Brie Larson

Kong: Skull Island

11/03/17

I’ve long had a soft spot for King Kong. I saw the original movie – on TV – when I was very young and instantly fell for Willis O Brian’s famous stop-motion creation; and I’m one of those people who adored Peter Jackson’s affectionate and brilliantly crafted reboot of the story. So the news that Kong: Skull Island was on the cinematic horizon, as a taster to his grudge match with Godzilla, some time next year,  was greeted with a certain amount of cautious anticipation.

This standalone creature feature is a bit of an oddity, a curious mash-up of classic Kong and, of all things, Apocalypse Now. Set in 1973, just after America’s hasty departure from the Vietnam War, we learn of a proposed expedition to an uncharted island in the South Pacific, led by Bill Randa (John Goodman). Randa claims he’s looking for rare minerals but it’s clear from the outset that he has a hidden agenda. He enlists the help of Vietnam veteran Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and his helicopter platoon to ferry the necessary equipment through the perpetual electrical storm that cloaks the island and, he also ropes in survival expert, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston as the poshest mercenary in history) plus photo journalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to record everything that happens on the trip. The helicopters go in, not to the strains of Wagner, but to the 70s rock soundtrack of Creedence Clearwater Revival and they drop a series of explosive charges on the island in order to scare up anything that might be hiding in the undergrowth. Whereupon, the titular 100 ft tall ape appears out of the smoke and gives the platoon a right royal kicking.

Kong, as imagined by Industrial Light & magic, is a truly magnificent specimen; and as the survivors of the initial assault soon discover, he’s only one of the gigantic creatures that inhabit Skull Island. Worst of all are the Skull Crawlers, hideous two legged lizards that occasionally emerge from underground intent on eating anything they can find. (They ate Kong’s parents so naturally, he bears the a lot of ill will).

OK, so this isn’t exactly a perfect film. The large human cast are inevitably dwarfed by the gigantic creatures pursuing them and any attempts at characterisation can only be sketched in with the broadest of brush strokes. (It’s interesting to note that Jackson’s film spent the best part of an hour with the human characters before they even reached Skull Island, but then he had three hours to play with). And really there are a lot of humans to consider here , though best of the bunch is undoubtedly John C Riley as Hank Marlow, a World War 2 pilot who has been marooned on the island for twenty eight years and who has gone slightly loopy waiting for rescue. (Marlow bears more than a passing resemblance to Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now, and this cannot be a coincidence – nor the fact that Hiddleston’s character is called Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness on which Apocalypse Now is based).

At any rate, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does a decent job of stitching it all together. There’s enough references to the original to keep fan boys like me happy and enough major characters being offed to keep me on the edge of my seat. I also loved the audacious twist on the ‘soldier sacrificing himself in a blaze of glory’ trope towards the film’s conclusion, which seemed to spell out how futile such gestures are.

This won’t please everyone, but I have to say I was entertained enough and occasionally thrilled by a concept which dared to throw so many new ideas at a classic storyline, that some of them had to stick. Skull Island is a fun place to visit and Kong is still my favourite movie monster.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Free Fire

28/02/17

In a relatively short career, director Ben Wheatley has created some exciting and groundbreaking films. His most consistent piece, Sightseers, is a delightful comedy with a dark and twisted heart – and his last outing, an adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise, though not perfect, was one of the most challenging pieces of dystopian cinema in a long time.

So it gives me absolutely no pleasure at all to report that Free Fire is an unmitigated dud. I came out of this advance screening asking myself just exactly what Wheatley thought he was trying to do here. This is the kind of film that forged Tarantino’s early reputation – indeed, if Free Fire resembles any other movie, it’s Reservoir Dogs. Now, I’ve been quite cutting about Tarantino over the years, suggesting that the man’s slender talent has been repeatedly overpraised but, seriously, Free Fire makes him look like a genius film-maker. It really is that bad.

It’s Boston in 1978. Actually, it’s a warehouse in Brighton, but it hardly matters since the action never bothers to step outside of that single location. IRA men Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are attempting to buy rifles for their cause; the deal has been arranged by South African popinjay, Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his American friend Ord (Armie Hammer). Brie Larson plays Justine, a thankless token female role and, just in case that’s not enough, there’s also a token black man, Martin (Babou Ceesay, dressed like an extra from Shaft). In the opening stages of the film, there are admittedly a few witty lines thrown around. Enjoy them while you can, because this early promise is soon squandered.

Midway through the deal, an argument ensues between twitchy junkie, Stevo (Sam Riley) and one of Vernon’s goons, Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). It rapidly escalates and, inevitably, a gunfight ensues. You’d better like gunfights, by the way, because this one lasts for the rest of the movie, around eighty minutes of characters you don’t really know or care about hurling a mixture of bullets and F words at each other without pause or reason.

Perhaps Wheatley is trying to show the absurdity of violence. Perhaps he’s simply pushing the envelope of the genre, stripping it back to its basics. Whatever he is trying to do, it fails miserably. This is simply deadly boring. It also tests credulity to the limit as characters are shot again and again, but don’t have the decency to fall down and die. Quite how Wheatley convinced a troop of A list actors to appear in this nonsense remains the biggest mystery of all. (Christ, what did the screenplay look like?) Inevitably, there will be those who hail Free Fire as a work of genius, but that would be a re-run of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Unless the idea of an endless gunfight appeals to you – and I’ll admit that, in the right hands, it could conceivably have worked – this is one to file under D for disaster.

