Movie Review ~ Vanquish

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mother is trying to put her dark past as a Russian drug courier behind her, but a retired cop forces her to do his bidding by holding her daughter hostage.  Now, she’ll use guns, guts, and a motorcycle to take out a series of violent gangsters — or she may never see her child again

Stars: Morgan Freeman, Ruby Rose, Patrick Muldoon, Julie Lott, Ekaterina Baker, Nick Vallelonga, Joel Michaely, Miles Doleac

Director: George Gallo

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (0/10)

Review:  It’s a good thing screeners for Vanquish were sent out so far in advance of its mid-April release because I’ve legitimately needed a solid three weeks to process just how bad the movie is.  Honestly, that may sound extreme, but you obviously haven’t seen this sorry excuse for an action thriller yet.  I’m hoping to turn you toward something more entertaining, like lying on a bed of discarded dentures watching an army of ants carry away a breadcrumb soaked in root beer.  Movies (and Oscar-winning acting careers) don’t get much more crud-tastic than this and if you aren’t popping your third Aleve after the headache inducing lighting and camera work by the time this is all over, there should be some ice cream coupon digital reward for your efforts. 

Once upon a time, seeing Academy Award winner and everyone’s favorite disembodied voice Morgan Freeman’s name attached to a film meant something.  If it wasn’t exactly clout, then it was that the production had something interesting going for it that attracted Freeman to sign on.  Other than the fact that he gets to sit for the entire film, I’m not sure why Freeman is co-starring as a retired cop playing mind games with a former drug runner who happens to be his housekeeper (or cook? It’s never clear but cleaning and cooking are mentioned, though lead Ruby Rose doesn’t show up to his unfurnished house dressed to do either.)  Instead, Freeman (Lucy) literally cools his heels for 96 minutes and totally tanks his reputation in writer/director George Gallo’s insanely gaudy and lurid female John Wick-ish wannabe flopparoo.   

The phrase “you know you’re in trouble from the start” is used often but it’s right on the money in the case of Vanquish because the credits alone tell you everything you need to know on the quality of the film about to unfold.  Clocking it at a zombifying six minutes and featuring some of the poorest photoshopping of old Freeman photos into fake newspaper stories that look like a fourth-grade book report only less literate, I stopped counting the number of times they used the same press photo from a previous Freeman film.  If you want to add some extra hilarity to your night, pause and read some of the headline gems. All sound like they were lifted directly out of Babelfish translator from one foreign language into English.  None of them read quite right.

This jumps into Gallo’s tacky, neon-colored fantasy version of (I think) Los Angeles, though I’m not sure it’s ever explicitly stated, where ex-cop Freeman sets up his personal care attendant (Rose, The Meg) to gather a wealth of cash from a series of rogue criminals, and not very nicely holding her daughter (cast with a young actress that appears incredibly tired the entire film) as collateral.  Obtain all the money for him and his goomba associates (played by the most offensively stereotypical and dumb character actors that obviously called in a favor to maintain their Screen Actors Guild benefits) and she and her daughter will go free.  Ah…but never get between a woman with a buzzcut and her child, especially one that decided to get out of the business, has successfully stayed clean, and doesn’t like to be pushed around. 

Described in the press notes as “glossy and stylized”, I’d describe Gallo’s vision as “syrupy and trite”, offering nothing of value either in the directing or writing categories.  Whatever mileage could have been gained from the very playable set-up of mother fighting back against all odds and punishing the vile men that put her in this position is lost among the noise of terrible filmmaking and worse acting.  This includes Freeman who doesn’t look like he doesn’t know what’s going on – he knows exactly what movie he’s in and decided to do it anyway.  He rightly blows every scene partner he has out of the water (poor Rose is practically mush when he’s through with her) but it’s such a surreally weird performance for Freeman to have taken that you spend most of the film wondering if Freeman simply saw the paycheck and signed on to the script sight unseen. 

Consider that Rose was once supposed to be the next thing and then take a look at the work being done here.  Strange line readings and emotions that are, misplaced would be putting it nicely.  As in the recent S.A.S. Red Notice, she’s decent when it comes to the non-dialogue action scenes but strap yourself in anytime she starts to act as that’s when the big trouble begins.  Thinking of how many strong female stars Freeman had shared the screen with and then watching him try to work his way through a scene with Rose and it’s almost laughable.  For an even more depressing thought, consider there is a double Oscar-winner Nick Vallelonga (producer and writer of 2018’s Green Book) playing a hammy supporting character (also terribly) present and realize that Freeman’s Oscar status is still likely the only one that will be discussed in the bad reviews for the film.  Then again, when the performance of Freeman ranks significantly lower than the one he gave several months earlier in a cameo as an animatronic crab in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, there’s clearly a big problem to solve. 

