review//KONG: SKULL ISLAND

Grade: C+

KONG: SKULL ISLAND
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson

A well-intentioned new chapter of monster movies, Kong: Skull Island is on one hand every bit an exciting blockbuster, but on the other a slightly bumbling collection of special effects sequences and not much else.

There's a lot to unpack from Kong from the moment the film starts. It's compelling set-up and retro news footage gives the first act a special pedigree that promises an elevated film-going experience; one you wouldn't normally get from a monster flick. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts' most notable claim to fame thus far is indie favorite The Kings of Summer, a delightful and dark study of adolescence and the search for independence. He brings along some of the more mature elements as he navigates down Kong's beginnings, but the story doesn't support the plot like one would hope.

This adventure doesn't acknowledge other previous films surrounding King Kong, a gigantic gorilla. In fact, while his origins remain intact, the way this film introduces the beast feels almost slighted. The original 1933 film classic and even Peter Jackson's epic 2005 version deliver an emotional punch full of heart and good-natured drama. This new, Hollywood retelling skips past that element (though, one could argue that there are a few attempts to thread a bit of melodrama in between the action) and focuses on the destruction and death. It is understood that Kong has lived a rough life, losing his family and his home being invaded, but there's not much care taken to the payoff for that side of the story; a testament to the poorly structured storyline and too much attention given to the visuals.

While Kong's story feels thrown to the side, it's the humans that are even more ignored. John Goodman, playing his usual best, is an explorer bent on stepping foot on the mysterious Skull Island, an uncharted piece of land in the middle of nowhere. Samuel L. Jackson is the military leader assigned to the mission. Tom Hiddleston is the tracker hired to lead the expedition of military men and scientists. Brie Larson is a war photographer fresh from the frontlines of battle in Vietnam. John C. Reilly pops up halfway through as a stranded soldier who's finally coming in contact with Americans after two decades alone on the island with the local natives. Beyond these descriptions, not much else is needed in terms of backstory or development. Once the humans arrive on the island, the entire film is all about harrowing escape sequences and, again, special effects.

The effects are the meat of the production, with the 300-foot tall Kong as the prize. A lot of respect must be given to the amount of detail taken in giving the beast life. The way the hairs move the care taken in guaranteeing the scale of each and every set piece and person is consistent was undoubtedly a huge undertaking. When Kong is injured by the blades of a helicopter, the matting of his fur by the blood is remarkable. But, in even trying to suspend disbelief for the sake of the film, there's a certain element that is distracting in how video game-like the entire thing feels. In fact, Kong: Skull Island almost immediately takes cues from the equally over-digitized Jurassic World from the moment we finally arrive at Skull Island. It's disappointing.

But, that disappointment doesn't quite overshadow the fun. Most of the lines out of Jackson's mouth immediately brought loads of laughs and cheers from the audience. His casual badassness is infectious. The subliminal 70s wartime vibes found in everything from the cinematography choices (hearkening back to films like Apocalypse Now) and soundtrack cues give the film a very rigid atmosphere, which is a good thing. Vogt-Roberts takes care in the steady feel of the overall package, even when the individual ingredients aren't consistent.

The film is a fun, mindless ride. It'd be interesting to see how it would have played had it been a summertime flick. Plus, if sticking around until after the credits, a "hidden" scene shows that this is only the beginning when it comes to movie monsters. Perhaps Kong: Skull Island is a reintroduction to the genre (2014's Godzilla what a hit-or-miss, depending who you talk to). If you weren't already feeling over-saturated by franchises, here comes another one.

Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 2 hours

review//BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Grade: C+

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Directed by Bill Condon
Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans

It's a tale as old as time, and one that rings especially true for millennials, as Disney brings to life its animated classic Beauty and the Beast with an enchanting cast of performers, new music, and the sights and sounds so very familiar. Directed by Bill Condon, the maestro behind awards season darling Dreamgirls, Beauty and the Beast pays its respects to its source material to mostly positive results, but a few mislead attempts at freshness feel more choppy and dull, rather than inspiring.

