SOME WILD FUN

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN PLAYS IT SAFE AND CHOOSES MEDIOCRITY OVER BOLDNESS, BUT IT’S STILL A MILDLY ENTERTAINING (IF UNREMARKABLE) ACTION MOVIE

Director: David Yates

Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Christoph Waltz, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou and Samuel L. Jackson,

Rated: PG

Studio: Warner Bros.

Running Time: 1 Hr, 49 Mins

Sometimes you get a movie that is so bad it’s bearable. Other times you get one that’s so tongue in cheek that it’s almost good. And sometimes you get a movie that despite taking itself seriously, seems to settle for mediocrity instead of swinging for the fences. The Legend of Tarzan falls into the last category.

Video: Warner Bros. Pictures

The man once called Tarzan is now Jonathan Clayton (Alexander Skarsgard), a civilized Englishman who has taken his place as the Lord of Greystoke, heir to his family’s title and fortune. Eight years removed from the jungles of the Congo, he and Jane (Margot Robbie) make their home in a palatial London mansion, complete with servants and attendants. While his exploits as Tarzan are the stuff of serial novels, his celebrity makes him uncomfortable and he shuns it as often as he can. But he soon receives an invitation to return to the Congo from Leon Brom (Christoph Waltz), the envoy who has been running the near bankrupt Belgian colony. The British government, eager to enter into a partnership with Belgium, urges the former King of the Jungle to accept the offer, and after some soul searching (and a shouting match with Jane, who jumps at the chance to return to the jungle where she and Tarzan met) and a conversation with concerned America envoy William “George” Washington (Samuel L. Jackson), Tarzan reluctantly returns to the wilds of Africa.

But once there he discovers that his invitation was a cover for an agreement between Brom and tribal chief Mbongo (Djimon Honshou) to deliver Tarzan to the vengeful chief’s clutches in return for unimaginable riches and the means to turn the entire Congo into a slave colony. Brom kills indiscriminately, takes Jane and many of their friends prisoner and Tarzan soon finds himself racing against time to save his wife and loved ones while preventing the Congo from becoming a nightmarish slave nation.

Fist off, Tarzan is not exactly a good movie. Nor is it a tongue in cheek self parody the way Huntsman: The Winter War was (deliberate or not). Tarzan does take itself seriously (sometimes to its own detriment) and tries really hard to be a grown up movie. And in fairness, if you turn your head just so and squint your eyes just enough, you can catch glimpses of its potential. While this movie may be a groaner where you spend a lot of time rolling your eyes you might not be able to help smiling at the same time.

Without a doubt, the best part of the movie is Robbie as Jane. Hardly a damsel in distress, this Jane is defiant and independent. It’s unfortunate that she is still relegated to a supporting player who, despite not being your stereotypical female action lead, still needs rescuing. Considering the strength of Robbie’s spirited performance, it’s a shame director David Yates and the film’s producers didn’t boldly seize the opportunity to make her the lead (now that would have been a real re-imagining) and you can almost see Harley Quinn, the female anti-hero she will be playing in next month’s Suicide Squad, bubbling just beneath the surface. Jackson is effective as the comic relief and the every man that grounds the action next to Tarzan’s seeming superhuman heroics and Skarsgard is better than expected as Clayton/Tarzan, bringing more depth to the role then just long hair and a set of abs.

Waltz does his job as the cold hearted and ruthless Brom, a man who balances human suffering against profit on a spreadsheet. He follows no fanatical ideology, just his single-minded pursuit of wealth and national pride, no matter the human toll, and is a perfect embodiment of unchecked colonial greed and the unimaginable misery that resulted from empire building. Hollywood seems to have run out of ways to use Waltz though. As his debut in Inglorious Basterds proved, he can play a wicked villain, insidious, charming and thoroughly ruthless. Yet his last few roles seem uninterested in exploring his acting mettle. He gets the job done here, but Brom could have been a much deeper, much more malevolent presence. But Yates seems content to settle for barely despicable from one of the most versatile and underrated character actors in Hollywood right now instead of outright chilling villainy. It’s another choice that Tarzan makes that keeps it from exceeding mild mediocrity.

