Rampage (Full Review)

I remember playing Rampage the arcade game at Chuck E’ Cheese. You could choose between a giant gorilla, lizard, or wolf and the object of the game was to destroy buildings and eat people. Yep… that sounds exactly like the type of thing that would get turned into a movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in 2018.

Rampage_teaser_film_posterJohnson stars as Davis Okoye, a primatologist who looks after a rare albino gorilla named George at the San Diego Zoo. When George is exposed to a dangerous chemical that alters his DNA, he becomes violent and starts to grow exponentially. Along with a mutated wolf and alligator, George goes on a rampage through Chicago. To save his primate friend, Davis teams up with a genetics expert (Naomi Harris) and a federal agent (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to find the cure within the shady company that inadvertently created them.

It’s hard to remember a movie with more incoherent plot threads than this one. Not the inexplicable opening street race in Fate of the Furious, not even the plots to the last four Transformers movies. They all pale in comparison to this nonsensical mess. The villains, a Research Company CEO (Malin Ackerman) and her useless, dimwitted brother (Jake Lacy) are the stupidest, most annoying antagonists I can fathom. Forget the fact that a reasonable motive is never given for why they’d even be experimenting with a substance that creates massive murderous mutations, when things go haywire Ackerman’s character’s solution is to draw the three creatures to Chicago to cure them. That’s right. The villain actually thinks signaling giant monsters to a major U.S. city is a great way to get away with creating giant monsters.

If you’re going to commit to cheesy, dumb fun, then don’t have your two leads taking things seriously. Pretty much every character other than Johnson and Harris is a buffoon. There’s the generic military general (Demetrius Grosse) who would rather get countless soldiers killed and bomb a heavily populated area than listen to literally the only two characters with knowledge on the situation. As for Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s cartoonish cowboy spiel, it would work if Johnson didn’t constantly undermine it by acting like he’s fully committed. Morgan’s character makes dumb decisions too, like bringing a violent gorilla, he plans on killing anyway, aboard a plane. Why not just shoot it after you manage to sedate it?

When Dwayne Johnson’s tough guy routine feels like the most intelligent thing in a movie, you know you have a problem. Between moronic characters and plot points that make absolutely no sense, the only thing to enjoy about Rampage is the CGI destruction in the last twenty minutes. A few scenes of bonding between Johnson and the CGI ape make for some mild endearment. But is that where we are with movies now? Is a few jokes and a tough guy all audiences need to ignore plots that don’t even try to add up? If so, then I can see why Hollywood keeps crapping out Transformers and Fast and Furious movies. And I wouldn’t be surprised if this monotonous mess turns into a franchise.

FINAL GRADE: D

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A Quiet Place (Full Review)

Silence is pretty terrifying when you think about it. Who hasn’t been alone in an empty home at night and been freaked out by a noise coming from an unknown place? Director John Krasinksi (The Office) takes that concept and adds elements of horror and science fiction to create a simplistic, but eerie thriller.

A_Quiet_Place_film_posterA Quiet Place is set in a world where most of humanity has been killed off by blind alien creatures that are attracted to any sound above a whisper.  Living on a farm with his pregnant wife (Emily Blunt), deaf daughter (Millicent Simmonds), and young son (Noah Jupe), Lee Abbott (Krazinksi) must find a way to protect his family from the deadly creatures while also carrying on day to day life in virtual silence.

As you might expect, the premise of the film can make for a slow burn at times. With limited dialogue and only a hand full of characters to focus on, things can feel a bit dull between the more suspenseful moments. But when those suspenseful sequences do come, they are ‘edge of your seat’ captivating like the raptor scene from Jurassic Park on steroids. And even through the film’s more sluggish moments, Krasinksi, who also wrote the film, does a wonderful job revealing important details and building character depth without the use of heavy dialogue or flashbacks.

The runtime isn’t dragged out and dedicates itself solely to its self contained story for better and worse. You may find yourself leaving the movie with questions about the film’s universe and character pasts. But such specifics aren’t the point of Krasinksi’s story. A Quiet Place is, above all, about family, sacrifice, and survival and with some classic monster movie elements, it carves out enough of a framework to make it both entertaining and memorable.

