Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (2018)

   Director: Ari Sandel With: Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Jack Black, Caleel Harris, Chris Parnell, & Ken Jeong. Release: Oct 12, 2018 PG. 1 hr. 30 min.

Director: Ari Sandel
With: Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Jack Black, Caleel Harris, Chris Parnell, & Ken Jeong.
Release: Oct 12, 2018
PG. 1 hr. 30 min.

 

It’s Halloween night, and two middle school boys are combating monsters in an attempt to save their mother from an evil ventriloquist dummy; how fun does that sound? If you're a nineties kid, like me, then the name R.L. Stine is as synonymous with your childhood as “Batman: The Animated Series” or “Dora: The Explorer.” The real-life author of 62 spook-tastic books for tweens that sold millions of copies makes his next entrance to the big screen. While some of us branched out from his child-like adventures to that of Stephen King's matured terror, R.L. Stine remains one of the more notable authors for a generation of kids that spent their nights reading and skipping through the pages of novel like that of “Night of the Living Dummy” or “Monster Blood.”

Looking back, I can recognize the dust-ridden bookshelves of novellas as the allegorical manifestations of children confronting adulthood; how they combat that of responsibility and maturity. A similar feat occurs in Ari Sandel’s “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween,” a delightful spook-fest for the Halloween soul. Rob Letterman’s “Goosebumps” was a blunder of adventure and scare, one that received praise from both critics and families alike. It was a fun, deliciously-eerie watch that in its follow-up swing has only squandered by that of a few notches.

Opening the film with that of the word “Fear,” as Sarah (Madison Iseman) types out loud into her laptop as she composes her college entry essay into Columbia University. The question asks about fear or a challenge she has overcome and how did it define who she is today; although currently, the only challenge she’s encountering is the horror of a blank page. A self-described creative writer, Sarah (Madison Iseman), like most of us so-called "aspiring writers," has seemingly encountered that ever-so dreadful and plagueful terror of “writer’s block.” However, she’s startled by the appearance of her boyfriend as he sneaks in through her bedroom window to drop off a care package for his mentally conflicting girlfriend. It’s a predictable fake-out scare moment, but what follows is surprisingly subverting of expectation as the mother catches the intruder before a make-out session ensues. Sarah’s single mother Kathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey) swiftly sends him away in a hilarious moment of lecturing as she pokes fun at just how loud teenagers are today, mockingly repeating his dialogue in what is a well-written and devilishly clever start to the children adventure.

The next morning, Sarah attempts to apologize to her mother. While that of her little brother Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his best friend Sam (Caleel Harris), who is staying with them for the weekend, post an advertisement at the convenience store for their start-up dumpster-diving business. Sarah confides in her mother, and Kathy attempts to provide advice to her struggling writer of a daughter, but she also asks for her to babysit while she works double shift at the nursing home.

Sarah, apparently upset, plans to sneak out. In the meanwhile, Sonny is trying to finish his science project on Tesla, but Sam gets them their first job in which they are tasked with cleaning out an old house, but whatever they find they get to keep. This just so happens to be an old-residence for the once-popular child-horror author, as they soon discover a secret passage and a treasure chest locked away. They open it up and find a book. They open it of course as Slappy the Dummy suddenly appears with that latin card in his suit pocket. Sonny reads it aloud of course, and Slappy is brought to life. However, before he begins to terrorize the neighborhood, Sonny and Sam are confronted by that of Tommy, the local bully (Peyton Wich from “Stranger Things”), and Slappy comes in handy. He pulls down his pants and telepathically abuses the crew of neighborhood bullies, but later on, his niceness fades and the evil within begins to reveal itself.

The kids band together in some surprisingly deftly scenery that like the first film is brought to life through top-notch VFX work. Everyone involved begins to play a role in the story, even that of the next door neighbor, a Halloween enthusiast depicted by Ken Jeong from “Hangover” prominence. He goes overboard in decoration, producing a line to the sidewalk on Halloween night. But when Slappy begins to transform Halloween costumes into real-life monsters and ghouls, Jeong’s house becomes a grease-fire of fright. The enormous purple balloon spide is brought to gruesome life, stomping it's eights legs around the neighborhood and chattering its jaws.

These are the surprises of fear that come in handy when creating such a fun ride, as screenwriters Darren Lemke (“Goosebumps”) and Rob Lieger (“Peter Rabbit”) and Oscar-winning best short-film director Ari Sandel (“The Duff”) maintain a sense of unpredictability and rambunctious imagination to their adventure. Watching and cutting to everything and anything that has sparked into sentience, as at one point, hundreds of gummy bears begin to merge and gnash their gummy teeth as they attack and terrorize our youthful heroes.

That is ingenuity at work. But McLendon-Covey and Jack Black become underused talent pools, and Sarah and the boys are so thinly and haphazardly written that it's difficult to conjure up resonation for them amongst their battles with ghosts and headless equestrians. It’s missing vital components for a good allegory to reign true, but the few jokes provided to them and the glimpses of character attributes are entertaining enough to keep you focused on the journey at hand.

Black, has one of the film’s best jokes in which he arrives onto the mayhem of this Frankenstein-Halloween event and notices that of a solemn floating red balloon as he points and exclaims “Aha! I knew I came up with that first!” It’s a quick jab at the prominent King of horror as R.L. Stine once told King “ You know Steve, one magazine once called me a literary training bra for you." Steve replied: "Yes, I know." That same self-awareness that Stine exhibited to King is on grand-display by Ari Sandel. This is not a film about developing memorable characters or lessons to learn, but merely an encapsulated spook-filled adventure for families to enjoy. It’s not as bright or as compelling as the first film, but it strikes the perfect balance of silliness and creep-filled terror. The talent is in short supply both in front and behind the camera, but the remnants of inventiveness that make their way to the screen are worthwhile; sure enough, to make even the more cynical of trick-or-treaters leave the theater in the spirit for chills and thrills.

First Man (2018)

   Director: Damien Chazelle With: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christoher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, & Ethan Embry. Release: Oct 12, 2018 PG-13. 2 hr. 21 min.

Director: Damien Chazelle
With: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christoher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, & Ethan Embry.
Release: Oct 12, 2018
PG-13. 2 hr. 21 min.

 

Damien Chazelle is a filmmaker who, in the span of two films, caught the eye of both critics and audiences in a way that few achieve. With the ferocity of “Whiplash” and the lyrical scope of “La La Land,” Chazelle has become one of the more notable names in that of the next generation of directors/writers. He’s altered his tune from song to that of pure-drama, in this case, a space-drama. It’s an intense, arm-gripping, palm sweating thrill-ride that encapsulates the most dangerous mission in human history. It’s a first-person experience and one that you have to engage with on the silver screen.

As I said, “First Man” is a thrill-ride; more so than previous entries into the romanticizing of the Apollo 11 mission that took place between July 16 and July 24 in 1969, “First Man” captures the magnitude and severity of such a mission. The experience is one of wildness and tension, and the grandness of space is rarely the focal point as the film grounds itself around that of forthcoming first man on the moon Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his fellow Apollo Program comrades zipped themselves into insulated suits packed with that of body waste catching bags, as they strap themselves into a skyscraper-tall rocket as they wait for that final countdown for lift off and ignition. The frenzy and the roaring speed rattle their bones and shatter their eardrums as they are forcefully heaved into the atmosphere and into the vast vacuum of space. Few of their fleeting moments are spent gazing upon the silent beauty and calmness of the blackness of space as they stare out at the shrinking blue earth, little of their time is devoted to such aesthetic bliss. Perhaps they couldn’t grasp such natural artistry amongst the mayhem of expending their mental energy in keeping the ship afloat.

Stemming from the minds of director Damien Chazelle ("Whiplash," "La La Land") and screenwriter Josh Singer ("Spotlight," "The Post"), the film opens with him testing the atmospheric pressure of an aircraft; we watch as the camera vibrates and jitters with unrelenting energy. The audio drowned out by the sounds of chaos and mayday mayhem; it's loud and ravenous. Neil eventually gains control of his craft and returns safely to the ground as we now get to learn more about the man on the ground than the one in the sky.

Neil, a dapper and soft-spoken pilot, is a family man. When we first see him carrying out that of normality in his life, he’s at a hospital watching through a glass window as his young daughter receives radiation for what is presumed to be cancer. Though it's never made clear by Chazelle, the treatment is tragically unsuccessful as we soon take part in viewing Neil and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), stand side-by-side as their daughter is buried. Later on, we watch Neil saunter into his office as he clears it from the research he was applying towards that of saving his late-daughter, he then gently sits down, and the camera closes the distance as Neil begins to let his emotions flow. It’s a powerfully poignant scene in which Chazelle construes Neil’s confinement of his feelings, a recurring trait throughout the film that implies or suggests that Neil was battling depression in the midst of flying to the moon.

Though that suspicion is never made apparent, it becomes evident that Neil chose to enroll in the Apollo program in part because he wants to be distracted from the grief of losing his two-year-old daughter. His wife Janet is grieving too, but she’s chained to the home, solely being responsible for the children. On one occasion, she storms the building of NASA, demanding answers as to the inquiry of her husband’s safety during one of the many deadly missions he embarks on. It’s quite possibly her only standout scene, next to another that occurs moments before the Apollo 11 mission. Chazelle doesn’t neglect her, but the attention that could be given to a mother, a wife, watching her husband risk his life from the sidelines, constrained by societal constructions to be nothing more than a mother, is somewhat of an uncompensated and dimly lit subject begging for more attention.

Now and then, the movie reminds you of the complexity that the American public generated towards such a mission. How could the government fund what amounted to be a rocket-measuring contest between two overly-macho countries, instead of supporting regulation for racial, gender, and economic equality? At one point, the film cuts to a protest occurring off the shores of the Apollo test sights in Cape Canaveral in which a protestor pleads the inherent hypocrisy in neglecting the needs of those subjugated to racial-driven scrutiny while that of a group of white boys fly to the moon. While films like “Hidden Figures” showcased the integral role that a group of African-Americans, African-American women, played in that of the success of the Apollo, “First Man” strays away from the politics and environmental turmoil of the time in exchange for the vigor of the mission.

It plays into a more significant flaw that stifles Chazelle and Singer in their efforts to craft such a roller-coaster ride, disregarding the humanity encompassing both the mission and the men commenced to see it through. While we gain knowledge of Neil’s struggles and a surface level understanding of his grief and his emotional turbulence, “First Man” most significant stigma occurs on that of a human level. The film fails to capture the outrage or the controversy of such an event happening in the political firestorm that was the 1960s. Glimpsing and merely poking at the surrounding circumstances that frame our narrative, Singer and Chazelle graze the imprint of such an event. In the same way, the pair decline to apply pressure to that of the characters we meet. Neil’s anxiety and his meandering stir that mutates over the film becomes like that of the foreground, never does Chazelle or Singer begin to zero in on the man behind the mission more than the mission behind the man.

Singer’s heart lies in that of authenticity, encapsulating the historical precedence of such an event from the eyes of the men behind it, never from those opposing it or interacting with it. He remains as fixated as possible on translating the untamed coherency of the pilots involved, how they respond to the rumbles and the tumbles that shadow their success. His work with that of the dialogue becomes that of a canary in a coal mine in which his surrounding work as a writer is unbalanced and unequal to that of his lucrative task in fabricating believable and palpable dialogue alongside that of Chazelle’s affinity for the flight sequences.

Chazelle and his regular cinematographer Linus Sandgren maintain an embedded relationship between Neal and the camera. Whether he’s absorbing information at a NASA mission briefing, reading to his son at bedtime, arguing with his wife, or walking away from a burning wreck; the camera fixates upon him and him alone. Even in the case of the Apollo 1 capsule fire, Chazelle and Sandgren don’t treat the accident as one of individualistic tragedy, but rather their painful impact on that of Neil and the conveying of a potential threat to his safety. The film seems to be focused on that of his journey, and his trip alone, and the intensity of such an adventure. In that frame of mind, judging the film solely as an exhibition in visual dynamism, “First Man” has to be considered a success. Imparting astonishing clarity to a sequence of images we’ve seen before, but ones that never honestly felt as vehemently as Chazelle forces us to conjure when experiencing his chaotically breathtaking cinematic depiction of exploration.

If he only he explored further with that of Neil himself, as Chazelle and Singer, like others before them, insinuates the emotional calamity of American machismo but never explores any farther. While they are crafting a vehicular visual ride about our responsibility to examine and reach further and higher than those before us, they almost entirely omit the investing tour of the socially conditioned and tangibly grieving man standing before them. His stoic and unarticulated suppressed grief is never attacked by the two, and its one feels like that of a handicap on Gosling's performance. Though he is capturing that buried and choked down sorrow, the moment where he would eventually let it go and begin to release, as indicated at the beginning of the film, is never brought to fruition. Gosling is the only one with moments worth mentioning though, the talented actor carries the film alone like that of a one-person show, as Foy and Corey Stoll (who depicts Buzz Aldrin) compete for a distant second place finish.

While the winner of the contest remains unclear to me as of yet, what does become explicitly evident is Chazelle’s viscerality as a director. Like that of the gritty ‘70s filmmaker that he cites as heroes during interviews, Chazelle adapts that mold with that of a technically adept big-screen showman. His musical fervor in that of “Whiplash” was riddling and tightly-gripping to watch, forcing us to react to music in a way we’ve never have before. His scope and grandeur in “La La Land” was a reminder that he, like us, grew up admiring filmmakers of the past, as he tailored the musical majesty of yesteryear while placing a unique fingerprint on the work. Those films were standout projects, and “First Man,” in comparison, is a misfire.

It’s not a bad film or a failure in any sense of the meaning, but “First Man” is a rattling and compelling experience without heart and without a crux of poignancy. It’s internalizing of Gosling, and skillful ability to construe Neil’s concealed emotions allows “First Man” to gain traction amongst the unrelenting amusement park ride that Chazelle manifests. It’s a film that with a bit more trajectory and correction in the flight pattern could have soared higher and farther than any realistic-space drama before it. Not to be too on the nose, but it's one small step backward for Chazelle, but hopefully one giant leap for his future as a filmmaker. Because, while he and Singer struggle to grasp empathy, they revitalize the hellish thrill ride that cinema can become. The large-scale action scenes are frightening and exhilarating; it’s hard to imagine someone pressing the eject button in the midst of this fiercely, breathtaking, hellish ride of a film.

