Connect with us


‘Mortal Engines’ is Running on Empty




Mortal Engines is a movie so close to being good sometimes it’s depressing. Christian Rivers’ post-apocalyptic hero’s melodrama is a visually gorgeous movie. Sadly, it’s hampered by characters so paper thin it’s a miracle they don’t float away mid-sentence. It’s less a story and more two hours filled with concepts and action set pieces.

At times while watching Mortal Engines, I felt as if I was watching someone pitch a tabletop RPG rather than a movie. Indeed I caught myself thinking I’d rather play this than watch it several times throughout the movie.

To be fair, the concepts of Mortal Engines are absolutely made for the big screen. The notion that civilization all but wiped itself out within a span of sixty seconds using weapons of mass destruction is not that far-fetched—the “Sixty Second War” as the character’s call it. Especially when we realize the weapons, far from being atomic, are instead energy conductors. The remaining survivors exist on mobile tanks, cities on wheels if you will.

From time to time smaller cities will connect with each other to form one larger city and become stationary. But other cities, larger cities, roam the countryside, threatening to gobble up the smaller cities and strip them for parts and resources. The bigger cities are called “predator colonies,” and as concepts go, it’s a beautiful metaphor that isn’t even remotely a metaphor.

Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson adapted the script from the novel of the same name, unread by me, by Philip Reeve. The archetypes that play well on the page begin to grate after a while when blown up to larger than life. The trio has peppered the story with what seems like a tsunami of mythos but as the story trundles along, we realize it’s all illusion.

Bear me with me if you will as I try and give you some idea of the plot. But first, the villain, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). He is the chief architect on London, a predator colony. A local celebrity and high ranking official, he is seen by everyone in the city as a benevolent progressive official. Whatever faults the script may have, the naming of its villain and it’s heroine are not one of them.

The name Valentine rolls off the tongue and seems uniquely suited to be growled, mumbled, bellowed, and cursed. Have no fear, Mortal Engines finds a way to say Valentine’s name in all these forms. Plus in a few ways I’m not sure how to qualify.

The heroine is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar). Much like Valentine, characters throughout the movie’s runtime find a myriad of ways to holler, cry, whisper, mutter, and curse. I’m telling you, if there’s one thing Mortal Engines understands it’s the value of a good name to cry out.

Rivers has wisely cast charismatic leads in both Weaving and Hilmar. Weaving, as ever, struts, plots, and schemes his way towards the climax. He has a way of arching an eyebrow that spells devious machinations in a way few actors working today possess.

Himlar in her trench coat and red scarf that covers her face skulks around the edges of the frame like The Shadow in the opening few minutes. Of all the characters, she knows what evil lies in Valentine’s heart. Hester Shaw’s character arc goes from “I must kill Valentine” to “I must kill Valentine” but Hilmar sells it. She has a wonderful mystery about her as she plays a desperate loner traversing the outlands in search of vengeance.

Now, Hester tracks down a smaller city that she hopes will be eaten up by London. Lo and behold, she lucks out. Once aboard London, she attempts to assassinate Valentine. As she emerges from the crowd, her billowing red scarf covering her “hideous” scar, she yells out, what else, “Valentine!” I’m telling you, it’s a great name.

Hester is foiled by Tom (Robert Sheehan), a local historian who works for the museums. His job is to give us the exposition. It is here where Rivers drops the ball. Whatever talents Sheehan has, bearing the weight and responsibility of the character affectionately called “Captain Exposition” in my head is not one of them. A failing that is compounded by Walsh, Boyens, and Jackson’s insistence that even though Hester is the one with the hero’s name, the backstory, and the look, Tom is actually the hero.

Oh, Hester gets a few moments, but Tom is the one who teaches her how to love. It is around this point that I began to feel a creeping terror. Aside from Hester, there is Valentine’s daughter Katherine (Leila George). Hester is the gritty, genderless, humorless, brunette while Katherine is the bubbly, perfectly coiffed, kind, jovial blonde. She’s the doting daughter who will have her world shaken by the discovery of the monster her father truly is.

Except she gets shoved aside and almost forgotten. But don’t worry, she is shown the error and naivety of her ways by a puckish mechanic, Bevis (Ronan Raftery). Are you starting to sense a pattern? It gets worse.

As Mortal Engines, started I was pleased to see an array of non-white characters in the background. Even Tom’s boss, the head of the museum, Chudleigh Pomeroy (Colin Salmon), is included. Salmon, a black man, is an actor who it just so happens would slaughter the Captain Exposition role. Sadly he is left behind. With each passing minute, a character played by a person of color would be introduced and then promptly vanished never to be seen again.

Until Anna Fang (Jihae) shows up. Jihae’s Fang is a dashing, swaggering rebel leader so charismatic and larger than life it makes us weep that we soon have to return to Tom and Hester’s whimpering relationship. Fang is known as a terrorist, and throughout most of the film, her face adorns bounty posters and television screens. She is infamous but we’re never really told why.

Jihae’s role is both smaller than you think but nowhere near as large as it should be. She is quite frankly, perfect. If Mortal Engines would drop Bevis and Tom and focus on the trinity of Hester Shaw, Katherine, and Anna all coming together to defeat “Valentine!” we’d have ourselves a winner.

Yet Rivers never seems to decide what he wants to do. Mortal Engines feels like a rich and inventive world, but the more we explore it the more it seems staid and familiar. He teases us with possibilities but rarely delivers.

Though the sky city, a floating city that doubles as a docking station, was far and away just a beautiful piece of set design. I’m a sucker for steampunk-inspired aviation design, and Anna Fang’s ship and the city itself were a highlight of the movie. It’s a series of hot air balloons with each house designed like a paper lantern. It was a glimpse of the imagination sitting on much of the surface but lacking in the core of Mortal Engines.

It should come as no surprise that the one character with the most heart and most emotionally effective character arc was the Frankenstein-esque robot bounty hunter, Shrike (Stephen Lange). We’re told that back when humanity was rebuilding itself after the Sixty Second War, the Lazarus Patrol was built. Part mechanical and part rotting corpse flesh, they wouldn’t stop until their mission was completed.

Wouldn’t you know it? Valentine hears about Shrike, locked away on a Prison boat who won’t stop bellowing the name, “Hester Shaw!” So, he sinks the prison, allowing Shrike to escape and hunt down Hester for “breaking her promise.” I won’t reveal what her promise is. Suffice to say, I found Shrike’s and Hester’s relationship to be fraught with a kind of dark and compassionate love entirely out of place in Mortal Engines.

The final scene between the two had me a little choked up if I’m honest. Lange’s voice and Hilmar’s face convey a rich, vibrant, and full gamut of emotions. They somehow transcend the mediocrity and schlock of Mortal Engines and achieve something truly moving and dramatic.

Simon Raby’s camera gives us a colorful movie but the frames never pop. The action feels photographed instead of captured. Mortal Engines starts out strong but begins to drag, partly because it has no feel or style. It has a production design and an art department, but a movie is more than it’s props. Movies are about movement. How characters move within the scene. The timing of the cuts between frames. All of it coalesces to make up a feel and rhythm of a story. Mortal Engines is in focus, the set design is lush and gorgeous, but it has no feeling, flow, or energy.

The last act of Mortal Engines drags on for an eternity of time. I mentally checked out, as I’m wont do with movies like these. If you’ve seen one overblown, lengthy, special effect laden, drawn out action set piece, you’ve seen them all.

Movies like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse wisely connect the story to the action so the fights have real-world consequences beyond ‘stop the doohickey from blowing up and save the world’. While Mortal Engines never has the fate of the world hanging in the balance, it already ended before the movie started; after all, it has more than its fair share of doohickeys. It’s just not enough to save the movie.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Notify of


‘A Dog’s Way Home’ Needs a Tighter Leash




To be perfectly honest, if I were a child I’d probably love A Dog’s Way Home. I say this not just because the children at my screening seemed riveted and on the literal edge of their seat seats. No, I say this because I remember loving movies like Benji the Hunted and The Adventures of Milo and Otis.

It goes back even further though. Hollywood has long peddled movies such as Black Beauty and The Black Stallion at youngsters and the grandparents who accompany them. These movies exist for families to go and experience uncomplicated stories with cute little animals braving the horrors of the world.

A Dog’s Way Home is harmless enough but unless you have children or have a special affinity for this genre of movie it may well be, as it was for me, excruciating. While I used to enjoy those movies, I have long since gotten over them. One could argue that I’m poorer for it.

Charles Martin Smith is a wonderful character actor from movies like No Deposit, No Return, and Starman. He has directed such movies as the infamous Trick or Treat and, in its own way, the equally infamous Air Bud. A Dog’s Way Home somehow bridges the two together.

For most of the movie, we follow Bella (voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) played by Shelby the dog, a cute and expressive mixed pit bull. She embarks on a four hundred mile journey to return to her owner Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King). We’ve all heard stories like this before. Stories where a dog, cat, or some other animal travels a great distance to somehow miraculously find it’s way home. These stories have great power to them because for us, I imagine, it challenges our perceptions about the inner lives our pets lead. Maybe there is something more to these animals than just sit, heel, and beg. Add to all of that the basic simple draw of the basic human desire to return home.

Home need not be the place you grew up or even where you were born. After all, Bella was born in the cellar of an abandoned and run down house. Her mother and siblings were taken by animal control. She was raised by a family of cats who also lived in the building. Eventually, Lucas and Olivia (Alexandra Shipp) find her and take her in.

No, home is where we feel “safe from all alarm” as the song goes. It’s why movies such as O’Brother Where Art Thou cast such a lasting spell on the psyche of its audience. Even the story of which it’s based, The Odyssey, is about characters who yearn to be back with their loved ones.

All of this is not to say A Dog’s Way Home is any good. I love Bryce Dallas Howard. She is often the best thing about movies that I don’t generally like. Here though, as the voice of Bella, less is more.

The script, written by W. Bruce Cameron and Cathryn Michon, makes Bella a constant insufferable narrator. Cameron, who wrote the book the film is based on, seems to misunderstand the differences between the mediums. In a book, the narration is necessary in order to give us insight into Bella’s fear and emotions.

But dogs are far and away the most expressive of animals. Often times Howard’s voice-over feels insulting to children. She is forced to say such lines as “I was so happy.” My hatred of children is well documented, but even I am forced to argue on their behalf. Surely a child is able to tell when a dog is happy or sad without being told so. If not, then we may have more problems then we are aware of.

Cameron and Michon can’t seem to make up their minds how they want A Dog’s Way Home to be. For much of the movie, it is a harmless saccharine sweet piece of fluff. Even with poor Howard’s inane dialogue. But at times there were moments of manufactured drama that seem out of place.

For example, the home where Lucas and Olivia found Bella. It is a crumbling house amidst a row of condemned houses owned by Gunter (Brian Markinson). Gunter is the greedy landowner whose plans to renovate the street are foiled because of the rumors of cats living in the rubble. The animal control department, the same ones who took Bella’s family, claim there are no cats. Spoiler alert: there are still cats living there.

Gunter is the villain in a movie that clearly doesn’t even need a villain. Much like Bella doesn’t need a voice, A Dog’s Way Home almost goes out of its way to make itself more complicated than it needs to be. Gunter, enraged by Lucas and Olivia’s attempts at forcing him to employ the barest of due diligence, lashes out.

He labels Bella a Pit Bull. Here’s where A Dog’s Way Home gets interesting, sort of. In Denver under the law, “pit bull,” is extremely vague. It’s a catch-all term that encompasses any animal deemed dangerous or a threat to public safety. The whole first act of A Dog’s Way Home is set up for what seems to be an attempt at exploring the pitfalls of breed-specific laws and regulations.

Lucas and his mother Terri (Ashley Judd) make the difficult decision to move Bella out of Denver at a friend’s house. Lucas and Olivia will find a house outside Denver and collect Bella then. But Bella runs away before Lucas can come to get her.

Believe it or not, I am not a monster. As much as I was bored to tears in A Dog’s Way Home and as much as I prayed for a power outage, or for the projector to malfunction, anything to save me from the tedious time at the movies, parts of it worked. Smith from time to time, scales back Howard’s voice over and allows Shelby the dog to just do her thing. At these moments I found myself, much like the little girl in front of me, absorbed by Bella’s plight.

Moments such as when Bella saves a man buried alive from an avalanche only to be found by an interracial gay couple. No, you didn’t misread that sentence and I’m not exaggerating. The order and contents of that sentence are exactly correct. Gavin (Barry Watson) and Taylor (Motell Gyn Foster) have moments with Bella which are simple and effective. We are allowed to just watch without being told what anyone is feeling or thinking.

When Bella leaves to continue her hunt for Lucas, we feel the pang of loss both for the men and for Bella. But nothing prepares us for the hard left turn involving Axel (Edward James Olmos). He’s a homeless Veteran who adopts Bella. He keeps her on a leash and eventually chains her to his body and promptly dies. She is left to die of starvation and dehydration.

Don’t worry, unlike most modern day dog movies, Bella lives. She is discovered by two kids who are about to have their own Stand By Me adventure. Their discovery of Bella is soon overcome by their discovery of Axel.

I haven’t even mentioned the part where Bella basically raises a cougar cub or the subplot about how pets and animals make for good coping therapy for veterans. For a movie that doesn’t have much under the surface, a lot happens above it. Heck, even the legendary Wes Studi shows up at the end. He plays the one character with anything close to resembling common sense and rationality. A welcome reprieve in a movie oftentimes filled with idiots.

Smith tries in vain to tie all of this together into a cohesive story and to some degree he succeeds. Shot by Peter Menzies Jr, the film is pretty to look at and at times borders on more of a nature documentary than a movie. Many scenes involve blatant CGI so as to not put Shelby or the other animals in danger. Although one scene where Bella is concussed by a police car as it skids to a stop jolted me out of my seat.

A Dog’s Way Home is nothing if not sincere in its aim. It just wants to be a little story about a dog trying to get home. I didn’t particularly enjoy it. But I found myself charmed by the little things it did despite my stubborn curmudgeonous demeanor.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Continue Reading


Golden Globes Declare #MeToo Movement Finally Over, Award Top Prize to Embattled Director

Dan Arndt



My fellow moviegoers, our long national nightmare is over. The first step came last night at the Golden Globe awards when the Best Motion Picture-Drama Award was given to Bohemian Rhapsody, created and directed by Bryan Singer. While Singer, who directed the first two X-Men movies and allegedly raped an underage boy half his age in the ’90s, was not at the show in person, the award indicates that Hollywood is ready to move past #MeToo.

Giving the award to Bohemian Rhapsody was only the third worst part of the awards

Singer, who’s been fighting these allegations for years (stretching back to 1997), had left the picture in 2017 after, yes, more allegations came out. However, he laid most of the groundwork for the piece and was a producer, as well as the credited director despite clean-up work by Dexter Fletcher. With all that in mind, and with the easy out of Bohemian Rhapsody being not really that good, the Hollywood Foreign Press decided to give a movie that still listed Singer as director their most prestigious award, even as multiple actresses sat in the audience bearing #TimesUp on their outfits.

While there’s been no official statement from the Globes or the company behind Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s clear that there was at least some attempt to un-person him, as he went unmentioned in Rami Malek’s speech for his (well deserved) Best Actor award, as well as those for the Best Motion Picture-Drama award itself. He was notably absent from the stage and the audience as well. After, the producers were cagey on whether Singer shared in the award, and Malek tried to block by shifting the focus back to Freddie Mercury. Singer did acknowledge the award on his Instagram, however, and thanked the Hollywood Foreign Press.

View this post on Instagram

What an honor. Thank you #HollywoodForeignPress

A post shared by Bryan Singer (@bryanjaysinger) on

With #MeToo finally over, perhaps the other awards shows will follow suit. Perhaps Louis C.K. get a Grammy for his leaked comedy audio where he called the Parkland Teens “boring,” or maybe Kevin Spacey will get a Tony for his bizarre monologue from Christmas. The skies the limit thanks to the Golden Globes! And don’t worry about Bryan, he’s still helping produce The Gifted for Marvel and Fox. Oh, and he’s in talks to direct Red Sonja.

Images via Hollywood Foreign Press

Continue Reading


Walk, Don’t Run to ‘Escape Room’




Escape Room is an enjoyable, if at times quite effective, horror film. If you liked Saw or the Final Destination movies you will more than likely enjoy this. Both of these franchises have built a successful formula out of sitting in the dark watching people die in varying elaborate Rube Goldberg fashion.

The difference is that the Saw movies try to behave as if they have some deeper moralistic or philosophical meaning to it all. The Final Destination movies, however, never pretend to be anything other than what they are. For the record, I enjoy the latter over the former.

Your enjoyment of Escape Room will largely depend on how much gore versus how much riddle and puzzle solving you like in your horror. Either way, the movie is competent enough and slick enough to make the tension work. Adam Robitel, the director, has given us a relatively decent horror movie for January.

My tepid response comes not from my bias towards Final Destination over Saw. Rather it”s my own personal taste. Quite frankly this is not the type of movie that I particularly enjoy. To be clear neither is Final Destination. Horror movies are my least favorite genre. Sometimes I enjoy them. But most of the time I am unable to overcome my initial unease at watching them.

Escape Room follows six seemingly unconnected characters as they make their way through one elaborate booby trap after another. Because of the modern cinematic landscape, these six strangers will all have something in common. God forbid six strangers actually turn out to be six strangers with nothing in common. The thread that ties the characters together is revealed as the movie goes along.

The structure of the movie tips its hand slightly. Escape Room is designed for fans of the genre but its surprises will be easily spotted. For example of the six characters only Zoe (Taylor Russell), Ben (Logan Miller), and Jason (Jay Ellis) are given any kind of backstory. We see each of them receive an elaborate puzzle box which contains an invitation. The other three, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), Mike (Tyler Labine), and Danny (Nik Dodani), we meet at the escape room itself. Since they have no backstory, and we have no connection to them, they will be the first to die.

To give Escape Room credit it’s never really obvious which of the three will die. The movie begins with the last scene. Knowing this tells us more than the last three we met will die. The suspense becomes who and in what order. Of course, all of this is predicated on the notion that Escape Room is playing fair with us. Meaning if the beginning is really the end, then everything I’ve just said is correct. Except since this is a horror movie, the notion that it would be playing fair is naive.

The script written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik is inventive in how the rooms are designed and plotted out to relate to each of the characters. The problem is that as fun as Escape Room is it begins to wobble by the end. The cracks begin to show towards the end. For much it’s runtime Escape Room is grounded to some degree in reality. By the end it has lept off the rails and into an over the top Illuminati inspired ending.

While Escape Room at times feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone it never feels over the top. Robitel manages to make the improbability and most convoluted coincidences and designs seem believable. But the ending verges into television, “I’ll get you next time!” territory. It feels hokey and overdone. 

Up until the end though it’s a perfectly serviceable horror movie. Taylor Russell as the shy and introverted Zoey is a lovely presence. Her character adds a layer of tension. She’s so likable and endearing you begin to feel bad for her even before people start dying. Russell has a thankless job of turning her character from shy savant to embracing being the smartest one in the room.

Deborah Ann Woll is the other bright spot. An ex Iraq veteran she is the pragmatic voice of the group as well as the unspoken leader. Of all the cast members she has the most physically challenging role. In a movie where characters must out run, out think, and out guess a faceless menace, her Amanda has to outdo them all.

The most effective scene involves a room designed like a honky-tonk pool room. Russell’s Zoey realizes the records on the wall are a picture puzzle while Woll’s Amanda figures out the clue must be in a lockbox. The room is upside down. The timer is the floor giving way in sections revealing a massive elevator shaft beneath.

Despite my initial boredom, I was curled into a tight ball watching the group try and work through the room. Whatever predictability Escape Room has Robitol and his writers seem aware of it and either lean into it or tease you with enough information for us to know we don’t have everything.

Marc Spicer, the cinematographer, and editor Steve Mirkovich work together to make a cohesive horror thriller. Despite its shortcomings, I found myself cringing from the intensity of the atmosphere. Spicer and Mirkovich cleverly play with the boundaries of PG-13 rating. Utilizing the constraints they are able to create a very specific atmosphere of dread despite the ludicrousness of the plot.

The rising popularity of escape rooms only made the inevitability of a horror movie about them all the more likely. The element of some far-seeing shadowy billionaire oligarch behind it all is merely a sign of our ever-increasing class-conscious times. Escape Room does what it promises to do, but trips over itself trying to set up a future franchise deal. All in all not bad for a January horror film.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Continue Reading