BEAST (2022) – Idris Elba Anchors Solid African Adventure

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For an actor as talented and as popular as Idris Elba, he sure has made his share of bad movies.

And based on the trailers for his latest, BEAST (2022), a tale where he plays a dad protecting his two daughters from a menacing lion in the wilds of Africa, I expected this one to be added to that list. The good news is BEAST is not a bad movie.

Not at all.

BEAST opens in Africa, where we see a bunch of poachers killing a pride of lions, but the male lion gets away and moments later returns to attack and kill the poachers who had remained in search of him. So, right off the bat, we learn that this isn’t just some random hungry lion, but rather, an animal with an agenda. He’s out for revenge, against the poachers or any other human who gets in his way!

Cue Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) and his two teenage daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) who arrive in Africa from the U.S. to reconnect after the death of Nate’s wife and the girls’ mother. Nate and his wife had been separated, and while separated, she had died from cancer. Meredith blames her dad for not being there for their mother while she was sick, and the guilt is something Nate carries with him deeply. He never intended not to be there for his wife, and he wants to make amends now by being there for his daughters. His wife was born in Africa, hence the trip, to reconnect with her roots.

They are greeted by Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley), Nate’s good friend and uncle to his daughters. Martin is the man who introduced Nate to his wife, and so they all share a special connection. Martin spends his days helping the authorities keep the poachers away from the animals. When he takes Nate and his daughters out for a ride through the wilds of Africa, they unfortunately cross paths with the vengeful lion from the movie’s opening, an animal with only one goal in mind: kill every human it comes in contact with.

And that’s the set up for the rest of the movie, as it pits Elba’s Dr. Nate Samuels against the vicious lion, as Nate vows never again to let his daughters down.

As premises go, the one in BEAST isn’t bad, but it’s not great either. The reason it works however is the material is handled well by everyone involved.

The screenplay by Ryan Engle, based on a story by Jaime Primak Sullivan, rises above the material mostly because the dialogue is excellent, and it gets the dynamic between Nate and his daughters right. They act like real people, and when you put real people in danger, you have an exciting movie. There is just so much stress in the conversations between Nate and his daughters, and all of it comes off as real. It also helps that both Meredith and Norah have distinctive personalities. There’s one scene where Nate tells his daughters to stay behind while he goes up ahead to see what’s going on, and when Martin tells him to run, and he turns to say the same to the girls, he sees that Norah is missing, and he asks Meredith where she is, and she says she was there minute ago. As Nate desperately searches for his youngest daughter, he says to Meredith, “You had one job!” In this one moment, you have genuine father/daughter angst plus the suspense of the rogue lion closing in on them.

Engle co-wrote the screenplay to RAMPAGE (2018), a very different “attacking animal” movie, as that film, which told the story of a giant ape and some other giant monsters, was based on the popular video game and was high camp and was a perfect vehicle for Dwayne Johnson. Engle also wrote a pair of Liam Neeson action thrillers, THE COMMUTER (2018) and NON-STOP (2014), both of which were formulaic but ultimately worked because they were Liam Neeson action thrillers! I liked these movies, and BEAST is not only on par with them, but it’s probably the best of the lot for creating realistic believable characters.

Director Baltasar Kormakur also does a nice job here. First and foremost, the lion scenes are intense, better than I expected. Sure, it’s CGI, but it looks really good. The best part is the lion moves with a speed and a ferocity that is quite scary. There are these quick bursts of insane aggressive energy which jostle the audience. Even though the final outcome of this movie is never in question, the lion sequences where he constantly attacks Nate and his daughters are quite suspenseful.

And of course, the film takes place in the wilds of Africa, which is a plus. I believe it was movie critic Gene Siskel who once said when he was reviewing the Sidney Pollack film OUT OF AFRICA (1985), a love story starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford which took place in Africa, that any movie which was set in Africa would be improved just by the scenery and setting alone. He wasn’t wrong.

But I didn’t go to see BEAST because of its African scenery or its marauding lion. I went to see it because of Idris Elba. As I said, he’s a terrific actor, and I’m a big fan. And yes, he has made his share of bad movies…. NO GOOD DEED (2014) and THE DARK TOWER (2017) come to mind…. but the thing about Elba is, regardless of the movie, he always delivers a top performance and often lifts up lesser movies by his performance alone. And when he’s in a movie that really works, like THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021) for example, the results are usually outstanding.

