DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS: The Drinking Games

Not a review. Let those invested in the MCU write those. This is for those who will go to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, because, by now, Marvel movies have become habit. Sometimes there is a big payoff as there was most recently with Spider-Man: No Way Home. Other times, not so much.

So, what do you do when you’re squirming in your seat, realizing this Marvel isn’t so marvelous? If you’re me, you imagine drinking games. If you’re you, maybe you play them. And if getting tipsy isn’t your jam, play them without alcohol (or turn them into eating games with some fine chocolate truffles or charcuterie).

Let the games begin:

Take a drink anytime someone says “multiverse.” (Caution if using alcohol, maybe change the rule to every third time someone says it – they beat that dead horse a lot.)

Take a drink anytime some superhero or other who isn’t Doctor Strange or The Scarlet Witch appears on screen.

Take a drink every time Wanda/The Scarlet Witch expresses the desire to reunite with the children that Doctor Strange keeps helpfully pointing out don’t exist.

Take a drink every time those cardboard sitcom children appear on screen.

Take a drink every time the movie pays homage to its director, Sam Raimi, by slipping in a nod to Evil Dead. (This is, by far, the best game.)

Take a drink every time a portal opens to a new universe.

Finally, take a drink, and there will only be one for this game, when you realize that the multiverse means no Marvel character can ever really die, so good luck remaining emotionally invested in any of them. But, oh, such a glorious way to milk that cash cow for the studio.
 

A Writer’s Early Life: ROY’S WORLD: BARRY GIFFORD’S CHICAGO

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With his second feature and first documentary, filmmaker Rob Christopher delivers pure delight with a film that weaves together aspects of writer Barry Gifford’s biography alongside the fiction of his autobiographical “Roy” stories. Set within the postwar Chicago of Gifford’s youth (with forays to Havana and Florida), the film is an irresistible portrait of an era and a place, set to Jason Adasiewicz’s evocative jazz score.

Gifford, who is probably best known for his Sailor and Lula series of novels, the first of which, Wild at Heart became his first collaboration with David Lynch. He would later contribute to Lynch’s 1993 miniseries Hotel Room and co-write the director’s surreal 1997 drama Lost Highway. Gifford is a prolific writer of novels, short stories, poetry, essays, plays, nonfiction, and screenplays (which in addition to his partnership with Lynch, include co-writing 2002’s City of Ghosts with Matt Dillon and collaborating on Robinson Devor’s upcoming You Can’t Win).

What Christopher has created is a kind of origin story. Gifford’s own story even before he fictionalizes it in the Roy stories is the stuff legends are made from, growing up in a rough, rowdy Chicago. He was the product of a pharmacist whose drugstore delivered far more than prescriptions, and his beautiful, much younger wife. Gifford has always admitted that the Roy stories, which cover five years in the eponymous boy’s life, are autobiographical but he maintains they are wholly fictional.

Four narrators spin the tale: Gifford, on hand to relate some of the facts of his life and his approach to fiction, and actors Matt Dillon, Lili Taylor, and Wild at Heart star Willem Dafoe, reading from the Roy stories. There are two outstanding animated sequences and some personal Gifford family photos but the majority of imagery is archival, capturing the Windy City more than seven decades ago, so tactile at times that it’s possible to feel a frigid winter’s day or the wind coming off Lake Michigan.

Christopher brings not only Gifford’s fiction to life but also Chicago of that era in all its urban beauty, squalor, and corruption. Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago is a grand achievement, a clear-eyed snapshot of a writer’s work and his life at a moment in time. – Pam Grady

Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago screens at the Roxie Theater, San Francisco, 3:45 p.m., Saturday, May 7 with Barry Gifford and director Rob Christopher on hand for a Q&A. For further information on screenings, visit https://www.roysworldfilm.com/

The Devil Made Grohl Do It: Foo Fighters in STUDIO 666

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Dave Grohl stars as himself in director BJ McDonnell’s STUDIO 666, an Open Road Films release. Credit : Courtesy of Andrew Stuart / Open Road Films

A famed rock band retreats to a new studio to record their latest album, banking on artistic revitalization from an alien environment. A new song shows great promise – if only they can get it right. But while they keep coming close, the song remains a challenge, the end not quite coming into focus. No, this isn’t a scene from Peter Jackson’s Get Back, although there are some weird parallels. The band is Foo Fighters, not The Beatles. And instead of Yoko Ono hanging out while the band records in the Encino mansion they are also living in, it is demon in possession of front man Dave Grohl.

