Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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All monster films fall into two kinds of categories – one that takes its time to reveal the monster and one that shows you the monster straight away. The star of this show is front and center for the entire 118 minute running time. We’re all accustomed to the mighty King Kong from Merian Coopers’ 1933 original all the way to 2005’s Jack Black reboot, there are just way too many spiels to list. But you’ll be happy to know this remake is engaging, mesmerising and Tom Hiddleston (I’m sold).

Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ reset of the Kong legend returns to 1973, as the last American troops are pulling out of Vietnam. Colonel Packard, played by Samuel L. Jackson (I’m sold sold), is reluctant to leave the battlefield, suspended in an existential crisis as the war draws to a close. Packard’s right-hand man Chapman, Toby Kebbell, looks forward to returning home to his son, as do all of the other helicopter squadron members do. But on the other side of the world, Government representative John Goodman relentlessly pursues a hollow-earth theory expedition on Skull Island. A land mass perpetually overcast by violent storms, there is no limit to what could be discovered. He hires James Conrad, Tom Hiddleston, to be the skilled tracker on the mission to chronicle any findings, and piggybacks on the helicopter squadron to discover monsters, bombs and a grizzly John C. Reilly (Step Brothers).

Vogt-Roberts and the film’s screenwriting trio play out the occasionally troubling conflicts of Vietnam on the backdrop of a panicked survival group attempting to escape a forbidden island. The period setting throughout Skull Island is based on an appealing soundtrack by the stooges and Jefferson Airplane, but the updated man-vs-beast conflict of previous King Kong tales roots in the blood-soaked anxiety of war. The cycle of war is astonishing, and superbly written – unlike anything you’ve seen in any other King Kong film. The island is richly bathed in colour of both natural and post-production, but this unique style sets it apart from any modern re-imagining. Designs are impressive, creations are emotive and breathtaking … it’s showy … but it works.

Skull Island takes on the role of mixing in memorable actors in even the smallest parts of the film. Few of the characters are built upon more than an introduction or a rapid-survival failure. John C. Reilly is particularly spot-on, with a mix of mania and sorrow, in the middle of an extravagant tale of monsters. Goodman is a selfish deadpan, Jackson derails with his eyes fuming with rage and Larson delivers a kind of kindness and compassion that causes Hiddleston to run around in gas masks for her. The cast is sensational really, and in my opinion a great combination for an epic spiel like this one.

Perhaps the most satisfying part of Kong comes after you’re done reeling from the fun of the film. This definitely won’t be the last we see of this fantastic ape, but it’s the kind of messy enjoyable throwback that will leave you wanting more.

★★★☆☆

Imdb – 7.1/10  Rotten Tomatoes – 79%

The Great Wall (2016)

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“A hybrid between a historical epic and an action fantasy, The Great Wall manages to be only a passable example of each genre, which makes it less memorable than it had the potential to be.” – Common Sense Media ★★☆☆☆

Matt Damon has earned his merits for action spectaculars with Saving Private Ryan, The Martian and the Bourne films, yet veteran Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou is an action world class master. Following Hero, House of Flying Daggers and the unforgettable 2008 Beijing Olympics ceremonies, Zhang Yimou teams up with the US for the co-production of the century, a whopping $150 million dollar project. And the result in a nut shell? It takes a white Hollywood A-List actor to save the Chinese world.

The Great Wall, a monument decorated with history, prestige and nobility, a place where the walls whisper ancient myths- and this is one of them. Matt Damon is William and Pedro Pascal is Tovar, two 12th century European mercenaries who scope the deserts of Western China looking for mysterious black powder. In the search for riches and fortune, the two best-friends push toward the Great Wall to make a deal, where they are met with a spray of arrows and an immensely organised and colourful Chinese army. Zhang keeps this swirl of colour, light and dizzying action as almost a distraction from the plot, which unfolds miraculously from a plan to escape.

The Great Wall’s action scenes exemplify a sense of fierce determination and precision, a shared responsibility that one will rarely discover in action spectaculars. Not only is the film thrillingly large scale, but it is visually euphoric, an artwork of colour and beauty amidst a prominence of computer-generated imagery. Although the film is often well-choreographed, it is very easy to be seduced by scenes of impersonal warfare and battle. But as the fighting slows down, and the characters evolve, there is little spark between our Caucasian and Chinese performers. But this is simply because The Great Wall is unlike any American blockbuster you’ve ever ever ever seen, and character development is minimally the focus in the inventive and thrilling action pieces that evolve before your very eyes.

I was born into battle.

I have little to say about The Great Wall, other than its fantastic ability to work as an action-adventure spectacular. In this, we see the triumph of the Chinese as sacrificial, determined and relentless warriors, in what can only be described as a tribute to China’s war history. But in the midst of this fierce patriotism is an entertaining blockbuster with eye-popping and breathtaking cinematography – that only follows the simplistic plotting of a Chinese myth. Watch this blockbuster on the biggest cinema screen you can find.

★★☆☆☆

Imdb – 6.3/10  Rotten Tomatoes – 36%

The BFG (2016)

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The BFG remembers what its like to see the world through the eyes of a child, whisked away into the fantasy fairy-tale world of giants. The BFG is a trifling, pleasant film, which sees director Steven Spielberg attempting to reconcile the scale and dazzle of modern filmmaking with the mischievous charm of Roald Dahl’s enduring classic. The BFG lessens the darkness of Roald Dahl’s classic in favour of an entirely good-natured, visually exquisite and largely popular family adventure.

The Giant, although at first an embodiment of childhood terrors, turns out to be a gentle soul with expressive ears, a melancholy countenance and a nonsensical flair of speech. After his accidental encounter with young orphan girl Sophie, he plucks her captive to a faraway valley with his much larger fellow giants who roam the wilds nearby. Spielberg opted to eliminate Dahl’s depiction of lumbering monsters eating humans, thereby transforming them into relative buffoons with fewer associations to terror. But when Sophie discovers the Big Friendly Giant has spent his entire life succumbing to his aggressive child-gobbling siblings, she hatches an elaborate plan to stop them.

Mark Rylance takes his role as BFG cautiously here, rolling words around to create an ordinary fully rounded character out of a children’s book invention. His face and body have been enhanced and distorted by digital magic, but his unique blend of gravity and mischief imbues his fanciful character with a dimension of soul the rest of the film lacks. For her part, brown-eyed beauty Ruby Barnhill is bossy, fearless and well spoken, but her personality rarely leaps off screen or nests in our hearts. As a whole, the movie represents Spielberg in a more pensive and philosophical vein, less interested in propulsive cinema and more reflective of what matters most; the power of dreams and the ability to bring them to life. Unfortunately, that’s all you can get with his generous measure of explicitity. But of course the digital effects that render the story are exquisite in their shimmer and glow, and childhood wonder floats vividly from the screen to enchant all the little kids.

The BFG lacks the strident messaging of children’s films, drawing melancholy from the compromises of adulthood. In particular, Sophie’s latter conversation with her giant about the future feels like the film’s one strange concession to subversiveness and sadness. There’s little silver lining in this one, showing its entirely possible for a film to completely inert, even if its constantly in motion. The BFG is hopelessly charming and hopelessly dull, but if I can sum it up; it is a kind-souled movie about kind-souls for kind-souls.

★★★☆☆

Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)

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Into the dark you tumble into Alice Through the Looking Glass; James Bobin’s wild, witty and extravagant take on Lewis Carroll’s illusory hallucinations. Visually, the certainty that the two imaginative artists were made for each other is realized exquisitely, matched with a haunting design for Wonderland, a seamless meeting of live action with animation and picturesque charm. But the story is now far less Carroll and Burton than Bobin taking flight with a script crafted by Linda Woolverton, who references and incorporates characters in a way that answers our curious and curiouser childish wonders.

Replacement director James Bobin takes the reigns for this sequel, following Alice’s travels into the past to prevent the Jabberwocky from roasting Mad Hatter’s parents. Frolicking with other whimsical wonderland creatures, Hatter is suddenly triggered by discarded trash that reminds him of his estranged, long-gone family. Hatter pleads and finally convinces Alice that she must find them and bring them back … even if they are now long passed. Hatter’s whacky crazy madness is in the fabric of this film, and Alice’s journey of restoring harmony to wonderland again will leave you asking for more. Trust me, by the conclusion of the film you will know all of the little secrets you didn’t even know you wanted to know. Looking Glass is a dream come true.

Bobin takes Burton’s film and escalates it in an effort to not only continue the Disney run of adaptations, but to potentially recapture the immense success of the first film. But above the film’s strenuous attempts to resonate with larger personal themes of loss, strife and time, Looking Glass is a selling spectacle … and a good one at that. Bobin has a fantastic eye for visual effects, but this often pushes him from diverting tedious to deafening, as the bright colours and movement strain to draw the illusion of a film with a story to tell. But Sacha Baron Cohen doesn’t fail to bring an outstanding performance as Time. He’s derisive, obnoxious and crazy about the Red Queen. Time is truly spectacular. It serves as yet another reminder that the Borat actor is proficient in depths rarely explored by other filmmakers. Otherwise, character development is mind-numbing, conflict is dull and the backstories are painfully predictable.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is pervasive of the blockbuster model in painful ways. But stemming from my never failing love of Alice in Wonderland, I still enjoyed it immensely. Bobin applies more absurdity and more surrealism into Alice’s sense of fantasy, while weakly contributing to the overarching central story. He creates magical spectacles and forefronts in a world-class tech reel, capturing the dreamlike wonderland we know and love in an earnest and spectacular way. But if I can sum up Alice Through the Looking Glass in one sentence: it’s like holding a vivid, colourful balloon that deflates a little more every second you hold onto it.

★★★☆☆