Movie Review ~ Red Notice

2

The Facts:

Synopsis: An Interpol-issued Red Notice is a global alert to hunt and capture the world’s most wanted. But when a daring heist brings together the FBI’s top profiler and two rival criminals, there’s no telling what will happen.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Plenty of movies (and good movies) have sailed into financial and critical success based on the charisma of their leading players.  The story may be lackluster and the efforts behind the scenes could be minimal, but get a bona fide movie star, or a combination of stars, in your film and just watch how a dud can turn into a winner.  I’m betting that anyone seeing the trailer for Red Notice, now streaming on Netflix and playing in select theaters, could have guessed the film was going to be all about its three huge A-listers and the energy they are known to bring to their projects.  How would they have known these same celebrities would be leaving all their valuable (and turns out much needed) screen presence at home? 

Likely the laziest action thriller I’ve seen in years, Red Notice also accomplishes what previously could have been thought to be impossible: making its charming stars totally devoid of personality.  Wait, you may be thinking, is this guy telling us that not only are Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) and Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) bland walking posterboards where superheroes once stood but Rampage’s Dwayne Johnson is too?  Oh yes, that is exactly what I’m telling you.  Writer/director Rawson Marshal Thurber (We’re the Millers) reteams with his oft-collaborator Johnson after their enjoyable Central Intelligence in 2016 and cheesy but fun Skyscraper in 2018 for this hollow bit of blah which is at its best, casually distracting and at its worst, so forgettable from scene to scene that when it inevitably reveals a set of double crosses you aren’t even sure who was originally loyal to whom.

A National Treasure-y plot using historical artifacts finds three eggs belonging to Cleopatra being the MacGuffin in which the adventure centers on.  The location of two of these eggs are known but the third is a mystery.  Of course, it isn’t, or else why would Reynolds as super thief Nolan Booth be trying to gather all three eggs for a rich Egyptian and collect a hefty finders fee before equally skilled cat burglar The Bishop (Gadot) can beat him to it?  Trying to stop them is John Hartley (Johnson) an American copy tracking Booth and The Bishop who only wants to protect the eggs, having a severe distaste for con artists and criminals due to some strained family history with thieves.  Forced to team up with Booth when The Bishop frames them both and gets them tossed in a Gulag style prison, Hartley traverses the globe with his new cellmate while an Interpol agent (Ritu Arya, Last Christmas) attempts to keep a handle on all three, trusting no one.

It’s a mystery to me just what transpired to have Red Notice turn out as bad as it did.  Maybe it’s because all three roles are too easy for these stars and they are coasting on autopilot.  Made during the pandemic, this was a fast way to stay afloat and perhaps start a new franchise in the process.  I hope the thinking wasn’t that they’d get it right in the second round because this original outing is so limp and uninspired, I wouldn’t want to travel down the block with any of them again.  The only one of the three that seems to marginally understand the assignment is Gadot, but there’s such little chemistry with either of her co-stars (not entirely her fault) that the role winds up sort of flailing in the wind and feeling like a supporting player instead of a third lead.  Banter between Johnson and Reynolds is tired and uninspired and so much of the movie is digitized even the international adventure of the movie feels phony, so you can’t feel involved or engaged for any length of time. 

For a movie of this size and stature, there’s been a relatively quiet amount of publicity for Red Notice and now I know why.  It plays fine as an extremely thin spy flick and nothing more.  It’s the type of uneventful movie with easy solutions that doesn’t bother to explain why a bunker hidden for decades could be found under less than an inch of dirt or why a car that hadn’t been started for almost a century runs like a top with barely a sputter.  It’s because the screenplay said so and nothing else.  If the movie doesn’t bother to think too deeply about why it exists, why should we?

