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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CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018) – Mild, Underwhelming Children’s Fare

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Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) talks with Pooh in CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018).

As a kid, I thoroughly enjoyed the Disney cartoons featuring Winnie the Pooh. My favorite was the short WINNIE THE POOH AND THE HONEY TREE (1966). So, I was eager to trek off to the theater to see CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018), a live action tale featuring a now adult Christopher Robin having one more adventure with his stuffed animal friends from the Hundred Acre Wood.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN opens nicely, with a montage chronicling the relationship between a young Christopher Robin and his “friends” Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Rabbit, Eeyore, Owl, Kanga and Roo. The opening sequence ends with Christopher Robin telling his playmates that it’s time for him to leave, that he needs to go off to school and grow up, and while Christopher seems perfectly at ease about this, Pooh and company are a little less so and are very sad to see the boy leave them, not fully understanding why he has to go.

The action then switches to years later where an adult Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) lives in London with his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Things should be wonderful, but they’re not.  Christopher has a very demanding job which keeps him away from his family, and both his wife and daughter are letting him know about it.

Meanwhile, back in the Hundred Acre Wood, Pooh has had enough of missing Christopher Robin and decides to go looking for him in the outside world. When the two meet, it’s just in time for Pooh and his friends to help Christopher see the light and realize that his family  comes first.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN looks wonderful, with its late 1940s costumes and set design, and the CGI effects on Pooh and company are flawless.  The talking stuffed animals here are sufficiently cute and cuddly.

But the plot point of a father being too busy to spend time with his family is hardly original, and since this story adds little that is new to the concept, it really works against this movie.

Plus, the story itself doesn’t hold up.

For starters, Christopher Robin is shown as a man who does love his family but unfortunately is stuck in a demanding job. It’s not as if he has the option of spending time with his family and chooses not to. He doesn’t.  If anyone needs a change of heart in this story, it’s his employer, not him.

Second, Pooh and friends don’t exactly rush to the rescue. They try to help by attempting to return to Christopher Robin the “important papers” he left behind, and when they meet Madeline they end up working together, but it’s a not a direct “rescue mission.” They do help Christopher Robin “see the light” but in a roundabout inadvertent way.

I was largely underwhelmed by CHRISTOPHER ROBIN. While I enjoyed its charm and the nostalgia of seeing Pooh and company back on-screen again, it simply wasn’t all that lively or memorable.

Director Marc Foster keeps the pace deliberate and slow, making for a rather dull movie. I’m also not quite sure who the film is marketed for. The family drama which takes up most of the movie is definitely geared more for adults, while Pooh’s story is seemingly aimed at the very young.  It’s not the kind of lively script that’s going to hold the interest of older children.

Foster also directed QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), the second Daniel Craig James Bond film, a movie a lot of people didn’t like, but it’s one of my favorite Craig Bonds, as well as the horror movie WORLD WAR Z (2013). CHRISTOPHER ROBIN is a far cry from these two movies, and I can’t say that I enjoyed it as much as I did SOLACE and Z.

The screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, and Allison Schroeder is pleasant but uninspiring. Pooh and his buddies enjoy plenty of little moments but few if any big ones. The family tale of Christopher Robin trying to make time for his family largely falls flat. The result is a mixed bag of a script which tends to gravitate to the mundane, even with the majority of the characters being CGI created fluffy stuffed animals that can talk.

Tom McCarthy was one of the writers who wrote SPOTLIGHT (2015), while Allison Schroeder was one of the writers who worked on HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), two phenomenal movies. CHRISTOPHER ROBIN is not on the level of either one of these. Not even close.

Ewan McGregor is okay in the lead role as the adult Christopher Robin, but he certainly didn’t wow me. In fact, the character rather bored me, and so if Christopher Robin is guilty of anything in this movie, it’s that he’s become a dull unimaginative adult rather than an overworked one, yet the script doesn’t really play up this angle.

Likewise, Hayley Atwell is just okay as Evelyn, the wife who is clearly frustrated with her busy husband and can’t seem to get through to him. Atwell is known these days as Agent Peggy Carter in some of the Marvel superhero movies and the short-lived AGENT CARTER TV series (2015-16).

