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Friday, 13 July 2018

Review: Skyscraper


You barely have to be aware of a movie like Skyscraper to know what it's about: it's called Skyscraper, it stars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and the rest just writes itself. So yes, Johnson's character - a one-legged ex-Special Forces-turned-security-consultant family man named Will Sawyer - spends plenty of time dangling from very high up. There are explosions, a massive fire, a group of gun-toting bad guys, various computer tablets that are Very Important, and a lot of duct tape. Seriously, Saywer fixes everything with it; it's basically an infomercial for the stuff.

So it's the little things that count here. For one, the bad guys' evil scheme is astoundingly considerate: their plan is to set fire to The Pearl, a super-high Hong Kong skyscraper built by Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han) in the hope that when he flees, he'll take the thing they're really after with him. But while they're clearly happy to machine-gun literally dozens of people to sabotage the security systems, they've also planned to set fire only to the empty part of the building (it seems getting insurance for the upper floors was tricky) and as that's where Sawyer is staying with his family, their plan involves waiting until both he and his family are safely out of the building before lighting the fire. Thoughtful!

Of course, the family end up trapped anyway, so Sawyer has to bust into the burning building to bust them out. Comparisons to Die Hard have been plentiful, but they kind of miss the point; despite featuring various gun toting bad guys with complicated schemes to steal stuff from a tall building - okay, so they don't totally miss the point - this is much more of a disaster movie than it is an action movie, and Sawyer's real opponent is the building itself. Which is a good thing, because the bad guys largely get forgettable deaths (Noah Taylor's suited snob just falls out of frame with a scream).

Exactly why Sawyer only has one leg is a bit of a mystery. Well, it's not a mystery in the film; he gets it blown off in the opening scene by a hostage taking good old boy dad who just happens to be wearing a suicide vest. But aside from one point where Sawyer ends up dangling from his artificial leg, it doesn't really slow him down or impede his progress. Which may be the point: having an artificial leg doesn't mean you can't be an action hero, please support our troops. But it mostly feels like a blunt attempt to suggest that this time around The Rock just might be destructible after all (spoiler: he's not).

But that artificial leg does provide one major plus for this otherwise solidly made and competently entertaining film: it means The Rock has to spend the entire film running through flames, literally holding a crumbling bridge together with his bare hands, offing various heavily armed bad guys with household items (he swore he'd never use a gun again) and dangling hundreds of stories in the air all while wearing a slightly flared pair of baggy, comfortable business slacks. These are seriously the least stylish set of pants ever to be involved in a high-tech "hall of mirrors"-style shootout; hopefully someone made sure they went directly to the nearest museum for safe-keeping.

Anthony Morris

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

Confidence will take you a long way in life, and the Marvel movies ooze that stuff. Ant-Man and the Wasp never doubts for a second that its audience is totally here for pretty much anything it feels like serving up, up to and including basing a large chunk of the plot around things that happened to lead character Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) between movies. What's next? Starting the next Iron Man movie with Tony Stark played by a dog while Pepper Potts says "oh yeah, remember when you had your brain transplanted last week, that was so cool"?

So if you're wondering how you missed the moment when Lang was arrested, cut a deal, and was placed under house arrest, don't worry about it: you've got bigger fish to fry. For a film that's probably the lowest-stakes Marvel movie to date* by a very wide margin, this features a lot of plot threads, including but not limited to: Lang waiting out the final days of house arrest, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) wanting to shrink down into the micro-verse to rescue his long-lost wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), Pym’s daughter / fellow shrinking super-hero The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) slowly restarting her low-key relationship with Lang, a sinister arms dealer (Walton Goggins), a vanishing villain named Ghost (Abby Rider Forston) and Lawrence Fishburne because why not? 

Throw in a half dozen supporting characters left over from the previous film and what this lacks in big drama it more than makes up for in big casting. Combine those low stakes with a super-power more suited to (often excellent) visual gags than slam-down fights (though there are a few of those thrown in too), and the whole thing has a vaguely retro-70s caper feel even before the whole "lets get in a tiny spaceship and shrink down to microscopic size via a cheesy-looking tunnel" thing kicks into gear. Also, there are giant ants.

Director Peyton Reed took over the first Ant-Man film when writer-director Edgar Wright was pushed out, and while a handful of Wright's gags from the first film return here (tiny cars are funny; Michael Pena doing a rapid-fire monologue is also funny) Peyton isn't going for big laughs so much as he is a general feel-good vibe. It's a hang-out movie: there's just enough going on to keep the central characters interesting, while everyone else is pretty much there to get a laugh or two.

Marvel have worked hard to turn every movie genre into a branch of superhero-ville, with limited success (Thor only really worked when it gave up on fantasy; they haven't even tried horror despite having The Hulk right there). Superhero comedy is definitely something that can work, but the Mighty Marvel Manner is currently built more around the occasional quip than going full-bore for laughs and this does a decent job of showing why.