Movie Review ~ Jungle Cruise

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: A riverboat captain transports a British scientist and her brother on a mission down the Amazon to find the Tree of Life, believed to possess healing powers that could be of great benefit to modern medicine. Thrust on this epic quest together, the unlikely trio encounters innumerable dangers and supernatural forces, all lurking in the deceptive beauty of the lush rainforest.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Veronica Falcón, Andy Nyman

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10) (11 AM)

Review: While most will instantly conjure thoughts of that ragamuffin Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl when the topic of Disney turning their famously engineered rides into movies comes up, you actually have to go all the way back to 1997 for the very first one.  Based on the leave-your-stomach-in-your-tonsils Tower of Terror, the same-named TV-movie starred Steve Guttenberg and Kirsten Dunst and it’s perfectly fine that you forgot it.  Then came 2002’s The Country Bears, having their jamboree for not quite as many viewers in theaters that had seen them in the parks over the years, and the disappointing Eddie Murphy-led adaptation of The Haunted Mansion shrinking in the shadow of Black Pearl which had come out just four months earlier. 

Numerous Pirates sequels (all subpar) would slow the ride tide of movies coming out of the studio but all it took was one irresistible movie star to kick off another potential franchise starter.  After an extended delay due to the pandemic, audiences will finally get to hop on board this new attraction with Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt for a breathless ride that hits the water at full speed and never looks back. 

It won’t take long to separate the sea captains from the landlubbers in Disney’s newest ride turned movie, Jungle Cruise.  If you don’t get that little tingle of excitement for what’s to come within the film’s opening introduction of both of our effortlessly charming leads, then this may not be the right journey for you to take.  That’s all fine and dandy, but you’ll be missing out on quite the adventure in the studio’s monster attraction for the summer, which was delayed an entire year in order to give audiences the best bang for their buck. It’s a sonic boom for every penny you’re spending in the theater or watching it at home. 

Enchanted since her youth by tales from her father of an ancient Amazonian tree with flowers that have the power to heal, Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt, A Quiet Place) has spent much of her life trying to track down a missing arrowhead while she studied to become a plant scientist and prove herself among her male colleagues.  This arrowhead artifact is the final piece of a puzzle she needs to go along with a map of the Amazon jungle she has been studying that she believes will point her toward the location of the tree.  However, someone else is looking for that arrowhead as well. German aristocrat Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons, Game Night) has paid a handsome sum to the stodgy society of London antiquities that found it. The movie’s snappy prologue shows just how far both Lily and the Prince will go to get what they want…. but never underestimate the determination of a resourceful botanist who is aces at picking a lock and has a map of the antiquities shop drawn on her forearm.  With her prim brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall, The Nutcracker and the Five Realms) in tow and the arrowhead in her possession, Lily is ready to head to the Amazon…and all she needs is a boat captain when she gets there.

Anyone that’s been on the Jungle Cruise ride at any Disney theme park will recognize a number of the pun-ny jokes Johnson’s Frank Wolff is rambling off to his bored shipload of tourists when we first meet him.  Many taken right from the script of the long-running ride (side note…if you ever get a chance to ride it at night, do it!  It’s a totally different experience!), it’s the most assured nod screenwriters Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) and Glenn Ficarra (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) & John Requa give directly to the attraction that inspired the film and it’s completely welcome.  Eagle-eyed viewers and true fans of Disney lore will spot many Easter eggs along the way, all in good fan service without pulling focus away from the actual story.

Yes, there actually is a story that unfolds, even if it at times feels like the three screenwriters take a little longer than necessary to get there and include one too many villains along the way.  Once Lily and MacGregor arrive at their jungle destination there are some shenanigans that stall for time until they team up with Frank, giving time for the extra obnoxious Paul Giamatti (Gunpowder Milkshake) to storm in for a not-brief-enough cameo (could Disney not afford to cast a real Italian person for this Italian character?) and add in more roadblocks for Frank to get Lily on her way.  Then it’s back to the river for meetups with an indigenous tribe led by Trader Sam (Veronica Falcón, The Forever Purge) supernatural Spanish conquistadors (including Edgar Ramírez, Point Break) resurrected with evil intentions, and an unexpected twist that comes halfway in that was a pleasant surprise. 

