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An insult. An affront. A spit in the face.

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 22 January 2019 06:04 (A review of The Predator)

The third sequel to 1987's Predator (not counting the indefensible Alien vs. Predator pictures), 2018's The Predator was a promising prospect in theory. After all, this is a big-budget, R-rated continuation of the franchise helmed by Shane Black (who actually starred in the original film), with a screenplay credited to Black and the underrated Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad, Night of the Creeps). Despite Black's undeniable talents, The Predator is a complete dumpster fire; a messy, unfocused, obnoxious affront to a science fiction classic, devoid of the intrigue, tension, grit, exhilaration, and gripping action of the John McTiernan-directed masterpiece that spawned it. Suddenly, the two previous sequels - Predator 2 and the underrated Predators - seem much better and are easier to appreciate.

While engaged in a hostage retrieval mission in Mexico, skilled U.S. Army sniper Quinn (Boyd Holbrook) witnesses the crash landing of a Predator spacecraft, and diverts from his mission to investigate the wreckage. Before the government catches up with him, Quinn mails several alien artefacts to his Texas home, where they wind up in the possession of his autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay). After questioning, Quinn is placed on a secure bus with Group 2; a motley group of government captives consisting of Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), Baxley (Thomas Jane), Nettles (Augusto Aguilera), and Lynch (Alfie Allen). Witnessing the Predator violently escaping from a government facility, Quinn and his newfound friends take it upon themselves to kill the alien, teaming up with evolutionary biologist Casey (Olivia Munn) as the Predator travels to the suburbs to retrieve his equipment from Rory. However, with a larger and more dangerous Predator arriving on Earth in pursuit of the Fugitive Predator, the situation goes from bad to worse.

It feels as if Black and Dekker developed several story ideas for The Predator, but resolved to jam them all into a single motion picture. Any of the narrative concepts - remaking the first film with a ragtag team of mentally ill veterans in a contemporary Earth environment, the Predators having different opinions about an Earthly invasion, further exploring the 'Super Predator' idea, a Predator in the suburbs, and basically Mercury Rising in a Predator setting - could sustain a feature of their own (not all of them necessarily good, mind you). The Predator should be focused on Group 2 battling Predators, which is easily the strongest idea here, but it's diluted with the family angle that serves no essential narrative purpose; it feels shoehorned in to appeal to a wider demographic. Furthermore, a subplot involving the government is equally boring, not to mention wrong-headed in its execution. This is to say nothing of other baffling inclusions, such as Casey managing to befriend a Predator dog, which occurs without logic or motivation. Additionally, the Fugitive Predator viciously kills everybody it comes into contact with and seems solely concerned with destruction, yet it is revealed that this is a traitor who is opposed to hunting humans and came to Earth to gift humankind with a weapon to defend themselves against Predators. This type of stuff demonstrates the movie's disjointed nature - The Predator exhibits the hallmarks of an ambitious reboot that was compromised by a nervous studio, leading to a bare bones final cut.

As demonstrated in 2013's Iron Man 3, Black's modus operandi with a pre-existing franchise is to deconstruct the property whilst creating a dialogue-based action-comedy. However, Black's treatment of The Predator is disastrous, ignoring tension and grit to create a cartoonish farce in which every character delivers quips and jokes, logic be damned. Even though the constituents of Group 2 grapple with real-world ills like PTSD and Tourette Syndrome, such conditions are merely used as punch-lines, making this feel closer to a parody than a legitimate franchise entry. Even more excruciating are the meta jokes, with groan-worthy call-backs to the original film's iconic dialogue which, again, makes this feel like Scary Movie. Hell, a Predator even uses a severed human hand to give a thumbs up. Even with the studio interference, The Predator is undeniably the silliest and most absurd Predator-related movie to date, and certain audiences might embrace the movie since it's so gleefully retarded and packed with "humour." However, if the comedic material is not to your liking, and the campiness does not appeal to you, The Predator is an insufferable endurance test, and fans of the original movie (this reviewer included) will find the finished product mortally offensive.

Almost inevitably, the actors severely lack the machismo of the original Predator cast, and are not even as memorable as the ensemble glimpsed in 2010's Predators. Even though Holbrook has made positive impressions in films like Logan or the TV show Narcos, he's easily the most forgettable lead in a Predator movie to date. Keegan-Michael Key (understandably) earns the lion's share of the laughs, though he eventually fades into the background, while this is one of Thomas Jane's most disappointing performances in an action movie to date. The Predator even recruits Jake Busey to play the son of Gary Busey's Predator 2 role, but the resultant dull cameo squanders a golden opportunity. Black's tone-deaf dialogue makes matters worse, with Quinn's wife (Yvonne Strahovski) even delivering an impassioned speech about her husband's military achievements and positive attributes.

Despite The Predator's countless glaring flaws, it manages to only just keep its head above water for the first hour, with occasionally amusing jokes and entertaining set-pieces, while the Predator carnage is satisfyingly violent. However, the third act - which was entirely reshot merely a few months before the movie's release - is a total mess: it's beset with terrible ideas, baffling character decisions, and some of the worst digital effects ever glimpsed in a motion picture (SyFy original flicks included). The phoney-looking mayhem, especially the finale aboard a spaceship, is studiously uninvolving, feeling rushed from every technical perspective, while reshoot seams are visible. Worse, there is a distinct lack of cohesion to the final cut as a consequence of the reshoots, with unresolved narrative strands and disappearing characters. Adding insult to injury, The Predator closes with a gratuitous sequel set-up which is not only wildly out of place, but is a further insult to the sci-fi classic which started it all. The sequel tease (which will never be followed through) verifies that Black and Fox were solely interested in an expanded universe, even though this intellectual property does not lend itself to such a franchise. This type of blatant Marvel-inspired excess and idiocy has no place in a Predator movie.

At the very least, Black stayed true to his promise to deliver an R-rated sequel (one can only imagine how much worse a PG-13 cut would have turned out), Henry Jackman's retro-flavoured score gives the material agreeable flavour, and The Predator even resurrects the same font for its opening and closing titles that was used in the 1987 original (a nice touch). Outside of the hastily-reshot third act, the movie is often visually pleasing, with slick cinematography by veteran Larry Fong (Kong: Skull Island), but it's still not enough to redeem this bottom-of-the-barrel piece of shit.

This is it for the Predator series; Black has ruined it once and for all.


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An overlooked cult science fiction gem

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 15 January 2019 02:36 (A review of The Quiet Earth)

An enigmatic, overlooked cult science fiction film originating from New Zealand, 1985's The Quiet Earth presents its own unique spin on the recognisable "last man on Earth" premise, and the end result is definitely not for the average mainstream movie-goer. Adapted from the 1981 novel of the same name by New Zealand native Craig Harrison, The Quiet Earth was produced on a shoestring budget with limited resources, yet this vision of a post-apocalyptic world is lyrical and haunting, beset with creative set designs and compelling ideas, while the narrative is capably driven by a small cast of sublime performers. Those seeking a tidy, Hollywood-esque science fiction action-adventure are advised to look elsewhere, as The Quiet Earth is the type of daring independent movie that could only be produced outside of the studio system.

