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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SKYSCRAPER (2018) – Fire Flick Fails to Ignite

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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.

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ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018) – Light, Fun, Another Marvel Hit

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Evangeline Lily and Paul Rudd in ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018)

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018), the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a comedic vehicle that will have you chuckling throughout, which is just what Marvel fans needed after the devastating AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) earlier this year.

After breaking the law by teaming up with Captain America in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), Scott Lang/Ant Man (Paul Rudd) finds himself under house arrest. He sees his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), and he’s visited by his business partner Luis (Michael Pena), but he cannot leave his house, which explains his absence from AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. Speaking of which, the events in this movie take place just before the events in INFINITY WAR.

Scott’s also not supposed to have any contact with Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) or her father Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) since they designed the Ant Man suit which he wore when he fought against Iron Man and half the Avengers when he joined Team Captain America. Hope and Hank are considered fugitives from justice. And Scott wants no part of seeing them since his house arrest ends in a matter of days.

But that all changes when Hope and Hank extract Scott from his house, telling him they need his help to find Hope’s mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) who was lost years ago in the subatomic realm and considered dead, but since Scott had been reduced to a subatomic level and returned, Hank now believes it’s possible his wife is still alive. Scott reluctantly agrees to help them.

But along the way they find resistance from a shady business contact Sonny Burch (Walter Goggins) and a mysterious being with super powers greater than their own, both of whom want to steal Hank’s technology.

So, as you can see, the plot here is nothing heavy.  Ant Man is not trying to save the world, and after AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, that’s fine with me.

How does ANT-MAN AND THE WASP compare to the first ANT MAN movie?  It’s as good if not better.

One of the strengths of the Marvel movies has always been that they have very strong scripts, and the screenplay here by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari is no exception.  It goes all in on the comedy and is light and funny throughout. Writers Barrer and Ferrari are new to the Marvel Universe, while Rudd worked on the screenplay to the first ANT-MAN (2015), and McKenna and Sommers were on the team that wrote the highly regarded SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017).

The other strength of these Marvel movies is the impressive casts they always assemble.

Paul Rudd returns as Ant Man, and he’s about as likable a superhero as you’re going to find in a movie, mostly because he’s an unlikely superhero. He doesn’t see himself as much of a hero. In fact, he knows he usually messes things up pretty bad.  Rudd is fun to watch because of both his easy-going personality and his sharp comedic timing.

Rudd’s scenes with Abby Ryder Forston, who plays Scott’s daughter Cassie, are precious. The scene where she says she wants to be his partner is a keeper. And Forston also gets plenty of comedic moments as well.

Rudd enjoys fine chemistry with both Evangeline Lilly and Michael Douglas.  Lily is perfect as Hope/Wasp, as she’s both bitter and in love with Scott, and their scenes together have the necessary sexual tension and honed humor. Lily also makes for an impressive bad-ass superhero.

Michael Douglas gets plenty of opportunities to shine as Dr. Hank Pym. When he’s not chastising Scott or saying lines like “are we going to get out of here or are you two going to stare at each other all day?” to Scott and Hope when they become preoccupied with each other rather than escaping, he’s devoted to finding his wife.

And it was fun to see Michelle Pfeiffer back on the big screen in a superhero movie, something she hadn’t done since her phenomenal performance as Catwoman in BATMAN RETURNS (1992). Pfeiffer’s not in this one much, but she appears early on in a flashback as the first Wasp, thanks to some CGI/motion capture effects, looking years younger.

The rest of the cast is largely there for comedic relief.

Michael Pena has a field day as Scott’s business partner Luis, and as the movie goes along, he becomes more involved in the plot. Luis, along with associates Dave (T.I.) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian), form a team who when helping Scott are about as useful as the Three Stooges.

Likewise, Walter Goggins, who’s played some very serious villains in his day, in films like DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015), plays baddie Sonny Burch strictly for laughs. The scene where Sonny and his goons capture Luis, Dave, and Kurt and plan to use “truth serum” on them is hilarious.

Judy Greer returns as Scott’s ex-wife Maggie, and Bobby Cannavale returns as her new husband Paxton, and their scenes are comic as well this time around. And Randall Park plays lawman Jimmy Woo, also, you got it, for laughs.

The emphasis on humor would be bad if the film wasn’t funny, but it is, very much so, and all these actors excel in their roles. The result is a highly entertaining two hours which fly by incredibly quickly.