I cannot overstate what a flaming piece of garbage Vanquish is.  Every piece of the production is terrible.  Direction, writing, production, acting, music, cinematography…all awful.  Even the costume design looks like it was done via a straw poll between the actors.  What a pity as well because this one could have had some decent traction with better stars and a new director.  Alas, no, it is what it is and it is heinous. Vanquish is it named and vanquished from your must-see list it should be. 

Available in Select Theaters on April 16th and on Apple TV, and Everywhere You Rent Movies on April 20th
Available on Blu-ray and DVD on April 27th

Movie Review ~ SAS: Red Notice

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An off-duty SAS soldier must thwart a terror attack on a train running through the Channel Tunnel.

Stars: Sam Heughan, Ruby Rose, Andy Serkis, Tom Wilkinson, Tom Hopper, Hannah John-Kamen, Noel Clarke

Director: Magnus Martens

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (2.5/10)

Review:  Do you ever find yourself watching a movie with lauded actors and ask yourself “What are YOU doing in this movie?”  It may be a good movie, it may be a bad movie, but the question itself is valid at that moment.  What we’re really asking is: Did you do it for the money?  Plenty of actors show up in films, television shows, or commercials because of one thing: the payday.  While I’d like to net the kind of dough they make on those projects (and so do you!)  I wonder if taking on these types of roles makes them enjoy those Caribbean vacations a little less or causes them to stop a few seconds longer at the stoplight in their Tesla pondering why.  Ah…who am I kidding.  They don’t give it a second thought.  Work is work and plenty of people would give their eye teeth to do what they do.

Even though I do believe that, watching SAS: Red Notice, I would have loved to have had a direct line to stars Tom Wilkinson and Andy Serkis to ask them to level with me and admit that they made this one for the money.  Both men look positively miserable throughout; Wilknson comes off like he’s about to cry often while Serkis compensates by gritting his teeth so loudly it sounds like a rogue squeaky wheel shopping cart has become another character in the movie.  They have every right to look pained, too, because SAS: Red Notice is a total turkey, an absolute howler of film that boasts action scenes almost as flat as the acting and lots of explosions that produce more heat than the main love interests.  At one point early on, I thought the film was intended to be a farce in the vein of The Naked Gun because the tone being conveyed was so far off from the Mission: Impossible-esque mood the storyline suggested.

A family of elite assassins, The Black Swans, have been hiding out in London trying to avoid detection and capture for war crimes they were hired to commit by the highest levels of the Queen’s government.  Determined to keep their dirty business dealings under wraps, the Prime Minister (Ray Panthaki, Official Secrets) orders his top guy George Clements (Serkis, Long Shot) to take out William Lewis (Wilkinson, The Lone Ranger) and his crew, including his daughter and skilled protégé Grace (Ruby Rose, The Meg).  With assistance from SAS soldier Tom Buckingham (Sam Heughan, Bloodshot) the Lewis compound is raided but when their targets slip through their fingers it only leads to more problems for Buckingham and his team.

Waiting to regroup, Buckingham and his doctor girlfriend Sophie (Hannah John-Kamen, Ant-Man and The Wasp) decide to head to Paris for a weekend away but wouldn’t you know it, they’re leaving on the wrong train at the wrong time.  Then again, perhaps it is the right train/right time because Grace has infiltrated the speeding railcar, taking the passengers hostage.  Threatening to set off a bomb as the train makes it way through the Channel Tunnel between London and Paris, Buckingham is a one-man army onboard as he works his way through a deadly batch of trained killers while his fellow SAS mate Declan Smith (Tom Hopper, Terminator: Dark Fate) tries to help him from London.  At the same time, Grace has figured out someone is attempting to stop her and also found the one person on board the train that can be used as a bargaining chip…Sophie.

