With an out-of-state trip followed by a hellacious cold, it has not been the most productive week for me and I sadly could not get this done by the end of last month. Still, it’s been a rather slow month of releases as only three or four big movies have come out in the last few weeks with everything else presumably scared off by Top Gun, so taking things a bit easy and reviewing them on my schedule may not have put me as far back as you’d think. In any case, we’ve got three movies that I saw in June, and I’m finally ready to talk about them! Let’s get started!!
Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe
Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe is owned by Paramount Plus
Directed by John Rice & Albert Calleros
Beavis and Butt-Head (Mike Judge) are living their pointless teenage lives in the early nineties when they get into trouble and are rewarded with tickets to Space Camp. Through a convoluted series of misunderstandings and poor adult supervision, the duo is launched into space and find their way into a wormhole that sends them all the way to 2022; a revelation that is awe-inspiring to them as seeing the numbers 69 on a billboard. With nothing else to do and still barely comprehending the situation, the duo tries to make it back to their house so they can score with a hot astronaut lady and watch some more TV. Said astronaut lady (Andrea Savage) is now running for reelection as Governor of Texas and doesn’t want these two bringing up questions about that botched space mission, so she’s hunting them down with the help of her Lieutenant Governor and hapless lackey (Nat Faxon), while the Pentagon is following their movements believing them to be extra-terrestrials. Can Beavis and Butt-Head avoid death and dissection on their quest to score and eat nachos, or will the universe itself be torn to shreds in their quest for food and babes?
If Disney spewing their entire retro catalog at us in Chip & Dale didn’t make things clear enough, we are firmly in the throes of a nineties comeback which meant it was only a matter of time before Mike Judge and co dusted off this franchise for one last ride. Unlike other revivals, however, that try to remind you of the nineties with rose-tinted glasses, Judge and co are more interested in making two characters that were inextricably tied to that decade work as a modern property. To their credit, they mostly succeed as this movie is funny and a solid entry in the franchise, but even with the best of intentions it still feels a bit mired in the past. Transplanting them to modern-day with a very modern conceit (multiverses are the hot new thing these days) was a wise move and it does give Judge some room to air his grievances with modern life, though as is his style he tries not to get too preachy about it and lets his characters react to it rather than say much about it himself. They also flesh out the duo in ways that we hadn’t seen before which is certainly rewarding for fans, and I like that Beavis gets to open up a bit more and shows some genuine heart in this. It also puts into stark relief how much Butt-Head is the Moe Howard of this duo and he has some pretty nasty moments in here that almost make him the villain of the story which is honestly a lot more plot and drama than these two are used to. It’s pretty much what you’d want from a modern Beavis and Butt-Head as it’s solidly funny but is not breaking any new ground. As fun as all this is, however, there’s a point where they completely run out of steam and what is supposed to be the subtext of the entire franchise becomes laid bare in a way that is just not funny or interesting. The thing about Beavis and Butthead is that they may be foolish and ignorant teenagers, but they are able to move through life with little consequence because the rest of the world is just as foolish and ignorant as they are. Where Beavis and Butthead are driven by simplistic desires for food, sex, and cheap thrills, the rest of the world is consumed by ego, comfort, and minimizing their shame, and while they do get a good amount of mileage out of that in this movie, it feels like they wrote themselves into a corner and gave up on trying to make this a clever punchline and instead use it as a plot device. Once that happens, the movie never truly recovers and the final thirty minutes are somewhat of a slog as no one seems to know what to do anymore and are just jabbering back and forth to pad out the running time. There are plenty of franchises that go on long after they’ve run out of ideas and I commend Judge and co for picking their moments to bring these characters back. Still, there’s a bit too much of this that’s stuck in the nineties and the few jabs at modern society are not quite enough to pull it into the twenty-first century.
Mad God is owned by Shudder
Directed by Phil Tippett
In a mysterious land filled with unimaginable horrors, we bear witness to the comings and goings of some of its denizens. A mysterious masked figure searching for something hidden in the darkest depths of this world, a surgeon who should probably make sure that his malpractice insurance is up to date, and an odd fellow dressed as an alchemist who seems to be in charge of the masked figures. With no dialogue but plenty of mood music, we take in the spectacle of this harsh yet imaginative world that we may not understand but will certainly tug at your heart-strings and poke at your deepest fears.