About the only two folks in the film not playing things for laughs are Hannah John-Kamen as the mysterious Ghost, and Laurence Fishburne as Hank’s former colleague Dr. Bill Foster. Hanna John-Kamen is okay as Ghost, but the character, in spite of an interesting background story, isn’t developed all that well.

Laurence Fishburne fares better as Dr. Bill Foster. He’s a man who’s often at odds with Hank Pym, but he’s trying to do the right thing. The scene where he puts his foot down with Ghost when she suggests they go after Scott’s daughter for leverage really resonates. When he tells her in no uncertain terms that going after children is wrong and that he will not be a part of using a child to get what he wants, it’s a telling moment.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP was directed by Peyton Reed, who also directed the first ANT-MAN movie. He handled both films very well, and I think he outdid himself with this second film, as he pretty much got everything right with this one. The humor works, the action scenes are edited well and fun to watch, and the pacing is perfect. The special effects are also spot-on.

If there’s any flaw it’s I would have liked more Wasp.  I really enjoyed Evangeline Lilly as Wasp and would have loved to have seen her in even more scenes as the bad-ass superhero.

And while comedy ruled the day in ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, the events from AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR which have not happened yet loom like a cloud over the proceedings, which makes this story even better.

In the Marvel movie tradition, there are two after-credit scenes. The first is the big one, the one you definitely do not want to miss, while the second, at the very end of the credits, reverts back to the comedic.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP is yet another high quality superhero movie from Marvel, as the studio continues its amazing run of entertaining movies, and it shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, the studio is having an extraordinarily exceptional year, as all three of their releases so far in 2018, BLACK PANTHER, AVENGER: INFINITY WAR, and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, are among the best films of the year.

And since Ant-Man wasn’t involved in the devastating conclusion to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, he’s suddenly a very important superhero going forward. Be sure to catch him in this light adventure now, because the next time we see him in the next AVENGERS movie, things no doubt will be a bit darker.

Yup, the next time we see him he’ll be going up against Thanos.  Gulp!

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SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018) – SICARIO Sequel A Solid Thriller

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Isabela Moner and Benicio Del Toro in SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018).

 

SICARIO (2015) was my favorite movie of 2015.

It was also the first film written by Taylor Sheridan, who, along with his screenplays for HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) and WIND RIVER (2017) has become one of my favorite screenwriters working today.

So, my interest in the sequel to SICARIO went up when I realized that Sheridan was writing it.

That sequel, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018), does what most sequels fail to do: it tells a completely different story from its predecessor, as it follows the natural progression of two of the main characters from the previous movie and tells their ongoing story. As such, it feels more like the next episode in a quality TV series rather than a rehash of the first movie, the trap into which many sequels fall. In fact, it’s the second chapter in a proposed trilogy of SICARIO movies.

Its plot is also timely, as it involves smuggling immigrants over the southern border from Mexico.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO opens with Mexican immigrants being rounded up as they try to cross the border. One of the men flees and just as the officials are closing in on him, he detonates a bomb and blows himself up. The action switches to Kansas City where we witness a deadly terrorist attack where suicide bombers blow up a crowded shopping area.

Special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is called in to meet with Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) and a group of other officials.  Graver explains that while Mexican cartels used to make most of their money smuggling drugs, nowadays they make more money smuggling people. Riley then informs Graver that the cartels have upped the ante as they are now smuggling terrorists.

Riley wants Graver to put a stop to this, and Graver, an expert in dealing with the cartels, says the best way to do it is to get them to fight each other, and so a plot is hatched to kidnap the daughter of a Mexican drug lord and make it look like the work of a rival cartel. Graver is given the green light to do whatever it takes, and as he assembles his team, he includes the shadowy hitman Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro).

Graver’s team pulls off a brazen daytime abduction of the daughter, Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) and they do indeed lay the blame on a rival cartel. But before their plan of getting the cartels to fight each other can take shape, things get messy, and as we know, the best laid plans of mice and men—.

In addition to Taylor Sheridan once again writing the screenplay, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO also reunites two of the stars from the first movie, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, as they both reprise their roles from SICARIO, and as you would expect, they are both excellent once again, delivering solid performances.

On the other hand, Emily Blunt, who played the main character in SICARIO, did not return for the sequel and her presence is definitely missed. Likewise, director Denis Villeneuve also did not return, and these are two of the reasons why SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO, a solid thriller nonetheless, isn’t as good as its predecessor.

It’s a decent enough screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, although it’s probably not as tight as his previous scripts. It tells a tense and riveting story, and gives us realistic characters and dialogue. Like his previous screenplays, it also gives us layers. There’s a lot going on in this story.