The film is Studio 666, based on an idea of Grohl’s. And instead of dealing with London bobbies trying to shut down their rooftop concert, the Foos grapple with trying to live long enough to finish their record and figure out exactly what Dave means when he says the new song is in “L sharp.”

It is as absurd as it sounds and delivers a lot of what Alex in A Clockwork Orange would have described as “the old ultraviolence.” Do not come to the movie expecting great art, or even necessarily a good movie, but met on its own silly terms, this dance with the devil of a horror comedy is entertaining.

(L to R) Nate Mendel, Rami Jaffee, Pat Smear, Taylor Hawkins, Chris Shiflett, and Dave Grohl star as themselves in director BJ McDonnell’s STUDIO 666, an Open Road Films release. Credit : Courtesy of Open Road Films

There is a little bit of verisimilitude in Studio 666. The band really did record their 2021 album Medicine at Midnight at that Southern California mansion, but similarities to real life end there. Instead, nearly 30 years into their existence, Foo Fighters expand past the realm of charming music videos, and take a swing at being movie stars (not actors). There are shades of A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, goofiness reminiscent of The Monkees (particularly in the performances of keyboard player Rami Jaffee. who also has all the animation of a human Muppet, and guitarist Pat Smear, the sweet, Peter Tork-like one made to make do with sleeping on kitchen counters in absence of a bedroom),  and Alice Cooper in the made-for-TV movie The Nightmare.

The house, it seems, has secrets as the audience already knows thanks to a grisly prologue that quickly spins the tale of the last unfortunate band that recorded in the house. Grohl wanders into the basement where a recording set up and a dead raccoon should tip him off to run back upstairs, grab the guys, and flee screaming into the night. But, nah, he stays long enough to become the latest vessel of stone cold evil – albeit a presence with big plans for one particular song.

The possession leads to perfectionism that puts Grohl at odds with his oblivious bandmates who only gradually realize just how much – and how lethally – their friend has changed. Phantom of the Paradise, Equinox, Evil Dead (and Evil Dead 2), and a whole host of grislier horror movies clearly served as inspirations for Studio 666 and maybe even a little Fargo (yes, there is a wood chipper on the premises). But while there is some horrific, black comic violence, there are no real scares here, no matter how many Foo Fighter lives are threatened. Playing themselves is not much of a stretch, playing themselves in peril (or embodying evil, in the case of Grohl) is and it is a stretch a little too far.

Not that it matters. Studio 666 is, as they say, what it is. No suspension of belief is required once you strip away the horror trappings. What’s left is a bunch of pals getting together to make a movie, one that is gruesome and goofy in equal measure. –Pam Grady

 Sex Ed: BAD LUCK BANGING OR LOONY PORN

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More than 50 years ago, an American singer, Jeannie C. Riley, rode the country and pop charts with “Harper Valley PTA,” a sprightly tune about a woman confronting the hypocrisy of the local parents’ group after she’s chastised for wearing a miniskirt. Seems so quaint in the era of cell phone cameras and amateur porn, the two things that jam up a teacher in Romanian director Radu Jude’s latest Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn.

The sex is explicit between Emi (Katia Pascariu) and her husband Eugen (Stefan Steel) on the phone video that finds its way to the internet where one of her middle-school-aged students finds it and shares with his classmates. A showdown looms between her and angry parents that will determine whether she gets to keep her job.

Not that any of this is that straightforward. After opening with the sex tape, so that what all the fuss is about is made – ahem – nakedly clear, the film breaks off into three distinct sections. The first part sets up the situation through Emi’s visit to the chaotic home of her school’s headmistress and subsequent phone calls with Eugen, the camera following her as she roams the streets of pandemic-era Bucharest. Masks are everywhere but social distancing not so much as the camera picks up random conversations as Emi continues her city-wide trek.

