Stella Meghie's The Photograph is an effective romantic drama, and I am recommending it, but at the same time, I have to question her decision to fill her screenplay with so much plot. This is a movie about lovers both in the past and the present, and how they connect with each other. It's also about heartbreak, regrets, a child born from passionate love, and a couple who wonder if they can stay together if their careers take them to different parts of the world.
Did the movie really need all of this, when the main couple at the center of the plot, Michael (LaKeith Stanfield) and Mae (Issa Rae), are charismatic enough to carry a movie without so many soap opera-like situations surrounding their enormous chemistry? They are what make this film work, and there were times when I had to question why they were being buried under such a massive amount of story. Why not just make a simple love story about them coming together? There's a reason why some of my favorite romantic films have been Richard Linklater's Before Trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight), which is simply about a couple in different stages of their lives and relationship, and actually follows them as they have conversations. We get to focus on just them, and not the story piling itself upon them.
That being said, I am still recommending this, because there is a lot of heart and great performances to it. Things kick off when Michael, a New York reporter, travels to Louisiana to interview Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan), who used to know a photographer named Christina (Chanté Adams) before she was famous. Michael's been assigned to write an article on her, and wants to know about her past. Turns out Isaac used to be in deeply in love with her back in 1984 as a young man (Y'lan Noel), but she left him in order to pursue her career in photography in New York. He never forgot her, and her pictures from their time together still line the walls of his home. When Michael returns to New York, he decides to dig further, and tracks down Christina's adult daughter, Mae, who works at a museum in Queens that will be hosting a gallery of her mom's work after she recently passed away from a battle with cancer. There's an instant connection between the two, and when they have dinner together during their second meeting, we can tell that Michael is interested in much more than finding out about her mother when it comes to Mae.
This sets about the film's main plot, as we follow the early stages of Michael and Mae's relationship. There is a lot of hesitation. He recently got his heart broken by his previous girlfriend, and she is career-minded. There's also the issue of Michael possibly moving on to work at a different publication in London, and all the difficulties that a long-distance relationship provides. The movie also periodically cuts to a parallel plot that shows Isaac and Christina's relationship nearly 40 years ago, the trials that they faced, and ultimately how and why Christina decided to choose her career over love. Naturally, both plots will eventually intersect in a very soap opera manner, mostly due to letters that Christina left for her daughter to read after she died. I never exactly felt lost by the film's continuous time jumping narrative, but it does seem incredibly busy for what is essentially a simple romantic story.
To its credit, The Photograph does handle the multiple plots and characters pretty well. Like I said, I never felt confused. I just was enjoying the scenes between Stanfield and Rae as the modern day lovers so much, I wanted to get lost more in their scenes together, instead of having the movie distracting me with so many revelations. What is here does work quite well. Both of the main couples the film focuses on in the different timelines are likable, and there is obvious romantic and personal chemistry between the actors. And despite the film's PG-13 rating, this still feels like an adult love story that hasn't been watered down in order to draw in younger viewers. It never feels like the film has been compromised in any way.
So, there is a lot to like here, and I can definitely see it finding an audience. I wish it all the best. I just wanted to spend a little more time with the lovers, and a little less being pulled across time and the script adding more complications. Stella Meghie shows a real talent for writing adult characters here, and I can hope that with her next project she trusts in her characters enough to just let them be themselves, instead of throwing so much plot at us.
Producer Jason Blum has made a name for himself by churning out low budget films that generally can turn a huge profit in a single weekend. He mostly sticks to the horror and thriller genre, such as The Purge and Paranormal Activity movies, but he does occasionally venture outside his comfort zone. (He was behind that unspeakable Jem and the Holograms movie we got a few years ago.) He's not exactly keen on quality, but he does occasionally strike gold, such as when he backed the Oscar-winning Get Out. And then there are the times when he comes up completely short, and I can't remember a time that can possibly compare to this big screen take on Fantasy Island.
The idea behind this film is to reboot the old TV show that ran during the 70s and early 80s as a schlocky horror film filled with zombies and people who have black ooze pouring out of their eyes. As I type that sentence, I have to wonder, how did this project even sound appealing in the first place? The original series featured Ricardo Montalban as the mysterious Mr. Roarke, who would welcome guests to his island (the guests were usually played by celebrities at the end of their careers), and would offer their wildest dreams to become reality. The whole premise of the show was a "be careful what you wish for" concept, and was usually as corny as you might expect. In updating the material, director Jeff Wadlow (2018's Truth or Dare, another Jason Blum-produced misfire) tries to give it the edge of a supernatural thriller, only he forgets to give it any thrills, frights, or reason for the audience to be involved in the first place.
