Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – Film Review

If Jurassic World really were a theme park, it’s grand opening couldn’t have gone any better. A visually dazzling, exhilaratingly dangerous thrill ride, the de-extincted franchise rocked and rumbled audiences off their seats – only for them to dust themselves off and line-up for another go around to the tune of more than $1.5 billion worldwide. But with unprecedented success comes T-Rex-sized expectations for Fallen Kingdom to not only match its predecessor’s savvy, ridiculous fun, but throw a whole new set of dizzying, terrifically enjoyable attractions into the mix. And that’s a challenge far easier said than done – just as the filmmakers behind The Lost World and III.

At the very least, Fallen Kingdom succeeds where those maligned sequels faltered, with screenwriters Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly delivering a compelling motivation for their heroes to return to the land of marauding dinosaurs. Isla Neblar’s no-longer-dormant volcano is a ticking time bomb, forcing the park’s former operations managed-turned-dino activist Claire (Howard) and beefcake trainer Owen on a mission to rescue a handful of species, including Owen’s beloved Blue, before the lava starts to flow.

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While the crunched, twisted ruins of Isla Neblar remain a breathtaking sight, the Island-set sequences stomp a little too close to the dinos-chasing-people tropes of the rest of the franchise. The Impossible’s A. J. Bayona (who replaces Trevorrow in the director’s chair) unleashes a series of thunderously intense set-pieces – the highlight being a clawingly claustrophobic underwater scene; but we’ve seen unsuspecting visitors fleeing a thunderous stampede, braving uncomfortably close encounters with toothy reptiles, or getting trapped in a gyrosphere in previous movies. The plot hardly attempts to subvert expectations, either, with a clunky script that telegraphs its twists far too heavily for impact – it’ll surprise no-one to learn that the ruthless mercenaries hired to assist the evac have less than noble intentions.

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Even when the movie switches the action to the sprawling, spooky Lockwood Estate, it still feels like it’s going through the same motions. Bayona does more fine work, returning to the haunted house-stylings of his debut The Orphanage to orchestrate plenty of beautifully crafted scares as InGen’s latest gene-spliced plaything, the Indoraptor, breaks loose and starts prowling the mansion for prey. But again, the sight of humans cowering in the dark as a set of flared, scaly nostrils and a spiky grin hove into view is hardly unfamiliar. It feels like Bayona has merely renamed the ride and slapped on a fresh coat of paint, while the carriage still travels along the same old predictable track.

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Such a lack of invention might hardly be noticeable, were we invested in the fates of any of the characters. While Claire and Owen are more rounded and have far more chemistry this time out, Justice Smith’s nervy tech nerd and Daniella Pineda’s feminist paleoveterinarian barely register, and one character’s mysterious identity is too heavily foreshadowed to truly surprise. Meanwhile, Rafe Spall’s sneaky assistant, Ted Levine’s snarling trophy collector, and Toby Jones’ Trump-esque auctioneer are so cartoonishly hissable, it’s difficult to take seriously the film’s darker themes about animal testing and mankind’s responsibility to other life on this planet.

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Ultimately, then, Fallen Kingdom is little more than a well-crafted collection of fun, shiny set-pieces, but with little emotional tissue to bind them into a satisfying experience. With the story left tantalising poised on the cusp of a brave new Jurassic world, further instalments are seemingly inevitable; but on the basis of this so-so adventure, the question is: will anyone be back for another ride?

Runtime: 128 minutes (approx.)

Director: A. J. Bayona

Screenwriters: Colin Trevorrow, Derek Donnolly

Stars: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Ted Levine

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Solo: A Star Wars Story – Film Review

It’s fair to say this was not the Star Wars spinoff most fans were looking for. Rogue One may have proved that George Lucas’ universe could more than hold its own outside of the main Skywalker saga, but that was a movie about a band of plucky heroes forgotten to a few lines in A New Hope’s opening crawl.

Solo is a very different game of Sabacc. Not only tasked with telling the origin story of one of cinema’s most iconic heroes, it must do so without the laconic charms of a too-old Harrison Ford and in a way that hits all the fan-pleasing beats in new, exciting ways. And that’s before we even mention original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s ‘creative differences’ with Lucasfilm.

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With so many potential pitfalls in its path, it’s remarkable how breezy and unencumbered the resultant film feels. Solo is a fast and loose action adventure romp that acts as a spirited alternative to the main saga, albeit one that lacks the confident vision, inventive verve and unexpected thrills of its galactic peers.

