In 1973, as the United States forces leave Vietnam, a group of soldiers are assigned to what is supposed to be a geological expedition. Unfortunately, it turns out their mission is at the behest of U.S. government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman), who is attempting to prove his theory that giant monsters exist. Turns out he’s right, and he has led his unfortunate group to Skull Island, home of King Kong and lots of creatures that are even worse.
Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film Kong: Skull Island is a fun, clever reinvention of the King Kong mythos. The film is part Apocalypse Now, part monster movie, part multi-character ensemble drama. It has some intense action beats and some moments of great comedy. Skull Island is a robust mixture of a lot of different influences and elements, and somehow it all comes together to create an enjoyable, modern take on King Kong, a character originated in 1933.
I write “modern” take, though I was surprised that the film is actually a period piece. The prologue is set in 1944, and the rest of the film takes place in 1973. I love this choice. The film has a slightly retro look that differentiates it from other recent monster movies, and the post-Vietnam setting winds up being a perfect opportunity for the film to explore some interesting character beats. (This isn’t a film that dives too deeply into any characters, which is the film’s main weakness, but the post-Vietnam setting is effectively used as a shorthand to help create a bunch of interesting characters even though the film doesn’t really take the time to explore most of them.)
Mr. Vogt-Roberts’ film is gorgeous. There are some extraordinary visual effects, no surprise. Kong himself is magnificently realized. From the trailers, I was uncertain by the decision to make Kong so enormous, but it works in the film. This behemoth-sized Kong has quite a different feel from Peter Jackson’s 2005 film. But in this film’s entirely different setting, it works. Kong is referred to repeatedly as a god, and this mammoth Kong has that feeling. The CGI effects that brought him to life are terrific, equally effective when we are looking into Kong’s eyes in extreme close-up or watching him throw down with enormous other hideous creatures. Tremendous credit must go to Terry Notary, whose motion-capture work was the heart of Kong’s performance. (Mr. Notary has been doing great work at creating characters in fantasy spectacles for many years now. I first became familiar with his work from watching the behind-the-scenes documentaries on the DVDs of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.)
The film includes a number of sequences of rip-roaring monster mayhem. The intro to … [continued]
For some, inexplicable-to-me reason, back in 2013, disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner allowed a documentary crew full access to himself, his family, and his political team during his campaign for the Democratic nomination to be the Mayor of New York City. Mr. Weiner’s attempt at political resuscitation came crashing down around his ears in spectacular fashion when, a few weeks into the campaign, new sexting scandals came to light. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s incredible documentary chronicles Mr. Weiner’s entire campaign, from the declaration of his candidacy in May, 2013, to his ignominious finish in September, 2013, in which he wound up in fifth place in the New York Democratic primary, having received only 4.9% of the vote.
It’s remarkable that this film exists. That Mr. Weiner would allow these cameras into his life and office and home, AND that he would continue to allow it after the second sexting scandal broke, is somewhat mind-boggling. Mr. Kriegman and Ms. Steinberg’s cameras were given incredible access throughout the campaign. The result is a film that is an intimate, you-can’t-look-away story of personal and professional catastrophe. There’s something quite mesmerizing about it. It’s a fascinating how-the-sausage-is-made look behind the scenes of a modern political campaign, and a devastating story of a very flawed man destroying himself. It’s exhilarating and terrifying, funny and deeply sad.
Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg have crafted a remarkable film that has so much to say about the political and human realities of our current age. Anthony Weiner strikes me as a man of great talent and charisma who was undone by his own failings, his hubris and his ego and his addiction to technology. When Mr. Weiner was a young, on-the-rise star of the democratic party, his youth and his ability to connect with voters, and his use of social media technology like twitter, were critical skills in his toolbox that he wielded to great success. That same social media technology was intimately involved in his fall. (It’s hard not to draw a connection between Anthony Weiner’s twitter obsession, for good and for ill, and that of our current President.) And what a fall. After the tremendous humiliation of the initial scandal that forced Mr. Weiner to resign from Congress and remain in what he calls in the film “a defensive crouch” for two years, this second humiliation and abject failure is hard to believe and unpleasant to watch. Whether you agree or disagree with Mr. Weiner’s political leanings, his public disgrace as chronicled in this film is gruesome to behold.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Weiner is not just the film’s inside-look at Anthony Weiner himself, but also at his then-wife Huma Abedin. As … [continued]
John Jackson Miller’s Klingon-focused trilogy of novels, titled Prey — part of Pocket Books’ celebration of the 50th anniversary of Star Trek — wraps up with book three: The Hall of Heroes. The menace of the Unsung, that cadre of discommendated Klingons, has mostly been resolved, but now a new and greater threat to galactic peace has emerged. The Breen have stepped up their manipulation of their fellow Typhon Pact member the Kinshaya, tricking the Kinshaya into launching a full-scale invasion of Klingon space. With Martok’s hold on power already weakened by the Unsung attacks and the manipulations of Lord Korgh, the would-be heir of Kruge (the Klingon commander killed by James T. Kirk on the Genesis Planet a century earlier), having threatened to tear apart the peace treaty between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, Captain Picard of the Enterprise, Admiral Riker of the Titan, and Captain Dax of the Aventine all find themselves scrambling to keep up with elusive enemies all around and a situation that threatens to spiral completely out of control.
I loved John Jackson Miller’s first two Prey novels. Click here for my review of book one: Hell’s Heart, and here for my review of book two: The Jackal’s Trick. I did mention, though, in my review of The Jackal’s Trick, a concern that the plot-twists at the end of the novel felt a bit like an effort to stretch the story out needlessly into a third book. By the end of book two, I’d felt that the story was mostly over and wasn’t sure there was really a third book’s worth of story left to tell.
I shouldn’t have doubted, because right from the start I thought The Hall of Heroes was terrific, and I was happy with the different directions in which Mr. Miller took the story in this third and final book. I was not expecting the Breen and the Kinshaya to wind up playing such a major role in a story that had, through the first two books, been very Klingon-centric. But I loved how Mr. Miller was able to expand the scale of his story, bringing in a number of new threats and challenges for our heroes. This didn’t feel like plot-driven stretching, these new developments flowed smoothly out of what had come before, unexpected but logical ripple effects from Korgh’s plots and schemes.
Book 2 ended with the twist regarding the Orion, Shift, and I loved how Shift became a major character here in book three. One of the nice aspects of this story’s being told over three books is that Mr. Miller has had the time to flesh out lots of fascinating nooks and crannies … [continued]
Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ wonderful series Sherlock returned in 2017 for a three-episode series four. I have adored this series, a modern-day reinterpretation of the Sherlock Holmes stories, since the beginning. I admire its intelligence and sophistication and the way the series has allowed us to fall in love with these wonderfully bizarre characters.
As always, three episodes feels like far too little after such a long wait for new installments. Because of such a long wait between series (or seasons, in American parlance), and because we get so few new episodes each time, I feel like the producers put an impossible amount of pressure on themselves to make each of the rare new episodes perfect.
Well, none of the new episodes in series four are perfect, and there is a plot twist at the end of the first episode that I didn’t care for at all, and that colored this whole new series in an unfavorable way for me. But these three new episodes remain wonderfully entertaining, impressively-crafted pieces of television entertainment. The third episode is probably the most ambitious episode the series has ever done, with an extraordinary scope and amazing production design.
This is a darker season of the show than we’ve seen before. Generally, this show has been able to be fun while also maintaining true dramatic stakes for all the characters. The plot twist at the end of episode one, though, throws all that out the window. While I understand the show-runners’ desire to shake up the status quo and not just keep doing the same things, and while I was ultimately satisfied with how the story begun in that terrible moment resolves itself by the end of episode three, I felt that event unbalanced this season to a degree that bothered me. It was hard to find much joy in Sherlock after that moment. The writers clearly understood that and went there anyways. For me, personally, I wish they’d have made a different choice.
OK, let’s take a deeper dive into these three episodes! Beware SPOILERS ahead.
