ever-sprawling cast & budget.

Listed below, in chronological order, are all seven feature films in the Fast & Furious franchise as seen through my fresh, previously uninitiated eyes. Each entry is accompanied by brief re-caps of its faults & charms, but also has its own individual full-length review, which you can find by clicking on the links in the titles themselves. If you are also looking to get initiated into the Fast & Furious world yourself, but wanted to skip the franchise’s humbly trashy beginnings, I highly recommend watching the fifth, sixth, third, and seventh installments (curiously enough, in that specific sequence).

The Fast and the Furious (2001)EPSON MFP imagethree star

The very first installment of the Fast & Furious is mostly effective as a baseline measurement for the series. It was exactly what I had expected from the franchise as a whole: rap-rock era machismo way more concerned with cartoonishly fast cars, gigantic guns, and impressively elaborate action sequences than its superfluous plot about an undercover cop. It features such macho trademarks as rap metal, backyard grilling, lipstick lesbianism and, of course, extensive street racing. In this earliest installment the cars move so fast that light warps around them like spaceships in old-line sci-fi, their roaring engines overpowering the sound design & the inner workings of their nitrous oxide systems becoming a fetishistic focus for the CGI. The Fast and the Furious is entertaining enough as a mindless action flick & a trashy cultural relic, but it doesn’t even approach the peak ridiculousness achieved in later installments. It does have its campy moments, though, even if they never reach a fever pitch.

MVP of the cast: The stunt-casting of Ja Rule, who’s neither fast nor furious enough to earn a threesome in a street race.
Most curious detail: The fact that somehow no one on the California street racing scene seems to think it’s fucked up that their drag race competition is called “Race Wars.”

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) EPSON MFP imagethree star

2 Fast 2 Furious isn’t necessarily much better or worse than its predecessor, but functions more like an echo. It hits the same plot points as the original (undercover policing, sports cars reaching warp speed, Paul Walker’s half-assed modes of seduction, etc.) with just a few basic casting substitutions distinguishing the two films. The strange thing about it is that the repetition doesn’t feel like much of a problem. It’s okay that both The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious share so much in plot & sentiment because plot & sentiment are inessential to the films’ central draws: absurdly intricate action set pieces, a fetishistic love of sports cars, and charmingly dated ideas of cool. 2 Fast 2 Furious may be an exact structural photocopy of the first Fast & Furious installment, but it has such a deliriously lighthearted approach to the intense violence of its reality (a quality that made 80s action films the golden era of the genre) that it’s difficult to be too hard on it critically. Nearly all of the actors except Walker are substituted for new faces (an appropriately shirtless Tyrese Gibson & a Chicken-N-Beer era Ludacris make their welcomed debuts here, though their comic dynamic isn’t fully developed until later installments,) and there’s a complete absence of rap rock, lipstick lesbianism, and backyard grilling, but 2 Fast 2 Furious is still essentially a shameless retread of its precursor. However, it’s one that finds a way to make its more-of-the-same formula entertaining despite the familiarity.

MVP of the cast: The wise-cracking, often-shirtless sex god Tyrese Gibson.
Most curious detail: A not-so-sly reference to Ludacris’ hit song “Move Bitch” is made during a street race, but by a character who is not played by Ludacris.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) EPSON MFP imagethreehalfstar

The third installment in the Fast & Furious franchise is not a particularly unique film when considered on its own merit, but it is very much an outlier in the series it’s a part of. The first two Fast & Furious films are undercover police thrillers about trust & family and the criminal world of California street racing. Tokyo Drift, on the other hand, is about a high school reprobate’s struggle to find The Drift within. The Drift, in case you somehow didn’t already know, is the ability to more or less drive sideways, something Japanese teens are apparently very good at. The Drift also serves as some kind of metaphor for growing up or taking responsibility or something along those lines (with a direct reference to The Karate Kid for full effect), but one thing’s for damn sure: it has nothing to do with the world of the Paul Walkers, Vin Diesels and Tyrese Gibsons of the first two films. There’s a hilarious last minute cameo that attempts to tie it into the rest of the series, but for the most part Tokyo Drift is a free-floating oddity, just sort of . . . drifting out on its own, disconnected. It was more than fair that die-hard fans furiously asked “Who are these people?!” upon its initial release, since the answer to that question doesn’t arrive until a post-credits stinger four films later. However, even though it was hated in its time, it’s a genuinely fun bit of trash cinema about the spiritual virtues of sideways driving, one with almost no regard for rest of the franchise at all.

