Think of this action-comedy sequel as the enjoyable DLC to 2017’s main campaign. The Next Level feels rather familiar as it dishes up slight variations on what made the 2017 Jumanji reboot so enjoyable, namely a game cast ready to be silly and physical, fun and flourishing action set pieces, and a clever satire of video game mechanics. The excuse to get the gang back together one year after events from the first film is flimsy, but I didn’t care because I enjoyed these characters and especially the actors playing their in-video game avatars. The twist this time is a body swap that involves two elderly men (Danny DeVito, Danny Glover) joining the mix, allowing The Rock to do his best… old Jewish man impression? It certainly doesn’t come across like DeVito, as funny voices isn’t exactly a specialty for The Rock, but it hardly matters. There’s still more worlds to explore, new obstacles/levels to be tackled, and with the body-swap mechanic, a fun switch-up for the main actors to portray a variety of characters inhabiting their bodies. I was extremely happy that the film rejected recycling jokes from its predecessor. It would have been very lazy (a.k.a. lazy) to simply go back to a few funny wells that worked the first time, but every time the film brings back an element from the first adventure it builds off of it rather than rehash a reference point. Once again Karen Gillan (Avengers: Endgame) steals the show. The humor isn’t as gut-busting or satisfying as the previous incarnation but part of that is because we now know what to expect from this renewed franchise, and The Next Level manages to deliver what a fan would request while finding enough variations and tweaks to make it feel like its own movie, even if it won’t live up to the high standard of entertainment that came before it. If you were a fan of 2017’s Welcome to the Jungle, I’m confident you’ll walk away relatively satisfied and smiling from The Next Level. However, chart this as another movie that ends with a preview of a sequel that I wish I had seen instead of the movie I got (stay tuned through the immediate end credits). Jumanji: The Next Level is a worthy sequel to one of the more fun, clever, and visually inventive action-comedy franchises. As long as they can maintain this level of quality, I’ll happily pre-order the next edition.
Nate’s Grade: B
It took nine movies but we can now put the Fast and Furious franchise to rest, and that’s because we now have Hobbs & Shaw, the spinoff that took the best parts of the franchise and ran away. What started as a film about underground street racing in 2001 has morphed into an over-the-top superhero spectacle where their superhuman power is being really good with cars, as well as not adhering to any laws of physics. Now they’ve cordoned off The Rock and Jason Statham, attached the director of Atomic Blonde and give me Idris Elba as the villain, who openly proclaims himself to be “black Superman.” Why do we ever need to go back to Vin Diesel and his pit crew ever again? Hobbs & Shaw is a big blast of action overkill fun. It’s not without its flaws and limitations but it’s exactly what it set out to be.
Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is trying to enjoy some rest and relaxation with his daughter but the world isn’t going to be save itself. He’s recruited to team up with the wily Deckard Shaw (Statham) to recover a missing sample of a super virus that can be programmed to kill anyone on the planet. The key is finding MIA MI6 agent Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), accused of killing her team and absconding with the virus. She also happens to be Shaw’s estranged sister. The real villain is a super mercenary Brixton (Elba) who is engineered to be a superior killing machine. His mysterious employer wants to recruit Hobbs and Shaw to the cause, but in the event of their refusal, death is always an option. The Shaw family reunion makes the majority of the movie a three-person chase film that ultimately pushes Hobbs to go back home to the Samoan family he left behind decades ago and they haven’t forgotten their prodigal son.
Once again, the main draw of a Fast and Furious movie are the eye-popping action set pieces, and Hobbs & Shaw has its fair share of excitement and satisfaction. There are a couple standouts, notably a climactic helicopter face-off involving a chain of racing vehicles and the concept of lift, but really none of the action will displace the top moments from this increasingly insane franchise. Director David Leitch (Deadpool 2) doesn’t have any signature moments that stun like that extended, fatigued fight sequence in Atomic Blonde, but he definitely taps into the moment-to-moment fun and absurdity. A chase down the side of a building is not remotely realistic, but with Leitch there’s an added sense of comedy by making it another contest between Hobbs and Shaw. That macho posturing can liven up an already enjoyable scene and give it a personal edge that ties into the charisma of the stars. So even when the action is cooking at a lower level, focusing on that charisma elevates the sequence. The action pumps at a constant pace with plenty of explosions, tumbles, and powerful fists. The movie follows the latter Fast and Furious mold by not even trying to resemble reality. When Brixton’s super hands-free motorcycle acts more like a living Transformer, it doesn’t matter because the movie isn’t building a reality where something like that would seem like an exaggeration. I laughed more at moments like that and smiled rather than scoffing at its disconnect from crafting some kind of baseline sense of reality.
I will say the action beats could be shaved down, especially as the movie teeters to 135 minutes long. It’s not exactly the kind of action cinema like Mission: Impossible where the set pieces are so brilliantly constructed with organic complications. These aren’t quite at the level of spectacle or immersion of a Fury Road or even the Justin Lin-era of Furious land. There are few sequences that couldn’t be pared down because often the beats are the same beats just with more of them. I wished there had been a greater variety of action sequences or at least an interesting series of complications, the lifeblood of great action movies. There are a few standout moments with larger-than-life imagery but mostly the action has a very same-y quality that can feel repetitive. That’s where the comedic perspectives can help. A hallway fight is enjoyable but lacks impressive fight choreography, but what saves the scene is the comedic exasperation at the end for Shaw and again tying it to the ongoing competition with Hobbs.
