“The MEG” is a monster movie in perception of what it might be. The book it is based on, by local South Florida writer Steve Alten, works in many structures as a quick read with a pulpy sort of feel. The tricky aspect is finding the tone. Like “Sahara” and its protagonist before, it is taking larger-than-life situations and making them both fun and with stakes. “The MEG” was originally labeled to be an R-rated romp probably playing more to its cousin: “Deep Blue Sea”. Granted it would be a different movie but the ideal is the story is about a huge shark. The tone rings closer to a movie like “The Core” which is superior in many ways simply because the stakes feel higher. The characterizations here are not bad but played way up on the cheesiness factor, specifically with the Chinese characters. Granted the sentimentality is more akin to the tone of Chinese cinema. That is the interesting perception here of the film. Since it was financed heavily by Chinese investment, it needs to reflect that ideal. This is the changing economics of the movie business. The movie is also set on the cusp of Asia and its main female protagonist and center of what is the film’s heart is Chinese. This is not originally how the book was conceived. It was set near San Diego even though the money of the big investor was Chinese (even though the big money here is shown by an American billionaire). While an interesting experiment, the film definitely loses a lot of what edge it could have had but then it would be a different monster.
The interesting business question, just to make the point, is that the film could have been made for less and thereby not have to make as much to break even. This is an interesting quandary. Star Jason Stathan has stated in the press that the script they made was completely different than the movie he originally signed on for. Some of the scenes are really thrilling to be honest but never scary. It almost feels like a lower budget serial of old. Acting is fairly broad but soft in many ways since the dialogue is so matter-of-fact. It tries to be witty but most times falls flat. Granted many in the audience seemed to enjoy this aspect. It is always a tricky thing between criticism of what a movie can be and what an audience actually responds to. The situations in the movie are mostly implausible but that can be suspended from the early scenes. An interesting comparison comes in when looking “The Abyss” (1989, dir. James Cameron) since some of the scene points in “The MEG” have parallels. Even though something similar happens here, nothing can compare to the resuscitation scene in that former movie. Some of the best acting in a would-be summer blockbuster ever was in that scene. Here, in the beginning (post opening credits), there is a sacrifice that works well (but on a smaller scale) but then goes by the wayside. Greater mythology is sacrificed and the movie, while a fun romp at times, feels emptier of a bigger world. Maybe that is an alright resolution and expectation though.
By Tim Wassberg
The balance of a buddy movie and a spy thriller can work in tandem if the tone and the script are right on point. The pitch of “The Spy Who Dumped Me” has potential and the pairing of Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon definitely has resonance depending on the improvisational nature given but also the reigning in of specific gags depending on the possibilities. That is where unfortunately this would-be romp falters. Despite some good set ups and action pieces, the delivery falters in much the same way but, distinctly, in more ways, than the similarly affected “Spy” movie did starring Melissa McCarthy. This interrelates to the tone. It is both dark and light at the same time. McKinnon seems to be having fun but her improvs seem not directed at all. An entire sequence near the end of the film featuring her solo seems completely unscripted but not reigned in or directed, and thereby off rails. Kunis seems to be in one movie and McKinnon in another. The film distinctly was made for a price which is understandable but the pace and structure for the most part doesn’t gel. It is only in the final moments when it truly pays tribute to some of the spy structure in almost tongue-in-cheek form does it start to have potential and move. Alas it is the last 3 minutes.
“Lethal Weapon” worked, as a comparison, because you understood how dangerous Martin Riggs (as played by Mel Gibson) was so his humor worked and thereby the tone when his character did more unhinged and unsavory things.. McKinnon’s character needed that edge instead of trying to mug for the camera as much. Her performance in “Ghostbusters” was great simply because it was wild, but honed in its improv. Kunis can play bad ass but the little balances in between are a little more difficult it seems for her. Film acting requires a different kind of structure than television (ditto for McKinnon) but it is scaling up or back. In all specificity, it has to do with direction and tight script. Adding to this point is the almost nihilistic vicious violence which if done right is thrilling but in many ways comes off as brutal.
The movie, as a result, seems stuck in a netherworld where it is neither funny nor inventive, action packed or droll. As far as other characters, the two male co-stars (Sam Hueghan & Justin Theroux) are simply plot devices, which is fine but their inclusion (because neither of them are comedians) makes them invisible at best, grating at worst. Gillian Anderson (again wasted in many considerations within the film) has so much possibility as well. “The Spy Who Dumped Me” is the movie that could have been and, in the final moments, realizes what it needed to be. Too late unfortunately.
By Tim Wassberg
The search of identity or the strength within it plays to the crux of most YA novels, especially those set in an almost apocalyptic world. “The Darkest Minds” in its marketing seemed to play to more of an “X-Men” vibe but it is quite the opposite. It is more a romance mixed with a coming-of-age drama. That is not to say it isn’t sure of itself. It owes more to elements of “Hunger Games” and “Maze Runner” than to “X-Men”. The storyline and, by extent, the acting, considering it is all young actors, comes from more of a place of maturity than one would expect. This obviously comes from the grounding of Alexandra Bracken’s novel. Having spoke to her for this interview earlier in the week, the idea of “The Darkest Minds”, she explained, came after 9/11 when she was in high school, that idea of what is the right path to take, what action is possible. Amandla Stenberg plays Ruby, the reluctant hero of “Minds” and, like Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, finds her power through sacrifice. Stenberg achieves in a way what “A Wrinkle In Time” could not. “The Darkest Minds” is about the power of youth but not, by pretending, they are the true leads. Certain actors like Mandy Moore here as a doctor with a fringe outfit called “The League” has just enough presence to make it work as does Gwendolyn Christie as a bounty hunter. They provide moral and psychological choices for the protagonist which allow her to grow as a character.
What the film itself owes to more than anything, without spoiling anything, is to “Superman”, specifically “II” simply in Clark Kent/Superman understanding the need for a greater good within elements of pain. Two scenes, including one in foreshadowing, give Ruby’s journey a weight that many of the other YA adaptations have lacked. Now granted, this can go awry as the series (should this one be successful) goes on. The smart idea, like the first “Maze Runner”, is that this movie was made for a price which allows it to breathe a bit while not sacrificing its pacing. It is not a perfect movie by any means. The villain quotient pays more than an interesting parallel in certain ways to “The Hunger Games”. However the elegant, if that word can be used, aspect of this kind of storytelling is that it takes into case bigger themes and archetypes at play. While mind control plays a part, there are no cell phones anywhere in this movie which is an interesting observation overall as well. The only red herring of the film is inherent in its set up which is the “why” aspect in terms of what causes the children to change. This suspension of disbelief is necessary and inherent to make the movie work but its structure and basis is nonetheless elusive creating a slight hole is what is otherwise a solidly made film.
By Tim Wassberg