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Rampage (2018)

Rampage is exactly as advertised, a big, dumb monster movie based upon a flimsy premise of an arcade smash-‘em-up, and it’s also just about everything you’d ask it to be. This movie is ridiculous, no question, but I walked away feeling like the filmmakers recognized this and embraced its ridiculousness.

Davis Okoye (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is a primatologist at the San Diego Zoo. His prized primate, an albino gorilla named George, is undergoing very dramatic changes. A canister of secret genetic-altering gas has fallen from a scientific space station, landing in George’s gorilla pen, the hills of Montana, and in the Everglades. Separately, a wolf and a crocodile are rapidly growing in size, as is George, who is also becoming more aggressive and violent. Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) is a disgraced scientist who may know how to reverse the changes. The U.S. government, lead by Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), relocates George to a government lab; however, he breaks loose midair. He and the other monstrous animals are heading to Chicago, lured by a signal intentionally staged to draw them in one very smashable location.

It’s not exactly a winking, satirical statement on the monster movie genre, but I think Rampage is still self-aware. Take for instance what befalls The Rock. His character is literally shot in the gut (no exit wound) and miraculously recovers and runs through crumbling buildings, leaps over rubble, tussles with giant monsters, and even outruns them on the ground, and is thrown this way and that. This happens for the entirety of the last act while, and I don’t think I can stress this enough, A BULLET IS STILL LODGED INSIDE HIS CHEST CAVITY. However, he is The Rock, our modern equivalent to a living Superman, so the movie shrugs and asks us to just go along with it, and because I was entertained I did. There were several moments where I just shrugged and said, “Sure, let’s do that,” but usually these decisions were in the service of the blockbuster elements that I would want to see with this kind of premise. It’s silly and stupid and baffling at times, but Rampage knows what elements to pump up and what elements an audience won’t really care about. The villain’s plot is completely nonsensical and amounts to, “Step 1) lure the giant monsters to one central tower in Chicago, Step 2) ?, and Step 3) profit.” I have no idea what they were hoping to accomplish but their lamebrain thinking efficiently facilitated the monsters getting closer to peak smashing form.

You can look at three performances to get a sense of those who understand the big, dumb, fun movie they’re in, and those who have misjudged what kind of movie they’re in. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (TV’s Walking Dead) knows exactly what kind of movie he is starring in and has the time of his life as a scenery chewing, gun slinging, folksy quipping cartoon. Every scene he slides into, the man has a gleeful glint in his eye at what he gets to do. You almost expect like a musical motif to accompany him every time on screen. It’s enough that you think he might just strut off into another movie all his own. On the opposite end are the film’s villains, callous, rich, and almost bumbling in their sense of evil. To their credit, Malin Akerman (TV’s Billions) and Jake Lacy (TV’s I’m Dying Up Here) are mostly meant to verbalize their villainy for the audience. Whenever we cut back to them, the brother and sister are helpfully explaining the lengths of their scheme. Lacy is goofy dumb and relatively useless outside of deliverer of exposition. Akerman fares worse trying to be a no-nonsense bitch of business and is far too serious. When both of these actors are onscreen, the movie powers down, sapping its fun. When Morgan appears, it’s like Rampage can once again be the big, dumb, fun movie we crave.

Unexpectedly, the best relationship in the movie is that of The Rock and a giant CGI albino ape, proving once again that Johnson’s charming bonafides know no limits. George the gorilla is given far more nuance than any of the other supporting characters, which isn’t saying much, yet Johnson’s charisma is able to lift all on screen partners. Their funny, warm-hearted relationship may actually stir some emotions in you come its heroic climax, and that by itself is astounding. Johnson’s character back-story is kept to a relative minimum as not to gum up the narrative expediency (he prefers animals over people, but not in… that way). He’s a reliable anchor for audience engagement that he can sell the most ridiculous, as detailed above. It’s been quite an ascent for Johnson over the course of the last ten years, and my pal Dan Nye observed that he’s now been playing actual characters rather than recognizable versions of himself. Davis Okoye is more or less The Rock: Zoologist, but it’s still a welcomed development. The Rock could star alongside an actual rock and glue your eyes to the screen.

