KONG: SKULL ISLAND** Why? Why? Why? Oh Why?


THE CGI IS great. Or perhaps I should say, at least the CGI, led by veteran SFX veteran, Chris Brenczewski, is great. And a buff Tom Hiddleston tries hard (unconvincingly) to beef up his Bond credentials in this unnecessary, forgettable, often risible monster movie.

The fundamental problem with “Kong: Skull Island” is that though the director (Jordan Vogt-Roberts) assaults us with mega monsters, an ape the size of a ten story building, thunderous explosions and helicopters piloted by silly pilots who fly into certain death, he makes no attempt to build suspense, create interesting characters or even terrify us out of our wits. Perhaps, I am therefore concluded to suggest, all directors, or the producers who green-light monster productions like this, should be made to sit a written exam after studying the genius of Spielberg’s original “Jurassic Park.”

Now here’s a movie that fully shows up the awfulness of “Kong: Skull Island” when you remember all the magnificent touches it had that “Kong: Skull Island” is too lazy and too cynical to bother with. Remember the hold-your-breath tension when the two kids are in the kitchen hiding out from those toe-tapping velociraptors? No such tension here. Remember the multiple and very human relationships between the flawed adults and the kids…the greed (and wonderful cummupance) of the would-be thief? No such human-kind lives on this movie planet. Kong’s people are mainly gorilla food or very fast runners (with tight shirts), with a stock in trade bad guy (Samuel L. Jackson in full-bore cartoon role) and a pretty girl in a very tight top (Brie Larson really slumming it after “Room”). Remember Spielberg’s effort to lull our disbelief in the actual do-ability of recreating dinosaur DNA and the thoughtful sub-plot about not messing with nature? No such effort here. It’s a big ape living among big fantasy monsters. Take it or leave it.

So…it lacks tension, lacks scream out loud moments, lacks likable or evenly hisssssably nasty people and offers instead a storyline that shreds any semblance of logic…It lacks the pretence of making any sense. It seems that it’s also lacking a good return on the $325m it took to get it to our screens.

And all of that could have been avoided had director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (no past movies of any repute to mention) writers Dan Gillroy (“The Bourne Legacy”), Max Borenstein (“Godzilla”!), Derek Connolly (“Jurassic World”) and John Gattins (“Flight”) and the ten producers, taken the simple “Follow these Jurassic Park Rules” exam before cameras rolled and Tom was made to make such a fool of himself in public

 

KONG:SKULL ISLAND. Dir: Jordan Vogt-Roberts. With: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman. Cinematogapher: Larry Fong (“Batman v Superman”). Production Designer: Stefan Dechant (his first movie as head of production design). Special Effects set coordinator: Chris Brenczewski (“Jurassaic World” “Avengers Assemble”)

 

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THE LEGEND OF TARZAN***


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ANY REMAKE OF Tarzan, the legendary ape man unleashed into the world in 1912, has to deal with the awkward politics of a superhuman white man saving the lives of (weaker) black men. Edgar Rice Burrough’s assumptions of white (moral, intellectual, physical) superiority is a heavy burden for any modern film-maker and any (non-racist redneck) audience to stomach. The writers of this latest incarnation of the lord of the jungle (Adam Cozad of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Craig Brewer of Black Snake Moon) are all too aware of this; they dance through hoops to avoid any charge of even unconscious racism or neo-Colonial sympathy.

And they accomplish the feat with grace and style. Turns out Jane (Margot Robbie) was also brought up in Africa (daughter of missionaries) and so has a deep affinity for the people and the land, quite independent of Tarzan. She can’t quite leap from vine to vine, but, if only in her displays of animal passion, is a fitting mate to her jungle lord.

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The story of The Legend of Tarzan centers around the imminent enslavement of the Congolese by the heinous Belgian King Leopold and his local man of business, Leon Rom (Christopher Waltz reprising his villainous Nazi character from Inglorious Basterds). Rom (like Leopold) was an actual person. Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard), now married to Jane and happily living in aristocratic splendor as Lord and Lady Greystoke, is tempted back into the jungles by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), another real life person, whose mission it is to root out slavery everywhere and for whom Tarzan would be an extraordinary ally.

They return to an Edenic setting: old friends, the undisturbed home where their romance blossomed and the lush, animal-dense beauty of central Africa. The bliss is shattered by Rom and his troupe of ruthless mercenaries who must capture Tarzan in return for a king’s ransom of diamonds guarded by one Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) a vengeful tribal King (The result of ancient bad blood after Tarzan, defending his ape ‘mother’, killed his son).

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And when all hell breaks loose, the movie’s gentle pace swings into high gear. Jane has been captured as bait for Tarzan. And absolutely nothing and no one, not even an entire battle-ready tribe will stop her man getting to her.

It’s pretty exciting seeing Tarzan swinging through the trees, hearing his famous battle cry and following stampeding herds of wildebeest as they demolish the fortressed might of the Belgians. The good guys win (surprise surprise!) and the hissingly nasty Ron gets a jaw chomping cumuppance.

As the story’s moral conscience (and through whose startled eyes we see much of the incredible action) Samuel L Jackson delivers his usual compelling, if thankfully subdued, presence. Director David Yates (Lots of the Harry Potter movies) handles this story of George Washington Williams (who I’d never heard of before, and who could easily overshadow Tarzan) with a delicate touch. It’s a story that deserves its own, a less trivial telling.

Yates’ vine knotted Africa with its growl of menacing apes and thunder of war painted warriors is a visual delight. There’s never any real sense that Tarzan could possibly be in danger and his fight scenes feel a bit paint by numbers, but no matter, they’re engaging enough.

Margo Robbie (it was Jane who, truth be told, really drew me to the movie) is a convincingly badass heroine. It was good of Tarzan to rescue her, but, I suspect, given enough time, she’d have rescued herself.

The weak link is Tarzan. He certainly looks great, but Skarsgard, who tries for a brooding, introspective Tarzan never quite manages to convince either as a gentleman repressing the animal within or as an animal barely restrained by his gentlemanliness. He was better as a broodingly nasty vampire in True Blood. And, since the story hangs on his finely sculpted pecs, his weakness is almost the film’s undoing

The writing also is shoddy. The Legend of Tarzan has a neatly worked out story line, but it’s lazy writing: various themes about slavery, colonialism, Leopold’s massacre of elephants, friendship, honor etc are scattered here and there without a unifying idea. Too bad. It allowed a wonderfully researched story to end up as a movie that’s pleasant, eye-candy but just another forgettable entry into the canon of Tarzan

 

The Legend of Tarzan: Dir: David Yates. With: Alexander Skarsgard, Christopher Waltz, Samuel. L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbet. Writers: Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer. Cinematographer: Henry Braham (The Golden Compass). Production Designer: Stuart Craig (Harry Potter’s)

 

THE HATEFUL EIGHT*** There Will be Blood


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IN THE HATEFUL EIGHT, director Quentin Tarantino assembles his characters to marshal his grand conceit, like a master chess player.

We first meet the two bounty hunters: John – the hangman – Ruth (Kurt Russell as John Wayne) with his bounty, murderer Daisy Domergue (a welcome return to from, form from Jennifer Jason Leigh) are on a stage coach trying to out gallop the coming storm and seek refuge in the lonely hilltop shop come hostelry, Minnie’s Haberdashery. Along the way, they encounter and rescue the other bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson as Samuel L Jackson), an ex-cavalry officer carrying a – putative – letter from Lincoln (his letter of freedom), along with three corpses, his bounty, piled one upon the other like pelts (Unlike Ruth, Warren prefers to kill his prisoners. Keeping them alive is “too much work”).

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But it’s a crowded road. Yet another straggler joins the party: Chris Manix (a tremendous Walton Goggins), a confederate rebel and the supposed new sheriff of Red Rock, the (typically named) town they’re all headed for.

Ruth’s prisoner has a bounty on her head of $10,000. Major Warren’s corpses have bounties on their head of $9,000. They agree to look out for each other to protect their assets.

So here you have it – Tarantino’s concerns are aligned and spread out before you like a warm blanket against the cold tundra (freshly blown in from The Revenant). The Hateful Eight continues (from Django Unchained) his exploration of the underlying tensions that were born with the union of North and South and that continue today: racism, freedom and the amoral spirit of capitalist enterprise – the three sides of the American idea.

Once they’ve entered Minnie’s Haberdashery and we meet the other key players (they aren’t so much characters per se, but symbols…of racism, greed, murder, rape etc; that’s why they’re the “hateful eight”) the issue of racism takes centre stage. Within the snow battered cabin are a lying Mexican, a morose embittered confederate officer, livid at the presence of a Black man in their midst (a beautifully quiet performance from Bruce Dern), a hangman (Tim Roth channeling Christoph Waltz) and an enigmatic gunman (Michael Madsen rendered near invisible amongst the grandstanding of the other cast).

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Within the cabin (sealed off from the outside world…from outside influences) they recreate the civil war, dividing the cabin between a North and a South. The hostility between the races, in particular between the Black free Northerner Major Warren and the White Southern “nigger-hating” confederate officer (Tarantino revels in his freedom to use the ‘N’ word without being branded racist), is fused to the venom that the White South feels by the liberation of the – Black – North.

Freedom is threat.

To Tarantino, there’s an almost symbiotic relationship between the hated and the hater.

It’s a mutual hatred that, like the storm imprisoning them all, denies them any real sense of freedom (no matter, as one character says to another, “… it’ supposed to be a free country”). Indeed, the arc of the entire narrative and the story’s Agatha Christie-type mystery is all about trying to free someone (the murderous Daisy Domergue).

Amidst all this enmity and hatred lies a common territory. It’s that of commerce. For it’s not just the captives, dead and alive who have resale value, they all do; interspersed amidst the racial taunts and the bloodshed are financial calculations and the promise of deals and counter deals. Characters who are natural enemies bond over bonds of commerce. They are after all imprisoned in a shop – about as potent symbol of America you can find.

If murder will out, so too will money.

And in the end, murder does out. This is BY FAR, Tarantino’s most gruesome venture. Brains are blown out, blood gets vomited here there and everywhere, Daisy Domerge’s face is slavered with blood for most of the movie; the whole of Minnie’s Haberdashery is, by the end, awash in red. His characters are bound not only by the handcuffs that join them, but by the (bad) blood that links them… as a nation.

Tarantino’s movies are always excessive; the action, the comedy, the bloodshed always extreme. Usually it works just fine. But The Hateful Eight feels unrestrained, his characters given over to stock archetypes. It’s an excess of self-indulgent, rambling, bloated storytelling. It’s almost three hours long; and at times, especially during the longeurs of the middle chapters (Yes “chapters”: this is after all a Tarantino movie) it feels like four.

And the orgy of blood. So much of it – like a child wallowing in mud; a gleeful attempt to outdo anything Saw or B-movie horrors can conjure up.

Pity, because it’s a visual treat and the score is tremendous.

If you choose to go, don’t eat before

 

The Hateful Eight: DIRECTOR; Quentin Tarantino. WITH: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell; Jennifer Jason Leigh; Walton Goggins; Tim Roth; Michael Masden; Bruce Dern. CINEMAOGRAPHER: Robert Richardson (World War Z); COMPOSER: Ennio Morricone (For a Few Dollars More, The Mission etc)

KINGSMAN** Kick Ass for teen boys


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“KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE” IS EXPENSIVE, slickly produced and studded with a scatter of fine acting talent. It’s entertaining fluff; a momentary diversion of glittering nonsense in this pre-Oscar season of heavy, humourless drama.
The producers (Matthew Vaughn, Adam Bohling and David Reid of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”, “Layer Cake” “Kick Ass” and “X-Men: First Class”) have either cannily or cynically combined a mashup of spy movie archetypes to which the script of “Kingsman…” often and archly refers. You can just imagine the sales pitch:
“Guys, imagine a Spy Movie Greatest Hits (and by the way, you don’t need to imagine. This thick report I got here outlines all the scenes and hero characteristics our demo love best. You don’t need to read the whole report. There’s an executive summary at the front. We got Peter Brand (he’s the stats chap from “Moneyball”) to build us an algorithm, charting audience reactions. We call ’em “likes and spikes”. Like I was saying, Peter has projected exactly what’s going to get 19 year old boys roaring:
“First of all, lots of really cool action scenes like Denzel in “The Equalizer”. Matthew [Vaugn] our director and one of the producers just did “X Men: First Class”. So he knows how to shoot action. And, gentlemen, let me remind you that that grossed $335M worldwide.
“It needs a clear, easy to follow plot, with something techy involved, like “Live Free and Die Hard”. Let’s face it, people aren’t going to the movies to feel dumb. It’s the KISS formula: keep it simple and stupid.
“It needs a young hip, edgy rebel type hero who gets to escape his shitty neighbourhood and dress in very cool clothes. Every member of the audience is going to relate to this. Also, what our research has shown is that guys are feeling bypassed by all these chick heroines… Katniss Evergreen, Tris from “Dvergent” and that lot. So in a sense, this movie’ll be fulfilling a social, a moral function. There’s a young Welch guy who can do London cockney really well, especially now that there are no young real cockney actors ‘cause they can’t afford acting school. He’s Taron Egerton – just did “Testament of Youth”
“I digress.
“We need a cool, badass Black dude. The ethnic audience is a mother lode of moulah. And Sammy Jackson has already signed. He says he’s gonna do the whole thing with a lisp; a sort of effete, maybe gay bad guy. A Black version of Javier Badem from “Skyfall”
“The plot needs a Tommy Lee Jones tutor figure, you know from “Men in Black”? That kind of tutor figure goes down real well. Think Yoda or Gandalf or Haymitch from “Hunger Games”. And we’ve got… wait for it: A-lister Colin, the babe magnet, Firth. The accent just slays ’em every time. He says he’s going to channel John Steed from “The Avengers”, with the same shoes Rosa Klebb had in “From Russia with Love”. You remember them? The ones with knives in the tips. And he needs the work: been in a lot of stuff recently that nobody’s seen. Remember “Before I go to Sleep”? No? Well no one else does.
“And the babes are just going to sizzle. We’ve found this outrageous hottie from Algeria. Name’s Sofia Boutella. Starred in the underrated “Monsters: Dark Continent”. Here’s her Head shot. More important, here’s her Body shot. Imagine her in tight spandex; and imagine, instead of legs, she has killer blades. Below the knees she’s all Moulinex.

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“We’ve also got a proper, upper class, posh type. Emma Watson was coming in too steep, so we signed Sophie Cookson. Did a bit of TV stuff, but waiting to strike it big.

“And also waiting to strike it big is that great Brit actor Mark Strong. He was in “Imitation Game”, “Zero dark Thirty”, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”. Great actor who no-one remembers. So we got him cheap too

“And of course Michael Caine. He’s not particularly good, but I refuse to allow Chris Nolan to monopolize him.

“And then, following the research, the movie needs lots of very cool gear. This is what research shows people most miss in the new Bond movies. Where’s all the cool gear Bond got from Q? Well, we have it here: exploding lighters, laser watches, X-ray vision glasses, bullet proof machine gun umbrellas.

“We throw all that together with explosions, car chases, airplanes that hide underground like X-Men, and I tell you, gentlemen, we’ve got us a winner.

“Well what do you think?”

“I really like it. I particularly like the fact that it feels like a sequel even though it’s the first one”

“Sign here on the dotted line”

Kingsman: The Secret Service. Dir: Matthew Vaughn. Writers: Jane Goldman (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”, “X-Men: First Class”. “The Debt”. “Kick Ass”) and others. Cinematographer: George Richmond (“Sunshine on Leith”); Composer: Henry Jackman (“The Interview”, “Big Hero 6”, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, “Captain Phillips”)