Skyscraper (2018): Dwayne Johnson and Neve Campbell Rock (Review)

Skyscraper (2018): Dwayne Johnson and Neve Campbell Rock (Review)

Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, We’re the Millers) Skyscraper stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Jumanji: Welcome to the JungleRampage and a slew of other films) and Neve Campbell ( the Canadian actress best known to horror fans as the survivor Sidney Prescott from the Scream franchise).  The film, made on an estimated budget of over $125 million, feels a bit old fashioned despite its high flying premise.

The title structure is in the new Hong Kong and is now the tallest structure in the world. Johnson’s character, Will Sawyer,  is a former rescue team leader who misses a bomb and loses his leg as a result. Campbell (Sarah Sawyer) is a former military surgeon who operated on him, married him and then became the mother of his children.

Sawyer is now the head of a small security company hired to check out the new skyscraper after being given a push by an old pal and former rescue teammate. The family are living in the towering structure and they are the only inhabitants in the entire residential section of the building.

On the day that Will must certify the skyscrape as being safe and secure, a former partner of builder Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) – Kores Botha, played by Roland Møller, sets the building on fire. The plan is to force Ji to flee with his most prized possession so Botha can steal it.

This plan puts Sawyer’s family at risk as they return from an abortive panda visit and are now just above the deadly conflagration started by Botha and his henchmen.  Cue some heroics from Will and Sarah as they struggle to save the kids (Henry and Georgia –Noah Cottrell and McKenna Roberts who are brilliant in their roles) and take down the evil baddies who are willing to destroy everything to get what they want. 

All in all, the film feels like a throwback to the days of, not just, Towering Inferno with a touch of Die Hard but to a less bloody and profanity filled Hollywood PG-13 action thriller. Skyscraper entertains from its very first frame, however, it is all that bit too predictable to be originally entertaining.

Johnson, who really cannot seem to put a foot wrong lately, convinces and it is a treat to see Campbell play yet another strong female who proves to be the equal of her giant of a husband.  Perhaps the thing that really works is how Johnson manages to stay away from Schwarzenegger territory, despite his incredible physique. The fact that the former wrestling icon can act circle around the former “Governator” also helps Johnson show a more human side.

The cast deliver across the board.Hannah Quinlivan – as Xia – is good as the deadly and rather nasty bit of work who orchestrates a number of dirty deeds for Botha. Byron Mann (Inspector Wu) also convinces as the cop in charge of first arresting then assisting Sawyer and his family. 

Special effects are outstanding overall and the stunts are thrilling enough to impress the most jaded of film fans. Thurber proves that he can do much more than comedy although the script feels almost like a “by the numbers” effort.

Skyscraper pulls in an impressive 4.5 stars, despite the schmaltzy ending and rather bloodless final battle. The effects in the “pearl” are good, although they are a computer screen re-imagining of the old carnival hall of mirrors. The film is worth seeing as it does move at a breakneck speed and one could easily bring the kids and the grandparents to see this one.

The entire film is worth the price of admission for Neve Campbell alone, throw in Johnson and, despite the films few drawbacks, Thurber has a winner here. The actors rock their respective roles and help to make this one heck of an enjoyable experience.

The First Purge (2018): A Template Tale (Review)

The First Purge

The First Purge may feel like “Billy Jack ”  without the hat and the protagonist is a caring and sharing neighborhood drug lord, but it really aims for much higher ideals. Trotting out the tropes of “you cannot trust the government and that all people of color, even those of oriental descent, are to be exterminated with extreme prejudice, The First Purge follows its own template yet again.

All of the films in this popular franchise are carbon copies of each other. Albeit slightly different directions are taken in each iteration. However, apart from the tendency to stick with one small group throughout, the film offers the same overall theme: That government want to clear out the “minorities” and the ghettos via “The Purge.”

Written by James DeMonaco and directed by Gerard McMurray, The First Purge stars the heart stoppingly beautiful and abundantly talented Lee Scott Davis and features a biggish cameo by the evergreen Marisa Tomei. The film  tries to offer an insight to all that mercenary involvement that features heavily in the other installments of the franchise.