Based on the first of three books featuring Tom Buckingham written by Andy McNab, the adaptation by Lawrence Malkin features dialogue so silly it’s amazing none of the actors throughout to suggest changing it…or removing it.  Hearing Sophie tell a complete stranger about Buckingham carrying around her recently deceased cat might have made a good anecdote in the book but on screen it makes Buckingham look creepy and turns Sophie into one of those women in distress that can only talk about their boyfriends when they aren’t in the room and then spend every moment they are in the room fighting with them.  It’s no wonder a number of the characters she winds up talking to make a quick exit (either out of the scene or off the Earth) because who wants to hang around her for too long?  Speaking of Buckingham, McNab and Malkin seem to have made him a mixture of Ethan Hunt from M:I and Jack Ryan from Tom Clancy’s novels but, like that tins man in Oz, they forgot to give him a heart.  Wait for the scene where Buckingham attempts to emote with complete and total conviction…and try your hardest not to laugh.  Not that it helps things that Heughan is an absolute dud dud dudderson as Buckingham, displaying zero charm and negative zero charisma with John-Kamen as his supposed long-time girlfriend.

The only chemistry that is generated is between John-Kamen and Rose in a strange bit of the captive and the captor having a kind of weird unspoken romantic connection.  It’s not at all implied and neither actress is strong enough to pull those nuances out of the script or even thin air but it’s some natural instinct given off that makes it feel so.  After the action sequences where she doesn’t speak, it’s the only other good thing Rose can be noted for because her acting is frighteningly wooden here.  A flash in the pan when she debuted on Orange is the New Black years ago, she hasn’t ever really acquitted herself in the acting department.  Even though her fight scenes are well done and she has the appropriate energy and style to pull them off, anytime (absolutely anytime) she’s required to act past that the movie grinds to a dead stop.   It’s unfortunate because Rose feels like she could be a star if all the pieces lined up better — there’s a place for her but not at her current level.  Not by a long shot.

It’s just a mess of a film across so many areas that fixing one wouldn’t do the trick.  When you have none of the actors are on the same page, there can be no dynamic created. It feels like a group of strangers just showed up and were put on film.  Much of the movie depends on those pre-existing relationships and without that base, there’s nothing to go off of.  Piling about nine endings on in the last ten minutes and then making us wait for the absolute longest aerial pull in I’ve ever seen, SAS: Red Notice can’t even end the movie correctly.  Having never read the books (and now having no interest in reading the next two) I can’t know if the jokey style of the film was in response to the source material’s tone or if director Magnus Martens just couldn’t figure out how he wanted his picture to come across.  If he wanted action, he got some.  If he wanted comedy, he struck gold.

Movie Review ~ The Meg


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After escaping an attack by what he claims was a 70-foot shark, Jonas Taylor must confront his fears to save those trapped in a sunken submersible.

Stars: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Robert Taylor, Cliff Curtis, Sophia Shuya Cai, Masi Oka

Director: Jon Turteltaub

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I like sharks.  I like movies.  I like shark movies.  From Jaws to The Shallows to 47 Meters Down, I’m a fan of anything featuring an underwater predator snacking on unsuspecting prey.  Even in lesser known entires like Bait or Shark Night 3D, there’s a certain amount of satisfied fun that comes with these creature features.  Of course, it helps I’m writing this review from the landlocked safety of Minnesota (aka Land of 10,000 Lakes) so these ocean tales of killer sharks don’t dredge up the same fear in me that might plague someone living near the open water.

Steve Alten’s 1997 “Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror” was tailor made for a screen adaptation.  After spending a solid 20 years in development hell and tossed around by several studios, directors, and stars, The Meg has finally surfaced.  Was it worth the wait?  Did director Jon Turtletaub (While You Were Sleeping) and star Jason Statham (Spy) strike the right balance of fun and fear that made Alten’s original novel (and multiple follow-ups) such a blast?   I can’t say for sure whether or not you’ll go for this sometimes scary, sometimes silly late summer adventure but for someone like me who has waited so long for this sizable shark soup it satisfies a hunger two decades in the making.

Not having read the book in a good decade, I picked up my tattered copy and skimmed the pages before heading out to the screening.  Alten’s no Hemmingway but he manages to take the reader along for a plausible (for 1997) ride to the depths of the ocean where a fish long thought extinct has been living undisturbed for thousands of years.  The screenplay from Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber (Battleship), Erich Hoeber (Red 2) retains elements and a few characters from the novel but alters the action for its star and international supporting cast.

At an underwater research facility in the South China Sea, scientists are using sophisticated underwater submersibles to dive deeper than any human has before.  They hope to prove the existence of another underwater ecosystem thousands of feet below sea level.  Their attempts at a scientific breakthrough instead release a gigantic Megaladon, a shark long since though extinct.  With little time to warn neighboring countries, the crew must track down the deadly shark before she gobbles up throngs of swimmers along the coast.