The second section manages to be both witty and pedantic as a history of obscenity unfolds in collage-like fashion that also pulls in history lessons that perfectly set up the third section: Emi’s confrontation with her accusers. Social distancing is observed and masks are worn but while facial expressions are hidden there is no mistaking the bile with which they greet the teacher whom they so very recently held in high esteem.

But now’s she a “whore” who is corrupting their kids – that the children willfully shared the amateur porn clip amongst themselves does not faze them in the least. After demanding that the salacious tape – that they have all already seen – be played to further humiliate the teacher, the meeting steadily devolves, the parents’ sexism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Roma sentiments exposed. And much like the woman in that long ago country song, Emi – who knows that these people each have their own secrets to go with their evident prejudices – finds herself confronting the hypocrisy of the sanctimonious mob.

The people ganging up on her view Emi as immoral but, in fact, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn‘s moral center is the beleaguered teacher. She made a sex tape among consenting adults. The arguments she makes in favor of keeping her job are rigorous. But she is trying to make headway with people married to their prejudices, filled with hate, and immune to logic: Their minds are made up. And while Jude has made a film specific to Romania, the mindlessness and bile characterizing the horde that surrounds Emi can be found everywhere in the world. It is all awfully familiar. – Pam Grady

Pre-stardom Jean-Paul Belmondo shines in “The French Had a Name For It” prequel

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Jean-Paul Belmondo and László Szabó in Á double tour (Web of Passion)

“The French Had a Name For It,” Don Malcolm’s festival of Gallic noir returns to San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre, Nov. 12-14, but on Sunday, Oct. 24, he serves up an appetizer with two tribute double bills. In the evening, Malcolm pays homage to the great Jean Gabin with screenings of two of the actor’s best, the 1954 heist film Touchez pas au grisbi (Hands Off the Loot!), and Des gens sans importance (People of No Importance), a 1956 drama limning the affair between Gabin’s middle-aged truck driver and a young waitress (François Arnoul). The afternoon belongs to Jean-Paul Belmondo with two films that capture the actor’s formidable charisma just before he achieved stardom with his breakthrough in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.

Belmondo’s role is but a small supporting part in Marcel Carné’s Les tricheurs (The Cheaters), a drama about the star-crossed romance between a bourgeois suburbanite (Jacques Charrier) and a hipster existentialist (Pascale Petit). A superb jazz and early rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack that features, among others, Chet Baker, Fats Domino, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, and The Champs propels the action that moves from cafes to the luxurious apartment of one particularly well-heeled member of this demimonde to a club on the Champs-Élysées.

Belmondo makes a striking entrance, rifling through coats at a party, then moves in and out of the action. He rivets the screen in the scenes that he is in – that he is destined to be a star is hardly surprising.

The second feature in the tribute is Á double tour (Web of Passion), Claude Chabrol’s third feature, which begins as the study of a dysfunctional upper-class Provence family before shifting in a murder mystery as Henri Marcoux’s (Jacques Dacqmine) young artist mistress Leda (Antonella Luadi) comes to a bad end. And while Roger (Mario David), the village milkman, is arrested for the crime, there is a whole houseful of suspects at the Marcoux villa to consider.

Belmondo is Laszlo Kovacs – the alias the actor’s character Michel would later adopt in Breathless – tactless, gross fiancé to Henri’s daughter Elisabeth (Jeanne Valérie). He is the man who introduced his future father-in-law to Leda, an old friend. He delights in taunting Elisabeth’s mother Thérèse (Madeleine Robinson) with his boorishness and recognizes that Elisabeth’s classical music-obsessed brother Richard’s (André Jocelyn) is more than simply eccentric. He’s a pig, cheerfully so, but when it comes to toxic masculinity and misogyny he’s a rank amateur compared to Papa Marcoux.

