VENOM (2018) -Tom Hardy Carries Lighthearted Superhero Flick

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VENOM (2018), the latest Marvel superhero movie, stars Tom Hardy and is a fairly entertaining superhero flick even if it doesn’t always play out like one.

It’s not for a lack of trying, with its witty one-liners and slick action scenes, but at the end of the day this tale of a man dealing with a symbiotic alien life form known as Venom feels more like a 1980s John Carpenter or David Cronenberg movie, only not as dark.

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an investigative TV news reporter, and for his latest assignment he’s been asked to interview the controversial scientist and businessman Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) but it’s supposed to be a soft interview. No difficult questions. But Eddie isn’t having it, because he believes Drake is a bad man, and so he takes off the kids’ gloves and asks Drake the tough questions. As a result, Drake cuts the interview short.

Not only that, but the next thing he knows, Eddie is fired, his girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams) breaks off their engagement and leaves him, and he pretty much hits rock bottom. But his instincts about Drake were right. He is a bad man. He’s been conducting experiments with alien life forms that need human hosts to survive. Trouble is, the human hosts keep dying, and Drake keeps bringing in more and more unknowing “host” people who continue to die.

When Eddie decides to investigate Drake’s lab, he finds himself face to face with one of these life forms, and for reasons not clearly explained, when it enters Eddie’s body, unlike so many other hosts, he doesn’t die.

This life form is Venom, and it turns out he doesn’t like Drake all that much either, and so he and Eddie work together to take down the villainous scientist.

Yup, it’s all kinda stupid when you think about it, so don’t think about it too much.

The best part of VENOM is clearly Tom Hardy. He pretty much carries the first half of the  movie, which can be slow at times, and he does this by making Eddie less a jerk and more a lovable loser. Hardy also provides the voice of Venom, and  when the two join forces in the film’s second half, things are far more entertaining.

Where does this stack up among Tom Hardy performances? Well, truth be told, I liked Hardy better as Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) and as Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015). And I enjoyed him more in THE REVENANT (2015) and DUNKIRK (2017), so it’s not the most amazing role he’s ever taken, but that doesn’t mean he’s not very good here. He is.

I’m also a big fan of Michelle Williams, but sadly her role here as Eddie’s love interest Anne isn’t much of a role.

Riz Ahmed is okay as the villainous Carlton Drake, but like so many other Marvel movie villains before him, he’s rather boring. As good as these Marvel movies have been, the majority of them haven’t had villains who have been on par with the heroes. Ahmed was much more memorable as Bodhi Rook in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

I did enjoy Reid Scott as Anne’s new boyfriend Dr. Dan Lewis. He wasn’t the typical cliché annoying new boyfriend. In fact, he likes Eddie a lot, having been a fan of his TV work.

And Jenny Slate is also up to par as Dr. Dora Skirth, one of Drake’s scientists who develops a conscience.

VENOM was directed by Ruben Fleischer, and he does an okay job.  The look of the film is dark and edgy, yet the tone and the script are light and funny. It’s an odd mixture at times.

Part of this, I think, is that VENOM was originally going to be an R rated superhero movie, but plans changed and it was released as a PG-13 vehicle. It may have worked better as more of an adult tale.

The action scenes are okay, but none of them blew me away, and the special effects which created Venom were also just okay.  Nothing here really stood out, other than Hardy’s performance.

Fleischer also directed ZOMBIELAND (2009), a zombie horror comedy that had more bite— heh heh— than VENOM, as well as GANGSTER SQUAD 2013), a good-looking gangster film which ultimately didn’t have much of an impact.

The screenplay by Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel mixes goofy humor with its darker tale and the result as you might expect is a mixed bag. It also leaves some key points unexplained, like why Eddie doesn’t die once Venom enters his body. Also, Venom says he likes Eddie because back on his home planet he was kind of a loser as well, which is a funny line, but the trouble is Venom doesn’t really act like much of a loser here, so that revelation didn’t exactly ring true for me.

All this being said, I had fun watching VENOM and was glad I went to see it.

Where does it rank with the recent Marvel films? Well, clearly it’s not as good as the Marvel heavyweights which came out earlier this year, BLACK PANTHER (2018) and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018). Nor is it on the same level as DEADPOOL (2016).

But for what it is, a lighthearted superhero caper starring Tom Hardy, it does what it sets out to do. It entertains.

As long as you’re not expecting comic book genius, you should enjoy it just fine.

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WHITE BOY RICK (2018) – Somber Authentic Tale of Family, Drugs, and Guns in 1980s Detroit

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Richie Merritt and Matthew McConaughey in WHITE BOY RICK (2018).

Matthew McConaughey is a helluva an actor.

I like to poke fun at his Lincoln TV commercials, but in the movies, he’s the real deal and then some.

