Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

A few important attributes set Kong: Skull Island apart from your typical spring blockbuster, while still entirely managing to entertain and enthrall as if it is one. For starters, it's a period piece, which is completely unfamiliar territory for an action franchise. It's not everyday critics and audiences would describe a Kong movie by referencing Vietnam or discussing a compilation of rock's greatest hits from the era on the soundtrack. That's not to say all of this works, or is even that groundbreaking, but it serves as icing on the cake, enhancing what's already a surprisingly well crafted production that feels less like a desperate cash grab than any other recent action vehicle or franchise reboot of the past few years. You may as well call it Apocalypse Kong, in not only its obvious allusions to that war classic, but the fact that there's some artistic value on display here that earns some of those comparisons. It's actually well directed, branded with a visual stamp that isn't easily forgettable, bringing to life a screenplay that gets the job done in successfully reintroducing an iconic character with a mixed on screen track record.

It's almost become a running joke how studios have been cherry-picking little known, critically acclaimed young, indie directors to helm these gigantic tentpole franchises. Why? They're relatively cheap, grateful for the opportunity to make the kind of awe-inspiring spectacle they grew up watching, and are more often than not willing to be pushed around a little (sometimes a lot) by the studio. Of course, using these filmmakers as a vessel to cram their vision down unsuspecting audiences throats doesn't come without risks since some directors will inevitably acclimate better than others. But for every Fantastic Four horror story, there's a Jurassic World or Godzilla, which is more than enough for them to justify continuing the approach. And as cynical as that all seems, sometimes a happy balance comes out of this that manages to satisfy both commercial and creative concerns.

In 2013, Jordan Vogt-Roberts wrote and directed a little movie called The Kings of Summer, and you can somehow tell the same person made this, despite it being over ten times the budget and scope. His vision successfully seeps through, proving he's one of the few indie filmmakers capable of mastering this sort of thing. We can't call him a sell-out, or at least if he is, does a good enough job hiding it, carefully threading that needle between mainstream acceptance and critical respect so many of his peers can't. And he does it in under two hours, thumbing his nose at the constant barrage of pointlessly overlong two and a half action spectacles we endure each year. Of course, we still get one of those universe-building post-credit sequence plugs. A brief, if unnecessary, reminder that no matter how well this worked, certain things will never change.

It's 1973 and with the U.S. just pulling out of Vietnam, senior government official with the Monarch organization, Bill Randa (John Goodman), seeks funding for an expedition to map out a mysterious location in the South Pacific cryptically known as "Skull Island" After meeting some initial resistance, he gets clearance to assemble a team, recruiting former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as their tracker, Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his Vietnam helicopter squadron as a military escort, backed by right-hand men Major Jack Chapman (Toby Kebbell) and Captain Earl Cole (Shea Whigham).

Joining them for the ride is Monarch's seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) and fesity, opinionated "anti-war" photojournalist Mason Weaver (Academy Award Winner Brie Larson). But immediately upon their arrival, it's clear this won't just be any expedition, as Packard's men begin dropping bombs that awaken a very angry Kong, who kills many of his men, leaving the remainder of the crew stranded and scattered on the island. But the giant ape may not be their biggest worry, with a more malevolent threat intent on making sure they never make it home.

Making its intentions clear early, the film's overall strategy stands in stark contrast to previous cinematic takes on the giant beast: Show Kong early and often. With little build-up other than brief introductions to the various characters and a few minutes designated to the assembly of the team, it's off to the island. There's no teasing here as Kong's impact is felt immediately, and once we lay eyes on him, it's obvious why they skipped the formalities and wanted to show him off.

A combination of CGI and motion capture performance, the monster (supposedly designed to invoke the 1930's version) looks as good as he ever has, instantly recognizable without really resembling the incarnation we saw in Peter Jackson's 2005 version, which also boasted fine effects work. It would be easy to call this design better, but it's probably more accurate to describe it as a little more expressive and distinctive enough for this reboot needed to step out from the shadows of its predecessors. As far as the creatively inspired call to set the story in the post-Vietnam, Nixon-era 1970's, it does give the narrative some thematic legs it wouldn't otherwise have, both in regard to certain characters' motivations and many of the aesthetic choices made. And it's those decisions, which to a point give this a look and feel similar to films from that period, is far and away the most captivating aspect of the entire production.

Ironically, an overstuffed soundtrack compilation of 60's and 70's hits do more to hurt that feeling than help since the plot and visuals were already doing a fine enough job. Calling this a great soundtrack wouldn't necessarily be wrong in terms of song choices, but it does beg the question whether it's possible to have too much of a good thing. A more conservative placement of music at carefully curated key moments probably would have been far more effective and impactful than drenching the first third of the picture in every famous classic rock song the studio was able to get their hands on. Henry Jackman's psychedelic, period-specific score goes a longer way in invoking the mood they're going for, and proves less distracting.

And since the priority is showing Kong as early as possible, the characters at first seem thinly drawn, at least until all hell breaks loose on the island and we find out who's made of what. Billed as the lead, Tom Hiddleston probably has the least developed character of the bunch, playing a one-dimensional heroic character who doesn't necessarily do anything heroic enough to stand out in any way. It's through no fault of his own that the screenplay is more interested in those who have a direct emotional connection to Kong. As Packard, Samuel L. Jackson returns to the same angry agitator that's been his stock in trade since the 90's, but this is actually one of his better performances since there's at least some motivation behind it, and as detestable as he is, the intentions behind his villainous behavior fit.

When Packard's obsession with downing Kong careens out of control,  the most dissenting voice is that of awesomely named photographer Mason Weaver, who's played by Brie Larson in her first post-Oscar role. In many ways she's the film's true focal point, with her character representing one of the biggest deviations from Kong's long outdated "damsel in distress" mythology. Unlike Fay Wray, Jessica Lange, or Naomi Watts, she isn't window dressing or set up as a love interest for the ape as we've seen in the past. It's of little surprise she's even great in something like this, with one particular scene providing what's sure to go down as the the film's most memorable visual. And to top it off, she looks like a total badass shooting a flare gun, squashing any concerns about her playing a screen hero, super or otherwise.

Skull Island works best when taking itself dead seriously, faltering only when it pauses for jokes. It's not as guilty as something like The Martian in that regard, but there's a time and place for that so it isn't unfair to wish the writers were more judicious in picking their spots. The only time it really works is whenever John C. Reilly's wisecracking Hank Marlow appears, a World War II lieutenant who crash landed on the island almost thirty years prior and makes it his mission to get this crew home.  That has more to do with the fact that it's Reilly playing him but there's no denying it's the strongest sub-plot, rightfully taking center stage at the end.

While most franchise movies die a slow, painful death near the two hour mark and limp for another thirty minutes to the finish line, this one not only avoids overstaying its welcome, but actually picks up steam. And because everything is so well directed and it looks and feels like the work of a real visual artist, it's almost impossible not to get greedy and wish for even more from the script. Or more accurately, less. As a franchise action movie with compelling action sequences, you also can't help but wonder how much of a difference it would make if this were a hard 'R' and they really went for the jugular, forgoing commercial concerns altogether. It may or may not have been as fun, but it's hard to take issue with what we get, which successfully signals that the iconic Kong is back with a vengeance. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, LaKeith Lee Stanfield,
Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage
Running Time: 134 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

At what cost? That question runs through Oliver Stone's Snowden, and the controversial figure around which his film revolves, government whistleblower Edward Snowden, who in 2013 infamously leaked to the media classified information on mass surveillance being conducted by the National Security Agency. Such a hot-button topic would seem ideal for Stone, the maverick director and Vietnam vet who's made a career of tackling socially and politically charged material with an "in your face" style in films like JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon. But that Oliver Stone is gone. Already showing signs of it with his relatively fair, if even somewhat sympathetic, treatment of President George W. Bush in 2008's underrated W., Stone's interest in pushing buttons has diminished considerably in recent years. On one hand, it's a shame since it's never been more necessary, but on another, it's easy to argue he's earned the right and can't be expected to keep repeating himself. A straightforward but exceptionally well made biopic, Snowden represents more of this new, slicker, mainstream Stone uninterested in courting "controversy."

What this does contain is ideas and a sense of urgency surrounding an issue that shouldn't really be all that controversial on paper. It's pretty simple and boils down to whether you feel the moral price of our security is worth the cost of giving up a certain amount of our constitutional freedom. But where you stand on that issue may determine not only to your personal feelings on Snowden and his actions, but perhaps even which side of the political fence you fall. In that sense, it's touchy, and the film does a compelling job dramatizing both sides of that ethical dilemma, even in scenes you wouldn't expect. It also contains a romantic subplot that doesn't feel like one, less a throwaway than a natural and pertinent extension of the main plot, featuring characters whose futures we care about despite our familiarity with the outcome.