In the important role of young Madeline Robin, Bronte Carmichael acquits herself well, but the character struggles to rise above the cliché.

The voice actors don’t fare all that better, except for Jim Cummings, who provides the voices of both Pooh and Tigger. Cummings has been voicing these characters for quite a while now, since the 1980s, and he does a fine job here. Pooh and Tigger were probably my two favorite characters in the movie.

Brad Garrett voiced Eeyore, Nick Mohammed provided the voice for Piglet, Peter Capaldi lent his voice for Rabbit, Sophie Okonedo for Kanga, Sara Sheen voiced Roo, and veteran character actor Toby Jones provided the voice for Owl. All of these folks were okay but no one knocked it out of the park.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN taken as a whole was largely underwhelming. The adults in the story were dull, the main child a cliché, and the talking stuffed animals were oddly reserved and rather passive. Worse, its main story of a father who’s “lost his way” and needs to reconnect with his family doesn’t really resonate or have the desired impact. That’s because the adult Christopher Robin in this movie is not a man who now shuns his childhood imagination and replaces it with a love of work, but rather, he’s a man who’s simply too busy to recall the imagination he once had. And the realization that “hey, maybe I can be a bit less busy,” really isn’t all that dramatic or compelling.

As a result, CHRISTOPHER ROBIN is a mildly entertaining movie, best reserved for folks who enjoyed Pooh as a kid and are curious to see him on the big screen again. It should serve as a fair reunion.

I seriously doubt many new fans will emerge after watching this movie.

For me though, CHRISTOPHER ROBIN didn’t come close to satisfying my appetite for a new Pooh adventure.

Yep, there’s still a rumbly in my tumbly.

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EIGHTH GRADE (2018) – Convincing, Contemporary Portrait of Difficult Middle School Years

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Elsie Fisher in EIGHTH GRADE (2018).

The best part about EIGHTH GRADE (2018), the new coming of age comedy/drama by writer/director Bo Burnham, is that it absolutely nails what it is like to experience one of life’s most difficult ages: eighth grade.  And it does it with the all important and clear message that life goes on, that it’s never as bad as it seems during that awkward year of transition, and that it’s all just a natural part of growing up.

It also serves as an accurate assessment of what life is like for today’s middle school students.

EIGHTH GRADE opens with main character Kayla (Elsie Fisher) recording herself on her computer as she shares advice for her fellow eighth graders. She does this numerous times during the movie, and these moments are worth the price of admission alone. She thinks and speaks exactly like an eighth grader, and to hear her share her thoughts on such topics as why you should just be yourself, and approaching life with confidence, is as refreshing as it is real. These chats are juxtaposed with Kayla’s real life experiences which more often than not don’t go as planned.

It’s the end of Kayla’s eighth grade year, and the film follows her final few days in middle school, having to deal with such things as being voted the most quiet girl in her grade, to trying to fit in with the popular girls, to living with her very well-meaning single dad who seems to annoy her with every positive word he says.

EIGHTH GRADE is a fascinating look at one of life’s most difficult years, and the writing is so sharp it captures this awkward time with amazing clarity. I know a little bit about this age group, since I teach middle school, and as the father of two adult sons, I survived the experience of parenting middle schoolers. And of course way back in the stone age I was an eighth grader myself. The film gets it right.

So, the question you’re probably asking is, if you hated eighth grade, why would you want to see this movie? The number one reason is that it captures what eighth grade is like for teens in the here and now, teens who are so locked into electronics they cannot put their phones down even in the middle of personal conversations, teens whose parents struggle to talk with them, teens who find active shooter drills at school dull and boring, and teens who fear growing up too fast.

It also makes a very poignant case for the seemingly endless amount of patience needed as a parent of an eighth grader.

And the script is so strong if you like good writing, you have to see this movie.

Writer/director Bo Burnham, known more for his acting than for his time behind the camera— in fact, EIGHTH GRADE is his directorial debut—has written dialogue that is so on the money with its depiction of middle school voices at times you almost feel as if you are watching a documentary. And his work as a director is just as powerful. So often the camera comes in tight on Kayla’s face and lingers there, capturing her feelings of awkwardness, inadequacy, and all too often discomfort.

There are lots of memorable moments in this movie. When Kayla attends a pool party hosted by the most popular girl in her class, an invite which she only received because the girl’s mother forced the issue, she literally has a panic attack in the bathroom before changing into her bathing suit. And once she does, the camera follows her slow uncomfortable walk towards the pool, where everybody seems to know everyone else, and she feels out-of-place. Her hunched posture during this sequence is on the mark, as is the pain felt when her birthday gift is opened to relative silence and frowns.

Speaking of pain, one of the more powerful scenes is when she is driven home by a high school student who decides to stop the car and get into the back seat with her. These few moments of the movie are extremely uncomfortable and unnerving because the boy’s intentions are clear, and when Kayla finally utters “no!” the audience nearly jumped out of its collective seat.

On the other hand, the joy Kayla feels when her high school mentor invites her to hang out with her and her friends at the mall is so palpable you’ll nearly cheer.

Some of the best scenes are between Kayla and her father Mark (Josh Hamilton). Mark is a patient loving father, but the harder he tries to connect to his daughter, the more she seems to push him away, yet he never loses focus, or his temper. Indeed, in one scene at the dinner table, when Kayla just wants to be on her phone, he displays composure that is beyond belief. And if there’s one part of this movie that might not ring true, it might be the saintly restraint displayed by Mark. While it is certainly admirable, and something that all parents of middle schoolers should strive for, having been there, I know that it’s never that easy to remain that patient.

One of the more disturbing scenes in the film only because it’s a way of life now for students across the United States is the active shooter drill at the middle school. As I watched this scene, I couldn’t help but hope that somewhere in our future, say fifty years from now, audiences might look back and wonder, “what was that all about?”  the way modern audiences do when they see scenes of bomb drills which took place in the 1950s.

As I said, EIGHTH GRADE is actor Bo Burnham’s directorial debut, and it’s an awesome debut to say the least. Both his direction and screenplay are Oscar worthy.

Likewise, Elsie Fisher is phenomenal as Kayla.  It’s such a natural performance. It’s clear that she’s not too far removed from the middle school experience. Kayla is an introvert, a quiet awkward student who doesn’t see herself as quiet outside of school and only chooses to be quiet in school. She is actually brimming with confidence and is constantly looking for any opportunity to show off this confidence, whether it be trying to get noticed by the cute boy in her class to getting along with her new high school mentor.

As Kayla, Fisher is in nearly every scene in the movie, and she carries this film with ease. She’s easy to watch, and Kayla is a character you are happy to root for. In a middle school world full of pretensions and meanness, Kayla is sincere and kind.

Josh Hamilton is also excellent as Kayla’s dad Mark. His unceasing patience is admirable, and the speech he delivers to Kayla late in the movie, where he tells her how happy she makes him, is one that I believe most parents of middle schoolers wish they too could make.

Emily Robinson shines as Olivia, the high school senior who is paired with Kayla during her high school shadow day. She’s perfect as the accepting high schooler who instantly connects with Kayla.

Jake Ryan also has a couple of noteworthy scenes as Gabe, the awkward yet friendly boy who strikes up a conversation with Kayla and later invites her to dinner at his house.

Sadly, the middle school itself is shown as something of a failure and not as a place that is doing a whole lot of good for middle schoolers. As I said, I teach middle school, and I’m fortunate to work at a school that makes middle school students its priority and prides itself on creating an environment where these students thrive.  I hope there are more schools like ours across the country rather than like the one depicted in this movie.

With up to date and realistic dialogue, and powerful and natural acting performances, EIGHTH GRADE is a convincing portrait of what it’s like to be a middle school student here in 2018. The film also communicates the uplifting message that in spite of the awkwardness and pain that accompanies the age, the future is bright for these students as they move on to high school and beyond. It’s a message that is both heartfelt and rewarding.

EIGHTH GRADE is one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

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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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MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018) -Good-Natured Sequel Starts Slow, Finishes Strong

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Guilty pleasure alert!

I really liked MAMA MIA! (2008) when it came out ten years ago.

