Thursday, April 20, 2017
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.
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
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.
Tuesday, April 4, 2017
"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.