Sunday, April 23, 2017

Movie Round Up: Life, Logan, Get Out, Kong: Skull Island, A Dark Song

Lately I've seen a fair number of movies in the science fictional/fantastic realm, but with the exception of Ghost in the Shell (both the 1995 anime and the 2017 live action remake) I've been remiss when it comes to reviewing them.  Alas, it's time to rectify this unconscionable situation with a movie round up!  Here are my short reviews of Life, Logan, Get Out, Kong: Skull Island, and - just to keep things from being 100% Hollywood - the Irish/Welsh indie film A Dark Song.


Based on the previews, I was looking forward to this as science fictional horror in the vein of Alien.  While Life is no Alien and it's a bit light on the science fiction side, I thought it worked as a solid horror film.  Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds seem like more A-list star power than this movie needs (and they didn't seem to help the movie much at the box office), but most of the performances are what a trapped-in-space-with-a-monstrous-alien movie needs.

Speaking of the alien, it's pretty cool, especially in the earlier scenes soon after the crew of the International Space Station nabs it from a sample en route from Mars.  Later on it starts to look less nebulous and more like the kind of thing you'd expect to see in a movie like this.  And what it does to the crew is ... well, let's just say it's appropriately horrifying.  And the ending is a nice horror ending, too, which I won't spoil here.

Life is not bad if you look at it as a horror film, but I admit I found most of it rather forgettable.


While I'm not a big superhero fan (for reasons explained here), I've always a soft spot for the X-Men even though I've never understood why a group that's mostly composed of women and children should be called X-Men.  Unlike most superhero mythoi, X-Men stories tend to celebrate teamwork and camaraderie.  I love the message that it's okay to be different and that these differences enrich humanity.

Of all the mutants, I tend to find Wolverine to be the least interesting precisely because he's the sort of anti-hero lone wolf (or wolverine, I guess) that's hardly lacking in the superhero genre.  Still, what makes Wolverine interesting is that he struggles with this in terms of his feelings of duty toward Professor Xavier and the other mutants.

What would happen if the mutants lost their leaders and were scattered in the near future?  What if Professor Xavier dealt with dementia and other indignities of advanced age?  Would Wolverine help him or other mutants?  These questions are the set up for Logan, which is a film that I daresay anyone could enjoy at a visceral emotional level whether you're an X-Men fan or not.  The film also has a certain stark beauty to it.  As a former New Mexico resident and Breaking Bad fan, I especially loved the scenes shot in the Land of Enchantment.

The performances from Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart are moving as a sort of (quasi-)dutiful son taking care of his aging father.  I particularly loved Daphne Keen as the young mutant in need of their help, although I wish she had started talking earlier in the film rather than being yet another silent, violent girl (like Stranger Things' Eleven, Firefly's River Tam, and so on.).

This is the first R-rated X-Men film, and they're making sure they get their rating's worth.  There's plenty of swearing and even brief nudity, but the violence in particular is turned up to 11: prepare for lots of blood and overall brutality - shootings, impalings, bone crunching, etc.

Eventually we meet a new lovable (but deadly) gang of young mutant misfits.  There's even a chubby one, which warmed my heart.  So things will go on, which is hopeful, although I should warn readers that this movie is as brutal emotionally as it is physically.  You may need a tissue.

Get Out

I was thrilled when I heard that Jordan Peele was writing and directing a horror film (Peele is half of the duo that brought us Key and Peele and the film Keanu).  I was expecting it to be funny (and it is) and thoughtful (definitely true), but I wasn't honestly sure what to expect as a horror film.  It succeeds fabulously on all fronts.

The main character is invited to spend the weekend with his white girlfriend's family in some rural/exurban house in the woods.  This is the kind of place that scares a white person like me (I don't need to live in a metropolis, but I need to have neighbors around to avoid feeling like I'm in a horror movie).  But how much more terrifying must it be for a young black man to go to a remote house in a community where everyone except the staff is white?

In most horror films, a family like the Armitages (wealthy, white, superficially good people) would be the victims of some terrifying Other.  The brilliance of Get Out as a horror film is that it turns the tables to use the genre to explore the ways in which real life can be horrific for many African Americans.  I doubt a film like this would be made by a white writer/director;  I doubt I understand all of the nuance as a white viewer.  All of this gives yet another reason for Hollywood to address its diversity problem (not to mention the huge financial success of the film).

There's also a strong science fictional element to the movie I don't want to ruin.  Suffice to say that it's an eerily amusing philosophical point that many of the black characters literally have double consciousness, and not just in the way W. E. B. Du Bois theorized.

Also, you need to watch Get Out to understand the reference to "the sunken place," which may be on track to becoming part of our cultural zeitgeist.

Kong: Skull Island

This movie met my rather low expectations.  Giant, fighting monsters?  Check.  Hints of mysteries inhabiting the unfathomed depths of nature?  Check.

The biggest surprise for me was the humor, which was almost exclusively provided by John C. Reilly's character.  Reilly is a funny guy, and he's firing on all cylinders here, which is more than I can say for John Goodman who's phoning it in (although I forgive him in light of his amazing performance in 10 Cloverfield Lane).  Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston are fine as the bland pretty people who are, I guess, supposed to be the main characters.  Samuel L. Jackson does a great job as always, but unfortunately his character was written as the flat and predictable we-have-to-dominate-and-destroy-everything type.  Part of me wishes he had said, "I'm sick of these mother fucking giant apes on this mother fucking island!"

The second biggest surprise, which didn't seem to be hinted at in the trailers, was that the movie takes place in the mid-1970's.  The expedition actually leaves from Southeast Asia where the US forces are preparing to exit, which gives the film a feeling of a Vietnam war movie, but with giant monsters instead of just the monstrosity of war.  They could have called it Apocalypse Kong.

Spoiler alert (but not really with a movie like this): Kong turns out to be defending the island from some nasty critters from the center of the Earth who may be inter dimensional - hopefully the lawyers of the makers of Pacific Rim weren't watching too closely.

One thing that didn't sit well with me was the weirdly colonialist veneer to the whole thing.  White (or mostly white) people "discover" a remote island filled with fearsome creatures and noble savages.  Some of this comes right from the original 1933 King Kong, I suppose.  But in 2017 it feels odd to have a whole culture of people (the indigenous inhabitants of the island) who are basically (and in a few scenes literally) just the backdrop to the whole thing.  John C. Reilly's character lived with these people for almost 30 years, but he seems not to have learned their language or anything about them.  He doesn't seem particularly sad to leave.  There's a joke at the end where he tells them to visit him after he returns to Chicago, which is, I guess, supposed to be funny because the audience can't imagine a Skull Islander (or whatever they call themselves in their own language - we never find out) in a civilized place like Chicago.

The more I think about this movie, the less I like it, but I guess this isn't the kind of movie that wants you to think too much.

A Dark Song

I tend to watch a lot of Hollywood movies.  Partly this is because there's no independent/arthouse cinema near me, although this has changed with the opening of the Palace Picture House.  I was recently lucky enough to attend some of this year's Chattanooga Film Festival where I saw a documentary about David Lynch and attended two special events:  Joe Bob Does Tennessee (a guide of Tennessee films from the patron saint of the festival: Joe Bob Briggs) and Everything is Terrible! (a surreal found footage film/performance that you have to experience for yourself; I've seen their performances three times and loved each one more than the last).

And I saw the Irish/Welsh indie horror film A Dark Song, a debut from director Liam Gavin.  A bereaved woman (Catherine Walker) buys a creepy old house in Wales and hires an occult expert (Steve Oram) to do a spell that will allow her to contact her deceased son.  The catch: the spell will take 6-8 months to perform, during which time neither she nor the expert can leave the premises.

All of this makes for some intense psychological probing of the two characters as they are shut off from the outside world.  The grieving mother at the end of her wits and the alcoholic occultist with an affinity for tracksuits when he's not wearing ceremonial robes are much more than they first appear.

Magic in A Dark Song is serious, brutal business as emotionally draining as it is physically.  There's way more to it than the Harry Potter uttering of a Latin phrase with a flick of your wand.  This spell takes months of life-threatening, back-breaking, rune-writing, blood-letting labor to perform.  Even if you survive the spell, which is by no means a given, will you survive its results?

The ending of A Dark Song is something to behold, but I don't want to spoil it.  This movie has lots of delightfully weird WTF? moments, but the real core of it is emotional:  What does it take to grieve?  Is grieving as arduous and painful a process as this spell?  Can we learn to forgive ourselves and others?  Will the emotional trauma of being human kill us all in the end?

All of this shows what I love most about horror as a genre: horror doesn't just scare us, it shows us that the most terrifying thing we experience is the human condition.

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