The special effects are also quite good for this sort of brainless caper. George comes across as a genuine creature, not necessarily with the depths of say Andy Serkis’ Caesar, but what CGI-performance does? The computer effects do an excellent job of communicating actor Jason Liles’ (Death Note) mo-cap performance and make the big guy sympathetic even as he rages out. I enjoyed that, much like Alex Garland’s Annihilation, the animals are not necessarily demonized for behaving like nature intended. They’re creatures undergoing a change they cannot understand and acting accordingly like animals would. The crocodile is impressive for its evolutionary mutations and textured, especially when we see its gaping mouth open.

As far as its stated mission, Rampage smashes things up but good. Director Brad Peyton showed with 2015’s San Andreas that he’s essentially the diet version of Roland Emmerich, and that’s okay. The action is fun above all else and Peyton prefers long visible shots. If we’re going to see a bunch of monsters, let’s actually see them (ahem, 2014 Godzilla). I felt like Peyton was far more invested in this movie and his shot selections finding interesting arrangements, like a slow-mo shot of jaws snapping together on a passing fighter plane. Peyton understands the significance of scale, letting the sheer size of the monsters communicate the immeasurable danger. There’s an early confrontation with the giant wolf in a Wyoming forest that’s chaotic, suspenseful, and demonstrates how freaking fast these creatures can be at their size. A prologue in space is genuinely thrilling and the zero gravity aerobatics provide an extra feeling of helplessness against a mutant attacker. By the end, when all three monsters descend on Chicago, Rampage becomes the popcorn movie experience that it has promised.

Nobody is going to label Rampage as a smart movie but it is aware of what it is. This is a big, dumb movie that aspires to merely be an awesome big, dumb movie, and that prioritized sense of fun pervades the relatively fast-paced film. The Rock is running around with his hulking ape-bro and wrecking havoc. This is the kind of movie where a giant gorilla mimes the universal physical symbol for sexual congress. This is the kind of movie where they feed a person to that giant gorilla. This is also the kind of movie where The Rock has a bullet lodged in his gut for the entire climax. This is a movie that has no airs about it and simply wants to entertain a mass audience. The Rock is a consistently charming and very capable action lead, and the relationship he has with his giant ape-bro is surprisingly chummy and sweet. If you’re looking for a monster movie that has no embarrassment about what it is, let alone being based on an arcade game, then Rampage is going to be a stupidly enjoyable time out at the movies.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Moonlight (2016)

moonlight-posterWhat Moonlight achieves is both something different and familiar and amounts to nothing less than watching the birth of human identity on screen. The film chronicles three formative experiences at three different times of a man’s life, each serving as its own one-act play examining our protagonist and his tortured sense of self. The results are breathtaking and deeply immersive, allowing the formation of a human being to take place before your eyes in such magnificent artistic strokes. This is a sensitive, sincere, beautiful movie that serves as an indie coming-of-age tale sliced into three significant parts. I was completely under its sway within ten minutes, finding its perceptive perspective and nuances to be convincingly naturalistic. I felt like I was watching a documentary of a young black man’s life told with ferocious realism, or at least a loosely fictionalized version of a life informed by fully authentic personal experiences. It’s a somewhat ineffable quality for slice-of-life movies but they live or die on whether the film carries an unforced sense of realism, telling larger truths with small details, each piece coming together to make the world and the character feel fully formed. Moonlight pulls you immediately into its orbit thanks to its authentic drama and observations.

The three segments compliment one another as they build toward a young black man’s understanding of his homosexuality. We’ve seen movies before where characters undergo sexual awakenings and from gay perspectives; it’s practically a cottage industry unto itself in independent film. However, rarely have we seen this story from people of color. The expectations of accepted masculinity are entrenched at a young age, where “Little” (Alex Hibbert) is chided by, among others, his own mother Paula (Naomie Harris) for the “swishy” way he walks. It goes without saying that being gay is not exactly widely accepted in the Miami projects of the 1980s. This conflict of what makes a man is wonderfully symbolized with Juan (Mahershala Ali), an unexpected father figure that takes “Little” under his wing along with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae). The kid wants to know how he can know if he’s gay because it’s certainly something he doesn’t want. Juan doesn’t pressure the boy or make big speeches about what it means to be a young black man in America. Instead, he tries teaching him to accept himself and provides an alternative home that serves as a refuge during his mother’s long absences and crack-withdrawal tirades. There’s a lovely moment where Juan teaches “Little” how to swim, and it’s touching in how recognizably father/son the activity is, how much trust is involved and vulnerability, and how the film doesn’t need to oversell the subtext. Juan definitely becomes the father figure that Chiron lives up to for the rest of his life. This first segment is dominated by their relationship but also Juan’s sense of responsibility. He’s making a living through selling drugs, including to “Little”’s own mother. In a very memorable and heated moment, Paula angrily calls out Juan for thinking he would make a better parent given the moral culpability of his own actions to her habit.