The role of Mr. Roarke is filled here by Michael Peña, who seems as lost and confused here as he did the last time he appeared in a horrible movie reboot of an old TV show, 2017's miserable CHIPs. If I were him, I would just start rejecting any and all scripts that cross my desk that are inspired by television. As the film opens, he welcomes five new guests who have won a trip to his luxury resort of forbidden fantasies via a contest, and all arrive at once. All the guests have some kind of secret desire, which they will get the chance to experience due to a mysterious supernatural force that runs throughout Roarke's island. The guests include the timid Elena (Maggie Q), who rejected a marriage proposal from the man she loved years ago because she felt she didn't deserve happiness, a pair of "bros" named Bradley (Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) who want "the good life" of wealth and non-stop parties, a cop named Patrick (Austin Stowell) who longs to be a soldier so he can fight alongside his military father who died when he was young, and a young woman named Melanie (Lucy Hale) who can't get over her past of being bullied in high school, and wants revenge on the mean girl Sloane (Portia Doubleday) who tormented her.
Before they know it, all of them find themselves living their fantasies. Elena gets to say yes to the proposal, and see how her life would turn out, Bradley and Brax get a mansion home filled with party models, Patrick finds himself in the jungle fighting alongside his father, and Melanie is issued a torture porn dungeon with Sloane strapped to a chair, along with an array of tools for which to extract her revenge. Naturally, these fantasies all have to go wrong in some way, and lessons must be learned. However, the way this movie handles everything is borderline inept. Not only is this movie not the slightest bit scary at any moment, but it also just comes across as being very convoluted and crass, especially when we get the obligatory third act twist. If the movie is horrible as a thriller, it's even worse when it tries to be a comedy and poke fun at itself, as not a single joke lands. It doesn't help that not one character in this movie is likable or even interesting.
Fantasy Island is lazy and incoherent for most of its running time, and then just becomes a flat-out mess when it tries to tie the stories of the different guests together. The whole thing reads like a first draft that was pushed before the cameras in order to meet a rushed deadline, which it probably was. I understand that Blum's production company likes to make films on the cheap, but there's simply no excuse for what's on display here. Even a low budget production company must have known that this script was not ready to shoot, and that it barely made a lick of sense. There is just such a total lack of effort here that it seems almost criminal that a major studio like Columbia Pictures is asking audiences to pay money to watch it.
After the most recent remake of Black Christmas from a couple months ago and now this, I have to wonder if Jason Blum even stops and looks at the projects he greenlights. His studio's take on The Invisible Man is due in a couple weeks. I'm trying my best to remain optimistic, but when a production company puts out an effort like this, it's hard not to be skeptical.
If you have seen 2014's devilish black comedy from Sweden, Force Majeure, then there is not really a reason to see the new Hollywood remake, Downhill. Sure, this new film gives us some fine performances from Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but the whole thing has been watered down to an almost American sitcom level. It's not offensive or bad in any way, but it's also not very memorable. It simply feels limp, when you know that the two stars in front of the camera, as well as the directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (they wrote The Descendants), are capable of so much more than this.
If you haven't seen the earlier movie that this is inspired by, you probably won't get what the big deal is, or why the original is so lauded. All the better reason to stay home and track down the other film, I'd say. There's just an air of emptiness here. It's trying to tell an emotional story, and you can see how it can be one. That's why the 2014 film worked so well. It fully embraced its premise in ways that this one does not. Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus play married couple Pete and Billie, respectively. They've brought their two young boys (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford) along on an Austrian ski vacation that is supposed to bring about a lot of family bonding, though it's clear from the outset that things between the couple are hanging by a thread. Pete barely seems there for his family, choosing to constantly check his phone for messages from a co-worker. Billie also has to wonder why her husband chose to stay at a luxury resort that does not really cater to, or have any activities for the kids to do, other than stay in their room and watch movies on their tablet most of the day.
