Thoughts on ‘Rampage’

Over the past few weeks I’ve been to see Steven Spielberg’s film about a world bounded only by the imagination, the ultra-hyped latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a Dwayne Johnson vehicle based on a cheesy arcade game. Guess which I think was the best. Go ahead; guess.

Rampage is basically a sci-fi channel original movie with a big budget and a crew that knew what they were doing. It’s incredibly silly, kind of stupid, and a ton of fun. Dwayne Johnson (more on him in a bit) plays an asocial ex-special forces primatologist (you know, one of those) who comes to work one day to find his favorite gorilla, George, has grown much larger and more unstable over the night. Turns out the experiments of an evil corporation have fallen from their corporate space station (again, one of those) and have resulted in three mutated, out-of-control monsters: George the Gorilla, Ralph the Wolf, and Lizzie the Alligator (who doesn’t get named in the film). They all end up in Chicago, where Johnson, with the help of a smug, faux-cowboy federal agent and a good-looking, oft-endangered scientist (the fact that I can describe the female lead thusly earns the film an extra point right there) try to find a way to stop the monsters and the evil corporation while saving George if possible.

Rampage is one of those delightful films that has no illusions about itself: it doesn’t think it has an important statement to make about corporate greed or animal rights or anything, it just wants to tell a fun little adventure involving giant monsters on a rampage. Just about everything it does is in service to that end, which makes it a surprisingly solid and streamlined film. There are holes, of course, that’s to be expected, but at least so far there’s only one or two that really stand out to me, and the movie was entertaining enough that I didn’t really care. Once accept the premise and the film holds together fairly well. And it lives up to the title, with the three monsters tearing up Chicago, the human cast, and each other in satisfying and creative ways.

Speaking of the human cast, after the incredibly bland characters in Black Panther, this was breath of fresh air. The characters aren’t especially deep or well developed, but they have personality, sometimes almost too much. The moment we meet the female lead, we see she is a little bumbling and absent minded, and that her life is a mess. We thus immediately like her because she both has a clear character and is the underdog. Likewise, it would have been incredibly easy to have the federal agent be just a stiff; instead he’s got this hilarious faux-cowboy persona, with accompanying permanent smug grin that he somehow uses to convey every emotion. Even the villain, though a pretty generic evil businesswoman is given a bit of extra personality by having a loser brother who hangs around her panicking the whole film (she also has a pet rat; parallel, perhaps?).

As this indicates, the film has a pretty good sense of humor: actually found myself laughing out loud at some of the lines. Like when the loser brother takes out his frustration at losing the multi-billion dollar space station by smashing a scale model, his sister notes they’ve lost “Ten Billion, plus twenty-thousand for the model you just broke.” Or the heroine’s excuse for hanging up on her boss: “I’ve gotta go; the car in front of me just…exploded.”

Basically, these aren’t deep characters, but they are serviceable for the kind of film this is, and they are constantly enjoyable to watch. Though they’re stock characters, the writers made an effort to inject a little life into them. Again, contrast Black Panther where the love interest’s entire personality is ‘earnest and capable action girl, but not the other one.’

As for Johnson, he’s basically playing a variant of his usual character, which is perfectly fine with me. He’s given the added dimension of being mildly misanthropic and having a chivalrous streak. Though I joked about his career path, the film actually does give him a fairly plausible backstory of special forces – anti-poaching team – primatologist. Basically, his character makes sense on his own terms. His connection with George is cartoonishly exaggerated (he apparently can convey complex instructions like “look after the new guy because he’s confused” with a few simple signs), but it gives an extra layer of emotional investment to the story.

Watching this film, one thing that struck me about Dwayne Johnson is that he really knows how to make his characters heroic. Like, when the bullets start flying the first thing he does is throw himself in front of the girl and try to shield her. Then he risks his own life to save the guy who has been nothing but rude to him and whose fault the whole situation is in the first place. Even outside the action sequences he’s polite, chivalrous (e.g. rebuking George for making lewd gestures in front of the girl), and generally a stand-up guy. I like the way he tries to talk down the two MPs who come to arrest him and the girl before knocking them out. And I love his description of his last encounter with poachers: “They shot at us and missed. I shot at them and didn’t.” (why do I remember so many more lines from this film than the other two?). In sum, yes, I’d call this guy a legit hero.

