Movie Review ~ Meg 2: The Trench

The Facts:

Synopsis: A research team encounters multiple threats while exploring the ocean’s depths, including a malevolent mining operation.
Stars: Jason Statham, Wu Jing, Shuya Sophia Cai, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Skyler Samuels, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Sienna Guillory, Melissanthi Mahut, Whoopie Van Raam, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Felix Mayr
Director: Ben Wheatley
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: For my opening of this review for Meg 2: The Trench, I’ll turn to Queen to set the stage:

I’ve paid my dues (Great White)
Time after time (The Reef: Stalked)
I’ve done my sentence (47 Meters Down)
But committed no crime (The Shallows)
And bad mistakes (Maneater)
I’ve made a few (The Black Demon)
I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face (The Reef)
But I’ve come through (Bait 3D)

Only a sampling of the “killer shark” films I’ve sampled over the past few years, but it’s safe to say that I’ve been around the block when it comes to the (mostly) poor films made about an ornery fish chomping down on (mostly) innocent swimmers.  When The Meg was released by Warner Brothers in 2018, it was a welcome relief for a few reasons.  The long-in-the-works film adapted from Steve Alten’s popular pulp novel published in 1997 had moved from multiple studios but had finally surfaced as a big-budget late summer release with a creative marketing campaign.  And it was a hit.  And it wasn’t half bad, either.

A sequel wasn’t guaranteed immediately, but when it was greenlit in late 2018, it gave some hope that Hollywood hadn’t abandoned the water-based monster movie that audiences proved willing to turn out for.  Five years later, after delays due to the pandemic and production shifts, Meg 2: The Trench is rising to fill a guilty pleasure gap at the box office during its massive Barbenheimer upswing.  For some, this may be a soggy sampling of CGI run amok with special effects taking precedence over logic and story, but this critic gobbled it all up hook, line, and sinker. 

Much has changed in the five years since we last saw rescue diver Jonas Taylor and the survivors of the first Megalodon attack on a research facility in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He’s now a single stepfather to Meiying (Sophia Cai) and focused on fighting eco-terrorism that continues to pollute the world’s oceans.  Jiuming Zhang (Wu Jing, Iron Man 3), Meiying’s uncle, has remained vigilant in researching the Mariana Trench his late father and sister had explored when the Megalodon broke through and caused the original chaos.  Now partnered with a slinky investor (Sienna Guillory, Love, Actually, who acts like someone is feeding her lines through an earpiece), Jiuming believes he has a connection with a young Megalodon in captivity that was caught several years prior.

Working with Jonas, Jiuming assembles a new team of technicians and enlists Mac (Cliff Curtis, Doctor Sleep) and DJ (Page Kennedy), who have a prior history of exploring the deepest abyss on earth.  With the original area of the trench surveyed and documented, the consensus is to return and travel further into the uncharted depths with the advanced technology at their costly disposal.  However, when the captive Megalodon escapes from her pen and follows the team to the Trench for reasons unknown, it sets off a chain reaction of events that puts the team of two submersibles in eminent peril, not just from multiple Megalodons hungry for a new snack, but from other sea creatures that have come to see what’s for dinner.

Initially, I had heard that new director Ben Wheatley (Kill List) was aiming for an R rating in his sequel, and I almost wish he was given the freedom to go for it.  You get the sense Wheatley is holding back his usual grim style, and that restraint becomes more evident as the film progresses, but the movie works fine with its tame PG-13.  Trust me; there’s still more than enough death and mayhem to go around without viscera wafting across the screen to prove it.  While the first 2/3 are occupied with what happens within the Trench, the major melee starts when we reach the surface, and the action moves from under the sea to the aptly named Fun Island.  Wheatley throws everything together in one big pot and lets the fins and teeth fly.  As mentioned before, there’s more than just sharks to worry about. While I always prefer a giant shark movie to be solely about a giant shark, I can’t deny that throwing in other sharp-toothed prehistoric creatures provides some distinct glee.  What doesn’t offer much joy is Sergio Peris-Mencheta’s overbaked human villain, proving that as far as these Meg movies are concerned, future films should stick with CGI baddies.

It’s nice to see all the returning cast members back (wow, has Cai grown up in five years!). If I had initial reservations about Statham (Fast X) playing a character I had imagined differently for decades when reading the book, I’m coming around to his brutish take on Taylor.  Though he rarely takes on roles that are huge stretches for him (and there’s always a shot of him working out or, more specifically, doing pull-ups), he never comes across like he’s phoning in his performance.  Wu is an enjoyable addition to the team, and though Melissanthi Mahut (Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga) is serviceable as the lone tough-as-nails female taking action, I thought the script from Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Erich Hoeber was missing a distinct female lead (that wasn’t a preteen). 

