San Andreas – Film Review

Unless you’ve never actually seen a disaster movie before, the chances are you’ll know exactly where this one is going. As a record-busting earthquake threatens to destroy the entire west coast of America, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s heroic search-and-rescue pilot takes on everything Mother Nature has to throw at him in a bid to save his family from the impending disaster.

But while San Andreas, Hollywood’s latest city-shattering blockbuster, hardly puts a fresh spin on the well-worn genre, it’s still an explosive and relentlessly gripping actioner that boasts an impressive range of visuals and an unexpectedly high level of emotional resonance that is ably delivered by its stellar cast.

The Rock plays Ray Gaines, a Los Angeles Fire Department first-responder who has recently divorced his estranged wife Emma after a family tragedy leaves him riddled with guilt. With Emma (Gugino) moving on with wealthy property developer Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd) and his daughter Blake (Daddario) heading off to college, Ray struggles to adjust to life away from his family. Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti’s Lawrence Haynes, a Caltech seismologist, has finally perfected the technology needed to successfully predict earthquakes, just as a major seismic catastrophe erupts along the San Andreas Fault and obliterates every major city in its wake.

Director Brad Peyton makes ample use of all the CGI technology he has at his disposal to stage an array of visually arresting set-pieces; entire cities undulate under the force of shifting tectonic plates, Californian landmarks suffer the seemingly obligatory fate of being torn to the ground, and, in the film’s most mind-blowing sequence, Johnson tackles a giant tsunami in a speed boat as the elements take to using cargo ships and cruise liners as Nature’s baseball bats.

Though none of these sequences can realistically claim to have significantly raised the bar in comparison to every other blockbuster with a metropolis-mashing climax, the action is at least evocatively realised and has a genuine power to pin you back into your seat and leave you breathless.

What does distinguish San Andreas from the genre’s other heavy-hitters, however, is the surprising depth of pathos it manages to bestow on its core characters, with a central plot that focuses on a fractured family trying to rebuild their lives following an unexpected and devastating tragedy.

Is the film a realistic and exposing exploration of parental grief and broken relationships? No, but nor should it be. Disaster movies are designed as popcorn entertainment, their sole purpose is to thrill audiences with an audacious spectacle whilst requiring very little thought or attention.

Yet, screenwriter Carlton Cuse, a regular of the Lost writers’ room, still uses the film’s rare quiet moments to instil an effective level of emotional depth within his characters. This ensures we care deeply about Ray and his family’s fate and are drawn into their fight for survival, thus making Peyton’s well-orchestrated carnage all the more intense as we are desperate for our heroes to make it out alive.

This might sound simple enough, but it’s a feat so few movies of this ilk are able to pull-off and San Andreas deserves praise for executing it so superbly.

The plaudits must also go to the film’s excellent principal cast for portraying this emotional weight. Johnson is on fine form as Ray, demonstrating he is just as capable at pulling off moments of vulnerability as he is tackling the physical requirements of the role. Credit should also go to Cuse for making Emma and Blake refreshingly independent and resourceful characters – even if their looks are inevitably over-sexualised – while Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson provide much-needed levity as a lovelorn architect suffering from Hugh Grant-levels of fumbling nervousness and his cheeky little brother respectively.

There are, admittedly, a few cracks that need to be side-stepped, with Gruffudd wasted as a perfunctory a-hole and an oddly cheesy final scene that feels incongruously patriotic alongside the film’s simple family drama.

Still, while it might not break any new ground, San Andreas is a near faultless eruption of bombastic entertainment built on the sturdy foundations of earth-shattering visuals, spectacularly taut set-pieces and simple, effective character drama that is wonderfully realised by a strong cast.

Runtime: 114 mins; Genre: Action/Disaster; Released: 28 May 2015;

Director: Brad Peyton; Screenwriter: Carlton Cuse;

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti

Click here to watch the trailer for San Andreas

Things you might have missed: Jane The Virgin

Okay, here’s the story so far. Jane, a deeply religious 23-year-old student who has vowed to preserve her virginity until she marries bland detective Michael, is accidentally impregnated with her boss’s sperm. Said boss, Rafael, a handsome former playboy who owns the hotel where Jane works, froze his sperm because he had testicular cancer. His devious wife Petra, who is apparently in trouble with a Cech crime family, goes to get inseminated to stop Rafael from divorcing her so she can get more of his money. Petra and Jane coincidentally share a gynaecologist who is also Rafael’s sister. The doctor is bereft after walking in on her wife in bed with someone else and mistakenly gives Jane the procedure instead of Petra. Still following?

If that all sounds utterly ridiculous, don’t worry; that’s entirely the point. Jane The Virgin (Wednesdays, 9pm, E4) is loosely based on the Venezuelan telenovela Juana La Virgen and wears its influences proudly. In many ways the show is a meta-commentary on the genre, paying wry homage with a frenetic wave of storylines that hinge on the requisite insane plot twists, contrived character relations and easily mocked facial reaction shots.

The funny things is, whilst you’d think such an implausible premise would quickly become overwrought, it’s actually fantastically entertaining. This is largely down to the show’s tongue-in-cheek humour, which almost always comes in the form of Anthony Mendez’s deliberately arch narration. Voice-over narration is almost never a good thing in a TV series, but here it works perfectly, Mendez’s sharp contributions countering the show’s more heightened moments by letting us in on the joke whilst also effectively streamlining the complicated narrative.

By itself, this combination of outlandish plotting and knowing humour would make for an entertaining but lightweight watch, but Jane The Virgin is made all the more compelling by the addition of a host of interesting and multi-dimmensional characters. Gina Rodriguez does a great job of making Jane charismatic and relatable, and it’s refreshing to see a major comedy led by a woman who is intelligent, considerate, hardworking and not nearly as naïve as the show’s title would suggest.

Rodriguez is backed up by strong performances from Andrea Navedo and Ivonne Coll, who respectively play Jane’s vivacious mother, Xo, and pious grandmother Alba, in a hugely enjoyable double act. These characters could have been grating stereotypes but the show’s writers smooth over any rough edges by allowing us to spend plenty of time exploring the complicated dynamics that make the Villanuevas feel like a real family.

You might have noticed the core characters of this show are all women, and whilst it’s frustrating that such a thing should still be considered a rarity on TV in 2015, it does give the series the feel of a subverted fairytale. Be it Jane, her mother, her best friend or the scheming Petra (Yael Grobglas), in Jane The Virgin it’s the women who are the heroes and the villains. They aren’t simply damsels waiting helplessly to be rescued, but complex characters with a vital importance to almost every one of the show’s myriad plot points. The men, on the other hand, are the hunky window dressing and tanned romantic leads, which makes for a nice change of pace.

The series isn’t entirely wrinkle free, of course, with the sheer number of plot-lines meaning some subplots are inevitably underserved, such as Jane’s best friend’s doomed romance with Michael’s criminal brother, which introduces supposedly close relationships seemingly out of the blue.

Yet it’s an almost imperceptible flaw in a show that feels perfectly balanced, with a clutch of engaging, down-to-earth characters and a charmingly self-aware sense of humour that makes Jane The Virgin a positively refreshing creation among the current network fare.

Penny Dreadful, Season Two – TV Review

Generously draped in lashings of flesh, blood, guts and bonking, there’s no doubt Penny Dreadful offers a fantastical feast of gothic treats for its cult following to feed upon. Even so, we’re now midway through its second season on Sky Atlantic and John Logan’s sensational creation still hasn’t found a way to bind its intriguing collection of macabre figures into anything resembling a compelling narrative.

To recap the series so far, after failing in his attempt to rescue his demon-stolen daughter in season one, Timothy Dalton’s miserly explorer Sir Malcolm and his ramshackle league of extraordinary gentlemen – which includes lycanthropic gunslinger Ethan, a creepy whippet version of Dr Frankenstein, and boggle-eyed medium Vanessa Ives – are this time trying to save Vanessa from the clutches of Helen McCroy’s magnetically malevolent Evelyn Poole in what is basically the exact same plot as the first season.

Last night’s episode was more of the same as harmless dandy Ferdinand Lyle, revealed last week to be a puppet of Poole’s mechanisations, explained the disturbing story of the verbis diablo relics, which naturally involved the world’s most cursed woman, Vanessa; Inspector Rusk finally made progress with his investigation into the Mariner’s Inn massacre by speaking to the sole survivor; and Dr Frankenstein continued his disturbing infatuation with Billie Piper’s reanimated prostitute – minus the wonky Irish brogue, thankfully – by squeezing her into a tight corset and towering high-heels, clothes designed to keep the women in their place, apparently.

As with the first season, there’s no doubt about the quality of the show’s individual parts. The production design is as lavishly detailed as ever, evoking the spooky vision of Victorian London as described in the countless gothic novels on which the series is partly based, and the prestigious cast are roundly superb with McCrory making an excellent addition (though she did briefly appear in season one), playing the season’s antagonist with an enthralling relish and vigour.

Yet the series’s critical flaw of lacking a gripping, over-arching narrative still persists. Enticing subplots like Hartnett’s handsome werewolf/cowboy’s attempts to evade the law after a particularly murderous bout of lycanthropy and the continuing adventures of Dorian Gray boning his way through all the oddballs in Victorian London are teased and tantalised for an episode before being entirely forgotten, while the central storyline once again fails to gather pace. It leaves this viewer struggling to remain engaged in the lives of Penny Dreadful’s ostensibly enticing creations as I’m beginning to question whether the series will ever lead anywhere even remotely worthwhile.

The one thing that ensures I’ll keep returning for some time yet is the rare moments of raw, poignant humanity that emerge when these supposedly monstrous characters are given a chance to pause and reflect. Take, as a wonderful example, the scene in last night’s episode between Caliban/John Clare and his employer’s blind, kindly daughter in the house of horrors where they ruminate on whether creators bring their creatures to life to make them suffer, a nuanced, thoughtful and powerfully tender moment that briefly renders the show’s myriad flaws entirely mute.

And then Vanessa Ives has yet another haunting vision about spiders and shagging that has absolutely nothing to do with anything, and I start to ask myself what’s the bloody point of it all again.

Tomorrowland – Film Review

Envisioning just what form humanity’s future will potentially take is a topic that has long been mined by movie makers in search of some serious sci-fi spectacle. But as Hollywood’s biggest movies are increasingly geared towards the dark and dystopian, a sizeable gap has emerged in the market that’s just begging to be filled by a film that looks towards tomorrow’s world with a sense of hope and enthusiasm.

Step forward, Disney’s Tomorrowland.

Taking its name and inspiration from the futuristic theme park found at Disneyland, and Walt Disney’s own philosophy of optimism and innovation, Brad Bird’s sci-fi spectacular is a visually stunning tale told with great pace and imagination that is ultimately let down by uneven storytelling.

The film’s issues with narrative structure are made immediately obvious as we begin with a 60s-set prelude where young inventor Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) attends the historic 1964 New York World’s Fair. Whilst the sequence provides some interesting background into Frank’s character and insight into the titular city’s founding principles, it’s entirely superfluous to the main plot and might have been better placed as a promotional short or embedded later in the story.

When the story finally does get going we skip ahead to the present day where we meet Casey Newton (Robertson), a rebellious, optimistic science enthusiast who lives near a NASA base with her engineer father and curious little brother. The discovery of a mysterious pin gives Casey a glimpse of Tomorrowland and encourages her to seek out an older, world weary Frank (now played by George Clooney) to find out more. Together they team up with fellow Tomorrowland exile Anthea (Cassidy) – think a cherubic Terminator – in order to save the world from its seemingly inevitable fate.

As with his previous films, Bird directs the action with pace and exuberance, delivering gripping and innovative set-pieces – including a spectacular chase the involves a flying bathtub and a rocket hidden within the Eiffel Tower – that makes for a thrilling and enjoyable ride. Bird’s boundless imagination is also evident in Tomorrowland’s design, conjuring a shimmering world of swirling towers and clever details like a hover-powered monorail, while the director also has fun evoking classic adventure films like E.T., The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, and even Indiana Jones, to give the action a charming retro feel.

But amid the dazzling sets and whooshing set-pieces, the story somehow gets left behind. The theme of recapturing an aspirational view of the future for a new generation is a great starting point, but not enough to form a convincing and enchanting storyline in and of itself. The film suffers from the absence of a compelling threat, as Bird initially appears to be obscuring what’s really going on before it gradually becomes clear that there really isn’t much to conceal. And once you cotton on to the obvious direction in which it’s headed, you know it can only end in underwhelming disappointment.

This inevitably has an adverse impact on the characterisation. Robertson and Cassidy are intriguing and likeable leads, but without a propulsive plot there’s little room for their characters to develop. Casey starts out as an inventive optimist and, aside from an all-too-brief moment of self-doubt, stays that way throughout, while Frank’s transition from cynical outcast to reformed believer is rushed and never quite rings true – and the less said about his uncomfortably creepy ‘love story’ with 13-year-old Anthea, the better.

Ultimately, Tomorrowland is a film that never adds up to the sum of its parts, its giddy visuals and whimsical set-pieces undermined by wayward plotting (not to mention a complete waste of a machiavellian Hugh Laurie) that means it will likely be forgotten as soon as the next bleak dystopian fantasy replaces it in cinemas.

Runtime: 130 mins; Genre: Sci-Fi/Adventure; Released: 22 May 2015;

Director: Brad Bird; Screenwriter: Damon Lindelof;

Starring: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy

Click here to watch the trailer for Tomorrowland

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – TV Review

The task of successfully adapting Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s girthsome “tale of the fantastic”, as Neil Gaiman eloquently described it, was always going to be a big ask, but while Toby Hayne’s ambitiously lavish seven-part series has enough moments of intrigue to keep us hooked for a little while longer, last night’s first episode was far too po-faced to truly capture the imagination.

The opening was certainly impressive, swiftly establishing it’s 19th Century England setting where magic is real but rarely practised and only discussed during the monthly meeting of the Society of Magicians in York. We’re soon introduced to Eddie Marsan’s Mr Norrell, “quite a tolerable practical magician” by his own account, who begins his mission to return the craft to a state of respectability by conjuring the statues of York Minster to life.

It’s a wonderful sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in a Harry Potter movie and Hayne, a seasoned director of Doctor Who episodes, works wonders with his budget to add an exquisitely cinematic sheen to the entire production with the crumbling cobbles and cottages of a pred-industrialised England realised with a quality detail to rival that of any Hollywood blockbuster.

The series also features superb performances from the entire cast with Marsan bringing a determination and moral fortitude to the otherwise meek and introverted Mr Norrell, while Bertie Carvel yet again excels, this time as foppish land owner Jonathan Strange, who abandons his easy-going lifestyle to study magic after learning he is destined to become a great magician.

These titular characters are rivalled by a marvellous supporting cast that includes Vincent Franklin as the fabulously pompous Christopher Drawlight and an episode stealing turn from Marc Warren as the demonic Gentleman with the thistle-down hair, an otherworldly creature summoned by Norrell to bring a young lady back from the dead as part of a Faustian pact that is almost certain to go awry.

And yet, despite all the intrigue and mystery that this early exploration of the magical realm offers, it must be said that the opening episode is worryingly underwhelming. Its biggest problem is that the novel’s playfully arch narration, which deliciously satirised 19th Century literary styles, simply doesn’t translate to the small screen, while the disparate nature of Norrell and Strange’s narratives makes it difficult to become fully embroiled in the drama at this early stage. For all its charming visuals and talented performances, this is a magical drama that feels frustratingly mundane.

Click here to watch Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Episode One on BBC iPlayer

Mad Max: Fury Road – Film Review

Almost 25 years after Tina Turner ran Mel Gibson’s Max Rockatansky out of Bartertown, George Miller’s infamously taciturn anti-hero makes his long-awaited return with Fury Road, a savagely driven and fearlessly imaginative action movie that really is unlikely anything else around.

Gibson may no longer star in the titular role, with Tom Hardy slipping behind the wheel to bring his enviously chiseled form of brooding to haunted loner Max, but this is still undoubtedly a Mad Max film, boasting the rebellious attitude and feral nature of the original movies only this time the post-apocalyptic madness has been dialled up to 11.

Hardy is excellent casting as the enigmatic road warrior, not only bringing the necessary physicality but also the ability to convey a great depth of emotion through subtle facial expressions. You instantly feel that Hardy’s Max is a more relatable character compared to Gibson’s incarnation, which is partly due to the frequent use of flashbacks to expose his previous failures, but also because Hardy is excellent at imbuing strong men with an underlying fragility, and that bodes well with talk already turning to potential sequels.

In keeping with tradition, the plot is extremely simple. 45 years after the collapse of civilisation, resource-starved survivors cling to life at the Citadel, a towering fortress ruled by the terrifying Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne) – think American Horror Story’s Twisty the Clown with Jimmy Savile’s wispy white locks. When Imperator Furiosa – an intense and formidable Charlize Theron – steals a heavily armoured tanker to liberate a band of young ladies, she’s forced into an alliance with Hardy’s Max to stave off the relentless attacks from a horde of albino wack-jobs dubbed the War Bars – led by Nicholas Hoult’s sickly driver Nox – as they flee across the volatile Wasteland.

What follows is essentially one long, bombastic chase sequence, unfolding like a symphony of insanity as beefed-up vehicles power across the desert via an array of inventive and outlandish stunts. That this relentless explosion of action never feels tiresome is a credit to Miller’s creative direction as he utilises multiple frame rates, handheld cameras and crash zooms to give each segment a different style, ensuring the automobile annihilation is always uniquely visceral and exhilarating.

Yet what’s most striking about the film’s visuals is the sheer feral originality of Miller’s nuke-ravaged world. At a time when every depiction of a dystopian future appears to be trapped in a period of grim homogeneity, Fury Road’s vision of a post-apocalyptic Australia is wildly unique, looking for all the world like a mash-up of a steam-punk wonderland and a nightmarish fever dream where the desert is regularly ransacked by surreal sandstorms that unleash forks of lightening, roaring tornadoes and ferocious fireballs upon the earth.

Despite this near-constant carnage and minimal dialogue, Fury Road is not short of emotional heft with Miller making excellent use of the rare quiet moments to develop textured characters. Hoult is surprisingly endearing as a radioactively debilitated War Boy who starts to doubt his loyalty, and Theron’s Furiosa feels like an early version of Max, constantly brooding with a similar haunted intensity but still possessing the glimmer of hope that has long since abandoned the series’ hero.

Their respective quests for redemption add an extra layer of tension to the action as we come to genuinely care about them and fear for their safety, while an overt attempt to challenge the representation of gender in the 21st Century offers a more serious message for those not simply placated by the glorious entertainment.

Bold, imaginative and visually striking, Mad Max: Fury Road delivers unrelenting carnage with a distinctive style that sets it apart from the increasingly homogenised dystopian thrillers currently doing the rounds. With this film, George Miller shows that the near-three decades spent away from his creation has done little to dampen his creative flair; hopefully, Max’s next outing won’t take nearly as long to hit the road.

