Entertainment

Movie reviews: ‘Rampage’ lacks characters to care about

RAMPAGE: 2 STARS

Dwayne Johnson has finally found a co-star bigger and with more muscles than him, a giant silverback gorilla named George, the only living thing on earth large enough to flip the rock in the bird and get away with it.

Based on the 1986 arcade game “Rampage,” the new film directed by Newfoundland native Brad Peyton, sees a genetic experiment go horribly wrong. “We’ve created the next chapter in natural selection. Project Rampage works.” Except when it doesn’t.

George, the giant but gentle silverback gorilla, a winged wolf and a reptile are transformed into monsters with an appetite for destruction. That’s right, there’s a gorilla so big it makes The Rock, who plays Davis Okoye, a Dr. Doolittle talking-to-animals type with king-size muscles, look like a first grader by comparison.

Luckily Okoye raised George and they share an unbreakable bond, a connection so strong the primatologist just might be able to reason with the gorilla and put an end to the invasion of the mega-beasts.

I’m no different than anybody else. I’m happy to spend cash to watch nature go wild as humungous beasts (including the pumped up Johnson) battle one another. It should be loads of fun, peppered with Johnson’s trademarked one-liners, some heavy beast-on-beast action topped off with an evil corporation with an appetite for destruction and a scientist with something to prove but instead it’s a about spectacle and little else. Don’t give me wrong I didn’t expect “Coriolanus” with a giant flying wolf but in the CGI era when anything is possible I know the visuals will pop.

I’d also like the script to do some of the work as well. It’s the kind of big budget b-movie where it takes four credited writers to come up with bon mots like, “I can’t believe we survived that,“ and “Thank you for saving the world.” (That is not a spoiler. You know the world will survive the rampaging creatures.) Johnson is an engaging performer, so is co-star Naomie Harris, but imagine how much better the movie would be if they were given better things to say than, “Davis, try not to get killed.” Without characters you care about who cares if giant beasts made of pixels destroy a pretend city?

“Rampage” isn’t the only oversized fiend film coming this year. To warm us up for “Rampage,” they showed a trailer for “The Meg,” a.k.a. “Jason Statham and The Giant Shark.” Call it the year of the gigantic beast if you like but so far—I haven’t seen “The Meg” yet, bigger isn’t always better.

INDIAN HORSE: 3 ½ STARS

Based on author and journalist Richard Wagamese’s book of the same name “Indian Horse” is a personal story that brings issues of cultural assimilation and displacement policies to the fore front.

Structured like a film noir, the story begins at the end with Saul Indian Horse (Ajuawak Kapashesit) in rehab, recounting the details of his life. “You can’t understand where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been,” he says.

Flashback to 1959. Saul is orphaned and left in the care of his grandmother before being scooped up and sent to the St James Residential School. Ripped away from his family and culture he says, “The world I had known was replaced by a black cloud.” Indigenous children had their mouths washed out with soap for speaking Ojibwe, their names changed to “good biblical names “and they were disciplined with paddles and fists. When that didn’t work, they were sent to “contrition,” a dank basement prison. “Our goal here is to help you succeed in this world,” says Father Quinney (Michael Murphy).

A school in only the loosest sense of the word, piousness was valued above everything else. “The only test was our ability to endure,” Saul says. The youngster survives in part because of his love of hockey. Teaching himself to skate, he uses frozen horse manure as make-do pucks. Despite his young age he has an innate ability, honed by watching hockey on TV, and can outplay the older boys. With the encouragement of kindly priest Father Gaston (“Game of Thrones’” Michiel Huisman) he flourishes and is soon recruited to an outside league where his ability attracts the attention of Toronto Maple Leafs recruiter Jack Lanahan (Martin Donovan).

In the big city, he is subjected to abject racism and feels even more removed from his cultural roots. “There is no better life for me,” he says to Lanahan. “There never will be.”

“Indian Horse’s” portrayal of the cruelties of the residential school system is uncompromising and horrific. It’s not overly graphic but the human effects of the humiliating and dangerous treatment the students were subjected to are undeniable and unforgettable. Director Stephen Campanelli—Clint Eastwood’s steadicam operator from “The Bridges of Madison County” to the recent “The 15:17 to Paris”—sets the stage for Saul’s later-in-life trauma with matter-of-fact storytelling and characters that embody the results of cultural alienation.