This sequel (while silly and over the top) is more serious than its campy predecessor.  Coming out right as two powerhouse players are still doing insane business at the box office and on the same weekend that another popular family franchise (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem) is arriving, I’m curious to see how Meg 2: The Trench holds up.  For me, I thought it hit the mark, and then some with its decent CGI and booming sound design…and this is coming from the perspective of someone that didn’t have the movie screened in advance for them (what’s up, Warner Brothers? You need to keep us in the loop!)  Those hating on the film haven’t had to do their penance in the muck of lousy shark movies.  I have and can tell you this is so much more entertaining than it has any right to be.  Dive in.

Movie Review ~ The Flash

The Facts:

Synopsis: Barry Allen uses his super speed to change the past, but his attempt to save his family creates a world without superheroes, forcing him to race for his life to save the future.
Stars: Ezra Miller, Sasha Calle, Michael Shannon, Ron Livingston, Maribel Verdú, Kiersey Clemons, Antje Traue, Michael Keaton
Director: Andy Muschietti
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 144 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: For a while, no one was sure that The Flash would make it to theaters. The myriad of problems that preceded the release of the newest film in the DC Extended Universe all occurred after the film was, by all accounts, complete, so I’m not going to dive into those here. Instead, I will focus on the film deemed necessary by its studio to hold it above the swarming tide of trouble and protect it at all costs. After seeing it and enjoying it immensely for the adrenaline rush of nostalgia-tinged entertainment it brings with it, I can understand why.

The Flash represents a rarity in the darkness of what we know as the DC Extended Universe. Like the well-received Wonder Woman in 2017 and its absurdly reviled sequel in 2020, it’s an opportunity to bring lightness to a heavy-handed franchise that continues to dig its heels into a tone that audiences aren’t responding to. They have shown they derive energy from the heroes with a pep in their steps and productions that remember the fans that built the studio sending these endless films out to the masses. The Flash is that very kind of film. While it’s far from perfect and has notable stumbles, it’s an undeniable joy to witness what director Andy Muschietti (Mama) and screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) have delivered.

Called into action during an overheated prologue (one that shows some of the iffy special effects that will be featured more prominently later) that sees him work with Ben Affleck’s Batman to perform a daring rescue, Barry Allen (Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) finds himself back home. Memories of the past stir; visions of his deceased mother (Maribel Verdú) and his father (Ron Livingston, The Conjuring), who is now accused of her vicious murder. Convinced his dad is innocent, Barry enters the Speed Force and travels back in time to try and prevent her murder, but his simple act changes everything and erases the heroes of the present.

Returning to the present, Barry runs into a “new” Barry that isn’t as well adjusted even with two parents and sets out to find the one man that might be able to help: Bruce Wayne. Yet this Bruce Wayne isn’t the same one he recently teamed up with. In his place is an alternate Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton, 1989’s Batman), who has long hung up his cowl now that Gotham is safer. When a freak accident robs the old Barry of his powers and gives them to the new Barry, the two must convince Bruce to help them find a way back…to the future. Getting there won’t be as easy as getting back was; any new wrinkle will cause further changes.

For a film that calls to mind 1989’s Back to the Future Part II (released just five months after Tim Burton’s Batman catapulted Keaton to a new level of stardom), Hodson’s script is surprisingly agile and stays on course. Time travel movies can get a little wonky the longer they go on. Still, The Flash doesn’t lose the thread but builds from it in interesting ways, adding in new characters not yet seen (like Sasha Calle’s Supergirl) and bringing back characters from previous DC Extended Universe films. Why wouldn’t they be back in full force without any superhero to defeat them?

The performances help keep the material humming, with Miller a disarmingly dynamic screen presence. Much of their work is with a double of themselves, and it’s handled quite nicely. They also share good vibes with Keaton, who, let’s face it, walks away with the movie almost on sheer goodwill alone. Keaton reminds us why he was, and always will be, the best Batman (with the best Batsuit, Batmobile, Batcave, etc.), and once he’s introduced, you’ll find the movie dims just a tad whenever he’s offscreen. Thankfully, Muschietti has anticipated this, keeping Keaton front and center for much of the film’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour run time.

The weird Speed Force sequences when Barry travels through time are where the film gets dinged, often rightfully so. People pass by through time and look exactly like characters from The Polar Express film Robert Zemeckis made in 2004. Every time this effect is used and used often, it snaps you out of whatever spell the film casts. It manages to right itself somewhat for a finale moment bound to satisfy even the most scowling critics.

Rumor has it that The Flash must hit a list of milestones before its already-written sequel will be greenlit. That seems unfair, considering how many other films in this DC Extended Universe have gotten blank checks to do what they please. The film feels like a positive step (race?) forward in DC’s long-standing battle with Marvel for supremacy. This is the tone they should aim for, so let’s hope audiences come out in full force for this one and send that message back with box office returns.

The Art of the Tease(rs) ~ Batman (1989)

Occasionally, I’ll revive one of my old “special” columns from my early days. Formerly titled In Praise of Teasers, I’ve rebranded my look at coming attractions The Art of the Tease(rs) and brought it back for a short run over the next few weeks. 

