Movie reviews: 'Skyscraper' delivers vertigo-inducing action, but little else
Published Friday, July 13, 2018 5:26AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, July 13, 2018 2:19PM EDT
SKYSCRAPER: 2 ½ STARS
Dwayne Johnson has saved his family from an earthquake, fought a volcanic demon and prevented a wild, overgrown ape from destroying Chicago. If you’ve got a life-or-death problem, yo, he’ll solve it. His new film may be his fieriest yet. “Skyscraper” sees him hundreds of storeys above the earth, trying to save his family from certain death. Let’s see him revolve that.
Johnson is former FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader and U.S. war veteran Will Ford. After a bomb blast left him with a prosthetic leg, he went into business as a security expert for big companies. His latest gig takes him and family, including wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and twins, to Hong Kong where he will assess the security concerns for a building nicknamed the Eighth Wonder of the World. At three times the height of the Empire State Building, The Pearl is one of the world’s greatest architectural achievements -- but is it safe? That’s what billionaire owner Zhao Min Zhi (Chin Han) wants to know. It’s the tallest, most advanced building in the world, it’s a vertical city, but, as Ford says, “you have brought with it every single safety and security challenge I can think of. Not only have you brought them all indoors but you have trapped them 240 floors in the air. No one really knows what would happen if things go wrong.”
Of course things go wrong—there’d be no movie otherwise—when some terrible people sabotage the building’s security systems, starting a blaze on the ninety-sixth floor. Ford’s family is trapped above the fire line, so our one-legged hero must rescue them while fighting the bad guys and convincing the cops the fire wasn’t his fault.
“Skyscraper” is the kind of over-the-top action movie that used to star Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. It’s a manly-man movie that values sweaty action over narrative logic, rockin’ schlock over the laws of physics.
It’s Johnson in full-on the video-game hero mode. Fun to watch but whatever high-wire antics he gets up to ultimately the stakes aren’t very high. (SPOILER ALERT) The Rock is not going to plunge to his death, leaving his family to become lumps of coal in the world‘s biggest inferno. “Skyscraper” is all about the stunts, the adrenaline and even then they give away the film’s best deed of daring on the poster and in the trailer.
Johnson is charismatic, has a way with a line but here he is reduced to his most obvious asset, his over-developed body, capable of superhuman feats of endurance and skills. He is Hercules a slab of grade-A muscle who can power his way out of any situation, most often with a roll of duct tape in tow. (Begging the question, how much did the makers of duct tape pay in product placement. Not since “The Red Green Show” has the sticky stuff been so essential to the plot.) As a man of action he’s second to known, as a character in a film, however, he not as muscular. There’s not much to Will Ford—or any character here—other than a look of grim determination and a flex arm. Even the bad guy, Kores Botha (Roland Møller), is just a Hans Gruber wannabe but without the evil charm or nasty one-liners.
“Skyscraper” is a loud, over-the-top flick. The action may entertain the eye but with no characters to care about all that’s left are plumes of smoke and fire.
HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 3: SUMMER VACATION: 4 STARS
The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, the Mummy and let’s not forget Dracula all make appearances in “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” but the new, animated Adam Sandler movie isn’t about the monsters. It’s about the importance of kindness and family.
At the beginning of the film Dracula (voice of Sandler) is feeling down, stressed out from the pressure of running his luxury hotel. On top of that, it seems even the Prince of Darkness has trouble meeting women. He’s forlorn, hasn’t had a date in 100 years and his voice-activated dating app is no help. “I’m lonely,” he says. “You want bologna?” it replies.
Noticing her dad is depressed, daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) arranges for a special treat: some time away with family and friends. “I figured you need a vacation from running everyone else’s vacations,” she says. She books passage on the monster cruise of a lifetime, a journey into the heart of the Bermuda Triangle.
Once onboard, Drac immediately falls for Captain Ericka (Kathryn Hahn). The heart knows what it wants, even if it is a cold, un-beating heart. They hit it off, but it turns out Ericka might have an ulterior motive for returning Drac’s advances.
“Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” is filled with the easy sentimentality that mars Sandler’s live action films. Good messages about acceptance—“We’re here, we’re hairy and it’s our right to be scary!”—tradition and finding your own way in the world—“You have to honour the past but we have to make our own future,” says Drac—are hammered home like a stake through the heart.
Surrounding the family-friendly clichés are an untraditional cast of cute monsters and that’s the movie’s strength. The fun of “Hotel Transylvania 3” is in the details not the story. The kid-friendly creepy crawlies, deadpan fish cruise ship staff, Grandpa Dracula’s (Mel Brooks) skimpy withered green body and Captain Ericka’s underwater craft that looks like it just floated in from “Yellow Submarine” are all a hoot. Come for the creatures, stay for the silly fun.
“Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” doesn’t add up to much story-wise—music and dance numbers, though inventively staged, pad out the running time to feature length—but the messages of tolerance and kindness are important themes in today’s increasingly serious world. “Gotta be great-a than the hatas,” says one monster. That’s advice you can take to the (blood) bank.
WHITNEY: 4 STARS
Like the recent Amy Winehouse documentary, which tells the story of a prodigiously talented woman lost in life to a lifestyle that she couldn’t or didn’t want to control, “Whitney” is a study of a very public downfall.
Director Kevin Macdonald is tasked with telling the all-too-common story of the rise-and-fall of an icon. The details will be familiar to anyone alive and reading the tabloids when Whitney Houston, the preeminent singer of her era, flamed out in spectacular fashion, dying at age 48 after years of well-documented erratic behaviour.
“Whitney” tells the story, from good to bad to worse, with a dose of empathy. From her youth, the daughter of musical legend Cissy Houston and a dodgy official in the Newark government, as a bullied girl with a beautiful voice to a superstar who became the only artist to have seven consecutive U.S. number one singles, Macdonald sets the stage with dozens of interviews with the singer’s family, friends and associates. He emphasizes the chasm between Houston’s public girl-next-door image with her considerably more wild private life.
Career highlights are showcased, including her stirring version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV in 1991 and her blockbuster version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” which remains the best-selling single by a female artist in music history, but it is the personal side that intrigues. Interviews reveal blockbuster allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of cousin Dee Dee Warwick, early drug use with brother Michael and half-brother Gary Garland, and a troubled financial history with her father. It’s the kind of toxic stew that tabloid stories are made of but instead of exploiting Houston, Macdonald digs deep to tell the story, presenting both a biography and a cautionary tale of excess.
MARY SHELLEY: 2 STARS
Today Mary Shelley is a household name even if her best-known book, “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus,” the first true science fiction tale, was originally published without her name.
In director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s new biopic “Mary Shelley,” Elle Fanning plays the title character as a rebellious daughter of philosophers, smitten with ghost stories. Dreaming of a life less ordinary—"I have a fire in my soul," she says early on—she begins a scandalous affair with married poet and radical Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth). Theirs is an unconventional life, embracing free love and literally and figuratively in the form of Mary’s step-sister Claire Claremont (Bel Powley).
As scandalizing as her lifestyle may have been to her contemporaries, it is her best-known book that sent shock waves through the publishing world. Written in 1816 as part of a competition between Mary, aged 18, her husband, flamboyant Romantic poet Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) and writer John Polidori (Ben Hardy) to see who could write the best ghost story, “Frankenstein” becomes a way for Mary to funnel her feelings—the heartache of losing her family amid the scandal and her sense of otherness—into print.
“Mary Shelley” is a nicely turned out film, with beautiful period particulars and an eye toward detail in décor. It is a shame then, that director Al-Mansour hasn’t applied the same level of rigour to the script. In what feels like an attempt to make Mary Shelley’s search for her voice relatable to a modern audience, her daring edges have been blunted. Her radical lifestyle is alluded to but the presentation feels sterile, funnelled through the prism of romantic drama rather than history. Fewer scenes of Mary and Percy arguing and more of the author’s ground-breaking lust for life and the movie might have been a more fitting tribute to a true original.
“Mary Shelley,” despite a solid performance from Fanning, is a conventional look at an unconventional life.