Elba is terrific here in the lead role as Dr. Nate Samuels, a man who is guilt-ridden over the death of his wife, since he wasn’t there for her, and who is hell-bent on protecting his daughters from the menacing lion. He’s also believable in the physical aspects of the role, having to go toe to toe— or is it claw to claw?— with the lion, even if towards the end some of the sequences do border on the far-fetched. The other neat thing about his character is at first his daughters seem to have lost a lot of respect for him, and later, when his skills as a doctor become so important to their survival, and they witness this, it makes for some noteworthy moments.

Of course, the gold standard for Elba fans remains his work on the superior TV show LUTHER (2010-2019). And for years now, Elba’s name has been floated as possibly being the next James Bond, and even though the producers of that series are supposedly seriously interested in him for the role, he’s on record this year as saying he’s not interested in Bond, so it sounds like that’s not going to happen. Which is too bad. He’d be really good.

Both Iyana Halley as Meredith and Leah Jeffries as Norah bring their characters to life, and they represent a complicated family dynamic that only ads to the tension in the film. They are both fiercely independent characters, and for example, at one point when Nate tells them to say inside the vehicle, Meredith believes otherwise and doesn’t listen to her father. What makes this moment and these characters work is that she’s not wrong, She sets out to do something she believes she can do, and she does it.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Sharlto Copley in a movie, and he’s fine here in a supporting role as family friend and guide Martin Battles. Back in his heyday, Copley was playing major roles in some pretty big science fiction movies, as the soft-spoken hero in DISTRICT 9 (2009) and as the violent and vicious villain in ELYSIUM (2013).

BEAST was better than I expected. It’s a well-written movie that creates believable characters and puts them in danger. For the most part, it keeps things realistic, although things do grow more far-fetched towards the end, and its ending does strain credibility. I think most people would be dead when put in similar predicaments. Elba’s Nate pretty much challenges the lion to a hand-to-hand combat battle. Yeah. That’s the one part of the movie that— yeah.

But the rest is all very good. You have an exciting story throughout, amazing African scenery, and yet another worthy performance by Idris Elba anchoring the whole thing.

BEAST is a genuine popcorn movie that provides solid summertime entertainment.

Give it a roar!

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RED NOTICE (2021) – Silly Action Comedy Wastes Talents of Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot

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How can an action comedy starring Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot possibly be bad?

Read on.

RED NOTICE (2021), a new action comedy now available on Netflix, has no business not being an absolute crowd-pleaser. Yet it’s not.

FBI agent John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson) is hot on the trail of the world’s most notorious art thief Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds). It doesn’t take long for Hartley to capture Booth, but soon afterwards, he finds himself framed for a crime, which gets him sent off to prison. Not only does he find himself in the same prison as Booth, but in the same cell! Now, how’s that for a realistic plot point? Truth be told, this film is played for laughs, and its story is filled with twists and turns, so ultimately this ridiculous turn of events does make sense in terms of the story, but like the rest of this movie, it’s so farfetched it just comes off as plain old dumb. Anyway, Hartley and Booth realize there’s a more dangerous player at large who is pulling all the strings, someone known as The Bishop (Gal Gadot), and so they decide to team up, escape from prison, and capture the Bishop so Hartley can clear his name and Booth can return to being the number one art thief.

This actually would be fun if the script were any good.

Yup, as usually is the case with films that struggle, it’s the script that sinks things. In this case, RED NOTICE was written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, and he fares much better as a director than as a writer.

RED NOTICE is polished and contains a lot of neat action scenes, the best coming early on, the chase scene where Hartley pursues Booth and eventually captures him. This sequence is fast, furious, and fun. No complaints here. But as soon as characters start speaking and plot points roll, everyone and everything in this movie suffers from a case of the stupids.

It’s all supposed to be funny. Every five minutes or so it seems there’s a new plot twist, where this character now is teamed with that character, blah, blah, blah. But none of it works because no care is made to make it at all believable. For instance, even Hartley’s and Booth’s escape from prison is ludicrous. It happens only because it’s a plot point. In fact, everything these guys do works. There’s no conflict, push back, or anything indicating that this is anything more than a bad movie plot.

Plus these two guys do not like each other, and yet we’re supposed to believe they do? There’s a ridiculous torture scene where to get Booth to talk they torture Hartley. Booth says it’s a waste of time because he doesn’t care about Hartley, which is true, and yet he breaks down and speaks anyway. Forced and contrived, and stupid.

RED NOTICE is rated PG-13. It may as well have been rated G. It’s as sanitary and safe as you’re going to find an “action” movie. There’s some language, sure, but in terms of anything that resembles hard hitting action or risky humor? Nope.

Rawson Marshall Thurber also wrote and directed another Dwayne Johnson vehicle, the mediocre thriller SKYSCRAPER (2018) that also suffered from a lack of realism. That being said, I enjoyed SKYSCRAPER more than I did RED NOTICE.

Ryan Reynolds probably fares the best here as art thief Nolan Booth. He’s about the only character who made me laugh. However, he has about a gazillion gags in this movie and only about a quarter of them work, so there are a lot of misfires. And don’t expect Deadpool humor. This film is far too tame for that.

Dwayne Johnson pretty much plays the straight man to Reynolds’ antics. I usually really enjoy Dwayne Johnson. He possesses a very likeable screen persona. But here in RED NOTICE, I found him uncharacteristically dull and boring. Mostly because his character like the rest of this movie comes off as phony.

Gal Gadot doesn’t fare any better than Johnson. Her character, The Bishop, may be sexy, but she’s about as interesting as a bishop on a chess board. She does get one enjoyable fight sequence with Johnson and Reynolds, but again, without any relevance.

Ritu Arya plays Interpol agent Inspector Urvashi Das, and she’s about the only character in the movie who comes off as real. Unfortunately, all she gets to do throughout the movie is show up too late, allowing the three leads in this one to escape, time and time again.

And can you ask for a more lame title than RED NOTICE? How about RED NAPKIN? RED PAPER CLIP? RED TOOTHPICK? Actually those titles might be better. Truth be told, there is a reason for the title. Red Notice refers to Interpol’s highest level arrest warrant. So, there you have it. The reason for the lame title. It’s still a bad title.

I really wanted to enjoy RED NOTICE. When I sat down to watch it, I was in the mood for a clever action comedy starring three of my favorite actors, Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot. And while they were in the movie, what was missing was the clever part. There’s really nothing intelligent about this one at all.

RED NOTICE plays more like dead notice, as in dead on arrival. Three talented actors, some slick action scenes, and a story that could have been fun are all wasted in a tale that spends no time whatsoever trying to make any of what happens on screen believable or plausible.

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FAST AND FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW (2019) – Amiable Action Comedy Fast and— Fluffy.

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In the interest of full disclosure, I have never seen a FAST AND FURIOUS movie.

Until now, that is.

Way back when the first THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001) came out I just wasn’t that interested, but then they kept coming, and word of mouth and critical reviews said they were getting better and better. But still I resisted, mostly because I hadn’t seen the previous films, but I’m guessing at some point I’ll sit down and eventually start watching these.

Anyway, after eight FAST AND FURIOUS movies, here comes the series’ first “spinoff,” FAST AND FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW, a tale featuring characters who appeared in prior movies but who weren’t part of the main core of the cast. I mainly wanted to check this one out because I like the three principal leads, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, and Idris Elba. My expectations were low, but I figured, it might be fun to watch some mindless action scenes featuring these generally entertaining actors.

And I was right.  The action and the dialogue is all very fast, though not so furious. A more apt title for this one would be fast and funny, because really, from beginning to end, this one is played for laughs. I didn’t take any of it seriously, and that was okay.

The plot involves a deadly virus that could wipe out the population of the world, just like that! Yikes!  A former spy (Vanessa Kirby) steals the virus, and a super-charged baddie named Brixton (Idris Elba) will stop at nothing to steal it back. Good guy Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is charged with saving the day, and he’s paired with former villain turned hero Shaw (Jason Statham) because the former spy who stole the virus happens to be Shaw’s sister.

