Movie Review ~ Skyscraper


The Facts
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Synopsis: A father goes to great lengths to save his family from a burning skyscraper.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Noah Taylor, Roland Moller, Byron Mann, Pablo Schreiber, Hannah Quinlivan

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: In 1974 when The Towering Inferno was released, there were 3,164 drive-in movie theaters across the United States. By Die Hard’s release in 1988, that number had plummeted to 961. In 2018, if you want to see Skyscraper at a drive-in as part of a multi-feature summer night, data shows there are but 320 drive-ins for you to choose from. I mention these key dates and numbers because the silly but sturdy new film starring Dwayne Johnson is a big, if familiar, movie…big enough to warrant a mega presentation in a communal atmosphere. Watching the film unfold on a modest size screen in a perfectly decent theater I couldn’t help but wonder if it could have been more fun if viewed on a larger scale when the sheer size of it wouldn’t feel quite so overwhelming.

After an accident leaves FBI Agent Will Sawyer (Johnson, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) missing the lower part of his left leg, he starts a family and moves to the private sector to become a security specialist. Called to Hong Kong by an old army buddy (Pablo Schreiber), Sawyer brings his wife and twins to The Pearl, a 240 story building of the future designed by architect Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) that needs Sawyer’s sign-off to open up a residential section. Several double-crosses later, Sawyer is trying to find a way back into The Pearl to save his wife (Neve Campbell) and children trapped 100 stories up when a disgruntled mercenary (Roland Møller, Land of MineAtomic Blonde) tries to burn the place down.

Writer/director Rawson Marshal Thurber (We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence) knows he’s wading neck deep into familiar genre territory with obvious nods to The Towering Inferno, Die Hard, and Cliffhanger. The result is a mid-summer hunk of mild cheddar cheese that demands little of audiences and offers two hours of mindless adventure. It’s not bound to gather the same ire Johnson’s earlier 2018 feature Rampage did and it’s far from a simple paycheck film for the appealing A-lister.  Still, it doesn’t advance the actor into any deeper leading man territory for his efforts. It’s clear Johnson works hard at what he does but if he keeps playing the same kind of roles he’s bound to move into unintentional parody of himself after a while.

I was surprised the film had less of the lightness Johnson is known to bring to his features. Aiming for a more dramatic/serious tone, Johnson’s Sawyer is a man haunted by his past while recognizing that without the incident that took his leg he wouldn’t have the family he does today (wife Sarah was his surgeon). Any deeper dive into PTSD is abandoned by Thurber in favor of Sawyer’s increasingly superhuman measures to save his family from the burning building. Witness him climbing a crane nearly 100 stories and leaping into the building during one of the film’s more hair-raising moments. I’m not normally afraid of heights but there were some sequences in Skyscraper that had my stomach doing backflips.

What I liked about the movie was it’s commitment to not making Sawyer a one-man savior, judiciously giving screen time to Campbell who is far from a helpless wife waiting to be rescued. Though previews have given away many (too many) of the film’s key action scenes, the few that aren’t spoiled in the trailer belong to Campbell’s plucky butt-kicking and ingenuity. She’s arguably the best performance in the movie but warms to Johnson nicely – if sequels are planned let’s hope Campbell doesn’t get Bonnie Bedelia-ed and written out after the first one.

Though fraught with too much CGI fire and containing numerous foes dispatched without much ceremony, I found Skyscraper to be a larger than normal blip on the summer movie season that hasn’t turned the dial much on excitement. Audiences seemed to like the movie at my screening and I definitely watched a bit of it through splayed fingers, but it fades from memory pretty quickly if I’m being honest. My advice…get on the interwebs and find a drive-in close to you showing this with a few other features and make it a double or triple header night.

Movie Review ~ Rampage (2018)


The Facts
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Synopsis: A primatologist shares an unshakable bond with a silverback gorilla who has been in his care since birth. But a rogue genetic experiment gone awry mutates this gentle ape into a raging creature of enormous size.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, P.J. Byrne, Marley Shelton, Breanne Hill, Jack Quaid, Matt Gerald, Jason Liles, Demetrius Grosse, Will Yun Lee

Director: Brad Peyton

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 107 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: We’re at an interesting point in 2018. After emerging from the stuffy cloud of more serious minded Oscar-y fare, we had a January and early February that stirred little interest. Then Black Panther hit and became the kind of audience-uniting game changer we often have to wait far into the year for. With studio hits like Ready Player One and A Quiet Place making bank as well good business being drummed up for indie films such as Isle of Dogs and Chappaquiddick, there was a little something to please everyone if you chose to buy a ticket.

