Category Archives: Action/Adventure

Kong: Skull Island (2017, Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

Kong: Skull Island has a deceptively thoughtful first act. Director Vogt-Roberts and his three screenwriters carefully and deliberately introduce the cast and the seventies time period (the film’s set immediately following the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam). The script’s smart in the first act, giving John Goodman and sidekick Corey Hawkins a quest. They need to assemble a team to investigate a newly discovered island in the South Pacific. They hire expert tracker and charming mercenary Tom Hiddleston, they have an Army escort courtesy Samuel L. Jackson; there’s even photographer Brie Larson, though she just sort of comes aboard without anyone taking much notice.

Well, Hiddleston notices her, but only because they’re paired off. Hawkins eventually gets paired off Jing Tian, though they have a heck of a lot more chemistry than Hiddleston and Larson. They just bond over being too cerebral for such poorly written characters while also managing to be sexy through sweatiness.

They all get to the island. There’s a giant ape. There are giant water buffalo. There are giant octopi. There are giant lizards with skulls for heads. There’s stranded WWII pilot John C. Reilly for what occasionally seems like comic relief, only he’s never funny. His performance is fine. He’s just not funny. Goodman is sometimes funny, especially with Hawkins as straight man. And Shea Whigham, as Jackson’s second-in-command, he’s really funny. Unfortunately, even though the screenplay has occasional black humor and a lot more opportunity for it, Vogt-Roberts never goes for it. Or it goes over his head.

While Skull Island often looks pretty good, it’s more because Larry Fong knows how to shoot it or Richard Pearson knows how to edit it than anything Vogt-Roberts brings to the film. When it comes time for Jackson to go on an Ahab–he’s mad pinko photographers like Larson made the U.S. lose the war and so he has to kill the giant ape–Jackson’s already thin performance becomes cloyingly one note. Vogt-Roberts does nothing to prevent it. To be fair, he doesn’t really do anything to enable it either; directing actors isn’t one of his interests in the film.

Only once they’re on the island and Jackson’s Ahab syndrome becomes the biggest danger, there’s no real opportunity for good period music. Instead it’s Henry Jackman’s lousy score and the questionably designed skull lizards. While there’s a lot of thought in the creature design, the skull lizards are just unrestrained, thoughtless excess.

There are plenty of solid supporting performances, but they’re all constrained. Hiddleston’s lack of depth is stunning, until you realize Larson’s got even less but she’s able to get a lot farther. Everyone is supposed to look concerned or sacred–except Jackson, of course–only Larson manages to look concerned and thoughtful. It’s a lot for Skull Island. Whigham’s the only other actor who achieves it.

Ninety percent of the special effects are excellent. The remaining ten percent are still mostly good except when it’s a night scene. Vogt-Roberts (and, frankly, Fong) construct lousy night scenes. Skull Island is a movie with a giant CGI ape and the filmmakers can’t figure out how to do studio-for-night composite shots. It’s kind of annoying.

Everyone’s likable enough, save Jackson and a couple hissable stooges, and once Kong gets to a certain point in the second act, enough gears are in motion to get it to the finish. It’s far from the film the first act implies. Even if Vogt-Roberts were a better director, the script is still dreadfully shallow.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts; screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly, based on a story by John Gatins; director of photography, Larry Fong; edited by Richard Pearson; music by Henry Jackman; production designer, Stefan Dechant; produced by Alex Garcia, Jon Jashni, Thomas Tull, and Mary Parent; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Tom Hiddleston (Conrad), Samuel L. Jackson (Packard), Brie Larson (Weaver), John C. Reilly (Marlow), John Goodman (Randa), Corey Hawkins (Brooks), Thomas Mann (Slivko), Jason Mitchell (Mills), Jing Tian (San), John Ortiz (Nieves), Toby Kebbell (Chapman), and Shea Whigham (Cole).


RELATED

The Phantom (1996, Simon Wincer)

The Phantom has three distinct visual spaces, more or less corresponding to the three acts. First act is in the remote jungle, second act is modern age–New York City–third act is evil villain pirate stronghold. Underground evil villain pirate stronghold. The last half hour of the movie is the cast running around a “slightly better than dinner theatre” pirate set, not a great way to go out.

Because The Phantom does have some excellent actions sequences, usually involving horses, sometimes involving wolves and horses communicating. The Phantom works best when it’s just going with the absurdity. Director Wincer has no sense of humor, which explains James Remar’s performance, but also very little sense with his actors, which explains Kristy Swanson’s. Wincer just wants to do the action, everything else is treading water.

So there are a couple fine action sequences, nicely cut by editors O. Nicholas Brown and Bryan H. Carroll, who don’t really impress at all otherwise. They improve–the first act has some jagged cuts–but they don’t impress other than the two horse sequences.

After the second horse sequence, when it seems like there might not be anything to match in absurdity, Treat Williams finally just becomes utterly consumable by the material and transfixes. Even when the film can’t keep up–either in terms of Wincer or just the special effects budget–Williams just barrels on. He gets The Phantom to the third act; the film then ingloriously dumps him until the last fight.

The terrible last fight on an underground pirate ship. It looks like a theme restaurant. Paul Peters’s production design is always a little questionable in the jungle sequence, but it’s supposed to be too much. The pirate ship isn’t too much, it’s way too little. The New York stuff is all interesting and sometimes successful. The budget gets in the way, but Peters and Wincer try to work it.

The music doesn’t help. Let’s just get the music out of the way. David Newman’s score is shockingly tepid. There’s no more lukewarm music for a dressed-in-purple bodysuit thirties adventurer picture than Newman’s score. It’s not even exciting enough for a movie trailer.

The film does have a good “star” in Billy Zane. Wincer doesn’t really want to use him–The Phantom is the star of the movie. It’s a bad move, hiding what an asset Zane’s likability is going to be, particularly since the only initial time Zane gets out of mask is bickering with ghost dad Patrick McGoohan. But after it becomes clear Swanson is a wash–and before Williams steps up–Zane’s strange, sweet, goof makes it all work. It does start when he’s in costume, however; he flirts with Swanson after rescuing her. Swanson doesn’t give much back, but Zane’s showing off, trying to hold The Phantom together. He’s the hero of the movie not just because of the purple tights.

Catherine Zeta-Jones is great as one of Williams’s cronies. It ends up being a better part than Swanson’s would-be adventurer, partially because Swanson doesn’t have the skills or enthusiasm, but also because Swanson’s part sucks. She starts out playing second-fiddle to crusading newspaper uncle Bill Smitrovich and annoying admirer Jon Tenney. And Smitrovich is badly presented–the script, the direction–but Tenney’s almost all right. He’s cloying but he’s trying hard. Swanson doesn’t take advantage of any of it and Wincer’s not paying attention. He’s not doing thirties screwball, he’s doing thirties serial.

McGoohan’s annoying, but it might not be his fault. Regardless, he’s entirely miscast. John Capodice is good though. Casey Siemaszko’s not. David Proval’s almost good half the time; script gets him good in the end.

The Phantom is a competently executed, poorly conceived mess of a motion picture. Though Williams, Zeta-Jones, and Zane certainly deserve some kudos.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Simon Wincer; screenplay by Jeffrey Boam, based on the comic strip by Lee Falk; director of photography, David Burr; edited by O. Nicholas Brown and Bryan H. Carroll; music by David Newman; production designer, Paul Peters; produced by Robert Evans and Alan Ladd Jr.; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Billy Zane (The Phantom), Kristy Swanson (Diana Palmer), Treat Williams (Xander Drax), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Sala), James Remar (Quill), Jon Tenney (Jimmy Wells), Robert Coleby (Capt. Philip Horton), David Proval (Charlie), Bill Smitrovich (Uncle Dave Palmer), Patrick McGoohan (Phantom’s Dad), and John Capodice (Al the Cabby).


RELATED

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012, Marc Webb)

The Amazing Spider-Man is melodramatic trifle, but not in any sort of bad way. I mean, it doesn’t succeed but it does try a lot. Director Webb really goes for a high school romance, with such saccharine effectiveness it probably ought to be an ominous foreshadowing for leads Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone’s burgeoning romance. Except, although Webb’s going for the melodrama and there’s a sappy, though heroic, and familiar in many parts James Horner score, John Schwartzman’s photography is super flat. It’s unclear if Webb’s messing it up or Schwartzman or some combination; I lean more towards Webb, if only because Schwartzman knows how to light J. Michael Riva’s early seventies style sets and Webb doesn’t know how to shoot them.

If The Amazing Spider-Man were a period piece set in the late sixties, with a lot more for Denis Leary to do in the first half of the film, it could’ve been something. Instead, it’s this weird mushing together of various ideas, from Spider-Man comics, from popular movies, from unpopular movies, probably something from a TV show. Webb and screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves throw just about everything in. The heart shows. The film’s enthusiastically sappy.

And it usually works, because the good performances weather occasional weak scenes and subplots and manage to sell the sap. Martin Sheen can sell the sap, so can Denis Leary. It’d help if Rhys Ifans’s could sell it too, but he’s pretty terrible as the de facto villain. The writing on the villain stuff is terrible throughout, but Ifans still isn’t any good in the part. Sheen, Leary, and Ifans make up Garfield’s surrogate father trinity in the film, which should be important but isn’t.

Instead of continuing anything the first act threatens with daddy issues, as soon as the delayed second act is underway, the film quickly veers into mostly unrelated territory. The familiar Spider-Man origin has frequent, small tweaks. Usually so director Webb can avoid the action, but not the Spider-Man in New York stuff. Webb likes that stuff.

But the fighting? Webb’s fumbles it. Even when the special effects are good–which is never with Ifans’s CGI alter ego–Webb doesn’t know what he’s doing. Someone–either Webb, the screenwriters, or just the plain old studio–sets up action scenes ripe for video game realization. The action in the third act is almost like the target demographic is Spider-Man gamers. With the gaudy Horner music and Schwartzman’s flat, “realistic” phtoography, the sequences even amuse. The Amazing Spider-Man goes all out when it’s got an idea, good or bad.

It goes for it for over two hours. It goes for it to the point the narrative has two or three major shifts where previous subplots just get dropped. At some point, the film decides it just wants to set up Garfield as a pretty cool Spider-Man. And then everything builds towards it, sometimes with stupid stuff like C. Thomas Howell inexplicably having an extended cameo, like Tobey Maguire or Nicholas Hammond wouldn’t have been far better.

Great Stan Lee cameo though, during the one time the effects all come together and Webb goes along with it and it all works out. It’s a big high school fight sequence between Garfield’s CGI stand-in and Ifans’s CGI stand-in. It’s just fun, but with some danger. Amazing Spider-Man’s balance of danger to fun is one of its strengths.

The greatest strength, however, is Garfield. He’s socially obtuse and pensive, sympathetic without being lovable, occasionally justified in his insensitivity. And instead of losing his place once he and Stone get involved, Garfield just gets better. The fun flirting just informs later serious concern and chastely suggestive sequences. Especially one where Stone and Leary have this awkward family moment and it’s almost good enough, but Webb fumbles it. Stone and Leary try hard enough they get it to pass… but it should be better.

Like Stone. Stone’s underutilized. More Stone would make it better. But the script’s too busy. There are too many characters crowding Garfield. Stone’s just another one of them; after setting her up for her own character development time and again, the film just keeps cutting her off. It’s got no idea what weight to give to what character. Garfield’s just haphazardly visiting people who should have good subplots, but then they never do.

Despite it having nothing to do with anything, it’s got a pretty good ending. As far as melodramatic trifle goes. With the exception of Ifans and a little Leary, Webb’s good with actors. He relies on Garfield and Stone heavily throughout the film and the epilogue’s got some acknowledgement (even if not enough for Stone.

The Amazing Spider-Man has some heart to it, which helps it immeasurably.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Marc Webb; screenplay by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves, based on a story by Vanderbilt and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, John Schwartzman; edited by Alan Edward Bell, Michael McCusker, and Pietro Scalia; music by James Horner; production designer, J. Michael Riva; produced by Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach, and Laura Ziskin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy), Sally Field (Aunt May), Rhys Ifans (Dr. Curt Connors), Denis Leary (Captain Stacy), Martin Sheen (Uncle Ben), Irrfan Khan (Rajit Ratha), Chris Zylka (Flash Thompson), and C. Thomas Howell (Jack’s Father).


RELATED

Deadpool (2016, Tim Miller)

Deadpool never gets to be too much. The film quickly goes into flashback–narrated by lead Ryan Reynolds–but not before going through an elaborate, effects and humor filled action sequence. Maybe even two. But I think one.

It takes Deadpool over an hour to get the viewer caught up on Reynolds’s origins as a superpowered, red spandex wearing former mercenary on a mission to fix himself. Literally. Villain Ed Skrein has turned Reynolds into the super-antihero and only he can turn him back. Reynolds’s transformation severely scars him, which is why he can’t go back to girlfriend Morena Baccarin, instead leaving her available to become a damsel in distress.

And screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick actually do make an effort to give Baccarin more depth, but it doesn’t work out. She’s amiable but without enough personality to make an impression. It also doesn’t help director Miller doesn’t care. He cares about making all the gimmicks palpable, then promptly ignores them for the rest of the film. Because Deadpool doesn’t build in any intensity. It’s always exactly the same. The special effects are always great, Reynolds is always sort of likable, but the movie doesn’t move. It plods along with bursts of effects at predictable intervals.

Of course, flashbacks don’t equal character development. In fact, they sort of kill it and spending more than half your runtime on setting up what amounts to a lifelessly directed superhero action finale. It’s a long 108 minutes, especially since no one ever pays off. There just isn’t any payoff in the script–Deadpool has American Pie-style humor in a graphically violent comic book movie. But it’s more. It’s Miller and it’s the cast.

Everyone’s a caricature, which might work if Reynolds wasn’t, but he’s a cartoon character who wants to be a caricature. The cast lacks any personality–Skein is shaved head British villain, Gina Carano is his super-strong sidekick who doesn’t talk, T.J. Miller is an exceptionally unfunny sidekick for Reynolds. None of them are likable. Skein and Carano’s villains are empty characterization. Director Miller apparently told actor Miller to be a lifeless tool.

There’s some life once Leslie Uggams shows up as Reynolds’s old blind lady roommate. Those scenes are at least played for fun. There’s no fun in the rest of it after a point. Some funny superhero movie jokes but nothing fun. Not even Stefan Kapičić’s obnoxiously by the book Russian X-Man (Kapičić just does the voice, the excellent CGI occupies frame), is ever any fun. Because Reese and Wernick beat the same notes on the same drum. Over and over again.

Deadpool is exactly the same at the end as it is in the beginning, as it is in the middle, just without Miller making any effort to do anything with the project. He shows off a bunch of toys, then puts them away to turn a generic finish.

Also, just like flashbacks don’t mean character development, violence doesn’t mean dangerous. Reynolds is in no life threatening danger throughout the present action. He’s more under threat of inconvenience, which the film uses to some success (and failure) with limb regeneration. But Miller (the director) doesn’t acknowledge the particulars in plotting out fight scenes. Skrein and Reynolds’s face off, for instance, is rote.

All Deadpool needs is a little momentum, a little sense of urgency. Miller doesn’t create any, Reynolds doesn’t either, and the script is a champion lollygagger. Instead, Deadpool just moves amiably along, walking a slow march on a broad path, trying not to even make eye contact with edgier possibilities.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Miller; screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld; director of photography, Ken Seng; edited by Julian Clarke; music by Junkie XL; production designer, Sean Haworth; produced by Simon Kinberg, Ryan Reynolds, and Lauren Shuler Donner; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool), Morena Baccarin (Vanessa), Ed Skrein (Ajax), T.J. Miller (Weasel), Gina Carano (Angel Dust), Leslie Uggams (Blind Al), Brianna Hildebrand (Negasonic Teenage Warhead), and Stefan Kapicic (Colossus).


RELATED