Call this double bill “Baby Steps to Belmondo,” as what both films offer are striking glimpses into what Godard saw when he cast the actor in Breathless. The rough-hewn magnetism is there. It was just awaiting the director who would fully exploit it. –Pam Grady

 Á double tour (Web of Passion), 2:00PM; Les tricheurs (The Cheaters), 3:45PM, Sunday, Oct. 24, Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, SF. www.roxie.com

Ryan Reynolds hits his sweet spot with FREE GUY

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Years ago, putting on sunglasses tipped the hero off to what was really going on in the world in They Live. Something similar happens to Guy (Ryan Reynolds) in Shawn Levy’s Free Guy. There is a difference: Roddy Piper’s Nada was made privy to the reality of human existence in John Carpenter’s horror sci-fi classic. Guy is an NPC (non-player character) in a video game, clued in by the glasses to the fact that he lives in a video game, which goes so far in explaining why every day of his existence is exactly the same. But that is far from all in this fast-paced, action-packed movie that is both a fresh and funny existential comedy and a delightful rom-com.

In Free City, Guy lives a strictly regulated life, dressed daily in identical blue button-down shirts and khaki pants, drinking the same coffee order, greeting people with the same catch phrase (“Don’t have a good day – have a great day!”), and destined to be robbed every single day at his job as a bank teller. Such is the life of an NPC, who exists only as background with predetermined actions and behaviors.

Unaware that he is nothing but a string of binary code, he is a cheerful, happy sort. But one day, he tries to order a cappuccino – most definitely not his regular order and not on the café’s menu – and it is the beginning of Guy’s emancipation from the dreary existence of an NPC. The glasses add fuel to the fire and so does the appearance of Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer, Killing Eve), a comely British bad-ass on a personal mission. The twin revelations spur guy to become one of the “sunglasses people” he’s always admired: a man of action, and in his case, a hero.

Guy’s activities do not go unnoticed in the world outside the game. For Keys (Joe Keery, Stranger Things) and Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Brittany Runs a Marathon), low-level techies at the gaming company, he is a problem to solve. For Millie (Comer again), locked in a battle with crass CEO Antoine (an exuberantly evil Taika Waititi) over code she is certain he stole from a game she and Keys designed that he repurposed for Free City, Guy might hold the key to proving her case. The gaming world falls in love with the character. Antoine, about to release Free City 2, feels threatened by the outlier and just wants him gone. And while Guy is all-in on his crush on Molotov Girl, Keys remains in oblivious denial of his feelings for his old gaming partner.

The screenplay by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, from an idea of Lieberman’s, keeps all of its balls in the air. The action is satisfying and blends well with the comedy, particularly in scenes where Keys and Mouser adopt characters to go into the game to track down Guy and in a confrontation that Guy has with rough-and-tumble character Avatar (Channing Tatum). At the same time, there is a sweetness that permeates even the most action-packed scenes, reflecting the personality of Free Guy‘s bubbly hero. Whether throwing down with bad guys, mooning over Molotov Girl, or earnestly trying to convince his best pal, bank security guard Buddy (Lil Rel Howery, Get Out) that there is a life to be had outside their rote existence, Guy’s warmth and good intentions shine through.

Guy is a role tailor-made for its star, capturing both his humor and bonhomie. Reynolds shines as this accidental hero and a man reaching beyond his seeming capabilities. As an NPC, Guy’s is a circumscribed role, but he has somehow slipped his programming and developed as artificial intelligence, capable of thought and feeling and of earning the admiration and empathy of humans. We’ve been trained to imagine an AI world as one of The Terminator, where we will live in fear of what we created. But what if AI is something else? What if AI looks a lot like Guy? Imagine the possibilities. Free Guy does and it’s glorious. –Pam Grady

Character actor Udo Kier steps into SWAN SONG and emerges a star

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Udo Kier recently spent a lot of time in a nursing home. Oh, not because the 76-year-old German actor was ill or otherwise infirm, but because that was the home of Pat Pitsenbarger, the retired Sandusky, OH, hairdresser he plays in Todd Stephens’ Swan Song.

“I talked to Todd about shooting [the film] as chronologically as possible,” Kier says in a recent Zoom call from his elegant home in Palm Springs.

“We started in the nursing home and I spent time there on my own, to get a feeling for the room, for the mattress. Where are my cigarettes? I have to know that because it is my room. I’ve lived there for years, so I cannot, just as an actor, come to a set and say, ‘Whare are my cigarettes?’ I have to know.”