Beyond the explosive action, the real draw is the cast and they are overloaded with charisma. There’s a reason somebody at Universal decided to slice off these two characters because they are clearly the only characters many people ever cared about, because both actors have an innate charm that pops off the screen. Watching the two of them butt heads and trade insults and glares is an ongoing pleasure. It reminds one how big personalities can effortlessly carry big Hollywood action movies when you have the right stars together. They do form their own sort of combative bond and understanding by the end, but one wonders if their banter will get old if it doesn’t evolve over the inevitably commissioned assembly of sequels. The Rock and Statham get some big laughs and hearty entertainment squaring off and working together for even bigger destructive power.
Kirby (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) is a terrific addition as a strong-willed, kickass heroine first and a potential love interest for Hobbs second, which amusingly upsets Shaw. Kirby has an above-it-all air to her that makes her seem like a natural match as a sister to Statham. Elba (Molly’s Game) is settling into a groove as a go-to heavy (Star Trek Beyond, The Jungle Book) and even while threatening a global pandemic he can’t help but be smooth and charming. This is the best cast ever assembled for a Fast and Furious movie, and you throw in unexpected comedy cameos, Helen Mirren, and an extended Samoan family, and the movie begins to stake out its own claims on a world separate from Diesel’s boring “family.”
Hobbs & Shaw is a combination of 80s action movie attitude, 90s bombast, and 2010s outrageous set pieces, lead by two of the more charming men Hollywood has at its punching-kicking disposal. That’s actually a pretty good word, “disposal,” because the movie is designed as nothing more than a breezy two hours at the movies with your biggest tub of popcorn. Of course the studio has larger plans and envisions it as a way to keep the Fast and Furious franchise alive and diversified. Hobbs & Shaw has little more on its mind than giving its audience a good time, and it easily achieves that aim. I may not feel the need to watch Fast and Furious movies again like I do other action franchises that provide more emotional investment, practical stuntwork, and structural brilliance, but that doesn’t mean I won’t happily consume the next entry. As long as The Rock and Statham are in place and feeling good, so too will the eventual audience.
Nate’s Grade: B
Dwayne Johnson has fought giant monsters, earthquakes, armies, drug cartels, race-enthusiast criminals, and video game villains, so now, as we run out of opponents, enjoy Dwayne Johnson versus… a building. Skyscraper is much more Towering Inferno than Die Hard, as Johnson plays a security specialist fighting to break into a burning building in order to rescue his family from a group of armed criminals. It’s a movie that struggles to keep pace with schlock throughout its relatively brisk running time. There are some definite detriments, like a team of uninteresting villains with a pretty haphazard plan (in order to flush out a rich guy, they… set a building on fire?). Some of the sequences are just goofy in conception, like an access panel placed right under a spinning turbine, or a top floor architectural design that makes no sense except to provide a requisite location for a “hall of mirrors” finale. However, it’s a perfectly serviceable action thriller, with a better handle on the material than I would have thought for the director of ribald comedies We’re the Millers and Central Intelligence. Johnson is a perfectly magnetic leading man and the plot has a satisfying A-to-B-to-C progression of obstacles and practical solutions. Neve Campbell plays Johnson’s wife and she is actually given important things to do rather than being a damsel in distress. She even saves the day. Skyscraper won’t be a movie you’ll remember long after having seen it, but it’s got enough charm and decently structured set pieces to serve as disposable entertainment.
Nate’s Grade: B-
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-
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a twenty-year plus sequel that is way more fun than you would have expected for a twenty-year plus sequel. It’s updated to modern-day by ditching a living board game and instead transporting four Breakfast Club high school stereotypes into the world of an old school adventure video game. The biggest boost is the camaraderie and comic interplay of the four leads (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black), each blessed with memorable moments to shine and a satisfying arc. The adults are great at playing as children-in-adult-bodies. The film does a good job of introducing the rules of its world while also explaining the mechanics of video games (cut scenes, life meters, re-entering the game), at the same time holding your hand through it all. The satire of video games is often amusing like the strengths/weaknesses discussion, and there’s a very good reason why Gillan is dressed in a skimpy outfit, which even the movie calls out. It’s a simple story told without subtlety but this movie is packed with payoffs and spreads them evenly throughout. The actors are truly delightful and this should be a breakout role for Gillan. She is very adept at being silly with physical comedy and has a wonderful bit where she tries to seduce some guards after some flirting coaching from Jack Black. Thankfully, Black being a self-obsessed teen girl on the inside doesn’t veer into transphobic/homophobic mockery. The awkwardness of the body swap scenario is never forgotten, which lends itself to consistent comedy and heart. There are a lot of great little moments and enjoyable set pieces. Jumanji is a tremendously fun movie that won’t insult fans of the original. If you’re looking for an unexpected amount of entertainment this holiday season, check out the Jumanji sequel and one of the year’s best comic teams.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I’ve written before that all I demand from the ever-ascendant and popular Fast and Furious franchise are its eye-popping action set pieces that teeter into madcap lunacy and impressive stunt work. A fiery meteor could crush all the characters, short of The Rock, and I wouldn’t shed a tear. Despite the super serious plaudits about the importance of family and loyalty and blah blah blah, I’m only here for the action spectacle that obliterates the laws of physics. I’ve said before there’s a fine line between stupid action and stupidly awesome action, and the Fast and Furious franchise has planted its flag like few others. Nobody today goes to the level of action spectacle that the Fast and Furious films achieve, bringing to life exciting action set pieces that feel fully plucked from the imagination of an exuberant child, and I don’t mean that at all disparagingly. These movies deliver like few others nowadays. We’re a long way from undercover cops and underground street racing. Vin Diesel and his team are essentially superheroes and their power involves doing amazing things with cars. I’m not a gearhead, I don’t care a lick about automobiles, but I’ve come to eagerly anticipate this franchise. It delivers ridiculous action on a ridiculous scale like few others. It’s earned my confidence. The Fate of the Furious, the eighth film, still delivers the high-octane goods even if it can’t quite keep up with the best of the franchise’s entries.
