REVIEW: Kong: Skull Island

7 03 2017

“Am I the story of the Negro in America?” asks a German major in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” as he tries to guess the name written on a card affixed to his forehead in a bar game. He gets a resounding “no” after running through a series of questions that could just as easily describe the importation of slaves. But he quickly pivots and rattles off, “Well, then, I must be King Kong.”

Traditionally in cinema – and fiction as a whole – our monsters mean something. They reflect the deep fears and anxieties of a society, ones that might not obviously rear their heads but can find vicarious expression through metaphor and transitive representation. In 1933’s version of “King Kong,” Tarantino saw a deeply symbolic tale about race in America. It’s too bad that “Kong: Skull Island,” the latest spin on the giant ape, arrives at a time of no racial tension and the complete absolution of prejudice based on ancestral origin. (Ha.)

But what kind of monster is Kong in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film? At first, the behemoth primate seems to be something between a colonialist allegory given the backdrop of the Vietnam War and a cautionary tale for human overreach in a technology-heavy era. The longer the film goes on, the more these aspects reveal themselves as clear offshoots of Vogt-Roberts’ key touchstones, “Apocalypse Now” and “Jurassic Park.” Then the real question of “Kong: Skull Island” arises. Is it worse if the filmmaking team (which includes four credited writers) have an undercooked meaning of the monster … or if there’s just no meaning at all?

We get the answer – it’s the latter of the two options – in a post-credits zinger. No spoilers about the contents of the scene, but Warner Bros. deliberately robs King Kong of any allegorical meaning to strip him down to pure commercialism. He’s now just another branded property, another franchise toy who can be trotted out in any number of series without being weighed down by cultural baggage. The ape who loomed large in the American imagination is now just another large CGI creation in a veritable zoo created by the VFX wizards that be. The whole film amounts to a less neon-bathed “Avatar,” a creature feature full of empty spectacle (and even less politicization).

Kong’s presence in the film is practically nonexistent, too. That includes implied appearances, a method to which Spielberg acolyte Vogt-Roberts fondly makes homage. The majority of “Kong: Skull Island” consists of a ragtag band of people who have been in too many action movies (Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman) and those whose careers could use an action movie (Brie Larson, Thomas Mann, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell) trying to make it to the top of a mountain for rescue after a military mission goes south. Their journey has its enjoyable moments, but who really buys a ticket to a King Kong movie for pithy banter between photojournalists and cagey war veterans? B-





REVIEW: Tanner Hall

17 02 2016

Tanner HallWithin the walls of any boarding school, there are many stories that can be told. Tatiana von Fürstenberg and Francesca Gregorini’s “Tanner Hall” chooses to tell far too many of them.

There’s the bookish Fernanda, played by Rooney Mara, who sees her fragilely constructed milieu disrupted by the arrival of an old friend, the spontaneous rabble-rouser Victoria (Georgia King). She’s also flirting with an older, married Gio (Tom Everett Scott).

Then, there’s Brie Larson’s Kate, a charismatic troublemaker who loves to tease their dorm room advisor, Mr. Middlewood (Chris Kattan). That eventually turns into all-out advances on him, exploiting his sexually frustrated marriage with his aggressive wife (Amy Sedaris).

Perhaps if a single story thread had gotten the full-length feature consideration, “Tanner Hall” might have more pop to it. But with all crammed into 90 minutes, each character gets short shrift. Every part of the film feels unsatisfying and underdeveloped.

The chief fascination of “Tanner Hall” now is how the film presages the rise of Mara and Larson, with each giving performances that so neatly represent the actresses they have matured to become. Mara is every bit as pensive and withdrawn as she is in a film like “Carol,” while Larson remains a ball of energy and charm. C-1halfstars





REVIEW: Room

17 11 2015

It’s easy to think the most impressive cinematic achievements are the ones that transport us to new worlds of an artist’s creation. (Case in point: “Star Wars.”) But there is something to be said for those films that can take the familiar and make it feel new and radically different. I speak not of freshly presenting plot points but rather an entire way of seeing, and Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” achieves such a feat.

The film assumes the perspective of five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) as he gains self-awareness of his place in the world. Problem is, that world is extremely socially constructed by his mother, Brie Larson’s “Ma.” She, assumed disappeared and dead, is held captive inside a shed by a vile man who eventually impregnates her. Rather than explain their dire situation to Jack, Ma decides to teach him that their room is the entirety of the world.

The tiny space, instead of feeling claustrophobic, seems limitless when filtered through a childlike curiosity and innocence. As he begins to make sense of the world around him, it inspires us to think deeply about the small assumptions make about our surroundings on a daily basis.

Emma Donoghue adapted “Room” from her own novel of the same name, and it is told by Jack in the first person. For over 300 pages, the depth and breadth of his observational eye forges quite the bond between reader and character over time. In a way, it almost does not feel fair to expect a movie to match that scope in just two short hours. Abrahamson and Donoghue do a wonderful job translating the story to the screen, though something may feel lost – or at least somewhat less substantial – to those who know the book.

Even so, everyone should expect to be bowled over by stunning performances from Tremblay and Larson. The way each struggles to assert the primacy of their own needs while caring for the other proves compelling and often gut-wrenching. This is particularly true for Larson’s Ma, who has no choice but to wrestle with the darkest of her feelings and impulse in captivity. After five years of such intensive, performative positivity, living an untruth takes its toll. “Room” celebrates when her selflessness wins out but never judges her for needing some personal space – a tricky balance beautifully managed by all involved. B+3stars





REVIEW: Digging for Fire

1 09 2015

Digging for FireAs writer/director Joe Swanberg wanders the corridors of marital discontent in his latest film, “Digging for Fire,” I could not help but wonder if this is what Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” would look like when refracted through the lens of low-budget indie cinema.  Over the course of a weekend spent apart, previously unknown rifts and fault lines appear between Tim (Jake Johnson, also a co-writer on the film) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) while they amble and converse freely.

Each’s journey appears cross-cut with the other’s, and the spouses might as well be occupying entirely different films.  Tim hangs out to drink beers and smoke pot with his buddies – one of whom arrives with a young woman on each arm – but proves unable to put his mind at ease about some suspicious bones he spotted in the yard.  Lee, meanwhile, drifts between scenes and choose mostly to let the words of others trigger her thought process.  He is aggressively verbose in expressing his own frustrations; she reacts to hearing those from others.

At moments, “Digging for Fire” shows real insight into the listlessness of marriage and parenting.  Johnson feels especially at home since he gets to speak (presumptively) dialogue he helped write.  When Tim expresses his frustrations and anxieties, they clearly come from someplace personal and resonate accordingly.  For all those looking to use art to deal with their own life, try to model this to avoid self-indulgence.

Swanberg, though, sometimes gets carried away by his posse of ever-ready actor pals.  Since his movies shoot so quickly and efficiently, it makes sense that these stars want a chance to flex their muscles in between the paycheck gigs.  In this case, the ensemble of comedians and dramatists alike can detract attention from what might have played more effectively as a tighter two-hander.  Between the screen time allotted to Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Mike Birbiglia, and Anna Kendrick, “Digging for Fire” can sometimes feel like a party at the Swanbergs for which he provided a loose plot and great camerawork.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Trainwreck

4 08 2015

Trainwreck PosterAt roughly the midpoint of “Trainwreck,” writer Amy Schumer sets up a remarkable parallel between two scenes at the same baby shower.  The character Amy, played by Schumer herself, has to endure a brutal game of “Skeletons in the Closet” where posh young mothers spill dark secrets … that actually reveal themselves as pathetically and predictably tame.

Meanwhile, Amy’s boyfriend, Bill Hader’s Aaron Conners, recounts details of the many athletes he has helped rehabilitate in his sports medicine practice.  He rattles of name after name to the same awe-struck reaction from a crowd of unfamiliar men … until he drops the name Alex Rodriguez.  Among this set of New Yorkers, this blasphemy inspires a sudden outburst of profanity.  But then, Aaron goes back to some more agreeable athletes, and the peanut gallery resumes the standard call-and-response.

These scenes, juxtaposed as they are, communicate a central tenet of “Trainwreck.”  Both genders, when taking cultural stereotypes of gender to the extreme ends of their performance, deserve mockery for their folly.  (This also includes John Cena, who briefly appears as Amy’s bodybuilding boyfriend who talks about the gym like many women talk about the nail salon.)  Schumer’s feminist intervention into the romantic comedy genre aims to level the playing field for men and women, not by putting the latter on any kind of pedestal but through suggesting the common humanity that unites them.

Her on-screen persona in “Trainwreck” arrives at the perfect moment, a time where many female characters are either monotonically strong or practically invisible and silent.  The “approachable” Amy, as her boss (played by a bronzed Tilda Swinton) condescendingly deems her, is a romantic comedy heroine cut from the cloth of contemporary society.  The hard-drinking, truth-telling, free-wheeling character benefits from the assertiveness in romance that women gained through the sexual revolution, yet she also pushes up against the lingering constraints left unconquered by that unfinished movement.  Amy also embodies the spirit of a generation scared to death of commitment, an era when the only thing scarier than the sea of possibilities is the choice to settle on one of them.

She meets her match in Aaron, an equally plain-spoken person who falls for Amy as she profiles him for the men’s magazine S’nuff.  The big difference, though, is that he possesses self-confidence where she shields her insecurities with self-deprecation.  Aaron, notably, never becomes a human incarnation of a “Mr. Wonderful” doll.  While exceedingly nice and admirable, Amy exposes a few of the buttons he might not like people pushing.

“Trainwreck” does not place Amy in the position of damsel in distress, nor does it make her some kind of prize for winning once tamed.  Amy’s impetus to change, although partially spurred by Aaron, seems to derive from an internal desire to stop numbing herself to the world.  And even in her triumphs (including the grand finale), Schumer always makes sure her Amy still shows some amusing, endearing flaws.  She is allowed to have flawed, circular logic, and it does not mean she is crazy; it just means we embrace her all the more.

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REVIEW: Short Term 12

14 03 2015

Short Term 12“Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like, to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like,” raps Keith Stanfield as Marcus in “Short Term 12.”  The musical moment occurs early on in the film, so the mood of momentarily subdued hopelessness is well established.  But his vulnerable profession of pain still feels like it comes out of nowhere, blindsiding us and leaving an aching bruise on our heart.

Writer/director Destin Cretton derived the film from his own experiences working in a home for troubled teens, so the scenes portraying the residents of the short term living facility are the most vividly realized.  They possess a potent, palpable authenticity that is rare to encounter outside of documentary film.  The kids do not come across as characters wandering around inside a story – they feel like people who happened to step in front of the lens.

“Short Term 12” would be a compelling enough film had it just focused on the backstories of the teenagers and what led them to the home, but that does not exactly lend itself handily to the narrative form.  Thus, to tie all the elements together, Cretton introduces Brie Larson as the home’s supervisor, Grace, into the script.

Larson is phenomenal in the role, bringing equal parts heart and grit to the table.  But the problem is, the rest of “Short Term 12” just lies on an entirely different level as her.  Everyone else appears to be inhabiting and living; Larson, unavoidably, always has to act.  They are authentic, while she is honest – two modes that are closely related but not quite synonymous.

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REVIEW: Don Jon

28 01 2015

Don JonFor all those who might have found Steve McQueen’s sex addiction drama “Shame” too intense in either content or form, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s comedic “Don Jon” may provide the perfect vehicle for discussing the same issues.  The film acknowledges many of the ills facing men in the age of internet pornography, such as the objectification of women and the notion that sexual satisfactions is deliverable on demand at the leisure of a Google search.

“Don Jon” will prove enlightening for anyone who has never thought deeply about masturbatory pleasures, especially because Gordon-Levitt’s script telegraphs his social commentary through heavy-handed voiceovers from his lead character Jon.  Anyone who has ever taken anything more than psychology or sociology 101 is likely to find the film’s observations shallow and skin-deep.  But if it gets people talking and consciously reconsidering their habits, then the movie at least serves some purpose.

And in case someone tunes out during Jon’s long-winded (and perhaps somewhat implausibly aware) confessionals on his porn addiction, the plot also effectively echoes the simple yet important message.  Though the womanizing, GTL-exuding Jon lands a smoking hot girlfriend Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), she quickly flees once she discovers the extent of his dirty secret and leaves Jon a wreck.  Only when he heeds the learned wisdom of Julianne Moore’s middle-aged Esther, who reminds him that sex is about satisfying two people, can he regain the same pleasure in the orgasm.

Though “Don Jon” may not speak fluently on matters on sexuality, Gordon-Levitt certainly understands gender politics quite well.  The film really nails some of what needs to change in our current conception of masculinity, and he begins to tackle the way that females reinforce that.  At one point while shopping, Barbara insists that Jon cannot, as a man, clean his own house because it clashes with the performance of manliness that she expects.  That, unfortunately, proves the extent of glancing at the other side of the gender divide, yet there is always time to explore further.  Gordon-Levitt ought to make a “Don Joan” movie to examine femininity as well since a little too much was left on the table in “Don Jon.”  B2halfstars