“Kong: Skull Island”

LOUISA: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Even if you aren’t a fanboy of the monster movie genre, you’ll have a good time at “Kong: Skull Island,” an eye popping popcorn movie that offers up some good old fashioned cinematic escapism. The film has a serious-yet-satirical attitude that gives it an elevated B-movie vibe, and it’s a ton of fun.

Setting the film in the 1970s was a brilliant move and it serves the story well. Conspiracy theorist Bill (John Goodman) convinces the government to give him a military escort to chart a mysterious island. Accompanying him are tough and combative career military man Lt. Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his helicopter squadron, British tracker James (Tom Hiddleston), anti-war photojournalist Mason (Brie Larson) and several other random company suits and scientists. After arriving on the island the group encounters wildly strange hermit Hank (the scene stealing John C. Reilly), a presumed dead WWII military pilot who crash landed and has been stuck on the island since the 1940s. King Kong is a hero ape in this version, keeping the local tribespeople safe from the Skull Crawlers (which are admittedly lame and fake looking dino lizard things).

The plot is thin, the dialogue is at times clunky, and there’s little character development. But that’s not really why audiences flock to movies like this, is it? We’re here to see a giant monkey wreak havoc, and the film delivers. (In fact, Kong shows up within the film’s first few minutes, providing an instant satisfaction by giving us an early and grandiose glimpse of the beast).

This is one great looking movie that’s extraordinarily visually focused (if not so much story-wise). It’s an expensive spectacle with a huge budget (rumored to be in the $190 million range), and you sure as heck can see where the money was spent onscreen. It’s not in the talented, credible actors that helm the cast: it’s in the absolutely flawless — and I mean FLAWLESS — visual effects. The CGI eye candy is breathtaking and the classic movie monster is brought to life on an epic scale by the animation geniuses at Industrial Light & Magic (with visual effects supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum working at the top of his game here). Kong looks and feels like an actual ape and is given a real humanity through the topnotch animation.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who directed the intimate film “Kings of Summer” (which clocked in at #4 on my list of the Top 10 Best Movies of 2013), makes an enormous and impressive creative leap from spearheading a low budget indie to an extravagant blockbuster with enviable ease. Vogt-Roberts has a skilled, artistic eye for visual beauty and stages some epic set pieces here. You’ll get big monsters and even bigger explosions with a pulsating retro rock soundtrack throughout.

All of this dazzling spectacle serves as a flashy distraction from the thin story and flat acting, but this is a wildly entertaining movie that breathes life into the Kong franchise.

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“xXx: Return of Xander Cage”

LOUISA: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

You have to love a balls-to-the-wall action flick that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” is outrageous, mindless fun. This is an insane adrenaline fest fueled by massive shootouts, fiery explosions, and extreme skateboarding. It’s packed with cartoonish stunts and playful humor, all adding to its irresistibly rambunctious spirit.

The presumed dead secret agent Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) is back to save the world like an intense, badass, tattooed James Bond. This time he has to recruit his own team of slightly insane buddies (including Rory McCann and Deepika Padukone) to help him fight the bad guys and reclaim a secret weapon known as Pandora’s Box.

The plot is basic and no new ground is covered as far as Hollywood big budget action movies go, but it’s the film’s tongue-in-cheek style that is so deliciously amusing. Case in point: each character is introduced with a sarcastic title card that gives their personal stats, including things like their “favorite movie” and their “go-to karaoke song.”

There are a couple of familiar faces that show up (including regulars Samuel L. Jackson and Ice Cube), along with fresh newcomers Nina Dobrev (who is very, very funny as a mousy CIA agent who is easily impressed by sizable muscles) and Toni Collette (wickedly hamming it up as the government lady in charge). There’s some astonishingly polished stunt choreography from martial artist Donnie Yen as well as several delightful, whimsically staged scenes like a table full of firebrands playing hot potato with a trio of live grenades and a raucous brawl that breaks out onboard a free falling cargo plane in a nosedive.

This film may be loud and ridiculous, but it’s also tons of fun. I had a smile on my face throughout, and many of the creative and thrilling action pieces had me cheering out loud. This is the perfect display of mindless, escapist action cinema, and “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” proves there’s lots of life left in the franchise. I can’t wait to watch this movie again.

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”

LOUISA: 4 STARSMATT: 3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

The tween sci-fi / fantasy genre is the perfect match for director Tim Burton. His signature bizarro style and grim tone fits like a glove with the whimsical, fantastic “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” This film is spooky, stylish, and wondrously bizarre. There’s a nightmarish vision that’s fully realized and brought to life with a great deal of visually stunning special effects.

Adapted from Ransom Riggs‘ wildly original best-selling literary trilogy, the film tells the story of Jake (Asa Butterfield), a teen who uncovers a mysterious family secret with a bit of prompting from his war veteran (and the oddly peculiar) grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp). When Jake and his dad (Chris O’Dowd) travel to Wales in search of the children’s home which his grandfather speaks so fondly of, the boy enters a magical time loop world that’s inhabited by very, very peculiar people with a range of mystical powers.

I am unfamiliar with the books so I’m not sure how true to the original source material the film is, but I was totally and completely engrossed with and engaged in the story (which reminds me of an even darker mash-up of “Lemony Snickets” and “Harry Potter”). That means even if you aren’t a fan of the series, you can still enjoy the movie.

The standout performance belongs to Eva Green as Miss Peregrine, the pipe smoking, shape shifting charge of the children’s home. Green creates a charming, sophisticated character with whom I instantly fell in love. I can’t imagine anyone else playing this role, and she’s great enough to deserve awards consideration. It would’ve been easy to go with an over-the-top characterization of this character but she doesn’t. It’s obviously a character and role she loved and wanted to do justice (ditto for Stamp).

