Sunday, 31 May 2015

SAN ANDREAS

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario
Writer: Carlton Cuse
Director: Brad Peyton

** WARNING: CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS, ONE OF WHICH IS ABOUT WHETHER A CHARACTER IN THE MOVIE IS THE USUAL DISASTER MOVIE VILLAIN OR NOT **

It's the Rock versus Nature in Brad Peyton's disaster movie as The Rock goes head to head with a series of earthquakes in a race against time to save daughter Blake (Daddario) from falling into a bloody great hole with the rest of California.

Carlton Cuse's script wastes no time in wheeling out all of those clich├ęd disaster movie characters we know and love. Johnson as a no-nonsense, morally upstanding, soon-to-be-divorced hero trying to deal with a dark event in his past? Check. Carla Gugino as the soon-to-be-ex-wife, who might still be in love with hubby even though she's just moved in with wealthy property developer Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd)? Check. Alexandra Daddario as Ray's resourceful, drop-dead gorgeous, studious, volleyball playing daughter who's a bit of a chip off the old Rock block? Check. Ioan Gruffudd as the aforementioned property developer who's kind to animals, gives a million dollars away to charity each year and volunteers at a soup kitchen? Check. Nah, that last one isn't a check. The guy's a wealthy property developer. Guess whether or not he ends up being a self-serving piece of crap?

Kylie Minogue as Daniel's icy sister Susan? Check. Paul Giamatti as the California Institute of Technology's foremost seismology expert, called upon to dispense wisdom, warn of worse to come and worry from the sidelines? Check. Hold on - KYLIE MINOGUE? Yes, the Antipodean pop princess is there, struggling with an American accent in a blink-and-you'll-miss her appearance.

Okay, it's easy to pick holes in all of this and a fair amount of the dialogue is risible (example: There's a hundred-foot wave coming towards the boat Johnson is driving. Johnson's line: "I see it". Really? Good spot!) but this is, by and large, an entertaining enough exercise that breezes by and keeps the destruction coming with pleasing regularity. The quieter moments don't really lend much to the movie other than to give the audience a breather before more buildings collapse and more of California's landmarks are wiped out but Johnson and Gugino make for an agreeable enough team-up, managing to deliver some hoary old lines with more conviction than they deserve.

Less successful is the subplot involving Daddario, Brit survivor Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ben's kid brother Ollie (Art Parkinson). Johnstone-Burt doesn't do a bad line in Hugh Grant-style English oh gosh-style bumbling but his native Aussie accent does show up on occasion. I'm perfectly willing to let that slide. Ollie, however, is possibly the most annoying character in the movie. More annoying than the wealthy property developer? Well, yes. Ollie is the sort of kid brother that probably looked hilarious, smart and cute on the page. On the screen he's just massively annoying, whether he's making a slightly unsavoury aside after his first meeting with Daddario's character or constantly referring to his guidebook about San Francisco. I was hoping for another earthquake to hit just so he'd shut up.

Enough about Ollie, even though his very presence is akin to Robert Shaw dragging his nails down the blackboard in that scene from Jaws over and over and over again. The rest of the cast is rather decent, it has to be said. Daddario is good as a smart, resourceful, female character that isn't cut from the normal damsel-in-distress template. Gugino is worth seeing in pretty much anything and Giamatti, even though he's kind of slumming it here, turns in his usual great work and it's a shame the movie relegates him to the relative safety of his academic base for most of the running time.

Now to Dwayne Johnson. Look, the guy isn't likely to be doing Shakespeare anytime soon but he gives a perfectly decent performance here and the guy has charisma. As the main character he carries the movie - lightweight though it is - with very few problems. Okay, he has good support around him from the likes of Gugino and Giamatti but when Johnson is on-screen you're not grinding your teeth and praying for the whole thing to end.

Of course, despite the fact that I'm banging on about the performances, most people are going to be buying their ticket for San Andreas on the promise of huge, destructive action sequences of which there are several. Buildings are razed, bridges twist and collapse and lots of extras are wiped out with somewhat disturbing abandon. Some of the mayhem is predictably implausible but the proceedings within these set-pieces are brisk enough not to question too much of it as you're watching it.

This may not sound especially helpful in terms of a review but if you generally like this kind of movie then you'll probably like this one too. If you normally hate this kind of movie then San Andreas doesn't stand much chance of winning you over. For me, I went in expecting a big, loud, dumb popcorn movie and that's more or less what I got. I was in the right mood and I liked it, save for the last ten minutes which chucked in one drama too many, one implausible - but thuddingly predictable - return from the dead and an epilogue so heavy-handed you'd think it was directed by someone wearing iron gloves. It's far from the best movie I've seen this year but it's some way from the worst (yes, Mortdecai, I'm still looking at you). See it if you're a fan of The Rock or if you like your seismology talk delivered by Paul Giamatti.

POLTERGEIST

Starring: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jared Harris
Writer: David Lindsay-Abaire
Director: Gil Kenan

A reboot/remake/re-imagining (take your pick) of the 1982 original, Gil Kenan's film begins with the Bowen family relocating to a cheaper home after dad Eric (Rockwell) loses his job. None of the aspirational dream home trappings of its predecessor, this is the austerity version of Poltergeist. We're all in this together, folks, and that includes moving to haunted housing estates. Joking aside, I wish this movie was full of nice little touches such as that. As it is, it begins with promise but ultimately delivers little more than a workmanlike horror outing.

Anyway, the Bowen's new home turns out to have more electrical problems than an entire series of Watchdog but this isn't a case of dodgy wiring, it's because their place has been built over a cemetery and there's a whole army of disturbed spirits trying to find a conduit to a plane where they can rest in peace. After initially putting their son Griffin's concerns down to the fact that he's just a kid with issues, his parents take a bit more notice when the spirits swipe their youngest daughter (Kennedi Clements) Madison.

As the Bowen's troubled but smart son Griffin, Kyle Catlett puts in a rather good performance and he handles quite a large role extremely well. Clements, on the other hand, comes off a bit "stage school kid" in the overacting stakes as she's befriended, then kidnapped, then generally menaced by increasingly ropey CGI spooks. Jared Harris is landed with something of a pantomime part as the paranormal investigator who turns up in the second half to kick some spirit arse but the clips of his "Most Haunted"-style TV show are quite amusing and at least he's allowed to play it up and enjoy himself. Poor old Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt have no such opportunities and it's only because of their innate likeability that they even register here. More often than not, the cast generally plays second fiddle to the jump scares and special (sometimes not so special) effects.

Yes, we're in the realm of the "jump scare" again. There's quite a number of them in this movie and, as you'd expect, some land and some don't. Very early on, the film jettisons any pretence of attempting to build any sort of tension in favour of having things fall out/fall on/jump on/grab unsuspecting characters, often with a loud crash of music on the soundtrack. It's cheap, it's unnecessary, it's lazy and it's ultimately wearing. There's the odd moment where the film hints that it could have been something much more chilling but within a few seconds we're back to creeping along corridors and waiting for something to leap at the screen. Most of it will linger in the memory about as long as....do you know what, I already forgot the moment I was going to tell you about.

So is it a total waste of time? Actually, no. It's a fairground ride of a movie and if you go in expecting to jump and shriek in all the expected places you might very well get a kick out of it. It's competently made and it doesn't slavishly stick to the original, it even has a couple of pleasing plot wrinkles of its own. As a horror movie, however, it's totally lacking in real scares (trading much more in "startles") and it makes the mistake of not developing the characters sufficiently before plunging them into the ghostly mayhem so it's hard to become properly engaged in their plight.

My advice? If you're only going to watch one movie called "Poltergeist", see the original.

Okay, the bit with the clowns is pretty good, I'll give it that.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA

Starring: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz
Writer: Olivier Essayas
Director: Olivier Essayas

Veteran actress Maria Enders (Binoche) agrees to appear in a revival of a play that made her famous a couple of decades ago and goes through various personal and professional crises as she prepares for the role with her assistant Valentine (Stewart) in the Swiss residence of the play's author, who has recently passed away. Also lined up to appear in the production is tabloid sensation Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz) who is tired of appearing in big-budget blockbusters and wants to try her hand at something deeper and more serious. Much soul-searching ensues, life begins to imitate art, and so on, and so on...

Having read several "proper" reviews of this and seeing the praise lavished upon it I initially felt a bit of an idiot for feeling distinctly underwhelmed as the end credits rolled. In the one corner there's all of these really well-read, well-educated, intelligent reviewers (all of whom I admire, most of whom I admire greatly) lining up to profess their love for this picture and in the other corner there's me, grumping about how I didn't get it. It's the guy who loved Mad Max: Fury Road being completely stumped by an arthouse movie. Give him this DVD of a tractor-pulling contest and make sure he watches it rather than eats it.

Okay, so now I've painted myself as someone whose favourite movie is "PoIice Academy: Mission To Moscow", I should 'fess up to actually liking things such as subtext and subtitles and I really wanted to love this movie if for no other reason than the fact that Juliette Binoche is an astonishingly good actress who can generally elevate anything in which she appears, be it classic or clag. As great as she is here - and, believe me, she's never less than one hundred per cent convincing - the airless plot renders the proceedings down to creative types whiffling on about their craft and coming to very few conclusions in the process.

I was waiting for the moment where things came to a head, where everything boiled over and all of that build-up led to a smart, satisfying resolution but when the movie did eventually get to its point my initial reaction (and the reaction I still have from thinking about it) was "Is that it?". I'm not saying I wanted an epiphany so extreme that it made a nonsense of everything that had gone before it but surely there was an epilogue that could have satiated its audience far better than the almost apologetic shrug of a finale that I was left with here.

Okay, enough about the anticlimactic resolution and back to the performances. Kristen Stewart, she of much Twilight-related flak, is equally terrific but again my interest was held due to her considerable screen presence rather than anything she's given to do in terms of the story (which, it turns out, ain't all that much). Moretz is engaging as the troubled teen star but her role is something of a cypher and the YouTube "footage" of her appearance on a trendy talkshow is laughably artificial. For a film that's going for subtlety her character is a clunking mass of misbehaving celeb tropes, totally at odds with how the two leads are drawn.

Don't get me wrong, this could have been a superb movie - and, for some people, it obviously is a superb movie - but for me the pace of the film was unnecessarily funereal and the dramatic points were either thumpingly overwrought (death, attempted suicide, paparazzi pursuits) or so low-key that they vanished altogether without even disturbing the dust on this rather precious fragment of thespian angst. Lovely shots of the Swiss countryside and its beautiful mountain ranges, though. Maybe if the film had been two hours of those achingly pretty vistas I would have emerged from the cinema with a smile on my face. Sorry, Mme Binoche, I really didn't want to have a pop at your film. You're still amazing, though.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult
Writers: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris
Director: George Miller

At long last, George Miller's continuation of the Mad Max story finally roars on to the big screen a mere thirty years after Beyond Thunderdome. Was it worth the wait? Read on to find out...

In his fourth outing, Max (Hardy stepping into Mel Gibson's shoes) is once again alone in the post-apocalyptic wilderness but as with the second and third movies any peace he was hoping to find is very, very short lived. This time his path crosses with that of Imperator Furiosa (Theron), a lieutenant of masked lunatic despot Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who was also biker gang leader The Toecutter in the original Mad Max). Immortan Joe is the ruler of a place called The Citadel, where he controls the water supply and keeps the locals in check via his team of Imperators and an army of pale, brainwashed followers called The War Boys.

Furiosa really pisses off Joe by making a sudden run for it in a kitted-out "war rig" vehicle with several of his "breeders" - young women who have been selected to bear his children - in an attempt to start a new life away from The Citadel in an area Furiosa refers to as "The Green Place". Hot on their trail is Joe's considerable army which includes Nux (Hoult), who believes Joe's proclamations that a War Boy will gain entry to Valhalla if he succumbs to a glorious death in combat on the Fury Road. With Furiosa hopelessly outmanned and outgunned, is Max going to help out? Well, there wouldn't be much of a movie if he didn't.

If you go into this movie looking for a complicated plot and lots of character development you may feel a bit short-changed. However, as an action movie this raises the bar to an insane level. For most of its two hours, you're in one long chase. And I mean that you're literally "in" it. CGI is used but only when absolutely necessary. The remainder of the time these are real vehicles, going at real speed, being involved in real, spectacular, destructive crashes and you feel every impact. These sequences are not only astonishing and exhilarating, they're stunningly beautiful to look at. They're genuine works of art.

For a movie with Mad Max in its title, the proceedings arguably lean more towards Furiosa than Max himself and Theron's superb performance towers over the film. With her shaved head and metallic, prosthetic arm she certainly looks like someone you wouldn't want to mess with as she drives, shoots and fights her way through the bad guys. That's not to say that Tom Hardy doesn't do a decent enough job in the title role, even if his accent visits several different places around the globe. The problem is that Max is a man of action, a man of few words (often of no words and just the odd grunt) and the plot does tend to focus on the more intriguing Furiosa so Hardy's really got his work cut out trying not to get blown off the screen by the amazing Theron.

Likewise, the "breeders" are sketchily drawn and there's little time to get to know them between the dazzling sequences of vehicular mayhem but Riley Keough makes her mark and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley manages to banish some of the memories of her "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" appearance by not being unrelentingly wooden. Let's be frank, Ms H-W is not going to give Charlize Theron any sleepless nights as far as her acting prowess goes but as the brilliantly-named The Splendid Angharad she's fine here. As for Hoult, he's almost unrecognisable as Nux but he turns in some engaging work here, being crazy, amusing and sympathetic, often all at once.

Yes, the plot is about as basic as it gets but there's an argument to be made that to complicate matters with a deeper story would be to dilute the pure shot of breathtaking action that George Miller has delivered here. The camerawork is absolutely astounding, the editing exemplary, the stuntwork staggering. It's the most fun I've had watching a movie in a very long time and I can't wait to see it again. I've studiously avoided giving too much away here so that you can go to see it and then try to pick your jaw up from the floor as I did.

The best action movie ever made? It's certainly right up there.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

Starring: A lot of people - come on, you must you know who most of them are by now
Writer: Joss Whedon
Director: Joss Whedon

When Tony Stark attempts to resurrect an artificial intelligence peacekeeping program, things go badly wrong and the Avengers have to battle both villainous "murderbot" Ultron and genetically enhanced human sidekicks Pietro and Wanda Maximoff aka Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen respectively). The fate of the Earth is at stake, all human life as we know it will cease to exist, and so on.

The second Avengers movie turns out to be not quite as cohesive as its predecessor by virtue of the facts that 1) there's a whole chunk of stuff going on storywise (with plenty of references back to previous movies in the Marvel Universe) and 2) there are so many major characters vying for space that the pacing inevitably suffers as a result. That said, it's still an hugely enjoyable sequel and Joss Whedon just about manages to keep all of the plot plates spinning without giving the audience a major brainache.

In the interest of writing a spoiler-free review, let me tell you that the major plot development involving....ah, just kidding, people. This is, as you'd expect, big, loud and stuffed to bursting with action. Buildings fall. Vehicles are tossed around. Lots of things explode. Much fighting ensues. Inordinate amounts of CGI are rendered and digital artists are kept very busy indeed.

However, in amongst the crash-thump-boom of the general proceedings Whedon does at least attempt to give his characters a little more backstory in case you're weary of watching wave upon wave of bad guys being clobbered. As usual, Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanov - Black Widow - continues to be the most interesting of the group by a long chalk and her character arc is the most affecting here. Similar attempts to inject some life into the character of Hawkeye are not quite as successful. Jeremy Renner, an actor I like, does the absolute best he can but the Avengers' resident archer is, how can I put it, a wee bit on the dull side. He's good at shooting arrows. He's very, very good at shooting arrows. And....er....

As for the new kids on the block, Taylor-Johnson brings a reasonable amount of youthful swagger to Quicksilver but I'm still drawn to Evan Peters' portrayal of the same character in X-Men: Days Of Future Past. Olsen lingers more in the memory as Scarlet Witch but then again she has the more interesting powers of the two and an intriguingly unhinged look in her eyes for most of the flick. If she'd been studying at the same University as me I'd have fallen for her on the spot. What can I say, I didn't always make the best choices back then. Anyhoo...

The rest of the old guard are reliably on form, I'm delighted to say. Robert Downey Jr. is never anything less than rollicking good fun as Tony Stark, even when he realises he's inadvertently created a robot than thinks the only way to solve the issue of human beings going to war is to make those human beings extinct. Mark Ruffalo gets to do some soul-searching and some senseless destruction as Bruce Banner/The Hulk and Chris Evans gets to cut loose as Captain America, going unexpectedly feral on everyone's ass....nah, he doesn't, he's as straight-laced as ever.

So to Thor. If you're a Thor fan, you might feel a bit short-changed here. It's not like Chris Hemsworth's Norse God is relegated to being a bit player here but he's not given all that much to do other than hit people, spout the odd bit of Asgardian wisdom and have his hammer be the subject of a running gag (though, arguably, it's the best gag in the movie). As the Big Bad in the movie, James Spader fares much better. His Ultron is a terrific creation, completely psychotic and yet somehow charmingly witty with it. The film is generally at its best when he's around and he provides a worthy adversary to our band of heroes. Also, as you'd expect, Whedon's script is peppered with snappy little exchanges as the Avengers bicker and take the piss out of each other like a close-knit team would.

So, is this the best Marvel movie so far? Well, no, it almost certainly isn't but what "Ultron" does manage to do - and do very well indeed - is to give us a densely populated and entertaining escapade which develops the ongoing story and its characters in a pleasing way whilst not skimping in any way on the extended action set-pieces. Note to the film-makers: Can we have a Black Widow movie? Please?