Dom (Diesel) has been preaching the virtues of family for years but now he’s turning his back on them. The notorious cyber terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron) extorts Dom into helping her get her hands on nuclear codes. Dom’s crew (The Rock, Michelle Rodriguez, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, Nathalie Emmanuel) is wondering whether the man they know is still there. Government agent M. Nobody (Kurt Russell) reassembles the team to track down Dom, and they’re working with some unexpected help. Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) has been released from maximum-security prison to thwart Cipher.
This is a franchise that soared to new heights of commercial success after it left behind its inhibitions of the imagination. It’s a franchise that lives or dies depending upon its giddy action set pieces. As I wrote about Furious 7: “The set pieces of the last few films have been stunners, and at its height, the franchise can make you feel giddy like a child watching the unreal unfold with such delight. There’s a tremendous and infectious high watching a well-executed action scene on such a large scale. With every movie our expectations are hungrier, and the franchise has found a way to satiate our action movie demands.” Fortunately for the eighth film, there are two standout action set pieces that are some of the stronger ones in the history of the franchise. The first is a car chase through New York (though filmed primarily in Cleveland) that builds and changes as it continues, an essential element for any great action sequence to stretch forward. At one point Cipher takes control of an armada of hackable, self-driving cars and pilots them as a collective weapon of mass destruction. They resemble a herd of runaway bulls. The destructive fleet leads to some impressive sights such as a bevy of cars plummeting from a parking garage. It’s a strong sequence that also finds room for the other characters to try and take down Dom, and it allows Dom the ability to outsmart them, adding the personal element. The other standout is the entire third act set around the Arctic Circle in Russia that climaxes with the dizzying heights of a nuclear sub chase and The Rock manually redirecting a speeding torpedo. There are multiple points of action and mini-goals that lead logically to the next, allowing escalation to mount. It’s dangerously over-the-top even for this franchise and it’s generally awesome and I loved it.
Eight movies in and Fast and Furious is really becoming an expansive ensemble series. The core team has been picking up players here and there with each additional movie, building its diverse definition of a diverse family. This is getting to be a crowded film and there’s just not enough room to go around for everyone to contribute meaningfully, which means it’s more likely from here on out, unless there is some judicial pruning, that characters stay religiously archetypal. Ludacris is the tech guru, but isn’t Emmanuel now also the tech guru, or does she only specialize in the tech subgroup of hacking? Why do I need Scott Eastwood (The Longest Ride) to join the gang as the awkward rookie trying to look cool? Isn’t that a milder version of what Tyrese Gibson offers as the comic relief bravado? Admittedly, I only started really paying attention to this franchise once it added The Rock, but I’m still unsure what Rodriguez brings to the dynamic beside history and romance. This general sense of the characters settling into their expected roles is exemplified in the in-car banter and one-liners. It appears often that they’re just talking to themselves for these lines. I could do with far less Tyrese reaction shots and Rodriguez one-liners. Theron is also generally wasted as the new villain du jour. She’s got the icy glare down and looks to be having fun, but she’s not given anything interesting to do. Without going into greater spoilers, I will say that Dom’s heel turn is wrapped up by the end of its 135-minute running time. No need to turn it into a multi-film arc.
Paul Walker’s character is understandably absent and I’d hate for them to bring him back after the very sweet and surprisingly poignant sendoff at the end of Furious 7, but he does still exist in this universe. I can agree with characters not wanting to get him involved in their dangerous missions across the globe, but at the end when they’re all dining as one big family, wouldn’t they also invite Dom’s sister, brother-in-law, and their children too? It gets into the Avengers territory where you start wondering why the Avengers haven’t assembled for the world-destroying threats from their respective solo film adventures.
