Saturday, March 25, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

KONG: SKULL ISLAND (Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017)

When satellite imagery reveals the location to the unexplored Skull Island in the South Pacific, the race is on to get there first. In KONG: SKULL ISLAND, Bill Randa (John Goodman), a U.S. government official with the organization Monarch, quickly assembles a team of soldiers, scientists, and adventure seekers to claim whatever mysteries the place may reveal. Taking the lead is tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). With the Vietnam War just concluded, Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his men provide the squadron to protect and transport everyone to Skull Island through the nasty weather that encircles it.

None of them are prepared for encountering its enormous creatures, including the ape known as Kong and his reptilian-like predators. Those who survive the casualty-riddled arrival on Skull Island are separated, with Conrad’s group, which includes photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), crossing paths with American pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly). Marlow wrecked there during World War II and has lived among the natives in the intervening years. He considers getting off the island to be a foolish venture but has a makeshift boat in need of repairs that might help if they want to take the risk.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND believes bigger is better, from its unbelievably huge monsters to a primary cast big enough to field two softball teams. The number of main players can be a problem because there are so many characters to serve, even if just in a minor way to give each a distinguishing moment. For all of the mayhem, there’s not a heightened sense of danger because there are plenty of targets. Losing one or five doesn’t have an appreciable effect. They’re all types, even the presumed leads, rather than well-rounded protagonists. Reilly manages to stick out because of his funny and distinctive oddball nature.

To a large degree the lack of character-driven material doesn’t matter all that much as long as there’s enough spectacle. KONG: SKULL ISLAND delivers in that area. Whether Kong is swatting helicopters like flies, wrestling with a giant octopus, or battling his nemeses, the intimidatingly-dubbed skullcrawlers, the special effects impress as state of the art illusions and in their scale. While this and the 1933 KING KONG are not equals as films, the descendant understands the thrill of showmanship in its roots.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND spins a K-tel collection of Vietnam War film rock hits and is casual with its references to APOCALYPSE NOW, but there’s no grand vision of commentary about foreign conflicts or colonialism. That is all window dressing on a monster movie with an entertainer’s eagerness to please. If you want to see cinema’s great ape smash stuff up with the latest technology has to offer, KONG: SKULL ISLAND certainly delivers the goods.

Grade: B

Friday, March 24, 2017

A United Kingdom

A UNITED KINGDOM (Amma Asante, 2016)

In 1947 London Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is studying in preparation for when it is his time to become king of his home nation Bechuanaland, now known as Botswana. He meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) at a social occasion in A UNITED KINGDOM, and rather unexpectedly the royal African man and white English woman fall in love. An interracial relationship is complicated enough in their time and place. Their decision to get married is also of considerable controversy back in southern Africa where he is to rule. Seretse’s uncle Tshekedi (Visu Kunene) has been leading until his nephew is ready to accept his role as heir to the throne, but he finds the marriage unacceptable, as do other members in the family and tribe.

Seretse finds persuading his own people to be less troublesome than getting the support of outsiders. The British government takes a keen interest in Seretse and Ruth’s relationship because of the economic stakes it has in the region and the continent. In a cruel twist in this fact-based story, the politicians call him to London and then ban him from returning while his pregnant wife is back home. The couple makes the difficult but principled decision to fight for their right to be together even if it means being separated by borders for an unknown amount of time.

A UNITED KINGDOM studies the personal within the political while focusing on the strength, resilience, and romance shared by a wronged man and woman. Director Amma Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert flesh out the injustice with the broader picture in which the Khamas lived. Their marriage did not merely have local implications. Bechuanaland was under the protection of the United Kingdom. The British government wished to appease Bechuanaland’s neighbor South Africa, which was in the process of instituting apartheid. In their view, mistreating one couple for the sake of political favor and prospective economic gain seems justifiable despite the moral implications.

As with her previous film BELLE, Asante dives into history to select a fascinating but lesser known story of a person of color. Recently the actress Thandie Newton talked about the difficulty for black actors to find work in the U.K. because of the number of period pieces that tend not to have roles for ethnic minorities. A UNITED KINGDOM and Asante’s prior feature push back against the theoretical argument that there aren’t good tales to tell. If anything, something like this benefits from the unfamiliarity of its protagonists and the circumstances they confronted.

That relative novelty helps offset some of the earnestness that marks A UNITED KINGDOM. The film’s sincerity is not a fault, but it can play for stretches like a well-meaning lesson about a past society’s unfairness. The performers give it a big boost. Oyelowo brings dignity and a clear-eyed perspective to his part, yet he doesn’t shy away from letting Seretse simmer with anger at the powers that be that would undermine his authority and entitlements. He commands attention with grace rather than force. Pike demonstrates Ruth’s sensitivity to the situation in which she has chosen. Here’s a woman who is treated with suspicion for rightfully following her heart. She fights as she can regarding international matters, yet on a local level she respects the difference of opinion in a way that proves her deserving of the trust she needs to gain. Although A UNITED KINGDOM follows a template for its story of overcoming historical offenses, Oyelowo and Pike succeed at making these people feel human even as they conduct themselves with incredible patience.

Grade: B-

Thursday, March 23, 2017


MORGAN (Jake Scott, 2016)

Risk management consultant Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) arrives at a remote property to determine how the corporation should proceed regarding a product in development, a synthetic humanoid named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy). Although just five years old in real time, Morgan has developed at a highly accelerated rate, appearing to be a female in her late teens or early twenties. In MORGAN Lee prefers to refer to this gray hoodie-clad being as a genderless it, but the scientists who have nurtured her growth, particularly behavioral analyst Amy (Rose Leslie), tend to view her as a young woman.

Lee has come to assess if the project with Morgan should continue after this embodied artificial intelligence savagely attacked one of the workers. Much rides on Morgan’s psychological evaluation, and she does not take well to the provocations made by her interviewer, Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti). It falls to Lee to clean up the mess he creates in pushing his subject to a breaking point.

MORGAN echoes the documentary PROJECT NIM, about an experiment to raise a chimpanzee as a human, and the science fiction thriller EX MACHINA with its robot that might pass as a real person. While rich thematic possibilities exist in considering the ethical quandaries and unanticipated effects of such scientific trials, the film by director Jake Scott and screenwriter Seth Owen settles for being a Frankenstein-like story absent a brain. MORGAN’s premise is established but never expanded upon, leaving it as something that looks good at the design stage but lacks an animating force.

MORGAN’s visual style, especially the bunker-like building with its sleek interiors, are highly reminiscent of EX MACHINA too. Some of the similarities may be attributable to the genre, yet calling to mind a much better recent comparison does this film no favors. Side by side, MORGAN looks like the shell of a futuristic suspense movie, one with an appealing exterior alone that also has nothing to distinguish it from more robust competitors.

The film’s familiar but attractive foundation and surfaces hold enough interest that its diminishing returns make it feel like a squandered opportunity. The cast, populated with recognizable faces in small roles, promises something better than what they have to work with. Taylor-Joy, who first came to notice in THE WITCH: A NEW-ENGLAND FOLKTALE, is effectively eerie as a character trying to integrate the programming within her biological casing. In failing to tap into the potential of its scenario, MORGAN is vulnerable to being evaluated primarily on its narrative ingenuity, of which there is little. It takes all of the turns one expects in a schematic manner. Although it does so efficiently, MORGAN functions like a machine that can accomplish a task quickly even as it doesn’t deliver anything desired.

Grade: C

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Morris from America

MORRIS FROM AMERICA (Chad Hartigan, 2016)

Relocating to Heidelberg, Germany with his soccer coach father Curtis (Craig Robinson) isn’t easy for thirteen-year-old Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas) in MORRIS FROM AMERICA. While his dad tries his best to keep his spirits up, Morris has no friends and just a modest grasp on the different language. His tutor Inka (Carla Juri) suggests he spend some time at the youth center to meet people and work on his German in a social setting.

Being an African-American--not to mention the only person of color--marks him as an outsider from the other teens. His aloofness doesn’t help either. Fifteen-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller) shows some friendliness toward Morris, although she also sends a number of mixed messages. Desperate for a closer connection with anyone, especially a girl, Morris latches onto Katrin like a life preserver even though it’s unclear if she’s toying with him.

MORRIS FROM AMERICA is a fish-out-of-water tale and coming-of-age story, with the greater emphasis on the protagonist’s first steps on a journey toward growing up. Both scenarios require learning how to translate, be it a foreign language or social cues. Morris is doubly disadvantaged in that he must navigate an unfamiliar culture while searching for his sense of self too. As such, he’s more susceptible to following the crowd. Writer-director Chad Hartigan is perceptive in developing a situation in which a basically good kid might find trouble by virtue of being lonely.

As played by Christmas, Morris is endearing without ever seeming pathetic or stupid. There’s vicarious joy in seeing him light up when Morris receives the kind of attention he desires and pain when intuiting how he misreads people and then puts up buffers in response to actions that hurt him. Christmas invests Morris with pride and emotional intelligence even as he is clumsy in interpersonal communication. He indicates Morris’ mental calculations on the spot of whether he should hold back or not in the scenarios he faces. It’s a canny performance that reveals the child Morris still is and the adult he imagines himself as but is not yet equipped to be.

Robinson doesn’t receive a lot of screen time in MORRIS FROM AMERICA, but he makes the most of what he gets. He shows Curtis to be a loving father who can be uncertain how best to deal with the adolescent in his midst. Curtis is more comfortable with being in Germany, yet as a widower he’s also undergoing an adjustment made harder with a son at a transitional age. Robinson occupies the space where he can seem like the cool dad but has no problem responsibly exerting his power as a parent. He expresses that he understands what his son is going through, especially with what he chooses to address directly. Still, he doesn’t shy away from punishing Morris as necessary. Robinson’s performance is affectionate and knowing. He’s the heart of a forgiving film that observes the humor and frustration of being a teenager.

Grade: B

Friday, March 10, 2017

Before I Fall

BEFORE I FALL (Ry Russo-Young, 2017)

High school senior Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch) wakes up on February 12 expecting it to be an eventful day. It is, just not in any way she could have imagined. In BEFORE I FALL Samantha and her friends are on the way home from a party when they are in a terrible car accident. Dying in the crash jolts her awake only to discover that it is February 12 again. At first Samantha thinks she just had a bad dream, but as the day progresses, she finds that everything is repeating. The more Samantha learns what happens on this fateful day, the more determined she is to change the events. Nevertheless, altering her actions seems to have no effect on the loop she is inhabiting.

While much is at stake in BEFORE I FALL, this teen drama variation on GROUNDHOG DAY lacks the richness of the obvious influence for the young adult novel on which the film is based. Related to that, part of the problem exists in not having a clear sense of Samantha’s character before metaphysical complications enter her life. She runs with the popular crowd at school yet doesn’t seem as deserving of such a drastic lesson, unlike Bill Murray’s arrogant weatherman. The arc she travels from insensitivity to enlightenment covers just a small amount of ground. Occupying this purgatory is an unduly harsh penalty for what amounts to a mystical experience in encouraging greater empathy.

The relative mildness of Samantha’s shortcomings can make a significant portion of BEFORE I FALL dramatically unsatisfying. Is such an unhappy circumstance foisted upon her really merited for a teenager who can be a little sharp with her younger sister and mother and less than charitable toward some classmates? Although this aspect can work against the film, it leads to a philosophically nuanced observation by the end. It’s bold for BEFORE I FALL to posit that the small deficiencies in kindness can have ruinous results. Samantha may just make a tiny impression on the world, but the butterfly effect’s amplification of such words and actions means that she’s helping to spread negativity, even if it is invisible. The film isn’t couched in religious terms, yet it reveals itself to be an exercise in following the Golden Rule.

Deutch is an open performer who projects fundamental decency to the point that it can be hard to believe that she’s as bratty and self-involved as the film needs her to be. It’s less a fault of the actress than it is of the screenwriter and director. Samantha’s sensitive and searching qualities are never in doubt when Deutch is called upon to confront the challenge before her. BEFORE I FALL succeeds based on watching how her character responds to the test.

Grade: B-

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Get Out

GET OUT (Jordan Peele, 2017)

In GET OUT Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is right to be a little worried about meeting the parents of his his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). She’s not told them that he’s black, although Rose shrugs off his concern about his race mattering to her family. Things can be a little uncomfortable when they arrive at the private estate, but the tension is more because of Rose’s mom Missy (Catherine Keener) and dad Dean (Bradley Whitford) awkwardly conveying their ease rather than signaling objections to the interracial relationship. They even try to smooth over any wrong ideas Chris may get from spotting two black servants working in their home.

While there doesn’t appear to be any reason for alarm, the weekend gets weirder for Chris after Missy hypnotizes him to help him stop smoking. Chris and Rose have unknowingly come to the Armitage house when Missy and Dean throw an annual party, so he also feels out of place among a bunch of monied older white people. He’s relieved when he sees another young black man, Andrew Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield), in attendance, but his atypical behavior heightens the sense that something isn’t right.

With comedian Jordan Peele as writer and director, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that GET OUT might be a humorous update of GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER. It’s been fifty years since the then-controversial movie about a white woman accompanied by her black fiancĂ© paying a surprise visit to her liberal, upper-class parents. After all, a lot has changed in American society in the intervening time. While there are satirical and comedic elements to GET OUT, most notably with Lil Rel Howery as Chris’s suspicious friend, Peele guides the situation to play as horror. The monster of racism hasn’t disappeared; it’s just hidden itself better.

Peele has fun playing with appearances. Kaluuya goes to great pains to be agreeable as Chris. He doesn’t want to create a stir when a police officer presses him for his ID after they hit a deer even though he wasn’t driving. Rose pushes back strongly, calling out the demand for what it is, but her insistent response is also a function of the privilege she has because of her race. Chris would have every right to protest too, but the situation might not play out the same. Rose’s parents and the party guests overdo it in trying to show their enlightened viewpoints or interest so that their politeness is laced with offense. Chris’s amiable and unassuming behavior, which has helped him in code-switching until this situation, proves to be what makes him most vulnerable.

Peele’s directing debut displays a strong visual sensibility and a great amount of forethought. The way one character runs initially reads as a broad joke, yet it carries a larger meaning. There are numerous other examples that demonstrate the care with which seemingly insignificant details are pregnant with implications. GET OUT isn’t a scary movie in that it doesn’t induce armrest-gripping. Rather, the terror in it comes from perceiving the way Chris experiences the world differently from the white characters.

Grade: B