Movie Review: Wonder Woman

Princess Diana of Themyscira was sculpted from clay by her mother, Queen Hippolyta, brought to life by Aphrodite and bequeathed her superhuman powers by the Greek gods. Over the 75 years she has been kept off the big screen, her fitful appearances on the small screen, most notably in the Lynda Carter TV series and on animated shows like Super Friends and Justice League, have made it easy to forget that Wonder Woman is not one of us. She wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider or transformed by some environmental cataclysm and instead was born a demigod, above and apart from the flaws and frailties of humankind.

Of the many things the new Wonder Woman gets right, the first and most important is a triumph of scale, of emphasizing the alien immensity of Princess Diana before she mingles with humans and accepts her civilian alter ego, Diana Prince. In that respect, director Patty Jenkins has successfully modeled the classicism of the original 1978 Superman, which also builds up the alien mythos of its hero before Clark Kent turns up in nerd glasses and identifies more closely with the denizens of his adopted planet.

It’s not unfair to say that Jenkins has gone the conservative route, adopting a risk-averse strategy that is closer to the tightly managed Marvel Cinematic Universe than that of Wonder Woman’s DC Comics. With its World War I adventure plot, in fact, Wonder Woman could be tagged a gender-reversed Captain America: The First Avenger. But the conservative choice also happens to be the right one, and the film has the scale and storytelling clarity to sell the mythology and give Princess Diana the stature her many titles suggest. Here, she is a figure of remarkable totemic power.

The most critical stretch of the film — and the best — comes at the beginning, when Diana (Gal Gadot) is growing up among the other Amazon women on Themyscira, an island cloaked by an invisible shield to protect its inhabitants from Ares, the god of war. Over the objections of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana starts training with her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright), for the epic battle they’re all certain will eventually reach their shores. For as long as it remains untouched, the island is an appealing feminine utopia of benevolent values and esprit de corps, a powerful contrast to the fractious world outside its magical borders.

That innocence is lost when Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a U.S. fighter pilot, crash-lands on Themyscira and brings the war with him. After she and her fellow warriors fend off Steve’s German attackers, Diana takes an interest in him — he is the first man she has ever met, after all — and in the call to end World War I, which she is certain is Ares’ handiwork. Packing her bulletproof bracelets, her golden “Lasso of Truth” and a “God-Killer” sword with which to slay Ares, Diana ships off to London with Steve, joining his covert mission to dismantle a weapons program headed by a power-mad general (Danny Huston) and a chemist named Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya).

Before sending her off into war, Wonder Woman takes advantage of the fish-out-of-water comedy of Diana leaving her tranquil island paradise for the soot-choked gray of industrialized London, where women don’t enjoy the freedoms to which she is accustomed. Gadot’s physical presence as Wonder Woman was established in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but she handles the Diana Prince side with equal dexterity, whether puzzling over the excessive formalities of early 20th century womanhood or trading banter with Steve and his abashed comrades. Diana’s near-invulnerability to human dictates gives her the freedom to dismiss their social mores, which can be played as alternately funny and empowering.

Wonder Woman loses some of its edge when the uniqueness of her origin story and her acclimation to people and a new environment gives way to more familiar effects-driven conflict. The original comic had Steve and Diana fighting Nazis, and while the shift back to World War I is a sensible choice, given the overwhelming nature of Nazi iconography, it occasionally flattens the film into rote action-adventure. Once the showdown with Ares finally materializes, Jenkins can’t solve the common problem that god-versus-god matchups tend to result in two characters tightening their faces and shooting beams of light at each other.

Even in its weaker moments, Wonder Woman honors the scale of a superhero who stands alongside Superman and Batman in the DC lexicon but has never had a vehicle worthy of her. Jenkins and Gadot do the hard work of properly establishing her stature on screen for the first time. She can go anywhere from here.

