‘Ambulance’ – Michael Bay’s Best Film in an Eternity

Those of you who have read my review of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” know just how much of a simmering hatred I have for filmmaker Michael Bay. I walked out of that sequel so furious and angry to where I could never let myself sit through any of his films all the way through for over a decade. But with his latest action-packed spectacle, “Ambulance,” I could not help but be intrigued. Seeing two bank robbers desperately try to escape the police quickly brings to mind all of the Los Angeles car chases we keep seeing on the news with helicopters flying over a speeding vehicle being followed by several LAPD vehicles while news anchors comment on what we are seeing. Deep down, part of me roots for the pursued to escape as I honestly wonder if escape is even remotely possible for those hoping to evade the police when they have so much technology at their disposable to keep you in their sights.

Does “Ambulance” provide audiences with an accurate view of such a police chase? Well, no, but it does prove to be the best action film Bay has made in ages. Sure, many of the director’s flourishes are here such as quick editing, shots which swoop all over the place and characters yelling at each other while in close proximity to one another, but I could bear all of these things this time around with little in the way of argument. Sure, not everything we see go on here makes logical sense, but even I knew to leave my brain turned off when I entered the theater.

The movie opens up on war veteran Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) as he tries to get his insurance to cover his wife Amy’s (Moses Ingram) much-needed surgery. But since this surgery is seen as “experimental,” the country he served to protect against all enemies foreign and domestic is not about to give him the $231,000 he needs for medical necessities. This should serve as a reminder of how politicians tend to stop saying “support the troops” when the war comes to an end. Lord knows our support for them should never stop there.

Desperate for help, Will turns to his adoptive brother, Danny Sharp (Jake Gyllenhaal), for a loan. The only thing is, Will is meeting up with Danny on the day he and his grungy cohorts are going to rob a bank of $32 million dollars, an amount Jeff Bezos would refer to as pocket change. Against his better judgment, Will goes along with Danny, perhaps out of a need to protect his brother among other things. But like all bank heists which are planned down to include every exact detail such as knowing when the police will arrive, acquiring the biggest and nastiest assault weapons, being aware of security cameras, observing the habits of the bank’s loyal employees and knowing where all the best escape routes are, it all goes horribly wrong. Then again, if everything went right, there would be no movie.

Will and Danny end up hijacking an ambulance, toss out its driver, and make their way out of downtown Los Angeles in the hopes of getting away with something God would not approve of in the slightest. However, they have a couple of guests in their midst which include emergency medical technician (EMT) Cam Thompson (Eiza González), and she is furiously trying to save the life of LAPD Officer Zach (Jackson White) who has just suffered a serious gunshot wound to his leg. Who shot him? Just watch the movie.

From there, “Ambulance” becomes one long chase as Will and Danny race through the streets of Los Angeles with sirens blaring as they seek to escape the cops and FBI agents who are right on their tail. As I watched Bay’s camera swoop all over the place, I wondered when rush hour traffic was going to start settling in. Certain characters like Captain Monroe (Garret Dillahunt) keep saying the city is about to hit rush hour, but it never does. Also, I kept waiting for the scene where Will and Danny realize their gas tank is almost empty, but it never came up. Do ambulances really get great gas mileage? Inquiring minds want to know.

But regardless of these questions, nothing could take away from my enjoyment of “Ambulance” which is the kind of action movie I feel I have not seen in some time: an exhausting action spectacle that piles one conflict on top of another and leaves you completely wrung out by the time the end credits start rolling. For Bay, this puts him right back in “The Rock” territory as the loud gunfights and explosions never overwhelm the actors and the characters they play, and it is their predicament that keeps us emotionally tuned into the action.

It’s a gas watching Gyllenhaal here as he looks to be channeling his inner Nicolas Cage. Seeing him go all bug-eyed while wearing a mask was almost worth the price of admission as I was laughing my ass off. Whether you find his performance among his best or worst ever, there’s no dying he’s as entertaining to watch here as Cage was in “The Rock,” and it is abundantly clear to me he gave at least 115% of his energy to this role.

Abdul-Manteen has proven to be a solid actor with his work in “Us,” “Aquaman” and “The Matrix Resurrections,” and he gives “Ambulance” the emotional center it needs. While his character of Will makes one questionable choice after another, the actor inhabits the role with passion and intense energy as he shows how Will is so in over his head here and trying to make things as right as he can.

As for Eiza González, she gives Cam a great introduction as she works to save a young girl who has been impaled by a metal object, and then makes it clear to her ever so naïve partner how important it is to keep an emotional distance from the patient in order to be an efficient EMT. Still, we know her work ethic will eventually be tested in an extreme way as she is forced to do the seemingly impossible to keep her patient, the wounded cop, alive. Watching her here reminds me of Jack Bauer’s last scene in season three of “24” as even he could not hold back the emotion which was overwhelming him.

And yes, Bay still has yet to meet a tripod he could truly fall in love with, but in spite of the cameras flying all over the place, I never got the slightest amount of motion sickness while watching “Ambulance.” Furthermore, I must add I had a full dinner of flank steak and a Roma tomato before driving out to the theater, and this is not the kind of motion picture you want to watch on a full stomach. But I did, and I am still in one piece.