One of the fresher and very timely aspects in the script is its take on immigrants coming into the country. For the most part, it seems to vindicate those who argue for stronger borders, but later in the movie, as the mission is spiraling out of control, it’s revealed that the Kansas City terrorists were American citizens and weren’t smuggled into the country after all, which turns the entire mission upside down. It also is one of those layers I was just talking about. Things are never black and white in a Taylor Sheridan screenplay.

But the story isn’t quite as tight as previous Sheridan tales. While the intensity is palpable for most of the film, it doesn’t quite hold up till the end. The story fizzles somewhat by the time we get to the final reel.

But as I said both Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro reprise their roles and are both exceptional. I actually enjoyed Brolin more this time around, as his character seemed to be a bit more fleshed out. Del Toro, while less chilling and mysterious than he was in SICARIO, still makes Alejandro a force to be reckoned with.  There’s more sympathy for the character this time around.

I like both these characters and would be more than happy to see them in yet another movie.

The younger actors here also fare well. Elijah Rodriguez is very good as Miguel Hernandez, a teen recruited by his adult cousin to work for the cartels smuggling immigrants across the border. It’s a cold-hearted performance that definitely strikes a chord.

But the performance of the movie belongs to young Isabela Moner as the kidnapped daughter Isabel Reyes. When we first meet Isabel, she’s in a fight at her school with another girl, and when she’s called into the principal’s office, she pretty much tells him off. And when he says he should expel her, she calls him on it, and when he does nothing, she says, “Yeah. That’s what I thought.” She then casually strolls out of his office, knowing full well she’s untouchable because of her father.

Once abducted, she’s terribly frightened, as she should be, and rather than being a clichéd “handful” she’s smart and resilient. The story arc where she bonds with Alejandro also works. It’s a terrific performance by Isabela Moner, and as much as I enjoyed Brolin and Del Toro in this movie, I think I enjoyed Moner even more. She really brings Isabel Reyes to life.

The supporting cast is full of veteran actors, including Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener, Shea Whigham, and Bruno Bichir.

Director Stefano Sollima doesn’t imbue this film with as much sweat-inducing intensity as Denis Villeneuve gave the original, but he’s also working with a weaker story. As much as I like Taylor Sheridan’s writing, the story told in the first SICARIO was a stronger one than the one told here.

Still, there are some effective scenes. The sequence where Graver’s team is attacked by the Mexican police is a good one, as is the initial kidnapping scene. And near the end, where Alejandro finds himself at the mercy of cartel members, the suspense is nail-biting.

But SICARIO was a tight thriller that remained riveting right up until the end, whereas SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO simply doesn’t do this. It has its moments, a lot of them in fact, but it doesn’t match the phenomenal original.

Sicario, by the way, is Spanish for “hitman,” and soldado means “soldier.” I’m guessing that’s a reference to Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver character, who’s portrayed here much more as a soldier this time around.  And he does tend to take center stage here.

I’m also guessing this one might underperform at the box office. I saw it on opening night with a sparse crowd which was almost entirely male. I spotted just one or two women in the audience.  And these guys were jacked and — well, let’s just say they  looked like they wanted to sign up for Matt Graver’s special ops team. So if you’re looking to put together a secret military unit, look no further than the audience at a  SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO movie.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO is nowhere near as strong a film as the original, but it’s still a hard-hitting thriller which successfully tells a complex and timely story involving cartels, immigration, and the shadowy missions of the U.S. government.

—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 cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) – Dark Action Tale Hearkens Back to Films of John Carpenter

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hotel-artemis

Dave Bautista and Jodie Foster in HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018).

The hardest thing for me to wrap my head around in HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018), the new futuristic action movie by writer/director Drew Pearce, is Jodie Foster playing “a little old lady.”

But other than this— and Foster nails the role by the way—I liked HOTEL ARTEMIS just fine.

It’s 2028 Los Angeles, and the people are rioting because an evil company has shut down the city’s water supply.  It seems that in 2028 if you’re poor you’re not getting access to water.  At the same time, a bank heist goes awry, and two brothers make their way to the Hotel Artemis, a secret hospital that treats criminals run by the Nurse (Jodie Foster) and her right hand man Everest (Dave Bautista). The two brothers, like everyone else inside, are given code names, generally the names of the rooms in which they are treated.  In this case it’s Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown) and his younger brother Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry).

It’s a volatile place, as the riots are exploding on the outside, and inside everyone is a dangerous criminal. To make matters more complicated, one of the patients Nice (Sofia Boutella) is an assassin and is there to take out a target, and the mob king of Los Angeles, the Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum) is also on his way there seeking treatment.

