Hold the Dark (2018)

Released: September 28, 2018. Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier. Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, James Badge Dale. Runtime: 2h 5 min.

After the death of three children suspected to be killed by wolves, wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) is hired by Medora Sloane (Riley Keogh), the mother of the latest missing boy to track her son down in the Alaskan wilderness, or at the very least kill for the wolves for vengeance.

In “Hold the Dark,” Core takes the job to try and help find the boy and give a family closure. He understands and respects nature, and he’s remorseful about hunting and killing a wolf and writing about it. Medora wants the wolf to suffer. To that, Russell replies: “Natural order doesn’t want revenge.”

As for everyone else, revenge is on all their minds. The only one who wants that more than Medora is her husband Vernon, played with a menacing calm by Alexander Skarsgård. It’s the kind-of blankness that’s unpredictable – he could be emotionally vulnerable one minute, and then just relentless the next. He’s introduced in a memorable fashion on his tour in Iraq (the film is set in 2004).

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Jeffrey Wright in “Hold the Dark” (IMDb).

I thought this might be something like Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” but don’t make that same mistake of thinking that. This is a genre-bending piece in a league of its own in terms of uniqueness. The only real similarities there are the wolves and the frozen tundra, and James Badge Dale. Here, he plays Donald Marium, a city cop in the town of Emery that’s close to Keelut, the small village where the disappearances occurred. He’s like the face for the mainland, and the people in Keelut like to be left alone. Medora thinks of Keelut as truly Alaska, as she says about Anchorage “that city is not Alaska.” Vernon’s friend named Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope) is one of the most memorable characters here as someone with a dislike for outsiders.

The mystery of the film is capable, and twists in the first act really made the screenplay unpredictable. Frankly, some of this was hard to think of what direction it was going in because some of it just went way over my head. Macon Blair’s writing is smart, but the characters are so complex it’s hard to fully understand their psyches and their darkness. But they help paint a cool look at human nature. They are intriguing characters that deal with their grief in their own unique, intense ways, but I had more questions than answers by the end of it all.

The story didn’t completely work for me, but the cinematography (by Magnus Nordenof Jønck) looked great and the performances from everyone are truly top-tier, especially from Jefferey Wright, who captures his character’s loneliness and remorse well.

No matter how strange or bizarre the film becomes, it’s grounded in realism. That’s something I love about Jeremy Saulnier’s style. His films always feature violence that’s brutal and raw (at least with “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room”) – and with William Girardi’s dark source material, he has a lot to work with in terms of violence. A mid-film set piece is the film’s best scene, and the carnage in it is bonkers. This is my least favourite film by Saulnier – but that’s not a bad thing.

Score: 65/100

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The Meg (2018)

Released: August 10, 2018. Directed by: Jon Turteltaub. Starring: Jason Statham, Bingbing Li, Rainn Wilson. Runtime: 1h 53 min.

The Meg is one of those movies that is just fun to review, almost like a stamina test for how long you can go without using a shark pun.

Jason Statham plays Jonas, a deep-sea rescue team member who goes back in the water to save a submersible stranded at the very bottom of the Marianas Trench.

The Mana One has made a discovery of an unknown ecosystem underneath the assumed bottom of the trench, which is a cold cloud that separates an ecosystem from the rest of the ocean. The characters stranded in the submersible are attacked by a 75-foot shark… *Jason Statham voice* The Megalodon!

There’s a lot of action right from that rescue in the visually cool underwater area, and it gets wilder after the Meg escapes. The degrees of the cloud shouldn’t let it escape, but the Meg, uh, finds a way.

I like that the filmmakers go back to the prehistoric age to find a foe that can challenge Jason Statham. It’s like they know no bad guy or modern shark can match him. “Meg versus man isn’t a fight, it’s a slaughter,” Statham says about the Megalodon.

Secretly, the Megalodon thinks the same thing about facing Statham. He’s just watched all The Transporter films and he’s ready. He even started to watch The Transporter Refueled but turned it off after 20 minutes when he realized it was a reboot. The Meg knows his tricks and won’t be charmed by his British accent.

Statham’s good in a movie that’s purely summer fun. I liked his character arc of everyone assuming he’s the one who leaves people behind, and he has a good chemistry with oceanographer Suyin (Bingbing Li). Her daughter Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai) is adorable and gets a few chuckles.

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Jason Statham in The Meg. (IMDb)

The giant shark looks good and its colour is based off a great white, just one that’s been bulking up at the gym. Visually, the film’s decent, and we can see most of the action underwater. It feels long at nearly two hours and most of the action is stuff you’ve seen before but with a giant shark.

It’s not paced amazingly, but it has a charm about it and the characters learn quickly that a bigger boat isn’t going to help them because they’ll need a cruise ship. Their better weapon is their knowledge of Shark Week.

The deep-sea rescue missions are tense, and the action scenes pack a memorable bite. (I got 437 words in before a shark pun!) This just knows it’s a shark movie on steroids and embraces it, and it works. Some of the writing’s clever, too, as characters monologue with their backs turned to the ocean and you just totally expect them to get mauled like that certain someone in Deep Blue Sea.

Besides the action, it has some good character moments and a good cast of characters. Rainn Wilson (The Office) joins the party as billionaire Jack Morris who funds the Mana One. It’s nice that Dwight Schrute’s beet farm and bed and breakfast really took off. I’m sure he made all his money and then realized “marine biology beats beets” and switched fields. Jokes aside, he’s good as the dick-ish Morris.

Everyone in the cast has something to do for the most part. Though, when they’re gone, there’s so many characters that it doesn’t really matter. They’re all pretty good, from Ruby Rose playing Jaxx (her characters are so edgy I’m surprised they haven’t all been named Jaxx), to Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as The Wall.

You know you can’t take a movie completely seriously when there’s a character called The Wall. Come to think of it, it’s a missed opportunity that this isn’t The Wall vs. The Meg, because that sounds like the main event.

Score: 70/100

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Released: May 5, 2006. Directed by: J.J. Abrams. Starring: Tom Cruise, Michelle Monaghan, Ving Rhames. Runtime: 2h 5 min.

I don’t remember a lot of films I saw in theatres when I was a kid but I remember seeing Mission: Impossible III. It might be because this is the first film I remember seeing that started at the mid-way point in the story, when Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) threatens to kill Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) fiancé Julia (Michelle Monaghan).

The stakes are immediately the highest they’ve felt in the series, as I never felt like they were consistently high in Mission: Impossible or Mission: Impossible II. This was also the first time I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman and the sadism of his character is memorable and threatening.

It’s also just a good film in general and not only because of my nostalgia for it. J.J. Abrams directs the action well and the stunts are great, especially when Ethan leaps off a skyscraper in Shanghai onto another one. Anyway, Davian is the most memorable villain of the series upp to this point. Davian’s a sadistic arms dealer after something called the Rabbit’s Foot.

We don’t really know what it is and that vagueness isn’t great. Though, Davian’s willing to pay $875 million for it, so it’s a pretty big deal. Davian’s just interested in power and tormenting Ethan. In the first film, IMF director Kittredge says to find something that’s personally important to Ethan “and squeeze.” A villain finally takes that advice, as evidenced by the film’s opening scene.

The action scenes are good, and the film’s first big set piece of trying to rescue Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell), after she went to investigate Davian, sets the film’s events up perfectly. At the beginning of the film, Ethan’s settled down with Julia, played well by Michelle Monaghan, and he’s training IMF agents to be ready for the field instead of being in the field himself. But he trained Farris and that’s one of the reasons that Hunt goes back out in the field. This time, the characters are interesting enough that the very personal conflicts feel well-written.

Tom Cruise also runs a lot more in this one. He has such a great chemistry with Monaghan as Julia, as well as his IMF team including franchise mainstay Ving Rhames as Luther and Maggie Q as Zhen. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays a team member named Declan, but he’s easily the most forgettable of all the IMF agents that have come and gone in the franchise.

Score: 80/100

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

Released: May 24, 2000. Directed by: John Woo. Starring: Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton. Runtime: 2h 3 min.

This review contains a few spoilers.

In Mission: Impossible II, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is rudely called away from his rock-climbing vacation for a new mission. His mission’s in Sydney, Australia where he must destroy a genetically modified disease called the “Chimera.”

For some of the film, skilled thief Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton) is put in the most danger. She’s an ex-girlfriend of main villain Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), a disavowed IMF agent, so she’s called upon to gain his trust. Things get complicated when Ethan also falls for Nyah.

This personal relationship makes it feel like there are more stakes than the first film. It introduces a love triangle dynamic that is interesting from Ethan’s side, but Ambrose is goofy during it. He has an inferiority complex because of the perfect agent Ethan, and he ugly cries when he learns Nyah isn’t loyal to him. I won’t shame guys who cry – I cry at everything – but it’s dumb for this movie.

The writing’s not great, but some dialogue is laughably bad enough to be memorable. Take a gem from Anthony Hopkins’ Mission Commander Swanbeck, for example: “This isn’t mission difficult, it’s mission impossible.” It’s not a bad title for a knockoff film.

Tom Cruise is good again as Ethan, and his long hair looks good as he’s kicking in slow motion. I liked some of the plot itself and the monologue, that’s repeated a few times, about Chimera being the villain and Bellerophon being the hero.

It’s an interesting Greek myth and it’s cool how it’s brought into the story. The story itself doesn’t have a ton of substance other than just trying to destroy a deadly virus, as you can summarize the first hour of the movie about a minute.

Director John Woo tries to distract from that with a lot of slow motion. The entire third act is a lot of Ethan just doing slow-motion kicks. There’s also a whole thing of Ethan shooting a stick bomb to blow in a door and then dramatically walking past the door through the flames, staring at Ambrose.

This silliness made me laugh and was fun, and I think this needed more slow-motion doves. The style of the film in the third act just makes this feel more like a John Woo movie than a Mission: Impossible film. That’s not usually a bad thing – but a lot of this explains why this is considered the weakest of the series.

Score: 50/100

Reviews of other films in the franchise:

Mission: Impossible (1996)

Mission: Impossible (1996)

Released: May 22, 1996. Directed by: Brian de Palma. Starring: Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart. Runtime: 1h 50 min.

Based on the hit TV show from the 1960s, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) tries to clear his name when he’s suspected for disloyalty to the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) after a mission goes wrong and he’s left as the only survivor.

The script’s mediocre as Ethan must deliver the second half of a non-official cover (NOC) list, a list of covert agents in Eastern Europe, to an arms dealer named “Max” to discover the identity of the actual spy. I watched this three days ago and I barely remembered the NOC list. Out of the first three films, Brian de Palma’s direction and style are easily the least forgettable, as well.

The script does have some surprises and the cast helps keep it interesting, especially Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt. He’s charming and great here and “Mission: Impossible” serves as a solid introduction to Ethan.

For the rest of the cast, I’m sure it was surprising when the film came out in 1996 that Emilio Estevez gets killed off in the first 25 minutes. For me, watching this for the first time in 2018, I was just surprised seeing him in this. Jon Voight’s also good as Jim Phelps – the only character from the original TV series.

It’s interesting seeing who Ethan aligns with to try to clear his name, since he can’t exactly get help from the agency. Claire (Emmanuelle Béart) has a decent chemistry with Ethan, but she’s the most forgettable out of the female leads of the first three films. Luther (Ving Rhames) is great and so is Jean Reno as Krieger.

The film itself though only has a few great action scenes, especially the dangling wire scene – which is so tense and the whole sequence is so entertaining – and the train finale is also great.

Throughout the film, Ethan is trying to evade director of the IMF Eugene Kittredge (Henry Czerny). Kittredge wants Ethan to come to them, saying “You find something that’s personally important to him and you squeeze.” The thing is, he doesn’t execute on this line because it doesn’t feel like Ethan has anything to lose. The stakes for this film simply don’t feel high enough, making the non-action scenes dull.

Score: 65/100

Skyscraper (2018)

Released: July 13, 2018. Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber. Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han. Runtime: 1h 42 min.

Comedy director Rawson Marshall Thurber teams up for a second time with Dwayne Johnson after 2016’s “Central Intelligence. This time, it’s for his first action film “Skyscraper.”

Will Sawyer (Johnson) is now a security expert on assignment in Hong Kong assessing the safety of the world’s tallest building, the Pearl, at 225 stories tall, built by ambitious architect Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han). Sawyer’s brought in to make sure that the residential floors are as safe as can be.

He’s given a tablet that can control the building remotely, and when the building is set ablaze by a gang of mercenaries (led by Roland Møller), Will’s framed for it. He wants to clear his name – but first needs to get into the building because his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and children Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Henry (Noah Cottrell) are still in the building right near the fire.

Dwayne Johnson plays Will Sawyer well. He’s a strong family man and Johnson brings his usual charisma. The film opens with his character as an FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader on his last mission as an explosion leads him to losing his leg. This is about 10 years before Hong Kong and he sports a prosthetic leg for the rest of the film.

He discusses it with one of his old FBI buddies, Ben (Pablo Schreiber), in the film, but talks about the mistake of not knowing the man had a bomb, but the bad luck led him to meeting his wife. Neve Campbell plays the wife well, but their chemistry’s nothing special. Will’s family is his drive.

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Neve Campbell and Dwayne Johnson in “Skyscraper.” (IMDb)

All that aside, a main criticism for the film is that it’s a lot like Die Hard.” It’s fair and inevitable, especially because of the villains and general concept, but I saw more similarities to “The Towering Inferno.” It has similar scenes where characters must get across things to escape the blaze, and it’s like an extreme version of that film for modern audiences. I won’t spoil anything about the villains, but I’ve really liked Roland Møller in everything I’ve seen him in.

The film’s predictable but I liked the ride. I also liked the setting of the film, The Pearl, which makes Nakatomi Plaza look like a normal house in comparison. Attractions like a three-story rainforest and spinning turbine things on the outside of the building are featured on the Pearl. The wonder of the turbine attraction made me think of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” The Pearl’s architect Long Ji is Wonka and his skyscraper is his chocolate factory.

There’s a pearl on top of the skyscraper that looks down on Hong Kong like you’re just in the sky, or like you’re looking down from Heaven, as Long Ji puts it. Most of the Pearl’s unique attractions feature into the film’s biggest set pieces. A few of these made my palms sweat which I thought made the “Skyscraper” have enough edge-of-your-seat thrills for one watch, despite it being predictable.

Score: 63/100

47 Meters Down (2017)

47 Meters Down posterReleased: June 23, 2017. Directed by: Johannes Roberts. Starring: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Matthew Modine. Runtime: 1h 29 min.

Two sisters, Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) go to Mexico for a vacation and after meeting a pair of locals, they’re told about going underwater in a cage where they can go face-to-face with 25-foot-great white sharks.

They do just that but when they’re in the water, the boat’s mechanism that holds the cage breaks and the sisters plummet 47 meters down to the ocean’s surface. There, their oxygen starts to run out and sharks circle nearby, and their fight for survival begins.

I watched this when it came out in theatres in June 2017 and I liked it. On second watch, it doesn’t hold up. The characters aren’t interesting. Lisa initially was going on this vacation with her boyfriend Stuart, but he broke up with her because she’s boring. Honestly, I can’t blame the guy.

That’s how Kate gets Lisa in the cage, telling her that she isn’t a boring person if she’s in a shark cage. When Lisa’s anxious the day of, Kate says she won’t make Stuart jealous if she waits in the bathroom.

Lisa’s anxious for good reason. The cage looks rusty and she has no scuba diving experience, so when Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine) tells her about her gear, it’s like a foreign language. Before they go down, he tells them, “once you’re down there, you’re not gonna want to come back up.” False, because Lisa wants to come up immediately.

Taylor’s talent is puns – as he named his boat the Sea Esta. Taylor’s mostly a voice presence through the film as Kate repeatedly swims higher to communicate with Taylor, since their cage is out of range for radio contact.

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Claire Holt and Mandy Moore in 47 Meters Down. (IMDb)

Kate is the brave character here as Lisa spends most of the time panicking and telling us how scared she is. I’d be the same way – but you wouldn’t find me in a shark cage. The sisterly chemistry is good and the two leads are charming as thinly written characters. It’s nice watching Lisa overcome her fears in some moments on her fight to be less boring.

Johannes Roberts writes (with Ernest Riera) and directs the film. He delivers strong tension and some thrilling sequences, especially while in the open water. He captures the fear of the characters well in simple scenes of tension like the mechanism that holds the cage breaking. His writing’s also smart and the film is best when the characters are forced outside of the cage. The third act is a lot of fun, too. The ending might frustrate some, but it’s consistent with the story.

Enough about the humans. The sharks usually look fine, but late in the film when we get better looks at the shark, the fact that this was initially meant to be straight-to-DVD explains the quality of the subpar visual effects.

But it just doesn’t serve the film well, as some visual effects shots are so brief it’s hard to tell what happens. The dark cinematography underwater doesn’t help that either, which is a shame because they spend a lot of time underwater. That’s a big thing with 47 Meters Down – it’s good for a straight-to-DVD film as it was produced (on a budget of $5.5 million), but mediocre as a theatrical release.

Score: 65/100