Category Archives: ★

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).


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Slaughterhouse-Five (1972, George Roy Hill)

When Slaughterhouse-Five is just about World War II, director Hill can handle it. He doesn’t understand the humor, but he can handle it. The script doesn’t understand its own humor, as screenwriter Stephen Geller tries to force his own sense of humor on the source material, but Hill just makes it worse. Especially when he’s got an actor like Ron Leibman going wild with his role.

Leibman gets the joke. Hill doesn’t. Hill has an incredibly big problem with Slaughterhouse-Five, he can’t figure out how to be serious about it. He can be showy about it, but he can’t be serious about it. Not serious enough because he can’t embrace the fantastical nature of the source material. Hill can’t buy in; the script doesn’t help on this one either, but Hill can’t buy in. Like the book says, so it goes.

As a result, the World War II sequences–set to beautiful Glenn Gould music, featuring this desolate Miroslav Ondrícek photography, with Dede Allen’s sublime cuts–oh, and star Michael Sacks walking around like a complete doofus. Apparently, someone important was real set on Sacks as the lead in the film, because there’s no other explanation why they didn’t get someone better. Sacks doesn’t have a part in the script. He’s an enigma. Hill avoids giving him speaking shots in close-up, so he’s mostly just observing. Again, enigma. But since Hill can’t seem to shoot the script, he’s fuddling with the actors too. Sacks gets nothing from Hill. Not a thing. It’s incredible. As soon as the opening titles are done, Hill’s giving the movie away to the supporting cast.

For a while that approach almost works. Handing the movie off to a better actor than Sacks, who spends half the film in World War II and half the film in old age make-up and in the present day. Only some of the present day stuff is flashback too, with its own younger old age make-up.

It’s bad make-up. Ondrícek doesn’t shoot it, or the special effects, well. So it looks like a joke, which certainly doesn’t seem to be what anyone’s going for, but no one’s in much agreement. And Sacks should be pulled in all directions by this indecision; only he’s so bland, he’s unaffected. It’s kind of incredible, the lead actor’s performance unaffected by disaster.

Only in such a good production–save the special effects, Slaughterhouse-Five is a fine production. It’s just not a good movie. Not as a strict adaptation or a loose one. Hill and company end going for something safe, some ironic camp. When the film gets to its abrupt finish, where–theoretically–one might want Sacks to have gone through some kind of change, if not internally than at least in relation to the others or the audience, but no… Hill never lets the film head in that direction. Questions are down that path. Slaughterhouse-Five doesn’t want to raise any of those.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a contemporary adaptation of controversial breakout bestseller, it’s inherently mercenary. Hill doesn’t want to try to mimic the book’s controversies, so he tries to distract from his avoidance of them. Don’t look at the stunning lack of ambition, let’s all laugh at Sharon Gans being reduced to a joke about her weight. Time and again, even though she starts the film stronger than Sacks; the film cuts to their wedding night and Gans immediately overpowers Sacks. And Hill doesn’t seem to care and Sacks doesn’t notice because his performance would have to change, which it doesn’t.

Ever.

So, Gans never gets her due. When Valerie Perrine comes in, Hill and Geller set her up to be some great presence, but she’s not either. Because she’s not set in the World War II stuff. Everything present in Slaughterhouse-Five flops, with the exception of some of Gans’s performance… and nothing else. Nothing else works in the present.

Eugene Roche is great as Sacks’s mentor in World War II. Leibman’s great. The script’s not good but the actors still get through and the plot’s good. It’s just building towards the Dresden bombing. Hill can handle that kind of narrative progression.

It’s all the rest of it he can’t handle.

Sacks doesn’t add anything–he’s not maliciously being bad, he’s just moping. Malice would require something no one is willing to give Sacks–personality.

Some gorgeous filmmaking though. In the World War II parts, usually when not involving lots of dialogue because the dialogue gives Hill problems. Again, not the actors, just Hill. So not the talky parts. Unless it’s Roche.

Slaughterhouse-Five is too professionally competent to be unbearable. It’s just abjectly without ambition.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by George Roy Hill; screenplay by Stephen Geller, based on the novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; director of photography, Miroslav Ondrícek; edited by Dede Allen; music by Glenn Gould; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Paul Monash; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael Sacks (Billy Pilgrim), Ron Leibman (Paul Lazzaro), Eugene Roche (Edgar Derby), Sharon Gans (Valencia Merble Pilgrim), Valerie Perrine (Montana Wildhack), Holly Near (Barbara Pilgrim), Perry King (Robert Pilgrim), and Kevin Conway (Roland Weary).


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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).


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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).


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