Movie Review ~ Papillon (2018)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Wrongfully convicted for murder, Henri Charriere forms an unlikely relationship with fellow inmate and quirky convicted counterfeiter Louis Dega, in an attempt to escape from the notorious penal colony on Devil’s Island.

Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Roland Møller, Yorick van Wageningen, Tommy Flanagan, Eve Hewson

Director: Michael Noer

Rated: R

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While I was familiar in passing with Henri Charrière’s semi-autobiographical 1970 novel Papillion and it’s 1973 film adaption starring Steven McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, I’d never dug deep into either source material before taking in the 2018 remake. So I have little to compare and contrast to what has come before. Maybe that’s a good thing, too, because for all the bleakness and cold to the touch emotions the new Papillion employs, it seems like it would make a good rainy day selection for audiences craving something with some substance.

Set between the years of 1933 and 1941, Papillion follows petty thief Charrière (Charlie Hunnam, Pacific Rim) as is he wrongfully convicted of a murder he didn’t commit and sentenced to serve his time on a penal colony in French Guiana. The conditions are terrible and the punishments for disobeying orders (or worse, attempted escape) are brutal. Through a friendship that develops with Louis Dega (Rami Malek, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) the two men plot an escape from the island prison but face the elements and their own demons along the way.

Fans of The Shawshank Redemption might find more than a few similarities between that film and Papillion. Both are set in hellish prisons governed by an imperious warden and feature a colorful set of supporting characters there to alienate our leads at some points and assist them in their quest at others. While the overall message of hope amidst darkness is delivered expertly in Shawshank, it’s a feeling that Papillion can’t quite relay in the same powerful way.

Danish director Michael Noer and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners) speed through Charrière’s life in Paris with his girlfriend (Eve Hewson, Enough Said), eager to get him convicted and en route with Dega to the island as quickly as possible. The journey by boat is a nightmare for the affluent and slight Dega, but buddying up with Charrière gets him the protection he needs to survive until he makes it to shore. The film soon gets into an episodic routine of Charrière looking out for Dega while planning an escape with fellow inmate Celier (Roland Møller, Skyscraper) and suffering various tortures for both efforts.

Though he’s often lost among the more popular actors of his generation, I find Hunnam to be a real star sitting right on the brink. He chooses interesting projects (2017’s The Lost City of Z was maybe the most unheralded movie of that year) and commits himself completely to his work (maybe that commitment to material he believes in is why he famously bowed out of a leading role in Fifty Shades of Grey) and that same talent is on display here. Charrière gets put through the ringer and Hunnam ably takes us through every heinous step of his imprisonment. Still, he doesn’t let the character wallow too long and while he maintains some impeccably clean teeth even after years in solitary confinement, his physical and emotional transformation is largely impressive.

I still wish I understood why people are trying to make Rami Malek happen as a leading man. He’s supposedly wonderful on TV’s Mr. Robot but I’ve yet to be thrilled by any of the work he’s done on screen. He talks like he has a frog in his throat and maintains skittish tics that feel like nuances derived from Acting 101 textbooks. Malek’s big test will be playing Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody later this year and while he’s perfectly fine as the bug-eyed Dega, he’s matched with an actor that strong arms him in more ways than one.

The cinematography from Hagen Bogdanski and the production design from Tom Meyer (The Internship) are top notch, putting you right into the heat and horrible conditions within the prison. There’s some wonderfully intricate designs that make you curious to explore the space…an impressive accomplishment as the space we want more time in in a dingy prison and, later, an island cut-off from the rest of the prisoners.

Even pushing past the two hour running length, the opening and closing of Papillion feel rushed and unfinished.  It’s frustrating for films to feel constructed around attention spans as opposed to story and that dings the effort a bit in my book.  Still, Papillion is another film like the recently released Alpha that are better than their meager roll-outs suggest. Like Alpha, it’s a film you’re going to have to work to see and work harder to get comfortable with. Those willing to make that pact are likely to be rewarded.

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 ~ Land of Mine

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young group of German POWs are made the enemy of a nation, where they are now forced to dig up 2 million land-mines with their bare hands.

Stars: Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Laura Bro

Director: Martin Zandvliet

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Just when you thought all the good WWII stories had been told, along comes Land of Mine from Denmark.  Nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, it may not have won the top prize or been richly promoted like some of its fellow nominees but it’s a handsomely made effort and a surprisingly memorable one at that.

It’s 1945 in Denmark and while the war is over the battle isn’t quite done.  A crop of young Nazi POW’s are put to work removing the land mines from the coastal beaches and what a deadly task that turns out to be.  Given basic training in locating and dismantling these mechanical booby traps, the young men are kept in rudimentary conditions and nearly starved to death by their captors.  At first, they find little sympathy from their guard Sgt. Carl (Roland Møller), a patriot blistered by his hatred of all Nazis.  Before he meets the boys his anger at the Nazi occupation is demonstrated in bloody detail when he beats a marching prisoner within an inch of his life.

Originally at odds within their own group, they begin to form some semblance of a bond once they are pushed to the brink by Carl and after several lose their limbs and/or lives.  It doesn’t take a seasoned screenwriter to see the plot mechanics of writer/director Martin Zandvliet’s film and you can easily pick out who will avoid going kaboom and almost the precise moment Carl will soften.  Still, strong performances go a long way to elevate Land of Mine away from territory so familiar we aren’t invested in the outcome.

Beautifully filmed by Camilla Hjelm with an unobtrusive score from Sune Martin, Zandvliet keeps you literally on the edge of your seat even as you wait for the inevitable to happen.  As the boys crawl along the beaches and uncover bomb after hidden bomb, you start to let your guard down before reality explodes from below.  To some, it may feel like easy retribution for what the Nazi party did to countless countries and their people, but Zandvliet makes it less about justified revenge and more about the tragedy of the entire situation on both sides.  After all, many of these German POW’s were simple teenagers recruited from their homes and fighting a war they had no value or stake in…when they cry for their families and fallen friends it’s not easy to group them with the SS officers that set about exterminating much of the population in these European countries.

Entertaining but standardly so, it’s not hard to see why Land of Mine wound up in the top five lists at the Oscars just as it’s not hard to see why it didn’t have the full substance to take the award home.  Very much worth a watch, though; just make sure you trim your nails before it starts or else you’ll chew them down during the more tense moments.