MEG 2: THE TRENCH
Are we to make anything of the fact that, at one point during the extended action climax of Meg 2: The Trench, star Jason Statham literally jumps a shark?
I was hardly expecting greatness from director Ben Wheatley's followup to 2018's The Meg, an out-of-nowhere August hit that earned nearly $150 million domestic largely on the strength of it's-so-moronic-it's-kinda-brilliant bravado. Landing almost exactly five years later, though, this continuation involving improbably large, pissed-off sharks (and other sea creatures) doesn't reach the first film's level of joyous stupidity – it's just depressingly dumb. Worse still, up until the final 20 minutes or so, Wheatley's sequel is almost insultingly boring. By the finale, Meg 2 desperately needs its hero to hoist a severed helicopter blade for use as a spear, because only an image that profoundly ridiculous will guarantee that our eyes stay open.
While the introductory scene does indeed take place on the ocean, you'd be right to initially think you'd perhaps wandered into the wrong Statham flick by mistake, given that we first see the returning Jonas Taylor busting out of a tanker's metal shipping container and generally behaving as if he's in the last 20 minutes of a Transporter movie. Jonas, it appears, is some sort of spy hired to photograph environmental crimes. But as Statham narrowly evaded gunfire and parkoured through the decks and made his escape with a backward dive off the ship's bow – after, naturally, flipping off his assailants – I had to ask: What?! Wasn't Jonas originally an alcoholic rescue diver? When, precisely, did he turn into James Bond with a knit cap and three-day stubble? It's like we missed an entire Meg between the releases of one and two, and our disorientation is further compounded by Jonas now being the stepfather, I guess, of teenage Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai), the daughter of the previous Meg's oceanographer Suyin. Wise lady that she is, Chinese star Li Bingbing, who played Suyin, is no longer on the premises. But still: Did Jonas and Suyin get romantically involved some time between The Meg and The Trench? Because I'm pretty sure they weren't attached in 2018. (Wasn't the guy still hung up on his ex-wife, a character not even referenced here?) I was confused as hell long before the plot got rolling, and we still had a giant octopus and makeshift velociraptors to look forward to.
Some semblance of a storyline finally emerges when we get to the titular trench – the deep-sea locale where those prehistoric sharks the megalodon reside. As Jonas, the stowaway Meiying, Meiying's uncle Jiuming (Wu Jing), and random crew members discover, it's also the site of an illegal mining operation, with an explosion ultimately allowing the megs and their similarly behemoth brethren to reach the surface in search of fresh meat. I hasten to add, however, that this event aggressively advertised in the trailers doesn't occur until the movie is well past its halfway point. Megs do show up before then; one is essentially docile, with Jiuming training it à la Chris Pratt in the Jurassic Worlds; a couple others munch on figures we don't care about and can't recognize through the intensely murky underwater photography. Yet most of The Trench's first 75 minutes are standard-issue aquatic peril augmented by lame Poseidon Adventure conceits, a slo-o-ow walk along the ocean floor, and hysterically overacted turncoat routines. (One of our villains essentially shouts, “We're going to strip-mine the seas for profit and no one can stop us!!!” As in the original Meg, it's like all the dialogue here was translated into Chinese, then back into English based on a simplified Chinese translation.) When the big fish finally have dozens of breezily ignorant vacationers in their sights – at a beachfront resort called Fun Island, no less – we're almost pathetically grateful.
Is our patience rewarded, at least? Yes and no. There's a fair degree of fun to be had from the violent devastation of that resort and the gleeful (PG-13) gobbling of aghast tourists, and while I won't pretend to understand why one is involved, that department-store-sized octopus is good for a few chuckles. Yet the CGI effects that vacillate between impressive and distractingly tacky too often lean toward the latter; even the mere image of a speedboat in motion looks like something conceived using old Colorforms stickers. And even though the answers are invariably “Why not?”, there's far too much in The Trench's final act that necessitates an annoyed “Why?!” Why does this prehistoric-shark movie morph into a land-based-dinosaur movie? Why, with no many other threats on hand, was it necessary to give Statham a scene of mano a mano physical combat opposite a fellow brick shithouse? (Doesn't he get enough of those in his other films?) Why, in an obvious, repetitive nod to Jaws, are we introduced to a vacationer's cuddly dog named Pippin? It can't possibly be the same dog named Pippin who appeared in the original Meg, can it?
With Statham's entire portrayal little more than a two-hour scowl, and his co-stars (among them returning talents Cliff Curtis and Page Kennedy) unable to transcend the presentational lethargy, Meg 2: The Trench is thoroughly tiresome until it belatedly remembers to be a kick – and even then it's a kick with caveats. Wheatley's finale teases us with the notion that one of the Megs may well be pregnant. If so, here's hoping that, like its mom, her progeny waits several million years before inviting us to view it.
Few experiences in movie-going are as genuinely thrilling as that of witnessing filmmakers explore subject matter – perhaps especially comedic subject matter – they obviously know from the inside out. Directed by Nick Lieberman and Molly Gordon, the latter of whom also co-stars, and written by the directors alongside fellow cast members Noah Galvin and Ben Platt, Theater Camp is a movie by, about, and principally for theatre kids. (As an aging one myself, I do take issue with the title, because any self-respecting thespian knows that, as a tribe, we prefer the snooty “re” spelling of “theatre.”) If you don't get why a group of adults arguing over which middle-schooler should be cast as Damn Yankees' Lola is fundamentally hilarious, or why it's an intrinsic hoot when grown-ups bring a youth to literal tears with the discovery of her tear stick, this isn't the movie for you. Yet like theatre itself, much as we'd like to believe otherwise, Theater Camp won't be for everyone. Those whom it does speak to will likely revere the film with the gusto we've otherwise reserved for Waiting for Guffman and that “Play”/”Opening Night” two-fer from Hulu's PEN15 – even if, unlike those masterpieces, Lieberman's and Gordon's mockumentary left this theatre kid still a tad bummed by the unrealized potential.
For 90 swift minutes, Theater Camp, which is currently playing at Iowa City's FilmScene on the Ped Mall, invites us to be flies on the walls during the latest summer spent at AdirondACTS, an annual retreat for the gifted and fabulous in upstate New York. After a couple of preparatory scenes explaining why the camp's beloved founder Joan (the too-briefly-seen Amy Sedaris) won't be with the kids this summer – the woman a victim of “the first Bye Bye Birdie-related injury in the history of Passaic County” – we meet the staff who will guide dozens of stage-bound tykes through their seasonal paces. One of them, Joan's obnoxious finance-bro son Troy (Jimmy Tatro), is clearly out of his element. The others, however, are clearly deeply in theirs, among them Gordon's Rebecca-Diane and Platt's Amos, who will honor Joan's legacy with an original musical about her life … one that, as of the first day of camp, they have yet to begin writing.
A bunch of stuff happens in Theater Camp, and it's somehow simultaneously too much and not quite enough. Despite its inclusion of Patti Harrison as a well-groomed corporate shark, I could've done without the predictable, momentum-draining subplot of the camp's imminent financial collapse, which would've also nicely lessened the screen time for Tatro, a comic actor who's also simultaneously too much and not quite enough. And there was a whole lot about the movie that I craved more of: more time spent with the kids, whose personalities we're only allowed to glean in fits and spurts; more understanding of the campers' daily class and rehearsal regimens; more – make that any – information on when and how those promising-sounding renditions of Damn Yankees, Cats, and, most enticingly, The Crucible Jr. took place. (I'm sure that securing rights for the material would have been an intense, maybe impossible ass-ache, but couldn't we have seen even one rehearsal of even one of those productions?) Although Theater Camp is adapted from a short film, this seems to be the rare case of a short needing way more than 90 minutes to be properly revised as a feature, and I was left with the feeling that a good hour of sensational scripted and improvised material was unfortunately left on the cutting-room floor.
