Friday, March 10, 2017

The Kong Who Would Be King: KONG: SKULL ISLAND

At least the latest big-budget creature feature, Kong: Skull Island, works where it really counts: the creatures. It presents an island full of creepy crawlies and monster mashes, not merely the expected ginormous ape, but also: towering water buffalo, massive birds, a gargantuan octopus, and a family of creepy skull-faced lizards so humungous they’d leave even the biggest, meanest dinosaur trembling in their shadows. It may not have much in the way of character or personality, either for its actors to inhabit or for its filmmaking to display – it’s all borrowed from other, better, inspirations and thinned out in the process – but the effects department earned its budget and then some. It may have the colorful aesthetic gloss of an expensive A-level picture, but its heart has more in common with the junky B-movie big monkey Kong rip-offs than the lean and mean 1933 original or the epic melancholy of Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake.

Moving at an impossibly rushed clip – though to what end I don’t know, as there’s not much worth hurrying to that taking time to settle into the dread and fear couldn’t improve – the movie hurtles a large cast onto Skull Island. We’re told it is hidden behind a perpetual storm system, and the film is set in an analog 1973, a double explanation as to how the place has remained uncharted. The expedition helicopters over and almost immediately runs into the main attraction. This movie’s Kong is the size of a skyscraper. If he tried to climb the Empire State Building he’d crush it in a single stomp. (But though his enormity has grown, his personality, and the movie, is second rate to earlier Kings.) He quickly thrashes the interlopers, killing all the extras and leaving the Movie Stars to fend for themselves amongst the jungle beasties. Would that any of them be allowed a sliver of personality beyond audience recognition from previous roles. It’s hard to be dazzled by the destruction when Samuel L. Jackson’s stubborn colonel, John Goodman’s crackpot explorer, Tom Hiddleston’s tracker, and Brie Larson’s photographer, are merely there to pose in the pulp. They’re asked to sell unsellable empty roles, and thus hard to care about when juxtaposed with the senseless noise around them.

Also along for the ride are Shea Whigham, Toby Kebbel, Jiang Tian, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, and John Ortiz. It’s a huge cast with little to do. What the film lacks in character in makes up in characters, splitting them up, sending them hither and thither across Skull Island, wandering aimlessly into one creature’s den after the next. When they encounter, say, a gargantuan log with eyes, their first instinct is to open fire. There’s no curiosity or awe here, only bloodlust. This extends to the lack of gravity given to the imagery, monsters treated as frivolous animal foes instead of creatures in their own right. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, plucked from Sundance to helm this Hollywood undertaking, loves watching the tech and the explosions and the bloodshed – and he likes seeing Kong the MMA brawler – but gives it none of the patient dazzlement of Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla. There is only the grubby beauty of the jungle landscapes – crudely standing in for Vietnam in the cinematic equivalent of mumbling your way through a muddled metaphor – and the drooling beasties as ILM dumps out their design book into the wilds of the frame.

Still, no matter how inane and inert the film often is, it crackles to life when John C. Reilly stumbles into the picture as a WWII pilot lost on the island for decades. He plays up the disorientation and madness of his character with unpredictable Brule-like spasms of awkward intensity and exasperation. He brags about his Kong lore, but is quick to admit he’s never actually spoken it aloud before. Single-handedly stealing the movie out from under the most talented cast assembled for something so frivolous in a long time (since, what, National Treasure: Book of Secrets or something?), Reilly offers up personality to spare. He upstages Kong, no mean feat when the sometimes-gentle giant’s every step rattles the subwoofers (except, of course, for the scene where he is suddenly in front of Larson in an open field despite what should’ve been an inescapably long, loud walk). The rest of the movie is just empty 70’s dress up run through a copycat Kaiju playbook, with whack-a-mole monsters and crudely manipulated archetypes. We’re supposed to thrill to the fussy visual touches around the edges – a crashing helicopter from the point of view of a bobble head on the dashboard; explosions seen reflected in sunglasses; a giant octopus slurped up like Kong-sized noodle soup – and forget we’re watching much less than meets the eye.

Friday, March 3, 2017

No Country for Old Mutants: LOGAN

Logan, the latest (and maybe last, but you know how money talks) Wolverine-centric film in the X-Men franchise, contains one of the most jarring moments I’ve ever felt in a superhero movie. It takes place after an unhurried sequence in the middle of the story in which our heroes stop to rest at the farmhouse of kind strangers. Sharing a meal, they enjoy quietly the generosity offered by this kind, warm, family of normal people. For a gentle pause, they aren’t mutants on the run in a hard-charging action movie. They simply exist in the world. When violence crashes back into the picture it crashes hard. There’s a mad scientist, an evil clone, shotguns and decapitations. The whiplash is harsh, discordant. I found I had been so involved in the humanity, the real character, of the prior sequence I was suddenly resisting the intrusion of genre dictates. But that’s part of the film’s gutting approach, with glum pessimism leaving barely enough energy to squeeze itself into the expected clichés that come with a cinematic superhero suit. It’s small-scale, soft-spoken, and soulful.

Inspired by the darkest and bloodiest of Wolverine comics, writer-director James Mangold (with co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green) makes a bracing, atypical vision, with stretched anamorphic subtlety in the staging and stubborn downbeat grime in the mood. (This is certainly less colorful than his Japanese-set The Wolverine.) For a while it’s quite exhilarating to knock about in a far future (yet too close for comfort) world where the X-Men are gone for unexplained reasons and mutant kind is slowly dying out. Once rare, now rarer, no new mutant has been born in two decades. Natural born, that is. The plot hinges on Laura (Dafne Keen), an 11-year-old test tube mutant fleeing the evil corporation that made her. Its lead scientist (Richard E. Grant) wants to make gene-spliced lab-grown soldiers from the greatest hits of X-genes. But now one young subject has escaped, and she ends up running into an exhausted Logan (Hugh Jackman) and half-senile Professor X (Patrick Stewart) hiding out in the middle of nowhere at the U.S./Mexican border. A mercenary (Boyd Holbrook) with a bionic hand gives chase, and the tired old pair of marquee mutants must once more do all they can to save the future of their kind.

Placed at the far worst-case-scenario end of the film franchise’s timeline, this entry has a sorrowful finality about it. Not a grand ensemble epic, this is instead a sad and lonely chase picture, imagining the dwindling mutant population as a demonized, hunted minority. Average folks see them as a distant memory immortalized in comic book legends of yore. Corporations are deputized to round them up, hound them to extinction, and extract monetized power from them all the way there. Mangold and company take this all very seriously (or, rather, as seriously as you can while still including an evil clone). It’s bleak, watching characters we love like Jackman’s Wolverine and Stewart’s Professor X miserable and weary, on the precipice of giving up or death, whichever comes first. Because we’ve seen these great performers inhabit these roles for nearly twenty years now, there’s tremendous audience affection on which to draw, making their plight only more poignant. The early going emphasizes their isolation, pushing them into corners of the frames, surrounded by crumbling structures or grotesque “normality.” When the mute young mutant shows up needing help, the tremor of sentimentality, of hope for the future, feels life sustaining.

Cranking the gore up way past PG-13 and well into R, the line on which the previous movies about a mostly-immortal healing beast man with metal claw hands were already dancing, the movie takes an interest in imagining the toll a life of superhero violence would take on a person. Add to that the sense of despair over a history of fighting for your cohort’s safety and ending up with nothing to show for it, the movie’s core of physical, psychological, and moral exhaustion is often harrowing. Affecting, mournful, and with genuine surprise and sorrow behind its deaths gives many a bloody slice and stab its due weight. Where most superhero movies take violence as mindless sensory overload, the X-movies have often been embodied, concerned with the horror of mutation and the squirming ways the human body can turn on itself. This one in particular feeds its exciting action sequences with simple staging and brisk splatter. Wolverine is a reluctant hero, here at his most reluctant, a feature-length version of his answer to the question asked about his claws in 2000’s X-Men: “When they come out, does it hurt?” “Every time.”

That Mangold can pull it off while still spinning a crowd-pleasingly amusing, exciting actioner is a testament to the resiliency and elasticity of the franchise, and the willingness of cast and crew to put real heart into the slow, simple, quiet moments. Jackman’s Wolverine has always had a wounded soul beneath his star-power charisma, and here he lays it bare. He’s raw, scraping together just enough power for one last good deed. It’s a fitting tribute to the character to make what may be his farewell to the role with such a considered, complicated, and, yes, mature, performance. His scenes with Stewart crackle with genuine affection and history. Their new dependent is a wild animal when provoked (revealing a kinship between the old warrior and the young fugitive). The three of them just might make it to safety, but what then? The end-of-the-line futility gives even the fleeting moments of goodness and sweetness a sour aftertaste. The film has a compelling commitment to a certain slicing serenity, suspense visceral and absorbing yet filtered through a state of zen weariness. It knows we’re all dying, the world is collapsing, and nothing will ever again be as good as it once seemed. But maybe it’s worth trying every day to make sure children are equipped with the opportunities to do better than us with what little we can leave them.

Thursday, March 2, 2017


A Cure for Wellness ends up another Hollywood movie about why being a workaholic is bad. And yet director Gore Verbinski makes the whole baroque horror atmosphere and plotting so intensely odd and unsettlingly drifting that I can’t help but admire it. Even as I found myself asking, “Why am I seeing this?” during the movie’s winding, repetitive middle, I couldn’t look away. (Well, except for the part with the aesthesia-free dental drilling. I had to squirm and squint then.) It’s set largely at a massive Swiss sanitarium set up in a sprawling nightmarish castle (one which houses centuries-old secrets, no less). There you can check out, but you can never leave. So discovers ambitious finance guy Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) when sent to retrieve his company’s missing chairman. The old man (Harry Groener) has been holed up in this place receiving aqua-therapy: steamed, dipped, dripped, and dunked while drinking plenty of fluids. And yet he never seems to get any better. And the head doctor (Jason Isaacs) insinuates he won’t any time soon. And the nurses won’t seem to call Lockhart a cab. And then he somehow topsy-turvy ends up a patient there himself. Now we’re all trapped, wondering how there could possibly be a way out of this Kafka-meets-Kubrick hall of body horrors.

As it begins we see dark ominous low-angle shots of a midnight modern cityscape, towering skyscrapers like one with a single glowing office in which a harried guy checks stocks and answers emails until he dies of a heart attack. It looks like a 90’s Fincher effort – mostly The Game – or the technological/supernatural isolation and paranoia of Verbinski’s own (great) The Ring. (He’s once again working with that film’s director of photography, Bojan Bazelli, brining the beautiful film in a similarly drained sumptuousness.) But by the time the young protagonist arrives at the health spa castle in the picturesque Swiss Alps, the whole production slips easily into a modern-day Gothic horror. (It’s not only the repeated eel imagery giving the movie its slithering, inevitable forward motion.) The place has a dark history, old lockets, hidden rooms, secretive groundskeepers, eerily unbending rules, stern authority figures, and a pretty, pale young woman (Mia Goth) with a mysterious past. Lockhart is drawn deeper into the hallucinatory hallways (think a Shining hospital) and the spooky subtext as doctors don’t quite say all they mean, and teeth fall out, urine samples have icky substances floating in them, and fellow patients are increasingly confused or confusing.

Running well over two hours, the script by Verbinski and Justin Haythe (Snitch) takes its time doling out clues and suspicions, only fully unspooling its knotty, baroquely upsetting backstory in its final moments. This gives most of the film over to atmosphere, wandering down the same halls, seeing increasingly suspicious behavior and ever more unhinged gross medical procedures. Here modernity has been thoroughly colonized by the Gothic imagination. Verbinski’s strong command of tone and genre has befitted his career resuscitating old modes with a twist. He’s made a ghost story (The Ring), westerns (Rango, The Lone Ranger), pirate movies (the first three Pirates of the Caribbean), madcap slapstick (Mouse Hunt) and screwball heists (The Mexican), all old-fashioned forms told with newfangled vernacular. With Wellness he drags Gothic trappings into now, tapping into a potent feeling of gaslit befuddlement. He conjures an atmosphere of unspeakable wrongness, allowing an in-over-his-head protagonist to wandering the clammy corridors and sweaty stones with increasing unease. He’s slowly losing his mind, unable to put the pieces together, pacified only by flirtations with the mystery girl and the stunning mountain views. He could very nearly forget why he’s there, but for the sudden dips into disturbing escalation: locked in a sensory deprivation chamber, hallucinating a deer in the steam room, hearing odd whistling rattles from around corners and down dark vents.

The people running the spa are quite transparently up to no good, and their constant lies and obfuscations when asked direct questions don’t seem to matter. So what if Lockhart knows they are lying when their cult of wealthy health nuts is happy in a cocoon of misinformation? There’s a perceptive strain of anti-intellectualism hiding under mindless quantification happening here, wrapped up in a nasty, pulpy mystery. (Timely, no?) It answers the question of why we’re watching this queasy blend of inevitable and adrift plotting in the same way as the question of why our protagonist doesn’t just leave. We’re all too curious to see how this thing turns out. For a finale, Verbinski has the movie devolve into a faintly more standard grotesque scramble, with vulnerable nubile flesh juxtaposed with a monster’s drooping, drooling face while the hero takes decisive action. But the filmmaker maintains such a vice grip of stunning imagery and sustained, teeth-gritted gross-out tension, straight through to the final shot, that it’s hard to shake the film’s sinister insistent spell. It’s as slithery as a bathtub full of eels wriggling around a bathing woman who peers over the edge with an inscrutable stare. The movie is full of such mesmerizing, disturbing allure. It is masterfully directed mush.

Monday, February 27, 2017


In Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter he brings his six-film franchise to a suitably nonsense end. It started back in 2002 as a humble little sci-fi horror film, loosely adapting the video game of the same name into a high-tech haunted house movie with the final girl (Milla Jovovich) dodging death traps and zombies in an underground bunker. By now, though, it has piled up a rococo tangle of double crosses, conspiracies, and surprise twists involving: the evil Umbrella corporation’s machinations, a revolving door ensemble of action ciphers, endless mutated monsters, and a host of clone bodies enabling any and every character to die horrible deaths only to pop up later as the “real” one (for the moment). It’s a heck of thing to track, but luckily the latest installment not only attempts to bring the whole unwieldy B-movie mythos to some sort of conclusion, but also once again provides a quick recap at the beginning.

Maybe it’s the pessimistic mood of being in the midst of a national breakdown, but a movie about the apocalypse that attempts to bring some order to its chaos is a welcome sight. Anderson reveals the bombed-out zombie pandemic was no mistake. It was an Umbrella corporation plot to bring about the end of the world in order to have the monopoly on whatever came after. This means Jovovich’s Alice fought her way out of their bunker all those years ago only to belatedly realize the baddies had a cure there all along. Now she must drive and shoot and kick and punch and slice her way back to where it all began, in search of the glowing green MacGuffin vial that’ll heal the world. It’s a pretty neat U-turn of plotting, and an acknowledgement that the movies’ game-inspired levels and bosses are still endlessly and self-consciously modeled after the iterative nature of working through levels. They are the same techniques and same models in recombined sets and motifs. It’s familiar and obvious, with some fresh new twists. This one has a flaming barrel of gasoline flung by trebuchet into a mass of zombies chasing a Death Race tank. That’s not nothing.

Like every Resident Evil Anderson directed (all but two), this is an exercise in nutty genre plotting only insofar as it is an excuse to create stunning spaces – he’s always at his best working out architecture and symmetrical labyrinths in which to stage his gore – and stare in awe as Jovovich flips through a series of tough tumbles and scary scrapes. She’s a cool hero befitting the icy somber silliness on display. The only real problem is the movie’s retcon contortions and late-breaking stabs for emotional character development in what’s otherwise been a self-amused vacuous pit of clones and CG beasties endlessly replicable. They drain the weightless chopping and shooting of its insubstantial panache. Why overly and overtly stress the story when the series has always been merely a treadmill of plot, perpetually moving but never seeming to get much of anywhere? This is far from Anderson’s best work, or even the best Resident Evil. It cuts too quickly to savor the striking spasms and spaces. But his consistent commitment to lightning-fast B-movie trash is admirable. Passable fun is seeing a truck outrace a mutant pterodactyl, or finding our heroine hung upside down off a crumbling overpass spinning and kicking at her assailants. Less fun is tearfully considering which clone is the real original person and how it all ties into a possible contrived panacea.

Sunday, February 26, 2017


The best joke in The LEGO Batman Movie is an admission that Batman is bad at his job. This LEGO Movie spinoff is set in a candy-colored brick-laden Gotham City where the residents live in a time bubble of continuity, leaving them a been-there-done-that populace yawning with memories of tonal whiplash (aware of every iteration, from Snyder to Nolan, Schumacher, Burton, the Animated Series, 60’s camp and so on back to the original pulp comics and serials). This gives the residents a blasé attitude to the latest supervillain eruption from Arkham Asylum. Batman, you’ve been at this for nearly 80 years, they say. And Gotham is still the most crime-ridden city in the fictional world. Isn’t it time to hang up the cape and cowl and let someone else try to fix the problem? The fun in this silly whirligig is watching Batman realize he should work with the people of Gotham instead of showboating with gadgets before hiding out in his cave for the next call on the bat-phone. In the words of Barbara Gordon, the new police commissioner fresh from “Harvard for Cops,” ”We don’t need a billionaire vigilante karate-chopping poor people.”

A manic tumble of in-jokes, meta-winks, and hectic LEGO action, this everything-is-awesome approach is continually cranked up to eleven. It’s a cute conceit. At best, the whole project has a loose goofy charm rat-a-tat-tat-ing silly voices and quick quips. Will Arnett returns with a narcissist’s growl as a Batman craving attention, but shrinking from connection. He’s surrounded in the soundscape by a who’s-who of distinctive, warm voices in iconic comic book roles – Michael Cera as naïve Robin, Ralph Fiennes as dry Alfred, Zach Galifianakis as needy Joker, and Rosario Dawson as Batgirl. The movie blasts forward on pep and cleverness, piling on neat commentary about Batman’s most boring plot ticks and thematic obsessions in between drooling geek deep cut references and kids’ movie bright colors and careening sentimentality. The style, a breakneck faux-stop-motion CG swoosh, stops for nothing: no emotion, no thought, no moment to catch a breath or your bearings. The cuts are fast. The pop music is loud. The explosions are plumes of colorful blocks. The guns go “pew pew pew.” For a giddy hour and change in a movie theater, you could do far worse.

Still, there’s something a little off-putting about the mechanized joy of the enterprise. Director Chris McKay (Robot Chicken) and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) aren’t Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the man-boyish kings of threading the needle between product and meta-product in their string of unlikely successes: not just LEGO Movie (in which everything really was awesome, or near enough) but the stoopid/clever Jump Streets and their comic masterpiece Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, as well. They have the alchemy, the gee-whiz earnest commitment to serving up corporate brand deposits with winning grins. Here, though, we have their imitators making a double product placement: for a comic book franchise and for a toy company. The whole thing is plastered from beginning to end with reminders of the ledger sheets and advertising budgets at play behind the brisk bright nonsense. Think of it as feature length LEGO commercial also working as a calculated pressure valve for DC’s dour live-action slogs. Sure, it’s basically fun, and a reasonably good time, but the hollow production’s highs fade fast and leave little worth lingering over.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Voracious Filmgoer's Top Ten Films of 2016

1.     Lemonade
2.     The Witch
3.     Certain Women
4.     Other People
5.     Zootopia
6.     Toni Erdmann
7.     O.J.: Made in America
8.     Cameraperson
9.     Fences

The Alternates (alphabetically):
The Handmaiden
Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids
Mountains May Depart

Honorable Mentions: 13th, Barbershop: The Next Cut, Eye in the Sky, The Fits, Hell or High Water, I am Not Your Negro, Kill Zone 2, Love & Friendship, Loving, Pete’s Dragon, X-Men: Apocalypse

Other 2016 bests

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Other 2016 Bests

Best Cinematography – Digital
Dion Beebe 13 Hours
Jarin Blaschke The Witch
            Janusz Kaminski The BFG
James Laxton Moonlight
Flavio Marinez Labiano The Shallows

Best Cinematography – Film
            Christopher Blauvelt Certain Women
Mauro Fiore The Magnificent Seven
Stéphane Fontaine Jackie
Rodrigo Prieto Silence
Adam Stone Midnight Special

Best Sound
            13 Hours
            Rogue One

Best Special Effects
            13 Hours
            Doctor Strange
            Rogue One
            X-Men: Apocalypse

Best Stunts
            13 Hours
            Jason Bourne
            Kill Zone 2
            The Nice Guys
            Rogue One

Best Costumes
Hail, Caesar!
            The Handmaiden
The Nice Guys
            The Witch

Best Makeup
            Green Room
The Shallows
Star Trek Beyond
            Swiss Army Man

Best Set/Art Direction
            The BFG
            Certain Women
Hail, Caesar!
            The Nice Guys
            The Witch

Best Editing
            Certain Women
O.J.: Made in America
            The Witch

Best Score
            Nicholas Britell Moonlight
Michael Giacchino Rogue One
            Andy Hull and Robert McDowell Swiss Army Man
Mica Levi Jackie
            John Williams The BFG

Best Song
“Drive It Like You Stole It” Sing Street
“Finest Girl” Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
“How Far I’ll Go” Moana
“Up” Sing Street
            “Where You Are” Moana

Best Adapted Screenplay
Eric Heisserer Arrival
Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney Moonlight
Melissa Mathison The BFG
            Kelly Reichardt Certain Women
Martin Scorsese & Jay Cocks Silence
Best Original Screenplay
Maren Ade Toni Erdmann
Jared Bush & Phil Johnston and Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jim Reardon & Josie Trinidad, and Jennifer Lee Zootopia
Kelly Fremon Craig The Edge of Seventeen
Robert Eggers The Witch
            Chris Kelly Other People

Best Documentary
Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids
O.J.: Made in America

Best Animated Film
            Finding Dory
            Kubo and the Two Strings
            Kung Fu Panda 3

Best Foreign Film
            The Handmaiden
Mountains May Depart
            Toni Erdmann
Best Supporting Actor
Ralph Fiennes A Bigger Splash
Stephen McKinley Henderson Fences
Daniel Radcliffe Swiss Army Man
Trevante Rhodes Moonlight
Harvey Scrimshaw The Witch

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis Fences
Kate Dickie The Witch
            Lily Gladstone Certain Women
            Lupita Nyong’o Queen of Katwe
Molly Shannon Other People

Best Actor
Joel Edgerton Loving
Ryan Gosling The Nice Guys
            Peter Simonischek Toni Erdmann
Denzel Washington Fences
Anton Yelchin Green Room

Best Actress
Krisha Fairchild Krisha
Sandra Hüller Toni Erdmann
Isabelle Huppert Elle
Ruth Negga Loving
Hailee Steinfeld The Edge of Seventeen

Best Director
Maren Ade Toni Erdmann
Ezra Edelman O.J.: Made in America
Robert Eggers The Witch
Kelly Reichardt Certain Women
            Martin Scorsese Silence
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