KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and for brief Strong Language

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein & Derek Connolly

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary & John C. Reilly

KONG: SKULL ISLAND is the eighth film starring the titular giant ape and the second film in Universal’s newly established MonsterVerse (the first was 2014’s GODZILLA). SKULL ISLAND isn’t the tragic view of KING KONG that we’ve already seen in the 1933 classic and Peter Jackson’s overblown remake, but instead is simply a giant monster adventure. SKULL ISLAND is not without a few major flaws, but it’s pretty entertaining nonetheless. If you want to see some crazy creatures, witness giant beasts laying the smackdown on each other, and watch a lot of people die in horrible ways, then KONG: SKULL ISLAND is a fun two-hour-long ride.

The year is 1973. The Vietnam War is coming to an end and times are changing. In an effort to cash-in on the chaotic state of things, would-be crackpot William Randa (John Goodman) secures funds to lead a dangerous mapping expedition to an uncharted island. The mysterious Skull Island is rumored to be a place where myths and science collide. His team of adventurers includes: British tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), Army Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), Photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and a ragtag group of soldiers/scientists. Unfortunately, flying through a turbulent storm to get to Skull Island is easier than leaving Skull Island. The group of mismatched folks soon find themselves battling deadly wildlife, including one pissed-off, building-sized monkey.

SKULL ISLAND nails the most important part of a giant monster movie: the monsters! This film has lots of cool scenes and stand-out sequences of ferocious beasts going at it. This includes: folks being heartlessly killed, monsters fighting people (including a fantastic early confrontation between Kong and a group of helicopters), and monsters fighting each other (in multiple scenes). SKULL ISLAND doesn’t take the less-is-more approach to its creatures that Gareth Evan’s GODZILLA reboot had and it hugely benefits from it. We see lots of chaos and violence, and it sure is fun! The adrenaline-pumping action scenes are sure to make viewers giddy and will likely elicit vocal reactions from a theater audience.

The film has a big silly vibe to it as well and delivers wholeheartedly on that. A great soundtrack (of old-school hits) keeps the energy up during the slower moments of characters traveling and building some possible means of escape. The atmospheric visuals look great, while there are wisely chosen clips of archive footage incorporated into the opening credits (showcasing the passage of time) and there’s even a unique style to the title cards. There was clearly lots of attention to detail in the making of this film, including: the beautiful environments (a mix of Vietnam, Hawaii, and Australia), a flashing camera bulb in a monster’s stomach, and minute facial expressions on Kong’s stern mug.

The look of this rebooted Kong is unique and imposing. He basically has the appearance of a pissed-off gorilla, but not a monster (e.g. the 1933 original and Peter Jackson’s remake). Other beasties populate Skull Island too. Some of these have small memorable moments (like a water buffalo or strange insects, one of which is pure nightmare fuel), while others play a bigger role in the proceedings. Some pterodactyl-like birds felt a little too silly. However, bone-headed lizards that serve as the film’s primary antagonists (showcased in the trailers as “skull crawlers”) aren’t as scary as they could have been, but provide some tense scenes nonetheless. This is especially true of one battle-like encounter, between the surviving humans and a hungry Skull crawler, in a gassy graveyard.

SKULL ISLAND’s problems come in the form of one-note characters. There are lots of folks that venture to Skull Island and therefore, lots of people are going to die. However, the film briefly sets each of these folks up with an obligatory prologue scene and not much else. I wasn’t expecting thoughtful development on every single character, but it would be nice if we cared a little more about a few of them. When shocking deaths occurred, I didn’t feel like there was much of a loss and just thought the visuals/death itself was cool.

Tom Hiddleston gets by on his own charming merits, while Brie Larson is good enough as a peace-loving photographer. John Goodman has a strong set-up and then is sort of brushed to the side as a background character. Samuel L. Jackson is alright as a pissed-off colonel and actually became rather annoying in the proceedings (which seemed intentional). John C. Reilly is enjoyable as the comic relief. Meanwhile, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham and Thomas Mann are serviceable as Vietnam soldiers thrown into a new kind of jungle. John Ortiz has a bit of a comic relief role, but they also try to give him a sensitive side. This backfires as I didn’t feel a thing for this mixed bag character. The same can be said for Jing Tian and Corey Hawkins as two scientists.

