Monday, June 19, 2017

47 Meters Down -- A review

Another good name for 47 Meters Down would be Mandy Moore Meets Jaws, because that’s pretty much the gist of this film: two adult sisters (played by Moore and Claire Holt) on vacation decide to go scuba diving in shark infested waters when something goes horribly awry and the sharks are served up a nice meal of two chicks in a cage on the bottom of the ocean. But another name for this film was In The Deep, and that’s no joke; In The Deep was actually what 47 Meters Down was originally called when it was very briefly released on video back in 2016. The movie was being dumped back then straight to video without a theatrical release, until something interesting happened.

That was when The Shallows, starring Blake Lively as a lone surfer fending off an attacking shark, was released and became a hit. Reportedly, it was the success of The Shallows that made the producers of 47 Meters Down realize that there was money in dem there sharks, and they pulled their film from video release, changed the name, and gave it a proper theatrical release (and this seems to have worked; 47 Meters Down opened in the top five at the box office in its first weekend). However, there were still many copies of In The Deep that managed to get released on DVD, and they’ve become sought after by home video collectors.

But aside from having an interesting behind the scenes story, 47 Meters Down also works pretty well as a good little horror movie. While it’s not as contemplative and introspective as The Shallows was, eschewing the ’woman verses nature’ character study of that film, 47 Meters Down still works, despite its goofier moments--such as the beginning sequences, where Mandy Moore’s character rightly objects to going diving in shark infested waters, only to be swayed to do so just because it’ll make for an interesting story to tell at future parties.

Yet once the characters and story get submerged, 47 Meters Down becomes a gripping horror movie. The filmmakers make effective use of the darkness on the ocean bottom for jump scares of sharks that come careening out of the void with their mouths open and razor-sharp teeth exposed. It’s a movie that starts out pretty weakly, but gets much better as it goes on. This is not to say that 47 Meters Down is a shark classic in the same league as the original Jaws, but it’s a fun, scary ride though the depths of terror, and makes for a good double bill with other shark B-movies like Shark Night. --SF

Friday, June 16, 2017

Jack Reacher Never Go Back -- a Review

I was first introduced to Jack Reacher through the Tom Cruise movie of the same name that was released back in 2012. I liked the movie well enough, despite a few nitpicks here and there--but I really enjoyed reading the novels by Lee Child. Jack Reacher was a former US Army officer who retires and becomes a drifter, roaming from state to state in the country that he fought so hard to protect. And Reacher is still protecting us, taking on a variety of villains, from backwoods mobsters to big-city terrorists from book to book. The stories in the books are well-told, with great attention paid to the smallest of details. I think of them as 1980s action films, only without being insulting to your intelligence.

What a perfect series to adapt to movies, right? Well, Tom Cruise looks nothing like how Jack Reacher is described in the books. And while I thought the first Jack Reacher film was good, the second, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, is very badly flawed. Based on the JR novel of the same name, Never Go Back has Reacher returning to his old stomping grounds, the headquarters of the 110th Military Police, which he once commanded. It’s now under the command of Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders, from How I Met Your Mother and the Marvel Avengers movies). When Reacher comes to D.C. to visit with Turner, he discovers that she’s been arrested for treason.

What follows is Reacher’s personal crusade to clear the good name of Major Turner. But what also happens with the film is sort of fascinating in a “train-wreck” sort of way. There’s virtually no chemistry between Cruise and Smulders--nothing at all. Watching them do intimate scenes together is uneasy, because you’re basically watching a pair of actors lifelessly recite lines at each other. What makes this film even worse is a sub plot about how Reacher might have a teenage daughter that he didn’t know about--saddling the character with a whiny, bratty kid (Danika Yarosh) who is so grating that I wanted the bad guys to kill them all just to be done with it.

