Kids Corner #2 - Willow

What is the Kid's Corner? An occasional series wherein I select fondly remembered films from my childhood and make my kids watch them so they too can fondly remember them in the future. This will increase family bonding, build character and will hopefully not end in a screaming row, like the den-building incident. So when the notion takes me, they will be dragged away from their friends and games and homework and will sit obediently by my side and/or look pityingly upon me as I wallow in nostalgia. This week....

Although I have fond memories of watching Willow (Ron Howard, 1988) from my childhood, I think I always knew deep down it was in fact a bit crap. And so it proved. Now that the fantasy genre has some credibility in the wake of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, this lazy tale of a plucky dwarf farmer Willow (Warwick Davis) saving a baby from an evil queen, helped by a fresh-faced Val Kilmer along the way, is really quite embarrassing for all concerned. Not least co-writer and producer George Lucas, although admittedly it was a major step up from the Howard the Duck fiasco two years earlier. Notable for a landmark in CGI technology in the digital morphing scene and for, well, nothing else.

The Kids are All Right?
No.1 (9yo): "It was okay"
No.2 (6yo): "His head exploded!" (pause) "That's gotta hurt!"
No.3 (18mth): Left after 1 minute, dragging Peppa Pig toy. Unavailable for comment.

A full list of films in Kids Corner can be found here.

Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015)

What's it about? 20 years on from the events of Jurassic Park, Isla Nublar is now a fully-functioning dinosaur theme park. Of course, the powers-that-be aren't happy with normal dinosaurs, so they commission the creation of a new, bigger, genetically modified, 'cooler' dinosaur, which naturally goes bananas and starts wrecking the place. It's up to rugged ranger Owen (Chris Pratt) and uptight operations manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) to save the day.

Is it any good? I wasn't expecting much here, but there's actually a lot to like about Jurassic World - it's certainly a big improvement on the previous two films. In the first hour, the depiction of an all-too-plausible dinosaur zoo - complete with corporate sponsors, dino kiddie rides, feeding displays and bored employees - is quite witty, with nostalgic nods to the first film sprinkled throughout. I'll give the benefit of the doubt to the film-makers that they actually meant this merchandising meta element, rather than blindly patenting, packaging and labelling a lunch-box with their film before they even knew what they had. (Award yourself 10 dino-points if you get that reference).

Cast-wise, Pratt and Howard have good chemistry, the obligatory kids-in-danger are likeable and there's a couple of funny jokes - so far, so good. However, as we move to the runny-shouty-bitey bits, featuring stupid people doing stupid things, it all gets disappointingly formulaic, with nothing to match up to the memorable moments from the first film. There's action, but nothing particularly exciting; there's dino-attacks, but nothing particularly tense; there's special effects, but nothing particularly, well, special. (Although, of course, that concept is something that drives the plot of the film, so maybe that's another meta-reference?) By the time it ditches some half-baked villainous sub-plots in favour of a man herding velociraptors on a motorbike, it has become a bit wearisome. As such, it does in fact turn out to be just like a day at a theme park; it starts out fun - everyone's in good spirits and there's a wow factor for the kids, but ends up been hectic and tiring, with everyone snapping at each other. Now, do we really have to go on the same ride again?

I don't trust you. What do others think? Roll up! Roll up! You bet your ass you're going on the same ride again, since at the time of writing Jurassic World sits proudly at No. 3 in the all time box-office charts. Thus, the sequel is already greenlit for 2018, with most folk involved this time round returning. What's it about? Well Trevorrow, apparently labouring under the impression that this decision will be made by him and not by a think-tank of producers/writers/actors/bin-men, is intent on expanding the universe of the Jurassic franchise. “[It will not be] just a bunch of dinosaurs chasing people on an island,” Trevorrow said. “That’ll get old real fast.” Yeah, it sure would, Colin.

What does the Fonz think? Good fun, but dangerously close to jumping the mosasaurus at times.

Going Clear (Alex Gibney, 2015)

What's it about? An Emmy-award winning documentary featuring eight former Scientologists speaking out against the practices of the controversial Church of Scientology, based on the book by Lawrence Wright.

Is it any good? The on-going story of Scientology is assembled with customary efficiency by experienced documentarian Alex Gibney, mapping out its origins, rise to prominence and growing wealth in easily accessible fashion. But the problem here is that it's kinda preaching to the converted. If you are already skeptical about Scientology, then you wont really be surprised by the allegations of tax evasion, intimidation, human trafficking and corruption. Conversely if you're on the bridge to Total Freedom, you'll not be surprised by the claims of the disaffected former members, who you will dismiss as liars and suppressive persons (SPs). "Scientologists lie", says one contributor at one point. So, can we believe anyone in this?

