Movie Review ~ Mortal Engines

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The Facts
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Synopsis: In a post-apocalyptic world where cities ride on wheels and consume each other to survive, two people meet in London and try to stop a conspiracy.

Stars: Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Frankie Adams, Colin Salmon, Stephen Lang

Director: Christian Rivers

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 128 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  In my review of the recently released Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse I bemoaned the turgid same-ness that is starting to torpedo genre films.  With most superhero movies following the same mold, it takes an outside of the box approach to make the film truly memorable and one that will keep it in your memory long after you leave theater.  The same rule applies to adaptations of YA novels.  While the Harry Potter films kicked off the current generation of lucrative franchise pictures based on popular novels for young adults, the genre really took off with the success (and superiority) of movies that were made out of The Hunger Games series.  With many imitators along the way (Divergent, The Maze Runner, Mortal Instruments: City of Bones), nothing has met the success or longevity of the Harry Potter or Hunger Games films and sadly the latest entry Mortal Engines joins that list of non-starters.

After a devastating event that caused much of the world to become unstable and uninhabitable, mankind has taken to living in cities on wheels that routinely swallow up smaller communities and use their resources for fuel.  The opening of Mortal Engines plunges us right into such a hunt, when the mobile city of London goes after a tiny salt mining town that’s no match for the former UK’s massive (and massively impressive) super metropolis.  It’s a jarring start to the movie and, without much context, leaves audiences to find their own bearing in a sea of character names and made-up terms.  It actually feels like the opening of a second or third film in an already established series, which has the effect of keeping the viewer at an outsider’s arm’s length from the outset.

On the confiscated town is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar, Anna Karenina, an Icelandic actress playing American not totally succeeding in losing her Nordic accent), a scarred young woman that has hoped for exactly this outcome.  She wants to gain access to London because that’s where Thaddeus Valentine is.  Valentine (Hugo Weaving, The Dressmaker) and Hester’s mother had a complicated history and Hester has come to settle a longstanding score.  When ambitious Londoner and historian Tom (Robert Sheehan) intercepts her attempt to assassinate Valentine only to then find himself on the run with Hester, the two are soon at the center of a plot that threatens any city in Valentine’s path.  At the same time, a resurrected creature (voiced by Stephen Lang, Don’t Breathe) relentlessly pursues Hester with his own agenda that Valentine uses to his larger advantage.

Based on the first of four novels in author Phillip Reeve’s bleak version of the future, Mortal Engines has been adapted for the screen and produced by Peter Jackson (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies).  It’s interesting to note that while Jackson wrote the script, produced the film, and had his Oscar-winning special effects WETA workshop design the impressive visuals, he left the directing duties to first-timer Christian Rivers, his long-time story boarder and protégé.  Rivers is no Jackson, though, and while his work assembling a visually appealing movie is impressive there is little in the way of emotional heft to make the film more than just an excuse for special effects and rousing soundtrack cues.

The movie also has a strong sense of post-production tinkering.  Why else would characters that seem to be of greater importance vanish for long stretches of time only to return when necessary or not at all?  Valentine has a spunky daughter (Leila George) that feels like she’s getting her own B-storyline but aside from a few quick intercuts of her in London while Hester and Tom are dodging steampunk kidnappers (in a nicely bizarre nod to a New Zealand-y Mad Max: Fury Road) she’s largely absent from the proceedings.  Then there’s a band of outlaws led by Anna Fang (Jihae, delivering her lines with dramatically committed sincerity) set to protect Hester who are barely-there sketches of your standard rouge gallery of grunts.

Though it boasts an impressive team behind the scenes, Mortal Engines doesn’t have enough gas to make much of a fire.

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.

Movie Review ~ A Million Ways to Die in the West

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As a cowardly farmer begins to fall for the mysterious new woman in town, he must put his new-found courage to the test when her husband, a notorious gun-slinger, announces his arrival.

Stars: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris

Director: Seth MacFarlane

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  The posters for A Million Ways to Die in the West tout “From the guy who brought you Ted”…that should have been enough of a warning for me to head for the hills.   For the “guy” in question is Seth MacFarlane and Ted wasn’t exactly my favorite film of 2012.  Though I’ve come to a point of forgiveness with MacFarlane after his arguably unforgivable job hosting the Oscars in 2013, I got saddle sores while sitting through his attempt to make a Blazing Saddles for his Family Guy audience.

I realized while watching (more like grimacing through) MacFarlane’s latest directorial effort that Westerns don’t often get a new spin but when they do, more often than not they work.  Blazing Saddles from 1974 and Django Unchained from 2012 are the first examples that come to mind.  While Saddles was a Mel Brooks exercise in comedic buffoonery, Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western revenge epic was bloody good fun.  A Million Ways to Die in the West is an example of the wide, wide chasm that exists between films like Saddles and Django and MacFarlane’s raunchy and ribald supposed comedy.

There’s a good laugh right off the bat but sadly, like the roles played by Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi, the funny stuff all but disappears for more than half the film.  In place of actual laughs is MacFarlane’s ill-advised attempt to Woody Allen-ize every paranoid, fatalist diatribe he’s written for his character.  His clueless sheep farmer in 1822 speaks like an overindulged frat boy from Yale and looks like he got lost on a back lot tour of the set of Gunsmoke.  MacFarlane is so pasty white and healthy looking that when he’s in crowd scenes with his fellow dust bowlers he stands out like a sore thumb…either he didn’t want to get dirty or he’s going after an endorsement deal with Noxzema.