Now along comes Rampage and it seems like we’re all going to have to pick a side again. You’re either going to go along for its silly but entertaining ride or you’ll spend an unusually brisk 107 minutes counting the seconds until your escape. I’m of the mind that you don’t necessarily need to lower your expectations to like what Rampage has to offer, you just have to go in with the right frame of mind. If you do, there’s a good popcorn movie waiting for you.

Honestly, it’s been so long since I’ve played the popular video game that inspired this film that I had forgotten nearly everything about it. What I did remember is spending quite a few quarters to keep the game going, even when it was clearly a futile attempt by an average arcade gamer like myself. It doesn’t really matter how familiar you are with the game, though, because aside from a few key characters and several winking nods to its source material it’s largely a modernized take on the game. Still, fans of the classic monsters should get a kick out of how they are incorporated into the action.

Opening in space with an action sequence that could have been the finale of a previous film, a scientist (Marley Shelton, Decoding Annie Parker) is frantically trying to return to earth with an experimental gene-splicing gas while being hunted by a genetically modified lab rat exposed to the pathogen. Without giving too much away, three of the canisters fall to earth and infect a wolf in Wyoming, an alligator from the Everglades, and an albino gorilla named George living in a California wildlife sanctuary. Lucky for us that the gorilla’s handler is the buff and brainy Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and he’s pretty protective of his ape pal.

While Davis works with geneticist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris, Skyfall) and twangy government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding), a brother and sister (Jake Lacy, Love the Coopers and Malin Ackerman, Rock of Ages) in charge of a Chicago-based bio-engineering initiative (known as Project Rampage) activate a beacon meant to lure the creatures to the heart of the city. A cross-country race ensues as Davis and his crew tries to beat the beasts to their destination while seeking a cure to restore the otherwise kind hearted George to his former self.

If you can’t tell already, the movie is incredibly bonkers but credit should be given to director Brad Peyton (reteaming with Johnson for a third time after San Andreas and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) for getting the right team assembled for this Rampage. Working with four (!!) screenwriters, there’s a bit more meat to the plot bones and I was grateful that the eye-rolling dialogue is kept to a bare minimum. Sure, there are some big plot holes and your brain should be stowed under your seat for the duration of the flight but I found myself more than a little entertained at the various thrills on display.

Few actors today have the “It” factor that made so many stars in the heyday of Hollywood but with each new film released Johnson is proving himself to possess the power of “It”. His good-natured demeanor translates nicely into action superstar when needed and an early career tendency to oversell a line of dialogue has all but vanished. He’s a true A-Lister and I’ve a feeling most people will be lining up for Rampage based solely on his presence alone…and those people will definitely get their money’s worth.

Harris received an Oscar nomination last year for her understated work in Moonlight but she gleefully jumps feet first into this lighter material. While Morgan is the most cartoony of the bunch as a secret agent initially set-up as an antagonist to Johnson, he wisely stops chewing the scenery long enough to let the monsters take center stage. As a smug villainess, cool as ice Ackerman is part of a great visual comeuppance while Lacy is terribly miscast as a nervous sidekick to his more take-charge sister.

Unlike the dull sameness of the monsters in Pacific Rim: Uprising, Rampage has a smaller but more engaging stable of fiends to threaten our main characters. The main beasts are fantastically rendered, from the more realistic George to the zonked out wackiness of the wolf and alligator, both morphing into nightmarish creatures that plow through crowds and buildings in the final act.

There’s quite a few nice action sequences leading up to the battle royale that takes up the last ¼ of the film but I just wish the preview hadn’t revealed quite so much. I won’t get into specifics but there are several great scenes that don’t play as strongly if you’ve seen the trailer more than once. It’s not often a disaster film destroys a less internationally recognizable city like Chicago but having just visited several days before I saw Rampage, it was fun to see some familiar landmarks topple.

