By Lynn Venhaus

If you didn’t know it really happened, “Ordinary Angels” is the type of schmaltzy movie aiming straight for the heart that some would scoff at, yet even though cynics will pick it apart, people seeking an uplifting jolt will be touched by the selfless acts of human kindness.

Inspired by the true story of Kentucky hairdresser Sharon Stevens (Hilary Swank) who single-handedly rallied an entire community to help a widowed father Edward Schmitt Jr. (Alan Ritchson) save the life of his critically ill young daughter Michelle (Emily Mitchell), who needed a liver transplant.

Those who need their faith in humanity restored can find plenty to respond to in this tearjerking drama, from the heartfelt performances to the duplication of a harrowing effort by a community responding to a life-or-death situation that really took place in Louisville, Kentucky, during an historic snowstorm when 17 inches fell on Jan. 17, 1994.

Two-time Oscar winner Swank plays a hot mess of a hairstylist who decides to help a widowed father and his two daughters after she reads a newspaper article detailing the youngest’s battle with an incurable liver disease. As brassy as she is, Sharon finds purpose in this mission and gets things done.

You know the adage, “People come into your life for a season or a reason,” well this is that moment. Thirty years ago, in one of Kentucky’s worst blizzards, a life was saved by people going the extra mile, coming together, and making things happen against impossible odds.

Alan Ritchson as Ed and Emily Mitchell as Michelle in Ordinary Angels. Photo Credit: Allen Fraser

Not that life was easy for the Schmitts under any circumstance. Think: The Book of Job. Or Stevens, for that matter.

The film is set mostly in 1993. Ed’s beloved Theresa (Amy Acker) has died of a congenital liver disease, biliary atresia, which their daughters have, Ashley (who received a transplant in 1991, which the film leaves out), and Michelle, who is in desperate need of a transplant, as medical bills mount, and her condition worsens. The film is at its best when focusing on the not-enough time and money scenario.

And then the cavalry arrives when Stevens becomes their lifeline, starting a fundraiser and then crusading for financial breaks, corporate donations and helping Ed find more work as a roofer.

 It is one of these incredulous examples of divine intervention. The film, in partnership with Kingdom Story Company, a faith-based operation responsible for Kurt Warner’s story “American Underdog,” isn’t preachy, in case you were wondering, or pandering. The filmmakers display earnest intentions, and it’s a terrific public service announcement for organ donors.

Stevens is fictitiously written as an alcoholic with an estranged grown son, and Swank sympathetically shows a tormented woman masking her pain by throwing herself into the role of miracle worker. She leans in as this sassy, saucy do-gooder who won’t take no for an answer, but her undivided attention and tenacity help a grieving family in need.

This is the kind of role Swank excels at, transforming into a force of nature. It’s inspiring to watch this flawed woman’s journey as she makes a difference, called to action (my sister refers to these ‘Godwinks’ as ‘Angels with skin on”), and restores her faith – and those around her.  

Hilary Swank as Sharon in Ordinary Angels. Photo Credit: Allen Fraser

Ritchson, who has played a wide array of tough action heroes, from Aquaman on “Smallville” and Raphael in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie reboots to Lee Child’s retired military police officer Jack Reacher on the current Amazon Prime Video TV series, is good at depicting the strong, silent type who’s hiding his pain. He’s overwhelmed by grief, medical bills and a nagging feeling he isn’t doing enough for his family.

The conflict here – because of course we need one – is that Ed resents Sharon swooping in and helping his family when he thinks he should be the superhero. He’s wary of her pushiness and questions her motives. But as he pushes back, she pushes forward. His mom Barbara (Nancy Travis), helping with the girls, considers her a gift, and so do the kids.

The young actresses playing Ashley (Skywalker Hughes) and Michelle (Emily Mitchell) couldn’t be cuter, and the situation resonates easily (and not in a manipulative way – but have tissues nearby).

Director Jon Gunn’s filming of the race-against-the-clock sequence to get to an Omaha hospital for Michelle’s liver transplant is truly remarkable when empathy and mutual aid are tested by nature’s harsh elements. Cinematographer Maya Bankovic intensely captures the raging blizzard and editor Parker Adams’ work ramps up the tension.

Co-screenwriters Meg Tilly, the actress now retired, and Kelly Fremon Craig, who wrote and directed “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” highlight the transformative power of human connection and what happens when people collectively meet a moment.

If a film celebrating community and kindness doesn’t elicit some joy during this dreary winter, then we, as a people, are in a truly sad place. We need every opportunity to see how people can respond to others in need with extraordinary compassion and resourcefulness. “Ordinary Angels” is a welcome beacon of hope in these difficult divisive modern times.

Hilary Swank as Sharon and Alan Ritchson as Ed in Ordinary Angels. Photo Credit: Allen Fraser

“Ordinary Angels” is a 2024 drama based on a true story, directed by Jon Gunn and starring Hilary Swank, Alan Ritchson, Nancy Travis, Tamala Jones, Emily Mitchell and Skywalker Hughes. It is rated PG for thematic content, brief bloody images and smoking and the run time is 1 hour, 56 minutes. The film opens in theaters Feb. 23. Lynn’s Grade: B.

By Lynn Venhaus
The turbo-charged “Fast X,” aka “Fast Ten,” the latest entry of the 22-year-old “Fast and Furious” saga, continues to defy logic and physics in a dizzying grandiose globe-trotting revenge tale.

