REVIEW: “Fighting With My Family”

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Seasoned wrestling fans probably remember the industry-shaking WWE debut of Paige. It was 2014 and the night after the company’s biggest event Wrestlemania. Paige, just 21 at the time, won the Women’s Chapionship (then called the Diva’s title) in her very first match becoming the youngest women’s champion in WWE history.

Paige’s career has since been marked by some enormous highs, unfortunate controversies, and a heartbreaking early retirement due to a severe neck injury. “Fighting With My Family” tells the remarkable underdog story of the young woman from Norwich, England, her eccentric blue-collar family, and her improbable rise to WWE Superstardom.

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Florence Pugh plays Paige whose real name is Saraya-Jade Bevis. She was born and raised in and around wrestling. Her parents (played by Nick Frost and Lena Headey in a crafty bit of casting) ran their own one-horse family wrestling outfit. Paige was closest to her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) and both dreamt of becoming professional wrestlers in the WWE.

While wrestling was the family business it was far from a lucrative one. Yet despite the deck being stacked against them, Paige and Zak push towards their dream with their loving and peculiar parents supporting them along the way. They finally get the call they’ve been waiting for – a chance for brother and sister to try out for the WWE. It leads to Paige being invited to go to the United States to compete for a roster spot. Zak doesn’t make the cut.

Writer-director Stephen Merchant does a good job balancing the wrestling aspect of the story with the family elements. That’s important because, as the title suggests, family is very much a fundamental part of Paige’s life. From having to leave her folks behind in England to the stress on her relationship with her heartbroken and envious brother. Merchant makes it a crucial part of his storytelling which is a steady blend of comedy and drama.

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A lot of credit should go to Pugh as well. She’s one of several young actresses working today who have shown immense talent and an understanding of their craft that goes beyond their age. Pugh effortlessly falls into a world she has admitted to knowing nothing about. You would never know it. We also get a really good Vince Vaughn performance. He plays the fictional character Hutch Morgan, a developmental trainer and talent scout who gives Paige her shot.

“Fighting With My Family” was quite the surprise. It actually packs far more heart and more character depth than I was expecting. It is a little predictable and at times you can see it needlessly stretching itself to be as crass as its PG-13 rating will allow. But it does go to show how well things can come together when you have a strong cast and a good story to tell.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Rampage” (2018)

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I wonder how people know that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s monster-thriller “Rampage” is actually based on a video game first released to arcades in 1986? I remember it well. As someone who spent a lot of time as a kid in that lively arcade culture, I was never the biggest fan of the “Rampage” video game. I can honestly say I like the movie adaptation even less.

Johnson is a hardworking guy as evident by his fifteen feature films since 2013 (mostly big-budget blockbusters) in addition to his ongoing HBO television series. Most of his movies are built around his infectious personality and charisma. Admittedly I often find that to be enough for me to enjoy his movies to some degree. Despite all the charm Johnson musters, it still isn’t enough to save “Rampage” from its plethora of problems.

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The setup goes like this: a mutated lab rat destroys a space station owned by Energyne Corporation sending debris crashing through Earth’s atmosphere. Some of the wreckage is contaminated by a mysterious pathogen which causes mutations upon impact with the surface. By mutations I mean a giant alligator in Florida, one mean flying wolf in Wyoming, and a gentle albino gorilla in San Diego.

The gorilla’s name is George and he resides in a wildlife sanctuary after being saved from poachers by his beefy Primatologist buddy Davis Okoye (Johnson). As with the other mutations, George begins to grow at an alarming rate and quickly becomes more aggressive. Okoye is contacted by an ex-Energyne geneticist (Naomie Harris in a thankless role) who reveals the nefarious plans of the company’s diabolical CEO (an on the nose Malin Åkerman). You guessed it, the pathogen will be sold as a biological weapon to the highest bidders.