Reframing Statham’s character Jonas Taylor from a marine biologist to a grizzled deep sea rescue diver allows Statham to do away with the formality of a pretending he’s had a scientific education and clears the way to draw on his brawn to save the day.  Whereas the novel’s Jonas eventually comes into his own set of brass balls, Statham presents as a no-nonsense Hercules from the word go.  He’s nicely matched by Li Bingbing (Transformers: Age of Extinction) as Suyin, the plucky daughter of the head of research (Winston Chao, The Wedding Banquet) at the scientific laboratory involved with the discovery of the massive shark.  Suyin and Jonas parlay their growing (and nicely unforced) chemistry into believable teamwork as they work together to use their collective bravura to save the day.

While Statham and Bingbing are pleasing leads, Turtletaub has a bit of a mixed bag in the supporting characters.  There’s a whole lot of people popping up and sadly not all of them serve their purpose by becoming fish food by the time the credits roll.  Ruby Rose as a tough scientist and Sophia Shuya Cai as Suyin’s playful daughter fare best while Cliff Cutis (Whale Rider), Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), and Page Kennedy do what they can with their stock character roles.  The biggest head-scratcher is Rainn Wilson (Cooties) as the egocentric money man behind the entire operation.  Wilson, best known for his brilliant work on The Office is truly miscast here, never funny enough to be comic relief or villainous enough to earn our bloodlust in rooting for him to get tenderized by the shark.

Ah…the shark.  You want to know about the shark, right?  It’s well documented that during the production of Jaws the mechanical shark was prone to breaking down, which gave director Steven Spielberg the challenge of showing less and implying more.  This lead to that movie becoming a classic but also meant for future genre movies using a practical creation was far more difficult than creating a sizable beast using special effects.  I’m fairly sure our titular monster is all CGI and aside from a few sketchy renderings it’s mostly a handsome bit of movie magic that blends seamlessly with the live action.  This leads to some ample scares (jolts more like it) and sustained bits of action, especially in the jam-packed final third of the film.

Where I found the film to be lacking were the moments when the shark wasn’t on screen.  That’s where the screenplay shows it’s flimsiness and resorts to some eye rolling dialogue clearly meant to be judicious exposition.  This being a film largely financed by international producers , there are specific moments that feel like cultural insertions (father-daughter bonds, noble deaths, etc) rather than plot points.  Still, even the dumbest sounding dialogue is delivered with a harmless earnestness that’s easy to forgive.

A pure popcorn extravaganza, The Meg swims ashore this August to take a bite out of the late summer box office and stands a good chance at doing well in the U.S. but even better in foreign markets.  Expect the movie to open big in Asia and take in enough money to generate a sequel – and if it’s handled with the same balance of camp and thrill, I’ll be first in line to see it.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Meg

Synopsis: When a submersible lies disabled at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, an expert deep sea diver is forced to confront his fears and risk everything on a single question: Could the Carcharadon Megalodon – the largest marine predator that ever existed – still be alive and on the hunt?

Release Date: August 10, 2018

Thoughts: This lover of all things (and movies) related to sharks has been waiting for The Meg for almost twenty years.  Based on Steve Alten’s silly but entertaining beach read MEG, the film rights were snapped up right away but the movie took forever to get off the ground due to its sizable budget.  Warner Brothers (the studio behind Deep Blue Sea, the last decent shark flick released theatrically) finally took the plunge, added a “The” to the title, reworked the plot, wisely partnered with an Asian studio to maximize international box office revenue, and in August we’ll see just how well it all  paid off.  This first look at The Meg has plenty of exciting images but also an unexpectedly comedic slant that I’m not quite sure about.  Based on the tongue-in-cheek feel, Jason Statham (Spy) could be a good fit for the leading man but it’s clear that while this one has Jaws in its veins its not angling to take itself too seriously.

Movie Review ~ Pitch Perfect 3


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Following their win at the world championship, the now separated Bellas reunite for one last singing competition at an overseas USO tour, but face a group who uses both instruments and voices.

Stars: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Britanny Snow, Ruby Rose, John Lithgow, Ester Dean, Hailee Steinfeld, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins, Kelley Jakle, Hana Mae Lee, Chrissie Fit, Anna Camp, Shelley Regner, DJ Khaled

Director: Trish Sie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (3.5/10)

Review: In 2012, Pitch Perfect was an unexpected stealth weapon smash for Universal Studios.  Arriving with very little fanfare in the midst of a busy fall season, the movie relied on good word of mouth to keep audiences buying tickets and coming back for seconds.  It helps the movie was genuinely good, introducing actors and characters that were funny and appealing.  Two years later, Pitch Perfect 2 was positioned as an early summer blockbuster and the results weren’t quite as memorable.  A slack script, uninspired direction, and more than a few performances that looked like they were delivered under duress or as a way to pay off their backyard pool.  It was your typical cash-grab sequel that offered no forward motion for its players.

