Kong: Skull Island (****) great taste and it’s sort of fulfilling

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Kong: Skull Island 2017

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenplay Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly

I was 5 years old when they released King Kong with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. I saw later as part of  a drive in double bill with Orca, The Killer Whale. I must have thought enough of it then, because I got a lunch pail of the movie and carried it to school for half of my elementary school years. Watching it now I wonder how much the film must have been a torture for my parents to watch. It’s unbearable and quite impossible to imagine how it was nominated for any awards. It is quite easy to imagine why Lange took 3 years off before hitting the big screen again.

It was this film that was in my mind when I watched Peter Jackson’s overzealous 2005 take. I loved the film on the big screen, but it’s easy to overlook that unnecessary 1.5 extra hours when you are not sure when the next fight with another monster will occur. The effects were as excellent as one could expect. The dialogue, story and acting for everyone outside of Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody were all pretty bad.

When 2014 brought a new Godzilla and Legendary pictures moved the Kong franchise from Universal to Warner Bros., it was finally revealed that there would be a Monsterverse which would eventually bring Kong and Godzilla together after a few films.

So far, so good. Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was the best version of the film in our generation, even if it wrought so much destruction as to be numbing. Now Voght-Roberts has made an accessible Kong without dragging the big ape’s ass back to the mainland. The best thing about it is, we know it can’t happen for at least another 40 years in cinematic time.

Kong’s Skull Island is the desired destination of Goodman’s Bill Randa, Special Government agent in the Monarch division. After convincing a senator (played by Richard Jenkins) to help him piggyback on an expedition to the secluded island, he also secures the services of a military unit on it’s way back from the freshly completed Vietnam action lead by United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Jackson). Then after securing Hiddleston as James Conrad, a former British Special Forces guide and Brie Larson as Mason Weaver, an “anti” war photographer, Randa and his partner Brooks (Hawkins)  head out.

Good God, those are a lot of characters. And that isn’t even the half of it. Even so, Gilroy, Connolly and Borenstein are able to successfully weave them into a story that is cohesive, comprehensible and doesn’t even skimp on the monsters.

That’s because we don’t waste that much time getting to the action. Everyone knows that they have to float to the island. We all know it’s shaped like a skull, sort of. Everyone knows there is an atmospheric cloud preventing the outside world easy access. Let’s get in there and start throwing bombs, dammit!

What we find out after the bombs fly is that big monsters don’t like bombs, and this island has a hollow core that hides things. There is some science behind it which makes sense to Randa and Brooks, but the important thing to remember is that it doesn’t take long after they start knocking for someone to answer the door in a bad mood.

This rough reception puts Kong at odds with Packer, who just lost one war and damn sure isn’t in the mood to lose another. The cast is split up though. So while Jackson and his military brethren try to recoup one of their lost compadres (and the weaponry nearby) the rest of the team goes about finding more about the island.

The first thing they discover are some natives. They all have paint on their faces and look like they haven’t bathed in a while. Reilly’s Marlow, a pilot shot down in WWII has gone even longer without bathing. Fortunately, he still speaks English enough to give Conrad and Weaver the lowdown.

In layman terms, Kong is good. Skullcrawlers bad. In case you have a hard time remembering, the latter have inset eyes that are almost invisible and Kong’s peepers are so deep and wide, one can almost imagine he’s going sing a sad song.

From here, we know the good guys have to find their way to the proverbial “rendezvous” point and there will be at least two or more attempts on Kong’s life, because…revenge.

It’s a good, if predictable movie about giant stuff in a lost world. None of the characters embarrass themselves and for such a large cast, we really get a sense of a lot of them, even if the growth is minimal.

If anything, we don’t see enough of Kong. After an amazing start, he is mainly around to drift in and out of the scenery until the last 15 minutes.The animation is quite remarkable, though, and thank God he doesn’t feel the need to start climbing when the bullets fly.

The true highlight of the film is clunky old Reilly. His inherent goofiness is a huge positive in that it brings out some personality in everyone else, including Hiddleston, who by now must have forgotten what it is like to play Loki.

The scenery is breathtaking, even if there is no real sense of direction in the film. The people cover so much terrain, one never knows if they are aware that it might be easier to always stay in near the boat.

There are many stories strewn throughout the wasteland of Skull Island. There is a point near the end, where we see a collection of ships that have been left abandoned there through hundreds of years. What happened to all of those people?  It would be nice to get a hint of just a few of those stories.

This one is going to have to do for now. It’s a good enough start that doesn’t overstay its welcome. This alone makes it the best one yet.

(**** out of *****)

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I Don’t Have A Vote: The 88th Annual Oscars – Cut the crap

Oscars

The 88th Avenue Oscars – Cut the crap

Enough of this stuff. It’s getting old. Why is it that each year increasingly mediocre films are awarded for having one trick pony, when well rounded fare is given a pat on the ass and shown the side door? Yes, it’s Leonardo’s year. Why?  Because we’ve been told so ad naseum. It’s also Stallone’s year, but for work that actually comes close to meriting the award. We also like our directors increasingly foreign sounding and passionate. That their films are lack many dimensions is of no consequence. As for topics, it’s well known that to get a nomination, make sure you capture Hebrew suffering or the Roman Catholic Church doing bad stuff. Increasingly it’s become more apparent that if you want to celebrate the best movies, don’t watch the Academy Awards.

Still though, I think you should know what is great as compared to what is good. So let’s roll.

Film: There are only three movies released this year that I gave 5 Stars to, and those are Inside OutAnt-Man and It Follows. Still, The Martian,  Sicario, The Hateful Eight and even Mad Max: Fury Road are pretty darn close. The best of these films is Inside Out. That it escaped nomination is more a result of the fallback of having a Best Animated Film Category. Still, it’s the rare film that speaks to everyone in the family like this one does.

Of the nominees: The Martian has but one glaring error on repeated viewings: too much Kristen Wiig. Her character is a spokesperson, meant to give soundbytes. She’s all over the film and it becomes annoying. Other than her character, there is no more positive or inspirational film in this pack.

Director: There is nothing quite as remarkable as the visual spectacle of Mad Max: Fury Road. It is a beautiful film beyond compare. The whole package is encapsulated by Ridley Scott, though. His incorporation of a script filled with innumerable science facts, a diverse cast and the power of human intellect worked so smoothly, it is almost too easy. It shouldn’t be overlooked how hard it should have been to make a good book into a great film.

Of the nominees: Ridley Scott.

Actor: This one is a no brainer. Jacob Tremblay’s performance in Room is quite different than any child performance I have ever seen. There is an honesty there that is not easy for most screenwriters to ask a child to play the role of the ignorant one. The key to the success of Room is that Tremblay is not given some sixth sense that is beyond the horrors his mother experiences. He knows only what he knows. He intuits, sure, but he deals with the stimuli he is given only. That is the magic behind the performance. It’s an amazing degree of simplicity and restraint that kids rarely achieve, whether by lack of experience or a director’s unwillingness to push a kid into an area that’s not cute.

Of the nominees: Matt Damon does incredible work making the complicated accessible.  He’s been doing some true yeoman’s work even longer than DiCaprio. His is a movie star performance.

Actress: Brie Larson had a great year, both with Room and her understated performance in TrainwreckRoom has the best female acting performance of the year, with special consideration for Riordan in Brooklyn (review coming) and Ridley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Of the nominees: Still have to go with Larson.

Supporting Actor: This is easy. Stallone has had 7 tries at Rocky and other than IV, he’s nailed the performance every time. That he was not recognized for Rocky Balboa is a shame because that is his most well rounded performance. Still, he does not have a false step in Creed. Talk about a lifetime achievement award. This should be it, because he is still achieving with this performance in his lifetime.

Of the nominees: Stallone.

Supporting Actress: Lili Simmons is a name that you won’t hear this year. I certainly hope that you might hear it in the future. Her stoically resigned performance in Bone Tomahawk is the unexpectedly pleasant surprise of 2015. She acts not as a damsel in distress when captured by cannibalistic troglodytes. Rather she is logical and cool in her reactions to what is going on around her. This is the type of woman that lived in the old west. While men are controlled by what it takes to be a man, women push through the elements to help everyone survive.

Of the nominees: Kate Winset, Steve Jobs. Her’s is the most straightforward, non-gimmicky performance.

Original Screenplay: Inside Out is the best example of taking a complex subject and breaking it down completely so that everyone gets something from it. Animated features this complex come along once in a decade and the last few decades it’s been Pixar every time.

Of the nominees: Inside Out.

Adapted Screenplay: Room is incredible in its ability to take the perspective of a two people and stay true to the differences as the viewer gets to see the truth of somewhere in the middle. The challenge is not so much in the performance of the adult figure, but in capturing the viewpoint of the child in a completely honest and realistic way. This is art.

Of the nominees: Room.

Animated Feature: It certainly feels like a lesser award when they separate it into another category. Inside Out has a muted feel when relegated to the cartoon section. It does not deserve that.

Of the nominees: Inside Out.

Cinematography: Added this category because the nominees were (outside of Carol) so interesting this year. The four other contestants belong there, but the only one that should stand out is Mad Max: Fury Road. The images from this movie will stand head and shoulders above the rest decades down the line.

Of the nominees: Mad Max: Fury Road.

For me, I go back 12 years to Return of the King, for the last Oscar winner I have watched expecting to be entertained. Even so, that is the least of the 3 movies of Lord of the Rings. I keep meaning to watch the best picture films I own, which are The Hurt Locker, The Departed, Crash or Million Dollar Baby. There is an incredible negative energy coming off of those films that is tough to work myself up to viewing. And these are the great Oscar winners.

See, it’s easy to understand that the Oscars don’t want to be like other Awards shows that give out the statue to movies that are box office favorites. Got it. Over 4 the last 5 years though, they aren’t even in the ballpark of a completely great film.

It’s never going to be perfect, but I will be happy if the Oscars became less interested in serving up platters of the same type of movie year in and year out. If you can name one Best Picture winner of the last 10 years that you have watched since the year it was released, then you can tell me I am wrong.

Trainwreck (****) is long, well acted and kind of funny

Trainwreck-trailer

Trainwreck – 2015

Director Judd Apatow
Starring Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Mike Birbiglia, Ezra Miller, Tilda Swinton, LeBron James
Screenplay Schumer

It may be for the best, but I had not seen much of Amy Schumer prior to watching Trainwreck. That tactic worked for Ted, because one of the things I heard a lot was it isn’t the same if you’ve watched Family Guy. The thing about comedians is the funny is almost always paralleled with a certain degree of sadness. The comedy is countered by tragedy. Yeah, I think the routine kind of stinks, unless the story has more than the plot going for it.

Damn if it doesn’t apply to Schumer’s semi-autobiographical film. The first version of the story had her as a car saleswoman, but Apatow encouraged her to cut closer to the bone. And so we get this. Looking over her bio, I don’t see where she’d done much writing for magazines in the past, but she’s done plenty of it for her performing career. Emmy nominated, even.

The story finds Schumer as Amy Townsend. She has taken her father’s inability to be monogamous and turned it into an art form. She is dating someone (Cena) with a conspicuous fascination with the male form, but that doesn’t stop her from dating other guys. Many other guys. And three women. A job assignment with S’nuff men’s magazine sets her up with sports doctor Aaron Conners (Hader).

Meanwhile her father Gordon (Quinn) has been sent to an assisted living home. Her sister Kim (Larson), who is happily married to a likeable guy (Birbiglia) with a son named Allister. Allister is not a typical boy, and he is not Kim’s, which sets both Amy and her father ill-at-ease. Nevertheless father and son are accepting of their in-laws, making it apparent the problem lies with the protagonist and her biggest influence.

Things are progressing with Aaron when Kim gets pregnant and then Gordon dies, setting in motion a series of events that force change in everyone’s comfortable existence.

My first impression of the film is how well Schumer’s script matches with Apatow’s directing style. That impression grows to a type of sadness when one realizes that Apatow’s films have skewed long and a little sad lately. After we see her powerful opening act and a nice, convincing move towards monogamy, we get stopped by tragedy and cataclysmic decisions that feel like a way to inject drama into the film that must be overcome.

Schumer herself is ready for prime time. She is completely at ease in front of the camera, willing to play the asshole, because she knows that the asshole meets more interesting people in the ditch than in the middle of the road. As a result, Schumer the writer surrounds herself with characters that don’t give her a free pass. They aren’t giving each other any breaks either. This is a net plus to the film.

The acting is good in the film, with Larson, Birbiglia, Hader and Quinn standing out. LeBron James does a humorous version of himself that is good, if a little too cloying. They could have dropped the references to Downton Abbey and made it a little more believable. Also, does LeBron just hang out in NYC between games? If he was playing in Miami or Cleveland, the commute would be a challenge. Cena is funnier in his limited role. The lovemaking scene is as uncomfortably comical as anything since Bruno. His vulnerability is uniquely portrayed for an actor that comes from the WWE.

The crux of the film and the difficulty with all romantic comedies is in transitioning from initial bliss to eternal bliss. In the absence of an outside force, one or the other has to be misunderstood in someway, and then that misunderstanding has to be blown out of proportion. It’s a tough sell to a person who’s seen enough romantic comedies. Trainwreck is no exception. Fortunately we have Schumer’s comic instincts to push through the discomfort of watching Schumer moving out of the shadier parts of her life.

Hader and Schumer work well because each of them look the part. Neither is gorgeous, but each is one that most people could picture themselves ending up with for a long-term (or shorter term) relationship.

Larson and Birbiglia get the happy supporting couple role in the story. It’s a good source of balance for the protagonists to find a couple that is approachable and somewhat normal compared to them. They provide an opportunity for the leads to act antagonistically while keeping them within the breadth of their character.

The key to comedy is balancing the laughs with moments that resonate without dragging one down too low. Apatow succeeds with Schumer here for the most part. If this film is not quite to the level of This is 40, it is definitely well above Funny People. I can see myself watching this years from now and still enjoying it. There is plenty to identify with, and enough that one doesn’t to stay interesting.

(**** out of *****)

Don Jon (****1/2): Consideration is the key

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Don Jon – 2013

Written and Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Rob Brown, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson, Tony Danza

There is a certain amount of irony in the fact that Brie Larson is featured in not only this film, but she is also a player in The Spectacular Now.  Each film features a man working through some type of addiction.  The latter features someone hooked on alcohol, whereas Don Jon‘s protagonist, Jon Marello, Jr. (Gordon-Levitt) is hooked on porn.

Each lead has a rational explanation of their choices, and when they say it to themselves, it makes perfect sense.  As they try to progress in a relationship, their vice presents a roadblock to real deep commitment.  His family always has their eyes anywhere but on each other.  His father (Danza) looks at the television, his sister, (Larson) never takes her eyes from her handheld, and her mother looks emotionally exhausted from one to the next.  Jon’s mind is preoccupied, of course.  The relationship is with a “dime” (Johansson), and she starts a lot of good things in his life, but after catching him in a lie about it, she calls it quits and he goes into a tailspin.

Along the way he comes across Esther (Moore).  She has some perspective on what he is going through.  Her vantage is colored by her experience and she tries to expand his mind on the goal and make it more subjective.  That she has her own issues to deal with should come as no surprise.  This is Julianne Moore, after all. Nonetheless, their interlude has a certain awkward tenderness that really exemplifies growth on both of their parts.  This whole section of the film is a welcome addition, even though I am not that big of a Moore fan.

Johansson has absolutely no appeal to this reviewer, and this role is no exception.  She’s T&A with a Jersey accent.  When contrasted with Gordon-Levitt, Danza and Headley’s lived in performances, she falls flat.  She’s from New York, but watching her made me feel like I was watching someone from California doing a decent Jersey Shore imitation.  When Larson speaks up for the first time in the film, one can’t help but be thankful.  Her lines are so wise and they hit the nail on the button.

That is the pleasant surprise of Don Jon, and the thing that takes it above the typical addiction story.  It’s not about swearing off of something and just not doing it. The answer, simply, is can you notice someone when you are with them.  Do you know who you are with, and can you look them in the eyes.

The lone weak spot in the film is with the depiction of confessions in the Catholic Church.  Gordon-Levitt, who is Jewish, approaches the concept in the same lazy manner in which he is depicting the clergy as doing.  This is not to say it is intentional to make it look like absolution is a scam by folks who aren’t even interest in feigning interest, but this depiction has been expressed in too many films to be coincidence.  Having been raised in the Catholic faith, I have never and don’t ever recall hearing of a priest that approached the practice in such a way as to resist contemplating the thoughts and feelings of their flock.  I certainly never experienced it firsthand.

The story is not primarily about this, though.  It’s about consideration, giving and receiving.  It never feels good if it is just one way.

(****1/2 out of *****)

The Spectacular Now (****)- Young, drunk and full of hope.

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The Spectacular Now – 2013

Director James Ponsoldt
Starring Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kyle Chandler, Bob Odenkirk, Andre Royer, Dayo Okeniyi, Kaitlyn Dever
Screenplay Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber based on the book by Tim Tharp

There is a time after Sutter and Aimee (Teller and Woodley) share a most intimate moment where she lays there and looks into his eyes.  Aimee has crossed a threshold.  She feels powerful, and she wants her boyfriend to feel the same.  If he is sober, Sutter won’t be that way for long.  What he feels is less powerful and more drunk.  He is living for now, or so he says.

Sutter has already lost one girlfriend, Cassidy (Larson), who tells him:

“I’m trying to do things now that aren’t bad for me…You’ll always be my favorite ex-boyfriend.”

Sutter floats around with a flask in his hand.  He’s funny, happy being in high school, and he can’t imagine life after.  He doesn’t bother trying.

In that way that can only happen in movies, Aimee has never had an ex-boyfriend.  She knows he has faults, and she not only accepts them, she starts to share them. They aren’t going to get in the way of her dreams, at least for now.  She foolishly thinks that she can bring him along with him on her way to college and he can do the Jr. College route.  He knows better.  He knows now doesn’t end, spectacular as it can be.

Teller is good, doing a variation on his earlier work in 21 & Over and Footloose.  In those movies, drinking is all in good fun.  Here it is handled with a more realistic touch.  He shows the propensity to understand the subtle differences in comedy of one, romance of the next and the horror of The Spectacular Now.  It makes a difference.

Woodley is excellent.  She takes a courageous road of being one who is innocent, without having her turn the corner into wise.  Drinking is not part of her past, even if her father died an addict.  She is willing to follow his lead even if she is unaware of how it could throw her entirely off her carefully plotted course.  This time, its Sutter that has to make the turn.  Whether he does or not is the question.

Ponsoldt has an innate understanding of the power of subtlety. There are moments with sound but no light that serve as placeholders for events.  This illuminates more than any amount of light ever could on the situation.  The film has a limited range, but the essential points are delivered effectively.

There have been many movies about the evils of inebriation,  The Perks of Being a Wallflower covered more and asked more of its audience.  This is a good film, that manages to walk the line between being too fun and not fun at all.  It’s not spectacular, but it is the serious teen film for now.

(**** out of *****)

21 Jump Street takes a different, better turn

21 Jump Street – 2012

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Ellie Kemper, Dave Franco, Rob Riggle, Ice Cube
Screenplay Michael Bacall

It’s not that I did not ever watch the original television show, I just didn’t ever make it a point to watch 21 Jump Street.  All of the hullabaloo surrounding Johnny Depp, Richard Grieco and what I considered to be the wrong member of the DeLuise family didn’t appeal much to me.  I don’t even remember when it went off air.  All these years later when the movie was announced, I had mixed feelings.  Jonah Hill was an interesting choice, but how could anyone be enthused by the selection of Channing Tatum as his partner?  Tatum has mad appeal to women of all ages, as shown by the above average performance of his films, most of which kind of suck.

How surprising, then, to discover that the most memorable performance of the film belongs to Tatum.  His comic chops, shown successfully in the otherwise average Haywire, and dismally in the waste of time The Dilemma.  Tatum’s turn in this movie is perhaps the most delightful performance of the year.  While not being entirely dimwitted, he puts enough of himself in the position of a fool who, while not hopeless, must make a change to…just about average.  Just like only Nixon could go to China, only someone who is not the brightest could pick up a thing or two by the end of a well devised comedy.

Tatum is not alone in his development.  Somewhat more prototypical journey is from the geek to the popular guy.  Hill, however, doesn’t need to win everyone over at the school, he just seeks little victories, making each one sweeter and more rife for real comedic potential.

The movie’s direction seems at one with the script.  Aside from some early goofball antics that stretch believability past funny (humping a pimp, really?), there are enough little touches (the Captain flicking Hill’s injured elbow) that ring true.  Funnier still is the play on typical loud action expected in any film with cops and bad guys.  Jenko and Schmidt (Tatum and Hill, by name) spend much of the time perplexed when conventional stuff does not occur.

The peripheral characters add much to the enjoyment of the story.  Again, it’s because they are played not quite against convention, but, rather, with a touch of realism that allows for more genuine laughter than the same crap you’ve seen in almost every movie since Porky’s.  Geeks are still geeks, but they have a use, and, importantly, are not universally hated.  The best of these is the portrayal of Brie Larson as Molly.  She is part of a crowd that have a special place in the school, but for reasons that would have made them pariahs 10 years earlier.  Larson is very pretty and at ease on camera.  Last thing I saw her in, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, she was as good as anyone else in the film, playing Scott’s ex-girlfriend, Envy Adams.  She is headed in a great direction, if these two movies are an indication.

Ellie Kemper gives the most deliciously wicked performance as Ms. Griggs.  Along with

What’s that you say, Ms. Griggs?

her work in The Office and Bridesmaids, she is fast becoming one of the classic comedic actresses of our time.

Ice Cube has become a reliable comic commodity, and here is no exception.  He has the rare talent of being fearsome, mean, funny and comforting at once.  There is no one else like him.

The film is filled with surprises, and even the expected ones take a turn for the better.  The cohesion between Lord, Miller and Bacall bring to mind the classic works of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, or perhaps Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis.  Magical.

21 Jump Street must be seen if you come anywhere close to liking comedy.  Even if you don’t, I dare you to try not to laugh at this one.

(****1/2 out of *****)