moonlight1The second segment zooms ahead to when Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is a teenager in high school and subjected to hostile bullying. The schoolyard taunts from his youth have morphed into something more ferocious and toxic, as a collection of bullies torments Chiron and looks to rob him of his personal connections to others. The central focus on the middle segment is about the growing relationship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the childhood friend who Chrion crushes on. Their closeness takes a leap one fateful night that Chrion will always remember. It’s an awakening and a confirmation of self, and it’s only after having this fulfilling outlet cruelly taken from him that Chiron finally lashes out, with lifelong repercussions. It’s an explosion we can see coming and one that feels fully set up. The second segment feels more familiar because of the age range and it’s the one with the dawning of sexual realization, a story situation we’ve seen before. What elevates it is that it’s a fairly direct carryover from the beginning segment, which means the personal issues have magnified for Chiron. His relationship with his mother has become even more frayed as he’s grown, and what once was name-calling and questions over his maturation has become confirmed. Her addiction has become even stronger and she’s harassing her own son for whatever meager money he’s given from Teresa, his surrogate mother figure. Chiron is struggling to make sense of his feelings in an upbringing lacking support and clarity. You could examine the conclusion of this segment as an empathetic cautionary tale, as we see the years of abuse and measured choices that lead to that confrontation.

The final segment is where Moonlight transforms into a late blooming unrequited romance that should steal your heart if it’s still functioning. “Black” (Trevanta Rhodes) is a fully-grown adult that has seemingly followed in the footsteps of Juan in a life of low-level crime. He’s hardened both emotionally and physically. The muscles will provide an intimidation factor missing during his youth if anyone questions his sexual leanings. He’s burrowed into himself and the role he feels he must accept, but all of that changes the instant he gets an apologetic and searching phone call from Kevin (Andre Holland). Now working as a chef at a diner, Kevin reaches out to his old friend though even he can’t fully explain why. This reawakens “Black”’s longing and he works up the courage to travel back to Miami to surprise the friend who meant so much to him. Their reunion is treated like the culmination of a romance that you may not have realized had you completely. After two segments of setup and years apart, you may find yourself projecting your thoughts to the screen, trying to compel these two men together. It’s an extended sequence that moves at a gradual pace, a fitting tempo for a character racked by insecurities and suppression. By going forward he’s taking a big risk, putting himself out there, and we desperately hope “Black” finds a sense of support. It’s the segment where “Black” finds resolution with the major conflicts that have defined his life, and the climax of the movie is a deeply tender moment where an emotionally reserved man reaches out to another and lets his firmly fixed guard down in the process.

moonlightI don’t usually go into such a detailed plot synopsis with my reviews because I like to hit the basics and let the readers experience the story for themselves, but the pleasures and artistic triumphs of Moonlight are in how fully immersed and felt the movie becomes. By telling the story in three noteworthy sections, Moonlight provides an impressionistic statement about the formation of personal identity, specifically a young man growing up black and gay in a hostile environment to both. The movie also blows apart the argument made for 2014’s Boyhood about how truly necessary it was to watch one young actor play the same part for 14 years. Here we have six different actors playing two different characters at three different points in time and the impact is no less great. Here is a movie that doesn’t need a gimmick to have a larger emotional impact on its audience.

Director/co-writer Barry Jenkins has a marvelously fluid and natural feel for his camera, swinging around the parameters of a scene to make the world feel more charged with energy. Jenkins is a born filmmaker and knows how to squeeze the most out of his scenes with gorgeous cinematography and an eclectic musical score that feels traditional with classical orchestration like churning strings layered and rearranged into something arrestingly new and yet still personal. There aren’t many overly stylized choices, rather Jenkins tells his story with uncommon poise and treats one man’s life like an opera, like the greatest story never told on film, like a life of complexity worth the deep dive. There’s a classical lyricism to the presentation that reminded me of the works of Todd Haynes (Carol). There’s one scene where Paula is strung out on crack and finds her son in the middle of a joyous high. Her face fills the frame, absorbing all of Chiron’s world, and her euphoria is inter-spliced with jarring speed ramps in editing, meant to convey the mania and peace that pumps through her veins in this fleeting moment. It’s a stylistic device that isn’t overplayed and has genuine purpose. Jenkins is restrained from self-indulgences and keeps every aspect focused on reflecting the inner life of his lead.

The very talented company of performers makes the movie even more powerful. Ali (Hidden Figures, Luke Cage) is creating serious awards buzz and it’s deserving, though every actor in this movie is deserving of notoriety. Ali plays a man trying to do right by his own sense and he lets you see the troubles that wash over him. Should he insert himself into this young boy’s life? Is he in a position to set an example? Ali has such paternal strength and tenderness while still displaying doubts and regret, hardly deifying this found father figure. Harris (Spectre) is wonderfully horrifying and heartbreaking in her role and has some big moments that convey her given completely into desperation. She’s offended that others would deign replace her but does little to reclaim her title of mother and provider. Holland (Selma) has a world-weary smooth sense of wisdom to him, and his unassuming charisma helps unlock his friend’s true feelings. The three actors who portray “Little”/Chiron/”Black” are each exceptional, giving different performances and interpretations, further supporting Jenkins’ artistic thesis.

MoonlightMoonlight is a beautiful film told with such delicate care and a resounding sense of authenticity and personal detail. It swallows you whole and leaves you with the impression of a human life observed with tenderness, intimacy, empathy, and grace. It’s about the people and experiences that help guide us onto the paths we take, and while there’s a sense of heartache as we think of what might have been, there’s also the serenity of accepting what has been and what can still be. Jenkins proves himself a superb talent who doesn’t lose sight of his artistic goals with extraneous artifice. There’s a lilting, lovely lyricism to the movie that elevates Chiron’s life into feeling like poetry. This is a life we so rarely get to see given such an artistic and honest examination without condemnation or judgment. It’s the story of a man embracing his identity and overcoming isolation and suppression. This disadvantaged young man is worth your emotions, your sympathies, and your attention. Moonlight is an alluring and heartrending film that manages to be deeply personal and universal at the same time. It’s sublime.

Nate’s Grade: A

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

mandela-posterOne of the most important figures in the twentieth century, you’d expect Hollywood to give Nelson Mandela his well-deserved close-up, and in 2013 we got a biopic on his wife and the man himself, with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. It is a respectful, reverent, and relatively inspirational biopic boasted by a pair of great performances. Idris Elba (Pacific Rim/everything cool ever) nails the voice but also inhabits the courage of the man, the toll of his decisions, and the doubt that crept in at his darkest moments. Harris (Skyfall) gives a fiery performance as Winnie Mandela. You may be surprised, as I was, how active she was in South Africa’s rebellion against the government. The problem is that the film plays like a greatest hits collection without much more insight than we could glean from a cursory new report. Cramming the man’s life into 140 minutes is obviously going to be insufficient, but the speedy narrative does little justice to the man’s hardships and the complexities of South Africa’s civil rights movement. The cradle-to-grave approach in biopics is somewhat passé now. Rather movies like Lincoln and Invictus, also about Mandela, focus on pivotal moments that encapsulate the person. I think I have the perfect rewrite of this movie: adjust the focus squarely on the series of meetings in the late 1980s Mandela had with the South African government about political reform. Let’s dig deep into the political conflicts, the government’s fear to equal rights and possible recriminations, the smoothing of tensions, the building of trust, the fragility of a country in the balance. It may seem like more of a stage bound approach, but I think it has more immediacy, nuance, and works to summarize his lifetime of struggle and the change of his country. Oh well. Mandela is a respectful biopic but the man and his legacy deserved something better than a speedy run-through of his life’s checkpoints.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Skyfall (2012)

