Chris Pratt

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

11/06/18

Another day, another instalment of a well-worn movie franchise.

I’ll be honest with you, when I first heard about this, I wasn’t overly inclined to bother with it. Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World (2015) was okay, but nothing in it instilled in me the appetite for another monster helping. But then I noticed, that this time out, the movie was to be directed by J A Bayona and my curiosity was aroused. I’ve admired his three previous offerings, all very different beasts – The Orphanage, The Impossible and A Monster Calls, exceptional films, every one. Could he possibly bring something new to the table?

Fallen Kingdom begins with news that the ex-theme park of Isla Nubla, now a dinosaur haven, is in big trouble. The island’s resident volcano has decided to blow its top and its saurian inhabitants appear to be doomed to extinction all over again. John Hammond’s former partner, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) has devised a rescue mission, which means that eleven different species will be captured and shipped off to a new, safe haven. Lockwood is terminally ill so the organisation of this complex mission has been left to his young assistant, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), a man we just know at a glance is not entirely trustworthy. Mills calls in Clare Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) to help with the mission and she enlists former love interest, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt, as affable as ever), to assist her. With a couple of young associates in tow, they head off to Isla Nubla. (The good news is that Clare actually remembers to pack some sensible footwear this time!) Once on the island, they quickly discover that the mission is nothing like as straightforward as they originally supposed…

All right, so the first third of the movie is beautifully filmed and there are some decent people-versus-lava scenes. The dinosaurs are state-of-the-art CGI and, though there’s nothing here to disgrace Stephen Spielberg’s game-changing original, neither is there very much in the way of surprises. Indeed, this first section is haunted by that most deadly of dinosaurs, the Nothingnewbeforeus. Isla Nubla goes up in smoke and I start to think that this is the fate that’s inevitably going to befall the franchise.

But then the action shifts to Benjamin Lockwood’s estate in California and the film instantly takes a big step up, heading in a different, and much more compelling direction. The idea here is that no matter how well intended an original idea is, there are ruthless people waiting in the wings, ready to step in and monetise it. In comes the ever-dependable Toby Jones as Gunnar Eversol, a smug and utterly repellant dino auctioneer. He’s there to sell off the ‘rescued’ creatures to the highest bidder. There’s also a new addition amongst the specimens, a hybrid dinosaur called the Indoraptor,  a super killing machine that’s just crying out to to be ‘weaponised.’

When the auction goes a bit haywire, Bayona ramps up the suspense to almost unbearable levels and, there are some scenes that ride very close to the wind in terms of the film’s 12A rating. Best of all, there’s a fabulous sequence where Lockwood’s granddaughter hides in her bedroom, as the Indoraptor resolutely makes its way towards her. Bayona uses shadows and music to create something both menacing and enchanting – like a dark Grimm’s fairy tale with the wolf replaced by the most terrifying creature imaginable. If the film had all been as good as this, we’d be talking a much higher star rating.

Still, against all the odds, Bayona has managed to imprint his own DNA into this over-familiar franchise and in so doing, has created his own hybrid beast. The concluding announcement of yet another new direction for the series seems suddenly a much more interesting proposition. If they can get Bayona to direct, I for one, am in.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Avengers: Infinity War

02/05/18

The furore has settled. That inevitable record-breaking opening has come and gone. The embargoes have finally been lifted and, hopefully, the Marvel die-hards have accepted that reviewers are actually allowed to talk about what has been widely touted as the ‘holy grail’ of comic book movie adaptations. It’s time to take stock of Avengers: Infinity War. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of the genre but, that said, I have seen most of the eighteen films that lead up to this one – and, you know what? I actually enjoyed a few of them. But I can’t help feeling dismayed that this has been accorded such awe-struck reverence. Let’s face it, it’s not some major cinematic milestone. It’s not Citizen Kane. It’s a big dumb movie about people in spandex who hit each other. 

Of course, such movies always require a big, bad villain and here that post is filled by Thanos (Josh Brolin, somehow still recognisable under the layers of pixels), who admittedly has a little more nuance than most Marvel villains – but only because, unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t advocate the destruction of all humanity – just half of it. And even that’s because he believes said destruction is the only sure way to ensure any kind of future. Which sort of makes him a pragmatist, I suppose. He’s currently on the search for the Infinity Stones that will make him the ultimate force in the universe. One of them is in the possession of Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the other is, rather inconveniently, embedded in the forehead of Vision (Paul Bettany).  There’s a final ultra-mysterious stone somewhere but nobody seems to be sure where that one might be hiding.

Thanos dutifully sets off on a mission of destruction and The Avengers get the old group back together in order to oppose him. So that’s Iron Man and Spider-Man and Black Widow and… many others. Just in case that wasn’t enough, they are augmented by The Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther and just about anybody else available… apart from Hawkeye, who presumably isn’t considered super enough, having only a humble bow and arrow to work with. Actually, I can’t help feeling the makers have missed a bit of a trick here by not including an Uncle Tom Cobley-Man, but hey, maybe I’m just not reverential enough.

It’s probably pointless to say anything else about the story – it will only incur shouts of ‘plot spoilers!’ from those who have appointed themselves as the guardians of such things – but the film’s main problem is evident from very early on. Too many superheroes. There are virtually herds of them, racing across the screen and doing super heroic things to try and slow down the seemingly invincible Thanos. (If he’s this powerful without the Infinity Stones, you can’t help wondering why he’s going to such lengths to get his mitts on them.)

To be fair to directors, the Russo Brothers, they do a decent job of keeping this potential sludgefest moving merrily along, mainly by cross cutting from one major plot strand to another – there are five to choose from. The film is at its best when it keeps things light and snarky – usually whenever Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is onscreen – but when it tries for solemnity, well… I just can’t stop reminding myself that this is actually a film about people in spandex punching each other – and look, I really wouldn’t mind that so much, if it didn’t go on for quite so long. An action set piece in Wakanda, starts well, but seems to last for what feels suspiciously like a week.

Of course, the big thing here is that, unusually for this genre, there are several high-profile casualties… but who amongst us is naive enough to believe that, with a second instalment already being made, those ‘shocking’ deaths will be allowed to stand? What, kill off several billion-dollar franchises in one fell swoop? I seriously doubt it. Call me cynical; I don’t care.

In the end, Infinity Wars is a decent enough attempt at tying up a bunch of narrative loose threads but it’s not the masterpiece that many have claimed and, trust me, if you haven’t seen at least a few of the earlier movies referenced here, you’ll struggle to figure out what the hell is going on. Kids (and those who generally think that bigger and louder automatically equals better) will no doubt have a field day with it, but as far as I’m concerned, Infinity War Part Two can take as long as it likes to get here. I’m not holding my breath.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2

17/05/17

Amidst the plethora of movies featuring characters in spandex and capes, the original Guardians of the Galaxy stood out from the competition. Funny, self-deprecating and soundtracked by a collection of 80s classics, it was an enjoyable space romp. It was, however, hampered by a couple of not-so-positive notes – a needlessly complicated plot and an evil villain who seemed to have wandered in from Casting Central. But the film was a huge hit and it was never in doubt that there would be a sequel. Director James Gunn is clearly on a roll – Volume 3 has just been announced.

It’s clear from the get-go that Volume 2 is going to be fun. The prologue is set in 1980 and features a young, fresh faced Kurt Russell (how the thump do that do that?) as an extra-terrestrial canoodling with an earthling woman. Then we jump twenty-eight years into the future and see the Guardians, battling a hideous space beast, which is trying to get its sneaky tentacles on some very powerful batteries. This film has a secret weapon, which its not afraid to deploy with lethal effect – and that weapon is Baby Groot (still voiced by Vin Diesel, in what must have been the easiest voiceover  job in film history). This tiny offshoot of the original Groot is so downright adorable only the flintiest hearted viewers will be able to resist him. (Even the most heinous villains in the universe find themselves unable to dispose of him, which generally proves to be their undoing.)

Next up, the Guardians are visited by Ego (Kurt Russell, his real age now), who, in the best Star Wars tradition, announces that he is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)’s father and he’s been trying to reconnect with him for years. He whisks Peter, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) off to his home planet, which he has modestly named after himself and tells Peter that he is willing to share his super powers with his long lost son. He also introduces the team to Mantis (Pom Klimentieff), an empath, who can tell things about people simply by touching them – and who is clearly destined to be a member of the Guardians herself. But Gamora isn’t happy. She senses that something isn’t quite right about this set up. Meanwhile, back at the spaceship, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is being pursued by Yondu (Michael Rooker), who has a few Volume 1 scores to settle…

Okay, once again, this isn’t a perfect film. The central message – the importance of family love – is as unremittingly cheesy as any of Disney’s most cloying output – but, once again, it’s saved by the deliciously snarky dialogue and some genuinely funny jokes.  I particularly enjoy Drax’s spectacularly clumsy conversations with Mantis. There’s another classic rock soundtrack, and any film that has the good taste to use Cat Stevens’ Father and Son in a key scene is sure to earn some brownie points from me. If the movie’s final confrontation becomes too much of a pixel-fest, well, it’s probably to be expected of the genre, but for my money, this once again works best when it concentrates on the engaging interplay between the characters. Overall, I feel Volume 2 works better than the original.

