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Monday, May 7, 2018

FILM REVIEW OF ''RAMPAGE" (2018)


If you didn’t get your fill of colossal robots and chimerical lizards toppling Tokyo skyscrapers in “Pacific Rim Uprising,” you can find something similar in the predictable but winsome sci-fi, creature feature “Rampage” (*** OUT ****) where a gargantuan gorilla, a 30-foot wolf, and a leviathan-shaped alligator flatten Chicago.  Based loosely on Bally Midway’s 1986 video arcade game, this $120-million, Warner Brothers/New Line Cinema release qualifies as a big, dumb, demolition derby with sterling CGI galore.  Outrageously outlandish in every respect, this far-fetched fable benefits from the charisma of lead actor Dewayne Johnson and supporting star Jeffrey Dean Morgan.  Johnson’s commanding presence is literally ‘the Rock’ that allows us to treat “Rampage” as something more than just another paint-by-the-numbers extravaganza.  Johnson plays a primatologist who uses sign language to converse with a rare albino gorilla.  Morgan is cast as a good ole’ boy government trouble shooter.  As arch-villainess Claire Wyden, Malin Akerman infuriates these two, and she shows no qualms about genetic editing in lifeforms.  Owner of a billion-dollar biotech company, Wyden breaks the law without a qualm for her forbidden genetics experiments.  No, Marvel Studios isn’t the only company that has exploited genetic mutation to pump up their plots.  As this deafening, melodramatic, nonsense approaches its climax, the city of Chicago suffers another apocalypse like that in director Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Dark of The Moon.”  British actress Naomie Harris rounds out the cast as one of Claire’s disgraced researchers. 

“Rampage” opens in outer space on the Wyden space station Athena-1 where experiments have been performed on lab rats.  As the action unfolds, alarms throughout the space station send one technician, Dr. Kerry Atkins (Marley Shelton of “Planet Terror”), scrambling desperately for an escape pod.  A mutant rat that appears to be the size of a wild boar pursues her.  Claire Wyden locks down the mechanism which enables Atkins to open the door to the escape pod hatch.  While a succession of fireball explosions rocks Athena-1, Claire orders Atkins to retrieve several canisters holding a pathogen known as CRISPR.  According to the film’s preface: CRISPR is “a breakthrough new technology” used by scientists to “treat incurable diseases through genetic editing.”  If she refuses to obey Claire’s demands, Atkins will die aboard the disintegrating platform.  Although Atkins salvages enough canisters, the rat shatters the window in the escape pod door before it jettisons itself.  The craft explodes along with the space station.  Fortunately, for Claire, the canisters survive the deep-freeze temperatures of space, plunge through the atmosphere, and crash in different parts of the United States. 
At the San Diego Wildlife Preserve, an albino gorilla named George is the first animal to confront this pathogen.  George has been raised from infancy by muscle-bound primate specialist Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson of “Baywatch”), who rescued him from poachers that slaughtered his mom.  Of course, Okoye is no ordinary primatologist.  He has served in the U.S. Army Special Forces, knows how to wield weapons of any kind, and can fly a helicopter.  George grows several times his normal size, demolishes his enclosure, and is poised to flee when a mysterious chopper hovers nearby. A swarm of tranquilizer darts knock him off his knuckles.  No sooner has George collapsed than troops load him onto a military transport plane.  Former Wyden genetic engineer Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris of “Skyfall”), who had rushed to the wildlife preserve after learning about George, finds herself in the custody of OGA Agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of “Watchmen”) along with Okoye.  Russell reveals to Okoye that Claire Wyden fired Caldwell, and the former Wyden scientist served time in prison.  Okoye and Caldwell warn Russell that none of his safeguards will prevent George from escaping from the transport plane.

While George, Davis, and Dr. Caldwell are in flight, two other beasts encounter CRISPR canisters.  The second is a timber wolf that grows large enough to snag a helicopter in its jaws and destroy it.  This savage animal chews up a squad of heavily-armed mercenaries dispatched by Claire to trap it.  The last canister splashes down in the Everglades, and a random alligator crunches it.  Eventually, the gator swells to the size of a “Jurassic Park” dinosaur.  Shrewdly, Claire has devised a means to summon these genetic mutations to her laboratories in the company's Chicago, Illinois skyscraper.  George awakens in flight, destroys the transport plane, but miraculously survives the crash.  Like Tom Cruise and his leading lady in last summer’s horror adventure “The Mummy,” Davis and Caldwell seize parachutes and bail open, too.  Now, George and the wolf are scrambling to Chicago as well as the mutated gator.