In Hamilton, New Zealand, scientist Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) leaves bed one morning to find that every other person on the planet has seemingly disappeared, and he is all alone. Added to this, Zac cannot help but feel he is perhaps partly responsible for whatever happened, due to his participation in a classified global energy project known as Project Flashlight. Clinging to the hope that other people might still be alive, Zac broadcasts radio messages and creates signs, all the while making a new home in a luxury mansion and helping himself to whatever he desires. As he descends into madness resulting from his isolation, he encounters a young woman named Joanne (Alison Routledge), who is equally ecstatic to find that she is not alone. With Zac and Joanne rapidly forming a friendship that leads to more, a third man joins their party in the form of Api (Pete Smith). As Zac continues to record his observations, he fears that another catastrophe might occur, and seeks to prevent it.

Harrison's novel was adapted for the screen by Bill Baer, Sam Pillsbury and Lawrence himself, presenting a post-apocalyptic world without gangs, marauders, vigilantes, segregated groups of survivors, or zombies - as insinuated by the title, the Earth here comes to its end with a creepy, frightening tranquillity; the entire human population has simply disappeared. The technical execution is remarkable, with convincing, harrowing images of deserted city streets where vehicles are overturned or outright abandoned, while a burst water pipe floods a portion of road. James Bartle's low-key cinematography ably captures these moments, while director Geoff Murphy (Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, Fortress 2) builds tension from the silence. Another scene in which Zac discovers the flaming wreckage of an aeroplane is impressive in both scope and scale, demonstrating the filmmakers' efficient use of the limited budget. Additionally, since The Quiet Earth was produced before the era of digital effects, Murphy and his team rely upon astute camera trickery and model work, and the result is frequently convincing. The film is further elevated by an outstanding original score courtesy of John Charles, whose compositions will linger in the mind long after viewing.

With Zac present in virtually every scene, and with the movie's entire first half-hour amounting to a one-man show, The Quiet Earth lives and dies on the strength of its lead actor. Luckily, the late Lawrence is up to the task; he's a magnetic, charismatic on-screen presence, ensuring the film is never boring despite its deliberate pacing and lack of action sequences. He is compelling company and feels real, giving audiences a protagonist they can identify with. Furthermore, at times Lawrence can convey what he is feeling purely through body language and facial expressions, which renders him all the more perfect for the role. Both Routledge and Smith also submit effective performances, though the latter is noticeably unpolished from time to time. Admittedly, the sudden animosity between the three characters in the third act feels out of place and too easily resolved. Although the intentions are understandable (and it does lead to a car chase), the execution is questionable, particularly with the movie ostensibly rushing through the perfunctory drama to get to the finale. The inevitable love triangle, meanwhile, is questionable and never makes much of an impact, though these are about the only downsides of an otherwise solid sci-fi gem.

Unfolding like an episode of The Twilight Zone, and closing on an ambiguous note, The Quiet Earth is definitely niche, and it may alienate viewers unwilling to engage their brain. Indeed, watching this movie for the first time may prove frustrating for many, though it holds up during repeat viewings and is oddly satisfying in its own way. Although The Quiet Earth is not exactly top-tier science fiction, it is worthwhile for movie buffs and genre aficionados, particularly due to its intelligence, style, moments of dark comedy, and uncanny sense of atmosphere.


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Compelling and powerful drama worth your time

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 10 January 2019 12:59 (A review of Stronger)

Arriving mere months after the release of 2016's Patriots Day, Stronger is not just another film solely concerned with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Indeed, whereas the Peter Berg-directed Patriots Day superbly covered the attack and subsequent nationwide manhunt for the bombers, Stronger traverses different territory to tell a more personal and intimate story; a biographical drama about one of the many people affected by the blasts. The material is more or less Hallmark "movie of the week" territory, but director David Gordon Green astutely avoids maudlin sentiment. Indeed, as opposed to overbearing music or cheesy, on-the-nose dialogue, Green's approach is sophisticated and low-key, relying on the strength of both the actors and the story. The R rating helps, as honest-to-goodness gravitas and authenticity permeates the production, with Green able to explore less savoury details whilst always displaying appropriate tact.

A blue-collar Costco employee living in Boston, Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) still lives with his alcoholic mother (Miranda Richardson) and spends most of his time binge drinking with his pals. Jeff's immaturity and unreliability frustrates ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany), whom he cannot get over or let go even after three break-ups. Following a brief meeting with Erin in a bar, Jeff hopes to definitively prove his worth by attending the 2013 Boston Marathon to cheer her on as she passes the finish line. However, Jeff is caught in a bomb blast, which instantly changes his life forever. Losing both of his legs, Jeff is confronted with a grim road to recovery as he adjusts to life confined to a wheelchair, relying on his extended family as he endures therapy and rehab. Jeff's relationship with Erin becomes stronger than ever when their romance rekindles, and he's lionised as a symbol of resilience by the city, but Jeff is reluctant to embrace his new existence - he perceives himself as a loser, and struggles to come to terms with his disability that will never heal.

Adapted from Jeff's 2014 memoir (which was co-written by Bret Witter), Stronger purportedly represents an accurate retelling of his story, hewing relatively closely to the real-life events. Scripted by John Pollono (his first feature film credit), the movie wastes little time getting to the marathon bombing, which actually occurs at the ten-minute mark. The build-up to the event is short and brisk, with no half-hearted attempts to cover Jeff's childhood (or life in general up until that point), and with the screenplay giving proper dimension to the characters in the aftermath of the attack. Furthermore, not much time is dedicated to the bombing itself, and Stronger subsequently remains focused on Jeff to explore how the event permanently affected both him and his family. Pollono's script emphasises the immense pressure that Jeff felt on his road to rehabilitation, doubting himself and struggling with internalised chaos, in addition to suffering from PTSD. The movie is realistic and at times uncomfortable, highlighting Jeff's recognisably human shortcomings and preserving his family's insalubrious qualities. Nobody here is a saint, and Jeff is not infallible (he is prone to aggressive outbursts of temper), but Stronger celebrates his spirit of redemption, showing the man coming to terms with both his disability and what he represents to the people of Boston.

Admittedly, there is nothing groundbreaking about Stronger from a narrative standpoint. This is a true story, but the list of recognisable clichés runs long: an arrested adolescent finally growing up, ex-lovers getting back together following a tragedy, a person overcoming adversity, and so on. Nevertheless, Green's treatment of the material is top-flight; he moulds the conventions into a powerful and compelling watch, eschewing manipulative melodrama and establishing a stark tone that rings true. Green may not be an obvious choice for this type of production due to such directorial credits as Pineapple Express and Your Highness, but this is not his first foray into low-budget drama (see George Washington or Snow Angels), and he directs Stronger with a confident hand. Smartly, Green does not revel in exploitation, minimising the bombing's gory details - rather, the rating permits effective yet tactful scenes showing Jeff's bandages being changed, or first responders tending to Jeff's legs after the blast. The dialogue feels authentic to boot, particularly with curse words allowed, while other details contribute to the feeling of realism, especially Boston's enthusiasm for their professional sports teams.

Gyllenhaal, who also produced the movie and was instrumental in bringing this story to the big screen, is arguably at his finest portraying Jeff Bauman, supported by seamless visual effects to sell the illusion of amputated legs. Stronger calls for a lot of the actor, but his handling of the dramatic material is outstanding; see the aforementioned scene of Jeff's bandages being changed in hospital for the first time, or an emotionally intense moment in a car with Erin. Speaking of Erin, she has a genuine part to play in the story beyond a simple romantic interest, feeling perpetually frustrated by the situation but internalising her annoyance. Maslany, who made such a positive impact in the cult television series Orphan Black, is sublime in the role, further demonstrating her immaculate dramatic chops. It’s a welcomely nuanced variation on the long-suffering girlfriend role. Rounding out the primary cast is Richardson as Jeff's brass tacks mother; she espouses a completely believable Boston accent, and does not glamorise the character. Every member of the cast feels wholly authentic, with Green even recruiting the actual medical professionals and rehabilitation team who helped in Jeff's recovery.

Nothing feels inessential within Stronger's two-hour running time, and each event receives sufficient breathing room to make a real impact, which is the major benefit of a biographical movie zeroing in on a short space of time. It does not exactly reach great emotional heights, and it is not pleasant viewing, but this is a worthwhile story that is well-told, even if the movie fails to acknowledge that Jeff and Erin filed for divorce in early 2017. Even though Stronger bombed at the box office and was completely ignored by major film award associations, it is worth your time and attention.


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Aesthetically inviting, but unremarkably plotted

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 10 January 2019 07:23 (A review of Crazy Rich Asians)

An adaptation of Kevin Kwan's best-selling novel of the same name, 2018's Crazy Rich Asians is more notable for its cultural significance than its story or screenplay. After all, this is a major Hollywood production featuring an ensemble cast almost entirely comprised of Asians, aiming to add an Eastern flavour and perspective to a conventional fish-out-of-water romantic comedy. Directed by Jon M. Chu, Crazy Rich Asians explodes with colour and visual opulence, with the flick looking technically accomplished in every frame, and with an appealing cast that includes a few familiar faces. It is unfortunate, then, that the film provides so little in terms of narrative invention - the only cliché subversion the material can offer is a gender swap on the usual Meet the Parents-style formula. Furthermore, Crazy Rich Asians is the definition of pandering, Westernised entertainment - the Asian characters primarily speak (perfect) English, stereotypes run rampant, authenticity is questionable, and it's pitched as a standard Hollywood rom-com to guarantee mainstream approval. There is a reason that the picture bombed at the Chinese box office.

A successful economics professor at New York University, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) loves her job and maintains a relationship with the seemingly normal Nick Young (Henry Golding). But unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick's family in Singapore is insanely rich and highly esteemed, while Nick is one of the most sought-after bachelors in Asia. With his best friend Colin (Chris Pang) getting married in Singapore, Nick invites Rachel to accompany him to the wedding and meet his family. However, Nick's mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) instantly disapproves of the coupling, while Rachel is scrutinised and judged by Nick's high-society family and friends. With the wedding drawing closer, Rachel receives guidance and friendship from former college roommate Peik Lin (Awkwafina) as she fights an uphill battle of perceived worth and charm, while Nick plans to pop the question before they return to America.

With a screenplay credited to Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli, the narrative of Crazy Rich Asians is beset with recognisable ingredients, taking its cues from Meet the Parents and other rom-coms that follow the same formula, but at least such beats are executed in a unique, culturally specific way to justify the movie's existence. More problematic is the predictable angle exploring "what really matters" - you see, Nick marrying Rachel would mean turning his back on the family business, and he essentially needs to choose between Rachel and his family. The third act eventually devolves into a conventional break-up-to-make-up scenario to further remind us that Crazy Rich Asians is a cuddly Hollywood rom-com afraid to deviate too far from the ordinary. However, while the characterisations are mostly broad and Eleanor's disdain for Rachel is standard-order, the movie does manage some dramatic heft in its third act. Eleanor is given some surprising dimension, while Rachel's family backstory is a bit more thoughtful than anticipated.

Crazy Rich Asians runs too long at close to two hours, occasionally feeling like an assembly cut awaiting trimming. One superfluous distraction involves a supporting character cheating on his wife, but the subplot fails to gain much traction despite the screen-time the two are allotted. The script ostensibly strives to create a gallery of side characters who submitted to more traditional Eastern lifestyles but were unable to find happiness, which weighs on Rachel's mind. While the intentions are clear, Chu is unable to keep everything interesting or compelling. However, the actors all hit their marks effectively, with Constance Wu and Henry Golding (in his film debut) sharing strong chemistry which renders their romance believable. Both actors are charismatic and likeable, while the iconic Yeoh elevates her role with genuine gravitas. Comedic relief is provided through the supporting cast, with the likes of Awkwafina (Bad Neighbours 2) and Ken Jeong (The Hangover) scoring a few laughs each, but the movie is otherwise noticeably short on humour.

Chu, who previously demonstrated pleasing visual panache in movies like G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Now You See Me 2 (just to name a couple), guides the material with a sure directorial hand, maintaining a steady pace throughout, while cinematographer Vanja Cernjul (Marco Polo, The Deuce) creates a colourful, irresistibly slick look that does justice to both the beautiful locations and meticulous sets. The visuals are accompanied by a selection of eclectic tunes (including foreign language covers of recognisable songs), in addition to Brian Tyler's perfectly pleasant original score. Crazy Rich Asians is easy to appreciate from a purely aesthetic perspective (this is quite a tourism commercial for Singapore, to boot). Furthermore, at times Chu achieves a level of wit and sophistication that unfortunately does not pervade the movie. In an early scene, for instance, Nick and Rachel sit at a café together and images of the pair rapidly spread around the world. The subsequent montage is visually appealing and witty, particularly with people online identifying Rachel and locating her social media in mere minutes, before the pair have even left the café.

From time to time, Crazy Rich Asians truly does come alive, thanks in no small part to the cast and Chu's glossy visual stylings, while the screenplay itself contains some genuinely sweet and cute moments. However, the film is uneven and long in the tooth, even if it is visually inviting, while the story's adherence to the mainstream rom-com formula forbids something that feels truly culturally incisive and emotionally complex.