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU: 4 STARS
“Sorry to Bother You” is set in an alternative reality version of present day but feels like a throwback to the politically charged satires of the 1980s and 90s. Echoes of “Repo Man” and the like reverberate throughout, but nonetheless, director Boots Riley is never less than original in his telling of the tale of a telemarketer who trades part of his identity for success.
The story centres around slacker Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield), a young man who lives in his Uncle Sergio’s (Terry Crews) garage. “I’m just out here surviving,” he tells his performance artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). In need of money—he’s four months behind in rent—he goes to a telemarketing job interview armed with a phoney resume and some fake “Employee of the Month” awards. Lies notwithstanding he gets the gig. “This is Tele marketing,” says his new boss (Robert Longstreet). “We’re not mapping the human genome here. You will call as many numbers as possible. You will stick to the script we give you and you will leave here happy.”
After a rough start, Cassius gets some advice that changes everything. “If you want to make some money here use your white voice,” says the guy in the next cubicle (Danny Glover). “I’m talking about sounding like you don’t have to care. Like you don’t really need this money. It’s what they wish they sounded like.” The technique works (David Cross provides Cassius’s white voice) and on the eve of a strike in the telemarking office Cassius is promoted, bumped upstairs to the elite Power Callers floor. “Welcome to the Power Caller suite,” says his new boss (Omari Hardwick). “Use your white voice at all times here.”
The new job involves selling power—fire power and manpower, specifically the services of WorryFree, a service that offers lifetime work contracts to desperate people. Run by mogul Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the company has been accused of selling slave labour, and now Cassius is their number one salesperson. His success comes at a cost, however. His girlfriend doesn’t approve and his striking friends call him a scab. The new job may be on the wrong side of the ethical divide but, at first at least, Cassius grins and bears it. “I’m doing something and I’m really good at it. I’m important.”
From here the story goes places that will not be spoiled here. Suffice to say Riley takes viewers on a journey unlike any other. The film is an audacious capitalist nightmare, heavy on anti-corporate, pro-union rhetoric filtered through a kaleidoscopic lens. It’s risky and witty, edgy and inventive and unrestrained in a way that makes it utterly unique. Scathing commentary on the state of the world—“If you are shown a problem,” says Squeeze (Steven Yeun), “and can’t do anything about the problem you get used to the problem”—is coupled with creative, confrontational filmmaking.
In “Sorry to Bother You” Riley has created an apocalyptic world that looks like ours but tilted 180 degrees. He’s populated it with offbeat characters who forward the story but bring humanity to the strange world they inhabit. Their takes on race relations, employment and relationships feel real even though nothing else in the movie does. It’s the peak of satire to heighten the situation but still make real, humanistic points. Riley does both in a way that is both experimental and entertaining.
THE DEATH (AND LIFE) OF CARL NAARDLINGER: 3 STARS
“The Death (And Life) Of Carl Naardlinger” takes place at the place at which identity and humanity intersect. A metaphysical and occasionally absurdist comedy, it stars Matt Baram as one of the title characters.
Baram is Carl Naardlinger. Married to real estate mini-mogul Pam (Grace Lynn Kung), he’s an IT guy, spending his days solving people’s computer problems on the phone. His well-ordered suburban life is thrown askew with a knock on the door from a police officer from the missing persons bureau. Detective Renton (Anand Rajaram) is on the hunt for a man who’s disappeared, a man with the unlikely name of Carl Naardlinger.
The interaction leaves Carl unsettled. Over time he becomes fixated on finding the man who shares his name even though he’s presumed dead. His search becomes muddied when he finds the man’s identical twin brother (Mark Forward).
“The Death (And Life) Of Carl Naardlinger” has laughs but it isn’t quite a comedy. Instead it takes its bizarre premise and mines some real emotional moments from the material. The quirky idea could have made for an all-out farce, a film with broad performances, but Katherine Schlemmer and cast opt for a thoughtful, po-faced approach. It’s that gentle, humanist attitude that allows the absurdist elements of the story to feel as grounded as a movie that hinges on coincidence and doppelgangers could probably ever feel. As quirky as the idea may be, the search for identity and what it truly means to understand your world is a universal desire and the film does a nice job of essaying that search.