FINAL GRADE: B

Blockers (Full Review)

Every parent wants their child to obey, but also feel comfortable enough to confide and be truthful once they’re older. Every high school kid wants nurturing parents who will still give them the freedom to venture out and learn their own lessons. This universal dichotomy is the framework for Blockers, a movie that manages to blend just enough family endearment with its raunchy blend of comedy.

Blockers_(film)Kay Cannon, writer of the Pitch Perfect movies, makes her directorial debut in this story about a trio of parents hell bent on keeping their daughters from losing their virginities after they learn of a Prom night sex pact. Lisa (Leslie Mann) is a single mother whose afraid that her daughter (Kathryn Newton) will go far away for college and make the same mistakes she did. Mitchell (John Cena) is happily married with a newborn child but is afraid his oldest daughter (Geraldine Viswanathan) is going to sleep with a student known for cooking up drugs. Then there’s Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), a down on his luck divorcee who just wants back into his daughter’s (Gideon Adlon) life.

There is a moment where multiple characters projectile vomit, a scene where John Cena’s Mitchell has beer poured down his rectum, and gratuitous sex jokes a plenty. But Blockers actually works best when it isn’t being raunchy and just feeds off of the surprisingly fluid chemistry of its lead actors. John Cena is hilarious every time he speaks, owning the role like he’s back in Wrestlemania. And while Leslie Mann has portrayed manic mother’s seemingly a million times, here her knack for playing vulnerable OCD characters brings the film’s overarching theme home better than anyone else.

The surprising standout in Blockers, however, goes to MADtv alum Ike Barinholtz. He delivers funny, yet timely dialogue and physical humor while also managing to give a heavy dose of heart whenever the story focuses his way. Along with Cena, Mann, and a cast of youngsters whose characters all hold relevant narratives, this film manages to make its many outrageous scenarios believable simply because we care about the folks involved. So even though there aren’t a ton of truly side splitting moments, the hearty chuckles will come often enough to keep you entertained while the endearing tone does the rest to make Blockers memorable.

FINAL GRADE: B

Ready Player One (Full Review)

Steven Spielberg knows how to make an adventure film. For decades he has created and adapted unique worlds for the big screen that have become iconic in pop culture. So there is perhaps no one more equipped to tackle Ready Player One, a 2011 novel written by Ernest Cline that is bursting at the seams with 80’s nostalgia and nerd culture.

Ready_Player_One_(film)Ready Player One takes place in the 2040’s where most of humanity spends there time engulfed in a virtual world known as the OASIS where they can be whoever they want and gamble away their money playing games. After the creator of the OASIS (Mark Rylance) dies, he hides an Easter Egg within the game that will make the finder the wealthy sole owner of the OASIS. Living in poverty with his aunt, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) joins forces with a group of other gamers (Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki) to find the egg before the greedy head of a rival company (Ben Mendelsohn) can.

This film celebrates nerd culture like nothing else, at times for better and worse. The character arcs get a bit cheesy at times and if you’re not into gaming, the whole experience might be overwhelming.  This movie is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for MMO players and the people who understand most of the references in Family Guy, but what makes it work well is the story it tells. Sure, the effects are breathtaking and the pop culture references are fun, but without an intriguing narrative, the film would be a bore.

Ready Player One manages to weave a likable tale with surprisingly heartfelt themes thanks in large part to Mark Rylance’s James Halliday. The brilliant, but socially awkward character uses the game as a means to teach an endearing lesson about connection and taking chances. Rylance’s quirky, loveable performance makes the overall journey one worth taking even if you aren’t a fan of video games or can name all of the characters that pop up in the background. Combined with thrilling visuals and some well timed humor, Spielberg’s latest film ends up being an absolutely blast for anyone who just enjoys a good treasure hunt.

