“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.
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.
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.
The aspect of superheroes, even those within the animated world, have to change…in spite of themselves. The interesting permeation of Pixar in many ways is that it was around before. The texture of its life always resides in heart. Which is why in certain parts of “Incredibles 2”, there is the perception of paying homage to the superheroes and real life heroes it emulates. The aspect of loss at one point in the film is straight out of Batman mythology. Another line a direct homage to the original “Ghostbusters”. But while the film moves with inherent pace and rhythm, there isn’t that sense of wonder in even one sequence that rivals the loss or elation in “Inside Out” or “Up”. Granted there are some great comedic moments and even utterly subtle moments…most involving Jack Jack, the baby. The kid steals the show including a specific face off with an unnamed rodent. The aim too is different.
This installment plays a little more to adults although kids will get a kick out of it. Even the color pallette is slightly different. There is even a Tomorrowland kitsche to the design which no doubt is director Brad Bird’s influence considering that he made both “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” and “Tomorrowland” in terms of live action since his last “Incredibles” film. That influence is understood since it shows his growth as a filmmaker but also maybe a loss of wonder in certain ways. The seeming ode to 60s James Bond films has its angle but nevertheless almost feels banal in certain ways. The inspiration comes into play at certain point especially when Aunt Edna (played by Bird himself) comes into play. Ultimately “Incredibles 2” is a more than steadily and effectively made sequel that hits all the right notes. There simply wasn’t that epiphany or longing moment.
However interestingly enough, that does find its way into “Bao”, the Pixar short film that precedes it which plays on a metaphor for an Asian mother who fashions the perception of her raising her son through the vision of a dumpling. Like previous Pixar shorts, it crosses borders because it is basic sans dialogue. However, unlike some others, there is an almost weirdly contextual end to the short which is unclear. So even though it hits the notes correctly, its ultimate resolution is slightly skewed which leaves it slightly confused in an overarching way. So the two films themselves are indeed an interesting mirror paradox of each other with “Incredibles 2” being an indeniably effective sequel missing a little something and “Bao” having its something but losing it in the final moment because of a lack of story clarity. Pixar has always valued story above everything so the takeaway is intriguing.
The movement of wit and style in “Oceans 8” is palpable. Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett dance like maneuvering cats across the screen in one of those pairings that decidedly needed to happen and one wonders why it took so long. Granted this is based off the basis of the Oceans films. Despite this, director Gary Ross is no Steven Soderbergh. There was something classically beautiful about “Oceans 11”. This movie has glimpses of that but much of it is done in a matter of fact style and decidedly unlike an old school heist film which the first Oceans felt like. Blanchett has the aspects of old school Bogie and Bullock Dean Martin but the overall heist almost seems too much in the real world without the true stylistic touches needed (beyond the music). We feel aspects of Bullock & Banchett as a team with the other 6 (most specifically Sarah Poulson’s character –- whose fence should have movie of hers all her own). All of these characters are fully formed. But everything serves the heist plot which itself in ultimate structures has holes despite the reassurance from Bullock’s character that she has thought everything through.
In the beginning of the film, like “Oceans 11”, you see these light ticks in the characters which is what makes Bullock so engaging on screen…that humor. Speaking with her mouth full which Blanchett coes back with a quick quip about her being Ukrainian. Lightning fast. Then it simmers down when those little bits should have been amped up. Easy to do in a scene and improv would have worked. There doesn’t seem to have much of it allowed here. They probably were not let go within the characters enough to really let loose. Again the texture is that this is a heist pure and simple with details that need refining.
Hathaway as a specific form of the mark seems to have more fun than anyone though she is utterly overplaying the character, albeit on purpose, but it almost seems out of sync. Bonham Carter as a designer has the reverse issue. Even in a more subdued character one was hoping for more acidic wit that she is known for no matter what she does. Even one look in “Sweeney Todd” from her conveyed a lifetime. Again it might have just had to do with control of the director. The characters that truly play it up and get that balance right is Awkwafina and Rhianna. They come off as effortless in many ways. But like Casey Affleck and Scott Caan in “Oceans 11”, they were just mechanizations to the plot, not the focal point. Bullock and Blanchett have to do the heavy lifting but that incessant banter that marked the Clooney/Pitt interaction could again have been played much more up between Bullock/Blanchett since they are every bit on that level.
In terms of story structure there is a lot of similarities to 11…and this is on purpose. They also don’t overuse that connection which could have been easily done but also key it in enough to make it work. Certain misdirects and coincidental connections are simply at times too convenient in terms of the plot and not in an undeniable way. Now against all this, the film is fun to watch as the play is going. But when reflected more on how it works, it crumbles a bit. Again that is not the fault of the actors but of the script and, to a more specific point, the direction. However, it is tall order considering the film it is being compared to. The most apt reference at times to make with this is perhaps to “Red”. Everyone in that film knew they were playing a slick farce and racheted it up. John Malkovich especially). The people here are aware for sure but the plot takes over too much to really let that shine and take it to another level. The set up at the Met Gala is inspired. The actors perfect to a T. But plot and direction simply not quite up to par.
The essence of the beauty shown in “Cold War” [Poland/Competition] about the texture of lost love finding its way is less “Doctor Zhivago” in many ways but with certain psychological stylings that would have benefited “Red Sparrow” which seemed too caught up in the plot to formulate why the characters do what they do: survival. Zula (played with delicious cadence and intelligence by Joanna Kulig), is always looking out for number one, even though her heart leads her off in certain directions against her will. She doesn’t want anyone to tell her what to do but the balance of that and becoming just enough of a talent to survive is essential from her first audition in the Soviet Union for a peasant opera. The teacher/judges including her doomed lover Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) see something but are not sure what. Her past and its consequences becomes revealed in certain structures but the fact that much of it is left to speculation fuels her mystery. It also explains many of her later actions in terms of logic but also meaning
While the beauty of the folk beginning with the operatic music is inherently interesting, it is when they cross over into Berlin and then to the West as an act, that the film truly understands its plight. The infusion of the smoky rooms of the jazz and standards against the classical basis in the theater show the inherent discrepancies that for many people is hard to truly understand. Zula is a revelation in these circumstances because you feel the uncertain passage of time. It is only in the final moments that the film necessarily loses its grip on reality…not because of the decisions made but because of the lack of control at times on the character’s part which is a simply written choice perhaps for the sake of metaphor. The stilted contradiction of love and the reasoning behind it are sound because of the nature of the world, specifically at that time in concern to gender roles and even more specifically, political roles.
Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s visual approach starts with the use of the 1:33 aspect ratio (like his previous film “Ida”) as well as the black & white texture. While the lack of color it creates an almost dreamlike dreariness in the country sequences, its stark capture of the inherent black tones in the frame and in the city, especially during the performances, allow the audience to see Zula at her most vulnerable giving the film a sense of purpose. This idea is buoyed by the irony of the beauty of the peasant music Zula helps sing versus the standards that show her growth and embrace of Western culture yet the irony of the claustrophobia and shadows in the frame display a deeper chasm in what the world actually was in that time. The aforementioned ending moves the music to a stark change meant to display a certain degradation of sorts which again makes sense for the story but slows the actual cadence. All in all, though Kulig is a presence on screen with both a biting wit but also a classic beauty that belies the turmoil underneath.
The texture of many interviews in requisite Midnight and genre categories rendered the viewing of movies for review a little lighter than usual but two films squeezed in with a nature of inventiveness but also a throwback to genre for both.
Upgrade DirectorLeigh Whannell, know for the SAW films, takes a stab at science fiction under the Blumhouse model with surprising success. Speaking at the Q&A after the film, he acknowledged the texture of ‘The Terminator” as an influence but the inference moves with a much more complex fabric in terms of the human quotient. Owing more in certain terms to Schwarzenegger revenge movies though with more visual flair, the aspect of the lead character being a man not in control of his own body is an interesting existential dilemma. Simply because it was on Comet recently, “Monkey Shines” comes to mind because it involves the protagonist having to think of his life differently. Here after losing his wife in assassination hit and being paralyzed, Grey, an analog man in a near future world, is given a second chance through the aspect of an almost autistic scientist who injects with a thinking spine computer who can only be heard by Grey. The misdirection and notion of what we are seeing really makes it work especially in the action scenes which in the way they are done considering the physical structure of what is being presented is quite ingenious and undeniably brutal. The push forward again culminates in an existential dilemma that only a logical computer bent on survival could make. While there is inherent suspension of disbelief required at times, the pace and tone is pinpoint while allowing some black humor to shine through with exceptional results, especially on a budget.
Elizabeth Harvest This film pushes slightly on an adjacent part of the spectrum with nods to “Ex Machina” as well as the recent “Annihilation” and again it examines an existential journey but one where the person searching for their identity is not very clear on who they are anyways. It revolves around three major players: a newlywed (played by Abbey Lee from “Mad Max: Fury Road”), a significantly older Ciaran Hinds (as her scientist genius husband) and Carla Gugino (whose actual role changes throughout the film). The aspect of stillness and repetitiveness is approached for the necessity of invention and not in a “Groundhog Day” type of way. To reveal the twist is to reveal the movie but suffice to say the psychological element of imprisonment, either self imposed or self created encircles the entire proceedings. The essence of the focus and what it truly means beyond ego is done in a very simple yet complicated manner. The director is Sebastian Gutierrez who is known for writing the film “Gothika”, another film which was based on the misdirect of perceptions but also for directing films like “Electra Luxx” & “Women In Trouble” that subvert genre (along with frequent collaborator Carla Gugino). But like “Upgrade”, the reduced budget allows for simplicity of invention and not spoon-feeding the audience beyond essential and letting many of the characters motivations remain mysterious if unsolved.