What I liked best about Jungle Cruise was its commitment to follow-through.  Director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows) allows the film to be 127 minutes of adventure and excitement and isn’t out to rush anything past us.  Sometimes on the ride itself it can be hard to look at both sides at the same time so you end up missing out and that also can happen in film if a director loses the focus of where the action is directed.  Instead of idling in one place and allowing our eyes to catch up, Collet-Serra just keeps things in constant motion and lets us be swept up in the action.  It’s often overwhelming and, thanks to some overdone CGI, can come off looking nearly like a totally animated film, but more often than not it is completely captivating.

Much of this is owed to Johnson (Skyscraper) and especially Blunt’s indefatigable charisma and, if not red-hot chemistry, then kindred spirit-ness.  A push toward romance feels terribly forced and especially considering how forward thinking the movie is by allowing MacGregor to not only have a full man-on-man convo with Frank where he says he’s gay without using the “g-word” and then going further into talking about acceptance and such, it’s odd to thrust romantic entanglement on our leading couple that haven’t completely sparked like that.  Any flames ignited are from their gentle baiting of one another, mostly friendly competitiveness at who is the stronger alpha of the boat. 

Scheduling the way it is and knowing that summer weather can often turn on a dime, I’ve been continuing to opt to watch a number of these movies at home. In hindsight, Jungle Cruise is one I would have loved to see on the big screen – and I could see myself buying a ticket to catch it again in theaters.  Learning afterward it’s being presented in 3D in some cinemas makes sense after noting how many extended shots of various objects coming directly toward the camera. I’d note that if you don’t like snakes, you should opt out of the multi-dimensional experience – lots of snapping jaws to contend with.  The movie will be big and satisfying no matter what size screen you see it on but with July drawing to a close and August signaling the end of a strange season at the movies, this should be the one you fork over some cash to see with the family on the largest screen you can manage.  It’s worth it.

Movie Review ~ Jumanji: The Next Level


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A team of friends return to Jumanji to rescue one of their own but discover that nothing is as they expect. The players need to brave parts unknown, from arid deserts to snowy mountains, in order to escape the world’s most dangerous game.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover

Director: Jake Kasdan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Seeing movies at advanced screenings is a huge benefit to doing what I do but it often presents a false impression of how a real audience will react to a movie.  Many times, the crowds that gather for these early showings have waited in line for hours and are experienced at snagging seats for every movie no matter the content or genre.  As long as it’s free, it’s worth seeing and that isn’t always the case for families that have to consider the cost to entertainment benefits of packing the kids into the car and taking them to the movies where prices are high and concessions are tempting.  What I could easily write off as trivial piddle because I’m seeing it for free and have another movie to get to tomorrow could be the one film outing of the holiday season for a household.  So trust me when I say I take this seriously.

Though I had my finicky issues with 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, I still was able to recognize the enormous appeal of its stars and setting, a feeling that obviously was shared by the movie-going public who came out to support it en masse.  Opening strong but then showing surprising longevity over the ensuing weeks, the semi-sequel to the 1996 Robin Williams film was a bona fide hit that didn’t rely solely on the cast or an existing franchise to sell it.  It was an entertaining adventure that was a safe choice for the holidays and managed to outlast a Star Wars sequel (The Last Jedi) and a big movie musical (The Greatest Showman).  Two years later, a third movie has arrived a week before the release of another Star Wars film (The Rise of Skywalker) and a highly anticipated adaptation of a Broadway show (CATS)…is lighting going to strike again for Jumanji: The Next Level and its key players?

It’s been a year since four high schoolers serving detention entered a video game version of Jumanji that saw them take on different role playing avatars to humorous results.  Saving the day and exiting the playing ground as friends, they’ve gone their separate ways but have decided to reunite during the holidays.  Staying with his mom for the week and sharing a bedroom with his grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito, Dumbo) recuperating from hip surgery, Spencer (Alex Wolff, Semper Fi)  can’t seem to find the same confidence he felt when he was in Jumanji as Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, Rampage) and takes a late-night opportunity to go back into the game.

Looking for Spencer when he doesn’t show up for their scheduled reunion, the three other friends (Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, and Madison Iseman) figure out where he has likely gone but before they can make a plan to save him they are sucked back into the game, along with Eddie and Eddie’s former business partner Milo (Danny Glover, The Dead Don’t Die).  All is not well when they return though because while the familiar avatars have stayed the same, the game has changed and, as the title indicates, there is another level to play if they want to make it out alive.  Teaming up with fresh characters, re-discovering old alliances, traveling to new worlds, and battling stronger enemies, the group will have to work together in order to retrieve a precious jewel that holds the key to sustaining the life of Jumanji.

The previous film was working with a script from at least four screenwriters and felt bogged down in a mass of ideas and input.  You could tell it had gone through the franchise factory to ensure it was perfected in order to leave room for future installments and, as I predicted at the end of my review of the original this new film allows our adventurers to explore different worlds outside of the jungle setting.  This keeps the movie from becoming too familiar, even if the entire endeavor is a basic rehash of the original, albeit with bigger effects and a few more characters within the game thrown in.  Is it a better movie?  I don’t know.  It feels about on par with what’s come before and it doesn’t stray too much from what everyone loved from the preceding film.  It brings back nearly everyone, including Nick Jonas (Midway) and that helps it achieve some consistency.

Director Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape) gathers the gang together again and largely lets them loose to do their shtick with little restraint.  This works for the most part in the physical scenes but for the passages that rely on comedic timing, some red flags popped up for me.  I’m not so sure how much I loved hearing Johnson (being “played” by DeVito) yammering through a stereotypical Brooklyn vernacular and I definitely didn’t care for Jack Black (The House with a Clock in Its Walls) affecting a problematic ethnic dialect when he was supposedly being played by a black teenager.  Black was already skating on some tepid ice with his wispy valley girl tra-la-la-ing and furthering some dated speech patterns made me squirm a bit.

If Johnson was the winning star of the first film, the bulk of the heavy lifting here is shifted to Kevin Hart (The Upside) and Karen Gillan (Oculus) who get some nice moments in as the zoologist and butt-kicker in the group.  The wealth is evenly distributed among the four but I felt Hart and Gillan were afforded some of the movies best sequences.  Strangely, the previews and marketing materials have failed to mention the presence of a new character played by a star on the rise and if the studio is being cagey about it, I’ll keep their identity a secret as well.  All I’ll say is this actor is making the awards rounds this season and perhaps they want to downplay their participation in a silly movie for fear their more serious work would be seen in a different light – which makes sense because what they’re doing is painting with some fairly broad strokes. Another secret I’ll keep is the name of an actor making an appearance somewhere in the movie that I recognized from the 1996 film.  At first, I wondered why this person would be cast who already had an association with this property, only to find out later they have the same character name in both movies.  A coincidence?  Time will tell.

Clocking in at 129 minutes, this felt longer than it had to be.  I was getting fairly shifty in my seat before this was even half over and I’m not sure if small children would feel the same way.  I would have liked to see a bit more adventure included in this adventure story and not just impressive CGI created worlds and effects.  There’s a nifty (and scary) high-wire pursuit by a horde of mandrills and a sequence near the end featuring a player eluding poison darts was more in line with what I wanted but there isn’t much room for that when so many other stars are mugging for time.  With a foundation already laid for a third installment, even if this doesn’t exactly represent a level up in overall quality at least there’s been some thought put into the design of this new playing field.

Movie Review ~ Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Lawman Luke Hobbs and outcast Deckard Shaw form an unlikely alliance when a cyber-genetically enhanced villain threatens the future of humanity.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Eddie Marsan, Helen Mirren, Eiza González

Director: David Leitch

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: To their credit, Hollywood studios have been actively trying to elevate the summer movie to being more than just a two-hour mélange of special effects and explosions in a cookie cutter plot about world domination. For example, the sophistication of where Avengers: Endgame wound up is a far cry from the early days of the first Iron Man. Audiences have shown (in most cases) to have ever evolving and distinctively discerning tastes and the same old action movie just won’t do any more. Sometimes, though, there’s nothing wrong with a little cinematic comfort food and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw is the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese of summer blockbuster entertainment.

With each installment growing in popularity and box office returns, it was a natural next step for the producers of The Fast and The Furious franchise to think about the future of the series and how to keep their product going. While the main series could keep speeding forward thanks to a seemingly never-ending roster of characters that rotate in and out, were there any fan favorites that could anchor their own film? When Dwayne Johnson (Rampage) joined the group in 2011’s Fast Five, Special Agent Luke Hobbs quickly stood out thanks to Johnson’s natural charisma and the way the writers worked his character from law-man adversary to comrade over the next three films. Jason Statham (The Meg) made the biggest change, with his Deckard Shaw starting as the revenge-seeking villain in 2015’s Furious 7, eventually switching sides and joining the crew…though he never did take a liking to Hobbs.

Even before The Fate of the Furious came out in 2017, this spin-off was already in the works and, depending on who you ask, it came at the right time. Some of the stars not involved were, um, furious that the next installment was going to be delayed while producers were focused on this stand-alone film and there is reportedly bad blood between Johnson and Vin Diesel regarding professional behavior on set. Best to let their biceps cool down on opposite sides of the world. That freed Johnson and Statham to team up with original The Fast and the Furious writer Chris Morgan and Atomic Blonde director David Leitch for a new adventure and it’s clear this is the beginning of a beautiful partnership.

In London, an MI6 agent (Vanessa Kirby, Me Before You) ingests a deadly virus rather than let it fall into the hands of a genetically enhanced legionnaire (Idris Elba, Zootopia) sent by a mystery figure to retrieve it. Now on the run with a ticking time bomb flowing through her veins, her best hope is to rely on Hobbs and Shaw to help her find the scientist that created the virus and is the only one who knows the way to get it out of her safely. Adding to the complexity is a history Shaw has with the super-soldier unyielding in his pursuit and the fact the MI6 agent is his estranged sister. Together, the trio evade continue to evade capture in increasingly impressive action extravaganzas while Hobbs & Shaw learn to work as a team and put aside their beef.

Truth be told, the first half an hour or so of Hobbs & Shaw is a bit of a rocky ride. The set-up of these films is usually the weakest part and that’s the case here, not to mention the film having to juggle re-introducing two main characters sufficiently before they can bring them together. There’s frankly too much time spent getting the guys in the same frame and that feels like wasted energy for a movie that thrives on pure adrenaline. A useless cameo by Ryan Reynolds (Life) as an annoying co-worker of Hobbs grows tiresome almost the moment it begins, though I could have easily spent more time with Shaw visiting his cheeky mum (Helen Mirren, Eye in the Sky) in prison. It’s when the two meet up for the first time when the movie kicks into gear.

With Statham and Johnson doing what they do best, it’s no huge news bulletin to note they are both extremely watchable and have terrific chemistry. They have a nice yin and yang sparring about them that never goes too far and never falls in favor of either man. Though the film throws in some nice surprises along the way (including one great cameo I wouldn’t dare spoil) it remains focused on its two leads while leaving space for others like Elba and Kirby to shine. Speaking of Elba, his next-gen soldier might be a bit far-fetched and not fully explored but he doesn’t oversell the advanced tech power he possesses. As with most of his performances, Elba looks like he’s having a great time and that energy is infectious. As the lone female leading presence, (though there are several females in power positions besting their male counterparts, a nice touch) Kirby holds her own impressively both in the dramatic scenes and in the physical stunts and fights she’s involved with. Kirby’s star is definitely on the rise and her performance here only cements that ascent.

With an edge of your seat finale set in beautiful Samoa, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw is an out and out audience pleaser that elicited the first mid-movie applause I’ve heard in quite some time. Even clocking in at 135 minutes (including multiple post-credit sequences… completists will need to sit through a lengthy credit crawl for a final scene) the movie justifies its length by giving you every bang for your hard-earned buck. Sure, it’s a silly ride at times but it’s an exciting one all the same.

Movie Review ~ Skyscraper


The Facts
:

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
:

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
:

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

clt-4gluyaavjpn

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)

arnold-terminator-almostdidnotstar

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
:
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

san_andreas_ver3

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.