Movie Review ~ The Legend of Tarzan

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Tarzan, having acclimated to life in London, is called back to his former home in the jungle to investigate the activities at a mining encampment.

Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou

Director: David Yates

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Two full months into the summer season and we finally have a blockbuster worth talking about. Don’t get me wrong, strong entries have been made with Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, and X-Men: Apocalypse but The Legend of Tarzan represents everything a popcorn film should be. It’s an exciting, action-packed thrill ride that’s been given grand treatment not only from its director and cinematographer but from it’s surprisingly nimble cast. I went into the film being mildly interested in another retelling of the classic Tarzan tale and left with the kind of energized good-will that made me feel like swinging from vine to vine singing its praises.

Thankfully, The Legend of Tarzan isn’t merely an origin story of how young John Clayton lost his parents to the wilds of Africa and was raised by a caring ape before joining society after falling in love with Jane. This story is there but it’s interspersed throughout the first half of the picture as well-timed glimpses into a past Clayton both longs for and recognizes he needs to move forward from. Married to his love and living in his Greystoke estate, Clayton is asked back to Africa under false pretenses and becomes the victim of a villainous power-hungry jewel smuggler.

What sets The Legend of Tarzan apart from similarly styled blockbusters is that it has an actual plot at its core.  Screenwriters Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow) and Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) ping off of the stories laid out by Edgar Rice Burroughs as they craft a story around Tarzan returning to his roots and saving the people and land he loves from mercenaries, slave traders, and land developers. It’s not heavy-handed stuff but it feels like it means something, much more than a superhero going after a stone with special powers.

As Tarzan, Alexander Skarsgård (The East) is the true vison of what his creator must have had in mind. In impeccable shape but still bearing the signs of a life in the wild, Skarsgård Tarzan is soft-spoken and curious, only jumping into action when he or his family is threatened. He’s matched nicely with Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) as Jane, still plucky and headstrong but perhaps a tad bit on the underdeveloped side. While she’s given some swell heroine moments, I still felt like she was given less important hurdles to navigate than her male counterparts.

At first I was scratching my head at the presence of Samuel L. Jackson’s (The Hateful Eight) supporting turn as a Civil War veteran sent by the US President to England in hopes of exposing slave trade in the Congo. Jackson’s cooler-than-you swagger is kept at bay here, with the actor getting mighty physical as he tries to keep pace with Tarzan. Even if he uses a few too many modern turns of phrase (was “screwed” a popular term in the late 1800s?), he easily gets the most positive audience reaction and seems game for whatever Yates and company throws his way.

I’ve about had it with Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes, Django Unchained) playing a soft-spoken smarmy villain outfitted in pristine attire. The two-time Oscar winner feels like he’s coasting on his initial popularity but is managing only to lull us into slumber. Feeling like a half-hearted extension of his Spectre bad guy, Waltz never grooves with the other actors and feels miscast. It’s always nice to see Djimon Hounsou (Furious 7) in anything and he’s utilized well as the chief of a tribe with a personal vendetta against Tarzan.

On the production side, the score from Rupert Gregson-Williams (Winter’s Tale) is tone appropriate whether it be a full-throttle action scene or a more somber moment between Tarzan and his ape brethren. Cinematographer Henry Braham’s stunning vistas are a seamless blend of live-action and CGI that make quite the impact when seen in 3D (note that the 3D adds appropriate depth for items that appear to extend past the screen).

No matter how well The Legend of Tarzan does, director David Yates is bound to have a great 2016 overall. With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them arriving November, Yates is at the helm of two potential franchise starters after lovingly guiding the last four Harry Potter films to their conclusion. Even if you aren’t swayed by the actors or the story, Yates has brought forth a sharp looking film that looks like an old-fashioned epic.

Movie Review ~ The Purge: Election Year

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two years after choosing not to kill the man who killed his son, former police sergeant Barnes has become head of security for Senator Charlene Roan, the front runner in the next Presidential election due to her vow to eliminate the Purge.

