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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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Ready Player One (2018)

Ready Player One was a best-selling book that established a future world built upon the pop-culture artifacts of the 1980s, a future that celebrates and looks back to the past, to a halcyon childhood of classic and not-so-classic video games, movies, comics, and music. It was no surprise that author Ernest Cline’s novel would become a success, as we’ve been in a full-blown 80s nostalgic renaissance for quite some time now. When living legend Steven Spielberg got aboard as director, it seemed like fate. As a non-reader, my worry was could the big-budget, Hollywood version of this movie, lead by a Hollywood master, be more than the sum of its parts, more than the nostalgia and pop-culture references? I feared the finished product would be Avatar meets VH1’s I Love the 80s (“Hey, remember that thing? We do too.”). My fears were overblown, but then so is Ready Player One a bit, an entertaining vision that glides by with little else but vigor.

In the future, most of humanity spends their days living out fantasies and dreams in the Oasis, a virtual reality hub with different worlds, games, and features, allowing players to design their own avatars and their own adventures. The Oasis was created by Halliday (Mark Rylance), a reclusive genius who also programmed a contest upon his death. Whoever finds three hidden keys would win ownership of the Oasis. Wade (Tye Sheridan) is a regular kid living in Columbus, Ohio (woot, represent!) but when he’s in the VR world he’s Parzival, a more confident and assertive player. He’s fascinated and intimidated by Artemis (Olivia Cooke), a fierce competitor who brushes aside others. Together they team up to thwart the evil corporation IOI (Innovative Online Industries) run by Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). They want to own the Oasis, riddle it with ads and product placement, and restrict the freedoms to a lucrative caste system. Parzival and Artemis must find the keys, stay ahead of IOI and their team of super players, and hide their real-world identities before they can be unplugged one way or another.

Ready Player One is a first-rate action spectacle from one of cinema’s masters of spectacle. Spielberg unleashes his incredible imagination with the full-force of a pretend world where any thrill-seeking adventure can happen. You can feel his genuine sense of joy at getting a chance to play in such a big world where anything is possible. This is best encapsulated with a race that challenges all laws of physics and good sense. The obstacles are extreme and as the cars careen into one another, King Kong trounces the track, and various nasty surprises await, it becomes a propulsive, thrilling, and ridiculously entertaining set piece. The last time I can recall a Spielberg film feeling this downright fun, first and foremost, was perhaps 2011’s Tin Tin, an underrated adventure. Spielberg has a delightful comic touch when it comes to constructing creative and satisfying action set pieces, laying the foundation for future payoffs and complications. There’s an extended sequence where the players have to infiltrate the Overlook hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and it’s glorious. It’s the most sustained pop-culture reference and nostalgia point, but it actually lines up cleverly with a mission goal. The overpowering flurry of pop-culture references I was worried about never come to much more than momentary visual signifiers (“Look, he’s driving the car from Back to the Future. Look, he’s got the Holy Hand Grenade.”). You don’t need the background to enjoy the film, and the references are just a bonus for those nostalgic aficionados in-the-know. It rises above the hefty anchor of nostalgia to tell its own story on its own epic terms.

With that being said, Ready Player One is also little more than its eye-catching spectacle. There’s very little substance here to be had. The film is 140 minutes long and feels breathless, allowing nary a moment to catch contemplate, deepen the characters, or explore the outside world in greater detail. The movie is packed with expository plot beats about the inner workings of the Oasis and every time it hops to a new level it resets and we have to learn more rules and surprises. It kept me entertained, don’t get me wrong, but when you come out the other end you can look back and see little. It’s a thrill ride first and foremost but one that feels entirely ephemeral. There’s so little to hold onto that generally matters. It’s the film equivalent of fast food, a tasty jaunt but something not exactly made from the best ingredients. It even takes that’s 80s pop-culture appreciation and transforms into feeling like an 80s movie, complete with an ending where even the bad guy gets his just deserts in a comical low-stakes way. We’re watching a bunch of teenagers fight against The Man taking control of their play space and corporatizing it. That feels like the VR equivalent of, “We gotta save the rec center from those evil land developers who just don’t get the communal power of art, man.”

I didn’t really get a sense of any of the characters and it felt like the “be whoever you want to be” freedom of the Oasis could have been better employed. Take for instance Artemis, who in real life is Samantha and has a blotchy birthmark on her face. I understand that she’s self-conscious about the mark but she still looks like Olivia Cooke (a pretty girl with a birth mark still looks like a pretty girl). The romantic relationship between Parzival and Artemis feels like user projection, falling for the cool, kickass gamer girl. She rightly retorts, “You think you’re in love. You don’t know me, only what I show you.” This stand for female agency regrettably melts away and Artemis/Sam fall into that familiar dance of emotions. The side characters feel more like second or third tier team members on a spy mission, offering little variance. I didn’t really get a sense of any of the central characters from a personality standpoint except for their loving appreciation of pop-culture, which is then morphed into a pop-culture artifact itself. The larger mystery of Halliday’s past regrets is rather predictable and amounts to little more than “seize the day,” which is also a pretty 80s message if you think about it.