I mean, it had a fun cast, led by Meryl Streep, and it included hammy performances by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard— sure, Brosnan couldn’t sing, but I just looked the other way—and it was also the first film in which I saw Amanda Seyfried, and I became an instant fan. Plus, there were all the ABBA songs, which I have always enjoyed. The film was a pleasant surprise.

Now, ten years later, comes the sequel, MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018).

MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN takes place five years after the events of the first movie. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has refurbished her mom’s fabulous home on the Greek island of Skopelos and is planning an opulent open house shindig worthy of Jay Gatsby. However, she’s troubled because things aren’t quite right with her hubbie Sky (Dominic Cooper) as he’s been offered a job in New York City and would rather be there than in Greece with her. Plus, of her “three dads” only Sam (Pierce Brosnan) is present, as both Harry (Colin Firth) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) have obligations elsewhere.

And Sophie is feeling the pressure because this party is in honor of her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) who passed away a year earlier. Alas, Meryl Streep fans, you won’t see much of Streep here since her character is deceased, but since this is a happy musical, she does get to appear in one scene.

Interspersed with this present day story is a second story told via flashback, Donna’s background story. We follow a young Donna (Lily James) and witness how she first meets Sam, Harry, and Bill, as well as how she finds herself in Greece. The film jumps back and forth seamlessly between both stories.

And that’s pretty much the plot of this one.

As far as stories go, the two told in MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN are rather weak. I found both tales rather flat and nowhere near as engrossing as the fun plot told in the first film, where Sophie invited her three possible dads to her wedding in the hope of learning which one was her real dad. That story worked. The ones here put me to sleep.

Of course, you don’t see MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN for its story. You see it for its song and dance numbers, and for its light upbeat style and humor, and on these fronts, the film doesn’t disappoint. The musical numbers are decent, though not as good as the ones in the first film, and the script provides frequent chuckles.

The best part about MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN is that it gets better as it goes along and finishes strong, which goes a long way towards helping you forget about its slow opening. And the reason it gets better is during the film’s third act, the heavy hitters arrive, folks like Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard, and their presence adds quite a bit. Even Cher shows up as Sophie’s grandmother, looking tremendous for someone in her 70s. And Cher even gets two musical numbers in this one!

And the film saves the best for last. The final number during the movie’s end credits is one of the liveliest of the film.

Lily James has the daunting task of playing a young Donna, a role previously played by Meryl Streep. Plus, she’s asked to carry half the movie since she has a lot of screen time. James is actually quite good here, which comes as no surprise since she has also delivered strong performances in films like BABY DRIVER (2017) and DARKEST HOUR (2017). She also starred as Lady Rose MacClare on TVs DOWNTON ABBEY (2012-2015).

I also thought Alexa Davies as young Rosie and Jessica Keenan Wynn as young Tanya were both exceptionally good. Wynn is the granddaughter of the late Keenan Wynn.

The males didn’t fare as well.  While Hugh Skinner as young Harry, Josh Dylan as young Bill, and Jeremy Irvine as young Sam, were all okay, none of them were all that memorable.

And none of them make you forget the original actors in the roles.

Both Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard once again have field days in their roles as Harry and Bill, and once they enter the movie for its third act, the fun picks up. Pierce Brosnan gets more serious scenes this time around, as he shares some tender moments with his daughter Sophie, and I’m happy to say, he seems to have improved upon his singing!

Julie Walters and Christine Baranski also reprise their roles from the first movie as Rosie and Tanya respectively, and they’re hilarious once again. I wish they had been in the movie more.

Likewise, Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper reprise their roles as well, as Sophie and Sky, but they really don’t make much of an impact.  Cooper isn’t in this one much (probably busy with the TV show PREACHER), and Seyfried, as much as I like her, gets stuck with some of the worst lines in the movie.

Much of the dialogue in this one is pretty bad. Director Ol Parker also wrote the screenplay, and while the dialogue in the flashback sequences is okay, some of the stuff in the here and now is flat out dreadful. And most of these clinkers go to Amanda Seyfried, as well as to Andy Garcia.

Yup, veteran actor Andy Garcia is in this one as well. Sadly, his lines are so bad he doesn’t even sound like a real person. I like Garcia a lot, and I’m glad to see him in movies again. He enjoyed a bigger and better role in the recent comedy BOOK CLUB (2018), where he played Diane Keaton’s love interest. Here, he plays a character named Fernando, and if you’re familiar with ABBA songs, you know where that’s going.

Also, a quick shout out to Maria Vacratsis who steals every scene she’s in as an elderly Greek woman named Sofia.

And if you look fast you’ll see Jonathan Goldsmith show up quickly as Fernando’s brother. While Goldsmith’s acting career dates back to the 1960s, he’s most famous nowadays for his long running stint as “the most interesting man in the world” on Dos Equis beer commercials from 2006-2016.

I can’t say that I liked MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN all that much. I definitely enjoyed its third act and was glad it built towards a strong conclusion, but taken as a whole, its story just never really grabbed me.

Not that it matters in the long run. I saw it in a packed theater on a week night, a theater filled primarily with women of all ages. I think I saw one other man in the theater, and I’m not complaining, mind you. There’s nothing wrong with being surrounded by women of all ages. It was actually pretty nice.

MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN certainly played like a sequel, in that it’s not as fresh or as lively as the original. But as long as there’s not a MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO ONE MORE TIME! it’s all harmless good fun.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

SKYSCRAPER (2018) – Fire Flick Fails to Ignite

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skyscraper

It’s THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) meets DIE HARD (1988)!

Er, no.

SKYSCRAPER (2018), the latest action adventure movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, features Johnson as a man who takes it upon himself to rescue his family from a burning skyscraper, all the while fending off a group of militant baddies.

Which sounds like it might be a lot of fun in a mindless sort of way, but sadly at the end of the day it really isn’t.  And that’s because the more this one goes on, the more superficial and unbelievable it becomes.

SKYSCRAPER actually has a jarring pre-credit sequence, as an F.B.I. Hostage Rescue team led by Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) moves in to quell a volatile hostage situation, but things go badly, there is an explosion, and when Will awakes he’s lost part of his leg, and his whole outlook on life has changed.

The story picks up years later where Will now works as a security consultant. He and his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and their two children are in Hong Kong as Will is on a job assessing the newest and tallest skyscraper in the world, three times as tall as the Empire State Building.

What Will doesn’t know is that a ruthless mobster named Kores Botha (Rolland Moller) is seeking revenge against the building’s owner Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) and plans to burn the building down and frame Will in the process.  Even worse, Sarah and the children find themselves trapped inside the inferno. Yep, you know you’re having a bad day when you’re framed for arson and your family is trapped inside the building you’re blamed for burning!

What’s a guy to do? Well, if you’re Dwayne Johnson, you take matters into your own hands and scale the outside of the building like Spiderman and put yourself in position to both put out the fire and beat back those bad guys, not to mention saving your wife and kids in the process. To give the story some credit, things don’t go as planned, and Will’s wife Sarah actually has a large part in saving the day as well, and while I liked this, there’s still no getting around that taken as a whole the story is flat-out ludicrous.

Director Rawson Marshall Thurber wrote the screenplay which is pretty much just an excuse to showcase a fiery skyscraper and have folks perform lots of incredible stunts. I never really bought into any of these characters or the situations they were in. It possesses as much credence as an old Bugs Bunny cartoon.

I somewhat expected this going in. I mean, based on the trailers, I wasn’t expecting a hard-hitting thriller.  But a little believability goes a long way.  Sadly, that’s a concept that is completely missing from this flick.

I generally like Dwayne Johnson, and so I certainly wasn’t dreading seeing this one. He has a likable screen persona, and he also has an Arnold Schwarzenegger thing going where the films he’s in are that much better because he’s in them. Of course, in general, Schwarzenegger used to be helped by some pretty solid scripts. That’s not the case here with SKYSCRAPER.

That being said, Johnson’s presence helps here up to a point. I enjoyed watching him early on, but as the film goes on and the premise wears thin, in that the story grows less believable and the stunts do as well, he becomes less of a factor. And like I said, the script doesn’t help him. He gets few if any memorable lines or one-liners. Arnold would not approve.

His character Will also has a prosthetic leg, and I thought this might be featured more in the story, but it really isn’t. On the one hand, that’s a good thing. I mean, it’s not like his character is marketed as someone who shouldn’t be effective because of his leg, and he has to overcompensate for it. It’s barely mentioned at all. But as such, I did wonder what its purpose was in the story. It doesn’t seem to have one.

Neve Campbell delivers the best performance in the film as Will’s wife, Sarah.  She’s a natural as the dutiful loving wife, and the best part is she also gets to show off her tough girl chops as Sarah does quite a bit here in the rescue/battle bad guys department. It’s not the case at all where she needs Will to rescue her. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

The rest of the cast is just okay. Roland Moller is rather dull as villain Kores Botha. He never rises above the standard movie villain. And he’s not really in the film until its second half and so for most of the movie he doesn’t have an impact.

Chin Han is just as dull Zhao Long Ji, the man who designed, built, and owns the building.  Byron Mann plays Inspector Wu, a police officer monitoring the situation outside the building, but that’s about all he does. He’s one of the least effective law enforcement officers I’ve seen in a movie in a while.

Speaking of which, one of the plot points is that the building is burning out of control because the skyscraper’s anti-fire system has been disabled.  I guess the folks in this movie have never heard of a fire department. We never see any fire fighters or rescuers attempting to fight the fire or save the people inside. They’re on the ground surrounding the building, but just what they’re doing there I guess is the story for another movie since in this flick we don’t see them doing much of anything.

And rounding out the dull character list is Hannah Quinlivan as a beautiful assassin named Xia. She looks good but like the rest of the supporting cast doesn’t do all that much.

Director Rawson Marshall Thurber does an okay job.  Strangely, the fire scenes are some of the weakest in the movie.  There’s so much fire everywhere it’s often difficult to see what’s going on. And none of it looks terribly realistic.

Thurber struggles with the action scenes as well. The fight scenes aren’t memorable, other than one early on between Will and his buddy who has betrayed him. That was a good sequence, but the rest fall flat.  As do the rescue scenes, mostly because the outcome is never in doubt. I mean, do you really expect anything but a happy ending for Dwayne Johnson’s character and his family?

I enjoyed the first half of SKYSCRAPER.  Dwayne Johnson was fun to watch and for a while carried this movie.  Neve Campbell also added a lot. But as the film went on, it became a series of dull meaningless action and rescue scenes that never really caught on or became something more.

Yup, this one simply failed to ignite.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

LEAVE NO TRACE (2018) -Subtle, Honest Look at Living With PTSD.

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Leave No Trace

Critics are loving LEAVE NO TRACE (2018). The film is being called the best reviewed movie of the summer.

Allow me to bring the film back to earth a bit.

Now, while I enjoyed LEAVE NO TRACE, I didn’t love it, mostly because its slow-paced story lacked the necessary intensity to keep me riveted throughout. That being said, LEAVE NO TRACE is still a good movie.

LEAVE NO TRACE tells the story of a father Will (Ben Foster) and his thirteen year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) who live in the woods in Oregon, and they live there because they choose to. They are happy there, and as the film opens, we observe them in their routine, enjoying a simple life in nature, albeit working hard to keep their shelter water-proof, collect rain water for drinking, and cover their tracks so they are not discovered.

The other reason they live in the woods is Will suffers from PTSD, a result from his time serving in the military. He simply has a hard time being around people and feels better living in the woods.

When a jogger sees Tom in the woods, the Park Rangers and the police are called in, and they arrest Will and also bring Tom into custody. Once social services determines that there’s nothing strange going on and that Tom is not in danger, they release them, but tell them they can no longer live where they were because those woods are part of a National Forest, owned by the government, and the law states that people can’t live on land owned by someone else.

A man Mr. Walters (Jeff Kober) having seen their story in the news, offers to set up Will and Tom with a modest home in return for Will’s help on his tree farm. What follows is the story of how Will and Tom try to adjust to a new life in a home not of their choosing and of their ongoing journey to find their place in the world as Will realizes he cannot function in society like other people.

LEAVE NO TRACE takes a sharp look at what constitutes a home and questions why it is that people simply can’t live where they want to, even if it’s in the woods. The film opens with such a deliberate pace showing Will and Tom’s peaceful existence, it easily makes the case that this lifestyle shouldn’t be disturbed. But it is, as there are laws to follow in society, and as a result Will and Tom are evicted from their “home.”

While I enjoyed the deliberate pace early on, the problem is as the film moves along, the pace never changes. We follow Will and Tom from one living experience to another, and the intensity pretty much stays the same. Low key. Very low-key.

The other story, and frankly the one that drives the movie along, is the relationship between Will and Tom. They love each other very much. This is established early on and the bond they share remains strong throughout. However, whereas Will understands he can’t live with other people, Tom begins to realize through their ongoing experiences that she can. Not only that, but she begins to enjoy being around other people, leading up to the point where she’s not sure she wants to continue following her father any more.

Writer/director Debra Granik has made a thought-provoking and visually pleasing movie that takes its time telling its story of two people, a father and a daughter, trying to live on their own terms, even while the daughter begins to learn that her interests are changing from that of her father’s. And the shots of the Oregon woods are peaceful and soothing. Five minutes in, and I was ready to pitch a tent, and I’m not an outdoors person.

Another problem I had with LEAVE NO TRACE is that while I appreciated its story, it didn’t resonate with me emotionally as much as I expected it to.  The film is low-key, and that pretty much sums up how it played on my emotions. There really aren’t any powerful scenes that pack a punch, no gut wrenching decisions or plights.  Just calm measured migration.

The best part of LEAVE NO TRACE and the main reason to see this one are the performances by the two leads, Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie.

I’ve been a fan of Foster’s for a while ever since I first saw him in 3:10 TO YUMA (2007). He’s been impressive in nearly every film I’ve seen him in, usually playing some pretty intense characters, in films like 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007), THE MECHANIC (2011), and HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) to name just a few.

Foster sheds some of that intensity here in LEAVE NO TRACE, and like the rest of the film, his performance is a bit more subtle than we’re used to seeing, but it’s no less effective. We never learn what exactly happened to Will, but Foster’s performance makes it clear that at some point in his life he suffered from a trauma that he has yet to recover from.

As much as I enjoy Foster, the performance of the movie belongs to Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as Will’s daughter Tom. While her performance is subtle as well— don’t expect screaming, angry teenage angst— she creates such a sincere, watchable character in Tom that in spite of the film’s slow pace, I never grew tired of watching her.

She has a way of speaking that captures Tom’s innocence and loyalty to her dad, yet remains perfectly natural as she begins to realize that unlike her dad she needs other people in her life. I wouldn’t be surprised if come Oscar time McKenzie gets a shout out. She’s very good.

The other thing I liked about this story was the positive way it depicted ordinary citizens, a welcomed sight in this day and age. Everyone who Will and Tom meet treats them with respect and dignity. I kept expecting someone to try to take advantage of them, but they don’t.  And this might be the most powerful part of the entire movie, the way these every day folks treat Will and his daughter. They all seem to recognize that Will suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and treat him accordingly.

Director Debra Granik and fellow screenwriter Anne Rosellini should be commended for taking this route in their screenplay, which was based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, and for creating characters who function as a strong support network for the two strangers in their lives. It reaffirms some faith in humanity.

But in terms of emotion in LEAVE NO TRACE, there’s simply not a lot of it. While I was intellectually intrigued about Will and Tom’s plight, I was never emotionally invested in their journey. I wanted to know what was going to happen to them, to be sure, but most of the time, what was happening to them was so low-key it barely registered on the intensity meter.

LEAVE NO TRACE is a subtle look into the lives of two people, a father and a daughter, who enjoyed living off the grid until they were told they had to move. It then follows them on their journey from one living situation to another, telling the story of how their relationship changes.

It’s also a quiet look into the life of a person with PTSD, and of a teenage girl living with a person with PTSD, as well as an honest inquiry into just what it is that makes something a home.

Thought-provoking to be sure, but as intense as quietly collecting rain water for a cool morning drink in the forest.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.