Runtime: 120 mins; Genre: Action; Released: 14 May 2015;

Director: George Miller; Screenwriters: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nick Lathouris;

Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne

Click here to watch the trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road

Spooks: The Greater Good – Film Review

When Spooks arrived on our TV screens 13 years ago, it immediately established itself as one of the most bold and innovative shows around by bumping off its supposed lead character (curtesy of a deep fat fryer) in just its second episode. It was an unexpected move indicative of a show that was determined to push boundaries with terrifying plots that seemed to pre-empt the headlines and emotionally resonant character development.

Now, four years after it bowed out following a ten series run and several BAFTA nominations, Spooks has made the leap to the big screen with The Greater Good, but does it still have that same indelible spark?

In a word, no. Since it was last on screen, the Spooks-model has been used as a launch-pad for numerous morally ambiguous spy thrillers and it’s therefore impossible not to find this film a little bit dated. Nevertheless, it’s still a solid if unspectacular thriller that promises an enjoyable hour and 45 minutes of high-octane hokum.

Having anchored the series for the entirety of its run, Peter Firth’s experienced MI5 chief Harry Pearce naturally takes centre stage here as an imminent attack on London threatens to destroy the British intelligence service.

After presiding over a botched handover that allowed high profile terrorist Adem Qasim (Gabel) to escape MI5 custody, Harry is dishonourably removed from the service. Faking his own death by disappearing into the Thames, Harry goes dark to track down the traitor who orchestrated Qasim’s escape. His investigations uncover a conspiracy that threatens to tear apart the agency from the inside so it can be taken over by the CIA. With no-one left for him to trust, Harry is forced to turn to his former protégé Will Holloway (Harrington) to help him save the day.

With a plot that takes in double crosses, tense jargon-swapping on the Grid and main characters getting killed off out of the blue, the film feels likes a bumper episode, and director Bharat Nalluri, who also shot the show’s first and last episodes, successfully harnesses the tone and style of the series by setting the action in the less glamorous parts of London for a distinctly urban feel. Filming high-speed chases through tight alleyways, fist-fights in cramped apartments and a hijacking that takes place during a traffic jam on a typically rain-soaked morning lend the film a unique flavour that helps set it apart from the slicker stylings of the likes of James Bond and Jason Bourne.

And like the original show, Nalluri infuses the action with personal dilemmas, presenting us with flawed characters who are fuelled by pained emotions that cause them to make irrational choices with invariably devastating consequences.

That’s certainly true of Harrington’s Will Holloway. An impetuous former agent and Pearce’s apprentice, Holloway has a Stark-esque moral compass that implores him to do the right thing regardless of the personal cost. It’s not a role that allows Harrington to showcase any skills we’ve yet to see him display in Westeros, but his character does provide an interesting counterpoint to Firth’s emotionless Pearce, a seasoned spook who methodically goes about his mission with ruthless professionalism.

The duo have a troubled history, with Pearce taking Holloway under his wing following his father’s death and then betraying his young charge after a botched mission in Berlin, and they therefore have a mutual distrust that creates an intriguing game of cat-and-mouse as Holloway wavers between believing his former mentor and trying to bring him to justice.

Yet, despite the gritty action and troubled characters, the drama undoubtedly falls flat. The challenge Spooks faces is trying to stand out in a crowded field of morally grey spy movies and with a plot that essentially plays like a low budget Skyfall with less charismatic characters, it’s hard to ignore the feeling that we’ve seen this type of story play out upteen times before.

Still, The Greater Good is a solid if underwhelming cinematic debut for the Spooks series that features intriguing characters and a familiar style to please long-term fans, but one that is unlikely to leave a lasting impression.

Runtime: 104 mins; Genre: Spy Thriller; Released: 8 May 2015;

Director: Bharat Nalluri; Screenwriter: Jonathan Brackley, Sam Vincent;

Starring: Peter Firth, Kit Harington, Elyes Gabel, Jennifer Ehle

Click here to watch the trailer for Spooks: The Greater Good