IT'S 'LIFE', JIM ...



 
Blimey, that Jake Gyllenhaal's changed.  He looks just like Ryan Reynolds.  And Reynolds, he's apparently had a sex change.  Who knew?
            I had no expectations of ‘Life’ ... If you see what I mean.  I’d seen the trailer months ago but had completely forgotten it.  I’d seen the poster, so I knew who was in it (even if the poster designers didn’t) and I knew it had spacesuits.
            It’s quite rare to be able to approach a film with no expectations but, when I have successfully achieved this rarefied state, I usually find it’s the best place from which to approach a film.  This allows the story to unravel at its own pace.
            The opening is a fairly confusing, as we travel around the International Space Station in a continuous shot (meaning: CGI-enhanced series of linked shots à la Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro G. Iñárritu) while the crew are attempting to use their robot arm to capture a passing spaceship.
            They soon wish they hadn’t bothered.  The Mars Lander, ‘Pilgrim’, is the spaceship in question and it has soil samples from Mars on board.  The astronauts check these samples for signs of life and, sure enough, they find some.  They find an inert single-cell organism which they revive with a mix of gases and growth medium.
            There is an interestingly subtle touch of foreshadowing in these early scenes.  When they capture the spaceship, they signal their success with the words “Pilgrim has arrived on Plymouth Rock.”  Interesting way to put it, I thought; ’cos the last time Pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock, it didn’t really work out well for the indigenous people.  Then the colonial subtext is extended, when the great American public decide to call the new life-form ‘Calvin’.
            When Calvin is safe in his glass box (the so-called ‘fire wall’), the astronauts note how swiftly it grows and changes, evolving before their eyes.  It demonstrates basic intelligence and curiosity about its surroundings.  It becomes a little jelly starfish, almost cute, until it decides it wants out.  But, even then, it is defending itself and simply striving to stay alive.  Can’t blame the little fella.  These early scenes are tense and entirely credible and, when it does break out, the violence is sudden and eye-avertingly visceral.


            But, scene-by-scene, this film, which was doubtless pitched as “Alien Meets Gravity”, gets less and less credible.  The creature seems to know things about the space station and the crew that it can’t possibly know.  It outsmarts their every tactic.  They even try the old standby of blasting it out of the airlock, and it effortlessly survives that.  There are far too many moments when my rational brain took to its metaphorical feet, pointed at the screen and yelled “How the fuck did that happen?”
            As it grows, Calvin becomes more familiar, essentially turning into a Cthulhu tentacle-monster with a beak.  I swear, there was a moment when it is face to face with a crew member and another little voice in my head sang “Feed me Seymour”.  It’s difficult to stay scared of something that could burst into song at any moment.  Apart from Ed Sheeran, obviously.
            Familiarity is a real problem in monster movies.  It seems that H.P. Lovecraft and H.R. Geiger thought up the perfect monsters and no one has had anything particularly new to add since.  Apart from Del Toro.  I really wish Del Toro had got to make his At the Mountains of Madness.
            A lot of very familiar horror movie tropes are in place here, and that’s fine in a film with a sense of fun.  But this film is deadly serious.  Hang on ... The script was written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who wrote Deadpool last year, and Ryan Reynolds is in there, and still it’s deadly serious? 
            ’Fraid so.  
Ryan Reynolds, polishing his helmet again.
            Part of the problem is that none of the other characters are really allowed to shine.  The dialogue is functional, occasionally ridiculously expositional.  The personalities and narrative function of the characters means they just feel disposable.  I know that most everyone is disposable in a film like this, but it’s nice when they at least try and pretend that isn’t the case.
            Another problem with familiarity, comes with the casting.  Reynolds plays the devil-may-care astronaut with the witty one-liners.  That must have been a stretch for him.  While Jake Gyllenhaal plays the serious-minded, loner astronaut.  Again, a total change of pace from his usual pie-in-the-face performances.  To be fair, they both do their jobs very well and, in both cases, it’s mostly while appearing to float in zero g.  Gotta give ’em credit for that!