Trouble is, Hobbs and Shaw hate each other and refuse to work together, but work together they do, which sets the stage for plenty of banter and one-upmanship throughout.

If you like Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, you’ll enjoy this movie because the two actors are likable throughout and do share a fun chemistry together.  Their banter while not hilarious is certainly comical and amusing. There’s a good-natured amiable vibe all through the movie, even though its plot is about a potentially catastrophic virus, and that’s because the film is about as believable as a wrestling match.

Director David Leitch fills this one with exciting action scenes and chases, especially one near the end involving a helicopter and a bunch of cars. Again, fun, but not believable, which for me, pretty much kept this one from being anything special. Technically, it looks great, but it’s all fluff. Leitch also directed DEADPOOL 2 (2018). Speaking of which, Ryan Reynolds is also in the cast, and he gets to ham it up in a couple of scenes. These bits are okay but not overly funny.

The screenplay by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce has fun with its Hobbs and Shaw banter but that’s about it. Morgan has written a bunch of other FAST AND FURIOUS movies, and Pearce wrote HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) which I enjoyed a lot.

While Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham don’t disappoint, Idris Elba doesn’t fare as well. Elba doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, and his villain in spite of his superpower enhancements is pretty one-dimensional. Elba deserves better.

Vanessa Kirby is very good as Shaw’s sister Hattie, a kick-ass character who can hold her own against the likes of Hobbs and Shaw, although she’s clearly a secondary character here, unfortunately.

As I said, Ryan Reynolds shows up for a couple of scenes, as do Kevin Hart and Helen Mirren. None of these folks make much of an impact.

I liked HOBBS & SHAW well enough, but it’s all fluff, and other than its agreeable leads and well-choreographed action sequences, there’s not a whole lot going on. I’m a story guy, and this one’s story is pretty sparse, which for me, kept this one from being anything special.

It’s not riveting, there’s no edge of your seat excitement, and there’s no intrigue. Instead, there’s playful banter and sanitized action sequences that are mostly played for laughs.

Fast, yes. Furious, not so much.

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FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019) – Wrestling Movie Fun, Comedic and Inspiring

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Not only is FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019) a lot of fun, not only is it a “feel good” movie with an inspiring story to tell, but it has a lot to say about those who fight for their dreams and lose, and who in turn use their talents to teach others, the message being they haven’t really lost at all as they are the reason others win.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is based on the true story of a family from Norwich, England who lived and breathed wrestling. As Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia Knight (Lena Heady) tell it, their lives were going nowhere when they met, and as other people find religion, they found wrestling, and they made it a centerpiece of their family.

Their oldest son tried to make it professionally but failed. He couldn’t handle his failure and ended up in prison. The story focuses on their daughter Saraya (Florence Pugh) and their younger son Zak (Jack Lowden) who are primed and ready to try out for the WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment. Saraya is chosen, while Zak is not.

The film then follows Saraya on her trip to the United States, where she trains under the grueling coach Hutch (Vince Vaughn) who works her and the other recruits incredibly hard, so much so that Saraya comes to believe that she won’t make it. During this time, she chooses her wrestling name, Paige. Meanwhile, back in England, Zak struggles with his sister’s success and his own life, as he increasingly views himself as a failure.

Until one day when his older brother is finally released from prison. He tells Zak that he always knew Saraya would be the success that he himself couldn’t be because she had something he didn’t. When Zak asks his brother what that something was, he points to Zak and says: you. And it’s at that moment Zak realizes that all the work he does teaching wrestling to the neighborhood kids means something, and it has just as much value as going pro in wrestling. And as Saraya points out to her brother, “You’re teaching a blind boy how to wrestle. Who does that?” Once Zak comes to understand the value of his true talent, he turns towards helping his sister achieve her own professional dreams.

While FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is the story of both Knight siblings, its main focus is really on Saraya, aka Paige, as she’s the one member of the family who did succeed as a pro in wrestling. As such, most of the movie falls on the shoulders of Florence Pugh who plays Paige, and Pugh does a great job. She’s known for her work in LADY MACBETH (2016), she was in the Liam Neeson actioner THE COMMUTER (2018), and she had the lead in the AMC mini-series THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL (2018). Here, Pugh does a fine job capturing Paige’s feelings as an outsider, as someone who feels she doesn’t belong, which is what drove her to wrestling in the first place, that it gave her the ability to block out real life troubles while she was active in the ring. It also gave her something to belong to.

Jack Lowden is very good as Zak Knight as well, although the film does tend to focus on him less than Pugh. He plays Zak as a man who is nearly crushed by the failure of his dreams. Indeed, one of the most painful scenes in the movie is when Hutch tells Zak point-blank to give up, that it’s not going to happen for him. And Lowden is just as good later when Zak experiences the light bulb moment that his work with the youth in his neighborhood is his real talent.

Nick Frost , who has co-starred with Simon Pegg in British comedies like THE WORLD’S END (2013), HOT FUZZ (2007), and SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) is as expected very funny as the lively patriarch of the Knight family. He gets most of the best laugh-out-loud moments in the film, like when he answers the phone and doesn’t believe he’s really talking to Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson on the other line, when in fact he is. But he also enjoys some key dramatic moments as well, like when he takes Paige aside and tells her that it’s okay if she doesn’t want to continue training for the WWE, that he’s not going to force her to do something she doesn’t want to do.

Lena Headey rounds out the main players as Knight matriarch Julia. She works well with Nick Frost, and the two play a couple whose passion for wrestling is plain to see, and as such, it’s easy to understand how their children are so inspired to participate in the sport.

I have to admit. I’ve never been a Vince Vaughn fan,  but he’s really good here as wrestling coach Hutch. Sure, you can argue that you’ve seen this character countless times before, that he’s just another variation of Mickey (Burgess Meredith) from the ROCKY movies, but there’s an added element that makes him stand out, and it’s this added element which Vaughn nails. Hutch’s story ties in to Zak’s, as he too once had his dreams shattered, and he too found that his true talent was in helping and teaching others to achieve theirs. And there’s a key moment near the end, when Hutch gives Paige a quick wink and then walks away. He’s not about sharing in her glory. What drives him is inspiring other to achieve theirs.

Of course, the biggest name attached to FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is Dwayne Johnson, who does appear as himself in the movie, and while he has a couple of memorable scenes, this really isn’t a Dwayne Johnson movie. It’s an ensemble piece, led by Florence Pugh.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY has a first-rate script by writer/director Stephen Merchant. While the main plot comes right out of any ROCKY movie— underdog makes it big— the tone of this film is anything but, as the humor is all very British, and as such, you’ll spend a lot of time laughing throughout the movie, which comes as no surprise. Merchant worked as a writer for both the British and American versions of the TV show THE OFFICE.

Merchant’s also an actor, and he appears here in a memorable supporting role as the father of Zak’s girlfriend. Merchant also starred as Caliban in LOGAN (2017) with Hugh Jackman

Here, the script is lively and comedic, and better yet, it does a fine job tying its themes together, its stories of youth fighting for their dreams, of how to react when you fail, and the value of teaching others, and how that’s also something that not a lot of people can do, and if you have this gift, use it.

Merchant also succeeds as a director here. FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY wastes no time getting into the heart of its story, as within the first few minutes of the film the audience has already joined Zak and Paige on their quest to become pro-wrestlers. The pace remains brisk throughout, and the film does a comprehensive job telling the story of the Knight family, people who at the end of the day you are glad you met and spent a couple of hours with.

The messages that come out of this film are good ones as they have less to do with competition and more to do with how to be a winner, as it’s not about stomping on those around you to reach the top but lifting up those around you to reach the top together. People do not succeed alone. You need others to help you, and this film is both about those who give help and those who receive it, and it shows how both groups are intertwined. People who receive help give it back, and vice versa. No one gets without giving.

I really enjoyed FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY. This one’s not getting a lot of hype, but it’s definitely a movie worth checking out at the theater.

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY fights the good fight, and its message on the value of teaching and inspiring others to achieve their dreams is a welcomed one in this day and age which all too often glorifies a winning-at-the-expense-of others mentality.

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