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Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Technically, the most compelling Kong of 'em all
Yes, the review title may sound ridiculous, especially if you're one of those people who hate remakes. And I agree, it's kinda crazy that the story of a gigantic ape now got its fourth installment. But if you rise above the prejudice, you will see that there's more to this film than just a monetary incentive.
Over the years, I happened to watch all the King Kong films (not the sequels, just the story openers), including the 1933 classic. And while their plot is generally the same, it's the accents that make the difference and show what the films were about in each particular epoch. The first film was basically a wow-inducing breakthrough with a social undertone (showing a giant ape in chains for the white crowd's amusement might ring some bells in 30's America). The film from the 70's was much more of a melodramatic tear-jerker. And what Peter Jackson did, apart from actually remaking some of the original scenes like a fight with a T-Rex, was ultimately devoid of a substantial core of any kind, so the only thing I do remember from that film is Jack Black's character's ridiculous ending line said with a totally unfitting pathos.
But the progress moves on, and even the old tropes acquire additional depth the audience has come to expect from films no matter what the genre they belong to (unless the genre is the CGI metal porn directed by Michael Bay). And this Kong, compared to the previous films, tries its best not to be shallow.
We've been given the characters with reasonable agendas, ones that might seem insane per se but are quite believable in this particular setting. We've got the story progression that gradually shifts our view of Kong from a bloodthirsty killing machine to something worth feeling sympathy for. And all that is done without emotional manipulation of any sort - and that thing alone earns Kong: Skull Island my respect.
But the best thing of this film is that, unlike what others say and what I've been kinda expecting myself, it doesn't just spray acting talent around hoping that the famous names and faces cement the whole gig. No, the film exploits its acting squad just right, making even the secondary/expendable characters memorable. So it's actually not so big of a surprise that the whole emotional narrative of this film is built not around the classic "beauty and the beast" line but around a letter that one of the soldiers keeps writing to his son. And the fact that that soldier is played by Toby Kebbell, the same guy who's behind Kong himself, adds even more humanity to this film, something that even the talented Andy Serkis failed to bring to its 2005 predecessor.
Even though Kong: Skull Island is far from perfect, with its own preposterous moments, it's still a film that's enjoyable to watch. And it's something that even being the third remake can't spoil.
A cultural enigma - or a psychological mess
It's not often that we get to see the films made by Iranian crews, starring Iranian actors and filmed in Iran. And, for a non-expert viewer like myself, the "Iranian world" is more or less terra incognita, which, considering all the political turmoil and notions of religious radicalism surrounding the country, makes one expect Iran to be something like what Argo showed us: a place where ruthless brutes are ready to kill and destroy everything that doesn't conform with their views of the ideals of the Islamic Revolution.
Per se, such dense atmosphere may be a rich ground on which art with the great cultural suspense could grow. And The Salesman clearly draws some of its power from our expectations of inadequate reaction on its premise. A theater production based on some Western author's play that involves hookers and implies the actress being undressed - we can clearly sense the tension around the topic. Especially since the word "censorship" has been uttered.
But, despite all the strong hints from the film, it is not about government repressions and torch-light processions. It's about a particular crime against a particular person - and the way the person and those close to her choose to react. The film clearly tries to capitalize on the stark contrast between the Western ways of dealing with such things and the Iranian ways. I guess we were supposed to be perplexed by the complexity of the social traditions and prejudices that make things we see as simple and straightforward so contrived in Iran. And if that was the case, I think the movie would have deserved the praise it had received.
Yet, instead of clearly showing us the hard dilemmas that the Iranian people face when dealing with certain crimes, The Salesman tries to get away with simply piling up a bunch of self-contradictory behavior from the female protagonist. So, instead of learning _why_ she's so reluctant to oppose the issue that befell her, we have to guess what's so wrong with her head if she constantly blames others for her problems and pushes them around while actively obstructing their attempts to find a proper solution. And even the final showdown, that might clear the matters once and for all, obscures them even more instead.
It might be the case that the behavioral schizophrenia expressed by the movie characters is an accurate reflection of a latent mass psychosis taking place in the Iranian society, oppressed so much that they prefer to quietly lose their mind instead of venting their frustration. In that case this film, however inconsequential and bizarre, is a cultural enigma giving us an insight of how people live in totalitarian societies. However, with the directing so vague and inconcrete, the film might bear a different message entirely, in that case being just yet another example how people are affected by Stockholm syndrome or crumble under their own sense of victimness. Whichever interpretation is true is not for me to decide, but trying to sit on two totally different and unrelated chairs at the same, and doing that so clumsily, is clearly not what I call good cinema.
The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
More of 'Big Hero 6' than of 'The Lego Movie'
The original The Lego Movie was visually novel and conceptually appealing, combining the in-movie world's "power of the small people" agenda with the 'outer' world's "power of the unregulated creativity" one. Combined with a grand dose of sheer humor, entertaining action, witty parody and versatile characters, that film was a pure joy to watch.
The LEGO Batman Movie spin-off tries to capitalize on the universe created, taking the visuals, parody and the humor from its predecessor and riding on the ever-fruitful theme of family values. And all these aspects are carried out pretty well. Then what's the problem? The problem is that the movie, in all its attempt to be witty and ironic, sort of forgets to be sincere. Yes, the love-hate relationship between Batman and Joker is a refreshing take on the lore, and the suppressed craving for company and appreciation is there for the movie psychology lovers, but the main characters feel too cartoonish and infantile, as if they embody the way nursery school kids view the world. Combined with the never-stopping slapstick action and puns, TLBM is the "strictly for kids" kind of entertainment, which puts it on par with the recent box-office triumph Big Hero 6.
That may be a paradigm shift in the animation production business. Since Toy Story and Shrek, the animation studios were trying to create films that could draw both the kids and their parents into the movie theaters. However, maybe these days the adults have too much entertainment catering specifically for their needs, and there's no point in making a complex multi-targeted product anymore. So while The LEGO Batman Movie is certainly a great entertainment flick for kids, the more grown-up people are bound to yawn and doze off while watching it.
T2 Trainspotting (2017)
The world has changed, the misfits are the same
The first Trainspotting was a movie that defined a generation. A generation rebelling against the social conventions and choosing self-destruction instead. Twenty one years later, the once familiar characters return, so that we can see where that rebellion has led them.
You might say that the sequel was unnecessary and it's a step down. It's a step down alright, but making that step has an important meaning attached. It shows us all that even for those who "choose life" as a mockery, the life still continues. In that sense, confirming that the pack of misfit heroes from the first movie lasted that far is a great sign of hope for those rebelling against the foundations of life today. Hope that this gamble doesn't need to be fatal.
However, T2 is by no means a manifesto its predecessor has become. The first Trainspotting's "choose life" was a truly powerful message, a statement of rejection of the contemporary values due to their utter vanity. People were betting their lives on that rejection, and that alone was putting them at the avant-garde of the modern art, winning the hearts and minds of millions.
What T2 poses as its message is not a defying challenge to the society, but rather a distress call of the helpless ones who failed to find their spot in this world. Those who aren't young anymore, not strong enough to swim against the current and not smart enough to have found a safe harbor. Right now their manifesto is nothing more than a bunch of reflections about the modern world from a bunch of sad and tired losers. They wish they could embrace the social values of the contemporary world - those values they once rebelled against - but nobody grants them that chance, so instead they are forced to parasitize - financially and conceptually - on the people they used to laugh at, yet are jealous of their current superficial wellbeing and shallow happiness.
Strangely enough, however, T2 bears much more hope for redemption than the image of the grinning Mark Renton crossing the bridge at the end of the 1996's film. Because, however worn out and disillusioned, the former rebels aren't running anymore - and being able to confront their inner demons and looming father figures from the past is worth more than one could imagine. If Trainspotting was the quintessence of escapism, then T2 is the epitome of homecoming. And maybe, for the first time in a long while, the weary souls can be in peace with themselves. That notion alone is enough reason for T2 to exist.