WHITE BOY RICK (2018) which stars McConaughey is one of the most somber, depressing movies I’ve seen in a long while. It may not be an enjoyable film, but it is certainly an authentic one. At times I thought I was watching a documentary. It does an exceptional job capturing the depression of 1980s Detroit, and its story, while slow, is delivered without fanfare, led by two powerful performances, one by McConaughey, and the other by newcomer Richie Merritt.

WHITE BOY RICK opens at a gun show where Rick Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) and his teenage son Rick Jr. (Richie Merritt) purchase semi-automatic weapons because that’s how Rick Sr. makes a living, by selling guns on the black market. Rick and his son live in Detroit. It’s the 1980s and the economy there is deplorable.  They are dirt poor and things are only getting worse. Rick talks optimistically about opening a video store but he never seems to get around to it.

They live alone in a run-down house, as Rick’s wife left them years ago, and Rick Jr.s older sister Dawn (Bel Powley), a junkie, moved out because she can’t stand her dad’s restrictions. Rick Sr.’s parents live next door, his cranky dad Grandpa (Bruce Dern) and his more soft-spoken mother Grandma (Piper Laurie).

Rick Jr. hangs out with his best friend “Boo” (RJ Cyler) whose dad Johnny (Jonathan Majors) operates the local drug trade. As Rick Jr. becomes closer to this seedy side of Detroit, he’s nabbed by FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane). They give Rick an ultimatum: if he sells drugs for them, in an effort to infiltrate and help them arrest the local drug pushers, they won’t arrest his dad for selling guns to drug dealers. Seeing that he has no choice, Rick Jr. agrees, and suddenly he’s playing a very dangerous game.

Eventually, as things continually get worse financially for Rick’s family, Rick Jr. decides to take matters into his own hands and use his drug contacts to sell drugs on his own. While Rick Sr. protests, arguing that selling drugs is bad news, he can’t deny that the money they could make dwarfs what they make selling guns, and they are desperately poor.

As I said, this is not a happy movie.

One of the main messages in WHITE BOY RICK is that under the drug laws of the 1980s it was actually worse to get caught selling drugs than it was to murder someone. Several characters mention this in the movie, and ultimately this is what happens when Rick Jr. is arrested. He receives a life sentence, And he was just a teenager.

It provides one of the more emotional moments of the film where Bruce Dern’s grandfather character cries out in court room, “He’s just a boy! How can you do this to just a boy!”

Not only can they do it, but they did do it, in real life, as WHITE BOY RICK is based on the true story of Rick Wershe Jr. who did indeed receive a life sentence in 1988 for selling drugs.

There is nothing flashy about the screenplay by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, and Noah Miller. It goes about its business telling its story without frills. As such, the pacing is slow as often the audience feels like a fly on the wall to some of the conversations and situations, but it does do a remarkable job fleshing out the its characters. You might not like these people, but you will feel for them, mostly because they come off as real.

Director Yann Demange captures poverty-stricken Detroit perfectly, in spite of shooting the film in Cleveland. The story he tells is raw and gritty, the characters unrefined and pungent, and the overall feeling of the film is somber and depressing.

Demange also gets the most out of his actors, as there are strong performances throughout.

Matthew McConaughey, as he almost always is, is excellent as Rick Sr., and newcomer Richie Merritt, who’s making his film debut, is just as good as Rick Jr. The two really seem like father and son.

McConaughey is near-perfect as the dad who just wants to do right by his family, but wouldn’t know a good idea if it knocked on his front door. Stuck selling guns, unable to help his drug-addicted daughter, and out of the loop regarding his son’s drug dealings, he nonetheless refuses to quit, even with all of life seemingly working against him. Eventually, he does go after his daughter and help get her clean, he does step up to help his son, but unfortunately, the need for money proved too great for him to tell Rick Jr. not to sell drugs.

The scene near the end of the movie where Rick visits his son in prison and sees that Rick Jr. is giving up, and he begs his son not to quit, knowing that there’s nothing he can do to help him, is one of the film’s best. When he cries out to his son that “he’s his best friend. You’re my only friend!” It is such a powerful realistic moment.

McConaughey fares much better here than in last year’s THE DARK TOWER (2017). This might be my favorite McConaughey performance since DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB (2013.)

And Richie Merritt doesn’t seem like an actor playing a role at all. He seems like he is Rick Jr. It’s one of the more authentic performances I’ve seen this year.

Bel Powley is also very good as Rick Jr.’s sister Dawn, who like Merritt and McConaughey, doesn’t seem to be acting.  The trio come off as a real family, albeit a messed-up one, but a real one just the same.

Then you have veteran actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane as a pair of FBI agents. Both RJ Cyler as “Boo” and Jonathan Majors as his drug dealing father Johnny are excellent, and character actor Eddie Marsan enjoys a couple of memorable scenes as drug dealer Art Derrick.

Not to mention cinema greats Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as the grandparents of the family.  Dern gets to do more, as Grandpa is the more outspoken of the two and gets to utter some explosive lines here and there, but it was still good to see Laurie as well.

The cast in WHITE BOY RICK is really a plus.

