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Movie Reviews




Released: 11th April 2018

Directed By: Brad Peyton

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris

Reviewed By: Van Connor

In a startlingly blunt profile piece for Rolling Stone recently, it came to light that Dwayne Johnson’s mantra upon tackling any new project is “elevate and dominate”, a philosophy you can’t help but respect when you walk away from his latest blockbuster offering, Rampage. You respect it because it brings to mind that moment at the onset of Johnson’s 2003 actioner The Rundown (hilariously – in hindsight – retitled Welcome to the Jungle for UK audiences) in which Arnold Schwarzengger put in a rather amusing meta-cameo to literally wish the up-and-coming star “good luck”, a moment that appears to have meant more to the former Rock than anyone quite expected.

Schwarzennegger, you see, hit something of a professional sweet spot in the early nineties – not by becoming the biggest action star on the planet – that was incidental – but instead by unearthing just what it might take to become the biggest star on the planet, full stop. That secret, surprisingly, was to embrace the full-blown family movie audience, and drag them along to the next project with you – laughing all to the way to the bank as you went. Where Arnie fell flat, however, was in never finding the right projects to maintain that audience post-Kindergarten Cop, and it’s a defeat Dwayne Johnson emerges from Rampage with no sign of ever falling victim to himself.

Rampage is, for the most part, Monster Movie 101 – an unashamed, smash-a-minute, explosion-heavy kaiju flick that just happens to include a “don’t you dare mistreat animals!” subtext and plays equally well to both children and adults as it romps along with the heir apparent to the Fast & Furious franchise front and centre. It’s also, and it’s easy to forget this, an adaptation of the classic eighties arcade game that’s become a staple of background imagery in 80s-set pieces such as Stranger Things and IT – meaning that, mere weeks after releasing the best video game to film adaptation in history, Warner Bros. have brilliantly managed to top their own achievement with nary a spark of fanfare for doing so.

With the video game story (or, realistically, lack thereof) being shunted to the third act, the set-up of Rampage sees Johnson as military man-turned-zoologist (suggesting there was a West Point class at some point that included only Johnson and Jurassic World’s Chris Pratt character) Davis Okoye, San Diego animal handler and best friend to albino gorilla George. When a secret genetic experiment taking place on a space station (just roll with it) causes a manmade virus to rain down on the Earth, George is one of three animals across the United States to come into contact with it, and, soon enough, begins to grow at an extraordinary rate – with his aggression rising correspondingly. As George’s behaviour becomes increasingly dangerous, it’s down to Davis and disgraced geneticist Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) to pursue the unhinged gorilla as he makes his way toward his creators’ homing beacon in the city of Chicago, but, unbeknownst to them, George isn’t alone – and there are two creatures afflicted by the same toxin headed to the same destination.

Reuniting Johnson with director Brad Peyton was always going to be an obvious no-brainer. The pair delivered impressive disaster movie results with San Andreas a couple years back, and the idea of revisiting that movie’s tone and four-quadrant tentpole appeal with the added spectacle of a Godzilla flick is an insanely easy sell for an audience in 2018 – particularly when it’s delivered by way of yet another vessel so imbued with the personality of Johnson himself, that it could have just as easily been retitled Dwayne Johnson vs the Monsters and likely not have lost out on a single ticket sold. Johnson is a movie star through and through, so much so that – if there were a special sauce that made movie stars – he’d presumably be marinating in it overnight before his 4am shift in the Iron Paradise (no joke – actually what he calls his gym). Is he the greatest actor of his generation? Hell no – and Jeffrey Dean Morgan continually shows up to remind him he’s not even close to being the most fun – but his presence is so integral to the feeling that makes Rampage so enjoyable that you know full well it could never in a million years have hit the family-friendly bullseye that it does were it not for the baddest of the bald.

On the action front, Peyton’s the pitch-perfect man to helm it all – his action set-pieces impressively coherent considering the sheer volume of activity taking place in any given moment, his character scenes are tight and engaging, and, though it’s yet another tentpole blockbuster that succumbs to that increasingly tiresome trend of bleached-out colour, it’s reigned in just enough to offer quite a lively palette too. Hats off, as well, to the motion capture work behind George, with Jason Liles’ performance not quite up to Andy Serkis’ grade, but an admirably engaging and likeable turn that nonetheless shines through the many layers of computer animation needed to bring the gorilla hero to life. It’s a shame that Malin Ackerman and Jake Lacy bring an even more animated sensibility to their would-be antagonists, but, considering they’ve sold the gorilla, a giant flying wolf, and a mega-crocodile, the pair are just one cartoonish black spot among an otherwise pretty glowing roster.

