JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM*** Back for more roars


It seems churlish to talk about humans in this uber animal movie. But I’ll do so, if only fleetingly: on a human level (judged by behavior that has some semblance to reality) this movie makes no sense. There were numerous WTF moments that writers Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) and Derek Connolly (Kong: Skull Island) were, seemingly, just too lazy to worry about. The impulse seemed always to “get to the action” and minimize motivation, common sense etc. After all, it’s difficult enough trying to tell the same story twice with the same actors and a tick box of “must have” franchise tropes (the sadistic big game hunter who dies nastily, the evil rich genius, the endangered kid, stampeding dinosaurs, dinosaur wrangling etc. though sadly without John Williams’s music) and still try to seem original.

That said, the fundamental premise of dinosaur chaos as an expression of human hubris and greed gone feral, remains alive and well and, despite it all, pretty damn exciting.

The original cute pair, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), along with a fleeting glimpse of Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), are reunited through some vague and entirely meaningless premise to return to Isla Nublar. Their mission, like Noah’s, is the rescue of as many species of dinosaur as they can from an impending volcanic eruption (predicted by better vulcanologists than there are either in Hawaii or Guatemala). Except… there are more sinister moves afoot, which include the creation of a weaponised super Dino: a sort of raptor/T Rex chomp fusion.

After a slow beginning where the characters pretend to yield to irresistible motivations, once the chomping begins and the volcano explodes, the action becomes non-stop. And, despite the repetitions from the original Jurassic World, itself an imitation of Jurassic Park with its own multiple imitations and iterations, there are some stunning hold-your-breath set pieces. Spaniard J.A. Bayona who gave us the tremendously convincing “The Impossible” (about the 2004 tsunami in Thailand) gives full vent to his sense of delirious mayhem in an extended peek-a-boo chase between humans and animals in a vast multi storied (and anarchically destroyed) mansion. Finally, all that dangerous science, crooked oligarchs and villainous hench-men come crashing down beneath the fury of Jurassic de-extinction.

And what was once a contained amusement park threat (spoiler alert) is now unleashed roaring into an unsuspecting world. JW3 is probably already in the planning stage.
The next time only the Avengers can save the world.

 

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Dir: J.A. Bayona (A Monster Calls). With: Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Pratt, Jeff Godblum, Daniella Pineda, Toby Jones. Writers: Colin Trevorrow, Derek Connolly. Cinematographer: Oscar Faura (The Imitation Game, The Impossible). Production Design: Andy Nicholson (Divergent. Gravity)

 

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SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY**** Ron Howard in fine form


Solo: A Star Wars Story is Ron Howard’s exhilarating entry into the Star Wars alumni with this swaggering Western (complete with low slung gun holsters, high-tech stage coaches, honkey tonk saloons and high noon shoot-outs)…all set in a galaxy far far away, a long long time ago.

It’s everything Star Wars:The Last Jedi wasn’t: the characters, led by the swaggering Alden Ehrenreich (from “Hail Caesar”) as Han Solo and the rakish Donald Glover as Lando Clarissian are charismatic and engaging, unlike the dour, boorishly angst-riddled Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The story is straightforward and focused (unlike the multi-tiered confused narratives of …Last Jedi, that wander forever aimlessly like drunks). The yawningly dull aerial battles are kept to a minimum and there are elements of genuine tension and excitement.

In short, compared with the leaden …Jedi, Solo… is fun. It levitates. More than this, it’s visually spectacular. There’s a big-screen, epic feel about director Howard’s stunningly realized wastelands of dingy equipment and ragged cities.

The story hangs around a love affair. Han and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia, mother of dragons, Clarke, who convincingly transforms from the ingenue to the imperious) are young lovers (juvenile delinquents really) who attempt to bribe their way out of the light and freedom deprived city of Corellia. There they’re indentured to a vast aquatic centipede. Han escapes, but not Qi’ra. As is only right, he makes it his mission to return and rescue her. It’s a long return journey that takes him via a stint as a fighter-pilot (thrown out for insubordination), a thrilling heist onboard a high speed, abyss-clinging train, near death from a black hole type vortex and encounters with a wide range of (mainly unsavory and unscrupulous) characters including the 190 year old Chewbacca.

But the Qi’ra he finally reunites with only seems the loving girl he once knew. Much has changed. And not for the better.

