Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
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Throwing everything AND the kitchen sink into a star-studded, white-knuckle monster prequel, this trip to Skull Island offers rollercoaster pacing, breakneck thrills, and entertaining abandon without even trying to equal the 5-star status of the vaunted classic. In this R-rated fantasy adventure, an expeditionary team (Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Corey Hawkins, et al) explore an uncharted island in the Pacific, venturing into the domain of the mighty Kong, and must fight to escape a primal Eden.
Rather than spawning an unwanted follow-up (Son of Kong, we're looking at you), Kong: Skull Island takes the most fascinating segment of King Kong and fleshes it out as an amusement park ride (not in the tired Jurassic World manner either). Indeed, this flick is pure wish fulfillment for classic film buffs. Moviegoers familiar with Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's original get a certain itch scratched in a most enjoyable way. Okay, that sounds dirty but take heed: Early on in that 1933 gem, searchers embark on an expedition to Skull Island, a place of pre-historic monster mash-ups previously unknown to modern man. As that film has loftier goals (85-year-old spoiler alert: The great ape gets captured, falls in love with Fay Wray, and makes an ill-advised climb up the side of the Empire State Building), the brief taste of the H.G. Wellsian Skull Island leaves audiences wanting more. Rather than trying to satisfy persnickety cineastes with another retelling of Beauty & the Beast, Kong just wants to be really tasty popcorn. Putting together a hodgepodge of explorers played by A-list stars and having them ripped apart one-by-one in a Land of the Lost during the 1970s might seem like a bad cinematic idea but the execution ends up to be as good as one would hope from a big budget B-Movie. If only Peter Jackson's overrated 2005 re-do was this exciting!
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts knows exactly what he's doing. Armed with a winning screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly (based on a story by original Kong fan John Gatins), he sets the funtastic tone within the first 20 minutes by having Kong knock an Army attack copter right out of the air and eat one of the plastic soldiers inside. Hiddleston, Jackson, Goodman, Larson, Hawkins, and John C. Reilly embrace the spirit of the B-Move and gleefully run with it. Bloody and gutsy aplenty, the movie uses the R-rating as if it were more butter to pile upon this bucket of popcorn. What works most in the production's favor, however, is the brisk editing. The running time is just that: a collection of moments that sprints to the end. Though talk of a further monster mash-up between the King and Godzilla looms, Skull Island stands testament that all hope should not be abandoned for a thrillride that winks and nods while cities get leveled.
To Sum It All Up: Advanced Skull Set
Feted for its Furiously over-the-top set pieces and acting, the latest installment in the Fast & Furious franchise vrooms further away from street-level action and someway somehow finds decent traction as a globe-spanning spy adventure. In this PG-13-rated actioner, a mysterious woman (Charlize Theron) seduces Dom (Vin Diesel) into the world of terrorism and a betrayal of those closest to him, causing his crew (Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludicris, et al) to face trials that will test them as never before.
Thankfully, this gleefully overblown sequel begins with a street race to keep a few tires grounded in the genre from which it came--crime-thriller. Granted, the street race takes place in Havana and the scene is shot in a style reminiscent of a '90s music video but it's a street race for pink slips all the same. Originally played out as Point Break with cars, the series has slowly elevated itself to ridiculous heights of blockbusting, trading in hot-rods for tanks and handguns for WMDs...and yet, it's often quite entertaining. Like the Marvel Universe, Fast & Furious keeps stacking the deck with bigger personalities, improbably proving that when you throw everything at a franchise to see what sticks, sometimes everything sticks. Oh, there are plenty of eye-rolls to be had at the expense of the Pierce Brosnan-era Bond-worthy plot and the arch heaviness with which the characters deliver their lines (Hobbs: "You're gonna close your eyes on World War III or you're gonna saddle up and save the entire damn world."), but every extravagant moment is purposeful and calculated (and honestly, in keeping with the 007 comparison, the only place to take the series from here is to a Moonraker level). Plus, it's hard to pay too close of an attention to Fast & Furious dialogue with all of the excitement popping on-screen. Besides, being too observant of this script might cause nausea.
All involved know exactly what's going on here. With Theron and Helen Mirren newly installed in the series to winning effect (joining Kurt Russell who's a holdover from the last go-round), there's no telling who might get slotted in next. The fact that the producers are spawning Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Statham) off into their own series, however, hints that there might be oversized vacancies left soon to fill. Who would've thought that director F. Gary Gray's music video for Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur's "California" would someday NOT be the most insanely plotted narrative on his CV? He keeps the action moving at a steady clip. The only major slip-up comes courtesy of the length. Actioners work best if they're under two hours. Hey, audiences can only take so much mind-numbing extravagance!
To Sum It All Up: Grand Toretto
In trying to spring the murky, muddy, and muddled Pirates of the Caribbean series from the creative depths of Davy Jones' Locker by bringing in a new villain and directors, Disney's murkier, muddier, and even more muddled latest instead sinks any interest in future installments. In this PG-13-rated adventure, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) searches for the trident of Poseidon while being pursued by an undead sea captain (Javier Bardem) and his crew.
