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Posts Tagged ‘Samuel L Jackson’

One of the exciting prospects of the recent trip was the chance to take the blog’s very infrequent feature New Cinema Review intercontinental – my previous trip to the States was quite rigorously scheduled with not much opportunity to check out the picturehouses of Arizona or Utah. This time around it was much more a case of ‘do what you feel like’, and I certainly felt like seeing if all the stories I had heard about the American cinemagoing experience were true.

I suppose the modern multiplex is essentially an American invention, inasmuch as the commercial cinema industry is essentially the same thing, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when the multiplex we turned up to (it was the Regal just off 8th Avenue, should anyone be interested) looked quite like one in the UK. However, we were much impressed by the American way of running the adverts continuously in advance of the film, which was the first thing we noticed – this allows you to get to the good stuff (i.e. the trailers) that much sooner.

On attempting to sit down, I was a little surprised to find we were in extremely plush leather seats with little desks in front of them. As, despite buying our tickets four days in advance, we had got practically the last two seats in the cinema, I had expected to be in cheap and nasty seating, but this was the kind of furniture I had only previously seen in VIP-class premium UK cinemas. These were very nice seats indeed, and I had settled into mine and was thoroughly enjoying it when a helpful Manhattanite a couple of spaces down indicated a button set into the seat arm, which I duly pressed.

There was much humming and whirring and the seat unfolded in a rather surprising manner. I found myself enveloped by the thing and arranged in a posture that suggested I was either about to experience orbital insertion or be the subject of significant dental surgery. Needless to say it was still very comfortable. If all the seats were like this, no wonder everybody there was unexpectedly laid back: I had expected people to be yelling at the screen and generally causing a commotion, but other than a few scattered rounds of applause everyone was fairly genteel.

I was particularly surprised by this, as we were there for the opening night of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel, the 21st entry in the world-dominating meta-franchise from (of course) Marvel Studios. Regardless of how the movie turned out, given films in this series make billions of dollars almost on a routine basis, I was expecting a bit more feverish excitement, especially as we were in Marvel’s home town. Hey ho.

The film opens in a slightly disconcerting manner, as we meet feisty alien warrior Vers (Brie Larson), who’s a sort of special forces soldier for the Kree Empire (the Kree being a bunch of aliens previously featured in the 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy). The Kree are at war with another group of aliens, these ones being shape-shifters called Skrulls, and very soon Vers and her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) are sent off on a mission. But things do not go to plan and soon Vers finds herself falling out of orbit into the atmosphere of an obscure backwater planet known to the natives as Earth…

It seems that the Skrulls have infiltrated Earth and are looking for something that could help them win the war. With reinforcements a long way off, Vers finds herself obliged to forge an alliance with government agent Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), who turns up to investigate reports of a woman falling through the roof of a branch of Blockbuster (it’s 1995). But Vers is also troubled by fragments of memory suggesting she herself has a history on Earth, and a connection to the place…

So, you may be wondering, what has all this got to do with Captain Marvel, whoever they are? A fair question. I should say that this is another one of those movies like Wonder Woman, which shies away from actually calling the lead character by their superhero code-name. The other potentially problematic point is that there have been a large number of comic-book characters with ‘Marvel’ in their name (there have been quite a few just called Captain Marvel), with some labyrinthine character biographies and peculiar creative choices developing as a result. (I expect we shall return to this when the movie about the original Captain Marvel comes out in about a month.)

On the whole the new movie does a pretty decent version of distilling all the lore down into something relatively straightforward and accessible while still keeping the major points of connection with the stuff from the comics. That said, as I mentioned, the film is a little bit discombobulating in its opening movement, though this may indeed be a deliberate choice to play with audience expectations.

Once she-who-will-presumably-one-day-be-Captain Marvel arrives on Earth and teams up with Nick Fury, the film immediately relaxes and becomes a very enjoyable knockabout sci-fi adventure, notably light in tone. Marvel’s films have been hitting this pitch for a while now, but even so it is something of a surprise, partly because this film is setting up Avengers: Endgame (the last Avengers film had a genuine sense of gravity about it), partly because there has been a degree of fuss about this being the first female-fronted Marvel Studios film.

Perhaps quite sensibly, the film doesn’t seem inclined to make a big deal out of this, with Larson opting to give a winningly tongue-in-cheek performance – this is really what the material demands, with Jackson and especially Ben Mendelsohn doing the same kind of thing. If the film has a feminist agenda it seems largely confined to the soundtrack, which includes a preponderance of female-fronted ‘credible’ rock groups (no Spice Girls or Aqua, alas) from the mid-to-late 1990s. (This is really as far as the 90s setting goes when it comes to its influence on the movie, though there are a couple of decent jokes about the technology of the period.)