Am I being a bot over effusive in my praise of “Ambulance?” Perhaps, but this is the first Michael Bay film I watched in years which I found myself applauding once the end credits began. The last one I did that for was “Armageddon,” and I don’t care what you say because it is part of the Criterion Collection for a reason. This film brings the filmmaker back to form after he got suckered into making one “Transformer” sequel too many (even he admits that), and I had no problem telling the good guys from the bad ones this time around. Here’s hoping his next films will be as good.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

The Super Bowl LVI Movie Trailers in Review

The Super Bowl has come and gone again. While the home team, the Los Angeles Rams, got me interested in this monumental event more than usual, what always brings me back to the Super Bowl are the commercials and the trailers for upcoming films which look to bring in the largest audiences possible. Even if some are available to stream on streaming services on opening day, these blockbusters are clearly made for the silver screen. Whether or not COVID mandates are still in place when these films arrive, I look forward to seeing many of them in a theater.

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness

Following the massive success of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” Doctor Strange returns to battle the multiverse once again, and it looks badass to put it mildly. Sam Raimi returns to make his first movie based on a Marvel Comics character since “Spider-Man 3,” and it sure feels like a Sam Raimi film with all the crazy images which look like they came from “The Evil Dead.” The only thing I have to wonder now is this, will there be a Bruce Campbell cameo? Moreover, will his classic yellow 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 make an appearance as well? If so, that would be groovy.

Granted, the trailer presented during the game was a teaser for the official trailer which is now available to view online. I am just going to leave you the official trailer down below. Just when I thought I was getting burned out by superhero/comic book movies, this “Doctor Strange” sequel has whetted my appetite.

By the way, was that Patrick Stewart’s Professor X voice we heard?

The Lost City

Look, I love Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum is fun, but this trailer for “The Lost City” makes the film seem like a wannabe “Romancing the Stone” which is too broadly comedic for its own good. Directed by Aaron and Adam Nee and based on a story by Seth Gordon, Bullock plays the brilliant but reclusive writer Loretta Sage who is known for penning romantic adventure novels which take place in exotic locations. While promoting her latest novel, she is kidnapped by an eccentric millionaire played by Daniel Radcliffe whom we see only briefly here, and it is up to Alan (Tatum), the model for Bullock’s book covers to save her. Oh yeah, there is a secret treasure involved. Sound familiar?

It pains when actors are clearly striving to be funny as this trailer. Still, it is worth watching for Brad Pitt who steals the show here just as he stole a certain scene in “Deadpool 2.”

Jurassic World Dominion

As disappointing as “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” was, its conclusion gave its follow-up an interesting scenario to work with, dinosaurs co-existing with human beings. Can such a thing be possible, or will one race dominate the other to where a certain species is rendered extinct?

The trailer presented during Super Bowl LVI is the same one that recently premiered online. The image of cowboys trying to herd some dinosaurs who could easily kill them just by stepping on them is a fascinating image, and the characters played by Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard now have a daughter because, let’s face it, these two were bound to get it on at some point, and the whole will they or won’t they scenario has long since been played out.

But the real joy of the “Jurassic World Dominion” trailer is seeing the return of the “Jurassic Park” trio, Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum. Neill is always terrific in whatever project he appears in, Dern looks like she hasn’t aged a day since “Jurassic Park III,” and Goldblum looks to get more of a role this time around as opposed to the glorified cameo he got in the previous installment.

The magic of first seeing the dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film has never been quite the same, and this franchise has taken some embarrassing turns since then. But with “Jurassic World” director Colin Trevorrow behind the camera again, maybe everyone involved will give this trilogy the conclusion it deserves.

The Adam Project (Netflix)

On one hand, this trailer acts as a promotion for the original content Netflix is going to be dropping on us in the coming months. But this trailer’s main attraction is clearly the Shawn Levy film “The Adam Project” starring Ryan Reynolds, an actor no one can ever seem to get sick of. Originally titled “Our Name is Adam,” back when Tom Cruise was attached to star, Reynolds travels back in time to meet his younger self (played by Walker Scobell) in an effort to confront their late father. While the storyline seems like a rip-off of “Looper,” this looks like its own thing despite any similarities which I am hoping are coincidental.

Seriously, seeing Reynolds in this trailer made me as giddy as Will Ferrell was when he spotted him in the audience the last time he hosted “Saturday Night Live.”

Nope

This trailer for Jordan Peele’s latest cinematic opus reminds me of the greatness of the first “Cloverfield” trailer; it gives us a lot of fascinating and unforgettable visuals while leaving the movie’s plotline a mystery. The trailer for “Nope” looks like it takes place at a horse ranch in the middle of nowhere when all the electricity suddenly goes out, and either Armageddon is happening or a UFO is landing as characters flee as fast as they can or get sucked up into the air. Whether it is a political thriller dealing with racism like “Get Out” and “Us” or just a straightforward science-fiction horror thriller, this trailer has me deeply intrigued, and July 22nd cannot come soon enough.

Ambulance

Anybody who knows me well understands how much I despise Michael Bay. Ever since the cinematic atrocity that was “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” I have avoided his movies like the plague. However, I cannot help but be intrigued by his latest film, a remake of the 2005 Danish film of the same name, which is about a bank robbery gone wrong (is there any other kind in movies?) which leads two of the robbers to hijack an ambulance and use an EMT and a wounded police officer as hostages. Plus, with a cast that includes Jake Gyllenhaal and “The Matrix Resurrection’s” Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, this looks to be a film not made with 5-year-old moviegoers in mind. Whether it is made with the mindset of a 5-year-old, however, remains to be seen.

The trailer for “Ambulance” has been out for some time now, but its Super Bowl spot serves as a reminder of how I am honestly excited for it. While it looks to have those typical Bay flourishes like explosions and cameras moving around in circles, there is nary a Transformer to be found here.

Top Gun: Maverick

Delayed by the COVID pandemic more times than “No Time to Die” and hoping to score big at the foreign box office, “Top Gun: Maverick” is FINALLY arriving in theaters this May. For its Super Bowl spot, Paramount partnered with Porsche because when Tom Cruise says he “feels the need, the need for speed,” you either think of “Top Gun” or a Porsche, right? Well, I would certainly love to drive a Porsche with Jennifer Connelly as my passenger, that’s for sure.

With Cruise reteaming with his “Oblivion” director Joseph Kosinski, we can expect some truly intense visuals and real G-force experiences as shown on Maverick’s face. But as with those “Avatar” sequels which James Cameron keeps promising us, I have to say RELEASE THE DAMN MOVIE ALREADY!

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

Okay, this is not a movie trailer, but it is a trailer to one of the most anticipated television series ever. Now, this trailer proves this is not a remake of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but instead a prequel that takes place many, many, many, many, many years before Gollum found his precious. While it looks epic, those CGI effects look fairly obvious and kind of take me out of the spectacle on display. Still, we are in J.R.R. Tolkien territory, and it remains ripe with imagination after all these years.

DC Movies

Instead of a single comic book/superhero movie, DC movies will be giving us four of them in 2022: “The Batman,” “Black Adam,” “The Flash” and “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.” Images from each one are featured in one Super Bowl ad, and these are my thoughts: I’m sick of hearing about “The Batman.” I just want Matt Reeves’ cinematic interpretation of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego to come out already. Seeing Dwayne Johnson as Teth-Adam/Black Adam proves to me how passionate he was about bringing this character to the silver screen. Hopefully, Ezra Miller will have more speed on his side than he did with “Justice League.” As for Jason Momoa, he has already proven to me he is the definitive Aquaman, and the upcoming sequel is yet another reminder of the fact I have still not watched the original. With these four movies, perhaps DC will finally give the Marvel Cinematic Universe a run for its money.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

I have not seen the first “Sonic the Hedgehog,” and the Super Bowl spot for the sequel does not make me want to check either of them out. When it comes to Jim Carrey though, I have no problem defending him as an actor. While he looks to be doing his usual schtick here as Doctor Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik, he is far more than what he appears to be. His lack of an Oscar nomination for “The Truman Show” was tragic, and they should have just handed him the Oscar for his performance as Andy Kaufman in “Man on the Moon.” And when it comes to “Batman Forever,” I still think he was the best thing about it. Anyway, that is all.

Michael Pena on Getting Real in David Ayer’s ‘End of Watch’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

Actor Michael Peña has already played a few cops in his career, but in David Ayer’s “End of Watch” he gets to play his most realistic one yet. It also marks the biggest role Peña has had so far in a career which has seen him give excellent performances in “Crash,” “World Trade Center” and “Observe and Report.” Taking on the role of LAPD officer Mike Zavala reminded Peña of his days growing up in Chicago, and his preparation proved to be far more intense than he ever expected it to be.

Peña grew up in a particularly rough area of Chicago where the lure of gang life was always strong. The actor, however, said he “never wanted to be in a gang” and that he “didn’t want to follow anybody’s orders” as he always thought of himself as an individual even when he was really little. Still, playing Mike Zavala brought up a lot of memories of those days:

“I grew up in the ghetto, and the thing is when there were problems, I knew when to get away. But police go to the problems,” said Peña. “I didn’t do that growing up. Seeing it through Jake (Gyllenhaal’s) eyes, it re-ignited what I always knew, but I guess I had buried it. I’ve been living in Hollywood for the past 15 years. And reality just smacks you in the face – that feeling of potential danger everywhere.”

Like his co-star Jake Gyllenhaal, Peña spent five months training with the Los Angeles Police Department which included ride-alongs which lasted 12 hours a day. There was also a good dose of weapons training, martial arts, boxing workouts, and lugging around chest cameras which were also called body cams.

“We did so many damn ride-alongs, dude,” said Peña. “At first it’s brand new, it’s awesome, and it’s amazing. You almost glamorize it in a way. Then you do ten more, and you start getting a little bored. Then ten more after that, you really get into the spirit of it. It was almost like a sport. We really wanted to get into the mindset of what it’s like to be a police officer.”

As for the body cams, Peña remembered them being “so heavy” and “gnarly.” It turned out though that some of the hardest things he had to do in “End of Watch” were not actually physical.

“I was driving a whole bunch,” Peña said. “Then you have the director (David Ayer) in back, which can be pretty nerve-wracking. Sometimes I didn’t know where life began and where the acting started.”

Pena and Gyllenhaal had never worked together before making “End of Watch,” and it apparently took some time to get the sense of brotherhood two cops can have.

“It took three months to click,” said Peña. “There’s a lot of pressure to play like brothers. We had to spend a lot of time together to opening up to each other as well as tactical training, rehearsing. Three months later we had a good rapport and we put that in the movie.”

It was also all the hard-hitting dialogue which Ayer came up with that made the working relationship between Peña’s and Gyllenhaal’s characters feels like a real brotherhood. Peña also admitted he and Gyllenhaal did very little in the way of improvisation on the set as neither of them wanted to mess with the director’s script.

“Nine times out of 10, you aren’t going to come up with something better,” Peña said.

Peña has certainly earned his moment in the spotlight, having given one memorable performance after another. His terrific work in “End of Watch” is not only a major step forward for him, but it also allows him to break through certain barriers which have been placed upon actors throughout the years:

“The script was written for actors like Jake Gyllenhaal and me – a Latin dude. It had to be a Latin dude, there is so much Latin (material) in it. Ten years ago, I don’t know if that would have been the case. I don’t know if it would have been so easy to do.”

SOURCES:

Brian Brooks, “‘End of Watch’ Star Michael Peña Sees Racial Barriers Coming Down in Hollywood,” Movieline.com, September 19, 2012.

Chris Vognar, “Michael Peña on ‘End of Watch:’ ‘We did so many damn ride-alongs,’” The Dallas Morning News, September 21, 2012.

Madeleine Marr, “Talking to ‘End of Watch’ star Michael Peña,” The Miami Herald, September 20, 2012.

Jake Gyllenhaal on His Intense Police Training for ‘End of Watch’

As Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer Brian Taylor, actor Jake Gyllenhaal finally gets to play a cop for the first time in “End of Watch.” Written and directed by former South Central Los Angeles resident David Ayers, the movie follows two young police officers played by Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena who are marked for death by a notorious cartel after they confiscate money and firearms from them. Although it was shot in 22 days on a budget of just $7 million, Gyllenhaal did not skimp on the details and went through a seriously intense preparation which extended far beyond him simply getting a buzz cut.

Gyllenhaal underwent five months of serious training with the LAPD, and this included going on 12-hour ride-alongs through various crime-ridden neighborhoods. These ride-alongs had a schedule which started at 4:00 p.m. and went through to 4 a.m., and he went on them as much as three times a week.

“On my first ride-along in Inglewood, someone was murdered. We were the second car on the scene,” Gyllenhaal said of his experience. “That was definitely a wakeup call. We were involved in stolen vehicle chases. You see domestic violence, disputes that turn violent. You really see your city differently after that.”

Gyllenhaal admitted to getting a little nervous at times as he and the police rode up on crimes involving domestic disputes, attempted murders and stolen cars. The actor pointed out, however, that he was with some pretty amazing officers who made him feel very protected in such a dangerous environment. In addition, he went to a dojo in the mornings for fight training and also got a lot of exposure to weapons and tactical training as well.

“We did training with live ammunition and training with the SWAT Team a few times a week for six-hour sessions,” Gyllenhaal said. “We had to learn tactic exercises and moving exercises with live ammo and then we did fight training in Echo Park. David Ayer, our director, his best friend has a dojo, so we trained there in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting too. Eventually, after getting the crap beaten out of you and being on the street, you start to actually come into the role and feeling like you really can play the part.”

But one of the most interesting stories regarding his preparation to play Officer Brian Taylor involved him getting shot by a taser.

“I did get tased. We were at the police academy, and they asked us if we wanted to try it out and me being me said, ‘Yeah, of course, yeah!’ Actually, they gave us a choice between pepper spray and being tased,” Gyllenhaal recollected.

When it came to choosing getting tased or pepper sprayed, Gyllenhaal’s decision proved to be a well-informed one:

“Pepper spray is long and painful, it lasts for like 45 minutes and the taser just lasts for five second,” Gyllenhaal said. “But afterwards it’s actually kind of relaxing. After you’ve had thousands and thousands of volts of electricity going through your body.”

It looks like Gyllenhaal’s preparation for “End of Watch” has really paid off as he is getting some of the best reviews of his career. It is clear playing a police officer has had a tremendous impact on him as he talked of the stigma cops constantly deal with when they are out on the street in uniform. He has also gone on to say how the experience of making this movie has completely transformed not just his idea of law enforcement but of Los Angeles as well. When all is said and done, watching this film will do the same for the audience.

SOURCES:

Colin Covert, “Jake Gyllenhaal’s education on the mean streets,” Star Tribune, September 22, 2012.

Zac Shull, “Q&A: Jake Gyllenhaal Talks ‘End of Watch,’ Training with Police & If He Gets Pass for Speeding,” Baller Status, September 21, 2012.

Justin Harp, “Jake Gyllenhaal: ‘I was tased while preparing for End of Watch,'” Digital Spy, September 18, 2012.

‘Spider-Man: Far from Home’ is a Fun Ride, and it May Be the Web Slinger’s Last in the MCU

Spider Man Far From Home Theatrical Poster

So, after a summer filled with an endless need to make ends meet, I finally got the chance to check out “Spider-Man: Far from Home.” Watching it at this point proves to be bittersweet as this may be the character’s last time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Disney and Sony are in a battle over profits. Spider-Man does whatever a spider can, but even a spider can fight only so much against greed and capitalism before he is undone or rebooted. It’s a crying shame because Peter Parker and his alter-ego were wonderfully reinvigorated thanks to Tom Holland who, ever since “Captain America: Civil War,” has proven to be the best Spider-Man yet. Here is hoping this will not be the last time we see Holland in this role as he keeps us invested in this teenager’s never-ending struggle between managing adolescence and being a superhero.

Eight months have passed since the events of “Avengers: Endgame” in which our heroes thwarted Thanos’ snap (everyone else calls it “the blip”) but did so at a great cost. Peter still mourns the death of Tony Stark as he tries to get back to being just a friendly neighborhood superhero, but Tony’s face is everywhere and it seems like everyone else expects Spider-Man to be the next Iron Man. It’s a lot to place on the shoulders of any one person, let alone those of a teenage boy eager to tell the girl he has a mad crush on how he truly feels about her.

A better title for this “Spider-Man” outing would have been “Spider-Man’s European Vacation” as Peter and his classmates which include his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and love interest MJ (Zendaya), travel to Europe and some neighboring countries. Peter sees this as a much-needed opportunity to take a break from his Avenger duties and just be a kid, and Ned sees it as a chance for the two of them to be American bachelors in Europe because, or so he says, “Europeans love Americans.”

Of course, none of us can expect any Avenger to get much vacation time as the Water Elemental strikes with a vengeance in Venice, leaving our characters to run for their lives. Peter quickly springs into action, but he is aided by another superhero who goes by the name of Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), but we all come to know him as Mysterio. Even though the two of them save the day, Nick Fury (the always reliably bad ass Samuel L. Jackson) shows up to tell him his help is needed. Peter protests how he is not ready to extend his duties beyond Queens, New York, but Fury bluntly reminds him, “Bitch, you’ve been to space!”

“Spider-Man: Far from Home” works best when it focuses more on the human element than on the spectacle. Spider-Man has always proven to be one of the most human of superheroes in movies and literature as his personal problems are no different from the ones we experienced at his age. Deep down, we all wanted to seem normal to our fellow classmates, and so does Peter. Still, hormones and awkwardness among other things needlessly but inevitably complicate our lives to where we are left with a lot of emotional scars which take forever to heal, if at all. Peter Parker is the MCU’s prime example of this, and it makes you admire him all the more as his juggling act is made all the more challenging throughout.

Jon Watts returns to the director’s chair after having done an excellent job with “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and he infuses this installment with the same amount of fun and excitement. Along with screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, he makes Spider-Man’s predicament parallel with the insane times we live in as “alternative facts” and “fake news” have been given far more power than they ever deserved. Whether or not our heroes win the day, we are left to wonder if they will ever be able to fully control the narrative. As one character points out late in the film, “People need to believe, and nowadays they’ll believe anything.” As much as I hate to quote Rudy Giuliani in this or any other review, his ridiculous statement of how “truth is not truth” is played to great effect throughout this movie and its post credit scenes.

The thin line between reality and fiction is put to the test in an amazing sequence in which Spider-Man is thrust into a simulated world which alters his perception of reality in the same frightening way Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law were in David Cronenberg’s “Existenz.” Just when Peter thinks he has a handle on things, so do we, and this proves to be our Achilles heel as reality is not at all what it used to be.

The climatic battle in “Spider-Man: Far from Home” ends up containing a bit too much in the way of CGI and suffers from overkill as a result. It is entertaining to sit through, but the overuse of visual effects ended up taking me out of the action more than I would have liked, and it makes this sequel pale in comparison to “Homecoming.” It always sucks when you watch a visual effect knowing it is a visual effect because there are many moments in this film which made me feel the exact opposite. Still, it failed to take away much of the enjoyment I had in watching these characters suffer through one of the best and worst field trips any of us could ever hope to have.

I also gotta say just how much I love this cast of actors. Aside from Holland, you have the great Martin Starr who is a deadpan delight as academic decathlon teacher Roger Harrington, “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau who gleefully returns as Harold “Happy” Hogan, Marisa Tomei who has long since proven to be the most alluring Aunt May of all, Cobie Smulders who remains an enticing and powerful presence as Maria Hill, and J.B. Smoove is a hoot to watch as science teacher Julius Dell. In addition, Tony Revolori returns as Peter’s classmate and YouTuber Eugene “Flash” Thompson as it allows us to see something many of us have wanted to see done to the most annoying YouTubers of all; get a swift kick in the balls.

It’s fascinating to watch Gyllenhaal here as he was almost cast as Spider-Man at one point. Seeing him making his first appearance in the MCU is a most welcome one as he has long since proven himself an actor to be reckoned with in movies like “Nightcrawler” and “Nocturnal Animals.” As Mysterio, he makes this character a complex one as he sympathizes with Peter’s plight while proving to be a bit of an enigma. When the truth of Mysterio is revealed to all, it made me respect Gyllenhaal’s performance all the more as it shows how he has to play not just with Peter’s mind, but the audience as well. Looks can be deceiving, and Gyllenhaal makes them especially deceiving here.

Like I said, watching “Spider-Man: Far from Home” proves to be very bittersweet as this may very well be the very last time we see this iconic character as part of the MCU. It’s a real shame as the first post credit scene we get foretells of a dark future for Peter Parker as his life is completely compromised through, among other things, doctored footage. Where can he go from here? It’s an infinitely interesting question.

Whatever happens from here, we will always have J. Jonah Jameson.

* * * out of * * * *

 

The Second and Final Trailer for ‘Spider-Man: Far from Home’ Has Been Unveiled

WARNING: This trailer, as Tom Holland indicates at the start, contains spoilers for “Avengers: Endgame.” If you haven’t seen that superhero juggernaut yet (and why haven’t you?), don’t watch this trailer until you have.

With the second and final trailer for “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” a number of things are cleared up. Whereas it was previously suggested that this movie would be a prequel to “Avengers: Infinity War” as Peter Parker was seen disintegrating into the dust at the end of it, this one makes clear how this one takes place after the events in “Avengers: Endgame.” And just when the Marvel Cinematic Universe looks to have hit its creative and commercial peak, this trailer shows there is still plenty of life left for those characters who managed to survive Thanos’ snap.

The trailer begins with the acknowledgement that Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is no longer in the land of the living, and this deeply affects Peter Parker who saw Tony as the father figure he needed in his life. But with him going on vacation with his high school friends to Europe, Peter looks to finally get a break from his friendly neighborhood Spider-Man duties. Of course, when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up unexpectedly, you know Peter won’t have much of a choice, and this is especially the case after Nick tells him, “Bitch please! You’ve been to space!”

It’s funny actually. Since 2002, there have been seven “Spider-Man” films including last year’s delightful Oscar winner “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” After the cinematic debacle that was “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” it looked like franchise fatigue had finally overtaken our beloved Peter Parker. But watching this trailer for “Spider-Man: Far from Home” has me believing things could not be better for the famous web-slinger. Things which have been dealt with in the previous films will be dealt with here, but in a way which feels genuinely fresh.

Plus, we have Jake Gyllenhaal, at one point in consideration to play Spider-Man, portraying Quentin Beck and his alter ego of Mysterio. Gyllenhaal has long since proven to be an acting force to be reckoned with thanks to his superb work in movies like “Brokeback Mountain” and “Nightcrawler,” and this second trailer shows his character to be a little more than the average antagonist we were initially led to believe.

After watching this trailer, I believe there is still plenty of life left in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Thanos’ initial snap opened up the multiverse more than we initially realized. As with any other movie, I am trying to remain guarded about my expectations, but I very much look forward to seeing this superhero motion picture when it arrives in theaters this summer.

Spiderman Far From Home teaser poster

‘Nightcrawler’ is a Brilliantly and Insanely Twisted Motion Picture

nightcrawler movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2014.

Just when I thought I wouldn’t see a 2014 movie as twisted as “Gone Girl,” along comes “Nightcrawler.” Delving into the underground world of Los Angeles freelance crime journalism, this is a thriller which feels like a cross between “Taxi Driver” and “Network” as it follows characters who do not hesitate to cross over any and all ethical or moral considerations in order to survive another day in an infinitely cruel and competitive world. You will find yourself laughing at things you would normally never laugh at, but that’s because it serves as a way to deal with the increasingly insane scenarios which will leave you staring at the screen with your mouth open.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Louis Bloom, an alienated young man struggling to find work anywhere and everywhere. The movie starts off with him stealing materials from a construction site which he then attempts to sell at a scrap yard with little success. His attempts to find a job or even an unpaid internship prove to be utterly fruitless despite his best efforts and conniving ways, and he is a symbol of how many Americans who are having the toughest time finding work. Then one night while he’s driving on the freeway, he comes across a nasty car accident and, like many, he is tempted to take a closer look. This is when a camera crew led by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) drops by to film whatever footage he can get to sell to the local news station. Instantly intrigued, Louis goes out and buys a cheap video camera and starts filming crime scenes and human carnage which eventually catches the eye of veteran news producer, Nina (Rene Russo).

“Nightcrawler” marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy whose writing credits include “Freejack,” “Two for the Money” and “The Bourne Legacy.” With a limited budget, he succeeds in creating a crazy version of the American success story, proving it can be achieved but at a soul sucking price. Gyllenhaal, with a stare which cuts through the audience like a laser beam, gives us a character beyond determined to rise to the top of the TV news food chain. In many ways Louis is enigmatic as we don’t get to know too much about him, but no one can deny he is a full blown sociopath who has finally found something he can make a career at.

Gyllenhaal does some of his best work yet in “Nightcrawler,” and I’m not just saying this because he lost 20 to 30 pounds to play Louis. His focus as an actor is never in doubt as he makes Louis as compelling a human being as he is an insane one. Even as Louis throws all reason out the window, we cannot help but be mesmerized as Gyllenhaal makes him a highly unlikely antihero.

It’s also great to see Russo here as well as she brings Nina to a life in a way which showcases how vulnerable her character can be despite how hardened life has made her. This is a character clinging on to her job for dear life in a business prepared to chew her up and spit her out without a second thought. It should not be a surprise she crosses countless journalistic guidelines to get the bloody violent footage her audience is craving for. Whether or not she believes it is the right thing to do is beside the point because her survival in an unforgiving economy is foremost on her mind. You can chastise Nina and Louis all you want for the choices they make in life, but like anyone else, they are driven to survive by any means necessary.

I loved the scenes between Gyllenhaal and Russo as they constantly size each other up to where they firmly believe they have the other person figured out. As Louis gets more and more successful at capturing footage others could only dream of getting, and this eventually leads to him getting better equipment and a super cool car which goes super-fast, their relationship gets increasingly tense as he makes it clear to Nina who’s in charge. Nina observes Louis with both utter fascination and disgust as he stares right through her to where she can’t help but be taken in by him.

As “Nightcrawler” hurtles towards its wonderfully insane conclusion, Louis becomes a magician of sorts as he manipulates events to where he creates news he greatly profits from. We should despise him for what he does, but Gilroy has the audience firmly in his grip to where we can’t help but admire him for the devious things he has accomplished, and that’s regardless of what happens to others in his path.

Gyllenhaal was born to play Louis just as Russo was born to portray Nina, and both actors are well served by a supporting cast which matches them from scene for scene. The always reliable Bill Paxton plays Louis’ chief competitor, Joe Loder, and he is a hoot to watch as he tries to gain the upper hand only to see things blow up in his face. Also terrific is Riz Ahmed who plays Louis’ partner in crime footage coverage, Rick, a nice guy who hasn’t lost his moral bearings but is constantly forced to go against his better judgment in order to keep his job. Ahmed does great work as he makes us sympathize with Rick even as he gets into situations he can’t quite pull himself out of.

With “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy has given us a wonderfully twisted tale which shows how the American success story can become a reality if you’re willing to lose yourself in the process. What’s brilliant about the movie is it’s filled with characters molded by the world they live in. We can berate them all we want, but their actions speak more about what society has turned them into. In a time where employment opportunities are not as plentiful as they should be, it’s a little hard to blame these characters for what they do. But when we are forced to do the same, hopefully we can do it in a way that is nowhere as life threatening. Of course, that might just be wishful thinking.

I have to end this review with this piece of dialogue Louis Bloom has as it sums up the state of the world today perfectly:

“I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations. What I believe, sir, is that good things come to those that work their asses off, and that good people such as yourself, who reach the top of the mountain, didn’t just fall there. My motto is: if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Please check out the interview I did with Gyllenhaal and Russo on “Nightcrawler” which I conducted on behalf of We Got This Covered down below.

‘Prisoners’ is Not Your Average Child Abduction Thriller

Prisoners movie poster

From the trailers, “Prisoners” looked like just another average child abduction movie with a strong cast which would hopefully make it seem slightly above average. I have seen so many movies like this to where they now seem like the same one no matter who is starring or directing. Boy, was I wrong about this one! “Prisoners” is a heavy-duty character driven drama which generates an agonizing amount of tension and never loses any of it throughout its two and a half hour running time. In a time when many movies are in serious need of an editing job, this one manages to make every single minute count.

It’s a snowy day when Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) takes his family over to his friend Franklin Birch’s (Terrence Howard) house to celebrate Thanksgiving with a big feast. Both men have loving wives, two teenaged children who are unsurprisingly not all that interested in hanging out with their parents, and they have two beautiful six-year old daughters named Anna and Joy who can never seem to sit still for a single moment. But when Anna goes back to her home with Joy to fetch her safety whistle, both of them disappear without a trace and their families begin a desperate search to find them before it is too late.

The only suspect in the case is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a man with the IQ of a 10-year old, whose RV Anna and Joy were playing around earlier in the day. When the police and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) are not able to get any answers from Alex as to where the girls are, they are forced to let him go for lack of evidence. Keller, however, becomes convinced Alex does know where they are at, and he becomes infinitely, and frighteningly, determined to make Alex give him the answer he wants. Suffice to say, some moral boundaries are definitely crossed.

It should be no surprise Hugh Jackman gives a seriously intense performance here as a father obsessed with finding his child as we have gotten used to him playing the Wolverine in all those “X-Men” movies. But as furious as he got in “Logan” this past year, Jackman seems even more frightening here as he loses his moral perspective while desperately searching for answers. Just watch him as he bashes a bathroom sink with a hammer.

Jake Gyllenhaal also gives one of his best performances ever as Detective Loki, a man equally obsessed with getting the girls back even as he struggles with an uneasiness which will not let him be. What I especially like about Gyllenhaal here is how he implies certain things about this character without ever having to spell it out for the audience. Loki is a man with a troubled past who has his own demons to fight, and while we don’t always know what those demons are, this allows Gyllenhaal to add another layer to his character which only increases Loki’s complexity.

Terrence Howard, who gave a terrific performance in “Dead Man Down,” gives another one here as the other desperate father. It’s interesting to see him go from playing an intimidating crime lord to a helpless dad who finds himself in a morally dubious position when he is presented with a way of getting the answers, but he becomes increasingly unnerved at the way Keller is trying to obtain them. Howard is great at showing how helplessly conflicted his character is, and he makes you feel his inescapable pain and confusion as he is forced to go down a path he becomes convinced is the wrong one to go down.

Kudos also goes out to Maria Bello and Viola Davis who play the wives to Jackman and Howard. Bello portrays Grace Dover, and she has an especially difficult to watch scene in which she completely falls apart emotionally as she faces the worst nightmare no parent ever wants to face. As for Davis, she once again proves how powerful she can be in the smallest of roles. It should also be noted how each of these actors is a parent in real life, and I cannot even begin to think of what emotional depths they went to give such authentic portrayals.

Paul Dano continues to astonish in each film he appears in, and his performance as Alex Jones is one of his most enigmatic to date. Dano could have just fallen into the trap of making an Alex a caricature or the clichéd mentally disabled character we have seen too many times, but he is much too good an actor to do that. We can never figure out if Alex is truly helpless or cleverly manipulative, and Dano keeps us guessing as to what the answer is for the majority of the movie.

“Prisoners” was directed by Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian writer and director who won the Genie Award (Canada’s equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Director three times for his films “Maelström,” “Polytechnique” and “Incendies,” the latter which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. In recent years, he has given us the brilliant “Sicario” and “Arrival,” and it makes sense he is at the helm of the eagerly anticipated “Blade Runner 2049.” Like I said, I have seen many movies involving child abduction, but he succeeds in making this one of the most intense and agonizing ever made. The fact he is able to main such a strong level of suspense and tension for over two hours is very impressive, and “Prisoners” would make for a great, albeit an emotionally exhausting, double feature with Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone.”

The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski seems well thought out and has characters who don’t seem like anything the least bit stereotypical. Looking back, this could have been one of those scripts where the writer would come out saying, “Look how clever I am! I kept you guessing, didn’t I?” Guzikowski, however, is not out to make us feel like an idiot and instead gives us a fairly realistic scenario of just how harrowing a kidnapping situation can get.

The filmmakers have also employed the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, who should have gotten the Oscar for “Skyfall,” and he makes the snowy climate these characters inhabit all the more vividly freezing. Even as the setting gets bleaker, Deakins still manages to find a haunting beauty in everything going on.

Child abduction movies can be very difficult to pull off because it is easy to fall into the realm of exploitation. It’s a credit to the filmmakers and actors that “Prisoners” never falls into this trap as it instead focuses on how frayed and unraveled emotions can get when parents have no idea where their children are. This is definitely not a film for new parents or those with small children to watch as I’m sure it will make them seriously uncomfortable. But for those who like their movie going experiences to be infinitely intense, “Prisoners” is definitely worth checking out. It was not at all what I expected it to be, and that’s a good thing.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Nocturnal Animals

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Nocturnal Animals” is a movie which will stay with me long after I have seen it. Based on Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan,” it follows a non-linear path and combines stories which deal with the real world and a fictional one to where, after a while, it’s almost hard to tell the two apart. Either that or you will leave wondering which story is the most emotionally exhausting. Judging from the movie’s first images of an art exhibit created to challenge our perceptions of what is beautiful or acceptable, director Tom Ford is quick to take us on a cinematic ride, and the kind we are not often accustomed to taking.

We meet Los Angeles art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who appears to have it all: a handsome husband, a fabulous house and an income we would all envy. But we can tell from the start she is a lonely soul wandering through the superficial world she inhabits, and it doesn’t help that her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) has been distant and may very well be cheating on her. Clearly, we are about to see why she is the damaged individual she is, and it will not be a pleasant trip whether it’s through reality or fiction.

One day, Susan receives a manuscript of a novel written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) named “Nocturnal Animals,” a nickname he gave her upon realizing she stays up late at night because she has trouble sleeping. Edward has dedicated his novel to her, and it tells a very bleak tale of love and tragedy as we watch Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) suffer the utter humiliation of seeing his wife and daughter kidnapped by three troublemakers who later kill them. From there, Tony teams up with Texas Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to bring the three men to justice, but the justice these two seek may not be one which is altogether legal.

Ford has the movie weaving in and out of its real world and fictional storylines to where you can’t quite tell where things are heading, and he does it in a way which is quite inspired. A story like this can be tricky to pull off as you can jump from one storyline to another at the worst possible moment to where we are desperate to see the movie get back to where it once was. But Ford has managed to weave all these storylines seamlessly to where everything feels in balance and not out of place.

At its heart, I think “Nocturnal Animals” is about the transformative power of art more than anything else. Whether it’s Susan’s art gallery or Edward’s novel, both of these characters use their individual artistry to channel emotions they couldn’t quite get to the surface in their relationship. The fact it takes Edwards years to reach this artistic jump in his writing abilities through his tragic novel shows how artists are not so much born as they are molded through years of life experiences.

Amy Adams gives her second great performance in 2016, her other being in Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” She makes Susan a sympathetically tragic character as we watch her go from youthful promise to insomniac surrender as her life has become defined by isolation from everyone and anyone around her. Even when she has too much eyeliner makeup on, and her makeup is a distraction at times, Adams delves deep into her character’s complexity to deliver a performance of piercing sensitivity.

Gyllenhaal is riveting as both Edward and Tony, characters who suffer the indignities of life and love to where all that’s left is revenge. While the actor still seems a bit young to play the father of a teenage daughter, he is fearless in exploring a character who suffers a fate worse than death. Kudos also goes out to Isla Fisher who plays Tony’s wife, Laura, as she has to reach an emotional fever pitch and keep it high whenever she appears onscreen.

This movie is also proof of how there are no small roles, only small actors, and no actor here should be mistaken as small. Andrea Riseborough, completely unrecognizable here, steals some scenes as Alessia Holt, a person who has found happiness in a space filled with obliviousness and fake promises. Michael Sheen also shows up as Alessia’s husband, Carlos, who is actually gay, and she gives Susan some advice worth following. Ellie Bamber gives us a convincingly down to earth teenager in India Hastings who ends up coming face to face with her worse fears. Laura Linney has some strong moments as Susan’s mother, Anne, whose words hang over Susan throughout the rest of the movie. Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo portray two gang members whose intimidation knows no bounds, and even the audience has yet to see how far they will go. And it’s always great to see Jena Malone, and she gives a wonderfully quirky performance as art gallery worker and new mother Sage Ross.

But there are two performances in “Nocturnal Animals” which stood out to me in particular. The first is Michael Shannon’s as Bobby Andes, a man of the law who looks to play it by the book, but who is slowly losing his moral bearings along with his body to the cancer eating away at it. Shannon doesn’t act but instead inhabits his character to where we don’t see him performing but becoming this sheriff, and he becomes increasingly frightening to where the anticipation of him letting go of a bullet is almost too much to bear. Seeing him bear down on a suspect with his piercing eyes and gruff voice makes him even scarier, and you have to admire the person who doesn’t need to do much to instill dread into another with such relative ease.

Then there’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a long way from his “Kick-Ass” days, as Ray Marcus, a lethal and disgusting bully of a character who revels in emasculating and humiliating Tony in front of his wife and daughter. Johnson’s performance reminds of you of those people in life who robbed you of your worth and self-respect and didn’t show the least bit of remorse about it. You want to smack Johnson in the face after watching him in “Nocturnal Animals,” and that is a compliment.

This is only Ford’s second movie as a director, his first being “A Single Man” with Colin Firth, a movie my parents are still begging me to watch. He is primarily known as a fashion designer whose clothes have made some of the most beautiful celebrities look even more beautiful. With “Nocturnal Animals,” he proves to be as gifted behind the camera as he is with clothes, and he gives this movie a striking look with the help of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. This could have been a movie dominated by style more than anything else, but Ford gets terrific performances out of his infinitely talented cast, showing his attention is on the story and characters more than anything else.

It should also be noted how Ford has not put anything from his own clothing line on display here, so this movie should in no way be mistaken as a commercial for his fashions. He wisely removed this conflict of interest from “Nocturnal Animals,” so those hoping for a glimpse at his latest fashion line will have to look elsewhere.

“Nocturnal Animals” ends on an ambiguous note regarding Susan and Edward. This will probably annoy some viewers who demand concrete answers to their relationship or the state of their lives and where they will go from here. But Ford is wise to know this is a question he cannot answer himself as the fate of these characters has to be open up to interpretation. Some relationships are meant to be repaired, others are better left broken. When it comes to Susan and Edward, we can only wonder if they can or even should rediscover what made their love spark so passionately.

“Nocturnal Animals” is a movie meant to stay with you for a long time after the end credits have finished, and boy does it ever.

* * * * out of * * * *