Movies adapted from video games often get bad raps, often with just cause (see the recent Tomb Raider for proof) but Rampage has more than a few secret weapons. With Johnson as committed as ever, a plucky ensemble cast of humans and digital monsters, above average CGI effects, and more jump scares and thrills than you might expect going in, you’re not likely to be in a rage when Rampage is over. Just go in with the right attitude, I beg of you.

Movie Review ~ Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle


The Facts
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Synopsis: Four teenagers discover an old video game console and are literally drawn into the game’s jungle setting becoming the adult avatars they chose. What they discover is that you don’t just play Jumanji – Jumanji plays you. They’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives, or they’ll be stuck in the game forever

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale, Rhys Darby, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Alex Wolff

Director: Jake Kasdan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: In doing some prep work for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle the first thing I thought was wow…the original Jumanji came out in 1995?  Man, do I feel old.  22 years is a whole Disney star lifetime ago and though it had a semi-kinda-sorta sequel a decade later in 2005’s Zathura, it took all this time for a true sequel to that big-time blockbuster to materialize.  While the wait was mostly worth it in the same breath I feel compelled to mention that the first movie isn’t all that great to begin with (go ahead, watch it again and tell me it hasn’t aged well in plot, word, and deed) so there wasn’t exactly a high bar the filmmakers had to navigate. The result is a pleasant but largely forgettable holiday family film that is a viable option for those wanting to avoid Jedi’s and Greatest Showmen.

While it has a few connective tissues to its predecessor, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is largely a self-contained story that finds the mischievous board game adapting for the times.  Magically transforming itself into a video game cartridge, a 1996-set prologue sets up a thin backstory involving a teen that disappears after playing the game.  Skip ahead twenty years and four more teens of various stock character origins (nerd, jock, pretty girl, loner girl) find themselves in detention and coming into contact with the game.

Whisked away into Jumanji’s jungle setting, the teens become the grown-up characters they selected on the game screen.  That’s where some true fun emerges, though if you’ve seen the trailer the film’s already spoiled a few laughs for you.  The nerd enters the game and becomes buff explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas), the towering jock is tiny zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart, The Wedding Ringer), meek loner girl appears as commando Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, Oculus), and the superficial pretty girl winds up as chubby (and male!) scientist Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black, Goosebumps).

Watching the four adjust to their new bodies is amusing but aside from Oberon thrilling at being able to pee standing up, it’s not a theme that director Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape) or the four (!) screenwriters linger on for any stretch of time. Instead, the movie kicks into high gear as the four are plunged into a quest to restore a stolen jewel to its rightful place in one of Jumanji’s vine covered monuments.  Stolen by a power-hungry villain (Bobby Cannavale, Blue Jasmine), the jewel gives the owner dominance over Jumanji’s creatures and landscape so it’s up to our heroes to battle the elements and themselves to save the land and get back to the real world.

Kasdan has cast the film with a pleasant group of game players more than, uh, game to play into their types.  I know Johnson has perfected this big softie character before (just last year in Central Intelligence, in fact) but there’s something so winning about the way he leaves himself vulnerable, not just relying on his gigantic muscles to do the literal and figurative heavy lifting.  Hart is a scream as a big man in a small body while Gillan gets laughs as an awkward girl inhabiting the visage of a lithe action star.  It’s really Black’s show, though, and he milks every ‘girl stuck in a man’s body’ joke for all its worth.  Normally a little of Black goes a long way but he’s the clear audience favorite from the start.

The construction of the movie is made of solid stuff but there’s too much jungle and not enough Jumanji type game-playing for my tastes.  For all the problems I had with the original, at least it established some rules and forced the players to continue to roll the dice in order to finish the game.  Here, the characters enter the game and find out they have three lives but aside from a few small twists here and there there’s little in the way of boundaries.  I have major problems with the ending resolution but as I vow not to provide spoilers I gotta leave that one for you to find out on your own.