Woman-Only Wonder Woman Screenings Piss Some Nerds Off, Naturally

There’s a certain subsection of our culture that has become addicted to the siren call of unadulterated internet-based rage. You know who they are. They’re the perpetual contrarian who trolls through the comments on youtube videos constantly questioning the sexual orientation of every positive reviewer. They’re the rage-tweeter who rails against the injustices of safe spaces on campuses and refugees who are given the chance to not be bombed to death. They’re… assholes, basically. And once again they’ve rallied under the cause of trashing an event so they don’t have to dwell on how little they’ve got going on in their personal lives.

The Alamo Drafthouse—one of the country’s premier movie theater chains, which we recently wrote about in a long feature, this week announced their intention to have a “women only” viewing night for forthcoming Wonder Woman film. The film is already touted as a sort of pro-feminist empowerment film, so it almost makes too much sense to try and have an all-female screening of the film. It’s a decent marketing strategy guided by legitimately good intentions. And it’s not like Alamo Drafthouse exists in a vacuum; there are plenty of other, cheaper theaters willing to let women and men co-mingle while watching what is ostensibly a movie for nerds.

The Alamo Drafthouse website offers a very tongue-in-cheek description of the event:

The most iconic superheroine in comic book history finally has her own movie, and what better way to celebrate than with an all-female screening? Apologies, gentlemen, but we’re embracing our girl power and saying ‘No Guys Allowed’ for one special night at the Alamo Ritz. And when we say ‘People Who Identify As Women Only,’ we mean it. Everyone working at this screening, venue staff, projectionist, and culinary team, will be female. So lasso your geeky girlfriends together and grab your tickets to this celebration of one of the most enduring and inspiring characters ever created.

Naturally, this horrendous affront to the oft-marginalized subsection of America known as “men” couldn’t slip past unnoticed. For many, they saw it as not only their prerogative to voice their displeasure at such injustice—nay, it is their duty. As Americans, as men, they demanded the right to watch one of the first, large budget female superhero films alongside these “real women” they’ve heard so much about. To separate them is akin to discrimination. Or war crimes.

Wonder Woman Goes to War, Kicks Ass in Final Trailer

After initial concerns that there wasn’t enough advertising for the upcoming Wonder Woman movie, the trailers are out in full force now — and Diana of Themyscira is certainly forceful in them. The final trailer, which premiered on Sunday night during the MTV Movie & TV Awards, shows Wonder Woman heading off to World War I to kick all sorts of ass and reveals more of the plot and one of the film’s villains: Doctor Poison.

The trailer opens with little Diana talking with her mom, Hippolyta, before bedtime. Diana wants to fight (and promises she’ll be really careful and just use a shield), but Hippolyta warns that fighting does not make you a hero. This scene is intercut with shots of an adult Diana stepping out of the trenches on the trenches on the Western Front under a hail of gunfire.

From there, Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor crash-lands and explains WWI to the Amazons. He says they’re in danger, warning that the evil, masked Doctor Poison is creating terrifying weapons. Diana wants to go back with Steve to help put a stop to the fighting (pretty heroic, no?), but her mother won’t have it. So, instead, she steals her iconic weapons and armor from the armory and heads off to war.

Wonder Woman will be released in theaters on June 2, 2017.

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Movie Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2’

To clear the record, I liked “Guardians of the Galaxy” quite a lot. The fact that I didn’t love it as much as some should be noted going into this review of the sequel.

I was way down for the first movie’s irreverence and the pure fun of its space action. I was less down for a busy plot that had the unenviable job of introducing a full team of players. I’ll bet a lot more people remember the fun they had than the actual events of the film.

This leaves “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2” less weighed down with introductions, but facing the expectations of its successful predecessor. And, just as I was in the minority on the like/love spectrum for the original, I may be in the minority with this position: I like “Vol. 2” even better.

There’s still plenty of plot, but this time we know most of the players. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is still leading the team, battling baddies and his own demons shaped by the space father he never knew.

Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is dealing with her own family drama in a reunion with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), making for a pretty fierce sibling rivalry.