The Six Thatchers — We get several engaging mysteries in this episode. First is the mystery of the college student found dead in a car in his parents’ driveway, despite his being abroad at the time and in fact having Skyped with his father at the moment he was apparently killed. Then there is the titular mystery of a series of apparently unconnected crimes linked only by the commonality that a statue of Margaret Thatcher was destroyed in each instance. Then there is the more important-to-the-series exploration of the backstory of John Watson’s wife Mary’s mysterious past, and the apparent resurrection of her former soldier/assassin partner … [continued]
A United Kingdom tells the true story of the marriage between Sir Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams. The two meet at university in London in 1947, and sparks quickly fly between them. But Seretse is the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland, and the political ramifications of his marrying a white woman are enormous. Seretse’s uncle Tshekedi Kham, who was acting ruler of Bechuanaland until Seretse returned home, insists that Seretse annul the marriage. Meanwhile, Ruth’s father refuses to have anything more to do with her, because she had married a black man. And the British Government, who at the time controlled Bechuanaland as a protectorate, bow to pressure from Apartheid South Africa — who objected to the interracial marriage — and exile Seretse, preventing him from returning home to be with his now-pregnant wife.
The main reason to see A United Kingdom, other than to learn about this amazing true story, is to bask in the wonderful performances of David Oyelowo as Seretse and Rosamund Pike as Ruth. Both actors do terrific work, and they have a lovely chemistry together.
Mr. Oyelowo is working in a similar key as he was in Selma, in which he was extraordinary as Martin Luther King Jr. He is just as good here, playing the charismatic Seretse. The characters are different, of course, but the similarities are striking, particularly when Mr. Oyelowo, as Seretse, launched into several moments of stirring oration in the second half of the film. I love seeing Mr. Oyelowo deliver a speech.
I’ve been a fan of Ms. Pike’s ever since Die Another Day, a terrible Bond movie in which she was nonetheless terrific. I’ve enjoyed seeing Ms. Pike’s recent run of high-profile roles, and she effortlessly carries her half of this movie. She’s skillfully able to draw the audience into her character. The film tells a fairly simple story, at its heart — Ruth is the “every-girl” swept up in a larger adventure when she falls in love with a king. Ms. Pike is able to find the emotional truth in her scenes, and to breathe life into her story.
The problem with A United Kingdom is that the movie is fairly flat. There’s not much excitement or dramatic tension in the film. When you compare the film to Selma, it falls far short. A United Kingdom has none of the riveting drama that film had in spades. I enjoyed the early goings-on in which Ruth and Seretse meet and fall in love. But then the … [continued]
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years is a new documentary by Ron Howard, focusing on The Beatles’ whirlwind years spent touring all over the globe between 1962 and 1966. I’m a huge Beatles fan, so I was immediately interested in this film, even as I wondered whether this documentary would have anything new to say. I’ve been a Beatles fan all my life, and I’ve read a number of books and seen a lot of Beatles documentaries, including the extraordinarily thorough multi-part Beatles Anthology, so I’m pretty well-versed in Beatles lore. And yet I was gripped by this film from the first moment to the last. Part of this is the magic of The Beatles themselves, but it’s also a testament to the work done by Ron Howard and his team.
There is, of course, a lot of familiar, famous footage included in the film. Some of the concert footage, some of the interviews, are well-known to Beatles fans. But there is also a surprising amount of great stuff I hadn’t seen before.
What’s particularly notable about the film is the way Mr. Howard and his team focused in on the Beatles touring performances, presenting a wealth of footage chronologically so as to take us step-by-step through the Beatles’ various tours. This is a fascinating approach, and it captures for the audience a taste of the feeling of being on that insane ride.
We get to hear from Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in new interviews, while John Lennon and George Harrison are represented through older interview footage. The new interviews are great, with some substantial new insight, and I was happy with the way the older footage and sound-bytes were used to make certain that John and George were represented in the film equal to Paul and Ringo.
There are also some great new interviews with famous Beatles fans, including Curtis Hanson, Elvis Costello, Whoopi Goldberg, and Sigourney Weaver. These aren’t just “hey look it’s a celebrity!” sound-bytes. No, these interviews were well-chosen as each of the celebrities speaking has an interesting story to tell or something substantial to contribute to the film and the chronicle of events that Mr. Howard is weaving. Some of these celebrity interview moments were, surprisingly, among my favorite moments in the film! (I don’t know how they found that shot of a young Sigourney in the crowd at one of the Beatles’ concerts, but someone deserves a raise.)
I also have to highlight the phenomenal sequence in which various snippets of studio chatter were edited together to chart the development of the song Eight Days A Week. Those were a super-cool few minutes, and a great peek into the … [continued]
I feel like Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary De Palma was made just for me.
As I was finishing my lengthy “Days of De Palma” project of watching all of the films directed by Brian De Palma, I learned of the existence of this documentary. Oh my god! How perfect! I decided I needed to wait until I finished my re-watch project before I’d watch the documentary, but as soon as I finished watching 2012’s Passion (the final film released, so far, by Mr. De Palma), I immediately turned to this documentary. To say that I loved it would be an enormous understatement.
This documentary, simply titled De Palma, is unlike almost any other documentary I have ever seen. There’s no array of talking-head interview subjects, no fancy graphics, no complicated narrative. The set-up is deceptively simple. The documentary is just an extended interview with Mr. De Palma, who is sitting and talking directly into the camera. The interview looks like it was filmed on two or three different occasions. Mr. De Palma talks a little bit about his background and upbringing, but for the most part De Palma is simply a film-by-film retrospective of Mr. De Palma’s long and storied career. Film by film, in chronological order, we move through Mr. De Palma’s filmography. We watch clips from the films and listen to Mr. De Palma’s many fascinating stories about the making of those films.
That’s it! That’s the whole documentary! It’s like the ultimate DVD special feature for a (nonexistent) box-set collecting all of Mr. De Palma’s movies.
What a perfect, extraordinary film for me to watch after having just watched all of Mr. De Palma’s movies!!
This film was amazing. It works because a) Mr. De Palma has made so many great movies over the years, and b) because Mr. De Palma turns out to be a wonderful storyteller. It is a tremendous joy listening to him spin yarn after yarn as he recounts his experiences, good and bad, in Hollywood. The film feels intimate, like Mr. De Palma is a good friend and we’re just sitting around together, shooting the shit and reminiscing.
The film is filled to overflowing with fantastic stories about Mr. De Palma’s experiences over the course of his career. We learn that he and George Lucas cast Carrie and Star Wars together. We hear a terrific story about a young De Palma having to find a way to work with the great Orson Welles who was unable or unwilling to learn his lines. We learn that events in Dressed to Kill were inspired by Mr. De Palma’s actual experiences, as a young man, of learning that his father was cheating and … [continued]
In Nicolas Winding Refn’s film The Neon Demon, Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a sixteen year-old pretending she’s nineteen, looking to make it as a model in Los Angeles. Jesse’s beauty renders all of the men around her smitten and all of the women around her jealous. Things don’t end well.
The Neon Demon is a truly bizarre film, gorgeous to look at but empty of character depth or anything resembling a narrative arc.
There is a plethora of memorable, gorgeous imagery in the film. Mr. Refn and cinematographer Natasha Briaer can compose a staggeringly beautiful frame. There is imagery in this film that has stuck with me in the days since I saw it. For that alone Mr. Refn and his team are certainly deserving of praise.
It’s interesting to me that this film about fashion and the fixation on beautiful women, and the idea of a woman as a beautiful image and little more, is itself a film filled to overflowing with beautiful imagery but one that stubbornly refuses to allow us access into any of the characters. I assume this was by design, which for me renders the film an interesting intellectual exercise but not a film that I really enjoyed. I wish we’d been allowed to know or understand what was going on beneath the surface of Jesse (Elle Fanning), Ruby (Jenna Malone), Sarah (Abbey Lee, from Mad Max Fury Road) or Gigi (Bella Heathcote). The film keeps all of them at a distance, as beautiful but unknowable objects.
There is a dreamy, hallucinogenic air to the film. It is hard to know what is real and what is fantasy. (The Neon Demon reminds me in this respect somewhat of Black Swan. Both are about women competing in an intense field that focuses on a near-unattainable perfection of beauty, and both feature twists into unreality and hallucination. But where Black Swan succeeded both as an interesting character study and as a riveting thriller, The Neon Demon is neither.)
Elle Fanning has come a long way from Super 8; her acting skill and movie-star charisma has only grown. She is well-cast in the lead role, and there are some moments of incredible performance that show us what a talent she is. For instance, there’s a moment at a photo-shoot when the inexperienced Jesse is asked to undress by a photographer she wants to impress. We watch the whole scene play out on Ms. Fanning’s face in extreme close-up, as she goes through a range of emotions, and it is quite extraordinary.
As I noted above, the film is filled with riveting imagery. That opening shot of Jesse at a photo shoot, lying in … [continued]