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Stylish, yet empty
John Wick is back, and once again he's the person others constantly sing praises to. Limping more than ever, and looking as if he's about to turn into wood any second, he's still inexplicably unkillable and wondrously fatal. So fatal that sometimes his victims prefer to kill themselves, simply to grant themselves the luxury of dying their own way.
This movie upped the stakes style- and execution-wise, that's for certain. And even though the plot is ridiculously thin and the action as repetitive as an FPS game, one could not deny John Wick: Chapter 2 a certain charm. However, just like Mr Wick's magical ability to withstand death, that charm is an artificially crafted gizmo delivered by the hands of many unnamed (or not so much) characters put everywhere for the entourage. The entourage that gets viciously exploited by Keanu Reeves wearing the same single face everywhere and saying his wooden lines like an animated corpse. Without Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Lawrence Fushburne, Common, that equally hot and deadly mute girl, even without Riccardo Scamarcio and his character, John Wick is just a bogeyman: a ghost of a scary story which can only frighten little kids but loses its potency once they grow up a bit.
The Last Detail (1973)
Not bad, but too wooden overall
There is a popular concept that even though our world changes over time, people really don't, so we are still more or less the same as we were a couple decades ago. Well, when watching some films from that time, it certainly feels as if they were made for a different audience. I guess that's what moral ageing is about: if the film characters still feel like real natural people decades after, the film did something right. Casablanca is the kind of movie that haven't lost a thing over 70 years. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about The Last Order.
It's easy to be called a backwards moron by criticizing a movie nominated for three Oscars and starring Jack Nicholson, but I'll take my chances. The film's biggest problem is not even the plot, even though it feels way too straightforward, with side stories shallow as a puddle. It's the characters. Not a single person in this film felt natural, as if they were stiffly trying to impersonate someone but realized their failure and tried to compensate for it with over-acting. Monologues and dialogues, spontaneous yelling every now and then, all that stuff felt way too forced and uncalled for. Who knows, maybe 40 years ago the sailors were indeed overly aggressive and mentally unstable brutes mixed with whiny demented crybabies, but even civilians in this film act like people on drugs. Different characters on different drugs though, so I can admit some diversity on that account.
But, at the end of the day, you're left wondering what the purpose of this film was. To show the controversial deepness of people's souls which reveals itself in the most unlikely cases? Well, in that case The Last Detail didn't go deep enough and never dared to dig beyond the stereotypes and movie psychology. Was it to share a touching story that we should empathize with? That was it's also a miss, because the character of Meadows never felt like the person you'd feel for, instead, he looks like a halfwit who is always calling trouble upon himself, willingly or not. Being a sympathetic retard is a hard mission, and Forrest Gump is probably one of a few cases of that mission's success, but Randy Quaid is no Tom Hanks by any means.
Was this film awful, so that you'd regret spending 109 minutes of your time on it? Probably not. Is it safe to skip and spend your time on something else? Definitely so.
La La Land (2016)
Takes your heart out to play it like a piano, and does that just right
In a sense, creating perfect films and perfect relationships is a similar task. You just start with the best, and then simply keep it up, never compromising, not a single mistake, not a single wrong step. In a sense, it's a technical task: follow these rules - and you are bound to succeed.
However, simply perfect is just too simple. Too plain. When you come to expect the perfection, you start taking it for granted, and even the perfect things lose their shine and become kinda dull. But how to create something perfect if perfect itself won't cut it? The answer is: you just have to wing it, turning your heart into an antenna and listening to what it's telling you.
La La Land does just that. And, technically, what it does isn't perfect at all. The opening scene is way too cheesy and orchestrated, the dissonance between the people and their song is tiny, but stingingly apparent. And you're already bracing yourself for another hyper-hyped ultra-colored hymn to itself. At that point, the film's all but a future disappointment.
