Saturday, 9 June 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; Claire gets sensible shoes

There were many criticisms of Jurassic World, and I am delighted to report that they dealt with two of them in the sequel. Firstly, Claire finally gets to run around in sensible boots instead of high heels, and secondly, they’ve given up on theme parks. Also, they dropped the mandatory moppet count to one. This kind of thing matters in movies like this, becase by the time you’ve paid for the donuts and the CGI, there’s rarely enough money to pay for writers. If you cut the moppets down to one, you can get just enough writers into the budget to give a single moppet enough personality that you might care whether or not she’s in peril. Not that I actually did, but I almost did.

For the rest, it’s the same problem that I keep grumbling about. There are dinosaurs. They fight, and they eat things. Each other. Bad guys. Unimportant good guys. Goats. Because the Jurassic Park movies are aimed at a PG13 rating, the eating things bit tends to involve a whip pan away from anything icky. Not that I particularly want to see someone being eaten alive by a dinosaur, but it tends to suck a lot of the menace out of having dinosaurs around the place when you never see them do anything. There’s only so much you can do with sound effects. 

The Jurassic movies seem to happen in an alternate reality where Jeremy Clarkson is a strategic thinking guru. The world is dominated by various kinds of billionaires, all of whose planning for anything is Clarkson’s insouciant “What could possibly go wrong?” It ought not to come as much of a surprise that a corporation which thought a dinosaur theme park was a good idea would then put it on an island with a volcano in the middle of it. Luckily for them, the other weaknesses in the plan did for their billion dollar investment before the volcano erupted.

Luckily for the audience, the volcano eruption doesn’t take up too much of the movie; it’s just a framing device to get some of the dinosaurs off the island and into genpop. There is, sadly, still enough time for Chris Pratt to wake up next to oozing lava and have to twitch his way out of its path. Adorably, the movie reckons that as long as something at a thousand degrees doesn’t actually touch you, you won’t have anything to worry about, unlike in the real world, where being less than a foot from lava is a cue for your clothes to catch fire, and then you.

Anyhow, much of the cast escapes from the island, including lots of dinosaurs and Ted Levine’s attempt to imagine what Bob Peck’s character would have been like if he’d been raised in a Skinner box full of rats and scorpions. Ted’s Wheatley is a guilty pleasure in a movie rather short of them. The other guilty pleasure is the slippery Henry Wu, who shows up in all of these movies for a couple of minutes to be the greatest living expert on cloning dinosaurs before vanishing with bags of evidence just before the roof falls in. If the villains had any sense, they’d make Henry the boss. He’s the only sane man on their side.

Then the shadowy corporate goons set out to auction off the dinos to people even more corporate and shadowy than they are, which all goes about as well as every other villainous plan in the Jurassic universe ever has. There is running, and there is screaming, and finally, long after I’d lost interest in the fights, the dinosaurs get out into the wild to set the scene for the inevitable sequel. And in those last few minutes, Fallen Kingdom does the only interesting things it manages to pull off. Firstly, they give the moppet a Sophie’s Choice moment over whether to let the remaining dinos die in a basement, and secondly they set up a problem for the next movie which actually had me thinking, Hmm, I’d like to see how that works out. Which is vexing; the ending is rushed and perfunctory and hasn’t been set up properly by the action (because the action was too busy trying to be action, rather than advancing the plot), and it just left me thinking that if they’d got the balance and pacing right - and had fewer dinosaur fights - they could have had a damn good movie on their hands.

Maybe next time.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Solo: I wanted to see more of everyone else

There’s a telling moment near the end of Solo, when I found myself thinking that I’d like to see what happened next. But not Han Solo. We know what happens next to Han Solo, which takes a lot of the point out of watching what happened to him beforehand.

It’s tempting to say that if Solo didn’t exist, no-one would have missed it, but Firefly and books like Retribution Falls demonstrate that we kind of did want some version of the early footloose Han Solo before he got the pointless promotion to General and all the rest of the baggage. Charming scrappy scoundrels are fun. Not essential, but fun. 

Solo is a bit like that. It’s not essential, but it’s fun. But it’s not like I’ve been wondering these last 35 years just how Han managed the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. It turns out that he managed it by accident, and kind of ineptly, and that he’s been rounding it down ever since. I was with Chewie when Han tries out the story for the first time, and Chewie made a non-commital roar which I immediately decided meant “Nobody cares.” 

And as with all prequels, the fate of the star is foreordained, so the only interest lies in guessing the fate of all the other characters. Though you don’t need a PhD in advanced guesswork to figure that out; we’re meeting people we don’t see in the later movies; none of them need to be buying any long playing records. Rogue One wrote the playbook for that one; Solo is setting out to be a bit more lighthearted, so there isn’t quite the same commitment to sweeping all the pieces off the board. But after Thandie Newton’s Val blows herself up on a bridge, the movie’s served notice that Han’s going to be Solo in more ways than one before the movie is over.

Which is a shame. We’re getting to meet people who are more fun than Han, at least in small doses, and all we’re getting is small doses. And they’re new, so we don’t know what to expect, other than the obvious. Han and Chewie are going to make it, obviously, and so is Lando, since he’s got the heavy burden of being the only black man in the galaxy far far away to carry through two more movies later on. And no matter how charming Donald Glover makes him, we’re still watching him knowing he has nothing to worry about. Which somehow makes him less interesting that L3-37, his cantankerous droid co-pilot, who was instantly my favourite character in just the same way as K2-SO was my pick from Rogue One. Phoebe Waller-Bridge knocks it out of the park for the few minutes she’s given. Instead of making a movie about Han Solo’s origin, they should have made a whole movie out of L3-37 trying to start a robot revolution and giving sass to anyone who got in her way. Sadly, they can’t, because, character in a prequel movie. Damn.

But after the scorpion conga reaches its conclusion and everyone’s betrayed everyone else the ordained number of times (and left me wishing that Alan Tudyk had been there at some point), there’s a quiet moment as we try to figure out what Q’ira’s game is, and she phones up Darth Maul - of all unlikely people - and at that moment I thought to myself, I’d really like to see where this goes next. Emilia Clarke doesn’t really set the screen on fire as Q’ira and Darth Maul appearing out of nowhere is more confusing than shocking, but somehow, in that moment I wanted more of something I’d been thinking I didn’t really need in the first place.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Deadpool 2: Hunt for the Wilderpeople redux

When you realise that Russell in Deadpool 2 is being played by the guy who played Ricky in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, it’s a short step to wondering how much better the movie might have been if Taika Waititi had directed it. Probably quite a bit better. Taika would have insisted on spending more of the budget on writers. Instead they spent all extra money on CGI, with all the usual results.

While I was waiting for the jokes, I mapped out the ways in which Deadpool 2 and Wilderpeople matched up. Overweight orphan kid with a terrible attitude? Check. Surrogate parental figure struggling with the loss of a loving partner? Check (sorry if that’s a spoiler…). There is no way that any of this is a coincidence. Which just makes it all the more puzzling that there isn’t an open call-out. This is Deadpool we’re talking about. It’s both nerdy and breathtakingly unsubtle.

Instead, it’s a crossover of Deadpool tropes and the inevitable encroachment of Marvel values, which is to say lots of CGI getting in the way of any chance of a performance. The one saving grace is that at least they haven’t caught end-of-the-world-itis. Deadpool 2 is still committed to the idea that you can get the audience invested by ending the world for one person, if you can just get them to buy the person. 

Too bad they had to fridge Vanessa to get the ball rolling. Having done that, they leaned right into it by making the whole opening credits a piss-take of the usual fanboy screams of disbelief when the writers (sorry, The Real Villains) do something horrible just to up the stakes a bit. That’s funny enough to be getting on with, but they pitch it against a series of vignettes of Deadpool clowning up classic movie posters like Flashdance.

That’s still the real strength of these movies; they’re good at mockery and one-line asides to a knowing audience. There’s a whole end credits sequence where Deadpool gets a working time machine and instead of going back in time to save Vanessa - the OBVIOUS thing to do - he just uses it to pay off various petty scores with other superheroes, including the horrible version of Deadpool that featured in The Wolverine, and Ryan Reynolds’ feeling of joy that he’s got the role of a lifetime in the script for Green Lantern. Given that the Infinity War is probably going to get resolved with a big time machine reset, I can’t help thinking that this was all about winding up the first unit.

Whenever Deadpool 2 is in that zone, it’s great fun, but much as the backstory in the first movie got in the way of the anarchy, the front story gets in the way this time round. Deadpool is not supposed to be taking things seriously, least of all himself. Weirdly, the insouciance all winds up belonging to Domino, whose superpower is supposedly that she’s very lucky, but is really that she’s utterly unflappable. She doesn’t get much screen time, but just like Valkyrie in Thor Ragnarok she steals all the scenes they give her.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Breaking In; cheap thrills

Breaking In didn’t have enough money to set even a small fire in the house where all the action happens, and it doesn’t matter. It’s a movie which realises that it’s not the size of the problem which matters, but the impact. 

They don’t make movies like this much any more. Back in the 1980s, small scale thrillers with lunkheads menacing ordinary joes for small scores were a dime a dozen, but these days thrillers cost more than space flight, and small scale movies are all about social issues. It’s not great art, but there’s always a simple pleasure in seeing something done well and without much fuss. 

Like most of those thrillers, there’s three layers; what are the nice heroes going to do to get out of this mess, why are the bad guys doing what they’re doing, and does any of that make a lick of sense? The answer to the third question is traditionally “Don’t be stupid.” and dumb thrillers work when you don’t have to time to wonder. So Gabrielle Union and her two cute kids go to check out her hated father’s big house before putting it on the market, and wind up running into four goons who’e come to steal $4 million out of a safe in the house. How do they know it’s there? The youngest and most useless gang member overheard a secretary talking about it. Does it make any sense that Gabrielle Union’s hated dad would have a huge house and $4 million in cash hidden in it? Not much. He’s supposed to be some kind of bad guy, but not enough of a bad guy to have had police all over his house after he died after getting his head kicked in.

You don’t get a lot of time to think about this, because the whole movie is about Gabrielle Union getting locked out of the house with her kids stuck inside as hostages, and then going all Rambo on the gang to get her kids back. And at one level it’s utterly preposterous, but on another it’s low key enough that we’re never being asked to believe the impossible. She’s smart and reasonably fit, and very determined, and it’s not hard to buy any of the things she does to get her own way.

It’s not high art; it’s not even this, for example. But it’s solid stuff, especially Billy Burke’s putupon gang leader, whose henchman recruitment process may have been too rushed. He’s got one psycho, one punk and one kind-of-tech-expert who gets knocked out of the running before he can make much of an impression. At first Billy just comes across as tired middle management trying to get the job done with as little fuss as his bad help will let him away with, and then you realise that he’s worse than any of the other gang members without even the excuse of being crazy. Still great fun to watch as he gets more and more fed up with the way a perfectly straightforward murder-robbery turns into a hostage drama.

And, of course since it’s bad guys locked in a house, there’s a rolling game of Chekhov’s household utensils as random stuff pops onto the screen so that Gabrielle can use it twenty minutes later to turn the tables on the bad guys. Depending on your position on Chekhov’s gun, you may find it frustrating or realistic that half the prompts turn out to be feints ...

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Avengers: Infinity War. Dudes, cut off the arm!

Another month, another Marvel movie, and because the stakes have to keep going up no matter what, everyone but Hawkeye shows up in an effort to save half the universe.


It may take them a sequel and a crazy-big time machine to pull that one off. 

Still, they have two things going for them. The first is that Thanos is an idiot, and the second is that the Avengers are, collectively and individually, also idiots. So all they need is a time machine and a plan which involves even one Avenger not being an idiot. I’d say that doesn’t seem much to ask, but I’ve just watched Avengers: Infinity War and you know what they say about past performance being the best guide to the future … 

Why is Thanos an idiot? Because he’s a prisoner of habit. In the course of the movie he accumulates all the Infinity Stones, which give him more and more powers to warp reality, cut people into cubes by thinking about it, and basically anything which the special effects team thinks looks good. And the closer he gets to collecting the complete set, the more time he spends getting stuck in punchups with the Avengers. Sure, he needs all six stones to be able to wipe half the universe by clicking his fingers, but by the time he’s collected four of them he can win any fight by rigging it his way and the fifth lets him turn back time without even looking for Cher’s assistance. Why is he still getting into fistfights?

And why are the Avengers idiots? Because Thanos can’t be bothered wearing a helmet, and his power resides in a big metal glove at the end of a big unarmoured arm. So naturally no-one puts a bullet in his head, even when they’ve got a gun pointing at his eye from three inches out, and no-one even tries to cut his arm off, even though Dr Strange can cut anything off anything else (and DOES cut an arm off a bogey in the early going), the Hulk can tear the arm off most things (including his own robot suit) and and Thor has an axe which can cut through anything he throws it at. No glove, no power. There’s even a ridiculous scene where a whole bunch of Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy band together to try to pull the glove off Thanos, but somehow draw the line at doing it the easy way.

So, morons.

Then there’s Thanos’ master plan, which is based on the notion that the universe will be a better place if half the sentient creatures in it are randomly killed. Firstly, this is at best a temporary fix. People breed. Kill half of them, and in a hundred years the numbers will be right back up where they were. Secondly, you can’t kill half the people. Well, you can, and Thanos - SPOILERS - does. The problem is what happens to everyone on a bus when the bus driver is one of the random choices. Or everyone within half a mile of a nuclear power plant when you kill half the staff at random. Or everyone in a modern society when you kill half the truck drivers who get the food into town. And so on. You kill half the people, and then the lack of those guys kills a whole lot more.

Still, who the hell goes to a Marvel movie hoping it’s going to make any kind of sense? I get you, but honestly, Marvel really seem to think that this is serious business. So serious that they end the movie with Thanos winning, half the universe dead and loads of feature players turned into dust. If they were really serious, they’d be saving a fortune on all the sequels. Not to mention the number of good actors who can get back to doing something other than react to green painted tennis balls. It would be a genuinely bummer ending if we believed for one second that Marvel really meant it and wasn’t going to spend two and a half more hours next year pressing the reset button and bringing everyone bakc to life. As it is, it’s just - meh.

Mostly because the movie is stuffed with characters to the point where no-one gets more than a couple of lines. Hawkeye’s not even in the movie, and I think he gets more lines than Black Widow. Rocket barely gets anything to do. Between a roller coaster of action scenes and way too many characters, there’s almost no chance for anyone do make a connection with the audience. When you’re hardly there, it doesn’t really register when you turn into dust and blow away. Unless you’re Spiderman, I guess.

And in every cinema, you’re going to get a trailer for Deadpool 2, which shows that there is another way to go; keep it small, keep it scrappy, keep it funny. There are more funny moments in that trailer than in the whole of Infinity War, whose cleverest joke is stunt casting Peter Dinklage as a giant. The second funniest moment is Scarlet Witch showing up to sort out the final fight and basically render everyone else in it irrelevant; one of the Wakandan guard looks straight to camera and says “Why wasn’t she here from the beginning?”, on behalf of the whole audience, and then the scene cuts back to what she was supposed to guarding as the sneaky bad guys pounce on the real prize in her absence. That’s actually cleverer than the Dinklage moment, but it’s hard to out funny Tyrion.

Anyhow, roll on Deadpool. Deadpool would at least TRY to cut the arm off.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Rampage; yeah, of course the wolf can fly

The trailer for Rampage had me with that line, because Dwayne Johnson has all the charm it needed. And also because it proved that the movie understood that it was dumb, which makes a nice change.

The actual movie’s great fun. It’s idiotic and it doesn’t make any sense, but it hangs together better than a lot of Marvel movies I’ve seen. It also knows when to throw a character away or down the gullet of a big monster. In most movies I’ve seen, Dwayne’s team of zoo dweebs would have stuck with him throughout the movie; in Rampage, once Dwayne’s busted and crammed onto a military transport, the dweebs are left stuck in San Diego and we never see them again. Similarly when the bad guys send bad guy mercenaries into the wild to hunt down a thirty foot flying wolf they aren’t expecting to meet, they get et to the last man, helicopter and all. Sure, their leader looks like he’d have been fun to see more of, but they were completely outmatched; there was no way he was going to make it. This cheery willingness to put interesting people on the screen, and then not keep them around is something I wish other people would learn from.  No-one wears out their welcome.

And the action setpieces work. The movie opens up with a space station full of genetic lunacy exploding while the last survivor tries to get out with a couple of samples. She does not make it, but for her brief time on screen, we’re rooting for her, and there’s just enough action to keep our pulses racing and not so much that we forget there’s a person in the middle of it. Which pretty much sets the tone for proceedings, equal part Dwayne being Dwayne and stuff getting trashed for no especially good reason. 

And there’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the role of sinister yet good hearted government fixer Russell; I’d watch a whole movie about Russell if it weren’t for the fact that Morgan makes him so effortlessly effective that there would be no real stakes in Russell: the Movie. Victory would be inevitable, with nothing left to wonder about other than just how many low key wisecracks Russell could fit in before his opponents shot their own feet off. Morgan’s so much fun that each time he shows up you welcome the cameo instead of wondering just how he always knows where to be at the right moment, and how he gets there without breaking sweat. It’s a shame Morgan’s been tied up playing Negan these last couple of years, because he’s far too much fun to waste on a bummer like Walking Dead.

Rampage isn’t a great movie, or even a particularly good one, but I wish there were more simple crowdpleasers like it.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Ready Player One: Spielberg is better than this.

Traditionally, when you see an adaptation of a book, you have to take some kind of stance on which was better, or you’re just no kind of a commentator at all. Sue me. I tried to read the book, and kind of ran out of energy by the time Wade gets the first key. It’s not that it’s a bad book; it’s just that it wasn’t good enough for me to stick with it. There’s no way that I can work up an interest in pop culture trivia and computer games for their own sake. And Ernest Cline doesn’t have much of a style. I found his downbeat slow-motion apocalypse US all too believable. I liked the fact that Wade was fat. What I didn’t really like was Wade. And when you’re not really that fussed about the narrator; well, I was only reading the book to inform my experience of the movie, and it wasn’t that much of a priority.

So I dunno how true to the book the movie is. Probably not a lot, going on the bit I read. Same setting, same over-arching plot, but all new adventures, compressed into a shorter time and much more cinematic. And Wade’s not fat any more. Kind of a schlub, but good looking and well put together. It’s all a lot more … Hollywood than the original, I suspect.

But is it good Hollywood? This is Spielberg, the only reason I even bothered. Apparently it was his hardest movie since Saving Private Ryan, which is something I can’t understand but only take on faith. The effects shots took so long to render that Spielberg had time to go and make The Post while he waited for them to finish. They’re technically impressive, and yet, as is always the way with CGI, uninvolving no matter how good they look. A world where everyone can be whatever they want to be is somehow a world without any real stakes, no matter how flashy it looks. 

This despite the fact that the movie is going crazy trying to get you to invest. Everyone’s competing for a hidden easter egg in a computer game, and the winner will get half a trillion dollars and absolute control of a hideous mashup of Facebook and virtual reality in which apparently the whole world spends all its free time. So clearly, this shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands, or something. But we’re watching this movie uncomfortably conscious that most of this stuff doesn’t so much fall into the wrong hands as start out from there and then fall apart after a few years.

So, stakes that are hard to understand, visuals which are impressive without being emotionally resonant. Have we characters to believe in? Most of the time we’re watching avatars in VR, who are purposely heightened cartoons of what their people want to look like. And because they’re supposed to look kind of fake, they never really start to stick as people for us to care about. Then we swap out to their people, and there’s really not that much going on there either. A lot of the time, all that holds the attention is little moments when a character pulls out a gun and you recognise it from another movie. 

Over on the grown up side of the table, Mark Rylance is thrown away as the creator of the whole schemozzle; and when I say thrown away, I mean that it takes a very particular kind of mind to slap a wig on Mark Rylance and then tell him to play as spectrum as he can. Rylance has a rare charisma; he steals Bridge of Spies from Tom Hanks by somehow out-warming him. Telling him to dial that down is like duct-taping the Mona Lisa. Ben Mendelsohn, on the other hand, must be getting worried that he’s only ever going to play hapless creeps running empires of nerds who secretly hate him.

And as so often, I’m struggling to make sense of the economics. The US economy has collapsed, yet somehow a fortune of half a trillion dollars has retained its value in a world where no-one has a job or any spending power. The whole world’s living in a virtual reality as much of the time as it can, yet the big corporate bad maintains huge factories in which people slave away at virtual tasks which they could just as well do from home. There’s an enormous pervasive network with the bandwidth to let everyone participate in cinematic high definition shared spaces, but no real sign of the servers and transmission systems which would make it work.

 None of this is puzzling as the way in which Spielberg can’t make the world or the people come to life. There’s an assured sequence at the beginning, as Wade expositions the world of 2045 and the role of VR, and the camera roams around the high rise slum he lives in. Everyone in sight is hooked into VR, goggles strapped to their faces and waving their arms and legs around to make something happen in an imaginary world, and Spielberg finds ways to suggest that everyone is doing something different, and feeling all kinds of different things about it, from drudgery to desperation to elation. And then the camera settles on Wade, and the sense of the world falls away, never to come back.