MVP in the cast: The stunt casting of (Lil) Bow Wow, who plays a wisecracking sidekick that winks at the camera, delivers one-liners like “Japanese food is like the Army: don’t ask, don’t tell,” and refers to the Mona Lisa as that lady who’s smiling all the time.
Most Curious Detail: I’m pretty sure that during the opening race a smashed porta potty splashes digital feces on the camera lens.

Fast & Furious (2009) EPSON MFP imageonehalfstar

The fourth Fast & Furious film attempts to pull the series’ act together by working as retroactive franchise glue, bringing back characters that had been absent since the first film & connecting them to Sung Kang’s Han, a very important player from Tokyo Drift who (spoiler) is supposed to be very dead. The problem is that after these first ten minutes of retroactive narrative, Fast & Furious loses its sense of purpose. Setting the undercover police intrigue in the Dominican Republic, the film offers the franchise a new location, but not much else. For the most part, the action is standard stuff you’d expect in any action franchise: Vin Diesel hanging dudes out of windows by their ankles, Paul Walker chasing criminals down back alleys in his tailored federal agent suit, lots of tumbling cars, etc. The best moment, action wise, is when Diesel does a controlled slide (Tokyo style) under a tumbling 18 wheeler, but that takes place during that saving-grace opening set piece. The main thing it’s missing, however, is a sense of fun. Fast & Furious is just so unnecessarily dour, especially after the cartoonish excess of Tokyo Drift. After herding the narrative cats of the first three installments, the movie becomes exceedingly difficult to love. It does serve as a necessary bridge to better movies down the line, but when considered on its own, it’s not really worth its near two-hour runtime.

MVP of the cast: Han, resurrected through a receding timeline, not-so-seamlessly (but very much amusingly) sets up the franchise’s ever-shifting chronology in an exchange where he answers the line “Time for you to do your own thing,” with “I heard they’re doing some crazy shit in Tokyo . . .” They’re doing some crazy shit indeed, Han. First of all, they’re driving sideways.
Most curious detail: The film seems to have a strange fascination with GPS displays. The GPS imagery plays well into the series’ video game aesthetic, but really, it’s GPS; who cares?

Fast Five (2011) EPSON MFP imagethreehalfstar

There’s a lot of killer action movie surface pleasures scattered all over Fast Five (especially in its opening train heist set piece), but that’s not what makes it special. What distinguishes the film from its pedigree is Vin Diesel’s Dominic’s sudden conviction that his gang of ragtag criminals and former cops is a “family”. As far as the franchise goes, the “family” in the first four films act like distant cousins who might see each other once a decade. Suddenly, in Fast Five it’s genuinely moving when Dominic talks about how his father taught him about the importance of backyard grilling, how a family always sticks together, and so on. It’s not a perfect film; it could’ve allowed more screen time for newcomer The Rock & (I can’t believe I’m saying this) more street racing, not to mention that a ludicrous post-credits stinger has the gall to bring the dead back to life without explanation, but it was a huge step forward for the Fast & Furious series as a collective. Five films in, all the separate elements are finally clicking as a cohesive action movie unit. Where most extended franchises gradually unravel over the course of their sequels, this is one that took that time to find itself and cull its own “familial” mythology.

MVP of the Cast: Here we are introduced to Hobbs, played Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who could only serve as a improvement to virtually any motion picture, because he is a perfect human being.
Most Curious Detail: An all-star crew of the gang/”family” members from the first four films are assembled here in the single best team-building montage outside of MacGruber. There’s some truly over the top, jaw-dropping spectacle in the opening train heist and a closing sequence involving a bank vault, but something about that montage feels like the first moments of the series coming into its own.

Fast & Furious 6 (2013) EPSON MFP imagefourstar

Fast & Furious 6 plays right into the franchise’s ever-increasing concern for tying the series together into a cohesive whole. The gang started properly functioning as a unit (or a “family,” if you will) in the fifth film, but this is where individual members of the Fast & Furious family become eccentric cartoon versions of themselves. They begin to get wrapped up in their own distinct mythologies the way the series as a whole got wrapped up in itself in the start-of-a-new-era Fast Five. Now that the “family” has come together as a tight unit, they’ve finally found a way to go truly over the top. The ridiculous caricatures and ever-expanding budget for the action sequences (which include a return to extensive street racing here, which had become surprisingly absent) are what make Fast & Furious 6 feel like a far cry from where the series began, but it’s not what makes the film important. As Vin Diesel’s Dominic would put it, it’s all about family. “Family” is what matters. If you’re on board with the series at this point it’s strangely satisfying to see the film’s major triumph be the gang coming together for a climactic backyard cookout, Coronas proudly lifted in the air. Fast & Furious 6 makes the audience feel like part of the “family”, like we’re all in for the silly ride together. Everyone involved has seemingly gotten comfortable with how ridiculous the series is and found their own ways to make it work as its own unique action franchise, with Vin Diesel standing tall as the most comfortable of them all. It’s adorable.

