Simon Morris reviews Rampage starring Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, A Wrinkle in Time, and acclaimed Australian film Sweet Country.
Dwayne Johnson – The Rock – is pretty much the last brand-name star whose who can guarantee an audience mere presence.
Of part Samoan heritage, the former wrestler who makes Arnold Schwarzenegger look puny has a work ethic that would shame just about everyone in the business.
Since launching his acting career in The Mummy Returns (2001) he’s made over 80 films – some good, some bad, but mostly hugely entertaining.
Funny and self-deprecating, The Rock never makes the mistake of being any smarter than his audience. Like stars before him - John Wayne, Errol Flynn, and the young Harrison Ford – he makes just one promise to his fans. You’re going to have a pretty good time.
Rampage is made by the producers of a previous Rock hit, San Andreas, and in the end suffers from the same fault - no pun intended - the simple inability to say “When”.
But the film opens as well as anyone could wish. We meet gargantuan primatologist Davis Okoye (the Rock) who works mostly with gorillas, such as his best friend George (Jason Liles)
What Davis and George don’t know is that a space station run by some pesky, meddling scientists has blown up, and three of its main components have landed around the United States.
One of them is in the middle of George’s gorilla enclosure, and suddenly there’s considerably more of him; he’s doubled in size, and he’s still growing.
Maverick genetic scientist Dr Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) has no sooner started explaining that George is the victim of genetic editing than he heads for the hills.
But Davis isn’t giving up on George, and nor it seems is the CIA, represented by the jovial Jeffrey Dean Morgan – one of the few actors who can go head to head with The Rock.
Davis and Caldwell take off in a plane with George, and when the gorilla’s anaesthetic wears off we’ve suddenly got a furious King Kong ricocheting inside. Defying gravity and logic, somehow everyone lands more or less intact.
Then Jeffrey Dean Morgan drops the next bombshell. The result of the second bit of space junk is not just a gigantic wolf, it’s a wolf with bits of other animals edited on by the special effects boffins. These guys are having a wonderful time getting oversized creatures to smash up the city of Chicago.
But the creators of Rampage haven’t stopped yet. Remember there was a third radioactive fragment? This is the moment when Rampage jumps the crocodile and starts to capsize under the weight of its special effects gimmicks.
It’s a pity because the appeal of the film – though the producers clearly don’t know it – is mostly down to the likeable performances by The Rock, Naomie Harris and if you like, Jason Liles, the performance-capture actor behind George the gorilla.
Rampage will be very successful, I’m sure, even if it does work far too hard hitting us over the head with its stunts and ridiculously big monsters. But honestly guys, you had me when The Rock attempted to take off in a stolen helicopter and then forgot how to drive it.
A Wrinkle in Time
A Wrinkle in Time combines a popular American children’s book with Oprah Winfrey and the landscape around Wanaka.
In A Wrinkle in Time, delinquent schoolgirl Meg (Storm Reid) has never been the same since her father vanished. She and younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), get bullied at school, possibly because of their interest in time and space.
It seems Dad has cracked the Fifth Dimension and then vanished up his own plot device.
Or did he? Enter a mysterious, mystical woman called Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), dressed like a Christmas cake, and running the risk of wearing out her welcome with old vaudeville routines about Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which.
She invites Meg, boyfriend Calvin and Charles Wallace to follow the Yellow Brick Road.
Belatedly, leading “wise woman” Mrs Which – get it? – Oprah Winfrey arrives with Mrs Who, and they explain more stuff to our bewildered trio.
And under the Fifth Dimension, A Wrinkle in Time is mostly made up of dollops of The Wizard of Oz, with occasional side orders of The Neverending Story.
Fantasy stories are notoriously tricky things to pull off, particularly when the story-teller is new to the game.
Director Ava Duvernay’s background is mostly documentaries, though she took a slight detour when she made the Martin Luther King drama Selma.
I don’t think Duvernay’s got a fantasy bone in her body, though she gamely goes from chapter to chapter of A Wrinkle in Time hoping the performances, or the newly racially-diverse characters might bring something to the party.
The story’s events and whiplash changes of tone pretty much re-define the word “random”. What’s the point of the Stepford Wives? Why does one of the Mrs-es turn into a flying daffodil?
And fatally, the villain of the piece isn’t a simple Wicked Witch of the West but something far less clearly defined - it’s The Nothing of The NeverEnding Story .
As any fantasy fan could tell you, it’s impossible to get excited when the villain is as impersonal as this.
I can understand there are a lot of reasons to make A Wrinkle in Time. Just not very convincing ones to go and see it. It’s a story of a multi-racial group of kids whisked off to a new, if rather wobbly, dimension. And it’s based on a book that as required reading at many US schools is well known there.
A Wrinkle in Time has been made by a keen group of people, actively encouraged to offer an Afro-American slant, whatever that is. And it gives Oprah Winfrey the chance to dress up in something that looks like a pile of laundry. At the end of a grumpy two hours at the cinema it felt like too much time spent at a movie with altogether too many wrinkles.
Sweet Country is an engrossing and unpredictable story of a runaway aboriginal couple, based on events in 1920s Australia.
For a country with not the best reputation for its treatment of indigenous people, Australia has made a lot of films on the subject - from Rabbit Proof Fence and Beneath Clouds to the heartbreaking Samson and Delilah and the charming The Sapphires.
Director of Samson and Delilah, and cinematographer on The Sapphires, Warwick Thornton’s new film is the acclaimed Sweet Country.
Thornton has taken a true story from his long-time sound-man David Tranter – a story told to him by his grandfather.
But the mark of a great film-maker isn’t what you’re given, it’s what you do with it. And Thornton has made an Australian western that stands up with the best of Sam Peckinpah.
It’s the early 1920s in Central Australia, and the men who fought in World War I have returned home and been given land to farm.
Most of them know very little about farming so people like the clearly damaged Harry March ask for help from their neighbor, the devout Fred Smith, played for maximum sympathy by Sam Neill.