Kong: Skull Island (2017) – Good Casting Keeps This Film at Level but the Film Never Reaches Great

   This was the first official “King Kong” movie I’ve ever watched. My familiarity with this genre as far a giant ape interacting humans was only the remake of “Mighty Joe Young” that Disney made back in the 90’s, though culturally I’ve always been familiar with the great ape and the tropes that usually surround his genre. Tropes that I find troublesome that this film does a good job at not using (presentation of islanders as Cannibals ready to sacrifice visitors and of course Kong being attracted to a human lady). Avoiding these tropes gave the film strength, though it suffers from other issues that keep it from reaching greatness.

    The film was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly, and produced by Jon Jashni, Alex Garcia, Thomas Tull and Mary Parent.

    The story takes place at the end of the Vietnam War as Bill (John Goodman) wants to get his organization Monarch (organization that researches monsters and was in the last American “Godzilla” movie) to Skull Island while U.S. Forces are still near the Island. He gets the approval is joined by a tracker named James (Tom Hiddleson) an anti-war photographer Mason (Brie Larson) and troops lead by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who when they all reach Island realizes what information Bill was holding back and that Kong is not the worst threat on the Island.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is fantastic! It is our world but with untouchable islands, monsters underneath the ground and giant creatures that feel complicated emotions and are more complex than us at times.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and really captures the beauty and danger of “Skull Island.” This movie has a lot of color, which is a nice change of pace from WB’s coloring everything in drab and grey (Hell the DC Cinematic Universe). This helped give the story more life when the dialogue wasn’t cutting it.

Colonel Packard – Samuel L. Jackson’s character is very much a Captain Ahab as he is overwhelmed by what he thinks the war took from him (the U.S. leaving Vietnam he took to be his own failure) and in turn he is itching for a fight. We see him become obsessed with taking out Kong after his men die when they bombing Kong’s Island. It finally ends with one of his men turning on him as his care for them lead to his obsession with killing Kong and that being all that mattered. Jackson truly is remarkable in the world.

Hank Marlow – John C. Reilly plays a half-mad pilot from World War 2 who made friends with the Japanese pilot who crashed on the island with him and with the people in the tribe. He is a fun character and we see him facing his fear of the Skullcrawlers and in the end he gets to meet his wife and son back in America. I enjoyed his arc and really enjoyed how this role showed just how great Reilly’s range is.

Kong – Kong is humanized in this! In the film he protects the tribe from the Skullcrawlers who come from below. Kong is the last of his kind and we see him judge humans based off how they treat him. There is a lot of great emotion shown in his eyes on a few different scenes and it is wonderful when we see him team up with the heroes to take out the gaint Skullcrawler.

Okay: The Characters – This is an ensemble cast and because of it being an ensemble cast I never felt that we got to know anyone outside of 2 characters. Mason and James tell us a lot about themselves, but we never see it. They are ciphers that we can put ourselves into but that doesn’t make good character. Goodman’s character gets some exploration too but he ceases to do anything once he reaches Skull Island. His tory is taken over by Colonel Packard. The other two members of Monarch don’t get any exploration at all and are just kind of there. Most of the characters die randomly as well.

The Tribe – The tribe is non-verbal and worships Kong. I like how they are presented in that they aren’t the usual cannibals that these films sadly take the path of doing and they are still complicated as in you mess up their sacred areas, they will kill you. I didn’t put them as a pro only because they exist as one unit when they should have been more explored as individuals.

The Cons: The Sullcrawlers – Like the villains in the new American “Godzilla,” these guys are kind of lame. They are giant two legged lizards that eat and kill anything. They are monsters but their design isn’t memorable or unique and they never felt like a giant threat. Colonel Packard felt like a larger threat than these guys ever were.

Structure is a Mess – At first it looks like Goodman’s Bill is the main character, than he gets killed off and the film tries to make Mason and James the main characters, but that never works because they aren’t written fully formed so minor characters like Reilly’s Hank or antagonists like Packard take over the weight which leaves the structure imbalanced. The ending is also left open as we see that the U.S. army clearly sees Kong when he screams to them. This was stupid given that the film was over and they should have just returned home. In that way I think Franchise management is a big part of what ruined the structure. We had to know we’d see Kong later (that didn’t need to be shown) and in doing so editing the script or better exploring a main character fell to the wayside.

   In the end I still enjoyed this movie enough to call it a good B movie. It isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination. It is well cast though which fills in some of the lack of character development as both Hiddleson and Larson have great charisma in their roles, which keeps them from becoming a con. I also enjoyed the idea of Kong as a protector and how fantasy the movie felt with all the giant monsters living under the ground (“Pacific Rim” style almost). I’m curious to see what else happens in this universe and after this film, I may have to give the other “King Kong” films a chance.

Final Score: 8 / 10

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016): A Nearly Perfect Thriller That Chokes at the End

10 Cloverfield Lane

   “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a nearly perfect “Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror” type movie as so much of what makes it work is subverting expectations of a reality and telling a personal story through the eyes of a single person. This story would have been a 10 / 10 if not for what it does at the very end. Also, this is not a sequel to “Cloverfield.” This is a story that stands individually and isn’t connected to the other film at all, “Cloverfield” is more of a marketing way of connecting an anthology of these type of films from what I understand…though if they choose to do a sequel they could keep going the anthology route or make them all connected within the universe as a whole. Non-spoiler thoughts before my review. You should see this film, even though the problem I have in the 3rd act brought it down from perfect to merely great.

   The film was directed by Dan Trachtenberg and written by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle and produced by J.J. Abrams and Lindsey Weber.

      The story involves Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is running away from her fiance when she is ran off the road and wakes up chained in a bunker. From here she must figure out what happened to the outside world and why Howard (John Goodman), the owner of the bunker and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), someone who fought to enter the bunker that he helped make.

SPOILERS Ahead

The Pros: Tone and Tension – The tone is dark and there is an aura of threat throughout the film, from the cramped nature of the bunker…to the threat of Howard and his constant entitlement on those around him as he sees them as only existing for him. You never feel safe with the character and the outside world is threat too…making it a lose lose situation for the characters we follow.

Cinematography – Jeff Cutter is great at cinematography…this is a film that focuses on the individual and personal, the trapped and wanting to be free from that cramped space. The use of dark and light capture that wonderfully and the bunker and outside world never stop feeling like a cage until the very end.

Soundtrack – Bear McCreary is one of my favorite directors and he is a master at using music to create tension. From his work in “The Walking Dead,” and “Battlestar Galactica,” this is a guy who owns the darker soundtrack, and this film captures that brilliantly.

The Bunker – The bunker is awesome. It shows us Howard’s humanity and the threat of this person too, as we see his collection of DVDs and VHSs and how the family room looks like a family room. We also see how it is a prison too as Michelle’s room looks like an actual prison and Emmett doesn’t even have a room. This is Howard’s playground and he is the Warden of their prison.

The Mystery – The mystery is two-fold. Who is Howard and why did he knock Michelle off the road? What happened to the outside world? What was the event? Over the course of the film we learn Howard is most likely a pedophile murder, definitely a murder as he kills Emmett when Emmett says he tried to steal his gun to impress Michelle and aliens are invading the outside world, proving one of Howard’s conspiracy theories true. The reveals are handled so well and it built slowly over time.

Emmett – Emmett built the bunker and had to fight to get into it as he built it for Howard. This was a free living guy and we learn that he is full of regrets but is capable of being present with  people and living for more than himself. He is the one who tries to help Michelle escape and gives his life to help her escape. John Gallagher Jr. really did a great job.

Howard – Howard is the antagonist and is creepy and human. He is most likely a pedophile murder as Michelle discovers “HELP” written from the inside of one of the escape hatches and he sees Emmett and Michelle as entitled to him. He is toxic, even though he is given human moments too as we see him connect to Michelle at a few points as he describes her as his daughter, though we never know if he’s telling the truth and that works. This is a character who is broken and it is hard to pin down the full reasons why. Him creating the Bunker makes complete sense, and it takes a lot for Michelle to beat him and escape. John Goodman better get a nomination for this. He deserves it.

Michelle – Michelle is our hero and who begins the story running away from her relationship but over the course of the film chooses to stop running and stand…from making a gas mask and suit to protect from radiation on the outside and her fighting Howard and using all her skills to get out and finally making the choice to join the human Resistance in rebellion against the aliens. Mary Elizabeth Winstead does an amazing job. I felt for everything she was going through and seeing her growth through the film is handled so well.

The Cons: The Alien Fight – This was stupid. The aliens have a boring look, where they are a mouth and that is it and they have bioships. The fight goes on way too long and happens right after she escapes the house. Seriously, there was no reason for this fight to happen. Michelle had gained control of her life already when she rebelled against Howard’s control and made her own escape. The fight serves no purpose, she already fought Howard, let her reward be that she chooses to fight on without having to deal with the aliens the moment she escapes the Bunker.

 This was a film that would have made the Top 5 I think, if not for that alien fight at the end. She was out of the house. Her being free should have been the point, as she could have learned about the Resistance in the Bunker and it would have set things up better so she still drives to Houston. Instead we get a pointless fight versus the fight against Howard, which was the one that mattered. I would still recommend this film, it truly is great…but it chokes at the end and that is why I will only score it as a solid great. This is a film that could have been perfect, but falls merely to great.

Final Score: 9.2 / 10

Barton Fink (1991): To Become the Common Man

Barton_Fink_(1991)

“Barton Fink,” was once an impressive film. I also have yet to see a bad Coen Brothers film so it may be that everything they make is gold since they put so much time into shooting a scene and exploring the mind and motivations of their characters while keeping an overwhelming theme of loneliness and isolation.

“Barton Fink” was directed, written and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen.

The story involves Barton Fink, a playwright whose successful Broadway show Bare Ruined Choirs leads to some folks in Hollywood wanting him to write the script for a wrestling movie. Once he arrives he finds he has none of the support network he had in New York and that he is completely alone except for his neighbor Charlie, who isn’t all he appears. He soon finds things even more complicated as his writer’s block continues and he finds himself pulled into a murder investigation. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful, from the shots of the broken down and later burning hotel, to any time you are seeing things from Barton’s point of view or you see his anxiety and isolation taking hold. The room is big but can be made to be confining, the hotel is beautiful but is made to bleak…that is the beauty of the cinematography of this film that the Coens and Roger Deakins pulled off.

The Music – The music is very minimalist, which serves the plot really well since it gives us time with the characters and creates tension when it needs too. There are some great piano pieces that I plan on listening to later for my own writing. Carter Burwell did great!

The Characters – Characters are usually the strongest part of most Coen Brothers Films, and this movie continues that.

Chet – Steve Buscemi makes a brief appearance at Chet the Bellhop who is miserable and unhappy. Every word he does is a passive aggressive jab and his character looks miserable. He is our first glimpse of how Hollywood spits people out and destroys the common man.

Audrey Taylor – Judie Davis plays the primary love interest for the writer W.P. Mayhew and Barton Fink. In the case of Mayhew she isn’t respected but it is only in it out of a savior complex and the fact that she built him and wrote most of his work. She is a wonderful and trapped character (like most of the folks in the film). We see her escape with Barton only for it to end in her death…Her death actually means something too since she is one of the few better people we meet.

Ben Geisler – Ben Geisler is the producer who is pretty driven and tends to see past most of the crap around him. He also doesn’t care about anyone truly outside of the films he produces. Tony Shalhoub is great in this role as he calls out Lipnick and the studios for how they don’t care and use everyone. He also advises Barton to get advice from another writer which drives the story forward.

The Detectives – The guys are completely Noir, I love their speech patterns as they insult Barton to give them information they can use to find where Charlie Meadows went since he is the serial killer who has been killing women (who fit Audrey’s description) and taking their heads. They are detached as everyone around Barton but are good in their roles as they aren’t completely antagonistic.