But the perfect relationships are not a sunny day on a loop - what's more important is being able to make it up for the flaws and turn them into the details you'll eventually love as well. So, after having overplayed the bravado at first, the film becomes softer and more delicate, not miming its song, however perfectly, but finding its own voice, honest and sincere. A voice in which Mia and Sebastian speak to each other. At moments gruff, at moments insecure - but ultimately telling the most true story there is.
Right here is where most other participants take the smooth road to an inevitable happy ending. And the summer in La La Land is sweet and promising enough to deliver just that. But will the technically perfect thing be really perfect? Or even a sunny day could get pale if not the clouds and rain to be its counterpart? So the summer is bound to turn into fall, and, once inevitable, the prospect of a happy ending vanishes like a sad pipe smoker's dream.
But that's when we're hooked with no way back. From that point on, we want to listen to the story, no second thoughts, no distractions, there's only us and the storyteller. Like children who stopped squabbling and all want to know if the prince eventually finds his fair lady. Our emotions are already at stake, and the elegance with which La La Land took them out of our pocket is almost illegal. The thief doesn't even conceal himself, playing our hearts openly, and it's tempting to stop playing along and call the police. After all, the emotional manipulation is indeed a crime, even when it's so sublimely carried out.
Well, if you still had strength to resist, the last shreds of it fall when Ms Stone takes the lead. And it's not just her ability to act or sing, which was out of question a long time ago. It's how she takes the razor sharp blade of emotions concealed within the script, and pulls it out in one impeccable move, like King Arthur once did. And oh boy, don't you just start shivering at that moment, so bright she shines.
And just after that, it becomes really inevitable. The mastermind of this brilliant spectacle, Mr Chazelle, might be young, but when he's behind the wheel of a story he wrote himself, he doesn't miss. Every single romantic nonsense that we used to laugh about - like "and she felt as if those five years have never passed, as if she was right there, in that quiet restaurant at Christmas eve, her eyes on him, as if nothing else existed" - becomes alive in his hands, and he literally takes us on a journey others could only describe. The feeling you experience at that moment... it's pure magic, something that not only makes you forgive the pompous intro, but makes you realize that it was the only right start for something that led you where you are now. And that's when your feeling is finally complete.
Technically, La La Land isn't without a flaw. And if I was a grumpy old fart, I might've groaned on about it for a bit. About Ryan Gosling's questionable singing, or the plot's lack of complexity, or the ending being not what we might want it to be. But that doesn't really matter, after all, it's just technicalities. What does matter is what the film emanates - love. Love for art, love for those who dare to dream and dare to follow the dreams, who dare to be open and true. Love for life itself. The kind of love that shows the passion of the person whose heart that love flows out of. And these feelings don't just show off or simply graze you. They reach out to you. They ARE THERE for you.
And for letting me take that love as my own, La La Land, thank you.
The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)
An innovative gem of the zombie genre
It's more or less modern UK, and it's at apogee of a zombie apocalypse. The remaining humans are scattered across several military bases, surrounded by constantly amassing hordes and with no long-term chance of survival. The only hope for humans is the vaccine, and to develop it they need the second-generation zombies. However, there's a tiny little detail: those zombie kids actually look and behave like regular children. Well, at least while not hungry...
The zombie movies have been with us for several decades already, and during that time the zombie concept has evolved drastically: from a slow-walking dead corpse, to a running corpse, to a super-strong killing machine with teamwork traits. But all these changes never affected the way humans deal with the zombies - it was always the same old shoot-run-hide game. Of course, there are some notable exceptions, like Shaun of the Dead or an alternative ending to I Am Legend, but they were just tweaking the minor details without changing the big picture. There's also Warm Bodies, but that's essentially a fairy tale. The main principle remained: that no matter how complex the zombies have become to keep the audience's interest, they were always an enemy, no questions asked. And that was the solid rule. Until now.
No, The Girl with All the Gifts does not try to simply whitewash the infected and make us feel bad for them. In fact, most of the zombies - this time called hungries - shown here are still mindless predators motivated by nothing but the smell of living flesh. But the film dares to take one step further and assume that no matter what kind of infection causes humans to turn into these uncontrollable beasts, there still might be something sentient left in them, and, in some cases, that sentient side expresses itself in very non-trivial ways.
The main achievement of the film is that, for the first time in the history of the genre, it's not simply about humans and their survival. This time we get to see the other side of the story, and learn how it is to be an infected - and to combine the typical bloodlust of a walking corpse with the typical curiosity and desire to explore the world pertinent to a child. What starts as a simple "us versus them", gradually transforms into "us with them", and maybe even "us for them". And we learn that, just like Paddy Considine's character says, there are no good or bad people - we all just do what's in us to do. In that sense, the only "bad" thing about zombies is that they hunt us - but they do that simply to survive, just like we humans do. So are we really that different? And do we have more right to survive than them?
I'll be honest: this film is far from perfect. In addition to the classic list of zombie inconsistencies, it creates a number of its own. And the flaws of the model in which the film's universe is supposed to exist are quite obvious. More to it, using children to weaken our emotional guard and make us more sympathetic is kind of a low blow. But maybe it's a blessing in disguise, because, even though we see those children kill and devour others, including our own, we can't help appreciating that there's more to them than just hunger or self-defense. That, no matter what their nature dictates and no matter how clearly they realize that in that cruel world there's probably no place for both hungries and humans, they can care for us, and sometimes even suffer for us fighting against their own. And even if the world as we know it is bound to die, as if all the woes from Pandora's box have been unleashed on it, that unlikely temporary bond leaves a place for the warm feeling called hope. Hope that even the end of the world might not be the end.
The Ides of March (2011)
A gun pulled out but never fired
Let's face it: the only two places where politics has also become a form of entertainment are the United States and Westeros. Anywhere else, all these stances, movements and statements would be either formal or plain dull. But the American life managed to turn politics into a reality show, and politicians into media stars, an achievement matched only by the product of G.R.R.Martin's creative mind. But, unlike The Song of Ice and Fire, the American reality show takes place in our own world, and it doesn't seem to have a final season any time soon.
So, when life gives you such a never-ending source of inspiration, it is only natural to start capitalizing on it. In that sense, The Ides of March is hardly the first film about politics and political intrigues, although, having been released two years before House of Cards, it still had a lot of unconquered media land around. Combined with a stellar - and I mean it - cast, it could seem that success of The Ides of March is a deal decided. But, just like we're constantly reminded by this very film, there is no such thing as a guarantee of success. But what could possibly go wrong?
One problem with this film is its way of creating suspense by first setting the rules and then changing them when you expect it the least. True, politics is a cruel mistress and fair play is not to be expected. But even in cheating there must be some logic and consistency, otherwise the characters' actions become rather random and plot twists forced. A young and ambitious campaign coordinator who's "not like everyone else" because he needs to actually believe in the person he promotes - to become easily distraught and seduced by a most predictable competitors' move. A candidate, all-out solid stand up guy with rock hard principles - to turn out a vicious predator and abuser. A young woman who made a mistake but tries her hardest to deal with the consequences - to simply give up when all is seemingly over. Such things just don't make sense. And even when they do, they are never given much premise to create at least some credibility. As if people act drastically out of character simply for the kicks of it. Such erratic scenario succeeds at creating not suspense in the audience, but paranoia, making you imagine things and see crooked shadows where everything's actually plain and clear.
But even that low blow could be justified if The Ides of March managed to deliver some kind of culminating strike, to exploit the inner pressure the film's been building during all its course. Some revelation, light or dark, it doesn't matter, at least something clear and definitive. But that's where the film fell painfully short, just abruptly ending at the moment it's been leading us towards through the whole second act. Instead of even trying to explain the illogicalities it exploited, or at least settling for the plain and coherent ending with no hidden implications, the film decided to play smart and hint at some game-changing turn towards the end, but instead of actually taking that turn satisfied itself with a hollow point, trying to convince us that it's a masterful open ending we could finish in our imagination the way we liked. It seems, George Clooney was too busy with self-adoration, being all dashing and daring, courageous and caring in front of the camera, that he forgot to orchestrate the show behind it. And instead of a true open ending, a smart way of not rubbing in the eyes of the viewer a set of most probable outcomes the film has previously set clear through its actions, we received an empty ending, leaving us with not enough consistency throughout the film to even begin guessing what could be implied or inferred for real and not be a product of our already inflamed imagination. Such move, instead of provoking curiosity and creative thinking, robs us out of the only satisfaction we could get out of this film: the satisfaction of finding out how this unhealthily hectic set of events actually unfolds. Which might be fine for the cruel genre of art house, but, within the framework of political reality show entertainment, equals to no fun at all.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Smart black women, white assholes and Kevin Costner
It's 1961, and NASA is engaged in an all-out space race. Just like the title says, there are three kinds of people working there. The black women do all the dirty routine of numeric calculations, the white assholes act all snobby and superior, and Kevin Costner supervises all that hodgepodge with a tired face. Things begin to change when the black women manage to make themselves indispensable and start complaining. Little by little, some white assholes become slightly apologetic, and some black women get promoted. Kevin Costner even takes down a "colored ladies bathroom" sign with a huge crowbar. But even then, the black women keep doing all the dirty routine work.
I'll be honest, this film has made me feel angry. But not because of the glaringly racist behavior of the white characters towards the black ones. That is probably rooted in reality of the 60's segregated Virginia, and it's been made clear multiple times that even the relatively good people become abusive jerks when they are put inside the broken down system that condones such abuse.
The true source of my anger about Hidden Figures is that it uses that racism theme, sometimes intentionally hyperbolized, to cover (or even promote) its own shallowness and laziness. To excuse the unrealistic bullshit like a black female computer (yes, that was a person, not a machine) who calculates trigonometry on the fly in her mind with a six-digit precision, solely to impress the big brass on an important meeting. To justify a full lack of logic when a person is being reassigned to the aerodynamics division and, in order to get to her workplace, must pass through the aerodynamic tube seconds before a potentially deadly experiment commences. To make us skip the fact that a person from a completely different field may learn how to program a mainframe computer solely by reading a book the size of Alice in Wonderland taken from a two-bit local all-white library, while the dedicated engineers IBM sent to set up the machine are walking around helpless, unable to even plug it in properly. To make us believe that the space flight math is so complicated, but at the same time show us the moments like a think-tank head explaining the orbital trajectory to his colleagues as if they were demented 7-year olds.
And it's not just the technical stuff. It's even the romantic line between the characters of Taraji P. Henson and Mahershala Ali, who basically spend just a few minutes of screen time together before he suddenly proposes. If only all the weak moments of this film were a result of some abrupt and forced development - then I could've said that maybe it's the brutal editing to blame. But, with more than two hours of running time and with so many details messed up, it's not the editing. It's very lazy writing.
As we know, a year ago the black community of the US felt offended by the lack of colored people nominated for the Oscars. They threw a big fit and complained. So, I guess, the numerous high-profile films centering on the black people's issues, past and present, are a response to those complaints. However, despite having gotten their wins and nominations, the people behind these films seem to forget one simple truth the capitalist societies are built on: that only through fair competition the highest quality results are achieved. But if you can win or get nominated simply because you're black or you're telling these whimsical and ridiculous stories about white-collar females at NASA who have to run half a mile simply to find a colored bathroom... Well, that's far from fair. And that's why 12 Years a Slave is a truly epic film, rightfully in the IMDb Top 250, and the likes of Moonlight will be buried and forgotten once the hype lies down.
Come think of it, there's a reason Kevin Costner looks so tired in this film. Being the only white American allowed to be decent in a black power/white guilt flick and being constantly put between the hammer and the anvil of these two extreme opposites is a heavy load indeed.