Toy Story 4 (2019)

2019 #101
Josh Cooley | 100 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

Toy Story 4

Last weekend, with dull inevitability, Toy Story 4 won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. Of course it did — in the last decade, the award has gone to a Disney or Pixar movie eight times out of ten. I’ve not seen any of the four other nominees, but I strongly suspect at least one of them deserved it more, because Toy Story 4 is… fine. Heck, it’s good, even. But when the three films that precede it are all-time classics that formed a perfectly complete trilogy, just being “good” is not enough.

Its first mistake is that it doesn’t need to exist. The filmmakers have self-mythologised that Woody’s story wasn’t complete and so needed this final chapter, or some such gumph, but anyone who’s actually seen Toy Story 3 knows that’s not true. No, this is someone at Disney or Pixar hoping they can mine one of their most popular franchises for more gold. Whether or not they also believed lightning could strike for a fourth time, or they didn’t care so long as it made bank, I’ll leave up to your own levels of cynicism.

So rather than feeling like an equal part of a four-film series, Toy Story 4 feels like an afterthought; an addendum; a “here’s another one because you liked the others”. And at times it delivers on that — we like these characters, so they’re fun to be with; some of their antics are amusing or exciting; there’s a positive moral message or two about acceptance and seeing worth in yourself. There are attempts at emotional resonance too, particularly when the film tries to feel like an ending and a farewell; but 3 already did that, and did it extremely well. 4 has an uphill climb trying to match that, and even if it did (which it doesn’t), why should we believe it? It’ll only last until someone decides there’s a narrative for Toy Story 5 that simply has to be told (see you for that c.2026, I guess).

In search of a new story

Of course, there’s no doubting the film is well made. It’s easy to disregard that as just Pixar being Pixar, but there’s an ever-impressive technical skill on display here. Maybe on that level it does deserve award wins — although, while Pixar are undoubtedly frontrunners in such a race, there are other animation houses who can and do produce work that’s just as beautiful. (Besides, the Best Animation category is a funny one in that regard — is it rewarding the artistic/technical accomplishment of the animation itself, or is it “best film that happens to be animated”? A debate for another time.)

Toy Story 4 is the kind of film I enjoyed well enough while it was on. Whenever I get round to rewatching the series, I’ll happily include it. But, while it doesn’t tarnish the series’ legacy, it does blight its unbroken record. If it had never existed, I’d’ve been fine with that.

4 out of 5

Toy Story 4 is available on Sky Cinema as of this weekend.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

aka Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta

2020 #12
Hayao Miyazaki | 125 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

The names Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli go hand-in-hand (I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if quite a few people think they’re synonymous, i.e. that all Ghibli films are directed by Miyazaki), but his first two features (The Castle of Cagliostro and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) were produced before Ghibli’s formation. So it’s Laputa, his third film, that is actually Ghibli’s first — which makes it appropriate to look at today, as it’s also one of the first titles being made available under Netflix’s new deal with Ghibli.* (Though if you search Netflix for “Laputa”, you won’t find it.)

Acclaimed as one of the first major works in the steampunk subgenre, Laputa takes place in a Mitteleuropean alternate past — the architecture is inspired by Welsh mining villages; the uniforms and hardware by historical German military; there are steam-powered automobiles and flying machines; but there’s also magic-like stuff, so it’s not just tech-based. In this world we meet Sheeta (voiced in Disney’s English dub by Anna Paquin, retaining her New Zealand accent), a young girl wanted by both the military and sky pirates for a necklace she wears. When she falls from an aircraft, the necklace glows and lowers her gently to the ground — and into the life of Pazu (James “Dawson’s Creek” Van Der Beek), a young orphan who immediately resolves to help her. And so off they go on an adventure to find out just what’s so desirable about Sheeta’s necklace, and what it has to do with the legendary flying city of Laputa.

If you watched Miyazaki’s first three movies ignorant of the knowledge they came from the same writer-director, I’m sure you’d work it out for yourself. It’s an action-packed adventure laced with humour and morally grey characters, like Cagliostro, with a well-imagined fantasy world populated by flying machines and brave young heroines, like Nausicaä. But it’s no act of self-plagiarism — Miyazaki is too inventive for that. His world-building is first rate, sketching in the details of this alternate reality in between character building scenes and thrilling action sequences. If this were live-action, it would make an exemplary action/adventure blockbuster, so well paced and structured is it.

The castle in the sky

That’s why it immediately clicked with me as an instant favourite among both Miyazaki’s and Ghibli’s oeuvre. It’s unquestionably an adventure movie, so it lacks the heartfelt depths of something like My Neighbour Totoro, but it’s at least the equal of Cagliostro in terms of how wildly exciting the set pieces are. And it’s not as if it’s totally empty headed, touching on longstanding universal themes like the corruption of power, and with a minor-key ecological message too (another Miyazaki staple).

I always feel like I should watch anime in Japanese, and I often do, but when the English voice cast includes Mark Hamill, well, that’s good enough for me. He’s the villain, channeling a certain amount of his Joker (but not too much) into a government secret agent in pursuit of Sheeta and in search of Laputa. He’s just one of a memorable cast of characters — I mean, did I mention there were sky pirates? They’re as awesome as they sound, bringing both broad humour and fuelling several action scenes (you’d expect nothing less of frickin’ sky pirates, right?) One of the most memorable characters transcends the language barrier: a giant speechless robot, questionably friend or foe, who leaves a mark almost as great as the Iron Giant’s but in considerably less screen time. (Considering how much Pixar are renowned fans of Miyazaki, and that Brad Bird made Iron Giant over a decade after Laputa’s debut, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was at least a little cross-pollination.)

