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Schultz reviews: ‘Blumhouse's Fantasy Island,’ ‘Downhill,’ ‘The Photograph’ and ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’

Schultz reviews: ‘Blumhouse's Fantasy Island,’ ‘Downhill,’ ‘The Photograph’ and ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’

Carl Schultz


“Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing and Columbia Pictures, 109 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Feb. 14:


You already know the drill — you’ve heard it often enough: “De plane!  De plane!”


Based on the classic adventure series which ran on American television from 1977 to 1984, the new motion pictures adaptation of “Fantasy Island” tweaks the familiar premise of the show with a few modern touches, but the idea remains essentially the same: A disparate handful of strangers is delivered by a seaplane to a luxurious tropical island resort, where each is given the opportunity to have his or her single dearest fantasy fulfilled. The catch: Each must allow the individual wish to spin out to its logical conclusion.


While two of the four initial fantasies fulfilled in the picture (a woman wishes to accept a marriage proposal she refused years before, and two half-brothers want to experience a taste of excitement and danger) could’ve been lifted whole from a 1970s episode of the original series, the other two have an edgier, more timely twist: One man wants to taste the experience of being a soldier in combat like his KIA dad, and a bitter and caustic woman wishes to avenge her mistreatment in high school at the hands of a bully.


But after a promising beginning with the arriving visitors comparing popular urban legends about the origins of the island and its owner, their mysterious host Mr. Roarke, when the fairly mundane and pedestrian truth is revealed at about the halfway point of the movie, and the individual fantasies begin to bump into each other, the movie dissolves into a confusing, sadistic, and gory mess ... which is to say that it becomes a fairly routine Blumhouse Pictures release.


Directed by Jeff Wadlow from a screenplay by Wadlow, Chris Roach, and Jillian Jacobs, “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” is more like a disappointing episode of “Night Gallery” than an update of the beloved television series on which it’s based. The all-important moral, if you’re looking fairly hard for it, is intriguing enough ... but the movie is too clunky to pull it off with the wit and aplomb of the original show. And despite a clever final twist, in the end the movie is less than a fantasy for the viewer, and leaves a curiously bad taste.


With his casual hands-in-pockets demeanor, indifferent posture and rumpled white suit, Michael Pena as the mysterious Mr. Roarke, ”the ambassador to your deepest desires,” is a stark contrast to the stately, regal, and immaculately dressed Ricardo Montalban of the TV series. Of the other members of the cast, Maggie Q, Portia Doubleday, and Austin Stowell probably fare best, while Ryan Hanson and Jimmy O. Yang contribute some much-needed comedy relief. And a heroic Michael Rooker shows up at about the one-hour point with some unsettling news indeed.


“Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” is receiving disappointing reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of just 9% from Rotten Tomatoes against a slightly more forgiving 22% from Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore assign the picture an average grade of C-minus. Expected by distributor Columbia Pictures to earn up to $20 million from 2,770 screens across North America during its opening weekend, the picture instead delivered a disappointing $12.4 million, scoring a third-place finish in the weekend’s Box Office Moto Top Ten.


“Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island” is rated PG-13 for violence, terror, drug content, suggestive material, and brief strong language.


“Downhill” Distributed by Searchlight Pictures, 86 Minutes, Rated R, Released Feb. 14:


Neither comedy nor drama, in “Downhill,” a comfortably-married 50-ish American couple enjoying an Austrian skiing vacation at an adult-oriented resort hotel with their two adolescent sons are compelled to re-examine their relationship when they’re all placed into brief peril by a controlled avalanche ... and dad impulsively makes a run for it instead of remaining to protect the family.


An inferior remake of the 2014 French comedy “Force Majeure,” “Downhill” becomes an awkward and uncomfortable hybrid for noted comedy stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell. The performers — particularly Ferrell — are fine in their roles, and certainly persuasive during their dramatic scenes. But the audience might find itself becoming a little restless with the notion of spending good money to watch two television comedy legends stretching their talents to embrace a sort of lite version of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” 


Written (with an assist from British screenwriter Jesse Armstrong) and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Academy Award-winning screenwriters of Alexander Payne’s “The Descendents,” the picture starts out well, but descends into confusion when the filmmakers can’t quite seem to figure out what the picture is about, or where the narrative wants to go. At its best in scenes which depict a clash of cultures at the multinational Austrian resort, in the end “Downhill” mostly resembles a sketch on television’s Saturday Night Live that goes bad and then just keeps going.


The film’s frequent use of extreme closeups might be more effective when the movie ends its theatrical run and graduates to television and home video ... which despite the inclusion of two F-bombs and one scene suggesting solo sexuality is where the picture ultimately belongs. In legal terms, “force majeure” — the title of the original French comedy on which “Downhill” is based — refers to a contractual clause absolving both parties of liability in the event of a natural disaster.


Opening in some 2,275 theaters across the United States and Canada, “Downhill” is receiving understanding reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 41% from Rotten Tomatoes against a weighted average of 49% from Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore award the picture a more revealing average grade of D. The picture was expected by distributor Searchlight Pictures to earn an conservative $4 million at the box office, and actually brought in some $4.6 million, taking the tenth-place spot on the weekend’s Box Office Mojo Top Ten.


“Downhill” is rated R for language concerns and some sexual material.


“The Photograph” Distributed by Universal Pictures, 106 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Feb. 14:


Released just in time for Valentine’s Day, in the romance picture “The Photograph” a noted journalist becomes intrigued by the work of a recently-deceased photographer, and begins to research her life as background for a magazine article. His journalistic quest leads him to the late photographer’s estranged museum curator daughter, and unforeseen romantic complications ensue.


The audience’s enjoyment of “The Photograph” might be directly proportional to the viewer’s individual ability to swallow a number of improbable plot developments and mind-bendingly unlikely implausibilities, including a whopper toward the film’s climax which genuinely strains the viewer’s “oh, come on” capacity. But that’s pretty much par for the course for a romantic picture ... and possibly even for most romances. “The Photograph” easily passes the most important test of a movie romance — from the picture’s first frame forward, the viewer is rooting for the central characters to hook up. So grab some popcorn, kick back, and just go with it.


Written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Stella Meghie, the filmmaker behind the 2017 romantic drama “Everything, Everything” and the 2018 comedy “The Weekend,” “The Photograph” contains marked similarities with both 2004’s “The Notebook” and 1980’s “Somewhere in Time.” But despite a disappointing resolution, the picture makes the material its own thanks to evocative, appealing, and very attractive performances by the charismatic Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield in the picture’s central roles as the late photographer’s estranged adult daughter and the journalist who ardently pursues her.


“The Photograph” represents a departure of sorts for both of its stars. Issa Rae is usually noted for her comedic performances, both on television series such as HBO’s “Insecure” and in movies like “Little” and the upcoming “The Lovebirds.” Lakeith Stanfield is known primarily for his dramatic turns in a number of biographical roles, portraying real-life civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson in 2014’s “Selma” and entertainer Snoop Dogg in 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton.”  “The Photograph” is one of a trio of Stanfield pictures currently playing in the nation’s cinemas, along with the drama “Uncut Gems” and the comedy “Knives Out.” 


Also containing likable performances from Lil Rel Howery, Chelsea Peretti, Teyonah Parris, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Rob Morgan, and Courtney B. Vance, “The Photograph” is earning appreciative reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 75% from Rotten Tomatoes against a weighted average of 63% from Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore assign the picture an average grade of B-plus. The picture earned $12.3 million in revenues during its opening weekend, securing a fourth-place spot on the Box Office Mojo Top Ten.


“The Photograph” is rated PG-13 for one scene depicting soft-focus sexuality, and for brief strong language.


“Sonic the Hedgehog” Distributed by Paramount Pictures, 99 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Feb. 14:


And they say there are no original ideas in movies today ...


A blue extraterrestrial hedgehog, named Sonic for his unique ability to run at hypersonic speeds, is transported to Earth while escaping an attack by hostile platypuses on his home planet, and becomes stranded in Green Hills, Montana.  


After laying low for a decade, Sonic in his longing for companionship befriends a local sheriff, who agrees to help the lonely alien hedgehog to escape back to his home planet. But first they have to elude the hot-in-pursuit U.S. Department of Defense and subdue the villainous Dr. Robotnik, a mad scientist who seeks to steal Sonic’s distinctive natural abilities for his robotic creations.


Directed in his feature filmmaking debut by noted visual effects artist Jeff Fowler from a screenplay adapted by Pat Casey and Josh “Worm” Miller from the popular video game franchise created by the Japanese Sega corporation, “Sonic the Hedgehog” surprisingly manages to overcome its troubled six-year production history to become a genuinely inventive, exciting, and entertaining blend of animation and live action.


Featuring like-able performances from virtually the entire cast, particularly the dependable James Marsden as the sheriff, Tika Sumpter as his patient wife, and actor-comedian Ben Schwartz as the voice of the title character, “Sonic” also marks a return to form of sorts for co-star Jim Carrey, whose broad, cartoonish characterization as the nefarious Dr. Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik is strongly reminiscent of his early manic appearances in pictures like 1994’s “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “The Mask,” and “Dumb and Dumber.”


Plainly targeted squarely at the 8-to-10-year-old demographic which forms the loyal fan base of the Sonic character and the video game he inhabits, “Sonic the Hedgehog” with its lively, fast-moving plot, sharp humor, and popular culture references is equally entertaining for adult viewers. Like the classic Bugs Bunny or Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoons from the Warner Bros. animation studios in the 1950’s and ‘60s, “Sonic the Hedgehog” is one picture the entire family can enjoy ... albeit for different reasons.


In various stages of production since 2014 and filmed during late 2018 in Vancouver, British Columbia, “Sonic the Hedgehog” was originally scheduled for release on Nov. 15. But when the picture’s original trailer provoked a strongly critical reaction to the title character’s unsettlingly realistic appearance, distributor Paramount Pictures delayed the film’s release to allow the filmmakers an opportunity to redesign Sonic and digitally reinsert the character into the picture. Most likely you won’t notice any problem at all.


Released on Valentine’s Day to 4,130 movie theaters across the United States and Canada and receiving almost exclusively positive reviews, “Sonic the Hedgehog” was initially projected by Paramount Pictures to gross up to $50 million during its opening four-day weekend. But after earning some $21 million on its opening day alone, projections were raised to $64 million. By Feb. 16, “Sonic the Hedgehog” had delivered some $57 million in earnings, handily soaring to the first-place spot in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten, with “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” in a distant second after earning an additional $17.1 million during its second week in release.


“Sonic the Hedgehog” is rated PG for action, some violence, the customary rude humor, and brief, mild language concerns.

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