Overall the film could use a little more nuance but there is no denying the important and timely nature of the story.

LEAN ON PETE: 2 ½ STARS

The boy-and-his-horse story of “Lean on Pete” sounds like family fare but it is anything but. The cast should be the first clue. Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny and Steve Zahn, all edgy 90s indie virtuosos, are the above-the-title stars, hinting that this isn’t going to be another “National Velvet” remake.

At the beginning of the story fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) and his single father Ray (Travis Fimmel) are starting their lives over in Portland, Oregon. Charley’s mom went out for cigarettes years ago and never came back. Since then father and son and moved around the country, Ray chasing work, Charley trying to find a place to fit in. They are more like friends than father and son. Ray offers up dubious fatherly advice—“The best women have all been waitresses at some point” and finds a new women in every new town.

To pass the time, Charley gets a job tending to an aging Quarter Horse named Lean on Pete. Working for crusty old horse trader Del Montgomery (Buscemi), Charley finds purpose and despite the warnings of jockey Bonnie (Sevigny) not to get emotionally involved with the horse—“Don’t think of them as pets,” she says, the teenager coddles the horse even as it becomes clear Pete isn’t going to win any more races.

When Del decides to get rid of Pete, to “send him to Mexico”—i.e.: the glue factory— Charley makes off with the horse, embarking on a road trip in search of a better life for both of them.

There are many good messages here for kids about resilience and loyalty but again let me remind you this isn’t a kid’s movie. Del’s foul language and a scene where Charley beats a homeless man with a tire iron rule that out. What we’re left with is a story that feels like it was written for a young adult audience but made by someone weaned on mid-period Wim Wenders. Tonally it feels as though it has one hoof in YA, the other in more adult fare.

Tonality aside, the first hour works very well. Plummer is magnetic, quietly creating the character of a desperate young man who does bad things for mostly the right reasons. His scenes with Buscemi and Sevigny sparkle with a gruff warmth, setting up the lesson in resilience that dominates the second half. As Charley sets off into America’s hinterland, Bonnie’s statement of fact, “There’s only so many times you can fall down, right?” is proven wrong time after time. It’s a road trip of misery that sees Charley survive in very trying circumstances. Paced a little too leisurely in its second hour, the road trip section, despite the dramatic events portrayed, is far less interesting than the character work of the first hour.

“Lean on Pete” is an effective portrait of a lonely boy but ultimately simply becomes a laundry list of Charley’s bad decisions.

BEIRUT: 3 ½ STARS

Here’s the overview: In the new thriller “Beirut” former “Mad Man” star Jon Hamm plays a world-weary but sharp-tongued man who has crawled inside a whiskey bottle to numb the pain of his existence.

Now here’s the six-word pitch: Don Draper does the Middle East.

The story begins in 1972 in the title city. U.S. diplomat Mason Skiles (Hamm) has lived there on and off for much of his life. He understands the country’s delicate balance of religion and politics but more importantly, he loves the country. Tragedy strikes when Karim (Yoav Sadian Rosenberg), a thirteen-year-old orphan Skiles and wife Nadia (Leila Bekhti) treat as their own, turns out to have a terrorist brother.

Cut to a decade later. Skiles is now a whiskey-in-his-coffee kind of man living in Boston running a small labour-dispute consulting firm. “His career has gone from Kissinger to the crapper,” says a former colleague. When he accepts an offer (and thousands of dollars) from “the Agency” to return to Beirut, he finds a city in ruins, torn apart by a decade of civil war. Escorted by handler Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), he must delve into the murky world of CIA dirty tricks and political agendas to negotiate the release of his onetime best friend, CIA agent Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino).

Written by “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” scribe Tony Gilroy, “Beirut” allows Hamm’s now trademarked Damaged Man Routine™ to stay front and centre. It’s a spy story with intrigue and danger—although it should be said there is not much action—that relies on Hamm’s rugged charisma. His struggle is the motor that keeps things interesting, not the character’s ulterior motives or the intrigue. For instance a major a plot twist (NO SPOILERS HERE) is actually more of a straight line than a twist so it is up to Hamm and cast to provide the tension.