And while the story is pretty straight forward (hoping to minimize mistakes), it isn’t without its potholes. When Tarzan returns to the jungle after an eight-year absence, wandering the streets of London for the better part of a decade, he resumes his vine swinging, tree jumping and cliff diving antics without hesitation or regret. He’s beyond an Olympic level athlete and his physical prowess returns to him without missing a heartbeat. Apparently eight years in cold, rainy London didn’t leave the slightest bit of rust. He encounters animals that are not only are still alive but have powerful memories of him. And seriously, how do people raised in the jungle by apes who then spend their adult lives in Britain, the world capital of bad oral hygiene, have perfect teeth? Even the natives and gorillas have immaculate chompers. Apparently there’s good work to be had or dentists in the jungle.

Tarzan has plenty of warts and it plays it safe, ignoring it’ own possibility in favour of being a mildly amusing little action film. It spends most of its time just trying to stay out of its own way and explore it’s own potential. In fact The Legend of Tarzan is the movie that 2013’s The Lone Ranger could have been; a decent action movie that respects its iconic hero. Tarzan may not be good, but it isn’t horrible and it’s definitely worth checking out on half price Tuesday.

Shayne Kempton

TURBO HAS ITS MILDLY HUMOROUS MOMENTS BUT UNLIKE PIXAR OR PREVIOUS DREAMWORKS EFFORTS, IT WILL PRESENT LITTLE APPEAL TO ANYONE OVER THE AGE OF FIVE

Director:  David Soren

Starring:  Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Pena, Bill Hader, Louis Guzman, Richard Jenkins, Michelle Rodriguez Ken Jeong and Snoop Dog

Studio:  Dreamworks Animation

Length:  1 Hr and 36 Min

Rated:  Family

Pixar is considered Hollywood’s reigning heavyweight when it comes to computer animated features; and with good reason.  But Dreamworks Studios is a more than solid second, responsible for the enormously successful Shrek and Madagascar franchises, the brilliant How To Train Your Dragon and this years The Croods, a movie that not only debuted strong, but whose persistent success (it was still attracting movie goers four months after it opened in March) convinced Dreamworks to schedule a sequel for a 2017 release.  So suffice to say that they know a thing or two about cranking out successful animated features, ones that make the grown-ups laugh right along with the kids (though usually for different reasons).  Which makes Turbo just a little more disappointing.  While this tale about a supersonic snail has its cute moments, it falls flat with anyone whose daily curriculum no longer includes nap time.

Theo (Ryan Reynolds, a busy boy who stars in the science fiction-comedy R.I.P.D also released this weekend-and who voiced the forward thinking homo-sapien Guy in the aforementioned The Croods) is a speedster who dreams to be a race car driver.  He rushes home from work to watch it every night on a banged up old TV in the garage, he collects VHS tapes on racing and idolizes the sport’s current franchise celebrity, French Canadian driving sensation Guy Gagne (Bill Hader).  The problem is Theo is a snail, and work is the local garden where he and his fellow slugs eat the overripe, unwanted tomatoes that fall of the vine.  Chet (Paul Giamatti) is Theo’s older brother as well as the safety manager in their garden.  Despite being Theo’s exact opposite, living a life of complacent caution and acceptance, Chet has been looking out for his wide-eyed little brother their whole lives.  Theo is the object of ridicule among his fellow snails until a freak accident grants him super speed.  Unfortunately, before he can adequately get a handle on his new powers (which also include headlights in his eyeballs and a luminous stereo system in his shell), an accident gets him and his brother fired.  The two then get caught up in a snail racing ring, run by a group of business owners who haven’t seen a paying customer since George Bush was President (George Bush Sr. that is).  The desperate merchants are headed by Tito (Michael Pena), who runs a Taco restaurant with his brother Angelo (Louis Guzman), who like Chet, disapproves of is younger brother’s endless dreaming.  But once Tito discovers Turbo’s amazing speed, he hatches a plan (with Turbo’s subtle prodding) to enter the super powered snail in the Indianapolis 500.  Accompanied by racing snail Whiplash (Samuel L. Jackson) and his posse of misfits and the reluctant Chet, Turbo soon finds himself headlining the biggest race car event in the world.

Turbo offers younger viewers a nice lesson in following their dreams despite the scorn of others as well as on sibling love and acceptance.  It’ll tickle the funny bone of most toddlers and has a handful of nice little sight gags.  And while Jackson’s turn as the borderline crazy Whiplash offers more than his share of laughs (then again, when have you known Jackson not to deliver, even when it’s only his voice?) Turbo just doesn’t seem to share the same heart, the same magic, as many of Dreamworks other family fare.  The majority of the laughs are aimed at the half pint crowd, and while that’s fine, it’s less than what people have come to expect from Dreamworks given their impressive resume in the animated genre.  And in a summer where it finds itself competing against proven properties like Pixar’s Monsters University and Universal Studios’ current box office juggernaut Despicable Me 2, Turbo will likely get lost in the animated shuffle.

