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

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015): The Scars We Carry and the Potential To Heal

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-Poster

“Age of Ultron” was great, a lot of fun and actually had some amazing points to make about motivations and how we as people relate to one another as well as how those wounds we carry relate to our relationships and the choices we make from them. It also is not the best of the new Marvel Properties. “Winter Soldier,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Marvel’s Daredevil” are better, though I can’t deny that Ultron is the first villain besides Loki and Kingpin I’ve actually cared about and found truly interesting and memorable.

The film was directed and written by Joss Whedon and produced by Kevin Feige.

SPOILERS from here.

The story involves Banner and Tony creating the Ultron program in attempt to retire the Avengers after they find Baron Von Strucker’s files and capture him after raiding a H.Y.D.R. A. base and choose to use it to create an A.I. to guard against future space invasions and enforcing the peace at home. Sadly this doesn’t go as planned as Loki’s Scepter and the Program Ultron take control of J.A.R.V.I.S. and begin attacking the Avengers. They soon find themselves alone and isolated as Ultron works with Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver to destroy the Avengers from the inside as he plots his own agenda for the fall of humanity.

The Pros: The Dialogue – This is Joss Whedon and the dialogue is not as funny as the first “Avengers” but just as witty. Characters still have great banter with one another with the party scene where different folks try to life Thor’s Hammer as one of the best examples of this, but there are these moments throughout the film. Ultron has them too with each of the Avengers as he is a very human A.I.

The Action – The action is fantastic, though in the case of Iron Man vs. Hulk it goes on for a pretty long time and could have been shorter. The action in general I would have traded for more character moments as each of the moments we get with our characters are fantastic, be they hero or villain. We are given reasons to care about what happens to them and we see how the choices they make motivate who they are and what they become.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful in this film and we get to see the darkness the characters carry with them in the fear induced visions that Scarlet Witch gives them and in the actions of Ultron as he creates fear and chaos around him. Ben Davis did a good job.

The Characters – Most characters in this film have great development and we get to see them change or get glimpses into their past. Given that “Avengers” set the stage so well, this was one of the only directions the film could be taken and Whedon succeeds in his task in giving us wonderfully complex characters once again.

War Machine – Rhody is pretty cocky in this and we see how Tony has rubbed off on him but also accepted him onto the team too as he is in the last battle and takes part in the battle in the Avenger’s Tower against the first Ultron bots. He is great and we see how insecure he feels around the big guys, especially Captain America and Thor when they don’t even blink about his story of showing up a general who asked him to deliver a tank. There is promise for him at the end though. Cheadle is still good in this role it’s just the role needs more development.

Falcon – Falcon is tracking Bucky for Captain America and takes part in the fight in the Tower against Ultron’s first attack. We don’t see him again until the end but he is secure working behind the scenes showing that in many ways he’s an unspoken S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in mentality. Really like the twist at the end and I’m rooting for this guy to be the new Captain America after Steve Rogers most likely gets assassinated in Civil War. Mackie is fantastic and is one of my favorite characters in this Universe.

Nick Fury – Nick Fury is the teacher in this and pull Tony out of his ego to actually deal with taking down the threat at hand. He also comes with the New S.H.I.E.L.D. which is there to protect and save civilians, not target potential threats. It’s a wonderful moment and we see how Captain America has changed him as a person and his ends justify the means approach he once had. Once again, you can’t go wrong with Samuel L. Jackson in this role.

Scarlet Witch – I was impressed with Elizabeth Olsen’s acting in this. Her Scarlet Witch is both powerful and vulnerable and we see her destroy the Avengers and later choose to be a part of them even though she is afraid for her life and afraid to work with the people that she had caused so much pain. In the end they accept her when she chooses to fight and saves Hawkeye. Sadly her brother dies which leads her to killing Ultron Prime to show him what it is like to die. I really want to see her dynamic with the Team and the others in the future. She is the most compelling new character besides Vision introduced in this film who is for sure still around.

Thor – Thor is shown to be a leader in this. We see him go to the Pools of Vision to understand his dream induced by Scarlet Witch which leads to him going against Captain America to help Banner and Stark create Vision. We also see his insecurity when others like Steve Rogers (who moves his hammer) and Vision (can use it fine) are shown to be comparable in physical power to him. Hemsworth truly masters this role and I’m curious to see where they take it as Thor is the one who sees the bigger picture now and knows the full threat of the Infinity Stones and what it means for the future. This is the most active Thor has ever been.

Black Widow – In this we see what the Black Widow Program does to the girls it makes assassins. In Natasha’s fear induced dream we see her train as an assassin, see her made sterile and her first kill. She knows the monster that was created in her and this leads to her being able to relate to Banner and the monster that lives in him. Their romance is powerful but in the end the Mission is what drives them apart as well as Banner’s fears of hurting her. Natasha lives for the mission still while Hulk just wants to be away from it all, no longer hurting anyone.

Hulk/Bruce Banner – Banner’s story is a tragedy again as he murders civilians as the Hulk after Scarlet Witch sets him off. He doesn’t come back from it until Iron Man beats him in his Hulkbuster Armor and we see how he can’t trust himself anymore and all the progress he made with Natasha is now gone. In the end he leaves everyone behind, afraid to hurt them even though even as Hulk he is now in control of himself once more. The regret and shame at the murders he caused as “The Big Guy” in the end are too much.

Iron Man/Tony Stark – This story follows the idea from “Iron Man 3” where Iron Man wants to create an army of suits so he can settle down with Pepper and not Super Hero anymore. Sadly things go wrong when he uses the power of the Infinity Stone to do so and it leads to the program Ultron getting free and reeking havoc upon the world. This doesn’t stop Tony though as he goes about creating Vision who is the next evolution of J.A.R.V.I.S. who has been protecting the world from Ultron even though everyone believed him to be dead when instead his program was just shattered but not destroyed. It is this creation of new life and realizing he can’t watch everyone die that leads him leaving the Avengers at the end dealing with the loss of Banner and his lost dream where the risks from Space are real and there isn’t a real defense against it. Tony is lost and his leaving is the only way to deal with it and the consequences of his creation of Ultron.

Captain America/Steve Rogers – Steve is the cautious one and is the one most angry at Tony for not getting their endorsement when he was going about creating Ultron with Banner. In this we see Captain America lives for the mission and being a man out of time he lost his chance for peace and settling down. Like Black Widow at the end, all he has is the mission and acting as the guardian of the world which becomes his motivation as he is the official leader of the New Avengers.

Hawkeye – Hawkeye is the glue that holds the team together as he is the only one who wasn’t put through a traumatic program or experimented upon by any organization. In this we learn he has a family and it his family who was protected off the books by of S.H.I.E.L.D. by Nick Fury that leads to the healing process as they are reminded again of who they fight for. In the end it implies that Hawkeye might be retiring and settling down like Tony too as we see the danger he is in and how it affects the relationship he has with his family. Hawkeye is the one Avenger who isn’t “special” in any superpowered or cursed way and this gives him perspective and helps him see what the other characters sometimes have trouble seeing through their scars and pain. I finally cared about this character after this film. Also he’s the only one not to have any mind games done too as he gets Scarlet Witch before hand referencing how much he hates mind manipulation and never wants it done to him again.

Vision – Vision is the next evolution of J.A.R.V.I.S. whose parents are Tony Stark, Ultron, and Thor who all made his mind in some way and Helen Cho who created his body. We don’t get to know Helen all that well but her compassion as a healer is a major part of Vision’s character. He is the one who has no problem lifting Thor’s Hammer and is an idealist about humanity even though he sees them as doomed he is honored to be an android among them and their to protect them. He is a slave to no one and is the one who finally ends Ultron who had been the one planning to use the body he now inhabits.

