From cute ‘Sonic’ to deadly ‘Tigers’

By Tom Von Malder | May 16, 2020
Photo by: Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment Sonic the Hedgehog and James Marsden as Sheriff Tom make a road trip to San Francisco.

Owls Head — Sonic the Hedgehog (Paramount, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 98 min.). My experience with video games was limited to a late usage of ColecoVision, so I missed the original Sonic the Hedgehog on SEGA Genesis. Thus, this live action film, with an animated Sonic, is my delightful, first introduction to the blue bolt, whose speed puts even Roadrunner to shame. In the animated start, we learn of Sonic’s youth on another planet under the supervision of the owl Longclaw. When word of Sonic’s speed gets out, bad guys attack and Sonic has to use one of the gold travelling rings to create a portal to a safer planet. Longclaw sends Sonic alone to Earth.

Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz of TV’s “Parks and Recreation,” the upcoming “Space Force”) ends up in the very small, very quiet town of Green Hills in the pacific Northwest. There, he has managed to only be seen by one human, Crazy Carl (Frank C. Turner), who calls him the Blue Devil, but no one believes Carl because he is Crazy Carl. What Sonic likes to do is peek in on his two favorite humans, unknowingly sharing their movie time. They are Sheriff Tom Wachowski (James Marsden of the “X-Men” movies, “Hairspray”) and his wife, veterinarian Maddie (Tika Sumpter of the “Ride Along” films). Sonic refers to Tom as The Donut Lord, because he eats a lot of them and even talks to them, especially when out on boring stints trying to catch speeders.

Marsden does a good job acting against something that is not really there. He brings a sense of humor, and even a sly delight, to his performance. On the other hand, Jim Carrey (“Ace Ventura” films, “The Mask”) as main villain, the hammy Dr. Robotnik, is mostly a lead weight, dragging down nearly every scene he is in. Dr. Robotnik incessantly brags about how smarter he is than anyone else. Carrey brings a distinct lack of joy to the role and his gadgets, including an army of drones, do not impress much either. Dr. Robotnik is brought in by the U.S. military to investigate a regional power outage, caused when Sonic went too fast while playing all the positions in a baseball game by himself.

Sheriff Tom and Sonic have to go on a road trip to San Francisco – turning this into a buddy movie rather than “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” – because Sonic’s travel rings ended atop the Transamerica building. Tom has wearing a t-shirt with that image when he shot Sonic with a tranquilizer dart; so that was the image Sonic had in mind when he threw up a ring, intended to escape to a mushroom planet. The best part of the road trip is when Sonic learns what a bucket list is and tries to check off nearly everything during a fun evening at a cowboy bar. The best use of Sonic’s speed comes during a “bullet time-like” fight sequence in the bar (also similar to Quicksilver’s scenes in the “X-Men” films).

The extras, which are only available on the Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD versions, include audio commentary by director Jeff Fowler and voice actor Schwarz, plus Fowler does an on-camera introduction to the six deleted scenes (13:23), the best of which has Crazy Carl lay traps for Sonic, only to have Sonic set them all off  at a pace too fast for Carl to see. There also is an unfinished animation of an alternate opening in which Longclaw also comes to Earth. A brief black-and-white comic is Sonic’s traffic diary (1:48) and there are bloopers (2:13), a “Speed Me Up” music video by Wiz Khalifa (3:43), the actors and filmmakers talking about playing the video game (4 min.), a look at Carrey’s ego-out-of-control character (4:02), on set with Schwartz (3:27) and best, a look at the history of the game that started in Japan in 1991 (6:21; partially in Japanese with hard-to-read white subtitles over black-and-white images). Early copies come with a limited edition, 16-page, glossy comic book that is a summary of the film. Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

The Way Black (Warner Bros., Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 108 min.). While on the surface the film is about a former basketball star returning to his old high school to coach a failing team into the playoffs, the film is really about the up-and-down struggles of an alcoholic who is trying to improve his life. In the extras, star Ben Affleck says he is an alcoholic and he relied on his own painful experiences to play the character of Jack Cunningham. The film is somewhat familiar territory for director Gavin O’Connor, who brought us “Miracle” (about the U.S. hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics) and “Warrior” (about a boxing family).

Cunningham now works construction and pours alcohol into his cup on the job. He also spends his nights at a local bar and/or finishing a dozen or so beer cans at home. He is separated from his wife (Janina Gavankar of HBO’s “True Blood” as Angela), after a personal tragedy. However, Cunningham also was the star basketball player on the Bishop Hayes High School team back in 1993-95, the last time the team made the playoffs. He was offered a full ride to play college ball at Kansas, but dropped the sport. We learn later in the film that he did this because he was playing to earn his father’s love, but his father only loved his son’s success and not the boy himself.

The film is very much about Cunningham, with the high school basketball players only coming to the forefront when they interact with him. Cunningham was all set to turn down the coaching job, but after a night of drinking beer, he somehow decides to take the job, and things start to change for him and for the team, which was 1-9 when he took over. As the team starts winning and Cunningham pushes Brandon (Brandon Wilson) into becoming a team leader, the coach stops drinking.

The basketball scenes are shot very well and often show the players executing the moves they were taught in practice. Early on, because of the team’s lack of size and talent, Cunningham decides they will be a pressing team, pressing throughout the games. The script is by Brad Ingelsby (“Ran All Night”). Affleck (“Argo,” “Jersey Girl” and Batman in 3 films) embraces the highs and lows of his character. As Affleck says in an extra, the struggle with alcoholism is “not always neat and clean” and recovery is a series of setbacks.

That extra, looking at the film as a story or redemption, lasts 5:02. The other featurette looks at the making of the film (5:25). By the way, O’Connor also directed Affleck in the action film, “The Accountant.” Grade: film 3 stars; extras 1.5 stars

Tigers Are Not Afraid (Mexico, 2017, Shudder/RLJE, Blu-ray SteelBook or standard DVD, NR, 83 min.). This horror film, written and directed by Issa Lopez (“Secondary Aspects”), is centered on a handful of young children who have been orphaned by the ongoing drug violence in Mexico and no longer have homes. At the start, the film points out that more than 160,000 people have disappeared and are presumed dead due to the drug wars and illegal organ harvesting to fund drug operations.

Estrella (Paola Lara) is the latest, as her single mother has disappeared. We first meet Estrella in school, when the children are given the task of writing a story in class, their own fairytale. Gun shots are heard outside the school and the children dive to the floor. When, Estrella leaves school, she sees a covered body. From that body, a trail of blood follows Estrella home and infuses itself into the walls of her home.

Meanwhile, Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez), 11, looks as if he will attack a drunken man at night, but instead just steals his gun and cellphone, not being able to kill the man. The man is Caco, a local gang leader, who apparently had something to do with the death of Shine’s mother.

Shine leads a group of three other very young orphaned boys. Now without her mother, Estrella tries to join the group, but is at first denied by Shine. Finally, Shine hands her the gun and tells her she can join them if she kills Caco. When Estrella enters Caco’s home, she finds him already dead, but the gun goes off and Shine and the boys think she killed Caco. Estrella does not tell them otherwise.

As the film progresses, Shine’s group breaks into an abandoned school (it seems) to live. Their delight in finding soccer balls, which they immediately start to decorate with markers and play with, is one of the few light highlights in the film. Soon Caco’s cartel boss (Tenoch Huerta as El Chino) is after the children, mostly to recover the cellphone, which has a damning video of him.

The supernatural elements are sometimes very dark. They mostly involve ghosts who actually are trying to help Estrella. The fairytale elements include Estrella having three wishes to use via chalk, but each wish seems to have a bad consequence as well. The film is set in what appears to be a very deserted section of the city, depopulated by murder.

The faces of these children will haunt you. Among the extras is an excellent dialogue (63:26) between director Lopez and filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who has championed the film. In their discussion, Lopez points out some of her influences used in the film, which include “Twelve Monkeys,” “Monkey’s Paw” and del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Crimson Peak.” Lopez points out that for much of the film, the camera was aimed low and often behind objects, as if it were the height of a sixth child in Shine’s pack. The film had a 4-week workshop with the children prior to filming. The discussion, which is in English, took place after a showing of the film in Toronto.

Another extra is an in-depth, five-part look at making the film, with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage (43:28). This extra is in Spanish, but the director’s audio commentary is in English. There also are six deleted scenes (7:34), including Shine aggressively denying Estrella’s request to join his pack and a very sad one of Shine collecting some of his mother’s things and burying them. A look at the casting process (3:58) is followed by galleries of concept art, graffiti art (a big part of the film) and behind-the-scenes views. Grade: film and extras 3.5 stars

Gretel & Hansel (Warner Bros., Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 87 min.). As filmmaker Guillermo del Toro points out in the  dialogue extra with the above film, fairytales often are about children in danger and he specifically uses the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel & Gretel” as an example, as the children were left out in the woods to die because their family could not afford to feed them. In this dark reimagining of the fairytale, the children encounter a woman with witchy knowledge in a home inhabited by the ghosts of children who have died there and perhaps some entities that are not ghosts.

The film starts with a fairytale of its own, of an enchantress who tried to cure her infant daughter and, while successful, she also gave the child second sight. Able to tell the future, the child delighted in foretelling deaths and went so far as to kill many, so she was sent deep into the woods.

Switching to the present, Gretel (Sophie Lillis of the two “It” films) is kicked out of her home, along with her younger brother Hansel (Samuel J. Leakey), by their mother because there no longer is “enough room” for them. In the woods, they encounter a friendly huntsman (Charles Babalola), who gives them lodging for the night and then sends them off to the west to find the foresters they seek. Hansel desires to become a forester, even though he can barely swing an axe. After eating wild mushrooms that cause them to trip, they come across a closed metal arch gate that lacks fencing on the sides. Beyond it is the house of the Witch (a perfectly cast Alice Krige of the “Star Trek” universe, whose look is excellent).

The house seems to have an unending supply of food, a constant feast that Hansel, in particular, is happy to indulge in. Gretel wonders where it comes from, as there are no animals or gardens. (One squeamish scene hints at an unsavory answer.) Gretel, though, offers that she and her brother will work for the woman in exchange for room and board. The woman, in turn, teaches Gretel how to use her own witchy powers. Beyond the witch, though, there are other evils lurking in the house and nearby woods.

The film is directed by Osgood Perkins (“I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House”) as a coming-of-age tale, from a screenplay by Rob Hayes. Perkins and cinematographer Galo Olivares go for a hypnotic, stylish look that works much of the time, but the film did not have enough action for me. I found it boring for stretches.

While the film does not indicate a sequel, the only bonus feature – a storybook presentation of the tale (5:21) – ends with “to be continued.” Grade: film 2.5 stars; extra 1 star

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