Venom (2018)

   Director: Ruben Fleischer With: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Ron Cephas Jones, Scott Haze, & Reid Scott. Release: Oct 5, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 52 min.

Director: Ruben Fleischer
With: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Ron Cephas Jones, Scott Haze, & Reid Scott.
Release: Oct 5, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 52 min.

 

Blaming studios isn’t usually a proper critique, it's generally hamfisted by those who believe themselves to be better decision makers than those who have taken financial risks on unproven projects, but Sony is often the exclusion to this argument. Their track record is not one of prominence when it comes to superhero filmmaking, Sam Raimi’s films aside as one of the few filmmakers allowed to invoke his style without regard, Sony has continually stifled itself from matching that of everyone else’s success. Seemingly attempting to follow a blueprint that they didn’t invent as if DC’s films weren’t a great example of this failed idea, Sony appears to decipher criticism and box office fizzles for a reason to continue. What can you do for someone who refuses to see the writing on the walls?

Nevertheless, 30 years after his first appearance in David Michelinie & Todd McFarlane’s “Amazing Spider-Man #300,” Venom has finally made his way to the silver screen once again since his clumsy mishandling in 2007. His story is altered into this jokingly quirky recluse who’s choices become dependant on the runtime of the film. The character, himself, has always had sprinkles of humor, more specifically dark humor. Fleisher and the four credited screenwriters (Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner, Kelly Marcel and Will Beall) capture that essence of the character, but haphazardly invoke into a mannerism that feels transformed or divulged into something twisted like that of the gooey symbiote itself. It becomes that of an uneven extravaganza from there, one in which Hardy’s character, investigative reporter Eddie Brock, is characterized as that of a cool-guy rockstar instead of the nose to the ground journalists of reality. Yet, he amusingly is continually attempting to control this menacing black blob inside of him, stumbling and stuttering in hopes that he’ll regain his footing in the midst of this battle for sanity.

The film sets up his battle for stability by counteracting that arc with an Elon-Musk-like/evil genius stereotypical bad guy in that of the mad billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a powerful and connected individual who after being ambushed interviewed by Brock, gets both Eddie and his then-fiance fired from their respective places of employment. The film divulges into this accelerated version of a standard superhero flick that echoes the inconsistencies of a franchise like “Transformers,” which seems to have influenced the stylistic choices made in crafting the action sequences.

It’s an intensely far more violent version of something like “Fifty Shades of Grey” in which the missteps in storytelling that occur allow you to notice the absurdity of this real-world reflection. You begin to see how the film and the character seemingly forget about the foreclose notices and due payment warnings, which would typically be classified as nitpicking, but when the artists accidentally uncover that escapism-filled sheeth, you begin to see things more clearly.

Before I go any further though, allow me to iterate that Tom Hardy is applying as much as he can to this moldable piece of clay. He as both an actor and creator is pulling, scraping, and shaping this character into something intriguing ambiguous, a prolific symptom of the archetype. Notoriously known for giving every role his unconditional commitment, Hardy has exhibited his ability for digging in deep and inhabiting the skin of someone, or, in this case, something else. And if you're going to “Venom” to see Hardy’s depiction of the character, then carry on my good fellow and enjoy the exuberance that he’s forcefully applying to the screen despite the hiccups he combatants.

The same can be argued for someone like Riz Ahmed who broke out with his jarringly subtle, but overwhelmingly compelling performance in HBO’s mini-series “The Night Of.” So, that said, it be a bit unfair for me to blame the shortcomings of this so-called “anti-hero” story on that of the actors, each of whom is doing some good work here. I’ll admit, Michelle Williams, despite trying her damndest, feels miscast for this sort of film. Like that of a wallflower in the midst of the spotlight, it fabricates a contradictory tone that is of no fault of hers.

That said, “Venom” remains one of the worst films I’ve seen this year, at least in the sense of the blockbuster format. I am not gonna rival this film’s misfires with that of the veiled racism of “Peppermint” or the faulty neo-realism attempt from Eastwood in “The 15:17 to Paris.” Because this film is bad like that of a dirty room, it's merely messy, and that mess can provide a bit of fun at times. Like that of how the film seemingly is scampering past essential storytelling beats, a cliche of Sony’s work at this point. The film will enact moments that feel as if they belong in the story, but the moment that explains that role is absent, which makes for some unpurposeful comedy.

It’s an inscrutable, sticky mass of erratic CGI. Screaming, flailing limbs, and barely detectable imagery that attempts to produce some semblance of chaos in action, but it feels more like a splattered vision. Matthew Libatique, the same man I praised yesterday for his sensational work in Cooper’s “A Star Is Born,” is forcefully pushed into a studio-style craft in which his touch is lost amongst the fray for a finished product, which inevitably seems to be the central problem at hand with “Venom.” A studio running as fast as it can to the finish line, not taking the time to care about who they trample over in the process.

I think it's fair to say, that whenever a “comic book” film’s opening credits state “In Association with Marvel Studios,” we all gulp with minor expectations as to what we're about to watch. Sony and Ruben Fleisher’s “Venom” is a film that vindicates that hesitance, a film that so blatantly misconstrues the identity of the character at hand that it's hard to fathom someone claiming this piece of work as a so-called “passion project.” The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde archetype are purposefully crafted for interpretation, but to mascarade the two-face tendencies of the character for demolishment of its severity; now that’s a parasite.

Hold the Dark (2018)

   Director: Jeremy Saulnier With: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgard, Riley Keough, Julian Black Antelope, James Badge Dale, Tantoo Cardinal, & Savonna Spracklin. Release: Sep 28, 2018 R. 2 hr. 5 min.

Director: Jeremy Saulnier
With: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgard, Riley Keough, Julian Black Antelope, James Badge Dale, Tantoo Cardinal, & Savonna Spracklin.
Release: Sep 28, 2018
R. 2 hr. 5 min.

 

The agreement between artist and audience has seemingly been a give and take sort of a scenario, us giving the artist our time and money, in most circumstances, in exchange for a good story. Sometimes that agreement isn’t always held up and our time feels wasted, “Hold the Dark” is one of those times. That’s not to say that Jeremy Saulnier’s newest feature is a travesty, but it is a misfire. The young, fresh voice behind the likes of taut grizzly thrillers such as “Green Room” and “Blue Ruin,” has found himself losing his way in the midst of the gore and the darkness of this cold, bleak thriller.

There are too many good things occurring throughout the film to dub it a waste of time per say, Saulnier is too much of a craftsman to allow that to happen as seen in his past endeavors, and “Hold the Dark” isn’t any different in that way. His fingerprints can be found on every inch of the surface of this film, his keen eye gains significant assistance from veteran d.p. Magnus Nordenhof Jonck (“Lean on Pete”). Fabricating this cold and breathable atmosphere where you begin to sense the chills and shivers of the frigid landscape exhibited on screen. Bundling up and enwrapping yourself with the nearest blanket during your at-home viewing experience, the Netflix original makes for a great viewing experience in that manner, producing a visual treat of a movie.

The story can’t be praised in the same vein for me. Adapting William Giraldi’s novel, familiar Saulnier collaborator Macon Blair transports us to a bleak and barren snow-covered landscape of Alaska, in which Native American tribes have founded a small-knitted village amongst the cold. The use of that setting, as I stated, is quite masterful. Not only in how the camera investigates and incites questions about the setting; how it came to be? How it was settled upon? But, also in how Saulnier can incite us to investigate the mystery occurring in the foreground of our story. How he’s able to leave behind just enough breadcrumbs to lead us upon an off-the-beaten-path trail that analyzes the differences between cultures, ethical contrasts, and the intricacies of human behavior.

Where the story begins to take hold of those riffs of the themes that we’ve already taken notice of is in the character of Russell Core, depicted subtlely and brilliantly by Jeffrey Wright. He’s asked by Medora Sloane (Riley Keough), a native resident, to investigate the disappearance of her son, presumably taken by wolves. She has already accepted the potential of his death but still asks for his help in discovering whatever remains of her once bright-eyed little boy.

From there, violence seems to feed off of itself. Each incitement of atrocity feeds into a different heightened event of blood spill and consequence, like that of a domino ladder of tragedy. This violence intensifies upon the return of Medora’s military veteran husband, Veron (Alexander Skarsgard), who begins to unleash something inhuman in the area. Our intellectual hero adapts and overcomes at a rather rapid pace, but never stepping out of the realm of possibility.

Where “Hold the Dark” takes itself farther than anticipated, and without needing to do so, is when it begins to attempt to transform a simple cat and mouse thriller into a symbolical tale of evil being both irrational and logical. While Saulnier has achieved at this style of alteration before, his desolate, cold setting manifests results that are humorless, bleak, and unforgiving. It’s a story that could potentially benefit from such design, but it actually achieves the opposite response. Producing a story missing its jolt of energy in that of its unrelatable formulation, we rarely take the time to get under the hood of these characters, merely scratching the surface of the screenplay’s potential.

The pacing plays some role in the film’s humdrum effect as well, meandering and slogging it's way to an unrewarding conclusion, and the performances are no different. Dale is the only one with any sense of energy, not to say that the rest of the performances are bad, but they’re absent of charisma by design. Wright, Keough, and Skarsgard merely wander throughout the dread of their environment, straying and roaming their way through the austere tone. It develops a numbing experience, one missing its humanity, which may be the point. The film continually refers to our potential for savagery, our probability to both go bonkers and immoral in reaction to just one bad day, one bad decision. Saulnier exhibits these thematic intentions in how the the film occasionally explodes with stunning violence and grotesque imagery that made the young filmmaker famous.

While I recognize his goal, and his aim is on point, the story being told is not the one you want when it reaches its finale, feeling just out of the reach of a commentary or another well-tinkered thriller. In those past works, Saulnier grabbed his viewers and refused to loosen the grip for a second. Sure, he’s ambitious in his efforts, fearlessly diving into the terms of the dark subject matter at hand, but by the end, he’s demanding far too much of us. Pleading for us to see through the fog of wintertime and the inevitable brutality at hand, but we, as the audience, have to feel like we’re getting something back for our effort, and that never happens in “Hold the Dark.”

It’s too easy to check out of the narrative, too easy to drift off from the events occurring on-screen, too easy to think of better places for the story to go; it’s just too easy to look away. It’s a brutal slog of a film, one that doesn’t feel worth it in the end.

Assassination Nation (2018)

   Director: Sam Levinson With: Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Abra, Bill Skårsgard, Bella Thorne, & Joel McHale. Release: Sep 21, 2018 R. 1 hr. 50 min.

Director: Sam Levinson
With: Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Abra, Bill Skårsgard, Bella Thorne, & Joel McHale.
Release: Sep 21, 2018
R. 1 hr. 50 min.

 

The secret to a good social satire is dark but honest humor. Being able to balance that line between offensive and authentic relevance to the times, something Sam Levinson’s “Assassination Nation” ignores almost completely. It’s a repugnant, vile, toxic dose of idiocy and irritating example of atrocious filmmaking. Confusing satire and dark humor for an excuse to be outright racist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, sexist, and utterly ignorant of its own sinful behavior. It’s the kind of film you only see once because no other filmmaker besides someone like the repulsive so-called “filmmaker” Dinesh D'Souza would fabricate such an abhorrent work.

The needlessly self-serious, gruesome, modern-day spin on the 17th century Salem witch hunt begins with a fair warning for its abusive dialogue, cautioning the audience for possible hate speech, violence, and inexcusable depictions of rape and abuse. Other films have crossed these thresholds before, and, like that of comedy, there should be no restraints on creativity. The limits lie in that of the intention to harm or to parody, something “Assassination Nation” fails to pinpoint. It’s not using homophobic hate speech to showcase the stigmas and stifles opposing the LGBTQ community like that of “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” nor is it using racist dialogue in exchange for emphasizing the relevance of systematic racism like that of “BlacKkKlansman.” No, “Assassination Nation” seemingly spouts off this nonsense and callous dialogue for the hell of it, attempting to be daring, to be relevant, and, to no surprise, it does the exact opposite.

The central character in this atrocity is Lily (Odessa Young), an 18-year old, opinionated high school senior. Channeling that ever-so-annoying depiction of the extreme aura of indifference, like that of a genius in slutty outfits, Lily acts like she’s above the law as if she’s figured the game of life out before even beginning to play it. She’s rightfully sent to the principal office for her pornographic class drawings at one point, she shrugs it off and launches into a feminist tirade explaining the difficulty for women to exist in the misogynistic world of social media expressionism. Stating “It’s not about the nudity, It’s about the thousands of naked selfies you took to get just one right.”

A weak argument, for someone who confuses the empowering #MeToo movement for an excuse to be a delinquent. Is it shocking to discover that the screenplay was written by a dude, confusing the galvanizing rise of feminism for a teenager’s excuse of wrongdoing! Moving forward, her principal lets her off the hook, unable to rationalize the mute point she’s making, and Lily is set free with a warning as she scampers back into a film that, like her argument, fails to calculate the rationale behind her argument. It’s not that she’s wrong per say, social media is a sexist and toxic environment in favor of approving impossible standards, measuring people’s beauty by a number of likes. She’s also correct in stating that it's wrong to equate nudity to sexuality, but her drawing doesn’t sound off those points, rather antagonizes them, like that of the rest of “Assassination Nation.”

It’s attempting to outline our ersatz existence in this digital age, but it immaturely flings touchy subjects out at the screen without exposing the depth and thematic significance they deserve. Like watching a child attempt to critically examine the complexities of social inadequacies, unable to conceptualize the intricacies of every social dilemma that occurs in the 21st century. Unable to comprehend that there aren’t two sides to every story, some have one right answer, others have five to six stories, and “Assassination Nation” makes everything out to be free-for-discussion, permitting itself to cross any barrier and any line in the sand. Offending, frustrating, and triggering everyone and anyone it can in exchange for attention, not to deliver a message of prominence, but rather for awareness of a problem that is evaluated by both better filmmakers and better people.