What survived to the final cut, however, is largely glorious, and it would be churlish to complain too hard about a film crafted with this much evident, clear-eyed adoration. Even when Theater Camp is relentlessly poking fun of its subjects, empathy and compassion sneak through; the stab wounds are made with fur-lined shivs. I adored the sweetly salty relationship between Rebecca-Diane and Amos, who are gradually realizing that, after decades of co-dependence, one may finally be starting to outgrow the other. (While Gordon is the more soulful performer, Platt may outnumber her in laughs, particularly when Amos can't stop interrupting Rebecca-Diane by stating that he doesn't always interrupt her.) The recently, blessedly omnipresent Ayo Edebiri – see the review below – gets a juicy protracted routine as a professional huckster uniquely unqualified to teach stage combat, and loads of memorable bits are supplied by the staffers played by Caroline Aaron, Nathan Lee Graham, and the divine Owen Thiele, whose costumer elicited my biggest out-loud guffaw when addressing a grade-school auditionee with “It says here you're allergic to polyester. Why?”
As my sister correctly surmised after seeing the film, this is an achievement that, despite its obvious faults, theatre kids of all stripes are bound to return to time and again, be it to revel in the riotous, unintended cruelty of the instructors (“This will break you”), or the found magic of the final performance of Joan, Still, in which Galvin's overworked, underappreciated technical director proves to be a freaking maelstrom of song-and-dance talent. You may even want to revisit simply for the cameos that may have bypassed you on a first viewing. (That amusing wannabe agent who gives Edeberi his business card? Adorable little scene-swiper Alan Kim from Minari!) As a member of the demographic for whom Lieberman's and Gordon's film was unquestionably made, I recognize Theater Camp's many flaws while loving it to pieces regardless. Which, I suppose, is another way of saying that this didn't feel like any ol' movie to me: It felt like family.
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: MUTANT MAYHEM
They've always loved pizza and martial arts and juvenile jokes and dressing up like superheroes. But for the first time, in writer/director Jeff Rowe's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Madness, I truly believed that its titular creatures were, you know, teenagers.
In this wonderfully zippy and trippy reboot whose computer animation, as in the Spider-Verse movies, oftentimes fools you into believing it's hand-drawn, Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael are voiced by actual teens: Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr., Nicolas Cantu, and Brady Noon, respectively. And while I would happily watch the film again for a number of reasons, the most prominent one would be the chance to again delight in – and sometimes merely comprehend – the quartet's delirious overlapping conversation, which sounds precisely like the banter you'd hear among four goofy, quick-witted, hyper-caffeinated kids constantly competing to have their individual voices heard. That may sound excruciating, but it's the direct opposite. These guys, in vocal harmony, are so offhandedly funny and unexpectedly sweet together that it barely matters that, aside from Donatello, they don't possess much in the way of distinct personality. They have personality as a unit – and besides, if it's character we're after, we always have the film's bad guys for that.
To be fair, we're also given a couple of terrific tag-along heroes: the Turtles' adoptive rat dad Splinter, whom Jackie Chan voices as a hilariously doom-spouting helicopter parent, and human journalist-in-training April O'Neil, here a fellow teenager portrayed with vocal warmth and deadpan wit by the in-everything-everywhere-all-at-once Ayo Edeberi. (Over the past few months alone, we've been treated to Edebiri's talents in The Bear, Black Mirror, Abbott Elementary, I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, History of the World: Part II, Theater Camp, and now this. To which I say: Even more, please!) Yet beginning with Ice Cube's malevolent mutant Superfly, a role that allows the actor to deliver his heartiest screen laughs since the Jump Street movies, the villains are given, and take, plenty of opportunities to steal the show.
Rowe and two pairs of writing partners – Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit – supply nearly everyone with first-rate gags, some of which scoot by so quickly you barely have time to recognize how clever they are. (I was glad not to have missed the Turtles' cough-and-you'll-miss-it procurement of the Saoirse Ronan period romance Brooklyn on DVD: “I hope it's funny!”) And the dialogue is made all the sharper through the deranged readings of Mutant Mayhem's antagonists, a motley crew boasting Rogen, Maya Rudolph, Giancarlo Esposito, John Cena, Rose Byrne, Hannibal Buress, and a particularly gonzo Paul Rudd. There's really not much to the movie, which blends a prototypical origin story with a prototypical megalomaniac-conquering-the-world saga. But for just over an hour-and-a-half, Rowe's followup to his sublime The Mitchells vs. the Machines looks great and sounds even better, and is easily the most enjoyable TMNT entertainment I've yet seen. Cowabunga!