Reel Opinions


Friday, March 31, 2017

Ghost in the Shell

Given how influential the 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell has been to Hollywood over the years (it inspired many of the images in The Matrix Trilogy, just to name a few), it's kind of surprising that it's taken this long for us to get a big budget live action adaptation of the film.  And while the movie successfully manages to recreate the world and some of the famous scenes from the original animated film, the story has been stripped somewhat of its emotional impact and cerebral power.  I wouldn't exactly call this a dumbed down film, but rather perhaps a bit too simplified.

Ghost in the Shell shares a lot of the same traits as the recent live action Beauty and the Beast remake.  Both are big budget reimaginings of influential animated films that are pretty much ingrained in the mind of their respective fandom.  Both do admirable jobs of recreating the world, and certain scenes those familiar with the earlier work expect walking in.  And both have obviously been made with a great amount of care.  However, in both cases, something crucial is missing.  With Beauty, it was a sense that the emotion and heart of the story had been drained at the expense of beautiful images.  Here, the complex story of the original anime (and the manga that inspired it) has been given less influence, in favor of the special effects and action sequences.  Yes, a lot of the same ideas of the original film are explored here, but they're done so in a way where it feels like the script is spelling it out for us, rather than allowing the audience to pick up on the themes on their own.  The plot that once drove the film has now merely become a line for which to hang a lot of expensive set pieces upon.

Director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) shows that he knows how to dazzle the eyes with his futuristic settings and highly stylized action scenes, but the heart at the center of the story is a bit more bare bones than fans of the original might remember.  Set in a futuristic society where pretty much all of humanity has some kind of cybernetic implant or enhancement of some kind, the film follows the Major (Scarlett Johansson), an officer for a special anti-terrorist task force who is the first of her kind - a human brain that has been implanted inside an entirely cybernetic body.  She was created as part of an experiment by Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) to create a machine that was capable of the free thinking of humans.  The Major now works alongside her partner Batou (Pilou Asbaek) to stop cyber crimes.  Since nearly everyone in this futuristic society has some kind of cybernetic upgrade, criminals can "hack" into people, either stealing information from their minds, or even controlling them with a virus upload.

A series of hacking crimes are being committed by a mysterious individual (Michael Carmen Pitt), who seems to be targeting a number of scientists or influential people at the robotics company, and murdering them.  The Major goes on the trail of the criminal, but the closer she gets, the more she begins to question her own purpose and how she came to be.  When she finally gets to spend some extended amount of time with the man responsible, he plants the idea inside her head that maybe the people she serves are not telling her the truth about her own past, and are keeping information from her.  Wanting to know more about her own past before her brain was implanted in the robotic body, and also wanting to learn more about her connection with this mysterious man, the Major is forced to go off on her own to get answers.  This leads her to go on the run from some of the people who created her, and now want to destroy her in order to prevent her from learning the truth.

Ghost in the Shell does ask some of the same questions the original did, such as what is the nature of humanity, and how human is someone if only their brain is organic.  But, in all honesty, it doesn't seem all that interested in the answers.  Instead, in an obvious attempt to make the film more marketable, the movie pushes those questions aside in favor of martial arts battles, shootouts, chases and well done but overwhelming special effects that make up maybe 99% of the film. (I would not be surprised to learn that not a single moment of this movie wasn't filmed in front of a green screen.) I can understand the decision to some extent, but it's a disappointment nonetheless, especially since the original was highly praised for its cerebral approach, while still finding time for some well done action scenes.  This remake simply isn't as mentally stimulating.  It's impressive and pretty to look at, yes, but it does feel more than a little empty the more you think back on it.

Part of this emptiness is due to the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, and this has nothing to do with the controversy surrounding her casting in a role that was intended to be Asian.  She's simply lifeless here, speaking in the same monotone drone no matter what may be happening, and she at times comes across looking lost up there on the screen.  Perhaps she was not comfortable with the largely green screened shoot, but in her many quiet or emotional scenes, she is simply not convincing in the slightest.  It's only during the action scenes that she seems comfortable, which perhaps explains the change in emphasis over the original.  If that's the case, they should have gotten someone who would be able to handle both kind of scenes her character would have to experience.  Whatever the case, Johansson simply does not fit the part, and since she's on screen for almost the entire movie, she kind of drags things down.