“Rampage” marks the third collaboration between director Brad Peyton and Johnson. Earlier, they made “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” (2012) and then “San Andreas” (2015). If you’ve seen any of the recent alien invasion epics or Godzilla sagas, you can figure out easily what follows next in this rambunctious taleNaturally, the military responds with enough firepower to blast Chicago to kingdom come.  The trouble is, nothing slows down this indestructible trio.  Meantime, the FBI raid Claire’s offices, but she cooperates.  Unbeknownst to Uncle Sam, Claire has cleverly concealed her top-secret files.  She gets the surprise of her life when this monstrous trio wreaks havoc in the Windy City and scales her skyscraper to silence her homing beacon.  Dr. Caldwell and Davis aren’t far behind Wyden, and Caldwell locates the antidote that will save George.

Dewayne Johnson compensates for all the ersatz, ‘what-if’ science fiction nonsense with his affable personality. You’ll have more fun watching the Hawaiian hulk than the imposing monsters.  You’ll appreciate Johnson’s compassionate friendship with George that director Brad Peyton amplifies with comedy before disaster strikes.  Their friendship reminded me of the classic 1933 “King Kong” sequel “The Son of Kong.”  Unlike the other two mutated monsters, George never seems as pitiless and predatory. The CGI effects are virtually flawless, so the mutated alligator and the Tex Avery timber wolf appear sufficiently menacing.  “Rampage” ranks as rip-snorting enjoyment.

FILM REVIEW OF ''A PISTOL FOR RINGO" (Spanish/Italian-1965)

Writer & director Duccio Tessari, who co-scripted Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars," helmed this entertaining, above-average Spaghetti western, "A Pistol for Ringo," (***1/2 OUT OF ****) starring Roman actor Giuliano Gemma--billed here as Montgomery Wood—as the eponymous hero with perennial villain Fernando Sancho as his treacherous adversary. For the record, the profligate Sancho appeared in over 230 movies and basically played the same slimy Mexican outlaw in 35 westerns. Tessari penned a number of other Italian oaters including "Seven Guns for the MacGregors," "Return of Ringo" and "A Train for Durango." Tessari also worked on the Italian peplum--muscle man movies--before he embarked on these trigger happy westerns, most notably co-writing Sergio Leone's "The Colossus of Rhodes." In "A Pistol for Ringo," Tessari imitates American westerns more than his native variety. Gemma is a clean-cut, good-looking, well-dressed gunfighter who is too fast on the draw for his own good. At least twice in this lively horse opera, he guns down opponents in self-defense. The way that Ringo handles a six-gun, however, comes pretty close to murder. Moreover, Ringo is a wise-cracking gringo with a comeback line for everything. Indeed, the dialogue by Tessari and co-scenarist Alfonso Balcázar, who also knew his way around continental westerns with writing credits on "Nevada Clint," "Five Giants from Texas," and "$100-Thousand Dollars for Ringo," crackles with humor and imagination. Simply said, nothing about this hostage crisis western set in the arid Southwest that co-stars George Eastman, another Italian who made his share of Spaghettis, is half-baked.  Ennio Morricone composed the beautiful orchestral score and Morricone's magical music is far above what this violent western could have hoped for, especially the lyrical title tune about the wily protagonist.

The first time we lay eyes on our hero, Ringo (Giuliano Gemma of "Day of Anger"), he is playing hop-scotch with a bunch of kids in a village. Word has arrived that Ringo has been cleared of murder charges in the shooting death of another gunman, but the Benson brothers decide to make him pay for their brother's death. No sooner have they challenged Ringo—, who is also known as 'Angel Face,' —than he whips his six-shooter out of his waistband and blows all four of them away without wasting a shot. Indeed, like Clint Eastwood in "A Fistful of Dollars," Ringo doesn't wait for them to draw and only one of the Benson's clears leather with his revolver before he is shot dead. The sheriff (George Eastman of "Ben and Charlie") arrests Ringo and puts him in jail where our hero demands a glass of milk. Later, Ringo pours out liquor on the floor when he doesn't get his trademark glass of milk.

