(On Cable TV, January 2018) There may not be all that much more to Kong: Skull Island than another monster-on-an-island movie, but it’s a heck of a monster-on-an-island movie. Gorgeously presented, competently executed, it’s a maximalist take on a familiar kind of film. The seventies setting brings more to the film than expected (largely due to a good soundtrack), while the special-effect work is amazing in ways that today’s jaded audiences don’t get to experience all that often. I’m not particularly keen on discussing the film’s plot holes when the result is this good. Kong himself is properly presented as a sympathetic force of nature, dangerous but essential when properly motivated. The poor humans aren’t the stars of Kong: Skull Island, although Tom Hiddleston makes for a credible action lead, John C. Reilly, John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson all do well in their usual persona, and this is the first time I’ve really noticed Brie Larson as anything more special than a standard-model brunette heroine. The film moves well through its expected set pieces and thankfully eschews the archetypical Kong story in favour of something more interesting. While it doesn’t avoid a bit of excessive gore (that giant-spider scene … ick), this is a film directed with some refreshing cleverness by Jordan Vogt-Roberts all the way to one of the most enjoyable post-credit scenes in recent memory. That the film feels a lot like 2014’s Godzilla is really no accident, as they are both part of a buildup to a linked universe that (so far) looks far more successful and intriguing than the Universal Monsters continuity. All in all, Kong: Skull Island is a bit of a surprise—the premise looks dull and the idea of another monster movie is too familiar by now, but the results on-screen are undeniably enjoyable.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) I read J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel so long ago that I had no real expectations for the movie adaptation except “go ahead and do justice to the source material’s insanity”. Yet I was disappointed. The first half-hour of High-Rise is simply fantastic, as our protagonist moves into a high-rise apartment building that’s nearly a world upon itself. But there’s madness in the building, and it doesn’t take the unsolicited advances of his upstairs neighbour to figure it out—before long, the building has stratified itself in upper-versus lower classes, with violence and anarchy (and, heaven forbid, uncollected heaps of trash) being the new normal. The setup is terrific, but the execution of the premise less so—basic world-building details don’t make sense (the decision to set the film in the seventies gives and takes away), the film seems to lose itself in less interesting subplots and our protagonist eventually seems to be nothing more than a bystander to a brutal social breakdown. While he eventually copes with it (as shown by the brilliantly deranged first scene), the film literally doesn’t go any further. The satire is unevenly handled and while some of the quotes are delicious, the film itself seems to be looking for something to do in its second half. Too bad; High-Rise has a sense of surreal anarchy that occasionally works well. At least there are a few good performances in the mix. Tom Hiddleston doesn’t do much but looks good doing so, while much of the same can also be done with Sienna Miller. Meanwhile, Elisabeth Moss does have a more challenging role. This is my first film from writer/director Ben Wheatley and while I’m not completely displeased by the results, it’s not necessarily a slam-dunk that will lead me to seek out the rest of his filmography. In the meantime, High-Rise doesn’t embarrass the source novel, but it doesn’t do it full justice either.