Another aspect hampering the impact is the dire lack of stakes. As far as I can tell, the biggest loss the players experience is their in-game credits and achievements. They may have spent months or years accumulating those, but if they were to disappear there’s no real larger harm to anyone. It’s a mere inconvenience, the same thing with dying in the game. I was waiting for another step where dying in the game would translate into the real world (“You die in the game, you die for real!”). They even introduce a fancy VR suit you can wear to literally feel the action of the game, though why anyone would want to feel the pain inflicted via a video game is beyond me (the pleasure I can understand). When we watch characters fight against incredible odds, the most that’s at stake is having to regenerate at a different location and get back into battle. It makes the struggle feel less realized and certainly less substantial. It plays into the already ephemeral spectacle. I heard from my seat neighbor, who had read Cline’s novel, that (book spoilers) one of the players is killed by the evil corporation by finding out where he lives and throwing him out a building. The movie needed a moment like that. Imagine, Sorrento being confronted by Parzival and friends, and he points to one and says, we know where you live, we’re breaking down the door now. The guy turns around, hearing the sounds coming from his real-life environment. Then Sorrento gets a radio call about breaching the room and a gun is placed against the character’s head. His scream is cut short as the sound of a gunshot echoes and his avatar disappears. Then Sorrento points to the remaining players and says we know where each of you live. That scene would have raised the stakes for the final act, not to mention be a sly nod to The Matrix. Unfortunately, even when the bad guys are trying to kill people, the stakes feel small.

I think part of the lower stakes is also because we never get a clear sense of life outside the Oasis. If just about every human being is wired into this VR world, how is all that electricity being generated to power this experience? What is the economy of this world? What do people do to subsist in their homes? Is money related to in-game achievements? These loyalty pods, which are essentially a twenty-first century debtor’s prison that profits off virtual slave labor, how are they legal? What exactly is the legal system like in this world? Also, we see people running outdoors with their VR helmets on. Won’t they run into traffic or a building or some kind of obstruction? I never understood how this world operated. Perhaps that’s the reason Spielberg spent a solid 75 percent in the Oasis, keeping our minds occupied with shiny things before we can begin to question.

Sheridan (Mud) is a handsome and likeable leading man, though he just came from another movie where he wears a visor over his eyes (X-Men: Apocalypse). He leaves enough of a favorable impression to make you wish he had more going on. The same with Cooke (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) who plays the spunky, spiky love interest and experienced gamer girl. It’s a role that Cooke performs nonchalantly, evoking the ethos of being enviably cool and thus desirable to legions of gamer boys. Cooke is capable of much more, as evidenced recently by her phenominal performance in Thoroughbreds, but I’m happy that she’s getting a big platform and from Spielberg too. The other castmates add a needed sense of diversity to this future world, though I was wondering why the pop-culture references were almost entirely American. Surely Halliday would have been the kind of guy that was entranced by the gee-whiz cool artifacts of other cultures like Japan. The best actor is Mendelsohn (Rouge One) who seems to be carving out a fine career in Hollywood movies as an officious middle-manager villain. He’s the right kind of slimy while still being weak at his core that fits so perfectly for these kinds of roles. Sorrento also employs a fierce female enforcer (Killjoy’s Hannah John-Karmen) with some sharp bangs who reminded me of Luv from Blade Runner 2049. Even more 80s-ness!

With Spielberg at the helm, it feels like he’s the perfect person to bring Ready Player One to the big screen considering he’s one of the biggest progenitors of our 80s nostalgia. It’s a loving homage to pop-culture without being suffocated by the cumulative artifacts of pop-culture. It’s a rousing, imaginative adventure with some terrific special effects and stunning action set pieces. It’s an enjoyable trifle of a movie, lacking larger substance, characterization, and sustainable stakes. It feels too light, but then maybe that’s another argument for its adherence to the feel of 80s movies, where problems could be solved with dance-offs or choice montages set to Jefferson Starship. Ready Player One should delight fans of the book and even those ignorant of all its myriad references. Whether audiences cherish this alongside those keepsakes of the past is another matter.

Nate’s Grade: B

Tomb Raider (2018)

Lara Croft was best known for her exaggerated physical assets (rendered as Madonna-worthy pointed polygons) and short shorts than as any sort of character. She was realized on the big screen in 2001’s Tomb Raider as an elite physical specimen portrayed by Angelina Jolie, where the filmmakers went the added step of padding Jolie’s bosom to better reflect the source material’s image. The filmmakers literally thought this aspect would be make-or-break with fans, as if Jolie herself was not naturally vivacious enough. As you can imagine, Lara Croft was primarily seen as a sexy avatar, whether on the small screen or the big screen. This new Tomb Raider aims to better ground its story, tone, and central heroine, and it mostly succeeds. This is a solid, pleasantly enjoyable mid-tier action movie that might also qualify as the best video-game-to-film adaptation so far (sorry Uwe Boll).