The action kicks off at a frantic pace, whipping through the dank industrial slums of Corellia, the fire and bloodshed of a World War One-esque battlefield, and a tensely-mounted over-and-under train heist on a remote mountain planet as a baby-faced Han struggles to find his place in the galaxy.

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While Alden Ehrenreich is by no means a perfect replacement for Ford (who could be?), he grows into the role, exhibiting enough rogueish charisma and dry one-liners to be convincing and adding new layers to the character. Untouched by life’s rigours, Young Han is an eternal optimist, believing he can take on the world, win big and punch it into the sunset with the love of his life, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Solo sets about dismantling that rose-tinted world view in brutal fashion as Han’s smash and grab for a load of valuable hyperfuel throws him into a dangerous alliance with Paul Bettany’s icy crimelord Dryden Vos. By the time the credits roll, you’ll be entirely convinced of how a swift-footed dreamer could become the cynical smuggler we know and love.

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While Han’s frenetic tactics throw him in and out of some tight spots, replacement director Ron Howard’s handling of the film is far too safe and by the book. The anticipated beats – meeting Chewie, winning the Millennium Flacon, the Kessel Run – fail to live up to expectations. The plot’s twists and turns are effortlessly predictable. And a wealth of intriguing characters drift in and out of scenes with little impact. Glover’s pitch-perfectly smooth rendition of Lando, his cheeky activist droid L3-37 (played by a whip-smart Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Wood Harrelson’s hard-bitten career criminal Beckett, and Clarke’s ambiguous Qi’ra all have promising backstories that are never given enough time to flourish.

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One relationship Howard and screenwriters Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan get absolutely right, though, is the comradeship between Han and his big furry friend. From their initial meet-cute scrapping in a mud pit, Han and Chewie’s burgeoning friendship is a joy to watch, the brotherly back and forth flowing effortlessly as they bond and join forces to rise against their tormentors.

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With an ever-expanding family of Star Wars movies dropping out of hyperspace, Solo offers a fun, fast-paced, if patchy, palette-cleanser to the main saga’s fate-of-the-galaxy dealings. The only question is whether a young Han Solo has a distinctive voice strong enough to stand alone in such a crowded galaxy.

Runtime: 135 mins (approx.)
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriters: Lawrence & Jonathan Kasdan
Stars: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany

 

Deadpool 2 – Film Review

Deadpool does things differently. Fast-talking, gleefully profane and with a fondness for fourth-wall-breaking, the first ‘proper’ outing for the Merc with a Mouth had an outrageous spirit that pulled the pants down on its fellow oh-so-serious comic book movies. And did it with a wink and a smirk.

So it follows that Deadpool 2 was never going to bow to convention and follow its record-breaking predecessor by going bigger, badder and darker. Instead, it takes a katana to the rule book and just keeps doing what Deadpool does best. Namely, delivering a ferociously filthy and wildly entertaining antidote to the usual fate-of-the-world superhero formula.

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With John Wick’s David Leitch at the helm (replacing Tim Miller), Deadpool 2 has a slick, confident swagger. The restless stream of gore, dick jokes and meta put-downs are ballsier, cleverly and cruelly taking down rival superhero universes, Deadpool’s own messy cinematic history and featuring what’s quite possibly the most disturbing Basic Instinct gag ever committed to film. The giddy kinetic action sequences, meanwhile, have an inventive verve, including a comically catastrophic road heist that’s so ruthlessly violent, even Thanos would be watching from between his big meaty purple paws.

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That’s mightily impressive given Deadpool spends most of the movie in a massive funk. Having reunited with fiancée Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and found a living using his unique brand of crime fighting, Wade is ready to start a family. But when that chance is ripped away from him by tragedy, he sinks into a deep depression. Ryan Reynolds struggles to sell these bleaker moments, which jar with the movie’s otherwise haywire energy. Watching Wade mourn, you’ll find yourself waiting for a punchline that never comes to undercut the mood. That’s because the character development doesn’t ring true, the transition from ultimate loner to doting father-to-be coming without explanation, and Wade’s pain lacks impact as a result.

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Fortunately, Wade quickly finds a new family when a grizzled super solider with a “Winter Soldier arm” travels from the future to kill a super-powered child, and Deadpool forms the X-Force to help take him down. Once Deadpool has a fresh batch of super buddies to riff off of, the movie really finds its stride. Zazie Beetz is enjoyably invincible as ‘lucky’ Domino; Rob Delaney makes an adorable cameo as the sweetly non-super-powered Peter; and with Cable, Josh Brolin continues to show he has a knack for imbuing unstoppable Marvel baddies with wit, charm and uncommon vulnerability.

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The cynical view might be to say that this simply serves to set-up a future universe of inter-connected franchises (an X-Force movie is already in development). Yet this is still Reynolds’ movie and a role that fits him like a tailor-made spandex suit, providing the perfect vehicle for his juvenile charm and hyperwit. So whether its slicing up scoundrels while wearing stilettos or tea-bagging a time-travelling robot hitman, whatever Deadpool does next, it’s sure to be something different.

Runtime: 119 mins (approx.)
Director: David Leitch
Screenwriters: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Ryan Reynolds
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Zazie Beetz, Morena Baccarin

Avengers: Infinity War – Film Review

“The fate of the universe is at stake,” warns Doctor Strange, early on in Avengers: Infinity War. That’s no overstatement. The first of a two-part story – an untitled Avengers 4 is due next year – that’s widely pitched as the endgame for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this latest superhero mashup promises to bring 10 years and 18 movies of unprecedented world-building to a close with planet-shattering consequences. That’s one hell of a mission statement. Yet Infinity War not only matches its gargantuan ambitions; it smashes through them, delivering Marvel’s most shocking, dramatically hefty movie so far.

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That Avengers prefix is a tad misleading, though. Infinity War might involve pretty much every major character in the MCU, but they’re all overshadowed by the giant, purple-skinned titan who’s finally decided to get off his space toilet and join the fight. A darkly operatic opening sequence immediately dispels any lingering doubts about Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) effectiveness as a villain, with a ruthless demonstration of power grimly kick starting a rampage across the cosmos as he makes a smash-and-grab for the remaining Infinity Stones.

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That he is such a frighteningly formidable foe owes a great deal to the emotional weight Brolin brings to Thanos’ pixelated heft. His plan to exterminate half the universe is completely mad, but it’s powered by traumatic experience and his victories come at great personal cost. He suffers for his cause and the unimaginable lengths he’s prepared to go to succeed in his mission make him a far more compelling villain than we’re used to seeing in the MCU.

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It’s this unflinching determination that sets Thanos apart from the splintered band of heroes who try to stop him. “We don’t trade lives,” Steve Rodger’s (Chris Evans) nobly claims at one point in the movie – Thanos spends most of the near-150 minute runtime testing that conviction. Time and again the Avengers are forced to chose between saving a life and doing what’s necessary to win, a constant turmoil that drags them into dark, challenging places as they confront their deepest demons. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) comes face to face with the monster who has tormented him since the Chitauri invasion of New York. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has to consider how far he’s prepared to go to keep his promises. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) doubts how much more he can bear to lose. Is the price of being a hero one any of them are willing to pay?

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For all the bleak, existential quandaries, this is still a Marvel movie – so there’s plenty of levity shining through the darkness. The fractured, disparate nature of the heroes leads to several delightfully unusual combinations. The meeting of egos between Stark and Strange certainly doesn’t disappoint. Thor’s unexpected arrival aboard the Guardian’s ship is another hilarious highlight, as is his amusingly accurate retelling of his family history. And Tom Holland continues to prove he’s the best on-screen Spider-Man yet with his naive exuberance landing some of the film’s best lines.

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Naturally, not every thing works perfectly. With such a massive cast, it’s unsurprising that several characters struggle to make an impact – the Children of Thanos fail to register as anything more than surprisingly handy henchman – and it feels like directors Anthony and Joe Russo are pulling their punches with some of the bigger plot twists. These minor quibbles feel just that, though, when the rest of the film is such a bold, exciting spectacle. That’s especially true as the movie enters its thrilling endgame, culminating in perhaps the most strikingly inviting of cliffhangers since Han Solo was dipped in carbon. Think Infinity War is the end of the Marvel Universe? On this basis, it’s just getting started.

Runtime: 149 minutes (approx.)
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Stars: Josh Brolin, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth

Rampage – film review

At one point in Rampage, Dwayne Johnson’s muscle-bound zoo keeper rides a crashed helicopter across a toppling skyscraper, pursued by a rabid, 30ft wolf… with wings. If that sentence doesn’t send you feet-stompingly giddy with delight, this probably isn’t the movie for you. Rampage is a patently preposterous, ludicrously illogical, stupendously stupid popcorn B movie. It’s also a whole lot of fun. Just not as much fun as it could have been.

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The first sign that director Brad Peyton (San Andreas) might be pulling his punches is his loosey goosey approach to the source material. The original Rampage was a 1986 arcade game that saw the player control a human who had been transformed into a super-sized wolf, gorilla or crocodile. Rampage the movie is slightly more grounded. Instead, normal animals are turned into enormous, city-shattering monsters when exposed to a serum created by a shady tech company. That’s not too much of a problem when scientists carry out their tests all the way out in space; but when a lab accident blows the space station to smithereens and sends three cans of monster juice hurtling to Earth, it spells big trouble for the sibling megalomaniacs (Malin Ackerman and Jake Lacy) responsible for the program. Especially when one of the canisters lands in San Diego Zoo, infecting George, the albino gorilla pal of Johnson’s special forces solider-turned-primatologist Davis Okoye.

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All this plot is purely functional, of course. And Peyton spends longer than necessary cobbling together what is essentially a barely coherent frame on which to unleash senses-shattering destruction on a CGI Chicago. But when it comes to the giant monster-mashing action, Peyton undoubtedly delivers. Cargo planes plummet through the clouds. Skyscrapers topple like half-mile tall dominoes. Fighter jets are snapped out of the sky and tossed at tanks. It’s all gripping and effective stuff, expertly wrangled with button-smashing abandon by Peyton.

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As cartoonishly unhinged as the action is, though, it should be bigger and even sillier. Countless disaster movies have reduced cities to rubble, and Rampage rarely offers a set-piece we haven’t seen before. For a movie that features a mile-long mutated crocodile, that’s not a good look. It’s not just the action sequences that need more juice. Could it not have more gags poking fun at the absurdity of the conceit? The winged wolf is unexpectedly fun, so why can’t the other two monsters have outlandish mutations too? And is it wrong to ask that the supporting cast be hammier? After all, when you’re sharing the screen with a giant albino gorilla, the only way to stand out is to chomp kaiju-sized chunks out of the scenery. Why else would Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s government spook insist on swaggering around like a time-travelling cowboy?

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That, again, might be the fault of Peyton, who misguidedly tries to give his characters unnecessary depth and backstory. We don’t care about why Okoye prefers animals to humans. Or what happened to the brother of Naomie Harris’ arbitrary sciency person. We want to see colossal monsters punching buildings; and giant gorillas riding enormous crocodiles. We want to see The Rock attempting to outrun a flying wolf. And Rampage doesn’t deliver the goods often enough.

Runtime: 107 mins (approx.)
Director: Brad Peyton
Screenwriters: Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, Adam Sztykeil
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jason Liles

Ready Player One

Move over Stranger Things. With its mind-boggling explosion of pop-culture eye-candy – an early sequence sees a DeLorean, the A-Team van, Akira’s futuristic motorcycle and about a hundred other icons of Geek surging through a New York City street race – Ready Player One is a relentlessly paced nostalgia rush like no other. And who better to orchestrate this 80s-tinged chaos than Steven Spielberg? Having made his name with precisely the type of blockbuster movie referenced in Ernest Cline’s best-seller, the director proves he’s lost none of his visual chutzpah, crafting an involving cinematic thrill ride that stands alongside the magic of his early movies.

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In 2045 the world has become the oft-predicted grim dystopia, with over-population and violent in-fighting driving many people to seek a means of escape. Most find it by plugging into the Oasis, a virtual reality universe where anything is possible. When the game’s timorous creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) dies, his avatar launches a competition to find an easter egg hidden somewhere in the virtual world – the winner inheriting Halliday’s fortune and gaining sole control of the Oasis. Our Charlie Bucket in this digitised Chocolate Factory is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a poor teenager living in the Stacks – a perilous tower of rusty campervans – who dreams of playing his way to a better life. He’s not alone in his desire, though. If he wants to claim the prize, he’ll have to outsmart a vast squad of players, controlled by Ben Mendelsohn nefarious software CEO Nolan Sorrento.

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Visually, the Oasis is a stunning creation. Despite relying heavily on computer generated imagery, it deftly avoids feeling like an over-elaborate cut scene from a video game and its vibrant, jiggering landscape neatly contrasts the bleached surroundings of the real world. Lesser blockbusters might be overwhelmed by such a reliance on CGI (yes, we’re looking at you, Justice League), but by centring the action on a core group of characters, Spielberg manages to keep the set-pieces crisp and clean without sacrificing any of the gonzo gamer spirit that the source material inspires.

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And while Ready Player One is steeped in pop-culture iconography (even the most dedicated of Redditors will struggled to spot every reference hidden here), Spielberg is careful not to let all the nods to video games, books and movies overshadow the story. Crucially for a movie where the bulk of the action is set in a fictional world, it never looses sight of the real world stakes. In their thirst for escapism, many payers plow their life savings into their virtual lives, so while they might not perish along with their avatars in the game, loosing can mean financial ruin and imprisonment in online labour camps known as Loyalty Centres. Wade experiences these real consequences first hand when his quest to find Halliday’s easter egg makes him the centre of a real world manhunt that draws his loved ones into the crossfire. The resultant tragedy is perhaps too easily forgotten to have any impact, but it counts as a rare misstep in a movie that is otherwise excellent at layering its fantastical action with real peril.

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Crossing the finish line in a bum-numbing 140 minutes, it’s perhaps a shade too long and the third act noticeably drags in comparison to the ferocious velocity of the hours preceding it. For the most part, though, Ready Player One is an exhilarating watch. And even when you strip away the kinetic action, dazzling spectacle and waves of nostalgia, you’ll find a heart-warming story about the importance of taking the time to appreciate the things that make real life worth living. Simply put: it’s vintage Spielberg.

Runtime: 140 minutes (approx.)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline
Stars: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Mark Rylance, Ben Mendelsohn

Annihilation – Film Review

As debuts go, Ex Machina was mightily impressive. An uncommonly engaging sci-fi parable that expertly matched stylish pup thrills with big ideas about men and the machines they make, it unquestionably marked Alex Garland as a director to watch. Annihilation is one hell of a follow-up. Loosely adapting Jeff VanderMeer’s women-on-a-mission novel, Garland has crated a dark, mystifying rumination on humanity’s impulse for self-destruction and reaffirmed his status as one of the most exciting directors working today.

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Natalie Portman is Lena, a biology professor numbed by the sudden loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who disappeared during a covert military operation. Then, a year after he vanished, Kane reappears at her door with no memory of what happened to him or how he got home. As his health rapidly deteriorates and he falls into a coma, the pair are taken to a secret military base where Lena learns her husband is the only survivor of an expedition into ‘Area X’, a mysterious zone on the coast of Florida surrounded by a soap bubble-like shimmer. With the zone rapidly expanding, Lena is persuaded to join a team of scientists (a psychologist, a geologist, a physicist and a paramedic) on a last ditch mission to find the cause of the phenomenon and stop its spread before it reaches human settlements.

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It’s easy to understand Garland’s frustration that this Netflix-backed movie won’t be seen on the big screen. Annihilation is bathed in breathlessly wondrous imagery throughout. That’s particularly true in the realisation of the grimly dream-like Shimmer, where mutated flora and fauna have a vibrant, otherworldly sheen and play host to hauntingly beautiful sights like a family of human figurines formed out of twisted, decaying branches. These moments of beauty are increasingly punctuated by bursts of brutal, bloody horror as the squad encounters mutilated beasts and distorted human remains, their trust in one another gradually unravelling as they draw ever closer to the mysterious lighthouse at the centre of the zone.

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This depth and complexity in the relationships and personal lives of the squad members is one of Annihilation’s most unexpected strengths. The expectation with ensembles is that at least one character get lost in the group, but here every member is given a clear, nuanced backstory to explain why they’ve signed up for what is essentially a suicide mission. That allows Garland to explore such weighty and challenging themes as grief, depression and terminal illness with a subtlety and sensitivity that never overwhelms the thrust of the story. And while the entire cast is superb, Portman is undoubtedly the standout, carrying the audience through this darkly perplexing world with a quietly resilient performance.

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It doesn’t quite stick the landing, though. The concluding scenes stretch too far beyond reality to sit comfortably within Garland’s otherwise grounded approach as he searches in vain for a way to wrap up the central mystery. Yet, for the most part, he offers no firm solutions to the myriad questions posed by the Shimmer. Instead, we’re left to piece the puzzles together in our own time as Annihilation rattles around our heads for days after. Very few directors can claim to have such an everlasting affect on their audience, but Alex Garland is undoubtedly one of them.

Runtime: 115 mins (approx.)
Director: Alex Garland
Screenwriter: Alex Garland
Stars: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny