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

REVIEW: “Snitch”

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Wrestler turned action movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson must be going for the record for movies made in a short period of time. Case in point, in 2013 alone he’s appeared in 5 different films. One of those is “Snitch”, a surprisingly competent crime thriller that takes a pretty simple story and soaks it with more tension and high stakes than you would ever expect. It’s also not afraid to throw a few jabs at America’s federal drug policy.

“Snitch” is one of those ‘inspired by a true story’ flicks which makes its borderline absurdity all the more digestible. Johnson certainly isn’t the most seasoned of actors but he does a nice job playing John Matthews, the owner of a small construction company who one day gets a call from his ex-wife that his son Jason (Rafi Gavron) has been arrested on federal drug charges. Knowing his son isn’t a drug trafficker, John seeks help from a federal attorney named Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) whose upcoming reelection has her looking for some good press. She’s also the only one who can reduce Jason’s sentence.

But Joanne isn’t all that interested in helping so John takes it upon himself to secretly find and snitch on some drug dealersin exchange for his son’s freedom. Jon Bernthal, perhaps best known for his role on the popular cable series “The Walking Dead”, plays an ex-con employee of John’s who may have the needed underworld connections. We also get Barry Pepper, an actor I’ve always liked, as an undercover DEA agent named Cooper. And another actor I like, Benjamin Bratt, finds his way back to the big screen playing a cartel boss and big time drug runner. John quickly finds himself in over his head and becomes a pawn of both the government and the cartel.

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The Rock certainly has the build of a super tough guy and at times he looks like he could body slam whoever he’s talking to. But I liked that the movie never falls into that trap. His character is just a construction guy. No secret hitman or military special forces past. He’s just a regular guy and the story stays away from the whole ‘one man army’ thing. For me that worked very well and offered a much more interesting dynamic. Again, at times Johnson does show his limitations as an actor but it’s a performance that definitely works. And obviously he’s helped by the really nice supporting cast around him.

The movie is filled with moral quandaries, questionable ethics, and mixed messages. Much of that works to the film’s advantage. Everything isn’t all nice and tidy and it shouldn’t be. Yet while all of this works nicely there’s still little that sets the film apart. It certainly dabbles in several new and intriguing areas but its hard for me to get excited about seeing it again. And ultimately that’s where I stand on “Snitch” – a surprisingly slick and intense thriller but one with very little staying power. But still, compared to a number of movies pumped out this year, it’s an entertaining film that stays within its bounds of limitations.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”

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One of my great joys growing up was reading the G.I. Joe comic book series. The action figures, the vehicles, the cartoon series – G.I. Joe equaled big money in the late 80s and early 90s. But my favorite remained the comic book. I read it for around 100 issues and I loved the way it treated its characters, their relationships, and their storylines. So imagine my frustration when “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” hit the big screen in 2009. It was a movie ripe with potential but full of crap. The shoddy acting, the overt political correctness, and the ridiculous story supplied enough reasons to dislike the film. But for me its biggest vice was the butchering of the characters that I’ve loved since my childhood. Whether it was poor research or poor creative decisions, I don’t know. But I do know I despised that movie.

Four years have passed and now Paramount Studios have given us a sequel, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”. This time around they dangle Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Bruce Willis like a carrot in front of a horse, trying to convince us that this movie aims to be better. Well, actually it is better but I’m not sure that’s saying much. One thing that stood out was that it did attempt to be a little more faithful to the comic book source material than the previous movie. There are several tips of the hat and even a side story straight from the pages of the print series. Unfortunately the side story will make absolutely no sense to anyone who hasn’t read it and this leads to the biggest problem with this entire project – the lame and often times amateurish writing.

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The movie picks up shortly after the events of the first film. Zartan is masquerading as the President of the United States while Cobra Commander and Destro are in some sort of cryogenic stasis in an underground government prison. But Cobra has a bigger plan at work that of course includes world domination and extinguishing the G.I. Joe team. Meanwhile, the Joes are out doing what they do, thwarting terrorist attacks, retrieving stolen nuclear warheads – you know, standard Joe stuff.

Duke (Channing Tatum) is back and he’s the man in charge. He shares a bromance with his best friend and team heavy machine gunner Roadblock (Johnson). We also get the seemingly loose cannon Flint (D.J. Cotrona) although they completely abandon his loose cannon angle. Then there’s the gorgeous but able Lady Jaye (played by the gorgeous and occasionally able Adrianne Palicki). And of course there’s the super cool and personal favorite Joe of mine Snake-Eyes (Ray Park). After the team is decimated by a Cobra attack sanctioned by the bogus president, the few surviving Joes are forced underground where they must put together a plan to expose Cobra and avenge the death of their comrades.

The movie is really just a series of action set pieces linked together by a few strands of plot. But did anyone honestly go into a G.I. Joe movie expecting anything deep? The story is adequate enough to move this action-oriented film along. It’s when the story tries to branch out into side stories that things begin to get messy. The most obvious example is a side story dealing with Snake-Eyes, Storm Shadow, and the events of their connected pasts. As a fan of the comic series I smiled as I remembered reading this story from the books. But in terms of this movie, its incorporation into the main story is horribly done. It comes completely out of the blue and instead of gelling with the main narrative, it violently collides with it. There’s no sense of place and there’s no real connection at all.

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The poor writing also shows itself in some of the character’s underwritten subplots and in some of the corniest dialogue you’ll hear all year. Some of the jokes and attempts at humor are nothing short of cringe-worthy. There were times, particularly in the first half of the film, where these lines felt so awkward and disingenuous. Then there was the macho military banter, again mostly in the first half of the film, that was so incredibly silly and fake. It’s hard to imagine anyone putting this on paper and thinking it sounds good. It’s also hard to take any of these characters seriously while you’re constantly face palming due to the goofy dialogue! Thankfully a lot of this subsides as the movie goes on.

As with many of this year’s movies we’ve seen so far and that are on the way, the action is the big focus. It’s pretty relentless so be prepared to be bombarded with bullets, blades, and explosions. For me, this was the film’s strong point. I thought the action sequences in the first film did nothing to save it from its serious flaws. The action sequences in this film are actually pretty good and they did help me get past some of this movie’s shortcomings. They also translated well in 3D, something that was a pleasant surprise considering my usual dislike for the technology. But like other movies with such heavy dependence on CGI, things sometimes feel too synthetic. There’s a wildly entertaining ninja showdown on the face of a huge mountain. But as fun as it is, it’s still hurt by its absurdity and obvious computer generated visuals. The action is also helped and sometimes hurt by Jon Chu’s direction. Now I was happy to see a new director on board after the first debacle. But I’m hard-pressed to believe that a director known for the “Step Up” series and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” was the best choice.

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The Rock is intended to be the big draw here and while he’s big on charisma, he’s not when it comes to emotion. But is that just something that comes with casting him or was he handcuffed by the material he’s given? Another draw was Bruce Willis but this is clearly a check cashing role for him. His short screen time adds a few mild snickers and he serves as a plot hole filler (kind of) but that’s about it. Tatum is as forgettable as usual but again the material does him no favors. I think Jonathan Pryce may be the most fun actor to watch in the film. He plays around and has fun as both the president and Zartan posing as the president.

So after all of that what’s my conclusion on “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”? Is it as awful as I anticipated? Nope, not even close. Is at a good movie? I don’t think I can go there either. Let me just say it’s a better movie than its predecessor and at times can be entertaining. I enjoyed the attempt to add a pinch of realism to the story and I liked some of the money moments such as Snake-Eyes vs Storm Shadow. But in the end “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” seems content to be a better movie rather than a really good one. Granted it’s aimed at an audience made up of teen boys and nostalgic men and it’ll score some points there. But nostalgia only carries me so far.

VERDICT – 2 STARS