Sunday, March 12, 2017

Kong: Skull Island


In some ways, the 2005 Peter Jackson King Kong is a more impressive movie than this is. I don't know that there's anything in Skull Island, for example, that can compete with the T-Rex fight in terms of sheer madcap awesomeness. Likewise, the ravine sequence from Jackson's movie was absolutely brilliant.

But.

Pull those scenes out of Jackson's Kong, and you're not left with much. It was a movie with some absolutely amazing moments, but the whole thing was just a love letter to the original, which it basically  apes  duplicates.

Skull Island is no less of a love letter, but unlike the 2005 or 1976 versions, it makes the very wise choice to reboot Kong without remaking it. In addition to leaving the door open for sequels, this also gives the filmmakers a chance to explore Skull Island anew, without being limited to the same old story we've seen several times.

This still echos moments and relationships we've seen before, but nothing's quite the same. There are no shortage of homages, references, and Easter eggs you can spot - like I said, it's still a love letter - but don't expect a third act trip to Broadway.

Also - and I don't think this counts as a spoiler at this point - there are some fun tie-ins to the shared universe this is part of. You can catch a little of that in the trailer: when John Goodman talks about nuclear "tests" during World War II secretly targeting a giant monster, he's not talking about Kong. Monarch, the secret government agency introduced in 2014's Godzilla, gets a SHIELD-style role in this, too. Or, perhaps more accurately an Agent Carter-style role. Kong is set in the 70's.

Like Godzilla, this does a much better job putting giant monsters on the screen than it does making us care about its human characters. Also like Godzilla, I honestly can't imagine anyone complaining about that. I'll quote the only line from my review of that movie worth repeating: "When the critical consensus of your giant monster movie is that the humans are boring, it means you've probably made a good giant monster movie." That holds just as true here.

And, if we're being perfectly honest, Skull Island does a far better job with its humans than Godzilla. The characters are no less cliche than in the last movie, but - by virtue of being adventurers instead of soldiers fighting for humanity's survival - they're far less obnoxious. I don't think the director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, succeeded in making them fun and compelling, but they fill the time between the monster-on-monster violence we paid to see.

This is also another advantage Skull Island has over Jackson's attempt. Skull Island is occasionally stupid, but it's never tedious. I hope I'm not being too harsh - I actually like the 2005 movie quite a bit - but this avoids quite a few pitfalls and missteps that movie made. And if we're being honest, you could cut an hour out of Peter Jackson's Kong without losing anything of value.

In addition, Skull Island actually pulls off a few genuinely surprising twists. But its real joys are in the island itself: the strange creatures (including some wonderful innocuous wildlife), its scenic geography, and of course its awesome king.

This isn't the best Kong movie ever made (obviously - that honor will be forever held by the original). And, in some ways, it's not even the best modern one. For all Jackson's faults, he delivered a complex and fascinating picture. But this is the Kong movie the franchise needs: something fun that can be built upon. By not setting out to make a masterpiece, Vogt-Roberts was able to add just a little to the mythos.

Also, a giant ape punches the hell out of some lizard-things. This is a wonderful movie.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Movie Review: Logan


There's no question Logan is a great superhero movie. That said, I can't sign on with the critics calling it the greatest of all time. In fact, it's not my favorite of the Wolverine movies.

Yet.

The "yet" is important, because it's easily the best Wolverine movie to be released theatrically. In my personal opinion, it falls just shy of the extended version of its predecessor, The Wolverine, also directed by James Mangold. If Logan gets a similar director's cut, I may well reconsider, since most of my issues with the film stem from the fact it's too short. That may seem odd - Logan is already more than two hours long, and it features what may be the most deliberately slow pace we've ever seen in a big budget superhero production, but there's something missing here.

The movie's break-out star is Laura, a young mutant who gets adopted by Xavier and Logan. She gets plenty of screen time and some absolutely amazing moments, which is more than sufficient to make her a phenomenal addition to the film. But we don't really get enough to have a grasp on her personality or - more importantly - her relationship with Logan. Given that the second half of the movie is ostensibly built around that relationship, this omission undercuts the emotional resolution of the film. I left the theater without really buying her arc, which is unfortunate.

On the other hand, I also left hyped up on how bad-ass the fights were and blown away by the movie's cinematography, character acting, pacing, and tone. It's a well-made, unapologetically grim and violent near-future dystopian superhero western: how the hell does this even exist?

With a little tweaking, though, it could have been a masterpiece. Without that, it's just great. Only awesome. Nothing more.

Keep in mind the theatrical release of The Wolverine had a similar issue. Logan's relationship with Mariko was underdeveloped until the extended cut, at which point it became a much stronger picture. I'm keeping my fingers crossed there's a similar version of Logan in the works: I'd love to see it.

Even if that never materializes, this is already a fantastic - and bizarre - movie that flies in the face of conventional studio wisdom. It defies attempts to place it logically in continuity to a degree that has to be intentional. The original X-Men and Origins: Wolverine are referenced, but nothing else quite snaps together (not even The Wolverine - Logan lost his metal claws at the end of that one, but he's certainly got them here). You get the feeling that's how the director wanted it: this is a stand-alone movie that exploits seventeen years worth of character development but isn't beholden to time travel, soft reboots, or anything else. You won't catch me complaining: I love superhero worlds with or without continuity.

Ultimately, Mangold has delivered a superhero western to follow up his superhero samurai movie: the two compliment each other nicely. Logan is a great send-off for Jackman and Stewart that's absolutely worth catching in the theater (as long as you leave the kids at home - this is easily the most violent superhero movie since Watchmen).