From the get-go: we laze with the four leads: Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra) as they philosophically gossip and stroll through the dark and empty hallways of their school. Their superficial senior lives are treated with feverish cinematography, the camera attempting to force energy into the screen by lighting the film with bright and obscene colors that distract with their annoying redundancy and an aggravatingly busy soundtrack to boot. Meanwhile, we learn about Lily’s anonymous sexting with a shady guy named “Daddy,” apparently making the feminist movement proud (once again, remember a man wrote this). She’s attempting to escape her abusive relationship with Mark, depicted abusively by Bill Skarsgard, who degrades and verbally assaults her self-esteem with no remorse, so she reaches out for assurance. The only problem is that an online vigilante seems to be on the loose, exposing a homophobic conservative politician for a closet-crossdresser, and characterizing the principal as a pedophile for taking pictures of his six-year-old naked daughter in the bathtub.

It’s attempting to criticize the “SJW” movement as both irrational and erratic, and it definitely can become those things, but “Assassination Nation” paints these dilemmas in such a broad and unjustifiably extreme spectrum that it’s absurdly foolish. Where it truly gets crazy though, is when Lily becomes the sole focus of the hacker, making her out to be solely responsible for the illegal hacking of half of Salem’s private information. Forcing the town into a vengeance-filled craze, making Lily and her friends the hate-filled targets of a murderous rampage that echoes the satirical stupidity of “The Purge.” It’s baffling intense and seeks to make up for its offensive wrongdoings by shoddily crafting a female revenge story in the midst of its finale, an apology letter that is both unwelcomed and fuel for the fire.

“Assassination Nation” is the type of film that sparks hatred for the hell of it, like that of Milo Yiannopoulos, it attempts to expose the holes in political correctness by becoming a hate-speaking douchebag, but like him, “Assassination Nation” does not apologize for this. It continues it's bashful treatment of beliefs, orientations, ways of life, in a hectically overdone style that confuses itself for the vigilante instead of the commenting troll. It’s an unforgiving online mob mentality brought to life in the worst of ways, with nothing to show for its egregious mistakes other than one well-filmed sequence of events.

It's loud and unfocused, flagrantly spouting off Trump-like ignorance like it's speaking truth to power. It’s an excusable, abomination of satirical cinema that should be thrown to the wayside by critics, yet shockingly some seem to think of it as an “undercooked thesis on contemporary mass hysteria.” It's a shame to watch intelligence get tainted by propaganda lunacy, despite that not being much of a surprise. In today’s day and age, even the worst of the worst have a few supporters behind them, and 2018, and “Assassination Nation,” are no different.

The Predator (2018)

   Director: Shane Black With: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Sterling K. Brown, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey, & Yvonne Strahovski. Release: Sep 14, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 48 min.

Director: Shane Black
With: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Sterling K. Brown, Augusto Aguilera, Jake Busey, & Yvonne Strahovski.
Release: Sep 14, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 48 min.

 

Shane Black’s “The Predator” is a set piece of entertainment. It doesn’t use substance as much as it just lets you see the blood and guts of the action and the cracks of the comedy; it’s a blast. It wastes no time, jumping straight into the thick of things, like that of its hero. Little time is wasted, playing both like an homage to the action of the 80s and something that feels decisively contemporary. It’s not trying to mimic as much as if it's attempting to live in the same essence of McTiernan's “Predator.” It’s exactly what you want from a film called “The Predator.” Does that equal to one of the best movies of the year? No, but it does make for some buttery popcorn fun.

Wasting no time as I said, Black opens the film in the midst of a galactic chase. One bigger predator ship chasing a smaller one as a warp hole opens, transporting one of them to our atmosphere as they crash down into a forest that so happens to be the stage for a drug-bust/hostage rescue. A sniper named Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is on the job when he notices this crashing unknown craft flying towards his location as he soon finds himself face to face with one of the galaxy’s most dangerous “Predators.”

He lucks out, using the alien’s weapons against him, then stealing parts of his technology for evidence and sending it home. Instead of arriving in his P.O. box, it goes straight to his doorstep leading to his presumably autistic son to discover it. Assuming it's a gift from his dad, Rory (Jacob Tremblay) slices open the package to find a predator mask and weapon.

While this is occurring, Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) is brought in to examine the predator that McKenna took down. She meets the smug leader of this “project stargaze,” Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), who reminds us that this isn’t a reboot but rather a continuation of the story following “Predator 2.” As predicted though, things go awry, which seems to be the biggest problem with Black and, fellow 80s icon, Fred Dekker’s screenplay in that of how it struggles to surprise. We know what's going to happen before it happens, which is never a good thing.

What remains unpredictable throughout the film is the comedy, as when the shit hits the fan we are introduced to the goons of therapy group 2. The bus that McKenna is placed on allows us to meet this self professed ragtag team of “Loonies,” including the suicidal Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), the hilarious Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), the terret stricken Baxley (Thomas Jane), the Irish Lynch (Alfie Allen), and the sweet Nettles (Augusto Aguilera). This group of ragtag sociopaths band together to save McKenna’s son when he learns that he has the devices, manifesting a cat and mouse thrill and shrill adventure between these soldiers and the upgraded Predator.

Casting aside the backstage dilemma that Black needs to answer for, “The Predator” works as a film that is easy to take for granted, producing a mobile pace that jumps from point A to point B to point C at a pace that is both ferocious and exciting. He gives just enough time to the characters for us to care about them for just a moment, just the right amount for us to care about their outcome.

He’s assisted greatly from a talented and charismatic ensemble though, ranging from Olivia Munn’s quirky brilliance to Sterling K. Brown’s charming hostility. Keegan is on-fire as the comic relief as expected, but he’s assisted greatly by Thomas Jane. Holbrook and Rhodes have their strength’s amplified by Black, fabricating a buddy-cop duo that is begging for its own feature film, perhaps from the same director considering his success with the subgenre in the past. (“The Nice Guys” & “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”)

A lot of what elevates “The Predator” is Shane Black, but he’s also true to form by allowing practicality to take center stage as much as possible. He recreates the first Predator with the makeup and props of the eighties, feeling tangible and tactile. He doesn’t just lean into the past though, the new and improved Predator is recreated digitally, becoming this eleven foot tall beast of a creature. He’s smart, fast, and one “beautiful mothereffer" as Munn puts so perfectly. It’s one of the many references to the past films, but Black never relies on our nostalgia, he leans into the future of a possible franchise re-birth. Making a portion of character motivations center around global warming, Black allows the film to feel modernized, but Black knows how to give us fans what we want. He brings back the 80s “kids know more than the parents” trope and echoes its brilliance with ease; it's an easy sell for me as a huge fan of the eighties “kid discovering mysteries” kind of movies.

No, “The Predator” isn’t one of the best films of the year, nor is it better than its predecessors (“Predator” & “Predator 2”). It does surpass every film that followed those, beating out the shotty remake from 2010 and the subpar versus films. It struggles to maintain realism at times, and the adrenaline pacing can work against the film’s best efforts sometimes, but “The Predator” knows how to balance parody and tribute. Black is both making fun of his first feature acting role and exhibiting his love for the franchise.

All that said, the backstage news has presumably led to critics punishing the film for its director’s wrong choices, and while that is fair, I am not such a critic. I condemn his decisions and cheerfully praise Munn’s actions, but “The Predator” is a good movie for me. It’s both entertaining and exhilarating. It’s not absent of its shortcomings obviously, but when you allow a Predator to be as bloody and violent as possible, reminding us of how dangerous and merciless these creatures can be, the fanboy inside of me grins from ear to ear. Add in some Predator dogs (Yes! I said Predator Dogs), and I will just shut up, and you can take my money!

MANDY (2018)

   Director: Panos Cosmatos With: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouere, Richard Brake, & Bill Duke. Release: Sep 14, 2018 R. 2 hr. 1 min.

Director: Panos Cosmatos
With: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouere, Richard Brake, & Bill Duke.
Release: Sep 14, 2018
R. 2 hr. 1 min.

 

Writer/director Panos Cosmatos describes his second original feature as an “expulsion of the things I was feeling,” it forces me to ask: what the hell was this guy feeling when he wrote this? Jokes aside, “Mandy” is one of those few films that is quite hard to watch and analyze. It’s heavy, both emotionally and literally. Panos has crafted a love letter to heavy metal, to 80s horror/sci-fi, to the post-apocalyptic genre; even self-referencing the enigmatic character that Nicolas Cage has become. It’s a stylish, visceral, and mad-house version of a film that is unrelentingly unapologetic for it's “against the grain” mentality. Some have compared it to an 80s heavy metal album cover brought to cinematic life, but that’s merely the style of “Mandy.” The emotional depth, heartfelt homaging to Panos influences, and the blending of a “slow-burn” artsy stylized tale of a journey into the depths of hell and a blood-soaking climb out of it.

Least to say, “Mandy” is not a film for everyone, nor should it be. There are plenty of blockbuster features and mediocre productions that are meant for everyone to “enjoy” throughout the year. It's the perfect kick-off for Oscar season, the time of the year where films focus a bit more on storytelling, on craftsmanship, on conveying meaningful messages.

“Mandy” does all of those things, but in a way that is inherently unique to a specific crowd, one that grew beloving films from directors like George Romero and Sam Raimi. Falling in love with those mid-80s sci-fi films that were both egregious and fascinatingly intriguing, like that of “The Fly” and “Scanners;" the movies that inspired the filmmakers of today that felt tangible in style, as if you could reach into the screen and pull something out of them. This is what Panos is channeling, at least in part. He’s also channeling his affinity for films like “After Hours” and “The Road Warrior,” conveying that “Kafkaesque” design while exhibiting his fidelity for the post-apocalyptic craze that sci-fi seems to generate endlessly.

With all of that said, “Mandy” is a tough film to capture tonally and even narratively, but I’ll do my best. Nicolas Cage stars as Red Miller, a peaceful lumberjack, residing in the outer rims of nature with his wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). One day, Mandy catches the eye of a cult leader, one whose power is made up of ego, whose connections with an eerily demonic framed biker gang, which resemble that of the hounds of hell. Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), this zealot figure, conjures the hounds to steal away this woman, someone whose absence from his side makes him feel “naked.” In what is a horrifically stylized scene, these “things” kidnap Mandy and Red and take them back to Jeremiah’s residence in exchange for the sacrifice of one of the members of Jeremiah’s flock.

There, Red is tortured with his mouth gagged by being wrapped in razor wire, his hands restrained by the same material. Inside, Mandy is drugged by that of an insect’s venom and attemptively seduced by this cult fanatic in a scene that is hallucinantingly transfixing. It’s reminiscent of the production used in Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” in how that film becomes hypnotic in that of it's framing and sound design. After Jeremiah’s charms work to no avail, Red is forced to watch an event that traumatizes him deeply, breaking that essential link that keeps us from going insane on everyone around us, shattering the moral compass entirely.

Cage goes home, dripping with blood, attempting to forget about the events that occurred. He awakes in the middle of the night, startled by a nightmare as he then proceeds to drink an entire bottle of booze while in his underwear, howling like that of a primordial beast. It’s a scene that is shot spaciously, we're encompassed by the distance between Cage and us something that dwindles the more prolonged the scene goes on because we’re witnessing a great bit of acting, conveying a man losing his mind to insanity, driven by grief.

While a few laughs and chuckles generated from the audience around me, I was mortified by the visual. It’s like watching the molding of a serial killer, a man no-longer seeing the world as something primarily benevolent, rather re-contextualizing his surrounding like that of objects in need of destroying. His eyes are filled with rage and a thirst for violence. Like a character off of an “Iron Maiden” album cover, as he sets out on a path of vengeance. Forging a grim reaper-like Scythe, as Nicolas Cage is set-off to embrace that infamous craze in which at one moment he slits someone’s throat and open his mouth, his tongue extended down to his chin, as blood spews all over his face.

The violence is insanely brilliant, but also bizarrely cautious. There is so much of the craziness that I love, but it shockingly falls short when it comes to blood and gore, at least at first. I do wish it started out at full-speed though, despite the final fights making up for it altogether. Nonetheless, the heavy metal comparisons become apparent at this time. As we are watching Red work his way through both the demons that Jeremiah conjured and, inevitably, the fanatic disciples themselves, but the nightmarish creatures that Red faces play out like songs on an album. Each of them is episodically cast in extremity; long color-saturated takes with shadows and bright colors being sharply constructed, like that of a marriage between Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” and Metallica.

Cage is at his best here. The former academy award recipient has become exotic in his decision making as an actor, taking on challenges in all shapes and sizes. He’s the proverbial idea of an actor brought to life, someone who speaks of acting like that of a spiritual experience, and he delivers something of an otherworldly performance as Red. He’s ranging from the subtly charming figure to the emotionally devastated man to the kooky but intimidating stoic hero. He’s everywhere, and anywhere the screenplay asks him to go, merely reverberating to watch. As is his counterpart, Linus Roache who is calmly chic. He speaks in poems, riddles, and monologues and his last moments as the character he is exceptional. Acting like that of a man treading water before he drowns, doing anything and everything he can to survive.

The performances, like that of the film itself, are walking a tightrope, one that is assisted by the last dose of brilliance to come from the late Johann Johannsson, one of the best to compose. His final film composition is incredible. The score is a series of screeching, violent noises that add to the tone, to the spirit of “Mandy.” His work alone is a justification of a theatrical viewing, the last great remnants of an artist lost too soon.

“Mandy” is indefinitely unique, but the magic stems from the passion of a fan exhibited by Panos Cosmatos. The way he mimics that of his favorite filmmakers through his heightened camera maneuverability, injecting energy into the silver screen like that of Raimi and Scorsese, two of his biggest influences. He’s over-loading a film with love letters, homages, and symbolizing exposes of male-ego, grief, and the deep-rooted infatuation fabricated by religious leaders. Some will say it's crazy for crazy sakes, and in some ways, they’d be right.

It feels like that of a fable turned biblical tragedy, becoming a fascinating genre exercise of both horror and action. Like that of “Evil Dead 2,” “Mandy” is something of an amalgamation of genres. It’s both invigoratingly bad-ass and downright terrifying, a perfect concoction of good vs. evil in a twisty but realized vision from the prolific mind of Panos Cosmatos.