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Disposable, formulaic and flavourless reboot

Posted : 5 years, 2 months ago on 22 December 2018 04:06 (A review of Tomb Raider)

2018's Tomb Raider represents the second attempt to adapt the long-running video game series of the same name into a big-screen blockbuster franchise, fifteen years after the first cinematic incarnation (starring Angelina Jolie) petered out after a mere two instalments. This reboot takes its cues primarily from the 2013 video game reboot, merging the game's broad plot strokes and reimagined Lara Croft with Batman Begins-style gritty realism, and it's an origin story to boot. Despite refined visuals and an intriguing change of direction, this new Tomb Raider only works in fits and starts, marred by uneven pacing and an overcomplicated story. A movie this technically proficient and expensive has no business being so lacklustre and cold to the touch.

Seven years ago, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) mysteriously vanished on a business trip, and his daughter Lara (Alicia Vikander) still clings to the possibility that he is alive. Struggling to make a living as a bicycle courier in London, Lara stands to inherit her father's vast fortune, but refuses to sign the paperwork to declare him legally deceased. However, Richard's business partner Ana (Kristin Scott Thomas) warns Lara that Richard's estate will be sold off if she does not accept the inheritance. Discovering a clue left in her father's will, Lara is led to his private office, learning of Richard's secret life as an adventurer and finding his research about Japanese witch Himiko. Although Richard's pre-recorded message instructs Lara to destroy his work, she seeks to use it to find him, travelling to Hong Kong where she teams with boat captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) to locate the remote island of Yamatai off the coast of Japan. Shipwrecked after navigating violent waters, Lara discovers that Yamatai is under the control of mercenaries led by Vogel (Walter Goggins) who seek to weaponise Himiko's power on behalf of the shadowy organisation Trinity.

Narratively, this Tomb Raider boils down to a less thematically-resonant riff on the aforementioned 2013 video game. Most of the appeal of the original games is stripped away in favour of the "origin story" format, refusing to cut loose as the film builds towards the Lara Croft we know, down to a mid-credits scene in which she obtains her coveted dual pistols. Couple this with a painfully generic story set-up, and this reviewer was left wanting to watch a sequel instead. In addition, whereas Lara is the prominent focus of the video games, facing physical challenges and solving puzzles, 2018's Tomb Raider is inexplicably a group effort. With Lara not yet a confident woman of action, Lu Ren is allotted a bizarrely large role in the proceedings, presumably because generic would-be blockbusters such as this now heavily rely on China to make money. Furthermore, the script by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons is tonally inconsistent; over-the-top set-pieces are the order of the day, yet there is also a grim scene observing Lara who's traumatised in the immediate aftermath of her first kill.

Determined to distinguish this Tomb Raider from the cartoonish Jolie-starring pictures, director Roar Uthaug (2015's The Wave) and cinematographer George Richmond (Children of Men) imbue the material with an effectively gritty look, reminiscent of the 2013 game. Production values are expectedly nice across the board, with vivid digital effects that show how far CGI has come since the original movies. Visually, there is much to appreciate about Tomb Raider, which is unsurprising given the hefty budget. Uthaug proves a proficient visual stylist, making astute use of the locations and sets, establishing a palpable sense of place and atmosphere while on the island. It is clear, however, that the filmmakers took more influence from Uncharted than Tomb Raider - as a matter of fact, on top of the evident aesthetic influence, one of the narrative twists here is lifted directly from the first Uncharted game. Still, isolated sections of the movie do work, with well-staged sequences that deserve to be seen on the largest possible screen. Aside from the occasional shootouts, the film's centrepiece involves Lara being pursued through the jungle and down rushing rapids, leaving her trapped on an airplane wreckage precariously perched atop a waterfall. Additionally, the third act involves some actual tomb raiding, living up the movie's title.

One of the primary issues relates to pacing; the narrative is dense and overcomplicated, which requires endless monotonous exposition to make it comprehensible. Despite handsome visuals, Uthaug is unable to liven the humdrum script - Tomb Raider is often a slog between the action beats. It's telling that Stuart Baird receives an editorial credit; he's renowned for being brought onto troubled projects to salvage movies in the editing room. Moreover, Tomb Raider strives for heart and emotion through Richard and Lara's relationship, yet it never gains much traction despite the endless flashbacks to hammer home how close they were. Still, Vikander is fine as Lara, though there is not much depth to the character and she is decidedly more self-serious than Jolie. West, on the other hand, displays severely limited range, while the reliable Goggins turns in a passable performance as the underwritten key villain. There are also a few high-end British actors in the movie's first act (including Kristin Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi) to keep viewers wondering if one of them is a secret bad guy. The only humour is supplied by Nick Frost and Jaime Winstone as married pawnbrokers who only appear in two short scenes.

The Jolie-starring Lara Croft films were not especially good from a critical standpoint, but they nailed the video game's goofiness and had a genuine sense of identity. 2018's Tomb Raider, on the other hand, is disposable, formulaic and flavourless; merely a vehicle for Vikander to show off her potential as an action lead. Despite a few worthwhile action sequences (certain scenes and beats truly feel like a video game, too), the picture lacks intrigue, charm and momentum, while the origin story format restricts how much fun can be had. With the box office underperformance in mind, it's unlikely that a follow-up will ever materialise despite an ending that directly sets up sequels. Perhaps there will be another reboot in another fifteen years.


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A worthy follow-up and companion piece to Sicario

Posted : 5 years, 2 months ago on 9 December 2018 02:44 (A review of Sicario: Day of the Soldado)

2018's Sicario: Day of the Soldado ran the risk of appearing to be another unnecessary, cheesy cash-in sequel to a serious drama, similar to the direct-to-video follow-ups to Jarhead or Green Street Hooligans. However, with Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water) returning to the fold, this sequel confidently justifies its existence, resulting in another engaging fictitious action-drama within a relevant real-world setting. To be sure, the morally ambiguous narrative is polarising, while the movie's central conceit and themes may not sit right with everybody, hence the mixed reaction from professional critics. Admittedly, perfection does elude Sicario: Day of the Soldado due to a rocky third act and some lethargic pacing, and it inevitably falls short of its predecessor, but this follow-up is nevertheless an ideal instance of mature counterprogramming in a crowded summer season dominated by colourful blockbusters.

When a suicide bombing in a Kansas supermarket kills over a dozen people, the American government suspects that Islamic radicals are entering the United States through the Mexican border among migrant workers. In response, the U.S. government authorises CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to engage in covert black ops tactics to combat Mexican drug cartels, who control the border and are deemed responsible for smuggling terrorists into the country. Coordinating with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine), Graver hatches a plan to instigate a war between the cartels to destabilise border crossing operations and halt ISIS interests. To achieve this, Graver recruits black ops killing machine Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap 16-year-old Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a major cartel kingpin who ordered the murder of Gillick's family several years prior. Complications arise during the operation, with Gillick left on his own to protect Isabel as he travels to the border, while Graver deals with the nervous U.S. government bureaucrats as they get cold feet.