And the film gets its title from Rick Jr.’s nickname. Since Johnny Curry and his gang were primarily black, and Rick Jr. was often the only white person in their inner circle, Johnny got to calling him “White Boy Rick.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from WHITE BOY RICK. But when all was said and done, and the end credits rolled, I realized I had just watched a potent movie.

This one is about as fun as a traffic accident, but there is not a shred of fluff to be found here. It plays as authentic as a documentary, and with a talented cast of actors, it does one better, as the characters it creates, while not likeable, are real and sympathetic. I didn’t like these folks and wouldn’t want to know them, but that didn’t stop me from feeling the injustice of Rick Jr.’s fate and the heartbreak of Rick Sr. when he realized he was never going to spend time with his son again.

WHITE BOY RICK has a lot to say about the motivations of people who just don’t have money to live their lives, and speaks to the imbalance of drug laws, how the punishment may not fit the crime.

You may not be hearing much about WHITE BOY RICK, and even if you are, it may not sound like something you want to see. But if you do see it, you’ll be in for a no-nonsense movie that speaks the truth about some unpleasant people, the choices they make, and the situations they find themselves in, people who ultimately you will feel empathy for.

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PEPPERMINT (2018) – Jennifer Garner Fans Deserve Better

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One of the worst sins a movie can commit is to bore its audience.

Because you’re in the theater, you’ve paid for your ticket, and now you find yourself sitting there, bored, and you can’t even be entertained. I mean, some films are simply so bad you can’t help but laugh, and so you can at least have fun with that. But for the boring films? That’s the worst.

And so, with that said, PEPPERMINT (2018) by far is the most boring film I’ve seen this year.

PEPPERMINT is the tale of Riley North (Jennifer Garner), a woman who witnesses the shooting deaths of her husband and ten year-old daughter, and when the killers are allowed to go free, thanks to a crooked judge who is in the pocket of the powerful drug lord whose men committed the murders, she decides to take the law into her own hands and seek justice.

She does this by disappearing for several years, during which time she trains to become a killing machine, and once she returns, she’s hell-bent on killing everyone who had a hand in her family’s murders. Charles Bronson would have been proud.

PEPPERMINT opens in present day where we witness Riley kicking the living daylights out of a villain and then some. Let’s put it this way. His body ends up in the trunk of the car. The action then flashes back to five years earlier, where we see Riley happily married to Chris (Jeff Hephner) and enjoying a close relationship with her daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming).

When one of Chris’ buddies tries to persuade him to take part in a robbery, arguing that his blue-collar mechanics job is never going to get his family ahead in life, and that this will, Chris wisely turns him down. But that’s not good enough, apparently. See, his buddy tried to rob the local drug lord, Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba). Garcia promptly captures and kills the buddy, and then, just because Chris “considered” stealing from him, he orders his men to kill him to make an example of him.  Jeesh!

Anyway, they shoot Chris and young Carly dead, in a scene that is surprisingly tame and not very powerful.

In spite of threats and a payoff not to testify against the men Riley identified to the police as the killers, she does in fact testify against them. But in one of the more ridiculous court scenes I’ve seen in a while, the judge lets the guys go. Obviously, the screenwriter here, Chad St. John, has never seen an episode of LAW AND ORDER. It’s an embarrassingly phony court scene.

Riley vows revenge, and then the action jumps back to present day, where Riley has returned as a vengeance machine.

PEPPERMINT is so dull that not even the scenes of vengeance are all that good.  I mean, that’s how bad things are. Why? Well, for starters, director Pierre Morel simply goes through the motions here. Morel directed the Liam Neeson movie TAKEN (2008) ten years ago but not much since.

When Riley kills a judge, when she goes after drug dealing henchmen, it’s all by the numbers and not even remotely memorable. Everything that happens in this movie has happened in a billion other action movies.

The screenplay by Chad St. John is also very weak. St. John also wrote LONDON HAS FALLEN (2016). Here, the dialogue is trite and often ridiculous, and characters robotic. Riley lost her husband and her daughter, yet I barely felt a connection to her. I felt little emotion at all through the entire movie.

Jennifer Garner of ALIAS (2001-2006) fame is okay as Riley North. She looks convincing as a fighting machine, I’ll give her that much. Although, the body count is so high in this one it’s the furthest thing from being believable. It reached Terminator proportions only without Schwarzenegger’s one-liners. As such, Garner is certainly not helped by the script, which struggles to give her either realistic dialogue or any memorable lines.

Both John Gallagher, Jr. and John Ortiz, both fine actors, are wasted here as L.A. detectives who are trying to help Riley while the rest of the authorities are out to get her because she’s a dangerous vigilante. Where have we heard that before?

Gallagher Jr. was very impressive in films like THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2016) and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016). Not so much here, as his Detective Stan Carmichael is like the rest of the movie: a snooze.

Likewise, John Ortiz has been memorable in films like SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOOK (2012) and ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM (2007) but he too barely registers on the interest meter here. Actually, I thought he fared a bit better than Gallagher Jr. because his Detective Moises Beltran actually seemed like a real person.

