Thursday, April 20, 2017

Kong: Skull Island Review




Kong: Skull Island is dumb, predictable, and often times feels recycled from previous big budget blockbusters. It's also a ton of fun.

It's impossible not to land on Skull Island and think you are about to embark on a journey through a Jurassic Park sequel, as the mix of characters from military meatheads to fish out of water scientists stranded on a dangerous, isolated island full of creatures feels all too familiar. What Kong does well though to make it stand out from the work that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writers Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly clearly ape (pun intended) is their dedication to embracing the time period it takes place in, utilizing a Vietnam war atmosphere and a clear nod to Apocalypse Now to bring some batshit crazy awesome visuals to life, so vibrant and ridiculously cartoonish that it's impossible not to grin.

You don't typically buy a ticket to a film like Kong: Skull Island for the performances and that stays true here, although no one is by any means poor in the picture. Lead by Tom Hiddleston and the wonderful Brie Larson, they do what is expected in a movie where the real stars are the action sequences and visual effects, and the supporting performances from brilliant veteran actors like Samuel L. Jackson (although his character is the biggest cliché of the whole movie as he plays military guy who has his own violent agenda on the island that endangers them all) and John Goodman are rock solid but again, you won't walk away from a film like this talking about which actors were the best. You will be talking about Kong and the other creatures and the big, awesome action spectacle moments and the post-credit scene that builds a big monster universe whether you like it or not (I like it).




I can understand and appreciate every different opinion imaginable in regards to Kong: Skull Island, ranging from those that believe it is a terrible disaster to those that had an absolute blast with it on the big screen. I could see all the warts while watching and yet I cannot deny I enjoyed the experience, one of those movies I would turn on years from now in the middle of the night when I just want to lay down and look at something pleasing and fun for a couple of hours.



3.5/5



Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Win It All Review




I can find power in all kinds of stories involving addiction despite never suffering from all but one of them. Did I drink a fair amount on weekends in high school? Sure, but I also would volunteer to be designated driver and serve the position with ease, and now in my 30's I literally drink maybe 6 beers a year. I smoked a whole ton of weed during those days too, but I stopped without issue and despite the "gateway drug" claims, a door never opened for me to anything more destructive. Cigarettes? Tried one, what a waste of time. Probably helps I had already smoked a whole ton of weed at that point so the appeal of smoking something bad for my health with no potential to get high wasn't there.

I had one addiction though, one that brought me a fair amount of pain and watching it depicted in cinema still bothers me all these years later, probably because I don't think I will ever truly be "cured" of it. I was a gambling addict, technically probably still am.

Now I know this is going to sound like denial from an addict, but it was never about playing cards and I will continue to play when I get the chance. I love poker and I am good at it, and over the course of my many years playing it I almost certainly have come out in the black. I also always knew my limits while playing No-Limit Hold'em, an ability to recognize when it wasn't my night and walk away from the felt without losing it all. Oddly, while that is quite obviously gambling, I always maintained a calm, focused demeanor when around the game, always thinking and processing everything around me and I believe it is because I love it so much. Playing poker is never really about the money for me, it's just an added bonus.

My descent into gambling addiction hell came around 15 years ago and some colleagues at the time had a bookie. I caught wind of their conversations about what bets they were planning for the night and I thought, I have money and I love sports, I should give this a shot and initially started with 50 bucks here and there, win some and lose some, no big deal. Before long I was up all night wondering if my parents would lend me money because I had lost my entire paycheck and I was supposed to take my girlfriend out the next night or had a bill due soon. I would bet on a game being played at noon, lose and my entire day was ruined, sitting in misery wondering why I was doing it to myself when I experienced so little joy, but there I was the next day desperately trying to win it back, desperately playing catch up yet digging my hole even deeper.