Lara (Alicia Vikander) is struggling in the wake of her father’s (Dominic West) disappearance. It’s been years but she holds onto hope that dear old dad is still out there. One day, she discovers her father’s secret study and a video message he recorded confessing why he left. He’s seeking a fabled tomb on a hidden island off the coast of Japan, a tomb devoted to a powerful goddess of myth who sacrificed her admirers. Also looking for the tomb is Vogel (Walton Goggins) and a team of armed mercenaries. Lara must stay ahead of the mercenaries, find her father and the long-lost hidden tomb.

This is a Lara Croft stripped down and absent the male gaze, which has defined her travails just as much as the treasure hunting adventures. There’s not a single shot in the movie that seeks to ogle Vikander’s lean body. Even her outfit, as mentioned a staple of Croft’s early appeal, is a modest take top and khakis. The emphasis this time is on what she endures and overcomes rather than the curvature of her body. This is an attempt at an origin tale, rebooting Lara for a new generation of fans. She’s less the cool buxom sexpot with the twin pistols than a struggling young woman facing her fears. This is the first time Lara Croft has been envisioned as a character. There’s a level of broader realism that the movie holds onto, positioning this Croft as less the gun blazing super cool badass and more as a stealthy, plucky, and scrappy figure of moderate action. There are moments where she hides and moments where she runs, as they are the best recourse. She’s not imposing in her build and poise like a Gina Carano (Haywire) but Vikander’s got some serious moves. With all that in mind, let’s not get too carried away here. Lara Croft may have some extra dimensions but she’s not exactly a fully formed, three-dimensional character or boasting the kind of magnetic personality that drew us to Indiana Jones or even a Nathan Drake. She’s capable but also limited in interest and charisma.

The action is invigorating enough and given a clear scope of play. Norwegian director Roar Uthaug (The Wave) orchestrates the action in clean long shots and precise edits, allowing the audience a clear sense of what is happening. A frantic bicycle chase and foot chase in the first act are given extra vitality by a roaming camera that takes in the full view. There’s enough variety in the action and natural consequences to keep things interesting. This is a movie that doesn’t feel overpowered with CGI, even though I know it’s present. Uthaug makes a point of emphasizing practical effects and sets, which adds a further level of realism to the excitement. I’d call it a more pared down, realistic version of an action adventure but it still has outlandish set pieces like Lara finding refuge atop a crumbling WWII era bomber that just so happens to be wedged atop a rock face overlooking a steep waterfall. Even during these moments, and the last act takes place almost entirely within the ancient tomb and its traps, the movie keeps things relatively credible. It’s fun without being too flippant and serious enough without losing its sense of amusement. Tomb Raider reminded me a lot of a big-screen version of an Uncharted game, a rollicking adventure that also feels rooted in our own world, but with a hint of the supernatural creeping along the edges. The conclusion has a few nice surprises following this pattern even with the possibility of actual zombies emerging.

Vianker (The Danish Girl) acquits herself nicely in the realm of action-adventure. She gained twelve pounds of muscle and has a pretty impressive six-pack. Vikander is a smaller actress by nature but the filmmakers do a fine job of placing her in believable action scenarios that rely upon her athleticism. Her Lara is a stubbornly independent protagonist who refuses to give up, which makes her a winning force even when her personality fails to sufficiently light up the screen. Vikander hurls herself into the role, performing an impressive array of stunts, and yelping along to the genre demands.

There are some plot holes that are hard to ignore, mostly pertaining to motivations. In the first act, we learn tat Lara is heir to a vast fortune of money and a big company that owns many other subsidiaries. However, she refuses to essentially inherit the company because it means having to sign papers declaring her missing father as deceased. I understand the character’s rejection of wanting to accept her father’s death, but when taken to this extent it becomes almost comical. Lara is seen scraping by for enough money to survive on her own. She’s forced to pawn her heirlooms and work as a bicycle messenger. She’s struggling to get by and yet her pride is standing between her and a massive fortune. This is just stupid. What’s to stop Lara from signing the paperwork, inheriting the fortune, and using said fortune to continue the search for her father? There’s also the motivation of her absentee father, who left to thwart the bad guys from finding the special tomb. However, he inadvertently leads them there because he was tracked. Had he not even left, the bad guys would not have found the island’s location and he could have been in Lara’s life. This is transparent potting to simply move the pieces across a board. Another example is Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) a ship captain ally she picks up that serves no real purpose other than ferrying her to the island. One character that benefits from motivation is the villain, Vogel. He’s not some mustache-twirling rogue but rather a guy hired for a job that wants to go home and see his kids again. It’s a nice, empathetic touch that makes Vogel grounded and a better fit.

Tomb Raider is a smaller, leaner, and enjoyable little action movie of modest ambitions. That sounds very conditional, I’ll admit, but it’s a scaled-down version of an exaggerated character doing splashy, sexy, exaggerated action heroics. It’s a stripped down reboot that grounds the action while still finding enough ways to have fun. It does get a little caught up in the edicts of an origin tale, overpowering moments with “First” significance (First Adventure, First Kill, First Fight, etc.). There are also some head-scratching plot holes that get glossed over to keep things moving along. Vikander is one tough cookie, and the film celebrates her brains as well as her brawn and absent any ogling camerawork. Tomb Raider is a suitably exciting action film that gives some hope for future Croft adventures.

Nate’s Grade: B

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

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+

Elle (2016)

elle_ver2It’s been a long time since director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers) has directed a movie, a whopping nine years since Black Book (my favorite title is the original Dutch – Zwartboek). In fact Elle is only the second movie of Verhoeven’s since 2000’s Hollow Man. Cinema needs more movies from men like Verhoeven. He’s famous for his penchant for camp and over-the-top violence and sex, but it’s his subversive streak, dark satire, and willingness to push an audience into squirmy situations that are missed most. Elle is a hard movie to describe and a hard movie to sell. It’s an uncomfortable viewing and that’s much of the point that Verhoeven wants to push the viewer into an uncomfortable world of a woman who makes others uncomfortable.

Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is a middle-aged professional woman who, in the opening scene, is raped on the floor of her home by a masked intruder. She tries to brush off the attack, refusing to report it and go to the police. She returns to her normal routine, which involves berating the employees at the video game company she runs, having an affair with her best friend’s husband, and asserting barely passive-aggressive control over her ex-husband and her adult son. Once Michele starts receiving taunting messages from her assumed attacker, she assess who in her life’s orbit may have been her rapist and how best to unmask their identity. There’s also the matter of vengeance.

elle-isabelle-huppertElle starts as a sneaky who-dunnit mystery and then blossoms into an engaging character study. Our first image of Michele is lying on the floor and being sexually violated by her attacker. It’s harrowing and upsetting and your sympathy instantly allies with the victim. However, the rest of the movie does not portray Michele with even the faintest glow of a halo. She’s a venom-spewing bully who sabotages the happiness of others around her and is having an indifferent affair with the husband of her best friend. Michele also runs a video game company that profits from the exaggerated sexual violence of the video game industry. She even lectures a programmer that the distressed cries of a rape victim should be louder and more orgasmic. Everything after the initial rape scene makes us question whether this character is worthy of our sympathies, and then that makes us question whether we should be ashamed to deny a rape victim sympathy at even a basic human level of empathy. There’s a happy moment where everything appears relatively settled, and she just can’t help herself and has to sabotage it with real ramifications with someone she genuinely cares for. It’s just her nature. It’s a complex crucible of self-reflection and it makes the movie an intriguing a unique experience to sit through.

About the half-hour mark, Michele becomes even more absorbing, and that’s when it’s revealed she’s the daughter of a notorious serial killer. As a young girl, she “assisted” her maniac father dispose of bodies into a large fire, and a picture of her looking dead-eyed and covered in ash is famous in French culture. There’s a lingering question of what her culpability was. As soon as this connection was revealed, my interest in Elle increased two-fold. It explains why she felt she couldn’t go to the police because she didn’t want the exposure, and certainly there would be a bitter few saying she got some sort of cosmic justice. Her relationship with her elderly and ailing father becomes its own mystery, and I started looking for parallels between Michele’s relationship with her father and her relationship with her screw-up adult son. Was she manipulating him like her father had done to her? Is her son’s penchant for not fitting in the adult workforce a sign of something more troubling? Is his temper and possibility for violence a hidden bomb thanks to grandpa’s DNA? I was even more observant and looking for connections.

The problem Verhoeven’s movie is that its story engine only takes you about two acts forward. From early on, the two things hanging over Michele are the prospect of finally coming face-to-face with her father one last time and discovering the identity of her rapist. Verheoven plays into the mystery thriller elements by populating Michele’s world with suspects that could secretly be her attacker. There’s the guy at her job that seems to loathe her and find her unworthy of her position. There’s the guy at work that has a little too close of an affection for her. There’s her friend’s husband, angered by being rebuffed when Michele ends their unfulfilling affair. There’s her neighbor’s husband who Michele covets and fantasizes over, who seems aware of Michele’s feelings. As the plot progresses and her attacker sends more messages, we get clues to the identity and who among our band of suspects is eliminated from contention. Then we find out and the movie has like a solid half hour left. That’s because the movie goes in an unexpected direction but one that makes enough sense knowing Michele as a character. Not all of the storylines hold the same level of interest, like Vincent’s one-note baby mama (Alice Isaaz), though you do understand why he might be attracted to abrasive women. The same with Michele’s mother (Judtih Magre) who seems too comically wacky as a sugar momma. Not all of the characters in the story’s sphere are worthy of the attention they receive, however, how Michele responds to them is worth our attention. The other storyline, a sense of closure with her father, is resolved around the same time in another unexpected manner. It’s a bit deflating and after both mysteries are resolved the movie feels like it’s abandoned its sense of direction. You’re waiting for the film to wrap up any moment but it keeps going, a tad too long at 130 minutes. It’s a small grievance but I definitely started feeling a sense of impatience during the final twenty minutes.

There’s a surprising amount of dark humor to be had with Michelle’s caustic view of other people and her genial manipulation of others. There’s an award and dark comedy that comes from the interactions, which seems counterproductive or downright tonally unforgivable given the above admission of how rape-y the film comes across. It’s a squirming comedy, the kind that makes you laugh under your breath to break the tension of people behaving badly. Even the prospect of laughing given the serious subject matter somehow makes the film even more uncomfortable. The older ladies behind me in my theater were already chattering about how Elle was not one of the better movies they’ve come to see. To be fair this was after like the fourth rape scene.

Huppert (Amour, The Piano Teacher) is in every scene of the movie and she unleashes a performance destined to leave you talking. She’s 63 playing 50, which is usually the opposite of how Hollywood movies operate (if the women are even allowed to get to 50). Michele is a beautifully flawed and complicated canvas and Huppert seems to relish in her brusquely dismissive demeanor. She’s constantly testing the people in her world, mostly men, and sizing up the women. There’s a reason that she seems to revel in stomping out the happiness of the men around her whether it be an ex-husband, her oafish son, the husband of her best friend she’s having an affair with. Michele refuses to be defined by her trauma but she is still processing that, and Huppert is agile at showing the cracks in Michele’s armor to provide clues as to what is most important. She doesn’t care what we think of her and that adds a thrilling quality to an already bracing performance.

isabelle-huppert-en-elle-_816_573_1411039Does the movie cross a line into being tawdry exploitation? Because of the nature of its storyline and the past films of its director, it would be easy to slap the title of high-dross exploitation film onto Elle, but I don’t know if it applies fully. I cannot think of a more rape-y movie that I have ever seen. Full trigger warning to those out there, there are like six different rape scenes in the movie, though some of them are fantasy and some of them are violent role-playing, but all of them are disturbing. At its core, Elle is about power and even though our opening impression of Michele is one of victim it’s a title she does not want. She is seeking to punish her rapist, and when the identity is revealed, she transforms the power dynamic and reclaims a sense of her sexual autonomy. Does consenting to abuse and enjoying it undercut the abuser’s power or reconfirm it? I can’t say whether this is any less exploitative than say 1974’s The Night Porter, another movie about trauma where the victim and victimizer indulge in an unhealthy sexual relationship that blurs the lines between sadomasochistic role-playing and fetishizing personal abuse. I feel like there’s enough substance in the characterization and the wide berths that Verhoeven allows free of judgment to classify Elle as more than exploitation, or to classify it as a reclamation of the exploitation film, an exercise akin to what it feels like Michael Haneeke (The White Ribbon, Funny Games) does that I inevitably can’t stand.

I can’t quite grasp what about Elle spurred Verhoeven out of a nine-year absence from filmmaking (he experimented with a 53-minute farce in 2012 whose script was crowdsourced, so I’m discounting that). On the surface, I would make the connections to the film’s extreme sex and violence, staples of Verhoeven’s Hollywood career. But that’s too easy, and there’s no shortage of extreme sex and violence in other stories. What was it about Elle that drew the Dutch filmmaker out of seclusion? I think it was another opportunity to be subversive, this time in the realm of art-house French cinema. Verhoeven has always enjoyed proving people wrong, exploring our baser instincts, and telling damn fine entertaining movies for adults. His subversive streak is renewed with a rape thriller that also happens to be an incisive character study of a very nasty woman who had something very nasty done to her. Audience loyalties and sympathies are consistently in tumult, shifting and being tested by new information and the mounting evidence of Michele’s treatment of others. Huppert gives a calculated, fierce performance right down to the end, pushing the audience into more uncomfortable reflection and uncomfortable laughter in the face of despair. I think this is why Verhoeven hopped back into the director’s chair and even re-learned French so he could communicate with a French film crew. He wanted to push an audience, upending their expectations about power, sex, and subjugation. Elle is downright elegant as it goes about its business, the business of forcing viewers to think critically and question their personal discomfort. It’s not exactly an easy movie to watch at times but it is a hard movie to forget.

Nate’s Grade: B

Warcraft (2016)

Warcraft_Teaser_PosterIt’s been a long five years since we last saw a movie directed under the name Duncan Jones. He’s not just the son of David Bowie (R.I.P.) but also a talented and nimble director of science fiction thrillers with a rewarding intelligence and visual acumen. Moon and Source Code are two strong entries for anybody’s resume. After flirting with Hollywood franchises for a while, Jones latched onto a personal project, spearheading a Warcraft film adaptation based upon the popular online multi-player role-playing game that boasts over 12 million subscribers. Jones has gone on record saying he is a Warcraft player himself. He co-wrote the script and embarked on a long development process working with heavy use of special effects and actors in motion capture to bring to life the otherworldly fantasy races. It’s been a tumultuous road for the expensive final product, and Warcraft, as a movie, is proof that some concepts are best left to your home computer.