In a brief role, Jeff Hephner made for a convincing loving husband, and young Cailey Fleming impressed in her brief screen time as Riley’s daughter Carly.

But Juan Pablo Raba as drug lord Diego Garcia is about as generic a villain as you can get. His dialogue could have been copied and pasted from any other fictional character of his type. The result is he’s about as scary and believable as if his name had been Carmen Sandiego Garcia.

This one offered little or no surprises. About the most surprising thing here was that I saw it in a rather crowded theater. So, there seems to be definite audience interest in this one.

That being said, audiences, especially Jennifer Garner fans, deserve far better than this.

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OPERATION FINALE (2018) – Tale of Nazi Capture Relevant Today

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Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley in OPERATION FINALE (2018)

There are moments in OPERATION FINALE (2018), the new historical drama about the capture and extraction of Nazi Adolph Eichmann from Argentina in 1960 by a group of Israeli agents, that resonate more powerfully today because they call to mind current events.

Watching a raucous Nazis meeting you can’t help but recall images of the hate-filled march in Charlottesville or the frenzied crowds at a Trump rally.  The images are eerily similar.

But the action in OPERATION FINALE is all historical.

When we first meet Israeli Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) he’s leading a failed attempt at capturing a Nazi target.  Shortly after they remove the man from his home, ripping him away from his wife and kids, Malkin realizes they have the wrong man, but before he can do anything about it, his associates shoot the man dead. When Malkin tells them they grabbed the wrong Nazi, his partners shrug and ask, does it matter? He was still a Nazi.

The action jumps ahead a few years to 1960, where in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a young German girl Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) brings home her new boyfriend Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn) to meet her blind father Lothar (Peter Strauss). When Lothar hears the boy’s name, he sends word to the Israeli government that he believes he has met the son of Adolph Eichmann, the infamous Nazi known as the mastermind of the “Final Solution,” the Nazi plan which led to the mass murder of millions of Jews.

Israeli agent Isser Harel (Lior Raz) sends a team which includes Malkin to Buenos Aires, and shortly thereafter they confirm the identity of Eichmann (Ben Kingsley).  They then plan to capture him and extract him from the country so he can stand trial in Israel for his crimes, which will be no easy task, since Eichmann is surrounded by a vigilant group of Nazis looking to rise to power once more.

OPERATION FINALE really isn’t receiving strong reviews, as I keep hearing it described as slow and unimaginative, but it really deserves stronger praise than that.  I will agree that it is subtle in its storytelling, and it’s rated PG-13 so the horrific violence from the Holocaust will not be on full display here, but there are enough potent images to make it work just fine.

The film is anchored by two very strong performances by Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. Both actors drive the story forward with their convincing interpretations of the two leads.

I like Isaac a lot, and he seems to get better in every movie I see him in. While he’s probably most known today for his recurring role as pilot Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies, it’s not in that role that he’s really been allowed to strut his stuff.  He’s been excellent in films like ANNIHILATION (2018) and EX MACHINA (2014), and way back when he made an impression in the stylish action fantasy SUCKER PUNCH (2011).

He’s excellent here as Israeli agent Peter Malkin.  He plays Malkin as a man not quite sure of himself at first, and his confidence grows as he’s allowed to establish a relationship with Eichmann while they’re held up in a safe house awaiting the opportunity to fly out of Buenos Aires. The Israelis need Eichmann to sign a document expressing his willingness to leave the country, and when their hardball tactics continually fail, Malkin believes he can get him to sign by appealing to his ego.

The two men partake in a psychological cat and mouse game which heats up in one of the movie’s best scenes when Eichmann attempts to get under Malkin’s skin by telling him the story of how he shot a woman and her baby, knowing that Malkin’s sister and baby were lost in the Holocaust. He asks Malkin if he thinks it was his sister and her baby he shot , and if so, wouldn’t that have been a good thing, for them to have been killed so quickly as opposed to the horrifying ways Eichmann saw others killed?

Ben Kingsley is very, very good as Adolph Eichmann, a man who refuses to stand trial in Israel because he knows there will only be one result, his death, and he believes that in order to receive a fair trial he should be tried in Germany. He also refuses to be the scapegoat for the sins of his former government, and he makes the argument that he was only following orders, just as Malkin is doing now.

At one point Eichmann tells Malkin that he actually tried to help many Jews escape, as he didn’t agree with his fellow Nazis’ solution for getting rid of the Jews. He believed they should have been relocated, and he in fact did relocate many of them, to which Malkin scoffs that he sent them to malaria-filled Madagascar. Eichmann replies that no other country would take the Jews.

It’s a subtle performance by Kingsley, yet it’s no less successful. He makes Eichmann a formidable  force to be reckoned with, and there is something icy cold and sinister underneath nearly every civil line he utters.