The downside to all this is that the film does perhaps come across as a bit lightweight and insubstantial – fun while you’re watching it, but not really in the top tier of the Marvel Studios canon. This is honestly a little surprising, considering it not only sets up Endgame but also serves as a prequel to the rest of the series and even ties together the more cosmic and the Earth-bound strands of the meta-franchise (characters from the Avengers films and the Guardians of the Galaxy strand both feature). That said, it does the usual thing of rewarding long-term followers of the series by including a few call-backs, clues, and mysteries to engage and tantalise them.

In the end, Captain Marvel is simply fun in the by-now traditional Marvel Studios manner – the production values are great, the action is well-mounted, the jokes connect, and the movie works hard to deliver on its big moments. (In addition to the traditional, and now quite poignant cameo, there is an entirely befitting tribute to Stan Lee, too.)  I would put it as mid-table in terms of this particular franchise, but that’s not a terrible place to be, and there is a lot of potential here to add to the present-day films. And the good thing (perhaps) is that even if this particular Marvel comics movie isn’t quite your thing, they’re already showing the trailers for the next three. If they are all made to the same standard as Captain Marvel, I don’t anticipate fans of the series having a great deal to complain about. 

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Is there a dodgier proposition in the whole of movie-dom than the double-duty sequel? I speak of when film-makers, usually to prop up flagging franchises, decide to continue the ongoing story from two or more previous films in a single new movie, often with ‘Meets’ or ‘Vs’ in the title. As far as I can work out, this sort of thing got started with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the genre (if that’s the right word) has gone on to include such dubious recent pleasures as Freddy Vs Jason and Alien Vs Predator.

It would be wrong of me to suggest that the double-duty concept is synonymous with worthless film-making, for interesting and entertaining films can result – many of the better Godzilla films certainly qualify, if you bear in mind that some of the Toho monsters started off by headlining their own movies and then meeting Godzilla in a later instalment. And you could certainly argue that Marvel Studios’ whole success has been built on the principle of this kind of shared fictional world.

Whether M Night Shyamalan’s Glass is more inspired by the old-school horror mash-ups or the Marvel project is not immediately clear, but this is certainly one of the more intriguing double-duty sequels of recent years. Shyamalan’s 2016 film Split seemed like a perfectly competent horror-fantasy movie until an electrifying final twist revealed it took place in the same world as his 2000 movie Unbreakable. The implication – that a confrontation between the main characters of the two films was inevitable – was an undeniably exciting one, certainly enough to make most people overlook just how spotty Shyamalan’s record has been as a writer-director.

Well, anyway, here we are: things are more or less how they stood at the end of Split, with a serial killer known as the Horde (James McAvoy) on the loose – so known because of his multiple personality disorder, one of those personalities being the superhuman Beast – and terrorising cheerleaders like it’s going out of style. However, on the lookout for him is David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the near-invulnerable hero of Unbreakable, who has apparently spent the last 19 years working as a vigilante with his now-grown son (Spencer Treat Clark). (Even after all this time Dunn has yet to land himself a proper superhero code-name, usually being referred to as the Overseer – which hardly pops – or the Green Guard, which is just rubbish.)

Sure enough, Dunn manages to track the Horde down, but the confrontation between them remains unresolved as the authorities, led by psychiatrist Dr Staple (Sarah Paulson), swoop in and rush them both off to the local laughing academy, where they are held in conditions designed to neutralise their so-called super-powers. Staple announces that her mission is to convince them that they are not superhuman but simply disturbed – and her patients include not just Dunn and the Horde, but also Dunn’s former friend Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson), better known as the brittle-boned mass murderer Mister Glass…

There’s obviously a certain amount of fun to had with a premise like this and to begin with Shyamalan mines the potential well, setting up the encounter between Willis and McAvoy and reintroducing various characters from both the previous films (perhaps the first warning sign in the movie is when it becomes obvious that the director has yet to break his habit of giving himself pointless and ostentatious cameo parts). At least you know what’s at stake here and how the movie seems likely to play out.

Once everybody is in the mental hospital, however, the movie collapses into a saggy and self-regarding mess in the classic manner familiar to anyone who’s sat through the collected works of M Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan seems to assume that everyone else will find his characters as intrinsically fascinating as he does, and the result is many windy scenes that don’t go anywhere as the director meditates on the situation he has created. Scenes outside the hospital with Dunn’s son and the last girl from Split (Anya Taylor-Joy) don’t add much, and basically the story loses most of its momentum. Sarah Paulson has the thankless task of playing a character who initially seems to be stupid, as she keeps declaring that superhuman beings don’t exist (we as the audience obviously know otherwise, or this film would not have been made), and the fact that Samuel L Jackson barely appears in the first half of the film is also an issue given it’s supposedly about him. The actor certainly carves himself a thick slice of ham when he does eventually show up in earnest, while James McAvoy turns in another bravura performance as the Horde’s various identities – but, again, the result of this is that Bruce Willis (never the most demonstrative of actors) kind of vanishes into the background as a result. (The film also has the issue that Jackson is visibly and distractingly older than Charlayne Woodard, the actress supposedly playing his mother.)

