The Equalizer 2 (2018): Languid Denzel Washington Sequel (Review)

The Equalizer 2 (2018): Languid Denzel Washington Sequel (Review)

It is fair to say that I was a bit underwhelmed at the first outing of Denzel Washington as Robert McCall. The Equalizer 2, while moving at a frustratingly languid rate, does perform a tad better. The stormy ending of this sequel, directed again by Antoine Fuqua,  manages to make up for much of what is lacking in pace and storyline.

Once again, McCall deals mostly with “foreigners” versus the more homegrown baddies of the television series. The Russians have taken a backseat this go around with a trip to Brussels and a very short outing to Turkey. McCall helps out another unfortunate; Miles – played by Ashton Sanders and exacts revenge for the murder of an old friend (Melissa Leo).

However, without giving too much away plot wise, the bad guys he goes after this time around are a mixture of nationalities and at least one, is another old pal. An member of McCall’s old governmental group is murdered in Brussels and when Susan (Leo) and Dave York (Pedro Pascal) go to investigate, Susan is exterminated with extreme prejudice.

This sequel gives Washington another chance to deepen the character of McCall. We see his personal side, this time as a valued neighbor and helpful Lyft driver. (His character no longer works at the DIY store) Although he does little to help Fatima (Sakina Jaffrey whom we see far too little of) when her garden is destroyed, opting to clean up her graffitied mural instead.

Jonathan Scarfe is splendid as the nasty bit of work who murders for hire, Bill Pullman is not used enough and Pascal steps out smartly in his role. Sadly, no one has a chance to shine too brightly as the plot, despite trotting out an impressive amount of backstory, moves at a snail’s pace.  

Washington makes McCall just as believable this time around as he did in the first outing. The double Oscar winner never disappoints, bringing an impressive amount of gravitas and truth to whatever role he plays. (Take for example, his gunfighter in the abysmal Magnificent Seven remake. Washington was the one shining light in a classic western destroyed by a modern script and poor understanding of the genre.)

All in all, The Equalizer 2 does deliver in the entertainment department. The action pieces are very good – the battle between Susan and in the Belgium hotel room is impressive and it looks painful and believable. As usual, Washington, as McCall, comes across as the ultimate “bad ass.” While this ability shone through in The Book of Eli, he makes each move and countermove look impressively easy.

(Kudos to Stunt Coordinators Jeffrey J. Dashnaw and Mick Gould who make everyone’s fight scenes look gritty, painful and pretty darned realistic.)

The cinematography is spot on and the effects, especially at the end of the film, are brilliant. The Equalizer 2 is languid, as sequels go, but Denzel Washington and his fellow actors deliver across the board.

The film earns 4 stars because, despite the slow pacing, it does deliver. It has several redeeming features, like those brilliantly staged fight scenes, and is well worth watching at the cinema.

 

Rampage (2018): Dwayne Johnson, Moneypenny and Video Game Nostalgia (Review)

Rampage (2018): Dwayne Johnson, Moneypenny and George of the Jungle (Review)

Rampage (directed by Dwayne Johnson fave director Brad Peyton) stars “The Rock” and Miss Moneypenny (London actress Naomie Harris) and is a nostalgic look at an old video game of the same name. Granted, the film does deviate somewhat but there are plenty of nods and winks for fans of the 1986 arcade game.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays a government agent “good ole boy” type (he tells Okoye – Johnson, that he works for OGA or Other Government Agency with a sincere country delivery) who later steps up to help our heroes. Harris again delivers almost effortlessly as the former scientist/convict and there is far too little of personal favorite Marley Shelton.

George, the big ape, is brought to life by “Doug Jones” type Jason Liles and the film’s primary villain; Clare Wyden, is portrayed nastily by Malin Akerman. The cast contains a number of “familiar faces” and while it may seem a tad trite (it is, after all, based on a 1980’s platform game) it moves at a good pace and is funny in all the right places. 

The film makes use of devices from other, earlier, movies dealing with apes. Congo, starring Tim Curry, Ernie Hudson and a very young Laura Linney as the romantic/strong action lead, used sign language to communicate with the tame ape being returned to the wild.

However, Okoye’s pal George is much lighter and has a better and  naughtier sense of humour with his signage. (Going from a fist bump to flipping off his friend, George is an ape of many colours, unlike the drab and downbeat Amy in Congo.)

There is a nod to John Carpenter’s The Thing with the helicopter hunt of a 30 foot wolf and references to the video game itself are there for the taking. Rampage’s story, in a nutshell, deals with mutating animals that head to Chicago. They are set to destroy the city until Dr. Caldwell (Harris), Okoye and OGA Agent Russell (Morgan) step up, with the help of a cured George, and save the day.

The film is not deep and bears a slight resemblance to most Kong remakes. As video game films go, this one is fast paced, fun and not a little addictive. Shakespeare it ain’t but it is another Dwayne Johnson vehicle for the highest paid actor in Forbes history.

Joe Manganiello is good as the buggy eyed mercenary hired by the evil scientist to dispatch the 30 foot wolf and Demetrius Grosse is perfect as Colonel Blake; a man who overestimates the military’s competence and underestimates his targets. 

Morgan could have phoned his role in as it is a variation of his Negan character in AMC favorite The Walking Dead. Any downside to the film is, along with a yearning for more Marley Shelton, that the delightful and overly talented Ms. Harris could have also benefitted from more screen time. (Harris is a performer of many hues who delivered brilliantly in last years Moonlight playing splendidly against type.)

Rampage, however,  is an almost atypical Dwayne Johnson vehicle. It is yet another action/comedy part played by the wildly popular actor/icon this year (the other being Skyscraper with Neve Campbell) and, once again, the performer manages to thrill and entertain.

The film earns a cool 4.5 stars for its  fun factor alone. Rampage can be owned/streamed right now and it is worth a look, if one enjoys nostalgic video game films. The effects are good, the action plentiful and the comedy well timed. There is no nudity, foul language (except for the finger) and the violence is oddly bloodless.

 

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.

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

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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.