On the second day of their vacation, as the family sits on an outdoor terrace to enjoy lunch, an incident occurs when a controlled avalanche that does not look like it's very well-controlled suddenly barrels down toward them. Billie protects her frightened children, while Pete grabs his phone, and makes a run for it, leaving everyone else behind. When the snow clears and everyone is unharmed, Pete comes casually walking back, acting like nothing happened. But Billie has been shaken by it, not just physically (her hands shake uncontrollably as she puts them over her mouth to catch her breath), but also emotionally over how her husband just up and left them behind. What if it had been a real avalanche, and not a controlled one created by the resort? The two don't speak about the incident for a while, but when it finally does all come out while they are entertaining two of Pete's friends, Billie cannot hold back her disgust over his actions.
One of the best scenes in Downhill is the one where Billie finally opens up and lets her husband have a piece of her mind. Not only is it some of the best acting that I've seen Julia Louis-Dreyfus give, but it matches the bite and the passion of the source material. One of the key mistakes this remake makes I think is in the casting of Ferrell as the husband, and it's not because he's bad here, or has no chemistry with his co-star. It's that he plays the character kind of soft. He's more or less coming across as the lovable doofus that he's played in so many films. This is the wrong approach, as the character comes across as kind of a wimp. When he goes out and gets drunk out of anger, it comes across like one of his goofier performances. We don't sense the anger that we're supposed to from the scene, or from the performance. Ferrell is simply too likable here, and plays it too safe.
However, I have a hunch that this is what the filmmakers were going for. They wanted to lighten the material, and not make it quite so heavy as it was before. This creates a conflicting tone. This is supposed to be a movie about a couple who face some hard truths about each other, and it never quite builds to the level of anger that we want it to. Even those who have never seen the earlier film will sense a kind of deflated air here. It doesn't exactly feel lifeless, as like I said, the lead actors are giving it their all here. It just feels like they're being held back. There are moments here where the movie comes to life, but then it will go back to the safe and somewhat bland approach. It also doesn't help that the movie is only 85 minutes, and feels like it ends when it should be continuing to build steam.
Downhill is not unwatchable, and there are a couple laughs, but it really can't help but feel like a pale shadow in comparison to the much bolder vision of the original. That film was filled with passion and really made you feel something. This, despite everything, feels like a tiny little spat that never amounts to much, and leaves you wondering if the couple at the center of it all had much life in their relationship to start with.
It will probably come as no surprise when I tell you that Sonic the Hedgehog is not a great movie, but what may be surprising is that it's better than you are probably expecting. It's bright, has some decent laughs, and is honestly a lot of fun. First-time director Jeff Fowler, and screenwriters Patrick Casey and Josh Miller, have given us probably the best movie based on the video games we could have asked for.
I don't see anything here that should be upsetting to long-time fans of the character, though if I must be honest, I haven't followed Sonic since his days on the Sega Genesis back in the 90s, so I'm not exactly up on my lore. That being said, the movie more or less serves as an origin story for the little blue guy, who is brought to life with CG animation (which is pretty good, and much better than the early designs that were featured in the first trailer that created such a fan backlash, the movie had to be delayed in order to redesign him) and is voiced by Ben Schwartz. We learn that Sonic originally hails from an alien world, where evil forces are trying to kidnap him in order to obtain and corrupt the power of speed that he holds. His wise mentor, an owl by the name of Longclaw (voice by Donna Jay Fulks), warps Sonic to another world where he will hopefully be safe with the aid of a magic ring. Naturally, the planet he ends up on is Earth.
On our world, Sonic takes to a small town in Montana called Green Hills, where he stays out of sight of people, and spends most of his time soaking up youth culture like Little League Baseball, action movies and comic books. (His superhero of choice is The Flash, of course.) He also learns about human ways by quietly observing different people at a distance. His favorite humans are a local cop named Tom (James Marsden) and his veterinarian wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter), who come across as a warm and likable couple. Tom is eager to leave small town life behind, and become a street cop in San Francisco so that he can have some excitement in his life. He soon gets all the excitement he could ask for when the little alien hedgehog is forced to reveal himself to Tom, and the two will have to embark on a road trip/buddy comedy adventure together.
This happens because Sonic's latent powers went out of control one night, and caused a massive power outage across part of the nation. This alerts the government, and fearing that it might be the work of terrorists, they send the eccentric robotics scientist, Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey), to find the source of the mysterious energy wave that caused the mass blackout. As the evil Robotnik discovers the existence of Sonic and becomes obsessed with capturing and dissecting him, it's not hard to conclude that the antagonistic relationship between the Hedgehog and the mad scientist is inspired by that of the Coyote and the Road Runner from the old cartoons. Marsden's Tom gets caught in the middle of it all, trying to help Sonic retrieve his warp rings so that he can send himself to a different, safer planet. There's nothing really new here, but what is here is done with wit and a little more heart than you might anticipate.
A movie like Sonic the Hedgehog passes or fails almost solely on the special effects, and whether or not we believe them, and are convinced that the human actors are interacting with the CG character. In my eyes at least, it passes. Marsden has to spend probably 90% of his screentime talking to something that wasn't there on the set, and he sells it. He manages to create a bond of sorts with his animal co-star. Credit also has to go to voice actor Ben Schwartz, who makes Sonic into a fast-talking wise guy, but not to the point that he grows tiresome. There's an innocence and sweetness that he brings to the character, especially when he begins to realize how lonely he is on Earth, and creates a Bucket List of things he would like to do before he leaves our planet. (They include "Get in a bar fight", and "Make a friend".) Thanks to the performances of both actors, and the effects work used to bring the titular star to life, it creates a convincing illusion.
Meanwhile, as the villain Robotnik, Carrey is more or less off doing his own thing, and basically trying to give the kind of manic comedic performance that made him one of the biggest stars in Hollywood some 30 years ago. With his bizarre mannerisms and twirly mustache, he's off-kilter enough to be seen as a threat, but still goofy enough that he won't scare the youngest kids in the audience. It's obvious that the filmmakers basically let him rewrite his scenes however he saw fit, and while it doesn't quite live up to his classic comic performances, it is probably the strongest work he's done in a while. I say if it gets the attention of kids, and has them seek out some of his earlier films, it's worth it.
Let's face it, expectations were not exactly high here, especially given Hollywood's track record of bringing video games to the big screen. But, I was actually surprised by how much I found myself enjoying this. It does everything a Sonic the Hedgehog movie should do, and because it does, I'm sure we'll be getting the sequel that the ending hints at. As long as it's as pleasantly surprising as this, I'm all in.
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
As I sit here writing this, Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is sitting on a critical score of 83% over at Rotten Tomatoes. The audience score is even higher at 87. This completely boggles my mind. Did my fellow critics and audiences watch the same movie I did? But, as I look closer at the reviews that are labeled as being positive, I see a lack of enthusiasm. One positive review even cites it as being "Aggressively OK". Not exactly a ringing endorsement that.
I'm willing to admit that this movie was not for me. In fact, I'm very proud of that fact. This movie got under my skin pretty much from the word "go", and only burrowed itself further as it went on to the point that I just wanted the thing to end. As a film, it tries to be a cross between a manic comedy, a sensory overload, and a female empowerment story that tries to tell us that women can be psychotic killers too. Um...Yay? Your enjoyment of this will pretty much hinge entirely on the lead performance of Margot Robbie, who dominates nearly every second of this movie. She plays Harley Quinn, a villain and sometimes antihero who has been popular with fans in the D.C. Comics for almost 30 years. I will be blunt here, and say that her performance had the effect of nails on a chalkboard to me. She plays the character as kind of a cross between a manic pixie fangirl, and a bad impression of a Looney Tune character. Toss in an unspeakable attempt at a New York accent, and you have a portrayal that I wanted to scrape right off the screen, and replace with another actress in about five minutes.
This is not Robbie's first attempt at playing the character, as she previously played her in 2016's Suicide Squad film. Surprisingly, I don't remember her bothering me that much in that one, but maybe it's because that movie didn't constantly throw her in my face and try to force me to love her and all her psychotic quirkiness like this movie does. A little Harley goes a long way, and at least to me, this movie felt like overkill. This also is not really a follow up to that earlier movie. It's all about how Harley got her heart broken by her former boyfriend and partner in crime, the Joker, or "Mr. J" as she affectionately calls him. And no, we don't get to see the Joker in this movie, though he's talked about an awful lot. On her own for the first time, Harley is trying to make a name for herself in the crime world. This doesn't work out very well for her, as it seems every criminal in Gotham City now wants her dead, because she doesn't have the Joker to protect her anymore. She's pissed off a lot of her fellow killers and crime bosses over the years, and it seems everyone has a grudge against her.
This is a potentially funny idea, but the film never takes advantage of it, and instead uses it for a lot of scenes where faceless goons are introduced to us, and then beaten up or killed by Harley. There's a scene where Harley is walking down the street, and everywhere she turns, someone is trying to kill her. Again, funny idea, but it doesn't work. It's not for lack of energy. Energy is certainly not this movie's problem. If anything, this movie is so overproduced that it feels like the story is roaring by in a blur. Not that there's much plot to latch onto. It concerns one of the major Gotham City crime bosses named Roman Sionis (Ewen McGregor), who sometimes goes by the name of Black Mask. As far as I can tell, he only calls himself this because he happens to wear a Black Mask over his face for no apparent reason during the film's climax. Roman essentially wants to kill Harley like everybody else, but first, he needs her help in retrieving a valuable diamond that was stolen from him.
If you want to know how Birds of Prey frequently emphasizes style over any kind of substance, then the scene where McGregor gives her this mission is a prime example. He tells Harley that he wants the diamond back, and suddenly and for no reason I can decipher, the movie abruptly cuts to a fantasy musical sequence where Harley is done up like Marilyn Monroe, and singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend". This goes on for about two minutes, then it jaringly stops, and we're back at the scene we were just in. Why, exactly? Obviously because the filmmakers thought it would be funny to slip in a musical sequence. Not a funny musical sequence exactly, just a musical number. We're supposed to laugh because Harley is suddenly singing. This is one of those movies where people frequently act quirky and silly, and we're supposed to laugh. A real movie would actually give these characters funny things to say or do.
Turns out the theft of the diamond was performed by a teenage pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (likable newcomer Ella Jay Basco). Harley tracks the kid down, and creates a kind of friendship with her. At least that's what the movie tells us. It often feels like most of the substantial screen time the two actresses shared in this movie was left on the cutting room floor. So, Harley wants to protect the kid from Roman's goons. To do this, she teams up with the titular Birds of Prey, a trio of female heroes who include Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a tough cop who talks in 80s cop show cliches (this is not a critical observation, by the way, the movie flat out tells us this), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a woman skilled in martial arts and has a singing voice that can actually shoot out sound waves that can knock bad guys over, and The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a vigilante who is bumping off some of Gotham City's worst criminals with her deadly crossbow. If you've come to see these characters, you will be disappointed. They appear only sporadically throughout the movie, and don't actually team up until the final 15 minutes. They don't get to interact much, and we only get to see them as an actual superhero team for about five seconds in the film's final moments
Again, this movie is all about Harley Quinn, and just how kooky and crazy she is. She keeps a hyena in her apartment for a pet, she has a gun that shoots beanbags and glitter bombs, and she likes to dress in flashy and loud clothes that would only be acceptable to wear at a comic fan convention. The problem is, the movie constantly slams the character and her offbeat traits in our face. I felt like the movie was constantly screaming at me to laugh. "Isn't she weird? Isn't she goofy? Don't you just love her nonconformist ways?" Now Robbie is an incredibly talented actress who I have greatly admired in many films. But here, she's not really given much of a character to play. She's just all energy and all zaniness with nothing to latch onto. Like I said, the relationship that she's supposed to build with young Cassandra feels truncated and incomplete, and she barely gets to create any chemistry with the Birds of Prey, because they're unsuccessfully shoehorned into the climax. This movie basically asks Robbie's Harley to carry the entire movie from start to finish, and given how quickly the performance and the character itself grated on my every last nerve, you can guess how this became an endurance test for me to sit through.
I will be honest, reader, there were moments where I wanted to bolt for the door. Birds of Prey is not so much a movie as it is an excuse for fans of the Harley Quinn character to gather and get together. If this is you, go and enjoy. I won't stop you. If you enjoyed this movie, more power to you. I'm glad you had fun, because that's what most movies are for. You and I don't see eye-to-eye, and that's okay. But if I must be honest, this was one of the more torturous films I've come across in a while. I would sit down and listen to an entire duet album put out by Gilbert Gottfried and Bobcat Goldthwait before I would sit through this again.
A Note to My Readers: No Review of Gretel and Hansel This Weekend
So, I was planning to see and review the new horror fantasy Gretel and Hansel today, but unfortunately, my weekend plans have worked against me, and I will not be able to see it. I apologize if this disappoints anyone, but I will not have time to give it a proper review.
I hope everyone has a great weekend, and I will be back next week with a review of Birds of Prey. I will see all of you then.
I am a rabid movie fan since 1984 who calls them as he sees them. Sometimes harsh, but always honest, I offer my 'reel opinions' on today's films. I don't get money for my reviews, and I have to pay to get into every movie I see (even the really awful ones), so what you will see here is the true reaction of a man who is passionate about film. - Ryan Cullen