Skyscraper (2018)


A big star like the Rock has a long way to fall.

(2018) Action (UniversalDwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Noah Taylor, Roland Møller, Byron Mann, Pablo Schreiber, McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell, Hannah Quinlivan, Adrian Holmes, Elfina Luk, Kevin Rankin, Gretal Montgomery, Jeff Klyne, Kayden Magnuson, Byron Lawson, Jason William Day, Ryan Handley, Sean Kohnke, Shawn Stewart, Venus Terzo. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

 

Paint-by-numbers summer action blockbuster fare that is both satisfying and not. Johnson plays a security consultant who had a leg blown off during his time as a federal agent who has in the intervening years acquired the job as security chief at the world’s tallest building, the Pearl in Hong Kong (a fictional beating created with impressive CGI).

The billionaire (Han) behind the tower is hiding a McGuffin – doesn’t really matter what it is – in his penthouse apartment. Therefore, just before the building is about to open, a group of baddies led by a nasty Afrikaner (Taylor) break into the tower and set the building on fire in order to cover their tracks and convince the billionaire that they mean business. Their mistake is that The Rock’s family is still in the building. Oh, you definitely don’t want to mess with the Rock’s family.

Actually, his wife Kate (Campbell) – an ex-Navy surgeon – who proves to be more formidable. Johnson, who has done a few too many generic action thrillers of late, looks like he’s not having much fun and in fact is beginning to show signs of aging – he was 45 when he filmed this. While the stunts and CGI are pretty spectacular as well as the building’s tech features, this feels a bit like we’ve seen it all before. And we have, in Die Hard and The Towering Inferno of which this is a cinematic love child. This really isn’t all that bad – it is pretty mindless and for the most part, fun – but it could have used a little more Neve and a little less Dwayne.

REASONS TO SEE: The tech is pretty cool. Keeps your interest at a reasonable level.
REASONS TO AVOID: Johnson beginning to show his age. The villains are way too easy to spot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence as well as some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adrian Smith, the lead architect on the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia – both at one time the tallest buildings in the world – consulted on the script.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Towering Inferno
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Papi Chulo

Frankenstein (1931)


One of the most iconic images in horror movie history.

(1931) Horror (UniversalColin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clark, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Marilyn Harris, Francis Ford, Michael Mark, Mae Bruce, Jack Curtis, Paul Panzer, William Dyer, Cecil Reynolds, Cecilia Parker, Ellinor Vanderveer, Soledad Jiménez, Mary Gordon, Carmencita Johnson, Pauline Moore, Arletta Duncan. Directed by James Whale

Perhaps the most iconic horror film of all time is James Whale’s 1931 version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the latter of whom is listed in the credit as “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley” – ah, misogyny). It is in many ways the perfect storm of Gothic imagery, gruesome subtexts, pathos, terror and a truly mind-blowing performance by Boris Karloff as the monster.

Most everyone knows the story, or at least bits of it; medical student Henry Frankenstein (Clive) who was renamed from Victor in the book and most subsequent films, is obsessed with the big questions of life; why does one child turn out to be the pillar of the community, the other a criminal? Where does life begin? Can a man bring life to the lifeless?

To discover the latter, he and his faithful servant Fritz (Frye) – renamed Igor in most subsequent productions – dig up bodies for their parts to create a perfect being. Utilizing a violent thunderstorm, lightning strikes buffet his creation until, as Frankenstein notably exclaims, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

However, Frankenstein eventually has cause to regret his experiment as he loses control of the monster which goes on a murderous rampage, not always out of malice (in a particularly famous scene he inadvertently drowns a little girl while throwing flowers into a lake).

Many of the tropes that have characterized horror films in the 88 years since this movie was made originated or was refined here; the angry mob with torches and pitchforks, the sweet maiden menaced by an ugly monster, the imposing castle, the thunderstorm, the grunting of the inarticulate monster and so much more.

Karloff’s sad eyes and stiff gait made the monster so memorable that it was called thenceforth Frankenstein, even though the monster is never given a name in the film. Karloff, to that point a journeyman actor who generally played the heavy in B movies, would go on to a lucrative and acclaimed career as one of the greatest horror specialists of all time. Frankenstein is so iconic that many identify the genre with this movie; often the scowling visage as the monster is used to represent the genre.

While the scares are tame by modern standards, I think the film holds up extraordinarily well even today. This is how horror films were done before excessive gore was used as a crutch by many filmmakers in the genre; Whale knew just about how much to leave to the imagination and our imaginations are often more gruesome than reality. I think that these days, it gets lost in the shuffle a little bit but if you haven’t seen it – or haven’t seen it in a while – you owe it to yourself to watch it once again or for the first time.