Although a Sicario sequel might seem unnecessary, a trilogy was planned from the outset, and while a follow-up was not explicitly set up, the 2015 feature subtly left room for further stories to occur involving these characters. Drugs are less of a concern in Day of the Soldado, and the plot involving terrorism represents an interesting shift, particularly given its plausibility. (There are genuine real-world concerns about terrorists entering the U.S. through the Mexican border.) Sheridan's screenplay adheres to the same narrative structure as the first Sicario; the government machinations and CIA activities intersect with an ostensibly unrelated story concerning Mexicans on the other side of the law, in this case young Mexican-American coyote Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) who is being indoctrinated into the cartel system. Just as Sheridan's 2017 movie Wind River delivered a message pertaining to the appalling treatment of Native Americans, Day of the Soldado's parallel narratives explore the toll that terrorism, war and drug trafficking has on children, providing some thoughtful thematic content amid the chaos. Miraculously, the child characters are not as grating as they might have been, thanks to the smart casting of Moner and Rodriguez in their respective roles.

In spite of its narrative intricacies, Sicario: Day of the Soldado feels closer to a straightforward action movie compared to its predecessor, though that is not necessarily a negative. Stepping into the director's chair is Italian filmmaker Stefano Sollima, late of acclaimed television series Gomorrah and the 2015 Italian mobster picture Suburra. Day of the Soldado is therefore a good fit for Sollima's stylistic sensibilities, steeping the material in grit and ensuring this sequel feels wholly legitimate. However, with a runtime exceeding two hours, the ride is not as smooth as Sicario; perhaps due to Sollima's television roots, portions of this sequel progress with languid, TV-style pacing. Nevertheless, Sollima proves an able craftsman during the set-pieces, from the gripping shootouts to the horrific supermarket bombing that will churn stomachs. Unfolding in a bravura single shot, the bombing is visceral and unnerving, setting the tone for the picture and showing the harsh consequences of terrorism while still maintaining a sense of tact. Sollima smartly uses practical effects and sets as much as possible to create a realistic aesthetic, with minor digital accompaniments to subtly enhance the visuals. Furthermore, Dariusz Wolski's gritty cinematography evinces a pronounced sense of style, creating an ominous atmosphere and giving convincing life to the material. Wolski thankfully keeps the photography sufficiently steady during the intermittent scenes of mayhem, allowing us to take in and appreciate the set-pieces. Sicario: Day of the Soldado is also helped immeasurably by Hildur Guðnadóttir's brooding and effective score, reminiscent of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson's compositions for the original Sicario.

The morality behind Day of the Soldado is a bit of a mess by design; the moral implications behind the staged kidnapping are shaky in the first place, even though such underhanded black ops tactics are combatting domestic terrorism to thwart further attacks. This provokes questions regarding the lengths that are acceptable in order to save lives. Much of the movie's second half explores the fallout from Gillick refusing to murder Isabel to cover the government's tracks, further complicating the screenplay's moral foundation. With Gillick allotted a bigger role here, he's inherently less interesting and badass, as he is given more backstory and moral dimension. Your mileage will vary on this front, but Gillick was a more menacing screen presence in the original Sicario, though he certainly has his moments here and Del Toro still makes a positive impression. Brolin is equally impressive, remaining captivating and tough-as-nails, while Catherine Keener represents a welcome addition to the cast as a CIA boss, playing well against Brolin.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado visibly struggles as it approaches the finishing line, with a few incredulous moments that strain credibility and took this reviewer out of the action. Although Day of the Soldado is not exactly entertaining in the stereotypical popcorn-munching sense, and the absence of Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins is felt, this is nevertheless compelling adult filmmaking which is more gratifying than any number of brainless action movies released during 2018. It also represents a fine companion piece for Sicario, and leaves the door open for the proposed third instalment.


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A masculine ugly-cry movie for the ages

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 20 September 2018 05:14 (A review of Only the Brave)

One of the most underrated and overlooked motion pictures of 2017, Only the Brave provides a group-biopic account of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, whose story is ideal fodder for the big screen. Only the Brave's plot is admittedly Hallmark movie-of-the-week boilerplate and, in the hands of less sophisticated filmmakers, could have been packed with melodrama as well as forced tear-wringing. However, director Joseph Kosinski fortunately avoids the temptation, shaping an achingly poignant tribute to firefighters and real-life heroism, paying attention to character complexity as opposed to pure spectacle. Some aspects of the narrative are admittedly familiar, but performances are excellent, dialogue is engaging, and the technical presentation is top-flight, which is what matters the most in a production of this ilk. Not knowing the outcome of the story does result in a more devastating emotional kick, though it will almost certainly still work for those with full knowledge of the events that befell the Granite Mountain Hotshots at Yarnell Hill. The furthest thing from a simple, corny Hollywood action movie, Only the Brave is a compelling, powerful feature which must be seen and is impossible to forget.

A Fire and Rescue superintendent, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) seeks to earn a hotshot certification for his firefighting crew of Prescott, Arizona, and become the first municipal hotshot unit in the country. Frustrated with only observing wildfires from afar and being ignored, Eric turns to city fire chief Duane (Jeff Bridges) and the Mayor (Forrest Fyre) to support his certification aspirations. Needing to expand his crew to make this dream a reality, Eric takes on new recruits, including ex-junkie Brendan (Miles Teller) who recently became a father, was kicked out of home, and is trying to straighten up his problematic life. Through the efforts of Eric's crew, including Brendan, Jesse (James Badge Dale) and Chris (Taylor Kitsch), the unit achieves certification status, rechristening themselves as the Granite Mountain Hotshots. However, hotshot status means the responsibility of frequently fighting fires around the state, which takes the men away from their families - Eric's wife Amanda (Jennifer Connolly) wants to have a child but finds his priorities misplaced, while Brendan spends too much time away from his baby daughter.

With a screenplay credited to Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, adapted from the 2013 GQ article "No Exit" by Sean Flynn, Only the Brave does take liberties with history to generate a more dramatically satisfying motion picture. Most notably, the movie shows the same team working together for years, but the Granite Mountain Hotshots saw a frequent turnover as people came and left. But other elements of the narrative are factual, particularly the story of Brendan, whose true-to-life arc is so perfect for a motion picture that it feels manufactured. A bulk of the narrative is framed through Brendan's eyes, observing him on the job and revealing his struggles as he adapts to fatherhood. Furthermore, since Brendan is a new recruit, we meet the other team members through him, generating an effective team dynamite and an outstanding camaraderie with Chris. Only the Brave is structured like an old-fashioned biographical movie, running a beefy 130 minutes as it takes care of necessary character and story development, not to mention it allows us to adequately understand what the Hotshots actually do and how they operate. Miraculously, although the movie is long, nothing feels superfluous.

Only the Brave was helmed by Joseph Kosinski, late of sci-fi/fantasy pictures Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, yet he wisely dials down his garish directorial tendencies to construct a distinctly earthbound story closer that feels closer to a Peter Berg movie. Instead of presenting the fire-fighting sequences as overblown digital effects spectacles, the set-pieces are effectively realistic and matter-of-fact, befitting the source material. Kosinski demonstrates incredible range as he navigates dramatic and emotional scenes, imbuing the material with genuine substance. Furthermore, Only the Brave progresses at such a patient, measured pace that we are left unprepared for the climactic events, rendering them all the more devastating. Backed by a modest $38 million budget, the picture looks spectacular from top to bottom, with gorgeous cinematography and an almost seamless mix of practical and digital effects to sell the illusion of raging wildfires, accentuated with a hypnotic yet understated score by Joseph Trapanese (Straight Outta Compton). Kosinski is no stranger to visual effects, but he never loses sight of the characters here, making the sequences intense, visceral and above all tasteful. The foregone conclusion is still incredibly distressing to behold, thanks to the patient character development and the real danger that the fire presents. In addition, at no point does Kosinski feel the need to linger on gory content, keeping within the confines of a PG-13 rating without the movie feeling needlessly neutered. Perhaps Peter Berg could have brought a tad more immediacy to the material, but this is not to impugn Kosinski's efforts in any significant way.

Brolin is tailor-made for roles such as this, and he is note-perfect as Marsh. Instead of mugging for potential Oscar glory, the actor finds a way to underplay the heroic character, coming across as completely authentic in the process. It's a superb, perfectly judged performance imbued with humanity and emotion, ably carrying the movie. Furthermore, whereas most productions would settle for a one-dimensional wife character, Amanda Marsh has depth and plays a considerable role in the story, not to mention Connolly delivers a powerhouse performance. Just as terrific is Bridges, while it's fascinating to see Taylor Kitsch in something genuinely good for a change. (Remember when Kitsch was meant to be Hollywood's next big thing? The consecutive flops of John Carter and Battleship put the kibosh on that.) Teller, meanwhile, is only intermittently tolerable in movies (his highest point being 2014's Whiplash), and it seems appropriate to cast him as a loser who gets his arse kicked throughout the second act in order to earn the right to be perceived as likeable and worth caring about once the climax arrives. Impressively, Teller convincingly pulls off the transformation from low-life dope-head into a hard-working, respectful tough guy. James Badge Dale is also here playing Marsh's second-in-command, because he is ostensibly required by Hollywood law to feature in all movies like this.

First and foremost, Only the Brave is a story about the men who fight fires, rather than the flames themselves. Admittedly, the narrative does feel slightly erratic due to its episodic nature - the fateful Yarnell Hill Fire is not introduced until the third act, and the movie does not build up to it throughout; rather, the event feels like just another fire. This story is episodic, observing the crew as they train, ply their trade, and deal with their personal lives, with amusing banter and humour to make the characters more relatable and human. Like Peter Berg's Deepwater Horizon, Only the Brave did not receive a fair shake at the box office, unable to even earn back its modest budget, but it will stand the test of time and it's fortunate that the movie exists. Hard-hitting and visceral, Only the Brave is a masculine ugly-cry movie for the ages.


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Eye-wateringly funny from start to finish

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 14 September 2018 03:19 (A review of Not Another Teen Movie)

A parody of virtually every teen comedy from She's All That to The Breakfast Club, 2001's Not Another Teen Movie adheres to the same formula popularised by Scary Movie and Airplane!, and the result is easily one of the most successful spoof movies of the noughties. Far better than bottom-of-the-barrel, brain-dead drivel like Disaster Movie or Vampires Suck, Not Another Teen Movie succeeds because it's genuinely side-splitting and clever, showing a reverence for the genre whilst gleefully taking the piss out of well-worn tropes and clichés. Teen movies are ripe for parodying, as the genre has well-defined narrative parameters and familiar conventions (not to mention iconic scenes), and Not Another Teen Movie is confidently up to the task. Although critics savaged the film upon its theatrical release in 2001, it has developed into a minor cult classic, and for good reason. In 2018, the film more than holds up, particularly given the dire state of the parody subgenre.

At John Hughes High School in Southern California, "popular jock" Jake Wyler (Chris Evans) is dumped by cheerleader Priscilla (Jaime Pressly) in favour of "beautiful weirdo" Les (Riley Smith). With prom approaching, Jake makes a bet with his friends that he can turn the frumpy "uniquely rebellious pretty ugly girl," Janey Briggs (Chyler Leigh), into prom queen. Along the way, the relationship that Jake builds with Janey transcends the bet as they start to fall in love. Meanwhile, desperate virgins Mitch (Cody McMains), Ox (Sam Huntington) and Bruce (Samm Levine) make a pact to lose their virginity by graduation, even though they're only freshmen.

Narratively, Not Another Teen Movie takes its cues from She's All That, mixing in a dash of 10 Things I Hate About You, Cruel Intentions, American Pie, Never Been Kissed, and many more. Not Another Teen Movie primarily succeeds because it actually feels like an authentic motion picture - it was shot on 35mm film stock, accurately replicating the cinematic look of the features it merrily sends up. This aspect separates it from more recent parodies, which just look astonishingly cheap. However, Not Another Teen Movie is at its weakest when focusing on Jake's football misadventures. One can understand the necessity to parody such a prominent staple of American high school movies, but the resulting sequences are not as fast-moving or as focused, nor are the plot machinations as interesting. Still, there are some laughs to mine from said scenes, and this is a minor knock against an otherwise eye-wateringly funny movie. The fun culminates with a riotous ending (the result of a reshoot) complete with a Molly Ringwald cameo to show further reverence for the genre that the filmmakers gleefully skewer. And just to make the scene funnier, Ringwald's character hates teenagers and turns her nose up at the romantic dialogue. ("Fucking teenagers," she bemoans.)

At the helm of the movie is veteran MTV spoofer Joel Gallen, who now spends a bulk of his time overseeing Comedy Central Roasts. Gallen keeps the pacing quick, never lingering on gags or set-pieces, with the film clocking in at an economical 89 minutes. Subtle gags abound, from the school cafeteria being called "Anthony Michael Dining Hall," to the football team playing in "Harry Dean Stadium." With the benefit of an R rating, Gallen and the five credited screenwriters go for broke, incorporating vulgar dialogue and uproarious gross-out moments. The spoofing is consistently on-target, and appreciable extra touches serve to legitimise the production; the late Paul Gleason reprises his Breakfast Club role to merrily take the piss out of himself, while another moment lampooning She's All That uses the song from the original scene. Other hilarious gags takes aim at the fact that teen movies include precisely one token black guy. The soundtrack, too, boasts multiple gems, while Good Charlotte actually appear as the live band at the prom. Comedy is subjective, of course, and it's impossible to predict any individual's reaction to the movie, but I cannot deny that Not Another Teen Movie worked like gangbusters for me. An extended director's cut was later released on home video, which adds approximately eleven minutes of footage to bring the runtime to a tidy 100 minutes. Naturally, not every added joke lands, but the director's cut is still the superior edition; the theatrical version feels gutted in comparison.

Not Another Teen Movie is fearless, even including a musical number that references incest and ejaculating into French toast, while characters highlight that attractive girls always receive slow-motion entrances. Film buffs will probably get the most out of Not Another Teen Movie, as it's jam-packed with countless nods and references to a vast array of youth movies from the '80s and '90s, and certain gags are so obscure that it may take multiple viewings to notice. Of course, not every joke soars, but that's par for the course; what matters is that there are enough successful gags to make sure the movie is worthwhile. The sizeable cast is game for everything the script demands, with Leigh (now a regular on Supergirl) and Evans a fun central pairing. The future Captain America is a fresh-faced teenager here, and his comic performance is ideal, scoring laughs aplenty. Pressly, meanwhile, gets plenty of mileage as the attractive but bitchy cheerleader, while the supporting cast features the likes of Eric Christian Olsen, Mia Kirshner, Sam Huntington, Samm Levine, Lacey Chabert, and even Randy Quaid, who seems to simply reprise his role from the Vacation movies. Future How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor is also present as a tour guide who intermittently pops up to make snide remarks about teen movie clichés ("You would never suspect that everyone at this school is a professional dancer").

Not Another Teen Movie makes use of the very same parody formula which has beget dirge like Date Movie and Disaster Movie; pictures that effectively killed the parody subgenre. But films such as this demonstrate just how funny the formula can be when in the hands of a creative team capable of actual humour. Without reaching the dizzying heights of Airplane! or The Naked Gun!, Not Another Teen Movie is hugely entertaining and full of belly-laughs, standing the test of time and looking all the better after the dreadful spoofs which followed in its wake. And it was not followed by endless sequels to sully its reputation, which is frankly astonishing. Additionally, be sure to stick around until the end of the credits for one more laugh.


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An instant manly classic

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 13 September 2018 05:32 (A review of Brawl in Cell Block 99)

Following up a directorial debut like 2015's sleeper surprise Bone Tomahawk is a tall order, but prodigy writer-director S. Craig Zahler defies the odds (and his own relative inexperience) with seemingly little effort. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a fucking masterpiece from top to bottom; a brutal, completely mesmerising showcase of extreme violence, hyper-masculine behaviour and dark humour, buoyed by superb direction and a remarkable, career-defining performance by Vince Vaughn. An ode to old-fashioned prison films and grindhouse cinema, Zahler's sophomore effort further demonstrates his unique filmmaking voice, with deliberate but enthralling pacing, and a screenplay that crackles with unforced wit. There is genuine artistry throughout Brawl in Cell Block 99 to boot; this is practically an art-house movie, but it's also more accessible than that label implies.

A recovered addict and former boxer, Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) loses his job as a tow truck driver and discovers that his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), is seeing another man. Determined to put his life and marriage back together, Bradley becomes a successful drug runner for old friend Gil (Marc Blucas), while Lauren falls pregnant; their second attempt to have a child. Bradley is cautious and proficient in his line of work, but things go south when Gil gets into business with Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito). When Bradley works alongside a pair of Eleazar's enforcers to pick up a shipment of crystal meth, the police get involved, compromising the job and putting Bradley behind bars. Unwilling to give up Gil to the police, Bradley is sentenced to seven years in a medium-security prison, which separates him from Lauren in the latter stages of her tough pregnancy. However, Eleazar is not willing to let Bradley off the hook, demanding that he gets himself moved to Redleaf, a maximum security facility housing a special target whom Bradley must assassinate to pay off his outstanding debt. With Eleazar's men holding Lauren hostage, Bradley has little choice but to comply.

Chief among Brawl in Cell Block 99's strengths is that Zahler is unafraid of length. Although the narrative is largely uncomplicated and the movie could have probably run a proverbial 89 minutes, Zahler lets the story breathe with a running time exceeding two hours, creating an intoxicating atmosphere and keeping us under his spell until the end. For its first two acts, Brawl in Cell Block 99 concentrates on procedural minutiae. Prior to Bradley's incarceration, Zahler lets us watch the drug trafficker engage in his routine as he travels around delivering product, exercising caution at every turn and concealing his car with a camouflage net when it is not in use. When Bradley transfers to prison, Zahler lingers on mundane details such as surrendering personal belongings, initial checks, and orientations, letting us authentically feel his frustrations. Visceral highlights pepper the movie, but Brawl in Cell Block 99 takes off once it reaches the titular Cell Block 99 in Redleaf, populated with the worst types of criminals and overseen by ruthless, immoral guards.

In spite of a limited budget, Brawl in Cell Block 99 never feels like a direct-to-video cheapie, as the technical presentation from top to bottom is outstanding. Zahler's style is defiantly stripped-down and old-fashioned; music is minimalist, pauses are allowed, and shots run for longer than a second each. Furthermore, Zahler achieves practically everything in-camera, making use of squibs and prosthetics, on top of blank-firing weapons and real explosions. This may seem like a minor victory, but in an age of digitally-enhanced action movies, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a breath of fresh air. Even though the brawls take place in dim corridors and subterranean rooms, they are a masterclass of choreography, shooting, and editing. The vicious prison fight scenes are welcomely steady, often occurring in extended wide angles to do justice to the unpolished but satisfying choreography. In addition, a badass, low-key score complements Benji Bakshi's (Bone Tomahawk) stylish, atmospheric cinematography, making this one to watch on a large screen with surround sound. Meanwhile, the deliberately retro-style prosthetics and practical gore effects are effective, allowing us to watch faces get ripped off, arms being brutally broken, and skulls being shattered. This is the type of violence that makes you cringe and turn away (awesome though it certainly is), which is so rare in contemporary cinema. 