Bringing both humor and some surprising emotional depth are the muscle-y Drax (Dave Bautista) and the rodent-y Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper). And, yes, as you’ll recall, we’ve also got Baby Groot (voiced, apparently, by Vin Diesel, though it’s hard to tell). Groots gonna Groot.

There’s also returning baddie Yondu (Michael Rooker) and a new character played by Kurt Russell. Hmm, I wonder who he could be …

Director James Gunn still has a lot of plates to spin in terms of plot and characters, but operating under the assumption that the audience is caught up, things feel more focused than the original. This gives him more room to do what he does best: make audiences in movie theaters have as much fun as possible.

A whimsical action set-piece that runs over the opening credits is a great tone-setter — and also the first in a number of moments that make this one a recommended upgrade to the 3-D experience. The Guardians battling a massive interdimensional creature as Baby Groot boogies to oldies is the perfect way to set the plate.

The cast is still charming, and the effects are a three-dimensional eye orgy. But what made “Guardians” (and then “Deadpool”) such refreshing additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe was the winking and wisecracking humor. That’s on full display here, as “Vol. 2” remixes all the elements into a great popcorn/space-buddy flick.

The 10 Best New Things on Netflix This Month

At first glance, it looks like May is going to be a great month for Netflix subscribers. We’re getting new seasons of both House of Cards and Master of None, some excellent sci-fi and fight movies, some educational documentaries, etc. But when we look at what’s leaving, we can’t help but wince: The Jurassic Park trilogy, Invincible, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (Seasons 1-5), Graceland (Seasons 1-3), Bob’s Burgers Season 2, and quite a few others. So it’s going to hurt, but let’s look on the bright side.  May is still offering us far more good than bad. Here are the 10 best things coming to Netflix in May.

Sense8 Season 2

May 5

If you’re into action, drama, and sci-fi, Sense8 is going to be one of those shows that blows your mind. The show revolves around the lives of eight random strangers from all over the world who suddenly become emotionally and psychologically linked. These eight people can lend each other certain skills and powers, and if it sounds like a bit of a mind fuck, it’s because it is. Importantly, the show finds interesting and unique ways of addressing different real-world issues like gender, politics, race, and identity—which we definitely appreciate.

The Mars Generation

May 5

If you’ve paid attention to the news at all over the last few years, you’ve noticed that America—once the world’s largest pioneer of space exploration—has dialed back quite a bit on its plans to live among the stars. Not a great way to honor the legacy of the Moon Landings, but maybe we can make up for it. The Mars Generation is a Netflix Original documentary about a group of kids who are training and studying to ensure that this generation will be the first one to put footprints in Martian soil. Look for interviews by esteemed scientists and space travel pioneers like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Elon Musk, as well as the kids with their hearts and eyes focused on what’s out there (and more).

Mindhorn

May 12

A serial killer is on the loose and the only man that may be able to stop him is… A washed up actor from a forgotten 1980’s detective crime drama? Yup. The film’s writing and humor is distinctly British (as is its cast), and it’s great to see a new way of dealing with the nostalgia people have for the 1980s.  Tint those glasses rose as deeply as you’d like, 80s entertainment was cheesy as hell.

Master of None Season 2

May 12

The second season of the acclaimed Netflix Original series Master of None debuts May 12, and we’d be willing to bet Season 2 is going to be a whole new type of adventure. What makes Master of None so good is that it’s always funny, but adds to that incredible honesty and relatability. It accomplishes something a lot of “funny shows” tend to miss out on—purposeful authenticity. From the trailer, it looks like Alan Yang (Ansari) somehow winds up in Italy/Europe, rides a scooter, meets a ton of new women he probably won’t date, etc. For that and whatever else he gets up to, we can’t wait.

Inglourious Basterds

May 22

We’re gonna be doing one thing and one thing only, and that’s killin’ Nazis! Ugh, we love this WWII action comedy from Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, Reservoir Dogs). The film stars Brad Pitt (in a role eerily similar to the one he’ll be playing in War Machine) as Lieutenant Aldo Raine, a member of the First Special Service Force tasked with putting together a team of Jewish-born American soldiers to go kick Nazi ass. It’s hysterical, crude, and particularly gory. And unless you like Nazis, you’ll likely love this film.