(By the way, the heroes of this film are two super-masculine men and a cute, feminine girl. The villains are a soulless, dominating businesswoman and her weak, sniveling brother. Not sure if there’s any meaning to be gleaned from that, but it made me like the film even more).

I just realized that, of the three films I’ve seen recently, Black Panther had the least impressive hero. The kid in Ready Player One was kind of weak, but he at least had a moment where he made a hard call to protect the girl, and he had to struggle a little and grow a little, and the story ultimately depended upon him. T’Challa was effectively useless without his powers, which could literally be given to anyone and which he loses because he made a series of terrible decisions for no reason and gets back through no effort of his own. He never has to sacrifice anything or make a hard decision for someone else; the arc of the film is the villain gets power because of the hero’s incompetence, then the hero is rescued by his friends and comes back to stop him before he can seriously misuse it, all in the final third of the film. There was little sense of what was at stake; we didn’t see people being threatened or in danger, we just heard Killmonger ranting about how he wants to kill women and children.

In Rampage, on the other hand, during the climax the characters are constantly worrying about the civilians. We see people in danger, and when the crisis is over we see people expressing relief and reuniting with loved ones. We are given a clear sense of what our heroes were protecting and that they succeeded in doing so.

Actually, my biggest problem with Rampage is that it ends too abruptly: I would have liked to see an epilogue showing what happens to the characters afterward. It seems so obvious that I’m kind of amazed they don’t have one (I also would have liked to see some smooches between our two leads, but oh well).

So, that’s Rampage: it’s nothing great, but a very solid, very enjoyable B-Movie that, in its own simple way, outdoes the giant A-pictures it goes up against. I feel kind of like Johnson’s character here: preferring the company of a gorilla to ostensibly more engaging companionship. Here’s hoping Infinity War proves to be the lovely geneticist who will make me care about the human race again (a convoluted metaphor, but I think it holds up).

Thoughts on Black Panther

Finally got out to see Black Panther while it was still in theaters. My reaction is definitely ‘good not great.’ It was…fine. There was a lot to like about it, though on the whole it wasn’t really that impressive to me as a film, or even compared to the rest of the Marvel universe.

First the good things; visually it’s great. After the oddly dull Ready Player One, this is more like it. The colors, the costumes, the sets, it’s all fantastic to look at. The CGI gets a little lame at times, but mostly it looks fabulous.

Character-wise, the villains are exceptional. Andy Serkis kind of steals the show at Ulysses Klaue, the eccentrically-evil arms dealer. I really wish he’d had a bigger role, though to be fair Michael B. Jordan as ‘Killmonger’ is amazing. I don’t think I’ve actually seen him before (haven’t seen Creed), though from what I had seen of clips and word of mouth I knew he’s an excellent actor, and yeah, he is riveting in this role as a guy so full of rage – and understandable rage – that it’s made him a monster. He doesn’t scream or rant, and is actually kind of understated, but you feel his all-consuming anger every frame he’s on screen.

I also really liked Martin Freeman as Everett Ross, a CIA operative introduced in Civil War (kind of odd in a film called Black Panther that the two white characters ended up among the most memorable). It’s kind of unusual to see him playing a badass, though he does get plenty of out-of-his-depth moments. I liked the sister character: she was cute and had personality, though…well, we’ll get to that in a bit.

As for our hero, honestly, I didn’t find him as interesting in his own film as he was in Civil War. In that film, he was every inch a king; an intensely dignified, dead-serious character who knew exactly what he was after and what he was due, but who nevertheless was moved by the spectacle before him to choose justice over revenge. Here…he’s kind of just the soulful protagonist. He wants to do the right thing, and sets about trying to figure out what that is. He still had formidable dignity and he was by no means a bad character, but I wasn’t impressed by him the way I was in the previous film.

I will say, though, that I really liked a scene where he has a vision of his father, which seems to be going for the tired ‘I’m not ready to be king’ route, but turns into something more personal and more interesting instead.

