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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The Secret Life of Pets (***1/2) and Sing (*1/2) shows Illumination is just pumping them out there regardless of quality

secret_life_of_petsThe Secret Life of Pets – 2016

Directors  Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Screenplay by  Brian LynchCinco PaulKen Daurio
Starring (voice) Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Steve Coogan, Albert Brooks

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Sing – 2016

Written and Directed by Garth Jennings
Starring (voice)  Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly

Pixar has been in the sequel age for a few years. Disney’s picking up their slack though. Dreamworks had a good run that has begun to slow down in the last few years. On the other hand, Illumination finally started putting out product that wasn’t related to Despicable Me in the last 4 years. Don’t worry, though, the movies were a success and will each have a sequel by 2020. By then we’ll have had another Despicable Me and one more take on The Grinch.

The two films this year, Pets and Sing, are pretty similar in terms of animated artistry. The visuals are distinct and cute. But not too cute. Research must have told them how much ugly is the right amount. The stories couldn’t be any more different.

First of all, The Secret Life Of Pets, is a pleasant surprise that filled the gap left in the summer for those who wanted to watch something after Finding Dory. The story is about 2 dogs who we’ll call Woody and Buzz. Woody has the best life with his owner fellow neighbor pets until his seeming nemesis, Buzz, comes along. They fight until they both get lost and it takes a concerted effort to get everyone back together again before the misunderstood miscreants ruin everything.

Woody and Buzz in this case are Max (C.K.) and Duke (Stonestreet). Their friends, while unremarkable, provide enough grist to get to the most entertaining parts of the film in Snowball (Hart), who is best described as a psychotic bunny, and Pops (Carvey) who reigns as a sort of unwieldy godfather type. Despite the obvious references to the superior Toy Story, it’s still above average with more than a few memorable moments.

Sing is another matter. Trying so hard to represent everyone that feels forgotten, it’s worse than forgettable. It’s maudlin. The story involves a group of misfits who tryout for a Muppets style show, but then have to settle for…a more Muppety kind of show. These Muppets are not at all interesting. Who they are, why they are there and what happens matters less than zero. In fact, the animation far outstrips anything you hear in the movie.

The vocal talent for Pets is superior, mostly for the inclusion of Louis C.K., Stonestreet, Slate and Carvey. Brooks makes a nice appearance as a bird of prey who’s fighting that urge for the prospect of gaining a friend. I know that McConaughey and Witherspoon are in Sing, but I can’t tell you how the movie is any better for it. Seth MacFarlane’s slightly sinister mouse Mike is the most memorable character that doesn’t beg for sympathy or laughs.

The animation for both is really neat. I was in awe of some of the scenery, and it really looks like Illumination is learning how to show off their talent without making it obvious. Duke’s flowing hair would have been awful a few years ago. Now he’s a wonder.

It’s plain that Illumination is banking on a distinct visual flair while sacrificing originality of story (and, in Sing’s case, distinct vocal talent). There are worse films out there, but it all makes me happy that my youngest one is 10 and I will likely be skipping more of the automatic animation viewing destinations in the future.

(***1/2 out of *****) The Secret Life of Pets
(*1/2 out of *****) Sing

The Lobster (***1/2) is precisely as pathetic as it’s supposed to be

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The Lobster – 2016

Director Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay Efthymis Filippou & Lanthimos
Starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen, Ariane Labed, Angeliki Papoulia, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Michael Smiley, Ben Whishaw

I get it. There is a contingent out there who will love this film and it’s screenplay drolled to perfection by a cast that is as bewildered and browbeaten by conformity as we are at times. The Lobster has won a bunch of prizes and is destined to win even more. It’s the kind of film that is perfect for those who like to isolate themselves by liking a movie. There may be no better script presented this year, to be sure. The direction doesn’t miss a beat, either. Every scene, every angle: it all means something and much of it has a dark, grey beauty. That said, I can tell you without a doubt I will never watch this film again.

Starting off with the seemingly senseless death by handgun of a donkey in a field somewhere at the hands of an obviously spurned woman,  we soon understand the premise and rules presented in this jarred version of the future. In this time, people are discouraged from being single. It’s illegal, in fact. When they find themselves in that way, they need to report to a hotel. While checking in, we discover that the guests have 45 days to find a mate or they will be transformed into “the animal of their choice.”

There are a series of rules in the hotel, some that stab away at loneliness, some that encourage conformity and one particularly bizarre hunting ritual that allow the hunters to extend their time by bagging a certain type of game. When we discover where this game comes from later, that solved mystery gives way to myriad new ones that seem designed to be rules for rules’ sake.

To call this dystopian is a misnomer, because it takes itself so seriously and follows its rules so intricately. There are no kids yearning to be free, either. It’s beyond absurd, and if it is funny, it’s also too cutting to produce more than a sympathetic smile from this viewer. I spent enough years being single to understand the agony and pressure inherent from a table for one.

There is a deliberate choice in the film to present every line with a different accent, but absolutely not one shred of emotion. Every character spends their time trying to calculate what to say in the effort to avoid detection of who and what they are, because we know there are consequences to being genuine.

Still, it bothers our protagonist David (Farrell) to the extent that when someone beats the game, he has to go out of his way to point it out. Then he discovers that in this world, just like their own, most are content with their own version of events. They don’t need to know the truth. They just need to know they beat the clock and can continue their sad clinging to delusion. It beats the alternative, even if that option is thought through.

The overall effect to me is somewhere between amused and nails on a chalkboard. This film has appeal to people I admire, and I cannot fault them their feelings. It’s a little too close to “Sprockets” for my taste. When I watch a movie or read a book, I am in for a different type of entertainment. I don’t need to touch anyone’s monkey but my own.

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

Guardians of the Galaxy (*****): Super Awesome Mix, Vol.1

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Guardians of the Galaxy – 2014

Director James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro, Peter Serafinowicz
Screenplay Gunn & Nicole Perman

I just saw the movie event of the summer.  And I waited until I saw it twice to be sure. Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the best, deepest and most fully integrated films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Never has a film been so loaded with references to other parts of the universe, without sacrificing the integrity of the story. This story is one of the deepest multi-character arcs since Silverado. What took the Avengers 6 movies to create, has been surpassed by 5 character arcs that most of its non-fan-boy viewers had never heard of 2 years ago. By the time the Nova Corps Officer Garthan Saal says “What a bunch of A-holes,” to the line up of 4 of our 5 characters, we are already invested in learning more about what makes them tick.

Even so, one can’t help but appreciate that it had been only been 4 of the team we had met by then. If they really didn’t care about telling a story, you would have met all 5 by then. James Gunn, however, knows what it’s like to tell a story that breathes. It’s not easy to place a pile of characters into an 2 hour story and make you care about some of them, much less all of them.

Young Peter Quill is placed firmly in our hearts almost instantly. We meet him outside of his mother’s hospital room listening to 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” from the tape his mother gave him, Super Awesome Mix, Vol. 1. The song’s sadness permeates our senses in a way never imagined for a song that is essentially a synopsis to relationships of the Me-Decade 1970’s. If that’s not enough, he is taken away via spaceship almost immediately after. That has something to do with the mystery of his father.

That’s just the beginning though. Even my 7-year-old knew that the story was going to move forward several years later and she was thrilled to share that with me. When we pick Quill (Pratt) up again, he’s having an Indiana Jones moment. He calls himself Star Lord, too.  Instead of tension, though, we get another mood set through music.  This time through Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” he grooves his way to a site where he picks up this story’s MacGuffin, the orb, one of the infinity stones that Marvel is using to set up The Avengers III.

This orb is wanted by many people, and soon we have Gamora (Saldona) pursuing him at the behest of Ronan the Accuser (Pace) while Rocket (Cooper) and Groot (Diesel) are after a bounty on him placed by Yondu (Rooker).  Their combined scrap on the Nova Corps home world lands them all in the clink. It is there that we meet Drax the Destroyer. He invites himself into the fracas and eventually they all team up.  My 7-year-old knew that would happen, too.

Watching the team develop is fun, particularly because of the personalities involved.  We get real world examples, followed by quips of exposition. It’s a routine we’ve seen before, but seldom so casually effective. There is an economy of imagery and screenplay, but we get enough of this to make sense of the story and still be amused when we discover more.

Rocket and Groot are an incredible duo. Not unlike Han and Chewbacca, we have a hot head and his dedicated huge partner with the low word count.  If that is all there is, it’d be a disappointment. Groot has a vulnerability that is incredibly endearing. He is routinely cut down, with a quizzical look on his face.  He is always looking to Rocket for guidance, but it does not stop him from expressing a different opinion when appropriate. He has hands down the majority of the top scenes in the film. I will not give any away, but he has the most beautifully expressive brown eyes.

Rocket, he’s supposed to be a trigger happy mouth and he delivers. He is brash but never foolish as he makes others out to be. Rocket’s ideas always work, especially when it involves building stuff to get out of predicaments. We get a glimpse of what happened to create him (think Wolverine) and it makes us curious for more.

Gamora’s past is not a mystery.  We know that she and her sister Nebula (Gillian) are really subjects of grand nemesis Thanos. He calls them children, but like all of his children, they just come from places and groups of people he made dead. Neither of them are all that invested in Thanos’ or Ronan’s plans but we’ll see more of that later.

Drax’s story intersects with that of Gamora, and this is good for business. His rage helps form the group and is focused on Ronan and the orb and Ronan is focused on getting that orb. Eventually these forces have to meet.  And meet they do, in a big way. The great thing about Drax is that his one dimension is stretching into another one.  Maybe two.knowhere

The last 3rd of the movie has two major settings: outside planet Zandar and another on the planet’s surface. The battle outside the planet is huge with lots of explosions. There are plenty enough scenes for everyone it’s tempting to think it’s going to be over after the biggest boom. Of course it’s not.  We need to see Peter Quill’s big moment and we need to see Star Lord’s big moment. Beautifully, we are lead in with music. This time “O-o-o-h Child” leading to a delightfully bad Peter Quill dance off. Then Star Lord has his second huge moment.  No telling about the first.

I saw this movie with two girls aged 7 and 11. Neither were all that interested. They both stayed at attention the whole movie, and laughed throughout. See this movie if you like seeing characters who are growing in front of your eyes.  See it if you like worthwhile special effects that give to but do not overwhelm the story. See this if you want to experience a story firmly its own but also bursting at the seams with references that could pay dividends later. Or not. See Guardians of the Galaxy if you want to have as much fun as you’ve had in a long time.

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

CPE, Em and El: Wreck-It Ralph appeals to girls and boys

Wreck-It Ralph – 2012

Director Rich Moore
Starring (voices) John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Alan Tudyk, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Mindy Kaling, Ed O’Neill, Dennis Haysbert
Screenplay Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee

The genius of Wreck-It Ralph is not in the ground that it treads.  The multi-licensed cameos has been done before by Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Toy Story films. Going over several video game platforms is nice, but it’s not something to write about.  The voice talent is bordering on great, but there is one major drawback (that some – like my kids – might see as a strength). The thing that places this animated feature as among the best of the year is something one almost never sees: a story line that has believable heroes for boys and for girls.  Actually two each.

By now, most have heard of the premise of Wreck-It Ralph, he is the bad guy of an older video game (modeled loosely after Rampage), who longs to improve his lot in life.  His journey brings us into a world until now only imagined.  In this world, all video game characters exist as separate entities that live outside of their games when the arcade closes, much like the toys when Andy is sleeping or away from the bedroom.

His journey takes him away from his game (Fix It Felix) while the arcade is open.  Due to some rules I will not bother to explain, the game malfunctions and is placed out of commission, to be repaired, if possible.  If it is not possible, it will be shut down.  We all know that isn’t good.

There are some nice turns in the plot that I will not ruin for you.  These work really well to keep one in suspense, even if they don’t always follow their own rules (like the reboot of a world with outside characters).  The pace is very crisp for a genre where lag time can ruin it for the theater. There was not one disruption in our theater, from kids, that is.  Some middle-aged woman kept talking to the screen, for some reason.

Perhaps she was as exhilarated by the story as the rest of us.  The entire premise is rife with opportunity and it is easy to imagine several decent sequels deriving from it.  The thrill of seeing certain games out of commission, but the characters lingering within the gaps is palpable for adults.  It certainly seemed a draw for my girls.

A video game round-up of nemeses referred to as Bad-Anon

For Reilly, this is the opportunity of a lifetime.  He has the face that many will recognize, but few will ever love, outside of Ricky Bobby’s wife.  His voice is like a comfortable old bath robe, well-worn and always comfortable.  The viewer falls very easily into sympathy for the big lug with a slight temper.

Vanellope, who is played by Sarah Silverman, is misunderstood in her own game, Sugar Rush.  Portrayed as though she were playing the animated version of herself, the only way Silverman could have been more like the real life is if she’d broken out in 4 letter words.  I was not as amused with her as her storyline allowed for.  While one cannot say it is entirely her fault, I have the feeling the director allowed for her to improvise just a bit too much.

This impression was not shared by my girls, however.  They were drawn in by Vanellope’s positive attitude and when all seemed lost, my oldest attempted to understand Ralph’s point of view.  Not many animated films bring out that kind of thinking process in a kid of 9 years old.

Lynch and McBrayer work seamlessly within the story.  There is a subtle irony in their pairing, but that is part of what makes it work.  None of this comes across as a mixed message to the “too young to watch Glee” set and both are very good voice actors.  What it is, though, is a clever storyline that adds a dimension to the film.  Thankfully, there is nothing on the agenda but a delightful and motivational tale.

My girls walked away from this film enthralled with the world they had just witnessed.  I was relieved that they had seen a film perfect for their age and good for mine too.

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

Em’s Review:

So how did you like the movie?  The characters were funny and they put it together well.

What did you think when Ralph broke the car up?  Sad.  It made sense because she could have been killed and never be able to come back.

What did you think when you found out the truth about King Candy?  I felt, “Wow, I’ve been tricked.”

What was the saddest part of the movie for you?  When I thought that Wreck-It Ralph was going to die in Soda Springs.

What was the best moment of the movie?  I have two.  The first one is this:

(Skip to about 1:55-2:00)

(Ellie liked it too)

When she was wearing the princess outfit and then Ralph asked if she was really a princess.  She rips the suit off and says, ‘No.  I am still the Vanellope you know!’

What would you rank this film out of 5? Can we do it 10?

Yeah I guess: Okay 10 out of 10.

Doesn’t that equal 5 out of 5?  10 is bigger.

El’s Review:

El, how did you like the movie: It was good action and I also liked Sugar Rush.

Who was your favorite character?:  Vanellope.

What did you like best about her?:  She had a lot of energy and she said to Ralph “Why are you so freakishly big?”

What is your favorite part of the film?:  The Race.  I like that Vanellope won so she would not become a glitch.

But she liked that she was a glitch?: She stayed alive, became a princess and she pretended that she was going to destroy everybody.  But she didn’t (laughs).  She became a president instead.

So how many stars do you give it…out of 5?  No, out of 10.  I give it a 9.

But that’s 4.5 out of 5?  Do you not know what 9 means?

Carnage: I don’t care about the tulips, either.

Carnage – 2011

Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz
Screenplay by Polanski and Yasmina Reza based on some French play

It’s really difficult to think of Roman Polanski as just a director.  The first thing that comes to my mind is how in the world is this man still free after what he did to a 13-year-old girl in a photo shoot in 1977, when he was 43 years old.  That’s 30 years difference, for those keeping score.  He fled prosecution and has avoided it ever since.  As a result, I have generally avoided Polanski films, and tried to avoid thinking about those in Hollywood who would defend him.  Among the latest batch, Foster, Reilly, Winslet and Waltz.

Of course this is guilt by association, and somewhat unfair, I suppose.  One can’t know the feelings of all involved in this mess.  Needless to say, I broke this trend due to respect for the way Foster has continued to support Mel Gibson.  She could be wrong about him too, to be sure.  That, then, would make 2 of us.  With a heavy, overworked conscience, I forged ahead…and almost immediately regretted it.

There is a phrase about plays, “how it translates to screen,” that is the perennial question for those who are curious about both things.  Stage work has never been a curiosity for me, specifically because, with film, we have advanced beyond the restrictions of stage.  It would be kind of like going back and having men play all the characters, à la Greek theater, when we long ago decided that women can portray themselves.

In the case of Carnage, there really is no point in using the word “translate,” because of the dearth of locations.  The film takes place in 4 rooms and a hallway with a barking dog.  So, invariably, we are trapped with these characters in a claustrophobic place, for better or, in this case, worse.  The tension starts immediately over a letter created to signify the actions of the children of two couples, played by Foster and Reilly and Winslet and Waltz.  One of the boys, during the opening credits, popped the other in the mouth with a stick.  Why this happened is unimportant.  As is the contents of the letter.  The point is to get the two couples there.

So, conversing in decent manners at first, one couple gets (Winslet and Waltz) get ready to leave, of course they don’t, and their conversation takes a turn.  They have some dessert, converse a bit more, and the tension rises.  Motives and attitudes shift as often as one episode of Glee to the next.  Glee, most understand, is a pretty crappy show.  Many have called this type of back and forth decent play writing.  This screenplay, at least, won an award in Spain.

The one thing this film has going for it is the actors.  Each of their efforts is tight and they squeeze every bit of common sense the script can afford.  Waltz, in particular, plays his character as realistically as it can be.  The many cell phone calls he receives, as well the rest of the group’s response to them plays as good as anything I’ve seen since Glengarry Glen Ross.  The rest of this, no matter how gamely played, is of no interest to me on a Sunday afternoon…or any other day.

One of the early conversations centers around a vat full of yellow tulips.  Each of the women prattle on about these tulips at first.  It’s a seemingly inane talking point, which, like any play, shows up over and over.  Finally, one of the characters, Foster, I think, screams:

“I don’t care about the tulips!”

That makes two of us.

(** out of *****)