Another major mistake on the part of the filmmakers was to take an adult Sci-Fi thriller that was clearly meant to be R-rated, and tone it down to the point of ridiculousness in order to achieve a "golden" PG-13.  We get numerous murders throughout the film, but since every death is entirely bloodless, these sequences do not have the emotional impact you would expect.  Instead, they seem wiped clean and overly sanitized.  We see a person getting shot point blank, and there's absolutely no sign of damage or wounds.  We see The Major taking out a room full of thugs or armed guards, and the movie cuts away from the blows and fists before they can connect.  It kind of becomes unintentionally comical during certain moments, since you can at times clearly see the cuts and edits that were used to water down the violence.

Ghost in the Shell is perfectly watchable, but also pretty much unnecessary, since we have the much better films, comics and TV series which inspired it that explore every idea this movie does, only much better and with much greater respect for the audience.  Some people may see the addition of Scarlett Johansson as an improvement, and I would agree, if she were giving a real performance here.  I can only recommend this to those who are not familiar with the earlier film, and even then, they'll only be getting half of the experience.

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

CHIPS

Of all the TV shows to bring to the big screen, why CHIPS?  Was there really an audience demanding a big screen version?  And if there has to be a movie, why this one, which is very, very bad.  It's the kind of lame, dead in the water comedy that makes you ask the same thing over and over - What were they thinking?

Actually, I know exactly what director, writer, producer and star Dax Shepard was thinking.  He obviously saw 2012's 21 Jump Street and it's 2014 sequel, and thought he could do the same thing by reviving an old cop drama, and turning it into a hard-R parody.  But you see, the Jump Street movies were not only genuinely funny, but they played off the cliches.  And not just the cliches of the buddy cop genre, but also of the entire genre of rebooting old ideas or TV shows into new franchises.  With CHIPS, Shepard has filled his script top to bottom with every four-letter world imaginable, as well as probably every sex joke he could think of.  The problem is, the jokes he has come up with are some the lamest you could possibly dream up.  There's not a single moment here that is inspired, bright or even hopeful.  It's simply a long slog of a movie where the only thing that gets you through it is the thought that it will be over at some point.

Shepard plays Jon Baker, a former stunt motorcyclist who was forced to quit his career after he fractured pretty much every bone in his body one time too many.  He's now determined to be a member of the California Highway Patrol, even though he's terrible at it.  He can't shoot straight, he's physically incompetent, and he pops pills like they were candy.  However, he does know how to ride a motorcycle really well, so he gets a shot at being a rookie.  Jon is really doing this in order to impress his estranged wife (Shepard's real life wife, Kristen Bell), who clearly no longer cares about him, and frequently cheats on other men right in front of him.  The problem with the character of Jon Baker is that Shepard does too good of a job to make him pathetic, but not funny.  The man is simply unbearable, and not much fun to watch.

When Jon joins the force, he is joined up with a fellow officer named Frank "Ponch" Poncherello (Michael Pena), who is actually an FBI agent working undercover within the California Highway Patrol in order to expose some dirty cops on the force being led by Vic Brown (Vincent D'Onofrio).  Ponch reluctantly lets Jon in on the investigation, and a friendship is supposed to build, despite the obvious differences between the two.  Jon is by the book, strung out on painkillers, and is prone to projectile vomiting around weird smelling houses.  Ponch is a sex addict, and acts much more recklessly on the job.  Their differences originally set them at odds with one another, but they gradually warm up and learn to work together.  That's what the screenplay is going for, at least.  In reality, we never buy the friendship between these two for a minute, because Shepard and Pena don't have the slightest bit of on screen chemistry, and can't breathe any life into the dead-on-arrival screenplay.

CHIPS seems to be trying to poke fun at male egotism and sexual lust, but it gets confused somewhere along the way, and instead ends up glorifying it instead of joking about it.  What we have is a movie with a very nasty homophobic streak, as well as countless scenes where women in various stages of undress throw themselves at our heroes one after another.  But, the movie never figures out how to make any of this stuff funny in the slightest.  This is a comedy that barely makes any effort to get the audience to laugh.  Instead, it just has the same lame sex gags repeating themselves, such as how the movie creates a number of gags built around Jon's genitalia, which never go anywhere, or the running gag about Ponch getting nude photos from women.  None of it builds, and the actors eventually start to look uncomfortable up there on the screen.  This is surprising on the part of Shepard, when you consider that this was obviously his vision for a movie based on the TV show.

Really, the movie's sole joke boils down to the fact that its two main characters can't stand the thought of being labeled as gay.  They are oogled at by just about every woman on the force (and one gay cop who just shows up once in a while to be gay, then disappear), and that's really as far as the joke goes.  Why is this funny?  What is the satire?  What is the point?  Unlike the Jump Street movies, this one doesn't even bother to mimic or mock the formula of the buddy cop genre.  It just plays up the dumb sex jokes, and throws a couple motorcycle stunts and shootouts in once in a while.  This is just a painfully stupid and insipid movie that never goes anywhere, and never comes close to a successful gag.  Speaking of the motorcycle stunts and shootouts, they fail to bring any excitement to the mix, thanks to Shepard's decision to shoot them in such a way that they look like outtakes from a much longer action sequence.

CHIPS is simply wrong-headed in just about every way imaginable, and wrong in a whole lot of other ways, as well.  It's devoid of charm, spirit, laughs, good will and a sense of purpose.  In other words, it's a stinker, and I hope audiences will be able to smell this one coming from a mile away so that we don't get a sequel in a couple years.

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Life

When I reviewed Gods of Egypt last year, I said that Hollywood no longer makes B-Movies anymore.  They simply take what used to be considered budget films, and just throw gobs of money at it.  Life is another example of this.  If it had been made in the 80s or 90s, it would be a mid to low-budget Alien knock off starring a cast of nobodies that hardly anyone would notice.  In 2017, it features such big talent as Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson, and showcases some of the finest technical credits available.

The script is the one thing that didn't get an upgrade.  This is another movie where the screenplay credit should simply list the past films it used for "inspiration".  It's also another movie where a group of hapless astronauts and scientists are picked off by a slimy alien life form that they discover and unwisely let loose upon the ship.  The late, great Roger Ebert used to label slasher films as "dead teenager movies", as all of them featured the same plot, where a bunch of teenagers are alive at the beginning, and dead at the end.  Life could be described as a "dead astronaut movie".  It follows the same basic structure, only it ages its characters up to adults, and sets the action in space.  However, in terms of smarts, these scientists are about as bright as the horny teenagers who used to go skinny dipping while the masked psychopath was lurking in the woods.

This movie harkens back to the time when intelligent life in a Sci-Fi movie meant that the creature was usually slimy with a lot of teeth, and often lurked in the shadows, or shot on by just out of frame of the camera.  These films were a dime a dozen at one time, but lately, Sci-Fi has gotten a lot smarter with the likes of Arrival, The Martian and Interstellar.  I have no problem with going back to a reliable formula, but at least you should try to make it your own just a little.  This movie simply regurgitates some cheap thrills, and throws a bunch of stock characters our way that are impossible to get behind, because we know so little about them.  There's the hero who's been isolated in space just a little too long (Gyllenhaal), the wise guy whose entire dialogue is made out of one liners (Reynolds), the female lead (Ferguson), the other female on board the ship (Olga Dihovichnaya), the black scientist (Ariyon Bakare), and the guy whose wife down on Earth just gave birth (Hiroyuki Sanada).  Now you know all you need to know about our cast.

They receive a sample from Mars that seems to possess a very tiny alien life form that starts out looking kind of like one of those Wacky Wall Walkers that you used to find in cereal boxes sometimes.  The crew is naturally excited about this discovery, and the little creature is named "Calvin" by some elementary school children down on Earth in a contest to name the alien.  Calvin the alien seems pretty docile at first, but as the crew keeps on poking and prodding it with electric shocks in order to get a reaction out of the creature, it quickly turns aggressive, and winds up wrapping itself around the hand of the lead scientist, breaking and twisting it into an unnatural shape.  The crew tries to lock the life form in the lab, but it naturally manages to escape, and immediately starts making its way throughout the ship, killing whatever unfortunate crew member that happens to encounter it.

To be fair, Life has been given a healthy budget, and it does look beautiful at times.  And director Daniel Espinosa does get a few good shots here.  But it's really hard to care about any of this when the script and the characters are so bargain-basement generic.  If you have ever seen one of the movies just like it, you can pretty much predict when the characters will die, and the order that they will be bumped off.  Since the movie gives us nothing to think about, all we can do is admire the technical credits, but that only takes the audience so far.  Eventually, we start to wonder if the movie is going to offer us anything new, and it never does.  The actors are fine, as is to be expected, but their characters are written so thinly, it's hard to get excited or concerned about them.

Life was originally supposed to open over Memorial Day weekend, but was bumped up to March.  My guess is that the studio wanted to stay away from Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant, which is coming out around that time, and they didn't want that movie to be fresh in audience's minds when this came out.  However, even at this earlier release date, it's impossible not to think about Scott's movie, and hope that it turns out better than this.

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Friday, March 24, 2017

Power Rangers

I feel I should begin this review by saying I have no personal connection or history with the original Power Rangers TV show, or its numerous spin offs over the past 20 years or so.  I was 16 when the show debuted in 1993, and while I could see the appeal of the show for kids and figured I would have loved it if I was in the right age group, I was never able to get into its combination of Japanese monster footage, and American teenage sitcom tone.  Besides, I was heavily into Japanese anime fandom at the time, so when it came to superheroes fighting cheesy monsters, I preferred the Super Saiyans of Dragon Ball, or even the Sailor Senshi of Sailor Moon.

So, I was not exactly pumped to see a cinematic reboot of the original franchise, especially since most of the trailers seemed to be trying to make the film look unnecessarily dark, gritty and serious.  Even if I did not follow the original show regularly, I did know enough about it to know that dark and gritty it was not. (I seem to remember one episode where the heroes battled a rapping pumpkin monster.) Perhaps it was the lowered expectations I walked in with, but I honestly ended up having some fun with this movie.  It's not a great film by any long shot, but it's energetic, has some bright young actors at the center, and does kind of work at what it wants to be.  This may be a soulless cash grab film designed to pluck the nostalgic heartstrings of the fanbase who are now in their 20s/30s, but as far as soulless nostalgic cash grabs go, I've seen a lot worse.

I was actually surprised by how character-driven the film ended up being.  The movie is much more about the five kids behind the Power Rangers, than it is about the Rangers themselves.  In fact, the kids don't even don their armored suits and battle monsters until the last 20 minutes of the movie.  This will likely be a disappointment to some fans, but I appreciated this approach, especially when that action climax sequence came, and it ended up being about as dumb and loud as you expect.  I don't know if I could have taken an entire movie made up of that kind of material.  Should a sequel be made, I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot more giant monster battles, so fans can take heart.  Everyone else should probably take Advil.  This is essentially your standard "origin movie", where we're introduced to five largely outcast kids, who are brought together to save the world by a 65 million year old alien named Zordon (Bryan Cranston, who has a history with the original TV show before he became famous, and shows he's a good sport here), and his wise cracking robot sidekick Alpha 5 (voice by Bill Hader).

Our teen heroes include troubled football jock Jason (Dacre Montgomery), who has a passion for delinquency, disgraced cheerleader Kimberly (Naomi Scott), who has lost her popularity and her friends, and nerdy Billy (RJ Cyler), an autistic kid who is basically seen as the school reject.  These three happen to meet in a Saturday detention that takes so much inspiration from The Breakfast Club, John Hughes should have gotten a mention in the credits.  After detention, all three happen to turn up at a rock quarry for one reason or another, where two other kids, Zack (Ludi Lin) and Trini (pop singer Becky G), also happen to be hanging out.  Billy manages to trigger an explosion which unleashes multi-colored coins that the kids collect, and wind up giving them superior strength and other superhuman abilities.  They return to the rock quarry to investigate, and discover a long-buried spaceship, where the alien Zordon resides, and informs them that they are destined to become the Power Rangers, and battle an evil force that has recently been awakened, and is going to set about destroying the Earth in about eleven days.

The evil force in question is Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a former Ranger who betrayed Zordon, and nearly set about the destruction of Earth those long 65 million years ago.  She needs gold and other precious metals to not only restore herself to her former beauty, but to also create her towering golden monster who can help her obtain an ancient crystal that will give her infinite power.  And honestly, Banks is having a bit too much fun with this role.  She's completely off the rails, and chewing every bit of scenery she can find, and it's kind of wonderful in a total cheese sort of way.  She knows what kind of movie she's in, she knows she's playing an over the top villain, and she goes full into it with total gusto.  I guess there's no way you can play a character named Rita Repulsa with any sort of subtlety, and Banks is clearly having the time of her life.  She gets to be dark and sinister (she spends a majority of her screentime murdering hapless civilians for their gold valuables), while also strutting around like a cartoon drag queen on some kind of power trip.

As for the kids themselves, they are all fresh faced and likable, with their own tragic backstories. (Zack, the future Black Ranger, is caring for his sick mother, Trini the Yellow Ranger is an outcast at home and at school, etc.).  But it is Cyler as Billy who gets the sympathy of the audience, and largely serves as the heart of the film.  For all the craziness that happens in this movie, the kids are fairly grounded in reality.  These aren't deep characters, and they're nothing we haven't seen before in other teen dramas, but they are likable, and the young cast fills their roles well, and even get to play off one another.  The fact that the movie is mostly devoted to these five teenagers coming together and becoming friends and eventual superhero team despite their differences is the strongest aspect of the screenplay, in my opinion.  For all the aliens and giant gold monsters that inhabit this movie, it was the kids and the relationships they build that caught my interest.

Like I said, maybe some fans or former fans will see this as a downgrade, and will just want to see the cheesy action.  Well, the last half hour gives us plenty of that, kicked up to Michael Bay levels.  But even when the movie turns into a mindless special effects reel during the closing moments, I still had to admire how the filmmakers still kept their sense of humor.  Our heroes learn that the ancient crystal of power that Rita is seeking happens to be located underneath a Krispy Kreme shop.  In terms of product placement, seeing the Power Rangers battling a giant monster in a climax centered around a tiny little doughnut store is the kind of silliness I can embrace. 

As expected, this is basically a large-scale reboot of the original Power Rangers TV show, done in the style of the Marvel movies, or perhaps the live action Transformers.  It's certainly not anything original, but it does have a certain slyness to it that I enjoyed.  And also, the human characters don't get lost among the special effects.  That's probably the best complement I can pay this film.  I can only recommend this movie to a certain audience, and you probably already know if you're part of it.  But honestly, I had more fun with this than I ever expected to.

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

"If it's not Baroque, don't fix it" - dialogue from the original animated film

To bring Disney's 1991 animated classic Beauty and the Beast into live action is a feat I would not wish upon anyone, and director Bill Condon deserves some credit for actually attempting to do it.  After all, the original film is so ingrained in modern pop culture, there's no real way to separate our memories of the animated movie from this live action interpretation.  When all is said and done, Condon and his crew have done a good job, and have probably given us the best live action remake we could have hoped for.  But, the question at the end remains the same - Did we really need this?

That's a harder question to answer.  You could defend the decision for this film by saying the movie does add a bit more backstory.  For one thing, it fixes a major plot hole that always hung over the animated film.  That is, how did the townspeople not know about the Beast and his castle when it was right on the outskirts of their village?  Here, we learn in the opening narration that when the Enchantress curses the Beast and his castle staff with her transformation spell, not only does it impact everyone within the castle itself, but the entire town itself, as it forces all the villagers to forget that the Prince and his castle ever existed.  Even the handsome and self-absorbed villain Gaston (played in live action by Luke Evans) and his comic relief sidekick LeFou (a scene-stealing Josh Gad) have been expanded on a little, and are no longer the buffoonish characters they came across in 1991.  Gaston is a bit more clever, calculating and manipulative, while LeFou actually has a personality and conscience that leads him to question his loyalty to his friend by the end.  Oh, and if you're looking for that "LeFou is now gay" thing that has taken the Internet by storm the past couple weeks, it's essentially a blink and you'll miss it moment, which is to be expected.

The changes, however, are minor, as are a couple more that I will leave for you to discover when you watch it.  For the most part, this is a slavishly faithful adaptation of the earlier production.  There's the little town filled with little people who wake up to say "bonjour" to each other every morning, where Belle, still the ultimate bookworm, dreams of something more than the provincial life she is currently leading.  Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame) portrays Belle this time, and while she certainly looks the part, there is something off almost from the moment she opens her mouth.  Her singing voice seems awfully thin, and sometimes even gets drowned out by the accompanying orchestra.  As for her overall performance, there is a certain detachment she gives off.  She forever seems emotionally distant and strangely not involved from whatever may be happening around her.  I believe Watson to be a very good actress, and if you need proof, watch her in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  She simply does not get to display the confidence here that should carry the weight of a film such as this.

Dan Stevens (of Downton Abbey) fares better as the Beast, a handsome but selfish Prince who has been cursed to take the form of a hairy and horned monstrosity until he can find true love, and earn that love in return.  Despite being hidden under a ton of make up and digital techniques to hide his appearance, he is still able to express emotion and creates a very human performance.  Whenever an actor or actress takes on a role that requires their looks to be hidden in some way or form, the real challenge is to not hide the features so much that the emotions of the performance cannot come through.  Stevens passes the test here, and is as fine as you could hope.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the large cast of enchanted knickknacks, candlesticks, tea pots, clocks and other assorted items who make up a large part of the supporting cast once Belle becomes a prisoner of the Beast's castle.  They are recreated largely with CG, and while there's nothing entirely wrong with how they have been brought to life so to speak, there is something definitely wrong.

It was not until the big, show-stopping "Be Our Guest" number that it really started to bother me.  In the 1991 film, it was a lavish musical number that filled every corner of the screen with high-kicking dinnerware, plates and whatnot.  At the center of it all was the lively Lumiere - animated, vibrant and full of expression.  In the live action remake, Lumiere has essentially been reimagined as a murky mass of bronze CG, with something that kind of resembles a face, but fails to hold any expression or emotion.  He's been drained of all emotion, and while he still seems as eager to serve and entertain as ever, his somewhat soulless face fails to generate any excitement in what is supposed to be one of the scene-stealing moments of the film.  No matter how much Ewan McGregor tries to breathe life into the character through his vocal performance with his silly French accent, he just cannot breathe the same amount of life into the character that we remember from the original.

If Beauty and the Beast does not work completely, it's not for lack of trying.  It has, for the most part, been beautifully mounted, and the cast (save for Watson) really seem to be giving this their all.  Emma Thompson gives off a different, but still warm, vibe as the kindly teapot Mrs. Potts, while Ian McKellen has the right amount of pomp and arrogance in his voice to play the crusty old clock butler, Cogsworth.  You can tell that there was a real attempt here to give something special to those who have long treasured the animated film.  But, for all of its efforts, the movie still ends up with a somewhat cold and unemotional vibe.  I was never fully involved.  Oh, I admired the set designs, costumes, and even a few of the new ideas that the filmmakers attempted to add.  But I was never fully engaged.  I felt like something was keeping me from fully embracing the film as a whole.  And the more I think back on the film, the colder and distant it seems to me.

That this is a movie that is constantly trying to please meant little to me.  It doesn't matter how much you try to please your audience by being faithful to the original, you have to have an understanding as to what made the original work so well.  And here, I think the warmth has been drained from the source material.  While the enchanted objects of the Beast's castle now have a more "realistic" look, it is not for the better, as much of their expression and emotion of their cartoon counterparts are now gone.  The voice acting is good in general, but if the CG characters themselves can't display the right emotion, they're simply failed illusions.  Also, I never quite felt the same bond between Belle and the Beast that I feel every time I watch the original.  Part of this is Watson's strange and off performance, and part of this may be that I just don't feel the same emotion in the screenplay.  It's hard for me to put a finger on, but something just does not feel right, and it kept me at a distance, even when I was admiring the craft up on the screen.

Beauty and the Beast has been made with a great amount of effort and care for the most part, but it simply never came together for me to a point that I can recommend it as an alternative to the original.  Let's face it, the earlier movie does not need an alternative to begin with.  And if you really do desire one, the stage production that once played on Broadway is actually much better than this.  So what are we left with?  A movie that can be lovely to look at sometimes, but lacks a clear heart and soul.

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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

The strange thing about Kong: Skull Island is that it does not take a lot of inspiration from the earlier King Kong films, not even Peter Jackson's remake from 2005.  Instead, this movie seems more inspired by Jurassic World and other recent "big monster" movies, where a small group of characters are placed in a situation where they must survive and battle many different kinds of giant monsters, such as lizards, octopus, and birds that kind of resemble pterodactyls.  It also takes a "shared cinematic universe" approach, tying itself in with 2014's Godzilla film from the same studio.  It all adds up to a thrill ride movie that is mostly effective, with a few bumps in the road along the way.

This is a movie that knows what we're here for, so we get to see Kong early and often.  The opening scene gives us a brief glimpse of his massive hands, and then about a half hour later, we see him in all his glory.  As is to be expected, he's an impressive sight and well animated.  I particularly liked the way he uses objects and items around him whenever he's engaged in battle, instead of just pounding away at his opponents with his fists.  However, it is somewhat disappointing that he mostly just fights whenever he is on camera.  The thing that always stuck out to me about King Kong is how some of the past films have tried to give him somewhat of a personality, or sometimes even a character arc.  We don't get very many personal moments with Kong here, other than a brief scene where he somewhat bonds with one of the humans trapped on Skull Island.  Naturally, it's the female lead, played here by Brie Larson.  Kong has always had a thing for the ladies.

Speaking of the human characters, most of them exist to be gobbled up by the various giant monster inhabitants of the Island, so I will focus on the major ones.  There's a World War II fighter pilot who's been trapped on the Island for 28 years, and has survived by befriending the local natives (John C. Reilly), a British officer who specializes in tracking, and doesn't realize what he's come to track until he arrives on Skull Island (Tom Hiddleston), a war photographer who is mostly along for the ride for a majority of the movie (Larson), a shady man who has funded the whole expedition in order to prove his belief that monsters live beneath the Earth (John Goodman), and a Special Forces Colonel who becomes obsessed with killing Kong as the film progresses (Samuel L. Jackson).  Of these characters, Hiddleston, Jackson and Reilly get the most screen time, but it is Reilly who walks away with the film.  He not only gets the best lines in the film, but he is clearly having the most fun with his character, and that fun carries through to the audience.

The film takes place in 1973, after the U.S. has withdrawn from Vietnam.  This allows the three credited screenwriters to not only get in some heavy-handed political jabs, but to also throw in pretty much every popular song from the era that you hear on the soundtrack in just about every movie that's ever been set during the Vietnam War.  Goodman's character brings his team of soldiers and scientists to the island under the pretense that they are doing a geological study of an unexplored island, when really they are there to track down Kong.  What they find is that the island is filled with a variety of other giant creatures, as well.  We see quite a few, and hear about some that never show up, as well. (There's talk of giant ants up in the trees at one point, but they never materialize.) This should be fun, and it usually is.  But the movie can't help but throw in the occasional environmental message, about how the world doesn't really belong to us. 

I really am of two minds when it comes to Kong: Skull Island.  On one hand, it's an effective special effects movie, and it does have some genuinely thrilling sequences.  On the other hand, some of the dialogue is rather clunky, and outside of Reilly's character, no one gets to show much of a personality, or contribute much to the plot.  Everyone here basically exists to shoot at monsters, and usually be crushed or eaten by them.  We even get one not-too-subtle moment where a man falls to his death, landing in Kong's mouth, and right before the big ape closes his teeth on him, we immediately cut to a close up of another character biting into a sandwich.  Am I asking for subtlety in a King Kong movie?  Not really.  But as I said before, I've always enjoyed it when the filmmakers in the past tried to make Kong into somewhat more than just a screaming monster, and gave him a few quiet and even intimate moments now and then.  A few more scenes like that would have worked well here.

If all you are looking for are action scenes and well done special effects, this movie will definitely suffice.  For what it is, it's expertly made.  Just don't go in expecting more, and you should feel you got your money's worth.  In all honestly, I had a lot of fun while I was watching it, and didn't think back on how hollow the whole experience really was until I was in the quiet of the outdoors once I stepped out of the theater.  This is the kind of movie you enjoy in the moment, and kind of realize its flaws once it's over.  So, I guess I am recommending this as an experience.  You'll likely enjoy it while it's unfolding up on the screen.  At the very least, the movie doesn't feel bloated and overly long, and moves along at a good pace.  Remember, the last Kong movie we got was three hours long.  This one's only about two, and doesn't feel dragged out.

Kong: Skull Island fulfills that primal need to see giant monsters knock helicopters out of the sky, and grapple with each other like MMA fighters.  I would have liked a bit more human emotion to go along with it, but I can't really complain much.  The filmmakers were trying to make a straight action Kong film, and have succeeded well enough at that.

3 comments

Saturday, March 04, 2017

The Shack

The Shack is a movie with its heart in the right place, but its brain is a bit harder to locate.  It's not that I disagreed with the film's message, which is hopeful and uplifting.  Heck, I didn't even disagree with the cast, all of whom are doing good work here.  What I did disagree with is the movie's desire to spell out everything through overly long and talky scenes.  These moments make up a majority of the film, dragging down what could have been a very powerful film.

As the film opens, we're introduced to the Phillips family.  They come across as your average, happy clan, although patriarch Mack (Sam Worthington) does have a haunted past concerning his alcoholic father who used to abuse both him and his mom.  He does have a loving wife (Radha Mitchell), and three children who are as wholesome as all get-out.  His two older kids, Josh and Kate (Gage Munroe and Megan Charpentier), are the kind of good natured teens that any parent would dream of, and probably only exist in movies.  Youngest daughter Missy (Amelie Eve) is bright, curious and cute as a button.  One day in late summer, Mack takes the kids on a camping trip, while mom stays behind to do some work.  During the trip, while Josh and Kate are out rowing in a canoe, there is an accident that nearly causes the kids to drown.  Mack heads into the water to rescue them, leaving Missy alone momentarily.  He manages to save the two children, but when he returns to land to look for Missy, she has completely vanished.

