Thoughts on Jurassic World

I went to see Jurassic World yesterday, I movie I’d been highly anticipating for a while. Normally I don’t get time for any blogging these days, but this is such an exception. Thoughts…

  • Jurassic Park was one of my favourite movies as a kid. It used to come on Star Movies all the time, practically every week. (The first two movies I ever saw were, if I remember correctly, Independence Day and Godzilla Roland Emmerich version.) I was completely fascinated by dinosaurs like any kid would. My favourite dinosaur was a triceratops, also because one of my favourite characters on the animated cartoon show DuckTales was Tootsie the Triceratops.
  • Holy guacamole Batman, there’s more product placement in Jurassic World than a Michael Bay movie. And of course there’s a fucking Starbucks while trying to look at dinosaurs. Is that a ’92 Jeep Wrangler? Of course it is, because a character fucking tells you that it is. Is the ambulance a Mercedes-Benz? Of course it is.
  • Having said that, they also know how to take the piss. This is where the director – who did one of my fave movies Safety Not Guaranteed earlier – shines. They can work in blatant product placement like “Verizon Wireless presents Indominus Rex” and still make it sound genuine. So many great actors from beloved indie TV shows.
  • Similarly, when describing the new genetic hybrid dinosaur Indominus Rex, one of the characters says how “audiences aren’t wowed by dinosaurs any more; they want them bigger, faster, and crueler” it seems very self-aware and directed the audience of the movie. It’s touches like that throughout of self-awareness that make this film great.
  • It’s basically a kaiju film, in how the film ends.
  • I like the inspiration taken from Michael Crichton’s novels on the characteristics of Indominus Rex (warning: spoilers on that link).
  • First, The Amazing Spiderman and now this…Irrfan Khan truly is Hollywood’s go-to actor for playing an Indian executive in a corporation that gets swatted at by giant reptiles. Which is a very specific niche to be pigeon-holed into.
  • Speaking of corporations, how exactly does Ingen (the corporation that owns the genetic rights of the dinosaurs in the Jurassic universe) keep coming back from bankruptcy? Instead of owning theme parks, in the real world they’d probably become a patent troll existing on life support, using their patents to sue companies making genetically modified Basmati rice. Because there’s only so many “mishaps” at theme parks Wall Street can withstand.

Having said all of that, go watch the movie! It’s a worthy successor to the Jurassic series.


The Lego Movie / The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Lego Movie


The Lego Movie poster

I admit that I was sceptical going in to watch The Lego Movie whether it would be actually good, or a merchandising ploy to turn toys into a movie gone too far – like the 2012 critical flop Battleship. I tend to dislike animated films in general because I often find them simplistic in terms of themes, with changeable “characters” (toys, cars, sea life) made with an eye towards the merchandising rights.

Given that context, The Lego Movie was a pleasant surprise. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller use their tried technique of making smart contemporary pop culture references from their previous effort 21 Jump Street and tell it through charming, retro-style animation afforded by using Lego characters. I was very impressed by how smartly the casting was done to pick up actors who are big in Internet pop cultures: Chris Pratt from Parks and Recreations, Will Arnett from Arrested Development, Alison Brie from Community, Charlie Day from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Elizabeth Banks from The Hunger Games trilogy. If that top billing of voice actors with niche and rabid fan bases online doesn’t get you interested, there’s also Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, and Liam Neeson among top Hollywood actors – each, again, who are favourites of the Internet crowd.

This self-aware casting is what elevates the dialogue in The Lego Movie from just the jokes they are in the screenplay to in-joke pop culture references, adding another dimension to the film. I reckon that these will be jokes only the older viewers will be able to recognise and appreciate. The retro animation style captures the fascination kids have with Lego toys and is sure to make anyone who enjoyed playing with them in childhood reminisce.

It’s overall a very cheerful and uplifting film, but the scenes which show father-son bonding moved me to tears – of sadness – because of the troubled relationship that I have with my own family. Besides that, there are also undercurrents of commentary about capitalist culture and mental health issues; perhaps that was me projecting my own views on to the film, but much in the way of Lego pieces, the film’s plot gives you the canvas to interpret scenes in your own way.

Rating: 4 / 5


The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel poster

As a self-confessed Wes Anderson fan, I had been looking forward to the release of The Grand Budapest Hotel for a long time. What I wasn’t expecting – when I caught it at the Odeon in Guildford on première weekend – was to find a completely packed theatre. Somehow, I never thought Guildford would be a place full of Wes Anderson fans!

Let me take a step back here. If you’ve never heard of Wes Anderson, he known for such films as The Darjeeling Limited, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou – and, my personal favourite – Moonrise Kingdom. His films are critically renowned for their unique visual style, deadpan dialogue, and ensemble casts (often) featuring Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Jeff Goldblum, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe. What sets Anderson apart for me is his ability to dive into deep, emotional topics of life and representing them in a visually striking fashion.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, unlike many of his previous films, is loosely inspired by the real-life events of Stefan Zweig – a famous German writer. The story is set during World War II, with Ralph Fiennes leading the cast as M. Gustave, the manager of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Gustave is a womaniser who loves “pleasuring” his elderly women guests, and through that, ends up being bequeathed a famous painting. It’s a story of murder, prison break, and troubled families – far more bloody and gory than Anderson’s previous work, but perhaps fitting with the theme of the times during WWII.

The plot is decidedly less quirky and employs less of the tracking shots between different locations that Anderson is so famous for. Little-known actor Tony Revolori as the lobby boy Zero plays the foil and protegé to Fiennes’ character with aplomb. Fiennes himself is assuredly funny even in bleak situations; he slips so perfectly into the character of a British hotel manager.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a genuinely well-crafted film which I would recommend without hesitation to fans of indie cinema and / or Wes Anderson. I’m not sure whether the average punter would enjoy it though, because the film is not “accessible” in the same sense that, say, Moonrise Kingdom was.

Rating: 3.5 / 5


‘Gravity’ film review

Gravity 2013 film poster

Gravity is the latest critically acclaimed film from Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron. With a minimal cast of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, both in the role of NASA astronauts, the film tells the story of a disaster in space where the two astronauts are left adrift in space after debris from a disintegrated satellite causes a chain reaction of collisions with other space satellites. Even though the plot might seem outlandish, it is in fact based in a scientific hypothesis (called Kessler Effect) which predicts such as situation can actually happen. When their space shuttle gets shredded by debris and communication satellites get taken down too, leaving no way of contacting Earth, the two astronauts have to use their own wits to survive as long as they can.

Gravity is a film truly enjoyed in 3D, to capture the full effect of zero gravity so exquisitely captured in this film. The desolation and beauty of outer space is accentuated by the carefully-planned 3D shots and judicious use of dead silence in the soundtrack. The writers (Cuaron and his son) get the balance between the human aspect of the situation and the technical realities behind a story just right. I wouldn’t be surprised Gravity is a shoe-in for at least a couple of Oscars this year.

Make no mistake: this is a serious film with slow plot development that might turn many moviegoers off. Yet, if you are willing to look past that, it’s a brilliant film about the brave men and women who risk their lives in outer space for broadening the horizons of human knowledge.

Rating: 4 / 5


‘The Fifth Estate’ review

The Fifth Estate is the highly-publicised film about the story of Wikileaks, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. While I have followed Wikileaks closely ever since its “Collateral Murder” leak of the US Army killing Reuters journalists in Afghanistan, for most viewers the entity of Wikileaks is something they certainly would have heard of in the news, but not know in detail about.

The story is primarily told from the perspective of Daniel Berg, played by Rush star Daniel Bruhl, an early Wikileaks volunteer who gets involved because he almost hero-worships Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder. The plot then follows the rise of Wikileaks through its initial teething stages, and eventual notoriety through its leaks about the US military and diplomatic regime.

Much of the attention around the film has been focussed around Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the larger-than-life persona of Julian Assange, because of the rabid fandom Cumberbatch has accumulated in recent years because of his role in BBC series Sherlock. It’s only fair to take to Cumberbatch to task, then, for a half-assed effort, speaking in a British accent for most of the time and only occasionally slipping into stressing Assange’s Australian accent by saying “nitwurks” instead of “networks”. (In terms of bad effort, this was only slightly better than Daniel Craig’s “Israeli” accent in Munich“The only blid that matters is Jewish blid”.)

A major problem with the film is that it feels like a dramatic reading of Daniel Berg’s book about Wikileaks, which is the source material for the story, rather than trying to stand as a screenplay of its own. Director Bill Condon – formerly associated with Chicago, Dreamgirls, and Twilight Breaking Dawn – feels like a terrible choice as he resorts to dated visualisations of rows of desks to try and represent the technical concepts in the film. A lot of screen time is devoted to watching people type on a screen in an effort to portray “the drama unfolding”. Yet, this misses the point: what makes the story of Wikileaks interesting is not the use of technology per se, but the confluence of different personalities that gave rise to it. The Social Network, for instance, was a film that understood this motivation well and focussed on the personalities rather than the technical details.

My friend commented that she learnt more about Wikileaks by reading its Wikipedia article rather than watching The Fifth Estate. In attempting a documentary approach, it misses the exciting story of the people behind the story as well as feels too long a film to properly portray all the events. The only redeeming feature was a fourth-wall breaking piece-to-camera from Cumberbatch at the end of the film, but by that point it’s a silly gimmick from a dumb film attempting to appear smart.

Rating: 2 / 5


‘Insidious Chapter 2’ review

Insidious Chapter 2 is a sequel to the indie horror hit Insidious. For those who haven’t seen it – and you should! – Insidious was one of the best horror films of 2011; the story revolved around a couple’s son who enters into a coma and becomes a vessel for spirits. The first film got many things right with suspense and pacing in the first half, but totally lost the plot in the second half of the film. A sequel was never planned for Insidious, so when Chapter 2 was announced based on how well the first film performed in the box office, I was curious to find out where the story would go.

Insidious Chapter 2 picks up the story from where the previous film left it, with a seemingly familiar ghost-follows-family-to-new-home plot. And while this has been done many times, what shines is how well the sequel’s plot meshes into events from the first film. It’s pretty impressive for a retconned storyline. I also liked the frequent use of colour red throughout the film – through red-coloured objects, door, and lighting – to add an eerie atmosphere in every scene. Joseph Bishara’s score, especially the use of piano sonatas, complements the sense of tension throughout the plot.

I never quite understood though why Insidious – and this sequel – sometimes turns to slapstick humour through the characters of two paranormal investigators during intense scenes. It almost feels like a formulaic decision made by the studio to ease tension during highly strung scenes. If there’s one thing that detracts this film from being “great”, it would be this.

I confess I’m a huge fan of director James Wan’s work: Saw is a perennial favourite among horror films for me. Insidious Chapter 2 is heavily influenced by The Conjuring (PS – I fucking hated that film), another recent Wan film, as he has confessed himself. But while The Conjuring felt mainstream, I loved how Wan presumably had the freedom to try out a bolder story in this smaller budget film. I don’t have high hopes for the planned third film the Insidious series, but for those who liked the first film, Chapter 2 gives a well-rounded to closure to the story.

Rating: 3.5 / 5