Before I go, let me get something trivial off my chest that’s been bugging me since they first released the marketing materials for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  I hate the title.  Hate it.  Like the movie itself, it’s too long and fussy.  Something short and sweet like, oh, Jumanji: Jungle would have would have left the door open for future sequels set in a host of different locales. To top it all off, take one guess what song plays over the closing credits?

The Silver Bullet ~ Baywatch

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Synopsis: Two unlikely prospective lifeguards vie for jobs alongside the buff bodies who patrol a beach in California.

Release Date:  May 19, 2017

Thoughts: Winter is definitely coming and if you need a way to stay warm until the summer months I can’t think of a better way to do it than to keep the new trailer for Baywatch on repeat.  What started as a more serious show on network TV turned into an 11-season soapy sun and sand action show that featured a rotating roster of buff guys and beautiful women either before or after their Playboy debuts.  Now comes a big screen take starring Dwayne Johnson (San Andreas) and Zac Efron (That Awkward Moment) and it looks like a whole lot of fun.  I can already tell it’s been carefully made to gently lampoon its source material while giving its stars the maximum shirtless screentime.  Fine by me and as the song goes…”I’ll be ready”.  I doubt this one will need saving when it arrives in May.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ San Andreas

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In the aftermath of a massive earthquake in California, a rescue-chopper pilot makes a dangerous journey across the state in order to rescue his estranged daughter.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Paul Giamatti, Kylie Minogue, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi,  Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson

Director: Brad Peyton

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Though we’ve gotten used to our summer blockbusters having a little bit of a brain over the past several years, there’s something so irresistible about a big dumb hunk of disaster cheese.  And San Andreas, dear readers, is a huge block of grade A cheddar that winds up being the filling meal the summer of 2015 was waiting for.  Yeah yeah, arriving two weeks after the epic size and gonzo glory of Mad Max: Fury Road you may not be as willing to forgive the corny one-liners or the overall feeling you’ve been transported to a Sylvester Stallone knock-off from the mid ‘90s but if you’re in the right frame of mind this one definitely passes the popcorn movie test.

That’s not to say San Andreas is the kind of film where you stow your brain cells in the overhead compartment, though.  True, the science presented may not be totally reliable…but I don’t doubt that it’s so far away from the truth, another reason why I’m content to be living a landlocked Midwestern life thank you very much.  I’m already worried enough about finding a route around the dastardly road construction that plagues us every summer, adding the threat of shifting tectonic plates would up my anxiety to the stratosphere.

But I digress…let’s get back to the film at hand.

When we first see Dwayne Johnson (Furious Seven, Hercules) as a Los Angeles Fire and Rescue captain he’s piloting a helicopter rescue mission to save a motorist that took an unlucky spin off a California cliffside.  Reminiscent of the nail-biting opening scenes of Cliffhanger and others of its kind, it nicely sets the mood for the disaster mayhem that’s to come.

As it typical with most disaster movies, the opening forty minutes or so are all about character introduction and for once it doesn’t seem like we’re being presented with a stock company of victims destined to end up crushed by a chunk of cement from a crumbling freeway overpass.  You can be sure that each role has been carefully designed to play their part in the overall gameplay and Carlton Cuse’s script only calls people out of the bullpen when he needs a way out of a sticky situation, but the point of the movie isn’t to figure out who will perish but rather get behind their efforts to survive.

In addition to a committed performance from Johnson (for once, the actor doesn’t seem to be forcing the material to work in his favor which allows him to feel more natural) there’s Carla Gugino (Man of Steel) as his estranged wife, and Alexandria Daddario (Texas Chainsaw 3D) playing his treasured daughter.  All three make a believable family unit, with Gugino’s Jane Fonda-esque looks seemingly passed down to Daddario.  Director Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) allows for some precious time between the bombastic rumblings to let us see the family dynamic at hand…it’s not great material but it adds some extra emotional weight when Johnson has to set about saving the two most important ladies in his life.

Rounding out the cast is the less annoying than usual Paul Giamatti (Saving Mr. Banks) as a breathless scientist that figures out the earthquake pattern too late to do anything about it.  Giamatti’s barely held back hysteria gives the film some of its more cringe worthy moments, eclipsing Johnson’s awkward line readings.  There’s also good work by Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson (Dracula Untold) as brothers that find their way into the company of Daddario and team up to reach safety.

