movie reviews March 2017


loganGet Outa girl with all the gifts kong: Skull Island

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Kong: Skull Island
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

The second entry in Legendary Pictures' "MonsterVerse" (2014's Godzilla reboot was the first), which promises to resurrect the old Toho Studios kaiju critters, Kong: Skull Island plays much like it's titular figure: big, loud, and, ultimately, a bit disappointing.

The story is set in 1973 for no apparent reason other than providing an opportunity to toss in references to Coppola's Apocalypse Now and its literary inspiration, the Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness. In the wake of America's messy withdrawal from Vietnam, Bill Randa (John Goodman), representative of a shadowy government-adjacent entity called Monarch, finagles congressional funding for an expedition to an uncharted Pacific island shrouded in perpetual storm where, he claims, "God didn't finish creation."

The film then globetrots as various major players are assembled. Resentful of the US pull out, Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) is more than willing to reroute his troops from a journey home to a final face-saving incursion. Along for the ride is the obligatory Fay Wray character, in this case, a photographer with the gender-neutral name, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who takes credit for stoking anti-war sentiment back home and now smells another corrupt government operation under way.

Once their phalanx of Hueys bursts through the wall of storm clouds surrounding the island, the film goes full-action and full-Apocalypse Now. Among the crew is a tracker named Conrad (Tom Hiddleston); later, the party will run across long-time resident Marlow (the narrator of Heart of Darkness), played by John C. Reilly. The choppers bomb and napalm the lush primordial landscape while the soundtrack turns into a Time-Life 'Best of Nam Movies' collection, including CCR's "Run Through the Jungle" and "Bad Moon Rising" and The Chambers Brothers' "The Time Has Come" (an earlier scene unfolds to Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit"). The adventure will also require an extended river trip.

Could screenwriters Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Max Borenstein (the 2014 Godzilla) and John Gatins (Flight) intend this movie as political commentary on the US intervention in Vietnam — the giant ape a towering metaphor for the resulting quagmire?

Nah. The Apocalypse trappings are just so much window dressing for the lower-case-a apocalypse that Packard and co. experience at the hands (and teeth) of the giant ape. Admittedly, this Kong is impressive. Industrial Light & Magic have rendered an utterly convincing creature that proceeds to make short work of the attacking choppers.

Strangely, however, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose directing debut was 2013's coming-of-age drama The Kings of Summer, can't seem to decide whether to play the film's frequent violence straight or with tongue in cheek. The compromise he settles on is to undercut violence with tasteless visual humor: a harrowing through-the-cockpit POV shot of a chopper crash is spoiled by a Nixon bobblehead grinning from the dashboard; a soldier being devoured by the giant ape abruptly cuts to a close-up of a grunt biting into a sandwich.

Sadly, this initial encounter with Kong is the film's high point. Once the group has splintered into multiple search parties, the human characters no longer matter much, except as witnesses to, and victims of, the other bizarre — and pretty cool — critters that populate Monster Island. Giant spiders, pterodactyl-like birds, a monstrous yak, and huge razor-toothed lizards all make an appearance, providing Kong opportunities to show off his fightin' moves in exhibitions that begin to feel like strange versions of MMA matches.

And Kong's infatuation with the female lead? Nowhere to be found. The ape saves Weaver from drowning, and she pats him on the nose, but their connection feels about as intense as a mom's to her daughter's pet hamster. Not surprising considering that Hiddleston and Larson can't manage to kindle the least spark between them.

And honestly, why bother with connections between, or within, species? With little interest in their characters and no motivation to move the action off the island (to, say, Manhattan?), the filmmakers seem content simply to play with these cool action figures in their high-tech sandbox. (PG-13 [intense]) Rating: 3

A Girl with All the Gifts
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

In the nearly 50 years since George Romero's Living Dead first shambled onto the screen, the modern zombie film has grown so codified that new movies (or TV shows) have limited opportunities to rise above the horde in an already swarming market. So it's really saying something to call British release The Girl with All the Gifts arguably the best zombie flick since Danny Boyle's game-changing 28 Days Later.

Directed by Colm McCarthy (BBC's Sherlock, Peaky Blinders, and Ripper Street) from Mike Carey's adaptation of (and written alongside) his successful 2014 YA novel of the same name, this intelligent entry walks the line between submission to and subversion of genre tropes while never losing sight of a core humanity.

The film opens to prisoners in a large military detention facility being roused for something called "transit." It soon becomes clear that the orange jumpsuit-clad inmates (and as such, reminiscent of Guantanamo detainees) being manacled into wheelchairs by armed and abusive soldiers (the epithet "friggin' abortions" is used regularly) are 9-year-old children.

We focus in on, as we will for the remainder of the film, a young girl named Melanie (Sennia Nanua) who, clearly familiar with the routine, slides off her cot and into the wheelchair in time to greet her hostile captor with an earnestly cheerful, "Good morning, Private." She and her fellow prisoners are transported from solitary confinement cells and their chairs locked in place on what resembles an underground flight deck for school.

In typical British narrative fashion, McCarthy and Carey only gradually fill in the expository background: Britain (and maybe the world) is decades into a fungal infection that has turned most of the population into flesh-eating zombies. These “hungries,” as they’re called, exist in a sort of stasis until the scent of living flesh or sudden animal movement sends them into a feeding frenzy.

Despite the fresh-scrubbed faces, these students are zombies, too. However, they're second-generation — babies of infected mothers who literally ate their way out of the womb — and, as a result, have retained a capacity for reason, provided they're not “activated“ (the human staff cover themselves with a scent-blocking gel before exposure). By her intellect, curiosity, and singular ability to resist the transformative influence of the flesh, Melanie reveals herself to be a very special student, indeed.

In many ways, the first third of Girl plays like Romero's Day of the Dead, the children a more sophisticated incarnation of Day's doomed rehabilitation project, Bub. While empathetic teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton) works to nurture their reason and imagination, pragmatic Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) views them exclusively as specimens, their tissue a limited raw material from which to concoct a vaccine. Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) is at pains to remind the civilian staff that beneath the innocent human veneer lurks a snarling beast, every bit as savage as those thronged outside the compound fences.

But like all zombie sanctuaries, things fall apart; the center cannot hold. In a masterfully choreographed action sequence, 1st-gen hungries swarm the complex, presenting the sheltered Melanie her first real-world moral dilemma. Allowing herself to become the monster she has been trained to suppress, she turns on fellow “hungries” to save Miss Justineau.

In the wake of the attack, survivors Justineau, Caldwell, Parks and two soldiers (Fisayo Akinade and Anthony Welsh) navigate the countryside toward a spectacularly rendered fallen London in search of another secure outpost where Dr. Caldwell can complete her work with her only surviving specimen. And while this search for a Promised Land is standard zombie plotting, it is during this trip that Melanie, released from isolation, will come to understand her true nature and that of this new world.

Cinematography by Simon Dennis (Peaky Blinders, Ripper Street, Dr. Who) captures some haunting images, and Carey’s intelligent script draws from ethics and quantum mechanics to ask serious questions about survival, sacrifice, and salvation. The film, however, ultimately succeeds on the performance of newcomer Sennia Nanua, who charms and terrifies in equal measure, by turns recognizably human and ferociously alien. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 03/07/17)

Get Out
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

In Get Out's pre-title prologue, a young black male (Lakeith Stanfield) wanders an unfamiliar suburban subdivision at night, struggling to follow directions on his cell phone. It's an image immediately reminiscent of John Carpenter's Halloween and dozens of other vintage slasher films in which the seemingly benign suburbs conceal an underlying menace. But this lone figure is no inexperienced high-school girl, so when a white sports car slows to a crawl beside him, he takes no chances and makes an abrupt about-face. But, with clear echoes of Trayvon Martin, some threats are not so easily avoided, and we watch as the young man falls victim to an unknown assailant, disappearing out of sight in the car's trunk.

Historically, horror and comedy have offered filmmakers a way to address indirectly, as subtext, ideas and perspectives too controversial or inchoate for direct expression (except in documentaries, such as last year's 13th and I Am Not Your Negro). From its opening scene, however, writer-director Jordan Peele establishes a direct connection between the fictional horror on the screen and the very real and increasingly dangerous experience of being black in America. Peele, half of the duo behind Comedy Central's “Key & Peele,” transcends that show's sketch format to deliver a blood-drenched satire of America's alleged post-racial status in an updated and, hence, pessimistic take on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

The film follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young New York City photographer, when he accompanies girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams of HBO’s Girls) to meet her family at their affluent upstate manse. When Chris voices concern that Rose hasn't told them he's black, she assures him that they're not racist, and trots out the liberal bona fides intended to end any suggestion of racism: her dad would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have.

And upon their arrival, Rose's parents offer a welcome so self-consciously politically correct and inclusive it generates its own discomfort. Father Dean (Bradley Whitford), a neurosurgeon, is "a hugger," embracing Chris, calling him "my man," and, true to form, espousing a desire to have voted Obama in for a third term. Mother Missy (Katherine Keener), a psychiatrist, while a bit more distant, tenders a friendly offer to hypnotize Chris to help him quit his smoking habit.

Discomfort drifts into weird, however, when Chris meets "the help." Groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) are polite to a fault, yet eerie vacant stares and monotone deliveries belie their aggressive smiles and effusive gratitude for their employers.

And when family friends and relations descend on the compound the next day, things veer sharply into Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby territory. The white folks he meets are uniformly obsequious yet drop an endless stream of casually racist comments: a retired golf pro automatically notes that he knows Tiger; an elderly woman squeezes Chris's bicep and after eyeing his crotch, asks Rose if it's "better." The only other young black male is a prepped-out yet strangely emasculated boy toy Chris could swear he has met before.

One important move Peele makes is letting Chris suspect all along that something's not right. Over the phone, his friend and dog-sitter TSA agent Rod (a hilarious turn by LilRel Howery), a proxy for the black audience, confirms his fears with a litany of dangers a black man is subject to when venturing alone into the world of white people. Even Rose agrees that he's not being paranoid.

Still, Chris repeatedly swallows his discomfort and puts on a polite face — always the burden of the non-dominant culture. Loathe to up set the charade, Chris waits until there is no other option before ripping the masks from these monsters.

And by the time Chris discovers exactly what is going on and how deep the deception runs, the film has escalated into full-on horror, where Peele shows himself as adept with the visceral thrills of Grand Guignol as he is with the social satire that has led up to it.

While the finale fulfills — in gruesome detail — the need for cathartic vengeance, Peele never lets viewers lose sight of the insidious real-life masquerade that continues outside the theater. (R) Rating: 5 (Posted 03/07/17)

Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Prior to the newly released Logan, Marvel comic fans and whatever entourage that they happily towed along with them, have enjoyed eight X-Men films. Six of the eight have been ensemble stories, where various mutant characters battle some sort of the threat to themselves or the world, or both. Most of those films hover in the medium-good category, not totally impressing hardcore fans but drawing good box-office revenues.

Two of the eight focussed on one character, X-Men Orgins: Wolverine (2009) and The Wolverine (2013). Orgins reveals Wolverine’s emergence and how he got to be what he is; Wolverine begins to humanize the character by introducing a love element beyond his yearning for the deceased mutant Jean Grey while Wolverine is teased with the prospect of becoming normal. 

With Logan, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) barely clings to a will to live at a time roughly 10 years from now. The bitterness and anger the character displayed at his first introduction in X-Men (2000), has manifested fully where Logan is only controlled by drink and a commitment to protect an ailing Charles Xavier, Professor X (Patrick Stewart). Adding to his woes, his ability to self-heal is waning.

Director James Mangold  — having brought to the screen such terrific films as Girl, Interrupted, Cop Land, Walk the Line and The Wolverine — wastes little time establishing Logan’s not surprising frame of mind in his latest film.

Drying out in the back seat of his limo, Logan is awakened by a gang of cholos wanting to steal his prized wheels on the limo. Logan tries the diplomatic approach and is promptly shot. As Wolverine still remains basically indestructible, Logan’s rage goes full boil and he slices the thugs with his adamantium claws then returns to his work as a chauffeur.

Not long after this encounter, Logan meets Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), head of security for Transigen, a corporation that has been breeding mutants. Pierce knows that Logan is hiding Xavier, cared for by the albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant). Pierce figures that eventually Logan will meet up with Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a nurse with Transigen who helped some of the mutant children escape the Transigen facility. With her is Laura (Dafne Keen), an 11 year old with all the aggression and power of a very young Wolverine.

When Gabriela is murdered, Wolverine reluctantly helps Laura, gathers Xavier and Caliban and the chase is on. Expect a high body count, plenty of slashing, a beheading here or there and a quick determination this is not a kid movie. The only respite is when the trio helps a family, the Munsons, with their runaway horses and is invited back to their home. That tranquil and peaceful encounter doesn’t last.

What makes Logan the best X-Men film to date is a tight, focused storyline, the enduring question of identity and a command performance by Hugh Jackman. He has always made Wolverine the most interesting of X-Men characters because of the pain and rebelliousness Jackman projects within and outwardly with Wolverine. It’s an animalistic reaction to most anything, a trait Logan has always sought to control or rid himself of. In this film that want and search that burdens him, and Xavier reminds him of, can only begin to lift with an emotional connection to another.

The young mutant Laura brings that to him, leaving the door open for her reaction to the world of humans and tyrannical corporations, and, of course, another X-Men film. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 03/05/17)


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