The rest of the cast is equally as solid. Lior Raz as Israeli agent Isser Harel, and Nick Kroll as fellow agent Rafi Eitan, and Michael Aronov as agent Zvi Aharoni are all convincing, as are the rest of the actors who round out the team, including Melanie Laurent as the sole woman of the group, Hanna Elian, tasked with drugging Eichmann during their escape.

I also enjoyed Haley Lu Richardson as Sylvia Hermann, the young Jewish woman whose relationship with Klaus Eichmann led to the capture of his father. Richardson is a promising young actress who has yet to land her break-out role. She’s been memorable in supporting performances in films like SPLIT (2016) and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016). Her role here in OPERATION FINALE is again small, and she again makes an impression.

It was also fun to see Peter Strauss back on the big screen as Sylvia’s blind father Lothar. I think the last time I saw Strauss in a movie was the Johnny Depp thriller, NICK OF TIME (1995). Of course, Strauss mostly did TV work, bursting onto the scene eons ago in the highly popular mini series RICH MAN, POOR MAN (1976).

Director Chris Weitz’s straightforward unassuming style allows the story to unfold gradually and build towards a rather riveting conclusion.

The film does a good job of getting under your skin without blood and gore. For instance, the scene where the young mother raises her child to Eichmann is unnerving to watch even without the actual shootings occurring on-camera.

Weitz also directed THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON (2009), the second TWILIGHT movie. Needless to say, OPERATION FINALE is a much better movie than NEW MOON and should go a long way towards helping moviegoers forget that Weitz made that vampire clinker.

The scenes between Malkin and Eichmann are the best scenes in the movie, and they’re also the best written, thanks to a credible screenplay by Matthew Orton.

And while the screenplay doesn’t make Eichmann a sympathetic character, it does make him a three-dimensional one. We see him caring for his family, we catch glimpses of the cold psychological power he possesses, we experience his raw fear when first captured, and we are allowed to enter his calculating mind while he’s a prisoner.

Critics are not being overly kind to OPERATION FINALE, and that’s too bad, because it’s a solid well-made movie.

It works as both a historical piece, in that it’s a compelling tale of the capture of Nazi Adolph Eichmann, and as a cautionary tale for our times, reminding us of the importance of striking down fascism.

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MILE 22 (2018) – Action Film Mired By Confusing Direction, Weak Script

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Lauren Cohan in MILE 22 (2018).

Maggie! Maggie!

Maggie Greene is the character Lauren Cohan plays on TV’s THE WALKING DEAD, and she’s one of the main reasons that I keep watching the show, even though it’s dipped in quality the past couple of seasons.

So, with apologies to Mark Wahlberg, Cohan is also the reason I trekked out to the theater to see MILE 22 (2018), the latest film from director Peter Berg, which stars Wahlberg as an elite American intelligence agent, sort of a Jason Bourne if he hadn’t gone rogue.

MILE 22 has opened to dreadful reviews.  Is it as bad as all that? Let’s find out.

MILE 22 opens with James Silva (Mark Wahlberg) and his elite squad closing in on a Russian safe house where they proceed to kill everyone inside while they confiscate top-secret material. Afterwards, they discover the material they were seeking was in fact not there. What were they looking for? A highly explosive chemical weapon that has the potential for leveling a city with just a few specks of powder. Yikes!

The heat falls on agent Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan) since it was her contact Li Noor (Iko Uwais) who provided them with false information. It turns out that Noor will give them the whereabouts of this deadly weapon but only if he receives political asylum in the United States. After failing to break the codes on Noor’s phone which would give them this information, Silva and his team agree to extract Noor out of the country and into the United States.

To do this, they have to travel a dangerous trek of 22 miles, hence the film’s title, dangerous because Noor is wanted by the government, as in wanted dead, and so there are brutal assassins waiting for them at every turn.

If this sounds stupid, that’s because it is.

One of the worst things about MILE 22 is the film has no sense of place and does a terrible job establishing its setting.  No mention is made of nations or cities, and so half the time the audience has no idea where the film is taking place. This is either sloppy filmmaking by director Berg or a deliberate attempt to capture the shadowy aspects of the plot by keeping everything nameless. Either way, it weakens the story. Without an established setting, things just don’t play out as real.

The film was shot in both Bogota, Colombia, and Atlanta, Georgia, but no mention of where the action is taking place is made in the film.

The actual gimmick of this movie, that the agents have to transport an informant on a 22 mile stretch to get him to safety, is a good one and has potential, but strangely the film fails to take advantage of this.

Director Peter Berg takes a circuitous route telling this story. The editing is all over the place. The thinking behind this movie seems to have been action first, story later. What should have been a straightforward and rather compelling narrative unfolds in a muddled and choppy way. For example, the film continually returns to a sequence where Wahlberg’s character is talking about the mission after it happened, but this doesn’t help the story at all other than reveal that Wahlberg’s character is going to survive.

The action scenes are actually pretty good, and I enjoyed most of them, so if you’re into action you certainly won’t be bored, and it’s not like the movie doesn’t have a story. It does. It just doesn’t do the best job telling it.

The screenplay by Lea Carpenter has it moments, but most of them are drowned out by Berg’s overbearing direction. I liked the basic premise of the story, and I actually enjoyed the two main characters, Wahlberg’s James Silva and Cohan’s Alice Kerr. I especially enjoyed their interactions. Cohan’s character is a strong female lead, and I thought she was one of the best written characters in the movie, even though she is stuck in a thankless subplot concerning a messy divorce.

But there’s no villain to speak of, and this certainly hurts the movie. Oh, there are bad guys here, but they’re not developed at all. Wahlberg and company might as well be combatting nameless shadows.

I usually enjoy Mark Wahlberg, and so it’s no surprise that he’s pretty darn good in MILE 22, although his James Silva character can be cocky and annoying. Silva is a savant, which is supposed to make his arrogance sympathetic, but the trouble is the flashback scenes which explain this are so laughably bad none of it seems real. In spite of this, Wahlberg manages to make the guy someone I didn’t mind rooting for.

On the other hand, he gets stuck with lots of bad dialogue, especially when he spouts off about real world dangers, the fallacies of diplomacy, and how the world is safe only because of people like him. While any of this could be true, as written, it comes off as ridiculous.

Lauren Cohan delivers the best performance in the movie as Alice Kerr. She’s so good she even makes the silly divorce scenes tolerable.

John Malkovich is on hand as the leader of the tech team housed in a top-secret location with his fellow computer geeks as they monitor everything from their agents’ vitals to controlling traffic lights to ordering jet missile strikes. Again, what could have been intriguing becomes laughable here.

Peter Berg previously directed Wahlberg in LONE SURVIVOR (2013), DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016) and PATRIOTS DAY (2016). MILE 22 might be the weakest of the lot. It’s certainly inferior to the far more compelling PATRIOTS DAY.

And it looks like Berg and Wahlberg will be working together again, as the ending to MILE 22 sets things up for an obvious sequel. In fact, rumor has it that Berg and Wahlberg have a trilogy planned. Oh joy.

I tend to like gritty action films, and so I certainly did not hate MILE 22. I’ve seen far worse movies. This one certainly isn’t very good, as it struggles with some confusing editing and a helter-skelter narrative.

But Mark Wahlberg makes for a sufficiently arrogant and annoying lead, not someone you like all that much but because of his good intentions someone you root for, and it would be very difficult for me to dislike a movie starring Lauren Cohan. As expected, she is also excellent here.

So, with Wahlberg and Cohan leading the way, MILE 22, in spite of its directing and story problems, isn’t quite as bad as folks are saying.

Its twenty-two mile trek won’t be the longest ride you’ve ever had to sit through, but it also won’t be the most satisfying.

Perhaps they should have gone with MILE 2.

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THE MEG (2018) – Giant Shark Tale Ridiculous But Fun

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THE MEG (2018) is often ridiculous and about as scary as a Scooby-Doo cartoon, but this mega shark adventure is also something else: fun.

THE MEG opens with a deep-sea rescue mission gone wrong.  Rescuer Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) is in the midst of leading a rescue team to save folks trapped in a damaged nuclear submarine, but when something seems to attack the sub, Jonas makes the executive decision to leave some of his team behind in order to rescue the few lives he has with him. It’s a decision that does not bode well with others on his team, as later no proof of a powerful sea creature which Jonas said was attacking the sub is ever found.

In terms of opening sequences, it’s not all that memorable and sounds more exciting than it actually is.

The action picks up five years later at a deep-sea station off the coast of China where a scientist named Zhang (Winston Chao) is leading an expedition to travel to the very depths of the ocean, and beyond.  See, Zhang believes that at the bottom of what is considered to be one of the deepest parts of the ocean floor, lies a gaseous barrier rather than a solid bottom, and he believes beneath that barrier is another world. And faster than you can say Jules Verne, a mini sub is launched from the station to prove just that.

The sub breaks through the barrier, but before anyone can celebrate, it’s attacked by a mysterious unseen creature. And of course, Zhang and company turn to the one man who has ever attempted a rescue that deep in the ocean, Jonas Taylor. Jonas, of course, says he’s done with all that, wants no part of it, and nothing they can say will change his mind. His resolve lasts all of two seconds before he learns that the woman commanding the sub and one of the people trapped inside is his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee).

And so Jonas packs his bags and is off to the rescue, where of course he will come face to face with a massive prehistoric shark which may or may be the same creature which he encountered five years before. The film doesn’t really make that clear.

And this is only the beginning, because once the rescue is done, the mammoth shark decides he’s had enough of living so far below the ocean and comes up for a visit.

One of the main reasons THE MEG is so much fun is its story keeps evolving. It’s not just one long rescue mission tale.  Things continually change. As a result, the movie remains exciting throughout, and with some brisk pacing, there are very few slow parts here.