The James Bond franchise, one of the most enduring of all time, has been open to criticism since it came back in a big way with 2006’s Casino Royale. Fans have started to whine that the Bond movies are no longer the Bond they remember, and they’re probably right. In 2006, the producers decided to go back, reboot the series, and introduce a more grounded Bond, a man with more demons than quips. This backlash to a successful reboot seems so funny to me, especially considering the dubious nature of these older Bond movies. Can we all just take a moment and objectively admit that half of the Bond movies are absolutely awful? Skyfall is the third in the new Daniel Craig Bond era, and it’s received universally ecstatic reviews. It’s a fine work, surprising and satisfying in equal measure, but it’s no Casino Royale for me, but what can be?

James Bond (Craig) is recovering from a serious injury after a fellow agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), accidentally shoots Agent 007. In her defense, he was atop a speeding train battling a baddie and her boss, M (Judi Dench), ordered her to fire. In the weeks that follow, Bond is struggling to adapt. He’s lost a step physically and now has to deal with his own doubts. Naturally, this isn’t the most opportune time for crises of faith. MI6 is under attack by one of their own, a former agent turned powerful techno-terrorist named Silva (Javier Bardem). The man has a serious grudge against M and is exposing MI6 undercover agents to punish her. After an attack at MI6 HQ, the agency is left scrambling and sends Bond out to nab Silva, even if Bond isn’t physically ready to return to field duty. Silva is determined to kill M and destroy the agency that left him for dead.

While Skyfall is indeed a good Bond movie and worlds better than 2008’s Quantum of Solace, it still cannot meet the rapturous applause it’s receiving among critical circles. It starts off strong with a nifty action sequence in Istanbul (the go-to action setting for 2012). Bond is chasing a bad guy, and we go from foot chase to car chase to rumbling on top of a speeding train. And there are natural complications that take advantage of geography! When Bond hops on the train, he climbs into a construction crane to fight back, smashing open the back of the train car. It’s a terrific opener that gets things starts briskly, and the sexual chemistry between Craig and Harris (28 Days Later) is palpable. Then the movie pretty much deflates in the second half. There’s a build-up to the villain and his master plot, but once that plot is revealed the film can’t live up to the hype. There are enough plot elements that feel important but eventually get discarded. Here’s a minor example: Bond is given a handgun programmed to his palm print, so it will only fire with Bond wielding it. It’s the only gadget in the movie, so you’d expect it to be utilized in a significant way. One nameless thug uses it then gets eaten by a Komodo dragon. That is it. Seems like an awful waste of funds for it to be thrown away so casually.

The last act has a protracted finale in Scotland, exploring Bond’s ancestral home and his tragic backstory. I’d like to think the insights we’re offered are important but I don’t believe they are. Bond was an orphan (the best recruits, says M) and Albert Finney (Big Fish) was his quasi-father figure/caretaker. It’s not enough to compensate for the slack pacing and encroaching boredom present. The good guys are holed up in an estate, waiting. And that’s what you want in a Bond movie, let alone any action film, for the heroes to sit and wait. An action movie should be building to a climax of intensity, thematically as well as plot-wise. Skyfall is that rare Bond film that flirts with coming undone; each passing action sequence seems less interesting than the one before.

With Mendes directing and Roger Deakens, the greatest working cinematographer, at his disposal, this has to be the best looking Bond movie. The shot compositions are often stunning, making fine use of the visual space and the balance of light and shadow. There are even some shots that might remind you of Mendes previous films like American Beauty or Road to Perdition. Added with some above average action, it makes the thrills an even better sight. There was a fight sequence in a Chinese high-rise almost completely in unbroken silhouette, with the neon tentacles of advertisements dancing in the background. It’s a wonderful image. Even when the movie was losing me at points, I could at least admire the visuals. I was worried that Mendes would not have a deft feel for action. After all, another indie director mostly known for dramatic work, Marc Foster, helmed Solace. That selection did not work out so well, though the script was notably weak. Mendes, on the other hand, can stage some pretty exciting action sequences with judicious editing, allowing the audience to follow along with ease. He’s not exactly a knockout when it comes to constructing action sequences, but the results are more than adequate for a guy whose last two movies were Away We Go and Revolutionary Road.