Here we are in the waning weeks of 2017 and Pitch Perfect 3 has arrived, supposedly as a finale of a trilogy planned on the fly.  While it corrects some structural mistakes from the first two films, it winds up suffering more than its predecessors as it falls prey to exhaustion and too-slick filmmaking.  Fans of the series will likely find major joy in the final adventures of the all-female acapella group and welcome their return, but all others might be in for a stressful 90 minutes.

It’s been two years since the Barden Bellas have sung together and the troupe has scattered to live their post-grad lives.  Becca (Anna Kendrick, The Accountant) and Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson, Bachelorette) share an apartment in the big city and while Amy spends her days on the street performing as Fat Amy Winehouse, Becca continues to pursue her dream of producing music for the stars.  Trouble is, she’s working with some less than talented characters, a troublesome position for someone clearly far more talented than the clients she serves.  At a supposed reunion of the Bellas organized by senior Emily (Hailee Steinfeld, The Homesman), the ladies express interest in signing together one last time and, wouldn’t you know it, gung-ho former leader Aubrey (Anna Camp, Café Society) remembers that there is a big USO show starting up and her high-ranking military dad might be able to get them a spot.

Flying off to join the troops on a European tour, when they arrive they learn the show is doubling as an audition to open for DJ Khaled (I mean, who wouldn’t want to open for a DJ, right?  Right?) at a big upcoming gig.  It’s not long before the Bellas realize their acapella harmonies don’t stand a chance against the other acts which include a twangy country band, a soul singer, and an all-female rock band (led by the bewitching and underused Ruby Rose) that call themselves Forever Moist (ew).  Jet lag hasn’t even set in before there’s the expected riff off between the groups and the Bellas, with the pre-recorded vocals being mimed pretty poorly by everyone in the movie, this has far less of the off the cuff energy that made the one in the original film so dazzling.

Sadly, there’s more to the movie and it involves John Lithgow (Intestellar) sporting an Australian accent so broad it should come with its own groaning laugh track and an out of left field kidnapping action film plot that feels like screenwriters Kay Cannon (How to Be Single) and Mike White (The D Train) got offered too much money to make a rumored Fat Amy spin-off happen.  Can’t forget to mention that the snide color commentators from the first two films (John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks) are following the ladies around trying to make a documentary (sorry, daccamentary) about their struggles to remain relevant.

Looking less pained than the previous film, Kendrick grooves with the movie and regains her star status after taking a back seat in the more ensemble-y sequel.  Wilson is up to her usual schtick…is anyone else concerned that after all this time she’s still playing second banana in movies?  It’s time for Wilson to take the lead because she has potential that continues to be squandered on lame physical humor.  It’s nice to see Camp back in a larger role after having a glorified cameo in PP2 and Brittany Snow has a few pleasant moments as she allows her prefect outward façade to crack and show the vulnerability below the surface.  Banks (Magic Mike XXL) and Higgins (A Million Ways to Die in the West) have been reduced to grotesque, mean-spirited caricatures that began the series as well-sketched comic critics.  It’s a lowbrow end of the road for those two.

All of these quibbles might not matter because you might not be able to discern much of the action that’s taking place.  Director Trish Sie has shot and edited her film so frenzied that it feels like it was assembled by rabid piranhas.  Forget about the camera zooming back to catch the Bellas performances in widescreen. Nope, Sie favors quick shot close-up cuts and blink and you miss them wide shots.  I’m not convinced the movie wasn’t shot in some warehouse in Pasadena because aside from locales that look like old Euro sets on the Universal backlot, most of the musical numbers have a sameness to them.  Only a nice performance in the Brooklyn aquarium has any special feel to it.

On the positive side, the movie is 20 minutes shorter than the first two films and wisely keeps the men (including Adam DeVine, Skylar Astin, and Ben Platt) out of the mix.  For a series that has nicely sung the merits of female empowerment, it was always strange that men played such a pivotal role up to this point.  I’m even willing to forgive the inclusion of a leering producer with his eye on Becca because he factors so little into her overall arc.

Much like fans of Marvel, DC, and the Star Wars saga, the devotees of the Pitch Perfect series don’t want to hear the negative and that’s OK too.  These three films have brought some musicality back to movie theaters and that’s totally fine in my book…I just wish these last two films had the same spirit of originality that launched the first one into the repeat viewing category.