Shayne Kempton

ENGINES STALLED

UNLEASH THE BEAST

SUSPENSE FLICK WON’T BREAK ANY BOX OFFICE RECORDS, BUT IT DOES OFFER A TROUBLING LOOK IN THE MIRROR

Director:  James DeMonaco

Starring:  Ethan Hawke, Lena Heady

Studio:  Universal Pictures

Rated:  14A

Length:  85 minutes

     A little less than a decade from now, the United Sates rests on the brink of Utopia.  Almost everyone has a job, poverty’s virtually non-existent and crime rates are at historic lows.  And America owes it all to the Purge, an annal ritual where murder, rape, rioting and any other form of human violation and atrocity is legalized for one night, allowing people to unleash the violence and hatred they’ve contained for an entire year on their fellow citizens with no fear of consequence or retribution.  Emergency services are suspended for twelve hours with police, firefighters, paramedics and other first responders hunkering down for the night, waiting for the sun to rise and preparing to deal with the bloody fallout.  Emergency rooms close up shop, turning the wounded and dying away until the Purge has ended.  High ranking politicians are immune to the Purge and the government puts some minimal restrictions on the severity of weapons revellers can use but everything (and everyone) else is fair game.  The rich hide behind security systems and curtains of steel that turn their homes into vaults, while the poor and the not so rich hunker down and pray.

     And thus is the story behind James DeMonaco’s The Purge, telling the tale of the Sandin family on Purge night.  The Sandins are doing quite well thank you very much, they are one of the “haves,” as an enthusiastic Purge participant would later phrase it.  James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is his company’s most successful salesman of security systems, and he’s turned many of his neighbours into satisfied, safe customers.  Outside of their affluence, the Sandins are just like a lot of other families.  Teenage daughter Zoe rolls her eyes at everything her parents say and has more interest in the boyfriend she’s been forbidden from seeing and her smart phone than her family.  Son Charlie fiddles with remote control toys and is reaching the age where he begins to question authority.  And Mary (Lena Heady) is the matriarch of the clan, carefully balancing everyone’s growing impatience with each other.  They take refuge within their fortified home come Purge night, just like every other year, but when Charlie gives a hunted man sanctuary, everything falls horribly off the tracks.  Because soon the Purge revellers hunting the refugee the Sandins find themselves harbouring soon come knocking with an ultimatum.  Hand their prey over or they kill everyone.  Soon the Sandins find themselves hunting for their reluctant refugee before the murderers laying siege to their home come for him.  And them.

     The Purge isn’t going to spark a wave of social commentary, it isn’t that epic in scale, but it confronts you with some very unsettling questions regardless.  DeMonaco seems at home telling these kind of stories, where the conflicts between his characters illustrate the larger point against a tense backdrop.  The Negotiator was a perfect example of his preferred storytelling (the excellent friction between Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson made you forget that the plot was ludicrous).

     At the heart of The Purge is a question about the importance of the many outweighing the importance of the few.  Before the Purge was conceived, we are told that the United States was dying, its economy in ruins, mired in pointless wars overseas, its crime, poverty and social strife reaching stratospheric levels.  Then a newly elected group of leaders, reverently referred to as the new Fore Fathers, invented the Purge.  America, we are told, was born anew from the bloody womb of this new phenomenon, but critics point out that not everyone can afford steel gates and video cameras and a dozen guns to protect themselves, and that the Purge is actually the ritual murder of the poor and homeless, the old and the sick (sort of like the Tea party’s wet dream).  And in fact, the wealthy prey almost exclusively on the poor, feeling that murdering those beneath them is divine entitlement.  The wounded stranger who hides within the Sandin’s home is homeless himself, with nothing but his clothes and his dog tags to his name.  The question then isn’t would you sacrifice the lives of a few for the benefit of the many, but would you sacrifice the suffering and agony of the few to the greedy blood lust of the upper crust for a good employment rate?  And if your answer is yes, what happens when you become one of the few to be sacrificed?  How much would you still support that equation?

     The Purge is nice little bit of entertainment, though keeping with the movie’s theme, the violence is done on an intimate level (it’s more SAW than Die Hard, though the blood is far from being simple gore shown for gore’s sake).  But don’t expect  to be distracted too much, because you’ll find yourself asking questions you might not like the answer to.

Shayne Kempton