Ready Player One (2018)

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Screeching into cinemas this weekend at 88 mph, is the latest feature from Steven Spielberg. It’s fast, fun and enjoyable but that doesn’t completely override the shortcomings of the plot.

Set in 2045, the population are avid fans and players within the OASIS; a virtual reality world where they can be who they want and try to find an Easter egg, only obtained by finding 3 keys placed by creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Trying to lead the pack is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) who soon learns from fellow gamer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) that there’s more at stake, than just a sprawling game.

I’ll kick off by saying, this is an energetic and pacy film that certainly, for the first two thirds at least, manages to speedily put across a massive virtual landscape of endless possibilities. The immersive quality isn’t fully felt but it comes and goes nicely, as if we’re window shoppers to this electrically charged Easter egg hunt. It’s only within the last third that this movie begins to trail and slightly feel like a slog, as the story it’s thinly been telling, takes over from the nostalgia trip and descends into a predictable and less than exciting mode.

There may indeed be problems but I can’t review this Spielberg outing without spouting fanboy praise for a sequence at the Overlook. I wasn’t expecting that at all, it’s at once hilarious and effectively spooky to see the hexagon carpeted floors of Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, in a film that families will watch! The entire sequence was done brilliantly and I enjoyed it further, knowing what would happen in rooms etc.

Nostalgia is clearly what is selling this film and I have no issues with that, it’s a seat filler. People love being reminded of fun flashes to their past and this movie sees games and pop cultural figures storm the cinematic screen with giddy abandon. Marvin the Martian, The Iron Giant and Halo Spartans are just a few of the brilliant visual tie-ins Spielberg and the effects team have gifted us, but there should be more to it down to the main narrative, yet at points it does feel like this is a film solely riding on the cool delight of spotting characters from games, film and TV dotted around.

Music also forms a huge factor of the feel-good fuzzy feeling as Hall and Oates, The Bee Gees and Van Halen all riff on this film’s clear course to Nostalgia-ville. There’s a general fun vibe to had with this film and even though there are problems with the story being devoid of heart or much emotion, a side-lined female character who becomes not much more than a love interest and a show of characters that don’t really develop and therefore never grabbed my attention, it’s a movie of wonder and bright colour, zippy visual treats and a technological feat that should be admired.

Sheridan plays the guy out in the sticks aspiring to win and the lead with a lesson in love, in a way that’s alright enough but I’d never say he was someone I rooted for, he’s kind of just there amongst a world bursting with other avatars. Cooke sprinkles some cool chick moves to her turn as the helpful love sidekick and I found her more interesting to watch than Sheridan, as I did with the hench figure of Aech and their subsequent reveal. Ben Mendelsohn is always an effective presence but his role as the villainous Nolan Sorrento is hot and cold, there’s flickers of chilling menace and then it dissipates. Rylance comes and goes but is a fun addition, with a kind of Wayne’s World/Bill and Ted gamer geek, stoner attribute to his character.

The story isn’t as strong or as engaging as it deserves to be but I have to applaud Steven Spielberg and the visual effects crew, for creating a film that is a lively rush for the senses.

7/10

 

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Tomb Raider (2018)

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Stepping into the shoes of Lara Croft, after Angelina Jolie’s early noughties outings, is Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, who I think is a great choice for this gritty, updated take on the archaeologist character from a 2013 video game of the same name.

Bicycle courier Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is told to take her father’s inheritance, as he’s been missing for 7 years, but as she’s about to, she discovers a clue from Richard Croft (Dominic West) which leads her to Hong Kong to trace what her father had been investigating. On a (nearly) impossible to reach island is Vogel (Walton Goggins) who is keen to uncover a secret tomb on Yamatai.

I’m not someone who played my console a lot growing up and I definitely wasn’t ever a ‘gamer’, and I still am not, but a Tomb Raider game I had was great fun and the adventurous puzzles were ones I enjoyed tackling, so to hear that, after the poor and definitely two silly movies starring Jolie, there would be a new spin on the action explorer was interesting news, to see if they could get Lara and a video game adaptation right for once.

On the whole I think that Vikander, director Roar Uthaug and the writers have managed to do a good job. It’s by no means a brilliant or consistently entertaining film but there’s great action sequences to be watched; which are shot and edited with a visceral and explosive speed which help throw you alongside the adventures of the courageous and capable raider of tombs.

As mentioned, I enjoyed puzzle solving in the game I owned and there is an aspect of that within this movie, which is a cool thing to involve but I just wish there was more of it and when the cryptic moment is achieved, it’s done so in a quick and vague manner to rush the film along to the next big action sequence. The film is also fairly predictable and a final moment is one I saw a mile off but unlike the deeply boring film, ‘The Mummy’, this is a film that feels darker, it has moments of trepidation and on the edge danger which kept me engaged.

It is damn cool to see another woman lead the screen with great confidence, smarts and kick-ass attitude, one that hopefully will get a sequel green-lit, because aside from the less than stellar story, this is a barnstorming action adventure that gives Lara an arc from down on her luck/money roots to finding herself and her place as a Croft. This fierce approach that she has is slightly let down I thought, by a battle scene that she deserved to have won in her own right, not because of some help from a character out of the duel.

Alicia Vikander dives right in as the titular character and ensures that Lara is looked on as a brave and bold heroine. She certainly goes through the ringer, making each punch or fall feel totally real. She also brings a necessary charm alongside her muscled gusto, which helps the ridiculous sequences less so, as long as you also suspend your disbelief. She practically fills the big screen with believable strength and I’m sure she could give Bolt a literal run for his money! Walton Goggins is alright but he never soars as a villain that could have been more interesting or ferocious. Nick Frost and Jaime Winstone appear briefly as the clear comic relief and they are funny, but out of place.

This is a good, grounded take on the booted and braided video game character, with a turn from Vikander that is emotive and on point. The issue is that it’s a film without much fun and fully excitable drive.

6.5/10

Gringo (2018)

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Nash Edgerton, brother of Joel, offers up this misfiring Mexican set crime comedy as his debut film and with an opening that’s bombed hard, he may need to think about going back to the drawing board.

Head honcho of a company, that is heading into a merger is Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) who is a greedy piece of work, as is Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron). The two are laser focused on getting what they want and screwing everyone over, including apparent friend of Rusk; Harold (David Oyelowo) who is left behind in Mexico. Soon he calls through saying he’s been kidnapped and a barrage of heightened moments follow.

I think one of the biggest issues this film has is how messy the plot feels. There’s just a bit too much going on and as more madness ensues down in the heat of Mexico, it gets tiresome and badly handled. This is a great shame because this in fact could have been a nifty movie with surprising turns and cartel-ridden sequences but it falls short of that promising ideal by a big stretch. Another issue lies with the promotion of the film, from the trailer it seems like an oddball comedy and you end up with a crime narrative, which I would have liked had I not expected to be amused along the way.

It’s like I can imagine that Matthew Stone and Anthony Tambakis have written this thinking what they’ve come up with is funny but it either lands horrendously flat or comes across as rude; i.e – Elaine pretending to be deaf. There’s not one moment where I or the few other audience members laughed or even chuckled, I think I smiled once because of the sheer force that is Oyelowo as Harold trying to keep his head afloat on this sinking, stinking ship.

I will admit that some of the kidnap plot is quite engaging. It starts off interestingly and is vaguely entertaining to watch unravel but the folding in of other characters, places and story-lines just began to detract from this quite enjoyable mishap of errors that Harold finds himself in the middle of. On the whole though, this is something I won’t remember come the end of the year, the scenes are mostly forgettable and the majority of characters are insanely unlikable, in a way that I just didn’t care to try and get engrossed into the plot.

As said, a lot of the figures within this film have no redeeming qualities and leading the pack is Joel Edgerton who, to be fair, does encapsulate the arse-hat boss with arrogance and disloyalty worn on his clothes like badges. Charlize Theron is somehow even slimier and nastier than Richard Rusk, and again she plays these characteristics well but it was a role of spite that I didn’t enjoy. David Oyelowo and Amanda Seyfried are the only actors that exit this film with any real dignity intact. Both of their characters feel human, likable and warm, their interactions are some of the more grounded and better parts of this film.

There are some alright scenes that kept me sort of interested to the film and Oyelowo is great, but I was close to feeling bored in an up and down, messily made film that outstays its welcome.

5/10

Game Night (2018)

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Pop away your Monopoly counters and shelf the tiddlywinks; this film is like a real life Cluedo with black comedy attached around mostly every corner.

Competitive husband and wife Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) regularly host weekend game nights with four of their friends, but now that Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) is on the scene, game night is stepped up a notch with a murder mystery theme that suddenly gets out of hand and very very real.

A lot of the fun within this movie comes from the joyful irony, with us knowing the kidnap and subsequent dramatics are in fact not part of the game that the group thinks it is. This is stretched to the right point as the film goes on because obviously at some point the pals need to realise they’re wrapped up in something much bigger, but twists and turns come into effect to throw us a curve-ball also.

John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein team up again after joint screenwriting credits for features like ‘Horrible Bosses’ & ‘Vacation’. These two inject a palpable level of energy to the film and with a neat and fairly clever script from Mark Perez, you get a cool spin on a comedy with moments of almost ingenious game inspired hi-jinks. It says something that a film like this actually keeps you hooked because it so easily could have fallen with unmemorable ease like a stray die behind the sofa.

There are a lot of American comedies that do end up being unfunny and highly predictable, gladly this is an example against that. The trailer does show off some of the funnier ideas but there’s still a good amount of comedic moments left to enjoy. The soundtrack adds a weighty energetic punch to proceedings and a cool ‘Birdman’-esque tracking shot following American Football style Faberge egg tactics is thoroughly entertaining, as is seeing Charades being used in an unlikely situation. The dumb kind of douchebag humour with one of the characters and a ‘Denzel’ cutaway sequence going on for a touch too long are the only sidesteps in what is a well handled comedy.

Bateman and McAdams pair up as a convincing duo obsessed with games and winning. Their relationship chemistry feels believable which goes a long way to help the story feel believable even if it does utilise some crazy antics. Billy Magnussen is the dumb stereotype I mentioned which grates after a while and see ‘Ingrid Goes West’ and ‘Black Mirror – USS Callister’ for further proof. Jesse Plemmons steals it all as the MVP with a creepy nature of stares and robotic vocals. Oh, lastly, I hugely lapped up the glorious cameos from one ‘Westworld’ figure and one TV serial killer.

It may not be an outright hilarious movie but it made me audibly laugh on numerous occasions and the real/game back and forth dynamic is one that keeps the interest peaked.

7/10

The Commuter (2018)

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A typical set up of mysterious question and the capable Irish action star come together on a plane…sorry train this time but in fact it’s not as bad as you’d think. Sure it has flaws and is something akin to what we’ve seen before but it’s a silly delight.

Serial commuter, Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) is used to familiar faces and the hustle and bustle of travelling back and forth through New York but this one day sees him approached by the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who tells him there’s $25’000 hidden away, plus a further $75’000 if he works out who doesn’t belong on the train before it reaches the end of the line.

From the trailer alone; I guffawed at the typical Liam Neeson vehicle we’re now used to see him starring in. Gladly it surprised me and was a more enjoyable flick than the generic trashy kind of movie I was expecting to witness. That isn’t to say that’s a fantastically well made film that can blow your mind but it’s damn entertaining and comes with carriage loads of thrills to keep the film chugging along nicely.

Director of reasonable shark thriller ‘The Shallows’ and previous Neeson feature ‘Non-Stop’, Jaume Collet-Serra manages to keep the film from derailing for the majority of the thriller outing. There’s a neat set up in the repetitive routine of Michael’s morning and the character introductions are all well and good, nothing special but there’s enough going on to set up the oncoming mystery to be solved. It’s in the strained searching of an unnamed passenger that the film hits a nice stride, as we too attempt to uncover the missing puzzle piece.

There are some downright dumb moments, where actions taken feel forced or action set ups fill the CGI quota and big spectacle box is ticked but the unexpected pleasure is in the storytelling of what the heck is going on and who Michael is trying desperately to find. There are a few twists along the way and some are ones I didn’t see but one quite big reveal is quite an obvious one but it didn’t take away from the fun I had in watching this movie unfold.

A train full of passengers makes for a great cast of characters and it’s these many faces of possible suspects that create the best aspect of the film. Neeson himself is in a role well tailored to him by now and he has the gruff charisma that makes Michael a believable figure to lead the way. Farmiga is a fantastic actor and this possible sinister presence she carries suits her down to the zebra striped shoes she wears. Even the sound of her voice on the phone carries a mysterious air of calm and danger. Jonathan Banks, Roland Moller and Shazad Latif are interesting in their roles of possible players knowing more than they let on; in the sense they are thrust forward a lot more as people to keep an eye on. I won’t go on much more as I feel more cast chatter could spoil the reveals of the movie but it’s a ensemble that work together greatly, in a mostly single set narrative.

This shuttling train thriller has more intrigue and whodunnit suspense than last years ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. Who would have thought that Neeson on a Train would be more engaging and mysterious than an Agatha Christie classic!? Not me, but it truly is a fun and exciting popcorn movie.

7/10

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

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Here come the drums! Here come the drums! 22 years after the original; and a childhood favourite of mine, this sequel comes stampeding into cinemas and I was more than a little apprehensive but happily I came out the other side with a smile on my face as this jungle set action adventure is a great entertaining ride.

Whilst stuck in detention doing the most mundane task of removing staples, nerdy Spencer, social media obsessed Bethany, studious, shy Martha and football hero Fridge come across a retro games console with a Jumanji cartridge inside. Before they know it the four of them are sucked into the game and a dangerous jungle environment where they have to save the place as their pre-selected video game avatars.

Jake Kasdan directs this romp with a clear wink and nudge to the fun of the 1995 flick. The story isn’t exactly ingenious and the plot does trod along a checkpoint of expected moments but this simplicity is what keeps the movie soaring along at enjoyable breakneck speed and Kasdan realises the selling factor of his film is within his wonderful cast. Therefore he utilises on their oddball comradery and twists what could have been a run of the mill family action tale into a comedic one.

There are some nasty looking uses of CGI in places but maybe it’s some grand plan to hark back to that clunky charm of the original film. The villain isn’t exactly someone you ever fear and their story is bland and the grand climax of everything they have raced across the jungle for isn’t exactly as exciting as you’d hope, but it’s the four heroes of the narrative that drive the movie and they bring enough humour and heart to push the few negatives into your peripherals. Oh and a couple of teeny nods to the original are well placed too.

I wasn’t expecting to grin like a buffoon and in fact laugh so much, but I did. This is a film that is playful in its tone and keeps up that light-hearted manner with the idea of these teens trapped in older more restricted video game character moulds of strength and weaknesses. The weakness of Fridge aka Moose Finbar is a particular outlandish but hilarious highlight. Also the teachings of urinating standing up and sexy dance fighting become genuinely funny sequences.

Dwayne Johnson as the epically titled Dr. Smolder Bravestone is the same old pumped up cool presence he’s come to play in literally every other movie but he gets to play around a touch with the fear of his nerdy self inside. Jack Black steals the show, strutting around like the Insta-model girl he still feels he is. The pep talk he gives at one point is excellent and his role is also. Karen Gillan is kick-ass playing fighting expert Ruby Roundhouse, she sells the dominant action style and her charm fills the screen when trying to be more confident as the nervous Martha. Kevin Hart is zany and full of energy as the backpack wielding zoologist Finbar, he riffs off almost everyone with believable ease.

The jungle is a crazy, fun place to explore and as an audience there’s plenty of joy to be had in sitting back and watching the charm of the foursome do their thing. Sure it’s nothing special but it’s a damn good way guilty pleasure to end the year on.

7.5/10

Justice League (2017)

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They’re finally united after what feels like a well earned age…hang on a sec…nope…just over one year later. DC and it’s universe has the League team up big style and through some horrendous and expected barrage of CGI and more weak story I can surprisingly say it’s not a bad film. It’s not good…but not bad either.

With the world mourning the passing of Superman (Henry Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is trying to piece together a mystery. He hopes to bring a team together and with the help of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), they manage to create a league for justice with The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to try and stop the havoc of an alien army leader.

In comparison to ‘Dawn of Justice’; this movie is fantastic but then that’s not exactly saying much because 2016’s setting up of the League was incredibly dull and dire. One of the main issues in this DCEU outing is the dialogue. In some places the writing by Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio is clunky and overly on the nose. They try to mix in lighter moments and you can tell former Marvel hand Whedon is behind this, but with the odd balance of gruff moodiness in the DC films with the quips, it just doesn’t quite work.

It isn’t solely the dialogue aspect, it’s within the story itself where there are next to zero stakes raised. There’s no gripping factor of worry to be had watching these characters do battle. Everyone in the league becomes so right for the fight they’re partaking in, that at no point did I feel that anyone would ever lose. It just becomes painfully convenient how characters fare to tackle the obstacles. The plot shuffles along from one moment to another as is the case with Zack Snyder films and it doesn’t sink in to really let tensions rise. Threat levels are at an all time low even though apparently it warrants Bruce needing to call a super-powered team together, the dispensing of villains throughout always seemed on the cards and more than anything, every way out was achieved in an easy manner.

The scene on Themyscira was one of the stand out moments and a couple of cool sequences can be found seeing The Flash with his electrically charged bursts, they’re entertaining but not as neatly executed as Quicksilver’s similarly slowed down scenes. Wonder Woman is my MVP and even though Snyder’s direction and the different writers thin her out and set her up for more male gaze than her standalone feature, she carries a great charisma and believable care for justice in this movie.

Amongst some slight hits and clear misses, this film and the DC franchise as whole seems obsessed in CGI. That’s not always a problem if handled correctly but they always go overboard and this movie has an abundance of chaotic computer generated imagery taking precedence. It looks OK in places but on the whole it’s cheap looking and everywhere, including the less than believable wonky face of Steppenwolf. Also battles are back lit like a Michael Bay special with excessive explosions and slow motion.

Affleck is alright again in his turn as the bulkier and moodier caped crusader. Gadot as mentioned brings a needed charm and likeability to the action and her guitar riffing moments of bad-assery are as cool as ever. Cavill does show up, I’m not calling that a spoiler because obviously he’d be there and he’s less boring than usual and in fact is the most interesting part of the film behind Gadot. Miller is clearly set up by the writers as the comedic relief and he delivers the majority in a convincing and funny way but it doesn’t always hit the mark. Momoa seems shady but two dimensional as the protector of the seas even if the CGI water worlds looked awful, hopefully his feature will look visually stunning unlike here. Fisher as the enhancing Cyborg is the Ultron of the pack just handily updating when the script calls for it. J.K. Simmons is hardly involved which could be a blessing. Amy Adams is in it more than I expected and gladly brings a human touch to the events even if she takes a back seat as the continuously boring Lois Lane.

There a mass of flaws within the ‘Justice League’ but saying this, I actually think it’s an entertaining film and enjoyable in a number of places. I also like, perhaps their self retaliation against #MarthaGate by having Motherboxes, as if alluding to that atrocious moment before.

5/10