Reel Opinions

Friday, April 29, 2022


An English language remake of the Belgian thriller The Alzheimer Case, and the second action thriller this year to headline Liam Neeson, Memory is easily much better than the one he appeared in back in February (That would be Blacklight.), but does little to stand out beyond our expectations.  Still, it's getting a bit depressing to see a powerful actor like Neeson appear in these kind of movies non-stop.  I'm sure they pay the bills, but you know there have to be better scripts out there for a man of his talents. 

Once again, we find him in the role of a highly trained man who uses his skills to take out anyone who stands in his way.  The twists this time is that he is a killer for hire, and that he is slowly suffering from Alzheimer's. (Or not so slowly, seeing as he descends quite rapidly during the film's two hours.) His Alex Lewis is the best in the assassination business, and business is good, with his services in demand from criminals all over.  However, Alex knows he's not as sharp as he once was, and wants out.  Of course, first he has to do one more job.  He must take out two people, and while the first is no problem, the second turns out to be a child (Mia Sanchez), and that goes against his personal policy of not harming children.  This makes him a target, as he is hunted down by his former employer, criminals, cops, and the FBI, headed by agent Vincent Serra (Guy Pierce).  

Regardless of so many people being after him, and his fading competency from his disease, Alex decides to go gunning after the one who sent him on the hit, a powerful businesswoman named Davana Sealman (Monica Bellucci), who has a lot of lawmen in her pocket, and a clean record so lawyers are afraid to go after her with suits.  He has to stay one step ahead of the numerous people pursuing him for one reason or another, which obviously is not easy in his current state.  I can see how this could make for an interesting angle, and perhaps lead to some dramatic or powerful scenes where Alex is forced to face his past deeds, and while the screenplay by Dario Scardapane hints at these elements, it never fully embraces them, and instead follows the more routine route of chase scenes and bloody shootouts.

Director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) stages some good sequences here, and the angle of the film's antihero being a killer with deteriorating mental capacity is an interesting one, but it surprisingly never builds to anything all that worthwhile.  This is one of those movies that is certainly watchable, and maybe a bit better than you expect walking in, but still never amounts to much.  We've had some excellent action movies the past month or so with The Batman, Everything Everywhere All at Once, and The Northman, so simply being watchable isn't good enough with that kind of stiff competition.  Compared to the bar those films have set, this seems quite dated, even with a Hard-R rating attached.

Seeing Liam Neeson kicking ass just isn't the thrill it used to be, and Memory does little to set itself apart from the many other times he's done it since Taken hit it big.  I suppose there's still an audience who turns out for this, but it must be dwindling by now.


Saturday, April 23, 2022

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Nicolas Cage reportedly turned down the opportunity to star in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (a film in which he plays a caricature of himself) multiple times before finally agreeing.  I can see why he was nervous.  The film is a self-depreciating tribute to his film career, and could have easily gone into the realm of parody.  However, director and co-writer Tom Gormican (who convinced Cage to participate with a personal letter) has also made a fun and free-spirited action comedy that gives Cage his most memorable work in a long time.

This is a movie that remembers a time when Cage was more than a meme, or when he was high on the Hollywood A-List.  It also is well aware of his current career, but it never resorts to mockery.  Cage is depicted here as someone who is falling apart.  The "role of a lifetime" has passed him by, his ex-wife (Sharon Horgan) wrings her hands a lot and hopes he'll get back on his feet, and his teenage daughter (Lily Sheen) barely seems to tolerate him, or his long rants on his favorite movies, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  His agent (Neil Patrick Harris) has found him a million-dollar gig, showing up at the birthday party of a massive fan.  Cage takes the job, but can't help but feel he can't sink any lower, and decides he is going to retire after.