As for the plot, again, it wasn’t all that interesting, partly because it seemed to kind of veer about some: first it’s him claiming the throne, then him going after Klaue, then him fighting Killmonger. These things ultimately tie together, but it could have used a lot of streamlining to feel less choppy.

Speaking of streamlining, we have a few too many characters, especially since the majority are pretty dull. For instance, we have T’Challa’s sister, girlfriend, and his female general (sidekick? Bodyguard?). That is at least one too many badass female warriors (more on that subject later): for instance, why were the girlfriend and the general necessary to the film? Neither has a very distinct personality or role to play in the story: could they not have been combined? Or if that’s not possible, then could the sister have been made into the girlfriend instead (that would have given the latter a personality)? You see my point: we have several characters who kind of blend together and clutter up the story. Merging one or two together would have made for stronger characters and a more efficient film.

And there are some plot holes, including a major one involving the villain’s backstory. There’s also a bit at the end that is really stupid. Granted, it’s in the service of a nice moment, but if you want that moment then stage the final battle differently, because as is it’s ridiculous.

By the way, granting that Wakanda has spies all over the world, why is one of the most important agents running low-level crimes in the LA slums? How does that benefit them? Why would he even be in that environment? Wouldn’t he be stationed in the government, or in business, or somewhere that might be remotely relevant to Wakandan interests?

I could talk about the politics involved, but I don’t think it really matters that much; the film is obviously pandering to a certain audience, but it wasn’t too bad, and, really, I wasn’t invested enough for it to make much of an impact.

One thing I will say, and this goes back to the point about the characters, is this: Wakanda looks great, but it never felt quite convincing to me. The idea seems to be an extremely traditional society, with a hereditary monarch, trial by combat, ancestor worship and so on blended with sci-fi technology. That’s a cool idea, but it doesn’t really work out that way. Apart from their form of government, the characters basically act like modern Westerners. That kind of makes sense for the sister, because she’s established as being rebellious and we can buy that she’s imitating western culture, but what about all the rest? Part of the problem is they’re so bland, but they just talk and act like any other Marvel film characters.

In particular, the fact that all the women in this society are warriors and scientists feels false to me. Wouldn’t a society like this, with royalty and nobility and all the rest have firm gender roles? And, more to the point, wouldn’t that be more interesting than what we got? To have strong, marked female characters in a notably different cultural milieu? It’s not even that I think it’s a bad choice: it’s just boring (I really wish Hollywood would realize that we’ve long since reached the point where it’s less imaginative to have an action girl than would be not to). We have seen badass female warriors and scientists before, they don’t do anything fresh with the idea, and it feels out of place with the world they are presenting.

I thought the first Thor movie did this sort of thing a lot better. Granted, Asgard had amazon warriors too (or at least one), but the important point is that Asgardians, as a rule, acted like people from a different culture, while the Wakandans by and large don’t, except in very specific ways. Consider the famous scene where Thor smashes the coffee cup, then politely acquiesces when told that’s not how we do things around here. That, to me, feels like how that kind of character would act. Then here we have a scene where the king of Wakanda and his girlfriend just walk about in the marketplace and nobody seems to care. Also, the back-and-forth about who would be king worked better in that film because Loki was directly involved from the beginning and we could see how he was manipulating things to his advantage. In this one…well, when you think about it, Killmonger could have enacted his plan at basically any time, which begs the question of why much of the first half of the film was even necessary.

It’s even worse because there’s an opening scene with T’Challa’s father that does capture a starkly different cultural feel, where he meets one of his agents and the man immediately kneels and snaps at his friend to do the same before begging permission to allow the friend to stay in the room. That was a really good scene, and set a tone for how different this culture is that is kind of forgotten for most of the rest of the film, with only sporadic exceptions.

Speaking of the beginning, the opening exposition giving the origin of Wakanda and the Black Panther is one the worst I’ve seen, at least for this kind of movie. It’s framed as young T’Challa asking his father to tell him a story, but there is not the slightest effort to write in a way suitable for the device. It sounds like he’s just reading off of the Wikipedia page. Visually it’s great, but from a writing perspective it’s terrible.

