action adventure movies

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

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindenwald (2018)

The last time I was this devastated by the imaginary happenings of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World was due to the death of Sirius Black. The Crimes of Grindenwald compounds that trauma since pretty much no one gets out of this film unscathed. Critics and fans might include themselves in that number too. This second installment of the Fantastic Beasts series received a frosty reception by those who took issue with its sloppy writing and convoluted plot, fair points on both accounts. For what it’s worth though, which is not a lot, I’ve spent more hours with this movie than with all the other films and books combined.

Sure, I’ll cop to being superficial and acknowledge that the cast is partly the reason. Former Burberry models Eddie Redmayne and Callum Turner are fucking snacks in their woolen three-piece suits. Then there’s Jude Law, a man who can do smoking hot pope and smoking hot wizard prof. Zoe Kravitz holds it down for the ladies. I’ve never wanted to be an emotionally tortured witch from the 1920s as much as I do when I see her, and her wardrobe. In fact, the whole costume department can come over and outfit me for the day, or forever. The handsome period clothing is also matched by the film’s sumptuous design, with Europe proving a far lusher playground than gloomy post-war America.

The malcontents are not wrong about the film’s faults though. The story, which takes place a shortly after the events of the first movie, is slow to come together. Magizoologist Newt Scamandar (Redmayne) is back in London after tearing up New York. He briefly reunites with his former Hogwarts teacher, Dumbledore (Law), who seeks his help on another errand that will likely get both in trouble with the Ministry. Events soon force Newt and the others to travel to France, where everyone is pursuing the mysterious Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). American auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), who tried to protect him in America, follows the young man to Paris, keeping an eye on those who seek to kill or corrupt him. Grimmson, a bloodthirsty bounty hunter employed by the British Ministry of Magic, and Yusef Kama (William Nadylam), a shady Frenchman with a grudge, both want him dead, while the dark wizard Grindenwald (Johnny Depp), aided by his band of pureblood acolytes, hopes to use Credence for his own ends.

With no book as a guide, there’s a lot to piece together, and even the film’s 134 minute run time seems too short to do its story and characters justice. Director David Yates works with a script penned by Rowling, but they don’t filter out which of the many details are most important for this particular movie. Whereas the first film was largely about Newt and Tina’s efforts to protect Credence, Crimes of Grindenwald is missing a similar overriding narrative. At times, it is focused on Credence’s search for his true identity, and at others, it is about Grindenwald’s attempt to upend the world order, replacing it with one in which witches and wizards reign superior. Leta Lestrange (Kravitz) also finds herself at the center of things. Newt’s best and only friend from Hogwarts, Leta is now engaged to his brother, Theseus (Turner), and remains haunted by a past that she’s reluctant to revisit.

The lack of strong relationships is one reason why the film seems so disjointed. The movie conspires to keep everyone apart, creating a certain amount of tension but also scattering the characters across different ends of Britain and Paris. We know Newt and Tina grow closer, but we don’t even see her for a good half hour. Meanwhile, Queenie (Alison Sudol), Tina’s sister, and her no-maj baker boyfriend, Jacob (Dan Fogler), part in anger after crashing at Newt’s flat. She’s left wandering the streets of Paris by herself. The two men then travel to France to pursue their significant others, but it turns into a real downer of a trip. Newt is too distracted by everything else to pay much attention to his best bud, and with no one as his foil, Jacob ends up looking deflated. There are good reasons for his pessimism, but the camaraderie between the two was something I was looking forward to. Fogler is great with a wry one-liner or a flummoxed stare, and he doesn’t get many chances to flex that humor here.

The actors do their best to make up for gaps in storytelling though. Redmayne and Miller ease back into their roles, finding new points of turmoil for Newt and Credence, and Sudol reveals a different side to Queenie, one in which her good and trusting nature leads to desperation. Queenie and Jacob share only a few scenes this time around, but they capitalize on them with some truly heart-wrenching moments. Likewise, the script doesn’t reveal much in the way of Newt and Theseus’s strained relationship, and we get just a few flashes of the ill will that’s been brewing for years. As Grindenwald’s threat grows, however, the brothers are forced to come together in a raw and pained confrontation.

Yet the actors’ committed portrayals in the final act are a reason why I was a little disappointed. The emotional gut punches come mostly at the end, making the rest of the film a long waiting game. The first two-thirds of the movie aren’t as stirring as they need to be and leave too many of these rich, dynamic characters hanging. Of the neglected characters and storylines, none is more underserved than Leta and Theseus’s relationship. A burning love story exists somewhere, but we hardly get to see it. That’s a shame because not only are Kravitz and Turner sexy beasts, their romance also informs so much of Newt’s character. There’s a lot of unpacking to be done regarding Dumbledore and Grindenwald’s relationship as well, work left to the remaining three films. Similarly, Nagini (Claudia Kim) is overlooked. Best known as Voldermort’s serpent companion, she still exists in human form and befriends Credence after they meet in the circus. Kim has about two lines in the whole movie and spends most of it looking very worried. If we don’t see much more of her as the series progresses, then Rowling might as well have left her out.

This brings us to a major criticism of Crimes of Grindenwald and one that I hope is corrected in the next film. The treatment of women, from lead character Tina to Newt’s fawning assistant, Bunty (Victoria Yeates), isn’t flattering. With the exception of Queenie, most are secondary to their male counterparts. Vinda (Poppy Corby-Tuech) does the bidding of Grindenwald, Nagini comforts Credence, and Bunty can’t seem to get a handle on any fantastic creature without Newt around. Even Tina is sidelined. The tenacious auror who proved all of the Magical Congress of America wrong, she does one thing of actual consequence – zapping Theseus, who is in hot pursuit of his brother, with a spell. Most maligned, however, is Leta. The embodiment of the tragic mulatto, she doesn’t get her due; rather than coming into her own, she is defined by her relationship to other men, be it Newt or Theseus or Credence. Nevertheless, I found Kravitz’s performance most moving, and having just seen the film for the nth time, I’m still picking up the pieces of my broken little heart. If Crimes of Grindenwald is an opening act for what’s to follow, then I’m very open.

Released: 2018
Prod: David Heyman, J.K. Rowling, Steve Kloves, Lionel Wigram
Dir: David Yates
Writer: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Kevin Guthrie, Jude Law, Johnny Depp
Time: 134 min
Lang: English, some French
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)


Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is what it is, and that is not a film I would normally watch. But triggered by an urge to clean my Netflix queue and not use my brain yielded this gem. Well, not a gem exactly but also not the hardened lump of excrement I was expecting. I might even say I enjoyed it, some elements at least. The movie is campy fun, filled with bracing action but also economical in execution. Angelina Jolie doesn’t flinch in the title role and offsets some though not all of my concerns about the character, best known as the busty star of a popular video game franchise.

Since I’m unfamiliar with Lara Croft or her tomb raiding world, I was prepared to take everything at face value. So she’s a titled gentlewoman living alone, with the exception of her butler (Chris Barrie) and personal tech guy/hacker (Noah Taylor), on a vast estate inherited from her late father. Sure, that makes sense. So all nine planets (even you, Pluto) are set to align for the first time in 5000 years, possibly causing a lot of weird stuff to happen. Okay, whatever you say. So the Illuminati are trying to get their hands on a key, which is a clock, which will allow them to find two halves of a triangle, which together will give them unlimited power. Um, fine, why the hell not? Accept these truths and you are on your way to enjoying, or not hating, the movie.

It manages to keep a balance between serious action and pure silliness. The fight sequences come fast and furious, and it’s no wonder Lara is so fit. She sometimes engages in battle with nifty virtual simulation courtesy of her tech guy, but when she locks horns with Manfred Powell (Iain Glen), a member of the Illuminati tasked with retrieving the key, the action intensifies. Pursuit of the key and magical triangle things take the characters across continents. They travel to Cambodia, Italy, and Siberia, engaging in a mix of swordplay, gun fights, martial arts, and bungee dancing. The action makes good use of location and allows the story’s video game roots to show through. Occasionally these scenes drag on, but there’s enough kinetic energy to keep the film moving.

There’s also a good amount of levity, not all of it intentional. I was most amused by the droll demeanor of the sidekicks. During one intense fight when Powell’s men are trying to steal the clock from Lara’s mansion, the butler gamely gets kitted out for battle, only to miss the action. Julian Rhind-Tutt also has a small role as a kind of preening lackey that reminded me a little of Gollum and made me smile. This is a movie where ancient stone statues come to life and something called time storms, which are fiery orbs that can reverse time, are a thing, so hammy lines spoken seriously (“we’re going into the belly of the beast – and out of the demon’s ass”) come with the territory.

Jolie’s performance makes this film better than it might be. Lara Croft is clearly the product of dudes’ imagination and I’m not a fan of her needless sexualization. But if Jolie doesn’t downplay her character’s physical appeal, she at least plays up her other qualities. Lara is obviously an equal if not superior to the Illuminati, a bunch of old white dudes and cunning Iain Glen. Even James Bond acknowledges her intelligence and physical strength. Daniel Craig, testing his American accent, plays fellow tomb raider and Powell’s hired gun, Alex West. He and Lara share a history and don’t care much to hide their ongoing attraction. That lingering romance might create sparks for some, but I was more impressed that a male character in an action movie respected and deferred to a strong female protagonist. Do we still call that progress?

Released: 2001
Prod: Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin, Colin Wilson
Dir: Simon West
Writer: Patrick Massett, John Zinman
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Daniel Craig, Iain Glen, Noah Taylor, Chris Barrie, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Jon Voight
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016