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 Shape of Water (2017): Del Toro’s Return to Form (Review)

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Guillermo del Toro returns to form with The Shape of Water. This 2017 offering, co-written by del Toro with Vanessa Taylor, stars Sally Hawkins as the mute girl who befriends the creature. Michael Shannon is the villain, Richard Jenkins; the reluctant accomplice and Octavia Spencer the plucky sidekick. Doug Jones plays the South American amphibious creature/god.

The theme of this film is water, naturally, as both the environment for the underwater dweller worshipped by the locals as some sort of god and as the background for most of the events of the film. The creature bears more than a little resemblance to “monster” in  The Creature of the Black Lagoon but unlike good old Roscoe Browning’s creature, this one has no zipper running up its back.

Jones’ creature looks real and, even more importantly, plausible. Hawkins is the isolated cleaning woman trapped in a 1960’s world of racism, class structure and a world run by men for men. Women are second class citizens and one who has a speech impediment is on the very bottom of the totem pole.

Del Toro gives us a heroine that we fall immediately in love with. A woman whose existence is full of routine but who has the soul of a dancer, a singer and a romantic.  Although part of her daily preparations for work include industriously masturbating in a tub of water, deep down, Elisa Esposito has enough imagination to fill in many blanks in her life.

Jenkins is Giles, her next door neighbor. He is a closeted gay, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, an artist and he is desperately trying to make ends meet and fall in love. Spencer is Zelda, the co-worker who looks out for her mute friend, and translates when required.

Michael Shannon is Strickland; the man who captured the creature and transported it to the scientific facility where it will be studied. Strickland is also, somewhat ironically, a very cold fish. He is humorless, vicious and utterly, it seems, without feeling.

Del Toro’s film asks what would have happened if the creature of the Black Lagoon had been captured at a time when the Russian’s were winning the space race and the Cold War was running full steam ahead. (Michael Stuhlbarg plays a crucial part as a scientist who is not all he seems.)

With The Shape if Water del Toro returns to his roots. The film has all the dark and terrible beauty of Pan’s Labyrinth and the whimsy of The Devil’s Backbone. We fall for the story and all its characters hook, line and sinker. The creature is not terrifying at all, we feel as much empathy as curiosity and Elisa’a inexplicable yearning and interest in the thing is not mystifying at all.

Doug Jones has given us a performance full of nuances, emotions and a certain depth that has never been seen before in a “creature feature.”

The film is classed as an adventure, fantasy, drama and it is indeed all three. It can also be seen as a romance as well as a heart pounding thriller. There are scenes that keep the viewer on the edge of their seat;  breath held as they silently urge the heroes on and others that fill the heart with warmth.

The Shape if Water has sets that are reminiscent of the underwater city in Bioshock and water does feature in practically every scene. Del Toro makes old films an important part of the story and the cast is perfect. Shannon gives us a man we love to hate and when the climax of the film arrives we are satisfied with his fate.

If there is any complaint at all about this marvelous feature it would be that the scars on Elisa’s neck are obvious from the first time we see them and we know that they will provide some sort of plot twist.

This is a full 5 star film that delivers across the board. The story, sets, costumes and performances all come together in a dark bit of art that touches the viewer’s heart. Catch this one when it comes out in the cinema (December 8) and get caught up in Guillermo del Toro’s return to form.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown (2017): Life of an “Also Ran” (Review)

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The Ballad of Lefty Brown is an interesting concept from start to finish. Part homage – it pays more than a little tribute to both The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Unforgiven – with a story about a western “also ran” who did not make the pages of the penny dreadfuls of the time. Written and directed by  Jared Moshe, the film is described as a “coming of age” film. 

Lefty Brown, played brilliantly by personal favorite Bill Pullman, is a “man-child.” His implied backstory is that at one time he and three other partners terrorized the southwest territory. One of these is going to be the new senator (Peter Fonda in a small but pivotal role) and after his death, two other old friends arrive to sort things out.

The film gives us a protagonist that, at times, is both simple and sly. One wonders just how much of Lefty Brown’s “slowness” is real. There are many instances where this character appears to be more than meets the eye.

We are privy to Lefty’s journey and Moshe gives us a story that pleases almost as much as it dismays. Pullman’s character goes through his paces with a doggedness that one assumes has been his main trait since birth.