Unfortunately, the entire thing  feels like a template from the other films that followed the first offering back in 2013. With a final message (Spoiler Alert) of your local crime lord caring more for his fellow downtrodden and impoverished neighbors than the cold hearted government (read Donald Trump’s cabinet and the Republican Party here) the timing of this tale is, perhaps, too close for comfort.

While it strains believability, the film does throw shade on the current government. That being said, the earlier installments also cocked a snook at the establishment. One that was headed by then president Barrack Obama. So the message, which feels quite relevant now, is still trodding the path of good old Billy Jack: “We cannot trust government” or “the Man.”

(Or as the outlaw Josie Wales tells the Cherokee chief in the film of the same name – “Looks like we can’t trust the white man.”)

All racial aspects aside, and political relevancy ignored, The First Purge offers an almost eerily correct picture of the current government in the United States of America. We never see the president, but we hear the one-sided sycophantic conversation that the leader of the social experiment passes on to the “current leader” before sending Marisa Tomei’s character out to be shot in the head.

By the end of the film one feels that nothing is really new here. McMurray and DeMonaco both lead the audience in the same direction as previous offerings in the franchise. No one, in terms of the cast, really stands out. Y’lan Noel (as Dimitri) is limited by the script and Mugga  plays a role that, in earlier years, would have been filled by Octavia Spencer

Overall, The First Purge is not quite mutton dressed as lamb but it lacks the enjoyment level of the other offerings in this violent and, perhaps, prophetic set of films. The message is the same in this template tale of big brother murdering the lower classes and while the presence of Aunt May helps to a degree it is not enough to save this one from a certain mediocrity and mendacity.

(On a side note: The colored contacts that the “players” wear, is never really utilized to its full potential. It makes the purge participants look like zombies, to a degree, but it, in the end, detracts from the action.)

The First Purge is a three star offering; a stale and repeated tale without the personal touches of previous films in the franchise. Fans may enjoy it, although I am admittedly a fan of all the previous films and found it a bit…hum-drum, but this is one to view via DVD or streaming. Seeing it in the cinema is not recommended as this film follows the same old template ad nauseam….

Molly’s Game (2017): Memoirs of a “Poker Princess” – Not (Review)

Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in MOLLY'S GAME

Writer, producer and director Aaron Sorkin takes Molly Bloom’s memoirs “Molly’s Game” and turns it into a fascinating look at the “poker princess.” The press dubbed Ms. Bloom this when her case became public and as the character says in the film, she was not a princess because, like the song says, this woman worked hard for the money.

Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba (as a fictional character not present the book) and Michael Cera, as a thinly veiled Tobey Maguire, Molly’s Game is a more fanciful version of events. Certainly the movie follows the chain of events pretty accurately, although it does deviate from the low-key facts as presented by the real Ms. Bloom.

There are some things created for the big screen adaptation. For instance, the antagonistic relationship with Molly’s father, the skiing accident (never happened) and the complete lack of any relationships are all items dreamed up by Sorkin to add a little spice to the proceedings. (Just as Elba’s character, Charlie Jaffey was also a “construct” to help the viewer to “get behind” the rather strong female lead.

Chastain plays Molly Bloom to perfection. In all likelihood no other actress in Hollywood at the moment could have filled the designer stilettos of the female lead so well. The actress gives the role a solid truth, whether  depicting her early awe at the player’s she meets at “The Game” or when she later become jaded and rather un-enamored with the whole thing, she sells it perfectly.

Elba is spot on at the invented devil’s advocate who ultimately takes on the legal system and the US government on her behalf. It is disappointing to learn that there was no Jaffey in the book and that this legal guardian of justice is just a device to keep the audience on Molly’s side. This does not detract from the character at all, however, like the invented accident that turns Bloom from an Olympic hopeful to a “Girl Friday” for a rather unpleasant real estate entrepreneur, it helps to move the story along very well.