In Ted, MacFarlane only provided the voice for the naughty bear and that was somewhat tolerable.  This film makes it clear that he’s better suited doing his various voices behind the camera than being front and center.  Previously mentioned team players Silverman (Wreck-It Ralph) and Ribisi (Contraband) don’t have much to do but make voraciously explicit sex jokes that had the college age guys sitting next to me literally falling out of their seat with laughter.  Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables) spends the entirety of the film rolling her eyes (possibly mimicking the audience?) and Liam Neeson (Non-Stop, The Nut Job) provides another cinematic example of why needs to learn to say no to every role he’s offered.

Rounding out the cast is an unusually game Charlize Theron as bandit Neeson’s wife that takes a head-scratching interest in MacFarlane’s character.  Theron (Snow White and the Huntsman) hasn’t done much in comedy and if she isn’t entirely successful here, I hope she gives it another go with a better script, director, and leading man because she has good instincts.  Neil Patrick Harris (Gone Girl) is overexposed.  There, I said it.  Even more in love with himself than MacFarlane, Harris’ broadly drafted mustached louse is a painful sight to behold — especially when he’s seen defecating in not one but two hats.

The defecating (and its fully visualized aftermath) is just one example from a film filled with an endless supply of gross out gags, aroused animal genitals, rogue bodily fluids, and rancid jokes that are lingered on and even explained for good measure.  I don’t doubt that the population in the early 1800’s knew how to swear a blue streak, but I have mixed feelings that the phrase “Let’s get f***ed up!” was popular at the time.

I’d like to say I’m not the target audience for the film…but that just isn’t true.  I’m all for dumb humor and the kind of time wasting that movies allow and provide excuses for enjoying…but this just takes things too far.  Thanks to MacFarlane’s major miscalculation that he knows from funny, A Million Ways to Die in the West should D.O.A. by high noon the day it opens.

Note: If you simply MUST see this film, there are several cameos that may make it worth your while.  One cameo in particular is brilliant…you’ll know it when you see it.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Million Ways to Die in the West

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Synopsis: A cowardly farmer seeks the help of a gunslinger’s wife to help him win back the woman who left him.

Release Date: May 30, 2014

Thoughts: Tough call, friends, tough call.  On the one hand, A Million Ways to Die in the West is headlined by Seth MacFarlane, a comedic presence that I’ve never really warmed to.  Complete annoyance as Oscar host aside, I’m not a devotee of Family Guy and felt Ted had some snuggle up and laugh moments but ultimately was a one-trick teddy bear of a film.  On the other hand, MacFarlane has assembled an impressive posse of actors that are worth their salt when it comes to wry comedy.  Charlize Theron didn’t get the credit she deserved for her bitingly funny turn in Young Adult so it’s nice to see her stretching her funny bone again.  While MacFarlane seems to be aiming for a next-gen Blazing Saddles, his go big or go home attitude assures us that like it or not this will rise or fall in a blaze of glory.

Movie Review ~ Elysium

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.

Stars: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner, Wagner Moura

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Achieving a minor miracle of a success with 2009’s District 9 (which went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture), it’s interesting that it took director Neill Blomkamp several years to release his follow-up film.  Laboring long and hard on a film that, like District 9, is not merely a science fiction stunner but a thinly veiled allegory about something bigger the wait was (mostly) worth it with Elysium.

Now I know this film has some problems.  Its storyline is a bit fractured with holes that are wide and frequent but it’s the intense focus on the superior visual design of the movie that earns high marks from this reviewer.  Surely housing the best looking effects of any film released in 2013, Elysium sometimes becomes too enamored of its own shine and flash and that’s why it’s class warfare parable doesn’t seem as fully fleshed out as Blomkamp’s apartheid statement hiding under the wiry guts of District 9’s plot.

That being said, you have to hand it to Blomkamp for aspiring to something greater than just delivering straight-forward science fiction with a message that doesn’t seem force-fed or totally obvious.  I’ve mentioned in my review of the trailer for Elysium that Matt Damon (Promised Land) and Jodie Foster (Carnage) are notoriously choosy about their films and it isn’t hard to see why both actors eyeballed this project.  Though I don’t feel either broke any new ground, it winds up providing solid fodder for Damon to continue his flawed hero character he’s been honing since the Good Will Hunting days and for Foster to fashion another ice queen so brittle she might break if she bumped into a wall.  Foster adopts a strange accent that sounds like it was both an afterthought and extensively fixed in post production dubbing…it just felt off and a rare misstep for the actress.  The most satisfying performance comes from Sharlto Copley’s (Europa Report) wicked wicked contract killer, a rough and tumble movie villain from a movie era long since obliterated.

Blomkamp’s script has its fair share of twists and interesting commentary about future society until it pares back the bigger ideas for bigger action sequences.  These aren’t necessarily unwelcome bits of action but it feels like Blomkamp was a servant to two masters…his own ideology of what he could say with this film and a movie studio that supports the director but also sees the bottom line of a summer action film.

I did enjoy the film more than I thought I would and found it a wonder to look at, if not always to follow along with.  I’m hoping that Blomkamp gets back to what made his first US splash such a smash and find a way to achieve more balance with what he’s saying and what he’s showing.