REVIEW: “Ambulance” (2022)

For the most part you know what you’re going to get from a Michael Bay movie. Granted, he’ll occasionally throw in a few small twists on his formula. But more often than not, his movies tend to follow a pretty familiar blueprint. And that blueprint has earned the director and producer lots of commercial success as well as a few vocal detractors.

As you might expect, Bay’s new film “Ambulance” follows his blueprint to the letter. In fact, in some ways it plays like a celebration of Bay’s formula, even throwing in a couple of references to the director’s past movies. And then there are those Bay visual flourishes which he comes back to in the movie over and over and over again, almost to the point of overkill. So you could say this is Bay at his most indulgent. Yet despite all of that, his no-nonsense approach, three strong performances, and the central hook of the story gel together for something that’s quite entertaining.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) are childhood friends and adoptive brothers who, despite their sincere love for each other, have gone down very different paths in life. Will joined the military and served in Afghanistan. Now he’s back home where he has a baby boy with his wife (Moses Ingram). The charismatic Danny has followed in their father’s footsteps and runs a criminal outfit. Though not as unhinged as their late father, Danny has his hands in a lot of bad things.

With Amy in desperate need of a life-saving surgery and his military insurance refusing to cover it, Will approaches Danny for a loan. But rather than a measly $230,000, the ever persuasive Danny convinces Will to join him and his crew on a job to swipe $32 million from a bank in downtown Los Angeles. What could possibly go wrong, right? Well, everything.

The heist goes bad as cops converge on bank and a ferocious “Heat” inspired gunfight breaks out. With the rest of their crew dead, Danny and Will scramble to find a way out. They end up hijacking an ambulance where in the back EMT Cam Thompson (Eiza González) fights to save the life of a police officer (Jackson White) who Will mistakenly shot during the chaos. What follows is nearly two hours of mostly kinetic, high-energy action across LA as Will, Danny and their two hostages try to shake the dogged LAPD and the FBI.

One thing about a Michael Bay movie, it’s going to look good. The visuals in “Ambulance” don’t disappoint and they certainly add to the film’s energy. At the same time, they eventually lose some of their kick as Bay goes back to the same camera tricks over and over again. In some cases, he repeats them so often it gets a little silly. But if you can get past that, there are plenty of exhilarating sequences that throw plausibility out the window and ratchets down on the high-octane excitement. And it doesn’t take long to get it all started. Bay doesn’t waste time on build up. He knows the kind of movie he’s making and he makes no apologies. Within 15 minutes the action has taken center stage.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Gyllenhaal, Abdul-Mateen II, and González make for a lively trio. Their performances are dramatically different yet their chemistries are pretty seamless. Gyllenhaal is the most entertaining and he plays his scenes as if he were high on caffeine. Abdul-Mateen II adds an emotional level and brings the silliness down a notch. Meanwhile González gets her moments, but I wish she was given a few more. Garret Dillahunt adds to the fun playing a tenacious LAPD captain willing the chase the brothers all over the city if necessary.

There are some weird swings at humor (a few land, many don’t) and the movie begins to run out of gas well before the two-hour mark. But there are some good twists that keep this from being your conventional heist-turned-chase movie. For example, I liked the idea of having the wounded cop in the ambulance which ties the police’s hands and offers a unique set of challenges. Not all of their strategies make sense. And that’s kinda like the movie as a whole. This really is a case of turning off your brain and just going along for the ride. And sometimes that’s all your looking for in a movie. “Ambulance” is now playing in theaters.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” (2022)

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

I’m a big Richard Linklater fan. The 61-year-old Texas-born director, screenwriter, and producer has one of the most eclectic filmographies out there. From his hangout classic “Dazed and Confused” to his critically acclaimed “Before” trilogy to his audacious “Boyhood”. I had a chance to meet and listen to Richard Linklater during an appearance at Arkansas Cinema Society’s Filmland event. Hearing him talk about his deep love for cinema, the inspiration that has helped shape his wide-ranging style, and his uniquely personal approach to filmmaking only solidified my appreciation for his body of work.

