Tuesday, April 24, 2018

[Review] Rampage

Our greatest modern movie star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson teaming up with a giant albino ape to stop a giant flying wolf? Count me in!

The Rock plays a primatologist at San Diego Zoo. Oh yeah, and he also happens to have a Special Forces background, and was once a member of an anti-poaching unit. Anyway, he has unique bond with the animals, especially an albino gorilla named George, whom he rescued as a baby (it's a sweet story, really). But all hell breaks loose when a dangerous genetic experiment touches down across the country, causing any creature that comes in contact with it to become colossal, mutated, destructive beasts. George happens to be one of victims, and he, yes -- goes on a rampage. So with the help of a scientist (played by Naomi Harris, Moonlight), The Rock sets out to put an end to the madness.

With a movie like Rampage, you pretty much come in knowing exactly what to expect, and that's exactly what you get. It's pure, giddy spectacle -- I mean, this is a film where a flying wolf takes down a helicopter, an enormous crocodile scales a skyscraper, and where an albino gorilla swallows one of the film's villains like a popcorn shrimp. It definitely doesn't take itself too seriously, but it does actually have a lot of heart, especially when it comes to The Rock and George's relationship. They exchange hilarious jabs with each other by communicating through sign language, and The Rock constantly refers to George as his "Friend." It honestly made my heart melt.

This romp is a terrific showcase for The Rock's greatness. When The Rock takes down two armed guards with his own bare hands - we cheer. When The Rock bonds with George - we smile. When The Rock says "You've got to be kidding me" after one of the creatures comes back to life - we laugh. In fact, whenever the film strays focus away from The Rock and dives into its subplot conspiracies, it loses some of its steam. Luckily, Jeffrey Dean Morgan's government agent character helps to keep those stretches afloat. At first, it seems as if it's just Negan from "The Walking Dead" in a suit, but the surprisingly likable character takes some welcomed turns along the way, and JDM plays the role really well.

Rampage is an uproarious, stomping, massive good time. God bless The Rock.

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, April 23, 2018

[Review] Ready Player One

After the serious historical pic The Post, Steven Spielberg loosens up and lets out his inner glee with Ready Player One, a retro-futurist romp that blasts off with geeky fun and playful invention.

It's the year 2045. Our main protagonist is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, Mud). He lives in a towering junkscape in Columbus, Ohio. But like the rest of the population, he uses his VR headset to escape into The Oasis -- a hustling and bustling, advanced gamer-based world where pretty much everything anyone has over known exists. It's there where he embarks on an elaborate mission to collect three keys and an "Easter Egg" before a corporation led by a power-hungry crook (played by Ben Mendelsohn, always a treat) takes over The Oasis.

Early on, there's a lot of exposition and world-building to take in, but once that's all squared this film transports us to an exuberant adrenaline rush of an adventure that's stuffed with throwback wonderment and expansive imagination. The energetic plot jolts us through multiple levels of crazy setpieces -- from a breakneck, pavement-pummeling race through the city (which includes an appearance from King Kong) -- to a creepy, fan-out sequence at The Stanley Hotel from The Shining -- to an all out rumble between everyone and everything on a frozen tundra. The wildly exuberant film proudly wears its '80s-tinged, hi-tech aesthetic on its sleeve, and the abundance of pop-culture references somehow manage to avoid coming off as cheap or overbearing. In fact, the film has a great sense of humor about them, especially as it ultimately becomes an unabashed embrace and heartfelt ode to popcorn entertainment, video games, and the characters and settings that stick with us.

The supporting players are strong too, including Olivia Cooke (Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, Thoroughbreds), Lena Waithe ("Master of None"), Philip Zhao, and Win Morisaki. They're an eclectic, spunky, and funny team that's really easy to root for. And Spielberg's current stalwart Mark Rylance logs in to play an interestingly quirky role as the creator of The Oasis.

I can't attest to how well the film translates from its source material (because I haven't read it), but I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed what I witnessed on screen. Spielberg's sheer enthusiasm and earnestness is felt in every scene, and he's the perfect candidate to handle this sort of passion-spiked inventiveness. Ready Player One is a cinematic joystick.

( 8/10 )

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Friday, April 20, 2018

[Review] Hostiles

Christian Bale leads the way in Hostiles, a harsh and sweeping Western epic from director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, Black Mass).

Set during 1892 in New Mexico, the story revolves around a legendary Army Captain (Bale, huge mustache) as he's reluctantly tasked with leading a cutthroat expedition across dangerous territory in order to escort an imprisoned Cheyenne Chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana.