Peppermint (2018)

   Director: Pierre Morel With: Jennifer Garner, John Gallagher Jr., John Ortiz, Annie Ilonzeh, Juan Pablo Raba, Jeff Hephner, & Cailey Fleming. Release: Sep 7, 2018 R. 1 hr. 41 min.

Director: Pierre Morel
With: Jennifer Garner, John Gallagher Jr., John Ortiz, Annie Ilonzeh, Juan Pablo Raba, Jeff Hephner, & Cailey Fleming.
Release: Sep 7, 2018
R. 1 hr. 41 min.

 

What should’ve been a subtle, but brilliant dark comedy on our socio-political status as a country is mutilated into a shoot em’ up, straight to DVD action film starring Jennifer Garner. It’s the kind of movie that makes sense for someone like Pierre Morel to helm. Continuing to feed off of the audience favoring that was brought to him from the enjoyable but brainlessly constructed “Taken,” Pierre struggles to make “Peppermint” much more than a feminized version of “Death Wish.” Screenwriter Chad St. John doesn’t have that stellar of a career either, and his work here is an example as to why, not being able to see the brilliance seeping through the cracks.

In “Peppermint,” a widowed and bereaved woman who seeks vengeance on the cartoonishly caricatured Latino drug-dealers who killed her husband and young daughter in a drive-by at a carnival. They do this after their leader, or “jefe,” learns that the husband and his friends were planning on stealing from him, it's a message that reads: “don’t cross the boss.”

This generic traumatic event sends Riley North (Jennifer Garner) on a rampage, a former blank employee who in a matter of five years, despite glaring psychological trauma that she never treats, can master the techniques needed to bring down a large and well-organized drug operation. Admittedly silly, Pierre and John make it out to be ever-so intense as if she is the grim reaper coming to force these sinners to pay their debts. Riley’s mental imbalance is so well known - shown through a matter of sped-up, over-exposed, and out-of-focus camera work - that nobody in a position of authority believes her to be a murder or a vigilante of some kind.

Nonetheless, audiences are supposed to root for Riley and her crusade on the joint-smoking, booze-drinking, gun-toting criminals who were never punished because the system is corrupt. So she and her mass arsenal are forced to get justice by force, to, for lack of a better phrase, “drain the swamp.” I don’t mean to be on-the-nose, but John is obvious in his intentions and craftsmanship. He simplifies the world around Riley so that her actions seem justified, never asking us to look past the tattoos and the gang mentality, rather to lust for their demise. He and Morel paint this black and white world, one that is meant to suggest that if you live life the “right way” you’ll be happy if you don’t then you're a scumbag. Crime is, sadly, not as simple as that. If it were, cops and lawyers lives would be a lot easier, but crime is not color-coded despite what many members of Trump-America would believe.

A presumably shared belief by both John and Pierre, as they stray away from complex and ingenious subjects of conversation. Like that of Riley’s privilege, how her “responsible” gun-owning actions are ironically viewed differently than the “criminal” gun owning Latinos. No, in their minds, Riley is a white woman whose sole purpose is to set the system right, to fix what is broken, to rail against the stereotypical Latino gangsters who work at a pinata store. If you were wondering why we, film critics, beg for diversity and fresh voices in filmmaking, this is why.

So that we don’t have to see the age-old cliche of the white person being held down by the criminal man of color, despite that relationship being the other way around on a more common occurrence. Morel and John even attempt to pencil in her representation of the common folk, how her self-image justifies her actions as a working-class martyr. She’s not a rich housewife like her former friend Peg (Pell James), a snobby mother who tells of Riley and her daughter (Cailey Fleming) during a flashback. Riley is supposed to be a symbol of Los Angeles’ fed-up frustration towards corruption, and the continuous mistreatment of middle-class America. How her injustices are echoed through the forbearance of old-testament like justice, I guess Morel and John are unfamiliar with the saying: “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

It’s this cynical and psychotic behavior that tends to suggest that the idea of justice presented in “Peppermint” isn’t exactly one that both makes sense or solves the problem, instead of medicating a symptom of the issue. Riley is meant to be an underdog, fighting the uphill battle of gun-heavy bodyguards, a high-powered lawyer, a corrupt judge, and the untouchable head honcho Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba) who resides at the top of the mountain. So it’s up to Riley to de-corrupt the system with bullets and bloodshed, but unlike Frank Castle, another pantheon of Red-Blooded American Avengers, the pathos for her revenge never gains steam.

First off, the men responsible for her situation are killed off-screen. The ones made out to be the trio responsible, the ones we're supposed to root against, the ones who did the crime; we never get to see them receive their punishment. Instead, were lead to witness the demise of the higher-ups. It’s misconstrued as a revenge plot, the film work behind it isn’t exactly any better obviously with most of the action being equivalent to that of “Taken.” With quick-cuts and satisfactory framed set-pieces that are embodied by Garner who, despite her strong efforts, is unable to become believable as an action heroine. Unlike female badasses such as Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, and Gal Gadot, Garner is unable to match that ferocity, that feminine fierceness that is needed to become both feared and believable as a female outlaw.

All of this, on top of the distorted image of so-called “justice,” is what leads to “Peppermint” feeling like a shotty spin-off of a Tucker Carlson wet dream. Riley’s actions seem far more monsterish than anti-heroic. She threatens to stab Peg at gunpoint for merely being a nuisance, she toys with a so-called “corrupt” judge despite his reasoning for dismissal making sense, and she threatens to kill a man for doing his job as an alcohol salesman. But this is never seen as a woman out-of-control, rather a heroine serving out justice.

Morel often seems desperate and pathetic in his attempts to make us care for her, as we see that her boss forces her to work late on the date of her daughter's birthday party, mere days before Christmas no less, and her husband is the ever-so-innocent and “good man” that refuses the temptation of theft to be with his family. Hearing all of this, how could you not root for Riley in her revenge path for the slaughter of these two innocent, good-natured, Americans? Meanwhile, the antagonists are characteristics through cheeky surroundings, and racist straw men caricatures, with the over-usage of tattoos and so-called Mexican styled furniture of De Los Muertos, designed homes that become tacky and obscenely ridiculous.

Morel attempts to cover up his racist slanderings with the gender-neutral and racially diverse group of detectives and FBI agents that hunt down this one-woman rampage. But it's to no avail, though Garner attempts to give everything she can to a film undeserving of her presence, Morel and St. John seemingly shout their opinions on what is “wrong” with America. Blaming the left-wing ideologies of rehabilitating criminals, thinking the only way to solve injustice is to put down the abusers once and for all. It's an ugly strain of modern America, insisting that your being bullied if someone tells you that you are bullying them, it's all hoshpog nonsense that sadly resonates with proportions of middle-class White-America.

In the end, Garner becomes the very thing she’s fighting. She’s unwittingly bolstering the same unfair system of power she hates, no matter how many people of color are forced to have her back and ignore the systemic favoritism towards her actions from a country that has lost its way. At one point in the midst of a flashback, Riley tells her daughter: “you can’t go around punching people who are jerks, then your just as bad as they are.” It begs the question, if she’s piling up bodies for breaking the law, what does that make her? It certainly doesn’t make her a hero.

The Happytime Murders (2018)

   Director: Brian Henson With: Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Dorien Davies, Kevin Clash, Leslie David Baker, Joel McHale, Victor Yerrid, & Michael McDonald. Release: Aug 24, 2018 R. 1 hr. 31 min.

Director: Brian Henson
With: Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Dorien Davies, Kevin Clash, Leslie David Baker, Joel McHale, Victor Yerrid, & Michael McDonald.
Release: Aug 24, 2018
R. 1 hr. 31 min.

 

Puppets be crazy. Snorting lines of sugar, ejaculating silly string, ripping each other felt from felt, and more and more can be found in Ben Henson’s “The Happytime Murders.” A film that echoes the noir and femme fatale of the detective genre while simultaneously lifting the buddy cop movie formula and stitching it together into a film that’s premise can be simplified into: “What if the Muppets were Rated R.”

Imagine a beatdown PI, Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), whose life has been ruined by one mistake, one bad day. He was on top of the world, had a strong family, a great partner,  even had a girl too. He finds himself, singlehandedly, responsible for the letdown of others until the job pulls him back into the game. Bringing our cop turned drunk into an investigation that becomes personal, horrific, and alongside a partner that cost him his job in the first place, Det. Connie Edwards (Melissa Mccarthy). 

Forced to work together, they combine their minds and begin to crack the case, sound familiar? Well, when you thought you had the answer, imagine that one of these noired characters is a puppet, not only that, but the world they reside in is immersed with puppets. Before you ask, yes, it becomes a movie that sounds like what it is and turns out to be exactly what you figured, a raunchy and obscene take on puppets. 

Existing in the vein of films like “Team America” and Vegas entertainments such as “Avenue Q,” “The Happytime Murders” is both an opportunity to expose the craftsmanship behind its creation and a passion project for Melissa Mccarthy and Ben Falcone who find themselves credited as producers. It’s not the first go around that we’ve seen something relatively innocuous get frankensteined into vulgarity, films like “Sausage Party” are examples in which the screenwriting process must have been: “the more outrageous, the better.” 

The art of puppeteering is exceptionally displayed during the end credits, showing the passion and the tinkering presented by these men and women who are buried behind green screen suits. Manifesting a believable look to a film that, if given life from the page, would seem likely in suspending disbelief. That is not the case, because the remarkability of the work of bringing puppets to life gets buried behind the haphazard attempts at world building and allegorical representing some form of discrimination that is ridiculously extremitized. Never establishing the rules of the world we, as an audience, have been dropped into. Merely complicating and contradicting points and indications that wouldn’t begin to rub against my viewing experience if there was something worth laughing at, that is not the case. 

The film has one joke, the idea of muppets being egregious. It carries that joke past its limit, then takes it even further, and then drills itself into the ground to dig its heels in for the long haul, a long haul that feels dullishly lengthy despite the ninety-minute runtime. Melissa Mccarthy and Maya Rudolph are the best parts when it comes to humor, but those moments occur on a literal one-time occurrence. 

It’s a sad attempt at crafting an entire film out of a funny SNL sketch, one that would be both funny and clever, but, most importantly, it would be short-lived. Never allowing itself to grow into something that requires world building, that cries out for an explanation, that begs for questions to be answered, none of which takes place in "The Happytime Murders." 

Ben Henson, the puppeteers, Melissa Mccarthy, and Maya Rudolph are the only things working for this movie, but they are over shouted by the idiocy of a screenplay that borrows far more than it creates. Todd Berger and Dee Austin Robertson co-screenwrite a mess of a story that attempts to hide behind the facade of “Muppets gone wild,” a premise that wears thin in a matter of minutes. Needing to get more out of its marketable proposition, Berger and Robertson struggle to gain any traction, even when telling the detective drama/murder mystery. Leaving a story that provides twists with no payoff, investigations that lack curiosity, and partners who share little to no chemistry. 

“The Happytime Murders” is a dumpster fire of dummies, dolls that are being construed to the point of crassness for laughs that will come and go for some audiences. For me, it’s a film past it's prime, more suitable for a release in the mid-2000’s than in the inventive and prosperous time that we, as film fans, find ourselves. I’m all for the bizarre and outside the box fanfare getting wide released, but the cheap service offered from “The Happytime Murders” is only watchable in the sense of seeing how masterful these artists can be in breathing life into felt. 

In this case, the ironic dumb-downed summary of this film is a group of writers sticking their hand up the backside of cinema’s past to spout out something anew, distracting us from the trickle in their throat. Confusing the craft for a party trick, “The Happytime Murders” is a puppet without a voice. 

Mile 22 (2018)

   Director: Peter Berg  With: Mark Wahlberg, Lauren Cohan, John Malkovich, Iko Uwais, Ronda Rousey, Elle Graham, Niklai Nikolaeff, Carlo Alban, Terry Kinney, Poorna Jagannathan, Sam Medina, & CL.  Release: Aug 17, 2018 R. 1 hr. 35 min. 

Director: Peter Berg
With: Mark Wahlberg, Lauren Cohan, John Malkovich, Iko Uwais, Ronda Rousey, Elle Graham, Niklai Nikolaeff, Carlo Alban, Terry Kinney, Poorna Jagannathan, Sam Medina, & CL. 
Release: Aug 17, 2018
R. 1 hr. 35 min. 

 

Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg's fourth collaboration, “Mile 22,” is a shocking drop off in quality. This is not the “Deepwater Horizon” Peter Berg, whose visual taste can be breathtakingly cinematic, this is the “Battleship” Peter Berg, where the story and visual language are ferociously absurd. It’s an incomprehensible mess of a movie, so much so, that the “style over substance” criticism feels insufficient. It’s the kind of movie that waves it's masculine mentality throughout its runtime, as well as attempting to carry a semblance of a fear-mongering political message, spouting off how all the injustice in the world cannot be solved by diplomacy or governments, but by bullets.  

It levels with the same silliness that “Bad Boys II” contained, solving problems through violence and only violence. It’s the only absolute answer to the world’s issues apparently, and screenwriter Lea Carpenter makes sure we’re aware of that at all times. Vehicularizing Mark Wahlberg’s monologues as diatribes about how governments are ridiculous and how our American eyes are blind to a world in need of cleansing, yadda yadda yadda. We are consistently reminded of the shadiness that we’re watching. These hitmen are not working for the government. They are deep secret outlaws, they are the unsung heroes, blah blah blah. 

It’s horrendously amusing to watch, mostly because how serious Berg and Carpenter treat the matter. Managing the message like that of the hidden truth that we need to hear as Americans because no has attempted to gush about this nonsense before, but I am getting ahead of myself. 

The narrative surrounds a rogue group of mercenaries for hire, codenamed “Overwatch.” They sign their resignations, live in the darkness, and save the United States from threats hitherto unknown. They are the most elite of the elite, and they walk through the scenery of the film like that of the diplomats in Michael Bay’s “Transformers” franchise. Pacing through hallways, spouting off how they know everything about everything and how they are the best of the best until they are faced with a mission of the highest importance. 

A former-source that recently provided terrible intel arrives at the gates of the embassy with a heavily encrypted disc of some kind, stating it contains necessary info that will prevent a massive terrorist attack and he will provide the key to its lock if he is granted asylum in the United States. He’s conspiring against his home country and is seen as an immediate threat to his government, one that needs to be removed from the equation as soon as possible. The “Overwatch” team is called to act, being assigned to deliver the package to an abandoned runway, “22 miles” away.

It’s your basic shoot em’ up thriller. With a bunch of bullets flying and shaky cam mumbo jumbo, “Mile 22” is a film belonging in the ere of the mid-2000’s. It becomes incredibly dated once we see the briskly editing, hypertension, hacked up treatment of the action sequences, which is confusing, considering the first action scene we’re treated too is a cleverly designed brawl starring stunt mastermind, Iko Uwais. He’s handcuffed to a hospital bed, being tested for a multitude of things, I guess, then suddenly he notices that the doctors are assassins in hiding. The fight breaks out, and the battle ensues, and it's handled adequately. The camera is vibrant, not tumultuous, but energetically charged. 

The rest of the action scenes are not near as skillful, they diverge in quality on each occasion, becoming more and more like a Paul W.S Anderson film. Snippety cuts, excluding the use of time or spacial awareness for the audience, and becoming a film that leaves you asking “what is going on?” There is no moment where we settle down, no moment where we get to catch our breath, re-acquaint ourselves with the characters, and begin to resonate with them. The film frantically moves through those sequences, excusing itself as a straight-up action film, so that it doesn’t have to provide characters that are worth our time. 

It’s not the worst thing in the world. The performances tend to get lost amid the fog of the firefights anyways, supposedly trying to be a frenetic showcase of style over substance. The method of “Mile 22” is a frenzy of extremity that is irritatingly ridiculous though, with Mark Wahlberg screeching and hollering and swiftly spouting off monologues of his affinity for killing people, even innocent people if necessary, like that of the trigger-happy drone mechanic who overlooks these missions, begging to kill anyone and everyone. The cinematography is absent of a voice, merely shooting the action with fumbling hands, and the characters are assholes with names. It's a surprising shell of a film from a filmmaker I thought was back on the beaten path; I guess I was wrong. 

Where “Mile 22” become one of the year's worst though, is when Carpenter wants us to resonate with characters that kill innocent people, because we live in an unjust world and we should desire to make it just by any means necessary like that of our heroes in hiding. Rational minded people see the illogicality of that kind of characterization, we can see through the macho man persona and the gun-ho facade that lurks behind that mentality. The skills and precisions of this deep cover unit are not the focus; it's the bloodshed and broken bones that stem from those conflicts, the mayhem is the hidden beauty, it’s the necessity to cleaning up this mess of a world.
 
At least that’s what Peter Berg wants us to see as if there is no other feasible solution. I am guessing that Berg is not a fan of the sentiment “the pen is mightier than the sword,” neither is Wahlberg I presume. They might take a walk through history, see how many lives could have been saved by such a weapon, they might learn a thing or two, unlike me. I walked in and walked out knowing next to nothing about this movie; it’s a frenetic mess of absurdity, one that runs past you like a crazed man shouting “doomsday is upon us.” It’s a marathon of idiocy. 
 

The MEG (2018)

   Director: Jon Turteltaub  With: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Winston Chao, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Robert Taylor, Shuya Sophia, & Masi Oka.    Release: Aug 10, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 53 min. 

Director: Jon Turteltaub
With: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Winston Chao, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Robert Taylor, Shuya Sophia, & Masi Oka.   
Release: Aug 10, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 53 min. 

 

In the dog days of August, we all need to go see a movie like Jon Turteltaub’s (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” & “National Treasure”) “The MEG," a movie that exemplifies the sheer blissfulness of a Hollywood movie, the conflict of man and nature in an extravagant spectacle of a movie. To no one’s surprise, the newest adaptation of Steve Allen’s bestselling novel comes nowhere near the 1975 Spielbergian classic “JAWS,” one of the few truly perfect works of American cinema. Despite making that separation, “The MEG” is what you want out of a movie of it's kind. To confine my sentiments, it's a well-tuned see through thriller at it's best, a film in which action star Jason Statham battles a prehistorically resurrected monster Shark known as the Megalodon.  

The science behind the existence of that beast is nonsensical, but the sight of the shark itself is spectacular. The magnitude of this kind of animal, lurking in our unnatural habitat, giving it a natural edge over us as a predator, is striking. How does Statham develop his rivalry with this creature though? Well, his first interaction with the revived dinosaurs cost the lives of three of his friends as well as many others. He’s a rescue diver, one of three whose attempted a dive of more than 1000m or something like that. He’s a formidable hero, for reasons, most of them being his bravery, not saying much considering few of the characters surrounding him are not nearly as courageous. 

One of the best parts of all of this is the name of our hero, “Jona,” short for “Jonas,” and yes the tale of “Jona” does play a factor at some point and time. Nonetheless, his tales of an enormous predator intruding on his last mission, are dismissed as pressure-induced psychosis. He leaves the scene of deep rescue diving, resorting to the land of Thailand, spending his time as a damaged hero whose never-ending bender is used to wash away his failures. He’s a broken man, one we’ve seen before, who inevitably finds himself back in the saddle when a research facility which just so happens to employ his ex-wife, the doctor that got him fired, and former teammates suddenly require his assistance. 

Coincidental plot points aside, the monster was rediscovered when this $1.3 billion facility spends its opening day exploring the bottom of the Marianas Trench. The theory? A rift of musky cold air has hidden an undiscovered world beneath, one that inhabits new life, new species, and beasts that were thought to be extinct. They soon discover that this new world has locked away a feat of predatory evolution, one that immediately endangers the lives of the divers, who are later saved by our resurrected hero. During this suicidal mission, they accidentally provide a “mega-shark highway,” as Rainn Wilson put it, one that allowed this unevolved beast to slip through into the open sea. A creature that evolution has passed by, and one that mother nature locked away for a reason.

Jonas (Jason Statham) knows that and immediately has the right idea of killing this beast, an opinion not shared by the scientists or the investor. It’s an opportunity for both of them, and “The MEG” takes off from there as the drama kicks in and the forced romance occurs, and the predictable thrills and shrills unfold onto the silver screen, and it’s all so much fun. 

It’s not often to hear a critic utter the words “fun,” but here I am. The film is what it's trying to be, recognizing the fandom for the absurdity of “Sharknado” and the box office thirst for the horror of “JAWS,” Dean Georgaris and co-screenwriters Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber provide a formulaic blend of those styles, one that is insanely thrilling. It has a lot of redundancy and goofiness and cliches sprinkled throughout its runtime, but it all amounts to something that knows what it is and what audience it's aiming to be accepted by.

The direction is sensically and arguably skillful, Jon Turteltaub finds himself as the perfect choice to helm the directorial reigns of a movie such as this one, relying on the lessons he learned from the “National Treasure” trilogy. Taking something that began so preposterously serious and grew to become sillier than intended, recognizing the bizarreness of the events on screen. Same thing goes with “The MEG,” Turteltaub goes in with the right state of mind, recognizing that the film lacks the potential to surpass something like “JAWS,” not that another film like this ever will, and knows that it won’t be taken seriously if he makes it as tongue and cheek as films like “Sand Sharks.” He’s in the right frame of thinking, knowing when to showcase his abilities as a filmmaker by providing genuinely thrilling shark sequences while reining the film in with the silliness of a Hollywood movie. 

The screenwriting has all the tropes and the expectational twists and turns and direct references to "JAWS," but it has a style and sense of wit to it, even giving its characters some believable choices at times. Going as far as to use the audience’s assumptions to manifest a surprise or two, "The MEG" emplores every resource it has, allowing former diver turned movie star, Jason Statham, to depict a character that smiles every once in a while, becoming the essential anchor of this movie. He’s the one that makes this movie work, along with an ensemble that does nothing but provide that extra oomph the movie needs, like that of Ruby Rose and Bingbing Li providing some energetic moments, as well as Rainn Wilson and Page Kennedy who dash a few sprinkles of charisma on top of this donut of a movie. 

An adequate analogy of what this movie is, a donut, something delicious and worth trying, but not necessarily good for you. The same goes for "The MEG," it’s not necessarily a good film, but it's honest. Everyone is on the same page; no one has false expectations, no one is aiming for a comparison, it all makes sense. It’s a movie that knows what it is and who it's for, only missing scenes like Statham punching a Megalodon. That would have made this movie the "Citizen Kane" of the modern-era.
 

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

   Director: Spike Lee  With: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Robert John Burke, & Alec Baldwin. Release: Aug 10, 2018 R. 2 hr. 14 min.

Director: Spike Lee
With: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Ryan Eggold, Jasper Pääkkönen, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Robert John Burke, & Alec Baldwin.
Release: Aug 10, 2018
R. 2 hr. 14 min.

 

“BlacKkKlansman” is the kind of story that seems like something out of a David Chappelle skit. It’s the sober recollection of a drunk America, conducting a juxtaposition of our contemporary and historical interactions with racism. Presenting itself as a dichotomy, vilifying racism as an absurdly, laughable, and hysterically ignorant formulation of a thought process.  While simultaneously, employing the inherent savagery that stems from the roots of what we would like to believe was yesteryear of American hypocrisy. Director Spike Lee and his co-screenwriters Kevin Willmott, David Rabinowitz, and Charlie Wachtel adapt a tale of duplicity, one that invokes an authentic depiction of social justice for our fellow black man that was first uncovered in Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir. 

Stallworth, depicted by John David Washington, was a Colorado Springs Police Officer, one of the town’s first. Being asked to become apart of the force in a mannerism that didn’t precisely construe the idea that everyone was on board, and they weren’t. Asked if he would be able to deal with such obscene torment from both fellow officers and residents, Stallworth (John David Washington) was able to find it within himself to see the forest through the trees. To view the sun peaking through the rain heavy clouds that hanged overhead, able to see the potential of a black cop investigating into white man shenanigans. 

That’s exactly what happened too, after a constant barrage of department change-ups, Stallworth (John David Washington) found himself in the role of an undercover detective. His first investigation was to infiltrate a black panther rally and depict if any potential acts of violence may be caused by what was then called a “terrorist organization.” 

After a long night, meeting a fiery, independent black woman in Laura Harrer (Patrice Dumas), Stallworth (John David Washington) found himself looking for a reason to continue this job, like that of an investigation into the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He goes as far as to attain an over-the-phone relationship with David Duke (Topher Grace), who was able to spell out his fair share of idiocracies. A lengthy, in-depth investigation that invoked a two-partner system in which Stallworth (John David Washington) would be the undercover agent on the phone, while his white partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), would represent the combined duo in person, eventually helping to expose and nullify an attack on black activists. 

It’s a true story too, one that conjured the attention of producer Jordan Peele who then passed the story onto fellow filmmaker Spike Lee who then recruited a team of mild-mannered individuals to put together one of 2018’s most outrageously fantastic films. It’s not Lee’s first dance with the term greatness either. This is more of a return to form than it is a debut performance, unlike that of John David Washington who, in his first feature film leading role, steals the show. 

He’s both charming and charismatically invigorating, like that of his father, becoming an enthusiastically refreshing entree into the conversation for best performance by a male actor. He’s the heart of this film, but Lee is the brains behind the operation. Providing an attentive and meticulous level of craftsmanship that reminds us that he’s not only one of the best working today, but hasn’t been allowed to stretch these muscles in quite some time. The blatant outcry towards absurdity is as prevalent as ever as he provides more than a few middle fingers to D.W. Griffith's alleged “masterpiece,” “Birth of a Nation,” a film that revived the Ku Klux Klan at the turn of the 20th century, sparking a new fire that remains unextinguished. 

The film maintains that fiery assertion for honesty, as Lee tears down the naiveness of an America that allowed someone with inherent similarities to David Duke to land themselves in the Oval Office. He doesn’t let up from there either, opening the film with an impassioned and horrifically disgusting monologue from Dr. Beauregard (Alec Baldwin). Who espouses racist vitriol in a way that, while horrendous, is hilarious as his tics and tantrums slip up through his desired perfection as if the white supremacy he believes is faltering underneath the spotlight as the red, white, and blue lights glow upon his face. 

At one point the projector displaying itself upon him manifests an image of a klan’s hood, a quick preview of the brilliance that would follow from Lee and cinematographer Chayse Irvin.  As they then introduced the dashingly handsome John David Washington, gingerly enwrapping him with a delicate touch of adoration, as he arrives in front of the banner for hire at the Colorado Springs Police Department. The haven and origination of our plot, in which the first phone call with the local chapter president, Walter (Ryan Eggold), took place. Stallworth (John David Washington) spouts off how anyone without white-pure-American blood gets under his skin, a laugh out loud sort of scenario as the surrounding officer slowly turn towards this insane situation.

Turns out though, Stallworth (John David Washington) mistakingly used his real name, leading to the involvement of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who happens to be Jewish, becoming a character of fascination for myself. He’s a representation of an underlier of truth that always seems to go unseen in depictions of this terrorist group, how they are not only targeting black communities, but Jewish ideologies, homosexuality, atheism, or any other kind of belief that stands to oppose theirs. A long forgotten dose of truth that a genius like Lee can unearth to remind us that we can’t pretend that we don’t all have skin in this game. 

We have the luxury of being able to dodge the hatred flung towards us, ready to hide away our internal conflicts and pass along as a white American. He not only excavates that unspoken truth of America, but Lee unveils the internal strife that black Americans face in what it means to be black in America, a state of mind that screenwriter and geekdom correspondent Marc Bernardin described as a “constant state of rage.” 

He’s not wrong either, when you find yourself on that ever so prominent cutting board of American coercion, like being a bi-sexual man, for example, you begin to feel a slight whiff of that internal strife that the black community has been systematically confronting for centuries. It’s the kind of subtextual message that will go over your head if you let it, and that’s kind of what Lee is achieving with “BlacKkKlansman,” a parody of reminiscence. Jokingly and passionately criticizing our integrated view as Americans to see these real-life events as acts of the past, as if we’re some college kid looking back on our high school selves saying “wow, I used to be dumb.” 