Southpaw

May 24

We love a good fight movie, and when it’s brilliantly written and stars an all-star cast? More please. Southpaw, written by none other than Kurt Sutter and starring Jake Gyllanhaal, Forest Whitaker, and Rachel McAdams, follows the rise, fall, and redemption of Billy “The Great” Hope (Gyllanhaal), a prized boxer whose life is destroyed after his wild antics and hot head result in the murder of his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams). Billy hits rock bottom and loses his fancy house, as well as custody of his daughter. Billy seeks out the help of trainer Titus “Tick” Wills (Whitaker), who eventually reluctantly agrees to train him for a fight against Miguel—the very man responsible for the death of his wife. It’s a tad on the overly dramatic side, but definitely worth the watch.

Bloodline Season 3

May 26

The only real way to describe Bloodline is: “A complete and utterly mind bending cluster fuck.” It truly is one of those shows you watch, gripping your couch the whole time and yelling, “Oh holy shit!” over and over and over again. We could write paragraphs on the show’s twisted and all-over-the-map plot line, but there just isn’t time. Instead, imagine the hands-down worst family you’ve ever seen, complete with psychotic behavior, murder, and all the other fun stuff bad families are made of. Few would argue that Season 2 was anywhere near as good as Season 1, but we’re optimistic that Season 3, which debuts May 26 and will be the show’s final season, will once again bring the heat.

War Machine

May 26

As years-long subscribers, we’ve been blown away by how much of a media giant Netflix has managed to establish itself as over the last couple years. And if anyone was in doubt of that status, try this. You know you’ve made it when Brad Pitt is starring in one of your original movies.

War Machine stars Pitt as four-star General Glen McMahon, a decorated leader tasked with bringing the war in Afghanistan to an end after eight long and trying years. The film is a brilliant satire/parody that explores the relationship between war and politics, and how the media influence the lives of the world’s shot callers. Pitt isn’t the only name to look out for, either. Notable additions include Topher Grace (no, really), John Magaro, Anthony Michael Hall, and the one and only Alan Ruck. We’re betting this one’s going to be a winner.

Doctor Strange

May 30

The Box Office smash (more than $677 million!) Doctor Strange also makes its way to Netflix in May. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Vincent Strange, a disgraced former surgeon-turned powerful sorcerer who must protect the world from Kaecilius, an evil sorcerer hellbent on destroying everything. Critics and comic book nerds alike praised the film, and we have to agree—if you haven’t yet, check this one out.

House of Cards Season 5

May 30

Another “Oh holy shit, what’s even happening right now?” kind of Netflix Original series,  House of Cards debuts its fifth season May 30 and boy, if you thought our actual political sphere was in total chaos, wait until you see this shit. It’s a lot to get into, but the show follows the political career of Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), from his time as South Carolina Congressman to his rise to President of the United States. Season 4 ended in tumult with the Islamic Caliphate (yeah, we know), which appears to have led to a full-on world war (yeah, we know). We’re excited to see where Season 5 ends up, especially knowing the show’s history of going everywhere viewers never thought possible.

The God of Thunder Embarks On His Biggest Adventure Yet in Thor: Ragnarok

Thor’s latest film looks to be one of his biggest yet as the hammer-wielding Asgardian fights the Incredible Hulk as Jeff Goldblum looks on for what could be the cinematic fight of the century:

“Imprisoned on the other side of the universe, the mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth) finds himself in a deadly gladiatorial contest that pits him against the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), his former ally and fellow Avenger. Thor’s quest for survival leads him in a race against time to prevent the all-powerful Hela (Cate Blanchett) from destroying his home world and the Asgardian civilization.”

Thor: Ragnarok hits screens this November.

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The First Teaser Trailer for “IT”

Plenty of people developed a deep seated and lifelong fear of clowns after their first viewing of IT, in the same way most people born between 1960 and 1970 won’t go in the ocean anymore. And apparently coulrophobia is one of those cultural touchstones, because an IT remake is on its way to theaters this September. We got our first real look at footage from the movie in the form of the teaser trailer and we have to say, yup, stay the fuck away from us, every clown ever. The few glimpses we got of Pennywise are terrifying and the main kids look to have the acting chops necessary to carry this movie. If nothing else, this may signify a return to the suspense genre, with theaters full of frightened couples holding hands so hard their bones fuse.

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Gerard Butler Must Save the World From Climate-Control Satellites in ‘Geostorm’

When a system of climate-control satellites built to regulate the global climate goes haywire, Gerard Butler (Jake) and his brother Max (played by Jim Sturgess) are tasked with solving the satellite program’s malfunction. Originally, the satellites kept everyone safe, but now they have begun to attack the very planet that they once protected. Ultimately, it is a race against the clock to uncover the real threat before a worldwide geostorm wipes out everything.

Writer-producer Dean Devlin makes his directorial debut in Geostorm, which pits Abbie Cornish, Alexandra Maria Lara, Daniel Wu, Ed Harris and Andy Garcia alongside Butler and Sturgess.

Geostorm lands in theaters on October 20.

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The 10 Best Movies at Redbox (2017)

The best movies on Redbox right now are mostly blockbusters from the last two years, but there are also some hidden gems among the big-budget movies plastered all over the Redbox display. Our guide to movies at Redbox includes Oscar winners, animated films, comedies, indie film, biopics and horror. And all of the movies listed here are available on DVD for $1.50 ($2 if you want Blu-Ray) right now or coming soon.

But if you’d rather stay home, check out our guides to the best movies on Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Hulu, iTunes, Showtime, Cinemax, in theaters and On Demand.

Here are the 10 best movies available on Redbox right now:

10. Captain Fantastic
Year: 2016
Director: Matt Ross
In the opening scene of Captain Fantastic, we’re introduced to what looks like a feral clan headed by Ben (Viggo Mortensen). But even the youngest of Ben’s six children can quote the nation’s founding documents and opine on the views of “Uncle” Noam Chomsky, as well as defend themselves from an armed attacker. Ben and Leslie have taken their kids to live in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, part of an experiment to raise philosopher kings. But his wife is manic depressive and commits suicide before we ever meet her character. In the wake of her death, Ben must confront the world he’s left behind and decide what kind of life is really best for his family. Writer-director Matt Ross (who plays Gavin Belson on Silicon Valley) has created an original story that is sweet, sad, funny and full of openhearted joy—the kind of Sundance movie that will play well with a wider audience. Even if the lifestyle and views are unfamiliar to some, parents will recognize the honest look at the positive and negative effects we have on our children and the pressures to conform to others’ expectations.

9. Captain America: Civil War
Year: 2016
Directors: Joe & Anthony Russo
In my review of the first Avengers movie, I said Joss Whedon’s blockbuster represented “the most complete manifestation of the superhero team aesthetic yet seen on film.” Four years later, we have a new champion in the category of “best team film.” The way in which Captain America: Civil War brings together a dozen or so heroes, sorts them into not one but two teams and then flings them at each other is its own special delight for comic book fans long accustomed to such things on the printed or digital page. Civil War maintains the same balance of action and significant (if brief) character development/interaction that made Winter Soldier so enjoyable. The fight and chase scenes are frenetic without being confusing, while the comic relief, mostly supplied by our bug-themed heroes, provides a Whedon-flavored lightening of the otherwise dark proceedings. If one thinks of the each MCU film as a juggling act—and each hero’s origin, “flavor” and power set as its own subset of items that must be kept in motion and in proper relation with each other—then as a series both Avengers films and Captain America: Civil War can be seen as an escalation of the routine that’s as impressive as it is necessary. After all, with each additional hero added, with each additional demand placed on the script in both action and dialogue, Kevin Feige and company are building toward Infinity.

8. Hacksaw Ridge
Year: 2016
Director: Mel Gibson
“There’s little reason to doubt that Gibson and screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight respect Doss’ thou-shalt-not-kill position. One key line finds Captain Oliver (Sam Worthington) explaining to Doss that while his compatriots don’t believe what he believes, they respect him for it. There’s enough to figuring out the nature of that belief that it warrants a deeper exploration. We know fear of punishment isn’t guiding Doss. And it’s unlikely that he believes in the relativity of his approach. But we wonder to what extent his refusal to kill is rooted in the fear of living with guilt or if it’s simply a matter of believing that it’s immoral by God’s will. If it’s the latter, it’s tough to reconcile his position with his willingness to fight alongside those who are taking lives.”

7. The Nice Guys
Year: 2016
Director: Shane Black
Good performances can polish average movies with just enough elbow grease they end up looking like gems. Think Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, or Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Every advance that Shane Black’s The Nice Guys takes toward quality is made on the strengths of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Black is as quick with action scenes as with punchlines. The Nice Guys is funny. It’s exciting. If you find yourself growing tired of wordplay, Black will turn things around and slide in some Three Stooges slapstick. If you get tired of that, he’ll set off a gun or throw a few punches, though it is impossible to imagine anybody finding the clownish sight of Gosling tumbling off of balconies or crashing through plate glass tiresome. Gosling and Crowe are a great pair, so great that their team-up should justify funding for a buddy picture series where Holland and Jackson undertake jobs that spiral out of hand and above their pay grades. Crowe plays it straight and grumpy, and you half expect him to declare that he’s too old for this shit at any given moment. Gosling, on the other hand, shapes Holland through boozy tomfoolery and pratfalls. They’re a standout odd couple, but Black’s films are defined by great odd couples as much as they are by great scripting. In The Nice Guys, he leaves it up to Gosling and Crowe to use the former to fill in the gaps left behind by the lack of the latter.

6. Hell or High Water
Year: 2016
Director: David Mackenzie
The film builds up to a finale that thankfully goes not for a mindlessly violent showdown, but for a tension-filled dialogue-based confrontation which plays like a meeting of minds between characters who have more sympathy toward each other than they perhaps realized. Even as two of the main characters reach a kind of truce, however, Mackenzie comes up with an even more devastating image with which to end his film: He simply moves the camera from high in the air down to a batch of grass. It’s as if Mackenzie wanted to contextualize these human dramas for us—we all end up in the ground, ultimately. Here, in Hell or High Water, is a sterling example of genre craftsmanship at its intelligent and unexpectedly affecting best.

5. Love & Friendship
Year: 2016
Director: Whit Stillman
The title of Whit Stillman’s latest comedy may be Love & Friendship, but while both are certainly present in the film, other, more negative qualities also abound: deception, manipulation, even outright hatred. Underneath its elegant period-picture surface—most obviously evident in Benjamin Esdraffo’s Baroque-style orchestral score and Louise Matthew’s ornate art direction—lies a darker vision of humanity that gives the film more of an ironic kick than one might have anticipated from the outset. Still, the humor in Love & Friendship is hardly of the misanthropic sort. As always with Stillman, his view of the foibles of the bourgeois is unsparing yet ultimately empathetic. Which means that, even as Stillman works his way toward a happy ending of sorts, the film leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste—which is probably as it should be. Such honesty has always been a hallmark of Stillman’s cinema, and even if Love & Friendship feels like more of a confection than his other films, that frankness, thankfully, still remains.

4. Arrival
Year: 2016
Director: Denis Villeneuve
“You can engage with Arrival for its text, which is powerful, striking, emotive and, most of all, abidingly compassionate. You can also engage with it for its subtext, should you actually look for it. This is, perhaps, the best-made movie in Villeneuve’s filmography to date, a robust but delicate work captured in stunning, calculated detail by cinematographer Bradford Young, and guided by Adams’ stellar work as Louise. Adams is a chameleonic actress of immense talent, and Arrival lets her wear each of her various camouflages over the course of its duration. She sweats, she cries, she bleeds, she struggles, and so much more that can’t be said here without giving away the film’s most awesome treasures. She also represents humankind with more dignity and grace than any other modern actor possibly could. If aliens do ever land on Earth, maybe we should just send her to greet them.”