The effects are top notch, only feeling not quite up to snuff when humans are in the frame as well.  The devastating blows the multiple earthquakes and aftershocks deal the coast of Southern California are rendered nicely and with ear-splitting sound.  What I liked about the pace of the film is that the earthquakes strike at random times, often without any notice which keeps the cast and audience on the edge of their seats.

There’s follow through in the film and while the ending feels a little too showy for its own good, the ride to get there was so unexpectedly entertaining that I was able to forgive it easily.  As far as disaster pics go, San Andreas is a good addition to films like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure…just don’t go in thinking you’re seeing a “smart” film because you’ll miss the whole point of having fun.

Movie Review ~ Furious 7

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Deckard Shaw seeks revenge against Dominic Toretto and his family for the death of his brother.

Stars: Paul Walker, Jason Statham, Lucas Black, Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Vin Diesel,Djimon Hounsou, Kurt Russell, Tony Jaa, Dwayne Johnson,Nathalie Emmanuel, John Brotherton, Iggy Azaela

Director: James Wan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 137 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  While preparing to write my review of the seventh film in the lucrative Fast and the Furious franchise, I went back to my review of 2013’s Furious 6 to make sure I didn’t self-plagiarize that entry.  Turns out I was in for a challenge because reading over my thoughts on the previous chapter confirmed my suspicions…that Furious 7 is nearly the exact same film.

Now if this were the newest release in any other long-running series I likely would have gone after the filmmakers for lack of creativity or the general laziness that can befall a cash-cow like these films have been for Universal Studios.  What started in 2001 as a run of the mill action film with a lack of brain cell activity has come a long way, arguably getting better and more assured with each passing episode.  There’s a decidedly set formula in the way the Fast & the Furious vehicles are assembled and why mess with something that works so well?  The answer to that question?  You don’t.

Before we move forward I need to put a disclaimer that it’s impossible to discuss Furious 7 without giving away some spoilers on events that happened in the first six films.

Picking up not quite where Furious 6 left off (but before the third entry The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift takes place – figure THAT one out!) it’s not long before Dom (Vin Diesel, Riddick), Brian (Paul Walker), Letty (Michele Rodriguez, Turbo), Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson, Hercules) and the rest of their comrades are targeted by the brother of the villain featured in the last film.  Proving that revenge is a dish best served at 180mph, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham, The Expendables 3) is mad as hell and out for blood against those who nearly killed his baby brother (Luke Evans, Dracula Untold).

What I’ve enjoyed so much about these movies over the years is their ability to maintain a consistent crew of familiar faces that keep coming back film after film.  Maybe introduced as a minor character originally, each entry seems to shift the power around and plays off the strengths of what each actor brings to the table.  Not that this is high art requiring application of the Meisner technique to each line of dialogue, but even with certain limitations on acting expertise no one embarrasses themselves…well, almost.

The star of the show where action is concerned continues to be Vin Diesel and, bless his heart, he tries so dang hard in this one to bolster his cred by delivering his lines with sincerity.  However, with his cue ball cranium and muscles that can’t be contained in any shirt large or small, he’s maybe the one person that swings and misses while attempting to be the dramatic heavy.  With the tragic death of co-star Paul Walker halfway through filming, it’s evident that large parts of the script were re-written and I’m guessing Diesel was tapped to lay the groundwork for the film’s touching send-off and, to his credit, Diesel is never anything less than totally committed to getting the job done.

This isn’t a film that has the ghost of Paul Walker hovering above it, however, even though you can easily tell which scenes were shot with a double with his face being CGI-ed in later.  The overall feeling of the movie is onward and upward and I think Walker would have been proud of how it all turned out.  He’s involved with several of the film’s crazy action sequences, passages that include souped-up cars being dropped from airplanes and flying through skyscrapers.  These are impressively staged, totally ridiculous, and supremely enjoyable.

