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Can't Stop the Movies

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Desperate to get to an uncharted land before the Russians, a United States scientific expedition secures military escort to scout and document their findings.  Their presence awakens beasts beyond their imaginations, and the team soon faces a fight for survival against the land that continued to evolve as the world around it fought.  Jordan Vogt-Roberts directs Kong: Skull Island, with the screenplay written by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly, and stars John Goodman, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, and John C. Reilly.

Kong: Skull Island (just Skull Island moving forward) had me grinning like a damn kid from start to finish.  I didn't have great expectations considering the last indie feature director going straight to the big leagues resulted in the abhorrent Jurassic World.  To see where Skull Island succeeded where Jurassic World failed, all we need to do is look at the foundation laid by their respective directors.  Jordan Vogt-Roberts of Skull Island made the smarter than most coming-of-age fun film The Kings of Summer, while Colin Trevorrow of Jurassic World made the comfortably bland Safety Not Guaranteed.

I want to live in a world where the keys to the toy box are handed to directors like Vogt-Roberts, who create fun worlds with a bit of insight to keep the more critically minded viewers' interest.  Most importantly, there's not a mean bone in Skull Island's tight storytelling, and the conflict arises because of an obsession with personal codes of honor instead of anything as cold or calculating as profit.  Vogt-Roberts made a rip-roaring adventure, mostly aware of the time it takes place in, and showcases creature clash beats with the same rhythm as an excellent action film.  It's unlikely I'll have more fun with a film this year than Skull Island, but if any directors feel up to the task then take a swing at the king.


For the week of 8/21/2017 on Can’t Stop the Movies

First off, I'm sorry for the lack of updates the last week or so.  A needed roadtrip to take care of grandmother estate stuff was quickly followed by my older orange cat Graham getting sick, so things have been wonky.  To compensate, I'm pushing myself through the once-a-week Patreon barrier, and I've got a special episode planned about the video game Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice that'll serve as a pilot for another potential project.

As far as movies go - I'll start with Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts of the great The Kings of Summer.  Next is a horror film I've heard a lot of praise for but know little about, the cannibalistic Raw.  Likewise, the buzz around Kristen Stewart's performance in Personal Shopper rivals that of her career-best work in Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria. I'll top it all off from another franchise standout as Emma Watson portrays Belle in Bill Condon's Beauty and the Beast.

Remember, no one can stop the movies.

As Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is slated for release in October later this year, I finally broke down and played through 2014's Shadow of Mordor.  It sparked a few thoughts on what we've come to expect from heroes, the usefulness of an open-world setting with mission borders, and how many growly hostile white male protagonists we need.


The Great Wall (2017)

Commander Lin Mae prepares her forces as part of The Nameless Order to repel a monstrous threat which emerges every sixty years.  Another alien threat, led by the mercenary William Garin, raises suspicions about his motivations while retaining respect for his fighting skills.  Lin Mae must stay wary of William and ready her troops for battle if her Chinese countrymen are to remain safe.  Zhang Yimou directs The Great Wall, with the screenplay written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy, and stars Jing Tian, Matt Damon, and Pedro Pascal.

I'm disappointed that a movie as accomplished and quietly nuanced as The Great Wall has devolved into internet shouting matches over the presence of Matt Damon.  To make my feelings clear upfront - Damon, as mercenary William Garin, is unquestionably the worst aspect of The Great Wall.  His accent appears and disappears with unusual frequency for a performer as talented as Damon, with him doing a subpar gravely Liam Neeson-esque Irish tone at times and a generic Midwestern United States flat affectation at others.  Most unusually, he's not as precise and intriguing in the fights that he honed to near perfection with director Paul Greengrass in the Bourne movies.  Damon's tasked with a character whose conflict is more internal than external, and director Zhang Yimou's formal qualities don't create a situation where Damon is able to play to his strengths.

Focusing on Damon, as the conversation at-large has chosen to do, does a disservice to the tightly crafted action in The Great Wall.  This "East meets West" epic is heavy on the integrity of the former while calling into question the integrity of the latter.  This is Yimou's finest film since House of Flying Daggers, suffering neither from the bloat of Curse of the Golden Flower nor the self-conscious "prestige" aspects of The Flowers of War.  Yimou crafts another large-scale epic with personal philosophical stakes, characters making decisions that test their ethical codes, and battles that are as visceral as they are contemplative.


A Cure for Wellness (2017)

Lockhart is taking the long route to the same sickness that led his father to suicide.  After the board leading his company threatens to punish his work, he is given the task to retrieve a man they may be able to pin their crimes on.  Shortly after arriving at the mysterious wellness asylum, Lockhart finds that the "cure" might not be what it seems.  Gore Verbinski directs A Cure for Wellness, with the screenplay written by Justin Haythe, and stars Dane DeHaan and Jason Isaacs.

For a fun writing experiment, sit down after watching A Cure for Wellness (simply Wellness moving on) and write what you think the tone is.  What happens is straightforward as Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) deals with dueling worlds of corporate takeovers and sinister asylums.  Gore Verbinski's tone, and the associated visual language, is all over the damn map in comparison.  There's bits of creature feature, shadowy espionage, body horror, and pulp that would have made Samuel Fuller proud.

That's just for starters, and it's no wonder Wellness bombed so thoroughly when released earlier this year.  Things are tough now and we're seeing the worst of humanity paraded about in our leadership.  Asking audiences to sit through two and a half hours of near unrelenting torment is a tall order, and I'd be lying if I said Wellness succeeded at the intense mishmash of genre influences Verbinski takes mighty aim at.  I'd also be lying to myself if I said I didn't enjoy Wellness in the same sense that my skin feels refreshed in the sun after removing a bandage that's been welded to my body for far too long.


Oxenfree (2016)

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It wasn't until yesterday I realized I've developed an affinity for media centering around alienated young women dealing with some vague apocalyptic threat.  In movies there was Before I Fall, The Edge of Seventeen, in music I had Grimes, and in video games Life is Strange and, now, Oxenfree.  While varying in tone and presentation, to say nothing of being in different mediums, there's a liberating feeling throughout all these pieces of art.  Life is open to possibilities in a way media centering around men feels like it's on rails.

Oxenfree isn't as world-weary as any of those other artistic endeavors to its benefit and detriment.  It's nice exploring the world with Alex (Erin Yvette) and directing her conversations like a water spigot where I choose who gets told what as time marches on.  At the same time, Alex and her friends are on an island haunted by the spirits of an United States submarine sunk by American firepower, and by the time Ren (Aaron Kuban) and Jonas (Gavin Hammon) make the same joke about military figure "Dick Harden" I was wondering if any of them were aware the danger they were in.  There's a disconnect between the increasingly grave threats of the spirits compared to the joking tone the cast continues to use throughout Oxenfree.

Whatever reservations I have about Alex and co. treating the situation lightly are moved aside ever so slightly for a remarkable dialogue system.  Alex is free to select conversation topics as they slowly fade from view while walking around the environment may trigger other options to bring up.  No conversation flows with ease, characters talk over each other while Alex's interjections are just as likely to be ignored as they are to silence, and there's nothing stopping those characters from picking up their previous train of thought if interrupted.  This is the primary source for that feeling of spontaneity I felt in Life is Strange and so on, it also means that what the player puts into the game is likely what they'll get out of it.  Granted, that may be true of most art, but consistently engaging with background observations or taking the dead-end paths reveals more information that gives context to the characters' emotional state.