The kid actors hold their own too. Butterfield is perfectly understated as wide-eyed and curious Jake, and Ella Purnell is appropriately graceful as his lighter-than-air love interest Emma. Lauren McCrostie (Olive) and Finlay MacMillan (Enoch) are enchanting too, elegantly toying with a considerable onscreen chemistry. The worst (and most distracting) performance sadly comes from Samuel L. Jackson as the evil Barron. Jackson is more than a little miscast and his confrontational yelling style of dialogue delivery reads as more campy than sincere, and that detracts from the tone of the movie.

The pacing is just right until the last half hour, when the film becomes crowded with borderline silly action sequences and rushed plotting. It’s also a bit of a stretch to overlook some of the gaping plot holes left in its wake (playing around with time and space will do that to the best of movies, however). But although the run time is over two hours, I still found myself wishing the movie was longer. I left the theater wanting more. Much more!

The darkly whimsical subject matter earns the film a very appropriate PG-13 rating. Take note that it’s quite scary and intense (and not for very sensitive little ones), but it’s the perfect Halloween-time cinematic outing for older kids and adults.

MATT SAYS:

Somewhere off the coast of Wales is a special place for “peculiar” (read: kids with extraordinary abilities) children to live, safely tucked away from those who would harm them. This home exists in a special time loop; a place that allows them to experience each day and remember it, but never grow older because each new day to them is actually the same day in time, lived over and over again.

So goes the story of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”, the newest film directed by Tim Burton (“Beetlejuice”, “Edward Scissorhands”). When Jake Portman’s (Asa Butterfield) grandfather Abe Portman (Terence Stamp) dies under mysterious circumstances, Jake goes looking for the home and answers for what happened to Abe. There he meets the headmistress and protector of the home, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her charges. But their safety cannot last forever: they are being hunted by Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), who is drawing ever closer.

“Miss Peregrine’s”, based on a popular young adult (YA) novel of the same name, is a refreshing change from some of the other YA-based films that have been released in recent years. This is neither dystopian nor weepy; instead, it’s straight-up fantasy with some dark elements — essentially, the type of material with which Burton excels. He handles it well, taking seriously the problems and issues faced by the children while also delighting in some of the more fanciful elements of the story. The film doesn’t shy away from violence or the more frightening aspects of the story (including a subplot that reminds me more than a little bit of the biggest stomach-turning moment from “The Neon Demon”), which was a pleasant surprise given that the trailers mostly focused on the whimsical.

If you’re a fan of fantasy or Burton’s signature style, “Miss Peregrine’s” is worth your attention. But parents should be warned: as I said above, it’s not all lighthearted whimsy. There are some pretty scary-looking monsters in the movie and some visuals that could be terrifying to little ones.

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“The Legend of Tarzan”

LOUISA: 2 STARS MATT: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Not much happens in “The Legend of Tarzan,” but it’s still pretty fun to watch hunky Alexander Skarsgård swing from the trees with his brethren of CGI apes. You’ll get mild enjoyment from this movie if you are a fan of the classic character of Tarzan.

Skarsgård, looking like nothing more than a plastic Ken doll, is perfectly cast in the role. He delivers his lines with a look of bewilderment and confusion, making it easy to believe he was raised in the jungle. In another splendid casting decision, Margot Robbie plays his Jane. She’s feisty, strong, smart, and easily the best character in the film.

Christoph Waltz is his usual one-note self, again playing another villain. I love the man but I’m sick of his repetitive performances; he’s the same in every single movie. The weird casting decision to put Tarantino alums Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson together was distracting: I kept wanting Jackson to step up and make this movie awesome by yelling about how he was sick and tired of all those “motherf’n apes in this motherf’n jungle!”

I really don’t have much to say about this movie, and that’s a first. The animated animals look real but this unremarkable movie is an exercise in the bland. There’s not enough action, not enough spectacle, and not enough plot. It’s just okay. Not really bad, not really good, but just okay. Meh.

MATT SAYS:

“The Legend of Tarzan” is the latest attempt to revive the classic character in a feature-length movie. To be sure, Warner Brothers is eyeing the Tarzan story for its potential to launch a new franchise. The jury’s out as to whether that will happen.

As the titular character, Alexander Skarsgård does a fine job playing a man torn between two worlds. Margot Robbie infuses the Jane character with a modern spirit that works well; this Jane is no weeping damsel in distress. Thankfully, neither Skarsgård nor Robbie have to carry the movie alone, as I’m not sure that either of their characters is compelling enough to do that. They share screen time with Tarantino alums Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz — each of whom are compelling enough to drive the plot.

To be sure, Waltz chews the scenery as Leon Rom. That’s what Waltz does best, and it works well for this film. It is Jackson, however, that steals the show. Jackson plays George Washington Wallace, a U.S. ambassador who urges Tarzan to return to his birth home in the Congo to prevent the country’s native people from being enslaved. It is Wallace’s motivation, backstory, and skill that form the true backbone of “The Legend of Tarzan”, and it is he who is most able to hold the attention of modern audiences.

Which is the real issue with “The Legend of Tarzan”: the Tarzan character itself feels just a little too antiquated to be interesting enough to drive a franchise. When compared to the modern superhero and action movie franchises that own the summer, Tarzan is a creaky throwback. When can watch super soldiers, Norse gods, wealthy crime-fighting vigilantes, and Amazons with godlike powers, I’m not sure that Tarzan can hope to compete. Faced with a choice at the box office, I think moviegoers will almost always opt for those other choices. This movie is a good illustration of why: it’s just interesting enough to hold attention, but is not memorable and will not be something that will ever compel re-watching.