Lee doesn’t allow us to pull that ever-so-familiar trick out of the bag, wrapping the final moments of the film with a narrative and authentic echo of American hypocrisy. Ending the film’s story with a representation of how small victories are immediately met with heavy defeats, like a real-world enactment that occurred after the grand achievement of Barack Obama, being followed by the horrific rise of white supremacy that crescendoed into an act of domestic terrorism in Charlottesville. Reminding us of Heather Heyer, whose life was lost on that tragic day, tributing her with a frozen silhouette of her tribute memorial in Charlottesville, writing “Rest in Power” underneath her life's timestamp. 

It's these kinds of challenges that Lee provokes from the audience that forces you to judge your mindset and outlooks, internally. It's what makes “BlacKkKlansman” one of the best of the year. A satirically, crude, sombering, hilarious, triumphic tragedy of a film that is one of Lee’s best in years. He’s a master of the craft, and if you didn’t know that already, you will now. This is a Spike Lee Joint. 

JAWS 3 (1983)

   Director: Joe Alves  With: Dennis Quaid, Bess Armstrong, Simon MacCorkindale, Louis Gossett Jr., John Putch, Lea Thompson, & P.H. Moriarty.  Release: July 22, 1983 PG. 1 hr. 39 min. 

Director: Joe Alves
With: Dennis Quaid, Bess Armstrong, Simon MacCorkindale, Louis Gossett Jr., John Putch, Lea Thompson, & P.H. Moriarty. 
Release: July 22, 1983
PG. 1 hr. 39 min. 

 

Joe Alves’ “JAWS 3-D” is what you might call a “gimmick film,” a film that struggles to be anything more than a good idea. With a pivotal technical mark on film, reviving the distant interest of 3D filmmaking, “JAWS 3-D” was capable of being something more than a clever idea for a monster shark movie while using an underused style of filmmaking, but it never turned out to be anything more than a dumpster fire of a film. 

The film never takes off, merely stumbling about its overblown runtime, and right from the start, the 3D aspects feel unnecessary and insanely outdated. The black lines outlining the images, the horrendous frozen images that remain expressionless, the shimmering coloring of the unintended 3D frames, and the construction of a 35 foot monster of a shark that is never anything more than a puppet. The shark in Spielberg’s classic was something of a character builder or a producer of tension. The sequel, which provided a bit more of a reliance on the shark, never spotlighted the flaws in its construction. 

Unlike those films, “JAWS 3-D” highlights the cheap manufacturing of a shark that is ridiculously depicted with horrific uses of so-called tension. It’s all a shrouded depiction of what once was a great franchise, as one of the first examples of a studio that lost focus of one of the most pivotal achievements in filmmaking history, building themselves to seem like a group of greedy, leechers, picking off the bones and the fragments of the film that invented the blockbuster genre of modern cinema. 

The story attempts to have a sense of a familiarity with that of it's protagonist being the son of Chief Brody, Mike Brody (Dennis Quaid), who now works at Seaworld, along with his longtime girlfriend, Dr. Kathryn Morgan (Bess Armstrong), who is the lead trainer and biologist of Seaworld. What a great idea to have a deadly shark get loose in something like a waterpark, placing dolphins, killer whales, and, of course, people in danger? I would agree, it's a genuinely thrilling pitch to give Universal Studios, I definitely couldn’t turn it down, but I wish they did. 

It’s a film that shouldn’t have never reached the silver screen, as the plot even brings in the younger brother in Sean Brody (John Putch), the cowboy brother, who has been scared of the water since a child, well that was until an attractive girl talked him to facing his “phobia.” How a phobia was able to be broken so easily, I am not sure. It's one of the many ignorant features to be found in this so-called “screenplay,” despite lacking any sense of belief, or suspense that manifests any remnants of a thrilling time. 

Watching this movie at home today, I was able to laugh out loud at the cringiest of moments, making me feel empathy for the poor souls who were sold this bill of goods in 1983, leaving the theater with a sense of regret and betrayal from a studio that seemingly cooked up a disaster of a film.  

Amongst this array of stupidity you may also discover horrendous audio dubbing, despite the character mouths remaining still, and there is a handful of filmatic travesties to add on top of the misused gimmick, like that of the unintentionally amusing moments that are created because of the sheer lack of focus given to both the characters and the legitimacy of a terrifying great white. 

It all becomes so ridiculous, and luckily it can develop a guilty-pleasure kind of vibe that can become seamlessly entertaining to watch. The audio dubbing, the gimmicky absurdity, the atrocious acting (including Dennis Quaid’s hilarious fake gagging), and the sheer insanity of a story that relies on the dumbest of coincidences to make any sense. 

It’s a sham of a movie, one that relies on someone else’s greatness. Luckily I don’t have to write a lengthy review entailing the ins and outs of a film that at its best is a good drinking game. I can just cut it short, and sum this atrocity of a movie up as nothing more than a cinematic failure. Don't mistake this movie as a misfire, that usually implies it had something worth watching at one point. 
 

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

   Director: Susanna Fogel  With: Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Justin Theroux, Sam Heughan, Gillian Anderson, Ivanna Sakhno, Fred Melamed, Jane Curtin, & Paul Reiser.  Release: Aug 3, 2018 R. 1 hr. 57 min. 

Director: Susanna Fogel
With: Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Justin Theroux, Sam Heughan, Gillian Anderson, Ivanna Sakhno, Fred Melamed, Jane Curtin, & Paul Reiser. 
Release: Aug 3, 2018
R. 1 hr. 57 min. 

1.5_4 stars.png
 

The pairing of Mila Kunis and Kate Mckinnon sounds like a slam dunk pairing, add in some relatively decent action pieces and an R rating, and you may have a box office juggernaut on your hand. The hands of Susanna Fogel (“Chasing Life”) and co-writer David Iserson let that potential slip through their hands with an overblown, overly compensated, and overdramatic narrative that seemingly mistakes this organically pairing of stars for something of a “Mission Impossible” meets “Rush Hour” kind of comedy. 

It’s a misfire, one of the biggest of 2018 due to the inherent potential to be found in the makeup of this movie. The storyline goes as follows, two lifelong best friends, the eccentric Morgan (Kate Mckinnon) and the uncommittable Audrey (Mila Kunis), find themselves at a bar celebrating Audrey’s (Mila Kunis) birthday. Simultaneously, Audrey (Mila Kunis) recently broke up with her dreamy boy toy, Drew’s (Justin Theroux), who turns out, is a secret agent for the United States government, a character trait that is revealed to us through this elongated action sequence. 

After a night out in which they threatened to burn his things, Audrey (Mila Kunis) finds herself captivated by a dashingly handsome man, who also turns out to be a spy known as Sebastian (Sam Heughan). He along with his partner, Duffer (Hasan Minhaj), reveal Drew’s (Justin Theroux) identity to her, who later finds himself at their apartment in which he is killed, leaving a mission for this inexperienced and enigmatic duo to take a trophy, which is carrying a flash drive with some integrally significant information, to Vienna, Austria in Europe. They decide to go for it and find themselves apart of this twisting and turning journey in which each of them fend off highly trained operatives with the dumbest of luck. 

It’s your stereotypical “two people in over their heads” plot in which these two women are left with nothing but their wit and knowledgeable information from television, media, and relative awareness that allow them to become the unsung heroes of the world. We’ve seen this story before, yes, but with the talent at hand and with a female director, I was honestly expecting a sleeper hit. Not one of 2018’s best, but something exciting, thrilling, and, most importantly, funny. 

“The Spy Who Dumped Me” is not a knockout comedy, but it has its funny moments. There’s a whole bunch of familiar Kate Mckinnon political punchlines that are authentically hilarious. Each of them carrying a dose of truth with each witty twist, and Mila Kunis has her fair share of time in the spotlight, delivering a handful of timely jokes about her partner in crime and herself. They share some sensationally palpable chemistry, each of them feeling as if they’ve known each other for more than a few months, both on-screen and behind the camera. 

Those funny scenes are also assisted with a fair share of well-executed action sequences, one of which is somewhat inventive. It involves Kate Mckinnon and this Russian, gymnastic, model, spy, hitman, vengeful, sleeper, killer person depicted by Ivanna Sakhno. She wears a lot of hats, but these two find themselves at odds in the midst of a Cirque du Soleil performance at a high praised ambassadors party in which “the drop” is taking place. (yes that cliche is there too) 

Anywho, they find themselves on sparring trapeze platforms leading to a gymnastic-heavy brawl that confuses the audience as an act in the performance and allows the viewer to become enthralled by an action sequence that is remarkably ingenious, if only I cared about anyone involved. 

These women are great, but for the entirety of this overlong film, I saw Kate Mckinnon and Mila Kunis, their characters are relatively absent from the story. I needed an IMDB page to remember their names, and that’s not a good sign if you're trying to make “fun” characters. The handling of the women is where the female behind the camera comes into fruition though, never do these women feel unprepared or incomparable of achieving the mission in front of them. They are reliable and somewhat brilliant at times, never in a way that feels overdramatic, rather believable actually. Where the film begins to become overblown is with the spy versus spy mumbo jumbo that is merely ridiculous, even for a comedy format. 

It’s like if “Mission: Impossible” decided to give up on relatively clever storytelling and replace twists and turns with predictions and expectations. Marginally inspired by Melissa Mccarthy's “Spy” in that way, “The Spy Who Dumped Me” is unable to replicate that same ingenuity because of its lack of attention to the plot surrounding the comedy. Seemingly using it as an excuse to be lazy, as if the story will not assist in the comedy, because we never gave a crap about Del or Neal in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” right?

Nonetheless, Mckinnon and Kunis can only do so much to carry this film to the finish line which is two miles too long. It’s a two hour and twelve-minute film that feels as if should’ve been a one hour and fifteen-minute movie, at most. It’s not precisely Susanna Fogel’s framing of the film, more of the page not matching the surprisingly spectacular action provided from Fogel’s direction. 

It all amount to a similar feeling from 2017’s “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” this time there is more laugh out loud moments, but with a plot that feels even lazier than that movie, and that’s saying something.  
 

A Prayer Before Dawn (2018)

   Director: Jean-Stephane Sauvaire  With: Joe Cole, Billy Moore, Preecha Vithaya, Pansringarm, Pornchanok Mabklang, Panya Yimmumphai, Somluck Kansing, Chaloemporn Sawatsuk, Komsan Polsan, Sakda Niamhom, Sura Srimalai, & Patsapon Kaysornmaleethanachok.  Release: Aug 10, 2018 R. 1 hr. 56 min. (English, Thai dialogue)

Director: Jean-Stephane Sauvaire
With: Joe Cole, Billy Moore, Preecha Vithaya, Pansringarm, Pornchanok Mabklang, Panya Yimmumphai, Somluck Kansing, Chaloemporn Sawatsuk, Komsan Polsan, Sakda Niamhom, Sura Srimalai, & Patsapon Kaysornmaleethanachok. 
Release: Aug 10, 2018
R. 1 hr. 56 min. (English, Thai dialogue)

3_4 stars-3.png
 

Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s “A Prayer Before Dawn” feels like a Scorsese film, possibly the biggest compliment I can give it, like “Raging Bull” married “Silence.” It’s a film discussing the hardships of a Thailand prison system, as well as the dourness of addiction. It’s a tale filled with vigor and depicted with ferocity, never shying away from showing the worst of things in exchange for a feeling of despair. It’s honest in that way, but unlike Scorsese, Sauvaire is unable to manage the film from a micro level as much as he can from a macro level. 

Treated as a biopic about Billy Moore (Joe Cole), a young boxer whose addiction to heroin drives him to a life of anguish in which he finds himself within the bars of a Thailand prison. It’s not pretty; his first day is spent puking up his guts, experiencing withdrawal. He soon finds himself in a few fights, then locked inside a dog cage sized hole as punishment for his behavior. Soon he’s placed in a cage with fellow inmates. There is a cage boss whose in charge of the cell and everyone who resides inside of it. 

That same night he experiences a sequence of scarring events in which a fellow inmate is raped, forced to watch with a shank push against his throat, he lies awake after with an expressionless face, waking up to the suicide scene of the same boy who hung himself in the middle of the night. Stripped of his manhood, he had nothing left. That was day one. 

Jonathan Hirschbein & Nick Saltrese’s screenplay, based off of Billy Moore’s memoir "A Prayer Before Dawn: A Nightmare in Thailand,” doesn’t let up either. Moore (Joe Cole) finds himself battling his addiction, doing cruel things, beating relatively innocent men to near death with his bare hands, even attempting suicide at one point. 

It’s not a story for the faint of heart. It's brutally authentic. It builds that harsh environment around a broken man of a character, someone whose seemingly alone in this world, lost to a habit that he cannot escape. Like Scorsese, the film builds it's character through events, never giving us a one on one moment with this man, instead, making him through moments of action. It’s something Scorsese excels in doing, while Jean-Stephane Sauvaire stumbles with it. 

He fabricates a character that is built off of everything going on around him and to him, never showcasing what he wants, who he is, or why he has fallen to this hellish place. It makes it hard to invest at times. LIke standing in front of a painting that you enjoy, that you understand, yet you find yourself blocked from being able to experience it in the way the artist intended. 

Something else that plays a factor in making the film feel that way is the character of Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang), a ladyboy that Moore (Joe Cole) finds an affinity for, providing a romantic aspect to the story. While most likely legitimate, this inclusion of a love story feels forced. It’s like the annoying person at a party, randomly spouting off every once in a while, changing the tone of the atmosphere entirely. 

These micro-level aspects are where “A Prayer Before Dawn” runs out of gas in the midst of the twelve round battle, but where it lands knockout punches is with Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s direction and David Ungaro’s cinematography. It’s vividly intoxicating. The boxing scenes are craggy and ragged, like a barroom brawl. Maintaining close proximity to the fight, transitioning between a tracking shot and splicing quick cuts here and there to fabricate a relentless amount of intensity that makes these boxing scenes become on par with Coogler’s fight in “Creed.”

 It’s truly mesmerizing, but there is also the fervor and fury added to the scenery of the prison. It’s grungy, dirty, rusty, and continuously impressionable. Providing imagery that will be seared into my brain as some of the best images of the year thus far, with both it's camera movement and stylistic design, Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s direction, and David Ungaro’s cinematography nearly steal the show, but you can’t overlook Joe Cole. 