That’s kind of the film as a whole to an extent: it looks fantastic, but apart from the visuals it lacks imagination. It’s not a bad film by any means, and the good elements are really good (again, Michael B. Jordan is a fantastic actor and makes for a great villain), but as a whole, it’s just kind of serviceable.

 

Thoughts on ‘Ready Player One’

Today I went and saw ‘Ready Player One.’ It was more or less what I expected: shallow pop-culture porn, only not as good. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy parts of it, but the enjoyment was mostly of a very simple nature: ‘oh, hey, this is cool, oh, I recognize this.’ I think there is a great film in there, but the story and character are too generic to make it work.

One of the problems is that neither the game world nor the real world are presented as being desirable: the game world turns people into fantasy-addicted zombies, but the real world is so dreary and hopeless you can’t really blame them. I wasn’t especially invested in the story because I didn’t really buy the world they were presenting and also, again, it’s just so generic: evil corporation wants to take over the world to be evil. They have suits and evil-looking red and black drones and a private military, run virtual prisons (where is the government in all this?), and the CEO is the bad guy from Rogue One. They’re evil because they’re evil and the heroes are good because they’re trying to stop them. Also, the heroes are poor and the corporation has done them wrong.

The visuals aren’t especially creative or interesting either; just standard, usually ill-lit CG environments with a bunch of cameos walking about. Ego’s planet from Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 was more creatively fantastic than this game, which is supposed to be specifically designed to be creatively fantastic.

The film lives and dies on its pop culture credits, but it misses the point of why people connect to these things in the first place. Or if it not it plays out too generically for it to make an impact. The Greatest Showman captured the importance of fantasy in two lines better than this whole film does (“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?” “Do those smiles look fake?”). Here it’s pretty much just ‘hey, do you remember Gundam? What if a Gundam robot fought Mechagodzilla: wouldn’t that be cool to see’? (by the way, it seems Toho wasn’t one of the backers of this film, since the ‘Mechagodzilla’ on display doesn’t resemble any of the canonical designs and I don’t think they even used the roar). No insight as to what made these stories or characters interesting or why anyone would remember them; just Captain America-style ‘I understood that reference.’

Pretty much as soon as you hear the premise, you can guess the entire story. There’s the loser kid who turns out to be a hero because he’s sensitive and understands the secretive game developer. There’s the super-elite tough-girl gamer chick whom he’ll fall in love with while in no way outshining or having the advantage over. There’s the Black best friend, whose personality is ‘Black best friend.’ There’s a high-stakes competition for control of the world between the scrappy misfit kids and the evil corporation. The corporation will go after the kid in the real world, they’ll have to go back and forth between the two worlds some, and eventually the kid will triumph after passing a secret final test and getting some wisdom from the wise game developer, end on a moral. There is admittedly one twist I didn’t see coming, though it kind of felt like a cop-out more than anything: a way to get them out of a corner they really didn’t need to be in to begin with.

There is some talk about how characters in the game aren’t really like their players in real life, but it doesn’t amount to much: the Black best friend is really a Black woman best friend. The two Japanese players (who are introduced so casually it’s kind of a shock that we’re supposed to remember them when they show up in the real world) are really…well, Japanese players, but one of them is eleven years old. And they all live within a few miles of each other which…come on, really? Not only is that astronomically improbable, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting and more creative if one of them was stuck on the other side of the country and still was trying to help?

Also, the pretty redhead in the game turns out to be…a pretty redhead in real life, only she has a mild birthmark over one eye. Uh, what a shock? Really, I’m fine with that, only don’t try to pretend it’s a twist.

There were some good points there. I really liked the character of the game developer; this awkward, semi-autistic loner who lost himself in fantasy because he was afraid of facing the real world. He’s played by Mark Rylance, who I think is genetically incapable of giving a bad performance.

Honestly, the film would have been much more interesting if someone like that had been the main character: if it had been the story of a pathologically lonely person learning to let go of fantasy and face the real world. That would have had some meat to it, and would have fit in well with the pop-culture references (since the purpose of fantasy is to make us better equipped to face reality). Drop the stupid corporation plot and make it the story of a young man trying to find a way to reconnect with reality by using this imagination-based virtual reality as a springboard.

