Kong: Skull Island

Cast: 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

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly


When Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla came out, it was criticised for its slow-reveal approach with the titular monster, who only appeared on-screen for about eight minutes. While Jaws is one example of how well this approach can work when done right, Godzilla shows how tedious it can be with the absence of compelling characters or an engaging story. Kong, the second instalment of the proposed MonsterVerse franchise, takes the opposite approach. We meet the gigantic ape as soon as the characters reach Skull Island and then he remains prominent throughout as he battles monsters and whatnot. This approach will undoubtedly work for many viewers as it allows them to see plenty of exactly the thing they paid to see: epic monster-on-monster action. It didn’t work for me though. This was because the misgivings with character and story were still there. It terms of pure action alone, this movie is weird, exciting and fun. As a whole it is a messy, misguided, and often tiresome film.

It is 1973 and the war in Vietnam is virtually over for the Americans. At this time Bill Randa (John Goodman), a government agent, hires the former soldier James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to lead an expedition to Skull Island. Escorting them is a U.S. army squadron led by the ruthless Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Also accompanying them is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist and vocal peace activist. Upon arrival the troops start dropping heavy explosives to map out the island until they are interrupted by the arrival of Kong, an enormous ape, who attacks the party and scatters them all around the island. The survivors must navigate and survive the threats and creatures that inhabit the island in order to find each other and escape. Packard however has other plans for the monster that wiped out his troops.

The design and animation in this film is first-class. The monsters look like they could’ve been designed by Guillermo del Toro or Hayao Miyazaki. Kong himself is larger than life and he looks and feels as real as any of the human characters. The ground trembles with his every step, the blows he delivers to his foes leave a shattering impact and the sounds he makes teem with life. This authenticity however is only true on a visual level because, unlike the previous incarnations in the 1933 classic or in Jackson’s remake, this Kong has no personality. He isn’t keen or intelligent, he isn’t protective or vengeful, and he isn’t hard-hearted or compassionate; he’s just an exceptionally animated CGI monster there to wreak havoc or to rush in as the saviour depending on what the plot wants him to do. Even if Kong were an interesting character in his own right, he has to fight for his screen time against the half-dozen or so human characters the film saw fit to focus on. Hiddleston somehow has less of a character than Kong, Jackson is one-dimensionally crazy, and Larson’s character only exists because blonde damsels are mandatory in King Kong movies.

What really got on my nerves though was that Kong was not satisfied with being a simple King Kong movie. Even with the lack of character, I would’ve been just fine with two hours of mindless, visually stunning action (I’m only human). The truly baffling thing about this film is the statement it’s trying to make (whatever that statement may be). The movie is unreservedly intent on creating some sort of parable to the war in Vietnam, pitting its gung-ho soldiers and their advanced weaponry against a savage foe who bests them with guerrilla tactics, and clutters the movie with homages to Apocalypse Now and Platoon just in case there was any ambiguity on that front. The point however is lost on me. All I got from the movie’s ‘meaningful’ statements about the war, its superficial characterisations and its extravagant imagery complete with napalm explosions was that the film really wanted to make a Vietnam metaphor.

The total clash in tones makes Kong: Skull Island feel like several different films blended together into an indefinable mixture. There’s the monster movie that we all wanted to see but it has been mismatched with some kind of political allegory that is so blatant and unsubtle and yet so random and unfocused that I’m not sure whether ‘allegory’ is even the appropriate word. The movie somehow takes itself too seriously and yet not seriously enough. It is certainly a weird and crazy enough film that the mess will work for some viewers. At its best the action is thrilling, awe-inspiring, and epic. I however found myself so distracted by the confused, cluttered story and the soulless characters that I was never able to lose myself in the spectacle. Godzilla may have lacked character but at least it was tonally consistent enough that I never felt like the story ever derailed or lost track of itself. This movie was anarchy from beginning to end. Visually stunning anarchy, but anarchy nonetheless.

★★

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O’Dowd, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Judi Dench, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Jane Goldman


In a perfect world any film that combines the concepts of X-Men and Groundhog Day with Tim Burton’s style ought to be a guaranteed recipe for success. Sadly our world is far from perfect and so is this film. Burton, a singular visual director who practically created his own genre as he produced hit after hit in the 80s and 90s, has maintained an uneven career for the better part of two decades now. For every Big Fish and Sweeney Todd, he has made a Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland. Nowadays the tropes that once made him an innovator and a visionary, from the gothic sets and costumes to the creepy and inventive visuals to the weird and eccentric characters, tend to lean more towards cliché and self-parody. Style over substance isn’t always a bad thing when the style is in itself something to be admired, but it is deadly once that style becomes tiring or is used half-heartedly.

Jake Portman first heard about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children from his grandfather Abe (Terrence Stamp) in his bedtime stories. The house, so Abe says, is where he grew up along with a collection of other children who possess extraordinary abilities. After his grandfather dies a gruesome death Jake, on the advice of his therapist Dr. Golan (Allison Janney) sets off for the Welsh island with his father Franklin (Chris O’Dowd) to visit the house. At first all he finds is the estate’s remains after it was destroyed by a Luftwaffe bomb in 1943. Later he is found by some of the Peculiar Children who then lead him into a cave that transports them back in time to that very year. Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), it turns out, is able to keep her house and the children hidden from outsiders by storing them in a time loop. With her are the Peculiar Children, including Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell), a girl with the ability to fly, and Enoch O’Connor (Finlay MacMillan), a necromancer. Miss Peregrine’s Home however is threatened by strange creatures called Hollows, led by the sinister shapeshifter Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), and Jake is the only one who can help them.

The story hits the usual notes you might expect from a Burton movie. It focuses on a social outcast who finds meaning and belonging in a weird and wonderful world that differs from our own. Burton however does not bring the conviction or the commitment to this story that is so readily apparent in his earlier work. His style is evident in the film’s subdued colour palette and eerie designs, but the world he creates feels so spiritless and indifferent. There is no enthusiasm in the pursuit and discovery of the strange, no sensation to the ethereal nature of this universe, no wonder in the meeting of the innocent with the macabre. The man who used to speak volumes in every frame and who could always find charm and beauty in the strange and sinister now resorts to gratuitous exposition and depicts the peculiar for little more than peculiarity’s sake. Apart from the few brief glimpses we are allowed into Burton’s twisted and creative soul, the film is without life and originality.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the protagonist Jake, an introverted teenager with the personality of a cardboard box. In spite of Butterfield’s best efforts (putting aside his attempt at an American accent), Jake is an utterly forgettable and wooden character who cannot conjure a single emotion for love, wonder or pain. The shoe-horned romance he shares with Emma is so contrived and stale that I almost thought I was watching a gender-swapped rendition of Twilight. Accompanying him is a collection of superficially odd characters whose personalities are defined by their abilities and little else. Of all the actors whose talents went to dismal waste in this film (a list that includes Terence Stamp, Allison Janney, Judi Dench and Kim Dickens), only two brought any life to their performances. One is Eva Green as Miss Peregrine, an actress whose ability to chew scenery rivals that of Helena Bonham Carter. The other is Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who lives for the absurd and excessive.

The movie’s one other redeeming feature is its climax which is as enjoyably over the top as it is ludicrously nonsensical. As I approached the third act I found that I wasn’t in the least bit invested in the showdown that was to take place between the bland, characterless goodies and the painfully incompetent baddies. That attitude remains unchanged, but at least I got to watch a battle between a horde of invisible eye-gouging monsters and a legion of stop-motion Jason and the Argonauts skeletons in the middle of a seaside carnival. It comes nowhere close to saving the film, but I’ll take what I can get. All things considered, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is not the worst work Burton has produced recently but it is a testament to how far he has fallen since the days of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. While I can hardly say that the climatic battle is reason enough to watch this film, it is at the very least an assurance that some of the magic is still there. I hope to see more of it in his next project.

★★

The Legend of Tarzan

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Christoph Waltz

Director: David Yates

Writers: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer


Before we had Batman, Superman or the Avengers, there was Tarzan. In this day and age where superheroes command the box office, it makes sense that Hollywood would want to revive and capitalise on one of the original superheroes. It is however rather telling that the figure they chose is a white man who rises as a hero and saviour for the people of Africa. Since race is one of the hottest topics in the world right now, a movie based on a story that reflects 19th century values of white supremacy seems at the very least ill advised. The film does acknowledge some of the dated aspects of this concept but is less than successful in its attempt to rise above them. The larger debate that needs to be held is one that I am not nearly qualified enough to engage in but, due to the prominent role these concerns play in the movie, it is an issue that needed to be acknowledged. Putting the politics and racial issues aside, The Legend of Tarzan is a sometimes exciting but otherwise drab movie.

The film is set in the late 19th century and opens in the Belgian Congo where Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a ruthless captain, has been sent by King Leopold II of Austria to search for diamonds. There he meets the tribal leader Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) and strikes a bargain with him. The bargain concerns Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) who currently lives in London as Lord Greystoke with his wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie). Although the Tarzan myth is a popular one in England, it is one that Greystoke is determined to leave in the past. Therefore, when he receives an invitation from the Prime Minister and King Leopold to visit Boma and assess the progress of the Congo’s development, it is an offer he is inclined to refuse. His mind is changed by the American entrepreneur George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) after he shares his suspicion that the Belgians are engaged in an illegal slave trade. Greystoke thus returns to his home with Jane and Williams to investigate these claims and there finds that he must become Tarzan once again to save the Congolese people.

The reason I’m more inclined to view and judge this movie through a political and racial lens rather than, say, Disney’s Tarzan is because this film brings it upon itself. The story tackles such historically provocative subjects as African colonisation and slavery and presents a revisionist version of events that allows the Brits and Americans to come across as the goodies. One way it does this is through the inclusion of George Washington Williams, a real life veteran of the civil war and writer of African-American history. The film hopes that it can escape the racist and imperialistic connotations of the Tarzan mythos by having a black character around to assure the audience that everything happening on screen is just fine and to remind us that the Belgians are the real baddies. Maybe the movie’s heart was in the right place but it just doesn’t work. When the film features such images as the jubilantly white Tarzan and Jane being hailed and celebrated by the black natives, it’s difficult to resist the urge to groan or to roll your eyes.

A 21st century movie based on Tarzan was always going to be problematic and working around the undertones of the original story was never going to be easy. The Legend of Tarzan however falls flat just as a movie in general. There are some good elements like the flashbacks revealing Tarzan’s origin which work well in their lucidity and restraint. Tarzan himself however is about as bland as a protagonist can get. The physique Skarsgård achieved for the role is certainly impressive but it shouldn’t have been the most interesting thing about him. Waltz meanwhile is called upon once again to portray yet another watered-down version of Hans Landa. Robbie does well as the spirited and capable Jane, which is a change from the damsel in distress she is usually portrayed as if a little bit idealistic for a movie set in the 19th century. The movie could’ve used a lot more of the life that she gave to her role.

The fatal weakness of The Legend of Tarzan is that it is dull, dull, dull. While the action is well executed, it isn’t until the final third that we get to see any of it. The visuals are flat and uninspired, which comes as a great disappointment after the example set by The Jungle Book. The story is tedious and typical of Hollywood in its obvious and simplistic way. If the movie had been more exciting and fulfilling to watch, perhaps its backwards and misguided subtext might have been a little more tolerable. Even then, Disney proved that it is possible to take the story of Tarzan and turn it into a fun, exciting and innocent adventure. The Legend of Tarzan in contrast is a misguided movie with a white saviour story that it is constantly trying to excuse to the point that it gets uncomfortable to watch. When people say that Hollywood is out of touch, this is the kind of thing they’re talking about.

★★

The Hateful Eight

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Writer: Quentin Tarantino


Nobody does character and dialogue quite like Quentin Tarantino. His command of the English language is both bewildering and astonishing to behold as he crafts astounding cinematic moments through anecdotal conversations and suspenseful monologues. In Pulp Fiction he gave us an entire trivial conversation about hamburgers, TV pilots and foot massages. Not only is this discourse interesting, witty and captivating but also it allows the audience to learn a wealth about the characters and the world they inhabit without them even realising it. The characters themselves are so dynamic, fascinating and entertaining that you cannot help but love them whether they’re ruthlessly vengeful like the Bride, despicably evil like Hans Landa or even sadistically racist like Calvin Candie. This is why I was so excited by the concept of The Hateful Eight. By placing nearly the entirety of his film within a small, secluded cabin, Tarantino has created the perfect environment for his dialogue and characters to truly flourish. The result is stellar.

When a snowstorm strikes deep in the wilderness of Wyoming a collection of unconventional individuals are forced to seek shelter in a cabin and wait the blizzard out. Amongst them are the bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the new sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the Mexican employee of the haberdashery Bob (Demián Bichir), the Red Rock hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a quiet cowboy called Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), the civil war general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) and another bounty hunter called Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Ruth lets everyone know that he’ll be damned before letting anyone else take his $10,000 bounty from him and will not hesitate to turn his gun on anyone who tries anything suspicious. Tensions rise as these characters start to believe that somebody isn’t who they say they are and so the situation simply plays out from there.

What follows is essentially an Agatha Christie mystery with much more violence, profanity and racism. The real beauty of this film comes from watching the interactions between these characters as they seek to work out what exactly is happening. The tension is rife as they interrogate each other, looking for weaknesses and holes, and wait for somebody to make a move or a mistake. In what is undoubtedly one of the year’s best ensemble performances, the standouts for me were Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The former plays an astute and menacing bounty hunter who constantly gets derided for his race. The role fits Jackson likes a glove as he gives what is quite possibly his best performance since Pulp Fiction. Leigh meanwhile is a wild, foul-mouthed, erratic criminal who gets sheer glee from being downright malevolent. Amongst an entire group of nefarious characters she is able to distinguish herself as the baddest one in the bunch. These characters take on a life of their own as their actions and interactions propel the story forward and allow the drama to unfold at a rapid yet natural pace.

Tarantino’s dialogue is as always smart, absorbing and stylishly obscene. With each crafty exchange of dialogue and each devious monologue the film’s tension grows more and more palpable as these characters learn more about each other and their situation. The viewer is never quite sure where these characters stand or which ones they can really trust. By setting this film squarely in a cabin surrounded by a tempestuous snowstorm Tarantino allows the claustrophobia to reign supreme as the paranoia slowly seeps in and grows more potent. The film’s build-up of tension is as meticulous and exciting as it is in John Carpenter’s The Thing, also (not coincidentally) starring Kurt Russell. Tarantino’s abilities as a writer and a director shine in this film and are utilised to perfection. Also worthy of praise is Ennio Morricone’s electrifying original score which is every bit as intense and stylish as the dialogue.

I’ve heard a lot of people complain about this film’s runtime and I simply cannot understand why. The great Roger Ebert once said that no good movie is too long and The Hateful Eight is a great movie that makes every minute count. I was completely immersed by the film’s story, characters and dialogue and didn’t look at my watch once during the film’s entire three-hour duration. Tarantino has distinguished himself through his ability to blend genres and what he presents here is a spaghetti-western whodunit that only he could have made. The dialogue is typical Tarantino and is as funny, stimulating and rousing as it has ever been. Every character is compelling and memorable and each one gets a moment in the spotlight. The Hateful Eight is clever, bizarre, intense, unpredictable and riveting. Watching is was an exhilarating experience for me and I think it ranks amongst Tarantino’s best.

★★★★★