That said, beyond the self-help aspect it may provide, it seems clear there are some deeply dubious goings-on in the organisation, embodied by the disturbing figure of David Miscavige at its head - what on Earth (or any other planet) makes him tick? We also get to see rare footage of L. Ron Hubbard himself, waffling about Dianetics, as well as some alarming clips of various bombastic Scientology events featuring earnest, fist-pumping appearances by Tom Cruise, none of which is likely to convince you Scientology is anything less than a madhouse. Nonetheless, it's unavoidably one-sided (Scientology refused the offer to contribute) and without clearly defined, irrefutable and damaging evidence of criminal activity within the organisation, it could be (and has been) dismissed as unsubstantiated tittle-tattle and sour grapes from self-confessed liars. Whilst it is still fascinating, it feels like the underbaked efforts of a lowly Operating Thetan rather than a masterly interrogatory audit by galactic warlord Xenu.

I don't trust you. What do others think? Three guesses who didn't like it? Yes, as is their MO, the Church of Scientology defended by attacking, hiring lawyers to prevent distribution, launching websites defaming the contributors, targeting film reviewers (gulp!) and generally kicking up a bit of a fuss. All of which naturally promoted the film more than ever, making it the second most watched documentary in the US ever. In the UK, some legal loopholes meant Sky Atlantic were forced to push back their screening by 6 months, again raising the anticipation and drawing healthy viewing figures when it finally did screen earlier this month. Here's an article about it, but it was written by John Sweeney, who some may remember from his run-in with Scientology as part of a Panorama investigation, so can he be trusted, hmmmm?

Anything else I should know? Yes, plenty, but you will have to pay me for that. Send me a million, no, wait, make that a billion dollars and I will release the top-secret information from the rest of my review.

What does the Fonz think? Strangely, the Fonz retracted his comment, mumbling something about audits and blackmail, or something. So I approached Tom Cruise for his opinion.

What does Tom Cruise think? *Giggles maniacally* Watch your back, man, watch your back! *Whoops and hollers before bounding away cackling*

Wild Tales (Damián Szifron, 2015)

What's it about? Argentina's entry in the Best Foreign Film category at the 2015 Oscars was this anthology of six darkly funny shaggy dog stories, all based around the theme of revenge. So we have 2 plane passengers who realise they know the same person; a waitress who recognises a face from her past; a road rage incident; a man reacting badly when his car is towed; an accident derailing a wealthy family; and the wedding reception from hell.

Is it any good? Or more accurately 'Are they any good?' Well yes, yes they are, although one or two of the entries are a bit weaker than the others. Nevertheless, with admirable economy, each story develops its situation and characters in involving ways, taking satirical sideswipes at society, corruption, greed, love and class along the way. Each viewer will probably have their own favourite, but I particularly liked the one about the guy rebelling against the car-towing company which builds to a very satisfying climax. And because that segment stars Ricardo Darin, who makes any film 83% better. Good use of music throughout too.

Anything else I should know? I consider myself an expert on Ricardo Darin because I've seen, oh, at least 4 of his films. You could do worse than check out the 'Argentinian DeNiro' in high quality fare like Carancho, Nine Queens and the fantastic The Secret in Their Eyes.

What does the Fonz think? Revenge is definitely sweet when it's served up like this.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015)

What's it about? The Avengers, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), plus a few various other characters from the Marvel universe, swing into action once more when Ultron, an AI-androidy-thingy invented by Tony Stark, gets all hellbent on wiping out humankind. Wisecracks, CGI and action ensue.

Is it any good? In my review of Avengers Assemble I likened the first instalment to Band Aid, wherein a number of big stars team up to save the world. So this sequel must be like Live Aid, amirite?
Well, it is indeed bigger and louder and more chaotic, taking place on several continents, with big names again jostling for position centre stage. Everyone seems to be having a good time and most of it seems fairly reliant on satellite technology to drive it along. Bob Geldof.....sorry.....Joss Whedon gets everyone singing from the same page to good effect(s) as he keeps the whole thing on course - no mean feat given the number of characters, egos and hits to get through. And of course, it has been watched by millions of people and made bucket-loads of cash.
Unlike Live Aid, however, it's unlikely to be remembered in 30 years as anything more than another entry in the Marvel canon - it just doesn't have any emotional heft, so although it's always fun and action-packed there's really no lasting impact to make it anything special. It's true that it acknowledges its own inherent silliness, but perhaps less free-wheeling and more feeling would help. As it is, The Avengers may indeed save the world, but they don't really make us care in doing so.

I don't trust you. What do others think? Safe to say it was somewhat successful - at the time of writing it sits at No. 6 in the all-time box-office charts shovelling an estimated $1.4billion into the bulging Marvel/Disney coffers. Staggeringly, though, it was only the third most successful film of 2015, limping in behind Furious 7 (~$1.5billion) and Jurassic World (~$1.65billion) like a broken android. Looks like a truly formidable foe for the Avengers would be Vin Diesel driving a fast car with a velociraptor riding shotgun.

Anything else I should know? If this all sounds like gobbledegook to you, better brush up on your Marvel universe here. If you don't you'll be quickly lost, as Marvel will launch at least 10 films on the planet Earth over the next 5 years, including Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1 (2018) and Part 2 (2019). Be afraid, puny humans, be very afraid.

What does the Fonz think? Truly we live in an age of ultra-excess.