REVIEW: “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”

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As a movie fan here is a scenario I have experienced more than once: I see a trailer for a big studio picture and immediately say to myself “This movie is in trouble”. Then I learn of its $175 million production budget and I say “Make that BIG trouble”. And then critics begin dropping a slew of scathing reviews (not always a guaranteed indicator but in many cases…). Needless to say my expectations bottom out.

But then I actually see the film and it turns out to be far from the horrid experience I expected. “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” fits into this category. Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a ringing endorsement. At the same time it’s far from the unwatchable dreck I was led to expect.

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Where to start? Guy Ritchie’s take on the Arthurian legend doesn’t follow many traditional guidelines. You could say (for better or for worse) Ritchie does his own thing. That’s good in the sense that it feels like a unique undertaking and the looniness is one of my favorite things about it. What’s not so good is that it misses much of the mythical and magical charms that has made the story somewhat timeless.

Since 2004’s forgotten and underrated “King Arthur” Warner Brothers has been hard at work attempting to bring a new film to light. They finally settled on what is supposed to be the first of a six film cinematic universe. The likeliness of that happening has dwindled. Something about losing $15 million will do that.

The film begins with Camelot under siege by the dark mage Mordred. It’s a sequence resembling a cheaper version of Peter Jackson’s battle for Minas Tirith (see “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”). King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) prevails much to the chagrin of his ambitious and devious brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Hungry for the throne, Vortigern leads a coup against his brother. Realizing the peril, Uther sends his infant son Arthur drifting down the river, baby Moses style. Then through a speedy time-hopping sequence we learn young Arthur was found by a group women and raised in their brothel.

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What follows is a gonzo account of Arthur’s rise, his introduction to Excalibur, and of course a confrontation with the new king Vortigern. Charlie Hunnam plays Arthur, now all grown up and with a fantastical and unwanted destiny laid out before him. Hunnam is a good actor but here he seems a bit hog-tied by the script. It’s steadily working towards him becoming the mythical sword-wielding hero, but for too long it keeps him locked in as the reluctant denier.

The action is pretty good and Jude Law is a hoot playing such a detestable slug of a human being. And the sheer nuttiness of the whole thing works in several regards. Despite its noticeable flaws, before I knew it I found myself having fun with this gonzo vision of Camelot. But is it enough to put things in motion for a full cinematic universe? I’m afraid not. It’s entertaining as its own thing, but there isn’t much to draw anyone back for another dose. Like I said, not a ringing endorsement but fun enough.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

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REVIEW: “Kong: Skull Island”

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I’m sure we’ve all had movies we have really wanted to be good but secretly feared would disappoint. I can name several and most of them probably fell in line with my fears more so than my hopes. “Kong: Skull Island” is a movie I’ve wanted to love since seeing the first trailer. But there were several reasons why it could have failed and I was never quite able to shake my skepticism.

Sometimes I love being wrong. “Kong” is an absolute delight and a rousing throwback to the creature features that permeated the 1950s. King Kong has had several big screen features, not as many as fellow movie monster icon Godzilla, but enough to earn him a pretty legendary status.

This film version steers clear of the traditional King Kong story. There is no damsel in distress, ventures to New York City, or the Empire State Building. This time we stay put on Skull Island, a beautiful uncharted South Pacific island by air but underneath its lush canopy is the home of the wildest assortment of creatures. The island is shielded by an ever-present storm wall but by 1973 satellite innovations led to its discovery. The most interested party is a shadowy government outfit called Monarch.

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John Goodman plays Bill Randa, Monarch’s senior official who convinces his government contact to fund an expedition to map out Skull Island. He requests a escort from the battered and bruised US military who in 1973 was in the process of leaving Vietnam. Their escort is led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Randa also hires a British SAS tracker named Conrad who knows the mission stinks but needs the money. They are joined by Brie Larson’s tough and feisty anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver.

Let’s go ahead and state the obvious – the mission doesn’t go very well. The film wastes no time introducing the characters to their Kong – more of a towering monster than a big gorilla. The team’s surprise introduction and initial clash with Kong may be the film’s best sequence. It’s an intense, violent collision filled with chaos and carnage that leaves the team’s survivors grounded and separated. There they must navigate a treacherous landscape filled with a host of dangerous digital creations. Oh, and there is John C. Reilly, a true scene-stealer playing a World War 2 pilot who has been stranded on the island for 30 years. He’s a hoot.

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Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has only one other feature film credit to his name and it’s a far cry from “Kong: Skull Island”. What he manages here is pretty incredible – a swift on its feet thrill ride with plenty of action and just enough wit. Most importantly it doesn’t get bogged down in its pretty looks. It’s one thing to look really good. We’ve come to expect it in this age of digital effects. Vogt-Roberts and company goes beyond that by finding clever ways for the visuals to make the action more cinematic and to emphasize the smallness of man compared to their giant beastly threats (There almost seems to be a crafty Vietnam War metaphor is hidden in there somewhere).

Vogt-Roberts has stated he pulled inspiration from a wild assortment of areas including “Apocalypse Now”, “Platoon”, the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and of course the original “King Kong” film from 1933. Several hands went into the script including Max Borenstein who penned the first draft. Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”) did some important touch-up work and Derek Connelly who came in for some final rewrites. Their story smartly passes on getting too deep in backstory and relationship building. There’s some of it but for a story about a group of strangers thrust into a horrible situation it is held to just enough.

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Another smart move is putting together a fabulous cast. Hiddleston, Larson, Jackson, Reilly and Goodman are all great fits with their characters. But just as fun are other characters played by quality supporting actors. Tobey Kebbell, Corey Hawkins, Shea Whigham, John Ortiz and Thomas Mann all contribute plenty and each have their moments.

It may be tempting to dismiss “Kong: Skull Island” as typical CGI-heavy blockbuster mush. In fact it may be easy to do so because “Kong” doesn’t shy away from what it is. But this is no Transformers-like brain cell killer. It’s a well made, fast-paced monster movie with far more craft behind its presentation and storytelling than you would expect. I love the Vietnam War era setting, the jamming classic rock soundtrack and the old school creature feature nostalgia. It all clicks in a way I wish all big budget movies did. Oh, and be sure to stay until after the credits.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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2016 Blind Spot Series : “The Killing”

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When talking about Stanley Kubrick films conversations often gravitate towards “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “The Shining”, and “A Clockwork Orange” to name a few. While these films have been called masterpieces by many, I have always resisted portions of them (all of “A Clockwork Orange” if I were to be honest). I’ve tended to be a bit dismissive of claims to Kubrick’s greatness, but that was before discovering what may be the biggest strength of his filmography – his early movies.

In 1955 Kubrick met a young film producer James B. Harris and the two formed their own production company. Their first film together was a tight classical noir titled “The Killing”. Built around a documentary-ish structure and nonlinear narrative, “The Killing” is actually a fairly straightforward heist picture but one brimming with an effervescent style and craft.

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Popular crime noir novelist Jim Thompson was brought in to handle the dialogue and an assortment of actors familiar with film noir were cast. Sterling Hayden plays a career criminal named Johnny who wants to settle down and marry his girl (Coleen Gray). Before tying the knot he sets out to pull the familiar ‘one final heist’ – an elaborate plan to swipe $2 million from a racetrack. To pull it off he brings in an assortment of characters who each have their own unique role to play in the heist.

Kubrick put a heavy emphasis on characterization and he takes just enough time to show each of the motivations for signing on to Johnny’s plan. Elisha Cook plays a weak-minded cashier at the track who needs the money to satisfy his insulting gold digger of a wife (Marie Windsor). Ted de Corsia plays a boozing crooked cop. Joe Sawyer plays the racetrack bartender who needs money to help his sick wife. Jay C. Flippen plays an old friend of Johnny’s who funds the heist. Toss in a gunrunning sharpshooter (Timothy Carey) and a brutish wrestler (Kola Kwariani).

Johnny’s plan works like one big puzzle where every man serves as a piece. If one piece is missing the puzzle is incomplete. None of the players other than Johnny know the entire plan. They know their roles and outside of that they are in the dark. In a sense Kubrick leaves the audience in the same boat. We know the individual parts people play but we don’t know how they all fit together.

