Garner a Brisk Vigilante In Otherwise Bitter 'Peppermint'

Directed by: Pierre Morel; Runtime: 101 minutes
Grade: C-

A little over a decade ago, Jennifer Garner started to make a name for herself as a proficient and convincing action heroine, leaving her mark through both Alias and as the character Elektra in the Daredevil universe. Despite her physicality and fierce dedication to the roles, however, the stories surrounding who she portrayed continuously did a disservice to her ability to command the screen, notably the standalone film for her Marvel character and the stretch of time after her espionage TV series jumped the shark. Over a decade later, with very little other action under her belt, Garner has tossed herself into the fray with Peppermint: a revenge-driven thriller with its sights on the intense, somewhat realistic combat that has grown to prominence over the past couple of years. While Garner once again telegraphs a reputable, badass female renegade, the grim and mindless activities fueling her character and the story's developments once again prevent her from spreading her wings.

Garner plays Riley North, a mother and banking professional whose family -- a husband and daughter -- sits right on the line of being lower class, forcing her to take extra shifts to help pay the bills. While out later at night due to their scheduling conflicts, Riley and her family are victims of a drive-by shooting, one that leaves only Riley alive. After the law fails to put her family's killers into jail, she disappears without a trace … only to covertly reappear half a decade later as a very different sort of woman. Gradually, gang members and judicial officials start to show up dead, which causes investigative gears to start moving in terms of how they're all connected and who could be doing it. Now a trained fighter and marksman, Riley begins to work her way towards those who were responsible for the deaths of her family members, pitting her against both ruthless gangsters and the pursuit of law enforcement that could halt her vigilantism before she's able to follow it through.

There's a large gap of time left mostly unaddressed in Peppermint, the period in which Riley transforms from a noble, durable, but non-combat trained mother to a killing machine who knows the ins-‘n-outs of military grade weaponry, stealth movement, and … well, plenty of comfort in the ways of torture and murder. Leaving how she got to this point open to interpretation may be deliberate, and perhaps injects a little thought-exercise fun into the film for a moment, but it also results in a jarring leap in time to the present and, more importantly, robs Riley North of the opportunity to grow into a compelling, layered outlaw. Did she have certain life experiences in her half-decade of travels that steered her in one philosophical direction or another, and where exactly did she learn everything she knows that transformed her into, for all intents an purposes, an assassin? That's the story I'd like to see about Riley North, and that's what was missing once she begins tearing through her adversaries, in which her rage claims sole responsibility for her motivation and training, leaving it a mystery as to whether -- how -- she had help.

Jennifer Garner channels that rage as best as she can into a defining characteristic for Riley North, powering both the intensity of the action and how she navigates the obstacles in Peppermint. Burdened by all the seriousness of the immensely tragic circumstances, Garner's given very little room to expand upon her character's personality beyond her grief. She does find a distinctive no-holds-barred edge in how she threatens her enemies and draws her weapons, though, elevating the quick and punchy action sequences through gang hideouts and other urban mazes, feeling very much like the craftsmanship of the director of District B-13 and Taken, Pierre Morel. For the most part, gunshots don't go wasted and hand-to-hand struggles aren't drawn out, teetering closer to a semi-pragmatic depiction of a skilled killer in the vein of John Wick. Once Riley steps into the gang's warzone for the first time, it isn't difficult to surrender to the stylized momentum of the action in Peppermint, driven by nifty military-grade weaponry and the kinetic movement of brash cuts and camera jitters in the vein of Tony Scott's later pieces of work.