Like any good blockbuster, Laputa has it all: thrills, humour, emotion, wonder… It’s the complete package. Plus, that level of broad familiarity (it wouldn’t take too many steps to imagine this remade as a Hollywood blockbuster, although they’d inevitably mess it up somehow) probably makes it the perfect starting point for any newbies to anime or Ghibli.

5 out of 5

Laputa: Castle in the Sky is available on Netflix from today.

* If the news passed you by: Netflix have acquired the rights to 21 Studio Ghibli films (that is, their whole back catalogue of features except Grave of the Fireflies, which has separate rights issues, plus Nausicaä) for most of the world (the USA, Canada, and Japan are excluded). They’re being released in three batches of seven — the first lot today, the next on March 1st, and the final ones on April 1st. As well as Laputa, today’s selection includes My Neighbour Totoro, which I reviewed here, plus Kiki’s Delivery Service, Only Yesterday, Porco Rosso, Ocean Waves, and Tales from Earthsea. ^

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

aka Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

2019 #147
J.J. Abrams | 142 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Remember those people who tried to crowdfund a shitty fanwank-filled remake of The Last Jedi? Turns out J.J. Abrams let them make Episode IX under his name instead…

Before I expand on that, the ever-important note on spoilers. This review is mostly spoiler free. I say “mostly” because if you want to know absolutely nothing whatsoever, you should look away now (after saving this to read later, natch). I’m going to give my opinion on some things (obviously I am, this is a review), and so while I won’t give away the film’s revelations and surprises, what I say might sometimes indicate that there’s something there to be spoiled… if that makes sense. If you’re less fussy (e.g. if you’ve watched the trailers; if you’re only trying to avoid explicit details of things the film plays as a reveal) — or, of course, if you’ve already seen it — please read on.

I won’t bother to recap the plot, because it launches into what some would consider full-on spoilers right from the start of the opening crawl. Put another way: there’s stuff in the trailers that some thought was a spoiler that shouldn’t’ve been there; but, really, the promos are almost necessary background info, because stuff that was played as a reveal in trailers is simply stated as information in the film itself. So, suffice to say this is the continuing adventures of Rey, Finn, Poe, and their Resistance friends as they fight Kylo Ren and the First Order, and it wraps up the whole nine-film saga. Or it intends to, at any rate. I mean, the sequel trilogy starts with the premise of “what if those bad guys who were defeated… just came back?”, so who’s to say in a decade or two’s time they won’t pull the same trick again for Episode X?

Rey and friends

But, okay, let’s take them at their word for now: this is the end of The Skywalker Saga (as it’s now definitely officially known — presumably so as they can keep producing lots more Star Wars stuff without the awkwardness of the nine-film saga being “real Star Wars” and everything else being “A Star Wars Story” or whatever). For my money, the saga here ends with so many bangs it amounts to a whimper. Abrams, serving as director and co-writer (with Chris Terrio, who seems to still be getting big-name work off the back of his Oscar win for Argo, despite the fact his only produced work since has been Batman v Superman and Justice League) seems to have no understanding of pace or nuance. It starts at a screaming gallop and doesn’t let up, often feeling like little more than a two-hour montage of fan service.

Well, it must have a lot to do, right? Wrong — it moves at that lick so it can cram in far more plot than it needed to. Most of the business here is not a story worth telling, it’s just one MacGuffin chase after another. If Abrams and Terrio had streamlined the story — had cut out all the unnecessary faffing about; the needlessly over-involved running around after various plot-furthering objects — then there would’ve been more room in the running time for light and shade; for such important and welcome things as character beats; even for something as simple as giving the audience a chance to breathe. The only time they step aside from the relentless plotting is to forcibly insert bits that seem to exist merely to look good in trailers. Maybe that’s unfair, but to me it did feel like there were bits where characters all but said, “hang on a minute guys, I’ve just got to go over here and play out something that’ll look super in a teaser.”

This shot doesn't mean what everyone thought it meant

Also awkwardly forced in is Carrie Fisher’s General Leia. We all know the backstory there, and it’s completely understandable they wanted her to have a presence and part in the film, rather than leaving her out or killing her off-screen. Sadly, what they’ve come up with is largely uncomfortable. Rather than recast her part (impossible!) or do a fully CGI recreation (which didn’t go down so well in Rogue One), they’ve taken the more respectful option of trying to cobble something together from offcuts from the last two films. The result unfortunately feels cobbled together from offcuts. Other characters’ dialogue jumps through hoops to set up replies from Leia that are only one or two words long and could just about be said to have some passing relevance to what she’s replying to. That said, there are plenty of other dialogue exchanges in the film that feel similarly forced — perhaps Terrio and Abrams were trying to make the Leia scenes seem more natural by making every dialogue scene as awkward… or perhaps the writing is just crap throughout.

Leia isn’t the only familiar face that’s revived here. This is both the third and final film in the Sequel Trilogy and the ninth and final film in the Trilogy of Trilogies, so of course there’s plenty of stuff from the past. The problem is how these elements are introduced and handled. Familiar faces and rivalries and lines and whatnot are dragged out for a last hurrah, but the film doesn’t really do anything with them beyond trotting them out to say “remember this?” And so they’re not hurrahs, it’s merely empty repetition. I suppose that will satisfy some — the kind of people who didn’t enjoy Last Jedi because they didn’t like how it chose to move things onwards. But if you were unhappy with, say, how little backstory Snoke received in Episode VIII — if you thought writer-director Rian Johnson basically dismissed the character as an irrelevance — then can you honestly claim to be happy with the manner in which Abrams brings back Emperor Palpatine here? Again, some will, because they hated Last Jedi so irrationally that they’re going to find excuses for why Abrams’ “greatest hits” approach is better. But it isn’t. It’s hollow.

Hollow

Abrams does seem to have taken certain parts of the Last Jedi criticism to heart. I agree with the view that it is in fact a vocal minority of hardcore fans who utterly despise that film (it did well at the box office and has good scores on websites that haven’t been subjected to a negativity campaign, after all), but that group are indeed very, very vocal in certain circles and maybe that’s persuaded someone in the Star Wars camp that they should be listened to. Or maybe Abrams’ own storytelling instincts align with what they were after. So while The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t ignore The Last Jedi in a literal sense (there are nods and references to stuff from it), really Abrams has made a sequel to The Force Awakens here. That’s not always a bad thing (it picks back up on Finn’s past as a Stormtrooper, for example; though, as I say, there’s no time spared to properly dig into character stuff like that), but at others he undoes some of the good ideas Rian Johnson brought. Of course, for those who viscerally hated Last Jedi that will be seen as a good thing. But, like the use of Snoke vs Palpatine, can you seriously say this film’s reveal about Rey’s parentage is better than what Johnson offered? I know some will just because it’s different to the thing they disliked, but… c’mon, is this really better? Is it more surprising or imaginative? I don’t think so.

When it occurred, after I was done groaning, I hoped there was going to be a further twist to come, but no, Abrams doesn’t have that much imagination. I felt the same about various other bits of business too: the film states or shows a thing, and if you’re like me you’ll think “surely that’s a bit obvious and there’s going to be a twist to it”, but no twist ever comes. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise: Abrams doesn’t do proper mysteries or twists, he does “mystery boxes” — i.e. we’re told there’s a mystery, but rather than clues for either the characters or audience to piece together for a reveal, all there is to be done is wait for someone to open the metaphorical box and reveal it to us. He tried to set such a game in motion in The Force Awakens. Johnson threw some of those away in The Last Jedi, which I felt he was right to do — simply disregarding those wannabe-mysteries was more surprising and interesting than any ‘reveal’ could’ve been. Here Abrams plays that game again by revisiting some of the stuff Johnson dealt with to give different answers, but I feel like his modified reveals prove my point: they’re not surprising, and they’re certainly not interesting. (This caveat should be obvious, but as it isn’t always: this is all just my opinion. Some will feel these new answers fix mistakes that Johnson made. I don’t. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on that.)

Goodbye

For all of that, The Rise of Skywalker is not entirely a disaster — there were bits I felt worked. Sure, I thought several of the obvious ‘big moments’ were too corny, and some of the one-shot cameos too cheap, and Keri Russell is wasted, and Naomi Ackie’s character is good but there’s no time to develop her… sorry, this was meant to be positives. So, C-3PO kinda gets an emotional arc that’s quite effective. Tied to that is a new character, Babu Frik, who’s a lot of fun. New droid D-O is a brazen attempt to create toys, as are the red-hued Sith Stormtroopers… Oops, slipped into the negatives again. Adam Driver gives a pretty good performance, but he also gets a bit sidelined. Okay, almost everyone gets a bit sidelined — as I’ve said, there’s too much going on and not enough time to cover it. And yet the film still feels too long — I spent an awful lot of the climax wondering how much more of this could be left.

Following all that criticism, my middling score may look generous. But The Rise of Skywalker is not an entirely incompetent movie, just a deeply flawed and disappointing one. And, frankly, there’s part of me that simply doesn’t want to have to give it 2 stars. I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars fanboy, but this saga has been with me throughout my film-viewing life — I don’t want to dislike its finale so much that I give it an outright bad score. Well, I guess I wouldn’t’ve given 2 stars to The Phantom Menace in 1999 either, but I did in 2007. Someday I’ll rewatch Episode IX, and maybe that’ll smooth out the cracks and cement this 3-star rating (I struggle to imagine it’ll go up); or maybe it’ll make the problems even more apparent and I’ll have to accept it’s really a 2 after all.

3 out of 5

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is in cinemas virtually everywhere now.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

Judy & Punch (2019)

2019 #143
Mirrah Foulkes | 106 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15

Judy & Punch

Australian actress turned writer/director Mirrah Foulkes makes her feature debut with this live-action version of the famous Punch and Judy puppet show. I don’t know how famous the show is outside the UK (I guess it reached Australia, at least), but here it’s a staple of seaside children’s entertainment — although given its propensity for violence and misogyny, it’s suitability has been the subject of a small degree of controversy over the last couple of decades, and its prevalence is on the wane.

There’s no set version of Punch and Judy — each puppeteer has their own spin on the events of the tale and which characters show up — but there are certain elements that are, I suppose, considered standards and widely associated with the show. Here, Foulkes takes all of those familiar tropes and remixes them into a freshly imagined origin story. The real Punch and Judy comes out of the 16th century Italian commedia dell’arte, a fact which has very loosely inspired Foulkes’s take.

The setting is somewhere in Europe (never specified, and there’s a wide-ranging mix of accents to be heard), sometime in the past (it seems quite medieval, but there are buildings and notions that date from later), in a town called Seaside… which is nowhere near the sea. Judy & Punch comes with a hefty dose of absurdity and whimsy that calls to mind the work of Terry Gilliam as a reference point, and with dialogue and music choices that range from cod-medieval to very modern-sounding (especially in some of the references thrown up, which I won’t spoil), it’s clear Foulkes is taking a playful attitude to the material. Well, fair enough — “a live-action version of Punch and Judy” does sound a bit ridiculous, and so the film takes an appropriately irreverent tack. It won’t work for some people, for various reasons, but I was easily on board with the concept.

Punch and Judy

So, in this town we meet the self-proclaimed great puppeteer Mr Punch (Damon Herriman, most noticed for his small role as Charles Manson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska), who is of course at least equally responsible for the brilliance of their show. Now, it will come as no surprise to those familiar with the original that Punch beats his wife. One day he takes it too far and he leaves her for dead. But this being a modern telling with feminist inclinations, that’s not the end of her role. No spoilers, but some viewers will consider where this ends up to be too preachy — literally, considering there’s a grand speech given at the climax. It’s a shame Foulkes pushes it to such a blunt point; not because I disagree with what she and her characters have to say, but because it ends up a little heavy-handed. The rest of the film makes its point well enough and is entertaining with it, so do we really need it to end with a polemic? Personally, I can let that slide because I was enjoyed the rest enough that it barely mattered by that point, but I know some other viewers found it a bit much.

And really, that could be said about the entire film. Like much of Gilliam’s work, it’s an acquired taste, with a distinct oddness and tonal mix that some will find distasteful. In my screening, one particular key moment drew what seemed to be a 50/50 mix of genuinely shocked gasps and stifled guffaws. I think that’s the kind of reaction its meant to provoke — a mix of shock and laughter — although I imagine anyone who genuinely found it gasp-inducing might not take to the fact that, actually, it is played for the laugh. But then there’s some quite genuine emotional fallout. Anyone who struggles with a variable tone, or with visual signifiers that don’t match said tone (the production design is muted and realist, not bright and whimsical), might not get along with the way the film dances merrily back and forth.

Horse and Judy

For me, it nailed what I was expecting in that regard. This is a film that kinda wants to tell the Punch and Judy story seriously, but knows it’s kinda silly to take Punch and Judy seriously, and so it manages a balance between a grounded grit and a comical daftness. There’s a lot of inventiveness in how it incorporates the familiar elements of the original, but, unfortunately, not quite enough to sustain it all the way — if it were a bit shorter (or pacier in the middle), or had just a few more bright ideas to see it through to the finale, I would’ve loved it. As it is, it’s a bold effort that I liked a lot. That is, indeed, the way to do it.

4 out of 5

Judy & Punch is in UK cinemas from today.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 (2012)

2019 #132
Bill Condon | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

I may’ve been pretty quiet for most of October, but it’s Halloween today and that means it’s time to uphold a tradition I’ve had since 2015 — but for the final time! Well, all good things must come to an end. Fortunately, so too must Twilight.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2

As usual with films this deep into an ongoing story, I won’t bother making much of an effort to set it up for newcomers. Film series like this are more like miniseries, just with feature-length episodes that are released theatrically and years apart. You wouldn’t just watch Episode 5 of a five-part TV series, would you? That goes double here, as the title indicates: it’s also the second half of the final book.

Ah, the title… As regular readers may’ve picked up by now, I’m a stickler for title accuracy (heck, it’s literally my job at the minute). The ‘correct’ title is what’s on the film’s title card… which you’d think is pretty straightforward, but every now and then something challenges that methodology. The Twilight films have consistently been a problem with that. Always promoted as “The Twilight Saga: [Film Title]”, the main title card in the films themselves use just the individual title bit. But Breaking Dawn has decided to be even more irritating, because Part 1 was called Part 1, but Part 2 is called Part Two. No, seriously. Look, I know this kind of thing matters not a joy to most viewers, but I feel like it’s indicative of the amount of effort and attention that was actually spent on these movies. (Despite all that, I’ve gone with Part 2 for the title of this review to match my Part 1 review, because I appreciate consistency, at least.)

Numerical formatting inconsistencies aside, the opening titles are really nice. I mean, they’re not so amazing that you should go seeking them out especially, but they look good. And for once, it’s not all downhill from there!

Bella the vamp

But only because the climax is probably the highlight of the whole saga — unless you’re primarily here for the romance stuff, which was mostly tied up in previous movies. It does make you wonder somewhat who this final part is for, actually. The central couple got married in the last film — that’s the end goal of all conservatively-minded relationship stories. You get married, then you live happily ever after, so naturally there’s no story beyond that point. (Heavy eye roll.) But Twilight isn’t quite an ordinary conservative romance, what with one of the pair being a vampire, so there’s some mythology stuff left to tackle. Well, no spoilers (yet), but Breaking Dawn isn’t ultimately very conclusive in that regard. Maybe author Stephenie Meyer was deliberately leaving room for a further book.

As a commercially-minded theory, that seems a reasonable presumption. But the narrative of Breaking Dawn suggests Meyer was more than ready to move on. Out of almost nowhere, everyone starts developing superpowers (element manipulation, forcefield projection, the ability to deliver electric shocks, etc), which they must then learn how to use. Sound familiar? I can only assume Meyer got bored of writing shitty novels about vampires and werewolves so decided to make this one a shitty version of the X-Men instead.

Further evidence of restlessness comes from the amount of plot we’re treated to. In almost all my Twilight reviews I’ve specifically noted how slow the films are, or that nothing happens; but this time so much happens they have to condense events with montage and voiceover. New characters are introduced at a rate of knots, simply to fill out an ‘army’ for the final battle. Any writer worth their salt would’ve known this was coming and spent time introducing these people earlier — it’s not as if there hasn’t been room for it in the sparsely-plotted earlier instalments. Simply, this saga is exceptionally poorly paced.

Almost all of these characters are introduced in this film

It’s certainly not the film’s only technical flaw. Apparently it cost $136 million, so why does it look like it was made for £3.50? Inadequate CGI has always been a feature of these films, so what possessed them to think they could pull off a CGI baby/toddler?! The result is fucking creepy; the very definition of the uncanny valley. Sometimes I think the people who made these movies shouldn’t be allowed to work again. The dialogue, the editing, the obvious green screen, the cheapo effects… it’s not just that it’s a crummy story with dubious morals, it’s that the films are so shittily made.

But, as I said earlier, there’s almost some redemption. First, Michael Sheen rocks up as the head of the Volturi, who are the top vampire coven or something (I don’t really remember, it was explained three films ago). I think he’s thoroughly aware it’s all rubbish (I believe I read he only did it because his daughter was a fan), so he gives a delicious performance. It’s not over the top — he’s not just phoning it in for the payday — but it also seems aware that it’s all daft, so why not have some fun? He’s the Big Bad, so his presence enlivens the climax, which also benefits from a good old “two armies face off across the battlefield with rousing music” approach.

And then they fight… and, wow, they should’ve called this The Twilight Saga: Breaking Off People’s Heads. It’s possibly the best of the series simply because of how fucking brutal it is. If you watched the previous films thinking, “I wish most of these characters would just die horrible deaths”, this is the sequel for you. And it’s still rated PG-13! They pull a woman’s head and arms off, and toss the head into a fire, and then they toss a toddler into the fire too… and it’s still rated PG-13! But half a glimpse of a woman’s nipple and you get an R. You’re fucked up, America.

Michael Sheen shines

Post-fight, the film has one final good bit. I’m just going to spoil it, because if you’ve got this far I figure you don’t care. It’s revealed that the entire battle — which, note, killed off a slew of major supporting characters — was all a premonition. “It was all a dream” is frowned upon as a rule, but here it’s actually quite a neat twist. I didn’t see it coming, anyway. I guess I didn’t think anyone involved with Twilight was capable of such structural ingenuity. How I wish it was in a better film, more deserving of its effectiveness.

Oh, but it’s not all sunshine and roses. It means the fight never happens, which means the bad guy isn’t actually defeated, he just decides not to bother (because he’d lose). But is he happy about it? Duh, no. So he… just goes home… still in a position of power, still not happy with our heroes… Is that a victory? Or has the villain gone away to cook up a new plan? As I said, it feels open for a further story. A pair of characters who wanted the good guys to win for their own nefarious reasons basically tell the heroes, “you’re all fools, the Volturi might’ve left but they’ll never forgive what happened”… and all the good guys just laugh, because they’ve won, because they’re the good guys. But they haven’t won, have they? They didn’t defeat him. They didn’t convince him. It won’t take much for him to come up with a new, better plan. Fuck it, I was glad this was over, but now I want to see The Twilight Saga Episode 6: The Volturi Slaughter All Those Cocky Bastards.

Happily ever after

But there isn’t a sixth instalment. This is it. I have completed The Twilight Saga, just over a decade since it first came to the big screen. Back then it was a relatively significant part of pop culture, with a rabid fanbase clamouring for the movies to be recognised, and turning them into major, much-discussed hits. But they were always critically reviled, both in print and on screen, and now it feels like their relevance is waning, presumably as old fans grow up and new ones fail to materialise. Or maybe they still do good numbers in book sales / TV airings / Netflix streams, but we just don’t talk about them widely because they’re not new anymore. Who knows. The only reason I care is because I’m wondering if I’ve spent ten hours of my life watching something I knew would be poor, spurred merely by its cultural significance, only to find that significance has quickly evaporated.

Oh well. At least I’ll always have Face Punch.

2 out of 5

Colossal (2016)

2018 #117
Nacho Vigalondo | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Canada, USA, Spain & South Korea / English & Korean | 15 / R

Colossal

As it begins, you’d be forgiven for thinking Colossal is just another indie rom-com. Anne Hathaway stars as Gloria, an unemployed writer whose boyfriend (Dan Stevens) kicks her out of their New York apartment, forcing her to move back to her Nowheresville hometown. There she reconnects with childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) — romance is surely in the air, right? But Colossal has a couple of surprises up its sleeve. One is hard to miss, what with it being on all the posters (and, I presume, in the trailers): concurrent with Gloria’s return home, a giant monster begins to rampage around Seoul, and she comes to realise these two disconnected events are, in fact, connected. Meanwhile, the relationship storyline has a few twists in store too.

Unsurprisingly, given the uniqueness of the concept, the film’s marketing foregrounds the giant monster. But anyone expecting “a giant monster movie” will probably be disappointed, because this isn’t a Godzilla clone. However, anyone open to an indie comedy-drama that uses giant monsters as a giant metaphor (arguably an on-the-nose one, but it’s an effective one also) should find something of interest here. I’m being coy about the facts of that metaphor because I think one of the movie’s biggest strengths is its ability to surprise, and to wrong-foot and unnerve you with those surprises — there are some very uncomfortable scenes, deliberately so. Writer-director Nacho Vigalondo is looking to explore timely themes here, and if you were to be aware of them before viewing I think you’d be looking for signs too early, and that would undermine part of the film’s point, which lies in how events develop.

To put that aside, Colossal’s biggest weakness comes in its sci-fi/fantasy element, where the rules of the situation don’t quite hang together. I’m not saying it needs an explanation for why the ordinary-woman/giant-monster connection happens — it’s the same reason that, say, the time loop in Groundhog Day happens: it just does. The ‘why’ is immaterial to the film’s purpose. But the rules the film establishes for how it works don’t entirely add up. I could go into specifics but, again, that might spoil things. And, ultimately, my issues are no more than niggles — the way things pan out is about getting satisfaction from the storyline, not adhering to the ins and outs of how a fantasy works. That said, I feel like a couple of logic tweaks here and there would’ve made it faultless.

Who's the bigger monster?

Nonetheless, it’s worth letting those complaints slide, because there’s so much to like in spite of them. The performances, for one. Hathaway negotiates Gloria’s interesting, tricky character with aplomb. By ‘tricky’ I really mean that it’s somewhat hard to put your finger on what her arc is exactly, but I think that’s because her evolution is believably fuzzy, just like real life, rather than conforming to a slick “this is the lesson she learned and now she’s better” movie thing. Co-lead Sudeikis has, I’d wager, never been better. I’ve not seen him in much, but enough to buy other people’s opinion that he’s a bit smug, a bit try-hard, a bit… of a dick, really. But all of those qualities work here, where Oscar is a loser trying to seem cool.

With some polishing up, Colossal could’ve been nigh on perfect; though it’d likely still be a cult favourite rather than any major success. Well, it’s probably still good enough for cult status, though, as a caveat, it will most appeal to those viewers who are prepared to accept a bit of a genre/tone mashup. It’s got an indie-funny quality, but then throws the sci-fi stuff in, before unveiling a serious side too; and, although that does get very dark, it’s really effectively managed — indeed, it’s all the better for how the quirkier first part sets it up. Vigalondo has points he wants to make, and his film gets them across. Whatever else, it’s definitely original and unique, and those qualities go a long way.

4 out of 5

Colossal is available on Netflix UK as of this month.

Battle at Big Rock (2019)

2019 #127a
Colin Trevorrow | 9 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English

Battle at Big Rock

Surprised-announced by co-writer/director Colin Trevorrow on Twitter just a week ago (although, reading about it after the fact, it seems dedicated fans were already aware something was coming thanks to that regular modern blockbuster spoiler source: action figures), Battle at Big Rock is a short film entry in the Jurassic Park/World franchise, which premiered on the US FX channel on Sunday night (early Monday morning for us Brits) and is now on YouTube.

Set one year on from the cliffhanger-ish ending to the last film, Fallen Kingdom, this short presents a vignette in the Jurassic world that will help bridge the gap between the previous feature and 2021’s third/sixth instalment. But aside from that large franchise-minded goal, it’s also a chance to see some different characters have a different kind of encounter within the films’ universe.

Well, I say “different” — dinosaurs fight dinosaurs until humans are caught in the crosshairs, then a big toothy dinosaur goes after said humans. The real difference is that this happens to just an ordinary family out on an ordinary camping trip in California, not people who’ve chosen to go to a remote island filled with giant prehistoric lizards. Of course, they’ve decided to go camping in a region where it’s known a bunch of the aforementioned giant prehistoric lizards escaped a year ago and might be roaming about, but whatcha gonna do? When you gotta go camping you gotta go camping, I guess. Also, they’re not white, which is a notable characteristic in this franchise, unfortunately. (That lack of representation across five feature-length movies is hardly rectified by one short, but I’m certain it was part of the intention.)

A family-sized snack

What Battle at Big Rock lacks in originality it makes up for with brevity. This is a concise hit of dino action, cramming many of the franchise’s familiar thrills into a sub-nine-minute package. It also looks great for a short film. Yeah, sure, it still has the backing of Universal Studios — this isn’t exactly an indie production — but it’s not got the full weight of a theatrically-released blockbuster behind it, either. Nonetheless, it manages to include two species of dinosaur, one achieved via a mixture of CGI and a genuine animatronic, and adventure-movie set-piece-level action. It all looks mighty pretty too, although the nighttime fire-lit photography is no doubt partially about hiding the budgetary limitations.

Indeed, the film’s production is possibly its most impressive aspect. It was actually shot back in 2018, so they’ve kept it hush-hush for the best part of a year. And it can’t be easy to keep quiet a film shot on location, and outside of moviemaking’s usual stomping grounds, in Ireland, where apparently there’s a grove of trees that look exactly like a North Californian national park. Presumably the real deal was a no-go because they’d’ve been spotted even more easily there; but, equally, you’d think a big American production team rocking up in Ireland would attract attention — especially when they had a giant animatronic dinosaur in tow. Maybe the locals just presumed it was Game of Thrones

Anyway, the end result is a success, both as a little burst of dinosaur action for those of us who enjoy such hijinks, and as a tease for events we’ll see in the franchise’s next major instalment. Rumour has it the short’s budget spiralled beyond the limits Universal originally set, but, considering the ill-will generated by the underwhelming Fallen Kingdom, I’m sure they’ll consider audience’s re-stoked interest (a sentiment I’ve seen expressed repeatedly across social media today) to have been a worthwhile investment.

4 out of 5

Battle at Big Rock is available on YouTube.

Aquaman (2018)

2019 #55
James Wan | 143 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Aquaman

DC Comics have had a turbulent time of it on the big screen these past few years. After Zack Snyder’s Marmite Superman reboot Man of Steel they tried to get in on the Marvel-inspired “cinematic universe” boom with the unfairly-derided Batman v Superman and the behind-the-scenes mess that was Justice League, in between which the similarly “buggered about in post” Suicide Squad did them no favours. But they also attracted a lot of praise for Wonder Woman, mainly because it starred a female superhero (not unheard of, but a rarity on screen, and even rarer for a female superhero film to be good), and, earlier this year, Shazam! So maybe their fortunes are on the up again, especially as anticipation is high for both of their 2020 efforts, February’s Birds of Prey and June’s Wonder Woman 1984.

In amongst all of that, in pretty much every respect (release date, critical standing, etc), we have Aquaman. Like Wonder Woman, its tied to the Justice League attempt at launching a shared continuity between these films; but, also like Wonder Woman, it doesn’t seem to have been tarnished by that association, grossing over $1.1 billion at the box office (Justice League maxed out at just over $650 million). While something about it obviously clicked with the general audience, in some respects it’s as much of a Marmite film as Man of Steel — although, tonally, they could hardly be further apart.

For thems that don’t know, Aquaman is Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), a half-human half-Atlantean chap, who was raised as the former by his lighthouse-keeper dad but has the underwater fish-communicating powers of the latter, which he uses to do superheroic things like rescuing submarines from pirates (those being modern high-tech pirates, natch). Arthur also has claim to the throne of Atlantis, but he doesn’t want it and there are plenty in the kingdom who would dispute it. But when the current king, Orm (Patrick Wilson), attempts to unite the undersea kingdoms to attack the world of men, his betrothed, Mera (Amber Heard), goes in search of Arthur, to convince him to return to his rightful place and blah de blah de blah.

Searching for something. An understanding of the plot, probably.

Yeah, the plotting is mostly sub-Game of Thrones fantasy gobbledegook, attached to an Indiana Jones-inspired quest plot that sends this sea-based superhero to the Saharan desert (in which he arrives to a rap-based cover of Toto’s Africa. I shit you not). That’s just one reason the film stretches out to a mind-boggling 143 minutes (aka almost two-and-a-half hours). It does feel like several movies stitched together; like someone couldn’t quite decide whether they wanted to do “medieval fantasy but under the sea” or “a globetrotting Indiana Jones adventure”, so just did both at the same time.

Along the way, some of it is thoroughly cheesy — the dialogue, the outright fantasy-ness, the vibrant colour palette, the music choices (see above). It’s hard to know if it’s being deliberately cheesy, or if someone felt this stuff was a good idea in seriousness. Whether or not it works is a matter of personal taste, but at least it’s noticeably different from its po-faced label brethren or the slick factory-produced adventure-comedy tone of the Mouse House competition.

There’s an odd vein of ’80s-ness, too: some of the plot directions, Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score, that aforementioned song choice again (whether you despise that song or find it kinda tackily amusing is perhaps a bellwether for your opinion of the film.) This feels like the kind of undersea adventure movie someone would’ve made in the wake of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Conan the Barbarian, if only they’d had the effects tech back then. Except, of course, by using all the CGI that current tech allows, it’s also very much a modern graphics-laden blockbuster. Those two eras, the 1980s and the 2010s, kind of butt up against each other — it’s not being outright an ’80s emulation like, say, Stranger Things; it’s more this weird influence that sometimes rears its head.

Imagine this in IMAX 3D. Just imagine.

That includes in some of the action scenes, which were shot on real sets with real actors (gasp!) Not all of them, naturally (there’s a mindbogglingly massive undersea battle involving thousands of soldiers and sea creatures), but those that were done for real are incredibly staged and shot — a running rooftop fight in Italy is beautifully done. The general imagery is often fantastic, too. Not always (sometimes it’s just fine; sometimes it’s too much), but there are incredible, impressive, comic-book-panel-on-screen shots here. So it’s a real shame that Warner have forced a choice between 3D or a shifting IMAX aspect ratio on Blu-ray. As regular readers know, I enjoy 3D and I love a shifting aspect ratio, so being forced to pick is upsetting. Marvel normally tick both those boxes by including the IMAX ratio only on their 3D releases — annoying for 2D-only IMAX fans, I know, but I’m well set. Warner have done the opposite, however, with the 2D releases including the IMAX ratio and the 3D remaining locked to 2.40:1. To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement, because the 3D adds so much to the big sequences, but I can imagine the IMAX ratio shift would too — together, they’d be perfect, but Warner won’t let us have that. So, I did enjoy the film’s 3D a lot, but at some point I’m going to make time to watch it again in 2D for the ratio shifts. I’ll plump for it in 4K too because, considering that the film’s colours are already pretty vibrant in SDR, I bet they’d pop delightfully with HDR.

Setting format complaints aside, I had a lot of fun with Aquaman. The spectacle is so genuinely spectacular, and the humour and/or cheesiness is so don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-groan fun, and the overlong running time stuffed so full with so many different ideas, that I couldn’t help but find the whole heady mix downright entertaining.

4 out of 5

Aquaman is available on Sky Cinema from today.

FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)

2018 #99
Bill Kroyer | 73 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Australia / English | U / G

FernGully: The Last Rainforest

I remember ignoring FernGully when it came out (probably when it hit rental video rather than at the cinema) because it looked a bit rubbish. I mean, it was an animated movie but it wasn’t made by Disney — “could such things even exist?”, wondered little me (probably). As the years went by, I kinda assumed everyone else had ignored or forgotten it, leaving it as some curio I vaguely remembered from video shop walls. But fastforward to 2009 and suddenly everyone was talking about it, because it had been remade as a big-budget 3D sci-fi epic by James Cameron. Okay, Avatar wasn’t actually a FernGully remake, but the disparaging comparison came up a lot. Fastforward another decade to now (a time when Cameron’s fourfilm remake of FernGully 2: The Magical Rescue (yes FernGully got a sequel) is still over two years away (provided they don’t push it back again)), and on a whim I finally watched FernGully to see this supposed likeness for myself.

So, what’s FernGully actually about? Well, not blue creatures on an alien moon, although it’s equally as fantastical. It’s set in the Australian rainforest, where fairies live in isolation, believing humans to have gone extinct… that is until loggers turn up to destroy their home. Fairy Crysta (Samantha Mathis) shrinks human Zak (Jonathan Ward) down to her size to save him from a falling tree, at which point he learns about their way of life — oh, right, Avatar here we are. Anyway, many years ago an evil entity called Hexxus (Tim Curry) was trapped inside a tree, which the loggers cut down, and suddenly everyone’s at threat.

If it’s not obvious already, FernGully is pretty heavy on the environmental messaging (it’s even dedicated to “our children and our children’s children”, and there’s a note at the end of the credits about donating proceeds to the Smithsonian for environmental work). I seem to remember this was all viewed as being kinda-loony eco stuff back when the film came out. Now, of course, acceptance of those views is much wider, and what the film has to say seems a little obvious. Though we’re still destroying the planet, so I guess we’ve not learned that much in the three decades since.

Batty, indeed

Even more of-its-time are the musical numbers. They’re very 1992, and not in a good way. That said, although it’s a terrible song, If I’m Gonna Eat Somebody (It Might As Well Be You) is one of the best titles ever.

One of the people lumbered with an awful tune is Robin Williams, playing a mentally-deranged rapping bat. Nonetheless, he’s definitely one of the best things in the film — not as much as his Genie was in Aladdin, but he does occasionally bring a similar irreverence. It’s needed when the rest of the film is being a bit po-faced about the magic of nature. The other vocal standout is Tim Curry, who always gives good villain. He’s supported by nice design and animation, with Hexxus visualised as a dripping oil-creature, plus a couple of other forms as the film goes on, all of which look pretty effective. Like the rest of the movie, his characterisation and motivation are very underdeveloped, and Curry’s given little to do after his initial birth/song sequence, but the character looks good.

All in, FernGully is a decent little animated adventure — a tad earnest perhaps, but not too bad — but it’s held back by weak music and a thin plot.

3 out of 5

Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)

2018 #67
Jon Favreau | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Zathura

Before Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle there was Zathura, which is sort of a sequel to Jumanji… but more of a spin-off, I guess… well, really it’s a completely unrelated movie with the exact same plot. Inspired by another book by the same author, it sees two kids (Jonah Bobo and a very baby-faced Josh Hutcherson) discover an old board game that comes to life with terrifying consequences, and the only way to make it stop is to finish the game. But this game is about space, so it’s completely different, obviously.

Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to avoid assessing the film’s quality in comparison it to its predecessor. The thing that struck me most was it feels less consequential than Jumanji, somehow. In the previous film the stakes feel high — you worry they won’t beat the game or make it out alive. Perhaps that’s because of Robin Williams’ character getting trapped in the game at the start, which makes you believe things can go wrong. Whereas here, it just feels like crazy shit will keep happening until they finish. It may also be because you can infer ‘rules’ in Jumanji — we know monkeys are going to be mischievous, tigers might eat you, etc — whereas in Zathura, because it’s sci-fi, it’s all made up. And it feels made up as it goes along, too — because it’s not based on real life or an existing brand, we don’t know the characters, the monsters, etc.

Similarly, the characters benefit from way too much luck. The kids keep not reacting fast enough to stop or save things, but then something fortunate happens so things go their way. Maybe you could sell this as a deliberate thing — like, the game wants to be finished — but that’s not how it plays out. They just keep getting lucky, in a not-great-screenwriting way. Perhaps I’m projecting problems where there are none in these observations, but it’s just another factor towards not feeling jeopardy like I did in Jumanji. Overall, Zathura was just more… pleasant.

Play the game

That said, I had some more specific niggles. For a film that should’ve been trying to avoid accusations of being a rip-off, they invite it further by (spoiler alert!) giving one character a backstory that’s a riff on Robin Williams’ from the first movie. Zathura comes at it from a different angle, at least, but that’s a mixed blessing: it doesn’t have the same emotional effect because we only learn about it belatedly, but at least that means it isn’t ripping off Jumanji’s entire narrative structure, and also allows for a neat twist later on. There’s some time travel stuff that doesn’t wholly hang together, but then does it ever?

Equally, you can clearly tell they weren’t paying enough attention to every aspect of the screenplay: the older sister (played by a pre-fame Kristen Stewart, by-the-by) gets put in hibernation for five turns, but it takes eight turns before she wakes up. How no one noticed that is baffling — did they not think to just count it in the script? Even if they somehow missed it until post-production, all it would’ve taken is a dubbed line or two. “Five turns” sounds like a lot of gameplay to miss, so maybe they just thought “eight turns” would sound too ridiculous, but did they not think someone would spot it?!

Plot logic aside, at least the film has some great effects and design work. Jumanji has aged badly in that respect (the CGI is pretty ropey), whereas Zathura still looks great, in part because there’s actually a lot of props and models involved. The performances are pretty decent, too. Director Jon Favreau clearly has a talent for working with kids — the pair here; Mowgli in his Jungle Book; Robert Downey Jr… But in all seriousness, he gets really good performances out of these children.

Holy meteors!

Also worth noting is that the UK version was originally cut to get a PG… and remains cut, because the uncut rating wouldn’t just be a 12, it’d be a 15! That’s because of “imitable techniques”, which in this case means using an aerosol as a blowtorch to set fire to a sofa. The main thing I find interesting about this is that presumably the original cut shows the Astronaut setting fire to the sofa, whereas in the UK version it just suddenly cuts to him stood beside a sofa on fire, which is so much funnier. Hurrah for censorship, I guess.

And so we come to the score. Zathura is one of those films I find a little awkward to rate, because I did enjoy it — in some respects, more than I enjoyed Jumanji when I rewatched that recently — but it also doesn’t feel as polished and complete as its predecessor in terms of story and characters. Even as I had fun, I saw many things I felt could’ve been sharpened up. For that reason, I’ve erred towards a lower rating.

3 out of 5