In a career that spans 55 years and nearly 300 film and television credits, Kier counts among his collaborators Paul Morrissey (Blood for Dracula, Flesh for Frankenstein), Dario Argento (Suspiria, Mother of Tears), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Stationmaster’s Wife, The Third Generation, Lili Marleen), Guy Maddin (Keyhole, The Forbidden Room), and Lars von Trier (Europa, Breaking the Waves, The Kingdom TV series, and many more). He was Dragonetti in the 1998 horror film Blade (“I was the overlord vampire who says, ‘I have lived for thousands of years!,'” Kier recalls 23 years later.) In recent years, he’s played a miller with a visceral taste for vengeance in the 2019 adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s World War II novel The Painted Bird and a hunting guide whose wealthy clients seek vulnerable prey in Bacurau.

In short, it is not the resume of someone one would immediately think of when casting a flyover country hairdresser, but Stephens knew Kier was his Pat the moment they met. The filmmaker knew Pitsenbarger, so he had specific memories from which he drew the character.

“Pat was a flamboyant guy, but he was also a quiet. He was kind of like Udo,” Stephens says.

“Also, one of the things was I wanted somebody that could relate to the life that Pat led, and that had known people that were lost, that lost friends to AIDS, and lived through that experience and didn’t  have to fake it but be real and that’s Udo.”

The death of Pat’s frenemy, Rita Parker Sloan (Dynasty‘s Linda Evans), sets Swan Song in motion when she leaves instructions that he is to do her hair for the funeral. So, he makes his escape from the home and spends the day visiting old haunts and poking at old memories, all roads leading to the bar where he was once a star drag queen attraction.

Returning to Sandusky where his parents and other family – Stephens’ brother put up Kier for the 18-day shoot – still live was a kind of shock to the filmmaker. He made his first feature, Edge of Seventeen there, 23 years ago and remembers hiding the fact that the film was a gay, autobiographical coming-of-age drama because he felt he couldn’t tell the truth in a small, conservative city. This time out, when he arrived back in town to start production, he was just in time for Sandusky’s third annual Pride celebration.

“There’s Gay Pride flags all up and down Main Street,” Stephens says, “And people knew the real Pat. It was like, ‘Oh my god, my mother went to him or my grandmother went to him,’ and so there was big love for the real guy.”

For Kier, Sandusky helped inform his character. He describes Main Street as his studio. Most of his scenes were shot in various stores and other locations there. He further got to know Pat through the reminiscences of the hairdresser’s old friends that he was able to meet. He became one with his character.

“I had an amazing time, because for me, there wasn’t any difference, I was Pat all the time,” Kier says. “I was the same person, day and night, just like that.”

“It was like 100 degrees half the time,” Stephens adds. “But it was the best experience shooting my life. Watching this guy every day blew my fucking mind.”

So often the character actor who stands out in support, this time Kier is the star, a development not lost on him. He won the best actor prize at the Monte Carlo Comedy Film Festival and his reviews have been stellar. While he jokes he will never star for Steven Spielberg, he senses new opportunities in the independent film realm that has long been his home.

“This film with Todd, it’s very important for me because it changed my attitude for the future,” Kier says. “It also a little changing my life, getting main parts in films. I got a few offers and I’m looking for something where people can follow me, if I play maybe a man I knew very well, William Burroughs. Maybe I’ll play William Burroughs. He was a very interesting man, painting and shooting at his paintings. I knew him quite well. So that’s what I’m looking for.

“And I’m so happy for Todd. This is such a success.” –Pam Grady

Swan Song is playing in theaters.

With Reservations: ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN

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Anthony Bourdain stars in Morgan Neville’s documentary, ROADRUNNER, a Focus Features release. Credit Courtesy of CNN / Focus Features

“Roadrunner,” Jonathan Richman’s euphoric ode to cruising down the highway opens Morgan Neville’s latest documentary, a promise that this biopic of the late chef, writer, TV host, and raconteur Anthony Bourdain will be a celebration. It was a song the filmmaker should have passed on because that was a promise he was never going to be able to deliver. As he admits not long after Richman’s tune fades out, Bourdain’s is a story without a happy ending. In fact, Roadrunner is not so much a documentary as a dirge.