Father/son writers Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan offer enough plot-heavy excitement to keep you gripped while feeding out those many ‘origin’ storylines that perhaps only the die-hards would ever have wondered about, but which are nice the discover…such as how Han met Chewie (He’s thrown down a muddy cave to face Chewie aka ‘the beast’, whose guttural language he understands), the origin of his name (He belongs to no tribe and is thus dubbed “Solo”), and his first encounter with a rag tag group who evolve into the Empire-defying rebel forces.

While these origin myths are being spooled out, we’re introduced to an eclectic group of engaging characters: among whom are Woody Harrelson’s untrustworthy Beckett who becomes a sort of thief mentor to Han; the slick, smooth voiced gambler/hustler, Lando (in the person of the protean Danny Glover) from whom Han wins the famous Millennium Falcon; Beckett’s kick-ass girlfriend Val (a wasted Thandie Newton almost unrecognizable under a large wig) and the most fascinating of them all, a hip-swinging, sassy female droid pilot, LD-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) convinced that Lando has the hots for her.

Thing is, Lando, Han and Beckett are really only expressions of that archetypal lovable rogue, Brett Maverick. His slick, wise-ass, gunslinging spirit hovers like a blessing over this joyful enterprise

 

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY. Dir: Ron Howard. With: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Joonas Suotamo. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Brettany. Writers: Lawrence Kasdan (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Raiders of the Lost Arc)), Jonathan Kasdan. Cinematographer: Bradford Young (Arrival), Production Designer: Neil Lamont (Edge of Tomorrow; Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens)

BREAKING IN***B Movie Master Class


Every so often, a body needs some calorie rich, sugary, finger-lickingly luscious junk food to escape from the daily starvation diet of Trump and Brexit. And this smartly plotted, fast-paced story of suburban mom turned protective lioness delivers its B movie delights in spades. This isn’t just a case of woman power, but Black Woman power.

Said powerful Black Woman, Shaun (Gabrielle Union) is a typical middle class mom with two sassy kids (dad’s stuck in the office) who has to make the long journey upstate (I assume it’s “upstate” as everything seems to happen there). She’s meeting an estate agent who’ll help her sell her, estranged, father’s country pile. 

And what a pile it is: multiple rooms including a panic room, state of the art multi-screen security, bullet proof glass windows further reinforced by remote controlled steel shutters. Oh, and there’s a drone that can glide around the house spying on all and sundry. This is country pile as fantasy fortress.

It also has a vault with $5M in cash. (her dad was up to no good)

And the knowledge of all that cash is ample enough motivation to warrant a break in. It’s potentially a simple enough job for a small team of thieves: break in to an empty house, find the vault, crack it open and steal the money. They’re the typical team of thieves: the soft-spoken leader, Eddie, whose blood has long turned to ice (Billy Burke from the TV series “Zoo”), the experienced lock-smith un-fussed about slicing throats (Mark Furze), the naive ex-con panicked that a simple heist is turning into murder (Levi Meaden from “Pacific Rim:Uprising”) and the truly wild-eyed desperado hungry for blood (Richard Cabral whose entire movie CV is that of killer types).

Why did mom and two kids need to turn up? They’ll just have to deal with them.

From the moment she arrives, bickering kids in tow, all awed by the high tech luxury of the house, mom begins to notice that things aren’t quite right. There’s an empty unwashed coffee cup, a smashed photo and was that a noise in the basement?
All the elements are there to unleash the frenzy of action that follows. No element in the spare plot is irrelevant. No observed object in the home, from the drone to the wonderful surround-sound system to various knives, will not find a small starring role in the unfolding story.

So the (mainly) thought-through plot from writer Ryan Eagle (“The Commuter”, “Rampage”) makes it clear why mom, who’s locked out of the house doesn’t just run to the police, why there are only ninety minutes to get the job done, why the thieves don’t simply kill the kids etc. OK, most moms simply can’t take down four ruthless killers. But hey, you never know. Some moms can simply transform into Jason Bourne when their kids are in danger. And this one in the hands of experienced B movie director James McTeigue (“Survivor”) sure does it in style.

You won’t fall asleep.

Two wonderful pieces of dialog bookend in movie: At the beginning when one of Eddie’s team commits a particularly nasty murder, his take on the mother, Shaun, is prescient: “Shit. Now she’s gone from being a frightened mom to a desperate woman,” he says. “And that’s dangerous”. Her words at the cathartic finale offer a marvellous (if clichéd) wrap-up to it all: “You picked the wrong fucking house to rob”

If you need a quick shot of anti-blues adrenaline, this is the right f-ing movie to see.