Make sure you stay in your seats throughout the closing credits. There are not one, not two, but five short clips to whet your appetite for Guardians 3 – plus, the by now obligatory cameo for Stan Lee.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Passengers

 

30/12/16

It has, for a very long time now, been my custom to go to the cinema on my birthday – and this year, Passengers was pretty much the only film on offer that we hadn’t already seen. We picked an afternoon showing at the small but perfectly formed Cameo 2 and we settled down to watch with open minds. I have to say that I enjoyed this film; it’s a slick futuristic creation that is centred around an interesting question. What are people prepared to do in order not to be alone?

Engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes from suspended animation aboard the Starship Avalon, en route to the ‘Homestead Colony’, where he intends to forge a new life, but an unexplained malfunction in his sleep pod had led to him waking a little bit earlier than planned. Ninety years too early, in fact. And the problem is that none of his five thousand or so fellow-travellers have woken up with him. He is faced with the awful prospect of spending his entire life alone. To give him his due, he manages for about a year before finding himself on the verge of suicide – but then he notices another passenger asleep in a pod, writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). He reads her files, which include some of the articles she has written and he starts to think about waking her up.

Right there lies the film’s moral conundrum – to wake her  would be, essentially, an act of murder – but he is going slowly insane with loneliness. Obviously, it’s hardly a plot spoiler to say that he does wake her and that, after a tricky start, the two of them hit if off – but as sure as eggs is eggs, it’s only a matter of time before Aurora discovers the truth about her awakening – and she is not going to be happy about it.

Morten Tyldum’s sleek imagining of the future is beautifully done and, given the absence of many actual characters in this story – the central duo are augmented only by android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen) and one of the ship’s crew, Gus Mancuso (Laurence Fishburne) – it’s amazing that the film never drags. The Starship Avalon itself is a remarkable creation, a towering edifice of lights and movement and the special effects are generally well-handled, but this is essentially an intimate story about a relationship. Lawrence and Pratt make an appealing double act and Passengers is well worth checking out – but the galaxy may not move for you.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Magnificent Seven

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26/09/16

This was always going to be an important film for me. In 1960, when I was nine year’s old, my father took me to see John Sturges’ original version of The Magnificent Seven. It’s one of the first movies I can remember seeing on the big screen. I recall being thrilled by it and it was certainly instrumental in kindling the flames of what would become a lifelong obsession with all things celluloid. But of course, its storyline (itself inspired by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) wouldn’t really fly in this day and age. It tells the story of seven heroic cowboys who come to the aid of a village full of ‘lowly’ Mexican peasants who are being terrorised year after year by a gang of marauding bandits. If somebody was going to remake this particular classic, they would have to find a new approach – and to director Antoine Fuqua’s credit, he’s managed to do that.

If this version of the tale resembles another classic Western, it’s actually High Noon, where a bunch of townsfolk fail to come together to challenge a force of evil. Here, the denizens of Rose Creek are threatened not by bandits but by greedy industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, doing the latest in a long line of creepy, evil stinkers). Bogue wants the land on which the town is built so he can mine it for gold and has offered each family a pittance in exchange for what they own. Anyone who  defies him is summarily executed and this includes the husband of Emma Cullen (Hayley Bennett), who, looking for revenge, sets out to recruit some help and chances upon law officer, Chisolm (Denzel Washington) as he goes about his deadly duty. He listens to her tale of woe and finally gets interested when she mentions Bogue. It’s clear from the start that there is some unfinished business between the two men. Chisolm promptly recruits a band of misfit heroes to help him rescue the town… they comprise an ex-confederate sniper (Ethan Hawke), a roguish gambler (Chris Pratt) a Mexican gunslinger (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) a Chinese knife fighter (Byung Hun-Lee), a native American bowman (Martin Sensmeier) and a shambling mountain man (a barely recognisable Vincent Donofrio).

