★★ / ★★★★
As far as vigilante action-thrillers go, “Peppermint” is as generic as they come. It should not have been because the lead is the highly underrated Jennifer Garner, no stranger when it comes to balancing drama and thrills given her extensive experience in the excellent television series “Alias” which wrapped up more than a decade ago. One would think that the screenplay by Chad St. John ought to have aimed higher, wearing its inspirations on its sleeve. Tell a cathartic revenge story first and foremost, then perhaps strive to launch an unapologetically violent film series with a strong female lead. Wouldn’t that have been something?
Riley North is looking to serve justice for the murder of her husband and daughter (Jeff Hephner, Cailey Fleming). Corrupt judges and cops shielded members of the cartel from prison time and so North decided to spend the last five years in Asia and Europe to train her body and hone her skills before attempting to take down a massive drug operation. It is most frustrating that we are not shown much during the five-year gap (with the exception of a three-second cage fight video) because showing the character’s struggle, and her seething rage, during that time could have provided much-needed insight into her psychology, to imply that the real North died during the drive-by alongside her family.
Numerous bullets fly and there is a smorgasbord of firearms, but the photography leaves a lot to be desired. The picture looks drab. Thus, although action sequences unfold in different locations, they tend to blend into one another both in terms of look and feeling. It does not help that the central villain, too, is painfully pedestrian, a typical cartel boss who talks tough but when the lights go off and compound is broken into, he ends up hiding behind his tattooed bodyguards. In other words, the antagonist is not equal to, or nowhere near, North’s level of intensity. It might have helped if the character were written with a more colorful personality—make him extreme, insane, anything other than coming across as another thug to be bulldozed.
The material touches upon a mildly interesting topic: the public’s response, specifically through social media, when a person decides to take it upon herself to correct what she perceives to be wrong. For instance, we are shown Tweets and message board responses on television screens, but these glimpses are too quick for us to get a chance to read and appreciate the comments. If something like this happened in real life, you can bet that clever, amusing, cruel, and ignorant responses would get hundreds of likes and responses. Especially when the vigilante is female. And so it is bizarre that the film neglects to pursue a potentially worthwhile avenue. Action movies can have a brain but this work seems incurious to make the story relevant in modern times.
There is nothing wrong with providing violent escapism in the movies. But it has to be absorbing every step of the way, not dead or dying when guns are nowhere to be found and people are simply required to speak with one another. After all, even the best action movies are rooted in drama.
The Belko Experiment (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
Despite an intriguing premise, horror-thriller “The Belko Experiment,” directed by Greg McLean, fails to take the necessary risks in order to, at the very least, match its wild plot that promises B-level gory fun. Instead, like run-of-the-mill mainstream attempts within the genre, it employs violence for violence’s sake. One gets the impression that the filmmakers believe they are being daring when the camera employs close-ups on skulls cracked open. One would be better off watching videos of real-life autopsies. At least they’re educational.
There is not enough social commentary when it comes to office politics and how cutthroat it can be. While the material spends a few minutes to introduce characters we either will root for or against, not one is particularly compelling. Perhaps most problematic is the couple in the center of the story. Mike (John Gallagher Jr.) and Leandra (Adria Arjona) get one repetitive scene after another either being cute or checking in to see if either is all right. Neither Gallagher Jr. nor Arjona has the skill to make something out of a lackluster script. Those who are experienced with the horror genre are likely to guess that at least one of these two is the final survivor. Yawn.
I got the impression that James Gunn made concessions when it comes to what the movie should really be about in order to make the picture more digestible for the masses. To me, it should be about order versus chaos and yet characters end up being categorized simply as good or bad; whether they are willing to take a life or not for the greater good, initially, and, eventually, for themselves. It does not treat the audience as people capable of processing subtlety. It entertains by means of simplifying nearly everything in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
The look of the picture is standard. There is appropriate use of lighting when scenes take place under fluorescent lights, in dim underground locations, atop the high-rise roof where open space is seen for miles but there is no escape. The visual effects are minimal, which I found to be appropriate in a movie like this, and the cinematography captures how offices of a large company might look like. Over time, however, one notices a flatness when it comes to the overall look and feeling of the images and the emotions they create. This is because the plot moves forward but the story remains stagnant. For a picture clocking in at less than ninety minutes, it feels closer to two hours.
Its biggest mistake is not answering questions the characters and viewers deserve. That is, what is the purpose of the so-called Belko experiment? It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth when a mediocre picture proves how mediocre it is by pulling out before giving us an answer—any answer—for the sake of a potential sequel. It reeks of pathetic desperation.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Hush,” directed by Mike Flanagan, understands the difference between and how to balance thrills and suspense. Its minimalist approach is exactly right given that everything that the protagonist must undergo is believable and convincing.
Maddie (Kate Siegel) is a writer who relocates in a secluded house near the woods with the goal of finishing her second novel. During the night she attempts to decide the ending of her book, a masked stranger (John Gallagher Jr.) shows up to play a deadly game. The intruder claims that he will only kill her once she can no longer withstand the torment and gives herself up to him. The predator underestimates his prey.
The protagonist’s handicap makes her especially vulnerable. When Maddie was thirteen, she had contracted bacterial encephalitis and the disease left her unable to hear and speak. However, she is a heroine worth rooting for because she is intelligent, resourceful, and determined. She is put in a number of situations where she must fight, not simply yell at her stranger to project false confidence or scream so that we would end up feeling sorry for her.
Siegel is well-cast especially because she has Angelina Jolie-like traits. She has the body of an athlete, at the very least someone who is in shape. And so when confrontations get physical and she must make haste to acquire an item or she must wrestle the stranger, we believe that she can actually obtain the object or extricate herself from a prickly situation. Furthermore, she is present in the eyes. We feel her character’s desire to fight and live.
Score is utilized sparingly given that silence is one of the film’s themes. We are allowed to hear the rapid footsteps as Maddie runs to lock every door and window. Because there is no score or soundtrack that serves as warning, the tapping on the glass is all the more alarming. The creaky doors pose danger. Every shadow or a blank background is a threat.
The violence is brutal, but it is used sparingly, too. When it is front and center, one cannot help but wince or flinch. Nicely done here is we are made to understand that Maddie must take risks in order to get the upper hand. Sometimes her gamble pays off. But there are times when she gets more than she bargains for. The element of violence is predictable but the execution forces us to be in the moment and craving for more.
Clearly inspired by Terence Young’s masterful “Wait Until Dark,” which has a protagonist who is blind, “Hush” is creepy, unsettling, and inspired. Flanagan constructs tension so well and so confidently, we are forced to react to what we are seeing rather than think about what we could have done if we were in Maddie’s shoes.
Short Term 12 (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When you’ve worked with kids and teenagers, encountering movies like “Short Term 12,” often choosing honesty over sentimentality, rawness over Hollywood-ization, is a breath of fresh air. So few movies about troubled teenagers get it exactly right. It might be a good idea to keep writer-director Destin Cretton on our radar.
The film tells the story of Grace (Brie Larson), one of the staff members of a foster care facility, and her relationship with her co-worker/lover, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), and the young people they supervise. Their job, along with Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) and newcomer Nate (Rami Malek), is to provide a safe environment for the minors until the county decides what to do or where to send them next.
Right away, the picture does the unexpected. Many of us will assume that since it is Nate’s first day on the job, we will see the story through his eyes. Though we recognize and learn the inevitable mistakes he makes along the way, these are never handled with a mallet: it shows his course of action—sometimes inaction—and the camera simply moves on. It is never a lecture on what one should or should not do as a staff.
Grace lies in the heart of the film. She seems to be very good at her job. The screenplay shows us why. Though she has her share of problems, we are right there with her as she consoles another, as she puts her foot down, and as she expresses the love that she has for Mason. The romantic relationship is fresh, too. Despite not having a shadow of doubt in our minds that Mason and Grace are a great fit, there are some questions that linger in their minds. When their respective backgrounds are revealed, it all makes sense. We are what we are partly because of our pasts—whether we like it or not.
Most intense are the scenes where the kids get into a manic fit—some fueled by psychological scars constantly being split open and others by imbalance of brain chemistry at times exacerbated by drugs that are supposed to help. I had my share of working with a few troubled young people and it is not for everyone. It can be scary. It can be frustrating. But it can also be rewarding. Underneath the outer toughness and inner turmoil is someone who wants to make a meaningful connection—it is likely that they just don’t know how or they have somehow convinced themselves that they are incapable of it.
It amazes me that there are people out there who work with at-risk teens every day. They should be celebrated more. The level of responsibility and commitment is enormous and “Short Term 12” captures the essence of that. At the same time, the picture also establishes the limitations of the job. Just because you are the one on the floor with these kids day in and day out does not necessarily give you an authority to sign off on what is right for them in the long run. You feel like they are your kids especially when you get close to them but at the same time they are not nor they will ever be.