It outdoes the Transformers franchise for “a man and his monster” action. It laps San Andreas for disaster movie cred, and it might be the most Dwayne Johnsonish Dwayne Johnson movie to date – Rampage is a helluva time. A pulse-pounding building-levelling rollercoaster of a summer blockbuster led by the movie star of our time. An unbelievable amount of fun, with likeable characters, an engaging dunder-headed story that’s in it as much for the fun as it is an animal rights message, and a healthy dollop of requisitely saccharine Hollywood emotion to boot. If you’ve been on tenterhooks waiting for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom to come along and light up your summer, take a break and embrace the Rampage, cos if the raptors and the Rex can top this…

Keeper of Lola M. Bear. Film critic for Movie Marker, TalkRADIO, and others. Producer of podcasts. Skechers enthusiast and blazer aficionado. All opinions my own.

Movie Reviews

LFF Review 2018 – Madeline’s Madeline ★★★★



Madelines Madeline Movie Marker

Director: Josephine Decker

Stars: Miranda July, Molly Parker, Helena Howard

Released: London Film Festival

Indie favourite actress/director, Josephine Decker premiered her third feature, Madeline’s Madeline at Sundance earlier this year where she received praise for her unconventional take on mental illness.

16 years old Madeline suffers from unspecified mental health problems which have created a wedge between her and her slightly over bearing mother (Miranda July). Spending most of her time alone, she finds comfort when joining an experimental theatre troupe and even develops a strong bond with its ambitious director, Evangeline (the psychotic Molly Parker). When Evangeline starts to use Madeline’s delicate mental state and personal issues with her mother as part of her play, the line between reality and illusion quickly starts to blur.

‘The emotions you are having are not your own. They are someone else’s. You are not the cat – you are inside the cat’. So begins 15 minutes of blurred and beautifully shot sequence that immediately puts the audience in a state of daze. When we are officially introduced to Madeline, we find an energetic young woman who would much rather disappear behind wild animals in theatre rehearsals than have any serious discussion with her mother. Sharing the screen is the interesting Evangeline, who is as passionate as inspiring but whose play doesn’t seem to make much sense to anyone, including herself.

The film’s stand out is the acting and nothing ever feels rehearsed. Helena Howard as Madeline is terrific and easily switches between the disturbed teenager, the cat, the seductress, the turtle and the actress, always bursting with energy and vulnerability.

The film has its witty moments, particularly when during an acting exercise Madeline decides to punish Evangeline for using her personal confessions by simulating a painful childbirth, in the hopes of terrifying the freshly pregnant teacher.

Decker also explores the interesting duality of the role of the artist. Often torn between the idea that creating is disappearing behind someone’s else story or on the contrary it is all about using real experiences to bring depth and authenticity, Decker seems to suggest it is a little of both and that both extremes could end up with either an artificial or violating result. No one understands what Evangeline’s play is about at first and when she finally finds substance that speaks to others (Madeline’s personal issues), she chooses to entirely focus on it instead of adding her own substance and ends up being kicked out by the troupe.

Madeline’s Madeline is visually stunning thanks to Ashley Connor ‘s imaginative cinematography and both Howard and Decker bring to life a condition that is still misunderstood and dismissed. The storyline does takes its time to emerge and the daze occasionally mixes with confusion. Howard keeps the audience in her mental maze throughout the film. It is messy, unusual and dense and maybe that was the whole point.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – A Private War ★★★



A Private War Movie Marker

Director: Matthew Heineman

Stars: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci, Tom Hollander

Released: London Film Festival 2018

‘ I see it so you don’t have to!’ Rosamund Pike, as war correspondent Marie Colvin, spits out at her Sunday Times editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander) towards the end of A Private War  as they argue on the banks of the Thames which rolls serenely past. She means the atrocities of war which she is compelled to return to time and again to report on despite hating her own compulsion. She does it, she believes, to give a voice to the ordinary men, women and children who are fodder for the military and political ambitions of dictators and leaders themselves safe in their palaces, well, until the mob gets to them and takes selfies with their mutilated corpse as we see later in the film.

Marie Colvin was a much celebrated war reporter who was killed in Syria in 2012 along with her interpreter/guide. She achieved fame in her lifetime for her fearless, uncompromising journalism but also for the black eye patch she wore after losing an eye in Sri Lanka when reporting on the Tamil Tigers in 2001. Her death will still be fresh in the minds of those who follow current affairs as will her extraordinary persona.

It’s a testament then to the tremendous power of Rosamund Pike’s performance that minutes into A Private War she becomes Colvin. The deep gravelly voice, the Long Island accent, the no nonsense, blunt manner of speaking are not only completely captured but taken possession of by the very English rose Pike.

She embodies Colvin with a natural ease which exposes the private vulnerabilities of a woman who could have been simplistically portrayed as a one of those annoying ‘strong, uncompromising women’ that Hollywood seems to think raises the female profile but real women find unbearable. Pike is not afraid to make the chain smoking, heavy drinking, conflicted Colvin unlikable at times. But it’s in the quiet, reflective moments of Colvin’s life when she is alone with her ravaged eye and light desire for the normal suburban life she rejected that Pike is at her most effective. This is a film about the psychological damage of seeing what the rest of us don’t have to as much as it is about the grotesque mess of war on the battlefield.

Colvin wants a child and considers it with the man (Greg Wise) she’s already divorced a couple of times despite having suffered two miscarriages. She may or may not be prone to seeking connection through other convenient liaisons. Her friend tells her she’s an alcoholic and she thinks about convincing a psychiatrist she’s sane so she can leave a rehab clinic she’s an inpatient in before she’s really up to it. She’s plagued by flashbacks and nightmares.
We learn all this about her but, like her, don’t have time to fully process any of it before she and we are whisked off to Iraq. There she meets a freelance photographer, Paul Conroy, (Jamie Dornan – Fifty Shades Freed) and the two quickly form a professional partnership with Colvin very much in the driving seat as to where they go and what risks they take. In one case this involves her confidently flashing a gym membership card to get through a heavily armed checkpoint. The friendship which builds between the two is not explored enough and Dornan is not given enough to do but when the inevitable danger which is foreshadowed throughout the film befalls them it’s intense and a swallow-hard moment.

Even though we know her death is coming , when it actually does, there’s a real sense of loss, largely due to Pike having brought Colvin to life so brilliantly beforehand. I predict we’ll be seeing a lot of Rosamund Pike during awards season for this timely film produced by Charlize Theron about a very modern heroine.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Assassination Nation ★★★★



Assassination Nation Movie Marker

Director: Sam Levinson

Stars: Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse

Released: London Film Festival 2018

When Director, Sam Levinson started writing Assassination Nation over two years ago, he probably had no idea how shockingly relevant this dark comedy would be today. Written as his wife was about to give birth, he credits his fear of raising his child in an increasingly brutal country as the main inspiration behind this vivid satire, depicting the disastrous consequences of living online.

The city of Salem, Massachusetts is about to delve into chaos when a data hacker starts exposing highly porn-ified secrets of its population. Internet search history, digital photos and texts conversations are published. Political careers and marriages end. The hack reaches Salem’s high school whose principal is also targeted and forced to resign, despite claiming his innocence. In need of a scapegoat, the town’s authority (macho detective and police man) finds it in high school head girl, Lily (Odessa Young), whose affair with a married man,  just leaked. Lily and her friends must face the town’s growing hysteria that quickly turns into a blood bath of sexism and brutality.

The film’s core storyline revolves around Lily, who with her friends make up the popular clique of Salem’s High School. The 1990’s had their mysterious virgin nymphs (“Virgin Suicide”) and the 2000s, their bullying princesses (“Mean Girl”) but in 2018, the popular girls are fun, clever and most of all, nasty. Born in a comfortable middle class family, Lily has good grades and a cheeky talent for drawing. What Lily and her friend lack is a reliable grown up figure to look up to. Surrounded by threatening boyfriends and denigrating parents, the only grown-up who pays her some attention is her principal but even he cannot completely give in when she makes a clever accusation of the sexism of internet and social media while defending her pornographic art work.

Assassination Nation 2 Movie Marker

There is thin line between victim and executioner in Assassination Nation and Levinson strategically jumps from teasing to threats as if one didn’t exist without the other. Levinson seems less interested in exposing the already well established outcomes of the digital age than exploring the hypocrisy and shaming young people, and particularly young woman, face on a daily basis.

Half way between  Little Red Riding Hood and Nikita, and far from victims, these girls fight back with whatever they are threaten with, usually guns but at times razors and even a shovel. Full of extreme close-ups, the camera is intrusive, and if this closeness can be difficult at first, it quickly helps creates a real connection with those girls.  Surrounded by obvious and familiar characters (naïve head cheerleader, immature boyfriend, cheating husband…), and lifted by invigorating performances by Hari Nef (Bex) and Odessa Young (Lily), these girls can only shine in authenticity and it is hard not to root for them.

Salem’s utter obliviousness takes final form in the slushy sipping little brother, revealed as the hacker. Youngest and quiet, he seemed like a harmless addition to the dinner table and yet could bring a nation to its knee. The warning signs were there, adults chose to ignore them. The film ends with a public letter to a certain president of a certain powerful nation and a feminist call to action against any form of violence and misogyny.

The film will most likely not affect every generation in the same way and will probably swing between anti-sexist fantasy revenge to painfully relevant. Yet there is nothing in this film that can’t be traced back to a recent newspaper headline or twitter feed, regrouped to create a bloody picture of the modern America, kids are made to grow up in.

“Don’t take your anger out on me, I just got here.”

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