Stars: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Edwin Hodge, Betty Gabriel, JJ Soria, Mykelti Williamson

Director: James DeMonaco

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’m not sure if The Purge: Election Year was part of writer/director James DeMonaco’s long-term Purge franchise plan from the start, but with Americans steeling themselves for another bitter election in November and the continued struggle with gun control it’s arrival is anything but poorly timed. Now, the movie itself is fairly run of the mill with performances that range from metered investment to foamed-mouth zeal but, like its two predecessors, its morality tale is disquieting and prescient.

What started as a home invasion thriller in 2013’s The Purge morphed into a rough and tumble sequel in 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy. Both films pretty much disintegrated in their third acts and The Purge: Election Year also struggles with making it over the finish line with any semblance of order…but for me it was an improvement over the previous entries thanks to a strong build-up.

Set in the year 2025, Election Year brings back Frank Grillo from Anarchy as Leo Barnes, no longer out for revenge for his son’s murder but instead focusing on protecting a beacon of hope to end the yearly Purge. That hope is Charlene Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) an idealistic senator hoping to win the approaching election to unseat the bureaucratic nebula called the NFFA (New Founding Fathers of America) that instituted and continue to support the annual Purge. Running a campaign based around her desire to outlaw the yearly Purge, she’s made a number of enemies from the elite NFFA who conspire to use the pending Purge to get rid of her.

Though their methods of dealing with conflict differ greatly, Roan and Barnes are united in knowing the horrors the Purge can bring. When Roan is double-crossed by agents meant to protect her, Barnes teams up with an inner-city crew to keep Roan alive until the night is over. As in Anarchy, Election Year introduces us to another set of characters whose storyline will intersect with Barnes and Roan sometime during the night. Those other characters are a deli owner (Mykelti Williamson), his immigrant employee (JJ Soria), and a reformed tough-gal (Betty Gabriel) who has left her Purge bloodlust behind and helps transport victims to a triage center instead.

A solid first 45 minutes gives way to another Purge night filled with gory killings and ordinary citizens turning into crazed psychos. All manner of crime is legal for one night…yet DeMonaco never focuses on the jaywalkers, embezzlers, mattress tag rippers, and movie pirates. I suppose it would be tough to generate a thrill from following people that steal stop signs all night, but when we see yet another shot of someone getting an arrow through the head or turning up at the business end of a guillotine it does make me wish for more white-collar crimes.

The film has several endings, none of which are very satisfying. Most of the bad guys are dead, some of the good guys are…but nothing feels finalized or complete. Grillo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Mitchell are strong leads and I liked what Gabriel was giving us. Williamson gest a full meal out of his scenery chewing while Raymond J. Barry and Kyle Secor (The Doctor) devour the film like they’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet. I have to make some space for Brittany Mirabile for her absolutely unhinged schoolgirl turned savage out for payback on Williamson and his store. I’m not saying it’s a good performance, but credit Mirabile for having gusto to just go for it.

It feels like this could be the last entry in The Purge franchise and that’s AOK with me. There’s not a lot further DeMonaco could take the concept/characters and the true finale hints at a Purge-less future that may be even scarier…mostly because it reminds us of the here and now.

Movie Review ~ The BFG

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A girl named Sophie encounters the Big Friendly Giant who, despite his intimidating appearance, turns out to be a kindhearted soul who is considered an outcast by the other giants because, unlike them, he refuses to eat children.

Stars: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There’s something about a Steven Spielberg film that makes it instantly recognizable. I feel I could watch a film of his with or without a blindfold and know right away that the director of Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the captain of the cinematic ship. Lately, Spielberg has dug into more dramatic territory with the historical epics of War Horse, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies with many of the muscles he used for his early flights of fancy going unstretched.

Long interested in bringing Roald Dahl’s 1982 book The BFG to the screen, Spielberg finally gathered the pieces together and I think that’s owed in no small part to the director finding a new leading man muse. After teaming with stage actor Mark Rylance on Bridge of Spies (which brought Rylance an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, surprisingly beating out odds-on favorite Sly Stallone in Creed), Spielberg has caught Rylance fever, casting the actor in The BFG and (as of now) his next two pictures.

In the not too distant past, a lonely orphan girl goes on the adventure of a lifetime one night when she’s plucked out of her bed by The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) and brought to his home in Giant Country. Not really a prisoner but not quite allowed to leave, the headstrong Sophie clashes at first with her towering friend. As she comes to know him better she recognizes the loneliness of this outsider as reminiscent of her own life and sets about to help him out from under the thumb of nearby giant bullies. Pretty soon there’s a trip to Buckingham Palace and a finale involving the Royal National Guard, with Sophie and The BFG bonding over dreams, sadness, and wishes for the future.

All of this is right up Spielberg’s alley and reteaming with the late Melissa Mathison on her final script, Dahl’s world is recreated from the ground up in a faithful adaptation. While other Dahl works like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches have had memorable their trips to the big screen, The BFG feels the most like it sprung from Dahl’s brain fully-formed. And that’s where there’s some trouble.

Dahl’s books are lovingly bonkers escapades with numerous tangential diversions along the way, almost feeling like curated episodes than one streamlined work. The BFG has several of these that don’t quite land the way I think Spielberg or Mathison (or Dahl for that matter) intended. Each moment of the film is beautifully shot by Janusz Kaminski (The Judge), gorgeously scored by John Williams (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) and skillfully designed by Rick Carter (Jurassic Park)  but the middle of the film seriously drags and it winds up a solid 20 minutes too long. Though the trip to meet the Queen (Penelope Wilton, The French Lieutenant’s Woman) is a nice lark, it goes on for an eternity as Sophie and The BFG have a spot of tea with Her Royal Highness before an extended sequence of fart jokes.

The whole thing is perhaps too sophisticated for its target audience and likely should be marketed more to adults than young children who will tire quickly of the talky nature of the piece. When Spielberg does give us something substantive, such as a knockout sequence where Sophie and The BFG catch firefly-like dreams, it can feel too heavy-handed and repetitive.

I’m not sure if any other actors were considered for the titular role but it’s hard to imagine anyone playing it quite like Rylance has. While the performance may be motion-captured, Rylance brings a special magic to the part, uniting the actor with technology to fairly stunning results. Many have felt that motion-capture performances should be recognized by the Oscars and you can be sure Rylance’s work here will be cited as an example of why.

Newcomer Ruby Barnhill is a real find, believably navigating a range of emotions that suggests a promising career as she matures. Wilton is a hoot as the Queen while Jemaine Clement (Men in Black 3) voices The BFG’s tormentor with a nice mixture of weirdness and humor. I’m not quite sure what Rebecca Hall (Closed Circuit) and Rafe Spall (Prometheus) are doing here, with their characters feeling exceedingly extraneous to the proceedings. Hall and Spall (hey, that rhymes) are pleasant actors but they seem to know they’re little more than human-sized props.

Any chance for Spielberg to make us feel like a kid again is a worthy experience in my book. While not on par with the best of the director’s works from the past, The BFG is a reminder of how good a storyteller he is when working with material that’s personal for him. I just wish he hadn’t been quite so precious with Dahl’s source material, I think even Dahl would say there’s opportunity to trim it down without losing any heart.

The Silver Bullet ~ Sully

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Synopsis: The story of Chesley Sullenberger, who became a hero after gliding his plane along the water in the Hudson River, saving all of his 155 passengers.

Release Date: September 9, 2016

Thoughts: Though he doesn’t wear a cape, Tom Hanks is the unquestionable superhero of moving movies. The amazing story that came to be known as The Miracle on the Hudson made its captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, a media darling and Sullenberger’s recounting of his courage under fire made for good reading.  Judging from this first look at Sully, there’s more to the story than most of the public would ever know as it shows the rippling backlash after Sully’s moment in the spotlight. While I feel it looks awfully similar to the 2012 fictionalized Flight and that J.K. Simmons would have been a more ideal Sully, Hanks (Cloud Atlas) and director Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) make this one something that might fly high this fall.