3 Movies: Shine / Ambulance / Beetlejuice

Shine (1996)

Starring Geoffrey Rush, Noah Taylor, John Gielgud, and Lynn Redgrave

Written by Jan Sardi, from a story by Scott Hicks

Directed by Scott Hicks

If this movie doesn’t make you respect Rachmaninoff, I don’t know what will. Shine tells the (supposedly) true story of pianist David Helfgott, who overcame a severe upbringing and a lifelong struggle with mental illness to find his way back to his art. There are some controversies around the historical accuracy of his tale and the estimation of his true ability, but the film has become a minor classic anyway. It was nominated for 7 Academy Awards in 1997 (including Best Picture), with Geoffrey Rush winning Best Actor in his breakthrough performance. 

Looking at the way he inhabits Helfgott, it’s easy to see why the role is so acclaimed. Rush tumbles through his rambling dialogue and moves through David’s strange physicality so naturally, yet manages to put across subtle changes in his expression and demeanor that transmits the character’s inner life to the screen. Noah Taylor is also remarkable as the teenaged Helfgott, pushed to a nervous breakdown by his ambitious decision to nail Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto for a competition. 

Beyond the performances, Shine offers an interesting counter-narrative to most musical biopics. The rags-to-riches-to-self-destruction arc is a tried and true formula, but there aren’t that many movies about the artists who never quite make it to the big time. Helfgott’s desire for greatness ultimately ruined him — but the redemption comes with the simple joy of performing in front of an audience again instead of the adoration of the masses. His arc keeps the story small and personal, so that acclaim isn’t the reward for dealing with his demons. It’s the love and support of his community, and the chance to keep doing what he loves. 

I recommend Shine for all of those classical-music nerds, mental illness in fiction aficionados, and folks looking for an under-rated 90s awards-darling gem. If you’re wondering why Geoffrey Rush is considered such a big deal, check it out.

Ambulance (2022)

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Eiza Gonzalez

Written by Chris Fedak, from the 2005 film Ambulance by Laurits Munch-Petersen and Lars Andreas Petersen

Directed by Michael Bay

It’s been a minute since Michael Bay has directed a “smaller” movie; it’s only his second time in the director’s chair in five years after escaping the meat-grinder Transformers franchise. Honestly, I kind of prefer them over his big-budget fare; his sense of kinetic energy really crackles when its trapped in a tighter, pressure-cooker situation. Ambulance fits the bill here, where veteran Marine Will Sharp (Abdul-Mateen II) agrees to help with a bank robbery masterminded by his adopted brother, Danny (Gyllenhaal). Of course things go south. Will and Danny hijack an ambulance with an injured police officer and the paramedic helping to keep him alive. 

This movie is very much a Michael Bay joint. There are street shootouts, ultra-violent car chases, and people yelling at each other while the camera rotates around them. But all the touchstones of his craft that come across as exhausting in Transformers works here in a throwback-y way; the film rolls out like a tightly-plotted action-thriller from the turn of the millennium, and I mean that as a compliment. 

The set-pieces are chaotic and inventive, but Bay never loses sight of the stakes or the emotional journey of the characters having just the worst day ever. Abdul-Mateen II plays Will with the stoic nobility required of the role, caught between a pay day that will help pay for his wife’s cancer surgery and his unhinged criminal sibling. Gyllenhaal is in scenery-chewing mode, the charismatic wild-card who throws the story into unexpected directions until he finally boxes himself in to a corner. By the time we get to the standoff the story demands, it’s anyone’s guess how things will turn out. Even still, the ending feels logical and earned. 

Ambulance is a neat little movie that feels increasingly rare these days. It’s a straightforward action movie that does its job well; the plotting is tight and relentless, the acting is grounded just enough for us to care about what’s happening, and the action is well-choreographed and expertly shot. You could do worse if you’re looking for a Friday night confection.  

Beetlejuice (1988)

Starring Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis

Written by Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren

Directed by Tim Burton

This is a bona-fide classic. Everyone’s firing on all cylinders with career-defining work, turning a risky, high-concept story into the best version of itself. This is the movie that first comes to mind when I think of Winona Ryder; it’s the perfect introduction to the chameleon’s magic of Michael Keaton, who to this day feels like an under-rated actor. 

Recently-deceased couple Adam and Barbara Maitland (Baldwin and Davis) are forced to haunt their country dream home as the Deetz family move in and transform it into a modern-art dwelling. Young Lydia (Ryder) is the only newcomer who can interact with the ghostly Maitlands, and together they run afoul of the titular demon (Keaton, who again, is just great here) as they try to get rid of Lydia’s parents. 

For a movie that takes place almost entirely in a country home, it goes to some great places. As Adam and Barbara struggle to accept their status as recently deceased, we’re introduced to the supernatural handbook that serves as their guide, and then to a desert otherworld shaped by gigantic sandworms, an afterlife waiting-room with an undead chorus, and a miniature version of a whole neighborhood. Beetlejuice takes advantage of their naivete to gain access, and then control, of the situation and he almost wins out too — until Adam and Barbara embrace their undeath and use the rules of the recently deceased to set things right. 

Burton and company take great care to make sure every scene is stuffed with worldbuilding, bizarre and clever comedy, and great practical effects. It’s a quite impressive collaboration to realize a singular vision; rarely does that come off so well as it does here. Keaton, Ryder, Baldwin and Davis have such great energy together, and even the side characters and single-scene folks do the most with what they’re given. It all adds up to a delightfully small movie about big topics. 
If you haven’t seen Beetlejuice — ever, or in a while — I recommend giving it a look. It’s great fun as a Halloween movie, and a must-have for fans of Tim Burton or Michael Keaton.

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