As tame as Stone's become, anyone expecting complete impartiality won't get it, with the screenplay clearly showing an allegiance to Snowden, played by a scarily well cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt as kind of a tragic antihero to be revered and celebrated for his sacrifices. Make of Stone's stance what you will, but anyone that shocked or even offended the government has these capabilities probably have their heads buried in the sand. Snowden wasn't telling us anything we really shouldn't have assumed already. The real question was whether he had the right to do it and the potentially dangerous precedent that's set when someone does.

Based on two non-fiction books covering the events, the film picks up in 2013, with Ed Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) hauled up in a Hong Kong hotel room secretly meeting with documentarian and Citizenfour director Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glen Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskell (Tom Wilkinson). Preparing to spill his guts to them while simultaneously releasing of the NSA's top secret surveillance data to the media, flashbacks paint a complicated picture of Snowden, an antisocial conservative who finds himself working for the cyberwarfare arm of the CIA after being discharged from the Army.

Snowden picks up the intricacies quickly, becoming a star student of  Deputy Director Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans) before moving on to the NSA and making some disturbing discoveries about how the government is acquiring data and potentially violating citizens' rights. As his disillusionment grows, the only constant is free-spirited girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), an Obama-supporting liberal who tolerates his opposing political beliefs up to the point where even he starts to doubt them, the stress of his job eventually threatening his health and that of their relationship. Armed with incriminating evidence that can shake the U.S. government to its core, Snowden makes a fateful decision, insuring that his life will never be the same again.

A lot of information is dispensed about Snowden's background and what there is to glean of his personality, which can best be described as "robotic." It's an adjective he's even assigned to himself, as he often comes across as someone suffering from some kind of anti-social disorder, demonstrating behaviors that don't seem all that dissimilar from Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. While lacking that character's worst narcissistic tendencies, Snowden's intelligence is undeniably his worst enemy at times, as well as his most dangerous weapon. Holding political beliefs in direct opposition to what he eventually does, his time in the CIA and NSA trenches establish him as an important cog in the government's machine, his cyber skills essential in their burgeoning electronic surveillance program. But as his climbs the ranks, the more he sees, and the more his anxiety and guilt grow.

This isn't an easy role to play as far as real-life public figures go, or even otherwise, as in the place of a distinctive personality, Snowden is imbued with a rote, mechanical sense of duty that's eventually shaken. Lowering an already deep voice a few octaves lower, JGL has the flat affect and emotionless verbal delivery down pat and looks enough like his subject, but where he really excels in capturing Snowden's inner struggle. The government's actions contradict everything he signed on for but risking the comfort and security his occupation provides Lindsay and himself in the name of "doing what's right" may not be worth the price.

It's a credit to Stone and Kieran Fitzgerld's screenplay that Edward's relationship with Lindsay isn't treated as an afterthought with the latter having thoughts, complaints and opinions worth listening to and fighting about, as an impressive Woodley confidently sidesteps the trap that too often marginalizes girlfriend characters in male-driven biopics. Strong in a role she seems ideal for, audiences will undoubtedly draw parallels between the actress and the idealistic hippie she portrays. The presentation of Snowden as a selfish, thoughtless boyfriend consumed by his job could be viewed as the director's conscious effort to pacify potential critics of the character's fairly reverent treatment throughout. Or it could just simply be true.       

The action doesn't necessarily move at a breakneck pace and we aren't marveling at the editing as we would with Stone's classic 80's and 90's offerings. And while crisply photographed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, you'd be hard-pressed to find supporters championing it for a spot in the top tier of the director's best looking films. It speaks volumes that even Nicolas Cage's virtual cameo (as a U.S. Intelligence official) isn't crazy at all, perfectly serving its function like most of the other moving parts in the story. And that's completely fine. Stone trusts the extraordinary subject do most of the work, recounting events presumably as they happened with little space for editorializing.

Toward its third act, it fully evolves into this gripping thriller, culminating in a jarring transition that melds real life and movies in a way you've never quite seen before in a biopic, making you appreciate the lead performance that much more. Controversy isn't everything when it can be just as effective taking a logically straightforward approach to telling an exceptional story. With Snowden it rings especially true, as the scariest part of it all is just how flawed and relatable the protagonist is, offering up the very real possibility that anyone placed into similar circumstances are capable of making the choices he did.