The tonal gymnastics kicks up a notch when Davis tries to stop a now free roaming George, tries to stop the monster-sized wolf and gator, and tries to stop an evil corporate head. That’s a lot of stopping to do even for The Rock. During this chunk of the movie things constantly bounce around between playful and ultra-serious. Jeffrey Dean Morgan shows up in full-blown Negan mode (see “The Walking Dead”) as a secret government agent who’s not buying into Davis’ story. Morgan is obviously having fun and his character adds some much-needed levity.

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“Rampage” sports some nice special effects but there isn’t much past that. As much as I tried to connect, the film was too much of a slog. Aside from Morgan most of the humor falls flat (a reoccurring lazy and unfunny gag between Davis and George must have been ripped from “Every Which Way But Loose”. It was funnier in the Clint Eastwood picture). Even worse, the characters are uninteresting and there is no suspense whatsoever.

This is the third film director Brad Peyton has done with Dwayne Johnson and easily their weakest collaboration. But it’s not all on Peyton. The bulk of the problems with “Rampage” lie with the script. Four writers are credited (or to blame, depending on your perspective) with putting this hodgepodge together. It simply doesn’t work on so many levels. And if someone like me with a deep affection for old-school creature features can’t find much to get excited about, that’s not a good sign.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Skyscraper”

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Expectations are a funny thing, especially when talking about a movie like “Skyscraper”. After seeing the trailers I could never shake my “The Rock versus a Skyscraper” impression. I fully expected a movie cheesier than a block of Velveeta. But after seeing the film I can honestly say I was wrong…sort of.

Now don’t misunderstand me, there is still cheese. And “Skyscraper” never quite breaks out of its genre mold or shakes free from its conventional and predictable blueprint. Once it gets rolling you pretty much know what you’re in for. But it’s easily an above average popcorn flick that surprised more than expected.

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In the prologue an FBI raid goes terribly wrong and Hostage Rescue Team leader Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) is seriously injured. He loses his leg but meets his future wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) as a result. Ten years later the two are married with two kids and soldier-turned-family man Will manages his life as an amputee while running a small independent security company.

Will and his family travel to Hong Kong after an old FBI buddy (Pablo Schreiber) helps him get a shot at a potentially huge contract. The job is as a security consultant for a 3,500 foot state-of-the-art skyscraper called The Pearl. It’s the brainchild of a Chinese entrepreneur (Chin Han), complete with its own energy source, a massive botanical garden with its own waterfall, and a large residential section. It’s essentially a city in the sky. Will is brought in to give The Pearl a thorough security examination before it can be opened to the public.

But as John McClane can attest, oh those pesky terrorists. While Will is working offsite, the crime syndicates send their extortion handler Kores Botha (Roland Møller) and his band of mercenaries to infiltrate The Pearl. A few double-crosses and one large fire later, and the terrorists have control of the skyscraper with Will’s family trapped inside. I shouldn’t need to tell you where it goes from there.

The glaringly obvious “Die Hard” inspiration goes without saying, but I also couldn’t help but see glimpses of “The Towering Inferno”. Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber uses elements of those movies but shakes them up a bit. He does the same with Johnson (the two previously worked together on the 2016 comedy “Central Intelligence”). Thurber dials back the witty charm and downplays the buff action hero persona. Johnson does good with the more dramatic material he is given.

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Several other things impressed me about “Skyscraper”. The film makes a conscience effort to respectfully represent disability and the reactions from those communities have been heart-warming. Will’s disability is never seen as a weakness. It actually saves his life on multiple occasions. Most importantly it isn’t used as a narrative gimmick. There is also a strong message of family that I responded to. Again, at times cheesy, but still a welcomed ingredient.

