REVIEW: “Rampage” (2018)

RampagePoster

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.

Rampage2

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.

RPG202_166.tif

“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

1-5-stars

REVIEW: “Spectre”

SPECTRE POSTER

In a way I owe Daniel Craig a debt of gratitude. His tenure as James Bond is what lured me into the hugely popular franchise. Purists will likely scoff, but Craig’s iteration of the British super spy has featured less cheese and more humanity and vulnerability. An argument could be made that the high-energy cheese is what made those earlier films great. I believe that to a degree. But ultimately it has been Craig’s Bond run than has drawn me and given me an greater appreciation for the franchise as a whole.

This is Craig’s fourth turn as the dapper 007 and his second Bond film with director Sam Mendes. Their previous installment “Skyfall” was a global juggernaut at the box office becoming the 14th film to earn over $1 billion dollars. It was also well received by critics many of whom called it Craig’s best Bond picture. So now comes the next film and the unenviable task of matching the success of its predecessor. To do that the film was given a budget that has made it one of the most expensive movies ever created. But throwing money at a project doesn’t automatically equal good results.

SPECTRE1

“Spectre” starts off firing with Bond in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead. He’s on a deeply personal mission which leads him to a terrorist named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona). Sciarra is connected to a sinister secret criminal organization called Spectre which is led by the shadowy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). At the same time M (Ralph Fiennes) is battling to protect MI6 from the aggressive head of the Joint Intelligence Service who wants to do away with the 00 program.

Bond tracks Spectre to Rome, the first leg of his globetrotting search for answers. He discovers that he may have a deeper connection to Ernst and his organization. As 007 hunts to unearth the truth, Spectre is out to stop him at all costs. They go head-to-head in a number of exotic locales including Rome, Morocco, Austria, and London. One of the film’s strong points is how well it captures all of the fun and varied locations.

Spectre2

In fact all of “Spectre” looks good. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography lives up to the franchise expectations and at times it absolutely shines. The Mexico City opening is exciting and energetic featuring several visual highlights. The same goes for a fun car chase through the streets of Rome and a thrilling plane vs. Land Rover chase down a snowy Austrian mountain. The film definitely has its moments.

Unfortunately “Spectre” also has its flaws and no amount of visual splendor can cover them up. While I liked “Spectre” as a whole, I was expecting more action, more energy, more drama, more character development, and more signature Bond moments. Compared to Craig’s three previous Bond movies “Spectre” feels hollow, inert, and terribly inconsistent. After the phenomenal Mexico City start, the movie is constantly fluctuating between excitement and slow stretches of vapidity.

Spectre3

You simply don’t expect this considering how well these movies have worked in the past. But as I sat in the theater I kept waiting for the film to gain its footing. I kept waiting for it to kick into gear. But there is a frustrating sluggishness to the screenplay – the collaborative work of four different writers. It wastes so much time that could’ve been better spent developing some of the characters namely the story’s villain.

Christoph Waltz is a superb actor but the amount of screen time he is given never allows him to flesh out a compelling villain. His villainy is mainly referred to more than shown and we never see that big Bond vs. Villain moment. The closest we get is an absurd torture scene that features one head scratching moment after another. I was so excited to see him as a Bond villain but this was a tremendous waste. As was Dave Bautista as Spectre’s hitman. He’s a stereotypical henchman who shows as much emotion as a house plant.

Spectre4

Craig gives another good performance but he isn’t offered any material to stretch his character. All of the supporting Bond cast members are here including Q (Ben Whishaw) who gets more screen time than before. He’s a lot of fun. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) has a few good lines and Fiennes is good when wrangling back and forth for the 00 program’s survival. Unfortunately both feel underused. Lea Seydoux is the main ‘Bond girl’ this time around and her performance is solid. But her character is a bit flimsy and uneven.

That could be the best way to describe “Spectre” – uneven. It’s a film undoubtedly approached with mile-high expectations from many. Perhaps too high. But truthfully expectations aren’t the problem. This is a film that features some fine action sequences. It has a good story at its core and there are moments where it comes together in really interesting ways. But there are also moments where it makes practically no sense and other moments where it sputters and spins its wheels. Still I liked the movie and I’m anxious to give it another look, but with this cast and this pedigree I can’t help but be disappointed with what we get.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

“SKYFALL” – 4.5 STARS

Skyfall” may be the best James Bond movie ever. Better yet, Daniel Craig may be the best James Bond ever. Now before the Bond diehards come at me with torches and pitchforks let me make something abundantly clear. I am not the biggest Bond guy. I haven’t seen even half of the Bond movies. So I certainly don’t consider myself a Bond expert. In fact I may not even qualify as a true Bond fan by some. I’m not well versed on Bond lore, the Bond girls, or the history that has surrounded this universally loved character for the last 50 years. So I don’t live under the false assumption that I’m an expert when it comes to the James Bond franchise. But I like to think that I know a good movie when I see one and “Skyfall” is a very good movie.

My Bond apathy changed in 2006 with the release of “Casino Royal”. It introduced a grittier, more grounded Bond in the form of Daniel Craig. He wasn’t as prim and polished and a sense of reality was brought to the character that I had never seen before. It was also a fantastic movie that I thoroughly enjoy. The Bond appeal grew for me in 2008 with the lesser but equally entertaining “Quantum of Solace”. And now he’s back with “Skyfall”, a 007 film that’s every bit as good as “Casino Royale” and for my money even a bit better. Sam Mendes directs the film, the 23rd installment of the franchise. Mendes tips his hat to several of the previous 007 films and has fun with many things that Bond fans should love. But he also maintains the emotional edge to Bond that has made Daniel Craig’s run so effective for me.

The film starts with a jaw-dropping opening chase sequence that uses cars, motorcycles, trains, and cranes. It moves through market streets, on rooftops, through tunnels, and finally on a huge bridge where Bond is inadvertently shot off of a speeding train by a fellow agent at M’s command. Believed dead, Bond goes off the grid and submerges himself in a life of anonymity and alcohol. Now the movie never gives a satisfying reason as to why Bond became a closed off boozer. We get a few hints of it later but it seemed pretty drastic and off-the-wall. But we wouldn’t have a Bond movie if 007 wasn’t spoiling evil plots with his well-pressed suits and assorted gadgetry. He makes his return after MI6 is devastated by terrorist attack with M seeming to be the main target. Judi Dench returns to the role that she first played in 1995’s “GoldenEye”. This time she’s not only a terrorist’s target but she’s facing heavy political pressure concerning her handling of MI6. As with each of her other performances in the series, Dench is marvelous and here we get to see a different side of her and her relationship to 007.

The big baddie this time is none other than Javier Bardem. He plays Raoul Silva, a psycho former MI6 agent with a rather large grudge against M. Bardem is deliciously villainous and once he makes his appearance the movie’s intensity amps up. Unfortunately he doesn’t show up until well into the film. Now that’s not a knock on the first part of the movie. But I wanted more of Bardem and I couldn’t help but feel that they could have built up the character and his motivations more in the early parts of the movie. Some of the movie’s best moments feature Bardem. There is a tense first meeting between Bond and Silva that you can’t take your eyes off of. There’s also a fantastic “Silence of the Lambs” styled exchange between Silva and M that sets the table for what’s to come later in the movie. It’s one of my favorite exchanges in cinema this year.

Another new addition to the cast is Ralph Fiennes. He places an ex-military man and current government intelligence official who regulates MI6. Fiennes is rock solid, as you would expect. Albert Finney also has a fun role as an old family friend of Bond’s and Ben Whishaw steals several scenes as Q, the gadget granting quartermaster. All the performances are good and this is probably the best overall cast in a Bond movie yet. They are helped by a crisp, intelligent, and perfectly paced script that pulls absolutely everything out of these characters. And the screenplay knows how to be respectful of the franchise while also having fun with it as well. There are several good laughs but for the most part this is the same serious, no-nonsense Bond that we got in the last two films and I’m thankful for that.

There are several other things that worked incredibly well that I could mention, most notably Roger Deakins brilliant camera work, the wonderful editing by Stuart and Kate Baird, and Thomas Newman’s perfect score. But not everything worked that well. The Bond girls have become almost as popular as 007 himself. But with the exception of the unconventional M, these Bond girls are bland and for the most part forgettable. Now Naomie Harris is fine as a fellow MI6 field agent who holds her own with 007. She has some really good scenes when working in the field, but she also has a couple of almost obligatory flirt scenes with Bond that didn’t work as well for me. Then you have Bérénice Marlohe who certainly looks the part but disappears almost as soon as she arrives. Also, I know Bond is a ladies man. But there are a couple of scenes featuring out-of-the-blue “romance” that are thrown in just because its expected from the character. Never mind that they clash with the tone and pacing of the story. Both are scenes that were poorly conceived and I could have done without them.

While these few flaws may keep “Skyfall” from being a perfect movie, they don’t stop it from being great movie. More importantly, the Daniel Craig era of 007 movies has won me over to the point that I’m anxiously awaiting the next installment. There has been a lot of internet buzz lately over who may be the next 007. But for my money Craig has earned the position for as long as he’s willing to take it. And as long as the studio is willing to surround him with a fine supporting cast, intelligent writers, and sharp directors, the possibilities are endless for this iconic character. One thing is for certain, I’m now officially a Bond fan and “Skyfall” only cemented that. Bring on oo7 #24!