The whole film is stricken with this awkwardness and lack of balance, suggesting one thing and then actually delivering another. And the tone of it is odd: by most metrics it certainly qualifies as some sort of superhero fantasy – Jackson’s character is obsessed by the tropes of the genre and ends up trying to orchestrate a return engagement between Willis and McAvoy – but it is filmed and directed like a horror film. For all the film’s lofty ideas about human potential and gods walking amongst us, it’s the grittier, more downbeat style that wins out – we are teased with the prospect of a cinematic superhero battle, but what we end up with is a clumsily-choreographed wrestling match between two men in a car park. The substance is weirdly at odds with the portentous way in which it is presented.

So, very much a return to form for M Night Shyamalan, by which I mean it is wildly and frustratingly uneven. Just to confirm he’s sticking to his usual playbook, Shyamalan wraps the film up with not one, not two, but three half-assed plot twists. In theory that should equate to a satisfactory one-and-a-half-assed plot twist, but apparently these things are not cumulative. (If nothing else, at least the director appears to have discovered an interesting new field of mathematical enquiry.)

I couldn’t help feeling that Glass was a huge missed opportunity, but Olinka – who came to see it despite not having seen either of the prior films – found it to have some interesting ideas about the tyranny of normalcy. I still think she is being too generous about it. It does seem to lend weight to the idea that it’s M Night Shyamalan’s good films which are the anomalies, not the ropey fare he usually seems to produce. This film, certainly, is a waste of talent and potential.

 

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Here comes the first big catch-up release following the cessation of footballing hostilities for another couple of years – Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2. The first Incredibles came out in 2004, a geological age ago in cinematic terms. In that year, Marvel released Spider-Man 2, which was rather good, and also the Thomas Jane-starring version of The Punisher and the third Wesley Snipes Blade movie, which were not; meanwhile DC brought out the Halle Berry Catwoman, proving that they didn’t need Zach Snyder on the payroll to make terrible movies, and there was also Hellboy, possibly one of the best of the bunch but maybe a bit too quirky to really bust blocks. Along with The Incredibles, that makes six films in the genre in the year, only a couple less than in 2018. People complain nowadays about superhero fatigue but the fact is that these films have made up a big chunk of the landscape for a long time.

Fourteen years is a long gap between films (it would have been even longer, had the production period on Incredibles 2 not been unexpectedly cut by a year), and with it comes a significant level of expectation. In this case, the expectation seems to have been that it will contain some kind of commentary on either the superhero genre or our current fascination with it – it’s a Pixar movie, after all, and this studio does have a reputation for making very, very clever films.

The action picks up pretty much where the first film ended, with the Parr family of superheroes – consisting of mighty brick Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson), stretchy Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), invisible girl Violet (Sarah Vowell), and speedster Dash (Huck Milner) – taking on the villainous Underminer, despite the fact that overtly superheroic activity has been banned for many years. That their encounter with the Underminer does not go entirely to plan, does not help the situation much, and leaves the family in somewhat dire straits financially.

However, it’s not all bad news, for the senior Parrs, along with their friend Frozone (Samuel L Jackson), are contacted by the Deavours, a wealthy brother and sister who are desirous of having the superhero ban lifted. The Deavours’ plan is to get superheroes some good press, for once, and their first step in doing so is to relaunch Elastigirl, mainly because she is likely to cause rather less property damage than her husband. But can the family cope with this change in their dynamic, as Elastigirl heads off to fight crime and Mr Incredible stays home to look after the kids, each one perhaps doubting the abilities of the other…

This is, as noted, a Pixar movie, so it almost goes without saying that it is almost supernaturally beautiful to look at and inspired in its design, retaining the retro sixties-style aesthetic of the first. It also handles the various tropes of superhero fiction with confident deftness, introducing a number of new characters and staging some brilliant set pieces and action sequences. From an aesthetic point of view, this film is another huge achievement for Pixar’s artists and animators.

However, that said – anyone looking for a subversive new take on the superhero formula (such as it is) will not find much meat to chew on. The film retains the same resemblance to Marvel’s Fantastic Four that caused the makers of the 2005 FF movie so many headaches (the two families of superheroes have largely the same power set), while the idea of the superhero ban (surely derived from Watchmen) is also central to the tale. But it doesn’t really do anything new in this respect, perhaps because Pixar and Marvel Studios are both ultimately subsidiaries of Disney, who – one would guess – don’t want to risk appearing to diss a genre which has earned them billions of dollars just this year.

Instead, the film’s central idea is basically the one of gender role reversal – Elastigirl goes off to fight crime, and finds herself caught up in the machinations of a supervillain called the Screenslaver, while Mr Incredible has to contend with various domestic crises, including the baby of the family unexpectedly developing his own superpowers. And, you know, as concepts go it’s okay, although it’s a bit less radical than you might reasonably hope for – early on there’s an interesting scene touching on some quite topical issues, such as how much you should accept the various injustices of the world, and the correct response to unfair laws, but none of this is really developed. Instead we get the Elastigirl-as-a-solo-heroine storyline, which is quite engaging and contains some stunning sequences, and the sitcom stuff with the rest of the family, which is consistently fairly amusing.

The thing is that it never quite sings, with the two plotlines continuing in parallel and not really informing one another much; obviously the stuff about a working mum (and a superheroine to boot) chimes quite well with the Unique Moment, but one has to remember that the long lead times on films like this mean that this is most likely a piece of serendipity more than anything else. It certainly doesn’t feel like a film making a big statement about feminism, or indeed anything else.

As I say, the production process on Incredibles 2 was cut short by a whole year when the film’s release date was brought forward to allow more time for work on Toy Story 4 – I can’t help wondering how much it has suffered as a result. It is, as I say, an incredibly beautiful and well-made film, but it does feel very saggy around the middle, possibly overlong, and it never really engages the emotions in the way that Pixar’s best work does – the supporting film, another wonderful little short called Bao, is much more successful in this respect.

Once again we find ourselves considering the extent to which a film studio can become a victim of its own success – Incredibles 2 is, by any objective standards, a very good film in many ways – often funny, well-played, with a brilliant aesthetic and strong opening and closing sequences. But as a Pixar movie, and especially as a sequel to The Incredibles, it’s just not quite up to the standard that I was expecting. A very good film, but not really a great one, and anything less than great coming out of Pixar really is slightly disappointing.

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What exactly is the appropriate response when you’re sitting down in anticipation of a thoroughly profane and blood-spattered movie, only to find yourself joined in the cinema by a couple who have brought their clearly much-too-young children with them? Should you speak to them? Tell the cinema staff what’s going on? Isn’t it the staff’s responsibility anyway? Is this a mistake? Have they gone to the wrong movie, or snuck in after buying tickets to something more innocuous?

This was the situation I found myself in during the opening moments of Patrick Hughes’ The Hitman’s Bodyguard. Thankfully, I was spared the trouble of, you know, getting off my backside and actually doing something, because a minion appeared and explained the situation to the family and they promptly decamped. Which was a good thing, because I’m not sure I could really have relaxed and enjoyed this film knowing there were minors present. Then again, it has made me wonder about the degree to which one should really relax and enjoy this movie at all.

Hmmm. The movie opens with disgraced Belarussian ex-tyrant Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman, in it for the money) on trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. However there is no hard evidence and witnesses keep turning up dead, so he looks like walking free. Only one man can give the testimony that will put him away – notorious hired killer Darius Kincaid (Samuel L Jackson).

The job of getting Kincaid from Manchester (where he is in the clink) to the Netherlands is given to crack Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung, currently cornering the market in ass-kicking babe roles), but there is a traitor in her organisation and Kincaid is nearly killed in an intense gun-battle on the streets of Coventry (just another day in Warwickshire, I guess). In order to get him to the court on time and in one piece, Roussel is obliged to call in Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), a disgraced freelance protection agent – this is slightly complicated by their own history together, and the fact he blames her for the fact he’s disgraced in the first place.

Nevertheless, Bryce and Kincaid set off for the ICC together, quite clearly destined not to get along, as they are polar opposites in virtually every way: the bodyguard is uptight and methodical, his charge relaxed and spontaneous. Dukhovich’s goons are hot on their heels, the authorities can’t be trusted, and Kincaid insists on stopping off in Amsterdam where his wife (Salma Hayek) is incarcerated. No wonder there is very strong language and bloody violence throughout…

Well, it’s extremely clear what kind of movie we’re in for, practically from the word go – an action comedy buddy movie, with the two leads trading heavily on their established screen personae. Ryan Reynolds delivers the usual slightly-narcissistic snarkiness, while Samuel L Jackson basically just does his Samuel L Jackson act – being effortlessly cool and funny, while shouting a lot about, um, melon farmers. Reliable comedic material there, I think you’ll agree, and you can probably imagine the substance of most of the movie. Scathing put-downs! Crackling by-play between the two stars! Hilarious comic chemistry! Truck bombs going off in major European cities! Women and children being cold-bloodedly executed!

…er, what? Well, yes – I think this is where a lot of people are going to find themselves having issues with The Hitman’s Bodyguard, because doing a knockabout action comedy where faceless goons are scythed down like wheat is one thing, but including major terrorist acts and the murder of young children is crossing a line, if you ask me. You simply can’t put that stuff in a comedy film without it seemingly incredibly tasteless. It doesn’t give your movie any more dramatic heft, it just makes all the jokes and so on feel immensely inappropriate. This is non-negotiable. (It doesn’t surprise me to learn that this started life as a straight drama which was rewritten as a comedy in very short order. At least one more rewrite was definitely required.)

And while we’re on the subject, it strikes me as rather off that the film implies that, as recently as 2012, Belarus was a dictatorship where ethnic cleansing was going on. Now, I know that by western standards, Belarus is not a shining example of a free democratic state, but I don’t see how presenting it in this way helps matters much. It treats Belarus like a made-up cartoon nation (Oldman is certainly playing a cartoon bad guy), rather than a real place where people live today. I had the pleasure of getting to know someone from Belarus quite recently, and I would be frankly embarrassed to watch this movie with them.

Ooh, listen to me, I’m on my moral high horse a lot today, aren’t I? I should say that if you can discount the disturbingly tasteless violence and highly dubious geopolitics, The Hitman’s Bodyguard does what you would hope for, in that the action sequences are slick and competent, and the comedy stuff also gets a very satisfactory number of laughs – the flashback to Jackson and Hayek’s first meeting is probably the high point, and it’s a shame that Hayek basically disappears for the final third of the movie. As I say, this was only really a couple more drafts away from being a highly entertaining, essentially inoffensive buddy comedy.

But as things stand, I don’t know. I mean, I enjoyed most of it, and don’t really regret watching it, but it did leave kind of a bad taste in my mouth, not least because at various points it makes a big deal out of issues of morality and guilt, stressing that the moral choices people make are important. Fine in theory, guys, but you made the moral choice of including bombs going off in crowded cities and children being shot dead in your freewheeling comedy film, so what are we supposed to conclude? I’m not sure The Hitman’s Bodyguard even counts as a guilty pleasure, but I’m very glad I wasn’t watching it in the company of some very young children.

 

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Well, with the Oscars out the way, the decks are clear for an onslaught of releases which a few years ago would have been cheerful, unpretentious genre movies. These days, of course, everyone wants a slice of the megafranchise action that Marvel Studios has been concocting over the last few years, regardless of whether or not their material really fits the bill: out in a couple of months is a DC comics movie that for once looks like it won’t be actively painful to watch, while we are also promised the actual real first episode of Universal’s, er, Universal Monsters franchise (Dracula Untold has apparently been stricken from the record), while first off the blocks, representing Legendary Pictures’ rather similarly-titled MonsterVerse (put those lawyers on standby!), is Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

The year is 1973, and the Vietnam War is coming to its messy conclusion. ‘Things are never going to be this messed up in Washington again,’ declares Bill Randa (John Goodman), which at the very least is a felicitously knowing first line for a movie these days. Randa is high-up inside a secret agency named Monarch, whose mission statement is to hunt down Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (or giant monsters to you and I). However, Godzilla’s visit to San Francisco is still forty years off, and to pass the time until then Randa gets himself and his team onto a US government mission to a newly-discovered island in the Pacific, surrounded by a perpetual storm system and – perhaps – containing a bizarre ecosystem the likes of which no-one has even suspected before.

Providing a military escort for the explorers is the possibly-unstable Colonel Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and his helicopter squadron, while also along for the ride are photojournalist Mason (Brie Larson) and ex-SAS guide James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Randa’s list of things to do on their visit to Skull Island, when they finally get there, starts with ‘drop bombs everywhere’ (the wafer-thin pretext is that this is to assist with a geological survey), which annoys at least one of the island’s inhabitants: one of the chopper pilots barely has time to say ‘Is that a monkey?’ before the squadron is involved in a pitched battle with…

Well, come on guys, the movie is called ‘Kong’, who do you think it is? It’s a bit of a divergence from standard monster movie grammar to wheel on the big beast in the first act, but the movie pulls it off, I would say. In the aftermath of the battle, the survivors regroup and start to think about getting home alive. But, naturally, it’s not going to be that easy, and many discoveries await: lurking on the island are all sorts of monsters, which seem intent on eating our heroes, and also John C Reilly as a stranded Second World War airman, who seems intent on eating all the scenery.

You could be forgiven for turning up to Kong: Skull Island with a degree of trepidation, for quite good reasons – 84 years on from the original movie, King Kong remains a movie icon like few others, but he’s an icon with a singularly poor track-record when it comes to appearances in subsequent movies – if films like King Kong Lives and King Kong Escapes have any value at all, it’s simply as glorious trash. You could also argue that to do a remake of King Kong which completely omits the tall building-related section of the story, and takes place entirely on the island, is also a rather bizarre choice.

However – and I can hardly believe I’m typing this – Skull Island is actually a really fun fantasy adventure film, with a lot going for it. The problem other King Kong projects have tended to encounter is one of tone – they either end up as silly, campy nonsense (the Toho and De Laurentiis projects, for example), or take themselves absurdly seriously (my main problem with Peter Jackson’s take on the great ape). Skull Island gets the tone just about right: it knows when to play things straight, and when to relax and have a little bit of fun with the audience.

There seems to me to be no pressing reason as to why this movie is set in 1973 (there’s some dialogue about how Kong is young and ‘still growing’, presumably to prepare us for a rather bigger present-day ape in a subsequent movie) – there are no overt references to the 1970s King Kong remake, anyway. It mainly seems that the film-makers thought it would be a cool wheeze to make, essentially, a Vietnam war movie that includes a load of giant monsters of different kinds. All the iconography of guys with assault rifles wading through swamps, and helicopters skimming low over the jungle canopy is here, and while it is just dressing-up with no thematic depth, it definitely gives the film its own identity (the classic rock soundtrack is also a definite bonus).