With all of that said, how on earth did Linklater’s latest movie nearly slip by me (It’s partly due to weak promotion, but that’s another write-up for another day)? “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” premiered March 13th at South by Southwest and now it is available to stream on Netflix. This animation/live-action hybrid once again sees Linklater venturing into new spaces while at the same time showing off many of his signatures – a sharp wit, a lights-out soundtrack, an amazing grasp of time and setting.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Born in 1960 near Houston, Linklater grew up in close proximity to NASA headquarters. It was a time when nearly every adult in his lively suburb worked for NASA, and the influence of the space program could be found in everything from used car commercials to playground equipment. Suddenly the prefix “astro-” became commonplace. There were the Houston Astros (formerly the Colt .45s), the Astrodome, AstroTurf, and even a theme park called AstroWorld. For these close families and tight-knit neighborhoods, space became synonymous with everyday life.

Linklater brings these intimate and heartfelt memories to life in “Apollo 10 1/2”, a time capsule of a movie set in the late 1960s. While it is certainly a celebration of the Apollo space missions and their impacts culturally, politically and personally, the film is much more an nostalgic and faithful portrait of a bygone era. A time of Jiffy Pop and RC Cola; The Archies and The Association; Admiral television sets and Sundazed Records. And while further out in the real world, Vietnam was festering and the Cold War was taking a new form, so many of the nation’s eyes were on the Space Race.

All of these things (and so much more) make their way into Linklater’s autobiographical film which beautifully braids his own childhood memories with a surprisingly tender youthful fantasy. Interestingly, there isn’t much in terms of plot. Instead, it plays more like a motion picture scrapbook and we’re ushered through it by a narrator named Stan (wonderfully voiced by Jack Black) who gazes back on his past with a full-hearted affection. “Let me tell you about life back then,” he says as he takes our hands and our imaginations on a trip down memory lane.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

But scattered throughout these lovingly rendered flashbacks is a delightfully absurd tale – the kind that could only originate in the vivid imagination of a star-gazing 10-year-old. It starts one sunny afternoon at Ed White Elementary School in the small Houston suburb of El Lago, Texas.

Young Stan (voiced by Milo Coy) is approached by two NASA officials (Glen Powell and Zachary Levi). Somehow in their race to beat the Russians to the moon, NASA accidentally built their lunar module too small for an adult. After scouting Stanley both in the classroom and on the kickball court (because isn’t that where all young astronauts excel?), NASA believes him to be the perfect candidate for their mission. What mission you ask? To test their too-small module on the moon’s surface.

At first it’s a little hard to tell where Linklater is going with this light hearted side-story. But as it plays out in snippets the filmmaker’s vision becomes clearer. Just like everything else in his movie, it’s meant to emphasize what it was like growing up in that very specific place during that very specific era. For Stan, his five siblings, and his imperfect yet devoted parents (pitch-perfectly played by Lee Eddy and Bill Wise) it was a vastly different world than today’s, and Linklater’s knack for conveying such worlds really comes through.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Even the visual choices play into it. The strategic mix of rotoscope with 2D and 3D animation gives the film a dreamlike yet stunningly realistic quality, where the period’s defining colors and textures pop off the screen. Other touches add to the authenticity, such as digitally animating old live-action footage from television shows, movies, and newscasts. And it’s all bound together by nearly 50 smile-inducing, head-bobbing late 60s tunes from the likes of The Marketts, Cliff Nobles, and The T-Bones.

Sadly, “Apollo 10 1/2” hasn’t received much promotion from Netflix yet it’s a must-see, especially for fans of Linklater or anyone with the slightest attachment to the era. Will it play the same for younger audiences? Probably not. But while I wasn’t born until 1971, so many things in the film still echo back to my own childhood. And the sturdy connection to the 1960s provided to me by my parents only enriched my experience. So while this gorgeously animated, intensely detailed, nostalgia-soaked gem is clearly personal for Linklater, he won’t be the only one reflecting on their childhood after watching. “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

REVIEW: “Against the Ice” (2022)

