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The Meg

Review, Theatrical, This Week 4 Comments

“I’ll take ‘How to Stuff Up an Easy Slam Dunk’ for $500, Alex.”

The Meg is a no-brainer, and not in a good way. It looks like a formula for instant B-movie success: take Steve Alten’s risible but narratively serviceable source novel, plane away the misogyny, stir in some ironic self-awareness, and Bob’s your uncle. No need for pretensions of grandeur: Jaws may be the master mould here, but being able to stand proudly alongside the likes of Deep Blue Sea, Deep Rising, Piranha 3D, or even Anaconda is an acceptable win condition.

But The Meg is not Deep Blue Sea. The Meg is not even Snakes on a Plane, although the chief quality it shares with that stinker is being almost entirely forgettable. That and, like Snakes, it fails to live up to its deliciously knowing premise. Just as “Samuel L. Jackson vs snakes” did before it, “Jason Statham vs a dinosaur shark” promises so much but, like an order from wish.com, it delivers so little: few thrills, fewer laughs, and regrettably little blood.

There’s possibly a little voice in your head telling you that this is one of those “so bad it’s good” flicks that stuffy critics just don’t get, man, and it’ll still be worth plonking down a few bucks on Cheap Night and milking the experience for laughs, possibly with a little chemical assistance. Quash that. The problem is that, set down on paper, even the driest description of The Meg sounds like at least a bit of a good time. Our hero is Jonas Taylor (the Stath’), a former elite rescue diver lured back for One Last Job when a deep sea submersible containing his wife (Jessica McNamee) and a couple of disposables (Masi Oka and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) has run into trouble exploring a deep oceanic trench. Could the cause of their woes be the same thing that sent Jonas’ last mission so disastrously awry: a 75 foot Megaladon (basically a giant Great White), long-thought extinct but actually just chillin’ in the deep dark depths? And could said Meg make its way to the surface to munch on the unwary? And could that be a way more boring series of events than you could possible believe?

Yes, yes, and yes.

Some variation or another of The Meg has been in development for over two decades, so perhaps it’s forgivable that the script feels designed by committee, but the problem is that the process has micromanaged the story to within an inch of its life, always taking the broadest, most obvious option at every turn in the hopes of hooking some of that elusive and lucrative four quadrant international appeal. The film limps along from setpiece to setpiece with precious little momentum, few thrills and, a couple of jump scares aside, almost no horror. Every character you expect to survive survives; everyone you expect to die dies.

Those characters are played by a solid roster of performers (and Ruby Rose) who all do what they can with the material at hand: Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Cliff Curtis, Robert Taylor, and Winston Chau try their level best to inject some life into the proceedings, despite being saddled with wildly contradictory behaviours and motivations. Rainn Wilson’s billionaire, the money behind the underwater research facility where part of the action takes place, might as well be suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder, flipping from goofball comic relief to avaricious corporate villain seemingly at random. All are united in their awe of Statham’s hyper-competent hero, though; indeed the one character who initially isn’t, Robert Taylor’s grizzled medico, gets his own highlight scene to admit how wrong he was partway through the proceedings. to be fair, Li Bingbing is also less than enamoured with the Stath’ – for about three seconds before it becomes apparent she’s only resisting his charms for the sake of extending the romantic subplot out to an acceptable length.

“Acceptable” seems to have been the guiding axiom of the whole production, with every element just about fulfilling its remit, but never going so much as a millimeter outside its designated parameters into “actually interesting” territory. The best it can do is deliberately remind you of better movies. Whole lines – hell, whole sequences – are cribbed from Jaws, a tactical error that only serves to make the viewer wish they were watching Jaws. It’s lazy – the kind of arrogant, ostentatious laziness that only a very specific stripe of nine figure film can aspire to, where stupid amounts of money and effort have been sacrificed in the creation of something truly insipid and dull.

That sort of thing should not be rewarded. A scene where a 75 foot eating machine cruises into a packed beach should not elicit yawns – but it does. A film with a budget hovering in the mid $100M range shouldn’t look cheap, but here we are. A cast packed with this much talent shouldn’t look uncomfortab… well, maybe they should, especially if they’ve seen the rushes. Even a dog has enough sense to look ashamed when it’s peed on the carpet.

And The Meg is definitely a dog.

 
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Pitch Perfect 3

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

The Bellas are back for what feels like the final time in this third installment of the a capella-centric Pitch Perfect franchise.

When we reunite with our all-singing female friends they’re a year or two out of college and grappling with the often grim realities of the real world: Beca (Anna Kendrick) is reeling after being fired from her entry-level music producing gig, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) is struggling to find an audience for her Fat Amy Winehouse one woman show, and the rest of the gang are dealing with the usual gamut of dramas and disappointments.

However, the opportunity for one last adventure presents itself in the form of a whirlwind USO tour of Europe, entertaining American troops alongside other acts who play *gasp* actual instruments. Can the Bellas overcome the snobbery of their muso stagemates, find a little romance and fun, and maybe even impress  DJ Khaled (a shoehorned-in cameo) enough to win an opening slot for his show?

Well, of course they can. There are few surprises in the broad narrative and tonal strokes of PP3 – although some late stage developments might raise a few eyebrows. The film is not so much a story as a victory lap, bringing the gang back together on the flimsiest of excuses – commentators John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks are back in the fold on the pretext of making a documentary about the Bellas, for example – and letting them do what they do.

And that’s no bad thing – if you’ve enjoyed the last two outings, you’re more than likely going to get the same itch scratched by this third film – there’s plenty of catchy tunes, plenty of laughs (Wilson gets the lion’s share, but Hana Mae Lee’s mousy weirdo is the MVP by far), and the usual well-worn but nonetheless valuable lessons about sisterhood and loyalty.

Dig a little deeper and you might be disappointed though – a lot of themes and plotlines are dallied with but left largely unexplored. Once again Beca has to balance her own talents and ambitions against her loyalty to the Bellas, and we already know how that’s going to play out because we saw it happen in the last movie. The rivalry with the other bands on the tour, focused on Ruby Rose’s antagonistic rocker, never really peaks, and this is about the third film this year with Rose in a prominent role where she’s given not much to do except stand around looking like Ruby Rose – which she is, admittedly, very good at.

Indeed, the story’s so thin that a rather jarring action and suspense element is injected in the form of Amy’s long-lost father (John Lithgow with a hammy faux-Aussie accent), who makes the jump from “dead-beat dad” to “international supervillain” remarkably casually, leading to an explosive climax that isn’t too many degrees off your average Jason Bourne setpiece. Yes, this is in the movie where the girls sing hip hop medleys.

But it’s fun, and that’s what counts. Still, this might be time to call it a day. There’s a possible future out there where the law of diminishing returns and the value of a recognisable brand name combine to send the Pitch Perfect franchise to direct-to-video purgatory, and nobody deserves that. Much better to end on a high note – which Pitch Perfect 3 is

 
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John Wick: Chapter 2

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Keanu Reeves is back to shoot heads and glower in the inevitable follow-up to the 2014 surprise hit, John Wick. This time around retirement eludes the titular hitman once again, and he is forced to carry out an assassination in Rome at the behest of Camorra crime lord Santino D’Antonio, who pressures him with a “marker”, a token of the clandestine society of assassins alluded to in the first film.

Of course, D’Antonio is a scumbag – he blows up John’s house just to punctuate his request – and you just know that betrayal is in offing. A seven million dollar bounty later, and our man Wick is once again taking on all comers, the non-mooks being cardinally represented by Common as a bodyguard with a grudge and Ruby Rose as a mute henchperson (stop trying to make “fetch” happen, Hollywood).

John Wick Part Deux is saddled with something its forebear was mercifully free of: the weight of expectation. There’s an iconography in place now – slick suits, cool guns, muscle cars, a design aesthetic that contrasts New York grime with Old World gentility, and the bar for action is higher. In 2014 this kind of thing was a breath of fresh air, but now the film has something to live up to and, hopefully, exceed.

It doesn’t always – after a fun, neon-drenched cold open we get bogged down in table-setting and world-building for an inordinately long time, and the world being built makes less and less sense the more we learn about it (come to think of it, The Matrix movies had the same problem). The film’s arcane underworld of hired killers makes for some fun aesthetics and playful double entendres – it’s hard to not love Peter Serafinowicz as a “sommelier” (read: arms dealer) and Laurence Fishburne as a pigeon-fancying Fagin figure – but the whole thing crumbles when you apply even a little logical pressure. There’s no way their lip service masquerade could possibly be maintained; then again, from the way everyone ignores the wounded and bleeding Wick as he duels with various would-be headhunters in public, maybe this series is set in a world where this kind of urban warfare happens all the time and people have just learned to ignore it. Or maybe a guy in a bloodied-up business suit isn’t such an unusual sight in New York City.

Still, that kind of silliness is part of John Wick: Chapter 2‘s very ’90s charm, and it still looks the business; the middle act, set chiefly in Rome, is exquisite, playing out like a cross between a ’70s Italian crime thriller and ’60s Italian horror movie – and featuring a cameo from Franco Nero just to drive the point home. It does take a while for the action to ramp up to the dizzying heights of the first installment though, but once we get there it’s extremely enjoyable, gratuitously gory stuff, with director Chad Stahelski once again demonstrating his command of framing and editing, letting us – hooray! – clearly understand what’s happening at any given moment rather than obfuscating the action. Once every killer in the world is looking for Wick, we get a parade of novelty villains for our hero to tussle with, and that’s never not a good time – if we’re picking favourites, the sumo-looking guy is hard to top.

The fun of a John Wick film – their technical acumen aside – is the way they take a fairly ludicrous premise and treat it with all the gravitas they and a supporting cast led by Ian McShane can muster. It’s a special kind of charm that requires sure tonal footing and, happily, Chapter 2 doesn’t stumble. A big, obvious sequel hook promises more John Wick action in the future, and we’ll be happy to take the bait.

 
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REVIEW: xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Review, Theatrical 1 Comment

Was anyone actually hanging for the return of extreme sports secret agent, Xander Cage? Were we really hungry for more of this franchise, which already changed leading men once when Ice Cube stepped into the top job in only the first sequel? Whatever, we’ve got one, and here’s the thing: it’s a lot of fun. In fact, xXx: Return of Xander Cage is the best xXx movie so far, if that isn’t damning it with faint praise.

What saves this film is its refusal to take itself too seriously. Right out of the gate we’re hit with cartoony pop-up character bios, cameos and cute in-jokes before we’re rapidly thrown into the thankfully simple plot. A McGuffin called Pandora’s Box can allow bad guys to drop satellites out of orbit with pinpoint accuracy. With the world being held to ransom, steely black ops spook, Marke (Toni Collette, vaguely uncomfortable with all this nonsense), recruits the only man who can get the job done – Vin Diesel’s titular extreme bro.

But wait – isn’t he dead? They actually made a short film, The Final Chapter: The Death of Xander Cage, to underline the fact. Well, never you mind, there’s no time for such trifling issues as continuity and plausibility when the fate of the world is at stake. Not being a man with much respect for the military hard nuts he’s been saddled with, Cage recruits his own team of rebellious operatives: Ruby Rose’s animal activist sniper, Rory McCann’s (yes, G0T‘s The Hound) paranoid stunt driver, and Kris Wu’s, uh, DJ? Sure, why not?


All the extra personnel are more than warranted, though, as the plot device has been swiped by a team of international super-thieves, including Ong Bak‘s Tony Jaa and Indian superstar Deepika Padukone, led by none other than Rogue One MVP, Donnie Yen. Thus the biggest suspension of disbelief problem you’ll have here is not the extreme stunts and the sometimes shoddy CGI, it’s the notion that Vin or, indeed, almost anyone, can go toe to toe with guys who have been kicking people in the head for a living for literally decades.

 

For all that Diesel is the star of the show – and the film goes to absurd lengths to portray him as a superhuman sexual tyrannosaur – he’s arguably the weakest link, mugging for the camera and delivering ludicrous tough guy lines while Yen radiates cool just by standing there. He comes across in a much better light if you can frame his antics as self-aware parody, but that may be a stretch. Still, he makes for a suitable point of focus and catalyst for things to explode around, and that is what we’re here for.

The action is huge fun, and while it never approaches the heights of, say, the recent insta-classic, John Wick, director DJ Caruso shows flair for staging, choreography and, most importantly, editing; while still well within the framework of modern rapid-cut action construction, you can always tell what’s going on. Again, though, CGI-assisted Diesel is no match for the likes of Yen and Jaa; that most certainly is not Vin skiing down a jungle mountain, while that most certainly is Yen (who is, lest we forget, 53 years old) destroying opponents in the boardroom fight scene.

Of course, if you expect any of this to come within spitting distance of “realism”, you’re gonna have a bad time, The xXx universe runs on the Rule of Cool, and any kind of narrative contrivance is allowable if it opens up the opportunity for a cool stunt or a fun cameo. If you’re okay with that, there are points that’ll have you cheering; if you’re not, you clearly wandered into the wrong cinema.

Return of Xander Cage is a far from perfect film, but it’s a fantastically enjoyable one. It rarely drops out of fourth gear, sprinting from setpiece to setpiece, too caught up in its own sense of fun to worry if any of this makes any kind of sense. That glib, rebellious attitude is infectious, and it’ll be a rare grinch who doesn’t want to come along for the ride.

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