Starting in 2013, I used these peeks at past previews to highlight the fun (and short!) creatively mounted campaigns that generated buzz from audiences who caught them in front of movies back in the day. Some of these I remember seeing myself, and some I never had the pleasure of watching. More than anything, it makes me long for studios and advertising agencies to go back to showing less in modern trailers because the amount of spoiler-heavy material shared now is ghastly. Today, where all aspects of a movie are pretty well known before an inch of footage is seen, the subtlety of a well-crafted “teaser” trailer is gone.

Let’s revisit some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there but pay attention to how each of these teasers works uniquely to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Batman (1989)

Tim Burton’s big screen treatment of Batman had many eyes on it as it went into production leading up to its debut. Star Michael Keaton was thought to be physically wrong for the role, Jack Nicholson’s Joker was rumored to not be as comically desirably as the producer’s original choice, Robin Williams, and an injury sidelined starlet Sean Young from appearing as love interest Vicki Vale leading Kim Basinger to be called in at the last minute. Sometimes, everything happens for a reason, and it all comes together like it should because we all know that Burton’s blockbuster was a high-water mark achievement for the Caped Crusader and for striking a new visual tone in superhero films of that era. Visually stunning and featuring a mixture of practical and digital effects that hold up nicely, Batman sits on an earned high throne.

This early teaser is fantastic, too. While not incredibly inventive from a production standpoint, it’s just a creatively edited jumble of clips from the nearly finished film, and it’s giving the audience enough of the promised thrills to ensure they’ll line up opening weekend. Plot details are nicely kept under wraps, and while the Joker is perhaps featured a bit too much and spoils some surprise, the marketing department for toys and tie-ins had likely already sealed the deal to not keep many secrets in the way of what anyone looked like. My favorite thing about this? It’s so confident that audiences know exactly what they are watching that they don’t even bother listing the title.

For more teasers, check out my posts on The Golden Child, Exorcist II: The Heretic, Flashdance, Mortal Kombat, Strange Days, Fire in the Sky, The Fifth Element, The Addams Family, Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Showgirls, Jurassic Park, Jaws 3D/Jaws: The Revenge, Total Recall, Halloween II: Season of the Witch, Psycho (1998), The Game, In the Line of Fire

Movie Review ~ Black Adam

The Facts:

Synopsis: Nearly 5,000 years after he was bestowed with the almighty powers of the Egyptian gods, Black Adam is freed from his earthly tomb, ready to unleash his unique form of justice in the modern world.
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Noah Centineo, Sarah Shahi, Marwan Kenzari, Quintessa Swindell, Bodhi Sabongui, Pierce Brosnan
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 124 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  The DC Extended Universe continues to expand, introducing more characters to audiences that might not be exactly household names. With the Supermans, Batmans, Wonder Womans, etc. all getting their own films (and working together) to varying degrees of success, it’s likely time to turn the attention to this periphery which is where many of the true fan favorites reside. That’s why you have successful outings like 2019’s Shazam and non-starters like both attempts to make the Suicide Squad happen in 2016 and 2021.

A long-time pet project of star Dwayne Johnson, the character of Black Adam was introduced in comics nearly eighty years ago, and rumors of a movie also began around that time. Ok, not really, but in a Hollywood timeline, tracing the first rumblings back to 2007 seems like a long gestation period. It’s taken that long for DC to work out the order of their releases and where the character could potentially fit into their film series, which, with the release of this 11th film, is strangely only in Phase 1. As Johnson became more of an in-demand and bankable movie star, the schedule became tighter, but his commitment to starring as the anti-hero superhero remained. 

Viewing the finished film, you can see what attracted Johnson to the character in the first place. Built on family bonds and the fulfillment of a legacy, it appeals to many of the principles of unity Johnson likes to instill in his projects. It also is an over-the-top special effects maelstrom of action sequences that are barely held together by a plot that, in retrospect, doesn’t move the dial any further in the DC Extended Universe than where we began. Despite a genuinely jaw-dropping post-credit sequence that had our audience screaming, Black Adam is a “what you see is what you get” event, so you need to hold on tight and try to keep up.

Since this is the first time we see the character, this is (sigh) another origin story, and the three screenwriters don’t spare the viewer any shortcuts in telling how a young slave boy in 2600 BC is granted mighty powers due to his demonstrated bravery. Becoming a hero to the people of Kahndaq, his powers eventually grow so great that when he’s pushed past all loss of control, he wipes the city off the map entirely, including himself. Over time, he becomes a legend and a symbol of hope for the people of Kahndaq as they again fall under the regime of oppressive leaders.

Jumping ahead to the present, we join a group of fortune seekers attempting to locate the Crown of Sabbac in the old ruins of Kahndaq.  Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi, I Don’t Know How She Does It) understands the weight of power the crown holds, the power-hungry king who once tried to obtain it had to be stopped by Teth-Adam (he won’t be called Black Adam until the end of the film), which led to the city’s original downfall. Now others are aware of the crown being uncovered and are coming for it. Before being captured, she tries a final option to save herself, reading an inscription on a stone found in the ruins, which brings forth Teth-Adam (Johnson, Skyscraper) from his grave.

