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Zathura: A Space Adventure (2006) 15th Anniversary Review

Long before there were thoughts of a sequel which defied all logic and was actually really, really good there was another follow-up to JUMANJI. One that didn’t reprise the jungle-based adventure game itself but dared to tempt us with the idea of a shared movie universe of games which could transport us anywhere. A concept ahead of its time, perhaps, and now thanks to the ongoing blockbuster franchise likely all but forgotten. But, just for old time’s sake, let’s dust off that box, turn the key and have another round of ZATHURA!

While spending the weekend at their recently divorced dad’s new house, Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and Danny (Jonah Bobo) are growing restless and bored, while their older sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart) is asleep in her room upstairs. When the boys’ squabbling accidentally ruins the illustration their father (Tim Robbins) is working on, he pleads with them to find a way to get along while he pops to the office to print out a replacement. Finding a dusty old board game, Danny decides to start playing, with astonishing consequences.

Adapted from the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, who also wrote JUMANJI and THE POLAR EXPRESS, ZATHURA: A SPACE ADVENTURE follows a same but different path to the 1995 Robin Williams classic. Only this time instead of bringing the African jungle to the suburbs of Brantford, New Hampshire, Zathura – a delightfully retro rocket-themed game takes Walter and Danny’s house into outer space.

Directed by Jon Favreau – his third feature following MADE and ELF, this is the film he made before hitting the big time with 2008’s IRON MAN. In many ways, if you were to draw a line between ELF and IRON MAN, ZATHURA would naturally fall at the exact stylistic midpoint between the two. It retains the former’s sense of whimsy and wonder, an irresistible childlike delight at the magical possibilities but it combines it with a keen understanding for action, set-pieces and the wry sense of humour that would bring such vitality to the first movie in the MCU.

Largely ignored at the time of release, now – on its 15th Anniversary – the movie is ripe for rediscovery and reappraisal. The young cast are wonderfully watchable, especially up-and-coming stars Josh Hutcherson and Kristen Stewart, each of them still years away from the blockbuster franchises which would cement their stardom. It’s beautifully paced and overall a more well-balanced action adventure than JUMANJI because it’s not in the thrall of a grandstanding central performance. In ZATHURA, the story is the star and it’s a cracker.

One of the chief delihgts is in the largely practical effects work, a deliberate choice of Favreau’s to bring a sense of reality to the outlandish outer space stylings of the whole piece and evoke a more natural, authentic performance from his young cast. The film was largely shot in chronological order to enable the gradual – and occasionally sudden – demolition of the house to take place. “Real” space harpoons crash through real walls. Gas pipes explode with real flames. When the robot malfunctions, it’s a genuine life-size animatronic designed by – who else? – Stan Winston, who also brings the reptilian alien Zorgons to life.

If, like me, you were always more of a sci-fi kid than an outdoorsy adventure type you might even find yourself (whisper it) preferring ZATHURA to JUMANJI. Both are, of course, great but ZATHURA’s more linear story makes for a more directly thrilling ride. There is an attempt at some temporal hijinks at one point in the story involving a heroic astronaut (Dax Shepard) but it’s the one part of the film that doesn’t quite work.

A brilliant concoction of world-building, family fun, superb special and practical effects work and a perfect sense of pace and timing, it’s a mystery why ZATHURA: A SPACE ADVENTURE wasn’t a box office and cult hit on a par with its stablemate JUMANJI. Maybe now, fifteen years later, this old-school crowd-pleaser will finally blast off to the dizzying heights it deserves.

8/10

War Of The Worlds (2005) Review

Dakota Fanning brings the raw emotional terror of alien invasion to life in Steven Spielberg’s visually stunning but narratively stunted War Of The Worlds

I’ve always had a love for H G Wells’ “The War Of The Worlds”, borne out of many a childhood listen to Jeff Wayne’s musical version. While I enjoy the contemporary 1950s version and even the pre-MAGA patriotic fever dream of “Independence Day” (less so its dumber than dumb cousin “Battleship”), I’ve always kind of yearned for an authentic adaptation of the novel, set in the proper time period and exploring the alien invasion from an authentically Victorian – and British – perspective. When Spielberg’s adaptation of the story was first announced, I hoped that this would be the one I had been waiting for, but alas it was not to be. Still, as we find ourselves on the eve of the BBC finally bringing a period-set version of the tale to the small screen, I decided to revisit the 2005 offering.

“War Of The Worlds” is unlikely to top anyone’s list of Spielberg’s cinematic masterpieces and while it may be ‘lesser’ Spielberg to some, that still gives it a fighting chance of being in the upper echelons of movies in general. Aware of how many previous adaptations there have been, Spielberg wisely brings his focus tight around the fractured family of Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) – a surrogate for the evidently splintered and factional human race and in doing so makes this a story less about alien invasion and more about how fragile and vulnerable society itself is when faced with disruption and crisis.

Unfortunately, at times, the relentless focus on the family conflict sometimes bogs the film down in soapy melodrama especially in relation to the Ray’s eldest child Robbie (Justin Chatwin), who’s badly underwritten, evidenced by how much the film picks up once he’s rather unceremoniously written.

Ultimately, like the invading Martian death machines, the film stands on its own tripod: three factors, two of which propel it towards greatness and one which holds it back. The first firm footing the film has is in its Director. Spielberg’s visual genius, and the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, suffuse nearly every frame with bleak yet beautiful imagery. Yes, some of the visual flourishes are just indulgences, the wow factor overriding logic, such as the floating clothes of Martian victims which make for a macabre and memorable visual but a weapon which incinerates flesh but leaves clothes untouched makes zero sense, especially to an invading force which seeks to use humans as a food source. It’s undeniably cool looking, though.

Spielberg certainly doesn’t hold back the darkness in this film, though, and he delivers a plane crash aftermath which tops the one “Lost” delivered a year before while the train on fire and the attack on the ferry are similarly standout sequences. There’s some real darkness on offer too, arguably darker than anything Speilberg has embraced before – in one of his action-adventure movies that is – such as the family drowning in the cars falling off the ferry and, especially, the river of corpses which take Rachel (Dakota Fanning) by surprise during one of the movie’s deceptively peaceful moments.

Dakota Fanning is the second factor which gives “War Of The Worlds” its power. Her performance is simply astonishing and she absolutely should have been in the running for Best Supporting Actress, at the very least. Time and time again, she absolutely nails the emotional intensity of a world gone awry from a child’s point of view and provides a chilling evocation of the very real, present day horror of having to raise a child into an increasingly violent, dangerous and unpleasant world.

The film’s third factor, the one that works against it, is its star, Tom Cruise. His performance is actually pretty good but he’s badly miscast as the blue-collar asshole divorced selfish asshole who’s not really interested in his kids but finds himself stuck with them during the crisis. He feels far too clean-cut, square-jawed and heroic to really deliver the necessary grittiness of the role and it works against the film and the family story Spielberg’s trying to tell and so it’s no surprise when most of that dynamic fades quickly from the performances even as the script tries to continue fanning the flames of the conflict. Ironically, it might have worked much better if Tim Robbins and Tom Cruise had swapped roles. Robbins would have been more believable and layered as the deadbeat dad while anyone who’s seen Cruise’s Oprah’s couch moment can attest to how convincing he is as a delusional maniac.

The finale feels very abrupt but it’s mostly down to the breakneck pacing of the film up to that point and actually, it doesn’t really end so much as just kind of stop. It’s something of a misstep for the rescue from the basket of the tripod to be the defacto action finale set-piece which should probably have been reserved for a better showdown between the dregs of the US Army and the afflicted invaders than we get to see. It’s a nice nod the fifties version of the story to give Gene Barry and Ann Robinson cameos at the very end, but it’s also here that the movie makes its most egregious mistake by bringing back Robbie, alive and well, undermining everything the audience has just seen the other characters endure.

It’s a polished sci-fi disaster epic that with a few casting changes could have been something really special and, while it’s never not nice to hear the dulcet tones of Morgan Freeman’s voice, his opening and closing narrations feel a little unnecessary.

Howard The Duck (1986) Review

Don’t duck your duty to watch Marvel’s first ever feature film

When he popped up in the end of credits stinger on “Guardians Of The Galaxy” (I’m not posting a spoiler warning for that because any right-thinking person has already seen that movie at least twice by now, and if you haven’t, stop what you’re doing and go watch it right now) , I knew it was time. Time to introduce The Mertmas to another of my favourite childhood films. Time to #Rediscover… “Howard The Duck”!

So much has been written about how terrible this film was, how it pushed George Lucas perilously close to bankruptcy (inadvertently starting the genesis of what would become Pixar), how its failure led to boardroom fistfights at Universal and crippled the careers of everyone involved for years but here’s the thing: when I first saw it at the age of 12, I thought it was great!

Back then, I didn’t care about box office receipts, critical reception or production difficulties, I just enjoyed this funny, weird movie about a duck from outer space who crash lands on Earth and has an adventure with a cool looking monster in it. I had no awareness of the comic book source (still don’t, really) but the mix of nonsense, adventure and sci-fi ticked all my boxes and I’m pretty sure I saw it in the cinema more than once. It’s possible I’m personally responsible for most of its UK gross.

The story begins on Duckworld, when Howard is pulled from his apartment by a mysterious energy vortex which dumps him in a seedy neighbourhood of Cleveland, he quickly encounters the colourful and safely non-threatening gang culture which only seemed to exist in comedies in the 1980s. You know the kind, they’re leather and denim clad punks who’ll push you around and brandish flick-knives but the most they’ll do is shove you to the ground near a comfy pile of soft garbage bags. So much more civilised than the gangs nowadays. Having had enough, he rescues Beverly (Lea Thompson) from a would-be mugging and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. Eventually, through Beverly’s friend Phil (Tim Robbins), they discover how Howard arrived on Earth and together with Dr Jennings (Jeffrey Jones) plot to send him back. But before they can, something else uses the experimental laser spectroscope to travel to Earth – a ‘Dark Overlord’ from the Nexus Of Sominus, bent on world domination.

Yeah, the effects are a bit ropey nowadays but they were decent for the time but the puppet/ suit Howard is actually pretty damn good and voiced by Chip Zien and [mostly] inhabited by Ed Gale (Chucky in the “Child’s Play” series) Howard himself feels real and present – far more than, say, CGI Jar Jar Binks would over thirteen years later. Lea Thompson, fresh from her appearance in “Back To The Future” is at her sexiest ever in this film as a rock singer Beverly while Tim Robbins is good value as the manic and clumsy Phil. It’s Jeffrey Jones, however, who comes close to stealing the picture from Howard himself. He’s immensely entertaining as Dr Walter Jennings, especially when he becomes possessed by the Dark Overlord.

Of course, the film isn’t without its problems and the biggest is the whole tone of the film. While the second half is a more straightforward kids sci-fi comedy adventure, the first half is decidedly more adult in its approach. We’re treated to puns aplenty in Howard’s apartment: in-jokes and references to everything from jock-itch to porno mags with more than one glimpse of the naked female duck form displaying impressively mammalian features. There are numerous references to drink, drugs and sex including a played-for-laughs-but-still-a-bit-weird-and-creepy seduction scene between Beverly and Howard (from the producer who brought us a sister kissing her brother to make another man jealous) and Howard being forced to get a job at a sleazy brothel but all of this stuff – all the stuff that weirds me out a bit as an adult – just went over my head at the age of twelve, or if I did get the references, they didn’t bother me.

The same was true for The Mertmas watching this for the first time with me. He loved Howard and enjoyed his adventures, his eight year old mind simply tuning out the bits where Howard says something that seems a bit odd or doesn’t make sense, and focussing on the parts where a duck from outer space has a series of whacky adventures and ends up using a laser gun to fight a really cool looking interdimensional alien.

I concede that my personal fondness for this film polishes out a lot of its rough edges, and perhaps it’s more of a guilty pleasure [Hmm…that gives me an idea!] than a misunderstood and underrated great movie but I enjoyed it then and I still enjoy it now. For me “Howard The Duck” is easily just as good as “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” which has a similarly screwball mixture of surreal sci-fi, comedy and rock’n’roll and yet seems to be universally beloved. The Mertmas has already watched “Howard The Duck” again and I suspect it’ll find a place in his regular rotation.

Perhaps “Guardians Of The Galaxy” will lead to more people seeking this film out and giving it a post-modern, ironic chance. Maybe it’ll even achieve the masterpiece status that George Lucas believed it would eventually be seen as. After all, consider this: “Howard The Duck” was the first – the very first – Marvel feature film in history. And on that ‘Cherry Bomb’shell, I’ll leave you.