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Movie Reviews

Rampage

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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

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: David Yates

Starring: Jude Law, Johnny Depp. Also Eddie Redmayne.

Reviewed By: Van Connor

The magic’s well and truly faded with this second instalment of the erstwhile Harry Potter prequel series, as The Crimes of Grindelwald shifts the action to Paris, but its own sensibilities entirely too far into the franchise world-building spectrum that could threaten to unravel it. It never does quite unfurl from the exhaustion of it, that would, after all, suggest there were anything of note at its core. There isn’t. The Crimes of Grindelwald is precisely the patronising box-office-centric cash-grab any decent cynic’s always accused the Harry Potter series of being under the surface; all that’s changed is that, this time, they really can’t be bothered to attempt to mask it beneath any kind of fun.

One of those sequels you can rather obviously tell was never meant to exist, this very-much-a-part-two kicks off unceremoniously (it has no other setting, as you’ll discover over the course of a mind-numbing two and a quarter hours) by setting about undoing literally every closing plot mechanic of what’s come before. Did a character end up in Point A last time? Well, this time they’re going to be reintroduced via what’s either an interesting and poorly lit set-piece or clunky exposition in order to set themselves up at Point B instead, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for them to do so. Only then may the plot of The Crimes of Grindelwald begin. And plot it has. Lots of plot. Tons and tons of plot. In fact, it has very little else but plot. So, it’s somewhat mystifying that David Yates’ sixth venture into what’s evidently now branded as the Wizarding World should ultimately amount to so little.

From what little you’re able to glean of the plot, proceedings involve the immediate escape of evil wizard Gerrett Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) from the prison to where he was sent last time. On the loose once more, Grindelwald sets about exacting his master plan to ensure magical dominance over the human race, a plan that involves the formation of a dark wizarding army and the utilisation of one Credence Barebones (Ezra Miller), with the latter’s death evidently no obstacle for the likes of his contract’s sequel options. The only wizard capable of stopping Grindelwald, we’re told, is that rebellious master wizard Albus Dumbledore (now played in a younger form by Jude Law), but Dumbledore can’t, you see, because… reasons, and despatches a reluctant Newt Scamander to do so in his stead. Because, again, reasons.

Now, you can be forgiven for taking that plot in and wondering just how in the hell Eddie Redmayne’s Newt need in any way be present for any of this, and, frankly, you’d be right to do so. Certainly, Eddie Redmayne appears to be wondering the same – his contingent of the cast (essentially the main four from the last movie) each make what can charitably be described as diminishing returns, offering more outright effort in their performances to a film that really can’t be bothered to do much with them. They’re not important, you see, Dumbledore is. Grindelwald is. And creator/screenwriter/living cash hoover J.K. Rowling genuinely cannot be bothered to pretend otherwise. That movie snotty naysayers claim they always somehow see whenever there’s a new superhero movie out? The one that’s nothing but nonsense, world-building and a half-hourly set-piece? That movie actually does exist. And its title is The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Losing the magic of even its own musical arrangement, The Crimes of Grindelwald is an outright disaster not just of a seasonal tentpole release, but of a franchise picture full stop. Its script works exhaustingly to tie itself in knots to go essentially nowhere, its culmination consisting of literally nothing more than two pieces of unceremonious lore being shouted about in canon, each essentially lionised by Rowling so that at least one of them can no longer be called out as the laziest, most cynical, and ethically bankrupt product of the entire franchise. She fails in this endeavour, as, indeed, does Yates in delivering a dreary and uninvolving film to which his cast aspire to inject life, only to reanimate the narratively dead instead.

Legions of Potterites will doubtless flock to the nearest multiplex the moment the doors open, and, to be fair, that is absolutely the power the brand has and ours is not to question. If the priority of this series, though, genuinely is the continued pumping of revenue into the Rowling estate landscaping fund, would it really be too much to ask to even attempt to make it a good time? Can we not at least get some enjoyment out of this? A big ask, I know. But it’d behove Rowling, Yates, and everybody involved in this shill of a series to at least consider we might want some excitement next time around. Maybe when the second act stops dead for ten minutes to give us a canon origin story for the damned sorting hat.

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Featured Review

Hell Fest ★★★

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: Gregory Plotkin

Starring: Amy Forsyth, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards

Reviewed By: Van Connor

In the pantheon of cinema, the slasher movie sits alongside only really Die Hard and the western as being unfathomably easy to retrofit for any occasion with “…but with this unique location instead!” Hell Fest is a textbook case of this. It has no ambition beyond merely being a slasher movie set within a specific gimmick-driven environment, no desire to offer up anything more than stock Hollywood teens being violently murdered one at a time, and is under no illusion about whether or not you’ve ever seen this movie before or even care. What it is concerned with, though, is fun. And it has that in spades.

It’s literally nothing more than “the slasher movie at an adult horror theme park”. A concept, it turns out, that you can make a fair amount of mischief with, as our group of six abhorrently gorgeous twenty-eight year-old teenagers find themselves fixated upon by a sinister figure in a wooden mask and brandishing a kitchen knife. This being the eponymous theme park, naturally there are a multitude of places for our teens to hide, but, as is par for the course in Hell Fest, where you hide could just as easily be the very means by which our masked murderer will gut you. Fun!

Though none of the cast leap out as being particularly noteworthy (Arrow’s Bex Taylor-Klaus and MacGyver’s Reign Edwards are arguably the biggest geek pulls here), each serviceably handles their limited place within the story. Amy Forsyth’s a perfectly fine Final Girl, not memorable, but likeable enough, and the rest of the cast conduct themselves to more or less the same standard. Blumhouse alum Gregory Plotkin shifts to the big chair for this one, proving he’s got pretty lively chops for a good ol’ down n’ dirty slasher flick, and Seth Sherwood and Blair Butler’s script knows just how to play with the mechanics of the formula that everyone involved can unashamedly enjoy themselves without the overwhelming need to reinvent the genre wheel.

By virtue of being set within a merchandised horror world, Hell Fest has great fun in exploiting that set up for some wonderfully cheap scares, making for an enjoyable and OTT bloody night at the pictures that will never challenge, but certainly entertain. There’s no mythology to this, no franchise being built before us, and there’s even a genre icon making an almost obligatory appearance to sanctify it all. Sure, you won’t lose your head with Hell Fest, but you will whoop and cheer. It’s just a shame it had to arrive three weeks after Halloween.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Colette

Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Director: Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Released: London Film Festival 2018

Born in 19th century France, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote more than 80 volumes depicting her childhood, her life, her pains and pleasures. Her writings were sensual, vivid and all published under her husband name, “Willy”.

No stranger to female-centric stories, Wash Westmoreland follows up on “Still Alice” and “Echo Park, L.A.” with this dazzling period biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

The film starts, the young country girl, Colette (Knightley), marries writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) who introduces her to Parisian salons. Willy soon finds himself in debts and is desperate enough to seek his wife’s help. She will write. Colette writes what she knows and her first novella, “Claudine à l’école” (Claudine at school) is a success. Willy forces her to write the next ones, locked in a golden cage, to ensure his fame and success.

The settings are sumptuous and we gladly follow the camera through the stunning but confined Parisian apartments where the outside light only comes through when she feels inspired. Costumes evolve, as Colette, from heavy and restricted dresses to wild and daring clothing as if Mademoiselle Chanel had designed them herself.

Colette finally loosens from her husband and experiments with woman, society and dancing, feeding her inspiration. Forced and uncredited, Colette cannot enjoy writing and runs off to perform in the music-hall in her own name. In like most biopics, we go from one key event to another, regrettably quickly and often without knowing how we got there. Willy’s sudden appointment of his wife is left as unexplained as the abrupt ending that could have potentially seen Colette, a happy writer.

In the second part of the film Westmoreland seems more interested in looking at the awakening of a young woman rather than at the birth of an author whereas Keira Knightley shines in the lead role. Often known for playing the innocent and rebellious youth, Knightley still pulls off the young Colette in the first part of the film but is at her best when she evolves into a mature woman, aware of own desires. The best scenes of the film come when Colette is free and herself, usually in the company of other woman, particularly the terribly charming Missy (Denise Gough). Westmoreland multiplies two shots and close ups and creates impactful intimate scenes but regrettably gives up on them too fast.

It is a change to see a character such as “Willy” that is both ridiculous and loving. This duality creates, perhaps, a more truthful relationship between the two. No one is born an artist and behind every writer there is an intuitive editor (and in 20th century France, who else could it be than a man?). For Westmoreland if there is no Claudine without Colette, there would have been no Colette without Willy.

With its lavish setting and jumping plot, Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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