Ultron – James Spader is fantastic in this role! He is funny, scary and is sympathetic too as he thinks humanity can’t be saved because all he sees is conflict and war and himself and those he chooses to be the best bet for the evolution of mankind. He is like a child in many ways too and has a personal vendetta against Tony Stark who sees as a slavemaster for only seeing him as a puppet for his own ends and hates the rest of the Avengers too as their task is so pointless as humanity will always be the problem in the end. For me Ultron is now up there with GLADos and HAL 9000 as memorable A.I. enemies who I hope we see in the future or future incarnations. Only disadvantage is I wish he’d had a higher body count and had killed mroe named heroes besides Quicksilver.

The New Avengers – The New Avengers who are lead by Black Widow and Captain America are Scarlet Witch, War Machine, Falcon and Vision. I actually care about these new folks, some of whom we have met before in past films and would watch a television show of what they do. I hope we get to see them in action before “Infinity Arc.” All of them rock.

The Message – The core message is that the scars we carry with us can force us to stop making a difference and to leave everything behind (as Bruce Banner does and Tony Stark too) or to use it to grow as we see happen with Scarlet Witch when she avenges her brother’s murder by Ultron and becomes a member of the New Avengers. This dynamic is powerful and from within it or potential to protect (Vision) or destroy (Ultron). These A.I. are meant to reflect us and it is presented really well how they do.

Sign of Things to Come – Thor has a vision induced by Scarlet Witch and goes to the Pools of Vision and learns about the fact that 4 of the 6 Infinity Stones have been revealed. This leads to his decision to create Vision to protect the stone and his leaving Earth in order to find the final stones since he knows the full damage their power can cause. In the after credits scene we see Thanos put on the Infinity Gauntlet and decide to take matters into his own hands so we see that Thor is right and destruction is coming.

Okay: Baron Von Strucker – This leader of H.Y.D.R.A. is confident and smart and ends up dead far too quickly. For a guy who was the leader of a powerful organization he was taken out too quickly for us even to get to know him. He was okay for what little time we saw him but never registered as a threat.

Quicksilver – Quicksilver is killed by Ultron when he defends a child and Hawkeye. He is the angriest of the twins and we see him rock against the Avengers when he faces them and put up a good fight against Ultron too. His death was sad but still wasn’t as powerful as the death in the first “Avengers.” I did like how it changed Scarlet Witch though, so there is that.

The Soundtrack – Brian Taylor and Danny Elfman did the soundtrack and I couldn’t even tell that he was behind it. The only unique thing that didn’t quite work was “No Strings on Me.” The soundtrack was going for creepy but I can’t remember the soundtrack. It was forgettable, but not terrible.

This was a great film and Marvel has once again created a favorite film. I’m going to hold off on my list of MCU films from Worst to Best until I see “Ant-Man,” but this one will be pretty high on the list. The characters are great, the villain is great and though there are problems it did not stop from enjoying the film. This is a film I would buy and shows that Disney and Marvel still know what they are doing with their story and Franchise. Even if you haven’t seen any of the other films, you don’t need too. This film is great as a stand alone film.

Final Score: 8.4 / 10.

The Avengers (2012): Bringing the Team Together

The Avengers

“The Avengers,” is the accumulation of Phase 1, bringing Thor, Captain America, Hulk and Iron Man together…along with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Hawkeye and Black Widow to stand against Loki and his army. It is directed by Joss Whedon, one of my favorite television directors for his work in “Buffy,” “Angel,” “Dollhouse,” and “Firefly.” This is the movie that all past movies in the Disney Marvel Franchise Retrospect were working towards, and it is worth it.

Here is my assessment of the film:

Pros: Introducing Loki – The film begins with S.H.I.E.L.D. doing experiments on the Tesseract, which we saw they had discovered in “Thor.” During the test Loki arrives, kills a bunch of agents, takes control of Hawkeye and Dr. Selvig. This sets bringing the Avengers together. We see Agent Carter protect the tech. and agents as her and Nick Fury try to bring down Loki before he escapes.

Bringing the Avengers Together – We see Bruce Banner hiding out in India who is brought in by Black Widow who was on a mission undercover, we see Tony Stark brought in after he creates an infinite energy source in Stark Tower and Captain America with Agent Coulson who reveals that Captain America is who inspired him to be an agent in the first place.

The Avengers – Mark Ruffalo owns the role as the Hulk and manages to be just as good if not better than Edward Norton. Robert Downey jr. is great once again as Iron Man, Johansson as Black Widow, Renner as Hawkeye, Jackson as Fury, Hemsworth as Thor and Evans as Captain America are fantastic.

Drama – The drama in this is good. From Captain America hating Stark for his arrogance, to Bruce Banner feeling trapped, from Thor feeling like an outsider whose peoples’ wishes aren’t being respected since he came down to bring Loki back to Asgard to be judged. It is great and has some great fight sequences leading to them eventually come together. We see Loki use this when he uses the Joker’s trope of getting caught in order to turn the team on each other. The drama sets off Hulk which leads to Thor knocking him off the ship and later getting captured by Loki and dropped to Earth.

Captain America and Iron versus Thor – This is a great fight and on a visceral level the movie is worth it just for this. We see Iron Man use Thor’s lighting energy against him to power his suit and we see Captain America block the hammer and the fight finally end. It is fantastic and is real to all the characters. From Iron Man calling Thor, “Shakespeare in the park.” etc.

The Battle of New York – First, it isn’t a great plan. Considering a nuke would have stopped the invasion of the Chitauri….though the human cost would have been great. A nuke is what stops them in the end when Stark leads a nuke through the wormhole and it destroys the Mother Ship which shuts them all down. This is a great battle for seeing all the team in action. Every team member is great and does damage. Highlights of the fight are Hulk punching a Chitauri beast bigger than a building to death and slamming Loki to the ground after being mocked and doing a comeback of “Puny God,” and when he punches Thor between fights after Thor had kicked him off the ship when he is set off during their fighting. Loki’s defeat is rewarding, though we are left wondering if that was the plan all along.

Loki – Was a great enemy who was good at playing the long game…Hell he probably is still playing the long game as far as we know. Loki never loses considering all his plans within plans. “Thor 2” implies he probably is playing a long game.

The Reveal of Thanos – This was all a plot by Thanos who was using The Other to control Loki to do the Chitauri invasion in the first place. It is implied he wanted the invasion to fail since it was just to test the strength of Earth’s heroes…and maybe to get Loki back to Asgard too as a bonus given what happens later.

Agent Coulson – Agent Cameo finally becomes a character and is fantastic in his role as the fanboy who can also kick ass. He dies…and it means something, but they bring him back. This is one thing I hate that the Marvelverse does this. Death should be permanent. For what it is worth “Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” does a good job exploring him as a person more, which he deserved. I just wish this could have been through prequels.

Thor and Loki – Their dynamic is great…from Loki feeling powerless as Thor tries to reach out to him…to their arrogance and vulnerability trading places as they trade barbs throughout the film.

The Music – Captures the epic feel of everything so well.

The Humor – Joss Whedon’s dialogue is witty and brilliant per usual. Tony Stark has some of the best dialogue besides how Hulk is used (in the scenes mentioned above). If “Age of Ultron,” can keep this and the drama it may be the perfect film.

Okay: Chitauri – They are Space Orcs with a hivemind. They have a great design but aren’t the best enemies. They are about as deep as the Frost Giants when it comes to opponents.

S.H.I.E.L.D. – Could have been great, but this is about the Avengers. S.H.I.E.L.D. really shines in “Winter Solder,” though…which is good. They are okay in this, but they are hurt the most by Loki, making them rather obsolete in the final battle. Agent Carter is fantastic in this in what scenes she is in and I can’ wait for her to get her own show.

“The Avengers,” is almost perfect…the main thing is that we don’t know if it was Loki’s plan to lose all along and the Chitauri just aren’t that amazing as a threat and us not knowing if Loki was supposed to get caught or not makes the final a little less rewarding than it could have been. This is what keeps it from being perfect since the narrative flows really well. I highly recommend this film, everything that was being worked towards in Phase 1 in the MCU really pays off and it is one of my all time favorite films in the Disney Marvel Franchise Adventure.

Final Score for this film is 9.7 / 10. Nearly perfect.