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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

The Little Stranger ★★★★

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.

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Released: 21st September 2018

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.

Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.

From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.

The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain.  This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.

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Movie Reviews

Dogman ★★★

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Released: 19th October 2018

Directed By: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.

But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.

When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.

Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.

To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.

In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.

Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.

Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.

An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.

Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.

No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.

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Movie Reviews

Superfly ★★

Director X’s flashy remake of the Blaxploitation classic is a thunderingly dull experience

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Director: Director X
Stars:  Trevor Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams
Released: 14th September 2018 (UK)

Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, BlackKklansman – it’s proving an impressive year for top-tier studio-driven black cinema. The perfect year, as it happens, to release a remake of seventies Blaxploitation classic Super Fly. Or, at least, it would be, if the determining creative mantra behind this update weren’t presumably anything more than to make an episode of Power with all the stylistic glimmer of a P. Diddy video.

Superfly (neatly bringing the title right up to autocorrect standard by repositioning itself as a single word) sees Grown-ish star Trevor Jackson take on the iconic role of the hustling dealer trying to earn his way out of the game – albeit in a newly millennial take that supplants the character’s own drug use for what appear to be Sherlock-level powers of information gathering on anyone he might need to manipulate, charm, or blindside. He also sports the most incredible head of hair this side of Josh Brolin.

Alex Tse’s screenplay sees no gain in revisiting any of the subversive terrain that made Super Fly the enduring classic it became, his ambitions outright stopping at the point his writing could passably sell a made-for-cable urban crime series (such as – to pick a name out of a hat – Power?). Beyond that it falls to director Director X (of the Toronto Xs) and star Jackson to bring the proverbial funk, and – though X really knows how to sell a music video with all the tonal swagger of John Singleton’s Shaft remake (though, noticeably, none of its darkness or consideration) – Jackson simply isn’t a strong enough presence to sell the supposed gravitas of his lead. It’s a weakness no amount of style or gunfire can distract from, and it sinks Superfly dead.

There’s a top-shelf supporting cast in there, with the likes of Jason Mitchell, Michael K. Williams, and Rick Ross turning up for their two cents and subsequently failing in tandem to elevate this dross to become anything close to worthy of standing in its own brand’s shadow. Expectedly enough, it sports a kickass hip-hop soundtrack – with rapper (and the film’s producer) Future offering up a bevy of atmospherically charging beats to ensure you’re at least bored to music, though there is something faintly amusing (outside of context) about hearing an entire cast prattle on about wanting to wipe out “the Snow Patrol”, like they’re working for the NME in 2005.

Twenty years from now, film historians will likely regard Superfly in the same manner as we currently regard Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho or Stallone’s 2000 remake of Get Carter – that it’s a pointless creation that completely missed the cultural point of its own iconic original – and they’ll be right to do so. Provided they remember that Superfly even existed in the first place – which they, and you, would be decidedly better off not.

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