It joins a noble list of B movie masterpieces: “No Escape” with Owen Wilson, “Deep Blue Sea” with LL Cool J, “The Foreigner” with Jacky Chan, “Anaconda” with J Lo, “The Shallows” with Blake Lively, and “Run All Night” with Liam Neeson etc.

SPOILER ALERT:

Of course, in the real world, when the cops arrive and fine four black persons in a wealthy person’s house with five white persons dead…their troubles will only now have begun

 

BREAKING IN. Dir: James McTeigue, with: Gabrielle Union, Billy Burke. Written by: Ryan Engle. Cinematography: Toby Oliver (“Get Out”)

 

 

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR*** Packs a powerful Punch


IF YOU WERE ever minded to ask, “How many superheroes does it take to screw in a light-bulb”, Avengers: Infinity War provides the dizzyingly delightful answer. There are superheroes every which way…tumbling out of the sky, beating around the bushes and appearing out of thin air. It’s an overflowing cornucopia of gorgeous, scantily clad, quarrelsome, prickly mega beings reluctantly banding together to fight off the Ultimate Baddie.

This is Thanos (Josh Brolin), an existentially powerful titan who eats superheroes for breakfast and who has arrived on earth in search of some hidden, glowing, infinity stones. They will nicely complete the trim of the designer necklace on his superhero gown. With a full collection of said stones, no hodgepodge assembly of avengers (not to mention The Earth) will ever stand a chance. OK. Whatever

How can they possibly win?

The clever trick that (Marvel veteran) directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: Civil War etc) and writers Christopher Markus (Captain America etc.) and Stephen McFeely (Thor etc.) pulls off is that despite such a stellar collection of superegos and super clashes, the forward momentum of the plot remains clear and propulsive. And, more importantly, we get to tarry long enough with each of the heroes that matter to enjoy their very un-super hero frailties and quirks. Each megastar (and the directors err on the side of the really larger than life characters) is given enough screen time to charm, entertain, amuse and tittilate us.

Indeed, the joy with Avengers etc is that, though it’s still about thirty minutes too long, we get just the right amount of time with the likes of Spider-Man, the Hulk, Dr. Strange etc. whose charms are never quite strong enough to last the length of a full movie.
And it is visually quite spectacular, especially the mega battles in Wakanda. This is the twenty first century’s epic equivalence of Ben Hur.

And as to my snide question, “How can they possibly win?”…We’ll all have to wait until Part 3 lands in a cinema-plex near you sometime just in time for Blockbuster Season 2019. All bets are off

 

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR Dir: Anthony and Joe Russo. With: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Evans, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cummberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Hiddelston, Idris Elba, Peter Dinklage, Vin Diesel etc etc. Writers: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Cinematographer: Trent Opaloch (Captain America, Elysium), Production Designer: Charles Wood (Dr. Strange)

 

ISLE OF DOGS**** Dog gone wonderful


THIS IS ANOTHER stunningly inventive, richly original and thoroughly charming movie from Wes Anderson. It’s insightful, very witty and beautifully shot. Executed entirely in stop motion animation (that most tedious of movie making styles that took Anderson almost two years to finish) the story is located in Megasaki City, a canton of Japan, sometime in the near future. There the humans mainly speak Japanese (subtitled when you need it; more often than not you can get the drift of the conversations) and the dogs ‘speak’ American.

And there, the town is run by Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura from “the Grand Budapest Hotel”), a cat lover, and petty demagogue with the snarl and viciousness of a Mafia don. Mayor Kobayashi has decided that due to a (largely fake news) canine epidemic, humans are no longer safe from dogs. His fiery rhetoric demonizes man’s best friend, all of which are rounded up, caged and shipped off to a deserted island that’s the city’s polluted rubbish dump. Put it another way: The dogs are treated like garbage

What he didn’t reckon with is Atari (Koyu Rankin), his 12 year old adopted and heavily guarded ward. Spots, Atari’s state appointed guard dog has also been caged and shipped off; and Atari (having bravely stolen a battered puddle jumper aircraft) journeys to the island in search of his friend. He’s an unlikely hero: kinda nerdy, family to the dastardly Kobayashi, and with no agenda other than to find his dog.

There he meets the lead pack (or in human terms, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum) along with that foxiest of dogs (Scarlett Johansson). After some inter-canine debate they agree to assist him in his search, and this group of underdogs begin their Odyssey

It’s not to abstruse to relate this story (of dog ostracism) to the populists’ demonisations and disenfranchisements of The Others and their need to cast them out, be they Mexicans, West Indians, Rohingya, Muslims or sundry refugees. Through cartoon exaggeration (and the fact that it’s a Japanese’s nemesis) Anderson summarises every modern tin-pot dictator, from Putin to Trump in his brilliantly realised Mayor Kobayashi. It’s done with the lightest of touches…without a trace of proselytising.

The whole glorious enterprise is energised by what’s obvious in the title (when spoken aloud). Atari, his secret admirer Tracy (Greta Gerwig), and his pack of canine helpers are all driven by the shared values of loyalty and nothing more complicated than the need for love and companionship. They form a Quixotic coalition of samurai driven by this love and the need to do what’s honourable and right. It’s a simple thought that, expressed in a more conventional tale, would simply seem banal. But in the unassuming form of a ‘child’s cartoon’, the cliché “love conquers all” assumes a significance that elevates it to something both touching and timeless.

Anderson wrote the movie with his regular collaborators, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura along with producer Roman Coppola and a grab bag of outstanding art directors and animators: Curt Enderle from “the Boxtrolls”, Paul Harrod, Adam Stockhausen (who also ‘did’ “Ready Player One”) and modellers Charles Fletcher (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”), Ian Mackinnon (“Mars Attacks”) and others.

He’s also brought together a dynamic troupe of actors to voice his creations (most of which were voiced as a group…as opposed to the modern approach of solo v/o’s cut together in a studio) such as Frances McDormand, Harvel Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe , Live Schreiber and Courtney B Vance (apart from those mentioned above)

There has been some carping about cultural appropriation. But it’s misdirected. With “Isle of Dogs”, the director has definitely been barking up the right tree.

 

ISLE OF DOGS. Dir: Wes Anderson. Written by: Anderson and Jason Schwartzman from a story by Kunichi Nomura and Roman Coppola. With: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel etc. Cinematographer: Tristan Oliver (“Fantastic Mr.Fox”). Composer: Alexandre Desplat (“The Shape of Water”)

 

 

READY PLAYER ONE** A Rare Spielberg Miss


This well crafted, but essentially hollow piece of fluff is a well intended and, though full of kinetic whizzbangery, dreadfully dull movie about the dangers of mind-deadening escapism. It’s set a mere three decades into the future in an overcrowded, polluted world where people live one on top of the other in vast slum-like trailer parks made of old container crates. It’s a depressing place where life – work, friendships and escape – is experienced virtually via an immersive, fully networked game, Oasis (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersion Simulation).

In the game, everyone can become the self they want to be via their avatar (Bringing their “game faces”?). The story is set in motion by the discovery that the inventor of the game, Anorak (an underused Mark Rylance slipping into his now clichéd “avuncular” mode) has hidden an Easter egg: three keys that open magical doors. The first to find them wins all the riches and power of Oasis.

Wade Watts, aka Parsival (Tye Sheridan from “X-Men Apocaypse”), and his team of fellow avatars set out to find the keys. Standing in their way is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn…”Rogue One”), nasty minded CEO of a conglomerate that makes most of the virtual reality equipment used in Oasis.

I guess if you’re in to gaming, “Ready Player One” may be your thing. But the whole enterprise, cutely studded with pop movie references (Spielberg’s own Easter eggs) feels more like a virtual movie than a real one. People run, have virtual car chases, things morph into other things, they earn credits, lose credits, gain added lives. Whatever.

Problem is, the thrills aren’t particularly thrilling, the adventure isn’t particular adventurous and the world so meticulously created (by Adam Stockhausen) feels like a (very) poor man’s version of James Cameron’s “Avatar”. Because no matter how much the story switches between the virtual and the real, the people never quite emerge as actual people that you give a damn about.

Oasis is clearly meant to signify (and warn of) the end state of today’s zombified gamers and social media residents. And in the end, the “ta-da” moment of revelation is that it’s better to live in the real world than the fake one, where the players have lost the ability to connect. And this, the movie concludes, is a bad thing. You think so? This is the profound conclusion “Ready Player One” builds toward? Really? That’s it?

All that time, money, labour and Spielberg-ean expertise has lead to that momentous insight? Surely “Ready Player One” is a very clever con. It’s a movie-like experience helmed by a Spielberg avatar. For the genius who gave us Saving Private Ryan, Jaws and Indiana Jones couldn’t really have masterminded this!

It’s definitely a brilliant movie. But only if you live in a virtual world. Meanwhile in our own dystopian era, the truth is out here: Spielberg has been body snatched.