The best post-Rock addition to the franchise has easily been Statham (Spy) and he proves it with his limited but highly entertaining time on screen. His appearances were a fun disruption in the previous film and he served as the most formidable villain. Reintegrating him onto the team was a smart move because he adds charisma, unpredictability, and a new dynamic that also seeds conflict. It was also smart because more Statham means including hand-to-hand combat action sequences that can involve a higher degree of stunt choreography, even if the former Transporter is starting to show his age. His scenes with The Rock were a natural highlight. However, adding Deckard onto the team to tackle a bigger baddie presents some weird questions. By the film’s end, everyone seems rather chummy with the man who straight up murdered their friend Han (Sung Kang). Sorry dude but it seems like everyone is rather relaxed with your murderer and big government having unlimited and regulation-free surveillance powers. My advice to future Fast and Furious installments, and there will be various, is to try and include as much Statham as possible (it’s essentially a repeat of The Rock Rule).
Where the movie has rougher terrain is in the area of drama and comedy. Look, nobody is going to confuse the Fast and the Furious films as great works of human drama. Director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Straight Outta Compton) takes over for James Wan (The Conjuring) who took over for Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond), and the discrepancy is noticeable. While having two excellent set pieces that place highly along the big board of the franchise, they’re not as well shot. Gray’s command of visuals is more than adequate but lacks the sizzle and vision of his predecessors. Wan was able to adopt the house style of the franchise and deliver a satisfying though lesser experience (Lin is king). Gray has a harder time with the material. The CGI approaches cartoon levels at points and Gray doesn’t better maintain tone. He doesn’t know when to pull back, which is unusually exemplified in the comedy asides. Everything that gets a laugh will be repeated until it becomes somewhat annoying, in particular a scene with Statham and a baby. It begins fun and cheeky, and Statham even uses the baby carriage as part of the fight choreography, but then it overstays its welcome like the other comedy bits. The dramatic moments are also far too overwrought, even for this franchise. It can be a bit much.
This is a franchise that revels in the ridiculous, that embraces being a big dumb action movie in the best way, delivering imaginative and often eye-popping action that deserves the full big screen treatment. Fate of the Furious falls somewhere in the middle of the franchise from a quality standpoint. It’s not as good as seven, which wasn’t as good as six, which wasn’t as good as five, but it’s still good enough. It’s definitely lesser and the new director doesn’t have the same natural feel for the preposterous as previous directors, and even after eight films I’m still mostly indifferent about the far majority of the characters on screen. As I’ve written before, though, thankfully the movie has the good sense to know what the audience is paying to see. It’s here for the fast cars, eye-popping stunts, and gratuitously framed camera angles highlighting women’s derrieres (I think there’s a contractual law that a close-up of booty shorts must make a grand entrance in the opening minutes of every film). Fate of the Furious is just enough of what I want from the franchise, though it’s getting harder to keep up with every new movie. Furious 9 and 10 are already in the works, and it’s only a matter of time before we get Fast and Furious in Space. It’s getting further and further removed from a sense of reality but as long as it keeps up with incrementally raised expectations and employs enough charming actors to compensate for Diesel’s enormous lack of charisma, then they’ll keep fans like me happy in the short run.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Polynesian-based animated musical Moana is a throwback to the Disney formula of the 1990s that became so familiar and entrenched. The time away has made it a welcomed return, especially when executed to this magnificent magnitude. A formula by itself is not a problem, in theory. Many of our favorite movies follow storytelling paths that others have trod well before, but it’s all about the level of execution, building characters that an audience cares about, a conflict that feels involving and escalating, and payoffs that are naturally setup throughout the plotting. With a formula, it’s not the song it’s the singer, and Moana is a splendid and delightful animated movie that should enchant all ages with colorful characters, catchy songs, and the familiar formula of old given surprising and rewarding depths. It’s a lovingly made movie I fell in love with.
In ancient times among the Polynesian islands, the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) stole the literal heart of the goddess Te Fiti, a shining green emerald responsible for creating life. Many years later, Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is a teenage girl next n line to be the chief of her people. Much is expected of her for the betterment of the island but Moana would rather be out there on the water, a passion that her father forbids. Her island is in dire trouble when the food supplies are rotting or disappearing. Moana’s eccentric grandmother (voiced by Rachel House) tells her what must happen: she must venture out to sea, find Maui, retrieve his magic fishhook, and force Maui to return Te Fiti’s heart to the source. Moana sneaks away and embarks on a great adventure that will test her skills and her sense of who she is and what her calling should be.
With a few clever nods, Moana intimates to its audience that it knows what they expect and will be delivering the best of the old formula without being slavishly lockstep in its execution. The Disney formula of the hero or heroine yearning for something grander from their supposedly drab existence became a crutch after the apex of the Disney Renaissance in the mid 90s. The overprotective father who doesn’t want their daughter or son to break far from tradition will also be plenty familiar. With Moana, the masters who kickstarted that Renaissance, directors Ron Clements and John Musker, return to the formula but also know what to subvert, what to tweak, and what to dive right into. While it’s not as subversive as mildly revolutionary for a Disney movie as Frozen, this is still a movie that anticipates the connections an audience will make and knowingly tweaks them. On her island, Moana has a cute little pig sidekick who you expect to make the journey with her… except it doesn’t. Instead the brain-dead chicken, a reliable source of comic relief, is her traveling animal companion. Moana prickles at being called a princess; she’s the daughter of the chief and actually already functions in a ruling capacity. “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” he nonchalantly retorts. There’s also a lesson in what constitutes good and evil as all the villains and reprobates of legend are far more ambiguous. There’s also a refreshing lack of a central romance. We have a strong heroine whose goal is completely unrelated to romantic love. This girl has bigger things on her mind than boys.