Save for the first chapter, The Curse of the Black Pearl, this franchise never sailed smoothly. The first half of the second sequel, Dead Man's Chest, charts a fun familiar course but then quickly delves into an unnecessarily complicated abyss where humor goes out the window. Waterlogging the storyline with confusing, long, and, frankly, dull otherworldly tangents was merely done to stretch out a thin plot to accommodate a third flick, At World's End. With On Stranger Tides, the producers bought a very popular swashbuckling fantasy novel and STILL managed to make a boring movie. In Dead Men Tell No Tales, said tale lacks originality, the comedy falls flat and the action fails to throw off any sparks. In fact, it's a tale that shouldn't have been told at all. It's not as if moviegoers were clamoring for more high seas hijinks from a series that was left for Dead years ago.
The single most interesting and reliable X-Factor of the series is, of course, Captain Jack Sparrow. Johnny Depp's brilliantly daft Keith Richards-inspired take on the character was once considered so "risky" that Disney flirted with firing the actor for such an off-beat portrayal. With his latest take on the pirate, it seems like he is imitating his past performances--not channeling the character. It almost feels as if one of the Cosplay actors dressed as Captain Jack in front of Mann's Chinese Theater stands in for Depp. Javier Bardem stands and delivers just fine but it's hard to distinguish his ghostly heavy from that of Bill Nighy's Davy Jones in the grand scheme of things. Overall, however, it's the directors, Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Bandidas, Kon-Tiki), who must got down with the ship. The Pirates of the Caribbean series may have already had a sinking feeling but their miscalculated take on the humor and explosive set pieces in the movie just dashes whatever remained of the series against the rocks.
To Sum It All Up: Swashbuckled
Though it doesn't exactly die on-screen, Ben Affleck's stylish but stale latest presents a Gangsta's Paradise that recycles characters and situations seen time and time again in better 1930s-set mob classics. In this R-rated crime thriller, a group of Boston-bred gangsters (Affleck, Chris Messina, et al) set up shop in balmy Florida during the Prohibition era, facing off against the competition and the Ku Klux Klan.
After turning out back-to-back hit A-Grade dramas The Town and Argo, writer-director Affleck had his pick of H'Wood projects, including taking a go at Justice League. Instead of teaming Batman up with other DC heroes, he chooses a different Dark Night, one exuding flourish but ultimately mired in clichés. He should have stuck with the Caped Crusader--not just because Live By Night lacks a unique oomph, but because his singular talents could have definitely improved upon Zach Snyder's less-than-stellar Justice League. Teaming up again with South Boston-born novelist Dennis Lehane (their first collaboration, the excellent kidnapping puzzler Gone Baby Gone, marked the auspicious start of a truly gifted filmmaker), Boston-bred Affleck sees an ambitious chance to leave a mark on the gangster genre, award-winning bestselling book in-hand. What results, however fresh the source material, somehow feels like a long slow walk in Alligator shoes. Punctuated by moments of visual spark (the climactic set piece, a bloody affair set entirely inside an oceanfront Miami hotel, is an exciting symphony even though you already know it note-for-note) and inspired casting, the adaptation hardboils down Lehane's more complicated story into something more pedestrian and bland.
Affleck leads a capable cast that stands and delivers, among them Messina, Chris Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Scott Eastwood, and Brendan Gleeson, with Elle Fanning being the standout. They all seem to be having a great time playing Gatsby with Guns (having a slightly better time than the audience, at least), but no one here is walking away with an award. More boorish than noirish, their playing field is an all-too-familiar turf that looks grand (cinematographer Robert Richardson deserves special mention) but is ultimately more of a trope-ical than tropical paradise.
To Sum It All Up: Bored-Walk Empire
A Beauty of a remake with its sumptuous visuals and endearing players, this live-action take on an animated classic manages to be a different Beast for better and worse--edgier, zippier, and often fresher. In this PG-rated adaptation of the Disney-fied fairy tale, a monstrous-looking prince (Dan Stevens) and a young woman (Emma Watson) fall in love, much to the chagrin of her self-absorbed suitor (Luke Evans).
1991's Beauty and the Beast very possibly ranks highest among animated musicals, not to mention it's arguable standing as Disney's greatest 'toon. Just as with Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book (Snow White & the Huntsman is more of an out-and-out re-do), moviegoers are right to be more a little scared - than prepared - for the Mouse House re-imagining what amounts to an already polished and pristine jewel in their crown. And yet, like those other remakes, it all works beautifully...for the most part. Though Disney's Belle never felt like a damsel in distress, V.2 sees fit to engage in gender politics which also spills over into the characterization of supporting player LeFou, who now has more than a platonic shine for lunkheaded heel Gaston. While there's no question that such empowerment could only enhance the characters and story overall, this inclusion feels more like it was shoehorned in because of topicality than integrated organically. Such an 'upgrade' should feel like a natural fit--not like it was forced.
There's a lot that screenwriters Evan Spiliotopoulos and Stephen Chbosky get right with their update, however. The backstories of the players get fleshed out (we finally learn about Belle's Mom and see more of her father, for example), as does this enchanting world in general (the inanimate objects come to life in the Beast's castle serve as more than comic relief than the first go-round). Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn) deserves much of the credit, however, managing to stage the wonderful musical numbers such that the audience feels like they're seeing them for the first time (as there are new songs in the mix, some of them actually ARE first-timers). His canvas, encompassing town and forest and castledom, exhibits a magical quality not altogether different from the original, but oftentimes moodier and more sarcastic in keeping with modern insensitivity, er, sensibilities. Without a letter-perfect cast, however, the characters wouldn't jump off the screen. Watson, Stevens, Evans, Kevin Kline, and Josh Gad bring a lively and colorful energy to the goings-on. Though they don't hit every note perfectly, they sell through the wonderment all the same.
To Sum It All Up: Be Their Guest