As Bradley (do not ever call him Brad), Vaughn is the movie's secret weapon; he is one of the key reasons why Brawl in Cell Block 99 works as well as it does. Perhaps owing to his many years of awful comedies, Vaughn's comedic timing and delivery is ace; Bradley is a complete wise-arse, and his one-liners crackle with the sort of wit that Quentin Tarantino was once capable of. Additionally, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is one of Vaughn's only movies to use his imposing height to make him appear intimidating and scary. Vaughn worked to get himself into shape to convincingly portray this physically tough former boxer with a fiery temper, and it really is a sight to behold when Bradley is unleashed. Vaughn is well matched against a sensational Don Johnson as the sadistic Warden Tuggs, who runs Redleaf with a no-nonsense attitude. Johnson exudes masculinity and badassery from every pore, and he is a captivating on-screen presence. The supporting cast is effectively filled out with the likes of Jennifer Carpenter (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), Udo Kier playing one of Eleazar's associates (of course he's a villain), as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Marc Blucas, among others.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a manly classic for the ages; the work of a genuine auteur committed to a vision, regardless of political correctness or commercial-friendly ratings. Every frame and dialogue exchange throughout the movie is entrancing, and it's hard to foresee precisely what will happen next because Bradley is so unpredictably brutal. With a focused narrative that is free of unnecessary tangents, the two-hour duration of Brawl in Cell Block 99 flies past in what seems like half that time. It never feels like a chore, nor does it lose momentum, which is a testament to Zahler's command of the screen. The extended climax, meanwhile, is heart-stopping and riveting, and the movie manages to end with a bit of unforced emotion. Although certainly not for all tastes, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is essential viewing that's impossible to forget.


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Perfectly enjoyable "big dumb" monster movie

Posted : 5 years, 5 months ago on 10 September 2018 05:03 (A review of Rampage)

Not to be confused with the 2009 Uwe Boll film of the same name, 2018's Rampage represents another big-screen video game adaptation, released in the shadow of the Tomb Raider reboot. However, Rampage's source material is not an expansive open-world game or a popular first-person shooter, but instead an obscure, virtually plotless arcade quarter-muncher from 1986 wherein a players' objective is to cause as much destruction as possible while battling military and police forces. It is not exactly fertile ground for a pre-summer event film, but the adaptation nevertheless translates to a perfectly enjoyable "big dumb" monster movie, presented in the same pure, unpretentious spirit as a Roland Emmerich blockbuster from the 1990s. Directed by San Andreas helmer Brad Peyton, Rampage is essentially an old-fashioned B-movie brought to life with A-grade production values. (And it's more sophisticated than the usual SyFy pap.) It's also one of the best video game films to date, clearing one of the lowest bars in cinema history.

A former U.S. Army Special Forces Soldier, Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson) now dedicates his life to working as a primatologist at the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary. Davis shares a special friendship with rare albino gorilla George, who was saved from poachers as an infant, and can communicate through sign language. However, George is exposed a pathogen originating from a destroyed space station, which causes him to rapidly grow in both size and aggression. The space station debris also lands in other parts of the United States, exposing the pathogen to a wolf and a crocodile, who respectively become known as Ralph and Lizzie. With the mutated giants rampaging across the country, Davis receives support from genetic engineer Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), who was partly responsible for the creation of the pathogen. Kate once worked for a biotech firm run by Claire (Malin Åkerman) and her idiot brother Brett (Jake Lacy), who are now trying to recover the assets by sending out a secret radio signal to lure the monsters to Chicago. Davis, meanwhile, refuses to give up on his friend, teaming up with Kate to follow George to Chicago and save the city.

Rampage may not resemble a family movie on the surface due to the violence and destruction on display throughout, but the story does ultimately boil down to an animal conservationist and his tender relationship with a gorilla. George is a surprisingly likeable character, performed through motion capture by actor Jason Liles (Netflix's Death Note), and there is palpable chemistry between the primate and Davis, which provides some semblance of heart and stakes amid the cartoonish, thoroughly absurd climactic spectacle. In addition, it's almost possible to forgive the blatant, silly contrivances which allow for Davis to team up and fight alongside the giant-sized George to take down Ralph and Lizzie during the Chicago battle. However, the screenplay (credited to four writers) overthinks the material and tries to take things too seriously, leading to a first half that's jam-packed with laborious exposition, spending too much time with Claire and Brett. Ultimately, pacing is affected by a villainous corporate subplot in which motivations are ludicrously foolhardy and unclear, resulting in a narrative in need of streamlining. Dialogue, meanwhile, usually amounts to clichéd action movie chatter. (Can characters in movies please stop saying "Go to hell"?)

Lots of money was thrown at Rampage, making it look more expensive than its comparatively modest reported $140 million budget. For the most part, production values impress, with state-of-the-art digital effects giving convincing life to the trio of giant monsters. The film's third act transforms into the most expensive recreation of a cheap 1980s arcade game in history, filled with the type of things that players did in the "Rampage" game: destroying buildings, climbing buildings, squashing people, eating people, taking down planes, demolishing tanks, and so on. However, as with any major blockbuster, the quality of the CGI varies from shot to shot; some moments are phoney, including some obvious green screen work, while others look borderline photorealistic. The score by Peyton regular Andrew Lockington (San Andreas, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) gets the job done by ramping up the sense of excitement during the big set-pieces, but it sounds utterly generic on the whole. Furthermore, Rampage is surprisingly violent within the confines of a PG-13 rating, but it simultaneously pulls punches as well. See, in keeping with the game, the monsters are mean-spirited - they flatten, eat and dismember people - but such sequences feel vanilla; some over-the-top bloodshed would add some campy comedic qualities to the enterprise. The rating also forbids Davis from saying "motherfucker" in its entirety during the Chicago battle.

At this point, Johnson can play a charismatic tough guy in his sleep, and he is predictably ideal as the hero here. He "gets" the type of film he's in, and takes the material seriously despite the screenplay's innate campiness, carving out a surprisingly believable relationship between Davis and George. Johnson never pushes his abilities here, but the flick plays to his strengths and he's perpetually easy to watch. As the token good-looking smart female scientist, Harris (Moonlight) holds her own, convincingly swallowing her native British accent and doing her utmost to make the scientific nonsense sound believable. Meanwhile, The Walking Dead regular Jeffrey Dean Morgan gets the chance to espouse a goofy cowboy accent and strut around playing the token Government Agent who winds up backing the heroes. As the token corporate bad guy, Åkerman commits to the movie's goofy tone and delivers an effective performance that is both hammy and amusing. Joe Manganiello (Magic Mike) is even on-board as the cartoonish token military tough guy, in a surprisingly minor role. You could certainly do much worse than this on the casting front.

It is surprising that Rampage never really took off at the box office, considering the presence of The Rock and the abundance of over-the-top destruction which usually gets bums in seats. Still, it's not perfect, with a few tonal issues, uneven pacing and all the rampant stupidity on display. Loose ends are also left hanging, with Davis's friends (including an ostensible love interest) from the opening of the film suddenly disappearing without a trace and never being spoken of again. Nevertheless, as giant monster movies go, Rampage is effective and enjoyable; on the same level as last year's Kong: Skull Island.


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