Unaware that thousands of years have passed, it takes a while for Teth-Adam to learn restraint in battle. Who wants a restrained superhero, though? He’s a cranky guy that doesn’t like being told what to do, especially by a crew from the Justice Society that is sent in to keep him from creating mayhem. Sent in by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, The Woman King), they are led by Hawkman (a fantastic Aldis Hodge, One Night in Miami…) and also include Doctor Fate (an impressively active Pierce Brosnan, GoldenEye), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell, Voyagers), and Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo, Charlie’s Angels). That’s four more characters to get to know quickly in a movie that comes in just slightly over two hours. 

Most of the film is Teth-Adam either fighting as one man against the Justice Society or grudgingly working with them to defeat a villain after the Crown of Sabbac intent on bringing hell to earth. With most of the action taking place within the same limited vicinity in Kahndaq, Black Adam feels more minor than the prominent epic director Jaume Collet-Serra (Jungle Cruise) wants it to be. The visuals are impressive, but after a time, you start to question if you’ve somehow skipped backward and seen the same sequence a second time. 

With the DC Extended Universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe continuing to churn their movies out rapidly, it may be building a larger-than-life web of interconnected stories and characters. Still, it’s at the cost of ultimate satisfaction with their films. A feeling of no stakes permeates each film, regardless of quality. What’s to keep you on the edge of your seat if you know another movie is coming out in six months? Finality creates tension, tension creates excitement, and excitement drives ticket sales, and it’s no wonder the box office receipts for these remain profitable but not as sky-high as they once were. Audiences have caught on and know the game. As well made as Black Adam is, it’s just a first step in the character’s journey toward another film and then another. It’s nice to meet you, Black Adam…see you soon.

Movie Review ~ DC League of Super-Pets

The Facts:

Synopsis: When the Justice League is captured, Superman’s Labrador forms a team of shelter pets who were given superpowers to save his owner and Superman’s friends.
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Kate McKinnon, John Krasinski, Vanessa Bayer, Natasha Lyonne, Diego Luna, Thomas Middleditch, Ben Schwartz, Keanu Reeves
Director: Jared Stern
Rated: PG
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  When Warner Bros. Pictures released the first trailer for the DC League of Super-Pets in the later months of 2021, I was left scratching my head at who precisely the film was targeted. Younger kids would likely spark to the animation and comic shenanigans of the piece, but what value would they have in the overall tie-in to the more extensive DC comics line? For the older crowd who may remember the original comic book Legion of Super-Pets, first introduced in 1962, would they respond to their beloved superheroes being reduced to sidekicks for a new crew of the four-legged (or otherwise) variety? Unless they had a tyke in tow, could they justify the trip to theaters in that pivotal 45-day theatrical window before its streaming premiere on HBOMax?

I had seen so many previews for this new endeavor from the Warner Animation Group before other summer films that it was almost a relief as the lights went down when I was in my seat for the screening. I’d throw it a bone, though, and give it a fair shot. Turns out I didn’t need to warm up my pitching arm because for as much blowback as the live-action branch of the DC Extended Universe has received from critics and audiences alike, this lively computer-animated entry has real zip. Hailing from the same team that developed The Lego Batman Movie and The Lego Ninjago Movie, both in 2017, this is a project with an appeal to multiple generations.

Nothing if not accessible, the film opens with a scene that’s hugely familiar by now. The planet Krypton is facing destruction; parents Jor-El and Lara make the difficult decision to send their infant son Kal-El on a spaceship to Earth, where he will grow up to become Superman. Turns out, in all the tale-tellings over time, we never knew that a Labrador Retriever that hopped into the ship at the last minute, licking away Kal El’s tears as they sped away from the imploding planet. Years later, Krypto (Dwayne Johnson, Jungle Cruise) and Superman (John Krasinski, A Quiet Place) have formed quite the famous partnership in Metropolis, but a growing relationship with Lois Lane (Olivia Wilde, The Lazarus Effect) is starting to infringe upon the downtime Krypto craves.

Hoping to help Krypto branch out with friends of his own, Superman (as Clark Kent) investigates adopting a rescue animal from a local shelter. There, we meet a misfit crew of hopeful adoptees and one scheming hairless guinea pig who escaped from a lab owned by Lex Luthor. Instead of resenting her time at Luthor’s facility, Lulu (Kate McKinnon, Bombshell) is plotting to get back in front of the supervillain by causing trouble of her own. Spotting Superman and his canine companion, she devises making trouble for them is the perfect way into Lex’s good graces. In short order, Lulu has imprisoned the entirety of the Justice League (including Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash, and a female Green Lantern) and taken Krypto’s power away with a bit of orange Kryptonite…but help is on the way.

