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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.

2016 Oscar Picks

Since I’ve officially given up on the Animated Feature category, I have now seen every nominated film I need to see.  As you may remember I pick films in the acting, directing and Best Picture categories.  Once again thanks to the mighty Goldderby.com for guidance.  They get one or two of the winners wrong every year but they are unerring when it comes to the films that might get nominated.  In the years that I’ve been relying on them, I’ve never been surprised.

It may be that I’m getting old and jaded but it seems to me that this has been a good year for movies but not a great one.  With the possible exception of Loving, which in my view was snubbed in two important categories, I’m not really passionate about any of these films.  And I’m downright hostile to at least one of them.

As always these are not my predictions about who will win.  For that you need to go to Goldderby.com.  These are the films that I would choose among the nominated entries.

Here we go:

 

Supporting Actress

This may very well be the strongest category this year.  All these performances are terrific and deserving.

Naomie Harris’ mother in Moonlight is a study in low key acting.  Which is amazing because another actor could very well have relied on stereotype and cliché in the role of a junkie neglectful mother.  Harris avoids that and believably redeems her character later on in the movie.

Nicole Kidman plays almost exactly the opposite type of mother in Lion.  She and her husband adopt two Indian orphans.  One becomes a disappointment but she never gives up on him no matter how much his behavior hurts her.  Kidman conveys this woman’s strength and compassion.

Michelle Williams delivers a solid performance as Casey Affleck’s ex-wife in Manchester by the Sea.  For the most part she’s on an even keel, approaching him carefully because the marriage ended badly.  She has one scene where she provides the fireworks and it is masterfully done.

Viola Davis is great in everything she does and her performance as the longsuffering wife in Fences is no exception.  Fences is basically a filmed play in which everybody gets their speeches and their moment.  Davis makes the most of hers.

I would give the award to Octavia Spencer for her role in Hidden Figures.  She is terrific in what I would call respectful defiance.  She persistently and politely points out to her supervisor just how unfair it is that she has all the responsibilities and duties of a manager but without the title or the pay, which they won’t give her because of her race.  Spencer shows this woman’s spirit, intelligence and determination.

 

Supporting Actor

Lucas Hedges fails to evoke any empathy for his character in Manchester by the Sea.  This may be due to the script which makes a serious miscalculation with the orphaned teenager, but Hedges does nothing notable to overcome it.

Michael Shannon’s dying badass detective is the best thing in Nocturnal Animals.  He is methodical and professional until he exhausts all the legal means of bringing a murderer to justice and then he believably crosses the line.

I think Dev Patel overdoes the moping in the second half of Lion.  It really drags the plot down and cancels out a lot of the sympathy we have for the character.

Jeff Bridges isn’t exactly stretching in this performance as a dogged Texas Ranger in Hell or High Water but boy is this an entertaining performance.  You can see his confusion and indecision once he figures out why his two quarries go on a bank robbing spree but there is also his determination to uphold the law no matter what.

I would give the award to the favorite Mahershala Ali for his role as the drug dealer in Moonlight.  He undercuts cliché by making his character compassionate and even wise while at the same time contributing to the problems of his neighborhood.  It takes a great performance to encompass both those things and Ali delivers.

 

Leading Actress

Isabelle Huppert plays a cold unsympathetic character in Elle and does nothing to make us feel an ounce of sympathy for her.  It was a mess of a movie so it wasn’t entirely her fault but she is complicit.

Emma Stone is a beautiful and talented actress but she can neither sing nor dance and I have no idea how she got cast as the lead in a musical.

Meryl Streep actually can sing pretty well but chooses to sing badly in Florence Foster Jenkins.  It is a brave performance about a rich woman who deludes herself into thinking she has talent.

Natalie Portman gives a powerhouse performance as Jackie Kennedy in Jackie.  She handles both the scenes of hysterical grief and the ones where her hidden strength and intelligence emerge with equal skill and dexterity.

But the award should go to Ruth Negga for her masterful performance as a black woman illegally married to a white man in Loving.  Her chemistry with co-star Joel Edgerton is an amazing achievement especially since the characters are so different.  Negga really nails it here.

 

Leading Actor

Let me start by saying if Joel Edgerton had been nominated for Loving, I would give the award to him.  But he wasn’t so I can’t.

Ryan Gosling stole Edgerton’s place in the nominations.  Gosling is one of the best actors in his generation, but he can’t sing or dance.  Why was he cast in a musical?

Viggo Mortensen turns in an eccentric and prickly performance as a demanding counter cultural dad in Captain Fantastic.  It’s not easy being one of his kids but you can see why they love him.

Andrew Garfield gives us an impeccable Appalachian accent as a conscientious objector in Hacksaw Ridge.  He shows us the bravery of this man.

Denzel Washington breathes fire as the flawed patriarch in Fences.  An angry blowhard, he expects a lot from everybody around him but not so much from himself.

Casey Affleck gets the nod for his turn as a grieving guilt-ridden man suddenly charged with caring for his deceased brother’s teenage son.  He has the range to play the same character in both the flashbacks where he’s rather feckless and fun-loving and in the later scenes where he’s depressed and self-loathing.

 

Director

Damien Chazelle seriously miscast the leads in La La Land.

Kenneth Lonergan gets great performances from his cast in Manchester by the Sea.

Mel Gibson’s bloody-mindedness serves him well in Hacksaw Ridge depicting the horror of mechanized warfare.

Barry Jenkins developed a consistent tone over the course of three different time periods in Moonlight.  He also got some very good performances out of his cast.

Denis Villeneuve gets my vote for the winner.  He uses the entire vocabulary of film to produce a thoughtful and engrossing science fiction film.

 

Best Picture

Loving was the best film I saw in 2016 but it wasn’t nominated so…

I think I’ve made my feelings about La La Land pretty clear by now.  It is the heavy favorite to win but it will go down in history as one of Oscar’s biggest mistakes.

Lion drags too much in the second half to be one of this year’s best films.

Any of the rest of these could win and I wouldn’t be upset.

Hacksaw Ridge is a compelling film with visceral images that really gets across the horror of war.

Moonlight is a thoughtful character study with good performances.

Fences has great performances but struggles to overcome its theatrical origins.

Hell or High Water is an entertaining crime movie in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde.

Manchester by the Sea is an engrossing domestic drama slightly marred by one miscalculation in the plot.

Arrival is a near perfect film with unforgettable images and powerful yet understated performances.  It’s a little cold for me to give it the big award but it’s certainly deserving of recognition.

Of the nominated films I would give the Oscar to Hidden Figures.  It is an uplifting movie about underdogs prevailing over prejudice.  That is just the sort of film the Oscars were created to celebrate.

 

So there you have it.  The Oscars will be handed out on February 26.  As usual, make some popcorn and enjoy.

20th Century Women

Free spirited single mother, Dorothea, played by Annette Bening, is trying to raise her teenage son, Jamie, played by Lucas Jade Zumann.  It is 1979 in Southern California and Dorothea runs a boarding house.  Because of Dorothea’s warm personality, her tenants are drawn into the lives of her and Jamie and they form an impromptu family.  Dorothea had Jamie late in life so the generation gap is their case is huge.  Like any teenager, Jamie is becoming sullen and disobedient.  This distresses his mother who hates to see him grow apart from her.

At first she tries to get her male tenant, William, played by Billy Crudup, to serve as a role model for Jamie.  But William, who likes working with his hands, and Jamie, who’s more thoughtful, don’t really connect.  So when that fails Dorothea asks Abbie, played by Greta Gerwig, her female tenant, and Julie, played by Elle Fanning, Jamie’s best friend, to try and talk to him about his life.

But these two have their own trials.  Abbie is going through a cancer scare and Julie has severe self-esteem issues that result in her sleeping around with multiple partners that do not include Jamie to his great frustration, even though she comes over most nights and sleeps in his bed.  And what Jamie really wants is to understand his mother just as she wants to understand him.

First of all let me say that the movie is too long.  It drags in several places and they could have used more time in the editing suite to get it down to an hour and a half.  It has one of those false endings where it feels like the story has wrapped up but the movie goes on for another twenty minutes.  Plus great amounts of exposition is delivered through narration by Jamie, Dorothea and later the other characters.  So the film could have been a lot longer.  In my view narration adds a certain pretension to a film.  “This is a story worth commenting on.”  20th Century Women is about a teenage boy maturing a little bit and his mother not being able to handle it, hardly the stuff of epics.

But there’s a lot in this film that’s intriguing.  Writer/Director Mike Mills has created a troupe of interesting and quirky characters and put them in bizarre situations.  Despite the pacing problems the script has some very good dialog.  It also has a real sense of the passage of time.  The main plot takes place in the space of a few days but everything that happens is predicated on how the pasts of these characters have shaped them.  That’s true in any story but Mills really manages to emphasize the point.

20th Century Women is about people trying to understand each other.  One generation desperate to learn about another and a boy trying to understand girls.  Jamie tries to get his mother to talk about what she’s going through.  He wants to know about why she never tried to remarry and what she originally saw in his father.  She tries to listen to Talking Heads and Black Flag, hoping that will give her insight into what Jamie is thinking.  This movie has a great soundtrack by the way.

In short this movie has some wonderful moments and a few good laughs.  It is also messy, sad and confusing.  Sort of like life.

Silence

In 17th century Japan, Christianity was banned.  This made missionary work there extremely dangerous.  When Jesuit priest Father Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson goes missing with rumors of him renouncing his faith, two of his former pupils Father Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield and Father Garrpe, played by Adam Driver, insist on going to Japan to find their old mentor.  They consider the rumors of Ferreira’s apostasy to be slander and they desire to clear his name.

What follows is a meditation on the conflict between faith and pragmatism.  When the missionaries arrive in Japan, they are immediately aware that they are putting the coastal village that welcomes them in danger, especially the two leaders Mokichi, played by Shin’ya Tsukamoto and Ichizo, played by Yoshi Oida.  There is a grand inquisitor, played by Issei Ogata, roaming the countryside, trying to eradicate Christianity.  His methods are brutal.

The inquisitor has learned that it is more effective to not kill the missionaries but to kill their parishioners unless the priests renounce their faith publically.  This puts the priests in an untenable position.  They can save lives but at the cost of their souls and the goals of the Church which they have pledged their lives to.  And when Father Rodrigues prays to God for guidance…well that’s where they get the title of the movie.  The dilemma has confused his faith and rendered it mute.

This is a beautifully photographed film with muted colors and interesting camera angles.  The picturesque panoramas of the rocky Japanese coast are stunning.  There are mysterious shots of people walking out of fog and mist, and extreme close-ups of grimy hands holding crosses carved of wood or woven from reeds, small because of the necessity for hiding them.  Martin Scorsese, the director and Rodrigo Prieto the director of photography capture the feeling of coming to a dangerous and alien land through their images.

I will describe the pace of the film as meditative.  There were times when I wished they’d just get on with it but I knew going in that this was a two hour and forty one minute bladder buster.  In the hands of a lessor director this could have been one theological conversation after another but Scorsese keeps that palaver to a minimum.  And it does build in intensity.  What’s more the script by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, based on the novel by Shusaku Endo withholds any kind of judgement.  It shows the benefits and costs on both sides of the dilemma.  In another movie that might be seen as wishy-washy but here the filmmakers make it into a strength, showing the moral complications inherent in Rodrigues’s choice.

The performances were good although I will say that Andrew Garfield needs to be careful.  He has a set of facial expressions and gestures that he relies on too much.  It’s bad when you’re watching a 17th century priest and being reminded every so often that this guy played Spider-man.  Garfield needs to broaden his repertoire.

And you’ve got to admire Liam Neeson.  His whole career he’s gone from cheesy action flicks to prestige dramas with seeming ease.  He approaches every role with the same seriousness and respect.  Not every actor can do that.

The Japanese performers mostly give performances that are reminiscent of Kurosawa films.  Yosuke Kubozuka who play Kichijiro, the guide who brings the priests into Japan and connects them with the Christians in the village, in particular seems to be channeling Toshiro Mifune in Rashoman.  It’s an interesting contrast that jars at first but later on you see that it works.

Most of the time films about ideas are somewhat bloodless, appealing solely to the mind.  Silence appeals to both the mind and the heart and really shows how faith can be an emotional bulwark.  But of course when it is challenged and weakened and eventually defeated that can be devastating.

Elle

Paul Verhoeven always adds a satiric element to his films which to me frequently feels tacked on or even forced.  The propaganda spots in Starship Troopers or the little league baseball coach bringing his team along to a jewelry heist during a police strike in Robocop are examples of this.  To me they jar too much in action films which is mostly what Verhoeven makes.  He tries to have it both ways: to make a commercially viable movie and one that is edgy at the same time.  But frankly, Verhoeven isn’t talented enough to pull it off.

Anyway, Elle opens up just as Michelle Leblanc’s, played by Isabelle Huppert, rapist is finishing up.  She’s lying flat on the floor amidst some broken bric-a-brac with torn clothes and a black eye.  After a few moments, she gets herself together, cleans up and tries to go about her business.  Michelle is the head of a video game publisher which she rules with an iron fist.  The company specializes in graphically violent games with disturbing images.  This doesn’t seem to bother her even after the rape.

At first she has the idea that the rapist works there since she has a lot of people who resent her.  She uses her determination and resources to hunt for the man.  The whole thing turns into something of a game that she surprisingly finds intriguing and gradually her motives for finding him become somewhat convoluted.

Huppert’s performance is fine but I don’t think it’s the triumph that others are saying it is.  It’s very understated and French.  This is a French language film by the way.  You have sympathy for her as you would any rape victim but she’s not a very likeable character.  Huppert straddles that line well enough.

I can’t even give Verhoeven the satisfaction of being offended by this movie.  It’s too incompetently put together for that.  The rape is only the most terrible thing of a plethora of terrible things happening here.  Michelle’s having an affair with her best friend’s husband; when she was nine years old, her father went on a killing spree which he may have involved her in; her son’s girlfriend has a baby which obviously isn’t his and the list goes on.  These things rain down on you one after the other with stupefying regularity.  There are about five plots crammed into two hours and eleven minutes and it still manages to drag because it doesn’t build to any kind of climax.  The most terrible thing opens the film.

I suppose the point of this is that circumstances get convoluted and motives get confused.  There’s a banality to that first scene of Michelle sweeping up after the rapist leaves that underlines this theme.  Life goes on no matter what happens and somebody has to clean up.  I guess this is true.  But without giving anything away, I don’t think her actions afterward are realistic.

Elle may be a meditation on the complicated nature of human motivation but it feels like the case of a lawyer defending a rapist.

And it is also a mess of a movie.

A Monster Calls

Coner, played by Lewis MacDougall, is a young boy who has a large and growing number of problems.  Chief among them is the fact that his Mum, played by Felicity Jones is battling cancer.  He’s also getting beat up regularly at school by a bully.  Then his unpleasant Grandma, played by Sigourney Weaver comes and takes over the house and the care of Mum, eventually moving him to her impeccable and sterile home when Mum goes into the hospital.

The boy reacts to all this by retreating into his head, relying on fantasies to get him through the day.  He needs help but doesn’t know how to ask for it and refuses it when it’s offered.  It comes anyway in the form of a tree monster, voiced by Liam Neeson that visits him in the middle of the night, just as the clock turns from 12:06 to 12:07.  The monster gives him a bit of psychotherapy and some insight into the complex nature of human emotions, aiding him in the maturing process, as monsters do.

It’s a pretty film, dark with muted colors and seamless special effects.  The monster tells three stories, the first two are done in animated sequences that are appropriately impressionistic.  The performances are fine with Felicity Jones’s standing out the most but the kid, Lewis MacDougall does a really good job as well.

But when it comes down to it A Monster Calls is a very manipulative film.  Just the subject matter of a young child losing his mother is going to evoke rivers of tears.  There is no subtlety or ambiguity about the theme; it’s all laid out in the monster’s speeches and in his transparent stories.  And this is ironic because the theme is that people are complicated and nuanced and are capable of being both good and bad.

As pretty as the film is there is no need to see it in a theater.  Wait for the DVD and then put it on when you need a good cry.


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