Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Jurassic4After the gargantuan box-office success of 2015’s Jurassic World, it is unsurprising that Universal Pictures would be clambering to repeat the dose with its successor.  Although Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is pretty much locked on a wash-rinse-repeat cycle, it isn’t entirely a mirror image of its predecessor.  Yes, it is silly, predictable, and trite—the kind of blockbuster hokum that quickly falls out of your brain soon after you leave the cinema.  But it also has some top-notch moments of chair clutching thrills.

Monsters lurking in corridors is a cinematic trope that has always given me the heebee geebees, and there’s plenty of that here.  Ever since Spielberg got the ball rolling with his prowling raptors in the original Jurassic Park, I’ve had an irrational fear of what lies just around the corner. The film’s director J.A. Bayona, who helmed the excellent psychological allegory A Monster Calls, knows a thing or two about fear. His ability to tap into my primal weakness with some thrilling dino-teeth-snapping sequences successfully distracted me from what is otherwise a fairly average blockbuster.

Stylistically, it operates like a fifties b-grade schlock horror with plenty of jump-scares and gruesome deaths. The island we left in 2015’s Jurassic World is revisited here.  Now over-run by dinosaurs, the volcanic island is blowing its top and a bunch of animal activists sympathetic to the stranded beasts want the creatures re-located to a new remote island.  Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) heads up such an organisation and her efforts to locate some of the more difficult-to-find creatures (including, yes you guessed it, Blue, the raptor from the previous film) requires the backing of multi-millionaire Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell).  Of course, you can’t catch Blue without her trainer … enter Chris Pratt. And while Lockwood’s millions provide the means to do the relocation, his assistant, Eli (Rafe Spall), has more nefarious ideas about what the dinosaurs are worth and where they should go.

*sigh* Aside from the plot, which is as predictable as a rainy Auckland winter, the film falls down in a few other areas.  Most notably, there is an unsavoury whiff of tokenism in the makeup of its multifaceted cast (but hey, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t) which also lead to roles that operate purely functional to the film’s plot machinations. 

One such character is Maisie Lockwood, played by newcomer Isabella Sermon. Despite being given ample screen-time, her intriguing character is disappointingly fleshed out.  Instead, she operates as a means to set up some (admittedly very good) scare sequences and also provide the film its get-out-of-jail-card (for reasons I can’t spoil here) to the final moral impasse. 

There are plenty more faults I could jab and prod at, but perhaps I’m being too harsh on a film that is only purporting to be as light and fluffy as the popcorn you buy with it. Surprisingly, it does have a subtext (of sorts) on the moral worth of genetically manufactured creatures, but its message is very confused and non-conclusive.

Ultimately, the awe and heart of the franchise’s original have long since escaped its cage. And for this reason, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom will no doubt garner plenty of disdain from the original’s adoring masses. In time, I will no-doubt subscribe to such sentiments, but for now, I’m still buzzing over some of the film’s scary action set-pieces … I’m just sucker for monsters and corridors.

See my reviews for Witchdoctor here.

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C’est la vie!

clvThe French have always had a penchant for the cinematic farce.  They do it well.  The only problem is that they are often wordy affairs with a playful rat-a-tat rhythm and if you don’t speak the language you’ll spend most of the movie glancing at the subtitles. Not normally a problem as such films are often visually dry. However, C’est la vie! is juuuust good-looking enough to make the visual aversion frustrating.  And it’s odd to call an attractive film frustrating … but hey, c’est la vie (oh come on, you know I had to use that line somewhere in this review!).

The story centres around a day in the life of Max Angély (played to perfection by Jean-Pierre Bacri). He is a seasoned party planner and owns a successful catering company but tonight’s wedding-job poses a number of problems. Held at a historical 17th-century French palace with circumspect electricity the festivities becomes a delicate dance of power management. His staff add a melange of further concerns; an old flame, a rogue wedding-singer, a short-tempered assistant, and a free-loading photographer are just some of the problems. And then there is the narcissistic groom who wants everything to be “chic and elegant”. What could possibly go wrong?

Directors Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano (who also wrote the original screenplay) are probably best known for their breakout hit The Intouchables.  Here they have gone wild with some Fawlty Towers-esque antics. The camera weaves and pirouettes (there are hints of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman here) throughout the film’s large ensemble cast. There are, in fact, so many interesting characters that the film risks spreading itself too thin. 

Thankfully, Nakache and Toledano have orchestrated a well-paced balance of comedy and sentimentality, not least due to its mainstay, Jean-Pierre Bacri.  His role as the ringmaster of an over-bloated and pompous circus-of-a-wedding provides the glue that keeps it all together. C’est la vie! is as charming as it is ridiculous and deservedly elevates itself from the pack. I just wish I could understand French.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool DVD review

fsddihBased on Peter Turner’s memoirs, screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh has teamed up with director Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein) to recount the unlikely, but true story of a romantic relationship between a Liverpudlian youngster and a Hollywood starlet twice his age. 

Matt Greenhalgh is no stranger to adapting true stories from entertainment’s yesteryear.  His profiling of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Control (2007), was a stunning rendition of the band’s enigmatic lead vocalist.  However, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is quite a different beast.

It is 1979 and Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) is working a season on the stage in Liverpool when by chance she strikes up an amorous relationship with Peter. In the twilight of her career, the rather flighty Gloria (every inch as you’d imagine an ageing Marilyn Munro) maintains a superficial femme fatale demeanour which matches the films she was famous for. She is a product of Hollywood; flighty, conscious of her image, and very sensitive about her age.  Ironically, it is the many years between her and Peter that raise conjecture among the people around them. Peter (played by Jamie Bell) is a stage actor who naively falls for Gloria’s wily charm.  He is “the boy who just can’t say no” as she knowingly quips, and his doe-eyed innocence is luckily met by a woman who genuinely falls in love with him.

The film elides time beautifully as it employs a flashback structure to tell the backstory to their relationship. And although based on Peter’s memoirs it is appropriately sensitive to Gloria’s side of the story.  The result is a simple but reasonably compelling love story bolstered by the protagonists unlikely coupling and the intriguing factual examination of an Oscar-winning Hollywood star’s final years … you may have guessed from the title, but she doesn’t die in Liverpool. 

Topically some might find Film Stars a tad depressing. The dour Coro Street-like colour palette certainly doesn’t help matters—it is the kind of visually drab film that leans heavily on its cast. Thankfully, Bening and Bell do a fine job providing believable and touching performances that drip with genuine pathos and chemistry. Julie Walters also turns in a solid, if slightly predictable performance as Peter’s mother.

The DVD offers a special featurette on the method of back projection used to create the Californian portion of the film.  It is only a few minutes long but gives a welcome peek behind the curtain—the film’s slightly surreal quality eliciting a visual mix of fact and fantasy that links with Gloria’s film-noir background.   Other than the featurette, the DVD gives you the film rendered in 1080p with sound in Dolby Digital 5.1.  The sound, while not pushing any groundbreaking boundaries is accurately mixed and appropriate to the film’s tone.
 

See my reviews for Witchdoctor here.

Tag

tagIt’s hard to believe that among the homes and workplaces of ten “ordinary” men, there is a very serious and highly spirited game of tag happening. Director Jeff Tomsic has teamed up with screenwriter Mark Steilen to tell their story. 

Better known for their TV comedies, the duo have adapted for film an article written by Russell Adams in The Wall Street Journal that outlined the aforementioned group of grown men who every February enter into a month-long season of tag. The only taboo? You can’t tag the tagger—other than that, hunting season is open right across the country. 

Wary of overcooking his cast Tomsic has wisely narrowed the film’s focus to five friends; Hoagie (Ed Helms) who is the spiritual hub to the group, Randy (Jake Johnson) the drug-addled goof, Callahan (Jon Hamm) the successful businessman, and Sable (Hannibal Buress) the fragile and intellectually curious one. 

And then there’s Jerry (Jeremy Renner). He has never been tagged, much to the umbrage of the other four.  His “untouchable” status is a comical MacGuffin that provides the film with its narrative direction. However, at its heart Tag is just as concerned with exploring the bonds of their friendship. Any comedy worth its salt does more than just make you laugh and Tag does a wonderful job of hilariously endearing you to their relationships. Not just with each other, but also with Hoagie’s ultra-competitive wife (Isla Fisher) who acts as his support crew and tipping him off against an impending tag.

But the film’s real strength lies in its physical comedy and lets the reigns loose on some downright hilarious hijinks and clever slapstick moments. Yes, it’s very commercial and incredibly silly; but it’s also fun, irreverent, sometimes awkward and often cringe-worthy—the kind that’ll have you watching between your fingers. It’s normally everything I shy away from but here they’ve got the balance bang on … and right now there are not many comedies that can touch it.
 

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

Ocean’s 8

oceans 20386.dngIt’s been over a decade since the Ocean’s trilogy planted the then “it” men George Clooney and Brad Pitt firmly within the heist genre. Now director Steven Soderbergh has handed the reigns over to Gary Ross and instead of Clooney and Pitt, we have the “it” chicks Bullock and Blanchett to head up an all-female crew of eight; including Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, Awkwafina, Sarah Paulson, and the delightful Anne Hathaway.

For fear of spoilers I won’t dive too deep into the plot details—suffice to say that Ocean’s 8 does have its twists and turns, but on the whole plays it fairly safe.  Fresh out of jail Debbie (Sandra Bullock) seeks revenge on the man who sent her there in the first place.  As they say, revenge is a dish best served cold and five years in the clink has given her plenty of thinking-time to come up with a really cold one.  It is a plan that involves an elaborate heist to rob the multi-million-dollar Cartier diamond necklace right from under the nose of Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) at New York’s glitzy Met Gala ball.

Aside from a few head-scratching moments, which are eventually explained by the obligatory “how it was all done” flashback, the plot is fairly water-tight and explained with such mechanical precision that there is little time left to flesh out its many characters. The end result is a soulless film that attempts to inject some warmth with a few chuckles and an emotive soundtrack.

But the biggest disappointment is that it is far too tentative in its feminist agenda. More should’ve been made of eight kick-ass women who’re played by some of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters. One might argue that the very nature of women occupying roles traditionally reserved for men—and doing so without shouting to the rafters—goes some way to normalise such roles. Yes, a good thing, but here it feels like the potato becomes too hot to handle for its male director.  Sure Ross does an acceptable job of swinging a camera kinetically around a set; he gets the job done, but he doesn’t come close to tapping into the charisma of his ensemble cast.  Ultimately, Ocean’s 8 is clinical, mildly entertaining and carries you along—but could’ve been so much more.
 

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

20th Century Women

txwAfter a well-received run at last year’s NZIFF, 20th Century Women finally gets some more big screen love. Brimming with warmth and wit, this enlightening if slightly meandering tale provides plenty of post-viewing conjecture to unpack.

Written and directed by Mike Mills (Beginners), one might ask how is it that a male is telling women’s stories—as the title suggests, this a film about 20th Century Women, right?  Well, not exclusively; it has a soft-natured feminist slant which develops further to show how female stories are often inextricably connected with male stories. 20th Century Women is loosely a biopic based on the real-life women who influenced Mills and is, in a sense, an ode to these women written by the man they helped shape.

Set in 1979, the film centres around a quintuplet of characters who all live in the same house. At the coalface of motherhood is Annette Bening who plays Dorothea; landlord, single mother, and compassionate matriarch who is struggling with what it means to bring up a son in a society bristling with cultural change. Likewise, her teenage son Jamie (played by Lucas Jade Zumann) has to endure the conflicting and bewildering world of advice and desires.

Dorothea’s large multi-story house is a do-up; boarder William (Billy Crudup) earns his keep by assisting with renovations. The other boarder is Abbie, played by the likeable Greta Gerwig whose free-spirited nature is pitted against her struggle with cancer.  And then there’s Julie (Elle Fanning), who doesn’t technically live in the house but comes and goes at her whim and sneaks in at night to sleep with Jamie. They don’t have sex, their relationship being purely platonic … at least according to her.

Despite being overly invested in life’s quandaries beyond its due, this earnest tale is liberally littered with enough existential insight and astute observations to be an enlightening and rewarding experience. And although it leans heavily on the performance of its superb ensemble cast there’s enough meat on its bones to be well-worth seeing on the big screen.
 

See my reviews for Witchdoctor here.

Kodachrome

3Digital giant Netflix’s bankrolling of a film that champions all things analogue is an anachronism that some might smirk at. Others will nostalgically nod at Netflix whose roots lay in the twilight of physical media.  But when Ed Harris says “We’re strictly analogue here” Kodachrome not only makes clear its belligerent stance on the world’s love-affair with all things digital but also underlines the 35mm celluloid that it was shot on—a rarity these days.

Directed by Mark Raso (Copenhagen) and based upon a New York Times article written by A.G. Sulzberger, Kodachrome explores father-son relations against the backdrop of the titular film stock’s death knell.  

It is a pleasantly predictable film that centres on Matt (Jason Sudeikis), a grumpy record exec, who is reluctantly coerced into joining his estranged father to drive cross-state.  His father, Ben (played by the superb Ed Harris), is a renowned photographer who has to reach Kansas before the doors shut for good on the last Kodachrome processing facility in the world.  What adds to the trip’s urgency is that Ben is terminally ill with only weeks to live. His last few cherished roles of undeveloped Kodachrome film provide narrative direction but at its heart, Kodachrome is more concerned with exploring the frail emotional bonds between Ben and Matt.  The always-engaging Elizabeth Olsen (Wind River) plays Zoe who comes along for the ride as Ben’s nurse, and for all the father-son bickering she becomes more a mediator than Ben’s medical attendant.

Ed Harris’s performance can best be described as “nuanced”.  Oh how I cringe at the overused word, but in this instance, it so aptly describes a masterful portrayal that is brimming with subtle shades of expression. Harris sublimely encapsulates Ben’s bitterly cynical demeanour that is fleetingly betrayed by moments of existential joy.

Kodachrome is a warm and beautiful film—Cinematographer, Alan Poon, having made the most of the media it was filmed on. And although it is a touch predictable at times Kodachrome remains an Ed Harris masterclass and worth seeing for his performance alone.
 

See my reviews for Witchdoctor here.

The Bookshop

tbsOn my way to work, I saw a young student walking along the footpath, open book in one hand, a half-eaten apple in the other, lost in what must’ve been a good read.  It was a nostalgic moment and a sight so seldom seen nowadays. Perhaps it is no surprise then, that The Bookshop gave me that same feeling; it is, after all a film that celebrates bibliophilia and deals in the currency of nostalgia.

Based on the novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop is set in 1959 and tells the tale of Florence Green (Emily Mortimer). She is an earnest but plucky young widower whose decision to open a bookstore in the English township of Hardborough ruffles a few feathers—most notably, the town’s toffee-nosed aristocrat Violet Garmart (a role that is deliciously rendered by the wonderful Patricia Clarkson).  Her plans to scupper Florence’s venture supplies the film its narrative focus. It’s not a particularly complex story, but the devil is in the detail and Florence’s belligerence in the face of a town’s rejection personifies the film’s investigation of courage in the face of classism.  

Bill Nighy turns in a typically screen-steeling performance as Florence’s confidant and ally, Edmund Brundish. But even his quirky style as the knight in shining grey-hair provides little relief from the film’s surprisingly bleak tone. Yes, The Bookshop is slightly more sombre than expected, but thankfully it avoids the temptation to pander to today’s voracious appetite for feel-good twee and whimsy.

Isobel Coixet, who both directed and adapted Fitzgerald’s book, has done and good job of creating a great deal of atmosphere and drawn out some wonderful performances from her top-draw cast. 

The film does, however, have a few minor problems; the editing is particularly loose in parts, and some of the supporting roles feel very stilted. But what it lacks in one chapter it makes up for in another—specifically with some beautiful sound design and notable cinematography.  The Bookshop is certainly no page-turner, but it remains engaging enough to be worth seeing.
 

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

Swagger of Thieves

swaggerIt seems ironic that such an agile and articulate documentary can be born from the burnt out husk of a drug-addled rock band. But that is exactly what first-time documentarian Julian Boshier has produced. The aptly titled Swagger of Thieves chronicles the fortunes of the “almost” iconic kiwi hard rock band, Head Like a Hole (HLAH). Their misspent potential is a schtick that is perhaps a well-trodden path of many bands, yet Boshier has managed to show an exceptionally candid side to HLAH’s story.

Disagreements, fall-outs, hedonism, poor management and finances that went up in smoke (or more accurately, intravenously up the two founding member’s arms) are all laid bare here—it’s classic stuff of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll and Swagger of Thieves expounds on a band who, at the time, unapologetically claimed it as their rite of passage. 

The film joins the reforming band after a ten-year hiatus and recounts their formative years that held so much promise.  As frontman Nigel “Booga” Beazley admits “There was a lack of respect. We were poohing in our own nest.” His slightly unhinged charismatic charm provides this doco with some genuinely hilarious moments, but it is the band’s other founding member, Nigel Regan, whose sombre tones capture the beating heart of HLAH’s darker side and the crippling effect that drugs had on the band. 

Whether their legacy is a lost cause is still up for conjecture, but Swagger’s final words, “thank my cock, let’s go get wasted”, hint at an ongoing problem. And because the film is so ruthlessly uncompromising in its honesty, it is difficult to feel much admiration for a band that naively let so much talent go to waste. Nonetheless, their story operates as a valuable piece of NZ social history and Swagger of Thieves is a tragically engrossing doco to watch. It’s kind of like watching lemmings jump to their death—you just can’t look away.

Moreover, without HLAH’s story we wouldn’t have the burgeoning talents of Boshier, who has delivered a shining example of vivid filmmaking. That Boshier shot, produced and directed Swagger of Thieves suggests he’s one to keep an eye on … let’s hope he doesn’t go the way of his subject matter.
 

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

Crooked House

crookedhouseThat this murder mystery is pleasingly old-school only serves to bed in well with its source material. Agatha Christie’s sordid tales of murder and mayhem have long been a rich source of cinematic intrigue since the age of silent cinema, often with mixed results. But here, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has done an admirable job with a conservative but well-considered adaptation of arguably Christie’s most twisted tale.

Set in the fifties, spy-turned-private-detective Charles Hayward (Max Irons) reluctantly takes a job from an old flame, Sophie (Stefanie Martini).  Her grandfather was murdered with a fatal barbiturate injection … or so it seems. The film’s cold palette and haunting score lend an appropriately ominous mood as Hayward, against his better judgement, visits the sprawling estate where Sophie’s aristocratic family live together in complete opulence.

The mansion’s labyrinthine layout is full of plausible suspects; among them, the bombastic matriarch Edith (Glenn Close), two problematic sons Philip (Julian Sands) and Roger (Christian McKay), a pretentious actress Magda (Gillian Anderson) and the late Mr. Leonides’ second wife and widow Brenda (Christina Hendricks) who stands to inherit it all.

The film plays out as you’d expect from a Christie story that’s been infused with screenwriter Julian Fellowes’ immutable clipped English period treatment. It is the kind of style he achieved with so much bravura in Gosford Park, but unfortunately this film never quite reaches the same lofty heights. 

The acting is typically heavy-handed with plenty of theatrical bluster, but far from being on-the-nose, Paquet-Brenner has worked Fellowes’ water-tight script with the kind of Directorial timing that’ll have you feeling like the solution is tantalisingly close—exactly what you want from a whodunnit.

Not without its faults, the film drags its heels in the middle stanza and the handsomely mild Max Irons lacks the charisma (ironically unlike his father, Jeremy) required of the role as the central sleuth. Nonetheless, Crooked House’s murderous riddle is mercifully accessible in its exposition, yet intriguingly clever, and its courageous ending will leave a bitter but satisfying taste.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.