When Bourdain published Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, the then executive chef at the New York brasserie Les Halles became an instant star. The book exposed what goes on behind the scenes in restaurant kitchens with swashbuckling wit – the tone of a writer who grew up a fan of the Burt Lancaster adventure The Crimson Pirate. In middle age, Bourdain found himself not just the author of best-selling books but a globetrotting media sensation, thanks to his shows A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown as well as his appearances on everything from The Oprah Winfrey Show to Late Show with David Letterman to The Daily Show. Even as he entered his 60s, his future seemed limitless – until he ended it, hanging himself in a French hotel room in 2018.

Neville, whose previous documentaries include the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom and the Fred Rogers biopic Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, frames his film as kind of an investigation into what led a man who apparently had everything to take his own life. Neville limns Bourdain’s youth and troubled life before he righted himself first in restaurant kitchens, then as the head of his growing media empire. He delves into the man’s insatiable appetite for acquainting himself with new cultures, new foods, and new adventures. And Neville covers Bourdain’s broken relationships, although only his second wife (and mother of his young daughter) Ottavia Busia participates. Notable by their absence in the postmortem interviews are Bourdain’s first wife (and high school sweetheart), Nancy Putkoski, and his last lover, actor/filmmaker Asia Argento, cast in the doc in a kind of evil Yoko Ono role.

Besides Busia and Bourdain’s younger brother, Chris, it is left up to Bourdain’s friends and associates in restaurant kitchens and the television world to fill in the blanks, supplemented by copious amounts of footage of Bourdain both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. One imagines it was cathartic for the people who sat down with Neville to talk about their friend, but actual insight is rare. We learn he could be cruel – one friend is brought to tears recalling how Bourdain once told him that he didn’t think his pal was capable of being a good father. (“Projecting,” the friend concludes.) In a moment captured late in his life, we learn how geeky Bourdain could be in a cringe-worthy moment where he prattles endlessly about Argento’s car parking prowess.

But for all the footage of Bourdain on screen, it is his voice that is truly missing. (So missing, in fact, that Neville made the ethically dubious decision to digitally fake Bourdain’s voice in a couple of scenes.) Even with the behind-the-scenes footage and home movie excerpts, what we’re privy to is a public persona. What he chose to reveal of himself in his writing and public appearances was carefully curated. Neville has set for himself an impossible task in seeking answers that went with Bourdain to his grave. We get prismatic glimpses of the man through the offered recollections, but the portrait remains incomplete. The filmmaker never gets as close to his subject as he did to, say, Fred Rogers.

Why did Bourdain’s marriages fail? Why did a man who embraced middle-aged fatherhood still spend 250 days every year on the road and away from the daughter he adored? Why did the man who was open and eager to experiencing everything life had to offer end that life so abruptly? Bourdain who seemed so knowable in life is unknowable in death – at least, in this documentary. The suicide that punctuates the doc remains as shocking as it was when it happened three years ago. But with that shock comes the realization that Bourdain deserves a better coda than this, one that doesn’t feel so hollow or so muck like gawking at the sight of a terrible car wreck. – Pam Grady

F9: Stuff blows up when it is brother versus brother

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Movies in the Fast & Furious franchise really ought to come with a warning. Not about the extravagant violence and sky-high body counts, but about the sheer idiocy that defines these movies. Oh, they are entertaining and frequently hilarious in their doltish way but watching them is a good way to kill off brain cells. F9, the dumbest entry in moviedom’s dumbest franchise, will murder many.

Like Michael Corleone once lamented, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” so it is with Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel). Living in exile on an isolated farm with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and his young son, Little Brian (yes, “Little” Brian – as if anyone would mistake a small child for the late Paul Walker after whose character he’s named), he has put his old life behind him. At least, until Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges), and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) show up to enlist Dom and Letty into a new caper with the fate of the world in balance. Those snobs at MI6 or IMF have got nothing on these gearheads charged with recovering a device that could alter the world order – and with putting to right Dom Toretto’s world.

The first hint that something biblical is on the menu happens when Dom is still on the farm, putting Little Brian to bed, telling the boy that God lives in his heart. Then he says, “I live in your heart.” Does this mean Dom is God? In his own mind, certainly. But the theme continues when it turns out that the nemesis he must vanquish this time out is his own brother Jakob (once and future WWE fighter John Cena). The Cain-and-Abel vibe is unmistakable, sibling rivalry turned into sibling warfare (and often sibling hand-to-hand combat, that is when they aren’t trying to outdrive each other). Flashbacks reveal the heart of the beef between these warring brothers with daddy issues.