All of this sets the stage for an action-packed conclusion that, while hardly original, is generally satisfying.

HOTEL ARTEMIS is the type of futuristic action tale that John Carpenter would have directed in his heyday, and while not as creative as a John Carpenter movie, it’s still a heck of a lot of fun.  It reminded me a bit of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981).

Drew Pearce makes his directorial debut here with HOTEL ARTEMIS, and while it’s not a spectacular debut, it’s still an impressive one. I liked the pace, the dark look of the film, and the action scenes were decent enough. The story also builds to an exciting climax, and the characters, while not really all that developed, are lively enough to keep the audience interested.

Judging by the extremely small audience I saw this one with— there were perhaps six of us in the theater— I’m guessing it’s struggling at the box office, which is too bad, because I thought it was a lot of fun.  It seems to have been largely overshadowed by the well-received horror movie HEREDITARY (2018), but truth be told, I enjoyed HOTEL ARTEMIS more.

The story is pretty straightforward and rather simplistic, and the dialogue isn’t going to win any awards, but I thought it had its moments. Writer/director Drew Pearce previously wrote the screenplay for IRON MAN 3 (2013), a film I liked, and that screenplay was probably a tad better than this one.

The strongest thing HOTEL ARTEMIS has going for it is its cast. I loved Jodie Foster in her “little old lady role” as The Nurse. She gets the best lines in the film, and her performance is spot on.

I also liked the chemistry she shared with Dave Bautista’s Everest, and I thought their scenes together were the best in the movie.  I’ve enjoyed Bautista in nearly every movie I’ve seen him in, from his villainous Hinx in the James Bond flick SPECTRE (2015) to his brief bit in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) to of course his very memorable portrayal of Drax in the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies. Bautista is definitely one of the highlights of HOTEL ARTEMIS. His soft-spoken style provides perfect balance to his sculptured behemoth physique.

But the best performance in the movie belongs to Sterling K. Brown who plays the main protagonist Waikiki, the brother with all the plans, whose life keeps being stalled by his careless younger brother, but since they’re brothers Waikiki refuses to leave him behind. We just saw Brown as part of the cast of BLACK PANTHER (2017), and he’s currently on the TV show THIS IS US (2016-2018). I especially remember Brown for his portrayal of Christopher Darden on AMERICAN CRIME STORY (2016).  Brown is excellent here.

Sofia Boutella dazzles as sexy assassin Nice, just as she had done in STAR TREK: BEYOND (2016), ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) and the dreadful THE MUMMY (2017). While her role as Jaylah in STAR TREK: BEYOND remains my personal favorite, she’s pretty darn good here and is right up there with Brown, Foster, and Bautista.

Speaking of STAR TREK, Zachary Quinto, who plays Mr. Spock in the rebooted movie series, is also in the cast, but it’s a thankless role as the Wolf King’s son Crosby Franklin. The character is pretty useless, and strangely it’s pretty much a waste of Quinto’s talent.

And I thought Jeff Goldblum was miscast at the Wolf King. He doesn’t appear until halfway through the movie, and after so much build up as to how powerful, cold-hearted, and villainous this guy was, I hardly expected to see him look like Jeff Goldblum. An intellectual Wolf King? I expected someone like Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, or even Jeffrey Dean Morgan. But Goldblum? Didn’t really work for me.

In a smaller role, Charlie Day enjoys some fine moments as a big-mouthed arms dealer with the code name Acapulco.

HOTEL ARTEMIS plays like a 1980s John Carpenter movie only without Carpenter’s flair for the cinematic. Still, writer/director Drew Pearce does a commendable job here and has made a film that in spite of its straightforward, simple, and even predictable storyline, is still a heck of a lot of fun, especially if you enjoy your action films dark.

It also has an effective music score by Cliff Martinez that adds to the atmosphere of riot-ravaged Los Angeles. And while his score is not as memorable as his work on THE NEON DEMON (2016) or DRIVE (2011), it’s still pretty darn good.

HOTEL ARTEMIS is also Jodie Foster’s first screen role since ELYSIUM (2013), and I enjoyed her performance in HOTEL ARTEMIS much more than in that 2013 Matt Damon sci-fi flick.

If you’re in the mood for a fun action-packed popcorn movie, and if you don’t mind your action dark and gloomy, check out HOTEL ARTEMIS.

You’ll definitely enjoy your stay.