Looking magnificent, Cole portrays Moore with this emotionless expression at times. Seemingly lost in space, as if the events he’s witnessing take a while to sit in, but when he explodes with anger from the withdrawal, it's ferocious. Simply stunning to watch, Cole provides a powerhouse performance that anchors the film. He’s the necessary gear in this machine of a movie, delivering the horsepower to push this film past its storytelling lags. 

The ensemble of Thailand actors is remarkable as well, with only one actor being your standard white man protagonist, the rest ranging from heavily tattooed men portraying prisoners, a few ladyboys, and a furthering amount of diversity to be found. The treatment of language is fascinating as well, Jean-Stephane Sauvaire doesn’t treat the dialogue as a translation, more of a need for essential information, providing subtitles when we need to know what they're saying, never at any other time. 

You could argue that Jonathan Hirschbein & Nick Saltrese do the same with the screenwriting, but the page is different than the canvas. I needed that dose of scent, that nibble of a bite; I needed something to sink my teeth into. It felt more like I was snacking throughout the entirety of the film, waiting for the main course. 

Luckily, the entirety of the film fabricates an experience that is dreary, produced through masterful filmmaking. You may find yourself standing on a double-sided mirror, unable to feel the experience that Jean-Stephane Sauvaire desires you to endure, but you won’t be able to look away. 
 

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)

   Director: Christopher McQuarrie  With: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley, Frederick Schmidt, & Alec Baldwin. Release: Jul 27, 2018 PG-13. 2 hr. 27 min.

Director: Christopher McQuarrie
With: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley, Frederick Schmidt, & Alec Baldwin.
Release: Jul 27, 2018
PG-13. 2 hr. 27 min.

 

If I were going to get into the movie-making business, I would be a writer. No doubt in my mind, because I am a sucker for storytelling, an admirer of dialogue, and a self-admitted addict of worldbuilding. These are the things that invigorate me with excitement; these are also the things that make action films so hard for me to watch. They’re bonafide products of Hollywood, with grand sequences of physicality and thrilling sequences of conflict, these are the kind of films that usually throw screenwriting to the wayside and let the camera do the talking. If that gets your gears going, then Christopher McQuarrie’s “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” is for you. 

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the fanatical moments of chaos that you can only get from action films, but it's when they can blend story with those spotlighted productions of anarchy that I begin to feel that rush of adrenaline everyone else does. Movies like “Mad Max: Fury Road” which blends stunts with the story, a lesson picked up by Christopher McQuarrie, though not as skillfully executed as George Miller. 

Screenwriting lessons seem to have gone directly over his head though, fabricating the first direct sequel in the franchise and being the first returning director in the franchise, Christopher McQuarrie begins “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” where “Rogue Nation” left off. Hunt (Tom Cruise) finds himself battling against a group called the apostles, a maniacal and ideological group of individuals who believe that the systematic control of governments has brought the world to its knees. In response, they plan to devastate the world economies and sanctity of the world by nuclearly attacking sovereign nations like Kazakhstan and holy cities such as Jerusalem. 

In response, he's tasked with the mission, if he should choose to accept it, of apprehending the nuclear weaponry. He comes close at the beginning of the film but inevitably loses it due to a tough set of circumstances. In response, he's forced to work alongside CIA Agent Walker (Henry Cavill), who alongside the regular team of the MIF crew, are trusted in saving the world once again. 

So its all about keeping nuclear weapons out of ideological fanatic hands, sound familiar? Good, because the story becomes a recycled version of every “Mission: Impossible” film throughout the rest of this two hour, and near thirty-minute runtime, with plenty of twists and turns, face reveals, spy mumbo jumbo, and predictable last-second hero moments to make the most die-hard of "Mission Impossible" fans satisfied.

There are sprinkles of emotional engagement, constructed through character, like an “Indiana Jones” movie. Hunt (Tom Cruise) being the core of those scenes in which we get a glimpse of a story that focuses on what happens when the good guys lose and another in which we discuss if one life is worth millions. Both of these share the films best moments, narratively speaking, but they both get outshouted by audience favorability it seems as if we can’t have entertainment and artistic quality co-existing with one another, which is where Christopher McQuarrie tends to pull on the reigns of this runaway horse.

 He sees the forest through the trees, but would rather stay nested in the woods that see the remarkable thing that is waiting on the other side. It’s where “Mission Impossible - Fallout” goes awry for myself. Never attempting to do anything nuanced on the page, rather allowing the camera to do all the talking, which is where “Mission Impossible - Fallout” has earned its prestigious reputation from critics. 

Directionally speaking, Christopher McQuarrie can do no wrong in this movie. Providing masterfully constructed sequences that feel as if they last for five to fifteen minutes, but in all actuality, they’re much longer than that. He engulfs you in these moments by leaving just enough breadcrumbs to follow from the screenplay; you become enthralled by these breathtaking moments of mayhem. 

There is not one or two moments worth raving about; there are five. All of them are quite remarkable, and all of them are shot in-camera with practicality being the guiding hand behind the scenes. This is where Tom Cruise makes his money, providing riveting sequences of his aggressive parkour freerunning, which as the fastest man ever caught on camera, Tom Cruise excels in those moments. He drives against the traffic on the Arc de Triomphe on a motorcycle, without a helmet. He learned how to fly a helicopter, and he learned how to do a HALO (High altitude; Low oxygen) jump from a plane going one hundred and sixty-five miles per hour. And all of this was done for real. 

Least to say, Tom Cruise is either someone you look at as a crazy man trying to win our hearts with an evil Kenevil mindset or as someone who's willing to sacrifice everything for art. Whichever light you wish to paint him in, one thing we can agree on is that Tom Cruise deserves some respect for his outings in both this movie and his entire display of ferocity throughout his career. 

My favorite of these moments involved a rope climb on a flying helicopter. Yes, you heard that correctly. The stunt was to have Tom climb up a rope attached to the undercarriage of a helicopter, and in the midst of making the climb he would fall but catch himself before he hit the payload. Tom, being Tom, actually lost his footing, fell upside down, and was able to catch himself near the bottom of the cargo attached to this thin rope, making for a fantastic hero shot, and a sequence that was legitimately death-defying. 

Those moments are what makes “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” a qualifier for action movie of the decade for most people it seems. Excusing recycled storytelling tropes for in your face action. I can’t do the same, but I can give these guys a lot of credit. Especially Tom Cruise, he provides a performance that is both intense and sincere, if given some more depth or bite to his character, he could have become the one emotionally reverberating aspect of the film. 

The usual gang of Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson, and Michelle Monaghan are tremendous and provide that familiar taste that reminds you that this is a “Mission: Impossible” movie. Henry Cavill along with the mustache that killed “Justice League” provides a solid outing, and Sean Harris isn’t too far behind with his memorable monologues that are delivered with the coldness of a good villain. Baldwin and Angela Basset are fine, but nothing worth mentioning. 

“Mission: Impossible - Fallout” is by far the best entree of the franchise thus far, but the rehashed storytelling of a James Bond-like character with a conscious, and the recycling efforts of the franchises tropes and cliches keep this movie from becoming the ensembling blockbuster it tries to be. Though fellow critics seemingly sacrificed masterful directorial efforts for mediocre screenwriting endeavors, I cannot do the same. “Mission Impossible - Fallout” is an action movie through and through, one worth seeing on the big screen. 

Just don’t let the action fool you into thinking that the page is not as strong as camera, both of these things are needed for a masterpiece, something Christopher McQuarrie falls short of due to his inability to make the interluding moments of storytelling as thrilling as Tom Cruise’s ridiculous stunts, a harder feat to accomplish than it sounds, I imagine. 

JAWS 2 (1978)

   Direction: Jeannot Szwarc     With: Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Joseph Mascolo, Jeffrey Kramer, & Collin Wilcox. Release: Jun 16, 1978 PG. 1 hr. 56 min. 

Direction: Jeannot Szwarc    
With: Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Joseph Mascolo, Jeffrey Kramer, & Collin Wilcox.
Release: Jun 16, 1978
PG. 1 hr. 56 min. 

 

“Jaws 2” is what you would describe as the proverbial sequel to Steven Spielberg’s classic, at least that is what you would say today. Appearing to be a survivor, “Jaws 2” appears to have outdone expectations, able to avoid bombing out like an expected sequel to a film such as “Jaws.” Unlike poor sequels such as “S. Darko” and “Ocean’s Twelve” which, alongside many other poor follow-ups, seem to miss the point of writing a new chapter into a story. This side effect of a story is neither a pretentious fumble nor is it a slacking rehash. Instead, “Jaws 2” is a film unbalanced between tones, debating between something dark and mature and teenage melodrama. 

Three summers removed from the events of “Jaws,” we reacquaint ourselves with Brody (Roy Scheider) as a man dealing with traumatic stress, He's struggling to persuade anyone to trust him, as if he’s merely shooting blanks and looking for a shark in the midst of his boring tenure as Police chief, as Brody (Roy Scheider) finds himself in a similar spot as last time where he is attempting to persuade the town that the waters are no longer as safe as they used to be.

With a series of events that suggest another large great white, or a Carcharodon carcharias, has returned to the waters of Amity, we know that Brody (Roy Scheider) is telling the truth as we watch the first attack involving two divers discovering the Orca, a mediocre attempt at grasping the viewer's resonance. That opening divers attack keeps it from becoming the thriller it should’ve been, being the critical event that prevents any sense of mystery from manifesting.  

It’s a story that isn’t rehashing or snobbishly reenacting a darker tone of a sequel; it actually does both. The story provides us with simple memories like an experienced chief unable to convince a happy go lucky town that something terrifying is lurking in the waters, but it also takes a much darker tone in which Brody (Roy Scheider) is unable to persuade anyone that another horrific attack is taking place. The film never commits to that grim tone though, “Jaws 2” tries to combine an entertaining spectacle in which this group of teenagers is enjoying the sunshine of summer. 

Sailing, drinking, and exchanging some rough dialogue like “Did you see the way she was looking at you? She wants you, man.” “No, she wasn’t looking at me...No, I’m thin, I wear glasses. I live in Amity island year round; I’m not good enough for her.” “I guess you're right.” What is this? “Spider-Man 3?” 

There is also the excessive amount of anxiety acting like shivering and the memorable scream of “Sh-sh-shrrrrrr-sharrrrr-kkkkkkk” by Ann Dusenberry.  Those laugh out loud moments are overrun by Jeannot Szwarc’s handling of make or break moments. He provides the thrill and shrills when they’re necessary, just enough to make sure that the film delivers some sense of terror before the runtime rolls to its final credits. 

Where Szwarc stumbles is deciding between the mature and bleak themes surrounding Brody (Roy Scheider) and the teenage melodrama of a group of teens encountering life and death with a monstrous shark. This adolescent excessivity begins to teeter on the brink of “Friday the 13th” level stupidity, but John Williams’ score lends one of the helping hands to those ridiculous moments, providing magical sensations of spectacle during these images of sailing and soaring through the open seas. 

Roy Scheider provides the other hand of assistance, delivering the film’s best performance, which in comparison to the fellow performances surrounding him isn't saying much. Lorraine Grey and Murray Hamilton are the other returning faces, both lending some help to the overall believability of this film, but the ensemble of teenagers is surprisingly bad. With an excessive amount of overacting, Mark Gruner being the leader of that un-illustrious group with a fair amount of bad delivery, bad movement, and ridiculous moments worthy of laughter. After watching this performance, it makes sense that this was his last performance as an actor. 

“Jaws 2” is a film meddling between tones, never playing a level-headed game of prevalence. The film struggles to become something more than a watchable sequel, but how do you follow up something as spectacular as “Jaws.” It’s not self-imitating nor is it as pompous as something like “Exorcist 3,” but “Jaws 2” remains to be a motivating sequel. One that may inspire nothing more than the desire to rewatch the thrilling spectacle known as "Jaws." 

The Equalizer 2 (2018)

   Director: Antoine Fuqua  With: Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Ashton Sanders, Bill Pullman, & Melissa Leo.  Release: Jul 20, 2018 R. 2 hr. 1 min.

Director: Antoine Fuqua
With: Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Ashton Sanders, Bill Pullman, & Melissa Leo. 
Release: Jul 20, 2018
R. 2 hr. 1 min.

 

Antoine Fuqua’s “The Equalizer 2” feels like a game of peekaboo is being played with the audience throughout it's drawn out two hour and one-minute runtime. The first film was overly long as well, but it had something worth watching, worth investing in, the same cannot be said for Fuqua’s sequel. 

“The Equalizer 2” is exactly what it names suggests, a sequel. It begins presumably a few years removed from the events of the first film. There is no Ralphie or Teri to be seen; this is a whole new bunch of youthful kids in need of a guiding hand. He's that watchful guardian he evolved into from the first film, providing assistance and help to anyone who needs it, at least anyone that crosses his path. 

Our hero isn't watching over a city or a neighborhood, more like the ten to fifteen people he interacts with in his Lyft, like Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo). His former commanding officer, who now watches from afar, sending her good wishes and assistance whenever she can. Eventually, trouble comes across her path, and when our gunslinging hero hears the news, he launches himself on the warpath. Killing anyone and everyone involved, a mission that becomes more personal the further down the rabbit hole he goes. 

There are still those moments of wise-man teachings though, moments where Washington meets someone and tells them how they should be living their lives. Like Miles (Ashton Sander), a young black kid being torn between the two worlds of gang crime and honorable artwork. He takes part in some of the film’s best moments in which Denzel Washington, an outspoken critic of the Black Lives Matter movement, is sermonizing to this young blood on how you can blame the white man all you want, but you still have a life to live. It’s a sequence of dialogue that can either make you uncomfortable, like myself, or can invigorate you with energy.  

No matter which side of that conversation you fall upon, the rest of the movie is something of a lackadaisical effort from screenwriter Richard Wenk. What can you expect from the genius behind stories like “Expendables 2” and “The Mechanic,” right? Despite that sarcasm, Wenk’s story feels like a simplified, eighties, action movie. You can predict it's plot developments from a mile away, who the villain is going to be, who is in danger, the events to follow those moments in the story, all of them make you feel as if your a fortune teller. 

