Apocalypse Kong

Have you ever heard someone try to excuse a bad movie by calling it a B-movie? Stuff like Snakes on a Plane, Drive Angry, and The Shallows are dollar-store blockbusters dropped into theaters hoping to scoot by on the cheesiness of their premise and/or the corniness of their execution. “Who cares if they’re poorly shot, motivated without interest, have bad acting, and terrible effects? It’s a B-movie!” What a terrible shaming of the wonders of B-movies. People like Roger Corman, Albert Pyun, David Prior, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus didn’t make B-movies as intentional trash, they put their heart and souls into movies with the tiniest of budgets because they loved movies and wanted to entertain audiences. Even something as legendary as Miami Connection was made with an ungodly love of film. Now, imagine if any of those guys were given $185 million and told to make King Kong relevant in 2017?

 

It would’ve been glorious! And to Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment’s credit, they came damn close with Kong: Skull Island. The eighth movie made about the eighth wonder of the world (how convenient!) centers around two government agents (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) in 1973 post-Vietnam War looking to explore the titular island, a mysterious land in the South Pacific that any ship or plane that’s flown near it has disappeared. The two round up  a helicopter squadron (Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann), a war photographer (Brie Larson), and a former British Special Air Service Captain (Tom Hiddleston) to map out the island. Things go smoothly until the warm sunset of the island is interrupted by a 100 foot ape that swats down helicopters like flies. Now stuck on the island with little ammo and little options, including a sketchy longtime island dweller (John C. Reilly), the team must brave the unknown of the island.

 

Despite its massive budget and fully-stocked cast, Kong: Skull Island is without a doubt a B-movie, but a damn good one. The notion to have a King Kong movie set in the backdrop of the end of the Vietnam War is ludicrous, but to repeatedly lift the imagery of Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Jurassic Park and mesh that with that backdrop is so ballsy it jumps from hilarious to borderline brilliant. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) is the latest indie director Hollywood plucked from obscurity to handle their franchises for cool creds on Film Twitter (see Colin Trevorrow with Jurassic World or Gareth Edwards with Godzilla and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story),  but Vogt-Roberts seems know exactly how to merge what studios want and what audiences love. He knows the main focus is pushing out this property and throwing action around him, so he and cinematographer Larry Fong (Batman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeSuper 8300) decide to put impressive effort into crafting the gorgeous Skull Island with sweeping wide shots of Vietnam and Hawaii and some rather impressive scenes involving bamboo forests and a skull-scattered crater. Not to mention the impressive creature designs of the monsters on the island, some of them blending into the environment for surprise appearances. When the big bad beasts do show up, its hard to get the smile off of one’s face. The merger of 70s post-Nam soldiers trying to shoot down Kong while Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” plays in the background is like a dream scenario you have when you’re stoned listening to old metal records, it’s fantastic. There’s a real sense of adventure from film geeks in Skull Island akin the original Jurassic Park, you’re enthralled by every new monster and set piece the movie throws out.

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Skull Island is a beautiful film, if only Vogt-Roberts made some more time to take in his movie. The pacing is the biggest problem of Skull Island, with almost every second of the movie rushed out to get to the next scene. There’s almost never any room for the scenes to breathe and the creatures of the film just pop up without any sense of danger or build-up. You have John C. Reilly giving a very ominous depiction of the “skull crawlers” expecting them to slither throughout the film until their big reveal at the climax. But then DURING the Reilly exposition, the monsters just show up in a cut scene without any hype or tension to them. Kong’s entrance is impressive as it’s shown in the trailer, but there’s that nagging wish that they could’ve built up his presence just a little bit more, like Peter Jackson did in his King Kong back in 2005. Perhaps it was a studio decision to keep the movie under two hours thinking audiences don’t have the attention span longer than that (unless they have capes and superpowers apparently), but the visuals and the monsters (not to mention the title character) really warrant something longer. Hell, I’d sit through an “extended edition” of Skull Island to stick around this world longer.