And speaking of the bad guys, they’re so bland that they’re pretty much nonexistent. The first Reacher film had Werner Herzog and Jai Courtney, who were both very memorable and so good in their parts that you cheered when Reacher got justice on them. In Never Go Back, one of the villains doesn’t even have a name, and his final fight with Reacher is so lazily directed it just provokes a big “meh”. The whole film in general really feels “off,” with many of the sets looking very much like sets, with the overall pacing lethargic and the suspense nonexistent. Instead of Never Go Back, this one should be called Never Watch Again--which is fine with me. I’ll stick to the Jack Reacher books from now on, thanks. --SF

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Power Rangers (2017) -- a review

I was in my late twenties when The Power Rangers made their debut on TV many moons ago, well over the age range of the primary target audience for the series. But even though I never saw the TV series, I remember the furor that it caused, particularly among toy collectors. Back then, I was collecting action figures from Star Trek, which was enjoying an explosion of popularity alongside the Power Rangers. Despite several TV incarnations, along with a pair of movies released at the peak of the PR zeitgeist, I never felt the need to visit Angel Cove, the home of the Power Rangers. Until now.

I don’t know what possessed me to watch the latest reboot of the PR franchise, other than boredom on an extremely hot (pre)summer day. But what was interesting was how much I enjoyed it, despite not knowing anything about the mythology. Maybe that’s because director Dean Israelite eases the viewer into the PR wackiness by introducing the Rangers as regular teenagers who meet up one day while serving in detention. It’s like having the Power Rangers meet the Breakfast Club (Would the song be called “Don’t you Morph about me?”)!

But it really plays more like PR meets Chronicle, the found footage superhero film that came out a few years ago, in the same understated way that the teens discover their powers and become Rangers. Israelite still moves the story along at a brisk speed, never letting the pacing sag, and while the Rangers are played by unknowns (who handle their acting chores admirably), Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston is recruited as the great big giant head who serves as the team’s overall Yoda/guru, while Elizabeth Banks looks like she’s having a grand old time chewing the scenery as the villain (“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours!”).

The main problem is that after a proper build up, when the teens finally become the PR (in the last half hour of a two hour movie), it’s somewhat anticlimactic. After a methodical and well done journey to gaining their powers, as well as the trust of each other as a team, seeing the Rangers in action feels a little underwhelming--almost as if the filmmakers really didn‘t have their hearts sets on making a Power Rangers movie.

Another problem I had was the blatant advertising in the film, particularly for a donut shop franchise--which is pretty outrageous, considering all of the various PR series were basically nothing more than ads for the PR toys. Despite the careful setting up for a sequel at the end, there won’t be one, thanks to the poor performance at the box office. I have no doubt PR will get rebooted again soon, hopefully with no on-screen advertising. --SF

Friday, June 9, 2017

Wonder Woman -- a review

I’ve been waiting for a Wonder Woman movie all my life.

Now that may sound strange for me, a fifty-something year old man, to say about a female superhero. But Wonder Woman has been one of my favorite superheroes since when I was a kid back in the 1970s, when I first saw the Lynda Carter TV series. For me, and many in my generation, Lynda Carter *was* Wonder Woman, a force for light and all things good. I knew that when the inevitable Wonder Woman remake came, whoever took over for Carter would have some pretty big red boots to fill. I never had any idea that it would take so long before a new live action Wonder Woman arrived.

But return she did, in the more than capable form of Gal Godot, who both looked beautiful and tough at the same time. She first made her debut as the Amazonian Princess in Batman Vs. Superman, and very quickly became one of the best things about that movie, practically stealing it from her co-stars. But that wasn’t enough. This new Wonder Woman needed to soar in her own film, and the fact that her movie has been directed by a woman was the icing on the cake.

Patty Jenkins, who helmed Wonder Woman, made just one other movie in her career, Monster, which starred Charlize Theron in a role that won her a well-deserved Oscar. Thus Jenkins was the perfect choice to direct WW, and not just because she is a woman, but because she is a superb filmmaker. An example of this is how Gal Godot, a former member of the Israeli military, speaks with a rather pronounced accent (which makes her sound all the more sultry, IMHO), so Jenkins has all of the women of Themyscira, the island paradise that Diana grew up on, speak with the same accent--which, to me, is the mark of a great director, one who not only works with what she has, but who pays attention to the details.

Wonder Woman’s first solo adventure takes place during the First World War, when German soldiers come storming onto the beaches of Themyscira, looking for Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American pilot who was caught spying on a secret weapons factory that was being run by Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), who is also known as Dr. Poison. Trevor was rescued by Diana when his plane crashed in the ocean. And while the Amazonian warriors, led by the mighty Antiope (Robin Wright), make swift work of the German troops in a spectacular battle scene, there are casualties, thanks to the new-fangled weapons--called guns--the invaders were armed with.

