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 ~ Miss Sloane

miss_sloane
The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the world of political power-brokers, Sloane takes on the most powerful opponent of her career and will do whatever is required to win.

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alison Pill, Jake Lacy, Sam Waterston, John Lithgow

Director: John Madden

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Miss Sloane is a timely political drama that has a stacked deck in its cinematic favor.  An Oscar nominated director and multi-award winning actors have been brought together with mostly good, but never great, results.  While that may sound like the movie overall is a disappointment considering the pedigree in front of and behind the camera, it has enough energy to rise above the scenes that enervate its forward motion.

Jessica Chastain (The Martian) plays the titular character, a sought-after D.C. lobbyist as ruthless in her pursuit of winning as she is about making sure her flame red hair is always tucked neatly behind one ear.  (At one point, I doubted she had two ears since we never saw the other).  As the film opens, Sloane is about to go before a congressional hearing to defend herself over accusations of impropriety, charges that could, if convicted, carry a lengthy term in prison.  Showing how the sleep-averse Sloane got into her current hot seat is what occupies most of the picture, tracing her path from a plum job at a high powered conservative lobbying firm to a grassroots boutique agency opposing a gun bill.

The parallels to David and Goliath are evident as Sloane and her recruits take on the big boys who begin to care more about derailing her than they do about pushing through their political agenda.  Sloane isn’t afraid to go up against her former employers, even if they already may know exactly what her next unscrupulous move will be.  Brief forays into high tech spy surveillance (what’s being done with cockroaches might make a PETA supporter reconsider squashing them on sight) and peeks into the upper pill popping Sloane’s personal affairs via clandestine meetings with a kindly gigolo (Jake Lacy, Love the Coopers) thankfully break up the heavier moments with stale political rhetoric being recited expertly by Chastain and the rest of the cast.

The script from first-timer Jonathan Perera is very of the moment, even if it plays like the pilot of a new HBO series.  If you listen carefully, the entirety of the twists the film has in store are given away by one character within the first ten minutes but it’s buried so well by Perera that you don’t notice it until you’re walking to your car.  Director John Madden (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) maneuvers his actors well and keeps the film moving at a nice clip but at 132 minutes there’s probably a good ten to fifteen minutes that could be jettisoned in favor of a tighter running time.  While some may accuse the film of cheating in its final act, I’ll again point to Perera outright telling us what’s going to happen and then delivering on it.

As much as I like Chastian, I have to say that for the first twenty minutes of Miss Sloane I wasn’t sure what the hell she was doing.  Showing a ballbuster temperament on the surface without going very deep, I got worried that Chastain was using this as an exercise in overacting instead of layering in her performance.  Eventually, though, the actress tuned in and that’s when the film really starts to zip along.  Like the best complex characters, there’s not a lot of backstory given to how Sloane came to be how she is and that makes her one of the more interesting characters to show up in film this year.  The race for a Best Actress nomination is a tight one and Chastain might just find herself as one of the five nominees.

Supporting Chastain is Mark Strong (Zero Dark Thirty) as Sloane’s boss at her new firm and Sam Waterson (The Man in the Moon) as her previous employer who sets his sights on destroying her completely.  Waterston may have more hair on his eyebrows than Strong has on his whole body but Strong easily bests Waterston performance-wise by underplaying expertly.  You can’t totally fault Waterston, though, because the first half of the film finds many characters shouting at each other…guess no one in Washington knows how to use their inside voices.  Though I’m a fan of Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange), his terribly old-school New Yawhk accent only made me detest his already detestable character more.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beauty and the Beast) and moon faced Alison Pill (Hail, Caesar!) are the lone prominent female roles and both are afforded showcasing scenes.  As the head of the congressional committee cross examining Sloane, John Lithgow (Interstellar) is his usual blustery self.

At the center of Miss Sloane is a debate over gun control that continues to be a hot button issue in this increasingly political climate.  Even as a work of fiction, Miss Sloane makes some interesting points about the current state of affairs regarding the NRA and the landscape of big business in our nation’s capital.  In setting out to tell this story, Perera and the cast aptly keep the conversation going without letting the movie be solely about that important issue.

An intelligent, well-read picture, Miss Sloane may be overstuffed and take some time to let its actress find her way but it winds up being a pleasing film with good intentions.  If it had been made as the first episode for a cable series, I’d be setting my DVR to record future episodes.

Movie Review ~ Carol

carol

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1950s New York, a department-store clerk who dreams of a better life falls for an older, married woman.

Stars: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Cory Michael Smith

Director: Todd Haynes

Rated: R

Running Length:  118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  Looking through our 2016 lens, it’s still hard to imagine a time when being gay was something no one discussed.  No one.  “Committed bachelors” or “spinster aunts” were often coded labels placed on gay men and women when discussed in refined society circles.  Then there were those that struggled with their sexuality and found themselves in loveless marriages, sometimes out of convenience, sometimes out of necessity.

Adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith, Carol is an examination of two women at different stages of their lives.  A young woman with her life ahead of her becomes enamored with a glamorous married woman a decade or more her senior.  From the moment department store clerk Therese (Rooney Mara, Side Effects) meets Carol (Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine) during a Christmas season shopping trip, there’s an instant connection the women silently share.  It’s a moment of electricity anyone that’s ever felt the prickle of immediate attraction can relate to.

By accident or on purpose, Carol leaves her gloves behind and when Therese has them returned it gives the women the excuse to meet up.  During their dinner conversation both women examine the other, seemingly wanting to say something more but unsure if their assumptions are correct.  Being the older, more experienced of the two Carol seems to know what comes next and Therese looks to her for guidance as she examines her own desires.

While Carol and Therese begin to hone in on their feelings, the men in their lives struggle with the loss of connection.  Carol’s estranged husband (Kyle Chandler, The Spectacular Now) loves his wife…or does he love the idea of her more?  They share a daughter and over the course of the film the husband tries everything to get his wife back, no matter how desperate the measures are.  Therese’s boyfriend (Jake Lacy, Love the Coopers) is a man with a plan…he sees the life, the wife, and the family society says he should have.  The parallels between the younger unattached couple and the older married couple aren’t hard to see.

Director Todd Haynes delivers an achingly complex tale of love that has no easy answers or pat solutions.  There isn’t a sweeping miracle finale where everyone winds up happy, to present that response would be to alter a history that has seen gay rights and acceptance evolve at a creeping pace over the next half century after Carol takes place.

Blanchett and Mara are luminous in their roles and acting within the exquisite production design captured elegantly by cinematographer Edward Lachman, the performances live and breathe with ease.  Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave) has a brief but powerful turn as a former flame of Blanchett while Chandler and Lacy make their men a product of the ideals of the time, yet not without a brain or a heart.

We’ve evolved a lot as a society, especially in the last decade, getting ever closer to a parity between individuals at a human level.  There won’t ever be consensus on what is acceptable but the first step is understanding.  Carol shows a beauty of a relationship damaged by societal norms, and the fight to reclaim what’s true.

Movie Review ~ Love the Coopers

1

love_the_coopers_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: When four generations of the Cooper clan come together for their annual Christmas Eve celebration, a series of unexpected visitors and unlikely events turn the night upside down, leading them all toward a surprising rediscovery of family bonds and the spirit of the holiday

Stars: Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Ed Helms, Diane Keaton, Jake Lacy, Anthony Mackie, Amanda Seyfried, June Squibb, Marisa Tomei, Olivia Wilde

Director: Jessie Nelson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: Hold on a sec, allow me to get into full Ebenezer Scrooge mode because have I got a whopper of a turkey for you. Normally, I truly feel like the last two months of the year are, as the song says, the most wonderful time of the year. It’s a time to reunite with family, practice being ok with giving instead of receiving, and hauling out classic holiday films made more enjoyable on snowy days and chilly nights. Arriving like a lump of coal in a moldy old fruitcake, Love the Coopers is not only the worst holiday film in recent memory but one of the worst offerings of 2015. Yes, I’m counting the endless TV movies featuring a department store Santa Claus helping an exasperated female executive find love with a burly man we all know is perfect for her.

Picture a movie where every single character is miserable. They don’t like their family, they can’t stand their friends, they basically hate their lives. Now imagine its set during Christmas and filled with every lame joke in the holiday handbook, from family secrets spilling out during a disastrous dinner table scene to irascible old fogies that turn wise when the movie needs a moral.

Screenwriter Steven Rogers (who, after viewing his credits on IMDb, seems to specialize in saccharine nonsensical dramedies) sketches the film as an ensemble affair with multiple storylines playing out (more like wearing out) during one jam packed day.

There’s Eleanor (Olivia Wilde, The Lazarus Effect), who’d rather hang out at the airport bar than head home, befriending a military man (Jake Lacy, Carol, the only bright spot in the movie) before convincing him to come home with her and pretend to be her boyfriend. Ruby (Amanda Seyfried, Lovelace), a diner waitress that feels a kinship with the cantankerous old coot (Alan Arkin, Indian Summer) that frequents her section. Hank (Ed Helms, Vacation) is trying to find a way to tell his estranged wife (Alex Borstein, A Million Ways to Die in the West) that he’s lost his job and can’t afford to buy presents for their kids. Emma (Marisa Tomei, Trainwreck) is a kleptomaniac taken on the longest drive in the history of ever by a policeman with a Big Secret (Anthony Mackie, Pain & Gain).

Then we have Diane Keaton (And So It Goes) and John Goodman (Argo) as the heads of the family who can’t seem to get out of the rut they’ve been wallowing in for years. Keaton seems resigned to live in the shadow of a career that’s left her in the dust and Goodman must have needed the money to buy clothes in light of his recent weight loss. Oh…and I can’t leave out June Squibb (Nebraska, in a role I’m sure Betty White turned down) as a forgetful aunt that’s just a set-up for various sight gags and fart jokes. There’s also a narrator to the film, a device employed not only as an opportunity for a famous comedian to provide a voice for but to be a part of a twist reveal that most awake audience members will figure out early on.

The last film director Jessie Nelson released was I Am Sam in 2001 and it’s painfully obvious the dormant decade between the two films wasn’t spent in a graduate film school seeing that the film is an awkward mix of false emotional peaks and ill-conceived bits of comedy that makes the running length feel neverending. The tipping point for me was a dreadful family sing-a-long with Helms and Arkin strumming away at their guitars without the vaguest hint of knowing irony. Another particularly painful passage was the aforementioned police car ride where Tomei tries to psychoanalyze stoic cop Mackie, leading to a left-field admission that’s not only offensive but downright tacky.

Love the Coopers seems destined to be that awful holiday entertainment that that one good friend of yours (hopefully not a loved one) claims to be their ‘favorite’ film and forces you to watch with them. Take my advice and resist the urge to bask in the glow of doing something kind for others and think only of yourself…and stay far away from this stinker.