The story may be hundreds of years old, but most people immediately think of the 1991 animated film adaptation when they hear the title Beauty and the Beast. Rich with beautiful music and exciting, groundbreaking animation (for its time), that Disney classic arrived at the height of the Disney renaissance and went on to become the first animated film to ever be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. The "Be Our Guest" sequence remains one of the most exciting film moments of all time and the titular theme song brings about enough nostalgia to make you sick with glee when the orchestral tones begin. 

Like with most things in Hollywood, when you've got something good, it's probably going to come back around in some regard in years to come. Sometimes, those results are eye-popping and wonderful (looking at you The Jungle Book); other times they are quickly forgotten (sorry Pete's Dragon, though, for the record I really enjoyed it). 

Condon's retelling of this tale as old as time means well and almost hits every note right. Emma Watson is perfectly cast as Belle, a smart, driven women fallen victim to a society where men are great and women are there to tell the men that they are great. Instead of being a bumbling bimbo, a beggar woman, or a wife/mother (the only options for women in the countryside of France, apparently), Belle spends her days reading books (gasp!) and inventing, like her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline). Watson, a driven feminist in her own right, brings a certain bravura to this version of Belle that is refreshing while also still staying true to the wandering spirit of her animated counterpart. It's not that she's against love, she's in fact a hopeless romantic set on finding adventure through love, instead of settling for the meatheads at home. 

Speaking of meatheads, Gaston (Luke Evans) is the most well-rounded character here. Evans is every bit the self-loving hunk Gaston needs to be. Even when it feels over-the-top, it works. A trait of which the film needs a little more. 

In regards to casting, most of the film is spot on, featuring performers that either look or sound (or both) like the animated classic, which is a good thing. For a film so dependent on the audiences' familiarity with the 1991 film, offering too many changes is bound to hurt. Which directly links to what's wrong with this film. 

There's a certain respect earned by a film that's going to be looked at with a fine-tooted comb being willing to branch out, but how it branches out makes or breaks it. The added jokes and innuendos provided by characters like Le Fou (Josh Gad) give a fresh punch, but the added visual "jokes" like Stanley Tucci's Cadenza (one of the people-turned-furniture who inhabit the castle) firing his piano keys during the film's battle sequence, fall  as flat as some of the quick-witted one-liners provided by Lumiere (Ewan Mcgregor) and Cogsworth (Ian McKellen). In fact, it's the talking furniture that really bring the entire spectacle down. 

CGI has invaded modern film in a way that means even the most literary film, like The Great Gatsby, will see hours and hours of painstaking digital artistry before the film hits the big screen. With Beauty and the Beast's magical elements, Disney-fied digital sorcery are a given. But, much like the overblown Alice in Wonderland franchise, the most elaborate spectacles feel too animated to truly fir into the make believe "real" world. In this version of the "Be Our Guest" moment, what should be a toe-tapping delights becomes almost a nauseating collection of frantic colors and digitally-created elements that fail to translate to the large IMAX format, surprisingly.

The Beast's face is a whole other topic of confusion. Dan Stevens does his best at offering a brooding voice, but his stale acting, no doubt hindered by the stilted costume, is awkward and not quite engrossing enough to fully work. With the added palate of digital face imagery, the entire being of the Beast is frantic and distracting. It's the most elaborate element that never quite seems to work. 

Effects aside, the film's structure feels a little choppy, mostly due to Condon's search for fresh material and new, engaging moments that will hopefully set this film apart. In fact, there are enough fade out moments to make you wonder if, at one point, this may have been intended as a made-for-TV project. You'll almost expect a commercial to pop up. The choppiness doesn't end with just the transitions. Certain aspects of the story seem to never be fully resolved, or surprisingly brought up out of nowhere. When the Beast is transformed into his human likeness at the end, and the castle and its inhabitants transform into their former selves, we're greeted with a number of reunions between once-angry townsfolk and their family members, who have been living in the castle as inanimate objects. What should be an emotional plot device doesn't feel earned at all. We've never seen these people pine for the ones they miss and love. That added emotional level would've been great to see earlier in the film and feed into the drive of these townspeople to "kill the beast."

