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Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Goldblum’

‘So, do you think they’ve left the door open for another one?’ asked this blog’s Anglo-Iranian affairs correspondent, as we left our screening of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (I should point out he was not there in his professional capacity). After a picosecond’s thought I was moved to observe that when a film franchise has earned more than $3.5 billion at the global box office, and shows no sign of running out of steam in terms of audience appeal, the door will most likely not just be left open but carefully taken off its hinges and burned. Whichever way you cut it, the Jurassic Park films (as I still think of them) do make squijillions of dollars, although why they continue to be quite so successful I have no idea: the original movie had Spielberg at the height of his powers, plus gobsmackingly innovative special effects, but none of the others have really done more than remix the ideas from that movie.

Is this true of Fallen Kingdom? Well, for this outing, previous director Colin Trevorrow has been replaced by J.A. Bayona, whose last film was the (really good) A Monster Calls. So you could be forgiven for cautious optimism (it is never a good idea to be uncautiously optimistic when dealing with major movie corporations and $170 million budgets). Things kick off with a highly promising, genuinely scary prologue as a team returns to the ruins of the Jurassic World park in order to retrieve the genetic material of one of the engineered hybrids from the previous movie. Lightning flashes, shadows lurk, people get chomped; hope begins to flutter in the chest of the jaded so-called film critic (hope is the thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson observed, unlike Jurassic World’s dinosaurs – but we went over that last time around).

Well, from here we’re off into the film proper. It turns out that Isla Nublar, where Jurassic Park and then Jurassic World were located, is volcanic, and fixing to blow up and kill all the dinosaurs, and people are not sure what to do about this. (Just what happened to the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna, the setting of Jurassic Parks 2 and 3, is not addressed.) Many, including former park visitor Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, but don’t get too excited, as he appears for literally only about two minutes), are of the opinion that this is very much not a problem. Others disagree, including former park manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Cowboys, who clearly had one of those ‘make my character less irritating’ discussions between films), who is now a dinosaur rights activist. Helping her are a couple of new characters, a young man who is a somewhat craven comic relief clown, and a young woman who is incredibly feisty and competent – such is the way of the modern blockbuster, as any disgruntled stellar conflict fan will tell you.

Claire is contacted by representatives of an old business partner of John Hammond, who was involved in the very early development of the technology that recreated the dinosaurs. This man (James Cromwell) has a plan to transport the dinosaurs to a nature preserve where they can live peacefully, but he needs Claire’s knowledge of Jurassic World’s systems and also the help of her old beau Owen (Chris Pratt), the animal behaviourist and raptor trainer. (Owen has retired to the countryside to build a cabin, clearly unaware of the iron law that nobody who starts building a cabin in this kind of film ever gets to finish it.) Well, Claire recruits Owen and off they all go to the island to save the dinosaurs. What could possibly go wrong…?

It is a bit naïve to suggest that a tentpole blockbuster such as this is motivated by anything other than financial concerns – the studio’s notes to the director really only have one line, which reads ‘Make as much money as possible.’ But it always seems to me that this is particularly obvious with the Jurassic Park films – if there are any genuinely interesting or unexpected new ideas in any of these films, it is because they have managed to sneak in without anyone noticing, rather than being put there on purpose. Well, perhaps that’s not quite true, because I did note a slightly knowing and rather subversive element to the last one, albeit kept under extremely strict control.

The directors of these latterday movies do seem to be trying to move the series on, for all that the first half of Fallen Kingdom adheres strictly to the Jurassic Park formula (characters go off to an island infested by dinosaurs). Here things go pretty much as you would expect, with many imposing beasties, an altogether too nonchalant attitude to being thirty centimetres away from molten lava, and so on. People inclined to disparage Chris Pratt’s range as an actor should bear in mind the material he is usually given to work with – at one point in this film he is required to run stoically downhill, pursued not only by stampeding dinosaurs but also a volcanic eruption. I’m not sure even Sir Ralph Richardson could have given much nuance to that.

It’s where the film goes after this which is curious, as it becomes less of a traditional monster movie and more of a kind of faintly surreal gothic suspense thriller, with killer dinosaurs lurking in and around a stately old manor. But there’s also almost a sense of the film trying on lots of different ideas to see which, if any, fit: there are elements of an action thriller movie, a subtext in which the dinosaurs become symbolic of the natural world and its treatment by man, some (carefully veiled) criticism of Donald Trump, and even a move towards a much purer form of science fiction (it turns out that not just the dinosaurs have been genetically interfered with). The narrative ticks all the required boxes, but it still feels like a really mixed bag, and one reliant on some dubious plotting in places.

The key difference, I suppose, is that whereas the previous films operated purely in terms of ‘run away from the dinosaurs!’, this one is much more ‘save the dinosaurs!’ There are scenes involving our extinct friends solely intended to elicit pathos from the audience. Goldblum’s character, it is implied, is wrong to want to see all the poor dinosaurs killed off, despite the fact that these films have mostly been about dinosaurs causing trouble and eating people. It’s a curious shift and one the film struggles to negotiate elegantly – the workaround is that ‘natural’ dinosaurs are noble creatures which deserve to survive, it’s only the genetic hybrids created by man which are monsters with no right to exist (this film features an especially preposterous laser-guided prototype military dinosaur). It’s a rather artificial distinction, if you ask me.

Still, as I say, Fallen Kingdom does pretty much what you want it to, even if the first few minutes are by far the most impressive. The special effects are impeccable, and there is actually a really impressive cast – Rafe Spall is in there, along with Toby Jones, Geraldine Chaplin, and Ted Levine. I don’t think the studio need worry too much about getting their money back, even if the film is only competent rather than genuinely great. And the ending implies that the next one will be a thoroughly different kind of film, even if the basis for this doesn’t really hold up to serious examination. In the end, this is a capable blockbuster with some curiously weird touches.

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Looking ahead to the biggest films of the summer, it’s a fair bet that the latest iteration of Jurassic Park (which appears to focus on people fleeing from dinosaurs and a volcano) will be somewhere near the top of the list. On board for this latest excursion into peril-based running is one of the original cast, Jeff Goldblum, reprising his role as the wacky mathematician. I wonder if there is any correlation between who is fronting a Jurassic Park film and the actual quality of the movie? I always felt that of the original three, the ones with Sam Neill were rather better than the one headed up by Jeff Goldblum (although I suspect Goldblum will be in the heritage cameo slot this year, with Chris Pratt once again doing most of the heavy lifting, heroically speaking).

I mean, I like Jeff Goldblum a lot, and I know that if he’s in a movie then I’m going to enjoy his bits if nothing else. The fact that he seems to be enjoying a bit of a profile spike at the moment (Isle of Dogs, Ragnarok, and the new Jurassic Park) is great. As a movie veteran, he has developed into a great character performer; but looking back at his career one can’t help wondering if he was ever quite cut out to be a leading man in the conventional sense.

Recently making an appearance on the local version of a world-conquering streaming site was John Landis’ 1985 film Into the Night, a black comedy which was really Jeff Goldblum’s first leading role. Exactly what genre (or subgenre) this film belongs to is a curious matter we will return to shortly; suffice to say that it seems to me to be a quintessentially 80s movie.

Goldblum plays Ed Okin, a disaffected executive at an aerospace engineering company in Los Angeles. He is suffering from severe insomnia, which causes his work to suffer, and this in turn results in him discovering his wife is having an affair. Shocked and uncertain, he finds himself driving out to the airport around midnight, perhaps contemplating flying off to parts unknown. He arrives there just in time to meet Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer), a young woman-on-the-make who’s just returned from Europe. The guy meeting Diana is killed by a quartet of hoodlums of Middle Eastern origin, and they seem intent on taking a similar interest in her. Needless to say she hurls herself into Ed’s car and begs that he drive her out of there.

Ed, naturally, has no idea what’s going on, and just wants to conclude their association and go home (he seems to have been startled out of his ennui),  but – inevitably – events conspire to keep them together. (Plus, every time she says ‘Please stay with me for a little while longer’, he seems just a little too willing to agree.) It turns out that Diana has got herself mixed up in a dodgy deal involving the heritage of the Shah of Iran and some jewel smuggling, and now various heavies of Iranian, French, and British origin are on her tail. Can either of them get through the night in one piece?

Careers go up, careers go down; Goldblum had been appearing in films for over ten years by 1985, and was just on the verge of breaking through to genuine stardom (he appeared in The Fly the following year). Pfeiffer wasn’t quite so well established, being mainly known for Grease 2 and Scarface at the time, but was just beginning the run of movies that would lead to her becoming one of the most successful actresses of the late 80s and 90s. John Landis, on the other hand, had already directed The Blues Brothers, Animal House, An American Werewolf in London, and Trading Places, but from the mid-80s on he would struggle to consistently find creative or commercial success. You could argue that Into the Night marks the onset of this: Landis’ previous movie, Trading Places, made $90 million; Into the Night made less than eight.

There were quite a few films with a similar theme doing the rounds in the middle 80s. I’ve heard this described as the ‘yuppie nightmare’ or ‘yuppie in peril’ subgenre, but the thing is that this seems mainly used to describe films like Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, and Bad Influence, straight thrillers concerning the ‘[insert noun] from hell’ – the one night stand from hell, the room-mate from hell, or whatever. I think that Into the Night represents something a bit odder and more obscure, which I would refer to as ‘yuppie-led-astray’ movies (a different subgenre – or perhaps subsubgenre?). Into the Night came out in early 1985, Scorsese’s After Hours appeared later the same year, and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild was released in 1986: all of them concern outwardly successful but quietly unhappy men who find themselves involved in a series of misadventures after encountering a free-spirited young woman.

As Into the Night was the first of these films off the blocks, it can hardly be that people were already sick of the idea when it came out, so its relative lack of success must be due to something else. One of the elements of the film singled out for criticism by directors at the time is the fact that it is stuffed with cameos by Landis’ friends and acquaintances from the film-making world. If you really know your stuff you can spot people like Jack Arnold, Don Siegel, Jim Henson, Rick Baker, Roger Vadim, Paul Mazursky, Jonathan Demme, Lawrence Kasdan, Jonathan Lynn, Amy Heckerling and David Cronenberg, all making small appearances. I’m not sure this is necessarily a huge problem, as it’s only distracting if you have a genuinely encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema – I’m a big fan of Jack Arnold’s films, for example, but I had no idea what he looked like until I found out he’d been in this film.

More of a problem is the sense that the elements of the yuppie-led-astray film are here in embryonic form but haven’t quite fully developed yet. The best of these films have a strong sense of time about them: After Hours takes place in the course of a single night, Something Wild over a single weekend. You would expect Into the Night to follow the same pattern, with the main action of the film all happening in the course of a night and the climax, perhaps, coming at dawn. This is not the case – about two thirds of the way through, a new day dawns, and there’s about ten minutes of plot before the protagonists decide to nap through until the following evening, which is when the rest of it takes place (the conclusion is not great, and the film ambles to a close rather than actually having a strong climax). Maybe they just ran out of money for night shooting; certainly the production values of some parts of this film resemble those of an episode of The A Team or The Rockford Files rather than a genuine movie.

I think it may just be that John Landis wasn’t quite a good enough director to pull off this kind of movie, as they require a level of wit and subtlety that you don’t necessarily associate with this director, except perhaps in American Werewolf. There are some rather embarrassing slapstick hoodlums in this movie, one of whom is played by Landis himself; in one particularly tonally-off moment a gag where they struggle to get through a door, which is not funny, is followed by them pursuing and then murdering a fleeing woman, which would never be funny. There is a definite problem with pervasive misogyny in this movie, I would say: most of the women in it are, if not actually prostitutes or mistresses, then defined by their attractiveness. There’s also a fair degree of gratuitous nudity in it, all female of course.

Even Michelle Pfeiffer is required to get every stitch of kit off for a couple of brief sequences, but she manages to rise above this, not to mention a generally underwritten part, and delivers a convincing and effective performance as a recognisably human character. You can see why she became such a big star. Can the same be said for Jeff Goldblum? Well – here’s the thing about the protagonists of yuppie-led-astray films; they are by nature hapless everymen, audience identification figures plunged into peculiar and unexpected worlds. Goldblum is a fine performer, but he is almost always the quirky one, the slightly off-kilter character. In this film he has to rein all of that in and be the most normal thing in the movie, basically spending nearly two hours reacting to the more eccentric characters around him (and some of them are highly eccentric: David Bowie cameos as an extremely polite moustachioed English hitman). And you can’t help feeling, what a waste of potential. This isn’t to say Goldblum is bad in this film, but you’re just aware he can be much better when he isn’t so badly miscast.

Into the Night is basically one of those odd movies which has a certain kind of curiosity value and passes the time in a not too objectionable manner. The thing is that everyone in it is much better in other, more famous movies; it’s not the director’s best work, either; and this whole style of story is handled much, much better in other movies (my recommendation would be Something Wild, which is darker, stranger, sexier, and more emotionally engaging). Just about worth watching though, particularly if you like Goldblum and Pfeiffer.

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‘Are you a really big Wes Anderson fan?’ asked the ticketeer at the sweetshop, perkily. All at once I was gripped with shame, the same kind of senseless panic which grips me when everyone else starts talking about how great Blade Runner is and I have to admit I don’t rate it that much, or I have to confess I’ve never actually seen a Dario Argento film. Earlier that very day, I was pondering that very question. I was sure I must have seen a Wes Anderson film at some point, so I checked out his filmography on Wikipedia. Nope. We have managed to avoid each other entirely, with the exception of about ten minutes of Fantastic Mr Fox which came on TV while Film 4 was playing in the background. I know this sort of thing is unacceptable in polite society, but it is the truth: I had never seen a Wes Anderson movie in my life.

I mumbled words to this effect, casting my eyes floorward, trying to hide my burning cheeks, but rather to my surprise the ticketeer declared she was determined to give me an experience I would never forget. I was a bit worried about missing the movie for a moment, but it turned out this was what she was referring to, as she sorted me out with a free upgrade to one of the comfy seats in the imminent screening of Anderson’s new movie Isle of Dogs. So I suppose the message we can take away from this is not that ignorance is necessarily bliss, but that sometimes it can pay off in unexpected ways. It is a funny old world, after all.

 

An ignorant person would assume that any movie entitled Isle of Dogs must perforce be set on, or at least connected with, an alluvial peninsula in the east end of London. But apparently this is not the quirky way that legendary auteur Wes Anderson rolls: his movie is set in a somewhat dystopian near-future Japan, in and around the sprawling city of Megasaki (another fake Japanese city to go on the list with San Fransokyo from Big Hero 6 – does Neo-Tokyo from Akira also count, I wonder?). The evil mayor of Megasaki has a problem with man’s best friend, for (it is implied) long-standing ancestral reasons, and has hit upon a machiavellian plot to have all dogs deported from the city to Trash Island, a polluted wasteland just across the bay.

The plan goes like clockwork and soon enough packs of starving and disease-ridden dogs are roaming Trash Island, struggling to stay alive. One such pack consists of Rex, King, Duke, Boss, and Chief (voiced by Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bryan Cranston respectively) but the dogs find themselves with a new problem when a twelve-year-old boy crash-lands his stolen plane on the island. It turns out he is the mayor’s ward and nephew Atari, and he has come in search of his dog/bodyguard, who has been exiled to Trash Island along with all the others.

Chief is apparently unmoved by the boy’s story, once the dogs figure it out (being dogs, they don’t speak Japanese and can’t actually understand what Atari is saying), but the others reason that the job of a dog is to take care of twelve-year-old boys and decide to help him with his quest.

Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, the principled members of the Science Party are doing their best to have the machinations of the mayor overturned, while an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) is also trying to save the canine population. Could it be that the dogs’ lives are about to take a turn for the better?

There is, obviously, something deeply sentimental about Isle of Dogs, mainly in the way it depicts the dogs themselves. This is clear even to someone like me – I am hardly a dog person (not a cat person, either, come to that). And yet this element of the film is deeply buried under so many layers of mannered artifice and ironic detachment that it is far from obvious. Despite the sentimentality of the film’s message, and its frequently fantastical story, I can’t really imagine anyone mistaking this film for a more mainstream animation. There is all that artifice and irony, for one thing; the subject matter of the story, and occasional elements of its tone, for another – I wouldn’t call this a particularly violent movie, by any means, but it is still oddly graphic in places. If there is a thin line between wit and outright pretentiousness, then I suspect this film skates close to it at times – lending her vocal talents to a brief cameo is Yoko Ono, playing a character named – wait for it – Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono. (Not all the humour is quite so rarefied; there are some moments in this film which even made me laugh.)

Even at the moments when the film seems to be in danger of becoming just a bit too smug, it remains quite captivating to watch, simply because of the enormous skill and attention to detail with which it has been made. The puppets and scenery don’t have the warmth of Aardman-style clay figurines, but they are still very engaging and characterful, and the nature of the production – the dogs constantly seem to be twitching and bristling as a result of the animators’ fingers moving their fur – means they have a real sense of life and energy about them. And this film you get to see things like stop-motion taiko-drumming, and stop-motion sumo-wrestling, which doesn’t turn up on the big screen all that often.

This is all to do with the film’s Japanese setting, naturally. There doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for the film to be set in Japan, particularly, and it is a very emblematic kind of representation of the country; one assumes it is simply because Anderson is a fan of Japanese culture and movies (and why not). This becomes explicit at a couple of points, with one character looking rather like the iconic Japanese movie legend Toshiro Mifune, and the soundtrack featuring excerpts from Fumio Hayasaka’s magnificent score from Seven Samurai (in which Mifune of course starred). There are other Kurosawa references in the movie, too.

On the other hand, and I’m tempted to say ‘wouldn’t you just know it’, all this means that the film has come in for stick from some quarters for its supposed ‘cultural appropriation’ and unflattering depiction of many of its Japanese characters. Well, I suppose there may be grounds for criticism on the latter point, but for me the film’s sincere and encompassing affection for Japan and its culture was almost palpable, and adds enormously to the charm and atmosphere of the film. And it’s not as if this is the only movie borrowing from Japanese culture at the moment: if it weren’t for Godzilla, Ultraman, and the tokusatsu genre in general, there’d be no Pacific Rim, and Ready Player One would likely be unrecognisable with all the references to Japanese elements extracted. There’s also a criticism that the character voiced by Greta Gerwig is in some way an expression of the ‘white saviour’ trope – although as I have seen the label of ‘white saviour’ movie slapped on everything from The Matrix to La La Land, I’m honestly moved to wonder if this isn’t a concept which has been stripped of meaning through overuse (angry mobs with burning torches, please form a queue at the usual place).

I can’t honestly say that I’ll be rushing to catch up with the rest of Wes Anderson’s back catalogue, but Isle of Dogs certainly hasn’t put me off checking out more of his work. If nothing else, the obvious skill, intelligence, and talent which has gone into this film is impressive, and the results are always engaging and frequently very amusing. It’s good to see a film which is so obviously the product of a singular creative vision (because this movie certainly doesn’t scream crossover mainstream hit) getting such a wide release and attracting a significant audience. Dog lovers and Japanophiles will almost certainly have a good time with this movie, probably other people too.

(* To be clear – get on the c2c train in Barking, stay aboard for two stops until it reaches Limehouse, then switch to the Docklands Light Railway. The seventh stop from here is Crossharbour, from where it is a two minute walk to the Isle of Dogs. Simples.)

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Chris Hemsworth is in the odd position of being one of those people who can command a huge salary, get his name in big letters on a movie poster, and sit on top of a massive opening box-office weekend, and yet he’s not really what you’d call a proper movie star: people don’t go and see a Chris Hemsworth movie, they go and see Thor movies, and it’s just Hemsworth’s good fortune that he’s the guy who gets to play Thor at the moment. Once he steps away from the magic circle of the Marvel Studios franchise – well, it’s not as if he doesn’t make any other movies, and it’s not as if they don’t make money (although he has notched up a couple of significant bombs), nor is it the case that he is routinely bad in them, but they tend not to make the same kind of impression, no matter their quality. For the time being I’m sure this isn’t a major issue for the big lad, but he surely can’t carry on playing Thor forever, and what is he going to do then? (To be fair, this isn’t problem isn’t limited to Hemsworth, as a number of Marvel’s other big names also seem to struggle to find success in other roles.)

Anyway, Hemsworth is back giving us his God of Thunder once again, in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, umpteenth entry in the all-conquering Marvel Studios megafranchise. This is their third release of 2017, but – as you might expect by this point – they make it all look very easy indeed.

Things get under way with a rather busy and somewhat convoluted opening section, but this is surely forgivable given that it allows for a brief appearance by Cumbersome Bandersnatch as Dr Strange, and an uncredited cameo from an extremely game Major Movie Star, all played very much for laughs. (To be honest, the vast majority of the movie is essentially played for laughs on some level or other, so we can take that as read from this point on.)

Well, basically, the machinations of Thor’s devious adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) bring about the return of the banished Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who is intent on seizing the throne for herself and reinventing Asgard as an aggressively imperial force in the universe. Thor and Loki take exception to this plan, but in the course of their tussle with Hela and her eye-catching headwear, find themselves dumped far from home on the junkheap planet Sakaar.

While Hela tightens her grip on Asgard with the help of Skurge (Karl Urban), an unscrupulous warrior, the brothers have to survive on this new alien world, which is ruled by the alien Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who is part despotic emperor, part superstar DJ. Thor is nabbed by the slightly boozy Asgardian renegade Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and consigned to the gladiatorial pits where he must battle to survive. Bereft of his magic hammer and his flowing locks, can Thor still summon up enough of his mojo to escape and save the universe…?

I think it is fair to say that not many people would rate the first two Thor movies amongst the top flight of the Marvel series – it’s not that they’re actually bad, but they are slightly ponderous in a way that most of the studio’s other films are not. Clearly the people at the top of Marvel feel the same way, for there has obviously been a rethink and a bit of a retooling of Thor and his particular corner of the universe, perhaps somewhat influenced by Chris Hemsworth’s very effective comic turn in the All-Female Ghostbusters Reboot. Everything is much more laid back and comedic than it was in the first two films; Thor is positively chatty much of the time, and there are sight gags and pratfalls aplenty.

Marvel savants will already be aware that, in an attempt to add something new to the formula this time round, the writers of Ragnarok have borrowed a few elements from the Planet Hulk storyline (which ran in the comics over ten years ago). Presumably this is one reason why the Hulk himself has a major role in the story (he is played by Mark Ruffalo, as usual) – although in terms of the actual plot, Thor is in the Hulk role, while the Hulk is in the position originally occupied by the Silver Surfer (who, needless to say, isn’t in the film). As I say, it’s only a superficial take on Planet Hulk, but putting Thor and the Hulk in outer space together does open up some new possibilities.

If nothing else, it does allow the movie to move away from some of the more limiting elements of the previous movies – Anthony Hopkins has a much-reduced role, as do several other established characters. Natalie Portman isn’t in it at all, and for a while it also looks like Idris Elba’s voluble complaints about working for Marvel (‘This is torture, I don’t want to do this’) have earned him the sack – but he’s dragged back in front of the green screen before too much time has elapsed. In their place, Cate Blanchett is clearly having a whale of a time as an extremely camp villainess, closely followed by Goldblum. One of the film’s most quietly impressive features is Karl Urban’s performance as Skurge the Executioner – Urban takes a third-string Marvel villain and manages to turn him into someone who actually has a bit of a character arc in the course of the story.

It’s one of the few elements of the film which takes itself (mostly) seriously, for the sense I get from Ragnarok is that Marvel’s main directive to Waititi was ‘Make it more Guardians of the Galaxy-y’. The playlist this time is more prog rock and disco, but the quotient of spaceships, ray guns, monsters, and cosmic nonsense is certainly much closer to a James Gunn movie than one by Kenneth Branagh. And, you know, it’s all good fun, crowd-pleasing stuff, unless you happen to think that films about wisecracking alien gods and big green gamma monsters are actually the stuff of heavy drama and should be taken terribly, terribly seriously.

On the other hand, I have generally been impressed by the way Marvel have negotiated the ‘too silly-too serious’ tightrope in the past, but all three of the films they’ve released this year have arguably been primarily comedic in tone. It’s certainly worked for them, but I’m not sure it’s sustainable – on the other hand, the next film off the conveyor belt, Black Panther, looks like it will be more down to earth in most respects. Normally at this point one would say ‘this could be a challenging change of tone, it’ll be interesting to see if Marvel manage it’, but seventeen films into the series it certainly seems like Marvel’s main challenge will be to keep finding new challenges for themselves. Thor: Ragnarok is not the greatest Marvel movie ever, but certainly not the worst: it moves the story along in interesting and unexpected ways, and you’re never more than a few minutes away from a genuinely good gag or some well-executed crash-bang-wallop, or both. A very safe bet for a good time.

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Some time around 7am, July 3rd, 1996: and I struggled back to consciousness after what was probably the heaviest night of my life, falling-down-water-wise. Not normally greeting the world until well after nine in the morning, seeing this time of day was a bit of a novelty, regardless of my debilitated condition, and so I popped on the TV just to see what sort of things got shown while I was asleep. The big entertainment news was of a film opening in the USA – big, grinning crowds emerging, vast queues forming. A young boy was asked what he was hoping to see in the new movie. ‘Lots of blowing up,’ he said excitedly.

The movie, needless to say, was Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, which I had never heard of prior to this point. Still, a big SF movie with lots of blowing up was definitely my sort of thing, and my interest was particularly piqued by a UK-specific radio prequel in which Nicky Campbell, Sir Patrick Moore, Toyah Wilcox and Colin Baker did their bit to repel the alien hordes. I loved Independence Day from the first time I saw it and eventually ended up going back to see it at least three more times. At the back of my mind I was aware that any film which ends up making $800m is more likely than not going to be assessed for sequel potential, but at the same time I honestly couldn’t see how the trick could be turned in this case.

Well, it’s taken an unusually long time – I’ve been racking my brains trying to think of another instance of it taking 20 years for a film to get a direct sequel – but here it is, Independence Day: Resurgence, directed as before by Roland Emmerich. Which, needless to say, also features lots of blowing up.

independence_day_resurgence

In this latest instalment… um… well… more aliens arrive and have another go at taking over the world. Pretending there’s much more to the actual story than that is fairly pointless, but then I suppose you could say something quite similar about the original film. All right: united by their struggle in the original film (explicitly dated to 1996, which is moderately curious if you’re as retentive as me, but never mind), the nations of the world have spent the last two decades preparing for a fresh wave of alien attackers. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is now a cranky old man paranoid about the coming menace. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) is now top boffin in charge of defending the Earth. Steve Hiller (Will Smith) has managed to get himself excused sequel duties by dying in a plane crash, in what may be a rare recent instance of Smith making a smart career move. However, his stepson is still around, along with a bunch of other young characters: one consequence of the failed alien invasion appears to be that everyone under 30 now looks like a model.

Well, anyway: there are worrying signals from deep space, people who came into psychic contact with the invaders get rather agitated, and the alien POWs being held in Area 51 also start exhibiting strange behaviour. Sure enough, another whopping alien craft turns up, its occupants intent on interplanetary gittery, and it’s up to our heroes to try and save the human race before the visual effects budget runs out…

When you think of Independence Day, what springs to mind? Well, if you’re anything like me, it’s huge, iconic, arresting images – the White House blown to pieces, a vast alien ship appearing out of a wall of fire above New York City – engaging performances from the ensemble cast, a truly magnificent score by David Arnold, and an infectious sense of exhilaration and fun – that of a couple of fairly little-known film-makers discovering one of the great old stories (for Independence Day is largely The War of the Worlds with the details only moderately altered) and having a whale of a time telling it to a new audience.

It’s partly that sense of originality and fun which I thought any sequel would struggle to recapture, but above all I was dubious about the very premise. Watching the world as we know it get blown to hell is one of those things which people never seem to get tired of watching, it’s the dark impulse which has kept horror stories and disaster movies as viable propositions all these years. It’s central to the plot of Resurgence that this is very much not the world as we know it, and, perhaps as a result, the film backs off from blowing it to hell with quite as much gusto. Instead we have a story where some people are expecting aliens to arrive and give them a hard time. Aliens duly arrive and give them a hard time before the conclusion. The rest is mostly small print.

The writers attempt to give the film some interest by raising the stakes to a slightly absurd degree: or perhaps I mean increasing the scale. Ships the size of cities are replaced by ships the size of continents, weapons capable of vaporising buildings are replaced by ones able to drill out the core of the planet, and so on. It certainly allows for the CGI wizards to do their stuff at length, but it doesn’t actually make for a more interesting story.

It doesn’t really help that most of the new characters are a dull and one-dimensional bunch, even the ones who appeared as children in the original movie. It’s also painfully clear that one of them, a hot female Chinese pilot, is a cipher who has only been inserted on the orders of the marketing department to make it easier to sell the movie in Asia. The deal given to the returning characters isn’t necessary better – at least one of them gets killed off after very little more than a cameo, others get shuffled about the place quite perfunctorily. The only real beneficiary is Brent Spiner (yes, it’s him, though he is quite difficult to recognise), who gets much more to do this time around than he did in the first film.

Oddly, I didn’t find myself missing Will Smith at all, but then I always thought the other two leads were more interesting characters, and had he come back Smith might even have been able to inject a little vitality into what too often feels like a laborious and mechanical succession of set pieces. The contributor I really did miss was David Arnold: elements of the original soundtrack are used, but the new music is rather drab and forgettable compared to the themes from the first movie.

There’s a strange way in which most of Independence Day: Resurgence feels like it was only made as a contractual obligation, even though I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the case – but it would be remiss of me to suggest I took no pleasure from it whatsoever. The towering, grandiose absurdity of the whole thing did make me laugh towards the end, together with the preposterousness of some of the plotting – Judd Hirsch spends most of the movie on what looks like a pointless road-trip across devastated America with some orphans, and then you realise it has just been organised so the film can get away with having a bus full of children in jeopardy during its climax. It is as brazen and silly as that, and this is before we even get to the bit when it starts turning into a very peculiar Japanese kaiju movie, not a genre Emmerich and Devlin have exactly distinguished themselves with in the past.

The key thing, though, is that during the original film I was having such a good time all the way through that I was quite happy to laugh along with its cheesy jokes and tongue-in-cheek jingoism. This time around the jokes are nowhere near as good, the characters are nowhere near as engaging, the plot is highly forgettable, and I spent the climax laughing at the film rather than with it. The conclusion makes it very clear that this movie is not so much continuing a story as setting down a marker to extend a brand, with future episodes clearly planned. Nothing is allowed to be special, unique, its own thing anymore, it seems. I went along to Independence Day: Resurgence with very strictly limited expectations, but even so I was shocked by how little of the old magic it managed to retain. A major disappointment.

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I like cheese. I just had a pizza covered in cheese. Mmm mmm mmm. Cheese cheese cheese. Give me some more of that cheese, please – on a pizza or a burger, as you wish, either will suit me fine. Yes, cheese is great. You may feel I am labouring a point here, but sometimes I think cheese gets a bad rap which it doesn’t entirely deserve. I bet you have never referred to something as ‘cheesy’ and meant it in a good way.

I feel moved to talk about this, having recently enjoyed (again) Roland Emmerich’s 1996 film Independence Day, which basks in the reputation of being one of the cheesiest films ever made. Maybe this is true. There are many moments in this movie which are impossible to take seriously. It is by no means a ‘serious’ SF or action movie. Nevertheless, the first time I saw it I thought it was a masterpiece of entertainment, and many subsequent viewings have done little to modify this opinion.

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The plot goes like this. Everyday life on planet Earth, which according to this film mainly consists of the USA, is disturbed by the arrival from deep space of yet another load of belligerent extraterrestrial gits, aboard a fleet of massive flying saucers. Said vehicles assume positions hovering over major cities around the world, causing global panic. Things only get worse as the aliens prove to be hostile, simultaneously obliterating population centres and sweeping aside the world’s attempts at a military response. The extermination of the human race is only a matter of days away – and, even worse, with the Fourth of July holiday weekend looming, all the shops have sold out of party essentials…

Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin tell the story from the perspective of a bunch of different characters, amongst them the US President (Bill Pullman), a quirky boffin (Jeff Goldblum), a fighter pilot (Will Smith), and an alcoholic former abductee (Randy Quaid) – as you can see, this is a bit of a boy’s film. It’s not that there aren’t women in it (Mary McDonnell, Margaret Colin and Vivica Fox appear) but they’re all cast as wives and girlfriends. This is really just the tip of the iceberg: this is a film with numerous plot strands going on, and a commensurately large cast of characters.

This is a clue to the type of film Emmerich and Devlin are looking to make. On the face of it, Independence Day is a straight-down-the-line alien invasion B-movie, albeit done with a massive budget and state-of-the-art special effects (there are considerable parallels with The War of the Worlds, in particular). Indeed, you could argue that in terms of the treatment of this particular theme, Independence Day is the definitive modern version – anyone else doing an alien invasion movie has had to come up with their own plot gimmick or else make a distinctive tonal choice just in order to differentiate it. (I suppose the dogfighting sequences owe a lot to Star Wars, too.)

But that’s not all that’s going on here. The multi-stranded narrative and the structure of the plot – the aliens remain an implacable, faceless force for much of the movie – also recall the 70s boom in all-star disaster movies, which this also sort of resembles. Both sci-fi B-pictures and disaster movies are essentially mainstream, schlock entertainment, and so it isn’t really a surprise that mashing them together on this scale works so well on a conceptual level.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt at all that the film is so well made. I’m not just talking about the special effects, which have aged well for the most part, but the deft and confident way in which Emmerich marshals a big and complex narrative with clarity and a sense of innocent fun (imagine the nightmare of an Independence Day directed by Michael Bay – or, alternatively, just watch one of his Transformers films). The overall pacing and structure are immaculate, as are the two big sequences of the film’s first act – the alien ships’ arrival over Washington DC, New York, and Los Angeles, and later their destruction by honest-to-goodness death ray. These are superbly assembled, but also helped immeasurably by David Arnold’s score (possibly the composer’s best work).

It’s still never really been cool to like Independence Day, though. At the time one friend complained to me that he didn’t like jingoistic American movies, and while it is true that the rest of the world is reduced to walk-on parts, it’s a little hard to argue that a film the money shot of which is the White House going boom is entirely rabid in its American nationalism. The whole film has its tongue in its cheek at least half the time, anyway.

Which brings us to those accusations of wilful and premeditated cheesiness. Well, maybe the critics have a point here, because there are a lot of outrageously hokey moments in this film. The much-derided climax in which the US President climbs into an F-15 and personally leads the final assault on the alien invaders is, perhaps, excusable from a cultural history point of view – this film was made at the height of the Clinton era, after all, and it’s rare for the occupant of the White House not to be depicted in a somewhat fawning manner in any film of this period. But a lot of the rest of it is just, well, cheesy. I still find it tremendously enjoyable, though – it seems to me to be deliberately and knowingly cheesy, which just adds to the fun (this is a notably funny film, especially given the subject matter).

And yet it remains less of a genre favourite than many films I find much less engaging – Emmerich and Devlin’s Stargate, for example, probably has more of a following (though this may be down to the TV franchise). Perhaps this is just down to the dairy-product factor, or perhaps it’s because the film is so grounded in the mid-90s zeitgeist, with not much sense of a wider mythos or universe going on. Whatever the reason, I was fairly cool with that – but I must admit that the news of a couple of pending sequels doesn’t fill me with joy. If ever a blockbuster was complete in and of itself, it’s Independence Day, and as any cholesterol specialist will tell you, too much of a good thing can only make you sick.

 

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