Charlie Meadows / Karl “Madman” Munt – Charlie Meadows is the every man and the muse who Barton denies for sometime. He is expressive about his work as a salesman and Goodman was perfect for the role as he’s so jovial and kind of Barton who is a nervous wreck most of the time. The Reveal that was he was the serial killer was powerful too as he admits he only let Barton live because Barton never listened (before he frees Barton from the beadpost he chained him too). He may have killed Barton’s family and Audrey’s head might be in the present he gave Barton before leaving. In that way we don’t know if he’s just mad or if he is in fact the killer, though most signs point to him being the killer given his shooting down of the detectives and everything he implies to Barton. He’s a pretty great character and antagonist. One of Goodman’s best roles.

Barton Fink – This is the best role I’ve seen John Turturro do, which makes me want to see him in more films. He was great in “O Brother Where Art Thou?” but I haven’t ever seen him as the lead character until this film. He is great at playing the nervous writer who fetishizes the common man (doesn’t listen to anyone share their story and will interrupt them to go off on the idealized common man and how noble his profession is) until he’s found he’s become one. For much of the film he isn’t able to connect to anyone except for Charlie, who used him to kill Audrey and he briefly connects with a woman at the end who may be the woman in the picture above his type writer making the illusion of connection around him complete. He is a character who is unable to stand up to himself even after his work is insulted by Lipnick and Capital Pictures, it’s really his stubbornness that keeps him there and fear, which illustrates how by the end he has become the common man trapped in a job he doesn’t want anymore being used by those around him.

The Themes – The themes in this movie are wonderful…the biggest is that of integrity and the connection to the common man. Barton Fink is seeking to tell the story of the common man but it is so involved in himself he’s unable to listen or empathize until he is chewed out and spit out by the studio in turn becoming the common man. He also finds that he was wrong in his idealization of the people as Charlie was really the serial killer Karl “Madman”‘ Munt who killed Audrey and countless other women before taking off their heads. The movie reveals the false faces of the common men like Charlie and also of the higher ups like Lipnick the leader of Capital Boss pictures who has been lying to Barton the entire time.

The Message – One of the core messages of the film is that Barton was right about writing and that Mayhew and making stuff up was wrong. Good writing comes from a place of suffering and pain and Barton is unable to finish his script until than. The world doesn’t want that though as represented by Lipnick who rejects it as “fruity,” and is shown to be as false as Mayhew and the films he desires. It’s a pretty great critique of Modern Hollywood now even as it’s far easier for million dollar schlock to be produced and green lighted (Emmerich and Michael Bay as examples) than for pictures that have character and a deeper meaning. It also shows that if you stay true you to you and the experience of your experiences that you can create something great, even if nobody recognizes it.

Okay/ The Cons: Lipnick – Lipnick is a two faced guy who tells people want they want to hear but in the end cares nothing about the integrity of art or the well being of his employees. In this way he is a great antagonist, but we have no idea why he is this way as his motivations are never truly explored. Not a con completely, but given how well most of the other characters are explored, I wish he’d been given more motivation.

W.P. Mayhew – The drunk writer who just writers for the sake of writing and putting out schlock because it pays the bills. The guy is miserable and slave for selling himself out and his integrity and he’s an abusive drunk to boot as he hits Audrey on one occassion we see. I get he is broken and apparently he’s married to a “Broken” wife which is why Audrey is trying to save him…but I never cared for the guy. The theme of detachment doesn’t serve his character, though I guess that’s the point since his great work didn’t come from any real place.

This is one of my favorite films, but not the perfect Coen Brothers Film. It has great themes, characters, music and cinematography…but some characters who are antagonistic aren’t as explored as they could have been. That’s really the only big problem I can find as the critique of films produced nowadays still stands, as well as the importance of integrity in art and the importance of empathy and connection. If you like the Coen Brothers or are looking for a good drama, I highly recommend this film. John Goodman and Turturro are fantastic as the leads and have some of the best moments in the film. It is well worth checking out.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10. One of my favorite films and another great Coen Brothers movie.