Marvel superhero movies work because they're pretty much the best superhero movies around; why settle for second best? But Ant-Man and the Wasp isn't a great superhero movie, and it's not really a great comedy. The banter isn't all it could be, and the lack of any consistent laugh-out-loud moments leaves things feeling a little lightweight. Which is fatal, because while Marvel might not have much competition on the superhero front, there are plenty of other movies and television shows that do lightweight really really well. This might have charm and a strong cast having a fun time, but the worst thing a superhero movie can currently be is inessential; enjoyable this might be, but a must-see it ain't.

Anthony Morris 


*it's set before Avengers: Infinity War 

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Review: Sicario: Day of the Soldado

There’s a scene in the middle of this film where Benicio Del Toro’s lawyer-turned-exterminator Alejandro is staggering across a Mexican wasteland trying to find a place to hide out. Actually, that happens a couple of times: it’s just that kind of film. But the first time it happens he stumbles across a humble Mexican shack-dweller who, together with his wife, happens to be deaf. Fortunately it turns out Alejandro knows sign language, so after a rest and a quick hand-chat about “different worlds” (the shack-dweller’s baby isn’t deaf), the film moves on.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this ominous but otherwise pointless scene is setting up a later development where knowing sign language comes in handy, but no: the point of this scene is to let us know that the only people in Mexico who aren’t corrupt or criminal are deaf and living in a shack in the middle of nowhere, because Mexico is literally Hell on Earth. Which, if you saw the first Sicario, isn’t much of a shock, but at least then the idea was that Emily Blunt’s straight-laced cop was slowly dropped into a meaningless nightmare; here it’s just nightmare all the way through.

Fortunately we have both Alejandro and Josh Brolin’s extreme US-issue badass Matt Graver to impose some order south of the border – or at least, they would if only the pen-pushers in Washington would get out of their way (it’s surprising Graver never says “I bet you had a good view of all the action from behind your desk”). If you’ve ever wondered what a typical 80s action movie would look like if everyone involved took it very, very seriously, this is your lucky day. It even has a cute kid, in the form of Isabel (Isabela Moner) the daughter of an unseen cartel boss who becomes the centre of Graver’s scheme to set the cartels at each others’ throats.

This film's main attribute is a well-crafted tone of ultra-bleakness that it in no way comes close to earning. We’re expected to believe that helping refugees find a better life is somehow a moral step down from drug smuggling and murder while the plot bends over backwards to insure that Alejandro – a character who’s sole attribute is that he’s burnt out all of his humanity in his quest for revenge against the cartels that killed his family – never actually does anything inhumane when it comes to his cross-continent murder spree. Then again, everyone in Mexico works for the cartels so he’d really have to search hard to find someone who didn’t deserve to die.

Still, those 80s action movies were fun for a reason. This isn’t as suspenseful as the first Sicario and it lacks some of that film’s visual flair, but the script (from returning writer Taylor Sheridan) serves up a number of tense sequences and enough moral murkiness to keep the plot twists coming. Brolin and Del Toro are much better actors than their cardboard characters deserve, providing some much-needed emotion (mostly sadness) at the core of what are basically murder machines. More importantly, Jeffery Donovan as Graver’s sidekick provides some vital porn moustache action.

This is an entertaining, often gripping action B-movie let down by its inability to decide whether it wants to be a searing indictment of… something… or just an above-average cop thriller. It’s a film where a character is driving away from the scene of a violent crime when a car coming the other way suddenly turns around and comes after him guns blazing. It’s Mexico, so he tosses a grenade into it; whether it was more cartel members or just regular Mexican drivers exploding behind him seems beside the point.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom


Dinosaurs! The appeal of seeing prehistorical monsters lumber around has been the central hook in every movie with "Jurassic" in the title no matter what well-meaning Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum fans would have you believe. Humans in these movies are there to act stupid, look astonished, and occasionally get eaten: the big problem with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is that we don't get anywhere near enough of that last one.

It’s been three years since the Jurassic World theme park on Isla Nublar was trashed, and now an erupting volcano on the island looks set to finish the job. While the US government dithers, Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) and his aide Eli Mils (Rafe Spall) hire Claire Dearling (Bryce Dallas Howard) to help retrieve the dinos and transfer them to an all-new island. You don't remember Lockwood? He was the partner of the first film's John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), only they had a massive falling out thirty seconds before that film began and nobody ever mentioned him until now.

(what's even sillier is that there's no reason at all for his character to have any link at all to the original park - he could just be any old rich dinosaur nut. Well, except for one dangling plot point that most likely will be totally ignored in the next film, but who cares about things like that. Remember: Dinosaurs!)