 

READY PLAYER ONE. Dir: Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Zak Penn (“Lego Marvel’s Avengers”), Ernest Cline (from his novel). With: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel”), Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Wiithe, Mark Rylance. Cinematographer: Janusz Kaminiski (everything Spielberg’s done). Production Designer: Adam Stockhausen (“Isle of Dogs”, “Bridge of Spies”)

 

 

 

I, TONYA**** Miracle on Ice


THE DELIGHT OF this movie (apart from Margot Robbie’s and Allison Janney’s compellingly well acted portraits) is that it’s a master-class of tone.

The first delight is that it’s a refreshingly anti-sports movie (And perhaps it needed an Australian -Robbie- to have the guts to produce such). Hollywood continues to force feed its catharsis-hungering audiences with an abundance of sports movies in which plucky underdogs triumph against all odds (and accompanied by soaring scores).

I Tonya is a wonderful round-up of (actual) no-good, staggeringly stupid scumbags who formed the dubious eco system of Tonya Harding’s failed bid to win an Olympic ice skating Gold.

It’s a “bio pic” of Harding’s troubled life leading up to “The Incident” in which her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan, was assaulted in the run up to the games. Tonya didn’t herself assault Kerrigan, but the shocked world blamed her. That was their truth of the matter. Finally, here was a moment of real, newspaper-selling drama in a sport whose only drama comes from the odd fall now and again.

Though the movie is punctuated by the skating and the competitions (with extraordinary CGI that makes you really, really believe that Margot Robbie is herself an Olympic quality ice skater) its focus is on Harding’s bone poor, red-neck life. As a child, she’s horribly emotionally abused by her mother…an unsmiling, bitter, chain smoking, potty- mouthed harridan, whose idea of encouragement is to denigrate and insult her daughter. (It’s a great role for Allison Janney and well deserving of her Oscar).

Mom’s emotional abuse soon turns physical with Tonya’s boyfriend/husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan, Logan Lucky) with whom she shares a destructive, violent relationship. He cuffs her around; she tries to shoot him; they break up, they make up. She bleeds, masks it with make up and still she skates on, wooing audiences with her 3 1/2 turn pike. Hers is a world of relentless violence.

As she says, “I’ve been beaten up all my life; she (Kerrigan) gets one small touch and the whole world goes berserk”

It’s funny.

The narrative flow of the story is tied together with interviews (based on their actual words) of the key players and pitch-perfect asides from Tonya, who turns to the audience from time to time to comment on the action. The characters and their actions are so outlandish, so irony-free, so out of whack with the Happy American Family idea the Olympic committee is looking for, that the heart-breaking trauma and tragedy of their lives is served up in a tone of absurdist, sometimes slapstick, comedy.

The typical Hollywood fare would have played this story for all the gut-wrenching lachrymose drama it could muster. But that would be a false truth. For Australian director Craig Gillepsie (Million Dollar Arm), the truth is more like Theatre of the Absurd. For at its heart, this retelling of the Tonya Harding story is her story…her search for or at least her retelling of her version of the truth. In one of her asides, Tonya says: “There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants”

The truth (in life?) is certainly not the typical cliché of “achievement despite adversity”. Truth perhaps lies in the desperate need for the powerful to exercise their power over the powerless: mother over child, husband over wife; even the Olympic committee over its athletes.

I Tonya is also story about the need for love (Tonya dearly wants to be loved…by her mother, her husband, her fans) and the thin partition that separates it from hate. The writing (by Steve Rogers of Kate and Leopold) is very clever. It never caricatures its characters: Jeff is a violent wife beater…but he’s also a man whose ambitions were thwarted by his sense of responsibility to Tonya and who will do anything to help her win (including of course, breaking the law). Tonya’s beastly mother is a person cursed by her inability to express tenderness but whose Dragon-mom’s devotion to her child’s extraordinary talent was clearly an expression of love.

And what a coming out party for Margot Robbie, who up until a year ago seemed just another puff of eye candy (About Time, Focus, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Legend of Tarzan). 2017 was definitely her year…first in Goodbye Christopher Robin and now this, which story she identified and shepherded to production. Robbie manages to hide her radiant beauty completely in the tough, me-against-the-world, battered scragginess of her character. The surprise is that she too wasn’t even short listed as an Oscar nominee.

Let’s see what 2018 brings for her

 

I, TONYA. Dir: Craig Gillespie, With: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson (Masters of Sex). Writer: Steven Rogers. Cinematographer: Nicolas Karakatsanis. Production Design: Jade Healy (A Ghost Story)