Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

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After deciding that Dinos are old hat in Jurassic World, now it’s time to save them from re-extinction. In the years since its closure via Genetically Modified Genetically Modified Dinosaur, Jurassic Park World has gone from bad to worse; the awakening of a dormant volcano threatens to destroy the island and kill everything on it. It’s up to ex-manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Raptor wrangler Owen (Chris Pratt) to save the Dinos from extinction. Again.

Full disclosure: Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and, to a lesser extent, its sequel, were as formative to my childhood as my own mother and father, leading to a lifelong love of Jeff Goldblum, a dinosaur obsession and wearing leather jackets. Fuller disclosure: I hated 2015’s Jurassic World so much that it made me want to never see another dinosaur or Chris Pratt again. Yes, Jurassic World made me hate Chris Pratt, even in his post-Starlord prime.

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Who, thanks to Infinity War, everyone now hates as Starlord anyway

Still, there’s enough hangover from my childhood that I will never not watch a Jurassic Park movie, and so I was first in line for Fallen Kingdom, expecting the worst but hoping for the best.

The good news is that Fallen Kingdom is leaps and bounds better than its predecessor. While it has no choice but to lug along the worst ideas from Jurassic World (dullards Claire and Owen, a stupid new breed of dinosaur), it is also boosted by the horror movie machinations of director D.J. Bayona and a tighter focus on real emotion and genuine affection for its dinosaurs. Even the Velociraptors, who I thought would never be cool again, after watching a CGI pack of them ride with Chris Pratt through an ugly jungle in the previous flick’s dumbest scene.

While Fallen Kingdom moves too quickly to ever lastingly dent the intellect, this means it rarely has chance to bore. Indeed, by the film’s second half, we’re into relatively uncharted territory for the franchise (not a spoiler – it’s all in the trailer) at a dinosaur auction, hosted by Toby Jones and Rafe Spall. It’s in its villain department where Fallen Kingdom is at its strongest, with Toby Jones, a returning B.D. Wong and a movie-stealing Ted Levine all putting the heroes (and even some of the dinosaurs) to shame.

Bayona’s horror movie bona fides lead to the best set-pieces since The Lost World, peaking during the film’s opening sequence, but always retaining viewer interest. While there’s never that sense of Spielbergian magic, neither does it feel so by-the-numbers as that which preceded it, with Bayona’s Gothic horror sensibilities enlivening the material as much as they work against it.

Make no mistake, Fallen Kingdom is a bad movie; it’s ugly and dumb, with terrible characterisation and predictable plotting. The story is a weird rehash of The Lost World (although the finale is better integrated here), constrained by  bad source material and studio interference. But what it does have is just enough, with one excellent villain (Levine), two fun ones (Jones and Wong), a miscast one (sorry Rafe) and a truly horrible one (the iRaptor), set against strong action beats and a surprisingly affecting emotional streak. Fallen Kingdom is a bad movie made a lot better by not being as bad as the one which preceded it.

And worst of all, Jeff Goldblum isn’t even in it, not really.

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Presented without comment

 

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Avengers: Infinity War

Infinity War

It speaks volumes to the confidence and success of Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe thus far that they have been able to get away with naming the nineteenth movie in their stable Infinity War. To manage that without fear of asshole critics and detractors snarkily dubbing it something like Infinity Bore or Infinity Chore is no mean accomplishment. Can you imagine if the Justice League had tried to slip by with such an open goal of a subtitle? Fish in a barrel.

The only fish in a barrel where Infinity War is concerned, however, is in its eponymous fight. After six long years of teasing and sneering on from the sidelines (or post credits), Thanos is finally here. And, as established during the film’s earliest moments, the Mad Titan is taking no prisoners. It’ll take the might of the Avengers, plus those the MCU has accrued since Age of Ultron (Spidey, Black Panther, Doctor Strange etc) to stand a chance of defeating the man before he wipes out half of the universe. And even then, nothing is guaranteed. Avengers: I’ll Do it Myself: The Movie is the brutal, confident answer to Marvel’s critics. The stakes never feel real? Nobody ever really dies? The villains are always shit? That last one was never really true, but Infinity War pounds those criticisms into submission within moments, and much of the film feels like an episode of Game of Thrones. You’re never sure who might bite it or when, and each big set piece feels genuinely dangerous, no matter how many layers of plot armour the characters seem to be wearing at the time… and in spite of any potential resurrection that might come, somewhere down the line.

We’ve known many of these characters for ten years now, so there’s a weight and heft to the action, no matter how little some of them actually get to do in Infinity War. The whole film feels like a series of third-act confrontations and battles; it’s fast and breathless, stuffed to the hilt, yet incredibly lean. Everyone trips over themselves for screentime, but few feel particularly sidelined (poor Black Widow aside, and Captain America and Black Panther are kind of just… there) and everyone gets their big moment. Or moments, when it comes to show-stealers like Drax, Teenage Groot and Banner. There was a moment somewhere in the middle where my jaw dropped, and I uttered an audible “fucking hell” right then and there in the cinema.

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Fucking Hell: The Movie

Meanwhile, Thor, Doctor Strange, Stark and the rest of the Guardians duke it out for top billing, with relative newcomer Benedict Cumberbatch proving to be surprisingly important – and great – as Strange. But this is the Thanos show, and the testicular-chinned giant walks (or stomps) away with it. Josh Brolin is excellent as Thanos, married to some of the best CGI ever seen in a Marvel movie. For once we have a CGI villain that feels real; every punch, every blow hurts, and I genuinely worried for the fate of the film’s more human characters. And even some of the Gods, too.

Infinity War whips from one end of the universe to the other, blowing things up on an epic scale, dragging each and every one of its characters through the wringer. It’s funny, thrilling and absolutely everything you’d expect from a Marvel movie, but it’s also an emotional rollercoaster – upsetting and exhausting in equal measure. I haven’t been this affected by a piece of pop culture since Buffy the Vampire Slayer (hey, I was seventeen) and left the cinema feeling something more akin to shell-shock than the sense of triumphalism we have come to associate with Avengers movies.

Marvel fans will not be disappointed. Some elements from previous films (most noticeably Civil War) are swept under the rug, while others revert back to the status quo with alarming speed, but that’s inevitable in a film this size and with so many moving parts. Everyone else may be left nonplussed or even a little irritated by this gigantic toybox-come-to-life movie (eighteen films is a lot of homework to do before watching a film), but it achieves everything it sets out to do, and then some. Now, how about that Infinity Encore?

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Pictured: actual audience reaction as the end credits rolled on Infinity War.

Looking Glass

Looking Glass

Damn it Modern Nicolas Cage, you make it so hard for me to defend you. After appearing to be on a bit of a career resurgence with his Mom & Dad and the forthcoming Mandy, the Cage proceeds to make me look stupid again with this Straight to Streaming effort, being a typical example of the sub-par crap people accuse him of making all the time now.

But Straight to Streaming Nicolas Cage is still a cut above most slumming it movie stars, if only for the oddness of whatever film he’s choosing to make at the time. While fans will likely be disappointed in what is a fairly straight performance from Cage, the film itself falls in line with the actor’s curious choice in projects. Now he adds erotic thriller to his genre catalogue (provided you don’t count 8mm already), playing a horny motel owner who discovers a hidden two-way mirror in one of the rooms, allowing him to skeeze on the truckers, hookers and their visiting conquests. At the very least, it’s better than whatever Steven Seagal and Bruce Willis are doing these days.

But only just: Looking Glass is neither erotic nor thrilling, making a pig’s ear of its Giallo-esque sub-De Palma story. Both Cage and co-star Robin Tunney are half asleep and visibly bored with it, and only Marc Blucas (Riley from Buffy) is having any fun here. In spite of its kooky visuals, strong cast and should-be-interesting story, it’s a bore, too long and lacking in the real weirdness it needs to take it to the next level. When you have Nicolas Cage amongst your cast, you had better make the most of the man. The distinctly tweedledull Looking Glass, sadly, doesn’t even come close.

Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs
Personally, isle of cats more, but dogs are cool too

D’you like dogs? The Japanese government certainly doesn’t. Or at least, not the Japanese government of Wes Anderson’s dystopian animated feature, shipping out man’s best friends to a trash island off the coast, where they are left to turn feral or die. One little boy is determined not to be separated from his furry pal though, and flies across the river to rescue his bodyguard dog, Spots. In his absence, a whole government conspiracy is gradually uncovered, from which cat lovers and Japanese government officials will not emerge unscathed.

Anderson follows up his fantastic Fantastic Mr. Fox adaptation with an even more ambitious picture; a love letter to dogs and the aesthetics of Japanese cinema. The scruffy puppets aren’t the only carryover from previous Anderson movies – viewers will be listening out for the likes of Bill Murray, Ed Norton and Anjelica Huston, all cast as dogs at varying levels of importance and cleanliness. Chief of them all is Bryan Cranston’s, uh, Chief, the mean old stray who gradually begins to see some value in humanity. The rest are a little lost in the ensemble, but the story of Chief and the human child is a heartwarming one, reinforcing my habit of only ever crying at cartoons or films about animals.

Where it is less successful is whenever it leaves the island to spend time with Greta Gerwig’s infuriating foreign exchange student/journalist, Tracy. We can go around in Twitter circles all day bickering about whether or not this is a white saviour narrative, or if the whole film is a work of cultural appropriation, but wherever you sit, these sections of the film grind the whole thing to a halt when all we really want to see is the kid and the dogs. And, okay, the robo-dogs too. To waste time with Greta Gerwig and her stupid hair when you have a perfectly good Jeff Goldblum sitting right there is simply ridiculous.

This elephant in the room acknowledged, Isle of Dogs is otherwise a beautiful, sweet work of sci-fi with an excellent cast, gorgeous visuals and a sense of emotion usually lacking in Anderson’s live-action work. It’s a shaggy, unfocused tale that hasn’t entirely thought through its own optics, but isle of this movie nevertheless. It’s a dog’s dinner, but a really tasty one.

 

Double Date

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Eager to stamp his overdue V-card, lonely 30-year-old virgin Jim (Danny Morgan) allows his laddish lad pal Alex (Michael Socha) to lad him into ladding it up on a double date with a pair of beautiful femme fatales. The old adage proves accurate, and some things really are too good to be true: the girls are a pair of serial killers, sacrificing prospective conquests to their sinister cause.

Upon first glance, Double Date sounds unbearably blokey, like the sort of thing Danny Dyer used to make before he landed a day job on Eastenders. Morgan and Socha are a cut above Dyer (not difficult), although the writing walks a tightrope act between gross and charming, particularly whenever the latter opens his mouth. The ladies too, are precariously placed in a minefield of a script which could go terribly wrong in the hands of a less skilled writer. Murderous, duplicitous women with designs on a Nice Guy™? It’s easy to see where Double Date could go very badly.

Thankfully, for the most part, it’s a clever take on peer pressure and the importance of taking things at your own speed. As vital to the story as Jim’s virginity is reluctant murderess Lulu (Georgia Groome), also figuring out her own way in the world and attempting to break free from the crappy advice of her sister. It’s an oddly reassuring watch for late bloomers, as Jim’s virginity is rarely the actual butt of the joke, and Socha is sweetly supportive of his pal’s plight, in a predictably laddish sort of way. Where the film is most interesting is in its frequent jabs at masculinity, both verbal (Socha delivers a remarkable pep-talk during which he speaks about fear) and in the later action sequences. Some misogynistic undertones are inevitable, and the film’s villain is fairly one-note, almost playing into the hands of those who might describe themselves as Men’s Rights Activists (you know, fuckheads) but Director Benjamin Barfoot and writer Morgan are careful to play this battle of the sexes without favourites: although Jim is clearly the hero of the piece, he is still depicted as a bit of an idiot.

This is British horror comedy at its darkest and most wry, keeping the violence visceral and brutal, letting the humour blossom in its characters’ reactions to the increasingly horrible situations they find themselves in. Socha is particularly well suited to this balancing act, and his exasperation is as much fun to watch as the schadenfreude one experiences from seeing this wideboy get the piss pulverised out of him.

He’s not alone either – Dexter Fletcher pops up in a smaller role just long enough to steal the show from everybody (including Socha), as he tends to do in most things. But with the director, entire cast and writing firing on full cylinders, even he has his work cut out for him. Double Date is one of the best British horror comedies since Shaun of the Dead, with a laugh-out-loud funny script, grisly violence and great visuals. Its soundtrack is excellent too, featured in an opening credits sequence which should clue all viewers in that they’re in for something special here.

Double Date could have gone so wrong, but it turns out to be just right.

[Redacted Movie Title], a review

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Making movies is hard work. And while nobody sets out to make a bad one (the creators of Sharknado VII-whatever not withstanding), the road to Straight to DVD slash streaming is paved with good intentions and bad Indie movies.

Nevertheless, one hates to be a dick, especially to a low-budget genre film somebody obviously put a lot of work into. Hence [Redacted], A Movie Review, in which I still say mean things but resist naming and shaming those responsible.

Is this what passes for entertainment amongst the youth of today? Blowing off a perfectly good house party, a gang of friends sneak into an abandoned old prison to film a spooky little something for their wannabe videographer pal. It’s a better way to spend one’s time than swallowing Tide Pods, at least. But only just: predictably, the rundown old dump is home to more than just the horrific histories of its one-time inmates, and our heroes are locked in while supernatural (?) forces tear them apart.

Director [Redacted]‘s creepy horrorshow is part found footage, part conventionally filmed horror film, all no good. The acting and dialogue feels semi-improvised in the worst way, and is even more inexcusable if it emerges that someone actually sat down and wrote it. The kids’ annoying patter is forced and unnatural, their terror at the supernatural attacks which beset them shrieky and irritating, like a YouTube reacts video with a semblance of plot. The prison itself is marginally more successful as a setting, its gothic corridors and peeling walls doing most of the heavy lifting. It has to work hard at it though, the flat camerawork and uninspiring nightvision footage doing neither the prison nor the filmmakers or cast any favours. There’s a brief appearance from [redacted] actor [redacted] (playing another cop) in an attempt to class the joint up, but that comes in a silly bookending sequence which feels tacked on from a completely different film.

As with so many films like it (and there are so many films like it – can we have a rest from found footage films set in old prisons and lunatic asylums now?) too many of the ‘scares’ rely on its actors screaming into the darkness at barely seen terrors, and being dragged off by invisible ghouls. There’s no atmosphere, no tension and no invention, and the characters are ceaselessly annoying, even in the throes of death. As Indie filmmaking goes, there’s far worse out there – and [redacted] has sound intentions – but it’s as cliché as low-budget semi-found footage cinema comes, in spite of its fundamental coherence and naturally scary setting, [Redacted Movie Title] is better than swallowing Tide Pods, but only just.

Ready Player One

Ready Player OneThe Whole Thing Isn’t Going To Be Like This is It: The Movie

Hey, do you remember stuff? And things? Fans of stuff and things finally have their Holy Grail in this adaptation of Ernest Cline’s best-selling long-form Buzzfeed list novel. Can The Beard elevate Cline’s famously masturbatory material? Or was Ready Player One always destined to be a hollow CGI disappointment? After failing to rescue both Tintin and the BFG – a comic book series and a Road Dahl book I adored as a child – from the uncanny valley, my hopes weren’t high, Spielberg or no Spielberg. Has the great man finally lost his Joel-touch?

[Others seem to have enjoyed these films just fine, so I am willing to admit that maybe it’s just me that recent Spielberg isn’t working for].

Based on Ready Player One, it’s hard to tell. At best, there’s half an hour of ‘classic’ Spielberg, and the rest of it pre-vis CGI action and noise. We are introduced to Wade Watts, and the OASIS, via a Fast and the Furious style street race in which the De Lorean battles the Batmobile and the bike from Tron to the finish line, while an angry King Kong threatens to smush the competitors into Game Over coins. These racers – and those of corporate army ioi – compete for clues to total control over the OASIS. It’ll last for far longer than just the one street race too, taking in multiple stages, bosses and upgrades. Just like a videogame, geddit.

Evidently, this is not one of Spielberg’s prestige movies, but even his emptier spectacles tend to have some value, and so one can sense the hand of a master at work, even as the increasingly dumb battle royale frustrates and bores. There’s only so aloof one can be in the face of a movie which throws everything you love at the screen in regular intervals; it’s worth it for The Shining sequence alone. Even as the egregious references (read: things don’t like) got my goat, I couldn’t help but smile as Chucky tore apart a squad of terrified, screaming ioi-ers. Ready Player One is carefully calculated too appeal to as many audiences as possible, not least those who lapped up the likes of Stranger Things and Cline’s novel.

Ultimately, Ready Player One isn’t entirely insufferable. In fact, it’s mostly sufferable, with enjoyable action beats, impressive CGI and a ‘real’ world I recognised glimpses of from my Birmingham hometown (just the shitty bit though, don’t expect it to do much for the Birmingham Tourism Board). But it never connects beyond those facile surface-level thrills and jolts of recognition. I have never cared less about the stakes in any movie as I did this one, and its confused message alternates between ‘nerds should get a life/girlfriends’ and the extended gatekeeping essay everyone feared it would be. Not coincidentally, the film’s best moment is when someone (Ralph Ineson!) punches Wade in the face for calling them a ‘n00b’. Meanwhile, I continue to not ‘get’ Mark Rylance, who is horribly miscast as the hilariously deified creator of the OASIS, and T.J Miller is in this movie too.

Also in the movie: Simon Pegg, as the co-creator of the OASIS. Recalling Spaced and Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, I couldn’t help but feel partly responsible for Ready Player One, and also like a bit of a hypocrite. After all, it’s not hollow nostalgia fan-wanking if it’s over the things like, is it…

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