From there on, it’s pretty much a series of spectacular shootouts, set amidst stunning widescreen locations. (There’s an irony here in that the seven set out to protect Rose Creek and by the film’s conclusion, there’s not much of it left standing, but we’ll let that one go). Critics have complained that the film isn’t realistic (no, really?) but I think they’re missing the point somewhat. As a rip-roaring entertainment, The Magnificent Seven mostly succeeds in its aims and if it doesn’t quite match up to its famous progenitor, well, that was a shootout it was frankly never going to win, because what passed for valour in 1960 is going to look pretty reprehensible in 2016.

My favourite bit of dialogue in this version? Emma Cullen proudly telling the other townspeople that she’s quite clearly the only one with enough balls to take on the bad guys. Give this movie a fighting chance – it’s at least earned the right to that.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Jurassic World

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19/07/15

In 1993, the release of Jurassic Park was a genuine game-changer. It was the first time that CGI had been convincingly used to create realistic-looking dinosaurs (rendering the pioneering stop-motion work of people like Ray Harryhausen obsolete virtually overnight.) It was directed by Steven Speilberg at the height of his powers and even if Michael Crichton’s source novel was just anther riff on one of his earlier ideas (Westworld), it nonetheless deserved to be the blockbuster it undoubtedly was. There were a couple of underwhelming sequels in the 90s that never really capitalised on the central premise and now here we are, more than twenty years later and Jurassic World has recently become the biggest grossing film in history.

I put off watching this one for quite a while, mostly because I suspected I’d be disappointed. But after all the furore about its earnings, I had to give it a shot. What becomes clear from the outset is that despite the care and effort that has been lavished on making those dinosaurs look absolutely real, no such effort has been made with the screenplay, which features so many ridiculous ideas, it’s hard to know quite where to start.

It’s twenty two years after the events of the first film and Jurassic World on Isla Nublar is now a successful theme park. Quite how the operators obtained the licence when so many of its previous visitors had been eaten by the exhibits is never mentioned. Let’s face it, in terms of safety records, this place makes Alton Towers look like a vicarage tea party. In a sort of amped-up version of Sea World, tourists flock to watch the antics of giant dinosaurs. Well, yes, who wouldn’t? But there’s a problem. Apparently, audiences are growing tired of seeing ‘ordinary dinosaurs.’ Yeah, like that would happen. With this in mind, the island’s boffins have been doing a bit of gene splicing and have come up with a bigger, louder, toothier creature called Indominus Rex, which they’re keeping in a secret enclosure on the island. Apparently, it occurred to nobody that this might not be the most sensible move ever.

Now we’re introduced to Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) who operates in some kind of PR capacity at the park. Just to give her something more to worry about, she’s tasked with looking after her two cuddlesome nephews who are on holiday, escaping from their parent’s marital problems. You can’t help wondering how Claire ever got her job; she’s frankly useless at PR and even more useless at looking after kids, making one bad decision after another, each one seemingly intended to plunge her luckless nephews deeper and deeper into the brown stuff. It gets worse. The woman doesn’t even have the sense to take off her high heels when running from a dinosaur! Luckily, she has hunky Owen (Chris Pratt) to fall back on. He’s an animal expert who is currently training three velociraptors to work as a team – sort of like a Dino Whisperer. But he’s somewhat hampered by the ambitions of Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) a ruthless park contractor who is such a pantomime villain, he may as well have the word ‘dodgy’ tattooed on his forehead. Hoskins sees the velociraptors as potential military weapons and is clearly biding his time, waiting for the right moment to step in and take control of them.

That moment arrives when the Indominus Rex escapes (honestly, who saw that coming?) and starts gleefully chomping down on the tourists. It’s now up to Claire and Owen to sort out the situation…

Look, I get that Jurassic World is a family film, one that has to appeal to viewers from twelve to twelvety and I can’t really argue with the kind of success it’s enjoying, but honestly, how did this damp squib of a film become the runaway success of the year? There’s not an original idea in it, all the best sequences riffing on tropes that featured in the original. The lack of chemistry between Dallas Howard and Pratt is a real problem (a scene where they pause mid-carnage for a quick snog is rewarded with gales of laughter from the audience.) And perhaps most damning of all, there is no sense of peril here – remember the knockout scene in Jurassic Park where the kids were pursued into a kitchen by the velociraptors? You actually felt they could die in there. There’s nothing here to equal that – the two kids in this movie experience all kinds of dangers, but you never feel they’re being threatened by anything more lethal than a shedload of pixels. It’s by no means an awful film, it’s just a bit… meh.

I’m looking forward to the next one in the series, where Dallas Howard, Pratt and the entire board of Jurassic World end up in court, accused of causing the deaths of hundreds of innocent tourists. Now that would put a different spin on the franchise!

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney