At a mysterious corporation in Colombia, eighty non-native office employees (including John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, John C. McGinley, Sean Gunn, and Michael Rooker) are locked in and given orders to kill each other.
Written by James Gunn (of Guardians of the Galaxy fame) before he hit it big, The Belko Experiment isn’t Office Space meets Battle Royale as advertised, but is Lord of the Flies in a corporate setting and lacking in Gunn’s normal wit and humor. Perhaps that’s due to director Greg McLean who is known for bleaker fair. And that’s what we get. A one-note exercise in grimness.
The slide into violent anarchy is too quick and easy for a situation presented realistically, though since the focus is on the anarchy, it isn’t the speed that is the problem, but the realism. This would have been better as a cartoon or a dark comedy. Taken straight, and with the eventual kill-fest a forgone conclusion, the characters all become annoying—except those that just flip, like Sean Gunn (character names don’t matter) who starts empty all the water coolers to protect our precious bodily fluids.
People get nasty and start killing, but there’s no message beyond people are horrible. There’s no satire of the corporate world. People kill. People die. That’s all there is. They don’t even do that in interesting ways (or corporate-oriented ways; where is the death by stapler?). All that killing is presented well. The cast is excellent, filled with the best character actors around and the filmmaking is solid if not extraordinary, but it doesn’t matter. Professionally made nothingness isn’t all that much better than amateur nothingness. If you are thinking of hanging around so that the ending can explain it all, don’t bother. There really is no point to anything in the film.
I live by distraction. Those of you who know me know I’m about five minutes from cracking up at any time. So…distractions. It’s hard to get much done in those 4 min and 59 seconds, but it lets me survive. But good distractions are hard to come by. Most things don’t work But movie do (now, anyway), but not any movie. Not most movies. Dramas don’t for the most part. Comedies are iffy. But light action/adventure—that’s the ticket. But there aren’t that many and I know too many by heart. I needed some I hadn’t seen to get me through this week. And the trailers for the Fast & Furious 8 made me look into that franchise.
Eugie and I had watched the first and didn’t hate it, but didn’t think much of it either. But I gathered things changed with the 5th film when they gave up street racing (which is really dull) and took up international fantasy capers. So I tried the 5th, and yup, it was pretty much the perfect distraction. So was the 6th and 7th. Now I need about fifteen more, but hey, I was happy to find three.
And damn those are some stupid brilliant films. Scene after scene is stupid. Not a little stupid. Mind bogglingly stupid. I thought the Casino Royale car flip was the dumbest, physics defying thing I’d seen in a film pretending that things were possible—that was before I saw the bus flip over a car in F&F 5. Nothing makes sense and the rules of the world do not apply. Friction on a safe? Nah. Also inertia is non-functional. I like how if the car hit another car, it would slow them down, but if the thing they were dragging hit another car, that other car would be destroyed and they wouldn’t slow down. Cool. The Rock just breaks off his cast and picks up mini-gun. Yes…because that could happen. People just appear in places. And half their problems would go away if they slowed down (really, they are being shot at and all they’d have to do is break a bit and they’d be fine, but nope). Thing is, none of these things are problems. And that’s half the brilliance. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was really stupid, but it didn’t seem to be. (It was also a good film.) Everything moved so quickly and plausible-sounding explanations were tossed around so that while watching, it seems to make sense. F&F doesn’t do that. It goes to the other extreme. It revels in its stupidity. There is zero pretext. Why are there girls in bikinis? Because girls in bikinis are nice to look at. Why are there helicopters and drones in downtown L.A.? Because that’s cool. Why… Yeah, let’s forget about “why.” No reason to specify the question because the explanation is always “because it looks good/cool.” The rest of the brilliance is with the characters. They are so childishly simple, but perfectly defined—and there are a lot of characters. And they talk a lot about family. A lot. So I knew exactly who everyone was—completely—and what they meant to everyone else. I stepped into F&F 5 barely remembering the characters (and most were new anyway) and I knew them all within a few minutes. Color coding helps: White guy, serious Black guy, funny Black guy, Latina, Asian guy, Jewish girl, ambiguous-race guy, Black-Samoan guy. I can’t even be annoyed at how they manipulated that as it scores so well on representation.
So each film is two hours of multi-ethnic characters wrapped tightly together as a family, doing absolutely impossible things and pointing to those things and yelling “see how cool that impossible thing was.” And apparently, that makes for a great distraction. I don’t think I’ll see the 8th in a theater—theaters are lonely now. But I’ll look for it on home video. And maybe I’ll try the 4th.
In the early ‘70s, Bill Randa (John Goodman), the only survivor of a ship destroyed years ago by a giant monster, is obsessed with finding giant monsters in the world. As his last chance, he puts together a team that includes ex-S.A.S tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and a military contingent on their way home from Vietnam, lead by Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), to explore a storm covered, hidden island. Once there, things go south quickly, as they run into King Kong, and then a series of monsters before learning what is going on from Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) who has been marooned on Skull Island since WWII.
If you are going to remake or reboot or re-whatever a film, then don’t do the exact same thing that was done before. The producers took that to heart. Unlike Jackson’s beautiful copy of the 1933 original and De Laurentis’s pathetic one, Kong: Skull Island is something else. It has nods to the previous versions, and enough familiar characteristics in the big ape to know we’re still talking about Kong (he does like tiny women), but this is a new story with different themes, different characters, and a different feel. If what you want is the same old King Kong, you will be disappointed.
So unlike earlier Kong films, this is full out action and adventure and only action and adventure, with an accent on the action. Nothing is settled by love or loneliness. Running, shooting, or if you happen to be a giant monster, biting and slapping are the only ways to express anything. And for a giant monster movie, that’s a plus. It’s two hours long and feels half that.
So Skull Island is all about excitement, but that doesn’t mean it is themeless. Environmentalism—particularly the negative effect humans have on the world, and the political arrogance and pointless anger that is the cause of wars are front and center. Randa’s comment that there will never be a time when Washington is so messed up got a solid laugh. The themes aren’t subtle, but I don’t think you want subtlety in a movie about a giant ape smashing giant lizards.
I couldn’t ask more from the special effects. The entire menagerie of monsters and critters are both “real” and cool. Nothing is hidden by darkness and fog. You want to see Kong? You’re going to see Kong, and he looks good. He also doesn’t quite look like a gorilla, but some other ape that stands fully erect, which makes for some powerful images.
And even better than the FX are the actors, which shouldn’t be surprising. When has Goodman or Jackson been anything else but good. Hiddleston is one of the three best male leads of this generation (I’ll leave you to guess at the others) and does an amazing job of bringing life to a fairly routine character. Brie Larson adds a bit of emotion and all of the secondary players nail their parts. I’ve complained with other recent ensembles that I didn’t know who was who. Not a problem here. Once the initial trimming was completed, I knew who everyone was and what it meant when they were in danger. With all that good work, there was a standout, and not the one I expected: John C. Reilly. He could easily have ended up being the unimportant comedy relief, but instead he’s the heart of the picture. He’s the one I cared about.
Strangely, all that fine ensemble work is also the film’s largest flaw. There’s no real focus. This could easily have been James Conrad’s story, or Mason Weaver’s, and it should have been. Instead it isn’t anyone’s story, including Kong’s. Once the wheels are set in motion, there is no protagonist. People—and giant apes—simply react. Packard comes closest to actually doing something and his choices are the least entertaining of the movie. I’d have liked to know a few of the players less well and gotten deeper into Conrad’s life and goals. Without that, the film is good, but it is also all surface.
You might figure a daikaiju action flick is best suited for fourteen-year-old boys, but this film was made for an older crowd. If you haven’t seen Apocalypse Now, a lot of Kong: Skull Island is going to go over your head (the filmmakers really, really liked Apocalypse now). Similarly, what weight there is to the film is only going to be felt by those who lived through the 1970s. For the younger set, they’ve got lots of monster violence, which I suppose is enough.
Note: Stay for the after credits scene. It is annoying to have to sit through around seven minutes of scrolling names (Marvel normally knows to put theirs in the far less aggravating mid-credits), but the after credits sequence does make a difference to the franchise. Kong: Skull Islandis part of the Monsterverse connected universe that includes Godzilla(2014), and the upcoming Godzilla King of the Monsters and King Kong Verses Godzilla, and it is in this film that the world is laid out (so if things didn’t make sense in Godzilla—and they didn’t—this helps…a little).
The Teen Titans—Damian Wayne (Stuart Allen), Blue Beetle (Jake T. Austin), Raven (Taissa Farmiga), Terra (Christina Ricci), and Beast Boy (Brandon Soo Hoo), under the command of current leader Starfire (Kari Wahlgren) and past leader Nightwing (Sean Maher)—have been working to take down cult leader Brother Blood (Gregg Henry). Brother Blood, in return, has plans for the Teen Titans, and has hired Deathstroke (Miguel Ferrer) to carry them out. And he has an ace as one of the Titans is a traitor.
Based on a pivotal comic in the DC universe, The Judas Contract suffers from trying to do too much in less than an hour and a half. To fit in two angsty teenage subplots, two romances, two villains, and a whole lot of rebellion and puberty, everything is simplified. The teens all are one-dimensional cut-outs. Damian rebels by making arrogant quips. That’s it. Blue Beetle whines because he can’t see his parents. That is his personality. Beast Boy likes Terra so moons around her. Add in a non-amusing quirk of constantly posting on social media and we’re finished with him. For an animated film attempting to hit a slightly older demographic (people swear…), the treatment of teenagers is insulting.
The problems are most prominent with the Terra-abuse subplot because they could have done a lot with that. There’s the suggestion of pain and sexuality as a replacement for emotional closeness, but there’s just no meat. There’s no attempt to examine her as an actual human or see how these issue play out in reality. Expand this section, and drop most of the embarrassing bits with Beast Boy and Blue Beetle, and The Judas Contract could have been something. But as is, they needed to cut the swearing and get the film a G-rating as the plot and character development is only suited for young children.
On the plus side, the voice work is reasonable, and the Nightwing/Starfire romance is funny and plays as the closest thing to real the film has to offer. Brother Blood is presented as a formidable and scary opponent. And the basic idea is good, though any accolades there probably should go to the comic book.
The Judas Contract isn’t terrible, but I can’t imagine anyone being happy with it. As with several previous DC animated films, they needed to decide if this was going to be semi-sophisticated flick for late teens and older comic book fans or a movie for the pre-pubescent crowd.