Peppermint doesn't know how to utilize the intensity in intelligent ways, though, and problems created by lapses in critical thinking pile up as Riley gets closer to pulling the trigger on her vengeance, with the hope that its gang-killin', gun-totin' power fantasy will provide enough distractions. From the circumstances of the North's family massacre to how Riley gets deprived of justice and eventually disappears, the script operates on maximum shock-value and minimal real-world credibility, content in assuming that the process of watching this woman -- this mother -- exacting brutal revenge on those who killed her family will keep the film on the rails. However, the more badass Riley North appears as she survives unbelievable odds and complex obstacles, the more one begins to question her background -- again, a civilian bank teller just five years back -- and the competency of her foes. There isn't anything compelling about her targets either, nor about the overbearing corruption of LA's police or judicial system, providing a feeble subplot doubling as tepid commentary on the fallibility of law enforcement.

On top of funneling Taken's Mills and Death Wish's Kersey into a female vessel, Peppermint aspires to transform Riley into a Batman-like crime fighter looming in the shadows with assault weapons, and the creation of this superhero mythos falls apart without character-driven puzzle pieces holding it together. Part of how she's built into a folk hero stems from one of the film's few novel ideas, and credit where credit's due: instead of the media learning about the vigilantism and reporting on it after the fact, the story actively incorporates public awareness and perception of Riley North's identity, backstory, and motivations for wiping out the bad guys, tapping into both broadcast news and social media responses. There are good intentions behind how Peppermint plays out that make rooting for Garner's heroine really, really easy to do -- to such a degree that sequels were clearly desired -- but that straightforwardness also contributes to it being weighed down as a dull, dimensionless copy of other vigilante films, and another display of the actress' toughness and tenacity that doesn't quite do her justice.

'Deadpool 2' Not Quite The Electric Boogaloo I Hoped For

Directed by: David Leicht; Runtime: 119 minutes
Grade: C+

In a climate of movies dominated by the prevalence of Marvel's cinematic universe and the heavy somberness of DC's outings, Deadpool ended up being exactly what was needed to take both sides down a few pegs. After vigorous crowd support and the dedicated efforts of Ryan Reynolds to get right what went so wrong with the character's depiction in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the creative forces came together into what I personally described as a "gleefully violent and blatantly subversive" piece of work, one that relishes how it breaks the fourth wall and deliberately pokes fun at the superhero genre. By getting the character right and living up to audience's expectations -- as well as a gangbusters turnout at the box office -- the bar was set pretty high for whatever would come out of a sequel. In steps Deadpool 2, and while the same sort of descriptions for the initial film also fit its follow-up, it's hard to deny that the forces behind this one got distracted by a desire to one-up what worked previously, cranking up the raucous humor and self-aware lampoons to a point that tries too hard to get its jollies.

Following the craziness of Wade Wilson's transformation into the "Merc With a Mouth" from the first film, Deadpool 2 picks up shortly after its happy ending, in which the hero (Ryan Reynolds, duh), whose genetic modifications grant him enhanced physicality and regeneration abilities that keep his cancer at bay, has led him into globe-trotting mercenary work. Battling the evils of the world also comes with personal dangers, of course, bringing tragedy into Wade's life within the first couple of minutes into this sequel. In response, Deadpool dons his costume and pushes the limits of his abilities by becoming self-destructive, but eventually -- with a little help from certain X-friends -- he tries to piece himself back together and refocus on fighting the bad guys again. While getting back to his normal mouthy self and engaging a different sort of mission, he interacts with a fire-wielding teenager named Russell (Julian Dennison), who's angry at the treatment at his mutant orphanage. His fury has such a wide impact that time-traveling strongman Cable (Josh Brolin) zips back to the current era to fix some of the chaos unleashed by Russell.

The stars aligned better than expected with the first Deadpool, which told an emotive story about Wade Wilson's relationship with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) as he made choices about what's worth doing to his body to fix his cancer and keep their love alive. While not original or complex, everything meshed into an amusing, yet uniquely effective superhero origin story with an expressive backbone, something that director David Leitch and his threesome of writers -- including Ryan Reynolds -- attempt to mirror in Deadpool 2 with a combo of collateral-damage tragedy and the abuse of a teenage mutant. This time, between how somber motivations are created for Deadpool and Julian Dennison's portrayal of a mistreated teen, the underlying sentiments carry both more intensity and less actual impact than Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick's first stab at the character. Admittedly, the endlessly sarcastic Deadpool isn't an easy character to progress since so little about him can be taken seriously, but the inelegance and contrivance involved in this sequel's momentum doesn't help matters. Wade Wilson says it himself: there's lazy writing going on here.

