First Glance: “Ambulance”

For better or for worse you always know what you’re going to get with a Michael Bay film. Sometimes his indulgences are too much and make his action-packed blowouts hard to bear. But when he gets it right, his movies can be exciting, thrill-a-minute experiences. Which will his new film “Ambulance” be? It’s hard to tell from the new trailer, but I do know that I like the look of it and it’s something I’ll watch without a moment’s hesitation. It also helps to have such a compelling cast.

Based on a 2005 Danish film, the story sees Yahya Abdul-Mateen II playing a decorated ex-soldier in desperate need of money for his wife’s surgery. He gets an offer from his close friend and foster brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) to help with a bank heist. The payout is $32 million. Of course the heist hits a snag and soon an ambulance and one unfortunate paramedic (Eiza González) are caught in the middle. The trailer shows (as you might expect) a ton of action and Gyllenhaal looks to be having an absolute blast. I enjoy Abdul-Mateen and González so this could be a lot of fun.

“Ambulance” hits theaters February 18th. Check out the trailers below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “The Last Duel” (2021)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

It goes without saying that 83-year-old Ridley Scott is no stranger to sprawling period epics. His latest film “The Last Duel” fits snugly alongside “Gladiator”, “Kingdom of Heaven”, and 2010’s underappreciated “Robin Hood” (a movie I still happily defend). It’s massive in both scope and scale, it brilliantly recreates history through some jaw-dropping production and costume design, and it doesn’t shy away from the brutality. At the same time, this one has some interesting qualities that distinguish it from those other pictures.

“The Last Duel” sees Ben Affleck and Matt Damon penning a screenplay together for the first time since winning the Academy Award for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting”. They’re joined by Nicole Holofcener who wrote 2018’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”. The trio’s script is based on Eric Jager’s 2004 book about the last recorded Trial By Combat duel which happened in medieval France on December 29, 1386.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

The movie opens in 1386 Paris where two combatants, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), prepare for a duel to the death. Both men look intense and focused; doing their best to hide their apprehension. The two leave their quarters and mount their horses, riding into the center of a small arena where France’s King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) presides.

On a nearby platform stands Carrouges’ wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer), clad in black from head to toe and with her ankles tightly shackled. An accusation has led to the duel and she knows that the barbaric outcome will determine her fate. This duel between two men, not her own testimony, will decide whether she lives and is vindicated or she’s stripped, lashed and burned alive. The physical and psychological grotesquery of the scenario isn’t fully felt in the opening. But when we revisit this scene in the final 20 minutes it hits like a ton of bricks.

We learn that Marguerite has accused Le Gris of raping her while her husband was away at war. Le Gris denies the claim which eventually leads to the eponymous showdown. But what is the truth behind the accusation? What really happened? After the gripping tease, the “Rashomon” effect kicks in and we’re treated to three chapters, each beginning with “The Truth According to…”. Scott gives us three tellings of the story, told from the perspectives of Carrouges, Le Gris and finally Marguerite.

It doesn’t take long to figure out the mystery behind what really happened. In fact, the second chapter (the truth according to Le Gris) all but spells it out. Instead we’re tasked with figuring out who these characters really are. Along the way we learn how the duelers went from friends to foes. We’re shown how Carrouges, a man of war, met and married Marguerite, the daughter of a disgraced landowner. We see Le Gris wiggle his way into the good graces of the powerful and hedonistic Count Pierre d’Alençon (a scene-stealing Ben Affleck). And there’s the inevitable ending – a bruising display of savagery between two men where any semblance of humanity vanishes.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Unruly accents aside, the cast is uniformly superb. Damon overcomes a truly hideous mullet to give a brawny yet surprisingly layered performance. Driver portrays his preening entitled opportunist at just the right temperature. And then there’s Comer, a talented actress who navigates her character through an era where misogyny was ingrained in society and issues with women were “matters of property“. Comer brings a quiet strength and resiliency to Marguerite, and while not every scene in her chapter rings true, the performance always does.

“The Last Duel” sees Ridley Scott in top form. His film is oozing with exquisite period detail, captivating characters, and good old-fashioned storytelling. And his staging of the brutally intense finale visually rivals anything he’s done before. It’s a talky movie which may surprise some. But it’s never a slog, and the relevance of its subject matter packs one wicked wallop. It also makes for a nice alternative to the waves of horror and big franchise films filling the multiplexes.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

First Glance: “Uncharted”

Bits of information has been swirling around for years about an “Uncharted” movie, and now it has its first trailer and a release day. The film is based on the popular Sony PlayStation action-adventure series of the same name and will star Tom Holland as the game’s protagonist Nathan Drake. Video game adaptations don’t have the best track record, but the “Uncharted” world seems perfect for a big budget blockbuster.

Holland is joined by Mark Wahlberg (who plays his wise-cracking partner Sully) in what looks to be a Nathan Drake origin story. It’s directed by Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”, “Venom”) and hops around the globe as Nathan searches for lost treasures in a number of exotic locations. Perhaps the biggest casting treat is Antonio Banderas playing the film’s villain, a “collector” who makes it clear he does more than “dabble”. It’s hard to tell much about the story (which is a good thing), but the movie looks fun and the action scenes should be thrilling.

“Uncharted” hits theaters February 18th. Check out the trailer below and let me know if you’ll be seeing it or taking a pass.

REVIEW: “V/H/S/94” (2021)

I admit to being a little hesitant about jumping into the horror anthology feature “V/H/S/94”. This new Shudder Original Film is actually the fourth movie in the “V/H/S” series. I had heard of the modestly budgeted horror franchise but have never actually sat down and watched one of the films. But good reviews can do wonders and Shudder’s announcement that “V/H/S/94” is the biggest movie premiere in the streaming platform’s six year history was enough for me to give it a go.

Called a reboot by those who know, “V/H/S/94” basically follows the same structure of its predecessors. It takes four distinct found-footage shorts films, each written and directed by different creatives, and sets them within a wraparound story that holds them all together. It’s a framing device that seemingly has worked in the past. But here the frame story (titled “Holy Hell” from Jennifer Reeder) turns out to be the film’s biggest weakness. It has an interesting enough premise, but it’s far too messy and confusing in its execution.

Image Courtesy of Shudder

The film opens with an Ohio SWAT team storming a gated warehouse. But instead of drug runners they find a labyrinthine network of hallways leading to an assortment of rooms decorated in the macabre and grotesque. In each room they find dead bodies with their eyes gouged out and a different VHS tape playing on a screen. And on those tapes are the four video nasties that make up the bulk of the anthology. They’re also what end up saving the movie. Of course some are better than others, but all four have their own twisted flavor.

The first short “Storm Drain” is by Chloe Okuno and follows an ambitious local TV news reporter (Anna Hopkins) and her cameraman (Christian Potenza) as they investigate rumors of a “Rat Man” living in the sewers. It’s the weakest of the four but it ends with a gruesome splash. The second is “The Empty Wake” by Simon Barrett, part haunted house and part zombie horror. It follows a young woman (Kyal Legend) sitting up during an evening wake at a small funeral home. Needless to say, it isn’t a quiet night.

From there the shorts get a little longer and crazier. The third is easily the most batty and unabashedly gory of the bunch. It’s titled “The Subject” and it comes from Indonesian director Timo Tjahjanto. It’s a mad scientist story about a brilliant yet unquestionably unhinged doctor (Budi Ross) who kidnaps unwilling subjects for his gruesome experiments. Things get even bloodier when a military squad invades the lab and makes some grisly discoveries.

Image Courtesy of Shudder

The fourth and final short “Terror” comes from Ryan Prows. It’s a rough-around-the-edges yet entertaining swirl of creature horror and dark comedy that follows a radical militia group called the First Patriots Movement Militia. Set mostly within their remote compound on the outskirts of Detroit, the story sees the group planning to “redeem the soul of the USA” by bombing a federal building. Their weapon? – the blood of a vampire-like creature they keep caged in a barn. Things really get nuts in the final ten minutes as the dimwitted hicks blow their plan to oblivion.

On their own merits, each of the four shorts have things worth applauding. But unfortunately we come back to the framing story between each short and again at the end. Aside from some gnarly imagery, nothing in it comes close to the quality of the short films. It’s use of the found-footage style seems mostly contrived, the actors are abrasive and over-the-top, and the ending packs no punch whatsoever. So we’re left thinking back on the four individual tales and wishing there was something better to connect them all together. “V/H/S/94” is now streaming on Shudder.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

Movie Poster Spotlight: “Being the Ricardos”

There has been a lot of buzz (including a lot of critique) about the small teaser for Amazon Studios’ upcoming film “Being the Ricardos”. Maybe I’m crazy, but I’m really anxious for this quirky looking biopic about the relationship of the stars of “I Love Lucy” Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez. I’m intrigued by the cast and the talent behind the camera. And while the teaser didn’t give us a lot to chew on, I kinda love the first poster.What do you think?

DIRECTOR – Aaron Sorkin

WRITER – Aaron Sorkin

STARRING – Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Clark Gregg, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Jake Lacy

RELEASE – December 10, 2021

REVIEW: “Violet” (2021)

Us 1980s kids will always remember teen star Justine Bateman as Mallory Keaton on NBC’s hit sitcom “Family Ties”. Since then she’s done a lot of television and has starred in a handful of big screen movies. But her role as the snarky yet kind-hearted younger sister to Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton is the one she’ll forever be affectionately attached to.

Now Bateman is making her feature film debut behind the camera with “Violet”, an audacious indie drama that she directs, writes, and produces. The film stars Olivia Munn, a talented and underrated actress who has been needing a role like this to sink her teeth into in order to open more eyes. Here she plays Violet, a film executive emotionally tormented by a cruel internal voice filling her with anxiety, insecurity and self-doubt. Bateman’s vision is a tricky one to pull off, but she manages it thanks to her uniquely clever approach.

Image Courtesy of Relativity Media

On the surface, Violet seems to have everything a thirty-something professional woman could want. She’s smart, talented and attractive. She’s a successful movie producer with a good reputation who makes a comfortable living working in an industry she loves. But any chance of happiness and self-fulfillment is stymied by the bullying voice in her head. It keeps her constantly second guessing herself. It keeps her from going through with a long-time passion project despite the encouragement of colleagues. It dissuades her from pursuing a deeper relationship with her childhood friend Red (Luke Bracey).

To convey the struggle in Violet’s head Bateman uses a handful of stylish flourishes. The Voice (who she refers to as “the committee”) is…well…voiced by Justin Theroux. He’s mercilessly demeaning, calling her an idiot, a pig, and a baby. He tells her she’s inferior, unworthy, and a disappointment. Even worse, he suppresses any ambition or sense of accomplishment and urges her to accept the abuse both from her jealous boss Tom (Dennis Boutsikaris) and with her estranged family. The Voice tells her that she’ll never be a success if she follows her dreams and passions.

As a counter to the voice, Bateman also shows us Violet’s true feelings through handwritten thoughts that appear across the screen as she’s thinking them. Sometimes they’re questions like “Why can’t I just be happy?” Other times it’s a painful longing – “I want to be free.” There are several other visual touches Bateman uses to capture Violet’s mindset. They don’t always work and they sometimes inadvertently draw too much attention away from Violet. But once you get in sync with what Bateman is going for, it makes the occasional overreaches easier to look past.

Back to Munn, she truly is the most essential piece of the film. She brings the perfect measure of restraint to her character and relays so much through her sensitive expressions and body language. It’s a well-calibrated performance that deftly captures the various sides of Violet in a way that makes her feel genuine and relatable. And when Violet begins to question the Voice in her head, Munn gives us a good sense of the tension and conflict that comes with it.

Image Courtesy of Relativity Media

One of my favorite scenes involves a poignant moment where Violet is reflecting back on her childhood. Her younger self is riding her bike on a idyllic afternoon. The wind is blowing through her hair, the warm sun beaming down on her face. “You’ll never find your way back to that kind of freedom,” the crippling Voice chides. It’s a picture of the bitter back-and-forths Bateman creates and Munn realizes.

To go along with those moments Bateman sprinkles in scenes that touch on the producing process – meeting with directors, sorting out casting, scheduling film festivals, etc. (I’m a sucker for that stuff). It all makes for an assured feature film debut that tackles its subject matter from a unique and fresh perspective. It doesn’t always come together as intended, but I love that Bateman took chances and “Violet” should open some exciting doors for both her and Olivia Munn. “Violet” gets a limited theater release October 29th before coming out on VOD November 9th.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS