Sonic is a Party Dude, but is ‘Sonic the Hedgehog 2’ a Party Time?

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Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (CREDIT: Paramount Pictures and Sega of America)

Starring: Ben Schwartz, James Marsden, Jim Carrey, Tika Sumpter, Idris Elba, Colleen O’Shaughnessey, Natasha Rothwell, Adam Pally, Shemar Moore, Lee Majdoub, Tom Butler

Director: Jeff Fowler

Running Time: 122 Minutes

Rating: PG

Release Date: April 8, 2022 (Theaters)

Early on in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, the little spiky blue guy has the house all to himself. So he and Ozzy the golden retriever just kick back and PAR-TAAAAAAY!!!! That’s the kind of Sonic movie I want. Just a CGI hedgehog and a chill pooch hanging out and having fun. And there’s no reason to have any anxiety about the mess they make, because thanks to Sonic’s super-speed, he can just clean everything up in a literal second! Why not take advantage of that? Anyway, that’s only a small portion of this sequel. I guess I’m totally fine with the decision to have Sonic team up with the Fox Fellow and the Echidna Dude to take down the Wacky Mustache Man, but it would have been a lot nicer if the dog had also been there the whole while. That’s all I’m saying.

Grade: Doggone It!

‘Emergency’ Has an Attention-Grabbing Premise and Compelling Execution

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Emergency (CREDIT: Quantrell Colbert/© 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC)

Starring: Donald Elise Watkins, RJ Cyler, Sebastian Chacon, Sabrina Carpenter, Maddie Nichols, Madison Thompson, Diego Abraham, Summer Madison, Gillian Rabin

Director: Carey Williams

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for College Partying Gone Way Wrong

Release Date: May 20, 2022 (Theaters)/May 27, 2022 (Amazon Prime Video)

Is it an emergency if you don’t see the 2022 film Emergency as soon as possible? Its title certainly sounds urgent, and I’m sure you don’t want to find out that somebody died because you, Very Specific Theoretical Audience Member, didn’t watch one particular movie when you very easily could have. Now before I go any further, let me be clear that I’m being HYPERBOLIC. I don’t want anyone to get it twisted! Let me also be clear that you don’t have to see any movie that you don’t want to see, no matter how much everyone else is talking about it. But even after all that preamble, I’ll confidently declare that you may still want to check out Emergency, as it offers a fascinating premise that leads into horrifying, hilarious, and thought-provoking directions.

Sean (RJ Cyler) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) are two best buds and college roommates who just want to spend their Friday night making their way through a mythical rotation of campus parties. Well, that’s all Sean wants to do. Kunle’s on board, too, but he’s also worried about his bacteria cultures for a lab project, especially since a botched assignment could run afoul of his looming transition into grad school. But all  of that is waylaid when they discover a random semi-conscious girl (Maddie Nichols) on the floor of their apartment. Their other roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) has no idea how she got there, and they immediately become concerned about the optics of three black and brown dudes hovering over a drunk white girl.

So instead of calling 911, the boys attempt to drive her to the hospital, which isn’t exactly a more prudent decision, as it leads to a series of increasingly dangerous misunderstandings. Getting the girl in an ambulance almost certainly would have been much better for everyone involved, but it’s not hard to understand their trepidation. It’s always tricky to make a movie like this one that taps into people of color’s deep-seated mistrust of authority, as it will unavoidably awaken raw emotions. So I won’t be surprised if Emergency is an automatic turn-off for some viewers. Nevertheless, I appreciate its uniquely thoughtful, grounded approach. At its core, this is a story of college kids who let a situation get out of hand, as so often happens in a college setting. The weightier threats linger because that’s just what a significant part of this country is like.

Emergency is Recommended If You Like: Maximum Tonal Discomfort

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Busted Taillights

Oh Heavens, How Ever Will ‘Downton Abbey’ Enter a ‘New Era’?

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Downton Abbey: A New Era (CREDIT: Ben Blackall/Focus Features)

Starring: Nathalie Baye, Hugh Bonneville, Samantha Bond, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Raquel Cassidy, Paul Copley, Jonathan Coy, Brendan Coyle, Hugh Dancy, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Michael Fox, Joanne Froggatt, Robert James-Collier, Harry Hadden-Paton, Laura Haddock, Sue Johnston, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Alex MacQueen, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Lesly Nicol, Douglas Reith, David Robb, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Charlie Watson, Dominic West, Penelope Wilton, Jonathan Zaccaï

Director: Simon Curtis

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: PG for Some Hints of Impropriety

Release Date: May 20, 2022 (Theaters)

In another area of my work outside this Movie Review Rat Race, I was recently working on a list of the Downton Abbey cast’s real-life romantic partners, which resulted in me becoming inexplicably excited for the latest cinematic excursion to the Crawley estate. I say “inexplicably” because I never watched an episode of the original TV series (though I did check in for the first movie). I certainly soaked up the Downton phenomenon through pop culture osmosis, as several of my family members were devoted viewers, and I bore witness to its not insignificant awards show presence. Meanwhile, several of its regulars have popped up in movies and shows that I have seen. Which is all to say, A New Era felt like a cozy trip back home for me, and I imagine that will be even more true for longtime fans.

It’s 1928, and epochal changes are afoot on both sides of the Atlantic. Downton is falling into disrepair, while thousands of miles away Hollywood is marching forward uneasily into the talkie era. These two stories collide when a film crew rents out the mansion to mount a massive silent production. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) stays behind and becomes sweet on the director (Hugh Dancy), while the rest of the family heads to the south of France and discovers some potentially life-altering secrets about their matriarch’s past. Each plot twist is reacted to like it’s the end of the world, then there’s a gentle reminder that all this drama isn’t worth overreacting to, the formula repeats, and that’s all part of the charm.

That understated over-the-top approach is most fully embodied in the case of the Dowager Countess, with Maggie Smith still as adorably cutting as ever at 87. Everyone suspects that these may be her last days, and they all make a big to-do about it, while simultaneously insisting not to make a big to-do about it. Meanwhile, the Countess herself is as healthy and mentally sharp as the script needs her to be in one scene, while as unhealthy and close to death’s door in another scene as the dramatic stakes require. Really, though, we should all be so lucky to have such a coherent goodbye from a loved one. Downton Abbey is and always has been light and frothy, but it cares about its people.

Downton Abbey: A New Era is Recommended If You Like: Getting all worked up but then realizing that everything is perfectly fine, more or less

Grade: 3 out of 5 Talkies

‘Petite Maman’ Proves Once Again: Twins Rule!

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Petite Maman (CREDIT: NEON)

Starring: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse, Margo Abascal

Director: Céline Sciamma

Running Time: 72 Minutes

Rating: Unrated

Release Date: April 22, 2022 (Theaters)

I would love to have twins in my family. I guess it’s too late for me to have my own twin, but there’s still time for me to potentially be a father to twins. Maybe I’ll take a cue from Roger Federer and his wife and aim for two sets of twins!

Petite Maman doesn’t feature any twins among its characters, but its cast does feature a central twin pair. And while little Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz aren’t playing sisters, they sure couldn’t hide their sisterly energy. Nor should they have! What a lovely fairy tale.

Grade: 2 out of 2 Twins Playing Non-Twins

Does the Latest ‘Firestarter’ Light a Fire? Let’s Find Out!

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Firestarter 2022 (CREDIT: Ken Woroner/Universal Pictures)

Starring: Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Zac Efron, Sydney Lemmon, Kurtwood Smith, John Beasley, Michael Greyeyes, Gloria Reuben

Director: Keith Thomas

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rating: R for Bloody Eyes and Third Degree Burns

Release Date: May 13, 2022 (Theaters and Peacock)

If you’re in the mood for a movie but every version of yourself has already seen Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, maybe you’re looking to try something new. Perhaps, maybe, quite possibly, you’re considering the latest version of Firestarter, based on the 1980 Stephen King novel, which was previously adapted in 1984 with a young Drew Barrymore as the titular pyrokinetic. Now newcomer Ryan Kiera Armstrong is the one summoning the flames, and you might be wondering just how combustible she is. It is Friday the 13th, after all. And as it is also 2022, you have options for where to get spooked. So join me as we journey to determine if you should check out Firestarter on the big screen, stream it on Peacock, or do something else entirely.

First of all, I’ll point out that I watched this movie at home on my couch via a pre-release screener link. That’s not my ideal scenario, as I always prefer to see movies in the theater no matter what movie it is, but it did help clarify what I was missing out on. In particular, there’s the sense of being enveloped, and that’s especially important in this case, because the best thing about this movie is its original score from John Carpenter along with his son Cody and frequent collaborator Daniel Davies. Carpenter may have stopped directing, but he can still deliver those classic synth vibes to transport us to another dimension like nobody’s business. Hearing his new compositions at home gave me a nice buzz for an hour or so, but if they had been pumped into my subconscious on the surround sound, they probably would have left me thrumming for at least a week.

In favor of the at-home option is of course the convenience and affordability angle, and if you weren’t a Peacock subscriber already, you might even discover that it’s home to some pretty great shows. Not to mention that the original Firestarter is also available there currently, so you can easily jump back in time 38 years ago for comparison’s sake. Of course, there are always the distractions inherent to watching at home, and I can’t say that I found this new Firestarter particularly compelling, Armstrong’s best efforts notwithstanding. In general, the cast is made up of devoted vets whom I’ve enjoyed in other things taking the material seriously, though they’re not done any favors by a workmanlike approach that doesn’t really attempt to reinvent the flame. But maybe the appeal of watching a movie like this at home is that it doesn’t have to be burdened by expectations. Instead, you can efficiently throw it on, pay as much attention as you want, and then cross it off of your to-do list of Taking the Pulse of Modern Horror.

Firestarter 2022 is Recommended to Watch in the Theater If You Like: To have the fullest possible experience of new John Carpenter music

Firestarter 2022 is Recommended to Watch on Peacock If You Like: Being an Efficient Completist

Grade: 2 out of 5 Incinerations

Doctor Movie Critic in the Review of Madness

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CREDIT: Marvel Entertaiment/Screenshot

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Xochitl Gomez, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Stuhlbarg

Director: Sam Raimi

Running Time: 126 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: May 6, 2022 (Theaters)

So exactly how much multiverse and how much madness is there in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? Honestly, there are other movies out there that are more multiversal, or madder, or both more multiversal and madder! But that’s okay, because this movie features a scene in which two Doctor Stranges fight each other with musical notes. And also Bruce Campbell punches himself a bunch of times. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Grade: Medium Rare Sami Raimi Energy

‘Pleasure’ Asks: What Happens When an Ambitious Swedish Girl Moves to L.A. to Take Her Clothes Off in Front of Cameras? Let’s Find Out!

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Pleasure (CREDIT: NEON)

Starring: Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle, Evelyn Claire, Chris Cock, Dana DeArmond, Kendra Spade, Jason Toler

Director: Ninja Thyberg

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (Because There’s No Way It Would’ve Gotten an R)

Release Date: May 13, 2022 (Theaters)

The most striking thing about the first half of Pleasure (besides all the full-frontal nudity) is the underlying message that work is work, no matter how much you love it. There are certain quotidian tasks on everyone’s to-do lists: keeping your books, texting your co-workers, getting the word out on social media, etc. Even if you have the most luxuriously hedonistic career in the world, you still have to take care of business. That’s what 20-year-old Linnéa (Sofia Kappel) discovers when she jets off from Sweden to Los Angeles and adopts the moniker “Bella Cherry” to become the biggest porn star in the world but then soon realizes that accomplishing that will involve hours spent scrolling through Instagram to increase her follower count. If that’s as bad as it goes for such a vulnerable pursuit, then that’s a pretty good deal. But then things get worse. But there’s also some hope that it might get better! It’s complicated.

If you’re wondering what drives Bella at a fundamental level … I wish I could tell you! It’s never clarified if she wants to be famous, or rich, or if she just likes having sex with as many as people as possible. Don’t get it twisted, though, as I’m not doubting her explanation. Her entire aura screams “Conviction!” But maybe she should take a closer look at herself, because when we first meet her as she’s shooting her first hardcore scene, she has a bit of a breakdown and almost doesn’t go through with it. Perhaps those were just Opening Day jitters, but it does ultimately prove to be a bit of a suffocating omen. Socrates is credited as saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and Bella should’ve taken that advice to heart. It could’ve saved her a lot of strife.

When mainstream movies like this one come along to offer an unflinching portrayal of a taboo subject, they often get praised for their so-called “honesty.” To which I say: perhaps Pleasure is honest, to a certain extent. The cast is filled with plenty of veterans of the porn industry, after all. But even if it is truthful, I doubt that it’s also comprehensive. There are probably some folks who have had similar experiences as Bella’s, while others have surely had better ones, and still others had it much worse. Pleasure is the story of Bella Rose and nobody else. We’re all left to make of that what we will.

Pleasure is Recommended If You Like: Making private matters public

Grade: 3 out of 5 Climaxes

‘We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’ … But Should We?

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We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (CREDIT: Utopia/Screenshot)

Starring: Anna Cobb, Michael J. Rogers

Director: Jane Schoenbrun

Running Time: 86 Minutes

Rating: Unrated

Release Date: April 15, 2022 (Theaters)

When writing movie reviews, I often ask myself, “Would I like to do what the title is telling us to do?” And what do you know, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is basically tailor-made for that. The “world’s fair” that the characters are “going to” is really some sort of viral online challenge that supposedly results in a mysterious illness after you make a video declaring your intentions. It’s all vague enough to dismiss as hogwash, some hauntingly off-putting images notwithstanding. So if I do attempt to go to this here World’s Fair, I probably have nothing to worry about. But as with similar legends like Bloody Mary or Candyman, why risk it? Although, there’s also a segment that features an 8-bit video game version of the World’s Fair Challenge, and I’d kinda like that to be real.

Grade: All’s Fair in the Endless Stream of Internet Videos

In ‘The Twin,’ an Idyllic Life in Finland is Hard to Do When You’ve Got a Creepy Kid

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CREDIT: Shudder/Screenshot

Starring: Teresa Palmer, Steven Cree, Tristan Ruggeri, Barbara Marten

Director: Taneli Mustonen

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (PG-13 Level for General Creepiness)

Release Date: May 6, 2022 (Theaters, On Demand, and Streaming on Shudder)

The Twin is an English-language horror flick with a Finnish director and what appears to be a mostly Finnish crew. Which is to say, I was all prepared for a convoluted-in-translation affair in which the actors do their best to turn an oddly phrased screenplay into natural-sounding dialogue. But for the most part, this tale of a grieving husband and wife who move to Finland with their young son after his twin brother dies in an accident is fairly straightforward. Perhaps a bit too straightforward, insofar as it comes off as a pastiche of earlier trailblazing horror flicks. Spoilers are unavoidable if I want to mention what those movies are, so I’ll add a SPOILER ALERT!!! Here and note that what at first seems like a Rosemary’s Baby-style cabal turns out instead to be a sloppier version of the Shutter Island gambit. (SPOILER ALERT OVER)

So The Twin is hardly reinventing the wheel, but at least Teresa Palmer (who plays mom Rachel) is always compelling, no matter how much the material does or doesn’t rise up to her level. Outside of her acting career, Palmer is a mother herself who also co-runs a lifestyle brand called “Your Zen Mama.” Which is to say, she’s philosophically committed herself to a theoretical and practical investigation of what motherhood is all about, and that absolutely comes across in her performance.

While The Twin probably won’t keep you up at night, I would recommend that any horror devotee check it out to keep a pulse on the genre beyond the most high-profile releases. If you’re like me, you know that we fright flick folks like to keep a taxonomy of how filmmakers are spooking us nowadays, and The Twin‘s efforts are instructive in its attempts to pull from various inspirations. It’s available on Shudder, and if you’re a Shudder subscriber, you’re probably the type of person who will gladly take a chance on something off the beaten path like this anyway.

The Twin is Recommended If You Like: Old lady neighbors who might be friend or foe, Slo-mo silent shots of devastated screaming, Confusing possessions

Grade: 2 out of 5 Cloudy Days

Just Try to Resist ‘Anaïs in Love’ – I Dare Ya!

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Anaïs in Love (CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures)

Starring: Anaïs Demoustier, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Denis Podalydès, Jean-Charles Clichet

Director: Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet

Running Time: 98 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (R-Level for getting Pretty Hot and Heavy)

Release Date: April 29, 2022 (Theaters)/May 6, 2022 (On Demand)

Early on in Anaïs in Love, a soon-to-be ex-boyfriend tells the title character, “You don’t know what human interaction is.” But hey, dude, there are different types of humans and therefore different types of interaction that are recognizably human. Although I do understand his frustration. Anaïs (Anaïs Demoustier) is the type of person who will skip one academic symposium that she’s supposed to be working at to attend another one that she just found out about. She’s also the type of person who will suddenly start having an affair with an older married man, and then just as suddenly end things with him and track down his wife to have an affair with her. We’re not catching Anaïs at the one moment that she happens to be in love, because there isn’t just one moment. Instead, that title refers to an eternal state of being.

Is this just how the French are, and perhaps always will be? There’s a long tradition of the country’s cinema and literature that indicates that this is a mercurial people when it comes to affairs of the heart, after all. But in this case, there are some clear signs that Anaïs isn’t representative of everyone. In fact, she is the outlier in her orbit, and if everyone else seems just as passionate as her, that’s mainly thanks to how infectious she is. It’s as if Cupid or Venus took on the form of a mortal but could never be fully satisfied in such an arrangement.

There’s also a scene in which Anaïs accompanies her brother as they take a monkey to the vet. I don’t know why that little detour exists, but I’m glad it does. Life can’t be all about following the whims of your spirit and loins. Sometimes you find a furry little critter writhing around on the carpet. If Anaïs had just run away from that obligation, or if she had ignored her mom’s cancer diagnosis, I probably would have been a lot less patient with her. Or maybe not! Her charms are pretty irresistible, I must say, and they make for a compelling sexual journey I can’t help but witness without judgment.

Anaïs in Love is Recommended If You Like: Jules et Jim, Madame Bovary, Tips for leg stretches

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Love Letters

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