When Trevor speaks of the globe-spanning war that has left upwards of twenty five million people dead, Diana suspects this might be the return of Ares, the god of war, who was believed to have been vanquished eons ago. Bringing Trevor back to the world of men, Diana also seeks to hunt down Ares and bring a stop to his warmongering once and for all. Wonder Woman is an epic adventure through a fascinating and all-too-neglected era of history. Jenkins vividly brings to life the trench warfare that was infamous of WWI in a majestic and jaw-dropping scene where Wonder Woman decides to take a little stroll right through the dreaded “no man’s land”.

The action scenes are spectacular to watch, and I found myself just as fascinated by the more personal character elements. As I’ve stated before, Jenkins pays attention to all the details here, making for a tight, lean, exciting film that is gripping from the very first frame to the last. Make no mistake, Wonder Woman is not only the movie that I’ve been waiting for since I was little, but it’s in the same elite league as the 1978 Superman, and Nolan’s The Dark Knight as an exemplary film that stands above the rest in its genre. Wonder Woman is more than just a great superhero film, it's a great film, period. It’s fun, it’s wondrous, and it’s deeply satisfying. Don’t miss it. --SF

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Logan -- a review

While the X-Men films, produced by Fox, have been a great deal of enjoyment for me, the Wolverine trilogy, featuring everybody’s favorite snarling mutant with claws, has definitely been a mixed bag. The first film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, was just a flaming mess of a flick (with the less said about it the better), while the second, The Wolverine, had a vastly superior story that took Wolverine to Japan. Logan, the third film in the series--and supposedly the final appearance of Hugh Jackman as the title character--dares to be much different, showing the always-grumpy mutant now as an old man who’s caring for an even older Charles Xavier (Patrick Steward, who’s great here) at a hideaway along the US/Mexican boarder.

Xavier is suffering from a mind degenerating disease, which causes him to lose control of himself--normally that would be a sad enough scenario, watching a once-proud man devolve into a mindless rambler, but Xavier has always been armed with super psychic powers, and so whenever he loses control, he creates what best can be described as mind-quakes that threaten to kill and destroy everything around him. Wolverine keeps Xavier safely ensconced in an abandoned factory, watched over by Caliban (Stephen Merchant, who’s also very good here), another mutant who has a strong aversion to sunlight.

Logan is working as a limo driver to raise the money to buy a boat--which doesn’t make much sense, considering how Xavier is prone to inadvertently tearing buildings apart, the last place you’d want to be with him is out on the open ocean in a boat. But their Odd Couple domestic bliss is spoiled by the arrival of young Laura (Dafne Keen, who’s marvelous), who is the first mutant--armed with her own claws and super healing ability, just like Logan--that’s been born in over twenty years. Oh, and she’s being hunted by an evil corporation that’s hired armed mercenaries who go around openly running roughshod over everybody, killing and torturing with impunity, until they find her.

What works in Logan is the performances, including Hugh Jackman’s. The cast is superb overall. Patrick Steward looks like he’s having a ball playing Xavier in such an unconventional manner, and as well he should, because he’s been given a meaty part to play. And Dafne Keen, all of eleven, perfectly imbues her mini-Wolverine with characteristics from Jackman--a good example of this is the hysterically cute scenes where she’s sitting next to Jackman and they both have that same trademark scowl.

What doesn’t work is the frigging script, which relies on so many tropes that the writers shouldn’t have even bothered writing one. One of the most annoying tropes here is the mute character who magically starts speaking late in the film’s running time. Another problem was the fact that Logan’s powers are diminishing--just like what we’ve seen previously in The Wolverine, only there it was played to much better effect. But reusing this plot device once more gives Logan this annoying ’been there, done that’ quality from the get-go. And it also doesn’t help that Logan, Xavier and even Caliban all constantly snipe and whine at each other, making the movie feel at times like it should have been called Grumpy Old Mutants .

