Archive for March, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

In Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong there is a lot of stuff about man invading nature’s realm.  They tie the theme into works by Joseph Conrad, specifically The Heart of Darkness.  Kong: Skull Island has a character named James Conrad, a tracker played by Tom Hiddleston so director John Vogt-Roberts and screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly are mining the same vein.  A lot of the visual vocabulary is lifted from Apocalypse Now which is of course an adaptation of The Heart of Darkness.  It seems to be a pretension that filmmakers of modern Kong movies can’t resist.

The film takes place in 1973. The Vietnam War has just ended and the country is in disarray.   A secret government agency, headed by Bill Randa, played by John Goodman, is trying to get funding to mount an expedition to an uncharted island in the South Pacific.  The island, which resembles a skull and is thus dubbed Skull Island, has just been spotted by satellite.  It has never been visited before because it is surrounded by a permanent storm system.

Randa secures a military escort in the form of an air cavalry unit led by Colonel Preston Packard.  Packard is angry about the way the war ended and therefore is game for one last assignment even though his men just want to go home.  So he happily packs his choppers onto a ship and takes them through the storms and over the island.  And that’s when the giant ape attacks.

The whole thing is derivative of course and normally I wouldn’t have a problem with that.  But towards the end of the film, I discovered that I wasn’t into the plot and didn’t really know why.  After some thought, I think the reason is that even their attempts at psychological and thematic depth are borrowed from other projects that did it a hundred times better.  In that respect it was like watching a Baz Luhrmann movie.  They could have cut most of that stuff, made the movie about a half hour shorter and it would have been better.

This is obviously a great cast with Hiddleston, Goodman, Jackson, Brie Larson and John C. Reilly.  But they seemed as disengaged from the movie as I was as if they knew the script was regurgitated swill.  The performances are universally phoned in.  Even John C. Reilly’s who plays Hank Marlow a WWII fighter pilot who was stranded on the island with a Japanese pilot.  Marlow fulfills the Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now role.  He could have really hammed it up in this role, but he either chose or was directed into uninspiring choices.

The effects are fine.  They look realistic and well integrated into the action.  But you know all that takes is money and I’m sure any CGI artist in Hollywood would be excited to bring Kong to life.

I’m probably being too hard on this film but the previews made it look so good.  And when I walked out of the theater, I was so disappointed.  It was like someone broke a promise.

Oh well, I guess I’m always up for watching a giant ape smash stuff and it does deliver in that department.

Logan

Logan is an X-Men film, the latest installment in a long successful super-hero series.  It is also the second collaboration between director James Mangold and star Hugh Jackman of solo Wolverine movies. You would think that all those movies that came before would serve as an obvious prologue to this one, that they would be the reference points one thinks of when watching this film.  But surprisingly the film that keeps coming to mind as I process Logan is Kickass.

This may seem to be a strange juxtaposition to those familiar with both films but there is one obvious similarity.  They both have murderously violent preteen girls.  And both films show these characters in graphic and disturbing action.

To me the question for both films is are these disturbing images justified and necessary to the themes of their respective movies?  I fear that I was never really able to answer that question for Kickass, which probably means that the answer is “no.”  But what about Logan?

Well, it is a heavy film that earns its R rating, with a dystopian tone that permeates every frame.  It takes place in 2029.  This future isn’t as bleak as the one the X-Men averted in Days of Future Past but it’s still pretty grim.  No Mutants have been born for twenty five years and the existing ones are either in hiding or dead due to a never explained incident that occurred in Westchester years earlier.  Wolverine, played by Hugh Jackman is working as a limo driver in El Paso, Texas.  He lives across the border in Mexico in an abandoned factory with Charles Xavier, played by Patrick Stewart and Caliban, played by Stephen Merchant.  Professor X is suffering from dementia, which is very dangerous in a telepath as powerful as he is.  Wolverine knows he has to keep the professor as far away from centers of population as possible.  He’s trying to save enough money to buy a boat so they can live out at sea beyond the reach of the authorities who are looking for them.

But Wolverine is far from well himself.  Something is poisoning him and his near instantaneous healing powers are slowing down and not doing a complete job anymore.  His body is covered in scars.  He’s drinking a lot and has a graveyard cough.

So when he’s approached by Gabriela, played by Elizabeth Rodriguez, to help her and a young mute girl named Laura, played by Dafne Keen, get to some place in North Dakota, he’s too wrapped up in his own problems to be sympathetic.  But as is the way of these things, the situation is forced on him.

Gabriela was a nurse at a facility in Mexico City where a company was trying to develop super soldiers using mutant DNA.  It was full of young kids who all had extraordinary powers.  But eventually the company decided they were too uncontrollable and ordered the program stopped and the children eliminated.  The nurses who worked there sneaked as many of them out of the facility as they could, but the company in the person of Pierce, played by Boyd Holbrook is in hot pursuit.  Pierce finds Gabriela and Laura, who has Wolverine’s DNA and thus his instantaneous healing and adamantine skeleton and claws, by surveilling Wolverine and tracking him to the abandoned factory.  The race to North Dakota is on.

It’s a good film, despite my reservations.  Even though it drags a little in the middle, it’s very well paced and the acting is terrific, especially Jackman and Stewart.  Patrick Stewart deserves special recognition because this is Professor X as we’ve never seen him.  He’s in decline, vulnerable, confused but still dangerous if unpredictably so.  Stewart captures his fear and resentment perfectly in an almost Shakespearean performance.  I don’t know if he’s ever played Lear but he should.

The body count concerns me.  Especially since most of it is inflicted by Laura.  The filmmakers try to create some resonance with the movie Shane, specifically that last scene where before Shane leaves he explains to Joey that taking a life means crossing a line that can’t be uncrossed.  But of course, Laura crossed that line long ago.  There’s a scene where she watches that scene and the look in her eyes is devastating.

Maybe the theme is the question of whether or not she’s responsible.  Laura was, after all raised to be a weapon and at her tender age can she be expected to know when she shouldn’t be, especially since the company that ran the facility where she grew up didn’t want these children shown any love or compassion at all.  Contrast that with how Professor X treated his charges at the school for mutants.  He tried to provide them with a well-rounded education as well as how to defend themselves.  If all Laura knew was coldness and her only training was how to kill, can she really be blamed if she kills?

I suppose in this world of child soldiers that is an important theme.  Maybe we all need to know that in those situations redemption is possible.  In Shane Joey learns lessons about the uses of power before he has any.  Laura doesn’t have that advantage.

And I also suppose that the idea of an innocent childhood may well be a vestigial element from the baby boomer era.  Shane after all is a benchmark movie from that time.  It’s something we all watched growing up.  But these days it seems just a little naïve.  The issues are more complicated now and maybe Logan reflects that.

I’m still having trouble getting my head around it though.


March 2017
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