 

Perhaps that extended time could be used to flesh out some of these characters. You might’ve noticed I haven’t used any of the film characters’ names when detailing the plot, but that’s because it’s not needed. All of the characters are mostly one-note, not going any deeper than basic stereotypes. Hiddleston’s the charming British one, Larson is the pretty girl in a flattering tank top, Goodman’s the mad scientist, Hawkins is the nerd, Jackson is the stiff military man, Reilly is….well he’s crazy John C. Reilly. But the funny thing is, all of it actually helps the movie. It works because of the actors playing them bring enough charisma and are invested in the world around them that they become likeable. Tom Hiddleston’s cold charm makes him a surprisingly strong leading action man, Brie Larson could spin gold out of lint and does so here, Tony Kebbell and Jason Mitchell are fun to watch as supporting players. Though it’s a real shame to see Samuel L. Jackson back in his “shut up and give me my paycheck” mode of acting despite being given the “avenge my fallen comrades” story arc that propels most of the movie.

All of the faults of Skull Island seemingly fall the wayside if you understand exactly what the movie is: pure schlock with a pure blockbuster budget. But whereas Hollywood has done this before, Skull Island has an enthusiasm and spirit to it that makes the entertaining factors of the movie come front and center. The benefits of being a B-movie is that it can get away with crazy ideas that can be fully developed, almost makes one wish Hollywood would let their blockbusters be a little crazier and less mandated.

3/4 stars

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Blaze of Glory

Pop quiz: how do you end a superhero? I’m not talking about killing a superhero, I mean taking a character the world knows and loves and simply saying “alright, show’s over”? How do you send off a figure with so much baggage and so many travels behind him? Regardless of what you come up with, it’s never going to be clean. Whether it’s having him disappear into the sunrise or having him quietly admit his faults with a slow dance, there’s no easy way to drop the curtains on a comic book hero at the movies. And if anyone is the antithesis of easy in the superhero movie universe, it’s most definitely Wolverine. Marvel’s brooding blitzkrieg of rage and self-loathing has been as fused with pop culture in the last two decades as the adamantium that coats his skeleton, so you can imagine that he’s not going away quietly. But just because we’re sad to see Wolverine go, that doesn’t mean he’s leaving unscathed.

Logan’s title star (Hugh Jackman) is now in the year 2029 as a grey-haired lumbering shell of his former self stuck near the border of Mexico driving around drunk prom teens and bridal showers. His claws ache, his healing is practically gone, and he’s only getting by with copious amounts of liquor. He’s also caring for Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who deteriorating mental state causes his telepathy to go haywire unless he’s heavily medicated and monitored by an albino mutant tracker (Stephen Merchant). But then Logan has an unwelcomed passenger; a young girl named Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen) who doesn’t talk much but lets her claws speak for her. It turns out she has a lot in common with Logan, and he has to protect her from a secret organization looking to mass-produce mutant soldiers.

Props go to co-writer/director James Mangold (Walk the Line) for managing to successfully shift Logan from the samurai shuffle of Japan in 2013’s The Wolverine to the dirty, grim, sunsoaked American south of Logan. It would be easy to call Logan more of a Western than a traditional superhero movie, but that depends on your definition of a Western. Logan’s definition of a Western is much closer to the blood-dripping excess of Django Unchained than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. From the opening scene onward, every action scene hits like a sledgehammer to the chest with limbs severed, blood splattering walls, and Logan’s claws visibly piercing the heads of multiple bad guys. It’s glorious overkill, even if it loses some of its fun by the film’s climax and when Mangold has trouble having the camera keep up with the rapid choreography. Not to mention the god awful scenes when Professor X has seizures that causes everyone to become paralyzed and the cameraman to have a stroke. But even amongst the shakey cam are some truly gorgeous shots by cinematographer John Mathieson (Gladiator, X-Men: First Class) and Mangold does capture the emotionally hefty moments throughout. Once the movie slows down and gets to catch its breath, Mangold finally lets the audience see the wheezing, limping man that Logan is and how dire the situation is. That’s when the audience is reminded why this movie is a big deal.

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Unfortunately, the audience has to wait an hour to feel that purpose. Before then, they sit through a surprisingly rushed first half hour where the film’s setting is lazily set-up and characters are awkwardly introduced. The film also enjoys its R-rating with curse words abound and not just from Logan (a cussing Patrick Stewart is a wonderful Patrick Stewart, FYI), but doesn’t leave for any clever dialogue and instead some rushed exposition. The first hour of Logan has its moments and builds the interesting elements of a story, but it’s so rushed and forced that you just want the movie to take its time. It’s almost aimless, but the rest of the 137-minute movie finally starts to tell why Logan is in this predicament. This isn’t just another adventure Logan is reluctant to take on, this is Logan on the verge of death trying to find the tiniest reason to get up in the morning, let alone flex his claws. It’s such an emotional ramp up that you almost think the first half was for a completely different movie. In fact, it’s the comic book elements from the X-23 and Old Man Logan storyline that distract from the emotional core of the movie. You just wish that Logan would stay as far away from the comic books as possible and feel more like its own special salute to this character that Jackman put so much of his time and effort into.

 

Speaking of Jackman, some actors do superhero movies for a multitude of reasons (money, career revitalization, desperate ploys to relevancy). But Jackman has always cared about Wolverine, taking so much time out of his life to make Wolverine a true character more than a toy. And in Logan he takes a bow the way a true actor does, by leaving it all on the screen. Jackman aches and breaks in the role, showing more raw emotion in Wolverine than ever before. Equal parts pain and macho power, Jackman truly understands the development of Wolverine throughout these movies (timelines be damned) as someone who has no more guard left to put up. He truly sends his version of Logan off with proud salute to the character and the fans who’ve stuck by him.

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He also leaves some room for his supporting players. Patrick Stewart is great as always, with a fouler mouth and somehow a kinder soul to Logan. Stewart also says that he’s done with the Xavier character, so it’s nice that he gets to bring a little more aged agitation to the role before he exits stage left. And then there’s Dafne Keen, mostly mute throughout the movie but uses her cold but curious stares (and some expressive eyebrows, by the way) to speak volumes. She’s a good mirror for Logan’s character and gives him the reason for his explosive catharsis, along with being very capable of handling animalistic rage (when her claws come out, she becomes the star). It’s a shame that Stephen Merchant gets wasted here, as someone who could’ve brought some great dark comedy to the movie.

Despite the presence of a cocky Boyd Holbrook (Gone Girl, Narcos) with a gold tooth and robot hand and a slithering Richard E. Grant (Dracula, Corpse Bride) as a sinister experimental doctor, there doesn’t seem to be an intimidating antagonist in the movie. Both characters are more plot motivators to get to Logan’s last stand. There’s no threat in Logan and very little sense of heightened tension. The movie’s action goes 150 mph from the get-go that you wish it was spaced out a little bit more to add more heft and awe to the impressive but, by the end of the movie, routine climax. As much as I enjoy someone’s head getting blown off, it really hits home if its sudden or cleverly built-up. To bring up Django Unchained again, that movie’s shootouts work so well because Tarantino spaces them out so far between each other to build anticipation for it. It’s great that Logan goes all out with its action and when you first see it, it’s absolutely sublime, but there’s a reason you save your special attack on Super Smash Bros. for the last life.

Maybe this is my fault, maybe I succumbed to internet hype machine and expected Logan to be a perfect movie. Or maybe I misread the reviews and the fan hype: Logan is a perfect WOLVERINE movie, but that does not mean it’s a perfect movie, period. Logan is an absolute trainwreck, a speeding, flaming, bloody bullet that’s crash landing is as worthwhile as all the bodies it went through to get there. It goes too fast sometimes, its punches get numbing after a while, and its manic energy is sometimes too much to properly capture. But it’s impossible not to salute Logan for diving head-first into absolute carnage and going all-out with the violence and the gloom. No matter the scars or damage there is to the final product, you take Logan as it is: one last hurrah from one of the most iconic movie characters of the last two decades and the man so utterly committed to that character. Mr. Jackman, we salute you and you blood-soaked knuckles.

3/4 stars