The orc race is in need of a new home because their old world is dying. Their leader, a wizard named Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), uses magic to open a portal to the peaceful world of Azeroth. The orcs invade and plunder although one orc, Daruton (Tony Kebbel), is wary of the motives of his leaders. He’s looking for stability rather than constant conquering. He finds an unlikely ally with Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), a human warrior serving King Wrynn (Dominic Cooper) and his sister, Lady Taria (Ruth Negga). The humans seek help from their own wizard, the Guardian Medvih (Ben Foster). Someone must be collaborating with the orcs to allow the inter-dimensional portal to open. Medvih’s apprentice, the mage Khadgar (Ben Schentzer), teams up with Lothar to investigate and find a way to thwart the oncoming orc invaders.

warcraft-2016-image-gallery-ogrim-robert-kazinskyUnless you are a fan well versed in the lore and characters of the popular online game, Warcraft will leave you sputtering to construct cohesion from what seems like a lot of incidents without explanation, connective tissue, and a compelling reason to engage with this fantasy trope mess. It felt like every third page of the screenplay was ripped out of the shooting script; things merely just happen without proper setup and development. All of a sudden this character will be evil, or that character will have some prized piece of knowledge, or these two characters will be a romantic item. Things just happen in this movie and they are far too rarely given the context necessary to matter. This is less a story than a collection of ideas scattered onscreen. Take for instance our protagonists, or what you would assume are the protagonists, a pair of capable warriors trying to prevent mass causalities on both sides of the human/orc war. Except the orc character never really translates as an effective parallel to his human counterpart. You would naturally think they would be equal in significance as they try and steer their two warring sides to making less destructive decisions. I can’t tell you anything about the worlds we’re spirited to and from. We got elves and dwarves and mages and wizards and portals and dark magic and good magic and guns that feel entirely out of place in this universe and all sorts of names we’re expected to keep up with. There is little that leaves an impact, and after a while the movie ends up becoming the metaphorical equivalent of cartoon characters that run in place while the interchangeable backgrounds alternate behind them. Besides the fact that sometimes a guy wears a crown to help you realize he’s king, or a guy flashes a ball of energy in his hand, you’re left on your own to interpret the characters and why they are meaningful. The plot is simple, orcs versus humans and bad warmongering leaders at fault, but it’s the deluge of underdeveloped characters, subplots, and world building that make what was once simple hard to understand. I couldn’t tell you why anything was happening. There is no way the casual moviegoer will be able to keep up with the speed that Warcraft hurls information at them without careful setup and meaning. You need an instruction guide to make this stuff accessible.

Fantasy is a naturally transporting genre of storytelling but unless you actually develop and explain the worlds, the inhabitants, and perhaps some of the cultures, you’re destined to feel like a stranger bumbling through a most foreign and unfriendly place. Warcraft does a terrible job of making its worlds feel lived in, never mind accessible. Every new location should tell us more about the world and its characters, their interactions and conflicts, differences and similarities. This is just bad storytelling, people. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where any of these locations are because they don’t impact the plot. The only story is about the conflict between the orcs and humans, but this could happen anywhere. There are some “important” characters on both sides of this battle but good luck trying to engage with any of these characters. The human characters are bland. I didn’t care about anyone and gave up trying. Cooper and Negga are both considerably more entertaining and effectively utilized on AMC’s Preacher. It takes an hour just for Warcraft to finally establish the relationships between its various stock characters.

It’s the orc characters that showcase the most humanity, and credit goes more to the special effects artists and motion capture actors than the screenwriting. I appreciate how the movie devotes time to both sides of the conflict and finds figures of honor, and its best representation is Durotan. Kebbell seems like an actor who really feels a sense of freedom with mo-cap performances (he was excellent as the simian villain Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). I initially thought the creature design of the orc, what with their hulking underbites, was going to be hard to render emotive performances, but there were glimmers where you could witness the shadings of the actors beneath the underbites. It’s an impressive technical feat considering the obstacles that all parties had to overcome. Sadly, this only further exposes just how shoddy the storytelling is considering the technology was capable. Darotan is a loving husband and father who is leery of his leaders intentions, but this too is just a means to serve the ultimate ends of the plot. There isn’t a thoughtful moral anti-war argument to be had here. As a whole, the orcs are a rather personality-free race of creatures. Sure they talk a big game and have some curious decorative flourishes (tusk piercings!), but to this Warcraft layman, they come across like any other barbarian group. Early on I was mentally thinking of the Klingons from Star Trek and then I concluded that this was an inappropriate comparison because Klingons have memorable personality and culture.

garona-PP-header-3The actor who gets my greatest sympathy is Paula Patton (Baggage Claim) as the half-orc/half-human outcast, Garona. First of all, given the immense physicality of the orcs, I imagine any form of fornication with a human would prove highly fatal. It would be like an elephant mating with a labradoodle. Trapped between the two groups, Patton is painted green and given a lesser underbite that is reminiscent of snake fangs. When realized on an actual person, as opposed to a creation from the realm of computer effects, it’s not terribly convincing. Patton tries her best to speak all her gobbledygook lines of dialogue but the reverse vampire fangs make it awfully difficult for her to properly enunciate. She looks too ridiculous to be an effective character, and the fact that she is pushed into a romance with a human without any sense of setup beyond the universal law that pretty people should be together with pretty people is deflating. Why does the only female character of significance have to be shoved into a romantic subplot? Your poor poor jaw muscles, Paula Patton. At least you didn’t have to wear a metal bikini. Yet.