The Dom and Jakob reunion is not the only one in F9, as this is a film that assembles as much of the crew as possible, both friends – including Dom and Jakob’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), Han (Sung Kang), and Sean (Lucas Black) – and Dom’s foe Cipher (Charlize Theron, slumming to the point where the Academy might want its Oscar back). Even Deckard Shaw’s (Jason Statham) thieving mum, Queenie, shows up, Helen Mirren adding a touch of regal class to this live-action cartoon. (To catch sight of Statham, stay for the end credits.) F9 is not the end of the franchise, but if it had finished here, it would have been given a proper burial.

Instead, the will soldier on, despite the fact that there are really only so many ways you can crash cars and director Justin Lin and the writers are clearly beginning to run out of ideas on that score. The non-driving Ramsey learns on the fly, steering a big box truck down the narrow streets of Edinburgh, Scotland, the vehicle equipped with high power magnets, so that the chase becomes one of high-powered, explosive bumper cars. So far, so funny, but then the magnet gag keeps getting repeated. And, sure, that helps pad out the running time, but it loses steam through rote repetition. A more inspired (and lunatic) bit plants Roman and Tej in a rocket-equipped car – and, well, cue the Space X jokes.

F9 left me yearning for the return of SCTV and Joe Flaherty and the late John Candy’s “Farm Report” where a pair of cinephile farmers acted as the rural answer to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. They would have cut to the chase and distilled F9 to its very essence: “Stuff blowed up real good.” Yes, yes, it did. –Pam Grady

Grief, guilt, and revenge animate resonant RIDERS OF JUSTICE

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A soldier returns from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan after his wife’s death in a train accident and turns into a merciless avenger when he becomes convinced that his spouse was actually collateral damage in a vicious conspiracy. That Death Wish trope activates the plot in this Danish drama that reunites filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen with frequent collaborators Mads Mikkelsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas, but things are never that simple-minded with Jensen. Instead of a revenge thriller, Riders of Justice is a violent, sometimes darkly funny but also surprising and warm observation of people grappling with grief, guilt, and the human impulse to make sense out of the incomprehensible.

A young girl’s wish for a blue bicycle for Christmas is what sets the film in motion. She has nothing to do with anyone else in the film. She doesn’t even live in Denmark, but her stated desire is the first link in a chain reaction that explodes into madness. Markus (Mikkelsen) adds another link with his decision to stay at his military post rather than return home for a visit with his family. Data scientist Otto (Kaas) forms one more link as a survivor of the train accident. But perhaps the most important link is the member of the Riders of Justice motorcycle gang who left his wheels home and took the train on that fateful afternoon.

While Markus and Otto are convinced that somehow the motorcycle gang is responsible for what the authorities deem an accident, they are each, in their own way grappling with guilt that implicates them in the event. Markus’ wife and daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg) would not have been on the train had he come home. Otto has survivor’s guilt and not only for this one event.

Together, they are a mess. Otto at least has a support system in fumbling colleagues Lennart (Lars Brygmann) and Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro). They rally around Markus and Mathilde, too, but Markus is too much inside his own head to accept emotional support or to give it. He is useless to Mathilde, unable to offer the solace she desperately needs.

There are many pleasures in Riders of Justice, from the arresting performances of Mikkelsen, Kaas, and the rest of the cast to Jensen’s nuanced, complex screenplay to the chaos unleashed on the bikers by Markus and his oddball band of science geek brothers.

But what is most entrancing is watching Markus, Mathilde, Otto and his colleagues, and others drawn into their orbit slowly come together for far more emotionally resonant reasons than simple vengeance and seeing Markus – a man apparently dead inside long before he lost his wife – gradually return to the land of the living.

Riders of Justice is a rare film. Movies with this much brutal action are not supposed to leave audiences feeling warm and fuzzy about humanity. With the aid of his wonderful ensemble, especially Mikkelsen, in this latest work, Jensen manages exactly that. –Pam Grady

Riders of Justice is playing in theaters.