A Halloween Film Review: Kong: Skull Island (dir by Jordan Vogt-Roberts)


You may have noticed that, in the title of this post, I specifically referred to Kong: Skull Island as being a Halloween film but not a horror film.

That was very much intentional on my part.  Kong: Skull Island is really not a horror film.  (I think you could argue that the only King Kong film that can legitimately be considered a horror film would be Peter Jackson’s version and that’s just because he tossed in a few scenes that were obviously inspired by the old Italian cannibal films.)  I watched Kong: Skull Island a few months ago and I really can’t say that there was ever a moment where I was scared or even uneasy.  It’s just not that type of film.

At the same time, it is a fantastically fun and entertaining monster movie, one that has a good sense of humor about its own absurdity.  Halloween is not just a time to get scared.  It’s also a time to have fun and, for that reason, Kong: Skull Island is a perfect movie for October.  In fact, I think that it was actually a mistake for Warner Bros. to release the film in March.  They should have released it during the first weekend of October.  It could have provided a counterbalance to all of the depressing films that have been released this month,

Kong: Skull Island is a throwback to the gleefully absurd monster movies of the past.  Just so we don’t miss that point, the film starts with a 1944 prologue before then jumping forward to 1973.  (Significantly, not a single scene takes place in the 21st Century.)  Samuel L. Jackson plays Lt. Col. Preston Packard, the tough, no-nonsense commander of the Sky Devils helicopter squadron.  The Sky Devils are finally on the verge of leaving Vietnam but they’ve been asked to carry out on more mission.  They’ve been asked to fly an expedition over a newly discovered island.  The official story is that they’re going to be mapping the island but everyone knows better than to trust the government.

Kong: Skull Island is very well-cast, which is a good thing because the majority of the characters are thinly written.  Among the civilians in the helicopters: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, and John Goodman.  Of course, they’re all playing characters but, for the most part, you’ll spend the entire movie thinking of them as being Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, and John Goodman.  For that matter, you never think of Samuel L. Jackson as being Preston Packard.  He simply is Samuel L. Jackson.  When they eventually discover a castaway living on the island, it doesn’t matter that the man’s “name” is supposedly Hank Marlow.  He’s played by john C. Reilly and that’s who you’ll always think of him as being.   They’re all charismatic actors so you certainly don’t mind watching them but, at the same time, the film understands that the main reason we’re all here is to see the giant gorilla.

To the film’s credit, it doesn’t take long for King Kong to show up.  This is not one of those films where things are dragged out in an unnecessary attempt to create suspense.  (After all, the audience already knows that King Kong’s on the island.)  Almost as soon as the helicopters breach the airspace over Skull Island, Kong shows up and starts knocking them out of the sky.  The survivors end up stranded on different parts of the island.

Of course, it’s not just Kong that they have to worry about.  In fact, from the start, the audience is smart enough to know that Kong is actually one of the good monsters.  However, Skull Island is also inhabited by bad monsters, like these giant reptiles that Kong keeps having to fight.

Early on, there’s a scene in America where, in regards to the Watergate scandal, John Goodman says that Washington, D.C. is never going to be more screwed up than it is at that moment.  That line pretty much epitomizes Kong: Skull Island.  It’s a lark with a knowing sense of humor and it is not meant to be taken at all seriously.  At it’s best, Kong: Skull Island satirizes some of the most pompous monster movies of the past.  Whenever someone says something portentous, you can be sure that the film will quickly find a way to puncture the somber mood.

And it’s all terrifically entertaining.  Watch, enjoy, and don’t worry too much about whether or not any of it makes sense.  A trip to Skull Island is a trip worth taking.

Film Review: The Preppie Connection (dir by Joseph Castelo)


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The Preppie Connection, which is currently playing On Demand and in limited release, has got a 0% rating at Rotten Tomatoes.  That seems a little bit harsh to me.  I mean, The Preppie Connection isn’t exactly a good movie but it’s still not a disaster.  It’s main sin is that it’s generic and forgettable and squanders a potentially interesting story.  That’s definitely not a good thing but still, The Preppie Connection is still better than some of the other films that currently have a zero score on Rotten Tomatoes.  The Preppie Connection may not be great but it’s still better than Bucky Larson: Born To Be A Star and A Thousand Words.

0%?

Not hardly.

More like 25%.

