Retro review: Monsters: Dark continent

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In 2010 Gareth Edwards came bursting onto the scene with Monsters. It was a remarkable effort for the writer and director’s debut feature film, not least because it had the appearance of a huge Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster when in fact it was an independent film with a budget under half a million dollars, which still sounds a lot but pales in comparison to other contemporary monster films. For instance, Edwards’ next feature Godzilla (2014) had a budget of $160 million and the cgi is pretty much indistinguishable.

Monsters had a tiny crew with the very talented Edwards taking on multiple production roles and it was shot guerrilla style meaning that they didn’t always have permission to film and many of the extras just happened to be in the area they were filming. So even without considering the originality of the film itself it is apparent that this film is incredibly interesting for fans of cinema.

Despite the title and the amazing special effects, this film wasn’t really about the alien creatures that the director added in to the Mexican skyline in post production. Instead the Rogue One director has stated that he intended to create a film about humans and how life goes on after a devastating event, he created a film that begins years after most monster movies end, and the result is a film which is almost mundane and ordinary compared to other apocalyptic science fiction but nonetheless has this extraordinary backdrop. This might not be the film for you if you are a typical monster-movie fan.

Five years later, the film got a sequel with the fairly ridiculous subtitle “dark continent” and it was almost universally panned. The film actually passed me by during it’s initial release although I am a big fan of the aforementioned Monsters. Gareth Edwards didn’t return to direct this although he was an executive producer. It seems his involvement may have been very limited however by his commitment to Godzilla (2014) and some have linked his absence to the failure of the film.

One unfair criticism of Monsters: Dark Continent is that it doesn’t focus on the monsters or make much use out of them. This is a very odd invention of a war film with a few monsters thrown in for seemingly no reason. But to follow in the footsteps of it’s predecessor it had to normalise the monsters, it was right to make them part of the scenery. It’s a shame however that the war story at the heart of this film isn’t very exciting or thought-provoking. It’s quite boring and that long run time feels even longer. Unlike the earlier film, it’s hard to care about the characters or relate to their situation. It’s not even very clear what they are trying to achieve or what they are fighting for, which I guess could be a political point about war. Still, there’s nothing to enjoy in this film as there was with Monsters.

Monsters (2010)  green-gun-icon

Monsters: Dark Continent (2015)  gun-icongun-icongun-icongun-icon

Short views on time travellers

More short reviews (10 words or less). This time I’m looking at the most troubled sub-genre of all sci-fi, the time travel film.

Back to the Future (1985-1990)
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Ignore all the paradox and this trilogy rocks

The Butterfly Effect (2004)
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Seriously twisted time travel

The Time Machine (2002)
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Just dreadful

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
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The Hangover with Time Travel

The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)
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Not bad for time travel meets chick flick

Men in Black 3  (2012)
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No longer fresh but the franchise is still funny

Lost in Space (1998)
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I know it’s bad but I remember it differently

Groundhog day (1993)
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Could watch this again and again

Terminator (1984-2015)
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If only we could go back to 2003…

Film review POTC5 SR/DMTNT

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If you weren’t able to work it out from the title (or the image above) this is a review for Pirates of the Caribbean 5, otherwise known as Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge, also known as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead men tell no tales. The reason for two equally forgettable subtitles is currently unknown but could possibly be connected to trademarks or cultural connotations. Whatever the reason it’s no less annoying when you search for a film online and face a barrage of confusion with titles.

The latter title seems like typical POTC and is about intriguing as a freshly warm present from a pet puppy. Dead men and walking corpses are not exactly original in this franchise and Dead Men Tell No Tales could practically have been the title of any of them. Salazar’s Revenge at the very least is a title you could hear and just about recall the plot (what there is of it) even if you’d struggle to differentiate this film from the rest of the series in a couple of film’s time. But then that’s not really the point with POTC. As with much longer running film series James Bond, this is a winning money-making formula where originality and memorability don’t matter on a film by film basis but meeting the expectations of the genre and the direction of the series as a whole wins fans. Even fans of James Bond films would struggle to match a plot with a title but they remember lines, they remember iconic characters and they remember weapons and gadgets.

POTC5 is a curious beast. It’s a bit of a jumble of other elements from previous films and in my opinion it is littered with many great moments and fantastic scenes that don’t join up to make a good movie. It’s difficult to explain why this is because so much of it is very enjoyable, the special effects are good, the moments that are supposed to be tense are tense and some of it is very very funny. It’s also very silly and nonsensical but then you don’t watch these films if you don’t like Johnny Depp goofing about and guffawing whilst his character experiences ever more bizarre danger. If you expect thought-provoking, high-quality comedy drama then you are going to be disappointed. To enjoy this film you must switch off and lighten up, sometimes a bit of escapism is ok…. although I would argue if you have to switch off your whole brain just to enjoy a film, it has failed completely.

POTC5 may not be completely switch off and don’t resuscitate for two hours but it is pretty close. As with other films in the series the character motivations never quite add up, the laws of the universe change constantly for the convenience of the plot and the story is completely stupid but the makers’ intention is clearly to provide beginning to end excitement in the form of comedy, outlandish stunts or dramatic story-telling. The trouble is that it misses this target. There are some genuinely boring moments because the film struggles to keep that pace for over two hours. There are even a few wtf moments that come out of nowhere and contribute nothing to the film. This would be one of the biggest issues with this addition and others in the series; the lack of bin feed littering the editing room floor, those editors should have been up to their knees in the absolute guff filmed if not for a few stars who would be a little displeased.

But there are some good things going for this film. I found much of it very funny and if you ignore the factual inaccuracies very entertaining. There is even some strong acting talent with Javier Bardem receiving most of the praise from other critics. Depp is undoubtedly a good actor but he spends the whole film doing his usual OTT silly camp pirate impression, which you either love or you hate. I think this is one of the better films in the series but I’m not going to remember watching it in a year from now. If you fancy a trip to the cinema and you have money to burn for the inflated ticket price you could do worse than watch this and get exactly what you expect. Or you could stay at home and stick something on the TV or Netflix.

Alien covenant: A new low for Alien

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Oh dear Ridley, what have you done? I’m a huge fan of Alien (1979) but this film was not just a huge disappointment but painfully bad even without comparison to the original film, even in the wake of the half-arsed Prometheus (2012). And yet I can see why some fans of Alien have loved this film. Billed as a return to Scotts vision of the franchise, closer in tone and style to the first outing of the Xenomorph, almost a reboot of yet another classic, it is understandable that some fans will eat this up. But I am here to explain (with spoilers) why this film is a new low for the Alien franchise.

The first Alien was more horror than sci-fi but with subsequent films in the franchise, the mantra that “in space no one can hear you scream” was sadly forgotten and the tone shifted. Covenant is a welcome return to deep-space horror but sadly in emulating horror it lacks all originality and relies on the tropes of the past. This feels like a standard haunted house affair with some impressive jumpy moments but a lot lacking in between. As with many typical horror films, the characters here are stupid enough to get themselves in ridiculously dangerous situations, the villains are implausibly indestructible, the heroes predictably die in the order that we are supposed to care about them and the whole plot is completely nonsensical.

Of course, with horror the plot is secondary to the atmosphere and feelings of dread but its really hard to care about the characters here or share that feeling of horror. Firstly, it’s obvious that as a prequel, all the crew must die and the alien species must be spread from this planet, so there is no anticipation or tension and I found all the twists blindingly obvious. Whenever you don’t see a character die onscreen but their death is important to the plot it becomes evident that they will return to affect the plot later. It takes a long time to get to the genuinely scary moments and the build up fails to get us to care about the characters. The fact that all the crew are made up of couples seems pointless when one member of the couple dies before we get to know them as a couple and there is a limit to how many times we can relate to a grieving partner whose name we barely remember. As crew they are utterly useless given that the ship can pilot itself and a robot can do their job better whilst they spend most of the journey asleep. They go on to fail their duty to the colonists in so many ways and show no signs of even basic scientific knowledge. They head to a planet with no idea of the atmosphere or ecology and seem barely surprised that there is Earth-like plant life but no animal life. The idea of infection or foreign bodies is completely ‘alien’ to them and the reaction to unexplained deaths for all the crew is to get them back on board the ship with thousands of people. This crew deserves to die.

All in all, this film is practically a remake of Alien but nowhere near as good. The retroactive rewrite of Alien and its sequels is more annoying and confusing rather than the satisfying retroactive plotting of Rogue One to the Star Wars franchise. The ideas of humanity, religion and creation, which dominate the prequel series aren’t as thought-provoking as the filmmakers think and they become clunky cliches that weigh down the plot and get in the way of the action. They don’t explain David’s actions or any of the crew’s motivation. Michael Fassbender may be excellent in this but I still struggle to understand his character even as a great villain.

Ultimately this series is an origin story that didn’t need telling and takes more away from the franchise than it adds. I would sooner see it written out of canon than the AVP additions but then Prometheus wasn’t supposed to be a direct prequel. All that now seems to be out the window and a new prequel-sequel is apparently on the way to join the films up. In surely what amounts to nothing more than a sickening alien-milking (ew) the franchise is being dragged down to its lowest level ever.

Short views of the 90s

A review in ten words or less… a selection from the 1990s

Wild Wild West (1999)
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Hilarious steampunk living in shadow of men in black

Terminator 2: Judgement day (1991)
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The last great Terminator has best one-liners

Home Alone (1990)
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Brutally funny family fun doesn’t need annual repeat

Jurassic Park (1993)
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All credit to Spielberg, hasn’t lost any magic decades later

Jumanji (1995)
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Thrilling, funny and genuinely scary – as a child

The Nutty Professor (1996)
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Barely tolerable Eddie Murphy

Starship Troopers (1997)
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Excellent military sci-fi you need to see

Bicentennial man (1999) (2000 in the UK)
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Exploration of humanity becomes dull story over 200 years

Reservoir dogs (1992)
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Brilliantly written film gives birth to monster called Tarantino

Lion – film review

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I accept that many people think this film is brilliant and deserved to win best picture at the oscars. It was recommended to me by a friend although I didn’t particularly fancy it. So I will admit that I’m not the best person to review it and that my opinion here is just that. However, I’m not a big fan of this film.

I’m not really a fan of true stories sexed up by the film industry just to play on emotional heart strings. Whilst cinema can bring worthy untold stories into general public knowledge just as Hidden Figures highlights a little known moment in black history and aerospace history, I’m not convinced the story of Lion is as sensational as everyone suggests. There is a brief caption at the end of the film detailing how many children sleep rough in India but I don’t see the film raising much profile for lost and homeless children (hopefully some of the $113 million taken at the box office will go to the cause) because the focus of the story seems to be how one child got lost on a train, adopted in Australia and miraculously found his home two decades later. That’s the story that everyone is shocked by, not that there are millions of Indian children living on the streets and millions living and working in poverty.

For me this story is the perfect three minute Google Earth ad (it actually was an ad for Google maps) but it isn’t a feature length film, which is why the film needs to be split into two stories. The better half of the film, the section retelling Saroo’s childhood experiences and his days living alone on the streets, has been rewritten for cinema and extended to transform an opening chapter into an opening half. The second half has Dev Patel moping about, being a moody student, not doing anything particularly interesting, until one day he happens to hit a breakthrough on Google Earth. There is a little bit of sentimentality about his adopted mother and most people would be moved by the reunion at the end of the film but I don’t really see the appeal in making an audience cry if there’s no deeper meaning or thought-provoking power.

If you haven’t seen this film and think I’ve just given you a spoiler, trust me I haven’t. It would be difficult to give spoilers for this film because there isn’t really a plot beyond the concept of the film. If you’ve seen the trailer you’ve seen the film. Apart from some good acting from the young protagonist in the first half, there isn’t much else going for this film unless you like a weepy, slow-moving drama. Clearly, I don’t.

Short views 2016

A review in ten words or less… Here’s a few from last year…

Deepwater Horizon
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Dramatic exploitation of real event stretches reality

Arrival
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Intelligent well-acted film overlooked at the oscars

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
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Implausible but magical, silly but fun, charming and bumbling

Inferno
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Mystery thriller struggles to excite with plot twist

The Legend of Tarzan
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Wasted opportunity with acting talent

Star Trek Beyond
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Hard to take seriously, hard to dislike

The Girl on the Train
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Should have stuck at novel

Allied
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Promising spy-flick underwhelms, wins fancy dress

Finding Dory
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Silly sequel forgets to make sense