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-

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REVIEW: I Saw the Light

1 04 2016

I Saw the LightIf the biopic of Hank Williams is to be believed, he saw the light when his first-born child entered the world. (We know this, of course, because he sang it.) Around this time in the film, I found myself wishing I saw a different kind of light – the one at the end of the tunnel, if that tunnel were the interminable film “I Saw the Light.”

Marc Abraham begins the film with a long take that circles around Tom Hiddleston as he introduces us to his take on Williams through music: an a capella rendition of “Cold, Cold Heart.” (Conspicuously, his voice lacks that deep Southern drawl that so defines the Williams sound.) He rest firmly in the spotlight, though the camera angle obscures his face until the very end of the song. Ironically, the introduction provides a perfect encapsulation of the film’s flaws.

“I Saw the Light” places its subject front and center, but Abraham never really finds a satisfying angle through which to analyze him. As a performer, his chief adversity is … convincing people to get over the fact that he holds onto notes for too long. As a person, he is guilty of … philandering, like far too many musicians depicted on screen. At one point, seemingly out of nowhere, it is revealed that Williams struggles with alcoholism to a point of self-endangerment. One aspect, isolated and explored with gusto, might have helped the film gain some footing. Without such focus, it flounders.

Often times, biopics lacking a strong directorial hand or a definitive angle can find salvation in a strong lead performance. Yet Hiddleston, charming as he can be, just never quite gets comfortable as Hank Williams. The film clearly values veracity as it awkwardly intersperses documentary-style interviews with Williams’ manager (Bradley Whitford), but the central performance never quite registers as an adequate facsimile for the real thing. C2stars





REVIEW: High-Rise

27 10 2015

Fantastic Fest

If Ben Wheatley’s achievement in High-Rise were likened to anything, it might have to be juggling fire.  Not merely content to cautiously play with fire, he lights a few torches and tosses them back and forth into the air.  Having perfect form seems almost beside the point as execution gets subjugated by the power of sheer ambition.  The mere ability to keep so many dangerous objects in orbit without self-immolating inspires wonder.

Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise

Wheatley’s cinematic iteration of J.G. Ballard’s novel, adapted for the screen by his wife Amy Jump, is the kind of filmmaking so outlandish and ballsy that it might even be illegal in some parts. The film lingered in development hell for four decades but arrives at the perfect time both socially and artistically.  For a story that deals heavily with class conflict and economic inequality, High-Rise has only become more topical with each passing year.  Furthermore, all its idiosyncrasies make Wheatley’s gonzo style a perfect match of director with material.

The film uses its titular structure, a Brutalist skyscraper containing all the necessary supplies for a self-sustaining community, as a microcosm of our stratified social strata.  But where many stories obliquely commenting on the de facto arrangements that organize our world opt for obvious allegory, Wheatley finds a more satisfying film by exploring the realm of the metaphorical.  Not everything in High-Rise corresponds directly to a recognizable counterpart in the real world, which allows Wheatley the ability to operate at higher levels of ambiguity.

Elisabeth Moss and Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise

Over the course of nearly two hours, the film takes its audience on a thrill ride akin to the Tower of Terror at Disneyland as it goes back and forth between the Caligula-esque exploits of the top floors’ wealthy residents and the grunge of the working class who dwell towards the bottom.  The closest thing the film has to an entry point is Tom Hiddleston’s Robert Laing, a doctor who seems to fall somewhere between the two divisions.

Laing is more often witness to the proceedings than an active participant in the war that breaks out, yet in a way, that makes him all the more ideal to experience the escalating absurdity through.  Calling him a blank slate does a disservice to Hiddleston’s captivating performance, though he does serve that function ins some part.

When someone roasts a dog or bludgeons their enemy with a BAFTA trophy – both of which happen in ­High-Rise – there is something rather refreshing about not being told precisely how to feel.  Many events that take place come with no obvious response, and Wheatley allows us the chance to react as we feel appropriate.  But be it laughter, fear, shock or disgust, our mouths are wide open in awe regardless.  And since the ideas come flying fast and furious, with a new thought arriving before the last one has a chance to settle in, there is simply no choice but to see High-Rise again. B+3stars





REVIEW: Crimson Peak

17 10 2015

Crimson Peak” presents an unfortunate irony for most reviewers like myself.  The movie is essentially what we clamor for day in and day out: the chance for a great auteur like Guillermo del Toro to work on a sprawling canvas with a large budget of $55 million.  Yet, at the end of the day, the end product feels lacking in substance.  So how to respond?

If it felt like an ambitious endeavor in pursuit of a singular vision that just never quite finds its footing, I might be inclined to judge it more kindly.  While del Toro’s exercise in merging the Gothic romance with haunted house horror is interesting, “Crimson Peak” does not derive its strength from such a union.  In fact, most of the film’s memorable moments come from well-placed homages to classics like “Psycho” and “The Shining.”

del Toro’s immaculate eye for costume and design keep “Crimson Peak” stunning to look at, even if the events that unfold in this milieu are boring enough to encourage some shut-eye.  The film shows its hand far too early as two eerily close British siblings, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), arrive in Buffalo, NY, to seek a capital injection.  Thomas conveniently falls for the main financier’s daughter, Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing, and takes her back to their family estate known as Allerdale Hall.

“Crimson Peak” manages to elicit the odd thrill or chill here and there, but a moment where the Sharpes are seen plotting some unknown scheme towards the beginning of the film robs the experience of suspense.  There is not nearly enough heat between Hiddleston and Wasikowska to enliven the stale romantic beats they are doomed to hit.  Only Jessica Chastain, in a delightfully demented turn, manages to really excite when the final act finally allows her to come unhinged.

She’s almost too good for the movie.  While it’s hard to fault her for wanting to collaborate with a director like Guillermo del Toro, I can’t help but wish all this wrath was channeled into a more exciting work.  C+ / 2stars





REVIEW: Only Lovers Left Alive

18 08 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive posterCannes Film Festival – Official Selection, 2013

I’ve listened to countless interviews with James Gray about his film “The Immigrant,” so many that I can’t pair a quote with a particular interview and thus cite it correctly.  But in one talk about filmmaking in general, Gray talked about how great directors are effective at conveying mood.

I haven’t seen enough of Jim Jarmusch’s filmography to make a definitive statement about whether or not he is a great director.  But I have seen his latest film, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” and I can say that simply because it has control of mood does not make it a great film.  Jarmusch favors ambiance over story development to a fault in his film that probably had its proper title, “Modern Vampires of the City,” stolen by Vampire Weekend’s latest album.

The film comes from an original screenplay by the director, and it certainly earns points for being clever.  “Only Lovers Left Alive” runs in a different direction with the current vampire fad,  portraying the bloodsuckers as hipsters hiding out in the latest haunt.  When we catch up with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s immortal lovers, wittily named Adam and Eve, he has shacked up in Detroit while she’s hanging in Tangiers.

It’s undeniably entertaining to get immersed in the distinctive universe Jarmusch has them inhabiting.  Watching them figure out how to get the blood they need to survive is cheeky fun, as is the creative ways they choose to consume it.  Not to mention, their demeanors and attitudes are so unexpected that it can’t help but be attention-grabbing.  (Hearing them name-drop some of their famous friends makes for a good chuckle, too.)

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REVIEW: The Deep Blue Sea

27 12 2012

There was a moment towards the beginning of Terrence Davies’ “The Deep Blue Sea” where I thought I might be watching a film made beautifully in the style of another Terrence.  That is, Terrence Malick.  The film starts with a 10-minute prologue that is marvelously expressionistic and truly poetic.  The way Davies filmed a love scene, with Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston’s bare bodies intertwining and interlocking as one, is a thing of pure beauty and grace.

But like Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia,” Davies pulls out all the stops in the opening minutes and leaves us with a mess of a movie to deal with afterwards.  It’s a boring and melodramatic replaying of the scenarios we normally see Reese Witherspoon playing out in movies like “This Means War” and “How Do You Know.”  If that comparison strikes you as a little too extreme, it also bears quite a resemblance to indie favorites of 2012 “Take This Waltz” and “Middle of Nowhere.”

As Hester Collyer, Weisz is a woman torn between duty to her husband, the older Sir William (Simon Russell Beale), and her passion for the younger RAF pilot Freddie Page (Hiddleston).  And over the course of an hour and a half, we see her torn apart by these two competing forces for heart.  I think we were supposed to feel something for her or perhaps have some sympathy for Hester going into this battle royale, but both were nonexistent.

The bulk of “The Deep Blue Sea” takes place in the self-loathing pity party stage of Hester’s indecision, a stage which is totally natural but brutally unwatchable if that’s all we are given to witness.  And Weisz, fantastic as she is, plays her character with so much angst you’d think she studied up on Kristen Stewart to get inspiration for her performance.  All she does is stare wistfully out a window, smoke cigarettes, stand still, and pout.

The two men make desperate pleas for her, and she remains in the corner chanting her own personal requiem.  If “The Deep Blue Sea” is some statement on the helplessness of 1950s women to change their situation, this film adds nothing original to the conversation.  It’s just a moping mess that wallows and ultimately drowns in its own sadness.  D+1star





REVIEW: The Avengers

15 10 2012

There are two kinds of people in this world: those that prefer “The Dark Knight” and Christopher Nolan, and those that “The Avengers” and Joss Whedon. I count myself absolutely and unapologetically in the first camp.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to like both; indeed, I did enjoy “The Avengers.” That point might be lost in this review since I will be attacking the ideology of filmmaking that produces movies like it, but Whedon recaptures the fun spirit that has been lost in Marvel films since Jon Favreau’s original “Iron Man” in 2008.

He doesn’t provide nearly enough justification for the wasting of four hours of my life on “Thor” and “Captain America,” but then again, I’m not the target audience. Just the sight of those figures will undoubtedly bring joy to many fans; I need a little bit more of a reason to care. I need to know why a purely expository story for “The Avengers” with little drama of its own is worth my time and money.

Whedon definitely embraces the inherent childishness of the comic books and places that as the center of the film; Nolan merely uses the familiar characters of renowned series as a facade to explore important social and cultural issues. There’s no discussion of serious issues in “The Avengers,” unless you count how New York would recover from the $160 billion of damage done to the city in the movie’s bloated climax.

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