Along the way, they're faced with unforgiving wilderness, unpredictable enemies, and high tensions within their own party. There are some long, almost meditative breaks between the shotgun action, exemplifying that the strenuous, slow wilt of the journey is just as taxing and treacherous as any immediate threat or ambush. And for as harrowing as this journey is, it' so gorgeously filmed -- displaying crisp and wide landscapes that feel like deep breaths. But the most interesting and compelling aspect of the film is the quiet dynamic between the Army Captain and the Chief. Here's two equally dangerous and powerful opposing leaders with conflict-ridden pasts sharing quarters for the long haul, eventually gaining a significant respect for each other -- and even a sense of comradery.

Bale gives an unsurprisingly gritty and terrific central performance in this type of environment, and the supporting cast is solid too -- including the familiar faces of Rosamund Pike, Jesse Plemons, Timothée Chalamet (of Call Me By Your Name fame), Ben Foster, and musician Ryan Bingham (who also played a big role in Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart).

Hostiles builds to a moving, potent, and cathartic conclusion that stomps on the idea of division.

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

[Review] Final Portait

Geoffrey Rush and Armie Hammer are the oddly dynamic pair in Final Portrait. It's an engrossing exhibit of an eccentric artist at work, as well as an adroit rumination on friendship.

Set in Paris during the 1960s, Rush plays famed sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti. He's blunt and unhinged. Seemingly miserable at times, friendly and humorous at others. Early on, he latches onto American journalist James Lord (played by Armie Hammer) and asks him to pose for a painting. But what was supposed to be a two-hour project turns into a month long endeavor -- as the artist's work is never complete until he's satisfied (not to mention all the wine and smoke breaks). Of course, James has other obligations, but he just can't seem to pull himself away.

Directed by Stanley Tucci, Final Portrait unfolds as a unique meeting of minds. On paper, I know it doesn't sound like the most thrilling premise (like watching paint dry, right?). But as the film progresses it becomes an increasingly fascinating character study, demonstrating some keen development and stellar interplay between the two leads. The performances are superb, especially Rush as he becomes the main driving force, soaking into a startlingly lived-in rendition of the erratic artist.

There's some really great and provocative dialogue throughout too, like this quote from Alberto when asked about suicidal thoughts: "It's not like I feel life is bad. It's just that I think death must be the most fascinating experience, you know?" And this exchange: "A real friend should tell me that I should give up painting forever." And James slyly responds, "Whoever said I was a real friend?" But the most memorable line of all might be when Alberto utters a flustered "Oh fugggg" whenever he messes up a small brush stroke.

Final Portrait has a lot to say about the creative process, attention to detail, the idea of perfection, and unorthodox bonds, and as deep as it goes into that stuff -- it's really a solid buddy comedy at heart.

( 7/10 )

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

[Review] You Were Never Really Here

Joaquin Phoenix gives a tremendous lead performance as a ruthless outsider in this grimy crime-drama of violence, revenge, and disenfranchisement.

At the beginning of You Were Never Really Here, we meet a mysterious, hooded figure lurking around alleyways -- this is Joe, a grizzled Gulf War veteran who suffers from PTSD. He now works as a hired gun with a brutal reputation. And his main task in this film is to track down and rescue the missing 13-year-old daughter of a New York City senator, and make the captors pay... big time.

From the get-go, it's clear that Joe is a man on a mission, and what ensues is a methodical sludge through city streets and dirty underworlds where he spends a lot of the duration essentially beating the living crap out of people. With its narrative of voyeurism and vengeance, the film is highly reminiscent of Taxi Driver. In fact, there are a few scenes that feel like direct homages to the Martin Scorsese classic. And speaking of driving (there's a lot of that going on here), the film's Jonny Greenwood-composed musical score reminded me a lot of 2011's Drive with its throbbing and overriding synths. This film isn't overly derivative though, especially because the plot takes some really crazy turns along the way. And in addition to being very crisply shot, the film also has a lot of stylized touches -- like disturbing, fever dreamy flashbacks and eerie bouts of Joe heavily breathing with plastic bags over his head. They're truly images of horror.

Writer-directer Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) makes this tragic story walk the line between reality and hallucination. And while it doesn't move at a breakneck speed (a couple of necks might be broken, though), You Were Never Really Here is still one hell of a ride -- on visceral and emotional levels. And it's a fittingly harsh vehicle for Phoenix's gritty talents. Hammer away, Joaquin.

( 8/10 )

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