With all of this stated, Warcraft is not a horrible movie, and credit for that should go to Jones as a director. In the same token, Jones is also the co-writer so I guess he also deserves blame for the storytelling shortcomings. Jones very smartly limits his camera movements. Character will move within the frame but usually the camera point is fixed, which allows the focus to be more attuned to what exists within the frame. This is especially helpful during battles and with the multitude of CGI elements. This stylistic choice allows the film to be more visually immersive. The fighting sequences do get a tad repetitive as one guy with a sword or club runs at another guy. I saw Warcraft in 3D at my screening and I might actually recommend people see it this way, which is something I hardly ever do. It’s not that the 3D elements will compare to the experiences of modern standard-bearers like Life of Pi or Gravity, but it’s a pleasurable experience and the presentation of the visuals is crisp. I was worried about the usual effect of the glasses darkening the onscreen image and this was not the case at all. From a purely visual standpoint, Warcraft is worth watching at least once. The special effects vary between photo-realism and extended video game cut scene, but overall the visuals are colorful and fun and easy to discern. When the action heats up, you’ll be able to cleanly follow what is happening to whom. If only this same clean precision had been applied to the half-baked screenplay.

I will admit I have never played a single minute of the Warcraft game. I am not familiar with any of the worlds, characters, or races beyond what I have watched from other more popular fantasy films and series. I am not coming at this movie from the perspective of a fan who has been eagerly awaiting the holy grail of video game movies. If you’re willing to look past its flaws, mainly its bereft characterization and haphazard plotting, then I’m sure there is a forgivable and sporadically entertaining movie here. As a man who has reviewed over 20 films directed by notorious video game adapter Uwe Boll, this is no unbridled suckfest. However, it’s still too limited for its own good. The visuals can be immersive but the story is certainly not, and there are numerous points where the movie just actively forgets that an audience requires servicing. You need to introduce us to the characters, allow us to get a sense of who they are, their internal and external battles, their relationships with one another, their significance to the plot, and relevant history and culture as it relates to the larger story. In a rush to visit all the different game settings, the movie’s screenplay zips along when it should be building its narrative. At times it feels like a travelogue with very exotic locals. Warcraft is a repository of incidents and events, almost as if it were awaiting a user to plug in and control the storyline and provide the meaning. It’s no unmitigated disaster but I don’t believe this was worth the five-year price for Jones.

Nate’s Grade: C

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

Disney has taken plenty of drubbings with its non-Pixar animation output. They’ve all but abandoned traditional 2D animation, and the failure of The Princess and the Frog is unlikely to alter that decision-making. The Disney stand-alones have gotten better in quality; last year’s Tangled was well received and banked some nice dough. I expect Wreck-It Ralph to do even better. A film about the lives of video game characters seems ripe for a merchandizing bonanza, plus all the parents will need something to shut up their sweet little bundles of joy for two hours of relief.

Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the villain of a classic arcade game. He climbs a condo building, Donkey Kong-style, and smashes windows. Felix (Jack McBrayer) is the handyman the player controls, hopping from ledge to ledge fixing what is broken with his magic hammer. But Ralph is tired of always being the bad guy, getting hurled off the roof at the end of every game by the residents. He’s labeled as a “bad guy” but he doesn’t believe he’s so bad. To convince the townspeople of his game of his worth, Ralph abandons his game to seek a medal like what Felix earns at the end of every game. He trounces around an assortment of games, including a space Marine shoot-em-up led by the no-nonsense Calhoun (Jane Lynch), before landing in Sugar Rush, a girlie version of Mario Kart. Here he meets the rascally girl Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). She agrees to help Ralph get his medal if he’ll help her build a racing car and get her in the game. Vanellope lives on the run as a glitch in programming. The other game characters tell her she’s a mistake, but she knows she’s a racer at heart. Except without Ralph, Felix and the other game characters seem like they’re glitching. If they can’t get him back, they may lose their game and their home.

It’s essentially a Toy Story for gamers, discovering the hidden world of video games when nobody’s looking. There’s a great sense of fun and discovery learning about these characters and their worlds as well as what they do off the clock. I love the idea of a support group for video game villains coping with their lot in life. I feel like this could have been a movie unto itself and I would have been pleased. There are plenty of references to games from the 80s and 90s, before everything became an endless variation on first-person shoot and kill games of sport. Really the references are only going to work for former or current gamers in their 20s or 30s, maybe even 40s. Are teenagers even going to understand the famous Konami code or get the subway scrawl, “All your base are belong to us”? Heck, are teenagers even going to know what arcades are at this point? The cameos are kept to a minimum as we switch over to our main characters. Wreck-It Ralph isn’t as clever or groundbreaking as the Toy Story films, but it gets points for trying something different than most family films, which are content with the somehow irresistible combination of fart jokes and inappropriate pop-culture references. Even non-gamers will likely find something to enjoy with the movie. I’ve gone on record saying that there will likely never be a good video game movie. Allow me to amend that statement: there will never be a good movie BASED upon a video game.

Set in the world of video games is another matter. The animation style is very colorful and impressive, with some fun quirks to give the movie an extra dash of personality. I really enjoyed how the Weeble-like people in Ralph’s game move in staccato 8-bit style; a herky-jerky movement that left me smiling every time. The running jokes helped to turn a half-hearted gag into a thing of beauty, like Calhoun’s tragic bridal backstory. The antagonist of King Candy (voiced by an unrecognizable Alan Tudyk) proves to be more interesting than at first glance. The different game settings all have very different tones, allowing the movie to present a nice variety of visual imagery. Some of the more frenzied action of the “Hero’s Duty” game might scare young children. The animation looks wonderful and even the recreation of the graphically limited games is cause for some amusement. That’s probably the best word for Wreck-It Ralph; it’s routinely amusing and provides enough chuckles for me to mildly recommend to others. I would not, however, recommend seeing this movie in 3D. You would think a world of video games would be quite a boon in the extra dimension, but the 3D is hardly noticeable at all. This may be the worst 3D rendering of a major movie I’ve ever seen, and usually animated films are the best ones to see with 3D. Regardless, the substandard 3D won’t detract from what is an enjoyable theatrical experience.

What helps smooth over the film’s flaws is the presence of heart. Yes it too can get saccharine at turns, and that’s not a joke about Sugar Rush, but you’ll be surprised that by the end of the movie, you may actually be feeling things in your heart-space for these characters and their plights. Again, here is another 2012 movie that rips off the ending to the brilliant 1999 animated classic, The Iron Giant. Perhaps some of my emotional engagement is residual association from that masterpiece. If this is true, and Hollywood filmmakers have found the secret formula to make audiences feel emotions, then I await the onslaught of movies copying the ending to The Iron Giant (I won’t spoil it but for God’s sake, go out and see that movie). After about 30 minutes, the film really becomes a buddy picture between Ralph and Vanellope, outcasts from their games. Neither character is that deep, though perhaps that goes with the programming. They both are denied better lives because of others prejudices against them. When they join forces as a team to buck the establishment is when the movie finds a wealth of sweetness. While their character arcs will be completely predictable, from the misunderstanding and reconciliation, but that doesn’t mean it misses the mark. Their relationship, and the film’s simple goals, can get bogged down in the messy plot mechanics of the movie (there are a lot of rules to digest). The climax, though, is filled with all number of payoffs, some big some small, some you’d forgotten about; I’m genuinely impressed how smoothly the movie ties together storylines, finding a perfect return of the bad guy support group pledge to form an emotional peak.

There is a fun to be had and Wreck-It Ralph has enough colorful imagery to make your eyes glaze over. However, the story is a blend of familiar “be yourself” aphorisms given a retro polish. The motivation for Ralph, and Vanellope as well, is very flimsy, and the more time they repeat these miniscule goals (get a medal/compete in a race) the flimsier they become. Ralph is risking it all to get a medal because a shiny award is all it takes to convince the people in his game that he deserves better. The dubious logic seems pulled right out of a video game. There’s also a fair amount of messages about not being trapped by labels, breaking from the herd, believing in yourself, all those sorts of Disney beatitudes they’ve been dishing since the 90s. The plot also seems to fly well below its potential. We’re talking about a world of video games, and there’s a definite interest in seeing these realms mix and match. Unfortunately, the movie spends 2/3 of its running time in the candy-coated land of Sugar Rush. It’s here where Vanellope takes over the movie. Her relationship with Ralph works in fits and starts, and her annoyance level will vary sharply depending upon your tolerance index for Silverman’s baby-doll voice. Aside from a few retro cameos and puns, the humor is assuredly juvenile and filled with endless slapstick. Hope you like three minutes of “duty/doodie” jokes. You’re better than this, Wreck-It Ralph.

There’s one glaring plot hole that I feel deserves some deliberation. Throughout the film we glimpse Felix’s hammer magically fixing things that are broken. Just one whap and good as new. A late conflict arrives with the danger of the Sugar Rush game getting its plug pulled. The residents of the game could flee, but Vanellope would be stuck because she is a glitch, she cannot escape the game if it goes dead. Well couldn’t Felix use his hammer, tap Vanellope, and then “fix” her? To that end, what happens if the whole arcade goes out of business? We see the displaced game characters hang out at the surge protector, modeled like a train station. But what if that gets unhooked as well? How far can these guys run away to? They all seem inevitably doomed due to the dwindling business of arcades. Maybe somebody should start up a non-profit charity. Cue the Sarah McLachlan song (for just quarters a day, you can help a video game character in need…).

Colorful, vibrant, and occasionally witty, Wreck-It Ralph is Disney’s latest animated film to succeed with a solid formula of heart, attitude, and with an extra dash of nostalgia. I did enjoy the film but I always kept thinking there were so many better movies ready to be made given this setup. It does seem a little confused about who its audience is. It’s a bit too childish for grown-ups and a bit too plot-heavy and full of nostalgia for little kids. It packs a lot of jokes and plot into 108 minutes, which feels draggy at turns but flies by with enough spirit and energy that it’s hard to complain. Wreck-It Ralph is a perfectly entertaining movie that fits the definition of cute. It manages to make you care about the characters, which is a small miracle when you’re dealing with characters named Vanellope. Now that they’ve established this universe, hopefully Disney and the writers can expand their storytelling and really have fun with the possibilities at play.

Oh, and the short before the movie about a couple looking to find one another in the big city is rather cute though I liked it better before it went overboard with the supernatural.

Nate’s Grade: B

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