The screenplay by Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Erich Hoeber, based on the novel Meg by Steve Alten, also contains lots of lively dialogue which is sure to be a crowd pleaser. It also does a really good job developing its characters, which for a movie like this, is a pleasant surprise. In fact, that was one of my favorite parts of this movie, that its characters were all so likable.

But the story is not without flaws. A lot of things aren’t explained all that well. For instance, once the giant shark makes its presence known, everyone who doubted Jonas apologizes to him. Yet, at one point in the story, Jonas says the creature outside the sub in his doomed mission was destroyed in the subsequent explosion, so, just how the appearance of this prehistoric shark acquits Jonas is unclear to me. Just because there’s a huge shark around now doesn’t mean there was one that day Jonas left those people behind to die.

For such a deep-sea expedition, it seems to take only seconds for everyone to get down to the ocean floor and then back up again. And some of the later shark scenes are flat-out ludicrous but somehow don’t deteriorate into laughable material.

And while the story scores high on the adventure meter, it scores less so when it comes to conflict.  Nearly every plan our heroes suggest works.

Director Jon Turteltaub plays things safe. THE MEG is rated PG-13, so there’s not a drop of blood to be found. Yet, somehow, the movie doesn’t suffer for it.

The shark itself is okay.  CGI sharks just don’t cut it for me.  This one works best when we see it only partially, like shots from above where we see its massive form swimming beneath the waves. Those scenes are ominous, but seen up close, it’s nothing more than a frightening cartoon.

One of the strongest parts of THE MEG is its cast. Pretty much everyone in the movie is very good, and so that goes a long way towards making this film as enjoyable as it is.

Director Jon  Turtelbaub deserves some credit here for getting so much out of his actors in this one.

We’ll start at the top with Jason Statham, who’s been one of my favorite action movie stars over the past ten years or so. As he almost always is, he’s excellent here. He’s extremely believable in the part, except of course when he dives into the water for a hand to hand combat session with the supersized shark. Perhaps he should apply to become a Marvel superhero?

Even so, Statham does a good job making the ludicrous situations he finds himself in believable. His scenes with the little girl at the station, Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cal) are precious, and Shuya Sophia Cal is adorable and entertaining in the role.

Li Bingbing plays Suyin, Zhang’s daughter and Meiying’s mother.  She’s pretty much the lead scientist on the expedition, and she is definitely not a heroine in need of saving. She pretty much goes toe to toe with Statham’s Jonas Taylor, and the two of them lead the charge against the shark. She’s also very sexy.

Rainn Wilson, who played Dwight on THE OFFICE (2005-2013) plays the wealthy businessman who finances the expedition. He’s the guy you love to hate.

Cliff Curtis, who played Travis on FEAR THE WALKING DEAD (2015-17), is very good here as Jonas’ friend Mac. Likewise, Winston Chao is convincing as Zhang, as is Ruby Rose as the sexy engineer Jaxx who designed the deep-sea station.

Robert Taylor stands out as Heller, the doctor at the station who was there that fateful day when Jonas failed to rescue everyone from the nuclear sub, and for the past five years he had blamed Jonas for their deaths, claiming he had become unhinged. When the mega shark appears, Heller is quick to apologize to Jonas. Taylor, who plays Sheriff Walt Longmire on the TV show LONGMIRE (2012-2017), probably gives the best performance in the movie.

Olafur Darri Olafsson and Masi Oka are also very good as a couple of scientists, and likewise Jessica McNamee is memorable as Jonas’ ex-wife Lori.

Only Page Kennedy doesn’t  fare as well, as scientist DJ. He’s the one black character on the crew, and he’s also supposed to be the film’s comic relief, but a lot of the jokes I thought were cliché, and I think the one person of color in the movie deserved a better written role.

As shark movies go, THE MEG is one of the better ones. It’s a much stronger film than the recent 47 METERS DOWN (2017), and more fun than  THE SHALLOWS (2016).

That being said, it still pales in comparison to the Holy Grail of shark movies, JAWS (1975). It’s not intense like JAWS, and it’s certainly not realistic like JAWS. However, during the film’s third act, there are several nods to the 1975 Steven Spielberg classic.

THE MEG is a lot of fun, and as such, for a summer time popcorn movie, it comes highly recommended.

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THE EQUALIZER 2 (2018) – Denzel Washington is Excellent in this Subpar Sequel

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I could watch Denzel Washington all day.

The guy’s a tremendous actor, and he possesses a compelling screen persona with the ability to keep audiences riveted to everything he does and says. Of course, I’d enjoy Washington even more if he wasn’t starring in a subpar sequel to a movie that itself wasn’t so hot.

THE EQUALIZER (2014) was an okay movie that was loosely based on the old TV show of the same name starring Edward Woodward, which ran from 1985-1989. In the movie, Denzel impressed in the lead role, but the film itself was rather average.

Now comes the sequel THE EQUALIZER 2 (2018) which is less than average.