FINAL GRADE: B

Pacific Rim: Uprising (Full Review)

Giant robots fighting giant monsters. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim was nothing groundbreaking or thematically nuanced, but like Jurassic World or 2007’s Transformers it was an absolutely fun and exciting ride that felt ripped right out of a 90’s cartoon. The action was everything missing from the well rounded but lacking Power Rangers movie. With a new cast of characters and a new director at the helm, Pacific Rim: Uprising looks to recreate the same excitement as its predecessor.

Pacificrim2-posterUprising takes place 10 years after the original film, when pilots of giant robots called Jaegers fought to close an interdimensional gateway that led colossal monsters known as Kaiju into our world. Jake Pentacost (John Boyega), son of deceased Pacific Rim General Stacker Pentacost (Idris Elba) spends his days recovering old Jaeger parts and selling them to the highest bidder. His thieving lifestyle brings him into contact with a young, orphaned girl (Cailee Spainey) who has built her own tiny fighting robot. When rogue Jaegers threaten to reopen the Kaiju portal, Jake is forced to reunite with an old rival (Scott Eastwood) and lead a band of young recruits into war against this mysterious new threat.

In many ways, Pacific Rim: Uprising is what 2017’s disastrous Transformers: The Last Knight wanted to be, with a more concise narrative and more likable leads. John Boyega, of Star Wars fame, is the perfect centerpiece for this sequel. He delivers boyish charm and more comedic timing than anyone in the previous film. The intensity he brings in the climax makes him feel like a worthy successor to Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentacost despite the fact that the latter is only shown in photos. And even though her subplot with the other young recruits falls flat, Cailey Spainey is a welcomed addition thanks to a feisty performance and endearing sibling-like chemistry with Boyega.

The rest of the supporting characters are just as awkwardly generic, especially Scott Eastwood, but once the Jaeger’s mount up and the action takes center stage most of the blandness of the script washes away. There’s just something about the synchronized style of robot piloting that these films implement that feels imaginative and inherently cool. The reveal of the film’s villain, though awkward, is also a pleasantly surprising twist that keeps the plot from being too predictable.

Uprising is a tonal replica of the previous film for better and worse. If you found the characters cartoonish and the dialogue cliché on the first go round, then this film will be just as unsatisfying. But if you’re like me, and the high-stakes action of Pacific Rim had you on the edge of your seat, then this sequel will absolutely deliver more times than it doesn’t. In many ways, it actually ups the ante with more interesting characters and even more jaw dropping CGI sequences that boast new and interesting designs for both the Jaegers and their adversaries.

FINAL GRADE: B

Tomb Raider – 2018 (Full Review)

Let’s be honest. Video game movies are usually terrible. Not just bad… terrible. So terrible that even the best ones aren’t particularly memorable. Angelina Jolie’s 2001 and 2003 turn as beloved video game heroine Lara Croft didn’t do much to curb that notion. But in true Hollywood remake fashion, here we are again with another attempt at making Tomb Raider work for the big screen.

Tomb_Raider_(2018_film)This reboot reimagines Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) as a rebellious delivery girl whose father (Dominic West) disappeared while searching for mystical relics that could prove the existence of an afterlife. When she finally decides to accept her father’s inheritance and take ownership of his multimillion dollar company, Lara stumbles upon clues to his whereabouts. With the help of a drunken ship captain (Daniel Wu), Lara ventures to a treacherous, uncharted island where she encounters a secret organization that is using slave labor to uncover an ancient tomb.

I can count on one hand how many video game movies are watchable, and if you can name more than that then you will absolutely enjoy this reboot of Tomb Raider. The movie starts out slow. There are hokey jokes that don’t land and plot elements that don’t make an ounce of sense, but the adventurous tone and action sequences are right on the money.  Alicia Vikander brings some true grit and earnest heart to the lead role that makes her feel like a much more believable character than Angelina Jolie’s more cartoonish take.

The action is intense and the stakes are felt thanks to Vikander’s performance. Every other character will come off as forgettable, although Walton Goggins makes for a relatively intimidating villain. Truthfully, a Tomb Raider movie need only have a captivating Lara Croft and, more importantly, an enthralling motivation, for her to work. Recreating Lara as a brave and tough young woman grinding her way through perils to reconnect with her long lost father is enough to make this reboot worthwhile even for the casual moviegoer. Just don’t be that poor soul expecting something emotionally groundbreaking or overtly intelligent from a video game movie.

