Kong: Skull Island (2017) – my review

 

King Kong's hand spotted in first Kong: Skull Island billboard! KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

 

Before Godzilla, before Cloverfield, before any giant monsters roamed the Earth, there was King Kong. While nothing will probably top the thrills of the 1933 original, this film is a very good remake/ reboot which is respectful and complimentary to the legacy of Kong. It’s action packed and quite entertaining, which is more than I can say for some of the earlier versions. I’m thinking mainly of Peter Jackson’s bloated 2005 CGI-wankfest that had the unique problem of having not enough and too much action at the same time. This movie does it right. The story moves along at a swift clip and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

The plot is the same old same old: A ragtag bunch of explorers (and one woman) find their way to a mysterious, uncharted island which is populated by the namesake giant ape, along with a bunch of other primordial beasties and of course the native tribe that worships Kong as their god and savior. The twist this time is that the film takes place in 1973 (I suspect by doing this they are giving Kong an extra 40+ years to continue growing in order to match the size of um, ….another giant monster J). Lots of Vietnam era music is heard on the soundtrack, and is used quite well.

Reviewers have complained about the lack of depth in the characters. To be fair they are not really characters, but familiar archetypes: Tom Hiddleston is the mercenary explorer, and Brie Larson is the gutsy war photographer. John Goodman is the tweedy academic who wants to study the beast, while Samuel J is the military guy who just wants to blow him to smithereens. John C. Reilly almost steals the show as a WWII pilot who’s clearly been on the island too long.  I will say that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts uses his excellent human cast better than Gareth Edwards did in his 2014 Godzilla.

And the giant monsters! First and foremost is Kong himself. Granted, Peter Jackson’s Kong was more realistic, but this Kong has more personality due to the improved motion capture, and his appearance is similar to the original model in 1933 (we won’t even mention the 1976 Kong, let alone the rather awful looking Toho apes…sorry guys, furry creatures are not your strong suit*). There is also a giant spider, and a giant wildebeest, and some “giant f***in’ ants” although we don’t see them. Kong’s main foe in the film are the “Skull Crawlers” and to be honest I was not impressed with these creatures: They seemed to be designed in the JJ Abrams school of excessive “claws and jaws” which show up in many of his films: Cloverfield, Super 8, Star Trek, etc. etc.

It’s not perfect, nor particularly deep or meaningful, but it’s a good piece of popcorn entertainment that accomplishes what it sets out to do. Definitely recommended for anyone who is a fan of kaiju genre films. Especially if you stay until the end of the credits!

 

*the exception being 1965’s War of the Gargantuas.

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Blade Runner 2? No thank you

bladerunner

Look, I’m not enthused about this. (Oh really? you say. I couldn’t tell! /sarcasm)  Yes, I’m one of those Blade Runner nerds. Ever since my wise Uncle Dave took me to see it at the Cerritos multiplex way, way back in 1982, it has more or less remained my favorite film not starring a giant radioactive lizard or a wisecracking British secret agent. So when the pop culture reports came in saying that a BR sequel was “definitely, absolutely going to happen”, my response was “please God no.”. And here’s why.

The original Blade Runner (the “director’s cut” and the “final cut” versions) ended on a deliberately ambiguous moment. We don’t know if Deckard and Rachel lived happily ever after. We really don’t know if Deckard is meant to be a replicant himself (despite the “unicorn dream” sequence). The film ends on a serious of unanswered questions. I don’t know if Ridley Scott and the script writers even knew the answers themselves. And that is exactly what I want to take away from Blade Runner: questions that are not answered.

I don’t know if Deckard is a replicant, and I don’t want to know. I do know this: If they try to answer this question in the sequel, I will be very, very unhappy. If this is indeed the main plot point in BR2, then I will be willing to pretend that this film does not exist. (Besides, I’m not a huge fan of sequels that come years – decades in this case – after the original. It just smells of a desperate money grab to me.)

Here, then, is my idea for BR2 that does not compromise the events in the original. First of all, no Deckard (and therefore no Ford). If the character does appear then let it be in reference to events in the past, i.e. remember Deckard?  The cop who disappeared mysteriously with a replicant in tow back in 2019? Yeah, that guy. Maybe a picture on the wall of the police station. Then introduce the new, younger Blade Runner whose story will be completely original and unrelated to the events of the original. Hell, you can even call him Deckard if you want (perhaps it’s a code name no longer in use) and cast Ryan Gosling in the role as has been rumored. Then, if you really want to please all the Phillip K Dick fanboys (and girls) you could incorporate some of the unused elements of his original story. I’ve even got a title for you. Blade Runner 2: Do Androids Dream? You’re welcome. Just give me a screenwriting credit, something to pad the ol’ CV with, and I’m good.

Just my $00.02. Thanks for reading. More rants later.

Okay, so I finally saw Episode 7. A few thoughts…

 

I finally saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens last week and enjoyed it quite a bit. Of course, having disliked most everything about the prequels, I knew that this one would be better, but having low expectations made it even more enjoyable. It was great to see all the old familiar faces and the new characters were (mostly) good as well. Of course it wasn’t perfect and there were a few things that bothered me but, really what film is?

The old faces

I was happy to see Han Solo and Chewie again (and Harrison Ford seemed genuinely enthused to play the old Corellian smuggler again, which was a nice surprise). Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa looked great (the hell with the h8ers). We didn’t see much of R2, 3PO and Luke this time, but I have a feeling they’ll be back…

The new faces

How nice to have a female main protagonist, and Daisy Ridley as Rey seems more than capable. I am wondering where (or who) she got The Force from, hmm….John Boyega was wonderful as the former stormtrooper Fin, looking forward to seeing him again. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren has about 300% more personality than Hayden Christiansen did as Anakin/Darth. Creepy, yet a bit charming all the same (what do you expect with Solo as your dad?). The only new character that I didn’t like was Oscar Isaac as Poe. He might be the best pilot, but he needs to grow a personality in the next film.

Things that bothered me

The political landscape, post-Empire, seemed a bit unclear. Who exactly are the First Order, if not the Empire 2.0?  If the Republic is (comfortably) in power, why is there a need for a Resistance? Who are they Resisting against? I’m not exactly sure who won the war. There are just a few too many similarities to Episode 4 for my liking. The hero/heroine lives on a desert planet. Secret plans are hidden in a droid. The bad guys have a huge, planet sized weapon which can be brought to ruin by hitting one tiny, vulnerable spot. There is a cantina scene. Etc, etc etc.

Things I liked

After the soulless CGI-laden cheese fests that were the prequels, JJ Abrams brings some much needed humanity to the Star Wars saga. The masks come off for this one (literally). The story moved along at light speed with nary a dull moment. The new characters were compelling enough to make me want to know what happens to them in the next film. Speaking of Abrams, I am glad he decided to rein in his usual stylistic touches (lens flares, shaky camera, multi-legged CGI monsters, etc) and keep things moving at a fast clip. I think the franchise is in good hands with him at the helm.

And? This film was 100% Jar Jar free.

Looking forward to Episode VIII!

 

 

 

SPECTRE (2015)

spectre

The story: James Bond, Agent 007, is hot on the trail of a mysterious criminal organization that threatens international security as we know it. The story takes him from Mexico City, to Rome, to Morocco, and back to London. The organization, known as SPECTRE, has a far-reaching influence as Bond uncovers connections with those close to him…both living and dead.

We finally get a “traditional” James Bond movie in the Daniel Craig era. And it is (for the most part) good. Let’s examine thus far:

  • Casino Royale: Bond’s “origin story”. Craftily updated from the 1953 Fleming novel. Generally considered Craig’s best and a high point in the series.
  •   Quantum of Solace : A lovely but deeply flawed sequel to CR in which many of the familiar Bond tropes (and humor) were discarded in favor of a serious, Bourne – style caper. Did not do as well as CR and is widely disliked among Bond fans.
  • Skyfall – The 50th anniversary film re-introduced some of the familiar characters. Well directed and superbly acted, but featured a somber narrative in which Bond took a back seat to the character of M (Judi Dench). Made a huge amount of money, but was still criticized by some longtime fans as lacking humor and “fun”.

Those who enjoyed Skyfall (and there are many who did) may find SPECTRE to be somewhat silly and lacking in substance. Conversely, those who found Skyfall to be too serious and out of character for Bond will be delighted with this film. SPECTRE has a lightness that Skyfall lacked, and is not burdened by as much self-importance. Once again there are gaps in the narrative logic, but it’s almost like SP doesn’t care.
SPECTRE pays tribute to many of the scenes and characters from the early Connery films. Mute henchmen, fights on trains, and Aston Martins with hidden gadgets all make an appearance. There are a lot of homages and Easter eggs to the early Bonds’ here. In fact one could be fooled into thinking this is the 50th anniversary film. Some will like it while others may find it distracting from the story.
Craig looks great, even younger than in SF. He is 100%, “fully formed” James Bond here. Kristof Waltz underplays his part as the creepy villain – does not chew the scenery – doesn’t have to. Lea Seydoux is lovely, but her character is not well written and I had a hard time buying the romance between her and Bond (who looks old enough to be her dad). Monica Belluci and Dave Bautista give memorable but all too brief character turns that leave the viewer wanting more. M, Q, Moneypenny and Tanner are back, and they all get to see some action outside of the office this time.
Technically, Sam Mendes has made another beautiful Bond film. The photography is stunning, especially in the opening Mexico City sequence. The music score is better than in SF– Thomas Newman has figured out how to score an action film. The theme song…Well, it’s lovely, but Sam Smith’s vocals are…an acquired taste.
TL:DR: If you like Craig as Bond you will love this film. If you thought Skyfall was the Best Bond Ever you may be a little disappointed with SPECTRE. If you loved the earlier, sillier Bond films of yore, you will probably like SPECTRE a great deal.
Grade:
A- for huge fans of Daniel Craig
B+ for longtime hardcore Bond geeks
C+ for the casual film goer who could give a monkey’s about most of this stuff.
JAMES BOND WILL RETURN

 

The Martian (2015)

themartian

“I’m going to have to science the sh*t out of this.” Mark Watney (Matt Damon)

The Martian takes place in the near future, or an alternate reality present, where manned missions to Mars have been successful and ongoing. When the film opens, one such mission is being conducted on the planet’s surface when the crew is suddenly hit by a debris storm. When the debris ruptures his bio-sensors, Watney is presumed dead. The mission is aborted and the landing capsule blasts off, leaving Watney by himself until the next scheduled mission four years later. After the initial shock wears off, Watney figures out how to manage his resources so that he can survive until the next mission arrives. Luckily, he’s a botanist by trade, so he devises an ingenious (and disgusting) way to grow food on the angry red planet.

Besides his deep scientific knowledge, Watney also seems to have the mental strength and courage to survive alone for an extended period of time- and no, he doesn’t start talking to volleyballs for company. (Of course, the only music they leave him with is Disco’s Greatest Hits, and he’s forced to use Vicodin as a condiment when he runs out of ketchup!) He figures out a way to communicate with Earth by activating an inoperative unmanned probe. Once NASA realizes that Watney is alive, they have to decide whether or not it is worth using a significant chunk of their resources to rescue one single person.

The film is entertaining but not particularly complex or deep. Nor wholly original (there are several nods to Apollo 13, and the whole film reminded me of the 1964 B-movie Robinson Crusoe On Mars). The science may be dubious at times, but again, this takes place in the future or an alternately realized present. At any rate, it’s fun to watch and often hilarious. Damon has the right amount of charm, self-assurance, and brainy gravitas to bring Watney to life. The rest of the cast is good too, including Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover and Jessica Chastain. Technically, this film looks so great that future generations may believe it is actually shot on location on Mars. The special effects are great. Some may try to compare it with Interstellar or Gravity, but it doesn’t try to be either of these films. It’s a popcorn movie but quite a good one. I give it a

B+.

One final plea to Ridley Scott: Please, please, please continue to make entertaining stand-alone films like this, rather than tarnish the legacy of your beloved Alien and Blade Runner with crappy, worthless sequels. Thank you.

Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014) – my review

GotGGuardians Of The Galaxy (2014)

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel

No Spiderman, Captain America, or Fantastic Four here.  Marvel’s latest tentpole film is taken from a semi-obscure title from the ’70’s that was briefly revived in 2008 and gained cult status – Not exactly the kind of material that one would choose for a potential summer blockbuster, right?

Wrong!

One of the luxuries of filming a little-known source is that if you screw it up, no one will notice. Or care. Then there is the messy problem of introducing all the mythology and back story found in the comics to a film audience. In my humble opinion, they pulled this off pretty well.  I’m easily confused by this sort of thing ordinarily but even I found it easy to follow.

So somewhere deep in the universe, there are two races – the Xandar and the Kree – who are locked in conflict. Enter former Earthling Peter Quill, the self-proclaimed “Star-Lord”, who finds a magic orb (the classic Marvel Films MacGuffin- there’s always an orb, or a cube, or some powerful little trinket). Quill just wants to sell the darn thing but then there’s Ronan , a Kree warlord who wants the orb (so he can gain the ultimate power in the universe, duh). When the Xandarians throw Quill in jail, he surrounds himself with a ragtag group consisting of Rocket Raccoon, Groot the tree, and bounty hunter Gamora (Respectively, Cooper, Diesel and Saldana). Naturally they escape the prison and slowly forge a bond as they attempt to regain the orb and keep it out of the hands of Ronan…Many fight scenes and space battles ensue….

Well, you get the idea. Yes, this film is largely fluff and there’s barely an original idea here to be had, but boy was it fun. The characters lack the depth and personality of, say, Tony Stark or Bruce Banner. The exception is the always delightful Chris Pratt (Parks and Rec, Moneyball, Zero Dark Thirty) who captures the proper mix of bravado and self-deprecating charm as Peter Quill, whose spaceship is outfitted with a cassette deck so he can play the ’70’s mixtapes his mother left him. (The soundtrack is either awesome or cheesy as hell, depending on your view of ’70’s AM radio hits, but never boring). Cooper and Diesel are amusing as the raccoon and his buddy the tree. IMO Zoe Saldana is in real danger of being typecast as a grim-faced warrior and this film does not help that.

All in all. a fun romp that should put a goofy grin on your face as you leave the theater. Not exactly Citizen Kane, but it wasn’t intended to be.

Grade: B Plus