While taking super-gifts away from the powerful, Lulu inadvertently distributes them to the other shelter pets. Ace (Kevin Hart, The Upside) is a loner mutt and counter-point to Krypto with a backstory illustrating why it’s hard to put trust in lasting relationships. A myopic turtle named Merton (Natasha Lyonne, The United States vs. Billie Holiday) may not be as slow anymore but isn’t above pausing to enjoy a good snack, while plump porcine PB (Vanessa Bayer, Office Christmas Party) gets multiple size upgrades based on her mood. An electrified squirrel (Diego Luna, If Beale Street Could Talk), a weaponized kitten, and an amusing variety pack of genetically changed schoolroom guinea pigs fill out the roster of pets battling. At the same time, the human counterparts sit imprisoned in a giant hamster cage.

While the film gets points for the heart and humanity that shines through, it’s first and foremost an action-adventure, clearly where its main interest lies. Parents should be aware that the film is a little scary and overly heavy on the artillery used in battle. Even though it is all comically pitched, it’s not far removed from the live-action version of the DC Comic films. I also think it has a lot of characters to juggle, several that feel extraneous (Lex has a purple-haired second in command we barely meet that becomes important later) when it could have tightened its focus without losing anything of lasting value.

Branching out its franchise favorites to this medium was a smart move, and DC League of Super-Pets makes a strong case for future installments with the gang. I appreciated much of the IP was included in this, from scores of previous films to having the inspired casting of Keanu Reeves (Toy Story 4) as a moody Batman, poking fun at how super-serious the character has been played previously. There’s a lot of fun to go around, and I think audiences who have tired of traditional superhero summer films might find DC League of Super-Pets to be a fresh and often high-flying approach.

Movie Review ~ Dune (2021)


The Facts:

Synopsis: Paul Atreides, a brilliant and gifted young man born into a great destiny beyond his understanding, must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people

Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Jason Momoa, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chang Chen, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Charlotte Rampling

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 155 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  Am I a perfect audience member for the newest attempt to adapt Dune, Frank Herbert’s celebrated 1965 novel?  Long thought to be too complex to be translated onto the screen, it was famously attempted by the artist and director Alejandro Jodorowsky who began his work in 1974 before abandoning the project two years into pre-production.  Years later David Lynch more infamously tried his hand at the piece, releasing his completed film in 1984 to disastrous reviews and failing to make back it’s budget at the box office.  While it has gone on to achieve a cult-like status, no one would say it’s any kind of definitive version of the film.  More notable where the two miniseries that aired on the Sci Fi channel, essentially giving that fledgling cable company street cred from the industry and fans at the same time.

Me?  I’ve never seen any adaptation or read the book(s) and while I normally try to do my homework before a remake, reboot, or other comes out, for the version of Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve arriving in theaters now I decided to chuck it all and do absolutely nothing.  So that’s why I might be the best all-around viewer because I’m coming at it with no pre-conceived notions about the source material or previous adaptations to compare it to or feel like it has to live-up to anything.  The only thing it had to contend with were the monstrous expectations the studio had put by delaying it nearly a year from its original release date, insisting it was an experience best reserved for theaters on the biggest screen possible.

Like the recent release of No Time to Die, I’m willing to admit that while some of the releases that came out during the pandemic lockdown shuttered theaters worked just fine when viewed at home, Dune is a film that deserves to be witnessed on a screen so big it should feel overwhelming…like the movie itself.  This is a one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-blue-moon sort of event movie that can’t be replicated completely when seen at home.  Though it was made available on HBOMax the same day it opened in theaters, you can’t compare the two viewings because the movie is the movie and it’s great, but the awe-inspiring visuals are knockouts when projected in their sheer enormity.

Unrestrained praise for the theatrical exhibition aside, Dune is more than anything an example of filmmaking (and a filmmaker) firing on all cylinders where each piece of the cinematic puzzle working together to make something incredible.  Yet to (in my mind) make a film that isn’t worth watching multiple times, Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049) has a clear vision of what this movie is and should be (and, as you’ll know right of the bat…will be in the future) so there is rarely a moment along the way where Dune isn’t absolutely on course in its narrative storyline.  From what I understand, that’s where the previous adaptations have run into trouble.  Herbert’s novels have deeper meanings and storylines with interwoven characters, times, and subplots and to juggle those all is an immense challenge.  The director, along with co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts (Passengers) and Eric Roth (2018’s A Star is Born) have focused the action and events to be cohesive and trackable – you could likely watch this on mute and still get the idea of what’s happening.

So…what IS happening in Dune, you may ask?  Let me attempt a small breakdown of it all.

Way way WAY in the future, Spice is a valuable resource to anyone that can harvest it and harness it’s power.  With the universe under the command of an unseen Emperor and overseen by various “houses” within the Galactic Empire, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac, The Addams Family 2) has been ordered by the Emperor to the planet Arrakis which is the only current source of Spice.  Accompanied by his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, The Greatest Showman), mother to his son Paul (Timothée Chalamet, Lady Bird) they travel to the planet to find the previous House (led by Stellan Skarsgård, Cinderella, and overseen by My Spy’s Dave Bautista) left the harvesting equipment in disrepair.  Recognizing they were set-up to fail and eventually betrayed by those they trusted, the House of Atreides will need to find favor with the people of Arrakis (and avoid the terrifying sandworms trolling around the Spice fields) if they are to survive a plot that was cruelly set into motion from the top levels of the Empire.

Sounds a lot like another space epic that just ended a few years back, doesn’t it?  It’s not quite the same, but there are ripples of those Shakespearean twists that Star Wars employed so well throughout the film.  Dune very much succeeds on its own merits, however and that’s not just thanks to Villeneuve’s specific direction and eye for visual acuity.  The performances are top notch, and this has to be Chalamet’s best showing since his Oscar-nominated turn in Call Me by Your Name…I’d even say there are times when its better.  Acting can get lost in these spectacles but Chalamet doesn’t let that important aspect slip.  Neither do Ferguson, Isaac, or terrific supporting players Josh Brolin (Oldboy) and Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) playing allies to Atriedes that fend off attacks from all sides.  Billed high but seen little is Zendaya (Malcolm & Marie), though she’ll be kept busy enough…later.

Ah…the later aspect of Dune.  It’s now well known this film is but the first chapter of a longer series but how many more and how long will we need to wait until the next one arrives?  Even knowing this is the initial entry point into this world shouldn’t dissuade you from getting out to this one because it’s as standalone a film as can be, with its own thrills and humungous set-pieces that make for breathless action sequences.  At times I wished for subtitles because the sound design is often as complex as the story…but that’s what a home rewatch is for.  And I’ll be getting to that as soon as I’m through with this review. Spice up your life and climb this mountain as soon as possible.

31 Days to Scare ~ Malignant


The Facts:

Synopsis: Madison is paralyzed by shocking visions of grisly murders, and her torment worsens as she discovers that these waking dreams are in fact terrifying realities.

Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, Mckenna Grace, Jacqueline McKenzie, Jake Abel, Ray Chase, Jean Louisa Kelly, Susanna Thompson

Director: James Wan

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I feel as if I should start a review of Malignant by dividing up the reader into two different categories.  Are you the type of person that sees a horror film and need to have it grounded in some kind of truth, a reality that benefits from an explanation with sound science behind it?  If you are, please step to the left and I can find you another movie later.  For the rest of you still with me, I invite you to try out this ambitious bit of terror that unfurls itself slowly before taking several shots of adrenaline as it reaches its climax.  It’s utter nonsense, let’s be real clear, and gets so crazy you almost wonder if it’s going to turn out to be some huge joke with a “Gotcha” dance break, but it’s in the way it takes itself so seriously that ultimately makes Malignant such a wild ride.

The movie locked me down almost from its first shot, the imposing Simion Research Hospital perched high on a cliff one rainy night in 1992.  Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie, The Water Diviner) is documenting the study of her patient Gabriel when she’s suddenly called to his room to witness something…strange.  Jumping ahead to 2019 and into the Seattle home of Madison (Annabelle Wallis, The Mummy) and her good for nothing husband Steve (Jake Abel, The Host), we barely get to meet the couple before we learn that Steve likes to rough up the pregnant Madison and that she’s lost several babies because of it.  It’s during one row that he smashes her head up against a wall, leaving her bleeding from the back of her head and needing to lie down.  Later that night, a ghostly figure appears and makes Madison a widow, eventually sending her to the hospital where she loses another baby. (Fear not of spoilers…this is all within the first 10 minutes!)

With the police investigating Steve’s strange death, Madison returns home with her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson, We Summon the Darkness) and let’s her in on a little secret: Madison was adopted when she was very young after being abandoned by her birth mother. She also had an imaginary friend when she was young…a boy named Gabriel.  While Madison is putting her life back together and recovering, several other seemingly unrelated people are meeting the same dark figure that did-in wife beating Steve. One woman (Jean Louisa Kelly, Uncle Buck) is hunted down after giving a tour of Seattle’s underground city, others are violently slaughtered by the specter that walks funny and evades Detective Shaw (George Young) and Detective Moss (Michole Briana White, Songbird) with apparent ease.  It’s during these new crimes that Madison starts to see visions of the killer at work, like she is actually there when it is happening.

Director James Wan, working from Akela Cooper’s (Hell Fest) script (which he gets a story credit on along with his wife Ingrid Bisu who also appears in the film), has a long history with creating iconic horror characters and/or series.  An original creative behind the Saw series as well as directing Insidious and it’s sequel as well as The Conjuring and it’s follow-up, Wan fit in Malignant after directing Aquaman and before he set to work on the big-budget follow-up to that superhero film.  This feels like a pet project that Warner Brothers let him roll with and perhaps why Wan pulls out all the tricks in his arsenal for a movie that’s way more fun to watch than dissect.  There’s just too much bonkers business going on to take it all that seriously, even if some of the resolution has some grounding in science.

While the big reveal is a total doozy, it’s not close to the end of the film and it’s a credit not just to Wan but the rest of the cast that they are able to continue making the film engaging while carrying a rather strange idea to its bloody conclusion.  It’s during that time when Wan goes heavy metal on the action with dynamic camera angles (the director has never met a multi-level house he can’t shoot entirely from above in an uninterrupted take as an actor goes from floor to floor) and limber stunt people to bend and twist their way around in largely practical physical acts that boggle the mind.  It’s all very breathless and a tad exhausting…and I loved it.

It truly helps Wan has a cast that is taking the material deadly seriously.  Were they to even wink slightly at the camera it would have broken the illusion that someone was in on the silliness of it all.  With her dark hair and eye lined lids, Wallis is tortured soul personified and quite good as a wild-eyed woman putting together her past while trying to figure out if she needs to be worried more about her present.  Wan tends to cast his leading females well and he’s got another bullseye here.  Production elements are top notch and watching the film in 4K HD on HBOMax the cinematography from Michael Burgess (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) is spooky and spot-on. 

When this is published, Malignant is sadly not available to watch on HBOMax (who’s the smartypants that decided it shouldn’t be available for Halloween??) but could be playing at a local theater near you.  Try to catch it on a rainy night, because if you are in the right frame of mind, this is a decidedly good watch and fun for the “sure, ok, why not” explanation that meets viewers ninety minutes in.  The cast is strong and Wan is more than prepared to present a film made with precision and skill.  Don’t cut Malignant out of your queue without investigating it a little bit.

31 Days to Scare ~ Dead Calm (1989)


The Facts:

Synopsis: After tragically losing their son, a married couple are spending some time isolated at sea when they come across a stranger who has abandoned a sinking ship.

Stars: Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman, Billy Zane

Director: Phillip Noyce

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When recommending 1989’s Dead Calm, I also wish there was a way I could wave a magic wand and clear your mind of the last thirty years of movies its three stars and director would make.  All have gone on to be involved with massive projects (and even win one Oscar) and you can’t help but look at this gripping thriller they made before becoming Hollywood commodities in a different way than you would have back when it was first released.  Though the film remains a bona fide nail biter, I think the “before they were stars” wonder of it all could lessen the impact slightly for a viewer in 2021 as opposed to someone that sat down in a theater in April of 1989 when Dead Calm sailed onto U.S. shores and changed many careers.

The history of Dead Calm begins all the way back in 1963 when it was written as a novel by Charles Williams and attracted the attention of legendary director Orson Welles.  Welles liked it so much that he began filming the movie soon after but left it unfinished.  Years later a copy of the book fell into the hands of Australian director Philip Noyce (Above Suspicion) who got fellow Ozzies George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Terry Hayes (a collaborator with Miller on The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) involved and the rest was, uh, smooth sailing.  The cameras rolled in mid-1987 and the shoot took place over six months on the open sea. 

Like Jaws, Noyce benefited from the location in giving the audience a sense of isolation for an unlucky couple trying to forget a recent tragedy and the trouble they unknowingly welcome aboard in the from of a stranded stranger.  When the stranger turns out to be a psychotic that has sunk his own ship to hide a bloody crime, he manages to get the husband off the boat long enough to take control of the new vessel and the wife.  Now the couple must find a way to communicate and independently stay alive from the dangers present on both ships.

While Billy Zane (Ghosts of War) was the true fresh face of the bunch, the Hawaiian-born, Australian-raised Nicole Kidman (Aquaman) was already an established star down under.  It was Sam Neill (Peter Rabbit) who was considered the veteran, having played Damien Thorn in a third Omen film and weathered the nightmare horror experience that was Possession.  Just coming off A Cry in the Night (aka Evil Angela aka A Dingo Stole My Baby: The Movie) with Meryl Streep, Neill was a considerable “get” for this small-ish picture.

You can see what attracted a filmmaker like Welles to the original story. There’s a tortured soul living in all three main characters and the novel expands on this more, lessening some of the vice grip tension the screenplay from Hayes employs.  That’s why the film Noyce has made is so much of a thrill, because you never know quite what’s about to happen or where the characters might be headed next.  Kidman’s grief-stricken spouse was involved in a horrific accident that claimed the life of her son and always carries the guilt of that with her, unable to share intimacy with her husband out of shame because of it.  Without admitting it, the husband might be directing some of that guilt her way as well, though he makes a good show at hiding it.  Zane’s monstrosity picks up on this once he gets them separated and manipulates that…but also misjudges just how deep the earlier life changing event has bonded the couple, preparing them for what is currently taking place.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the overly commercial ending was a studio intervention to add an extra shot of adrenaline, but the movie succeeds just fine without it.  Dead Calm had already completed its carefully plotted voyage without capsizing its precious suspense cargo in the process.  I wish we had the option of watching Noyce’s original cut instead of the one with the tacked-on joy buzzer of a climax but at least it gives us a few more minutes of the gorgeous cinematography from Dean Semler (Razorback and an Oscar winner for Dances with Wolves) because the work he does is truly magnificent.  Surprisingly, this was a bit of dud at the box office but cleaned up nicely on home video and yes, it holds up like a watertight seal all these years later. It all worked out fine for those involved. The next year Kidman would star in Days of Thunder with future husband Tom Cruise and Noyce’s follow-up film would be 1992’s Patriot Games, the sequel to Sam Neill’s next movie, 1990’s The Hunt for Red October. Zane would have to wait through a few years of forgettable films before scoring big time with his next sea faring flick…1997’s Titanic.

31 Days to Scare ~ Razorback (1984)


The Facts:

Synopsis: As a vicious wild boar terrorizes the Australian outback, the husband of one of the victims is joined by a hunter and a farmer in a search for the beast.

Stars: Gregory Harrison, Arkie Whiteley, Bill Kerr, Chris Haywood, David Argue, Judy Morris, John Ewart, John Howard

Director: Russell Mulcahy

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: To all of you out there that remember the halcyon days of the home video market I want you to stop and remember the beauty of the clamshell packaging for Warner Brothers releases.  This was that lovely piece of black plastic casing with a vinyl cover that squeaked when you opened it, took up a phenomenal amount of shelf space, and often featured a full essay printed on the back of the box art that could spoil the whole movie if you read too far. I consider these mini treasures and while they were eventually replaced with the slimmer cases certain boxes remain seared in my memory, whether I saw the actual movie or not.  The Neverending Story was one and, for some reason, Razorback was another.  Featuring the art that you see on the poster above, for as much as I was a fan of the creature feature I’m surprised it took me as long as I did to see the movie itself.

Ever since Jaws debuted in 1975, there was an influx of copycat films that tried to recreate it’s man vs. beast success and most failed to come even close to what Steven Spielberg did.  Spielberg traded on simplicity and suggestion of a creature many people had never seen close up and what those that followed failed to realize was that the more you showed, the less scary it was.  However, with gore and violence becoming more popular it was go big or go home.  By the time Razorback arrived from Down Under in 1984, there had already been two sequels to Spielberg’s original shark tale as well as imitators involving piranhas, orcas, bears, alligators, octopi, barracudas, as well as countless other monster shark features. 

One of the rare examples of a Jaws rip-off that triumphs on its own merits and benefits greatly from its Oz-ploitation roots, Razorback really caught me off guard when I decided to give it a go one late night not so very long ago.  I honestly wasn’t expecting much, certainly not the well-made and suspenseful yarn from director Russell Mulcahy I got.  While it has its moments of careening awfully close to some of the same structure as Peter Benchley’s shark story with similar character archetypes, most of Everett De Roche’s screenplay (based on the novel by Peter Brennan) charts its own course forward into darker territory than Americans were used to.

You could almost say the film has two prologues before the main action begins.  Opening with Jake Cullen (Bill Kerr) being attacked in his home by a huge razorback boar while babysitting his grandson and subsequent murder trial when the town doesn’t believe his tale of the massive predator, the film jumps ahead a handful of years when an American reporter (Judy Morris) also winds up encountering the creature in a terrifying sequence of events.  Only when her husband (dependable ’70s and ‘80s soap opera hunk Gregory Harrison) arrives to search for his missing wife does the film begin to settle in and let the viewer acclimate to a community that is probably aware of a deadly presence but without resources to stop it. 

While Mulcahy keeps the film as tight as he can, dotting solid thrills at opportune moments, he can’t keep the movie from dragging in it’s middle and it’s just because the story runs out of steam or, more precisely, characters that can adequately fill the action.  Harrison is a vanilla-ish lead and while an added layer of conflict is introduced in an illegal canning operation in town from two scuzzy brothers (whom his wife also encountered), all we really want to do is see the boar in action because that’s where the excitement is generated the most consistently.

Thankfully, this is 1984 before the advent of CGI and the production team spent some decent money on several animatronic boars so we have actors interacting with something tangible and it shows how important that is to a performance.  Mulcahy goes the Spielberg route and rarely shows the beast in full (whether that is because of budget or not, I can’t say) but it’s effective more often than not so that when the final confrontation in a dilapidated factory happens, we’re amped up enough to forgive anything that looks a little rubbery.  Add in some truly impressive cinematography from Dean Semler (who would win an Oscar in 1990 for Dances with Wolves) and you’re riding high on a far above-average film that rises above its mere rip-off label.

If it tells you anything about my admiration for Razorback, I first watched it on a DVD copy checked out from the library but appreciated the viewing experience so much that I wound up buying an import BluRay copy from Australia.  There’s good replay value here and if you can track it down, it comes with a strong recommendation.  If only the BluRay came in an oversized black clamshell…ah…those were the days.