It is his very pedantic, and simple,  approach to all things that has kept him from gracing the pages of the dime novel that the greenhorn Jeremiah (played very well by newcomer Diego Josef) carries with him in the film. Jim Caviezel and the splendid Scottish actor Tommy Flanagan are outstanding as the two old pals who were once part of the “gang.” 

Kathy Baker is spot on as the bitter and angry widow who fights for what is rightfully hers and the tale, while coming across as rather dire, is interesting enough to keep one glued to the seat for the climax. At just under two hours, The Ballad of Lefty Brown successfully manages to combine a character study with the western genre. 

This is Pullman’s film. From start to finish he commands the screen with his characterization of a man destined to be forgotten by all who knew him and it is Oscar-worthy. “Lefty Brown” combines music, sets and costumes effectively to make this oddly intimate film feel like a sweeping epic, along the lines of a John Ford (Cheyenne Autumn for example) western with just a touch of Spaghetti Western for good measure.

There is not an awful lot in the way of gun play, just one short gunfight in the middle, and the violence is not overly visceral in nature. This is more of a character study as we watch a man whose life has always been, it seems, outside the action.

However, there is the hint of a backstory that is slightly evocative of the Ford classic, “The Searchers” where the marshal’s wife was kidnapped by a Native American Tribe and one of the small group wishes for the good old days when “folks’ trembled before them.

This is an American West that resembles the AMC Robert Redford retelling of this countries history. It is all corrupt politics and bad men profiting from their past. Somethings, apparently, have not changed.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown is a solid 5 star film that delivers some solid performances from all the leads and gives Bill Pullman a real chance at garnering some awards.  Fans of the genre will love this homage to all things western.

The Hero (2017): Downbeat and Deep Sam Elliot Rocks (Review)

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Written for Sam Elliot and directed by Brett Haley, The Hero is a loving homage to the star and his long running career as consummate character actor. This deep and downbeat drama also manages to pay tribute to all those TV westerns where Sam, along with fan favorite Tom Selleck, helped to bring the tales of Louis L’Amour to life. Elliot, in short, rocks in his performance and should, if nothing else, get an Oscar nod for this role.

This is not a fun film to watch. With the exception of the award ceremony where Elliot proves he can play “high” with the best of them, the film is a cold hard look at the profession, aging and, ultimately, death. It also, through the auspices of Laura Prepon, tells us that romance is not dead at 71.

Co-written by Haley and Marc Basch The Hero tells the story of Lee Hayden. (Can there be a better name than this for a one time western star?) Lee is 71. His glory days are far behind him and he is estranged from his daughter (Krysten Ritter). Lee learns that he is to receive an award for his star turn in an old western “The Hero.” 

Before he can attend the ceremony, Lee marches through his days as a voice over artist; flogging barbecue sauce, smoking pot and wondering about his existence. He meets Charlotte (Prepon) who has a thing for older men and Lee learns that he is in the final stages of pancreatic cancer.

The Hero is a slow, almost languid, film. It is more interested in looking at Lee’s state of mind and the internal machinations of a man who knows he is dying. (There is a sort of irony at work here. Patrick Swayze – Elliot’s co-star in Roadhouse – died from pancreatic cancer. As this was written for Elliot, it stands to reason that this may be a slight nod to the late actor.)

The film has a fine mix of comedic moments (very low key) and a number of tearful scenes. Elliot’s resurgence in the social realm, after his award speech is broadcast on YouTube, leads to an audition. It is not a surprising scene. There is a splendid buildup to the moment in a previous scene.

Lee reads his sides with onetime costar and drug dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman).  The lines deal with a space cowboy who is trying to save his estranged daughter. Themes of desertion, death and betrayal resonate in the brief bit of dialogue and the stage is set for what transpires later. 

Katherine Ross (Elliot’s real life wife) plays his ex with conviction and the only complaint here would be with her lack of screen time. This is, however, Elliot’s story so everyone else must stay on the periphery of the tale. The Hero strides slowly towards its somewhat ambiguous ending with a pace that is evocative of a western hero striding slowly down main street; spurs jangling, to that fateful shootout.

Prepon is spot on as Hayward’s young poetry obsessed lover. Ritter proves that whether she is playing a Marvel superhero, doomed drug addict or the  estranged daughter of a self centered actor, she  nails the character completely.

The Hero is the perfect counterpoint to the redneck comedy on Netflix where Elliot has been both miscast and misplaced. The actor can do comedy brilliantly and still manages to, with nary a word spoken, show pathos almost effortlessly.

(When Sam cries we all cry, such is his depth and honesty.)

The Hero is a full five star film, despite its somewhat lacklustre ending. The film is one that needs to be seen and savoured. Haley has put his heart and soul into this cinematic love letter to Elliot and this should net some gongs at the next Oscar ceremony.

Wonder Woman (2017): A DC Ode to Powerful Women (Review)

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It is hard to believe that Wonder Woman (brought to us by the same man who dehumanized Superman – Zack Snyder; but directed by Patty Jenkins which explains so much) came at the beginning of a year that has turned into one of empowerment for females in “the business.” Gal Gadot, in her second outing as Diana “Queen of the Amazons,” proves once more that one can love a strong yet beautiful woman warrior with little effort. 

The film itself shows that, Harley Quinn aside, there are positive female role models out there in the darker verse. It also takes Wonder Woman out of those 1970’s spandex short-shorts sported by the TV version played so capably by Linda Carter.

Despite the original outcry of dismay when Gadot was cast as the lasso spinning heroine, the actress (whose face could launch a 1000 ships) brings the DC seeker of justice to living breathing life. All the emotions missing in Snyder’s version of Superman are there for the taking in this film.

Set in WWI, versus the WWII origins of Marvel’s  Captain America, Chris Pine easily plays the American spy who is running from the Germans, aka the Hun (the Nazis do not turn up for quite some time…) headed up by the maestro of acting, Danny Huston. The cast is full of familiar and well-known names, all of whom turn in splendid performances.

David Thewlis, that long, tall and talented Brit actor, who needs to be in more films damn it, kills it as the politico whom one suspects immediately of shady dealings and the crew that Pine collects to stop Huston’s character are all brilliant as well. 

The only shocker, in terms of cast and actors, is the transformation of Lucy Davis (who is, perhaps, best known for playing Dianne in Shaun of the Dead) into a modern version of “Aunt Clara” from Bewitched, aka the late actress Marion Lorne.

Image courtesy of IMDb
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Elena Anaya plays the sinister and scarred doctor who plans of murdering a lot of her fellow denizens with a new gas. She is a close colleague of Huston’s murderous general and the two make a great “couple.” Cameos by Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright round out this film with yet more stand out performances. 

Make no mistake though this is Gadot’s film.  She manages to surpass Carter’s TV heroine in this “origin” story with scary ease. Jenkins skillfully moves the film and her performers through the paces with admirable snap, crackle and pop.

Wonder Woman is up for a number of awards in the upcoming Oscar race and deservedly so. The effects, with the exception of that glowing lasso, are brilliant. The sets are spot on and London, for the brief time it is on show, looks authentic.

The story itself echoes real-life complaints of how the “war to end all wars” was run by generals sitting on their bums at Whitehall (see the last season of Black Adder “Black Adder Goes Forth” for a more blackly comic reference). Diana’s rant to the room of bureaucrats who have no problem sentencing thousands of innocents to death is spot on.

WW is a long film, it runs for two hours and 21 minutes, but does not lag or bog down in the middle. There is a jab at the ridiculous concept that glasses can adequately hide a superhero’s identity (Clark Kent anyone?) and we find that Diana works for the Dark Knight himself; Bruce Wayne.

There is enough time to wonder if the special gas that Dr. Maru gives Ludendorff is meant to be a tongue in cheek jibe at Viagra, but this does not distract from the overall film. (One also wonders if Wonder Woman would be so popular with fans if she were a plain yet muscly, superhero who looked horrid in those small warrior outfits. Although at the end of the day, the conclusion is that it really does not matter. Diana is appealing because of her mindset, not her appearance, although many teen boys, and girls, might disagree.)

Wonder Woman earns a full  five stars. It entertains full stop. While it is up for a number of those little gold chaps that the Academy like to give out, it will, no doubt, be snubbed. It is, after all, a comic book film and not, for instance, Schindler’s List…

There is a good bit of violence, of the non-visceral sort, no intense cursing and no on-screen sex antics. This is a film that the entire family can enjoy. It is also amazingly pertinent at a time when the Weinsteins, and others with that “casting couch” mentality, are being drummed out of the business by some very brave and new “wonder women.”