Movie Review ~ Mortal Engines

1


The Facts
:

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 ~ Don’t Breathe

dont_breathe_ver3

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of friends break into the house of a wealthy blind man, thinking they’ll get away with the perfect heist. They’re wrong.

Stars: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang

Director: Fede Alvarez

Rated: R

Running Length: 88 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: I’m getting old.  I mean, that’s really the only explanation because I think if I’d have seen Don’t Breathe a decade ago I would have given it practically a perfect score.  But…I’m older and, I think, wiser and my better judgement tells me that while this home invasion thriller hits many of the right notes (and, for a good stretch of time creates a near-symphony) there’s something overly slick about it that keeps it from being the true horror masterpiece the poster quotes would have you believe. Still, in a summer with box office duds that are horrors unto themselves (I’m looking at you, Suicide Squad), Don’t Breathe arrives in the last gasp of August with some refreshingly fresh air.

I simply hate movies that start out with a flash forward to the end of the film only to fold back on themselves and take you back to how it all began.  While I don’t often read other reviews in full before catching a screening, my #1 trusted reviewer Brian Orndof mentioned in his review that it would be a good idea to arrive a few minutes late so you miss what might be considered too much of a spoiler.  I’d go further and say you should arrive a full fifteen minutes after it starts because the opening stretch of Don’t Breathe is pretty terrible.  Bad acting, bad exposition, and bad dialogue had me wondering if we’d all been pranked into thinking this was horror on a higher level.

Three teens spend their aimless days breaking into houses in the Detroit area, committing petty burglary not so much for the monetary benefits but seeking some kind of thrill to break up their dead end lives.  Rocky (Jane Levy, Fun Size) and Money (Daniel Zovatto, It Follows) would likely think of themselves as a modern day Bonnie & Clyde…if I believed they had any clue who the doomed burglars were.  Tagging along is Alex (Dylan Minnette, Goosebumps) who not only holds an obvious torch for Rocky but the keys to the security systems his dad oversees.

When Money gets a tip on a score big enough to get them out of town, the trio decide to stage one last heist before retiring to a sunny life in L.A.  Located in an abandoned neighborhood, the house they set their sights on belongs to a blind veteran (Stephen Lang, The Nut Job) who, aside from owning a cranky Rottweiler, appears harmless.  Breaking into the house is easy…but getting out is another story.

It’s best to keep the details slim about what happens over the next 75 minutes but rest assured that right about the time you think you know what’s coming next, the tables get flipped and then flipped again and then broken apart and then the pieces thrown at you. Much like their Evil Dead remake in 2013, high points go to writers Fede Alvarez (who also directs and reteams with his Evil Dead star Levy) and Rodo Sayagues for keeping things unpredictable until the very end.  This isn’t nearly as gory or bloody as Evil Dead was, but it has head-spinning, armrest clenching, and eye-covering shocks all its own.

As original as the film is, it has a few flaws mostly involving pacing and performance.  Even at a trim 88 minutes it feels slightly slack in the opening half, saving the major adrenaline thrills for right around the mid-point before sputtering through multiple endings.  While Levy and Lang make for prime prey and predator, Minette is bland and Zovatto’s thug comes across like a parody done better on SNL.  Lang’s blind veteran eventually takes shape as an unstoppable force ala Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, and though I applaud Alvarez for letting the actors appear bruised and bloodied the “takes a licking and keeps on ticking” trope feels worn out by the final credits (which, by the way, are impressive).

For horror aficionados, Don’t Breathe may be the summer movie they were most excited to see and for that, it doesn’t disappoint.  It may have some cracks and creaks to it but the house that Alvarez and company build mostly holds up to the storm.

The Silver Bullet ~ Don’t Breathe

dont_breathe

Synopsis: A group of teens break into a blind man’s home thinking they’ll get away with the perfect crime. They’re wrong.

Release Date:  August 26, 2016

Thoughts: If you believe the early buzz (and you often can’t), Don’t Breathe is going to be one of those word of mouth flicks that seem to arrive at their release date with a lot going for them only to fizzle out after its first weekend.  True, the horror genre is a bit limited at any time of the year but in the waning summer months it can be hard to drum up excitement/scares when audiences are exhausted after the effects-a-paloozas they’ve sat through so far this year.  What gets this one a higher position on my radar is what’s going on behind the scenes.  The director is Fede Alvarez who successfully remade Evil Dead in 2013 as a gore-orgy that was as impressive visually as it was scary.  Another Evil Dead alum, Jane Levy (Fun Size), stars alongside Dylan Minnette (Prisoners), and always interesting character actor Stephen Lang (The Nut Job) in a plot that finds the tables turned on a trio of teens out to burglarize a blind man.

Movie Review ~ The Nut Job

nut_job

The Facts:

Synopsis: Surly, a curmudgeon, independent squirrel is banished from his park and forced to survive in the city. Lucky for him, he stumbles on the one thing that may be able to save his life, and the rest of park community, as they gear up for winter – Maury’s Nut Store.

Stars: Will Arnett, Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson, Katherine Heigl, Stephen Lang, Sarah Gadon, Jeff Dunham, Maya Rudolph, Gabriel Iglesias

Director: Peter Lepeniotis

Rated: PG

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: No one owes a bigger debt to the advent of cheaply produced animation more than the vermin of the world.  Where else but in a colorful bit of family friendly fluff can your run of the mill flea infested squirrel be transformed into a purple-ish hero voiced by Will Arnett?  Well squirrels, moles, raccoons, rats, and a host of other hairy creatures get their chance to shine in this well-intentioned but subpar attempt by small studio Open Road Films to weasel into the playing field with the likes of Pixar, Disney, and Dreamworks.

The Nut Job centers on Surly the squirrel (Arnett), who of course is pretty surly (har har) and doesn’t like sharing his carefully gathered nut goodies with his fellow dwellers of a spacious park.  When he’s responsible for the eradication of the food gathered for winter, he’s cast out of the park along with his silent rat friend.  In the hustle and bustle of the big city just outside the quaint park, he has the good fortune to find himself in front of an honest to goodness nut store and his worries are over.

Trouble is, the nut store is really a front for a bunch of gangsters using it to rob a bank across the street. In a variation of your classic caper comedies, they’re digging underground to break into the vault just as Surly and his growing gang of scampering rodent folk keeps trying multiple methods to gain entry into the store for all the walnuts they could every dream of.  Despite the somewhat quaint set-up of a robbery within a robbery, the movie never comes off as clever as it wants us to think it is.

Arnett is just fine but is perhaps a bit too sly in his delivery to truly open up his character beyond a grumpy squirrel who winds up changing his tune.  There’s nothing particularly memorable about his low registered characterization and when paired with regal sounding Liam Neeson (Battleship, The Grey) it feels like a basso-profundo face-off.

Saying this is Katherine Heigl’s best work may sound like a dig…until you consider her long long LONG string of failed films over the past several years.  Heigl (One for the Money) for once sounds as animated as her character, one of the few to be given a name other than their general moniker: Raccoon, Mole, Rat, etc…only species with multiple representation get their own names in the world of The Nut Job.  I’d say that Brendan Fraser was awful voicing a doofus brawny popular squirrel but as the film went along it became clear that Fraser was really the only one that fully embraced his surroundings and turned up the dial on the exuberance…and then busted the dial right off and went higher.  Though he’s exhausting, it’s the kind of liveliness the film is sorely lacking.

Running a long 80 some odd minutes, The Nut Job caps off it’s time with us via a curtain call finale set to South Korean rapper Psy’s Gangnam Style…nearly two years after it become popular and then went the way of the flashmob.  I know an animated film takes time to make its journey to the screen but including a song that was a dated cliché before the release date approaches is a true puzzlement.

The kind of film that could be popular since there’s little in the way of family entertainment at the movies this month, The Nut Job is exactly as good as you think it looks.  Falling into the mid-tier of animation efforts, it’s neither here nor there how well it does at the box office because it can’t have cost that much to make.  I’d say skip it…but if you have kids driving you crazy at home there are a lot worse ways to take them to the movies.