The film manages to change the names to protect the innocent, like the book, and while Ms. Bloom does “name drop” just a tad – she names only the players who the press “outed” already, if one reads the book, it is clear that Player X (Cera) is Tobey Maguire. (It also comes as no real surprise that the real life Maguire is a pretty nasty bit of work at the card table and away from it.)

Regardless of the changed names and the fictional constructs, Molly’s Game is entertaining and gives us a heroine we can get behind. Astute, charming and a hard worker, Bloom rises, against all odds, to become an essential part of two large poker games; one in New York and the other in LA. (In the book the real life Molly has got a few more games on the side, most notably in the 24 hour city of Las Vegas.)

The film uses a lot of the “professional” jargon associated with poker. For those who know little beyond “flop” and call, this in itself is an education. The chapters are broken down by these terms and Molly herself, via Chastain, explains what many of these terms mean. (This explains part of the appeal of Molly’s Game; our hero taught herself not only how to play poker but all the terms involved.

Molly’s Game can almost be seen as an American success story. One where hard work, charm and a high intelligence quotient makes a corn-fed wannabe Olympic skier one of the top earners in high stakes America. Sorkin excellently leads us down Molly’s path as she first learns LA and then  “The Game.”

We cheer her successes and moan at her setbacks. Chastain and Elba make a splendid double act throughout the film and when her overly competitive father, in the guise of Kevin Costner, shows up at the end, we are genuinely moved.

Molly’s Game is a full 5 star film. (Chastain certainly got my vote for “Best Actress”) Sorkin pleases with his first directorial feature despite deviating from the source material. Chastain sells her real-life character and Elba is, of course, at the top of his game. Cera is brilliantly low-key  as the unpleasant Player X and the rest of the cast all rise to the occasion and shine.

(Keep an eye out for the excellent Irish actor Chris O’Dowd in his cameo as the “only Irishman” that the Russian mob will allow into their card game. He is splendid in this tiny role.)

See this one when it screens in January, you will be glad you did. Molly’s Game is not about a poker princess, but about a hardworking, fast learning young woman who made a mint from men’s greed.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – The Most Fun You Will Have This Year (Review)

Jumanji-Welcome-to-the-Jungle-cast

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a reimagining of the 1995 film starring Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst and Jonathan Hyde. Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape, Bad Teacher), gives us an updated version of the Chris Van Allsburg short story. This time around the film is populated by Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Dwayne Johnson and Nick Jonas. The move to base the whole thing on a video game world results in perhaps the most fun you will have this year.

The movie may not be Shakespeare and its message may just be the most simplistic one offered up in 2017, but, damn it, this is gut bustlingly fun. The audience laughs out loud with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle not at it.

Reworking the 1995 version is not a hit or miss prospect, nor is it rocket science. The opening sequence explains quite neatly how the “evil” game transforms itself from a passé board game into a “state of the art” 1996 video game. In the beginning, the plot may feel a tad like a millennials  “The Breakfast Club” (there is even a red-head female to round out the group) but the sitting, in an old junk room at the local high school takes us right out of that motif immediately.

Taking a note from Stay Alive, the film transports the small quartet of teens into the video world of Jumanji and they must survive the game, save the jungle world and then shout the name in order to go home. Like the first film, there is a character who was sucked into the world 20 years previously (Nick Jonas as Alex Freeke – whose dad is played by the brilliant Tim Matheson).

The cast all knock this one out of the comedic park. Johnson, with his “smoldering” and wishy-washy bravery, Jack Black as the teen girl in a middle aged man’s body,  Hart as the “little big-man” and Gillan as the smart wall-flower in the Lara Croft body each bring more than enough to the table to make this fun-filled action romp seem more believable than it has any right to be.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle does not go out of its way to bludgeon the audience with its video game premise. It is, obviously, aimed at the “gamer” in the theatre. The character’s mention the NPC (video-game speak for “non player character) and in this case there are several. The Brit driver and “guide” a lad in the bazaar and two guards outside the transportation hut. We are given a brief explanation of what these characters do, for those non-gamers in the audience, and then leaves the subject alone.

There is direct referencing to “respawning” and each character taken over by the teens has only three lives. In this telling of Jumanji, the animals never cross over into the real world and we have a somewhat more satisfactory ending with no apparent chance of another sequel.

The film works very well, despite having no less than four writers credit with the screenplay. Some stereotypes are used to “sell” the characters but this does not distract from the obvious enjoyment factor attached to this movie.

Bobby Cannavale is splendid as big boss Van Pelt and fans of Missi Pyle will be delighted with her tiny cameo in the film. Nick Jonas is more than capable as “Alex Freeke” the young man lost in the game since 1996 and sharp-eyed viewers will spot Colin Hanks (son of Tom) in another splendid but short cameo. 

The scenery, CGI and stunts all come together to give us a movie that feels like a video game in its presentation and structure. This all works perfectly and adds to the overall fun factor of the film.

Kasden has given us a film that entertains enormously. Any movie that ends with the viewer immediately wanting to see it again is a “win.” Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a full 5 star piece. It a glorious bit of adventure that tickles the funny bone and engages the viewer throughout. See this one at the cinema now for a full quotient of entertainment. The audience reactions are almost as fun as the film.

Lady Bird (2017): Simply Wonderful (Review)

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It is inconceivable that this splendid little “feel good” film was excluded, nay snubbed, at The Golden Globes. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is, quite simply, wonderful. Starring Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird, along with the delightful and talented Laurie Metcalf as the teen’s passive aggressive mum, the film is a coming of age story set in a Catholic school in Sacramento. 

While Lady Bird never quite lives up to the comedic promise of that opening scene in the car, it does go on to deliver a steady stream of low-key humour,  a little heart-break and some well timed pathos. Metcalf and Ronan make a delightful double-act and Tracy Letts (as the big hearted dad) steps in, as needed, to spread a little love to both combatants. 

Writer and director Gerwig addresses a lot of teen issues in this dramedy. Sexuality, losing one’s virginity, living on the wrong side of the middle-class divide, unemployment and trying desperately to grow “away” from one’s parents. None of these subjects are earth shatteringly original or ground breaking but they are delivered expertly and adorably by Ronan as the girl who wants to soar above her socially placed limits.

There is not doubt that this is Ronan’s film. She rules each and every scene she is in. However major kudos need to be given to Lucas Hedges – Lady Bird’s first love interest, Beanie Feldstein; who plays the best friend and if Metcalf does not snag a little golden fella come award time for her performance as Lady Bird’s mum, there is something definitely rotten going on in the Academy.

Lady Bird allows us into the main character’s world and her determination to head back east for her further education. She submits applications to colleges in New York on the sly, with help from her dad while she rushes to complete her last year of high school and break free of her lower middle class bonds.

We are privy to her foray into love, her first: School play, job and her acceptance into the upper echelons of Sacramento society. She becomes friends with rich girl Jenna Walton (played by Odeya Rush, who looks eerily like a young Mila Kunis) while turning her back on her old bff.

Lady Bird may not be Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical tale, but it gives us a taste of what she finds fascinating. She gives us a character who is, according to a Rolling Stone interview, a combination of underachiever and dreamer who dares to exceed her own wildest expectations.

Christine snacks on unconsecrated communion wafers with her bestie Julie and pranks the nun headmaster by putting a just married sign on her car. She steals a teacher’s grade book and then lies about her math grade to get a better score. She falls in love (twice) and buys all the things she has been forbidden to have when she turns 18.

Rebellion may be the catchword here, but it is pretty tame. This is what makes the character of Lady Bird so endearing and we cheer her brief, somewhat timid, trips into the abyss. The film is a firm 4 star venture that gives us a heroine we can get behind and a protagonist we understand.

Catch this one as quick as you can, the Golden Globes may have snubbed this simply wonderful film but one can be sure that the Academy will not. Movies like this one go a long way toward proving that Hollywood is a long way from being finished.