Meanwhile, Sancho (Fernando Sancho of "Mission Phantom") rides across the border alone only to be confronted by a couple of U.S. Cavalrymen who tell him to turn around and ride back across the Rio Grande. Sancho feigns ignorance and removes his sombrero in humility while the soldiers chew him out. Little to the troopers know that Sancho has taken his large hat off to hid his hand pulling his pistol out. He guns them down and his gang joins him in the border town where they shoot it up and rob the bank. During the hold-up, Sancho catches a bullet in the shoulder. The sheriff forms a posse to follow them and the villains hightail it out of town and ride to a sprawling ranch near the border. They take the owner, Major Clyde (Antonio Casas of "The Texican"), his pretty daughter Ruby (Lorella De Luca of "The Swindle"), and their servants and ranch hands hostage.

After the posse lays siege to them at the ranch, one character points out how impregnable the ranch is. "The walls are high and thick. You'd need a company of cavalry to attack it. Half of the soldiers would be killed in the charge." Nevertheless, the stalwart sheriff informs Sancho that his men and he are cornered in the ranch and there is no escape for them. The murderous Sancho responds, "Meanwhile, in case it takes you a while to make up your mind, we'll send out two dead men a day, one at dawn and one at sunset, first the ranch hands and last of all, the girl and her father." At the same time, the townspeople send for the U.S. Cavalry. They know Sancho by his reputation: "His favorite sport is shooting unarmed men, preferably in the back." Another posse man observes, "The only sure method to handling them is to slaughter them like cattle." The sheriff is bothered by Sancho's ultimatum. Particularly, the sheriff worries because Ruby is the love of his life and he doesn't want anything that might jeopardize her life. "If we could get a man inside the ranch," he opines, "we could help them to escape." Reluctantly, he approaches free-wheeling Ringo with a scheme that would see Ringo turned loose. Initially, Ringo is reluctant to help them. "Don't look for trouble," he points out, "It'll come by itself." Nevertheless, after the sheriff clears Ringo of the shooting death of the Benson brothers and the citizens grudgingly agree to 30 per cent as a reward for our hero, he agrees to help them. However, to establish his credentials as a villain, he has the sheriff and his posse pepper the air with bullets as he rides hell-bent-for-leather to the ranch. Once Ringo shows up, he operates on Sancho and removes the bullet. Ringo tells them about his predicament as well as their predicament and demands 40 per cent of the loot in exchange for getting them out of the ranch.

"A Pistol for Ringo" is head and hands above most generic spaghetti westerns. Director Duccio Tessari keeps things popping. Gemma is perfectly cast as the agile Ringo. The rugged Spanish scenery is gorgeous and the formulaic plot provides a couple of surprises.

Monday, April 9, 2018

FILM REVIEW OF ''MARSHALL" (2017)


Before he played the lead in Marvel Studios’ superhero sage “Black Panther,” actor Chadwick Boseman played a genuine African-American hero in “Boomerang” director Reginald Hudlin’s “Marshall,” a sterling biographical courtroom yarn about civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall.  As it turns out, this is the same individual who argued 32 cases before the Supreme Court and then later donned the robes as the first African-American to sit on the highest federal court of the United States.  It doesn’t hurt matters that seasoned civil rights advocate Michael Koskoff and his son Jacob penned the screenplay.  Interestingly, the elder Koskoff still serves as an attorney in Connecticut, where the trial took place in 1941, so he would know something about the hurdles that Marshall had to negotiate. At this point in his life, Marshall worked as the sole legal counsel for the NAACP, and his NAACP superior Walter White (Roger Guenveur Smith of “Eve’s Bayou”) dispatches him to all parts of the country to defend poor African-Americans who cannot afford an attorney.  

