“Is that a Monkey?” – Kong: Skull Island (Film Review)

In 2014 Godzilla made his reappearance to a western cinematic audience in Gareth Edwards eponymous film. It was a commercial success and prompted Legendary Pictures to greenlight a reboot of one of cinemas oldest and most beloved characters, who debuted over eighty years ago, King Kong. Godzilla and Kong previously clashed in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, but with the surge in technology over the last fifty years it is not surprising that there are plans to bring the gargantuan duo together once again meaning Kong himself needs to be reintroduced with Kong: Skull Island.

Set in 1973, just after the U.S announces it will be leaving Vietnam, Bill Randa (John Goodman), a senior official at MONARCH, convinces the US government to fund his expedition to the uncharted Skull Island. He is given a military escort led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and hires former SAS Captain and renowned tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to assist them, also along for the ride is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) a renowned photo-journalist and peace activist. Upon reaching the Island the group drop seismic charges to, allegedly, map the terrain, but by doing so they provoke the wrath of Kong (Terry Notary) who brings down their helicopters leaving them stranded on Skull Island.

Image result for kong skull island

Kong: Skull Island opens with a strong first act, introducing a parade of characters who are swatted down by the almighty Kong. The opening brawl between Kong and the military is enthralling, and showcases the presence of the gigantic beast. It’s easy to make something look large on screen but it’s a challenge to communicate such scale to the audience and to make Kong feel like a living, breathing animal. The motion capture work is fantastic and Kong is beautifully transposed into the world of the movie, in part due to the performance of Notary as the creature. Less compelling are the people surrounding Kong, despite being well introduced few of the characters develop beyond the periphery of two dimensions. Hiddleston is supposedly the male lead, but you could remove him from the film and it would make little difference. Hiddleston’s performance isn’t the problem, his natural charisma stops him from becoming unwatchable, but his lack of personality or insight makes him an issue, especially as the lead character. Larson suffers the same issue, Mason Weaver is never fully realised beyond having the obligatory sequence in which Kong shares a semi-intimate moment with a woman because, well, he does in all Kong movies. The ensemble flare between promising and underutilised. Jackson and Goodman bring the heft of their experience to the movie and manage to make even the most expositional dialogue scenes interesting through their fine work. Jackson is the most fully realised of any of the characters, a man whose lost so much that to surrender would be an insult to those who sacrificed their lives. The scene stealer though is John C Reilly as Hank Marlow, a WWII pilot who has been stranded on the Island for twenty-eight years leaving him a peculiarly eccentric figure.

Image result for kong skull island

This film feels like a battleground. Between the director’s vision of making Apocalypse Now but with a massive ape, and the studios hopes of starting a franchise. The actors battle for screen time, with each other and Kong. It has some astonishing effects and clever visual motifs, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts clearly has an eye for spectacle, but the screenplay can’t match his ambitions leaving most of the characters adrift of interest. Solid, but not quite worthy of the King.

3/5

Dir: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Scr: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Toby Kebbell, Terry Notary, Jing Tian, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, John C. Reilly

Prd: Thomas Tull, John Jashni, Mary Parent, Alex Garcia

DOP: Larry Fong

Music: Henry Jackman

Country: USA

Year: 2017

Runtime: 118 Minutes

Kong: Skull Island is out now in UK cinemas.

 

 

“We get to the peak Together, or we don’t get There at all” – Hidden Figures (Film Review)

Stories of the unsung hero are a popular movie trope. They bring the deeds of the obscure to the forefront and celebrate their legacy. Two films nominated for Best Picture at last month’s Oscars were based on real historical figures who performed extraordinary deeds. Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge and Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures. The latter explores the phenomenal work of the African American women who worked on the NASA space program and their struggle against ignorance and bigotry as they played a major role in the Space Race.

Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) works as a computer at NASA, alongside her friends Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), an aspiring engineer, and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), who performs the role of supervisor but without the title and pay the job should come with. They are but three of many African American women working on the site. Johnson’s skills eventually lead to her being assigned to the Space Task Group under Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) to check the math of the engineers working on the shuttle. The first African American to be part of the team she is continually dismissed by her colleagues, as are Mary and Dorothy. The three combat the bigotry they face in their attempts to realise their goals and help achieve the ultimate feat of sending a man into space.

 Image result for hidden figures film

Hidden Figures strength is in the incredible deeds of the characters and understated, but powerful, writing. A morally righteous tale of people working through adversity in order to play a major part in something bigger than themselves. Octavia Spencer was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the film, but each of the three leading ladies are superb giving spectacular performances. Janelle Monae is wonderfully charming as the feisty Mary Jackson, whilst Taraji P. Henson leads the cast with a fantastically dogmatic display capturing both the vulnerability, and the submerged inner strength, of her character. Costner is effortless in this supporting role, sweeping through scenes with a comfort that derives from his decades of acting experience. Tremendously watchable without ever seeming to demand the screen, he delivers an exceptional supporting performance. Director Melfi also co-wrote the screenplay with Alison Schroeder and their work was deservedly recognised with an Academy Award nomination. The clever writing turns what could be an overly conventional or sentimental tale into an enriching narrative.

Image result for hidden figures film

Hidden Figures is well made. It relies not on the superlative but simply lets the incredible deeds of its subjects speak for themselves. Not exorbitant or risqué enough to garner the top prizes yet in it’s quiet formation it acquires an almost silent strength that underpins the film’s messages of tolerance and reminds us of the quiet heroes doing the silent deeds throughout the infinitive tapestry of history.

4/5

Dir: Theodore Melfi

Scr: Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons

Prd: Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Theodore Melfi, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams

DOP: Mandy Walker

Music: Hans Zimmer

Country: USA

Year: 2017

Runtime: 127 Minutes

Hidden Figures is out now in UK cinemas.

 

 

 

“Nature made me a Freak. Man made me a Weapon. And God made it last too long” – Logan (Film Review)

Nine. That’s how old I was when Hugh Jackman first portrayed Wolverine on screen in X-Men, alongside Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier. X-Men was a gamechanger, proving that comic book adaptations could be successful at the box office. We now live in the Golden age of the Superhero movie, where roles can often be recast without a second glance. Spiderman had not yet been adapted for the big screen when X-Men first came out. Now, upon Logan’s release, we have seen three different actors take that role. As well as two actors playing Batman and Superman since the turn of the millennia. But there is only one Wolverine.

The year is 2029. Mutants have vanished from the world and only a few remain hiding in secluded areas. Logan, no longer going by the moniker of Wolverine, works as a driver for hire. His healing ability is failing and he self-medicates with drugs and alcohol to make it through the day. Charles Xavier is succumbing to mental degeneration and has spasms and seizures causing tremors and paralysis to those nearby. Logan hopes to save enough money to get himself and Charles a boat, so they can live on the ocean and escape their bleak existence. One day a woman, Gabriella, approaches Logan begging for him to help her and her daughter, Laura. They are being chased and wish to reach the Canadian border. Logan wants no part in helping them but is forced into assisting. However, is there anything of the old Wolverine left?

Wolverine has been somewhat domesticated by the X-Men series. Sure, he’s always been the most morally conflicted of the group, being the quickest to violence and dropping the occasional F bomb, but his darker morality had never been explored until now. In Logan we get to see the true repercussions of his violent acts. In the opening scene we watch Logan tear a group of would be thieves to shreds in a fit of rage. Limbs are separated from bodies and blood spurts without restraint from wounds. Logan himself is badly injured, his signature claws causing him agony. In the past Wolverines claws slashed without real consequence. He’d wave his arm and his opponents would fall but there would be no weight to the action. In Logan not only is the violence unabashedly graphic, but it feels gritty and dirty. Mortality plays a major theme throughout, from the main character himself and into that of Patrick Stewart’s Xavier. A man of immense power, grace and intellect reduced to a shell of his former self. Broken down by illness he is a more bitter and confused man than we once remembered. Perhaps the most galling change of all is the utter lack of sentimentality within Logan. It’s one thing to aim for a more realistic tone but the movie feels almost devoid of hope and optimism. Disappointment, regret and destitution haunt the landscape throughout. We are a far cry away from the time travelling exploits of Days of Future Past. Logan sometimes teases us with the concepts of absolution and hope only to pull the rug from under us. Jackman delivers entirely in a role that he will forever be linked with, for better or worse. His physicality completely manifest of the old animal teetering on the brink. More fragile than before, but perhaps deadlier than ever for it. Stewart is revelatory as Xavier, a man grappling with the weight of almost infinite power beginning to lose control of his gifts. Tied to Logan as both burden and mentor, the two men’s bickering disguising a peculiar familiar bond. The ensemble as a whole is remarkably solid. Stephen Merchant as the troubled Caliban, Boyd Holdbrook as southern mercenary Donald Pierce and Dafne Keen as Laura, a very talented young performer who delivers an admirably astute performance.

