Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – Film Review

At the start of The Crimes of Grindewald, everything is buggered. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne)and his friends are scattered across the globe. The Wizarding World is deeply divided and preparing for war. And the dark lord Grindelwald is on the loose and waging a campaign to turn his fellow wizards against their non-magical cousins. It’s a serious departure from the larking about with mooncrows and erumpents of its predecessor. But while Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was far from faultless, it’s childish sense of wonder made it an irresistible rush to watch. This grown-up sequel doubles down on the low-stakes, diffuse plotting, and loses the dazzling novelty that made the first film such a frothy delight.

C2502CF7-4172-4E16-BB42-8F9B4B29068E

One year on from his violent assault on New York City, Grindewald (Johnny Depp) mounts a spectacular escape from a flying stagecoach while on route to stand trial in Europe. Unable to move against his former lover, Dumbledore (Jude Law) sends his favourite former pupil, Newt – now a mildly famous author – to Paris to hunt him down. It’s a lean, enticing set-up, but rarely is there much tension or a sense of urgency to the adventure, as J.K. Rowling and director David Yates get bogged down in unengaging subplots and unnecessary backstories. Newt spends more time pining for love interest Tina (Katherine Waterston, again given very little to work with) than thwarting Grindelwald’s plot. A complicated history between the Magizoologist, his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and his fiancé Leta (Zoë Kravitz) is hinted at without being fully resolved. Meanwhile, Grindelwald is seemingly content to sit back and wait for the pieces of his scheme to fall into place. These distractions result in Credence’s (Ezra Miller) search for belonging – the fulcrum around which the entire series pivots – being crowded out and feeling not as vital as it should.

5A9D996F-3159-43E7-9F41-ACA145A6233E

Yet there’s still plenty of magic to be found. From Newt’s basement menagerie to the ornately detailed realisation of 1920s Paris, the mastery of craft and attention to detail in the production values is mightily impressive. It provides the perfect platform from which Yates launches a series of breathtaking set-pieces, including a thrilling raid on the French Ministry of Magic.

21C61D1B-EE75-4DF5-BBE1-0495414ECFD2

Redmayne ably anchors the action this time around, giving the big-hearted Newt more confidence and assurance as he throws himself into harms way for the greater good. While many are justifiably frustrated by the coy allusions to Dumbledore’s sexuality, there’s no denying Law perfectly captures the twinkling charm of a more youthful, mischievous professor. Depp is also perfect (if controversial) casting as Grindelwald, whose bleached blonde hair, wounded eye and zeal for rhetoric normalising horrific attitudes towards muggles makes for a chillingly pernicious presence on screen.

7409B4F8-773B-4179-A4C6-CC155332B041.jpeg

Watching a ridiculous-haired demagogue with a knack for manipulating vulnerable witches and wizards to his cause is too close to reality not be terrifying, culminating in a highly charged political rally and an emotional gut-punch of an ending that leaves everyone questioning their loyalties. It’s proof that there’s a powerful story to be told… if only Rowling and Yates could get on with telling it.

Runtime: 134 mins (approx.)
Director: David Yates
Screenwriter: J. K. Rowling
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, Ezra Miller

Advertisements

The Predator – Film Review

When you see the name Shane Black in the opening credits, you expect to see something different. This is the idiosyncratic mind that reinvented the buddy cop movie, gave hardboiled crime thrillers a sharp tongued twist, and turned Iron Man’s greatest foe into a clueless cockney crook. One assumes, then, that it must be another Shane Black behind The Predator. How else to explain why the one-time Hawkins’ return to the series could be such a rote, redundant bore that barely contains any hint of its creator’s singular personality?

992DB027-5DF2-42F5-92DF-827AE8FFDD7C

The set-up looks promising with Black and Fred Dekker’s script conjuring up a few fresh twists on the series’ tropes. After a serviceable opening sequence in a jungle, the setting quickly shifts to a quiet suburban neighbourhood. Our hero is no Arnie-light super soldier, but an 11-year-old boy on the autism spectrum, who inadvertently receives a piece of alien tech that attracts the attention of the titular space aliens. And rather than a team of highly-skilled commandos, the action centres on a gang of mentally ill veterans who are presumably the only people on Earth crazy enough to do battle with an indestructible alien warrior.

CB57EA2E-4151-4D7F-A1E3-17DB2958F967

Early scenes ripple with sweary banter between the crew and cheeky call-backs to the first film. There’s a cracking gag about the inaccuracy of calling a race of alien huntsmen ‘Predators’ and a gloriously tongue-in-cheek reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconic ‘Get to the chopper’ line. And like all the other films in the franchise, The Predator’s propulsive action sequences are laced with plenty of blood, guts and dismembered body parts as the dreadlocked fighters slice, dice and splice their way through most of the supporting cast.

CA683B45-797F-45FA-93B5-BC52869D9A36

For all the gory, bloody fun, the joke quickly runs thin. There’s none of Black’s trademark rebellious spirit in the dialogue and the plot struggles to find any new routes to take on the survival horror roadmap. We simply see Boyd Holbrook’s super sniper and his crew attempting to avoid being ripped to pieces as they desperately search for a way to defeat a seemingly unstoppable monster. Even the invention of an upgraded, Mega-Predator fails to raise the stakes in any meaningful way. It might be taller, uglier and more CGI-dependent than its predecessor, but its moves and threat level are very much the same.

35E182D6-D784-42C3-B137-2B28470B8EB0

And while the cast are all game, little effort is made to put any meat on the bones of their characters. Despite their mental health issues, the insensitively monikered ‘Loonies’ are given hardly any depth and the father-son dynamic at the heart of the story never quite rings true. All of which renders much of the violence – especially a messy, overblown climax – virtually senseless. Black openly admitted to taking this gig to recapture a sense of lost youth. Perhaps some things are better left in the past.

Runtime: 107 mins (approx.)
Director: Shane Black
Screenwriters: Shane Black, Fred Dekker
Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Jacob Tremblay, Olivia Munn, Trevante Rhodes

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.

AAC933E2-BD9F-4D92-9ED7-7E96C3222B43

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.

983BB5E4-81E9-49D6-B4B1-402EC057549E

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.

18D5C199-45A1-4D55-9DD7-25228691A66E

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.

A778399C-65A0-47EC-816A-0FD83194B0CF

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

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.

AA85667B-15D2-44FF-A5F1-13FBE6494F1A

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.

B85D5864-F6E2-43CE-B73A-7058FC2C4C26

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.

3C51CE28-1FDC-4FE3-BCD3-80CCE49BA860

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.

224C775D-0ADC-4415-99BC-2F5E6D69C11C.png

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

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.

EA54BDAD-B5F5-4B90-94D8-238031DF9B34

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.

D42ED407-1E04-427C-AC6F-3A49702A58A0

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.

EBE42B7A-62D2-4932-A6E0-715CCCA6E965

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?

F628440D-9B5F-4BD1-9619-863FFADC7BB9

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.

D8F35C88-36EA-433A-907C-68AD9E836E18

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.

43481A79-DBE9-4ABD-B1DF-31B3ADCA2D3A

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.

READY PLAYER ONE

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.

83F36B52-CB6C-4567-9C94-18F4BFFB8A90

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.

D9D91E4D-466D-4A6D-8F7E-F09F0969BEF9

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.

620C9945-4875-4571-800C-426144F552EE

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.

AC092D07-59EA-40AE-80DD-62BAD6482250

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.

26CB9EDE-8F9D-4AD6-8E78-B84181EDC1A3

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