Anyway, The Preppie Connection is apparently based on a true story.  Tobias Hammel (Thomas Mann) is a poor kid who wins a scholarship to an exclusive private school.  At first, Tobias struggles to fit in.  He doesn’t know how to relate to his wealthy classmates and he’s embarrassed when his friends from the old neighborhood show up on campus.  When he is instructed to sign a 200 year-old book, he accidentally knocks the book to the floor.  As a result, the other students beat him up.

Fortunately, for Tobias, everyone assumes that — since he’s poor — he’ll be able to get them drugs.  At first, everyone is satisfied with weed but, since this movie is taking place in the 80s, everyone soon starts to pressure Tobias to get them cocaine.  Fortunately (and conveniently), Tobias has befriended the son of the Colombian ambassador.  Soon, Tobias is making regular trips to Colombia and returning with bags of cocaine hidden away in his travel bag.

Usually, I love films about wealthy drug addicts.  There’s usually a few good scenes of drug-fueled decadence and, since they’re rich, everyone’s usually dressed nicely.  But no… sorry.  The Preppie Connection just doesn’t work.  Visually, the film is flat and, even worse, it appears that the budget was too low to be able to afford the rights to any period music.  I was hoping to hear at least a few classic 80s songs but instead, the film only offered some generic synthesizer-fueled music.

Speaking of generic, Thomas Mann narrates nearly the entire film and it’s some of the most vapid narration that I’ve ever heard.  I mean, I understand that everyone loves Goodfellas and Casino but that doesn’t mean that every period gangster film has to feature nonstop narration.

Ultimately, The Preppie Connection is such an incredibly forgettable film that I really can’t even come up with more than 400 words to type about it.  That said, Logan Huffman and Lucy Fry both give good performances as two of Tobias’s customers and they’re good enough to bump the film up to at least a score of 25 out of 100.

Take that, Rotten Tomatoes.

Playing Catch-Up: The Stanford Prison Experiment and The Tribe


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The Stanford Prison Experiment (dir by Kyle Patrick Alvarez)

The Stanford Prison Experiment tells a true story.  It’s important to point that out because this is one of those films that, if you didn’t know it was based on a true story, you would probably be inclined to dismiss as being totally improbable.

In 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) conducted a psychological experiment at Stanford University.  A fake prison was built in the basement of a campus building, complete with cells and even a room to be used for solitary confinement.  15 students volunteered to take part in the experiment.  For $15.00 a day, some of the students were randomly assigned to be prisoners while others got to be guards.  The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks but Zimbardo ended it after 6 days.  Why?  Because the students had started to the take the experiment very seriously, with the guards growing increasingly sadistic towards their “prisoners.”  Afterwards, many of the prisoner students claimed to have been traumatized while the guard students felt they were just playing a game.

(As one of the guards says in the film, “Am I still going to get paid?”)

The Stanford Prison Experiment tells the story of that controversial experiment and it is, at times, quite a harrowing experience.  Interestingly, when the film begins, the focus is on the prisoners.  I immediately noticed that Ezra Miller was one of the prisoners and, being familiar with his work in Perks of Being A Wallflower and We Need To Talk About Kevin, I naturally assumed that the majority of the film would revolve around him.  After all, among the actors playing the prisoners, Ezra Miller was the “biggest name.”  And, when the film began, it did seem to be centered around Miller’s likable and rebellious presence.

But then something happened.  Miller faded into the background.  In fact, all of the “prisoners” faded into the background and the actors became almost indistinguishable from each other.  Instead, the film started to focus on one of the guards.  Outside of the prison, Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano) is a laid back and rather amiable California college student.  But, once he shows up for the night shift, Archer starts to talk about all of the prison films that he’s seen.  He starts to speak in a Southern accent.  He says stuff like, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”  And soon, Archer is making the rules inside the prison.

In much the same way that Christopher Archer takes over the experiment, actor Michael Angarano takes over the film.  While Zimbardo and his colleagues watch Archer’s actions with a mix of fascination and fear, the film’s audience becomes enthralled with Angarano’s intense performance.  Wisely, neither Angarano nor the film allow Archer to turn into a cardboard villain.  He’s not a bad guy.  Instead, he’s playing a role.  He’s been told to act like a guard and that’s what he’s going to do, regardless of whatever else may happen.  The most fascinating part of the film becomes the contrast between Archer the likable student and Archer the fascist authority figure.

It’s frustrating that more people didn’t see The Stanford Prison Experiment when it was released in 2015.  Considering the blind trust in authority that is currently so popular in certain parts of the American culture, The Stanford Prison Experiment is a film that a lot of people really do need to see and learn from.

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The Tribe (dir by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)

Anyone who says that they truly understand everything that happens in the disturbing Ukrainian film The Tribe is lying.  Taking place at a school for the deaf and exclusively cast with deaf actors, The Tribe is a film where everyone communicates in Ukrainian Sign Language and there are no subtitles.  However, the actors are often filmed with their back to the camera and occasionally, their hands are out of frame so, even if you do know Ukrainian Sign Language, there’s still going to be scenes where you have no idea what anyone is saying.

And it’s appropriate really.  The Tribe is a film about alienation and, by refusing to give us either an interpreter or subtitles, it forces the audience to feel the same alienation that the film’s characters have to deal with on a daily basis.  It quickly becomes obvious that these permanent outsiders have created their own society and the least of their concerns is whether the rest of the world understands it.

What can be learned about the film’s story largely comes from the body language of the actors and the audience’s own knowledge of gangster movies, which is what The Tribe basically is.  A new student at a boarding school for the deaf is recruited into a gang that deals drugs and pimps out two female students as prostitutes at a truck stop.  When the new student falls in love with one of the girls, it leads to some truly brutal acts of violence, all of which are somehow made more disturbing by the fact that they take place in total silence.

(The talkative criminals of most gangster films allow audiences to focus on something other than the violence.  When people talk about the opening of a film like Pulp Fiction, they talk about John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson talking about Amsterdam.  They don’t focus on the guys getting gunned down in their apartment.  In The Tribe, there are no quips or one-liners before people are hurt and we are forced to pay more attention to the consequences of brutality.)

The Tribe is made up of only 34 shots.  The wide-angle lens forces us to consider these alienated characters against the barren Ukrainian landscape and the camera constantly moves with the characters, tracking them as closely as fate.  Intense and dream-lie, The Tribe is a hauntingly enigmatic film.  It’s not an easy film but it is a rewarding one.

6 Late Reviews: Atlas Shrugged: Part II, Project X, This Means War, A Thousand Words, Trouble With The Curve, The Vow


2012 is quickly drawing to an end and seriously, where has the time gone?  I’m seriously running behind in reviewing all of the films that I’ve seen in 2012 so, in the interest of getting caught up, here are six quick (and late) reviews of some of the film that I saw earlier this year.

(Fortunately, seeing as how we live in a world of Netflix, DVD, Blu-ray, and On Demand service, it’s never too late to review any film.)

1) Atlas Shrugged: Part II (dir by John Putch)

Picking up where the first Atlas Shrugged ended, Atlas Shrugged: Part II continues to tell the story of how America was ruined by elitist do-gooders and how the smartest people in the world responded by uttering the phrase, “Who Is John Galt?” and then vanishing.

There’s a lot of bad stuff that I could say about Atlas, Shrugged Part II.  I could point out how close to nothing actually happens in the film.  I understand that this is the second part of a proposed film trilogy but, seriously, that’s all that Atlas Shrugged Part II has in common with The Two Towers.  With the exception of the great Patrick Fabian (who has a lot of fun playing a weasel), the cast isn’t memorable and the film is full of slow spots.

Part II was made by a different director and with a far more professional cast than Part I but that proves to be a mistake.  Part of the odd charm of Atlas Shrugged, Part I was that it was such a low-budget, pulpy affair.  Atlas Shrugged, Part II is a lot more slick and, as a result, it feels a lot less sincere.

That said, I couldn’t help but enjoy Atlas Shrugged, Part II because, much like For Greater Glory, the film flew so completely in the face of conventional cinematic political statements.  Atlas Shrugged Part II might not be a great (or even a good) film but it annoyed all of the professional film critics and it’s always amusing to watch the same critical establishment that embraced Avatar whine about how any other film is too heavy-handed.

Am I, therefore, recommending Atlas Shrugged, Part II?  Not really.  I tend to learn towards the Libertarian point of view when it comes to politics and even I found the film to be tedious.  That said, if you ever really want to annoy your wannabe hipster friend (the same one who leaves a hundred comments a day over at the A.V. Club), Atlas Shrugged, Part II might make the perfect holiday present.

2) Project X (dir by Nima Nourizadeh)

In California, two loathsome high school students — Costa (Oliver Cooper) and J.B.(Johnathan Daniel Brown) — throw a birthday party for their friend Thomas (Thomas Mann).  Thomas is a stereotypical nice guy but he’s also friends with Costa and J.B. and that makes him loathsome by association.  The party quickly gets out of control and eventually, houses are destroyed and a SWAT team is called in to restore order.

Oh!  And the entire film is presented as being a bunch of “found footage.”  What that means is that we have to sit through all the usual stuff of people acting awkward in an attempt to convince us that we’re not watching a movie, despite the fact that we clearly are.

Project X fails on so many levels that it’s hard to even know where to begin.

It’s impossible to sympathize with the film’s three main characters and let’s just say that Oliver Cooper is no Jonah Hill.

There’s no real build-up to the party getting out of control and hence, most of the film’s comedy falls flat.  This is the type of film where a midget happens to show up at the party just so he can then be tossed into an oven.  Uwe Boll would probably call that genius but, for the rest of us, it just feels like desperation on the part of the filmgoers.  (You can just here them going, “Midgets are always funny!”)

Finally, worst of all, Project X is the latest film to use the whole found footage gimmick as a way to try to explain away the fact that it’s just not a very good movie.  Seriously, mediocre filmmakers of America — it’s time to move on to a new gimmick!

3) This Means War (dir. by McG)

Two CIA Agents (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) set aside their friendship and go to war when they realize that they’re both attempting to win the heart of the same woman (played by Reese Witherspoon).   Fortunately for them, they’ve both managed to fall in love with the one woman in the world too stupid to realize that there’s anything strange going on.  Chelsea Handler is also in this film.  She plays Witherspoon’s best friend and delivers all of her lines in this kind of depressed monotone that seems to suggest that she’d rather be co-starring with Whitney Cummings.  Eventually, a lot of things explode and well, anyway … bleh.

Seriously, This Means War has absolutely no right to be as boring as it is.  Outside of this film, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy are both hot, Reese Witherspoon is likable, and even Chelsea Handler still makes me laugh on occasion.  And yet, when all four of these people are put together in the same film, the end result is a mess that just gets more and more annoying with each passing second.

Most of the blame has to be put on the director.  McG never finds a consistent tone for his film and never seems to be sure whether he’s parodying or celebrating the conventions of both action films and romantic comedies.

Myself, I just find it funny that people actually address him as “McG.”

4) A Thousand Words (dir by Brian Robbins)

Jack (Eddie Murphy) is a literary agent who talks too much.  So, one night, a tree with a thousand leaves magically appears in his back yard.  Every time that Jack says a word, a leaf falls off of the tree.  Luckily, Jack happens to know a new age guru (Cliff Curtis) who explains that once every leaf has fallen, Jack will die.  As a result, the formerly glib Jack learns the importance of saying just the right thing and he becomes a better husband, father, and son as a result.

A Thousand Words is just as bad as the above plot synopsis suggests and that’s all that really needs to be said about it.  Wasting a thousand words talking about A Thousand Words would be a mistake indeed.

5)  Trouble With The Curve (dir by Robert Lorenz)

Widower Gus (Clint Eastwood) is an aging baseball scout who is slowly losing his eyesight.  Mickey (Amy Adams) is Gus’s daughter, a driven lawyer who has a strained relationship with her father.

And together … they solve crimes!

No, not really.  Instead, Gus is given one last assignment and Mickey, who is both concerned for her father’s well-being and wants to try to repair their fractured relationship, accompanies him.  At first, Gus doesn’t want Mickey around but she eventually proves her worth to him and gets to flirt with a young scout played by Justin Timberlake as well.  So, it’s a win-win.

 I don’t know much about baseball (beyond the fact that my sister Erin yells at the TV a lot whenever the Rangers are playing) but Trouble With The Curve is such a predictable movie that you really don’t have to know much about the game to be able to follow the plot.  That said, Trouble With The Curve might be predictable but it’s also a genuinely sweet and likable film.  Timberlake and Adams make for a really cute couple and it’s always fun to watch Eastwood growl at a world that never fails to disappoint him.

6) The Vow (dir by Michael Sucsy)

Paige (Rachel McAdams) and her husband Leo (Channing Tatum) are in a horrific car accident.  Paige is sent flying through the windshield and when she recovers consciousness, she no longer remembers being married or anything else about her life after she first met Leo.  While Leo attempts to get Paige to fall in love with him for a second time, Paige’s parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange) attempt to convince her to divorce him and return to her previous life as a pampered law student with a rich fiancée (played by Scott Speedman).

The Vow is a lot like Trouble With The Curve in that it’s totally predictable but, at the same time, it’s so sweet and likable that anyone who complains about the film being too predictable probably doesn’t have a heart.  Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum have a lot of chemistry and anyone who complains that this film is too much like a Lifetime movie has obviously never experienced a really great Lifetime movie.