Apart from that, there are one or two good scenes: I like the bit where the hero figures out, just from his tone, that the villain isn’t really a fanboy despite him knowing all the right details. I also like the bit where, after being forcibly ejected from the game, he comments on how different the real world is, having spent so much time in virtual reality he has almost stopped noticing. I also liked the bit where the redhead meets the Japanese kid, goes to hug him, and he indignantly responds “ninjas don’t give hugs!” It’s a perfect ‘kid’ moment and rare instance of honest humanity in what is otherwise a shallow experience.

I also really liked how the ‘hired gun’ character acts basically like a standard gamer and sounds like he’s about eighteen in real life. That was one instance of the film making a clever use of its premise, though again it doesn’t amount to much since he doesn’t have much screen time or much of a payoff, and they could have done so much more with that idea (just off the top of my head: he has the heroes captured and is about to finish them off, then his Mom calls him away from the game to take out the trash giving them a chance to escape).

On the other hand, it’s really stupid that all these crowds are out in the streets playing virtual reality on the sidewalks: who in their right mind would do something like that? This isn’t staring down at your phone, which we know is bad enough, this is putting on visual and audio blocking gear and running around a city street. Not one of them gets hit by a car or face-plants into a telephone pole?

Basically, this is very much a film that puts style over substance and it doesn’t even understand it’s own style very well. I wouldn’t say it’s terrible, just not very good.

Thoughts on the Greatest Showman

The other day I got out to see The Greatest Showman before it left theaters, which I’d been meaning to do for a little while. I’d known almost nothing about the film before, except that it was about P.T. Barnum and the founding of his circus. Then a month or so into its release I stumbled upon one of the songs and discovered that it was actually a musical! I like musicals, and the trailers looked really cool, so I made a point a point of getting out to see it while it was still on the big screen. And I can say I enjoyed it a good deal.

In first place, I liked the style a lot: there’s a lot of brilliant colors, a lot of interesting sets, and a kind of cool thing where it’s just a little surreal and impressionist. It’s very much like a stage show where things are just kind of set for the duration of the story, and we don’t exactly see how things are done or question how much time is going by, but we’re given an impression of the progress of the story. For instance, we don’t really see any of the circus acts, just the performers dancing and singing in the ring, giving more the impression of a circus show. I think it works pretty well and it keeps the film moving without being bogged down in details.

Hugh Jackman’s really good, of course: I’ve read this was a passion project of his for years and that intensity really comes across in his performance. He absolutely owns the role of Barnum. I really liked the relationship between him and his wife and their daughters: it’s just a lovely image of marriage and family life.

Of course the dancing is fantastic; very fast, very energized, and shot really well, making excellent use of sets and props. Interestingly enough, for all the circus and acrobatics, my favorite dance number is simply Barnum and Carlyle discussing business matters in a bar.

The songs are…okay. There’re very energized, they work well in context, but with the exception of the title number and maybe the aforementioned bar song they didn’t really stick with me (no, I wasn’t especially impressed by the Oscar-nominated ‘This is Me.’ It was okay, but…nothing really special. Maybe I’m just sick of the ‘I exist so you should admire me’ sentiment, though, again, it works in context of the film and the performers claiming their human dignity). They’re a little repetitive and some are a shade too long and travel over too many verses without enough lyrical variety, but they’re enjoyable enough and, taken in conjunction with the story and imagery are thoroughly entertaining. Well…the opera number is a little stale, but it’s kinda supposed to be.

By the way, I friggin’ love one shot in the title song of Barnum and his performers charging the spotlight flanked by elephants. It’s an awesome image that fits the music perfectly and I had to mention it.

All in all, I liked the first half of the film much more than the second. When he’s dreaming up the show, taking audacious risks, making mistakes and learning from them, gathering his performers and perfecting his vision, it’s fantastic. You can feel his energy, his drive and creativity. The scenes of him meeting the ‘freaks’ are excellent. We get to see their suspicion, their uncertainty, their fear of being laughed at again, then their gratitude at finding someone who actually wants to treat them like human beings. I really liked the circus performers and the depiction of their comradery, and kinda wished there’d been a little more scenes of them just hanging out together.

The second half isn’t bad, but it’s not as interesting as we see Barnum losing sight of his own vision as he chases after the approval of the world in general instead of being content with the support of his family and friends and the knowledge that he’s bringing joy into people’s lives. It’s a good theme about how there is never enough social approval to satisfy one who feels marginalized, and how the best thing is to seek fulfillment in family, friends, and worthwhile endeavors, but it kind of drags a bit and it’s just not as much fun.

I also think a bit more time could have been given to some of the subplots. Like the romance between Carlyle and the acrobat is good, but it’s not given enough lead in: he finds her attractive, she says two words to him, the next scene their hands are drifting together and she takes offense when he hesitates. One more scene establishing why they’re so drawn together would have made a huge difference.

But on the whole, it’s really good; I loved the energy, the passion, the celebration of popular entertainment and the urge to make people happy (“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?” “Do those smiles look fake?”). It’s just a really good film musical with a strong will to entertain, and I imagine Mr. Barnum would have approved.

Thoughts on ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’

Today my family and I finally got out to see Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, this season’s sleeper hit. Having seen it, I absolutely can understand why it’s found the success it has, because, yeah, it’s really very good.

The story has four teenagers – nerd, jock, popular girl, awkward girl – being sucked into a video game version of the Jumanji game (the process by which the original board game became a video game is a deceptively brilliant bit of writing: achieving what needs to be done with minimal fuss while simultaneously establishing certain key elements of the Jumanji entity). Inside they have to play as their respective avatars – played by Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, and Kevin Hart – to complete the game and escape.

The concept of someone being pulled into a video game isn’t new, but it’s done with particular skill here. The movie takes full advantage of the situation, both to have crazy stunts and action (like having a helicopter pursued by a herd of rhinos) and for a ton of very funny jokes. For instance, the characters they meet in the game are NPCs, meaning they only have a few set reactions and lines of dialogue, which they will cheerfully repeat indefinitely if pressed. The characters each have three lives, a fact they make some very creative uses of.

I was very impressed by the writing. I mean, it’s not extremely smart or extremely clever, but they do a really good job of establishing these characters and giving them credible personalities along with their cliche types. For instance, the popular girl is established almost at once to be both very self-conscious and much smarter than she would seem at first glance, all in probably about a minute of screen-time. Their relationships are all entirely believable and human, as are their developments after they enter the game world.

Meanwhile, the four leads do a simply fantastic job of playing teenagers inhabiting video game avatars, especially Dwayne Johnson as the nerdy kid and Jack Black as the popular girl. I admit, I was a little worried about that element at first – it seemed like a chance for fashionable nonsense about gender – but no; it completely works in context, to the point where you simply accept the character as a girl playing a video game. This is another example of the film making full use of its premise: of course people often play avatars of the opposite sex, and if you were forced to ‘live’ the role, this probably would be the result. Plus, it’s just really, really funny; like an extended burlesque routine. It’s an example of taking an element of contemporary life and doing something genuinely creative with it.

And all the while, in all the over-the-top action and goofy humor, they still keep the focus on the characters and story. There’s a scene where Jack Black has to teach Karen Gillan how to be sexy: that’s funny on about three or four levels, but at the same time it’s also a key point of their character development, with the two of them opening up and becoming friends and the nerdy girl learning how to be more confident.

I also like that all the characters have something to teach and something to learn from each other. And that they all were, at the end of the day, what I would call legit heroes: at different points they were each willing to step up, sacrifice, and make hard calls for each other and for the greater good.

So, yeah, this was a really good movie: an example of really solid, well-done entertainment. It knows exactly what it is and wants to do and does it with energy and skill: exactly the kind of film that Hollywood ought to be making all the time.

Noble Snake Announcement

And the first Noble Snake Reviews video will be…

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This film holds a special place in my heart. It was my favorite movie when I was little, and watching it now it holds up surprisingly well. There are a lot of rich ideas to sink my teeth into buried beneath the awesome animation and great characters, and come Friday I’ll be talking all about them.

See you then!