A gimmicky gearhead grind, no. 10 features a sprawling star-studded cast racing from one continent to the next between massive explosions, shoot-outs, fisticuffs, and an enormous cavalcade of car crashes all staged to show off high-tech weaponry, fast-paced fight choreography and sensational stunts.

As usual, the muscular hero Dom Toretto has a price to pay for antagonizing his foes, but his list of friends and enemies certainly has grown over the years. We pick up with doting dad Dom teaching his 8-year-old son Brian (Leo Abelo Perry) his own set of rules on the road while his wife Lettie (Michelle Rodriguez) is helping Grandma (Rita Moreno) cook the family dinner, a time-honored ritual.

The gang’s all there – the bickering yet bonded core group of Dom’s team: Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), mechanic Tej Parker (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), and Han Lue (Sung Kang).

In recent films, their certain set of skills have been in demand by an international government operation called “The Agency.” But even those seemingly fortresses of good can be infiltrated by evildoers, especially this chapter’s megalomaniac villain Dante (Jason Momoa).

He’s the vengeful son of drug kingpin Hernan Reyes, who was killed in “Fast Five,” and now comes calling with heavy artillery, having spent the last 12 years planning his retaliation.

Jason Momoa is Dante in FAST X, directed by Louis Leterrier

The hulking beefcake Momoa, best known as the DC superhero Aquaman, has a blast going over-the-top as a flamboyant, preening sociopath seeking vengeance. Part Cesar Romero’s Joker, part Jim Carrey’s Riddler, and all peacock-strutting and rooster-crowing swagger, Momoa ups the ante as a sadistic dominating presence. (His character is hastily explained as being institutionalized.)

Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), widow of Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker, who died in 2013, and was in five of the films), and brother Jakob (John Cena) also figure into the plot threads. And a noteworthy sentimental touch: Paul’s daughter Meadow Walker has a cameo as a flight attendant helping Jakob.

Oscar winners Charlize Theron, as cyberterrorist Cipher, Helen Mirren as Shaw’s (Jason Statham) mom, and Brie Larson as Tess, daughter of Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), make brief appearances, and Moreno has one scene.

But even the big-name cast – peppered with stunning cameos (must-see end credits) that the internet has already spoiled – is overshadowed by the mind-numbing number of pileups, combustible engines, bomb detonations, and burning rubber that result in a reckless high body count and ridiculous disregard for the laws of gravity.

That’s not a surprise – it’s always expected in these big, bold and bravura blockbusters. Yet, for those who have been paying attention throughout the soap opera-on-wheels thrill ride sequels, some previous villains are now allies (well, maybe frenemies in a couple cases) and it will be established that former friends betray the good guys. That can get rather head-scratching – but really, thinking is not a requirement here.

Nevertheless, the one constant is that the theme of family remains central to the core. It’s just that the death-defying action becomes a distraction as escaping without harm gets increasingly preposterous.

When this popular franchise began, the personalities carried the minimal plot and maximum action adventures through, but as the scope became bigger, the plots became more convoluted.

I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t seen the last four or five really knowing – or caring – what has happened and what is going on now, as they’ve swelled from streetfighters to save-the-world in land, sky, and sea scenarios.

Dom in Rome

Case in point: A submarine in the South Pole. Before you ponder this, keep in mind the latest cliffhanger ending is an intriguing tease for “Fast X Part 2,” now scheduled for 2025. Apparently, not the end of the road but “the last chapters” with another or two.

This latest excursion through Brazil, Rome, Portugal, London, Los Angeles, and Antarctica is ultimately fan service. Let’s face it – few view these for interesting intricate stories. Now going into their third decade, people want bullets to spray, cars to fly and more pedals to the metal than in the last chapter.

The stories are such a minimal template that I’ve accused them of being written by chimps, but now, after number 10, I’m convinced they are employing AI.

The latest screenwriters – veteran Justin Lin plus newbie Dan Mazeau — touch on previous scenarios for some sense of a plot thread, but it doesn’t make “Fast X” easy to follow. The characters are based on those created by Gary Scott Thompson in 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious.”

Lin, who directed the third through sixth movies (“The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” in 2006, “Fast and Furious” in 2009, “Fast Five” in 2011 and “Fast and Furious 6” in 2013, returned for the ninth (“F9, The Fast Saga” in 2021), but abandoned directing this movie, over ‘creative differences,’ and Louis Leterrier, who made the first two “Transporter” movies, took over. Lin, however, stayed on as a producer and has a screenwriting credit.

The entire canon includes “2 Fast 2 Furious” in 2003, “Furious 7” in 2015, “The Fate of the Furious” in 2017, and then “Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw” in 2019.

What happens next will determine the franchise’s grand finale. But harkening back to the early glory days would be a nice change of pace, for these increasingly ludicrous sequels have spun the original intentions out of control. After all, it’s supposed to be about family.

Vin Diesel as Dom

“Fast X” is a 2023 action thriller directed by Louis Leterrier and starring Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jason Momoa, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham, John Cena, Jordana Brewster, Brie Larson, Helen Mirren, Rita Moreno, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, Nathalie Emmanuel, Ludacris, Scott Eastwood, Alan Ritchson. It is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, action and language, and some suggestive material. and the run time is 2 hours, 21 minutes. It opened in theaters May 19. Lynn’s Grade: C-.