Thursday 28 May 2015

San Andreas review

San Andreas (12A/PG-13, 114 mins)
Director: Brad Peyton
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

A disaster movie of the old school, albeit one with lavish amounts of modern technology at its disposal, San Andreas is an enjoyably silly action ride that benefits from lowered expectations and no pretensions of being anything other than fun.

Dwayne Johnson, fresh from revitalising the Fast and Furious franchise, now has to save the whole of California when the San Andreas fault-line decides now is its time to fall into the Pacific, causing an enormous earthquake that wrecks most of the state. Or more specifically he has to save his daughter (Alexandra Daddario) who is trapped in San Francisco while he and his estranged wife (Carla Gugino) are in Los Angeles. Johnson is a helicopter rescue pilot who, for reasons not explored, isn’t required to actually rescue anyone during the earthquake but instead makes the trip up the coast for his family, delivering well-timed quips along the way.

The blueprint is a familiar one, opening with a rescue scene, followed by some sciencey stuff (Paul Giamatti is the seismologist who sees the quake coming), followed by character intros and family stuff and dealings in personal problems that don’t really belong. It’s all filled with honking dialogue that no one would ever say, but really all you're looking for from this kind of thing is pleasing spectacle and some people to care about.

So the Hoover Dam disintegrates, the whole of downtown Los Angeles ripples like a rug and the Golden Gate Bridge gets washed away in scenes that are often properly harrowing. It’s one of those movies where thousands of people are dying off screen, but we deal with only a handful, which is pretty much how it needs to be for focus.

The well spaced out tremors and sequences of peril build in intensity to some quite astonishing levels of devastation once the city starts collapsing, and the CGI is at times miraculous. We’re not here for anything else, and in terms of terror and chaos, this cheesy adventure really hits the spot and is every bit as good and as bad as it needs to be.

Monday 11 May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road review

Mad Max: Fury Road (15/R, 120 mins)
Director: George Miller
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

There have been reasons to be cheerful and reasons to be fearful regarding the release of Mad Max: Fury Road. On the one hand George Miller, director of the original trilogy of Mel Gibson movies, returns at the helm, and we know he knows how to shoot action.

But cameras started rolling on this reboot over three years ago, and that’s rarely a good sign, with potential release dates coming and going. Yet hopes were raised when the footage started to surface, until earlier this when we were granted quite simply the greatest movie trailer ever unleashed on the public, a fast and furious tease that promised us an action assault like no other.

For once the trailer wasn’t lying; in fact, it doesn’t begin to do justice to the finished film, a kinetic cinema experience probably unseen since Gravity. Taking place in a properly and completely demented world, it’s essentially a two hour chase, and there has quite simply never been anything like it.

Fury Road is not remotely a Mad Max remake, more a continuation of the universe, with backstory swiftly dealt with in an opening voiceover. We’re filled in on the apocalypse and on Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), the one-time cop whose family was murdered, sending him into a spiral of madness and barely surviving in the wasteland that is now Australia.

Chased through the desert by goons, Max is taken prisoner to a cliff-side community run by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played villain Toecutter in the original Mad Max). Fuel was the driving force of the original movies, but the writers seem to have finally realised that water is more precious than oil, and the Immortan rations out the water as a way of keeping the people in check.

Charlize Theron is Imperator Furiosa (look at these character names!), a lieutenant of the Immortan who defies him and goes on the run with his wives in hope of finding the Green Place. With Max in tow, first as a prisoner and then a helper, what follows is not a series of action set pieces held together by a threadbare plot, it’s one action set piece that spans almost the entire course of the movie.

This is filmmaking to melt the eyeballs, packed to bursting with breathtaking stunt work and imagery and rapid, bruising fights. With Max, Furiosa and others driving a tanker, and the Immortan and his hordes chasing in heavily armoured cars, the carnage unleashed as people and vehicles leap and tumble every which way is enough to make you marvel at how they could have achieved it. And it’s CGI-augmented rather than CGI-driven, so even though once in a while you can see the join, it’s there to enhance the spectacle.

The pounding score propels the chase along, some of it provided by the Immortan’s own band, with one of his trucks loaded up with drums and a flame-spitting guitar. It’s exhilarating and insane and in constant motion, with maybe two points where they stop long enough to have a conversation and for the audience to remember to breathe.

If there's a sticking point, it's that Max is barely a character; he's a figurehead, a recognised name to hang the film on. This isn’t a world of heroes though, it’s survival that’s the only imperative, and with his growls and grunts and handful of words, Hardy makes him as enigmatic and dangerous as he needs to be. Theron is immense too, with Furiosa every bit as capable as Max and in many ways the real hero.

Also it could be argued that the best action is used up before the climactic melee, where the level drops slightly from astonishing to just very good. But that’s a small complaint, and if the world belongs to the mad as the film’s marketing suggests, then prepare to go crazy for this world of blood and sand.

Thursday 7 May 2015

Spooks: The Greater Good review

Spooks: The Greater Good (15, 104 mins)
Director: Bharat Nalluri
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Spooks finished its television run on the BBC four years ago after nearly a decade of spy action. It’s a curious thing to bring to the big screen, a show which no doubt has a loyal following, but also one that needs to work to satisfy long-term fans but also stand alone and be accessible to newcomers.

Whether it manages the first can only be answered by those in the know, but that it undoubtedly manages the second is to its great credit. It begins with a prisoner transport, with a terrorist named Qasim being moved in an armed convoy, with his bad guy cohorts in pursuit.

MI5 boss Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) makes the call to allow the prisoner to be rescued by his associates rather than risk a gunfight in an area busy with people. It might be realistic that they don’t put up much of a fight around civilians, but it doesn’t necessarily make for exciting cinema. What it does do is kick off the plot, which quickly reveals that it wasn’t so much feeble police work as it was about signs that point to a conspiracy.

The CIA are miffed that Qasim is on the loose, and Harry is forced to carry the can, leaving him out of a job and faking his own death in order to do his own digging. This in turn forces Harry’s former bosses to bring in Will Holloway (Kit Harington), an ex agent currently in Moscow who is brought back to London to track down Harry. Harry has disappeared, intent on finding the mole himself while also trying to stop Qasim from orchestrating a major attack on London.

It’s once Harry and Will get together that the film starts piling on backstory and histories which may or may not be part of the show’s mythology. It doesn’t really matter, since it works just fine either way, and it’s soon clear that this is serious, tough stuff, full of life and death decisions that give the title its resonance.

Harington may be the marquee guest star, but Firth is the beating heart of Spooks and Harry is a tremendous character, and pretty much the only main player to have made the transition from the TV show. Honourable, but also dangerous, uncompromising and full of tricks, his insistence that agents can either do well, which is to follow orders, or do good, which is to do the right thing, gives the film an edge of questionable morality over others of its ilk.

There’s not much glamour going on here though; this is British spying, where the reality is London traffic and pouring rain. Harington gets to do a small amount of Bourne-style clambering and acrobatics, but it’s playing wannabe in these scenes and close-up fights, something for the trailer rather than a true representation of what the film is.

Wisely it doesn’t try to overplay the action though, with the focus on intrigue making it gripping as a result. Mostly it’s very good at detailing actual spy-work, something that’s often missing from modern day espionage movies. It’s Bond without the superhero, mired in politics and really quite absorbing, with secrets and hidden codes all part of the shenanigans of this particular spy game.

The plot barrels along, twisting this way and that, stretching out several genuinely tense sequences, and always leaving the question hanging of who is on what side. Some previous investment in this world might offer even more value, but even for audiences discovering Spooks for the first time it’s still a lot of fun.