REASONS TO SEE: A classic in every sense of the word. Karloff’s performance is a career maker. Still pretty scary even now. Still the best adaptation of the iconic Mary Shelley tale. The standard by which other horror movies are judged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Quite tame by modern standards.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scary images and child peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The monster isn’t seen until 30 minutes into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bride of Frankenstein
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
The Saudi Women’s Driving School

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again


They’re with the band.

(2018) Musical (UniversalLily James, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Andy Garcia, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgǻrd, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Cher, Alexa Davies, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Meryl Streep, Josh Dylan, Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, Omid Djalili, Anastasia Hille, Anna Antoniades, Maria Vacratsis, Naoko Mori. Directed by Ol Parker

 

I have to confess that I’ve always had a soft spot for the music of ABBA, the Swedish pop group that lit up the charts in the 70s and 80s. Mamma Mia, the musical that utilized the band’s extensive catalogue of hits to celebrate a young girl’s wedding as she tries to figure out which of three possibilities is her biological father. It was a major hit – in 2008. Ten years almost to the day, the sequel arrives.

In it, Sophie (Seyfried), the bride from the first film, is trying to renovate her mother’s Greek Island hotel. Her mamma Donna (Streep) has passed away and poor Sophie is trying to balance mourning for her mom, getting the hotel ready for opening night and dealing with a rocky relationship (she’s separated from husband Sky (Cooper) although she is pregnant). With nearly everyone from the first film returning, along with Cher as Donna’s estranged mom and Andy Garcia as the hotel’s manager, there is a familiarity about the terrain. There are also flashbacks showing Donna’s shenanigans leading to her coming to the Greek islands and getting involved with three different men. The luminescent Lily James plays the younger Donna and she does a terrific job, but she’s no Meryl Streep and the film feels her absence keenly. Streep does return for the most haunting scene in the film as a benevolent ghost observing her granddaughter’s christening.

The plot is essentially an excuse for the musical numbers which I suppose could be said for some classic musicals as well, but here it seems especially glaring. Part of the reason is that the bulk of ABBA’s better-known hits were used in the first film and much of the soundtrack here is made up of album tracks and B-sides so the movie loses much of the familiarity factor that made the first film charming.

Streep’s scene and Cher’s two musical numbers are both the showstoppers here; most of the other numbers are forgettable and kind of repetitive. Also, the beautiful Greek island location of the first film has been swapped out for Croatia in the second; not quite the same. I just didn’t get the same warm fuzzies I got from the first film, more’s the pity. There’s definitely a market for this and I know my wife and son thoroughly enjoyed this way more than I did; however, I found it to be only minimally entertaining at best.

REASONS TO SEE: Streep and Cher are big highlights
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is terribly flimsy. Streep’s absence is keenly felt throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mildly sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep is distantly related to both Cher (15th cousin) who plays her mother, and James (9th cousin) who plays her younger self.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Movies Anywhere Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jersey Boys
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Little Monsters

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom


From the frying pan into the proverbial fire.

(2018) Adventure (Universal) Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, James Cromwell, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, Jeff Goldblum, BD Wong, Geraldine Chaplin, Isabella Sermon, Robert Emms, Peter Jason, John Schwab, Sam Redford, Charlie Rawes, Patrick Crowley, Alex Dower, Honey Holmes, Neil Bishop, Philippa Thomas. Directed by J.A. Bayona

 

In the fifth movie of the franchise overall and the second in the Jurassic World trilogy, I think it’s safe to say that most film audiences have gotten over the wonder and awe of seeing realistic-looking dinosaurs in the movies. It is therefore incumbent upon the filmmakers a good story to surround the cinematic lizards with.

Isla Nublar, where the doomed theme park once stood, is in danger but not from dinos; no, it’s the impending volcanic apocalypse that is putting every dinosaur on the island at risk. Congress is debating whether or not to save the resurrected critters; Ian Malcolm (Goldblum) in the worst utilization of Jeff Goldblum in a film ever, argues against it. He wins.

Former publicist and current activist Claire Dearing (Howard) wants to save the dinosaurs she once sold as entertainment and also ran in terror from. She is approached by Benjamin Lockwood (Cromwell), the former partner of the late John Hammond, to rescue the creatures on the down/low. To do it, she’ll need the services of ex-boyfriend Owen Grady (Pratt), the velociraptor whisperer who is busy building himself a shack on the beach. And of course, despite his reluctance, he agrees to go. But that’s only the beginning. There’s a conspiracy of Lockwood’s assistant (Spall) to auction off the creatures to billionaire industrialists which might just be the worst idea ever, as later events will confirm.

This feels less like a movie and more of a pastiche of bits and pieces from previous films in the franchise. There are some political barbs (one of the baddies calls one of the heroes “A nasty woman”) and some food for thought – do we have the right to destroy a species, even one we created? Do we have the right to exploit animals? Does our treatment of the natural world determine our fitness to survive? All very important questions and really worth tackling in a much less lighthearted manner.

This might be the most disappointing entry in the Jurassic franchise, even exceeding the two sequels of Jurassic Park. Sure, the visuals are as you’d expect top of the line, and there are some thrilling sequences but nearly half of the movie takes place inside a house which really take the bigger dinosaurs literally out of the picture and the big reveal near the end of the movie shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone. Hopefully the next installment of the franchise will wrap up this trilogy with a bang instead of a whimper.

REASONS TO SEE: The tone is a little darker than previous JP/JW films.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too many clichés sink this ship.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The T-Rex in both of the Jurassic World movies is the same one that appeared in the Jurassic Park films, according to screenwriter Colin Trevorrow.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Godzilla
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Method of Murder

Pacific Rim: Uprising


Giant robots are inherently cool.

(2018) Science Fiction (Universal) John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny, Burn Gorham, Charlie Day, Jing Tian, Max Zhang, Rinko Kikuchi, Karan Brar, Wesley Wong, Ivanna Sakhno, Mackenyu, Lily Ji, Shyrley Rodriguez, Rahart Adams, Levi Meaden, Dustin Clare, Chen Zitong, Calvin Yu, Qian Yongchen, Zeppelin Hamilton, Jiaming Guo, Lyric Lan. Directed by Stephen S. DeKnight

 

This sequel to Guillermo Del Toro’s 2013 giant robots versus giant aliens Japanese cult film lovefest Pacific Rim isn’t going to overtax your intellect nor excite your imagination much; rather it operates on a completely visceral level, relying on eye candy special effects and chest-thumping militaristic dialogue from every action film ever.

]Set ten years after the original, the world is emerging from the invasion of the kaiju behemoths that nearly wiped out humanity. The fleet of giant robotic jaegers, piloted by two humans with minds linked by a neural bridge, are largely for show as the world rebuilds. Then, a rogue kaiju shows up and the world is woefully unprepared. Not only that but there is a giant conspiracy afoot. What is a war-weary world to do?

\Most of the cast of the original is absent, notably lead Charlie Hunnam whose character is mentioned in passing. Boyega plays the son of the first film’s Idris Elba character. Kikuchi, Gorham and Day are the only returnees of note. More importantly, Del Toro was off winning himself an Oscar and therefor had no time for the sequel.

The first film did boffo box office in China, rescuing it from red ink so the sequel is set mainly in China and has a predominantly Chinese cast. Fair enough. However, there is a Chinese reliance on oversold humor and shouted dialogue. This is a very loud movie indeed. It is also predictable as it seems cobbled together from a variety of movies. Having four writers will do that to a would-be blockbuster.

The special effects are what rescue the film; they are indeed impressive. You also can’t go wrong with giant robots battling Godzilla-like creatures. However, this sequel gets perilously close to doing just that.

REASONS TO SEE: The special effects are pretty nifty.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sadly predictable and goes completely off the rails in the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi action violence and a bit of profanity
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several of the supporting actors appeared in the Spartacus series, including DeKnight who created the cable TV show.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Vudu,YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Transformers: The Last Knight
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Bored in the USA

American Made


Tom Cruise wonders if he can call his agent collect.

(2017) Biographical Dramedy (Universal) Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemmons, Caleb Landry Jones, Lola Kirke, Jayma Mays, Alejandro Edda, Benito Martinez, E. Roger Mitchell, Jed Rees, Fredy Yate Escobar, Mauricio Mejia, Robert Farrior, Morgan Hinkleman, Alberto Ospino, Daniel Lugo, Felipe Bernedette, Jayson Warner Smith, April Billingsley. Directed by Doug Liman

 

Some stories are too out there to be believed. Some stories are truths that are stranger than fiction. Some stories could only be made in America.

Barry Seal (Cruise) was one such story. A one-time TWA pilot bored with his commuter plane career, he smuggled Cuban cigars into the country to make a little extra cash, bringing him to the attention of the CIA. Not to prosecute him; to recruit him as it turned out. His handler, Monty Schafer (Gleeson) – not his real name as it turns out – wants him to take pictures of Leftist commando units in Central and South America from the air. Barry, ever the adrenaline junkie at heart, gets the best pictures imaginable.

He begins another smuggling sideline; this time bringing drugs into the country for guys like Manuel Noriega (Ospino) and Pablo Escobar (Mejia). Soon, Barry has more cash than he knows what to do with. His wife Lucy (Wright) – suspicious at first – turns a blind eye when she gets all the material goods that she ever dreamed of.

Stories like this rarely end well and Barry’s doesn’t either but while the ride is going on it’s entertaining. Liman seems to know how to get the best out of Cruise who still has that youthful smile but is beginning to show signs of middle age. Nonetheless Cruise again shows his star appeal by being likable while working for some pretty terrible people; well, onscreen anyway.

Liman gives us an almost Steven Soderbergh-like film; brash and full of itself. There is certainly a good deal of entertainment value here but in some ways it’s a cookie cutter movie. It doesn’t really rise above similar stories and nothing happens that the audience can’t see coming a mile away. Still in all, you won’t go wrong renting this puppy although I might think twice about buying it. It’s one of those movies that you see once, enjoy it at the time and promptly forget about it afterwards.

REASONS TO GO: There is an almost Soderbergh-like feel to the film.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a bit too formulaic for my own taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots and lots of profanity as well as some sexuality and a bit of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The plane that Seal used in real life was featured in the movie; tragically, it crashed on the final day of filming, causing two fatalities.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Air America
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Django

Happy Death Day


Isn’t reliving the same day over and over and over again a scream?

(2017) Horror (Blumhouse) Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Laura Clifton, Jason Boyle, Rob Mello, Rachel Matthews, Ramsey Anderson, Brady Lewis, Phi Vu, Tenea Intriago, Blaine Kern III, Cariella Smith, Jimmy Gonzales, Billy Slaughter, Donna Duplantier, GiGi Erneta, Lindsey Smith, Dane Rhodes, Caleb Spillyards, Missy Yager. Directed by Christopher Landon

We all have days that we’d rather forget. Days in which things don’t go the way they’re supposed to, days in which we do things we’re not proud of, days when we’re the victims of bad circumstances. Think about how awful it would be to relive those days over and over and over again; it would be enough to drive anyone insane.

Tree Gelbman (Rothe) is having that kind of day that nobody wants to relive. The Bayview College sorority sister wakes up after a night spent partying in a dorm room – a dorm room! – apparently having spent the night with a cute but nondescript guy named Carter (Broussard) whose name she has already forgotten. She makes her way across campus to the sorority house, encountering a global warming activist, a couple soaked by a sprinkler and a fainting frat pledge. Her dad keeps calling and she keeps on ignoring the calls.

He’s calling because it’s her birthday and she’s going to have an even worse day than she’s already had. That evening, on the way to a frat party, she is ambushed by someone wearing a mask of the college’s mascot (the Bayview Babies – really?) who shoves a knife into her – several times.

But then she wakes up, much to her surprise and then she relives the same day, the same events, only to meet the same fate. No matter how she changes things up, her killer always finds her. She realizes she’s going to have to find out the identity of her killer if she’s to escape his homicidal rage and bust out of this strange and terrible time loop.

This is a movie that borrows liberally from other movies, most notably Groundhog’s Day and Scream. I don’t think a movie has to reinvent the wheel every time out but there should be at least some originality and some effort put in to developing the characters so they aren’t just two-dimensional types but that doesn’t really happen here. And that’s okay so long as the movie remains entertaining and thankfully it does.

Rothe is the centerpiece here. Tree starts out the movie self-centered and shallow in what is pretty much a sorority stereotype but as you’d guess during the course of her many relived days she begins to discover what a bitch she’s been and  begins to actually grow. By the end of the movie she’s still not entirely likable – wisely the writers don’t go a complete 180 on us – but she’s more likable. Rothe, a veteran of young adult movies and the Mary + Jane TV show on MTV, shows a great deal of presence and camera-friendliness. I hope she’ll be able to break out of these teen stereotype roles and get some meatier parts at some point soon.

I do like the meta twist at the end – that was an unexpected delight – but discovering who the killer is isn’t going to take a lot of brain power for anyone who has seen more than one or two slasher movies in their time. I would have liked to see more of the self-awareness that the writers showed at the end as it would  have made the movie a lot more fun since the slasher aspect was so rote.

The movie has done pretty well at the box office especially considering it’s bargain basement production budget and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a sequel or two on the horizon. There are some pretty fun aspects here and if your expectations aren’t too high you should get a kick out of the film, although I would tend to recommend it more for teens and young adults who haven’t seen a whole lot of slasher movies but like the ones that they’ve seen. On that basis what they see here will seem a lot more fresh and new than it does for older farts like this reviewer who has been there and seen that but was entertained nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Rothe has some potential as a lead actress. The Meta ending was much appreciated.
REASONS TO STAY: The film borrows too liberally from other movies. The plot twist is a little too easily figured out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and scenes of terror, some crude sexuality as well as brief partial nudity, profanity and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers couldn’t get the rights to use the ringtone in the trailer, 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” so they were forced to use an original tune as Tree’s ringtone in the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Groundhog’s Day
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Light of the Moon