The new film “Against the Ice” is based on the remarkable true story of Danish explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen and his 1909 polar expedition across the frozen tundra of Northeastern Greenland. This man-versus-nature survival thriller from director Peter Flinth is inspiring but also quite harrowing, putting just as much emphasis on the psychological toll as it does the physical. And while it may lack the overall tension you might expect from a movie like this, the film still does a good job immersing you in its story and setting.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who penned the script alongside Joe Derrick) plays Ejnar Mikkelsen, the captain of a crew long into their search for a missing arctic expedition. During a recent venture into the icy wild, Ejnar discovers a diary containing a map. The map reveals the location of a cairn where Captain Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen of the lost expedition hid his final records of Northeast Greenland. Denmark had hopes of reaching the uncharted territory before the Americans, but the loss of Mylius-Erichsen and his team had them second guessing their investment in Greenland. That made Mikkelsen’s expedition all the more important.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Desperate to reach the cairn and retrieve Mylius-Erichsen’s records, Ejnar asks for a volunteer to accompany him on a second and more arduous sledge journey, this time further across the treacherous ice cap. His tired and homesick crewman know the dangers and aren’t eager to risk their lives, especially so close to their time to sail home. A wide-eyed mechanic named Iver Iverson (Joe Cole) is the only one to step up and soon the two head off on their perilous adventure to the northern edge if Greenland.

A fairly big chunk of the movie follows Ejnar and Iver as they battle nature and the elements with two teams of sled dogs and limited supplies. Cinematographer Torben Forsberg shoots the landscapes as sparse and forbidding. He thrusts the characters and us into a harsh, jagged, and ice cold setting that truly tests the bounds of survival. But then in the second half there’s an interesting transition to the psychological as cabin fever becomes as dangerous as the environment. It’s an unexpected turn but a compelling one.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Yet strangely through it all we only get a couple of scenes of true edge-of-your-seat peril. That doesn’t mean the movie is a slog, but its an odd choice for a survival story in this mold. There’s also painfully little told about the two main characters. Ejnar wears a locket of a woman he left back home, but she’s little more than an vague image. The sketch we get of Iver is even thinner. We’re told even less about him, his background, etc. These things aren’t deal-breakers, but it’s a lot easier to invest in characters when you there’s something personal to latch onto.

Still “Against the Ice” does what it sets out to do, and it tells this incredible story by pulling us into the brutal setting with its characters. Coster-Waldau gives yet another rock-solid performance – grizzled, stoic, and sturdy. Cole is a good compliment and both actors turn it up a notch in the headier second half. And while it make lack the grittier edge that would have made the movie great, cinema is made for stories like this and Flinth’s movie is a good grab for Netflix. “Against the Ice” is now streaming.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Adam Project” (2022)

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

Shawn Levy’s “The Adam Project” is a Ryan Reynolds vehicle in that head-scratching vein of projects that dress themselves up as family movies but then push past the bounds of what’s often considered “family friendly”. For me it’s often hard to tell what audience these things are aiming for. Written by the team of Jonathan Topper, T.S. Nowlin, Jennifer Flackett, and Mark Levin, “The Adam Project” takes its playful spin on time travel and combines it with a surprisingly layered family drama. It’s all bound together by that all-too-familiar Ryan Reynolds brand of snappy irreverent comedy. Fans of his shtick will probably be onboard. Those wearied by the 45-year-old Canadian’s go-to high jinks may have a harder time.

In fairness, “The Adam Project” isn’t full-on Ryan Reynolds nuttiness. Levy pulls the reins back just a bit and tries to capture as much heart as humor. That’s a good thing because the likable Reynolds is usually at his best when he’s kept on his leash. Still, chunks of the script are written with his comedy act in mind meaning you’re guaranteed at least a variation of the same character type he almost always plays.

This time around Reynolds plays Adam Reed, a time-traveling fighter pilot from the year 2050. His story begins with the weirdly straightforward disclaimer: “Time travel exists. You just don’t know it yet.” From there, we see the wounded Adam flying his damaged “time jet” through a wormhole he creates as he frantically attempts to escape from the clutches of the film’s antagonist, Catherine Keener’s Maya Sorian (more on her later).

Image Courtesy of Netflix

We then swing back to 2022 where Adam’s smart-mouthed 12-year-old self (played by newcomer Walker Scobell) spends more time suspended from school than in class. We learn it’s been over a year since his father Louis died in a car accident and young Adam is having a hard time adjusting. His mother Ellie (Jennifer Garner) does her best to fill the shoes of both parents, but she too is struggling to pick up the pieces. Despite being connected by a similar pain, they both feel miles apart.

Can you see where this is going? Older Adam accidentally crash-lands his jet in 2022 where he encounters his younger self. It turns out that time jets are tuned to the pilot’s DNA. But with older Adam injured, his jet won’t clear him to fly. So he recruits younger Adam to help him fix his plane so he can carry out his mission. What mission you ask? To travel to 2018 where he hopes to uncover the truth about his missing wife Laura (Zoe Saldaña). An ace time-hopper herself, Laura traveled back to 2018 against the wishes of her superiors and hasn’t been heard from since.

