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: I Am Not Your Negro

6 02 2017

i-am-not-your-negroRaoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” is a documentary, yes, but it likely bears little resemblance to the kinds of non-fiction works you imagine. Watching the film does not feel like reading a textbook, which comes pre-loaded with conclusions drawn and lessons to learn. Instead, Peck’s work captures the sensation of reading a novel by its subject, James Baldwin. In this format, we must connect the dots ourselves and draw our own meaning.

Peck structures the film around the spine of an unfinished novel Baldwin left behind tracing the history of America through the lives of three black activists: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. As Baldwin so succinctly and accurately states, “The story of the negro in America is the story of America.” His history charts the friction that results in a society unable to assign roles for its black members once they no longer pick the cotton. And since whites lack the imagination to see black revolutionaries, America suffers from a kind of “emotional poverty.”

To use too many of Baldwin’s words or summarize his ideas only serves to bastardize your own experience of grappling with them. Peck makes Baldwin’s prose easy to understand but never simple to digest, in part because it maintains a stubborn relevancy to our current moral malaise. From the white denial of racism to the myth of colorblindness, “I Am Not Your Negro” practically drips with modern applications. There’s an angle and a foothold for just about everyone.

Mine was Baldwin’s fascination with popular culture and how it at once plays out our national conflicts and presents a fantasy of social arrangements. Culture has a way of numbing us, blinding us from seeing our real issues and covering our racial fault lines. But at the same time, the underlying tensions can reflect the country as a whole. His analysis of cinematic heroes as white people who took vengeance into their own hands because they saw it as theirs to take is a scary perspective that will not soon leave my head when viewing classical Hollywood cinema.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

2 05 2016

At its core, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is very much a political thriller. The film concluded production around the time of the Edward Snowden leaks, so any correlation between the two would have been primarily atmospheric in the editing bay. But the nods of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to the kind of political unrest and institutional mistrust of the 1970s feels totally applicable to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s SHIELD and Hydra, themselves proxies for the present day surveillance state.

The good news for audiences is that this kind of smart throwback is attached to a Marvel movie. The bad news, though, is that the movie still has to be a “Marvel movie.”

Every time the film starts developing its ideas or delving into the ramifications, it has to start hitting the predictable comic book movie beats. The need to have a big action set piece every 25-30 minutes ultimately becomes oppressive and counterproductive to the film’s intelligent ambitions. Though the sequel bears the subtitle “Civil War,” the name seems as applicable to that film’s content as it does to the form of “The Winter Soldier.”

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo struggle against the Marvel formula to interesting and more thoroughly entertaining effects. They fail to break the mold, however. The real auteur of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Kevin Feige, the company’s president. What is commercial will likely continue to prevail over what is artistic or iconoclastic. Looking at the numbers, sadly, can anyone blame him? B-2stars





REVIEW: The Hateful Eight

9 01 2016

Snappy dialogue and intricately planned-out scenes put Quentin Tarantino on the map as a generation-defining talent, so it sure is nice to see him once again embracing that spirit in his eighth film, “The Hateful Eight.” After the bloated, mangled mess of “Django Unchained,” operating within his usual wheelhouse of tension ratcheting conversations and raucous bloodshed feels more welcome than usual.

In many ways, however, “The Hateful Eight” is somewhat of an anomaly in Tarantino’s canon. Sure, it bears the usual stamps of expressive language, scrambled chronology and unapologetic gore, but he appears to eschew his favored postmodern pastiche in favor of a more classical vibe.

This proclivity appears most obviously in his selection of music. Apart from “Kill Bill,” Tarantino has never commissioned a composer to score his films. Repurposing aural cues from other films or cultural products has served as a thread running throughout his filmography, reinforcing Tarantino’s DJ-like position as director. He blends, appropriates and remixes to unify and synthesize disparate styles and genres into something entirely new.

Tarantino does not abandon this approach completely in “The Hateful Eight,” although the majority of the sonic landscape in the film comes from a brand new Ennio Morricone score. The very musician whose compositions Tarantino has deployed to great effect in each of his films made this millennia gets to express himself on his own terms. Morricone grants the production a heightened level of prestige and legitimacy with his participation, allowing it a certain measure of independence. “The Hateful Eight” does not rely on referencing other films to imbue the proceedings with meaning. Rather, Tarantino casts his gaze inwards toward the dark, beating heart of his own work.

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REVIEW: Chi-Raq

11 12 2015

Chi-RaqSubtlety has never been a strength of Spike Lee’s, and his latest film “Chi-Raq” is all the better for him not even attempting. From its opening scene, where big red letters and a booming voice declare “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY,” we know exactly how he feels about his chosen subject – the epidemic of gun violence in urban Chicago. Removing any guesswork just makes the political commentary come through all the more clearly.

Lee reworks the Greek comedy of “Lysistrata” into the modern day. Now, the women are not on a sex strike to end a war; they are withholding their carnal secrets to stop the carnage on their streets. Admirably, he tries to keep the sounds of verse in tact from Aristophanes’ plays, though they often times strain or falter altogether. Many times, a line will pierce with its accuracy. But at others, the exaggeration and hyperbole becomes unintentionally comical.

Though Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) and the movement she leads are undeniably the primary focus of “Chi-Raq,” Lee also has other balls in play. Chiefly, he follows a grieving mother, Jennifer Hudson’s Irene, who seeks justice after her young daughter was shot down in the streets by an unknown gunman. These segments have nothing outlandish or overblown about them. Hudson brings genuine, moving pathos to her character’s struggle (perhaps informed by what happened in her own life).

The inclusion of both stories might serve as a testament to the urgency Lee feels in getting people angry about this issue. Heck, the film shot over the summer and includes reference to the Emanuel AME shooting in Charleston and the Cecil the Lion kerfuffle – meaning he got it out of the editing bay in just months. Viewers would likely find one character more interesting and identifiable, meaning Lee could maximize his reach with a single film. Yet as a result, “Chi-Raq” feels wildly uneven … and that’s not even mentioning the musical numbers that constantly disrupt any narrative momentum.

Nonetheless, it’s encouraging to see Lee legitimately up in arms about something once again. His recent work, disciplined thought it might have been, has felt somewhat passionless. In “Chi-Raq,” he’s mad as hell and very much alive in letting us know. He provides, with rather blunt didacticism, solutions to Chicago’s bloodshed from both without and from within. And he even seems hopeful that a change is going to come, which might be the most shocking turn of the entire movie. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Avengers: Age of Ultron

28 08 2015

At this point, I am unsure how much good it does me to review “Avengers: Age of Ultron” as I would a movie.  I feel like it would be more useful to write up the experience of the film as a writer for Consumer Reports would describe a car – with matter-of-fact bullet-points and statistics.  What is the point of trying to capture the artistry of a film in the intricacies of prose when that film is little more than a top-of-the-line product?

The latest item off the “Avengers” conveyer belt amounts to little more than an 150 minute billboard for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Perhaps the one notable difference between “Age of Ultron” and its predecessor is that the events tend to sow discord that cleaves a wedge between the heroes as opposed to uniting them.  (I can only assume that was a decision that arose organically from the material and not as some kind of tie-in to the impending “Civil War.”)

Maestro Joss Whedon ensures that the film matches all the tech specs any fan looks for in a comic book movie.  It has action sequences the way cars have cupholders.  To top it all off, he assembles a climax that feels like it could (and maybe should) just exist as its own movie and is probably fetishized in the same way automotive aficionados value a powerful engine.  Maybe some of this would be exciting if it were not so painfully predictable.  Rather than inspiring me to marvel at the screen, it just made me feel numb.

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REVIEW: Kingsman: The Secret Service

23 03 2015

Earlier in 2015, Matthew Vaughn hit a nerve with many movie fans when he took a giant crap on the face of reigning blockbuster king Christopher Nolan.  “People want fun and escapism at the moment,” said Vaughn in an interview, “I think Nolan kick-started a very dark, bleak style of superhero escapism, and I think people have had enough of it.”

I take issue with his statement for a number of reasons.  First of all, it just reeks of bitterness over Nolan’s success; the total worldwide gross of Vaughn’s combined filmography does not even come close to equaling the haul of “The Dark Knight Rises.”  Second, it implies that serious action films are shoving lighter fare out of the market on both the level of the corporation and the consumer.

For me, I tend to prefer Nolan’s films because they so boldly test the boundaries of what our entertainment can be.  But at the end of the day, I do not want to live in a world where I cannot kick back and enjoy a blissfully funny, irreverent, and exciting movie like Matthew Vaughn’s own “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”  There will always be a place for well-crafted entertainment that knows the role it wants to play and fulfills its duties with gusto.

Vaughn’s film, co-written with his frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, strikes a rarely found balance between spy movie classicism (like a Bond flick) and outright parody (a la “Austin Powers”).  They find the right times to shift gears, and the result is an experience that plays like all the fun of two movies for the price of one.  Overall, I found myself reminded of the hero’s quest of Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars” hybridized with “Agent Cody Banks” (throwback – bet you haven’t thought about that movie in a while).

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