While that seems like a lot that's "wrong" with the film, it's endearing music and subtle callbacks to the older film almost make up for any missteps. The film uses the direct film score from the original in this version, layered among new, inspiring musical cues. The new cast members give their own spins on the classic songs, mostly to much aplomb. Watson serves as the best example here, followed by Evans and Gad. Emma Thompson, playing Mrs. Potts, gives a charming turn at the titular song, though it's hard to forget and wish for the Angela Lansbury version. 

Beauty and the Beast fits somewhere in the middle of the ranking list of Disney's best efforts to bring its classic animated films to life. It's extremely watchable and nostalgic, especially for those who grew up watching the animated film on repeat. It's a tough sell, especially when you try to forget every note and word of the original and enjoy this new vision. It may have worked better had Condon chose to make fewer or more changes. With it's awkward blend of exact replications of the film we all love and new items, the film doesn't quite reach "amazing" status. Anything you may be criticizing throughout is almost tossed out the window, however, during Audra McDonald's belting reprise of "Beauty and the Beast" during the film's finale. It packs a punch of the feels, despite taking a while to truly, honestly get there.

Rated: PG
Runtime: 2h 9min

predictions//90th ACADEMY AWARDS

AWARDS COVERAGE





(Last Updated: March 2, 2017)

The fog has barely settled on the historic Best Picture win by Moonlight (and the drama surrounding the Academy's most embarrassing moment), but it's never too early to move on to the next awards season!

These predictions are totally insane because for every movie listed below, ten others haven't even been announced. Based on this past season, with a film like Moonlight being on no one's radar for most the year, there's no telling what small or large film could come out of nowhere to be the next Best Picture.

Some of the potential nominees include a P.T. Barnum biopic (The Greatest Showman), the latest from Alexander Payne (Downsizing), and director Dee Rees' Sundance film (Mudbound). And, Christopher Nolan may finally have an Oscar-friendly film on his hands with the eagerly anticipated Dunkirk.

Plus, Oscar-less performers like Jessica Chastain (Molly's Game), Rooney Mara (Mary Magdalene), and Gary Oldman (The Darkest Hour) have meaty roles coming out this year; which means their chances are high.

With it being insanely early, these predictions will definitely change as the year inches closer and closer to awards season.

Predicted nominees are listed below for most categories, with more to be added throughout the season. Predicted winners are in bold.

BEST PICTURE

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Luca Guadagnino, director

DOWNSIZING
Alexander Payne, director

DUNKIRK
Christopher Nolan, director

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN
Michael Tracey, director

THE KIDNAPPING OF EDGARDO MORTARA
Steven Spielberg, director

MUDBOUND
Dee Rees, director

WIDOWS
Steve McQueen, director

WONDERSTRUCK
Todd Haynes, director

BEST DIRECTOR

Darren Aronofsky
MOTHER!

Todd Haynes
WONDERSTRUCK

Christopher Nolan
DUNKIRK

Alexander Payne
DOWNSIZING

Dee Rees
MUDBOUND

BEST ACTOR

Benedict Cumberbatch
THE CURRENT WAR

Matt Damon
DOWNSIZING

Hugh Jackman
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

Liam Neeson
FELT

Gary Oldman
THE DARKEST HOUR

BEST ACTRESS

Jessica Chastain
MOLLY'S GAME

Jennifer Lawrence
MOTHER!

Rooney Mara
MARY MAGDALENE

Emma Stone
BATTLE OF THE SEXES

Kristen Wiig
DOWNSIZING

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Armie Hammer
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Woody Harrelson
THE GLASS CASTLE

Ed Harris
MOTHER!

Garrett Hedlund
MUDBOUND

Andre Holland
WIDOWS

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Mary J. Blige
MUDBOUND

Kirsten Dunst
THE BEGUILED

Cynthia Erivo
WIDOWS

Michelle Pfeiffer
MOTHER!

Michelle Williams
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

MORE CATEGORIES TO BE ADDED SOON!