MVP of the cast: The heart really is in those “family”-obsessed Vin Diesel pep talks. Part of what makes it so convincing is that it feels like he truly believes it.
Most curious detail: The film’s central conflict is with a rival gang who, as Tyrese Gibson describes in an especially hilarious monologue, poses as the gang’s doppelgangers, because they do not believe in family and instead treat their criminal schemes like a business.

Furious 7 (2015)EPSON MFP imagefourstar

Furious 7’s charms depend greatly on the six films that precede it (this marks the first time that the Tokyo Drift storyline is firmly in the temporal rearview), but it uses that well-established history to its advantage as a launching pad for its larger-than-ever set pieces and relentless fan service. To a newcomer the barrage of seemingly insignificant callbacks could feel superfluous at best and grotesque at worst, but for a fan (even a recent convert such as myself), they’re pleasantly familiar. That’s not to say that a pair of fresh eyes would have nothing to enjoy here. At a remarkably brisk 137 minutes, Furious 7 is packed to the gills with action movie surface pleasures that reach new heights in its “vehicular warfare” that will dazzle even the uninitiated. However, anyone who has made it this far into the Fast & Furious ride (or at least tuned in after the not-so-great fourth one) is likely to feel an affinity for the series that not only excuses, but emphatically embraces its trashy, trashy charms as well. It’s sure to please the franchise’s established fans as well as gather some new ones along the way. There really is just so much movie here that anyone who enjoys loud, obnoxious action films in any capacity is likely find something to latch onto.

MVP of the Cast: Paul Walker’s transformation from a “sandwich crazy” undercover cop to an action movie legend was a gradual one that has now sadly come to a close. It’s always a bummer to watch a family member go, but Furious 7 does a great job of giving him a proper send-off.
Most Curious Detail: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson puts his pro wrestling past to good use in a moment that includes him reviving his signature “Rock Bottom” move from the Attitude Era.

Lagniappe

The Fast and the Furious (1955) EPSON MFP imagetwohalfstar

A 1950’s car racing cheapie from Movie of the Month vet Roger Corman, The Fast and the Furious is far from the legendary director’s most interesting film, but it is only the second title (out of hundreds) that he produced and the first title ever produced by American International Pictures, the film company that helped make him a b-movie powerhouse. The film has very little connection to the much-more-infamous Paul Walker series outside of the purchase of its title rights, but that purchase was most certainly worth every penny. It’s a damn good title. Good thing they decided not stick with the much less compelling original name for the film, Crashout. Filmed in just ten days, The Fast and the Furious is one of many examples of Corman’s superhuman ability to make a surprisingly watchable picture on a tight budget, even if it isn’t a particularly memorable one. It does share some incidental similarities the Paul Walker franchise of the same name, like felons getting mixed up in car racing, racers inspecting/admiring each other’s gear, the featured inclusion of female racers, and (most incidentally of all) mentions of Coachella, California. Both Corman’s film and the 2000s franchise also have a tendency to mix corny comedy in with their criminal intrigue as well as an over-reliance on dated effects (whether they be CGI or driving scenes filmed in front of a projector). Corman’s The Fast and the Furious is by no means essential viewing, but it is an interesting footnote to the trashy cultural powerhouse that followed nearly 50 years later.

Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) EPSON MFP imagethree star

An MTV-produced slice of Asian-American ennui & teen criminality, Better Luck Tomorrow is the feature film debut of director Justin Lin, who made a cohesive whole out of the Fast & Furious franchise with his take on the third, fourth, fifth & sixth titles. The connection to the Fast & Furious universe is mostly tangential here, depending solely on the presence of a high school age Han, who first entered the picture in the oddball entry Tokyo Drift. Han is played by Sung Kang in both Better Luck Tomorrow as well as every Fast & Furious film directed by Lin. Although the connection is tenuous, it’s amusing to watch Lin’s debut and imagine the character’s origins here, not to mention that the film itself is an enjoyable indie crime drama with a killer soundtrack that features Le Tigre, Bonfire Madigan and Emily’s Sassy Lime. There are obviously no direct references to Fast & Furious to be found in the film, but there is the coincidental inclusion of this throwaway line: “We had the run of the place. Rumors about us came fast and furious.”

Turbo-Charged Prelude (2003) & Los Bandaleros (2009) EPSON MFP imageonestar

There have been two officially-released “short films” meant to serve as primers in-between the Fast & Furious features. The nearly dialogue-free short Turbo-Charged Prelude follows Paul Walker’s Brian through an evading-the-law montage that adds essentially nothing of value to the series, but instead plays like a music video for an overlong rap instrumental. I did like that it ended with the phrase “2 Be Continued . . .”, but that was its sole bright moment. The Vin Diesel-penned & directed short Los Bandaleros was a slightly more significant, portraying a Dominican getaway for Dominic & Letty in a sequence that doesn’t involve fast cars or explosions and even misses an opportunity to plug Coronas during its backyard cookout. There are some interesting musings on the prison system as the new slavery and yet another attempt to bridge Tokyo Drift to the rest of the series through Han, but the short is mostly a sweet, low-stakes tryst between Dominic & Letty that receives a vague callback in Furious 7, but really isn’t worth its 20min runtime for that connection.

-Brandon Ledet

Furious 7 (2015)

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The true story at this point of the Fast and Furious franchise is the story of an ever-ballooning budget. The 2001 debut installment cost $38 million to make, which it of course spent on fast cars & Ja Rule, depending on ultra-macho cheap thrills like rap rock & lipstick lesbianism to fill in the gaps. In 2015 a Fast and Furious movie costs $250 million to make, which gives it the freedom to tear down entire cities on the screen, no Ja Rule necessary. The first three or so Fast and Furious movies serve mostly as cultural relics, time capsules of bad taste in the early 00s. As the budget continued to expand (along with Vin Diesel’s delightfully long winded musings on the nature of “family”) so did the scope of the action sequences and the feeling that the franchise had actually started to pull its own weight as a unique intellectual property. The street racing & Ja Rules of the early films are mostly gone, but far from forgotten as the series has become completely wrapped up in its own mythology, pretending that the past was more significant than it was and pushing what they can do in the present to any & all ridiculous heights allowed by the strengths of an ever-sprawling cast & budget. Furious 7 may have taken my top spot in the franchise (although that may just be the post-theater buzz talking) simply because it’s so much movie.

Furious 7’s charms depend greatly on the six films that precede it (this marks the first time that the Tokyo Drift storyline is in the rearview), but it uses that well-established history to its advantage as a launching pad for its larger-than-ever set pieces and relentless fan service. It’s difficult to imagine just how much a newcomer would get out of early scenes where Vin Diesel’s Dominic struggles to keep his “family” together, including the significance of details like the house they worked so hard to hold onto, the struggle to keep Paul Walker’s Brian out of danger, and the faulty memory of Michelle Rodriguez’ Letty. There’s an excess of callbacks to seemingly insignificant details like a tuna sandwich from the first film, images & music lifted directly from Tokyo Drift (within which Lucas Black ages a decade in the blink of an eye), a return to the Race Wars (the ludicrous name of a street racing competition I still can’t believe no one in that world finds fucked up), outrageous stunt casting of flash-in-the-pan rappers (in this case the most-insignificant-yet, Iggy Azaelea), and increasingly obnoxious product placement for Corona. There was even a return to the excessive ogling of the early films, but with a modern update. If the gratuitous leering of the early 00s was Generation Lipstick Lesbian, Furious 7 poses the modern era as Generation Dat Ass, featuring a peculiarly intense focus on the female posterior. The only thing that was really missing was a backyard cookout. To a newcomer these callbacks could feel superfluous at best and grotesque at worst, but for a fan (even a recent convert such as myself), they’re pleasantly familiar.

That’s not to say that a pair of fresh eyes would have nothing to enjoy here. At a remarkably brisk 137 minutes, Furious 7 is packed to the gills with action movie surface pleasures: self-described “vehicular warfare”, flying cars, smashed buildings, absurdly intricate martial arts sequences, drones (or as Tyrese Gibson’s Roman calls them, “space ships”), hacker technobabble, rap music, and the aforementioned near-naked asses. On the gender-swapped side of that butt fetish is a gratuitous shot of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s mostly nude, entirely exceptional body lounging in a hospital bed that is sure to raise a couple heart rates. Although The Rock isn’t afforded much screen time, he makes the most of it. Besides appearing undressed, he also puts his pro-wrestling background to good use in some epic shit talking (“I’m gonna put a hurt on him so bad he’s gonna wish his mama had kept her legs closed”) and a fist fight in which he delivers his signiature “Rock Bottom” move to Jason Statham. However, even that fight pales in comparison to the stunts performed by legitimate hand-to-hand combat artists Ronda Rousey & Tony Jaa. The film could’ve used more of crowd favorite The Rock (and personal favorite Jordana Brewster), but the additions of newcomers like Rousey, Jaa, and total weirdo Kurt Russell more than filled the void.

There was also something missing in the absence of longtime Fast and Furious director Justin Lin, particularly in the scaled-back “family” talk that reached its fever pitch in Fast & Furious 6. Considering the real-life loss of Paul Walker, however, the “family” speeches that are included feel all the more significant. When Dominic says “I don’t have friends. I got family,” you could easily substitute the word “friends” for “fans”. Anyone who has made it this far into the Fast and Furious ride (or at least tuned in after the not-so-great fourth one) is likely to feel an affinity for the franchise that not only excuses, but emphatically embraces its trashy, trashy charms. Paul Walker’s transformation from a “sandwich crazy” undercover cop to an action movie legend was a gradual one that has now sadly come to a close. It’s always a bummer to watch a family member go and Furious 7 does a great job of giving him a proper send-off. The focus on fan-pleasing callbacks and the transition from the “family”-heavy Justin Lin run into a new era (in which Walker will not be joining us) distinguishes Furious 7 from the six previous installments, while still honors them with a lofty reverence. It’s sure to please the franchise’s established fans as well as gather some new ones along the way. There really is just so much movie here that anyone who enjoys loud, obnoxious action films in any capacity is likely find something to latch onto.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fast and the Furious (2001)

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three star

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Despite the 15 year run of the franchise’s cultural ubiquity, I’ve somehow managed to avoid ever seeing a Fast & Furious movie in full. Sure, I’ve seen them playing as background noise in various bars & living rooms over the years, but I’ve never bothered to watch a single picture from front to end. When the series first got started I was a gloomy teenage snob who wouldn’t be caught dead watching such mindless machismo, but something happened in the years since: I grew a sense of humor. And while I was working on that, something else happened: the series seemingly got exponentially ridiculous with each sequel. It’s rare these days for any genre film outside of slasher flicks to earn six sequels, but here we are in 2015 with a car racing movie reaching its seventh installment next month: Furious 7. It’s with the ads for that seventh installment that I’ve finally reached my tipping point. The trailer for Furious 7 is so deliciously over the top that when I first saw it in the theater I finally felt compelled to catch up with the entire series.

It turns out that the very first installment in the Fast & Furious franchise was a very effective baseline measurement for the series. It was exactly what I had expected: rap-rock era machismo way more concerned with cartoonishly fast cars, gigantic guns, and impressively elaborate action sequences than its superfluous plot about an undercover cop. The movie opens with a dangerous, in-motion highway robbery, then moves on directly to a fistfight, then a drag race, then a feud with a biker gang and so on. In addition to fistfights, armed robberies, motorcycles, and sports cars, The Fast and the Furious features such macho trademarks as rap metal, backyard grills, and lipstick lesbianism. The film also features Vin Diesel in his early 2000s prime (he had a prime, right?), Ja Rule (unmistakably in his prime) as an early sign of the series’ unique interest in rappers-turned-actors, and the strikingly sexy Jordana Brewster as the designated trophy girl for face-of-the-series Paul Walker to lust after. Above all of these macho hallmarks stands what I suppose is the film’s main attraction: fast cars. Cars so fast that light warps around them like spaceships in old-line sci-fi, their roaring engines overpowering the sound design & the inner workings of their nitrous oxide systems becoming a fetishistic focus for the CGI. The series, of course, is all about furiously fast cars, with plot & dialogue taking a very distant second.

The Fast and the Furious is entertaining enough as a mindless action flick & a trashy cultural relic, but it’s nowhere near the peak ridiculousness promised in the Furious 7 trailer. It does have its campy moments, though. The dialogue is often laughable. For example, early in the film when Paul Walker’s character suspiciously patrons a subpar sandwich shop, a hooligan asks, “What’s up with this fool? What is he, sandwich crazy?” In addition to the nonsensical vocal posturing, there’s the hideous detail of someone being force-fed engine oil as a torture tactic, the fact that somehow no one seems to think it’s fucked up that their drag race competition is called “Race Wars”, and a straight-out-of-a-girl-group-song moment when Paul Walker screams “Don’t do it, Jesse!” while trying to convince a reckless teen not to race. Also, as a lazy Louisiana nerd who barely leaves the house, I have no idea exactly how over the top the depictions of widescale California street races that result in thousands of people running from the cops are, but they felt pretty silly to an outsider. The campy charms never reach a fever pitch, however, and the film mostly serves as a baseline measurement for the sure-to-come shameless retreads inherent to sequels as well as the cartoonish absurdity promised in the ads for Furious 7 (and hopefully elsewhere in the five films in-between). It was a decent start to the series, but I doubt it’s the best or the worst that it has to offer. We’ll see.

-Brandon Ledet