“Marshall” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) depicts the eponymous character as a sharp, savvy, sartorially elegant attorney who refuses to be intimidated by anybody.  Boseman has a field day incarnating this historical personage.  Neither Hudlin nor the Koskoffs reveal a great deal about Thurgood Marshall beyond his dedication to the rights of African-Americans in a legal system skewered heavily against them.  Indeed, we do learn about the problems that Marshall and his wife Vivien "Buster" Burey (Keesha Sharp of “Malibu's Most Wanted”) encountered in their repeated but futile efforts to get pregnant.  Eventually, she does have a baby.  Nevertheless, Hudlin and the Koskoffs don’t let Marshall’s own life history interfere with the trial at hand.  Mind you, “Marshall” clocks in two minutes short of two hours, but Hudlin doesn’t malinger.  The trial in question takes place in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The authorities have arrested a middle-aged, African-American chauffeur, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown of “Brown Sugar”), for allegedly raping an affluent Greenwich socialite, Mrs. Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson of “Deepwater Horizon”), and then throwing her into a reservoir late one evening.  According to Koskoff, when the press broke the story, one newspaper touted it as “the sex trial of the century.” When Marshall visits Spell in his jail cell, the attorney explains that the NAACP represents only innocent blacks. Spell assures Marshall that he did not rape Strubing.  Furthermore, he has an alibi for his whereabouts when the crime occurred, and the witness in question turns out to be a white policeman. 
As the case unfolds, Marshall realizes that he lacks the appropriate credentials to practice law in Connecticut, so he finds a gullible but willing Jewish insurance attorney, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad of “Pixels”), to help him represent Spell.  Friedman constantly has second thoughts about the trial and the dire publicity that may irreparably damage his budding civil practice.  Nevertheless, he agrees to serve as Spell’s mouthpiece.  Meantime, the abrasive Judge Foster (James Cromwell of “L.A. Confidential”) refuses to let Marshall utter a syllable during the trial and threatens to hold him in contempt if he does.  

Throughout the trial, Marshall must coach Friedman because the latter hasn’t argued a criminal case.  If these two strikes against our sympathetic, but snappy hero aren’t enough, Marshall discovers about half-way through the case that Spell has been lying to them.  Indeed, Spell didn’t rape Strubing!  Instead, he had intimate consensual relations with her, because her abusive, bad-tempered husband, John Strubing (Jeremy Bobb of “Boy Wonder”), often left her alone at night.  Naturally, Friedman struggles to improvise, but he falls into too many traps laid by prosecuting attorney Loren Willis (Dan Stevens of “The Guest”), who is supremely confident that he will triumph in the end with a conviction. Of course, the racist citizens of Bridgeport aren’t happy with both Marshall and Friedman, and they go after them with fists.  Friedman suffers the worst, getting beaten to his knees, and walking away with minor facial scars.  Marshall grins at him and points out that the local press lumped him with Marshall as a crusading NAACP lawyer.

“Marshall” qualifies as a well-made but routine courtroom drama bolstered by terrific performances and historical accuracy.

FILM REVIEW OF ''PACIFIC RIM UPRISING" (2018)


Mind-numbing nonsense from fade-in to fadeout, “Pacific Rim Uprising”  
(** OUT OF ****) lacks the stellar cast and the suspenseful Armageddon melodrama of its outlandish but entertaining predecessor.  Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost and Charlie Hunnam as Raleigh Becket made “Pacific Rim” more than just a juvenile diversion in collateral damage
 and urban renewal. Comparatively, neither John Boyega nor Scott Eastwood musters enough magnetism in “Pacific Rim Uprising” to overshadow our heroic memories of Stacker and 
Raleigh. Everybody knows Stacker died in the original, so he was never coming back.  Becket’s absence is never adequately explained, though he might reappear in a later sequel.  Meantime, “Pacific Rim Uprising” violates the first rule of all good sequels.  Never should a heretofore 
untold character related to a franchise hero be invented to replace him.  Meantime, everybody 
should recognize Boyega from his two recent “Star Wars” spectacles, while Clint Eastwood’s 
son Scott has acquitted himself more than satisfactorily with supporting roles in “Fury” and “Suicide Squad.”  Boyega and Eastwood represent Hollywood’s new blood.  Sadly, they are hamstrung playing superficial characters with scarcely any complexity or charisma.  The same shortcoming applies to the new breed of Jaeger pilots who comprise a politically-correct, 
multi-cultural coalition. Unknown actors and actresses all, they constitute a bland bunch 
with their petty rivalries.  Boyega and Eastwood must whip these recruits into shape, so they 
can maneuver skyscraper-sized Jaegers on a dime.  “Pacific Rim” came out in 2013, and five 
years would slip away before “Pacific Rim Uprising” emerged.  Despite the gap in time 
between the original’s release and its uninspired sequel, you’d think the filmmakers could 
have conjured up something with more imaginative than a lame imitation of “Ender’s Game” (2013).  Basically, all director Steven S. DeKnight of Netflix’s “Daredevil,” freshman scenarists Emily Carmichael and Kira Snyder, and “Maze Runner” writer T.S. Nowlin do is grant the 
Kaiju a rematch.  Along the way, they disperse the returning original characters, and the last-minute showdown never attains the impressive proportions of “Pacific Rim.” 