The curtain has now fallen on Jackman’s time as Wolverine and frankly Logan is a jarring experience. Logan is unrecognisable from the earlier X-Men films, a different animal entirely, but is all the better for it. There is no Stan Lee cameo, no post credits sequence and no scenes setting up future movies for a franchise. Just a story about family, death and pain. One well worthy to go out on for the Wolverine.

5/5

Dir: James Mangold

Scr: James Mangold, Scott Frank, Michael Green

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Richard E. Grant, Stephen Merchant, Eriq La Salle, Elise Neal

Prd: Hutch Parker, Simon Kinberg, Lauren Shuler Donner

DOP: John Mathieson

Music: Marco Beltrami

Country: USA

Year: 2017

Runtime: 137 Minutes

Logan is out now in UK cinemas.

“We got Multiple Explosions. We need help down here!” – Patriots Day (Film Review)

In April 2013 two brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, detonated a pair of bombs during the Boston Marathon, injuring an estimated two hundred and eighty people and killing three. A manhunt followed as the city grieved and overcame the crisis by rallying together, which is the focus of the film Patriots Day. Peter Berg directs and Mark Wahlberg stars, the two collaborated previously on Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor which were two films that also dealt with real life tragedies.

Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) is overseeing the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon when two explosions are triggered nearby. Many are injured and multiple law enforcement agencies are forced to react swiftly to organise a manhunt for the perpetrators and bring them to justice. The film examines multiple different viewpoints on the tragedy, from that of the victims, the agencies investigating and the bombers themselves.

Peter Berg, having previously directed features focusing on real life tragic events, is able to manage the subject matter deftly. Wahlberg plays a composite character, the fictional Tommy Saunders, who is present throughout a lot of the key scenes. The inclusion of such a character alongside real life officers could have been a contentious issue, but Wahlberg’s character is just another face in a crowd of many. Patriots Day pays tribute to the multiple heroes who rose to the occasion during the wake of the attacks. The city’s numerous emergency services, and the women and men who staff them, performed amazing deeds and the film interprets this through a compelling and realistic drama. Dramatising events such as this can run the risk of trivialising the disaster but the message Patriots Day transmits is one of hope against those who would commit unthinkable evils. The performances throughout are excellent, Berg really does pull the best out of Wahlberg, and the decision to cast veterans like J.K Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon and Michelle Monaghan ensures that the drama is capably performed. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have composed a highly versatile score that captures and enhances the feelings of tragedy, tension, relief and eventually jubilation within the city of Boston. The pair won an Oscar in the past for their work on The Social Network and Patriot’s Day ranks amongst their most emotive and resonant scores.

Patriots Day is a conundrum of a movie, much like Deepwater Horizon. It’s a hard sell to ask someone to watch a dramatisation displaying the worst aspects of humanity. Who wants to peer into the soul of someone who believes mass murder is an act ever worth committing, irrelevant of faith and belief? However, Patriots Day focuses on the reactive side of these atrocities as well. That when hate attacked, love responded in earnest. An act meant to divide and scatter the people of Boston backfired as the city united. Patriots Day ends with a series of interviews with the real-life subjects of the film, including some of the grievously wounded. Their resilience and strength brought me to tears and is worth seeing for yourself.

4/5

Dir: Peter Berg

Scr: Peter Berg, Matt Cook,  Joshua Zetumer

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, J.K Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, Michael Beach, Jimmy O. Yung, Vincent Curatola

Prd: Mark Wahlberg, Scott Stuber, Dylan Clark, Stephen Levinson, Hutch Parker, Dorothy Aufiero, Stephen Stapinski, Michael Radutzky

DOP: Tobias Schliessler

Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross

Country: USA

Year: 2017

Runtime: 133 Minutes

Patriots Day is out now in UK cinemas.

“Kill the Queen, or we all die” – The Great Wall (Film Review)

The latest action blockbuster starring Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Andy Lau, Jing Tian and Willem Defoe has a slightly different background than your regular popcorn movie. The most expensive Chinese film ever produced The Great Wall could be the first of numerous attempts from China to assert their dominance on the global film industry. Many US produced mainstream movies now live or die on their international gross revenue and China is the most important market for films of the highest budget. This rise now sees China attempting to beat Hollywood at their own game by producing their own content. They’ve enlisted a top dollar American star in Matt Damon, numerous talented Chinese actors such as Jing Tian and the highly bankable Andy Lau whilst Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) is in the director’s chair. If the producers see a reasonable return on their investment then the peculiar image of Matt Damon in the midst of an Asian ensemble may seem less strange in the future as others attempt to imitate its success.

If only The Great Wall was as fascinating on screen as the series of circumstances that have willed it into being. A thoughtless blaze of CGI descends upon the great wall of China and only Matt Damon and his strange array of accents can stop them. A lot of the actors in The Great Wall speak English as a second language so it’s a wonder that Damon talks like it’s also his second tongue. At one point his voice affects an Irish lilt that makes it even harder to take his scenes seriously. The whole concept is silly so it’s not like his accent breaks the believability of the film, this isn’t exactly Oscar Wilde, but it does highlight the ridiculousness that this movie, boasting some of the finest talent China has to offer, includes Damon as a co-lead to make the movie more marketable to a Western audience. The ensemble are all game at least, committed to playing their parts with a straight face. Pascal is fun as a Spanish rogue, Lau demonstrates the kind of effortless charisma that has made him a staple of Asian cinema for the past few decades and up and comer Jing Tian has a natural screen presence that makes it likely we will see plenty of her in the future. The Great Wall is at its best when given over to the exuberant excess of Zhang Yimou, his lush colourful eye and bombastic approach give the set pieces an eye-catching glimmer. However, any sequence that requires more than three lines of dialogue quickly falls to shreds specifically in the opening act with an overuse of close-ups decimating any rhythm to the scenes.

Image result for the great wall film review

The Great Wall is an overblown cascade that never manages to meet the expectations set upon it by its luscious production design. More of an ardent curiosity than an actual success, The Great Wall has spectacle but little soul.

2/5

Dir: Zhang Yimou
Scr: Carlo Bernard, Tony Gilroy, Doug Miro
Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Zhang Hanyu, Eddie Peng
Prd: Thomas Tull, Charles Roven, Jon Jashni, Peter Loehr
Music: Ramin Djawadi
Country: USA, China
Year: 2017
Run time: 104 minutes

The Great Wall is out now in UK cinemas.

 

“In Moonlight, Black boys look blue” – Moonlight (Film Review)

Moonlight offers a look at the upbringing of a young man looking at three specific time periods in his life. As a boy, a teenager and a man. Moonlight has just won the Academy Award for Best Picture, following a mix up when La La Land was announced as the winner by mistake. It’s a powerful film, but is it worthy of Best Picture?

Chiron is a young, black child growing up in Liberty City, Miami. Withdrawn and bullied by other kids he seeks solace in the form of the drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), in an attempt to get away from his abusive crack smoking mother Paula (Naomie Harris). As Chiron grows older we see him struggling with his identity and the relationships with those around him.

The decision to divide the narrative is both a strength and a curse, allowing for a highly organised structural narrative underneath which is an ambitious and experimental method of storytelling. The specific focus of the acts means that we miss out on events in between that is at times highly effective, and sometimes disadvantageous. For example, a character dies in between one of the gaps and the unexpectedness of the realisation is shocking and effective. However because a different actor plays the role of Chiron in each act it causes an alienating effect that can distance you from the emotion of the film. In the first transition of Chiron from boy to teenager the metamorphosis was believable, in part to an outstanding performance by Ashton Sanders as the teen Chiron. Whilst the transition from teenager to adult results in us seeing a very different side of Chiron. This jarring change in the character is not a criticism in itself, it is understandable that after such an intensely difficult childhood the adult Chiron would be a very different character. But this alienated me from the connection to Chiron’s emotional state as it was difficult to buy into Trevante Rhodes as if he was portraying the same character. In part this is down to the writing, the final act being much more contemplative, and therefore slower, than the intense passion of the opening two acts. It was disappointing for me to feel like this as the movie is phenomenally beautiful and up until that point it had me hooked within the action. Ali is wonderful as Juan, the soulful drug dealer who serves as a kind of ward for Chiron, whilst Harris is demented as the crack addicted mother who overpowers Chiron with never ending emotional abuse. The scene stealer though is truly Ashton Sanders who anchors the second act with an extraordinarily vulnerable display, somehow not receiving the same recognition as the admittedly wonderful Ali and Harris. A highlight of the film includes a much heralded sequence at a beach in the night. It’s rightly noted as a wonderful cinematic moment, gorgeously shot by Director of Photography James Lawton who captures a pure form of teenage intimacy in a way that is truly unique. It is emblematic of the beauty of the movie as a whole, thanks in part to Lawton, and Barry Jenkins must deservedly take credit for tackling such an incredibly difficult project with the kind of virtuoso direction you would expect of a far more experienced hand.

Image result for moonlight film mahershala ali

 

Moonlight is an exquisitely shot journey through the life Chiron. Capturing his frailty, rage and desires. It can’t quite the sustain the weight of its aspirations. Not my Best Picture of the year, but also not a bad Best Picture by any means. If a film is measured by its ambitions then Moonlight stands as tall as any.

3/5

Dir: Barry Jenkins
Scr: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, Andre Holland
Prd: Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner
Music: Nicholas Britell
Country: USA
Year: 2017
Run time: 111 minutes

Moonlight is out now in UK cinemas.

So, that happened.

Just a short retrospective on the Oscars and the frankly glaring mix up that occurred during the show the other night. La La Land was falsely announced as the winner of Best Picture in a moment of pure cinema history that took place before our eyes. Moonlight was the actual winner. In the midst of all the drama taking place it can be easy to forget that Moonlight was seen as the underdog to the overwhelming favourite La La Land. Though in actuality I had considered Moonlight the front runner for the last few weeks as a backlash mounted against the perceived over adulation La La Land received. The Oscars traditionally like to award the Best Picture to the most overtly political film of the year. Following the election of Trump, the Black Lives Matter movement and the political discord that continues to divide America it was no surprise to me that Moonlight took the award on the night. Much like Spotlight taking the award last year in part due to its content being perceived as more “Important” I feel Moonlight was the right film at the right time and that it’s subject matter played a part in it winning on the night.

Moonlight was a film that I enjoyed. It was stunningly shot, wonderfully directed and told an original story in a truly ambitious fashion. There were issues I had with it that prevented me from being able to heap as much praise on the movie as some critics did but I felt it was a piece of evocative and powerful cinema and was glad to see it nominated by the Academy. La La Land was my favourite of the nominees, just edging out Hell or High Water (I have yet to see Fences though, something I will soon correct). It swept me away on a whirlwind of glee and it was painful to watch Jordan Horowitz have to hand back his award the other night, which he did with incredible class I might add. However just because my personal favourite did not win does mean that I feel Moonlight’s victory was unwarranted. I will argue till blue in the face that for me La La Land is the better movie, and that even Hidden Figures, Manchester by the Sea and Hell or High Water were better films to me. But there is a line drawn where you have to acknowledge the subjectivity of cinema. Moonlight’s ferocious originality, narrative ambitions, subject matter and obviously talented cast and crew make it an obvious nominee, and a worthy winner. In the past couple of weeks a few people have asked me what should win Best Picture and I have responded that I would like La La Land or Hell or High Water to win but, in a way, it doesn’t matter. For me as long as a nominated film embodies the highest ambitions of cinema then the eventual victor is almost circumspect. Yes it would be nice to see a particular favourite win, but when dealing with art the lines are so blurred that it becomes illogical that there is a best film, besides simply a favourite. How do you compare Arrival with Hell or High Water, Fences with Hacksaw Ridge or Moonlight with La La Land? Would you compare Mohammed Ali with Sachin Tendulkar? A Ferrari with a Concorde? To me films are so variable that comparison, especially that of the supposed best of cinema, is mute beyond that of personal preference. I’ll fly my flag for La La Land, and happily argue it’s corner till I drop that I think it is better than Moonlight, but I won’t say Moonlight wasn’t a worthy winner on the night. Congratulations to the cast and crews of all the films nominated at this year’s Oscars, you all did brilliantly.