Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Kong: Skull Island is an impressive spectacle, the kind of movie made for a rousing theatergoing experience. Not that I would know since I watched it on DVR at five in the morning with loads of coffee and no sleep. But I imagine it would be exhilarating to sink into my stadium seat and gaze up at the thirty-foot screen because what is the point of going to the cinema if not to see giant beasts battling it out against a tropical landscape? The film doesn’t hit every mark, but it does deliver a blockbuster bang of star power, mythmaking, and special effects.

This latest Kong story takes us back to the 1970s and Skull Island. Government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) leads a group of scientists to the uncharted territory in the South Pacific on what is ostensibly a mapping mission but is really a search for Kong and other primeval creatures. He enlists the services of former British forces scout James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and is given a military escort led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). They don’t even manage to land before most of the team is killed. The scattered survivors form two groups, one consisting of Conrad, Weaver, and some scientists and the other largely military personnel led by Packard.

Kong, the cause of all the carnage, immediately becomes the white whale to Packard’s Ahab. The lieutenant colonel embarks on a new mission – to retrieve more weapons and explosives and kill Kong. Conrad’s team, meanwhile, encounter an indigenous tribe who have been sheltering an unexpected guest. They learn from the Iwi people that Kong, the last of his kind, is actually the island’s protector, a godlike figure to them because he keeps the far more vicious Skullcrawlers, underwater lizard beasts, at bay.

With battle lines drawn, it’s easy to get swept away by the epic scale of things. The climactic fight between Kong and king of the Skullcrawlers is a brawl for the ages, on par with those lion-hyena-elephant-crocodile fights you see in nature documentaries. A wild-eyed Packard also steels himself to take down everyone and everything that comes between him and Kong. But there are a lot more ideas at play than monster versus monster or monster versus man. With the Vietnam War casting a shadow over everything, the characters’ militarism is even more pronounced. The movie points its critical eye not so much at the fear of the unknown but at the kneejerk response to it, which is always met with aggression and violence. Packard may personify this, but he’s not the only one operating on the ethos of “shoot first, ask questions never.” After all, Randa and his scientists’ gleeful bombing of Kong’s backyard is what sets the whole thing off.

The carnage by beast and human plays out against breathtaking landscape, making the human part of it more savage than beautiful. Shot on location in Vietnam, Hawai’i, and Australia, the film boasts handsome photography. Nevertheless, the striking visuals can’t hide the weaker parts of the story. Everyone’s playing at an idea rather than a fully fleshed character, and the film tries to have it both ways by elevating the heroes it wants to critique. Outside of Kong, Larson’s character comes closest to someone you can root for. Weaver is the movie’s emotional touchpoint and manages to tap into Kong’s tamer side. Of course she further other-izes the Iwi people with photographs that are bound for a National Geographic spread. Hiddleston and Jackson at least have enough grit to turn their characters into charismatic, if troubling, stereotypes. Jing Tian, on the other hand, doesn’t get a chance to break out and merely acts as a prop for Cory Hawkins’s character, lest he poke around the background by himself. There’s blessed comic relief in the form of “crazy Santa Claus time traveler guy” John C. Reilly as well as Thomas Mann, who plays one of Packard’s men. Their contributions keep the film from becoming a generic dark and serious type of action adventure.

Released: 2017
Prod: Thomas Tull, Mary Parent, Jon Jashni, Alex Garcia
Dir: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Writer: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly, Marc Evan Jackson, Richard Jenkins, Miyavi
Time: 118 min
Lang: English, some Japanese
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Poms (2019)

Poms charges forth with the determination of a high school cheerleader at the season’s first pep rally. It has a message, proclaims it loudly and proudly, and strives to hit every mark. But as sometimes happens, an angry principal commandeers the mike, the trombone player throws up, Becky’s uniform comes undone. Or maybe that was my high school. In any case, this film about retirees forming a cheer team is as routine and predictable as they come. Diane Keaton leads an outstanding cast, but there are few chances for them to shine with this lackluster script.

Keaton plays Martha, a retired school teacher who is not long for this world. It isn’t because she’s getting on in years but because she has cancer and refuses treatment. She plans to sell her stuff, drive down to a retirement community in Georgia, and die, which isn’t the sunniest way to go but then Martha’s not a sunny person. She has no interest in joining a requisite club and passes up the chance to befriend the community’s security chief (Bruce McGill). Her hopes of slipping away quietly dim too when she meets her neighbor, Sheryl (Jacki Weaver), known for dropping by uninvited and hosting rowdy poker games in the middle of the night.