People usually don’t go to a giant monster movie and expect to see strong characters. Instead, you’re going for the monsters. KONG: SKULL ISLAND more than delivers in that department as we see lots of cool creatures, straight-up monster brawls, and people being killed in neat ways. It would have definitely been a better film if the viewer actually cared about the people being eaten, but it isn’t a huge detriment seeing that the style and fun factor definitely work here. KONG: SKULL ISLAND will likely satisfy the craving for big dumb fun and not much else.

Grade: B

AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Pervasive Drug Content and Language, Nudity and Sexuality

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Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Steven Zaillian

(based on THE RETURN OF SUPERFLY by Mark Jacobson)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Lymari Nadal, KaDee Strickland, Ted Levine, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Clarence Williams III, T.I., Carla Gugino & Common

AMERICAN GANGSTER is a project that probably sounded brilliant on paper. This gangster epic was helmed by Ridley Scott, based on one of the most notorious African-American crime figures in US history, and sports a cast of A-list talent. The film even got a couple of Academy Award nominations (Art Direction and Supporting Actress) and was in a long production hell (at one point the project was scrapped entirely). Ambition set aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER plays very fast and loose with its fact-based source material. To be fair though, Frank Lucas seems to have embellish certain events on his own. AMERICAN GANGSTER is undeniably well shot and has good production values, but the script isn’t all that interesting and the running time feels long-winded (the director’s cut stretches almost 20 minutes longer too).

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The time is 1968 and the place is Harlem. Driver-turned-drug-dealer Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is doing his best to take over illegal operations left by his recently deceased mob boss. Meanwhile, detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) has made the difficult decision of turning in 1 million dollars of mob money, therefore making himself a pariah in the deeply corrupt police precinct. As Roberts engages in a fierce custody battle with his ex-wife, Frank Lucas begins running a hugely successful heroin racket (100% pure and from the jungles of Vietnam). These two men progress through their very different lives until fate sets their paths against one another…with bullets flying and a body count rising.

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I cannot fault AMERICAN GANGSTER on either of the performances from its two leads. As Lucas, Denzel Washington plays the gangster with a quiet dignity. He’s not simply a heartless monster, but also a family man who shares his wealth. However, the film doesn’t exactly glorify him as we see that he can shift from loving husband/caring son to cold-blooded killer in a matter of seconds. On the opposite side of the law is Russell Crowe as the honest cop with questionable morals at home. Even though he’s based on a real-life police officer, the character of Richie Roberts feels familiar and clichéd. We’ve seen this type of cop before in many other crime thrillers. I felt that Roberts was like a slightly toned down version of Popeye from THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

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As far as the supporting cast goes, the remaining big names are wasted in brief cameo-like roles. Ted Levine shows up as a bland fellow officer on Crowe’s special team. Cuba Gooding Jr. is wasted in the role of a rival drug dealer, while Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common fall by the wayside as two of Frank’s forgettable relatives/partners in crime. Idris Elba makes a good impression as a rival gangster, but doesn’t receive much of a role in the grand scheme of things. The only supporting performance that I feel was undeniably strong belongs to Josh Brolin as a greasy-haired corrupt cop who serves as an antagonist towards both Washington’s Lucas and Crowe’s Roberts. It makes me wish that a lot of the other side characters (and family drama) had been excised in order to give Brolin more scenes as a threat to both sides.

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Ridley Scott has proven himself in the past to be a stellar director, even when taking on less-than-stellar projects. The same goes for this disappointment, because AMERICAN GANGSTER looks great and wanted to be a huge gangster blockbuster. Though the film was successful at the box office and definitely has its fans, I felt it was very underwhelming. The script seems like a mishmash of gangster tropes and melodrama. While the gangster tropes are fun to watch (especially in the final 30 minutes), the family melodrama is a dreary slog to sit through. The aspirations to make this into a gangster movie with heart were noble, but the execution feels like a been-there, done-that experience. I watched the theatrical cut and found myself frequently bored when I should have been invested in both Crowe’s cop and Washington’s criminal. Instead, the film feels overly familiar and frequently dull.