Catching the big prize - super-intelligent velociraptor Blue - will be tricky though: enter his former trainer (and Claire’s ex) hunky house builder Owen Grady (Chris Pratt). But even he’s not prepared for what they’re going to have to deal with... okay, it's a volcano. And a ridiculous (in a good way) tear-jerking scene where a giant dinosaur is tragically left behind on a dock while the last ship off the island sails away. Dinosaurs!

The Jurassic films have always been slightly more kid-friendly than your average blockbuster, and director J.A. Bayona delivers plenty of gripping set-pieces, from fleeing the aforementioned exploding volcano to cat-and-mouse games where the cat is a dinosaur that’s been created to be the most evil dinosaur ever - it's surprising they don't mention they threw in a bit of Hitler DNA, it's so evil. The scenes between the set pieces aren't exactly classics, but you do get a bunch of highly trained mercenaries failing to spot a literal flying truck and Toby Jones playing a professional auctioneer who takes bids for something that isn't even on sale, so it's a win-win.

If there's a problem with this dino porn, it's that not enough humans get eaten. Grady is a hunky hero, Dearling is (too often) a damsel in distress and everyone else really should end up as a chew toy. But clearly the technology that enables humans to clone dinosaurs has also enabled humans to live without blood, so even the one actual chomping scene features no red stuff. But there is a literal dinosaur fashion parade at one point, so it's hardly all bad news. Dinosaurs!

Friday, 15 June 2018

Review: Tag




How many characters are too many for an ensemble film? At a time when Ocean's 8 seems more like Ocean's 4 and the Rest, it's easy to feel that Hollywood shouldn't be allowed to make a film with more than two characters on screen at any one time. Tag largely gets around this by making the focus not the group but the mission: they're a bunch of middle-aged men still playing a schoolyard game, and that's pretty much the most interesting thing about all of them. 

Something this stupid has to be based on a true story, and so it proves to be: for one month each year, the same group of now middle-aged American men (and men only) play a game of tag that’s been going on for decades. This time though, there’s a twist: the only member of the group who’s never been tagged is getting married during the month, so for once everyone knows exactly where he’s going to be.
  
What makes this often funny film work is that it doesn’t mess around; aside from some very minor backstory for each of the core characters – Hoagie (Ed Helms), Randy (Jake Johnson), Callahan (Jon Hamm), and Sable (Hannibal Buress) with Isla Fisher as Hoagie's wife, Rashida Jones as the old flame and a hilarious turn from Jeremy Renner as the one guy who’s never been tagged – this really is just a film about grown men racing around playing tag,

In playing tag the secret to success is to keep things moving, and so this film - which barely scrapes in at 90 minutes - doesn't really linger on anything. Occasionally this cut-back approach feels like they threw away a little too much, with more than one running gag never paying off. But it's a movie where the most important thing going on is a game of tag; pretty much anything else is going to be a distraction.

Everyone is pretty much typecast here, which once again saves time (Fisher is basically playing the same character she does on those TV commercials; Buress and Johnson might very well be playing one of their previous roles in a undisclosed cross-over). Hamm is probably the stand-out, playing the most obviously grown-up character who still is totally into it; if nothing else, this is the most charming he's been in ages, and together with his Baby Driver work suggests that yeah, he really should have a real movie career sometime soon.

It's Renner's character Jerry that takes this to another level: a professional physical trainer, he's basically an unstoppable action hero, and the movie kicks into overdrive every time the rest of the crew move on him. It's this film's best joke and it's a good one; the big problem is that the other big joke - that the guys will go to any lengths to sneak up on each other - means that there are also a bunch of scenes where you're left thinking "is this real or a trick" long after the drama requires you to come down on one side or the other.

Then again, it can't be said enough: this is a movie that's about a bunch of middle aged men - men with families, with children - who take a month off to play a kid's game. Either you're going to think "isn't it great that they're able to keep their childhood selves alive, just a little" or "these middle-class white male chumps need to grow the hell up". If it's the former, congratulations: you're probably going to enjoy this. If it's the latter... well, you're definitely not alone.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Review: Ocean's 8


Like the crimes they depict, a well-planned heist film requires a range of elements to come together in harmony. For a long while these elements were pretty well known - a colourful cast, a complicated plan, an exciting location, various outside factors that could throw things off balance and so on. But in recent years heist movies have discarded some of the core features of the genre. It hasn't been an improvement.

Fresh out of jail after almost six years, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) has promised to go straight. Straight back to her con artist ways, more like it. But this time she has a big score in mind: she wants to steal a $150 million dollar Cartier necklace from the neck of movie star Daphne Kruger (Anne Hathaway) during the glamourous Met Gala ball. But first she and her partner in crime Lou Miller (Cate Blanchett) have to get the necklace on Kruger's neck - and for that they're going to need a team.