Inevitably we end up with older Adam and younger Adam traveling further back in time with the sinister Sorian (remember her) hot on their heels. And once there, the two Adams seek the help of their still alive father Louis (Mark Ruffalo), a college physics professor who happens to know a little about time travel. As the three work together to essentially save the world, they’re also given the opportunity to heal old wounds and truly appreciate the time they had together.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Underneath the good-looking action sequences, hit-or-miss humor, and out of the blue needle drops is a surprising amount of heart. Levy and company put a lot of effort into pulling us in emotionally as they use this unorthodox family dynamic to explore feelings of love, loss, grief, and regret just to name a few. And even if it’s pretty easy to see where it’s all heading, the movie still manages to hit you in your feels.

At the same time it’s hard to avoid the silliness, especially when the film starts going on about “magnetic particle accelerators”, a “diamond-hard neuromorphic processor”, or the “Infinitely Shifting Plasma Containing Algorithm”. And while there are several terrific action scenes, the visual effects aren’t always convincing (take the erratic digital de-ageing of one specific character – it’s bad). It’s also a bummer when Garner all but vanishes for most of the second half (she only has one meaningful scene with Ruffalo so sorry, no “13 Going on 30” reunion here).

“The Adam Project” might lean a little too heavy on the zany charisma of its lead actor, and it gets a little lazy going for cheap laughs (am I the only one tired of the ‘little kid throwing out profanity just for giggles’ device?). But there’s a fun story at the core of it all, and I challenge you not to be moved by where the story goes, specifically one heartfelt scene in the final minutes. It’s a moment that grounds the movie it makes all the frustrations a little easier to digest. “The Adam Project” premieres today on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “A Taste of Hunger” (2022)

The new Danish film “A Taste of Hunger” opens with a quote from the late novelist Kathy Acker, “If you ask me what I want, I’ll tell you. I want everything.” It’s a fitting intro to this stirring relationship drama masquerading as a foodie flick. Don’t misunderstand, we get several visual helpings of exquisitely shot cuisine. But the cooking is mostly dressing. The main dish is the souring dynamic between a husband and wife whose lofty goals begin to tear an otherwise loving couple apart.

The film is directed by Christoffer Boe who co-writes the script alongside Tobias Lindholm. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Lindholm also penned the exceptional dramas “Another Round” and “The Hunt” alongside Thomas Vinterberg. Here the Danish duo use the setting of Denmark’s cooking scene to explore the consequences of unbridled ambition.

Image Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Carsten (Nikolaj Costner-Waldau) and Maggie (an absolutely phenomenal Katrine Greis-Rosenthal) are a culinary power couple who own Malus, a trendy high-end restaurant in the heart of Copenhagen. Carsten is a master-chef with a ferocious drive. He trained in Japan before opening his own eatery back home. Maggie is a sharp-witted anthropologist with a sharp eye for what people like.

Yet despite their successful privileged lives; despite having two beautiful children; despite owning one of their city’s premiere restaurants, there’s one thing that has kept them from being truly satisfied and content – the coveted Michelin star and the prestige and recognition that accompanies it. They crave it, particularly Carsten who has let it drive him to the point of obsession.

Chopped into chapters and moving back-and-forth through time, “A Taste of Hunger” reveals what brought Carsten and Maggie together as well as what tore them apart. In the current day, we see the couple desperate to repair the damage done by a bad oyster starter. They think it may have been served to a visiting undercover Michelin rep rumored to have visited their restaurant that evening. If they can track down the representative, perhaps they can convince him/her to give them another shot.

But it’s the flashbacks that give us the bigger picture and ultimately fill out this complicated relationship. Through them Boe shows us how the Carsten and Maggie met, the near instant attraction, and the intense passion marking the beginning stages of their marriage. In these early scenes, Boe and his cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro shoot the couple with the same sensuous gaze as they do the cuisine. But it’s the performances that really bring these characters to life. Costner-Waldau and Greis-Rosenthal have a fierce chemistry that comes through with every scene they share.

Image Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

While Carsten and Maggie seem to have a magnetic connection, the later flashbacks show what happens once their dogged pursuit of culinary fame takes precedent over their homelife. Soon both their marriage and their children are suffering, which sends the story down some ugly paths. Some of these scenes teeter close to the melodramatic, but Boe keeps everything grounded and honest. And (once again) the performances are crucial, especially Greis-Rosenthal who’s asked to navigate a thornier range of emotions. She’s sublime.