So yes, “Skyscraper” was a nice surprise and certainly a step up from Johnson’s last blockbuster effort. It’s still very much light popcorn entertainment with a predictable framework and the type of crowd-pleasing you expect from these things. Also don’t expect a Hans Gruber-like villain. We get nothing close. But I won’t lie, I was with this movie all the way through and it’s a nice addition to the filmography of Hollywood’s hardest working guy.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “San Andreas”

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It looks like this is the big one – earthquake that is. You know, the massive ‘mother of all earthquakes’ that leaves epic-scaled devastation which is prime fodder for a summer popcorn audiences. And trust me, “San Andreas” has the summer popcorn movie cred. It is loud, often silly, filled to the rim with corny lines and CGI destruction, and it stars The Rock. Yet at the same time it also manages to entertain – an accomplishment that many summer blockbusters can’t claim.

Disaster movies have always managed to find an audience and if you look at the catalog of film history you’ll see that almost every disaster imaginable is represented. Earthquakes are no different. Quake disaster picks have been around for a while as evident by the great Clark Gable film “San Francisco” from 1936 and Charlton Heston’s “Earthquake” from 1974. “San Andreas” certainly doesn’t fall into the same category of those films in terms of quality, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I had fun with it.

 

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The movie starts in typical fashion – with an introduction to the players. Dwayne Johnson plays Ray, A helicopter rescue pilot for the Los Angeles Fire Department. He is in the middle of a divorce with Emma (Carla Gugino) who has moved in with her wealthy real estate broker boyfriend (Ioan Gruffud). Their daughter Blake (Alexandria Daddario) is seemingly caught in middle and maintains a strong relationship with her father. Meanwhile seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) and his team are studying small tremors in hopes of perfecting their earthquake prediction theories. And we are also introduced to a young engineer named Ben (Hugo Johnston-Burt) who has eyes for Blake and his younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson).

I don’t need to tell you but an earthquake hits and the epicenter is near the Hoover Dam. But little does everyone know that it is simply a precursor to a bigger quake – one unlike any we’ve seen before (how’s that for dramatic effect). It just so happens that when ‘the big one’ hits the central family is separated and Ray sets out to save his estranged wife and daughter. The story bounces back and forth between each group of characters as they navigate an assortment of perils and close calls.

The city of San Francisco is the computer generated ground zero of “San Andreas” and the special effects crew leaves no street undamaged and no landmark unscathed. This reveals some of the film’s strengths and its weaknesses. Visually the film shines. Watching this there is no question that modern special effects are capable of capturing almost anything. Even the film’s more ridiculous and absurd sequences were impressive due to the spectacular visuals. On the other hand the barrage of CGI destruction is relentless to the point of becoming almost numbing. And there are times when you question whether the filmmakers are even considering the catastrophic death toll resulting from their visual artistry.

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But my biggest mixed reaction centers around the characters. Unquestionably the movie features several throwaway characters and some prototypical cookie-cutter characters that you’ve seen in a hundred other movies. I won’t spoil who is who, but the sheer lack of imagination in some of the character development is ridiculous. On the more surprising side, I actually found myself liking the family dynamic as cliché as it was. Even amid the sometimes lame dialogue and laughably cheesy lines I liked the three main characters. And the performances were generally good. They are nothing that you will  remember but they’re able to weather the occasional hackneyed writing that can sometimes leave you shaking your head. It’s a pretty solid cast some of whom feel a bit wasted.

When watching movies like “San Andreas” I feel you sometimes need to have a discernment switch you can flip off in order to enjoy the movie. It’s that critical switch that when flipped on keeps us from seeing past a film’s negatives so that we enjoy the positives. Many summer blockbusters stink regardless of whether the switch is flipped on or off. But I found “San Andreas” to be entertaining in its own cheesy, summer blockbustery way. The predictability is undeniable. The corny lines are too many to count. The CGI devastation and last second rescues are aplenty. But at the same time “San Andreas” kept me engaged thanks to its visuals, its cast, and even the occasional unintended humor which I count as part of its charm. I can see where some may pile on or dismiss “San Andreas”, but for me it was good throw-away summer fun.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars

REVIEW: “Furious 7”

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The evolution of the “Fast and Furious” franchise has been an intriguing thing to watch. It went from being a goofy street racing franchise that I easily dismissed to a huge scaled, amped up action series that I have enjoyed. It’s a franchise that banks on its silliness and absurdity but succeeds because it never takes itself too serious and it knows what it now wants to be. I can appreciate that. Part of the charm of what it has become revolves around how cinematically insane they can make things.