What's more dissatisfying about Deadpool 2 is the humor, both the caliber and the frequency. As Deadpool becomes self-destructive, turns over a … uh, different leaf, and interacts with fresh allies and villains, the film doesn't have the same availability to focus on building his character's origin and mythos, and that's where much of the effective self-aggrandizing and fourth-wall-breaking jokes stemmed from in the original. Instead, attention falls more on directly poking fun at idiosyncrasies in the story itself, Marvel's cinematic universe -- as well as the DC universe, to lesser degrees -- and stale pop-culture references and exploiting the desire to further as much of its R-rated reputation as possible. With Deadpool, there was balance; with Deadpool 2, the efforts seem persistent and overt. In some ways, this improves as soon as his new superhero buddies get more comfortable around him: Josh Brolin's gruffness as time-slipping cyborg Cable taps into deadpan suppression of Wade's antics, while Zazie Beetz's cheeky vibrancy as the luck-based heroine Domino could possibly fill the space of her own movie.

The facets that worked together so well before don't fit together as seamlessly in Deadpool 2, though, something that can't be easily overlooked with a plot that's both mundane and overly complicated. Director Leitch works from a script that falls victim to many other superhero sequels, one that dramatically escalates the scope and stakes of what's going on, embellished by the time-travel facets introduced by Cable's arrival. There's a lot going on here: physical abuse to mutant children, preventing future deaths by going back in time to kill wrongdoers, establishing a prison (and tech) for criminals who wield powers, and forming a team of heroes not unlike a combo of the X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy. Oddly enough, all that can feel almost like the rough components of what's going on in X-Men: Days of Future Past, and that predictable uptick in comic-book scale causes this film to escape the grasp that the screenwriters had on what works with Deadpool. An attempt is made at personal drama with how Deadpool approaches the teenager and how Cable copes with his family's death, but the abuse plotting and the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff ends up too big and brash in comparison to Wade defending his best girl.

A key creative force behind John Wick and Atomic Blonde, David Leitch has orchestrated a fine-enough action movie with Deadpool 2, I suppose, but its most proficiently-executed sequences are also tied to some of the story's weaker aspects, such as the early slow-mo tragedy that changes Wade Wilson's life and a certain multiple-hero parachuting descent that's undercut by its absurdity. The uptick in visual effects afforded by a larger budget are off-and-on convincing, so long as it's computer-generated elements that are coming in contact with one another: whenever a digital creation interacts with something practical, such as when an ultra-heavy body collides with a metal obstacle, the impact isn't as convincing as when, say, two ultra-heavy CG bodies are in the midst of a comic-book style brawl. Reynolds' voice meshes well with whomever's in the suit as a continuation of the unconventional hero's crime-fighting chaos, and he gets a few zingers in on Josh Brolin's equally stout Cable. There's a pile of entertainment value here, of course, yet somewhere in the thick of spicy dialogue, minor-league team assembly, and general sequel mannerisms, the Merc With a Mouth seems to have misplaced the exact recipe for the wonderful chimichangas he made two years back.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]

Classic Musings: Someone's Watching Me! (1978)

In 1978, John Carpenter released that little obscure slasher movie ... y'know, Halloween. Often, it takes a little time and exposure for indie-budget horror movies to catch on and develop an audience, but that film frequently credited with popularizing the slasher genre struck a chord almost immediately, sliding into pop culture and putting the director on the map. What those who aren't Carpenter devotees might not know is that he released a made-for-TV film in the same year that went somewhat unnoticed: Someone's Watching Me(!), equal parts psychological thrills and woman-in-distress suspense that also marks the first time he worked with legendary actress Adrienne Barbeau in a significant secondary role, both for its portrayal and its inclusiveness. While there's no escaping either the clear influences, homages, and "borrowings" from other films or the dated tech and dull endpoint to the thrills, Carpenter's execution of TV-safe tension makes it worth keeping an eye on it ‘til the curtains close.

Barbeau doesn't play his heroine here, though, a distinction that instead falls upon cult-film starlet Lauren Hutton to embody Leigh Micheals, a director for live-broadcast television programs. After getting away from a vague toxic relationship, she's moved into a high-rise apartment in Los Angeles and taken a job at a nearby station, wherein she meets both men and women behind the cameras, quickly befriending Sophie (Barbeau) and shrugging off instantaneous male advances. Almost as immediately, Leigh begins to receive anonymous phone calls, typed messages, and wrapped gifts from a mysterious source -- not exactly in a threatening manner, but uncomfortably forward and intrusive in their timing. Gradually, the advances turn more invasive, to a point that suggests she's being closely watched and stalked. Enlisting the help of Sophie and a new potential romantic interest, college professor Paul (David Birney), she attempts to cope with the situation … and then, when things get more dire, tries to discover his identity herself.

At times, it can be problematic to watch thrillers that hinge on the technological limitations of a bygone era, but if the strength of the tension or themes remain strong enough, one can ignore outdated components and get wrapped up in what's going on. When viewed from a contemporary viewpoint, Someone's Watching Me hasn't aged well: there are repeated calls between landlines that can't be identified, snail-mail scams that'd mostly filter into "junk" email folders nowadays, and other elements that reduce it to a relic from another time. An absence of originality doesn't help, either, as Carpenter cobbles together Hitchcockian characteristics and tension -- most notably, the voyeuristic focus of Rear Window -- with the phone harassment parts of Black Christmas and surveillance paranoia in the vein of The Conversation. With all that distilled into a single production, Someone's Watching Me comes across as limiting and derivative, a made-for-TV patchwork of ideas that have worked on the big screen.

What keeps Someone's Watching Me from remaining entirely in the shadows of obscurity -- well, besides that it's an early film of John Carpenter -- comes in the fact that it doesn't treat Leigh as if she's a hapless victim, emphasizing her shrewdness and resilience from the beginning. Granted, you've got to get past some early gullibility on her part and an awkward joke she tells about her fear of being raped by dwarfs, but once those hurdles are crossed, she becomes a reputable example of a woman who won't allow herself to be objectified or harassed. Lauren Hutton's portrayal of the independence-seeking TV director balances increasing fright and decreasing patience, in which she doesn't simply rely on the strength of others for protection or to solve dilemmas. Combined with Adrienne Barbeau's plucky assistant Sophie, whose lesbianism smoothly integrates into the film as meaningful, yet unobtrusive representation, Leigh navigates the measures she's able to take when the authorities aren't as helpful as they should be.

Persistent phone calls and swift movements down the hallway leading to Leigh's apartment create stylized, yet predictable and repetitive suspense in Someone's Watching Me, so the intensity of Hutton's performance being channeled into how she investigates the stalker's identity becomes crucial to the film's success. The design of Carpenter's script doesn't leave many options for surprises in the reveal, though, where the components of the mystery could've either resulted in an antagonist with specific, outlandish motivations … or it being somebody unknown and impertinent to what's happened beforehand. While the execution of the approach to this reveal might play out like classic horror a la John Carpenter, with effective fake-outs and amplified reactions from those being stalked, the reveal itself turns out to be remarkably anticlimactic and without resonance or meaning. Someone's Watching Me ends up being a functional studio-controlled suspense film that's entitled to a few good scares due to its iconic director, but it doesn't successfully hit its notes in the ways that his holiday-themed horror outing did in the same year.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]