Friday, 26 June 2015

Jurassic World (2015)

Having written last week that I'd not been to the cinema for a while, I was intrigued to read about the record massive box office takings for this movie's release weekend. Surely, despite the 22 year gap since the release of "Jurassic Park" in 1993, there couldn't be that many people who had never seen the original movie or one of the decreasingly effective sequels. Or perhaps like the visitors to the theme park featured in the new film, they were hoping for new and different thrills. Anyhow, I felt that I should investigate the phenomenon and went off to 'park my brains at the door' in my quest for entertainment and enlightenment.

After two hours' watching CGI monsters eating each other and various human chow, my final reaction was that it is a fatally silly movie indeed. The growing sophistication of special effects, can never recapture the feelings of awe inspired by the original movie, when one viewed the revival of extinct species for the first time. More importantly, one definitely misses the skills of creating memorable characters and an intelligent script found in the first film and to a lesser extent the second. The failure of the third movie in the series should have put an end to trying to milk the franchise to extinction, but the success of this new film -- bringing back the extinct from the dead, as it were -- can only perpetuate the search for big bucks. More's the pity.

In its favour there are some clever and vaguely thrilling sequences in the new movie, especially when projected in in-your-face 3D; however much of the time I felt that I was watching a kiddie's playground with toy helicopters trying to show me the vastness of the new enterprise. The closest we come to having a well-developed character is with the likeable (but very lightweight) Chris Pratt playing a backroom trainer who believes he can communicate with his 'pet' raptors. It reminded me a lot of the scientist trying to humanise one of the living dead in the third Romero movie. Pratt's love interest, such as it is, is played by Bryce Dallas Howard the cool-headed park administrator, who is under orders to provide the punters with meaner animals and bigger thrills (just like the would-be movie audience). This leads to the development by geneticist B D Wong (the only surviving cast member from the '93 flick) of a fearsome cross-breed dinosaur, the Indominus Rex. This gigantic new creature is bred to kill, not just for food but for sport. Guess what happens when she easily breaks free from her isolated enclosure?

A major problem is that we are forced to 'live' the proceedings through the eyes of two slightly annoying youngsters, Howard's nephews Jake and Zac. When they appear to be in peril, she enlists Pratt's help to bring them to safety. Her initial contribution to the chase is to rip off her pristine white blouse, but she keeps her high heels firmly in place for the balance of the movie. The only other character that even registers is a now nearly unrecognizable Vincent D'Onofrio playing the park's head of security, who fancies turning the raptors into military weapons. Otherwise the cast of thousands leaves little impression, although it's always nice to see Omar Sy relocated to a Hollywood extravaganza.

I suppose the viewer could sit back and enjoy the creature-feature effects, ignoring the intrusive product placement and the script-holes that you could drive a 1993 jeep through (just like the kids do). However even if it is a better film than "Jurassic Park 3" that doesn't make it a good movie. It's really 'samey, samey' writ large...but it has and will make a ton of greenbacks. Even the ticket prices in Britain for this new 'treat' seem to be a rip-off in comparison with other countries -- and it is the first time we have been charged for the disposable 3-D glasses. Happy days!

Friday, 19 June 2015

This One or That One?

For various reasons I've not been to the cinema of late and the problem each Friday has become to decide which of the many movies I've seen at home should take centre stage in my weekly blog. It's not an easy choice, since as I have noted before, I do tend to endure a number of occasionally diverting but largely forgettable movies each week and few linger pleasantly.

The fact that I occasionally do not remember films that I have previously viewed is highlighted by the first of today's choices, "The Gathering" (2003). From the opening scenes, the story seemed more and more familiar, but I was unable to trace where I could have seen it previously. (For the record, I am normally scrupulous at recording all of the films I have seen and where in general I have seen them, but this one apparently evaded my listings.) I suspect the reason I had totally wiped the previous viewing from my memory is that while it is a potentially interesting semi-horror movie with a potentially intriguing premise, it's not really terribly good film-making and is, in the end, forgettable.

It's a British movie directed by Brian Gilbert from a script by Antony Horowitz with a strong cast including Christina Ricci, Ioan Gruffudd, Stephen Dillane, Kerry Fox, and Simon Russell Beale. Ricci made her screen debut at age nine in "Mermaids" (1990), indelibly became Wednesday Addams, and was a strong presence in "The Ice Storm" and "Sleepy Hollow". However her recent roles have become less and less memorable and this one didn't add much lustre to her filmography either. She plays an American tourist who is hit by a car near Glastonbury, England and who is taken into Fox's and Dillane's home while she recovers from her temporary amnesia; there she befriends their somewhat fey and/or psychic young son, Michael. Meanwhile Dillane and holy-Joe Russell have discovered an early underground church, with a strange tableau of the Crucifixion, observed from the rear by its original witnesses, their heads and bodies embedded in the stone walls. So far, so eerie.

These witnesses are so-called Gatherers, personages who are doomed to silently congregate at every and all bloody or murderous events. They are cursed to observe each atrocity, early forerunners of the modern ghouls who crane their necks at road accidents. As Ricci recovers she has strange visions of death and decay amongst the locals -- a quick vision of a men's faces beginning to rot -- while Dillane and Russell begin to piece together why so many of the locals resemble the stone-bound witnesses. Her growing friendship with the strange Gruffudd (apparently they have a sex-scene together, removed from the copy I viewed) suggests that she too is one of the ancient folk of the wall. Meanwhile a local farmer is seeking revenge on the villagers who abused him as a child and he also has it in for young Michael, for reasons that escape me. The whole scenario doesn't bear too much deep thought or logical analysis, but in the end Ricci finds salvation.

The second movie that I want to comment upon briefly is a Swedish flick "Echoes from the Dead" (2013). Scandi-Noir is all the rage here at the moment but this is a somewhat minor entry. Julia returns to her childhood home on the island of Oland, when her father is taken into a care home. Twenty one years earlier her five-year old son disappeared in the fenlands, while Daddy-dear should have been looking after him. (Vanishing kiddies seems to be a favourite theme in this genre, viz. the current serial "Jordskott"). The local police claim that the boy probably drowned, but Daddy and his equally aged pal believe that the child was abducted; the fact that said pal is found dead the following day is a complete red (Scandinavian) herring.

The old-timers think that local bogeyman Nils Kant was responsible, although the latter no-goodnik supposedly died in Havana in 1968, some years before the incident. However we learn that the body in his coffin was that of an unfortunate seaman and Kant could well have been at large. Julia investigates the new possibilities with the assistance of the local copper who originally led the search for her son and whose own father had been murdered by Kant, and soon middle-aged romance blossoms. The story is rather ploddingly told, up until a sudden and unexpected twist near the end, which leaves the viewer feeling both cheated and depressed.

I bet I could inadvertently watch this film again in a few years' time and think, I'm sure I've seen this before, without remembering where or when or why!   

Friday, 12 June 2015

Mr Peabody and the Mermaid (1948)

There are dozens of actors (and actresses) from the Golden Age of Hollywood movies that were always entertaining but who are now largely forgotten, not having reached the iconic or mythic status of a Humphrey Bogart or a Cary Grant, their great black and white films of the l930s and l940s now rarely screened. Such a player was the debonair William Powell who began his career in the silent 20s and graced countless 'classic' films through his final appearance in "Mr Roberts" (1955). A polished leading man ('though never a heart-throb)--think of the Thin Man series -- and light comedian, he could be relied upon to bring a touch of class to even minor outings.

Here he plays the eponymous Mr Peabody, ironically in the same year that the British also unleashed their own mermaid movie "Miranda" ( He is about to 'celebrate' his 50th birthday -- a turning point in a man's life then, "the old age of youth" as the script has it. (Powell was actually 56 at the time). He and his wife Irene Hervey have leased a winter rental on the British island of St Hilda's while he recuperates from a bad bout of flu and where he begins to hear the mermaid's siren song. While out fishing he hooks the comely creature's tail and, smitten, promptly brings her home to his wife's bathtub; viewing only the creature's shiny tail immersed in an overflowing bubble-bath, Hervey demands that he return the 'fish' to the sea. Instead he installs Lenore, as he calls her, in the villa's decorative fish pond, where she proceeds to devour all of the rare tropical species.

Lenore is played by 20-year old Ann Blyth, fresh from her turn as the nasty daughter in "Mildred Pierce", and has no dialogue. All she has to do is look dotingly and gooey-eyed at the 50-year old Mr Peabody to become the perfect woman who exists only for the man she loves. She also has a nifty angry glare when any other woman threatens to divert her beloved and some nicely-photographed underwater manoeuvres. The plot is complicated by Hervey's flirtation with a local British diplomat and Powell's being pursued by the dishy Andrea King. When Hervey leaves in disgust, thinking that her hubby is still carrying on with King after he has sworn that she means nothing to him (having seen mermaid Blyth sitting poolside in King's evening dress -- don't ask), the locals are convinced that murder is afoot.

On many levels it's a B-movie, but a well-written adaptation by Nunnally Johnson of the original novel and neatly put together by director-actor Irving Pichel (whose own forgotten career includes "The Most Dangerous Game", "The Moon is Down", and "The Pied Piper"). The film is also lovingly cast with a bunch of little-known bit parts players including Clinton Sandburg as the local PR-man forced by his quack doctor to give up cigarettes and booze ('we're two Americans surrounded by the Redcoats') and Mary Field as the shopkeeper selling Powell only halves of 2-piece swimming costumes to preserve Blyth's modesty.

In the end when Hervey drags Powell to a psychiatrist to cure his affliction, the doctor advises him not to tell his story to anyone who has not hit 'that air-pocket' -- the 50th birthday, where all sorts of fantasies might take hold in the attempt to preserve one's youth.

On balance both movies have their own delights; but despite relishing Powell's charismatic leading role, I must vote for "Miranda" with husky-voiced Glynis Johns --and, after all, that movie does boast the ineffable Margaret Rutherford amongst its cast.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Warm Bodies (2013)

Ever since George Romero created the 'rules' for zombie movies back in 1968 with "The Night of the Living Dead", we have been inundated with hundreds of feature films in this genre, occasionally cheeky or diverting, but largely with diminishing returns. Even Romero's own continued riffs on his pet subject have become less and less entertaining. It was therefore a breath of fresh air to chance upon this first successful zombie rom-com (yes, there have been other flawed attempts) which upturns the usual horror conventions. Director Jonathan Levine has blessed us with a zombie film that has an upbeat happy ending and a warm feel-good vibe.

He has adapted Isaac Marion's young adult novel to show us a future world where most of the population have been infected and the minority survivors are entrenched in a doomed fight for their continued existence. Nicholas Hoult plays R (a 'corpse' who can't quite recall what it stood for or how he ended up in his current sorry state); he also acts as the film's narrator -- fluently setting the scene with his deepest thoughts and fears, while in his daily existence he can barely string two words together. He and hundreds like him wander aimlessly through a deserted airport, only emerging in the quest for living food. It is during one of these raids with his best zombie buddy (a wonderful turn from Rob Corddry), that he meets Julie played by the Australian actress Teresa Palmer. She and her boyfriend (Dave Franco, a far less self-reverent actor than his brother James) have gone in search of medical supplies when their party is attacked and decimated.

R is the one who noshes on Franco and debates whether to let him return as a 'corpse' like him (the term 'zombie' is sparingly used in this flick) or whether to destroy him completely by munching on his brain. No contest, thinks R, since the brain is the best part! In eating a living brain he can absorb his victim's memories, the closest he can get to dreaming. Therefore he becomes able to visualise Franco's love for Julie and their shared past; infatuated with the possibilities, R spirits her away back to his airport bolthole. As he does his best to protect her from the surrounding hungry hordes and the so-called 'Boneys' -- skeletal nightmares that are so far gone that they have passed beyond death and will feast on anything that moves -- the pair begin to bond and to become closer. She is no longer frightened of her strange dead companion and somehow he seems to be getting warmer. However, she eventually convinces him to let her return to the fortified city and to its leader, her martinet Dad, John Malkovich.

R begins to sense something has changed not just for him but for his zombie mates as well -- their hearts seem to have begun beating and they are beginning to remember their own pasts. As Corddry's M tells R about his own 'dream' "I saw memories - my Mom, summertime, and cream....of wheat". R now not only yearns to be with Julie but to let her people know that things may to be getting better. He sneaks into the city and finds her, knowing that at any moment Malkovich might happily put a bullet through his brain if they are unable to convince him that R and the other 'corpses' may be able to co-exist with the besieged survivors. When Julie twigs that R is morphing, she exclaims "You're alive!", sounding just like Dr Frankenstein when he first animates his Creature. In a scene which demonstrates Levine's apt choice of popular music on the soundtrack, Julie and her best friend apply make-up on R's colourless skin, scars, and dark-circled eyes in an attempt to help him pass muster, all to the strains of "Pretty Woman".

Hoult, who has been acting on television since he was a seven-year old and who came to prominence in his first feature movie "About a Boy" (2002) is just brilliant in this role and the chemistry he creates with the comely Palmer is tangible. One can help but root for the mismatched pair. Comparisons have been drawn with the dreary and never-ending 'Twilight' series of films, but this movie is far more involving and heart-warming than that soppy saga. Some folk claim that zombie-ism is a metaphor for society as a whole, with the majority seeking instant gratification and wandering about apparently brain-dead the rest of the time. I think we can file that interpretation as a case of bonkers pretension and just enjoy a movie like this one for its sweet nature and ultimately cheerful outlook.