And Logan is not very proactive; he never really takes charge, instead following a stupid plan that’s been taken from a comic book (shown in the movie) by leading Laura and a group of other mutant children to what will eventually be their slaughter (it’s established in this very film that boarders don’t stop the bad guys, so Laura and her friends are screwed regardless of what country they cross into). Logan is not as bad as X-Men Origins: Wolverine--far from it, but it's not as good as it should be. At one point in the film Charles mutters about what a disappointment Logan turned out to be. I know what he meant, because I could say the same thing about this movie. --SF

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Shut In -- a review

I wrote a recent review for The Disappointments Room, a horror thriller starring Kate Beckinsale as a woman who may or may not be experiencing a haunting in her own home. Naomi Watts also did her own version of this story, called Shut In, where she plays a child psychologist who loses her husband in a nasty car accident. Her teenage son, Stephen (played by Charlie Heaton, better known as the older brother from Stranger Things) was also in the car wreck, but he survived--just barely. While Stephen is alive, the accident left him brain dead, needing constant care from Watts’ character all day long.

But the spooky stuff doesn’t happen until one of Watts’ patients, a young boy named Tom (played by Jacob Tremblay, from Room) breaks into her house because he didn’t want to be sent away--yet no sooner does young Tom show up then he abruptly disappears, seemingly into the deep wintry Maine woods, where the boy’s chances of survival are nil. It’s only after Tom is gone after several days and presumed dead that Watts starts hearing strange sounds in her house at night. Has little Tom returned after all, only in ghostly form?

Shut In was directed by Farren Blackburn, who did a lot of TV work, including a couple of Daredevil episodes (he also did an episode of the execrable Iron Fist, but we’ll cut him some slack for that). He directs Shut In with an assured hand from the get-go, producing an enjoyable little thriller that reminds me in a good way of Dead Of Winter, another well-done thriller from the 1980s with Mary Steenburgen that was also set against a snowy winter backdrop. Blackburn does a good job at recreating the sensation of being snowbound in your own house, and then adds the unsettling notion of something going seriously wrong on top of the snowstorm.

Naomi Watts gives a sturdy performance as a psychologist who begins to doubt her own sanity; she creditably rises to the occasion without turning into a superwoman. Shoving your fear aside is easier said than done, and being fearful of a situation while still fighting on only makes a person even braver in my opinion. Watts does a great job at creating this type of subdued hero. While Shut In isn’t an Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece, it’s still a competent enough chiller that does a good job at creating a creepy atmosphere with a likeable main character. --SF

Sunday, May 7, 2017

I.T. -- a review

I.T. tries to be a Hitchcock-like thriller that stars former James Bond Peirce Brosnan as Mike Regan, an airline tycoon who befriends Patrick (Jason Barry), his I.T. advisor, after Patrick’s wizardry with computers saves Mike’s life during an important business presentation. Mike then invites Patrick to his upscale smart mansion to fix the wifi--but doing this winds up being a big mistake, since Patrick turns out to be a sick puppy who begins stalking Mike’s daughter Kaitlyn (Stefanie Scott) through their smart house, which helpfully comes equipped with cameras that allow Patrick to spy on them in the supposed privacy of their home any time he wants.

I mainly saw I.T. because of the sturdy cast--which, aside from Brosnan (who I thought did a fine job as Bond), also includes Anna Friel (Marcella, Timeline) as his wife and Stefanie Scott (Insidious: Chapter 3) as his daughter. And even Michael Nyqvist (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) shows up. But I.T. winds up being pretty bland and predictable. You know full well from the moment Mike invites Patrick over to his place that it’s going to be a big mistake, and that things will only get worse from there. A more decent take on this subject would try to present a twist in the proceedings, changing the storyline from what we expect to happen and diverting us into new, more suspenseful territory.

But I.T. is just too lame to try and be different. Instead it takes us down the all-too familiar road that’s already been visited in a dozen lesser thrillers, while not giving too much thought to its premise, or the ugly message it imparts. This happens when Mike and Henrik (Nyqvist), a security expert he hires to help him, have to get Patrick out of his house in order for Mike to steal some valuable evidence from him. They do this by using another victim whom Patrick has stalked, a barista (Neringa Juodkunaite) whose cell phone Henrik steals from her by way of taking it right from her pocket.

They then use this young woman’s phone to get Patrick to meet with her, thus exposing the barista to her stalker--without the woman even realizing what’s going on. Mike is using the excuse of protecting his wife and child as a justification for this, but he’s exposing another innocent woman to deadly danger by doing so. But that’s OK, though, right? Who cares if this woman runs the risk of being attacked by this psycho, or--at the very least-- she’s now out a cell phone and needs to get a new one, because she’s just a day player, right? I.T. actually had the potential to be much better than it is, but winds up being just another mindless thriller. --SF