The fan ends up being Javi Guiterrez (Pedro Pascal), and while this is obviously Cage's movie, it is Pascal and his chemistry with Cage that gives the movie its heart.  Javi comes across as a millionaire playboy with hopes of selling his own screenplay, but as the two men spend time together, a connection begins to form.  They bond over Dr. Caligari and Paddington 2, and Javi seems to make Nicolas feel alive for the first time in a while.  The plot kicks in when Cage is approached by a pair of CIA Agents (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz), who tell him that Javi is a notorious arms dealer, and is holding a politician's daughter captive somewhere in his massive estate.  They enlist Cage's help to spy on the man, gain his trust, and ultimately rescue the captive girl.

The big reason why the movie works, as mentioned, is the pairing of Cage and Pascal.  There is a boyish innocence to their friendship, and the screenplay not only does a great job developing it, but also finding the right path of where it needs to end.  And while the movie loses a bit of steam during its action-heavy climax, it is their performances that keep it afloat.  The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent could have easily been a one-joke film, or veered toward the absurd, but there is a kindness to it.  While the plot must ultimately find these two men on opposite sides, there is still this mutual respect that carries through, and it becomes so much more than the rift on Cage's career that I initially thought it would be.

This is not just a frequently funny film, but one with a big heart that carries through the entire piece.  I found myself caring about its central relationship, and I was involved.  Of course, the movie has some fun at Cage's expense, but that is fortunately not the focus.  This is first and foremost a film about a friendship and rediscovering yourself, and that is its strength.  It's also clever how the movie will frequently find Cage talking to a younger version of himself (also Cage, modeled after his character in Wild at Heart), about his career, or whatever is going on.  The film is warm and vibrant, not to mention frequently joyful.  Even when the characters start pointing guns at each other, there's still a certain sweetness to it that I found appealing.

This is a movie that crept up on me, and ended up working much better than I could have imagined  I can definitely see it earning a cult following, and if it introduces some of its audience to the star's wide and diverse career, all the better.  This is not just a satire, or a tribute.  It's one of the sweeter films I've seen in a while.


Friday, April 22, 2022

The Bad Guys

Despite taking inspiration from adult franchises like Ocean's Eleven and the films of Quentin Tarantino, The Bad Guys will mainly appeal to the youngest in the audience.  That's not to say there's nothing worthwhile here, as the animation is beautiful, and there are a few lines that are worthy of a laugh.  But it's also the kind of bright and fast-paced entertainment that's kind of fun while it plays out, but leaves your mind the second it's over. 

Based on a series of children's graphic novels by Aaron Blabey, the titular Bad Guys are a pack of anthropomorphic animal criminals who live in a world of humans, and have long been seen as villains simply because they are often perceived that way in storybooks and popular fiction.  The ringleader of the pack is the sly and cool Mr. Wolf (voice by Sam Rockwell), and he is backed up by the short-tempered safe cracker Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), tech-savvy hacker Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), master of disguise Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), and finally Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos), whose role seems to be to provide the fart jokes that all children films of this sort require.  He also gets an out of the blue musical number midway through, so there's that.

Their latest heist is to steal an award that is going to be given to the city's Good Samaritan, Professor Rupert Marmalade (Richard Ayoade), a guinea pig who lives in a sweeping mansion, but donates everything he can to the poor, needy, and sick children.  When their efforts to nab the award during the ceremony goes bust, the Bad Guys are given a second chance by the newly-elected governor Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz), who perhaps sees something in these criminal animals.  She places them under the guidance of Professor Marmalade, hoping that he can transform them into model citizens.  Naturally, the gang is not happy with this, save for Mr. Wolf, who not only seems to have eyes for Diane, but who realizes he may actually kind of like being a good guy for a change after he inadvertently helps an old lady.

The main thing that stands out about The Bad Guys is its visual style, which seems heavily inspired by comics, with maybe a touch of anime, and has a unique California sun-drenched tone that helps it stand out.  And thanks to the talented celebrity cast, we get some great line readings, and a couple moments that are worth a laugh.  What never quite clicked with me is the world that these characters inhabit.  It's not like Zootopia, where animals are existing with one another.  The population seems to be 98% human, with these few anthropomorphic animals hanging around without any real explanation.  There's also a kind of Sci-Fi element, with a mythical meteorite that contains the ability to grant power that the movie also never bothers to explain, other than it needed something for the surprise villain (who is not at all surprising) to want in order to conquer the world.  