Jolly japester Jake, attempting to prove that this film can hold a candle to Alien.
            When a horror B movie gets A list actors on board, it promptly stops being a B movie, and that seems to stifle the commitment to making the movie genuinely scary.  I’m thinking of the lamentable big-budget remake of The Haunting (1999) and other more-money-than-scares horrors like What Lies Beneath (2000), Ghost Ship (2002) and The Invasion (2007).  Horror movies are at their best when they’re cheap and nasty.
            It is to this film’s credit, therefore, that it succeeds in being very nasty!  And there are a couple of moments in there which were genuinely surprising and which pleased me greatly.  I like to be surprised by movies.  It helps me believe I’m not cynical and jaded.  But, overall, the film never successfully transcends everything that is obviously contained in the logline ‘Alien meets Gravity’.
            And there has already been much discussion on t’interweb about the film’s shocking conclusion.  I’m sorry, but I never imagined it ending any other way.

Directed by Daniel Espinosa.
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Dur: 103 mins
Cert 15
           

CHUCK BERRY: THE NEW SOUND YOU’RE LOOKING FOR.






            Chuck Berry is dead.  The rock and roller who first broke through 61 years ago (yes, really), died aged 90.  He reportedly had a new album ready to release, for his 91st year.  Old rockers, they never retire.
            His famous ‘duck walk’ allowed dancing with the guitar, it fused rock music and dance music into one.  Because those simple, percussive melodies demanded to be danced to.
            Despite experiencing (sadly inevitable) discrimination over his race (radio stations often didn't know he was black, they wouldn't have played his songs, had they known), and serving a stretch in federal prison, Berry’s songs remained irrepressibly joyous, romantic and with a mischievous sense of fun.

            He had a noble and varied film career (check IMDB for the loooooooong list of films and TV shows in which his songs have featured) , which began when he appeared in the bandstand film Rock, Rock, Rock in 1956 (just a year after Marty McFly first played Johnny B. Goode, ahem).  Due to an admin error, the film is in the public domain in The States so, if you’re there, you can find the whole film on the YouTube.  UK viewers will have to be a bit cannier than that.
            However, Berry’s performance can be found here:


            The song serves as a sequel to his first hit, Maybelline.
            Berry had a more substantial role in the follow-up film, Go Johnny Go (1959) which, of course, took its title from Berry’s massive hit from the previous year: the afore-mentioned Johnny B Goode.
            The title sequence, and that special version of the song, can be watched here:


            Johnny B. Goode is really Berry’s own story.  The song of a backwoods boy done good.  But he had to distance himself from the story in the lyrics.  As Rolling Stone noted here:

Johnny B. Goode was the first rock & roll hit about rock & roll stardom. It is still the greatest rock & roll song about the democracy of fame in pop music. And Johnny B. Goode is based in fact. The title character is Chuck Berry -- "more or less," as he told ROLLING STONE in 1972. "The original words [were], of course, 'That little colored boy could play. I changed it to 'country boy' -- or else it wouldn't get on the radio." Berry took other narrative liberties. Johnny came from "deep down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans," rather than Berry's St. Louis. And Johnny "never ever learned to read or write so well," while Berry graduated from beauty school with a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology.”

            Since the 1980s (at least in The States) was all about wanting to be the 1950s, Johnny B. Goode became something of a signature tune for that decade too.
            Not least because of this:


“Chuck?  Chuck?  It’s Marvin!”

            You may not remember, however, it was featured twelve years earlier in the first piece of childhood nostalgia from one George Lucas - Namely, American Graffiti (1973).


            In the same year, an even more off-grid use was found for Berry’s first hit, Maybelline in Ralph Bakshi’s experimental animation, Heavy Traffic.


            So, Berry's music was the spark for nostalgia in the 70s and the 80s.  No surprise, then, that this was also true in the 90s, when Tarantino dug deeper into Berry’s discography (as he is wont to do) and unearthed You Never can Tell for use in Pulp Fiction, his wonderfully mashed-up love song to American popular culture of the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s ...
            You remember:
 


            In the film Cadillac Records (2008), Mos Def does a fantastic job of impersonation, bringing young Berry back to life.


            It’s fair to say we haven’t heard - or seen - the last of Johnny B. Goode.  Rest in peace, sir.




KONG: SKULL ISLAND



The river snaked through the war like a main circuit cable plugging me straight into Kong!



            Like most people, when I heard that this film was being made, I mentally rolled my eyes and thought: 'What a gigantically bad idea'.  Then, when I heard it was to tie-in with the hugely under-whelming Godzilla (2014), I mentally threw up my hands in exasperation.

Until I saw the first trailer.  This trailer:
 

            After that, my response was a very childish “Shut up and take my money.”  Well, now they have.
            I love a title sequence, they’re a relatively rare thing these days, in the age of the 140 character attention span, but, like Godzilla, the film to which this is, indeed, a stable-mate, we get a big info dump of newsreel footage going from the South Pacific nuclear tests to the Viet-Nam war, while the credits roll.
            But, in truth, that’s pretty-much where the stylistic similarities end.  Where Godzilla was desperately humourless, this film benefits from a vein of humour which runs throughout.  
            This is the first film I’ve seen from Jordan Vogt-Roberts but, according to the Book of Wiki, he has mostly worked in comedy.  It seems that Warners have taken a leaf out of Marvel’s comic, since they learned some time ago (round about the time that Jon Favreau made such a phenomenal success of the first Iron Man) that comedy directors make great crowd-pleasing action films.

Although it lacks the pathos of Peter Jackson's Kong from 2005, it does have many glorious moments.  Images that stay with you long after the drive home!
           The writers must have also watched Jurassic Park (1993) and realised that the thing which made it the gold standard in monster movies isn’t the CGI, to which we are almost immune, these days, it’s Jeff Goldblum’s wry one-liners, it was the guy on the toilet; it was the humour. 
            Here we have the verbal wit of characters like Cole, the pilot (Shea Whigham), drily assessing their world-shaking first skirmish with Kong as “an unconventional encounter”.  But there is also visual irony in the way several characters are snatched away just at the moment of being saved.  One notable moment features a heroic sacrifice which, through a deft use of bathos, is as delightfully horrible as it is laugh-out-loud funny.
            Wisely, this story is set part-way between the nuclear blasts of the 1950s which supposedly released Godzilla, and the present day, giving the film a pleasingly retro feel and allowing the story they are intending to tell over several films to create some genuine back story.  The 1970s Viet-Nam War Movie aesthetic also allows for some kick-ass tunes on the soundtrack!
            Throughout, the concessions to the 70s are handled lightly, most characters wear uniforms, so there’s no danger of flares and, similarly, we don’t have to worry about any sideburns or porn-star ’taches.

 
What's left of John Goodman gives a typically solid performance as Randa, the man who talks everyone into visiting the island.
            In a crowded cast-list, we have, essentially, two groups: The Scientists, led by John Goodman, fulfilling the Dickie Attenborough role of being the visionary who gets everyone to the  island.  Brooks (Corey Hawkins), the Geologist, is there to be Dr. Exposition, teasing us with his theory about the existence of a ‘Hollow Earth’ from which all these prehistoric beasties ( or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, as he is pleased to call them) hail.  It’s a cracking notion, redolent of the romantic science fantasies of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Annoyingly, we don’t get to see that world.  Presumably they’re saving that for a later movie. 
            Then, in the blue corner, we have The Military.  Samuel Jackson’s Lt Col Packard loves his men, and they he, but he can’t face the end of the Viet-Nam war and his impending desk-job, so he is delighted to lead his men into harm’s way one last time.
            Toby Kebbell’s Maj. Chapman  serves, to some extent, as moral compass for Jackson, but they are separated leaving Col. Packard to go slowly mad, while Kebbell is left sitting on a prehistoric log waiting to be rescued.  It’s not the best use of Kebbell’s skills, but it allows Jackson to create a layered and nuanced character, something I didn’t expect to see in a film about giant monsters punching each other.

 
Remember that moment in Deep Blue Sea (1999) when Sam Jackson thought he was gonna get to face-off against a shark, and didn't.  He's been waiting a long time for his big chance
            Acting as referee between these two groups we have the Bear Grylls type tracker, Conrad, played by Tom Hiddleston; and alongside him the ‘anti-war photographer’, Mason Weaver, played by Brie Larson hot on the heels of her Best Actress Oscar.  In his first major leading role, Hiddleston is, essentially, cast against type, but he manages to come across as a convincing action-man (much more so that Adrien Brody - a similarly curious casting choice - in the 2005 version of King Kong, at any rate).  Larson is warm and amusing, but is mostly just there to stare in wide-eyed shock at the latest monster.  But, hey, at least she doesn’t have to do it in heels.

 
"I dunno, I think I could get my eyes a bit wider ..."
            So, the gang saddle-up and fly their ’copters over to this island, with nary a hint of Wagner music, thankfully, and promptly start dropping explosives into the jungle.  Well, when did that ever go wrong?
            Unlike the teaser trailer, there’s no hedging here, no coy playing with the audience’s expectations; on Skull Island things escalate quickly!  Kong is front and centre immediately, plucking helicopters out of the sky and smashing them together.  Just as well they brought a sizeable number of disposable soldiers, 'cos a lot of people die in this first skirmish.
            Vogt-Roberts has a wonderful eye for luminous details so, in the middle of this chaotic fight scene, we get painterly images of Kong back-lit by the setting sun, moody slow-motion shots of the copter rotors, a close up of a shell casing rattling around on a vibrating floor, and these passing moments lift the quality of the whole endeavour.
            The influences on this film are fairly obvious.  They draw on Jurassic Park and the previous King Kongs, for obvious reasons.  The Viet-Nam setting lets them wheel out all the ’60s and ’70s classics last heard in the late ’80s, when ‘the Viet-Nam War Film’ was a short-lived genre.  They pepper the film with nods particularly to the genre’s pioneer, 1979’s Apocalypse Now (hence the entirely official pastiche poster at the top of this review).  Hiddleston’s tracker is called Conrad and the grizzled World War II vet they discover on the island (a delightful John C. Reilly) is called Marlow.  Okay, we get it.  Very good.

 
There are some downright BEAUTIFUL effects shots in this film.  Worth the price of admission alone!
            Just as the film is taking a darker tone, given Packard’s developing obsession with killing Kong at all costs (couldn’t they have bitten the bullet and called him Kurtz?) along comes Marlow with his cheery, eccentric demeanour .  As he shakes the soldiers hands he happily informs them “You’re a good bunch of boys to die with!” 
            It’s worth mentioning that, even though Hiddleston gets top billing, this is an ensemble piece, several characters stand out and have their moments of glory.  And the impression they make is doubly impressive, given that the actual star of the show is the 200 foot tall CGI gorilla, whipped-up by the hundreds and hundreds of IT techs whose names you have to sit through, waiting for that inevitable end-of-credits scene.

 
Wide enough, Jordan?  I think I've got more ...
            Eventually, as Packard’s blood-lust draws them further and further into dinosaur territory, the story starts to get sillier and sillier.  At one point they are stalked by a lizard which gives away its position with flashing lights.  This scene reminded me of Hook being hunted by his ticking crocodile.  Then, the finale is, inevitably, a massive punch-up between massive monsters.  As such, it left me cold, but then scenes of giant robots belting each other in Transformers films has the same effect.  It’s just me, I guess.
            However, the inspiration that I felt was lacking in the closing moments of the film, is more than made up for by the delightful range of characters, the fantastic set-pieces, the clever plot-twists and the overall sense of fun the film maintains.
            Everything that Jurassic World (2015) got wrong, Skull Island gets right!

"How the hell do we defeat this armour-plated dinosaur from the centre of the Earth?"
"I can do my REALLY wide-eyed thing, if it'll help ..."

Kong: Skull Island
Cert: 12A
Dir: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Script:  Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
Dur: a brisk 118 mins.