Director Antoine Fuqua, who directed the first movie, returns to helm this sequel.  Fuqua is a talented director with plenty of credits to his name, including TRAINING DAY (2001) which won Denzel Washington a Best Actor Oscar. That being said, I wasn’t all that crazy about Fuqua’s previous movie, the remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016), which also starred Denzel. And I’m not too crazy about THE EQUALIZER 2, although Fuqua’s direction isn’t the main problem with this one.

It’s the story.

THE EQUALIZER 2 opens with an entertaining enough sequence, on a train, where we are re-acquainted with main character Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) as we see him do what he does best: handily beat up a bunch of bad guys and rescue a little girl who had been taken away from her mother. As opening sequences go, it’s all right, but it’s certainly not memorable, and as such, serves as the perfect table setter for the rest of the movie.

The action switches to Brussels, Belgium, where we witness a brutal execution of a man and his wife. After that, the setting jumps to Boston, where McCall is currently working as a Lyft driver, and we get to see him interacting with his passengers. Interestingly enough, some of Denzel Washington’s best scenes in this one are with with people not integral to the main crime plot. The whole subplot regarding his mentoring relationship with a young man Miles Whittaker (Ashton Sanders) from his neighborhood was my favorite part of the movie. On the contrary, the main plot of this one, regarding murder and betrayal, I found to be a snooze.

In that main plot, McCall’s friends Susan (Melissa Leo) and Brian Plummer (Bill Pullman) run afoul of some baddies with a connection to the prior murder in Brussels. Just what is that connection? Well, the bottom line is the film never really makes that clear, nor is it important. The only thing that matters here is McCall’s friends have been wronged, and one of them murdered, and so he’s on the job seeking justice for them. And while it’s certainly fun watching Denzel Washington’s character pursue this justice, it’s not enough to make THE EQUALIZER 2 a worthwhile movie.

The screenplay by Richard Wenk does a nice job with Denzel’s character, as we know and understand what he is all about.  The character’s issues with OCD also add to the mix, as rather than a hindrance, this anxiety seems to help McCall focus when fighting his enemies. The dialogue is also very good, especially in the aforementioned scenes between McCall and Miles.

But the main plot is way too underdeveloped to have any impact. It’s all very shadowy, and the story does not supply the necessary answers to its questions. It’s the old plot of the former government assassin thrown out to pasture and so to make ends meet he has to kill for private contracts and not be too choosy as to who he kills. This is all well and good, but the film doesn’t really get into the folks who are doing the hiring and so we don’t know why any of these people are being killed.

Wenk wrote the screenplay to the first EQUALIZER movie, and he also worked on the screenplays for THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016), JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK (2016), THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012) and THE MECHANIC (2011).

DirectorAntoine Fuqua does an okay job here.  The fight scenes are polished and well-choreographed, but none of them blew me away. The entire movie takes place as a hurricane bears down upon the east coast, and it hits just in time for the film’s climax. I’m not exactly sure of the relevance of the stormy atmosphere, other than it sets the tone for the story’s volatile proceedings. Don’t see this movie expecting to see sunshine. But other than this the hurricane doesn’t add much to the story.

THE EQUALIZER 2 marks the first time Fuqua has directed a sequel.

Likewise, it’s also the first sequel for Denzel Washington. I really enjoyed Washington here. Like I said at the outset, he has that gift for making whoever he plays on screen be very compelling, to the point where you can’t stop watching him. And even though he’s 63, he still makes the violent exploits of Robert McCall believable, and that’s because Fuqua does a nice job keeping his action scenes believable. We don’t see McCall running around all over the place like he’s 25 years old. He moves like he’s 63. It’s just that when he moves, he’s deadly.  Okay, he moves like an incredibly agile and swift 63 year-old! At least his upper body does. Like I said, he’s not racing through the streets like the Flash.

Ashton Sanders [MOONLIGHT (2016)] is also very good as Miles Whittaker, the young man McCall pretty much takes under his wing. Again, this part of the movie was my favorite, and the scenes between Washington and Sanders were the best scenes in the movie, so good in fact that they deserve a better story than the one here. It’s a shame that THE EQUALIZER 2 wasn’t about McCall and Whittaker.

Both Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman are wasted in small throwaway roles as McCall’s friends, the ones he has to seek justice for. Leo and Pullman are reprising their roles from the first film.

The movie also suffers from not having a decent villain. The main villain, Dave (Pedro Pascal) is one of McCall’s former partners, and for most of the film we don’t even know he’s the bad guy, although truth be told, it’s not much of a twist.  I could tell early on that this guy was bad news. The character just doesn’t resonate.

And it’s too bad because Denzel Washington is so good as Robert McCall. He deserves a formiddable foe. But he doesn’t get one in this movie.

THE EQUALIZER 2 is a largely forgettable sequel.  Fans of Denzel Washington probably will not be disappointed, because Washington is indeed excellent in this one, but on his own he’s not enough, even with some fine support from Ashton Sanders, to make me recommend this movie.

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