San Andreas

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The biggest earthquake in recorded history rocks California, amidst the dire warnings of a leading seismologist (Paul Giamatti). Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), the biggest man in the Los Angeles Fire Department, is THE man to save the day. Buildings crumble, fissures open in the ground, but nothing will stop this man mountain from saving his family. Lots of other people die but apparently that’s not interesting.

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The spectacle of San Andreas is impressive, as whole sections of cities buckle, landmarks are destroyed and judder after judder shake the audience. But the film lacks an equivalent human scale, its focus too narrow on the broken family of Ray, ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Disaster movies like Titanic and The Day After Tomorrow as well as classics like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno work because they either show the wide effects of the disaster or focus on a small group of characters. San Andreas falls between these stools (or should that be continental plates) by occasionally presenting other victims of the earthquakes, but then abandons these plot lines to just focus on the Gaines. This is most glaring when Ray is on a rescue missions that he suddenly abandons to rescue Emma before both of them set off, in an LAFD helicopter, for San Francisco to get their daughter, Ray and the film apparently disregarding everyone else.

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Politically, this is an unfortunate manifestation of conservative individualism – save yourself and your family – but it is also narratively aggravating because tighter plotting could have avoided it. It may seem odd to complain about the plot of a disaster movie, but action films of this type, when done carefully, often exhibit precise and efficient storytelling. But the sloppiness of Carlton Cuse’s screenplay, including the tired device of INEXORABLY RISING WATER as a climactic set piece, detracts from director Brad Peyton’s fine handling of the action sequences, including some enthralling long takes that draw the viewer through the onscreen architectural carnage. The generic clichés are perfectly fine, such as the slimy new boyfriend and the random strangers Blake bonds with in the crisis, while scenes at Cal-Tech with Lawrence (Giamatti) and a news crew are very good. Overall, however, San Andreas is let down by its shaky screenplay that could easily have been tightened up.

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Jurassic World

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Nostalgia is a funny thing. Sometimes it makes something sweeter; other times it feels tired and worn. For cinemagoers of a certain age, Jurassic Park was a landmark moment in 1993, with the most convincing and compelling dinosaurs ever seen on screen. Over time, such monstrous spectacles have become commonplace, yet the sense of wonder and awe at Steven Spielberg’s classic remains strong and prevalent.

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Jurassic World clearly acknowledges the audience’s familiarity with spectacular beasts, and the titular theme park’s need to up its product resonates with modern blockbusters’ need to deliver bigger and better. Along the way, director Colin Trevorrow continually tips his hat to the original, with frequent interludes of John Williams’ iconic theme, visual quotes such as close-ups of dinosaur eyes and old favourites including the tyrannosaur, velociraptors and even the dilophosaur and Mr. DNA. This nostalgia permeates the film, regularly reminding the viewer how much they enjoyed Jurassic Park.

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The problem is that Jurassic World fails to convince in its own right. The plotting is sloppy, the set pieces functional and the characters disparate. Chris Pratt is an engaging hero while Bryce Dallas Howard has a half-decent arc, the two kids are not irritating and the dinosaurs are well rendered. But Trevorrow fails to bring any distinctiveness or panache to the visual palette, resulting in a ride that has too few jumps and shocks and no central thrust to pull the viewer along. It is a far sight better than the dino-sized doo-doo that was The Lost World, but lacks even the pace and wit of Jurassic Park III. Fun though it is to see dinosaurs because, well, dinosaurs, perhaps it is time for this franchise to go extinct.

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Spy

Melissa-McCarthy-Spy-Poster-Goldfinger A suave, debonair spy holds a sinister Eastern European at gunpoint, making it clear who is in control, then sneezes because of hay fever. Meanwhile, the spy’s tech support precisely guides him through the elaborate underground complex, while the other CIA hub agents deal with a pest infestation. From these opening moments, Spy presents familiar features of the spy genre while simultaneously adding its own comedic spin to them. hub Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy’s third collaboration (after Bridesmaids and The Heat) is a spy action comedy that knows its genre and winks this knowingness to the audience. It takes itself seriously enough to deliver startling action sequences with genuinely nasty violence, but maintains humour to ensure that each scene delivers the laughs. The film relies, with great judgement, on McCarthy’s versatility, talent and charisma for both its dramatic and comedic impact. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a brilliant CIA tech who is sent into the field due to her anonymity after agent identities are leaked. Cooper takes on international arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) and her gang of thugs, while ex-master spy Rick Ford (Jason Statham) blunderingly attempts to complete the mission himself, stopping just long enough to tell Cooper of his ludicrous exploits. jason-statham-in-spy-movie-4 McCarthy commands every scene she’s in with a layered performance of ambition, frustration, creativity and determination. Whether talking her way into a casino or out of a Mexican standoff, Cooper remains sympathetic and compelling. While she is very funny, the biggest laughs of the film are often prompted by Statham, who repeatedly sends up his hard man image with preposterous stories and bungling incompetence. Strong support also come from Jude Law, Allison Janney, Miranda Hart and Peter Serafinowicz, while the script delivers fast and sophisticated gags and Feig proves himself a skilled action director, especially during a fight between Cooper and opponent Nargis Fakhri that is as gripping and wince-inducing as any scrap Paul Greengrass has delivered. fight As well being hilarious, intelligent and exciting, Spy is also important and, as another critic has argued, groundbreaking. Spy dares to propose that (a) it is alright to be fat because fat does not equal worthless or wretched; (b) fat jokes are not alright and need to be highlighted as such; (c) a woman does not need to be judged beautiful by others in order to feel valued; (d) a woman’s narrative need not end in romantic resolution with a man to be happy because, shockingly, there is more to life to romance! While there is much to enjoy in Spy, it is also to be applauded as a sobering reminder of the inequality of gender representation in mainstream cinema, and how far we have to go before such a film is commonplace rather than exceptional. Spy11

Mad Max: Fury Road

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“My name is Mad. My world is fire,” growls Max Rockatansky’s (Tom Hardy) opening voiceover of George Miller’s return to the Mad Max franchise after thirty years. For the next two hours, the viewer encounters this fire in all its blistering, barraging, petrol-fuelled mayhem, resulting in one of the most relentless action movies of recent years. There is a dazzling beauty to Miller’s action choreography, the camera both sweeping around the pimped-up vehicles that tear through the post-apocalyptic landscape and yanking the viewer into the heart of the deafening chases and brutal encounters between flesh, metal, rock and flame. Hardy brings a world-weary indomitableness to the role of Max, leaving the dramatic thrust of the narrative to Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa. Furiosa’s arc has been the source of some controversy over the apparent feminist invasion of a “man’s film”. Frankly, more active roles for women are always something to be applauded and Furiosa makes an excellent protagonist as well as a fine foil to Max. Her altruism and his nihilism are contrasting but complementary beliefs in a fragmented and pitiless world. This balance of the genders is further reason to admire Mad Max: Fury Road, as it means the film largely avoids the sexism so depressingly familiar in action cinema. It is unlikely to herald a new dawn, but for its running time the film is a gripping and refreshing contribution to the genre.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Joss Whedon’s second Avengers movie may be the most ambitious thus far committed to film. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it succeeds in some aspects of its ambition while others are left undernourished. On the negative side, the sheer number of characters both familiar –Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson), Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), et al – and new – Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson), Ultron (James Spader) among others – results in a jumble of motivations, back stories, hallucinations, flashbacks and abilities, and few characters get time or space for development. It also lacks the strong sense of humour of The Avengers, as the bickering between our heroes is much reduced now that they are friends. It may not reach the super seriousness of DC’s superhero antics, but Age of Ultron is the most po-faced entry thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film is explicitly not self-contained, with multiple references to other parts of the MCU past, present and future, and this sometimes makes the film unfocused. Whedon has publicly spoken of his creative struggles with Marvel, which perhaps explains why the film is sometimes uneven and discordant.

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When Avengers: Age of Ultron does succeed, however, it does so with verve and aplomb, Whedon demonstrating that he has the nous to manage a behemoth of this scale. There are effective character moments such as touching interactions between Romanoff and Banner as well as the Maximoffs, and the film’s biggest surprise is domestic rather than spectacular. The range of superpowers allows for varied set pieces, especially the opening action sequence when he delivers one of his trademark long takes showcasing the various abilities of the Avengers. As the ranks swell yet more powers join the mix, but Whedon, along with DOP Ben Davis and editors Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek, keeps the action coherent, drawing the viewer into the mayhem where we experience both the Avengers’ exhilaration and their fear. Fear is key to this film, as it explores the dichotomy between fear and faith. Both of which fuel the intimate and the epic in this superpowered slobberknocker. The inevitable question is where can the MCU go from here, but the franchise has consistently risen to the challenge of outdoing previous spectacles, and this reviewer at least is confident that future films will continue this trend.

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Child 44

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Child 44 first caught my attention from the side of a bus with the large names and faces of its cast, and the BBFC consumer advice piqued my interest further: “Contains strong violence, sex, strong language, child murder theme”. Being a sick bastard, this looked right up my street. The trailer increased but also slightly marred my keenness for two reasons. Firstly the faux-Russian accents, completely unnecessary in a film set in a non-English speaking country but with only non-English speaking characters. If it is really too much hassle to have Russian dialogue and English subtitles, then have these fine actors speak with English accents, as in the similarly Russian-set Enemy at the Gates. The second factor that gave me pause were the talent behind the film, as director Daniel Espinosa and DOP Oliver Wood previously collaborated on the infuriating Safe House.

Despite these reservations, Child 44 does live up to the promise of its initial publicity. I quickly got used to the accents and Espinosa and Wood largely avoid the excessive shaky cam that robbed Safe House of any tension. The unsteady aesthetic does appear, but it is used judiciously in action sequences, creating a sense of disorientation for the viewer as the characters are plunged into danger. Beyond these sequences, a mood of grim oppression pervades the film, as military police officer Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) investigates traitors against the Soviet Union and confronts his superiors over a murder case that cannot officially be murder, because “There is no crime in paradise”.

tom hardy and gary oldman CHILD44Strikingly, the murder investigation is almost secondary, pursued by Leo along with his wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) and General Mikhail Nesterov (Gary Oldman) despite opposition and indeed persecution from fellow officers Vasili (Joel Kinnaman) and Major Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel). Espinosa and screenwriter Richard Price (adapting the novel by Tom Rob Smith) craft a detailed and compelling vision of life under an oppressive regime, where the only justice and order are those approved the state. Key to this milieu is the train, which serves as a visual metaphor for the implacable state machinery and is also key to the murder case. Hope and redemption are in short supply in Child 44, making it a largely uncomfortable watch but, if you have tolerance for bleak grimness, it is still a rewarding one.

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A Little Chaos

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A Little Chaos is an acutely observed and exquisitely judged costume drama, that takes time and care to create the extravagance of France in 1682 while also critiquing the absurdities of its rigid class structure. Co-writer and director Alan Rickman also plays the supporting role as King Louis XIV, while the central performance comes from Kate Winslet as Sabine De Barra, a landscape gardener selected by André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) to contribute a little chaos to the construction of the new gardens at Versailles. Winslet is on typically fine form, conveying Sabine’s resolve as well as her evident suffering. Careful use of flashbacks hint at Sabine’s past, the audience learning more as André does. André has his own problems, both with his loveless marriage and with the absurd prospect of creating the gardens in the first place. Yet while the film highlights this absurdity and the general nonsense of the French court’s conventions, it never feels mean-spirited or cruel. The tone is more affectionate than acerbic, allowing the viewer to feel a part of the world on screen rather than taking a cynical distance. The film’s triumph is its placement, using the development of the gardens at Versailles as a backdrop for dramas both personal and political. While a costume drama about landscape gardening in 17th century France may not sound like the most dramatic material, the film is both charming and engaging, and in places quite moving. At times ornate, at others (literally) rough and muddy, this is a garden well worth strolling through.

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