For the previous Craig entries, it feels like the movies have borrowed more from Jason Bourne than Bond. They’ve gone for a grittier, darker, more realistic portrayal. Skyfall takes a very interesting angle with the character, showing a Bond coming to terms with his physical limitations. It’s a Bond that has to confront his most nefarious foe: aging. Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) tells the agent that the whole spy business is “a young man’s game.” In the old days, you needed men with lairs in volcanoes and giant doomsday lasers. Now you can send the world into irreversible chaos with a laptop. Skyfall is at its most engaging when it confronts the old world of spies and the scary new world of technology. Can the Queen and MI6 compete or will they be left behind? Bond and his organization must confront their limitations and mortality, and this added dimension of vulnerability makes the series far more emotionally resonant.

Here’s my main problem with the villain: it’s a bait and switch affair that leads to unfulfilled potential. Silva has been spoken of with such awe, a man who could bring governments to their knees with the click of a button. He’s made out to be this dangerous cyber-terrorist genius. So what happens for the second half of the movie? He chases people around and shoots guns. It’s like Skyfall completely forgets what made their villain special. Bardem gives a flamboyant performance with an extra dash of actorly nuttiness, but it’s nowhere near the memorable menace of 2007’s No Country for Old Men. That’s an unfair comparison, I know, but where the movie really starts losing it is when Silva loses it. He becomes just another garden variety psychopath, though one with a creepy oedipal complex. Psychopaths do not work in the James Bond universe. Agent 007 needs a foil that is smart, not crazy and a mad genius rather than mad. I recognize that Silva’s psychological shambles is meant to be a sign of the potential fate of all agents, let alone agents that are given up by M. That doesn’t mean you abandon all the traits that make the villain who he is. The problem with Silva, despite a rather jarring monologue about the effects of surviving a cyanide capsule, peaks with his first appearance. He has a grand entrance and places Bond in a very precarious position, forcing him to confront his physical failures. That’s the villain I want to see. And the awkward handsiness of Silva will also lead many to question whether he’s gay, which wouldn’t matter if the movie wasn’t so clunky.

It also feels like Skyfall may be the conclusion to this incarnation of Bond. I know Craig has been signed for two more films, and that’s great news as he’s fully made the character his own at this point, but the movie seems to setup the Bond we’re better acquainted with. We started from scratch with Casino Royale and now the familiar world, with the reemergence of familiar characters, is coming into focus. The scenes with the new Q (Ben Wishaw), a gangly whiz kid, are enjoyable and they contribute thematically to the old vs. new/age vs. youth conflict at heart. This feels like a transition film, meant to pass from the bruising realism into the polished pyrotechnics of the franchise’s past. There’s a reason the famous gun barrel shot happens to conclude the movie, because by the end of those 142 minutes, it now feels like the formation of James Bond has completed. There are also plenty of in-jokes and references for Bond aficionados to lap up. Even the (lackluster) title song by Adele is in the vein of the old Shirley Bassey numbers.

While not living up to the exultant hype machine, Skyfall is certainly a good Bond movie, though not nearly good enough to be in the conversation of the best. The action starts strong but is prone to diminishing returns especially as the movie transforms into a more ordinary action thriller. The most memorable sequence is in the opening, which isn’t a very good sign for the rest of the movie. It’s still a suitable action movie, and one that pays closer attention at character for a character that’s lived for 50 years in various film incarnations, but just because it pays more attention to character doesn’t mean it does it well. Perhaps I’ve just become spoiled after the artistic and commercial heights of Casino Royale. This is still an entertaining movie that often looks great and has some great actors doing suitable work. We’re still far and away from the loonier Pierce Brosnan episodes, so there is that. I imagine audiences will be more favorable than I am and make Skyfall the most successful James Bond film in history. That’s fine because it feels like, with everything established, that we’re about to hit a new and exciting phase with Craig’s version of the character, and that will leave me shaken and stirred.

Nate’s Grade: B

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