Jurassic World (2015)

Let’s be honest, I didn’t exactly hold high hopes for this film, which at times has seemed more interested in creating brand partner synergies for commercial tie-ins, than being actually-any-good as narrative entertainment. Sadly that seems to have been the legacy of Spielberg’s (still quite excellent) Jurassic Park, though it’s hardly something it invented — just that it managed to tap into an enthusiasm for dinosaurs that remains largely unabated over 20 years on. Still, even given that, I remain confused as to why there was an ad before the film for a Lego tie-in. There was no room in the movie for the aforesaid product because it’s a 12-rated action film for a good reason (CGI-created dinosaur terror and mayhem; certainly the human characters weren’t much more than ciphers). Anyway the film’s clear product-placement winner was Mercedes-Benz, just for that smash cut to a perfectly-framed car ad angle of their vehicle after one of the kids says the line “you wanna see something amazing?” Oh to imagine how excited their execs must’ve been when they saw that. Just thinking about such a scenario really brought on some serious feels (not all good, let’s be honest); certainly it prompted more emotions than when a bunch of human dudes were eviscerated in the film (would that they were marketing executives eh).

I could go on about how this cartoonish dehumanisation of violence is an effect of the kind of corporatised culture which was surely intended as a point of satire in the original, but has long since been subsumed under the creature effects and merchandising. However, whatever baggage I might (not unreasonably I feel) load this franchise up with, the thing is that Jurassic World was quite an entertaining ride. Chris Pratt retains an easygoing charm, even if his relationship with prickly park boss Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) remained little more than a doodle in the corner of a page credited to FOUR screenwriters. Perhaps the tenacity with which Claire manages to perform at high speed on all terrains while never shedding (or breaking) her high heels should therefore be applauded as some kind of feminist triumph, but I’ll stop short of that. Still, the kids-in-peril weren’t too annoying, while Irrfan Khan as a wealthy industralist (an heir of sorts to Richard Hammond) and Omar Sy as the French dino-wrangler were nice smaller roles, even if there was no one who could measure up to Jeff Goldblum. And on the whole the mayhem was coordinated rather well, even if it did rip off some of the setpieces almost wholesale from the original film, to lesser effect.

So for a Summer blockbuster it just about works, I just don’t expect to be revisiting it with any warmth in 20 years’ time.

Jurassic World film poster CREDITS
Director Colin Trevorrow; Writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly and Trevorrow; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Genesis [2D], London, Tuesday 16 June 2015.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

You can’t deny that Marvel Studios have done a good job at shaping their film presence over the last decade, in a way that goes well beyond just giving Stan Lee his surely contractually-obliged cameo (and yes, there’s one here too). It just seems, though, as someone who is coming over time to appreciate a well-written screenplay, that there’s an overabundance of detail (of plot, characters, worlds, special effects, music and noise): a sensory overload at times. Maybe that’s to do with the source material, but for a two-hour film, there certainly are a lot of distractions. Partly that goes with the fantasy sci-fi setting, but the opening half hour features plenty of breathless cross-cutting between all-but-identically-named worlds, blathering on about nonsense with silly names, trying to sketch out various tribal allegiances that you need series TV (or a comic book) to really do justice to. At the core of the plot, though, is a mysterious orb, a classic MacGuffin whose purpose and power is fairly redundant. After all, the point is surely the journey of the five outlaw protagonists, led by Chris Pratt’s likeable goofy Andy Peter “Starlord”, as they pursue this orb — and at that, the film succeeds.

I mentioned the writing above, but I don’t mean to criticise it. The real joy of the film — as with most of Marvel’s films — is in the character interactions, and these are all done well enough that I was left wanting less of the action-adventure and more of the hanging out. A standout is Rocket the genetically-modified raccoon-like creature (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a ball of maniacal energy imbued with a carnivalesque sense of dangerous fun and a touchy ego. In fact, when stacked alongside his character, a kind-hearted mutant tree called Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and the heavily-tattooed and scarified warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), it’s the humanoids who have the tough acting job here. Pratt plays to his strengths so well honed in The Lego Movie, while Zoë Saldana’s Gamora gets a lot of glowering done under her green makeup, but they have to work hard not to be relegated to sideshow attractions.

The tone of the film is largely comedic, so when the bad guy Ronan (Lee Pace) is introduced, his vengeful pantomime (which is played and filmed totally straight, all threatening low-angle shots of his blue face lurking in shadows against the starry night sky) quickly descends into bathos. There’s so much of this kind of thing — Karen Gillan’s Nebula is another blue-skinned vengeful opponent, one amongst many — that it becomes a little wearing. Indeed, every so often the film requires an injection of fun, so has Starlord popping up at some inappropriate moment to boogie along to another 70s rock classic (you can certainly tell when the director was born, and in its persistent musical referencing of the era, it particularly calls to mind American Hustle).

It’s not perfect by any means: there are some very weird and apparently pointless moments of nastiness (such as Benicio del Toro’s ‘Collector’ and his subjugation of women) that aren’t even effaced by the presence of a female screenwriter — a rare enough occurrence on this kind of project. There’s also a post-credits sequence that briefly threatens the return of one of the more unloved characters in the Marvel back catalogue. Most aggravating is the reliance on what is now becoming the most inflexible of plot points for this Studio’s universe — the protracted destruction of a major city by bombardment from the air (not a real city, this time, but a sort of alien composite of many you’ll be familiar with). However, despite all this — which makes the running time seem longer than it mercifully is — Guardians of the Galaxy is on the whole a rather enjoyable comedic adventure romp.

Guardians of the Galaxy film posterCREDITS
Director James Gunn; Writers Gunn and Nicole Perlman (based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning); Cinematographer Ben Davis; Starring Chris Pratt, Zoë Saldana, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 4 August 2014.

The Lego Movie (2014)

I’m going to do a thing I don’t usually do, and I’m going to draw your attention to my rating. I’ve given this film three-and-a-half stars, because that’s the highest I’ll go for a film that is essentially a feature-length product placement. There are few movies I’ve ever seen in which cross-promotional brand awareness is more hard-wired — not even Cast Away (2000). It’s in the title, it’s in every frame, and it’s even in the overall theme: Lego™ can free your childhood imagination, and allow you to do whatever you can imagine (though I’m not sure this configurability extends to every product in the Lego back catalogue). What makes it better than just a mere advert, though, is the script, which is witty and, crucially, very funny.

It also helps that as the voice of the central character, the construction worker Emmet, Chris Pratt is very good. He hits exactly the right tone of someone who is happy to conform to rules, playing up to the same simple-minded everyman he portrays in, for example, TV’s Parks and Recreation, but with just enough self-awareness to see his limitations, and respond humorously to challenges to it. Elizabeth Banks as Wyldstyle is the woman who makes him realise that there are more ways of dealing with the world, while Morgan Freeman is of course an elder (Vitruvius) who dispenses sage advice.

The setup starts all very broadly, with the deranged Lord Business (Will Ferrell) stealing a powerful weapon from the clutches of Vitruvius, which allows him, now re-branded as President, to rule over a conformist world that sticks to his single-minded vision. But things quickly move into more interesting comic variations and imaginative reconfigurations of this world. We get Liam Neeson’s Janus-like Bad Cop/Good Cop, Will Arnett’s snarky Batman, and a perky rainbow character verging on the psychotic (almost predictably voiced by Alison Brie, again channelling a TV role, Annie from Community).

It’s all very broadly pitched, but the humour is knowing and self-referential enough that I also found myself wondering if kids would get it. We’re very much in the same nostalgic 80s ballpark as Wreck-It Ralph (2012), another slyly knowing children’s animation. What’s impressive is that all this plays out while the animation remains solidly based on the original plastic creations. Expressiveness comes from the animated mouths and the talents of the voice cast. Everything else is resolutely stop-motion in effect, if not creation (I’m fairly certain it’s CGI). And then there’s a late introduction of a surprise (but not, in the end, surprising) twist that really brings home the pathos — and, for those of us so afflicted, a few tears.

In the end, it’s a warm and impressive film with an unforced religious allegory, a bit of shmaltz and, importantly, enough strong and inventive gags crammed into every scene, that you almost forgive it its baldly capitalist pedigree.

The Lego Movie film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller; Cinematographer Pablo Plaisted; Starring Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 9 February 2014.