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One method Kubrick uses to keep us in the dark is his fractured storytelling. The narrative bounces back and forth feeding us bits of the timeline but not in chronological order. This nonlinear approach makes it tough for us to fully realize the plan until the job is underway. It is a crafty bit of tension building that was incredibly effective despite its unorthodoxy. Kubrick would become famous for his dabbling in unorthodox forms of moviemaking. “The Killing” is his creative approach at its simplest but also its best.

“The Killing” isn’t a highly polished film. It feels raw and a bit crude. That’s one thing I love about it. It also highlights one of the shining (no pun intended) characteristics of Stanley Kubrick. Like him or not, he was a filmmaker determined to make each film different than the other. Think of the vast differences between “2001”, “Dr. Strangelove”, “A Clockwork Orange”, “The Shining”, “Full Metal Jacket”, etc. “The Killing” sticks to that trend by giving us a superb crime noir that holds a unique place in Stanley Kubrick’s filmography.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Key Largo”

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Bogart and Bacall. Those two names together personified what it once meant to be a Hollywood couple. The two were the talk of the town both for their great chemistry onscreen and their romance off. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall fell in love on the set of the 1944 Howard Hawks film “To Have and Have Not”. They would go on to make four films together, the final one being 1948’s “Key Largo”.

“Key Largo” was one of Bogie’s six movies to be made under the direction of close friend John Huston. It was also his fifth collaboration with Edward G. Robinson and the first time in their films that Bogart received top billing (although if you look at the placement of their names on the title screen there’s still room for debate). Loosely based on Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 play, “Key Largo” took the form of a brilliant crime drama anchored by a great cast and superb performances. It takes elements from other Bogie films such as “The Petrified Forest” and the aforementioned “To Have and Have Not”. But mainly its just great storytelling and watching Bogart and company work is most pleasing.

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Bogart plays ex-officer Frank McCloud. After recently leaving the military he heads to Key Largo, Florida and the Hotel Largo. It’s ran by an elderly man named James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), the father of a soldier who died while under Frank’s command, and Nora Temple (Bacall), the soldier’s widow. They welcome Frank with open arms anxious to here about their love one’s service and sacrifice. Frank notices the hotel also has a shady group of secretive customers. They turn out to be wanted gangster Johnny Rocco (Robinson) and his gang. Their plan is hidden and their motivations unclear, but soon Frank and the Temples find themselves held captive for the night all while a destructive hurricane passes through.

“Key Largo” builds itself around one great exchange between characters after another. Trapped inside by the threatening weather offers up plenty of great moments. Arguably the best is when Rocco’s alcoholic girlfriend Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) is asked to sing a song from her days as a successful performer. Her reward – one drink. It’s said that Trevor was nervous about the scene but was promised plenty of time to rehearse it by Huston. The director then shocked her by calling on her to perform the scene in front of cast and crew with no rehearsal whatsoever. The raw, nervous, and emotional first take is the fabulous scene we see in the movie. Trevor went on to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar and many point to that great scene as a big reason why.

There are numerous other amazing scenes that come to mind. Lionel Barrymore, disabled from arthritis in real life, standing up and taking a swipe at one of the gangsters. Rocco’s fall into fear as the hurricane’s intensity amps up. Rocco giving Frank a gun and an opportunity to rid the world of him but at a price. There are so many of these scenes that pour out of the rich and intelligent screenplay from Richard Brooks.

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The film also shines through the lines of Huston’s camera. While not as crafty with his angles and lighting as in his first film “The Maltese Falcon”, Huston still develops some beautiful and dramatic shots through a variety of cool techniques. “Key Largo” was filmed almost entirely on a Los Angeles set but you would never know it. Huston ably creates a strong sense of place and at no point was I doubting the films setting. And the details – from the perspiration brought by the hot and humid pre-hurricane afternoon to the fury of the storm and the damage it brings, Huston uses details to develop the setting yet never overdoes them. The looks and the sounds of the film are simply superb.

“Key Largo” may not be considered one of Humphrey Bogart’s top-tier movies but its such a great classic film. His slick and cool lead performance is effortless and his chemistry with Bacall is undeniable. Her subtle beauty and stunning screen presence are evident and there is no doubting that she made the movie better. This is a really good Bogart and Bacall vehicle but there’s much more to it than that. “Key Largo” is just a great film and another clear example of the strength of the Golden Age of cinema.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“THE KID WITH A BIKE” – 4 STARS

I’m not all that familiar with the work of the Dardenne brothers. The Belgian filmmaking duo has made several films that have garnered critical praise that I never have seen. But I’ll say without hesitation, if their other films are as good as “The Kid with a Bike”, I’m going to make a point to check them out. The Dardenne’s wrote, produced, and directed this emotionally penetrating picture that I assure you will touch your heart. The Dardenne’s filmmaking style has been described as intensely naturalistic and they are known for making films about common people with relatable promises. That certainly describes “The Kid with the Bike” and with the exception of a few small gripes, it really sold me on the characters and had me genuinely caring about their problems.

The movie is set in Seraing, Belgium and tells the story of 11-year old Cyril played by Thomas Doret. He’s a troubled kid who is constantly trying to escape from the foster home and the counselors who care for him. We find out that Cyril is looking for his father who left him at the home. One day he does get away and tries to track down his father at their old apartment. The counselors find him and chase him into a doctor’s office waiting room where, after being cornered, he clings to a woman named Samantha (Cecile De France). Later,through a tremendous act of grace, Samantha finds Cyril’s beloved bike that had been sold by his father and takes it to him at the home. She even goes further by agreeing to allow Cyril to stay with her on weekends. During this time she helps him in his search for his father. But the search turns out bad for young Cyril and he’s faced with all sorts of feelings and emotions that a child that age should never have to deal with.

At it’s core, “The Kid with a Bike” is a story of compassion, hope, forgiveness, and redemption. It’s a painful look at a young child’s innocent expectations being shattered. And if not for one woman’s compassion, his entire life could have went an entirely different direction. In fact, young Cyril does put a strain on his relationship with Samantha. He makes some poor choices later in the film but once again compassion and forgiveness are key to how things play out. Samantha’s kindness is uncommon and unmerited yet she sacrifices so much for this young boy. She’s also a really fascinating character herself. You can tell that she also is missing something in her life. We never get any indication that she has a lot of friends. She does have a self-absorbed boyfriend but even her relationship with him feels distant. There’s a void in her life and just maybe Cyril can fill it.

This is a stirring, poignant story and the Dardenne’s do a great job of drawing the audience right into the middle of everything that’s going on. Young Thomas Doret is fantastic as young Cyril and he gives an incredibly authentic and grounded performance. So often the camera just follows him around and you can sense the conflicted feelings raging within him. There’s one beautifully conceived long take of Cyril riding his bike. He’s riding fast and the camera stays right next to him throughout the entire take. I remember just watching him and wondering what all must be going through his head. There are several brilliant scenes like that where the Dardennes are able to tell their story through more than just the dialogue. I also have to mention Cecile De France’s wonderful performance. As I mentioned, her character is caring and compassionate but she’s also missing something in her life. De France sells that to us beautifully. And I hate to keep using descriptions such as “natural” and “authentic” but it perfectly describes her work.

Perhaps my biggest problem with the film is the ending. A lot of it is due to a particular style of storytelling and filmmaking but the abrupt ending just didn’t work for me. It’s not that it’s simply ambiguous or that it doesn’t give us any real sense of closure. The ending simply left me feeling shortchanged. It was as if there was still a little story to tell but the Dardenne’s pulled the plug. I’m not saying that the movie had to have a tightly structured and seamless ending, but here I left the theater a little unfulfilled.

Despite it’s quick ending, “The Kid with a Bike” is still a really good film driven by two very, very good performances. It’s a story that draws emotion from the audience without any hint of falsity or manipulation. It’s filmed in a way that makes you feel as if you’re right there in the scene watching everything unfold. It features some really clever camera work, perfect pacing, and a visual style that works perfectly for this type of film. “The Kid with a Bike” sparks my interest in the Dardenne brothers’ other work and it’s a movie that you need to make an effort to see. It’s a great reminder of just how good foreign cinema can be.