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.

 

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018): Broader Comedy and a Connection (Review)

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018): Broader Comedy and a Connection (Review)

Ever since Edgar Wright was given the old “heave ho” from the original Ant-Man the tiny (and not so tiny) superhero’s fate has been open to debate. Certainly Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a like-able alternative to Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym but one can only imagine what Wright’s take on the whole thing would have been. 

Still, Bring It On director Peyton Reed was an inspired choice to helm the first outing of Ant-Man and he has proven with Ant-Man and the Wasp that he can blend his comic touch, yet again, with action flawlessly. The film delivers on a broader scale, in terms of comedy, (although it has lost some of the delightful dichotomies involved in that Thomas the Tank engine fight) and introduces a gender changed Ghost.

Of course the best bit about making Ghost a female is that the incredibly gorgeous and talented Hannah John-Kamen (who kicked bad-guy butt weekly on SyFy via Killjoys and recently did a star turn in Ready Player One) got to show off her excellent acting chops once again. Evangeline Lily reprises her role as Hank’s chip off the old block daughter, Hope and Rudd’s character’s three stooge pals return as well.

A quick nod to the splendid Michael Peña, who once again shows his comic genius is in order here.  He almost steals every single scene he is in which almost cements his return in future installments of this franchise. Everyone, including the “newcomers” – Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne and the brilliant Walton Goggins all bring something to the Marvel table. Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale and the always adorable Abby Ryder Fortson give us an Ant-Man verse we know and love. 

There is, of course, the inevitable tie-in with “Infinity Wars” and the eagerly waited second half of said film. While, in this reviewer’s estimation, it all may stem from that green stone that Dr. Strange coughed up to Thanos to save Tony Stark, it may well be the Quantum bits and Lang’s exposure to them that turns around the downbeat and upsetting of part one of Infinity Wars…

Ant-Man and the Wasp is built around Scott’s escape from the same trap that Janet Van Dyne (Pfeiffer) fell into 30 years before. But there is also the “Accord” law breakage that puts Lang on house arrest and the dilemma of Ghost, who become a major fly in the ointment of our heroes.

The comedy in this second installment of the franchise is surely a touch of genius on the part of Reed as helmsman. The hilarity is so contagious and spot on that good old Stan Lee’s cameo is quite tame. It also affects the gag from the first film about the tiny crashing items and their lack of fan-fare.

Douglas is still grumpy and funny in turns, Lily is still hot as ever as Wasp, even before she dons the suit and, John-Kamen kills it as the trapped between dimensions “villain” being driven mad by the pain.

There is not a lot wrong with the film and it is a mark of its success that one immediately wants to sit through the entire thing again as soon as it finishes.  Ant-Man and the Wasp ends on a huge cliffhanger, one that only those Marvel fans who remember to stick around after the credits start rolling will see, and it is a real “Debbie Downer” of an ending.

(It is amazing to see how many filmgoers leave before the credits finish. Have they learned nothing?)

Theories abound about the ending and the possible connection between the upcoming part two of Infinity Wars. We are reasonably sure that despite the negative vibe put off by the end of this film, Ant-Man and his new sidekick Wasp will be around to fight another day…

The film earns a full 5 stars just for its comedy alone. Rudd, Lily and Douglas make a great team, along with Fortson and the three stooges that accompany Rudd’s character once again. Cannavale has little to do and Judy Greer (a personal favorite since Cursed) is funny as Lang’s ex who’s had a change of heart.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is still playing at cinemas and is worth seeing on the big screen. This one is a keeper though and will make a great addition to all your other Marvel verse films.

 

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.