3. The Lobster
Year: 2016
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
The Lobster presents a baffling vision of the future, where baffling people do baffling things and obey baffling laws. But through all the movie’s idiosyncrasies shines a beautiful and devastating examination of the human condition. Co-writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) creates a vivid reality and trusts the audience to put the pieces together and deduce the rules of this strange society. Colin Farrell plays a newly single man who checks into a resort hotel/prison where he must find a mate within 45 days or be turned into an animal. In this future, conversation has become mechanical and stilted, but that doesn’t stop the cast—especially Farrell and Rachel Weisz—from communicating a great deal of emotions through their mannered performances.

2. Manchester by the Sea
Year: 2016
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
“If TIFF 2016 provided one of the most purely joyous cinematic experiences in recent memory in La La Land, it was in Manchester by the Sea that it provided one of the most emotionally devastating. Casey Affleck, one of our most underrated actors, gives perhaps the performance of his life, and Michelle Williams is affecting enough even in this tiny role that there are award whispers for her as well. I think it was Blue Valentine that last left me feeling so despondent at the end of a film. But in Kenneth Lonergan’s unflinching, sympathetic gaze, there’s a nobility as well.”

1. Moonlight
Year: 2016
Director: Barry Jenkins
“Told in three segments, Moonlight is a devastating and moving portrait of a young life that asks us to engage in the nature-versus-nurture debate all over again. Played by three actors, Chiron is an African American growing up in Tampa as a child, a teenager and then in his 20s, and writer-director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) charts the different ages to see how questions of sexuality, racism and masculinity influence him at each stage. Naomie Harris astonishes as Chiron’s drug-addicted mother, and Mahershala Ali is a marvel as a local dealer who decides to take Chiron under his wing. Moonlight slowly becomes a love story, but not before it encompasses a very different kind of Boyhood: one in which a black child’s upbringing can be threatened by external and internal forces that others are privileged enough to ignore.”

Movie Review: Kong: Skull Island

I went into the opening of Kong: Skull Island with something of a prediction in mind. Given that the most vociferous public complaints about Gareth Edwards’ 2014 take on Godzilla were … well, the dearth of GODZILLA scenes, it seemed only natural that Legendary’s reaction would be to get the whole King Kong reveal out of the way almost immediately in this film. And yep—that was exactly right. The audience meets Kong quickly, and often. There are avenues to criticize Kong: Skull Island, but “lack of Kong” is not going to be one of them.

This is the second film is Legendary’s “MonsterVerse,” which began with Godzilla and is slated to continue with at least two more films: Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 2019 and Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020. It is of course another film studio’s attempt to tap into the seemingly endless money engine of successful “cinematic universes,” as Marvel Studios can attest to. However, the corresponding films from DC have proven that this is much easier said than done.

Kong: Skull Island is not a complex film, and it doesn’t really deserve “complex analysis.” It’s a calculated popcorn action movie and a would-be blockbuster, and one that is intensely uneven tonally by design. One minute, it’s bombarding you with comic ultraviolence and gore that would not be out of place in The Evil Dead or Cannibal Holocaust, and the next it’s legitimately very funny. That Cannibal Holocaust comparison is no hyperbole, by the way, at least in terms of the disgusting fate that befalls one character.

John Goodman plays Bill Randa, a government official searching for giant monsters with the help of a crew that contains scientists, soldiers, activists and mercenaries. Among them: Tom Hiddleston as the Doc Savage-style white jungle adventurer, Brie Larson as the morally conscientious photojournalist/Kong bait, and Samuel L. Jackson as the army colonel expedition leader who goes full Ahab and becomes obsessed with gaining some form of vengeance on Kong. This is the last we’ll be talking about any of them with the exception of Jackson, given that he’s the only character of any real plot significance, even if he does spend time regurgitating Jurassic Park in-jokes like “Hold on to your butts” and posing in front of Budweiser product placement. The others are more or less underutilized, especially Hiddleston, who just gets lost in the flow. Larson, meanwhile, is less integral than a female lead has ever been in any other King Kong movie.