The police are called to investigate, and after days of intense searching, they think they have found a lead.  A suspicious truck has been found abandoned near a shack in the woods.  However, the only thing that can be found within the building are traces of blood and Missy's discarded clothes.  Thus begins the "Great Sadness" (as the movie calls it) for the Phillips family, as everyone deals with their grief in different ways.  While his wife turns to God (whom she calls "Papa") for guidance, Mack shuts down completely out of guilt about leaving his youngest behind.  Teenage daughter Kate isn't doing very well, either.  But one day, Mack finds a mysterious letter waiting in his mailbox.  It's apparently been sent by "Papa", and tells him that he should return to the shack in the woods.  Mack isn't sure what to think of any of this, and wonders if whoever is responsible for his daughter's death is possibly toying with him somehow.  Regardless, he decides to venture out alone to the woods where his personal nightmare began.

Returning to the shack, he encounters three people who welcome him with open arms.  These characters are supposed to represent the religious "Father" "Son" and "Holy Spirit", and take the form of a black woman who refers to herself as "Papa" (Octavia Spencer), her son Jesus, a Middle Eastern carpenter (Avraham Avuv Alush), and an Asian woman named Sarayu (Japanese actress and model Sumire Matsubara), who is often seen at work in a magnificent garden.  The Shack is based on a best selling novel by William P. Young, which apparently drew a lot of criticisms from some in the Christian community for its depiction of the Holy Trinity.  The film stays true to these depictions, and honestly, it's the most compelling part of the film.  I do applaud the filmmakers for taking this chance with its casting, especially the casting of Avraham Avuv Alush as Jesus, who not only gives the best performance in the film, but creates a different yet compelling interpretation.  He's not stoic like we expect, but kind of fun.  Let's just say he likes to make good use out of that whole "walk on water" thing.

These three have appeared before Mack to help him forgive, get over his own guilt, and to accept them in his life.  While this idea is fascinating in and of itself, the movie misses the potential by a wide margin.  Instead of debating or talking about anything truly meaningful, we're treated to scene after scene where the characters talk to Mac about forgiveness, not judging others, and letting go of your own past and guilt.  This could have been effective, and you can see potential everywhere, but the script chooses to be wordy and dragged out.  This is a well-meaning and well-acted movie that is brought down by a script that simply doesn't know when to stop.  Scenes go on long after we have gotten the point, or they are so melodramatic as to feel like we are being struck over the head by its messaging.  This is a movie that cries out for a careful and honest touch, and The Shack ends up bludgeoning us.

And yet, you can see potential in just about every scene or idea that the film presents.  There are some dream sequences where Mack witnesses Missy being carried away by a mysterious man, her screaming for help, and no matter how fast he runs, he cannot catch up to the shadowy figure dragging his daughter away.  These moments are effectively creepy, and feel like the kind of dream a grieving parent would have.  However, for every scene that does work, there are just as many that do not because the filmmakers don't employ subtlety.  It doesn't take long for the movie to feel dragged out, especially since certain scenes seem to run on much longer than they should.  The characters basically spend a good part of time talking to each other about forgiveness and moving on, and this wouldn't be so bad if the movie could think of new angles for the characters to discuss.  But, it often seems to be hitting the same notes over and over.

There is also some just plain odd choices that the movie makes, such as making a neighbor of the Phillips (played by Tim McGraw) the narrator of the film.  Never mind that this is Mack's story, and he should be the one telling it, but it seems like a desperate attempt to add substance to what is essentially an unnecessary character who has nothing to do with anything that happens in the film.  Of course, the obvious question becomes how does he know about everything that happened to Mack when he went on his spiritual journey?  This also makes him come across as being bizarrely invested in the lives of his neighbors, much more so than he probably should be.  If only the filmmakers worked so hard at making the audience invested in these characters.

The Shack simply feels like a missed opportunity.  It raises some interesting points and has some good ideas, but they all get sidelined by the script.  I have not read the novel, so I can't tell how accurate the film is.  All I can comment on is the movie itself, and when it comes to that, I can say with all confidence that it never comes across as being as emotional or as powerful as it could have been.

0 comments

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