Kong himself (mo-capped by Terry Notary) is rather impressive, both terrifying and sympathetic at different times, as the story requires, and it seems to me the makers of this movie know their stuff when it comes to both this character and the whole giant monster genre – there’s a scene which seems to me to be a call-back to Kong’s love of calamari (first established in King Kong Vs Godzilla), and another which may be either a reference to a deleted scene from the original Kong, or an unexpected appearance by a new version of the Toho monster Kumonga (the fact that Kumonga is not one of the characters for whom Toho receives an on-screen credit – oh, yes, readers, there are big-name Toho monsters in this movie (sort of) – suggests the former). All in all, it’s an engaging new take on the character.

Even the stuff in this movie which is not especially brilliant doesn’t particularly detract from it as a piece of entertainment – Tom Hiddleston has an air of slightly detached bemusement throughout, as though he signed on for the movie without bothering to read the script, and I found this rather funny rather than annoying. I have to say that most of the actors are content to do big character turns rather than anything too subtle and nuanced, but again this is exactly what the piece requires.

If I’ve been at all excited by the prospect of Legendary’s planned monster franchise, then it’s really been more in hope than expectation – but Kong: Skull Island gets so much right that I’m actually really looking forward to future films in this series, provided they handle the tone and subject matter as deftly as this one. It’s certainly a much more nimble and straightforwardly entertaining movie than Gareth Evans’ Godzilla, to which it is technically a prequel. In fact, in terms of technical accomplishment, dramatic success, and ability to channel the spirit of the original film, I would say this movie gets closer to the original King Kong than any other featuring the character. An unashamedly big, crazy, fun monster movie, and a very pleasant surprise.

 

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Well, what a year it’s been so far at the cinema, and it’s still only the third week of January – A Monster Calls, Silence, La La Land, and Manchester by the Sea all went on release in the space of a relatively few days, any of which individually would have been a great harbinger for the year to come. Collectively, it’s looking like an anno mirabilis, twelve months in which every movie proves to be a rewarding, sophisticated, intelligent work of art. But how long can this kind of quality continue?

xxx

Who knows, but let’s take a moment to look at D. J. Caruso’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage, starring the great Vin Diesel. Now, you know me, I like Vin Diesel, broadly speaking, and will give anything he does a fair hearing. But this doesn’t change the fact that Vin has a dark secret known to only a select few with access to an obscure website known as ‘Wikipedia’.

Once upon a time there was a sincere young artist called Mark Sinclair. Mark was a screenwriter, director and actor who spent his time working on heartfelt, serious films about what it was like to be of ambiguous ethnicity in the modern USA, breakdancing, and playing a lot of purist Dungeons & Dragons. And then something happened. Just as the virtuous and heroic Anakin Skywalker was consumed and obliterated by the dark animus of Darth Vader, so no-one ever seems to hear from Mark Sinclair any more, but we do get regular offerings from Mark’s alter ego Vin Diesel, who seems unlikely to make a heartfelt, serious film about anything, but seems very comfortable playing a tree in various Marvel Comics movies.

So it is with the utterly mind-boggling xXx: Return of Xander Cage. Now, for anyone not following along (wise souls), the xXx series was launched in 2002 as a tough-guy vehicle for Vin Diesel, then riding high after the first Fast and Furious movie, but – somewhat bizarrely – continued in his absence when he dropped out of 2005’s xXx: State of the Union to make the eminently forgettable comedy The Pacifier. Roll on over ten years and we still find Diesel there or thereabouts when it comes to movie stardom, but still one of those people whose ability to open a movie is severely limited: people will go to see him in droves for Fast and Furious sequels, and to a lesser extent in films about his Riddick character, but anything else with him on-screen struggles to get a wide release (here in the UK anyway). One might even suggest that this very belated return to the xXx series puts one in mind of a dog returning to his own… you know what, let’s not even complete that image, as things are going to get unsavoury enough, I suspect.

The first scene sets the tone quite well, as Samuel L Jackson (barely appearing) delivers a bafflegab lecture about the need for the xXx programme, wherein people with minimal actual skills but bags of kewl attitude are recruited to save the world. The gag is that he is talking to Neymar Junior, who I understand is a football player, and the lad almost at once gets to show his potential by using his ace keepy-uppy skills to subdue an armed robber. No, honestly.

Well, anyway. The CIA have got their hands on a evil Maguffin widget capable of blowing lots of things up, and no-nonsense CIA dominatrix Toni Collette (really slumming it) is not best pleased when a bunch of scallywags led by Donnie Yen break into the building, cause all kinds of mayhem, and run off with it to their top-secret lair, which is a beach resort in the Philippines.

The CIA decide to disregard the fact that former top agent Xander Cage (Mark Sincl – sorry, Vin Diesel) died in the previous sequel and ask him to come back and get the evil widget out of Donnie Yen’s hands. Naturally he says yes, or this would be a very short film. Up to this point proceedings have been rather vacuous, but once Vin gets going… well, calling this film empty-headed would be a profound insult to Barbie dolls everywhere.

See Vin ski through the jungle. See Vin skateboard down a road against the flow of traffic. See Vin get his end away with someone half his age. See the CIA try to recruit Vin. See him scorn and mock them but agree to help out anyway. See Vin lech at more young women. See him track down the incredibly hard-to-find bad guys in about eight seconds flat. See him get his end away again. See the CIA assign Vin a backup squad of uptight soldiers who sneer at his rebel ways. See Vin throw them all out the back of a plane in flight. See Vin juggle grenades at a beach party. See Vin flirt laboriously with imported Bollywood star Deepika Padukone. See Vin ride a motorcycle, underwater. And so on (this is just the first act of the movie, more or less).

I mean, I’m not even sure where to start with this film. It is admittedly never completely dull, although this is in the same sense that it’s not dull being inside an oil drum being repeatedly struck by baseball bats, and there are at least a couple of sequences in which we get to see Donnie Yen in full flow, which is always a cherishable experience (Tony Jaa, who also features, is much less well-served), and there is at least one laugh-out-loud in-joke about this series’ somewhat peculiar production history.

If I were a young person I think I would feel profoundly insulted by this movie, as it seems to operate according to the belief that all young people are congenital morons capable only of involvement on the most superficial of levels – that, or the film is intended to be enjoyed with the dreaded ironic sensibility (but I really doubt this as it would require a subtlety utterly lacking in all other departments of the movie). Vin dismisses the trained soldiers originally assigned to back him up, instead plumping for a tattooed lesbian sharpshooter (I suppose she does have some utility for the mission), an unhinged stunt driver whose hobby is crashing into things, and a kid whose main talent is that he is a really good DJ. I mean, what? What? Being young and edgy can only take you so far in life.

Nor does it last, of course: and perhaps it might be worthwhile for someone to have a quiet word in Vin Diesel’s shell-like, to the effect that having extensive inks and wearing cargo pants all the time only go so far in disguising the fact that you are a grown man pushing fifty but still really acting like a teenager. And, not to put too fine a point on it, a grown man who appears to be having a mid-life crisis of some kind. One scene has Vin, who has chosen to turn up in an extraordinary fur coat which even a mid-1970s football manager would quail at wearing, being descended upon by half-a-dozen young lingerie models – the next we see, they are all in a happy, stupefied heap, with our hero standing nearby looking as smug as only a highly-paid actor-producer can.

And it just radiates a kind of lazy contempt for its target audience – these kids are stupid! Just stick in a load of overblown stunt sequences and hot young women in swimsuits and they won’t care if the plot is just an absurd assembly of set pieces! Let’s keep on about what a rebel Vin’s character is even though he hardly ever does anything especially rebellious that isn’t also ridiculously stupid! Let’s keep on with those cool and edgy credentials – anyone in a suit is the Man and evil (except for Sam Jackson, he’s cool) and anyone into extreme sports is great!

I still like Vin Diesel a lot. I’m looking forward to Fast and Furious 8 and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 very much. But this is like the dark, twisted, idiot brother of a Fast and Furious film: sexist, soulless, and calculating in a particularly thick-headed way. I like an absurd action movie as much as the next person (probably), but this film works much too hard at being actively stupid. Return of Xander Cage sets the bar for this year’s crop of thicko movies impressively low. I wouldn’t be surprised if xXx turned out to be the xXXxiest film of 2017.

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Ubiquity can turn into obscurity very quickly sometimes. Westerns used to be a staple of every studio in Hollywood, one of the primary mainstream genres, but big studio cowboy films are rarer than hen’s teeth these days – the ones that get made more often than not have an art-housey whiff about them. But something even more extreme seems to have happened with respect to the celluloid exploits of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most famous creation, Tarzan of the Apes.

Let’s talk numbers: the first Tarzan film came out in 1918, a mind-boggling 98 years ago, with the jungle lord played by Elmo Lincoln. Since then, twenty actors have put on the loincloth to appear in over fifty movies (including perhaps the best-known dozen starring Johnny Weissmuller). Arthur C Clarke used to claim that Tarzan was the most famous fictional character of all time, and based on sheer bulk of product, only Sherlock Holmes and perhaps Dracula can offer him any real competition.

And yet, since about 1970, it has gone rather quiet in the jungle, in live-action terms at least: a risible soft-core vehicle for Bo Derek in 1981, a lavish but oddly joyless ‘quality’ take on the character in 1984’s Greystoke, and an obscure little 1998 movie with Caspar van Dien. Have audiences finally got sick of Tarzan and all the trappings of his films? Or are there other, more problematic reasons for his disappearance?

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Warner Brothers have gambled nearly $200m on the proposition that people miss Tarzan and want to spend more time with him, and the result is David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan. Yates’ film is set in 1890 and as things get underway our hero (Alexander Skarsgard) has forsworn his jungle home and taken up the title and duties of John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, back in the UK (it’s suggested his grandfather is still alive, which inevitably makes one wonder why he’s inherited the title, but let’s not get too pedantic about this: it’s a Tarzan movie, after all). He is fairly happily married to the lovely Jane (Margot Robbie) and seems content.

However, when the King of Belgium extends an invitation for Clayton to visit the Belgian Congo, he is urged to accept it by American diplomat and adventurer George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson), as this will get them access to the otherwise-sealed country so they can investigate disturbing rumours of slavery and other crimes. (It turns out Williams was an actual historical person, who ended up buried in Blackpool, bizarrely enough. That doesn’t stop Samuel L Jackson doing his Samuel L Jackson-wisecracking-sidekick routine, of course.) Jane insists on coming along as well.

But, of course, there is more going on than first appears to be the case: the nefarious Belgian envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) is intent on subjugating the country for his royal master, but needs funds to do so. The chief (Djimon Hounsou) of a diamond-rich area has promised Rom all the money he needs, in exchange for the man who killed his son – Tarzan… (It turns out Rom was also an actual historical person, although one whose actual fate was rather different from the one depicted here. That doesn’t stop Christoph Waltz doing his Christoph Waltz-fastidious-psychopath routine, of course.)

Well, it occurs to me that in the past I have only said fairly lukewarm things about David Yates (and when it came to his briefly-mooted Doctor Who movie, some downright sharp ones). ‘Safe pair of hands’ was about the nicest thing I said while he was knocking out the last four Harry Potter films. I suspect that The Legend of Tarzan is not going to make the same kind of world-conquering returns, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a solid piece of entertainment, nor a rather ambitious film, in its own way, and one for which Yates should be commended.

I think it’s fair to say that, Greystoke and a few others excepted, most Tarzan movies have essentially been rather generic jungle adventures with only a vague connection to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original stories – the Weissmuller-and-after characterisation as a semi-articulate half-savage bears very little resemblance to the fiercely intelligent character in the novels. The first plus point for The Legend of Tarzan is that it does seem to be trying to respect Burroughs, in spirit if not detail – Skarsgard’s Tarzan is a thoughtful man equally at home in the jungle and the House of Lords, and the mangani apes who raised him are referred to by name, which I think is a first. Set against this is some apparent confusion over which Earl of Greystoke Tarzan is and the decision to set the film in 1890, when the ‘canonical’ Tarzan was only two, which has presumably been taken to facilitate the film’s historical setting, which is crucial to its conception.

If there’s a single reason why Tarzan movies have fallen out of favour in the last thirty or forty years, it’s because the character is perceived as being intrinsically rather problematic. The idea of a white man using his natural gifts and abilities to rise to become master of the African jungle and its inhabitants is, to say the least, awkward in our post-colonial world, where issues of race and superiority are still very delicate fault-lines running through society.

Yates’ movie tries to get round this by making the whole film about colonialism and the exploitation of Africa by white Europeans, hence its attempts to reference the real-life events in the Congo and the inclusion of real-life figures such as Williams and Rom. Pitting Tarzan against the worst face of colonial exploitation should deflect any criticism that he’s just a colonial-exploiter poster-boy himself – that seems to be the theory, at least. Coupled to this is an energetic attempt to present Tarzan and the rest of the supporting cast as thoroughly reconstructed figures – he’s in tune with nature and treats his African friends as equals, while Jane is liberated, capable and terribly feisty, Williams is stricken with guilt over his role in atrocities against Native Americans, and so on. You can never quite get away from the fact that this is a film in which the Congo and its people are saved primarily by a white dude in a pair of shorts, but the film-makers do everything humanly possible to mitigate against this.

And, while doing so, they include nearly all the stuff you really want to see in a Tarzan movie – swinging on lianas, talking to animals, fighting whole mobs of opponents single-handed, and so on. My companion while watching this movie said later that she thought it was all rather far-fetched, but when I suggested she just consider Tarzan to be the first superhero, it all seemed to make a bit more sense to her. On the other hand, Skarsgard doesn’t get to wrestle a crocodile, alas, and the film is a little coy when it comes to the famous ‘Aaaa-eyahh-ahh-eyahh-eyahh!!!’ cry, too.

That said, The Legend of Tarzan manages to take itself impressively seriously – this isn’t a spoof, or at all knowing, or tongue-in-cheek – without appearing quite as po-faced as Greystoke arguably was. I was honestly rather impressed by the whole enterprise – the performances are universally strong, the camerawork is atmospheric, and the script intelligent. It’s a good, extremely watchable adventure movie. And there’s some space left to be filled in by any future movies from this team of film-makers; for once, I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel. If we are still living in a world in which Tarzan movies are a viable proposition – and I must confess to hoping that we are – then this is a very good template as to how they should be approached.

 

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