2011’s “Fast Five” was the turning point for me. The drastic change in formula was welcomed and that film still has some of the best action sequences of the last ten or so years. It was followed by the less satisfying but still entertaining “Fast and Furious 6”. Now we reach the seventh film because naturally there has to be another film, right? Unfortunately the path to bringing “Furious 7” to the big screen has been a tragic and complicated one. On November 30, 2013, halfway through filming “Furious 7”, Paul Walker was killed in a car accident while on Thanksgiving break. Understandably this threw the film’s likelihood in doubt. After the film was confirmed to be still on, script rewrites and cast changes caused a number of delays.

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But now it has hit theaters and the question becomes can it sustain the crazy, fuel-injected fun that has won me over to the franchise? In a nutshell, yes. “Furious 7” hits every note that you would expect from this reinvented series. The characters are formulaic and cliche. The dialogue is sometimes silly and hokey. The action blows believability to smithereens. But (and this may sound nuts to some readers) those things are part of the weird charm that these films have. James Wan takes the directing reins from longtime helmer Justin Lin and he doesn’t make the mistake of tinkering too much with the formula. This is definitely ‘more of the same’ but for fans that’s a good thing.

The film begins by reintroducing us to the crew and giving us a quick rundown of where they are and what they have been up to. Dom (Vin Diesel) is working hard to help Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) with her amnesia. Brian (Walker) is struggling to put aside his love for ‘the ride’ for the white-picket fence, mini-van family life. It also addresses the killer mid-credits scene from the last film. As it turns out Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the older brother of the last film’s antagonist, is hot under the collar and seeking revenge on Dom, Brian, and their crew. After Shaw’s attacks get personal and deadly, Dom and company set out to get him.

The hunt for Shaw also pulls in Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) who quickly feels the full force of Shaw’s resolve. Other familiar faces like Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris Bridges) show up and fill their established roles. Their automotive adventure takes them all over the world – The United States, London, Tokyo, Abu Dhabi, and a host of other places. Say what you want about the series, but their recent use of locales is one of its real treats. It’s not simply that it has a global feel. The locations are beautifully shot and injected into the storyline.

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The story itself is pretty simple and the structure is basically set around moving things from point A to point B. It’s nothing innovative or new when it comes to the storytelling. When it is focused on its main revenge-versus-revenge thread it hits on all cylinders. But there are some moving parts that don’t quite work as well. Kurt Russell shows up has a US shadow agent apparently with limitless government resources. He’s after the ultimate hacking tool called God’s Eye. A well-funded terrorist (Djimon Hounsou) is also after it for obvious nefarious purposes. The entire side plot isn’t particularly well presented or compelling. They do serve to fill-in necessary potential plot holes and to set the table for some of the better action sequences, but that’s about all they have to offer. There are also couple of weird, almost obligatory, diversions meant to reflect back to street racing roots of the franchise. Personally I wish they would get past that.

The performances are about what you would expect. They range from steady and serviceable to pretty shaky. This installment does try to inject more emotional weight than the previous films and that’s when the performances struggled the most. But ultimately they get the job done and with the exception of Ronda Rousey (who to be fair is just there for a glorified cameo) none are distractingly bad. And I have to say that despite the flimsiness of his character, it was a load of fun to watch Kurt Russell having a blast with what he was asked to do.

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But let’s be honest and true, nobody goes to a “Fast and Furious” movie for the performances. It’s all about the cars and the action we can get a lot of both. You almost get the feeling that each movie wants to top the other one in terms of the craziness of the action sequences.  This one definitely takes things to a higher level and most of the sequences are pure adrenaline-fueled excitement. Even when they pull something totally absurd out of their hat, it works within these reality-defying scenarios. That being said, the big action finale was the weakest. It certainly has its moments but it’s too long and overthought. Ultimately I was ready for it to end.

The movie ends with the fitting tribute to Paul Walker and his character, something I was expecting. It’s done really well and that could be said for most of the movie. It’s not perfect and there are stumbles that keep it from being an action movie classic. But these movies have embraced this new direction and this installment stays loyal to that. If you didn’t like the last two films I would be shocked to hear that you like this one. It definitely does the same things. But if you are a fan of their new model, and you enjoy just sitting back and going with its wildness, I have no doubts that you will find some of that same entertainment in “Furious 7”.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Hercules”

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If you would have told me ten years ago that WWE wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would become the highest paid actor and busiest man in Hollywood I would call you insane. But that’s exactly what has happened. It seems like his face pops up everywhere. Case in point – last year alone he appeared in five different films. But as any halfway discerning movie fan knows, not all of Rock’s films have been gems and I can’t say I was expecting much from his latest flick “Hercules”.

But there is something surprisingly effective about “Hercules” that makes it easily watchable despite its glaring flaws. Brett Ratner directs which threw up all kinds of warning signs for me. I’ve disliked my share of his past films, but this one is actually fun in large part thanks to its charismatic and likable lead and the fun assortment of supporting talent. But I give Ratner credit, he doesn’t derail the film’s momentum and he keeps it within a nice, tidy 98 minutes.

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This isn’t the normal Hercules story you’ve read about or even seen in the rather misleading movie trailer. This is based off a graphic novel titled “Hercules: The Thracian Wars”. At first we hear the legend of Hercules – the demigod son of the mighty Zeus. In reality he’s just a mortal who has a ton of muscles, great battlefield skills, and a pearly white smile. He leads a colorful band of mercenaries that includes prophet (Ian McShane) who is always wrongly predicting his own death, an Amazonian archer (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) with endless supply of arrows, his knife-slinging childhood friend (Rufus Sewell), a hatchet-wielding warrior from Thebes (Aksel Hennie), and his nephew (Reece Ritchie) whose main job is to build the legend of Hercules through his exaggerated stories.

Hercules and his crew are approached by Princess Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) and offered a ton a gold to help defeat a murderous warlord who is burning villages and killing innocents. Herc agrees to meet with Lord Cotys (John Hurt) and the two strike a deal. Hercules will train the makeshift army of farmers and lead them into battle defeating the evil warlord and bringing peace across the lands. Oh please, you know things aren’t that simple.

Actually things really aren’t that simple and I’m thankful for that. The story does start out cliched and incredibly formulaic. So much of the dialogue, narrative structure, and plot maneuvers are things we’ve seen in so many other fantasy films. But the story does have a couple of twists that shake things up and keep it interesting. There is also an enormous amount of action, much of which pushes the PG-13 violence boundaries. People are skewed, impaled, burned, and sliced in rapid succession and it’s quite amazing the film avoided an R rating. The action sequences, much like portions if the plot, do sometimes feel lifted from other films. But they’re also a lot of fun mainly because Ratner keeps them energetic and embraces the absurdity of it all.

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Now I have to admit, at times I found it hard to buy into The Rock as Hercules. It has nothing to do with his performance (he is surprisingly good here and continues to get better as an actor) and he certainly has the look. But the above mentioned charisma that he naturally possesses kept bringing visions of The Rock and not Hercules. But he has a lot of fun with the role and which made it fun for me. It also helps to have really good actors like Hurt and McShane having a blast with their characters.

It’s impossible to call “Hercules” a great movie mainly because it lacks originality and borrows too much from too many other films. From its plot and dialogue all the way to its use of its score, “Hercules” feels way too familiar. But it is easy to call the film fun and it is definitely a pleasant surprise. It’s a ‘kick your feet up’ action movie and never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. It may be a ‘one and done’ popcorn flick, but I have to admit it is an enjoyable escape.

VERDICT – 3 STARS