Death Note (***) is Pandora’s Box by another name

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Director Adam Wingard
Screenplay by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater
Starring Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham,
Paul Nakauchi, Jason Liles, Willem Dafoe

Before we go too far in any direction, this film is not great. It’s not a giant disappointment, though. It is just a little one. Anyone who has time to accuse the filmmakers of whitewashing the original material take a long walk. They’ve already done enough in front of the camera in Japan, from where the original manga emanates. There was a time when it would have been called an homage, but everyone has to be offended these days. Grow up and just take this for what it is, a borrowed tale of a borrowed tale of a borrowed tale.

The disappointment for me is only that I’ve seen Wingard do better and not all that long ago. You’re Next is one of my favorite slasher films of recent memory, and the word on The Guest is good enough it makes me wonder why I missed it. He’s been hired to do the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong film too. Ears perked when this property he was attached to suddenly got placed in limbo. Then they perked again when Netflix picked it up and made it at full budget. One could almost feel the palpable disappointment just waiting for critics to express when the burgeoning monolith released the film in late August.

The story is quite recognizable to anyone who’s studied anything written before this date. A kid named Light (Wolff) literally has a book called Death Note drop out of the sky in front of him. He picks it up. He reads. It becomes clear through a series of screen flashes what the book wants him to know and what the director wants us to know. Write a name in the book, picture the face that goes with the name and that person dies.

The book comes with a death god, named Ryuk (Dafoe). The purpose of this demon is unclear. It seems like he wants to bust out somehow, but really he just wants the person who has the book to put him to work. He likes the rules, but he likes mischief even more. This mischief is pretty gruesome.

The movie has some good performances, in particular Stanfield as L and Qualley as Mia. Dafoe is right at home as the evil Ryuk. His brand of vitriol feels sinister and is, if anything, underused here.

They could have done better than Wolff for a leading man, but it’s hard to tell if its as much his issue as it is the writing. He’s somewhat annoying, like a more annoying Adam Goldberg, though I am not sure how he got there. Somehow he feels disconnected from the material, like he’s waiting for it to be worthy of him. Maybe its unfair, but I’ve never watched anything he’s been in twice.

If anything, they could have tethered Ryuk much closer to Light, or at least featured their back and forth more prominently. Though they take an original twist introducing the Adam and Eve element to it, in the end it serves as a distraction to what could have been much more interesting material.

I am not real familiar with manga, and there’s nothing here that draws me in. Wingard’s hold on the material seems fleeting here. It’s got nothing of the control he’s exhibited with his early work.

About that early work, I am watching The Guest now. Dan Stevens. Holy crap. Now that’s control.

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

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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 *****)