It’s a flat story too, one that rarely soars in quality, while never diving down towards poor taste. It just remains steady, rarely ever risking itself to do something daring or challenging for a packed out audience of either “Equalizer” fans or Denzel Washington fans, (I’m going to go with the latter of those two options) instead, it stays on course, merely sailing down a calm sea of mundane storytelling. 

Where the story becomes a game of peekaboo though, is when Wenk begins to hint at stories worth our time. Like an older black man teaching a youthful black kid, or a man’s sins catching up with him, or the price of heroism. There is a multitude of chances where Wenk could’ve turned this vehicle of a story into those directions. Instead, it's more of pitstop. Somewhere for Wenk to stop and say “Hey, look at the great story I could have written, alright onto the next cliche roadside attraction.”

Something worth noticing is my lack of character naming for Denzel. While the first film I let his un-nuanced performance slide, this time around it's near impossible to do so. It’s, once again, a marriage of two performances we’ve already seen. One quite recently in that of Troy from “Fences,” and the other feeling like a rehash of Eli from “Book of Eli.” Providing a performance that has the sermonizing of Troy and the calm dangerous persona of Eli. Denzel isn’t reaching for that next Oscar here, instead just looking to get a sizable paycheck. 

Now that I think of it, I may have been to easy on the first film, because the action here is worth mentioning, but not in a good way exactly. While the first film felt like it needed the swift hand of justice for a city corrupted by unlawful people like that of a “Luke Cage” or a “Black Panther.” This time around, Denzel feels as if he’s stepping into the shark cage out of some twisted fantasy to punish. It becomes sadistic and maniacal, never exactly exciting. It feels a lot more like Bruce Willis’ “Death Wish” than anything else, providing that macho man fantasy of setting the world right by brutality. I can't say the first film refuted that notion either. 

It can become a bit squirmy to watch some of these action sequences, but there are others worth the ten dollar ticker, one in which involves a tension-filled car ride in which someone in Denzel’s lift was hired to kill him. He must drive the car and fight off the assailant in what becomes a breathtaking scene to watch. The finale has its moments too, but the film continually places itself as an example in the on-going conversation of action in moviemaking. What line is unsafe to cross? What lines are we willing to pass? 

“The Equalizer 2” is everything you expect it to be, and everything you don’t. It can be surprising and expectable at the same time. Tierdering between the isles of mediocrity and watchability. It’s not something all that surprising though, Denzel seems to be on the mend. It’s been a while since we’ve seen him bring a new character to life, it makes me wonder, are we in store for something exceptional from the former Oscar winner? 

At one point, he tells a criminal how there are two kinds of pain in this world, "pain that hurts, and pain that alters." "The Equalizer 2" delivers the pain that hurts, watching something that continuously feels as if it's asking you "did you really like the first film?" After watching this sequel, I'm not sure anymore. 
 

The Equalizer (2014)

   Director: Antoine Fuqua With: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, David Meunier, & Johnny Skourtis. Release: Sep 26, 2014 R. 2 hr. 12 min. 

Director: Antoine Fuqua
With: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, David Meunier, & Johnny Skourtis.
Release: Sep 26, 2014
R. 2 hr. 12 min. 

 

Action films starring black men seem to have a common theme running underneath them, especially when you can look back on them from a distant point. Always about a man answering the call, being forced or coerced into becoming a guardian angel for a neighborhood, a community, a city, or even a country. We see it with stories like “Luke Cage,” “Black Panther,” and in 2014 we saw it with Antoine Fuqua’s “The Equalizer, a movie sharing a kinship-like relation to these comic book blockbuster. 

It’s about a hero in hiding, much like these fellow movies as the screenplay begins with an intimate look at this man’s routine. He’s disciplined, organized, competent, and when you think he’s merely an old man living a routine life, we see his struggles to sleep. He lies in bed, sitting in the darkness, calmly battering his book off his head as if he’s trying to forget something, but what? 

Presumably an insomniac with OCD, he leaves around the same time every night, carrying a neatly folded bag of tea with him to a local diner where he conversates with a troubled girl named Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz). It’s in these calm conversations where the intensity of the story is revealed to us, in a very on the nose manner. With McCall (Denzel Washington) describing the books he reads like spoilers for how the story will eventually develop. Like “Moby Dick,” a book about a fisherman wrestling the biggest fish he can as a symbolizer of a man confronting a final battle when he thought that part of his life had come to an end, eventually stating “You gotta be who you are in this world, no matter what.”

Another is “Don Quixote,” a book about “a guy who thinks he's a knight in shining armor. The only thing is, he lives in a world where knights don't exist anymore,” as Robert (Denzel Washington) describes, a similar way of characterizing our sleeper soldier. Richard Wenk’s screenplay, based on Michael Sloan & Richard Lindheim hit television series from the 80’s, is uncreative in that manner, unable to manifest a more clever way at hinting at the events we're about to witness.

Besides those moments, he produces a solid story, one that is filled with both heart and vigor. Maintaining a constant pushing momentum, building towards a crescendo of action, while, simultaneously, providing a deepened glimpse of a man discovering his role in life and questioning if it's a life worth living. 

He’s a formidable hero, watching idly, surrounding himself with good and honest people like Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), a youthful man looking to get his start in life as a security guard. He has to make weight though, something he’s asked McCall’s (Denzel Washington) help for in making possible. Another is Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz), a troubled girl, a prostitute. She’s someone better than that, as every girl is above being more than that, and she wants to be a singer until she begins to be far too independent for her “owners” liking. He beats her up one night, really bad, leaving her in critical condition. 

Our hero attempts to provide a middle ground solution, trying to buy her freedom. After an immature and idiotic refusal to his offer, Robert (Denzel Washington) can't walk away as we soon learn that he’s a man of many skills. One that breaks down his deathful actions almost prematurely, setting up his attacks, his use of weapons, and predicts the amount of time it will take. Yeah, this guy’s a badass. 

The story becomes a conflicted when a formidable foe arrives to solve the problem that McCall (Denzel Washington) has become for his boss, the monster fish that our fisherman must fight off. This foe is a former Russian operative,  Nikolai (Marton Csokas), one who's become a monster that nearly beats a man to death with his bare knuckles, screaming and roaring like an animal that has been unleashed on this gang-riddled Boston community. He’s remorseless, immoral, and is skilled like his adversary, but our hero isn’t exactly a comic book hero trying to do the right thing, more like the proverbial sword that cuts the heads off of snakes that attempt to bite or poison those around him. 

Fuqua (“Training Day” & “Southpaw”) provides an overqualified helming of this film which, based on its story, sounds more like your average run of the mill action movie. The action is stylized, intense, and aggressive. Fuqua provides a sleek look to this film that is grungy and grimly lit, the camera moves and vibrates around our hero as he and cinematographer Mauro Fiore (“Avatar”) make this movie pop with energy. 

Hemsey’s exceptional score assists in fabricating an action film with more than meets the eye, but Denzel Washington is the engine that keeps the car running. Never providing something nuanced, more of a combination of depictions we’ve seen before, it’s like Coach Boone (“Remember The Titans”) meets John Creasy (“Man on Fire”). He’s calm, cerebral-like, but can be admittedly intimidating. The best scenes are when we see the man behind the facade, a man experienced and seasoned with men like Nikolai (Marton Csokas). 

He’s provided that wisened aspect with his character, making him seem like a cross between Yoda and John Wick, but in all actuality, he’s just a man trying to find peace in a world where harmony has been eradicated. Answering the call for his guardianship because he has to be who he is in this world, he’s good at something that few of us ever try to be good at, nor should we. 

The film builds as I said, to its big showdown like any other action film, but it takes place in a hardware store of all places, the same store where McCall (Denzel Washington) works. He becomes inventive with his killing methods in a finale that is worth the wait. What’s weird is the lack of surprise his co-workers reveal while discovering that their co-worker is a mercenary. Finally learning what he used to do for a living, a comical subplot that is continuously rehashed throughout the film in which his co-workers attempt to guess what he used to do before he started working at Home Mart. 

These everyday people are never surprised by both his actions or the events going on around them; I can't say ever say I was either. It's predictabilty, and that lack of plausibility makes “The Equalizer” feel more like a cross between a comic book vigilante tale and a thematically driven action film. Entertaining? Hell yes. Believable? Not for a second. 
 

Skyscraper (2018)

   Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber  With: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Pablo Schreiber, Noah Taylor, McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell, & Kevin Rankin.  Release: Jul 13, 2018  PG-13. 1 hr. 42 min.

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
With: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Pablo Schreiber, Noah Taylor, McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell, & Kevin Rankin. 
Release: Jul 13, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 42 min.

 

Walking into to my theatre to see Rawson Marshall Thurber’s (“Central Intelligence” & “We’re the Millers”) “Skyscraper,” I, like any other critic or savvy filmgoer, saw this movie as a potential rip off of “Die Hard” or “The Towering Inferno,” and when the promotional posters accepted those catcalls of early criticism, it felt more like an admission of those objections being correct, and they are. 

It’s a film inspired by previous, and much better, movies that rarely allow for Thurber’s voice to be heard. The film even maintains the familiar traits of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s previous works, #family themes can be found throughout the entirety of this big Hollywood blockbuster of a movie. It’s energetic enough to provide a thrilling experience at times, despite those moments feeling rehashed, and that lack of unoriginality makes this film seamlessly forgettable because there is nothing that shocks or surprises. It’s not a great film; it’s not even a good movie, it's a watchable and harmless big budget movie, as long as you ignore a lot of the blatant flaws and copycat moments. 

The film begins with a flashback, of course. We open with a wintery and dark scene in which a suspect has locked him and his family inside of a lodge. After the negotiations fail to solve the problem, blunt force is relied upon as Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) and his team breach the house. He makes the wrong decision, things go wrong, and he wakes up at a military hospital where he meets his future wife, Sarah (Neve Campbell). A familiar set up? Duh. 

Nonetheless, “Skyscraper” fast forwards ten years to our present story. Will (Dwayne Johnson) and Sarah (Neve Campbell) have started a family, bringing two kids into this world, Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Henry (Noah Cottrell). Will (Dwayne Johnson) has founded a small security company, out of his garage. After a solid recommendation from a former teammate, Will (Dwayne Johnson) finds himself testing the most high-tech skyscraper in the world. It has self-sufficient energy, top of the line fire safety measures, and is the tallest building ever constructed. What we have to presume is taller than the 2,717-foot record height, which is held by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, a building used by another blockbuster franchise like “Mission Impossible,” which contains a daring stunt with Tom Cruise running alongside its skyrise windows. 

The same kind of movie magic can be found in “Skyscraper,” but Dwayne Johnson is not near as daring. He stands in front of green screens and a closed set. I guess that puts the debate to bed; we now know that Tom Cruise is tougher than Dwayne Johnson. Jokes aside, the story gets to those points of depth-defying thrills when a team of mercenaries and assassins joins together to get back some corrupting information from tech genius and the masterful creator behind this towering feat of tech, Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han). 

There is a lot of bloodshed that occurs before the building catches fire and this bland ensemble of replaceable mustache-twirling villains’ plan comes to light. Countless lives are taken and the unimpactful nature of those moments shows the long-lasting failure of blockbusters being unable to make us care about villains killing innocent people. Unlike a fellow blockbuster, “Tomb Raider,” “Skyscraper” struggles to treat death and murder as a necessary evil that our hero must endure, it’s meant for spectacle and “character development.” 

These characters aren’t very developed though, Thurber struggles, as his past endeavors show, to make the surrounding characters worth our time. They are never equivalent to purchasing a ten dollar stub, but Thurber does provide moments that make that investment worth it. Though they feel ripped out of a “Mission Impossible” movie or something better than the movie we’re watching, these “Skyscraping” moments are tense and well-handled. Are they inspired? Yes, but that shouldn’t take away from how exciting they are to watch. One of those moments involves the trailer ruined leap from a crane towards an opening in the building, and another takes place with him tying himself to the building itself and repelling down its vertical slide of an exterior. 

I, like any other knowledgeable film fan, can spot the influences and flat-out ripoffs, but they are still thrilling to watch nonetheless. The overqualified Robert Elswit provides a lens to the story. The usual go-to cinematographer for Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Elswit is elected to be the man to make this film look a lot more artistic than it sounds on paper, and in some ways, he does just that. Providing some tangible scenery and some excellent camera movement, it would have been the icing on the cake for a much better movie. For “Skyscraper,” it's a needed pro for this film to become better than the average summer blockbuster, which it ends up being despite Elswit’s efforts. 

He’s not to blame for that outcome, and neither is Dwayne Johnson who made me eat my words a bit. I’ve always described him as an average actor, one that can play the two roles of charming and action hero, rarely delivering any semblance of emotion. Partially due to the poor writing behind his movies, and his inability to choose films that test him on that front as an actor. In “Skyscraper” he gives small glimpses of those talents, potentially displaying his range as an actor. It’s not concrete evidence that he can be more than a blockbuster hero, but it's something that should bring relief to his critics. Providing a snippet of a chance that this broad-shouldered, chiseled man of an actor might be more than meets the eye.

“Skyscraper” cannot say the same. It’s everything you expect it to be, and it remains fun to watch which makes it “successful?” I think what makes these movies successful is box office gross, but I can resonate with those who love this movie, perhaps they should see more movies though, better ones in that. I’ll admit that “Skyscraper” does surprisingly display some level-head brilliance, de-establishing the expected ego of a movie star like Dwayne Johnson, not that he has one. You would expect male actors like him to have one, but the third act of this film places him in peril with no one but a woman to save him, something rare to see in a movie like this one. She’s given plenty to do as well, as a military surgeon, she’s not helpless in these situations, and neither are the children. Everyone is given a role in saving the day, which was shocking to see, and one of the welcomed and genuine surprises to be found in this blockbuster tale.  

The plot is predictable, and the action feels staged and familiar, but I once heard indie-darling, and fandom favorite Kevin Smith recite a review for “Catch Me If You Can,” a much better movie, stating “sometimes you just want to be coddled in the bosom of a Hollywood movie.” With the vast amount of societally relevant and politically charged filmmaking to be found, “Skyscraper” came at a proper time for me, allowing me to sit down, relax, and enjoy a thrilling ride. It’s a ride I’ve been on before, but fun nonetheless.