And that’s where this film differs from previous iterations of the Kong story—it is a pure action movie without any significant attempt at characterization for Kong himself, nor room for subtlety. It’s filled with cliched 1970s period rock music, the kind of feature-length soundtrack that Forrest Gump would have had if he spent the entire film in Vietnam rather than 20 minutes. This is not Peter Jackson’s three-hour epic, which wanted to deliver absolutely everything: Action, drama, suspense, prestige. Larson is never captured by the beast, and she spends almost no time in his presence, and thus doesn’t develop anything like the slow rapport that Naomi Watts’ character has with the ape in Jackson’s film. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear why Kong eventually cares about Larson’s character at all, except for the fact that the film casts him as generally benevolent toward humans in general unless provoked. He has none of that spark of intelligence in his face, or the degree of emotionality possessed by Andy Serkis in a mo-cap suit. He has not been anthropomorphized, any more than Godzilla was in 2014.

And honestly, that’s fine. This film is about Kong smashing giant lizards, and that’s what he does with reckless abandon. The oddly proportioned “skull crawlers” are serviceably scary antagonists, saddled with a name so stupid that the film goes out of its way to satirize the moniker via its own dialog as means of walking it back. The action sequences are where it shines, whether that’s Sam L.’s band of hopelessly outgunned soldiers fighting against giant spiders and pterodactyls, or Kong ripping giant reptiles limb from limb. The visceral nature of the violence is almost shocking at times, especially because it’s so often balanced by comedy in short order. The gore is definitely there, but one can at least say that no scene is half as harrowingly serious as the bit in Peter Jackson’s King Kong when the entire party is being torn apart by giant insects. Skull Island’s violence might better be compared to say, Deadpool—gratuitous, but with a touch of zany. They at least know enough about what they’re doing to be aware that the climax of the final monster fight needs another Mortal Kombat-style fatality, as we got in the climax of Godzilla. This one does not disappoint.

There is one highlight to the human side of the equation, though, in the form of John C. Reilly, who is nothing short of marvelous. He singlehandedly steals the film away from every other non-Kong character, playing an American pilot who was shot down during WWII and has been living among the natives on the island for several decades. He somehow manages to be both the only effectively comedic character and the one source of genuine pathos, all at the same time, but that’s nothing new for the criminally underutilized Reilly. This film is so much more effective for the fact that he’s in it that I would not want to see it without him. Sustained, audience-wide laughter in a press screening is on the rare side, but it happened several times here, entirely thanks to his delivery. John C. Reilly, oddly enough, is what I’ll be most likely to remember about Skull Island in the coming weeks.

Of course, the film’s real purpose is simply to set up the next phase, as is the case in nearly all cinematic universe movies. Kong has a 2020 date with Godzilla, although one wonders how this version of Kong (which is maybe 100 feet tall) would be supposed to tackle Big G, who was officially listed at 355 feet in Gareth Edwards’ film. It feels like Legendary is showing their hand here when Reilly goes out of his way to mention that “Kong is still growing” in Skull Island, leaving room for further expansion. But that’s a whole hell of a lot of expansion. Perhaps I’m asking a little too much from the film—this is, after all, a new cinematic universe with Godzilla monsters who literally fed on radiation for sustenance. They could hit Kong with a Honey I Shrunk the Kids-style growth ray, for all I know.

What I do know, is that your enjoyment of Kong: Skull Island should not be a matter of surprise or chance. Either you want to see a CGI gorilla beat the hell out of skull reptiles, or you don’t. No one is judging you. Consider the John C. Reilly a pleasant bonus.

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Writer: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein
Starring: John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston
Release date: Friday, March 10, 2017