It’s when the film slows down that there are problems.  With director James Wan (The Conjuring, Insidious) taking over for Justin Lin there seems to be an effort on Wan’s part to balance high-impact action with treacly familial drama…and who knows how much of that was influenced by Walker’s death.  Seems like poor Jordana Brewster (who seems to add two new teeth with each film, I swear she has 32 teeth on the top row alone) suffered the most, with the script sequestering her away from the action to protect her pregnancy…which is a ludicrous sham they don’t even bother to make believable.  Brewster is supposedly far enough along to know the sex of the baby but has a stomach so flat you could play Jenga on it.

Wan’s trademark loop-de-loop cinematography seems like a nice match with the action onscreen though it’s overdone in the lengthy finale that has our gang racing around a downtown cityscape straight out of Grand Theft Auto as they try to keep a valuable piece of technology out of the hands of a villainous terrorist (Djimon Hounsou, How to Train Your Dragon 2) while avoiding getting run down by Statham.  I’m skipping over a lot of plot twists and turns that I simply don’t have the time or the word count to explain in full…it’s beside the point anyway because the film is really about getting to that next action sequence.

I’ve no doubt that eighth, ninth, and tenth entries of this series will be produced and if they can maintain the forward motion of their predecessors I’m all in favor.  Leaving several loose ends dangling while tying up one big one, there’s more gas in this Furious tank and I’m happy to buckle up for more.

The Silver Bullet ~ Furious 7

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Synopsis: Ian Shaw seeks revenge against Dominic Toretto and his crew for the death of his brother.

Release Date:  April 3, 2015

Thoughts: Hi, my name is Joe and I’m a fan of the Fast and the Furious franchise.  This wasn’t as hard to admit as one might think and it’s an admission made easier by the fact that what started as a B-movie rip off of Point Break (trading surfboards for cars) has evolved into an engaging action series that improves with each passing installment.  Sure, 2 Fast 2 Furious stumbled and I may be the only one that enjoyed The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift but the last three films (especially 2013’s breathless Fast & Furious 6)  have upped the ante without turning the whole affair into a self-aware camp fest.  Though the dark cloud of star Paul Walker’s tragic passing will likely hang heavy over the film, I’m hoping that the extra production time allowed director James Wan (The Conjuring) and writer Chris Morgan (47 Ronin) to orchestrate a fitting torch passing that allows the series to continue.

Movie Review ~ Hercules (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Having endured his legendary twelve labors, Hercules, the Greek demigod, has his life as a sword-for-hire tested when the King of Thrace and his daughter seek his aid in defeating a tyrannical warlord.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes, Peter Mullan, John Hurt, Rebecca Ferguson, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Aksel Hennie, Reece Ritchie

Director: Brett Ratner

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Bound to be best remembered as the second failed Hercules film of 2014 directed by a once hot director, it’s hard to know where to begin a review for something so devoid of meaning.  I can’t speak for Renny Harlin’s The Legend of Hercules released in January because I managed to avoid that 3D affair but Brett Ratner’s Hercules, based on the version of the half god/half human brought to life by Radical Comics, is pretty bad stuff.

About halfway through the 98 minute film (which feels twice as long) my companion leaned in and whispered “What’s the point of all this?” and he wasn’t so far off the mark.  There’s unfortunately a lot of dialogue in the film and the script from Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos is so mawkishly hackneyed that it all winds up sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher wha-wha-wha-ing into your ear.

There’s some semblance of a plot involving mercenary Hercules benefitting from his supposed legendary lineage as he clomps through a ravaged Greece where everyone either speaks with a British or, in the case of its can’t-be-bothered star, an American accent.

Skipping over the more intriguing tales of Hercules moving through an Indiana Jones-like treasure trove of scary beasties and nasty tasks, the screenwriters settle for the musty old plot device of double crosses by power hungry bad guys.  This swords and sandals snoozefest is an endurance test for the ages, compounded by a lead performance that even the inhabitants of Hades would turn their noses at.

How Dwayne “The Rock’ Johnson (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Pain and Gain) has managed to becomes a movie star is beyond me.  Though he does possess a certain amount of charm when he isn’t taking himself too seriously, as Hercules he’s dead on arrival and no amount of immortal heritage can save him. Wearing one of several wigs from the Johnny Depp collection and a beard that reads more like a piece of felt, Johnson looks like a huge bicep with eyes.  Actually, remember those cartoons where an uncooked turkey would get up from the platter and walk around?  That’s how he looks.