FINAL GRADE: B

Red Sparrow (Full Review)

A Russian girl is sent to an underground military program that trains her to be a sexy, seductive spy. No, this isn’t an ‘R’ rated version of the Black Widow movie Marvel should’ve made a long time ago. It is an adaptation of a novel written by Jason Matthews with director Francis Lawrence (Hunger Games: Catching Fire) at the helm.

Red_SparrowJennifer Lawrence plays Dominika, a star ballerina who is forced to give up her life of dancing when she suffers a gruesome injury. In danger of losing health coverage for her ill mother (Joely Richardson), Dominika is coxed by her government head uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) to enter the aforementioned spy program. As a sparrow, she is tasked with seducing an American CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) who is protecting the identity of a mole within the Russian government.

If you can get past her boorish Russian accent, Lawrence does a fair job. She holds her own in all of the brutal action sequences and certainly doesn’t skimp on the sexiness of the role. But Red Sparrow falls into some of the same listless doldrums that plagued 2016’s Atomic Blonde. The film, which carries on about a half hour too long, seems to take the scenic route in getting to its focal point and as such, it can easily make you lose interest.

The chemistry between Lawrence and Edgerton’s Nate Nash never feels genuine, which at times makes it hard to understand either character’s motivations in certain scenes. Throw in a needless subplot about extracting information from a U.S. chief of staff (Mary Louise-Parker), and the movie never quite satisfies as a spy thriller. It is certainly worth a watch if you’re into the genre, but years from now there won’t be much to remember this story by.

FINAL GRADE: C

Annihilation (Full Review)

Alex Garland emerged in a big way with 2014’s Ex_Machina. His directorial debut showed that he had the chops to make an intense science fiction thriller without big, bloated CGI effects. In his much anticipated follow up, Garland brings in an impressive cast to take on Jeff VanderMeer’s bestselling novel, Annihilation.

Annihilation_(film)Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a former soldier turned university professor of microbiology whose husband (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year. When he mysteriously returns from a secret special ops mission, she discovers that he isn’t the same. Whisked away by a government agency, Lena discovers that her husband is the only person to return from an eerie glowing mass that is spreading along the western seaboard. Determined to understand her husband’s mission, Lena joins a team of scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny) to explore the mass and uncover its interplanetary origins.

Steeped in stunning visual effects and eerie cinematography, Annihilation absolutely works as a tense thriller. Inside the mass, where the normal laws of nature have been twisted, the crew’s journey plays out like an intensely violent horror that tests the psyches of all who enter. Each member of the cast holds their own and adds depth to their damaged characters.

Things stumble a bit in the narrative, where flashbacks are interwoven into the story to dive into Lena’s past. The scenes add to her character motivations, but can often undermine the anxious tone. The non-linear style of storytelling also gives away early on that no one makes it out alive except for Lena, which somewhat kills some of the suspense. The ending also gets a bit weird if you’re not quite prepared for the truly bizarre, but overall Annihilation succeeds in being a more exciting version of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus films.

FINAL GRADE: B

Black Panther Review (Spoiler Free)

When you are excited about a film and you want it to succeed, one of two things can happen. It can be a massive disappointment (Glaring at you Batman v Superman) or it can live up to the hype to become a timeless cinematic classic. From the moment the Black Panther graced the screen in 2016’s sensational Captain America: Civil War it became clear that this character, originally created by Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, was ripe for his own memorable adventure.

Black_Panther_film_posterChadwick Boseman returns to the role of T’Challa, heir to the throne of Wakanda, a secret nation located in the heart of Africa. Using a unique and powerful element known as vibranium, Wakanda is a technological utopia, ruled by four peaceful tribes who vow to shield the nation’s resources from the chaotic outside world. As he ascends to his new role as King, T’Challa must use the mantle of the Black Panther to protect the country from those who wish to steal the throne and exploit vibranium for violent means.

As grand as the scope and visual elements are in Black Panther, it is the film’s characters, and specifically the supporting cast, that make it feel transcendent. Chadwick Boseman is once again regal and captivating as T’Challa, but it is the women around him that steal the show. Danai Gurira is wonderfully strong willed as Okoye, the Black Panther’s right hand women. Lupita Nyong’o brings alluring sophistication to the role of Wakandan spy, Nakia. Her chemistry with Boseman provides an intriguing romance that makes it feel like the characters have been on screen together many times before. And Letitia Wright is an absolute scene stealer as T’Challa’s brilliant and feisty younger sister, Shuri.

As for the villains in the film, they are the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most compelling to date. Andy Serkis, expanding on his small role in Avengers: Age of Ultron, brings deliciously wicked humor as the terrorist Ulysses Klaue. But it is Michael B. Jordan who solidifies the film’s surprisingly emotional themes. Jordan brings undeniable swagger and intense passion to the role of Erik Killmonger, a character whose heartfelt motivations make him someone easy to route for. The best action movies are the ones that can create the perfect foil to the main protagonist and here, Director Ryan Coogler crafts a script that gives Killmonger motivations that are easy to understand and sympathize with. What it creates is something akin to Civil War and X-Men, where the villain’s ideals are admirable, but his methodology is treacherous.

There are action sequences, like an intense car chase through the streets of South Korea, that are jaw dropping. But it is the drama that takes place in between that makes Black Panther stand out as something timeless. The film deals with the notion that it is one’s duty to serve those who are less fortunate while also exploring the dangers of adhering to longstanding traditions that no longer serve the modern world. Thus, it manages to be a movie that transcends the often formulaic nature of the prototypical superhero flick.

What has continuously made the Marvel Cinematic Universe the peak of superhero filmmaking is their ability to constantly reinvent the genre. With Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) at the helm, Black Panther cements itself as arguably the studio’s most unique film. From the costumes, to the inventive technology, to the captivating customs, the film creates a rich lore that feels like a sci-fi Game of Thrones with a neo-African twist. The CGI gets a bit flimsy at times, a problem becoming more and more prevalent in superhero films as they become more ambitious, and there is also a romantic relationship in the film that could’ve been better fleshed out. But neither of these miniscule flaws is enough to keep Black Panther from being a stunning creation that pays homage to a long ignored culture. With thought provoking themes, and a witty and exuberant cast each bringing their best performances to the table, Black Panther deserves to be celebrated as a pillar of what the genre can and should be.

FINAL GRADE: A

The 15:17 to Paris (Full Review)

A true story. The real heroes. You certainly can’t fault director Clint Eastwood for his fervor on this one. But there’s a reason actors are in movies. Actors are professionals at conveying emotion and creating an atmosphere that doesn’t make it obvious you’re not watching something that is staged. Despite a worthy subject matter, The 15:17 to Paris isn’t as compelling as it wants to be.

The_15.17_to_ParisIn 2015, two American soldiers and their civilian best friend stop a terrorist attack aboard a train while vacationing in Europe. The film delves into the back story of Spencer Stone, Alex Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, exploring how they became friends and their struggles to go from juvenile delinquents to brave heroes. Rather than use actors in the main roles, the three men play themselves.

Knowing what they did to gain notoriety, it’s certainly easier to forgive the three leads for their terrible acting. But virtually every performance in this film feels wooden and cheesy. The dialogue doesn’t feel genuine and it constantly feels like everyone involved is struggling not to look at the camera. Poor writing is accompanied by a dull overall story. Instead of focusing on things that matter, the movie features scenes that are meaningless to the overall story which makes the movie ultimately boring with the lack of engaged performances.

It takes literally an hour and a half for 15:17 to Paris to actually become interesting when the heroic event is finally reenacted. But unless you feel like watching botched military try outs and empty banter between guys watching sports or at a bar, you’ll have to fight to stay awake long enough to reach the climax. Maybe real actors might’ve helped, but a script with better focus on pertinent details and character development is likely the only thing that could’ve saved this dull retelling of actual heroism.

FINAL GRADE: D