“Beirut” feels a tad long, as though some of the scenes of Skiles contemplating the bottom of a glass could have been replaced with something a bit more interesting, like trying to get a release for his old friend. Although Hamm is very good here, those lapses—and the typical pouring-of-the-booze-down-the-sink scene—separate “Beirut” from other, superior talky thrillers like “Munich” or “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE: 4 STARS

“You Were Never Really Here” is about a man with a special set of skills who rescues young women and yet it couldn’t be any more different from “Taken” and other recent guardian angel action movies.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a bulky, bearded veteran who lives with his mother. When he isn’t rescuing young girls from human traffickers he’s doing household chores, helping his mom clean the silver wear or, when memories of his violent past overtake him, trying to kill himself.

Driven by vengeance and haunted by memories of childhood abuse, he gives out punishment to human traffickers, violently beating them with fists and hammers. “Can you be brutal?” asks a client. “I can,” he replies calmly.

When a job retrieving Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the eleven-year-old daughter of a high-ranking New York politician (Alex Manette), from a pedophile ring goes sideways, Joe is forced to delve deeper than ever before.

There is violence in “You Were Never Really Here” but don’t expect a Liam Neeson style action flick. First of all, Joe’s special set of skills mainly include surveillance and ball peen hammer assault. Secondly Joe doesn’t have any catchphrases. He’s a secretive man of action, plagued by PTSD and driven by a sense of righteous justice. Think Travis Bickle, not former Green Beret and CIA operative Bryan Mills.

Phoenix delivers a deceptively simple performance. A man of few words Joe expresses himself in other ways and Phoneix finds way to do much while doing very little. The pain in his eyes, amplified by random flashbacks to his troubled youth, reveals both his personal torture and why he works exclusively with mistreated children. More importantly are the traces of humanity that slip through Joe’s blank façade. The way he dotes on his mother or holds a dying man’s hand, singing along with a syrupy pop song, as life slips away. In another scene he instructs his pre-teen rescue to close her eyes, trying to protect what little innocence she has left, before he bludgeons one of her captors to death. It’s in these moments that Joe becomes a fully rounded character and not simply a killing machine.

Scottish director Lynne Ramsay never gives away the game, doling out the details only as necessary. The flashbacks are jagged, poking into the story like a shard of glass slashing through silk. Those elements, bolstered by an anxiety inducing score—loud, abrasive yet beautiful—from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, combine to present an intriguing, elliptical portrait of a tortured soul.

BORG vs MCENROE: 3 ½ STARS

Shia LaBeouf’s reputation serves him well in “Borg vs McEnroe.” The story of one of the all-time great sports rivalries, this film from Swedish director Janus Metz turns the actor’s hot-headed persona into a terrific performance as John McEnroe, the “super brat” of tennis.

A non-traditional sports movie, “Borg vs McEnroe “ ends with the Wimbledon matches in the 1980 final but spends the vast amount of its running time as a behind-the-scenes character study of polar opposites. On the court their games were as much psychological as they were physical, and this movie delves into the backstories that fed their individual styles.

We learn of McEnroe father’s unrelenting push for perfection. Whether it was doing complicated math tricks for dad’s friends or on the court, young McEnroe developed a perfectionist streak that lead to extreme discipline and a hair trigger temper when his lofty standards weren’t met.

In public life Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) was nicknamed the Iceborg, a play on his chilly demeanour but flashbacks to his early life with coach Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgård) reveal a similar upbringing to McEnroe. The difference between the two competitors came with Borg’s ability to suppress his anger, unlike the combustible McEnroe, who became famous for his on-court outbursts. “They say Borg is an iceberg, keeping it all in,” says one commentator, “until he becomes a volcano.”

The film digs deep, accentuating the similarities between the two players, not their differences. It’s an unusual take for a sports film. Typically sporting films play up the differences between competitors to amp up the conflict but this isn’t a standard sports story. It’s more an existential drama concerned with the why’s of their personalities not the hows of their game. Many people will know how this story ends—and no, it doesn’t rewriter tennis history—so director Metz wisely focuses on the journey, not the destination.

Perhaps of his own history of public behaviour, LaBeouf brings fire and empathy to his portrayal of McEnroe. A performance that could easily have drifted into caricature instead offers a nuanced look at the demons that fuelled the champion’s antics.

Gudnason is a dead ringer for Borg and does a nice job of hinting at the self-doubt that was always just under his icy exterior.

“Borg vs McEnroe” gives insight into the lives of these two gold star athletes, revealing the men behind the game.

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