It is with this personal experience that I enter films or television storytelling with a bit of trepidation but also curiosity over how genuine the portrayal would feel to me. The new Netflix original film Win It All, directed by Joe Swanberg, gets two essential aspects right: the lead performance of Jake Johnson and the screenplay, co-written by Johnson and Swanberg. Throughout the entire film I could feel the pain from those days when I struggled so deeply resurfacing because of the realism portrayed by Johnson, as I started to recall the times I would be talking to myself aloud, sorting out a plan to get it back or coping with the reality that there was no path forward until the next payday. I started vividly seeing the times when I would lose everything on a brutal beat but have to put on my best face to go out that night, pretending to listen to a conversation when in reality my entire thought process was consumed by what were the best lines to play the following day. Johnson is great and the script works completely, and on that level Win It All is a success.

The problem with the film is despite all it does right, even with the deeply personal way I can connect with the narrative, it still has a stale fog that hangs over the whole thing because the plot has been done to death before, the lead with the gambling addiction, things crumbling around him as he tries to maintain a new relationship with a love interest kept in the dark regarding the demons that haunt him. If you want essentially the exact same film as Win It All only with even more stakes since it is based on a true story, and an extraordinary performance from the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman, check out Owning Mahowny.

On its own terms and merits though, Win It All works because it's a smart film, one that portrays poker and addiction with realism whereas so many other films fail to do their research and feature cringe worthy scenes in which characters literally don't even play by the damn rules (if I see one more film with a character who says "I'll see your bet and then raise you..." I will throw my shoe at the screen). Jake Johnson gives a funny performance portraying a deeply flawed man that you can't help but root for, and for a film that runs less than 90 minutes, you won't regret watching it. I just wish it didn't feel so recycled in the end.



3/5

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Discovery Review




"Faith. Oh, God. I have such contempt for that word. Show me someone who relies on faith and I'll show you someone who's given up control over whatever it is they believe."


Early on during The Discovery there were some hiccups in the script that made me cringe a little, and I thought I was taking a dive into a film with a fascinating premise that would fail to appropriately execute it. I was so drawn into that premise though, one that tickles me in just the right spot in regards to what is quite possibly the greatest mystery our world will ever know: what happens when we die?

It's a mystery I struggle with on a somewhat regular basis, to be honest. I love being alive and the idea of a complete lack of existence is haunting. I want to believe in something greater than me, whether that be a deity or a powerful energy that connect us all or perhaps something else entirely that no one has even been able to conceive of as of yet. I look for proof of this throughout the world around us, as a beautiful day, a remarkable and deeply personal bond or the birth of a child serves as a far more profound message of something else guiding our world than a book could ever deliver for me. I want to believe and I desire to know the truth, but I don't have faith.

I have read various studies and the resulting theories regarding an afterlife or lack thereof, but I have always wondered, what if actual proof of an afterlife was attainable? On the one hand, finding out another plain of existence is undeniably awaiting us would provide me with some comfort, knowing I could live out my days with a peace of mind that something awaits. However, it is safe to say that such an enormous and world changing revelation would not lead to only smooth sailing for everyone, and the brand new Netflix original film The Discovery delves into that territory.

With an extremely talented cast made up of Jason Segel, whom had stepped away from the acting spotlight for a couple of years prior to this, the brilliant Rooney Mara, the legendary Robert Redford and great supporting work from familiar faces Jesse Plemons and Riley Keough and of course the always lovely Mary Steenburgen, The Discovery is not lacking in terms of performances and after those rough bumps I mentioned early, the screenplay really settles in and delivers some intriguing and meaningful dialogue as the story progresses. The film really takes off for me during a scene when a test is being done during the quest to find the definitive proof to back up the public claims made by Thomas (Redford), a scientist who made the public declaration that an afterlife and as a result millions have taken their own lives in order to reach the next chapter of existence. His son Will (Segel) continues to be skeptical of his findings, and such skepticism presents two utterly fascinating questions that I continue to think about long after the film ended: what if the initial claims were wrong and so many people died as a result of them, but perhaps even more of a mind fuck, even if it's true, who's to say what happens next is actually better than what we have today?




Directed by Charlie McDowell, son of Malcolm McDowell and Steenburgen whom appears in the film, and co-written by McDowell and Justin Lader, The Discovery has a heavy vibe to it due to its premise but that's exactly the tone I am looking for when seeking out films covering such subject matter. I want my own mind to be challenged during and after the picture with the questions it presented, and this has proven to be the case with The Discovery. Various scenes like the one I mentioned earlier that allowed the movie to really take off continue to dance through my head, and I have no complaints. A few steps short of anything masterful, but Netflix has offered plenty of meat to chew on here, a welcome original film only a few clicks of the remote away from the comfort of your own home.



4/5


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Small Screen: Planet Earth II Review




I'm not a religious man and no church service can make me believe with any level of certainty that a God does in fact exist, but a series like Planet Earth II makes me wonder and want to believe there is something behind the scenes that crafted the incredible beauty our world has to offer.

A sequel to the series Planet Earth released in 2006, Planet Earth II utilizes 4K cameras to take us to some of the most remote places in the world and capture nature like never seen before, and it's truly a remarkable thing to behold. The 6 main episodes are titled for what each installment covers, "Islands", "Mountains", "Jungles", "Deserts", "Grasslands" and most interestingly "Cities" with a focus on how animals are living in a world that is being taken over by man and the structures we occupy. There is also a seventh episode titled "A World of Wonder" which showcases how the series was made, and the all too real danger this filmmakers and crew members put themselves in is unnerving and completely awe inspiring.

With our world changing seemingly every single day, and mostly for the worse rather than the better, it's fascinating to get an update a decade later after the first series to highlight the wonders of nature and how things might have adapted as a shifting climate continues to be a terrifying concern. Not everything is so serious with Planet Earth II though, although trust me, be warned that there are some really sad and hard to swallow moments as the series doesn't turn a blind eye to the hard truths that go along with the cruelty of nature (the most devastating moments arrive in the final "Cities" episode, especially a sequence demonstrating the damaging effects the bright lights of our world are having on a specific species). There are plenty of adorable moments and laughs to be had, with narrator Sir David Attenborough bringing an essential balance of lightness, darkness and comedic playfulness to the various moments they capture throughout.




Planet Earth II is the best show of 2017 thus far, an incredible non-fiction event that absolutely has to be seen, although if I can make a suggestion to those that didn't catch it on television but do want to watch it, perhaps wait for it to be streaming on a service like Netflix because of their abilities to properly stream native 4K, if you have a 4K television of course. Because my cable provider isn't able to broadcast at that level, I fully plan on watching this show all over again on there when the time arrives and explore the world all over again the way it is truly meant to be seen.



Series Grade: A

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Beauty and the Beast (2017) Review




A word that will be used a lot to describe the new, live-action retelling of the 1991 Disney animated classic Beauty and the Beast is "unnecessary". It's the most commonly tossed around word when one is judging a remake of any kind, specifically when the original film is so acclaimed and cherished, and while I can't disagree in the sense that of course the film doesn't need to be made, my general opinion on the matter is, why not? I know, I know, less retreads, more original ideas. Celebrate bold and daring cinema rather than business as usual projects that are made with the goal of printing money. Here's the thing though, remakes and sequels are going to happen. They are a part of the cinematic landscape whether you like it or not, and while the concept of don't pay for a ticket and then studios will learn their lesson is accurate, in the words of Terence Mann from Field of Dreams, "People will come.". 

I walked into a nearly sold out IMAX screening of the new Beauty and the Beast, people crammed into the seats like sardines excited to experience a story they love told in a new way. The box office numbers this weekend will be astronomical because people want the familiar along with the new, they want the nostalgia pouring out of the words they know with a dash of original content to mix things up a bit. They want characters that they have loved since their childhood played by Hermione Granger and the dashing actor from Downton Abbey (although for me it's Legion and The Guest that make Dan Stevens a familiar face).

When I say they, that includes me. Sure, I want more original cinema. I want more innovative storytelling and unique concepts and bold, memorable work. I also love the animated Beauty and the Beast and am more than willing to pay for a ticket to see if the magic translates to a live-action canvas, and while perhaps it has a bit of a pacing issue with some new content included that extends the length beyond the brisk, tight 80 minutes of the original, overall the good news is it does translate. The new Beauty and the Beast is a winner.




The single most important aspect to get it right was casting, specifically Belle because without the right beauty, no one would care about a beast. Emma Watson is perfect in the role with a look that glows and the essential touch to both charm and inspire empathy for Belle and her plight. To put it simply, if Watson was in the frame, that scene was better for it, and while it may prove hard to look away from her at times it's also mandatory in order to fully appreciate the artistry that went into the various elaborate set pieces and costumes, the way the castle is so perfectly lit to make one room inviting and the next ominous and unwelcoming. I previously mentioned Dan Stevens and he proved to be a good choice to play The Beast, while throughout a vast majority of the film you wouldn't know who was playing the role nor may you care to find out. Stevens' face was digitally imposed onto the Beast with motion capture technology so he is always playing the character, but what he is tasked with here doesn't inspire a level of praise that someone like Andy Serkis gets and deserves for his work in the new Planet of the Apes trilogy, although honestly it's not fair to hold anyone to those lofty heights and expect similar results. For what Stevens was asked to do here, he did it well.

As for side characters, Luke Evans embodies everything that is needed out of a live-action Gaston, the good looks along with the smug arrogance that makes him so unlikable. Nevermind the absolutely absurd controversy surrounding the film and Josh Gad's take on LeFou, with a blink and you will miss it "gay moment" that honestly is so tame and run of the mill it actually makes me cringe a bit that this film was being praised in the other direction for having taking such a progressive stance by introducing an openly gay character because now having seen it, can we really call him openly gay? I expected a far more inclusive and heartwarming statement about love and equality, but I digress. I won't judge the film because of hype but rather what the film itself actually achieved, but I figured it was worth mentioning. The only actual issue with Gad's LeFou is that not every joke lands, especially early on in the film during his follow Gaston around and idolize him portion, but as the story unfolds his material feels less forced. Kevin Kline is solid as Belle's father Maurice, and Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Stanley Tucci and Audra McDonald all do great vocal work as the various household items in the castle that are brought to life because of the curse.

Perhaps it doesn't run as smoothly as the 1991 animated feature and of course since the material has already been done, this retelling was never going to feel as fresh as that once did, but it was easy for me to get lost in the songs I know and love, the intricate detail that went into crafting the village and the castle, the precise choreography that made big musical numbers feel joyous and effortless and the performances by a gifted ensemble, lead by a beauty that was born to play Belle.



4/5

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Logan Review




"So, this is what it feels like."


For years now I have heard the calls from many for an R-rated superhero film, and I will be honest, I was pessimistic. Not opposed to it but also not calling for it myself. My concerns stemmed from the idea that once the green light for such a project was given, the content that would ultimately earn that rating would feel forced, plugged in for the sake of shock value and grabbing headlines rather than flowing naturally with a great story. While I very much enjoyed Deadpool for what it is and am not afraid to admit laughing quite a bit while watching it, that film did step in the trap I feared a bit, with a screenplay that is steeped in dick jokes yet conventional in its origin story foundation, willing to step over the line to make the audience blush but unwilling to have the balls to put care in the right places in order to make a good film great.

For all of you who were calling for the R-rated superhero film, congratulations. Logan is the blueprint of exactly what you were hoping for and exactly what I doubted could happen, a story not bogged down by an overwhelming desire to prove just how R-rated it is but rather one that feels totally natural using the freedom it was given. That's the word that kept coming to mind as I watched the film last night: freedom. Director James Mangold litters his film with brutal violence and plenty of foul language but it all feels right in this painfully honest, desolate vision of an aging mutant long since past his prime, hiding in the shadows under an alias trying to make an honest living just to be able to afford the life he envisions for his remaining years.

Without question Hugh Jackman does his best work of the entire franchise here and it can be hard watching a hero fall apart before our eyes, but it's a beautiful thing when the actor brings so much passion to the role. His chemistry with Patrick Stewart reprising his role as Charles Xavier is top notch, sharing plenty of frustrating, pain and love on screen that makes their briefly used ruse in the film in which they pretend to be father and son feel so real. The breakthrough aspect of Logan though is the introduction of young Dafne Keen as Laura, a young mutant whom shares the same abilities as Logan, being pursued by a group of men who clearly have ugly motives behind their desperation to put the girl back into captivity. The trio effectively form a family during the film and their bond blossoms despite limited dialogue thanks to performances and a screenplay that understands that the most important thing about this story isn't visual effects or constant battle sequences but rather a shared humanity between people who feel isolated and alienated because of who they are. Some of the quieter moments of Logan proved to be my favorite scenes.




My only real issue with the film is a somewhat lackluster villain, and by that I don't mean the entire group, what they did or their motivations going forward because all of that worked and made total sense, but rather the leader of the group specifically, Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant). Starting with the only scene that made me cringe, taking place when Logan is watching footage taken in secret and Dr. Rice is heard literally instructing people to remember that mutants are not people, they are things, which for such a well written film felt so forced and unnecessary. It's quite evident and easy to understand that what we are seeing is evil and wrong, so having it spelled out with poor dialogue was basically on the same level as just flashing THIS IS A BAD GUY across the screen over his image. Even beyond that, I just felt this character was very underwritten and nothing more than a cliche, which stood out during a film that was anything but.

As this is the last time we will see Jackman portray this character on screen, it's hard to believe looking back that it has been 17 years since the first X-Men film when we were introduced to his take on Wolverine, and now it is difficult to imagine anyone else stepping into those shoes for future projects. What a fitting way for his run to end here, a punch to the gut and certainly not a colorful blast of fun some are looking for when taking their seats for a superhero movie, but the tonal balance achieved in Logan is remarkable and creates a beautiful, heartfelt and devastating story that finds a certain grace and delicateness despite the stellar action sequences that produce piles of bodies that met their demise in rather graphic ways. Throughout the film I found myself laughing, caring, and nearly crying but it never feels jarring, nothing beyond a little quibble here or there feels out of place.




Logan is a dark, hard hitting comic book film that explores the human condition and the universal desire to find ones "Eden", whether it be to reunite with people whom you can share yourself with or to disappear on a boat away from shore in search of a personal peace. It's haunting and powerful stuff and might just be the best X-Men film of any kind to date.



4.5/5


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Small Screen: Taboo Episode 8




The good news is, the first season finale of Taboo was the best episode of the show thus far. The bad news is even with that being said, it wasn't without its flaws, but it was a mostly riveting, beautifully shot and exciting final chapter to a mixed bag of a season overall.

It was a pretty safe bet that the Taboo crew, starting with creators Steven Knight, Chips Hardy and Tom Hardy (whom also stars) on down, would close out this eight episode run with some explosive stuff considering all the time and effort it took to build up these characters, their relationships and the feuds that would inevitably turn deadly. I just wish I didn't feel the time and effort getting there as much as I did throughout the first seven weeks. Perhaps had these eight episodes been six instead, with some trimming done to a bit of the storytelling fat that completely failed to engage me, I would be far more positive about the series as a whole, but that being said I know a lot of people loved Taboo from start to finish, so perhaps it's just me.

This show has always been bleak, which is actually just fine by me although at times it played a little too one note which created the notion that getting through a particular episode felt like a bit of a slog (looking all the way back at you, second episode). I loved every inch of the cold, joyless aesthetic and when you get to know these characters, it only makes sense that this would be the world they would occupy. The finale utilizes the best traits of this show, from the photography to the production design to the solid performances and tosses in some brutal, bloody war that piles up the bodies by the time it ends.

When I started watching Taboo I was under the impression that it was only eight episodes total, a limited series never destined to continue on beyond that, but now that I have seen the finale and the way it concludes I feel pretty confident that we will see more of James Delaney in the future. While I didn't always love what I was seeing during this season, at least it ended on a high note.


Episode Grade: B+

Season Grade: B-