So far so good, especially after a fun opening where Ocean (sister of Danny from Ocean's 11) cons her way from fresh-out-of-the-joint poverty to New York glamour in a single day. The crime crew are colourful, the stakes are high, the plan is complicated enough that we can be sure there are a few wrinkles that'll shake out further down the line, and then...

The best heist films know that the heist itself isn't enough: something somewhere has to go wrong. We might want to see the bad guys get away with it, but we also want to see them work for it - there's no story in a film where a plan works out exactly the way it's planned. The big problem with Steven Soderbergh's recent heist film Logan Lucky was that it had no serious bumps in the road: this film might be a spin-off from Soderbergh's earlier Ocean's films, but director Gary Ross seems to have had that later example firmly in mind.

So with any serious plot twists off the table, the appeal here should come from seeing a bunch of likable characters get what they deserve (or screw over some bad guys). But there are no real bad guys here; it's pretty much a victimless crime. Worse, the film never bothers to establish that anyone here deserves their vast take-home haul - it's telling that for at least half the crime crew we're never even given an idea what they might want the money for.

This lack of depth runs throughout the film: aside from Debbie and Lou, everyone gets a single character-defining quirk and that's it (Lou doesn't even get a quirk, but she does get some snazzy outfits). Given a bit more room to play with, the cast might have filled that gap - all the performances are great - but it's a heist film, so much of their screen time is spent whirling around going through the motions to separate a necklace from a neck.

Bullock and Hathaway get the two largest roles, and the film might have been better if they'd swapped; Hathaway is funny and likable, while Bullock keeps it all locked down. But Hathaway also benefits from actually getting to play a character; Debbie Ocean is a blank, and where George Clooney got to fill Danny Ocean with smug masculine charm, Bullock's driven professionalism offers little to grab onto.

Ocean's 8 is a polished product with a stellar cast. It just never figures out a good reason why we should care about anything that's happening. Of course, with a bunch of movie stars on screen looking glamourous, sometimes flair is enough. But when you've got Cate Blanchett in your film, would it hurt to give her something to do?

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Review: Gringo

Hollywood is constantly reviving old genres, only most of the time nobody notices because the movies sink without trace. Gringo - an attempt to revive classic 90s-era Tarantino knock offs like, uh, 2 Days in the Valley - is the kind of film whose presence in cinemas seems a little surprising (finally, the David Oyelowo star vehicle we've been waiting for!) until you spot Australia's own Joel Edgerton up the top of the credits. And with his brother Nash directing (in only his second film, after the underrated The Square), this is more Aussie than half of next year's AFI winners.
  
Hard-working office drone Harold Soyinka (Oyelowo) is the kind of nice guy that always gets into trouble in crime movies, and here he’s in way over his head. His big-spending wife (Thandie Newton) has him in deep debt and his boss-slash-best-friend Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) is clearly planning to screw him over in an upcoming corporate merger. But first Harold has to take Richard and his vampy, foul-mouthed co-President Elaine (2 Days in the Valley star Charlize Theron) to Mexico to oversee their pharmaceutical operations, unaware that the firm has been up to some shady business (as in, cartel level shady) and if anything goes wrong Harold will take the fall.
  
The closest thing this has to a surprise twist (one that the trailers happily give away because it's pretty much the only satisfying development in the film) is that Harold realises he's got nothing to lose roughly five seconds before the trap closes shut around him and decides to try and spin what's happening his way. Unfortunately this move - which again, should be satisfying; seeing the little guy stand up for himself always is - doesn't really pay off, in large part because this film is never quite sure exactly who it wants us to cheer for.

Rusk might be an nasty dirtbag, but he's got the kind of self-centered energy that makes him fun to watch; Elaine is often just plain mean but there's enough of a human being in there that she's not pure evil either. A subplot featuring tourists-slash-drug mules Sunny (Amanda Seyfried) and her boyfriend Miles (Harry Treadaway) does little but showcase two extremely dull characters, while late arrival and conflicted hitman Mitch (Sharlto Copley) is yet another dirtbag who's more fun to watch than the nice guys. And Harold? He's pretty much a blank.

The various plots intertwine in mildly interesting ways and there's the occasional burst of nasty violence (plus a cartel boss obsessed with ranking Beatles' albums; told you the 90s are back) but - in something of a running problem for this film - it's never quite sure whether it wants us to really care about any of it.  Cheering for the bad guys is fine; it's when a film doesn't really know who it wants you to cheer for (or whether it wants you cheering at all) that there's a problem.

Gringo's cast of creeps are never dull, and the story moves quickly enough that things never really get boring either. But this isn't stylish or quick-witted enough to be a Tarantino film, nor are the characters quirky or schlubby enough for it to be a Coen Brothers tale. The reason Hollywood stopped making this kind of film is because without a strong point of view a messy crime thriller with muddled morals often ends up as a pretty average experience. And so it proves to be here.