This movie is primarily a two-hander as we witness Moana and Maui interact, grow, and change, much to our amusement. I can’t recall another Disney film that had such a small focus on a limited number of characters and this decision pays dividends. While only 103 minutes, we really get to understand these two people and what drives them and what fears keep them from accomplishing their goals. Moana is a terrific character. She’s pulled in different directions from her sense of duty and her own ambition to explore the world outside. She’s feisty but still clumsy, empowered but still filled with doubts, independent but considerate of others. After all, her plight is to save her people. Pairing this character with Maui provides plenty of narrative sparks, especially as Maui is forced against his will by the power of the ocean to assist in doing right with Moana. Newcomer Cravhalo makes quite a debut. Her singing voice is flawless but I was highly impressed with the emotion she was able to convey through her vocal performance. She makes you care deeply for her character because she brings such life to the lively Moana. Johnson’s boundless charisma is amazingly channeled into the character thanks to the animators. Johnson isn’t lazily sleepwalking in his performance like so many celebrity vocal actors. Moana and Maui both intrinsically have their identities tied up in their sense of obligation to others, and this provides a common area for them to bond and also to stretch as characters. Theirs is a dual journey of self-discovery and defining themselves on their own terms. The actions of others and their demands do not have to define you. The charged interplay between Moana and Maui, two characters at cross-purpose in their goals, is a scenario that places them in our focus and endears them to us as they deepen.
The fantasy setting also allows for plenty of fun and imaginative diversions and turns. The mingling of man and god with the whimsical and weird magical creatures made me think of the great Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) as a direct creative influence. There is a delightfully wonky sequence with a wild band of pirates that are best described as living coconuts from a Mad Max film. Their floating ships are patched together with ramshackle planks and pieces and a thunderous drumbeat for pacing. All that’s missing is a coconut with a flaming guitar. It’s such a visually delightful and daffy segment and it doesn’t wear out its welcome. Maui’s living tattoos (traditional hand-drawn animation) provide further personality and serve as his conscience. The underwater land of monsters is also begging for further exploration. Maui’s shape-shifting powers are brought to the forefront during key battles with the giant lava monster Te Ka. Even when the movie isn’t dazzling you with a song or its character development it can pull off inventive and visually gorgeous world building that sucks you in.
While not hitting the earworm heights of Frozen’s best, the songs in Moana are uniformly good and, even better, advance the story and give additional light to characters. Lin Manuel-Miranda is still a musical genius and imbues the sounds of Moana with Polynesian culture and history, lots of powerful percussion and harmonies. Moana’s personal theme of “How Far I’ll Go” has some wonderful melodic turns especially as it builds, and it’s a fine musical throughline for her journey with each repetition building in emotion. I enjoyed the Hamilton-style rhyming flourishes as well as the extended rap interlude on The Rock’s jaunty signature song, “You’re Welcome.” That tune is quite playful with a strong hook and it boasts all Maui’s accomplishments and his hefty ego, but it also has a narrative purpose. Maui uses the song to distract Moana and steal her boat. My current favorite might actually be the outlier on the soundtrack; “Shiny” is an absurdly enjoyable Bowie-esque glam rock number from a giant crustacean admiring his fascination for all things shiny. Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows) superbly sinks his teeth into such a theatrical and comical villain. It’s a short scene but Clemente’s impression is irresistible. His song is also a strategy, allowing Maui to steal back his fishhook while the opportunity for gloating distracts the giant crab. The songs are a reflection of the characters singing them and serve narrative purpose, which is a rarity in big-screen musicals. The musical score by Mark Mancini beautifully matches Manuel-Miranda’s songwriting themes and provides a lush sonic backdrop.
This has been an absolute dream of a year for animated movies. From Zootopia to Kubo and the Two Strings to the heartwarming indie Life Animated, the movies have enchanted and entertained and also dared to challenge, uplift, and engage an audience. These are more than mere babysitting tools for exhausted parents to put on; these movies are some of the best of the year, animated or live-action. For my tastes, Moana is just a touch below Zootopia due to the latter’s complexly inventive world and articulate social commentary. However, Moana is a lavishly produced adventure with great characters, more than a few pleasant surprises, and an emotional core that becomes more evident as the two characters we’ve grown attached to come full circle. The visuals are lively and colorful, the plotting is carefully paced and comes to a meaty conclusion, and the emphasis is on the relationship of the two main characters and their function. There was nary a moment during Moana where I wasn’t smiling from ear to ear. Do yourself a favor and savor this second Disney Renaissance because since 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph the Mouse House has been on a near unprecedented creative tear. This is starting to get to peak Pixar levels, folks. What can I say except… you’re welcome?
Nate’s Grade: A-
Sometimes all you want with a movie, especially a disaster movie, is some good dumb fun, and sometimes that fun is a little too dumb. Such is the case with San Andreas, chronicling massive earthquakes shredding California. After a slightly clever opening, the film goes rapidly downhill as we’re stuck with one-note stock characters. The Rock and Carla Gugino as a divorced couple who will, naturally, be brought back together over the course of events. They also have to travel to San Francisco to save their daughter (True Detective’s GIF-exploding Alexandra Daddario). I have to admit, that is one hell of an attractive family. There is no loser in that gene pool. From an action standpoint, San Andreas does a serviceable enough job with a few memorable images of Mother Nature’s fury. The script is definitely an excuse to just get from one big falling thing to another. I’m not expecting Shakespeare but the story shows very little effort. Oh no, the record-breaking earthquake is going to broken by another newer record-breaking earthquake. Oh no, a small child is huddling in a corner and needs to be saved. Oh no, a character is deprived of oxygen for like five minutes onscreen but magically comes back to life. If that doesn’t cause brain damage this script will. One of the problems with San Andreas is that it doesn’t have any real disposable characters. These kinds of movies thrive on having meat for the grinder, but from the first act onwards there’s nobody we truly fear will bite the dust. There was one major missed opportunity: the cowardly step-father (Ioan Gruffudd) abandons others, narrowly escapes disaster, and he should have continued doing so, avoiding another near-certain demise just to intensify the audience’s demand for his end. It would have been a satisfying payoff. Oh well. San Andreas starts to become a lot of hollow PG-13 carnage. Watching this gave me a further appreciation for Roland Emmerich (2012, Day After Tomorrow), who has such a better handle on large-scale destruction. That man knows how to make good dumb fun disaster movies peppered with all sorts of visually arresting images. If you’re desperate for disaster, you could do worse than San Andreas and its onslaught of CGI thrills, but you could certainly do better.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Fast and the Furious series has never been more popular, which is crazy to think about for a franchise entering is sixth sequel. Then in November 2013, it suffered its biggest shock. Actor Paul Walker was killed in an automobile accident. The already-filming seventh film was put on hold, pushed back a year for release, and retooled to accommodate the new tragic reality that one of the core members of a popular series going back to 2001 was no longer walking this Earth. With this context, it’s hard not to apply an added level of gravitas and dramatic weight to a series that previously skirted by on its fun and outrageous stunts. It’s weird to watch an actor’s final filmed moments, knowing this is the last time you’ll see that face, hear that voice, on screen again. I’m already dreading that painful realization in November that, with Mockingjay Part 2, this will be the last cinema will see of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. With tragedy hanging over it, Furious 7 does an admirable job of sticking to what it does best while serving as a fitting tribute and sendoff for Walker.
Coming on the heels of the events of Furious 6, Dom (Vin Diesel) and his crew have dispatched Owen Shaw (Luke Evans, collecting a paycheck for one scene lying in bed). Shaw has an older brother, Deckard (Jason Statham), who swears vengeance and comes hunting after Dom’s team, killing Han in Toyko (events previously seen in 2006’s Tokyo Drift). Then Shaw hobbles Agent Hobbes (The Rock), leaving him sidelined for much of the movie. Dom and Brian (Walker) place their families in safety and then set off to eliminate Deckard Shaw. Little did they know that the government has a similar interest. Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) promises to help Dom in his quest if Dom agrees to a secret mission to rescue a computer hacker (Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel). This hacker, codenamed “Ramses” has developed a device that taps into every camera and microphone on the planet to track anyone anywhere. If Dom can secure the device, Mr. Nobody will use it to track and take down Deckard Shaw.
What elevated the Fast and Furious films into new heights of critical and commercial acclaim are the over-the-top action set pieces that don’t just defy the laws of physics, they obliterate them. There’s a fine line between stupid action and stupidly awesome action, and I think Michael Bay is still trying to finesse this understanding. Under the guidance of director Justin Lin, the franchise got bigger and ballsier and enjoyably insane. The action set pieces were huge and wild and well developed with organic complications and world-class stunt driving. The set pieces of the last few films have been stunners, and at its height, the franchise can make you feel giddy like a child watching the unreal unfold with such delight. There’s a tremendous and infectious high watching a well-executed action scene on such a large scale. With every movie our expectations are hungrier, and the franchise has found a way to satiate our action movie demands (for my money, Fast Five is the best). Furious 7 is the first Fast film not directed by Lin in ten years. James Wan, best known as the director of horror films Saw and The Conjuring, stepped into the director’s chair and he assimilates well into the “house style” of the franchise. However, I found myself missing Lin’s touches; he has a natural feel for choreographing action sequences with style and a clear eye for orientation. I found the editing for Furious 7 too choppy and several action sequences hampered by not getting a better sense of the wider surroundings and what was happening. Wan acquits himself well and keeps things running smoothly, though Furious 7 is a slight step down but still plenty entertaining.
Let’s talk about those giddy highs of Furious 7, because they are certainly there, though I wish there was more of them. Am I just getting greedy or building a tolerance? There are two standout moments that made me squeal. The first involved a set piece involving cars parachuting out of a transport plane. The next was a car crashing through the window of an Abu Dhabi skyscraper into another skyscraper and then into another skyscraper. Your brain tells you that there are no way any of these moments could truly happen in reality, and that in these circumstances it’s majority CGI, but if you’re like me, you just do not care because the sheer scale of awesome is too enjoyable to pass up. When you can pull off large-scale and imaginative action that manages to also maintain a strong sense of fun, then you’ve landed upon something special. The previous Fast films have been able to maintain that giddy high for a more sustained period of time, but I cannot deny that the same thrills and over-the-top pleasure is present with Furious 7.
A factor that added to my enjoyment is that Furious 7 never dawdles or dwells too often during its 137-minute running time, save for an extended resolution for Walker. This has never really been a franchise that has soared on the strength of its characterization. Seven movies in, I still don’t really care for any of the characters except for The Rock and that’s mostly because he’s The Rock. I was happy that the film was always active to distract me from how one-dimensional and boring most of these characters are, even the villains. Statham (The Expendables) is the best villain the franchise has had so far but even he seems to be stuck in a lesser gear, failing to capitalize on all his abilities with a car chase franchise. The Rock vs. Statham fight shatters all breakable furniture within near proximity, but you still suspect it should be better given the participants. Djimon Hounsou (Guardians of the Galaxy) is wasted as a number two villain who mostly just shouts orders for people to fire weapons, and martial arts superstar Tony Jaa is definitely wasted as a number three villain, an elevated henchman with too few opportunities to bust a move. MMA fighter Ronda Rousey appears briefly as an Abu Dhabi security chief. She performs well, pummeling Michelle Rodriguez while in evening wear; however, you quickly realize that Rousey is not an actor. She’s no Gina Carano (Fast and Furious 6), and speaking of, when is this woman going to finally be cast as a super hero? She’s practically a living Wonder Woman anyway and she has that “it” factor.
When the movie tries to be dramatic, it starts to stall, which is probably why it relies mostly on platitudes about family (“I don’t got friends, I got family,” Dom says in a weird retort). Jordanna Brewster is once again written to the side as the Concerned Wife, and the movie still doesn’t seem to know what to do with the re-emergence of Rodriguez’s Letty character. She got her memory back in the previous film, but now she’s having trouble readjusting, but before this can develop into an actual plot she disappears again and then the big action just kicks in. There’s enough of a team built up to provide diversity, with Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson serving as comic backup. There’s a sense of camaraderie that doesn’t feel artificial, and the small moments together are perfectly nice, but thankfully the movie has the good sense to know what the audience is paying to see. It’s here for the fast car, eye-popping stunts, and gratuitously framed camera angles highlighting women’s derrieres (there are a lot of thongs in this movie).
With the specter of Walker’s passing, the movie also presents a ghoulish game of looking for the tricks to work around his untimely absence. Reportedly the actor had filmed “most” of the movie and the remaining scenes, retooled after months of production being on hiatus, were completed by Walker’s brothers and some CGI sleight-of-hand. Perhaps I just have a more trained eye for spotting the cinematic wizardry, but by my judgment it sure didn’t feel like Walker was present for most of what was eventually used in the movie. I noticed a lot of wider shots and scenes where Walker is not facing the camera to speak or he’s at an odd angle. At no point did the movie become a strange uncanny valley experience of discomfort; movie productions have digitally attached faces before to other heads, notably for Oliver Reed in 2000’s Gladiator. If you’re not looking for it intently then it will all pass seamlessly. The film’s final ten minutes end up becoming an extended sendoff for the character of Brian, but really it’s the actors saying goodbye to their friend. It’s reverent and respectful and might be the most honestly emotional moment in the series history, which I know isn’t saying exactly much.
I mentioned Phillip Seymour Hoffman in my opening paragraph, and I don’t think anyone is going to confuse Walker for Hoffman in terms of acting talent, but that doesn’t negate or mitigate loss and grief. Personal confession: when I was writing for my college newspaper, I interviewed Walker over the phone for 2003’s Timeline, which if you haven’t seen it, and I’m assuming that’s the majority of readers, is a terrible movie. I’m not going to pretend I had any terrific insight into the man, but I found him to be a good guy with a level head who hadn’t let fame get the better of him. One could argue that the character of Brian was not significant enough in the context of a big, dumb action franchise to deserve this sort of emotional catharsis, but loss is felt, and Furious 7 has two missions: to entertain and to memorialize Walker. While the action as a whole is not up to the same caliber, it’s still plenty engaging and has enough of its characteristically dizzy thrills to be memorable and worth seeing on a large screen. On the second count, it lets Walker race off into the sunset in a way that feels appropriate, sincere, and without tipping over into complete melodrama. In that regard, this is the Fast and Furious movie that had the most to accomplish and it succeeds. It’s a near certainty that there will be a Fast and Furious 8, or a Furious 8, or a Fast 8, or whatever you call it, but for now it’s a chance to take a breath and add a dose of reflection for a series normally about the ridiculous.
Nate’s Grade: B
What happens if you make a Hercules movie but take out all the unique things that make the classic hero who he is? Would he still be Hercules? This question is at the heart of director Brett Ratner’s newest film, and it’s better than expected, which is a nicer way of also saying it’s not as bad as it looked like in its terrible cheesy advertising. It might be the most entertaining Brett Ratner film yet for what that statement is worth.
So, who is this Hercules? Besides looking like The Rock, he’s a mercenary who leads a band of warriors that are carefully left out of those widespread tales of his heroics and derring-do. Hercules’ nephew (Reece Ritchie) is the mouthpiece for the group, spinning the tales into epic poetry. There’s also a female archer, a sarcastic second-in-command good with throwing knives, an animalistic swordsman, and an older spearman (Ian McShane) who is given fleeting prophetic images, mostly about his own death. There’s a reason these people aren’t described much beyond their character-defining weaponry. This gang is hired by Lord Cotys (John Hurt) to protect his people from a Thracian warlord who rumor has it is a centaur. Could he be? Have you been paying attention?
Depending upon your tastes, you may either find this new approach refreshing or feel completely ripped off. It does seem that all of those cool glimpses of Hercules going through his grueling trials, fighting giant beasts, doing generally Herculean acts, well it was all comprised to the opening two minutes, which is why I feel no spoiler guilt over revealing the true nature of the movie. It’s not really a Hercules film. Yeah, The Rock is just about the closest living example of a modern Hercules (he shouldn’t have the hobo beard, though), but it’s in name only. Whether this is a stopping point is up to the viewer. It does seem like a disappointing bait-and-switch to tease out what promises to be an epic with giant mythological beasts, and I feel like the audience has every right to be irritable they have been denied this. But if you move beyond this legitimate gripe, the resulting movie is actually serviceably entertaining, which again sounds like a backhanded compliment unless you remember how truly lousy it looked from its initial goofy trailer.
The plot is predictable at every step of the way, except one character I swore was going to be a backstabber due to pigeonhole casting surprised me when they turned out to just be another underdeveloped yet loyal sidekick. Other than that, and I apologize for the vagueness of that sentence, this is a movie you can accurately predict without having to even watch it. The mercenaries are hired for a cause, perhaps they’ll start feeling differently about what they’ve been called in to do, get more involved, and then oh no, perhaps the heroes and villains were all mixed up after all. The plot structure is at its most simplistic (mild spoilers, but really, come on): Act 1 break – they take the mission. Act 2 break – oh no, the guy was bad all along and they’ve been working for the wrong side. Act 3 is then essentially battle and vengeance against the true villains. There’s almost an admirable efficiency to its formula plot mechanics, including the tortured hero back-story over his slain family and the forced reveal of who was behind said slain family being slain. If you don’t want to overwhelm your brain, then Hercules will do.
Free of the rigors of being original or complex, the movie is open to accomplish its minimal goals of entertainment, and to this end I would call the movie a mild success. The action is involved just enough to keep things interesting, especially when Hercules and his battalion are beset on all sides by green-skinned guys who, for whatever reason, hid in holes in the ground. There’s a primal joy watching The Rock carry around a giant Captain Caveman-style club and gleefully beat people with it, especially when the recipients fly like 30 feet in the air. There’s a pleasure to be had with a stripped down and somewhat dumb action flick where everyone is running around in leather or loincloths. The action is more Hercules by way of Conan the Barbarian but without the monsters and sorcery. There’s a fun running gag where McShane’s character keeps thinking he’s come to his final moment, the death that has been prophesied, only to be denied it time and again, causing some slight frustration on his part. The pacing is also swift enough that you won’t be bored for long periods of time.
But at its heart, this is still a rather block-headed action film with questionable choices. While scrubbing the supernatural elements from the story, this still exists in the unbelievable world of Movie Land where the good guys can do anything. The archer never runs out of arrows. The good guys never miss. At one point, Hercules topples a 100-foot tall marble statue like he’s Samson. So even though it wants to be a more grounded take on the legend, it’s still filled with all that silly impossible action movie stuff we see all the time. Then there are just small impractical things that exist only for the fact that someone thought it looked cool. There’s a secondary villain (Peter Mullan!) who prefers to use a whip made of a spinal cord. This can work in one-on-one confrontations but in the open field of battle, with men churning all around, it seems like a rather poorly ineffective weapon. Lastly, there’s a trite message about the power of believing yourself. See, Hercules needs to believe he’s a worthy hero and he’ll rise to the occasion. All you have to do is believe in yourself and anything can happen… if you happen to be The Rock or look approximately like him.
This new spin on one of the oldest heroes is generally entertaining, that is, if you can accept the bait and switch of its premise, robbing Hercules of his godlike abilities. It’s like doing an action movie about Greek mythology but taking out all the mythology and just having a bunch of dudes poking each other with spears and swords. Actually, it’s exactly like that. With Ratner at the helm, you know there’s going to be a ceiling, but the film is so unabashedly clear with its simple intentions that I found it hard to grumble, and so just soaked up an average action adventure with one of the genre’s best leading men. As far as summer action vehicles go, it’s got just enough going for it, but see all the other good films first. Make a list. Check it twice.
Nate’s Grade: B-