Mike at the Movies: Sonic, Downhill, The Photograph and Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island

Ben Schwartz voices Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sonic the Hedgehog (PG) ****

A live-action animated film based on the Sonic Sega character in video games, this one is a genial introduction to the character of Sonic, a sort of wise guy animal with special skills based on his speed of motion. Voiced by Ben Schwartz, he meets Tom and Maddie Wachowski (James Marsden and Tika Sumpter).

When Sonic’s owl protector is killed, she sends him off on journeys controlled by golden rings. He ends up in Green Hills, Montana, and is soon pursued by the hammy but effective Jim Carrey as the mad scientist Dr. Ivo Robotnik. The Bad Doctor chases Sonic and Tom as they race to get to San Francisco, among other places on their journey.

Sonic discovers that Robotnik has deposited a ring on the very top of the Transamerica Pyramid. Tom gets Sonic into his truck and off they go, not realizing that Robotnik is tracking them no matter how fast Sonic can go—and he’s pretty fast. As he and Tom are passing a display of a museum made of rubber band balls, Sonic disappears and reappears with balls of rubber bands before Tom has finished telling him it’s a scam. Sonic agrees.

In the meantime, Robotnik and his henchmen have invaded Green Hills and pestered the natives about the whereabouts of Sonic. One of the natives describes the Robotnik mob as “kind of like ‘The Men in Black’ without the charm of Will Smith.”

Sonic starts bar fights, creates his bucket list and checks off most of it as they reach California, but Robotnik, using all his rocketry and his drones, cuts off the top of Tom’s SUV, making it into a convertible, appears to kill Sonic several times and brings up “Tunes of Anarchy” on his stereo to feed his mania.

In other words, this is a chase movie with a hedgehog as its prey. Creative, funny and appealing thanks to Marsden’s geniality, the film succeeds in being a touching buddy movie with a touch of Carrey madness. There is the obligatory passing of wind (this film is aimed at pre-teens) and lots of Sega wildness as well as clever product placement. Good for the entire family.

Downhill (R) ****

Will Ferrell as Pete and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as his wife, Billie: This has to be a laugh riot, right? Hold on! This is a study, made beautifully by two clearly aging actors, of a deteriorating marriage and the reasons for it.

The primary reasons are delineated in a terrific scene in which an avalanche descends on an Austrian Alps ski resort. Billie stays on the porch where the family was having lunch and guards her two sons (Ammon Jacob Ford and Julian Grey). Pete hightails it off the porch to safety. Later, she tries to tell the truth and he makes light of what he refers to as “the event.” Billie grows more and more resentful of his refusal to face reality—he abandoned his family―and finally draws their two sons into testimony about their father’s cowardice.

Time after time, Pete tries to soften the truth: about the avalanche, the state of their room, the fact that one son lost a ski glove and thus a $2,000 special ski run from helicopter is sacrificed. Billie, the realist, comes to realize that all of Pete’s actions stem from his basic inability to face the truth. While he tries to smooth things over with his boys, she goes on a solo run on a hard slope with Guglielmo, her “ski teacher” (Giulio Berruti), and they end up canoodling in a warming cabin. She realizes how much she enjoyed the kissing and how much she wanted more. This is definitely a couple on the “downhill.”

The most striking thing about the film is the multiplicity of shots that show the two stars as aging. Billie reluctantly befriends the girlfriend of one of Pete’s friends, Rosie (Zoe Chao). Billie asks her how old she is, shrugs and all but says “Oof” when Rosie responds “Thirty.” Pete thinks he is being hustled at the ski lodge by a beautiful model. He discovers it’s really a much younger, handsomer stud a table over. His age and station wash over him. Then there are the moving scenes of both of them, one on each side of a separating mirror, brushing their teeth.

Those expecting lots of laughs will probably be disappointed in this film. I found it enlightening and rewarding. Then again, I’m very old!

The Photograph (PG-13) ***

If you like your old-fashioned love stories slow with lots of mood music, this is the film for you. Unfortunately for many viewers, this film will seem like a remake of thousands of romantic pictures through the years. Boy sees girl, falls for her, enters a relationship, mentions he may be going to London, friends advise and things move on.

LaKeith Stanfield is Mike Block, reporter for Republic in New York but wanting to go to London to work for AP. Issa Rae is Mae, a curator at a local art house. They are the ones who hook up and slowly—VERY slowly—fall in love. It would seem that some of the scenes are long and slow just to allow more music. There are also several scenes of the couple walking—slowly—to a new scene with the walk singularly uninteresting.

This movie needs the characters to get someplace so something can happen. Unfortunately, most of the time when the characters arrive, they stand around and make small talk or stare at each other while the music shifts.

There are major gaffes in the film: One scene portrays an alleged photographic darkroom, but the walls and wood and light streams through many holes. Another often distracting tendency in the film is a technique that eventually doesn’t make sense. It is rapid cuts to flashback scenes of Mae’s mother. Unannounced or tagged save for the first one, we often go from a modern scene to 1980s New Orleans without warning. What makes it even more frustrating is that Mae is reading a letter from her mother. It would seem that some of the flashbacks are things she’s reading about, but she reads so slowly that her literacy must be questioned! Needless to say, that gimmick doesn’t work. Mae sums up the letter by saying: “I’m more like her than I want to be.” That makes no sense, but is it a way of bringing mother and daughter sort of closer?

The movie didn’t make it for me. Unfortunately for the film, the storyline has been done to death, and this version adds nothing new.

Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island (PG-13) *

The Blumhouse Writing Group pulled all of their tired clichés and gimmicks out of the box—including zombies—for this revisit to “Fantasy Island,” and added Maggie Q. as a single woman wanting to straighten out a fire death. In doing so, they gave folks no reason to come to the theater except for Maggie Q. I’ll say it again: There is absolutely no reason to go to this film.

One of the characters, upon seeing the island says, “This place doesn’t suck!” Like his decision to come to the island, this statement is also wrong.