A movie like this is pretty much destined to leave audiences frustrated. It’s pure artistry and aesthetics over narrative and drama which means that there are great things to appreciate about it and certain scenes that resonate strongly, but the end result is something that never quite comes together in a satisfying way. Now, this does seem to be intentional as there is no spoken dialogue and the film does little to establish ideas, settings, and themes before shoving it all into your face, but to me, this kind of deliberate obfuscation feels misguided as there are ways to make this kind of ethereal dreamlike still comprehensible and dramatically fulfilling. David Lynch, Michel Gondry, and even The Daniels are able to use abstraction and absurdity to get at very human emotions, but after watching this I was just left cold. I wouldn’t even call it a short story collection as all but one of the individual tales feel unfinished, and it’s clear that it all ties together in some way, but the machinations and goals of everyone involved is so abstracted that you don’t know how to feel about anything that happens; least of all its ending. For me, the most compelling part was the opening story which felt the most complete and was perhaps the jumping-off point from which Tippett started exploring the rest of his ideas. It’s a rather straightforward narrative but one that’s still mysterious and you’re not quite sure what’s going on and only have the masked figure to go off of who is very clearly motivated by something; perhaps embarking on some sort of doomed Orpheus quest. I wish the movie had kept that level of narrative focus all the way through as it would have a great complement to the absolutely stunning artistry on display. There are some genuinely brilliant ideas woven into the gruesome aesthetics (the clock in the surgery scene is ingeniously unnerving), but as it goes on it starts to feel more and more indulgent and threatens to fall into the realm of sophistry. It’s so wildly open to interpretation that any reading, both adulatory and scathing, can be reasonably inferred. Still, this was a passion project funded by fans and made by volunteers which means they probably weren’t out to make a crowd-pleaser. I’m sure everyone involved is happy with the end result and to an extent, I am happy that I did see this because of just how interesting a lot of the imagery is and the sheer craftsmanship involved. For me though a great movie has to balance its ideas with its narrative, and this plants its flag firmly in the former with only a token gesture towards the latter.
Ambulance is owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by Michael Bay
Will Sharp (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is not having a particularly good day as his insurance company is refusing to help his wife (Moses Ingram) and he now has to go to his brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) with his hat in hand and ask for a loan. It’s not that he doesn’t love Danny and that the two don’t get along, but Danny is a bit of a wild card and can often rope him into some bad ideas, and it turns out that today is no exception. See, Danny is a bank robber who has a heist ready to go and it just so happens that they need one more guy to pull it off, and since Will has helped him with heists in the past it seems natural to add him for this One Last Score. Of course, being that it’s the One Last Score, it goes very badly and Danny and Will end up taking an ambulance along with the EMT (Eiza González) and the two of them have to figure out how to escape the city with their lives and the cash Will needs for his wife’s medical condition. Can they pull off a great escape in broad daylight, or is this just a long drive to an early grave?
The further we get away from Bay’s run on the Transformers movies, the more it seems to have been a Monkey’s Paw for his career. They certainly gave him the clout and resources he needed to make some of the best films of his career like Pain & Gain, but the sheer artless contempt with which he approached them left a pretty sizable stain on his brand that’s taken quite some time to remove. Fortunately, he’s proven once again that he can still make great action films, albeit ones that are a little too long. The movie is wall-to-wall action with gun fights and chase scenes taking up the majority of the run time, and they are all done extremely well. Lots of close-ups of the car crashes, plenty of camera tricks used to make them look like they’re going dangerously fast on these busy streets, and even the quieter moments have a constant sense of momentum as this Speed-esque setup keeps everyone moving at all times. It’s an absolute feast for the eyes with set pieces that outclasses many action films we’ve seen in the last few years, including big blockbuster superhero films, and what’s perhaps most impressive of all is that he got this all done on an astonishingly low forty-million dollar budget! Of course, you can’t just have nonstop action without something to hang your emotional investment on, and Bay manages to pull that off here as well. As ridiculous as Michael Bay’s world is and how often it gets criticized for terrible writing, he does know how to pull memorable performances out of his actors which is key to making his action scenes work in his better movies. Jake Gyllenhaal is the clear standout with the big showy performance as the charismatic leader with a sense of humor and a hot temper, but Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Eiza González don’t get lost in the shuffle despite being given much more understated roles. Your investment in all three of them (and each for different reasons) definitely makes the endless carnage that much more potent, but there is a tipping point here and this is the main issue with the film. It’s actually one of his shortest movies at a mere two hours and sixteen minutes, but even then it feels padded and overlong with at least one plot turn too many, and the final twenty or so minutes are just kind of dull which is a shame given that they really wanted the ending to have an emotional gut punch that just feels too little too late. This definitely feels like the kind of movie he should have been making a decade ago and I hope that he continues to find inspiration outside of the big-budget studio system. Who knows, maybe he’ll get bold enough to make a movie that doesn’t require a Gatorade break halfway through!