The screening is followed by a Q & A with Wheatley and actor Sam Riley – and it  speaks volumes when I admit that I bail out and head to a local bar for what feels like a well-earned drink. The only question I could have mustered would have been, ‘Why?’

A major disappointment.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Film Bouquets 2016

 

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It was an interesting year for film. Here, in order of release, rather than stature – and with the benefit of hindsight – are our favourite movies of 2016.

Room

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This superb adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel got 2016 off to a cracking start. There were powerful performances from Brie Larson and young Jacob Tremblay as the central characters in a tragic yet oddly inspirational story.

The Revenant

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Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu delivered another dazzling movie, this one as savage and untamed as the grizzly bear that mauled Leonardo Di Caprio half to death – but made up for it by helping him win his first Oscar.

Anomalisa

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Writer/director Charlie Kaufman gave us a quirky (and deeply disturbing) animation that was a Kafkaesque meditation on identity and the bleak nature of the human condition.

Dheepan

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Jacques Audiard’s fascinating study of the lives of refugees never fell into cliche. There was violence here, but it felt horribly real and totally devastating. There were affecting performances from a cast of newcomers.

Victoria

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Sebastian Schipper’s film really shouldn’t have worked. Delivered in one continuous take, the fact that it hooked us in so brilliantly was just the icing on the cake – a real ensemble piece but plaudits must go to Laia Costa as the eponymous heroine.

Sing Street

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John Carney may have only one plot but when it was delivered as beautifully as it was in Sing Street, we were happy to indulge him. This was a beautiful, heartwarming film with appeal to anybody who has ever dreamed about pop stardom.

The Neon Demon

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The fashion industry as seen by Nicolas Winding Refn is a hell hole and here, Elle Fanning as Jesse, was the latest recruit. A weird mash-up of sex, violence and extreme voyeurism, this was the director’s most assured effort yet.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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New Zealand director Taika Waititi offered up this delightfully quirky story about a troubled teenager (Julian Dennison) and his friendship with crusty curmudgeon, Hec (Sam Neill). This film reeled us in and kept us hooked to the end credits.

The Girl with all the Gifts

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Just when we thought the zombie movie had stumbled as far as it could go, Colm McCarthy’s film gave the genre a hefty kick up the backside – and there was a star-making performance from young Senna Nanua in the lead role.

Under the Shadow

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Babek Abvari’s film had all the tropes of the contemporary horror movie and a powerful political message as well. Set in post war Tehran, young mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) struggled to keep her daughter safe from the forces of darkness.

I, Daniel Blake

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Ken Loach’s return to the screen resulted in one of the most powerful and affecting films of the year – a searing look at ‘benefits Britain’ that would have the most stony-hearted viewer in floods of tears. Should be required viewing for Tory politicians.

Train to Busan

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Another day, another zombie movie – but what a zombie movie! Korean director Sang ho Yeon gave us a galloping ‘zombies on a train’ thriller that nearly left us breathless. There were some incredible set pieces here and a nerve-shredding conclusion.

Paterson

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Jim Jarmusch presented a charming and quirky tale about a would-be poet living in a town that had the same name as him. Not very much happened, but it didn’t happen in an entirely watchable way. A delightful celebration of the creative spirit.

Life, Animated

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This compelling documentary squeaked in right at the end of the year – the true life tale of Owen Suskind, an autistic boy, initially unable to speak a word, but rescued by his love of Disney movies. It was funny, uplifting and educational – and our final pick of 2016.

Room

11/01/16

Emma Donoghue’s Room is one of my favourite books of recent times: a terrifying tale of kidnap and abuse, rendered somehow hopeful and life-affirming by its young narrator, Jack. The boy has no idea that the tiny, locked room he lives in is a prison; he thinks it is the world. And the world, as he knows it, is small but full of love. After all, Ma is with him all the time, and she is always good to him.

But it’s a worry – isn’t it ? – when a favourite novel is adapted for the screen. There’s no way a director can ever realise every reader’s vision and, when you’ve constructed clear and absolute impressions of the characters and their environs,  disappointment seems almost inevitable.

Almost. But not quite. Because Emma Donoghue is a bona fide artiste, and she did not merely sell the rights to Room to the highest bidder. Instead, she waited for an offer that allowed her to write the screenplay herself and, oh, am I glad she did. Because Room the movie is just as heartbreaking and affecting as its source material and, although there are of course changes made to suit the form, it seems that very little is compromised. ‘Room’ is just as weirdly claustrophobic, joyous, repellant and homely on film as it is on the page.

Jacob Tremblay, as Jack, is a revelation. He’s expressive and appealing and extremely natural; hats off to director Lenny Abrahamson for eliciting this performance from such a  young actor. And Brie Larson is marvellous too, delivering a subtle but curiously intense and credible portrayal of Joy, a young woman who has, against such overwhelming odds, managed to create a happy childhood for her beloved little boy.

OK, so maybe there are a couple of scenes that could have teased out some more tension (when Old Nick drops Jack, for example), and it would have been nice to have seen William H. Macy’s part developed into something more, but these are minor quibbles in the face of an affecting and engaging film.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield