April 5, 2017

Kong: Skull Island Review

            King Kong has always been one of cinema’s favorite stories.  Ever since the original was released in 1933 there have been numerous sequels, remakes, spinoffs and monster mashups based on the property, and none of them have ever really tried to change the basic premise.  The premise of the original is nothing special but it works thanks to some fantastic direction and groundbreaking effects.  Since then the franchise has only really ever worked when that formula was used again with Peter Jackson’s King Kong in 2005.  That is what makes Kong: Skull Island so interesting.  It is far from being one of the better King Kong films but it is easily the most different.  That is just enough to get this messy film by.

            Kong: Skull Island takes place at the end of the Vietnam War (a far cry from the 1930s or the present day which is where most Kong adaptations take place) as a tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and an army colonel (Samuel L. Jackson) are recruited by a little known government agency to help find something on a remote island.  When they get to that island, they discover that something is none other than King Kong, and when they upset the beast they become stranded on the island.  That’s where they learn that Kong is not the thing they should be worried about.

            This film is really all about world building.  It’s about showing you a new world, showing its inhabitants, and showing you how many more opportunities there are to explore these creatures, characters and settings.  A lot of this ends up as disappointing set up for Legendary’s new Monsters Cinematic Universe, though.  While we occasionally see glimpses of interesting creatures designs (such as the gigantic water buffalo), a lot of the settings we see don’t inspire any sense of awe and the antagonistic creatures of this film have an extremely boring design. 

            That being said these new visuals make it clear that this film is not beholden to the typical Kong storyline.  The film really makes this clear with some of the characters in the film.  While Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson’s leading couple are about as stereotypical as they can come, Samuel L. Jackson’s Packard and John C. Reilly’s Marlow are very interesting characters.  Samuel L. Jackson excels in the role of a Captain Ahab type bent on destroying Kong in revenge for the soldiers he killed, and John C. Reilly gloriously hams it up in every second he’s in (to the point that he becomes distracting when compared to everything else going on around him even if the performance remains impressive).

            All in all, Kong: Skull Island is quite a mess.  It’s trying something new but it does that through stereotypical leads and some bland world building.  It has an interesting set of supporting characters but they cause a constant struggle between humor and darkness.  Had there been some more consistency, this would have been a worthy follow-up to the latest Godzilla film.  Instead it’s fun but forgettable.


Song to Song Review

            Anytime you watch a Terrence Malick film it’s an experience.  That even includes his lesser ones such as last year’s Knight of Cups (which in my opinion is the one bad film that he has ever made).  The man has discovered a new way of filmmaking that has combined realism and cinematic grandeur in proportions that we have not seen before, and anyone that has tried to mimic it (and being that this is a legendary director there have been multiple attempts to do just that) has failed utterly.  With Song to Song, the real deal is back as Malick delivers a film that delivers on an intimate level while also including a sense of awe that you find so very rarely in film nowadays.  If his magnum opus, The Tree of Life, is about finding faith in a world that does not believe in faith than Song to Song is about finding true love in a world that does not believe in true love.

            As with most Malick films post-The New World, it’s better off going into Song to Song without knowing the plot.  Not only does the film not focus on its plot too often, but also the pleasure (or in the case of many, pain) of trying to figure out what is ever going on in a Malick film is immense.  That being said the film does focus on a bunch of characters within the music industry in Austin, Texas.  With Texas being Malick’s home state many elements of this film come across as autobiographical.  It’s these smaller and more intimate moments that really soar in this film. 

            For the most part, Rooney Mara’s struggling songwriter is the main character of this film.  Thanks to her performance and the small moments that Malick goes for, her character comes across as the most complete character that he has done in decades.  There are just so many scenes where it seems like Mara was asked to react to something spontaneously and this really makes her deliver a performance that is more energetic than anything she has ever done before.  With Emmanuel Lubezki helping Malick with the visual architecture of this film, these moments of improvisation come off so naturally and feel like some of the most realistic scenes ever put on film.  I really wonder how these artists pulled off many of the scenes within this film, and I really admire how effortlessly they hide how they did it.

            Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman fill out the major roles in a truly A-list cast, and all three deliver quite interesting performances.  Gosling’s performance feels eerily familiar to his Oscar nominated one in La La Land, but it’s still interesting to see how that type of performance and character works in a Malick film.  Fassbender clearly relishes his time as the most antagonistic character in the film, and Portman finally seems to get her feet underneath her after giving such a forgettable performance in Knight of Cups.  Her brief time here is reminiscent of her work in Cold Mountain, in which her performance brings an energy that the film needs just as it is about to hit its midpoint.

            Song to Song is a return to form for Terrence Malick as he has finally funneled his increasingly polarizing style into a series of themes and images that merit his effort.


March 5, 2017

The Great Wall Review

            From casting controversies to disappointing box office results, The Great Wall (the latest film from Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou) has received a lot of negative attention from almost the moment that it was announced.  While the end product is not a good film, The Great Wall is not without merit and that is getting lost amid all of the negative publicity.  There is a lot of artistry put into the costumes and some aspects of the world building of this fantastical version of old China.  The film also has a surprisingly strong set of performances despite the controversy surrounding Matt Damon’s casting.  Yet all of this does not make up for the fact that this film puts no effort into building a story.  It’s a set of visuals with no meat to it.

            The Great Wall follows a group of traders as they search for black powder in eleventh century China.  After most are killed off by bandits and a mysterious attack by a monster with a green arm, William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) find themselves at the Great Wall where they are taken prisoner by a splinter group of the Chinese army known as the Nameless Order.  They soon learn that the Nameless Order is tasked with stopping an apocalyptic attack by alien lizards known as the Tao Tie.  For such a weird story there is not a lot of effort building this fantastical world in the narrative sense.  Nothing during the course of this movie makes sense and what makes matters worse is that the motives of characters make even less sense than some of the plot elements.  It’s a mess of a script and a mess of a story that leaves little for the film to build on.

            Fortunately, the other elements of the film try really hard to make something out of this film.  Despite some shoddy CGI effects, the visuals tend to be really impressive.  The battle armor and weapons are some of the most detailed creations ever put onscreen, and there are some sequences that are allowed to dazzle under the direction of Zhang Yimou.

            It also helps that the film gets a strong set of performances from its cast.  Matt Damon is a sturdy lead that is able to remain interesting despite a script that really lets his character done.  Some of the lines he is forced to say could have been really embarrassing, but with his charisma he is able to avoid any downfalls.  Jian Tian is the real star of the film though.  Her performance in this film has all of the signs of a breakout performance, and it’s hard not to take your eyes off the screen when she gets to be the center of attention.  It also seems like Willem Dafoe and Pedro Pascal (it’s weird putting him on the same level as Dafoe but so far all he has done is proven that he’s the real deal) are incapable of giving a bad performance.

            There’s a lot going for The Great Wall, but none of that makes up for the fact that no effort was put into the story its attempting to tell.


March 3, 2017

2016 Green Sox Awards

Best Visual Effects
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Neil Corbould, Hal Hickel, John Knoll & Mohen Leo)
Best Sound Mixing
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (David Parker, Christopher Scarabosio & Stuart Wilson)    
Best Sound Editing
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Christopher Scarabosio & Matthew Wood)    
Best Production Design
The VVitch: A New-England Folktale (Craig Lethrop)    
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Amanda Knight, Neal Scanlan & Lisa Tomblin)    
Best Original Song
“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, La La Land (Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek & Justin Paul)
Best Original Score
Game of Thrones: Season 6 (Ramin Djawadi)    
Best Editing
La La Land (Tom Cross)    
Best Costume Design
The Dressmaker (Marion Boyce & Margot Wilson)    
Best Cinematography
The VVitch: A New-England Folktale (Jarin Blaschke)    
Best Original Screenplay
Richard Linklater, Everybody Wants Some!!    
Best Adapted Screenplay
Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story    
Best Supporting Actress
Janelle Monae, Moonlight    
Best Supporting Actor
John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane    
Best Lead Actress
Anya Taylor-Joy, The VVitch: A New-England Folktale    
Best Lead Actor
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic    
Best Director
Martin Scorsese, Silence    
Best Picture
Game of Thrones: Season 6 (David Benioff, Bernadette Caulfield, Frank Doelger, Carolyn Strauss & D.B. Weiss)    

4-Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
3-The VVitch: A New-England Folktale
2-Game of Thrones: Season 6, La La Land