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: 10 Cloverfield Lane

26 03 2016

I scarcely remember anything that happened in 2008’s “Cloverfield,” though I will never forget the nausea-inducing vertigo its constant shaky-cam gave me. I have a vague recollection of seeing the monster at the end (sorry if that spoiled something for anyone) and some kind of government cover-up of the whole thing. In other words, nothing had me clamoring for a sequel or offshoot.

Yet along comes “10 Cloverfield Lane,” directed by Dan Trachtenberg, written (to some extent) by “Whiplash” wunderkind Damien Chazelle and presumptively overseen by producer J.J. Abrams – and all of a sudden, they showed me that I did not know what I wanted. How refreshing to see a brand extension that serves as a brand revitalization. Rather than relying on the formula, mythology or beats of its predecessor, this bold new path in what now is supposedly a franchise delivers exactly what we need by giving us nothing we expected.

Most people remember “Cloverfield” chiefly for its marketing campaign. “10 Cloverfield Lane” arrived like Adele’s “25,” a teaser out of nowhere with the full product dropping shortly after. Ironically, the lead-up hardly presaged the experience. While the anticipation “Cloverfield” ultimately revealed thin substance, the somewhat muted hype machine surrounding “10 Cloverfield Lane” was only scratching the surface of the film’s tremendous impact. Trachtenberg’s film is like a master-class in suspense building, expertly and tautly edited to ratchet up the heat in every scene until it reaches a boiling point. In many ways, it could not be more different from “Cloverfield,” whose verité live video style relied on overwhelming the senses to communicate urgency and danger.

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REVIEW: Inside Llewyn Davis

17 01 2016

Inside Llewyn DavisCannes Film Festival – Official Competition, 2013

“If it was never new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song,” explains Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) after yet another gig strumming his guitar at Greenwich Village’s Gaslamp in”Inside Llewyn Davis.” The film is full of folk tunes in its soundtrack as it recreates the pre-Dylan early 1960s scene in New York. Yet, in many ways, the Coen Brothers’ film itself is a folk song, if judged by the definition they provide.

Llewyn’s story is all too familiar – and one that hits close to home for anyone yet to achieve the lofty success they were promised with every participation medal. Most stories of musicians trying to enter into the business involve some measure of pain and frustration, but for Llewyn, the bad breaks seem almost cosmic. He’s always a smidgen too early or a moment too late to shake off the funk that seems to set a tone of frustration and misery for his life. “King Midas’ idiot brother,” his ex-flame Jean (Carey Mulligan) describes him, and by the end of the film, such a mythological explanation for Llewyn’s woes seems entirely possible.

It proves frustrating to watch him endure trial after tribulation, though not because the beats are tired. The doomed slacker routine may have been done before, but certainly not like Joel and Ethan Coen do it. Insomuch as the duo would ever make something so straightforward as a “personal” film, “Inside Llewyn Davis” addresses the price a person can pay for trying to maintain the purity of their art. Llewyn decries the easy, the accessible and the crowd-pleasing, lamenting anyone who panders to these attributes as sell-outs or careerists.

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REVIEW: Trumbo

30 11 2015

TrumboThe potential criminalization of thought. The stoking of Americans’ fear of immigrants. The incessant blabbering that the media is infecting the world with its supposed invective.

No, that’s not the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s the late 1940s and early 1950s as depicted by Jay Roach in his new film “Trumbo.” But certain similarities inevitably come to light, of course. Fortunately for the team behind this project (but unfortunately for the world), the aftermath of the Paris attacks that occurred just a week after its theatrical release have only made this history lesson all the more pressing to revisit.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Communists were merely self-respecting left-wingers just slightly more extreme than the average Democrat. But once the Cold War began and the Soviet Union was no longer an ally, Communism was the primary menace to the security of the United States. A number of activists, such as Bryan Cranston’s screenwriting whiz Dalton Trumbo, were left to answer for a militaristic ideology they never intend to espouse.

The film shows, in heartbreaking detail, just how quickly the red panic overtook the country and instituted a reign of terror headed by Congress’ HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee). Worse of all, Hollywood became complacent in imprisoning and exiling talents like Trumbo. These self-fashioned patriotic moralists, led by John Wayne (David James Elliott) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), drove the industry to create its notorious “blacklist” of known communists that could never be hired again.

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REVIEW: The Gambler

23 12 2014

In Rupert Wyatt’s “The Gambler,” Mark Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, an English professor by day and a high-stakes better by night.  When he gets himself into a tight situation with creditors coming to collect a big debt, Bennett resists help from his put-out mother (Jessica Lange) and a prodigious student (Brie Larson).  Instead, he responds by digging his hole deeper to vault himself out on an even larger scale.

Wahlberg plays the character with a vulnerability and self-deprecation when spitting out screenwriter William Monaghan’s rapid-fire dialogue.  Yet when his lips are still, Wahlberg imbues Bennett with a staggeringly ambivalent sense of hubris.  Viewing a week in his quickly disintegrating life is a strange experience because so much about him seems contradictory.

Bennett is best understood by not trying to understand him at all, simply watching and observing rather than identifying or analyzing.  Monaghan, working from a forty-year-old New Hollywood flick of the same name, harkens back to the era of the characterization’s conception.  Bennett exemplifies the ’70s-style impenetrable antihero, but Monaghan cleverly reassembles him for relevance in the time of TV’s current “difficult men” like Don Draper and Walter White.

Bennett cannot be explained by nor reduced to a few biographical details. Nothing indicates some massive familial implosion. His condition does not appear to have any psychological roots at all, in fact. Bennett has simply shed all illusions about life and convinced himself that the only game worth playing is one where the stakes are all or nothing.

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REVIEW: The Monuments Men

6 11 2014

The Monuments Men

On paper, “The Monuments Men” sounds like a movie that could be not only exciting entertainment but also great intellectual resonance.  The premise of the film, following a ragtag band of brothers assigned to save Europe’s greatest artworks from Hitler’s grasp, promises all the action of a World War II flick and a potent reminder of the vast importance of art.

Yet somewhere between the concept and the screen, George Clooney’s film takes its eye off the prize.  What he pulls together is rather disappointing given all the impressive elements at his disposal.  “The Monuments Men” is not necessarily a bad movie; it’s just a shockingly unsubstantial one.

Nothing really seems to propel the film forwards, leaving it suspended in a state of sustained mediocrity.  Though Clooney assembles quite the prestige cast, including Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, and Bill Murray, he rarely lets them play off each other as an ensemble.  From the outset, they split up in pairs on separate missions, inhibiting attachment and fracturing the narrative.

Obviously, a film steeped in history should try to model its narrative based on the actual events (although that rarely stops movies these days).  But there had to be some way for Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov to spice up the script without deviating too far from the facts.

Honing the focus, like picking a central character to follow with dedication, might have been helpful.  “The Monuments Men” has no shortage of amusing supporting characters yet no driving leading force.  At times, the film just feels like a series of short films and amusing moments tied together into one bland, bloated two-hour feature.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Monsters University

7 08 2013

Monsters UMonsters University” may not scale the emotional heights of Pixar’s most recent towering achievements “Up” and “Toy Story 3,” but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t moving, charming, or sweet in other ways.  It’s a movie that will be special and touching to anyone who has ever felt like an impostor or an underdog in their own life.  And for those big kids who have been to college themselves, it’s especially meaningful to anyone who has struggled to find their place on campus.

The film opens with a sight to make your heart melt – a tiny Mike Wazowski, the most adorable little nugget with big dreams to become a scarer at Monsters, Inc.  He’s got plenty of book smarts but lacks the intimidating frame to take the Scare Floor by storm.  Mike (Billy Crystal) meets quite the foil in a cocky young James P. “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman), a dumb party animal who slacks off because he’s blessed with natural skill.  It’s a pretty standard nerd vs. jock dichotomy, in case you hadn’t already figured it out.

But the Pixar plot machine doesn’t have them battle in conventional ways.  Rather, after a big mistake lands them in hot water with Dean Hardscrabble (the ever-intimidating Helen Mirren), Mike and Sully are forced to team up to earn their stripes in the scare program.  They have to win the prestigious Greek Scare Cup to gain reentry into the class, leading them join up with a lovable band of misfits, Oozma Kappa.

The oddballs of Oozma Kappa, a fraternity house that’s also someone’s mom’s house, bring a lot of the vitality and humor to “Monsters University” that we don’t get in spades from seeing our old friends Mike and Sully (and Randall, who’s thrown in for good measure).  The novelty of these myriad new characters, however, does tend to overpower our reliable staples.  It’s still an enjoyable romp with astutely observed characters that offer very applicable life lessons for everyone.

And I think the fact that I’m currently in college led me to feel especially endeared to the film, which so accurately captured a key aspect of my own experience.  It’s easy to come into college expecting that we’re going to be one person, yet we so often find ourselves inexorably and immutably changed by unexpected people and events.  And thanks to Pixar’s great storytelling genius, they find a way to expand this valuable nugget of wisdom beyond the campus of Monsters University and into a larger reservoir of human experience.  B+3stars