A shared disdain for petty regulations and the resident mean girls brings the two together though, and they propose to start the community’s first cheerleading team. It’s not well received, and queen bee Vicki (Celia Weston) takes particular issue with the group, which she finds ludicrous and a tad obscene. That doesn’t stop them from recruiting members and yes, via a graceless, mildly comic try-out montage. Some are like Martha, there to satisfy an unfulfilled dream, some enjoy the workout and still others just want to stick it to their overbearing husband. Needless to say, coordination is a bit off and they decide to stick to moves that don’t send them airborne.

The feel good factor is certainly present in Poms, and it’s hard to root against the women for doing whatever they want, critics and less-than-limber knees be damned. The veteran cast bring a joy that projects even when their moves and the script do not. Keaton grounds the film, but Weaver is the real spark. Sheryl is wild without being silly. She substitute teaches for kicks and attends strangers’ funerals for the free food. It’s no wonder even the staid Martha would be attracted to her.

Outside of Weaver’s performance and a ringing message that it’s never too late to follow your dreams, however, the film doesn’t have much to show for. Martha can be a frustrating character, admirable for her tenacity but also confusing in her decision-making. We don’t know why, for example, she’s set her sights on this retirement community in Georgia when she loathes so much about it. Her reason for seizing this particular opportunity to be a cheerleader also seems thin. Other characters don’t fare better. I was excited to see Pam Grier in the cast, but apparently she’s just here to show off a leotard. Chloe (Alisha Boe) is frustrating as well, a teen cheerleader who switches allegiances whenever it suits the plot. I would have liked a more honest film, one willing to indulge in feelings of loss and fear that go deeper than seeing oneself in a viral video.

Released: 2019
Prod: Rose Ganguzza, Celyn Jones, Sean Marley, Kelly McCormick, Ade Shannon, Andy Evans
Dir: Zara Hayes
Writer: Shane Atkinson
Cast: Diane Keaton, Jacki Weaver, Celia Weston, Alisha Boe, Charlie Tahan, Rhea Perlman, Phyllis Somerville, Pam Grier, Patricia French, Ginny MacColl, Carol Sutton, Bruce McGill
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

The Amazing Adventure of Marchello the Cat (2008)

The wonderful thing about libraries is that you never know what you’ll discover. Sometimes you come across great gems, stories that excite the imagination and inspire real wonder, and sometimes you come across The Amazing Adventure of Marchello the Cat, a movie to be sure but not at all what I expected when I checked out this feature film.

At least it is true to its description and delivers on a story about “a sheltered indoor cat [who] escapes and is forced to face the mean city streets in order to find his way home.” There’s a plot, which is more than you can say for some kids’ movies, and it proceeds in logical fashion. Marcello (Troy Garity), a coddled black and white furball, ventures outdoors when his human mom goes off to meet her boyfriend’s family. Blame it on his kitty hormones. He attempts to flirt with outdoor cat Jujube (Michelle Rodriguez), but his efforts are cut short when he’s catnapped by a rollerblader. Naïve to the ways of the world, he is easily taken advantage of by animals who either wish him harm or who just want a laugh. All Marcello wants though is make it back home, wherever that is.

I can see someone embarking on a remake and turning this into a movie worth watching. It has cats, and I’m not going to turn down a cat movie. I did watch Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties and Nine Lives after all, so there’s no bottom line for me. Marcello encounters some interesting characters, like Pinky and Blackie, who have quite touching stories. Pinky is under the illusion that her human mom will come back to their palace any day, except she’s just an abandoned cat who sleeps in a dump. Blackie, meanwhile, is a do-gooder trying to find new homes for the strays who cross his path. The crows are a different story. They control much of the animal-to-animal communications and love nothing more than to stir up trouble.

The problem, however, is that this plays like someone’s home movies from the 1990s. You’re honestly going to get better production values by sticking your iPhone on a tripod and capturing the neighborhood pets. Writer and director Susan Emerson, who has a handful of credits to her name, pieces what I assume are the best bits of her grainy, zoom-happy footage and still ends up with something that looks like amateur YouTube. In addition, the perspective is all over the place, which I guess is what happens when you take a handheld camera and chase a few animals around. Sometimes we get shots from Marchello’s point of view and sometimes we’re just creepy voyeurs from afar spying on him and his furry friends. If you must watch this, I’d recommend muting the sound, but really, just stick with the cute cat videos already populating the internet.

Alt Titles: Cats: The Movie!; A Cat’s Tale
Released: 2008
Prod: Paul Williams
Dir: Susan Emerson
Writer: Susan Emerson
Cast: Troy Garity, Michelle Rodriguez, Mara Lane, Dominique Swain, Troy Hall, Jeremy Sisto, Shannon Conlon, Jeremy Piven
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019