Though Ian McShane (Snow White and the Huntsman) is the one bright spot in the film as a wise old sage always quick with a one-liner, the rest of the cast is a shamefully mixed bag.  I don’t believe John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive) looks a day under 200 but that’s nothing compared to the abject horror of seeing Joseph Fiennes sporting a hair system that reminded me of Buttercup from The Princess Bride.  Rebecca Ferguson shows some spunk as a busty damsel in distress and the Nicole Kidman lookalike Ingrid Bolsø Berdal outdoes her male counterparts in a throwaway role as an Amazonian archer.

The lousy CGI work is only outdone by the lamest post 3D conversion of the summer.  You can only ooo and ahh at a spear being thrust in your face so much before it all gets terribly tiring.  Ratner used to be on Hollywood’s A-list until several cinematic stumbles and one off color homophobic remark that sent him packing as producer of the 2012 Oscar’s heralded the decline of his status.  He won’t be seeing much love either after this stinker, surely one of the worst efforts of 2014.

Movie Review ~ Fast & Furious 6

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Hobbs has Dom and Brian reassemble their crew in order to take down a mastermind who commands an organization of mercenary drivers across 12 countries.

Stars: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Elsa Pataky, Luke Evans, Gina Carano

Director: Justin Lin

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Big. Dumb.  Fun.  These three words describe not only Fast & Furious 6 (or is it Furious 6 as the title credits suggest?) but also its star.  Though the film franchise has had its occasional bumps in the road, the movie owes much of its successful entries to Vin Diesel (Riddick), a modesty decent actor that is at least smart enough to know his limitations.

Coming off a surprisingly impressive fifth entry that showed there’s more than a little gas left in the tank, the sixth chapter keeps things speeding along so fast that the plot holes and implausible stunts just appear as roadside distractions on the way to your final destination.   That’s mostly thanks to Diesel and director Justin Lin who returns for his fourth film in the director seat.  By this point, Lin is old hat at highlighting the best assets of a muscled cast while still giving the audience what it came for – high octane action sequences that provide lots of popcorn entertainment.

This globe-hopping film brings back many of the characters from previous entries…being somewhat familiar with the series will benefit any viewer so you’re able to keep things straight.  In fact, there’s someone from each of the preceding films that play a part here so the more you know who is who the better…especially for the post-credits scene that hints at where the seventh film (coming Summer 2014) is headed.

Wait…I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Furious 6 takes the characters in a slightly different direction as Diesel and his crew team up with the federal agent (Dwayne Johnson, Pain & Gain, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) that was after them in Fast Five.  Why do they join forces you may ask?  Well (spoiler alert) it seems that Diesel’s girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who seemed to meet her end at the beginning of #4 is alive and well with a case of amnesia.  She’s working for the bad guys though (headed by Luke Evans, The Raven) that are out to steal a top secret government weapon.

That’s really all you need to know before heading into the film because after that basic set-up it’s primarily just a lot of well-staged action sequences that lead up to a ear-splitting finale involving a helluva lot of cars and one large airplane on what seems to be the longest runway in the history of modern cinema.

These films have a proven formula that’s rarely deviated from…which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because with each entry there’s a strange sense of refreshment from all involved.  While some franchises can’t even spit out three films (see The Hangover III) the Fast and Furious flicks are doing well at #6 and looking forward to a seventh entry that’s already in pre-production.  Back in the day I wouldn’t have attributed the success to Diesel and company but after sitting through this decidedly good natured film I must give credit where it’s due.

True, there should be a drop box as you enter the theater where you can deposit your brain and sense of logic but isn’t that what some of the more fun summer movies are all about?  Don’t think too much about the stunts that would break the backs of everyday men and women but bask in the joy of seeing the stunts executed so realistically.  Though it seems this entry has less car action than in the past, there’s some ingenious stunt work done when it comes time to rev those engines.

Franchise fans are in for a treat with this entry that isn’t quite as good as the last film but still makes a strong impression for those that have followed the series for the better part of a decade.  One note…make sure you remember that #3 (Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) takes place AFTER the events of this film…you’ll enjoy the final tag more.