—END—

 

 

DEADPOOL 2 (2018) – Raunchy Jokes Aren’t Enough the Second Time Around

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deadpool-2

The jokes work.

The story doesn’t.

That’s pretty much my take on DEADPOOL 2 (2018), the sequel to Marvel’s R-rated superhero romp DEADPOOL (2016) which starred Ryan Reynolds as the hilariously foul-mouthed Deadpool. Reynolds is back again in the sequel, as vulgar and comical as ever, breaking the fourth wall more often than he breaks bad guys’ heads.

Yep, there’s plenty of Deadpool and his trademark humor in DEADPOOL 2, but the story he finds himself in this time around is a complete snooze. But judging by the large audience which laughed out loud throughout, I doubt people are going to mind.

Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) is living the dream with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and they are even planning to have a baby together, but a visit to their apartment by murderous thugs seeking revenge against Deadpool leaves Vanessa dead and alters Deadpool’s course for the rest of the movie.

And for Deadpool that means seeking redemption by protecting a young mutant boy named Russell (Julian Dennison) who has become the target of Cable (Josh Brolin), who’s come back from the future a la the Terminator to kill the young boy in order to stop him from committing a crime that hasn’t happened yet.

And that’s pretty much it for storyline in this one. Sure, there are plenty more characters involved, some interesting and fun, others less so, but the bottom line is that’s about it for plot here, folks. The rest is jokes, jokes, and more jokes. And frankly for me, that just wasn’t enough.

Once more, Ryan Reynolds has a field day playing Deadpool, and the script gives him enough gags to get him through the whole movie and then some. If you’re simply into watching Deadpool make funnies, and don’t care about plot, you’ll enjoy this one. Reynolds is a hoot.  He doesn’t disappoint.

Josh Brolin is okay as Cable, but his performance is not on the same level as what we just saw him do in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) as Thanos. Brolin delivered a powerful performance as the CGI enhanced Thanos, but here  he’s playing a character that is far less impressive.

DEADPOOL 2 also introduces the X-Force, a band of mutants who Deadpool recruits to be his superhero team.  This team was actually kind of a disappointment as they don’t do a whole lot nor are they in this one very much. The one notable X-Force member is Domino (Zazie Beetz). Her superpower is good luck, and thanks to Beetz’ performance, luck is something she doesn’t need.  She’s very good on her own.

There’s some star power here as actors like Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Terry Crews, and Bill Skarsgard have cameos and small roles, which is all part of the fun.

T. J. Miller, an actor who I always enjoy, sadly has his screen time as bartender Weasel reduced in this one.

The script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who both wrote the first DEADPOOL, and Ryan Reynolds, scores high with the jokes but low with the story. The end credit scenes to this one alone are worth the price of admission. They’re hilarious.

DEADPOOL 2 was directed by David Leitch, who also directed ATOMIC BLONDE (2017). Leitch’s stuntman background enabled him to shoot one of the best fight sequences I’d seen in a while in ATOMIC BLONDE. I thought the fight sequences here in DEADPOOL 2 were less impressive and much more standard.

For me, and maybe it’s because it was released on the heels of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and BLACK PANTHER (2018), two Marvel superhero films that instantly rank as two of the best in the franchise, DEADPOOL 2 simply didn’t work.

And the reason, as I said, is its plot, which is not only mediocre, but flat-out boring. I wasn’t interested in any of it. Did I care about young Russell? No. And hence I didn’t care about Deadpool’s mission to save him. Did I care about Deadpool’s relationship with the X-Men? Not really, because this movie didn’t really make me care, as the relationship was simply a set-up for jokes. Did I care about Cable? No. The film didn’t really develop this character, and so his words and plight rang hollow.

Did I care about X-Force? Yes. They were an interesting lot. Unfortunately, they’re in the film for all of ten minutes.

So, while I laughed at the jokes, and had fun with Ryan Reynolds constantly breaking the fourth wall as Deadpool, I didn’t really care about any of it.

The first DEADPOOL got both of these items right. It was nonstop hilarious, and it had a compelling storyline.  I was into the film from the very first scene. In DEADPOOL 2, in spite of the humor, my mind was wandering throughout because no one on-screen other than Deadpool himself held my interest.

Bottom line? If you love the Deadpool character and Ryan Reynolds’ take on him, you’ll probably enjoy this movie. But be prepared for a plot that is as lifeless as it is dull.

And that’s a problem because if the story puts you to sleep, well, it’s hard to laugh at all those jokes if you’re not awake to enjoy them.

—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 cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.