I have no doubt that I could buy all of these concepts in one movie.  Heck, I have believed stranger things than this in the movies.  But because the screenplay credited to Etan Cohen (Holmes & Watson) never quite does the proper world building or explains anything, it comes across as a strange combination of elements that don't quite fit together.  Some of the caper movie parody moments are fun, and the opening dialogue exchange between Mr. Wolf and Mr. Snake in a coffee shop (that seems very much inspired by the conversations in Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs) is fast and witty.  But there are just as many moments that don't hit, because the filmmakers don't seem to quite have a grasp on it, or its audience.

The Bad Guys
is pleasant enough, but I kept on wanting to enjoy it more than I was.  This movie either needed a bit more edge, or to explain its universe a bit better.  If your kids have had their fill of Sonic 2, this will do.  But there's bound to be a better movie coming along as the summer movies kick in.


The Northman

Robert Eggers' The Northman is certain to be one of the more unforgettable movie experiences of 2022.  While mainly known for small, independent thrillers with The Witch and The Lighthouse, Eggers has been granted a healthy budget and a star-filled cast, and has been able to keep his visual story telling expertise.  Filled with incredible sights (and more than a few incredibly brutal ones), this is an experience that must be seen on the largest screen possible.

And while the film's tone is unrelentingly grim and bloody, it is teaming with life, thanks to its performances and a dazzling visual sense that creates some of the best images I've seen in a while.  The story of revenge is nothing new, and probably wasn't new when Shakespeare used this tale to inspire his play, Hamlet.  What Eggers and co-writer, the poet Sjón, have done is give us a memorably uncompromising tale that is expertly told.  Coming across as an ancient legend seen through the eyes of Game of Thrones, the movie is consistently entertaining, dazzling to the senses, and unforgettable in just about every regard.  I go to the movies for a lot of reasons, and one of them is to be transported to another world, time, or place.  The Northman not only does just that, but it's enthralling in a way that many recent action blockbusters wish they could be.

The film opens with its hero, Amleth, as a child (Oscar Novak) and the heir to the King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) and Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).  Aurvandil returns from a long battle-hardened journey, wounded, but grateful to be back in the company of his son, who looks up to him as a noble and trustworthy man.  However, there is little time for Amleth to enjoy the company of his father, as his traitorous uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murders the King before young Amleth's eyes, and takes the Queen as his wife.  The soldiers working under Fjölnir's plot try to kill the kid as well, but he manages to escape, vowing to one day return to save his mother, avenge his father, and murder Fjölnir.  

We catch up with young Amleth 20 years later, and he is now a powerful and muscular man portrayed by the powerful and muscular Alexander Skarsgård.  The movie makes sure we see the work that the actor put into getting into this kind of shape every opportunity by portraying him bare chested (or tastefully and carefully edited nude) whenever possible.  Amleth has become a Viking Warrior, and decides that he is now powerful enough to avenge the wrongs of his uncle years ago.  He hitches a ride on a slave ship, and passes himself off as a quiet slave so that he can get close to Fjölnir and his family, which includes his mother the Queen, and a new son.  But are things as Amleth remembers?  When he has a private encounter with his mother, she tells him a few things about his father that he never knew.  But, with the aid of a fellow slave named Olga (Anya-Taylor Joy), Amleth will not let his mission be deterred.  

The Northman is consistently engaging visually, as it delves frequently into the realm of fantasy, but even the historical elements are richly observed here.  With beautifully muted tones, dark skies, and a climactic battle that looks like it was shot in the very depths of Hell itself, the cinematography and the costumes create such a feeling of a far away place that could exist once long ago, but in a much more lavish way, that it's certain to be remembered come Award Season next year.  But the movie is so much more than just a spectacle.  Its emotion is raw, and its violence is so brutal and uncompromising that it is shocking in the best way possible.  I was never once sickened or repulsed, but found myself drawn in, as the graphic violence is often an important aspect of the story.  It's not just shock value, but an important driving force, both to when Amleth swears vengeance for his father's death, and when Amleth's acts of vengeance start getting the attention of the treacherous Fjölnir.  

