Rampage


George of the Urban Jungle and the Rock try to out-scary face one another.

(2018) Adventure (New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Marley Shelton, P.J. Byrne, Demetrius Grosse, Jack Quaid, Breanne Hill, Matt Gerald, Will Yun Lee, Urijah Faber, Bruce Blackshear, Jason Liles, Mat Wells, Stephen Dunleavy, Danny Le Boyer, Alan Boell, Alyssa Brooke. Directed by Brad Peyton

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the movies, it’s that when you mess with mother nature it tends to come back and bite you in the ass eventually. That’s a lesson that seems lost on modern corporate America (and the regulatory agencies that are supposed to reign them in but that’s a different story).

When a space station explodes after a lab rat gets loose and tears the crew apart, the pathogen that caused the rat to mutate falls back to Earth, affecting a gator in the Everglades, a wolf in the Minnesota woods – and a gentle albino ape who dwells in the San Diego zoo. The primatologist who is studying George, Davis Okoye (Johnson) is understandably peeved but when government sorts led by the cheerful and shamefully Texan Harvey Russell (Morgan), the Rock’s biceps begin to twitch. When George, like the wolf and the alligator, begins to grow in size to something approaching a Japanese monster movie, behave aggressively and even savagely (they’re animals; who knew?) and for a fairly ludicrous plot reason decide to converge on Chicago and tear the city limb from limb, well the eyebrows arch and the people’s elbow start itching for a fight.

Based on an Atari-era videogame (the console box for which can be seen in the background of the office of the sibling corporate types (Akerman and Lacy) who are behind the pathogen, the movie seemed to have all the elements of a summer blockbuster, particularly Johnson whose easygoing charm and likability have propelled him onto the Hollywood A-list. However, Johnson is essentially on autopilot here. This is far from his finest hour and although he’s not the reason this movie fails to succeed (a painfully cliché script is largely to glame), he certainly doesn’t elevate it either.

Morgan as the federal agent who really wants to be a Texas Ranger and Akerman as a heartless corporate bitch are actually the actors who are the most watchable here. The CGI creations are also pretty nifty. However the mayhem – like many Transformers movies – is so overwhelming it becomes almost too much to take in; the mind becomes numbed to the carnage as buildings fall, helicopters are swatted from the sky and people are eaten like…well, energy pills in a videogame which in the original game, people were.

I’m not against mindless fun but the filmmakers ask us to take an awful lot on faith and after awhile the plot holes become too enormous to overcome. The human characters tend to be more like cartoons than the CGI which I find ironic in an amusing kind of way but I didn’t at the time I was watching this. There were a lot of things that could have been done with this premise to make this film better than it turned out to be but Peyton and perhaps the studio suits went the tried and true safe route and ended up making a cookie cutter movie that is neither satisfying or even more than barely recommendable.

REASONS TO GO: Morgan and Akerman acquit themselves well. The CGI is excellent.
REASONS TO STAY: This movie is dumb as a rock. Most of the characters are straight out of cartoons.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of video game-like violence, destruction and general mayhem. There’s also some brief mild profanity  and some crude gestures.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the tepid aggregate score, Rampage is currently the highest-scoring video game adaptation in the history of Rotten Tomatoes.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kong: Skull Island
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Mercury 13

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Lights Out (2016)


Attention Teresa Palmer: there's a blue light special in the basement.

Attention Teresa Palmer: there’s a blue light special in the basement.

(2016) Horror (New Line) Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Billy Burke, Maria Bello, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Andi Osho, Rolando Boyce, Maria Russell, Elizabeth Pan, Lotta Losten, Amiah Miller, Ava Cantrell, Ariel Dupin. Directed by David F. Sandberg

 

As humans, we are conditioned to fear the unknown and what can be more unknown than darkness? We can’t see what’s in the dark – our eyes aren’t built for it. In the dark, anything can happen and not all of it is pleasant. Sometimes, that which lives in darkness can be downright terrifying.

Rebecca (Palmer) is a metal-loving young woman who has a – I hesitate to call him a boyfriend but he does have sex with her and they’ve been dating for several years – friend with benefits named Bret (DiPersia) who is a musician who plays metal. She lives on her own in an apartment over a tattoo parlor. She left home the moment she could pack her bags; hallucinations and nightmares had driven her to the brink of madness.

This is where her mother Sophie (Bello) dwells as a matter of course. Sophie was committed to a mental institution as a little girl and came out fragile, but her issues seemed to be under control with medication, and her second husband Paul (Burke) – not Rebecca’s dad by the way – has watched with some alarm as his wife’s mental condition starts to deteriorate rapidly. When Paul meets a tragic end, Sophie pretty much slides off into the deep end.

Rebecca’s half-brother Martin (Bateman) has now begun to have the same kinds of nightmares and hallucinations that just about destroyed Rebecca’s sanity. Concerned that Sophie is terrorizing her little half-brother, Rebecca moves to take Martin over to her apartment and out of Sophie’s influence. Sophie, who not only hears voices but has conversations with them, seems to be talking to a presence named Diana. Diana, as it turns out, was a friend who brutalized her in the asylum but had met a gruesome end. Some ends, as it turns out, are not as permanent as others.

Sandberg based this movie on a short movie – less than three minutes long – based on the same creature. With the feature clocking in at just a hair over 80 minutes, he certainly knows how to keep his stories compact which is laudable these days when movies routinely hit the two hour mark. He also uses a very interesting trope for his demonic presence; it only becomes visible and physical in darkness. Shine a light on Diana and she becomes incorporeal and harmless. When that light goes out…well, Diana raises havoc with those unfortunate to fall under her crosshairs.

This isn’t a particularly gory movie, nor are there a ton of murders (although a couple of hapless cops do get Diana’s special attention near the end of the movie). Most of the film is spent basically running away from Diana who is apparently very possessive of Sophie and doesn’t want to share her with anyone, even (and maybe especially) her own children.

It is refreshing to have characters in horror movies not act like utter and complete idiots, doing things that no rational sane human being would ever do. Say what you want about the leads here, they act like you and I would probably act in a similar situation, although to be fair I’d probably be a screaming wreck about a third of the way into the movie were it my life story.

The acting isn’t particularly outstanding; Bello is one of my favorite actresses but she makes some odd choices as Sophie – no pun intended. The part is a little bit of a caricature of a crazy person and if you don’t get the jitters watching Sophie for any length of time, you’ve probably taken some Valium recently. That or you drink enough coffee to make you permanently immune to the jitters. Palmer is beautiful and has some facial resemblance to Bello, but at the end of the day this isn’t a performance I would put into a star-making category; the success of the film will likely give her career quite a boost however.

Sandberg relies mainly on practical effects here, believe it or not. The CGI is kept to a minimum, although I’m certain that there is some optical trickery going on to make Diane visible and invisible so smoothly. I’m sure a computer or two were employed in that essential process.

All in all, this is a solid, scary movie that is going to make you think twice about turning out the lights when you go to sleep. I’m usually immune to such things, but I have to admit that when I went to bed after seeing the movie earlier that day, I did feel a good deal of apprehension as I shut out the lights. When a horror movie can do that to you, you know that you’re watching a director who knows what he’s about. I’ll be looking forward to his future work with more than a little bit of interest.

REASONS TO GO: You’ll want to sleep with the lights on afterwards. The demonic presence in the film has a nifty conceit.
REASONS TO STAY: Bello is wasted in a caricature of a performance and none of the actors really stand out. There are only so many ways you can make the lights flicker.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of disturbing images and terror, a fair amount of violence, some adult themes and a brief drug reference.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house in this movie is the same one used in Ouija and its upcoming follow-up Ouija: Origin of Evil.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Darkness
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Jason Bourne

Annabelle


A couple of living dolls.

A couple of living dolls.

(2014) Horror (New Line) Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola, Kerry O’Malley, Brian Howe, Eric Ladin, Ivar Brogger, Geoff Wehner, Gabriel Bateman, Shiloh Nelson, Sasha Sheldon, Camden Singer, Robin Pearson Rose, Keira Daniels, Tree O’Toole, Christopher Shaw, Joseph Bishara, Paige Diaz, Michelle Romano, Morganna May. Directed by John Leonetti

Those who saw The Conjuring will remember Annabelle, the devil doll that figured prominently in the opening scenes of the movie. It spent most of the rest of the film locked up in a glass case. Ever wonder how the doll came to be possessed?

Here’s the movie that tells you. John (Horton) and Mia Gordon (Wallis) are expecting a child in Los Angeles of the 1970s. The Manson cult has just struck, murdering actress Sharon Tate, her friends who happened to be in her home at the time and the LoBianco family in a separate incident. John is getting ready to start an internship in a Pasadena hospital. They’re good friends with the older couple next door, Pete (Howe) and Sharon Higgins (O’Malley) who they ride with to church to hear the sermons of Father Perez (Amendola). The Higgins’ are pleased as punch at John and Mia’s new arrival although in a bittersweet way; their own daughter Annabelle (Daniels) ran away from home a couple of years earlier to join some sort of hippie cult. And John found a gift for Mia – a beautiful porcelain doll that completes the collection that Mia has been working on for years.

One night though, everything changes. The Higgins are brutally murdered by their estranged daughter and a fellow cult member. The two murderers also make their way into the home of John and Mia and attempt to do the same to them, only the police arrive to shoot the man dead. Annabelle slits her own throat while holding the new doll. You can guess where that’s going to lead.

Soon, strange things start happening, disturbing things. Besides that, Mia is traumatized at the violence and the loss of her friends. Injuries suffered during the struggle put her on doctor-mandated bed rest but she doesn’t want to stay there given the terrible memories. They move to a new apartment near where John will be working, leaving the doll behind that the murderess was holding in her final moments – or so they thought. The doll turns up in the last box they unpack. Spooky, no? However, Mia – a little happier now that they are far away from the terrible events from that night accepts the return of the doll.

She even meets a new friend in Evelyn (Woodard), the congenial owner of a nearby bookstore. However, the unexplainable things have followed them only they’re getting more malevolent by the minute. Mia is sure that whatever is responsible – and we all know who that is although it takes the Gordons a little while to catch on – is after the soul of her baby who has now been born. Can they protect the baby from this seemingly unstoppable demonic force?

Annabelle isn’t nearly as good as The Conjuring so let’s get that out of the way right off the bat. It doesn’t have the really killer scares of that movie nor the pacing. There are far too many lulls in the action for my personal taste. However, it isn’t as bad as some are making it out to be.

They do capture 1970s Los Angeles perfectly. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in that period and everything here rings true, from listening to KHJ on the AM radio for the timeless pop music to the K-Tel collections of snippets of hit songs. The filmmakers also make several allusions to the classic Rosemary’s Baby from the names of the couple (John Cassavetes, Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon were all actors in that classic film) to the iconic baby carriage which figures in a couple of particularly harrowing scenes in Annabelle.

Wallis is a beautiful British actress but she left me kind of cold as Mia; she seemed to lack energy and although she screamed convincingly and had a couple of scenes of terror for the most part she seemed almost like she was on Lithium. It was definitely a performance influenced by Mad Men. Horton’s character is a little too easy to fall into line with the whole supernatural thing especially given his medical training. One would expect a little more skepticism out of him.

The scares are not as plentiful here nor are they as superbly staged, but there are certainly a few good ones – a sequence in the apartment’s basement with a demonic entity is the best in the movie and you’ll never want to take an elevator anywhere for a few weeks after seeing this. At least I didn’t.

What it all adds up to is a fairly entertaining although ultimately lightweight horror film. Nothing here is groundbreaking or even particularly memorable and one gets the sense that it was put together fairly quickly – which it was. You would think studio execs would have learned by now that rushing a movie isn’t good for its bottom line.

REASONS TO GO: Really nails Los Angeles in the 70s. Some fairly spooky scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Wallis is a bit wooden. Doesn’t measure up to The Conjuring.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some disturbing violence and scenes of terror with a couple of demonic images thrown in for good measure.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Annabelle is a Raggedy Anne doll who sits in a glass case in the Occult Museum built by Ed and Lorraine Warren which is where she resides to this day.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Magic
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Pursuit of Happyness

He’s Just Not That Into You


He's Just Not That Into You

Ginnifer Goodwin and Justin Long try to out-annoy each other.

(New Line) Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Connelly, Justin Long, Ginnifer Goodwin, Kevin Connolly, Bradley Cooper, Scarlett Johansson, Kris Kristofferson, Luis Guzman, Busy Philipps. Directed by Ken Kwapis.

Establishing a relationship has never been more complicated or gut-wrenching as it is in the 21st century. While the ability of the sexes to interpret the signals of the other has remained the same – woefully inadequate – the means for communicating those signals have grown exponentially. As one character sighs in this romantic comedy, it’s now possible to be rejected by seven different technologies. Romeo and Juliet beset by digital dejection in an Internet age.

Gigi (Goodwin) is on a date with Conor (Connolly), a successful realtor. The date seems to be going pretty well, and as they part Gigi anticipates a call from Conor, thinking there might be a real connection between them. So she waits…and she waits…and still the phone refuses to ring.

Anna (Johansson) runs into Ben (Cooper) at a corner grocery, and thinks they’ve formed a connection. The problem is that Ben is married to neurotic Janine (Connelly), and while he promises help with Anna’s singing career, he is troubled by his attraction to her.

Beth (Aniston) and Neil (Affleck) have been together for seven years. While Beth wants commitment and marriage, Neil is averse to the whole idea of marriage. After all, he is committed to her he supports her in every way and loves her completely. Why do they need any further confirmation of a relationship that already exists?

As Gigi comes to the realization that Conor perhaps may not call, she hooks up with Alex (Long), a close friend of Conor who offers her valuable insight as to the ways of men. She begins to view him at first as something of a mentor, but eventually begins to develop romantic feelings towards him. Meanwhile, Conor – who had a previous relationship with Anna, still pines for her. Anna, for her part, is friendly with Conor and in some ways leads him on, but focuses on pursuing Ben, after a conversation with her friend Mary (Barrymore), who coincidentally works at a local weekly as an ad rep, servicing Conor’s advertising account. Meanwhile, Beth and Neil have split up as Beth has come to the conclusion that she and Neil no longer want the same things.

Based on a best-selling self-help book, the movie has an excellent ensemble cast and they perform to expectations. Director Kwapis, a veteran of television and big-screen light comedies, manages the entwined storylines nicely, and manages to give all of the storylines more or less equal attention (with the exception of Barrymore, who also produced the movie).

The viewpoint is distinctly feminine. Most of the male characters embody stereotypical male sins – cheating, commitment-phobia, and objectification, to name a few. However, to be fair, the women have their share of neuroses as well. Janine is a control freak who has an absolute phobia of smoking. In fact, when she finds out about her husband’s infidelity, she is much more irritated about the possibility that he might be smoking behind her back. Gigi is a tightly-wound stalker-in-the-making who is so un-self-confident that is almost desperate for a relationship to work, no matter how self-destructive that relationship might be.

The problem I have is two-fold. First, the situations tend to be terribly cliché; there are few surprises and quite frankly, you can see where each relationship is headed without exception. In that case, the characters should be interesting enough to make the audience want to go along for the ride even though there’s no shock as to where they’re headed. The sad fact is, they’re really not, drawn from cookie-cutter issues. Gigi as a character is particularly hard to relate to as she is just sooooooo annoying, and her chosen man Alex is not much better.

Still, there are laughs to be had, and a few insights as well, albeit none that are terribly new or different. The attractive cast does as good a job as possible given the limitations of the script, so you might not find this a complete waste of time. However, guys be warned; there is precious little examination of what truly motivates men to behave the way they do in relationships; rather, this is more of an excoriation of male vices. Most of the women here don’t fare much better, being painted as needy and neurotic; they are defined by the men they’re with more than the people they are. In that sense, this is much more insidious misogyny than any episode of “Married…With Children” than I can recall.

In fact, there are many far better examinations of the ways and means of 21st century romance than this. You’d be better off seeking them out at your local rental store, online or at your video-on-demand outlet.

WHY RENT THIS: An attractive and talented cast performing really well at times. Some genuinely funny moments, but not many.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cookie-cutter characters populate a script riddled with clichés. Estrogen-laden world view that spares little thought to what really motivates men in favor of pointing out their failings. Goodwin and Long are genuinely annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual innuendo going on here and a few heavy make-out sessions, but nothing you wouldn’t see on a TV drama.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Greg Behrendt, the author of the book the movie is based on, makes a cameo as a minister at Beth’s sister’s wedding.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Nothing listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Up