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‘Kong: Skull Island’ Is A Quirky Adventure Just Barely Worth Taking

kong

What if the story of “King Kong” took place not during the 30s, but instead the orange-blazed Vietnam era, just as the war was ended-er-abandoned and complete with a poster that outright mimics Apocalypse Now? What if it also contained a collection of modern character personalities who’d probably feel more at home in a Marvel flick or a better sequel to Independence Day? What if it took itself about 50% less seriously than Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake? And what if, to top it all off, you layered it against a budding monster cinematic universe franchise that is already underway with 2014’s Godzilla?

Kong: Skull Island is the answer to those questions and more — a sort of mashup of interesting ideas and directions blended together by second-time director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, an indie auteur who’d make Gareth Edwards blush. The basic structure is still in place: a team of scientists, civilians, and soldiers travel to Skull Island, the last uncharted territory hiding in the South Pacific. There, they uncover prehistoric threats and a massive, titular primate named Kong. From there, it’s a tale of survival, but a much smaller one in scope than the 2005 remake, at least removed from its ties to bigger monster threats around the world and the mysterious “Monarch” organization.

The idea to paint this as a Vietnam film is definitely inspired. The same, “what are we doing here” mentality is played just right an overwhelming message, though that’s not to say Kong ever tries to be more than a big, blustering blockbuster that succumbs to movie logic willfully and enthusiastically. You can probably respect the fact that Kong knows how bonkers it is throughout, and in a better movie with more surprises, it could even be hailed as an inspired new turn for monster movies (Shin Godzilla or no).

kong

Strangely, though, Kong suffers from 21st Century film editing, a new wave of trailer-inspired cuts and cutaways that make this film feel more like a collection of intriguing short films spliced together to just barely hold together as a two hour feature. The screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and in small part, Derek Connolly is certainly in a great place, as this is one of the few flicks in a while I caught myself thinking about the script (in a good way).

The story, by Need For Speed and Real Steal‘s John Gatins, is less innovative, yet mostly salvaged thanks to a serviceable ensemble of characters featuring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, and many others.  The best scenes in Kong belong to Jackson and Reilly without any doubt, as Reilly plays the island survivalist from World War II who kindly fills us in on just the right amount of exposition to get a sense of place and relevance in Skull Island.

What truly saves Kong from mediocrity, though, is what monster movie fans are itching to come see. A visually striking action movie with big monsters, big stakes, and big battles. This movie checks off those boxes in force, while mostly eschewing other expectations of its legacy, like the tendency to play up Kong as a “possessor” of a beautiful woman.

Brie Larson takes the role in her own way as a photographer in search of discovering something new, instead moving along the movie in a jog, playing about as crucial a role as the other ensemble characters without much of a special relationship with Kong, which is likely for the better. It’s replaced with a passive respect, rather than an otherworldly affection, and at the very least, it makes more sense for a film set in the 70s, not an escapist tragedy set in the 30s.

kong

Most films would suffer from tonal shifts as drastic as the ones in Kong. But for whatever reason, the scattershot ideas in this monster mash adventure movie manage to lend the film something of a personality, much like they accomplished with the CGI primate himself. There are just as many moments showing what Kong does when no one is around, and it’s one of a few morsels of surprising touches this movie thankfully scrambles to find.

Grade: B

Extra Credits:

  • There is a post-credits scene, and it’s actually awful. Badly edited. Bad in the way it teases. See it if you must, but I left the theater feeling a lot less excited about the future of Warner Bros.’s monsterverse.
  • With so many characters in this movie, I didn’t have much of a chance to get to each one. And that’s not a good thing. They’re mostly forgettable, even Larson and Hiddleston, whose motivations are actually interchangeable. Great screen presence, but this movie’s heart belongs to Reilly and Jackson.
  • This movie might look a tad familiar. It was shot in Hawaii, close to where Jurassic World was filmed. Samuel L. Jackson even utters his famous line, “Hold on to your butts” from the first Jurassic Park.
  • I also forgot to mention one of my favorite things about this movie: Kong’s design. It’s a clear combination of the 30s version and the adapted Japanese version. He stands tall, and it looks great.
  • Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell have great, understated roles in this movie. They last acted together as Dre and Eazy E in Straight Outta Compton.
  • Weird Easter egg that might be important: Riley’s character, Hank Marlow, wears a jacket with a reference to Akira, a manga that came out years after this movie takes place.  It’s a pill and the line, “Good for your health. Bad for your education.”

    Thanks for reading this. Seriously. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. 

    Or just say hello on Twitter: @JonNegroni


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Mo’ Money Monster, Mo’ Problems

money monster

This week on the podcast, the Now Conspiring team runs through the big entertainment news of the week, reviews Money Monster, as well as Uncharted 4 and Overwatch.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Which recently canceled show do you wish could be un-canceled? Also, don’t forget to pick an impression for Sam to stick with! There’s a special segment of the podcast to help you decide…

Go on…Mo’ Money Monster, Mo’ Problems

Snarcasm: There’s Only One Reason To Hate ‘Room’

room movie

Snarcasm is a weekly series about the worst articles on the Internet, and how we can snarcastically deal with them. 

Warning, this week’s Snarcasm contains spoilers for Room. Read at your own risk! 

Room is one of my favorite movies of the year, but it’s no surprise that not everyone feels that way. But my face went inside out when I read that veteran film critic of San Diego Reader, Matthew Lickona, gave it 1/5 stars.

Ouch.

That’s fine, I said aloud in a room full of people I didn’t know. Lickona always has his reasons. Sure, sometimes I disagree, but at least he gives good explanat—then I read the review.

Let’s start!

A cowardly movie about brave people. 

This isn’t even a sentence, but OK. Lickona begins his review with what Rotten Tomatoes will extract for a blurb. I can almost hear Lickona knocking on wood in celebration that he’s come up with the perfect “finish him” moment.

Part one is heartrendingly human, bordering on wise: a considered portrait of motherly love under extreme duress.

Well, that sounds nice.

To wit: Ma (Brie Larson) is both captive and sexual slave to a dim Midwestern monster, trapped in a soundproofed shed with a son (Jacob Tremblay) who has never seen the world outside. (Well, except on TV.)

See, this is good writing. Clear, concise, no nonsense. You know, like Lickona’s other reviews.

Wonderfully and believably, she gives the boy a life, an education, a cosmology, and a family; what is more, she manages to shield him from the horror of her own situation.

Go on…

It’s only when the boy’s innocence is threatened that she resolves to set him free. (Spoilers, of a sort, to follow.)

This is a nitpick, but that’s not entirely true. So yeah, spoilers if you don’t want to get spoiled…

Her choice to enact an escape plan isn’t solely intended to protect Jack’s innocence. The inciting event is clearly the revelation that her captor has been laid off for six months, and he’ll soon have no more money left to sustain their captivity. She’s literally fighting for their lives at this point.

Free him she does, and that’s when the film loses its nerve,

And…I can say the same for this review.

transforming from an unflinching look at love amid suffering into an embarrassing bout of wishful thinking. 

Nothing about this sentence makes sense if you’ve watched the movie or…otherwise. Because the main point of the second two acts is that they’re still suffering. But the problem is that their love for each other is strained. What is embarrassing about this? In what way is this wishful thinking on the part of anyone Lickona is referring?

It makes sense for Ma to fall apart once the ordeal is over.

Right.

But it does not make sense — psychologically, developmentally, but above all, narratively — for an anger-prone child whose entire, largely happy world has been ripped asunder to magically become both moppet and angel of salvation.

Cherrypicking. Call the child anger-prone, and you can get away with propping him up as a one-dimensional character, even though this same child is also (as we see in the first act): adventurous, loving, curious, and filled with ingenuity.

But Lickona couldn’t look past one element of his character to leave room (get it?) for a story arc.

In other words, Lickona seems to despise Room because he doesn’t think Jack should’ve adapted so easily to the world. Never mind it takes incredible acting to get that across or that the movie provokes you to rethink Jack as a character throughout the entire movie.

room movie

No, Lickona claims  Room is wishful thinking because one character reacts harshly to a tough situation, but the innocent child finds a way to thrive in the way his mother did in the first act.

Seriously. 1/5 stars.

Of course, I’ve been responding as if I accept Lickona’s premise that Jack is a moppet throughout the movie. Except, Jack doesn’t immediately adjust to the world, especially not physically. He’s quiet, hard to talk to, combative, and distant throughout the second act, which is artfully demonstrated by his physical limitations early on.

And overall, he’s not that much of a salvation for his mother, despite saving her life a second time. The film ends with her barely gripping with the fact that she was a selfish parent all along.

The true angel of salvation in this movie was Jack’s grandmother, who served as a narrative gift that Ma truly wanted for her son: someone to connect with. That moment when Jack tells his grandmother that he loves her is an earned moment, not just the words of a moppet. And then there’s that second moment when Ma sees him in the backyard connecting with someone else without her help. 

room movie

Oh, and this is the end of the review! I left nothing out. Lickona gives no basis for his assertions here, effectively saying that the film’s cinematography, score, and performances offer no merit beyond 1/5 stars. It’s a “bad” movie because Lickona got hung up on one aspect of the story that’s arguable at best. How is this a review?

Look, if you didn’t like the structure or coherence of Room, that’s one thing. I even criticized the pacing in my own review. Maybe that makes the film a 3/5, or maybe even a 2 for some. But to pan the film based on the delivery of a story for reasons that amount to your own cloudy expectations is lazy to say the least.

Now, you might be thinking, “Jon! Why should we care if one critic didn’t like Room?”

Well, what’s really got me frustrated is that someone is going to read Lickona’s lackluster review and write off a movie that deserves to be seen. A movie that person may have cherished. My point is that if you’re going to demolish a film, at least give us more than a paragraph explaining why.

Hey! If you’ve come across a silly article that deserves the snarcasm treatment, send it my way via Twitter or the comments below! 

I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

Review: ‘Room’ is as Captivating as it is Devastating

room review

This review contains mild spoilers that are also revealed by the trailer. If you haven’t seen the trailer and don’t want anything about Room to be spoiled for you, then you should click away now, 

Room was directed by Lenny Abrahamson and is based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue. She also wrote the screenplay for this adaptation, which stars Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as a mother and son forced into captivity before the son’s birth.

The film begins by skipping its explanation for why this mother and son are trapped in what they call “Room.” Instead, we watch them live their daily routines within the harsh confines of a world that feels smaller with every scene.

For that reason, many will enjoy the first half of Room the most, because that sense of discovery and dread holds as you realize how tiny their living space is. Of course, it will also make you yearn for their escape, making Room a clenching thriller on par with the drug wars of Sicario.

room review

As the trailer reveals, “Ma” and “Jack” do manage to escape, and a second “movie” picks up as a pseudo sequel for they must adjust to life outside of Room. Strangely, this is where the film’s most devastating moments occur, mostly because Donoghue has chosen to present this as a fictional story.

She portrays the darkest aspects of Ma and Jack, raising questions we wouldn’t dare ask (out loud) if they were based on real people. This makes Room the boldest risk-taker I’ve seen all year, as it challenges how we perceive victims of major tragedies.

Room strikes a delicate balance between hope and despair that other well-intentioned movies tend to fall short of, as it can be difficult to keep any movie from overwhelming with too much of either extreme. That said, several moments drag on a bit, and some of the narrated exposition actually sheds light on how the second act is a little too slow compared to its superior beginning and end. But that might be Abrahamson’s intention, as it clearly illustrates what we’re supposed to glean from the new life of these characters.

What truly surprised me about Room, however, was its score. Do yourself a favor and look up “New End” by Stephen Rennicks, as well as the rest of this film’s soundtrack. It is my favorite of the year so far, surpassing both Inside Out and Paddington. It might even be my favorite score of the last two years.

I wasn’t surprised by Larson’s Oscar-worthy performance. Since Short Term 12, many like myself have been waiting for the actor to get the attention she deserves as a serious performer. And Room is easily her best movie yet. She conveys multiple, conflicting emotions throughout, allowing every decision she makes to feel earned and inevitable, but also sympathetic. I’m not sure I could picture any other actor disappearing into this role.

room review

And Jacob Tremblay is a revelation, surpassing the also-talented Abraham Attah from Beasts of No Nation as the most promising child actor of the year. It astounds me how well nine-year-old Tremblay can act at his age, portraying a young child who must adjust to a world where he is no longer the master of everything around him. It’s a subtle, heartbreaking, and even joyous performance.

Grade: A

While it suffers from seemingly intentional pacing issues, Room is one of the best movies of the year and a drama that deserves to be remembered for a long time.

Extra Credits

  • Seriously, it’s called “New End.” Look it up.
  • I should also mention that Room is an artful movie, and thankfully so. Some of its most pleasant moments come from the imagery that rhymes the first and third acts, including snowfall and simple moments in the backyard.
  • Abrahamson also directed Frank, the musical dramedy I fell in love with last year. Room is certainly proving that the Irish filmmaker is one of cinema’s best.
  • Keep an eye on the ending credit for Brie Larson. It’s a nice touch.
  • A24 Films is having an incredible 2015. They’ve released While We’re YoungEx MachinaThe End of the Tour, and Room, which are all among the top films of the year.

For a more in-depth look at Room, come back this Sunday for the Now Conspiring podcast, where we’ll discuss this and other new releases.

I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

Review: ‘Trainwreck’ Was Impossible For Me to Like

trainwreck review

Trainwreck could just as easily be titled, “The Amy Schumer Movie.” It encompasses the comedy, writing, and tone of her projects in a way that not even Judd Apatow (Knocked UpFunny People) could overshadow. I doubt I would have guessed Apatow was even a part of this film if I had not known that going in.

For these reasons and many others, I found it impossible to like Trainwreck. This is because I found it impossible to like Amy Schumer in this. Her character, aptly named Amy, is one of the most unlikable characters I’ve seen on a screen all year. Right up there with Jupiter Jones and “Oh” the alien.

Before we dive in and discuss the movie, keep in mind that I also didn’t like Spy, the other summer comedy that everyone else seems to believe is a laugh riot. I don’t look down on anyone who likes a comedy that I didn’t enjoy, but I also don’t hold back from announcing the huge problems I have with these movies, so you’ve been warned.

trainwreck review

Trainwreck stars Amy Schumer as Amy, a free-spirited magazine writer who finds romantic commitment boring to the point of mocking it. She sleeps around without remorse until falling for the subject of an article she’s writing. Aaron Conners (played by Bill Hader) is a sports doctor that tries to woo Amy and hopefully help change her life for the better.

It was directed by Judd Apatow and written by Amy Schumer. As Apatow puts it, Trainwreck is based on a smattering of personal stories she shared with him, and the director liked them enough to turn Amy’s story into a movie.

That’s sort of the problem with Trainwreck. The film is essentially a series of raunchy comedy sketches that mostly feature Amy Schumer reacting negatively to things that we find normal, expect inserting gross-out gags to make them seem out-of-place.

trainwreck review

Again, comedy sketches.

To make them all connect, the film has to drag its plot points in admittedly familiar Apatow style to keep things coherent. And even then, multitudes of dialogue and character choices end up making zero sense within the context of the story Amy is trying to tell with this script.

A prime example is Amy’s reaction to Aaron’s advances early in the film. She and her coworker best friend panic at the idea of a guy asking to hang out after having sex. This flies in the face of the first 15 minutes of the movie, which show Amy with a consistent boyfriend she cheats on (John Cena in a role that is just as confusing as the rest of the movie. The script can’t decide if he’s a softy who truly loves Amy or a closeted gay man).

trainwreck review

The killing blow to a comedy is when its protagonist is unlikable. If you can’t get onboard with Amy Schumer’s character, then you’re going to feel the length of this movie.

The only funny moments I could salvage were from scenes featuring Bill Hader and Lebron James alone together (the gag involving “Gold Digger” is the only funny moment I can recall from this movie). But even these scenes ended up dragging because they revolved around a central plot I wasn’t invested in.

Now, many people seem to like Trainwreck, which leads me to believe that many people like Amy Schumer’s character in this movie. I find that pretty alarming considering everything about her that’s revealed over the course of two hours. In the first act alone, we see Amy as this condescending, self-centered drag who thinks everyone around her is less intelligent. Or cool, I suppose.

trainwreck review

A movie can present its main character as a “train wreck.” It’s not Amy’s self-destructive behavior and constant partying that keeps me from sympathizing with her.

It’s actually how she claims to have a black best friend who is really a waiter in the background of a photo…

how she endlessly picks on her sister’s stepson for not being “cool…”

how she makes her sister feel guilty for settling down in every scene they’re in…

how she goes on a rant about how people who like sports are stupid (which repeats throughout the movie only for Aaron to finally call her out on this)…

how she writes these scenes to make her one-night stands exaggerated versions of morons in order to make us think that she’s this special flower but also a train wreck at the same time…

and how she essentially makes zero decisions for herself despite presenting herself as this woman who is happy with her choices…until she’s not.

trainwreck review

Amy just goes along with dating Aaron, despite protesting it relentlessly. She keeps dating him, even though her inner monologue tells us she doesn’t really want to. She falls in love with him, even though her inner monologue says she expects the relationship to fail anyway.

Why in the world should I care about a character who doesn’t even seem to want to be in the story that’s being told? That’s not comedy. That’s drama.

I blame poor writing for these problems, because even though I wanted to laugh and have a good time, I found myself feeling depressed just by watching this. Amy Schumer has good comedic timing, and the supporting cast is great. But when your central premise is a tribute to nihilism disguised as a generic romantic comedy, then people who don’t want either of these things (namely, me) won’t enjoy it.

trainwreck review

But Trainwreck has been a critical success and a hit among audiences, probably because the generic romantic comedy elements are enough for casual moviegoers to have a good time with this film. Even if the movie isn’t especially profitable, it will and probably already has cemented Amy Schumer as the next comedic powerhouse. Maybe even in the same way people saw Sarah Silverman during the 2000s.

And while I don’t want to write off Schumer as a talent after just one movie, I can’t help but predict that I’ll be skipping the next comedy grab she’s part of. Especially if she wrote it.

Grade: D+ 

While I somewhat enjoyed the performances from Bill Hader, Lebron James, and Brie Larson, I honestly couldn’t forgive this movie for its consistent narrative flaws and hackneyed premise fueled by its absurd lead actor.

trainwreck review

For those of you who’ve seen the movie and agree/disagree, let me know your thoughts about Trainwreck in the comments. Did you like it or did you dislike it? Why?

If you want a different take on the film, check out our most recent podcast, where Maria Garcia gives a more favorable review that you might find interesting.

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