Even the performances are at the perfect level for this material, broad and theatrical, but never so over the top that they lose us, or that we start laughing at the material.  Skarsgård essentially has to look chiseled, dirty and pissed off for the entirety of his performance, but he does so in a way that is captivating.  Anya-Taylor Joy (perhaps giving the closest thing this movie has to a subtle performance) has a kind of unearthly beauty to her here, while Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe (as the King's Jester) make the most of their limited screen time here.  It would also be wrong not to point out Nicole Kidman, who gives one of her better performances in a while as Amleth's mother, who may not need saving, as her son eventually realizes.  In the wrong hands, this movie would come across as overwrought and overblown, but Eggers gets the right amount of intensity out of these performances, and the audience buys it completely.

With Everything Everywhere All at Once and now this, we've had two wonderful examples of glorious action films that are not based on comic books, proving that Hollywood can still pull it off.  The two movies obviously could not be any more different, but they both represent hope in true talent that can craft unforgettable images and performances that belong on the big screen.


Saturday, April 16, 2022

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Writers and directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (credited as The Daniels) have crafted a world-bending martial arts comedy with Everything Everywhere All at Once.  It's a film that blends pure action, Sci-Fi, multiple universes, and even a parody of a specific Pixar movie that shall remain nameless for the sake of spoilers into its plot to craft what is ultimately a story about the choices we make, and how it effects not just ourselves, but others.  The film's scope is epic, which is fitting for a movie dealing with multiple universes.  And yet, it's an achingly human and relatable story at its core.

That's because its heroine Evelyn (played wonderfully by Michelle Yeoh) and all of the variations we see of her throughout the movie via alternate timelines is so pure and human.  Whether she is running a struggling family-owned laundromat, a martial arts actress, a rock, or a sympathetic lesbian in a world where everyone have evolved differently when it comes to fingers, the script never loses sight of who Evelyn is, or Yeoh's performance.  She is what anchors the film, and the movie smartly plays upon her acting and physical stunt strength.  This really is the perfect role for her, and one that was initially written for Jackie Chan, until The Daniels decided the main character should be a woman.  It not only serves as a tribute to her talent, but a bit of her career as well.

We first meet Evelyn as a woman with a husband (Ke Huy Quan, who long ago appeared as a child actor in back-to-back Spielberg films, Temple of Doom and The Goonies) and a young adult daughter (Broadway actress Stephanie Hsu) who is trying to keep her laundromat business afloat while it is being audited by the IRS.  She seems trapped in her current life, and apparently so is her husband, who is trying to work up the courage to present her with divorce papers.  All this, and she finds herself caring for her elderly father (James Hong), who never approved of her marriage to her husband in the first place.  While attending a meeting with the IRS agent investigating her taxes (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn's husband is suddenly taken over by someone who looks like him, but claims to be the "Alpha" version of him, who has "universe jumped" into Evelyn's world in order to issue her a warning about a powerful entity that is searching the multiple dimensions and universes for her.

Every choice we make in life splinters and creates an alternate reality.  In one possible scenario, Evelyn never left China for the US with her husband, and met an instructor who trained her in Kung Fu.  In another, she's a famous opera star.  In still another universe, people are animated stick figures.  As Evelyn is dragged into all of these different alternate timelines and universes, she finds herself fighting not just for her own life, but for the lives of her family and their future.  The Evelyn that we meet from the beginning is the least successful of all the Evelyns that exist in different timelines.  And yet, she also might have the most untapped potential within her, and the power to stop an event that could destroy all the multi-verses.  

Everything Everywhere All at Once is about choices and decisions, regrets, healing pain, and finding potential within yourself that you never knew.  It mixes these human themes with world-bending fight scenes, comedic sequences that have been imaginatively inserted, and a consistently confident tone.  As the film explores multiple timelines and universes, it gradually becomes a much smaller and intimate story, and that's part of why it's been so well designed.  Despite how crazy the movie can get, it never loses sight of Evelyn or Yeoh's performance, which keeps everything grounded.  This is an exciting movie that is filled with visuals, ideas, and comic possibilities.  What's more exciting is how the movie chooses to act upon all of this, and seldom if ever misses a beat.

That's part of what makes this one of the great films of the year.  Another is just what a successful balancing act this movie is.  It mixes elements of action, special effects, comedy, and drama so effortlessly, you barely notice it happening while it plays out.  This is a masterfully constructed story that's obviously been carefully laid out so that for all of its universe hopping and parallel timelines, the audience doesn't feel overwhelmed.  This could not have been easy to achieve.  It's always nice to see filmmakers attempt something risky in Hollywood, but it doesn't always work out.  Here, all the pieces have come into place creating a wonderful entertainment.

If you think I may have revealed too much in this review, don't worry, as I've only skimmed the surface of just where this movie goes.  The goal of a movie review is to explain whether the experience a film creates works or not, and here is one that not only deserves to be experienced, but if possible, to go in with as little advance knowledge as possible.  I hope this review will inspire just that.


Friday, April 15, 2022

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore

Should you go to the movies in order to escape the current political climate, stay far away from Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.  It would seem that not even J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World can escape talk of rigged elections, conspiracies, and dirty political deeds.  Sure, we get a couple scenes set at Hogwarts, and snippets of John Williams' Harry Potter theme on the soundtrack, but these callbacks can't save what is largely a dry experience.

After 2018's entry, The Crimes of Grindelwald, failed to make the intended mark with fans, one would think that a course correction would be in order.  However, while there is a bit more fun here than in the previous movie, this is still an overly talky piece that will appeal mainly to the most hardcore followers of Rowling's work.  Like before, she seems to have trouble adapting to writing an original screenplay, as she fills the script with so many ideas and scenes of characters talking about things instead of showing us them.  In a book, where our minds create the images, this is fine, but in the visual medium of film, it's better to show not tell.  And even though Steve Kloves (who adapted all but one of the original Potter films) is on board with co-writing duties this time, his input must have been minimal, as this film once again lacks the spark and life that the earlier series contained.

The plot is set around a Fantastic Beast known as a Qilin, which can see into the souls of people, and is used by the Wizarding World to decide who is best to lead the Ministry of Magic.  The Qilin becomes the target of an assassination attempt by returning villain, Gellert Grindelwald, who is played this time by Mads Mikkelsen, stepping in for Johnny Depp.  And while Mikkelsen is fine in the role, he does not recreate Depp's look from the previous film, so it's a bit jarring, and they should have done a bit more effort to make him resemble his predecessor.  Grindelwald has been acquitted of all his past crimes by the International Confederation of Wizards, and so he is allowed to run for office within the Ministry.  With his potential political power, Gellert would have the ability to rally his followers to destroy all non-magical Muggles, and conquer both the Magical and Normal World, and he wants to rig things so that he is certain to win.

In order to prevent this, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) recruits a small band of heroes, which include returning protagonist Newt (Eddie Redmayne), Newt's brother Theseus (Callum Turner), a witch named Lally (Jessica Williams), and Newt's Muggle friend, Jacob (Dan Fogler).  As the title suggests, there are a lot of plot revelations regarding Dumbledore's family history, and a lot of talk of politics and political assassination attempts performed by the followers of Gellert.  What the movie shows a surprising lack of are moments of wonder.  We do get more than last time, and the Fantastic Beasts themselves play a larger role than they did in the overall plot as well.  But it can't help but feel a bit disappointing.  The movie throws us a bone now and then with a well done special effects sequence, or a fleeting glimpse of a Quidditch match, but it's a bit of a tease.

Much like before, The Secrets of Dumbledore spins a complex tale with dozens of subplots and character relationships moving.  It starts to resemble those trained performers who would spin plates on top of sticks, trying to not have them fall.  As the movie balances all of the elements of its convoluted plot and large cast of characters, it starts to feel a bit dense to anyone who is not a walking encyclopedia of the author's imaginary world.  I'm all for our blockbuster movies to have a lot on their mind.  In fact, I encourage it.  But these have to be offset by genuine moments of fun, and these moments are precious few.  The movie tries to create a balance between the magical and the complex, and it simply doesn't work as intended.  The political plot is dry and forced, the characters are not fun enough for us to get behind, and the special effects are not enough to make this an overlong chore to sit through at times.

There is obviously an audience who goes to these movies, but I wonder if it's still large enough to carry a franchise such as this.  While I enjoyed the first Fantastic Beasts film, I did note in my review that it seemed like an attempt to carry on a franchise that had its moment.  The two sequels have rammed the point home that while there are signs of life now and then, we did not need this particular dive into Rowling's world.


Thursday, April 14, 2022

Father Stu

Father Stu
is a surface level biofilm that tells the story of the real life priest Stuart Long in a familiar and disappointing way.  While it has a lot more "F-Bombs" in its dialogue than your usual faith-based drama (Hence, the film's R-rating.), like a lot of movies about faith and religion, it seems to be preaching to the converted, rather than trying to draw newcomers.

Mark Whalberg, who plays Stuart, has wanted to bring Long's story to the big screen for a long time, and I'm sure getting this movie made was a dream for him.  But, the end result is all too familiar in how it simply touches upon its themes and characters, rather than truly digging into them and creating a dramatically satisfying narrative.  The movie breezes over such dramatically-rich material such as Stuart growing up with a younger brother who died and left his family broken, and how he was never able to quite connect with his alcoholic and verbally abusive father, Bill (Mel Gibson).  Stu has struggled to make a name for himself his whole life, first as an amateur boxer, then when he can't do that anymore, he moves to Hollywood in order to become an actor.  All of this simply happens in the screenplay by writer-director Rosalind Ross with such broad strokes that they simply don't land like they should.

While Stu is working the deli counter at a supermarket, he happens to see a beautiful young Mexican woman named Carmen (Teresa Ruiz).  Instantly smitten, and soon learning that she is Catholic, he begins going to church on a regular basis in order to get closer to her.  Then he suffers a near-fatal motorcycle accident one night, and while waiting for help to arrive, he has a vision of the Virgin Mary comforting him.  When he comes out of his eventual coma, he feels that he has a higher purpose when it comes to serving God, and decides that he wants to be a priest.  When he tells his mother (Jackie Weaver) about this, she delivers the film's best line, when she asks if he means he wants to be a priest for Halloween.  The odds are stacked against Stu as he enters the seminary, and he will have to face even greater challenges when he is diagnosed with a rare muscle disease that slowly shuts down his body over time.

Again, I wanted to be swept away by the emotions that are inherent in this story, but Father Stu never truly gets to the heart, and simply has these characters talking about their hardships rather than truly showing them.  The film is never boring, and has been made capably with top talent, but it's all at the service of a script that does not rise to the level we know it can.  Each time Stu is hit with some kind of roadblock or hardship, the movie just skims the surface, and never truly explores how it impacts him, or the people around him.  All of Stu's key relationships in the film with his mother, father, and Carmen seem truncated.  When he decides to join the priesthood, this obviously puts Carmen in a tough position, as she wants to marry him by this point.  And yet, she kind of disappears from the movie once he makes this announcement.  Yes, she pops up now and then, and we can see that there is support mixed with regret, but the movie never digs into this to make the character as complex as we know she could be.

Wahlberg elevates this material the best that he can with his performance, and manages to bring Stu to life, but he is the only one who gives us a clear picture of who he really is.  All the supporting characters are merely trotted out once in a while, and we just get hints of what they are feeling.  And while Wahlberg succeeds at portraying Stu in different stages of life and declining health, I never got a true sense of his spiritual journey.  We see him get a couple scenes where he angrily asks why this had to happen to him, but it's not enough.  This movie needed to really dig into this guy, because what's on the screen is fascinating, but not enough to truly get the audience behind him.  I kind of wanted to be watching a documentary on the real person.  It would probably be more hard-hitting than this Hollywood effort, and give us a better sense of his spirituality.

Father Stu
does have moments where it hits hard, but not as many as it should.  It's a movie content to just give us the bare pieces of the story, leaving the audience to ponder what's been left out.  This Stuart Long sounds like a fascinating guy.  They should make a better movie about him one day.


Saturday, April 09, 2022


is a simple thriller that's been beaten to death by director Michael Bay.  It's an overkill of style, featuring all of his trademark directing techniques such as rapid editing, weird camera angles and close ups, a lot of sweeping overhead shots, a sun flare in the background of nearly every shot, a music score that beats the emotion of the scene into your skull, and an excessive running time that clocks nearly two and a half hours, when 90 minutes would do.

I understand that these are probably the kind of things you go to a Bay movie for.  If that's what you want, you will enjoy this.  I will admit that this is probably one of his better efforts, but the constant visual style and over edited camera work (even if nothing exciting is currently happening) eventually wore me down.  This is a movie that's been given the "everything but the kitchen sink" approach, even though it didn't need it.  It checks off all the things you could ask for, and even some things you probably didn't, such as a big goofy dog for occasional comic relief.  In the middle of all of this nonsense are the talented Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, playing to the rafters so that the audience will know they're in this movie, and Eiza Gonzalez playing an EMT who is photographed like she's auditioning for a music video.

The movie is a big ball of stupid, but at least it seems to know it, and occasionally can laugh at itself.  Its premise is simple enough.  Abdul-Mateen II is Will Sharp, a war vet who is struggling to pay the bills, and needs just over $230,000 to pay for an operation that his wife needs.  We never find out exactly why or what kind of operation, as the wife is filmed constantly cradling Will's newborn baby, and telling him how proud she is that he is a "good man".  She has to emphasize this, because Will's adopted brother is Danny (Gyllenhaal), a violent career criminal.  Danny and his buddies are about to knock off a bank for $32 million, and Will unwisely gets involved.  The bank heist does not go well, and a cop (Jackson White) winds up getting involved, because he wanted to ask a teller out on a date.  The cop gets injured and is put aboard an ambulance, so Will and Danny decide to take the ambulance hostage in order to escape.

You ever see those "World's Dumbest Criminals" shows on TV?  Ambulance plays like a nearly 140 minute variation on it, only this time, Michael Bay is at the helm, and we don't have Z-List Celebrities chiming in with wise ass commentary on what's happening.  It's one big chase movie, which could be fun, except that Bay's trademark directing style was enough to make me wish things would wrap up a lot sooner than they did.  The movie tries to hold our interest with comedy relief, a gay FBI Agent who is introduced by having him attending couple's counseling with his husband, sweetly nostalgic flashbacks to when Will and Danny were kids and playing Cowboys together, and a music score that mixes a variety of "ironic" music choices ("Sailing" by Christopher Cross plays over a scene of vehicular carnage.) with patriotic-sounding drums tapping along to the action.

This is one of the few times I think I would have had more fun watching this if a different director was handling it all.  Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen do what they can with the dialogue they are given, and are professionals here.  They know they're in a big, dumb movie, and seem to be enjoying it, as they should.  A lot of the stunt work and driving looks filmed on camera, which is a nice change of pace.  No, I didn't believe a minute of it, but it was nice to see actual stunt work again.  However, it's hard to truly enjoy it when the camera won't seem to hold still on an image for longer than four seconds.  Sometimes it's generous, and seems to linger on something for nearly 10 whole seconds, but this is rare, and I'm sure it pained Bay to leave these shots in the final cut.  Those precious seconds could have been used for yet another pointless aerial shot of the LA skyline for no reason, or a reaction from the big, slobbery dog who is brought on a police chase for comedic effect.

I'm sure there will be people who will read this, and think it sounds like a blast.  To them, I say go and enjoy!  Ambulance was made for you.  I may not agree with your taste, but I will never deprive anyone from having fun at the movies.  I had fun from time to time myself.  But the movie is simply too long and edited in such a manic way for me to recommend, and that's a shame.  There was potential for a fun dumb movie here, rather than just a dumb one.


Friday, April 08, 2022

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Even if it sounds like faint praise, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is probably the best video game adaptation to come out of Hollywood.  As is to be expected from a sequel starring a CG alien hedgehog who fancies himself a hero, it's bigger, louder, and longer than the original film from 2020.  But, it also understands what made the first movie work, and builds upon it as well.  It has more than enough charm to please long time fans of the character, as well as someone like me, who hasn't played a Sonic game since the 90s. 

Save for Jim Carrey (who is back as Sonic's arch nemesis, Dr. Robotnik), the human stars take more of a back seat this time around, allowing Sonic (voice by Ben Schwartz) to take center stage for a majority of the film.  He's joined by two other CG stars this time, notably a two-tailed fox named Tails (voice by Colleen O'Shaughnessey), who is clever with gadgets and vehicles, and a red echidna warrior named Knuckles (voice by Idris Elba), who is battle-hardened and tough, but seemingly not very bright on matters that don't involve punching things.  Returning director, Jeff Fowler, along with screenwriters Pat Casey, Josh Miller and John Whittington, use these characters and the effects in a smart way.  While the movie is probably 75% special effects, they are not overwhelming, and the characters and voice actors are able to bring some humanity to these cartoon-like aliens. (It's hard to resist lonely little Tails when he curls up to sleep after talking about how many of his kind reject him because of his twin tails.)

The movie is a well-made mix of big action scenes, references to the games for fans to pick up on, and a couple heartfelt messages about family for the family movie crowd.  Some reviews I have read have complained that the movie is too violent and scary for younger children, but I really think there's nothing here that any kid couldn't handle.  They've seen plenty of superhero movies where cities are laid to waste by giant robots by now, and the destruction is kept to a minimum.  Besides, Carrey in the villain role is clearly more interested in being silly than truly threatening, and manages to get a few laughs here.  It's his Robotnik who kicks off the plot when he escapes from the planet he was banished to at the end of the previous film, and returns to Earth with the help of the previously mentioned Knuckles.  They're both after the powerful Master Emerald for their own purposes.  Knuckles wants to avenge his people, and he thinks Sonic holds the key, while Robotnik wants to use the Emerald to achieve god-like powers and conquer the world that shunned him.

There's a subplot here where Sonic's human friends Tom (James Marsden) and Maddie (Tika Sumpter) go to Hawaii to attend the wedding of Maddie's sister, Rachel (a scene-stealing Natasha Rothwell), but it's kind of forgotten about halfway through so that the special effects can take over.  Unlike last weekend's Morbius, the effects do not feel like overkill.  It helps that the characters involved are already cartoon (or video game) characters to begin with, so it makes sense to see them as digital creations.  Another plus is that the action, while frantic, is cleanly edited and easy to follow. The movie clearly doesn't take itself as seriously as the one about vampires, and it helps that some of the dialogue is genuinely clever. (I like how Robotnik describes the planet he was banished to, which was covered with mushrooms, as a "Portobello Purgatory".) There's a life here that shows that the actors are having fun with this material, and it carries through 

Sonic the Hedgehog 2
, like its predecessor, will never be mistaken for a great movie, but it's probably the best possible movie we could wish for from the games.  It should be more than enough to appease kids, and adults will find themselves laughing at some of the lines that have been slipped in for them.  Sometimes when your movie stars a blue alien hedgehog with a thing for chili dogs and running fast, that's the best you can hope for.


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