This formulaic follow-up takes place in 2030, ten years after the Kaiju defeat at the Battle of the Breach.  Not only has peace and prosperity been restored during the intervening decade, but scientists have also converted the rock ’em, sock ’em Jaegers so they can be deployed like drones.  DeKnight and his writers introduce Stacker Pentecost’s insubordinate son, Jake (John Boyega of “Attack the Block”), but the son is nothing like his sire.  Since the end of the Kaiju wars, dismantled Jaegers have been rusting away in scrap heaps. Some skeptics insist on being prepared for the return of the Kaiju.  Thieves have catered to their paranoia by stealing Jaeger parts and selling them to these superstitious souls.  Jake acquires his cash from pilfering these parts. Little does he know his principal competitor is an audacious, 15-year old orphan, Amara Namani (newcomer Cailee Spaeny), and she is beating him to those parts.  Amara is assembling her own micro-sized Jaeger when Jake catches up with her.  No sooner have they met than a real Jaeger thwarts her plans. Cutting a deal, Jake winds up back where he started before the Kaiju wars instead of behind bars.  Former Jaeger copilot and old friend Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood of “Diablo”) needs Jake to help train the new Jaegar pilots.  Instead of calling it “Pacific Rim Uprising,” producer Guillermo del Toro and DeKnight should have named it “Pacific Rim: The Next Generation.”  Since she proved herself a decent pilot, Namani lands in the new cadet class, but not everyone likes her. According to Lambert, teens make better Jaeger pilots. Their youth, it seems, enables them ‘to drift’ better as co-pilots.  If you haven’t seen “Pacific Rim,” the mind-melding ability to drift is indispensable for pilots to operate these gigantic robots in combat against the supernatural “Godzilla” lizards from another dimension.  Drifting might also apply to the audiences’ willing suspension of disbelief in matters of such caprice.

Meantime, Dr. Hermann Gottieb (Burn Gorman) and Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), who enlivened the original with their feverish comic relief antics, are no longer friendly.  Newt now works for the domineering Liwen Shao (Jing Tian of "The Great Wall") of the Shao Corporation, where he serves as her co-chief of the drone development program.  The change in the relationship between Hermann and Newt provides the sole surprise in this mediocre sequel.  Remember, these two nerds saved the day for Stacker and Raleigh in “Pacific Rim” because they drifted with a hideous Kaiju’s mind.  Hermann still suffers nightmares from the ordeal, while nitwit Newt has discovered the love of his life.  Yes, he keeps a Kaiju brain preserved in a glass tank at his apartment, refers to her as Alice, and maintains what might be described as a Platonic relationship with it!  Preposterous as this all seems, it might have been less bizarre if the filmmakers had brought back Ron Perlman’s sinister Kaiju collector Hannibal Chau from the first film whose presence is sorely missed. Newt’s infatuation with Alice, and the profit-motive resolve of Liwen Shao to implement drones over drift pilots makes her seem shady when a rogue Jaeger storms out of the ocean and annihilates Sidney, Australia.  Apart from Hermann and Newt, the only other returning “Pacific Rim” character is Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori.  Sadly, Mako has been demoted from piloting Jaegers and is sidelined to the status of a pencil-pushing administrator.  Mako must approve Shao’s drone pilot proposal before the Pan Pacific Defense Corps (PPDC) will institute it. Meaning, Mori doesn’t survive long enough to make a difference.  

Predictably, the fearsome alien Kaiju monsters arrive in the second hour to challenge the green Jaeger recruits.  DeKnight orchestrates this last minute apocalyptic battle in Tokyo, with the usual collateral damage, while “Terminator Genisys” composer Lorne Balfe’s bombastic score does more to heighten this slam-bang smackdown than its staging.  Not even an intriguing cliffhanger ending is enough to make “Pacific Rim Uprising” seem more than a ‘downsizing’ of its far superior predecessor.