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Though AMERICAN GANGSTER definitely has its moments and two strong performances (three, if you count Brolin’s ten minutes as a side character), it ultimately feels like a by-the-numbers disappointment. I am an avid fan of gangster movies and frequently seek them out, but I was constantly bored throughout the nearly three-hour-long running time in this fictional version of Frank Lucas’s story. The movie isn’t necessarily made better by both of its actual counterparts coming out against it as exploiting a real-life story as a melodramatic fluff. Two solid performances, a few good scenes, and solid production values aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER is kind of a snoozefest.

Grade: C

BLACKHAT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and some Language

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Directed by: Michael Mann

Written by: Morgan Davis Foehl & Michael Mann

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Wei Tang, William Mapother, John Oritz & Leehom Wang

BLACKHAT has the benefit of being released at an unintentionally relevant date. Cyber crime is a scary business. Recent hackings of online companies, Sony over THE INTERVIEW, and videogame networks have made this a more publicized concern. Thus meaning this movie would be pretty intense at a moment like this right? Well, Michael Mann has hit hard times as a director. He’s made awesome movies (HEAT and COLLATERAL), but also a few recent misfires (MIAMI VICE being arguably his worst film). However, this new effort may have been a welcomed comeback for the acclaimed director, but it was not to be as BLACKHAT is a bad film from start to finish. The subject matter might be interesting, but the end product is anything but.

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After a Chinese nuclear power plant is almost destroyed due to a system hack, agent Chen Dawai is assigned to investigate the matter. A mysterious hacker is behind this attack and has also made moves through other countries. Faced with impossible odds of capturing this unknown global madman, Chen seeks help from a convicted hacker named Hathaway. They quickly discover that the unknown criminal they’re after might not be interested in money or politics and instead just wants to watch the world burn. Time is running out, their pursuit intensifies and Hathaway begins to fall for Chen’s sister.

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In premise, BLACKHAT sounds familiar but promising. The dead giveaway that this film may have been a mixed bag was in the January release date (typically a dump month for crap that studios have no faith in). I kept my hopes high and walked into this movie wanting to like it. Over two hours later, I walked out pissed at Michael Mann and anyone who had anything to do with this pile of cinematic excrement. The plot feels like a skeleton of a story. You have a set-up and that’s pretty much all you get. The rest of the details are either red herrings or are throwaway developments. It certainly doesn’t help that there isn’t a compelling character on display either, which leads to an absence of suspense and a forced cliché romance. It’s also worth noting that BLACKHAT also has the most unintimidating villain to grace the screen in years. He’s laughable and the final stand-off is ridiculously inept.

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Mann has been known for using a handheld style that’s full of shaky camera work. This played well in COLLATERAL, but tanked in MIAMI VICE. BLACKHAT is shot in the same way. Though it’s not nearly as annoying in conversation scenes, the camera’s frenetic movements soil what could have been awesome action scenes. This questionable style gets used to such an over-the-top degree that I actually got a headache for a minute or two after a fight sequence. There are a couple of decent scenes in the film (one of which has already been given away by most of the internet ads), but I couldn’t help but feel that there was potential for a great film somewhere inside this hollow shell of a movie. BLACKHAT’s biggest sin is that it’s boring. It’s so very boring, when it should be suspenseful, thrilling, emotionally engaging….pretty much anything except boring.

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If I travelled back in time to the night when I first saw COLLATERAL and explained that Michael Mann would be pumping out some awful films in the future, my past self would not believe my future self. Unfortunately, Mann’s filmography seems to have taken a significant slump. The locations in BLACKHAT might be gorgeous and there are a couple of okay scenes here and there, but bland characters, a stupid script, awful shaky cam, and the horrible pacing of the film ruin any possible enjoyment of the material. If you desperately want to see this movie, wait for a rental opportunity or cable. At home, you get the benefit of the pause button and extra time to make yourself multiple cups of coffee to remain awake during this bore. Otherwise, my advice is to skip BLACKHAT altogether.

Grade: D

MIAMI VICE (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language and some Sexual Content

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Directed by: Michael Mann

Written by: Michael Mann

(based on the TV series MIAMI VICE)

Starring: Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Naomie Harris, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Justin Theroux, Gong Li, Luis Tosar, John Oritz, Ciaran Hinds, John Hawkes, Tom Towles & Eddie Marsan

This is one of the most baffling projects to be conceived by a big name studio. Michael Mann, who worked on the original 80’s MIAMI VICE television series, was interested in turning his hit show into a gritty summer blockbuster with a huge budget. Though Mann had his share of stellar movies up to this point (most notably HEAT and COLLATERAL), MIAMI VICE was a misfire on pretty much every conceivable level. The final product winds up as a tinkered with and undercooked would-be actioner that almost seems like a single episode of the series was stretched for over two full hours and every bit of excitement was surgically removed.

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I am not a massive fan of the original TV show by any means, but I did watch some episodes in the last year. They’re cheesy now, but there’s a sense of fun to the silly cop-drama. This 2006 reboot follows Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs, two undercover agents who get deep into their work. Though they’re both rough around the edges, the duo still manage to excel at catching bad guys. After one of their informants is compromised, Crockett and Tubbs are assigned to infiltrate a highly sophisticated drug ring. The cartel operation is a lot bigger than originally expected and the two cops find themselves confronted with a huge amount of danger, especially when Crockett begins romancing the drug lord’s girlfriend.

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From everything I’ve read, the production of MIAMI VICE was not a happy one. Apparently, the actors were difficult to work with and Michael Mann didn’t make the wisest directorial decisions (filming in questionable weather conditions and going to areas that were dangerous to his actors’ well-being). I wish I could say that this all paid off in an action-packed, intense thrill ride that’s exciting from frame one until the closing credits. However, that is not the case as MIAMI VICE seems to actively keep the viewer at a distance from the simplistic storyline and its main characters. I was never sucked into the movie the way that I should have been. The story also drags its feet with a bloated running time that’s made worse with an excess of unnecessary montages that use so-so music. It almost felt like this movie consisted of 60% music video footage.

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The story isn’t much better as it feels like Mann picked a dusty 80’s MIAMI VICE episode script off his shelf and sucked every ounce of fun from it. Jamie Foxx is okay as Tubbs, pulling the tough guy act that he has revisited in later roles (THE KINGDOM, DJANGO UNCHAINED). Colin Farrell is horribly miscast as Crockett sporting a laughable hair-style and non-convincing raspy voice. It certainly didn’t do either of these actors any favors that their characters are so bland and unlikable. A few recognizable faces pop up and are quickly forgotten. These include Eddie Marsan as an informant, Ciaran Hinds as an FBI agent with ulterior motives, and Luis Tosar as the forgettable kingpin.

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There’s a halfway decent action scene that kicks off MIAMI VICE, but the film quickly boils down to one boring moment after the next with no excitement or tension. The climactic showdown is also a half-heartedly executed (and rewritten) series of incoherent shots of people firing wildly in certain directions. The handheld, sometimes shaky, camera work doesn’t work for this film either. Mann has used this style before in better projects (e.g. COLLATERAL), but it feels very cheap this time around. It’s annoying when the camera seems to be shaking for no discernible reason, especially as it’s focused on the face of someone having a simple conversation.

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This 2006 version of MIAMI VICE might have been good if there were a sense of fun, excitement, or even a pulse to the movie. It feels like everyone was phoning it in to bank on a well-known TV series of the 80’s. That’s not exactly a novel concept, but other movies based on TV shows are far better than this lifeless flick (e.g. 21 JUMP STREET or STARSKY & HUTCH). Hell, even DUKES OF HAZZARD was slightly more accomplished. I realize that all the films mentioned were comedies, but MIAMI VICE could have benefitted from better characters, better action, and all around better writing/directing. This is especially disappointing coming from the same man who gave us HEAT and COLLATERAL. Overall, just watch three hours of the original TV show instead of this unwanted, unneeded reboot that nobody asked for (aside from Mann and Jamie Foxx).

Grade: D

THE DROP (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong Violence and Pervasive Language

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Directed by: Michael R. Roskam

Written by: Dennis Lehane

Starring: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Oritz & Michael Aronov

From outward appearances, THE DROP had chances of being a possible Oscar contender. It features three great acting talents and a script penned by the author of SHUTTER ISLAND, MYSTIC RIVER, and GONE BABY GONE. The trailers hinted that this might be a crime drama that delivered on being James Gandolfini’s last great film and Tom Hardy has delivered a consistent line of solid performances (from Handsome Bob to Bronson to Bane to a desperate man inside of a car for 85 minutes). THE DROP isn’t nearly as good as the potentially great ideas and talent behind the film might suggest, but I found it to be a decent crime film with a few surprises up its sleeve.

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Bob tends at the little joint known as Cousin Marv’s Bar. This building houses more than just drinking and football games on TV. It’s also a drop bar for the mafia’s dirty money. When a hold-up puts the Chechen criminals out $5,000, it’s a sign that another hit is near. Meanwhile, Bob takes in a wounded puppy and starts a relationship with a young waitress named Nadia. Things get complicated when the unhinged, disheveled and crazy Eric enters Bob’s life. As the mob’s patience wears thin, Bob must make some life-altering decisions to do what he believes is right. THE DROP is a crime drama in the sense that there are gangsters, but they aren’t the main characters. In fact, they’re only seen a handful of times. Instead, Bob and Cousin Marv are tough guys, but not part of any particular mob. They happen to be on the receiving end of a lot of these problems, especially Bob.

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Without a doubt, the dynamic between Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini is the best thing about this movie. Their performances make the movie far more compelling than it should have been. It certainly helps that their characters aren’t the typical archetypes one might expect walking into a crime story starring these two. Hardy plays Bob as a mentally slow, but sensitive man who comes off as way too innocent to be working in an establishment connected to the mafia. The late and great Gandolfini is a washed-up tough guy, who never fully was a gangster to begin with, and doesn’t come off as anything close to Tony Soprano. He went out with a great performance, even if it was in a far from fantastic or perfect movie. With Hardy and Gandolfini taking center stage, the rest of the characters get swiped to the sidelines including a way too underused Noomi Rapace and the central villain of the piece (Matthias Schoenaerts) underwhelmed.

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Making matters worse besides a wasted Rapace and iffy villain, is a plot that’s predictable in a lot of ways. There are a couple of cool twists (I honestly didn’t see one of them coming), but other scenes are heavy-handed or entirely pointless. The use of a cute pit bull puppy as a center for Hardy’s Bob to encounter most of his difficulties feels a tad manipulative. In fact, the pit bull Rocco is probably the third most viewed character on-screen and did get plenty of “awwwws” from the audience I was watching this with. For a gangster film, there isn’t a whole lot of violence either and brief gory bits are memorable. The writing from Lehane can be very sloppy at points. A detective character (momentarily seen developed in about three scenes) is left in the dust and completely forgotten until the final third of the film has almost concluded.

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THE DROP won’t win any awards and isn’t the best movie that James Gandolfiini could have ended with, but it has many things to like. Both Hardy and Gandolfini deliver excellent performances as unique characters that we haven’t typically seen or pictured them in. The movie does take some interesting turns in its final act (which is solid as the first two-thirds are where most of the problems lie). It doesn’t tackle any completely new ground for a crime film and can be very manipulative at times for the viewer (that cute little puppy), but there’s also enough to like to warrant a recommendation for fans of gangster movies. You can certainly do far worse. I liked THE DROP as a whole, but there are some big flaws that do take the film’s quality down a notch.

Grade: B-

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