“A Taste of Hunger” takes an unflinching look at a crumbling marriage and it does so without casting judgement or taking sides. In fact, each time our sympathies shift from one spouse to the next, something happens to yank us back to the center. The real heartache comes with the children. Boe and Lindholm do a great job relaying the impact of the parents’ neglect, mostly through the eyes of their young daughter Chloe (an astonishingly good Flora Augusta). It adds kick that’s as painful as it is palpable. “A Taste of Hunger” is now streaming on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “A Hero” (2021)

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

For my own personal money, there are only a handful of must-see filmmakers in the business today. I’m talking about consummate storytellers with a cinematic vision and/or voice so profound that I’m compelled to see every movie they put out. When talking about those uniquely gifted few, Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi is unquestionably near the top of my list.

Farhadi’s filmmaking talents are explicit in every movie he makes and the more you watch him the more you see him returning to many of the same themes. His movies often feature layered stories that poke at both social and cultural norms of modern day Iran. They also tend to dig deep into human nature often through the prism of everyday family conflict. And Farhadi has never shied away from using his characters and their situations to pose thought-provoking moral questions. He wraps it all in a slow-simmering down-to-earth suspense.

“A Hero” is yet another mesmerizing Farhadi tale that highlights his strengths both as a screenwriter and a director. In terms of script, the story is dense and dialogue-heavy, resembling a modern day morality play with a touch of mystery. It has a fascinating cyclical structure that repeatedly brings us back to the story’s central conflict while adding more pieces to the puzzle with each visit. As for his direction, Farhadi maintains a tight control of his story, moving it along at an organic pace and often using his camera as much as his pen to capture both emotion and perspective.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The story revolves around a man named Rahim who’s serving jail time due to an unpaid debt. The film opens as Rahim is given a two-day furlough which he hopes to spend mustering up a plan to pay back the money rather than going back to prison. Rahim is played with a disarming gentleness by Amir Jadidi. It’s a shrewdly subtle lead performance that at times feels like it has a baked-in Bressonian influence.

As with most of Farhadi’s characters, there’s more to Rahim than meets the eye. His backstory is untangled through a number of conversations and revelations. We learn he borrowed money from a loan shark to start a business but was double-crossed when his thieving partner ran out on him. So Rahim sought the help of a family friend Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh) who bailed him out with the loan shark under agreement that Rahim would pay him back. When he couldn’t, the surly Bahram filed a complaint and had Rahim put in jail.

That all may sound pretty cut and dry and those unfamiliar with Farhadi’s storytelling cadence may be tempted to make quick judgments on who’s the hapless hero and who’s the unforgiving villain. But there’s much more to unpack as pieces of the story fall in and out of place. And as with everyday life, things are often more complicated than they first appear.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The tricky part comes in the form of a handbag containing 17 gold coins. Rahim’s secret fiancé Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust) finds the purse at a bus stop and immediately believes she has found a solution to her beau’s problem. The two first try selling the coins hoping to get enough money to pay Bahram so that he’ll withdraw his complaint. But after learning gold prices have tanked, they’re forced to think of something else. They decide to put up fliers around the city hoping the owner will see them and respond. After all , a little good press certainty wouldn’t hurt his plight. And news of a good deed from a man in need just might earn the sympathies of people willing to help his cause.

To talk much more about the story would be doing a disservice because “A Hero” is all about methodically peeling back its layers one by one. I’ll just say things get complicated especially when the bag’s grateful owner answers one of his fliers. There’s also a poignant father/son dynamic between Rahim and his speech-impaired son Siavash (Saleh Karimai). Their relationship not only has a significant role to play, but it features the film’s most moving moments (one especially evocative scene instantly called to mind De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves”).

Farhadi unwraps it all without ever passing judgement or looking down on his characters. His eye-level storytelling enables us to understand every key player and grasp their points-of-view. He then counts on his audience to be the final judge. Along the way, he has things to say about social media, class, and the justice system while plowing into deeper themes of honor, integrity, and self-respect. It may not pack as big of a punch as some of his past work, but “A Hero” embodies everything I love about an Asghar Farhadi film, from its visually arresting opening to its beautifully understated finish. “A Hero” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS